The Happy Ending

Paul is up at first light every morning to make the coffee. “The good news is that the weather cannot get any worse” he announces cheerfully one morning; the next “The bad news is it can only get worse—5000ft ceiling and 20 mile visibility!” And, what occurs to me…… Bettles and the pass each have their own conditions, so what it looks like here is pretty irrelevant. This is my internal mechanism to avoid further disappointment, as we had a few days back. I just want to hear the roar of the Otter’s engine and see it breaking through the skyline into my view.

fishfryBuzz, one of the camp “worker bees”, decides to break out his fishing gear and before we even know what he’s up to he lands an 18 inch Lake Trout! The word rings out through the camp and Scott joins him. Within a couple hours they are deciding “enough”, and, throw back the sixth equally large fish. They shift gears to wood gathering, both for warmth and the fish fry. The fish tacos fill our bellies and provide a much needed lift of spirits. Apparently, we won’t starve out here, even if our lake freezes and the float planes cannot get back in to lift us out.

By this time we are thinking about possible emergency rescue measures…… jet helicopters dispatched from Prudoe Bay….. money being no object….. National Park choppers for search and rescue, but the sad truth is that those things never happen up here…. unless, someone is actually dying. In truth, we are nowhere near the implementation of such extreme measures, much to the dismay of those who might pay whatever the cost.

As you know, we made it out….. on the fifth day. The bad weather finally broke. We found out from our pilot that Brooks Range Aviation had 40 people stranded out in the bush, some of whom had not only been out longer than us, but had no SAT phone; some who were at a lake that actually did freeze requiring them to hike to a deeper one still accessible to a float plane; others who had food but no fuel or firewood to cook it; and some who watched their food (caribou) disappear to a hungry Grizz …… so, all things considered we actually had it pretty easy.

noatakgroupWe all missed our flights back home and were prepared to spend one more night in the Bettles hangar, but much to our surprise, the folks at Brooks Aviation had a plane waiting (from Wright Air, handling the small commercial flights) to scoot us on back to Fairbanks. Seems they had had enough of us from the lower 48, who just didn’t seem to fully understand being at the mercy of the elements the same way as those born and raised part of the food chain did.

Sea of Anxiety

Now, the third day into our wait for the float plane pick up at Matcharak Lake, our minds drift on a sea of anxiety, fearing more bad weather while hoping for enough clearing ……just three hours would do. The weather pattern is fickle. Good weather here at the lake has very small meaning. Perhaps even the pass is clear, but what is the ceiling in Bettles? Can the planes even get off the ground?

With the snow flurries and the wind coming and going, and the hours of anything resembling warmth diminishing daily, we spend many hours in the tents. Most of us read a lot and trade books back and forth. Kim and I play a lot of Rummy 500 and then cribbage (without a board).

My mind goes where it goes and I just watch it, to see how seriously I will take it. Reading is not to big a part of how I spend my time. Distraction is not much of an exploration. When the fears rise to serious levels I wonder if I will live to see my grandchildren again?

imageOur food supply is still OK, meaning that even though we have eaten the emergency food for two extra days of waiting, we have rationed what is left to two small meals a day and it seems three more days of some eating are possible. The food situation is not too worrisome yet as I note that some of my pre trip thoughts regarding my 190 pound chubbiness with both an appreciation of extra insulation and a desire to return to my optimal “playing weight”. Voila!! A golden opportunity to manifest my imaginings. I know how to fast; have done it several times before. But when low blood sugar arrives, look out! Recent reality checks reveal a strong trend toward quick crankiness!

I, semi-consciously, chose not to fill my mind with the thoughts of others through books on this trip, preferring to just watch my own. I sometimes call this my meditation “practice”, lacking any other formal, spiritual discipline. The one book I did throw into the dry bag on the way out of town was Buddhist Anam Thubten’s, “No Self, No Problem”. Waking up to a snow covered tent for the second straight morning, my monkey mind took me into that most definitive No Self possibility! Fearful thinking is nothing new to me, but when circumstances such as these surround fearful tendencies of thinking (i.e. worst possible outcomes) death can easily seem uncomfortably near.

What are my lingering attachments that impede letting go?
What relationships have not had adequate expressions of love?
What remains in need of my forgiveness?
What future experiences are still deeply desired?

Suddenly the NFL opener does not seem too important!

Getting Out

Chapter III — Getting Out

Float planes usually land on lake water unless a river is remarkably calm and deep (not true for us on the Noatak). The quarter mile portage was, as it had been seven years ago, arduous. Each of us needed to make four or five trips with as much gear as we each could manage to schlep, on backs and in arms. While there was a trail of sorts, the terrain was quite uneven and wet in places. The rafts were most difficult, particularly the long skinny one which only had handles on each end. Three of us carried it overhead (or more accurately on our heads) in single file. It was an exhausting day.

We had spent three nights at our previous camp as it was spacious and we were in a good weather pattern. The Brooks Aviation float planes were in the air daily and our SAT phone contact with them indicated “reasonable” weather ahead. There was no indication we needed to alter our schedule to beat bad weather to Matchurak. We were intending to clean the rafts the afternoon of the portage, organize our gear, and fly out the next day.

imageThe morning of our anticipated departure we awoke to a light snowfall……….. and when we contacted Brooks Aviation they told us that Bettles was fogged in. Then it began……the

When the snow subsided later in the morning, we were in a mix of feelings amidst the awesome beauty and the uncertainty of getting out to catch our flights home. When we next contacted Brook’s Aviation with our update on the Matchurak weather, they reported planes still being grounded, but the mid afternoon call indicated they were clear to take off and making a run at getting through the pass. We were elated and moved right in to breaking down our camp and organizing the gear.

We waited and waited, watching the eastern sky towards the passes. From our vantage point we could not tell how bad the visibility might be? Finally, around 6PM we began to lose hope. The call to Bettles confirmed that they had been unable to get through the pass and we moved into setting our camp back up once again.

Grizzly Encounters

imageA few days into our float the weather turned clear, and cold at first, but then calm days warmed into gorgeous Vit D collecting sunbathing. Clear night skies meant Aurora Borealis sightings during weak bladder moments. Those up between midnight and 2AM were often rewarded. The oohing and awing, at times, made getting out of the tent mandatory though we often had the inclination to open the tent door and take a partial view from the warm bag! The spectators occasionally broke into cheering as at the dramatic end of a great firework display. The dynamic movement of curtains and spirals of light were outstanding at times and inspired braving the sub freezing temperatures. (This photo is not mine, but was a google image that most closely resembles what we saw.)

