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Archive for the ‘Art of Storytelling’ Category

“Hey Bob, aren’t you too old for this?  I guess you didn’t get the memo!” IMG_1298

That was my friend Dave’s response when I told him that I was putting my storytelling business on hold and would soon be leaving for a guiding job in Alaska. Then with a laugh, he continued, “I guess I didn’t get the memo either!”  After a long career in social services, at age 67 he enrolled in a masters program and is now close to certification as a  psychotherapist.   Maybe we should both have our heads examined.

IMG_1383_2But then there is Captain William Moore, the first resident of Skagway. (formerly Mooresville) His crude log cabin in the center of town was one of the first stops on my tour. I’d tell people how along with his First Nation’s guide, imgresSkookum Jim, he had blazed the first trail from Skagway and up the White Pass, then staked out 120 acres, built a pier and warehouses and  confidently and correctly predicted that someday there would be hordes of gold seekers who would use his route.  As I pulled away from his homesite I would add that I was withholding an important part of his biography. Then, on the way up the pass, I’d stop at a pullout, point out his original trail clinging to the side of a long and difficult cliff face, and then fill in the missing detail.  He was 64 when he made that first trip and he was 74 when he won a contract to deliver the mail on the 600 or so mile route to Forty Mile on the Yukon River   So folks I’d say, “ It’s not too late for a career change.”

I guess Moore didn’t get the memo either.

Then there is the example of Pablo Casals, one of the master cellist’s of the 20th century who was still practicing for hours and hours every day.  When asked why, he responded, “ because I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”

“I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”  That phrase has become like a mantra for me, having passed retirement age and with no ability and even less interest in hanging up a career where it’s often hard to delineate where work ends and play begins. It also helped me through this interval where I took people up the same route over 200 times.  I prepared long and hard for this assignment, but by the time I’d finished my last tour, I still knew that there is still much room for improvement.

But I invoke Casals for another important reason.  He stands firmly in the lineage of elders of the tribe who have guided my own path and career.  Here’s how.

In 1961 (?)Casals came to California to teach a weeks long master cello class.images-1 People came from all over the country to attend  including an engineer from the Bay area, in his mid 50’s named Josh Barkins.  Because he was local and knew the area so well, Barkins often took on the role of local guide during breaks.  As he would tell me later, towards the end of the class, Casals took him aside and in essence said, “ Josh, you’re a good cellist, but you’ll never be a master cellist.  But in another way you are a master.  You’ve been a master guide.  Have you ever considered doing that for a living?”  The very next day, Josh quit his job, and applied for a job as a groundskeeper for the East Bay Regional Park Service.  He quickly worked up through the ranks and eventually became not only the chief interpretive naturalist for the regional parks but a legendary trainer for the National Park Service.

Here’s a quote from the NPS
“He practiced the best interpretation, both whimsical and profound. He was equally adept at interpreting for children, engineers, clergy, and fellow interpreters. He was equally at home giving “‘gutter walks” in the city and alpine meadow walks in Yosemite. He thrived on creative use of gadgets, puns and riddles, puppets, music, poetry, world religions, history, and philosophy in his programs. Not only was he unafraid of integrating ethical and moral issues in his programs, he often insisted upon it.”

Fast forward to 1977.  I was visiting Berkeley and Tilden Park with another mentor of mine Herb Wong, who was both a jazz and environmental educator.  Herb invited me to accompany his class to Tilden to witness Josh Barkins in action.  (Freeman Tilden, by the way is known as the father of modern interpretation.) Josh did it all that day, took us on the trail, brought out  puppets, children’s books, told Sufi and Zen stories, showed us small wonders with a magnifying glass, and recited poetry.  Poetry!  At the end of our nature walk we sat in a circle and Josh began,

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.

“Ah… Walt Whitman!  Song of the Open Road,” I exclaimed.  ((How could I  not know the poem.  These words are carved in a huge glacial erratic next to a statue of old Walt in Bear Mountain Park near my boyhood back yard and Mecca overlooking the Hudson River) 20140715_104422_zps5wetrmnt

Josh looked at me, beamed, took off his Smokey the Bear style ranger hat, put it on my head and said,  “You recognized Whitman!  You can DO this!”  I count this as one of or perhaps even the most affirming and encouraging moment of my life. Trying to lead the life of a environmental educator,  storyteller,  and sometimes guide all these almost 40 years now has sometimes felt akin to walking that precarious and difficult path that Moore ‘found’ and the Klondikers followed, but I continue on, for after all, “there’s gold in them thar hills,” even if it’s fairy gold!

I’ll pitch my blog tent here for the day with this final quote from the Maestro Casals.

” On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old.  That is not young, of course.  In fact, it is older than ninety.  But age is a relative matter.  If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that ages does not necessarily mean getting old.  At least, not in the ordinary sense.  I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.”

I guess he didn’t get the memo either!

(As always, your comments are fuel for the fire and keep me going!  How is life growing more fascinating for you?  Can you remember a time when you felt truly encouraged by someone you admire?)

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Dateline Oakland CA – April 18th.

Got past security on my flight to Juneau.  Managed to smuggle Mumsie past the TSA agents.  No, I didn’t have my mother stuffed into a satchel but rather in white powder form inside a small ziplock bag.  It was with great relief that I was able to revive her upon my arrival in Skagway.  A little water and a few days later she was happily bubbling away.  Mumsie… aka Mother… aka my treasured sourdough starter.

This particular mother was a gift from my New Mexico neighbor and baker extraordinaire Amy.  She started it from wild yeasts in San Fransisco a dozen or so years ago and I’d managed to keep it going for several years now.  I left a jar in the safekeeping with my wife Liz at home, but was determined to do what the sourdoughs on the Trail of 98 did.  Bring some up north with me.  I’d have to wait a few more months though before I’d be able to add hand-picked blueberries to what would become my weekend sourdough pancake ritual.Image 5

Sourdough!
1. leaven,  consisting of fermenting dough, typically that left over from a previous batch.Image 1
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2.an experienced old timer or prospector in Alaska and the Yukon

 

How did these two uses of the word get conjoined?  Certainly the leaven came first since the history of sourdough in baking goes all the way back to Egypt and ancient Greece. Picture this.
Those gold seekers tramping up the frozen Chilkoot trail were carrying their mumsies with them too!  I mentioned in my previous post that  in order to get through Canadian  customs at the summit they were required to present themselves with a ton of goods, mostly food, to prove that they could sustain themselves for a year and not become burdens of the state.  Chief among the supplies would typically be about 350 pounds of flour.  On the Chilkoot the flour would be carried on one’s back (or if you could afford it, on the back of a native Tlingit packer) But the treasured sourdough would be kept closer to the heart, so as to keep the culture warm and alive.

