Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Dogs Might Have Helped Us Beat the Neanderthals

Just maybe, the ability of dogs to run far, the way we feel like we can almost read our dogs’ minds and feel like they can read ours, the way we have great empathy and reverence for them and the way they seem to make us happy, and how they get wary when we get upset and perky when we’re happy, is because humans have been roaming the wilderness, surviving with their dogs for perhaps as long as 40,000 years or more. In that time dogs and humans have grown close, it’s like they’ve melded into one social unit, with the dog and the human feeling happy in the presence of the other. Perhaps that’s why depressed people feel a little better when they’re petting a dog, or why so many people today enjoy going on a walk with their dogs in the woods or in the park. It’s hardwired in our brains now over ages of evolution. If it weren’t for the dog, we might not be here today. The dog wasn’t just a human pet, thousands of years ago, but a true life partner; on the hunt, around the hearth, and asleep in their shelter at night. Dogs weren’t loathed as an annoyance to be put up with, but revered like an earthly deity. Some say dogs helped modern humans beat the Neanderthals.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Birth by C Section

My mother almost bled to death while giving birth to me. The placenta kept trying to come out first and my head was too big to fit through the birth canal. The doctors couldn’t get my heartbeat, so we both almost died in childbirth. It was the most blood they’d ever seen and the nurses left my mother lying drenched and delirious in a pool of it so the doctors would know how much she’d lost. “It was like turning on a faucet,” my mother said to me when I was grown. “I could feel the blood gushing out.” With little time and few options, they had to do a Cesarean section to get me out and save my mother. 

     The nurses lined out a stockpile of sterile instruments that looked like alien torturing devices, polished steal with shimmering sharp edges. Frantic and delirious, my mother knew there was no turning back. There are a few times in your life when the decisions you’ve made are irreversible and you must go forward no matter what happens. I had to be born if either of us were to live.

     They pasted one special blanket on my mother’s stomach as they prepped her for surgery. The doctor had to slice through the walls of the abdomen and the uterus before reaching me. Babies weren’t supposed to be delivered like this. They were supposed to be squeezed out with the life-giving embryonic fluids, not cut out through inches of vascular tissues.

     The surgery progressed quite rapidly - It had to. It was touch and go for some time during the operation and no one really knew if we would live, but we both pulled through. At eight and a half pounds, I was the biggest premature baby the nurses had ever seen, and they commented on my large well-proportioned head. It hadn’t been squashed going through the pelvic bones like some heads get.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Losing Dog

After seven months hiking across the Brooks Range in Alaska, I lose my dog on the second to last day,
As I’m cresting the back side of Crow Mountain and entering a wide spruce grove, Will runs off chasing a moose. Since I’m so close to Old Crow –about three miles - I keep walking and figure he will catch up with no problem. But I’m dead wrong. After about fifteen minutes I slow up to wait for him in a different place than where I lost him. Being so heavily forested with some brush underneath, it makes the terrain look all the same, and I can’t find the point where I lost him.

     After about thirty minutes of waiting around, pacing and looking through the trees, I get concerned. Then I hear Will howling far off in the distance near the edge of the steep slope we’ve just come up. His voice is barely perceptible above the wind and the rattling trees. I start shouting as loud as I can, knowing that when he howls like this, it means he’s lost and can’t find my scent. I don’t fully expect him to be able to hear my voice since it’s not as strong as his. I run through the woods toward his voice, shouting for him all the way, but when I get near where I thought it had been coming from, it has stopped. In his confusion and likely desperation to find me, he has moved on to look for me somewhere else. I’m afraid of losing him so far from home and deep in the Canadian wilderness.

     I have to signal him somehow before he runs too far in the wrong direction, and when he’s desperate he can really cover some ground in a hurry and get so far away that I might never hear him. Quickly, I yank out my shotgun and fire two shots in the air – my last two shells. Since he has heard my gun before, I figure he will associate it with me and come charging my way. I wait about ten minutes for him, but he doesn’t come and I hear nothing over the swaying trees but rushing wind. I still can’t find the place where I lost him. I get jerky with panic and change directions several times trying to make up my mind what to do. Finally, I run back to the place I had originally waited for him, hoping and listening.

     “He should have showed up by now,” I say for no one to hear but myself. I don’t know what to do. Another forty minutes passes and still nothing, just the cold wind. “I can’t fucking believe it.” I’ve lost my dog on the second to the last day after we’ve spent months together. It just doesn’t make any sense. I can wait here for a few days at most, but since I’m almost out of food, I will have to go on to Old Crow soon without him. There I could get more food and come back. But by then he could be in a far different region, possibly going days all the way back to Alaska searching for me in such wild regions that there would be no person to help him, just marauding wolves.

     For the next thirty minutes I wait and blow my whistle over and over. I brought it just for this occasion, hoping it would never arise. Will is so thin that he wouldn’t last more than a week on his own. I pace back and forth, listening and looking, hoping for some clue to where he went. I can’t accept him being gone, not like Jimmy who died, tormented with body spasms and soft, rapid shrieks. All I could do for him was hold his fitful head in my arms while he suffered, stroke his skin and tell him it was going to be okay. “It’s okay Jimmy, it’s okay buddy, just let go, just let go,” I said to him. But it wasn’t going to be okay for him and I didn’t want him to die; I didn’t want him to leave me. He didn’t want to die, not at five years of age, strong and in the prime of his life. Stubbornly loving his life, he fought the tweaks and body convulsions for two hours as the cancerous cells invaded his nervous system. He died just before midnight in one last, drawn out breath, his body tight with contractions, which told me he was still fighting for air. Another breath never came, and a minute later his body relaxed and became still, and he passed into my memory forever – the finest dog I ever had.

     I don’t want Will to suffer an uncertain outcome, or death. I contemplate running down the valley where he took off after the moose, but it’s so dense that I’m not even sure how far that way he went. Will is known for running off in one direction and showing up twenty minutes later from the opposite direction, so it’s best to stay put. I need to stay close to where I lost him. I have trees for shelter and pools of water in the spongy soil to drink from. I will wait here looking for him for a year if I have to.

