Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

NO, IT CAN’T BE ANYTHING

March 18, 2019

A panda walks into a bar and eats shoots and leaves.  Lynne Truss’ book with that title showed how punctuation matters in a sentence.  In both instances, the panda had a meal.  What isn’t clear is whether the meal was plant based or whether a firearm was involved.

Punctuation matters.  Words do, too. They matter greatly in science, where miscommunications occur with the public with common words.  The word “theory” in general usage means a guess.  In science, a theory is a statement of what one believes based on a compilation of facts. Gravity is a theory.  So is relativity.  So is evolution.  Our understanding may be incomplete, but we are hardly guessing at what is occurring, and a great deal of our daily lives are made easier because of theories. Newtonian mechanics got us to the Moon, but we need Einstein’s relativity to calculate Mercury’s orbit accurately.

Two or more sides to a story don’t mean all sides have equal weight. They do on a die, but not the sum on a pair of dice. The numbers 1-6 come up with equal probability for a die.  There are 11 possibilities with the sum of two dice, but the probabilities are very different for each, from 1/36 for 2 (or 12) to 1/6 for 7.

There is uncertainty in scientific results.  Unfortunately, the lay public views “uncertainty” differently.  In general usage means one isn’t sure and in fact may be guessing.  Malpractice lawyers love to misuse these words, “Were you uncertain?”  If one answers “A little,” then the next comment may be, “So, you really didn’t know what was going on, did you?” putting words in one’s mouth and treating the uncertainty of a diagnosis as a character flaw and a substandard physician.  I’ve been there. When I practiced neurology, I had many instances where I was uncertain of the diagnosis, and frequently the patients, through having been told by someone else or not listening to me, felt that I had no idea what was going on.  Neurology is one of the most difficult specialties in all of medicine, but I was usually considering several diagnoses.  Also, the fact that I could not cure a person with a severe brain injury didn’t mean I was uncertain of what was going on.  

We demand temperature predictions to the nearest degree and rainfall’s beginning to the nearest minute despite inability to correctly predict these regularly.  A temperature range would be a far better forecast.

Uncertainty in science is vastly different from how the public perceives it, and it is one reason many phenomena with a high degree of confidence (another important word) are not believed, because of such uncertainty: “they really don’t know for sure.” The difference is that uncertainty is usually quantified in science.  If we say we are 95% confident of a result, that means if we ran one hundred simulations or saw this particular phenomena one hundred times, 95 of them would contain the value we were measuring.  We wouldn’t know which 95, but it is far from the “anything can happen,” approach, and it doesn’t mean that 5% of the time we don’t have a clue.  Consider “95% certain there is a fracture in your hand,” a probability, which when studied was far less.   It doesn’t mean that there is a 95% probability the interval is right; it either is or it isn’t, and that makes no probabilistic sence.

If one tosses a fair coin four times, one would expect it to come up heads twice.  This is the expected value, 50% probability of heads each time*4=2.  But a priori, we are uncertain. It may come up heads all four times with probability 6.25%, one-half multiplied by itself four times.  Or, it may come up three heads 1/4 of the time, two heads 3/8 of the time, one head 1/4 of the time, and no heads 1/16 of the time.  

If somebody told me I would have to pay them a dollar for every time exactly two heads occurred, because that is the expected value, and I would have to pay them a dollar every time it came up some other number, I would take that bet in a heartbeat.  Am I certain of winning?  No, but the probability—future oriented—of my winning is 62.5%, and that is solid. I am uncertain what will exactly happen, but I am highly certain what the probabilities are and my expected gain. Casinos don’t take money from everybody; they occasionally lose big, but over time, they win, and furthermore, they have a very good idea of the range of their winnings.

With 10 coin tosses, there is a 1.1% probability that there will be 9 or 10 heads.  The expected number, 5, has slightly less than a quarter probability of occurring, no longer 3/8.  Notice that extreme events still occur but with much lower probability with a few more attempts.

Toss a coin 20 times and the likelihood of 90% heads or more is on the order of 1 in 5000, not 4.5%, and the probability of 50%, or 10 heads, is less, about 1 in 6.  The likelihood of exactly half, the expected value, diminishes, but the variability decreases much faster, and more and more of the outcomes cluster closely around 50%, even if they are not 50% exactly.  

It’s like weather and climate.  There are many who say if we can’t predict the weather accurately, how can we possibly predict climate?  It’s because climate is made up of many weather events over a long period of time, where exact averages are not likely to occur very often, but the variability around those averages is much less.  Indeed, extreme values will be far less likely unless the system itself changes.  The issue for science is to try to predict as accurately as possible, but science recognizes that there is always a certain degree of uncertainty—not that we have no idea what is going on, but exact predictions of many phenomena may be impossible. Instead, there is an interval, the “plus or minus,” stating the range where the true value of the parameter of concern is believed to lie.  We will never know that true, exact value, but we are very confident in its interval.

Uncertainty doesn’t mean “it can be anything.”  No, 100 consecutive heads cannot occur with any sensible probability. Indeed, even 75 or more heads has probability 0.0000002, the likelihood of guessing a second chosen at random in the past two months.  It’s only about a 1 in 6 chance there will be 55 or more heads.  

I have long argued in climate scenarios that those who believe there is no significant global warming occurring must offer a confidence interval of what they think the temperature will be in 10, 50, or 100 years.  The interval would be expected to contain zero, no change.  It is not enough to say the current data are wrong. What is the margin of error?  What is the confidence?  It can’t be 100%, for that would be saying one could look at thousands of variables and know exactly how they would behave.

Uncertainty is reality. We embrace it in science, do not consider it a sign of weakness but a strong statement of “we could be wrong, but this is how wrong we can reasonably expect to be.”  

SUMMER CAMP

March 1, 2019

I walked into the Club’s lodge shortly before the informational meeting about the annual summer camp.  There was a potluck in progress, where at least eighty were eating.  I stayed out in the foyer with a few others.  Summer camps are where the Club goes to some interesting place, camps out, hikes, and provides breakfast, lunch and catered dinners.  With luck, there are showers and pit toilets.  

Damn, there were a lot of people there, and being around crowds isn’t my thing.  I spoke to a few people while waiting, and then as everything was cleared away, I noted that I probably knew a third to half the people there through hiking.  It wasn’t like I was a stranger there.

I went to the meeting, because I wanted to see if going to Glacier National Park for summer camp was something I wanted to do.  It was planned for early September, and I canoe in late September.  I don’t like doing two trips close together. It was a two day drive, the northern Rockies can be cold at night or be on fire.  Lot of the latter these past few years.  About a third of the attendees would be staying in hotels, so actual campers would be fewer, but then again, some people I knew well might not be going to evening meals or events, opting to stay warm, dry or quieter in the hotel.  I don’t know if fewer at the evening session would enhance or detract from the camp experience, and I don’t know how I would feel either way.

The hikes themselves were good, including one that was on the “20 best” of the world.  I am leery about these sorts of recommendations, because those rating these hikes have different values from mine, and the better a hike is rated, the more people decide to take it.  I can think of a lot of great,hikes I’ve taken where there was nobody. Maybe that is why they were so enjoyable.

