Friday, December 30, 2016

Jesse James

Years ago I had the privilege of meeting Jesse James, the old mountain man in the above picture and no relation to the outlaw of the same name. His family invited us over for an evening of music and food and we accepted. It was a night I haven't forgotten.

Jesse was one of those men who was mechanically gifted and could build just about anything from nothing. Testament to that fact was an old bulldozer setting out in front of his house made from scrap truck, car and tractor parts. Many of the local mountain roads in that area of the Boston mountains of NW Arkansas were built using that homemade bulldozer.

Another talent of his was working with wood. He would take a sapling tree and turn it into a hand carved chain of wood. In fact my parents placed an order that very night for one of those chains and he never quite got around to it.

When it came time for the evening music, Jesse brought out his banjo made from an old pressure canner and began picking out various songs. Occasionally he would show off by playing with the banjo over his head or behind his back.

Jesse's family were a stereotypical hillbilly family. He lived with a adult son, daughter and his wife and between the four of them they MAYBE had a complete set of teeth. Their cabin was rough around the edges and adorned with a junk pile all around the outside but inside one could see it was home.

I wasn't very old at this time, perhaps not even quite a teenage and Jesse's son must have seen boredom creep into my eyes at listening to another mountain folk song that Jesse played for us. He leaned over his old guitar towards me and said, "Do you want me to play something more modern?"

I nodded thinking perhaps some Quiet Riot, Eagles, Duran Duran or the such. Jesse's son thought a bit and said to me, "How about some Hank Williams?"

My brother and I grew up and as a family, we pursued other adventures other than the white water kayaking that brought us to the area. Although I have been back to areas north of where Jesse James lived, I haven't been back to where he lived. In fact, it has now been over three decades since I last saw him on the night this picture was taken. Someday I would like to go back and drive by to see if the shack of a house is still there and if that bulldozer made from scrap parts is still sitting in the front yard.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

It's Alive

No it isn't a half human half ghost driving that tractor. It's my dad and I blurred his face to protect his identity in case the picture gets ripped off and used for malignant purposes elsewhere on the internet.

As you probably guessed, my pet project that I worked on during downtime this fall was the John Deere 3020 you see above. My dad bought it sight unseen from the daughter of a former neighbor that we farmed for who died in one of those interstate pileups a few years back. It was also his farm that my mom bought while going through her ordeal this summer.

When we got the tractor back home, it wouldn't run because it hadn't been used in a number of years. It also had a 24v starting system on it which were notorious for causing dash fires and why John Deere quickly switched over to the 12V system for most of the production run. My job was to convert it to a 12V system which I did. After much troubleshooting and fiddling with this or that, I got it to turn over but never could get it to fire on up. After more troubleshooting and fiddling, I suspected it was a fuel pump issue and I took it off for my father to send it in to the parts dealer/repair shop to get rebuilt.

As one might expect with parts dealers/repair shops, they accumulate quite a backlog of stuff from fall and my father only received the rebuilt pump a couple weeks ago. I couldn't make it down so my dad put the new pump on, called me to troubleshoot an electrical issue with the starter which turned out to be a knocked off wire behind a control panel and finally got it started. As I would have done in the same situation, he took it for a spin so everyone could see it running. It still needs all the guards put back in place and a good cleaning but it will be ready for its job next year, running a grain auger in the fall. I still hope to take it for a spin sometime before then too.

Monday, December 26, 2016

It was so cold...

I'm still down south somewhere on vacation but I had a couple short posts that I thought I would use to fill in some of your time reading my blog while I'm gone.

I took this picture a couple weeks ago during the cold snap we had. The morning I woke up to minus ten degrees with minus 40 degree windchill factor, I went downstairs to find what you see above. Ice forming on the fireplace. It was the first time I've ever seen that happen but that was the coldest it has been in several years here too.

Like most fireplaces, the dampers aren't airtight. In regular fireplaces, measures can be taken to stop even small leaks when not in use but with an insert like I have, even that is impossible. Still I think most of that comes from the cold air in the chimney condensing the warm moist air in the house next to the blower chamber where room air is on one side of a piece of sheet metal and outside air on the other. I have a whole house humidifier that runs in the winter to keep my house a little moister than most for my nose and throat which also makes the problem worse.

