Archive for the ‘OUTDOOR WRITING, PUBLISHED’ Category


October 11, 2009

I puffed my way up the last of the steep climb to the Petrified Forest Plateau, the forest itself several miles and several millennia behind me.  It must have been quite a sight, given the size of the stony logs and stumps, still so realistic, they needed to be touched to prove their composition was inorganic. 

The plateau was a sea of short-grass prairie, a small remnant of the original.  I walked south on the Maah Daah Hay trail, 13 miles from Medora, North Dakota and 86 miles from its northern terminus along the Little Missouri River.  This was Roughrider Country, and I was in wilderness that bore the name of the 26th president. 

The hiking itself was easy for one who is used to mountains.  The pool-table flat prairie afforded views into the eroded hills with juniper trees on their north facing slopes and sparse grass on the warmer, drier southern facing ones.  Trail markers were visible a mile away, allowing me to easily detour when I encountered bison.BISON IN THEODORE ROOSEVELT NP 

I had long wanted to see this area, which was on “The List,” affording it special status in my life.  “The List” currently contains 29 items, places to see or things to do in my life.  It is dynamic.  Each year, an item or two gets put on it.  Each year, if all goes well, a few items are checked off.  This year was particularly good — I saw Isle Royale and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, and a wolf in the wild, the last having been at the top of “The List” for many years.  “The List” is the most deeply personal thought I publicize.  Because it is so personal, I don’t believe in the “1000 places to see before you die” concept.  That is somebody else’s list.  Mine is mine.  If you have one, which I hope you do, yours is yours. 

“The List” began as a figure of speech many years ago.  In my forties, I wrote it down, becoming more aware of life’s lack of guarantees.  A neurologist, I saw too many people disabled or dead before they did or saw what they wanted to.  When I reached my fifties, the realization hit me that much of “The List” contained wilderness areas that required good health and good physical condition.  I almost put off the trip to Dakota for another year, but I knew if I went now I wouldn’t be kicking myself next year if something came up.  Indeed, a bicycle accident in July left me with a broken scapula and three broken ribs, all of which healed but were a stark reminder of what can happen. 

Occasionally, I delete an item, but only if I am really no longer interested.  Namibia’s Skeleton Coast and Etosha Park remain, but it’s a long trip, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled twice to South Africa.  I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the 1500 miles of the Appalachian Trail I haven’t hiked.  Nevertheless, finishing the AT is on the list.  Some items are easier — I want to show my wife Hawaii, and I want to spend a night camped out in the Rincons.  Right now, the Arrigetch Peaks in Gates of the Arctic are at the top.  I’m going next summer, while I still can. 

“The List” is not completely rational.  North Cascades is on it; the Everglades are not, although I do want to see them.  “The List” is a written reminder not to squander good years.  We have to make a living, but we ought not forget things outside of work that are important to us.  I’m not a city person, but seeing London is one of the items. 

I day hiked in North Dakota.  I had never done a trip like that before and found it rewarding.  I covered serious mileage each day because I carried less.  Water is an issue there, and bison are dangerous, both good reasons not to camp in the backcountry.  It was also nice to sleep in a bed when the temperature was in the low 20s.  In addition to bison, I saw pronghorn, wild horses, deer as well as hearing and seeing bugling elk, a real treat.  But time in wilderness usually gives me more than visual memories.  I generally come out of the area looking at the world differently.  I left Billings County with a surprising sense of optimism, given the current state of the world.  Theodore Roosevelt came to the area in 1882 as a young man.  An avid hunter, he realized the uniqueness of that particular era and envisioned a time when the bison were gone and the prairie no more.  He said, “What makes our country great is not what we have but how we use it.”  Three days after another September 11, ’01 – 1901 – he became president, the first interested in conservation.  It’s difficult to travel in Roughrider Country without encountering:  “I never would have become president had it not been for my experiences in North Dakota.”  I think he would be pleased to know the bison are still around, and the area he loved became first a memorial to him and then a national park.  He worked to save what he could, and it changed America.  Those of us who do our part can change America as well. 

And while you change America, don’t forget your list.


October 11, 2009

Two a.m., north Tonto platform, Grand Canyon, between Phantom Ranch and Clear Creek.