The camp sounded well thought out and put together.  The organization was excellent.  It usually is.

And I won’t be going.

I’ve been to two summer camps before, one in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada, the other in the North Cascades.  Both had interesting hikes, although when we were there, it was in the 90s at 7000’ in Nevada and hit 100 in the North Cascades.  The West is hot in summer.  In the Northern Cascades, we had smoke after the second day, limiting hiking to only a few places.  It burns a lot in the West in summer, too.  

Of course, the weather might be perfect, with 70s in the day, 50s at night, rain only at night, and not a lot of crowds.  That does happen occasionally.  

I don’t enjoy summer camp all that much.  The first year, I agreed to take a “Leader” job which never should have been offered to a first time attendee.  I ended up working in the kitchen doing dishes both morning and evening, since the evening guy didn’t show up until the second day and left early.  Many attendees leave camp early so they don’t have to help with breaking down the camp, which takes maybe two hours if enough people are there.

As a leader, I was late getting started on hikes, which began right after breakfast, and I was doing dishes.  I missed a lot of information at the first evening campfire, because I was doing dishes.  I arrived at camp late enough that I didn’t have a good place to pitch my tent, and was immediately waylaid by two to see if I could give them a ride home at the end of camp, before I had even figured out where I was going to be sleeping.

There were a lot of inside jokes and some inane skits, and I don’t have a great sense of humor after hiking all day and doing dishes at night.  I also didn’t need the catty remark about how my camp chair was “one to get rid of,” from one who had used and didn’t like it.  There’s no shortage of advice in the Club about gear, diet, medical issues, and a host of other things.  

I went to the North Cascades mostly because (1) I wanted to see them and (2) I wasn’t going to be a “Leader” but just one who had two one hour jobs a week (one of the organizers said it would be one.  I chuckled to myself.)

I led a couple of hikes, and one individual complained for days after how I went to a lake that wasn’t very pretty.  Mind you, these are “Explora Hikes,” meaning the leader has not hiked the area before.  If there is a trail to a lake I haven’t seen, I think it might be worth seeing.  No, we didn’t see much, because brush clogged the shore, but it was only a 15 minute detour out of a 5 hour hike, not worth the half dozen or more times I caught grief about it. I suspect a lot of people heard how I led such a crappy hike.

After the second day, the smoke and hot weather moved in and stayed. I awoke more than once at night wondering how we would get out of our dead end road if a fire started nearby.  There was a fire burning 20 miles north that would eventually consume 100,000 acres. I was happy to leave there days later.

I would see new country at Glacier, only having been there in 1970.  But I can see plenty of new hiking country near home.  I would like to hike the entire Timberline Trail around Mt. Hood or the many hikes near Crater Lake.  I would not be gone as long, and frankly—this is my biggest reason—I don’t want to be away from home all that much.  I like where I am, and I have been fortunate enough to have seen a good deal of the world.  

If I were single and had no animals, that might be different.  But I am not and do, and ties to home are strong.  I will see the eclipse in the South Pacific this year, and I will canoe in the Boundary Waters in late September, which I absolutely want to do, because the country, so familiar and so special, draws me back every year.  That’s enough big trips.

For those who go to Glacier, I hope they have a great trip, the weather cooperates, the hikes go according to plan, the leaders better than I, and they return with wonderful memories of the northern Rockies.  

I’ll have my own memories made my own way.

Goat Lake, Ruby Mountains, Nevada, August 2016

Rainy Lake, below the 12 mile Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades, August 2017

NO GOOD DEED GOES UNPUNISHED

January 26, 2019

We didn’t have a long day working at Dorris Ranch, a Springfield park by the bend of the Coast Fork of the Willamette River.  It rained a little, but not much, and we knocked off at about 1:30, after four and a half hours of trail building.

We originally went out to do drainage work on a stream and discovered a trail which was muddy, eroding, and not useful.  Instead of drainage work, we built a new trail, connecting it to two others.  Such work necessitated one’s hacking out some grasses and shrubs, another’s digging down to bare soil to make a path a couple of feet wide, followed by more of us enlarging the path, moving the dirt off the trail, trying to save as many endangered Oregon Grape plants as possible, all the while avoiding poison oak plants standing like sentinels, waiting for the unwary to brush against them and carry the poison off on their skin or clothing.

I was especially attuned to poison oak, for two weeks earlier, I neither saw see the leafless plant at another park where I worked, nor did I wipe myself with isopropyl alcohol at the trailhead to denature the toxic urushiol.  I didn’t smear Tecnu lotion on myself when I got home and missed the last chance I had when I didn’t shower with Dawn dishwashing liquid.  Four days later, I broke out with a rash and was sentenced to two weeks of a itchy rash on my arms, inner thighs, chest and neck.  For this payment, I worked hard as a volunteer. 

I was ready to stop digging when the crew leader suggested we all knock off for the day.  I walked back to the car, trying to wash the mud off my boots on the way.  I found a small stream and stood in it for a while, cleaning the shovel, the hoe, and the McLeod, a large hoe on one side, and a serrated rake on the other, created by a USFS ranger in 1905.  

Back at the car, I knew I had errands to run, and I also needed to go to the toilet.  I looked around, saw a nearby restroom and walked up a short hill to get there.  The door was blocked wide open, floor damp, meaning it had been cleaned, so I unblocked the door, closed it, did my business, telling someone who rattled the door I was in there, washed up and walked out, not thinking to block the door open again because I knew somebody was waiting.  

A young woman wearing a park hat was waiting. She did not look pleased.

“We blocked the door open because the chemicals in there need to dry,” she said.

I thought to myself: “It’s really humid today–like drizzling–nothing is going to dry.” I answered, “I was going to block the door,” not adding, “until I saw that someone was waiting.”

“No you weren’t,” she retorted. “You were walking away.” The woman had gone from retorting to severely reprimanding me, and she was coming very close to outright berating me.

My father always told me not to get into a pissing contest with a skunk.  But I was tired and had just pissed, so I continued, “Excuse me.  I  just spent four and a half hours building trail for you guys and I needed to use the toilet.  Next time, I will use the woods.”  I walked away.  

It’s better not to argue with those who won’t change their minds, be the issue climate, what you think of the president, or whether you committed a sin by using a bathroom that had just been cleaned and then deliberately walked away without re-blocking the door.  It’s easier and saves energy. 

For the record, I clean toilets—men and women restrooms—at Rowe Sanctuary every spring, and if people need to use one and the floor is wet, I tell them that.  I don’t tell them to hold it because the floor has to dry.  I even put up yellow signs on the floor.  They are in two languages.  I don’t reprimand “offenders.”

I don’t know whether the woman thought I was homeless.  I could have looked it with mud on my clothes and my hair not exactly combed.  My hard hat was in the car.  What was I supposed to do?  Wait?  I think so.  She was young, perhaps not realizing that some older men need to use the toilet and can’t wait.  I have been in that latter situation before, although I wasn’t in it today.  

