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Recent events which seem to me to be heightening a national zeitgeist of fear of the “other” have prodded me to republish this post from 2014.  I was back in Alaska earlier this month and ran into an elder from Kake Alaska- the scene of both the personal and folkloric tales that follow.  I’ll write about that encounter in another post, but for now please consider ways in which we can break bread together and build bridges instead of walls.

As we enter this particular Thanksgiving day, with the unfortunate pall of not just smoke but, mistrust, fear, anger and racial tension sparked by the events in Ferguson Missouri, I remember the time that I first experienced myself as a stranger in a strange land, a very obvious young, unexperienced, 20 year old white kid in the Tlingit Native community of Kake Alaska.(1970)

I want to share two stories from that time.  One, my own, which is how I cam to be there, and how I was treated.  And the other, a Tlingit folktale that I heard told many years after I’d left, and then found even many years latter in written form. This story has guided since it ‘found me’  but I have resisted telling it in deference to sensitivities about cultural appropriation.  But my personal connection to this story feels so strong, and now that I have seen numerous retellings in print and on the internet, my feeling is that this story is screaming to be told at a time like this, a time when we simply cannot remain as strangers to each other.
Off on an adventure, I’d landed in Petersburg Alaska in the early spring, totally broke and desperate for a job, any job.  In a small cafe, a Vista volunteer working in Kake, suggested that I take a boat to this island community and try a get a job as a deck hand on a fishing boat since the Halibut season was not far off.  The conversation was overheard by some of the locals who exhorted me mostly as follows…”Don’t do it kid.  Those natives will throw you overboard and you’ll be food for the sand fleas.”  They truly were trying to dissuade me.  I don’t know if it was providence, stubbornness, curiosity, or simply my desperate financial straights, but an hour later I was on my way to Kake.

Here’s how I was greeted.  After being introduced by that Vista volunteer to one of the prominent families in the village, I was offered a place to sleep on one of the village fishing boats and a place at the table to eat with the family every day for several weeks until the fishing season started.  Some inquiries were made and when fishing commenced, I had a job. I was the greenhorn and I mean true greenhorn on a halibut boat where the next youngest member of the crew was 80 years old. No doubt I was somewhat of a curiosity , but the point is that as an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and this proved to be just the first of many years of my experience of native hospitality.  Had I listened to the bigots, and yes, that’s what they were,  and not ventured to the village, my life might have proven to have been very different.
Now the folktale.  It’s important to remember that I did not encounter this tale, from this village until years after I left.

The Man Who Entertained the Bears

A man of the Raven clan living had grown very old.  His friends were gone, passed away and he felt sad to think that he was left alone. He began to think about how he might leave that lonely place or even end his own life.  He thought that he might paddle away to another village, but then said to himself, ” I will be a stranger there and if  the people there see that I am alone, they may think that I have run away from my own village,  or been banished for some disgraceful thing.

It then occurred to him to go to the bears and let the bears kill him. The village was at the mouth of a large salmon creek and there found a bear trail and lay down right in the middle of it.

“ Let the bears find me here at eat me,” he decided.

Soon after, as he lay there, he heard the sounds of twigs and bushes breaking and saw a large number of grizzly bears coming toward him.  The largest bear was in the lead,  a huge old Silvertip- the tips of his hairs were white as that old mans hair.  Suddenly the man imagined the sound of his own bones breaking and thought that perhaps being eaten by the bears was not such a good idea.

Very quickly now the bears were close upon him. He jumped up. The  Silvertip stoop so that they were facing each other.  The hair on the man’s next stood up.  The fur on Silvertip’s neck stood up.

“I  am here,” said the man,  summoning his courage,  “to invite you to a feast.” I have come to invite you to a feast tomorrow, but, if you are going to kill me,  I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of friends,  my children, and my wife.”

At this, Silvertip grunted, turned about and led the other bills back up the trail.

“I think they have accepted my invitation,” the man thought.

