A Concise Geography of Ukraine

With the situation in Ukraine being foremost in the mind of most of the world these past few weeks, I thought it might be helpful to give a brief background on the region to help better understand the conflict from a geographical perspective.

Full disclosure….although I have been a Geography professor, I have never personally been to Ukraine. But through showing you some maps and graphs with some brief explanations, I hope you will gain a new perspective on this region, which will lead you to further research on your own.

Many people remark about how simple their two color flag is. The flag itself gives you a lens into what the ecology of the region is like. The southern Steppe region has very fertile soils and it a major producer of wheat. Hence, a flag of a blue sky above with yellow wheat fields below. The picture below mirrors the colors of the flag, and is looking at the Black Sea, which is a pretty blue!

The flag colors correlate with the landscape

Climate is part of the reason for where certain types of ecosystems are found. Under the Koppen classification system, much of Ukraine is classified as a D climate, while other parts are more arid B climates.

The BSk climate in southern Ukraine has hot dry summers and cold moist winters. My hometown of Bend, Oregon has the same type of climate. The northern and western parts of Ukraine have a humid continental climate, with cold winters and warm summers. Prevailing winds are westerly at that latitude, and because they are so far inland from the Atlantic Ocean, temperature ranges are much more extreme than coastal areas like France, which are moderated by the proximity to a large water body. See the map below which gives you an analogy as to where you might find locations with similar climates.

Map: Reddit

But climate alone is not the only reason for ecosystems being located where they are. Ukraine has a thick layer of very fertile soils. This is also a result of the melting of continental ice sheets from the last ice age melting in the north and the runoff from them depositing silt in the south. The main river flowing through the country, the Dnieper (pronounced NEE’ per) has its headwaters in Russia. The river flows through Belarus into Ukraine and empties into the Black Sea in the south.

Environmental zones of Ukraine

The map below shows the Physical Geography of Ukraine, much of which is a flat plain, with notable exceptions in the far west of the country. Besides being good for agriculture, the flat plains have made it easy for advancing armies to invade throughout history.

Physical Geography of Ukraine (shutter stock.com)

When looking at the region through the lens of history, it is important to realize that the present day borders of what we call Ukraine have changed many times over the last millennium. A lot of history can be explained by understanding Geography. The location of Ukraine has allowed it to be influenced over two millennia by Greece, the Mongol Invasion, the Vikings coming down the Dnieper from Novgorod, the Austria-Hungary empire, the Nazis, and the Soviet Union to name a few. Its location on the north shore of the Black Sea gave it proximity to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire as well as the rise of Islam and the Ottoman Empires. It is at the crossroads between East and West. I am currently reading Serhii Plokhy’s book, “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.” If your library has it, I would recommend you read this for a comprehensive history of the region.

Take a look at the You tube map below to see how the borders of Europe have changed over the last 1000 years.

The map below shows present day population densities. The two darkest spots are the urban centers of Kyiv and Kharkiv. You will also see concentrations in the East and South of the country. The Crimean peninsula in the south was annexed by Russia in 2014. That was when Russian separatists in the East of the country shot down a Malaysian jet liner. I was flying over that region on that same July day on my way to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Had my plane left on time from Germany and not been delayed, it could have been me that was shot down. You can see how important the control of the two major cities would be for each side.

Population density (raion.com) 1 km=.62 miles for you American readers

The map below shows where the Russians have advanced as of 3/9/22. They are trying to first take all of the land along the Sea of Azov to connect Crimea to the Russian separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine is a multi-ethnic society, with much of one’s cultural identity based in language. Both Russian and Ukrainian are Balto-Slavic languages with some similarities in origin, but different enough to base one’s identity around. The map below roughly shows where each language is predominant and helps to explain which areas are either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian nationalist.

Now compare the above linguistic map with the election map of 2010. Much of the voting mirrors the predominant language spoken. Yanukovych was a puppet of Putin. There were mass protests against his corrupt regime, leading to his ouster. The pro-Europe party talked in early 2014 about joining the EU. That precipitated Putin’s invasion and seizure of the Crimean peninsula later that year.

Finally, the graph below can give you an effect on how war affects migration rates. Look at the negative crude migration rate in 2014. Since the seizure of Crimea did not lead to full scale war at the time, many people moved back. However, the present day humanitarian crisis and horrible situation for the Ukrainian people will make this graph pale in comparison to today’s catastrophe.

demographic change over the years

These are uncertain times for all of us. I hope and pray for an acceptable resolution to the present conflict. I encourage you all to continue learning all you can about this region by reading peer reviewed documents. I also hope we can see some parallels with the cultural and political strains that Ukraine has with your own countries and work to find solutions to problems before they explode and get out of hand.


Herschel Island Odyssey-Driving the Dempster Highway through the Canadian Arctic

Flying low over the Arctic Ocean on our way to Herschel Island, we spot a pod of beluga whales on a collision course with a couple of kayakers. Herschel Island, Yukon Territory is located in the Arctic Wilderness, in the Beaufort Sea off the northern coast of the Yukon, in the middle of nowhere. Why would anyone drive hundreds of miles to the north on dirt and gravel roads through desolate Arctic tundra as far as you can go by road, and then continue to fly north on a bush plane to reach an abandoned whaling station on an island in the Arctic Ocean? Well….if you have to ask that question, then you have never visited Herschel Island!

Maybe it is an itch you didn’t know you had to scratch. For me, I had this itch for a long time. You may know people who have visited several oceans such as the Pacific, Atlantic and maybe even the Indian Ocean. But few have ventured far enough north to experience the Arctic Ocean, which the Beaufort Sea is connected to. It was important enough for me at the time to block out a week during the high season of kayak guiding in Southeast Alaska, and head for the Arctic. In retrospect, the trade of a week of lost income for the adventure was well worth it!

Map of the Yukon territory and location of Herschel Island

A six hour ferry ride from Juneau, put us in Skagway, Alaska, at the end of the Inside Passage. From here, we would drive to the Canada Border just a dozen miles uphill. The drive would take us through Carcross, British Columbia and into Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. After that, we headed up to Dawson City to reminisce about the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98. At Dawson City, the second largest city of the Yukon (pop. 900), we stocked up on supplies before heading out on the lonely Dempster Highway. The 456 mile journey on the Dempster would culminate at the town of Inuvik, NWT, situated near the delta of the mighty Mackenzie River.

Beth flew up from Oregon to meet me in Juneau for this epic road trip. All we needed was our camping gear, a cooler full of food and drinks, a full tank of gas, and a sense of adventure! This would be Beth’s first trip above the Arctic Circle.

The trusty old Nissan crossing into the Northwest Territories

The Dempster Highway is a bucket list road trip of 740 km, which starts in Dawson City, Yukon and terminates in the town of Inuvik, NWT in the Mackenzie Delta. The well graded gravel road crosses the continental divide three times and passes through both the Ogilvie Mountain range and the Richardson range. One can see a variety of wildlife species along the route, like this lone caribou we saw walking along the road. In the summer, lone caribou look for windy places to avoid the hordes of mosquitos and flies. So also do human campers. The big caribou migrations occur in the Spring and Fall, so if you are trying to catch a large herd migrating, September might be a better time. The swarms of bugs are less at that time. Always check ahead on road conditions or travel restrictions before you head away from Dawson City. As of this writing, the road is closed at the NWT border to all non-essential travel due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Lone Caribou on the Dempster

Prior to 2017, Inuvik was as far as you could go by driving in the summer, due to thawing permafrost and boggy conditions which made road building difficult. It was possible to drive to Tuktoyaktuk in the Winter, after the Mackenzie River froze solid enough to drive on. However, a new road (the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk road) was opened in late Fall of 2017 which opens up another 147 km of road to allow drivers to navigate all the way to the Arctic Ocean by vehicle. However, our trip was prior to 2017, so we ended the land journey in Inuvik.

Pink Fireweed in bloom

While still in the Yukon portion of the road, we passed by a purple and pink field of fireweed in bloom. It is called fireweed because you will often see it after a disturbance on the land. The seeds are wind blown and are excellent colonizers to areas where there is little competition for sunlight.

Down the road, we came to the Peel River crossing. We had to camp on the south side of the river to wait for the ferry to run in the morning. We pitched a tent on a hill overlooking the river and sipped tea inside the tent as we watched the arctic sun set and then rise again twenty minutes later. The wind calmed. Hordes of mosquitos clung to the outside of the tent. The buzzing sounded like we were camped under an electrical transformer! Poor Beth drank too much tea and had to go outside to pee….After coming back into the tent, we spent the next half hour swatting mosquitos who followed her in.

Sunrise and Sunset in the same half hour!

Heading further North after the ferry, one should stop at Eagle Plains for gas and food and a vehicle check before continuing further. It is an oasis of civilization in the Arctic wilderness. Just past Eagle Plains, YT, you will cross the Arctic Circle

Mick at the Arctic Circle
Dempster Highway Map (Research Gate)

Once you cross into the Northwest Territories you may see an Inukshuk on the side of the road like the one in the picture below. Inukshuk is an extension of the Inuit word “Inuk”, which means “a human being.” They are piled stones in the shape of a human for either communication purposes, as navigational aids, or as a message center. It also symbolizes a spiritual connection with the land. The flag of the newest Canadian territory of Nunavut has an Inukshuk on its flag.

