The Blowhole of the Earth

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.

Southern Lynn Canal Marine Chart….St. James Bay is halfway up the map on the left side
Hump Island is lower left of center. Ralston Island is 2nd Island north of Hump Island. Blowhole of the Earth was between Ralston and Little Island

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.

Surf Scoters… by Tim Bowman

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.

Map of Shipwrecks in Lynn Canal

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.

Entrance to St. James Bay

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.

Harbor Seal

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.

Ralston Island Beach… remnant of the old pier left
The beach at Ralston Island…..Lincoln Island is in the near background

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!

Wye River

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.

The Bay Bridge…Eastern shore in the background There was only one bridge in the 60s

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 the 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.

Map of Eastern Shore…my Mom was born in Queenstown in 1922

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.

Map of flyways of Migratory Birds

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.

The one that got away

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.

Maryland Blue Claw Crabs

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.

a house on Bennett Pt. Road

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!

In distance as the Crow flies from Granddaddy’s old house…one mile… cultural distance…LIGHT YEARS away!

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.

Impact of Tourism and Growth on Bend’s north side….Photo: Bend Bulletin

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.

Chester C. My Granddaddy 1893-1981

Ethereal Altiplano- A Natural High on My first night in Chile

My first excursion to the Republic of Chile didn’t go anywhere near what I had planned. The money changers at the border didn’t want to change my $100 bill, saying that the serial number was too new. I only had the equivalent of $11 USD in Bolivian money in my pocket. Although they offered to change these notes to Chilean Pesos, how far could I go with that? I could get a bus ride to the coast, but it was Friday night, so all of the banks would be closed until Monday, once I got into the coastal town of Arica. Very few places, including hotels, accept credit cards. If I chance a bus ride, I could end up broke and sleeping in a public park until the banks opened in three more days. Not anything that I would want to do! Damn, I really did want to visit one of the driest places on planet earth, to see the Pacific Ocean, and to dip my toes in the cold Humboldt current!

However, I would soon learn that sometimes the best experiences in life come about by flying by the seat of your pants. The decision I made at the moment turned out to be a good one; one which made my first day and night in Chile an unforgettable one.

I cleared Customs and Immigration at the remote border post near Lago Chungara.

Bienvenido a Chile!

Both border posts (one in Chile and the other in Bolivia) are about 4 miles from each other.  In between, there is nothing but scrubland and high plateau.  Had it not been for Bolivia losing the War of the Pacific in 1870, there would not even be a border to cross. Bolivia used to have a coastline. Now, trucks are lined up at the border crossings, as this is the landlocked country’s closest outlet to international trade by sea.

Trucks at the Border….image from Wikimedia commons

This is one of the most desolate border crossings I have ever been to, and that is saying a lot.  I like desolate… rather than chance a trip to a city where I would be homeless and broke, I decided to camp out on the plateau and explore the area.  Lucky for me that Bolivia lost their coastline, or I would have missed the opportunity to stay here.

I looked around.  The scenery was stunning.   To the north lay the Cerros de Payachata (Twin Mountains in the Aymara language. The nearest one, the Parinacota volcano, rises to more that 20,000 feet.  To the south, the equally high Guallatiri volcano was spewing smoke out of its crater.  I was midway between them, but both were more than 8 miles away…..too far for an overnight trip.   I could camp by the lake, but what few buildings were in the area were clustered by the lake and it was too close to the road. I filled up my water bottles at the border post and took note of when the buses ran back to Bolivia on the weekend.  I weighed my options and decided to head to the south, towards a smoking volcano.  Can’t get that back home!

Los Cerros de Payachata Volcan Parinacota in the foreground

          Leaving behind the line of trucks lined up at the border, I started to walk south up a gentle slope.  Immediately, the lack of oxygen at this altitude started affecting me.  The Tambo Quemado Pass where the border station is located sits at an altitude of 14,998′ according to google earth.  Everything is uphill from here.  The starting point for my hike is more than 500′ higher than Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 U.S. states.  I hear the beat of drums in the distance.  I stop and listen.  It is my rapid heart beat banging through my ear drums.  My pace slows to a crawl.

The lack of oxygen keeps my brain in a fog. I feel like I’m dreaming. I pass by a small lake with Pink Flamingos. Is this real? Aren’t they supposed to be in Florida? What are flamingos doing at this high altitude desert, which gets brutally cold at night? Maybe the hypoxia is making me hallucinate.

After an hour of walking, I feel like I am far enough away from the trucks and the border crossing to enjoy the solitude of the open space. A cold wind starts to blow as the sun lowers in the sky. There are no trees or high bushes to block the cold wind. I put my tent in a dry creek bed which is only about a foot deep….only enough of a windbreak when I’m laying down.

It takes way too long for me to pitch my tent. Usually, I have it up in a couple of minutes. My oxygen starved body was moving in slow motion. It took almost 10 minutes to get the rain fly on and stake out the tent. It seems I have five thumbs on each hand. It is like having too much to drink, but not so much that you don’t know that you are impaired. Similar to walking out of the bar and fumbling with your keys too long to get your car door open, so you know enough to call a cab instead. But there is nobody to call here and it is getting cold quickly. High altitude dry regions have some of the highest daily temperature ranges on the planet. I’d better have enough of my wits to stay warm throughout the night.

I fire up the stove and heat some water for tea. Then, I crawl inside the tent and layer on a couple of layers of warm clothes and pull out my winter jacket as my last layer. I hear other noises outside of the tent, wheezing noises that don’t seem to be just the wind flapping the rain fly. Peeking outside, I see some strange animals nearing the tent. It is a herd of vicuna!

Vicuna outside of the tent.

Vicuna are the smallest members of the South American camel family. They are the smaller cousins of the alpaca and the llama. Vicuna inhabit more marginal high elevation areas, usually from 12,000 to 16,000 feet in elevation. They can graze closer to the ground than other members of the llama family. Their dense, silky fleece provides wonderful insulation against the cold, so it is prized for for making high-priced coats.

After downing a few cups of hot tea, I decide to stow my gear inside the tent and take a small hike and take only my water bottle and camera. The wide open spaces, the stunning panorama and the exotic animals, combined with the lack of oxygen all contribute to a feeling of intoxicated euphoria. Getting high (over 15,000 feet of it) can actually get you high! Naturally…..

A herd of vicuna on the Altiplano

I kept walking uphill to get a picture of the context of where I was camped. The little blue dot in the picture below shows the immensity of the landscape, which is both awe inspiring and humbling.

my little blue tent dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape!

I paused to reflect on the place I found myself in and on the events of the day which led up to this moment. Had I been able to change my money at the border, I probably would been in a hostel in the coastal town of Arica, Chile. However, the cosmos long ago conspired many events to put me in this place, at this moment in time. Had Bolivia never lost their coastline in the 19th century, I would’ve never had a reason to stop at a border in the first place. All of the other events in my life, too many to articulate, had led me to be enthralled by wild, desolate places. Had there been a threat of rain, I would never have chosen to camp in a dry creek bed. I felt that being here was somehow predestined.

The sunlight was quickly fading. I determined to take in as much of this moment as possible, to burn the memory of this beautiful landscape into my mind forever. Eternity only lasts a brief time…..

Shivering, I slowly make my way back to my tent, looking down occasionally to not trip, but not wanting to take my gaze off of the volcanoes. The place would have been magical on its own, but the added intoxicating euphoria of an oxygen starved brain created a blending of John Muir’s transcendentalism and Salvador Dali’s surrealism.

I got to the tent as the sun went below the horizon. Then it got REALLY cold. I zipped my sleeping bag up tight and shivered, still dreaming of what lay outside of the tent. With the wind blowing and vicuna snorting, the transition from reality to dreams in my sleep passed without notice.

Pinniped Politics in Southeast Alaska

I lay on my stomach, hugging the smooth rock, eyes gazing through my binoculars towards the spectacle below. My friend Dave, a fellow kayak guide from another company, lays quietly next to me. Our kayaks are about 1/2 mile away on the beach at the south end of the island. The tide was coming in. We stowed our crafts at the top of the beach, nestled in the grass at the edge of the spruce forest, high enough above the highest tide line to be safe from being flooded or swept away even by the wave action of the highest tide. We didn’t know how long this stake out would last.

It is May. Most of the tourists have not yet arrived. The animals we came to see are not expecting us. We are taking time to explore and enjoy the areas that we guide in. Early May is one of my favorite times to enjoy the beauty of Southeast Alaska.

My approach on foot is muffled by the green, mossy carpet, beneath the successional forest comprised of mostly Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. A cool, Northwest wind is blowing in our faces, helping to carry any sounds we might make away from the animals we are spying on, which keeps our approach stealth-like and clandestine.

We arrive at our perch at the edge of the forest, overlooking the rocks below. About sixty feet below, lay about three hundred brown bodies, each glistening a different hue, depending on their age and how recently they exited the sea. Behind them lay the wide expanse of the blue waters of Lynn Canal, one of the longest, widest and arguably the most beautiful of all the fjords of Southeast Alaska. The gentle Northwesterly winds are making small, rippling waves, which lap the shoreline of the haul-out. In the background, the majestic Chilkat Range rises abruptly. The blue-green of the rainforest quickly gives way to the white of last winter’s snow, which perpetually clings to the highest peaks. On the other side of the range lay Glacier Bay.

