In Search of Fungi

The days here grow longer and soon the weather will begin to warm. In anticipation and celebration of long days foraging in the woods, I have written today’s story.

In Search of Fungi

I first noticed him as I passed through a sparse forest of live oak and entered a meadow that was bisected by the dirt road I walked. His was a stumbling, awkward gait as his eyes scanned the distance for an unseen something. He saw with a thousand yard stare. He looked at nothing and everything while ignoring the uneven ground in front of his feet. His clothes were old and dull in color. Hair unkempt and hands dirty, his knees were caked with dirt from pushing aside brush and crawling over the ground. His left hand was burdened with an obviously heavy shopping bag. It had the same ragged and unkempt look as the rest of his attire. On a city street of vacant buildings and trash filled alleys, I would have given him a wide berth. I would have thought drugs, alcohol or a mind long strayed from the norms of society. I might even have crossed the street to avoid his notice. But here, on this narrow dirt track miles from the nearest paved road, I recognized him as a kindred soul.

Besides, he wasn’t dressed, or behaving, too differently than I. As I neared him, his eyes broke free from whatever unknown distant reality bound them. With a nearly maniacal intensity, he focused on me. “Really hit the jackpot today,” he said as he reached with his right hand into his bag, “here…let me show you. You want one?”

From his bag, he pulled a large, flowery, apricot orange colored shape…a chanterelle…a mushroom. I glanced discretely at his overflowing bag and the offered fungus. I complimented him on his success while feeling vaguely jealous, “Wow, you did great….no thanks, I think I’ll be OK today.” Then, I continued on my way.

Slung over my shoulder, half hidden from sight, my own backpack was filled with a pleasing quantity of fresh chanterelles…enough for a good week’s worth—including enough for dinner guests—of soups, risottos and ravioli. It was a good day to be in the woods.

Yes, my fungi foraging attire is old and often dirty. I am armed with a pocketknife, and I lug a bag, or a basket.  I work to blend, unnoticed, into the wooded environments I haunt. Attuned to the voices or footfalls of approaching interlopers, I’ll stop to remain as silent and still as a statute, unseen and unheard until the unwary pass by. Occasionally, I even wear camouflage.

In answer to your unspoken questions concerning my apparent descent into eccentricity, I’ll answer by saying, “It all started a long time ago.”

I can remember the day. It was a fall day, and it was cold. I was out running, dealing with the psychological baggage I carried after a hard day in my inner city office. “Look at the scenery…look at the scenery”, I would tell myself as I plodded along mile after mile. Well, after I had run far enough to warm myself, and far enough to forget that I had ever been in an office, I happened to look down. There I saw my first chanterelle…. “What could that be?” I thought, then I wondered, “Could it be?….hmmm…”

I picked it, put it in my pocket, and kept running. That one moment was the beginning of a decades long romance with fungus…mushrooms.

After several days of inquiries, my one chanterelle was identified by a co-worker of my wife. Identification confirmed, I went looking for more that afternoon … I found more, and was almost hooked. My infatuation with the mushroom may not have progressed to the deep relationship of today except for the happy coincidence that one of our cookbooks contained a recipe for an exquisite wild mushroom risotto (if any of you ask, I’ll be happy to share the recipe).

Pushing back from the table that night, satiated, I knew that first risotto had sparked an unquenchable passion. From that day on I would eagerly await the first rains of the fall. For the next few years, when those rains came, you could find me wet, happy and dirty while I scrambled through the brush of our nearby forest parklands on a constant search for new species of mushrooms. While I retained a strong affection for the chanterelle, I flirted with many others. With a good humor, my wife patiently accepted my new obsession and often accompanied me on my forest forays. Over time, we learned to see, a skill we refer to as “mushroom eyes”.  The forest floor may host a cornucopia of wild fungi, but without the eyes to see them, you may as well be walking in a desert.

We learned which fungi nourished, the secretive chanterelles, tree borne oysters, regal boletus, solitary morels, and meadow dwelling agaricus. We learned which species twisted the mind …though I won’t bore you by naming their species here. We learned which species sicken and kill, the formidable amanita, the Death Cap, the Destroying Angel, the Panther, and more.

We sadly read the reports of foragers who were not native to our forests, and who made the fatal error of assuming that they picked and prepared a variation of a delightful edible found in their homeland.

Time has a way of mellowing passion. We’ve given up the exuberant searches of past years. While we still forage in the forests of our new home, we search for just a few varieties of choice edibles. The chanterelles are here, but not in profusion. We look for morels, Shaggy Manes, Shaggy Parasols, and we’ve got a few logs tucked back in the woods where we grow our own.

The background I have given you sets the stage for an incident which happened here in our new home. In our small community word gets around. Tidbits of information get passed from mouth to mouth. Resumes of the island’s inhabitants get built in these conversations… “He’s an artist with a backhoe…oh, if you need a well, he’s the man that can find water….she is a master gardener…the only person to ask.”

Not only do these conversations define who you are in the community—sometimes not a good thing—your verbal resume is a resource which people may call upon in times of trouble. A few casual words may lead to any number of curious requests and strange adventures.

While walking with neighbors one day, I inadvertently revealed my fungal passion when, upon spying a mushroom of interest, I excused myself from our conversation, abruptly turned, left the path we walked, and headed into the woods. Later, to excuse my boorish behavior, I explained what I was doing. Reports of that day have spread by mouth through the community. So, I wasn’t surprised when the phone rang one early spring day and a troubled stranger asked for my help.

“They’re growing everywhere” he said, “I don’t know what they are…I’ve heard you could help me”. After a brief introduction, I learned that he was a landscape architect. By way of dirt road and foot path, his commercial garden was about two miles away from our home, and he was clearly in distress. I offered to help as soon as I could walk over. I pulled on my hiking boots, pocketed my knife and a bag, and set out on a brisk half hour walk.

He stood by his gate, anxiously awaiting my arrival. Brows furrowed, face tense, in staccato phrases he outlined his problem, “I’ve been tearing them up… dumping them into the woods by the cartload.”

His fingertip jumped erratically as he pointed to the frilly shapes, “Look, you can see them…there… and there… and even under here…”

He didn’t have to tell me where they were, I’ve got a trained eye for this sort of thing—”mushroom eyes”. I had already seen them. What he saw as a problem, I saw as gold.

I looked around in awe as I stood in his garden. Awestruck not from the beauty of his flowers, although the spectacle of his irises in full bloom is certainly deserving of awe, but it’s early spring so no flowers have yet bloomed. Nonetheless, I stood in awe at what grew from every pot, every flower bed, and every gravel or mulch pathway in the vast expanse of the garden. Truly, I had hit the jackpot. I stood in Valhalla, theValhalla of all mushroom hunters everywhere.

“They are morels, black morels” I said, “they are a spring mushroom which usually appear around here in the early days of April…but, I’ve never seen anything like this…Usually, there are one or two them at a time in the woods, and nothing this size. This is unbelievable.” Hundreds upon hundreds of black morels, some the size of grapefruits, beckoned me. My pocket knife was out in a flash as I pulled a grocery bag from my back pocket and dropped to my knees.

He said, “I don’t want them. Help yourself…” which I had already started to do, so I continued to help myself to pound after pound. After he watched me work, he enquired, “How much are these worth?”

I answered, “Oh, anywhere from $25 to $40 a pound….they’re great on pizzas”. After a silent pause he found his own pocket knife and a bag, and then dropped to his knees to join me in the dirt. Together we harvested the entire garden.

There are some benefits to being an amateur mycologist—that’s the formal word for what I do when I forage for mushrooms—especially if you have a taste for exotic pizzas, risottos, ravioli or wild mushroom soups.

Posted in In the Woods | 3 Comments

A Northwest Passage – The Storm at Pybus Cove

 The barometer is falling and the wind is beginning to rise. Outside my window, the cold, grey sky of this winter afternoon reminds of a stormy day on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. Here is the 7th episode of A Northwest Passage.

57 Degrees N; 134 Degrees W

Pybus Cove

  We’re on the front edge of a storm. For days now we’ve been hearing reports of a large low pressure swirling and gaining force out in the Gulf of Alaska. Now it’s on the move. As Alaska moves from summer to fall, this is one of the first storms of the season and we are in its path.

  Our route takes across Chatham Strait and into Frederick Sound. It’s a straight run southwest to the ocean, which is the precise direction from which the wind and the seas will come. Of course, as the wind and seas funnel into the strait, they will be compressed. The wind speed will increase. The seas will grow, and the period between wave crests will decrease…very nasty.

   I don’t envy those out in open water – they’ll take the brunt of gale force winds and high seas—and I don’t intend to be there. It’s time to seek cover. There’s no time for kayaking as the seas begin to build and we load onto our support boat to make a run for Pybus Cove. The mouth of the cove faces east on Alaska’s Admiralty Island, well protected from the approaching weather. The cove itself is surrounded by mountains and forest. But, even in these protected waters, the call is for small craft advisories, building winds and seas. Camping won’t be much fun.

   While we slowly motor into the cove, we ponder the evening ahead. As we round a point, unseen until now, is a fishing lodge. After a hailing call on our marine band VHF radio, and a quick negotiation, we find an empty cabin—a warm meal and warm beds for the night.

   The following morning, the storm is at its peak. But, the cove is sheltered and it’s hard to get a weather forecast here. High mountains block the signal of our radio. In need of some time alone….which is something of an understatement….let’s see perhaps I can find a better way to phrase it… Sleeping on a couch in a one room cabin with five travelling companions with whom I’ve spent every waking hour for the last two weeks is not my idea of a good time….I’m grumpy…So…I pull on my paddling dry suit and head down to the dock. I am going to paddle out to get a weather report. So what if it is a storm???

  When it comes to kayaks, a boat can have what’s known as primary stability or secondary stability. A boat with primary stability is hard to tip over and hard to right. A boat with secondary stability is easy to tip over, but easy to right…if you’ve got the skill.

I decide to take a boat with secondary stability…sleek…fast, and easy to paddle in the wind. As I paddle out to look at the weather at the mouth of the bay, I leave behind the shelter of the cove. Although no where near the full force of the storm, I am still paddling in whitecaps. As I cautiously attempt to turn, the beam of the boat—the side—is parallel to the oncoming waves… Suddenly the kayak rolls and I see the world above through the out-of-focus lens of cold, rough Alaskan water.

    Of the bunch of us, I’m the novice paddler, my skills at the quick snap which rights an overturned kayak—known as the Eskimo roll—can be summed up in one word…pathetic.

If this were a calm, warm lake, I might…I just might—with a great deal of concentration—be able to Eskimo roll once out of every five attempts.

I lack certain other survival instincts. Overturned paddlers are instinctually inclined to twist their bodies so their head is near the air. I don’t. I’ve spent too many years underwater. I’m perfectly comfortable upside down. So here I am, submerged and upside down, seeing a surreal out-of-focus, world and thinking to myself, “What a stupid way to drown”.

My second thought is more of a command, “Remember how to get out … NOW!   First, pull off the spray-skirt…. Next, slide your legs out of the boat.

  Soon, I’m bobbing along side my boat, in white caps and small craft winds. I do have some handy survival skills for events like this, which is good because the tricky part of surviving, which is getting back into the boat, is about to begin.  I’ve spent years of my life diving in cold rough water, so my situation is neither frightening nor unfamiliar although definitely unpleasant.  Also…I can suppress my gasp response…the involuntary contraction of the diaphragm when a person is suddenly immersed in very cold water….sometime, as you are about to step out of a warm shower on a winter day, turn on the cold water and see what happens.

