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Archive for the ‘personal stories’ Category

The Touch of Time- Stories Told by the Man of True Grace

My friend and colleague Jackson Gillman sent me birthday wishes a few days ago, and as always with Jackson, there was both levity and depth, and an annual assortment of quotes… this year about time and aging.  I spent my birthday, soaking in hot springs with a vantage that allowed me to watch the Rio Grande River flow by.  Sunset found me 100 miles or so upstream, at a wildlife refuge, and witness to the fly in of thousands of Sandhill cranes… a migration that scientists believe have been uninterrupted for tens of thousands of years.  So Jackson’s missive, along with the inevitable reflection of an amateur elder with another year over the dam, found me particularly tuned in to meditations about time.img_0359

wbbv4fyvm5zjkk718uxw2oipxdqqopfpygrqbkjcwjb8ozm5snib0agdu_aorztm9d3o3qs130The first time I heard Jackson tell, he told, mimed, and completely astonished me with a portion of an intricately nested Hasidic tale; Rabbi Nachman’s story of the Seven Beggars.  Stories, within stories, within stories!

That was 25+ years ago and I am still trying to learn this story not so much as to be able to tell it, but much more importantly to understand it more fully.

Here, in my own words,  is a piece of what he told that night, and what I have returned to so many times over the years.  Each of the Beggars appears to have an infirmity which as the story unfolds is revealed as a gift, and shared with two orphans who are about to be married.  Here, the Third Beggar speaks, the Beggar who had earlier appeared to be a stutterer.

“In truth, I am the greatest speaker and singer that there is.  Every living thing in the world will stop to hear my words.  The Man of True Grace, will tell you that I speak the truth.

At the top of a high mountain there is a waterfall.
At the top of another mountain way across the earth is the heart of the word. Yes… the world has a heart!

The heart of the world and the fountain love each other and want to be together forever.

The heart thinks… If I cannot see or be with the fountain forever-  I will die.

And God forbid that the heart of the world should die… because if it did… everything would die.

And this is why the heart is afraid. The heart is afraid that there will be no tomorrow.  Because, every day is the last day of the world.  Every day is the last!  Unless!  Unless a new day can be created and this is the part I play…
Because of me, each new day is created.

At the end of each day, I go about the world, gathering all the acts of kindness- large and small from that have been performed that day.  From these acts of kindness I use my great power of speech and compose a story or a song. maya heart 1

Then, I tell this story to The Man of True Grace, and from this story,  The Man of True Grace creates a new day.  Then he takes this new day and presents it to the Heart of the World.  The Heart of the World presents it to the Waterfall… which is in fact the Water of Life.  And so their love continues, and so time itself continues.”

Today, I am here to share how many of the days of our lives have been created.  I went to Jackson’s web-site after I received his message, and read a recent story that he shared there.  Here is the link, and if you read it, you will understand why the Man of True Grace has made many a day from Jackson’s acts of kindness.

http://www.jacksongillman.com/astory.html

The short story here is that he has been going into children’s hospitals and tuning in deeply to the children he visits there… children who are struggling to live, often isolated in their rooms.

Here is a quote from a mother of one of these children.

“Once a stranger and now a fellow traveler on this ride with our Special One.  He gave Aidan his first smile of the day as he sang silly songs and used Aidan’s body as an instrument. Tapping on his fingers, playing his ribcage, knocking on his knees.  He used Aidan’s hands to tell a story using each finger as a member of a family who ended up living in Aidan’s heart.”

bronx2Now let me tell you about another touch.  If you are old enough you will remember the Vietnam era photo of a terrorized 9 year old child, on the road, fleeing naked, her skin seared and melted in places from napalm dropped from the sky by American planes.  We want to turn away from these images, and let time heal the wounds of war.  But time is not always that generous.  And certainly “humanity,” this flawed sum that we are, is not that kind because 45 years later children are still burning in their homes and on the refugee roads.   Perhaps it would be better some think if the next day for our species should cease to come.trangbang

But the Man of True Grace undoubtedly will hear the story I just read in today’s newspaper and give us another day.  Phan Thi Kim Phuc who has been living with the pain and scars all these years heard about a new laser therapy being pioneered by Dr. Jill Waibel at a clinic in Miami.  Dr. Waibel offered Phan Thi free treatments there. They are almost complete.
Read  now the words of Phan Thi and rejoice for at least a day…

images-11“Before, somethings would touch me and I wouldn’t know what it was.  Now I can feel my little grandson’s hand on my arm.”