     After another hour of walking around, he comes trotting up through the brush from the original area where I lost him. He’s wagging his tail like crazy when he sees me, but he’s obviously winded and tired. “You crazy knucklehead,” I say merrily while stroking his fur over and over. “Sorry I lost you buddy, sorry I lost you.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Catching a Giant Pike In Alaska

This isn’t an easy place to find. I find it mainly by luck, since the maps I have of the river aren’t very
accurate. I’ve sought out this river because I believe there will be large northern pike, which is often the case where a large river meets another. The Black River, as its name suggests, is indeed dark – nearly black. Its banks are low, grassy, and muddy instead of sandy or gravely. The mouth of the river is about four hundred meters wide and its sheer length with all the many loops and turns stretches perhaps three hundred miles or more, with its headwaters in the Olgilvie Mountains in Canada over a hundred air miles away. It’s a wild and rugged region up the river, and very few people travel through it.
     I once read about one young couple who left Vermont and spent their entire summer pulling and paddling their canoe up the Black. It’s the reason I’ve come here; to see what lured them here. I find more, endless spruce forests back over the bank of course, and some grass growing along the edges where the river empties sluggishly into the Porcupine on the far side. I beach my canoe, and because the water is fairly clear, I start fishing.Now more than ever because I'm out of food, days from the nearest village, and hungry as hell. I don't take killing animals lightly, but do it with great respect and only when I need to eat to stay alive. 
      With the broiling sun beating down and a rare lack of any breeze, I pull the brim of my hat down low and wade out into the knee-high slough and grass for one last cast. I fling my line about thirty feet off shore into water that’s about five feet deep, with a muddy bottom. I start reeling in my line right away, wrapping it around my round block of wood almost as fast as I can. Northern pike are voracious predators with toothy mouths and large bony skulls. They like to go after prey that moves fast, and they like to hit it hard. Sometimes when I reach my hand into the water to get something I dropped, I get a little squeamish thinking a pike might bite my hand.
     Before I get the first cast in, bam, a fish strikes my lure and runs hard with it for a couple of seconds. I give a tug and it runs again, yanking my line off the block of wood, hissing with rapidity until most of my line is drawn tight across the river. Not wanting to break my eight-pound test line, I let the fish run several times, trying to tire it. I try to reel the fish in when the line slackens, but I don’t always get very far before it runs again and pulls out more line. Feeling the weight and power on my line, the fish is a giant compared to the rest I’ve caught and I don’t have a clue on how I’m going to land it.
     Then I get an idea. I make my way over to the small beach where I have my canoe, fumbling through the mud and weedy water while playing the fish and making sure my line stays taunt, but not tight enough to allow the fish to break it. And this isn’t always easy to do. There’s a fine line when playing a huge pike like this. You have to respect it and not expect too much and get your hopes dashed. The majority of Northern Pike will probably break your line or throw the hook. They’re that strong and ferocious. I’ve had far more on than I’ve landed. You have to let them run, but you have to bring them in when they give you an inch of slack.
     While holding my wooden reel with one hand, I push half my canoe in the water with my other hand. I leave the other half sitting on a flat sandy beach. The canoe, angled against the beach at about sixty degrees, acts as a funnel so that when I get the fish into the opening of it, it won’t be able to bolt to the side and run again. Not having anywhere to go but back, it might use its own power to propel itself up against my canoe and onto the beach.
     Once the canoe is set, I ease the fish to shore several times, its massive missile-shaped body slipping ahead just below the water line like a dark lethal torpedo. Half a dozen times, it shakes its head and shoots out from shore into deeper water like a jet boat, leaving me feeling helpless to get the fish in. I’m sure I’m going to lose it. Its speed and strength seem insurmountable by my flimsy fishing gear – or any fishing gear for that matter. I’m almost certain it will break my line at any moment, like much smaller pike have already done, but I keep playing it to see how the battle will end, letting the fish run with the line at will and not attempting to force it onto shore before it has gotten tired. And with uncertain days ahead of me, I will surely eat the meat.
     The tenacious fish refuses to give in; it’s a survivor, evolutionarily nearly flawless, who has gotten so big by its aggressiveness to catch prey. But now this same aggressiveness has caused it to be hooked by my lure. Most fish in these waters have never seen a lure or been fished before. The pike around here think everything they can fit in their mouth is food or something to be tried. I reel it in time after time, perhaps a dozen in all, and each time I bring it in, it reacts by tossing its head, spinning around, and rocketing away from shore. My arms are actually starting to get tired.
     After about twenty minutes the fish does tire somewhat, as far as I can tell, so I ease it to shore again. “What the hell,” I say. “It’s now or never.” Then at the last second before it bolts and breaks my line, I slide the fusiform fish quickly along the side of my canoe where it can’t get away easily. It gives a half-hearted attempt to swim away, but the only direction it seems to be able to go is forward toward the canoe and the beach. It doesn’t seem to have the ability to turn completely around and shoot out the way it had come in. Without it jerking to the side, I slide it up onto shore. Then I jump on it, literally straddling the fish with my legs and using both hands to hold it from shaking loose and slipping back into the water. I start to get up while holding it in both hands, but the fish jerks in my hands and causes me to fall down over my canoe, banging my knee in the process. I land on my side in the soft mud so manage to still hold the fish in my hands while rolling back over on my knees. “Holy shit,” I mumble. I’m not starving yet, I but I could be if the weather turns severe and I can’t paddle for days. I don’t enjoy killing animals, but by keeping all the meat this fish provides, it will help insure my survival and ability to get out of here.
     I hold the fish for about thirty seconds, before standing up. Then I pen it against the gunnel of my canoe with one hand and my legs. I reach inside my canoe to get hold of my paddle, where I then start beating it on the skull to kill it, bashing it several times as fast as I can. I believe in the quick clean kill. If I’m going to kill something, I don’t want it to linger and make a show of it. I just want to get it done before the fish has more time to become more afraid. There’s nothing pleasurable in it for me. It’s just survival.
     This fish doesn’t die as quickly as I would have liked. After I smash it in the head the first time, its eyes widen with fear and its muscles tighten. I feel bad, but there’s no turning back now. I continue the kill, hoping to make it as merciful as possible. But can you really be merciful at killing something? I hit it again five more times hard and quick before it dies. Blood and slime splatters onto my arms and face. I (or my dog) always eat what I kill, and sometimes I eat stuff I don’t kill, the entire thing, head tail, organs, everything except the large intestines, which I dry and use for small pieces of cord to tie things. If I’m going to ruin a life that has been succeeding in its environment, perhaps happily, before I so arrogantly muddled in, then I have the obligation to respect it and not waste any portion of it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Almost Home from the Brooks Range

Caribou Bar Creek

Some of my last hours in my seven-month trek across the Brooks Range.

