Archive for the ‘UNPUBLISHED OUTDOOR WRITING’ Category


July 4, 2014

In the famous Peanuts cartoon, Charlie Brown is running to kick the football, when Lucy pulls it up, and Charlie kicks at air, falling down.  Every time, he thinks the result will be different, and every time, he is wrong.  That is the famous definition of insanity.

So maybe I am insane.  I’m getting better, but it has taken me a long, long time to do so, because I still kick at air.

Last summer, I got a call from a younger alumnus from a canoe tripping camp that I attended in the ‘60s, both of us going to the camp’s reunion in August.  There was a special request to create a special endowment for this centennial year, and I planned to give.  I thought that was obvious, since I give financial support to young people who cannot afford the camp’s fees.

Yes, fifty years ago, I was in a select group of canoe trippers that canoed Temagami Provincial Park in northern Ontario.  It was a difficult trip; I still remember my knees hurting from kneeling in the bow in 2-3 foot waves.  We were never allowed to sit in the bow seat.  We knelt. In the stern, the staff man sat. To this day, if I am in the bow of a canoe, I kneel.  Every day on that trip it rained, but it was a good trip. We saw remote country, and while I never will see Temagami again, the memories of places called Lady Evelyn, Ostergut, Makobe, and Fat Man’s Misery Portage are part of me.  I have trod that country.

The caller was interested in my subsequent canoeing experience, and I gave him a brief rundown of my outdoor water resume:  the Nahanni, the upper Yukon Basin from Lake Bennett to Carmacks, the Alatna and Noatak Rivers in Alaska, and 32 years canoeing the Boundary Waters-Quetico.  I have been blessed.  The caller had canoed Labrador, which I thought cool, but he especially wanted to see my Nahanni pictures, a trip he had always wanted to do.

Yep, sooner or later, it came to money, and I told him I would contribute, as I had planned to.  The conversation ended soon afterwards, and I felt a little used, but hey, maybe he was busy, and we would learn at the reunion about each other’s trips.  Maybe. These things almost never pan out:  the call was about money, interspersed with feigned interest of what I had done.  People seldom call me curious about what I’ve done.  The calls are usually about money or medical advice.

I arrived a day early for the reunion in late August, back on a lake where I spent 6 summers, and I got to see the island, 46 years later, with relatively few people present.  The next day, the rest arrived; I was present at the dock where they came in.  I heard the name called of the individual who had phoned me, and I went over to introduce myself. He greeted me semi-warmly then saw somebody else he knew and disappeared.  For good.

The football had been pulled up.  I had the Nahanni slides with me, for we took slides in 1985.  I had lost the roll of film, wrote Parks Canada, saying it might be in the campground at Fort Simpson, where we had stayed on our last night.  Incredibly, six weeks later, the roll was sent to me.  Canadians do those sorts of things.  I had pictures of a remarkable area very few people will ever see.  After arriving at Fort Simpson, we flew to the Nahanni in a Twin Otter with 6 people and 3 canoes, landing on a sandbar.  The Nahanni was a difficult trip through Class III rapids, the worst mosquitoes I have ever seen—and I have seen more than most— but I saw the highest waterfall, Virginia Falls, in North America.  I paddled through four canyons almost as deep as the Grand Canyon itself, sat in some natural hot springs, came out on the Liard River and saw the great Mackenzie.  The Nahanni was pure wilderness.  It is the crown jewel of my outdoor water resume.


Virginia Falls, South Nahanni River, NWT, July, 1985.

Virginia Falls, South Nahanni River, NWT, July, 1985.


I should have known better than to bring the slides.  Getting money from me was the issue, not what I did or who I was.  I’ve felt that way a lot, these past 16 years, after I left medicine.  I give on my own terms to those I wish.  I do what I can, hope to make a difference, and wish some day one of my ideas will be accepted, improved, and have a significant impact.  I had many such ideas in medicine.  My wish to be a busier volunteer in the public schools has yet to be granted.  We ought to have paid universal mandatory national service, which would give young people a sense of purpose and direction, lessening the likelihood of student debt catastrophes.  We ought to be saving water every way possible.  We should ban companion animal breeding.  I have written about all of these in this blog.

We should have had incremental single payer medical care, starting with the very young.  This would have been easier, cheaper, and less likely to have been voted against.  We should have tracked a whole host of quality issues in medicine.  We need free, unbiased, end-of-life counseling to elderly people to help them understand what “all those tubes” mean, and what their options are.  By ignoring the elderly, we ignore elders, wasting resources I can’t begin to fathom.  In short, we need incremental changes, keeping both the enemies of change and the perfectionists at bay.

I wish I hadn’t brought the pictures of the Nahanni back up to the country where they were taken.  I knew he would not be interested, but I persevered, hoping, like Charlie Brown, it would matter. People are busy, too busy for guys like me.  I tried to travel light, and those pictures and his call were excess baggage.

But I was lucky.  I have seen the Nahanni, drunk the water, know what’s out there. There is no blank spot on my map.  While it’s on my resume, far more importantly, it is in my brain.  I can call it up any time I want:  the magnificent falls, Fourth through First Canyons, Pulpit Rock, and the Gate. Wow. I was there!  I got back up to the camp one last time, and I don’t ever need to go again.  I have taken my last look.  Yeah, the football was pulled up, but I had a soft landing.

It was his loss, not mine.  That line is in Peanuts, too.


April 26, 2014

“What sort of person reads SIERRA?”  An editorial suggested four ads, “which would depict you in split screen”:  Take a look; I wrote them verbatim, my comments in italics:


  • grinning like a loon while riding your folding bike to work and then giggling on the back of your girlfriend’s tandem as you cycle past wetlands that you helped save from bulldozers.  [loons don’t grin; I’ve seen thousands.  Why the back of the tandem?  Isn’t that sexist?  Women can be stronger than men.  Besides, the best wetlands are nowhere near cycling routes.]
  • hoisting your sweaty self up a 5.10 granite face and then kicking back under a camp lantern reading The Botany of Desire.  [I guess I don’t belong, since I don’t rock climb.  I haven’t read the book, either.  Shameful.]
  • giving a thumbs-up to the crew who put solar panels on your house in the morning and then battering your way through Class V rapids at sunset.  [Oh wow, the average member can plunk down $10,000 for panels, more for a good Kayak and go through Class V rapids, which aren’t exactly everywhere, requiring a lot of training.  Where does the money and the time to train come from?  By the way, “the crew” probably spoke Spanish and don’t own Kayaks, let alone the means to get to Class V rivers, but hey, you are special.]
  • admiring a scarlet macaw in your binoculars and then admiring the way your flip-flops look on the sustainable flooring you installed to protect that rainforest.  [Here, Spanish speakers have an advantage, because unless you live in Central or South America, you didn’t see the Macaw (the national bird of Honduras) and then admired your sustainable flooring.  Additionally, the flooring, like most of ours, is probably on cement, the production of which is a major cause of CO2 emission.]