Inukshuk in the NWT
Flag of Nunavut

The city at the end of our road was Inuvik. From there, we took a bush plane across the Mackenzie Delta towards the Arctic Ocean and Herschel Island. The pictures below are from our plane ride. The Mackenzie River has a myriad of channels, lakes and backwaters at its delta. The soils are underlain with permafrost and are poorly drained. It is hard to build a road here. The river gets its name from Alexander Mackenzie, one of the partners of the Montreal based Northwest Trading Company. Mackenzie explored the river in 1789.

The Mackenzie Delta

In the past, there would be no overland road travel in the summer, but when the river froze up, one could drive on the river once it froze up. The seasonal freezing and thawing of the top layers of the permafrost results in a unique landform called “patterned ground.” Larger stones are moved and “sorted” by this freeze-thaw action which forms wedged polygons. They are not as visible while standing on the ground, but really pop out when you see them from the air. The patterns resemble a tortoise shell.

Patterned Ground Polygons

The road to Tuktoyaktuk was not completed when we visited here, but nowadays you can go overland to see another Arctic landform called a pingo. The picture below is of this rare periglacial landform, created by the freeze-thaw expansion of water. From afar, it resembles a volcanic cinder cone, but it is not volcanic in nature.

Pingos on the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula
First Nations summer fishing camp on the Arctic Ocean

When we reached the Arctic Ocean by air, we headed west along the coast towards Herschel Island, just off the northern coast of the Yukon Territory. Once the bush plane landed, we had a few hours to explore the island on foot. As it was summer, the hordes of mosquitos rivaled the biblical plagues of Egypt.

Head covering for the bugs on Herschel Island

The island was used by native Inuit peoples in the past, and historically was the location of Eskimo trading. Modern activity on the island surged after the appearance of the first commercial whaling ships arrived in 1889. Some of them were forced to winter over in Pauline Cove on the east side of the island. Similarly to how the fur trade was driven by the demand for raw materials for the European hat making industry, the demand for whale bone was partially driven due to the use of whalebone in the manufacturing of corsets at that time.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police set up a post in 1903 on the island, mostly to be able to collect customs and duties from whalers. The early 1900s saw the height of commercial activity there, but over-hunting saw the decline of human activity on the island. The Hudson Bay company, who had a fur trading post established in 1915, abandoned their post in 1937. For a more in-depth history of this region, I recommend reading Ken Coates “The Northern Yukon-A History”, written in 1979.

As we hiked across the Arctic Tundra towards the buildings at Pauline Cove, we encountered tracks of Muskox, caribou, and wolves. The closer we got to the Cove, the more we encountered the bleached ribs of old whale bones scattered through the tundra.

Abandoned Northern Whaling Company Building

While walking near ridge tops, we could remove our headdresses. Thankfully, the wind was strong enough to momentarily knock the hordes of mosquitos down.

Beth on Herschel Island
Herschel Island shoreline

A sojourn on the island is a field trip into natural and human history. We did see some Muskox off in the distance, but were reticent to approach them. They are big, strong, and known to have bad attitudes.

Oomingmak -the Muskox

Time to hike back to the plane and leave the island. On the way back to Inuvik, we flew low over the Arctic Ocean and spotted a pod of beluga whales. Soon we would wave to a group of kayakers who were paddling on a collision course toward the pod. How I wanted to be in the water paddling with them! I’ve paddled with Humpback Whales many times, and a few times with a Gray or Minke Whale, but never with a Beluga.

A Pod of Beluga whales in the Arctic

The trip was far from over though. Retracing our route back down the Dempster Highway, we camped by the roadside and experienced a strong thunderstorm that nearly took our tent down. Further down the road the next day, we met a road crew who were getting ready to close the road off, due to half of it being washed away by the raging torrents from the previous nights’ rain. We were the last car to pass through that day. The truck was caked in mud from the drive south (see picture below).

Beth’s first trip into the Arctic- a dirty ride!

After a very long drive, we pulled into Haines, Alaska and got a hotel and cleaned up. We planned to take the ferry the next day back to Juneau. Haines, population just over 3,000, seemed like a megalopolis to us after where we had just been. Haines is almost 350 road miles from the town of Skagway, which lies only 17 miles away by boat. We drove the extra miles because there were no slots available on the ferry from Skagway to Juneau. Lots of RVers get their only taste of ferry riding on the Inside Passage from Skagway to Haines. A few slots opened up on the Haines to Juneau leg. Since Mick had to get back into town for an upcoming kayak expedition, it was prudent to drive the extra distance.

Haines, Alaska (photo:KTOO tv)

Four and a half hours later on the ferry, and we were back in Auke Bay, ready for the 30 minute drive home to North Douglas Island. Back in Alaska’s “Banana Belt” that night, we dreamed of Muskox, Beluga Whales, Pingos, Caribou….

Years later, we still cherish our adventure to the Arctic Ocean!

Pacific Crest Trail- Section E: Where Dreams Die

Ironically, I sat in my hot tub most January nights, dreaming of hiking the low desert section of the PCT in Southern California. While walking section E, all I could think of was about sitting in my hot tub back home.

Ask most PCT thru-hikers what their favorite section was and responses will vary. Many pick a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Others choose northern Washington as their favorite section. But when you ask what was their LEAST favorite part of the trail, more than 75% would list the low desert in section E from Agua Dulce to Tehachapi as their least favorite.

Cottonwood Creek Bride (Tehachapi Mountains in the background)

Thru-hikers usually arrive at this section in May, when blistering heat, and lack of water or shade sap their energy and crush their spirits. This is why I chose to attempt this section hike in late January and early February instead of May. A winter hike here has the advantage of avoiding the scorching temperatures of May, along with not having to deal with snakes this time of year. Having to carry less water due to lower temps is also a plus for a Winter hike. The downside included very long, cold nights, and no one else on the trail.

I made the long drive from home, taking advantage of snow free roads, and arrived at the Cottonwood Creek bridge at the California Aqueduct to start the middle of this section. Since I had no support, I would have to use my car as a base camp and do small sections at a time. While this would require doubling the mileage on the hike, it would negate having to hitchhike back to the car during a pandemic. To complete this 108 mile section, I would have to walk 216 miles.

Joshua Trees in the middle of section E

The first few days crossed through the dry Antelope Valley, passing through the massive Tejon ranch on private lands. The temperatures were a comfortable 60 in the daytime, but below freezing at night. I started the hike in the middle of the ubiquitous wind farms. The trail alternated walking over the paved aqueduct or following lonely dirt roads, and unexciting walk. It took two days to walk 34 miles which resulted in only 17 miles of new trail gained. With the completion of the section between Cottonwood Canyon and highway 138, I now had passed the 1,800 mile mark, with only about 850 miles to complete the whole PCT that I have been chipping away at for almost 20 years.

The trail runs over the California Aqueduct

Near the Aqueduct, I came across some large, freshly made Cougar tracks. Needless to say, I kept looking back every few hundred yards.

Fresh Cougar tracks

With two days of windy, boring hiking under my belt, I decided to move to a different part of Section E, up into the Liebre Mountain section, where roads crossed the trail every 7 miles or so. This way, I could “slack pack” the trails in small sections. Slack packing only requires a light pack with water, snacks and a few clothes. I could day hike 7 miles to the next road and then return to the car to camp. The following day, I could then move the car to the next spot and continue on. No need to carry a heavy pack with all of my gear.

First base camp on Liebre Mountain

The first morning started off with a beautiful sunrise, usually a good omen. However, hiking was another story. The trail was in very bad shape. Blown down trees, bad erosion in places and no tread-way on side-hill slopes were par for the course for the sections that I walked. Much of the forest had been destroyed by fire in recent years. Covid had prevented any trail work being done for the past couple of years. I saw no one while hiking, but could hear the loud sound of dirt bikes on the nearby forest roads.

Forest ravaged by fire
Burned area on Liebre Mountain
looking north across Antelope Valley to the Tehachapi Mountains in the background

The trail paralleled a forest road, so when I intersected the road after several miles, I decided to walk the road back to the car. On the way back, I removed several large rocks, so that I could safely move my car to the next spot to resume my hike.

Rocks I removed from the Forest Road

Another day of brutal roads to reposition the car and more miles of eroded trail and I had enough of this middle section of Liebre Mountain for the time being. So, I moved to the north end of Section E to walk the 8 miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Highway 58. This section had well maintained trail and again began in a Wind Farm.

A few miles in, I ran into a fellow from Bakersfield who was trimming brush on the side of the trail. We chatted for a while and I told him how much I appreciated his work. This section was the first pleasant walking I had in days on Section E. He was the only human I encountered on this section of trail.

dedicated trail worker
Lots of up and down on this short section
Canada and Mexico sign on Cameron Ridge
The end of Section E at Hwy 58 and Cameron overpass.

After crossing Cameron Ridge, the trail descends rapidly to Cameron Road, where the trail joins the road’s shoulder for a couple of miles to Highway 58.