When he got home he began to prepare for the feast. He cleaned and made his house a welcoming place,  then he told the  other people in the village about his encounter with the bears and invited them all to the feast.

“You have done a very foolish and dangerous thing,” they replied.  The bears are our enemies. We will not come!”

For the feast, the man prepared dishes that the bears would enjoy, salmon,  berries, and more.  The next morning he saw the bears coming from the mouth of the creek. The other villagers saw them too, peeking from their doors but afraid to come out. But he stood still to receive them. brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing Silvertip in the middle of the house and the rest around him.

The feast began with large trays of cranberries preserved in grease.  Then tray after tray of salmon and other foods were passed from bear to bear.  When they they were finished, Silvertip rose on his hind legs and began to address the man  for quite some time. Then he turned and led the other bears out towards the forest.  As each bear left, it licked the paint with which that the man had adorned his arms and chest with.

The next day, the smallest of the  bear came back, but it seemed to the man to be in almost human form and spoke to him in  his own Tlingit language.

“I was once a human being. I was a young baby, lost in the forest.  The bears adopted me, protected me, and taught me their ways. Now I am mostly a bear, but I still remember my childhood language.  Silvertip asked me if you understood what he said to you at the feast yesterday?”

The man replied, “I felt that he was thanking me, but no, I did not understand everything.”

“He was telling you,” the bear man said, “that he is in the same condition as you. He too has lived long and has lost all of his friends. Many are the ways in which we are the same.  He had heard of you before he saw you. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones. or when you are lonely.”  And with that the bear man returned to the forest and his companions.

(Here’s a link to the original English version of the story.

http://www.sacred-texts.com/nam/nw/tmt/tmt088.htmI’ve shortened and adapted it slightly but trust that the intent and spirit of the story has been conveyed.  Again, this is offered humbly and with thanks to those who have told and may continue to tell the story in and around Kake.  Please know that my time there was a turning point in my life, a time when I began to see and understand my place in the world in a much broader way,  way that opened up a whole new way of seeing, thinking and relating)

This story was narrated to Swanton by a man named Kasank, who added this commentary to the tale.

“From this we learn,” said Kasank, that when when we give a feast, no matter if a person may be an enemy, it is good to invite him to the meal and become friends just as this man did with the bears.”
This story began working on me as soon as I heard it.  I was early into my storytelling career and discovering that for me, storytelling was not so much about performance as it was about encounter and being together with people in an authentic and convivial way.  It lead me to work with my wife and storytelling partner Liz and a great group of friends to create community events we have come to call F.E.A.S.T!  Families Eating and Storytelling Together.  The intent has always been to bring people together – people of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds for a shared meal, and shared stories.

Food and stories are what I’d call the universal solvent of  differences and mistrust.  Break bread with each other, share stories- true stories, stretched stories, hard stories, folktales, jokes, jests, stories of fools stories of wise ones, love stories, reconciliation stories… and we find out, like the man and Silvertip, how beyond the knotty differences, just how much we have in common.

Finally for now, I’d just like to add, that it’s not just about sitting down with an adversary or an enemy.  Families have their daily, and sometimes drawn out stresses, arguments, and grudges.  We can start on Thanksgiving day of course, but any day, any meal can be a time to be together, eat together, and make peace with ourselves and each other.  And that would truly be a grace and a blessing.

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Once again I was approaching the Canadian Customs and Immigration station on the Klondike Highway. Looking ahead I could see that the wait would be at least 15 minutes if not longer.  We  had just crossed the summit of the White Pass, and images-8I’d been telling the guests on my tour bus about the “one ton rule.”  During the 1898 Gold Rush, the Mounties required the Argonauts as the gold seekers were called, to carry an estimated one year supply of food with them as a condition for entering the country.  Now as we waited at the border I considered what story I might tell to pass the time as we sat there waiting to show our passports before proceeding into British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory.