The Boudin Bakery in San Fransisco has kept the 1848 California Gold Rush sourdough alive through all these years, and today in Skagway Alaska, there are a number of people who claim that their ‘mothers’ have a clear lineage to the days of 98.  In fact there is a National Park Ranger working there now,  I call her Sourdough Girl, who is keeping such a culture and working on a P.H.D centered on biological, social and economic considerations of lacto……

My fascination with sourdough also goes beyond the strictly culinary and veers towards the metaphorical.  This is of course symptomatic of my incurable affliction – Story Fever.   I think of sourdough as a particular kind of fairy gold.  The secret of fairy gold if you haven’t heard is that it  only has value when you give it away… the more you give it away the bigger it gets.  I tell you a story, you tell it to someone else, they tell it to someone else and the story gets bigger, not smaller from the giving.  Hoard it and it will soon turn leaden or to ashes and blow away.

Well, sourdough is like that.  How is it that these original cultures endure through countless generations.  Generosity!  And how does the sourdough stay fresh?   You use the culture in your jar or crock to make pancakes or bread, but you always leave some of the mother behind, and then feed it once again, giving those bacteria some fresh flour to work their magic with.

Moving from bread to alcohol, beer and wine, for a moment- I can’t get into this subject of fermentation without mentioning my mentor Poopdeck, a true sourdough if ever there was one. Knock on his door, walk in and within moments whether he knew you or not, he’d take you into his basement and pick out a jug of Bug Juice and offer you a glass.  When you asked him why he called it Bug Juice he’d pause for a pregnant moment and reply,  “Walll… jest think of those billions and billions of yeast bugs that committed suicide to make this alcohol.”

Ah, almost forgot… in Alaska lingo, the opposite of being a Sourdough is to be a Cheechako.  A Cheechako  is a greenhorn or tenderfoot.   I’d often start my tours this way… “ Folks, when I first landed in Alaska in 1970, I was a Cheechako… a young, green, no nothing kid from the suburbs of New York.”  And so I was!                                                                  Addie and Robby

So, now having paid my respect to the fairies,  the lactic acid bacteria, the Klondike Argonauts as they were called, and to my fellow storytellers here and gone, all of who have shared their powers and secrets with me,  I think I’ll go check on Mumsie (thank you Liz who has cared so lovingly for her!)and continue my reflections on my Skagway guiding  adventure in the next post.

 

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I know you’re all tired  and weary of winter and so I’m writing to let you know that there is hope.  If things don’t start thawing out pretty soon, you can call on me.

We had a long bad winter years ago when I was living in a little cabin up in the headwaters of the Tanana River, which is a tributary of the Yukon. Just before the 4th of July with those big flakes still falling I got so disgusted with the situation that I figured I would just have to take matters into my own hands.  Something was wrong up there in the sky and I needed to fix it if there was going to be any chance that I was still going to get a garden planted.  Getting out the door was  and to my tool shed was the first problem- once I managed that I’d had plenty of time to figure a plan to send myself skyward.  So I squeezed myself up through the stove-pipe onto the roof (I’d lost considerable weight having not much left to eat but some dried beans those last few months) and proceeded with the plan.images

What I needed was a mountain of wood shavings, an old moose hide, about a gallon of water and one match.  I tunneled from the cabin roof to the tool-shed and grabbed the sharpest tool I had… a knife I’d fashioned from the bill of one of the smaller mosquitoes that I’d shot while a couple of it’s larger compatriots managed to fly off with the best sled dog that I’d ever had.  I sure miss that dog.  But I was glad for that skeeter bill blade because it only took me a couple of hours to reduce a couple of hemlock logs I’d  been saving to build a sauna, to a mountain of shavings I calculated would give me just the amount of thrust I’d need.  I put an old moose hide on top of the pile (that same swarm of mosquitoes that took my dog had drained that poor fellow dry as he was browsing the compost pile and enjoying the last of one of those  puny 70 pound cabbages I’d thinned out. Thankfully it all happened so fast I don’t think he had time to suffer)

 

I figured I might be gone awhile, so I made sure everything in the cabin was ship-shape, grabbed a bucket of water and that one match, climbed to the top of the pile, doused the hide,  and used that one match to get a blaze going.  I pride myself on never needing more than one match.  I read To Build a Fire and it scared me so bad I’ vowed to master the art of fire building and I did.  Everything worked out exactly as I planned.  The shavings got hot, the water built up a head of steam, the hide thawed, and stretched and exactly two and half minutes later I was trampolined up, just within reach of a particular cloud I’d been studying the past couple of days.  To tell the truth, I actually overshot it by a couple of miles, so I guess it was just dumb luck I managed to grab it on the way down.

images-1Well, it was as cold and snowy on that cloud as it was down below, so I wasn’t surprised to find an igloo not far from where I came aboard.  But I was surprised to find a hostage situation going on, because there was Old Man Thunder and Lighting bound and gagged by the Snow Queen. This was way before Disney and Frozen- but I’d spent many a winter night reading Hans Christian Anderson Tales and I guess Disney did too,   so I knew who I was dealing with and I knew I had to act fast.  I still had the skeeter blade in my hand and I knew how to handle it.  I kept that cold hearted Queen at Bay just long enough to take a quick swipe at the ropes holding Old Thunder. I cut the bindings clear through and then I shut my eyes and hoped for the best because I didn’t have to guess what was coming.

