Greener water: kayaking
Movie Screen: climbing fiction
Coaster encounters: kayaking
Wall of Hell: climbing
Sandvik House: adventure
And this aint no bullshit...
Greener water on the other side of the rocks
There I was, mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. It is not just the grass that is greener on the other side of the fence. It is the water and all other things, just over there a ways. You can learn this lesson yet again from these words, or just go paddle into this mess yourself, and attempt to deny that anyone told you.
The mark of a sage adventurer is his uncanny ability to read the land, and perhaps the water, to make those decisions which provide great challenges while maximizing comfort and minimizing effort, or his wisdom to travel alone and tell the story however he wishes.
It was late in the day, an exhausting day. I was on the outside coast of Southeast Alaska, in my kayak. I was reflecting on my remarkable luck in surviving my unwise decisions of the day, and looking for a camp spot. I had survived to therefore learn to make wiser decisions, at least for the moment. The shallow water at that particular spot was calm behind the small wooded island, a welcome respite from the swells not far behind my stern. A cove was at hand, or at paddle, protected by the island. The beach looked reasonable.
But just ahead was the next matter of idle curiosity, a low spit of bouldery rocks, over and through which I could sporadically see the large bay on the other side, from my position low in a kayak. Already forgetting what I just escaped, I was enticed to first see what was on the other side of the narrow spit of rocks. And there was reason. A camp in the cove at paddle would only look out at the nearby island, whereas a camp around the corner, down along the next beach would look out across the large bay to the mountains therefore in view. And there was further reason. Rather than having to paddle out and around the nasty looking end of the spit extending out into the swells on the other side of the island, there appeared to be channels through the low rocks of the spit. I pressed onward, obviously forgetting even my previous sentences. Besides, if all was not as thought, I could simply turn left and camp at the cove.
I paddled straight into the first little opening among the rocks. Water was sloshing through from the other side, so there was obvious possibility. But the possibility was too narrow and too shallow. I tried the next one, to my right. And the next one. It doesn't take much water to paddle a kayak, and there wasn't much water in those openings, but just not enough of not much water. I kept getting bumped and jostled between the rounded boulders, and therefore was challenged by these paltry forces thinking they could toy with so sage an adventurer as myself. I tenaciously attempted to poke my kayak through each new invitation in the maze. It was only later that I recognized the sound of the sloshing water as, laughter.
By the time I said to hell with this shit, I forgot that the previous decision was to camp at the cove, so I turned toward the end of the spit, since by then I was almost there. In my emboldened state of mind, by then impatient to see the other side of the spit, I challenged the heavy swells that were hitting the last rock of the spit. Well, the rock was larger than all the rest, but not a sea cliff, and I had earlier survived sea cliffs.
Cutting close to the rock with bold strokes of my paddle, forgetting that I was exhausted after the long day, the bow of my kayak was hit hard by the rebound swell off the rock, much to my sudden surprise, which pushed the bow outward, which was certainly better than getting caught in the trough and sucked into the hole. But, ah, the hole follows the swell, sort of like the stern following the bow, and my stern was therefore where the hole was, and I was not paddling as fast as I imagined, and the hole was as big as the swells suddenly introduced of their demeanor, up front and in my face. Worse, as my stern dropped into the hole, the next swell arrived as just prior stated, up front and in my face, pushing the bow up. This is how things get slammed into the rocks. You don't want to be there. Was I suddenly no longer exhausted, or what? I saw all the vectors and forces in one image, it not being a pleasant one, and I was paddling just like I paddled in some of those other sentences in those other stories, as you might well imagine, while the rock strained to reach out toward the stern of my kayak now within inches and floating on fast-moving forces that would scare the bejeses out of anyone else, and me too. Adrenalin alone is why I was able to hold the kayak right there on the wrong side of the slope of that water, until the swell hit the rock, rose up and added its new vector to my paddling which suddenly shot me out away from that rock so fast I was afraid I might next hit the Kamchatka Peninsula.
Had that been a sea cliff instead of that innocent looking rock, I would not have paddled that close, and would not have survived if I did. But now I was out in the heavy stuff again, and not only forgot that the previous decision was to camp at the cove, I was now too shaken to go back around what I just escaped. I paddled down the other side of the boulder spit, which looked identical to the first side, and then further to the bouldery beach, which was too steep for a tent, rising to even steeper dense forest. I then paddled further because the bend in the beach kept the next stretch just out of view, until I finally landed amid boulders, climbed up on a log and got a spectacular view of no campsites within many miles, much to my amusement. Had the water not been greener on the other side of the spit, I would be sitting in camp already, drinking wine from stemmed crystalware.
This story aint done yet. I was not yet in camp. I paddled all the way back down the beach to the boulder spit, trying to forget what I was learning. The tide was rising, and more water was sloshing through the rocks of the spit. I wasn't going back around the end anyway, just to avoid being laughed at again by that end rock. I poked into the first likely channel through the rocks, and then the next one, and the next one. Getting too close to the end, I decided to make my most recent decision go through the rocks, one way or the other. Each swell from the less protected bay at my stern, sloshed enough water through to raise me up and set me further along, ebbing to sit on the rocks again. I jockeyed through the turns. Sure, I could have got out of the kayak and dragged the thing through the rocks, but by then I was determined to do it the easy way, sitting in the kayak, jostling and bumping my way along at greater effort. Back on the farm they call it being pig-headed. But I wasn't on the farm, and no one was watching.
The toil was creating some doubt in my mind, when I jostled to a corner and saw the first wave that came in from the other side. It was like light at the end of the tunnel, except that now I was jostling against the current of the higher water that floated me. There was a lot of back and forth in the maze, and sometimes I was left sitting on the rocks at an uncomfortable angle. In between waves, I was able to sit there examining all the curious little creatures and plants in the nooks and crannies among the rocks. It was a scientific sort of thing I was doing with patience. By the time I reached the cove, I would have been there long before if I had gone around the end again, or had not left the cove in the first place.
I paddled straightforward to the beach. What first appeared as pebbles were more like cobblestones. The beach was a bit more steeply sloped than suitable for a tent. The jumble of drift logs at the top was quite wide and deep, slick and interspersed with rose bushes. Clambering over the logs, slipping a few times to bruise and scrape myself, grabbing a hand full of rose thorns to stop one fall, I finally reached the tree line. The gooshy wet moss among the thick stand of timber was covered with scraggly bushes except where the swamp was too deep.
I wasn't in camp yet, but this story is done, because camp is supposed to be the pleasant part of the story, and it wasn't.
It was not desperate. You couldn't get any more comfortable. It all took place while sitting in a chair, sipping tea, cobbling-together these words you are reading. Even outside the house the Alaska winter is pleasantly warm today. This global warming stuff is sure better than the old days. It used to be that we could tell real Alaska cold winter stories, back a few weeks ago, but now we gotta write fiction. This story is all fiction, not a word of it true, except maybe the bar maid, and maybe the old trapper, and maybe the snow cave. I won't tell you where the mountain face is. That is a secret. But you'll know it is all fiction.
At one point in the story I found myself laying in a snow cave, the worst one I had ever been in, hardly even a cave. I can barely turn sideways to write these words on the little journal I brought. It is more like a ledge that I chopped into the ice, somewhat parallel to the mountain face. One end has a thin crust roof that has somehow survived the avalanches. That is the good end here where I am writing. In the other direction, starting about my waist, things would be pretty much open to the world except for the little overhang that deflects most of the snow, against which I propped by pack, tied my bivy bag and stuck my legs behind them. The pack and bivy bag are tied off to an ice screw.
I am laying in my sleeping bag, for the third day of the storm now, in my harness tied off to two short ice screws that hit rock before they were all the way in. I am wearing my double boots. Everything is tied off to screws. My stay here may be temporary, and not on my schedule.
Of course the head end of the cave is the low end. Why it always works out that way awaits funding for a doctoral thesis. It isn't uncomfortable just because of that. The ice floor slopes outward and there is a rock under my shoulder where there was no more ice to chop. I can lay on my back or prop myself up sideways to get enough room to melt snow with my stove. Warm water is the main course for my meals, with my emergency food now down to the cashews I have counted several times. Attending to other chores is a major undertaking each time, and I must be careful to not break the thin crust roof that protects the good end of the cave.
The spin drift curls into the cave pretty much most of the time, and I have to push it back out as it accumulates. If I fall asleep for awhile, I awake when the snow starts covering my face. You most notice cold snow on your eyebrows. For some reason they are more sensitive to cold, and they catch the snow.
I know the type storm I am under. It can last a long time. It is the worst threat to a climb on a north face, and cannot be seen until it is too late. The comparatively moist south wind rolls over the sharp summit ridge above me, slamming into the stationary cold air mass of the arctic interior. It is the middle of winter. The cold air will win the battle, tenaciously draining the moisture of the south wind. Both air masses are large, and can maintain their difference of opinion for several days. The snow forms and swirls in the wind on the lee side of the ridge until its mass builds enough to slough down the face. What starts as fluffy snow, after it slides and rolls, bounces and pounds down the face for a thousand feet becomes hard ice granules in a flowing wave of deadly force. It looks like only a thin shimmering mist floating over a soft white slope. Nothing stands against it, not even rock, in time. It will take a climber off the hill like you blow a mosquito off your arm.
The constant slough-off avalanches come down the mountain face with a threatening hissssssss that is feared by all climbers, but has come to be a strange form of comfort to me while I am laying here. It displaces the howl of the wind. On the first day I thought the ominous hisssing would drive me mad. Its sound embodies everything evil and threatening. It is a deep hisssing that starts somewhere before you can hear it, then builds up to almost its own roar, scraping over the ice only inches from my face, and remains for so long that I later don't know when it stopped. Sometimes I am not sure if it is happening on the ice or in my mind, but both are comforting. It has developed human qualities, subtle voices that are teaching me about the world of ice. Would you not learn such things from hours of ice crystals scraping past within inches of your mind, trying to reach you to rip you from the face of a mountain? I relieve my fear by chatting with these avalanches. Well, what else might you suggest? The voices in the hisssing have become informative, and sometimes answer my questions.
My cave is not at the center of the flat mountain face. The heaviest mass of the avalanches funnels toward the center, scouring the ice down to rock at places. But the whole face is under the constant barrage of avalanches, and my cave is on the face. The finest climbing line is up the center, so that is where I kept as close as fear allowed, or closer.
