Category Archives: Expeditions

The big trips, the deep adventurers, exploring at its best

Far North Fishing

Fishing above the Arctic Circle

By T Dietz

 

Coming off of a crisscross tour of Switzerland we boarded a flight from Zurich to Ivalo, Finland via Helsinki, on a reasonably warm late June day.  Ivalo is located at 68 degrees 39’N/027 degrees 33’ E, within the Arctic Circle – a geography that encapsulates all of earth north of 66 degrees 33’47” N latitude, although it is not fixed as it depends on the earth’s fluctuating axial tilt.

Our destination was the Kakslauttanen Arctic resort in Saariselko.  The resort lies approximately 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle and a 30 minute drive south from Ivalo Airport, Finland’s northernmost airport.

I had never been this far north and just to make my stepping out of the plane above the Arctic Circle and into the midnight sun more memorable, a pair of reindeer were walking across the tarmac.  Another pair met us just outside the terminal as we waited for our bus to take us to Kakslauttanen.  The Arctic Circle by definition is the southern-most latitude in the Northern Hemisphere that for at least one full 24-hour day a year, the sun remains continuously above or below the horizon.  On those exact days, the Antarctic Circle is defined in the Southern Hemisphere.

Finland has had an interesting history with records of first habitation about 9,000BC and it belonging at various times to Sweden and the Russian Empire. The country declared independence in 1918.

Upon arrival and check in at Kakslauttanen we were driven a short distance into the forest to our 2 bedroom cabin.  In just a few moments we were introduced to one of our primary nemeses, the mosquito – the other one being the midnight sun. The mosquitoes were horrendous.  Swarms of them were everywhere and we not only soaked ourselves in DEET but covered up from head to toe despite it being summer, thankfully the temperatures were in the low 60’s F.  The abundance of standing water in the spring and summer acts as exceptional mosquito breeding sites and the large reindeer and other mammal populations offer plenty to feed upon.

After one of several difficult nights sleeping, due to the effects of the midnight sun and the random mosquito that managed to invade our defenses, we met our fishing guide for a day on the river.  We climbed into a well-kept van for the drive west to the Hammastunturi Wilderness Area which lies between Urho Kekkonen National Park and Lemmenjoki National Park.  Our destination was the Sotajoki river. Our drive was dominated by widely spaced and uniform trees planted as part of a forest harvest management program. With the wide spacing and small canopies, a green forest carpet flourished everywhere we could see.  Several reindeer crossed our path on our hour drive on poorly maintained government dirt roads.  The drive was through the gold panning region that experienced a similar gold rush to California’s and about the same time, 1870’s.  Many folks still summer in the area panning for gold with some exhibiting an almost industrial approach to the effort.  It was interesting to learn that in Finland almost all of the land is available to anyone.  You can camp most places but permission is required to hunt and fish on private land.

The reindeer (Rangifer tarandus, C.H. Smith, 1827) are the same species as the America caribou and are all owned by the Sami people.  The Sami are the only peoples allowed to herd reindeer in Finland.  Reindeer are divided by where they reside be it in tundra or woodlands.  The name reindeer comes from the norse word for horned animal while the name caribou is derived from French meaning snow shoveler.  Besides their uniqueness to the mythological Santa Claus, they are the only known mammal capable of seeing in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum (up to 320 nm) an adaption thought to allow for better food sourcing in the snow.  Reindeer also have some unique physiological adaptations.  Their nose structure is designed to warm the cold air prior to it entering the lungs and for mucous membranes hydration.  Like some other mammals, their fur can trap air to provide insulation from the cold temperatures but also to assist in buoyancy while crossing deep rivers.  During the summer months, their hooves will soften to allow for better soft ground traction while hardening in the winter allowing a rim to form at the edge and enhancing traction on snow and ice.  Tagged reindeer are let free all winter, then in June and July they are herded up and divided by owner tags – any new reindeer are kept with their tagged mothers and tagged themselves.

Along our drive we stopped in Kultala, along the river Ivalojoki, a main river that flows into the Arctic Sea via Lake Inarijarvi and the Paatsjoki River.  We entered an old log cabin, decorated with planter boxes filled with colorful flowers, for fishing licenses.  With our guide interpreting, we acquired our licenses and some snacks.  The building housed an assortment of gold panning and fishing products, and several older gentlemen that were clearly socializing before we walked in.  Our guide explained that these Sami folk were not unlike the inuits and native American peoples in that alcoholism runs rampant as a result of losing their way of life.

Once at the trail head we loaded two approximately 40 pound packs and hiked flat to downhill grades for a mile or so until we reached the Sotajoki River.  At the river we set up our base camp for the day at a nice lean to and fire pit.  With wood stored for all to use, our guide quickly had a fire burning to generate a mosquito smoke screen while we prepped the rods for fishing.  Around our temporary camp site were several different species of ants with one over an inch long.  I noticed a distinct lack of birds despite the nice forest all around us.  Our guide informed us that the birds don’t like the summer temperatures, even 70F.  But in the early morning and late day as temps are cooler they briefly appear.  The bird population in winter reduces to 30% of the summer and with the other 70% migrating to the African continent.

The Satojoki River was fairly shallow at about 1-2 feet in some areas and pools looking about 4 feet deep or so, the river widths ranged from about 20 – 100 feet across.  The crystal clear water moved fast at the narrow areas and formed nice pools at the widest ones. The river water is pure enough to drink from and it was cold and delicious -a risk  I would not take in many other parts of the world.  So far from civilization there was only the sound of the river flowing and the rustling of leaves in the slight breeze – tree talk is good and it’s not often you can completely escape all sounds of man.  The area was a prime example of a boreal forest.  The swampy nature of this forest during the summer was in full effect.  We were at the far reaches of this type of forest which lies just south of the tundra region.  Only the northern hemisphere has boreal forests.  The geography is fairly flat and one immediately notices that the trees, spruce and pine, are short with max growth in the 25-30 foot range.  The long winters and partial year darkness play significantly to the region’s flora growth characteristics.

While my son Connor and wife Leslie fished by the lean to, I began the miles trek south to pristine fishing grounds.  I had wanted to head where few go due to the hike in.  An hour up river I began sight casting about at brown trout (Salmo trutta, Linnaeous, 1758) that were incredibly wary.  Spin casting was the order of the day and a fast reel in was required at the far reaches of the opposite bank to avoid snagging underwater ferns that were ubiquitous along the river’s edge.  My spot of choice was just below a fast moving area that had pooling around several large boulders.  The pools in front of the boulders were dark but perfect spots for the trout.  The first hit was a tease followed by several more and then my first brown took the jig w a treble hook, she (later revealed by a lot of roe) jumped out up past her belly and swam hard up stream when back in her element.  With a good bend in the rod and drag set just right I started bringing her slowly but surely towards me, with intermittent burst of impressive strength while running the line back out and back and forth. Holding the rod back behind me (yup, forgot the net), I kneeled down and grabbed her through the gills.  As she exited the water her colors flared. I reached for the phone camera snap a picture.  Not knowing how the remainder of the fishing would be and wanting to bring back lunch I set to cleaning her.  I ripped off some fishing line and tied the gutted brown up along the river’s edge to keep her fresh.  An hour plus later I had caught and released 5 more beautiful browns and felt like I could set up camp and fish for days.

With my one prepped fish, I started the long trek back to the camp.  About 10 minutes out I figured I’d cast a few more times.  I brought another nice brown in and the guide spotted me so he was able to take a fish photo with my whole body mosquito protection coverings.  At the camp I found Leslie and Connor enjoying hot tea and sausages cooked on the fire.  I took to the river’s edge and gutted the second keeper while the guide put the first one on the grill for a tasty late lunch.  I presented the guide with the other fish which he readily accepted for his evening’s dinner.  Most of the trout I caught were by estimate in the 2-4 pound range, 18-24 inches and caught on 4 lb test.

The James Caird

T

The James Caird

By Brian K. Brecht & Rick Cleveringa

“It was April 20, a day notable for only one reason: Shackleton finally made official what everyone had expected for a long time. He would take a small party of five men and set sail in the Caird for South Georgia to bring relief.” – (Endurance, Alfred Lansing)

The telling of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, at no point, lacks for adventure, bravery or heroism. The entire experience from the launch at South Georgia and the entrapment in the ice, to the evacuation to the pack and the sledge across to Elephant Island, to the final 800-mile sea voyage back to South Georgia, every bit an amazing feat of human endurance.

It was this last section of the story, the journey in the James Caird, that lead Rick and I in the fall of 2016 to Dulwich College on the south side of London.

To set the stage, it was after finally landing on Elephant Island that Shackleton realizes, there would be no chance of any rescue party finding the crew. On that April day, “The Boss” chose the only remaining option, to sail across 800 miles of open Arctic sea in one of the three remaining lifeboats from the Endurance. The James Caird would take a small crew in an attempt to reach their original starting point of the whaling station on South Georgia.

The Caird was a 23-foot-long, double ended whaler weighing in at approx. one ton. She was the largest and most sea worthy of the six lifeboats carried by the Endurance. Only three boats, the Caird, the Dudley Docker, and the Stancomb Wills, remained from when the Endurance was finally crushed and sunk beneath the ice. All three having been drug across the ice by the crew with all the gear they could salvage before the Endurance went down. It would take some exceptional refitting work by the ship’s carpenter “Chippy” McNish to raise the gunnels and enclose the top of the boat for the journey. He fabricated a makeshift caulk using a mixture of seal blood and flour and enclosed the top using wood and nails taken from packing cases and the runners of the sledges. As an additional step, Chippy would strengthen the keel in an attempt to make the craft withstand the seas during the 800-mile trip.

The launching of the Caird from Elephant Island
Photo by Frank Hurley

The journey for Rick and I started after countless books and stories of the Shackleton expedition. During one of those telling’s came the discovery that the Caird itself, remained intact today, a proud display of Dulwich College in London. So, after some time planning and clearing of schedules, we found ourselves on the mainline train from Victoria to West Dulwich, an overwhelming sense of excitement building as the train drew us closer.