There was an enormous flashing and crashing, and I knew that Old Man Thunder was  throwing down some serious lightning bolts.  I also knew it was too high for me to jump free of the cloud.  I’d rehearsed this before and it now it was showtime.  I wasn’t positive but I figured just like the seventh wave the seventh bolt would be the strongest.  They were coming quick so I grabbed on to #7, shut my eyes and before I could even blink them open, there I was on terra firma… except I was just slightly off on my calculations… it was terra, but not quite firma.  I splashed down and sunk down up to my chin in the muskeg swamp about a quarter of a mile from my place.  There was no wriggling out- I knew that if I even moved I’d be swallowed up alive.

I was only scared for the briefest moment though, because it quickly became apparent to me that I’d succeeded in my mission!  Spring was in the air.  Irises were blooming and few wild roses were just beginning to unfold.  The Sandhill Cranes were flying overhead, and I heard the unmistakable buzz of a hummingbird doing it’s crazy mating U shaped flight.  Then off in the distance I saw a couple of Trumpeter Swans flying in my direction.  It’s always a thrill to see these majestic birds in the north country, and the feeling must have been mutual because those two lovebirds circled me a couple of times and decided they’d found something sticking out of the swamp just right for building their nest on.  Right quick I was sporting a swan nest toupee and not much after that the female laid three eggs and made her self comfortable waiting for them to hatch.  Seeing as how I hadn’t thought about bringing along sunscreen or rain gear that nest proved to be a god-send for me… it kept me warm at night, dry in the rain, and protected me from the heat of day.

I’ve always had a keen interest in the life histories of birds and so it was with great anticipation that I awaited the arrival of the brood.  I was curious about how long it would take for the birds to fledge after they hatched.  But my scientific curiosity soon took a back seat to the more pressing issue of survival.  One day when the mother swan was away from the nest, a marauding wolf found the eggs and made short work of them.  Hoping to find more, it dug and clawed deeper into the nest and although it was egg shaped, it wasn’t a fourth egg it found, it was my noggin.   I shouldn’t have taken it personally, the wolf was just  exercising it’s nature, but I got mad, no more than mad, I got furious.  Furious at the slaughter of the innocents, and steamed at the impending loss of a piece of my scalp.  Back in those days I still had every one of my teeth and I used them all… I clamped down so fast and so hard on Lobo’s tail, he leaped up in surprise and horror and pulled me right along after him and out of the muck.  I let go of his tail just as he dashed by my cabin.  I found everything there ship-shape just as I’d left it.  I can’t tell you how happy I was to be back and to see the forget me nots and wild roses in full bloom, and the mosquito season not yet quite begun.

Ordinarily I don’t tend to talk to much about my accomplishments, I rather modest in tht respect,  but in this case I’ve decided to make an exception.   I want everyone to know that I still have that moose hide, I still have that skeeter blade, I’ve got a few more dry matches, and if you’ll provide the logs for the shavings and transportation to wherever it is that you sit snow bound and shivering…. I’m at your service.

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What follows is a slightly expanded version of a message I sent to PUBYAC, a listserve discussion group for Public Library services for Young Adults and Children.  Many libraries (schools too of course) are looking for ways to tie their programs into the educational initiative known as STEM (an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)  STEM has been extended by others to STEAM with a well placed acknowledgement of the Arts!  PUBYAC librarians have been discussing how to provide relevant programming and particularly to the youngest of their patrons.

 

Reading the compilation of STEM related activities prompts the following musings…

imagesThe great environmentalist John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Everything is indeed connected and knowing this offers a reassuring compass when thinking about how to develop programs tied to STEM, STEAM and other science related themes.

I’d like to invoke another wise elder of the environmental tribe… Freeman Tilden,  whose Principles of Interpretation have guided Park Rangers, Nature Center staff, Living History, and Museum folks, etc. for generations now.  What Tilden passionately promoted was engagement with an audience.  It’s for this reason I’d like to share  3 of his 6 principles and then make what I hope will be an encouraging  comment or two.  Quoting Tilden now…

“The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation. “images-2

“Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.”

“Information, as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However all interpretation includes information.”

I particularly like Tilden’s idea that provocation trumps instruction, and I think this is particularly true when we try and program STEM/STEAM activities for the youngest of our patrons or audiences.  Science in in broadest sense is about curiosity, observation, speculation, developing and testing theories about how the world works.  Pre-schoolers are almost all natural geniuses with all of these traits and tasks!  And because everything is connected, you can start just about anywhere… anywhere that is that in some way observes principle 2(within the experience of the visitor)and lead a scientific exploration.

YOu don’t have to limit STEM/STEAM to science or non-fiction books.  I just went to my shelves and pulled out a copy of  Chris Raschka’s Five for a little one. 1250242
It begins, “Noble nose, sniff and smell…you do it well… Contrast, compare… Sample scents of flowers and foods, oceans and woods…” SCIENCE!

Folktales are often full of references to  the natural world ….when I tell a story about how hummingbird got it’s colors… there are endless age appropriate opportunities to ‘provoke’ and relate to kids experiences with birds, flight, nests, behavior…Many traditional Native American folktales have very purposefully embedded important information and lessons about plants, animals, the weather and paying attention to their signs. SCIENCE!

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Note the direction of light, and the play of light and shadow in the illustrations of many of your favorite picture books and you have an opening to talk about the course of the sun across the sky, the reasons for the seasons… SCIENCE!

Well, I hope there is at least a little provocation and grist for the STEAM mill here!  It’s a wide world out there and you can find it “hitched’ to science at just about every turn!

