Every place has a story. The story of every place is shaped not only by its Physical Geography (mountains, rivers, climate, vegetation, etc.), but also by the people that live there. Human Geography (culture, economics, demographics, politics) is intrinsically interwoven with the Physical landscape, as both affect one another.
Out of the way places interest me, as there is something to learn from every place and something to learn about ourselves and our place in this world. Describing the cultural meaning of PLACE is an interest of mine. Most of the places that I will write about are known to some, but not necessarily popular tourist locations. If there are pristine and undiscovered places that I may write about, I may take editorial license to give them different names to keep them protected. How places change over time or how we perceive them differently as time passes is also an interest of mine.
I am continuing to travel and explore our world. Posts are categorized by location or topic. There are a wide variety of locations to choose from, including Alaska, Oregon, International (which includes trips to Spain, Norway, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Canada, and Morocco, just to name a few). Topics include nature, travel, and memoir. I invite all of you to come explore and take a geographical journey with us. We hope that you will not only experience new places with us, but also gain new insights about your place in this world.
The Mojave Desert. The name evokes images of heat, thirst, discomfort or death. But all of that changes when you bring your chair, a cooler of drinks, a jug of water, and camp down a deserted road. The mood changes to peace, solitude, wonder and awe. And when the sun goes down, you’ve never knew there were so many stars in the heavens above!
Two weeks before, I was backpacking through the desert while carrying 6 liters of water. At the end of the day, I simply collapsed and cowboy camped wherever I found a suitable place. Too tired to star gaze and enjoy my surroundings, my thoughts were taken up as to finding where the next possible water source might be. That desert became my adversary.
This time, the desert experience would be different. After recovering from the backpacking trip at a friend’s house in the L.A. area, I set off again for the the quiet solitude of the Mojave. It took a few hours to drive out of the megalopolis to get to Hwy. 395. That road hugs the base of the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, with the desert to the east in the rainshadow of the the Sierras. On the drive north, I listened to game 5 of the NBA finals. Satisfied with an exciting Bucks win over the Suns, I set out to find a dirt road in which to drive out into the desert and find a suitable spot to relax.
I found one just a few hundred yards off of the highway. A strong katabatic wind blew down off of the mountains and across the dry, flat plains where I was camped. I faced my camp chair to the east and let the wind blow on my back. I planned to journal here, but the wind was strong enough to blow paper out of a spiral notebook, so I put away the notebook and instead took notes with my eyes, ears and nose. The air was pungent with the smell of creosote bush and sage. High cirrus clouds moved high overhead from the southwest; a different direction than the katabatic wind at my back. The sun was low in the sky and I watched the shadows creep ever eastward. A waxing half moon was already high overhead. Occasionally, I could hear the roar of a semi truck speeding north on the highway.
An Enchanted Desert Place
The stress of driving on crowded Southern California roads was now behind me, and the strong breeze blew away any angst that I had earlier in the day. The sun would be setting behind the mountains soon. I awaited with anticipation for what secrets the desert night sky would reveal. I wanted this feeling to last for a long time, so I lit the stove and made a cup of strong tea, even though it was still hot outside. It was too windy to set up the tent, so I just sipped tea while relaxing in my camp chair while waiting for the stars.
Time to sit and just be….be alone to take in the sights, smells, and noises of the wind rushing through the desert vegetation and appreciate being alive in the moment. Time to process all of the myriad of things that are swimming around in my head. With no agenda to get somewhere or fear of dying of thirst, the desert can be a wonderful place of discovery. And for taking inventory of one’s life….
The sun set behind the mountains and a few of the bright stars and the planet Venus started to appear in the twilight of the sky. I had just downloaded an app called Starwalk on my mobile phone, so I opened it up to study the night sky. When pointing it toward the heavens, it would not only reveal the name of the stars, but connect the stars to show pictures of animals. I sat in the chair for a long time, just looking up at the stars and thinking about how the light that I was seeing from them was emanated long ago in the past. The desert night sky can sure make one feel insignificant in relation to the cosmos!
Centuries before, the place that I am sitting was part of Alta California and was claimed by the Spanish colonial empire. Now, as it is part of the United States, those who live in the Chihuahua and Sonora deserts on the other side of the border in Mexico, refer to anything on this side of the border as “El Norte” (the North). El Norte offers the hope of a better life, even though environmental conditions may still be bleak. Peoples in Central America and Mexico dream of coming to “El Norte”.
Being here in El Norte allows me to dream of other deserts around the world that I have visited. I realized that many, but not all, of the magical moments I have experienced in this life occurred in a desert landscape. As I looked up again at the stars, I imagined other desert dwellers looking up at the same time and wondered what they were feeling. Immediately I thought first of the deserts in the Western Hemisphere, where it would also be dark at this time.
Just then, a meteorite flew across the heavens and died out in a blaze of glory! Too early to the one of the Persieds, which come in August. I always thought that my preferred method to leave this planet would be to be somewhere wonderful and looking up at the sky and be hit by a meteor. No suffering, and enjoyment of life up until the last minute. But how likely is that to happen?
That jolted me to remember my first visit to Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. The unique trees contrasted with matchless rock formations and interspersed with teddy bear cholla made for quite an interesting and unforgettable landscape!
Los Desiertos de Sud America
My mind wandered to the Dali Desert in the Altiplano of Bolivia that I visited 14 years ago, with four French tourists and a Bolivian guide and a cook. I remember that trip fondly. My thoughts drifted to each of those six people. I hoped that each of their lives have taken them on an enriching path!
From the Bolivian desert, my mind wandered in a Southeasterly direction to the Patagonia desert east of the Andes Mountains in Southern Argentina. I remembered seeing Penguins next to Guanacos at Punta Tombo in 2009. That really blew my mind the first time I saw that! If you had taken these two animals out of the photo, you might be able to convince yourself that you were in the deserts of Southeastern Oregon. But with them together, you must be on the coast of Patagonia!
I recalled my first night in the republic of Chile on the fringes of the Atacama desert, the driest desert in the world. I was at first disappointed that I could not go all the way to Arica or Antofagasta on the Pacific coast, but then treasured my night on the Altiplano in Lauca National Park near the Bolivian border. The lack of oxygen at that altitude left my mind in a perpetual dreamlike state!
North American Deserts
That thought took me to Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada….to the Black Rock Desert and to the Alvord Desert. In this same chair that I am now sitting, I had previously gazed across the Nevada desert near the Oregon border just last year! I closed my eyes and could almost feel the warm waters of Bog Hot Spring soaking my tired muscles. For wildlife, I exchanged a guanaco for a pronghorn antelope.
The Desert Takes me to Other Places
I stopped and remembered how the stillness of the desert allowed me to focus on the important people in my life. In my mind, I traveled to the many places that I assume they are at this moment. My thoughts took me to Connecticut, Georgia, and Alabama as I thought of family. Remembering good friends took me to Missouri, Indiana, Maine, Washington state, New Jersey, Alaska, New York, Kentucky, California, and my home state of Oregon. Then, my thoughts drifted to people I know in Barcelona, France, Portugal, Bolivia, Australia, United Kingdom, Panama, Nicaragua, and Canada, to name a few. Wow! I really did pile up some frequent flyer miles while sitting in this chair in the desert!
When I contemplated the therapeutic properties that a desert can have on a person, my mind drifted back to the year 1978, when I spent my first summer abroad living in Mexico. Aguascalientes was a city sitting smack dab in the middle of Mexico, on the Altiplano at 6,800′ in elevation. It was desert-like there, and I think it only rained once the whole summer of 1978. That same summer, I dreamed in Spanish for the first time in my life. It was an experience that helped shape the rest of my life, and it happened in a desert! Now, I’m in an American desert daydreaming in two languages of places where Spanish is spoken….
The Deserts of Africa
Now my mind began to wander to other deserts I have visited. Namibia, in Southwest Africa is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, mostly because of its desert landscapes. Namibia is home to two deserts, the Namib and the Kalahari. The picture below is of the Dead Vlei (A Dutch word for swamp), in Namib-Naukluft National Park. What was once a swamp in the desert was cut off from its ephemeral streams by shifting sand dunes hundreds of years ago. The trees died and are now somewhat petrified in the dry desert air. It is one of the most iconic images I have ever photographed and witnessed! And considering all the things I’ve had the privilege of seeing in my lifetime, that is saying a LOT!
Below, is a map of the deserts of the world. Notice that many of them lie near 23.5 degrees North and South of the Equator, where sinking air inhibits cloud formation (Great Australian Desert; Sahara Desert; Arabian Desert). The deserts that trend more in a north-south direction are usually on the leeward side of a mountain range that is perpendicular to wind flow, such as the Andes Mountains in South America. A few others are just far inland, a LONG way from a major source of water (Gobi, Turkestan). A cold ocean current on the west coast of continents also helps to stabilize the atmosphere and inhibit the formation of rain clouds.
Further into Namibia, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, at 23.5 degrees south latitude. Both of the tropical lines, Capricorn and Cancer, lie 23.5 degrees away from the equator and are places where rising air at the equator sinks and compresses, inhibiting cloud development and rain. Usually, you will find deserts at these latitudes. We were happy to check this off of our life list and share a moment of love beneath the sign…
One of our other stops in the Namibian desert was Spitzkoppe, a group of granite peaks rising above the low desert. Namibia used to be a German colony, and the native Damara people lived in the area. There are paintings of bushmen art on some of the rock walls.
Further north in Namibia will take you to Etosha National Park. It is under the influence of the subtropical high pressure system most of the year, but has a brief rainy season when the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone moves into the area seasonally from the equatorial latitudes. The shallow lakes dry up in the dry season and are still home to abundant wildlife, with many species present. The picture below shows Wildebeest, Impala, and an Oryx (Gemsbok).
Besides all of the ungulates and predators in Etosha, Ostriches also wander the desert there. The Khoisan name for the bird is Nandu, which is now a word in Spanish. The Spanish had never seen an ostrich, and they adopted the Khoisan word into their language once they saw them in southern Africa.
Dreams and Memories of Asia
From Africa, my mind wandered to the East, where I spent a couple of days in Dubai, UAE a few years ago. Seeing such a modern city in the middle of a desert wasteland was quite an experience. Beth and I went up to the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We could have gone to the top at the 150th floor, but we were already high enough. You know you are high up when you look down and see planes flying at a lower altitude than where you are standing!
WHOA! Another meteor flew low across the sky. The flaming streak seemed like it was barely overhead. I waited to hear a crashing thud against the desert floor, but I heard nothing…I re-think my earlier statement; I still wouldn’t mind being taken out by a meteor, but please Lord….NOT TONIGHT! I have too many things I still want to do before that happens to me!
The only other desert I’ve been to on the Asian continent is the Kyzylkum desert in Western Uzbekistan. Kizil Kum means “Red Sand” in Uzbek and other Turkic languages. We spent a couple of nights in Sentyab, a rural village in the mountains.
Another impressive sight in the deserts of Western Uzbekistan is the Registan. The Registan was the heart of the ancient city of Samarkand and the capital of Amir Timur’s empire. The name comes from Arabic and Persian, meaning “Sandy Place”.