We turned into the Dulwich campus and were met by a surprisingly bold iron gate emblazoned with the Dulwich coat of arms. There was mild internal panic as we both thought, “god what do we do now, jump the fence?” All of which was quickly answered as a friendly gentleman walked out asking if he could help us.

I was so excited, you would have thought I was there to see the queen. I stumbled over my words, for some reason thinking “this guy is going to think we’re nuts coming here to see a boat”. I stammer out “we’re….we’re here to see the….” And he finishes my sentence “Oh the Caird? Of course, through the gate, and to the building with the clock”. The gate easily swung open allowing us entry.

We enter through an atrium connecting two buildings, turning right and head into the reception area. Small and cramped with a little seating, but a friendly woman named Sanja greets us with a warm smile. We introduce ourselves and in short order there are forms signed and badges festooned around our neck. We’re informed our guide will be with us shortly, and soon an energetic and friendly older gentleman comes in carrying a stack of school papers. He rushes in, says hello but asks for a moment to discard his papers in his office.

John Bardell is a professor at Dulwich but more importantly an enthusiastic supporter and follower of the Caird story. At the time we were there, John was the only person who gave tours of the Caird.

Professor John Bardell

Rick remembers: “There are introductions and handshakes and John is eager to get going. You never feel like this is a chore for him or that he doesn’t like doing it, but you certainly get the impression he’s a man on schedule”.

John smiles from under his glasses and we eagerly follow him in his light blue button up shirt and cross stripped tie. He is all manors, and even with his rapid pace you never feel rushed or that our presence in his day is an inconvenience.

As we walk from the main building John informs us he is one of the initial members of The James Caird Society, a group devoted to the preservation of the Caird and its story. We continue heading toward a large modern building with a glass enclosure prominently at its front. As we drawn near, we begin to see into the atrium through the glass and our pulse rushes as in an instant we recognize the Caird sitting proudly on display in the center.

We enter the building from the side and John explains the building, then just six months old, had been designed with “the little boat” as its center.  Through a few more doors and we enter the atrium and finally lay our eyes on the Caird.

The first shock is of course you assume the boat would be behind glass or well out of reach. But no, the Carid sits proudly in the center of the atrium, a metal guardrail encircling its base but not so far that you can’t reach right out and touch it, and we did just that.

John was a great sport, encouraging us to look at every angle of the boat, all the while elaborating on various facts and details about the Caird and the journey. In our excitement we’d finish his sentences or add details to John’s facts and he quickly realized we were truly interested and knowledgeable about the story. Rick commented that he saw a twinkle in John’s eye that said, “Oh these boys know their stuff”.

We discussed the hurricane force winds they sailed through, the constant bailing and being soaked by relentless spray. Their means of food being “Hoosh” heated in a primus stove wedged between two men’s feet. The more we knew, the deeper John would go with subtle details he wouldn’t have passed on to the average visitor. He glosses over some things saying, “of course you gentlemen know the story”, and precedes to give us a more interesting tidbit than perhaps what he was planning to give originally, always making us feel included in the discussion. With John this was a conversation not a lecture.

Rick commented, “there was a depth of detail as the tour continued. Details matter to John. When he gives us these little facts, it was like being given tiny secrets. This gave the visit an unexpected richness”.

It’s been said the Caird journey could be the greatest navigational achievement on the seas. Frank Worsley the Captain of the Endurance and chief navigator on the Caird, was unable to take more than a few sightings with his sextant during the voyage as the weather proved so overcast and stormy. He described one sighting as “…cuddling the mast with one arm and swinging fore and aft round the mast, sextant and all…” and he would “…catch the sun when the boat leaped her highest on the crest of a sea…”. How he was able to navigate to a small island in the middle of the arctic sea is astonishing.

In 1922 John Quiller Rowett, who had been financing Shackleton’s last voyage aboard the Quest (Shackleton–Rowett Expedition) donated the Caird to Dulwich College after Shackleton’s death. Rowett and Shackleton had been friends during their school days at Dulwich many years prior.

 In 1944 the Caird was damaged by German bombs during WWII but in 1967 the little boat was taken to the Nation Maritime Museum for restoration. She returned to the college in 1985 and has been on display there ever since.

For us it’s amazing the Caird still exists at all. John explains, the boat is of course all original and intact. However, when the boat was recovered, and during the various years it spent bouncing from one owner to another, the sails, and the top decking had disappeared. During the full restoration, the team took great pains to try and blend the reconstructed pieces to match the original workmanship from “Chippy” McNish.

The Dubley Docker mast nailed to the Caird keel.

John takes us to the second floor, so we can peer down into the hatch. He specifically wants to point out the round pole nailed to the keel, letting us know that it is in fact the original mast from the Dudley Docker which Chippy put in place to strengthen the keel on the Caird.

While we stood looking down into the keel, John hit us with another funny detail about how Chippy’s granddaughter had recently come to see the Caird. In repeating what she had told him, John leaned in discreetly saying “she said to me, ‘He was not a nice man”. Perhaps some of the stories of McNish’s rough personality were true.

We assumed having seen the Little Boat our time here was done. But John had a number of other things to show us before we left.

John walked us back into one of the older buildings called Lowee Hall. Lowee Hall was, as John explained the original location the Caird had been displayed.

Caird’s original main mast

Still on display here were other arctic relics from the Endurance voyage and others. The Caird’s original main sail was displayed on the wall, tattered and worn as you would have expected.

Sledges from the 1907 Nimrod expedition

In addition, two sledges from the 1907 Nimrod expedition hung beside it.

And in a case just below, a recreation polar suit like the kind Burberry’s had made in the day. This one having been used for the Kenneth Branagh film “Shackleton”.

Rick was in his element as he and John explore the polar maps on the wall, and diving deep into the subtilties of the route and distances crossed during all these expeditions. John is a willing instructor in these conversations.

The final stop along the tour was a more profound and subdued relic. Displaying proudly above the library door was the flag that had been draped over Sir Ernest’s coffin during his funeral on South Georgia.

Adding a final historical note from John, he told us Frank Wild, having been part of a number of arctic explorations and Shackleton’s second in command during the Endurance expedition, his final resting place had been located in a pauper’s grave

 in South Africa. When discovered, it was moved to South Georgia and placed to Shackleton’s right side, buried next to “The Boss”.

Union Jack that draped Shackleton’s coffin

Overall visiting the Caird was an amazing experience and a must-see for anyone who is passionate about the age of arctic exploration.  And it was wonderful to see the care and effort Dulwich has put into making sure this piece of history is available to the public.

Visiting the James Caird

To arrange a visit to see the James Caird contact:

reception@dulwich.org.uk.

The general public:

visits can be booked on Tuesdays in College term time between 9.30am and 11.30am (last admittance 11am) or between 2pm and 4pm (last admittance 3.30pm).

https://www.dulwich.org.uk/about/history/the-james-caird

The James Caird Society, a registered charity, was established in 1994 to preserve the memory and honor the remarkable feats and leadership of Shackleton.

Lord Shackleton, son of the explorer, was the Society’s Life President until his death in 1994. His daughter, the Hon. Alexandra Shackleton, has been President since l995. It was founded by Harding Dunnett and the current Chairman is Admiral Sir James Perowne KBE.

http://www.jamescairdsociety.com/

African Penguins

South Africa’s Penquins

By T Dietz

South Africa.  A semi-arid land with plateaus, coast and inland plains, and desert.  Not a topography you’d guess to find penguins – but indeed it is.  We found our team of intrepid explorers in Cape Town South Africa during the Southern Hemisphere winter – July.  Upon arriving in Cape Town from Dubai we would have a couple of days to explore the harbor city before heading up to Krueger.  Our first full day in Cape Town had us heading to Western Cape province and Boulders Beach part of the Table Mountain National Park.  Boulders is home to a colony of African penguins (Spheniscus demersus, Linnaeus 1758) or jackass penguins, due to the donkey-like braying sound they make.

The Boulders penguin colony established itself there in the early 1980s by two breeding pairs. African penguins are closely related to three other penguin species, magellanic (Spheniscus magellanicus, Forster 1781), Humboldt (S. humboldti, Meyen 1834), and the Galapagos (S. mendiculus, Sundevall 1871). The African species of penguin only reside in the waters around the south-west coast of Africa.  In addition to their black feet they are easily identified by their black face mask and the whitish-pink skin above their eyes.  This area is highly vascularized and involved in thermal regulation by acting as a heat exchanger.  The birds are also known as the “owls of the sea” due to their vision which can focus in and out of water and in low light conditions.

From an estimated population of 4 million in the early 19th century, there remains only about 50,000 of these endangered penguins and they face a high risk for extinction (estimated by 2030).  This penguin species decline has been largely traced to declining fish food stocks caused by overfishing and global ocean temperature rise. (Data source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2017)

Upon arrival at Boulders we traveled a complex of boardwalks that led us down to the colony. Once down a few stairs you come upon numbered nesting boxes made of fiberglass.  These burrow-shaped boxes are an attempt to better protect the rapidly declining population.  African penguins are monogamous, breed year-round and they lay their eggs in burrows dug in sand or guano, scrapes, or under boulders or bushes.  Many of the penguins have taken up residence in the boxes preferring them to their more natural method – and providing an added protection to their eggs.

There were lots of individual colony members on rocks and in the sand along the boardwalk.  Within a few feet in most cases.  They don’t mind nipping at fingers and its wise not to reach out as those beaks are designed to grab and gouge both fish and combatants.  The penguins generally appeared to ignore us as they went about their business.  As we reached the end of the boardwalk overlooking the beach we had a spectacular and close up view of the majority of the colony.  There were plenty of animated interactions among the penguins and several entering and exiting the ocean with various animated displays. 