The slough-off avalanches are only one reason that the face of the mountain is a face. The same moist south wind steadily builds the hard rime ice cornices that hang heavy, until they break. The deeper vibration of tons of cornice ice suddenly pounding down the face leaves the hisssing slough-offs as the friends they have become. The cornices quickly break apart after breaking loose, but still carry large chunks that bounce down the face a long way before being pulverized. Some are still chunks when they wash out across the glacier below. Even a small chunk bouncing at the surface of the cave by chance can smear it away without a trace, with the surface as quickly smoothed over by the rest of the avalanche. Each time I hear a cornice break loose or hit the slope, and feel the heavy vibrations in the ice, fear builds as quickly as the ice approaches, and lingers longer than the passing of the ice.
Yesterday one cornice piece of ice hit my pack. It knocked the pack sideways. The explosion of snow filled the cave. I pretty much figured that was it, until I was still there after the roar faded down the mountain. Had that small chunk hit the crust of roof over the other half of the cave, you might not be reading the rest of this story.
It is twelve degrees below zero, and the low winter sun to the south is several weeks away from shining on the north face of the mountain.
It is not a very big mountain, just a little higher prominence along a ridge. It is the highest point in an obscure branch of mountains on the north side of the Range, at one end. Nobody really knows or cares much about this nondescript area far from any road, with no prominent lakes or rivers. Nothing noteworthy, and few people come here. It does not look very interesting on the map. The prevailing weather is usually horrible, where the remnants of coastal winds are funneled to an interior valley cold air mass. The bush airplane pilots avoid the weather and thus the area that is out of the way anyway.
A couple weeks prior I had somehow got stuck talking to an old trapper in a Fairbanks bar. I was waiting for a friend to arrive when this guy suddenly sat down at my table. He verged on slobbering drunk and while not overpowering, his odor was a bit noticeable. My first thought was to just get up and go get another beer as an excuse to leave. But I hesitated for some reason.
He was talking to me as he was sitting down. Although hampered by his recent association with the brew of the realm, he seemed rather educated and polite in his presentation. When he promptly snapped his fingers the bar maid turned to him as he said, "Another Silver Gulch Lager for my friend and another rye straight up for myself". I had been watching the same beautiful bar maid, and instinctively tried to snap my fingers the way he did, although quietly, under the table. It never works for me.
This guy wore wool and leather, simple, somewhat clean, a common trappers hat, not too worn out. His gray beard had a ragged appearance, but had been trimmed not too long ago. He fit the Alaska trapper image despite what trappers might claim.
He talked pretty steady. I nodded on occasion and asked the perfunctory questions that gave his conversation an image of usefulness. He told the usual trapper stories that by themselves would hold the rapt attention of those not familiar with such things. Hard winters, remote places, cold, lean times, trapped by storms in cabins full of whiskey, other brushes with death and the untimely passing of his peers who had the same stories until a slight miscalculation crossed a threshold in the unforgiving circumstance of the Alaska winter forests and valleys leading deep into the mountains. All the daily stuff on the trap line.
His words caused my mind to alter his similar stories to the images of my own adventures in a different realm but close. Some of those thoughts seemed strangely too close to his words as I listened to this old chap.
It was not until the third time he mentioned the Movie Screen that my mind focused on the story he was telling at the moment. I thought I had heard a similar story before, somewhere, if not somehow only in his previous words. He was trying to trap a pack of white wolves high in a mountain valley. They were more clever than most, and most are clever enough to avoid a trapper's traps. He was using dall sheep for bait, but the wolves were catching their own dall sheep, and even left him enough to bait his traps.
Dall sheep, for those who do not know, are white, and simply disappear when they step from the rocks to the snow in the Alaska mountains. You can even watch their tracks being made in the snow, and not see the sheep. To see the rams on the high rock pinnacles, is to see what impresses the wolves.
The trapper was saying that the wolves even carried some scraps of meat from where they made a kill, to a place he had set some traps, when I interrupted him and asked, "What is the Movie Screen?"
"The wall", he said, "up along side the glacier, at the head of the unnamed valley. Steepest thing I have ever seen covered by ice. It would be the world's largest movie screen if I could just get a big enough projector up on the opposite ridge where there is a really comfortable spot. Sometimes that wall is a white as a spring bride's satin wedding gown, and then sometimes the wind gets to howling and scours it down to bare ice as soft baby blue as the bar maid's eyes. Ya know she's only eighteen, but the slyest little ID forger I've ever met. She even made me an ID to prove I was too young to buy cigars at the bar next door just last week, and it worked. Her Daddy was a friend of mine. Trapped with him out near Moose Pass a few years back. He was kilt just last year when his Super Cub went straight into Pegmatite Ridge on a bright sunny day, maybe too sunny. He and I always used ta..."
"Excuse me", I interrupted, "ah, how high do you reckon that wall is?"
"Oh", he responded, "maybe 3,600 feet bottom to top, a nasty little rock section at the bottom, nice approach once you get through the narrow corner in the valley, stay right of the glacier exit cave until you get to the first ice without moraine."
"I did not catch where you said that valley was." A white ice wall 3,600 feet high caught my attention for some odd reason perhaps relating to the configuration of a mountain climber's mind. My thoughts of the waitress and her blue eyes vanished. A woman is only a woman, but a mountain is a mountain. A mountain will never respond to the snap of your fingers, neither in the affirmative or negative, and always offer only a cold shoulder, which, come to think of it, is why there are so few mountain climbers, and all of them a bit questionable.
He told me where the valley was, and who would fly me there, and quite a few other details you would think a trapper would not notice about a mountain. There is little that a high country trapper does not know about the lower mountains, but this chap used words from which you could feel the texture of the ice on the climbing route. That thought became troublesome.
But my friend belatedly arrived, apparently from another bar. I thanked the trapper for the pleasant conversation, and ordered him another drink, almost attempting to snap my fingers. But he quickly declined the drink, politely, and seemed to watch me leave.
Upon the morrow I was inquiring among my colleagues as to who might wish to trundle off on another little climbing trip to some obscure hill at the end of the Range. I didn't tell all the details, because there are rivals out there who would sneak out and do the climb ahead of me if they knew how good it is. But this is Fairbanks Alaska, where the finest climbers are close to the finest mountains, at the end of the road where the end-of-the-roaders show up, among whom are all the climbers. There were those who would do the climb, but not right then, or had no money for food, or not with me, or only if the team included someone with whom I would not climb, or only if I would later climb a hill of their choice that I did not want to climb, or only on the ridge route, or the other side of the hill, or the other side of the Range, or ski the whole way in, or not without taking their dog, or their girlfriend, or ask me to first help them finish their log cabin, or post their bail, or get them a prescription for an unidentified drug, or each of the other 754 innovative reasons for which Fairbanks mountain climbers are notorious, quite fortunately. If you get a climbing partner for a climb of your choice, the problems will show up later.
A single phone call could have produced a legion of climbers from outside Alaska, with only the mention of 3,600 feet of white ice wall, but those are the ones whose stories you read in the climbing magazines, a bit too normal.
A solo climb was feasible, for lack of crevasses on the route. The face descended to the base of the glacier below the crevasses. The nasty rock section at the bottom could be a problem, but if it went, the rest was straightforward. The flight in would be a bit pricey for only one wallet, but I could get a job when I got back. A job. Maybe I could ski in after all. I began packing my food.
How much excruciating work I had to do to get the money for that flight should embarrass anyone into sending me their next paycheck before they finish reading this story, but when the airplane pilot flew away with my money I was standing on overflow ice in a narrow canyon not far below the glacier around the corner. A pack of fresh wolf tracks in the snow followed some sheep tracks. There were seven in the pack, and three sheep. The sky was clear and it was twenty two decrees below zero. That is on the non-metric scale, so you more logical Euro sorts know it was colder than centigrade. My first camp would be up in the glacier moraine below the wall just around the corner.
All the grand philosophical considerations of an Alaska winter solo climb on a virgin ice wall, with which an idle mind can build whole empires of illusions, evaporated at the first shiver of cold that caused me to hoist my pack and start moving my feet. Climbing mountains is extremely difficult, until you start moving, and then is remarkably simple. And it is a lot simpler without a climbing partner, who is the only source of climbing problems. The mountain cannot create a problem. It is precisely what it is, does what it does, and never changes its mind just because humans show up. And I sure as hell wouldn't suggest that I would create a problem for myself, quite naturally. If anything goes wrong, a climber can always blame it on the weather.
The next morning was as clear as the previous day. These were short winter days, cold, the sun low on the southern horizon. Less distance could be climbed than on long warm summer days. The Movie Screen was white ice, and would be glimmering if the sun were not on the other side of the mountain. I could impress anyone with the detailed account of the climb up to the second cave, even myself, but I have no patience for reading too many of these words. And I gotta read them more times than you, to correct all the grammatical screw-ups, or at least the ones I noticed before I hit the upload button.
The band of rock was nasty and slow, a bit frightening in spots, but it went, and a deep snow arete at the top offered a nice cave for the second night of the climb. Next morning on the face above the short arete the white ice was thin over the blue ice. The climb was a steady plod straight up, one careful step at a time, kicking my crampon front points into the ice enough to feel good about the step, but not hard enough to hammer my toes too much too soon. For 3,600 feet not one step could slip. On occasion, I placed a screw and rested only a bit. The less time I was on the face, the more energy I would have and the less danger I would endure. I climbed most of the face that day, but in the evening the weather turned bad, just one day too soon.
The clouds had piled up unseen on the south side. When they came over the top I was left with little time to chop in a cave to get out of the avalanches. It was not a good place to make a cave. A thicker white ice rib up a ways was farther in distance than the slough-off avalanches were increasing in time.
I am laying here, on the third day of the storm, looking at one side of a proverbial edge that is real. A person across the glacier, on the other ridge, would see the other side of the edge, close to me. He would be in the sun, comfortable, safe, amused with the beautiful sight, taking pictures of the clouds rolling over the ridge, quickly dissipating as they raced down the face with the snow. I have seen these storms from both sides. I am inside a four foot thick surface storm. Just a few more feet out from the wall, it is clear and beautiful. A bit of a wind, but if you could stand out there it would be a great day, with a spectacular view to the north. I am just inside the last grip of the storm, clinging to a wall where the forces allow no place to sustain life. There is no way a human can break the grip. The only escape remains inside the grip, only a few feet thick and almost as thin as air.