Deserts and Places Yet to Come
Since I have had so many fond memories of deserts in my lifetime, I thought about a couple more that I haven’t seen yet that are on my bucket list. One is the Takla Makan desert in Western China. The Takla Makan is a deep depression, ringed on three sides by high mountains. It is too far inland to have any moisture come from the east, and the westerly winds which are already dry, have all of the rest of their moisture squeezed out by the high mountains. The Takla Makan lies on the path of the ancient Silk Road and was a barrier to East-West travel. The other Asian desert I would like to see is the Gobi. I did read Helen Thayer’s book “Walking the Gobi” last summer, but I wouldn’t want to recreate her epic journey. One or two weeks there should be enough to satisfy my curiosity.
I ended up drinking more cups of strong tea and staying up until almost three o’clock in the morning virtually traveling the deserts of the world from my chair in El Norte. I didn’t want this magical night to ever end. How ironic that many people in other deserts of the world are dreaming about coming to America and here I was sitting here dreaming about being where they were. Finally, I rolled out a sleeping bag onto the soft sand. I didn’t even need to put a pad down, but burrowed into the sand and made a contour that would fit my body.
Before I drifted off to sleep, I again thought of many of my friends and many of the people I have met. As I looked up to the heavens full of stars, I hoped that some of them were looking up too. The Milky Way stretched across the sky. It was like the heavens invited a bunch of stars to gather for a concert! A feeling of contentment washed over me. I pondered the idea that I had to come to a desert to quench my spiritual thirst. With my soul refreshed, I allowed my body to drift off into sleep, in contact with the earth around me. When your thirst is quenched, how wonderful a place the desert can be!
Estoy aqui descansando en El Norte….
Viajando virtualmente a otros lugares de nuestro mundo…
Pensando en amigos, familia, y colegos…
Disfrutando de la naturaleza…
Me siento muy contento, y llena de tranquilidad………
It’s always fun to see your own hometown through the eyes of a visitor. Recently, we took our newfound friend, Flat Simon, on a tour of our city of Bend, Oregon. How he got here is an interesting story in itself!
Before he arrived at our house, he was known as Sellincourt Sid back home in London. Sellincourt was the school that he went to. Sid always wanted to travel to see the world. He was especially interested in visiting America.
How Sellincourt Sid became Flat Simon and how he got to our house in Bend, Oregon
We met one of his teachers five years ago on a trip to Namibia, Africa. Sid must have seen our address as a return address on one of the letters that we sent to correspond with her. He didn’t have enough money to buy a plane ticket all the way over here and he didn’t even know which airlines to fly to get here. Heck, I’m not sure he even knew what part of the USA Oregon was in. But it sounded good to him, so he devised a plan to get here. He had enough money to buy postage, so he decided to wrap himself up in a package and mail himself to us.
There were a couple of things Sid didn’t count on. First, the flights were very long and he was VERY hungry when he got here. Also, he didn’t count on the mail sorting machines squeezing him so hard that it made him flat. But once we opened the package and he saw us, he was very relieved! We gave him a snack and cleaned him up. When he realized that he was now a flat boy, he wanted us to call him by his middle name, which was Simon. After a good night’s rest, Simon said he was ready to explore our town.
One of the first places we took him was to visit Pilot Butte State Park. Pilot Butte is a cinder cone inside the city limits, on the East side of town. Simon had never seen volcanoes before, so he was intrigued by our unique landscape. Usually, we hike the one mile up the Butte, but since he had such a tough trip, we decided to take him up the road to the top in the car.
Simon saw different trees and vegetation than he was used to back home. There were mostly sagebrush on the south side of the butte, but lots of Juniper on the other sides. Some hikers were walking up the road. His eyes were wide with excitement as we neared the top.
At the summit, we walked around the top of the butte to get a different view in each direction. Simon really liked looking at the Three Sisters, a group of composite volcanoes in the Cascade Range. Those mountains block much of the moisture of the westerly winds, making Bend, Oregon a steppe ecosystem, which is just a tiny bit wetter than a true desert. Many people call Bend part of the “High Desert”, but a true desert has to have less than 10 inches of rain per year, and we have almost 12. Simon wasn’t used to calculating in inches, so we told him that 12 inches of rain was about 300 millimeters. He understood that better. He also asked us how high the mountains were. I told him that South Sister was the highest one of the three and that it was 10,300 feet high. He looked perplexed. Then, I remembered that he is used to measuring in meters, so I converted that number to about 3,140. Boy, was he impressed! The highest elevation in his home country of England was only 978 meters.
Next, we went over to the other side of the butte to view what lay to the East. We showed him the hospital and then when our house was located beyond that. He saw Powell Butte in the foreground and then the Ochoco Mountains in the distance.
I started to explain a lot of the Geography of the area to him, but then I thought he might remember it better if he read it for himself, so we visited the informational plaques on top of the butte. There, he read about the Geology, History, and Ecology of the region. He seemed to be a good student!
After that, we decided to take him downtown. Our town had only 24,000 residents when we moved here many years ago. Now it has grown into a large town of about 100,000 people and is a center for tourism. As we drove down Wall Street in the downtown business district, Simon noticed that a lot of cars had license plates from other states than Oregon.
One of the historical buildings we passed by was the Tower Theater. It was refurbished several years ago and special events are hosted there.
From there, we parked behind downtown and walked to Mirror Pond, which is a man-made lake by damming up the Deschutes River which flows through town. We explained to Simon that the town is named Bend because that’s where the Deschutes River makes a wide Bend. Deschutes means “Of the Falls” in French, as the first white men to come through here were French fur trappers. Now, Mirror Pond is surrounded by Drake Park, a great place to enjoy nature in the middle of the city!
Simon was getting hungry. He asked if we could get some bangers and mash. We told him that he wasn’t in London anymore. We had something more healthy in mind, so we took him to Active Culture, a restaurant near the river.
We ordered a Bend Bowl with greens, nuts, cheeses, raisins, prosciutto, dates, apples, rice, basil and a special sauce! Simon liked it, but Beth ate most of it. So, I offered him some of my quesadilla. He enjoyed that too!
Active Culture is located on Riverside Avenue, at the corner of McCann Avenue. Simon asked if the road was named after us. I’d like to take credit for it, but it was actually named for another McCann who was a manager of the mill in town many years ago.
After lunch, we visited the Old Mill District. Bend used to be a lumber town a long time ago. Now, the Old Mill is a shopping district with an REI (Recreational Equipment Incorporated), several stores and lots of restaurants. The Old Mill District is right next to the river, and lots of people float down the river here. There is an amphitheater for concerts at the river’s edge.
Bend has some of their Winterfest activities going on in the Old Mill District. Simon sat in the throne of the Fire King and pretended that he ruled over the whole Old Mill District!
Just after that, we walked out onto the Flag Bridge and watched people enjoying the river on a hot day.
One of the stores had a metal sculpture of an elk and Simon just had to ride it! Bend has a lot of art in town, and is a town full of art lovers.
We decided to grab a coffee because we were planning on driving up the Cascade Lakes highway and it is a long, but very scenic drive. Mick’s friends Richard and Rhonda own the Strictly Organic Coffee Company, and there are two locations in Bend. One is on Arizona Street and the other one is in the Old Mill. They buy coffee from employee owned cooperatives around the world and the quality is great. I drank a cup from Sumatra, while Simon tried one from Nicaragua. Now, we were ready to take a scenic drive!
First we drove all the way to La Pine, a town 30 miles to the south. Then we took the back way up to the Cascade Lakes Highway. Beth wanted to show him the route of a relay race she will be in next weekend. It is the Cascade Lakes Relay, a 132 mile (212.4 Km) race for walking teams that will take place over 2 days.
We stopped near Sparks Lake and took some pictures of the Cascade Mountains, which are the snowiest range in the lower 48 states. Part of Sparks Lake has already turned into a meadow. Mt. Bachelor Ski resort is in the background.
In the other direction, we got a close up of South Sister volcano, a peak that Mick has climbed several times. It takes all day to hike it, so we continued on after we took the photo.
Simon wanted to take picture of his own, so I loaned him the camera and he took this close up of Mt. Bachelor. Notice the ski runs on the west side of the mountain.
We drove up the highway to the entrance to the ski area. The East village is closed for the summer. We used to be able to snow ski until July 4th, but now the skiing stops at the end of May.
After a long day, we were ready to eat again. I suggested Tacos. There is a lot of Mexican influence in our cuisine and I thought it might be a treat for Simon to try it. We went to one of our favorite Taco stands, “El Sancho”, between DeKalb and Clay avenues just off of Third Street. Beth knows Joel, the owner. Joel started the business as a small food cart, but the food is so good, that now he has restaurants in two locations in town.
Not only does El Sancho have great Tacos, but they serve tasty locally brewed craft beers. Bend is famous for its craft brew culture. I like Vicious Mosquito or Hop Venom. Both are very tasty! They were serving Hop Venom today, so I got one. Many of the hops that are used in beer making are grown east of the Cascade Mountains. Simon wanted to taste it, but he was still in primary school and not old enough to drink alcohol. You have to be age 21 before you can drink beer, so I ordered him an iced tea.
Simon thought it was strange to drink tea cold, instead of hot, but he didn’t complain one bit!
We ordered two kinds of Tacos; Carnitas (Pork) and Barbacoa (Beef). I liked the Barbacoa the best, but Simon liked the Carnitas. Everybody was happy!
That was a big day for all of us. Time to go home and relax….We had a good time showing our town to a new friend and we hoped you readers liked traveling with us too. Simon’s school mates will be learning about lots of new places in the future!
I saw a rainbow bridge in the desert while walking section C of the Pacific Crest Trail in July. It crossed a stream far below the trail which ran near the top of the deep canyon. Could it be a mirage? My dehydrated and sun-baked brain was telling me what I was seeing was real, but could I trust myself that it was true?
The past few days of hiking had been brutal. There must have been a good reason that I was the only backpacker on the trail for 90 miles. The water report that I had which was updated in June told of creeks still running, but by the time I was hiking in July, almost all of them were bone dry.
It was hot….REALLY HOT! The heat in the Western USA the past few weeks was the headline on the nightly news. I needed water and I needed shade. I had seen traces of water in the bottom of the canyon far below for miles. It was the first real stream I had seen in more than 40 miles of hiking. There is nothing more frustrating and annoying than being in sight of what you most need, but with no way to get there. The trail cut into the side of the canyon way too far above the only stream in the desert for one to safely descend to it. Deep Creek wasn’t all that deep, but the canyon it ran through certainly was….
The trail switch-backed several times as it descended deeper into the gorge. The mirage of the rainbow bridge came closer and closer. Finally, I was at the edge of the canyon, with the bridge in front of me. Time to take a step. If it was real, it would hold me up. If I was dreaming, I would fall through the air to the rocks below. If the fall didn’t injure me too badly, maybe I could crawl to the little creek that flowed under the middle of the bridge.