I’m not about to ditch the Club over this, only diss it.  I wrote the editor “‘I’m obnoxious and outspoken when I read outlandish orations what I ought to be accomplishing every hour.”  No worry, marketers aren’t interested in guys my age.  These ads make the Club sound like it is for world class, superrich, world-saving Yuppies, who don’t have to work the hours most do, and weren’t required to serve in Uncle Sam’s fighting forces.  School and the military took me through my 20s. I was well into my 30s before I had the chance to explore much of the world.

Much as I don’t care for the NRA, “I’m the NRA” is a powerful ad.  Calling guns “rifles” softens the name of the organization.  The National Gun Association would be dead on arrival, and I am amazed nobody has said that.  For people who are highly educated, Sierra Club folks and other liberal thinkers have lost almost every battle on language to those who don’t understand a lot of English grammar, but sure know how to string a few words together well.  John Kerry looked elitist on a kite board; Dukakis may have lost the election when he rode a tank; George W. Bush was a guy you could have a beer with.  Frankly, I want a president who is a hell of a lot smarter than I, but most people don’t think like me.  Let’s see if I can figure out how they do think.

The Club is perceived by many as elitist that says NO to everything. The NGA, and you know whom I mean, also says no, but is not elitist.  That is a huge difference.  Most Americans are not elite, jealous of the elite, feel the elite have too much money, too much everything, and care more about the environment than jobs and people.  They aren’t convinced we can have both jobs and protect the environment.  And they vote.

The four ads portray members as wine sipping yuppies, doing things the average American doesn’t, and to quote my late father, think their shit don’t stink.  I think the NGA stinks, but I’m among the first to admit that a lot more people relate to it than to the Sierra Club.

I’m old; neither pretty nor charismatic, but an ad featuring a guy like me might be understood by more people who want to know what the Club is about.  Put me in split screen, driving into Kearney with a 3 on the floor rusty, old Ford F-150 with “8” or “9” on the Nebraska plates, waving the tip of a finger to oncoming vehicles (those are Hall and Buffalo counties, by the way; everybody in Nebraska knows they are rural), and saying, “I’m Mike Smith, and I’m a Sierra Club member, I have a Duck Stamp, and I’m helping out at one of the great migrations in America.”  Trust me: Having a Duck Stamp matters.  Hunters need one, and it’s a bone of contention to them that non-hunters don’t buy them. I don’t blame hunters for their anger.  I continue, truck bouncing, “A lot of folks think we are anti-hunting.  We aren’t. Hunting gets kids outside. I like that.  America’s special outdoor places are under attack by those who haven’t seen a full Moon rise, mist on a lake full of waterfowl, heard rain on the roof of a tent, or felt the tug of a bass on a line.”


The migration of Sandhill Cranes, Nebraska.

The migration of Sandhill Cranes, Nebraska.

Split screen: showing me by my old tent on a clear spot in the wilderness, wearing every bit of clothing I’ve brought.  Then the next night I’m wearing a sweater and hiking boots–show the boots– presenting a small scholarship, in memory of two Minnesotans who died in Iraq, at the Vermilion Community College banquet, to a young woman from the Iron Range studying for a job in wilderness management.  That happened.

Split screen:  I’m paddling out of the Boundary Waters on Fall Lake, grubby, after a few days in the woods, and an hour later, eating a scone at a small town bakery in Ely and looking at a real fishing guide’s picture of a 32 1/2 inch walleye he caught and threw back. This is small town America.  Yeah, that happened last September.  I wrote about it.

Split screen:  My wife lungeing a horse, and the next week, wearing a very different outfit portaging 45 pounds around Pipestone Falls and later hanging food away from bears up on Jackfish Bay on Basswood Lake.


Jackfish Bay, Basswood Lake

Jackfish Bay, Basswood Lake

Yeah, it’s a bit corny, but it is better than sustainable flooring.  I use fossil fuels; we all do.  Let’s not kid ourselves.

If the Club wanted to be really green, it would hammer incessantly against overpopulation, which may cause our demise.   Want to be green?  Don’t have children.  Nothing else comes close.  Want to save American wilderness?  Limit immigration, too, since we can’t take in the world, any more than we can defend it or save it.  Wow, my hissy fit has just dissed the Club, pissed off every reader and kissed my reputation goodbye.

I won’t be missed.





Spring Creek, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, late April 2013.  I camped within 50 yards of the right side of the photograph.

Spring Creek, Boundary Waters Canoe Area, late April 2013. I camped within 50 yards of the right side of the photograph.

The outdoors must be protected for future generations, hunters and non-hunters.  That is what the Club is about.

The outdoors must be protected for future generations, hunters and non-hunters. That is what the Club is about.


April 22, 2014

I walked along the west shore of Clear Lake on a beautiful spring day in the foothills of the Oregon Cascades, temperature in the mid-60s, few clouds, a wide open trail before me.  I had a good hike ahead, in a boreal forest, circling Clear Lake, the headwaters of the McKenzie River.  The water here eventually would join with the Willamette near Eugene, reaching the Columbia in Portland, on the way to the Pacific.  This was big tree country, and not far to the east, I saw snow on the Cascades.

Near Clear Lake Lodge, still closed for the season, I stopped by a bench with a plaque remembering a man, “1920-1984”.  I’ve seen many other memorials to those who made a difference to others.  This man deeply touched somebody, probably many somebodies, never seeing his 65th birthday that I saw nearly five months ago. I felt very lucky….but very mortal, too.

I’ve seen memorials to 42 year-olds, 51 year-olds, and of course, the occasional 83 year-old.  The first memorial I remember was one I helped create, to a 17 year-old high school classmate who died unexpectedly right after graduation, during thyroid surgery.  At Rowe Sanctuary, there are two viewing blinds named for donors, people who loved the Sandhill Cranes and made a difference.  The first trip of the year is a memorial to a man whom I met briefly when I was there in 2008.  He died much too soon.  There is a memorial trail at Rowe and a beautiful white rock commemorating a woman, “1945-2005,” too young, “She loved the Sandhill Cranes” is written on the rock.

I read the plaque on the bench and continued walking.  Wow. I am 65, and can still hike, backpack, and canoe.  I would later see mountain bikers, a deep blue spring that would help me understand Crater Lake’s color, and earlier visited two waterfalls.  I was exploring Oregon, late in life, but not clear how late.  Not being clear on how late makes me fortunate.  When one knows how much time is left, there usually is a bad reason.

I hear many say age is a number; all are far younger than I.  Many have never had their bodies betray them.  They think 60 is the new 40; 80 is the new 60.  I suspect eighty is eighty.  I hiked the Brooks Range when I was 63, carrying 75 pounds.  A 71 year-old hiked the Arrigetch Peaks with me in 2007.  I’d like to backpack when I am 71, but I’ll be happy to do two more in Alaska, this year and next.  Last year, I portaged a wooden canoe a mile.  The guy with me, 10 years younger, carried it better, and I was in good shape.  Ten years matters at my age, and it will matter more and more.  My clock is ticking, and I am not so foolish as to think I have all the time I want.  I don’t.  I’ve had more than many, and I am grateful.