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“What do a light bulb joke, your great aunt’s cold remedy, and a poem scribbled on the door of a bathroom stall have in common? If you know the answer, you may have taken a class from the late UC Berkeley professor Alan Dundes. Each of these, Dundes would have said, is an example of folklore—a category of knowledge that many people associate with the legends, old-wives tales and superstitions passed along by preliterate societies in the times of yore.
But Dundes taught that folklore, rather than being an erudite study of ancient ways, was alive, it was relevant, and it was everywhere. It was the jokes people told, the stories they shared, even the graffiti they wrote on walls. Every person, Dundes believed, was a walking treasure trove of folk wisdom.”
http://caa-web-prod-01.ist.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/just-in/2014-12-10/lord-lores-papers-berkeleys-famed-folklorist-alan-dundes-open
Though I was not a student at Berkeley, professor Dundes generously allowed me to sit in on his introductory folklore class.  That led to further investigations in the crowded room that at the time served as the repository of his folklore archives.
On the occasion of the opening of these archives to the public, and because my wife Liz is at this very moment en-route from the market with a chicken that shall soon be transformed into liquid Puerto Rican, Jewish penicillin as a remedy for the cold that is keeping me from work today, and because it is the eve of Chanukah, and the candles have just arrived via the deity Amazonia… I offer this memory.

 
Many years ago I had an opportunity to hear, for the first time, the brilliant and  often hilarious Northwest Native American healer and storyteller Johnny Moses Though I  certainly remember his folkloric stories of Octopus Lady, and Boogie Woman it was a family story that sticks  with me more than the rest.  After all these year, I may not have the details exactly right, but here is the gist of it.

 
Apparently a Catholic priest tried mightily and over a long period of time to convert Johnny’s grandfather- a Native American traditionalist and healer.  As Johnny told it, the priest finally wore Grandfather down.  After a due course of study, the day came when the cleric sprinkled holy water on the old man and said, “you were a Heathen, now you are a Catholic.”  Sometime later, the priest was out and about in the village on a Friday and got a whiff of roasting meat.  To his chagrin he found Grandfather roasting venison and was quick to make known his disappointment and disapproval.  Grandfather took the tirade in stride.  He removed the meat from the fire, walked to the river, sprinkled a few drops of water on it uttered these words… “ You were a Deer, now you are a Salmon!”   images-3

 
No sooner had I heard this tale then I said to myself, “Dad must have been right… the Native Americans ARE one of the lost tribes of Israel!  I’d heard that story before.  In fact I’d heard it quite a few times before.  It was one of Dad’s oft repeated tales when I was growing up in the 50s.  Well, it was mostly the same story.

 

As Dad told it, it was a priest in a suburban neighborhood… friends with his neighbor the rabbi, and again the priest worked mightily to convert the rabbi.  The rabbi too finally agreed,  went through with his studies, and he too was sprinkled with holy water.  “You were a Jew, now you are a Catholic.”  The priest was out for a stroll on, yes…Friday. This time he smelled barbecue chicken.  Again there were remonstrations of great disappointment, and again these were met with equanimity.  No doubt you see where this is going…. the Rabbi reached for a glass of water, dipped his fingers in and sprinkled a few drops on the grill.  “ You were a chicken, now you are a salmon!”

 
It was only years later that I realized that some of Dad’s jokes were actually teaching stories… this one of course was about identity. At that time, the Holocaust was a very recent memory and Dad set the hook of the lesson by reminding me that it didn’t matter what you said you were, if you had Jewish ancestry you were on your way to the camps.  It was a lesson about the dangers of assimilation.

 
After hearing Johnny tell his tale, I made my way to Dundes’ folklore archives and discovered close to one hundred versions of the story.  I still recall Johnny’s thunderous laughter after telling the tale.  As the soup cooks, I remember my father, who shared love through food and stories.

 
We put up a Christmas tree last night.  Tonight, we’ll light the Chanukah candles.  But sadly, there is more gruesome news today of barbarism and slaughter of the innocents under the guise of religious orthodoxy.

 
It’s time for  some more holy water.  You don’t need to give up your venison, your chicken, your hummus or tofu… sprinkle yourself and simply say… I was a drop… now I  am the ocean.  Now I am a human being.”
May the stories continue.  May we find and deeply know our common humanity  May peace prevail on earth. images-2

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mosquito signIt seems that it’s that time of year again.  People seem to be telling lots of stories about mosquitoes, much of which I suspect is exaggeration, hyperbole and even outright lies. Now I don’t want to come straight out and accuse anyone else of stretching the truth- take this sign that some folks in the Adirondacks put up for instance- I don’t know if it was to attract tourists or keep them away, but half a dozen of my friends who know just how much I’m a stickler for the truth sent me that photo and suggested that I might ‘go on the record’ and tell it like it really is.  They know about the years I spent in Alaska and my friends said that it is my civic duty to set some things straight, so that’s what I’m going to try and do, at least as far as the common Alaska variety goes.

 

People tell about how big Alaska mosquitoes are. My first year in Alaska an old sourdough bush pilot tried this one out on me thinking that I’d be gullible enough to believe nonsense like, ” I saw a mosquito land at the Fairbanks airport, and the ground crew  filled it up with jet fuel and changed it’s spark plugs before they realized what it was.”  What bull!
So now the truth. Alaska mosquitos really aren’t that big at all. The one that flew in my cabin window and snatched a #10 can of beans was at least two pounds smaller  than the turkey I cooked for Thanksgiving that fall.

Alaskans like to brag about how tough and strong their mosquitoes are. Believe me, they’re not that tough.  An hour after he flew off with my beans that mosquito had to come all the way back to get a can-opener.alaska state bird

 

But I did have some really bad trouble with mosquitos my second summer though.

You know, if you live in the wilderness it’s crucial to keep your tools sharp.  So one of the first things I bought myself that first winter was a grindstone for just such purposes. When the mosquitoes returned from their migrations that next summer, here came that same mosquito that stole my beans. I could tell it was him because he wasn’t just buzzing, he was farting up quite a storm. I guess he didn’t want to bother with can openers anymore and thought that grindstone would be just the thing to put a fine edge on his bill.  And off he flew with it.

 

For some reason that particular mosquito must have taken some kind of personal dislike towards me. Later that summer I was out in the yard washing my clothes. I didn’t have any electricity out there at my cabin and I was using a big old metal washtub.

I heard a deafening buzz and then just as clear as a bell I heard him say,  ”I’m  BAAACK! “His intentions were clear- he was on a straight course towards the top of my head. There was no time to think.  I just grabbed that washtub, dumped out the dirty water, and put it over my head for protection.