African penguins have been known to remain at sea for up to four months.  Juveniles will move up to 1200 miles away from their birthplace and interestingly travel west if born on the east side or north if born from the west or south.  The penguins will generally return to their birth colony to breed themselves.  (Data source: The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 2017)

After our time with the penguins we headed further south about 30 minutes to the Cape Peninsula which includes Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope, the most south-western point of the African continent.  A beautiful rocky promontory that includes a powerful lighthouse that helps ships navigate around the cape.  Along the southern and southwestern cape coast is where the Atlantic and Indian oceans collide.

Sharks and 007

Of Sharks, Wrecks, and 007

By T. Dietz

 

Spring 2014 and we were all set for a summer adventure to Thailand.  And then, in May, the Royal Thai Armed Forces executed a coup d’etat.  The US State Department recommends against travel to Thailand.  Although it didn’t appear to be overtly dangerous, as this is not a too uncommon occurrence in Thailand, we opted to postpone the trip until the following year.  Where to go.  I’d always wanted to drive the Florida Keys and so a quick re-planning effort had us heading to south Florida and then on to the Bahamas.

Writing this now after all the hurricane devastation in south Florida and the keys leaves a sense of sadness for the folks making that part of the world home.  We wish them a speedy recovery.  Here I’m focusing in on our Bahamas diving experience, I don’t want to imply there wasn’t grand adventure in driving the keys, stopping all along the way at just super cool spots and spending time in Key West including Hemingway’s house and some spectacular fishing with my boys.

The Bahamas –  an area comprised of over 700 islands, cays and islets and was from 1718 a British colony that gained independent status in 1973 but retaining its Commonwealth status.  Nassau, the government seat is located on New Providence Island which is also where Stuart Cove’s dive outfitter is located.  It’s a special place in that thousands of famous and not so famous folks have dove from here.  There are lots of photographs, some with autographed thank you comments, on the wall highlighting many famous clients

Our first shark dive was at the Shark Wall.  This site is close to the Shark Arena where the sharks are fed so they mill around hoping for a feeding.  This provided lots of encounters from curious Caribbean reef sharks (Carcharhinus perezii, Poey 1876).  My boys had eyes wide as saucers as the sharks worked their way around us, never coming too close as they were focused on finding the free meal ticket.  Once back on the dive boat one boy couldn’t stop speaking about the encounter while the other one was dead silent – I wondered whether that one would head back down for the feeding.

As we approached the end of our surface interval (allowing nitrogen to be off-gassed before heading back under) one of the dive guides started suiting up from head to toe in heavy chain mail and what looked like an old motorcycle helmet.  This was going to be interesting.

The Shark Arena.  Stuart Cove runs an up-close encounter with dozens of Caribbean reef sharks.  The arena consists of a circle of rocks big enough for you to grap between your knees as you kneel on the sandy bottom.  The chain mailed guide has at his disposal a box containing fish chunks and a pointy ended spear to present fish with and to ward off too chummy sharks.  The boys and I found three rocks close together and remembered the warning to keep your hands in front of you on your body. Anything hanging out there could look like a presented fish chunk.

The dozens of Caribbean reef sharks and one nurse shark and one very larger grouper are clearly acclimated to this event.  They are highly motivated by the free meals being presented and enter and exit the circle with torpedo like speed, zooming in between the divers in the circle and over their/our heads.  In fact, the boys and I were “rubbed” several times as sharks swam by.

Nassau and New Providence Island where it is located are featured in two of the classic James Bond, 007, films, Thunderball, from 1965, and its remake Never Say Never Again, from 1983.  Part of Casino Royale, from 2006, was also filmed in Nassau.

Our next dives were on the James Bond Wrecks. A 92 foot freighter was obtained by the film studio and sunk.  This vessel became the Tears of Allah from Never Say Never Again.   In the very clear waters you can see the wreck immediately upon entering the water.  There are a number of openings in the hull including the famous torpedo holes that were cut into it for the movie.  Bond escapes from a tiger shark attack using the sunken vessel.  The marine life is plentiful on the wreck with lots of coral and fish both inside and out.  We entered the wreck through its deck and after some exploring exited through the torpedo hole. Below is a photo credited to Stuart Cove and highlighting the torpedo hole.

Before we headed in to see the Tears of Allah, we were given a compass heading from which to find another 007 wreck, the Vulcan bomber set from Thunderball.  In the movie, the evil SPECTRE hijacks atomic warheads from the plane. Just a few minutes swim off of the Tears of Allah’s bow we found a crude metal pipe structure covered in corals and teaming with fish.  This had been the internal architecture for the Vulcan bomber.  It originally had panels attached to give it the appearance of an aircraft but now it resembles more a jungle gym than anything else – it’s been called the monkey bars by many.  Despite its shortcomings, it was its provenance that provided the allure. Stuart Cove gets the photo credit for the Vulcan bomber.

 

 

Adventures in Africa

Wide Mouth

By T. Dietz

 

South African winter – 2009.   Africa, the continent of adventure, exploration, and of beginnings.  We shared a story a while back about influential books from our lives and one of those was “Wildlife in South Africa” 1947 by Col. J. Stevenson-Hamilton (Late Warden, Kruger National Park beginning in 1902).  I was finally here, on the continent, for an adventure that touched deeply my long desire for experiencing this storied and at times enigmatic land.

Our landing pad for this adventure was the private Sabi Sand Game Reserve adjacent to Kruger National Park.  An incredibly well-preserved wilderness that has been in the Bailes family since 1926 but only open outside the family since 1993.  Our mini lodge was unlike the moving tent safaris of British fame but offered an un-paralleled base camp experience. This trip had many moments of downright natural magic as anyone who’s been to Africa can attest.   Here, I highlight the rhinoceros (of Greek origin, rhino-nose and keras-horn) from the trip.

The White or square-lipped rhinoceros, Certotherium simum (Burchell 1817) is not white but gray, similar in color to the black or hooked-lipped rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis (Linnaeus 1758, Gray 1821). There is a much-repeated story that the origins of the White Rhino’s name emerged from an anglicized pronunciation of the Dutch word whyde or wijd (amongst other spellings) – the term used by African Dutch settlers to describe these square mouthed beasts.  However, there is no definitive account. According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Species Survival Programme, the African rhinoceros was first shot and described by Anders Sparrman in 1775 although these ungulates were observed and described during the time of the Dutch East India Company’s settlement of Cape Town beginning in 1652.  Burchell was also credited with discovering the white rhinoceros in 1817 and named it Rhinoceros siumus and not giving it a common name. John Barrow, a private secretary to the South African Governor George Macartney, spent from 1797-1803 in S. A. and published in 1801 his description of the white rhinoceros from observations taken in 1798. Several academic publications attempt to decipher the history of southern African rhinoceros classification, distribution and naming but historical and chronological gaps remain.  

The black rhinoceros name derivation is believed to have occurred as a way to distinguish it from the white rhinoceros and possibly from covering itself with mud from dark local soils. However, the most noticeable difference is the black rhinoceros’ prehensile lip providing it with the ability to feed on leaves and twigs from trees and bushes unlike the white rhinoceros whose mouth is adapted to feeding on grasses.  Black and white rhinoceros can interbreed and produce reproductively competent offspring.

The rhinoceros is the second largest land mammal behind the elephant.  Many folks might not realize that there are five species of rhinoceros and that not only Africa has or have had them but also North America, Europe and Asia. The total global count of the five species is now less than 30,000. Contrast this with counts over 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century (IUCN YE2015 estimates).

White rhinoceros (Certotherium simum, Burchell 1817); Africa; two horns; approximately 20,000 of the Southern White sub species which I saw C. simum simum but only 3 of the Northern White sub species C. sumum cottoni (all three are in captivity 2 females and one male)

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis, Linnaeus 1758, Gray 1821); Africa; two horns; approximately 5,000

Indian rhinoceros or Greater One-Horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis, Linnaeus 1758); Nepal and northeastern India; one horn; approximately 3,500

Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis, Fischer 1814); Borneo and Sumatra; two horns; furry and the smallest species – their coat helps them in high altitudes; approximately 100

Javan rhinoceros or Lesser One-Horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros sondaicus, Desmarest 1822); Java; one horn; rarest of all rhinoceros species and one of the rarest larger mammals on earth; approximately 60

Our Ranger explained that Krueger is a special place for rhinoceros. The National Park has played a pivotal role in the recovery efforts of the species.  White rhinoceros were extinct in the Nwatimhiri bush of Krueger by 1895 and the last one in the Lowveld (low field country) of Krueger by around 1896. The white rhino was relocated back to Kruger in 1961.  The last black rhino in Kruger was seen in 1936 but reintroduced in 1971 (Environmental Affairs Dept of the Republic of South Africa).

Encounter One

Krueger and the surrounding wilderness areas, including Sabi Sands, has very little rain in the winter allowing for better wildlife viewing through sparser vegetation.  The Land rover pulled up to a local watering hole so we could observe a pride of lions taking rest and refreshment. This was the first encounter with lions as well but I’ll save that for another time except to say it was mesmerizing to be so close to these fantastic animals.  The lions were lazing around the watering hole when you could see a young male become instantly alert.

There, coming through the bush, was a large female white rhino and her calf. I’ve seen lions and rhinoceros at zoos before but nothing can really prepare you for seeing them in their natural setting and you sitting feet from them out in the open.  Almost instantly, the male lion’s alertness passed along to the many females in the pride. And then just as quickly, the lions returned to a seemingly uncaring state. We had been expecting to the see the lions as the guide informed us that they had been at this spot for several days.  But the unexpected appearance of the rhino mother-calf pair added to the excitement. They were however, not in full view but rather half camouflaged by bushes. The pair appeared to ignore the presence of the pride about 50 feet off to their side as they approached the watering hole.

