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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
images-1

 

 

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.

 

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.”

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.

What does an irascible 90 year old curmudgeon and a disruptive and seemingly thick-skulled 8 year old have in common? They have both have surprised me with deep life lessons they’ve imparted to me during the time I’ve spent with them telling, teaching and listening to stories together. Let me tell you about Alexi and Bill. Alexi is a student in one of our long running school residency programs. Bill is a resident at an assisted living facility where we’ve been volunteering to help with a monthly story swap for a couple of years. We’ve known Alexi since he was in first grade. I’ll start by revisiting something I posted 5 years ago that concerns him and then fast forward to the present.

January 13, 2010

images“With his hands trembling slightly, “The Listener” rang the Tibetan Bells and convened our class this morning. The care he took and the look of awe on his face might have led you to believe he was holding the Holy Grail itself. Alexi, is “The Listener. He’s a third grade boy who rarely speaks and when he does, often does so in a mumbling and not always coherent manner. He can be disruptive and often finds himself the object of his teachers frustration and even ire.

Last year, somewhat reluctantly, I let him join a smaller group of students who were practicing a story for our school-wide “Tellabration.” At first the goal was simply to have him in a smaller and more controlled group which might let the rest of the class proceed with fewer interruptions. When Alexi asked me what his ‘part’ in the story was I told him that he had one of the most important parts of all. He was the listener! From that point on, his demeanor changed dramatically. He listened with rapt attention to his classmates as they worked through their rehearsals. When performance day came, the storytellers took the stage. They were just getting ready to begin when Alexi, stood up from his place in the audience and took a place next to the tellers.
I was momentarily taken aback. What was he doing there? Alexi caught my surprised expression-and announced in a clear, confident and strong voice, “I’m the Listener!” No laughs from the audience, no snickers… the kids got it. This boy, so often the outsider, was there to remind us that without listeners, there is no living storytelling.

Who better than Alexi to ring that bell and call our attention to the need for deep listening ”

That was 2010. Alexi is now with a small group of 8th graders that we see once a week and we still ring the bell before every class. We haven’t had him in one of our classes since 5th grade. In the two years following the events described above- from all accounts Alexi pretty much continued to be a source of frustration for his teachers, but when he was with us he was a rapt listener though still pretty much ‘on the outside looking in’ when it came to other activities. To tell the truth, as much as I appreciated his presence with us, I’d come to think that he really didn’t have much on the ball or for that matter much of a future ahead of him. We lost track of him.

So here we are in 2015- working with an assortment of Aesop’s fables, Russian Wonder Tales, Spanish Fairy Tales and guess who our star student is? It’s Alexi who remembers story sequence. It’s Alexi who in a clear and confident voice can express the main idea of the story. It’s Alexi… still alert staying with the story from beginning to end. Alexi the “Listener!”

Every year we are surprised by students who seem to have come out of the shadows… kid’s who may not get as much attention as they deserve because they are quiet, or seemingly unengaged and who then amaze us- perhaps by announcing that they are ready to tell a story start to finish, or in other cases running down a long list of stories that they remember from years past. But surprised doesn’t even begin to describe my experience of Alexi’s transformation. Astonished is more like it. But here’s the lesson for me. I think of myself as someone who is tuned in and sensitive to kid’s potential. And I missed it with Alexi. Thick-skulled? Nothing on the ball? No future? Wrong, wrong and wrong! Alexi has taught me more about human potential then any class, book or seminar ever has.

Now, what about that nonagenarian curmudgeon Bill? What a pain in the ass he was at some of these swaps. He’s a fine storyteller, with a resonant voice, and a large repertoire to pull from. But what a contrarian he can be. One day there’s too much personal storytelling- he wants to hear more folktales. The next, it’s too many folktales. Sometimes his comments to others in the group- including the facilitators, seemed abrasive and designed to hurt. I’d find myself wishing that he’s stop showing up. And then one evening he told us that he was not coming back. Somewhere toward the end of a long story he’s been telling (and telling well) he lost the thread. It took him only perhaps 10 or 15 seconds for his memory to kick back in, but those seconds must have seemed like an eternity for him and this lapse troubled him deeply. It was the first time. Bill is a proud man and this laid him low. He was not about to let it happen in public ever again.

Exit Bill to the relief of the crowd? No! First of all his tales- and they were all folktales- were beyond question the most entertaining of all the residents. They didn’t seem as troubled as I was by his abrasive personality. Secondly, our co-facilitator had been counting on him as an anchor for the group. The facility liaison also encouraged him to stay. We all said what you might expect about all of us having our own lapses… about professional tellers having theirs, etc. etc. But it didn’t seem that we were getting through. And then the next session rolled around and as promised, Bill was not there. We had a decent night of telling but Bill’s absence was present.

But Bill did come back. Bill came back, having made peace with his own perceived shortcomings. And he seemed to come back in peace. He came back and told a personal and revealing story from his past about a failed marriage, and a place of sanctuary where he could heal.He asked people to think about that word sanctuary and tell the group what it meant to them. Not everyone spoke but everyone listened to Bill and those who did share, with as much attention and presence as Alexi shows now in 8th grade. We reached a place of conviviality and fellowship that evening that brought us unmistakably to a new level.

Here’s what I learned from Bill. Even at 90, if one has the will and the spirit… one can take chances, learn,adapt, grow and make a contribution. It took a lot of guts to return,to come back humbly,and share a leadership role… because that is exactly what he did. It is something I admire and aspire to.

So these are two of my teacher/mentors Thank you so much Alexi and Bill!

Dear readers… who are you learning from these days?

Yukon-286x173

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

 

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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