On the second leg of our float time we entered the major side creek tributaries where small salmon runs had turned towards spawning grounds up from their mouths. During the second day of our float we covered 18 miles and had eight grizzly sightings from our rafts. These were great sightings as there was no danger of interaction and full viewing until they caught our scent or motion. After rejecting one nice camp at a creek mouth due to numerous large (fresh) grizzly tracks and nearby bushes, we came to our third camp just beyond Kugrak Creek. We soon found ourselves parked in the middle of a serious corridor of several bears, one of which came around a blind corner into face to face contact with several of our people (Buzz Knight being the closest). Being the “Good” bear he was, or due to Buzz’s bad smell, he immediately lumbered to a mid stream sand bar to reassess before continuing to the far bank in his search for fish.

These bears we saw were gorgeous………healthy looking with shinny mostly blond and light brown colored coats, and “well behaved”………minding their bear business and leaving us alone. A few times they were slow to notice us and twice required the use of the pot banging alarm system. We saw several moms with cubs of varying ages from quite young to second year and almost as big as their moms. We had sightings virtually every day of the trip and did our best to not count the same bear twice.

In our pre trip imaginations we thought this journey would be well timed to witness the caribou migration, but had ignored this fish run possibility that brought out so many bears (over thirty different ones and some with multiple sightings). I never tired of watching these magnificent creatures of the tundra. During floating encounters when I had the binoculars, paddling commands were non-existent and my bow paddlers directed the raft, much to my delight.

imageOn our last river day before the portage to our rendezvous with the float plane, we spotted a Grizz on the bank downstream from our landing place. Up came the binocs and the logical maneuver to give wide birth. By the time we passed each other (our flotilla and the bear) –a distressing awareness dawned on us that we had floated too far and missed the portage trail head. This bear had distracted us in a serious way which led to over a half mile tow of the rafts upstream. Luckily, there was ample room and shallow water on this riverbank and our recovery was not too difficult, especially compared to the portage itself! (Photo by Debbie Desrochers)

In total respect, honored to be in their presence, we spent these weeks in awe of our good fortune to have had these great experiences — the highlight of our trip!

The Waiting Game

Noatak River— Late August 2015
Bettles to Nelson Walker Lake

After a three day weather delay in Bettles, three of us got the sudden call to get ready to fly in the mid afternoon. The expected break in an early winter weather pattern, impinging on our late fall river/wildlife expedition had arrived. Some of us had been here in this same season to avoid the mosquitos in 2008 and we had great weather then, dry and chilly. My intuition had warned me this year might be different and I bought some flight insurance.

imageWe three had volunteered to act as a “probe” to see if the smaller plane, the Beaver, could get through the high mountain pass in time to radio back for the Otter to come on ahead. Bettles is just south of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, the least visited and largest of all our National Parks. Our bush flight was heading up the Alatna drainage, seeking passage to the Noatak valley through Portage Creek pass. We had hope we’d get through ourselves, but serious doubt that the second plane with our seven companions would have the same chances as the weather forecast had been for two more days of dicey weather.

Our 90 minute flight was as good as we could have imagined with fair visibility and little turbulence. Our young pilot saw an opening through Gull pass, the normal second option of getting through, and seized the opportunity. We arrived at Nelson Walker Lake to a very light snow and a gorgeous fall tundra.

I felt so happy to be back. My anxiety back in Bettles had been transformed into pure joy!

In the midst of our scurry to set up tents and kitchen shelter I took some time to take in all the beauty of this wild place, not only the colorful tundra and snow capped peaks around our lakeside camp, but the awesome silence and solitude, after the bustle of the airstrip and hangar.

The inclement weather had created a logjam of adventurers patiently cultivating the equanimity required to assuage their disappointment in watching their limited vacation time disappear. Many others in transit to the Brooks Range hung out in the hangar with their belongings, awaiting their opportunity to hunt, fish and hike in the way back country bush. We had passed the time exploring this strange outpost — a blend of the historic native village of the Koyukon and the National Park headquarters. The bad weather found us watching films in the park “theater” related to the environment we were now in and heading deeper into.

The time in Bettles was a training ground for all of us, a workshop in waiting, and, adjusting what we want to the truth of what is real. The good news for our group was that we were time rich with sixteen days to go only 45 river miles. The other people waiting had only 5-7 days in which to Fulfill their dreams.

imageSo here we sat (Scott, Leslie and myself) under our shelter, cooking some dehydrated soup and marveling at the contrast in our recent “homes”. My excitement and presence neutralized all sense of exposure to the cold and snow. The prospect of being alone for a few days if the storm was to persist was “just fine”— an unexpected chapter of the adventure we had signed onto. There was an immediate bond amongst the three of us as well as a deep and soulful connection to this Arctic landscape as well as it’s as yet unseen four legged inhabitants.

Something very special had just happened. It will not be forgotten.

Westy World

There is a reason we named our VW Campervan, Good Dog.

imageWell before we bought our ’91 Westfalia we had been warned about the love affair mentality the majority of owners indulged in……. as in Love/Hate. The vehicle seemed to have its way with a vast majority of its owners and had such sex appeal as to cause irrational behavior to become the norm. Unbelievable amounts of money were spent, not only on the essentials of keeping them road worthy, but also on “improvements” (i.e. cool shit!)

With the abundant admonitions to prepare for trouble, as in, expensive mechanical problems and disrupting breakdowns on the road, we chose the name “Good Dog” to appease the Westy Gods; to ward off the predicted and inevitable. Just rattle the car keys and a Good Dog is ready to head out on the next road adventure!

After my early trip challenges with the oil pressure light and Armeggedon buzzer alerts, our beloved Campervan had performed flawlessly with the original 10W40 weight oil. The five quarts of 20W50 purchased in Las Vegas still remained unused in the back storage closet of the van. When oil was changed in Albuquerque our only choice was 15W40 and to that we agreed. Now back in California, 6000 miles later, our oil pressure warning system has behaved itself and we drive in humble confidence that our van is dependable.

There is a real pleasure in the presence cultivated in the hum of 50mph. The large wrap around windows and slow speeds allow for an enhanced appreciation of the roadside beauty of the back roads designated as “scenic”. We avoid the interstate highways like the plague.