Sadly, I let the incident get to me that afternoon and for the next couple of days.  I was going to write this post saying I might not go back, and if I did, I wouldn’t use the restroom but the nearby woods, and she shouldn’t be poisonous to those who deal with poison oak as a volunteer in her park.  So there.

If I were on social media, where posts are too often made without thinking, unedited, and one has the “satisfaction” of “really nailing” an issue or a person, the ending would have been catchy, but a bit childish, which is a lot of what passes on social media these days, I guess.  I am a year away from Facebook, so I’m out of date.

In any case, I process slowly. What I think a few days after an incident is different from what it is the same day.  Yes, there should have been a sign saying, “Wet Floor,” but peeing in the woods in a city park is a bit much, even for me, unless I’m off my alpha-blocker.

I did go back to work at the park the following week. We finished the trail, hauled rocks using a wheelbarrow, and built a bridge.  Before we went out, I took the park person who was supervising our work aside and dispassionately told him my experience.  I said what was relevant and factual: “I did not see a sign,” does not exclude the fact that there might have been one.  I did not mention that the incident ruined an afternoon. That had nothing to do with the matter.  The supervisor understood that restrooms need to be cleaned, yes, but also that some times people need to use them before everything is perfectly dry.

After all, maybe the woman was having a bad day.  Maybe she had problems at home.  Maybe she was ill.  Maybe she even had a poison oak rash that annoyed her.  Yes, she needed to be thinking that perhaps this person really didn’t want to wet his pants, toilets are made to be used, and I wasn’t making a mess on the floor.  

She may still think I am a jerk, but I don’t have to make threats of what I will and won’t do in the future.  Those threats will hurt me, not the parks, except for maybe a tree’s getting too much nitrogen. I had a valid point, and she felt she had one, too.  Most importantly these days of polarization, I could see her point, even if I didn’t agree with it.  That’s not weakness, despite what many think. 

Maybe the next time, there will be a sign in two languages.  Maybe the sign will say “please leave the door open when you leave.”   Or even, “We aim to please.  You aim too, please.”

McLeod, good for trail work, pulling plants, beveling the sides, moving the dirt.


ALIGNMENT

January 19, 2019

I hadn’t planned to go to the astronomy meeting the other night, but I had missed several of the previous monthly meetings, and tired as I was, for I had been trail building that day, decided I ought to put in an appearance.  It wasn’t like anybody was going to notice my presence, but I would feel better for having gone.

January meetings of the Eugene Astronomical Society (EAS) are devoted to the public, where anybody who received a telescope for Christmas can bring it and club members volunteer to show them how to make it suitable for observing.  Jerry, the secretary, was profiled in the paper a few days earlier about the event, and I hoped to walk in, look around briefly, and then go home.

When I arrived, there were about thirty people, a few talking amongst themselves, the rest clustered around half a dozen telescopes of various sizes.  The first telescope I saw was bright orange, immediately triggering memories and interest from me, not only because of the color, but it was an 8-inch Celestron, the same model as my first big telescope.  

The owner had obtained it from his brother and drove up from Cottage Grove for help.  He was being helped by an old guy—these days, that is someone at least in his mid-70s—who was easy to listen to.  The old guy—John— was helping align the telescope, and while I had once done that with mine and never again changed it, I stayed silent allowing John’s words to fall over me as memories came flooding back.

The night I first observed and somehow found the Ring Nebula in Lyra, M57; the summer night in 1989 I watched the star 28 Sgr pass through Saturn’s rings as the planet’s motion gradually covered it; the two thousand double stars I had “split;” several hundred galaxies identified; several dozen globular clusters seen; a hundred variable stars observed throughout their cycles.  I had carried that telescope to star parties in rural Tucson, to schools nearby, and even had it in the parking lot of a hotel at Palm Desert one night in 1995, so I could show interested people—and there were many that night—Saturn’s rings edge-on. I enjoy showing people the night sky, even being auctioned off once for a night’s observing.

I didn’t say much other than assured the owner that he would see Jupiter’s moons just fine, as well as many of Saturn’s, and it was a good piece of equipment.  John instructed him about eyepieces, with the comment I hadn’t heard before, or if I had, long since forgotten:  “A good eyepiece will make a sh—-y telescope good, and a bad eyepiece will make a good telescope sh—-y.”

My first telescope launched me into a twenty year stretch where I was astronomy columnist for the Arizona Daily STAR, and my 750 columns taught me how to write something interesting weekly for beginners, learning to create columns while doing other things, like walking, aimless thinking, or observing the night sky.  I tried to see the sky through other people’s eyes.  I became a far better observer when I had write what to look for and how to find it.  I learned more astronomy through my columns than anybody else. 

When John showed the owner how to align on Polaris, I suddenly realized I had done this years before and knew what was coming next.  Once the telescope was positioned, it couldn’t be moved to make an exact alignment.  One had to move the whole system, tripod and all.  I had done that automatically every time I observed.

As if he were listening to my thoughts, the owner asked whether it would be possible not to use a compass and just turn the tripod facing north.

“Yes,” I spoke up.  “That’s exactly how I did it.”  John looked at me like I was observing in the 1980s.  Well, I was. “It’s not exact,” I continued, “and you will have to adjust frequently, but I observed that way for years.”  All the stuff I observed I did without using a clock drive, computer, or anything other than star charts.  Many nights, I followed a dozen variable stars without even using charts.  I found the star as naturally as a musician finds the right chord in a song. I was hearing the music of the spheres.  

From observing, I became interested in eclipses and began my long career of twenty-six eclipse trips all over the world to see them.  I saw totality in the middle of the Pacific, from the Great Barrier Reef, over the Arctic and Antarctic, flights that took me over both poles, Patagonia, India, Aruba, the Bolivian Altiplano, Spain, La Paz, North, East, and South Africa, China, and Siberia.  I never thought I would see more than one; I have seen 17.  I never thought I would publish anything in astronomy—thirty-one years ago, I published an article about my experience as an astronomy columnist, and I wrote two “Focal Point” opinion pieces for Sky and Telescope one year. 

While John and the owner were talking, I knelt down by the telescope.  How many times, how many hours, how many places, had I done this?  Without thinking, my left hand went to the declination knob that controlled E-W, and my right to the right ascension knob that controlled N-S.  I was on the ground outside my house in Tucson, where I did most of my observing.  This was “muscle memory,” like playing music I had memorized on a piano, skiing the first mogul field each winter, or arriving at the first portage every summer and swinging a canoe up on my shoulders.  

I was out in the desert at 2 am recording the magnitude of a variable star in Sagittarius for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). The star had recently had an outburst and the observations were needed. One night, near the Desert Museum, I watched the Moon move tangent to a star, seeing starlight blink in and out through the lunar mountains on the edge. That grazing occultation was data for the International Occultation Timing Association (IOTA), to which I once belonged.  I tried to give back to the field when I could. Another summer night, I watched at 4 am as the Moon uncovered four moons and then Jupiter in the pre-dawn sky.  I saw so many meteors out of the corner of my eye when I was observing.  Fortune favors the experienced eye, and I was experienced.  During the Leonid shower of 1999, I saw three hundred meteors in less than an hour, and four times I saw 5 instantaneously. 