We awaken to silence, total silence, no wind, no sound from the river, no mouse rustling through our gear, no music, no cell phone ringing and no engine noise from aircraft.  It is so quiet our ears ring.  My wife and I speak in whispers, for to speak aloud would be a travesty.  Carefully, we crawl out of the tent and stand on the rocky trail, for we are camped at large, and a wide spot on the trail was as good a place as any.  Above us, we see the night sky clearly, the dim circlet of Pisces easily visible without optical aid.

Periodically, I go into the woods to get away from people and society.  If I am lucky, not only will I be in the wilderness, but perhaps I will have clear, dark skies and spectacular star viewing the way our forebears did.  Much as I might wish, I don’t expect the third and rarest of the “outdoor triad” — total, complete silence.  Think about it.  Most of us find the wilderness quiet but seldom soundless.  But occasionally, you get lucky.  Perhaps the silence may even awaken you.  If fortunate enough to have this experience, you find yourself speaking in whispers.  When it is really quiet, you don’t want to disturb it.

I’ll take total silence over dark skies if I have a choice.  Last year, I finally decided it was time to camp out overnight in the Santa Catalina Mountains, which I’ve day hiked for years.  I hauled my aging frame and overnight gear eight miles and four thousand vertical feet to the top of Mt. Kimball.  I’m fortunate that I can actually walk out my back door in Tucson and under my own power hike to the top of a mountain.  To my surprise and pleasure, I again awoke in the middle of the night to total silence, with the town of Oro Valley spread out nearly a vertical mile below me.  Yes, it was cold, and yes, my legs almost gave out the next day after descending four miles of twenty per cent grades with a heavy pack.  But because of the experience of total silence, I might do it again.  Well, maybe with less gear and a good light, so I could make it a day — and evening — hike.

One advantage to growing old is that my hearing is gradually deteriorating.  As a result, I find myself in an advantageous state:  I hear well enough to keep myself safe, identify birds, and not get my wife too upset that I missed what she said.  At the same time, I am finding a few more opportunities to experience total silence.

Don’t get me wrong — given my druthers, I’d rather not be losing any hearing.  It took me many, many years before I realized how “auditory” I am.  More than once, I’ve recognized somebody only by their voice and not their face.  But these days, I find myself less tolerant of society’s noise.  It’s polluting, it’s harmful, it’s annoying, and much of it unnecessary.  While earphones or soundproofing can produce total silence, that isn’t the same any more than walking in the city is the same as walking, miles from the trailhead.  And as Sig Olson wrote, being in the wilderness is only part of the experience.  The work entailed to get there matters just as much.

In the Information Age, there is a lot to be said for under stimulating ourselves, not only because it’s healthier, but allows us to appreciate the stimuli that later occur.  Part of what makes total silence so memorable is hearing the enhanced suddenness of the sound ending it.  That night in the Canyon, it was a slight breeze carrying the distant sound of water rushing down Clear Creek Rapids.  Once in the Boundary Waters, it was a loon wailing from far down the lake.  Another time in the Canyon, it was the kraaak of a Raven, followed by hearing the flap of his wings echoing off the Redwall.

It’s worth experiencing the triad while you still can.  The best way is to work hard getting to a place then choosing the campsite carefully, being patient and most of all staying quiet.  It won’t be what you see, and it certainly won’t be what you hear.  It will be what you don’t hear.


October 11, 2009

(Published in the Boundary Waters Journal, 2006).                                            

It was on my “list”:  Kawnipi Lake, one more time, while I could.  I’ve got a lot on that list, each year trying to check off a couple items.  A while back, I took my wife and father to see the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte.  Other items still undone include the Death March portages, seeing a wolf in the wild, visiting the Brooks Range and paddling the Churchill River.  The list reminds me not to squander good years.  I once practiced medicine and know too well the bad things that can happen to people and how quickly they may happen.  Last winter, a voice in my head told me, “Get into Kawnipi again, while you still can.”  As soon as I could, I obtained a Quetico permit for mid-May. 

I’ve been fortunate.  Despite living in the Sonoran Desert, 2000 miles from canoe country, I’ve logged more than 50 Quetico-Superior trips.  It’d probably be easier and cheaper to live in Minnesota, but 21 New England winters were enough.  In 1992, I worked as a volunteer wilderness ranger for the Forest Service in Ely, spending an even hundred days in the woods, the most content I’ve ever been.  I’ve had a lot of formal education, but that year I attended the University of the Forest Service, Boundary Waters Campus. 

