Sometimes the story is the destination that you are traveling to. Other times, the story is in the journey getting you to the destination. This is one of those stories about the journey just to get somewhere.
On my first day after landing in my stopover city of Sydney, Nova Scotia I was walking around the city to orient myself to a new place. A police car pulled along side of me. “Can you come downtown to the station?”, he asked. “There’s a problem that we need your help with.”
I froze. Was there a problem with the way I entered the country? I didn’t exactly go through customs and immigration the way most travelers do. How could this policeman possibly know that? What kind of trouble could I possibly be in? And how did the local cops know that I was a passenger on a cargo jet and walked past customs and immigration alongside the two pilots with only a wink and a nod?
I was on my way to Newfoundland, where a friend would meet up with me in a few days. With two weeks of vacation from my job at Federal Express (now FedEx), I chose to jump-seat on a company jet, all the way from Atlanta to Memphis and then to Montreal, Quebec. From there, I took a commercial flight from Montreal to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, with a stopover in Sydney, Nova Scotia. I chose to lay over in Sydney for a few days until my friend could fly to Newfoundland.
Back in the day, FedEx employees had the benefit of “jump-seating” for personal travel. Each FedEx cargo jet had between 1 and 4 seats for employees to travel on. These were located inside of the cockpit. I had never before flown in a jet where I could look out windows in front of me. First I flew on a 727 Cargo Jet from Atlanta, GA to Memphis, TN, where the main FedEx Hub sorting facility was. After a couple of hours of waiting for all the packages to be sorted and loaded into their prospective planes, I boarded a Falcon Fan Jet to Montreal, Quebec. When FedEx was a startup company, most of the jets were Falcon Fan Jets, manufactured by the French company Dassault. Now that the company had grown, most of those were replaced by larger DC-10 and Boeing 727 jets, with containers for the cargo. My trip to Montreal, would be the last week that the company flew the Falcons, which had to be hand loaded.
For those of you interested in the history of the Falcon Fan Jet and its impact of the success of Federal Express (FedEx), here is a link to that story…
I sat on a small wooden bench in between the two pilots, Mike and Charlie. As the sun was rising and shining directly into our eyes, once we got to cruising altitude, Mike took a section of the morning paper and plastered them over the windshield to keep the sun out. The jet was on automatic pilot while the pilots were reading the morning paper. I didn’t want to disturb the pilots or accidentally touch anything, but I was pretty cramped in the jump seat. I also wondered about flying a jet without looking out the windows. I asked, “Is anybody paying attention to where we are in route?”
Charlie pulled back part of the newspaper. “Yep, that’s Cincinnati down there”, he remarked. Occasionally, an air traffic controller would bark out an order over the com and direct the pilots to alter their course heading. A quick turn of a dial, and the jet would bank and assume the new course heading.
The picture below is similar to what the cockpit looked like. The following photo is from Wikimedia commons of the cockpit of a Falcon Jet used by the Pakistani military. I had the same vantage point from my cramped jump seat.
We landed safely at Dorval International Airport and walked from the tarmac into a building. Since we were all dressed in our Federal Express uniforms, an airport official gave us a wink and a nod as we passed by. I never did get my passport stamped. It felt like I was getting away with something, even though I only had my camping equipment in my backpack.
From Dorval, I boarded a plane to Sydney, Nova Scotia. After checking into a local B & B, I decided to take a walk around the city and get a feel for the place. It was then that the policeman pulled up beside me and asked me to take a ride downtown with him.
I nervously asked what the problem was, thinking that they somehow knew I didn’t enter the country through the proper channels.
“We just need you to be in a lineup”, said the policeman.
“What happens if somebody mistakenly picks me out?”, I asked.
“Not likely. We caught the guy red-handed. We just need a few volunteers to make a lineup.”
There was no reason to say no, although I was still a little nervous. The officer opened the back door to the car, and I got in. Just a few minutes later, he pulled up next to another pedestrian and asked the same thing. The guy nervously got into the car, but wanted to keep his distance from me in the back seat. He must have thought that I was the guilty party.
We went down to the station and got in a lineup; five men abreast of each other. A lady walked in. She pointed to the guy standing next to me. He immediately lost it, screamed some obscenities and lunged at her. He had to be restrained. The rest of us were relieved. The constable thanked us and asked us each to sign our names and addresses into the ledger. When I did, the guy who was in the police car with me noticed I signed my hometown as Atlanta, Georgia.
“So, you’re here as a tourist!”, he exclaimed. “I was sure YOU were the guy they were looking for when I got into the car”, he said. We laughed. After exchanging some pleasantries, he invited me over to his house. I accepted. His name was Thomas. Sometimes, chance meetings like this turn out to be better than planned ones.
Thomas introduced me to his girlfriend, who lived with him in an old white house near one of the city parks. It was a warm weekend in May, and he was planning to go to the park to play football with his friends. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at his house and then headed over to the park. I was the only one playing football in hiking boots. A group of local girls watched from the sidelines. It was obvious that this was one of the first warm sunny days since last summer. The whiteness of their skin showed that their bodies had not been exposed to the sun for a very long Canadian winter. The glare from the sun shining off of their white bodies was enough for us to play with sun glasses on!
I thought that playing in boots would be a disadvantage, but it allowed me to make quick cuts on the slick grass and run for a couple of touchdowns. Also, I think that although the Canadian boys might have been great ice hockey players, they didn’t have much experience playing football. There weren’t even any Canadian league football teams anywhere east of Montreal. After playing for a couple of hours, we relaxed in the park. Thomas’ friendly dog seemed to eagerly accept Americans.
Afterwards, I headed back to the B &B. Thomas said to come on over tomorrow at about noon and we would hang out again.
After a good night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast, which was served from 7-10 AM at the B & B. It still wasn’t high season yet, so the inn was not at full capacity. I had the pleasure of having a good visit with the two sisters who were the owners of the establishment. One of them, Alice, commented that they felt bad that one of their guests just stayed in his room and never came out, not even for breakfast. They couldn’t communicate with him because he didn’t speak English. He had been at the inn for three days now and they were not sure he was getting any meals.
When I inquired as to where the guy was from, they stated that his passport was from Spain. When I told them that I used to live in Mexico and could speak Spanish, their eyes lit up. “Can you go knock on his door and invite him for breakfast?” they asked.
I went down the hall, with the two ladies accompanying me. We knocked on the door. A few seconds later, an older gentleman cracked the door halfway open. He looked at us quizzically.
As soon as I spoke to him in his native tongue, his countenance changed. He opened the door wide and smiled. I translated a conversation between the two ladies and himself. His name was Enrique and he was a fisherman from the north of Spain. Enrique was waiting for a ferry to take him to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a couple of French owned islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland, where he had a fishing job waiting for him. He had no idea that breakfast was included and he only had some bread and some liquor in his room. This was long before the cell phone era, so it must have been pretty lonely in there.
Alice had made a pot of coffee and offered it to Enrique, but he asked for instant instead. She brought a jar of granulated instant coffee over and watched while Enrique spooned 7 heaping teaspoons into the cup. When she went to pour the hot water into the cup, he raised his hand to have her stop. He only wanted about 1/4 cup of water. It ended up being the consistency of something almost as thick as pudding. When she asked if he takes anything else with his coffee, his answer was “Maybe a little bit of whiskey!” It certainly was a cultural experience for all of us….
Since Enrique had spent the last few days in isolation, I invited him to take a walk with me over to Thomas’ house.
It was the first time Enrique had any human contact since coming to Nova Scotia. He and Thomas’ dog quickly became best buddies. The dog reacted in the same friendly way to the Basque and Spanish languages that Enrique spoke to it as it did when we spoke English to it. Dogs have a keen sense of the emotions that humans feel, and he made Enrique’s loneliness fade away. Studies have shown that people with pets live 2 years longer on average than people who don’t have pets. While the rest of us did talk to him as I interpreted, Enrique was content to sit on the porch, play with the dog and be content that he could have human contact when he wanted to.
I’ve thought about that day many times over the years. Had I not jump-seated, or had the cop not stopped me for a lineup, Enrique would have spent all of his time in Sydney locked up in his room in isolation. Had Thomas not also come to the police lineup, or had I stayed in another B&B, the same thing would have happened. It took fate working on several levels to bring a smile to Enrique’s face, through the love of a stranger’s dog, through a foreigner speaking his language, and for locals opening up their hearts and home to him.
Had I been in a hurry to get to the destination, instead of being open to discovering the journey, I would have bypassed Sydney, Nova Scotia altogether. I would have missed out meeting Enrique, Thomas, Alice, Mike and Charlie, an RCMP officer, and many other fine folks. The experience of flying in the cockpit with the pilots would also have been missed. I sincerely hope that all of those people I met long ago realize that they gave me much more than I ever gave them. Because of all of them, Sydney, NS will always have a special place in my heart. You see, they taught a geographer that a place is much more than a landscape. A place gives meaning to us through the relationships that we build with the people in that place. And casual encounters may end up being anything but casual. They might make memories for a lifetime, as well as changing your perspectives.
Dear readers, wherever you plan on traveling to, I hope your embrace the journey as well as the destination!
Popeye the Sailor man of cartoon fame, made the term “Well, Blow me Down!” a recognizable saying. It denotes a feeling of shock and surprise at something. A trip to the Canadian province of Newfoundland will give you both a figurative and literal meaning to this term.
The power of an image of a beautiful place in nature cannot be underestimated. I had not even considered a Newfoundland trip before I read the 1984 National Geographic Society’s publication of “Canada’s Wilderness Lands.” When I turned a page and saw a picture of a fjord in Gros Morne National Park, I instantly knew that I had to go there.
Just getting to Newfoundland was an adventure in itself. I’ll leave that story for a subsequent post, as that journey was a special story all by itself. We’ll start this story in the airport at Sydney, Nova Scotia, where I boarded a flight on Eastern Provincial Airways to Deer Lake, Newfoundland. A friend from Atlanta was on that plane, and we would be doing the Newfoundland trip together.
Many people, especially Canadians from mainland provinces, consider Newfoundland to be at the edge of the world. It is the easternmost province of Canada and consists of the island of Newfoundland and the barren region of Labrador, whose coastline juts out into the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. It’s not a place you would stumble upon by accident. One has to go out of his/her way to get there.
We rented a mini-van at the Deer Lake airport and locally purchased some fuel for the camp stove and set off from there to explore the western side of the island. We hoped to take a ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle later in the week to cross over to Labrador on the mainland to visit Red Bay, the site of where a Basque whaling ship sank before Columbus “discovered” the New World. But first we drove in the other direction. We visited the largest settlement on the west side of the island at Corner Brook, and then drove another 25 miles west to Blow-Me-Down Provincial Park. The name beckoned us to visit there.
Sparsely populated and rugged in topography, Newfoundlanders have their own twist on the creation story of their island. It states, “God made Newfoundland in six days. On the seventh day, He threw stones at it!” That certainly explains the rocky outcrops, rocky coastlines, and lack of vegetation, due to the harsh climate and thin soils.
Blow-Me-Down sits on the coast between York Harbour and Lark Harbour (Canadian spellings). The park is home to abundant wildlife such as caribou, moose, fox, lynx, beaver, muskrat and a multitude of bird species. Several hiking trails are available, including the governor’s staircase. The rocks are ophiolites, which are parts of the earth’s mantle that have been uplifted to the surface. Continental glaciation of the last ice age did the carving to make this landscape art.
So far, we were figuratively “blown away” by the rugged beauty of the island. After some obligatory photos however, we turned north toward Gros Morne and the Great Northern Peninsula—the attraction that drew us to this part of the world in the first place.
At a breakfast stop at a local restaurant the second day, a man sitting at the table next to us struck up a conversation. Four small girls, ages 2-8, were sitting at the table with him. He could tell by our accents that we were Americans.
“What are you boys doing here?”, he asked. “Canadians don’t even come here!” “There’s certainly NO work to be had,” he said.
We told him that we like exploring new, little known places and that Gros Morne had some beautiful scenery we’d like to discover for ourselves.
