The Canadian Rockies

It was with no little anticipation that I headed the Cave toward the Canadian Rockies. I had for years longed to see places known to me from long-ago viewed photo books and movies. Lake Louise, where the famous of Hollywood retreated; Banff and Jasper National Parks, a vast open wilderness of glaciers, deep green woods, and cold cascading streams. This was primeval North America. And thanks to those who had the vision to preserve it, we may enjoy this clean and lasting legacy.

I have always loved the natural environment. I am uplifted and renewed whenever I surrounded myself with trees, mountains, or ocean. I enjoy walking and photographing those places little changed by my fellow man. And now the Cave was rushing toward one of the best of these unspoiled treasures.

My plan was to travel from north to south along three hundred miles of Canada’s most spectacular mountains. Starting at Jasper, in western Alberta and finishing at the world’s first International Peace Park, Waterton-Glacier that bridges the boarder between Alberta and Montana. I had planned to traverse this distance in three weeks, not nearly enough to fully understand this natural setting, but I hoped enough time to fill my spirit. My primary goal was to find scenes to photograph that could echo my love of the wild.

I stayed first in Jasper National Park at a campground a couple of miles outside of town. The campsites were laid out in broad circles within a forest of pine and spruce. Not ten minutes after my arrival I was delighted to see a mother elk and her offspring walk across behind the Cave, nibbling on the plants and grasses. It was as if nature herself was saying, “welcome”.

The town of Jasper is set in a wide valley through which the Canadian National Railroad crosses bringing vast amounts of cargo east and west each day. The Rockies are a formidable wall across Canada. Only in a few places can track and highway cross. As I moved among these mountains, I was always aware that I shared these passages with a very busy and robust rail system.

The main street in Jasper is wide and welcoming. The railroad’s switching yard occupies one side, allowing the other to cater to the traveler, with shops well designed to attract their attention. The feeling is very welcoming and friendly. It is easy to find lots of parking, both on and off street. Trees line the sidewalk and benches abound as do trash and recycling containers. The shop fronts are covered with copious pots and planters of brightly colored flowers. As I came here in July, the days were long, Jasper being about as far north as Goose Bay Labrador. The sun rose at five and it didn’t get dark until eleven. The shops would take advantage of these long hours, giving the evenings a festive atmosphere. For a tourist trap, I have to admit that Jasper got it right.

I towed my small Saturn wagon behind the Cave for this trip. I wanted to see if I could save on the cost of fuel by using the Cave for the long hauls while taking advantage of the Saturn’s much higher gas mileage as I traveled locally to photograph and sightsee. It proved to be a good decision. It only cost me an extra two miles per gallon to pull the car along the highways. But when disconnected, it provided me with a convenient and far less expensive way to survey the local area. I could keep my camera gear and other options like extra clothing for colder altitudes and hiking in the back, covered with a black tarp to keep nosey eyes away. The best part of this arrangement was not needing to break camp each time I wanted to venture out for a day trip or just a loaf of bread.

Starting at Jasper and heading south for a hundred and forty miles to Lake Louise is the Icefields Parkway, a well paved, two-lane road with lots of pullouts at key vistas and trailheads. This is by far one of the most beautiful roads in North America. It is difficult to convey the beauty of the scenery through which this road passes. Hundreds of miles of tall, jagged, and rugged mountains rise up on both sides. Vast slabs of bare vertical stone capped with snow and glaciers, which fill hanging valleys between peaks. The melt-water forms streams and waterfalls that fill blue-green lakes in the valleys below. I would set out before dawn and often not return until darkness had finally forced me to call it a day.

The north-south orientation of the mountains meant that I could capture beautiful morning sunrises, afternoon side-lit vistas with the predictable puffy summer mountain clouds and the golden alpenglow that lights up the highest peaks at sunset. The summer wildflowers lined the roads and provided a nice splash of color to the foreground. Mountain goats, elk and the occasional black bear could be seen along the road where the grazing is easy and the winter salt residue is a welcome treat.

I spent a glorious first week exploring the northern Icefields Parkway. Hiking into emerald lakes and, where the road allowed, climbing to the foot of glaciers, now sadly retreating as our inability to coexist with the natural order is warming our common home.
Then, promising myself to return, I mated the car to the back of the Cave and headed south.

Lake Louise was a surprise when I arrived. I had expected a town much like Jasper, if not larger, for was this not the quintessential Canadian mountain destination, attracting travelers from across the world for over a century? But I found only the barest skeleton of a town. Primarily a gas station, a couple of motels, restraurants and a small strip mall with a grocery, bakery, bookstore and little else. All of these were nestled into a narrow valley along the Bow River miles below the famous lake. I would later learn that Lake Louise was more of a day-trip destination for the tourists staying in Banff, forty miles to the south. That is except for those who came to be pampered and catered to at the Chateau Lake Louise, built over a century ago by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to entice the eastern wealthy who normally spent their summers in places like Newport, Bar Harbor, or Europe. Now completely renovated and expanded, it is a beacon of opulence along side this little mountain lake from which it takes its name. The lake is ringed with peaks that flank the cascading Victoria Glacier directly opposite the Chateau. A Canadian icon, Lake Louise is considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world.

I spent two days walking the manicured paths and trying to capture this beautiful scenery. All the while avoiding the hundreds of other tourists pouring from cars and busses; RVs, and taxies all with camera in hand as if they were given a solemn charge to record this small vista for posterity. And so too was the Chateau itself a destination. The hoards were snapping the opulent tapestry lined lobby and the lounges overlooking the lake, all the while wandering through the dozen or so shops filled with books, maps, cameras, hiking gear, and the apparel and jewelry desired by the well-healed guests residing on the floors above.