As we headed west from Colorado, we became focused on a continuation of our New Mexico pattern of “friend hopping”. In order to make good on our expected arrival home date and fulfill our two final visits to friends and their new homes, we put in a 10 hour driving day and covered over 500 miles, the Good Dog handling the mountain passes of Nevada as though the challenges of three 11,000 ft passes in Colorado had conditioned her to make the 7-8,000 footers seem like child’s play.

imageWe have fallen even more deeply in love with this machine……….. forgiving the grief ridden moments of misbehavior and relishing the many comforts of our cocoon-like home on wheels.

Our Southern Border

It used to be that travel to our neighboring countries, Canada and Mexico, did not require a passport. Our recent proximity to the Mexican border and witnessing of the Border Patrol drives home the “new” post 911 reality. And, supposedly, this is quite an improvement over the immediate aftermath of the 911 tragedy.

Here in Big Bend National Park the Boquillas Crossing was historically was open to the degree that one could just wade across the river to Mexico. Now one can cross over via river ferry (or swimming I suppose), but getting back requires a passport. The Mexicans will receive us, but our own country will not (even with a driver’s license). Don’t leave home without it (your passport that is).

The Mexican artisans from Boquillas canoe across the river to place their handcraft products along the tourist paths, leaving jars for the payments. When we hiked into the mouth of Boquillas Canyon there was a man singing from the Mexican side of the little river, with sound echoing nicely off the canyon walls. He had his donation jars setting along the trail.

Official park publications reference this practice as highly illegal. If caught, the Mexican artisans face deportation via processing through a Border Patrol center hundreds of miles distant. The locals seemed unfazed, and we were happy to support the traditional cultural exchange with a small purchase.

imageEarlier in our travels we in camped at Poncho Villa state campground in southern New Mexico within 4 miles of the border. We were invited by some fellow campers to walk over the border to Las Palomas for breakfast with them, but we opted out for fear we might not get back, having only heard “stories” that walk across traffic did not require a passport. (This has since been confirmed, BTW, to be true ……..there.)

Driving the southern most roads of our Mexican bordering states we literally passed or were passed by more Border Control vehicles than civilian vehicles! Our police state is alive and well!

As we turned north from Presidio and the confluence of the Rio Grand and the Mexican born Rio Conchos, we came upon one last Border Inspection Station with the usual array of border police and German Shepherd K-9’s. As we rolled down the window to answer the standard questions about destination and citizenship the dog showed immediate interest in the van. We were politely asked to pull over to the right hand lane. As we waited we were a bit confused as to what was up? When directed to step out of the van and go sit on a bench I inquired as to the reason and was told the dog was onto something. I innocently asked our “guard” what they were looking for and was told, “narcotics and illegals”. Further probing as to the dog’s ability to distinguish between the two led nowhere. Knowing we were carrying nothing illegal led to the joking comment that I hoped if they found anything it was really good :-)

He smiled.

All of our creative ideas about what the dog smelled led to dead ends. Could it have been the amethyst crystal I had bought from the Mexican craft stand at the Boquillas Canyon Trail? Or, maybe it was a pee jar with some Mexican smelling urine residue? Perhaps simply a canine attraction to our van itself, our little home on wheels……… the “Good Dog”?


More Hot Water (in the dark)

Without much forethought and circumstantially driven, I found myself soaking in a very well known and wonderful hot spring near Rio Grand Village at Big Bend National Park. Even in the prime temperate, wildflower season here it can be hot and water hot is not so appealing. We thought that maybe an evening soak would be possible, but it was still too hot to contemplate, though many others had the same idea with much more tolerance for the heat (105 degree water and 85 degree sunshine). So, a plan was concocted for a night in the tent, freeing up the Westy for an early morning drive (15 minutes) to the trailhead to the springs.

imageThe hot spring is at an old resort site and right on the banks of the Rio Grand, where the silty waters flow right into the foundation of the old resort structure. Over the years, high water levels have filled the foundation (15×20 ft) with sand so the comfort level with 1-2 feet of water is superb!!

My bladder alarm went off around 4 AM and after giving more sleep a chance I moved into the thinking, why not go to the springs now instead of waiting. The sound of someone else’s motor starting up in the camp ground gave me the internal permission I needed to sneak off. Kim was aware I had been setting things up for the possibility, so she would awaken to my absence and as it turned out she preferred the extra few hours off sleep.

Confident I could find the place again I set out with only parking lights until sleeping campers were safe from any further disturbance from my unusual behavior. A couple miles of marginal narrow dirt roads got me to the empty parking lot and an apparent unoccupied hot tub. A quarter mile walk by headlamp on the river trail brought up memories of other river hot springs I had visited at night over the decades of river running. I felt right at home.

Words may never be able to touch my delight at the first plunge into the perfectly hot water and the comfy sandy bottom and the sound of the riffles which separated me from Mexico. Gratitude welled up in the fresh “new” consciousness of my connection to the natural order of things…. connection as in “no separation from”. There is a good reason why I call the river my greatest teacher. Here in the silence of the starry night where only the river was speaking I felt all semblance of conflicted feelings disappear and hoped the dawn would never come.

One issue that lingered in contemplation was that of elderhood versus olderhood, a subject stirred by the brothers in my mens group and an upcoming initiation retreat. The distinction here is one of choosing to close the doors to Life in contrast to a vibrant and meaningful time of “giving back” and blessing the next generations. Without any mental effort the sweetness of the hot water and the riffles of myself came to clarity that at age 66 I am clearly growing older and feeling the limitations of my body. Simultaneously an active elderhood of teaching and mentoring is happening as the spark of curiosity and the eternal seeker within still quietly probes the meaning of my life’s experiences and ongoing initiations. I feel to be in healthy relationship to the Great Mystery, contributing to the Grand Awakening on the planet in my own natural way. It is not a life of pleasure and comfort which calls to me, though I find a good balance predominated by ease. It is the voice of change and the embrace of challenge that fans the flame of aliveness, keeping oldness from taking the reins and halting the cantor of elder work.

