What a Shitty Day looks like in Central Oregon

We all have bad days. Some more than others. However, have you ever thought of how different a bad day might look, if you only change your Geography? OR, maybe just your perspective on that day?

When you are having a bad day, it might help to compare your crappy day with someone else’s bad day in another part of the world. Do you live in Yemen? Are you in the midst of a civil war like they are there? Do you live in the Gaza Strip? Have your relatives perished from their building collapsing after being bombed by the Israeli Air Force? Are you poor and unable to get vaccinated against Covid in India or Brazil? Or, are your children dying of malnutrition like they are in many parts of Africa? Was your home destroyed by either a flood or a volcanic eruption? It always helps to put your problems into perspective.

Recently, I’ve been lamenting the rapid change in my community of Bend, Oregon. People are flocking from everywhere on the planet and moving here. The traffic is getting bad. Housing prices are going through the roof. Graffiti and litter are much more prevalent than ever. The culture of the town is changing, and most would agree that it is not for the better.

new roundabout with lots of traffic!

I needed some nature on the way to work, so I stopped by Drake Park near downtown Bend to take a walk next to Mirror Pond. There was goose poop everywhere, which made me pay close attention to where I was walking. So much for relaxation in the park!

Goose poop on the walkway

After fighting the traffic to get to the college on the West side of town, I parked my car and walked towards my office in Modoc Hall. I stopped when I saw a deer.

Deer outside of Pence Hall on COCC campus

“How wonderful!” I thought to myself. I was just enjoying the fact that I get to experience some nature inside the city limits. What a breath of fresh air seeing wildlife here at work! Then, taking a few more steps, I saw what the deer left as a calling card. My day was just beginning to get a little more shitty!

The start of a shitty day!

After work, I really needed to get away! I decided to get out of town and take a hike.

I used to go just a couple of miles outside of town for some peace and quiet. Now I have to travel further and further; sometimes as much as 30 miles. I usually head East toward the desert, as there are just too many people on the West side of town and around the Cascade Lakes Highway. At first I tried walking one of the irrigation canals just outside of the city limits. However, a new homeowner just put up a sign, incorrectly claiming that it was HIS property, when in fact it belongs to the irrigation district. Annoyed, I decided to go further East into the real desert to get away from people.

New arrivals claiming land that is not theirs

Finally, I got to a dirt path far from town! I was beginning to feel more at peace, UNTIL I found something I didn’t expect to see out here.

Getting the heck outta town!

I saw evidence of mankind….trash left behind by thoughtless people.

Trailside trash

Luckily, I brought my backpack with me and I picked up the trash left behind by careless people. Being that I live in Oregon, I will be rewarded 10 cents for each aluminum can I pick up. I’d be happier not find any at all, however. With the uncontrolled growth in Central Oregon, once pristine places are starting to become trashed. On the road on the way out to my hiking place, I found a “Twisted Tea” can on the side of the road. Must be a twisted person to discard this in a beautiful place!

Twisted Tea left on the side of the road

I think it would be an interesting demographic study, to study where what type of trash is left in which places. Documenting it and mapping it are the easy parts. Getting consumer demographic data from companies is the hard part. The corporations who manufacture these products keep the demographics of their consumers pretty close to the vest. I can say, however, that I find very few bottles from craft breweries strewn about the landscape!

Lots of these on the roadside!

I encountered more forensic evidence of humans littering the landscape. Several casings from shotgun shells littered the roadside. I’ve been seeing these in places that I never used to in the past. I decided to hike out of the desert and into another nearby ecosystem to get away from all of this.

empty shell casing in the road

I hiked uphill, where the desert transitions into forest. I walked along a lonely abandoned road. Finally, no signs of humans! Then, I found some fresh bear scat in the roadway. I put my cup next to it to take a picture and show the scale of it. Bears are omnivores, and although I have great respect of them, I don’t fear being in their territory. Cougars however, are another story.

fresh Bear Scat

Bears have a very poor digestive system and more than 1/2 of what they consume is easily identifiable when it comes out the other end. It easily shows what they have been foraging on. This was now turning into a pretty shitty day!