I then turned my attention to Moraine Lake in the next valley to the south. The guide books extolled its beauty while assuring that it was not as sought out by tourists and promised a more peaceful atmosphere. The road to Moraine Lake was a ten-mile climb with jaw-dropping overlooks into the Valley of the Ten Peaks and ending at a small parking lot at one end of the narrow lake. The mountains rise up in all directions. I scouted the area paying particular notice to the orientation of the lake and the mountains to the sun. As I looked down the lake, the sun would rise from the left and illuminate the peaks forming a golden backdrop, and with a little luck would reflect from the lake below.

Moraine Lake should be a river. Instead, a centuries old landslide damned most of its course causing the water to pool in the small valley before snaking around the obstruction thus forming the lake. The landslide was a conical pile of rocks that looked to be about fifty feet high each the size of a basketball, perhaps a bit larger. I noticed a couple of young adults climbing down its lower section after a trip atop to view the scene from its perfect position at the foot of the lake. It was obvious to me that this would be the best place to set up my tripod at dawn the next morning to catch the mountains bathed in the first rays of sunlight and reflected in the quiet water below.

So, at four o’clock the next morning I arose, made a pot of coffee, filled my insulated travel mug, ready to head up the long road toward my destiny with Moraine Lake. It was cold outside of the Cave. I opened the back of the Saturn and located a duffle containing my cold weather gear, packed for just such a situation. I put on a down-filled jacket and a navy blue knit watch cap embroidered with a smiling Mickey Mouse that I had picked up at Disneyworld one unexpectedly cold winter evening. I removed my long telephoto lens from my camera backpack and nestled the travel mug filled with hot coffee in the emptied recess. I would not need the long lens for this hike. I hung a strap from my tripod and slung it over my shoulder so that it rested next to the backpack. Realizing that as the sun rose higher I might prefer a cooler and more shaded hat, I swung my Tilly with the floppy brim and strap behind my neck. With bear-spray attached and at the ready, I headed off toward the rock pile as the first signs of morning light gave the sky a deep purple cast.

This was going to be great! Here I was back in a natural environment. Home again in my native setting. For wasn’t I descended from hardy Irish seamen and Scottish mountain people? Didn’t my very blood pulse through me with countless centuries of trial and triumph over the natural order by ancestors who were home in these settings? Didn’t I hold the legacy of people who tamed the land and sea for their purposes and passed that sense of achievement on to the generations who would follow. An easy scurry to the summit of this little pile of debris and I would be ready to capture nature’s beauty as I was destined.

I followed a trail that led from the parking lot, down a slope toward a small bridge that crossed the stream and ran alongside the base of the rock pile opposite from the lake. I located a flat section where I could exit the trail and begin my assent. Looking up I noticed that the rock pile seemed a bit taller from this angle. Well, I reassured myself, of course it would up close. I remembered watching rock-climbers ascend El Capitan, the mile-high vertical slab of granite in Yosemite. If they could do that, this rock pile was a piece of cake. Now, granted I had been “off the trail”, as it were for over a year. I knew that it would require a little effort to regain my “mountain legs”. But remember all that ancestral hardiness I had going for me… and for goodness sake, this was no Everest.

The first ten feet were over a well-worn path between the boulders that formed the base of the rock pile. I looked upward to choose my direction of climb and placed my foot onto a rock, then the next and so fourth for about twenty more feet until I could sidestep onto a larger flat rock and plan the next leg. As I gazed up, the rocks seemed to be more vertical, and larger. I had to bend over and use my hands to hold on as I continued. My legs were burning now and I was breathing more heavily through my month; the cold, morning air, stinging the back of my throat. I straightened up and felt the backpack, heavy with camera gear try to pull me over backward. Lurching forward from the waist, I just barely kept my balance. I heaved a sigh and looked down. WOW! How did I get this high? This place was looking more like El Capitan than a rock pile. Below me were hundreds of boulders, all of which had sharp, broken tops waiting for the next fool to come tumbling their way. I remembered thinking the day before that these rocks were the size of basketballs…Volkswagen Beetles would have been a closer assumption.

Now with careful attention to my top-heavy condition, I virtually crawled upward, from handhold to crevice, finding whatever little space would accept my foot. I thought about the great pictures I would get from the top and that wonderful home-brewed Dunkin Donuts coffee in my pack. After a short rest, and deciding that it was not in my best interest to look down, I continued upward. The sun was over the horizon now and the sky had brightened. Then I hit a wide gap between two boulders. I needed to carefully bridge the gap without twisting an ankle or letting a hand slip from its respective hold. I swung my body across and as I did, my Tilly flipped around now covering my face. I could not let go to remove it and I could not see to continue. Then to add to my condition, the tripod also flipped toward my front causing it to collide with my right elbow. My legs were burning from every muscle. My elbow was throbbing and the only thing that I could see was a tag containing the washing instructions for my hat. Spread-eagled as I was, it seemed prudent to stop and survey the problem, to step back, mentally if certainly not physically and gather myself. I wondered where things had gone wrong. Where was all of that ancestral fortitude? Why had this small mound of rocks grown into Tuckerman Ravine? And what in the name of all the mountain-loving world was I doing here? Then a single small pebble under my feet gave way causing its neighbors to join in the fun and my foot and Mt. Washington parted company.

You know how they say that just as you are about to die your life flashes before you? Well it’s not true! Only the stupid and dumb parts parade themselves. You remember the countless other times that you let yourself be fooled into doing crazy things, things that any other person with the common sense to zip up his fly would avoid. So finally, although I had not reached much more than half way to the top, I decided to retreat and live to photograph another day. I raised my dangling foot and searched for another footing. With some effort, being virtually blind and all, I managed to swing myself onto a wide rock where I could sit and reposition my hat and tripod. Then I looked down and the realization of the situation hit me. How was I going to climb down from this eagles perch? I had no doubt that the trip down would be a lot harder then the ascent. I remembered the rock-climbers at Yosemite. Idiots! Crazy, self-destructive, delusional Idiots! I remembered the mountain goats that I watched scale the cliffs near Jasper. How was it that across eons of time they had not risen to the top of the animal world? Perhaps we would all be better off had they done so. At this point I would have enjoyed the friendship and know-how of those shaggy beasts. Then those evolutionary forces come to bare and I remembered the tripod. I could extend one of its legs so that it could act as a hiking stick, a virtual third foot. That would give me the stability I needed to get down.

It took a while, and much careful and deliberate planning, but I managed to return to terra firma again. My body ached. Sweat was pouring from every pour, not so much from the exercise as from the fact that the temperature had risen twenty degrees now and the down jacket was overwhelming. I removed it, took in a few deep breaths and started toward the parking lot, a wiser man. As I walked along the trail, I met a woman fumbling with a small camera. Noticing my tripod and surmising that I must be a true photographer, out so early and all, she asked if she might get some advice. She had some poor results in capturing the light on the mountains. I suggested that she get a neutral-density filter to shade the bright sky. I took one from my bag and placed it in front of her lens to show her the result. She was most thankful. Then she said, “Were you just coming off of that rock pile?” I nodded and told her of my decision to turn back halfway up. She gave an affirming expression and then informed me that had I continued on this same trail, it would have led to a lookout just to the left and above the rock pile. “I think you will find it an excellent and easy to reach place from which to capture the sunrise on the mountains”, she said. Now, feeling completely foolish, I bid her a good day, crossed the parking lot, and packed away my gear and extra clothing. I climbed in behind the steering wheel and as I looked down to fasten my seat belt, I noticed that my fly was open.

North to Alaska

The Cave safely nestled in a secure Vancouver RV park, I took a taxi to the harbor and boarded the ship that would be our new home for the next week. Soon after, the family arrived and we six explorers set sail. We had side-by-side staterooms with verandas whose dividing partitions could be swung back thus creating one long private deck. It was great! Geoffrey and Sarah were in the fore cabin, Alicia and David were aft, and Laura and I in the middle. Each room was larger than I had expected with bathroom and shower, double closet, small safe, and a TV. There were two twin beds, which were pushed together for the married folk. We had chosen an option that allowed us to dine without a preset time, which proved useful on many occasions when, being awestruck by the scenery outside, dining was the last thing we wanted to consider.

The coast of Canada and Alaska is strewn with hundreds of islands, some as large as many States, that form a barrier to the open ocean and kept the ship rock solid and free from rolling. If fact, only by gazing outside could I be sure we were moving. This “Inside Passage” is sometimes thirty miles wide and at others less than one. I winds its way northward along some of the world’s most pristine and undisturbed wilderness. All of it passing slowly by as if it were a seven-day long National Geographic travelogue. Day and night, we found ourselves choosing to do nothing more than sit and watch this natural spectacle before us. Once while walking past the on-board casino, I noticed that only two patrons were inside at the slots. Now, I’ve been on a few cruises in the Caribbean and I have never seen a casino at less than half it’s capacity. It seemed almost pointless to open the doors.

A day and a half after departing Vancouver, we made our first stop at Ketchikan on the southern end of the Alaskan panhandle. Like most Alaskan towns, Ketchikan is only accessible by boat or plane, both of which keep the harbor bustling with activity. No roads can penetrate the steep, snow-capped coastal ranges that looked down upon us for the entire trip. Man does not live here comfortably. He must cower in small, widely scattered and sheltered towns. This land is for other animals, which after millennia of adaptation have mastered its demands. The ship docked along the town’s main street and we all headed in different directions for a few hours of rafting, hiking, and for me, still healing from a sprained ankle, photo exploration around town.

Ketchikan has more rain than anywhere else in the US. They call it liquid sunshine. Nestled in a temperate rainforest between the ocean and the mountains, the moisture is constantly being rung out of the air. However, it’s not that cold drenching kind of rain that makes one long for firesides and hot chocolate. This is more like a drizzle with frequent breaks of sunshine. It actually was not unpleasant and I enjoyed walking around town with just a light jacket and baseball cap. As you would expect, the Alaskan ports of call have their share of tourist traps. With a short cruising season, there was no disguising the need to entice a few wallets to open. Museums and recreations of early Alaskan life right out of a Jack London novel were all around. I discovered an interesting place called Creek Street, which for lack of available land was constructed on pilings over the salmon filled river that runs through town. Formally the red light district, Creek Street now reproduces some of that former ambiance while jewelry, native American crafts and clothing are sold to the thousands of cruise ship passengers who visit in the short summer months. I met a woman with an Australian accent selling opal rings, bracelets, and necklaces. I remarked that I had seen a cable TV show about a place in the middle of Australia caller Coober Pedy where hand-worked opal mining was the sole enterprise of the few local residents who accepted total isolation in the hope of gaining wealth. To my surprise, she explained that Coober Pedy was, in fact her home. Each year she travels half way around the world to sell her newly excavated treasure here in Alaska for four months. Some folks have all the fun! After a few hours ashore, it was on to Juneau, Alaska’s capitol city.

Cruising, I have discovered can be an excellent vacation value. Since your ticket includes your room, food, more food, and if you still get hungry, still more food, along with all kinds of entertainment and amenities, it is a predictable and affordable way to visit new places. The cruise lines have put themselves into a kind of dilemma. These all-inclusive fares are what entice their predominant group of passengers, working families, retired pensioners, and young independents. No longer is cruising reserved for the wealthy. But with everything you need included, how does the cruise line make that all- important extra cash, most of which hits the bottom line as profit. The answer is by offering many opportunities to experience the unusual and unfamiliar. Excursions abound! At each port passengers have the chance to try dozens of cultural, educational, and adventurous activities such as accompanying the bush pilots or helicopter jockeys over glaciers, hiking into rainforests, running river rapids, salmon fishing trips, even gold mining. And the chance to buy lots of unique Alaskan souvenirs and then new suitcases in which to carry it back to the lower forty-eight. The good news is that all of these are choices that, although sometimes may seem a bit pricey, are optional. We chose to partake of a few of the excursions and with careful planning felt satisfied that we had struck a good balance that enriched our experience without adding too much expense or over-activity to the trip.

In Juneau, for example we enjoyed a salmon bake in the rainforest along a wild stream teaming with the main course. The atmosphere was jovial with some excellent folk- singing provided by a very talented family; mother, father, son and daughter. The food was outstanding! You haven’t tasted salmon until you have it grilled over an open flame minutes after it has been plucked from a nearby stream. The salmon here are so abundant that the most efficient method for catching them is that used by the local grizzly bears… just reach in and grab it! I stood on a small bridge overlooking a stream and was unable to see the bottom for the thousands of foot-long salmon, crowded side-by-side, inching their way upstream. It’s said that pacific salmon are on the decline due to dams and habitat reduction in the northwest. Not so in Alaska! Here the salmon industry is thriving.

Next we sailed into Skagway, a remote port deep within a fiord at the northern end of the Inside Passage. From here, in 1898 thousands of hopeful prospectors set out over hundreds of miles crossing mountains, lakes and rivers to reach the newly discovered gold fields in Canada’s Yukon territory. Extreme hardship, injury and often death were the certain fate of those who tried to reach the remote Canadian interior and strike a rich claim. In fact, when two years later, it was all over the only people to get major riches were the handful who first discovered the gold field along with a few enterprising businessmen that prospered by providing goods and services to the thousands trying to reach it. Finally, just before the whole gold fever crashed to a halt, a railroad was finished to carry people from Skagway over the mountains and on to Dawson. Now it is operated chiefly for the benefit of tourists. We road this train to the White Pass, which marks the Canadian border. It was a tortuous and breathtakingly beautiful ride along a rail bed carved from the steep mountainside. Here, the prospectors would leave the hundred pounds or so of supplies they had carried up the slopes and head back to Skagway for another load, repeating this portage a dozen or more times. Then, with sufficient means for a year in the Klondike, they would continue the process for hundreds of more miles.

We took a ferry to Haynes at the mouth of the same fiord. Like Skagway, Haynes was a port built by the gold fever and sustained by hearty and resourceful souls able to survive its demise. Here we toured the coastal rainforest with a couple of young, educated women from mainstream America who came to do research in this unique land and found its beauty and simplicity too strong to escape. Many Alaskan residents are uprooted from more southerly locations, captivated by this remote and natural place. Men outnumber women ten to one. There is an Alaskan saying, often quoted by the minority gender that “The odds are good… but the goods are odd”.

One very special treat came in the form of a recently retired teacher who convinced the cruise line to hire her for the summer to give passengers a taste of rural Alaskan life. Having lived in remote villages with the indigenous natives, her perspective and insight was most unique and revealing. We gleaned the daily schedule so as not to miss her talks. I was most impressed to learn about the large number of Alaskans who still practice subsistence living. Whole villages, migrate in nomadic fashion to gather fish, meat and wood during the short summer to sustain them for the remaining months. These are not just Native Americans practicing ancient traditions, but thousands of former rush-hour refugees who relocated here and choose to stay. Perhaps they came intent on quick cash during the building of the oil pipeline, or like myself simply as tourists, on a natural high. They came as temporary visitors but the special life they discovered, both challenging and still refreshingly uncomplicated held an appeal too strong to ignore. Unless you see this land, feel the mist against your face, and gain a little taste of the natural lifestyle here, it is hard to appreciate Alaska’s most precious quality, wildness. I used to have a Sierra Club poster on my office wall with a quite from John Muer, which read, “In wildness is the preservation of mankind”. Here the truth, expressed on that poster is abundantly obvious.

The highlight of an Alaskan cruise is the unique opportunity to see glaciers calving, or breaking off into the sea. Only from the water can this spectacle be appreciated. The ship entered two of the world’s most prolific places for viewing these rare rivers of ice that end their journey in the ocean. In Glacier Bay National Park we were joined by rangers who came onboard to narrate our journey among the frigid giants. Dwarfed by these walls of ancient ice, our large ship seemed fragile and indeed needed to carefully thread its way among the loose ice so as not to sustain damage. Resting close to the five hundred foot face as chunks of ice the size of a large house break away is among those experiences that are not soon forgotten.

After leaving Glacier Bay, we sailed into Prince William Sound, site of the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill. Seeing this perfect joining of ocean and land made me appreciate the strong outcry from Alaskans as thousands of gallons of oil disfigured this primeval place. This is perhaps the most striking example of wild beauty that I have seen. Sharp peaked mountains trimmed in green and capped in white surround deep blue bays and inlets in all directions. This is the way that much of our coastline must have looked before development overshadowed the natural beauty.

We entered College Fiord, a long inlet holding the largest collection of tidewater glaciers in the world. Named for old eastern colleges, this is a place of jaw-dropping grandeur. It is far too daunting a task for me to try to convey the feeling one gets here. The half-dozen hours spent among these giants fully justified the trip. I felt privileged to be living at a time when ordinary tourists can experience these wonders previously reserved for well-financed explorers and indigenous natives. Our souls refreshed, we headed for Whittier and the next phase of our Alaskan adventure, a three hundred mile train excursion into the interior.

Why I’m not a Smuggler

For the past few years, my daughters Laura, Alicia, and son, Geoffrey have been dreaming about joining me on an Alaskan cruise. The problem with such plans is that we all have separate lives often dictated by outside forces such as job demands or children. This year I sensed the convergence of possibilities and after a few hurried phone calls, we were able to book a twelve-day cruise excursion from Vancouver, which included five days in Denali National Park. As fate would have it, the timing was perfect. Alicia and David’s girls were now old enough to stay with David’s parents for that long a period without too much separation anxiety. Laura was able to clear her schedule, and a month later Geoff and Sarah thrilled us with the news that they were expecting their first child. The cruise would take place after the morning sickness phase and before Sarah was so far along that the cruise line would not allow her to travel.

I crossed California for one last fling in Yosemite and then met Liz who was visiting her family in the valley east of San Francisco. I looked forward to a few days of catching up on stories from home, some long awaited interaction with her kids, family and friends. Traveling is nice, but for me at least, I need those times when I can recharge friendships and balance my perspective. I may enjoy travel, but I also need to preserve a sense of place. After only a short visit, I felt well cared for and refreshed. I headed the Cave toward Vancouver to meet the kids and embark on our great northern adventure.

On the southern Oregon coast I passed a sign for the Honey Bear campground and pulled the Cave in for the night. The office was empty. A sign on the counter announced that the owner would be back shortly, so I passed the time eyeing the notices and items for sale. Along one side was something I had not expected to find in a camp store; a refrigerated counter filled with hams, various German sausages, sauerkraut, potato salad and other delicacies all of which seemed foreign to this Oregonian setting. Soon the owner returned, assigned me a campsite and, in a distinct German accent thanked me for choosing his place. I pointed to the food for sale and asked why he was selling these delicacies in a campground store. His answer proved to be the stuff from which stories are retold for years.

Gary Saks was born in East Berlin under the communist government that divided that city after the Second World War. When he was fourteen, his family made a desperate and successful escape across the wall to West Berlin. Now free to pursue his own dreams, Gary would apprentice in a sausage plant learning the skills needed to prepare Bratwurst, Knockwurst, seasoned beef and many other famous dishes enjoyed for centuries in German towns and villages. Later he would come to America, meet his wife, herself replanted from Argentina, and live in various cities always hoping to have their own business. Finally about ten years ago they settled in Oregon and bought a rundown campground near the coast. Hard work and an appreciation of the freedom that they enjoyed, soon put the business in the black… but something was missing. Gary missed the genuine German sausages that he loved. Nothing remotely close could be found in his new Oregon home. So, he decided to make his own! First a kitchen was built to process and cook the meats. Then came a dining room able to seat a few hundred close friends. With the addition of some local musical talent and some imported costumes and accessories, Gary and Janette opened the first and only genuine German restaurant in an Oregon campground. Now twice weekly, the sausages are served with kraut, German pancakes and potato salad, imported beer and wine, and a large helping of genuine Bavarian atmosphere to an overflowing crowd of locals and the fleet of tour buses that now make the Honey Bear Campground a regular stop. Gary even grabs the mike to lead everyone in a German sing-along.

I sometimes contemplate at how unpredictable my travels can be. I just wanted to stop for the night in an otherwise unassuming campground and found myself amazed by a truly memorable person and one of the strangest settings and most delicious meals I ever ate. I asked Gary how he felt about the events that brought about the reunification of Berlin. His eyes filled, he smiled, and I knew the answer.

I brought a pair of night vision goggles with me to view nocturnal animal activity in the national parks. The technology was old and quite outdated by today’s standards used by law enforcement and the military, but they served my purpose, and I am glad I had them along. However, I could not bring them into Canada with me. It seems that even this outdated technology is still listed on the State Department’s anti-export list. Not wanting to risk charges of treason, or espionage or, God forbid spying on Canadian owls, I needed to find a place to store them before crossing the border. After the cruise, I would retrieve them on my way back. I decided to rent a mailbox at a UPS store a few miles south of the border. This would also allow me to store my can of bear repellent pepper spray, which Canada restricts from import unless it has an EPA seal of approval. I guess Canadian bears are particular about the type of breath-stopping, vomit-inducing, eye-irritant to which they are exposed. I wonder if they prefer organically grown pepper spray?

The clerk at the UPS store tried to be helpful. Since he didn’t have any mailboxes large enough to hold the aforementioned items, he offered to store them in a draw of the boss’s desk for the duration. I asked if the drawer had a lock and would the boss be aware of its contents. Visions if headlines flashed in my head: “UPS Employee Victim of Terrorist Trap Near Border – Desk Explosions Feared Nation-Wide – Film at Eleven”. He assured me all would be fine and handed me a five paged contract upon which he had inserted a box number and asked me to initial paragraphs three, seven and nine; and then sign and date the bottom.

I didn’t mind the part about authorizing them to sign for any deliveries, or their right to remove the contents if I didn’t renew my lease. After all, I wasn’t actually going to get mail sent to me, now was I? But there was this whole section in which I was required to acknowledge that I would protect, indemnify, defend and hold harmless the store, the company, all of the employees, their agents and representatives, friends, casual acquaintances, fishing buddies and anyone else that they may at any time come in contract with. That seemed a little over the top.

Then there was the part about not holding them responsible for any lost or damaged goods that might be stored in the mailbox. This seemed to fly in the face of my being there in the first place. I explained that the idea was to safeguard my property. I was willing to pay three months rent (the minimum allowed), plus an activation fee so that it would have a safe home in the boss’s desk drawer. But if I returned to find it was no longer there, I thought that perhaps it was only fair that they do something about that. Otherwise, just digging a hole under the bushes out back seemed just as secure a situation and I would save some money in the process. I guess such mind-boggling considerations can become overwhelming at times because the clerk seemed in a genuine quandary as to how to proceed. He read the sections of the contract at issue, smiled, cleared his throat, reread the passage again aloud and very slowly as if that would somehow help, looked at the stack of contract forms on the shelf, looked at me with a helpless expression and then, in a stroke of enlightenment, decided to call the boss who had the day off.

After considerable murmuring into the phone with animated arm waving he informed me that the boss would like to speak with me and passed me the phone. After a little polite explanation the phone was passed back to the clerk to receive instructions. He soon presented me with a new contract upon which most of the paragraphs had been crossed out save the place where I was to write my name, address and phone number. He had also added a hand-written note at the bottom asserting that the boss was fully responsible for the safety of my property which was listed in detail with the serial number of the goggles, and the length, diameter and net contents of the bear spray since it does not have a serial number printed on its label. A statement was also inserted that the store’s insurance policy would cover any loss of the equipment. I signed, paid my money, handed him the goods and left knowing that the free world would be safe thanks to UPS.

Now, free of my restricted goods, I approached the border, an impressive complex with US and Canadian flags along with the flags of each Canadian province. The approach road split into five lanes, each heading toward a kiosk where a Canadian immigration official was checking documents and asking questions intended to entrap any attempt toward illegal entry. After a short wait, it was my turn. “Hello”, I remarked. After a reciprocal greeting, the officer asked my purpose for entering Canada. Did he expect to hear responses like: I’m carrying a truckload of Coors beer for sale on the black market”… or I’m going to shoot grizzly bears and sell their galls in the orient as aphrodisiacs”? “Cruising to Alaska”, I replied. “Are you carrying more than $10,000 in US currency”, he next inquired? “Don’t I wish”, I joked. His face took on a very serious look as he stared at me. “Please answer the question”, he insisted. “No”, I replied trying to affect a sincere and remorseful expression. Looking as if he was about to expose an international conspiracy, he looked me directly in the eye and in a deliberate voice asked, “Are you carrying any agricultural products”? I paused for a split second remembering the fruit stash in the kitchen sink. I knew I had a fifty-fifty chance between freedom and rotting away in a Canadian prison for smuggling Washington State apples into British Columbia. “No”, I responded, praying that a bead of sweat on my forehead would not testify to my deception. He eyed the Cave, the bicycle on the front, and then his watch. It was almost noon. Would he forgo a full inspection so close to his lunch break? Thinking that a little psychological persuasion might help, I licked my lips and ask if there was a good place nearby to get lunch. It worked! Soon I was watching the border crossing fade out of sight in my rear view mirror, thankful for escaping my close encounter with international intrigue.

Harbor Seals and other mentors

I had made reservations to camp on the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, a refuge for sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters and a myriad of sea birds. The campground is primitive; pit toilets, no water. I would have to take a boat with sixty pounds of gear including all the water I would need for three days and hike a mile to the top of the island. But, convenience aside, I was looking forward to the remote location and a little wildlife photography.

My last day in Anaheim proved to be most consequential. I was watching a movie on the local Los Angelus channel when the Cave started to sway from side to side. I had felt this before in Boston when the allure of the ladder on the back had been too much for a passing teen and he had climbed it to impress his buddies. “Damn kids! I’ll show them”… I opened the rear door but no one was in sight. Then on the TV, a news flash reported that a minor earthquake had occurred about fifty miles to the east. “Wow – my first earthquake!” I was beside myself with satisfaction. I called everyone I knew, as if I had just gotten Elvis’ autograph. Liz, who grew up in California tried to impress me with the reality that folks here might not appreciate my enthusiasm since to them earthquakes are all too often a disastrous event and perhaps I should temper my enthusiasm when interacting with the locals. Her advice not withstanding, I thought it was cool. I hastened to exit the Cave to talk with others in the campground. But in my distracted frame of mind I neglected to take the proper care descending the two steps to the ground. I planted my foot on a small but eventful curb, twisting my ankle, and falling into the bushes behind the Cave. The immediate pain accompanied soon after with considerable swelling told me that perhaps my plans to backpack onto the Channel Islands were quickly fading away. Applications of ice, elevation of the injured limb, and sobering advice from my daughter Alicia, whose physical therapy experience foretold of a long recovery time, suggested that a change of plans were in order. So I reluctantly canceled my reservations and set up camp along the shore in a little town called Carpenteria just south of Santa Barbara where I could view the Channel Islands on the horizon and wallow in my bad fortune as I began the healing process.