Road walk….see PCT marker in the foreground

Now, to make the return trip back to the car. 16 miles of hiking to gain just 8 miles of new trail. The sound of spinning turbines and choking on desert dust have me again dreaming of sitting in my hot tub at home. Finally, I reach the car. Tomorrow I will begin a real “backpack” and tackle the Tehachapi Mountains.

There are 22 trail miles between Tehachapi Willow Springs road and Cottonwood Creek, where I previously parked the car to hike the Aqueduct. I planned to backpack in 11 miles and camp, and then turn around and hike back to the car. I would do the same from the other end to complete this section. The picture below shows the difference in pack size between slack packing and backpacking. There is no water on this section, so I carry a gallon and a half for the two days to complete half of this section.

slack pack versus Backpack

The trail rises abruptly from the valley floor, following the property line of the wind farm. Very soon, there is a big erosion gully to cross.

A few miles further, I find it has hard to distinguish where the trail is, due to the amount of damage done by dirt bikes.

Even though PCT signs are every few hundred yards apart warning that it is illegal for motorized vehicles to use the trail, it is evident that the Proud Boys have willingly disregarded these rules and exercised their “freedoms” of tearing up the trail, even though their designated trails were close by. This is not what I signed up for on a PCT hike! Not exactly a National Scenic Trail in this section….

PCT trail sign denoting no motorized vehicles

My friend Larry used to say that it was a sexual thing with motor bikers on the trail. He said that the only time these folks felt power between their legs was when they were on their bikes and raping Mother Earth. I used to think his sentiment was a bit extreme, but after several miles of walking on eroded dirt bike trails and sometimes losing where the actual PCT was, I was beginning to come around to his way of thinking.

The wind was blowing hard and I was not feeling well, so I stopped short of my goal of reaching mile 547, which was the halfway point of the Tehachapi Mountains hike. I made a makeshift camp on a knoll protected from the wind by a few downed trees. My lungs ached badly and I could not take a deep breath without pain. I wondered if somehow I had contracted Covid. The last place I had gassed up had few people masked inside, which made me wonder. I had no energy. I laid down with the ever present sound of humming wind turbines in the distance.

After a fitful night of sleep, I decided to leave my stuff at camp and walk ahead with only water and snacks. I still felt sick, but trudged on anyway. At least it was easier walking with a light pack. However, walking on an eroded motorcycle path while in pain was not my idea of fun.

Finally, at mile 549 of the PCT, I saw something positive about this section. Trail angels had set up a cache of food and water. I stopped and took a granola bar from the cache, sat down and relaxed for a moment.

A welcome sight at Mile 549
in May this would be full of thru-hikers
snacks, books and water left by Trail Angels

Still feeling puny, I decided to head back short of the 547 mile marker. I just wanted to get back to the car, and possibly a hotel to recover. Even though most of the trip was downhill, my lungs ached. My calves ached. I had no energy left. I picked up a huge pine cone the size of a loaf of bread on the way back down. If I lived through this hike, I would gift it to my sister.

Just before I reached the car, I spotted a group of horses grazing beneath the windmills.

My body needed some rest, so I drove to Tehachapi and recovered in a motel for a couple of days. After a couple of days of bed rest, my lungs had improved to the bit where I felt I could at least slack pack some more, if not being able to tackle the other half of the Tehachapi mountains just yet. I think the lung infection was a result of dust getting into my bronchial tubes.

I drove to the south end of Section E at Agua Dulce, but first stopped at Vasquez Rocks a few miles south of town. Technically, it is part of section D of the PCT. Vasquez Rocks is the site of many Hollywood films, with some old Star Trek episodes filmed there.

Site of filming of Star Trek’s “The Gorn” episode
the trail passes through Vasquez Rocks

I followed the PCT a bit to the south, and saw where it would run under the Hwy 14 freeway. Then I drove into “downtown” Agua Dulce and parked the car. I saw that the PCT actually required walking on the shoulder of a paved road for the first few miles out of town. Not being interested in that, I drove ahead to scout where other roads intersected the PCT.

From what I could see, the trail undulated up and down over barren, windswept ridges. I was beginning to wonder why I wanted to hike this section. Was it just to complete more mileage? At some point, recreation has to be more than just checking boxes and accumulating mileage. With the wind blowing hard and dust blowing across the road, I made the decision to bag it. It wasn’t just my physical weakness at the moment. I just didn’t want to do any more of this section. All I could think about was being home in a comfortable bed and soaking in my hot tub. Like so many other hikers before me, Section E ended my dream of ever completing the whole trail.

But I’m okay with that. I still dream of completing some other parts of the PCT.

As I drove north on the way back home, I stopped by the Mojave Air and Space port to see the boneyard of old DC-10 jets. Fittingly, old jets go to die on this spot near Section E of the PCT.

photo: Wikimedia commons

At midday, I continued north in time to reach the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine while it was still daylight. From there, I got to see the sun set over Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Finally, something to get excited about!

camping in Alabama Hills, looking towards the Sierras

The night was cold, but I awoke in time to catch the first glimpse of morning light illuminating the top of the Sierras. I fired up the stove and mixed some instant coffee and hot chocolate to make a poor man’s mocha, while I watched the rest of the majestic mountain range being lit up by the morning sun. This morning beat any day I had on Section E of the PCT.

Morning sun illuminating Mt. Whitney and the Sierras

It dawned on me (both literally and figuratively), that I had not yet hiked the PCT in this portion of the Sierras, even though I had climbed Mt. Whitney twice before. Now that is a section of trail to get excited about!

Morning has broken

When one dream dies, it allows others to be born to take its place. I started thinking of South Georgia island in the Antarctic, and the deposit I just made on a trip there this coming November. I thought about an upcoming road trip across the country to the Southeast USA this Spring. I no longer HAD to hike all of the PCT. Now I was free to pick a few of the best sections I really wanted to experience and leave the rest to someone else. Disappointment melted into a feeling of freedom!

A fairly long day of driving brought me across the border into southern Oregon. Not wanting to drive the roads on a Friday night, I chose to camp on the deserted shores of Lake Abert, on Hwy 395. The sunset was gorgeous. In one more night, I would be back home in my hot tub, looking at stars and virtually traveling to new places.

Sunset over Lake Abert, Oregon

When one dream dies, it leaves room for endless possibilities to fill the void. It also brings back fonder memories of another desert trip, the deserts of Namibia. That desert trip was magical for many reasons, mostly because of the people I traveled through that desert with. I also did not have to backpack through it. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on the “United Nations of Namibia”. While we’re at it, “Where else would you like for geographicaljourneys.com to take you to?”

A Pandemic, A Geographer, and a Chestnut Tree

These three things seem unrelated at first glance. Upon further inspection, you may see that they are actually tightly woven together.

The mighty American Chestnut tree was once the dominant canopy species in the forests of Eastern North America. That is, until a blight from China in 1904 entered our country in the port of New York. Within a couple of decades, the dominant Chestnut was completely knocked out of the forest canopy. Today, the Chestnut tree still survives in the under-story, but the blight usually will kill it before it reaches full maturity.

American Chestnut Tree (photo:Asheville Citizen-Times)

The blight killed the equivalent of several million trees and was a disaster to the many industries that relied on the American Chestnut, which included lumber, tannin, fiberboard and tree nuts. The blight spread to areas outside of the range of the American Chestnut, including trees planted in the Midwest and the Mountain West. American Chestnut sprouts still occur throughout our Eastern forests, and some live long enough to gain tree size before they are killed by the blight. It is no coincidence that the Great Depression coincided with the decline of the American Chestnut. Although it was not the cause of the Great Depression, it certainly was a contributing factor.

Roasted Chestnuts (photo:nuts.com)

Two years after the beginning of the Covid-19, pandemic, our economy and society are reeling from this latest pandemic. Supply chain issues, school and business closures and societal upheaval are the results. Although both of these blights originated in China, that is not what I’m here to talk about. I want to talk about the blight that is affecting the third item in the title of this blog. I am referring to the blight affecting the teaching of Geography in our country.

The blight on Geography did not come from China….it is a homegrown blight. Geography departments are similar to the American Chestnut Forests of Eastern North America a hundred years ago. Geography used to be in the “canopy” of academic disciplines. But somewhere in the past few decades, our society has become even more ethnocentric than ever before. Although that might not be the cause of the decline of Geography teaching in this country, there certainly is a correlation.

It is remarkable that a people who have such an interdependence on resources and supply chains from other countries, have become so geographically illiterate. Geography departments have been closing in some universities over the past few decades. The number of Geography majors in higher education declined by 7% in the six years prior to the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the two years since, institutions under financial pressures have accelerated program cuts.

number of college majors in Academic disciplines in the U.S. (source:AAG)

The above graph shows the inequality of majors chosen by college students. You might ask, “Why is that”? Some might opine that technology negates a reason to study Geography. “Isn’t there an APP for that?”, many would say. Most folks might not understand the importance of a “spacial” perspective in the popular fields of Psychology and the Biological Sciences, but there certainly is one. Well there is an APP to calculate mathematical problems, but nobody would claim that replaces the teaching of Math in higher education. Similarly, just because you have a spell checker doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have to take a writing class.