The year was 1984, and the economy of Newfoundland was in shambles back then. This was long before the discovery of offshore oil and gas which became the Hibernia project. There was a moratorium on Cod fishing (the only major industry at the time), due to over-fishing of the Grand Banks. The restaurant was packed with out of work fishermen.
“What do you do?”, we asked. He looked over at his four daughters.
“Nothing to do except make babies”, he replied. “The only work left is handing out government unemployment checks. But, we DO appreciate your visit to help stimulate what’s left of our economy”, he added.
Although we had rented a car and were buying food locally, we really weren’t the kind of tourists that would be much of a shot in the arm to the local economy. We brought our camping gear and would be staying in our tents most of the time. Our first hike would be an assault of Gros Morne Mountain (807 meters).
Even though it was just a few days shy of the 1st of June, there were still snowfields to cross, even though the elevation wasn’t all that high. The air temperature was warm enough not to have to wear a warm jacket. The hike was a pleasant one.
Afterwards, we drove to some other scenic spots in the park. During the last ice age, moving glaciers carved out deep U shaped valleys. Rising sea levels from the melting ice sheets drowned out the glacial valleys, leaving behind the deep fjords on the coastline. I’ve been drawn to the ends of the earth since that trip to see beautiful fjorded coasts around the world. Most are located at high latitudes on the western side of continents, such as Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the West Fjords of Norway and Iceland, Southeast Alaska, and the Archipelago of Southern Chile. This one happens to be on Canada’s Eastern coast.
After checking in with the rangers at Gros Morne, we got our permits to camp on the coast using the Green Gardens trail.
Several kilometers of hiking from the trailhead brought us to the rocky cliffs above the coast. The tall green grass provided a soft cushion in which to place our tent. There were actually a few trees in the area. The sky was gray and it started to lightly drizzle. We set up camp, but still managed to take a stroll in our secluded environs. That night, it started to rain a bit harder….
For the next few days, a severe low pressure system migrated into our area. The winds picked up and it started raining sideways. We played a lot of card games in the tent, but you can only do that for so long. I put on my rain gear and went outside and tried to photograph some sheep on the cliffs.
Newfoundland is famous for its storms. The westerly winds bring in continental air from the large North American land mass. It doesn’t mix well with the marine air of the North Atlantic, and the two air masses have vastly different air pressures. The larger the pressure difference, the higher the wind speed. Blow-Me-Down, Newfoundland now had a literal meaning to it.
After three days of constant wind and rain, and with our tent and all of our belongings soaked, we packed up during the storm and headed back into civilization. It was one of the most intense hiking experiences I’ve had in my over 45 years of backpacking. The sideways rain was now mixed with sleet, which pelted our faces. We stumbled out, looking straight down at the trail and glancing up from time to time to make sure we were still on the path. Several miles later, we reached the car. We drove towards Deer Lake and got a hotel. I stood in the hot shower for a long time to try to abate the effects of mild hypothermia.
As luck would have it, the storm abated the next day. We went back to the ranger to let him know that we got out safely. “I was kind of worried about you boys”, he told us. “So were we”, we replied.
From there, we drove north up the Great Northern Peninsula to catch the ferry over to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. From there it would be a short drive into Labrador to visit Red Bay, the site of a sunken Basque whaling ship. The Norse Vikings “discovered” the New World centuries before Columbus could ever have claimed to. So did the Basques. Some say that the Irish made the trip in Curraghs in the seventy century. But forensic evidence does support the Vikings and the Basques getting there. Take that Columbus!
When we got to the ferry terminal, there was no boat in sight. We went in to check on the departure times and a lot of fishermen were sitting around the bar. Piles of long necked beer bottles were strewn all over the tables. We inquired as to when the ferry would leave.
“It was supposed to be here three weeks ago”, one burly fisherman said. “It left St. John’s, but the pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle is keeping her from getting up here.” “We don’t know when it will arrive!”
Our hopes were dashed. We asked about air fares and car rentals in Blanc Sablon. There was one flight per day, but it was very expensive. Taking it would also require us to rent another car on the mainland, while still paying for the one we had here. We just couldn’t afford it! It was a bitter pill to swallow, but we would have to give up on this part of the dream.
Nowadays, there is a new ferry which is capable of cutting through the sea ice. The Marine Vessel “Qajaq”, part of the fleet owned by Labrador Marine, can hold 300 passengers and 120 vehicles. During the high season, it makes several crossings daily across the Strait of Belle Isle. The 36 km journey usually takes 1 hr. 45 minutes; longer when there is sea ice to navigate through. We were just 30 years too early on our trip!
We quickly formed a plan B. We headed to the northern most tip of the island of Newfoundland and explored the environs around the town of St. Anthony. We also stopped at L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site of where Viking relics were found. The archaeological site dates back to 1000 A.D. and is the only confirmed Norse settlement site in North America other than the ones in Greenland. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The English-French name means “Bay with Grasslands”.
Jared Diamond has a chapter in his NY Times best seller from 2005 “Collapse”, which documents the fall of the Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland) Norse colonies, due to either conflict with Native societies or reluctance to learn from them due to cultural differences. I recommend the book as a good read into historical and cultural reasons for societal collapses. The lessons from studying mistakes from past societies should be applied to some of our present day struggles. Like the ancient Norse, we could miss out on some opportunities to find solutions to problems, simply because we refuse to view them through anything else than our own cultural lens.
After visiting L’anse Aux Meadows, we stopped at the northernmost town on the island for a Screech and Coke. “Newfie” Screech is a local liquor often drank with Coca-Cola. When in Newfoundland……
Fortified by the local elixir, we were emboldened to climb one of the cliffs in the area to get a look out over the water. Surprisingly, the pack ice was not evident near shore. The higher we climbed, we could eventually see pack ice far out in the channel. Birds flew over our heads, wondering what would entice humans to enter their cliffside domain. Far off in the distance, across the pack ice, we could barely glimpse the shoreline of Labrador. Labrador is an itch I’ve had for almost four decades now, that I haven’t had the chance to scratch yet. But just being that close to it, and being perched on a desolate cliff face at the far end of the island of Newfoundland, which is at the far end of Canada, was satisfying enough. At least it was at the time. I took in the peace and solitude of it all and thought to myself…”Well, Blow Me Down!” Newfoundland is a special place. If you can take some of the weather in stride, you will be rewarded with magical scenery.
For those of you who are considering a trip to Newfoundland today, the economy has bounced back, mostly due to the Hibernia Oil and Gas project. The marine life is making a comeback and humpback whales are prevalent, especially on the East side of the island. For an historical account of the fecundity of the sea life during the time of exploration, I recommend reading an account of Jacques Cartier’s voyages in the area in the 1530s.
Newfoundland has a lot of hidden treasures to discover. Bring your rain gear if you go. But whenever the sun does come out, be prepared to react like Popeye did. You too will likely exclaim, “Well…. Blow-Me Down!”
“There’s TWO places you’ve got to experience before you die”, the old man I met on the Chilkoot Trail told me. Boy, was he right! Two years after that meeting, my friends and I were bike-packing the Canol Heritage Trail through the Mackenzie Mountains, in a remote corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
The Canol “Road” was a road built during WWII to connect the Oil Fields at Norman Wells, NWT to Alaska, to supply petroleum to support the war effort and to aid in the construction of the Alaska Highway. The name CANOL derives from Canadian Oil Road, and construction began in 1942. Built at the same time as the Alaska Highway was, the purpose of construction was to get military equipment, machinery and supplies from the lower 48 and other regions to Alaska to fortify the Alaska territory against the Japanese forces. Oil could then be transported to Whitehorse, Yukon, where it would be refined into gasoline. The Canol road had to cross some of the most forbidding, desolate landscapes on the North American continent. Workers who built the road had to endure the harshness of the tundra climate, hordes of insects proportional to biblical plagues, long arduous hours of work; all in the midst of grizzly bear country.
The Canol project was abandoned even before it was completed. After the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, so the project came to a halt. The route is a virtual museum of WWII relics abandoned on the roadside. The road has not been maintained since. Nature is in the process of reclaiming this road, which makes it not usable for automobiles. We knew that taking a bike-packing trip into the wilds along this “road” would truly be a wilderness adventure. But we had no idea how epic this journey would be, or what nature would have in store for us.
We loaded up our bikes in my hometown of Juneau, Alaska and took the ferry north to Skagway, where we rented a mini-van. Two college friends from Atlanta, Georgia, who had done some North country trips with me in the past, accompanied me on this trip. As we drove up the steep road from sea level to the top of White Pass, we joked about where we would have had to stop pedaling and walk the bikes uphill, had we stuck with the original ridiculous plan of biking all the way from Skagway. Once in British Columbia and then in the Yukon, we would have about 300 more miles of mostly dirt and gravel roads to get to the border of the NWT. Thankfully, we came to our senses and decided on starting the bike portion of the trip at the NWT border.
There are so few people in the North country and the climate is so harsh, that there are few bridges over big rivers. It is more feasible to use a ferry for the crossing. On the South Canol Road, near Ross River, we used the ferry below to cross to the other side.
The crossing of the Pelly River marks where the South Canol Road becomes the North Canol Road. Once on the other side, the North Canol heads through increasingly desolate country towards the border of the Northwest Territories. The road narrows and there are no services, so this road is not recommended for tourist travel. It passes through sub-alpine forests of spruce, dwarf birch and willow.
Boreal forests, the ecosystem of forests that ring around the world at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere, are also prone to fire. After a fire, the charred forests are invaded by pink fireweed, a pioneer species that is the first step in plant succession and re-vegetation of the forest.
MacMillan Pass, the highest elevation point on the Canol Road, marks the boundary between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The road is not maintained on the other side of the border. Time to park the car and mount the bikes and head into the unknown.
MacMillan Pass is in the Mackenzie Mountain Range. The scenery and solitude were magical. Even though it was still late summer, the higher elevations of the mountains were artfully painted with a veneer of fresh snow.
It wasn’t long until we had to cross a creek. The bridge that was built for army vehicles decades ago, had long since succumbed to the ravages of nature. Time to take off one’s shoes and push the loaded bikes across a frigid stream!
The weather can be very mercurial at this latitude. It wasn’t long before gray clouds moved in. They opened up and pelted us with graupel, which is often referred to as “soft hail”. While the helmets protected the tops of our heads, the wind whipped the graupel horizontally and pelted our faces. This was already intense! A few miles down the road, we found an old abandoned structure from which to hide behind the wind.
The storm dissipated as quickly as it came upon us. There were several other streams we had to cross, which were now swollen with water from the storm.
We continued biking until we came upon an even larger stream to cross. The Intga River was pretty deep. No reason for all of us to get soaked, so we parked the bikes at the bank of the river, while I carried my smaller, lighter companions on my back one by one to the other side. While doing so, I thought back to my high school friends Jay and Al. I think Jay had sprained his ankle badly in gym class. Al ended up carrying Jay home on his back, all the while singing the 1969 hit song by the Hollies…”He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother!” I smiled thinking about that as I carried Bruce and Pat across the Intga River…..
We made camp. Bear dung was everywhere, as well as caribou and wolf sign. When we were in arctic and alpine tundra, you could see a long way. But when traveling though willow and scrub brush, you had the uneasy feeling that a grizzly bear or a moose could surprise you. Snow still clung to the mountains. This is really wild country.
In the first few days, the only sign we saw of modern civilization was a group of cabins to the south of the road, near the border. After that, only signs from construction in the 1940s remained. We made camp near the trail and noticed a spur road heading up into the mountains. We cached most of our gear and took only the food (so no critters would get into it), some rain gear and our ice axes with us. Who else takes an ice axe on a bike packing trip?
We climbed up the road until we hit more snow, then parked the bikes and continued trekking uphill to reach the summit, which was within sight. We all safely made it to the top of a peak with no name at the end of a road to nowhere. We wondered, “Who built this little road, and why did they do it?”
The next day we saw a couple of caribou grazing on the tundra, about 100 yards off of the trail. When we stopped to take pictures of them, the wind shifted. They caught our scent and galloped away.
Continuing our journey, we had several small creeks to negotiate, which required not only carrying the bikes, but stepping very carefully over slippery rocks. A broken ankle is always a bad thing, but out here this far from civilization, even a paper cut becomes a major thing.