The Channel Islands are a long, loosely spaced chain off central California that define the western boundary of the Santa Barbara channel, a prolific source of oil. From my campsite on the shore I could see a half dozen oil derricks liberating the precious fluid from beneath the sea bottom. However the oil also finds other paths to the surface as demonstrated by the large black rocks that form a shelf along the beach. The state park has signs warning of small pockets of thick oil that will wash ashore from time to time and advise methods as to its removal from feet and clothing. After the Exxon Valdez disaster in Prince William Sound, Alaska I had assumed that oil and wildlife, including people just don’t mix well. If fact, as I watched the activity around me it seems I was wrong. The issue isn’t if oil is present, it is how much oil. Here the seepage is small and has a chance to solidify before it covers vast areas of shoreline. It tends to be attracted to itself and so builds up layer on layer to form small islands a few hundred feet offshore, hidden at high tide but exposed for more than half of the day. The seals love these black havens in the serf and will haul themselves out onto them to nap in the California sun. One such outcropping lay just offshore from the Cave and I passed my recovery time, binoculars in hand, watching the seals jockey for the best spaces on the rock.

Not unlike our cities, the rock too had its neighborhoods. High up were the estates, thrones for the large bulls. Here they could keep dry longer and thus get more rest and relaxation before the next tide forced them back into the sea. Further down were the middle class lots, dry but with less comfort and a shorter opportunity of water free snoozing. Then down near the waterline were the slums, a chance to get out of the water for a brief interlude but with the need to constantly defend your small oasis from others wanting to push you off.

I watched for hours as the seals demonstrated their relative strengths and weaknesses to gain or lose a position on the rock. I particularly noticed one smaller seal, which I named Oscar for no obvious reason other than a sympathetic bond that I felt toward him. He had a distinct gray patch on his head, a condition that I find myself facing as time progresses. I first noticed him swimming near the rock looking for an opportunity to haul himself out. Unlike the other seals directly challenging their dry brethren and usually being driven off, Oscar used more subtle methods to reach his goal. He would patiently float near a place where he could beach himself taking care not to challenge the current resident. After a while, usually when the landlord was sleeping he would pull himself out so that just his front half was dry. When his neighbor noticed him, he would look the other way so as to be non-confrontational and would sometimes use a flipper to scratch the occupant’s belly as if to assure him that his only intension was to be of service. Soon Oscar was out of the water snuggled up to the previous tenant and looking toward even higher ground. From time to time I would observe the rock and find that Oscar was indeed moving slowly, but steadily up the hill. I was impressed. By using patience, persistence and a willingness to share a little space Oscar was slowly gaining ground.

My nature study was soon interrupted by the family, which occupied the campsite to my right. There were three generations among them and they had a trailer and two tents set up. As suppertime was at hand, the father, and another man whom I assume was an uncle came and moved my camp table to their site and began to use it in addition to the one provided for them. Now, I never eat outside. I much prefer the Cave’s table since it provides a panoramic view without the need to move food, condiments, and various other objects usually prone to being upturned by the prevailing wind. However, this assault upon my duly rented campsite equipment seemed an affront if the highest degree, a virtual attack upon common human interaction and a threat to the basic underpinning of civilized coexistence. My anger churned up thoughts toward righteous interdiction. How dare them! But since they choose to seat the children at my table, I decided to be the bigger person and allowed the peace to prevail. But I was clearly not content with the quality of people with whom I sometimes am forced to live.

Then the proverbial other shoe fell. On the campsite to my other side stood an older, aluminum trailer with mother, son, and a father who spent the day shirtless thereby exposing a tattoo mural that covered his entire chest, arms and back save one square foot obviously destined for future adornment. The phrase “There goes the neighborhood” seemed to play in my thoughts as I observed the “walking Louvre” direct a second trailer into the space between my site and his. Could this be? Were they trying to squeeze two RVs into one campsite? Was this safe? That did it! My righteous indignation took hold and I went over to the driver, a middle-aged woman and insisted that she could not put a second trailer onto the same site. She calmly assured me that this was allowed and continued her maneuvering. I snapped back my objection and called the ranger office.

Well to my dismay, it seems that she was right. The ranger informed me that the campground policy allowed two vehicles to occupy one site as long as they stayed within the white lines provided to define each site’s boundary. Now I was embarrassed. My earlier anger at the table bandits had led me to assume a confrontational posture with my other neighbor and I had been proven wrong. I wanted to somehow show my regret toward this family to whom I had been so unfriendly… but how? The woman finished positioning the trailer and an older man, perhaps in his mid seventies got out of the passenger’s door and began to unhook the pickup that had been pulling it. The woman remarked that she had to move the truck to an auxiliary lot a half-mile away and would walk back. Here was my chance to redeem myself. I approached and informed her of my conversation with the ranger, apologizing for my behavior. I then offered to move the Cave to the side of my site thus allowing her to park her truck next to it. She was grateful and I felt a little better about the whole affair. Two hours later I answered a knock at my door to find the same woman offering to have me join them for supper. Expressing my gratitude at her graciousness, I accepted.

As the ladies set the outside table, the patriarch and I exchanged the usual small talk. He told me that his family was gathering for a few days, a yearly tradition. He, his daughter and son-in-law (Tattoo Man) were from Los Angeles and his other daughter had traveled from Arizona. I explained that I was from Boston and was on a grand tour of the national parks. Then it got very strange! Seems he was born and raised in Boston also… here it is… in a house not one mile from my own. Being more than a dozen yours older than myself, I didn’t know him but we started remembering places, stores, churches and families common to both of our childhood experiences. He relocated to California in his twenties after the Korean War and had never been back east since. Is that bizarre or what? Here I was ready to cast this entire family into the sea and now I find myself sharing stories and common ties a half a century old. Dinner was served and we continued the conversation with the rest of the family. Frank, the old man had settled in L.A. and found work in the motion picture business. His daughter followed suit and now heads a prop department for one of the studios. Her husband, Tattoo Man is a lighting expert currently involved with a popular television series. We chatted into the evening as if old friends catching up after a long absence until finally I thanked them and returned to the Cave to prepare for bed.