My hands have gone instantly numb from the cold, but that has happened before. I can still move my fingers. I am dressed in a dry suit, so I have some protection from the water temperature. Without the dry suit in this water, I would succumb in about fifteen minutes. But, my head is uncovered, so I’ll lose body heat fast. I have time, but not much.

Without the skill of a good Eskimo roll, self-rescue gear is critical out here.  I’ve got everything I need…bilge pump, spare paddle, paddle float….I’ve even got a waterproof VHF radio, tuned to CH16, the distress and hailing channel. I can see the lodge less than half a mile away and people on the dock. Push the talk button…say the word, “Mayday”…give my position…and I’ll be rescued. It is tempting. “Nooooo”, I think to myself, “I can’t do it.”

My ego is a fragile thing. I have no choice but to rescue myself.

Essentially, a paddle float is an inflatable bag…which, while swimming in cold water, is inflated by mouth. It slips over one end of the paddle and the other end is fastened to the boat. It works like the outrigger on the canoes you’ve seen in movies from the South Pacific. A boat filled with water is unstable, you cannot right it. So, after inflating the float and attaching it and the paddle to the boat, I continue to tread water while using both hands to work the pump until the boat is dry.

 Next, it’s time to crawl up the stern of the boat and wiggle into the cockpit. My first effort doesn’t work so well. Once again, I’m upside down and underwater. With my second effort, I succeed.  The use of a paddle float and climbing back into the boat takes energy – when you are in cold water, energy is in short supply. The water here is cold, I can testify.

  Shaking from the cold by the time I return to the dock, I recover a few minutes later, standing in a hot shower. But, life goes on and there are more events to come in the afternoon.

 For us, this is a stop of firsts – the first storm, my first flip, and now we are to meet our first bears. Here on Admiralty Island, the bears outnumber the people.

 A couple of hundred yards from our lodge, a salmon stream hosts a spawning run of humpbacked and chum salmon that is almost beyond number. Set in a large grassy meadow, and just a few inches deep, the stream hardly offers enough water to cover the fish as they move upstream. Salmon, by the thousand, school just offshore waiting for the push of a high tide to move into the stream. Voracious seals slice into the schooling salmon, and play a cruel game with the fish–death as sport. The seal, chases, catches, and then throws, stuns, and chases its prey again. When the play becomes tiresome, or the salmon no longer responds, the seal kills with a single bit, discards the salmon and begins the chase afresh.

The bears wait just upstream. A half dozen are spread through the meadow. Almost lazily, the bears glance from side to side as they lumber through the stream. In an instant, their clumsy, almost comical, veneer drops away to reveal speed and shear power.  An effortless lunge, and one or the other of the bears holds a fresh caught fish. One or two bites, and like their ocean-going brethren, the bears carelessly discard the fresh carcasses.

But, the salmon are so numerous, that a seal or two and a half dozen bears make no difference. The life force of the fish, and their numbers, is so great, that for every one that is caught, a hundred make it to there spawning grounds. Here, only man can destroy the fish.

The fish which pass into the stream are not the first salmon to spawn here. Historically, the native fish were Chinook and Coho salmon. Today, the fish are pink and chum. These are now the native fish, but years ago when the runs of Chinook and Coho were destroyed, these fish were introduced to take their place.

You ask – how were the Chinook and Coho destroyed? Well, the answer lies in a small side cove off of Pybus Bay. It is known as Cannery Cove. All that remains of the cove’s namesake, a turn of the century cannery, is a few pilings and rough logs with large protruding spikes. At one time this cannery was one of hundreds in these islands. The cannery was fed by a fish trap which blocked the entire stream. The trap took all the fish. In less than twenty years, an unending resource was gone.

Today, there is a new resource. Perhaps, if used cautiously, this resource will last. 

As for the bears, they are no longer an unknown fear. We’ve seen them and understand a little about their lives. Their food supply is so abundant, that they pay little attention to us. Unless we surprise them, or threaten them, we have nothing to fear from the bears.

Posted in Adventure Travel, On or Under the Water | 9 Comments

A Shooting Party

  This week I’m going to depart from my stories of the Northwest and travel far from my island home.  Due to many requests for a sequel to a previous story entitled Stalking, I thought I would offer this:

A Shooting Party

    It has been a long trip. We have crossed eight time zones and slept little on the flight. We’ve checked into a cozy hotel just off the Old Brompton Road of London’s Kensington District. Jet lagged and sleepless, but trying desperately to adjust to the time difference, we’ve walked the streets of  London until the dinner hour instead of snoozing through the day.

Now, in celebration of our journey, it’s time for a good meal and an early night. A few hundred meters (I usually think in yards and…so let me think…that would be a few hundred times 3.3ft.) from our hotel we’ve found a small, but elegant bistro…dark, wood paneled walls, candlelight, waiters discretely keeping wine glasses full while gracefully avoiding near collisions as they flit from table to table.  It’s busy and crowded. We settle in at the one open table, review the menu and order. The wine comes first and while sharing a bottle of a pleasant Cote du Rhone with my wife, we hungrily await our entrees.  After what seems an eternity, our waiter arrives and with a flourish presents a fish dish for my wife and for me, the special of the evening….wild grouse from the Highlands.

Hungry, happy and exhausted, I cut into my grouse….when…plink! a small round piece of metal falls from the cut, strikes my china plate and rolls…ticka…ticka…ticka…to the center of the plate. In my dazed and jet lagged state, I exclaim, “Will you look at that!!”  I suspect I am more likely to have said, “Well, I’ll be damned!!” But, that’s the beauty of being jet lagged. I don’t know. It’s hard to remember. Anyway, let me continue.

Mortified at the sight, the Maitre d’, who is just passing the table, swoops in and attempts to carry my dinner off to the kitchen as he profusely apologizes in very loud French…with a touch of a twang from London’s East End, “Sacrebleu!!…C’est horrible!!…Pardon moi monsieur!”

I grab my plate and fight him off….Elbows up…swinging, “C’est bon, c’est bon”—I don’t really understand or speak French.  Eventually I prevail. I’m hungry, ready to pass out face down in my plate. Waiting for another dinner will exceed my ability to endure.

Besides, I know what I’m looking at. It is the Seal of Authenticity. No hormones, antibiotics, chemicals or ground up chicken meal was fed to this bird. This bird was shot in the wild and I’m looking at a piece of number 7.5 lead birdshot…simply put, it’s a bullet.

What amazes me is that the Maitre d’ is walking around without being handcuffed, or tackled and dragged before the court as a lifetime criminal, guilty of a myriad of felonies. If the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t get you, the Fish and Game Department will. Poaching is one thing, but it is a whole lot worse when you sell what you poach. But, a thought slowly percolates through my sleep deprived brain…. “This is somewhere else…maybe they don’t have a Food and Drug Administration looking out for my health???”

Let me digress for a short paragraph in my story. A television documentary I saw recently has been in my thoughts. The documentary revealed the plight of poor, migrant workers who are brought to this country to perform a task known as “chicken catching”. The workers, in turn, bear the job title of “chicken catcher”, and literally that’s what they do. The chickens live out their lives in the interiors of a chicken farm—which translates as a squalid hall, poorly lit, dirt floored and cavernous. The chickens never breathe a breath of fresh air, see sunlight, or peck at the ground of a grass filled field.  When the chickens mature, chicken catchers run through the hall and catch chickens by hand. Inadequately masked against the dust, dirt, hormones, antibiotics…and organic matter which generations of chickens undoubtedly left behind, a fast chicken catcher can barely eke out a living. The chickens are eventually killed, cleaned, certified by the Food and Drug Administration as good, healthy food, and distributed to stores, restaurants and fast food outlets. Industrial farming and what we perceive as food sometimes strikes me as an oddity, but back to my story.  

A few mornings later, gunshots echo through the crisp morning air.   Bam! Ba-bam! Boom, boom! The shooting is constant and fast. People are shouting. But this isn’t Guy Fawkes Day, the 4th of July, or even a celebration of the fall of the Bastille, and it is definitely not a war zone. This is a time honored tradition of the English countryside. This is a shooting party.

The action is frenetic at each of the eight shooting stations which run in a straight line down this narrow valley in Southwestern England. At each station, actually just a stake in the ground roughly 30 meters apart, stand two people. One of them is the shooter. Each shooter is tastefully dressed in different hues of tweed jackets, soft woolen checked shirt, cashmere ties, matching tweed plus fours, knee socks, with garters to match the tie and a pair of ankle-high, polished brown shoes. The shooters eyes are focused on the crest of a steep hill which runs parallel to the valley. From over the hill, the sky fills with flight after flight of fast, incoming birds.

Not as nicely dressed, the second person at the station is a laborer—the loader—who is hard at work loading the guns as fast as he can move. Working as a two man team, the loader passes a freshly reloaded double barrel shotgun to the shooter’s left hand. With his right hand, the shooter passes the loader the gun just fired.

Our quarry today is pheasants. Although these birds have found their way into lives and hearts of the landed gentry and aristocracy, pheasants are not native to the United Kingdom. Some reports suggest that the Romans brought the first pheasants to the British Isles during their four hundred year occupation of this country. Another report indicates that a species of pheasant was imported from China in the 1830s, and it is the hybrid of these two species which we shoot today. Whatever their origins, pheasants have earned their place as a valuable component of the sporting and social life, and the economy, of the countryside.

The hills here are not high. Although the landscape is rugged, it reflects the work and management of the inhabitants who have dwelled here over the millennia. Ancient stonewalls, pathways, hedgerows, and small forest plots, divide the landscape.  Except for a small strip of the valley, the land is of no use for planting crops. The hillsides provide little more than forage for grazing livestock, but the brush, hedgerows, forest plots and stone walls that divide the landscape provide great cover for a huge population of pheasants.

Unseen, on the far side of the steep hill in front of us, a well organized line of flag waving beaters—villagers, gamekeepers, estate workers, children and running dogs—flush pheasants from the woods and fields, and drive them off the crest of the hill towards the shooters waiting below.

It could be reasonably argued that we are devastating the local bird population. Much as we are doing today, in times past the landed gentry would come together in the fall to wreak mayhem on the wildlife of the countryside during the day, and to celebrate with lavish dinners and fancy dress balls in the evening. A shooting party might last a few days, or the entire season. Recorded with oil paint on canvas, a shooting party was considered an appropriate subject of the fine arts, examples of which can be seen today in museums across England.

Although today’s shooter is rarely the aristocrat or landowner of the past—he or she might be a captain of industry, a highly paid professional, heir or heiress—wealth is necessary to afford the fees associated with a shooting party….except for me that is. I’m invited to this event as a chronicler, a teller of stories, here to watch and report. I also have a suspicion that when I am dressed in aristocratic shooting attire, with a somewhat beaklike nose and pink complexion, I appear to belong. But, my elegant tweed ensemble was fitted to me a few days ago. I’ll return it and climb back into my blue jeans at the end of the shoot.

In keeping with that ancient tradition of the shooting party, today we are definitely wreaking mayhem on the local wildlife with our shotguns. And, these aren’t any run-of-the-mill shotguns. Their reports may sound like any other shotguns in the world. They may shoot the same shells as any other shotgun, but these shotguns are different. These are the guns of royalty. Double barreled shotguns, called breaking guns, the barrels are mounted on a hinge which swings away from the stock when the gun is being loaded, or for safety when the gun is being carried in the field.