Thank you Jackson Gillman, thank you Phan Thi and thank you Dr. Waibel.  If there are more like you and I know that there are, among them those reading this, the world may go around and continue for another 365 years, and god willing, spirit willing, inshallah, I may soak in the springs and watch the cranes arrive from the venerable vantage point of 70!

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This morning here in Corrales, New Mexico,  a small flock of lesser goldfinches feed on the Maximillian Sunflower seed heads  growing on their giant stalks in my front yard.  And so blows a blogseed northward to another one of my talismanic moments on the Klondike guiding trail.

IMG_3118

Tutshi Lake Reflections

May 20th 2015, I pulled over at Tutshi High… a place to get a spectacular view of the 20+ mile long glacially carved Tutshi Lake.  My guests that day were all physicians from Thailand.  As always the far scenery evoked appreciative utterances, cameras clicked and I took lots of group pictures.  Then a woman noticed something closer to her feet.  “What  flower is that?  It’s beautiful!”  She was looking at a dandelion.  Apparently dandelions don’t grow in Thailand, because none of the other 20 or so folks had ever seen one either.  Good thing I didn’t say, “just a dandelion,” because what is so common to me was a source of wonder to all.  It occurred to me then that lacking familiarity with the flower, it was likely that no one there knew about making wishes on the seeds.  So I demonstrated.  I’ll just say this.  I had to skip the next stop because these doctors became kids again right before my eyes, and it took considerable time to pry them away from their delight.  Wishes flew on the wind!2015-05-20 12.35.19

Just a dandelion, just a crow, just a seagull?

Now, no one ever says just a bear.  Every time we’d encounter a bear, the bus became electrified.  I’ll write about bear encounters in another post, but at this point it bears mentioning that dandelions are a favorite food of ursus major and ursus  in the early spring, and grew in profusion by the side of the road.  If you consult the herbal books you’ll read that dandelions are a strong diuretic.  There’s speculation that a dandelion diet helps jumpstart the bears urinary system after their long winters sleep.  (No more dandelion wine for me before bed).

IMG_0565So here we were, still in May, the snow not that long gone, and already making wishes on the spent dandelion flowers.  How quickly from blossom to seed I thought.  And that’s when I first thought of holding my sex education seminar as part of my Klondike tour.  And what better group to initiate it with then a group of the doctors!

Before I even began, I swore the group to secrecy.  Don’t let my boss know that I’m teaching sex-ed here on tour.  (Okay boss… now you know.)

I began in the spirit of the Socratic method… asking questions.

“Do northern species or more southerly species of birds  have longer incubation periods?

“ What do you think?  Do birds up north or birds down south, once hatched take more time to fledge (grow their feathers)?

Arctic Tern Fledgling

Arctic Tern Fledgling

“What about time from germination to flowering and seed producing with plants?  Do you think that northern or southern species go from sprout, to flower to seed more quickly?”

Fairly quickly, the consensus came around to the conclusion that life cycles in the north were probably accelerated because of the short summer season. ( Two seasons in Alaska as the joke goes….winter and the 4th of July.)

That’s when I pointed out that all these questions were fundamentally about sex.  The need to reproduce and ensure the continuity of future generations.

“ What about humans then?” joked one of the quicker wits.  “ Do kids in Skagway grow up faster?”

What I was really getting at though (shtick aside) was the palpable feeling of the great urgency of life that one feels in the north.  To me it has always seemed that life fairly buzzes at a higher frequency.  The long daylight hours undoubtedly add to the effect.

fireweedHere’s Jack London, who of course was familiar with the route we were on,  taking the fierce urgency of life to another level…

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Fireweed gone to seed

“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”

So now, reflecting on Dandelion Day as I have come to call it, I conclude that

I would rather be ‘just a dandelion’ rather than an exotic orchid, so that flying on the wind and on the breath of children and grownups , I could be a hundred wishes, planting myself in the soil of wonder and love for our common earth, North, South, East and West.

coda:  A few hours after I posted this, my great friend Mike Seliger replied with a poem he wrote this spring.  Here it is…

Dandelions

I open the Book of Wildflowers,   randomly,
And there on page one hundred three,
My much maligned friend,
The ubiquitous Dandelion,
Scourge  of  lawn perfectionists,
But Friend of  Lovers  of Yellow Intruders
In the middle of shades of green…

“I am everywhere,”  she  says.
“Attend to me, and I can be
A Helpful Friend and Ally…”