Arrigetch Peaks, Alaska.  Gates of the Arctic National Park.  The two are called "The Maidens"(1700 M), the one in the distant shot is "Elephant's tooth"  (1100 M)

Arrigetch Peaks, Alaska. Gates of the Arctic National Park. The two are called “The Maidens”(1700 M), the one in the distant shot is “Elephant’s tooth” (1100 M)


Arrigetch Peaks from “The Knob,” about 5 miles and 2000 feet of climbing through thick brush, rock fields and no trail. This takes a full, difficult day to two. The 8 miles from the Alatna River takes a day and a half. At the time, it was the most difficult hike I had ever done in my life.


I also need to touch others in some way, too, difficult, because I like to be alone.  Indeed, when I posted my hike’s pictures on Facebook to the few who follow me, I made the comment, “No, Facebook, I didn’t have anybody with me.  I went alone, and that was the idea.”  I go into the woods because I periodically must.

Perhaps my need to touch others is why next weekend I will volunteer cleaning up trash in Alton Baker Park, well downstream from the McKenzie, along the Willamette.  I need to give back in some way that works for me and helps others.  I’ve been blessed.  I made it to 42, 53, and yes, 64.  I haven’t done what many great people have done, but I have seen many lovely parts of the world…..and years that too many never had the opportunity.  Perhaps as a doctor I helped some see a few more years, or to see the years they had better.  I don’t know; mostly, I helped people spend their last days in dignity, not doing anything for them that they or their family didn’t want.  I certainly succeeded in that regard with my parents.

I occasionally think of whether I would want a memorial, and I don’t know. My father-in-law had part of a hospital named for him while he was alive to appreciate it.  I liked that.  I do know that I need to leave the world behind better, even if only a little better, than it was when I arrived.  My wife and I named a scholarship at Vermilion Community College after ourselves.  A student will receive that scholarship April 24, the 9th year we’ve had it.  We lived to see the joy on a student’s face; some day, the scholarship will be a memorial.

The man for whom the bench was a memorial likely stood where I did today.  In a way, the forest cathedral there is hallowed ground, memorializing him, who loved this special area and was loved by others.  A trail, a rock, a viewing blind, where people come to see a half million Sandhill Cranes is a good way.  The Bob Marshall Wilderness is, too.

Where I first hiked in Tucson, and did so for three decades, I did from what is now the Richard McKee Trailhead, named for an attorney who cared deeply about the environment, and whose last words were “What a beautiful world,” as he died in 1999 from leukemia.  He was 43.

Finger Rock Trail is one of the most challenging and beautiful hikes in southern Arizona.


Sahalie Falls

Sahalie Falls

Koosah Falls

Koosah Falls


The scale on the map, regarding the tree’s height is 1:480.

Clear Lake

Clear Lake

Big Spring

Big Spring


April 16, 2014

AZ 83 is one of the “people’s roads;” the east side public land.  For a decade, I cleaned litter on 2 miles of it, every piece a violation of state law, cigarette butts causing many wildland fires.  When beer cans were thrown at me by passing drivers, that was frank assault.  I was cleaning public land, not running cattle on it, but no “militia” protected MY rights with guns and threats. Why?  Perhaps it was because I’m not an outspoken, charismatic, handsome cattle rancher, miner, or farmer.  I was an old, white, male veteran, Irish to boot, out trying to clean up part of my state.  Throwing litter is illegal; if you don’t like a law, change it by electing those who will try.  Non-violent illegal acts are punishable by a fine and time. Force against the State is treason, a word I don’t use lightly, but as a veteran, I know damn well what it means.

I was deeply disturbed by the recent fiasco in Nevada, where many said “Give the land back to the people,” and a supporting Congressman, who represents the “hated” government people wanted to fight, used a graph to show how much land in the American West is owned by the government.

Let me be clear:  if land is owned by the government, it is owned by you, me, and ALL of  US, for we ARE the government.  I’m not a great fan of the BLM, but if a guy is grazing cattle where he shouldn’t, not paying for it, he is trespassing on MY LAND.  I’m  vegetarian, and I don’t want cows ON MY LAND.

That is the fundamental reason we need government and laws:  we have to adjudicate differences among people with different viewpoints.  We ARE the government, and we govern by laws.  I am willing to allow those to graze cattle on public land if they pay for the privilege and follow all laws.  Those who choose to violate laws must be prepared to take the consequences.  It happened to war protestors during the Vietnam era.  It did NOT happen to the southern whites who willfully violated federal desegregation laws, called those who came to their states “outside agitators,” and said “the laws are wrong.” I didn’t hear “outside agitators” used during the Nevada crisis.  Nor did I hear “law and order,” which George Wallace spoke, except when he found a law he didn’t like.

I think some laws are dead wrong.  But I write letters, blog, and work to get people elected to change those laws, not take a gun and threaten enforcers, be they local or federal.  I have to wonder how many of the treasonous “militia” ever served in the military.  Only 7% of us have.  Words matter; these people were NOT a militia.  They were rabble rousers, outside agitators, troublemakers, and terrorists with no uniforms, spoiling for a fight and martyrdom (preferably somebody else).

Interestingly, the Congressman didn’t show how many people lived in states with the most public land. Let’s look at facts:  starting from the most densely populated state to the least, California is the highest ranking state west of the Mississippi, 11th.  One has to go to 25th to find the next state–Washington.  Of 15 at the bottom of the list, only one–Maine–is east of the Mississippi.

Why does this matter?  Eighty per cent of all national parks–our crown jewels–are in the sparsely populated West.  Few live there, but they don’t own the land any more than a guy in New Jersey.  If the “people” take over this land, three times as much should go to New Jersey residents than to Nevada ones.  Do I get equal say?  Will we protect the parks, forests, places with beauty that has no price tag, or allow them to be used for mining, timber, and grazing that do have a dollar value?  Who gets a say?  The corporations?  ORV people?  Hunters?  Cattlemen?  Farmers?  Mineral extractors?  Who pays for the upkeep of these lands?  People in the East.  When many of our parks were formed, those who lived in the West had practically sole access to land that was paid for and often never seen by those whose taxes paid for it.

I think I have the right to go into wilderness without seeing mines, cattle, cowpies, off road vehicles, loud noises from drilling, beer drinking yahoos who shoot off guns, guns in general, and test myself–without leaving trace of my passage–and my skills in the outdoors.  Where am I going to do this, if the “people” own the land?

It is ironic is that the “people’s land” sounds a lot like the rallying cry of my generation protesting Vietnam.  I remember my brother’s saying the land should be given to the people.  My late mother replied, “Who gets Wyoming?”, when Wyoming was known only for two national parks and an awful lot of tumbleweed.