Undigested berries in bear scat

Further down the same road, I came across tracks of another animal. The footprints were canine. Not seeing any signs of human tracks, I expected that these tracks were made by a coyote and not a dog who was a house pet. Sure enough, a little further down the road, I found another calling card! Yep, it was from a coyote! The scat had the hair of its prey in it, probably that of a chipmunk or ground squirrel.

Coyote scat

Hiking back downhill towards the car, I came out of the pine forest and back to the juniper forest, which is a transition zone between the wetter, cooler forest and the hotter, drier, low sagebrush desert. This area was BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. The acronym often is referred to by locals as meaning Bulls, Lambs, and Mines, which are the activities of mining and grazing that are overseen by this Federal Agency. I came to a clearing next to a large Juniper tree. The large mine field of cow patties around the tree was evidence of bovines seeking the shade of the tree. Can this day get any more shitty than this?

Dried Cow Patties

I paused here for a moment, and kicked some of the dried patties out of the way. I made myself enough room to sit in the shade of the tree. Then, I reflected on the day. I’m sitting in a space surrounded by a bunch of crap. But, I’m also sitting in the shade and have a place to myself. I’ve been dealing with crap from others all day long, but in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad! Even though things are changing rapidly in my area, I took time to be thankful for the opportunity to walk in nature and to de-compress. I took time to think about people I know who are dealing with much worse crap than I am currently surrounded by and send positive thoughts their way. I find that I do more of this when out in nature and not as much of that when I am in town.

I think the moral of this story is to not to focus on the crap that you encounter on a daily basis. Our world is filled with beauty, as well as some crap to deal with. One can’t live in a world free of dung! Just keep walking and kick it out of the way when you come across it. And be able to find a place of rest with it all around you. You have a choice either to focus on the dung or focus on the beautiful world that it is found in.

As I compare my shitty day with other places around the world, I feel blessed! Dear readers, the next time you are having a shitty day, I hope you can find a shade tree to sit down in the midst of it all, and to be able to focus on the beauty in this world and not the crap that is in it! Embrace the fact that we live in a world filled with dung without fearing that you will constantly step in it. And I hope your shitty day ends up being equally as good as mine was….

Salaam….

Hiking Section A of the Pacific Crest Trail: Ouch! and other names on the trail

May 16-21, 2021…

If everyone in the world treated each other like they do while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the whole world would be in a much better place. A special culture exists among those who walk the trail and those who support their endeavors.

I’ve been hiking sections of the trail off and on for 20 years. Many are what you call thru-hikers; people who attempt to walk all 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada in one year. Others, myself included, prefer to do shorter sections of 100 miles or less at a time and then call it good until the next year. Whichever the method, meeting someone else on the trail brings an instant bond with that person.

Day hikers on the PCT

People who hike the trail do so for a number of different reasons. Many are younger, and want to take advantage of the time to take a long journey just after completing school. Some folks are in a transition period in their lives. Others seek the simplicity and freedom of the hiking lifestyle. And there are those who do it just for the challenge. I do it for the sake of Geography….just to see what’s around the next bend in the trail, or to see what lies on the other side of that mountain ahead.

My most recent hike took me to the Southern California desert, an area that I was previously unfamiliar with. I was supposed to hike the 702 mile portion of the trail that crosses the desert regions last Spring, but Covid cancelled those plans. Since I am still working part-time, I could only take a week off this Spring, so I chose to hike most of Section A, which is the part that is closest to the border with Mexico.

First I flew from Bend, Oregon to San Diego, California to spend some time with an old high school friend. Another friend from Orange County came down to meet us and we all went to a baseball game at PetCo park to see the Padres vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the 20th MLB team I’ve seen play in their home park. With proof of Covid-19 vaccine, we got to sit together in preferential seating, close behind the Cardinal dugout.

Old Friends at Petco Park
MLB park #20 Yellow Bracelet=Proof of Vaccine and Preferential Seating

On Sunday, May 16, my buddy drove me to Lake Morena County Park to start my PCT hike. Lake Morena is 20 miles from the Mexican border. If I am fortunate enough to complete the rest of the trail in a few years, I will save this last 20 mile section as a day hike to the terminus of the trail. There is a road crossing the trail only 1.6 miles from the border. I plan to invite family and friends to meet me at the road crossing to walk the 1.6 miles together, after which I will throw a BIG party for everyone.