On the last day before we reached the furthest point inland before turning around, we met three German bikers in their fifties headed in the opposite direction. They were beginning to have problems with their bikes. Some of the sandy soil was getting stuck on the bike chain, which made shifting almost impossible. I remember one gentleman saying in broken English, “Za geers, Zey are SCREAMING for Oil!”
Europeans, especially Germans, have an affinity for the wild lands of the Canadian Arctic. Further down the road, we saw the ruins of an old cabin and decided to take a rest stop. To our astonishment, a shivering, disheveled young man was laying on the ground inside of the ruined roofless cabin. His wool sweater was dirty and ripped in places. We were concerned for his safety. We immediately offered him food and water.
“I don’t eat JUNK food”, came the reply in a heavy German accent.
“Well then, how do you survive out here?”, we asked.
“I only eat ground squirrels”, came the response. We looked at each other with amazement. Here was another example of a would-be survivalist trying to prove his manhood in the wilds. He was not open to any help from us. After we left, we wondered how long it would be before he either perished or came to his senses. Fall was coming soon to the North country.
At the end of the day we crossed the Ekwi river, which required another ford. On the other side of the river, about 150 yards from the bank, was an old abandoned structure. Since the clouds in the sky appeared to be angry, we decided to make camp in the old shelter, but stored food under some rocks far from where we slept. Grizzly tracks were present in the mud near the river. The doors and windows of the old structure had metal spikes and glass shards around them, ostensibly to keep intruders, such as bear or wolverine, from entering the cabin. I found a large moose antler nearby, but when I picked it up, it reeked of bear urine. We seemed to take only cat naps that night, with regular peeks outside to check on our gear.
The next morning, only minutes into the trip, Bruce found an intact caribou skull with huge antlers attached to it. “Wouldn’t that be nice sitting over your mantle piece?”, I asked.
Bruce agreed, but since we were more than 20 miles from the car, he thought that getting it back out would be too much of a problem.
“You found them”, I said. “Are you telling me you don’t want to claim them as your own?”, I asked.
Bruce replied, “You’d be an idiot to try and haul them out of here on a bicycle.” They were so big that you could only rest them on the handlebars, but would not have enough room to sit in the seat and pedal. You would have to put your left foot on the right pedal and use the bike as a scooter.
“Well, then….I’ll be an idiot for ONE day,” I replied. Then I hoisted the antlers onto the bike.
Since I could not continue to ride with the boys, I said I would start to slowly head back to the car. They could continue riding in the area and would have no problem in catching up to me either at the end of the day or by the next one. I walked the bike up hills and used it as a scooter on flat areas. On downhills, I could stand on one pedal and still handle the hand brakes while slowly cruising downhill.
About 5 miles into my return trip, I saw a few more caribou grazing in the tundra off of the road. This time the wind was in my face, so my scent would not carry. I slowly put the bike down and grabbed the antlers and held them at head height. When a couple of the caribou noticed me, I bent down, seemingly grazing on the tundra myself. They seemed to pay more attention to the rack of antlers than the funny looking body beneath them, so I kept being able to move closer and closer to them. I was just reaching for my camera, when the wind shifted. I could just about hear what they were thinking.
“THAT DOESN’T SMELL LIKE A CARIBOU!” is what they were thinking out loud, as they hastily scampered away. Dang! It would’ve been a great picture!
I continued on, until I came to a long uphill grade. I pushed the bike up the trail toward the top of the grade. I was just getting ready to use the bike as a scooter, when I spotted a group of 14 caribou on the south side of the trail staring at me. I slowly reached for my camera, trying not to make any noise or any sudden movements.
Just then, the group split into two. Seven females stayed back, staring back at me intently. Seven males, with large racks, but smaller than the one I was carrying, walked slowly towards me. Had they ever seen a two footed caribou with round legs before? The females seemed enthralled with the size of my antlers. I could picture them thinking, “OOOHH, LOOK AT THAT RACK!!” I guess size DOES matter, at least if you are a caribou.
The magic of that moment turned quickly to sheer terror! All seven of the males broke into a charging gallop right towards me. There’s too many of them and they are way too big and strong for me to fight them. I scootered the biked as fast as I could, but they closed the gap quickly. As I hit a downhill section of the road, I gained some speed. I yelled, hacked, spit, and farted….ANYTHING that might repel them! Luckily for me, they ran alongside the road and escorted me away until I was far enough away from their women to not be a threat. Needless to say, I didn’t get any photo footage of that encounter!
Several hours later, Pat and Bruce caught up to me. They had seen the large herd of caribou on their way back, but did not have a run-in with them. We were all pretty tired, when we saw those cabins off to the south side of the trail come into view. There was a BIPED walking around one of them. We took the chance that if we went to make a visit, we would not be seen as intruders.
When we arrived at the compound, we met George and Brodie, a married couple who were the owners of the Oldsquaw Lodge, a lodge that catered to wealthy visitors interested in ecotourism. George was a Canadian wildlife biologist, author and photographer, who had written a book on the Caribou and the Barren Lands. He and his wife ran the lodge here in the summer and lived in Botswana during the Northern Hemisphere winters. In Botswana, they worked as wildlife biologists studying African animals. The name Oldsquaw Lodge was named after a species of tundra duck that inhabited this region of the Northwest Territories.
Brodie was nice enough to boil us some tea and treat us as guests. She was very hospitable and we both appreciated stimulating conversation with other humans in a land of such sparse human population. Inside of the lodge, ecotourists relaxed in comfortable chairs, reading and learning about their surroundings, while sipping tea and munching on tasty snacks, while they looked out of full length windows at the barren tundra with the Mackenzie Mountains in the background. Spotting scopes were positioned at the windows for them to spy on caribou, bear, Dall Sheep, wolves, or any other fauna who might be in the area.
When I showed the antlers to George, he examined them and could tell us a lot about the animal. From the size of them and the fact that the skull was still intact, he surmised that it was an old bull who was taken down by a Grizzly the year before. It is amazing to think that caribou grow these antlers every year, and then shed them, only to grow bigger ones the following year.
That was long ago. Today, the Oldsquaw Lodge has changed hands and is now called the Dechenla Lodge. It is now run as a partnership with the Kaska First Nations. The name Dechen la’, translates to “Land at the edge of the sticks” in the language of the Kaska and Sahtu peoples of Canada’s First Nations.
Had I found these antlers in this century, I would have left them where we found them, as they are now protected cultural resources. However, in the tradition of the Native peoples, you should face the head of the animal to the East, so that the spirit of the animal gets to see the rising sun. Native hunters who killed an animal for food and clothing would do this out of respect for the animal. Hunting never had the machismo that Anglo hunters display after a kill. Instead, they showed gratitude to the animal for presenting itself to the hunter and allowing it to be taken.
When we got back to the mini-van, we loaded the bikes in the back and affixed the antlers to the roof rack. We got quite a few stares on the way back to Alaska from cars passing by. Since the antlers were well bleached by sitting outside for at least a full year, none of the border patrol folks on both sides of the international border had any qualms about letting us cross with them. It was clear to them that we had found them and not hunted the animal ourselves.
After we returned the rental vehicle in Skagway, we walked the few blocks to the ferry terminal and walked our bikes onto the ship. Another biker walking his bike onto the ferry had a small set of deer antlers on his handlebars. When he saw the size of the caribou antlers on my bike, he gave his deer antlers a rueful look.
Those antlers stayed in our apartment in Juneau for another few years, then they accompanied us when we moved to Oregon. On that 2,000 mile drive, we would have a line of cars following us into any hotel that we would be staying at for the night. We always had to take them off the truck and bring them inside the motel room with us. We made sure to place the head facing to the East. The further south we drove, the more people asked where we shot that moose. Some thought it was an elk. A horrified child might have thought we killed one of Santa’s reindeer. He might think, “Would there be no Christmas presents under the tree this year because of this?”
For the last 27 years, our caribou has been living in our house in Oregon, perched on a dividing wall between the living room and kitchen. I’ve brought him to school many times to show him to the students. They all marvel at how heavy the antlers are, which gives them a new respect for an animal that has to carry that weight around every day. They are even more surprised to learn that such a large animal subsists on low growing lichens in an ecosystem that looks barren to the untrained eye.
The Arctic seems timeless, but it is changing. The effects of climate change are being felt more in the mid to high latitudes. Treeline is creeping further north into what was once tundra. Icecaps are disappearing and melting permafrost is releasing methane gas, which further exacerbates warming of the planet. Getting to look up at these antlers every day reminds me of what a special place the Arctic is and how fortunate we were to experience it when we did. It also is a reminder to tread as lightly on our planet as possible and to respect the other life forms and indigenous cultures that we share this world with.
I am eternally grateful to the man I met on the Chilkoot Trail years ago who told me I had to see the Mackenzie Mountains before I die. That was some damn good advice!
Up by the Arctic Circle, in the country of Norway, exists a magical place…a place like no other place on earth. It’s almost like Heaven on Earth. And the interesting thing is…… It is only 550 miles north of Hell!
If you want to get to Heaven….you just might have to take a ferry to get there. Ferries leave from Bodo on the mainland and arrive at Svolvaer in the Lofoten Island Archipelago. It is possible to get there without a ferry, but the drive is a much longer one.
First, we had to literally drive through Hell to get there. You will too, if you are driving from anywhere in the south of the country. Hell is a little town near Trondheim, which I posted about a few months ago. If you haven’t read that post yet, here is the link that will take you to Hell…..https://wordpress.com/post/geographicaljourneys.com/1829
Cruising on the ferry toward the Lofoten Islands above the Arctic Circle in the land of the Midnight Sun was already a treat. Disembarking at the islands was like waiting outside of the Pearly Gates of Heaven. We were giddy with the anticipation of getting inside. The archipelago boasts not only world class nature tourism, but the place is one of the most visually stunning spots I have seen on the planet…That is saying a lot, considering all of the amazing places I’ve had the privilege of visiting.
The archipelago consists of 7 main islands and many smaller ones that are spread out over an area of more than 1,300 sq. Km. According to Statistics Norway, it is home to over 26,000 permanent residents. The main industry has always been the fishing industry, although tourism has a large impact on the economy. Fishermen’s cabins, or “Rorbuer” in Norse, dot the landscape by the water’s edge. In fact, that name means “A perch beside the water”, in the Norse language. You will likely see cod drying on racks. The local saying is “In Cod We Trust!” Since most Catholics eat fish on Fridays, the Lutheran Norse export much of the catch to the Catholics of Italy, Portugal, and Spain and live off the profits. The rest is consumed locally.
Most buildings in the small towns are painted one of three colors: Ketchup, Mustard or Mayonnaise. I’m not sure if that is a function of code regulations or the love of those condiments, but you will see those colors in the buildings in most Norwegian towns, with an occasional gray building in the mix.
The picturesque town of Reine one of my favorite places, near the southwest end of the archipelago, on the island of Moskenesoya. Driving down the winding road from Svolvaer, one discovers new landscape features around every bend. The roads are in good shape for being located in such a high latitude region. Vertical rugged granite cliffs soar straight upward from the sea. The U-shaped valleys reveal glacial scouring from the last ice age, and melting ice sheets drowned out the valley bottoms, making rugged fjords. The steep continental slope off of the Lofoten Islands guides the warm, salty, Norwegian Atlantic current, a remnant of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift Current, toward the Arctic Ocean. Although located above the Arctic Circle, this phenomenon makes the climate a little more temperate than other climates at this latitude. That makes the climate a bit rainy, but the day we were in the town of Reine (sounds like Rainy), the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly.
A friendly local person gave us some tips on some of the best places to hike in the region. They suggested the hike up to Reinebringen, a steep scramble up the side of cliffs south of town to gain an overlook of the fjord and the town below. When we did the hike in 2004, we saw only one other person. Nowadays, I hear the trail is overused and is suffering some erosion. Parking may also be a problem. You can leave your car in town and walk the 1.8 Km south following the E-10 road. The trail begins on the other side of the Ramsvik Tunnel. During the high summer season, it is preferable to avoid the midday crowds. Check the weather ahead of time, as it could be a treacherous hike if the conditions are wet. But if it is a sunny day, the difficult, but short hike of about 3 hours is worth it.