My body has suffered wear like a heavily used Wenonah.  I have three pins in a hip and a deformed clavicle from a past bicycle accident.  Occasionally, a pinched nerve in my neck dating from a Forest Service trip bothers me, but never while canoeing.  It may require surgery some day, but not yet. 

I’ve been to Kawnipi five other times, for which I feel blessed.  IMAP SHOWING KAWNIPI LAKE just wanted another chance to see the lake and spend a night there, refreshing my memories.  I’ve had great fishing in McKenzie Bay, seen moose in Kawa and McVicar Bays, soloed into Lemay and paddled from Atkins Bay to Shelley.  I didn’t have any logic for why I wanted to go back.  I just did.  Those who have been there understand. 

My wife prefers late season BWCA trips, so I contacted Pieter, a good friend from Ottawa, who introduced me to the Yukon and Nahanni Rivers.  We’ve also traveled the Quetico several times, the last being a “Triple K” trip in ‘97 — Kawnipi, Keefer and Kahshahpiwi — using his heavy Old Town Tripper.  He agreed to come (I convinced him to use a lighter canoe!), planning to meet in Ely and leave from Moose Lake.  Neither of us had time for more than up and back, but that was enough. 

Unfortunately, about a week before the trip, Pieter had a sudden emergency and had to cancel.  I’ve soloed nineteen canoe trips and the southern quarter of the Appalachian Trail (finishing that is also on my list), but those were many years and a couple of health problems ago.  Still, I wasn’t going to give up, but my time at Kawnipi would be further limited.  I organized my gear and flew north, always feeling a little odd as a mid-50ish guy carrying a canoe pack through an airport.  Some have told me at my age I should be playing golf, but I’d rather swing a paddle than a club, and the white I want to see is on an eagle’s head, not a ball. 

It was good to again see the Ely water tower, having fond memories of living at the Service Center on S. Central.  I rented a canoe, got a tow to Prairie, waited in line to clear customs, and was on Inlet Bay at a reasonable time and with fair skies.  An hour later, I reached the sand beach at the Burke portage, having camped near there on my last Quetico trip.  I’ve tried bent shaft paddles, but fairly set in my ways, I prefer the straight shaft better for tracking, especially solo.  I also tied in a spare paddle, which I once had to use in ‘91 when I dumped in Basswood River.  Fortunately, I was solo then as well, so nobody witnessed my error. 

I could probably still single carry some portages, but I don’t have anything to prove, and a lot I could really hurt.  My hip is fine, but carrying a canoe and pack together seems to be asking for trouble.  Besides, a walk in the woods back to the beginning of the carry is just fine by me.  Solo, I’m a pure traveler, not having fished in several years.  I like to cover water, lots of it, every day.  I’m the guy in one of Sam Cook’s articles, staring at the map, looking at where he’s been and wondering how he is going to see all that country before he dies. 

In 2015, I also want to be one of those few 66 year-olds he’s seen in the woods.  But there are no guarantees.  Go when you can. 

My first day plan was to reach the great campsite on the point of Agnes, at the end of the narrows, where the lake widens and one can see the broad sweep to the north.  But paddling Burke and Sunday and the two long carries from Sunday to Agnes took their toll, so when I spotted a small site on the west shore not too far north of Louisa Falls my arms told me I had covered enough water for the day.  Solo trips require few campsite amenities.  After I pitched my tent and laid out a kitchen area, I leaned up against a convenient rock, sipping cider, writing in my diary and enjoying the view of the nearby cliffs, seeing two soaring bald eagles and a broad-winged hawk.  I wish more Americans could see their national symbol in the wild.  When the wind died down, I heard the distant roaring of the falls, a remarkable spectacle in spring.  Living in the desert, I enjoy North Country greenery, trees without spines and rain.  I have simple tastes and eat well, having learned from my Forest Service “University” friends what works well for wilderness cuisine. 

I was pleased by the lack of bugs.  I prepare by treating my clothes with Permethrin®, but even so, it appeared that I beat the hatch.  Solo trips are unique; you get to do what you want, when you want, so long as you do the work.  If you need something, you have to do it.  Period.  There is no splitting up chores.  You also must be careful, really careful, never once deviating from your planned route, including any possible side trips.  It is of course essential somebody know your itinerary. 

