The above picture is a good metaphor to describe my career as a Geographer in the United States of America. You can look at this picture two different ways. It is either a Bridge to Nowhere, or it is a project that hasn’t been completed yet. There is some truth to be found in both of those perspectives.
We’ll need to discuss a few things first….The concept of what is the meaning of the word “nowhere”, and the story behind this picture I took in Western Uzbekistan in 2014.
The concept of “Nowhere” can either be thought of as an unfamiliar area OR a location far away from “civilization” that a person attributes little value to. I’ve spent a large portion of my life seeking out remote, undiscovered places. Places deemed as “Nowhere” by most people actually attract me to explore them. On the other hand, it is my role as a geography educator to fill in the blank spaces of students’ mental maps; to turn nowhere into somewhere. Without Geography, we’d all be nowhere!
Next, let’s discuss the story behind this picture. This bridge is located in the Western part of the Republic of Uzbekistan, in Central Asia. To most Americans, Uzbekistan is in the middle of Nowhere. However, to understand the meaning behind this scene, one must first study a bit of history of the unique region of Central Asia which is now called Uzbekistan.
July 18, 2014.…a stroll through Amir Timur Square in Tashkent (Uzbekistan’s capital city)
After breakfast, I took a stroll into the large park known as Amir Timur (Temur) Square. The square, in the center of the city, showed Tashkent to be a modern, thriving metropolis. In fact, Tashkent was the fourth largest city in the former Soviet Union. Amir Timur (also known as Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame) is Uzbekistan’s national hero. I gazed upward at his statue. The whole park gave deference to Uzbekistan’s greatness centuries ago.
What the rest of the world now considers to be “nowhere” was once the center of the Universe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Timur was born in the Spring of 1336 in a region that was then known as Trans-Oxania. He is infamous for being #1 in the history of the world for something. More people were killed under his rule than under the leadership of any other human being in the history of mankind! Ask that question of most people and their answers might include Hitler, Stalin, or Genghis Khan, but all of them fall short of the estimated 17 million killed as he expanded his empire over most of Central Asia. He described himself as “the Sword of Islam”. His armies would place themselves on the doorstep of a city and offer an ultimatum….Surrender and join us, or fight us and be destroyed. Those who resisted were annihilated. Every man, woman, dog, sheep, goat, etc. were destroyed. Like the Borg collective in Star Trek movies, resistance was futile.
Amir Timur built the grandest buildings in the world during that time, including the Registan in the capital city of Samarkand, and decried “if you doubt our power, look at our buildings”.
Let’s go back to the picture of the “Bridge to Nowhere”, which better depicts the state of affairs in modern day Uzbekistan. Tamerlane’s empire rapidly declined after his death. Lots of people had scores to settle. An increase in sail technology allowed world powers to trade by sea and bypass the important caravans of trade in Central Asia. The area became an isolated backwater. The physical geography of desert and steppe, enabled outside conquering armies access to the region from all directions. When you stroll through Tashkent, you will notice that the physical characteristics of its people give a window to the history of conquest. The armies of Alexander the Great came through here centuries ago, and you can still see evidence of that in the green eyes of some Uzbek citizens. Also apparent is the DNA left behind by Mongols, Persians, Arabs, and Jews. One hour of walking the streets of Tashkent will confirm this for you.
In recent history, the region was taken over in the early 20th century by the USSR, whose central government they became dependent upon. Stalin partitioned the borders of the newly acquired states on three criteria; majority ethnicity, natural borders such as mountains, and a sharing of resources in desert areas (the reason that the rivers which flow through the desert wander back and forth over borders). The borders that he drew up make Uzbekistan one of only two double-landlocked countries in the world….meaning that not only does Uzbekistan not have an outlet to the sea for trade, but EVERY other country which surrounds it does not have a seaport either.
This was not as much of a problem as long as this region was part of the USSR. The central government propped up the economy. But everything changed when the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s. Newly independent Uzbekistan had no money, so the bridge over the railroad tracks was never finished. Decades later, it remains a bridge “to nowhere”. Uzbekistan diminished in power on the world scene, and became “nowhere” to most of the rest of the world.
However, “Nowhere” is still a place. Where is it exactly? It is a cultural construct and exists only in our minds. Uzbekistan is not nowhere to Uzbeks; it is home. To Tajiks and Turkmen, it is the home of their rivals. In the minds of ethnocentric societies, the realm of nowhere is an ever-expanding empire. The only way to keep the kingdom of nowhere from continually expanding is by teaching Geography, and turning nowheres into somewheres. Another way of writing NOWHERE is to put one space in between the letters and spell it NOW HERE!
The bridge not only represents my career as a Geographer in America, but probably does for the majority of American Geographers. Our discipline, once considered to be the “Mother of all Sciences”, was once as great as Amir Timur’s empire. It started its decline in the 1960s, when Harvard did away with its Geography department. As America became more powerful, both economically and militarily, our citizenry turned their attention inward. A National Geographic study conducted in 2006 showed the 63% of High School students couldn’t find Iraq on a map, even though the USA had been in the war for at least five years. And it isn’t just foreign places….50% of U.S. students couldn’t find New York on a national map. The lack of emphasis in teaching about the world that we live in contributes to the geographical illiteracy of our citizenry.
This ignorance presents a danger to our democracy. Both the far right and the far left have learned how to “weaponize” ignorance, which allows for brainwashing. Geographical ignorance exacerbates the divisions within our own country and allows people to demonize other cultures. Ignorance is a catalyst for ultra-nationalism and jingoism. It is the fuel source for hate groups. We now need to be as wary of the threats within our own country as the threats that come from outside of our borders.
I am sympathetic to the plight of modern Uzbekistan. I have an unfinished bridge, but am running out of resources. The “central government” has let me know that I’m on my own. The mission statement from the college where I teach used to read, “we will be a leader in regionally and globally responsive adult, lifelong, post-secondary education for our region.” Geography is a critical component in reaching that mission. However, they removed all of that several years ago, and now they are for “student success”. My adjunct assistant was laid off soon after that move. We are graduating students and labeling them as “successful”, even though many of them may graduate knowing very little about the world outside of Oregon, and how those places have an effect, either direct or indirect, on their lives. I must say that I am grateful to all of my colleagues in other disciplines who incorporate case studies in their disciplines from other parts of the world, to help ameliorate this problem.
I’m not trying to place any blame on the administration. Their decision to cut a program, or change a mission statement, is more a function of the symptom of a much larger problem. Administrators are motivated by dollars and cents. The economics is driven by student demand. The lack of demand is due to a of lack of exposure to the subject in early years, and a lack of awareness as to the scope and breadth of the discipline. The ethnocentrism of our society is also a factor in the lack of student demand. Administrators at my own institution provided me with data and asked me to write a report to review our program. The fact that Geology data was given to me instead of Geography data told me everything I needed to know. Even a PhD might not know the difference.
Geography may not be taught best as a stand alone discipline. It is meant to be taught alongside other disciplines, woven together with Geography to help make sense of a complex and dynamically changing world. It is the “glue” which binds all other disciplines together. Tell me which field of study that happens “nowhere”.
I recently officially “retired”, whatever that means. I still have plans to complete construction of the bridge, but I won’t be able to do it as a part time instructor. The college has decided not to rehire for my position. They don’t see the value in it. But I still have a mission to accomplish. I will do that any way I can, even if it is through a blog, as a guest lecturer in the class of another discipline, or eventually by writing a book. And we will have to do it without the blessing of the “central government.” As long as there are readers such as you, who are still curious about the world we live in, then there is still hope in making progress on the bridge construction. Even if we have to do it by hand, one brick at a time……
Like the protagonist Atreyu in “The Never Ending Story”, we must fight against the Nothing. In that story, the “Nothing” threatens to destroy the world called Fantasia. It is created by humans’ lack of desire to read books. In our story, the “Nothing” represents the lack of geographical knowledge of the world that we live in and the lack of desire to even care about knowing it.
It is up to each of us to learn as much as we can about other cultures in other parts of the world. We share the same atmosphere that moves around us. We share the resources that this planet provides for us. Our survival as a species depends on us all not letting somewheres turn into nowheres. Let us not be dismayed by the enormity of the task. If we all pitch in and keep our focus forward, we have hope of a better world. Not a guarantee, but a hope…
What else could we ask for? Let’s get to work…together!
I’ll never forget your first sea kayak expedition in Alaska. There were moments of serene beauty and there were moments of sheer terror.
I remember how excited you were during the time you were first planning your trip. I also remember meeting you for the first time and how nervous and uneasy you felt the day before the trip began. You were so nervous that nobody else had signed up for the group trip. It would just be you and I in one double kayak, paddling all the way from Juneau to Haines. Alone. In raw nature. At the mercy of wind, weather, waves, bears, and killer whales…In one of the most beautiful, yet dangerous stretches of water of Alaska’s famed Inside Passage. Were you fully aware of what an expedition like this entailed? Did you feel the burden of responsibility overwhelm you, realizing that it would be just you and I?
Part of you wanted to not go through with the trip, but it was too late to get your money back. You asked me a lot about food; about bears, and about safety, which showed your trepidation. Even though I’ve been doing this safely for years, I joked that I had at least three weeks of experience. Somehow, you didn’t think that was funny.
You feared that we would have to share a tent as well as a boat together. I promised to bring an extra tent so you would have your own three person tent to yourself, so that you might feel more comfortable in camp even though it would make the boat overloaded. Did you know how cramped I would feel the whole trip with the extra cargo stored in my cockpit, robbing me of leg room?
What you didn’t know, because I never told you, was that I was also apprehensive about taking on this trip with you. Financially, it was barely worth it. More importantly, I wondered what kind of expedition partner you would be. Sure, you had outdoor experience under you belt, but it was all from the lower 48 states. You had no experience on the sea; no experience negotiating extreme tidal fluctuations and the currents that went with that. And you signed up for the longest and most challenging expedition that my company runs. We certainly would encounter some challenging situations over the next week. On a group trip, someone from the group always rises to meet the challenges, and displays leadership when it is needed. With you being the only client, could I count on you to be a good partner? Could I count on you if I needed help with something? Or, would you be the high maintenance type of client?
I’m thinking about our trip now, reflecting on it from my hot tub in Central Oregon. The moon is a waxing gibbous moon and the winds are calm this February evening. It’s a perfect setting for reminiscing about memorable events our lives. I wonder, “How often do you think of that journey? Did you remember it the way I did? Did you ever realize how close we came to losing it all?”
The first day, after launching the boat in quiet waters, you started to relax. The scenery was stunning. Even though I could only see the back of your head from my cockpit, I could almost see you smiling, as you took pictures of the steep walled mountains of the fjord. We headed west toward a group of islands in the middle of the fjord, where we would make our first camp. We paused on the water before we got there, for you to take more pictures of birds that you had never seen before. Marbled Murrelets and Pigeon Guillemots don’t exist where you come from. The tiny Murrelets were spread out in a line on the water, like a defense in a football game making a goal line stand at the one yard line. You laughed as they dove under the water one by one, like they were dominos falling. You chuckled again as they popped back up in a perfect row, one by one, like they were in a synchronized swimming competition in the Olympics. I worried that you might strain your index finger from all of the picture snapping. At least you were having a great time.
You told me how much you liked wildlife and how you looked forward to seeing new types of fauna in a new ecosystem. We talked about biology and about science. I saw that you had a heart as well as an intellect. We enjoyed that first day together. I was grateful for that, as you never get a second chance to make a first impression. I know from experience that it is hard for a client to recover from a bad first day. We made a side trip to Poundstone Rock, where the sea lions hauled out on the buoy there. You had seen a sea lion before, but we got close enough to smell their breath as you took their picture. Does the olfaction of that stench still resonate in your mind after all of this time has passed by?
When we got to Lincoln Island, we set up camp, which would be your first campsite on Alaskan soil. You were relieved that there were no bears on this island. It was too far from the mainland and too low of an island to have any running streams for salmon. After setting up the tents, we heard a whale swimming close by. We rushed to the boat and launched. You didn’t even put your 2 piece paddle together, but were concentrating on taking pictures while I paddled. The current between the two islands was running strong against us, and I paddled hard just to keep the boat in the same place. We didn’t chase any whales, but by staying in one place, the whale swam close by us. In essence, they were chasing US!
The look on your face that day will remain with me forever. Your eyes were wide and your jaw was agape. You couldn’t believe how loud a breathing sound from an animal could be. Being so close to a 40 ton humpback whale was everything you had hoped for and more. You would be changed by that experience, at least I hoped so. I see this every day, and it never gets old for me. But the first time you experience it is like the first time you made love…it would be a defining moment in your life.
The whale surfaced again and the spout from from his exhale exploded from the sea as the sound echoed off of the trees of the island. But he was upwind of us. In an instant, your feeling of awe and wonder evaporated as the stench emanating from his blowhole engulfed us. And you thought that the Sea Lions stunk! I remember you jokingly saying something about them not being able to floss. It was then that I told you that they don’t have teeth- they are baleen whales. That was an epiphany for you.
He must have seen us in his path. That’s when he dived below us. I stopped paddling for a second to take a camera shot of my own. I remembered how gracefully his fluke fin slowly disappeared below the surface. You had experienced a lot of Alaska Magic so far in one day.
Hopefully, your pictures came out great. How often do you look at them? How do you remember that day? Was your internal conflict about the trip starting to diminish at that time? If you only knew what lay ahead, it wouldn’t have….
You proved to be a help with my meal prep. I remember your eyes tearing up while you were chopping up the yellow onion for our chicken stir fry. I can still smell the sesame oil as we sauteed the chicken and vegetables. After dinner, while you were brushing your teeth in the inter-tidal zone, I turned on the marine radio. It was then that I got the bad news.
A weather front was moving in and by morning there would be a small craft advisory. We were stuck in the middle of the fjord, with a long, open water crossing still ahead of us. We might be stuck on this island for another day. I told you to button up your tent securely tonight.
The next morning we awoke to a howling wind. We looked out to a sea of whitecaps in all directions. Your countenance was full of fear. I tried to assure you that we would not be paddling today….it was too dangerous. You wondered if this might put us so far behind schedule as to make every other day harder by having to add mileage to each day. I said not to worry.
You also didn’t like having to use the inter-tidal area as the bathroom. You had concerns about privacy. I told you to use the beach around the corner. If there were no fishing boats on the water, then you would have all of the privacy that you would need. You told me that you learned that one should never go to the bathroom close to the water’s edge. “True-for Fresh Water”, I said. But this was salt water and the tides give us two flushes per day. You had a forlorn look on your face that day. And you didn’t like having to bring back your used toilet paper in the brown bag I gave you, so that we could burn it later in a beach fire in the inter-tidal zone. You begged me to bury it in the soil inside the forest, but I said no. That is not how we practice no-trace camping up here.
We did take a short hike into the forest. We did see a deer too, which was the only highlight of the day. But the forest proved to be too thick to do much hiking. When the thorns from the Devil’s Club bush got tangled in your jacket, you said you had enough. Suddenly, this idyllic little island seemed like a prison. We hoped to escape tomorrow.
The weather report for the next day wasn’t much better, but the winds were supposed to lower from 25 knots to 20 in the morning before they picked up again in the afternoon. If we were to escape, it would have to be in the morning.
When we left Lincoln Island, there were a few white caps toward the Chilkat Peninsula on the western shore of the fjord, but only some small waves near our island. We packed up the boat and headed northwest, toward St. James Bay. The seas were a little “lumpy” the first part of the trip, but nothing more than 2-3 foot waves. You were nervous, but I told you to put your head down and keep paddling. We were doing just fine.
About halfway across the wind picked up hard from the south and the waves got bigger and were hitting us from the rear quarter of the boat. This part of the fjord connected with Chatham Strait, a straight wind tunnel of a couple hundred miles. The next hour would be the crux of our trip.
I didn’t tell you at the time, but these types of waves are the most dangerous. You can’t see them coming from behind and because they hit the boat at an angle, they want to push the boat off course. Besides that, as the stern gets lifted up higher by the oncoming wave, it pushes the boat forward and digs the bow into the trough of the wave in front of the boat. These types of seas can both flip you over sideways or pitch the boat over forward. It was my job to not let you panic, but to direct you to focus on the cadence of our paddling. But, I could tell that you were on the verge of freaking out.
I could roll a single kayak over if it capsized, but wasn’t sure I could roll this overloaded double boat by myself in these conditions. I would need your help, but you weren’t trained to do that. If we capsized, we would likely die of hypothermia before we washed up on some shore. It was imperative that I keep you focused on the proper cadence. I barked out orders like a coxswain on a rowing crew. You were terrified, but obeyed orders. We made progress and neared the western shore of the fjord. You voiced relief upon seeing the shore come closer. You shouldn’t have….
What you didn’t know at the time was that the near shore environment is MORE dangerous concerning wave actions. As the slope of the ocean floor rises, the depth gets shallower and the energy from the wave causes it to steepen. Add to that the possibility of an unseen rock protruding and you have a recipe for disaster. I didn’t see it coming, but a huge wave broke over the left rear quarter of the boat and over my back. I reached out and did a quick brace on the right side with my paddle to keep us from capsizing. Later, you said that moment felt a little “squirrely”. I never let you know how close we were to capsizing. Maybe if you read this, you’ll know.
I rammed the boat onto the smooth wave polished rocky beach at full speed so that you could get out without getting too wet. I was soaked, but we were happy to be on dry land. I saw you shivering on the beach and encouraged you to get into the forest to get out of the wind. I got the stove going and used the last bit of fresh water we had to make hot drinks and some soup for lunch. We both needed calories to burn to stay warm. I poured way too much of the potato soup mix into the pan of hot water and the soup was closer to the consistency of mashed potatoes than it was of liquid soup. You complained, but I explained that the need for added caloric intake was the primary reason. With some hot tea to wash it down, we both started to warm up. We stayed on that isolated outpost of a beach for hours. Just waiting…. At least here, I could find a stream and refill our fresh water supply. You wondered, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Hours later, the seas were still a little lumpy, but the waves had lessened enough for us to head further north to find a suitable campsite. On the way, we ducked into a little cove called Boat Harbor. It is one of the only places for a boat to hide in a storm. It is a great place for a larger boat to anchor, but the steep walled mountains surrounding the harbor do not provide any place to camp. We sat in the boat looking up and just enjoyed being protected from the winds for awhile. After a rest, we headed back out to Lynn Canal and kept paddling north. It was already a long day.
We set up camp at a place I called “Taco Beach”. That beach doesn’t have a name on any map, but I first camped here a few years ago with some other clients. There is a small indentation in the coastline with a north facing beach, which kept us out of the southerly winds. There is a small ephemeral creek that flows to the beach. I cooked Tacos the first time I camped here with a couple from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who were wonderful people. We became friends after they no longer were clients. This would be my first time back to Taco beach after that trip.
One of your tent poles broke while you were setting up your tent. I exchanged tents with you so you would have one with all four poles. Even with three poles, my tent was still functional, although unsuitable for pictures.
After dinner, I went away from camp to cache our food away from our tents. We were now in bear territory. I saw some fresh bear scat about 50 yards from camp. I didn’t want to alarm you, but just reminded you to be more careful and mindful that camping here would be different than on Lincoln Island. Since you didn’t see the bear sign, you seemed to be more relaxed.
The next day we still had south winds, but nothing like yesterday. We planned to stop on Sullivan Island after a few hours of paddling and to have lunch and find a place to camp. When we got out, there was fresh bear poop everywhere. It was the first time you had seen any, and you asked me to confirm what it was. When you realized just how much of it was on the beach and in the forest, you didn’t want to be there anymore. You asked me why bears were on this island and not on other islands. I explained that Sullivan is just a short swim away from the mainland where there are abundant salmon streams. Bears are good swimmers, but not likely to make a long crossing where there are rough seas, but more likely to swim across a small channel to find new sources of food. You looked around and asked if we could have a no cook lunch and get the hell out of there. You pointed to an island out in the middle of the fjord with a beautiful lighthouse on it and asked if we could go there.
I remember telling you that I’ve only visited the lighthouse once in all of the years that I have passed by there. I saw whitecaps on the water between the island and where we were. Yes, there are no bears there, but it is another dangerous crossing and it wasn’t safe to go today. Our options were to head further up the west side of the fjord and find a beach far away from a salmon stream. There might be the possibility of a bear, but not as much as here. It would add distance and time to our day and might turn it into a longer day than you might feel comfortable with. You said you didn’t mind, so we packed up.
A few hours later, we came to a fork in the road. Lynn Canal split into two halves. Both led to the town of Haines, but we had to take the right fork to end up at the part of town where we could access the Ferry terminal to get a ride back to Juneau. The left fork was the Chilkat Inlet, which was fed by the Chilkat River, and the right fork was the Chilkoot Inlet. We veered east along the end of the peninsula to take the Chilkoot Inlet route. After a very long day, we set up camp on an East facing beach with a view of Yelgadalga Creek. You didn’t know it at the time, but we had more than made up for the lost ground we lost waiting on Lincoln Island. We ended up paddling twice as far as I do with most clients. We were in fact too close to Haines, with only a few miles to go and one very long day available for us to use to get there.
I thought about taking you across Chilkoot Inlet tomorrow to see more sea lions, but when we woke up to calmer seas, I had another idea. We left the tents where they were and only brought the food with us in the boats, so any bears around would not tear up our camp. We set off to the south, unburdened by leaving most of our gear behind, with a view of the lighthouse on Eldred Rock ahead of us. You asked me if we were going there. I didn’t want to promise you something that I couldn’t be sure of delivering, so I told you it was a long way. But I knew you wanted to visit there. So did I.
After the trip was over, you confided in me that you knew what I was thinking and that we would indeed be going to the lighthouse. I asked you how you knew. You said that you could feel the boat move more quickly and that as my paddle strokes from the back of the boat became longer, your paddle strokes became more easy. You also told me that you felt more confident as a paddler after what we had already been through, although you didn’t want to jinx the opportunity by telling me that too soon. A few hours later, Eldred Rock Lighthouse was coming into close view.
As we passed by the reef north of the island, we frightened a group of harbor seals that were hauled out on the rocks. They scampered toward the safety of the water. They peered at us from the safety of the water, with only their eyes and nose in view. You said their heads looked like floating bowling balls.
We landed on the south side of the island, beached the kayak and hiked up to the lighthouse. You were giddy with excitement. I myself was enjoying this place for only the second time in 20 years. I’ve taken many pictures of it several times from the deck of the ferry as we steamed past. As we climbed up the spiral staircase we imagined what a lonely life it might have been like for the lighthouse keepers when this place was manned. From the outside deck high above the water, we had such a wonderful view. To the north I spotted a dorsal fin, right where we had kayaked past the reef were a couple of killer whales; a rare sight even for me. Whereas I see humpback whales almost daily, I only ever see orcas a couple of times per year.
You took out your binoculars to get a better look. It was then you saw the thrashing in the water. I too could see it. Then the water turned the color of crimson. You had to choke back your tears when you realized one of the seals we had scared off the rocks had been killed by the orcas. I think you felt some guilt as well as sadness. You blamed yourself for the seal’s death. I reminded you that even though it was a sad day for the seal family, it was cause for celebration for the orca family. These things happen all the time, without any influence from us. Such is the way of the wild.
After the orcas left, we headed back towards camp to pack up and head towards the ferry. You were getting hungry and asked what I had planned for our dinner menu. Your eyebrows rose when I told you it was pizza. “How are you going to make Pizza out here?”, you asked.
You were tired from the long paddle today, so I said we would eat at an Italian restaurant instead of cooking on a stove. That got you re-energized. Paddling down Chilkoot Inlet, you saw your first signs of civilization in almost a week, a house on the beach. We paddled together in sync. Every time the right paddle blade hit the water we would alternately chant, “Pizza….Pepsi”. I could sense you smelling the finish line.
The boats of Haines harbor appeared ahead and we could see traffic moving on the road to our left. We paddled below the dock of the harbor through the pilings and landed on a nice sandy beach. We got out and I started walking towards town. “Aren’t you going to pull the boat up higher?”, you asked.
The tide was falling so there was no need to. You worried about someone stealing our stuff, but that doesn’t happen nearly as much up here as it does where you come from. To make you feel better about it, I suggested to take our paddles with us. Who would steal a loaded kayak with no way to paddle it?
We only had to walk two block from the harbor to the restaurant. It seemed like the trucks and cars going the 20 mph speed limit were speeding. We had been moving only about 3-4 mph for the last five days. It seemed like the whole world was moving in fast motion. We sat down at a table near the door. The people behind the counter didn’t blink an eye having two customers walk in and set their kayak paddles against the wall. Haines after all is at the end of the road, where civilization bumps up against wilderness. I’m sure they’ve seen stranger things.
There was a red checkered tablecloth on the table. We both had pizza, a salad and a soft drink. On any other day, in any other circumstance, this lunch wouldn’t have stood out as being something so memorable. But it was INDOORS, and the smell of melted cheese and tomato sauce permeated the air. It seemed like the fitting end to an epic journey, except that the journey wasn’t over just yet. Tummies full, we waddled back to the boat. You seemed disappointed that we had to paddle another four miles to get to the ferry terminal. You were ready for a nap.
Four long miles later, we got to the ferry terminal. Lugging all the gear uphill was a chore. I bought our tickets and we waited outside the lounge area for the ship to arrive. I told you to take out some clean clothes as there were free showers available on the ferry. Your eyes got big in anticipation upon hearing that news! There are chaise lounge chairs on the back deck under heat lamps. That area of the ship is called the Solarium. The ferry is like a cruise ship for locals and backpackers. We would hurry up and claim one while the passengers in cars would take their time loading. I would guard our stuff while you took a shower. When you got back, I would take my shower. By the time we got under sail, we could both be clean and relive our 5 day trip in just 4.5 hours.
When you got back from your shower you looked so different. You smelled a lot better too! I hadn’t realized how dirty I was until you came back to our spot in the Solarium. The ship was just leaving the dock. I told you I would be back in about 10-15 minutes so that we could relive the last 5 days together as we retraced our trip backwards in time.
When I got cleaned up and felt presentable enough, I returned to the Solarium. You already had a group of people around you. You were pointing out places we had been the past week. You were explaining how a geologic fault caused the crack in the earth to shape the fjord they were looking at and how the glaciers of the last ice age polished off the rest of the landscape. I didn’t realize that you had paid so much close attention to what I had been teaching you this past week about this special place. YOU were teaching the other passengers on the boat and they were enthralled with your descriptions, mostly because you were opening them up to a world they would never be able to see from the deck of a ferry.
I stayed in the background and watched you with admiration as you described our day seeing the killer whale take the harbor seal. The other passengers listened in rapt astonishment. They asked you often how you felt on this journey. You didn’t hold back, and shared both the moments of joy as well as the moments of fear or discomfort. I then realized that I had underestimated you on the first day we met. Now, I was seeing you develop, grow and mature into a new person. I wanted to tell you right then how proud I was of you. I wanted to tell you that I would consider taking another trip with you anywhere, not just as a client, but as a partner. But I didn’t do that. I simply remained in the background and listened. I was gratified, however, that I might have had some small part in your growth by sharing our expedition together.
Over the loudspeaker, the captain announced that the on-board naturalist would soon be giving a talk near the bow of the ship. The rest of the passengers didn’t want to go, but instead they wanted to hear more about our trip. They thought your story was more interesting. You looked around to try to find me and see if I could help to add anything to our story. I stayed out of sight, but within earshot. You were doing just fine by yourself. You told the passengers about the bird life; about what the beach was like on that far shore; how thick the vegetation was in the forest; what a humpback whale sounds and smells like; how you can eat fresh food day after day; how storing fresh food in the bottom of the boat uses the cold sea water to make the boat act like nature’s refrigerator ….things they would have never known without you.
About an hour later, I joined you on the deck of the Solarium. You asked me where I had been for so long. I replied that I took a really long shower. You commented that we both smelled like day trip passengers on the ferry. You had a peaceful, contented look on your face as we steamed further south towards the end of our journey at Auke Bay.
It is my second consecutive night staring at the moon from the warmth of my hot tub in Central Oregon. I’m still thinking about you and about our trip together. I wonder how you view it now that you have more perspective on it. Do you still share it with others with the same enthusiasm that you did with those folks on the ferry? What kinds of places have you experienced since our trip together? Do you think about our trip as often as I do? What other things have you learned about the natural world?
When I tell people about our trip, they always press me to tell them your name. I am hesitant to do that, as I respect your privacy. You haven’t given me permission to share it, so I don’t feel comfortable doing so before publishing this piece on a blog for the whole world to see. But that doesn’t satisfy the curiosity of most of my readers. They want to know at least a few details.
“Are you a woman?”, they ask, probably thinking that because you were open with your emotions. “No,” say others, “I’m sure your were a man.” They probably thought that because of your endurance, strength and courage.
The pressure to reveal who you are is getting to me. I hope you will forgive me if I do end up telling. But know that I have only kind things to say about you. The readers of this story probably already know who you are. At least some of them do, so I hope you won’t mind me letting the cat out of the bag.
You are no one, yet you are everyone. All of the experiences told about our trip together are true and they happened at those exact places. Nothing was embellished. The only thing that is different is that they all happened to different people at different times, and on different expeditions up the Lynn Canal. The only one who has experienced all of them in one trip is YOU. Dear reader, YOU were the one in the front of the kayak. Only you experienced all of these things in one trip. I am so grateful that we finished the trip together. I look forward to the possibility of doing another geographical journey with you.
When I sit in the hot tub at night, I think of you. Where would you like to go next?
Although 2020 was a hellish year for many of us, I look back to 2004 as the year I literally went through Hell.
Not figuratively, but LITERALLY.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. I mean, it wasn’t even that hot. Given the fact that Hell’s latitude is about 63.5 degrees north of the equator puts its location only 3 degrees away from the Arctic Circle. At that latitude, it does freeze over occasionally, at least on a seasonal basis. And that got me to thinking….how do places get their names and how do those names affect those same places?
Hell is a little town in northern Norway. It’s about halfway between Oslo and Bodo, but about 2/3 of the way to Heaven (Lofoten).
The Lofoten Islands are heavenly….this picture near Reine, Lofoten, is in the same country of Norway, but still a long way from Hell.
But let’s go back to Hell. After all, this is what this story is about.
Nynorsk is the language that is spoken in Norway. Although it has Germanic roots, as does English, Hell means something different in their language. When putting the word Hell into an online translator, it comes out as “pour” in Norwegian. Although it does rain there quite a bit, due to the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift current taking “relatively” warmer water to a high latitude, and the westerly winds bumping marine air up against the Kjolen Mountains, Hell did not get its name from the amount of rain there. Hell also means “luck” in Norwegian. More likely, the town’s name came from some overhanging cliffs in the area (Hellir, in old Norse).
It is interesting to see the attachment that English speakers have to a place named “Hell”. Although the town is only a small bedroom community of the larger city of Trondheim, many English speakers go out of their way to visit Hell and have a picture taken there. I myself am guilty. Even Trip Advisor has a web page titled “Best things to do in Hell”. Monica Grudt, who was Miss Norway and Miss Universe in 1990, came from this area. She advertised herself as “A Beauty Queen from Hell”, which got her a lot of notoriety.
Next to the downtown Train station is a building that houses a business that handles Freight. The sign reads Gods Expedition, which translates as “Goods Handling” or “Cargo Service”. Again, many English speakers read this sign through their own cultural lens and think it has something to do with good versus evil in this locale.
We passed through Hell in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t see any children around, even though pop star Pat Benetar had a hit song titled, “Hell is for Children”.
Hell is not confined to the country of Norway. There is a Hell, Netherlands and a Hell, Michigan. Hell, Netherlands is in southern Holland. It is only 12 miles from Baarle-Nassau, where I visited the strangest international border configuration back in 2014. Had I known at the time that I was so close to Hell, I would have gone out of my way to visit there. It is located at 51.5 degrees North latitude, so I expect is does freeze over there too, at least on a seasonal basis.
While the word Hell in foreign countries may have an etymology based on their own languages, the one in Michigan certainly exploits that name as an invitation to tourists for economic benefit. I’ve never physically been there, but I recently traveled through the town via Google Earth. It’s only 16 miles west of Ann Arbor. Patterson Lake Road is the main drag through “town”, which consists of only a few buildings. It is an asphalt road. Dirt roads, such as Silver Lake Road intersect the main road. I guess you can say that since Patterson Lake Road is the only way into town from somewhere else, then the road to Hell was paved with good intentions.
The three main businesses I saw were the Hell Hole bar and Grill, the Screams from Hell souvenir shop, and the Hell saloon, which looked like a biker bar due to the amount of Harley-Davidsons parked outside. The souvenir shop also has an ice cream bar, which they call the “Creamatory”.
There is further evidence that Hell, Michigan is milking its name for all it’s worth. The post office there will burn and singe your postcards mailed from there. The motto of the unincorporated community is that “more people tell you to go to our town than anywhere else on earth”. You can even get a certificate for purchasing a piece of Hell by investing in a 1 inch square plot of real estate. A Canoe and Kayak rental business in a nearby town advertises that you can rent one of their boats and “Paddle through Hell” on a chain of nearby lakes. Somehow, that image doesn’t appeal to me.
Why the fascination with places called Hell? Many religions have the same concept of the afterlife which includes a Heaven and a Hell. In a 1982 paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, authors Skog and Stuart outlined a couple of reasons that the Church reinforced these concepts. One was to encourage members to engage in valuable social behavior….the social contract. The other possible reason was for the expropriation of rents for the Church. Those who gave were rewarded and those who didn’t were punished.
I’m sure there are more people who go out of their way to visit “devilish” places than Angelic ones. Look at the many other “devilish’ place names that attract tourists. In Oregon we have the Devil’s Punch Bowl on the Coast. California has Devil’s Postpile National Monument and the Devil’s Golf Course among many others. I paddled through the “Devil’s Elbow” on the Chestatee River in North Georgia several years ago. Also, one of the more famous landforms of the West is Devil’s Tower in Northeast Wyoming.
Other morbid place names include Hell for Certain, Kentucky and Satan’s Kingdom State Recreation Area in Connecticut. Unsurprisingly, the road signs for the Connecticut Park are often stolen. Then, there’s Hell’s Kitchen in New York City and Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina. Arizona has Tombstone and Skull Valley. If you look at any map of the Western United States you would see dozens of places named for the Devil. According to Wallace Stegner, “the Devil had a good deal to do with the making of the West” if you were to take the evidence of Place Names on the map into account. This probably had to do with the dry and harsh environment that settlers had to navigate through. I’m sure that some of these places didn’t freeze over very often.
Go look at some maps and study like Hell to find as many places as you can!
Today is February 5th in North America, but across the international date line it is February 6th. I landed in Auckland 30 years ago today and found the banks and many businesses were closed. I couldn’t change my U.S. dollars into New Zealand dollars. Public transport was largely unavailable. Why was everything closed on Feb. 6th? A local answered me. “Why mate, it’s WAITANGI DAY!” New Zealand is celebrating Waitangi Day, an important national holiday.
Since then, I have been flying a New Zealand flag outside of my house on every Feb. 5th in the USA. However, this year Waitangi Day will take on a new meaning, a more mournful one.
As a geographer and a vexillologist, I fly foreign flags whenever there is an occasion to do so. I’m not anti-American, as I fly old glory when we celebrate our national holidays. But my neighbors now know to ask what is the occasion and where is it celebrated, when they see a foreign flag flying outside of our house.
Waitangi Day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi of 6 February 1840. The treaty was drafted with the intention of establishing a British governor of New Zealand, while recognizing the native Maori people’s ownership of their lands. It was intended to give the Maoris the same rights as any other British subjects. The treaty appeared in both languages, but the English translation gave more power to the crown, with the Maori text inaccurately translated in English. There were several instances during the next century where the New Zealand government did not abide by the original treaty. The Maori ended up losing much of their original lands.
Today, Waitangi Day is a celebration of Maori culture, as well as a day to highlight issues important to the Maori people. It was made a national holiday in 1974. The main activities occur at the Treaty Grounds at the municipality of Waitangi, on the North Island of New Zealand, near the Bay of Islands. The treaty is widely regarded as the founding document of New Zealand.
In the Maori language, they call their land Aotearoa, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud”. It is called this because the Southern Alps, which trend North to South, are perpendicular to the Westerly Winds, and the mountains force the air upslope until the moist winds coming off of the Tasman Sea cool and reach their dew point, forming a blanket of clouds against the mountains. They are a deeply spiritual people, trying to live in harmony with their ecosystem.
But what happened on the night of January 22nd, 2021 would change the way I celebrate Waitangi Day from now on. It started out as a nice night. The previous night had dropped a fresh blanket of snow on the ground, only enough on the patio table to cover up 1/2 of a beer can as I sat in the hot tub. I planned to take another dip the night of the 22nd. It was by any account a beautiful night. The low stratus clouds covered most of the sky. The albedo of the snow combined with the cloud cover reflected any light and turned midnight into twilight. I wondered, “How do my friends in warmer climates do without this experience?”
Before I put my swimming trunks on, I turned on the TV to catch up on some sporting news on ESPN. It was then that I heard that Henry Aaron had passed away earlier in the day. I idolized him as a young boy. He is one of the biggest reasons I love baseball so much. As I grew into adulthood, I came to respect him not just as a baseball player, but as a man. It is hard to describe how much of a gut punch it was to hear the news of his passing.
Henry Louis Aaron was born on February 5 (Waitangi Day in NZ), 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. Many of you may know him as the former home run leader in baseball. He broke Babe Ruth’s long held record of 714 home runs on April 8th, 1974. That record stood for more than 30 years, but was broken by someone who used steroids. But he should be remembered as so much more than just a player who could hit the long ball. There are many Hall of Fame players, and then there is Henry Aaron.
Aaron grew up in the racist South. He joined the Negro leagues in the early 1950s and played for the Indianapolis Clowns. He played so well that he got two offers from major league teams and ended up signing with the Milwaukee Braves just because they offered him $50/month more than the Giants did. The year that I was born he led his team to the National League pennant and a World Series Championship. He batted .322, hit 44 home runs and had 132 runs batted in. He played in the major leagues for 23 years and still holds the record for RBI at 2,297 and total bases at 6,856. For non-baseball folks, total bases is the number of bases a player has gained with hits. A single is one base and a home run is four bases. Aaron hit for a high average and had lots of doubles and home runs, hence the leader in total bases.
By the age of eight, I was already a big fan. I had a large poster of him in my bedroom, along with another one of Roberto Clemente, my other favorite player. During the racial tensions of the 1960s, a young white boy’s room was plastered with posters of two men of color. Even when I grew older and some of my friends had pictures of blonde sex-kittens adorning their walls, I still had posters of two men of color in my room.
But Henry Aaron was just as well regarded as an exceptional human being as he was as a baseball phenom. It wasn’t until much later that I realized how much hatred and racism he overcame. Aaron finished the 1973 season just one homer shy of Babe Ruth’s record. He had to endure the entire off season dealing with death threats and feared that he wouldn’t live to see 1974. All through this, he remained a class act. Although there were rumors of such things, much of this wasn’t revealed until after he retired. After he stopped playing, he remained passionate about empowering others and was known for his dignity, generosity, and humility. Former president G.W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002. He was truly a national treasure. The New York times posted an article titled “A Quiet Life of Loud Home Runs: Hank Aaron in Photographs”. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/23/sports/baseball/hank-aaron-death-baseball-photos.html
I turned off the TV and went out to sit in the hot tub. Suddenly, what was a beautiful night a few moments ago seemed to be diminished. Yes, the water was still hot, and the light still glistened off of the snow somewhat, but the night seemed darker than it was just a few minutes before. All races and nationalities will mourn this night. I think about the future and the young people who will grow up in a world without a Henry Aaron in it. Today would have been his 87th birthday. It is also Waitangi Day in New Zealand. I will still fly my New Zealand flag and celebrate Maori culture every February 5th, while remembering the legacy of an influential man on his birthday. And I will continue to hope for a brighter future for both the Maori people and for African-Americans in their struggle for racial and cultural equality.
While giving a lecture about the Natural History of Southeast Alaska at a local museum, I explained the forces which shaped much of the beautiful landscape of the area. Then, towards the end of the presentation, I quickly flipped through a couple of pictures and declared, “this is a shot of Sumdum Mountain” and the next slide was a shot of “Sumdum Glacier”. Jaws dropped and the audience stared back, as if to say “that doesn’t sound very professorial.” They heard “Some Dumb Mountain” instead of “Sumdum Mountain”.
Had they looked at a map of the area, they would have noticed that many of the place names come from the Tlingit people, the native group who originally inhabited the area. In their native tongue, Sumdum means “big noise”, as it is located on a glacial fjord. The mountain still has a small alpine glacier, which may make some noise as it calves.
The map above shows two long fjords in Southeast Alaska. The Sawyer glaciers are at the head of Tracy Arm. The Dawes Glacier is at the head of Endicott Arm. Both of the bodies of water were carved out by those glaciers during the last Ice Age. Sumdum Glacier is not a tidewater glacier, but may have been connected to the Dawes glacier when the tidewater glaciers had a much larger extent. We don’t have to go back thousands of years to see large changes in the extent of the ice.
Just over 225 years ago, when British sea captains were exploring these waters, what we now know as Glacier Bay was completely under ice. During the Holocene Era, most of the glaciers in SE AK have undergone thinning and retreat, exposing land for the first time in 9,000 years. (Larsen, Motyka, and Arendt: Glacier Changes in SE Alaska; Journal of Geophysical Atmospheres, Feb. 2007)
The native Tlingit people have been living in this region for a long time. They may have named Sumdum Glacier when the tidewater glacier was much closer to the present day mountain. A place which used to be associated with a “big noise” from calving glaciers is no longer a loud place. Yes, there is still a mountain glacier there which may have some ice fall from time to time, but I heard nothing when I paddled through this part of the world in 1988 and again in 2000. This is how a place name might lose its original connotation over time.
My purpose for this post is less about climate change (which is an important subject) and more about place names on the map. In the digital age, fewer and fewer people look at maps anymore. Even when they do, it is usually just to double check a route to a destination they are headed to. I invite you, dear readers, to take out a map and spend time looking it over. It can be a topographical map or a reference map. It could be of your local area or an area that you are interested in visiting or returning to. Allow yourself to EXPLORE…not hunting for anything in particular. Some of the best discoveries happen by accident. When you find some place name that intrigues you, then do some research. What is the etymology behind some of those place names?
Place names may yield many fascinating historical insights. They may provide insight into ethno-cultural factors of the people that named them. For example, many place names in Alaska came from different settlement groups. The Native Americans named many places for their physical features or a resource that they provided. The native name for Admiralty Island is Kootznoowoo, meaning “Bear Fortress” in the native tongue. This island has some of the highest concentration of Brown Bears per square mile than any other place on the planet. The first white settlers came from Russia. Chichagof and Baranof Islands take their names from Russian culture. When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Navy explored and charted the area. Many place names in that era come from political leaders (Lincoln Island), navy commanders (Ralston Island), and some native names like Kootznoowoo were replaced. Most modern maps show the island to be named Admiralty Island.
Some place names like Misery Ridge or Massacre Meadows denote past historic events or difficulties experienced by the first settlers. Or, they might denote happier experiences. I’d like to know the etymology of the town of Climax, Georgia, in the southwest part of the state. However, we must be careful not to view a place name through our own cultural lens. Whatever Bitch Creek, Idaho might connote in English would be different than the French word biche, meaning “cow elk”, from whence it was derived from.
Such explorations using maps will not only be a geographical journey. It will include a journey into history, anthropology, geology, biology, and many other disciplines. You may discover something new about a familiar place, or be further intrigued by a remote place. It will give each place a specific personality. Never again will a “nowhere” place become “some dumb mountain”.
Burns, Oregon on a very hot summer day a long time ago. We were packing up our bicycles outside of the Thriftway Grocery store when the man approached, gave us a long look and then spoke.
“Are you boys riding all the way across the desert to Ontario?” he asked.
“No”, we replied. “We’re heading over to Bend”.
“Oh, then you’re coming FROM Ontario?”
“Actually, no. We biked up here from Denio, Nevada.”
His head swiveled back so fast that we thought maybe he could have snapped a vertebrae. He looked up quizzically at the sky, paused briefly, and then said, “Well, I NEVER heard of ANYBODY doing THAT before!”
BROAD….EXPANSIVE….DESOLATE….Hundreds of miles of Nothingness. These are some of the descriptions people use to describe the Southeastern Corner of Oregon. While some of these adjectives might repel some people, they are attractive to others. It is these characteristics which keep me going back there, time after time.
Look at an aerial view of the United States at night, which shows the lights of cities and towns. Your eye may wander to the darkest place in the lower 48 states. In the middle of that dark spot on the map will be where Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada meet. I made a recent post about a weekend trip to the Nevada-Oregon border back on December 10. click on the following link to access the post if you haven’t seen it yet. https://wordpress.com/post/geographicaljourneys.wordpress.com/1059
That was only a weekend trip. To fully experience the vastness of the land and to know it more fully, you can’t just drive through it. You have to move more slowly through it and take it all in. One way to do this is to pedal a bicycle from the Nevada border through the desert all the way to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, at the end of the sagebrush ocean.
I called this expedition BROAD, and acronym for Bike Riding Oregon Across the Desert. During this trip, which we made several years ago, the BROAD acronym would come to mean many other things.
I convinced a fellow geographer, Erik, to make the trip with me. We would start the trip in mid-June, after the completion of the school year, but still early enough for there to be some water in the ephemeral streams coming from snow melt out of the mountains.
We had only a few short training trips near Bend before we embarked on the six hour car ride to the Nevada border, where we would start the expedition. Erik’s wife drove us down to our campsite at Bog Hot Spring, which was about a dozen miles on the other side of the Nevada border. On the way down, we took a side trip as we drove as high as we could on the road up the north side of Steens Mountain, nearly reaching the summit before snow blocked the road. We walked among the mountain mahogany trees, a virtual island of forest in the middle of a sagebrush ocean, due to the increased rainfall at higher elevations. The Steens are a fault block mountain range which runs north to south and is perpendicular to the westerly winds. With its summit peaking out at nearly 10,000 feet, the mountain forces the winds upslope, cooling them below their dew point and squeezing out the last bit of Pacific moisture that was not wrung out by the Cascade Range to the west. Further up the mountain, the mountain mahogany gave way to the Alpine Tundra ecosystem, still underlain by snow. After our brief exploration, we drove back downhill towards warmer temperatures and the ocean of sagebrush. We crossed part of the Malheur Wildlife refuge, a gathering place for migratory birds in the Spring and Fall. But this was June. Most of the Neo-tropical migrants had already left for their Arctic nesting grounds.
On the last leg of the car journey south of Frenchglen, we stopped along the route to check the water levels of the creeks, as we would be biking back to Bend along the same desolate route. Although several were low, water was still present in a few of them.
The slope of the Steens Mountain is much gentler on the west side, but the escarpment on the east side of the fault is extremely steep and plunges abruptly almost a mile from the summit to the floor of the Alvord Desert. There is but one road that crosses the mighty Steens Mountain, about 45 miles south of Frenchglen, where there is a dip in the fault block connecting the Steens Mountains to the Pueblo Mountains further south. Even here, the road was steep. I got a lump in my throat thinking about how hard it would be to pedal a loaded bike back up this hill in a few days.
We crossed the border into Nevada and made our camp at Bog Hot Basin, a basin surrounded on three sides by desert mountains which had a hot spring that was dammed up to make a nice soaking pool. Hot springs are typically found near the base of fault block mountains, typical of the Basin and Range Geological province. This area was also an oasis for wildlife, including mule deer, pronghorn antelope, jackrabbits and a myriad of birds.
The three of us had a relaxing evening soaking in the thermal pools. We listened to Redwing blackbirds chirping in the rabbitbrush as the sky glowed orange and purple at sunset. The aroma of sage and sulfur permeated the air. The sounds of the gurgling stream relaxed us enough to make us forget about the trials that we would have biking tomorrow. We slept well.
The following morning we drove the nine miles to the lonely outpost of Denio Junction, population 36 (if you count every rancher who lives in the nearby valleys), where there was a cafe and a gas station. The sign outside noted the mileage to other world destinations (Moscow- 7,988 miles; New York-2,787 miles; and Tipperary-It’s a LONG WAY). Officially, we were in the capital of Nowhere! We went to the cafe and ordered a big breakfast (our last meal?). We sipped coffee, surrounded by stuffed heads of game animals, and slot machines (yes, we are in NEVADA!) A couple of cowboys in the cafe leered at us with a look that said “You ain’t from around here, boy!” I knew we shouldn’t have worn our bicycle shorts into the cafe.
After breakfast, a short three mile ride took us to the state line, where we unloaded the bikes and loaded up the saddlebags right behind the “Welcome to Nevada” sign. I finished packing my saddlebags while Erik and his wife said their goodbyes. She took a “before” picture of us before we took off to the north. She drove back to Bend via the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge and Lakeview.
It was still fairly cool as we started our ride north on the lonely Fields-Denio road. The beautiful Pueblo Mountains were just to our left and the Trout Creek mountains were off in the distance to our right, across a broad valley. The road was straight and mostly flat, which was a good way for us to warm up and get our bodies accustomed to riding. We passed by a few cattle ranches. The cattle stopped chewing their cuds and stared incredulously back at us. This was surely the first time they had ever seen a human on a bicycle. It was not only strange to them; it was terrifying! Even though they were several yards away and behind a fence, they ran and kicked at the air as we cycled by. If they had seen a Martian spacecraft land on their ranch with little gray men disembarking, I think their reaction would be no different than when they saw us.
After about an hour we passed by the cutoff to Whitehorse Ranch, a dirt road which is the only route through the Trout Creek Mountains to connect to the next valley. It was beginning to warm up a bit. At mile 22, we stopped at the metropolis of Fields (population 3) where a family operated a cafe, motel and a gas station. This would be our only contact with other homo sapiens today, so we stopped for a rest and a snack. They serve the World’s Best Milkshakes there….it says so right on the sign. They make them the old fashioned way, using hand dipped ice cream. How they are sure that there is not some other confectionery that serves equally good if not better milkshakes in some corner of the world (maybe Slovakia?) I’ll never know. But since the desert was starting to heat up outside, we decided to try one out. I ordered a Cherry shake and Erik chose Vanilla. The owner took out an eraser and a piece of chalk and crossed off a number off of the chalkboard and wrote a new number down. We had just ordered the 1,976th and 1,977th milkshakes sold that year.
After they brought out the milkshakes, we realized that we should have ordered only one and split it. I love ice cream, but even I could not finish this gargantuan concoction. When we stepped outside, we noticed a sharp increase in the outside air temperature. Our tummies full, a bloating feeling began to overtake us. Just three miles ahead of us lay the steepest, longest uphill climb of the whole trip. I joked to the owner of the cafe, “If you see a big pink blob in the middle of the road on your next trip over the mountain, you know that it was the Cherry shake that blew me up!”
Three miles after we mounted the bikes, we came to the sharp bend to the left that would take us over to the west side of the Steens. For a moment, we contemplated heading directly north on the dirt road which skirted the east side of the mountain. Although it is much flatter, it is 50 miles of washboard road, so we decided to suck it up and pedal skyward. The first couple of miles weren’t too bad, but soon after the incline got progressively steeper. I’m ashamed to say, but a couple of times I got off and walked the bike, simply because I was already pedaling in the lowest gear and barely moving faster than walking. For the next 3/4 hour, we alternately biked and walked, until we finally reached the summit. The view from the top of the hill was exquisite; one could see back into Idaho and Nevada to the south and east. To the west we could glimpse the Cascade range. We could almost see the entire route of our trip from this vantage point.
The next ten miles were almost all downhill. It was so much fun to move at such a fast pace. The wind in our faces helped to evaporate the sweat that had been dripping off our foreheads and stinging our eyes. Finally, a truck passed us, the first vehicle we had seen since Fields station. As we dropped into the Catlow Valley, the road turned sharply to the north again. The breeze stopped and the heat resumed. At least we had cleared the biggest hurdle of the trip (or so we thought at the time!) We checked our maps to see how far it was to Skull Creek, our first water source. With no reason to arrive there with full bottles, we gulped down another liter of water and left only a few sips to have on the way to the creek. Although there were no vehicles on the road, we had to bike in a serpentine motion to avoid all of the cattle dung. At last, nearly out of water and very thirsty, we came to the bridge over Skull Creek.
We acted like kids in a candy store upon finding cool water in the desert. We soaked our bandannas, poured water over our heads, filled our water bottles to the brim and drank until our bellies could hold no more. We thought about camping here, but we still had a lot of mileage to cover. Roaring Springs lay ahead, so there would be more water on the way.
About a mile past Skull Creek, my front tire went flat. I had a couple of spares with me, so after a few minutes to change out a tube, we were on our way again. About another mile ahead, the tire blew out again. Damn! I should have done a better inspection the first time. This time I found the culprit, a tiny piece of metal shaving lodged on the side of the tire. Although I had an old patch kit, I had just used up my only two spare tires (and this was only DAY ONE!). This warranted a change of plans for the rest of the route. Originally, we had planned to take the mountain bikes over dirt roads to get to Hwy 395, but with no spares, we decided that would not be wise. We were still over 90 miles away from Burns, Oregon…the closest place where we could buy another spare. Fingers crossed, we again headed north towards Roaring Springs and Frenchglen.
Upon reaching the stately Roaring Springs Ranch, we found ourselves caught in the middle of a cattle drive coming down the road towards us. Cowboys were driving the herd from rangelands in the north back to the ranch. Barbed wire fence lined both sides of the road, so there was no place for two northbound bikers to hide. We dismounted and slowly walked our bikes through the southbound herd. I remembered how spooked the cattle were when they spotted us south of Fields earlier in the day. I just hoped that two men walking bikes right next to them would not cause them to panic. I had visions of a local television station newscast airing a story…”Two Bend mountain bikers trampled to death by stampeding cattle herd- Details at 11PM.”
The cowboys driving the herd assured us. “Just keep moving slowly, and they’ll get out of the way.” As we meandered through the herd, bikers and cattle stared each other down. I’m not sure who was more nervous, but there was no incident. That is unless you count stepping through fresh cow patties!
After mounting the bikes again and pedaling about 5 more miles, we came across a couple of stray cows who had become separated from the herd. When they saw us, they turned around and headed back north, in the wrong direction. We tried to walk our bikes on one side of the road to give them room to pass, but they would have none of it. They were panic-stricken. One tried to escape by attempting to bust through the barbed wire fence. She got her head stuck in it for a moment and then broke the barbed wire and galloped toward the open range. At this point, we mounted the bikes again and began riding. At our last glimpse back, she was still in a full sprint towards the western horizon. As far as we know, she may still be running!
At mile 62 of day 1, we called it quits for the day and set up camp on the side of the road next to the sign for the South Steens road. What an eventful first day! Our butts were sore from all of the time in the saddle and we were tired. We came up with a new meaning for the acronym B.R.O.A.D. (Being Really Overly Ambitious Dummies!) As we were setting up our tents, a truck pulled over and the driver approached us.
“Are you boys okay?”, he asked. “What are you doing out here?”
“We’re biking across Oregon”, we replied. “We’re just camping here for the night.”
His first look was one of disbelief, which then changed to concern. He kindly offered us some water, but since we had topped off at Roaring Springs, we declined his offer. Convinced that although we were probably insane, we were probably not in immediate danger. He wished us well and went on his way. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall to listen what he told his wife when he got home.
The night was peaceful. When I got up in the middle of the night to relieve myself, the astronomical delights of the desert sky overwhelmed my senses. The lack of light pollution from cities, combined with the dearth of atmospheric moisture make for such a star studded sky that one can only experience in remote desert areas. Urban and suburban dwellers just don’t realize how many stars there are in the heavens. Gazing upon such a beautiful sight turns nowhere into a somewhere you will never forget.
It was so beautiful that I decided to sleep outside of the tent, just staring up at the stars, the slim sliver of a crescent moon and the Milky Way. With no clouds to act as an insulating blanket, it was getting much colder, due to the enhanced radiational cooling of the daytime heat escaping into space. No worries….just put on a warm hat and zip up the sleeping bag so that your nose and eyes are the only body parts exposed to the cold. The little bit of moonlight on that night lit up the con trail of a jetliner. By the direction of its flight, I suspected it might be the Portland to Houston flight. I wondered if anyone sitting at a window seat might be staring out the window at the same time I was looking up. They would be looking down into the blackness of the landscape where there were no lights. They might come to the conclusion that they were flying over a wasteland, a nowhere place. Other passengers might be either sleeping or watching an in-flight movie. On the other hand, I had come to the nowhere and discovered that the movie I was watching was better than anything put out by Hollywood. This theater was not crowded. I had a great seat and the most enormous viewing screen you could imagine. Plus, this movie had smellivision; the aroma of fresh sage permeated the air. The shrill cry of the hawk and a howling coyote in the distance provided the Sensurround sound. Tired, contented, and satisfied, I drifted back to sleep.
We figured we had about 20 miles of riding until we got to the village of Frenchglen, where there was an historic hotel with a restaurant which offered great home cooked meals. We packed up the camping gear, loaded the bikes, eschewed the packets of instant oatmeal and headed north towards breakfast. About a mile up the road we saw a sign: Frenchglen-10 Miles. Booyah! Breakfast will be sooner than we thought.
The final three miles on the road into Frenchglen is a steep, sinuous, downhill ride. We rode our brakes the whole way down, pausing at overlooks to take in the breathtaking scenery. Frenchglen (population 11) is on the margin of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, a birder’s paradise in the Spring and Fall. The refuge sits in the basin below Steens Mountain and collects water from melting snow and provides an oasis in the desert for neotropical migrants, as well as indigenous avian life. Several years after our trip, the refuge would be occupied by a right-wing militia group, which would briefly put this little known place on the national map. But it was still Terra Incognita when we came through here. The historic Frenchglen Hotel is located here. The owner, John Ross, is an accomplished cook. Some people drive an hour from the town of Burns just to have dinner here. Others make the hotel their base camp for excursions into the Refuge, where up to 130 species of birds can be viewed in a single day during the Spring. We however, came to hunt pancakes!
We pulled up our bikes and hitched them to a post under the cottonwood trees at the front of the historic two-story building. We opened the screen door to the porch and entered the dining room on the first floor and sat down at one of the two picnic tables where family style dinners are served. Nobody seemed to be around, but there was a car outside and the sign did say OPEN. There were couches in the lobby with bird books and historical pictures of Harney County all around, as well as relief maps on the walls. We poured ourselves some coffee from the coffee pot in the room, grabbed some menus, and waited for someone to show up.
About 5 more minutes passed by. Just when I was ready to go back into the kitchen to make my own breakfast, a lady appeared.
“I’m sorry”, she said. “I didn’t hear your car pull up, and I didn’t know anyone was here yet”.
“That’s because we didn’t drive a car”, Erik said.
“How did you get here then?”
“We rode our bikes here. We’re biking across Oregon.” That statement got a couple of raised eyebrows!
After unmercilessly slaying piles of pancakes and fortifying ourselves with copious quantities of coffee, we inquired about spare tubes for our bikes. “There’s no place here that can help you”, she said. “But the Narrows Cafe has a shop. It’s about 30 miles from here, about halfway to Burns. You can probably get a spare tube there”.
Our tanks topped off, we saddled up and continued the ride north. To our right were the marsh lands of the Malheur Refuge. A canal was adjacent to the road, the result of dredging to build up the roadway. To a migrating bird, the sight of cattails, reeds, and ponds must have seemed like heaven, especially after flying over miles and miles of barren desert. We spotted Redwing Blackbirds, Western Tanagers, Mergansers, Coots, Shovelers, Kestrels, and Rough-Legged Hawks. We counted many species of ducks, and spotted an occasional Blue Heron. A few Sandhill Cranes were still in the area too.
We planned on taking a short side trip to the Buena Vista Overlook just ahead. Just the name was enough to make us take the side trip. It means “Good View” in Spanish. Pues, tiene que ser una muy Buena Vista! The hill overlooking the marshes is what gave the place its name.
We were slowing down to get ready to dismount the bikes. Erik was about 30 seconds ahead of me. He dismounted first. Immediately, he started flailing his arms wildly and shaking his head. Was he having some sort of seizure? Then, he quickly pounced back on his bike and raced toward me, screaming incomprehensibly. I stopped for a moment to assess the situation; then I GOT IT! Millions of hungry mosquitos were attacking! We raced back to the paved road at full speed, holding the handlebars with one hand and swatting the annoying pests with the other. It took us three full miles, pedaling as fast as we could to escape the torture. We wondered, “what did they survive on before we got here?” Maybe the name should be changed to Cerro Doloroso! (Painful Hill)
The route started to take us away from the marshes and back into true desert. The heat became intense and the undulating hills went on seemingly forever. We climbed a long hill and took a brief rest at the summit. Ahead, we could see the Narrows, the lonely outpost of civilization where we could order lunch and maybe buy a spare bike tube. The speedy downhill ride into the Narrows created enough of a breeze to evaporate the sweat from our faces.
The Narrows is an oasis in the desert for many types of travelers. The property consists of an RV park, a store and grocery shop, a full service restaurant, and showers. Although there were no spare tires for bikes, we did purchase another patch kit for the ruptured tubes. But first things first…We ordered a big lunch consisting of cheeseburgers and fries (got to keep our moving parts lubricated!). A family of RVers sitting in a booth eyed us cautiously, not knowing what to make of a couple of sweaty guys biking through the desert in the summer heat.
After lunch, we sat in the shade and attempted to apply rubber patches to the ruptured tubes. The glue would NOT adhere. Several attempts failed to make repairs, so we had to check other options. After several phone inquiries to the town of Burns, we finally found a sporting goods store that had a bunch of tubes in stock. They said that they would be open until 9PM, so I had them set three tubes aside until we could get there. We were still over 30 miles away and had already biked 40 miles this morning, so this was going to be a long day.
We headed north, and away from our original route, which was to cut across dirt roads and connect with Hwy 395. Traffic picked up a bit as we came closer to Burns, a megalopolis of about 3,000 inhabitants, which served as the hub for all of Southeastern Oregon. The route was fairly flat, except for the steep crossing of Wrights Point, a large promontory of igneous rock which ran East-West. Wrights Point is one of the best examples of inverted topography in the area, where viscous lava flowed into an ancient canyon and hardened into rock. Subsequently, the less resistant material making up the sides of the original canyon eroded away, leaving the steep rock wall with a flat top behind. Think of it as nature’s Jello Mold.
The grade up the hill was exceedingly steep. After 200 yards of pedaling furiously and getting nowhere, we dismounted and pushed the loaded bikes up the hill. Had we not been so tired, we might have felt embarrassed by doing so. Diesel trucks sped by, seemingly inches away from us, as there were no shoulders on the road. At last, we reached the top of the ridge and caught a glimpse of the town, still about 10 more miles away. The sun was getting low in the west and the clouds and sky reflected orange and purple. The trip down the other side was as steep as the climb up. This time, we were moving almost as fast as the pickup trucks on the road.
The ride into town will be forever etched into my memory. The air was now cooler and crisp. What would be fields of hay later in the summer were now still in flood from the Spring snow melt. A cacophony of bird calls and cricket chirps was the soundtrack for our pedal cruise through the marshlands south of town. A myriad of moths and swallows darted around us in the crepuscular conditions of the purple/orange twilight of the sky. When we finally reached town, we cruised past couples walking their dogs. We smelled spare ribs grilling on a backyard grill, and heard laughter and country music. The door of an old yellow Ford pickup truck opened in front of us. A young couple heading to the barbecue exited the truck with a case of cold beer in their arms.
Upon arriving at Hwy 20, the U.S. Highway that links Burns to the rest of the outside world, we checked our odometers and found that we had logged a 72 mile day! The new meaning for B.R.O.A.D. changed. It would now be Bike Riding Over Astronomical Distances!
The lure of civilization combined with the time of day convinced us to spring for a hotel room and take a night off from camping. Erik took the highway East to find a hotel while I went West to reach King’s Sporting Goods store before they closed. The store was empty except for one lone employee. It felt great to be in air conditioning. I bought the three spare tires and met Erik at the Super 8 motel. After a shower and a change of clothes, we trundled across the street to a Pizza Pub. Burns may be a slow backwater village to most who travel through here just to fill up the gas tank, but after where we had just been, it seemed like a big city. Ironically, you might find it labeled on a World Globe. It is not that it is so big, but just that geographers don’t like blank spaces on the map. And with so much blank space, there is nothing else in Eastern Oregon to put on a globe. We felt like city folk again, falling asleep on our beds with the A/C running.
From years of guiding, I knew that day three is always an important make or break day. Your body is beginning to break down from the physical punishment. Psychologically, you need a good omen to get you through the day. A bad day on Day 3 can put a real damper on a trip. I was anxious to see which way this would go for us.
We stopped at the Thriftway grocery store at the edge of town to stock up on some treats. We parked the bikes outside and took turns shopping, so one of us could watch the bikes. There were no bike racks here, because adults don’t ride bikes in Harney county, only kids do. When we both had finished our shopping, we packed the bikes and that’s when the driver of the Harney County Dial-A-Ride van parked close to us. He was the man who spoke to us at the beginning of this story.
We took his remark about “NEVER hearing about ANYBODY doing THAT” as a compliment. It took us a few minutes to convince him that we would be okay; that we had enough bottled water to get us through the desert and that we had just biked 136 miles in the past two days; that we indeed did not just escape from the Mental Health clinic and that we were headed HOME. After failing to dissuade us from our pilgrimage, he wished us well and we were on our way.
Burns sits in the middle of the Harney Basin, which means it is uphill any way you leave town. A couple of miles out of town on U.S. 20 the grade began to steepen a bit. To compound matters, the wind was picking up. Uphill into the wind was not the omen I was looking for on day three. Also, the traffic was pretty heavy, including semis hauling freight to distant places. Although there was a shoulder on the road, it was quite narrow. We would have to put up with these conditions for another 25 miles, until we hit the remote outpost of Riley, Oregon, where we would head south on U.S. 395.
The “town” of Riley lays at the intersection of U.S. Highways 20 and 395. It consists of a gas station and store, a post office and an RV park. The one billboard next to the store states in bold letters, “Whoa, Ya Missed Riley!” The most direct way to go back to Bend would have us continue straight on Hwy 20, but the high traffic and dangerous biking conditions convinced us to choose the longer 395 route. We had originally planned to hit 395 on dirt roads and then travel on blacktop through Christmas Valley and Fort Rock. Our side trip to Burns was unintended, but necessary due to the need for spare tubes.
At the Riley store, we saw a FedEx truck pull in, waiting to receive shuttled freight from Bend. Since my wife worked for FedEx, I went over to the driver and had her radio to dispatch to give her an update on our whereabouts. Meanwhile, Erik went inside the store to inquire if the lonely outpost of Wagontire, Oregon (28 miles away) was still open. The owner answered his phone call and said he would stay there until we arrived, provided that we pick up a pack of Lucky Strikes for him from the Riley store. This would be the first and only time I had taken a bike trip with a pack of cigarettes in my saddle bags!
We headed south on 395 straight into the teeth of gale force winds. Our butts were sore from being in the saddle for two and a half days, and now our calves were screaming for relief. There was nothing higher than a sagebrush to block any wind. We put our heads down and gritted it out. Day three was shaping up to be a break, and not a make, day.
The winds were steady 25 knots with gusts towards 35 knots. A large wooden sign denoting the Northern Great Basin Experimental Rangelands was perpendicular to the wind flow. We sat behind it and took a break, disgusted and demoralized by the conditions. We didn’t want to continue, but hey….there was a cowboy up the road who was waiting on us and running out of smokes. It was our duty to get his cigarettes to him! So, we plodded on.
We were almost blown over a couple of times with the wind. I looked up at the heavens and shook my fist at God. When I did, the gusts got stronger. Erik begged me not to do that anymore.
The wind picked up the loose desert dirt and sandblasted our faces with it. We put on our bandannas like we were bank robbers and pedaled on. B.R.O.A.D. took on a new meaning du jour. Today it stood for Blowing Really Outrageous Amounts of Dirt. After what seemed an eternity, we viewed the lonely outpost of Wagontire, Oregon (population 2) in the distance. A grizzled, leathery-faced cowboy sat on the porch, smoking his last cigarette down to the nub. A sign announcing NO GAS was next to the pump. Tumbleweeds sped past us.
“I thought you boys would never get here”, he said. It had taken us almost 4 hours to pedal a mere twenty-eight miles. The total for the day was only 53 miles, but it was the most difficult day of riding by far. The cowboy let us refill our water bottles, thanked us for the smokes, then told us he was off to visit a sick friend. Erik made camp in the shadow of the store, while I went down the road about 1/2 mile away and rolled out my bag on the leeward side of a dune. On cue, the wind abated that evening. I fell asleep again while looking up at the stars.
At daybreak, I was just putting away the camp stove after making the second cup of coffee, when I saw Erik riding towards me. It was a good idea to get an early start before the winds picked up again. It was good that our timing was in sync to start the day.
Once we got to the sign welcoming us to Lake County, we started cruising downhill. We both stood up on the bikes as much as possible as we had sore butts from three long days in the saddle. Plus, the blacktop had numerous cracks in it due to the extreme diurnal temperature ranges, which made for even more jarring while seated. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I can’t imagine that being gang raped in the prison yard would be more painful than riding 200 continuous miles on a mountain bike over cracked roads.
Once we exited Hwy 395 the traffic became almost non-existent. We had one more very steep hill to climb, and for the 3rd time in 4 days, we walked our bikes up a hill. At the top of the escarpment, another stiff breeze greeted us. At least this time, we would not be biking uphill into the wind. For the next 15 miles, the road was straight as an arrow with no grades to climb. We did not pull into Christmas Valley until the afternoon. Christmas Valley is an unincorporated community where hay farming and ranching are the economic mainstays of the region. It is dusty, windy, and isolated, but there were a couple of restaurants in town. We decided to take a break from the sandblasting and have a long lunch.
We had to choose between a couple of restaurants. We rode through a dirt parking lot filled with large pickup trucks (a sign of approval by the locals). A large row of hedges surrounded the restaurant. It was there that we were discussing what to do with the bikes, when a lady exited the establishment and told us that the meals here were not as good as the other place in town. We thanked her for her advice and were getting ready to check out the next place.
Suddenly, a booming voice thundered behind us. “I’m a FAT man!”, he scowled. We turned to confront a huge man staring at us. He was about 6’4″ tall and at least as wide. He must have weighed over 450 pounds. Was he upset that we were blocking his way into the restaurant?
He grabbed his suspenders with his left hand, made a fist with his right hand and pointed at his chest with his right thumb. He then shouted again, “I’m a FAT man!”
Erik and I looked at each other nervously. The fact that the man was fat was obvious. Why he appeared to be angry with us was not. We moved our bikes out of the way and made room for him to pass by. His demeanor changed.
“I heard you discussing where to eat with that lady”, he said. “Fat men know where to eat. Are you going to listen to that skinny little lady, or somebody like me? I eat lunch here every day and I can verify that THIS place is much better that the one SHE was telling you about.”
Who could argue with logic like that? Convinced by his logic, we chained our bikes together, went to the washroom to clean up, then sat down and looked at some menus. I couldn’t help but notice, and neither could anyone else not notice, but we were again the only people in the restaurant wearing bicycle shorts. Everyone else either had on jeans, cowboy boots, or work boots. A sizeable percentage of the clientele sported oversized belt buckles. It was like the Denio cafe, minus the liquor.
We went through a buffet line and loaded up our plates with salad, chicken, fruits and vegetables. The fat man was sitting with some friends at an adjacent table. There were several empty plates in front of him and a couple of full ones too.
“I was right, wasn’t I?”, he asked. We nodded in agreement.
Our next move was up for discussion. Erik wanted to look for a place to camp near town, but I wanted to move towards Fort Rock, another 26 miles away. The wind was still blowing, but not quite as hard as it was earlier. We still had a lot of daylight ahead. I was not enthralled with camping near Christmas Valley and Erik was not anxious to continue pedaling into the wind. After an hour of waiting and deliberating, we decided to pedal until it was dark and then make camp.
We put our heads down and pedaled into the West wind, passing Kitty Litter Lane, the site of an old mine. At a fork in the road, the smell of death overtook us. On the other side of the highway, on top of an electrical transformer lay the corpse of a badger.
The sun was getting lower in the sky. I found a flat, dusty place to lay out the sleeping bags, but technically it was on “private land”. The thought of a rancher discovering us “squatting” on his land spooked Erik enough to keep moving. In the distance, we could make out the silhouette of the tuff ring known as Fort Rock. We still had another 10 miles or so to get there and it would be dark before we arrived. On cue, when the sun dipped below the horizon, the wind abated. We put on our headlamps and continued on. Even though there were no shoulders on the road, neither was there any traffic.
About three miles before we came to the Rock, we saw a set of headlights coming towards us. For safety sake, we pulled over to the side of the road and stopped as the car sped by. A minute or two later, a vehicle approached us from the rear. We stopped again on the side of the road to let it pass. Instead it pulled up alongside of us and stopped.
A voice came out of the car. “It’s dark already. Do you fellows have a place to stay tonight?”
We replied, “We’re headed for Fort Rock State park.”
“The park closes at sundown and there is no camping allowed there. You boys are welcome to camp next to the museum in town. I’m the caretaker there and you can roll out a bag next to my RV. I’d like to know that you are in a safe place.”
We thanked him and agreed to take him up on his offer. A few miles later, we pulled into the parking lot of the Fort Rock Museum, where there was a picnic table in front. The man, whose name was Mark, came out of the RV to greet us. He had been out taking a sunset drive with a lady friend. Both were surprised to see two bikers at night on a lonely road in Lake County. After some conversation, we all decided to hit the hay for the night. We had traveled a record-breaking 80 miles today. We came up with a new acronym for B.R.O.A.D.—-Breaking Records On Average–DAILY!
The next morning when we were firing up the stove and having our first cup of coffee, Mark emerged from his RV. After breakfast, he opened up the museum for us and gave a guided tour. Now retired, he spent his Winters in Arizona, and his summers exploring the Fort Rock Basin and Lake County, while volunteering for the museum. His knowledge of the region was impressive and he filled us in on the natural history and the human history of the area. We spent the morning relaxing and talking. He was a most gracious host.
At noon, we stopped at the only small store in town, which doubled as the town’s gas station. Here we stocked up on some snacks, as this would be the last civilization we would encounter until we got home in two more days. The last few days would take us on dirt and gravel roads through Deschutes National Forest, until we reconnected with Hwy 20 east of Bend. We cycled north and made a brief stop at Fort Rock State Park.
Fort Rock is a unique landform, know as a Tuff Ring. It was formed by volcanic eruptions at the bottom of a pluvial lake. Prior to the rise of the Cascade Mountain range, the area was much wetter. Now that the Cascades block the westerly winds bringing Pacific moisture, the climate is different and the lake is no longer there. However, when there was a lake, the waves from the lake eroded the south end of the Tuff Ring, leaving the semi-circular landform that we see today. A wave cut notch is apparent on the rock face over 100 feet above the valley floor. Raptors of all sorts use the cliff faces as vantage points to hunt for prey. In a nearby cave, prehistoric peoples who hunted Mastodon left behind sandals made from Sagebrush.
After passing the State Park, we headed north on dirt roads out of the desert and uphill towards the forested lands of Deschutes National Forest. Rough-legged hawks, Red-Tailed hawks and kestrels watched us ride by from their perches atop electric poles along side of the road. At mile 10, we came upon the ruins of the Cabin Lake Guard Station. We surveyed the abandoned residences and grounds and took a rest break in the shade of the pines. Shade, oh blessed shade! After about 250 miles of desert biking, we really appreciated the shade of a forest once again.
The road turned to gravel in the National Forest. Further north, where this road became China Hat Road, the gravel was loose and not well packed down. It became impossible to maintain good traction, even though we had fat tires and heavy bikes. We labored to move in a straight line. Often the wheels would spin and throw gravel behind us. This was almost as frustrating as pedaling into the wind. Fortunately, we did not have many more miles to go. We had all afternoon to get to China Hat Campground, a primitive abandoned campground less than 20 more miles ahead. We alternated riding and walking for the next few hours.
By later afternoon, we arrived at camp. Even though it was a Friday afternoon, nobody else was here. Our wives had pre-planned to drive out and meet us and camp with us on this Friday night. They arrived by car around 7PM, bringing potato salad, chicken, and beer with them. We built a campfire, dined and recounted the adventures of the last 4 days. In some ways it felt like the end of the trip celebration dinner, but we still had 40 more miles to get to home tomorrow.
The next morning, Erik decided that he had enough and went home with his wife. I really wanted to complete the whole trip, but wasn’t excited about 10 more miles of loose gravel until I hit blacktop again. Beth agreed to take my camping gear home with her, and I would have a lighter load to make biking easier. I kissed her goodbye and completed the last 40 miles of the trip solo.
The gravel road was a bit easier to navigate with a lighter bike. Finally, I hit the blacktop of Forest Road 23. That road soon drops in elevation, bringing me back into the more xeric environment of sagebrush. A few miles ahead, I will again intersect with U.S. 20. At least the shoulders on this part of the highway are wider than they were near Burns.
One last big hill to climb where the road climbs up over Horse Ridge. A few days ago, I might have thought about walking the bike up this grade. But the climb, although steep, was short enough to bike to the top. Unburdened by camping gear, I shifted into a low gear to make it to the top, where there is an overlook of Dry Canyon. I pause to take a picture at a familiar place.
Dry canyon is a gorge made when the prehistoric lake that filled Millican Valley drained and cut through the lava rock. Native people came through here, leaving behind rock paintings and petroglyphs. There is an isolated ecosystem of mountain mahogany trees at the bottom of the canyon, where the cliffs shade the bottom from the sun and create a more mesic environment for plants that require more moisture. I’ve hiked that gorge many times and now feel like I’m in home territory. This is the first time I biked almost 300 miles to see a place that is only 20 miles from my home. It is amazing how different a place may seem depending on your mode of transport getting to that place.
The road descending from the top of the ridge down to the Badlands is extremely steep. I’m glad I’m going west and descending and not climbing up from the east. The shoulder was smooth and wide. I shifted to the highest gear and sped downward, as fast as is possible on a cross-bike.
A station wagon was passing me on the left. A small girl in the rear seat looked at me as we raced downhill together, nearly at the same speed. I could read her lips as she was saying, “Look Mommy!”
I stopped pedaling and coasted the rest of the way, not wanting to have an accident at this high speed. Less than a couple of hours later, I was pulling into my subdivision. It probably appeared to my neighbors that I was out for an afternoon jaunt, instead of coming in all the way from Nevada.
Biking across the desert of Eastern Oregon is a great thing to say you have done, but maybe not necessarily a great thing to do. It depends on your perspective. Nothing worth doing comes without a little bit of pain. The soreness and discomfort lasted about almost another week, but the memories remain with me to this day.
Journeys that are linear, those that have a distinct beginning point and and end point can be the most intriguing journeys. They mirror our journey through life. We do not always know the conditions of the the roads we will travel through or the directions of the winds that may impede our progress. Little things can bring true joy. Unexpected difficulties will arise. Knowing this, we should stop and take time to appreciate the small things, knowing that we might pass by this route but only once. Journeys like this also reaffirms that there is no place like home, for those fortunate enough to have one.
Time passed by also gives you a different perspective on your linear journey. By the end of the trip, Erik wanted nothing more to do with a long bike ride. Some of the difficulties we encountered were more than he bargained for. I would tease him from time to time after the trip and asked him about an imagined bike trip from Reno to Elko across Nevada. The name of that bike trip could be called Pedaling Across Interior Nevada. The acronym for that trip could be P.A.I.N. Later, I would come up with other preposterous trips, like one from Bismark, North Dakota to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. That one could be named Biking Across Dakota And Southern Saskatchewan (B.A.D.A.S.S.). He would just shake his head and roll his eyes. Clearly, he thought I had lost my mind. But really, who wouldn’t want to be part of a B.A.D.A.S.S. bike ride?
A year after our trip, Erik became a father for the first time. His perspective changed. Yes, he finally agreed that it was a good thing to have done, even if he didn’t want to do it again. A few years after that, he and his wife split up. They moved out of our neighborhood and I don’t see them anymore. But one thing will always bind us together; the fact that we both know the state of Oregon in ways that no other Oregonians know it. We shared the same geography for close to a week. As the years go by and this journey is further in my rear view mirror, I cherish it more than ever. My legs no longer ache thinking about it. When I relive the trip, it isn’t the saddle soreness that is the first thing that comes to mind. I think of the beauty of the landscape and the solitude; the special people I met briefly like Mark at Fort Rock; walking our bikes through a cattle drive; and eating pancakes at the Frenchglen Hotel. And I remember my lover meeting me on a deserted stretch of China Hat road and bringing me chicken, potato salad, and hugs at the end of a hard day. Most of all, all of these adventures happened on my way home.
Here’s hoping you have a memorable trip on your next trip home!
There’s something that keeps me coming back to one of the most desolate regions in the lower 48 states, where the borders of Nevada and Oregon meet. If you really want to get away from “civilization”, then this is one of the places that you will come to. Looking at a map of population distribution as shown by the electric lights at night, the border where Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada meet is one of the darkest areas in the lower 48 states.
This is Great Basin Country, wide open spaces with Basin and Range topography. Lonely roads where you might only pass a couple of cars every hour. A great place to socially distance during a global pandemic!
Back in October, I made two trips to this area. My goal was to stop short of the border and camp on the Steens Mountain, a place in Southeastern Oregon that I have been going to for over 25 years. To get there I have to drive 2.5 hours across the High Lava Plains geologic province to get to the town of Burns, Oregon. This physiographic province is relatively flat, with underlying flood basalt punctuated by old volcanic mountains. Burns is a small town by any measure, but given its isolation, it is a hub of activity for rural people over a hundred miles away in each direction. Burns is surrounded by isolated desert lands and remote mountains. Geographers hate blank spaces on maps, so ironically you would see the town of Burns shown on a world globe. The large font spreading out over portions of Eastern Oregon would make one think that Burns is a large city; maybe large enough to have an NFL team.
The original plan was to do a camping trip to one of my favorite haunts…Steens Mountain in Southeastern Oregon. It is a fault block mountain and one of the first places I visited after moving to Oregon. From Frenchglen, I drove the 28 mile gravel road to the top of the mountain to take in the view of the Alvord Desert, one vertical mile below. Even though it was a Tuesday in October, lots of people were out and about. As I drove down the South Steens loop road, everywhere I wanted to camp had either a tent or a car there. So I decided to keep driving and try the Pueblo Mountains near the Nevada border. As I approached, I spotted two RVs parked high up the road. Time to keep driving!
I tried listening to the radio….On the drive down, KBOI AM from Boise was interviewing Amman Bundy, the man who led the 2016 takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Frenchglen. He had recently refused to wear a mask while attending his son’s football game. His son’s team ended up forfeiting the game as a result of it. I tried to get game 2 of the Braves-Dodgers series, but no luck.
Crossing into Nevada brought me to Denio Junction, where Hwy. 140 takes off to the west back towards Oregon through the Sheldon Antelope Refuge. The sun was setting. I considered camping at Bog Hot Springs, a favorite place of mine. I discovered it in the 1990s. I’ve camped in this idyllic spot many times in the past, but when I pulled off to take the dirt road there, I saw a line of cars and trucks coming and leaving. NEV-OR again was becoming NEV-ER again! Much of the area around the spring is private land, so camping in this region is limited. I continued on the paved highway until I reached the border of the refuge. Finally, public lands! I drove a rutted two wheeled path off of the highway and set up my tent within 1/4 mile of the road.
Sheldon Wildlife Refuge was established in 1931 to protect the American Pronghorn Antelope. It is home to more than 200 species of wildlife, including many bird species, Mountain Lions, Bighorn Sheep and mule deer. Most of it lies on a high plateau. Temperatures plunge at night, even in the summer.
The next morning, I made coffee and packed up and headed toward home, heading west on Hwy. 140 back into Oregon, via Lakeview. The road drops sharply off of the plateau after crossing the Oregon line. My camera battery is almost dead, as it was really cold last night. I’m going to head for home, and vow to come back next week with an extra battery and spend more time. I drove home via Lakeview, Silver Lake, and La Pine. Six hours later, I was home and in the hot tub. Who needs Bog Hot Springs anyway? Besides, my hot spring has jets! Take that Bog Hot!
The following Sunday I took off again for Nevada. This time, I drove down through the Alvord Desert on a lonely 50 mile gravel road. I used to come here about 3 times per year back in the 90s, mostly for the solitude, but also to sit in Alvord Hot Springs. Things have changed quite a bit since back then.
The first 10 miles south of Hwy 78 is now paved, but the rest is still a lonely gravel road. You know it is wilderness when you can stop in the middle of the road and leave the car running while you relieve yourself of too much coffee without having your privacy interrupted. If anyone is driving on the road the rooster tail of dust will reveal them from miles away. The drive seems similar to what it used to be. Until I drove up to Alvord Hot Springs….
Alvord Hot Springs is now developed. Where there used to be just a shelter with a pipe coming from the spring, there is now a snack bar, and a $10 entrance fee. All of the license plates were from out of state visitors…California, Washington, and Idaho. I saw one car with Texas plates too. I didn’t even get out. I just rolled down the window and took some pictures.
You now cannot access the playa without paying (it is private land). Further down the road, I saw windsurfers and other tourists on the playa.
I reflected back on the first time I drove this road in 1994, two weeks after moving to Oregon from Alaska. It was such a wild place and it reminded me of pictures from Mongolia or the Takla Makan Desert in Western China. Now, sadly, those days are forever gone. I’m so fortunate to have experienced it back then. As I drove further south, I muttered, “NEV-ER Again!”
I passed by Fields Station (population 4). They serve the World’s Best Milkshakes. It’s true! It says so right on the sign. I had one in 2007 while on a bike trip across Oregon. It was tasty, but you should never have one before pedaling uphill across the Steens Mountain. I was tempted to stop, but that memory made me drive on. Back to Nevada!
At Denio Junction, I hit Hwy 140 again. The sun was getting lower. While I stopped to take a picture, I remembered a breakfast I had here in 2007 to start the bike trip to Bend. Also, I stayed at the hotel here with my sister in the 1990s. At least she got to experience Bog Hot while it was still pristine.
Only a few more miles until I hit my camp spot inside of Sheldon Refuge. As I drove closer to the border of the refuge, I spotted an RV with California plates parked in the very spot where I camped last week. NEV-ER again!
I kept driving in the twilight and saw two dirt tracks leaving the highway off to the left. I took them. This time I drove more than 1/4 mile off the road. I found a nice spot and set up the tent. Actually, I liked this spot better than the previous one. I set out my chair, opened the cooler and sat down and enjoyed a socially distanced adult beverage. There was no place on planet earth that would beat this. NEV-OR Again!
After dark, I tried to pick up a broadcast of game seven of the Braves-Dodgers series on the radio. You know you are isolated, when you can’t even find any FM radio stations. As I clicked through the AM stations, most of what I got was either country music or right-wing talk radio. Here is a sample of what I got…..”Radical Socialism”…click……”Hunter Biden”…..click…..”mandating of masks”…click….”Country Boys Can Survive!”…click….”Fraudulent Mail-in ballots”…click….”Democrats want to take away your guns”…click….”AOC”…click…Fire and brimstone preachers…click…”Global Elites”…click….”Russia hoax”…click….”plandemic”…..click…..”The Braves take a 2-1 in the fifth inning of game 7 of the NLCS. And now for the traffic update in the Vancouver area.” Finally, some news about the game! It happened to come from a CANADIAN station. No wonder conspiracy theories abound in the Inter-Mountain West: The media here is an echo chamber.
About the bottom of the sixth inning, static took over and I could no longer pick up the ballgame. I would have to wait until tomorrow to see who won. I sat in my camp chair and counted only about 6 cars per hour traveling Hwy. 140 after dark. It was quiet and serene. Finally…the peace and quiet of social distancing. I stayed up late and soaked in the solitude. NEV-OR Again!
To the west, a flashing yellow light broke up the darkness. It signaled a steep grade ahead. There would be a climb, followed by the precipitous drop down Doherty grade across the Oregon line. When I saw the lights of a tanker truck headed east, I stood up and saluted the trucker. It takes guts and skill to drive this road in the dark. I wished him well on his way to deliver gasoline to Winnemucca on Interstate-80, over 100 miles away.
On the other hand, I shook my head when I saw the lights of an RV headed west. Were they out of state tourists traveling this road for the first time? Did they have ANYidea how scary it would be to descend Doherty grade in the dark? If they were lucky enough to make it out alive, they would say, “Never Again!”
The wind blew at night and the Big Wyoming Sagebrush bush next to my tent wafted such a strong scent that I felt like I had been shrunken down and stuffed in a McCormick’s spice jar of Sage. I felt peace. I soaked up the solitude and serenity. “NEV-OR Again!”
I could only spend one more night out. I promised Beth to be home by Tuesday night, as it was her mother’s birthday and this is the first October 20th that she would no longer be with us. We planned to go out to dinner. So…I packed up after coffee and started making my way home, this time in no hurry. I took time to explore that I didn’t take last week.
I passed by the Virgin River Campground, where Beth and I shivered one night in our sleeping bags looking up at the Milky Way on a cold November night in the late 1990s. It’s unbelievable how magnificent the night sky is in the dark of the desert! A few miles later, I crossed the border back into Oregon. No more state sales tax after crossing this border! As if there was any place to spend money back across the line in Nevada…
Soon, the top of the Doherty grade came into view. I stopped to take a couple of pictures. This is where Hang-Gliders take off and soar high over the valley below. We are back in the country of Basin and Range Geology.
I drove slowly down the steep grade. With no traffic in either direction, I could slow down enough to take a couple of pictures out of the driver’s side window without falling off the cliff.
If you google the Doherty grade on Hwy 140 you will get comments from tourists that this is one of the scariest roads they have ever been on. I wouldn’t go that far, but then again I took a mountain bike down the Bolivian death road. But that story is for another day.
Finally, I got to the valley floor. Instead of heading back home towards Lakeview, I wanted to camp at Hart Mountain, another fault block mountain. There is a hot spring there and it is also a Pronghorn Antelope Refuge. I took a right turn at the “town” of Adel and headed north towards the village of Plush.
From Plush, the road up to Hart Mountain is a steep one. It has a steep gravel road from the base of the mountain to the flat-topped mountain above. However, when I turned on the asphalt road leading to the base of the mountain, I soon ran into a cattle drive. Although I could stop and wait and the cattle would go around me, I decided to turn around. This one road was the only way in and out from the west side of the mountain. I’ll try again some other time.
With the added time I now had, I slowly drove up Hwy 395, taking many stops along the way for strolls and photos. Before I got to the main highway, I spotted this group of Pronghorn Antelope looking back at me. Pronghorn are the fastest animals on the North American continent.
Once I hit Hwy 395, I saw this sign for Bighorn Sheep. Although I didn’t see any live sheep, you don’t often see a road sign like this!
Continuing on 395 Northbound took me past the shores of Alkali Lake, a shallow lake at the base of the Hart Mountain Fault block.
Heading back toward home brought me to the High Lava Plains province again. I took the dirt road down towards the Ghost town of Stauffer to camp for the night. Eight miles in, the road was blocked by a gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign….private land. I didn’t get to make it to Stauffer. NEV-ER again!
On the Stauffer Road I did see a lonely cow. I tried to strike up a conversation with her, but she didn’t have much to say!
Finally, I went to one of my campsites off of Moffit Road in Deschutes National Forest about 40 miles east of town. After dark, I listened to the radio and found out that the Braves blew the lead in game 7 and the Dodgers would be going to the World Series. Dang! They had let me down yet again! I turned off the radio. Instead, I enjoyed the solitude of this remote campsite.
On the way home the next morning, I passed by Mahogany Butte, a favorite hike of mine. I would climb it again in another couple of weeks, but this day I will head home and have dinner with Beth and remember her mother Elaine on what would have been her 87th birthday.
With all of the changes that have taken place over the years, I am still grateful to have such an abundance of public lands close to home to escape to. I wonder about my friends in the South and East of the USA who have very little access to any public lands. Even though 2/3 of the state of Oregon is Federal Lands (BLM, USFS, NPS), it’s getting more crowded every year. Our little town of 24,000 people in the 1990s has now grown to over 100,000. Where will I go in 15 years, when even Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada become overrun with people? Where will we all go to, to escape the maddening crowds? We all need a “Nowhere” to escape to, especially those of us who are introverts. Introverts can act extroverted when they have to, but they need time to recover. Escaping to “Nowhere” promotes the healing and helps the recovery process. Where will that be in the future? I know that these sojourns into remote places are beneficial to my mental health.
Maybe…just maybe…we might someday live in a civil society where we all respect each other and work together. When that day comes, we might not need a place to escape to. Until that day comes, we will continue to need open spaces for our souls to breathe. For time to reflect….for time to heal….and for the rejuvenation that we need to go back into the ring and battle the ills of modern society for another few rounds. May each of you find such a place, whatever it may look like!
Monday, November 2, 2020. It is unseasonably warm in Central Oregon. Time to take advantage of the weather and do something fun. Besides, it’s November 2, which is a day I always take to do something memorable and to reflect. If you don’t know the story behind November 2, I suggest you stop here for the moment and go back to a post that I wrote in November 2019. It’s titled “McCanns in the Emerald Isle and the meaning of 2 November .” After you get the context of that post, then come back here to read this one. Click on the link below to access it.
Welcome back! Now that you know the meaning of November 2, you’ll understand why I chose to hike Hager Mountain in Lake County, Oregon. It is a place I’ve never been to before; it has a fire lookout tower on top; and it is isolated enough to give me time to social distance during a pandemic and reflect on the last two November 2nds.
It’s about a 2 hour drive from Bend and the hike is 4 miles to the top with 2000 vertical feet of climbing. I had to make a quick trip to the college in the morning to pay this month’s health insurance, so I wouldn’t get to the trailhead until noon. The forecast was for 70 degree weather and clear skies—more like Mid-September weather. It gets dark at 5PM now, so the goal was to summit the peak and get back to the car before dark and find a campsite to spend the night.
The first snafu came at the Hager Mountain road turnoff from Highway 31 at Silver Lake. The road was being repaved a few miles in and I had to turn around and find another way. I drove a few miles north to another paved road which was badly damaged by the weather. From there, I could see the outline of Hager Mountain in the distance.
Hager Mountain is in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Deschutes National Forest and the Willamette National Forest, but less time in Fremont-Winema. The name comes from two historic individuals. John C. Fremont was an early Anglo explorer of this region. Winema, on the other hand, was a Modoc Native American woman who married an Anglo man and learned to speak English. She became an interpreter between the Modoc tribe and the U.S.Army during the Modoc War (1872-3). Her real name was Kaitchkona, but she earned the name “Winema” later on, which translates to “Woman Chief” in the Modoc language. Coincidentally, my office at the college is in Modoc Hall.
After getting off the horribly cracked “paved” road, I made a left onto a dirt Forest Service Road and drove about 5 miles until I connected with the original Hager Mountain road and hit good pavement again. I scouted out a few possible campsites for the night on my way to the trailhead. About noon, I found that I would be the only car at the trailhead.
The first couple of miles were not too steep, but continued gradually uphill through a forest of mostly pine trees mixed with bitterbrush and sedges. The forest was pretty open, and there were a lot of deer in the area. Occasionally there were trail markers on trees, so people could find the trail in the winter after the snow had buried the trail.
At the top of a ridge early in the hike, a clearing showed the top of Hager Mountain, with the Forest Service Lookout Tower on top. I had a long way to go!
This darn Covid-19 thing has seen me put on a bit too much weight, so I had to stop often to let my heart rate lower from that of a hummingbird to more like a human’s. If I took too long, I wouldn’t make it back to the car before dark. So, my frequent rest stops were brief….keep on going!
The trail switched back and forth as it continually climbed. For a while, the forest changed from Pine to Mountain Mahogany and the views got better.
The flora on the trail alternated between forest and sub-alpine meadow the rest of the way, depending on hill slope orientation. Finally, breaking out of the last part of forest, I could see the trail zig-zagging below the lookout tower.
There is a picnic table on a flat spot just below the summit….a great place to sit my pack down and fire up the backpack stove and heat up some water to make a mocha. From there, I took the camera and went up to give the lookout tower a closer look. It was a bit of a slog up here, but I made it, so I must be in pretty good shape for the shape that I am in!
I hear that you can rent this space out during the Winter and Spring starting in November, but the website said it was unavailable, probably due to Covid-19.
It’s almost 3PM, so no more time to dawdle if I’m going to make it back to the car before dark. Now, I have time alone on the way back to think about November the 2nd and the state of the world that we live in. The only thing that is getting in the way of that is a blister on my left heel that is starting to annoy me.
I stop a couple more times on the way down, not because my heart is pounding, but just to look back at the mountain.
On the way down, as the sun was getting low in the sky, I accidentally flushed out a Grouse from the underbrush. I’m not sure who was more startled.
Just before dark, I spotted some movement down the trail headed my way. HUMANS! What were they doing out here? I stepped to the side of the trail and let 5 young people pass by. They were just going up for the evening and would be having a picnic under the stars and then descending with headlamps in the dark. Sounds like the way I would like to do this the next time….with friends when Covid is over!
The sun was below the horizon when I reached the car, but there was still enough light to see. I drove back toward the dirt road where I saw good camping places, but drove slowly, due to the number of deer out. We call this time of day “Deer O’Clock.” If this was Alaska, it would be “Bear O’Clock.” Besides normally being crepuscular creatures, the deer were migrating from higher altitudes to lower altitudes, knowing that the snow would soon fly. In fact, a cold front is coming and snow is forecast for this coming weekend. This would be the last day of summer…..in November!
I found my campsite just off the dirt road and had to keep the car lights on to set up the tent. Then, I set up my camp chair and pulled out a beer. I prefer Full Sail Amber, but I think Mike would have liked an IPA better, so I brought a few Joe’s IPA brewed by Ten Barrel Brewing. Although Mike left us two years ago to the day, I opened a beer for him too. I alternated drinking some of mine and then sipping his. No need to fret about the beer getting warm, as it was getting colder outside. I put on another layer of fleece jacket and a hat and looked up at the night stars. Being so far from civilization, there was no light pollution from the city and the Milky Way was fully visible.
I was grateful for the time alone and gave thanks for there being Public Lands for me to escape to. I thought about my friends in the South, Midwest and on the East Coast who don’t have the amount of Public Lands that we have in the West. Where do they go to get away from it all?
These days, I don’t pray as often as I used to or need to, but time alone in Public Lands is good for one’s prayer life. I thought of a friend who was recently diagnosed with Lymphoma, and wished her well. Another friend is caring for a husband suffering from a stroke. Lots of people in the world are struggling with formidable challenges, which makes my difficulties seem trivial.
OOH! A meteorite just flew across the sky and left a long trail as it burned up in the atmosphere. The Leonid Meteor shower usually happens in November. That will be a reminder each year to remember all of the people I know who have passed on. As long as they are remembered, they live on.
I open another beer for Mike and tell him how I remember him. We didn’t do things alone together, but we always seemed to gravitate to each other during group get-togethers. I remember his sense of humor and his intellect. That made me wonder how people will remember me when I’m gone. Being a hopeless introvert, what impression would I have made? Also, since I have sometimes spoken truth to power, would I be remembered as a curmudgeon or an honest person seeking to better the world? I hope it is the latter, but fear that some will think it was the former.
I look my right and see headlights shining towards me from a distance. They are not moving. Since they are bright lights, I think it must be an RV setting up their chairs around in a clearing. They seem to be about a mile away, but still it disturbs the star viewing.
It took about 15 minutes to realize that the lights were moving upward. It was the Moon rising on the horizon between the trees! Once it got high enough to clear the trees a few hours later, no headlamp was needed.
The clear skies allowed for enhanced radiational cooling of the earth, so it was getting colder pretty fast. Time to crawl into the sleeping bag and hunker down for the night. I thought of how polarized our country has become, and thought of the upcoming election. I hoped for some healing within the country in the upcoming year. As the waning gibbous moon rose even higher, a couple of coyotes howled in the distance. They seemed to agree!
The next morning, the thermometer read 29F. I packed up in a hurry and took one last picture of a Public Lands sign on the way home. Time to go home and take a shower and return to civilization, hopefully a somewhat different person than when I left
The blowhole of the Earth is not a geological phenomenon, as one might first think. There are many volcanic regions of the world where you might find a geyser or a fumarole, which many would consider to be earth blowholes. The blowhole of the Earth I am referring to is a biological phenomenon. The occurrence shifts spacially and temporally, so one cannot predict when and where they occur. However, it is such a propitious omen, for those who are fortunate to encounter them!
In many years of traveling and guiding throughout Southeast Alaska, I have happened by chance on the blowhole of the earth several times. The first time was in lower Chatham Strait in 1990, just to the east of Port Armstrong off the south coast of Baranof Island. In 1993, I found it again a couple of times, mostly near North Island, a tiny, islet about 35 miles north of Juneau in the Lynn Canal Fjord. 1993 was Juneau’s “100 year summer”, because of the extraordinarily calm and clear sunny days during that summer. These meteorological conditions are a prerequisite to finding the “blowhole of the earth”, but by no means are a guarantee to finding it. But one thing is for sure; you have to be “nowhere” to find it.
It is one thing to discover it on your own. The location and time always changes. But, to be there when someone else discovers it for the first time and to see their reaction to it…..well, that is really something special.
I was leading a custom guided sea kayak trip excursion many years ago for a father and son from the upper Midwest region of the U.S. It was their first expedition in Alaska. Dave and Todd were strong paddlers and experienced outdoorsmen, having spent a lot of time canoeing the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Northern Minnesota. It was their first experience on salt water, so not being savvy about tidal fluctuations and the local weather and wildlife, they decided to hire a guide.
I knew by their level of fitness and experience, and by not having a large group to manage, that we would be in for a great adventure. But I never imagined that they would experience the blowhole of the earth their first time out in salt water! It is important never to let clients’ expectations get too high, so we never guarantee what they will see. The goal is to first keep them safe and then prep them to be alert for what secrets may be revealed during our sojourn.
The trip was an early season mid-May trip. The few tourists that were in town were the hearty and adventurous ones. The mountains were still covered in last Winter’s snow and the temperature of the water was around 40F. Frigid water means a relatively short time of suffering before you die of hypothermia if you capsize and can’t right yourself. But is also makes for great refrigeration for fresh food that you pack in the bottom of the boat. By lining the perishables in the bottom of the sealed compartment of the fiberglass boat, it makes it possible to create quite a varied menu of tasty meals. For our five day excursion we brought along eggs, meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and cheeses. I don’t provide alcohol on guided trips, but clients are free to bring their own, as long as it is consumed at the end of the day in camp. Dave and Todd brought a six pack of beer that would have to last the two of them for the whole trip. Nothing better than a cold beer around a beach fire at the end of a wonderful day on the water!
The first day we paddled about 12 miles and saw some Humpback Whales and a couple of Stellar Sea Lions, which made a great start to the adventure. That first night, we made camp on a small islet called Hump Island, so named for the small conical hill in the middle of the island. We pitched our tents on a fine-grained black sand beach, above the seaweed ring marking the high tide line. It was a relaxed camp, with no bears on this tiny, 1/2 sq. mile sized islet, in the middle of the fjord far from the mainland. Bears are great swimmers, and they are capable of making the 5 mile swim out to the island, but with no salmon streams and not enough resources to make a go of it on the island, why would they even be there? The only other critters we would share the island with were some red backed voles, and a few ravens or eagles who were stopping to rest on their way to somewhere else.
I pulled out the fry pan, and cut up some fresh chicken breasts, onions, zucchini, bean sprouts and water chestnuts. When the sesame oil was good and hot, I sauteed the chicken and onions first, then added the other ingredients, sprinkling some salt, pepper, garlic powder and soy sauce, stirring constantly. When that was done cooking, we heaped it on a bed of sticky rice. The sizzling sounds of the stir-fry and the olfactory sensations of sesame oil, soy sauce, ocean air, mixing with the eau de spruce and hemlock trees, made this memorable first night out.
On day two, we awoke to clear skies and no winds, a rare combination in Southeast Alaska. The surface of the sea was completely calm and the water was like a pane of glass which perfectly reflected the white mountains. I checked the weather report on my hand-held VHF marine radio. The forecast was as good as it can ever get for paddling; variable winds less than 10 knots. Both Todd and Dave were raring to go when they heard this. They both had a hard time believing that the sea could be as still as pond water. I broke out the map and we discussed the many alternatives. When leading larger groups, the guide makes more conservative decisions and informs the group of the logistics. However, with only one other double kayak to worry about and with strong paddlers and favorable conditions, I decided to play more of the “consultant” role and spell out all of the available options, weighing the positives and negatives of each option. After a brief conversation, we decided to head across to the west side of Lynn Canal to the base of the Chilkat Mountains to explore St. James Bay and the Lynn Sisters area. The Chilkat Peninsula is rugged and remote and there are no permanent settlements for its entire length of over 100 miles.
We decided to paddle hard while the conditions remained favorable, so our goal for the day was a lofty one of about 14-15 miles. Most group outings only cover less than 8-10 miles per day, and many outfitters do much less by setting up a base camp for short paddles in all directions while keeping the same camp. Dave and Todd handled the 12 mile trip yesterday and were none too worse for the wear. If we were going to push mileage today, we would have to do it on a good hearty breakfast. Everyone had kitchen duty as we peeled potatoes and chopped onions. We feasted on a large helping of bacon and eggs, accompanied by a lumberjack sized portion of hash browns and onions. After getting everyone kick started with some strong coffee, we broke camp, loaded the boats, and headed northwest toward St. James Bay and the mighty Chilkat Range.
The tide was ebbing hard at about 3 knots, moving from our right to left. As we headed toward our destination on the far shore, we had to redirect our bow angle and shift it about 45 degrees to the right of our intended path. Without doing this, the current would sweep us too far south and our path would take us in an arc shaped route instead of a straight line path. The tidal fluctuations in Southeast Alaska are huge, especially during a new or full moon. Sometimes you can experience as much as a 24 foot vertical change in just over 6 hours. When all of this water funnels through any narrow channel between two islands, the currents may reach up to 7 or 8 knots….faster than anyone can paddle. This was a new experience for Todd and Dave, as it is for most inlanders.
As we paddled away from Hump Island, the low angled sun warmed our backs and lit us the mountains in front of us. Because it was still very early in the season, the east slopes of the mountains were still choked with snow. As we got closer to the shore, we could see that the snow line was barely above sea level in some shaded gullies. We passed by a huge raft-like group of Surf Scoters, who noisily took to flight as we paddled by. In just a few hours, we had crossed the entire fjord, and we pulled up the boats onto a rocky beach in the shadow of imposing Mt. Golub. The tide was still ebbing, but it was moving much slower now. Since we were close to the low tide exchange, we left the boats where we beached them at the water’s edge and let the tide keep falling around the boats. In about another half hour, the tide would begin to rise again and re-float the boats, giving us a nice rest break without having to strain and move the heavy, fully-loaded kayaks.
The sun was much higher now, and we let the warm sunlight beam onto our faces as we took a cat nap on the beach. There was not a noise anywhere; no wind, no planes overhead, and no other boats on the water. Surprisingly, there weren’t sounds of any other birds in the area either. It was hard to believe that we were just only 35 miles away from the state capitol building in downtown Juneau. That is one of the great things about Alaska. One does not have to go very far from civilization to get away from it all and enjoy the beauty and solitude offered by wilderness lands.
After our break, when the tide had risen to the point where our boats would soon float, we got ready to depart. We munched down a snack of smoked coho salmon on Pilot Bread crackers and readied ourselves for the trip north to St. James Bay. Now we would have the current helping us and gently nudging us toward our goal. Todd asked if he could try paddling my single kayak. Although I rarely let clients do this, the conditions could not be better, so there was no reason to deny his request. I readjusted the foot pedals to accommodate his longer legs and then I jumped in the back of the double kayak and paddled with Dave. The three of us proceeded to lazily paddle to the north and continue taking in the awesome views.
The scenery was breathtaking, but there was still an uncharacteristic lack of marine life in the area. I rarely come over this far west, so I was used to seeing many more marine mammals in the Channel Islands towards the east side of the fjord where I usually guide trips. We did finally pass by a few ring-billed gulls and a lone harbor seal just off the little islets referred to as the Lynn Sisters. Actually, since the tide was still pretty low, the Lynn Sisters were still connected to the mainland by a rocky spit. They would not become islands again for a couple more hours.
Late in the afternoon, we finally found ourselves at the entrance to St. James Bay, an idyllic little bay that offers great protection from northerly winds and the high waves that accompany them. The bay has many little islands in the center, which would make for good camping. We were now in black bear country, and unlike the eastern side of the fjord, we would also be in moose country.
We were tired from the long paddle. Before looking for a camp spot, I wanted to first cook dinner on a beach in the inter-tidal zone and then move to another spot to set up camp. Since we were in bear territory, I wanted any smells or scraps from dinner to be washed away by the incoming tide. If any lingering smells remained, we would be at another location camping.
Just as we were breaking out the cookware and stove to prepare dinner, I pulled out my hand held VHF radio to double check on the weather forecast. The National Weather Service updates forecasts at least every 12 hours. Although, we had a favorable long-range forecast, the weather does change rapidly in this part of the world. I have learned not to trust forecasts farther out than 24 hours. It is always prudent to keep checking, especially considering where we were. The west side of Lynn Canal is no place to get caught with your pants down concerning the weather.
“Continued calm variable winds less than 15 knots for the rest of the day”, the voice spoke over the radio (good news). “For tomorrow, a small craft advisory, with southerly winds greater than 25 knots (VERY bad news). The small craft advisory continued for the next few days, which makes the seas dangerous for small fishing boats (and especially for little kayaks!)
The west side of Lynn Canal is NO place to be in a kayak (or ANY vessel for that matter) when the wind blows hard. The geography of the fjord makes Lynn Canal one of the most feared stretches of water in all of Southeast Alaska. Historical maps are littered with information on the sites of many shipwrecks in the area. The fjord is over 100 miles long and straight as an arrow, due to a geological fault. This long “fetch” or uninterrupted distance for wind to blow allows for the seas to build quickly. The steep mountain walls of the fjord act as a wind tunnel and funnels the wind, increasing its force. This is akin to putting your thumb over part of the nozzle of a hose to increase the speed and flow of the water. Finally, the geographic location of the fjord enhances the possibility of strong, gusty winds. Being the most northerly fjord means that it is the battleground where continental and marine air masses meet. The exaggerated differences in both moisture content and temperature of these air masses causes great air pressure differences between the two. The forecast showed a weather front coming in.
Although it was calm at the moment, in all likelihood we would not be able to paddle tomorrow. We could make camp here and wait it out for a couple of days, but I wasn’t fond of being stuck in this small bay for days on end, with few opportunities for hiking and the constant threat of black bears. One option was to eat dinner here, and then paddle all the way back to Ralston Island, a small, narrow island in the middle of the fjord, but closer to the eastern shore. That would afford us a little bit of hiking with no bears and safe coves to land on in two different directions. The only problem is that Dave and Todd were already tired and Ralston Island was another 6.5 miles away to the southeast. However, if we did decide to go there, we would have the most dangerous possible crossing of open water behind us. I had to make an executive decision and break the unpopular news to Dave and Todd that we would be adding a few more hours of paddling to this already long day.
Aches and pains aside, they agreed that it was the prudent thing to do, so we agreed to go after dinner. I pulled out the skillet, browned some ground beef and onions, and pulled out the spice bag. Dave grated some cheese, while Todd helped prepare some hot drinks. We dined on Tacos, Mexican style. For dessert, we had cookies and Ibuprofen.
While feeling guilty for pushing paying clients so hard, I satisfied myself that this was the safest and most logical course of action. I just hoped for something that would take our minds off of the grind. Little did I know that in a few short hours, we would all be experiencing one of the most magical and memorable moments of our lives.
The guys paddled perfunctorily towards the low outline of Ralston Island, their eyes gazing straight ahead. I knew that they were being pushed both physically and mentally. We took rest breaks on the water, as the surface was still like glass. A layer of stratified clouds were forming high overhead, a sign of the approaching warm front. The air was still and moist. Every once in a while, a small raindrop would fall and barely disturb the glass-like surface of the water.
Just as we approached Little Island Light, a small navigational aid on a small islet just to the north of Ralston Island, I heard a whale in the distance. Dave and Todd didn’t hear it at first, so I signaled them to stop paddling. We drifted with the current and listened for a while.
At first there was nothing, then we heard some faint breathing in the water behind us. We turned our heads and spied the spotted, gray head of a harbor seal, with her big, black, puppy-like eyes staring back at us. Due to the shape of her head and the way she barely peered out of the water, her head looked like half of a bowling ball floating on the surface. Then, to the right, we heard a different sound. We turned to see the fins of four Dall’s Porpoises swimming toward our boats. Dall’s Porpoises are playful and inquisitive. They have thick black and white bodies, and often surf in the bow wake of motorboats. Tourists often mistake them for baby orcas. We were going too slowly for them to surf in our wake, so they gently circled our boats to give us a look over. Their breathing sounds were somewhat louder than the harbor seal’s.
WHOOOOOOOSSSSSHHHHHHH! All three of our heads swiveled towards that loud sound. It was a Humpback Whale surfacing a mere 50 yards away!
Next, a couple of Stellar Sea Lions popped their heads up and took a long breath of air. The three different breathing sounds of Sea Lion, Porpoise and Seal mixed together well, like a symphony of woodwind instruments. The Whale was the Tuba. Some creatures had nostrils, others had blowholes of various sizes. Each one resonated a different sound. It seemed we were in the middle of a group of bait fish and everyone was coming to the picnic. There were even a couple of otters that chimed in.
I looked over at Dave and Todd. Their mouths were agape; their eyes seemed to pop out of their heads. The Humpback whale surfaced again and blew another loud exhale. The sea lions continued their snorting. The seal, otters, and porpoises continued to chime in. There were no other noises around; no wind or waves. We could hear nothing else but the cacophony of respiration sounds. What a magical concert we were experiencing! Any pain that we felt from paddling melted away and was replaced with unbridled joy! We were in the middle of the “Blowhole of the Earth!” The sounds of life all around us reinvigorated our souls and our bodies….
I had experience something like this a few times before, once in Chatham Strait and another time in Glacier Bay. A few times in Lynn Canal, I experienced something similar, but with fewer members of the symphony. But this was the first time I was there to experience it through the eyes of someone else who was seeing it for the first time. I knew that this moment would be a defining moment in each of their lives; comparable to how you were different after the first time you experienced love-making; or witnessing the birth of your first child. Events such as these mark a time in your life that you can identify how you were different before and after that event.
In the stillness, we continued listening to mixed chorus of breathing sounds, never wanting it to end. It seemed like time stood still. In actuality, it probably lasted for only 4 or 5 minutes, but each and every second of it would be forever burned into our memory.
The porpoises were the first to swim away. As the bait ball became less concentrated, they continued their search for herring and became less interested in giving us a free concert. The humpback whale took a deep breath, and then took a deep dive, showing us his massive fluke fin as if to wave goodbye to us. The sea lions followed suit, following the whale. They sometimes feed together. A few minutes later, all was still and calm again. Had we not diverted to St. James Bay, we would not have been in this exact place at this exact time, and would have missed this wonderful experience.
I’m sure that this biological phenomenon plays out in many different places, and at many different times of the day. Often all of the animals are in one area at the same time, but the breathing sounds are muffled out by other sounds, such as wind and waves. All too often, breathing sounds are drowned out by the whine of a boat motor. I’ve seen whales, porpoises and sea lions together many times from the deck of one of the Alaska State Ferries, buy the only thing I heard was the whine of the engines and a few gasps of the few tourists who were paying attention to their surroundings. Although this is a pleasant experience, it does not hold a candle being in a kayak in the middle of a chorus of breathing sea creatures on a calm day when the sea surface is like a pane of glass reflecting white capped mountains.
We slowly paddled the last 1/3 of a mile and beached the kayaks on the southwest side of Ralston Island, next to the remnants of an old pier that was built almost 100 years ago. Small islands like these were used as fox farms in the early 1900s.
Even though our muscles were tired, nobody wanted this day to end. I showed Todd and Dave a good spot to camp just inside the trees and had them set up their tents, while I prepared a surprise for them. I thought….”I know one thing that could make this magical day even better!”
As they were setting up their tents, I dug a shallow hole in the softer part of the beach nearer to the high tide line. I then pulled out a plastic garbage bag and lined the shallow hole with it. I grabbed a bucket and filled it with ice-cold sea water and brought it up and filled the shallow hole with it. Now, I had a 3 inch deep refrigerator. I had to hurry, so the guys would not see what I was doing. They would soon have their tents up and would be changing clothes and back out on the beach, so I had to work fast.
I grabbed the kitchen bag and quickly melted some butter, while I mixed fresh water with powdered milk in another pan. When the butter was melted, I reached for the crushed graham cracker mix and molded a pie crust into a plastic pan. Once that was done, I mixed the milk with a package of Jello-No-Bake-Cheesecake Mix and poured the mixture over the graham cracker crust. Then, I set it all in the shallow pond I made on the beach to congeal. It would be ready to eat in about 30 minutes.
As Dave and Todd had now set up their tent sites for the night and changed, they made their way back to the beach. I had some hot water on the stove and we planned to have some hot chocolate and reminisce about the wonderful day we just had. After relaxing for about half an hour, I said “You know, if we only had a dessert to go with our hot chocolate, this day would get even better.”
Todd replied, “Aren’t there any cookies left?”
“There are a few left. But wouldn’t a real dessert like cheesecake be nice after the day we just had?”, I asked.
“Yeah, right!”, Dave replied. “Let’s just paddle another 5 miles and go into town and get some. Better yet, let’s see if we can call in an order and pay for boat delivery!”
“That might take too long.” “Why don’t I just go up the beach and get the one I just made while you were getting changed”, I replied.
I got up and walked 20 yards away to the shallow hole I dug in the beach and removed a firm cheesecake from the cold sea water bath that surrounded the plastic dish. Jaws dropped as eyes gleamed! An already memorable day was just about to get even better!
I’ve been to Yellowstone to witness the eruption of Old Faithful Geyser and I’ve walked through the park’s geyser basins and listened to its fumaroles. I’ve stood atop volcanoes in New Zealand and listened to the belching of the earth through steam vents. All of these things were quite impressive. However, to experience the biological phenomenon known as the “Blowhole of the Earth” is by far the most magical thing I have experienced in nature to this day. And re-living the moment while eating cheesecake and drinking hot chocolate in a remote wilderness setting made it even more memorable. I think that if you asked Dave and Todd, they would also agree, even though this eventful day happened more than 23 years ago. I hope that you too, dear reader, may be fortunate enough to experience the “Blowhole of the Earth” for yourself someday. But, you will have to travel to Nowhere to find it!
The Wye River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland is only a 3 hour drive (in time) away from my boyhood home in Central New Jersey. However, in every other way, these two places are worlds apart. It was a place where a young boy could explore his relationship to the land and learn lessons that would stay with him for a lifetime.
My grandfather lived on the shores of the Wye, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. I only knew him as an old man, who knew a lot about plants, animals and the land. He was quiet and smoked a pipe. The gaze from his steely, blue eyes could unnerve you, if you didn’t know that he was a gentle soul. Granddaddy had been a machinist in his working days, and he built a shop off of his garage, which was his place of sanctuary. He was my Mom’s father, and the only grandparent that I ever got to know a little of. Both of my grandmothers had passed before I was born, and my Dad’s father passed when I was only four. Granddaddy had a boat too, which we used to explore the river with and go crabbing and fishing. I think Dad looked forward to it as much as I did.
It’s funny how when we experience a place for the first time, we think that it has always been that way. The first time I remember visiting Granddaddy was circa 1964, and he was living in an Airstream trailer on his property. He called it the “Wigwam”. Granddaddy had a garden and a row boat at the shoreline of a small cove, just to the south of Pig Pen Point, off of Bennett Point Rd. I remember that we had just visited my Aunt Jean in Washington D.C., so the 1.5 hour drive to Granddaddy’s house took us over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Looking over the side of the bridge to the water 200 feet below scared me. The bridge was 7 miles long and I though we’d never get to the other side. Once we got to Kent Island, US 50 became four lanes again. I didn’t realize that the bridge was only built in the previous decade. It would soon allow for increased movement across the bay and change the texture and culture of the landscape forever.
Granddaddy lived on the Eastern Shore before there was a Bay Bridge. Before the bridge was built, life was even more slow paced. Sure, there was travel back and forth to Annapolis and the crowded western shore of the bay back then, but it was by ferry boat. Many locals fought to block the building of the bridge, as they saw it ruining their rural way of life. Once the bridge was built, it became a fast link from the busy urban areas of Baltimore and Washington to quickly drive over to the Atlantic shore for the weekend. Traffic backed up on the weekends. It also opened up access to the estuaries of the Eastern Bay, where tourists competed with locals for the best crabbing and fishing spots.
But as a contrast from suburban Central New Jersey, the Eastern Shore seemed like a wild place. After crossing the bridge, we were on Kent Island. One more short drawbridge over Kent Narrows brought us to Graysonville, where we turned off to go to the Wye river. The myriad of tributaries and inlets that punctuate the Chesapeake Bay manifest themselves in somewhat of a dendritic pattern, like branches on a tree. The main bay is the trunk. Rivers like the Severn, Miles and the Choptank are the tributary branches. This is a clue to the geological formation of this landscape. During the ice ages, much of the land in the northerly latitudes of the North American continent were covered by large ice sheets. Sea level was much lower than in the present day. The Mid-latitudes is where the margins of the continental ice sheets were. As they melted, they carved river valleys that mainly flowed south. One of these large river drainages was the Susquehanna River, which drains into Chesapeake Bay. When sea level was much lower, what is now the bay was once a river channel, with many tributaries feeding into it. After the ice age, sea levels rose and drowned out the river valleys, leaving us the flat lowlands surrounding the Chesapeake of today. The Wye River is one of these.
In the early 60s, Granddaddy’s place on the Wye was still very rural. Although he was already seeing changes, it was a wild place in my eyes. Walking around his property felt like a National Geographic expedition. There were snakes and frogs in the bushes, and birds I had never seen back home. Belted Kingfishers, Egrets, Red-Winged blackbirds, and Baltimore Orioles (not the baseball team!). There were Cedar waxwings, Eastern Goldfinches, Cardinals, Killdeer, several species of wrens and sparrows, and sometimes Canada Geese flying overhead. And that was only on land. Once we got out in the boat on the water, there was a plethora of sea birds and water creatures to discover.
Granddaddy’s sister, my Aunt Edna, lived in a cinder block house on the property next to his. I only remember a few things about her, as she died when I was still pretty young. But I can still smell the fresh baked apple crisp she had just baked from apples she had picked on her property. The fragrant essence of cinnamon and nutmeg and baked apple permeated throughout her homely, but warm house. She rolled out the dough for the crust, crimped the dough on the rim of the pie pan and laid a lattice work of strips on top of the pie. I can close my eyes now, almost 60 years later, and transport myself back in time to her kitchen. Food didn’t come from a grocery store; it was something that you grew, gathered, or hunted for. Your diet changed depending on what season it was.
The Aunt Edna of my youth was old, wrinkly and bent over. I remember being scared the first time I went into that dark house, but quickly realized it was a safe place. There was love in that house. I asked my older sister for anything she remembered about Edna. There were a couple of things she recounted which helped me learn more about my Great Aunt. Edna raised chickens and turkeys and she would complain that when it rained, she would have to get the turkeys out of the rain because they tilted their heads up, and she was afraid they would drown. Kathy also remembered that Edna had a decorative trunk in her house with Chinese writing on it. Not knowing the story behind that makes her life an even more intriguing mystery.
That’s about all I know about my Great Aunt. Finding information about her life after the fact has been difficult. It is also captivating. I sometimes wish I could travel back in time and get to know her when we were both about the same age. I would like to be her neighbor. I would like to get to see her as a young married woman, and I could get to know my Uncle Harvey, who I never met in this life. I imagine that they would be the kind of neighbors anyone would want. We might barter food for work, or work together to dig wells for each other. When the snows in winter would seal us off from the outside world, I imagine that you might find footprints in the snow between our houses. And I might fully know how the land shaped the people of the Eastern Shore before the Bay Bridge existed.
In the mid 1960s, Granddaddy had a house built on the property and the Wigwam had been sold. Now that he had a house, we could visit for more than an hour or two. One time, we stayed there overnight, so we had time for a boat ride. He now had a little rickety dock in the cove, and he had a power boat (named Si Si) to go along with the rowboat (named Ug). I was now old enough that Dad let me row Ug by myself, as long as I kept it in the cove and didn’t go out on the main river. There was a narrow peninsula separating the cove from the main river channel. It was overrun with cattails and brush, but it had an old duck blind at the end of the peninsula. Dad watched me from shore as I rowed across the cove to visit the duck blind. I used the bow rope to tie Ug to the duck blind and peered through the slats in the blind out into the main channel. I observed the cultures of many new bird species….Canvasbacks, Loons, Great Blue Herons, Pintails, Mallards, and Scaups. There were Mergansers, Wood Ducks, Green-Winged Teal, Redheads, Brants, Shovelers, and Widgeons. Occasionally we might see a swan. And of course, several species of terns and gulls were always around. It was enough to make a young kid wide-eyed and bushy tailed!
Being located near the midway point of the eastern flyway, the Wye river and the rest of the Eastern Shore was not only a place for resident waterfowl, but it was a preferred stopover for migrating birds. My home in suburban New Jersey was also on the route. However, I only saw the birds flying high overhead, as a subdivision does not entice the birds to land and spend any time there. My backyard seemed only to attract Starlings and Sparrows.
My earliest memories living under the flyway was having to come inside to watch the long, endless black line of migrating birds passing overhead. There were so many, that is was not safe to play outside, unless you didn’t care about getting bird poop on your head. In the early 60s, we would stay inside for a couple of days, drinking hot chocolate and watching the endless, undulating line of birds, as we wondered what exotic destination in the Arctic would be their nesting sites. I wanted to travel with them, so I read books and looked at maps of the Arctic. They enticed me to learn about other worlds far away from New Jersey.
After a couple of days, the main group usually had passed by, so we could play outside again. It happened subtlety, but by the end of the 1960s, the migration numbers were way down. That was decades before I read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”. Although DDT was already having an effect on bird life, I wouldn’t learn about it for a couple of decades to come.
On the other side of Aunt Edna’s and Granddaddy’s property was a cornfield. At the margins where the properties met, there was a row of blackberry bushes. For breakfast, we would pick a ripe cantaloupe from Granddaddy’s garden and spread blackberry jam on our toast. Only the flour and coffee did not come from the property. Later, we would all go out in the boat and catch blue-claw crabs for our dinner.
When we knew that there would be a good chance to go crabbing, Dad would stop at a grocery store and buy some chicken necks for crab bait. Granddaddy let us use them, but he always preferred to troll for fish and then cut up the fish for crab bait. People who came from outside of the region were known as “Chickenneckers”. This is not an endearing term. Although we came from outside and used chicken necks for bait, Dad and I were different from the average Chickennecker. We crabbed from a boat and didn’t leave trash behind like most Chickenneckers did. We also didn’t use steel traps, but used hand lines and dip nets instead. With hand lines, you get to “feel” the line to see if a crab is tugging on your bait. You have to pull the line in ever so slowly. Yank the line too fast, and the crab leaves the bait. You need a partner with a dip net to scoop up the crab when he gets close enough to the boat. It did require some skill.
We would take Si Si out into the main channel, and head across the river towards Wye Island. Granddaddy wore his wide-brimmed straw hat to keep out of the sun. He wore a long sleeved button down shirt. His pants were kept up with suspenders. I don’t know if he even owned a belt. With his steady hand on the tiller of the outboard motor and his pipe clenched between his false teeth, we cruised toward Bigwood Cove on Wye Island.
Wye Island always intrigued me. There were only a few estates and large farms on the island. Access was limited, with only one small, one-lane bridge connecting the far side of the island to the mainland. There was a large cornfield just uphill from Bigwood Cove, but no access to the island from the river. The banks were overgrown with vegetation. There were always more wild birds on that side of the river. Exploring Wye Island was always an itch I wanted to scratch, but never did.
A couple of our boating excursions stick out more in my memory than others. One time, we pulled into the dock with nearly a full bushel basket of crabs. We sat the basket on the dock as we proceeded to unload the boat. When I looked up, one lone crab had escaped and was scurrying sideways down the dock. I leapt up to retrieve him, but he jumped back into the cove and escaped. Granddaddy told me just to watch the basket, while Dad unloaded the rest of the boat. I sat down on a wire milk crate and kept an eye on our catch. Crabs would climb over each other to get to the top of the pile and then grab hold of the wooden sides of the basket and begin to climb up toward the edge. But none of them escaped. I didn’t have to do anything to keep them in. Every time a crab got close to the top, other crabs would reach up and pinch his back flippers with their claws and pull him back down. This happened over and over again.
I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to pull back a member of your own species and prevent them from escaping. “Wouldn’t that be a good thing for the crab nation if the rest of the crabs worked together to free some of their own?”, I asked out loud.
Granddaddy looked through me with his steely blue eyes. The corner of his mouth moved almost imperceptibly, making a wry smile. The man of very few words spoke just a few of them to me.
“Mick, you remember what you saw the crabs do to each other today!” “People are a lot like that too!”
I was puzzled. I didn’t fully understand what he meant at the time. But I knew that if Granddaddy said something, it must have been meaningful. Now that I am older, I know the meaning of his words. Too many of us try to get ahead in life simply by pulling our fellow citizens down. There are too many examples of this which happened in my own life that I could point to. And Good Grief!…..during this election year, all we see are negative ads from both sides warning us about how the end of civilization will come if the other party gets elected. But like crabs, we need to remind ourselves that those who only work to pull others down will eventually end up in the pot of boiling water, have their shells cracked, and end up being eaten for dinner. Then, my thoughts go back to that one brave crab who despite everyone else trying to grab his hind flippers to pull him back down, crawled out of the bucket on his own and made it to safety. I hope he lived a good long life and was able to breed many times.
By the early to mid 1970s, Granddaddy no longer went out on the water by himself. He might make it out once a year, when we went down to visit him. I was becoming a young man by then, so I helped Dad pull out the boat and repaint Si Si’s keel. We scraped the barnacles off of Ug, and bailed out the rainwater from her and made her seaworthy, at least for the cove. But there were changes we were seeing already to the landscape. A newcomer bought Edna’s old house and the land upriver from it and built a large house with a boat dock. To keep erosion from eating away at the bank, they built a seawall. That project not only helped keep their land from eroding, it started the erosion of the peninsula which sheltered Granddaddy’s little cove. The old duck blind was still there, but it was now on a little island, as the peninsula had been cut in half. The lesson…..A change to one part of the ecosystem affects the whole system. An engineer will look at one part of the system and come up with a solution to a problem. A Geographer will look at the whole system and view how each part affects the others.
The last time the three of us went out into the main channel to crab was on a weekend in Mid- September in the mid 70s. Boat traffic was everywhere, and many of the boats were bigger and faster than Si Si. Most were pleasure boats, as the oystermen were mostly driven out by the decimation of the oyster beds from Hurricane Agnes a couple of years earlier. The increase of development in the area was also accompanied by an increase in pollution. Even though the Wye is called a river, it doesn’t flush out pollutants very well, as it is more a tidal estuary than a true river.
Outsiders now outnumbered locals, and the area had a different feeling to it. Looking across the river, at least Wye Island seemed unchanged. The large farm fields were still there, surrounded by a thick forest of white and red oaks, mixed with sweetgum and tulip-poplar. We drove the boat over to the other side and cut the motor somewhere in between Bigwood Cove and Drum Point. Granddaddy lamented the good old days of what the Eastern Shore was like when he was a young man. But what he told us of a proposed future development put a chill down our spine.
A new development proposal had been submitted for Wye Island which would drastically alter the landscape of the region. The area that we were looking at on the West end of the island, and just across the water from Granddaddy’s house would be the location of a village dock for a planned community called Wye Village. Wye Village would have over 700 dwelling units, with an 18-hole golf course. We could not imagine what the Wye would be like in another 20 years. Granddaddy said, “at least I won’t be around to see it happen!”
That visit was the last time when I set foot on his property. I went away to college in the late 70s and got my degree just before Granddaddy passed away. Mom and Dad retired and moved to Florida. Dad passed away in 1986 and is buried in a cemetery in Delaware. Mom died in 1996 and is buried in the family plot in Bridgeville, DE. After Mom’s funeral, Beth and I drove our rental car towards the Wye River. I wanted to show her Granddaddy’s old house and share my history with her. As we drove down Bennett Point road, I found the area unfamiliar. I finally found Kehm Road, which was Harvey’s and Edna’s last name. I drove down it until I hit the lane which would take you to Granddaddy’s house and Edna’s place. There was a NO Trespassing sign at the head of the lane. The cornfield was gone. New subdivision houses were in sight. The place didn’t have a welcoming feel to it, so I declined to drive past the sign and knock on the door, even though part of me really wanted to.
I went back one more time after Mom died. In 2015, we rode bicycles with some high school friends from our hometown in New Jersey all the way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Since we were already on the Eastern Shore, I rented a car to see visit Mom, Dad, and Granddaddy at their plots in Bridgeville. After that we went down to the Wye. To my amazement, the tiny hamlet of Queenstown, where Mom was born back in 1922, now sports an outlet mall on Hwy 50. This time, driving towards Granddaddy’s house, we went almost all the way down Bennett Point road. Towards the end of that long peninsula, what we saw amazed us.
The migration of the rich into the area is manifested by the McMansions all along the road. The closer the property is to the water, the larger the houses. Little cinder block houses like Edna used to have were gone….bulldozed to make room for the gentry class. I suspect that many of these homes were second homes or weekend retreats of Washington lobbyists or investment bankers. Increased land values and lack of jobs with the decline of the fishing and crabbing industries caused out-migration due to poverty. The In-Migration is a factor of wealth. I can’t help but think….”Was what was lost worth more than what was apparently gained?”
Since I live on the West Coast and have no relatives closer to Maryland than Connecticut, I might not be able to visit Wye Island in person again. But I often visit in using Google Earth. I found out that the planned community on Wye Island fell through, and it is still largely undeveloped. I am thankful that such a special place still exists there. However, there is a different story on the West side of the river. I found Granddaddy’s old house. I could hover over the area, where I saw that there is a swimming pool where Granddaddy’s garden used to be. Most of the other houses in the area also have swimming pools. The peninsula where I rowed Ug to visit the duck blind is now gone. I don’t even have a picture of it anywhere. But it still vividly exists in my mind. How I wish I had documented things better when I was younger!
My own town of Bend, Oregon is currently undergoing tremendous change. The little town of 24,000 that we moved here to in the 1990s is now rapidly pushing towards a population of 100,000. The landscape and the culture are changing. Out of state license plates parked in driveways are a common occurrence. The rudeness coefficient is on the rise. There are forces, from both inside and outside of the region which I cannot stop. But I can do my best to research the history of Bend and to document what Bend is like today, so that future residents will know the story of our landscape and how it shaped our society. If we don’t know from whence we came, how can we ever plan on where we are going?
Central Oregon used to be geographically isolated enough to keep the population from growing so much. We used to be a long way from anywhere. The mountains separated us from the large populations of the Willamette Valley to the west. It is a 2.5 hour drive to the Columbia Gorge to the north. The desert covers the 2/3 of Oregon to the east. It is almost a six hour drive to Boise, the largest city to our east. We didn’t worry about a Bay Bridge being built that would change our world.
A few things changed that scenario. The regional airport for Central Oregon, Roberts Field in Redmond just to our north, doubled in size a few years ago. Just a decade ago, one would have to take a turbo prop airplane to link to either Seattle, Portland or San Francisco to then link up with a major carrier to go anywhere. It wasn’t convenient to get here. Now, there are direct jet flights to Redmond from places like Denver, Salt Lake City, Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles and Phoenix. That eased the movement of people into the region as much or more than the Bay Bridge did for the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Combine that with the boosterism of the Visitor Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, and the speed at which information travels over the internet and you have people from all over flocking to Bend in record numbers to move here. The cost of living is skyrocketing, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. My own home has more than tripled in value since we bought it, but that doesn’t necessarily make me happy. However, it does make realtors, investors, and land speculators very happy.
The problems of Wye River and Bend, Oregon boil down to the same issue….there is a dichotomy between the people who view land as a commodity from which to trade for monetary gain, and those who view land as a community to which they belong, which sustains their lives and livelihoods.
All of this uneasiness I feel, brings me back to Granddaddy on the Wye River. This is how he must have felt too. I feel that I’m getting to know him and understand him more in death, than in ways that I never imagined I would when I knew him in life.