Then it occurred to me.  The border!  Why not give the Gold Rush a rest and tell a smuggling story!  “Folks,” I confided in a mock conspiratorial tone, “let me tell you…”

I introduced them to  Mullah Nasruddin, or the Hodja as he is also known, the often foolish but somehow wise hero of hundreds of tales told in coffee houses across the middle east and beyond.

Once a week Nasruddin crossed the border pushing a wheelbarrow heavily laden with merchandise.  One week the wheelbarrow was full of melons, the next week it might have been dates, or bottles of rosewater.  Come each Tuesday morning, Nasruddin would faithfully arrive at the crossing, produce the necessary  paperwork, the border agent would examine his cargo  then wave the Mullah through.  But the agent always suspected that Nasruddin was pulling the wool over his eyes and engaged in some kind of smuggling racket.  Try as hard as he could though to catch him in the act, the agent couldn’t catch him in the act.  Week after week, month after month, and then year after year, a wheelbarrow full of this, that or the other thing  and  the agent growing increasingly frustrated, sure that Nasruddin was having a great laugh at his expense.

Now it was many years later.  Both men had retired and one day they encountered each other sitting at adjacent tables at a coffee house.images-12

“Nasruddin,” you old rascal.  “You can tell me now.  I have no authority, You’re beyond the reach of the law.  All those many years when I would see question you each week, I suspected that you’d been smuggling something .  Admit it! Admit it now and ease my mind.

“Oh yes, indeed my friend.  It is true. Your suspicions were well founded and I profited greatly each week with my clandestine cargo.”

“Tell me, tell me,!  must know or it will drive me crazy!  Just what was it that you were smuggling?” the agent fairly begged.

With a great sly grin, Nasruddin replied, “ Wasn’t it obvious?  I was smuggling… wheelbarrows!”images-9

I would have occasion to tell it dozen’s of times over the course of the summer while waiting either to cross into Canada or back into Alaska. Once, I even told it to one of the U.S customs officials as we sat at a cafe at adjacent tables in Skagway.

“ That story is truer than you even think,” he told me, and then related that when he was working at the U.S and Mexican border, there was a guy who came across often with a bicycle heavily laden with merchandise.  Eventually the agent figured out that he was crossing into the U.S. with a new bike and returning with a beaten up one, and that he was smuggling… bicycles!

Sometimes it takes a long time to catch on to something ‘hiding in plain sight.’

In one venue or another, I’ve been telling the Nasruddin wheelbarrow story for years, but it was just the other day on the way to the Taos storytelling festival when I saw this story in a way that I’d never thought about it before.  This is not uncommon for storytellers.  .  Another layer of the onion peels off to reveal  a previously unrecognized  dimension of a tale. Here I am thinking that I’m bringing people to a wading pool, and unknown to me someone in the audience is off in the deep end of meanings and associations.

Storyteller as “Smuggler!”   Wittingly or unwittingly, we carry messages across borders and boundaries, stealthily slipping in meaning that is reveals later when the time or conditions are right.   I thought I was telling a story about smuggling wheelbarrows and lo and behold, I finally figure out that it can be construed as story about smuggling stories!

When they could afford it, the Klondike gold seekers would hire Tlingit packers to haul their good up the passes.  Their strength and endurance was legendary.
Still, all who watched one day were astonished when one Tlingit man strapped a cast iron stove on his back and without faltering proceeded to make the long ascent the summit.  As a crowd at the top looked on in astonishment, he put the stove down, then opened it’s door, and took out a 50 pound sack of flour!

Storyteller!  You approach your listeners with a story. You’re at a border. ( of the storyteller/story/listener)  Here’s the agent waiting for you with a question.  Just what are you packing in that story bag?

images-11(Fellow storytellers… what story have you discovered hiding in your stories?)

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

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

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

I guess Moore didn’t get the memo either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess he didn’t get the memo either!

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

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

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

mosquito-sculpture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At

At At

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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