Rhinoceros have poor vision but impressive olfactory and auditory capabilities. One can easily observe their constantly changing ear direction in order to pick up potential threats.  African rhinoceros have no real natural predators other than man, however, they must protect their young from lions, hyenas, crocodiles, dogs and the like, and this is where their keen sense of smell is important as well as for understanding competitive rhino territory.  Also in the rhinoceros predator alert arsenal is their symbiotic relationship with the Red-billed oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus, Stanley 1814).  A bird that eats ticks off of the rhino and is hyper alert to danger.  Unfortunately, we saw no oxpeckers during the encounters we had with the white rhino.

The mother and calf were present at the watering hole for only a short time before disappearing back into the bush. It’s not surprising to see different wildlife sharing a watering hole.  The mother rhino clearly believed she could protect her calf in the presence of the lions. Rhinoceros hydration requirements are high and they must have access to water within their territory – which can range to around 5 square miles.  

 

Encounter Two

The next day we came upon a herd or “crash” of rhinoceros, several males, females and calves.  The bush and trees were a bit more crowed in the area we were observing from but, despite pushing ever slowly through the thicker bush with the Land rover for a better vantage point, we did not appear to disturb these magnificent creatures.  Now that we were in a clearer area, we could easily see the rhinos milling around several trees and with limited bush cover. The animals ranged from about 30 to 100 feet away.

Then, something other than our rover caught their attention and fast.  In a choreography of sorts, they began quickly backing rearward toward each other with the calves at the center.  Later at camp, our ranger discussed the rhino encounter and explained that the white rhino is known to circle up around their calves, facing outward to protect them.  The crash stood there in their hub and spoke formation snorting and kicking up a bit of dirt for at least 20 minutes. I only have an initial photo of the formation as I went to film mode for the remainder of the encounter.  We stayed and observed the tense behavior until they relaxed and tried to identify the root cause – to no avail.

Encounter Three

Back out on safari, we came across two different rhino settings.  The first of the day was another mother-calf pair that moved gracefully around a grass grazing area.  There was lots of nuzzling of the calf and lots of curiosity towards us from the calf. As we pulled within 50 feet of the pair, the calf became curious of our rover.  It took several back and forth trips before it chose to wander closer and closer and within 10 feet or so of the us. And then with its closest visit it returned quickly to its mother and chose not wander off again.  The mother rhino showed no sign of interest in us nor of her calf venturing near. Rhino young have better eyesight than their adult members but it appeared the calf was very much trying to scent us.

The white rhino is the largest of all the rhino species and they can move fast and with agility. When disturbed we saw not only the protection circle formed but burst of speed that kicked up quite a dust storm.  The white rhino can reach speeds of up to 40mph. In a more heavily bushed area we came upon about half a dozen rhino that became extremely agitated by the presence of a new comer (on left in the photo) to the group.  It elicited an interesting reaction of several of the group running hard and kicking up dirt in a broad circle and returning to face the new entrant to the area. And just as quickly as all the excitement ensued it ended with heads down and grazing resumed.  

Rhinos obviously use their horns for self-defense against not only predators but for dominance fighting during mating season.  We were not to see a male on male or female on female fight but watching the charging around one could easily see how things could turn deadly and quickly.  A rhino will charge hard at objects it feels are a threat. It’s been reported that among the black rhino population almost half of males and one third of females die from fighting each other.

In each encounter with not only the rhinoceros but with the other species observed I never once wanted to move on to see what’s next.  I’d have stayed all day observing, photographing, filming, drawing whatever animal we were near. I was grateful for each next encounter but leaving each one left a terrible feeling like I’d never see something so perfect again.  

I had not really given any thought as to why people on safari that ride in the trucks are not attacked by the predatory wildlife until we drove up very close to so much dangerous wildlife.  It is interesting that in all of our encounters we were effectively ignored by the vast majority of the animals – I’d say the elephants were the most attentive to our presence. It turns out that as a unit of people and vehicle the animal sees us as an entity so much larger than its usual prey or predatory threat it just ignores the object.  It also fits with making yourself look larger when confronted with say a mountain lion in the States. So, as they say, stay in the truck!

Finally, it’s wrong when speaking of the majestic rhinoceros to not at least mention their decimation at the hands of man – for their horns.  A substance made up primarily of keratin just like in your fingernails and hair, and to have been proven to have no medicinal value. I mention above the severe decline in the worldwide rhino population over the last 100 plus years.  

The demand worldwide remains incredibly high for the myth of magical and medicinal qualities from the horn. On the black-market rhino horns sell for more than gold by weight peaking several years ago at roughly $65,000/kilogram and believed now to have fallen to lower levels based upon the rhinoceros plight.  The demand is still great as amply demonstrated by a brazen killing of a rhinoceros for its horns by criminals at a Paris zoo in early 2017. It has been illegal to buy or sell rhino horn within South Africa since 2009.

Irish Heritage

Kissing the Blarney

By Brian K. Brecht

 

It’s was a beautiful Irish day as we cruised across the N72, leaving Annascaul and the Dingle Peninsula, on the western side of Ireland in county Kerry. Two hours ago, we left Inch beach in bone chilling cold and blowing ocean mist. Now, with a harrowing navigation through the Blarney town square and being the cause of a minor traffic jam, we pull into the parking lot of Blarney Castle in warm sunshine and 60 degree temps. The sun is out and I was more excited than you’d expect to be here.

The history of the Blarney Stone is well known; I’d argue by many other than those of us of Irish decent. According to legend, the stone has a rich history and rumored to be many things. Possibly the Stone of Ezel behind which David hid from King Saul, having been brought back to Ireland from the Crusades. It’s also said to be “Jacob’s Pillow, brought to Ireland by the prophet Jeremiah, the oracular throne of Irish Kings. Or that it was given in gratitude to Cormac MacCarthy, King of Munster as a gift from Robert the Bruce after MacCarthy’s support of him at the Battle of Bannockburn. Regardless of its multiple origins, the tale goes that a witch, having been saved from downing by one of the MacCarthy’s, professed “that if he would kiss a stone on the castle’s top, he would gain a speech that would win all to him”.

Having had Grandparents who instilled a proud Irish heritage within the family, it was always a story I heard and something that always remained in the back of my mind.

When my grandfather finally retired, my Grandparents Ray and Dorothy began a wonderful “Senior Citizen” travel plan, seeing things across the globe they never thought they’d experience. Grandpa, again a VERY proud Irishman, always wanted to see Ireland and in 1985 it finally happened. There were wonderful stories from their trip, but it was a photo of my Grandmother that stuck with me over the years.

There she was, at the time being 75 years old, stretched over backward kissing the fabled stone. If anyone knew my Grandmother, you could believe she was granted the gift of eloquence.

For Rick and I, this trip was about achieving things we’d wanted all our lives, and seeing the things which had inspired us during our time together as friends and brothers. I was proud of the fact that at 50 I was seeing things that my grandparents hadn’t been able to see until their retirement years.

So while planning this trip, I coaxed Rick into the idea that on the way back to Dublin we’d stop by Blarney Castle. I don’t think he really understood my deep desire to do this, but as ever, it didn’t matter. It was all about the adventure.

Blarney Castle sits inside what is now a beautifully manicured 60-acre park. With paved paths, close cut lawns, and perfectly trimmed trees, I’m sure the grounds don’t look anything at all like what they appeared in 1446 when Cormac MacCarthy build the third structure on this site, what is now Blarney Castle. Rick and I purchased our tickets and began the lovely stroll through the grounds, stopping to toss some stones into the peaceful stream along the path, all the while seeing the stone edifice of the castle in the near distance.

One of the things Rick and I appreciated the most was the state of the castle itself. Having spent the week seeing all the restored and polished history, we loved that this castle was a ruin. Walls had not been repaired, floors remained missing, the remains of what once was is evident and powerful. There is no polish here, so what you get is a real example of the fortress this castle used to be.

We get to the top of the rock outcropping the caste is built on, and begin following the signs to the Blarney Stone itself. The path winds you through the various passages and up the four to five floors that once nested inside the walls of the stronghold. Some areas still have sections of floor in place, others, you find yourself staring into the void where perhaps a grand hall or private bedchamber once existed. I began to quickly realize, the narrow walkways and steeply worn steps could very easily be treacherous. Obviously at that moment we were in no real danger, but I couldn’t help but think, “Wholly shit! My 75 year old Grandmother did this?!” Even after all these years I was still finding things that amazed me about my Grandmother.

Climb, climb and more climbing, after 127 steeply worn steps, we found ourselves atop the battlements of Blarney Castle. I was happy we didn’t find some teeming mass of cranky tourists. By the time we reached the top it was just an older couple and us. They went through the ritual and then finally it was my turn, I was really here.

The process to kiss the legendary stone is simple. You walk up, you lay down, you lean back, you kiss, you get up. But in its early days, there was a real danger to kissing the Stone. These days there are iron rails to grab on to and an iron grate right below to ensure no one actually falls through; after all you are 130+ feet in the air. But I have to say; I secretly wished those didn’t exist. What’s the point of the adventure without some danger? Nonetheless, I reverently went through the process.

You could tell the elder gentleman sitting assisting folks in the process, must have found this monotonous. He had a set speech he gave, mindlessly as though it was second nature. It was so fast and he had such a thick accent I couldn’t really catch what he was saying but it was the same each time and obviously something he said day in and day out. “Lay back, hands on the bar, lean back……. back further……, back further…..back fur… there you go, kiss the stone, up you go”. It seemed silly but again was all part of the charm.

So there I was. I laid down, I leaned back…. leaned further back, …. and back still, kissed the stone, gave it a good one cuz, you know, I’m the only one who’s ever done this, pulled up, and I was done. And there I was, having been granted the gift of eloquence. I was sure I felt different,…didn’t I?

Honestly, I did feel different. Perhaps not from an old Irish legend, but because I knew I had been in the exact same place my Grandmother had been some 31 years prior. And I was there with one of my best friends, who like me found meaning in following the footsteps of history and my Grandmother.

We took a little more time among the battlements, grabbed some photos of the grounds but then it was down and on the road. We needed to get to Dublin by evening as Trinity College and the Book of Kells waited for us tomorrow.