I didn’t fall. The bridge was not a mirage. It was reality. A thought flashed through my mind. I heard the voice of my dead grandfather. He whispered in my ear something he told me more than 50 years ago on the Wye River in the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “Don’t leave a good fishing hole to go find more fish.” My eyebrows raised. Then, as if he was concerned that my sun-baked brain didn’t process what he had just said, he whispered it again. Then, I got it! This place had all of things I needed. Time to stop, relax, enjoy it and cherish it. No need to travel on at the moment. Now, to climb down just a little bit to reach the shade of a cottonwood tree and get out of this sun!
I dipped my water bottle into the stream and then put some water purification tablets into the bottle. It would be drinkable in 20 minutes. Then, I rolled out my sleeping pad onto the soft sand and laid down to rest. Even though it was several degrees cooler in the shade, it was still hot. I took off my shoes and put on my crocs, took off my filthy shorts, and strolled across the sandbar to the water’s edge. The water was cool and refreshing!
Some small fish scampered away from the water’s edge and headed out to a deep pool. Sorry guys, but that pool has my name on it! I squatted down until the water was covering my whole body up to my neck. Then, I took this picture of the rainbow bridge.
The past few days of suffering melted away in the coolness of the stream. I had forgotten what it felt like to be cold. Although the feeling was welcome, I didn’t want to trade hyperthermia for hypothermia, so I quickly exited the stream and went back into the shade to lay down. The wet, nylon shirt that I was wearing kept me cool until all of the water had evaporated in the dry desert air. As soon as I started feeling hot again, it was time to take another dip. Wash, Rinse, Dry, Repeat……I must have completed this cycle a dozen times while I squandered the rest of the day there!
It must have been the umpteenth time that I walked out to take another dip, that I saw an osprey perched on the Rainbow Bridge. I went back to get my camera. I kept shooting pictures as I eased slowly closer. He never did get spooked, but we did have a stare off. Neither of us blinked, but I did see him shake his head. He was probably wondering what a backpacker was doing here so late into the summer!
As the sun lowered in the sky and the afternoon heat abated, I thought to pack up and continue on the hike. After all, my destination of Cajon Pass was still a few days hike away. I scrambled back up onto the trail, crossed the bridge and took a couple more pictures to remember this special place.
Had I known what was to lay ahead of me on the trail in the coming days, I would have stayed the night under the rainbow bridge. I shouldn’t have ever left it. But that is a story for another day. The moral of this story is that whenever you come upon a beautiful bridge in your life, don’t be in a hurry to cross it!
And, for goodness sake, don’t backpack the California desert in July!
We all have bad days. Some more than others. However, have you ever thought of how different a bad day might look, if you only change your Geography?OR, maybe just your perspective on that day?
When you are having a bad day, it might help to compare your crappy day with someone else’s bad day in another part of the world. Do you live in Yemen? Are you in the midst of a civil war like they are there? Do you live in the Gaza Strip? Have your relatives perished from their building collapsing after being bombed by the Israeli Air Force? Are you poor and unable to get vaccinated against Covid in India or Brazil? Or, are your children dying of malnutrition like they are in many parts of Africa? Was your home destroyed by either a flood or a volcanic eruption? It always helps to put your problems into perspective.
Recently, I’ve been lamenting the rapid change in my community of Bend, Oregon. People are flocking from everywhere on the planet and moving here. The traffic is getting bad. Housing prices are going through the roof. Graffiti and litter are much more prevalent than ever. The culture of the town is changing, and most would agree that it is not for the better.
I needed some nature on the way to work, so I stopped by Drake Park near downtown Bend to take a walk next to Mirror Pond. There was goose poop everywhere, which made me pay close attention to where I was walking. So much for relaxation in the park!
After fighting the traffic to get to the college on the West side of town, I parked my car and walked towards my office in Modoc Hall. I stopped when I saw a deer.
“How wonderful!” I thought to myself. I was just enjoying the fact that I get to experience some nature inside the city limits. What a breath of fresh air seeing wildlife here at work! Then, taking a few more steps, I saw what the deer left as a calling card. My day was just beginning to get a little more shitty!
After work, I really needed to get away! I decided to get out of town and take a hike.
I used to go just a couple of miles outside of town for some peace and quiet. Now I have to travel further and further; sometimes as much as 30 miles. I usually head East toward the desert, as there are just too many people on the West side of town and around the Cascade Lakes Highway. At first I tried walking one of the irrigation canals just outside of the city limits. However, a new homeowner just put up a sign, incorrectly claiming that it was HIS property, when in fact it belongs to the irrigation district. Annoyed, I decided to go further East into the real desert to get away from people.
Finally, I got to a dirt path far from town! I was beginning to feel more at peace, UNTIL I found something I didn’t expect to see out here.
I saw evidence of mankind….trash left behind by thoughtless people.
Luckily, I brought my backpack with me and I picked up the trash left behind by careless people. Being that I live in Oregon, I will be rewarded 10 cents for each aluminum can I pick up. I’d be happier not find any at all, however. With the uncontrolled growth in Central Oregon, once pristine places are starting to become trashed. On the road on the way out to my hiking place, I found a “Twisted Tea” can on the side of the road. Must be a twisted person to discard this in a beautiful place!
I think it would be an interesting demographic study, to study where what type of trash is left in which places. Documenting it and mapping it are the easy parts. Getting consumer demographic data from companies is the hard part. The corporations who manufacture these products keep the demographics of their consumers pretty close to the vest. I can say, however, that I find very few bottles from craft breweries strewn about the landscape!
I encountered more forensic evidence of humans littering the landscape. Several casings from shotgun shells littered the roadside. I’ve been seeing these in places that I never used to in the past. I decided to hike out of the desert and into another nearby ecosystem to get away from all of this.
I hiked uphill, where the desert transitions into forest. I walked along a lonely abandoned road. Finally, no signs of humans! Then, I found some fresh bear scat in the roadway. I put my cup next to it to take a picture and show the scale of it. Bears are omnivores, and although I have great respect of them, I don’t fear being in their territory. Cougars however, are another story.
Bears have a very poor digestive system and more than 1/2 of what they consume is easily identifiable when it comes out the other end. It easily shows what they have been foraging on. This was now turning into a pretty shitty day!
Further down the same road, I came across tracks of another animal. The footprints were canine. Not seeing any signs of human tracks, I expected that these tracks were made by a coyote and not a dog who was a house pet. Sure enough, a little further down the road, I found another calling card! Yep, it was from a coyote! The scat had the hair of its prey in it, probably that of a chipmunk or ground squirrel.
Hiking back downhill towards the car, I came out of the pine forest and back to the juniper forest, which is a transition zone between the wetter, cooler forest and the hotter, drier, low sagebrush desert. This area was BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. The acronym often is referred to by locals as meaning Bulls, Lambs, and Mines, which are the activities of mining and grazing that are overseen by this Federal Agency. I came to a clearing next to a large Juniper tree. The large mine field of cow patties around the tree was evidence of bovines seeking the shade of the tree. Can this day get any more shitty than this?
I paused here for a moment, and kicked some of the dried patties out of the way. I made myself enough room to sit in the shade of the tree. Then, I reflected on the day. I’m sitting in a space surrounded by a bunch of crap. But, I’m also sitting in the shade and have a place to myself. I’ve been dealing with crap from others all day long, but in retrospect, it wasn’t that bad! Even though things are changing rapidly in my area, I took time to be thankful for the opportunity to walk in nature and to de-compress. I took time to think about people I know who are dealing with much worse crap than I am currently surrounded by and send positive thoughts their way. I find that I do more of this when out in nature and not as much of that when I am in town.
I think the moral of this story is to not to focus on the crap that you encounter on a daily basis. Our world is filled with beauty, as well as some crap to deal with. One can’t live in a world free of dung! Just keep walking and kick it out of the way when you come across it. And be able to find a place of rest with it all around you. You have a choice either to focus on the dung or focus on the beautiful world that it is found in.
As I compare my shitty day with other places around the world, I feel blessed! Dear readers, the next time you are having a shitty day, I hope you can find a shade tree to sit down in the midst of it all, and to be able to focus on the beauty in this world and not the crap that is in it! Embrace the fact that we live in a world filled with dung without fearing that you will constantly step in it. And I hope your shitty day ends up being equally as good as mine was….
If everyone in the world treated each other like they do while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the whole world would be in a much better place. A special culture exists among those who walk the trail and those who support their endeavors.
I’ve been hiking sections of the trail off and on for 20 years. Many are what you call thru-hikers; people who attempt to walk all 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada in one year. Others, myself included, prefer to do shorter sections of 100 miles or less at a time and then call it good until the next year. Whichever the method, meeting someone else on the trail brings an instant bond with that person.
People who hike the trail do so for a number of different reasons. Many are younger, and want to take advantage of the time to take a long journey just after completing school. Some folks are in a transition period in their lives. Others seek the simplicity and freedom of the hiking lifestyle. And there are those who do it just for the challenge. I do it for the sake of Geography….just to see what’s around the next bend in the trail, or to see what lies on the other side of that mountain ahead.
My most recent hike took me to the Southern California desert, an area that I was previously unfamiliar with. I was supposed to hike the 702 mile portion of the trail that crosses the desert regions last Spring, but Covid cancelled those plans. Since I am still working part-time, I could only take a week off this Spring, so I chose to hike most of Section A, which is the part that is closest to the border with Mexico.
First I flew from Bend, Oregon to San Diego, California to spend some time with an old high school friend. Another friend from Orange County came down to meet us and we all went to a baseball game at PetCo park to see the Padres vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. It was the 20th MLB team I’ve seen play in their home park. With proof of Covid-19 vaccine, we got to sit together in preferential seating, close behind the Cardinal dugout.
On Sunday, May 16, my buddy drove me to Lake Morena County Park to start my PCT hike. Lake Morena is 20 miles from the Mexican border. If I am fortunate enough to complete the rest of the trail in a few years, I will save this last 20 mile section as a day hike to the terminus of the trail. There is a road crossing the trail only 1.6 miles from the border. I plan to invite family and friends to meet me at the road crossing to walk the 1.6 miles together, after which I will throw a BIG party for everyone.
As it was a weekend, there were lots of day hikers out on the trail. Most were enjoying the cooler than normal temperatures and taking in the colors of the wildflowers in bloom. Several stopped to ask me about what it was like to backpack the PCT. I told them I only planned to go about 90 miles on this hike.
“ONLY 90 miles”, they would exclaim, like that seemed like a LONG way to them. I told them that most of the younger backpackers they would see are attempting to walk the whole trail in one season….a trip of 2,650 miles.