The book calls her Common,.
But acknowledges her Power
As a wild universal Healer.
Every part of the plant Useful—
Root Potions for Healing the Liver,
Vitamin-rich Leaves for Salads,
Yellow Flowers good for Dreaming
And also for making Wine…
Seeds that feed the birds
While the  Seed Puffs  soar  skyward
Dancing on  Winds and Waving
To small children, calling
“Chase me, Follow me, catch me!
–and when you finally learn
How to Hold your Hands in Stillness
So I can be caught and held,
Your Breath, like the Wind,
Can send me skyward again…”

The Book shows, in yellow,
The parts of these United States
Where this “Common Weed” is found.
Yellow  fills the  entire Map…
—Mike Seliger, 4/23 15

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It was early  April and I was anticipating and preparing for what I imagined it was going to be like to deal with the cruise ship passengers that would soon be on my tours out of Skagway. I did the math.  20 weeks, 6 days a week  2 tours a day, maybe an average of 18 people per tour.  Depending on how it went, I figured there would be between 3500 and 4500 people by the end of the season.  Where would they come from and what would they be like?  I would be responsible for their safety and comfort while educating and entertaining them on tours that  would last from 2 to almost 7 hours.

My mind turned to a poem by Carl Sandburg, The People, Yes,  and one of the sections that has become a kind of compass for me regarding human behavior.

“Drove up a newcomer in a covered wagon: “What kind of folks live around here?”
“Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?”
“Well, they was mostly a lowdown, lying, thieving gossiping, backbiting kind lot of people.”
“Well, I guess, stranger, that’s about the kind of folks you’ll find around here.”
And the dusty gray stranger had just about blended into the dusty gray cottonwoods in a clump on the horizon when another newcomer drove up: “What kind of folks live around here?”
“Well, stranger, what kind of folks was there in the country you come from?”
“Well, they was mostly a decent, hard-working, law-abiding, friendly lot of people.” “Well, I guess, stranger, that’s about the kind of folks you’ll find around here.”

So this is how I generally approach situations.  I mostly expect the decent, friendly people, and I generally find them.

Still, with the numbers involved, I figured I’d be seeing some of the exceptions, and so this is how I prepared.

Cue the movie Taxi Driver. De Niro is rehearsing,  looking in the mirror, priming himself for a deadly encounter.  “ You talking to me?  You talking to me?”  Out comes the imaginary gun… bang, bang, bang!

I anticipated that the two most difficult situations I’d face would be,

#1… people in awe of scenery, gazing at the far horizons, and me with a schedule to keep.  It wouldn’t be easy or fun to interrupt their reverie…Hey Bob, Get back on the bus!

#2  complete jerks…. arrogant, demanding, and abusive.

I figured I could respond to each with a well practiced phrase.

For the awe-struck, it would be
“Will everyone kindly return to the bus.”

For the exceptionally bad case… the 1 in 4500
“ Get the “ F” off my bus!”

Maybe it was my own determination and upbeat introduction that soothed would be savage beasts. I’m not saying that there weren’t more than a few folks who seemed that they might have been dragged by their partners into a day excursion when they might have preferred to stay on the ship during rainy weather and played cards. There were a number, not many, who just couldn’t seem to get excited about anything. There was one, only one, and I found out about her at the end of the trip, who faked a diabetic emergency, causing me to shorten a trip, because as it turned out she didn’t like the fact, as her husband later told me, that there was a 2 year old on the bus making some noises.  But that was as bad as it got.

Now that the daily tide of passengers has come and gone I can honestly report that I never even came close to having to ‘Go DiNiro!’

Oh… and how did I handle “ Will everyone kindly return to the bus?”  I delegated!

Years ago I attended an Environmental Education Conference and went to a session run by a park ranger at Yosemite.  He shared a story that had always stuck and this year I put it to use.

He told us that parking cars at Yosemite Valley had been a nightmare.  “ I’d stand there in my uniform, with my shiny badge and official ranger hat… tell people to turn right and they’d turn left or just completely ignore me.  Then I got the idea to put a bear puppet on my ‘traffic hand.’  After that, when my bear puppet told people to turn to the left, they always turned to the left.  No one ever disobeys a puppet!”

IMG_2735And so when I had a kid on board who was between about 5-10 years old,  towards the beginning of a tour, I’d tell everyone that the hardest part of my job would be getting them back on the bus, interrupting reverie, etc.  Then I’d tell the Yosemite story, produce a wolf puppet and find a young volunteer, or several to share the responsibilities.  It worked every time!  Parents loved that I was involving their kids on a trip mostly geared to adults, and I had some mighty fine deputy guides!