Near Lake Morena at the start of the hike

As it was a weekend, there were lots of day hikers out on the trail. Most were enjoying the cooler than normal temperatures and taking in the colors of the wildflowers in bloom. Several stopped to ask me about what it was like to backpack the PCT. I told them I only planned to go about 90 miles on this hike.

Wildflowers on trail north of Lake Morena

“ONLY 90 miles”, they would exclaim, like that seemed like a LONG way to them. I told them that most of the younger backpackers they would see are attempting to walk the whole trail in one season….a trip of 2,650 miles.

PCT crossing under Interstate 8

Everyone I met were nice people. But they all had regular names, not trail names. Even the few long distance hikers I met did not have trail names yet. Trail culture has it that people who hike the trail get pseudonyms and have an identity linked to a trail name. That name should be given to you by someone else. Many times the name has something to do with the food the hiker likes. Over the years I’ve met hikers with the names of Wasabi, Mustard, Horchata, Basil, Sprout, Chili Pepper, and the Ginger Ninja. Others take names from a mishap on the trail (Blisters, Feet, Toes, Underwear, Scarface, etc.) Still others have animal names or plant names (Otter, Bear, Oso, Coyote, Bird, Songbird, Tortoise, Bunny, Forget-me-Not, Sage, Willow, Spruce). On past hikes, I’ve met Chilly Willy, Indiana Jones, Dumpster Fire, Game Boy, The Jesus, Spaceman, Windchime, Low and Slow, One-Pole, So Far, Sunshine, Shade, Tree Monkey, Red, E-Walk, Cool Breeze, and Jackrabbit, just to name a few. My own trail name happens to be “Ouch!

I got my name as a section hiker. I’ve been walking roughly 100 miles per year and now have just over 1,700 miles of trail completed. Thru-hikers always comment on how much easier it would be to be a section hiker, as you get to pick the best weather for whatever section you decide to hike that year. While that might be true, I usually ask them about their experience of their first two weeks on the trail, while they are breaking their bodies into trail shape. The first couple of weeks are usually remembered as painful ones. When I reply that EVERY YEAR I hike I am always in the first two weeks of the hike and it is ALWAYS painful, they think for a moment, wince and say “OUCH!”. That is the etymology of my trail name.

This year, starting so far south, almost all of the thru-hikers had the names their parents gave to them. I met Alison, Megan, John, Dustin, Kevin, Owen, another John, Johnny, Emily, Dave, Bryan, Sarah, Daniel, Kathy, Javier, Jennifer, Olivia, Alex, Rebecca, and Devin… to name a few. I hiked a couple of miles with Tejas, a Tamil boy from India. Only two hikers I met already had trail names; a guy from Maine named Haystack, and an attractive brunette from Switzerland called “Cowbell”, due to the clanging of a water bottle she had hanging from her pack. With so many people using their given names, it is difficult to remember who is who.

I was having a discussion with a friendly couple, when a lone hiker in a black shirt walked by. About 1/2 hour later, he was walking back in my direction. He asked if I knew where Kitchen Creek Falls was. “I’m not from around here”, I said. “I’m from Oregon and this is my first time down here.”

He said that it was also his first time. I asked where he was from. He replied “Spain.”

“Pues, de que parte o provincia de Espana viene Usted?”, I asked.

“Soy de Pais Vasco!”, he replied. His name was Javier. From there we had a long conversation, 90% of which was in Spanish. Although I didn’t know much of his first language of Basque, I threw out a phrase such as Eskerrik Asko, and pronounced his hometown of San Sebastian as “Donostia, Bizkaia” in his home language. His jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide! Shared knowledge of one’s geography as well as talking to someone in one of their home languages is a great way to break the ice and instantly bond with another. Rather than try to explain my trail name of “Ouch!”, I became Mick again, even if just for a moment.

Javier, Hombre de Pais Vasco

After 20 minutes or so of Speaking Spanish, we parted and hiked in opposite directions. I made my first camp about 1/2 mile off of the trail on the way to Mt. Laguna. It was cold and drizzling that evening.

The next morning was still cool, but the sun was starting to peek out. About midday, I came to a dirt road with a sign warning about live ordinance in the area. I stuck close to the trail here. It seems a military plane on a training mission crashed near here long ago and not all of the live munitions were recovered!

Caution….don’t wander off trail!

At the end of the second night, I crested the high elevation point of this week’s hike, at Mt. Laguna. Being in the forest made you feel that you were far away from the Southern California desert.

A LONG way to walk for Thru-hikers

The trail started its long descent toward the fiery Colorado desert. It followed a ridge line that paralleled a road, but still stayed high enough to have a view over the desert below. Trees began to thin out, being replaced by chaparral vegetation. Continuing north past the old Pioneer Mail Trail-head brings you to a shrine overlooking the desert. The shrine is to remember the lives of many motorcyclists who passed away.

The Shrine on the side of the Trail

One plaque was to remember a beloved pet, a dog named Solo. What read on the plaque would be a great epitaph for any human’s headstone!

If only we could be remembered so fondly!

The trail cut into the side of the mountain with outstanding views of the desert below. The sun was baking down and I was sure to fully cover my arms and face. I even wore a mask to keep the sun from cracking my lips.

narrow trail with superb views!

A couple of clouds materialized in the sky. I kept singing an old Judy Collins song, titled “Send in the Clowns”. Except that I editorialized the song and replaced the word “clowns” with “CLOUDS”.

Send in the “Clouds”

The New Song Lyrics went something like this.

My Face is burnt, my lips are chapped….

Send in the Clouds… Send in the Clouds!

The trail continued its long sinuous journey downward. At a spur trail to the Sunrise Trail-head, I saw another hiker texting on her phone. With limited cell service, I pulled out my phone to text my wife. No service for my burner phone.

Another hiker who did have service on his phone, offered his phone to me. I called my friend Allan in San Diego to give him an update on my progress and asked him to call Beth for me. It is another example of how people on the trail help each other.

Since it was near the end of the day, the two hikers invited me to camp with them at a campsite about 1/4 mile away. When I arrived, most of their group had already set up their tents. Their ages ranged from early twenties to mid thirties. I was the grandpa of the group. They came from many different places and had just met on the trail and had formed a hiking group. They came from a wide range of places such as Western New York state, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington state, Switzerland, Minnesota, and North Carolina. We spent the twilight sharing stories about the trail. Everyone shared why they were attempting to hike the whole trail in one year. We all opened up and shared some personal experiences. Where else could a group of strangers from different places and of different ages be so open with one another? Only on the trail….

I didn’t even bother to erect a tent, but simply rolled out the bag and gazed at the myriad of stars in the sky. I stared up at a waxing half moon above me in a cloudless sky. Contentment quickly led to restful sleep.

I heard the sounds of zippers being zipped and packs being packed at about 5:30 in the morning. I awoke and wished my newfound friends a safe journey northward. Just after they departed, I took this picture of our newly abandoned campsite. What seems like just an ordinary clearing in the chaparral became a vibrant meeting place that came to life the previous night. It was a place that offered not only rest and relaxation, but fostered connection between varied individuals. Long distance trails like the PCT are places that can make these kind of things happen!

Such a different and special place a few hours ago!

Once down in the valley, the trail runs through the hot, dry San Felipe Valley until it crosses Hwy 78 at Scissors Crossing. From there it is another 24 miles without a natural water source. I was carrying 7 liters of water, which made the pack extremely heavy.

Crossing the Hwy at Scissors crossing

On the other side of the highway, some trail angels left a few bottles of water and some Gatorade. Trail angels are volunteers who support hikers in many ways; either by stashing water caches in dry places, giving hikers rides into town to resupply, or by offering food or any other type of support. Hiking the trail may seem like a solo challenge, but it would be impossible without the help of kind strangers. Many trail angels are hikers themselves.

Trail Magic left by an Angel

From Scissors Crossing, the trail steeply climbed up a ridge, from where it appeared to side-hill for a long way. I took one of the Gatorade bottles and planned to drink it once I finished the climb out of the valley. It was just after noon, and the sun was high in the sky. Shade was nowhere to be found. I ended up guzzling the orange drink well before I finished the climb out of the valley.

Looking back at Scissors Crossing through an Ocotillo Bush
climbing above the San Felipe Valley

A strong wind howled on that ridge the entire day. Walking was difficult and the narrow trail was eroded in sections. A misstep could result in tumbling off the side of the cliff to a possible death. Each year, a few hikers perish on the trail. Some are older folks my age who suffer heart attacks; others are younger hikers who suffer a fall or drown crossing swollen rivers once they are out of the desert. I was careful not to become a statistic for this year.

Even though the temperature was cooler than normal for this time of year, the unrelenting sun took its toll. Shade was almost non-existent. During the rare times that I found some, I took a break to take advantage of it.

Grab any shade when you can get it!

There are quite a few snakes in this part of the world. Most scampered off of the trail before I could get my camera out. This guy was a little slower than most, so I got to snap his picture!

slowpoke snake

I knew that trail angels had stashed a large cache of water at mile 91 of the PCT. I was running out of water before that, but Johnny, a fellow hiker, topped me off with almost another liter. I thanked him by giving him some beef jerky. We both felt like we got a good deal! Another instance of folks helping each other on the trail. Does this kind of stuff still happen back in town? It used to a long time ago!

I was just approaching mile 91 when I heard Haystack coming up behind me. We were both glad to see a sign for water. The cache was about 1/4 mile downhill. I dropped my pack and took my empty water bottles down to the cache.

Agua!

There was a small dirt road from the back side of the mountain that let the trail angels be able to stash a couple of pallets of water for the hikers. Without this, it would be almost impossible to hike section A of the desert.

The trail angels pay for all of the water out of their own pockets and of the goodness of their hearts. We gladly put some cash in the kitty for their efforts. They constructed a place to put the empty plastic bottles to be recycled.

Haystack told me that he had run into Kevin and that Kevin now had a trail name. He would now be known as “Rudolph”. Rudolf got his name from the group that he was hiking with. Even though he did not have a GPS, he was always the first one out of the gate and leading the rest of the group. Recently he forgot to lather up on the sunscreen and his nose got burnt. So, for always being out in front and with a red nose, Kevin became “Rudolph”!

The next morning, the wind was still howling. The trail finally crossed over from the west side of the ridge to the east side, where the mountains did act as somewhat of a windbreak. Then, I felt comfortable enough to take some pictures of cactus flowers.

After a LONG descent, I reached the Barrel Spring near the highway. The water needed to be treated, but at last there was some trees for shade and I got cell service next to the highway. So, I took a long break and called Beth and Allan. Then I took time to journal in the shade.

Barrel Spring

Just after crossing the highway, the scenery changed dramatically. The trail went through some private land, much of which had been cleared for cattle grazing. There is no camping allowed for the next several miles.

It seemed strange to walk over flat meadows after so much side-hill trail in the mountains. The few cows in the field stared at me incredulously, as if they had never seen a hiker before. They stopped grazing and chewing their cuds while they cautiously followed my walk along the path. Only when I was nearly out of sight did they relax enough to continue to graze. Seriously! They must have seen dozens of hikers like me every day this time of year, and they still act like it was the very first time they’d seen one!

Finally leaving private land, I came to San Ysidro Creek, a welcome sight after such a waterless stretch of hiking. I decided to pitch the tent here. The gurgling creek was such a wonderful sound to fall asleep to!

San Ysidro Creek

After breaking camp the next morning, there were only about 6 more miles to go to get to the road which leads into Warner Springs. Climbing out of the ravine where the creek lay brought me to another stretch of open pasture-like land. A group of resistant rocks poked up out of the plateau.

Heading towards an interesting landform

One of those protruding rocks was worth a side trip down a short trail. The landform is called Eagle Rock. I wonder why they called it that! See the picture below…

the famous Eagle Rock

Nearing the end of section A of the PCT, I ran into several day-hikers headed to Eagle Rock. Once off the trail, I walked the road into Warner Springs and stayed at a picnic area next to the gas station, where my friend Allan would be coming in a few hours to take me back to civilization. Now, with a little over 1,700 miles on the PCT under my belt, I will have only about 945 miles left to complete it. Planning on doing another 260 this summer and another 500 or so the following Spring. But first, time for a hot shower!

A letter to my Physical Geography Students

It is nearly summer and the academic year and the term are almost over. It has been a tough year on all of us due to Covid. You all persevered and weathered the storm of coming to class, wearing masks, and social distancing, while working and studying. Although the focus of our class was to study landforms, much of what we learned can be applied as life lessons we can use everyday. This also may be the last time I teach this particular class, as I transition into semi-retirement. Our lives will bifurcate after this week, so I wanted to take this one last opportunity to share something important with you all. Here are some parting words of wisdom for each of you.

After your academic career is over, you will be going out into the world, the same world that we studied about landforms. In your life you will encounter obstacles that you will have to climb. Some of them might seem like the Himalayas to you. Others might seem less imposing, like the foothills of the Appalachians.

some obstacles seem really big

Sometimes, you will make it to the top of the mountain. If so, then congratulations! Enjoy the view if you are fortunate enough to make it there. Don’t get too cocky when you do get up there, for we are not meant to live there, but to use that experience to help us after we come back down and live among the people in the rest of the world. And yes, there is always another mountain to climb! But realize, that life is a journey and you might not make it to the top on your first attempt. That’s okay….just keep on trying!

Can you picture yourself here yet?

Like all of the rest of us, you will be facing many pressures in life. These come at you from all sides. Like metamorphic rock, these pressures may change you a little. But how you react to these pressures make all the difference. Remember, diamonds are made under pressure!

Diamonds are made under pressure!

People, like rocks, can react to the same pressures in different ways. Sometimes the pressure breaks the rocks apart. Sometimes they just fold a little. Learn to bend, but not break, like the folded rocks of the Appalachian Mountain ranges.

Whenever you get frustrated, angry and hot from all of the pressures in life, make sure to try and stay cool. Don’t blow your top like a composite volcano. It won’t solve the problem and will probably only tick off the people around you! Don’t shower others with your pyroclastics!

Try your best to stay out of really hot water. It might look pretty or even inviting at first, but it can scald you!

Make good decisions…avoid the real hot water!

Who you choose to surround yourself with will have a big effect on the choices that you make in life. Try to avoid tectonic relationships. Choose partners and friends wisely!

Pick someone who will be moving in the same direction that you are!

Remember that most Earth processes are slow processes. We studied the principle of uniformitarianism and learned that the present is the key to the past. Well, it is also the key to your future! Economic stability and social stability are processes that we all have to keep working towards the goal of every day. Live each day in the present while still keeping one eye on the future! Given enough time and all of us working together, it is achievable, albeit not overnight. Be in it for the long run!

Be like soil. Remember the formula of CL,O,R,P,T (Climate, Organic Material, Relief, Parent Material, and Time). Study the climate of the people around you (family, workplace, community, country, region) to determine what type of weathering you will experience. Make sure you get enough nutrients for both your body and soul to make a productive soil (Organics). Work on what type of parent material you would like to be made of. And give enough time for the soil to form…it is a slow process. Finally, remember that good soil is there to grow things to help not only yourself, but to benefit others too. Try to shoot for being a loam, a good mixture of both porosity and permeability. Hold onto just enough water to meet your needs, but let some of it infiltrate into deeper parts of the soil, so that you don’t end up being waterlogged.

While soil formation takes a long time, be on the watch for creep; that imperceptible slow deformation of soil, due to gravity and water logged clay. Overwork and not paying enough attention to the little things in life might end up taking a toll on you. We tend to protect against big events like landslides, but creep is the most costly and destructive of all mass wasting events. It’s something you don’t usually notice, until it’s too late. Take inventory on yourself often!

Remember the power of running water. Running water does three important things in landscape development. It erodes, transports sediment, and deposits sediment. Water is one of the most powerful forces in landscape development, yet it does this all without being haughty. Water seeks its lowest level. It gives life to everything along its route, and the silt that it deposits at the mouths of rivers are fertile areas for other humans to grow crops. Be like a river and seek out the low places. Those are the places that need your water! By doing so, you will not only bring life to those you come in contact with, but you will also slowly shape the world that you live in!

Rivers can also move laterally in response to changes in flow and sediment load. Be sure not to be too rigid, but shift in response to changes in your life’s load and flow. And if it leaves you with a small meander scar, remember that in time, that will fill in too….

Meander scrolls on a Midwest sinuous river

Be observant! When you see something that seems like it really doesn’t belong, it may not be a function of nature. Maybe mankind put it there!

What’s a rounded river gravel doing in a glacial landscape? Well, I put it there!

Like walking on glaciers, sometimes you will come to a crevasse. If it is too big to jump over, then just find a way around it. Sometimes the best route in life doesn’t take a straight line.

Just find a route around this!

And, if the crevasse is not that wide, then just jump over it…even if it is a little scary to do so.

Sometimes you have to take a small leap of faith

Remember the Equilibrium Theory which states that the shape of landforms remains static if the uplift is equal to the erosion. With that in mind, be like the Torres del Paine in Southern Chile. When life erodes you at the top, keep pushing upward to maintain the shape of who you are.

Torres del Paine, Southern Chile

Finally, remember some of Stan Schumm’s seven reasons for geologic uncertainty (Scale, Location, Convergence, Divergence, Singularity, Sensitivity, and Complexity. When something happens (either good or bad) in your life, remember to look at it at different time scales. A bad day seems more horrible when only looking at just that one day, but doesn’t seem so bad when you look at that same ONE day in the context of your whole life (Scale). Don’t be too quick to judge a landform (or other people) too quickly. Although they might have similarities with a group, people, like landforms are individuals too (concept of Singularity).

Be kind to others. What might seem like a small slight to you, could end up being something much larger to someone else. People, like landforms, have different sensitivities to stress. And, also like landforms, the study of people can be complex.

One last bit of advice. Keep studying Geography. The amount of stresses that a landform experiences is often a function of its location, whether that is in the headwaters of a drainage system or near the base level of a stream. Be mindful of the stresses that different peoples are experiencing due to their geographic location or zip code. Lots have folks have much greater challenges than you do, through no fault of their own!

Keep learning and growing! Thank you all for taking this class and I hope you can build on these concepts that you learned to become all you are capable of being. And best wishes in the future!

Mick

If anyone who reads this knows of someone who teaches or is a student in either Geography, Geology, or Earth Science, please feel free to pass this along to them!

A Funny thing happened on the way to Newfoundland

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.

The Falcon Fan Jet at Dorval Airport (YUL)

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…

http://www.fedex.com/downloads/about/company-info/dassault-aviation.pdf

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.

Captains Mike and Charlie on the last week of the Falcon Jet for Federal Express

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!

The first sunbathing of the year!

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.

relaxing in the park

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.

Enrique at 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!

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For those of you who haven’t read about the trip to Newfoundland that came immediately after this story, here is the link Blow-Me-Down–NEWFOUNDLAND!

For another story of how a casual encounter may be life-changing, here is a link to a story about two people I met in Alaska and the Yukon for 5 minutes each that changed my life forever The consequences of casual, concise Klondike encounters

Blow-Me-Down–NEWFOUNDLAND!

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.

The book that started it all

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.

Location of Newfoundland and Labrador

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.

Location of the Island of Newfoundland

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.

A fjord in Gros Morne National Park

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.

Governor’s staircase trail (Photo: Parks Canada)

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.

Mick at Blow-Me-Down Park

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).

At the trailhead to Gros Morne Mountain

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.

Crossing s snow field on the way up

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.

Gros Morne NP

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….

Green Gardens camp

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.

The rain didn’t seem to bother the sheep

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.

The stormy coast at low tide

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!”

The route that the Ferry takes

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!

Marine Vessel “Qajaq” of Labrador Marine LLC, Navigating through pack ice

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”.

L’anse Aux Meadows National Historical Site : Photo:Pinterest.ca

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.