Instead of continuing around on the ridge, I come right off it on a direct course toward the mountain hoping to save some time. It’s lower in elevation and likely brushier, but shorter. The terrain turns out hellish. I get right into the thick of ten-foot high brush and boggy ground for hours, and then a burned area miles long that has left tall grass and swamp in place of what used to be a lush spruce forest. I have to step up a notch again to match the difficulty of the terrain. The only thing that keeps me going is my clear view of Shaltah Mountain to remind me how close I am to Old Crow. I’m almost home, so I plug away, staying calm and exerting the same constant effort.  I continue to make progress though, and keep at it, step after step, sloshing through the arctic swamp and weeds. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and this gives me motivation to keep going.

     At Caribou Bar Creek grass and brush are everywhere. It’s swift and over my waist from all the rain in the last week. Later I will learn that this has been the wettest summer on record. I set up camp for the night. I cook black beans over an open fire until close to midnight, but just as I finish a hail storm starts so I take the pot of beans into my tent for the night. The hail storm is the worse I’ve ever seen and the ice particles hit my tent so hard I’m afraid they’re going to punch holes in it and tear it to shreds. I wait and worry, and start gathering up my gear in case everything gets wet and I have to spend the night without a tent.

     And I wait, sitting up and not sleeping until the storm passes, with Will curled up in a ball watching me. “Enough already,” I yell at the top of my lungs. The hail still falls hard, and lightning flashes over my tent with a bolt touching down one hundred yards away. I duck down, covering my head with my arms. It’s like the earth is shattering and ripping apart in a thundery volley of mega bombs and spraying shrapnel. The hail falls for a solid hour, and then suddenly, it’s all over. To my relief my tent is still intact. During the night it gets so cold that I have dreams of shooting down an Olympic bobsled course on my belly.

     When I wake up the next morning my tent is now at the creek’s edge. It has risen a foot or more during the night, and the sides of my tent are buried in a foot of hail. I have to dig out. I start out the day in my rain gear, wading the creek to my waste in some rapids, which is the shallowest place. Then I hike for three hours through more brush, tall grass, and swamp. My feet are soaked from the first few steps of the day, and within an hour they started hurting from the wet cold and ice - swamp grass, and frigid water for several miles. I pass a duck looking for her baby after the storm, and a minute later the baby waddles right by Will and me in full view, like he’s too cold and worn out from the storm to be cautious. I leave the baby in peace so the mother can find him.

     Later in the day as I climb up what I thought was the last pass before descending the other side into Old Crow, I start to warm up and stride out. I’m hiking fast like I’m doing a day trip in the mountains of Oregon when I was twenty-five. It feels great to finally be slim and in shape and to now have a light pack, almost empty of food. I’m almost home and nothing can stop me now, or so it seems. After days of despondence, suffering, and self-doubt, I’m invincible now. “Get out of my way,” I keep saying. “I’ve just hiked the Brooks Range. What you think of that.” I’m talking to all the obstacles I’ve crossed in the last four weeks, and even the ones on my previous trips: rivers, lakes, bogs, brush, grass, mountains, cliffs, wild animals, starvation, exhaustion, biting insects, and forest fires. I’ve beaten them all, becoming the kind of person I’ve always dreamed I could be: a man of the mountains and forest, walking to Old Crow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Tasman Sea by Kayak

While canoeing down the windy waters of the Porcupine River this summer in Canada and Alaska with my dog, wondering if I would capsize and have to struggle for shore in the massive current, I knew it could be worse.

Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley disappeared while kayaking alone for thirty days from Tasmania to New Zealand in an attempt to be the first person to make the crossing in a kayak. It was the treacherous southern ocean really, 1600 kilometers of probably some of most terrifying waters on the planet, and experts of sea travel said it couldn’t be done – suicidal for anyone who tried. But Andrew was no ordinary man, driven on for his love of testing himself in nature’s most inhospitable places.

     To sleep, he had to lay in his kayak during the night, in a confined mummy position – one arm across his body because there wasn’t room for both his arms to fit alongside. He had built a bubble out of some tough industrial plastic that enclosed his cockpit and protected him from the waves while he slept, and if he capsized the bubble would displace the water underneath and force his kayak to right itself. In a sense his vessel became like a self-contained bubble, bouncing around and rolling on the high, perilous Tasman seas, with him sealed safely inside, but being thrown around violently. Waves ten meters high, massive hummers, gigantic enough to sink a destroyer, tossed him around like a spec of sand. He fell out more than once. But toward the end of his journey, one of the lever arms of his bubble, which moved it into place as needed, broke, spelling tragedy.

     With the coast of New Zealand in view trouble arose. He sent and emergency radio transmission, which was picked up by rescue agencies and his support team. In the message you could hear his garbled desperation, and the last words of a loving father, husband, and remarkable explorer. His mayday call went like this, muffled and slurred by the water and wind:


Do you copy? This is kayak one. Do you copy, over?

I’ve got an emergency situation.

I’m in a kayak about 30 kilometers from Milford Sound.

My kayak’s sinking.

Fell off into the sea.

And I’m going down.