That’s when I heard a terrible hammering, loud as thunder. That blood sucker was drilling straight through the washtub.  And on account of him having my grindstone, his  bill were sharp enough to do the job in a hurry. In no time at all his bills was clear through the metal and starting on my skull.

But I was well on the way to becoming a sure enough sourdough myself, learning to live in the wilderness and prepared for just about any eventuality.  I always kept a leather-man tool on my belt, even when I was in bed, so I reached for it quick, unfolded the pliers, lifted the washtub just enough and to bent that deadly bill snug up against the inside of the washtub.  Now that little devil was stuck tight. I had him!

Or so I thought.

Well his bill was stuck but his wings were still free. I have to admit to a certain admiration for that little mosquito.  Desperate as his situation seemed, he didn’t give up. He began flapping his wings with all his might and before I knew it he picked up the washtub and me right with it and headed south.

I don’t know how he knew it was going to be an early winter, but he knew and he just kept flying non- stop for two weeks and a day until the finally ran out of steam and landed.

Fortunately, I knew just where I was. Spring Valley New York where I grew up.  That mosquito had deposited me right in my parent’s back yard on Willow Tree Road.  Right then though, I made my big mistake.  I guess I felt a little sorry for that mosquito , He looked just about plum worn out and he still had a considerable way to go to reach warm weather. Truth is, I’d grown fond of him during our passage. So I decided to straighten out his bill and set him free. I watched him wobble off looking somewhat dazed an confused.

mosquito-sculpture

I had a good visit with my parents.  I knew they worried about me and I did my best to reassure them that I was doing just fine up there in the Last Frontier.   You know what the best part of my visit was? Catching those late summer fireflies just like I used to do when I was a little kid.  They don’t have fireflies in Alaska.  I wasn’t quite  as fast as I had been but I still caught a good jarful.  Of course I let them go after I used them for some late night reading.

But this is where letting that mosquito go came back to haunt me. I reckon that an Alaskan Mosquito had never set eyes on a New York Firefly before, and the best I can figure it, when that mosquito set eyes on one of those lightning bugs, it must have been love at first sight.   Because a couple of weeks later, just as I was thinking it was time to get back to Alaska, I was sitting around late one night on the back porch  Here came a whole squadron of mosquitoes, and every one of those mosquitoes had bioluminescent green headlamps and bills to match.  I knew in a flash what had happened. My mosquito had mated with a firefly and these were the offspring.  I can’t say for sure whether it was nature or nurture  but it was clear to me that these Fire-Skeeters were looking for me and their intentions were not kindly. It was time for some more quick thinking.

“Quick Dad, throw me  the keys to the car,” I screamed. He could tell by the tone of my voice that this was no time to ask questions, so he tossed me the keys to the Rambler, I made a dash to the car, waved goodbye, and started driving North on the New York State Thruway. I was on my way home.  But and those fire-mosquitoes were on a mission and they chased me the whole way.  Somewhere near Milwaukee, they realized they could slow me up by puncturing my tires, so I had to stop about every ten miles and spray the tires with mosquito repellent to keep them at a distance.  That slowed me down some. By the time I got home there was four feet of snow piled up around my cabin.  Those mosquitoes were cold and discouraged and sat down together in a huddle to make plans for the winter.

Unfortunately, because I was gone so long, I hadn’t had time to cut firewood.  And it was cold. I quickly assessed the situation and realized that a great opportunity was right at hand. While those Fire/Skeeters were distracted with their deliberations I snuck up on them and snapped off all their bills and then stacked em up in the woodshed- must have been a good three or four cords. I remembered to leave a few intact for future purposes.  Whenever I needed fire for the rest of the winter I just thawed one out and stuck it in the stove or fireplace.They burned with a beautiful greenish flame.  I kind of missed the crackle of spruce and birch wood, but after awhile I got used to the buzzing of the fire.

Next spring when the mosquitoes came out I knew the “survivors” would be back for me and at me. Just about the time I figured they would arrive I took to sitting in the car as bait and waiting for them to show up.  I was watching the Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky one night when I noticed a matching light veer off and head my way. It was one of those green-eyed green -billed Fire-Skeeters and just like I planned I jumped in the car and waited for it to drill its way through the roof to get at my head.  I used my trusty leather-man, it had never left my side, and fastened him tight  just like I did with the washtub. Then I had him fly the car back to dad. He knew just where to go because what I forgot to mention before was that that original mosquito didn’t just fall in love with the firefly.  There was a menage-a trois going on with a homing pigeon that my parent’s neighbor kept. So that was a Homing Fire-Skeeter I sent on it’s way. The car got there in good shape. But Ramblers were heavy cars, and the mosquitoes were so tuckered out by the time they got there they were nothing but skin and bones.   Dad saved one of their leg bones and mailed it to me.  Got it right here in my pocket.  Ask me about it if you see me  and I’ll be glad to show it to you.

Well, that’s about all I can tell you about Alaska mosquitoes so I hope now you won’t believe any of those exaggerations that so many people indulge in.  Being a responsible storyteller, it’s important to me to stick to the truth. My reputation depends on it. mE7dpgJtjqtB85sYgaiE75Q

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Right now, there are a lot of people across the country shivering and digging out from another big snow storm and that has got me to reflecting on my years in Alaska.

A few evenings ago I was sitting in the sauna at the gym and thinking about what a wimp I’ve become, following that though to the time that Storytelling Saved  My Life. Now this is a bit longer post than I usually share, but if you stick with me  you’ll be glad you did because what I’ve got to say might just help save your life too.

I probably was getting a little light headed from the heat in the sauna when the words of Robert Service’s most famous poem, The Creamation of Sam McGee came to me…

“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”

And  then came the unsettling  realization that in the 43 years since I’d spent winters in the Yukon and Alaska, I’d become less the hardy northerner and more of Sam McGee. Maybe you had to learn the poem and remember that Sam exacted a promise that if he froze to death his pal would stuff him in the boiler of an old derelict paddle-wheeler.  A promise made is a debt unpaid, and so Sam got his dying wish.
“And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

The very first  three  weeks I spent in Fairbanks Alaska, the high, the high temperature was 40 below zero. If I remember correctly it hit minus 58 for a couple of days.  Of course, I’ll admit it was always nice to be able to end a day in my own personal log cabin sauna at the close of those short days. It was heated by a wood fired Yukon Stove and there was nothing better than finishing up a session with a  jump in the snow  and then  stand stark naked watching the aurora borealis dance in the black starry night. The day that I first arrived in Fairbanks  was no stove oil for the heater  in the house, so I stoked up the sauna and spent the night there.  Not a steam boat furnace but mighty cozy nevertheless!

I’m usually a pretty social guy, but there are times I really like to have a sauna all to my lonesome.  I admit that it’s not something I should be bragging about but I know how to clear out a crowded sauna pretty fast.  I just keep pouring water on the hot rocks until it gets unbearably hot for everyone else. And the reason that I can tough it out is that I learned a little secret from an 85 year old Athabascan man that I met in the village steam bath on the Yukon that summer I’d kayaked the 2000 miles to the Bering Sea.  That’s the trip I’d started with the Sam McGee Memorial Poetry reading on the marge of lake Lebarge. Meska Savage was his name and he taught me to stuff my nostrils and the lining of my mouth with the seed tufts from the Alaska Cotton plant to keep the mucus linings from drying out and singing up.  Of course now I was taking shortcuts and using cotton balls from Walgreens.

What I really want to say here is that in the 12 years I lived in the north country, I learned a lot about taking care of myself in extreme conditions .  I learned these things from Eskimos, Indians, Tlingit, Haidas, some of who  were over 100 years old, and I learned from guides, hunters,  trappers. miners, loggers, and  fisherman.  Navy seals might know a little more about survival skills than I do now, but not much.

I learned so much and so quickly  that the prospect of spending a night out with wind chills below minus sixty held no more anxiety than flicking off one of those monstrous Alaska  two pound mosquitoes you might have heard about and hopefully have never had to fend off.   I came to Alaska as a Cheechako (that’s Alaskan for greenhorn) but after a couple of years, some of the old timers were already calling me Sourdough Bob.  Heck, by the end of that first month I was already a full fledged member of the 5 mile 50 below club… you earned that distinction by walking the 5 miles to town from our little log cabin ghetto called called Wolf Run in 50 below .

But the the truth of the matter is that by the time I actually arrived in Alaska I was already pretty well prepared for the rugged life of the far north. I had been in training since 1955 when I was a seven years old.

Maybe you’re old enough to remember the Quaker Oats commercials from back in the mid fifties?  1955 to be exact.  That’s when Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog King started offering One Square Inch of the Yukon in their ads for Quaker Puffed Rice  ( shot from cannons so they said)
I was 7 years old in 1955 and when I  sent away for the deed to my very own first square inch of the Yukon, believe me, my destiny was set… there was NOTHING that was going to get in the way of my getting to the Yukon and Alaska.  I started reading everything I could get my hands on. I read about the land and the people, and became  especially interested the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898-tThe stampede that started in Skagway Alaska… and was made famous by Charlie Chaplin’s movie The Gold Rush.  In 1971 I made it to Skagway, then on to Lake LaBarge,  and then the paddle to the Bering Sea. The following year, I met  and heard the stories first hand from a number of old timers who actually prospected in ’98.  I even got to meet a native american man who guided some of the boats through the infamous Whitehorse rapids.
But going back to 1955- I wasn’t just reading about the Yukon. As soon as the deed to my one square inch arrived. I began training for it, and preparing for my eventual arrival in that northern clime where I was now a land-owner.  My grandfather Morris had a kosher butcher shop in East Boston and on one of our family trips that year, I asked him if I could see what it felt like in the big walk in freezer at the back of the shop. He didn’t see any harm in that.  It was COLD in there with all those chickens and sides of kosher beef, but I toughed it out for a full five minutes.  The next day I stayed for ten.  Lucky for me, I could talk to my grandfather about things I didn’t necessarily want my parents to know about. I told him about my plan.  We spent a whole week in Boston on that trip and by the time we headed back to New York, I could spend an hour in that freezer without even wearing a sweater.
Eventually there was no more hiding my motives. Over the years I kept coming back to that freezer and thickening up my blood. Lucky for me my father was a research scientist and he got interested in my “project.”  I guess  at  that time in his career when he was trying to make a mark, he didn’t have a lot of compunctions against human experimentation. He got interested in how long I could stay in that deep freeze and he kept careful records.  I went back and checked in my scrapbook before I started writing this. It was from Dad’s scientific training where I also got instruction and  firm guidance in being very careful about reporting  only the truth of things. That’s how come I can say  that by the time I graduated high school I’d worked up t four days, 13 hours and 6 minutes exactly . I  have to admit though that I did get some extra help from my grandmother. Every eight hours like clockwork she’d dash into the freezer with a hot bowl of Matzoh Ball Soup for me. Sometimes she even stayed in there with me for a couple of hours telling me stories of the old country and those cold Lithuanian winters. So maybe there were some genes working in my favor too.
So like I said, by the time I finally made it to Alaska I was ready for whatever old mother nature was ready to throw at me.  I was ready for the cold, I was prepared for avalanches, for falling overboard in icy water, I was ready for moose, bear, wolves and I even knew how to handle myself if I was ever attacked by a flock of those those two pound mosquitoes that Alaska is so famous for.
But there was one thing that I WASN’T ready for and that was my own arrogance  and stupidity and it damned near killed me.  The only reason that I’m alive now and here to tell about it is that STORYTELLING SAVED MY LIFE.
I had to think hard about whether I’d write about this.  It’s embarrassing and puts me in a bad light.  But after I’d made it out alive, I told myself that if I could save even one other person’s life by this admission then it was incumbent on me and I had an obligation to tell about it.  So here goes.

I’d become known to the old timers as Sourdough Bob, but I had  another nickname too,  my own personal private nickname.  I called myself “One Match.”
I could, and I still can start a stove, fireplace or campfire with one match. I can do it in the damp, I can do it in the rain,  I can do it if the wind is blowing forty miles an hour. I was so confident in my fire-starting skills, that on principle I never carried more than one match.  Of course I kept it dry in my old Boy Scout double sealed, waterproof container.  There was no sense taking chances.