I am horribly miserable by other standards, but for where I am inside my scant cave, only inches away from where I would not want to be, I am quite comfortable for the conditions I know and for which I have therefore prepared. The cold, the spindrift, the rock under my shoulder and all that are just the usual chronology for plodding up a mountain. It is a sequence at the edge which created the invitation. Below, the sheep were watching the wolves, and the wolves were watching the trapper. And who was making the decisions may not be who was next making them.
When I was sitting in the bar back in Fairbanks, I most wanted to be on this mountain face. While I am in this ledge cave, I would prefer to be back at the bar, and this time I would talk to the bar maid instead of the trapper, if I could figure out what to say. Mountain climbing stories do not impress women. They do not appreciate the exhilarating feeling of uncomfortably laying in a sleeping bag on a ledge of ice with one's toes throbbing all night from front-pointing all day. You cannot even train them to appreciate erratic adrenaline surges. They are a puzzle.
But there was no choice in my decision upon the mention of the wall. Pavlov's dog was less dedicated to the bell than a climber to 3,600 feet of ice wall. The Movie Screen is as good as the trapper described it. And if the storm breaks, I can reach the summit in a short day.
I pulled out a small bag of cashews, poured out one quarter of them and carefully put the baggie back in the stuff sack. I tried to eat a couple of cashews but my moustache is frozen to my beard in clumps of ice, again. I had neglected that, so I am tediously pulling the ice out of my stache. After awhile you don't notice the pain, and some of the chunks of ice come out with a few scraggly hairs sticking out of them. You usually have to rewarm your numb fingers a half dozen times before you can get all the ice out of your beard.
All of the above was what I was writing in the snow cave ledge, and the rest of this is what I wrote later, as you might recognize. I got the ice out of my beard, ate seven pieces of cashew, and dozed off again, under the gentle hisssing of the avalanches. Then just as clear as your well-lit face is to your computer screen watching you, that old trapper looked right into my cave from where by pack was, and said, "Took the bait, I see."
I was suddenly as wide awake as awake can get. They don't make awake any wider. It was not a dream. That was the trapper talking to me. But then he was gone. And then I felt the deep vibration of another chunk of cornice coming down.
My next thought was marveling at the fact that tying oneself into a couple ice screws actually works. The avalanche hit the cave ledge and smeared it down to bare ice. I was hanging by my harness. There was snow inside my clothes wherever there was skin. The sleeping bag was gone, and my mittens, and the bivy bag. My mangled pack was dangling beside me, off its screw.
That certainly made things easy. And it was conveniently during the day, rather than night. It was as good a time as any to go for the summit if you've suddenly decided to not wait for the storm to break.
I looked around, and sure enough, the ice was baby blue, scoured clear by three days of wind. I shook out some of the snow, straightened up a bit, and got an extra pair of mittens out of my pack. It is difficult and uncomfortable trying to do anything on slick ice while you are dangling not quite the way you prefer, but difficult had become the norm. I tightened my boot laces, got out my crampons, strapped them on, took ahold of my ice tools which also survived the avalanche or you would not be reading this part of the story, put on my pack and started up, unscrewing as I stepped above where my ledge had been.
The wind was nasty and I noticed a number of discomforts, what other folks might describe as pain, as a result of my so hastily breaking camp, but they were quickly ignored while I concentrated on only four items, two ice tools and two crampons. I need only move them upward with each muscle contraction, and the rest of me would follow them. It was good climbing.
I was not really that far from the top, a distance measured in time, the same time the slough-offs were hisssing by on their way to the bottom. They spoke more clearly now, in the voices of some other old friends. I could not see the top, and I could not see very far down through ground blizzard along the surface. I laughed when I recognized that anyone looking at the face from the opposite ridge would be able to clearly see me climbing up through the faint white mist, slowly getting closer to the top. It dawned on me that it was not a projector the trapper wanted to take up the other ridge, but a camera.
Well of course this story is going to end with the sound of hisssing getting louder and louder. You can make the sound yourself and imagine you were there. But be careful with what you pretend. It actually ended that way.
The wee people are real, not because I say so, but because, ah, I was told so. And so told, I kept my eye open here and about. It is all very logical. Simply analyze the commonalities of the people who recognize gnomes and other small people, then put yourself among those commonalities. You do not have to go to a psychiatric hospital. There are not many gnomes there because gnomes seem to be more mentally healthy than larger people. A lot of the people who talk about gnomes and other wee people are found out in the countryside and mountains. Was that ever convenient for me, or what? I just started keeping my eye open a bit more.
It was at just such a place that the bands of flat stratus clouds layered the sky, some dark, portent for drizzle. A sliver of blue sky seemed as though it might reach me, with luck. There was a wind, and the water was choppy, enough to bounce my kayak around a bit as I leisurely paddled close to the shore. I was among the narrow channels and small islands of the inside coastal waters, in shallow reaches reached by few boats. It was a comfortable place away from the swells of the outside coast, and away from the rip-tides of the large bay currents. This was a secluded strait with small bays and flat forest. Gentle hills rose back a ways from the water. The boreal forest was dense. The high spruce cast dark shadows on secrets sometimes right to the edge of the water.
A gaggle of seals watched me paddle by. Some continued their playful antics after only a glance in my direction. Their individual actions and facial expressions were not unlike kids on a playground. One watched me close with wide eyes. Another was clearly worried, rapidly glancing at me and each other direction. Shortly I was past them, and I looked for the next view of interest.
The shore, close at hand, was low, with a few flat rock outcrops between dense moss and large trees. Short pebble and sand beaches formed small bends and coves. Some large trees were too close to an eroding bank, and were leaning out over a cove, their roots being undermined by the lapping water. The winter storms would bring them down. They would become the drift logs that lay here and there along the shore.
One cute little cove cut back into one of the islands. It appeared just as I paddled past its outer point. It was protected from the wind. I hesitated. I could see the pebble bottom of the whole cove, almost too shallow for my kayak. At the head of the cove, a small stream seemed to laugh its way out of the moss-carpeted forest. I was drifting, and decided a rest was in order, after my leisurely effort of the morning. I quietly paddled into the cove, running aground in the middle of it. Silence and stillness surrounded my kayak, so it was with great care that I stepped out and slowly pulled the kayak to the shore. The sliver of blue sky reached out to let the sun light the pink and white pebbles in the shallow water. Small fish darted away from my feet.
Only a glance was needed to see that this was not just another pretty little place like all the other pretty little places. Giant trees stood as kings on the most luxuriant and clean green carpet of moss I had ever seen. The hues and tones and textures of green covered the spectrum and even laced into the heavy dark bark of the trees. The darker green canopy surrounded each shaft of light the trees gave permission to enter. Speckles of yellow, blue and pink flowers dotted the clumps and dips of moss. The view was as soft as its touch underfoot.
The little stream, forming a soft cleft in the forest carpet, wove itself through the moss, along its pebbly bed with some small deep pools and a couple dips down polished smooth rocks where the water tumbled to each next pool then out to the pebble beach of the cove.
The remains of an old giant tree stump sat back in the tree line, prominent, on a knoll overlooking the stream and the cove. In the past it was a great tree that broke at its base, leaving a stump shaped more like a king's throne than ever made by any human. The tree had grown from a previous stump, so its roots now stood above the ground, forming heavy legs under which the hollow was covered with moss. Better than that. The entire throne, except for portions of the legs, was grown over with thick moss, perhaps upon which no human had yet sat. I smiled when I noticed the seedling spruce growing up from the back of the throne, the next throne being crafted from what would first be another giant.
I stepped up to it, turned, and sat into cool soft comfort the nature of which no other human had ever been granted. The soothing aroma of fresh green moss enveloped the throne. No traveler will ever be so comforted along his journey. The giant that once stood where I sat was somewhere at my feet, now the carpet of moss across which shafts of light made the flowers and the water of the stream sparkle amid the darker shadows.
My eyes moved slowly to absorb all that was before them at any moment. A nearby tree was splintered half way up. Perhaps a winter storm had twisted a weak spot to send the top of the tree plunging down to the forest floor, where it lay across the small stream among the trees. That was years before. The moss was claiming the trunk where it lay. The missing tree top overhead granted entrance to the sun's light. Three small seedlings near the base of the tree were racing for the light that would grant only one its place. That cove may be the most quieting view ever made for human eyes.
I looked back to the tree trunk across the stream. There was a well-worn trail through the moss across the log, and down from each end. The trail at the near end turned behind a clump of moss, disappeared, but reappeared at the base of the adjacent tree, where it went into a hole at the roots. The obvious work of a busy squirrel.
But the trail was too well worn for the habits of a squirrel, and the hole under the tree was taller than it was wide. But that was just one of several curious things, and the shafts of light on the forest floor offered a warming glow that matched my unmatched comfort, upon which I mused.
I'm not sure how much later a movement caught my eye just beyond the other end of the log. It was barely perceptible at first, something scurrying among the moss, apparently along the obscured trail that led to the log. And forthwith, it popped up onto the log, and slowly ambled across, looking down into the creek.
Do not hit the back button yet, just because there aint no fast car chase scene to pick up the speed of this plodding story before you fall asleep at the screen. It was a gnome. Full view. Full clothing. Right out of the book, page 14 I think, standard issue, one gnome, a boreal gnome, male, green hat, green jacket, brown britches, green shoes, small, stocky, nimble and quick of movement but as casual as if he lived there. He was carrying a bag over his shoulder, that was filled with whatever gnomes fill bags with. No, I am not merely telling you an entertaining story. I was there and I can take you to the same place. When someone tells you that the wee people are real, they are telling you that the wee people are real.
He crossed the log, scurried along the trail and went into the oval hole below the tree.
My reaction was just as would be yours, but before I recovered, out of the same hole came another gnome. This one was a female. Single braid of white hair coming out from under the back of her cap. Green dress. Carried a basket. She stopped to pick a small yellow flower and stick it in her braid just below her cap, then scurried back into the forest on a trail I hadn't noticed.
I tell you, they look just like in the book, several inches tall, stocky, pointed hat and all that. Their garments were different shades of green. The hats these gnomes wore were not red. The hats were green. If they stood against the moss, in plain view, you would not see them. Well, what would you do? I was sitting in the most comfortable seat any human has been granted. I just saw what countless people have wanted to see. And I wasn't scheduled to be anywhere, ever.
