Posts Tagged ‘National Park Odyssey’


July 28, 2016

Last year, we spent a day in Kotzebue and several days in Anchorage and the Kenai, visiting Lake Clark NP and taking one flight seeing tour. We liked Kotzebue and wished we had stayed longer.  We were less enthralled with Anchorage and wished we had stayed less.  Part of the problem was that we did not realize how crowded south Alaska is in summer.  We saw two rivers packed with fishermen side by side.  I guess people love doing that, but I don’t.

We went to the Kenai because we had heard so much about Homer.  People loved it.  We thought it pretty but not special. The spit was fine if one likes a sea of humanity, and many do.  We don’t. We went over to Lake Clark to see bears, but unfortunately for our poor guide, we saw one brown bear and a black bear with two cubs.  That happens.  I view wildlife sightings as a gift, not as a right.  I wasn’t surprised by the bear paucity with the number of powerboats on the lake, especially at one end of the lake, where bears had been previously sighted.


Black Bear and cub at Lake Clark, NP.  This was the only time I saw both a black and a brown bear the same day.

This year, we changed our visit, spending most of the trip in Kotzebue and the final full day in Anchorage.  Kotzebue is a native village north of the Arctic Circle, accessible twice daily by plane.  There is one hotel there and two rustic B and Bs.  The food isn’t great, and there are a lot of junked cars in yards, because there is no place to dispose of them, and ATVs are more useful than a car there.  But we liked Kotz.


We took three flights, one to see the caribou migration in the Brooks Range from the air, one to see Kobuk Valley National Park, and a third to see Serpentine Hot Springs, all special places in the public lands system. The number of people we encountered in the last two?  Zero.


Caribou migration from the air.


Kobuk Valley NP


Tor (granite) at Serpentine Hot Springs

We then returned to Anchorage and flew to Katmai for the bear viewing, hoping my wife could see what I saw in 2013.  Then, I saw 18 bears, two sets of 3 cubs and 7 boars at one time feeding at Brooks Falls.  There was a slight wait to get to the Falls platform, but it was minor, and I had three separate hour visits, because an hour is all that is allowed at once.  Since then, I have often said, “I’d go back to Katmai in a heartbeat.” (Not, “You should see Katmai.” I seldom use “should,” because it sounds like I am imposing my values on others.)

We flew down and went to the orientation, better than I had remembered.  The rangers have a good video and one mentioned she told someone to leave the Falls platform, because he had a Diet Coke with him.  The rangers are serious about no food being allowed.  If food is not regulated, too many will try to throw bread or candy, because they believe feeing animals is cute.  It is not.  It is a death sentence.  Here, I will use a stronger word than “should.”  One MUST NEVER feed animals in the wild.

The only thing I didn’t like about the orientation was when she said, “Yesterday, there was a 3 hour waiting period for the Falls platform.”  I was stunned. At Katmai, the Falls platform, where the boars congregate, catching and eating salmon that are trying to make their way upstream, is the best viewing spot.  People give their names to a ranger who controls access, one is allowed an hour there, then must leave and get in line again to return, although last year a group of Germans apparently refused. I know all Europeans aren’t like that, but they must abide by our rules, just like I try to be polite and abide by European rules when I am abroad—including the expectation I will be pushed, shoved, subjected to a lot of second hand smoke, deal with rowdy football fans, and have some pretend they don’t understand my German or French.  We are all different.

While waiting, the “riffles,” the lower platform, 100 yards downstream, is accessible.  There may or may not be bears there.

We walked the mile plus distance to the check-in, not being told the waiting time, although it would be easy to do.  The ranger can count the number on each page who are waiting ahead, and divide by 40. That’s the waiting time in hours.  The ranger made it clear she didn’t like being asked.  We wondered why the ranger didn’t give people the page number and have a small board with the current page (which had a total of 20-25 parties containing) being served.  It would have allowed some flexibility. Not knowing makes it difficult to decide if one wants to take a chance to use the pit toilet, a 30 minute round trip.  Since I knew my page number, I asked for only that, so as not to annoy her.  We had time to go back down the trail—during which we and maybe five others saw a large boar go by right under the raised boardwalk— to the pit toilets and return.


We got lucky.  He passed 10 feet under us.

Many waiting were bored, standing, although there were 3 cubs asleep below the raised area, and occasionally the sow had them go to the river.  A ranger told me that the sow had helped him deal with a lot of grumpy people, suggesting that the bear viewing was not optimal this year, often because there were so many salmon they were feeding in early morning and resting the rest of the day.  I wondered if that and the extensive waits were causing problems.

After 2 hours, we had an hour on the Falls platform, which has an upper and lower part, good for 30, but 40 were crammed in, most of whom were on the lower part, not moving, including a French couple in the corner with a tripod, which takes up an extensive amount of space.  I guide at Rowe Sanctuary during the Crane migration. We don’t allow photographers to do that. There were two bears, and watching the salmon attempt to jump the falls was more interesting.


I estimated about 5% of the jumps were successful.




Sow with 3 spring cubs.

Viewing the bears at Brooks Falls in Katmai has to change.  We need to sharply curtail the number of daily visitors.  It’s better for the viewing experience and for the bears, and the latter matter more.  It is expensive to get there, crowded, the waits are long, unpredictable, leaving one to stand around, for possible sub-optimal bear viewing.  For the time, effort and money, it isn’t worth it.  There are custom trips that can be taken, but they book rapidly and are more expensive.

In the meantime, I’ll do my Alaska visiting further north. I’ll go to Kotzebue, perhaps.  Or not.  I haven’t decided.  The Sheenjek River drainage in the Arctic Refuge beckons.  Serpentine Hot Springs would be nice for 2 days, and I’d love to try to catch the caribou migration from the ground.  I’m not saying that you should see it.  Indeed, the good places I want to go, I want as few people as possible to be there.

Selfish?  Yep.  But look at the bright side.  I won’t be clogging up Brooks Falls.




July 19, 2016

When we were staying up in Kotzebue, the Internet was slow, so I did a lot of reading, especially the day it was rainy and windy.  I like those days.  After years in the desert, I equal “beautiful sunny days” with drought. I read “Wheelmen,” how Lance Armstrong was able to cheat in the Tour de France and hoodwink millions, including me. I also helped students on, a math help site.  I find it relaxing; the students are mostly grateful.

When we got to Anchorage, with faster Internet, I posted some of pictures from my America the Beautiful Series on Facebook—the Western Caribou Herd migration seen from the air, Kobuk Vally NP, Serpentine Hot Springs, red raspberries picked from a vacant lot next to the hotel, and pictures of the brown bears salmon fishing at Katmai.  I commented on several posts…and quickly deleted my comments.


Western Caribou Migration north of the Arctic Circle. This line went on for 7-8 miles.


Kabuki Valley NP, Alaska.  This is reachable only by plane or boat.