So of the minions who shared part of their Alaska adventure with me, can I pick out my very favorite guests?

I’ve forgotten their names, but these two women ride on in my memory.  It was on a long tour.  All day they were beaming, enthusiastic about everything we were did and saw and very vocal about it, not at all shy about showing their excitement.  Several hours after the tour, we ran into each other on the street, and I learned a little about their story.

They were from New York City,  one Italian, the other Puerto Rican, and had known each IMG_3146other since 1st grade.  Here’s the part that blew me away.  In first grade they had made a pact with each other that some day they would travel to Alaska together.  (Where that idea came from I forgot to ask.  When I was in 2nd grade I was watching Sgt. Preston of the Yukon on T.V. maybe that was it for me!)  They made a second pact with each other as well.  They both wanted to be New York City policewomen so that they could help people in their communities.  (early advocates of community policing!)  And this trip was the culmination of that first pact.  They’d made it to Alaska!  And what made it possible?  They had both just retired after full careers with the New York City Police Dept.!  What a privilege to be their guide!

(Throw a log on the story fire.  What long held dream came true.  What long held dream will you see through?)

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Here is the first in what I intend to be a series of  posts about my recent 5 month stint working as a tour guide out of Skagway Alaska. I thought I’d be blogging that entire time, yet found myself so immersed and consumed in the venture that I was left with little time or energy for reflection.  So now that I’m back home in New Mexico…

Where to begin this? I   For me it’s not as simple as following the Kings Advice to Alice of Wonderland  “Begin at the beginning, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

I’ve chosen to begin at an ending.  In late August 1971 I dipped my kayak paddle into the Yukon River for a final few strokes and glided into the Bering Sea, having first dipped into the Yukon 2000 miles upstream in the river’s headwater Lake Bennett.  After a journey of 80 days, and a bush plane ride into a disorienting and kaleidoscopic reentry into the evening madness of the city of  Anchorage, I remember saying to myself… “I’m off the river, but this journey will never end.”Yukon map

44 years later (blink!) in April I found myself back in Skagway where the big adventure of my youth began. Though “you can’t step in the same river twice,”  my youthful conclusion that there would be no conclusion has proven the test of time.  The journey is of whole cloth and it continues.

Here’s the current short story.  Hitchhiking on my familiarity with Skagway from years ago, my Yukon adventure, and  my experience relating to people from around the world all these years as a storyteller, in a somewhat cavalier manner I tossed off an email inquiry about possible employment as a guide.  The next day the phone rang and I received more than a job offer.  It was a  full blown sales pitch, an entreaty,  a chapter and verse proposition complete with starting and ending dates salary etc.  “ Who are you talking to? “ my wife Liz asked, well aware of my suddnen mixture of bafflement and excitement.  And so it began.  A sudden and mostly unexpected, unplanned journey, a long absence from home,  from my soulmate and partner and from the work that has sustained me for many years.  I would be doing storytelling, but of a very different kind.

I’m sure I’ll be circling back to many details, encounters, and connections, episodes, but at this point I ought to provide at least a little more context.

In July of 1897 a ship docked in San Fransisco with a motley bunch of prospectors carrying with them a ton of gold, plucked from the Klondike in the Yukon territory.  These grizzled sourdoughs could barely carry off their  heavy sacks and totes of the precious metal.The reporters having got wind of their arrival were there to meet the boat.  The next day you couldn’t get a trolley car in the city.  The conductors had quit their jobs and were outfitting for the Klondike.  The rush was on. Over the next months, tens of thousands of others from around the world would trek north,
arriving in either Skagway or the nearby townsite of Dyea, at the foot of what would become the fabled Chilkoot Trail.

imagesHere in the words of Pierre Berton, author of The Klondike Fever, is what awaited them.
“… haul a ton of goods up the Dyea Trail and over the Chilkoot Pass(or White Pass out of Skagway) in the dead of winter, to construct a serviceable boat of green lumber whipsawed by hand on the shores of Lake Bennett, to tempt the swift river and it’s rapids  (of the Yukon River)for more than five hundred miles, and on arrival… to build a log cabin capable of withstanding temperatures of sixty below zero.”  Then of course the  back breaking work of mining lay before them.

