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Posts Tagged ‘Klondike’

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

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

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

I guess Moore didn’t get the memo either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess he didn’t get the memo either!

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

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Dateline Oakland CA – April 18th.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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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

 

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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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