Serpentine Hot Springs, Bering Land Bridge Preserve, Seward Peninsula, Alaska

I don’t often give advice to people, because few either want or follow it.  You will seldom hear me use  “should,” like “You should do xxxx,” because I think it arrogant and presupposes my values should be somebody else’s.  I am not advising anybody to do what I did here, only stating that I have found deleting a comment on Facebook—before or shortly after posting— is a good way not to have to eat my words later or get into an argument with somebody I don’t know….or do know.

The first comment I deleted was on a post that said “Take this test to see if you are racist.”  I think we are all racist.  Humans evolved that way.  We are tribal. Listen to the Kingston Trio’s Merry Minuet sometime, and you will understand that racism is not new.  I don’t have conversations about race, and I try not to treat people differently based upon race, dress or sexual orientation.  If they are trying to convert me to something, I’m generally not interested, although in the face of compelling evidence I may change my mind.  I might be more willing to listen if they gave me the same courtesy to offer my opinions.  They won’t, for they alone know the Truth.  I can’t remember what I deleted, but it was along the lines that given my 17 years of expected longevity I wasn’t going to change much, so please don’t tell me how racist I am. Delete.

The second came from a relative who posted  that the Earth was going to be destroyed at midday tomorrow, a time that has come and gone.  It was on some “truth” site, and if I were going to comment on every bit of bad science that found its way to Facebook, I wouldn’t have time to tell some kid how to solve a mixture problem or complete the square of a quadratic equation.  I started….then I just went to a new page.  FB is nice enough to give me a “Do you really want to leave this page?” to which I reply quietly “You betcha, delete that mother that I wrote.”  Problem solved.  No trolls to come after me, nobody to say I used the wrong word, and nobody telling me I was going to hell (I did but they kicked me out for bootlegging ice water becomes too trite after a while).

I have a few rules I use on FB.  I don’t de-friend people, only stop seeing their posts.  It’s easier that way, because they don’t know that I am not following them but I show up on their friend list.

I don’t share things that people ask me to share.  That’s their banner to carry, not mine.  I don’t read things for the most part that people tell me I must read. The “watch how xxx just slammed xxx in Congress” in general is not much of a slam; indeed, there are very few perfect squelches.  I can think of exactly four times where I have said exactly the right words at the right time, and it was devastatingly powerful.  Most “classic putdowns” are not worth reading.

Some have political or religious beliefs I don’t share.  It’s easier to delete all posts coming from Right Wing News or Oliver North.  It helps my heart stay out of dysrhythmias if I don’t read stuff I want to challenge and squash.  Few will read my post, and I will only annoy someone.

The third one I deleted was easy.  It was about how much money was being spent to build a replica of Noah’s Ark in Kentucky to spread the gospel that humans walked with dinosaurs (appalling in 2016 that some believe that.)  I commented the ark could be used for low-income housing, especially since the toilet and septic system were likely good, given all the bs.  It felt good for a few seconds.  Then I deleted it.  I had other more constructive things to do, like help kids with their math homework.  Interesting sidelight: I tend to answer questions where kids beg for aid, like “I am totally lost,” or “Please, I haven’t a clue how to do this,” and I can, easily and clearly.  That is doing the Lord’s work, although I don’t follow the Lord’s posts, because…well, I don’t.  I just try to be a decent guy.

The last post was how the Western world was at WAR (capitalized) with radical Islam, and that we didn’t have Facebook memes and blabs when we dealt with Natsis (Nazis—her spelling and grammar leave a lot to be desired, but I’d never dream of telling her that) weren’t going to be the solution. She’s right on one count—changing one’s profile, calling ourselves French…or Turkish…or whatever—doesn’t change anything.  I’m pessimistic. History is on my side. And I wish in the meantime we would stop using the word “solidarity,” for it lasts as long as it takes for the next tragedy to strike.

I posted that before we go to war, I’d like to know the endpoint when we will stop warring.  We didn’t have one for Afghanistan, and we may be there forever.  We screwed up. I had hoped after Vietnam in 1975 we had learned our lesson, but we didn’t.  I continued: if we go to war, I want a War Tax (50% marginal rates) and a draft of men and women.  Next war, everybody serves, and we pay as we go. That sort of personal and financial commitment gets people thinking whether it is worthwhile. I said in 2003 we would create a lot of terrorists by invading Iraq, so I am not surprised by what I am seeing now.

Why did I delete this post?  I like the person.  Her son will be draft age in 6 years. He’s going to fight the next war, not me.  She is going to worry, and she will learn in spades what going to fight the bad guys means.  She won’t remember my words.  She will likely blame My Side for it.

After I left Alaska, posts deleted, I have found myself spending less time on Facebook.  It’s too damned depressing.  And there is far too much life to be lived, far too much good to do, like math homework.  Or math help in person.  Or reading a book.  Or hiking.  Or showing a kid the night sky.  Or an adult for that matter.  Or seeing places in the world while I still am able to.

Don’t bother sharing. It’s just my way of living. Your results may vary.


July 12, 2016

As the Cessna 206 flew northward over the western Brooks Range, dark clouds ahead, I was thinking that we weren’t going to see the caribou migration from the air.  We might have to soon turn around, but at least we had already seen spectacular scenery that few are fortunate enough to view.

We had flown to Kotzebue, Alaska, for the express purpose of seeing the caribou migration from the air.  The Western Arctic Herd fluctuates in size, now about 275,000.  I have seen pictures of the herd bunched together from the air; I have heard stories of having the caribou go through one’s campsite.  The chances of being in the right place on the ground, however, are small.  The animals may come early, late, or take a different migratory route.

Jared, our pilot, had told us a year ago on a prior visit that it might be possible to see the migration from the air, suggesting we come about the second week in July.  We decided to spend six days in Kotzebue.  If weather were an issue, or Jared busy, which all pilots are in summer, we would have flexibility.  We arrived on the evening of the sixth and walked one block from the airport to their office.  Jared had just finished a trip and told us the caribou had migrated 2 weeks earlier this year.  Much of the herd was far to the northeast, he said, but a significant number were still due north of us in one of the valleys.  He thought we might be able to fly out the next afternoon, proposing a triangular leg that would put us near the first group and then move westward to see the others.

The next day Jared was still busy at 3, and my wife and I were beginning to think we’d wouldn’t go until the following day.  Maybe. I have dealt with Alaskan bush pilots for a decade, and things are predictably unpredictable.  One needs to expect anything, be ready immediately, and ascribe any untoward event as “It’s Alaska.”  We took a short walk down the beach, waiting. At 4:30, we were asked if we were ready; at 5, we were in the air heading north. We were going to try to find the tail end of the migration.

We overflew the valley where the caribou had been the day before, now empty, except for a stunning rainbow, which suggested we might have some sunshine in between showers.  I wasn’t expecting much, my long standing philosophy being that seeing wildlife is a gift and not an expectation.  We turned east, passing by mountains of the western Brooks Range. I think we saw six rainbows.


Rainbow over the Brooks Range


Not uncommon view in the Brooks


Canyons of the Noatak River.