Restored Viking Settlement at L’anse Aux Meadows

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.

Cliffs at the end of the Earth

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!”

to access another post about the trip TO Newfoundland, check out “A Funny thing happened on the way to Newfoundland”A Funny thing happened on the way to Newfoundland

Cari-BOO and Ice Biking in Canada’s Northwest Territories

“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.

This is what is the term “Ice Biking” refers to

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.

Location of Canol Heritage Trail. Map: Traildino.com

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.

Abandoned Vehicle on the roadside from WWII
Abandoned Army vehicles from the 1940s
Moose and Yukon Pat in 1940s vehicle on the roadside

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.

Ferry over Pelly River, near Ross River, YT

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.

berries on the roadside

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.

Fireweed in a Boreal 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.

The sign at the border of the NWT

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.

Yukon Pat on the Canol trail
Near MacMillan Pass

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!

You could drive a truck over this bridge in 1943!

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.

Not your typical bicycle trail!

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…..

He Ain’t Heavy….He’s my Brother!

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.

The Mackenzie Mountains!
At the end of a LONG uphill

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 steep old mining road
Time to stop pedaling and start hiking!
Enjoying the summit
Ice biking at its Best!
Mick on the summit of unnamed mountain

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.

Don’t slip here!

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.

Fording yet another river!

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.

Oldsquaw Lodge

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.

Tea time! Comforts of Civilization in the Wilds
Sharing a celebratory beer!

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.

Heading home at the NWT-Yukon border
Stopping for a lunch break

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.

The Unique Polar Bear License plate of NWT

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!

If you haven’t read the post I made last year about the fellow who told me all about this, here is the link below…The consequences of casual, concise Klondike encounters

Heavenly Lofoten: Just 550 miles north of Hell

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.

LOCATION OF THE LOFOTEN ISLANDS

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 town of Reine, Island of Moskenesoya, Lofoten

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 Larger Scale Map of the Lofoten Archipelago

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!

Vindstad

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.

Painting of Reine Fjord, Lofoten Islands

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…

For more information regarding trip planning, and finding a bunch of other special places within the Lofoten Archipelago, here are a couple of websites https://www.visitnorway.com https://lofoten.info/lofoten

Skellig Michael- Before Luke Skywalker was 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.

That’s Me walking up the stairs near the top

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!

Rudimentary Augustinian Monastery on Skellig Michael….Skellig Rock in the background

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.

Location of Skellig Michael in relation to Ireland

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.

90,000 Gannets on Skellig Rocks
90.000 Gannets on Skellig Rock from the air (photo:Uncrate.com)

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!

Greater Skellig from our boat

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!

View towards Skellig Rock from Skellig Michael

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.

There’s a lady who’s sure

All that glitters is gold….

And she’s buying a Stairway to Heaven

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!”

Climbing the Stairway to heaven…..steps to the top of the Island (photo: Somewhat Simple.com)

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”.

Salaam….

Discovering NOWHERE : Have You Been Missing Out on Experiencing a New Special Place?

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!

photo: recruitingdaily.com

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.

Hiking to Nowhere

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.

the Road to Nowhere

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….

Resting on the Road to Nowhere

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?

The Middle of Nowhere?…or not!

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.

Follow me…there’s something you need to see

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.

The burial place of 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.

A Little Free Library in a Nowhere Neighborhood

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!”

the town square of LaFayette, GA
Location of LaFayette

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.

location of Hibbing, MN
The Mesabi Bike Trail

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….

Selah….

Which Georgia is on Your Mind?

I have so many Georgias on my mind.

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 (photo:Austin Times)

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.

Location of Georgia (the Country)

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….

The Country of Georgia and its neighbors

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?

Abkhazia in the Northwest of Georgia on the Black Sea

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.

Physiographic Map of the State of Georgia
Georgia Voting in 2020 Presidential Election

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.

The Endurance crushed by Pack Ice

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.

Political location map of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, lighten.
South Georgia on their Minds

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.

Shackleton’s Journeys
Wintering over on the Sea Ice

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.

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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.

Which Georgia is on your mind?

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