After taking this picture, I started a fire but prewarmed the flue with a small ceramic heater for a half hour to get the air drawing properly before setting things on fire. It didn't take long to thaw the fireplace and me back out!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas

We have always liberated red cedar trees from their earthy toil to use as Christmas trees. I have no memories of any kind of tree real or plastic but red cedars. Although I have always liked them, they are mostly considered noxious weeds up in this part of the country. They grow up in dormant pastures or fields and will quickly crowd out anything else in a generation or two. Back in the day, they were kept in check by frequent wild fires but since those are kept in check these days, the red cedar reigns supreme bowing only to a saw.

Our family tradition has always dictated that after eating our Thanksgiving turkey, we go for a hike and harvest a red cedar tree. Although it doesn't always happen that way, it happens more often than not. Back then, there wasn't such a thing as Black Friday or shopping at all but now, our tradition seems more of a rebellion against the shopping frenzy around us and I'm okay with that as well.

In my youth, there was always an argument about which red cedar to liberate and coming from a household of four, it always ended up a tie. So that led to our other tradition of flipping the glove (thumbs up or down) to determine the winner. Thus far with my immediate family, our four year old hasn't shown interest in voting so we've never had a tie yet but one day, I'm sure I will re-institute the flipping of the glove tradition with my kids. It's inevitable.

Red cedars in their dormant months turn a grayish brown and aren't that attractive initially. But over the years, we've found if you dump some green food coloring into the first batch of water you give it, by the next day, it will be a deep shade of green. Also, the initial waterings will turn the needles from being very prickly to being soft and pliable and although not pleasant, less prickly. The water pulls the tree out of dormancy and it will do well for three to four weeks and then it started to dry up pretty quickly. The worst part about red cedars is pulling them through the doorway to dispose of them. Needles fall by the bucket loads. We have learned that they should immediately be swept up before they get tracked through the house and you are discovering needles with your bare feet in spring time.

The last handful of years we've been going down to the deep south to spend time with my grandparents during their last years here on earth and so we have been taking our trees down on Christmas day so that we can leave early the next morning. It always seems a bit sad to take down such a tree on the day of the celebration but I've gotten used to it over the years. I find that it allows me to get back into a routine after a month of excesses and turning into a hermit to avoid the chaos in the shopping areas of town.

With that said, I'm off to the deep south, this time deeper than normal, to spend the rest of the year with my parents, brother and his family and grandparents along with my family and mother-in-law. Since we aren't going to be along a coast this year, I'm not sure what will transpire but I'm looking forward to it just the same. Have a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and I will 'see' you all sometime next year.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Day Two: On the River

North Canyon
I woke up in the light of false dawn and was already feeling hot. If I had to guess, the temperatures were still in the upper 70’s, which meant that today was going to be a scorcher. I would have liked to have gone back to sleep but my body said enough was enough of lying on the hard packed sand and sticking to the top of my sleeping bag. Only Heidi the cook was up getting water for coffee ready so I joined her down by the kitchen and watched the canyon walls slowly gathering color with an arriving dawn. After a time, others began to rustle and soon everything was in motion so I moved down by the beach where I could take it all in. It was a real treat just sitting there while a breakfast of honeydew melon, English muffins, eggs and bacon was prepared. After breakfast while the other clients were taking down tents, etc, I wandered up behind in the rocks and took some pictures of camp.

Today I rode with Bronco in the dory called the Phantom named after the destruction in the Phantom Ranch area. The first rapid of the day was Big House Rock Rapids, named after a big rock at the head of the rapids that is as big as a house. The rapids rushes into a boulder lined shore on the outside of a tightly radiused bend. You need to avoid the house-sized rock at the beginning but in doing so you put yourself perilously close to the boulder lined outside edge of the curve. Technically it was challenging for dories but as always, the picture makes it look like small ripples. Looks are deceiving and the first wave we hit was well over my head and engulfed me. Though it was probably 80 degrees, it was still early in the morning and it took my breath away. Unlike yesterday, I was still able to high side or throw my body weight towards the downstream gunnel to prevent the boat from being tipped over.

Bronco Scouting Big House Rock Rapids
As the trip began, everyone was left to their own devises as too where to sit in the dories and with whom. But as the trip progressed and we hit some of the bigger more difficult rapids, the crew started dictating some of this. Chief among their concerns was having the bigger guys with more weight sit up front, especially those who could high side. Their goal was to weight the boat so it punched through the waves instead of going up and over, the less stable route and for people to move their weight around whenever we were sideways to the impact, also stabilizing the boat. Because I come from a kayaking background and know these rules well, I was in great demand later in the trip, often paired with guys with mass but little to no grasp of high siding. At one point in Lava Falls, we hit a wave sideways with me on the upstream side of the boat. I had to practically stand on the gunnel and was high siding so much that I could see over the guy next to me, now underneath me, and into the eyes of the wave. That was the closest I would come to tipping over the entire trip.