The biggest concern I had was wind, for that, current and muck are three things that can stop a solo canoeist cold when two can continue.  I was therefore fortunate the next day to find clear skies and Agnes like glass.  I proceeded north, paddling close to shore,AGNES LIKE GLASS safer when solo and better for seeing wildlife.  I stopped at the pictographs well up the lake, especially liking the one showing two people in a boat.  I sure would have been faster with a second person!  Continuing, I encountered two young men at the portage leading to the East Channel of the Agnes River.  They asked if I knew anything about the portages.  It had been years, and my memory hazy, but I remembered the second carry as wet, full of blow downs and generally messy.  When I landed at the portage, I walked it first with a pack, rather than a canoe, so if I found trouble spots, I wouldn’t get hung up trying to change direction.  I learned that technique the hard way. 

My memory was unfortunately accurate.  There was a hundred yard stretch of flooding and serious muck, along with several blow downs.  I was real happy I hadn’t taken the canoe over first!  If the worst price I would pay was wet feet, it was pretty cheap.  After that slog, I carried three more times before reaching Murdoch, noting how quickly the sky had become overcast.  Where I live, it seldom rains, and the weather changes slowly.  Up North, I check the sky often.  Concerned, I ate a fast lunch and continued across the lake, larger than I remembered, finally reaching the outlet.  Back in ’89, I lost a large bass in those rapids. 

Once I cleared them, I was in Kawnipi.  Another half mile with a right turn, and I was in the main channel, where I stopped paddling and drifted, happy to have made it back to such splendid country, every bit as beautiful as I remembered.  I slowly continued east, passing the opening to McKenzie Bay, recalling the campsites and a side trip where I accidentally stumbled upon an old grave of a man, similar to ones I had seen in the Yukon.  I quietly departed.  Continuing in the channel, I eventually camped on a small, sheltered spot on the south shore, well above the water, with good views in both directions down the lake.

That afternoon, sitting on ledge rock, I saw only one other group, far off.  Early spring trips show the land full of promise and waterfalls on many of the cliffs.  The male mergansers are striking black and white, pollen is on the water, lining the shore and the loons seem to be constantly calling.  At times, when the wind stopped, I was surrounded by what I call “pitch quiet,” something, as unpolluted lake water or dark, dark night skies, many have never experienced. 

The clouds lowered further by dinner, and that night it rained, the morning greeting me with leaden, threatening skies.  With another person, I could have explored more, but I wasn’t sure what the wind would be like back on Agnes.  Always happy traveling, I turned south into McVicar Bay, photographing the inlets, one with a reflection reminding me of a huge hall of mirrors.  I entered theHALL OF MIRRORS burn area at the first portage; at the second, into Anubis, I passed through a large forest of young jack pines, which needed the ’95 fire in order to germinate. 

I left the burn at Bird and took the nasty, rocky, slippery carry into Agnes, the first drops of rain hitting me as I loaded for the long paddle ahead.  I could hear and see the waterfall on the uphill Dack portage, recalling my May ’92 solo into a small island on that lake, where the morning temperature was in the low 20s. 

There was no wind, and Agnes like pockmarked glass, the rain pelting me for several miles.  Fortunately, the point campsite I hadn’t reached on the way up was open, and after dozen years, I was back on it, although views up the lake were mostly of fog and rain, which this desert dweller had a full day to appreciate.  The next afternoon, I traded rain for a southwest wind, so I was unable to paddle the opposite side of the peninsula to East Lake, where I’ve seen moose.  I split up the two long portages out of Agnes, camping on Meadows, a lake that I had previously always wanted to get in and out of quickly.  I found it empty, other than two pair of loons, a sheltered campsite, plenty of firewood nearby and a good view for sunrise.  How could I have not appreciated this lovely lake all these years? 

Again, I was surrounded by pitch quiet interspersed with occasional loon calls, wishing I could package both for my return to “civilization.”  Absolute quiet, where one’s ears ring, is not uncommon in canoe country — if one is patient.  Portaging back to Sunday, I encountered a group coming the other way.  First asking permission (I’ve never been turned down) I carried some of their gear across when I doubled back.  I’ve had a lot of help in my canoeing career and it is good to close the circle. 