Public land?  Who gets the Mexican border?  Who gets the Great Basin, with water shortages, exacerbated by Las Vegas’ tapping into the aquifer?  Who gets the Sandhills in Nebraska, the Badlands in South Dakota, pretty to be sure, but difficult to reach and to eke out a living?  Who gets the land near I-40 in San Bernardino County? Who gets the land near US 95 in California, south of Needles?  I’ve seen these places. I don’t want to live there.  If it were easy to, people would.

More importantly, how do we decide?  Do we take to guns and anarchy to deal with the issue?  Is this the new America?  We get ours, and we will fight anybody to the death over it?  Who gives anybody the right to graze cattle on MY public land (it is as much mine as it is theirs) for a pittance?  WE DO, also allowing mineral extraction, polluting the water, an outdated mining law that helped kill thousands of birds in Montana (but they are only birds), poisoning the groundwater near Barstow with defense-industry perchlorate use.  By the way, the “people’s defense” means that everybody has to serve.  Who organizes the “people’s militia”?  Is anybody honestly thinking about this?

I am calling out everybody who is against and wants to fight “the government.”  We ARE the government.  We are a government OF the PEOPLE, BY the PEOPLE, and FOR the PEOPLE.  The problem is not government; it is the people who vote in people whose decisions are ruining the environment and the country.  I won’t delve into the incipient destruction of public education, vaccination, infrastructure and safety nets.  “People” like me don’t matter.  Have I written “people” too many times? Yes. That is the fundamental problem:  we have too many people with too many opinions, unwilling to yield on anything.  We need fewer people in this country, meaning easily accessible family planning and no tax breaks for large families.  Sadly, the “people” apparently don’t want this, because if they did, we wouldn’t be so overpopulated, acting like animals when their populations reach critical mass.

Is this land made for you and me?


(Woody Guthrie)

This land is your land. This land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and Me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway,
I saw above me that endless skyway:
I saw below me that golden valley:
This land was made for you and me.

I’ve roamed and rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts;
And all around me a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling,
As the fog was lifting a voice was chanting:
This land was made for you and me.

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.






April 4, 2014

A couple showed up at Rowe Sanctuary to view the cranes as the evening crowd arrived.  They were passing through and thought it might be a good idea.  Smart people.  The migration is a splendid sight.

Unfortunately, all the viewing blinds were booked in advance, as they are in late March, but the couple asked if they could wait to see if anybody didn’t show up.  Greg, who was checking visitors in, decided that while we didn’t have waiting lists, maybe this once he would allow them.  He made what I call a “command decision.”  I liked that, and I like Greg.

“My Irish luck may work,” said the woman to her husband.

I overheard the conversation.  I was going to North Blind, the smallest, requiring a drive through backroads, across the river, followed by a 600 yard walk through an open field.  North was taking 8 per tour this year, and I had 8 booked.  Ten minutes before departure, six had shown up, and I was waiting for the last car.  I wanted to get over to North early, because the cranes often come from more distant fields near the Platte and have a “secondary staging site” in the fields near the river right by North Blind.  Last year, we had ten thousand there one night, and when they took off over us, it was really fun.

From these secondary roosting sites, the cranes will go to the river around dark, although the time varies.  They are cranes, and they don’t tell me their plans.  I observe what happens, noting the various possibilities, and see how the evening will play out .

I happened to tell the Greg I was waiting for two more people, so if they didn’t show up, the other two might be able go.  He thought for a moment, and he said on the spot “this is right, this works, this will help, and the heck with the rules.”

Mind you, command decisions are not reasons to violate rules of safety, hurt individuals, destroy natural scenery, and things like that.  Sometimes, however, there is a sense of justice, rightness, and timing that makes these decisions sensible.  I was on a time schedule, and I could not afford to delay.  The secondary roost for the cranes could be in the field where I was going to be walking.  I have seen it before, and I disturbed a few hundred cranes then, which bothered me, because they were expending calories they might need further north, when they nested in Fairbanks the first week of May, in snow, no food, and living off the fat they were putting on.

Five minutes before I wanted to depart, I looked down the long dirt road that is called Elm Island, and I saw no cars coming.  If somebody were coming to my group, they would be at least five minutes getting here and getting checked in.  This was going to delay me.

“What do you think?” I asked Greg.  He had decision authority.  I was just asking.

“Do you want to take this couple?”  He replied.

“Yeah, let’s do it.”

I told the couple the good news, heard the woman nudge her husband and say something about “Irish luck,” and told them to pay inside, get right back out and where to meet me for the drive.  They were out in a minute, we left on time, and we drove over to North Blind, where there were no cranes in the fields.  That was lucky.  Had there been a few thousand, I would not have gone to the blind.

We walked into North, got settled, waited for the show.  A little while later, the birds staged behind us in a nearby field where we had just been.  We made it in time.  There had to have been a few thousand cranes there.

The Sun set in a glorious blaze of light, the cranes came off the field and landed on the river.  They were out in the middle, where they belonged, and all was right with the world.

Irish luck.


Cranes leaving the field behind us, North Blind

Cranes leaving the field behind us, North Blind


March 31, 2014

When I volunteer at the crane migration in March, I guide morning and evening.  I like seeing cranes, I’ve learned a lot, and I especially enjoy watching people get as excited as I, at seeing a few, a score, a hundred, or … twenty thousand simultaneously in the air.







When I talk about the birds before we leave for the viewing blinds, I have everybody’s attention.  I am enthusiastic describing the migration, the distances the cranes travel, why they come to the Platte, and that it is one of the great sights of nature.  I am careful not to tell them what to expect, except they will see “cranes, plural.”  I tell them that we are not in control of the view; the cranes are.  I tell them that I’m going to learn something in the blinds:  I will learn about cranes, people, or myself, sometimes one, sometimes all three.


The last night I guide for a season is bittersweet.  I enjoy the trips, but I am physically exhausted.  I get up at 0440, make coffee, spend a little quiet time eating breakfast, for in 30 minutes, all the morning staff at the visitor’s center will be there.  Within an hour, there will be more than 100 people present, 85 of them tourists.  After the morning trip, I may be a roving naturalist, talking to people, I may be cleaning toilets, picking up people who went to the photo blinds, using an ATV, or running errands in Kearney.  I will get lunch and a 10 minute nap, answer questions.  Before I know it, the evening group is there.


My last evening, I was groggy from a longer than usual nap, a sign I was very tired.  When my group appeared for the short drive to Tower Blind, I told each of the 6 cars where we were going, and where we would park.  It is a short drive and a short walk, but I didn’t say much else other than to introduce myself.