We made it through Big House Rock Rapids no worse for the wear and progressed through a few small rapids before pulling out at North Canyon. We hiked up the canyon about a mile before getting rim rocked by a shear wall with a waterfall. The crew has been telling me a lot of the wildflowers aren't blooming yet due to the dry weather but that is hard to believe with all the wildflower pictures I've taken so far. We sat around in a shady limestone bowl area of the canyon for a couple hours enjoying the day before finally starting back. The way back out was a very hot hike with temperatures now well into the upper 90-degree range.

Flowering Prickly Pear Cactus
It was lunch by the time we got back to the boats so we all slithered in what little shade we could find under the tamarisk brush while it was laid out. Today was crab meat sandwich spread, leftovers from last nights supper and assorted condiments, crackers and cheeses. After lunch was over, we shoved off and were soon in a stretch of the river called the roaring 20's named for the numerous rapids that come one after another some twenty miles from our beginning at Lee's Ferry. (All river mileage is gauged in terms of miles from Lee's Ferry.)

The rapids were mostly straight shots and full of big water that quickly cooled us back down. A couple of the better rapids were Hansbrough-Richards Rapids and Cave Springs Rapids. Hansbrough and Richards were two men on the Stanton expedition who on Monday, July 15, 1889, 111 years earlier, had drowned at this very rapid and caused the abrupt end of the expedition until better boats and lifejackets could be had. Though Hansbrough's skeleton would be found downstream a year later, Richards was never found. Knowing that someone has drowned on a particular stretch of river always makes me pause and re-evaluate things that I might have taken for granted without previous knowledge.

Vasey's Paradise
Next on our journey down the river was Vasey's Paradise, named by Major John Wesley Powell after friend and noted biologist Dr. George Vasey who never got to see the springs gushing from the canyon walls or the lush flora that marks the site. I recognized tons of poison ivy and also saw squirrels, ducks, golden eyes, canyon wrens and numerous other birds I couldn't identify. Right next to Vasey's Paradise is Stanton's Cave named after the Stanton expedition, which after loosing Hansbrough and Richards to drowning, stashed their supplies in the cave and walked home. It is also a major archeology site and where the first evidence of a massive dam formed thousands of years ago was found in the form of drift wood 160 feet up from the river. This dam is a leading theory on how massive regions of the canyon were formed in a single cataclysmic event.

Somewhere around mile 33, we arrived at Red Walled Cavern that reminded me a lot of a larger Cobb's Cave on the Lost Valley trail in Ponca, Arkansas. It was a cavernous hole in the side of the cliff large enough to hold a football game in comfort on the fine white sand upon its floor. Because of our earlier lingering and the no camping allowed here to protect this natural beauty, we couldn't stay long and I barely had enough time to hike halfway to the back of the cavern and take a picture of the other boats in our group heading towards it before it was sounded that we were leaving.

Inside Red Wall Cavern

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Neatest Stack of Wood

Taking a break from writing about my river trip, I'm still scanning pictures taken by my parents and found this one among them. It was taken in 1996 and judging from the surrounding pictures, somewhere in Pennsylvania. I don't think I have ever seen a neater job of stacking wood in my life. It brings back a lot of memories.

Back in the old farmhouse where I grew up and which is now long gone, our sole source of heat was a wood burning stove. For a two story rambling farmhouse with seven bedrooms, it wasn't nearly enough to stay warm but it kept the core of it tolerably warm and kept the pipes from freezing, most of the time.

Looking back at it through different eyes, I really liked the concept because during the winter anyway, you never found anyone straying too far from the living room where the wood stove was at. This meant that we were together as a family and not strung out across floors and rooms like my family does now at times with our forced air heat. We had two easy chairs on either end of the wood stove and those were always prime real estate. I spent many an hour with two pairs of heavy wool socks on my feet reclined in one of those chairs reading while my feet were propped on top of the protective outer cover of the wood stove. I still had to occasionally swap which foot was on bottom when the bottom one got too hot.

Burning wood meant having lots of wood to burn so we generally spent several weeks every winter cutting next year's supply. You know the saying, wood burning heats you twice, once cutting it and once burning it is so true. We would cut down dead trees in the river bottoms. My dad did the chainsaw work, I split, my brother hauled the small branches off and piled them up while my mom loaded up the split pieces. For lunch we would set the small branches on fire and warm up by the fire while we ate our still warm lunches out of a thermos.