I have no interest in Maseratis, gold Rolex watches, or suits custom tailored on Savile Row, but I admit my one weakness for a frivolous material possession is my desire for a matched set of shotguns manufactured in the finest tradition of English gun making. Oh, I can see them now, nested in the velvet interior of a custom made leather case. The finest French walnut of the stock…subtle, hand carved, and rubbed to a fine finish. Not the garish Turkish walnut of the Italian classic guns favored by such public figures as Dick Cheney, but then I don’t shoot my friends either…at least not without a profuse apology. Two gleaming steel barrels set in a breech decorated with an etching of my favorite landscape, hunting scene, or any other design I might be perverse enough to wish. The etchings may be inlaid with highlights of precious metals or, if I were a Maharaja, I might chose precious jewels to highlight the etchings. Oh, oh, oh, I can just imagine. Two, matched shotguns, etchings of a mountain volcano, silver and gold representing the molten lava running down its sides…and embers arcing  into the air…represented by rubies!!! I know you won’t believe me when I say that people actually do these things, but it’s true.

Now I can image the soft click as the carefully fitted barrels snap into the stock mounted breech. But, that is not for me to do. It is the loader’s job.  I awake from my reverie of excessive and frivolous ownership just as he passes me another loaded gun—one of a matched set of Holland & Holland Royals, sadly not my own—each of these shotguns—minus the precious metal and rubies—would cost more the entire sum earned from my labor, my income, for about one year. Two years out of my life to earn a matched set? It’s tempting, but starvation in the interim is a powerful disincentive.

My loader, the man standing behind me, is shouting. Barely polite, I realize he is shouting at me. With all the authority of a Division One college coach and a voice to match, he is shouting, “BEHIND!…BEHIND!….YOU’RE BEHIND!!!  SWING IT….MAN…SWING THAT GUN!”

There is one tiny drawback to a finely fitted English shotgun. The beautifully and snugly fitted parts tend to expand and bind when they get hot. Shotguns get hot when you shoot a lot. So, now, not only is the loader yelling at me, he is bent over trying to break open an uncooperative hot shotgun which becomes the subject of many inelegant curses, “BLOODY HELL…mumble, mumble….BLOODY HELL!!”

He looks up from his struggle with the shotgun, just as I spot a bird and start to move, to remind me that there are rules about shooting here and I am about to break one. Once again the voice booms into my ear, “TOO LOW!….TOO LOW! NOT THAT ONE!!! NO, SIR! NO SIR! NOT THAT ONE!! YOU’RE MUCH TOO GOOD FOR THAT ONE… OVER THERE…TAKE THAT ONE!!”

Apparently it is inappropriate to shoot at the birds you can hit. Much more sporting is to shoot at impossible shots high in the air…but, if you shoot straight up into the air, you are unlikely to hit an unwary beater walking over the hill…it is in very poor taste to shoot a beater.

My eyes follow the pointing arm, which is suddenly jabbed in front of my face, to a ludicrously distant speck racing across what appears to be the horizon. Obediently, I pivot and swing on a left to right crossing shot…my worst shot. But, I’m in the zone now. Eyes focused and tracking, I shoot without being aware that I’ve even snapped the trigger. The bird tumbles and falls out of the sky at an impossible distance.

Behind my back is a burst of applause, cheers, and laughter.

“…WHAT A SHOT MAN, WHAT A SHOT…” shouts my loader. In the frenzy of shooting, unseen and unheard, a small crowd of shooters, loaders, and dog handlers have snuck up behind me. I have my first experience of pheasant shooting as a spectator sport.

As the hunt master blows his whistle, the shoot comes to an end. The frenzy of the guns stops, but the activity does not.  I look around. The Picker-uppers have gone to work. Naturally enough, their job is to pick up the downed birds. They work with teams of dogs who carefully scour the ground for any unseen bird. Everything is very organized and a thought comes to mind as I watch the care taken handling the birds.

I think to myself that I am watching an industry. In some sense, I am watching farming at work. Some of these birds have been reared in the wild. Others have been carefully hatched, and as juveniles, been placed in the wild so that they become acclimatized to a wild environment. Their growth is carefully overseen by an estate gamekeeper or a hunt master.  But, what happened here today is the harvest of a crop…with a twist.  The birds don’t go home with the shooters. The carefully handled birds go directly to market and restaurants where diners may experience a bistro dinner similar to the grouse I mentioned earlier.

The shooters are part of the farming process. To experience a brief moment in the life of the landed gentry, they have enthusiastically paid large sums to support the shoot, and its army of beaters, loaders and picker-uppers. Theirs is a valuable cash contribution to a rural area which can’t support extensive agriculture. Yet, the shooters play a roll in the gathering of the birds. The sale of the birds generates even more money and brings food to market.

I have another thought…these birds have had a far better life than the chickens of the large indoor chicken barns described previously in this story. That thought leads to another, more irreverent thought…I think that if I must be a chicken catcher, rather than the dust filled cavern of an indoor chicken farm, I would much prefer to be catching chickens with a matched set of classic shotguns, dressed in aristocratic tweeds, standing in the countryside.

Posted in In the Field | 1 Comment

A Northwest Passage – The Telling of Stories

Have you ever considered how the stories you read or watch will get passed down to the next generation? For cultures which have developed written language, the easy answer is a book or in the 20th century a film. But, think about today, in video we’ve seen 2”, 1”, 3/4” VHS, BetaMax, BetaCam, DigiBeta, MiniDV and more. On the computer side we’ve seen 5” floppies, 3 ½” floppies, CD’s DVDs, hard drives, Zip Drives, Flash drives, the cloud and more. Most of these technologies are out of date and if you had saved your only copy of a really important story, you would be out of luck. You couldn’t find a machine to play it on. Effectively, the stories recorded on those tapes, discs and drives are lost.

 I fear the loss of stories, and my fear leads to this story of a culture without a written language that has passed its stories and its knowledge down through the centuries.

 The keeping and telling of stories is the subject for this the 6th episode ofA Northwest Passage. (You can find the first 5 episodes in the Adventure Travel Category)

A Northwest Passage—The Telling of Stories

57 Degrees 03 Min. N, 135 Degrees 20 Min. West


       The telling of stories has been on my mind since our stop in Basket Bay. In my life, telling stories is the stuff of fairy tales – special moments shared at children’s bedtimes. Telling stories is about myth and fantasy – especially the stories of my fishing friends that definitely have seemed more connected to myth and fantasy than to reality.

        We’ve travelled a long way from the waters of Basket Bay, but the hint of a story stays with us, and today, the practice of telling stories took on new meaning. To understand the telling of stories, it helps to paddle these waters and imagine how life might have been.

      Basket Bay to Sitka is a long, multiple day grind. First there is the paddle down the big waters of Chatham Strait, which, thankfully, had returned to their former placid state, then a ninety degree turn into Hoonah Sound and another long, long paddle.

       After Hoonah Sound, it’s into the narrows aptly named Peril Straits. Here the water seems to take on a malevolent personality. Placid in times of slack water, a few short minutes later, the straits begin to bubble and froth. Whirlpools spin, and back eddies swing the unwary in the opposite direction. Massive channel markers are dragged under and drowned beneath the deluge.  There is no headway, even for the best paddler, against the changing tide.  Once again, it’s time to load our kayaks onto our support vessel and power our way against the current.

       Finally, we make it into Sitka, the former Russian capital of Alaska for some much needing bathing, and a little rest and relaxation. For a couple of days we have a chance to be urban tourists. Our first stop is Totem Pole Park, a National Historic Park which marks the site of a major conflict between the Tlingits and the Russians.

       Our guide is Park Ranger George Bennett. George is a Tlingit Elder.  As we wander the park, George describes the figures of the totems and their meaning. He tells of the conflict between Tlingit and Russian.

       In the battle of 1804, the Tlingits managed to drive the Russian from Sitka… the story goes that the Tlingits located their fort on the edge of a shallows, out of range of the deep water Russian warships. Forced to move their armament ashore to engage their enemies, the Russians became vulnerable. A Tlingit warrior slipped out of their fortification with a blacksmith hammer strapped to his hand. He swam down the cold, numbing waters of a river that emptied into a bay near the Russian cannons, and then approached them from behind. In a frenzy of heroic violence, he slew six Russians and wounded many more. The Russians withdrew in disarray and the Tlingits were victorious.

      It’s a true story…. But, in the Tlingit tradition it is a spoken story. The telling of stories brings to mind the rumors of a story about Basket Bay. Yes, George tells us, he does know of a story about Basket Bay. But, he politely and gravely defers, it is not a story that he owns and thus he cannot tell the story.

      Stories are owned here. More than the concept of copyright, story ownership conveys a sense of responsibility and respect. The ownership of a story demands accuracy of the owner. The story must be told in the same way, telling of the same names, passing on the same values and subtle nuances. Stories are the means to educate, to create values, to convey philosophy, to pass knowledge. Within the owner of the story is the repository of human knowledge. Perhaps story ownership could be considered a sacred trust. Stories are a key to the meaning of the people.

     The Tlingit is a society which still maintains an oral tradition. In the times before the coming of the Europeans and of written records, survival depended upon the accurate convenience of information. What foods and medicines to gather, what waters to paddle, or avoid, what values to transfer to the children, all were the subject of spoken stories. One hypothesis is that in order to guarantee the accuracy of stories, and in a more basic sense, to guarantee the survival of the community, a system of story ownership evolved.

     Tlingit society is divided into different communities, and in each community there are different clans. The clans can denote the social hierarchy of a village. The oldest of the clans is the most respected and has the most authority within the village. Each of the clans is the owner of its own stories, and each has the responsibility to maintain and pass along the integrity of its stories. The story of Basket Bay is a beaver story, and thus can only be told by a member of the Beaver Clan.

    It would be a mistake to believe that ownership of a story is shared equally within a clan. The right of an individual to tell a story is conferred upon him, or her, when each has become able to tell the story. The telling of a story is a discipline, and each storyteller undergoes a long apprenticeship. Not only must the words be understood, so too must the unspoken meaning of the story be understood. Before telling a story, the teller is regularly subjected to a barrage of questions which span from the meaning of the story to the appropriate environment in which to tell it. 

     George cites an example which is a story of a squirrel and a bear. It’s a fable which George says the tribal elders have deemed appropriate for all people to hear. It’s a story which offers a social message, a direction to the listener to look and listen – to be aware of the world and the people around them. It is a story that I have heard, but it is not my story to tell.

  The right to tell a clan’s stories is bestowed upon the teller by clan elders. For most tellers, the right is bestowed in middle age, but for some, the right to tell a story is never bestowed.



Posted in Adventure Travel | 3 Comments

Catching Crabs

Windstorms, snow storms, and rain storms day after day, the weather has not been conducive to outdoor adventures. So, I’ve been sitting here thinking about what I’d like to do when the weather finally warms.

Catching Crabs

(To Build a Better Mousetrap)

 Recently I’ve been thinking about crabs. More precisely, I’ve been thinking about catching crabs. Lest you recoil in shock from the aforesaid statement, or dwell too deeply on a memory of the embarrassing, painful, and itchy result of some youthful indiscretion, let me gently remind you, my readers who may live far from the sea, I live on an island in the Pacific Northwest.

Your imagination may wander where it will, but when I think of crabs, I think of ocean dwelling crustaceans. Specifically, I think of a single species of crustacean. Although many crustaceans have some degree of merit, my thoughts are not of the king crab or snow crabs of Alaskan waters, nor the stone crab of the southern coast, nor the blue crab of the eastern coast, and I’m not particularly interested in the Atlantic lobster. To me, the word crab means only the Dungeness crab, the large culinary treasure found in the cool waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Sometimes I think about eating crabs, or recipes for cooking crabs, or the right wine to serve with a crab. Most of the time however, when I think about crabs I think about where they live, what they eat, and how they behave which leads to this story and an opportunity for an entrepreneurial inventor.

Before I travel too far along the path I’ve chosen today, I freely acknowledge that many readers may consider the contemplation of crabs an absurdity. For those readers, the confession I am about to make will likely entrench their view. But, in defense of myself, I ask you, “What is absurdity?” Consider the evening news, or reality television, royal weddings, or professional sports, and the thoughts and values expressed therein.  Upon reflection wouldn’t you agree that absurdity is the constant fodder of public interest? Who is to say that, as a subject for thought, crabs—especially in light of cioppino, bouillabaisse, or crab cakes—are any more absurd?

My confession is simple. For no scientific reason, without malice or sadistic inclination, I have spent many hours of my life hovering, underwater, over a crab trap, patiently watching, camera in hand, as the crabs beneath me chose the door that condemned them to their doom. As an aside, hovering underwater—adjusting your buoyancy so that you hover, neither rising to the surface, nor sinking to the bottom can be tricky in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. But, if you’re a crab watcher you will have the time to improve your hovering skills. Of course, I recommend dressing for success, dry suit, gloves, hood, compressed air tank, appropriate gauges and et cetera.

Before your eyes cross and you succumb to the seductive call of Morpheus let’s get to my observations.  Two things stand out above all else about crabs, first, they are extremely ill tempered, if not downright bellicose, and second, their eating habits are appalling.

I’ll come back to their warlike inclinations, but first about those eating habits. How can such a succulent delicacy eat the way it does? Reminds me of the few days I spent as a pre-adolescent working on an Atlantic lobster boat. The first order of the day was to haul each trap in a long string and remove the day’s catch of large, healthy crustaceans fresh from the ocean. Small lobsters were measured and thrown back to be caught another day. Large lobsters were carefully handled, kept cool and fresh for the market. But, then came the baiting of the trap. Slimy, smelly—really smelly—contents from a galvanized trash can were fixed in the trap and it was returned to the sea. This was not a rich lobsterman. Buying bait was not in the budget, so our next task would be to return to our starting point and pull the freshly baited traps. Fish had entered the traps so they were thrown into the trash can where they would sit covered in the sun for the next week, preparation for their transition into that week’s bait. Ah, the life…a rocking boat at sea and the freshly released odor of truly rotten fish. While I managed to retain the contents of my stomach, it put me off lobsters for years.

Crabs have similar eating habits to lobsters. They are the buzzards of the ocean floor. Any dead creature which comes their way—no matter how old—is an opportunity for a meal. Naturally, smelly dead fish make great bait. Around our house, smelly, old salmon carcasses are treasured. We have at least four in the freezer.

Now, let’s address the issue of bellicosity. Imagine the scene, several fathoms beneath the surface, lying on the bottom is a cylindrical trap of about 3 feet in diameter. It is made from two parallel hoops of metal which are separated by a few vertical bars spaced evenly around the circumference of the hoops. The whole is covered with mesh, either cloth or wire. Along the bottom of the cylinder, at points on the circumference separated by 180 degrees, are two rectangular doorways that have wire gates which swing shut after the unwary crustacean enters…A Bates Motel sort of thing…you check, but you never check out. Ninety degrees from each entrance are two circular holes in the mesh which—in theory—allow undersize crabs to escape. It’s simple enough. Crabs push through the door and get caught. But, here’s where it gets complicated. To the enthusiastic observer, crabs behave like the Spartans as they faced the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. Thou Shall Not Pass!

Instead of  glutinously devouring that large, smelly, rotten bait in the center of the cage, ill-tempered, bellicose, small crabs, who find their way into the trap more easily than the larger ones, turn around in the doorway and raise their pincers to thwart any attempt at entry. While the small crabs can lunge forward to attack, their position in the doorway is advantageous because the swinging motions of the pincers of larger crabs are blocked from attacking by the structure of the trap itself. While the battle at the pass continues at both doorways, the large crabs—which an observer such as me might want to catch—futilely circle the trap.  Smaller crabs come and go unhindered through the escape holes …and consume all the bait.

So, here’s the issue. Remember that old saying, “Build a better Mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door”? Does any reader of this tale have thoughts or designs for improving on an old, traditional design? Better yet, does anyone make an improved trap? If you do, pass the word along. I know at least one crab fisherman who is in the market.



Posted in On or Under the Water | 80 Comments

A Northwest Passage – Basket Bay

Winter descended upon us in earnest a few days ago. The snow is deep and travel along our unplowed roads is impossible without chains on our fourwheel drive. There is hot coffee on the stove and a hot fire roaring in the fireplace. It’s a good afternoon for a story. So here is the fifth episode in my A Northwest Passage story.

57 degrees 40 minutes N, 134degrees 56 minutes W

Basket Bay

The water in Hoonah Straits as it leads down to Chatham Straits is ugly. This is one of several large straits which run north to south through the islands of southeastAlaska. A combination of wind, tide and ocean swell can compress and drive the waters of the strait. Not a nice place to be in a storm. Today, a headwind and a mean, short, chop greet us. The chop reaches a height of almost four feet, and progress is slow. No easy gliding through calm water. We have to keep paddling to avoid losing the progress we just made.  This is not fun.  Perhaps it’s time to surrender to the oncoming seas and load our kayaks on the mother ship that travels with us. It’s sort of a modern day landing craft. Square nosed with a bow that can be lowered for loading, it’s possible to ease the boat up on a sandy beach and simply step out on the shore.

We’re not traveling far today, only about ten miles to some protected waters of a small rectangular bay known asBasketBay. At first, there are no obvious campsites here. Sheer rock walls define the shoreline of both sides of the bay. The rock looks to be the karst—limestone and marble—which Steve described to us in Tenakee Springs.   The chart shows a sandy beach at the head of the bay with a stream to the left.  It may offer a good place to overnight. We nose our boat up on shore and begin to unload.

After the mandatory bear patrol on the beach—once again I find myself, shotgun in hand, talking to imaginary creatures in a loud and serious voice—there still is no obvious place to overnight. After searching for sites along the beach, we push through berry bushes, which form a hedgerow along the shoreline above the high tide line, and find level ground under the canopy of the forest.

It’s obvious that we are in the karst. All the rock along the shoreline is sculpted. The shapes are fantastic.  The stream which lies at the left edge of the bay disappears under an elegant archway of stone just upstream from the sea.

Imitating an urban traffic jam, salmon by the hundreds hold in a deep pool in the bay just below the mouth of the stream. They’re waiting for high tide, the green light which will give them the signal to move into the fresh water and begin their journey to their spawning grounds.

For us, fatigue has taken hold. Exploring can wait for the morning.  It’s time to set up camp and start a fire for the night ahead. A brief expedition back along the shoreline towards the stream with fly rod in hand and a few casts has the result of providing two salmon on the grill for our evening meal.  It’s an early night for us and nothing disturbs our sound sleep.

After a morning cup of coffee and a quick breakfast, it’s time to climb into the boats for an exploration of the bay. The stream and its marble arch is the primary attraction. The tide is rising as we push under the arch rising high over our heads. The salmon are on the move. Jumping, fining and tail-walking fish are everywhere. Just before the arch, cliffs rise on both sides of the stream. It’s and easy and spectacular paddle.

As we pass under the arch, light filters down through the old growth forest, which extends to the edge of the cliff-top. Light plays and shimmers on the water and the marble and limestone walls. The fish continue on their mission upstream. Around the next turn, the stream disappears into a dark cavern. The pungent odor of decaying fish fills the air and gives us the clue that this is bear territory. If there is one place on this trip where we could attract the unwanted attention of a large bear, this would be it. As we leave bright sunlight and enter the dark, it impossible for us to see into the depths of the cavern. One place I wouldn’t want to be is in a narrow cave, confined in a small boat with an angry bear whose dinner I have just interrupted. Wisdom suggests that we back our kayaks out and head downstream. Uncaring about what lays ahead, the salmon swim past us non-stop into the cave as they head to their unseen spawning ground at the headwater of this stream.

I have been in the karst before. On one such trip I met Steve Lewis who I introduced in the previous episode of aNorthwest Passage. Steve is a member of the Tongass Cave Project, a non-profit organization which has taken upon itself the responsibility of mapping the caves of theTongassNational Forest.

First discovered in the mid-1980s, at the time of my visit, over six hundred caves had been discovered and mapped by the Project. As Steve explained to me, the karst is composed of limestone and marble that, over the eons, has been eaten away by the acidic rains of the evergreen forests. Where there is karst, there will be underwater drainage and caves…lots of caves. On my travels with members of the cave project, I’ve been in several caves, including wading through an underground stream dressed in wetsuits. But, many of the caves are vertical caves which drop 100, 200, even 400 ft. straight down into the ground.

You might say that vertical caves exceed my comfort level. A more succinct way of putting it would be that swinging on a rope in the pitch dark, hundreds of feet below the surface of the forest and hundreds more feet above the cave floor, brings out the cowardly side of me. When Steve and his compatriots told me that we were about to repel into the dark, it would be untrue to say that I was the first one down the rope.

Let me explain it like this…you all know that when you go into a movie theater what you are going to see is untrue, but to get involved in the film, its characters and plot, you have to suspend your knowledge that it is untrue. The process is called suspension of disbelief. For me, looking down into that deep hole in the ground, I knew that it was not true that I could repel down into it and live…it took three frustrating hours for Steve and his friends to use their substantial powers of persuasion to cajole me into suspending my disbelief. Surprisingly, I survived…though I would probably need to be convinced all over again if I were to try swinging into another cave.

What I saw was astounding. There were huge, cathedral-like chambers with walls that appeared hand chiseled deep beneath the forest floor. Adding to my amazement were tales of the discoveries in those caves…human remains ten thousand years in age and bear remains aging back thirty five thousand years, a species of bear which no longer exists in the islands of southeastAlaska.

But on this trip, our brief visit to the karst was by boat. No crisis of disbelief for me and an easy paddle away. Back at our campsite, I noticed that the ground looked unnaturally flat. Just upslope, the trees are ancient compared with the trees growing around our immediate tent site. It looks like a site that was long inhabited, and now is long abandoned.  David, the senior kayaker of our party, recalls a tale he’s heard in which a giant beaver destroyed a native village. He thinks the tale may refer to this site, but he remembers little of the tale. Perhaps the site we’re standing on is the remains of that destroyed village. But, for us, nothing of this place is written. …If there is a story, it is passed from mouth to mouth, generation to generation. It’s a story of history, a fable or a myth. Who knows?  Today, it’s not a story for us to know. But the telling of stories and the passing of history from mouth to mouth and generation to generation is part of southeastAlaskaand a story for me to write in my next episode of a Northwest Passage.

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Dance of the Tractor

It’s time for a short break from my Northwest Passage series, so this week’s story is a simple story of a typical day here on the island. I’ve got some more stories in the works and for those of you who are interested, soon I’ll be posting some new video on the main StepOutdoors web site (click the link above). As always, thanks for your many kind comments.

Dance of the Tractor

You needn’t worry that I’m about embark upon a Soviet style ode to the noble proletariat. No, while the image of a ballet about tractors is amusing, this is only a simple story of daily life around our island home. It is not the sort of thing which ever used to happen in our cozy city home, but here it’s part of a typical day.

Anyway, some time ago a tractor-trailer truck got stuck in our drive way. You would recognize the sort of truck I mean. Here it’s called a tractor-trailer or semi-truck. InEngland, it might be called a lorry.  You see them on the highways everyday. It is just an engine with a cab for the driver which pulls a trailer. This wasn’t as big as some—no sleeping quarters in the back of the cab or anything like that—this was just an average one. But, it was stuck, blocking all access to our home. No way in, no way out, and there is no nearby towing service.  

It was the day that the new windows arrived for our new barn and office. It was an exciting day which brought a sense of near completion of what until this day had seemed an unending construction project. The windows were only a month late arriving. The driver came right down to the barn, turned around and backed up so that we could easily offload the windows which are beautiful, but very heavy.

After carefully maneuvering down our driveway—driveway may be a bit of grandiose description, it’s more like a fire trail with ruts from heavy trucks and gravel long since buried in decayed organic material now turned slick—and, safely unloading all the windows for both buildings, the day became even more exciting when the truck was unable to leave.

The driver started up the hill and tried to turn left around a hundred foot high Douglas Fir tree. He cut too soon—this is a precise piece of driving and requires regular practice (I know from personal experience)—and wound up stuck against the tree. Backing away from the tree wasn’t hard, but then the real trouble began. The driveway is a little steep, too steep for a stalled tractor-trailer of great size and many tons, to get traction. Further down, the driveway curves over a steep embankment where our winter stream flows through a culvert. It is tricky driving even going forward. Backing down is a test…a test designed for a driver to fail.

So, here we were between Scylla and Charybdis, stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. After many failed efforts to depart and much drama—many tons of truck and trailer sliding inexorably backwards towards the edge of the embankment and sure disaster, a spectacular near miss of our sawmill, the pruning of the fir tree by truck—it was time for the tractor. John Deere is his name. I climbed aboard John and fired up his diesel. Then, I pulled the tractor in behind the truck. I positioned the front loader-the bucket on the front of the tractor—on the trailer frame and pushed,  and pushed again…this was a little intimidating with the trailer uphill and towering over me, but nothing happened except all four wheels of my four wheel drive dug deep holes into the driveway.

Then, it was time for the dance to begin. After an extended tactical discussion and a pantomime using gyrating bodies and waving hands, the truck driver and I choreographed and coordinated the dance. Were I to set what happened next to music, I might consider the classical composition In the Hall of the Mountain King by Edvard Grieg, but I’m a stone rock-and-roller, so I’d probably go with something more plebian like Eric Burdon and the Animals We Gotta Get Out of This Place.

In our dance, the driver would pull and I would push. With carefully coordinated steps, simultaneously we  would rev our engines, engage our clutches, rock forward, then precisely disengage clutches, rock back, engage, and rock forward. We stepped into position and slowly, ponderously, step by step, the dance began. The truck rocked a few inches back and forth. Then the tempo increased. Clutch in, rock back, engage clutch, rock forward, and accelerate. The truck rocked a little further forward than back. Then, it started to move forward…a full revolution of its wheels. Our dance step changed and increased in intensity, at full throttle now, I shifted up through the tractor gears and kept pushing. By the time I hit third gear we hit our crescendo, driver and truck were on their way with no slowing until the main road.

 A good tractor is a really handy thing to have around the house.

  Besides being useful for the occasional stuck vehicle, it provides the same sort of exhilaration, focus and opportunity to experience the dance-like physical virtuosity I knew as a high risk young motorcyclist. I’m older now, so of course, I’m more practical. Instead of dancing down some back road at 80 or 90 miles per hour for the pure joy of it, I’m dancing through excavating or backfilling, moving rocks, winching logs out of the forest, leveling gardens, and chipping the remnants of last winter’s storms. There is joy here too, for this is a dance of subtlety and timing. It is a dance where hands and feet move in different dimensions, but in concert with each other. One hand lifts and lowers, picks up and drops. The other moves the whole forward and back. Heels and toes move in time to speed, slow, or strengthen the movements of the hands. Some of the moves are fast, blunt jabs and other moves are slow, delicate and precise caresses. With a subtle outward twist of a wrist on the front loader,  a half ton of log is gently eased out of a log pile, a quick inward twist flips it up and catches it on the fork lift—ready to load into the sawmill—the children’s game of pick-up sticks on a giant and adult scale. As the land is cleared for our garden, with just the right amount of pushing and pulling, thousands of pounds of tree stump can be tipped on its side and rolled like a wagon wheel into the fire which will consume it. 

 There is definitely the thrill of danger here too.  Each new step is choreographed to answer a specific question— what moves will keep us upright as we precariously balance that half ton log; are driver and machine capable of the steps which will descend the steep trail newly cleared through the forest? Can we dance clear if, in the midst of log skidding, the winch cable were to part with a rifle shot snap and flay through the air with deadly effect?  All these are very exhilarating steps which must be learned. They are the thoughts and experiences which keep the mind clear and life focused. Finishing my day satisfied and uninjured seems a worthy objective, so I’m mindful too that my actions may have significant consequences. In the dance of the machines, as in much of life, actions which may carry significant consequence should best be approached with joy, concentration, and dance-like physical virtuosity.


Posted in In the Woods | 1 Comment

A Northwest Passage – Night Fears

“Stay out of the woods on a windy day, or you ain’t gonna live to collect your pay…” So goes the lyric of a Johnny Cash song from many, many years ago. Today, outside, is one of those windy days–gusts up to fifty five miles per hour, trees bending and branches falling. But, inside it’s warm and the fire is roaring. A perfect afternoon for story telling. The real fear of being in the woods today reminds me that it’s time for another episode of A Northwest Passage.

A Northwest Passage

Night Fears

57 degrees 46 minutes N, 135 degrees 11 minutes W

       Deep, dark, hidden fears climb into consciousness in strange ways and at strange times. Last night, just after portaging our kayaks across the narrow strip of land which separates the waterway known as Port Frederick from Tenakee Inlet, fear overcame our intrepid paddlers. It happened just after sunset as we were about to lose the light of the summer sky—a critical time to find a site and pitch our camp for the night. What was the fear? Not ice, wind, waves, current or even a playful whale, those fears are real and have already been faced. This night’s fear was the unknown – Bears—big, brown, ferocious, fanged, drooling, demonic, man eating, bears.

 Most of our paddling crew is, for the moment, a fugitive from urban life. However, none  have left behind their urban sense of threat versus safety. Here we are in the wilderness, sleeping in the open, easy prey for any malevolent spirit which wanders by. Respect for a magnificent and powerful wild creature is replaced with the personification of that great brown bear as a being of evil.

      As the only member of our group who is skilled with a firearm. I am charged with bear patrol. Our one, and only, bear gun is a big issue around the campfire. It’s a semiautomatic twelve gauge shotgun loaded with five rounds—double O buckshot for the first round followed by four rounds of slugs. At close quarters, in theory, it should provide devastating firepower with five quick pulls of the trigger. But, we’re in a marine environment with salt in the air and our bear gun is slightly rusty. Those five shots are more fantasy than reality.

      As bear patrolman, I am delegated with the job of being first on the shore. My task is to patrol the shoreline and nearby forest. Bear gun slung over my shoulder, I walk along talking in a loud and serious voice to an imaginary and unwanted companion…you have probably heard some poor, emotionally unstable soul talking the same way on some big city street corner…  “Yo, bear, this is our beach… we’re here now. You have to go away…Don’t come near me…if you do, I’ll get you”.

     Our crew is on edge and their ridiculous questions hint at not so hidden anxieties. I’m asked, could I carry the gun instead of leaving it against an old stump. When I amuse myself by walking around empty handed, mumbling questions to myself such as, “Now…where did I put it… Could it be over there?…no…hmmm…I know I left it somewhere”. I’m asked, “What do I mean when I say I can’t remember where I put the shotgun?” No joking allowed about bears in this camp. It’s a little like talking about terrorists in airports.

       Of course, we haven’t seen any bears yet and no one has been eaten, but maybe, just maybe, it will happen. We’ve seen tracks, and the trip isn’t over.

       After a long night of camping and bear patrols, to the relief of our paddlers, we pack our kayaks, and then make the long haul from the Portagedown fjord-like Tenakee Inlet, where we paddle into the waters of the small Alaskan community of Tenakee Springs.

      Built around its hot springs, Tenakee was first developed to soothe the tired, aching muscles of gold rush sourdoughs. When the Klondike grew too cold, miners would retreat to Tenakee and its hot springs for the winter. I suspect the Tenakee of today would still be recognizable to those bygone prospectors.

      Tenakee Springs is typical of a traditional Alaskan boardwalk community.  Life centers around the waterfront. Turn of the century, wood frame stores, businesses and homes are set on pilings, and often connected by wooden boardwalks. On shore, there is one wide, well maintained gravel pathway. There are no roads, no motor vehicles, not even much plumbing, nor a septic system—a public works department has yet to come to Tenakee. To take advantage of the flushing action of the inlet’s twenty-foot tides, outhouses are set at the end of long, narrow, piers high over the bay. I suspect that interrupting your sleep for a cold winter night’s walk on a narrow icy pier and then dropping your pajamas to sit on an ice cold toilet seat has little appeal for most modern day Americans. But, to put it mildly, in terms of modern American life, Tenakee Springs is a cultural anomaly.

      If the life of the community is a social anomaly, geologically speaking so to is the ground on which Tenakee Springs is built.

      One of the many marvels ofSoutheast Alaskais its unique geology.  Here’s a place where the word rebound speaks not to basketball, nor to the psychological effect of a failed relationship, but what happens to the land after a glacier retreats. But, rebound is just one of many unique characteristics of this landscape.

      Our stop in Tenakee Springs includes a visit with an old acquaintance, Steve Lewis. Steve is a mild-aged biologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Alaska. He lives in Southeast Alaska to do his field research. His area of expertise is bats. Where do bats live? In caves only during hibernation explains Steve. Thus, Steve’s interest in, and knowledge, of the geology of Southeast Alaska, to study bats, he needs to find caves. To find caves, he needs to know where to look.

      Caves are found in karst, large areas of stone which is water soluble. Over time, and not the brief spans of time we understand as a human lifetime, acidic water eats away at the karst creating sinkholes, pits and marvelous caves. Limestone and marble make good karst, andSoutheast Alaska is full of limestone and marble, and is riddled with caves.

      As Steve explains it, limestone is the compressed remains of ancient sea life – corral reefs or clam shells. Marble is metamorphic – heated—limestone. How did a corral reef get toAlaska? Steve says it has to do with tectonic plates. Although Steve denies expertise in the movement of tectonic plates, it goes something like this – the earth’s surface is formed of different islands of rock floating over a molten core. Over millions of years, these islands slowly drift, turn and grind into each other. Some plates climb and create ranges of mountains, others sink back into the earth’s core. Some pieces break off, and that’s what’s happened in Southeast Alaska. The limestone here began its existence millions of years ago, perhaps as a corral reef somewhere near what, today, is Australia.

   Armed with new found knowledge of the composition of karst and the movement of tectonic plates, it’s time to climb back in our boats and head out into Chatham Straits.      


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Rabbit in a Tree

Did you know that it is likely that Woolly Mammouth was hunted into extinction by primitive man using nothing more than an atlatl, a spear propelled by a throwing stick? I am regularly astounded by the great changes which are the result of the seemingly inconsequential. Let me tell you about a rabbit I saw recently. 

Rabbit in a Tree

The rabbit hung limply from a branch more than ten feet above my head, as if it were a fur stole unwrapped from the shoulders of some forest giantess who carelessly tossed it aside after a night of woodland revelry. 

 I can imagine many fantastic explanations for its presence—I particularly like the notion that it was the result of some New Age interpretation of a prehistoric shamanistic ritual beseeching a bountiful harvest—but, I suspected the possible explanation lay in the community of plants and animals which inhabit these woods.

As your eyes adapt to the shapes, colors and movement of the forest, there is much to see and always something new here. While I often take the same trail, the woods are always changing. It is a curious contradiction, always the same yet always different. Whether it is the light playing through the trees, the passing of the seasons, the flowering of wildflowers or fungal mycelia, the erratic tapping of a pileated woodpecker, or the eagles and vultures—refuse managers of the forest—cleaning the remains of a fallen deer, the forest offers an unending series of spectacles for passersby. Over the years I’ve passed this place at least a thousand times in my daily walks, but this is my first dead rabbit in a tree…but not my last… 

Much to see and much to think about, just now I’m thinking about the dead rabbit.  I recognize its species. It’s a Belgian hare. Although it’s called a hare, it’s not a hare. It’s a rabbit. Rabbits and hares look pretty much alike. Long, floppy ears, rounded head and body, powerful rear legs which propel the rabbit or hare, when it’s not sitting on its haunches, in running steps which look like hops and a fluffy little tail. So, what’s the difference? Well, new born hares are born with fur and can be hopping alongside their mothers in a few hours. New born rabbits are born blind and are furless. It takes a few weeks for a young rabbit to venture outside its burrow.

Ever heard the phrase, “breeds like a rabbit” or some less couth variant of the same sentiment? A female or doe rabbit can give birth to thirty offspring in a single year…which brings me back to the rabbit hanging in the tree.  

The Belgian hare is not a naturally wild rabbit. Originally, the breed was developed in Europe for the marketplace…a meat rabbit. Clubs or rabbit enthusiasts sprung up and imported the Belgian hare to this continent. Around the year 1900, with the rationale that rabbits would provide sport for the hunter and protein for the rural dinner table, rabbit enthusiasts began releasing hybrids such as the Belgian hare into the wild.

Someone had the brilliant idea to release Belgian hares here…on an island…with no land borne predators ….Well, that’s not strictly true. Just once, on a snowy day, I saw a Belgian hare race by, in fear for its life. A few minutes later, a mink came bounding along the rabbit’s trail. And of course, there are the dogs. My shorthairs occasionally honor me with a gift as they shyly approach and drop a warm dead rabbit in my hand. I’ll spare you the details of what happens next, but I can honestly say that the rabbits are quite tasty…. 

But, for the most part, the Belgian hares bred like rabbits, and bred, and bred.  And, then they eat, and eat, and eat. For the most part they are undisturbed. The rabbits eat whatever tasty morsels are available, from rare native plants, to lawns and kitchen gardens. In some areas of the islands, native plants are disappearing, the land is eroded from burrowing, and the burrows themselves are treacherous. If you think your kitchen garden is safely fenced…think again. Some Belgian hares have learned to throw themselves at wide meshed fencing and squeeze the openings. It’s a cute trick which will guarantee that you have nothing edible in your garden.

Without a concerted human effort to control the population, there are three natural alternatives…starvation, disease and predation. While the rabbit population climbs and crashes as a result of starvation and disease, from year to year the average population is never stable and seems to slowly grow.  

The rabbits have had another effect on the land here. They have brought a change to native wildlife. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. While there are no land born predators, nature has responded by filling that void with aerial predators. The islands are home to healthy populations of bald eagles. But, the majestic bald eagle is primarily a fish and carrion eater. In some areas the bald eagle has been pushed out by more aggressive golden eagles which suddenly swoop down out of the sky to carry off unwary Belgian hares. And, there are the night birds. Most nights the booming call…who…who… who…of great horned owls—the biggest of the owls—fill the night air as a team of at least four hunt through the forest. But, even the owls are changing. The warbling call of the barred owl has recently come to our woods. The barred owl is expanding its territory, and Belgian hares are one of its favorite prey.

A few evenings after my first sighting of a rabbit in a tree, out of curiosity I followed the sounds of an avian squabble. Overhead, two barred owls loudly argued over possession of the dead Belgian hare which one held, draped over a branch, high in the tree, my second rabbit in a tree.








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A Northwest Passage – Leaving Hoonah

As winter sets in here, the days are short and the long nights make for good story telling. So, here’s another episode of A Northwest Passage. But, next week I have to take a break from paddling Southeast Alaska so that I can tell you about a strange sight I saw…a rabbit high in a tree….

A Northwest Passage

58 degrees 6 minutes 27 N, 135 degrees 25 minutes W


 Leaving Hoonah for thePortage

       The story goes that a Russian patrol boat chased a Tlingit war canoe up the narrow inlet, confident that the warriors were trapped, the Russians prepared to dispatch these unruly natives, but were astounded when—poof—the warriors and their canoe disappeared.

        Hoonah sits on a large peninsula on the northern end of  Alaska’s Chicagoff island. The town faces a narrow inlet—Port Frederick—where our kayaks are loaded for an afternoon trip. We’re headed south for a spot, locally known as The Portage, which is our only planned portage of the trip, where we’ll portage across to Tenakee inlet which runs west to east. The portage reduces an unprotected open water trip, up and around the peninsula, of about sixty miles to a much more manageable trip in protected waters of about thirty miles. The portage is a lovely spot, more like a wilderness lake than an outlet to the ocean. Marshy open meadows sit in a bowl set in the center of old growth forest. Silhouetted peaks, dark purple in the late afternoon light, climb from the edge of the forest. These meadows are prime locations for wildlife, particularly brown bear, the waters are dimpled with the splashes from jumping salmon, and the meadows are fringed with abundant berry bushes. For wildlife the travel is easy. One bear trail shows deep old footprints where the same bear has walked in its own footprints, year after year.

        But, the ease of the portage, the beauty of the landscape, or a chance encounter with wildlife are not our primary reasons for traveling here. Our reason to pass through here is to visit a wilderness site which has its own history, even its own mythology. Local lore reports that the portage was first discovered in ancient times when Orcas—Killer Whales—were seen here chasing fish or seals. They would come out of the water and thrash their way through the marsh to the other side. It’s possible that it’s true. Orcas are known to beach themselves in pursuit of prey. To the south of here, just four years, ago a small pod of Orcas pursued schooling salmon up tidal rapids into a fresh water lake – They were trapped when the tide went out.

       The land of the portage is higher now.  This area of the world is on the rebound. Not a description of a basketball move, a forlorn lover or an economic recovery, rebound—glacial rebound—describes what happens to land when the weight of glacial ice disappears. As the glaciers retreat, the land rises about one inch a year. Rebound coupled with uplift from earthquakes – the locals talk about the quake of ’64 – could have caused the land to rise as much as ten feet, the height of the portage, in less than a hundred and fifty years. It is likely that the ancient tales are true and at one time the portage was a marsh through which an orca could swim.

        Local elders remember when commercial fishing boats would tie up in the brackish pond which sits at the edge of the portage. Another of the elders tells of the site as a strategic route for the defense of Hoonah. The inlet of Port Frederick contains twenty- one abundant salmon rivers. It was here that the Glacier Bay Tlingit would come for the salmon. They knew these waters well. To the immediate south there were no organized communities. Warring or raiding tribes from the far south or the east—up until the 1800s, Southeast Alaska was in a constant state of war—would come up the open water and around the peninsula to attack. The Tlingits of Hoonah would set decoys—probably encampments of the elderly, women and children—to attract the enemy. Then, using the portage for a flanking maneuver, Tlingit warriors would circle around and come from behind to destroy their enemies. 

      The Hoonah used the same tactic to escape the Russians who came to this coast in search of wealth and to bring their brand of civilization and religion to what the Russians thought of as unruly heathens. 

      At a later time, the portage was used for trade and for fisherman. As the land lifted, the cut was dug out, and logs were set for the fisherman to slide their boats through. The logs can still be seen today – although now, the portage is mainly known for its berry picking and its wildlife.

     We’ll camp here tonight and head for Tenakee Springs-another coastal town and a completely different culture in the morning. But that is a story for another week.

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Saga of a Reluctant Logger

The weather has been surprisingly good here during the last couple of months, unlike last year, or the year before, or the year before that. I’ve been taking advantage of the good weather to work in the woods… which leads to the story below.

Saga of a Reluctant Logger

“I’m a lumber jack and I’m OK….hum…hum…hum…” As I sharpen my chainsaw for another day in the woods, I hear myself humming an old tune from a typically bizarre Monty Python skit. I can’t remember most of the words, but the few I do remember have meaning for me. Yes, I am OK…I have all my fingers and toes, no broken bones, no massive hemorrhages, or diner plate size bruises. For a surprising change when I’m working in the woods where cuts and scratches are the norm, I’m not even bleeding a little bit. Yes, I am OK …although I do occasionally question my own sanity.

Today is not much different than many of my other days. After I shut down my computer, push back from my desk and turn off the lights, I’ll leave my office and go to work.

In keeping with my philosophy of dressing for success, I’ll change into my oldest, dirtiest work clothes and boots, strap on a set of kevlar ballistic chaps—it’s the same material that is used in bulletproof vests, no inadvertent amputations here please—don a hardhat, high impact safety glasses and ear protectors, pull on a set of leather gloves and head into the forest to cut down trees.  In some curious way working in the woods—the buzzing of the chainsaw, the mighty crash of a falling tree—is soothing…calming…well, that might be a stretch…but compare it to the rest of the world…Anyway, avoiding catastrophic mishaps—chainsaws snapping at your legs, splitting trees collapsing and driving you into the ground, and so forth—requires your attention… no time to dwell on the nightly news, housing bubbles, the state of the national economy, or presidential candidates who are every bit as bizarre as any Monty Python skit. It is sort of Zen like, concentration and focus… living right here, right now…with a hyper awareness of what, at any second, might fall on my head. Why, I could almost call it recreation…although there’s a little more risk here than in a good game of tennis.

I lack professional stature in the logging world, I’m just an amateur. I’ve read a few books and safety manuals, interviewed some loggers, and done some research, but I’m self-taught. Being a timid person, I tend to approach any of my jobs with the question, “What can I possibly do which will go disastrously wrong today?” Then, I have a second question, “Where am I going to run if I really screw this up?” Only when I have good answers to the first question, and at least three answers to the second, do I start to cut.

I know that what I’m going to say now may cause some readers indigestion, if not serve to inflame or enrage their greener environmental sensibilities, but hear my tale before condemning me as a fetishist of internal combustion with a psychotic need to wreak mayhem upon the natural world. First, I have a confession.  Yes, I must confess, as some of you may understand or have empathy, that in my life I have loved perhaps too well, but with too little care. I suffered from a psychological malaise which I attribute to the animated Disney films of my childhood. I perceived the plants and animals of this world as individuals with cognitive skills equal to my own, their own personalities and emotions, who could speak to me in their own language. In the common vernacular, I was a tree hugger.

Years ago, after scraping together a few dollars, my wife and I bought a few acres of an island forest in which we live today. To our untrained eyes the forest was a vision of wilderness, lush, green, and mature. Here, on the island and in the forest, was a place that offered a peaceful retreat for us and our family beneath the majestic, towering canopy of the fir, cedar and pine of the northwest. We named the trees. We talked to the trees. When it came time to clear a building site, we agonized over any decision which required the clearing of the trees. Tears were shed. We cleared very few trees, and thus were sown the seeds of my life today.

Time has a way of altering perceived reality. One day, a few years later, a thought came into my mind as I was hiking through our glorious, lush, green forest. “Gee,” I thought, “It’s really dark and gloomy in here. These trees are really big”. Let me define “big”.  Today, the median tree—some are bigger, some are smaller—in this forest stands about one hundred feet tall with a circumference at its base of about six and one half feet, and it weighs in at almost four tons. There are thousands of them.

  A few phone calls and the asking of many questions resulted in an introduction to a professional forester who I contracted for a survey of the forest. Under his tutelage I soon learned that just because I thought the trees were big didn’t mean that they weren’t going to get bigger…a lot bigger. Our primary species, Douglas Fir, is among the largest living species on the planet and can grow to heights in excess of two hundred feet. I also learned that from the perspective of a forester, the trees were too close together, and the health of the forest was in danger….Awww…Ohhh… this didn’t sound good.

In an old growth forest—and by the way, forest hasn’t always been here, and here hasn’t always been an island. While excavating a pond, just over the hill from this forest, a couple of years ago, the excavator found the remains of a Bison Antiquus, an ancient buffalo which was an inhabitant of North America’s plains—no forests or islands for the Bison Antiquus—and  he was a lot bigger than today’s buffalo. But, I digress.

Over the millennia in an old growth fir forest, the shade from successful trees will kill off their less successful competitors. Over hundreds, if not thousands of years, the death and decay of less successful competitors will lead to a natural spacing which is adequate for the surviving trees. Occasionally, the death and collapse of a tree, or natural disasters such as landslide, fire, or earthquake will open up a small space and a new generation of fir will compete for that spot. Fir need open space and sunlight to regenerate. When a large stand of fir—a forest—is cut, space and sunlight is everywhere. Seedlings will take up every available square foot and compete with each other until they reach great size—sometime well after my lifetime. That’s what happened to this forest. It was first cut at the turn of the nineteenth century. You can tell by the artifacts left in the forest—stumps fourteen to twenty feet in diameter, spaced thirty feet or more apart, with two small notches cut about four feet up, one on each side. That is where the loggers stood on narrow boards as they worked handsaws. I often wonder where they thought they would run if something went wrong…. The forest was cut again about sixty years ago. The cuts in the stumps are lower and the trees where smaller.

 Once again the forest is mature. The trees are big, but without the process of natural selection of the ancient forest they are still competing for space. This forest is at great risk from disease and fire. That is where I come in. The euphemism for the trees I cut is “forest management”. By ripping out opportunistic undergrowth, cutting small trees which fail to thrive under the canopy of the older trees, and by thinning—again, a euphemism for cutting down—some of the older trees so that the survivors have space to grow, I mimic the process of the old growth forest. I’m a “forest manager”.

Trees reward you for giving them extra space by growing faster and this forest grows at a rate of about five percent annually—a math problem for all of you who watch their savings account compound and grow every year. I calculate that the forest doubles in size every fourteen years. Using a very rough estimate, I calculate that I get about two hundred tons of new growth for each of those years. Tuning my saw to racing standards so that it screams, modifying the chain for a ridiculously fast and terrifying cut, working every afternoon after work and whole days on weekends—which I definitely do not do, my questionable sanity has its limits—I can deal with about one hundred and fifty tons per year. Hmmm…somehow I don’t see an end to this job…good thing I’ve grown to love the whine of a chainsaw and satisfying crash of a falling tree.




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A Northwest Passage – Crossing to Hoonah

Thank you for your many kind and thoughtful responses. I’ve got lots more stories in the works which I’ll be posting in the next weeks.  In case you are already tired of winter and would like to plan an adventure for next summer, here’s one to think about.

58 degrees 6 minutes 27 N., 135 degrees 25 minutes West


Part One – Crossing to Hoonah

     We came to Hoonah across Icy Straits fromGlacier Bay. Without knowing, we followed a route which the Hoonah Tlingit have used for thousands of years.Glacier Bayis their ancestral home, more than that, it is their spiritual home.  

      Icy straits – the name alone inspires fear. It’s open water which empties directly into the sea. If there were to be danger in a crossing, it would be here. A Hoonah clan leader told us, “ Icy Straits – the man who named it gave it a good name. When I was a child, icy straits was filled with ice, giant icebergs…”

       We prepared for a rough time—dry suits, rescue gear and spare paddles.  Instead of wind, breaking seas and high currents, luck was with us. Our paddle was through calm waters, on slack tide under nearly clear skies.

        More than an easy crossing, our luck brought us an almost unbelievable wildlife spectacle. Wrestling, diving, back stroking, sea otters by the hundreds escorted out ofGlacier Bay. Then two orcas sped by. As we neared the end of our crossing at Point Aldophus, the most northerly point on South East Alaska’sChicagofIsland, our course was intercepted by a large pod — ten or more– of feeding, humpbacked whales.

       One playful behemoth approached within a kayak’s length of our intrepid group, rolled on it’s side and began to wave its flipper—which I envision as a gigantic arm—in a figure eight pattern… ha, ha, ha…very funny, kind of a whale joke. His flipper happened to be longer than the eighteen foot kayak and could have reduced the kayak to splinters with one wrong move. Responding to our fervent prayers for survival and a few choice expletives, the whale moved away.

   For the next two hours we were treated to the awesome sight of these mammoth creatures rolling, spinning, and rising completely out of the water as they breached to crash back into the sea in a massive cloud of white water and spume. As they grunted, groaned and blew, their sounds were other worldly. Occasionally, one or another would hit a trumpet-like note which would reverberate off the rocky shoreline and its forests.

       Even then the spectacle continued. Stellar sea lions, feeding on salmon migrating salmon which jumped, tail walked and finned all around us, broke off from their feeding to charge our boats. Put off by our yells and frantic pounding on our kayaks, they bypassed us and frolicked with a nearby humpback whale until we departed on our way to Hoonah. 

        In Hoonah we found a vibrant, small, fishing and logging community. Tourism has yet to reach Hoonah. But here, there is an undercurrent of sadness. Centuries ago, the Hoonah Tlingit were driven fromGlacier Bayby advancing glacial ice. At best, the very bottom ofGlacier Baycould be used for summer encampments. By the time of the arrival of the Europeans, the glacial ice had retreated enough for the Tlingits to begin to move back. With no permanent settlements to prove the Tlingit claim, the Europeans began to lay claim to the land.

       NowGlacier Bayis a national park, and as one Hoonah elder says sadly, “We’re never going back. It is the place of my memories. It is where I, my father and my grandfather grew up. My memories have been taken.”


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Beginning of a Northwest Passage

58 degrees 52minutes N, 136 degrees 48 minutes W – Reid Inlet, Glacier Bay, Alaska, one day in August.

    The ice rises a thousand feet out of the sea a mile and a half from here – the other end of a narrow glacial bay known as Reid Inlet. The glacier has retreated, leaving behind a narrow, u shaped valley.  At its center—where it falls into the sea—the ice is a vibrant aquamarine color. At its shore, where this river of ice meets the land, the glacier is the color of earth it has scoured from the surrounding mountains on its trip to the sea.

    A cool wind blows down off the ice and brings with it the promise of an even colder night. But, night won’t bring rain to our camp at the mouth of the inlet.  Luck is with us. An area of high pressure sits offshore in the Pacific, just to the west of us across the ridge of the narrow range of mountains which looms over us.  For once, the mountains known as theFairweatherRangeearns their name. The sky is clear and the mountains provide a stark white spectacle in the setting sun.

    This is the start of my Northwest Passage, a personal exploration which starts here in what today is a National Park and winds down to the southern Alaskan city ofKetchikan. It’s a short trip by air, only 262 miles, but I’m travelling by boat and kayak, and my route is anything but straight.  Over the next few weeks I’ll travel the backwaters and outlying communities of South East Alaska in pursuit of encounters and experiences which until now I have only known as rumors or myths.

   When Captain George Vancouver traveled these waters in the year 1794,Glacier Bayas we know it did not exist. Ice, thousands of feet thick, clogged not only this inlet, but all ofGlacier Bay, for a distance of fifty miles to the south of this spot. Think of it…where I sit writing this story was covered with a sheet of ice. Ice weighs 57.5 pounds per cubic foot. If historical reports are accurate, then the small space in which I sit was covered with more than 26 tons and every other square foot of land carried the same impossible burden.

   In just over the two hundred years sinceVancouver’s passage, the major glaciers here have retreated northward more than eighty miles. Plant life—first as simple pioneers and colonizers, eventually as large and diverse forests—have returned to this place. For the scientist,Glacier Bayoffers a laboratory in which vegetation can be precisely dated and examined – from old to new.

   But, for those of us without scientific skills, it’s practically beyond comprehension that the dramatic shapes and structures of this land we see before us have not always existed. If you consider thatVancouver’s exploration here happened at the beginning of the industrial revolution and if you believe his reports as well as those of Captain Cook, John Muir or the oral tradition of the Tlingit tribe, then this bay offers visible testimony to the reality of climate change.

Day 2

   The sound of a nearby thunderstorm, the sonic boom of a jet breaking the sound barrier, or artillery shells exploding in the distance – take your pick – glaciers make noise. Their noises are not little noises. At random intervals throughout the day and night, the glacier cracks, and booms, and thunders. The ice splits and office building size chunks fall, with a tremendous splash, into the sea.

   In and of itself, the spectacle is remarkable, but it’s the noise which really sends the message, and the message is clear.  The forces at work here are bigger than man – pass here at your peril.

 Today, miles from the face of the glacier, we struggled to find a passage for our fragile kayaks through an ice-choked channel. Icebergs the size of house floated by. Occasionally, as these behemoths melted, they would suddenly topple and roll over—a true threat to anyone nearby.

  In some sense, glaciers are a contradiction. It is an ice river, a thing which comes into existence only to travel to where it cannot exist. In terms of climate, a glacier exists in a very narrow band, and those bands change radically over time.

 John Muir was fascinated by this place. In the late eighteen hundreds he made extensive visits here. But, even when he visited, where I sit today was under over a thousand feet of ice. 

There is a lot more to this story…let me know if you would like to see more episodes

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A few days ago, the sound of geese reached my ears as they conversed while travelling south on their annual migration. I could see their v formation high in the clear, cool air of  an October day and I felt the old, familiar sensation of my pulse quickening and the urge to crouch, hidden in the reeds of a marsh. But, for me, to crouch and hide probably would have led to a fatal fall from the thirty foot ladder on which I stood as I frantically struggled to finish my major fall task of painting the house before the rains come. Although it is apparent that this fall will be consumed with tasks left undone from the summer, I remember many days which were a lot more fun. Let me tell you about one memorable October much further north and many thousands of miles from here…

Stalking, Sport of the Victorians

      On a fall or winter day, it is not unusual for me to find myself on hands and knees crawling through some brush, or across some muddy ground. Close contact with the earth, getting muddy, wet, and wading through a marsh is part of what I know as hunting. On this day, what is unusual about this particular crawl is that I’m dressed in a tweed suit, my shoes are polished and I’m wearing a two hundred dollar cashmere necktie. It’s wet and it’s muddy, and I’m dressed for an afternoon in the owner’s enclosure at a polo match.

    Although I am carrying a rifle, a scoped, .275 cal. bolt action Holland& Holland, I am not hunting. No, this is not hunting. Before you conjure up lurid images of sniper training, or unsuspecting octogenarians pottering in their gardens while being stalked by Bondian assassins let me explain… or perhaps, define. Actually, I am stalking…let me give you some definitions.

   Hunting, for those of you visiting theUnited Kingdom, is not about sitting silently with a bow or rifle in a tree stand for hours on end, nor is it crouching in a duck blind waiting for the first flight of the morning. Hunting has only one definition. Hunting is an activity performed in a tailored red coat, jodhpurs, polished black boots and riding helmet on horseback. A few brass horns and lots of baying hounds are in order. A fox running somewhere, unseen, in front of you is required.

      For those you who wish to take a rifle and head into the woods, or up on the moors in pursuit of deer, that’s not hunting either. If rifles and deer are your interest, then you are stalking. By the way, your rifle and your skills may be capable of a two hundred yard shot, but that’s not sporting. You will be expected to stalk within twenty five to thirty yards of your prey.

 As a side note, for the avid shot gunner, whose quarry is pheasant, grouse or partridge, once again you do not hunt game birds, you shoot them. Naturally enough, pheasants are shot at a pheasant shoot.

   Whether a hunter, a stalker, or a shooter, the correct attire is critical to success, perhaps it could be said that in theUnited Kingdomthat worse even than being a poor shot is being in poor taste.

To further expand upon my own attire, on this day–my first day of stalking–head to toe I’m wearing a tweed deerstalker cap, matching tweed jacket, soft woolen checked shirt, burnt orange cashmere tie, tweed plus fours, amber knee socks, with burnt orange garters to match my tie and a pair of ankle-high, polished brown (often referred to as cognac) shoes.

   My introduction into the world of British Stalking comes at the Strathspey Estate, the sporting estate of the Earl of Seafield in the highlands ofScotland.  This is a sporting estate which means that the reason for its existence is to offer superb stag stalking, grouse shooting and salmon fishing. In former times, the estate would have been managed for the exclusive use of the Earl and his friends and associates. Today, such a place can only survive if it can generate some revenue. The opportunity to have an experience which is akin to the aristocracy of the Victorians is a powerful draw for active sportsman, and it’s a carefully packaged commodity in this part ofScotland. ….the estate covers roughly 75,000 acres, most of which is mountainous, heather covered moors. 

      John Ormiston, my host who at the time of my visit was the sporting manager for the venerable firearms firm ofHolland&Hollandgave me some background on the Highlands, “they’re said to be one of the last remaining large wildernesses inEurope. When one goes stalking in theHighlands, you are going to be in area which is between five thousand and ten thousand acres in size and it’s very likely that you’ll be the only person in those ten thousand acres.

         Today, I am stalking, aptly enough, my guide is known as a “stalker” and we’ll be stalking red stags in the estate’s deer forest. Although called a forest, there are just a few scraggily trees to be seen. Most of the Scottish Highlands are wide open spaces, with only ankle high heather as ground cover. TheHighlandswere once heavily forested, but that was about four hundred years ago, before the trees were cut to make the ships of the Royal Navy.

    It is mid-October, the end of the stalking season and the weather alternates almost instantly from a beautiful sunshine to bitterly cold, driven rain. But, these are the Scottish Highlands, and other than a deeper chill, this weather is about the same year round.

      Our plan for the day will be to spot a stag with binoculars and telescope from a very long ways away—as much as two miles—and then to use natural cover, the contours of the land and the wind to mask our approach. We’ll be considered highly successful, that is “very sporting”, if we can get within about thirty yards of our quarry before making our shot.

      Stalking as it is known today is a product of the Victorian era of theBritish Empire. Victorians were active, healthy outdoor enthusiasts who had an unshakeable belief in the supremacy of modern man. What better way to stay in good health than to take a strenuous hike through the highlands in pursuit of wild game, and then to use the cunning of modern man to sneak up on your prey?  And, as Frank Law, the estate manager of Strathspey explains there is a method behind the tweed clothing I’m wearing. Frank tells me that tweeds are a form of Victorian camouflage which is woven in patterns which reflect the colors found in nature on the estate, “Most estates can be identified by the color of the tweeds they are wearing.Tweedis a soft wool material that is very, very quiet. It’s very warm, even when it’s wet, it’s still warm.” Referring to his own black and white check pattern which at a distance blends into the granite common to the estate, “This tweed was designed about one hundred and thirty years ago by the then Countess of Seafield.”

      We begin our stalk by hiking the moors with binoculars and telescope in hand. After several hours of unsuccessful searching we finally come across a stag that controls a large harem, but it is almost two miles distant.  Red deerare more like elk in their mating habits than the deer we know. One male in its prime, may control as many as thirty hinds, or does. The rule of stalking is to never take a stag in its prime. We’re looking for big stags past their prime, stags coming into their prime, or stags which may harbor a genetic anomaly. Perhaps the tines of their antlers are dangerously sharp which could be a hazard to other animals during the combats which regularly occur during the rut.

      There are several good sized stags on the edge of the harem. They are all waiting their chance to sneak in and have their way with the harem when the dominant male is distracted for one reason or another. Between servicing his hinds and chasing off his upcoming challengers, the dominant stag uses a lot of energy…. It may just be the death of him over the coming winter.

      We pick one of the challengers and plan our stalk. Wind direction comes from a handful of dry grass tossed into the air. Our plan is to drop down wind and downhill of our stag until we are out of sight and scent. Then, we will climb up through a series of deep gullies cut by erosion in the moor until we are above the stag. We’ll try to make the shot from about thirty yards. We’ve got to cover about a mile and a half before our target stag gets up and ambles off.

    Crouched down and in single file to reduce our profile on the open moor we drop away from the distant stag. As soon as we’re out of sight we begun to run. By the time my heart is pumping and my chest is heaving, we reach the first gully. Now, it’s time to head uphill. Again, we’re moving fast and my breath is really getting short.

     Scottish moors may be hills, but up close, the ground seems marshy, composed of heather, standing water and peat bogs. Just as soon as we reach the top of the gully, it’s time to start crawling infantry style over the moors. No hands and knees here. Right down onto our bellies and into the water, whether we’re wearing tailor made clothing or not. 

     Quickly into position, and suddenly there is our stag. My stalker loads a single shell, and despite my pounding heart, I make the shot…..triumph! But, there is more going on here than meets the eye. What seemed to be the height of an elegant experience has begun to feel a little more like a kidnapping. Just prior to our departure for the moors, Frank Law politely told me, “We would appreciate it if you would take three animals.” 

     As we lost sight of the lodge and traveled into some of the unknown wilderness of the estates’ 75,000 acres, my stalker—who knows I have an important dinner meeting many miles from the estate—turns to me and says, “I do hope you’ll understand that I’m just going to have to borrow your time today.” 

     We have been running up and down hill ever since. And, now it’s become clear to me. I am going to miss my dinner engagement.  I’m expected to keep going until we shoot two more stags. No one is going to tell me where the cars are parked, much less how to find a main road.  What is going on here?

    With a few questions I learn that today is the last day of the stalking season. The estate is managed for the optimum number of stags, no more, no less. The guests of the estate have not been as successful in their stalking as hoped, and now the estate will have too many stags. Another notion has become clear to me as we make one last ascent in the twilight. I have yet to take a second stag. The third seems out of the question. It looks like Strathspey will have two stags too many this year.

Posted in In the Field | 95 Comments

The Weather was so bad…..

The days grow short. The leaves change color and fall. It’s a beautiful autumn, but there is a nagging worry at the back of my mind as I scramble to get my tasks of the fall done before the weather changes. In less than five weeks, the weather could change, I’ve seen it happen. Let me tell you about our first winter here…

The Weather Was So Bad ….

Well, we survived our first winter here. Probably you have heard other Bay Area expatriates say the same thing after leaving the mild climate of the San Francisco Bay. But, I’m not talking about cold, or surviving the psychological effects of gloom and precipitation. I’m speaking literally. I’ve seen some bad weather in my life and I can honestly say that it wasn’t the falling snow that bothered me so much this last winter, as it was the falling trees. If we have another winter like that, if I’m lucky enough to avoid being squashed like a bug succumbing to a mallet, I’ll be making cabinets for the rest of my life. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start back at the beginning.

After forty years of life in the Bay Area, with both excitement at the prospect of a new life and some reluctance at leaving the comfort and security of our old lives, my wife, Carie, and I packed up our four decades into four categories—Junk, Goodwill, Long Term Storage and Stuff-We-Need. We cleaned up our Oakland house, put it on the market, and moved north. Proximity to the ocean was a big part of our Oakland lives so, of course, we moved near the ocean to our part time home of twenty three years where we had never spent a full winter.

The first few months were gorgeous—warm summer weather moving into an Indian summer fall…until about the second week in November, then the rain started. Rain is what happens here in the Pacific Northwest, so we were prepared. Given our experience with the driving, horizontal rain of an Oakland winter storm fresh from the Pacific, the rain here didn’t seem too bad. There was a lot of rain, but it came straight down, not sideways. It’s a temperate marine climate here, so it doesn’t snow. That is…. it didn’t snow until the fourth week of November. By that time, the ground was saturated from the deluge we received in the previous two weeks. Rivulets and streams flowed at a rate of 80 gallons a minute through what, just a few weeks before, appeared to be a promising site for our kitchen garden and orchard.

Then, two days after the Thanksgiving weekend, the snow came—20 inches overnight. The snow acted as insulation so the heavily saturated soil did not freeze. The weight of the snow was enough bring down trees whose roots could find no purchase in the muddy ground….lots of trees….lots of big trees.

The day after that first snow, we headed out our driveway in a two vehicle convoy –John Deere four wheel drive tractor and front loader—the snow plow—first, followed by our 16 year old Montero driven by Carie in low range four wheel drive with two chainsaws in the back. Over the time we’ve had our country home, we’ve developed a strong affection for Stihl Chainsaws. We each have one—his and her models. We started at 9am and arrived at the county road, a distance of two miles, at 2:30 in the afternoon. Along the way, we cut our way through, or pushed out of the way, twelve trees. Half an hour later, on our return trip, two more trees had fallen, so we cut our way home. We weren’t finished then. A few hours later, on a good will mission to rescue neighbors, returning from Thanksgiving who were stranded at the bottom of our hill, another two trees blocked the road.

The county was declared in a state of emergency, although the only real emergency we faced was the failure of the delivery of our order of Peet’s coffee and teas. It was the first of several emergencies. I’d go so far as to say that the entire winter was a near state of emergency—an almost unending series of rain, wind and snow storms. Have you ever seen a mature Douglas fir bend in the wind like a blade of grass in a summer breeze? The wind storms were so frequent and intense that we became blasé with 50 mph gusts, although 90 mph gusts still made us pretty nervous…Then, there was the stormy day question, “Have you got your saw?” I find it modestly curious that I live in place where I consider it imprudent to leave home on a stormy day without a well sharpened, fully fueled, chainsaw in the back of the car.

But, for me, the story of the winter leads somewhere. This is not a simple story of persevering against adversity—although as urban Californians, some neighbors thought we persevered a little too well—nor is it a story of the worst November in recorded history or the worst winter in 25 years. It’s not really a weather story but a story of stimuli which lead to creativity, or in my case, cabinetry. It may seem an illogical leap, but hear me out. When the trees started falling, the bottom fell out of the local firewood market. In our neighborhood, you couldn’t give away a well seasoned cord of fir, alder or even oak, so the firewood cutters have no interested in my downed trees. Any well trained arborist has enough work so that I’m unlikely to see them until next year, and their fees might painfully deplete our modest assets. So, what do I do with the thirty trees I’ve got laying on the ground—that is after I get them all in one place which may likely take another two months? It’s obvious. I’ve already got a saw mill. I will make those logs into boards. I’ve got big inventories of fir, alder and pine. Through the miracle of internet and on-line shopping, my workshop is now populated with shiny, new power tools, and I’ve got lots of good advice on how to use them. Trim, flooring, railings, kitchen cabinets, chairs, tables, you name it. The cabinetry assembly line is about to begin.

Know anyone in the Bay Area would like some handcrafted wooden furniture made in the Northwest?





Posted in Weather | 55 Comments