      When rescue workers reached his last position, Andrew was gone – only his battered kayak was found. And missing was his dry suit. Some say he was surely caught by a rogue wave, the size of a building, which were notorious along the coast of New Zealand, and that he probably died from drowning after getting hypothermia. His wife was in shock and distraught after hearing the news and his young son would grow up never really knowing his father. But all those who knew him, had great respect for his kindness and willingness to take on such challenges, to really live even though we all must die.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tribe on the Run

The Awá know their forests intimately. Every valley, stream and trail is inscribed on their mental map. They know where to find the best honey, which of the great trees of the forest are coming into fruit, and when the game is ready to be hunted. To them, the forest is perfection: they cannot dream of it being developed or improved upon.
As nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Awá are always on the move. But not aimlessly wandering, for it is precisely their nomadic way of life which nurtures a fundamental bond with their lands. They cannot conceive of moving on, of leaving the place of their ancestors. - Survival International

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Simple Life of a Writer

Hiking and writing was all I ever liked doing,
Even in my younger days.
Everything else seemed to just get in the way,
Mindless hang-ups – nuisances,
Like going to the damn DMV.
But when I could walk through the woods for two days
And then write for three,
Nothing could stop me.
Man, I felt like a giant.
I could sit and write when I woke up,
Take a break and run some hills, –
I have to get in my work out daily
Or I go to crap –
And then go back to my writing in the afternoon,
Lighter work though with some piddling around,
In my room tinkering with books and shelves,
Tidying up, editing some work on the keyboard
And drinking some cheap red wine,
Not the ten-dollar a bottle stuff,
But the four-dollar poison
While I drain out my thoughts onto paper.
That would have made Bukowski proud.
The wine, the writing, the trees, breathing hard,
Is the pithy center of a simple life.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Gray, Gurngy Light

A poem I wrote.

I had a grim recurring dream.
I'm stuck with no future
In the center of some mega city.
Feels like Detroit.
I have no education,
Not enough to matter anyway in a tanked economy.
Most people struggle bitterly to get by.
There are many people who become my half-friends.
Nameless chums.
But without nature it’s really hard to connect with anyone.
How can you when you worry about your future so much,
A slave to industry.
There’s always some little boss you fear a little,
Hovering over you like a buzzard,
Waiting for you to screw up and die.
You don’t want to lose your job when times are hard,
But you hate it almost enough not to care.
I worked six days a week in a dreaded, noisy factory,
For seven dollars an hour.
There was a woman in my dream,
But I didn’t have the energy to pursue her,
Since I was depressed about having a dismal future.
Even with this job I would never have much.
No house, no time off, and no real life.
Just a few half-friends I would never really get to know.
Acquaintances who kept some distance.
Everyone did.
And all of us together didn’t have a clue on how to revolt,
Or change the system.
It was completely an industrial, soot-filled world,
And the closest thing we knew about nature
Was some cruddy city gutters.
We had never been in nature so we didn’t know
What the world was supposed to be like.
We became like clones,
Automated in our actions
Because our minds had been dulled
By the droned-out world of a smoky and overpopulated city.
An overpopulated world.
I remember having lunch with my half-friends.
We were in a busy hall,
With no windows,
But one wall missing so the gray, grungy light could seep in.
All the workers were sitting and eating at splintered wooden tables.
I couldn’t enjoy the food and company.
Eating with other people should always feel like a celebration.
But I had to go to work in an hour
And I was dreading (like always) the beginning of a ten-hour shift.
I hated the factory.
It was big, dark, and clunky,
Full of man-made machines with large steel wheels and cogs.
The woman I could see across the table had long brown, straight hair,
And a smooth, well proportioned face – a real beauty.
She was out of my reach,
Because I had no future in the world,
None that contained happiness anyway.
So I had no drive.
In my dream I didn’t even know about nature,
Or wild refuges.
I’m not sure if they existed anymore.
They might have been a thing of the past,
Centuries before when the sky was bright and blue.
I think of that woman mostly,
And what could have been.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Man in Borneo

Bruno Manser, a Swiss Man, hiked into the mountainous jungle of Borneo alone, and lived with the nomadic Penan for six years back in the 1980’s. He disappeared without a trace in 2000, near the border of Kalimantan. He wanted a simple life in the forest, and hoped that the Penan could continue their way of life. 

Things to do for a Good Long Life

Here are five things you can do to live a long, healthy life.
Eat a healthy diet. I like a lot old fashion oatmeal.
Get plenty of sleep. Nine solid hours or more, especially if you exercise.
Don't take too many drugs. Keep alcohol and caffeine intake down too. They affect sound sleep.
Reduce stress. It's a true killer, creating havoc all through the body.
And get a pet. Dogs are known to bring on a calming effect.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Chow's Stubborn Invincibility

My dog Chong, a black chow, used to lay out in the middle of the road and stop traffic. It was only a short road so cars never ran him over. They always stopped for him, and he still wouldn't move - just give that stubborn and aloof chow stare, and not budge an inch. Now if you know chows, you know that nothing can make them do anything they don’t want to do. I named him after watching a Cheech and Chong movie back in the eighties.

I stuck him in my car one night with the windows down after realizing someone had been stealing my gas. That night all hell broke loose, and I never had my gas stolen again.

I flew him up to Tok, Alaska to live with me when I was stationed in the Coast Guard. I climbed Mount Shasta with him when he was five. I took Chong all over. We drove up to Alaska when he was ten, and kayaked for a month in the fjords of the Southeast. I woke one morning to see him staring down four wolves. He was nose to nose with the Alpha male, but he didn't show one hint of fear, even though they would have likely ripped him to pieces had I not yelled. Chows don't have any fear at all, none, just stubborn invincibility. They’re unbeatable for their weight, and never lose their balance; another dog can’t throw them off their feet. And their strength is out of this world.

After he was ten, he started slowing down, and I gradually tapered his daily work out to fit his aging body. By thirteen, he wasn't running anymore, not even trotting, just doing a couple miles at a walking pace - his pace. By fourteen, I was only walking him a mile, sometimes just half a mile. It would have taken me all day to go any farther, and frankly, that was good enough for Chong. He went at his own pace. He went at his own pace his entire life, so why change now. He was so stubborn and strong I thought he might live forever. But a few months later, Chong died. My father found him out back one day, flies buzzing around him. The only two regrets I have about him dying, is that dogs don't live long enough and that I wasn't there to see him pass. I'm not going to ever make that mistake again with any other dog I get. They deserve me being there when they pass. After all, they give their entire lives to us.

Looks Like Doom

Here's a poem I wrote about riding out of the Brooks Range in a helicopter.

Riding back on the helicopter really scares me.
Not because I’m aloft in a heavy, steel machine
That can’t fly a lick if the engines fail,
Not at all.
What scare me are the countless forest fires I see.
I’m not afraid of getting burned.
It looks like a world in the throws of a smoldering and burning apocalypse.
The last days of existence
With the orange glow of a circular sun
Trying to shine through a choking haze.
The imposing columns of smoke have risen above the helicopter.
They’re gigantic and take up most of my view
And are still being fed by the burning of trees and plants down below.
This can’t be natural.
It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
I hardly avert my eyes from the window
Except to look at my dogs
Sound asleep at my feet.
The dogs and I wear earplugs.
Despite the thumping of the rotor blades and the scream of the engine
They doze like babies.
I’m afraid these fires were never meant to be.
A reflection of the hand of modern man.
The fires are only the beginning of the true scorching,
Of what is yet to come,
The exhumation of the Earth’s surface.
That’s what I’m afraid might be happening.
The sky is so filled with smoke
That it looks like we are flying through a perpetual cloud,
Not quite so dense enough so I can’t see.
It’s like a white veil surrounding the whole world.
And the sun in its orbit appears perfectly round,
A circular sphere glowing,
Trying to shed light on the charred remains of the planet.
I see images like battlefields in a bombed and obliterated landscape.
It looks like doom,
And this frightens the hell out of me.

But then the fires end abruptly
Like there is an invisible line they can’t cross,
Like we’ve made a deal with the natural forces,
Or the unnatural forces if you like.
There’s hope.
Except for the hazy sky,
All looks again like it should be.
There is mile after mile of taiga forest,
And views of rivers and creeks
Threading across the forest in a serpentine pattern.
The land I’ve always imagined.
The way it is supposed to be.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kayaking Across Alaska With a Dog

It’s true what they say about a river being the lifeblood of a continent, like the blood pumping through your veins. I never fully understood this at first, but it was a lesson that would surge through me by the time I was done. 13 years ago I paddled across Alaska with my dog Jonny riding in the bow of my kayak. I couldn’t bear to leave him behind, so I hacked out a hole in my kayak and took Jonny to Alaska. We spent 67 days kayaking down the Yukon, and I had never seen my dog so alive.

Once on the trip, during the night just down-river, a grizzly bear woke Jonny up out of a dead sleep. He smelled the bear and started barking and growling like the world was ending. I knew what it was by the sound of his barking, and I nearly freaked for a second as I was waking up. I looked out the tent door, which I had left open except for the bug screen. I did this when I was in grizzly country if the weather was nice; it allowed Jonny to hear and smell what was outside. From the tone of Jonny’s growls and barks, I was pretty certain what I was going to see before I glanced outside. I saw a large bear standing upriver on the bank forty yards away. He had stopped walking to see what I would do. I pulled on my running shoes and scrambled out of my tent. I kept Jonny on a leash, and carried my shotgun in my other hand. I sat on the dirt in full view with almost no clothes on. Remaining completely calm was critical. I talked softly to the bear to ease his apprehension. He grunted and blew air huffishly to warn me, but I kept sitting there mumbling to the bear while looking down at the dirt in front of me like an indigent half-wit, so that maybe he would take pity on me and not feel so threatened. I didn’t want to look directly at the bear or stare into his eyes, but I needed to watch him out of the corner of my eye. Surprisingly I wasn’t really that afraid of the bear, but I was shivering from the cool night air. Some elusive sense I had informed me he only wanted to go on his way past my tent, and continue foraging for food along the river. Perhaps my incognizant brain was cuing in on thousands of particles of information that I couldn’t perceive consciously. Bears need to eat a lot; so keeping him from his routine made me feel bad and made him irritated. Even when bears aren’t doing anything else, they will often be grazing on fresh grass. I’ve seen them eat enormous quantities of grass. My presence was even keeping the bear from doing that.

     Eventually he walked up into the woods perturbed, and bulldozed his way through the brush around my camp to get back to the river. I heard large sticks cracking as he walked like he was holding a grudge. This is a good way to tell what kinds of animals are moving through the forest when you can’t see them. Bears are flat-footed like people. They walk on the pads of their feet, like raccoons, not on the tips of their digits like ungulates and canines. Bears put their feet on branches and break them as they walk, while ungulates walk on their toes, and put their feet between branches as they walk because they have less surface area to catch the branches. Bears make a lot of noise when they walk. They don’t really have anything to be afraid of either. With their hulking bodies and big feet, I’m not sure they can help it.

      The noise the bear was making ceased abruptly. This told me he had stopped to study us through the trees. I couldn’t see him in the shadows, but I knew he was there. He remained for half and hour, until I heard him start walking again to finish the half-circle around my camp. Then he went on his way, apparently satisfied with us. I could hear his branch-breaking fade off in the woods, and in the dimly lit July night I remained awake to make sure he wasn’t coming back. I never saw him reemerge out of the forest to walk the river’s edge, but I felt satisfied he didn’t want to bother us.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Dog Saddened by the Loss of His Brother

There is no doubt, that when two dogs are close, and one dies, the other feels saddened by the loss.

When I was sixteen, I had a Dalmatian named Jake. A few years later I got an adult German short hair named Buck from the pound. They became close friends, and we hiked daily in the hills together. A year later, Buck ingested something and went into convulsions, slipped into a coma, and died three days later. I buried Buck on the hill behind our house, but I forgot to show Jake that Buck was gone. Jake grew incredibly sad and a week later, he disappeared and never came back. I scoured the woods and hills and called all the animal shelters in the area, but there was no sign of Jake. I never saw him again. In a few short weeks, I had lost both my dogs and felt empty.

Now in my forties, I’ve gone through the same thing again with my two large Airedales. Jimmy passed away leaving his brother Will alone. However, this time I kept Will in the same room while Jimmy succumbed to lymphoma after an eight-month battle. After Jimmy breathed his last breath and I stopped crying and composed myself enough, I let Will come forward, who was watching with concern the entire time. Will licked Jimmy’s ear and head for about fifteen minutes, and before I put dirt over him in his grave, I let Will see him, and again Will licked Jimmy’s ear in a final farewell. The two of them had done everything together.

Will is a little sadder now without Jimmy, but I let him play with my parent’s dog named Zeke (a German short hair) as much as I can, and that perks Will up because he remembers the time when I used to take all three dogs hiking together. I think Will remembers a little bit of Jimmy in Zeke, when the two of them run in the woods together. Soon I plan to get another Airedale, so Will will have someone to wrestle with again.


Sunday, September 30, 2012

Jump Off Joe Mountain

I thought I could hike around Jump off Joe Mountain in a few hours, arriving at the trailhead late in the morning and getting back home in time to make a pasta salad for dinner, but I was dead wrong. East of Sweet Home about twenty miles, my dog and I started out on the old pioneer wagon road that winds over Santiam pass from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to Bend. I began by hiking up the trail a few miles before cutting overland toward the peak. I had to wade a fast flowing creek on a log spanning the river, and while I was doing that I watched my dog as he swam. Be observant when your dog wades or swims across a creek; he or she can get hung up on a log jam and be pinned or swept under. They can’t push themselves off the obstacle like a person can.

     After crossing the creek I trudged uphill toward the east shoulder of the mountain, using the mountain itself for dead reckoning, so I wouldn’t get lost. I’ve always had a good sense of direction in the woods, not as good as a dog though. I clamored over logs with my dog, sweating and breathing hard. You may want to train your dog for a few months before taking him or her on a long, off trail day hike, and I recommend staying on marked trails as much as possible. But they don’t always go where I want to go.

     After rounding the shoulder I could see that circling the peak was going to take longer than I expected. To make it back to my car before dark, I had to either turn around and go back the way I came or really motor hard. I couldn’t resist hiking in new territory, so I chose to go forward. I was nearly jogging on some sections, but the terrain was so irregular and there were so many logs I had to move smoothly if I didn’t want to fall and impale myself on a rock or stick. My dog followed right behind me. He could sense this was going to take longer than normal too, so he was trying to conserver his energy.

     Finally with about an hour before sunset, I rounded the last corncer of the peak on the west side, and started down a steep declines, through trees and brush. It was so steep I could slide on my butt part of the way, but Will didn’t have any trouble at all. He was very sure footed. Fit dogs have better balance than people. They have four legs and a lower center of gravity, but they can’t climb over logs quite so well as people.


It was already near dark by the time I got to the creek. We took time to get a long drink, but not a rest. There was no time; I knew the batteries in my headlamp were going out and that I was going to have to march down the trail five miles in the dark. It took about forty minutes to hike out of the canyon and hit the trail, and by then it was fully dark. I turned on my head lamp but it was dead. Sometimes you can walk in the dark if you have the moon or stars to reflect some light to you, but the was none. I had a light I could use for light, or make a big fire and spend the night, but I had to be home by tonight because in the morning I was scheduled to do something.

     I walked down the trail a half mile, but it was slow and getting even darker. Soon I coluldn’t see anything and was stumbling a lot. I had to go really slow. I realized that dogs see quite well in the dark, much better than humans. Dogs have large pupils and a surface behind their retinas that reflects light back so that receptors have a second chance to detect the photons. So I hooked Will up to his leash and sent him ahead of my two feet. “Go on buddy, show me the way,” I said. He started walking and I kept a feel on his leash. I could make out his presence, but no detail. I could tell when he turned left or right, so I simply followed him down the trail.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Old Crow Range

I’m really in it now. There’s no turning back, that’s for sure. The terrain continues to get harder with more brush and boggy ground the farther east I go. I have to dig deep to keep from falling apart and giving up. I refuse to send a message for help. On the fourth of July I cross a high, exposed pass and get caught in a down pour where there’s no forest to seek shelter, just a few stunted trees clumped together out on the tundra at the base of a mountain. I put on my rain gear, drape my tarp over my pack and me and wait it out so I can keep hiking when it lets up. Will curls up below my feet, at the base of a two-foot high sodden ledge, where he stays pretty dry. Following a more southerly route along the border, Spike Mountain is visible about 30 miles southwest, a perfect land mark if I want to hike south to the Porcupine River, or back west to the Coleen River. Frankly at this point, it’s likely shorter to keep going to Old Crow, besides I have food waiting for me there.

     After the rain diminishes haul myself around this mountain on the edge of Old Crow Flats. It’s spread out in front of me like dark, smooth blotches shimmering in the blurry light. It’s so far across out there that it gives me the chills thinking what would happen if I get into the middle of that. I have to keep out of there. I enter another ravine for an hour and hike up the other side at the foot of another mountain to get the high ground where there should be less brush. The brush is killing me.

                                             The towering torrres of the Old Crow Range.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mountain Man Rendezvous in the Wind River Range

Roaring all the way across the Snake River Plain into Wyoming doing seventy-five in my brother’s Toyota Matrix, it smelled like cow shit seeping in from ever crevasse of our car, loathing and smothering – too much fertilizer. We were on our way to the Wind River Range to do some hiking for a week and forget our troubles. We were to meet up with others in Pinedale, the site of one of the 1800’s mountain man rendezvous and historic museum, where men like Jim Bridger and Thomas Fitzpatrick struck out into the vast wilderness to seek their fortunes and new way of life trapping beaver and selling their skins for making fashionable felt hats. In our party were me, two of my brothers, Mike and Steve, two of my oldest brother’s friends, Frank and Tim, who were brothers around sixty, my father Darrel, my nephew Aaron, my friend Jeff and his son Drew and two of his friends, DJ and Matt, and one dog who loved to chase beavers and squirrels.

      It was our chance to get away from the turbulent and nifty insanity of modern life and gain some semblance of all we’ve lost in America since the founding of this country: the great sprawling forests, empty plains, and the determination and possibility to go your own way. The big empty and bigger dreams. That was what I wanted a taste of.