Everyone I met were nice people. But they all had regular names, not trail names. Even the few long distance hikers I met did not have trail names yet. Trail culture has it that people who hike the trail get pseudonyms and have an identity linked to a trail name. That name should be given to you by someone else. Many times the name has something to do with the food the hiker likes. Over the years I’ve met hikers with the names of Wasabi, Mustard, Horchata, Basil, Sprout, Chili Pepper, and the Ginger Ninja. Others take names from a mishap on the trail (Blisters, Feet, Toes, Underwear, Scarface, etc.) Still others have animal names or plant names (Otter, Bear, Oso, Coyote, Bird, Songbird, Tortoise, Bunny, Forget-me-Not, Sage, Willow, Spruce). On past hikes, I’ve met Chilly Willy, Indiana Jones, Dumpster Fire, Game Boy, The Jesus, Spaceman, Windchime, Low and Slow, One-Pole, So Far, Sunshine, Shade, Tree Monkey, Red, E-Walk, Cool Breeze, and Jackrabbit, just to name a few. My own trail name happens to be “Ouch!“
I got my name as a section hiker. I’ve been walking roughly 100 miles per year and now have just over 1,700 miles of trail completed. Thru-hikers always comment on how much easier it would be to be a section hiker, as you get to pick the best weather for whatever section you decide to hike that year. While that might be true, I usually ask them about their experience of their first two weeks on the trail, while they are breaking their bodies into trail shape. The first couple of weeks are usually remembered as painful ones. When I reply that EVERY YEAR I hike I am always in the first two weeks of the hike and it is ALWAYS painful, they think for a moment, wince and say “OUCH!”. That is the etymology of my trail name.
This year, starting so far south, almost all of the thru-hikers had the names their parents gave to them. I met Alison, Megan, John, Dustin, Kevin, Owen, another John, Johnny, Emily, Dave, Bryan, Sarah, Daniel, Kathy, Javier, Jennifer, Olivia, Alex, Rebecca, and Devin… to name a few. I hiked a couple of miles with Tejas, a Tamil boy from India. Only two hikers I met already had trail names; a guy from Maine named Haystack, and an attractive brunette from Switzerland called “Cowbell”, due to the clanging of a water bottle she had hanging from her pack. With so many people using their given names, it is difficult to remember who is who.
I was having a discussion with a friendly couple, when a lone hiker in a black shirt walked by. About 1/2 hour later, he was walking back in my direction. He asked if I knew where Kitchen Creek Falls was. “I’m not from around here”, I said. “I’m from Oregon and this is my first time down here.”
He said that it was also his first time. I asked where he was from. He replied “Spain.”
“Pues, de que parte o provincia de Espana viene Usted?”, I asked.
“Soy de Pais Vasco!”, he replied. His name was Javier. From there we had a long conversation, 90% of which was in Spanish. Although I didn’t know much of his first language of Basque, I threw out a phrase such as Eskerrik Asko, and pronounced his hometown of San Sebastian as “Donostia, Bizkaia” in his home language. His jaw dropped and his eyes opened wide! Shared knowledge of one’s geography as well as talking to someone in one of their home languages is a great way to break the ice and instantly bond with another. Rather than try to explain my trail name of “Ouch!”, I became Mick again, even if just for a moment.
After 20 minutes or so of Speaking Spanish, we parted and hiked in opposite directions. I made my first camp about 1/2 mile off of the trail on the way to Mt. Laguna. It was cold and drizzling that evening.
The next morning was still cool, but the sun was starting to peek out. About midday, I came to a dirt road with a sign warning about live ordinance in the area. I stuck close to the trail here. It seems a military plane on a training mission crashed near here long ago and not all of the live munitions were recovered!
At the end of the second night, I crested the high elevation point of this week’s hike, at Mt. Laguna. Being in the forest made you feel that you were far away from the Southern California desert.
The trail started its long descent toward the fiery Colorado desert. It followed a ridge line that paralleled a road, but still stayed high enough to have a view over the desert below. Trees began to thin out, being replaced by chaparral vegetation. Continuing north past the old Pioneer Mail Trail-head brings you to a shrine overlooking the desert. The shrine is to remember the lives of many motorcyclists who passed away.
One plaque was to remember a beloved pet, a dog named Solo. What read on the plaque would be a great epitaph for any human’s headstone!
The trail cut into the side of the mountain with outstanding views of the desert below. The sun was baking down and I was sure to fully cover my arms and face. I even wore a mask to keep the sun from cracking my lips.
A couple of clouds materialized in the sky. I kept singing an old Judy Collins song, titled “Send in the Clowns”. Except that I editorialized the song and replaced the word “clowns” with “CLOUDS”.
The New Song Lyrics went something like this.
My Face is burnt, my lips are chapped….
Send in the Clouds… Send inthe Clouds!
The trail continued its long sinuous journey downward. At a spur trail to the Sunrise Trail-head, I saw another hiker texting on her phone. With limited cell service, I pulled out my phone to text my wife. No service for my burner phone.
Another hiker who did have service on his phone, offered his phone to me. I called my friend Allan in San Diego to give him an update on my progress and asked him to call Beth for me. It is another example of how people on the trail help each other.
Since it was near the end of the day, the two hikers invited me to camp with them at a campsite about 1/4 mile away. When I arrived, most of their group had already set up their tents. Their ages ranged from early twenties to mid thirties. I was the grandpa of the group. They came from many different places and had just met on the trail and had formed a hiking group. They came from a wide range of places such as Western New York state, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington state, Switzerland, Minnesota, and North Carolina. We spent the twilight sharing stories about the trail. Everyone shared why they were attempting to hike the whole trail in one year. We all opened up and shared some personal experiences. Where else could a group of strangers from different places and of different ages be so open with one another? Only on the trail….
I didn’t even bother to erect a tent, but simply rolled out the bag and gazed at the myriad of stars in the sky. I stared up at a waxing half moon above me in a cloudless sky. Contentment quickly led to restful sleep.
I heard the sounds of zippers being zipped and packs being packed at about 5:30 in the morning. I awoke and wished my newfound friends a safe journey northward. Just after they departed, I took this picture of our newly abandoned campsite. What seems like just an ordinary clearing in the chaparral became a vibrant meeting place that came to life the previous night. It was a place that offered not only rest and relaxation, but fostered connection between varied individuals. Long distance trails like the PCT are places that can make these kind of things happen!
Once down in the valley, the trail runs through the hot, dry San Felipe Valley until it crosses Hwy 78 at Scissors Crossing. From there it is another 24 miles without a natural water source. I was carrying 7 liters of water, which made the pack extremely heavy.
On the other side of the highway, some trail angels left a few bottles of water and some Gatorade. Trail angels are volunteers who support hikers in many ways; either by stashing water caches in dry places, giving hikers rides into town to resupply, or by offering food or any other type of support. Hiking the trail may seem like a solo challenge, but it would be impossible without the help of kind strangers. Many trail angels are hikers themselves.
From Scissors Crossing, the trail steeply climbed up a ridge, from where it appeared to side-hill for a long way. I took one of the Gatorade bottles and planned to drink it once I finished the climb out of the valley. It was just after noon, and the sun was high in the sky. Shade was nowhere to be found. I ended up guzzling the orange drink well before I finished the climb out of the valley.
A strong wind howled on that ridge the entire day. Walking was difficult and the narrow trail was eroded in sections. A misstep could result in tumbling off the side of the cliff to a possible death. Each year, a few hikers perish on the trail. Some are older folks my age who suffer heart attacks; others are younger hikers who suffer a fall or drown crossing swollen rivers once they are out of the desert. I was careful not to become a statistic for this year.
Even though the temperature was cooler than normal for this time of year, the unrelenting sun took its toll. Shade was almost non-existent. During the rare times that I found some, I took a break to take advantage of it.
There are quite a few snakes in this part of the world. Most scampered off of the trail before I could get my camera out. This guy was a little slower than most, so I got to snap his picture!
I knew that trail angels had stashed a large cache of water at mile 91 of the PCT. I was running out of water before that, but Johnny, a fellow hiker, topped me off with almost another liter. I thanked him by giving him some beef jerky. We both felt like we got a good deal! Another instance of folks helping each other on the trail. Does this kind of stuff still happen back in town? It used to a long time ago!
I was just approaching mile 91 when I heard Haystack coming up behind me. We were both glad to see a sign for water. The cache was about 1/4 mile downhill. I dropped my pack and took my empty water bottles down to the cache.
There was a small dirt road from the back side of the mountain that let the trail angels be able to stash a couple of pallets of water for the hikers. Without this, it would be almost impossible to hike section A of the desert.
The trail angels pay for all of the water out of their own pockets and of the goodness of their hearts. We gladly put some cash in the kitty for their efforts. They constructed a place to put the empty plastic bottles to be recycled.
Haystack told me that he had run into Kevin and that Kevin now had a trail name. He would now be known as “Rudolph”. Rudolf got his name from the group that he was hiking with. Even though he did not have a GPS, he was always the first one out of the gate and leading the rest of the group. Recently he forgot to lather up on the sunscreen and his nose got burnt. So, for always being out in front and with a red nose, Kevin became “Rudolph”!
The next morning, the wind was still howling. The trail finally crossed over from the west side of the ridge to the east side, where the mountains did act as somewhat of a windbreak. Then, I felt comfortable enough to take some pictures of cactus flowers.
After a LONG descent, I reached the Barrel Spring near the highway. The water needed to be treated, but at last there was some trees for shade and I got cell service next to the highway. So, I took a long break and called Beth and Allan. Then I took time to journal in the shade.
Just after crossing the highway, the scenery changed dramatically. The trail went through some private land, much of which had been cleared for cattle grazing. There is no camping allowed for the next several miles.
It seemed strange to walk over flat meadows after so much side-hill trail in the mountains. The few cows in the field stared at me incredulously, as if they had never seen a hiker before. They stopped grazing and chewing their cuds while they cautiously followed my walk along the path. Only when I was nearly out of sight did they relax enough to continue to graze. Seriously! They must have seen dozens of hikers like me every day this time of year, and they still act like it was the very first time they’d seen one!
Finally leaving private land, I came to San Ysidro Creek, a welcome sight after such a waterless stretch of hiking. I decided to pitch the tent here. The gurgling creek was such a wonderful sound to fall asleep to!
After breaking camp the next morning, there were only about 6 more miles to go to get to the road which leads into Warner Springs. Climbing out of the ravine where the creek lay brought me to another stretch of open pasture-like land. A group of resistant rocks poked up out of the plateau.
One of those protruding rocks was worth a side trip down a short trail. The landform is called Eagle Rock. I wonder why they called it that! See the picture below…
Nearing the end of section A of the PCT, I ran into several day-hikers headed to Eagle Rock. Once off the trail, I walked the road into Warner Springs and stayed at a picnic area next to the gas station, where my friend Allan would be coming in a few hours to take me back to civilization. Now, with a little over 1,700 miles on the PCT under my belt, I will have only about 945 miles left to complete it. Planning on doing another 260 this summer and another 500 or so the following Spring. But first, time for a hot shower!
It is nearly summer and the academic year and the term are almost over. It has been a tough year on all of us due to Covid. You all persevered and weathered the storm of coming to class, wearing masks, and social distancing, while working and studying. Although the focus of our class was to study landforms, much of what we learned can be applied as life lessons we can use everyday. This also may be the last time I teach this particular class, as I transition into semi-retirement. Our lives will bifurcate after this week, so I wanted to take this one last opportunity to share something important with you all. Here are some parting words of wisdom for each of you.
After your academic career is over, you will be going out into the world, the same world that we studied about landforms. In your life you will encounter obstacles that you will have to climb. Some of them might seem like the Himalayas to you. Others might seem less imposing, like the foothills of the Appalachians.