When we parked, I let my co-guide talk.  She is a sharp Nebraskan who knows her stuff.  She quickly laid out what the birds were doing, completely in sync with me about what was and was not allowed.  I was beginning to get less groggy, and the evening air, full of the haunting sound of cranes, was starting to energize me: last tour of the year, my 101st time in the blinds. I spent the first four with my father and wife, others alone, in pre-season, when I have been alone with a hundred thousand birds in the vicinity, shivering with the cold and wind that the Nebraska plains throws at one, but also with excitement, too.




We parked and walked 500 yards through a field and woods to 2-story Tower Blind, overlooking the Platte, back from the river, affording a panoramic view the other blinds didn’t.  I had been there three times that week; the other two OK, but spotty for cranes.  I was hopeful, however, for the previous night I was at East Blind, a mile upstream, no cranes landed there, but down near Tower, because of nearby eagles, which spook cranes.  I’m not responsible for the quality of the show, but I want my clients happy.  In any case, I will spend time by the river, see cranes, and I be outside.  That isn’t bad.




I had time to point out the flight of the cranes flying in, the group learning the asymmetry, a slow downbeat with a faster upbeat of the wings, so distinctive to these aerodynamically marvelous creatures, who may fly a quarter of a million miles in their lifetime and can, in 4 months, make a nest, lay eggs, incubate them for a month, and have the chicks flying several thousand miles south.  I found myself poetic that night, calling cranes “other nations, with senses, abilities, and feelings we will never have, experiences we will never share, and a language we can only begin to understand.”  I was getting people interested, and with cranes flying overhead, I am in my element.  I was getting energized.





“Mike, turn down your voice.  They’re on the river.”  My co-guide, more observant than her talkative partner, had noted the first birds landing at 7:25, 30 minutes earlier than I had seen all week,  I shut up and let nature put on the show.




The birds arrived in enormous numbers, clumped in gray islands on the river, each with thousands of cranes, from the Gibbon Bridge to well upstream of us.  Twice, they flew off, perhaps spooked by an eagle.  That’s common morning behavior; to see it at night is special.  There were cranes everywhere, the noise, echoing across 9 million years cranes have graced the Earth, was essential to the visual show.  Like the loon, the call of the crane is every bit as important to the experience.



When dark, we quietly left the blind, walking to the vehicles.  I was in the rear with a couple my age, discussing the show.  They were thrilled, asking me what I once did.  I told them I once practiced neurology, and they discussed their aging parents, 90 and 87, the same age as mine, when they died.  Their parents were demented; when I mentioned how I hoped might volunteer, not just to show people the beauty of life, but to give others help for the decision making how to die, the man said, “You’re preaching to the choir.”  We were almost back to the vehicles, when his wife said they were here for a respite from their caregiving.  Their gratitude for both the show and what came after on the walk was palpable.


The couple has a long road ahead of them, like the cranes. The road will not be easy for both;  one in twelve cranes will not return in 2015.  But the couple had seen something remarkable, life and hope, saw it together, glad they came, knowing they had a special memory to fall back upon during the hard times ahead.


I don’t usually say that a blind is “The best I’ve ever seen it,” to clients. But I said it about Tower that night. Paul Johnsgard’s “special conjunction of spring, the river, and a bird” mirrored my conjunction of learning about myself, others, and Sandhill cranes.


Godspeed to the cranes, on their way north, far from the Platte Valley, for it is time they must go.  Godspeed to the parents of the couple, on their way out of a long life, for it is time they, too, must go.  In the past, I helped many leave life with dignity; today, I helped others see the cranes on their way north to create new life.


I couldn’t have asked for a better ending to my guiding season.





March 19, 2014

Occasionally, I do something really dumb and wonder how I could have been so clueless.  Sadly, doing stupid things has not disappeared with age. I don’t usually state my major blunders in public, but my latest mistake is one from which some might learn.  Three years ago, two young men from Eugene were not so fortunate and drowned.  I wasn’t in danger, but I did something foolish, ruining my camera in the process.

I am new to the West Coast.  I am exploring Oregon by hiking; while I have extensive experience in the woods of northern Minnesota and the high country of Arizona, Oregon is different.  I have hiked in Washington State before, and I know about slippery rocks, need to carry rain gear, and taking the usual essentials before setting off alone.  Indeed, when I drove west to Sweet Creek Falls Trail, near Mapleton, I left a note on the kitchen counter, where I was going, what I expected to do, and the fact that the barometric pressure was steady when I left.  Rain was forecast for later the day.  I always leave notes when I hike alone. It makes searching for my remains easier.

The hike was pretty, not difficult, along a lovely river, with only a few areas where I needed to be careful.  However, I never forgot that a classmate in medical school died in 1973 when he fell on a rock in a stream and hit his head.  Bad things may happen, and may happen suddenly.  A slight misstep can become life-threatening or very inconvenient.  I got a lesson in the latter this day.

Sweet Creek Falls trail

Sweet Creek Falls trail

Sweet Creek Falls

Sweet Creek Falls

When I finished the hike, I decided to drive to the coast.  It was only 20 miles, and I thought it worth visiting the coast of my new home state.  When I arrived at the long stretch of  dunes, south of Florence, I found a deserted parking lot and texted my wife where I was.  I had deviated from my planned route, and any time I do such, I MUST communicate.  In the canoe country, I cannot, so if I am alone, I NEVER deviate from my route.  This is smart; what I did later wasn’t.

I went over the dunes, walking down to the nearly flat beach.  The waves were high, but there was a lot of wet beach that waves did not come up to often.  But wet beach=water, and I did not appreciate that obvious sign.  Suddenly, one wave appeared quickly.  I started to walk, but the wave overtook me, water reaching mid-calf and into my boots.  I laughed, thought it fun, as the shore was relatively flat, and wet feet weren’t going to ruin my day.  The ocean had warned me.  Nature warns, but we have to listen.  I did not.

Ten minutes later, I sat on a log down the beach, wringing out my socks, when another wave quickly appeared, but less powerful.  I raised my legs, the water went on both sides of the log, and I stayed dry.  I had been warned again.  The ocean was saying, “these are sneaker waves.”

Footprints in the sand.

Footprints in the sand.

View at top of dunes, 50 ft (15 m) above ocean.

View at top of dunes, 50 ft (15 m) above ocean.


View of the ocean from the dunes. The small log where I sat is left of center, on the beach.

I continued further south along the beach, climbing into the dunes, taking pictures of the ocean, the dark clouds that would herald rain later, and returned to where I came into the beach.  I constantly monitor the sky, I am less good about monitoring the ocean. I saw a large log, 18 inches in diameter and several feet long, with perhaps a foot wide flat surface on top.  I stood on the log, timed the swells, curious as how often a big wave would come in.  Nearly all waves crested about 50 yards away.


Soon to be a sneaker wave. No way to tell, except no water was flowing back into the ocean at the time.  Last picture taken from my camera.

The log where I stood

The log where I stood,  Notice how far up the water was capable of going.