After school, my brother and I had the job of carrying wood from the woodshed inside to the enclosed back porch and filling up the woodbox. It was a five by five plywood box that we had made to store a supply of wood in so that one didn't have to go outside in acclimate weather to restoke the fireplace. If we did a good job of selecting a mix of sizes, small to start the fire and big logs to keep it burning throughout the night, we only had to do it every other day. All this is just a prelude to the actual memory that I will share with you now.

With one particularly cold snap of weather approaching, my brother and I decided we were going to neatly stack the wood in the woodbox out on the back porch instead of just tossing it in randomly as we normally do. We spent all afternoon carrying in wood and stacking it. In my 10 year old memory, we stacked the wood ten feet high if it was a foot, but in reality, I'm guessing we maybe got it four feet high. I remember my dad being really impressed with our handy work and we had enough wood to last us a week. But it had been a lot of work which is why we went back to tossing it randomly and occasionally getting chewed out by my dad when he had to go out in the freezing cold of morning to get enough wood to restoke the fire before we crawled out from under our pile of blankets in the outer reaches of that big old farmhouse.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Day One

North Canyon

Day one began at Lee's Ferry with the temperatures in the high nineties though it was still late morning. My oar person for the day was a woman by the name of Elena who had been running the rapids of the Grand Canyon for eighteen years. Since she didn't look a day older than me, I would say the occupation had been very kind to her. Her boat was named the Hidden Canyon which is now buried under the stagnate waters of Lake Powell Sewage Lagoon. I would find out that all the dory boats are named for some natural feature that was destroyed by the hands of man. I shared the stern of the boat with Don, a retired roofer from California and in the bow were brother's-in-law Don and Larry both also retired and living in Boulder.

Elena oared us through some small ripples and large pools as we talked and got to know one another. Soon we passed under Navajo Bridge, which would be the last road we would see for several hundred miles. As per custom, lunch was lowered down to the boats from the deck of the bridge via a long rope. I'm sure we could have packed it on the boats with us but it certainly wouldn't have had the show factor lowering it from the bridge did. We pulled in at a sandbar just downstream and dug into a lunch of deli sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, fresh tomato, sprouts, all the condiments, fresh fruit, crackers, potato chips and cookies. I was surprised with all the food, they hadn't used a steel cable to insure the line wouldn't snap when lowered.

Already my body was trying to adapt to the hard desert climate. I downed two quarts of water with my lunch and still felt thirsty but held back to prevent from foundering when we started back down the river. The harshness of the sun and dry air that drove us to eat in our lunch in the cool shade of a cliff, robbed my body of moisture at an unbelievable rate. Because the literature had said that a water filter would be available all during the trip, I had only brought one quart Nalgene bottle with me which turned out to be a huge mistake. Fortunately Bronco loaned me one of his spare ones that I used for the rest of the trip. One quart would have been okay along the river but for the hikes, two quarts was never enough. Replacing fluids was only one side effect of transplanting myself from lush green Iowa to the arid canyon floor. During the course of the trip I shed several layers of skin, was constantly pampering my lips, which cracked and chapped and even had bleeding gums a few times early on until my body adapted. I always had a few open wounds from barking my bare shins on rocks or other pointy objects and those would never heal until I had gotten back to Iowa and then only after a few weeks of being in a more moderate climate. Yes, my body rebelled during my trip but I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

After lunch we hit 6-Mile Rapids and then shortly afterwards, Badger Creek Rapids which was running a 7 on the Grand Canyon scale. The Grand Canyon scale is different than the conventional rating system of western rivers where they are ranked from Class I to VI. On the Grand Canyon, the rapids are scaled 1 to 10 with 1 being flat water and 10 being the most difficult rapids that is actually runnable. Badger Creek Rapids is in an area termed Marble Canyon which is narrow at the top, a feature that gives it some of its difficulty and is full of standing waves over ten feet high. But they paled when I saw Soap Creek Rapids a couple miles further. In John Wesley Powell's day, this rapids was unrunnable but subsequent flooding has reduced it to the runable status. As I stood there looking at it from shore, I could only think that it was only barely runable. It sounded like a freight train screaming by only feet away and as we sat in our tiny dory at the edge of the brink, it was all consuming. As the boat tipped forward slightly and slid down towards the first wave, I became unaware of any sound at all. The dory climbed up and rode over, through and around the huge waves slapping me with water for the first time. The water minutes old from the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam was an icy 46 degrees and took my breath away. Without breath nor sound and now with a few hundred gallons of extra water on board, it took me what felt like an eternity to grab my bailing bucket and getting my brief boating experience back to some resemblance of order. It all happened in about a dozen seconds. Before our adrenaline could return to only semi-elevated levels, Shear Wall Rapids loomed on the horizon and doused us again with big waves. Somewhere around mile 15 for the day, we pulled into a sand beach and home for the night never looked so good… or solid.