John had suggested that the owner see if Jerry, the EAS secretary, had any eyepieces he wasn’t using, for the owner needed a good low power eyepiece.  Jerry came over, admitted he didn’t have any, and took a look at the telescope.  He admired the age and condition, older than my 1983 purchase, for mine gave the focal length in mm and this one in inches.  Jerry identified the outlet type for the drive motor and knew the name of a store who had a cord that could plug into this unusual outlet.  He even knew the voltage.  Jerry knows just about anything, and hearing him talk makes my head shake in wonderment. 

I was so lucky to see so much, the zodiacal light from Sonoita, “false twilight” that occurs well after dark or well before morning, when the dust in the plane of the solar system is illuminated by the Sun below the horizon. I saw rainbows seven minutes after sunset.  In a thirty minute period one night, near a small cloud, I saw cloud-cloud lightning, Jupiter, and a meteor shoot between the two.  Sleeping under the stars in the high grasslands, my wife and I watched the Milky Way rise like a giant cloud–which it is.  We saw Orion reflected in a wilderness lake at 1 am and the aurora shoot across the sky in the canoe country.  An observing session was once interrupted by a rattlesnake, whose buzzing I couldn’t understand until without thinking I jumped back as the reptile slithered past my tripod to the open desert.  

I went to the meeting to make an appearance.  I had no preconceived notion what might happen and was astounded with the experience.  I shouldn’t have been surprised, for astronomy was like this many nights when I took my telescope outside, scanned the night sky with my eyes, and began to observe.

NOT NOW vs. NOT EVER

January 15, 2019

There was a recent article in the New York Times written by a woman to explain why she wasn’t returning an email.  I would have replied to your email after a few hundred more words, I am certain, except that my 11-year-old daughter came in, clutching some pieces of paper… was the style of the article.  She wrote well, and most of the comments were favorable, that these issues with which she was spending time were indeed important.

A few commented that she was fortunate to be able to work at home, have good, healthy children, but that ignoring work-related emails for many is a good way to get fired. I decided to comment, although I am at a disadvantage in that I need more time to process information than most, in order to optimize what I say.  When I used Facebook, most of my comments were “Edited,” meaning I had posted and later changed something.  Many would do well to edit what they write, since first impressions and first words usually are not what most of us truly want to convey.  But if I wait 24 hours, the comments section is closed, and if I want people to read my thoughts I need to write quickly, not after hundreds of others.  I wrote that many of my good faith emails were never replied to even though it took all of 24 seconds to write, “We regret that we have no use for your services.”

My comment got a reply that interruptions slow down a person’s ability to re-focus on what they had been doing for up to a half hour.  I agreed, but added that there is a difference between “Not Now” and “Not Ever.”

That’s really what I wanted to say to the author in the first place.  It’s acceptable not to reply to an email now.  Very few things in life are urgent, and emails can usually wait.  But Not Ever?  You mean to say you are so busy that you can’t find any time in your day or week to reply to a good faith email from someone?

I continued that interruptions in my medical practice, which were seldom truly urgent (life threatening that if I didn’t act someone would significantly deteriorate), did affect my ability to concentrate afterwards on the my care of the patient before being interrupted.  More than once, after two or three interruptions seeing the same patient, I had to explicitly ask my secretary to stop all interruptions so I could get some work done.  I didn’t know back then how badly interruptions interfered with my work, because much research hadn’t been done, except in aviation, where there is the “Sterile Cockpit Rule” below 10,000 feet, where all cockpit conversation relates to only flying the aircraft.  Nevertheless, my colleagues were quick to tell me medicine and flying airplanes were different in regards to errors.  I retorted that they were both quite similar.

[Ten years later, CVR, “Cockpit Voice Recorder,” was a big hit at medical meetings, where two people sat on a stage and read what transpired in an aviation disaster, so perhaps my thoughts earlier were on track.]

I continued, writing that hurry and fatigue were two other reasons I left medicine, both of which again were confirmed by research in part using aviation experience (The Canary Islands disaster in 1977, and the 1999 crash in Little Rock in part respectively.)

I come from a bygone era. When I practiced, we had to return phone calls from patients.  THAT was time consuming.  We had to call, wait for the individual to answer or to be summoned, often repeat ourselves, answer things we had answered in the office, try to explain something to someone without seeing their expression, and not have any sort of written summary of what we said.  I returned calls as soon as I could during the day; many others waited until the evening or didn’t return them at all. I returned my calls if I had a few minutes to do so.  They weren’t interruptions.  Most of us have a lot of time available during the day; back then, we couldn’t use social media as a time dump, but we all have a few minutes here and there that we squander on things that may not be earth shattering.  Want to have time to reply to emails?  Stay away from social media. 

Before there was email, I couldn’t make a phone call between seeing patients, unless I knew it would be very brief.  Today, many questions could be answered in that same time period. I would have loved emails back when I was practicing.  My calls could take several minutes; an email take a matter of seconds.  This is a matter of prioritizing time.  

I used to have a pile of pink slips from calls, answered by an actual human being, that I needed to make, low tech but useful, because human beings could write notes, using a pen, and convey that the patient sounded angry, sad, depressed, busy, strange.  From here, we went to voicemail, which was listened to by a human being, until people used it as a way to avoid work by ignoring them.  That’s going from Not Now to Not Ever.  I consider myself fortunate if my voicemail gets a reply.

From voicemail, we went to email, faster and easier, but I contend that my computer is strange in that it appears to send emails but doesn’t seem to receive them.  Two decades later, I still read complaints that emails are interruptions.  Like most technology, when email is used properly, it is a wonderful tool.  How can it be an interruption unless one lets it be one?  A ringing phone is an annoyance, and those in my generation learned to pick it up, because it was polite and it usually was from someone whom one knew, not Marriott or some other big chain trying to sell me something I didn’t want and my punching 2 to not get any more of these calls made no difference, nor did a national registry of Do Not Call remove these calls.

An email is quiet, unless one chooses to activate the sound letting one know there is an email, which again admittedly used to be important, not someone trying to sell military surplus or Viagra because I was foolish enough to click on a link to read some article seen on the Internet, and didn’t delete the cookie fast enough.  

We have spam filters, and while I’m not in at least the paid work force these days, it seems obvious one can have a work email address for work and a personal one.  Twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school, I had two email addresses, and that was a good screen.

Returning calls, returning emails, communicating with people who ask good faith questions either as friends, clients, or family, is a matter of prioritizing one’s time.  It’s as simple as that.  It’s as complicated as that.  

What is clear is that email, Messenger, Whatsapp, Telegram, and Twitter have not brought us together, but rather pushed us apart, allowing formerly taboo religion and politics into the public sphere, allowing thoughts from those living in caves to see the light of day, and forgetting the best communication is what it always has been, watching body language, listening to tone of voice, repeating back instructions, and seeking first to understand before being understood.

NEW AND OLD MEMORIES

December 18, 2018

I was at the Club’s lodge recently for the annual holiday party, first featuring a 3 mile hike into a nearby large park, followed by lunch, the price being bringing a pair of socks for one of the local charities.