Suddenly, Jared said, “There are 10.”  I didn’t see anything.  “There are a few more. Wow, they sure have put on their hiking boots.”  My wife then saw them.  I hadn’t configured my eyes yet for what I should be seeing from the air.  I’ve seen thousands of caribou, but mostly from the ground.  I looked and looked.

Then I saw them, a couple of small dots, moving.  Then I saw several brown lines on the tundra, animal trails, with a line of brown moving on them. Caribou.




There are about 400 caribou in this picture.  The dark lines are animal tracks.

The valley narrowed into a canyon, and the river, its banks, and the narrow sides of the canyon appeared alive.  It was.  The ground itself was moving, lines and lines of caribou moving east.  We weren’t standing still watching them move.  We were traveling 80 knots, 1.5 miles a minute, and for at least five minutes we saw lines of caribou.


Jared banked at a fork in the canyon, and we turned back to a valley where a hill marked the entrance.  Flying much lower now, we could see the hill covered with caribou, a sea of brown, some lying on the ground in the 24 hour a day sunlight.  It was stunning.  I like to take pictures, but from a moving plane through a window, I looked, videoing while looking more carefully with my eyes.  If the pictures came out, fine.  If they didn’t, well…it’s Alaska, and the scene was now embedded in my brain.

All too soon, we banked away from the caribou, leaving them to their migration, heading south.  Nearby, the prior night, Jared had dropped off a guide with 3 Australian clients, telling them to camp by a small, shallow river and hike over to a nearby hill and wait for the caribou.  “I hope I was right,” he said.

We approached the camp and overflew it, then banking and landing on a gravel bar near the group.  The guide, a young woman, appeared with the three others in tow, young men.  She was ecstatic, slapping hands with Jared, saying they had spent much of the night, sun up of course, watching the migration from a quarter mile.  The clients seemed more muted. Wow, I thought.  What an experience, hours of caribou viewing from the ground.


Ground view about 10 miles from Caribou viewing.


We took off and flew back to Kotzebue, thrilled that on our first full day we saw what we came—and hoped— to see.  No, we didn’t see 200,000 caribou in a valley milling around.  I’ve seen those pictures, and they are amazing.  We saw instead something more subtle, nothing I expected to see, but to me every bit as memorable.  We saw miles and miles of caribou on the move, covering the hills, the streams, moving through a valley and a canyon.  One doesn’t see that when they are bunched up.  We saw a migration.  Would I like to see it from the ground?  Yeah, I would. But I saw something special.

The next day, we happened to run into one of the Australians in the hotel, not surprising, since there is only one major one in Kotzebue.  He said nothing about the caribou, not one word, but spoke about the Wildebeest migration in Tanzania, telling us at least 3 times that we really ought to see it. I’m 3 1/2 times his age, but I get excited about nature like a kid.  At 19, he saw something rare and beautiful, but as Steve Prefontaine said, “sacrificed the gift.”  His father paid for his trips; the flight alone (not including guides, food, or the trip from Australia) were $6600.

We subsequently took two more flights with Jared, one to Kobuk Valley National Park, where we were dropped off while he flew elsewhere to shuttle a group from one area to another.  We had free “ground time,” because he had to be out there anyway, and spent three hours hiking in perhaps the most remote park in the country, quiet, beautiful and alone.  Two days later, we flew down to the Seward Peninsula to see Serpentine Hot Springs, part of Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. Jared, very familiar with the area, had never been in the water. Come to think of it, he had never seen such good weather there, either. While we were hiking, looking at the many tors, granite that appeared as the ground above it eroded, he soaked.


Bush growing on sand dune in drainage where there were a remarkable number of wildflowers and a 15 year-old spruce tree.


Western edge of Great Kobuk Sand Dunes


The wind causes changes in the sand, changes in the clouds.


Crop circle effect of wind’s blowing grass. Foot tip for perspective.


Changes in the color and texture of sand occur just like in snow.


We came to see the caribou migration, seeing it in a way I had not expected.  Additionally, I got to see Kobuk Valley a second time, with adequate time to explore.  And I flew down to Serpentine Hot Springs, a place I hoped some day I might see but figured I never would.

I won’t ever see the Wildebeest migration, although I’m certain it’s remarkable, as are both North American migrations, caribou and crane.  Some of the best experiences come not from managing a trip to Tanzania or Alaska, but from managing one’s expectations.



May 28, 2016

We were descending Marys Peak in the Coast Range to the cars, the last part of the hike’s being on a service road used to oversee the Corvallis watershed.  No vehicles were present, and from the blowdowns on the road, none had been there for some time. After about a mile, there was a trail heading off into the roadside brush, with a sign: “Trail Closed due to Operations in Area”.

The person hiking with me said, “Was that the way we went up?”

“No,” I replied.  “We entered about a half mile further.”


Three Sisters from Marys Peak (April 2014)

I am no longer surprised by these comments.  I was the trip leader, and there is no way I would take a group past a sign saying “Trail Closed.”  The trail we had taken 3 hours earlier ascended immediately in forest and this one stayed low and in brush.  But, as I have learned, what is sometimes obvious to me isn’t obvious to others.

“Where was that hike where I got so exhausted with the pack I was carrying that I fell?”

“Browder Ridge.”  I know where on the trail it occurred, too.


Browder Ridge Summit with Mt. Jefferson in distance (2014)

“What mountain were we trying to climb last fall when we turned around because of weather?”

“Crescent Mountain.”  I know exactly where we turned around, and I will see it in a week when we go there.


Crescent Mountain, on a day people did not belong at the top.  We turned around (2015).


Crescent Mountain in June 2014, with lake of same name below.  It is about 5 miles and 2100′ vertical to the summit, where there was once an lookout.


Mt. Washington (far left) and The Sisters from upper meadows of Crescent Mountain

Granted, many of these hikes I have done before, but after one time doing them, I have a sense in my mind of the trail.  I’ve only hiked Middle Pyramid once, but I can visualize the bottom of the trail, the open area with the cliffs high overhead, and the gradual climb up through the cliffs to the top.  My memory is good enough to help me as trip leader.  I am not a Jon Krakauer, who saved his life on Mt. Everest during the 1996 disaster, because when the storm hit, he had a sense of where the trail was and how to get back to shelter on the South Col.


View down from summit of Middle Pyramid, 2014


Author, summit of Middle Pyramid.  It’s a little more than 2 miles but climbs steeply.

I think trail memory is both natural and observational.  I remember trails without usually thinking about it.  I am not as good at remembering steep ascents or descents, perhaps because I tend to hold my speed constant on them, so they don’t stand out so much.

This isn’t to say I haven’t gotten turned around a few times in my life.  In 1998, on the Appalachian Trail, I rested sitting on a rock, and when I got up, retraced my steps about a mile before I realized the traffic I was hearing was a road I had previously crossed.  There was no road the way I was supposed to be going, and bells were going off in my head that something wasn’t right.  That was deeply embarrassing and likely due to fatigue.