     The lumbering lot of us marched most of the day in single file, sometimes strung out over a mile a terrain, drifting along at our own pace, taking in views of light-colored peaks, and rocky outcrops on every side. We crossed passes over eleven thousand feet and rarely descended below ten thousand. At camp we bathed in lakes and rivers, fished for golden trout, bantered with each other about our frailties, and got plastered as hell on tequila and tobacco. Mike had this really potent shit from India that made Matt puke. But not Steve. He could chew like a son-of-a bitch. We were always teasing him about how many times a day he had to unpack his pack to get something. ‘Steve’s repacking his shit again,’ was a favorite line, but he took it in stride. And Mike got pestered for not taking nine shots of tequila one night instead of only eight. “You call yourself a bowler,” Frank said to him. And I got harassed by half the group for bringing lentils in a plastic bag instead of those goddamn expensive freeze-dried dinners.

      We drank into the evenings under the bright stars and hazy matrix of the Milky Way. We didn’t talk about flowers or wallpapers or bird watching like our spouses or girlfriends back home would have subjected us to. No freaking way in hell. We talked about drinking, stars, dreams, hiking, goldens, mountain men, Indians, living off the land, the decimation of the West, having to go so far from camp in the morning to take a dump, and of course the way women get so upset when you don’t listen to them talking about their day. We wanted to forget all that life of fluff and fresh daisies for a little while and hike fast, drink hard, sleep on rough, raw dirt, and dream larger than our own lives.

     In the infinite sky while scanning the stars, we wondered. Was there more boundless wilderness out there? “We’re way out here on an arm of the Milky Way. We can’t even see stars past our own galaxy,” Mike said. I could see the North Star, Arcturus, the Big Dipper, and a fuzzy array of white when the sky got really dark and the stars got their brightest. “We’re so small. We’re nothing.” And of course that was the way I liked it, so the world on earth and the world out there would seem a whole lot bigger.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

One Man, One Dog, In Alaska

So without Jimmy, Will (my Airedale terrier) and I went on to finish our trek across the Brooks Range, ending my seven month journey to cross the entire state on foot. Will might be the only dog who has traversed the entire range in Alaska.

Dog With Lymphoma

Dogs who come down with lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes, are almost certain to die within two years of the diagnosis. My dog Jimmy did. But he lasted eight months with injections of a drug called Doxorubicin. Without it he would have been dead in two weeks. I was reluctant to do any chemo on him at first, but now looking back, I’m glad I did. Given your dog is in decent shape, he or she can take the drug without batting an eye. Jimmy who was in superb physical condition - which was key - before the onset of his disease and knocking on death’s door with stage four cancer, bounced back within days of the first injection. Veterinarians recommend five injections, spaced three weeks apart. Jimmy and I enjoyed eight months together, including an entire summer. They were some of the best months of my life, and Jimmy’s too I think. I never saw him looking stronger and happier. But the disease came back with a vengeance, like this kind of cancer always does. The cancer cells were now far more resistant, an unstoppable monster at this point, and even a dog like Jimmy, strong and in the prime of his life, was up against a fight he had no chance of winning. Sadly, he died in my arms, struggling until his last breath in January of 2012.
Jimmy(right) still walking with his brother Will, a week before his death

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Swimming a River in Alaska

To cross a river in the Brooks Range you either have to go around it at the headwaters if it's not too far, wade it if it's not too deep, raft it if you have a raft or can build one, or swim it. On the Sheenjek River, I had to swim it towing my pack on a willow branch raft to get across, with my dog swimming back and forth wondering which side I was heading for since I was crossing so slow. Being a hundred miles from the nearst village, I couldn't afford to lose my gear in the river or get my food wet, or I wouldn't be able to hike out. So I was very worried. I got to say it was pretty chilly - my feet and hands were going numb.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Alaska Hike to Old Crow

I just completed my hike from Arctic Village Alaska to Old Crow Canada in 27 days. Twenty pounds lighter, it ends my journey of traversing the entire Brooks Range on foot from Kotzebue, Alaska to Old Crow, Canada in three different summers. When I got to Old Crow with my dog Will after enduring hunger, miles of brush to wade through, rivers to cross, and mountains to navigate, I stepped up onto the first dirt road and looked back - nothing but a wall of brush and a thousand miles of wilderness behind that. I asked the first person how to get to town and told him I had just hiked here from Arctic Village. "Wow, nobody has ever done that before," he said. Yeah, now I know why.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Lost, if found please call