Sometimes, you will make it to the top of the mountain. If so, then congratulations! Enjoy the view if you are fortunate enough to make it there. Don’t get too cocky when you do get up there, for we are not meant to live there, but to use that experience to help us after we come back down and live among the people in the rest of the world. And yes, there is always another mountain to climb! But realize, that life is a journey and you might not make it to the top on your first attempt. That’s okay….just keep on trying!
Like all of the rest of us, you will be facing many pressures in life. These come at you from all sides. Like metamorphic rock, these pressures may change you a little. But how you react to these pressures make all the difference. Remember, diamonds are made under pressure!
People, like rocks, can react to the same pressures in different ways. Sometimes the pressure breaks the rocks apart. Sometimes they just fold a little. Learn to bend, but not break, like the folded rocks of the Appalachian Mountain ranges.
Whenever you get frustrated, angry and hot from all of the pressures in life, make sure to try and stay cool. Don’t blow your top like a composite volcano. It won’t solve the problem and will probably only tick off the people around you! Don’t shower others with your pyroclastics!
Try your best to stay out of really hot water. It might look pretty or even inviting at first, but it can scald you!
Who you choose to surround yourself with will have a big effect on the choices that you make in life. Try to avoid tectonic relationships. Choose partners and friends wisely!
Remember that most Earth processes are slow processes. We studied the principle of uniformitarianism and learned that the present is the key to the past. Well, it is also the key to your future! Economic stability and social stability are processes that we all have to keep working towards the goal of every day. Live each day in the present while still keeping one eye on the future! Given enough time and all of us working together, it is achievable, albeit not overnight. Be in it for the long run!
Be like soil. Remember the formula of CL,O,R,P,T (Climate, Organic Material, Relief, Parent Material, and Time). Study the climate of the people around you (family, workplace, community, country, region) to determine what type of weathering you will experience. Make sure you get enough nutrients for both your body and soul to make a productive soil (Organics). Work on what type of parent material you would like to be made of. And give enough time for the soil to form…it is a slow process. Finally, remember that good soil is there to grow things to help not only yourself, but to benefit others too. Try to shoot for being a loam, a good mixture of both porosity and permeability. Hold onto just enough water to meet your needs, but let some of it infiltrate into deeper parts of the soil, so that you don’t end up being waterlogged.
While soil formation takes a long time, be on the watch for creep; that imperceptible slow deformation of soil, due to gravity and water logged clay. Overwork and not paying enough attention to the little things in life might end up taking a toll on you. We tend to protect against big events like landslides, but creep is the most costly and destructive of all mass wasting events. It’s something you don’t usually notice, until it’s too late. Take inventory on yourself often!
Remember the power of running water. Running water does three important things in landscape development. It erodes, transports sediment, and deposits sediment. Water is one of the most powerful forces in landscape development, yet it does this all without being haughty. Water seeks its lowest level. It gives life to everything along its route, and the silt that it deposits at the mouths of rivers are fertile areas for other humans to grow crops. Be like a river and seek out the low places. Those are the places that need your water! By doing so, you will not only bring life to those you come in contact with, but you will also slowly shape the world that you live in!
Rivers can also move laterally in response to changes in flow and sediment load. Be sure not to be too rigid, but shift in response to changes in your life’s load and flow. And if it leaves you with a small meander scar, remember that in time, that will fill in too….
Be observant! When you see something that seems like it really doesn’t belong, it may not be a function of nature. Maybe mankind put it there!
Like walking on glaciers, sometimes you will come to a crevasse. If it is too big to jump over, then just find a way around it. Sometimes the best route in life doesn’t take a straight line.
And, if the crevasse is not that wide, then just jump over it…even if it is a little scary to do so.
Remember the Equilibrium Theory which states that the shape of landforms remains static if the uplift is equal to the erosion. With that in mind, be like the Torres del Paine in Southern Chile. When life erodes you at the top, keep pushing upward to maintain the shape of who you are.
Finally, remember some of Stan Schumm’s seven reasons for geologic uncertainty (Scale, Location, Convergence, Divergence, Singularity, Sensitivity, and Complexity. When something happens (either good or bad) in your life, remember to look at it at different time scales. A bad day seems more horrible when only looking at just that one day, but doesn’t seem so bad when you look at that same ONE day in the context of your whole life (Scale). Don’t be too quick to judge a landform (or other people) too quickly. Although they might have similarities with a group, people, like landforms are individuals too (concept of Singularity).
Be kind to others. What might seem like a small slight to you, could end up being something much larger to someone else. People, like landforms, have different sensitivities to stress. And, also like landforms, the study of people can be complex.
One last bit of advice. Keep studying Geography. The amount of stresses that a landform experiences is often a function of its location, whether that is in the headwaters of a drainage system or near the base level of a stream. Be mindful of the stresses that different peoples are experiencing due to their geographic location or zip code. Lots have folks have much greater challenges than you do, through no fault of their own!
Keep learning and growing! Thank you all for taking this class and I hope you can build on these concepts that you learned to become all you are capable of being. And best wishes in the future!
If anyone who reads this knows of someone who teaches or is a student in either Geography, Geology, or Earth Science, please feel free to pass this along to them!
Sometimes the story is the destination that you are traveling to. Other times, the story is in the journey getting you to the destination. This is one of those stories about the journey just to get somewhere.
On my first day after landing in my stopover city of Sydney, Nova Scotia I was walking around the city to orient myself to a new place. A police car pulled along side of me. “Can you come downtown to the station?”, he asked. “There’s a problem that we need your help with.”
I froze. Was there a problem with the way I entered the country? I didn’t exactly go through customs and immigration the way most travelers do. How could this policeman possibly know that? What kind of trouble could I possibly be in? And how did the local cops know that I was a passenger on a cargo jet and walked past customs and immigration alongside the two pilots with only a wink and a nod?
I was on my way to Newfoundland, where a friend would meet up with me in a few days. With two weeks of vacation from my job at Federal Express (now FedEx), I chose to jump-seat on a company jet, all the way from Atlanta to Memphis and then to Montreal, Quebec. From there, I took a commercial flight from Montreal to Deer Lake, Newfoundland, with a stopover in Sydney, Nova Scotia. I chose to lay over in Sydney for a few days until my friend could fly to Newfoundland.
Back in the day, FedEx employees had the benefit of “jump-seating” for personal travel. Each FedEx cargo jet had between 1 and 4 seats for employees to travel on. These were located inside of the cockpit. I had never before flown in a jet where I could look out windows in front of me. First I flew on a 727 Cargo Jet from Atlanta, GA to Memphis, TN, where the main FedEx Hub sorting facility was. After a couple of hours of waiting for all the packages to be sorted and loaded into their prospective planes, I boarded a Falcon Fan Jet to Montreal, Quebec. When FedEx was a startup company, most of the jets were Falcon Fan Jets, manufactured by the French company Dassault. Now that the company had grown, most of those were replaced by larger DC-10 and Boeing 727 jets, with containers for the cargo. My trip to Montreal, would be the last week that the company flew the Falcons, which had to be hand loaded.
For those of you interested in the history of the Falcon Fan Jet and its impact of the success of Federal Express (FedEx), here is a link to that story…
I sat on a small wooden bench in between the two pilots, Mike and Charlie. As the sun was rising and shining directly into our eyes, once we got to cruising altitude, Mike took a section of the morning paper and plastered them over the windshield to keep the sun out. The jet was on automatic pilot while the pilots were reading the morning paper. I didn’t want to disturb the pilots or accidentally touch anything, but I was pretty cramped in the jump seat. I also wondered about flying a jet without looking out the windows. I asked, “Is anybody paying attention to where we are in route?”
Charlie pulled back part of the newspaper. “Yep, that’s Cincinnati down there”, he remarked. Occasionally, an air traffic controller would bark out an order over the com and direct the pilots to alter their course heading. A quick turn of a dial, and the jet would bank and assume the new course heading.
The picture below is similar to what the cockpit looked like. The following photo is from Wikimedia commons of the cockpit of a Falcon Jet used by the Pakistani military. I had the same vantage point from my cramped jump seat.
We landed safely at Dorval International Airport and walked from the tarmac into a building. Since we were all dressed in our Federal Express uniforms, an airport official gave us a wink and a nod as we passed by. I never did get my passport stamped. It felt like I was getting away with something, even though I only had my camping equipment in my backpack.
From Dorval, I boarded a plane to Sydney, Nova Scotia. After checking into a local B & B, I decided to take a walk around the city and get a feel for the place. It was then that the policeman pulled up beside me and asked me to take a ride downtown with him.
I nervously asked what the problem was, thinking that they somehow knew I didn’t enter the country through the proper channels.
“We just need you to be in a lineup”, said the policeman.
“What happens if somebody mistakenly picks me out?”, I asked.
“Not likely. We caught the guy red-handed. We just need a few volunteers to make a lineup.”
There was no reason to say no, although I was still a little nervous. The officer opened the back door to the car, and I got in. Just a few minutes later, he pulled up next to another pedestrian and asked the same thing. The guy nervously got into the car, but wanted to keep his distance from me in the back seat. He must have thought that I was the guilty party.
We went down to the station and got in a lineup; five men abreast of each other. A lady walked in. She pointed to the guy standing next to me. He immediately lost it, screamed some obscenities and lunged at her. He had to be restrained. The rest of us were relieved. The constable thanked us and asked us each to sign our names and addresses into the ledger. When I did, the guy who was in the police car with me noticed I signed my hometown as Atlanta, Georgia.
“So, you’re here as a tourist!”, he exclaimed. “I was sure YOU were the guy they were looking for when I got into the car”, he said. We laughed. After exchanging some pleasantries, he invited me over to his house. I accepted. His name was Thomas. Sometimes, chance meetings like this turn out to be better than planned ones.
Thomas introduced me to his girlfriend, who lived with him in an old white house near one of the city parks. It was a warm weekend in May, and he was planning to go to the park to play football with his friends. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at his house and then headed over to the park. I was the only one playing football in hiking boots. A group of local girls watched from the sidelines. It was obvious that this was one of the first warm sunny days since last summer. The whiteness of their skin showed that their bodies had not been exposed to the sun for a very long Canadian winter. The glare from the sun shining off of their white bodies was enough for us to play with sun glasses on!
I thought that playing in boots would be a disadvantage, but it allowed me to make quick cuts on the slick grass and run for a couple of touchdowns. Also, I think that although the Canadian boys might have been great ice hockey players, they didn’t have much experience playing football. There weren’t even any Canadian league football teams anywhere east of Montreal. After playing for a couple of hours, we relaxed in the park. Thomas’ friendly dog seemed to eagerly accept Americans.
Afterwards, I headed back to the B &B. Thomas said to come on over tomorrow at about noon and we would hang out again.
After a good night’s sleep, it was time for breakfast, which was served from 7-10 AM at the B & B. It still wasn’t high season yet, so the inn was not at full capacity. I had the pleasure of having a good visit with the two sisters who were the owners of the establishment. One of them, Alice, commented that they felt bad that one of their guests just stayed in his room and never came out, not even for breakfast. They couldn’t communicate with him because he didn’t speak English. He had been at the inn for three days now and they were not sure he was getting any meals.