But today, I closed a chapter I had been mentally reading since childhood. And I did something that for me, perhaps fulfilled a little family history of my own. Perhaps something one of my girls might repeat some day.

 

 

“There is a stone there, that whoever kisses,

Oh! He never misses to grow eloquent:

‘Tis he may clamber to a lady’s chamber,

Or become a Member of Parliament.”

 

Lava Beds

 

Lava Beds

By T. Dietz

 

Having flown a good part of the skies over California, I had yet to explore the northeastern reaches of the State. With a clear outlook I took off in the T206 to investigate, at least by air, one of our Nation’s least visited National Parks, Lava Beds National Monument.

A smooth hour and half (approx.) flight brought me into the northeastern portion of the Cascade Range. We’d been having snow in the higher elevations on the front end of our predicted El Nino weather pattern and mountain tops stood out white in sharp contrast to the green forests.

There was no need to hunt in trying to find the lava flows. They were amazing in their size and the way they blanketed the landscape.

The photos show some of the cinder cones, lava flows and pit craters that exist here. But the park also has examples of spatter cones, lava tube caves, and fumaroles, amongst some of the best examples of textbook volcanic activity. The area has been the site of significant volcanic eruptions for the last half-million years.

In addition the park has examples of glass flows and one of America’s Prisoner of War camps where Japanese Americans were sequestered during WWII.

The lava beds were also the site of the only Indian war (the Modoc War of 1872-73) fought in California. The Modoc Indians held up in a natural lava fortress fighting ten times their numbers in US Army troops for five months. Native American petroglyphs are preserved in the monument.

The fly over was a visual delight and a quick landing in the town of Malin set the stage for another flight to take advantage of the opportunity to explore a few (25 are open for exploration) of the more than 500 lava tube caves.

The Tongariro Crossing

 

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

By T. Dietz

 

Darkness – there are varying degrees. On this night, 27 June 2017, it was a darkest night and we were in the last one third of a three and a half hour drive from KatiKati near the Bay of Plenty, on New Zealand’s North Island to the Tongariro National Park (TNP) in central NZ. The we here is my wife Leslie, and sons Connor and Colin. I strained my eyes for what seemed like a never-ending drive using only low beams in a fog. Other than the not so occasional dead possums on the road that my headlights picked up, I could not make out any real distinguishing landmarks.

We arrived late at the Park motel, one of the few places to stay in TNP, and checked-in with a very quiet Kiwi behind the desk. Back out into a cold, 20F, moonless night we headed to extremely sparse but clean and comfortable rooms. Our goal for this adventure was the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, considered one of the world’s top one day treks.

As soon as we off-loaded our bags in the rooms, I put on a warm hat and started to leave. “Where’re you going?” my wife said, questioning my heading back out into the cold night. “Outside for some dark sky” I replied. It was cold, we were at about 2,600’ and the pitch black-moonless night of our drive remained. I knew I’d get to see the Milky Way clearly by walking to a spot that blocked the light from the sodium-vapor lamps around the motel. Not just that wispy, smoke-like white river in the sky I’ve seen before, but this view had dense purples and pinks like I’ve only ever seen in photographs. Not even during my time in Africa have I seen this intensity. 20 minutes later I headed back in to rally all the troops to follow me back out into the cold to behold the universe, and they did and they were wowed. Mission accomplished. Leslie even got a fantastic photo of the Crux or Southern Cross. The density of stars made it difficult to pick out Virgo, Jupiter and Saturn, all of which were on the menu this night.

Back in the room I sorted and checked through the required gear for our trek and loaded up my pack, Colin doing the same. We rose excited and easily at 0600 on a cold and dark morning, rechecked the gear, filled the hydration packs, and I put on my son Cooper’s watch. Colin and I headed outside in the 18F crisp air to await our pre-arranged transfer ride to the trek’s start. The very few cars in the lot had a thick frost on their windshields giving them that freeze-dried appearance.

Tongariro is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the fourth national park established in the world. The Park borders on Lake Taupo, a lake resulting from the eruption of the Taupo Volcano, a super volcano. According to the Geological Society of New Zealand and several other sources, Taupo Volcano eruptions are some of the largest the earth has seen in modern geological times. Lake Taupo resides in the super volcano’s caldera from an eruption (the Oruanui eruption) about 26,000 years ago.  At the heart of Tongariro are active volcanos having erupted as recently as 2012 – Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe, and Mt. Tongariro.

We chose to have a guide (Josh) accompany us on the trek despite the good weather, principally to enjoy hearing about the history, myths, geology and biology of this magical place. This trek would offer more than just spectacular vistas and adventure.   It would allow for some important adventure time with my youngest son.

We were a bit over-geared up but smart for doing it. Weather can turn quickly on the trek. When we started, the temps were in the low 20’s(F) and it climbed slowly to the mid 30’s(F). Perfectly clear skies at the start were followed by a slow cumulous build up over the course of the day. The weather can be very unpredictable in the winter so we were well prepared despite the great outlook. Our guide indicated he has been on several rescues of folks that have inadequate clothing or fallen because they started on a nice day that quickly turned poor.

The trek launched at the Mangatepopo parking area where we were greeted by a dramatic pink and orange colored sunrise. With the rising sun, the morning highlight was snow-capped Mt. Ruapehu to our South. We would have a couple from Japan with us but not for long. With day packs secured and layers on for the cold start we headed out to a flat expanse with imposing volcanoes straight ahead. We had heard there would be a group of about 20 hikers behind us so we started out at a fast clip to create distance and isolation. Josh encouraged us to move at our own pace but wait at the base of Devil’s Staircase, Soda Springs. The roughly flat, platformed track had several thinly frosted-over streams crisscrossing underneath and glistening frost-coated scrub brush was all around.

Dominating our forward view was Mt. Ngauruhoe. For Lord of the Rings fans, Mt. Ngauruhoe was Mt. Doom in the movies. The imposing mountain remained in our view until our decent down from the Red Crater. Climbing Ngauruhoe would be for another time. It’s an ascent that takes about 2 hours and a descent that can be only 20-30 minutes. The track we continued on gradually started to climb as we approached Soda Springs and the last relief facility for a few hours.

Here at Soda Springs we parted ways with the Japanese couple. Colin and I took our time stripping off layers, hydrating and anxiously waiting to get climbing. When Josh and the Japanese couple showed up they were already in distress from the hike so far. We would need to leave them behind, to be united with another team coming up later, and a decision made for them to turn back or complete the journey. They ultimately decided to go forward and arrived about 4 hours behind us.

Colin, Josh and myself attacked the Devil’s Staircase with speed (at least at the start).

This steep, one hour plus climb has a combination of wooden stairs, rock stairs, rock cuts, chain grabs and pulls, and volcanic rock paths all to assist in the climb. About 30 minutes into the climb my legs were getting heavy and breathing heavier. Colin forged quickly ahead while Josh and I hung back for a few minutes. Another 40 minutes or so that included 3 more stops, had me at the top with Colin who was resting comfortably and informing me of his 20 minute lead. Watching Colin taking in the views with eyes and camera, I knew he was enjoying himself.

Over the course of the climb and as we approached the top of the Devil’s stairway, the large volcanic boulders gave way to a field strewn with much smaller volcanic rock.

We then followed the ridgeline up and to the north to our highest point of the day, Red Crater Summit at 1,886m (6,187ft). Standing at the summit and on the south end of Red Crater we could see the varied, volcanically active, landscapes all around us. It felt like it was a trek of discovery as so many are for the first time. Although thousands have trekked here before it was ours that day. In fact, the crossing can see thousands of people in a single day during the summer but we had few and in sections none to contend with. I peppered Josh with geologic and biologic questions to which he stood up quite well. This remarkable, other worldly landscape was captivating and it becomes clear why the Maori peoples sought myths and stories to describe this place.

Josh told us of a Maori legend of an epic battle of the mountains where Mt. Taranaki wanted the beautiful Mt. Pihanga all to himself. Mt. Tongariro won his love in an epic battle by erupting in anger. Mt. Phihanga, Tongariro’s love laid down in Lake Taupo after the battle and upon seeing her reflection refused to leave her spot. If you look closely in the photo below you can see her lying face up in the waters of the Lake in the background. Mt. Taranaki’s fate was worse. He cried in despair and uprooted himself leaving the other mountains and gouged a deep trench on his departure. The gouge’s depths were filled by waters from the remaining mountains and formed the Whanganui River.

While taking in the view of Red Crater and the surroundings, we had our first strong sulfur smell from the volcanically active area.

We could see others making their way up the Devil’s Staircase and anticipated they would stop for lunch at the Red Crater Summit. From there we took the short but steep descent down to the Emerald Lakes.

The Emerald Lakes – I felt like walking into a picture as I had viewed the lakes many times online in preparing for our trip. They are quite a sight in person with active fumaroles nearby highlighting the landscape with white steam. Colin took a few minutes to throw a fairly large sized rock into the first and largest lake, only to find it bounce as it hit clear, thick ice covering the green/blue mineral colored water. A second pointed rock dislodged by Josh and tossed by Colin found itself impaled in the ice to
everyone’s satisfaction.  I chose to use my trekking poles to ease the descent down to the Emerald Lakes and after a time, northward for the trek across the edge of the Central Crater plateau. The track then ascends to Blue Lake. The Central Crater highlights lava flows that emanated from Red Crater long ago. The scoria, a dark and highly textured volcanic igneous rock, was loose and unstable on the descent and resulted in more sliding then walking.

Blue Lake feels like an isolated place as the volcanic prominences keep it isolated from other views on three sides. The lake is an acidic body and sacred to the Mauri peoples. It’s disrespectful to touch the Lake’s water or eat/drink at its shores. We took a brief respite away and above the Lake to fuel up and enjoy the view. From Blue Lake we continued around the west side to an ascent to North Crater and its level lava surface. Here a whole new vista presents itself as you can view Mt. Pihanga, Lake Rotoaira and Lake Taupo.