Later, back at the lodge, I spoke to a past president of the Club. He was originally from the UP, the upper peninsula of Michigan, and told me about his canoeing the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior. I’ve never been out there, although I’ve read a lot about the area. I told him about my time on Isle Royale National Park out on the Big Lake in 2006, when I had a wolf in my campsite, and how I always wanted to go back to the park that had the highest percentage of return visitors. Unfortunately, I never have. Still, I have fond memories of for several days one May being one of maybe a dozen people on an island 45 miles long and 9 miles wide.

Isle Royale 2006

“I had some medical issues this past year,” the past president said, “and while I was dealing with them, I realized if I never got a chance to go back out on the trail, I still had many good memories and saw many places.”

I had seen him hiking near the top of Spencer Butte a couple weeks ago on our Wednesday conditioning hike, so he was getting back out. I hope he leads a winter snowshoe this year.

I can relate to his comments. In 2009, I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to be able to travel again to places I wanted to see, but I got better. I remember fondly my three day hikes in Yosemite, while my wife was at a radiology conference nearby, the one and perhaps the only time I will be there. I hiked close to 40 miles in those days, all solo, and was thrilled to be out there in snow, but with nearby wildflowers, alive in the beautiful Yosemite backcountry.

Later that summer, I decided to get another national park under my belt, and I traveled to California’s Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park, hiking up Brokeoff Mountain, 7.5 miles round trip with 2600 feet of elevation gain. I was thrilled to do it. That was the hike where I encountered an 80 year-old at the summit wearing running shoes, no pack, gave him a soda, which he drank and then threw the can on the ground.

Mt. Lassen from Brokeoff Mt.  2009

I picked it up. There are men who hike in the outdoors, and then there are outdoorsmen who hike. They two don’t always share the same values.

We ended our conversation by discussing the Boundary Waters, where I have taken 69 trips into four districts over nearly 40 years now. Where did the time go?

Newton Lake 2018

Having arrived at three score and ten, I don’t have many hikes or canoe trips left, although in my wildest dreams, I can hope for another decade. One of my patients, on his 80th birthday, hiked up Mt. Wrightston, my favorite hike in Arizona, 4000 feet of elevation gain and about 11 miles round trip. I have climbed Wrightston many times and camped up there twice as well. Another elderly man I knew hiked up Wasson Peak in the Tucson Mountains over a thousand times. For years, I ran up it on my birthday, trying to match my age to the number of minutes it took me to go up 3 miles and 1800 vertical feet. I just missed on my 41st. I made it thereafter.

But there are no guarantees, ever. I go when I can.

While we have struggled with a drought and mountain fires the past year, this autumn, there was enough mountain snow that I checked out the Sno-Tel automatic weather stations up near Willamette Pass. It’s great to be able to access data showing snow depth and snow-water equivalent. After learning there were 9 inches of snow at Salt Creek Falls, the lowest of the stations I was interested in, I thought it might be adequate to snowshoe. The weather forecast showed no precipitation, the roads were open with no chain requirement, and I decided I was going up there, not the following week, not “some time,” not whenever but TOMORROW. A few days of warm rain could melt everything, and a two month thaw, like too many of the past winters, could end all possible trips. The ski area at Willamette Pass was open, taking advantage of low snow conditions to try to eke out a season, after last year’s three day bust.

Each of the past two years, I have taken a chance on the remaining snow and snowshoed in late April and early May. Nobody was on the trails either time, the snow conditions were excellent, and I have pleasant memories of traveling in the quiet Willamette National Forest under my own power.

I expected heavy ski traffic on the road up and had none. I arrived at the Sno-Park, my vehicle the only one there, cold and windy, temperature in the low 20s. I was dressed warmly and carried my snowshoes back up the entry road to the Sno-Park, across Highway 58, to the snow covered road leading up to Fuji Shelter, 3.7 miles further and 1400 feet higher. The snow at the base was deep enough, with one prior set of snowshoe tracks.

I felt like the luckiest guy in the world. I was sheltered from the wind, on the trail, nobody in sight, and no matter what happened tomorrow or many tomorrows, I was going to get a snowshoe in. The road stretched out before me, a snow-covered track ascending through the woods. It felt good having to break trail, but not working excessively hard to do so. I knew the trail but had my GPS running. It remained quiet, the snow’s muffling traffic back on the highway. Eventually, I got far enough away that I heard almost no sound except occasional snow coming off the trees and an occasional crow calling in the distance. The filtered sunlight reflected off the snow like diamonds. It was magical.

I took a break about half way up to get a drink and eat something. My snowshoes felt fine. I had checked them the previous day at home to make sure nothing had deteriorated over the summer. I have had snowshoes where the rubber fell apart, noting it at the beginning of a hike, which is a big problem. I got through that hike, soberly learning a lesson in preventive maintenance.

Finally, I reached the junction of the trail to the shelter and broke fresh snow for about a third of a mile. The shelter was full of wood, had a stove, and its three sided design was open to a splendid view of Diamond Peak right in front of me. I kept my shoes on for lunch, sat down on a log, and spent time looking around the shelter.

When I left to, I first stopped by one of the frozen lakes near the trail. I then retraced my tracks and descended, much faster, occasionally walking in unbroken snow just to do it. I recrossed the highway and went over to see Salt Creek Falls, the second highest in Oregon. Sure, it’s a tourist spot, but it’s really pretty, and besides, I was the only visitor.

I’m not sure when I will get to snowshoe again, but the important matter was I got out and did it.

Snow diamonds

Fuji Shelter

Fuji Shelter

Salt Creek Falls

Diamond Peak

RETURNING TO JERK JUNCTION

November 20, 2018

“In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity In Peace: Good Will.” Winston S. Churchill

Last month, while in Safeway, I encountered a lady in the bread aisle, carefully examining a loaf, right where I wanted to go. I mean carefully.  I could not get to the loaf I wanted, and she seemed oblivious to everything else but that loaf of bread.

Rather than disturb her, I took Suck it Up Lane to the next aisle to get some yogurt and then returned, figuring she might be gone.  Nope, she was still checking out that same loaf of bread.  

I had enough of Suck it Up Lane, so I turned on Excuse Me Way, reached around her leg, got the loaf I wanted, and left.  She never moved, and I think, although I couldn’t swear to it at a Senate hearing, that she gave me a dirty look.  So be it.  If she wanted to be on Jerk Road, I wasn’t going to follow her, although jerk is usually a masculine noun.  In any case, shoppers usually excuse themselves a lot at the store; if not, well, one probably owns property on Jerk Road. 