But like the immature Chestnut tree that survives in the under-story, the graph below gives us a glimmer of hope. Without writing tomes discussing what Geography really is or isn’t, it really is the glue that binds all other subjects together. It is about understanding the world we live in and our place in it. The graph outlines many other areas of study that require at least a fundamental background in Geography. This growth in areas that are close cognates of Geography necessitates the need to keep a Geographer on staff to augment in the teaching of these disciplines.

There is no magical vaccination for the blight affecting the American Chestnut Tree. We do have a vaccination for Covid-19, but there are still breakthrough cases, especially with the Omicron variant. As for the remedy for the pandemic affecting Geographical awareness in this country, there is no vaccine at the moment. However, there are preventative measures to mitigate the disease. They don’t include masking or social distancing. On the contrary, removing oneself from tribal isolationism and engaging with the world outside of your cultural bubble is a good start.

Look at the picture of the globe from space. What happens in ________ doesn’t stay in ___________. (fill in the blanks) Picture yourself as a citizen of planet earth as well as a citizen of whatever country or community you are a part of.

Earth from space, artwork. View of the Earth centred on 105 degrees East, showing the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula (far left), Asia (centre), Russia (upper centre) and Australia (lower right). North is at top and clouds are white. (picture” SceincePhotolibrary)

Also, try tracing the supply chains of the products that you use. Learn another language. Travel the world via Google Earth. Work across academic disciplines when teaching or learning. And try to educate the “Educational” administrators of your K-12 school districts on the importance of Geography in the 21st century. Geographic training without Geographers is like getting medical advice from your lawyer. Maybe with some hard work and some luck, we might find a treatment or a therapeutic for the present blight and someday see Geography in the canopy of our educational forest!

Searching for Mongolia

Mongolia….Just that place name evokes special feelings: dreams of adventure, mysterious landscapes, and exotic cultures. It is said that whatever you are searching for in life, you can find it somewhere in Mongolia. I’ve been searching for the essence of Mongolia my whole life. I’ve found parts of it in other places in the world, but I’ve never actually been there yet. It is such a vast land, and which parts would you go to in order to find what you’re searching for? And, when should you go there?

Flaming cliffs of the Gobi Desert

Actually, the best time to have experienced it might have been millions of years ago, during the Mesozoic era. What is now the Gobi desert, was once a landscape of freshwater lakes and vast valleys, which made it a paradise for dinosaurs. My personal favorite, the Ankylosaurus, roamed freely here along with Velociraptors.

Ankylosaurus was a plant eater who carnivores didn’t mess with much. They had armor plating and a large bony protrusion on their tail that would devastate the leg of any predator. Today, you would have to visit the Flaming Cliffs of Bayanzag Park to see fossils of their remains. This area of the Gobi desert remains one of the largest dinosaur reservoirs of the world. Paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews, who did research here, was the inspiration behind the character of Indiana Jones of Hollywood fame.

Graph of Natural history eras and epochs

We tend to look at a map of where things are and think that they had always been in the same place. But looking through the lens of geologic time, and with our recent understanding of plate tectonic theory, we realize that land masses can change their geographic positions, albeit slowly. When the Indian subcontinent smashed into the Eurasian plate, the Himalaya Mountains started their slow uplift near the end of the Triassic Period. As the Himalayan Orogeny grew in stature, the mountains blocked off any moisture from the nearby oceans, resulting in Central Asia becoming a much drier place. The warm, wet areas where dinosaurs once roamed slowly transitioned into the deserts and steppes that we encounter today.

Plate tectonics and splitting of super continents

Long after the dinosaurs died out, mankind arrived on the scene. To survive in this inhospitable environment, you needed to be nomadic to keep finding the resources to live. People lived in gers (yurts) and became pastoralists. You needed to find fresh grass and forage for your animal herds, which you survived on. Maybe what you are searching for is a life of living off of the land, your herd of animals, and being nomadic.

Mongolian Ger
Living on the Steppes of Mongolia

You’d better like to eat cheese and milk if you are a nomad living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Mongolia that you were searching for was found in the short grasses of the Steppes. Your life depended on your animals for survival. And your animals depended on the availability of fresh forage. Bitterly cold winters dipping below -40 and lack of moisture, means you have to move often. They don’t call Mongolia “The Land of the Blue Sky” for nothing. In fact, to really get to know what it is like, read native author Galan Tschinag’s novel “Blue Sky”. You will know what it is like to live in a Ger and herd animals after reading it.

curds of cheese

You will likely drink Suteytsai (Mongolian Tea-Milk) every day. Made with 8 parts of boiled brick tea mixed with one part of milk, with some butter and salt thrown in, it is the ubiquitous drink of choice among nomadic herders. There is always a pot on, in case someone stops by. It is part of the culture to offer food and drink to strangers and guests. When offered to you, make sure to drink it all and not be perceived as being rude.

pressing the cheese curds

You have to be tough to live out here. The climate has a high annual temperature range, with blistering hot summers and brutally cold winters. Annual precipitation is scant. Grasslands and deserts are the dominant ecosystems. Besides being a skilled pastoralist, one should also be a great hunter of wild game. Being the first to develop and master new technological advances with the bow and arrow, along with mastering superior skills in horseback riding, allowed for more than just success in hunting wild game. Those skills transferred well into battles with other human societies that were encountered in the search for resources.

Mongolian Warriors

Founded by Genghis Khan in 1206, the Mongol Empire spread rapidly. At the height of its influence, the empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean all the way to the Danube River in Europe. It holds the record for the largest contiguous land empire in world history. Their skill in horsemanship and the development of the compound bow made Mongol warriors uniquely suited to conquer areas that were open plains or flat areas. Each soldier had several horses and their armies were so much more mobile than that of their adversaries. It is said that the Mongol horse was the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile of the 13th century.

That was then. Maybe what you are searching for is to feel a connection to the history of that once powerful empire. Today, Mongolia is a landlocked nation in Asia that has been dominated by its more powerful Communist neighbors of Russia and China. Whatever part of Mongolia you want to go to, you are most likely to start your journey in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

Map of Mongolia (Nationsonline.com)

Ulaan Bataar, or U.B as it is known, is the primate city of the country as well as being the capital. One can see the Soviet influence in the blocky architectural style of the buildings, with gers being located on the outskirts of the city. Whether you are arranging a tour or getting last minute supplies before heading into the hinterlands, U.B. will be the place to get it all done.

Ulan Bator (Ulaanbaatar)

Look at the map of ecosystems of Mongolia below and choose what type of ecosystem you would like your adventure to be in. If what you are searching for is in the Gobi desert, there are many things you can choose from in addition to dinosaur fossils.

Ecosystems of Mongolia (Map:Intrepid Travel)

Try riding a camel in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National park. To really discover the essence of the Gobi Desert, I recommend reading Helen Thayer’s classic book, “Walking the Gobi.” She and her husband traveled over 1,600 miles across the Gobi with their two rented camels, Tom and Jerry. Thanks to that book, I feel like I’ve already been there.

If what you are searching for in Mongolia is a link to its culture and past, you might try visiting during the Naadam festival. This year it is held from July 9-21. Naadam is a celebration of Mongolia’s nomadic heritage and it features competition in three many sports; wrestling, archery, and horseback riding. Tours from adventure outfitters such as Blue Silk Travel offer packages which include Naadam festival activities and excursion to the Gobi, and the ancient capital city of Karakorum.

Wrestling at the Naadam festival(photo:thatadventurer.co.uk)

You also might want to visit the Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan) complex.

Chinggis Khan statue

Maybe what you are searching for is a remote and beautiful location where time has stood still for centuries. A place so isolated, such as the Tuvan province in the Northwest of the country in the high Altai Mountains where you could come in contact with the Tuvan throat singers practicing their unique culture. There is NO other place on this planet where you could experience such an unequaled type of singing voice. While there, you could also travel by horseback or Yak and attempt to climb Khuiten Peak, Mongolia’s highest mountain, which part of the Tavan Bogd massif.

to see Tuvan throat singers, visit you tube….https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WlI24rv__g

Western Adventurers traveling in the Altai Mountains
Tavan Bogd National Park
National flag of Mongolia

Modern day Mongolia is at a crossroads and facing rapid change. Recently, there have been a lot of discoveries of oil and gas. Mongolia lacks the infrastructure to bring much of it to market. Multinationals, mostly from Russia and China are building this infrastructure to take Mongolia’s resources to their markets. Traditional ways of life are changing fast…too fast for some of the traditional peoples of that land. In their book, “The Changing World of Mongolia’s Nomads”, authors Melvyn Goldstein and Cynthia Beall outline the challenges of many of these indigenous peoples. The Mongolian people have already adapted to changes brought about by living under the Soviet system for decades. Besides the political upheavals, economic change, climate change and Covid all present challenges in their own right. All of these changes together are resulting in the Mongolian people now searching for the essence of Mongolia themselves. Time will tell if they will be able to find it!

The Language of the LAND

Learning the Language of the LAND just might help us to achieve a sustainable future. The previous post called for all of us to be Citizen Geographers. While many of us understand the citizen part, we may feel less confident about our expertise in Geography. Here are some strategies to help you interpret the language of the LAND, so that you can grow in your geographical expertise and become a more focused Citizen Geographer, which in turn may lead us toward a more sustainable future.