As we zigzagged our way down to Ketetahi Hut we encountered new fumaroles created by one of the 2012 Mt. Tongariro eruptions. The Temaari craters on Mt. Tongariro’s northern slope erupted. The August eruption had flying rocks while a November eruption produced only an ash cloud. Expert advice for a trekker if there is an eruption while on the track – RUN don’t hide!

 

The August eruption produced volcanic rock that pummeled the surrounding area with one rock going straight through the roof and a bunkbed at Ketetahi Hut. Luckily no one was staying there that day. From the Ketetahi Hut we continue the descent adjacent to Ketetahi Springs and private land that Josh explained contains a scared hot spring that is off-limits except for Maori priests who use it to wash deceased priests. Its easily an hour and a half down from these springs to the car park so it must be quite an undertaking to bring a body up to and back from the sacred springs.

On the descent we crossed paths with two volcanologists, one with a very heavy looking equipment pack, on their way up from the car park. A brief conversation revealed they were on their way to take readings with their test equipment from one of the newer fumaroles. We continued the descent on the well-kept route down to the Mangatetipua Stream. Until we met native lowland forest again, the trek until that point had been devoid of observable wildlife. We were finally hearing bird sound and as Josh pointed out the New Zealand Bellbird [Anthornis melanura (Sparman 1786)] in particular. He mentioned that many more birds used to be around but that possum and rat predation has taken a toll on their numbers.

As we approached the last 45 minutes of the trek we came across a lahar hazardous area. I was unfamiliar with a lahar by name but not its devastating potential. A lahar is a volcanic mudflow or debris flow that can, with the strength and consistency of wet concrete, take out most obstacles in its path and can move quite quickly. Josh informed us that a lahar from this area caused a train to fall into the Whangaehu River on Christmas eve in 1953 taking 151 souls.

 

 

We finally arrived at the Ketetahi car park for pick up. A bit tired and toe sore mostly from the downhill but also a bit sad that this adventure had come to an end.   We had finished the 19.4km (12.06mi) trek in 6 hours 15 minutes and traversed almost 2,100m (6,890ft). Colin of course pointed out that he could have shaved at least an hour off of the time if he hadn’t had to wait for me on the climbs. On the van ride back to the Park Hotel I asked Colin what were the highlights of the day. “everything, except I didn’t get to use my ice axe”. He then said “Pop, would you climb Denali with me for my 18th birthday”. I smiled and said “I’ll try”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Corvallis flying and Col. James McPherson

 

Corvallis flying and Col. James McPherson

by T. Dietz

 

 

Colonel James (Jim) McPherson (USAF, Ret.)

1992 and with a year remaining of my National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I uprooted once again and headed to Oregon State University in Corvallis. I was to continue working with the eminent biochemical adaptation expert, Dr. George Somero who was taking an endowed Chair in the Department of Zoology.

Not wanting to miss any flying time, I discovered the OSU flying club headquartered out of the Corvallis Municipal airport (KCVO). Immediately, I hooked myself up with a check out in the club’s high (Cessna 172), and low wing (Mooney M20C) planes.

From that day I distinctly remember meeting Colonel McPherson who, at the time, I did not know was a Colonel (Ret.). Jim stands about 5’5” and is one of those men who instantly commands respect. He was genuinely friendly but with an incredible air of authority. My memories of that day however are co-mingled with the many flights we spent side by side, learning lessons of flying, hard work, respect, integrity, courage, and much more. I spent enough time with Jim that when I left Oregon for the Bay Area, I knew I had a friend and mentor for life. We stayed in close contact over the years, through letters, emails and the occasional visit in California or Oregon. He followed my career with great interest and a highlight was Jim writing an incredible recommendation for me to the astronaut selection program. It cannot be said enough, I respected the hell out this man.

It had been some time since I had seen Jim, so with all those great memories in mind, a trip was planned.

Sunday night: Flight planning for the trip to Corvallis in our Cessna T206. I had two routes mapped out, one at 388nm and another at 400nm depending on weather in the mountains. I planned for 10,500 feet, about 3 hours of flying, 50 gallons of fuel, and activated the engine pre heat system for the night.

Monday: After another weather briefing we (Leslie and I) were “wheels up” at 8:30amPDT and headed for Corvallis, the most Western U.S. City in the lower 48. With clear skies and visibility unlimited, we opted for the quicker route heading directly up to Fort Jones, Oregon, then over Medford and Eugene, arriving with almost a straight line into Corvallis. We climbed quickly to 10,500’ with air traffic control flight following for the journey.

Considering the weather had been in a warming trend, we were a little surprised to see snow on the lower elevation peaks in the Snow Mountain Wilderness area (7,000’), the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness area (8,100’) and the Trinity National Forest (7,700’). Alternatively, we fully expected to see Mt. Shasta (14,170’) in full winter wear and were not disappointed. The entire Cascade range was in its full spectacular glory, a sight that you can not appreciate until you’re just a few miles away at eye level with the “White Mountain”.

As you fly in it’s vicinity, you remember, Shasta has the potential to be active, being about 200 years into a 6-800 year active cycle. It’s comprised of 4 overlapping volcanic cones and one of its seven named glaciers, Whitney, was the first glacier discovered and named in the U.S.

The weather and sun also highlighted the other prominent peaks in the Cascades. Above Mt. Shasta and starting in Oregon – Mt. McLoughlin (9,495’), followed by “The Three Sisters” (10,370’), Mt. Hood (11,249’), Mt. St. Helens (8,365’) and Mt. Adams (12,281’). We tried to convince ourselves we also saw Mt. Ranier (14,410’).

We touched down in very uncrowded space at KCVO, with only one Japanese student helicopter pilot gearing up for a training flight. Post landing we refueled, put the bird undercover for the duration and caught a taxi to the inexpensive, but centrally located, University Inn. By this time I too needed refueling, so we caught some lunch and tried to craft a plan to visit some of the local Wilamette Valley vineyards. Unfortunately all closed on account of it being Monday. Oh well. We next set out on foot to visit my old haunting grounds of Oregon State University. Although I’d been up to Corvallis in the interim, I hadn’t been on campus for over 20 years.

 

After our bucolic walk to campus, through the turn of the century Victorian homes, we were astonished by the growth. In fact, the student population has grown from around 13,000 when I was there to over 30,000. The campus infrastructure had grown to match, so my curiosity got the better of me and we mapped our way to the old Department of Zoology (now Integrative Biology) in Cordley Hall. Surprisingly, not much has changed in this old building. Pushing a door off the lobby we were confronted with magical cabinets filled with old bird taxidermy on display. Not great lighting but I had to take some photos.

As we approached the picture board of faculty, I was drawn to two faces, Dr. Barb Taylor and Dr. Art Boucot.

With little trepidation, we headed to Barb Taylor’s office and pleasantly surprised her. She recognized me right away, and that started a fantastic 3-hour visit where we got caught up on personal lives, science, politics and travel. The other faculty member I hankered to see was the eminent Dr. Art Boucot. I soon found out he passed away this past April. Art was/is a legend in the world of paleontology, a prolific scientist and author elucidating for the world the rules and patterns of evolution and extinction. Art’s office was across from mine at OSU and I was fascinated by him. Despite his general grumpiness, I was allowed to roam through his extensive fossil collections, giving us significant time discussing old school versus new school science and the history of life on the planet. I was also privy to several of his ongoing combative correspondence with the famous paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould. Art knew of my passion for flying and revealed that he’d been a navigator on B-24 liberators earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal and other commendations. The Boucot Plateau of the Geologist Range in Antarctica is named for him.

Walking from campus, we headed to the River for cocktails and dinner. Les indulged in an original Hemingway daiquiri while I worked my way through 3 single malts (Macallan 12, Bowmore 12, and a Highland Park 12). After a great meal of tapas we headed back to the University Inn.

Tuesday: Up and at ‘em, we met Bill Dougherty for breakfast. Jim had introduced me to Bill soon after joining the flying club. Bill was already a tenured faculty member and one of the youngest, not to mention a brilliant scientist with a hankering for adventure. Our introduction came about with Jim thinking it would be great for Bill to have me ride in the right seat, learning tips and sharing expenses. Of course Jim was right, Bill and I would become good friends, spending countless hours in the cockpit flying all over Oregon night and day. A free spirit, Bill gave up the “comfy” academic life and became a hugely successful car parts maven back in North Carolina. Bill had flown in for his annual Northwestern fishing trip and it was Bill who organized our joint visit with Jim.

As we approached Jim and his wife Patsy’s front door, I had mixed feelings about seeing him on the very far side of life. But the instant he opened the door and saw Bill and then looked past to me, with instant recognition and a broad smile, only good emotions flowed. Jim knew Bill was coming but we hadn’t told him I’d be along as weather could have gotten in the way of the flight, and we didn’t want to disappoint. He said he had a feeling I’d be along and he was thrilled Leslie came as well.

 

Col. James K. McPherson (USAF, Ret.) was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, 1955. He was the commander of the 559 Flying Training Squadron from June 1972 to June 1974. Taking over the Squadron with its conversion from a combat and training unit, to an instructor training squadron for both U.S. and friendly nation instructor crews, it has a proud history dating back to 1941. Prior to this assignment, Jim was a fighter pilot in numerous jet fighters, and after being shot down in combat, wrote a manual on how to bring a damaged jet to ground.

We spent a couple of hours catching up with Jim, who was a very active participant. Unfortunately, Patsy was not able to really converse with us. Jim offered Bill and I some books and one on the Rheinbeck aerodrome hit home as it was where I had my first exposure to small planes. Although I really wanted the book I felt that his son Jimmy should have the collection and said as much stepping away and worried I’d hurt his feelings.