When I reached Singing Brook portage I remembered the time my wife and I camped there, on our first Quetico trip, trading quiet for running water, and seeing what looked like a large house cat, which of course turned out to be a pine marten.  Years later, solo, an east wind was so strong I actually couldn’t move out of the small bay by the portage into the rest of Burke.  I had to backtrack to the longer North Portage, struggling further to get out of Sunday Bay.  This time, the weather cooperated, and I set up camp early on Sunday Island, close enough to easily make my pickup the next morning.  I had never camped there, enjoying the large tent sites and the “big water” views of Bayley Bay.  There was a loon nest on the southeast end of the island, which I avoided on my afternoon paddle.  Hearing loons is a big reason why I keep coming back.  It is important that we canoeists stay well clear of their nests. 

I paddled to Prairie the next morning in dense fog, navigating by the sound of the falls.  It’s good to check something off my list, but now I want to do this trip again, although not solo, and spend more time up there.  So “a few days on Kawnipi” was added to the list, which will never get completely checked off. 

I think that’s called life. 

                             Solo Trip Tips        

  • Always, always, always leave your route with somebody, including expected camps and when you plan to be out of the woods.
  • A satellite phone might be worth having for emergencies, although the very thought is a travesty to some.
  • If you have never soloed, your first trip should be short, easy and around people.  Ensign, the numbered lakes, Basswood, Sawbill or Seagull come to mind.
  • Of course, wear a PFD.  Of course.  Sure you can swim.  What if you are unconscious?
  • Tie a spare paddle inside the canoe.
  • Everything that is worrisome for canoeists is much more so if you are solo.  Keep an eye on the sky; avoid paddling far from shore and factor wind into your trip.  Experiencing a thunderstorm, deep in the wilderness, solo, is both memorable and humbling.
  • You want it, you do it, pitching and striking the tent, cooking and cleaning up, hanging food, loading and unloading.  Plan to work hard.
  • Even gently moving water may be impossible to paddle against.  Thick weeds and muck can cause havoc.
  • A solo trip is an excellent time to think deeply about life; it can also be very lonely.  Many should not solo.  And that’s fine.
  • Use caution walking, both on portages and in campsites.  Use care when obtaining wood and using a camp saw.  Lacerations, a sprained ankle/fractured wrist from a fall or back sprains from lifting are all potentially life-threatening.  Carry a good first aid kit, remembering you have to diagnose and treat yourself while injured.  Read this again.
  • Swimming alone is not a good idea.
  • Expect everything to take longer.  Unloading the canoe and pulling it up on shore to portage is hard work, which may be lessened somewhat if you don’t mind getting wet.
  • Place the pack in the bow, especially on long paddles over open water.  It will help with tracking, even if it is more difficult to unload.
  • You may find you are unusually chatty when you encounter another person.
  • A solo trip is a unique experience in our crowded society.  Your chances of seeing wildlife are better.  Enjoy it, and of course, leave no trace of your passing.
  • Finally, remember:  There are no guarantees in life.  Go when you can.


October 8, 2009



October 3, 2009




October 3, 2009



September 17, 2009




September 12, 2009



September 8, 2009

  The first time I canoed with the Forest Service’s Mike Manlove, in 1993, he informed me he was a legend.  I chuckled, but he soon proved it.  Two days, seven lakes and a river from town, we camped on the southeast corner of Lake Insula in the Boundary Waters, near the US-Canada border.  Well hidden back in the woods, there was a Forest Service cabin that few outside the organization knew about.  Mike stayed in the cabin; I pitched my tent on the nearby beach, not wanting cabin mice running over my sleeping bag or me during the night. 

That evening, I looked across the lake a mile and saw two large campfires burning near each other.  I walked up to the cabin and told Mike about the fires, saying I didn’t know that two campsites on Insula were so close together.  Mike was quiet, then: “There aren’t two campsites there.  Get the canoe ready.  Now.”

Mike realized there were two separate fires on one campsite, which was not allowed.  Fires may be built in only one designated place on each campsite.  Illegal fires are to the Forest Service what breaking sterile technique is to a surgeon.  We hopped into the canoe and paddled over there quickly.  The two of us could really move a canoe.  When we reached the campsite, Mike yelled at the two teenagers near the illegal beach fire, “Put that out.  Now!”