The LAND is multilingual when it speaks to us. It is important to gain at least a basic working knowledge of several different languages to understand what the LAND is saying to us. *****We Capitalize LAND when speaking about it, not to shout, but to show respect for it and all it does for us.

To understand the language of the LAND, you should know a little bit about a lot of different disciplines (Biology, History, Geology, Anthropology, Foreign Language, and Geography). Geography, by its nature, is a multi-disciplinary subject. You don’t necessarily need to be totally fluent in the language of all of those disciplines to understand the language of the LAND, but a little bit of understanding of each of them will go a long way. Most of all, you need to be still, observe and LISTEN!

The LAND not only consists of the Physical Landscape, but includes the Biological Landscape, including humans. Humans make their imprint on the LAND as to how they use it and interact with it. What that looks like is what we call the Cultural Landscape. How humans express their relationship with the LAND is through the development of an oral and sometimes written language. This is influenced by historical movement of people, both via voluntary migration and/or the expansion of empires. Each culture may look at the same LAND and see different possibilities.


Reflection of Mt. St. Elias in Icy Bay, AK

The landscape in the picture above is of the uplifted St. Elias mountain range in Alaska. It is the most abrupt rise of mountains from the sea in the world (over 18,000 feet high right next to the coast). The tectonically uplifted landscape has been reworked by glacial movement, and recent glacial retreat is exposing new landscapes that were previously under ice.

The Physical Landscape is shaped by the geology (supply of material) and atmospheric processes which denude the landscape through erosion (wind, water, ice, etc.) Once you fall in love with a beautiful landscape, you will naturally be drawn to the natural history of that landscape. We humans spend such a short time on this planet. Our appreciation of landscape development has to span over eons of geologic time. By recognizing this fact, one should be just as much in awe of an alluvial plain as they are with a newly uplifted mountain range. In our whole lifetime, we will see just one or two picture frames of an entire full length feature film. A brief review of landform development and natural history will provide one, a perspective on the story of the whole movie.

The picture below is also from Alaska, but this one is of the McBride Glacier in Glacier Bay in Southeast Alaska. The former advancing glacier pushed up the debris behind our tents, which shielded us from the cold wind blowing off of the glacier. The bay was totally under ice just a century ago. The tides are high in this part of the world (up to 24 feet), and the receding tide is leaving berg bits on the beach, which we will use to keep our fresh food from spoiling. Keeping track of moon phases and reading lines of seaweed and flotsam on the beach will help you from pitching your tent in the wrong place and being possibly flooded by an incoming tide.

Camp at McBride Glacier, Alaska in 1987

Look closely at the LAND and you will likely see patterns emerging. Different patterns tell you something about the LAND. The picture below was taken from the window of a jet at nearly 30,000 feet from the ground below. The pattern is one of a dendritic stream drainage system, which resembles the branches of a tree. The smaller “branches” are first order streams, which have less water, but are steepest of all of the streams in the system. This is where the most erosion occurs, as the streams erode head-ward into the landscape. This type of pattern is found where the underlying sedimentary geology is uniform in nature. When rocks have different hardness and the geology is not uniform, other types of patterns will emerge. There is a lot of art in nature!

Dendritic drainage pattern

Most Earth shaping processes are very slow, and happen over geologic time. However, there are a few exceptions. Take a look at the picture below, of Providence Canyon in SW Georgia. How many millennia do you think it took to create this wonder?

The Grand Canyon of the Chattahoochee

Actually, Providence Canyon probably set a speed record for one of the fastest times to create a canyon of this size. It is an example of anthropogenic accelerated erosion, resulting from poor land use management. The multi-colored layers of sediment are those of poorly consolidated sedimentary rocks from the Tertiary and Cretaceous Periods which were protected from erosion by a resistant cap rock which overlaid the substrate. I assisted Dr. Francis Magilligan in his study of this area in the late 1980s. Removal of the forests in the area to plant cotton broke through the thin layer of resistant cap rock and exposed the easily erodible strata below. This region experiences a lot of rainfall. The loss of vegetation also resulted in a doubling of stream peak discharge, which exacerbated the erosiveness of the stream. The whole canyon was carved out since the early 1800s. The research for this study was published in the article “Historical Land Cover Changes and Hydrogeomorphic Adjustment in a Small Georgia Watershed“, which appeared in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, volume 87, #4 December 1997, pages 614-635.

But, the Physical Landscape is only part of the equation. Even though man can change the Physical Environment through his actions, the Language of the LAND also includes reading the Cultural Landscape; those things which show the imprint of mankind on the landscape via the built environment.


The cultural landscape is everything that you see that was built and shaped by the hand of man. Man sometimes works with nature; other times he tries to dominate it. What type of imprint man makes on the natural landscape will tell you a lot about the culture that you find yourself in and what VALUES that culture has. Look to see what you can learn from a culture that sees the world differently than your culture does. People express their values by the things that they build. Seek to understand WHY the built environment looks the way it does!

The Registan- Samarkand, Uzbekistan

The picture above is of the Registan in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The word Registan means “Sandy Place” in both Persian and Turkic languages. It was built by Amir Timur (1336-1405), the leader of the Timurid Empire, who was known as “The Sword of Islam” for all of the blood spilled in the expansion of his empire. Amir Timur’s empire rivaled that of the earlier Mongol empire. At its height, it stretched from Russia to India and from the Mediterranean to Mongolia. It was alleged that he was a descendant of Genghis Khan on his mother’s side. Also referred to as “Tamerlane”, Amir Timur wanted to make Samarkand the first city of the Islamic world. His motto was “If you doubt our power, look at our buildings.”

Map of the Timurid Empire

When reading the Cultural Landscape, you may see examples of cultural appropriation by a dominant culture whose ideal is to subjugate a prior culture. Referring to Uzbekistan, one would have to look very hard to find evidences of prior Zoroastrian architecture in the current built environment.


Then we have “The BIOLOGICAL LANDSCAPE“, which consists of what types of animals and plants exist, and why they exist where they do. A BIOME is a recognizable assemblage of plants and animals in function interaction with their ecosystem. Think of where you might find deserts, tundra, or deciduous forests. Where they are located are functions of latitude, proximity to bodies of water, location in reference to mountain ranges and the orientation of landforms in relation to wind direction. Study a map of global ecosystems and you will see some patterns emerging.

paddling through the canopy of a bull kelp forest in SE Alaska

The picture above shows a former client gathering some bull kelp (Nereocystis) during a sea kayak trip in Southeast Alaska. Bull kelp grows near rocky shorelines– in geographic areas of cold, nutrient-rich waters. You will usually find them where there is also a moderate tidal current.

A bull kelp forest (photo: NPS)

The picture above is what he kelp forest looks like from below. Bull kelp forests provide habitats for bait fish to spawn, sea otters to rest, and provides kayakers a place to rest from the currents as well as a harvest to make a base for a nutritious homemade salsa. Understanding where each type of ecosystem is located, as well as how they work, is a whole other branch of Geography which will help you comprehend the Language of the LAND.


The way that humans communicate with each other through sounds and gestures is another way that the language of the LAND is expressed. As humans move about the planet, they bring their cultures with them wherever they go. Therefore, their geographies are not only a reflection of their cultures, but are also modified by them. This means that you, dear readers, interact with your surroundings so that you can modify them at the same time as they are influencing you. What is special and unique about the language used in the part of the world you live in? How does it reflect either the ecosystem where you are or the history that your place has experienced?

It is interesting to see how the use of a certain word or a voice inflection can shine a light on where someone comes from. When I meet a Spanish speaker for the first time, I avoid the question “Where are you from?”, which might be interpreted as rude. Instead I can ask a few questions in Spanish using words or phrases that are only used in a few select locations. When someone doesn’t understand the word “Soroche”, which means altitude sickness, I know that they don’t come from one of the high altitude Andean nations, where that word is commonly used. I might also use the plural term for “you all” conjugating the verb in the “vosotros” form. If they respond, I know that they are probably from Spain. If they laugh, I know that most likely they are from Latin America, where they perceive it to be words from a Victorian era. Then a conversation opens up about geography and our place in it, and the ice is broken.

Tomes have been written about the evolution of languages, so I’ll be succinct and point you to a few maps for further cogitation. Language Families come from a common ancestral language. There may be several languages in each family, but often those languages have similar grammatical rules. I can’t speak French, but I can make out the gist of most things on a menu or a newspaper in French because it is in the same branch (Romance) of the Indo-European family of languages. A study of this map will help you understand history and migration, as well as physical geography and climate.

Language branches of the Indo-European family

The map below, which shows where English is an official language, may be perplexing to some, until you study the effects of colonization by the British Empire. Most folks are surprised to find out that English is the official language of Belize (British Honduras) and Guyana. That is probably why Jim Jones founded Jonestown in Guyana instead of neighboring Suriname (Dutch), or Venezuela (Spanish).

The LANDS where English is used

Geographic isolation may mean that your language doesn’t change much over time. The sign below is in the Islenska language, the national language of Iceland. Iceland had no native peoples inhabiting it when Leif Erickson discovered in more than a millennium ago. Old Norse became the language, and has remained almost unchanged since that time. Norwegian, however, has been influenced greatly, due to its proximity and relations with its European neighbors. So much so, that while in Boston waiting to board a flight to Reykjavik, I overheard what I thought to be two Icelandic men talking to one another. They seemed to be struggling with their communication. A moment later, one of them spoke in English with a heavy accent.