I’ve mentioned how much I learned from hunters, trappers, fisherman, loggers  and such. Of all the old timers I ever met, I learned the most from Poopdeck who I met when he was 78 and who passed away in Homer Alaska at 97  (still swimming in the town pool just a few months before the end).  He’d done all those things and more.  So naturally he knew a few things a young fellow like me ought to know. No one was less inclined to give advice when it wasn’t asked for or to push his own opinions on any one else. He must have got wind of that one match brag of mine though and so this one time he took the liberty of telling me,

“Bob,” he said, “I want you to remember this. When you camp be sure to take PLENTY of matches and keep them dry. This One Match business is a dangerous flibbery flabberty.  And while I’m telling you what you didn’t ask for let me remind you of a couple of other things.  Always… I mean always be careful, look around and pay  close attention to where you pitch your camp.  And when you set out on the trail ALWAYS let someone know where you’re going even if you’re only going out on a day trip.  Alaska can be an unforgiving place when things turn bad.”

I guess I stopped listening after Poopdeck said… Plenty of Matches. I know you’re thinking,  ah, that ‘s how he got in big trouble.  But that wasn’t it.  One Match means One Match. I know how to build a fire and I’ve never failed. It was the other two pieces of advice that I ignored that almost cost me my life.

At the time I’m talking about, The Day that Storytelling Saved My Life, it was a gorgeous late September morning. I should have stuck to my original plan and made sauerkraut that day. A darn moose had gotten into my cabbages and eaten every last one except for that puny one in the northwest corner of the garden that didn’t get as much sun.  The moose had even eaten half of that one too but at least there was still about eighty or ninety pounds of it left give or take an ounce or two.  (I did let my record keeping slip a little during that summer)

When I looked out my window and saw that the bay was as flat as a mirror, and checked the charts and saw that he tides were perfect, I thought, wow, this is a perfect day,
a great day to paddle across the bay and hike up to  Grewink Glacier. I was so eager that I almost left without setting the mosquito traps. I baited them with a couple of puny thirty pound king salmon I’d kept on ice for just such purposes and launched my kayak and caught the outgoing tide.

It was so calm I barely had to paddle… those enormous Kachemak Bay tides carried me past Bird Island and easily across the 5 miles to the roadless side of the bay.I  saw the usual assortment of sea birds, dolphins and orca whales on the crossing.  But watching those two baby grizzly bears skinny-dipping was a real treat. A lot of people have asked me about how I took the photo. The mama bear was nearby and she was the one who helped me out with that.  It’s a little bit out of focus but it was a small camera and kind of hard for her to hold it still.Crossing Kachemak Bay

At

At At

At Glacier Spit I beached the kayak and headed up the  faint trail. It was a glorious day. Being early fall there was a veritable riot of berries. I feasted on blueberries,crowberries, and cranberries and saved some for the trip back to share with the bears. I watched eagles circle and soar, and as I followed the rush of glacier meltwater up to the source I delighted in the great swaths of late blooming fireweed still blanketing the meadows in magenta majesty.

After reaching  Glacier lake  I took a  look at my watch and saw that I still had plenty of time to take a little nap and get down the trail and catch the outgoing tide for the trip back.  I used the leading edge of the glacier as an alarm clock.  On previous hikes there and with my careful record keeping I’d discovered that if I stood in exactly the right place facing a very particular place on the glacier, I could shout and perfectly figure how much time would elapse before the echo came back.  I positioned myself for an hour and fifteen minute snooze- that would give me time to get back to the shore before the wind was likely to pick up- I shouted “ Time to get up Bob” towards the glacier and dropped off to sleep.  Climate change deniers… you are wrong!  Because after this was all over I realized that the glacier had receded a foot or two, throwing off my calculations.  The echo wake up call didn’t come back for an hour and twenty minutes and that five minutes that I overslept might have made all the difference.

I tried to make up those five minutes racing down the trail, But by  the time I got back to the beach, the calm bay had just turned into a churning, whitecapped  fury, pushed by 40mph winds. It wouldn’t matter how strong the outgoing tide was running… there was no way I was going to make it back across the bay that day.  I’d have to spend the night in the woods and wait for the predictable calm in the morning.  But I wasn’t worried one bit.

I’ve always said, you’d have to be a fool to starve to death living by Kachemak Bay.  Food was not going to be a problem.  Besides the abundance of berries, at low tide you could pry loose more mussels in 5 minutes than you could eat in 5 weeks.  Have you ever tasted a mussel freshly harvested and steamed open over an open fire?   Food was not going to be a problem.

Shelter was no problem either. I hadn’t brought a tent or sleeping bag… but I had my big buck knife and I went right to work cutting spruce boughs and making a nice tight little lean- to.Then I hollowed out a fire pit, and gathered enough  tinder, kindling and logs to keep a roaring fire going all night.  And all it took was One Match to get it going!  I was feeling kind of proud of myself.
Food… no problem .Shelter… no problem. Fire …no problem…I even had my evening’s entertainment,  a well weathered copy of Jack London’s short stories in the back pocket of my Carthart Jeans.  I loved Jack London’s stories ever since I’d read Call of the Wild and  White Fang and To Build a Fire, all in one weekend I spent in Grandpa’s freezer.

Thanks for staying with me this far. You’ll be glad you did, because this is where I’m getting to the details of How Storytelling Saved My Life and remember I’m only sharing this with you because it might help you out of jam some day.  Have you ever read to Build a Fire?  If so, you might start thinking about how it ends with the hero freezing to death.

As darkness came on.here I was, snug as a bug an and twice as smug…One Match had done it again… the fire was roaring and  my belly was full.. I’d steamed the mussels with  seaweed and and ate a  perfectly cooked Dolly Varden trout I’d plucked from the stream with my bare hands just before the sun went down.  You can’t eat better than that at Ivar’s Acres of Clams….and that’s the best seafood restaurant in SEattle!  Don’t miss Ivar’s if you have a chance.