There are multitudes of other, less used places to explore all through the Lofoten archipelago. Even close to Reine, one can take a short ferry over to the charming little village of Vindstad and hike over a low saddle to a remote beach. Ferries may run a couple of times per day in the summer, so you could do that hike as a day trip from Reine. Check ferry schedules ahead of time, as it would be a long, cold swim back to town. Better yet, see if there is a Rorbuer to rent there!
The pristine clean environment, the rugged mountains, and the multitude of beaches, inlets and bays which are accessible by well maintained, paved, yet winding roads are all the workings to make Lofoten a world class nature tourism destination. When I was there over a decade and a half ago, it was mainly just a newly discovered summer destination. Presently, there is a lot more year-round tourism. It is no longer a secret. Abundant outdoor activities include hiking, climbing, mountain biking, sailing and kayaking in the warmer months. During the winter, people flock there to see the Northern Lights and go skiing. They also wear dry suits and go cold-water kite surfing during the colder months, something that was unheard of when we were there.
Landscape painters also make pilgrimages to the Lofoten Archipelago to paint some of the finest scenery in the world. The picture below is a painting that I have on my home office that a couple of friends bought for me at an art gallery here in Bend, Oregon.
Since 1991, Lofoten has hosted an international arts festival. However, in the March 2019 issue of Arctic Magazine, a story titled “It’s all about the scenery-Tourists Perceptions of Cultural Ecosystem Services in the Lofoten Islands, Norway“, authors Kaltenbjorn and Linnell outline the increasing pressures of over tourism to the area. There have been growing tensions between hosts and visitors in recent years. This is a phenomenon that is happening all over the world, including my hometown of Bend. However, knowing this ahead of time is not meant to deter you from going there, but should help you to be more respectful of the locals and their culture and environment when you DO go there.
It is not enough to say that I have an attachment to a place in the world called Lofoten. It’s that it is such a stunningly beautiful place, that I feel like it has attached itself to me. Even though it has been almost 17 years since I went there, I’m looking up at the picture of Reinefjorden in my office as I am typing this story now. Instantly, I am transported back to an unseasonably warm, sunny day in August of 2004. I close my eyes, at which time I can hear the cry of arctic terns flying overhead as I detect the faint smell of cod drying in the salty air of the Norwegian sea. My mouth turns slightly up and there is a smile on my face. I’m still experiencing a little bit of heaven on earth. Looking back, it definitely was worth driving through Hell to get there too….
I hope you find a similar sentiment whenever you get there…
You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to fall in love with Skellig Michael, a real world magical place which doubles as the mythical planet AHCH-TO, the supposed birthplace of the Jedi-order. It was the filming location for the final scene in the Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”. The force is strong in this place….you can feel it when you are there!
The island of Greater Skellig, where Skellig Michael is located, is a hauntingly beautiful unique landform off of the Southwest coast of Ireland. I was lucky enough to visit there, more than a decade before the movie was shot there. Today, you would have to book months in advance to visit this special place.
The mythical planet AHCH-TO was a world of deep blue oceans and rocky archipelagos. Several islands on planet earth could fit that bill, but no others had 1,500 year old rugged stone monasteries on them. Perhaps the Augustinian monks who built those structures were the precursors of the Jedi order who constructed the first Jedi Temple an AHCH-TO. Skellig Michael is certainly an “Out of this World” type of location!
The word “Skellig” means “rough place” in the Old Irish tongue. Lying nearly 10 miles out into the rough Atlantic Ocean from the coast of Kerry, it is one of the most Westerly points of land in Europe, leading to its otherworldly feeling. Only the rugged Blasket Islands to the north are farther out to sea. The steep cliffs of Old Red Sandstone series, formed some 360 million years ago, have been carved and shaped by the pummeling of waves from ocean storms. It is a hospitable place for puffins and gannets, but not so much for human kind. There are no beaches on which to land. It is not an easy place to get to…not even now, and especially when the monks arrived back in the 7th century.
I first found out about Skellig Michael from an advertisement at a bed and breakfast we were staying at in Cahersiveen, a town on the Ring of Kerry. We booked ahead and drove to Portmagee on the Iveragh Peninsula, where the boats departed from. All trips the previous three days had been cancelled due to high winds and dangerous seas. Our captain, Eown, was eager to make up for lost wages, and we had a full boat headed out to the rocks. The seas had not quite calmed down, and the swells were about 9-10 feet. The boat was pitching side to side as well as bobbing up and down with the swells. The deck was open, and Beth and I stood on the open deck and let our feet move under us with each swell, as we kept our eyes fixed on the horizon. All of the other passengers sat on benches on the side of the boat and rocked back and forth violently with each passing wave. About 1/2 way through the journey, many of the passengers were grabbing onto the gunwales and vomiting into the ocean. By letting our bodies move and keeping our heads level with the horizon, Beth and I were the only ones besides Eown who didn’t lose their lunches.
Before we landed on Skellig Michael, we stopped by Skellig Rock, and even more rugged island close by. It was home to about 90,000 gannets. The rocks were white with guano and there were so many birds crowded on the rock that it was hard to distinguish the birds from the guano. It was the equivalent of a Bangladesh of bird life, or an avian Calcutta, so to speak. The Rock sheltered us from the wind, so the captain gave us a few more minutes of calm seas before we headed over to nearby Skellig Michael.
There is only one place to “land” passengers on the island, a small slit sandwiched between two rock walls. The swells move the boat several feet up and down, and to disembark one must stand on the gunwales and time your jump just right to safely land ashore. Once I was safely ashore, I helped others as they leaped from the boat. One elderly, corpulent woman mistimed her jump and it took all of my strength to grab her and pull her up before she got pinned in and crushed between the boat and the rock wall. I wondered how the early monks managed in their 7th century curraghs, the type of boats used in Ireland at that time. Curraghs, or Currachs as it is also spelled, were Irish boats with wooden frames over which hides were stretched, which were propelled by oar and sail. Those monks were hardy folk, and the force must have been strong with them!
In the early years, the monks had to live on puffin eggs and whatever plant life grew on the Greater Skellig island, while they constructed their crude monastery. Their discomfort must have been intense, but in the eyes of early Irish Christians, remoteness from the world equaled closeness to the Almighty. In essence, they were searching for a “Nowhere” place to escape to. In a way, they would pave the way for the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century in the United States. Emerson and Thoreau would have the “Wilderness” of New England; Muir would have the Wildernesses of the Sierras and Alaska; while the Augustinian Monks would have Greater Skellig. The rawness of Physical Nature can lead one into the metaphysical and the spiritual. I’ve heard that someone characterized the meaning of Skellig Michael to the monks as a “Wet Golgotha”. Such is the power of places at the edge of the universe!
After visiting the remains of the monastery, we climbed the 600 steps to the top of the mountain, which were worn by centuries of pilgrims and more recently by tourists. It is a steep climb to Nowhere, with views to all points of the compass. As I climbed up the steps, I played back the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” in my mind.
I imagine that the monks stood here and saw Vikings raiding the Irish coast back in 823 A.D. and again during subsequent years. The Vikings represented the Dark Side of the Force, a powerful culture wreaking havoc on the rest of the civilized world. I can also imagine that the Monks used the force to telepathically send a message to the Vikings who might have been eyeing the rock huts on Greater Skellig….”These aren’t the monks you’re looking for!” …..”Move Along!”
Since Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are limits on how many visitors can land on the island. Luckily, I was there before Luke Skywalker was during the filming of “The Force Awakens”. Since that movie came out, demand to see the Skelligs is understandably high. Former Foreign Minister Micheal Martin Aine Doyle stated that marketing of the film locations is “Instrumental in Getting Americans to Visit Ireland.” (On Irish Tourism and Foreign Policy, in Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 22, #1, 2015, pp. 83-94).
While you may have to book far in advance if you want a chance to visit the Skelligs (only 180 people per day may visit between May and September), there are many other places where filming of Star Wars movies took place in Ireland, such as the Rock of Cashel. Even if you were to take a boat trip out around the islands without being able to land on them, you will feel the force being “Awakened” within you. The same force that shaped the birthplace of the Jedi Order on AHCH-TO, and the same force experienced by Augustinian Monks of Ancient times.
But, what would you do if it still was too difficult to book your trip to the Skelligs? Well, you would have to find another remote edge of the earth which is also magical. For a round sphere, the Earth surprisingly has a lot of ragged edges to it. Go find one of them. Since the force is EVERYWHERE, and all around us, work on channeling it. Feel it move through you. Use it for good, for the good of all of us. And please, stay away from the dark side!
In the year 2021, it seems like the forces of Darkness are gaining strength. Many fear the Empire may be jeopardizing our ability to live our lives joyfully. But I encourage all of you, dear readers, to find a special magical place, whether it be near or far. And in that magical place, if it be Skellig Michael or some other out of this world place, get in touch with yourself and the force around you. If enough of us do, we will indeed have “A New Hope”.
What does NOWHERE have to offer us that other places don’t? Some go there for solitude and to find a place to heal and recover from the stresses of life. Others seek it out for the Freedom it offers. Whatever your reason, you can find what you want or need in “undiscovered” places. And, Where exactly IS NOWHERE?
Too many people miss out on some very special places in this world simply because they dismiss places that aren’t on the “Top ten” places to visit. If a place has “Nowhere” status, is it really worth discovering? You better believe it is! You have no idea what you’ve been missing, simply because you weren’t sure where to look!
I continually find myself irresistibly drawn to the blank spaces on maps. They are the unknown places begging to be discovered. While most other travelers are looking to “discover” well known places that appear in the glossy ads of travel magazines, I usually try to find places that are interesting which are not normally associated with the beaten path of industrial tourism. The best compliment that I ever receive from someone after visiting a new place is for them to ask, “Where’s That?”
The term “Nowhere” means different things to different people. For some, it implies the absence of human beings…a place to decompress from the rigors of social interaction with others. It is a quiet place that introverts can escape to in order to heal and recover from interacting with other people. I’ll share a picture of one of my “Nowheres”, but I won’t tell you how to get there.
While exploring this snow covered track, I can escape to other worlds and let my mind wander. It’s 2021, but here there is no pandemic. I don’t have need of a mask and the closest person I imagine is miles away from here. This “road” is no longer connected to anywhere….its sole purpose is to collect just enough snow for me to leave my footprints in a straight line so that I can retrace them easily and find my way back home. A visit to this Nowhere replenishes my battered soul and allows me to come back into “society” and somehow function, at least for a few more days.
I returned to that Road to Nowhere a few days ago. Without snow on it, the feeling was different. It invited me to take a longer walk on it. On the drive out to get me near to the Road to Nowhere, I passed by what appeared to be a gypsy camp next to one of my favorite buttes to hike, far from town. It seems that Nowhere is getting harder to find and its territory is diminishing….
The vegetation between the old tire tracks was pretty high; evidence that this “road” is no longer used. Even a high clearance vehicle would have problems here. After a few miles, I sat my pack down in one of the tire tracks and took a long drink of water and enjoyed the peace and solitude. I had a conversation with my shadow about whether to turn back or keep going. He said to turn back, but I insisted on continuing up ahead.
A little while later, the Road to Nowhere intersected another dirt road, one that had less vegetation between the tire tracks. When you come to a four way intersection on the Road to Nowhere, does that mean you are in the Middle of Nowhere? Or, on the other hand, are you now Somewhere and only at the border of Nowhere?
From here, I think it would be possible to walk a thousand roads to Nowhere in order to reach the borders of either Idaho or Nevada, which would be about two weeks of hiking, IF one could find water along the way. But recent tire tracks on this intersecting road tells me I am no longer in Nowhere. This time, my shadow whispered that there was something ahead that I should see, so I continued on.
About 1/2 mile down the dirt road, I came to a slab of basalt in the shape of a tombstone on the side of the dirt road. It signaled that this part of Nowhere died here not too long ago. I removed my cap, and spent a moment of silence at the grave site. Then, I headed back towards camp, lamenting the death of another Nowhere.
At camp, I contemplated the problem of diminishing Nowheres. What should we do, if anything about this problem? Am I part of the problem by venturing into someone else’s Nowhere? Or, do we need to train human beings to be respectful of the natural world to leave as little trace of our visit as possible, so as to leave it worthy of discovery for someone else in the future?