When I inquired as to where the guy was from, they stated that his passport was from Spain. When I told them that I used to live in Mexico and could speak Spanish, their eyes lit up. “Can you go knock on his door and invite him for breakfast?” they asked.
I went down the hall, with the two ladies accompanying me. We knocked on the door. A few seconds later, an older gentleman cracked the door halfway open. He looked at us quizzically.
As soon as I spoke to him in his native tongue, his countenance changed. He opened the door wide and smiled. I translated a conversation between the two ladies and himself. His name was Enrique and he was a fisherman from the north of Spain. Enrique was waiting for a ferry to take him to St. Pierre and Miquelon, a couple of French owned islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland, where he had a fishing job waiting for him. He had no idea that breakfast was included and he only had some bread and some liquor in his room. This was long before the cell phone era, so it must have been pretty lonely in there.
Alice had made a pot of coffee and offered it to Enrique, but he asked for instant instead. She brought a jar of granulated instant coffee over and watched while Enrique spooned 7 heaping teaspoons into the cup. When she went to pour the hot water into the cup, he raised his hand to have her stop. He only wanted about 1/4 cup of water. It ended up being the consistency of something almost as thick as pudding. When she asked if he takes anything else with his coffee, his answer was “Maybe a little bit of whiskey!” It certainly was a cultural experience for all of us….
Since Enrique had spent the last few days in isolation, I invited him to take a walk with me over to Thomas’ house.
It was the first time Enrique had any human contact since coming to Nova Scotia. He and Thomas’ dog quickly became best buddies. The dog reacted in the same friendly way to the Basque and Spanish languages that Enrique spoke to it as it did when we spoke English to it. Dogs have a keen sense of the emotions that humans feel, and he made Enrique’s loneliness fade away. Studies have shown that people with pets live 2 years longer on average than people who don’t have pets. While the rest of us did talk to him as I interpreted, Enrique was content to sit on the porch, play with the dog and be content that he could have human contact when he wanted to.
I’ve thought about that day many times over the years. Had I not jump-seated, or had the cop not stopped me for a lineup, Enrique would have spent all of his time in Sydney locked up in his room in isolation. Had Thomas not also come to the police lineup, or had I stayed in another B&B, the same thing would have happened. It took fate working on several levels to bring a smile to Enrique’s face, through the love of a stranger’s dog, through a foreigner speaking his language, and for locals opening up their hearts and home to him.
Had I been in a hurry to get to the destination, instead of being open to discovering the journey, I would have bypassed Sydney, Nova Scotia altogether. I would have missed out meeting Enrique, Thomas, Alice, Mike and Charlie, an RCMP officer, and many other fine folks. The experience of flying in the cockpit with the pilots would also have been missed. I sincerely hope that all of those people I met long ago realize that they gave me much more than I ever gave them. Because of all of them, Sydney, NS will always have a special place in my heart. You see, they taught a geographer that a place is much more than a landscape. A place gives meaning to us through the relationships that we build with the people in that place. And casual encounters may end up being anything but casual. They might make memories for a lifetime, as well as changing your perspectives.
Dear readers, wherever you plan on traveling to, I hope your embrace the journey as well as the destination!
Popeye the Sailor man of cartoon fame, made the term “Well, Blow me Down!” a recognizable saying. It denotes a feeling of shock and surprise at something. A trip to the Canadian province of Newfoundland will give you both a figurative and literal meaning to this term.
The power of an image of a beautiful place in nature cannot be underestimated. I had not even considered a Newfoundland trip before I read the 1984 National Geographic Society’s publication of “Canada’s Wilderness Lands.” When I turned a page and saw a picture of a fjord in Gros Morne National Park, I instantly knew that I had to go there.
Just getting to Newfoundland was an adventure in itself. I’ll leave that story for a subsequent post, as that journey was a special story all by itself. We’ll start this story in the airport at Sydney, Nova Scotia, where I boarded a flight on Eastern Provincial Airways to Deer Lake, Newfoundland. A friend from Atlanta was on that plane, and we would be doing the Newfoundland trip together.
Many people, especially Canadians from mainland provinces, consider Newfoundland to be at the edge of the world. It is the easternmost province of Canada and consists of the island of Newfoundland and the barren region of Labrador, whose coastline juts out into the stormy North Atlantic Ocean. It’s not a place you would stumble upon by accident. One has to go out of his/her way to get there.
We rented a mini-van at the Deer Lake airport and locally purchased some fuel for the camp stove and set off from there to explore the western side of the island. We hoped to take a ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle later in the week to cross over to Labrador on the mainland to visit Red Bay, the site of where a Basque whaling ship sank before Columbus “discovered” the New World. But first we drove in the other direction. We visited the largest settlement on the west side of the island at Corner Brook, and then drove another 25 miles west to Blow-Me-Down Provincial Park. The name beckoned us to visit there.
Sparsely populated and rugged in topography, Newfoundlanders have their own twist on the creation story of their island. It states, “God made Newfoundland in six days. On the seventh day, He threw stones at it!” That certainly explains the rocky outcrops, rocky coastlines, and lack of vegetation, due to the harsh climate and thin soils.
Blow-Me-Down sits on the coast between York Harbour and Lark Harbour (Canadian spellings). The park is home to abundant wildlife such as caribou, moose, fox, lynx, beaver, muskrat and a multitude of bird species. Several hiking trails are available, including the governor’s staircase. The rocks are ophiolites, which are parts of the earth’s mantle that have been uplifted to the surface. Continental glaciation of the last ice age did the carving to make this landscape art.
So far, we were figuratively “blown away” by the rugged beauty of the island. After some obligatory photos however, we turned north toward Gros Morne and the Great Northern Peninsula—the attraction that drew us to this part of the world in the first place.
At a breakfast stop at a local restaurant the second day, a man sitting at the table next to us struck up a conversation. Four small girls, ages 2-8, were sitting at the table with him. He could tell by our accents that we were Americans.
“What are you boys doing here?”, he asked. “Canadians don’t even come here!” “There’s certainly NO work to be had,” he said.
We told him that we like exploring new, little known places and that Gros Morne had some beautiful scenery we’d like to discover for ourselves.
The year was 1984, and the economy of Newfoundland was in shambles back then. This was long before the discovery of offshore oil and gas which became the Hibernia project. There was a moratorium on Cod fishing (the only major industry at the time), due to over-fishing of the Grand Banks. The restaurant was packed with out of work fishermen.
“What do you do?”, we asked. He looked over at his four daughters.
“Nothing to do except make babies”, he replied. “The only work left is handing out government unemployment checks. But, we DO appreciate your visit to help stimulate what’s left of our economy”, he added.
Although we had rented a car and were buying food locally, we really weren’t the kind of tourists that would be much of a shot in the arm to the local economy. We brought our camping gear and would be staying in our tents most of the time. Our first hike would be an assault of Gros Morne Mountain (807 meters).
Even though it was just a few days shy of the 1st of June, there were still snowfields to cross, even though the elevation wasn’t all that high. The air temperature was warm enough not to have to wear a warm jacket. The hike was a pleasant one.
Afterwards, we drove to some other scenic spots in the park. During the last ice age, moving glaciers carved out deep U shaped valleys. Rising sea levels from the melting ice sheets drowned out the glacial valleys, leaving behind the deep fjords on the coastline. I’ve been drawn to the ends of the earth since that trip to see beautiful fjorded coasts around the world. Most are located at high latitudes on the western side of continents, such as Fiordland National Park in New Zealand, the West Fjords of Norway and Iceland, Southeast Alaska, and the Archipelago of Southern Chile. This one happens to be on Canada’s Eastern coast.
After checking in with the rangers at Gros Morne, we got our permits to camp on the coast using the Green Gardens trail.
Several kilometers of hiking from the trailhead brought us to the rocky cliffs above the coast. The tall green grass provided a soft cushion in which to place our tent. There were actually a few trees in the area. The sky was gray and it started to lightly drizzle. We set up camp, but still managed to take a stroll in our secluded environs. That night, it started to rain a bit harder….
For the next few days, a severe low pressure system migrated into our area. The winds picked up and it started raining sideways. We played a lot of card games in the tent, but you can only do that for so long. I put on my rain gear and went outside and tried to photograph some sheep on the cliffs.
Newfoundland is famous for its storms. The westerly winds bring in continental air from the large North American land mass. It doesn’t mix well with the marine air of the North Atlantic, and the two air masses have vastly different air pressures. The larger the pressure difference, the higher the wind speed. Blow-Me-Down, Newfoundland now had a literal meaning to it.
After three days of constant wind and rain, and with our tent and all of our belongings soaked, we packed up during the storm and headed back into civilization. It was one of the most intense hiking experiences I’ve had in my over 45 years of backpacking. The sideways rain was now mixed with sleet, which pelted our faces. We stumbled out, looking straight down at the trail and glancing up from time to time to make sure we were still on the path. Several miles later, we reached the car. We drove towards Deer Lake and got a hotel. I stood in the hot shower for a long time to try to abate the effects of mild hypothermia.
As luck would have it, the storm abated the next day. We went back to the ranger to let him know that we got out safely. “I was kind of worried about you boys”, he told us. “So were we”, we replied.
From there, we drove north up the Great Northern Peninsula to catch the ferry over to Blanc Sablon, Quebec. From there it would be a short drive into Labrador to visit Red Bay, the site of a sunken Basque whaling ship. The Norse Vikings “discovered” the New World centuries before Columbus could ever have claimed to. So did the Basques. Some say that the Irish made the trip in Curraghs in the seventy century. But forensic evidence does support the Vikings and the Basques getting there. Take that Columbus!
When we got to the ferry terminal, there was no boat in sight. We went in to check on the departure times and a lot of fishermen were sitting around the bar. Piles of long necked beer bottles were strewn all over the tables. We inquired as to when the ferry would leave.
“It was supposed to be here three weeks ago”, one burly fisherman said. “It left St. John’s, but the pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle is keeping her from getting up here.” “We don’t know when it will arrive!”
Our hopes were dashed. We asked about air fares and car rentals in Blanc Sablon. There was one flight per day, but it was very expensive. Taking it would also require us to rent another car on the mainland, while still paying for the one we had here. We just couldn’t afford it! It was a bitter pill to swallow, but we would have to give up on this part of the dream.
Nowadays, there is a new ferry which is capable of cutting through the sea ice. The Marine Vessel “Qajaq”, part of the fleet owned by Labrador Marine, can hold 300 passengers and 120 vehicles. During the high season, it makes several crossings daily across the Strait of Belle Isle. The 36 km journey usually takes 1 hr. 45 minutes; longer when there is sea ice to navigate through. We were just 30 years too early on our trip!
We quickly formed a plan B. We headed to the northern most tip of the island of Newfoundland and explored the environs around the town of St. Anthony. We also stopped at L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site of where Viking relics were found. The archaeological site dates back to 1000 A.D. and is the only confirmed Norse settlement site in North America other than the ones in Greenland. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1978. The English-French name means “Bay with Grasslands”.