A sweet inner peace came quick as some conflicted thoughts dissolved in the wisdom of the water. My continuing random thoughts went quiet quickly. Whenever a new one would arise it would be short lived. The joy of an occasional meteor helped to build the sense of awe and wonder. I was prepared to share the pool as it was full with 15-20 folks the evening before. While I had arrived before 5AM and was delighted to find it free of others. As it approached 7AM I was even more surprised to have it all to myself. Sunrise was not far off and the edge of the foundation acted as the horizon of an infinity pool at a fancy resort. The hot water poured over into the Rio Grand and I lingered into the sunrise to test my new iPhone camera.

image“Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

A Unique Canyon Journey

This was a first time Canyon experience for me in many ways…………

My thirteenth time in the Grand Canyon was the first in which I hiked in from the rim; first time I joined an ongoing river trip late and left a trip early; first time I had as many days floating as not floating (layover days equalled float days); first time I did not row a raft; first time I played no leadership roll; and the first time I left a trip feeling well rested, especially after arising in the dark every morning.

While being rowed down the river was not a completely new experience, it was perhaps the biggest divergence fro my previous twelve trips.  I actually enjoyed the freedom to indulge in the beauty of the canyon walls with utter disregard for the water itself and where it might be taking us.  It was also fun doing a tiny bit of teaching with my very competent, but fairly inexperienced oarswoman.  Thank you, Abby!

image In spite of the oddness of my experience I honestly had a great time. It was like a beginners mind with an asterisk kind of journey to a familiar place of beauty. My traveling companions were an extraordinary group of unusually talented individuals. We did things the average river runner would never even contemplate, and saw things very few people on a Canyon river trip ever see. I say this from the point of view of one who did less than virtually everyone else, dictated by my physical, emotional and psychological needs and limitations…… and I say that from a place of good overall health.

I cannot attribute the energy and enthusiasm of my companions to their physical age as they varied from early thirties to seventy. Everyone seemed to find their own right level of participation…. for the most part, a very high level! I must attribute it to an authentic passion for the world of exploration and the commitment and willingness to use all their available skill and energy. While most normal humans would not consider much of what was done to be really safe, there was always an underlying attention to a “reasonable” edge of what is possible, given the skills and stamina of each who wanted to take on the challenge as a self responsible participant.

imageHere is an example of a not so typical (but then not too unusual) day: Up at 5 AM for a pre 8AM launch; row 9 miles for a Diamond Creek exchange; briefly explore Travertine Creek; row to Killer Fang Falls to scout and run the rapid; raft on down to Separation Canyon for a 24 mile river day; hike 9 miles with a 2500 ft elevation gain (with substantial packs) to camp (arrival in the dark). On this particular day there was also a flipped raft just for good measure! This sounds like a two day itinerary to me!

The beauty of these trips is the way they can and do accommodate all levels of participation. The planning is intense……. all praise to Rich Rudow and Rick Demarest! Participation requires flexibility and surrender to the group needs, as do all Canyon trips, but to an even higher degree.

I found my place……..and deeply appreciated my inclusion to have my own “first decent”.

imageImages in this post were taken by Rich Rudow.

Whitmore Alone

On a late afternoon stroll up Whitmore Wash yesterday we walled out a mile or so up the wash and discovered a huge multi tiered 600 ft drop that made the canyoneers among us drool. The mental wheels were immediately turning and the plans to layover at Parashant were dissolving rapidly. The decision was made over dinner.  The radical loop from the river to the head of the”Bargain Basement” slot and then back to Parashant would be aborted due to unstable soil conditions after the big rain.  The new discovery was to be exploited……. game on!

imageI decided, even though invited to join in, that it was beyond my skills and toleration for anxiety. I respectfully and gratefully declined and spent the morning in camp by myself……heavenly solitude! The stillness and surrounding beauty were literally overwhelming. The warmth of the morning sun soon had me washing hair and organizing my gear for my departure from the trip in three days. Refreshened and organized I felt the time was wisely well spent and my sense of Presence was strong without the social chatter of my trip mates.

imageIn the early afternoon, just before the canyoneers returned from their adventures I left camp to hike and ended up climbing to the rim (about an 800 ft climb) to the head of the morning’s Big rappel. I always feel somewhat transformed by getting to higher altitudes in the Grand Canyon. The scope of the place expands enormously and the beauty takes on a new dimension. Continuing the theme of solitude, I was completely enjoying my own pace and the quiet beauty of my deep breathing. I was being extremely conscious about the placement of every foot step, being super protective of my left ACLless knee. It was a pleasure having a well constructed trail after my previous experiences with this group’s cross country endeavors!

I realized that I could have done the rappels with the support of so many veterans, but the truth of the matter is that I don’t enjoy the thrill of the sport enough to deal with the anxiety it creates. I am a hiker who prefers a trail….. and 6-8 miles is plenty for maximum enjoyment. It will be interesting to see how my legs feel tomorrow after the 4-5 miles with 1600 ft elevation change (and particularly the 800 foot descent). Hopefully the 18 mile and 4000 foot descent coming on to this trip left my legs with enough strength to do this short burst without painful repercussions of significant soreness.

imageThese hours alone in the immense Grand silence are always a special time….. real food for the soul.

Big Water

imageThe rain continued for over 24 hours. We sat under the rain shelter with a gas burning “fire”, the kind of thing one might employ by the pool side for atmosphere. It was a small source of heat for those fortunate enough to be “fireside”, but mostly it was for a psychological rallying point as the conversation was somewhat less than inspiring.  Dale’s Pop-Up Pod was the other equipment upgrade on this trip providing pooping protection and dry TP!!

We awoke the second morning to a thousand foot waterfall directly across the river from us! Spectacular!! Looking back up the canyon we could see numerous others and we were elated to have this new beauty visit us in our camp bound condition.  A third night here was decided upon for safety and sensible use of our energy. By afternoon that day the weather pattern was breaking and we were feeling certain that tomorrow would be “Lava” day.

imageIt was such a blessing to have a little drying out time before packing up camp. The morning was slow (by our standards) and mildly somber as it always is in the approach to Lava Falls. Abby was going to row Lava, meaning I would be her support in the bow. She had only run Lava once and I had only not run Lava once, back in ’05 when I had injured my back and daughter Heidi had taken over primary rowing responsibilities. I had fond memories of that day when I “got” to be in the bow where there is a much different perspective and almost no responsibility….. pure joy!