The scene can give one a false sense of serenity, as this area is famous for its severe and sudden storms. Glancing to my left, I can see the outline of Sentinel Reef, where the Princess May ran aground in 1910. Looking straight ahead I can’t quite glimpse the site of Tear Drop Lake high up in the Chilkat Mountains, where the wreckage of the Alaska Airlines jet Flight 1866 from Labor Day 1971 still sits undisturbed. All 111 passengers and crew perished on that foggy day. To the right, I strain to see Vanderbilt Reef through my binoculars, the site of the grim story of the wreck of the Princess Sophia. That tragedy in 1918 claimed more than 350 lives. History shows us that this can be a dangerous place, but the animals we are watching knew nothing of our history. Anyway, they already know that there are many other dangers associated with this place.

The rocks of the haul out slope down toward the water’s edge at roughly a 30 degree angle. Depending on the height of the tide, the approach to and from the sea for the animals, can either be an easy slide or a clumsy waddle followed by a short leap. Our vantage point affords us a view of the entire colony. We have a window into the secret society of Stellar Sea Lions. In a way, I feel like a behavioral psychologist behind a one-way mirror, gaining insight into the mind of the subject (or in this case, multiple subjects) on the other side of the glass. As long as we can keep relatively quiet and remain downwind of our subjects, we will not be discovered.

There are so many animals gathered this time of year that there is little space for any additional bodies on the rocks. Right on cue, a couple of juvenile males pop their heads out of the water as they approach the haul out. They momentarily scan the colony to see where there might be a vacant space to occupy. Everything seems to be taken, except for one tiny piece of bare rock at the top of the colony, close to the forest edge and just below us. With their minds made up, they leap out of the water, eyes fixated on their destination. Since there is no clear path, their route takes them over the resting bodies of the rest of the group. Mayhem erupts. Each time someone is disturbed or stepped on, bellowing roars of disapproval ensue. Even those who are not stepped on awake from the noise. In a few moments, all three hundred are complaining loudly.

“Get off of my flipper,” one screams.

“Hey asshole, you’re stepping on my face,” yells another.

“Damn it, stop the barking! I’m trying to sleep,” yell the rest of the herd.

It is so loud that one could hear this over a mile away on the mainland. Dave and I put our fingers in our ears and laugh out loud. Their noise drowns out our laughs. Once the instigator finds his place on the rocks, the barking slowly subsides. In a few moments, there are only a few snores and peaceful grunts.

These social animals have a love-hate relationship within their groups. They can’t stand being alone, but they often can’t stand being with one another. In that way, they are like humans.

The colony seems to be at relative peace for a few moments. It doesn’t last long. A head pops up from the middle of the pack on the rocks. Either he needs to take a dip in the water to cool off, or he is hungry and needs a snack. Whatever the reason, the route to satisfy both needs leads directly to the water and over a multitude of sleeping bodies. The symphony of loud barks begins anew as the interloper begins his descent. Each waddle and hop results in more disturbances, and more disapproving barking. By the time the sea lion leaps into the water, the crescendo of the concert reaches its climax. Bass, Alto and Tenor are all barking in unison. It is hilarious to watch and listen to.

We stayed there for hours, watching the same show over and over again. Knowing the story line ahead of time didn’t detract from the fun of being there. We laughed each time the colony went into mayhem, and then slowly drifted back into a peaceful community.

Not to get too anthropomorphic about animal behavior, but humans and pinnipeds are both social animals. We may be able to learn some lessons about our own social behaviors by watching the sea lions. Anthropomorphism, or the projection of human characteristics and emotions to the animal world has been criticized by some for a long time, especially by those who view humans as superior to other life forms. However, primatologist Frans De Waal coined the term “Anthropodenial,” which is a blindness to human characteristics of other animals. According to an article in 2005, “There are cases where we try so hard not to Anthropomorphize, that we miss the obvious similarities to the world around us.” (”

Humans, like pinnipeds, can’t stand isolation. They also have trouble in communities. If pinnipeds would communicate and coordinate better, they would all go for a swim at the same time and then come out and rest on the rocks at the same time. The first ones out would have to waddle up to the rocks farthest up the slope. When it was time to swim, the sea lions at the water’s edge would be the first to dive in, followed in order by subsequent rows of sea lions. Nobody would have their flipper stepped on by another. They could learn a lot from penguins about orderly entrances and exits from the water and land, but alas…there are no penguins living in the Northern Hemisphere from which to learn from.

Alternatively, if humans could learn to communicate better with each other about their needs, they too could avoid a lot of conflict. They could avoid having their toes (flippers) stepped on by their neighbor’s self-centered actions. We doubt that Sea Lions have the ability to pull this off, but we still somehow hope that we will someday show ourselves to be superior to Sea Lions.

Hour of observation pass by. We are becoming stiff laying on the rocks for so long. I’m getting hungry. Dave and I take one last look at the colony and crawl back into the forest. Out of sight, we stand up and stretch our legs and make our way back to our kayaks on the south end of the island. Our senses heightened by spending time observing nature, we notice more going out than when we came in. We see a Ruby Crowned Kinglet fluttering from branch to branch above us. We notice a patch of skunk cabbage in bloom as we navigate around a bog in the rainforest.

Skunk Cabbage in the Rainforest

We listen to the shrill sounds of the Varied Thrush, which we mostly hear only in May. We stop and listen to the birds. The sounds of the Varied Thrush reverberate through the forest. It is interrupted by bellows of Sea Lions in the distance. Somebody just got stepped on. We laugh one last time before we reach our kayaks.

Varied Thrush

The tide is much higher than when we landed, having risen about 15 vertical feet. We don’t have far to carry the boat to the water’s edge to launch. We climb into our boats, attach our spray skirts and zip up our life vests for the mile and a half paddle back to the mainland. Even though the sea lions are on the opposite side of the island, we periodically hear episodes of loud barking. As we neared my parked truck on the mainland, I thought about the society that I would be going back to. I make the analogy of how Juneau is to humans, so is Benjamin Island to sea lions. With all of this open space in Southeast Alaska, humans chose to densely cluster in Juneau, rather than spread out. We needed each other. But we complain about others intruding on our space. I wondered, “Could I get what I needed in life without stepping on someone else’s flipper and causing a big commotion?”

Can’t we all just get along…?

The consequences of casual, concise Klondike encounters

How many times do we have casual encounters with a stranger? We may exchange pleasantries in line at the grocery checkout, or acknowledge a stranger walking by on the opposite sidewalk. We presume that these brief encounters are not meaningful. However, two people who have had a profound influence on my life were strangers who I only met for a few minutes, several years ago.. I don’t even know their names, but I think of them often. If I could speak to them today, I would thank each of them for changing my life and motivating me to continue my pursuit of discovering far away special places in the world. If we only knew the power of such encounters to influence a person’s life, how might we interact differently with each other?

The “PLACE” where these encounters take place is integral to this power to influence. Anthropologists and Geographers have written tomes relating to this subject. Geographers refer to the Five Themes of Geography; Location, Place, Human-Environment Interaction; Movement; and Region. LOCATION simply refers to x,y coordinates on a map and describes where something is, either in latitude/longitude coordinates or in relation to some know feature (Bend, OR is East of the Cascade Mtn. Range). PLACE is different; it refers to the Physical and Human Aspects of a said location. Humans MOVE into an environment and adapt to it, but they also INTERACT with that environment and change it. Cultural Anthropologists describe how humans attach cultural meanings to specific locations. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the two life changing encounters both happened within a few days of each other, while hiking the Chilkoot Trail from Alaska to Canada, the same route that gold rush miners took to the Klondike in 1898.

Chilkoot Trail Location

One old man inspired me to emulate him; the other profoundly influenced me to do the opposite, and avoid the mistakes that he had made with his life. I suspect that neither of these men would remember even meeting me…..or would they? Was there something memorable for them in our brief rendezvous, or did the lasting impressions only go one way?

It was the summer of 1988 and my friends and I flew from Atlanta, GA to Juneau, Alaska as we prepared to retrace the Klondiker’s steps over the Chilkoot Pass trail from Skagway, AK to Lake Bennett in Canada. The 33 mile long trail was the shortest route overland to gain access to the Yukon gold fields. Fortune seeking pioneers would sail all the way from San Francisco or Seattle to Skagway, which was as far as they could go on salt water. Then the perilous and arduous journey began. The trail starts overland from the Ghost town of Dyea, about nine miles west of Skagway. Miners would have to pack one year’s provisions up a steep mountain pass, where Canadian Mounties awaited to make sure that anyone entering their country would have the required 1,150 pounds of food per person before they would be allowed to enter Canada. The border was at the top of the Chilkoot Pass, where one had to navigate a steep mountain wall. Most miners did the pass in the Winter, as it was easier to drag the heavy gear over snow than carry it. After clearing customs, they would continue to Bennett Lake and build boats and wait for Spring snow melt to make the 560 mile trip to Dawson City, Yukon.

The Golden Staircase. Canada border is at the top

We began the hike at Dyea, which is now a ghost town. We had an eerie feeling as we walked through the cemetery. All of the headstones showed the same day of death; April 3rd, 1898. The avalanche that wiped out this community was a factor of the geography of the area. The steep mountains behind Dyea forces the moist marine winds upslope, where it cools and condenses. In the summer, it rains a lot. In the winter, the precipitation comes in the form of snow. When the winds change from the north, cold arctic air freezes the snow pack, causing a layer of ice. Subsequent heavy wet snows on top of the ice, compounded with warming temperatures in April are a recipe for avalanche. If only the miners had taken a Physical Geography class ahead of time!