Jared Diamond has a chapter in his NY Times best seller from 2005 “Collapse”, which documents the fall of the Greenland and Vinland (Newfoundland) Norse colonies, due to either conflict with Native societies or reluctance to learn from them due to cultural differences. I recommend the book as a good read into historical and cultural reasons for societal collapses. The lessons from studying mistakes from past societies should be applied to some of our present day struggles. Like the ancient Norse, we could miss out on some opportunities to find solutions to problems, simply because we refuse to view them through anything else than our own cultural lens.
After visiting L’anse Aux Meadows, we stopped at the northernmost town on the island for a Screech and Coke. “Newfie” Screech is a local liquor often drank with Coca-Cola. When in Newfoundland……
Fortified by the local elixir, we were emboldened to climb one of the cliffs in the area to get a look out over the water. Surprisingly, the pack ice was not evident near shore. The higher we climbed, we could eventually see pack ice far out in the channel. Birds flew over our heads, wondering what would entice humans to enter their cliffside domain. Far off in the distance, across the pack ice, we could barely glimpse the shoreline of Labrador. Labrador is an itch I’ve had for almost four decades now, that I haven’t had the chance to scratch yet. But just being that close to it, and being perched on a desolate cliff face at the far end of the island of Newfoundland, which is at the far end of Canada, was satisfying enough. At least it was at the time. I took in the peace and solitude of it all and thought to myself…”Well, Blow Me Down!” Newfoundland is a special place. If you can take some of the weather in stride, you will be rewarded with magical scenery.
For those of you who are considering a trip to Newfoundland today, the economy has bounced back, mostly due to the Hibernia Oil and Gas project. The marine life is making a comeback and humpback whales are prevalent, especially on the East side of the island. For an historical account of the fecundity of the sea life during the time of exploration, I recommend reading an account of Jacques Cartier’s voyages in the area in the 1530s.
Newfoundland has a lot of hidden treasures to discover. Bring your rain gear if you go. But whenever the sun does come out, be prepared to react like Popeye did. You too will likely exclaim, “Well…. Blow-Me Down!”
“There’s TWO places you’ve got to experience before you die”, the old man I met on the Chilkoot Trail told me. Boy, was he right! Two years after that meeting, my friends and I were bike-packing the Canol Heritage Trail through the Mackenzie Mountains, in a remote corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
The Canol “Road” was a road built during WWII to connect the Oil Fields at Norman Wells, NWT to Alaska, to supply petroleum to support the war effort and to aid in the construction of the Alaska Highway. The name CANOL derives from Canadian Oil Road, and construction began in 1942. Built at the same time as the Alaska Highway was, the purpose of construction was to get military equipment, machinery and supplies from the lower 48 and other regions to Alaska to fortify the Alaska territory against the Japanese forces. Oil could then be transported to Whitehorse, Yukon, where it would be refined into gasoline. The Canol road had to cross some of the most forbidding, desolate landscapes on the North American continent. Workers who built the road had to endure the harshness of the tundra climate, hordes of insects proportional to biblical plagues, long arduous hours of work; all in the midst of grizzly bear country.
The Canol project was abandoned even before it was completed. After the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, so the project came to a halt. The route is a virtual museum of WWII relics abandoned on the roadside. The road has not been maintained since. Nature is in the process of reclaiming this road, which makes it not usable for automobiles. We knew that taking a bike-packing trip into the wilds along this “road” would truly be a wilderness adventure. But we had no idea how epic this journey would be, or what nature would have in store for us.
We loaded up our bikes in my hometown of Juneau, Alaska and took the ferry north to Skagway, where we rented a mini-van. Two college friends from Atlanta, Georgia, who had done some North country trips with me in the past, accompanied me on this trip. As we drove up the steep road from sea level to the top of White Pass, we joked about where we would have had to stop pedaling and walk the bikes uphill, had we stuck with the original ridiculous plan of biking all the way from Skagway. Once in British Columbia and then in the Yukon, we would have about 300 more miles of mostly dirt and gravel roads to get to the border of the NWT. Thankfully, we came to our senses and decided on starting the bike portion of the trip at the NWT border.
There are so few people in the North country and the climate is so harsh, that there are few bridges over big rivers. It is more feasible to use a ferry for the crossing. On the South Canol Road, near Ross River, we used the ferry below to cross to the other side.
The crossing of the Pelly River marks where the South Canol Road becomes the North Canol Road. Once on the other side, the North Canol heads through increasingly desolate country towards the border of the Northwest Territories. The road narrows and there are no services, so this road is not recommended for tourist travel. It passes through sub-alpine forests of spruce, dwarf birch and willow.
Boreal forests, the ecosystem of forests that ring around the world at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere, are also prone to fire. After a fire, the charred forests are invaded by pink fireweed, a pioneer species that is the first step in plant succession and re-vegetation of the forest.
MacMillan Pass, the highest elevation point on the Canol Road, marks the boundary between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The road is not maintained on the other side of the border. Time to park the car and mount the bikes and head into the unknown.
MacMillan Pass is in the Mackenzie Mountain Range. The scenery and solitude were magical. Even though it was still late summer, the higher elevations of the mountains were artfully painted with a veneer of fresh snow.
It wasn’t long until we had to cross a creek. The bridge that was built for army vehicles decades ago, had long since succumbed to the ravages of nature. Time to take off one’s shoes and push the loaded bikes across a frigid stream!
The weather can be very mercurial at this latitude. It wasn’t long before gray clouds moved in. They opened up and pelted us with graupel, which is often referred to as “soft hail”. While the helmets protected the tops of our heads, the wind whipped the graupel horizontally and pelted our faces. This was already intense! A few miles down the road, we found an old abandoned structure from which to hide behind the wind.
The storm dissipated as quickly as it came upon us. There were several other streams we had to cross, which were now swollen with water from the storm.
We continued biking until we came upon an even larger stream to cross. The Intga River was pretty deep. No reason for all of us to get soaked, so we parked the bikes at the bank of the river, while I carried my smaller, lighter companions on my back one by one to the other side. While doing so, I thought back to my high school friends Jay and Al. I think Jay had sprained his ankle badly in gym class. Al ended up carrying Jay home on his back, all the while singing the 1969 hit song by the Hollies…”He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother!” I smiled thinking about that as I carried Bruce and Pat across the Intga River…..
We made camp. Bear dung was everywhere, as well as caribou and wolf sign. When we were in arctic and alpine tundra, you could see a long way. But when traveling though willow and scrub brush, you had the uneasy feeling that a grizzly bear or a moose could surprise you. Snow still clung to the mountains. This is really wild country.
In the first few days, the only sign we saw of modern civilization was a group of cabins to the south of the road, near the border. After that, only signs from construction in the 1940s remained. We made camp near the trail and noticed a spur road heading up into the mountains. We cached most of our gear and took only the food (so no critters would get into it), some rain gear and our ice axes with us. Who else takes an ice axe on a bike packing trip?
We climbed up the road until we hit more snow, then parked the bikes and continued trekking uphill to reach the summit, which was within sight. We all safely made it to the top of a peak with no name at the end of a road to nowhere. We wondered, “Who built this little road, and why did they do it?”
The next day we saw a couple of caribou grazing on the tundra, about 100 yards off of the trail. When we stopped to take pictures of them, the wind shifted. They caught our scent and galloped away.
Continuing our journey, we had several small creeks to negotiate, which required not only carrying the bikes, but stepping very carefully over slippery rocks. A broken ankle is always a bad thing, but out here this far from civilization, even a paper cut becomes a major thing.
On the last day before we reached the furthest point inland before turning around, we met three German bikers in their fifties headed in the opposite direction. They were beginning to have problems with their bikes. Some of the sandy soil was getting stuck on the bike chain, which made shifting almost impossible. I remember one gentleman saying in broken English, “Za geers, Zey are SCREAMING for Oil!”
Europeans, especially Germans, have an affinity for the wild lands of the Canadian Arctic. Further down the road, we saw the ruins of an old cabin and decided to take a rest stop. To our astonishment, a shivering, disheveled young man was laying on the ground inside of the ruined roofless cabin. His wool sweater was dirty and ripped in places. We were concerned for his safety. We immediately offered him food and water.
“I don’t eat JUNK food”, came the reply in a heavy German accent.
“Well then, how do you survive out here?”, we asked.
“I only eat ground squirrels”, came the response. We looked at each other with amazement. Here was another example of a would-be survivalist trying to prove his manhood in the wilds. He was not open to any help from us. After we left, we wondered how long it would be before he either perished or came to his senses. Fall was coming soon to the North country.
At the end of the day we crossed the Ekwi river, which required another ford. On the other side of the river, about 150 yards from the bank, was an old abandoned structure. Since the clouds in the sky appeared to be angry, we decided to make camp in the old shelter, but stored food under some rocks far from where we slept. Grizzly tracks were present in the mud near the river. The doors and windows of the old structure had metal spikes and glass shards around them, ostensibly to keep intruders, such as bear or wolverine, from entering the cabin. I found a large moose antler nearby, but when I picked it up, it reeked of bear urine. We seemed to take only cat naps that night, with regular peeks outside to check on our gear.
The next morning, only minutes into the trip, Bruce found an intact caribou skull with huge antlers attached to it. “Wouldn’t that be nice sitting over your mantle piece?”, I asked.
Bruce agreed, but since we were more than 20 miles from the car, he thought that getting it back out would be too much of a problem.
“You found them”, I said. “Are you telling me you don’t want to claim them as your own?”, I asked.
Bruce replied, “You’d be an idiot to try and haul them out of here on a bicycle.” They were so big that you could only rest them on the handlebars, but would not have enough room to sit in the seat and pedal. You would have to put your left foot on the right pedal and use the bike as a scooter.
“Well, then….I’ll be an idiot for ONE day,” I replied. Then I hoisted the antlers onto the bike.
Since I could not continue to ride with the boys, I said I would start to slowly head back to the car. They could continue riding in the area and would have no problem in catching up to me either at the end of the day or by the next one. I walked the bike up hills and used it as a scooter on flat areas. On downhills, I could stand on one pedal and still handle the hand brakes while slowly cruising downhill.
About 5 miles into my return trip, I saw a few more caribou grazing in the tundra off of the road. This time the wind was in my face, so my scent would not carry. I slowly put the bike down and grabbed the antlers and held them at head height. When a couple of the caribou noticed me, I bent down, seemingly grazing on the tundra myself. They seemed to pay more attention to the rack of antlers than the funny looking body beneath them, so I kept being able to move closer and closer to them. I was just reaching for my camera, when the wind shifted. I could just about hear what they were thinking.
“THAT DOESN’T SMELL LIKE A CARIBOU!” is what they were thinking out loud, as they hastily scampered away. Dang! It would’ve been a great picture!
I continued on, until I came to a long uphill grade. I pushed the bike up the trail toward the top of the grade. I was just getting ready to use the bike as a scooter, when I spotted a group of 14 caribou on the south side of the trail staring at me. I slowly reached for my camera, trying not to make any noise or any sudden movements.