“Screw it!. Let’s just speak English to one another”, he said. It turns out that one guy was from Iceland and the other was Norwegian. The Norwegian language had changed so much in the past 1000 years, that it little resembled the old Norse tongue that was introduced to Iceland and changed little since then. To keep their language from changing in modern times, Icelanders resist taking on new words when new technology is introduced. They will recycle a long forgotten word and attach it to any new technology to keep their language pure.

Whether you are multi-lingual or monolingual, when traveling to another region where a different language of speech is used, it is always valuable to know how to thank someone in their own language. Some examples of thank yous in other languages include the following…..

Danke (German), Hvala (Slovenian, Serbian, and Montenegrin), Raxmad (Uzbek, Turkish), Shukran (Arabic), Merci (French), Takk (Icelandic and Norwegian), Taname (Estonian), Mahalo (Hawaiian), Asante Sana (Swahili), Arigato (Japanese), Obrigado (Portuguese), Kiitos (Finnish), Gracias (Spanish), Aciu (Lithuanian), Spasibo (Russian), Salamat (Filipino), and Gracies (Catalan). One of my favorites is Lithuanian, which is pronounced Ah-CHOO, which could be mistaken for a sneeze in English. Either way, just speaking one or two words of the native tongue can put you in good graces with the locals.

The feeling of a “Place” and what that is telling you, is important to help you to know how to speak the language. Incorporate a little bit of “language” from all disciplines, which a Geographer would have to know enough of to travel safely through the land of many “tribes”, but never totally fluent in ONE of those languages.


Most of all, be present in the moment and keep your eyes and ears open. Keep a journal and take pictures even if you don’t know what you are shooting. Then go study about it in a library, preferably using peer-reviewed sources. This will help you to become more fluent in the Language of the LAND.

In the first post in this three part series, we talked about teaching and understanding about PLACE, about the concept of Nowhere, the value of Nowhere places, and how to make a more sustainable world. Walking the Road to Nowhere…. to Get Somewhere The more you learn about the world, the more you realize that everywhere is a somewhere. You will be surprised at how many connections you have with far away, previously unknown places.

In the second part of the series we discussed the pressing need for all of us to become citizen Geographers. In that post we talked about what responsibilities we all have as a citizen and how we need to be more attentive and document what is happening in the world around us. A call for Citizen Geographers! The more you learn about other places and other peoples, the more likely you are to become a citizen of Planet Earth as well as a citizen of your home country.

Hopefully, this last post in the series will help start you on your journey to learning the language of the LAND. In doing so, you will not only have a better understanding of your place in the world, but you may have empathy for other peoples around the world and the conditions that they live in. In doing so, you will turn a former Nowhere into a Somewhere, and become a better citizen in the process.

Once you become semi-fluent in the language of the LAND, you will interact with it more. You may end up falling in love with it. And it will change you. Finally, share it with someone else. And when we share our perspectives of what we know about the LAND with each other, we just might be on the road to a more tolerable and sustainable world!


A call for Citizen Geographers!

In my previous post, I discussed how walking the road to nowhere can lead to enlightenment and actually end up leading us to a somewhere. Walking the Road to Nowhere…. to Get Somewhere My lamentations about the decline of Geography awareness in our society was where that post left off. This post is a call to you, dear readers, to become citizen Geographers.

“But what does that term ‘Citizen Geographer’ mean?”, you ask yourselves. It is similar to the term “Citizen Scientist” only with an emphasis on spatial awareness. Citizen Science is the voluntary involvement of the public in gathering data for scientific research, and helps professionals solve real-world problems.

The picture below is of a Citizen Scientist paddling the estuaries around the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico. While enjoying a day exploring a coastal paddle trail, this person is making observations and gathering data on the flora and fauna of the area to share with the scientific community. More data to analyze = better science.


The website citizenscience.org has a list of many projects that communities can get involved in. One suggests community members take snow depth measurements as they recreate in the winter. That data is analyzed and the results are shared back to the community.

You may also ask yourself, “Is it in my power to become a Citizen Geographer?” “What training would I need to become one?” Let’s first discuss the meaning of each term and how they might fit together.

A citizen is a person who, by place of birth, nationality of one or both parents, or naturalization is granted full rights and responsibilities as a member of a nation or political community. Many people who are citizens are concerned mostly with their rights of citizenry. But, remember that the definition of a citizen refers to responsibilities as well as rights.

A geographer is “an expert in the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these”. The expert part comes slowly, but grows with the amount of study that you put in. By study, I mean just being aware of, and documenting your surroundings.

Geographers study the earth at many different scales: local, regional, and global. You might be a citizen of a country, state, city, or local community. Or, you might consider yourself to be a citizen of planet earth. All data is collected at the local level, but may be analyzed at any scale. You, dear reader, do not have to have a degree in Geography to make observations about the places that you live in or travel to. You just have to observe and document what you are experiencing through your five senses.

Another example of Citizen Science that would also be the work of a Citizen Geographer is the annual Christmas Bird Count by the Audubon Society. Each year, people count the location, number and species of birds observed. The count takes place between December 14 and January 5 annually.


Volunteers communicate their observations to the national organization. Geographers at the national organization then draw maps. Data is collected for each one of the circles in the map below. This information is used to protect birds and the places that they need to survive. Imagine if you were a neotropical migrant who nested in the Arctic in the summer and flew to Central America to winter over. Every location along your route is important to your survival. Using the citizen science and geography together can help in identifying where to allocate limited resources to meet challenges to habitat. We’ve noticed an inordinate number of Robins in Central Oregon this December, partly due to the warm weather. Loss of habitat from fires in other parts of the state this summer is also a factor.

A Citizen Geographer will do much more than participate in an annual event though. We need to better understand the communities that we live in, if we are to make improvements in them. And rather than just driving through, we need to walk and bike through our neighborhoods with our eyes and ears open. Take pictures. Make notes. Be sure to write down the date and time of your observations. By doing so, you will have a snapshot of what your community was like at a given time. The world around us is changing so rapidly. Many of us fall victim to the malady of “Landscape Amnesia”, which is forgetting what a place USED to look like. Comparing change over time in a location is a fundamental concept of the discipline of Geography. Geographers conceptualize space as the product of interrelations of humans with each other and the environments where they live. It is dynamic in nature and not static.

Migrating Deer in Suburbia: How has this neighborhood changed over time?

My own hometown of Bend, Oregon could be the “Poster Child” of cities going through rapid change. If we had an army of Citizen Geographers documenting this change over time, with better understanding of the issue we might be better able to deal with the impacts of rapid change in our community: increasing crime, homelessness, rising housing costs, overburdened infrastructure. And, we might have a reason to adequately fund our Geography departments so that we could have those folks to analyze and map the data.

Once you start documenting things in your neck of the woods, your skills as a geographer will grow and you will be able to “read” the landscape better. The last post in this series will be about “the Language of the LAND”. In it we will provide you with a few tips to understand more about what the landscape has to say to you.

Besides that last post in the series, we will resume posts on specific places in the coming year, including Arctic Canada, Mongolia, Estonia, and Namibia, among others….We hope to have you join us on one or more of those adventures.

Have a wonderful holiday season….whether that be Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa or Festivus.

Perihelion 2022 : last year’s journey around the sun

Today, January 4, 2022 is perihelion. Last year’s perihelion was on 1/2/21. I wrote a post about that memorable day 367 days ago, and another one the year before that. So, right now, we are back at the same place in our orbit around the sun. The last orbit around the sun has been quite a ride, and not all of it was good. We started with an insurrection that threatened our democracy. Since then, we’ve dealt with the Delta variant, and now the Omicron variant. On the bright side, the Atlanta Braves did win their first World Series since the last century.

Rather than recount the whole year, I invite you to read below, which is what I posted last year. Then reflect on how your year went. What are your hopes and dreams for this next revolution around the sun?

HAPPY PERIHELION: written on 1/2/21

Today, January 2, 2021, is perihelion. This is the closest that the earth gets to the sun in its elliptical orbit. We are more than 3 million miles closer to the sun than we are on July 4th. Our journey around the sun covered a staggering 584 million miles, since the last perihelion on Jan. 3, 2020. And what a geographical journey it has been! How our lives have changed during this past orbit around the sun!

Below is a link to a post I made just after last year’s perihelion. I invite you to read it to remember what the world was like just one very long year ago.


One might think that we would be closer to the sun during the hottest time of year. However, it is sun ANGLE and not proximity to the sun that is the most important aspect controlling our seasons. In our long journey around the sun, the earth’s axis is tilted about 23.5 degrees from the vertical. That same tilt is maintained throughout the orbit. Because of the parallelism of the axis from the plane of orbit, we in the northern hemisphere are tilted away from the direct rays of the sun when we are closer to it. While we are in winter, the Southern Hemisphere is in their summer.

While the above diagram shows the path of our orbit, it does not show the parallelism of the earth’s axis. The diagram below better explains the seasons.