One of many headstones with the same day of death
Slide Cemetery

Our journey would be quite different from that of the miners. We would travel in the summer, whereas many of the miners would hike in the snow during late Winter and early Spring to be able to drag their heavy loads over snow, rather than hauling everything on their backs. We only had 4 days of provisions in our pack. They had to make multiple trips to carry the 1,150 pounds of food per person, which was the minimum they needed to show the Mounties before they were allowed to cross the border into Canada.

We saw lots of hikers on the American side of the border the first few days. Most were German or Canadian. Blueberries were abundant along the trail. We raked the bushes as we hiked, constantly stuffing the succulent berries in our mouths as we moved ever uphill. When we reached the cabin shelter to camp for the evening, our faces resembled a bunch of two-year old children given grape popsicles at a birthday party. Our hands were also stained. The three of us could pass for the original blue man group.

There was a cold stream beside the cabin, so we picked some more blueberries and made some cherry jello and placed the pot in the stream for it to congeal. We then went back to the cabin and proceeded to cook dinner on our camp stoves. Other people were staying at the cabin too. They were all surprised when I said, “Now, it’s time to go outside and get dessert.” Covetous and wistful eyes watched us as we enjoyed our fruit filled jello. We didn’t have enough to share with everyone. I thought we might have to fight WWII with the Germans over it. A pretty, Canadian girl from Whitehorse offered to barter some dried moose meat for some jello, so we agreed to share with her. We both felt like we got the better of the deal: she longing for a dessert in the wilderness, and ourselves trying a new type of food.

Sheep camp cabin on the AK side of the border

From Sheep Camp shelter, we had a little more than a three mile hike uphill to reach “The Scales”, the beginning of the steep ascent up to the top of Chilkoot Pass. The climb up “Long Hill” to the top was much steeper. In summer, there would be no snow to smooth out the incline. A cable had been bolted into the rocks, which we used to assist ourselves up the rocks. The cable was a remnant of an old tramway which hauled up goods to the top for a hefty fee. Most miners were too poor to afford it, so they made multiple trips up Long Hill from the Scales to the summit with heavy loads on their backs. We were glad to only have to make the climb once. Finally reaching the top, we took a lunch break in a small snow bank just across the international boundary line. No Canadian Mounties were there to meet us, so we felt like illegal aliens sneaking across the border undocumented.

Once inside Canada, the terrain, vegetation and scenery drastically changed. We were now above tree line in alpine tundra. We still had quite a few patches of snow to negotiate, even though it was late August. We started down the trail, with beautiful Crater Lake coming into view beneath the cloud ceiling on the left side of the trail. The route was so steep downhill at this point, that we stopped at a warming A-frame hut to cut our toenails shorter to keep them from being jammed into the front of our boots.

Crater Lake

After warming in the hut, we continued hiking north. Far off in the distance, we could look across the tundra and see a couple of hikers headed in our direction. Just before we reached Long Lake, they came more closely into view. They would be the only people we encountered walking the trail in the opposite direction. As they approached, I could see that these were elderly backpackers, who looked to be in their mid to late seventies. I admired them for being able to still hike in this terrain at their age. I lingered with them for a few minutes and we chatted. Those few minutes would stay with me for a lifetime.

Heading North

The old man wore a ratty looking, well worn white wool sweater. His long white beard looked like it could have been knitted from the same wool. He was wearing a kilt, which revealed a pair of stocky, sturdy legs which disappeared into knee-high wool socks covered by black gaiters. His enormous pack dwarfed his stocky frame. He had a twinkle in his eye as he talked to me. Had he been dressed in a red suit and carrying a bag over his shoulder instead of a backpack, he could have passed for Santa Claus.

I could have spent hours talking to him and picking his brain about a lifetime of adventure. However, I didn’t want to get too far behind my hiking companions, so our chat was brief. Just before we parted, he shared a few secrets with me. Before doing so, he looked around and scanned the horizon, as if to make sure any ghosts in the area would not overhear us and steal these precious words of wisdom. Even though nobody else was in earshot, he whispered “I’ve been hiking this North Country for 50 years boy. There’s two places you’ve just got to see before you die. One is Mt. Edziza in Northern British Columbia. Then, after that, you’ve got to see the Mackenzie Mountains in the Northwest Territories.”

I thanked him for his advice and hurried up the trail to catch up with my friends. That night, I fell asleep dreaming of what these places would be like and planned on when I would go there. I ended up experiencing both places within the next four years, and both were in the middle of “Nowhere.” What good advice that chat ended up being!

I often think of the old man, at least a couple of times per year. Back then, I aspired to be as active as he was into my seventies, if and when I ever reach them. Would I still be able to hoist a heavy pack and go discover wild places when I reach his age? Will I remain diligent and keep exploring, or will I get caught up in the rat race of modern life and trade the dreams of my youth for a sedentary life of comfort? Could I someday be the old man that inspires others by sharing my stories of adventure and discovery? Finally, with the rate of habitat loss occurring in the late 20th century, will there be any wild places left by the time I reach his age?

That was half of my lifetime ago. I’m sure he has passed on by now. I am now no longer a young man, and am approaching the age that he was when I met him. Taking inventory of my life since then, I have experienced a lot of amazing places on this planet. Many of them are suffering the expansion of modernity into previously pristine places. The Chilkoot Pass is now highly regulated due to its popularity. You would need a permit to hike it today. That’s why I don’t feel guilty about writing about it. Other places, which are still pristine, I may disguise a bit when I write about them. Also, comparing my life to his, I think I am a little softer than he was, but what activities I still do are more than that of many people my age. I am grateful to him for that. I wish I could tell him just how much…..

We continued on the trail and saw the remnants of old boots, boat frames, and mining equipment; things that the miners abandoned nearly 100 years prior. We also saw abandoned cast iron cook stoves, and runners from sleds, all of which were buried by snow most of the year and were well preserved. The Chilkoot Trail is often referred to as “the Longest Museum in the World.”

abandoned miner’s tools from 100 years ago

We reached Lake Lindemann, where many of the miners stopped the hike and attempted to build boats where they could travel the last several hundred miles to Dawson City, Yukon and the gold fields of the Klondike. A bunch of cabins remained and the tree stumps were about 6 feet tall, marking the height of the snow line when the miners cut them down during the Winter of 1897-98. Parks Canada built a present-day cabin for hikers, complete with a sod roof in the construction style of the old days. The remains of several other decrepit buildings, along with an old cemetery, showed us that Lindemann City was once a large community at the end of the 19th century.

Abandoned town of Lindemann City

Unlike the Klondikers, we would not be floating to Dawson City. Instead, we would hike a side trail back towards the main highway which led back to Skagway, via White Pass. The trail followed the old railroad tracks of the White Pass and Yukon Railroad for seven miles. We thought that the easy grade of the railroad would make for an easy hike out, but quickly convinced ourselves otherwise. With each step, our blistered feet pounded on the cross ties of the railroad tracks. The bottoms of our feet felt worse than those of a convict in a Turkish prison, where the guards club the prisoner’s feet to keep them from escaping. By the time we got to the road to catch a ride back to Skagway, our feet felt like raw hamburger patties, with the railroad ties akin to being the hot griddle!

Hamburger patties on a hot griddle!

After no luck hitch-hiking on a lonely road, the once daily Sourdough Shuttle Bus stopped and picked us up and shuttled us back to Skagway. An hour and a half later, we were in downtown Skagway, bustling with tourists, most of whom were from cruise ships.

Having dreamed of bacon cheeseburgers for the last few days, we ducked into the Sourdough Cafe on Main Street and grabbed a booth. The coffee was hot and rich; a welcome change from instant on the trail. Copious quantities of golden French Fries accompanied our bacon cheeseburgers. We relived the past few days in a crowded restaurant full of people. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted an old gentleman shuffling over toward our table.

“I couldn’t help by overhear your conversation, but could you please tell me a little more about your hike on the Chilkoot Trail?”, he asked. “I’ve always wanted to go and experience it, and it’s one of the biggest regrets that I have in my life that I never got to do it”, he said ruefully.

He stayed at our table for a few minutes while we recounted the highlights of what we had seen, smelled and heard. I tried to convince him not to give up on his dream and that he was not too old to try it.

” We ran into a fellow that was older than you on the trail and he was backpacking, so you could too”, I told him.

I will never forget the mournful, broken-hearted look in that man’s eyes. He looked sadly down at the floor as he muttered, “I have a heart condition now. I’ll never be able to do it.” With that, he slowly shuffled away towards the door, shaking his head the whole time.

I waited until he was gone. “I don’t EVER want to be THAT GUY”, I told my friends. “I know that I will someday be either too old or too sick to do some things I love to do. But when that happens, I want to be able to look back on the things that I DID do. I’m sure that when I’m on my deathbed, there will be unfulfilled goals, but instead of being filled with regrets on what I didn’t do, I want to look back on all of the opportunities for travel and adventure that I DID take advantage of.”

Since that time more than three decades ago, I have had many reasons not to go somewhere, whether that be a function of time or money or lack of someone to go with. Then, I think of the old man in the cafe, full of regrets at the end of his life. Because of him, I learned that it is more important to spend time making a life than it is spending all of your time making a living. I then have to find a way to make a memorable journey happen.