I had a month on my hands to go anywhere I wanted. I didn’t have enough money to travel overseas to some exotic place like Borneo or Africa, so I decided to load up my dogs and take a road trip. I thought I’d drive down through California, cut over at the Mojave Desert, and then motor through Arizona and New Mexico, but I ended up in my hometown of Roseburg, Oregon where I grew up. I started my vacation with a hike up Cougar Creek on the North Umpqua River. My dogs Jimmy and Will were long-legged Airedale terriers, brothers who loved to shred shoes and eat cardboard. They’re unique in the dog world, being descendants from both hounds and terriers.
We started our hike at Wright Creek, a few miles downriver from where Zane Grey’s favorite fishing camp used to be. I kept one dog on a leash and switched them out every twenty minutes to let each have a shot at running free. We climbed a thousand feet up the trail to where the ruins of the Wright’s cabin still stood, crumbling and weathered from the decades. They were pioneers and had Airedales too. Then we continued another thousand feet to the top of the divide where I planned to follow a different ridge leading back down to the North Umpqua instead of the way I had come, making a five-hour circuit.
After five miles and getting well away from the highway and the trailhead parking lot I figured it was safe to let both dogs go at once. I thought I could do it for just a few minutes and then leash one back up. However, minutes after I let both go, they sprinted up the trail following a scent and disappeared. If you hike with more than one Airedale, or any dog that originated from hound ancestry, like bloodhounds, redbone hounds, beagles, or even basset hounds, I don’t recommend letting more than one off leash at a time unless you are well away from highways, towns, people, and any other place where it would be unsafe or inappropriate for rampageous hounds to come storming through. These types of dogs were bred for one purpose, chasing the scent of animals for hours until becoming blurry-eyed tired.
My dogs had done this before and had tracked me down. When in doubt, I waited where I lost them, however this time I didn't and continued down Timber Creek Ridge. A quarter mile farther, I called out for them, my voice echoing across the canyon and fading into the green labyrinth of giant Douglas firs. I recommend getting your dogs used to coming to a whistle so you don’t blow out your vocal cords, but I left mine in my car.
After two hours I reached the trailhead, but my dogs weren't there so I started to worry. I settled into my car to wait and called my parents to let them know what was going on. As night came the temperature outside dropped to freezing. A man approached with a bright flashlight, so I quickly opened my door to face him. "Forest Service Ranger," he said. "I just come over to check what you’re doing."
"My dogs ran off,” I said.
"People usually don't stay here after dark," he said, not really understanding my situation.
"I can't leave. This is where they’ll come back. Maybe you've seen them?” He shined his light in my car to look around. There was camping gear, clothes, food wrappers, and tarps, but nothing to suggest I was breaking the law.
"What kind of dogs do you have?"
"Airedale terriers," I said proudly. If having dogs who chewed holes directly through the plaster walls of my garage with their incisors and gnawed all the corners off the picnic table while cutting their adult molars was something to be proud of, then I was proud as hell. When owning an Airedale puppy, remove any item from the premises that you couldn’t live without, because he will drag it off, demolish it, or eat it.
"I'm not sure what they are," the officer said.
"They have black and tan wiry fur, floppy ears, and are twenty-seven inches at the shoulder," I said.
"So you’re just going to sit here all night waiting for them?"
"They mean everything to me. I think they got confused back in one of those canyons coming down Timber Creek," I said.
"You have enough warm clothes?"
"Sure, I'll be all right. It's my dogs that need worrying about." I was hoping the ranger would help me look for my dogs, but he didn’t.
I kept my window partly down so I could hear the dogs when they came back. I was too worried to sleep hard and at first light they were still gone. I hurried back up the ridge to where I lost them, motivated by great fear for them. I scoured the trail for their tracks, nothing, just deer. A single track can tell you an entire history, and sometimes not finding a track was just as good as finding one. It could mean my dogs hadn’t gone a certain way and I could eliminate it from my search pattern.
I hiked five miles up to Cougar Bluff where I stood for twenty minutes blowing my whistle and listening for their howls, but nothing, just dead air. I headed back. Then to my surprise I came across five of their tracks, which brought me to an abrupt halt. Encouraged, I examined each one’s crusty edge. They had gone back yesterday the same way I had gone back, probably only a few minutes after me, so where were they?
I jogged down Timber Creek to complete the five-hour loop I had made the previous day, baffled by their vanishing. Somewhere on the way back while following my scent they had made a wrong turn. If your dog gets out of sight and you feel you have to keep moving, walk as straight as possible so he can track you.
I returned to my car late in the afternoon, and the dogs still hadn’t shown up. I drove around posting signs, and then sped back to the trailhead to wait out a second night. I was going to stay in the area while my folks called around in town and I planned to search for them until I found them, even if it took a month. It was my obligation to do right by them; that’s what you do when you get a dog, like you would a human partner.
Heavy, suffocating guilt fell over me. I felt irresponsible for letting them both loose and not waiting where I had first lost them. They were either terribly lost, trapped, or had gotten picked up by someone. They both had microchips implanted under their skin and tags on their collars, so at least I had done that right. If they were okay, they should turn up somewhere after wandering out of the hills.
Under the moonlight, I waited for them to appear. I sat in my car for several hours staring dully at the empty trail as it led out of the eerie forest and onto the road, but all I could see was the outline of branches swaying ghostly in the breeze. The longer I sat there the less my chance of finding them. At five in the morning I headed out to make the five mile climb to Cougar Bluffs and complete the circuit again. If I got high up on the ridges away from the flowing water I might hear their howls in the darkness. I hiked ten hours, searching several different canyons and ridgelines while watching the ground, but all I could find were those same five tracks, so I headed back to my car. The adrenalin and fear had worn off and I felt mostly numb, starting to accept that my dogs were gone forever, missing in the wilds of Oregon.
When I arrived at my car I found a note on the windshield telling me a Forest Ranger had found both dogs up Steamboat Creek and had taken them to the pound in Roseburg. I crumpled the note in relief and let out a huge sigh of joy. “Thank you,” I said. I threw my gear into my car and drove straight there in an hour. I had to wait for the clerk to fill out paper work before I could see them, so I stepped outside to wait. Jimmy and Will smelled me through the thick, concrete wall of the building, and after about a minute started howling like a thunderous contrition. Airedales howl louder than any dog I’ve ever heard, and I loved it man, loved it. They were okay, and that was good enough for me.
The clerk finally finished. "Sign here," she said. After glancing over the document I did. Then we walked around back and opened the enclosure. The dogs shot out and rammed their heads into my thigh.
“Jimmy, Will, where you been. What happened to you guys.” I said. They wagged their tails and threw their heads from side to side like we were getting ready to go on another hike. I took them home where they slept like a pile of bricks. They didn’t move for two days, except to yawn and stretch. They always made a happy little yodel when they yawned, as if they were saying how great they were.
I called John, the man who had picked them up, and he told me the story of how he found them. Apparently they had made their way down Timber Creek Ridge, but somewhere near the North Umpqua River they headed the wrong direction. They crossed the river on a bridge I assumed, turned left onto the highway, crossed on another bridge, turned right, and walked miles up Steamboat Creek Road. I never would have found them if someone else hadn’t. "I couldn't believe it," John said. "I went to use the bathroom, and when I came back there were these two big dogs in the back of my truck." Worn out, Jimmy and Will had jumped in the first vehicle they had found and refused to get out. "I called several times but I couldn't get a hold of nobody, so I had to take them to the pound. I didn’t really want to release them back into the wild. I wouldn’t want anyone doing that to my dogs."
"That's quite all right," I said. “Thank you."
"Funny thing,” he went on. “I was stopped at a light on my way out there and some lady pulled up alongside me," he said.
"Those are great dogs, what kind are they?" the lady asked.
"I don't know," John said to her. "I found them in the woods."
The next day I bought radio collars and new leashes for the brothers so I wouldn’t lose them anymore, and as soon as they arrived by mail, the dogs and I went for another long hike.

The Wright's Old Cabin