After dinner the bay was still churning,the wind was still blowing, the temperature had  dropped below 32, but it didn’t matter. the fire was throwing plenty of heat and I soon drifted off to sleep.  I must have been thinking about the mosquito traps back home. I was in the middle of a  dream about getting drained dry by one of those suckers when I woke for a moment, shook off the dread…looked around and to my surprise it was snowing!  Kind of early for Kachemak Bay but not really all that unusual for September.  Big heavy flakes of wet snow had drifted down and covering the ground about two or three inches.  But no problem… the fire was going strong, so I went back to my dream.

It was just when I was being carried off by two of those mosquitoes and one of them was saying, “Let’s eat him now so the big ones don’t take him away and eat him first” when I was startled out of the dream by that fateful crack.   It almost sounded like the report of a high powered rifle, followed by something that sounded like more like a groan… and then a snap! Then then came the avalanche!

Yes it’s true.  Just like in Jake London’s Story , where the hero built his fire too close to a pine tree,and the weight of the snow, cracked a branch and an avalanche of snowed slid off and put out his fire and would soon put out his life.  My fire was cold out- buried in a food of snow that had slid off the Sitka Spruce I was camped under.

And now Poopdeck’s advice came back to me loud and clear now. “Bob…be real careful about picking your campsite. I’ll admit to a brief moment of panic.  But I got right into action.  I remembered seeing a big hollow log I’d seen not far from the campsite when I’d been foraging for firewood.  It wasn’t going to be the Hilton, it wasn’t even Motel 6,  but it was a place I could get out of the cold, get out of the damp breeze, warm myself with my own body heat and at least survive the rest of the night.

I know what your probably thinking- that there was bear in that hollow log.  No there was not bear. I’m not that foolhardy. ’d rattled a stick in there first just to be sure.  t was vacant and exactly the right size… just big enough around for me to squeeze into, and long enough to leave me about a foot on either end.  I crawled into that life-saver with a strange mixture of emotions;  feeling stupid for my cheeckako mistake, yet proud of my sourdough resourcefulness.  And then exhausted from the long day, I fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When I woke up the sun was already high in the sky. The storm had passed and it was a gorgeous  Indian Summer DayI  looked out from the head end of my abode and could see steam rising from the beach rocks… the snow had melted… all of it….the birds were singing in delight… and I could see the Bay… calm and inviting for my return paddle.  It was STILL Paradise!

Until that is,  I tried to get out of the log. And that’s when I discovered  that I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t move backward.  I’ve never really been able to explain this scientifically.  It has something to do with temperature and expansion and contraction… but somehow because of the rapid cooling then warming of that  hollow log, the ‘hollow’ had shrunk, and the log had had filled in the spaces. Just enough to trap me in a wooden prison.  I’d been in plenty of claustrophobic situations before, during my cave exploring days, and I’d learned that you could always wiggle a bit…change the orientation of a hand or  arm, leg or foot and pry oneself loose.  This time though all such efforts were in vain.  I mean I was Stuck, capital S Stuck.  I wasn’t going anywhere.

And then…I remembered that last piece of Poopdeck’s advice.  Always tell someone where you are going. That’s when the fear and dread really hit me.  I hadn’t told anyone where I was going, nobody would be looking for me. I was well off the beaten track… the chances were almost nil that I would be found  before I died from lack of water, or hypothermia or just plain being scared to death.

I  now had plenty of time to think about just how foolish I’d been before I finally expired.  Yes, the One Match thing along with a lot of my other wilderness bragging was just so much flibberty flabberty after all.  After awhile though the panic, and the disgust with myself subsided and a strange kind of peace and acceptence washed over me.

It’s true what they say about being close to death.Some of you may have experienced this yourselves.   Your whole life runs like a movie before your eyes or in your mind.  In this case. I started reviewing my life and adding it up… Of course I thought about all my loved ones, and friends so far away and out of reach and that made me sad. But an interesting thing was happening. The more I reflected on my life, the better I felt about it.   I’d been a good person.  A great friend.  A hard worker.  Kind to strangers and animals. I thought about all the good I’d done for other people… and the more I thought about it… the more I came to realize and appreciate that I had lived a truly exemplary life!

Just when I was feeling so good about myself, I remembered something I shouldn’t have forgot. There’s always two sides to every story.  I needed to also take stock of my shortcomings. And so thought, and thought and thought.  I thought about it for a good hour and twenty three minutes ( I did record that in my log later)
But as hard as I tried,  I  simply could not find another side of the story.I could not think of one thing, not one single shortcoming… not one.. As much as II wracked my brain, in the end I had to admit. I had truly lived a truly flawless and exemplary life. And I might have expired right there and then in blissful reverie if a deeply buried memory hadn’t bubbled up. I WASN”T perfect… I remembered ONE lapse.  It all came back to me.

It was only one time… just once…  but one time. I ‘d been telling a story  and  I had stretched the truth. I was in New York and telling some friends i that I had hitched all the way from Alaska on the back of one of those 747 sized mosquitoes…. and the fact was that it wasn’t true. That mosquito had only made it to St. Louis before it tuckered out and broke into that blood bank and left me stranded on Route 66. I’d actually taken a greyhound the rest of the way back East.

Yes… it was only one time. But the fact of the matter was that  I had  stretched the truth. I was NOT that completely exemplary person I’d just made peace with.

And folks at that  very moment when I came to grips with that awful realization …it made me feel  small… so small… so small…
that I shrunk a full notch and that was just enough to be able to wiggle out of that log… grab a ride  on the back of a passing killer whale, get back home- skin that mosquito that had blundered into my trap… sell the fur… and by myself  the lap top computer I’m writing this from today.

So you see, that’s how Storytelling Saved My Life.  I hope you’ll never have to stretch the truth but if you just don’t have any choice, it just might save your’s sometime too.  I know my dad would be proud of me about how careful I was with the truth in sharing this account with you.  I’ve never forgot what he told me. “ Son, you be careful and never and I mean never, let the truth get in the way of telling a good story.”

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