Suck it Up Lane is for wanting to yell at people but not doing it.  There is also Winston Churchill Boulevard: “In victory, “Magnanimity.”  That means when the winner doesn’t lord it over the loser.  You don’t brag, you don’t rub their nose in it, you don’t laugh at them, and you don’t become a jerk.  Instead, you try to be generous, hoping one day that when you lose, which you will, that you may be treated the same way.  In other words, jerks put up Trump/Pence signs before the midterm elections, since neither of the two was running.  A jerk will drive his pickup slowly through the neighborhood with a big American flag flying from the bed, proclaiming patriotism, as if the rest of us were somehow deficient.  Blatantly showing the flag doesn’t make one patriotic any more than singing the Star Spangled Banner makes one a diva or knowing the difference between its and it’s—or your and you’re— makes one a published author.  Only jerks keep obsessing about Hillary Clinton, yelling, “Lock her up”  at rallies designed to stoke the base, where they also scream obscenities. Only jerks keep harping on her emails when the president’s own daughter did the same thing.  Only jerks keep harping on chain migration when the president’s in-laws got citizenship that way.

That’s a tall order.  I thought of the jerks who put up the sign east of Walterville for the Republican congressional candidate and another set of jerks who did the same out by Dexter, on the way up to Willamette Pass.  I found I could drive by without looking at those signs, since they are for only a month every two years, the perennial congressional candidate is a hypocrite, and I have discussed him before.  I wish he would go away, but he won’t. 

It was the signs for the president and vice president placed near the congressman sign that made those doing it jerks. Yes, they were on Jerk Road, near Highway 126 or 58.  They were lording over the fact they won.  Yes, they did win the electoral college, at least in the votes counted if perhaps not all the ones actually cast.  They are glad, not only that they got the kind of country they seem to think it should be, but really glad that My Side is upset.  They take delight in knowing we lost.  That’s right down the centerline of Jerk Road.

But in My Side’s defeat, there is Defiance Avenue, defiance of bullies, who live in the past, with a vision of an America that never existed the way they think it did. They want to take America back to a time of (old) white men’s ruling most everything, segregation, women’s place in society, few or no regulations, no abortion under any circumstances, no birth control, pregnancy and raising the child a woman’s problem.  

Lack of adequate, known, safety and other regulations has led to several million’s dying from lung cancer, transportation-related accidents, firearms, bad food, water, and air, suboptimal medical and mental health care.

The Other Side too often disparages and ignores science, even as they enjoy the electronic and much healthier world it helped develop.  Without proof, they say, “It’ll (the climate) will change back.” When? Why? How?

Here in Lane County, The Other Side’s incumbent  wanted to define a county commissioner’s race by who was better for the timber industry.  He discussed timber and so-called Oregon values in his ads.  He was funded by the timber industry, and after listening to his commercial, I realized he was out of touch with both the electorate and the time. I’m not an expert on body language, but he sure looked and sounded angry.  He was only three years younger than I, which is no compliment.  His opponent, a woman 25 years younger, runs a property management service that my wife and I used for two years with total satisfaction.  Timber is still important here, but it doesn’t define Oregon. Many of us resent being called environmental extremists for being upset at aerial spraying, clear cuts that leave slash and later burn (accelerating at least two major fires in 2017), polluted waterways, a forest management timeline of only 10 years, rather than 100, or even 200, the idea that we can cut again in 40 years, rather than 100, the unsightly scars that are replaced by monoculture forests, and the assumption that the soil will be just as good for second and third growth as it was for the original old growth.  He lost by 12%.  We flipped the commissioners from 4-1 Other Side to 3-2 My Side.  This is the kind of change we need locally that is going to directly help my life.  I’m not jeering at the ex-incumbent.  I’m hoping we can have a county more suited to the 2020s than the 1920s, when timber workers truly thought our forests were infinite.

Jerks cheer when the president thinks body slamming a reporter is a good thing, rather than Jerk Expressway behavior and should end, especially given the number of close associates to the president who have actually been charged, are in jail, or face prison time.  The new Supreme Court justice once said about being a good judge: “In short, don’t be a jerk.”  And a few days later, he was a jerk, still being confirmed, not surprisingly.    

I have traveled Jerk Road more than I care to admit, but I try to take the first exit I find. That requires a JerkMeter, called self-awareness, and a JPS, Jerk Positioning System, otherwise known as compassion or a conscience, so that one can quickly find his way off.  

Yes, his way off.

CONFESSIONS FROM A MODEL RIDER

November 11, 2018

This past summer, the first in Eugene’s records to have no rain in June, July, and August, the driest 11 month period on record, was almost not the driest.  In late July the weather models showed a significant storm system about 10 days out, then 9 then 8 then 7 then 6 days that was going to deliver a big soaker in early August, almost unheard of.  Given how dry we had been, this was eagerly awaited, and after all, 6 day forecasts aren’t too bad.  At 6 days out, the TV meteorologists were all over this storm.  The next morning, first thing I did was check the models: to my chagrin, both the GFS and the Euro forecasted that storm wasn’t going to happen.  It was gone.  Kaputt.  Sayonara.  Weg. Hasta la bye-bye. Evaporated from fantasy.  Never happening.  It was a real bummer to me, and as I learned recently, to many others as well.

For those few of you who are model riders, like me, it’s OK.  I understand. I feel your pain.  

I follow the Portland Weather Blog (TV weather caster Mark Nelsen), and the California Weather Blog (Daniel Swain), Cliff Mass in Seattle, reading their comments, but it wasn’t until I read an article in Bay Nature that I realized there was a kindred group down in the Bay Area.  They coined the term “model rider,” not me.

A model rider logs on a few times daily to check the long range weather models: the GFS, or Global Forecast System (American); the ECMWF (the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, or the Euro), and the GEM model (Global Environment Multiscale, Canadian.)  I don’t check the latter too often, but I look at the other two.  I even get the detailed European ones, which I have to pay for, but it’s worth it. I have access to world wide weather on the world wide web, and I can look at high pressure domes baking Scandinavia, or get 2 meter temps in Casablanca, should I want to.  I don’t, but I do have the anomalies (differences from normal) for the upper level winds, the 3,9, and 14 km models for precipitation, the jet stream, and the low level winds.  I can get local temperature forecasts using seven different models, four of which I had never heard of.  I can scan what I need in a few minutes, and if I’m traveling, I can check out a lot of other stuff.  I can get 500 mb heights for the upper level, anomalies, or departures from normal, all color coded, run them fast or slow out 3, 10, or 16 days, and even 46 days if I want to take a look at the precipitation anomaly.

Following the models gives me an idea of what I might expect in the long range.  I have watched the models come into agreement about a storm, or a prolonged high pressure system (more on that shortly), or a big wind event, days before it makes the forecasts or even the National Weather Service forecast discussions, which are also about four times a day.  I follow them in several places—Portland is my home area, but I also look at Medford, Seattle, Reno, and Sacramento.  Some of these—Medford especially—give a great synoptic summary, how something we have here, like a persistent high pressure system, which many of us refer to as a “Death Ridge,” is related to and stays as a result of deep troughing, or low pressure, downstream on the East Coast.   Medford is realistic; Portland is a little behind.  This morning, Medford said the next storm was more than a week away and might split.  Portland was still talking about the sprinkles Wednesday that won’t hit where I live. Medford NWS used the term “sacrificial front,” the first front that slams into a high pressure system, weakening both the front and the system, but allowing a second and additional fronts to break through. 

That assumes the high pressure system doesn’t build back in behind the front, which it often does.  That has happened a lot this year.  