The clients all grabbed their bags and raced off into the sand to set up tents with the exception of myself who stayed down with the crew and help get the boats unloaded completely. I was planning to sleep under the stars so didn't need to set up a tent anyway. Later as I snacked on some crab meat dip and crackers, I tallied up the living creatures calling the canyon home that I had seen during the day. I came up with four American Condors, three Mountain Sheep, numerous herons and one Peregrine Falcon, the first one I had ever seen in my life. The floral species were pretty diverse but at this point in the trip, all I recognized by name were the Century Plant and the Tamarisk or pissweed as it is called by the crew for its distinctive aroma when tossed on a campfire. Due to the lack of floods now controlled by concrete dams, the tamarisk grows unchecked along the riverbanks and is very invasive on what would have been beautiful campsites.

We had a fire and everyone was still new to each other and full of stories so it was a pretty jolly affair until the two cooks served supper. Everyone got dead serious as they attacked the chicken cordon blue, Spanish rice, steamed asparagus with some sort of sauce and a dessert of strawberry shortcake made with fresh strawberries. It was just past eight when the last dishes were done but due to the age and the plenitude of excitement earlier in the day, pretty much everyone went to bed. It was a warm night and the steep canyon walls focused light so that even the stars seemed like neon lights. I stayed up a bit enjoying the fire and the stars before finally heading out away from the crowd. I found a small clearing between some rocks, spread a tarp out and let the waters whisper me to sleep.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Load Out

Waiting Dory Boats

I arrived at the motel just after noon in a searing heat with a lot of time to kill before the pre-trip meeting later that evening. So I did what any mountain man would do and took a siesta in the dark cool confines of my motel room. A few hours later, hunger drove me from my cool lair out into the heat where I started walking around town looking for a place to eat. I chose a McDonald's restaurant not only because I was once again poor and couldn't afford much else, but because I wanted to clog my arteries with one more greasy delight before disappearing off the civilized map for a month. Despite my financial situation, I ended up buying an extra meal and giving it to a homeless man sitting out front waiting for his luck to change. He had come in while I had been eating and asked other patrons for money but the workers had shown him the door. Now as I spoke a few words with the man while he was hungrily eating, they were giving me a nasty look through the window. I just smiled, saluted them and walked back to my motel.

For a decade, I had imagined a group of other adventuring type adults in their physical prime sharing this trip with me but when I walked in the room the scene looked straight out of a geriatric convention. Old people where everywhere and I was sure that the walkers and oxygen tanks were tucked behind the chairs in which they were now seated talking about cashing IRA's and who had the most great great great grandchildren. I was the youngest person by over forty years and in some cases over sixty years! My stomach sank as I sat in a chair apart from the rest waiting for the trip briefing to begin thinking that all this saving and planning over all these years was going to be spent with a bunch of old people who had to be cajoled down the river.

After an eternity in which some of the older people starting dozing off and a few even went ahead and died, another older but physically fit man named Bronco, strode into the room and started briefing the clients on the trip; everything from how to relieve your bowels to righting a capsized boat. When he had given his presentation, he asked us if there were any questions. The geriatrics not dead or asleep as I had though started asking such questions as; "Are there port-a-potties at every camp?”, "Is it true that there are hot springs at every camp?", "Should I take sunscreen?” or my personal favorite incredulous statement, "I'm supposed to go to the bathroom in that!" I was stunned! How could people sign up for a trip like this when they had to ask such questions or were squeamish about crapping in an ammo box with a TOILET SEAT?

It was forbidden for legal reasons for the trip outfitters to provide alcoholic beverages for the guests and they didn't want guests to bring lots of heavy cases of beer on the trip that they would have to pack, so they passed around a sign-up sheet where you could sign and add some money to an envelope for however many cases of beer you wanted and it would be waiting for you down at the boats tomorrow. I really didn't want to be boozing it up with 'grandma' and 'grandpa' every evening if by chance they were lucky enough to be awake much past six so when it came to me, I just passed it on with out buying any. For the final order of business, we were issued two waterproof bags and an ammo box (not the one for crapping in) for all our gear and were dismissed. All the geriatrics stood around probably discussing their AARP membership and arthritic hips but I didn't wait around, instead opting to head back to my room to begin my final packing.

Long before the sun even thought about rising, I was up walking around the motel grounds trying to sooth my jumbled up nerves with brisk clean air as I anxiously waited our departure time. I watched the sun rise up over the desert scrub behind the motel and then went in to eat my continental breakfast consisting of cold cereal and a bagel which really didn't taste very continental at all. Finally, two vans pulling what seemed like incredibly tiny and fragile wooden dory boats behind them pulled in, old people tottered out with mouths still oozing denture adhesive, gear was loaded and we set off for Lee's Ferry on the Colorado River.

When we arrived, the river seemed very unassuming and appeared to be like every other desert river you have seen, wide and stretched out between two rocky banks of scrub brush and sand. I can imagine Powell had thought the worst was over when he reached this point after surviving the narrow and turbulent canyons under the dirty waters of the current Lake Powell 'Sewage Lagoon.' I was pleasantly surprised when I met the rest of the crew that was in charge of giving the other 14 clients and I the time of our lives over the next month. Most of them were around my age and all of them were pictures of health with tans I hadn't thought possible for early April. They were stashing away case after case of beer in the boats making me instantly regret my decision to abstain last night.

The rest of the clients stood in a gaggle trying to stay out of the way or accidentally break a hip, so I strolled on down to the river that I had been dreaming about for most of my life. It was a beautiful emerald green and felt like a melted Popsicle on a hot summer day. I kneeled down at the edge of the river and watched the strong current go rushing by in swirling vortices of water. I prayed a little prayer of sorts to the Colorado River asking that if I respected it, would it respect me or more importantly my life? I took the silence as affirmative and walked back up the beach to the awaiting boats. I took the remaining available spot in the bow of one of the dories and we shoved off into the river. There was no going back now.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Beginning

Prickly Pear Cactus and Snag

I stepped out of the airport into a brilliant white light that I hadn't seen all winter back in Iowa. Sunlight! I quickly shed my jacket and stuffed it into my already bulging duffel bag containing everything I would need for the next month. I walked off the runway into a small building that comprised the "international" airport and then out the other side. After looking around for awhile, I couldn't find anything resembling a taxi or a taxi stand so I asked the lone person walking around that seemed like they worked there. Oh, if you want a taxi you have to call one and pointed to a board that evidently contained taxi phone numbers. I called one and waited outside on a bench in the sun soaking up everything.

It has always felt unnatural to ride in an aluminum tube at over 500 miles per hour and breath canned air. Here I was about to embark into the depths of a canyon for a month and I ate lunch shrink wrapped and heated with a little plastic fork. I wanted to be a mountain man living in harmony with the land and couldn't wait to escape the reality of the airport, deserted at it was.

About a half hour later, a yellow taxi arrived, I threw my gear into the back and we headed off. I had made a reservation at a hotel where we were supposed to meet the night before the trip for a briefing and to do any final packing that needed to be done. After awhile the cabbie asked me what brought me into town. I mustered up my best John Wesley/mountain man/explorer/adventurer voice and said I was going to spend a month boating down the Grand Canyon in a wooden dory boat. It didn't get the response I had hoped for and in fact got no response at all. We continued on in silence.

I remember first reading the well thumbed through copy of Down The River by Edward Abbey and being hooked. I later learned that my father had been through part of the upper parts of the river on a huge rubber raft years earlier but it became evident with my questions that he couldn't remember much about the trip. I knew that someday I wanted to run the river and to do it the way Edward Abby had done it, the way it was supposed to be run, in a wooden dory boat. I began planning my time as I grew up and attended college.

As my college career got closer to an ending, I got serious. I did some research and found out that the same company that Edward Abbey had used years earlier was still providing trips. They offered many versions of the trip depending on which of the three legs of the trip you wanted to run and the length of time you had to do it. There aren't many access points along the way and if you were to start or end somewhere along the way, you had the choice of a hike up from the river to the canyon rim or a helicopter ride father downriver. I wanted to go the entire distance which helped me narrow down my choices. After further research, I learned that there was one trip offered in early spring when dory boats were allowed two weeks on the river with no other boats or rubber rafts allowed. I knew this was the trip I wanted and I chose the longest option which allowed for several rest days that we could spend hiking up nearby canyons. There were just two problems. The first was a wait list over a year long and the second was that it cost a staggering amount of money for a self financed soon to be college graduate.  With just a little over one hundred dollars to my name and enough possessions to not entirely fill the back of my Honda Civic, I reluctantly put my dream on hold and instead entered the work force.