We then spent another couple of hours at lunch where Jim recounted a few good flying stories and a few military administrative nightmares, all good stuff. I was clear we wouldn’t have a lot or even one more gathering all together. We then had the difficult task of saying goodbye but we still grabbed a picture for the album. Not even the Colonel could keep his emotions completely in check which made it even more difficult a parting. Jim looks great in this photo but it didn’t capture (happily) his frailty. Oh, and he did not like my beard – not one bit at all.

Back to Corvalis Muni for a preflight briefing, inspection and oil top off. We planned for 11,500’ and 3:45 minutes (a 14kt headwind was neither desirable nor helpful) on a straight line back to the Bay Area. I’d have a lot of time to think about the visit, Jim and Patsy, and how fleeting our time is here. We launched at around 3pm and as we got to Medford and the mountains, we encountered building cumulous and light/moderate turbulence. To save fuel and time I had my climb as fairly shallow at 300 ft/min. But by the time we got to 9,500’ I would have gone up to 13,500’ to clear the clouds. With that we opted to stay at 9,500’ and head toward Shasta/ Redding to get better weather and lots of “outs’ for the remainder of the flight. Although a little longer, we picked up a tail wind west of Redding and managed to wheels down in 3:20 despite an extra 20nm of flying. I also lost my digital turbine induction temperature probe about an hour or so into the flight (despite being new) but had a back up in the ship’s original gauge.

I’ve since had a touching email exchange with Jim re the visit and we both thanked each other for our time together.

I’ll say it again; I respect the hell out of that man.

 

 

 

The Alaska Papers – Part 4

North to Alaska

The Alcan Highway – Part 4

By Rick Cleveringa

(*You can revisit our previous posts to this journal here: Part-1,  Part-2, & Part-3)

***PART FOUR: The Alaskan Papers**

Day 8

Spice girls

The Jeep was in need of an oil change. I looked around online for a place, but up here oil changes were up to $80. No way! I find a Sears that changes oil for $40 so I drive over first thing in the morning. In the waiting room are four other people, all locals waiting on their cars. A younger woman runs in from outside, she is frantic and says, “They took all my money and left me here, those god damn bastards! I need to use your phone!” She is screaming this to the Sears employee dressed in his gray and red shirt at the counter. All of us are looking at the show. She picks up the phone, says a few expletives and cries; she slammed the phone down hard and says “I have no money!” She runs out, and the guy opposite of me is watching this close. I say “here is your chance to be a hero and help her”. He was a kind faced man with curly brown hair about 35. He said “She talked on the phone without dialing a number”. “Really?” I said. “Yea, I don’t know what it is about this corner but it is filled with scammers. You will see them all over here”, Jon said.

Jon is a nurse and tells me about the drug problem up there. The homeless issues in the city, and a drug named Spice. He was not even sure what it was yet. It can wreck a pretty face and a person in a few months of use. Jon was self proclaimed part Eskimo he told me, saying “I was proud of it as a kid, but I see a real problem with the people who get kicked out of their villages up North because of alcohol and end up here in the city on the street”. I agreed having seen a lot of them here. A sad state of being when walking in the two worlds. Jon and I both are of the two worlds but walk in one tread or the other. We spoke till my Jeep was ready. I have found over the years of road travel, if you want to meet the people who really live in a place, do common things.

I left the shop and on the first corner was a young native guy in his 20’s still fucked up from last night’s revelries. He is in bad shape, cardboard sign in his shaking hands. I roll down the window and ask if he was hungry? “Yea” He said and I handed him the last of my beef jerky. He said thanks and went off the street to the grass. He sat down and opened the bag and reached in. The light turned green and I drove off. none of that made me feel better. The number of natives that you see as just human wrecks is astonishing. Later that day I walked into a food line on the street, for a moment I did not understand why they were handing out food. Ah street food I thought, hey this is a cool city. I got in line. When I saw no money exchanged and the shape of the people in the line I kept walking hoping no one noticed me. I could see the woman passing out the food eye me up. Hey I really don’t look much different, hell I may not be that different.

Anchorage is a city of extremes, even the architecture. Next to a 10-story building there can be a tiny one-room log cabin. It’s a city with a love hate relationship, mostly I was still loving it.

For some reason I had to see Earthquake park, it must have been the name? It was a fine park on the coast I guessed, within 2 minutes of stopping the Jeep I decided I did not need or want to be there. I drove back to town and head down the Seward highway for a ride. I had no idea where I was going, now this was more like it. The drive along the coast was priceless; eagles are flying overhead along the cliffs. In the ocean I see some behemoth rise from the water, blow off and one more leviathan break the water behind the first. What the hell was that? If I had a guess I just saw a whale? A pair of whales in fact! Jesus how cool! I pull over to a lookout spot. Two women with field glasses are looking out into the ocean. I ask what they are looking for. “Oh we just saw a Beluga whale”. “Hey I saw that! Actually there were two!” My heart just sores. The animals I have seen in the wild this trip has just blown me away. This drive has been best zoological trip in my life, now I have the feeling of being full. The feeling of this coming to a close is seeping in on me. I start to ponder the drive back, the miles, the car food, the hours, and the bugs on the windshield, shit I have to do it all over. Its getting time to go, Lets do one last thing before I leave.

“My heart where’s that medicine?” HST

 The travel brochure from the motel said Flattop Mountain is a nice 3-hour hike. By the time I get back to Anchorage it is late in the afternoon. There will be daylight for hours so I may have time to do a quick hike. The drive to the mountain is tricky and you find yourself in a neighborhood, the grand houses here all built on the hillside. They are all new and shiny with spectacular views out to the Cook Inlet. After a few creative turns I find the parking lot, pay the fee to park and see the trailhead to Flattop. This trail is paved and on a slight incline, shit I flag quickly. My heart is pounding like a rabbit in a death grip. The trail comes out of the pines and I see a hill up the way. Is that it? That’s not that bad, but I am breathing like a marathon runner. OK I can make this grassy hill, forcing myself up and onward. It is apparent that this hill is not Flattop. Beyond this first crest I see the next challenge and behind that a real ass mountain. “That cannot possible be it? I say. There are kids, dogs and families returning. Hey I am a flat lander and that is a serious mountain. There is snow on the peak; I’ll never make that. Get it together, let just keep working our way up to the next hill.

The brochure said it was 1.7 miles and 1300 feet of elevation in a moderate to difficult skill level. I pressed on and got a second wind. All those days, months and years of sitting at my desk, all that inactivity is fucking me now. All that brain rot for a soulless company had taken a toll on my body. At work I daydreamed of such adventure, here I was and completely unprepared. Push on, just go to that fence up there and turn around, keep going, just make it to the big rock and turn around. Once at the fence I pushed to the big rock. From the rock I made the next landmark, taking much time and resting when my lungs ached. An hour later somehow I was up into the snowy part, the last few hundred feet was straight up. The path became unclear and hikers made their own trails through the rocks. The path is over large boulders and loose stones and patches of snow, it is the most difficult part by far. It was hands and knees climbing. I struggled, I rested, and I fucking made it. I really made it. This 1.7 mile was far harder then the Half dome hike, or I had deteriorated even father in that year? No matter, I was there, standing next to the American flag, the flag was popping as it waved in the strong wind.

The top of Flattop

At the summit I have some lanky students take my photo, proof was necessary, even if it was just for myself. The view was spectacular, you could look 360 degrees down to Cook Inlet, to the city, to the higher range and trail cut in the snow behind. Feeling pretty damn good about it, the idea of hiking on into the mountain range floats around in my mind. This is when you need your pals to egg each other on, or, talk some sense into each other. Though its sunny right now, it is cold and windy. I have a tiny bit of water left in my pack, no food and there is no help beyond this point. Ok settle down. I spend some time in the wind exploring the great flat area the mountain that it is named from. There are a few rock shelters dry stacked and an Inukshuk or two around. Just stand there with me for a moment, hear the wind, feel the sun on my face, feel your legs burning; the straps from the pack have dug sore strips into your shoulders. From the edge you can see for miles, it feels like you can take flight from this spot. Shape shifting into an eagle is a real possibility right now. The view warps your perception until you see the parking lot and can you make out the car. That is really far away now. I guess I better go. I exhaled and started back down the mountain.

Going up was difficult, I had burned up the better part of my energy. My leg muscles are strained and worn out. So getting off the mountain was even harder. My legs had very little to give me in the way of support or mobility. The way down took twice as long as it did to get up. From the top of the mountain a young dude who ran up the trail, was over at the steepest part of the edge, the snow filled this valley and ran for a 3/4 of a mile. He got down in a sitting position and glissaded down the mountain. This seemed completely nuts to me, dangerous as hell. He slid with great speed and made it down the mountain in seconds. It took me an hour to get to where he was and he was half way back to the lot. Jesus that crazy fuck! Stopping and resting is the next hour for me, my feet are sore, and my legs gave up on me hours ago. Slow and sure I make it to the paved path to the lot. Never had I been happier to see my little green Jeep. Unbelievable I made it. I did it. To me I felt as If I had made Everest. Time to celebrate.

The Best Hot Dog in the World

Back in Anchorage I went to a corner I had been eyeing up for days. The guy asked what do you want? “I don’t know what the special?” I say. The Bogogi dog is the popular, a young girl says “I loves those get that”. “Ok sure I’ll have the Bogogi dog. that is just what I want” I say. The hot dog stand owner is from Hawaii and works just a few months a year up here is Alaska. We talk as he grills my reindeer hot dog. He tells me about being a young man in Hawaii, taking wave runners from one island to the next. “It was not a good idea once we got out there in the middle. We were blinded by the sunlight off the water and all the salt spray”. “Yea sounds crazy” I say. He is friendly and thinks I am a local. I ask what is the Bogogi? “It’s a BBQ Hawaiian pork. Say do you want the best hot dog you ever had in your life”? “Yea” I say !” He said “I am going to put cream cheese on it. I usually charge an extra dollar for it but for you my friend it’s free. Once the cheese melts it mixes with the pork man its good. I have a guy who shows up every day at 3:00 for two of them”. The dog is handed to me like a trophy. Hey, I deserved this hot dog, it was10:30 at night. Still sunny and bright as 5 PM, my legs are rubber as I sat down on the bench eating the best hot dog in the world, a fantastic day.