The Bay Area group refers to forecasts out 200-300 hours as “fantasyland.”  They are right, and they confirm what I discovered my first winter here:  numerous models kept showing big storms that were going to hit us in the long range time frame.  About 7 days out, those storms disappeared from the models.  For those of us who think rain is good, like real weather, these models sometimes pull a “pull the football up,” referring to Lucy and Charlie Brown, in the classic Peanuts cartoon, where Charlie Brown hoped it wouldn’t happen and always got fooled by Lucy at the end.  Fantasyland is really wet.  Reality is really dry.

It’s not often I read something where the comments and feeling expressed match mine so perfectly:  if the models say persisting high pressure is going to set up for two weeks, persisting high pressure will set up for at least two weeks.  If the models say it’s going to rain in 7 days, there will be a high pressure system instead.  We model riders know that.  Storms get delayed a day, then 2 days later delayed another 2 days, then disappear. Want wet weather? Fantasyland awaits.

One of the commentators  on the Portland weather blog was bemoaning that “Seattle got all the good stuff,” meaning weather.  I wrote back and said that those of us (like me) in the South Valley thought that Portland got all the good stuff. Nobody is happy, unless we get some good action.   

The models over predict the rain we do get:  I cancelled a hike in the Cascades last week because of what was going to be a good soaking with a lot of wind in the mountains.  I was leery about cancelling it, because in my own mind I knew we were going to get minimal rain down here, because that has been the pattern for almost the last eleven months.  That’s what a drought is, and we are in a severe one.  We got minimal rain.  I wouldn’t have needed rain gear.

I waited 20 years in Arizona for the drought to break, and it finally did—after I left.  I stopped looking at the Climate Prediction Center for Arizona, because it invariably predicted higher than normal temperatures and less than normal rain.  And for at least seven years that I looked, it was always right.

The latest GFS model said 10 days ago showed a good rain this weekend, then the models backed the rain off until the following Wednesday.  What I am now hearing from the forecast discussions is “rain later this month, near Thanksgiving.”  The problem is that Thanksgiving this year is early.  Besides, for the last few runs, the models have shown dry weather out 10 days.  Today, they show nothing for 16.  Thanksgiving is the 22nd.  

Maybe they meant “rain later this year, near Christmas.”  Or, as I learned to say during the monsoonal busts in Arizona, “maybe it will rain next year.”

Bummer.

ASTRONOMICAL MOOD SWING

October 24, 2018

“And this is the Silver Coin Galaxy, NGC 253, in the constellation Sculptor.” The speaker at the Eugene Astronomical Society, the new president, continued his fascinating talk about lesser known deep sky objects in the autumn night sky.

I was initially amazed at what he was showing, then became a bit depressed, because I used to be a lot more familiar with virtually everything he was discussing. I’ve seen NGC (New General Catalogue) 253, although I never knew it as the Silver Dollar Galaxy. I used to look at the variable star TX Piscium, which the speaker discussed, and I knew about NGC 404, the galaxy near the star Mirach in the constellation Andromeda. If I were at a star party in the autumn, and somebody wanted to see a galaxy, I could show them Andromeda, but this galaxy was even easier to find, because it was right next to a bright star.

I hadn’t forgotten everything I had learned, but it had been years—20 to be exact—since I last did serious observing of the night sky. I went to grad school in Las Cruces in 1998 and had little time to observe. During the 15 or so years prior that I was a diligent, active observer, I saw over 2000 double stars and at least 800 galaxies. I tracked 80 variable stars, often getting up in the middle of the night to observe a nova for the American Association of Variable Star Observers. Most of the variable stars I tracked I could find without using star charts. That’s good.

It’s not, however, as good as the Reverend Robert Evans, an Australian, who holds the record for the most supernovae discovered, 42. He could find his way without charts through the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, hundreds of them in a small area, that looks empty to the naked eye observer, in the constellation Virgo. He knew the appearance of the galaxies well enough to know whether or not they had changed since the last time he looked. That’s beyond good. His record is likely to stand, for in the age of computer driven telescopes and built in star maps, robotic telescopes are discovering many supernovae.

While no longer actively observing, I can still find my way around the night sky quite well. In 2016, at sea in Indonesia, I gave a Vancouver astrophysicist a tour of the night sky, without charts, and did a credible job. We both learned something.

My time in astronomy is like a lot of other things in my life. I study it until I am as good as I think I want to be, and then I move on to something else. I started learning German and did little else for about 3 years, then moved on, although I still watch about an hour of German videos daily on the Internet. I’m not likely to go back to Europe, although I won’t rule out the possibility, and I am not going to become fluent in German or Spanish, which I also spent time studying.

In the hiking club, I have led nearly 150 hikes and taken another 300, but I am not hiking with the group as much as I did, nor am I leading as much. I won’t give it up, but it isn’t the main focus of my life right now.

In all areas of life where I am reasonably competent—mathematics, statistics, neurology, astronomy, canoeing, writing, teaching, learning a language, traveling, leading hikes, predicting the weather, sawing logs in the wilderness—I have started at the bottom as a totally green know nothing and have worked my way up to some degree of competence. It’s not enjoyable being at the bottom, and learning provides the way upward.

Periodically, some of my past areas of competence are called upon unexpectedly. My mathematics skills, put aside for so much of my life, became my career for a while, then a source of worth for me by volunteering in high schools during the time I was neither employed nor retired. I didn’t do much, but I learned more, which I parlayed into a substitute teaching job and into my fifth year as a useful volunteer today at the community college. Writing became a way for me to relax and discuss life as I lived it and as I saw it. I am a decent writer, but not great, and never will be, but that’s fine with me. Writing is a way I express my creativity, just as the husband of a friend of mine composes and plays music that will never make him stand in front of thousands or appear on CC40, but gives him and the people with whom he is around pleasure.

Giving back to the community matters to me. Online, it is the nearly 10,000 problems I have solved on algebra.com. It’s a hope that some of the 28,000 hits my blog has had in 9 years will have helped somebody in some way. By giving, one gets back a lot more.

Several weeks ago, I went to the new SUN-day showing of the Sun by the astronomy club in a nearby park. There were three solar scopes set up and several Club members discussing the views with a few members of the public. I brought my binoculars with solar filters, but they weren’t needed. I didn’t know what my role there would be. For some reason, however, I mentioned sundials, many types of which I have built. Jerry, the Club secretary, is a remarkable person. He writes sci-fi books, columns for Sky and Telescope, has a telescope making class at his house, can make almost anything, and knows the night sky well. We starting chatting about sundials, and I explained the four corrections that needed to be made: Daylight Savings Time, correcting for one’s watch time, correcting for the longitude east or west of the time zone, which in the US is 75/90/105/120 degrees west for the contiguous states, and finally the Equation of Time, the delay or advancement of Sun time, depending upon the date. The Equation of Time deals with the Earth’s day length, which is fixed by our clocks, with the speed the Earth travels around the Sun, which changes depending upon our distance from the latter. It explains why the earliest/latest sunrise and the latest/earliest sunset do not occur on the solstice but a few days on one side or the other.