Suddenly, one large one came in.  I felt safe on the log, above the water, but I had forgotten something I really should know–the power of moving water.  Two feet can float a car.  The water wasn’t that deep, but it was moving at 5 mph.  I could outrun it easily, but I could not walk faster than it.  Nine inches of water, 5 mph, and a 8 foot log is struck by 45 cubic feet of water a second–nearly a ton and a half.  This is equivalent to 3 defensive line football players running and hitting the log.

The force knocked me into the shallow, flowing stream.  I saw my camera under water; I took my phone out of my upward facing pocket, stunned, as I always am, when “this can’t be happening to me”  happens to me.  I got up, upset at myself, deeply embarrassed, muttered, “you really should know better,” and returned to the car.  I was soaked.

I started the car, turned on the heat, began drying my phone.  The phone worked later, as did the SD card in the camera; the camera itself did not.  I was alive; other than a lot of sand and wet clothes, I would eventually clean myself, the car, the garage, and those few places in the house I had tracked sand.

Thirty-seven months earlier, two young men from Eugene were standing on rocks out in the ocean near Yachats when a sneaker wave threw both into the cold ocean.  The rocks were too slippery to climb out; they died from hypothermia.

Sneaker wave.

There are some things we have to learn for ourselves, despite what people tell us.  Nature speaks, but we have to listen carefully to her language.  In 1991, I was ejected from a canoe when solo, I misjudged the force of current in Basswood River.  I didn’t, however, shoot the rapids a mile upstream, where 22 years later, an elderly man and his wife would.  She lived; he didn’t.  They had shot the rapids before, not ever recommended, and the water was unusually high, requiring they use a different route.  They were suddenly in extremely fast cold water with no canoe.  I was in warm, slow water next to my canoe.  I think all of us probably said, “This can’t be happening to me.” 

We all make mistakes, be it going up on a ladder when we shouldn’t, being outside when there is lightning, shooting rapids, or getting too close to the ocean.  What we must keep in mind are potential dangers and how rapidly things can go south.  Sneaker waves?  I know what they are…now.  I got away lucky.  I won’t get caught again.  Ever.

I wonder what the next stupid thing I will do will be.   Or whether I will be lucky.


March 5, 2014

13 February 1988, West Anklam Road, Tucson, 6 a.m. I’m standing with an ICU nurse looking at Saturn and Uranus in conjunction, the same longitude in the sky, near the hospital where we worked.  “They’re in Sagittarius,” I pointed to the “handle of the teapot,” noting the bright star Nunki, guide star for the Voyager 2 spacecraft, to pass near Neptune a year later.

“No,” J. replied. “They’re in Capricorn (sic).”

“No, there are the two, and they are in the constellation Sagittarius.”

“But astrologically, they are in Capricorn (sic).” (It’s “Capricornus”)

“Well,” I sighed, “you can say they are in the Big Dipper, if you want.”  This was the last conjunction I would see of the two planets, unless I live to 83.

The Dartmouth Alumni Magazine recently profiled a man, a professional astrologer.  The astrologer  stated  his beliefs; the first thing I do in these “last page” articles is to check the “fine print.”  He left Dartmouth before completing his studies; no reason was given.  That colored my opinion.  Yes, Robert Frost left Dartmouth without finishing, but to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Dan Quayle, “You’re no Robert Frost.”

7  December 1972 shot of the Earth.

I’ve posted the above picture before, and it’s worth re-posting.

What month is this?

What constellation is the Sun in?

What are constellations, anyway?

What can you learn from this picture?

Notice Antarctica illuminated by the Sun, so it must be near the Austral summer solstice.    The actual date was 7 December.  The Sun is in the constellation Ophiuchus on this date, meaning that if one could see the Sun from space, where the light isn’t scattered by air molecules, it would appear against the background stars in that constellation, an arbitrary grouping of stars with arbitrary boundaries, not in Scorpius (the proper spelling) or Sagittarius, the astrological constellation for this date.

Notice the white comma, a major anticyclone, or storm, off the southeastern coast of Africa, and the large clusters of thunderstorms in the southern equatorial region of Africa, consistent with migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) this time of year.

What predictions did the astrologer make?  In 1986, Bank of America was going to have problems.  He claimed he knew by looking at the rocks in the foundation; I would have looked at the internal books as a better foundation.  He said that the 50th degree of longitude, “that bisects the Persian Gulf,” would become a major factor in the world, and that the 35th parallel through the southern US would become very important.

Wow. The 51st meridian (or 27th parallel, another bisector, which was omitted) bisects the Persian Gulf better than the 50th.  Given the Gulf’s importance (he didn’t mention the Gulf of Oman and Somalian coastal waters), this prediction is not surprising.  All degrees of latitude in the US may be important; he omitted Kirtland and Edwards AFBs, near 35 N., but important Los Angeles is not.  What does “important” mean?  A chemical explosion, a nuclear weapon, or a great discovery?

50 E. longitude.  This might be considered important in the coming years.

50 E. longitude. This might be considered important in the coming years. This goes through oil-rich Baku, near Dagestan, through Iran, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman,  the Horn of Africa, and Somali waters.

I limit my issues about Astrology to four:  first, my “sign” of Sagittarius is defined by my birthday, not the Sun’s location when I was born. There are fourteen (not 12) constellations through the Sun may “travel.”  While it was in Sagittarius on my birthday 3000 years ago, it is now in Ophiuchus, north of Scorpius (the correct spelling).  I have no classical astrological sign.  Astrologers use celestial longitudes to try to deal with this fact, but they haven’t factored in precession; the Sun passes through 14 constellations during a 26,000 year cycle.  In 1991, $10,000 was offered to anybody’s showing the July 11 eclipse of the Sun against the background stars of then astrological Cancer, not the actual Gemini.  No takers.

Ophiuchus.  Scorpius is in the lower right; the curved red line with 255 on it is the Sun's path, 255 being the number of days after the vernal equinox.

Ophiuchus. Scorpius is in the lower right; the curved red line with 255 on it is the Sun’s path, 255 being the number of days after the vernal equinox.

Second, there is no proof why astrology works.  What happened before 1781, when Uranus was discovered?  How can a planet’s position affect us? It can’t be gravity, because I have more gravitational attraction with my car than I do with Saturn.  Gravitational force decreases with the square of distance.  I would like to know the reason using terms that a layman can understand. I practiced neurology, and it was my job to explain what I knew to people, not hide it to make money.

Third, lines of latitude and longitude are dimensionless, so there must be some “wiggle room,” or error.  How much?  Why?  We are 95% confident global warming is occurring.  If we ran 100 simulations, 95 of them would not contain zero.  Where is astrological uncertainty, required for any prediction?

Just after 3rd contact or totality, Uganda, 3 November 2013. We had to be in a path 18 km wide to view 19 seconds of totality.  This path was known decades in advance, because we understand orbital mechanics.

Just after 3rd contact or totality, Uganda, 3 November 2013. We had to be in a path 18 km wide to view 19 seconds of totality. This path was known decades in advance, because we understand orbital mechanics.