In 2006, on Isle Royale, I was hiking at night back to Windigo after a wolf had visited my campsite.  It was late, but I wasn’t going to stay there with a wolf in the vicinity.  I knew that wolves didn’t attack healthy humans, but knowing that intellectually and being alone ten trail miles from the nearest person were two very different things.  It was time to sleep, not hike, but I was going, sunset or not.

Or what passed for sunset under thick clouds that promised snow.

In any case, with a small light, that I hoped would keep working, I went around a blowdown and continued.  But something didn’t seem right.  I had walked around a lot of the blowdown, maybe too much, and I couldn’t say for sure that the trail I was seeing was similar to where I had just been.  Jon Krakuer might have known.  But I had a sense—an uneasiness—that I was going the wrong way.  I stopped, found my compass, and took a bearing roughly the direction I was headed.  It should have been northeast; it was southwest.  I turned around and walked back to the blowdown, confirming my error, and found the trail sooner on the other side, eventually making it to Windigo.


Young moose, Isle Royale, taken from the campsite where 2 hours later I would see the wolf.  10 May 2006.

I’ve been cultivating these senses lately.  I’ve been slow to do this, because I am mostly a linear, analytical person who hasn’t much believed in them.  As I have spent more time in the woods as I got older, I started realizing if I weren’t sure where I was, it was wise to admit—out loud—that I was lost and do whatever was necessary to get myself on track again, usually meaning backtracking, sometimes back to the beginning and quitting the trip.  Trail memory is fine, unless I am on a trail that I have not trod.  I did that on Burntside Lake in 1992, when my map didn’t quite show where I entered the lake, but I reasoned the distance was short so that I would soon be navigating by my other maps.  That didn’t work, I was lost, and I backtracked the whole way.  I felt stupid, but at least I didn’t compound my mistake by continuing.

The last time I really messed up was on Mt. Pisgah, practically in Eugene’s city limits.  I hadn’t lived in Eugene at the time, and Pisgah is famous for two things: a large network of trails and even more poison oak.  The first time I climbed it, I thought I found a different route back to the parking lot.  I soon realized that the trail was not going there, or the Sun had moved its position in the sky.  Finally, I realized I was descending to a different parking lot.  Once there, I walked to a road I thought would take me where I wanted to go.  After a mile, I admitted I had no idea where I was, retraced my steps, and took a chance that a trail along the base of the mountain would get me back.  Had it not, I would have backtracked to the summit and down the trail I originally ascended.

Getting lost still embarrasses me, but I learn from it.  With GPS, I am able to know where I am and can try a different route.  Still, GPS is sometimes not enough to counter a sense that one’s direction is wrong.  GPS is also dependent upon not only battery power, but having a good connection with satellites.  Such connections may disappear In deep woods, and especially canyons.

Trail memory is also useful on those winter nights or difficult times in life, when one wants to escape civilization and find solitude in those hundreds—no, thousands—of trails across the continent.  I can go there in my mind: climb, breathe the air, hear the birds, see the flowers, and be alone.  I get great pleasure at looking at maps and saying to myself, “I’ve been out there.  I know what it looks like.”


High Desert from the top of the canyon overlooking the Owyhee River, 2016.



October 12, 2015

In Isle Royale National Park’s Visitor Center, on the largest island in Lake Superior, there are many moose skulls on the wall.  Such is not surprising; since 1997 a few hundred moose and a few dozen wolves have been completely isolated from the mainland.  It is one of the longest, most intensively studied predator-prey relationships in existence, but the wolves are dying off, a tragedy and a controversy as to whether new ones should be introduced, a raging controversy, both sides passionate about what to do.

Ironically, how we usually handle this and other hot button issues is summarized right on that wall.

Two skulls are very close together.  Indeed, it takes a little while to see that there are two, for there are so many antlers around them.  Then, it becomes strikingly clear what happened.  Two moose, probably in rut, fought over a female.  Their antlers locked, and they were unable to disengage.  Their destiny was not to win or lose.  No, their destiny was death together, fighting futilely to exhaustion and starvation, easy prey for wolves.

We might learn from that, if we weren’t so busy locking our own horns to realize we and those with whom we argue may both lose, prey for our common enemies.  Red-Blue, Conservative-Liberal, Pro Gun-Anti Gun, Republican-Democrat, one side-other side.  Take your pick, apparently, because there no longer seems to be much common ground, except there is, if we start looking.  If we choose to keep fighting, the wolves of the world will pick us off, because we will be too busy playing the futile game of trying to convince people who won’t be convinced, rather than finding a new solution, missing opportunity after opportunity.

That is why when Facebook put an ad on my site saying “Stand with Hillary and take on the NRA,” I didn’t add my name.  I will admit I have no love for the organization and am against their current agenda (which wasn’t always the way it is today).  But I know that without the NRA’s help, yes help, we aren’t going to solve the issue of mass shootings.

I’m going to assume that no decent American wants to hear about another mass killing.  It doesn’t matter whether the individual is an Oath Keeper or one who wants firearms banned.  No reasonable person wants the shootings to continue.  Simple solutions proffered by both sides won’t work, but we are a technologically developed country with many who are experts about firearms, their manufacture, use, safety and locking mechanisms, as well as tracking them. We have experts in firearm safety, human behavior, system and study design.  We need all of them.

It is not likely that we will be soon be able to determine which mentally ill person is a likely mass shooter. Maybe with better mental health care we would slightly alleviate the problem, but  many of those who harbor violent urges don’t seek help.  They don’t see a problem.  Additionally, we aren’t likely to pay for the cost of mental health care, even if we returned to institutionalization of the 1950s, which was a dictatorship over people.  Without doubt, it would solve a lot of problems: homelessness, some shootings, extra police work, and many emergency department visits, but at the cost of liberty to many.

Cars are dangerous, too.  Thrice as many die in the US every year from automobiles than from murders due to guns.  Notice my use of numbers.  These are facts.  If we allow research into gun violence to again be done, the way it once was, we would operate from facts, less from emotions and inaccurate numbers.

Guns are the major cause of suicide, and twice as many die from suicide by gun than murder.  Only the most callous would say that those who want to kill themselves should do so and be done with it.  These callous people are online, and we need the help of ISP and other computer experts to deal with the harmful byproduct of anonymity on the Internet. No reasonable gun advocate or anti-gun advocate wants to see firearms used to commit suicide.

We once had poorly engineered automobiles.  Indeed, Ralph Nader became famous with “Unsafe at any Speed.”  Improved engineering, better materials, seat belts, air bags, ABS, and side protection have cut the number of motor vehicle deaths 40%, despite a significant increase in the population (the number per 100,000 has fallen 60%).  We haven’t eliminated the problem.  One may wear a seat belt and die in a MVA, but the probability is less.  We don’t know who the 20,000 survivors are because of safer automobiles, but if we had 52,000 deaths a year, we would do something about licensing people, drunk driving, safer roads, and better auto engineering.  Oh, we did have that many deaths, and we did act.