I spend a lot of time in my office looking through my Atlas or searching google earth, seeking “nowhere” places to make new discoveries; discoveries about the earth, and/or myself. Each time I think of the two men I had concise, casual encounters with, and the consequences of those encounters. The man on the trail inspires me to keep exploring as long as I can. The man in the cafe reminds me that my time is limited, and not to let opportunity pass you by. Both of them remind me never to take any brief encounter with another human being lightly.

Taan- An Alaska story

Through his big, bulbous brown eyes, Taan glimpses the approaching kayaker. If he were alone, he might feel more cautious. However, many of his family members, along with a multitude of friends were close by. He rises high out of the water and bellows a loud roar of admonition to the human, and simultaneously alerts the herd to the presence of the intruder.

Taan has an innate dislike of these human trespassers. Many of his ancestors were hunted by Native Americans, both Tlingits and Aleuts alike, who used hunting vessels similar to the kayak he just saw. This intruder is alone however, and Taan feels a boldness due to the size of the gang that he leads and patrols these waters with. This is HIS territory! Later in the year, during mid-summer, many of his relatives would not be here. They might be up past the north end of Lynn Canal, at the rookery near Yelgadalga Creek. But it was only May now, and the whole horde was here with him patrolling the waters in the southern portion of Alaska’s grandest fjord.

Taan was a veteran of many seasons around the Channel Islands of the Lynn Canal Fjord. When he was much younger, he had to be wary of fishermen in power-boats chasing and harassing him, as they both were in competition with each other for the same salmon. Now it was his turn to be the aggressor and intimidator. Taan was much older and wiser. His enormous size afforded him much prestige with the rest of the group. As the leader of the group, he would instigate the aggression against this nuisance; this lone recreational paddler who carried no hunting weapons on board.

Following Taan’s lead, the rest of the group peeked up out of the water and into the breathing zone to get a better look at their target. The moist air and calm southerly winds carried the raucous bellows of Taan and his gang toward the now nervous kayaker. The paddler’s angst heightened as a horde of angry brown heads rapidly approached. Being downwind, the human could even smell the stench emanating from Taan’s bright pink throat. The calm seas were boiling with the rapid advance of frothing brown bodies. A cacophony of roars of disapproval were augmented by the sight of long, white canine teeth. The kayaker looked for an escape route. The coastline on the east side of the fjord was almost a mile away. Too far to outrun Taan and the group, as they could move twice his speed. The only other possible escape route was Benjamin Island to the southeast, but Taan lay in the direct route to there. There was nowhere to hide!

Taan was over 1,500 pounds of angry animal backed up by over 60 of his vociferous friends. In a frantic feeling of fight or flight, the outgunned kayaker nervously fumbled through the dry bag that was attached to the nylon cord on the foredeck of his craft. “Hurry”, he muttered to himself, as the five dozen heads with canine teeth bared, came ever closer.

Just a few seconds before the imminent attack, and just at the instant that the desperate kayaker finally located the hand-held flare and pulled the cord to activate it, a remarkable thing happened. Taan and his companions immediately broke off the attack and turned 180 degrees and high-tailed it back towards Benjamin Island, where they usually hauled out on the rocks on the island’s west side. Why did this happen?

The human did not understand, for he did not hear what Taan and his kind heard. They heard the one noise that provoked sheer terror to run through their bodies. All thoughts of the kayaker and his intrusion into their lives vanished instantly. In a nanosecond, the members of Taan’s gang transformed from angry aggressors to the helplessly hunted. Due to their preoccupation with the human intruder, many were caught off guard. Now, they were crashing into each other in a frantic effort to reach the safety of the rocks at the haul-out at Benjamin Island.

The high pitched whine that instinctively struck fear into the hearts of the herd, brought back terrible and brutal images to Taan’s memory. He had heard the same sickening noise a mere two weeks ago as he was swimming southwest of Sentinel Island with a couple of female companions. Taan was lucky enough to escape that time, as he was able to leap out of the water and haul out on the small buoy at Poundstone Rock. The buoy was situated over a submerged reef and the small platform that could only fit a couple of bodies on it. It was also high enough out of the water that it required a substantial leap to make it onto the buoy. As Taan’s body hit the safety of the landing zone, his weight caused the buoy to rock violently back and forth, causing the buoy’s bell to clang loudly. The clanging got louder as each member jumped aboard. However, one of the younger females was not so lucky. The leap was too high for her and the platform was too crowded. With the bell clamoring and the buoy rocking wildly, Taan was forced to helplessly watch as the water boiled around him and turned the color of crimson. Pieces of his friend’s flesh were tossed around in the air like bark being chipped off of a tree branch by a logger. He remembered her last muffled cry. Thankfully, it was over soon. The water became still again as he watched a piece of her brown flipper disappear beneath the surface of the fjord for the last time.

The kayaker sat motionless and dumbfounded, his hand-held flare still lit and shaking in his trembling hand. Just a moment before he had imagined being capsized by having tons of brown bodies leaping out of the water onto his tiny boat. He shuddered at the thought of being trapped upside down in the frigid water with Taan and his kind biting him. The encounter with Taan caught him off guard, as he had paddled close to him the previous summer without having any problems. But that was when the rest of the group was up at the rookery at Yelgadalga Creek near Haines, when Taan was patrolling these waters alone.

As he watched Taan and his friends escape towards the haul-out at Benjamin Island, a great sense of relief swept over the kayaker. He didn’t fully understand what was happening because his hearing was limited to sounds above the water. Also, the gentle breeze blowing from the south would only carry sounds to his ears coming from that direction. He had no idea what terrible thing lay just to the north of him. He glanced around and looked in all directions, but there was nothing in sight that would cause such an abrupt retreat by Taan. There was only stillness, and the bucolic scene of nature.

The paddler took a long, deep sigh of relief. His heart rate, which was similar to a hummingbird’s hopped up on red bull just a few seconds ago, was beginning to settle down as he realized he was no longer in immediate danger. A brush with danger causes one to reflect. He gazed across the expanse of the Lynn Canal Fjord and took in the majestic view of the mighty snow-capped Chilkat Range. He thanked the gods, the cosmos, for his good fortune of still being in one piece and for the warmth of the sun on his face. He looked to the East to view the Coast range on the mainland, where the clouds parted just in the perfect spot to afford a glimpse of the beautiful bluish-white ribbons of ice from the Eagle and Herbert Glaciers. As he scanned the horizon, he spied the outlines of Lincoln and Ralston Islands to the west. He thought of the abandoned fox farms from the early 1900s on these uninhabited islands, which the wilderness had reclaimed. He paused to reflect on the forces of nature which sculpted this grand fjord; first the geologic fault that made it so straight and deep and later the power of the continental glaciers 10,000 years ago which re-worked the canvas of this landscape. He contemplated the waves of plant succession and the migration of various flora and fauna as he looked at the lush, verdant forests of Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. He felt a connection; a closeness to the land and to nature. He acknowledged the fact that his slender kayak permitted him to quietly infiltrate the barrier that separated most humans from the natural world around them. A feeling of gratitude and awe swept over him. As he looked at the thin, stratified clouds clinging to the Chilkat mountains just above the outlet to St. James Bay, he was wondering if the creator had artfully decorated this lovely portrait just for his viewing pleasure, when……

“WHOOOOOOSSSSSSSHHHH!” The serenity of the moment was abruptly interrupted by this loud sound just 15 meters off of the starboard bow. Startled, the kayaker’s body rigidly stiffened. His right leg extended so rapidly that he broke the plastic foot pedal which controlled his rudder. Wheeling around, his eyes opened wide and fixated on the huge, erect, six-foot black dorsal fin jutting out of the water and heading towards him, just a few boat lengths away. The sunlight glistened on the wet, ebony body of the huge animal. It was Ke’et!

The bright white spot behind the brute’s eye made his jet black body appear to be even more sinister. The monster breached next to the kayak, which soaked the human with a thunderous splash of salt water. Due to a combination of fear and awe, his jaw was agape, so he had to cough hard to keep his lungs from being filled with the salt water from the splash. The resulting wake from the monster’s breach should have been enough to capsize the paddler, had it not been for an instinctive low brace of his paddle.

From her familiar environs on the rocks of Sentinel Reef, just to the north of the lighthouse on Sentinel Island, Tsaa also witnessed the drama unfold. She sensed that Taan and his brethren were in trouble. She and her kind were much smaller than Taan. Although she could not move as nimbly on land as Taan could, they were distant cousins. Tsaa turned her little, speckled, gray head and stared northeast toward Benjamin Island. Even from this long distance away, the sight of Ke’et made her very nervous. However, Tsaa knew something that the kayaker did not. Unlike the man, who was now in a renewed state of fear for his life, Tsaa knew that Ke’et had no interest in the kayak. She knew that it was the taste of the flesh of marine life or blubber that Ke’et was after. Tsaa felt more assured that the tide was not very high at the moment, as the present water level allowed for more rock on the reef to be exposed. She clumsily shuffled up a bit higher on the barnacle laden rocks. From the same perch where the Princess May cruise ship ran aground many years ago in 1910, Tsaa watched the rest of the drama unfold.

There were also other spectators. From the highest branch of a tall Sitka Spruce tree on the west side of Benjamin Island, Ch’aak stared at the scene below him. He saw Ke’et speed by the strange looking slender white beast who had no legs or flippers, which had a human head attached to its long fiberglass body. Ch’aak could see that Taan and his group would have to hurry if they were to make it to the safety of the shoreline in time to avoid catastrophe. Ke’et was closing the distance on them!