I did not even have time to start this paragraph before off to my left, down by the creek toward the cove, two gnomes walked out into full view on a sandy beach of the stream, next to a pool. One boy and one girl, teenagers I reckon from what was by then my extensive knowledge of gnomes, as you might well recognize. And they took their clothes off, of all things. Full bare bottom naked right there in the sun. The guy waded out into the water, stopping at knee deep, and lightly splashed himself with the water, noticeably not enthralled with the chilly temperature, trying to slowly get adjusted to it. The girl gnome unbraided her long light brown hair, and with a grin, ran across the beach, pushed the guy into the water, and dove in beside him. I sat motionless. They were not that far away, maybe sixty feet.
They frolicked and cavorted about in the water, obviously pleased with the world. They took turns scrubbing each other with some sort of fern or moss. The girl swam to the end of the pool where the water dropped down over a smooth polished rock. She slid down the rock, over the edge and into the next pool with a splash. She swam to the lower end of the pool and laid in some moss where the water was running through it. The guy shortly joined her, laying there letting the water wash past them.
After awhile they climbed up to a flat sunlit rock half way up to the upper pool. Some heather grew around the edge of the rock, and a bed of moss grew across part of it. They laid there in the sun, began gently caressing each other, and in time made love.
Well, what was I supposed to do? Nobody told me I had stumbled into the intimate space of some gnomes whom I did not even know. I couldn't very well look away without moving, and by then I was not only comfortable beyond your recognition, but too afraid to move and thus scare away the gnomes. Worse, by now if I was caught they would think I was an unsavory oaf and intruder without the decency to mind my own business among my own kind, and a clumsy kind it is. If I didn't feel so awkward I would be incensed that somebody did not tell me to go somewhere else when I arrived. I certainly couldn't interrupt them to apologize, so I just sat their real quiet like. I did notice that there are a few things humans can learn from gnomes in regard to the matters at play.
After awhile, quite awhile, they walked back to their clothes, dressed, and after the guy carefully braided the girl's hair, and put a small purple flower in it, they disappeared among the moss.
Curious thing. The gnomes did not speak or make any noise other than their splashes in the water.
Next thing I knew I was chilly. It was drizzling. I was stiff from sitting in one position for a long time. And it was late in the day. About as slowly and quietly as a guy can move, and still be moving, I rose, walked down to the shore, was careful where I stepped, pulled my kayak out into the cove, the water now further out at low tide, and paddled away, wondering.
Desperate? I will tell you how desperate it was. I could see the whatever-it-is-called dimple in the bottom of the wine bottle. To those not well versed in the vineal arts, that is a good indication that the bottle is empty.
Further, Erin was sewing, with an actual needle and thread, paper pictures onto a cardboard cover of a rather large book, made from a cardboard box. No one knows yet what will be put on the pages. Well, of course you start a book with the cover. And among the potential ingredients for the story in the book was a picture of a puffin. That led to a puffin discussion, interrupting my cobbling-together of the salmon pipe, which reminded me of the puffin story, somewhere in a stack of papers, which is why you are reading these words instead of perhaps some political rabble rousing, trouble causing and general carrying on I might otherwise do.
That is how desperate it was. Exposed flesh freezes in seconds here in the far frozen north, you know.
I was quietly paddling along, in the middle of a convoluted bay in the summer. Fill in the adjectives. You want to be there right now. Warm and calm. No other human within many miles. A partial cover of puffy clouds filtred the sun. Forested slopes swept up from the bay, with a couple sand beaches, and vertical rock cliffs rising from the water here and there. Tall timber covered the slopes. Stunted trees clawed their way to the edges of the rock cliffs. Grass and small ferns crawled down the cracks in the rock, and crept out along the narrow ledges. The blue-green water was glassy smooth. Reflections of soft clouds blended into the surrounding hues of green forest. Tranquility and peace floated across the still water in soothing waves. I was lulled into complacency.
There was a sudden blur of black, white and orange. I instantly slumped low into my kayak, in a cold sweat. I had just survived by sheer luck.
All good things come with a price, least they would not be good. For example, magnificence might cost a deadly threat.
We have noticed that the price for being granted our remarkable mind, is that of we humans being only visitors to the realm, here to learn and move on with the knowledge alone. The more adept inhabitants, not the humans, command the realm, and the visitors wisely exercise caution to stay out of the way.
Notice how often school text books do not quite tell the whole story. There are phenomena of nature, details overlooked by the casual observer, that one may wish to learn to remain in harmony with nature.
The puffin is an obscure northern sea bird, but well known because of its comically large, orange and yellow banded beak, or some such color arrangement. You might remember pictures of it sitting on a ledge of a sea cliff, in the bird books. The bird has a rounded black and white body with that outrageous beak, and large eyes, one of which will always be starting at you, or through you. The puffin is the clown of the bird world, but deadly.
You might remember seeing pictures of other birds soaring in the sky, or flying above the land, or such images. But you do not remember seeing a picture of a puffin flying. There is a reason.
Puffins can't fly. They can move through the air, but they cannot fly. Their wings were a mistake, a blunder. And the puffin knows it.
You do not even remember seeing the wings of a puffin. The rounded, bullet shaped black and white body of the puffin was designed like a rock to match the environment to which it is naturally adapted, that is, the rock sea cliffs. Feet were added so it could stand on ledges. The head was added as an attachment point for the colorful bill. The bill was a left-over part found on the back shelves of a warehouse. Actually, it was a toenail for the making of a proposed creature of a long extinct, mythical world. The resulting combination was so outrageous, and hilarious, that in the process of attaching the hands to the puffin so it could hang on to the rock cliffs, the wings of a small swallow were mistakenly substituted. Granted, it was significant blunder, but understandable. You just cannot look a puffin in the eye, and keep a straight face, or thought, that is, while the puffin is sitting on a ledge, not threatening your life.
The puffin has been one of nature's embarrassing blunders to which nature has managed to uncomfortable adjust, but mostly by keeping the puffin out of sight along remote northern coastlines.
Now picture, if you will, the puffin, patiently standing on its ledge on a cliff above the water along the aforementioned northern coast, just like the picture in the book, magazine or calendar. As you see, they all look the same. All well and good.
But the ledges on the cliffs are only so big, especially in the smaller books and magazines. And the puffins, like everyone else, get sore feet from standing in one place too long. So every once in awhile a puffin will move a little bit. That is when trouble can occur. A puffing will sometimes slip and, unable to grab the rock for balance, will fall off its ledge.
Unaccustomed to this event, and as a result of the head being only an attachment point for the bill that was really only a toenail, the puffin usually just proceeds to uncaringly fall down the cliff toward the water, that is, to a point.
Have you ever fallen into these northern waters? They have glaciers of ice coming into them, and icebergs floating around in them. A puffin is not all that very bright, but every creature in the world recognizes cold water when it comes into focus. And that is the point when the puffin panics.
The puffins's wings, as mentioned, are a trifle inadequate for the puffin. But its body is a rounded bullet of muscle. When the puffin panics, stay clear of the wings. With the frantic explosion of muscular activity behind them, they can smash rock. Fortunately the wings are short, so in themselves, they are not too dangerous.
However, just above the water, when the puffin's muscles overcome all other forces of nature, the puffin suddenly begins to propel itself through the air, that is, if by chance at the moment it is pointed away from the cliff, about 50% of the time. The other 50% is nature's way of correcting mistakes.
Yes, well, now, thus being propelled through the air at an astonishing speed just above the water, the puffin begins to realize that it is going to crash into whatever is ahead of it. That impact point being on the other side of the bay, the puffin naturally starts shying away from it. For obvious reasons, the puffin is not very adroit of wing. That it can change direction at all is not so much with the ability of its wings, but the unexplained force of sheer fear. And that alone requires a considerable turning radius. Thus the puffin, with any land ahead of it, will move in a wide arc, always shying away from the land mass in front of it. Those puffins who by chance encounter open ocean, account for the intercontinental migration of puffins, if it exists. But encountering the other continent is usually either fatal, or explains the flock of puffins circling in the middle of the ocean.
Problems arise when some minor object on the water gets in the way. The puffin, as explained, cannot avoid such objects. There is just not enough room or time to turn by the time it sees or encounters the object, and there is question that it can even see objects smaller than land masses. What is one eye to believe anyway when the other eye can't see around such a large bill to verify the view? This rare situation further accounts for nature's control of the puffin population, and the occasional mysterious disappearance of kayakers, ships, and such things that float on northern waters, which can be sunk by a high energy, bullet shaped object propelled at high speed just above the water line.
Killer whales, grizzly bears, tidal waves, rip tides and raging storms are more comfortable company. The deadly puffin is insidious. Fear and loathing of the ever present puffin weigh heavily on the mind of a northern coastal kayaker. If you see a small black and white object suddenly coming toward you, duck. If you see the orange, it may be too late.
Well, barring a chance encounter mid-cove, or the chance of open water, the puffin will continue on its wide arc until such a time that it is pointed back at the cliff from which it came. Because of a complex set of geometrical and highly speculative mathematical calculations that directly relate to the weight of the bird, the density of the air, and the angle of the sun whose light is diffused behind the ever-present clouds, at this point the puffin finds itself rapidly closing with a sheer cliff that it cannot avoid. On rare occasions the calculations have failed at abnormally large bays with islands blocking the view of open water, with no boats to hit and thus no one to see them, where the puffins are able to successfully fly in a large circle pretty much forever.
But finding itself rapidly closing with a sheer cliff, moments before impact, the puffin's body is overwhelmed again with stark terror, and the bird becomes rigid, its eyes closed, and its wings extended. Now, however puny its wings, consider the speed at which this bird is traveling. With the speed of the puffin, and the cushioning effect of the air being pressed against the flat face of the cliff, it will be observed that the puffin is forced upward in a sweeping motion, until that point just below the top of the cliff, where the cushioning effect of the air has slowed the puffin down to a near stop, but suddenly diminishes as the bulk of the compressed air spills over the top of the cliff ahead of the puffin.
At that point, coincidentally where most of the ledges occur in those calendar pictures, the puffin comes nearly to a stop before settling downward. Allowing for some slop on one side of the equation or the other, a phenomenon of the law of averages, the puffin crashes back into the cliff at a survivably slow speed, often onto one of the many aforementioned ledges.
And if it survives, it will be a long time before that puffin moves its feet again, accounting for why there are so many puffin pictures on calendars.
Climbing the Wall of Hell
There I was, mind you, and if you don't think climbing the wall of hell is desperate, then have patience, there may be more to come, but you would not choose to be where this story went.