After I helped douse the fire, I walked to the main part of the campsite, where Mike lectured the couple about campfire safety.  The man knew the second fire was wrong, but this was the last family trip before the older child went off to college, a special time for any family.  He allowed himself to be convinced by, “Come on, Dad, let’s have a fire on the beach.  Nobody is camped anywhere near here, and there is no way the Forest Service will know about it.”  He shook his head:  “You guys came out of nowhere.  How did you know?” 

The Legend always knew.  That will be a $100 fine, sir.

Mike and I took 6 multiday canoe trips together on 30 different lakes, always with great adventures.  Few things bind people as being on the trail together, working hard in all sorts of weather.  I taught him how to suture; Mike was an experienced wildland firefighter who once allowed me to drive a huge water tanker at a controlled burn.  My instruction?  “Roll it and you die.”  Frequently, campers knew Mike, for he patrolled those lakes for 14 years.  We occasionally ticketed people for major rule violations, but Mike stayed calm and professional during the process.  Some got angry, stating they would never return to this country.  Later, out on the lake, Mike would laugh:  “Do you think the woods care whether they return?”  One June night, a monstrous thunderstorm complex hit northern Minnesota.  A large flash interrupted my dream, followed by a crack that made me jump six inches off the ground.  From Mike: “Are you awake?” 


We paddled Crooked Lake one day down to Curtain Falls in a 2 foot chop.  It was nothing that either of us had trouble handling, but the radio went off.  Mike listened, and then said, “Could you repeat that?”  There was a pause, and he said, “You want the serial number of the canoe, now?”  I stopped paddling, listening in disbelief.  With difficulty in the chop, I looked way up under the bow and got the serial number.  I had no idea why they needed it!

Later that afternoon, we passed a group of older guys going our way.  We got back to camp at the top of Friday bay and had dinner.  We were relaxing, and then Mike said, “Look who’s coming.”  Sure enough, it was the group of guys we had passed.  We knew there were no sites available down the lake, so they would either camp in a non-des (non-designated) site or move in with us.  We chose the latter, much as we liked our privacy.  They were grateful, we were entertained watching what appeared to be slow motion setting up camp and dinner.  Heaven only knows what time they went to bed; we were asleep I think before they finished dinner.  At least they were quiet.

The next morning, Mike asked me if I wanted to break camp and have breakfast on a nearby island.  I looked at one of the tents that had a large posterior pushing out the wall, and nodded assent.  We left.  Mike and I always had interesting trips!

In 2000, he was promoted to do educational and trail work that was known throughout Minnesota.  I continued to explore the Boundary Waters and the Canadian Quetico, and when in Ely always called and tried to stop by.  Occasionally Mike and his wife Becky were home, but when they weren’t, I left a note.  They lived in a lovely hand- built log cabin near a small lake deep in the woods, where they raised two good kids, Celin and Joseph.  Becky is an accomplished writer, social worker and now a Forest Service employee.  I first met Celin when she was 3; she immediately looked at me and said, “You’re a dork.”  She is now a real looker and getting her MSW at Bemidji State.  Joseph has a Ph.D. in math from Montana State.  I’m still a dork.  The family wasn’t wealthy, but they had no debts, either. 

I saw Mike and Becky in 2001 but not again until 2005, after a 5 day solo trip into Kawnipi Lake on the Canadian side, a beautiful lake I wanted to see again, while I still could. 

Two years ago, I went to Ely to present a scholarship for Vermilion Community College.  I drove up the Echo Trail to Manlove’s cabin and was lucky; both Mike and Becky were home.  We had a great visit, talking about past trips and Forest Service politics, always entertaining, since I knew many of the players.  When I left, Mike hugged me, which he had never done before, and said, “It was really good to see you.  I’m so glad you came by.”  I was too.

A week later, while hiking with his dog on the Bass Lake trail near his cabin, Mike sat down on the forest floor.  That’s where he was found a day later, dead of a heart attack just before he turned 53.

Don’t think that you will always have time to do the things you want or to tell people things you want them to hear.  Friendship takes work and time.  Take that time, even if your friends don’t.  They might say, “It was really good to see you.”  I don’t have many friends, and I really miss Mike.  I’m so glad I stopped in that night.

He was a legend.


September 5, 2009


To appear in an upcoming Sombrero 

“The upper half of Lassen Peak is closed due to a rock fall,” the young ranger told me. 