I was geared up in my drysuit with three warm layers underneath, top and bottom. There was a cold bite to the breeze in the morning shadows with only occasional sun, but by the time we got to the scouting point we had full sunshine in the late morning and the overheating in all that clothing set the perfect tone for the wetness that was just ahead. Abby’s inexperience did not bother me. I was really ready to enjoy the ride and we had a great run!   My undisciplined shouts of encouragement and direction were appreciated by the captain.

Our goal for the day was Whitmore Camp, Mile 188 from which we thought we would stage the next overnight back country canyoneering event near Parashant. It seems that plans are primarily a structure of form, temporary and fleeting in nature. So far, none of the intentions for length of stay in one location had held, primarily due to weather.

imageWhen I headed to my tent this evening after dinner to escape a lingering shower I had the sense we would be staying here a second night as the pre dinner stroll up the drainage revealed a 600 ft descent that had the canyoneers drooling…..

Getting to the top of this side canyon would be “easy”…….. less than 1000 foot climb on a trail Rich described as something so civilized the “even river runners would use”!

The capstone to my day was a tent mate, uninvited. As I dozed before intending to sleep I felt something furry touch my hand in the dark. I bolted upright and groped for my headlamp. It was not long before I was able to locate the source of my surprise. A mouse had entered the unzipped door and did what mice do. “He” brought out the trapper in me and within a half hour I captured the little rascal in my fleece hat. The adrenaline of the hunt opened to door to this blog and hopefully will have subsided to allow for a good night’s sleep.

Moving to Flash Flood Safety

Sitting in the bow of a raft is not what I am used to. I thought I had dressed adequately for the 6-8 miles of very mild rapids, however it was February and the amount of sunlight hitting the water was minimal. Two layers of warm synthetics plus a paddle jacket and pants did not prove to be enough even though I did employ the stand up before hitting a wave technology. Our arrival at National Canyon was close to dusk and we had to scout the camping options due to the super flash flood blowout of the previous year. Too much sitting and waiting led to a chill, but upon arrival there was much to do and I didn’t take off my paddling clothes until all the chores of being at a new camp were handled.

Dealing with my three bags of personal gear was intriguing as it had been almost a month since I packed it all and delivered it to Rick’s back home. It was a lot of stuff to go through and plenty of layers and changes for 10 days in the Canyon. A few additional items would have proved to be useful, but time will tell.

I was tired after the 10 mile hike in that day, but it was our intention to spend four days in this spot to accommodate a variety of canyoneering options, none of which I intended to participate in. The weather report was for a couple good days before any rain moved in and the opportunity to get in to the back country was immediate. The problem was quickly becoming clear…. one needs strong legs to do anything around here and mine were needing some serious recovery from the 4000 ft descent into the Canyon. It was already painful getting up from my low riding camp chair. I could only imagine it would be getting worse!

imageThe bottom mile of the National Canyon drainage is gorgeous, but it had been my desire to get up higher with the help of my canyoneering friends. I had idealistically imagined climbing high enough with camping gear to spend a night to further explore the reaches I had never seen. The hard truth of the situation was that if I could not get out of the chair without cringing I could certainly not trust those legs to climb even the non technical parts of the ascent. So, even though the experienced climbers would provide assistance through the couple hard places, I would be unable to trust my legs for the basic safety needed :-(

imageWhat a blessing to have the recovery time built in to the itinerary of the pre made plans! I was reduced to recovery strolls up the lower canyon and down to bar to collect firewood as well as some awesome bocci ball games on the expansive lower beach!

There was an underlying concern throughout the camp about the remote possibility of another flash flood down the National Canyon drainage.   The narrowness of the canyon here made it difficult to sustain sat phone connections and so obtaining updated weather reports was very difficult.  Our eventual  decision to move was motivated by this as well as the unpleasant image of having to move camp in a rain storm.  The Stairway–Mohawk area was our next targeted canyoneering destination and had the advantage of being much smaller drainages with less potential danger from heavy rains.

imageThis wet weather that we had hoped was dissipating, slowly but surely began to arrive as had been confirmed by Rich’s sat phone call to his wife.  The next two days looked ominous.  The overnight canyoneering trip would have to be cancelled for safety and another Plan B was being formulated. We would reduce the stay at Stairway by one night and spend the next day exploring Mohawk Canyon which was reportedly very beautiful and non technical. The next day we would run Lava Falls and camp down at Whitmore Wash where there was good hiking and an epic 400 ft rappel for the thrill seekers.

Mohawk was exquisite and upon my return I warmed up nicely in my toasty down bag writing in my electronic journal to the pitter patter of a steady rain. Lava Falls is not bringing on the usual butterflies as I do not have a boat to guide. Many layers of warm clothes inside my drysuit should make the experience as good as possible as we transition to our next layover camp. This is my style…. two or more nights in every camp!

Havasu Drainage

I did sleep well and it was a real blessing to have the last taste of civilization in the middle of our hike in. My body was already beginning to feeling the effects of the descent which we had only begun in the first eight miles. Due to the work hours of the lodge manager we had a leisurely morning during which I wandered the village. Kids of all ages made their way to school while I walked past the elementary school and the relatively new Mormon Church! I just don’t know how those Mormons do it!? Not wanting to be offensive to anyone I used my iPhone camera along the walk snapping photos whenever I could with discretion. I observed a few motorized vehicles, both electric and diesel driven heavy equipment which begged the question, how did that get here? Our best guess was military helicopters, but the when and why questions lingered.

When the office opened we payed our fees ($121 each for our bed and the entry day “use” fee to the Hualapi owned upper Havasu Canyon). Since I was leaving the Colorado at Diamond Creek (also Hualapain land) I would be paying an additional $79 for a grand total of $200 to the tribe, almost a quarter of the total cost of the 12 day experience.

We walked at least another half mile through the community and then down the horse trail towards the campground and “new” upper falls. During the recent (enormous) flash flood the character of the upper regions below the village but above the campground were drastically altered. Apparently, according to Todd and Stephanie, the uppermost fall was “replaced” by two new ones, both quite impressive and the object of our first photo stop.

Continuing down the wide path, another mile or so we passed areas of beauty, marred by the very heavy use of two leggeds and four leggeds alike. Before reaching the Campground and famous Moody Falls we passed Navajo Falls and Havasu Falls, both very impressive. At the top of the campground area we came upon some horse areas and a group of Hualapi men huddled around a campfire by a canyon wall. They waved to us which was one of the few friendly gestures we experienced.