I was in Juneau Alaska, of all places, capital of the most wealthy State government in the nation, and thus the most corrupt, perfidious slime to ever smear the surface of even sludge, leaving all but the yet more banal boys in Washington DC envious of such a human nadir. I should have known that the Honorable Senator L. from the great State of Hades, who is of course warmly welcomed by every RepublicratDemocan, wherever he goes in the world, would have kept a recreational facility for his weekend work-outs in Juneau Alaska.
Go to Juneau and walk anywhere around the middle part of town, a few blocks north of the tourist-obscured view by the cruise ship dock, and south from the airport, anywhere around what you will perceive as the impact point of the avalanches that come off Mt. Juneau in the winter, towering above you. Savor the view of beautiful Mt. Juneau, but do not look too close, least the view become a bit disconcerting, or too long, least you will get a crick in your neck.
The hill has something for everyone. Rational folks will appreciate the steep cascade of lush green trees and coastal vegetation gracefully streaming down from the soft carpet of summit tundra heather, and they will comment on the beautiful view. In contrast, the rock climbers will gaze at the large wall of vertical, organically sanitized gray rock sliced from the part of the mountain extending up into the valley, and drool. The winter visitors will be lucky to see the toes of their shoes on the sidewalk, and be hunkered against the freezing rain and wind. Oh, don't worry about the snow avalanches. So far they have mostly stopped in the deep narrow creek valley gouged between the hill and the town, so far. And nobody sane lives in Juneau in the winter anyway. That is why the legislature convenes on the second day of January. Of course most of the visitors to Juneau have seen nothing but the fog or wall of rain between them and the street corner, so to them this story is just another one of those lies told by one of those Alaska chamber of commerce types with a grin on his face, trying to sucker another tourist into a trap.
It was on a summer afternoon, after a kayaking trip of the previous days, or maybe weeks. I was gazing up at Mt. Juneau from near the Governor's Mansion, and thinking that I had enough time before a supper appointment. I would have to hurry and I would have to take the short way up, the straight line from where I was, of course, but I figured I could get to the top of Mt. Juneau, and down along the rumored trail before I was expected at wherever I was expected for supper. I could go straight from where I was on a sidewalk, over into the creek valley, up a waterfall area, then up through the trees to the edge of the rock wall, then stay in the vegetation until I met where I was told the trail extended out along the high tundra, then depending upon the time, go to the top or zip down the trail to get back in time for supper. I was not wearing climbing boots, but the route was just a vegetation scramble.
I had heard the many stories of tourists getting into serious trouble on Mt. Juneau. But I weren't no schmuck tourist what gets in trouble doing stupid things. I calculated the whole route, and was comfortable with turning back at the first sign of difficulty, on account of supper being a priority. I was a real climber, conqueror of great mountain summits glistening in glacier ice. And this was just Mt. Juneau, a little hill covered with trees and shrubs and grass and moss.
I was shortly at the base of the little waterfall, enjoying the rock moves on a low wall. I might have been able to go up through the trees right at the get-go, but a few rock moves were a more worthy start. I had already forgot who altered the wall for his weekend work-outs.
It was slick rock, made smooth from the water erosion, and from black slime growing out from the Capital building not that far away, but there were enough nubbins to get me up to where I grabbed a small tree trunk and pulled myself up into the trees. From there it was mixed ground with trees, grass, ferns, brush, flowers and berries. Birds twittered through the trees. A bald eagle soared overhead, taking a break from his shift on the banner ads, selling flags. It got steep, pretty much at the first step up. Anyone else would have to lay down to crawl along the ground to get such a close view of such varied vegetation. Here, you could do the same while standing up. In fact I was a bit surprised by how steep, what had earlier looked like a forested slope, could actually be. A tree canopy is supposed to be overhead, not along side of a person.
I impressed myself by the technique I used with the first large spruce tree I climbed, a long ways up the tree, and then climbed out on some short branches, to grab another branch from a tree growing at the top of the vertical rock wall I thus avoided. Neat trick. That was plain fun. It was okay. I had already passed the point of no return on those slimy nubbins down by the waterfall. The route ahead had enough vegetation to assure success. If mindless vegetation could reach the top, then a human, even handicapped by being a mountain climber, was unlikely to encounter much difficulty, especially with all that vegetation to climb.
It did cross my mind that there was a previous little adventure when I was high in a similar tree, where I encountered what may have once been a squirrel nest, but the current inhabitants had remodeled it into a wasp nest. I came down that tree faster than my camera falling behind me in a cloud of wasps. I only went back to get my camera after the wasps settled down a bit. Well, if that happened in one of these trees on Mt. Juneau, I damn well better be on the uphill side when I drop from the last branch.
I was just plain surprised when I reached a spot where the forested slope intersected the large vertical rock wall. My hand, above and to the right side of me, had a good grip over a sharp rock edge, and I pulled myself toward it. Wow, what a view. The two areas had looked dramatically different from down below. Now I noticed that the difference was little more than the color. It was just a near-vertical line, with bare rock on one side, and vegetation on the other side. I left that otherwise good hand-hold, and angled more to the psychologically comforting green side, and pressed upward.
The view was still reassuring, up through the dense vegetation silhouetted against the gray sky. The view down was becoming a different matter. It is somewhat troubling to look down at the tops of tall spruce trees, close. Bare rock is more comforting when one is thus climbing with rock gear and thus firmly attached to the rock. But I was just walking through the trees to the top of Mt. Juneau, albeit not on the path. This vegetation stuff was not so firmly attached to the rock. The reassuring spruce were getting smaller as I got further up the hill. And the wafts of drifting fog were moistening the slick vegetation growing on little more than the detritus of old vegetation. More than once a glance down sent a shiver up my spine. But, up, was good.
The only level spot was on a tree branch, and by now, I was above the trees, with brush being my next respite. Then even the patches of grass were good. There were also little animal trails winding up and down through it. I thought I heard a couple mountain mice nearby, discussing my rude intrusion. Beautiful large ferns spread their frowns over my head. I was pretty much pulling myself up along my stomach, hanging onto fist fulls of grass and ferns. My face had been plowing the grass and dirt awhile. I decided to look up. I grabbed a fist full of a larger fern at its base, pulled my knees up and leaned out to poke my head through the canopy of ferns.
New paragraph. And I mean I was looking at the rest of the story from where I had not taken the time to look while crawling a long ways with my face against the vegetation that I was using to pull myself up. The tops of the trees were a long ways down, and I could see the spot my body might slow down if the fern roots pulled, a thousand or more feet below. I was impressed. Fortunately I do not get rattled when I say I do not get rattled in these stories. And I was not one of those Juneau tourists who get themselves into trouble thinking they can walk up Mt. Juneau, the short way. I was a mountain climber, okay. The supper appointment down in Juneau was no longer an issue. Breakfast would be nice.
Fortunately I was also a member of a mountain rescue group, so I was authorized to rescue myself if I screwed-up that badly.
I could see the life draining from the fern leaves in front of my eyes, and then noticed the fern stem sap oozing out around my tightening grip. I was not rattled. But why was I so tired? How could those clouds have become so gray so soon? Where was that trail I heard about somewhere up here? Then I heard the mice, laughing. How could I be so thirsty and hungry all of a sudden? Then the fern shouted in my face: Hey you idiot, we can barely hang-on ourselves up here. Get your fingers off my feet and into the dirt or we are all going down together.
Beads of sweat spread across my skin, and the first drop stung into my eye. With each new grasp and claw at anything above me I could feel the fern and grass roots slipping down while I pulled myself up to get another grip on any next roots. I noticed the dirt and grass stains in my t-shirt. And then I noticed the scrapes in my forearms. Same old stuff, desperate indeed, and the words I use carry their full meaning. There was an air of a bit more determination in my methodical movements, especially noticeable when the dirt and roots slipped down as fast as I pulled myself up. I now concentrated on looking down past my feet, on account of looking up did not benefit my center of gravity, and stuff fell into my eyes while I was grabbing stuff above me.
If perhaps you thought that if I went back down to the waterfall, at least I would be closer to the bottom, by this time what I was pulling myself up on therefore became too loose to lower myself down on. This was the finest trap I had ever so easily stumbled into, among others.
Oh, did I mention Devils Club? Among those who know, especially in southeast Alaska, the name evokes the silky soft image of riding a stallion in the setting sun of a Southwest desert, across the hilltops of dense occatio cactus while you are barefoot and wearing shorts, sunburnt, in comparison to what Devils Club will do to you if you even look at it. Devils Club, beautiful large spring green leaves, fuzzy and maple leaf shaped but much larger, draped out from a splay of thick soft stems, every cubic nanometer of the aforementioned, if not the roots also, densely packed with more of the worst spines than the blue-ribbon jumping choya cactus at the Tucson County Fair. Bathe in a garden-fresh salad of nettles and poison ivy, but do not even point your finger toward Devils Club. Kick an old boar grizzly bear out of his den too early in the spring, bare fisted and swearing in his face, but do not speak of Devils Club in too loud a voice. There is a lot of Devils Club on Mt. Juneau. Come to think of it, there is a lot of Devils Club all over Southeast Alaska, which is pretty much why they don't let those folks off the tour ships too often.
Speaking of a salad of nettles, a plant with which I have been familiar in my youth, I was amused by what at first I sincerely thought was my arms having brushed some nettles while blindly reaching for the next grip on anything above me. But a little sensory stimulation for the situation would assist in diverting my mind from what it was otherwise focusing on somewhere a long way under my feet standing on the leaves and dirt falling away under them. I glanced above me to avoid any more nettles.
That is of course when I noticed with interest that my arms were bristling with a golden cushion of Devils Club spines. And then I noticed my fist firmly clenched around a stalk of Devils Club. It then became apparent that I was fully inside and under a canopy of Devils Club, with no end in sight above me. That is when the real pain formally announced its full intent. I could feel my arms swell. I smiled. I tensed my muscles, and reached upward for my next grip around another stalk of Devils Club, now knowing why the Honorable Senator L., from the great State of Hades, chose the superlative recreational facilities of Juneau, for his Capital.
Hey, who is in charge here? Give these worthless adventurers a computer, and teach them how to make a web page, and they get all excited for awhile, then they run off to the next adventure in a row, as usual, leaving their boring old websites goobering up the radio waves between the satellites and the servers. Imagine a bird trying to fly though the air these days, getting zapped with digital fragments of different website data every inch of the way. No wonder they shit on us every chance they get.