December 21 was the Winter solstice, the point at which the Northern Hemisphere is tilted furthest away from the sun. Many cultures celebrate this, but very few pay much attention to perihelion, which falls between Jan. 2 and 4, depending on the year. I prefer to measure a year from perihelion to perihelion instead of just using the calendar. In all of my years, this has been the craziest orbit around the sun. I bet is was for many of you readers too!

During the past orbit around our sun, we experienced conjunction of many similar past events all rolled into one year. Combine the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the racial unrest of 1968, the food lines from the Great Depression, and the disastrous presidency of Andrew Johnson which led to his impeachment. Then roll them all into one orbit around the sun and you have the last 365.25 days that we have lived through. And we have more than that to deal with too.

Some may say that the pandemic is the cause of all of this, but I might say that it only exposed the fracture lines in our society that were already under the surface. Then, our reaction to it only exacerbated our problems. We also had some wins to celebrate, but some of them will not be known for years. We also got to see the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, which we will not be able to see again in our lifetimes.

We lost way too many people this past year, many of whom we knew and were close to us. Besides friends and family members, many of my childhood baseball idols left us this year. Lou Brock…Tom Seaver…Al Kaline…Joe Morgan…Bob Gibson…and Whitey Ford to name a few. Phil Niekro, a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves who threw a knuckleball, a pitch that I learned to throw, passed away the day after Christmas. But what of the people who were born this year who were additions and not subtractions to our community? It will take looking back through time back to 2020 to see which Nobel Peace prize recipient was born this past year. Or the person who solved the cure for cancer might have just recently arrived on our planet.

Just a couple of days ago the rest of the world said goodbye to 2020, even though we had a couple more days to go to reach perihelion. From the amount of cars parked on the side of our street and the fireworks and screams heard around the neighborhood, it seems that there were a lot of house parties. I got in the hot tub just before midnight and looked up at a sky to view fireworks from the street behind us that rivaled the municipal fireworks display of July 4. I said a silent prayer for my father-in-law who lay in a bed in Alabama in his last stages of life.

At midnight, noise erupted all around us. A man a few doors down screamed “F–K 2020!” People screamed in celebration that 2020 was now in their rear view mirror. Firecrackers popped in all directions. Clearly, there was a lot of steam to be blown off from the stress of the past year. The irony was that these young people were gathered together to do it. I suspect that the reasons for hating 2020 came from a variety of perspectives. There are a few Trump 2020 flags still flying on houses where most of the fireworks came from. Maybe the “stolen election” and the impeachment would somehow be erased by the calendar. On the other side, maybe the promise of a vaccine and the hope to return to “normal”, would somehow instantly change the world as easily as flipping the page on a calendar.

At about 12:10, Beth opened the sliding glass door and saw me sitting in the hot tub. She said she just got the call that her Dad had just passed. He had lost his wife of 66 years back in March. He was 90 years old, bedridden, and in pain. I think the timing of his passing was no coincidence. He loved his family and always looked to take care of them. Somehow, I think he willed himself to live just long enough to see them safely through this past year. He leaves behind three daughters, all of whom live in different time zones. His middle daughter was the first to bring in the New Year in Georgia. His youngest daughter in Alabama, who took care of him to the end, lived in the Central Time Zone. He had already himself made it to 2021 and was ready to pass, but held on until his oldest daughter, my wife, who lived in the Pacific Time Zone could safely make it out of 2020. At that moment, he left this planet with a blaze of fireworks, and went on the ultimate Geographical Journey; to another dimension. He lives on in our hearts and memories.

As we begin another revolution around the sun the word for this journey is “Healing”. I look forward to the day that I can hug my friends again. Until then, we may help to heal each others’ wounds by our words and by our works. Let us vow not to wait until someone passes to write words of support, but to take every opportunity to encourage and uplift one another. We never know how many more geographical journeys we will make orbiting the sun, so buckle up and make the most of this ride.



I got to hug some of my friends in the summer of 2021, when the pandemic slowed. But then we had two more waves. I send a virtual hug to all of you that I know and also to readers I have yet to meet. May your ride around the sun this time be less bumpy than the last one….

Mick 1/4/22

Walking the Road to Nowhere…. to Get Somewhere

Just how many of us are walking on a road to nowhere, either literally or figuratively? Do you wonder about the path you are headed down in life? Can the dead end road I am walking on through Deschutes National Forest be a metaphor for our lives? And, does walking on whatever road you are seemingly walking to nowhere on, actually end up leading to enlightenment?

A road that leads to Nowhere

On a Monday at the end of November I am walking through the forest without a jacket. The temperature reads 55F at noon, and the sun is shining. There usually is snow by now at this elevation at this time of year. Our local ski area has no idea if and when they will open this year. Two weeks ago, at this same place, birds were everywhere. Today they are gone. The silence of the forest is briefly interrupted by a helicopter flying overhead, probably a COCC aviation student on a training flight. A moment later, the forest turns silent again.

I am grateful to enjoy the solitude and peace of the moment, yet am concerned about the state of the world and my place in it. Natural and man made disasters which have always happened throughout time, but now appear with astonishing frequency. The new Omicron variant of the corona virus just arrived in the USA and is of great concern. Our nation is incredibly divided, more than I’ve even seen in my lifetime. Inflation is rearing its ugly head. People feel powerless. It seems like we are going nowhere as a nation. Sometimes, I feel like I have lost my mission in life. You may also feel that your own life is headed down the road to nowhere. But, what are we going to do about it?

We’re all trying to get to somewhere, and that somewhere is individually different for each of us. Recently semi-retired, I walk the literal road to Nowhere inside of Deschutes National Forest and think about where the rest of my life is going. How will I live what’s left of my life here on planet earth?

If life was a football game, I’d be in the fourth quarter now. Maybe some of you readers are only still in the first half. I’ve made a few fumbles before halftime, but now it’s time to focus and start playing and trying to score, before time runs out and the game is over.

We are playing the game of life and Father Time is on the other team. Even we cannot vanquish that foe, we should all strive to play the game gallantly. It is important to remember that life is also a team sport. The best that we can hope for is to play for a tie, so that we might force an overtime. By doing so, other members of our team who come after us can continue playing. We think of this so our children can enjoy playing the game without starting out way behind in the score. This is what I am thinking about as I walk down the road to nowhere.

On the right side of this road is a barbed wire fence. Immediately, I think that a fence negates the concept of Nowhere. A fence is a border that separates two different districts. Doesn’t that mean it separates a Somewhere from a Somewhere else? Therefore, I must be Somewhere now….

Between Somewhere and Somewhere else

Nowheres and Somewheres are often Socially Constructed, as my Sociologist friend might say. Social Construction of reality implies that our brain must have a way of structuring all of the information gathered by our senses. This construction is influenced by our interactions with others, which creates a shared understanding of reality. If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound? And do we need a border or a fence to codify our social identity? Would America be Amerika without a border wall? Would the cold war have looked differently if there were not a Berlin Wall? Would there be less animosity between Jews and Palestinians if there were no separation wall? Would I be nowhere if I didn’t see this barbed wire fence next to the road?

A fence may give us the idea that “our side” is somewhere, while what is on the other side of the fence is “nowhere”. In our ethnocentric society, anywhere outside of the USA is often either reviled, or worse yet, ignored. I’ve tried to dedicate my life’s work to teaching about the meaning of “Place.” The decline of Geography teaching in our schools is a casualty of our ethnocentric outlook. The result is continued racism, an increase in jingoism, both of which are impediments to critical thinking and problem solving. In other words, a path down a deteriorating dirt road that leads to nowhere. How sustainable is our way of life under that paradigm?

Thinking about these concepts brings me to how I might apply them to a new class in Sustainability that I will be teaching Winter term. Sustainability implies meeting the needs of the present without jeopardizing the needs of the future. Although I am not scheduled to teach any Geography this year, I will incorporate a lot of global issues in the teaching of the course which is titled, “Creating a More Sustainable Society”. Among other topics, the students will research NGOs and where successful sustainability projects have been implemented around the world. In the process, they will gain knowledge about ecosystems and cultures around the world. Then, each student will teach the rest of the class about what they have learned. Students, who are naturally trying to find their places in this world, will need to know more about the world that they live in, in order to find the niche they will make for themselves in it. To find your place in the world, you have to study the whole world!

The students will also help me direct my efforts as to what to do with the rest of the time I have on this planet. There are so many worthwhile things that I could devote my energies to, which makes the task of researching them so daunting. The students and I will teach one another about sustainability projects and in doing so, will help me sort out which ones I will devote my time and money to.

As I walk down the road, the fence line leaves the side of the road and heads into the forest. I decide to leave the road and follow the fence line. In about 1/2 mile, there is a break in the fence, as one of the posts holding the barbed wire has fallen down. It is a safe place to cross to the other side.

A safe place to cross the fence

Upon crossing to the other side, I am now exploring new territory. I am certainly somewhere now, or at least in somewhere else. But if you asked most people, either side of the fence could equally be considered to be nowhere. However, if I didn’t have this nowhere to sojourn through, where would I go to figure out where I wanted to go in life? I wonder….will this opportunity still be available at this place ten years into the future?