The campground was virtually uninhabited, giving the impression of an utterly delightful place to camp in the narrow canyon by the already gorgeous blue waters which we had all previously experienced down the creek drainage near the Colorado. There were dozens and dozens of idyllic camp sites. We were later told that in the height of the camping season there it was not unusual to see hundreds and hundreds of campers and hikers with all their party toys, loud music and boisterous energies. At the top end of the campground was the famous Havasu Falls and at the bottom the equally well known Moody Falls, both of which had steep access trails, but only one with the ominous, “Continue at Your Own Risk” sign.

imageThe descent to Moody Falls was treacherous by almost everyone’s standards. If anyone had described it accurately I would have worn my Five Ten boots and stowed my hiking poles. The presence of chain hand rails on both sides as we emerged from the dark tunnel was an indicator that the steep, rock “steps” through the cave at the top was going to be the easiest part of the journey. The 200-300 foot descent became steeper and wetter the further we descended and my “death grip” tightened with each step. Towards the bottom two wooden stairways with chain rails, slippery as the proverbial snot, finished the most hazardous part of the “hike”.

Apparently the majority of people who use the campground do not go the bottom, ever! For those like us, there was no choice. To do that descent with a pack, holding poles and wearing sandals was not only not fun, but added a dimension of muscular tension that contributed to several days of extreme soreness at our first river camp at National Canyon.  To the canyoneers amongst us this was literally just a stroll in the park.

The Upper Havasu drainage, even after the spectacular falls, is a place of extreme beauty, by far more delightful than the lower three miles between Beaver Falls and the Colorado. The trail maintenance was great and there were picnic tables along the way which the Hualapi had somehow installed at 6-8 gorgeous overlooks along the way. They must have been flown in with great difficulty and cost. The three creek crossings, if carefully surveyed, were never above thigh deep and one was spanned by a wooden, ladder like bridge. In our final approach to Beaver Falls there were a couple sturdy ladder ascents right up to the edge of Hualapi Lands. These few miles at the upper end reminded my of the trail infrastructures we saw in New Zealand. For as impoverished as the village seemed, the trail appeared to be heavily subsidized by recreational grants of some sort, or, perhaps the heavy use fees that we sometimes complain about.

For a full pictorial overview of the Havasu Drainage go to the gallery entitled Havasu Hike.

Into the Supai Village

My expectations were quite low. Hiking a horse path into the village from the plateau did not seem likely to be of extreme beauty. Todd said it was “run of the mill” and the real beauty would be the second day. Rich, on the other, was not specific but referred to the Havasu Drainage as one of the very best!

My first surprise was that we drove on pavement all the way from Hyw 66 and I thinking it would be gravel. 60+ miles of gravel would have been almost as burdensome as the Saline Valley drive.  Most of it was straight at 60 mph until the last few miles curving down onto a “platform” above the side canyon we were to drop into. This was a large parking lot with lots of horse staging areas.image

My first thought was that the Hualapi must have a big horse packing tourist business, but it soon became apparent that this was how all the needs of the village were met…. everything is packed in on horses.

The trail was wide and nicely graded for the horses and immediately dropped many hundreds (if not a thousand feet) into an almost level trail gradually descending down a wash and then into a sweet narrow canyon, perhaps run of the mill by Grand Canyon standards, but more objectively just plain gorgeous!

It was a good first day of about 8 miles, mostly downhill and just enough to tire my body, fatigued with the extra 20 pounds on my back. It needn’t have been that much but I was carrying this iPad and a camera and my chacos for tomorrows many creek crossings.

imageI will enjoy the bed in the “Lodge” tonight (as Well as the hot shower) before ten nights on my beloved poco pad. The lodge is clean and simple with two queen beds and a motel type bathroom….. very civilized and comfortable. Abby and I came in behind Todd and Stephanie who had to bang on doors for quite a while to procure the keys and then found out we would have to pay after 8 AM when they open again for business. we are on “village time” here.

Our hike took us right through the whole village as the lodge is at the down creek end. The village is primarily divided into small houses with fenced areas around each one for the horses which seem to be, by far, the dominant animals around.  A few dogs and cats, but no other farm animals were seen. There are two stores, two cafes, an elementary school, and a post office as well as some construction yard areas with a few pieces of heavy equipment and lots of 55 gallon drums, pipes and various remnants of building projects. It is quite junky and the village obviously lacks much infrastructure.

The people we interacted with were civil, but showed no interest in us and made no effort to be at all friendly….. except for one little girl who initiated interaction with a happy “Hi”. My impression was that we were being tolerated for the revenue so clearly needed. It was fine to be traveling through to the lodge but did not feel too cool to just walk the “streets”. Its just a guess, but I’d say there might be as many as 200 +/-50 residents.

The geography of Supai is ideal for a village site with its many acres of relatively flat land and abundant water. It would be fascinating to learn the actual history of the place. Down the canyon we were to see some evidence of rather extreme efforts to mine the area, but up above, the village site is formed by the confluence of two canyon areas with Havasu springs and Havasu Creek emerging from one and flowing through the two.

I’m going to sleep well tonight.

Getting Out

What a treat to be alive in this day and age! Add a little intuition to common sense and then throw in the amazing technological capabilities of these times and it is amazing to feel the connections in Life.

I left Saline Valley a bit earlier than anticipated as I was told by a guy in the tubs that the camp host said a weather front was coming in, and ahead of the previously anticipated forecast. The notorious roads were really in quite good shape but there was no telling what rain would do to them. The night before I had sensed a change in the air with wind gusting through the night when earlier it had been extraordinarily calm.

So I packed it up and brailed my way to the south, wondering how confused I might become with forks and choices. Without a good map and mostly by memory of the park map I had looked at, I adjusted to what the land really looked like and easily found my way up through the south pass. The Westy acted up briefly towards the summit when the engine oil was the hottest. The oil pressure buzzer was both hated and feared. The good news was that the buzzing stopped as soon as the engine was turned off and required only a brief cool down to again behave itself (for a while).  Again the scenery was outstanding and the road quite tolerable with my primary attention to the beauty rather than “making time”.

My intention to traverse Death Valley to the East was to be aesthetically pleasing, but turned to stressful with all the radical elevation changes through Panamint Valley. The climb out of that  Valley convinced me (through several more buzzer incidents) that I needed to get to a place with cell reception. The fastest and easiest way out of Death Valley was towards Beatty, NV and it was only about 30 miles to an old haunt (freedom camping spot) near the ghost town, Rhyolite.