So, this is where the firearm experts are needed.  Here is where the NRA is needed.  Here is where every responsible gun owner is needed.  We need ways to prevent people misusing firearms.  Yes, it is impossible to do it perfectly, but yes also, we can find a way to improve our current situation.  If we had 5,000 gun deaths from murders a year, it would still be too many, but it would be better than what we have now.  If we had 5,000 suicides a year from guns, it would still be too tragic, but it would be so much better.  If 30, rather than 60 children died from accidental GSWs, it would still be too many, but 30 fewer devastated families.

I’m weary of arguing.  It is not the time to “Take on the NRA.” Like the man with the wind and the Sun, if I blow harder, he will only pull his coat tighter.  No, it is time for the NRA and its membership to be invited to the table, to offer engineering and other solutions that have a chance of being tried and tested.  Who should own what?  How is ammunition regulated?  What should be written down, and what not?  How do we do background checks and maintain privacy?  What are ways to deal with this problem that we can a priori postulate what we think will happen and then count to see if it did happen?  Wouldn’t that be an improvement over what we aren’t doing today?

I want the mental health community to be at the same table to offer suggestions.  I want researchers to design studies showing how we might determine if a possible improvement works.  I want security experts and IT at the table, too.

Legislation may have to come from a Republican Congress.  Only a Republican in 1972 could go to China, and I think only a Republican Congress can write such legislation.  They need help from the Democrats, but at the same table, with the goal to decrease gun violence in this country and at the same time not limit responsible firearm ownership.  It is a tall order, given the money involved in making firearms and the emotions when somebody is gunned down.  However, given where we are today, we can’t do much worse.

Like the moose, we can lock antlers and hope to win, bloodied but victorious.  Or, we may end up together on the ground, helpless against our enemies.  We can use what’s in our skulls to solve the problem, with leadership and risk taking.  It’s our choice.

The two moose were programmed to fight.  They didn’t know one of the consequences.  What’s our excuse?


September 15, 2015

We woke at 1 a.m., perhaps because it was so quiet on Horse Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA).  When we unzipped the tent and crawled outside on the dewy grass, we saw Orion’s stunning reflection on the water.  I looked overhead, the only time in my life seeing all 7 of the Pleiades visible to the unaided eye.  Oh my, there was absolutely no sound.  Wilderness, dark skies, and quiet:  My outdoor triad.  We had the best of it.

Yeah, we had the best of it one night on the North Tonto Platform down in the Grand Canyon, west of Clear Creek, where we had left the prior afternoon, so we could get part way back to Phantom Ranch rather than doing the whole hike the following day.  We dry camped, maybe where nobody had camped before.  We saw dark skies and heard nothing, not even the Colorado.  We whispered.  The Canyon is noisier today, and I don’t know whether that experience is possible, along with our hearing the echo of a raven’s wings off the Redwall, in a deep southern curve called The Abyss, back in ’86, unforgettable.

We had the best of it just last year in the BWCA, awakening to the sound of wolves not far from our campsite.  We got up, went out and saw an aurora, not just that night but the next, too.  Beavers felled trees in a swamp nearby, not knowing or caring about us as they swam by with leafy branches in their mouths.  A moose walked through the swamp, an hour after the thought had occurred to me the only thing we had missed was a moose.

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Beaver swimming back to lodge, BWCA, 2014. Basswood Lake

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Moose in swamp, Basswood Lake, 2014.

Oh, the best of it could have been a number of places, one of which was from a small site on Lake Insula, where we saw the Harvest Moon’s rising over the trees at the far east end, trees now burned, but some day, not in my lifetime, will grow back.  We had the best of Insula.  I spent 40 nights there.  Camped twice for 5 nights each on one site and didn’t see a soul. That’s wilderness.  We had sunny days; we had sleet and snow.  We knew the whole lake.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Lake Insula sunset, 2009.

Author standing on

Author standing on “The Rock,” Lake Insula, 2005

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

Author in tent, 2007, Lake Insula trip where we evaluated all 47 campsites. Snow and cold weather made the job interesting.

We had the best of it the day we hiked the upper Aichilik in Alaska, under heavy packs, where lunch was a sit down affair with Caribou walking right by us, and afternoon was walking below Dall Sheep, who weren’t the least bothered by us.  Doesn’t get much better.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Dall Sheep, upper Aichilik River drainage.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

Caribou, upper Aichilik River, Alaska ANWR, 2009. No telephoto.

We had the best of it in the Gunflint when we finished the 15th portage of the day, and I took the canoe off my head, tired but knowing we had finished the Frost River.  What a great decision to camp early the day before and start the river in the morning.  Saw a moose, too. That day some people asked what lake they were on and the weather forecast.  I told them Cherokee Lake and that it would rain the next day.  Mind you, I hadn’t heard a weather forecast in a week.  New south winds up north, however, mean rain.  Poured the next day, planned day of rest.  Great trip.

I had the best of Crooked Lake the day I soloed in from Mudro Lake.  I had an otter surface next to the canoe and hiss at me, as the south wind pushed me north. I crossed a rough stretch, later watching the Sun set, knowing my tired arms could take me the last mile of 20 to a campsite on the border.  I was awakened the next morning by wolves.  I got up, but it was too dark to see them.  I did see clouds moving up through Orion’s belt.  South wind. I broke camp and launched, and it poured all the way to Fourtown Lake. Didn’t see anybody the whole trip.

It’d be 14 more years before I actually saw a wolf— on Isle Royale— 10 trail miles from the nearest person. Told that to a friend, and he wrote back, “God Damn!  That’s what it’s all about.”  Never heard him swear before or since.  But he nailed it.  So did I.  He has had the best of it, too, in a different style.

Or ’92 in Canada’s Quetico, on Kawnipi Lake, alone, a quiet late spring night, after a hard push through snow and wind up Agnes.  The work involved in canoe travel matters as much as the destination.  Kawnipi is special, difficult to reach, and I went there six times, the last time solo, at 56. Wow, am I blessed.  I go to Kawnipi in my mind sometimes.  I had the best of it.

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

Last time on Kawnipi, May 2005. Or do I try one more time?

I had the best of Alice Lake, mid-October 23 years ago, 6 days without seeing anybody, alone in perhaps 200 square miles, with a morning blizzard and a headwind.  Crazy?  No, it was one of the most memorable days I’ve canoed, and I’ve been lucky to have camped five hundred nights Up North.  Last night out, I fell asleep to rain and then heard it stop, knowing I would wake up to a white landscape.

I’ve been alone at the top of Texas, on Guadalupe Peak, calm, despite gale predictions, looking down on the salt flats and watching the low sun cast the shadow of the mountain miles to the east.  I made it down that evening just as it got dark. Great hike.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Guadalupe Peak, Texas, summit, December 2005.

Same in Wind Cave National Park, in South Dakota, on a hike out somewhere where you could see forever except for a few copses of trees, and an elk herd galloped right in front of me, a drop your jaw and stare moment.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

Wind Cave, NP, South Dakota, 2007.