The commotion spooked the family of Ch’eet who were swimming nearby. One by one, their little bodies dove quickly under the water as if they were targets knocked down in a shooting arcade. Ch’eet could fly away, but they often escaped danger by swimming under water, as their little wings acted as well as flippers for swimming as the did as wings for flying. Besides, they were too small to even be an hors d’oeurve for the likes of Ke’et.

The xik family was also disturbed by the tumult. They began to take off from the water and flee. In unison, all of the xik family vehemently flapped their black and white wings as they ran across the surface of the water in order to gain enough speed to allow their corpulent bodies enough lift to become airborne. Upon takeoff, they are a noisy lot, with the sound of their wings and squawking beaks sounding like a bunch of squeaky fan belts from old pickup trucks. However, this time the noise was drowned out by the panicked splashes of Taan and his friends.

Taan, being the alpha male and the strongest, was the first to arrive at the haul-out. With amazing speed, he literally flew out of the water and onto the barnacled rocks. By now, almost all of the creatures in the area were alerted to the drama unfolding at the shoreline on the west side of Benjamin Island. Tsaa watched in amazement at the speed and dexterity of Taan as he maneuvered his huge frame up and down the steep rocks. Yo’ok, who was also on her perch close to the water’s edge of the rocky shoreline, stopped fishing long enough to take in the scene. She strained her long, black neck and spied Ke’et bearing down with laser like focus on one of the youngsters in Taan’s group.

Taan’s clan bumped into one another as each one fought for a safe space on the rocks of the haul-out. Taan barked out orders to the others to keep moving up the rocks in order to vacate the lower areas in order to leave an escape path for everyone. The animals, still in panic, roared at one another as they clamored and climbed over each other. They were still too panicked to listen to Taan’s good advice. The inability of the group to cooperate with each other ended up sealing the fate of Taan’s grandson.

With no open area of rocks on which to haul out and with his escape route cut off, the lagging little one was an easy mark for an efficient killer like Ke’et. As the kayaker and the families of Ch’eet and xik watched from the sea; while Tsaa and Yo’ok observed from their respective shorelines and under the watchful eye of Ch’aak in the top of his spruce tree, and in front of the very eyes of grandfather Taan and the rest of the clan, Ke’et sank his teeth into the flesh of the little one. The herd barked and roared with disapproval, but there was nothing that they could do. The outcome was inevitable. The sea in front of the rocks of the haul-out turned crimson for a moment. Thankfully for the youngster, it was over quickly, without much of a struggle.

Ke’et had killed again. The drama had been played out many times before. All of the animals in the area had witnessed this ongoing drama. That is, all except for one….

While this was unfolding, another creature was entering the arena. Everyone was so fixated on the chase that they did not see this creature arrive. Tsaa was the closest one, and she saw it first. Ch’aak was next to see it, swimming to the north out in the middle of the fjord, where few other animals ventured to. This huge sluggish beast always swam out in the deep water; it never came close to the shore near the channel islands. Although it was by far the largest beast of the fjord, none of the area residents had any fear of it. It was over 700 feet long, with a long blue and white body. It never disappeared below the surface of the water. Its twin blowholes belched out a noxious, foul, black respiration. Yo’ok looked on it with casual indifference, and went back to fishing on the shoreline. Ke’et, now having his hunger satiated, swam towards the behemoth, feeling mildly curious. Taan looked out over the water in sadness, but felt nothing as he spied the blue and white creature swimming by.

The kayaker looked upon the scene and he understood what the other creatures of Lynn Canal fjord did not know about this strange beast. As the paddler gazed upon the sight of the Holland America Cruise line steaming north from Juneau towards the port of Skagway, he realized that neither did the tourists on board understand anything of the natural world around them. As they cruised these waters none of them saw Ke’et that day. None of the passengers would know of the struggle that Taan faced with Ke’et. Although they were in close geographical proximity to the drama that unfolded, they were worlds apart from it. They were separated from the natural world by glass, steel, and plastic. They could not smell the exposed seaweed at low tide, or the stench emanating from Ke’et’s blowhole or Taan’s mouth. The smells from the buffet line and the cocktail bar would be the only inputs into their olfactory senses. Conversations near the slot machines and in the gift shop would over overwhelm the sounds of the bellows of Taan’s group. No one heard the noisy take off of the xik family either.

The irony of it all was that these folks had spent thousands of dollars and traveled from all over the world to experience Alaska. Yes, they would have nice pictures to share and see beautiful things peering through the window of their staterooms. They might even take a shore excursion in a power boat to get them a little closer to Alaska. But, they would never see or experience the things that the kayaker had, nor would they ever feel part of the same world that Taan, Ch’aak, Ke’et, Tsaa or Yo’ok belonged to. Dramas like the one that the kayaker just experienced happen every day in Alaska. It is a beautiful, but dangerous place. One must expose themselves to the danger to understand it fully. When you have a part in the play, the play becomes a part of you.

It took the kayaker another hour to paddle to shore, where his vehicle awaited him. He secured his kayak on top and started the 40 minute drive back into Juneau. Lots of fishermen were pulling their boats out of Auke Bay harbor as he drove past there. Further along, he drove by Fred Meyer and the Nugget Mall; past Alaska Federal Savings and Loan, past the fish hatchery at Lemon Creek, into the bowels of civilization. A few more miles and he was in the heart of the capital city of Alaska, only 30 miles away from Taan’s haul-out as Ch’aak would fly, but a galaxy away culturally. As the paddler drove over the Douglas Bridge and rode the last few miles to home, he ruminated on the events of the day. He realized that he could never fully be in Taan’s world. However, he also knew he was forever changed by being a part of it.

Taan and his gang
Ke’et and the kayaker
Ch’aak in flight
Tsaa resting on the rocks
xik before takeoff
two members of the Ch’eet family
Yo’ok, taking a break from fishing
A quieter day at the Benjamin Island haul-out. Chilkat mountains in the distance.
The Wreck of the Princess May on Sentinel Reef in 1910….no casualties
Sentinel Island lighthouse
Taan and friends on Poundstone Rock
Alaska State Ferry (not Holland America), with Herbert Glacier in the background

Pandemics, Baseball, dealing with Racism, and July the 7th

This story was originally posted on July 7th, 2020, with the last few paragraphs added on July 7, 2022 to compare changes over the last two years.

July 8, 2020

What is the common thread between global pandemics, baseball, the historical and contemporary problems with racism in our country and July the 7th? At first glance, they might seem not to be connected. At age 63 I finally just recently discovered how intertwined they really are.

The most recent July 7 passed us just last week. It may not mean much to most readers, but it was my Dad’s birthday. Had he still been with us, he would have celebrated his 102nd birthday. Dad loved baseball, and he passed on his love of the game to me. It is typically close to the date of the annual All-Star break, the mid-season classic pitting the best players from the National and American leagues against each other. However, due to Covid-19, there is no baseball being played at the moment.

The 1918 Spanish Flu

Dad was born in July of 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic that took over 40 million lives. After flattening the curve during the summer, the flu’s second wave came with a vengeance. One of the casualties was his mother; my grandmother, Mary. She died in November of that year. Dad was the youngest of 5 children, so he was too young to have any memory of his mother. His father Owen, who was a riveter who built bridges, was lost as to how to work and take care of 5 children. His brother Tom, took in the whole family without hesitation. My middle name is Thomas, named after Dad’s uncle.


Dad grew up during the depression. He briefly played semi-pro ball. He was a sergeant in the infantry during WWII, earning a Purple Heart Medal, a European African Middle Eastern campaign Medal, a Distinguished Unit Badge, a Bronze Star Medal and a Silver Star Medal. He was reticent to relate to me much about the war.   Most of what I learned about the war from him was from his military records and written accounts of the history of the 337th regiment of the 85th Infantry Division (The Custer Division). He had always dreamed of playing professional baseball, but life got in the way of his dream. After the war, he returned home to work and make a living. He had only a high school diploma, but through hard work, made a decent, honest living in the restaurant business. Due to long hours, he was often absent from the home. Even so, much of the free time he had, he spent teaching me about the game he loved. Many of the fond memories that we had together had to do with that sport.

As a young boy in the sixties, we attended many baseball games on the weekends. Living only 43 miles from New York City, we attended mostly Mets games. In 1964, Dad made a financial sacrifice and bought tickets to the World Series to see the other New York team (The Yankees); a special treat! We saw a thrilling game four, where the Yankees beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 on a 9th inning home run by Mickey Mantle. Everyone stood up as soon as Mickey connected, as he drove a mammoth home run into the upper deck of old Yankee stadium off of knuckleball reliever Barney Schultz. I was too short to see it, even after Dad picked me up to see above the crowd. Thankfully, in those days fans were allowed on the field after the game. We visited the monuments in the deepest part of center field (463 ft. from home plate) of the great players of years gone by. We then stood at home plate and Dad pointed out where Mickey’s homer landed in the upper deck of right field. It was so far away, that I couldn’t even imagine shooting a cannon that far. Although I was already a novice fan, that day sealed it for me. I became a real baseball aficionado from that moment on.

My favorite players were National league players, since the Mets were a National league team. Hank Aaron of the Braves and Roberto Clemente of the Pirates were two of my favorite players. I had huge posters of them displayed in my bedroom.