With unexpected cell coverage I was able to connect with Kim who immediately got on a Vanagon chat board and I was given a dozen or so experiences with Westy oil pressure light flashings. By and large they confirmed my suspicions and were quite comforting.  Thumbs up to the Westy community members who responded to Kim’s “call”. Later in Las Vegas I was able to find some 20W50 oil for an eventual switch from the suspect 10W40 as the cause of the glitchy warnings when the oil gets too thin.

imageA few days later as I was heading up to 7000 ft elevations, 20 degree weather with4-6 inches of snow it did not seem wise to put heavier oil into the Westy. I decided to wait for southern Arizona and/or Texas to make the switch.

The ease with which I could make the connections with all the people and information needed was remarkable. One thing about road adventures that is very similar to wilderness adventures is the need to stay awake, to be present and in connection to, first and foremost, the inner guiding light…. should I turn left or should I turn right? Should I change my planned agenda? Should I listen to concerns that often, mostly seem to simply be basic fears and anxiety?

I am listening.

Saline Valley

Saline Valley contains an oasis of classic proportions. The photos will tell that story. Even now, in the winter it is hot (in the 80’s by day and 50’s by night). The “locals” are easily recognizable by their lack of clothing and deep brown bodies (no tan lines!) This is a very chill place (in spite of the heat). There are 25-30 vehicles here now with 50-60 people and it is very quiet. Mornings and evenings around the tubs are the noisiest times….. very social and chatty. I stay away. After the night at Whitmore, I am a middle of the night loner in the tubs. In the heat of the day I read, write and nap. The spring and fall of the daily cycle are the seasons of hiking, photography and exploration. it’s not a bad life out here. The regulars have that look of deep contentment saying, “I have found my heaven on earth!” This place is maintained by the people who love it. The Park Service does not come in too often, does not collect any fees, and has been held at bay by the effort it would take them and the extraordinary care the users take to keep it clean and regulated. The camp hosts are hard working and inspire the participation of the visitors. Bathrooms are spotless, showers and dish cleaning areas always tidy, the tubs are cleaned and bleached daily and only the wild burros shit indiscriminately on the lawns. For three nights or three weeks (30 day max/year), this is a very special place that deserves a visit…. even after my 30 years of intention.








Choosing the Voice to Follow

Leaving Big Pine and Highway 395 and heading east I was having some nagging thoughts about the wisdom of going remote with a van that was still acting up. Merle”s last words of advice when I told him I was heading to Texas were, “Ohhhh, …………just take it easy.”

imageFifteen miles up the road, still paved but steadily climbing, the light and buzzer scared me again. I stopped, it stopped. I started, it started. I stopped, it stopped. I was getting the message that this might not be a great idea. My smartphone’s navigation map was working and voice activated had indicated I was only a mile from the turn off of pavement and onto the rough 39 miles of the trip in to Saline Valley. I decided to back down the road to a turn around place and go back to the (still remote) paved route through Death Valley. I was going to be sensible and follow the advice Kim would be giving me were she with me.

Ten seconds after beginning my backing up, the female voice of the navigation program said, “Follow the route”. After repeating herself three times, I shifted back into forward in second gear and drove the next three hours in a state somewhere between anxiety, deep prayer, and extreme awareness of my environment. I saw every rock and rut while skillfully weaving and shifting the automatic from D2 to D1, rarely ever staying in drive. It was an intense drive for all of the obvious reasons, compounded in a good way by the extreme beauty. I loved the drive that was somehow enhanced by the background anxiety around the flashing oil light and the questioning as to whether I had taken the correct fork of each dirt road I passed. I profess to hate anxiety and always take the most stress free opportunities in life, but my behavior was not in support of who I claim to be.

imageMy arrival at “Palm Springs” in the Saline Valley was a great relief that ever since my smartphone voice had told me to “Follow the route” the oil light stayed off. My state of prayer had been consistent, which is perhaps a lesson in itself. Is that kind of presence of potential danger a requirement for the unevolved to stay present? I would like to think that a refined attunement could be easier to maintain without an accompanying anxiety. What is clear is that I am here, safe and sound, in a unique place of beauty I have been aware of for over 30 years. My greatest clarity is that Life is full of Grace. Four days from now I will be in high “attunement” again for the 6000 ft climb and 50 mile drive out of here on yet another unknown road to the South.

Midnight Soak

This is my opening journal entry after a very eventful first day on the road from Mount Shasta to Austin Texas, a trip which is expected to last for nearly two months before I return home. The first “destination” planned is Saline Valley after a one night stand at Whitmore Hot Spring.


Checking my text messages I saw a note from Mike that said “Reno”. I was heading towards Reno. As “luck” would have I found that he was just leaving Reno towards Shasta.

In this modern age of instant everything I was sitting in a cafe in Bordertown having some face time with my new found friend! Our conversations are always deep and soulful, meaningful exchanges and this was no different from that history. If the “reason” for this connection follows the dots, “The Elk and I” will soon be shown in Bellingham. I love being a conduit for the sharing of beauty and spiritual connection.

On the challenging end of my first day on the road, Good Dog, our Westfalia camper van, flashed its oil light and buzzed at me. Since I had just had an oil change a couple of tanks ago, it didn’t occur to me to check the oil level. When I stopped to check I was perplexed to find it over a quart low. Shortly after adding a quart, it flashed and buzzed again. Seriously concerned I purchased more oil and added another quart as it appeared to still be needing that much….. not! Now I was running with an oversupply and there were some short flashing lights buzzer tantrums which caused me to stop, but the seemed to heal themselves. I called my mechanic, Merle, in Medford (twice) during the afternoon to ease my troubled mind, and he was able to talk me down into the realistic possibilities. Better than nothing, but lacking in clear solution I limped forward to my first evening camp at Whitmore Hot Spring near Mamouth. It was crowded with people so I just hunkered down for an early night after my big day.