OK, so I will cobble together a flurry of more stories, or at least one, but do not expect this too often. So far, one person sent me a 10 dollar bill, and another person sent a pottery mug. Somebody tell Bill Gates to not get too comfortable with the limelight of being the most wealthy guy on the block.
There we were mind you, and it was desperate indeed, albeit as usual. Exposed flesh freezes in second, you know. And if you do not think so, you can ask any of many dozen sorts who have lived at the Sandvik House in the far frozen north.
It was Every Thursday Night at the Every Thursday Night Barbecue At Dick Flaharty's. I was idly snatching mosquitoes out of the air while engaging in discourse on great and weighty matters of serious consequence with the elite, much to my great honor for chancing upon such a fortuitous gathering of great minds, and writing a note with my 375 H&H pen, for my high caliber writing, on the back of a business card, of which I printed entirely too many, since I really do not use them for anything but note pads, when one of my colleagues asked what I did with all the notes I have been known to write at such occasions. Well now, if I answered, I would have to prove the answer, least it would have been a lie. Therefore you are reading the proof that I was not lying when I said that I sometimes used these notes, otherwise put on my desk with the pile of other notes, never to be looked at again until I stuck them in a cardboard box somewhere.
The note stated: Sandvik House story, Min Wan, invite Sandvikians to respond.
Pull back away from your screen a bit, and make sure no one is watching. I sure hope I have not told this story before. Certainly you do not expect me to read all that previous dribble to see if I told this story. Let me know.
There are institutions. And there are institutions. And it behooves a wise person to know the twixt between the two. Among the institutions was the Sandvik House of Fairbanks Alaska. Some of the people reading this are already nervous about mayhaps their name might be mentioned.
The Sandvik House was just a common cheap apartment in a triplex, large for its size because the builder got caught building a sixplex in a duplex zone, so the divider wall did not get built, and the bottom apartment was called a basement. The place was on Sandvik Road, a short, dead end road at the edge of town. Well, actually it was on a shorter dead end road that came off of Sandvik, that we thought was the driveway until we noticed that it had a name on a Fairbanks map. Actually it had two different names on two different maps, Dawson and Yokum. The government named it. That explains the confusion.
I showed up back in 74, middle apartment. There was rumor that the previous renters of that apartment were seven females. That is why the rumor survived. I was sort of living in the back room utility half bathroom, down the hall. Well, it was just a temporary thing until I found accommodations more befitting my accustomed life style. The landlord showed up one day, who was also the local court bailiff, and I answered the door. I told him I was only visiting for a few days before I found another place. Four landlords later I moved.
The object of the game, known to adventurers and others of the leisure class at the lower end of the economic spectrum, was to live an adequate lifestyle at the least cost for the more mundane preferences of life so that the more eventful preferences of life can be optimized with the available financial resources limited by time spent on said events. College students sometimes learn the concept, but not very well because school is not sufficiently eventful. Those who prefer to stand on freezing, perilous, wind swept mountain summits for a few moments will live in a less socially admirable and thus less costly hovel so they can buy another couple weeks of climbing food and get out of town. The latter sorts can be found living in rented houses with several bedrooms, including the closets and half-baths converted into bedrooms, sharing the expenses with other unusual sorts who are likewise more often found out on some adventure, so that at any one moment few will actually be present in the house that is available upon return from wherever they went. One of the first laws of economy states that rent paid by one person is expensive, while rent shared by five people is less expensive. And the landlord gets the same amount of money for his house.
That law, like all laws, does not apply to government, whose personnel defy the laws of economy. The more people who share a single government, the more each of them must pay for progressively fewer government services while the government personnel get fatter, lazier, and more stupid. That is the law. The government dolts would be arrested for violating the law of government economy if they did not become progressively more stupid with progressively more money.
There are a few tricks to the system. You gotta keep the place presentable and in good repair by your own efforts, etcetera, or the landlord may make a different decision for your choice of lifestyle.
After my stint living in the half bathroom a couple years, which I appointed rather well, I got an actual bedroom of my own when someone else moved out. I was, however, on an extended adventure once, and came back to find that my bedroom was usurped by a person who, on account of her being a her, I was relegated to living in the closet under the stairs to the upper apartment for several months. Still, better than a tent. And a tent is good.
The Sandvik House was the headquarters of the Alaska mountain climber, skydiver, kayaker, adventurer, rabble rouser, science research student, international party crowd, or something like that, often a bit more. Throw in more than a couple who overstayed their visa to this country. Include those who ended up at the top and bottom, they both being among the leisure class. Add some visitors among the most famous real climbers, Soviets who jumped ship, literally, and such sorts of upper crust on an odd loaf. If we had a web cam for the parties and intellectual discourse, we would be rich, I tell you, rich.
You might have heard any of the usual stories about those vile communists over there in Russia and China. Among those stories of course were the stories about the cultural revolution of communist China. Hearing them first-hand from a survivor reaching the Sandvik House is rather dramatic. Those damn Maoist Red Brigade commie young males in the Chinese military, like their ilk in all militaries, whose minds attempt to think with testosterone, threw the capitalist dog shop owners and their families out of the Chinese cities, into the countryside to work in the rice paddies to feed the proletariat. Among them were a very large number of people who did not know how to farm, who were required to live on what they farmed, and therefore did not. The survivors survived because they quickly learned how to successfully steal chickens and other food from the real farmers. You could starve waiting for a kernel of rice to grow, and live by stealing the farmer's rice. The Chinese government dolts could not figure out why crime became a way of life for millions in China, after that idiot-drill. It is the same reason that the mental midget George Bush and his idiot DemocanRepublicrats cannot figure out why the so called terrorists do what they do to laughably cause Bush to attack the US citizens with the mindless Home Security Gestapo and legions of more police for the 54 other federal police agencies, to thus drag the US people down to the level their military thugs impose on the rest of the world.
Conversations at the Sandvik house table routinely coursed the world, involved many near death experiences, and no small volume of politically incorrect expressions. The politically correct stories which are filtered through the institutionally altered minds of news journalists do not tell the real stories of real people, especially those who passed through the Sandvik house.
The chap who visited the Sandvik house after he jumped off the Soviet ship and survived the cold Alaska waters to reach the shore and defector status, told real stories of real life as the son of a Soviet dissident sent to a resort in the Soviet north country. The son was then offered a position on a ship in the north seas, that he chose to not decline. I would tell the story he told and demonstrated, about personal deadly weaponry in a nation where the citizens could not own guns or knives, but then to do so would collapse the illusion of the airport security sorts in our Soviet styled US police-state where the idiot government police suspect every citizen of being a member of a terrorist cell. The story illuminates just another example of the unbridled stupidity achieved by American government officials and their police, and any idiot citizen who believes anything said by the poor self-deluded victims of government jobs. As of this writing the US government has revealed that its own airport security lets pass, from ten to sixty percent of the test guns and bombs, depending upon the airport, with the larger airports more cooperative with the so called terrorists. The government chaps praise the few airports that catch ninety percent of the guns and bombs, as the best achievable, and remain clueless of the meaning of that remaining ten percent. To reveal what common citizens in other countries know about deadly personal weaponry, would drop the best airport security to zero percent identification. I would indicate the proof, but one must show pity for the government sorts who sincerely believe they are doing what is impossible for humans to do. Only people as ignorant as government sorts are not armed with deadly weapons on airplanes.
There was the year that hemp was legalized in Alaska, as it remains despite the increasingly desperate lies told by the poor sad police who still believe the lies they are told by their mental midget bosses. It was like the Prague Spring, in which the Alaskans thought for awhile that the government police would finally get a clue. Of course the police did not, and never will. No one would be a police officer if they were told the truth, and no one who is intelligent enough to know how to ask even rudimentary questions to learn the truth will ever be a police officer, because they would therefore quit before they joined. But while the cops were temporarily stunned by the legalization of hemp under the Constitutionally identified rights of Alaskans, there was an air of human freedom in the air, a feeling that people could make their own decisions without having to get permission from a communist-mentality idiot who therefore got a US or State government job. There was also a beautiful garden of hemp at the south end of the Sandvik House, grown by one of the typical dissident Sandvikians. The electricity meter reader guy had to hold aside the hemp plants to read the meter on the side of the house. To this very day I cannot believe that someone at the Sandvik House had the unmitigated audacity to grow 42 hemp plants, three summers in a row, right there in front of God who created hemp. Those city guys in China just did not know what plants to plant to survive their exile into the country farming industry. The stuff is worth more than gold, ounce for ounce, and it grows like a weed. Come to think of it, it is a weed.
In case you did not notice this distinguishing attribute of Alaska, on one of the other pages of this website, the Raven Case in Alaska involved a cop who noticed a pot plant in the front window of a house. So he knocked on the door, and upon it being opened, he came in and arrested the grower of the plant. So when the case got to the door of the Alaska Supreme Court, the judges said that the right to privacy in one's own home, by law in the Alaska Constitution, prevailed above the malicious minds of the mental midget police wielding an unknowable morass of inferior laws the cops use to try to jail everyone in the world, for enforcement budget excuses. Growing and using a small amount of marijuana, originally four plants but perhaps less than a dozen or so, in the privacy of one's own home is a right of Alaskans, by prevailing law. Of course the DemocanRepublicrats and their police thugs went ballistic over the idea that any humans held any rights above government power, especially in their own homes. The government thugs and their minions use an array of criminal scams, imposed with raw power of office, along with the usual DemocanRepublicrat pocket judges in the lower courts, to still attack those people who are as dumb as government dolts and thus too ignorant to know how to place themselves under the protection of the common law. Even a cop who learns how to place herself and her children under the protection of the common law, will immediately do so and quit her embarrassing job. But then, thinking people are weeded out of police jobs at police academies. The Alaska Constitution has not been amended to remove the right to privacy in one's own home, so marijuana is still one hundred percent lawful to grow and smoke or eat in the privacy of one's own Alaska home, explaining why the people sufficiently intelligent to regain the rights of everyone else are too busy laughing themselves to tears over everyone else not asking the simple questions that can regain their rights.