My job as a guide was two-fold… meet cruise ship passengers 6 days a weeks early in the morning,  drive them through town to the White Pass Summit and a little beyond, interpreting Gold Rush history along the way. Then return to town, quickly meet another group for a second tour over the pass,  and further into the Yukon Territory, to Lake Bennett and slightly beyond in a 6 hour route that incorporated both history, natural history and simple breathtakingly beautiful opportunities to  see the country, take photos, and for many to fulfill a dream of making it to Alaska.  I guided roughly 250 tours and probably had somewhere between 3500 and 4000 people along  as my guests. IMG_4034

Details will be forthcoming.  But for now, here’s a question.  The question that many of my friends have been asking me.

Was it worth it?!

Before I left for Alaska I went to a coin shop and purchased an 1898 silver dollar.  I paid $35 dollars for it.  But how much is it worth?  The dealer told me that given the silver it contained, and given commodity fluctuation  it was ‘worth’ $14 and the balance of the purchase price was for ‘value’ as a collectible.  Is there a difference between worth and value? That’s something worthy of reflection I think.   I’ll attest to it’s collectible value, because almost every day, I passed that dollar around so that people could have a tangible, palpable connection to 1898.  “Maybe this very dollar circulated here in Skagway in 1898.”  I’d say.  “You could buy one egg, 1/50th of a cantaloupe(no kidding) or a quick date with Ethel the Moose or Molly Few Clothes.  Thousands of people on my tours had their hands on that dollar and I always got it back even when I was distracted and had forgotten that I’d passed it out.  My faith in humanity was always affirmed. What’s the value of that?!

Everyday I’d drive buy a local store that was selling a mounted mastodon tusk for somewhere near $100,000.  On my Yukon trip, I’d drifted past a place called the Boneyard, and seen  tusks sticking out of the river bank. (During the last Ice Age, the Yukon Valley was curiously ice free and there the mastodons roamed) A few bends  further down the river I passed an encampment where several guys were cleaning a huge huge tusk,  that they’d excavated.  I suppose we could have cut short our trip and become a tusk trader (it was still legal then).  We hadn’t started with this certitude of intention, but reaching the Bering Sea and as we put it, ‘going all the way,’ had become a commitment I’d made to myself and my three companions.  So we passed up an opportunity to ‘get rich.’ Now on my tours, I could tell the story of the tusks, and could attest as a first hand witness to one of the many great changes the land underwent over the eons. I can evoke and share an almost bodily sense of the passage of time.   How much is that worth?  Or better yet… what the value there?

So this time I spent in Alaska this year.  Was it worth it?IMG_1751
For some the question comes down to simple arithmetic.  Did I make money?  How much?  For the moment, the answer to that simple question is… enough.

As I’d pull into town and the conclusion of each tour, I’d usually say to my guests, “ The best things in life aren’t things, they’re experiences and I hope you’ve had a great experience today,” (In the spirit full disclosure, yes, I was simultaneously thinking about what the tips might be that day!)

So now, arithmetic aside, the question becomes, what is the value of the experience I’ve returned home with?  And in keeping with, ‘the trip will never end’ I have to remind myself that some of the value of my experience may not reveal itself for years to come.  (Maybe that silver dollar will be “worth” much more by then!)  But kidding aside, here for starters are a few things I’m carrying back in my prospectors poke.

I made it all the way!  I didn’t turn back.  I kept a commitment to myself, to my colleagues, and to my employer even though as I may later attest I had little respect for the way he did business with his clients and staff.  When I say, I almost turned back, that I could barely picture myself getting beyond the first couple of weeks, that is no exaggeration. I didn’t know if I could or wanted to hack it.  I had prepared mightily for this assignment.   I wanted to be the best tour guide I could possibly be… for my clients, and for my own sense of accomplishment and mastery.  Little did I suspect that boning up on Gold Rush and natural history was not the most challenging part of the job.

Here’s an insiders perspective.  Start at the dock and get back to the dock before the ship sails.  Failure to do so is the ultimate business catastrophe for reasons that can be imagined.  Along the way, adjust for number of people on board, what kind of shoes are they wearing when deciding where and when to stop,  estimate how long will it take to get on and off at stops, how many people will need to use the few and far between  stinky outhouses on the route, how long will it take to get through both U.S. and Canadian customs on any given day,    and weather the dog mushing begin and end on time.  Allow for the possibility of getting stuck behind an incomprehensibly slow moving ore or fuel truck.  Wonder if  will the fog be so thick I’ll have to drive at 5mph? What about road construction delays?  Meanwhile, the boss is telling clients we’ll be making stops every 15 minutes…which was not always possible… the boss is aslo telling people the weather will be better on the other side of the mountains… not always true… that there will be thrilling bear encounters… sometimes but not usually true.  I was a nervous wreck at night,  barely sleeping, but managed to keep my game face moving down the road.  During those first weeks and as I moved into the second month I was not having much fun.   Could I hack it?  Would I make it?