I had the best of it on a cold February evening in the viewing blind at Rowe Sanctuary, alone, when a flock of ten thousand Sandhill Cranes displaced a large flock of Snow Geese.  There were birds coming right at me, birds everywhere.  On my video I say, “I have never seen anything like this in my whole life.”

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

Rowe Sanctuary, Nebraska, Crane Migration, 2012. These are not uncommon sights.

It could have been the best along the Lady Evelyn River in Temagami, up in Canada, fifty-one years ago, when we camped by a long set of rapids on one of the most difficult canoe trips I ever did.  It was marvelous country to see, in my sixteenth year.

Or splashing down the Tim River, pack on my back and canoe on my head, because one of the campers was unable to carry the pack, and as head man, I had to do it.  I still remember on the Bulletin Board at Camp Pathfinder, where they listed trips, the words, “Mike Smith in charge.”  I was eighteen.

Oh, the best close to home might have been back in ’89, hiking up to 9000 feet in rain/snow mix, camping on Baldy Saddle in the Santa Ritas.  Snowed that night, but I was warm, listening to snow gradually accumulate and slide down the tent.

We had the best of the grasslands of Sonoita, before it got crowded, when we slept out under the stars, watched the Milky Way rise, and shortly thereafter the waning gibbous Moon.  A decade ago, I hiked up the Santa Catalinas from my then house, walking three miles to the trailhead and climbing 4000 feet, so I could fulfill a dream I had to spend one night—just one—sleeping up there.  Nearly a million people were below me, but I didn’t hear a sound.  I had the best of the Catalinas that night.

A letter in High Country News prompted these musings.  A prior issue was devoted to the overcrowding, cycling in the wilderness, and the loss of wild country, through privatization and destruction.  The writer, 63, if I remember correctly, wrote simply:  “I had the best of it.”  He did.  And so have I.

It’s still possible to have the best of it, but far more difficult because of more people, less wild country, many years behind me and few ahead.

My hearing is fading, my strength less, but I still hear the call of wild country.  I’ll answer as long as I can.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

Young Moose, Isle Royale, May 2006. Too close.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.

The Big Lake, Superior, from Isle Royale. May 2006: 9 Moose, 1 wolf, 1 fox.


August 20, 2015

“Mike, could you do me a favor?”

Rosemary, a few years my senior, is a good friend and works with me as a volunteer at Rowe Sanctuary in Nebraska during the Crane migration.  She and her husband are remarkable people, and we see each other for a week or two every spring.

“Sure, what?”

“Could you clean the toilets in the men’s room?  I simply cannot bring myself to do that any longer.”

“Sure.  I’ll do it.”  At Rowe, I do anything I am asked if I am capable of doing it.  I can clean toilets.

Since that day, five years ago, there isn’t any public restroom I have used without scanning the urinals or the toilets for cleanliness.  If I see a man cleaning one, usually a person of color, I feel some kinship.  The man will never know that I’ve done his job.  I don’t like the unnecessary junk thrown into urinals, the misses, the stains on the floor, and the paper that misses the garbage can.  It’s gross, and the job doesn’t pay well.  I did daily cleaning as a volunteer, but morning and night I guided people to see one of the world’s great migrations, and I don’t use “world” lightly,  It’s on Jane Goodall’s top 10 list and my top three.

Cleaning toilets was third in a line of cleaning up poop. I learned it as a fourth year medical student working in the NICU and general pediatrics.  If one examined a newborn, and found the diaper soiled, one changed it and cleaned the baby.  Period.  No exceptions. It’s cruel and unprofessional to knowingly let anybody sit in their own urine or feces.

I cleaned up after adult patients when I examined them, if they had soiled themselves.  It took time, I gagged more than once, but it was relaxing to do something I knew was good.

It’s not always fun being a tour guide, dealing with the public in a visitor’s center.  I don’t walk into one today without knowing exactly what it is like to be behind the desk, to have to clean the place, and answer questions. Perhaps that is why I had I thought my experience interesting, on successive days, with two tour guides in Alaska.

The first tour was to Crescent Lake in Lake Clark National Park.  Our boat guide to see the bears was a man our age, a stone mason for 42 years, with one knee replaced and needing the other done, too.  I wonder why those in Congress who want to raise the age for Social Security can’t understand that that most can’t do difficult manual labor until 70.  I’m not far from 70, and I would have trouble.  Then again, when one is in his 40s, with good health, money and connections, he doesn’t think about the day when his body starts betraying him, as mine has.  I don’t think I must end my hiking and camping, but I’d be foolish to discount the possibility in the near future.  Ted, Rand, Rick, and Donald don’t think in those terms.

Bear viewing that day was poor.  We went immediately to where there was a single sow, the only brown bear we would see, but saw great bear behavior for an hour.

Brown bear, Lake Clark NP, Alaska

Brown bear, Lake Clark NP, Alaska

I have seen 18 bears in the Brooks Range, but I saw more behavior from this one in an hour than all of my sightings combined, often from a safe 800 meters, rather than from 50, if that.  I knew the guide was unhappy with the paucity of bears, but the large numbers of fisherman, many with noisy motors, made it impossible.  As a tour guide, I know the pressure guides feel to “deliver,” when nature calls the shots. That afternoon, I spotted a black bear and two cubs from 800 meters, and we had a delightful half hour of viewing when they came closer.  Further away, where the guide hoped to find bears, all we saw was an unseen bear making trees move, the movement gradually uphill.  My wife and I were excited, and I think the guide was glad.

Black bear, Lake Clark, NP, Alaska

Black bear, Lake Clark, NP, Alaska

Sow with one of her two cubs.

Sow with one of her two cubs.

Crescent Lake was beautiful, the mountains clear, the weather perfect.  I still felt sorry for the guide, but this is Alaska, not a zoo, which too many people expect when they go on wildlife viewing tours.  Seeing wildlife is a gift. For the first time, I had seen black and brown bears the same day, interesting bear behavior, and spotted another at great distance.  I helped.

Crescent Lake, Alaska

Crescent Lake, Alaska

The second tour was a flight/see over the Chugach Mountains to Prince William Sound.  The tour was supposed to start at 10; we learned it would be 20 minutes late, because somebody missed the shuttle.  While not in a hurry, it is annoying to make the effort to be on time when others don’t.  The lady who appeared took pictures by the plane, then decided she really needed to use the restroom.  Forty minutes late now, the group still chatting with the pilot, I sat by the plane.  My wife wondered aloud what was going on, adding her husband was a bit grumpier.  The pilot called, “How are you doing?”  I answered, “Waiting.”

The pilot then did something wrong.  He told me in front of everybody that this was fun, his philosophy was to have fun, and if he weren’t having fun, he would quit doing it.  One never, and I mean never, berates a client in front of others.  I have flown in remote parts of Alaska, landing in 15 different lakes or sandbars.  I learned early that nobody who depends upon a plane in Alaska must ever be late.  I should have said that.  His job was to ensure people had a safe tour and hope they had a good time. That’s what I tell clients when I guide.