Day 9

The next morning I pack up my bag and load it in the Jeep, drive down 6th street to the Highway, now heading back home. I found myself retracing my steps to Illinois, stopping at the same gas stations in Alaska, now I need to break this up. Intentionally I fill up in a strange town so I will be out of gas at a different point than the way up. I loved driving the Yukon up and down it is beautiful beyond description. In the late afternoon a driving rain came in and the road became wet and could be icy, soon it would be time to find a safe place to rest. Towards evening I crossed a long iron bridge, there was a gravel lot down the hill next to the river there. This is a place I can sleep a few hours in the sound of the rain. The first night in my room in Anchorage I was missing sleeping in the Jeep, now I feel unsettled lying down in the back. I feel exposed it takes some time to settle into sleep. The sound of the rain and the river take me to Nod.

The next day was more snowy mountains, bears and vistas and I started to think about Saskatchewan. Shit I cannot take that ride again. I stop for gas in a muddy lot with a single pump; my boots get caked as I went in for coffee. I parked out of the way of the truckers in the lot and I pull out the map and seek a different route home. In Grande Prairie I can take route 40 through Jasper Nation Park, I have loved the mountain driving so far, so why not? It adds hours and miles to my way home but that’s OK because I will never drive through Saskatchewan ever again. This was to be a brilliant decision.

The highway cuts right trough the park and to my surprise, there is a gate on the highway where you have to pay to enter the park or use the highway. It was all very beautiful but I noticed that the traffic here has some cash. I stopped at a very nice tourist restaurant; it has a large gift shop and big dinning area. This is no rundown café, the diners are all well dressed and I hear German accents. The guy who works in the gift shop strikes up a conversation with me and he tells me about Jasper and who is coming up here, how the parks will be free next year for the 150 year anniversary of Canada. I get a cup of coffee and head out. The drive is amazing. That night I pull over in a tiny spot next to a stream, the water is running so fast. As I lie down and try to sleep I think, “what if floods”? Before I realize what has happened, I’ll be sucked into the water and pulled into the tunnel that goes under the road. Sleep in the Jeep has changed. Some dark thoughts accompany me as I roll up in the wool blanket. Did I just get out of the habit or did something else change? When you have hours alone to drive you can think about this until it does no good.

This drive takes me through Dead Mans Flats and on to Calgary, this is the largest city I have seen in days. I cannot remember why I know its name? I see some silly colorful architecture with the Olympic rings on the side. Yea that is it; back in 1988 they hosted the games, now the city is stuck with these buildings that look like it they boast of having the worlds larger day care center or some such nonsense. I can roll down the window as I drive in the city the weather is warm and I look for one thing that might be an interesting stop. No luck, and I am on a flat road heading south. Nanton, and I take my last 10 Canadian dollars and spend it on a uninteresting burger and fries. The place is called the Zephyr Drive in and a young girl is outside struggling with a table umbrella in the wind. She is the only one here and I have to wait for her. After 13 minutes of fighting she gets pissed and chucks the umbrella next to the shack. After another 5 minutes she shows up at the little window, she slides it open and through the screen I order. The food and drink cost $9.95, and sitting at the table writing, eating the burger and greasy fries, I am ready to leave Canada.

Its a flat easy run to the line. Back at the US boarder I slow down for the boarder station. There is an native looking guy with police type hat on sitting in this tiny shed with a gate. He sees me and gives me the secrete head nod, I never even have to make a full stop, no questions, nothing. I rolled back into the US and into Montana, from Sweetgrass, Sunburst to Shelby and the famous Route 2. In Shelby I find a room for the night. That evening I want some diner but opt out and walk to a gas station and get a bad sandwich, chips and a pop. Sit in my room I make contact with home. It does feel good to be closer to home.

Day12

The Montana morning was bright and sunny and I throw my backpack into the Jeep. I pull on route 2 and think of those books I have read, books that are written about this highway. The road skirts the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and in a shitty looking gas station I notice I am one of ten guys with long dark ponytails. Somehow I do not feel like I am home, Rez life is a different world. One hidden from most, and the rest would not believe it. They want $4 for an egg salad sandwich here, I’ll move on. Through this trip I had no real focus on food or the search for really tasty cafes, hidden gems and house specialties in 4 calendar cafes. Perhaps this was not that kind of travel? It was great miles to made and food was an after thought. Perhaps it was I had no one to share meals with? No road pals for succulent steak sandwiches or Scrapple. No “E” to share plates of fresh seafood, the only other notable meal was on the way home. I stopped in Dawson Creek at dinnertime, asking in a coffee shop where I can find Poutine? Some nice ladies told me to go to Le’s family restaurant. With some local directions I found Le’s on route 2, it was an old motel with a café, white wood siding building that looked as neat as it did in the 1940’s when it was built. The Le’s have owned it since 1988. It was a comfortable little dinning room, movie perfect. I order poutine and a coke. Well I can tell you that was the best damn poutine I have ever had. All I could do is ask myself “Why do we not have this in the states”? Damn it was good. Other then a crepe, hot-dog, and some fries smothered in gravy and cheese my meals were only sustenance so I could drive. Eating in the car hides some of the road loneliness of an empty table in a rosy cafe. I was not on the hunt for that magic Po’ Boy, or a BBQ joint called Bubba’s, food that leaves you searching the rest of you life for a decent comparison. Once with “E” in some forgotten town along the Dixie highway in Florida, we had fish tacos that were so unforgettable, to this day I always order fish tacos in every Mexican joint I eat at. Even when they are good and most are not, none have come close to the ones on that lost coast road. Search on that is all I can do.

Meanwhile back on route 2 in Montana, a food trailer run by an Indian couple is parked in front of a dilapidated motel. To say this town was rundown would be a compliment. It was a shithole. What was not closed, like the Indian Museum, was run down. It’s shocking to see a people in this condition. I would have really enjoyed seeing the little museum too. I turn back to the gravel lot and park. This is the spot. How could it miss? It is the only thing here. The woman in the trailer is not very friendly to me. I order a burger, now I do not want another hamburger but it’s the best strategy in a questionable place. As I waited I walked around the motel to have a look. Shit! It’s half collapsed and rooms are boarded up, there is a late 80’s Cadillac parked out back. It came here on its own motion, which means someone is here. That means someone, who is not looking forward to company, is in one of these rooms. I duck back around to the front and sit by the Jeep. The burger deserves to be in this town and I only felt bad for eating it. I drive on and Route 2 runs back into 52 and North Dakota, soon I was back in Harvey, back in the Cobblestone motel.

Day 13

Red Haired Tornado

This was it; I could be home later today. The ride now had a little familiar feel as I run down 52. The only stop of mention would be in the hometown of Red Lewis, Sauk Center Minnesota is my last stop before home and sleep in my bed. The town is picturesque and was strangely perfect looking. I drove down to the birthplace house of Sinclair and unfortunately it was closed. I walked down the street, it was sunny and pretty, there are two people with power tools working on a picnic table. A couple in there late 50’s so I say Hello, can you tell me where to find Sinclair Lewis house? I have used this technique in the past. Find the place you wish to see, then find a local and ask them where it is. “Oh you are close it right down the street”. The woman says to me. They walk down the concrete drive to size me up, they are both friendly as can be. The next half an hour they tell me all about Sauk Center. Bill and Claire inform me that the Sinclair Lewis Center near the highway is closed, “I think it has been a coupla years now”. Bill said. There was a gentle breeze and Bill’s soft white hair blows like smoke back and forth. It was like he was under a smoldering grass fire. They sold their house in the Twin cities for $380.000.00 and bought this beautiful two story for $84K. The taxes are less than $800 a year. Everybody works here, everybody knows everyone Claire tells me. Her hair is quaff and perfect, it is a monument to hairspray and 30 minutes craft each morning. In the stiffest wind today it never moves. They seem to like me very much and I liked them. They tell me I can move next door, jobs pay between $14-18 dollars up here. “It so much better then the Twins” they say. “We love it here” they tell me. Lots of rich people here in the summer Bill says. “They don’t bother anyone, just come and go”. Had it been closer to lunchtime I am positive they would invite me in for Tuna salad sandwiches, shoestring potatoes, lemon aid and homemade oatmeal cookies and I would have gladly accepted. In all my life of meeting people, or strangers in travels, they were the sweetest of all.

When Sinclair Lewis left this town and wrote Main Street in 1920 he pissed off most the population of his hometown. Ten years later he was the first American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. The town forgot or forgave him and liked the tourist dollars; now the native son has been recognized by the world and should be honored. The city fathers put a sign in the front yard of his house and charge admission. To further the literary tour the town built the Sinclair Lewis Center near the highway. I took a drive over just to have a look, it was true, it was closed. I peered through the windows saw some garbage on the floor and display cases now abandoned. I wanted to sneak in, but it was shut tight and broad daylight. I guessed the town was mad at him once more. Or Mr. Lewis has been forgotten. Anyway you sliced that, it was sad. I drove on.

Now it was all interstates highways and a $2 gas station sandwich to home. The trip is all behind me, all the bears and birds, the long miles and the mountain views. Even when it was only through a windshield a mountain is a majestic body to see. To visit, to be on, to run down and to sleep on, dreaming about a place for 40 years is dangerous way to approach it. It can lead to disillusionment in a hard way. All the years of having the Alaskan highway come to my mind, telling yourself “Yea one day I’ll drive that, If I only had the time, It would be a great adventure, That would be the trip of a life time”. The actual trip was beyond my feeble thoughts, years of dreaming about it, days at shitty jobs when you think if I just could quit I drive to Alaska right now. I fucking would. Finally the courage the support and timing were right. The road was still there, gas was cheap this year and I let go….

… and I did it.

 

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