Finally, too many never learn the actual sky, far more beautiful and fascinating.  I can tell time, date, and latitude by looking at the sky, and I can teach it.  Why seasons? The poles point in the same direction as the Earth’s orbits the Sun; sometimes they point towards the Sun (summer, more direct Sun); sometimes they point away (winter, less direct Sun).  I can predict full Moons and eclipses of the Sun and Moon; so can anybody, should they wish to learn.  It is science, not vague words.  Science has allowed me to see 20 central eclipses from all over the world.

Contrast that to my horoscope today, “You may want to let go of plans and let your spontaneous personality take over.”   “May”?  Why?  What is “spontaneous personality”?  All “plans” or some?

I once showed a minister the sky.  I scuffed my feet in the desert that night, explaining where the silicon in the sand came from–a star.  The iron in our blood came from a large star that accumulated iron in its core, which cannot be fused.  The star first implodes, gravity taking over when fusion ceases.  The ensuing explosion, equal to the Sun’s energy output during its whole existence, produces heavier elements.  The gold in a ring came from a star.  The magnesium in the pyrrole ring of chlorophyll came from a star, the carbon, nitrogen and sulfur in our bodies came from a star. The calcium in our skull came from a star.

Now, if the contents of that skull could appreciate this beauty, direct efforts towards improving the world, rather than making a buck through magical thinking, our life would be improved on this once-part-of-a-star world.


March 2, 2014

 In a Starbucks somewhere at Sea-Tac, I’ve seen an older man, around my age, working the counter. I go through Sea-Tac annually, if I am lucky, because I am on my way to Alaska and to the remotest country I know.  When I come out of the Brooks Range, I take the red eye back to Seattle, get 3 hours’ sleep, and head straight for a bagel and coffee, before the next flight south.  I’m getting a bit old for these trips, but there is a lot of country I still want to see.

Noatak River, looking east, some of the most remote country in North America.

Noatak River, looking east, some of the most remote country in North America.

Dall Sheep above the headwaters of the Aichilik River.  This was one of the most beautiful areas to hike that I have ever been.

Dall Sheep above the headwaters of the Aichilik River. This was one of the most beautiful areas to hike that I have ever been.  This is in ANWR: to those who say this is a desolate place, I simply reply: “Hike the 120 miles there I have, and see what you think.”


The man works with many younger people.  He could be their grandfather. I know nothing about him: he could be lonely, a millionaire, and wants to be around people. Or he could be lonely, poor, needing every quarter people put in the tip jar.  I put in bills, because the workers divide the tips.  Divisors are fixed, but if the dividend increases, so does the quotient, a dividend in another meaning of the word.

What I do know is the man is dead serious about his job. He takes my order, and I sense I would be doing him a big favor if I were clear what I wanted and paid promptly with little hassle.  He doesn’t say this, of course, but his demeanor is no-nonsense.  He has a job, considered menial by many who walk through Sea-Tac catching a plane, but it is clear that doing the job well matters to him.

When I enter Hirons, a local drug store, I am greeted by a woman who recognizes both me and my wife.  “You back again?” she says, cheerfully.  Hirons is the only drug store I know where I had to ask directions how to find the pharmacy: I once got lost in there, overwhelmed by the inventory.  Just in time inventory doesn’t work in Hirons, and B-school students ought to visit to see how a place ought to run.  You don’t go online, like Amazon, you go there.   You walk in wanting Advil, you come out with it, a pair of lights to make walking at night safer, an Oregon shirt, maybe a mug, a dust pan, and a holder for soap in the shower. That’s how you move inventory, by having it available,  I once asked if they made keys.  That was stupid, but hey, I was new in town.

I called Hirons, because I need to move my Part D drug benefit pharmacy: three guesses what the answer was, the first two not counting.  Stupid call.  Now I can walk over there to buy a lot of other stuff along with the meds I need to pick up. Companies need to value employees who can remember customers.  It has no dollar value, or maybe it does, because people like to be remembered, and they will return.  I will of course use Hirons in the near future, like when I need a Dutch Brothers fix, at the kiosk nearby, at the EMX stop at Walnut.

Yeah, Dutch Brothers, with the red white and blue flags flying.  I don’t know how these places survive.  They do, in all likelihood, because when I arrive, there is music playing I normally wouldn’t listen to but end up liking.  There are two or three college students in there with personalities I wish I had been born with.  They could care less how I look.  They greet me warmly; people like this make me ask how they are, too, which I haven’t done for most of my life.  Not only do I ask them, I get a reply.  I get hot chocolate or coffee, and there are about 10 different kinds of both.  They work quickly and efficiently, their banter is interesting, they stamp my card, which means after 10 trips there, I get a free drink, so I will come again.  Think I tip them well?  Duh.  I go on my way, along the Willamette River, under the tracks, over Knickerbocker Bridge into Alton Baker Park, checking out the birds in the river.  My wife has never seen me so happy.

Autzen Bridge, over the Willamette River.  Hat reads Kobuk Valley, the most remote National Park in North America, and a real gem.

Autzen Bridge, over the Willamette River. Hat reads Kobuk Valley, the most remote National Park in North America, and a real gem.

Foggy night; bought the light at Hirons, behind me to my right.  Think it was $7.95.  They should charge more.

Foggy night; bought the light at Hirons, behind me to my right. Think it was $7.95. They should charge more.

Maybe later, I will go to Evergreen’s, where they serve north and south Indian food.  I usually have a Nikasi Beer with dinner.  Yeah, for a dollar more, I get something brewed in Eugene, and I really like it.  A waitress and the owner herself recognize me, both knowing what I want.  I know the owner’s son’s name, birthday and age.  We were once immediately recognized after an absence of 9 months.  That’s impressive.  Think they get good tips from me?

Everybody knows places like the ones I described.  My late father-in-law went to Asquino’s, an East Providence institution with incredible Italian food.  They knew him, and if he had ever forgotten his wallet, I bet he would have eaten for free.  Asquino’s is no longer there. The world and families change.  These businesses are worth a great deal to customers, worth that doesn’t make the bottom line.  That’s the problem with bottom lines: they measure money, which people must make (teachers can’t eat “satisfaction,” my father, an educator, once said) but not customer satisfaction, ability to recognize repeat customers, and to have things the customer doesn’t realize they want.  I would bet much that “happiness” and “ability to recognize faces” is not on ExxonMobil”s bottom line.  Damage to the environment isn’t, which does have a dollar cost.

No money can buy good service and a pleasant person who remembers me, helping me have a better day.  I saw happier people in Ely, Minnesota, who worked half time, than my former partners, who made a half mil a year.  It was a rough life in Ely, but they were a lot nicer.  The average wage at Costco is double that of Wal-Mart.  The net worth of the CEO of Costco is 10% that of the CEO of Wal-Mart.  Throw in the rest of the Walton Family, and it is 1.3%.  The salary ratio between the worker and the CEO is still too large; when I practiced, the ratio was 1:7; 1:3 when hours worked were factored in.  Call me a socialist, but I lived comfortably.