Jerry was interested and I enjoyed feeling somewhat useful. I gave him a book on sundials I had, and he returned the following week with two beautiful equatorial sundials that he made. A week after, he had business cards with a corner one could cut off and glue on the card itself to make the gnomon, or shadow caster, of a sundial. What an remarkable person.

Last week, the two of us found a place nearby to make an analemma, where if one measures a specific shadow at the same time of day over a year’s time, the shadow will trace out a Figure of 8. I once made a partial one in a math class at a high school in Arizona. There is a nearby sign with the park map where we will put a long pole to cast the shadow. Jerry now wants to make a vertical sundial on the back side of the sign. I know he can do it. I’m in awe of people like him—so creative, so full of ideas.

That’s not at all depressing to me, for while I’ve forgotten so much, I decided one day to show up in the park without any preconceived notions what would happen.

Sometimes, that’s the best way to live.

.

My log book from an observation of the variable star TX Piscium and two neighbors. I observed it from 1989-99.

Analemma:  The shadow caster is at the bottom, where the shortest shadow will be (summer in the Northern Hemisphere.)  The areas to the right are where the Sun “runs fast” relative to clock time, especially in autumn, which gives rise to the very early sunsets we notice.  In January and February, the Sun “runs slow,” and we see that as late sunrises but relatively late sunsets, too.  We notice by Christmas that the Sun is setting later.  The vertical line is neutral.  Four times a year, Sun and clock time are the same.

SEVENTY BEFORE SEVENTY

September 28, 2018

“He is thirty-three years old. He’d like to think the next thirty-three years will be like the last ones.… Besides, he can count on the fingers of one hand the number of sixty-six year-olds he’s seen in the woods.” from Sam Cook

I stood on a large area of granite and quartz that I last visited 26 years ago, the summer I was a volunteer Wilderness Canoe Ranger in the Boundary Waters. I even remember calling this the “purple panty site,” finding a broken bottle of wine and a pair of purple panties at the base of the cliff. The old fire grate had been set on the granite, when rangers used to fly in and use air drills to fix the metal grate in place. There were now four small pieces of metal protruding from the rock marking its former location, the new grate set in soil a few yards away. We had picked up a literal boat load of trash from the 51 campsites we visited on West Basswood, using a boat with an 8 hp Yamaha motor to patrol the large area. The Fourth of July that cool, rainy summer, nobody was out here, and we camped half mile to the southeast of where I camped this year. We even were able to float the creek from Jackfish to Pipestone Bays, saving 8 miles of motoring and felt really good about doing it. That creek hasn’t been navigable for years and must be portaged around.

Twenty-six years ago, I could paddle all day long, pitch camp in an hour and break camp in the morning, including breakfast, in 40 minutes. I could hit shore, have my back pack on, the canoe on my head in a half minute and load the canoe at the other end in half that time. I wanted to see all that country, and I did pretty well at doing so, more than three hundred lakes and an equal number of nights spent out there.

This year, I was solo, like many times back then, but now needing two trips across the portage, not one, using more care to unload and load, but doing it wearing rubber boots, which allow me to stand in water to load and unload. I wore more clothing, too, not only because it was cold, but I get colder more easily. I stopped single carrying portages in my fifties, stopped wearing shorts in my sixties, My seventies may be when I lose the battle, for even as I age, and the gear gets lighter, I am going to eventually lose. Just not this year. I took my father in the woods when he was 78. Maybe someone will take me. Or maybe I’ll be extraordinarily lucky and go solo.

I like to think I’m more sensible. I wanted to go to places further up the lake, where I had camped the prior 5 years. They mean a lot to me. One is a place I take myself to mentally when the world seems too much. But I looked at the weather maps before I left, as well as watched the sky often when I left the jumping off point at Fall Lake. The forecast was for rain, cold, and wind, a difficult triad to deal with. My reality was a canoe with 8 inches of freeboard and real tippy, and after a few thousand miles in a canoe, I don’t use “tippy” lightly. If I paddled as far in as I wanted to go, I might face a headwind and rain on the return, and that was a significant possibility. The day I was to come out, I would be 70 before 70, days before years, and I felt damn lucky and blessed to just still be able to come out here. Retired Duluth Herald-Tribune columnist Sam Cook wrote the words above, and I’ve been coming out here since 1981, the year I turned 33. I am not as fast, not as strong, but far more experienced, use my gear more efficiently, and know very well that things can go south in a big hurry. I’ve never tipped over on a canoe trip, but I’ve literally been thrown out of a canoe on small rapids, and that was extremely sobering as to the power of moving water.

The solo canoe I rented had a sticker about safety, the sixth bullet point’s being “Never canoe alone,” which seemed odd on a solo canoe. I know what was meant, but I hike alone, and I have canoed alone many times. My wife isn’t coming out here with me any more, although she would love to if all the preparations and travel weren’t so difficult. I understand that. I’m going to reach a point where I can’t do this, but my goal is to be like the guy we saw lying back in his canoe floating down the Nina Moose River towards Lake Agnes, back in 2004. My wife said, “that’s you twenty years from now,” and while I laughed at the old guy back then, I kind of got a bee in my bonnet and turned the laughter into a 2024 goal. That guy was doing it right.

This trip, I made it a point to canoe along shorelines I had often eschewed for the straight shot down the middle of the lake to get up on the border. Exploring a small bay this year, I encountered a pair of tundra swans and a raft of mergansers. I hadn’t noted tundra swans here before, and I saw five more the next day. They were magnificent white painted against the gray sky when they took off. Coming around a point on Newton Lake, I saw an otter come out of the water, head profiled against the background light, one of those moments where I was looking in the right place with the right frame of mind. That happens a lot when one stops eschewing stuff. The first morning’s sunrise was spectacular, even if the red sky in morning was warning this canoe man to stay in camp the next day. A leaf with a few drops of rainwater was worth a picture, as well as the nearby asters, the lovely end of summer flower.

Sunrise from the first campsite.

Leaf with water droplets

Asters

My camp had a path to the next campsite, unusual in this country, but the two sites were not visible from one another, which is the norm. On the windbound day, I walked laps between the two sites, noting the 3 inch depth of white pine needles and also noting, for the first time, how the adult bark starts to appear, from ground level up a meter or two, rather than immediately on the tree as it grows. I had a lot of time to think about the past thirty-seven years I have been coming up here, and how fortunate I have been to have seen the country far beyond where I can now physically go—or wish to go—for that matter. I know what’s out there; I have good trail and lake memory. My last Quetico trip, in Canada, was in 2005. I said goodby to Kawnipi Lake back then, occasionally hoping maybe I’d get another chance—but knowing that I will not.

The trip had all the challenges—wind, rain, cold, thunderstorms. I packed wet and I set up camp in a pouring rain. I didn’t talk to a soul for four days, and I had a day when I didn’t see a boat anywhere. I wasn’t sure if solo tripping would still appeal to me. It does. I looked at things without judgment, only interest.

Maybe 2024.

Wearing High Cascade Volunteer “Scorpions” hat. Pipestone Bay, 2018

Below, leaves on a trail

Leaves along the shoreline