These dynamic and fearless adventure sorts tend to not be the type whom you must ask direct questions to get an analysis of whatever thought might be zipping through their mind at any moment. In fact they sometimes expound upon it even when nobody is listening, just for practice. Among them was the Norwegian mountain climber and aurora borealis research sort who got his doctorate in what he could not discover about the northern lights. He held a particular view of the world as it should be, perhaps not uncommon to a Norwegian adventurer scientist with a stint in the military. And there was a Sandvikian lass also living there at the time, who was pretty much the opposite of the Norwegian, in her perceptions of the female status, except for her equal boldness of expression. I was puzzled one day at what appeared to be a hole in the wall, of the distinct shape that fit the blade of the large kitchen knife. If you think Min Wan almost died in the Chinese cultural revolution, you might consider how Ola's well toned reflexes barely saved him after a maladroit comment about women when the aforementioned lass was washing the dishes on the other side of the room. Words are not the only form of communication, especially among Sandvikians.
There was an evening that we were getting ready to go to another serious party, and above our own decibel level, there was a noise outside that sounded like an 18 wheel truck engaging a jake brake at high speed, very noisy, and then, silence. We each looked at each other, but the noise was gone, so we carried on, and departed for the party in the dark of night. It was the next day that I walked out the driveway to the mail box. I was first puzzled by the top of a large tree freshly broken off. But the horizontal stabilizer (rear wing, for the non airplane sorts) of a cargo DC-6 laying beside the mail box suggested that I go back to the apartment and turn on the news. The rest of the DC-6 was in the trees across the street. It was not a good landing. Jet fuel, which is kerosene, does not burn well in reciprocal engines designed for gasoline.
Artists inhabited the Sandvik House, of course, or those who claimed to be such, among those who are confused about the definition. A dramatic large artwork graced the Sandvik living room, is here mentioned since it was not worth keeping. Two large canvases covering two walls, met at one corner of the room. They were completely white, except for a .375 inch wide gray line across one canvas, and a semi-circle of the same width where the line intersected the other canvas at the corner. From there the color of thick red dripped down the corner, off the bottom, to a red puddle on the floor. There is just no accounting for taste in art.
Imagine living where the sort of questionable mountain climbers who end up at the end of the road going north, are welcome, and can use the sewing machine to get their usually tattered gear ready for the next climb. It was a habit to glance into the living room each morning, to see who might be sleeping on the floor, having showed up in the middle of the night, with what type of climbing gear.
Somewhere in the middle of those years one of the landlords upgraded the rent, so we downgraded to the cheaper basement apartment. And the adventure missed no stride.
The place was the headquarters of certain political movements, far more dangerous than the threat of violent revolution, since they involved the process of thinking, a concept against which the entire intellectual resources of the United States government, all of its military, police, judges and comical political think tanks, hold no defense. Therein current careers could be ruined by the mere mention of association. There is even a current federal police officer who once resided at the Sandvik house, unbeknownst to the federal government, least that individual would promptly be assigned to some obscure post, perhaps as far away as Alaska. The Alaska independence movement was a popular thing at the Sandvik House for awhile. It is too easy. The feds have no defense. It is pity alone, for the poor sad feds, and perhaps laziness by Alaskans, that keeps Alaska under the amusingly malicious heel of those mental midgets in Washington DC, at the moment.
Every year Fairbanks Alaska has a typical city celebration. Felix Pedro was credited with discovering gold in the area, over across a couple ridges just north of town, thus creating the city. Ergo, Felix is a hero once a year during the annual Golden Days celebration, and of course the city has a look-alike contest to have a Felix in the parade. Well of course Horatio the Italian Argentinean who lived at the Sandvik House was Felix every time he entered the contest, because he not only looked like Felix, he acted like Felix, emphatically, albeit without the gold. The Sandvik House was accorded his entertaining style year-around.
The arranged marriage of the Nepalese Sandvikian, giving rise to his incentive to upgrade his residential location, across Dead Man's Slough to a place on Dead End Alley, enhanced the cultural knowledge of the locals already advanced by a person of such stature among such a humble social sector. Wow, did his bride from Nepal ever suddenly encounter a dramatic cultural challenge, being near the Sandvik adventurers, or what, and survived in good style.
Oh yes, the Sandvik House was beside Dead Man's Slough, named for the dead man found there in previous years. Apparently his name was Dead Man, since they name a lot of places after important people. The slough had a lot of water in it during break up, and some water in it other times. Beaver and other critters inhabited it. Moose commonly cruised the brushy banks. And Dead End Alley, just across the slough, was just that, dead-ending at Noyes slough, if you did not consider the driveway that connected the alley back around to Wolf Run. Dead End Alley was a short dirt road winding among some cheap rental cabins. It's sub-culture was similar to Sandvik House. Many important people lived at Dead End Alley in their early days, and a few of them will admit to it. Dead End Alley parties were a Fairbanks institution, and the cops avoided them. The prestigious Alaskan Alpine Club's prestigious lodge located out of town a bit was previously #30 Dead End Alley. The freeway came through, ending the Dead End Alley days of glory, and Irene Reed graciously upgraded the status of the club by donating one of the famous Dead End Alley cabins.
The high energy Kyrgistanian Sandvikian is still wheeling and dealing in the local area, with good style. If he had showed up at the Sandvik House riding a horse and swinging a sword, the tassel on his Kyrgistanian hat blowing in the wind, it would have just been one of his many stories.
Bill's son lived at the Sandvik House a few days, much to his trepidation. His father worked in Fairbanks for a summer, and had so much fun that he therefore sent his young son on a solo adventure to Alaska, from California, that winter, or sometime when there was snow on the ground and it was really cold. So what do you do with a small California school kid on his own without the social illusion of parental protection, when he shows up in the far frozen north? First you tell him all the bear stories, ignoring the fact that it is winter and the bears are hibernating somewhere out there just a bit beyond the edge of town. Throw in some stories about great big moose routinely wandering through the yard at night, from Dead Man Slough. Then you show him the pile of snow in the back yard, hand him a shovel and a sleeping bag, tell him to dig a snow cave, sleep there and come back in the house for breakfast. Wow. It was cold and dark out there. I sure would like to hear the stories he told his school classmates when he got back to California. The stories are probably not unlike some of the lies I have told.
Not unlike the freeway that went through Dead End Alley, the upstairs renter from hell eventually arrived, typical Alaskan off the end of one of the more unusual scales, who was not unlike the landlord at the time. So the Sandvik house fell into the shadow with Balrog the upstairs neighbor. We were outta there for new digs before the accumulating junk and garbage blocked out escape.
The flow of Sandvik residents and visitors over the years, arriving at a focal point of energy in the far frozen north, created an array of stories, which may be added here on occasion. The list of Sandvik House names is somewhere in a cardboard box. If you are among them, you may send your story.
7.9 on the richter scale is worth mention I suppose, desperate that it is, albeit as usual. Just another earthquake in Alaska, but with one of the larger numbers.
You Californians can skip this story. For the same richter number, you get to see buildings crumble. We only get to watch the spruce trees do the hootchy goochy. Trees have evolved rather well with earthquakes. Buildings are still trying to optimize their genetic structure to harmoniously evolve with earthquakes. Evolution is a slow process.
Fairbanks sits on some faults that move a few times each day, occasionally enough to feel. So things are always moving right along here, slow but with no surprises.
However, south of here a bit, across the Tanana flats and just on the other side of Mt. Hayes, Moffit, Deborah, Hess, and the whole list of them, is the Denali Fault. It is significant. It is under the Canwell Glacier, Black Rapids Glacier, Susitna Glacier and a gaggle of others in the middle of the Alaska Range, dividing the two primary tectonic plates of Alaska.
We moulin explorers tell jokes about being down in a Black Rapids Glacier moulin when the Denali Fault twitches. It finally twitched. You can tell from these words that I was not in a moulin at the time. The glacier ice cave scene down in those glaciers just got erased, big time. And an impressive rock avalanche swept across the entire width of Black Rapid Glacier, including up and over a high medial moraine. Way impressive.
We thought that the 6.7 shake, at the same epicenter on the south side of Mt. Deborah, a week before the 7.9, was a good show. It kept shaking so long that I begrudgingly got out of bed to turn on the light to chase the shaking away. That usually works for the night time earthquakes.
You ought to see a heavy 17 inch computer monitor react to a 7.9 earthquake. That is where I was sitting. I immediately complied with the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) regulation #715-83-2894013 (n). I walked to the front porch, grabbing a snack on the way through the kitchen, and watched the show. Of course the government got advanced warning, so the Alaska governor declared a state of emergency the moment the shaking started. The emergency was that there was not enough money in the pockets of the Alaska bureaucrats, so the federal tax money started flowing to more bureaucrats before the first shake stopped. The people will never see a dime of it. Alaska governors have now officially declared a state of emergency because there was an earthquake in Alaska, it snowed one winter in Alaska, and it got cold one winter in Alaska. That is fact of public record. Alaska governors, administering the richest and thus most greedy and corrupted State government in the nation, have defined states of emergency as did a famous small boy who once defined the cry of wolf, just to make government bureaucrats richer at the increased cost of taxpayers. Next an Alaska governor will hear someone shout wolf, and declare a state of emergency because there are wolves in Alaska. Well, if as many wolves as are in Alaska swarmed Rhode Island, they would declare a state of emergency, so we can too.
The shake was a good show. The house was jerking back and forth, my jeep was bouncing up and down, and the tall radio tower across the road was undulating top to bottom. The spruce trees where moving like a hurricane was ripping through them, except that the branches were all moving in different directions. If you tickled a tree until it peed its pants, it would shake like the earthquake was shaking them. Way bizarre sight. The epicenter was very near the surface, so the impact to we surface creatures was not dampened.
A couple roads in the Alaska Range got jerked apart and mushed, but Alaskans are accustomed to such roads, just from the effects of frost heaving. The Alaska oil pipeline was not affected, but the oil pipeline folks made the most of the excitement. The local liquor store floors were bathed in beverage. My wine got close to the edge of the shelf, but only close, or I would have already applied for FEMA emergency relief funds. The aftershocks offered entertainment for the next 24 hours. And in fact a week or so later when I am adding this sentence, we had two moderate shakers this morning.
And that is pretty much the story of another shake in Alaska. But the official state of emergency covers Fairbanks, where some liquor stores lost some wine covered by private insurance, but the local bureaucrats need government psychiatric trauma counseling for what would have been the threat of not getting more money for an emergency. Keep voting for those DemocanRepublicrats so you can keep sending more of your tax money up here to the richest government drones in the nation. Nobody is going to go up the Black Rapids Glacier to push those rocks out of the way so we climbers can ski up the glacier as usual. That is the real emergency, and we are being deprived.