The concept of Nowhere is such a socially constructed term. Who decides for us where Somewhere is and where Nowhere is? Too often, we let other people define it for us. Too often it is defined by the Chamber of Commerce. Other times, cultural tribalism has a say in which community or zip code gets tagged with a nowhere designation. To some groups, Nowhere status is the desired objective; to others it is seen as a curse. Would we really need a Nowhere to escape to if we all lived in safer, more sustainable and connected communities? These are the concepts I engage my shadow with in a deep conversation.
Lately, I’ve been open to exploring many other types of Nowheres, not just the ones with the absence of humans. But for now, I still need to be alone in nature every so often.
Other “Nowheres” can be in urban areas. In his book, “The Geography of Nowhere”, James Kunsler describes how suburbia can be the quintessential nowhere due to the boring reproduction of the same housing styles, leaving the community without a unique personality. But even the Nowhere of suburbia can have its merits, if you look closely. During my walks in suburban neighborhoods, I sometimes see a Little Free Library that a homeowner has put up on the street…a place to take a book and/or leave a book. There is a website supposedly documenting the locations of these “Little Free Libraries”, but most of them I’ve encountered do not show up on the website. You have to either live in the same hood, or just wander up on it.
I’ve wandered up on many of these little free libraries during my urban hikes around Bend. Only about 5% of them are listed on a website showcasing their locations. Finding one is a sign that you find yourself in a “community”, where residents care about others around them. This is an example of a Nowhere turning into a Somewhere, due to the efforts of caring humans. One may not be able to research them ahead of time, but you can discover them by “wandering through what you previously thought was ‘nowhere’.”
That brings me to another question….Should we encourage the knowledge of all Nowheres, so as to appreciate the different perspectives on it without having to see it through our own cultural lens? Or, on the other hand, should we discourage people from venturing into “Nowhere” lands to protect them for the use of other species, and for future humans? Is there any way we can have a little of both? There might be a need to better define what the term actually means.
Your flower garden could be the Nowhere place that you escape, to close off the rest of the world and heal. Or, you might find that safe space in the corner of your public library. A walk through suburbia at 1 A.M. might give you the same sense of peace, quiet, and solitude that a deserted trail in the countryside does. That is, if you feel safe in doing so….Every time we use any of these spaces, there are fewer of us who need to escape to far away places….we can go to distant places in our minds.
Below are a few locations that some people might label as Nowhere, but are actually Somewhere….
LaFayette (pronounced Luh-FAY’-ette), Georgia is a town in the mountains of Northwest Georgia that many would put into the category of “Nowhere” at first glance. It is a small bedroom community of the larger city of Chattanooga, TN. Residents of LaFayette have to drive to the neighboring state to buy donuts. But LaFayette became an important somewhere for me four decades ago, when I made some friends there and a family took me in. If you were just to drive through there today without stopping, you might be unimpressed. But if you were to stay there a while, you might just meet someone of character, who would change your perception of the place. Besides, the town is also called “The Queen City of the Highlands!”
Wahoo, Nebraska is another location that at first glance seems like a Nowhere place. I’ve never been there in person, but I did recently drive through the center of town down Chestnut Street via Google Earth. Wahoo has a grain elevator, a Family Dollar Store, a Dairy Queen, a few gas stations and Quick Marts (they advertise Bud Light on sale), a Subway sandwich shop, and some local construction companies. It is west of Omaha and north of Lincoln, but within commuting distance of either of the larger cities. The name of the town was intriguing, and a friend of mine had ties to that location as a kid. Who knows what hidden treasures lie inside the treasure chest of Wahoo, NE? You’d have to take the time to find the key to open the chest!
To a first time outsider, Hibbing, Minnesota is also a kind of a Nowhere place, although it is larger than either LaFayette or Wahoo. Hibbing, Minnesota would not have been so famous had Bob Dylan not been born there. In fact, I didn’t even know that factoid before I rode my bicycle on the Mesabi Trail through Hibbing back in 2010.
The Mesabi Trail is a 132 mile paved bicycle path through the Iron Mountain Mesabi Range and the forests of NE Minnesota. In a few years, it will extend from the Mississippi River all the way to the entrance to the Boundary Waters Canoe area at Ely, MN. At 155 miles, it will be one of the longest paved bike trails in the nation. When we were there, we pedaled the 43 miles from Grand Rapids to Hibbing, had lunch in Bob Dylan’s hometown, and pedaled another 43 miles back to the car. Although that was 10 years ago, we discovered many Nowhere towns, like Taconite, Colerane, Calumet, Marble, Nashwauk, Keewatin, Pengilly, and Bovey along the way. And we still remember them, and Hibbing, to this day. To me, Hibbing would have been just as memorable had Bob Dylan been born somewhere else, like New York City. We felt content pedaling through the bucolic countryside, and although tired at the end, we felt a feeling of renewal and were at peace with the rest of the world.
In the process of “discovering” these Nowheres and turning them into Somewheres, I found that I got the same benefits from the other Nowheres I have visited. They all offered some solitude from the busier places in the world. They offered a place to connect with others, which lessens the need to escape to some wilderness Utopia. And the feeling of discovering a new place was invigorating, especially for a Geographer.
To all geographically minded folk, you cannot find Nowhere looking for a latitude and longitude coordinate. There are only blank spaces on your mental map that are begging to be filled in. When you fill in that map, please try to leave as little trace as you can if it is already a wild place. Respect its value for other life forms other than humans. And, if it is already inhabited by other humans, then by all means leave the best trace of yourself there and come away with a new perspective on it.
Truly, every place is a Somewhere, and Nowhere exists only in our minds….
The place called Georgia is the theme of many popular songs. One of my favorites is Ray Charles singing “Georgia on My Mind”. Famous popular songs always bring us back to a special place when we hear them. But, depending on who you are or where you live, which Georgia that is on your mind will be quite unique. What place does that song bring back to you?
Ray Charles was singing about the State of Georgia, in the southern United States. He didn’t write the song, although his rendition made it famous. The original song was written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1930. The original song was about a woman named Georgia, but after Ray Charles’ version made it to the top of the charts on Billboard Magazine’s top 100 list in 160, it became a famous song about a state instead of a woman. In 1979, the state of Georgia designated it the official state song. The Georgia Tourism Bureau still uses it to attract visitors to the Peach State. Rolling Stone Magazine declared “Georgia on My Mind” as being one of the top 50 greatest songs of all time.
When I think of that Georgia, I remember a young man from New Jersey moving to the North Georgia Mountains for a college education at one of the largest campuses in the country, learning how to camp in the outdoors. He read Eliot Wigginton’s “Foxfire” books and learned the traditions, culture and skills of old timers and how they survived in the Appalachian foothills. He and his friends built a lean-to shelter in the woods near the shore of a large reservoir on campus, even though camping on campus was illegal. They called the structure “Walden III.” Weekends spent there would have a profound influence on the rest of his life.
Years later, that same young man would be a section overseer for the approach trail to the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, a 2,160 mile hiking trail from Springer Mountain, GA to Mt. Katahdin, Maine. He learned to like to eat Grits and Fried Okra, but never did pick up a taste for Catfish. He still views them as nasty, scavenging bottom feeders.
Vladimir Putin also had Georgia on his mind in 2008. But he was not thinking of Atlanta, Savannah, Augusta or Macon. The Georgia he had on his mind was the former republic of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus Mountains, which had gained its independence in 1991. It is where Europe meets Asia. He had Tbilisi, South Ossetia and Abkhazia on his mind. Today he has Ukraine on his mind too. Perhaps he already had it on his mind back in 2008. But it all started with Georgia being on his mind.
Georgia the Country is home to about 5 million ethnic Caucasians (only about half as many people as Georgia the State has), most of whom are Orthodox Christian. Due to their proximity to other historical empires, Georgia has a long history of being dominated by other cultures….the Ottoman Turks and Persians, among others. Their unified kingdom in 1008 A.D. was disintegrated first by the Mongols and then by the Timurid invasions. The last of their great kings, George V the Brilliant, died in 1346. In the early 20th century, it was annexed by Russia. Putin would like to have it back and make Russia great again….
Today, although maps will show that Abkhazia is part of Georgia as a semi-autonomous region, the Russians still have a military presence there. A few years after they invaded Georgia in 2008, they were emboldened enough to pry away the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014. Now they seem to want it all back, and maybe even more. When will it all end?
Referring back to the United States, the state of Georgia is the subject of many songs. Another famous song about Georgia the state is Brook Benton’s soulful “Rainy Night in Georgia”. His silky smooth voice has been described “like melted honey and warm brandy….pure heart and soul”. They don’t make songs like that anymore. It rose to #4 on the chart of top songs in March of 1970. When I hear it, it brings me back to my first Alaska trip, where a drunk was singing it outside of the Red Dog Saloon at 2 AM, on a rainy night in Juneau in 1980. Whenever I hear that song, I am immediately transported back to that moment decades ago, listening to the raindrops tapping on the tin roof of the hotel I was staying at on Franklin Street in downtown Juneau.
Why is the state of Georgia the subject of so many popular songs? I don’t hear many songs about South Dakota…..or Delaware for that matter. It may be that a lot of Hall of Fame musicians can trace their roots to Georgia, especially African American artists. The demographics of the state show it to have a higher percentage of African Americans than most other states, at 36%. Ray Charles was born in Albany, GA in 1930, the same year that Hoagy Carmichael composed the song. James Brown lived in Augusta, GA after the age of five. Otis Redding and Little Richard have roots in the Peach state. All were music legends.
Nowadays, the state of Georgia is on the minds of many politicians on both sides of the aisle. After a historic Senate election of two Democratic Senators in January of 2021, Georgia moved to the top of the mind of both Republicans and Democrats. People in both parties from other states now have Georgia on their minds. It is viewed as either newly gained territory as a sign of a hopeful future, or lost territory that needs to be reclaimed. The parts of Georgia they have on their minds are either the Atlanta city and suburbs, or the majority, white and rural mountain communities. The state of Georgia is diverse in geography as well as being demographically diverse. Compare the following two maps to see how Geography shapes voting patterns. Both Stacy Abrams and Marjorie Taylor Greene call the state their home. It was the place where John Lewis got in some “good trouble”, as well as the place where men in white hoods burned crosses. Some picture it as a remnant of the Antebellum South, while others see it as a harbinger of political change.
Sir Ernest Shackleton also had Georgia on his mind. But he wasn’t thinking of Tbilisi, the Caucasus Mountains, or Okefenokee Swamp or even of the Master’s Golf Tournament in Augusta. His Georgia was a remote island in the South Atlantic.
In the early 1900s, Shackleton headed many of Britain’s expeditions to Antarctica. From 1914 to 1917, while the rest of the world was at War with one another, he led the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. His ship, the Endurance, ended up being trapped by encroaching sea ice and was crushed.
His story is one of the most incredible survival stories ever recorded. With no chance of rescue from the outside world, the expedition spent a winter hunkered down and waiting for the ice to break up. The next season, they floated on drifting sea ice and then manned lifeboats and traveled 5 days in Antarctic seas to land at Elephant Island on the Ross Peninsula of Antarctica. From there, he took a few of his best men on a perilous journey in a small 20′ lifeboat and rowed 830 miles to the remote outpost of South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station where he could summon a rescue party to save the men still stuck in Antarctica. And he did this crossing the stormiest waters on the planet, braving hurricane force winds which he later found out sank an Argentine freighter. Just being able to navigate and find a small island so far away was a feat in itself. Had they missed the tiny island, the next land lay 2,000 more miles away at the southern tip of Africa.
If that wasn’t bad enough, their tiny boat landed on the south shore of South Georgia island and the whaling station was on the other side. Between them lay steep mountains, which had never been crossed by any man. The men climbed the icy cliffs and made it down to an astonished crew at the whaling station who could not believe what they saw. A rescue party was put together and a ship sailed back to Antarctica to hopefully rescue the rest of Shackleton’s group. Miraculously, nobody died, as the Antarctic sailors had lived on Elephant island eating penguins and seals, along with whatever rations they salvaged before the Endurance broke apart.
