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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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