The pilot was knowledgable, although I could have done without a discussion of his personal life. Later, he played music, neither my kind nor appropriate.  I stayed quiet, not about to get chastised again.  My wife, however, did have a discussion with him about turning off the music.  Note to music lovers: if others complain, don’t ask “you don’t like it?”  They don’t.  That’s what headphones are for.

Glaciers in the Chugach.

Glaciers in the Chugach.

Nose of glacier.

Nose of glacier.

At a stop on a lake to briefly deplane, the pilot neither said how long we would stay nor counted heads over and over, as I would have.  This was bear country, and few tourists knew not to wander far.  Indeed, wildlife was hardly mentioned until near the tour’s end, although I did see fifteen mountain goats.

Pattern on glacier from the air.

Pattern on glacier from the air.

I learned about Alaska’s glaciers. But the other things I learned were a far more important.  They will make me both a better tour guide and a better person, even if I don’t have 25,000 flight hours, haven’t flown for Exxon or rich folks, and have a different take on what is fun.  I’ve missed a lot, but I’ve been around.

I tipped both guides well, including the pilot.  Once a year, somebody tries to tip me at Rowe.  I tell them to please put it in the container in the visitor’s center.

With luck, I’ll see it when I go clean the toilets.

One small reason why I lead tours to the viewing blinds. Rowe Sanctuary, 2013.

Two small reasons why I lead tours to the viewing blinds. Rowe Sanctuary, 2013.


August 6, 2015

I have had good fortune to have traveled to Alaska 12 times.  I’ve had deeply satisfying hikes and backpacking trips in the Southeast, the South Central, and the North.  There is a mystique about the name “Alaska,” the bush pilots, who take one to where moose, wolverine, grizzlies, arctic foxes, caribou, and Dall Sheep may be seen.  There are places one can imagine that no person has stood in the past several thousand years, if ever.

Place where I once sat and wondered if anybody ever had been here. It is the rock lower center. Aichilik River 2009.

With that backdrop, my wife and I visited Alaska so I could show her some of the beauty of the land,  Beginning in Kotzebue, we saw musk oxen close up, a bear hunting a caribou, ate blueberries and stared at wide open spaces for miles.  On our return to Anchorage, we planned a drive to Homer, one of those “You should see” places.

Musk Oxen, Cape Kreusenstern, Alaska. July 2015.

Musk Oxen, Cape Kreusenstern, Alaska. July 2015.

Unfortunately, it was a Saturday.

Route 1 was nearly a solid line of cars, similar to the Oregon Coast in summer, or the Minnesota northland on a Friday.  Construction was a given; roads take abuse in the Alaskan climate.  I neither expect nor want four lane roads in Alaska, but I was amazed, which I shouldn’t have been, by the traffic.  This is the height of the tourist season, although small Kotzebue didn’t show it.

The 220 mile (350 km) drive to Homer took nearly six hours.  The city itself is situated on the southwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula with a spit jutting several miles into Kachemak Bay.  The spit was jammed with RVs, more than the nearby dealership had in stock, scores of shack-stores, what some would call rustic, others garish.  The beach was fine, the views of the mountains great, the protected wetlands well done.  I didn’t like the spit, but that’s my judgment. Many would disagree, which is why the place was jammed.  It’s why I don’t like “You should see” recommendations and why I don’t give them myself.

Homer is a beautiful town, and its reputation as such is deserved. The spit is center left. The road here is described as the most beautiful drive in America. One would be advised not to do the drive on a summer weekend.

On our return, through Soldotna, we noted again the sameness, the chain stores, “this could be anywhere in America.” True, the Kenai River runs through the city, and the green, glacial water is beautiful.  People were nice, but it was anywhere USA.

Skilak Lake, Kenai Peninsula. A beautiful lake, but it gets a lot of use.

We detoured south from busy Hwy 1 to the Skilak Lake area, where the lakes and trails looked interesting.  What we found was a moderate amount of traffic on a dirt road, trucks hauling big boats.  The launch points had several cars parked with people out on the water.  One might find a place to camp, but there would be many people nearby and considerable noise. Back on Hwy 1, along the Kenai River, we saw scores of people fishing and rafting.  A store that served food had no toilet, except a half mile away at a campground.  Wow, I thought that was illegal. This was a different Kenai from the one I visited in 2009.  Returning to Anchorage, traffic increased.  It became so heavy that if one pulled off, it took a minute or two to find a gap in which to merge.  At Bird Creek, I counted 13 fishing on a 50 yard stretch near Turnagain Arm and about 40 on a 400 yard stretch further upstream.  Many caught fish, but it wasn’t success or failure at fishing that bothered me.

It was that the place was jammed with people. Southern Alaska is jammed in summer.  Why should I be surprised?  I was contributing to it.

Fishing, Bird Creek, Sunday afternoon.

Fishing, Bird Creek, Sunday afternoon.

Once back in Anchorage, we went to a shopping mall that my wife commented was one of the ugliest she had ever seen.  Alaska has a mystique I think it should use, and good architects ought to be able to create it, not repeat architecture of the Lower.  Or do it worse.  We viewed bears on Crescent Lake, over in Lake Clark National Park, but the river out of the lake where we had hoped to view bears, had a plane by the shore, people fishing, and several loud John boats blasting by.  No bears there.

Brown bear at Crescent Lake, Lake Clark NP. Katmai has more bears, but they are viewed with many other people at a platform. This is a more intimate experience with far fewer bears but much more natural bear behavior.

Black bear sow with one of her two cubs, Crescent Lake. This was the first time I saw both black and brown bears the same day.

I’m spoiled; I admit it.  I’ve been above the Arctic Circle where there are few roads and one can hike for miles without hearing any unnatural sound.  There is a move afoot to build a road along the entire Brooks Range, from perhaps the Dalton through Bettles to Ambler, ostensibly so Native Americans can easily get to town to buy supplies.  There may be a village in support of this; the others are adamantly against it.  They’ve done fine without a road and know what it will bring:  hunters, to hunt their game, upon which the natives have subsisted for thousands of years.  The roads will bring Wal-Marts, liquor, gas stations, casinos, and people.  Yeah, they’ll bring people like me who want to see this country, although I come by plane, leave nothing except footprints in places seen by the dozen or so people who pass in a year.  The Haul Road to Ambler will become another Dalton Highway.  It’s not just acres of pavement that detract, noise and fragmentation destroy wilderness.

More pernicious is that roads will bring access to mines, several of which are proposed in the western half of the Brooks.  Red Dog Mine is already there, with 737-200 service out of Anchorage.  Who is going to say no in a solid Republican state and country?  We need jobs, although nobody says maybe having fewer kids would decrease pressure to create jobs.  Defunding Planned Parenthood makes birth control and women’s health difficult, but hey, Iran and Saudi treat women badly, too.  Mining jobs pay well, except when there are strikes, but new mines won’t be unionized if Mr. Walker gets into office.  The jobs will last until the ore isn’t needed, like one of the rare earth mines in California, leaving not only be a land scar but a permanent impact on the water supply, in places where there are wild and scenic rivers like the Noatak and Kobuk.  Yes, we need elements.  We also have learned to do without those that were once considered “essential.”