Today, that South Georgia is on the mind of many ecologists, biologists and nature lovers. South Georgia Island has one of the most dense agglomerations of wildlife on the planet. It is home to 50% of the world’s Elephant Seals. 2 Million Fur Seals call it home, and 30 million breeding birds make their nest there, including 7 million Penguins and 250,00 Albatross.
Access to South Georgia island is limited today. The number of human visitors is regulated to protect habitat of endangered species. But you can visit there in a stopover on an Antarctic voyage, but that cost will set you back a bit.
I’ve always wanted to visit Shackleton’s South Georgia island, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance. However, just knowing it exists adds value to my life, whether I ever see it in person or not. In that way, this Georgia is often on my mind.
It is late at night here in Oregon. The air is crisp and cold on this March evening. I watch the steam rise from the hot tub and look up into the sky and see low stratus clouds marching steadily to the south, towards Shackleton’s South Georgia. I have a lot of Georgias on my mind, as well as a lot of other special places.
A student asked me the other day what is my favorite place I’ve been to. Having visited 50 countries and all 50 states, I said that is a difficult question to answer. Then, after thinking a bit, I responded. My answer was “In my wife’s arms.” She is from South Georgia, not the island, but the southern part of the Peach State. She is already asleep at this late hour. Time to dry off and join her.
I haven’t even discussed some of the other Georgias which have occupied my mind, such as the beautiful Strait of Georgia which separates Vancouver Island from the mainland of British Columbia and Washington state. Or, the small hamlet of Georgia in Monmouth County, New Jersey, just minutes from my childhood home.
As I quietly crawl under the covers, I say a prayer for my wife’s sister in the southern part of the state of Georgia who is presently going through a hard time. I fall asleep with a myriad of Georgias on my mind.
The above picture is a good metaphor to describe my career as a Geographer in the United States of America. You can look at this picture two different ways. It is either a Bridge to Nowhere, or it is a project that hasn’t been completed yet. There is some truth to be found in both of those perspectives.
We’ll need to discuss a few things first….The concept of what is the meaning of the word “nowhere”, and the story behind this picture I took in Western Uzbekistan in 2014.
The concept of “Nowhere” can either be thought of as an unfamiliar area OR a location far away from “civilization” that a person attributes little value to. I’ve spent a large portion of my life seeking out remote, undiscovered places. Places deemed as “Nowhere” by most people actually attract me to explore them. On the other hand, it is my role as a geography educator to fill in the blank spaces of students’ mental maps; to turn nowhere into somewhere. Without Geography, we’d all be nowhere!
Next, let’s discuss the story behind this picture. This bridge is located in the Western part of the Republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. To most Americans, Uzbekistan is in the middle of Nowhere. However, to understand the meaning behind this scene, one must first study a bit of history of the unique region of Central Asia which is now called Uzbekistan.
July 18, 2014.…a stroll through Amir Timur Square in Tashkent (Uzbekistan’s capital city)
After breakfast, I took a stroll into the large park known as Amir Timur (Temur) Square. The square, in the center of the city, showed Tashkent to be a modern, thriving metropolis. In fact, Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union. Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame) is Uzbekistan’s national hero. I gazed upward at his statue. The whole park gave deference to Uzbekistan’s greatness centuries ago.
What the rest of the world now considers to be “nowhere” was once the center of the Universe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Timur was born in the Spring of 1336 in a region that was then known as Trans-Oxania. He is infamous for being #1 in the history of the world for something. More people were killed under his rule than under the leadership of any other human being in the history of mankind! Ask that question of most people and their answers might include Hitler, Stalin, or Genghis Khan, but all of them fall short of the estimated 17 million killed as he expanded his empire over most of Central Asia. He described himself as “the Sword of Islam”. His armies would place themselves on the doorstep of a city and offer an ultimatum….Surrender and join us, or fight us and be destroyed. Those who resisted were annihilated. Every man, woman, dog, sheep, goat, etc. were destroyed. Like the Borg collective in Star Trek movies, resistance was futile.
Amir Timur built the grandest buildings in the world during that time, including the Registan in the capital city of Samarkand, and decried “if you doubt our power, look at our buildings”.
Let’s go back to the picture of the “Bridge to Nowhere”, which better depicts the state of affairs in modern day Uzbekistan. Tamerlane’s empire rapidly declined after his death. Lots of people had scores to settle. An increase in sail technology allowed world powers to trade by sea and bypass the important caravans of trade in Central Asia. The area became an isolated backwater. The physical geography of desert and steppe, enabled outside conquering armies access to the region from all directions. When you stroll through Tashkent, you will notice that the physical characteristics of its people give a window to the history of conquest. The armies of Alexander the Great came through here centuries ago, and you can still see evidence of that in the green eyes of some Uzbek citizens. Also apparent is the DNA left behind by Mongols, Persians, Arabs, and Jews. One hour of walking the streets of Tashkent will confirm this for you.
In recent history, the region was taken over in the early 20th century by the USSR, whose central government they became dependent upon. Stalin partitioned the borders of the newly acquired states on three criteria; majority ethnicity, natural borders such as mountains, and a sharing of resources in desert areas (the reason that the rivers which flow through the desert wander back and forth over borders). The borders that he drew up make Uzbekistan one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world….meaning that not only does Uzbekistan not have an outlet to the sea for trade, but EVERY other country which surrounds it does not have a seaport either.
This was not as much of a problem as long as this region was part of the USSR. The central government propped up the economy. But everything changed when the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s. Newly independent Uzbekistan had no money, so the bridge over the railroad tracks was never finished. Decades later, it remains a bridge “to nowhere”. Uzbekistan diminished in power on the world scene, and became “nowhere” to most of the rest of the world.
However, “Nowhere” is still a place. Where is it exactly? It is a cultural construct and exists only in our minds. Uzbekistan is not nowhere to Uzbeks; it is home. To Tajiks and Turkmen, it is the home of their rivals. In the minds of ethnocentric societies, the realm of nowhere is an ever-expanding empire. The only way to keep the kingdom of nowhere from continually expanding is by teaching Geography, and turning nowheres into somewheres. Another way of writing NOWHERE is to put one space in between the letters and spell it NOW HERE!
The bridge not only represents my career as a Geographer in America, but probably does for the majority of American Geographers. Our discipline, once considered to be the “Mother of all Sciences”, was once as great as Amir Timur’s empire. It started its decline in the 1960s, when Harvard did away with its Geography department. As America became more powerful, both economically and militarily, our citizenry turned their attention inward. A National Geographic study conducted in 2006 showed the 63% of High School students couldn’t find Iraq on a map, even though the USA had been in the war for at least five years. And it isn’t just foreign places….50% of U.S. students couldn’t find New York on a national map. The lack of emphasis in teaching about the world that we live in contributes to the geographical illiteracy of our citizenry.
This ignorance presents a danger to our democracy. Both the far right and the far left have learned how to “weaponize” ignorance, which allows for brainwashing. Geographical ignorance exacerbates the divisions within our own country and allows people to demonize other cultures. Ignorance is a catalyst for ultra-nationalism and jingoism. It is the fuel source for hate groups. We now need to be as wary of the threats within our own country as the threats that come from outside of our borders.
I am sympathetic to the plight of modern Uzbekistan. I have an unfinished bridge, but am running out of resources. The “central government” has let me know that I’m on my own. The mission statement from the college where I teach used to read, “we will be a leader in regionally and globally responsive adult, lifelong, post-secondary education for our region.” Geography is a critical component in reaching that mission. However, they removed all of that several years ago, and now they are for “student success”. My adjunct assistant was laid off soon after that move. We are graduating students and labeling them as “successful”, even though many of them may graduate knowing very little about the world outside of Oregon, and how those places have an effect, either direct or indirect, on their lives. I must say that I am grateful to all of my colleagues in other disciplines who incorporate case studies in their disciplines from other parts of the world, to help ameliorate this problem.
I’m not trying to place any blame on the administration. Their decision to cut a program, or change a mission statement, is more a function of the symptom of a much larger problem. Administrators are motivated by dollars and cents. The economics is driven by student demand. The lack of demand is due to a of lack of exposure to the subject in early years, and a lack of awareness as to the scope and breadth of the discipline. The ethnocentrism of our society is also a factor in the lack of student demand. Administrators at my own institution provided me with data and asked me to write a report to review our program. The fact that Geology data was given to me instead of Geography data told me everything I needed to know. Even a PhD might not know the difference.
Geography may not be taught best as a stand alone discipline. It is meant to be taught alongside other disciplines, woven together with Geography to help make sense of a complex and dynamically changing world. It is the “glue” which binds all other disciplines together. Tell me which field of study that happens “nowhere”.
I recently officially “retired”, whatever that means. I still have plans to complete construction of the bridge, but I won’t be able to do it as a part time instructor. The college has decided not to rehire for my position. They don’t see the value in it. But I still have a mission to accomplish. I will do that any way I can, even if it is through a blog, as a guest lecturer in the class of another discipline, or eventually by writing a book. And we will have to do it without the blessing of the “central government.” As long as there are readers such as you, who are still curious about the world we live in, then there is still hope in making progress on the bridge construction. Even if we have to do it by hand, one brick at a time……
Like the protagonist Atreyu in “The Never Ending Story”, we must fight against the Nothing. In that story, the “Nothing” threatens to destroy the world called Fantasia. It is created by humans’ lack of desire to read books. In our story, the “Nothing” represents the lack of geographical knowledge of the world that we live in and the lack of desire to even care about knowing it.
It is up to each of us to learn as much as we can about other cultures in other parts of the world. We share the same atmosphere that moves around us. We share the resources that this planet provides for us. Our survival as a species depends on us all not letting somewheres turn into nowheres. Let us not be dismayed by the enormity of the task. If we all pitch in and keep our focus forward, we have hope of a better world. Not a guarantee, but a hope…
What else could we ask for? Let’s get to work…together!
I’ll never forget your first sea kayak expedition in Alaska. There were moments of serene beauty and there were moments of sheer terror.
I remember how excited you were during the time you were first planning your trip. I also remember meeting you for the first time and how nervous and uneasy you felt the day before the trip began. You were so nervous that nobody else had signed up for the group trip. It would just be you and I in one double kayak, paddling all the way from Juneau to Haines. Alone. In raw nature. At the mercy of wind, weather, waves, bears, and killer whales…In one of the most beautiful, yet dangerous stretches of water of Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. Were you fully aware of what an expedition like this entailed? Did you feel the burden of responsibility overwhelm you, realizing that it would be just you and I?
Part of you wanted to not go through with the trip, but it was too late to get your money back. You asked me a lot about food; about bears, and about safety, which showed your trepidation. Even though I’ve been doing this safely for years, I joked that I had at least three weeks of experience. Somehow, you didn’t think that was funny.
You feared that we would have to share a tent as well as a boat together. I promised to bring an extra tent so you would have your own three person tent to yourself, so that you might feel more comfortable in camp even though it would make the boat overloaded. Did you know how cramped I would feel the whole trip with the extra cargo stored in my cockpit, robbing me of leg room?
What you didn’t know, because I never told you, was that I was also apprehensive about taking on this trip with you. Financially, it was barely worth it. More importantly, I wondered what kind of expedition partner you would be. Sure, you had outdoor experience under you belt, but it was all from the lower 48 states. You had no experience on the sea; no experience negotiating extreme tidal fluctuations and the currents that went with that. And you signed up for the longest and most challenging expedition that my company runs. We certainly would encounter some challenging situations over the next week. On a group trip, someone from the group always rises to meet the challenges, and displays leadership when it is needed. With you being the only client, could I count on you to be a good partner? Could I count on you if I needed help with something? Or, would you be the high maintenance type of client?
I’m thinking about our trip now, reflecting on it from my hot tub in Central Oregon. The moon is a waxing gibbous moon and the winds are calm this February evening. It’s a perfect setting for reminiscing about memorable events our lives. I wonder, “How often do you think of that journey? Did you remember it the way I did? Did you ever realize how close we came to losing it all?”