But how do we quantify the value of nowhere? And whose values are we quantifying? A remark by the poet Gary Snyder comes to mind, as he climbed to the top of Glacier Peak in Washington and had a 360 view of the wilderness which stretched to all horizons. You could see most of the state of Washington from this vantage point. His hiking companion, awed by the view, asked “Wow! You mean there is a senator for all of this?”

“Actually, there isn’t”, he replied. The senator’s constituents do not include non-human life forms. Deer, bear, rabbits don’t vote. Neither do Spruce or Hemlock. One could look out and quantify the value of the board feet of timber. Others might value hunting or fishing. Some, like me, think about the value to mental health, both individually and societally.

The very next night, after an urban hike with friends on the last day of November, I returned to a similar nowhere place to camp for the night. The temperature was 62F when I left town. Winds were calm. After dark, I built a small fire. I sat in my camp chair sipping an adult beverage and cogitated about how to address the decline in Geographic awareness in our society, as well as how to readdress my mission after the college I worked for is no longer supporting the program. I felt that we need much more than teachers of Geography….we need a cadre of Citizen Geographers. That includes you, dear readers. I will outline ways what that really means and your role in it in a subsequent post. And it won’t cost you any money!

Sunrise on the road to Nowhere

Peace be with you, and may your eyes open to the world around you.

The Five Times I’ve Never Been to Russia

I can honestly say I’ve never set foot on Russian soil. But I have been right on the border and close enough to spit on it. FIVE different times!

Russia, the largest country by land area in the world, has many interesting landforms that I would like to see. It is difficult to get a tourist visa to go there, and almost impossible to get one as an independent tourist. U.S. and European visitors from the Schengen area must have a Russian based sponsor inviting them to visit the country. It remains pretty closed off to the rest of the world.

I’ll likely never see the grandeur of Lake Baikal, the deepest lake in the world which holds 1/5 of the world’s fresh water. Likewise, I’ll probably never experience the wilds of the Kamchatka Peninsula, with towering active volcanoes, a large population of Grizzly Bears, and Native Siberian culture. But when I got close to the side of Russia that borders Europe, I felt the temptation of forbidden fruit and went right up to the border to have a peek.

The first three times I’ve never been to Russia happened a decade and a half ago. A friend and I had driven to Nordkapp, the northernmost point in Europe, in Northern Norway. From there, we headed east to the town of Kirkenes, which is in Finnmark province.

The border between Russia and Norway was fixed in a border agreement in 1826. About 2/3 of that border follows rivers, where the middle of the channel is the actual border. East of Kirkenes, we came upon the King Oscar II Chapel, near the village of Grense Jakobslev, which is only about 1,600 feet away from the border. But since we were still 1,600 feet away, this does NOT count as the first time I’ve never been to Russia.

King Oscar II chapel

We headed south toward Pasvik National Park, which straddles the border. There is a tri-country marker at the edge of the park where Russia, Finland, and Norway all meet at one point. On the way down, we stopped at a stream. Different color posts were placed on each side of the stream, denoting the sovereignty of the country of the soil that they were placed on. Signs in several languages admonished the reader not to cross to the other side. Guard towers on the Russian side were sometimes visible. Video cameras were often deployed.

The stream at the border: Actual border is in the thalweg of the river. Photo:BarentObserver.com

I walked out into the stream, but made sure that I was less than halfway across, so that technically I was still in Norway. Then, I arched my neck back and spit as far as I could. Although the spittle didn’t reach the bank on the Russian side of the river, it did nearly reach it. I just spit on Mother Russia. I hope Putin saw that on video tape. Then, I retreated back to the riverbank and we got back in the car and drove on. That was the FIRST time that I’ve never been to Russia!

So, so close!
Warnings in four languages: 5,000 Krona fine for crossing

We drove to the end of the road in Pasvik National Park. From there we started walking towards the tri-country border marker (Treriksroysa). A swath had been cut through the forest for a trail and a chain link fence on our left was the actual border. Since it was summer time, the mosquitos were out in force. We should’ve brought a head net!

Three country borders: Wikimedia Commons

About 1/2 hour into the hike, we ran across two older Norwegian gentlemen who were portaging their canoe from one stream to another. One of the men was named Od. We thought that Od was kind of an odd name for a person to have, but his English was pretty good and we talked a while. He told us that the three country marker was much further away than we thought. In between swatting at hungry mosquitos, he advised us to turn back. Besides, Russia was already just on the other side of this chain link fence. And we would be going into Finland tomorrow. How much closer could you get?

When we were out of view of Od and his friend, I relieved myself through the chain link fence. Now, I had pissed on Mother Russia too! I looked around to see if there were any surveillance cameras in the area. If there were, I hope Putin would see that too! That was the SECOND time I’ve never been to Russia.

Driving back toward Kirkenes, a Norwegian border patrol car started to follow us. Later, we found out that many Russians illegally cross because life in a Norwegian jail often is better than a life of poverty in Russia. After a few miles, they broke off the chase. After checking the car plates, they probably found out that it was just two American tourists in a rental car.

The THIRD time that I’ve never been to Russia was at an actual designated border crossing at a highway from Finland to Russia. The road leads to Murmansk, where there is a Russian Naval Base with Nuclear submarines. Permission to enter….Denied!

the THIRD time I’ve never been to Russia

Several years after that trip, my wife and I were conducting a bicycle trip around the Baltic Sea. We started in Copenhagen, Denmark and planned to circumnavigate the Baltic, passing through several countries. There was only one problem. One small remnant of the Soviet Union decided to remain with Russia after the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania gained their independence. The old Soviet oblast (state) of Kaliningrad decided that it was too small to be a viable independent nation. It also had a lot of Ethnic Russians living there. When the vote came down, Kaliningrad decided to stay as part of Russia even though it was not physically attached to the mother country. Similarly, Alaska is part of the USA but has no border with any other US state.

The Russian Exclave of Kaliningrad: Wikimedia Commons

Without a proper visa, we would have to peddle hundreds of miles out of our way to avoid Kaliningrad. Rather than do that, we decided to bypass both Poland and Kaliningrad by taking a ferry from Germany to Lithuania.

Ferry from Sassnitz, Germany to Klaipeda, Lithuania

The city of Klaipeda where we disembarked the ferry was close to the Russian border at Kaliningrad. Klaipeda lays at the head of the Curonian Spit, a barrier island that has a national park and is famous for the amber that is found there. Eurovelo route 10, a designated bicycle route, traversed the spit. Even if Russia had not been so close, we would have opted for a bike ride here, as it is a worthy destination in itself. A quick local ferry ride across the lagoon brought us to the spit, where we cycled south towards the town of Nida and the Russian border. We camped in a campground just outside of Nida.

Map of the Curonian Spit :Wikimedia commons

-The Curonian Spit is a 98 km long sand dune ridge that was formed from a glacial moraine and shaped by winds and sea currents. It is the home of the highest sand dunes in Europe, some reaching up to 200 feet in height. It used to be covered in forest, but logging back in the 16th and 17th centuries caused a lot of erosion by removing the vegetation. The dunes began to move and settlements were lost. In the 19th and 20th centuries, reforestation projects were performed to re-stabilize the landscape. The Spit is also the location of the biggest amber producing area in the world. Now, there are national parks on both sides of the border to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a magical place to ride a bike through.

Eurovelo Route 10 on the Curonian Spit

From Nida, we cycled on a path across the dunes to the lagoon. From there, I walked south towards the border, until I came up to a split rail fence with barbed wire on top. I looked around and saw no one. Like I did several years ago in Pasvik, I relieved myself through the fence and hit Russian soil. Take that Vladimir! That was the fourth time I’ve never been to Russia…

Curonian Spit: Russia is in the background

Back on the paved road again, we pedaled south on the road to the gate at the border. Beyond the gate lay Russia, and a place called the “Dancing Forest”, so named due to the gnarled, twisted trunks of the trees there. I sure would have liked to have seen it in person. This is the FIFTH time I’ve never been to Russia….

the FIFTH time I’ve never been to Russia

I hear that the sixth time is the charm. A few years ago, while biking through the Baltic republic of Estonia, I heard about a ferry from the capital city of Tallinn to St. Petersburg, Russia, where one could get a three day tourist visa without much problem. I was stoked! I bought a book on St. Petersburg and planned out my three days. Saint Petersburg, the second largest city in Russia, and the world’s most northerly city of over 1 million residents, was the capital of Russia from 1713 until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It is named after Tsar Peter the Great. It is often described as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Often it is referred to as “The Venice of the North”. I was giddy with anticipation on my upcoming visit. However, when I got to the dock at Tallinn harbor, I found out that they had recently discontinued the Tallinn-St. Petersburg ferry. If I wanted to visit Russia, I would have to go first fly Helsinki, Finland and take that ferry instead. Sadly, that wasn’t possible with the time and budget that I had at the time. I guess that technically, I’ve never been to Russia SIX times now.

Tallinn, Estonia

One last parting thought. If I am ever found dead from some unknown poison, I suspect that Vladimir had read this post and took some revenge. But if he does ever read it, I hope that instead he will open up his country so that the rest of us can see Kamchatka, Lake Baikal, or the Dancing Forest!

The Dancing Forest of Kaliningrad: Photo-Amazing Places.com
%d bloggers like this: