TICK, TOCK


Tick, tock, TICK, TOCK.  In the past year, my internal clock has been ticking louder.  It’s telling me get out in the woods more, do the things I want to do, see the things I want to see, now, soon, this year, maybe next, but not put them off.  The sound is reminding me again there are no guarantees in either longevity or health.

I’ve always had a clock, but I didn’t hear it much for many years, when I had my neurology training.  I saw sudden catastrophic neurological conditions, many times in people who had just retired.  I started to hear the clock again.  Two young colleagues died in accidents within a few weeks of each other back in ’92, and the sound became louder.  An inner voice told me, “There’s a cost to taking a leave of absence to work for the Forest Service in the canoe country, Mike, but there is a cost to waiting. Go now.”  I didn’t wait until was 65, which I will soon be. I went early and never regretted it.

The same time, I made “The List,” years before “bucket lists” and “1000 places to see before you die,” many of which I neither need nor want to see.  The List is for me.  Others don’t need or want one.  That’s fine. I do.

In my 30s, life was busy, too busy.  I practiced medicine, chronically fatigued, interrupted, sued, and hurried until I finally got out at 43.  I had other jobs, went back to school, got a degree, couldn’t make a living at it, and started volunteering, to give my life more meaning.  I tutored math for 9 years, taught a man to read, led birding tours in the neighborhood, and removed buffelgrass.  I published articles.

One day, I happened to see The List, which had languished in a drawer.  The first item was “See the Sandhill Crane Migration in Nebraska.” I had put that one off for a decade. In 2004, I  told my wife and father that I was going, and they were welcome to accompany me, but Nebraska weather in March was unpredictable.  We all went and had a good time; I was transformed.  I am now a volunteer tour guide at Rowe Sanctuary and for 6 years have showed others the migration.  It is one of the top 4 sights I’ve had in nature (total solar eclipse, seeing a wolf in the wild, and Katmai bears are the other three.)

I chased a few eclipses in some unusual places, and indeed, seeing the next total solar eclipse became a permanent member of The List.  In 2005, I added a new item:  see all the national parks.  In December, I drove 550 miles to Guadalupe Mountains NP and climbed Guadalupe Peak the same day.  I was told it would be too windy up there and too dark before I got down.  I went anyway.  For 15 minutes, I was alone and atop Texas.  It was dead calm.  I got down just as it got dark.  Great hike. Eight years later, I have eight parks left to see.  The 19 trips I’ve taken, my odyssey, has been one of the best things I have ever done, carrying me into 13 states and 23 new national parks.

In the winter of 2007, the ticking became really loud, as it does when I fail to get outdoors enough, so I looked at The List and read: “See the Arrigetch Peaks”.  Oh yeah.  That one. These mountains, some of the most unusual in the world, are in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska.  I was 58; I wasn’t going to be backpacking forever.  I have a neck I have to take care of, and anything else could suddenly fail.  I wasn’t expecting problems, but I heard the clock:  GO!!  I  went the next summer.  The hike was the toughest 20 miles I have ever done, but I saw the Arrigetch.  It is one of the top items on my “Outdoor Resume,” which I keep for myself, although others may certainly look at it.  I am not competing with anybody, only fulfilling my dreams.

After that,  I planned my trips on a regular basis.  Hiking the entire Appalachian Trail is on The List, but I don’t plan to do it; there is too much else, and the AT requires too much time.  I’ve walked the southern 528 miles and hiked 20 miles in a day (another list item) 9 times, once 3 days in a row.  Damn, that was fun.  Maybe I should reconsider.

High above the Dalton Highway, just south of Atigun Pass.

Dall Sheep, Aichilik River headwaters, ANWR, Alaska.

TICK TOCK. I wanted to see the eastern “Gates”, Gates of the Arctic NP.  My guide and I bushwhacked in from the Dalton. I carried 75 pounds up a monster hill with a 20% grade, went over Oolah Pass two days later

Oolah Pass and Lake

Oolah Pass and Lake

in a cold, pouring rain, up other steep hills, in rivers,over moraines, through incredible valleys, to Summit Lake.  We got picked up by float plane.  Hiking is better, but to fly over this country is incredible.  We flew between Frigid Crags and Boreal Mountain, the “Gates” of the Arctic”, named by Bob Marshall.

Summit Lake, Gates of the Arctic NP, on the continental divide (1200 m)

Summit Lake, Gates of the Arctic NP, on the continental divide (1200 m)

I now think that perhaps this hike was harder than the Arrigetch.  I thought it would be my last backpacking trip, but my guide told me about doing ANWR again. I remembered the wildlife on the  in 2009, got that faraway look in my eyes that said I needed to go back, know I won’t be happy unless I do, and that is on for 2014.

TICK TOCK.  Mike, you saw Alaska, but you need to see those parks.  This year, I took three week-long road trips.  I love planning these.  They were tough, but I did what I set out to do in each one.  The first one took me to Mammoth Cave, KY; I spent time with the Friends of the Boundary Waters in Minneapolis, went to Ely, winter camped solo, gave three scholarships at Vermilion Community College and came home.  The clock’s ticking was quieter.  I got into the woods.  Alone.  In snow.  And did fine.  It was one of the smartest hikes I had ever done, probably because I knew I had little margin for error.

My footprints in Kobuk Valley NP Sand Dunes (greater)

Noatak River, near the western edge of Gates of the Arctic National Park. Looking east.

Three months later, I saw four Alaska national parks.  I spent three nights after 1 a.m. in the Anchorage airport to do so, but I flew into Kobuk Valley National Park,  drove 7 hours to Wrangell-St. Elias and back, flew to Katmai and later to Lake Clark.  Great trip, but I missed hiking with a pack. Go back to ANWR one more time, Mike, go while you can.  If you’re lucky, you can raft the Killik, Nigu, Hulahula or Kongakut Rivers some day, to add to your paddling the Alatna and the Noatak.  Maybe do all of them.  Tick Tock.

A month later, I flew to Rochester, New York, my home town, to see it one more time.  The next day I was in Cleveland, seeing Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  With a bad case of the GIs that night, and beginning a nasty cold, I drove from there to Algonquin Park, Ontario, for Camp Pathfinder’s 100th anniversary, where I learned to canoe, and did a day loop trip in Algonquin.  Being underway in a red canoe

Red canvas canoe that Pathfinder uses.

Red canvas canoe that Pathfinder uses.

that dented my knees  from kneeling on the ribs and planking was part of the thrill.  Pathfinder bowmen didn’t sit in the bow seat.  I even carried the red canoe a mile.  I texted that feat to my wife, and she simply replied, “Why?”  It mattered.

Day trippers at Little Island Lake, Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. I camped at this site 50 years earlier. I am in the blue in the back.

I didn’t know if I could get the 90 pounder on my head, but wisdom is more important than strength, and the canoe went right up. Then, of course, I had to carry it the whole way.  It’s not a man thing; it’s a Pathfinder thing.  I wore red there; to wear red and carry again was deeply satisfying. After Pathfinder, I drove to Ottawa to see a good friend.  He took me over the Chilkoot twice, introduced me to the big waters of the Far North, the Yukon and Nahanni Rivers, and we’ve been in the Quetico.  Lot of water under our keel.  He’s got me interested in seeing Western Australia, and he is nearly 70.  Tick tock.

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

I’m trying to learn two languages, too.  Tick, tock.  Will you ever be functionally fluent in German and Spanish, Mike?  Tick tock.  Are you getting out enough?  Tick tock.  Do you notice how easy it is to get stiff and sore?  Tick tock.  Do you remember your miserable illness in 2009, when you almost were housebound for 4 months?  Tick tock.  Are you teaching enough?  Tick tock.  Are you loving your wife enough?  Tick tock.  Are you caring for your animals?  Tick tock.  Do you look at the maps on the wall and wonder how you are ever going to see all that country before you die?  Tick tock.  Does it matter, if you can just get to the places you love again?  Tick tock.  Are you able to say every day, “If I drop dead now, I will have lived, loved, done good, and been worthy of calling myself a human being?”

Tick tock.

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One Response to “TICK, TOCK”

  1. Zohre Says:

    I love it, Mike.I`m so lucky to have such a great friend in my life.

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