There I was mind you, and I got away with this rhetorical scam on one of the previous pages of this website to slip in an Alaska story as far away as Nepal, so I figured I could easily stretch this story down to Arivaca Arizona, on account as I got the same excuses for doing so. First off, it was easier to go to Arivaca than actually go out into the Alaska mountains or other wilderness where there are bears and other dangerous things. And it is easier to write a new story than find an old one in a cardboard box somewhere. Next off I was on official Alaska adventure business as the delegate for the prestigious Alaskan Alpine Club representing the prestigious Alaska mountain climbers at the annual meeting of the prestigious International Union of Alpinist Associations (UIAA), in Flagstaff Arizona this year. They will not do that again. You can check out the official report on that amusing meeting at AlaskanAlpineClub.org. I think it is on the page labeled Concepts 2, and the article titled the UIAA Meeting or something like that.
Well, I fled the abject boredom of that meeting when I emptied the last wine bottle at the banquet, and headed for Arivaca, an obscure place out in the desert where some of the local folks share some similarities to Alaskans, twitch.
Cruising along there out on a rocky desert road on the Arivaca Ranch, I said to my brother, I said, Pull over. I want to see that snake. And he said, What snake?
The evening sun had just glinted off the back of the small snake slithering crossing the road, sufficient for my superior ability to spot a lawyer anywhere. Cute little snake. Red, yellow and black bands. They just did not make snakes that colorful where I was a kid in the State of Washington catching rattlesnakes and their less striking cousins. I put my cowboy hat in front of the snake on the road and let him crawl in, sose I could pick it up and get a closer look. It was only 18 inches long, or so. We stood there commenting on the docile little snake in my hat, and I eventually put him back down so he could crawl out of the hat and off to wherever he was going before he tolerated our rude interruption. There are a lot of pretty things out in the desert.
It was round-up time on the Arivaca Ranch, and to an Alaska mountain climber, a cattle round-up on a rangeland ranch is better than a 7.9 earthquake on the Black Rapids Glacier. This stuff is high quality adventure. There were about a dozen cowboys. I had a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, and they let me ride a horse. Close enough. But they did not have an extra pair of chaps, and they rightfully laughed about that. Do not do the mesquite, cats claw and occatio cactus thing on a horse, without chaps.
If you can ignore your sore butt, it is pretty darn worth the ride to go out into the upper Jalisco Canyon to watch cowboys rope the wild cattle that escaped the previous round ups and survived the cougars. The cattle have it in their mind that they do not want to go to the auction. I do not know why. An auction is interesting. There were cattle running full-out this way through the mesquite trees. And there were cattle running full-out that way through the mesquite trees. And there were cowboys on horses at full gallop through the same thorny trees, their lariats in full swing. Kinda funny when a lariat catches a mesquite branch, at full gallop, but do not tell any of the cowboys I said that.
And then when one of those cattle get roped, the excitement picks up a bit. These are the wild ones, not the ones that were successfully rounded up and herded back to the ranch. If you thought they did not like to be chased by the horses that they escaped in the previous round ups, you ought to see them when they get roped. That is when the vegetation gets modified, regardless of the thorns. The cow, the rope, the horse and the cowboy, sometimes several cowboys, expend a lot of energy dramatically modifying the vegetation. The object of that game is to get the cattle out to one of the rough roads or drivable washes where a pickup with a cattle trailer can reach them. Then the separate process of getting them into the trailer starts. Your best protection is to be on the horse. Get real nervous if you have to be on the ground. Things can happen real fast, with a lot of very reckless muscle behind them.
Oh, that snake. We looked it up in the encyclopedia. No mistake about it. It was a coral snake. Cute little thing, damn near as poisonous as a lawyer. Sure was a good thing I had a cowboy hat.
Some of the wild cattle are more clever than the cowboys, or there would be no wild cattle out there after each round-up. I was amused to watch the cowboys try to get a cow out of a mesquite thicket down in a draw. They gave up. And the more belligerent older bulls know the trick of going around and around the trunk of a large mesquite tree out in the open, while the cowboys shout colorful words, throw sticks and generally make themselves look like they are going to eventually give up. To get off the horse and go in under the branches of the tree to chase the bull out, is to take a chance on getting run back out from under the tree. In fact, some of those old bulls and steers will lose their sense of humor and run the horses outta there too. This round-up game is not one-sided.
The more cooperative cattle are first herded to one of the tank corrals out on the range. A tank is a water hole, natural or concrete, with or without a windmill. There, one can watch the equitarian poetry of a good corral horse with a good cowboy. You will not see a better cowboy than Eme, in his eighties, regal in stature and smiling with the knowledge of being in his eighties. The horse and rider make small fluid motions, and the cattle dart to where they are supposed to be.
While the round-up offers some of the cattle the opportunity to be taken to town to see a real cattle auction, the calves are offered a different adventure. This story is not for peta members. The calves are brought into one of the corrals. Their first indication that all is not as they might wish it to be is when they get roped around the neck, which appears to be a bit uncomfortable. That is when the dust cloud starts. Next thing they know their hind legs somehow got roped and are no longer underneath them. Then the biggest needle you have ever seen suddenly gets stuck into their neck, with a glob of goo that is supposed to be good for them, squeezed into them. About the same time the little boy calves are suddenly no longer little boy calves, and any non-ranch or non-farm boy might glance off into the distance and squirm a bit. Nubbins of new horns are cut off without surgical precision, and a red hot rod of steel sears the stubs, with a smell recognized by every barbecue grillmeister who ever wandered over to the beer keg for a bit too long. Just about the moment that little experience creates the most profound headache you can imagine, for the calf, a larger chunk of red hot steel with some rancher's favorite little doo-dad shape gets pushed against the calf's hide, for no few moments, to mix the smell of burning hair and hide with the thick dust stirred up by the next calf objecting to the aforementioned. They do not show the real thing in the cowboy movies.
So when they ran out of propane for the branding iron fire, of course I was selected to gather mesquite wood for an old fashioned fire. Cowboy 101 includes a lot of off-horse time.
Cowboy 102 involves a little horse stuff. I want to warn you that you could be given a horse who knows what to do around cattle. I was out by myself chasing a couple strays to get them back to the herd some distance away, on account as it took that far to get close to them after they ran away from the herd. We were running fast when the cows decided that they could not get away, and just as well turn back, rather suddenly. So the horse did to, without warning me. It was like opening the outside door on a car that is turning. I did not come off that saddle, but I am glad there were no cowboys out there to see how close I so awkwardly came. I survived because the horse could not keep running while laughing that hard.
On one occasion I was standing by my horse, under a mesquite tree, waiting for some other cowboys to catch up with some of the stray cattle lingering out away from the herd, and I was looking down at my boots, for no real reason, when I noticed an arrowhead laying right there on the top of the dirt out in the middle of nowhere. We hunters enjoy finding evidence of our previous colleagues. There are still arrowheads laying in the desert, along with some old 30-30 rounds as well. That land has made many stories.
But some of the cowboy movie scenes are real. There we were, a dozen cowboys galloping across the mesquite range, heading back to the ranch at the end of the day. Some of the boys wore white hats, and some black. Some carried their lariat coils in one hand. The angry roiling clouds low in the sky were what you will only see in the Lord of the Rings. A huge prow wave was blown through the dark clouds by a rouge wind. The loud crack of thunder and flashes of lightening startled the horses each time, their nervous energy unpredictable and not always contained. Glowing orange shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds, silhouetting Babaquivari, a dark mountain spire on the northern horizon, vertical on each side visible from the south. Mordor is less impressive than Babaquivari, home of the Papago Indian gods. Heavy rain drops threw orange splatters of light off the brims of the cowboy hats. The smell of fresh storm rain mixed with that of the mesquite and desert soil. A small herd of deer fled into a draw, and a lone vulture soared by with the speed of the wind. The air was uncertain, and the ranch was yet a long way ahead. Somebody call Hollywood. I think we can duplicate that scene.
The scene back at the ranch did not slow down. The goal was to get the cattle into a double deck cattle truck. That was not on the schedule of some of the more honary cattle. That is why the corral fence leading to the chute going up into the truck is made of heavy planks, and high. Well, one large-horned wild steer was among those whose personal schedule did not fit that of the cowboys. It was trying to gore each of us who were politely encouraging it to go up the chute, safe on our side of the planks. About the time I recognized from the look on its eyes inches away, through the planks, that this somewhat irritated individual was going to do a seemingly impossible standing jump up over the fence to get at me, I lunged up and over the other plank fence next to me, at no less than panic speed. I hit the ground on the other side at the same time that big steer hit the ground with a full body roll right where my boot prints had been. I was impressed. He stood up, looked around, and was last seen still running. He had been taught the whole round-up procedure again, and escaped with the knowledge. Maybe next year. Maybe never.
The cattle truck driver mentioned that the wildest cattle in Arizona come from that ranch. If I had knowed that ahead of time I would not have been as casual around the cattle as I was with that snake.
Riding a horse across the range is all fine and all, but there are other Arivaca adventures to be had. Flying a powered parachute across the same range, through the canyons and up and around the rocky hills, is what we air cowboys do, and it is not so hard on your butt. For those not in the know, a powered parachute is an ultralight aircraft, with a rectangular parachute for a wing, rather than a rigid wing. You sit in a seat on three wheels, with a small engine and propeller behind you on the frame, and a parachute spread out on the ground behind that. Moments after you push the throttle forward, you are suspended from the parachute, and wondering if you did the right thing. Unlike the less comfortable saddle on a horse, a powered parachute has a seat belt, so you cannot fall off at a sudden turn or errant gust of wind. The folks who make saddles do not yet attach seat belts, but they will be required to do so as soon as the police find out that saddles do not have seat belts. In other countries you have to bribe the police at their idle whim. In this country they call it a fine for a ticket, for the same idle whims that government drones write into what they amusingly call laws, and you have to bribe both the police and judge, on record. It is the same regressive system of jumping through illogical hoops made by government idiots who have no life of their own. Every government has different names for the same process. You need not obey any government seat belt laws while flying a power parachute. However, the laws of physics apply, and have never been successfully violated. One day I took it up high, and looked down on Mexico. I was thinking of making a run for the border, but the Mexican federales are almost as bad as the American federales so I decided to keep suffering in our own police state. I flew beside a quizzical vulture and a confused hawk for awhile. Down on the deck I flew beside a coyote running through the mesquite. Tighten your seat belt and keep your hand on the throttle flying through the mesquite. Do not try to lariat nothing neither.
And there we jolly well have it yet again on the old Arivaca Ranch.