Hank Aaron

I also followed two players from the St. Louis Cardinals; Lou Brock and Curt Flood. All four of these players were players of color. That was never an issue for me, because of how Mom and Dad raised us. Being just a kid, I didn’t know about racial inequality back then. I never heard Dad use the N word, but I did hear other people use it back then. I didn’t understand why people would look at somebody differently just because of the color of their skin. However, the 1960s was a tumultuous decade in the history of race relations. 1964, the year that I saw my first World Series game, was the year that the Civil Rights Act was passed. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress the following year. A few years later, Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Race riots were prevalent, and the Vietnam War was ramping up….truly a time of turmoil in our country.

Notable Players of Color

Players of color during that era had additional hurdles to overcome.  The Civil Rights Act didn’t solve the racial inequities in our country.  Curt Flood, the Cardinals center fielder, led the league in hits in that 1964 season. He was an exceptional center fielder, possessing a strong throwing arm, and his speed made him a threat to steal a base at any time. In 1969, Flood was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, against his wishes. The Free Agency of today did not exist at the time. Players were not free to sign with another team or negotiate contracts with other teams on their own. Due to what is called the “Reserve Clause”, players were limited to one team per lifetime. Management essentially owned the rights to players, and players were traded when a deal was made between the management of two teams. Players were essentially “owned” by their teams. This suppressed player salaries and conferred all the power to team owners.  Flood had completed his contract with the Cardinals and been a longtime league member, so he petitioned the league for free agency. The baseball commissioner denied his request. He filed a lawsuit against the league. Rather than move his family to a new city where he didn’t want to live, Flood sat out the 1970 season. He paid a big price to assert his freedom. He became a pariah. Curt Flood received hate mail from fans and was basically blackballed by the league, prematurely ending his stellar career. I wonder, “How would history have looked different if he wasn’t African-American?”  Just a few years later, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, both pitchers who were white, won an arbitration ruling which opened the door to free agency.   That decision that would change the game forever.  Flood’s memoir was titled, “The Way it Is.”  Curt Flood died in 1997, but lived long enough to see the anti-trust legislation “Baseball Fans and Communities Act of 1997” passed, which in part was based on his experience.

Curt Flood

These were some of the role models of my youth. For readers younger than me, these names and the people behind them have faded in memory or are non-existent. Each generation has their sports icons. I knew only a few of the big names in baseball before my time….Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, and Nap Lajoie to name a few. Most of them played before the league was racially integrated. The only black player we knew of from history was Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in the 1940s.

A Hall of Fame Pitcher

I asked Dad about who he idolized as a baseball player when he was young. Dad was real keen on picking out talented players. We watched a Mets game in 1968 where a young pitcher named Nolan Ryan took the mound. He was a hard thrower, but often wild. I remember Dad telling me, “Mick, keep an eye on this kid. He’s a flamethrower and he will be in the Hall of Fame one day…Mark my words!” I didn’t see what he saw, so I shrugged it off. Seven no-hitters later, he holds the all-time record for strikeouts and was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1999.  His long career lasted 27 seasons.  He is one of only three players in history to have his number retired by three different teams.   Dad’s words were indeed prophetic.

The Negro Leagues

Of all of the players Dad idolized, one name I hadn’t heard before. His favorite pitcher of all time was Leroy Satchel Paige. I had never heard of him as a kid. Paige, arguably THE greatest pitcher of all time, played in his prime during the 1930s and 1940s. He wasn’t as famous because he played in the Negro leagues, before baseball was integrated. Dad actually told me that he batted against him once. I wondered if the story was truth or fiction, but each time I heard the story, the facts were told with consistency. The story never deviated from one time to the next. I don’t know the exact year that this occurred, but after doing some research. I pinned down the possible encounter to circa 1936.

I asked, “Dad, why were you playing against Negro league teams?” He replied, “It was customary for those teams to barnstorm and pickup games outside of league whenever they could.” His first-hand account of facing the greatest pitcher of all time was intriguing, but also funny. Dad would have been a young 18 years old, just out of high school. Paige, as he recounted it, was much older and already an established seasoned pitcher.

Young Mike stepped up the the plate and dug in. Satchel Paige had a wide grin on his face, and he seemed to chuckle as Dad stepped up to the plate. The first time a batter faces a new pitcher, he usually doesn’t swing at the first pitch. It’s good to see how they throw; to see what kind of pitches they have, and to get your timing down. If it ends up being a strike, no big deal….it takes three of them to get you out. Paige went into the windup and zipped a fastball down the middle of the plate….STRIKE ONE!

Dad recounted how awed he was by the first pitch. ” It came in so fast, it looked like a frozen pea shot out of a rifle”, he said. They didn’t have radar guns back then, but I imagine that Paige would have clocked triple digits on the radar gun. “Okay, dig in and get ready for the next pitch”, he told himself.   The second one came in faster than the first. “This one looked like a bb, even smaller than a pea,” he recounted. No time to even swing.  Could it be that the first pitch wasn’t even his best stuff? “STRIKE TWO”, yelled the umpire.

Now the count was 0-2. Dad choked up on the bat to get ready for the next pitch. If he was to go down, it would be swinging. Still grinning widely, Paige started his windup. Dad now had his timing down and would be ready for the fast one. The third pitch, also a fastball, was much lower and looked outside. “STRIKE THREE”, yelled the umpire, as Paige did what we call “painting the outside corner.” Pinpoint accuracy is even more important than speed for a pitcher, and Paige was a master of it. It was good morning, good afternoon, and good night for young Mike in three successive pitches.

I can imagine Dad walking slowly back to the dugout, feeling somewhat embarrassed by his non-performance. As he walked back to the dugout, he glanced back at the pitcher. His feeling of embarrassment melted away and a feeling of admiration came over him for being able to observe greatness first-hand. There was no shame in a mere mortal being shown up by a legend.  As he glanced back toward the pitcher, Paige was looking back at him and still grinning widely. Was he just proud of his strikeout, or did he secretly know that he had changed a young man’s life by infusing him with an indelible memory that would last a lifetime? Or, did he somehow know that it would influence that man’s son, who would write about this moment over 80 years in the future?

Later Dad confessed that TECHNICALLY he really didn’t bat against Satchel Paige, citing that the bat never left his shoulder. But he really did face him and stood in the batters box and watched him. And since later on I found that Dad was good about picking out baseball talent, I believed his story. Recently, I did some digging through history to find out more about this legend of my Dad’s youth.

Leroy “Satchel” Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues

Leroy “Satchel” Paige was born in 1906, making him 12 years older than Dad. Oh, and did I mention that his birthday was July 7, just like Dad’s? This had to be more than a mere coincidence. Paige started his career with the Chattanooga Black Lookouts, but was more famous for wearing the jersey of the Kansas City Monarchs.   Some first-hand account stories about him mention that he sometimes told all of his infielders to sit down during an inning, where he then proceeded to strike out the side in order.  Unlike modern day pitchers who only pitch every fourth day, Paige pitched every day.  His longevity and stamina were amazing.  Most pitchers are done by age thirty-five, but Paige pitched regularly until he was almost fifty years old, and part-time until he was almost 60! Once Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in MLB, Paige became the oldest rookie ever, when the Cleveland Indians signed him at age 42.  He signed a one game contract with the Kansas City Athletics in 1965 and pitched three scoreless innings at the ripe old age of 59.   His biography,  a book titled “Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever”, was published in 1975.  Much of his story recounts the poverty of his early days and the racial discrimination that he faced. He stated, “The only change is that baseball has turned me from a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal.” Sad that he felt that way, but true, especially during the racial attitudes of that time. He was born in Mobile, AL and lived through the Jim Crow era. But through all of it, he was also known for his humorous outlook on life and was the author of many other famous quotes. One of my favorites is “Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw Strikes. Home plate don’t move.” Another one was, “Age is just a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.”

The Negro League Baseball Museum is located in Kansas City, Missouri. It is the equivalent of the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. You could go there and learn about Satchel Paige and all of the other stars you might not have heard of; Josh Gibson, Norman “Turkey” Stearns, J.L. Wilkerson, Hilton Smith, and Buck O’Neil to name a few. Any time you are in that part of the country, you should go see it. I just found out that a dear friend of mine from my high school era in New Jersey just retired and moved to KC to be closer to her daughter. Besides going to see the Royals play in their home park at Truman Sports Complex, I’ll have two more reasons to visit KC now.

Spring 2020

Fast forward to the year 2020. We are in another pandemic. That pandemic has exposed the fault lines of racial inequality in our society. People of color experience a disproportionate percentage of cases of Covid-19 and they suffer the highest mortality rates. Economic inequality forces overcrowding of living quarters. Many of these people are poorly paid workers performing the needed services that society needs, so they don’t have the luxury of working from a computer at home. There is a large health disparity gap in our country which highly correlates with demographic type. Add to that the recent killings by police of African Americans such as George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery. These are just the most recent tragedies. Add that to the long history of oppression and you have masses protesting in the streets for justice. It doesn’t seem like we’ve come that far since Satchel’s time.

The pandemic has been a catalyst to expose the inequalities in the U.S. and allowed outrage to be felt by more than just communities of color. BLM marches now include lots of Caucasians. White people are beginning to wake up and see things as they are and not just how they imagine them to be. Things just might be beginning to change.

This past July 7th got me to look through old pictures, documents and some of Dad’s belongings he left to me. Reminiscing about our experiences led me to do more research and find another connection to Satchel Paige and connect the past with the present. Since July 7th, just a few days ago, the Washington Redskins Football team finally acquiesced to a name change. Even if it was not out of the goodness of their heart, but owed to caving to political and economic pressure, it is still a change in the right direction. We still have a long way to go, but even in the darkness that we are experiencing in 2020, I have some hope that we may still work toward a more perfect union. 2020 is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Negro Leagues in Baseball. We need to remember our history, both good and bad, so that we can move forward.