Just then, the group split into two. Seven females stayed back, staring back at me intently. Seven males, with large racks, but smaller than the one I was carrying, walked slowly towards me. Had they ever seen a two footed caribou with round legs before? The females seemed enthralled with the size of my antlers. I could picture them thinking, “OOOHH, LOOK AT THAT RACK!!” I guess size DOES matter, at least if you are a caribou.
The magic of that moment turned quickly to sheer terror! All seven of the males broke into a charging gallop right towards me. There’s too many of them and they are way too big and strong for me to fight them. I scootered the biked as fast as I could, but they closed the gap quickly. As I hit a downhill section of the road, I gained some speed. I yelled, hacked, spit, and farted….ANYTHING that might repel them! Luckily for me, they ran alongside the road and escorted me away until I was far enough away from their women to not be a threat. Needless to say, I didn’t get any photo footage of that encounter!
Several hours later, Pat and Bruce caught up to me. They had seen the large herd of caribou on their way back, but did not have a run-in with them. We were all pretty tired, when we saw those cabins off to the south side of the trail come into view. There was a BIPED walking around one of them. We took the chance that if we went to make a visit, we would not be seen as intruders.
When we arrived at the compound, we met George and Brodie, a married couple who were the owners of the Oldsquaw Lodge, a lodge that catered to wealthy visitors interested in ecotourism. George was a Canadian wildlife biologist, author and photographer, who had written a book on the Caribou and the Barren Lands. He and his wife ran the lodge here in the summer and lived in Botswana during the Northern Hemisphere winters. In Botswana, they worked as wildlife biologists studying African animals. The name Oldsquaw Lodge was named after a species of tundra duck that inhabited this region of the Northwest Territories.
Brodie was nice enough to boil us some tea and treat us as guests. She was very hospitable and we both appreciated stimulating conversation with other humans in a land of such sparse human population. Inside of the lodge, ecotourists relaxed in comfortable chairs, reading and learning about their surroundings, while sipping tea and munching on tasty snacks, while they looked out of full length windows at the barren tundra with the Mackenzie Mountains in the background. Spotting scopes were positioned at the windows for them to spy on caribou, bear, Dall Sheep, wolves, or any other fauna who might be in the area.
When I showed the antlers to George, he examined them and could tell us a lot about the animal. From the size of them and the fact that the skull was still intact, he surmised that it was an old bull who was taken down by a Grizzly the year before. It is amazing to think that caribou grow these antlers every year, and then shed them, only to grow bigger ones the following year.
That was long ago. Today, the Oldsquaw Lodge has changed hands and is now called the Dechenla Lodge. It is now run as a partnership with the Kaska First Nations. The name Dechen la’, translates to “Land at the edge of the sticks” in the language of the Kaska and Sahtu peoples of Canada’s First Nations.
Had I found these antlers in this century, I would have left them where we found them, as they are now protected cultural resources. However, in the tradition of the Native peoples, you should face the head of the animal to the East, so that the spirit of the animal gets to see the rising sun. Native hunters who killed an animal for food and clothing would do this out of respect for the animal. Hunting never had the machismo that Anglo hunters display after a kill. Instead, they showed gratitude to the animal for presenting itself to the hunter and allowing it to be taken.
When we got back to the mini-van, we loaded the bikes in the back and affixed the antlers to the roof rack. We got quite a few stares on the way back to Alaska from cars passing by. Since the antlers were well bleached by sitting outside for at least a full year, none of the border patrol folks on both sides of the international border had any qualms about letting us cross with them. It was clear to them that we had found them and not hunted the animal ourselves.
After we returned the rental vehicle in Skagway, we walked the few blocks to the ferry terminal and walked our bikes onto the ship. Another biker walking his bike onto the ferry had a small set of deer antlers on his handlebars. When he saw the size of the caribou antlers on my bike, he gave his deer antlers a rueful look.
Those antlers stayed in our apartment in Juneau for another few years, then they accompanied us when we moved to Oregon. On that 2,000 mile drive, we would have a line of cars following us into any hotel that we would be staying at for the night. We always had to take them off the truck and bring them inside the motel room with us. We made sure to place the head facing to the East. The further south we drove, the more people asked where we shot that moose. Some thought it was an elk. A horrified child might have thought we killed one of Santa’s reindeer. He might think, “Would there be no Christmas presents under the tree this year because of this?”
For the last 27 years, our caribou has been living in our house in Oregon, perched on a dividing wall between the living room and kitchen. I’ve brought him to school many times to show him to the students. They all marvel at how heavy the antlers are, which gives them a new respect for an animal that has to carry that weight around every day. They are even more surprised to learn that such a large animal subsists on low growing lichens in an ecosystem that looks barren to the untrained eye.
The Arctic seems timeless, but it is changing. The effects of climate change are being felt more in the mid to high latitudes. Treeline is creeping further north into what was once tundra. Icecaps are disappearing and melting permafrost is releasing methane gas, which further exacerbates warming of the planet. Getting to look up at these antlers every day reminds me of what a special place the Arctic is and how fortunate we were to experience it when we did. It also is a reminder to tread as lightly on our planet as possible and to respect the other life forms and indigenous cultures that we share this world with.
I am eternally grateful to the man I met on the Chilkoot Trail years ago who told me I had to see the Mackenzie Mountains before I die. That was some damn good advice!
Up by the Arctic Circle, in the country of Norway, exists a magical place…a place like no other place on earth. It’s almost like Heaven on Earth. And the interesting thing is…… It is only 550 miles north of Hell!
If you want to get to Heaven….you just might have to take a ferry to get there. Ferries leave from Bodo on the mainland and arrive at Svolvaer in the Lofoten Island Archipelago. It is possible to get there without a ferry, but the drive is a much longer one.
First, we had to literally drive through Hell to get there. You will too, if you are driving from anywhere in the south of the country. Hell is a little town near Trondheim, which I posted about a few months ago. If you haven’t read that post yet, here is the link that will take you to Hell…..https://wordpress.com/post/geographicaljourneys.com/1829
Cruising on the ferry toward the Lofoten Islands above the Arctic Circle in the land of the Midnight Sun was already a treat. Disembarking at the islands was like waiting outside of the Pearly Gates of Heaven. We were giddy with the anticipation of getting inside. The archipelago boasts not only world class nature tourism, but the place is one of the most visually stunning spots I have seen on the planet…That is saying a lot, considering all of the amazing places I’ve had the privilege of visiting.
The archipelago consists of 7 main islands and many smaller ones that are spread out over an area of more than 1,300 sq. Km. According to Statistics Norway, it is home to over 26,000 permanent residents. The main industry has always been the fishing industry, although tourism has a large impact on the economy. Fishermen’s cabins, or “Rorbuer” in Norse, dot the landscape by the water’s edge. In fact, that name means “A perch beside the water”, in the Norse language. You will likely see cod drying on racks. The local saying is “In Cod We Trust!” Since most Catholics eat fish on Fridays, the Lutheran Norse export much of the catch to the Catholics of Italy, Portugal, and Spain and live off the profits. The rest is consumed locally.
Most buildings in the small towns are painted one of three colors: Ketchup, Mustard or Mayonnaise. I’m not sure if that is a function of code regulations or the love of those condiments, but you will see those colors in the buildings in most Norwegian towns, with an occasional gray building in the mix.
The picturesque town of Reine one of my favorite places, near the southwest end of the archipelago, on the island of Moskenesoya. Driving down the winding road from Svolvaer, one discovers new landscape features around every bend. The roads are in good shape for being located in such a high latitude region. Vertical rugged granite cliffs soar straight upward from the sea. The U-shaped valleys reveal glacial scouring from the last ice age, and melting ice sheets drowned out the valley bottoms, making rugged fjords. The steep continental slope off of the Lofoten Islands guides the warm, salty, Norwegian Atlantic current, a remnant of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift Current, toward the Arctic Ocean. Although located above the Arctic Circle, this phenomenon makes the climate a little more temperate than other climates at this latitude. That makes the climate a bit rainy, but the day we were in the town of Reine (sounds like Rainy), the sky was clear and the sun was shining brightly.
A friendly local person gave us some tips on some of the best places to hike in the region. They suggested the hike up to Reinebringen, a steep scramble up the side of cliffs south of town to gain an overlook of the fjord and the town below. When we did the hike in 2004, we saw only one other person. Nowadays, I hear the trail is overused and is suffering some erosion. Parking may also be a problem. You can leave your car in town and walk the 1.8 Km south following the E-10 road. The trail begins on the other side of the Ramsvik Tunnel. During the high summer season, it is preferable to avoid the midday crowds. Check the weather ahead of time, as it could be a treacherous hike if the conditions are wet. But if it is a sunny day, the difficult, but short hike of about 3 hours is worth it.
There are multitudes of other, less used places to explore all through the Lofoten archipelago. Even close to Reine, one can take a short ferry over to the charming little village of Vindstad and hike over a low saddle to a remote beach. Ferries may run a couple of times per day in the summer, so you could do that hike as a day trip from Reine. Check ferry schedules ahead of time, as it would be a long, cold swim back to town. Better yet, see if there is a Rorbuer to rent there!
The pristine clean environment, the rugged mountains, and the multitude of beaches, inlets and bays which are accessible by well maintained, paved, yet winding roads are all the workings to make Lofoten a world class nature tourism destination. When I was there over a decade and a half ago, it was mainly just a newly discovered summer destination. Presently, there is a lot more year-round tourism. It is no longer a secret. Abundant outdoor activities include hiking, climbing, mountain biking, sailing and kayaking in the warmer months. During the winter, people flock there to see the Northern Lights and go skiing. They also wear dry suits and go cold-water kite surfing during the colder months, something that was unheard of when we were there.
Landscape painters also make pilgrimages to the Lofoten Archipelago to paint some of the finest scenery in the world. The picture below is a painting that I have on my home office that a couple of friends bought for me at an art gallery here in Bend, Oregon.
Since 1991, Lofoten has hosted an international arts festival. However, in the March 2019 issue of Arctic Magazine, a story titled “It’s all about the scenery-Tourists Perceptions of Cultural Ecosystem Services in the Lofoten Islands, Norway“, authors Kaltenbjorn and Linnell outline the increasing pressures of over tourism to the area. There have been growing tensions between hosts and visitors in recent years. This is a phenomenon that is happening all over the world, including my hometown of Bend. However, knowing this ahead of time is not meant to deter you from going there, but should help you to be more respectful of the locals and their culture and environment when you DO go there.
It is not enough to say that I have an attachment to a place in the world called Lofoten. It’s that it is such a stunningly beautiful place, that I feel like it has attached itself to me. Even though it has been almost 17 years since I went there, I’m looking up at the picture of Reinefjorden in my office as I am typing this story now. Instantly, I am transported back to an unseasonably warm, sunny day in August of 2004. I close my eyes, at which time I can hear the cry of arctic terns flying overhead as I detect the faint smell of cod drying in the salty air of the Norwegian sea. My mouth turns slightly up and there is a smile on my face. I’m still experiencing a little bit of heaven on earth. Looking back, it definitely was worth driving through Hell to get there too….
I hope you find a similar sentiment whenever you get there…