The elevation here was over 7000 feet and being February things got cold quickly. The Westy offered virtually no insulation from the cold so I was fully bundled. Having gone to sleep at 8PM I awoke around midnight to pee. Lo and behold the crowds had all gone home and I was left alone. Wide awake, I decided to venture to the tub and no sooner had I emerged from the van than a pack of coyotes began to howl. What a sweet affirmation of the perfection of the moment. Three hours of magic! The moonless night offered a magnificence of stars and the stillness and silence was profoundly supportive of dropping deeply into the Presence. It is in these moments when “my” greatest creativity emerges and deep peace prevails.

Transitioning back into clothing and returning to a cold van was quite challenging as the temperature was in the 20’s. However, wide awake, I had an opportunity to write some emails and take advantage of my last few hours of cyber connection before a big adventure into Saline Valley, 50 miles into the remote reaches of Death Valley, my long awaited first visit.

Unexpected Gift of Nature

It was a long time coming…….. 26 years to be exact………but finally we gathered to honor and celebrate Shon and his life’s accomplishments.  And, as many of you know, it had to be celebrated on the Klamath river, where Shon had his first taste of the river in a front pack, sleeping to the bounce and sway of the inflatable kayak that I paddled.  That was his first family river trip at the tender age of two months, and largely circumstantial in having been born in June with the hot month of August just two months away.

This trip, our annual family reunion trip, was thwarted the year before when Shon actually graduated from UCSC due to a late summer school make-up class, a bad fire season near the Klamath and very low water levels.  But finally just last week we pulled it together to launch the much awaited trip the day after Shon’s 26th birthday, the we being 21 friends and family.  In most ways we had nailed this one with such an early seasonal start, milder temperatures and no smoke in sight……. almost perfect conditions.

After having negotiated with the local outfitter, River Dancers, for the camps that would suit our size, we launched feeling confident it would be a logistically smooth trip.  Little did we know that by our second day we would be catching up to several other groups who all had a similar camp plan in mind…. including laying over at our beloved Rock Creek :-(

The first disappointment came in the late afternoon of day two when we found Coon Creek beach occupied and a need to take the much less desirable “Rookery”.  Our real dilemma was our planned layover day at Rock Creek with one group there already and another heading there, I felt compelled to  go ahead at the crack of dawn to secure a camping spot for the last two nights.  I had always wanted to get on the water at first light and this was the first time I actually had the impetus to do so.

The wildlife was spectacular, with every one of our usual animal companions (except bears) showing their faces.  Eagles, osprey, red tail hawks, heron, otters, deer and turtles were all out to greet the day.  Several miles and an hour into our float we were surprised by a splash on the right bank.  I called to Kim, “Bear swimming!”  But as we watched and it got closer, it did not seem like a bear’s head, rather smaller, but clearly larger than an otter.  As we came closer, in the middle of the river channel it became clear….. a cougar was swimming towards us in its effort to cross the river.  As amazing as this seemed, it had only just begun, as seemingly out of nowhere a bald eagle swept down to harass the big cat and then lifted up and over our approaching raft, giving us a full underside view only a few yards above our heads!

Needless to say we were blown away!  The cougar was completely frantic and when it emerged bedraggled, river left, we could hear its frenzied efforts to get up an almost vertical embankment.  As it found no route up it returned to the river bank and traveled downstream in full view, skinny and wet, until it was able to get into the trees that offered some protection.


While this is not an actual photo taken on the spot it is the closest Kim could come to reproducing an image of our dramatic experience.

The gifts of nature are unpredictable.  Making the early morning effort was both rich in its silence, and magical in the dramatic participation of the “locals”.   We floated on, feeling the Grace, and full of gratitude for the great good fortune of our experience.


In the Simple Things

Into our final two days here and I am finding myself probing for the essence of our sweet time on Rarotonga.

Last night we went to a dinner show at an old style Cook Island venue recommended by the lady who gave us the ride to Aremango the first morning we arrived. The Staircase, an open air second story bar restaurant with a small stage and dance floor felt like it was out of the 50’s or 60’s— maybe later, but pretty funky. The show was very lightly attended. The meal was native all the way, very tasty and unusual (beyond the roasted chicken and beef) with taro, a marinated fish salad and a very unusual (and) delicious potato salad. We were kind of delightfully blown away at our good fortune to be having an authentic culinary experience. And this authenticity extended into the entertainment as well.

At the Market

As I experienced in Bali, this was a community event with cross generational performers who were mentoring each other. The musicians (largely young adult to middle aged drummers on mostly wooden drums) were the Cook Island champions for the past two years, which is definitely saying something as we have heard (good) drumming almost every day while being here. The dancers were mostly youthful females, the youngest being 4 or 5 and really quite good. There were also three “warrior” dancers, one young man mentoring two talented boys.

The MC made it were clear to the audience that they were all about community and the preservation of their culture. This focus really “spoke to me” and reminded me of aspects of our Mount Shasta community, our multi generational gatherings, community ritual work and Rites of Passage events. It feels like we are making strides towards reinventing our own culture and the most meaningful aspects of our traveling often relate to this common ground. Being on the Maori canoe and our conversation with the captain is also directly related to these feelings of community connection and belonging. For me, a large part of that belonging is not so much about my ancestors, but very much about the beauty of the earth and soulful connection to the peoples of the world.

Today, after our visit to the somewhat famous Saturday market (where we bought only fruit juice, young coconut milk & meat, and bread) we indulged in more motor biking the back roads of the island, knowing this was our final fling. What a great way to see and experience this place!

Another "On Site" Masterpiece!

We now face a monstrous day of travel beginning at the ungodly hour of 2:30AM!! From here to Auckland to Brisbane to Proserpine to Airlie Beach and our next bed on board the Tropical Sunset, our 38′ catamaran home for the next two weeks. No place to get any decent sleep so we will have to rely on Kim’s cheerful acceptance of “just” All That Is. :-)

As our good luck would have it, I sat down with the manager of the Aremango Guesthouse and some of the other guests, one of whom was a native Cook Islander who lives in Christchurch. We had the great conversation about the earthquakes there and his relationship to this place of his birth and the land he has called home since he was six. Towards the end of this hour long sharing of ourselves we came to realize we were all flying to Auckland on the same flight and he had a rental car with enough room for us, eliminating the need for us to take the 10 o’clock bus and spend an extra three hours in the airport. Ya just can’t beat the magic of synchronicity! This week in the Cooks has strengthened my faith in what I will call the Magic of Being Alive (instead of The Flow— so overused :-)

We will leave these islands, enriched………..desiring to return, and ever more aware of our extended human family.