I worry about Alaska from the southeast Tongass to the Refuge in the north, and offshore.  I worry that the next eruption of Redoubt Mountain may flood the berms protecting four large oil tanks and foul Cook Inlet.  The mountain is steaming.  Whose idea was it to put the tanks near a river by an active, glacier covered volcano?  Sure, nothing may happen.  The last eruption was in 2009, and the berms barely held. We’re playing roulette with a huge unspoiled ecosystem.

Redoubt Mountain steaming, plug at upper left center. If the glaciers melt, the flow will run right by a bank with a low berm with four large oil tanks.

Fortunately or not, climate change will be a game changer; nature will win this game.  Virtually every glacier in the Chugach is retreating.  One, after being stable for more than a century, has retreated 12 miles in the last 40 years.  If Mr. Inhofe’s dropping a snowball on the Senate floor is evidence against global warming, how does he explain glacier retreat, why the caribou migration was a month later than usual in 2013, and the water of the rivers they crossed not nearly as cold as formerly?  The Elders in the Native Villages know there is change; the Senate would do well to have true Elders, not young, charismatic, angry, anti-science ideologues (who love their phones and private jets) and old diehards, who won’t believe compelling evidence contrary to their beliefs.

I started to write that Alaska disappointed me.  No, Alaska is wonderful.  I hope we don’t love it to death.  Or forget that wilderness has worth than cannot be measured in dollars.


April 10, 2015

I was speaking with an intelligent woman staff member at Rowe Sanctuary about the work they are doing, protecting a key part of the Sandhill Crane migration, the stopover on the Platte River the cranes take every six weeks from late February to mid-April.  The cranes are on their way north from the southern US and northern Mexico, and they refuel, rest, court, and spend 2-4 weeks in south central Nebraska, on the Great Bend of the Platte River.  They’ve been doing this migration for 9000 years, since the end of the last glaciation.

This habitat is critical.  There is waste corn in the fields, although before corn, the cranes came to wetlands here, where there were crustaceans and other invertebrates, rodents and other animals they could eat.  They would fly to the shallow Platte, full of sandbars, for safety at night, for cranes have a vestigial hind foot and cannot perch in trees away from predators.  The water makes it difficult for predators to approach without splashing announcing their presence.  Cranes live in three dimensions: ground, river, and sky.

Their habitat once spanned 200 miles of river, and cranes could be found anywhere there each spring.  But dams were built and irrigation began, channeling the river.  Invasive plants arrived, along with water guzzling cottonwoods, producing shade, but also allowing brush to fill in the river, making it less safe for cranes.  In 1975, a water diversion project planned would have completely dried up the river and the habitat.  It failed, but today, the habitat for the cranes in March is perhaps 50 miles of river, and only a few miles is totally protected.  The rest of it is hit or miss for the birds.  They may find a safe place, they may not.  We estimate 90% of their total habitat has been lost.

I’m pessimistic what the a warming climate and uncontrollable population will do to the migration.  In the name of jobs, because we aren’t going to decrease our population voluntarily in my lifetime, we will require more food, more fresh water, more living space, and put more demands upon all our resources.  Fresh water is the oil of the 21st century, and the Platte is a huge supplier of fresh water to the central US.  Underneath the river and well away from it lies the billion acre feet of the Ogallala Aquifer, fresh water that can be accessed underground.  The aquifer is a national treasure, yet we are risking the Ogallala in the name of building a pipeline to ship dirty, carbon intensive oil abroad, in order to make more carbon released in burning it.  Oil vs. water.

What if water in the Platte goes for other uses, in the name of jobs?  Well, I have been told, the cranes will have to adapt.  “They’ll go elsewhere.”  Really?  Where?  They’ve been coming here, longer than human recorded history.  They can’t adapt to “going elsewhere.”  They are cranes, not technologically advanced individuals capable of altering the environment.

“The climate has always changed.”  Indeed, it has.  And species come and go, but they have come and gone over thousands of years.  We are changing the environment in a matter of a few generations, not over thousands of years, which animals require to adapt.

“They will be fine.”  Really?  That is rationalization, wishful thinking.  No, the birds won’t be fine.  They will go extinct.  And then what?  For the cranes to “go elsewhere” is like my telling humanity right now that we have a century to find “another planet,” because this one won’t be livable.  It can’t be done, and the cranes can’t find another river, another flyway.  There isn’t one.  And by the way, I am dead right.  We have a century.  No more.

I told the young woman that I had no children, no skin in this game, and once I was gone, it wouldn’t be my problem.  She disagreed, stating that my presence as a volunteer meant that I DID have skin in this game, that I felt it mattered to be here.  Yes, she was right.  It does matter to me.

She additionally mentioned how young people of today are angry at the world they are being left.  They should be.  I was left a world after two wars, with enough conflicts that during my young life. I served in the military, visiting countries abroad in uniform, not the way the young do today, traveling freely, learning other languages, being connected with people all over the world on social media.  I survived.

To the younger generation, I will do my best to contribute my skills to make the environment better.  They must do the rest.  They need to get out into this natural environment, not see it on Facebook, play video games on cruises through Kenai Fjords, not look at wild fruit as “yucky,” and not tweet, call, or instant message their parents or friends about their adventures in wild country.  When people see my pictures and ask where I got them on the Internet, I say, I took them.  I WAS THERE.

We are not as far removed from our ties to nature as many might believe.  A number of studies have stated how disconnection from nature makes us unhappier, not happier.  We have one advantage over cranes that can’t go elsewhere.  We alone can manipulate our environment.  We can deal with greenhouse gases, we can figure out ways to avoid or mitigate ocean rise and de-alkalinzation, continued loss of coral species, and an Anthropocene where Earth has far fewer species of animals.

We have reached a time where we can continue on our present path, and when a species can’t go elsewhere, it dies out.  One of those species will some day be us, should we continue.  We can assume we are above the rest of the biosphere and pretend the world isn’t changing.  Or, we can assume we alone can change our environment, need to and start acting.  We can keep denying, and nature will respond.  Biology will respond to changes in physics and chemistry, not to Jim Inhofe, Ted Cruz, and those of my detractors who have been wrong on the climate.  Not one of them, not one conservative think tank can change those laws, no matter how sharp a speaker looks, speak, or tries to debate what is no longer, and never was debatable.

I won’t be around to see much of this.  If the coming generations don’t channel their understandable anger into fixing things, fail to realize that in saving the environment and nature is not a matter of cutsy sayings or “like”s on Facebook, but science, understanding nature, getting out into nature, demanding, working to reverse the damage that has been done, they won’t be around, either.

It’s time to get connected.  With nature.  Without electronics.


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.