“Crap,” I replied, disappointed that I wouldn’t climb the dormant volcano.  So, I hiked half way and the next day climbed nearby Brokeoff Mountain, which was prettier, longer and steeper.  What happened on each affected me deeply. 

After my first hike, at a store, I saw one of those collection jars for money to help defray medical expenses for a local, usually a child with a horrible condition.  The picture showed a smiling pair:  the boy will never smile again, for he died three weeks earlier on Lassen, in that rock fall that closed the trail.  His sister was severely injured.  My whiny complaints made me feel small. 

The Park Service has said little publically, but it appears that a section of a rock wall collapsed over the two siblings as they were starting to pose for a picture.  They were thrown down the mountain, the father catching his daughter, the boy dying in his mother’s arms.  Whether the wall was poorly designed or maintained is not clear; we do know that American infrastructure has been neglected, including the Parks. 

The girl’s medical costs may well bankrupt the family even if liability is proven and damages are awarded.  Senator Coburn says neighbors should help neighbors.  Yeah, right.  We bail out AIG and Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch paid $3.6B in bonuses as it was going down the tubes, nearly destroying the world’s economy, while lesser folks in the Sierra with catastrophic needs get coins and a few bills.  Liberals, the word often used with a tone of contempt, believe in helping others who can’t help themselves.  I reserve my contempt for the American financial community and those who feel money should be spent policing the world rather than in America.  Imagine starting a hike with your spouse and two kids, a job, house, and comfortable life; two hours later, you’ve lost a child, the other hospitalized in grave condition, your life suddenly in tatters.  Let’s tax ourselves to pay all catastrophic medical costs over $50K and preventative care, use medical saving accounts and credit for usual care and federal funding for the poor, with full coverage for children.  Decent medical financing.  Good.  Not worrying about medically-caused bankruptcy:  priceless. 

I suspect the Lassen tragedy was preventable, a concatenation of things that cost a young boy all the wonderful things that life offers, like love, family, friends, wilderness and making the world a better place.  It changed his family and friends forever.  It changed me, and I never knew him. 

I suspect the NPS will learn something from the disaster.  After the Hudson River collision there will be changes, for aviation learns from mistakes, except perhaps air ambulances, one of the least regulated, dangerous occupations in the country.  Medicine should investigate mistakes and regulate itself.  Over time the number of lawsuits might decrease and fewer patients – nurses and pilots, too – would die. 

The next day on Brokeoff, I encountered an 82 year-old with no shirt, no water and no food on a 7 mile hike with 2500 feet of elevation gain.  I suggested he turn around; he assured me he was a nationally ranked cyclist.  Nationally ranked fool, I thought, hoping my phone would work if he dropped dead.  He did summit, and I made him drink the extra water I had.  He likely made it back down, especially since I told everybody coming up to offer water.  Had he died, his death would have been preventable, unnecessary and frankly stupid.

 The national parks are our crown jewels.  Lassen was my 41st and a wonderful place, but a microcosm of America.  Instead of a rock fall, we’ve had Iraq.  Instead of one boy, we’ve lost four thousand.  Instead of one injury, we’ve had 30,000.  Instead of collection jars, we’ve spent a trillion that could have been spent for infrastructure in the Parks, the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi or an air controller at a Flagstaff hospital.  I could easily have been under that rock wall; I had been over that I-35 bridge dozens of times.  I lived.  Twenty-one didn’t in the three incidents. 

An old man brags about his condition; we brag about our medical system, which was trashed in a recent compelling Atlantic article.  Instead of no water, food and shirt, there is not enough access, money and quality.  One of these days, the old man will fail, as we all will.  Our medical system is failing and will continue to degrade so long as we don’t act.  It isn’t a choice between socialism and laissez-faire.  It’s realizing that no regulation kills people and trashes economies, and total regulation limits human potential.  If an octogenarian wants to hike without water, that’s his business, until he needs a medevac, putting others at unnecessary risk.  A 9 year-old can’t be protected from a sudden natural rock fall, but a trail annually traveled by 35,000 ought to be safe under normal conditions. 

The boy’s death deeply moved me; the old man’s hubris left me shaking my head, wondering how life could be so unfair.  To escape the arguing, hypocrisy and lies, I went deep into the volcanic backcountry.  But Lassen and Brokeoff showed me there is no escape from the same issues I see every day at home.