I’m really looking forward to July 2021. Hopefully, we’ll have a vaccine by then and can get back to some sense of normalcy. I’d certainly like to see baseball again. On the fourth, I will celebrate INTERDEPENDENCE DAY, realizing that we all need one another. And, on the 7th I will wish Mike McCann and Satchel Paige happy birthdays. And I will remember ….and compare if there are any small changes, and hope that we’ve moved the needle a bit forward toward a better society.

July 7, 2022– Two Years Later

Two years have passed since this first post. Thankfully, baseball is back again and I’ve seen a couple of games in person in 2021, taking in a Padres game in May 2021 and an Angels game in July 2021. And, my beloved Atlanta Braves won the World Series last fall after a 26 year drought. The Washington Football team has changed its name from the Redskins to the Commanders. Yes, we do have vaccines for Covid-19 now, and I got two doses and a booster. We are not out of the woods yet with the pandemic, but we are not subject to the lockdowns that we had during the early stages of the pandemic.

However, the other pandemic of racism still seems alive and well and we still do not have a vaccine for it. Dad would have celebrated his 104th birthday today. Had he lived that long he would not recognize the country that he fought for in the War. A lifelong Republican, but one with a with a social conscience, he would not be able to comprehend what his political party has metamorphosed into. Although I still miss him, I am exceedingly grateful that he was not here to witness the insurrection attempt on January 6, 2021.

Two years after the George Floyd murder shows an even more divided country politically than it was in 2020. Congressional districts redrawn in 2020 are further gerrymandered. The Senate failed to pass the Freedom to vote act of 2021 which was approved by the House of Representatives which was written to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In many states with Republican-controlled legislatures are passing or have already passed bills that make it harder to vote, and seemed aimed at deterring racial minorities from voting. At the same time, there is a rising tide of White Nationalism rearing its ugly head in our country. Racial tensions are the highest they have been since the 1960s.

The study of Racism and Geography has been around for more than four decades, as has been Critical Race Theory. Only in the last few years have the cries against it been so loud. Most folks don’t understand what it really is. Sociologists use it to explain social, political and legal structures and power distribution through the lens of race. Among other things, they study differences in incarceration rates and how sentencing differs among racial groups in the U.S. They not only study the racist behavior of individuals, but also how systems may perpetuate racism. They use statistics to do this. Geographers on the other hand, map inequalities where they occur spatially and correlate geographical distribution with other societal factors. How would one explain that the mortality rate for women in childbirth is 3 times more for African-American women in the USA than it is for Caucasian women?

Some view CRT as divisive, saying it makes white kids feel guilty for things that happened in the past. But it is not about that. Unless we understand our WHOLE history, how can we ever learn from any past mistakes? There are two ways to look at how race is or is not taught in our schools. Which one of the below methods would you choose for your child’s education?

It seems like we have taken one step forward and two steps backward these last two years. State legislatures like Texas, Florida, Wisconsin and many others are passing bills into law that change the way educators can teach about the history of slavery, with some threatening teachers to be fired if they teach about the 1619 project. And it is not just the legislatures. Look at the news where there are fisticuffs at school board meetings about how history or political science can or cannot be taught when referring to anything to do with race. Florida’s governor DeSantis signed the “Stop Woke Act” which regulates what schools (including Higher Education) can teach regarding race and identity. The White Nationalist movement has seen large gains in the populace since the start of the pandemic.

Map of states banning CRT (ABC News)

Hate speech is on the rise, not only against minorities but against scientists. Recently, Senator Ted Cruz went after Elmo on Sesame Street on Twitter because Elmo supported getting a Covid-19 vaccine. Ideology trumps facts. It used to be said that “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Nowadays, it’s more like “I’ll see it IF I believe it.” Now, it seems like we can’t even agree on what a fact is.

The new activist Supreme Court of the United States recently overturned precedents upheld in 2003 and reaffirmed in 2016 on the consideration of race in college admissions to achieve diversity. Meritocracy is a great thing, but only if everyone starts out with an equal chance of a successful outcome. We are a long way from that.

Recently, Ibram X. Kendi spoke about anti-racism on Stephen Colbert’s show (6/30/22). He reminded us that it is not black vs. white, as many white abolitionists fought for freedom from slavery for black people. He asked the question, “Why don’t we let white kids identify with white abolitionists instead of white supremacists when talking about race?” We have to change the nature of the conversation. Or better yet, begin to have one as a nation, and do it without shouting so much.

Since 2020, the pandemic has caused a huge mismatch between supply and demand, which helped fuel inflation and further exacerbate the inequality in our nation. For those who are interested, I would recommend researching the “MAPPING INEQUALITY PROJECT ON REDLINING”, by both Virginia Tech University and by University of Richmond. The maps are interesting to say the least.

We have a choice. If the republic as we know it is to end, what comes afterwards? Will it be Autocracy, Fascism, Civil War, or Chaos? OR…..will we work together to keep a republic where the welfare of all citizens and inhabitants are considered?

I hope that next July 4th we can still celebrate both Independence Day and Inter-dependence Day. I also pray that both Satchel Paige and Michael B. McCann can look down on us the next July 7th and celebrate their birthdays without turning over in their graves, but instead see that we can at least agree on trying to fix the problem, even though we may think we have different solutions to it. But we will never get anywhere if we collectively refuse to acknowledge the problems of racial inequity in our nation.

I will continue to remember the meaning of July the 7th, not only as a day to remember Satchel Paige and Michael B. McCann, but to use that day to reflect on the meaning of the 4th of July and to hopefully measure progress from the previous year.

Deep thoughts under another full moon.

We just had another traveling mid-latitude cyclone pass through Central Oregon, which brought rain and then snow flurries, which mostly melted today. It was a busy day filled with both joy and sorrow, for different reasons. I sat in the hot tub reflecting on the day’s events, looking east to a full moon. Three full moons ago, we were in Ceuta, Spain, on the coast of Africa. Tonight our world is much different than it was three moons ago.

The day started out promising, as I brought my Caribou Antlers to school and moved them from my car to the classroom. We are studying climates and biomes in our Weather and Climate class, and the ET climate in the Koppen system is the tundra climate. Therefore, I brought a relic from a tundra climate to show the class, a set of giant Caribou Antlers.

On a bicycle pack trip in the Northwest Territories of Canada in 1992, I found this set of huge antlers on the banks of the Intga River on the Canol Road. The Canol Road was hastily built during WWII as a supply line for the Oil fields in Norman Wells to the road system in the Yukon Territory to supply fuel for the War against Japan. Hundreds of miles had to be carved out of the wilderness of the Mackenzie Mountains, wild tundra country of the Northland. My friend Bruce was the first to spot them and commented how well these antlers would look above a mantle piece. We were 21 miles from the trailhead. When he balked at the trouble of taking them back, I countered with me taking them on my bike and taking possession of them when we got back. He replied, “You’re an idiot, it’s 21 miles back to the car.”

I replied, “I’ll be an idiot for ONE day.” Then I loaded them up on my handlebars. They were so big that I could not ride the bike with them, so I put my left leg on the right pedal and used the bike as a scooter, to move them the entire way back to the car. What happened next is for another story, but I have had them as a prominent place in my home since 1992 in both Alaska, and now in Bend, Oregon.

The joy for the day was showing them to students, most of who had never seen this type of animal. They marveled at how heavy the antlers were and how such a huge animal could live on such meager tundra vegetation. Even though the change to daylight savings time had us all tired (1/2 the class came late and looked sleepy), they were engaged in learning about climate and biomes.

Later in the day, things changed. After a couple of hours of grading and writing grant proposals, I got a message from my wife, Beth. She is in Alabama with her family and her mom just passed away this afternoon. It was expected, but still hard to take. I know the pain, as I have already gone through this with my Dad first, then my Mom ten years later.

As I sit in the hot tub, I thank Elaine Clark for being in my life. She gave me the best gift anyone could give someone else; she created Beth, my wife and my best friend. Elaine and Beth’s father, Adrian, accompanied us on many trips around the USA. She always wanted to travel, and she got to do a good bit of it with us. She visited us in the early 2000s and climbed Pilot Butte with us. She saw the Grand Canyon with us in 2005. I can still hear her exclaim “Wooo-oooh” as our flight-seeing plane took off from Grand Canyon airport and cleared the rim, with the chasm opening up beneath us. She had two types of exclamations she would make when surprised. I could mimic them both pretty well. Beth would laugh and agree.

The funeral will be this weekend. I am torn, as I have a full term to finish and finals are next week, so I will be staying here, although my mind is in Alabama. In two weeks, I am supposed to start my own Geographical Journey, a proposed hike of 700 miles through the California desert on the Pacific Crest Trail. The stock market is crashing. The corona virus is spreading. There are so many troubling things to take our focus away from why we are here.

Elaine Clark was a loving person who served others. She lives on through us, as she had a hand in shaping who we are and will be. Sitting in the tub and looking at a full moon, I am grateful that I had time to share with her. It makes me want to make the most of the time I have left here, and to try to be a positive influence on the people I love and even those that I don’t who I come into contact with.