IMG_1500And then on a rare day off, I went to Mecca.  I drove 120 miles to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory and made a pilgrimage to the River…to Miles Canyon, which had been one of the stretches of deadly rapids that the Klondikers had to navigate.  It had been tamed by the one dam on the river by the time I floated by, but this was the first time in 44 years that I’d set eyes on and dipped toes into the river.  I was in tears, for so many reasons.  Tears of joy, tears of regrets, thoughts of time and opportunities lost, but perhaps more than anything else, came an epiphany… I had been by this place all those years ago… at the beginning of a different long odyssey that I didn’t know if I’d complete, and here I was again, the same person… that optimistic and naive kid was and still is the same person… older and maybe a bit wiser.  I was both at the same time! … a time traveler if there ever was one… a gift  message from the the river and the great cycles of life.  I HAD made it all the way, and at that moment, I committed to completing my contract no matter what.  I’d pull up at the dock on September 9th, let off that last guest, and it would feel like taking those last strokes and gliding into the Bering Sea.  What would that be worth?  What value?

I’m going to leave off here for now.  I learned once again the personal value of completing something difficult.  It’s often extremely difficult at times for me to write.  But now that I’ve once again dipped my paddle into the blog current I intend to keep going.  I hope some of you will travel with me and find what value you can!

As always, your encouragement keeps me going.  And as always, I hope for your thoughts and stories here in the comment section.  What for instance,  do you think about a distinction between worth and value?

I’ll defer to Albert Einstein for the last word.

“ Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

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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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I’m heading to Alaska again this summer to tell stories in libraries and at a festival and starting to think about a new adventure.  Here below is an article I wrote 44 years ago about a trip I took with 3 friends down the Yukon

‘A journey of 1000 miles begins with one step’ and with this in mind I began to  plan a float trip down the third longest river in North America, the Yukon. From the high country lakes of British Columbia and flowing northwest through the Yukon Territories, the Yukon was the water route for thousands of gold seekers in 1898. Seventy-three years later, this same area to Dawson and the Klondike gold fields is almost completely uninhabited. Except for a small mining community, this land returned to wilderness and wild animals, where the imagination can still run free. Not ending at Dawson, this cruise and exploration was to continue for an additional 1500 miles across the entire State of Alaska and finishing at Norton Sound on the Bering Sea.

Preparing a trip of this magnitude required two basic steps and involved hundreds of small detail preparations. First and most important I found able and willing travel companions in my friends Doug Stakes, Eric Skidmore and Ken Jones. Providing the best equipment and proper supplies was the other big step. My long experience with Folbots around southeast Alaska convinced me to select two Super folding Folbots for this great adventure. The four of us met at Ketchikan for a departure by ferry to Skagway. A day and a half later we disembarked at Haines to visit friends. Here we sorted out a veritable mountain of supplies, assembled the boats and to our amazement discovered that there was room for it all.  After we surveyed the lakes by air, complements of a willing pilot and found them free of ice, we proceeded to the headwaters of the Yukon via Railroad. ‘Nobody buys a one way ticket’ exclaimed the reluctant railway agent, but we did and got off the train at Lake Bennett, the first of a chain of lakes we’d have to navigate before getting on the river itself.

Under brilliant clear skies, on June 5th we assembled, loaded and eagerly pushed off our Folbots. We paddled into a light northern wind, which later turned into quite a tempest. Churning up waves from 4 to 5 feet, we experienced an exciting hour after which the weather returned to almost a dead  calm. By 9 o’clock we camped under clear skies and observed the first of many beautiful sunsets we would see during what would be a 80 day trip. Almost uninterrupted good weather favored us for he following three weeks. We alternated paddling with a little sailing, did some unexpected ‘ice skating’ over frozen stretches and enjoyed mostly carefree and unforgettable wilderness cruising. Three days after starting we caught up with winter. Rounding the windy arm of Tagish Lake, we were stopped by a sheet ot ice, clear across the lake. We had to make camp and wait. Despite hard winds all night, we awoke to the encouraging sight of an open passage across the mile wide lake. We paddled to the far shore and continued along open water on that side. We dragged our Folbots over many stretches of ice without harming them and felt rather elated over this experience. When we reached ice free waters again we benefited from good winds in our direction. We tested our sailing abilities with a home rigged sail for twenty miles across Marsh Lake. Entering the main current of the river we could afford to sit back and let the Yukon push us. Ahead of Whitehorse, the provincial capital of the Yukon Territory, we passed Miles Canyon, once the most dreaded section of the river, where men and boats were lost in their race to the Klondike. The canyon waters have since been tamed by the Whitehorse Dam. We procured last minute supplies during a brief stop in Whitehorse. Returning to the swiftly flowing river, we headed for the famous Lake Laberge, the scene of the cremation of Sam MgGee. For this occasion we made a commemerative bonfire and read Robert Service’s immortal poem, on the ‘marge of Lake Laberge’.