I fortunately found a job that allowed me to save up my vacation, meager as it was, from year to year and they had no problem with me taking a month off. However, it took me two and a half years of not using a single day to save up enough time to take off. I scrimped my money and made do without if I could and finally the day arrived when I had enough for the down payment required to book the trip. I made the call and found out that I was the first person booked for that trip. I was elated. There was no backing out now.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Branch Destroying Dog

Ted in 1988
Ted was a golden retriever - yellow lab mix of some sort. He was a stray so we never knew for sure his genetic makeup other than having compared him visually to other dogs. His retriever instincts however were strong and I spent many an hour playing fetch with him both on land and in water.

Whenever we came back from vacations, Ted always got super excited. On a side note, he was always fat too when we came back. This was back in the day before portable digital cameras with motion detectors but I'm pretty sure whenever we left, Ted just sat around his food bowl and boredom ate until we returned. But back to the story at hand.

Ted was always super excited to see us and as our car down the driveway, he would pick up the nearest thing at hand and proudly carry it around to show us how excited he was. Sometimes this was a stray glove, a bucket and once even a blade of grass. However, most of the time it was usually a stick that had fallen from one of the trees. In this particular case, it was a large branch that had fallen from the tree.

All the fetching and proud displays of his happiness played a number on Ted's teeth over the years. By the end of his life, the back teeth were so worn that you could stick a thin stick through his closed mouth and wiggle it around. Dogs are so open with their happiness of a returning person they loved. I wish my daughters were the same way. I'm lucky to get a "Hi dad" some days.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Tree Destroying Dog

Ted in 1988

I refer to Ted now and then on this blog. He was my first and only dog but that is a bit simplistic. We had several dogs at one point, a couple that were inherited after my grandfather's death. However, Ted was the only dog to have lived solely at our farm. Although he was a family dog, I always thought of him as mine because I named him and I was at that age where boys really love to have a pet dog when he came into our lives as a dumped stray. My parents nor I have ever gotten another dog since Ted's death so many years ago.

I was scanning some of my parents slides in and came across this picture which sparks a memory of a story. We were out hiking in the woods as a family and saw a mouse scurry up a nearby dead tree and disappear down a crack in the rotten log. The tree was still "standing" at an angle though it was laid over and the top was resting in another nearby tree. Ted saw that mouse too and ran right up that tree and started digging at the rotten wood with his paws with all his might.

We stopped and watched thinking he would give it up after awhile but Ted kept on digging into that tree until it finally collapsed onto the ground. It's been so long ago that I don't remember if he got the mouse but if I had to guess I would say no. I'm guessing we finally pulled him away by his leash and he left disappointed.

When Ted ended up dying a few years later, his claws on his fore paws were worn down to nubs and I'm sure incidents like this one sure played a role.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Dawn on the Buffalo River, Spring 2016

In preparation for writing our annual Christmas newsletter, I was going through some photos for the year and thought this one was appropriate to perhaps include. My newsletter is often a reflection of the past year, the highs and lows, the good and bad, though I try to keep it about the highs and the good things since it is Christmas after all.

Life has always seemed to balance out for me. This year was a rough one with my mom's diagnosis with a cancer that can't really be cured, only beat into submission. However, I have spent more time with my family this year than probably any year since I was younger than eighteen. So here as I contemplate the newsletter, I still feel my world is balanced and I look forward to the year to come.

This fall while helping my dad bring in a record harvest in my mom's absence, I often felt much older than I was. My knees, one of which I've had multiple surgeries on over the years, felt stiff and arthritic at times when I was hopping onto or off of various tractors, bins and other pieces of equipment. I'm sure a lot of it has been due to the extra weight that always seems to creep back slowly when I'm not looking. I suppose I was just too busy eating to notice. So I've been on a health kick for a week now and after the initial onset of aches from being active, I've gotten to the point where I feel much much better again. One week isn't enough to undo the last several years of damage but it is a start and now that I feel my age again after just a short stint, I hope to continue on until I fill younger again. I doubt I will ever reach the 20's again but late 30's would be nice!