Urban Night hiking: observations on culture

We got back home to Bend, Oregon on December 20 after three months away, most of that in Barcelona, Catalunya. With the help of Beth’s fit bit, we figured we had walked more than 600 miles in the 93 days we were gone, with most of that in urban areas of Spain, Ireland, Czechia, and Morocco. Now that I’m home, I’m continuing urban hiking. However, the contrast between here and there could not be more striking.

In Barcelona, everybody walks, and at all hours of the day. We used public transport and walked every day, sometimes more that 10 miles. The streets are always crowded with people. Sometimes drunk people would be walking home past our apartment and singing almost every night until 4AM. Although there was a lot of petty crime like pick-pocketing, we never were afraid to walk, even at night. We were NEVER alone while walking in Barcelona.

Malaga, Spain on a December night

Now that I’m home, I’m continuing walking a lot to get ready for my upcoming long walk through the Mojave Desert this Spring.  I’ve enjoyed the solitude of hiking alone in nature here, something that I missed while in Barcelona.  The first few weeks home we experienced above normal temperatures for Central Oregon.  I headed east toward the Badlands and walked at least three times a week through the Juniper and Sage ecosystems east of town.  I didn’t see anyone each time I hiked.  I saw lots of tracks that my wild friends left behind in the dirt: Mule Deer, Squirrel, Coyote, and an occasional human footprint.  I did see a Cougar paw print crossing the trail too!  I took pictures of the low angle sun on the Juniper trees and rabbitbrush and enjoyed the solitude.

Central Oregon steppe in early January

Now that school has started, I don’t have as much time to make the drive as far East.  The weather has turned colder, so I have resorted to urban hiking again.  Around New Year’s Day, I would bundle up and walk the residential neighborhoods at night, taking in the sights of Christmas lights.  Most of the time, I was the only human on foot in the area. 

On January 2, I went for a night walk through neighborhoods to the north of ours. I figure I walked about 4.5 miles that night, and I only saw one couple walking their dog. They were walking in front of me. Dogs spend a lot of time during their daily walks sniffing their neighborhoods. Their acute olfactory sense helps them to understand and spatially orient their environment. In a sense, their understanding of their geography is based on olfaction. Mine is based more on visual and auditory observation, although since I have been walking at night when vision is limited, I think I am beginning to hear and smell better. I have even detected the smell of a dog at times, even when there is none around, nor any dog waste either.

Since the couple are strolling and allowing their dog to explore his environment, I began to close the gap between us and would soon pass them. Not wanting to startle them or the dog on a lonely night, I said “Happy New Year” as I got nearer to them. Stunned and surprised, they quickly turned and nervously said, “Same to you”. Strangers don’t talk to one another in Barcelona because there are too many people and you don’t know which ones you can trust. Strangers don’t seem to talk to one another in Bend either, but for different reasons. There are so few people walking at night, you end up being suspicious of anyone who does.

On January 4, which is the day of perihelion, I went out for another night walk, covering nearly the same route. Two policemen in separate cars were parked on opposite curbs of the same residential street, windows cracked half way down and talking to one another on a cold night. They stopped talking to one another and watched me intently as I walked on the street towards them. I bet they were wondering, “What’s this guy doing walking alone at night in a residential neighborhood?” “He is not walking a dog, so what is his purpose for doing so?”

I nodded to acknowledge them as I passed by on the sidewalk and greeted them with a “Happy Perihelion!”

“Good evening to you, sir”, they replied. They probably didn’t know what perihelion was and that today, January 4th, the earth is the closest it will be to the sun in our orbit for the whole year, by a whopping 3.5 million miles. If you think only geographers know that, I wished the same thing to a gentlemen earlier in the day at Duda’s pool hall and pub on Wall St. in Bend. He said, “Oh yeah, isn’t that when we are closest to the sun in our orbit? I had forgotten it was today”. However, by the reaction from the policemen, I think they were suspicious of me.

Experiences such as these remind me of a story that I read a long time ago titled “The Pedestrian” by Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who also wrote “the Illustrated Man.” The Pedestrian was a short story set in a dystopian future, where nobody walked outside at night and everyone was huddled in their houses watching TV and being programmed and brainwashed in the process. Only one man walked alone at night. One night he was stopped by a police car who questioned him and made him get into the squad car. Only when the man realized that the car was automated, did he realize how dystopian his own future might become. I know what that guy felt like. The dystopian future that we all feared is here in suburbia in 2020.

Fast forward to today, the 20th of January. We had a few days of snow, but warmer temperatures have melted out the streets. It is Martin Luther King day, and school is closed. I walked 9 miles through the Juniper, Sage and Rabbit Brush east of town. I missed that solitude in Barcelona. I followed coyote tracks in the snow, which criss-crossed my own tracks of a few days before the snow arrived. The tracks went right up to a bush that I regularly leave my scent on. The coyotes had a sniff and knew I was back in their territory, but they didn’t pee on top of my bush. I take that as a sign of respect! Most canines will mark over other’s territorial markings to show dominance or to at least declare that this territory is shared. I wonder if the confidence I have walking through this ecosystem affects my brain chemistry, which in turn produces a pheremone which is detectable to an animal with a keen sense of smell. The coyotes knew my scent from summer time, but having been in Spain for the entire Fall, they must have thought I was no longer around. Now that they detect my scent again, how do they feel about me? Do they fear me? Do they think I am a huge creature because I leave my scent higher on a tree or bush than they do? Is my lack of fear from them evident in the scent that I leave? These are some things that I think about in the solitude of nature.

Mule deer track in early January near Badlands, Oregon

I have time to be alone with my thoughts and to think about people I care about. I recently heard that the father of a long time friend of mine recently passed away. He was an important person to me many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student from New Jersey living in a new culture in North Georgia. We viewed the world quite differently, but we accepted each other and he was like a father to me at times. I thought about all of the things we shared together long ago. I will miss him.

Night hiking in Prague…..a very social experience

I also think of the people I met in Barcelona, like Rodrigo or Jose, and wonder how they are doing now. Rodrigo was a good friend with a gentle nature, who is working a new job this year in the field of his profession; health care. Jose is a young, intelligent man with a good work ethic finding his way in Spain after leaving Venezuela. I hope that our paths cross again some day. I miss the vibrant, stimulating nature of walking in a Spanish urban area. When I stroll alone in Central Oregon, I often find myself describing what I see in Spanish, so as not to lose the connection to the people and the language that I had grown accustomed to the past three months.

What can we do to bridge the gap, to make walking here a more common thing that we all do? We need to unplug from technology and make cities more walk-able places. Our residential neighborhoods are not designed for the pedestrian, even though sidewalks are mandated with new housing construction. There are no businesses or local stores in residential areas, which forces people to drive to another part of town for the most basic of needs. Yes, the weather is more challenging here in the Winter than in Barcelona. But there is no such thing as bad weather, only improper clothing. We need to become more curious about the immediate natural and cultural landscapes surrounding us, not just glossy pictures in magazines of far away exotic places in the world.

The current occupant of the White House recently announced that our country will now have a “Space Force”, to go along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard. If we truly want to be great again, I think we will need an “Inner Space Force”, one that focuses on Americans connecting with each other, walking with each other, and not being afraid of one another. I have hope for this because of the walk I did last Wednesday night.

I don’t have a picture of it, since I didn’t bring a camera that night. The ONE person I ran into on a suburban hike was a large older gentleman who was shoveling the new snow off of his driveway and the sidewalk. I thanked him for doing so. He stopped and we began a conversation. His name was Chris, and he had some health problems and his back was bothering him. I offered to take over the shoveling. At first, he balked. Later, he acquiesced. We stood out in the cold and chatted for about half an hour. We both agreed that this is how it used to be long ago; strangers helping one another and not being afraid of one another. We both felt different about that neighborhood after Wednesday night.

Thanks for reading…..keep walking….let’s conquer some inner space!



Caminito del Rey

A daring walk in Andulucia

We are nearing the end….of our time here; of the southern end of the geography of Europe; of our lives if we make a wrong step on the Caminito del Rey walkway!

There is so much to blog about, but so few readers, so I will save much of the written descriptions undone for the time being. I will gladly share more when I get home, hopefully either in person with some of you, or by phone.
Since crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, we spent two nights in La Linea de Concepcion, where we walked across to Gibraltar for the day and climbed the rock.

road closed until plane lands!
Encima de la Roca de Gibraltar

Next, we went to Malaga. We spent the night in town and climbed the hill to the castle the next day.

Christmas decor in downtown Malaga
Spanish hottie I met in Malaga

Next we rented a car and have been touring Andalucia the last few days. The first night we spent in Ronda, one of the White Hill Towns. The next day we hiked the gorge of the Caminito del Rey and then drove west to Jerez and stayed on the Atlantic coast. We have eaten a lot of olives and drove several hours today with olive groves in view as far as the eye can see.

swinging bridge (it was windy)
one of the white hill towns of Andalucia

We are now in Granada, arguably the most frustrating city on the planet to drive and navigate through. Our car is parked in a garage below the hotel. It will stay there until we are finished walking the few miles to, around, and returning from the Alhambra Palace tomorrow. Then it will be a short trip down to the Costa del Sol for another night. After that, one last white hill town of Frigiliana before turning the rental car back in. Then, just a quick flight back to Barca to spend one last day there before flying back to a place that speaks English; football, UConn women’s basketball, cold, snow, IPA, and our life in NE Bend.

Esperamos que tengan una Feliz Navidad y un Prospero Ano Nuevo!

Mick y Beth

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