The first day, after launching the boat in quiet waters, you started to relax. The scenery was stunning. Even though I could only see the back of your head from my cockpit, I could almost see you smiling, as you took pictures of the steep walled mountains of the fjord. We headed west toward a group of islands in the middle of the fjord, where we would make our first camp. We paused on the water before we got there, for you to take more pictures of birds that you had never seen before. Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots don’t exist where you come from. The tiny Murrelets were spread out in a line on the water, like a defense in a football game making a goal line stand at the one yard line. You laughed as they dove under the water one by one, like they were dominos falling. You chuckled again as they popped back up in a perfect row, one by one, like they were in a synchronized swimming competition in the Olympics. I worried that you might strain your index finger from all of the picture snapping. At least you were having a great time.
You told me how much you liked wildlife and how you looked forward to seeing new types of fauna in a new ecosystem. We talked about biology and about science. I saw that you had a heart as well as an intellect. We enjoyed that first day together. I was grateful for that, as you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I know from experience that it is hard for a client to recover from a bad first day. We made a side trip to Poundstone Rock, where the sea lions hauled out on the buoy there. You had seen a sea lion before, but we got close enough to smell their breath as you took their picture. Does the olfaction of that stench still resonate in your mind after all of this time has passed by?
When we got to Lincoln Island, we set up camp, which would be your first campsite on Alaskan soil. You were relieved that there were no bears on this island. It was too far from the mainland and too low of an island to have any running streams for salmon. After setting up the tents, we heard a whale swimming close by. We rushed to the boat and launched. You didn’t even put your 2 piece paddle together, but were concentrating on taking pictures while I paddled. The current between the two islands was running strong against us, and I paddled hard just to keep the boat in the same place. We didn’t chase any whales, but by staying in one place, the whale swam close by us. In essence, they were chasing US!
The look on your face that day will remain with me forever. Your eyes were wide and your jaw was agape. You couldn’t believe how loud a breathing sound from an animal could be. Being so close to a 40 ton humpback whale was everything you had hoped for and more. You would be changed by that experience, at least I hoped so. I see this every day, and it never gets old for me. But the first time you experience it is like the first time you made love…it would be a defining moment in your life.
The whale surfaced again and the spout from from his exhale exploded from the sea as the sound echoed off of the trees of the island. But he was upwind of us. In an instant, your feeling of awe and wonder evaporated as the stench emanating from his blowhole engulfed us. And you thought that the Sea Lions stunk! I remember you jokingly saying something about them not being able to floss. It was then that I told you that they don’t have teeth- they are baleen whales. That was an epiphany for you.
He must have seen us in his path. That’s when he dived below us. I stopped paddling for a second to take a camera shot of my own. I remembered how gracefully his fluke fin slowly disappeared below the surface. You had experienced a lot of Alaska Magic so far in one day.
Hopefully, your pictures came out great. How often do you look at them? How do you remember that day? Was your internal conflict about the trip starting to diminish at that time? If you only knew what lay ahead, it wouldn’t have….
You proved to be a help with my meal prep. I remember your eyes tearing up while you were chopping up the yellow onion for our chicken stir fry. I can still smell the sesame oil as we sauteed the chicken and vegetables. After dinner, while you were brushing your teeth in the inter-tidal zone, I turned on the marine radio. It was then that I got the bad news.
A weather front was moving in and by morning there would be a small craft advisory. We were stuck in the middle of the fjord, with a long, open water crossing still ahead of us. We might be stuck on this island for another day. I told you to button up your tent securely tonight.
The next morning we awoke to a howling wind. We looked out to a sea of whitecaps in all directions. Your countenance was full of fear. I tried to assure you that we would not be paddling today….it was too dangerous. You wondered if this might put us so far behind schedule as to make every other day harder by having to add mileage to each day. I said not to worry.
You also didn’t like having to use the inter-tidal area as the bathroom. You had concerns about privacy. I told you to use the beach around the corner. If there were no fishing boats on the water, then you would have all of the privacy that you would need. You told me that you learned that one should never go to the bathroom close to the water’s edge. “True-for Fresh Water”, I said. But this was salt water and the tides give us two flushes per day. You had a forlorn look on your face that day. And you didn’t like having to bring back your used toilet paper in the brown bag I gave you, so that we could burn it later in a beach fire in the inter-tidal zone. You begged me to bury it in the soil inside the forest, but I said no. That is not how we practice no-trace camping up here.
We did take a short hike into the forest. We did see a deer too, which was the only highlight of the day. But the forest proved to be too thick to do much hiking. When the thorns from the Devil’s Club bush got tangled in your jacket, you said you had enough. Suddenly, this idyllic little island seemed like a prison. We hoped to escape tomorrow.
The weather report for the next day wasn’t much better, but the winds were supposed to lower from 25 knots to 20 in the morning before they picked up again in the afternoon. If we were to escape, it would have to be in the morning.
When we left Lincoln Island, there were a few white caps toward the Chilkat Peninsula on the western shore of the fjord, but only some small waves near our island. We packed up the boat and headed northwest, toward St. James Bay. The seas were a little “lumpy” the first part of the trip, but nothing more than 2-3 foot waves. You were nervous, but I told you to put your head down and keep paddling. We were doing just fine.
About halfway across the wind picked up hard from the south and the waves got bigger and were hitting us from the rear quarter of the boat. This part of the fjord connected with Chatham Strait, a straight wind tunnel of a couple hundred miles. The next hour would be the crux of our trip.
I didn’t tell you at the time, but these types of waves are the most dangerous. You can’t see them coming from behind and because they hit the boat at an angle, they want to push the boat off course. Besides that, as the stern gets lifted up higher by the oncoming wave, it pushes the boat forward and digs the bow into the trough of the wave in front of the boat. These types of seas can both flip you over sideways or pitch the boat over forward. It was my job to not let you panic, but to direct you to focus on the cadence of our paddling. But, I could tell that you were on the verge of freaking out.
I could roll a single kayak over if it capsized, but wasn’t sure I could roll this overloaded double boat by myself in these conditions. I would need your help, but you weren’t trained to do that. If we capsized, we would likely die of hypothermia before we washed up on some shore. It was imperative that I keep you focused on the proper cadence. I barked out orders like a coxswain on a rowing crew. You were terrified, but obeyed orders. We made progress and neared the western shore of the fjord. You voiced relief upon seeing the shore come closer. You shouldn’t have….
What you didn’t know at the time was that the near shore environment is MORE dangerous concerning wave actions. As the slope of the ocean floor rises, the depth gets shallower and the energy from the wave causes it to steepen. Add to that the possibility of an unseen rock protruding and you have a recipe for disaster. I didn’t see it coming, but a huge wave broke over the left rear quarter of the boat and over my back. I reached out and did a quick brace on the right side with my paddle to keep us from capsizing. Later, you said that moment felt a little “squirrely”. I never let you know how close we were to capsizing. Maybe if you read this, you’ll know.
I rammed the boat onto the smooth wave polished rocky beach at full speed so that you could get out without getting too wet. I was soaked, but we were happy to be on dry land. I saw you shivering on the beach and encouraged you to get into the forest to get out of the wind. I got the stove going and used the last bit of fresh water we had to make hot drinks and some soup for lunch. We both needed calories to burn to stay warm. I poured way too much of the potato soup mix into the pan of hot water and the soup was closer to the consistency of mashed potatoes than it was of liquid soup. You complained, but I explained that the need for added caloric intake was the primary reason. With some hot tea to wash it down, we both started to warm up. We stayed on that isolated outpost of a beach for hours. Just waiting…. At least here, I could find a stream and refill our fresh water supply. You wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Hours later, the seas were still a little lumpy, but the waves had lessened enough for us to head further north to find a suitable campsite. On the way, we ducked into a little cove called Boat Harbor. It is one of the only places for a boat to hide in a storm. It is a great place for a larger boat to anchor, but the steep walled mountains surrounding the harbor do not provide any place to camp. We sat in the boat looking up and just enjoyed being protected from the winds for awhile. After a rest, we headed back out to Lynn Canal and kept paddling north. It was already a long day.
We set up camp at a place I called “Taco Beach”. That beach doesn’t have a name on any map, but I first camped here a few years ago with some other clients. There is a small indentation in the coastline with a north facing beach, which kept us out of the southerly winds. There is a small ephemeral creek that flows to the beach. I cooked Tacos the first time I camped here with a couple from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who were wonderful people. We became friends after they no longer were clients. This would be my first time back to Taco beach after that trip.
One of your tent poles broke while you were setting up your tent. I exchanged tents with you so you would have one with all four poles. Even with three poles, my tent was still functional, although unsuitable for pictures.
After dinner, I went away from camp to cache our food away from our tents. We were now in bear territory. I saw some fresh bear scat about 50 yards from camp. I didn’t want to alarm you, but just reminded you to be more careful and mindful that camping here would be different than on Lincoln Island. Since you didn’t see the bear sign, you seemed to be more relaxed.
The next day we still had south winds, but nothing like yesterday. We planned to stop on Sullivan Island after a few hours of paddling and to have lunch and find a place to camp. When we got out, there was fresh bear poop everywhere. It was the first time you had seen any, and you asked me to confirm what it was. When you realized just how much of it was on the beach and in the forest, you didn’t want to be there anymore. You asked me why bears were on this island and not on other islands. I explained that Sullivan is just a short swim away from the mainland where there are abundant salmon streams. Bears are good swimmers, but not likely to make a long crossing where there are rough seas, but more likely to swim across a small channel to find new sources of food. You looked around and asked if we could have a no cook lunch and get the hell out of there. You pointed to an island out in the middle of the fjord with a beautiful lighthouse on it and asked if we could go there.
I remember telling you that I’ve only visited the lighthouse once in all of the years that I have passed by there. I saw whitecaps on the water between the island and where we were. Yes, there are no bears there, but it is another dangerous crossing and it wasn’t safe to go today. Our options were to head further up the west side of the fjord and find a beach far away from a salmon stream. There might be the possibility of a bear, but not as much as here. It would add distance and time to our day and might turn it into a longer day than you might feel comfortable with. You said you didn’t mind, so we packed up.
A few hours later, we came to a fork in the road. Lynn Canal split into two halves. Both led to the town of Haines, but we had to take the right fork to end up at the part of town where we could access the Ferry terminal to get a ride back to Juneau. The left fork was the Chilkat Inlet, which was fed by the Chilkat River, and the right fork was the Chilkoot Inlet. We veered east along the end of the peninsula to take the Chilkoot Inlet route. After a very long day, we set up camp on an East facing beach with a view of Yelgadalga Creek. You didn’t know it at the time, but we had more than made up for the lost ground we lost waiting on Lincoln Island. We ended up paddling twice as far as I do with most clients. We were in fact too close to Haines, with only a few miles to go and one very long day available for us to use to get there.
I thought about taking you across Chilkoot Inlet tomorrow to see more sea lions, but when we woke up to calmer seas, I had another idea. We left the tents where they were and only brought the food with us in the boats, so any bears around would not tear up our camp. We set off to the south, unburdened by leaving most of our gear behind, with a view of the lighthouse on Eldred Rock ahead of us. You asked me if we were going there. I didn’t want to promise you something that I couldn’t be sure of delivering, so I told you it was a long way. But I knew you wanted to visit there. So did I.
After the trip was over, you confided in me that you knew what I was thinking and that we would indeed be going to the lighthouse. I asked you how you knew. You said that you could feel the boat move more quickly and that as my paddle strokes from the back of the boat became longer, your paddle strokes became more easy. You also told me that you felt more confident as a paddler after what we had already been through, although you didn’t want to jinx the opportunity by telling me that too soon. A few hours later, Eldred Rock Lighthouse was coming into close view.
As we passed by the reef north of the island, we frightened a group of harbor seals that were hauled out on the rocks. They scampered toward the safety of the water. They peered at us from the safety of the water, with only their eyes and nose in view. You said their heads looked like floating bowling balls.
We landed on the south side of the island, beached the kayak and hiked up to the lighthouse. You were giddy with excitement. I myself was enjoying this place for only the second time in 20 years. I’ve taken many pictures of it several times from the deck of the ferry as we steamed past. As we climbed up the spiral staircase we imagined what a lonely life it might have been like for the lighthouse keepers when this place was manned. From the outside deck high above the water, we had such a wonderful view. To the north I spotted a dorsal fin, right where we had kayaked past the reef were a couple of killer whales; a rare sight even for me. Whereas I see humpback whales almost daily, I only ever see orcas a couple of times per year.