My youngest recently turned four and due to her birth date, won't start kindergarten for another couple years. We hope to put her into a preschool class next fall to start learning how to socialize with others and to get her exposed to all the germs so that when she starts kindergarten, she will have some immunity built up. This means that I will have more time on my hands. I still have projects left to do around the house and will always have some, but I feel I need to do something a little more productive. This fall spent on the farm has awakened within me a need to perhaps get back to my roots again. I've been contemplating going back to work on the family farm at least seasonally as needed. I haven't broached the subject with my parents yet but I'm pretty sure they would be happy to have more help so they can do other things.

So I'm approaching a new year and I don't know what will happen. I do know however, that by the end of next year, my life will be balanced as always.

Friday, December 2, 2016

'Tis the Season for Elves

The few of my long time readers still around will remember that I did the trip of a lifetime over 16 years ago. I took a month long trip down the Grand Canyon from impounded cesspool to impounded cesspool, i.e. from Lake Powell to Lake Mead. I actually only spent three of those weeks on the water but those three were enough that I never wanted to return to reality. In fact, the company I boated with offered me a job and it took every fiber of my being to turn it down and to return to what was comfortable and known. Still, rarely a day goes by that I don't think about that trip and many times, my mind keeps returning to a side canyon along the way called Elves Chasm.

It was a very unassuming canyon that to my untrained eye looked just like all the rest. It is a short steep hike up from the river to the main falls seen above. It is a beautiful sight for sure and this is where the large majority of people turn around. A handful of guides and a handful of the more fit passengers continues on past this point but it wasn't for the faint of heart. You end up walking on a six inch wide ledge a hundred feet straight up from where I took this picture where one stumble or misstep would most certainly mean death. Fortunately there is a wall to lean on and keep your balance away from the open void below for the half dozen feet of the worst exposure but my knees quivered the entire way. We lost a couple passengers at that point, not to a fall but due to a weakening of the desire to see the hike through and they returned downhill to the boats.

The next obstacle didn't have the serious repercussions to life but did have some on my humility. We came to a large overhanging rock blocking our path. A couple of the guides hung onto various points of this rock and leaned backwards over the void to shuffle around the nose of the rock to the other side. If one was extremely confident in your hand strength and willingness to not let a fly make you want to scratch your nose suddenly, this was the route you could take. For the rest of us, we were forced to crawl underneath the rock in the fourteen inches of space so parched from lack of water, that the "floor" was six inches of powder. We had to reduce ourselves to mere snakes as we wiggled, groaned and furrowed our way through the dust underneath the rock overhang and out the other side.

Yet again we were met with another insurmountable point. We were in a shallow cave with no were to go but the way we came. However, if you were tall or had a very healthy vertical leap, one could reach through a small opening in the top of the cave, grasp hold of a perfectly shaped rock for a hand, and hoist yourself through the opening. I was tall and just barely had the strength to so so along with two of the guides and one other passenger whom we had to pull up through the opening. The rest remained there for our return.

We game once again to a large rock blocking our path twenty feet up from the jagged rocks below. This one required long arms to reach around the rock to a crack and use a fist jam belay to walk yourself around the nose of the rock to a small ledge on the other side. Safely around, we came to a jumble of house sized boulders that blocked our way save for a small door sized gap. We walked through the opening. We were in the "Green Room" and could see the "Weeping Wall." As tradition dictated, nobody said a word as we found a place to rest our legs while our eyes wandered.

The green room was where Elves Chasm finally boxed us in with a twenty foot tall rim of rock on the three sides around us. Years of Mother Nature's finest erosional work was on display for the water of Elves Creek has created a flat spot on top of the rim so the water could drip over evenly all along the rim. Below the rim was a green mass of ivy full of bright scarlet monkey flowers, yellow columbine flowers and fluttering hummingbirds sipping nectar. It was a magic elixir and I drunk deeply with my eyes. I can sometimes close my eyes and see it now though those visions are faded and worn and I'm no longer quite sure I can trust my memory.

I don't know how long we were there but I knew with others waiting for our return beneath the opening in the roof of the shallow cave and back at the boats, that we had to go back. It was only after I lowered myself through the opening of the shallow cave and was making my way back to where I had to change back into a snake to slither underneath the overhanging rock that I realized that I hadn't taken a picture. The one thing that might have kept my memory from turning into a well worn synapse that it is now. Even if the vision is worn, I still feel the peace and pleasure that I felt that day so long ago.