I hope the man at Sea-Tac works to stay busy, but these days, that’s not likely.  I hope the Eugene places stay in business for a long time, along with Track Town Pizza, which hosts German Stammtisch Tuesday evenings. The whole lot are a 30 minute walk from my house.  I wonder how I got so lucky.  

Salary ratios ought to be on the bottom line; important things that can’t be measured ought to be mentioned, too.  Not everything in life has a dollar value.

Designed in 2003:  Follow your heart; it will lead you home.  Hirons charges more for this.  I really didn't need it.  No, I really did need it, for I have done what it means.

Designed in 2003: Follow your heart; it will lead you home. Hirons charges more for this. I really didn’t need it. No, I really did need it, for I have done what it means.

My footprints in the sand dunes at Kobuk Valley NP. It was one of those things that really is too expensive for the time spent, unless one factors in how much it meant to me, which was priceless.  What a lovely, quiet place.

My footprints in the sand dunes at Kobuk Valley NP. It was one of those things that really is too expensive for the time spent, unless one factors in how much it meant to me, which was priceless. What a lovely, quiet place.


October 17, 2013

This is going to be easy, I thought.  I will drive to the base of a nearby mountain, climb 1.4 miles (2.2 km), 1000 (310 m) feet and come back down 1.4 miles.  I can do this in less than an hour, and I don’t need food or water.  It was afternoon; the Sun was in the southwest.

I arrived at the base, went up in 25 minutes to the summit, and came down another trail that had appeared on the Internet map to take a longer route, 2.4 (4 km) miles to where I had begun.  No problem.  I needed the exercise.  The trailhead where I started was west of me as I started down the trail.  All went well for 15 or 20 minutes, but then I noted by watching the Sun that I was heading south, and I needed to be heading north or at the very least northwest. I should have been walking with the Sun to my left, and it was to my right.

This concerned me a little, and right then I should have stopped and turned around.  The trail was wide and good, however, so I kept going.  When it bent towards the Sun and even a little beyond, I felt better, but I generally had the Sun on my right.  When I got towards the bottom, I saw a parking lot that was clearly different from the one I started at.  I saw a sign saying “west Trailhead 3.3 (5 km) miles.”  That was where I had started.  I was down the mountain but an hour’s walk from where I had started.

I saw a nearby road and thought that maybe the road would take me to the trailhead faster.  That was my second mistake.  I had no map of the road, and my Internet connection was not helpful, either.  But the road headed north.  That was where I wanted to go, until the road headed west and then southwest.  I thought more and more about turning around, and saw a woman walking.  I asked her if this road went near a certain landmark I had passed.

“I don’t know that place, but you’ve walked over the mountain and are on the back side.”

That is not what the Internet maps had shown.  I knew immediately what to do:  turn back. It’s a shame an hour earlier I didn’t do what I knew I needed to have done, for I would now be approaching where I wanted to be. When I reached the trailhead, I had two options:  completely retrace my steps, which was not a bad idea, but I would have to walk up to the summit again, 4.1 miles (6 km) in all, and why didn’t I bring water?  That way had a 100% probability of returning me to where I wanted to go.  Or, I could start on the signed trail that led north 3.3 miles.  The trail had a couple of forks that were not marked.  One led to the summit, which I considered, because that was familiar, but I stayed on the flat trail I had found–the Sun remained on my left, and within forty minutes was back at the car.

I was thirsty when I got back, and I thought what I had done is how people get into trouble.  Step 1, you have a sense of uncertainty., but you ignore it.  Step 2, you start fitting things into place so that you convince yourself you are going in the right direction.  Step 3, things aren’t right, and retracing your route seems too long.  Step 4, you try what turns out to be a shortcut, and it isn’t.  Step 5, you run out of daylight, you injure yourself, you panic, start burning energy and consuming water by running, get more lost, and you are stuck in the woods all night, with no food, water, or shelter.  I’m not young; my reserves are less, and while the young are often the ones who die of hypothermia, I am far from immune.


Seven years ago, on Isle Royale, I hiked in the dark after a wolf had visited my camp.  My flashlight was good, so I could see the trail, until there was a big blowdown in front of me.  I walked around the blowdown, and it took some time, but soon I was back on the trail.  Something nagged at me, however.  For whatever reason, I wondered if I had turned around. It happened to me once in broad daylight on the Appalachian Trail in 1998.  I stopped.  That was smart.  I took out a compass, which I had never used in the woods before, but always brought with me.  I needed to be going generally northeast, and my direction was southwest.  I had been turned around on the blowdown.  I thought I would come to it again, if I were correct, and I did just that.  I saw what I had done wrong and continued, northeast.  I listened to myself.


Twenty-one years ago, with nearly 90 days in the woods that summer behind me, I headed out on Burntside Lake for the Crab Lake portage several miles away.  I didn’t have a map for the particular part of Burntside I was on, but I had maps for the rest of the the lake.  My plan was to go due north and eventually reach the part of the lake that I had maps for.

About a mile from shore, I hadn’t arrived at the points listed on the map I had. I tried to “fit” some islands ahead of me into the map I had, and I kept going.  After a second and a third mile, the less certain I was whether I was on the map, or where the Crab Lake portage was.  I could still see the shore behind me, where I had launched.  I stopped paddling.

“You are lost,” I said aloud, to the waves.  “You have no idea where you are.  You don’t want to admit defeat and turn around, but do so.  Nothing good is going to happen if you try to keep going.”  I turned around, quite embarrassed, and two hours later was back in Ely.  The first place I went to was an outfitting store to see where I had been.

I never would have made the portage that night.  The next morning, I launched from a different point and had a good trip into the Burntside Unit of the Boundary Waters.  I didn’t get lost once, and I was comfortable the whole time.

Failure to prepare properly sets the stage for getting lost in the woods.  Take proper gear, even if it is a short hike.  I didn’t on the mountain.  A sprained ankle, a minor issue,  becomes a big issue on a remote trail. Check directions.  I had a compass, but the Sun was more than adequate.  If you can’t tell yourself, “I know where I am, how far it is to a certain point, and how I am going to get to the end,” you should be concerned.  Listen to your concerns.  Sure, it is fine to walk a few more minutes, but start considering turning around and going to the last point where you knew exactly where you are.  Don’t ever look for shortcuts through the woods.  Unless you have a clear line of sight to a distant trail, stay exactly on the trail you are on.

Don’t be afraid to tell yourself you are on the wrong trail.   Don’t be afraid to turn back to familiar surroundings.  Don’t be afraid of saying you don’t know exactly where you are. Don’t be afraid of later having people laugh at your getting lost or having taken the wrong trail.  Later being laughed at means later you are alive.

Be very afraid of being lost, in trouble, alone, and saying, “I can’t believe this is happening to me.”