You took out your binoculars to get a better look. It was then you saw the thrashing in the water. I too could see it. Then the water turned the color of crimson. You had to choke back your tears when you realized one of the seals we had scared off the rocks had been killed by the orcas. I think you felt some guilt as well as sadness. You blamed yourself for the seal’s death. I reminded you that even though it was a sad day for the seal family, it was cause for celebration for the orca family. These things happen all the time, without any influence from us. Such is the way of the wild.
After the orcas left, we headed back towards camp to pack up and head towards the ferry. You were getting hungry and asked what I had planned for our dinner menu. Your eyebrows rose when I told you it was pizza. “How are you going to make Pizza out here?”, you asked.
You were tired from the long paddle today, so I said we would eat at an Italian restaurant instead of cooking on a stove. That got you re-energized. Paddling down Chilkoot Inlet, you saw your first signs of civilization in almost a week, a house on the beach. We paddled together in sync. Every time the right paddle blade hit the water we would alternately chant, “Pizza….Pepsi”. I could sense you smelling the finish line.
The boats of Haines harbor appeared ahead and we could see traffic moving on the road to our left. We paddled below the dock of the harbor through the pilings and landed on a nice sandy beach. We got out and I started walking towards town. “Aren’t you going to pull the boat up higher?”, you asked.
The tide was falling so there was no need to. You worried about someone stealing our stuff, but that doesn’t happen nearly as much up here as it does where you come from. To make you feel better about it, I suggested to take our paddles with us. Who would steal a loaded kayak with no way to paddle it?
We only had to walk two block from the harbor to the restaurant. It seemed like the trucks and cars going the 20 mph speed limit were speeding. We had been moving only about 3-4 mph for the last five days. It seemed like the whole world was moving in fast motion. We sat down at a table near the door. The people behind the counter didn’t blink an eye having two customers walk in and set their kayak paddles against the wall. Haines after all is at the end of the road, where civilization bumps up against wilderness. I’m sure they’ve seen stranger things.
There was a red checkered tablecloth on the table. We both had pizza, a salad and a soft drink. On any other day, in any other circumstance, this lunch wouldn’t have stood out as being something so memorable. But it was INDOORS, and the smell of melted cheese and tomato sauce permeated the air. It seemed like the fitting end to an epic journey, except that the journey wasn’t over just yet. Tummies full, we waddled back to the boat. You seemed disappointed that we had to paddle another four miles to get to the ferry terminal. You were ready for a nap.
Four long miles later, we got to the ferry terminal. Lugging all the gear uphill was a chore. I bought our tickets and we waited outside the lounge area for the ship to arrive. I told you to take out some clean clothes as there were free showers available on the ferry. Your eyes got big in anticipation upon hearing that news! There are chaise lounge chairs on the back deck under heat lamps. That area of the ship is called the Solarium. The ferry is like a cruise ship for locals and backpackers. We would hurry up and claim one while the passengers in cars would take their time loading. I would guard our stuff while you took a shower. When you got back, I would take my shower. By the time we got under sail, we could both be clean and relive our 5 day trip in just 4.5 hours.
When you got back from your shower you looked so different. You smelled a lot better too! I hadn’t realized how dirty I was until you came back to our spot in the Solarium. The ship was just leaving the dock. I told you I would be back in about 10-15 minutes so that we could relive the last 5 days together as we retraced our trip backwards in time.
When I got cleaned up and felt presentable enough, I returned to the Solarium. You already had a group of people around you. You were pointing out places we had been the past week. You were explaining how a geologic fault caused the crack in the earth to shape the fjord they were looking at and how the glaciers of the last ice age polished off the rest of the landscape. I didn’t realize that you had paid so much close attention to what I had been teaching you this past week about this special place. YOU were teaching the other passengers on the boat and they were enthralled with your descriptions, mostly because you were opening them up to a world they would never be able to see from the deck of a ferry.
I stayed in the background and watched you with admiration as you described our day seeing the killer whale take the harbor seal. The other passengers listened in rapt astonishment. They asked you often how you felt on this journey. You didn’t hold back, and shared both the moments of joy as well as the moments of fear or discomfort. I then realized that I had underestimated you on the first day we met. Now, I was seeing you develop, grow and mature into a new person. I wanted to tell you right then how proud I was of you. I wanted to tell you that I would consider taking another trip with you anywhere, not just as a client, but as a partner. But I didn’t do that. I simply remained in the background and listened. I was gratified, however, that I might have had some small part in your growth by sharing our expedition together.
Over the loudspeaker, the captain announced that the on-board naturalist would soon be giving a talk near the bow of the ship. The rest of the passengers didn’t want to go, but instead they wanted to hear more about our trip. They thought your story was more interesting. You looked around to try to find me and see if I could help to add anything to our story. I stayed out of sight, but within earshot. You were doing just fine by yourself. You told the passengers about the bird life; about what the beach was like on that far shore; how thick the vegetation was in the forest; what a humpback whale sounds and smells like; how you can eat fresh food day after day; how storing fresh food in the bottom of the boat uses the cold sea water to make the boat act like nature’s refrigerator ….things they would have never known without you.
About an hour later, I joined you on the deck of the Solarium. You asked me where I had been for so long. I replied that I took a really long shower. You commented that we both smelled like day trip passengers on the ferry. You had a peaceful, contented look on your face as we steamed further south towards the end of our journey at Auke Bay.
It is my second consecutive night staring at the moon from the warmth of my hot tub in Central Oregon. I’m still thinking about you and about our trip together. I wonder how you view it now that you have more perspective on it. Do you still share it with others with the same enthusiasm that you did with those folks on the ferry? What kinds of places have you experienced since our trip together? Do you think about our trip as often as I do? What other things have you learned about the natural world?
When I tell people about our trip, they always press me to tell them your name. I am hesitant to do that, as I respect your privacy. You haven’t given me permission to share it, so I don’t feel comfortable doing so before publishing this piece on a blog for the whole world to see. But that doesn’t satisfy the curiosity of most of my readers. They want to know at least a few details.
“Are you a woman?”, they ask, probably thinking that because you were open with your emotions. “No,” say others, “I’m sure your were a man.” They probably thought that because of your endurance, strength and courage.
The pressure to reveal who you are is getting to me. I hope you will forgive me if I do end up telling. But know that I have only kind things to say about you. The readers of this story probably already know who you are. At least some of them do, so I hope you won’t mind me letting the cat out of the bag.
You are no one, yet you are everyone. All of the experiences told about our trip together are true and they happened at those exact places. Nothing was embellished. The only thing that is different is that they all happened to different people at different times, and on different expeditions up the Lynn Canal. The only one who has experienced all of them in one trip is YOU. Dear reader, YOU were the one in the front of the kayak. Only you experienced all of these things in one trip. I am so grateful that we finished the trip together. I look forward to the possibility of doing another geographical journey with you.
When I sit in the hot tub at night, I think of you. Where would you like to go next?
Although 2020 was a hellish year for many of us, I look back to 2004 as the year I literally went through Hell.
Not figuratively, but LITERALLY.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I mean, it wasn’t even that hot. Given the fact that Hell’s latitude is about 63.5 degrees north of the equator puts its location only 3 degrees away from the Arctic Circle. At that latitude, it does freeze over occasionally, at least on a seasonal basis. And that got me to thinking….how do places get their names and how do those names affect those same places?
Hell is a little town in northern Norway. It’s about halfway between Oslo and Bodo, but about 2/3 of the way to Heaven (Lofoten).
The Lofoten Islands are heavenly….this picture near Reine, Lofoten, is in the same country of Norway, but still a long way from Hell.
But let’s go back to Hell. After all, this is what this story is about.
Nynorsk is the language that is spoken in Norway. Although it has Germanic roots, as does English, Hell means something different in their language. When putting the word Hell into an online translator, it comes out as “pour” in Norwegian. Although it does rain there quite a bit, due to the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift current taking “relatively” warmer water to a high latitude, and the westerly winds bumping marine air up against the Kjolen Mountains, Hell did not get its name from the amount of rain there. Hell also means “luck” in Norwegian. More likely, the town’s name came from some overhanging cliffs in the area (Hellir, in old Norse).
It is interesting to see the attachment that English speakers have to a place named “Hell”. Although the town is only a small bedroom community of the larger city of Trondheim, many English speakers go out of their way to visit Hell and have a picture taken there. I myself am guilty. Even Trip Advisor has a web page titled “Best things to do in Hell”. Monica Grudt, who was Miss Norway and Miss Universe in 1990, came from this area. She advertised herself as “A Beauty Queen from Hell”, which got her a lot of notoriety.
Next to the downtown Train station is a building that houses a business that handles Freight. The sign reads Gods Expedition, which translates as “Goods Handling” or “Cargo Service”. Again, many English speakers read this sign through their own cultural lens and think it has something to do with good versus evil in this locale.
We passed through Hell in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t see any children around, even though pop star Pat Benetar had a hit song titled, “Hell is for Children”.
Hell is not confined to the country of Norway. There is a Hell, Netherlands and a Hell, Michigan. Hell, Netherlands is in southern Holland. It is only 12 miles from Baarle-Nassau, where I visited the strangest international border configuration back in 2014. Had I known at the time that I was so close to Hell, I would have gone out of my way to visit there. It is located at 51.5 degrees North latitude, so I expect is does freeze over there too, at least on a seasonal basis.
While the word Hell in foreign countries may have an etymology based on their own languages, the one in Michigan certainly exploits that name as an invitation to tourists for economic benefit. I’ve never physically been there, but I recently traveled through the town via Google Earth. It’s only 16 miles west of Ann Arbor. Patterson Lake Road is the main drag through “town”, which consists of only a few buildings. It is an asphalt road. Dirt roads, such as Silver Lake Road intersect the main road. I guess you can say that since Patterson Lake Road is the only way into town from somewhere else, then the road to Hell was paved with good intentions.
The three main businesses I saw were the Hell Hole bar and Grill, the Screams from Hell souvenir shop, and the Hell saloon, which looked like a biker bar due to the amount of Harley-Davidsons parked outside. The souvenir shop also has an ice cream bar, which they call the “Creamatory”.
There is further evidence that Hell, Michigan is milking its name for all it’s worth. The post office there will burn and singe your postcards mailed from there. The motto of the unincorporated community is that “more people tell you to go to our town than anywhere else on earth”. You can even get a certificate for purchasing a piece of Hell by investing in a 1 inch square plot of real estate. A Canoe and Kayak rental business in a nearby town advertises that you can rent one of their boats and “Paddle through Hell” on a chain of nearby lakes. Somehow, that image doesn’t appeal to me.
Why the fascination with places called Hell? Many religions have the same concept of the afterlife which includes a Heaven and a Hell. In a 1982 paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, authors Skog and Stuart outlined a couple of reasons that the Church reinforced these concepts. One was to encourage members to engage in valuable social behavior….the social contract. The other possible reason was for the expropriation of rents for the Church. Those who gave were rewarded and those who didn’t were punished.
I’m sure there are more people who go out of their way to visit “devilish” places than Angelic ones. Look at the many other “devilish’ place names that attract tourists. In Oregon we have the Devil’s Punch Bowl on the Coast. California has Devil’s Postpile National Monument and the Devil’s Golf Course among many others. I paddled through the “Devil’s Elbow” on the Chestatee River in North Georgia several years ago. Also, one of the more famous landforms of the West is Devil’s Tower in Northeast Wyoming.
Other morbid place names include Hell for Certain, Kentucky and Satan’s Kingdom State Recreation Area in Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, the road signs for the Connecticut Park are often stolen. Then, there’s Hell’s Kitchen in New York City and Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. Arizona has Tombstone and Skull Valley. If you look at any map of the Western United States you would see dozens of places named for the Devil. According to Wallace Stegner, “the Devil had a good deal to do with the making of the West” if you were to take the evidence of Place Names on the map into account. This probably had to do with the dry and harsh environment that settlers had to navigate through. I’m sure that some of these places didn’t freeze over very often.
Go look at some maps and study like Hell to find as many places as you can!