The next morning brought clear skies and fair winds as we sailed to the mouth of Laberge. We passed the rotting hulk of a long forgotten sternwheeler and entered the Thirty mile stretch of the upper Yukon. Turning around the many tortuous turns of the Thirty mile, we noticed a most awe inspiring array of wildlife. Within two short hours we watched a bobcat or lynx casually stretched out on a high bluff, a coyote running along the beach, two large grizzlies huddled near a log and a cow moose grazing in the underbrush. Above in a clear blue sky we noticed many ducks, terns and gulls flying profusely overhead. At that time we appreciated our smoothly running and silent Folbots the most. It would have been impossible to approach these animals closely with noisy motors or metal boats. We felt quite assured in seeing those big grizzlies from our Folbots rather than from land.

Following the way of the gold seekers we observed many relics and silent reminders of their one time presence. Now and then appeared old stern-wheelers washed ashore, parts of old dredges, a wheelbarrow by a creek and numerous tumbled down cabins. Our minds wondered and questioned. Would the men who broke their, backs, hearts and left families behind to trek across this primitive land, understand us young men, as we followed their path for recreation and to prove to a changing world, that we could still travel long distances on our OWN and without internal combustion engines.

Five Finger Rapids was the last major obstacle for the Klondikers. Three huge pillars of rock protrude in the Yukon to create five narrow channels of surging waters with tremendous turmoil of frothy waves and spray. Consulting our map we decided after inspection for the right hand channel. Our Folbots seemed tiny amidst these powerful masses of turbulent water, but they handled splendidly. We passed in perfect form without any trouble, only to regret that we could not repeat it. The challenge of these strange environments like a set of tough rapids is equaled by the joy of meeting a stranger in the wilderness.

Sitting over a campfire and sharing coffee, our new friend was Roger Mendell- son. He had just come down from Whitehorse in a freight boat in the company of two dozen sled dogs, huskies and malamutes. He was repairing an old cabin for a season of winter trapping. We shared food, drink, stories galore and helped placing moss on the cabin roof before we proceeded to Dawson.

We pondered over the matter of timing as we paddled into Dawson some 460 miles downstream from Whitehorse. We arrived on June 21st, the summer solstice and longest day of the year. That night we climbed with local folks a hill, known as the Midnight Dome. This is an annual ritual, watching the sun go below the horizon at eleven thirty and come back up at one in the morning. Traveling further north we would cross the Arctic Circle at Fort Yukon. If we had reached there around the 21st of June, we would have experienced the phenomenon of the midnight sun. However, we had an unexpected delay, as the Canadian Mounted Police appealed for our assistance. A forest fire was burning about 20 miles from Dawson and we were asked to lend a hand. Four days later we were back in Dawson, tired and grimy, but celebrating with gusto. We surfaced a few days later to return to our river.

From the peak of Midnite Dome we had already a good preview of the country and the course of the river. As far as visible the Yukon twisted its way between range after range of the Ogilvies Mountains. Leaving the Yukon Territory we re-entered the United States for Alaska, which greeted us with rain and lots of rain. Wet and miserable we discovered an abandoned looking cabin, which displayed the following note: ‘Welcome, feel free to use this cabin and the wood; we ask only that you keep things clean and replace any wood that you use.’ We learned of an unwritten code of this great land, as we warmed our bodies and raised our spirits by the fire of a welcome Yukon stove. This was the first of more cabins with similar invitations which we used overnight as our home.

Past Eagle, the first town on the Yukon in Alaska, the river spread out into the famous Yukon Flats. The water meanders for 300 miles over a broad plain, attaining a width of over ten miles in spots amid a veritable maze of islands. Our maps became useless because the rampant river cuts new channels, creates new islands and removes previous land areas in its restless advance. Thankful again for our preference to paddle cruising, we could carefully inspect and then follow the main channel at our relatively slow speed. We had the joy and benefit of being on our own, while motorized boats require a pilot for navigation. Near Circle at the beginning of the Flats we passed a sign: ‘End of the Road’ to mark the northernmost end of the American Highway system. With an air of glowing satisfaction we had passed beyond the realm of the automobile. Hereafter we pondered often over the silent atmosphere, which at first seemed overwhelming, but gradually became a welcome feature of our wilderness journey. Each sound that breaks the silence takes on important dimensions. The crack of a twig, the song of a bird, the splash of a fish and the echo of our names as it rebounds many times from the surrounding hills.

The Flats came to an abrupt end beyond Stevens Village, where we approached Rampart Canyon. Here the Yukon compresses its huge volume of water into a passage of barely 300 feet width. Extremely swift we advanced some 90 miles in 16 hours of an exhilarating run and then rested a day at the village of Rampart. Almost like clockwork the King Salmon were running and the big fish wheels creaking. The water of the Yukon is so silty, that fish can not see a lure and consequently we had been fishing along the clear side streams. Mostly we landed Arctic Grayling, Pike or Whitefish, but those Kings given to us by local fishermen added a delicious variety to our diet. We also bought more food and supplies at some villages. Although we could easily have subsisted on bear or moose we encountered, we refrained from wanton waste of life and meat, because we had only the four of us to feed. Yukon hospitality was not limited to the use of cabins, because in many villages we were befriended with offers of food and lodging. We appreciated these conveniences after three or more days on our own in the woods. Sometimes the villager’s hospitality is abused by “drifters or floaters’’ as they call them. One can only hope that outsiders will consider the extra strain that even a lone individual can bring upon the resources and graces of a small village in the North. By the time we reached Kaltag we had made and left behind many fine friends to be long remembered. From Kaltag the river turns almost due south for 150 miles toward the town of Anvik. The Yukon runs straight and wide along this stretch with a reputation for ferocious winds to cause high and choppy waves. Our Folbots had already established their ability to navigate safely in roughest sea. Without any trouble we met this challenge and pushed merrily ahead in spite of unusually rough conditions. However we found ourselves plagued by mosquitos, which were by far the greatest nuisance, if not hazard of the North country. Mosquitos shared our living by constantly appearing in our soup or tea. Some of the available repellents provide sufficient protection in all but the most severe conditions, when it becomes advisable to wear a head-net and keep the mouth closed.

The miles fell quickly behind us and we soon passed Holy Cross, where the Yukon turns toward the west at Devil’s Elbow. We experienced a complete transition of landscape and inhabitants near the village of Russian Mission. Instead of Athabascan Indians we met smaller sized Eskimos and their way of life as forests changed to tundra. It was August now and berry picking season. Our pan fried bread was enriched with blueberries. The Kings had stopped running and were replaced by Chum Salmon. With the fish wheels gone, the fishing method changed to set and drift nets. Timing continued to play an important part on our trip. Paddling was not only good exercise and our means of travel, but provided time and inclination for meditation. Just when we arrived at Russian Mission, the Orthodox bishop made his annual appearance by float plane. We witnessed a solemn and impressive Eskimo service.

Further downstream at St. Mary’s we arrived in time for the annual get together celebration of the people from the lower Yukon. We joined the merry making and renewal of friendships and watched the wonderful performances of latest Eskimo dances. Hereafter the days were getting shorter and the nights distinctly colder We had reached the Yukon Delta as we headed for Alakanuk, situated on the southernmost of the three main channels. Still thirty miles to go, we faced the most violent winds we had been prepared to expect. Unbearable conditions forced us to take refuge on a small island, where we spent two miserably wet and cold nights. Calmer waters returned on the third day and so we proceeded into Alakanuk  and then  paddled the ten more miles to the Bering Sea.

The last few miles of our long journey turned out to be beautiful, where the low land meets the sea in a hardly distinguishable way. Standing at the last point of land, surveying the vast Bering Sea to the west and looking back to where we had come from, our thoughts turned to many wonderful as well as trying adventures we had gone through. My friends and ! will never forget the moment of arrival at our journey’s end as we exclaimed in jubilation: “We have done it!” The echoes of the surfing waters and the triumph of this episode will often be remembered as the high time of our young lives.

We paddled back upstream to Alakanuk and bid farewell to our friends. Reluctantly we packed up the Folbots and hitched a ride on single engine Cessna plane to Anchorage. During the homeward flight we started making plans for our next adventure.

Bob Kanegis

 

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