The next morning Tattoo Man (now I knew his real name as Bill) knocked on my window and handed me his card and a plastic bowl with leftovers from last night’s meal. “If you’re ever in L.A., Carl give me a call and I will get you on the set of my show.” I thanked him and wished them well since I would be leaving today for places further north. I thought about the events of the past few hours. Unlike Oscar, I had let my sense of justice color my actions. I felt ashamed that I had let my prejudgment and anger set my course, acting from instinct instead of sensing the truth and keeping the desired outcome in mind.

I packed up the Cave and prepared to hit the road. I grabbed the binoculars from the table to store them away and gave one last glance toward the rocks and the seals. There on the very top, high up above the water was Oscar. He lifted his head and looked in my direction. Perhaps it was a fleeting patch of light shining through the trees, a brief reflection in the lens, but I swear that for an instant he winked.

Bicycling to the Bank

The Grand Tour was suddenly interrupted when I received word that my sister had passed away. I quickly returned home to join family and friends. A few months later my mother also died. It was just prior to her hundredth birthday. The winter months were spent contemplating the tenuous essence of this common journey. But as the spring approached, my need to bond to nature again pulled me back to the road. My grieving seems to lessen in wilderness settings. There I sense a closeness with loved ones lost and a reassurance in the continuity of creation. For me, there is a comfort in the natural. And so, as the warm weather returned I headed the Cave westward once again.

When traveling alone, especially into remote places we may tend to relax the finer aspects of our civilized life and revert in some small way to a time when fashion, style and appearance were of less use and often neglected. I had found myself more inclined toward function than form as to my outward presentation. I hadn’t shaved in two months, and my beard had begun to emulate Gabby Hayes or perhaps Santa Clause, homeward bound after traversing a billion chimneys. My long-standing belt pouch that holds my glasses when they aren’t needed had been accompanied by a wilderness survival kit containing a Swiss-Army knife with not only the usual assortment of blades, can and bottle openers, toothpicks and corkscrews but also a butane lighter capable of starting a fire under the most desperate of circumstances. Not yet sold in this country, I had sent directly to Switzerland for it knowing that it might be the thing to pull my butt out of a backwoods jam. The kit also holds a small flashlight, fishing hooks and line, and a compass. The Swiss also included a whistle and a mirror for signaling the search and rescue team should my absence necessitate such an effort.

I augmented it with a cleaver pen developed during the space race that writes upside down or under water. Not that I planed such an occurrence, but if Jack Kennedy could bring rescue to his PT-109 team by carving a message on a coconut, I wanted to be prepared should any eventuality arise. Perhaps a note scribbled on the back of a mountain trout headed downstream might predicate my salvation. I also included a rather strange object for such a kit, a non-lubricated condom. Now hold-on, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, I have no intention of practicing deviant behavior in the wilderness as my last mortal act. You see, I read an article that explained that a condom provides an excellent way to gather and store water. The latex will expand to hold more than a liter and is not apt to break especially if supported by a hat or in a sling formed by a shirt or other article of clothing. The best part is that when not needed, it remains sanitary and safe within its small wrapper. My final addendum consisted of a small first aid kit with a couple of Band-Aids, antiseptic cream and moleskin for blistered feet. The whole thing fit in a leather pouch the size of a deck of cards and hung from my belt opposite the eyeglass case.

As time went by, I found the need to add more to my midsection such as the folding pliers with wire cutter, chisel, file and assorted screwdrivers. This has been very handy for those little odds and ends that pop up around the Cave. In fact, it may indeed have saved my life when I became locked in a men’s room at a remote state park early in the season long before the rush of vacationing city-dwellers. I had not noticed that the inside doorknob was missing when I entered. The door closed and latched, trapping me inside. Except for the Cave, the campground was deserted and the possibility of another person coming to use the facility seemed unlikely. I looked around my unexpected prison. The floor, sinks and counters were spotless. The toilet paper was full in all of the stalls. Clearly, the staff had recently been here and may not return for a week at which time I would surely have been reduced to eating my right foot for sustenance. Then just as I was preparing for the inevitable screening of my life’s all to short highlights, I remembered the folding pliers. A firm twist on the remaining stub of the doorknob and I was free. MacGyver would have been proud.

That incident relegated the pliers to a permanent place of honor on my belt. The ensemble was subsequently augmented by another pouch that holds a small digital camera for those times when carrying my bulky full-featured SLR isn’t practical; a small clip from which swings my spare set of keys and of course the always-present cell phone. The final accoutrement was a pouch for my hand-held GPS receiver. This has been quite a helpful addendum because not only does it show my location on a map and direct me to desired destinations but it also holds a list of local businesses that I can download from a companion CD. So I am never lost for directions to the nearest coffee shop, movie theater or bank. And so, thus adorned, I decided to ride my bicycle the mile or so between the urban RV resort, where the Cave was resting for the week and Disneyland.

Being will familiar with Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida I was intrigued by this, the world’s first theme park, built by Walt in Anaheim, California. In the half century since its inception, Disneyland has outgrown its original space adding a second amusement park, California Adventure; a shopping complex with restaurants, numerous shops, a theatre with stadium seating; and three hotels. I enjoy these resorts. My frequent visits to Orlando will find me sitting in the lobby of a Disney resort soaking in the atmosphere and catching up on my people watching. If there is one genius that, in my opinion sets Disney resorts apart it is their ability to set a mood that always seems to captivate those who enter. Often based upon actual destinations, these temporary living quarters capture the feelings that have made their real-world counterpart famous. The trick is not in duplicating the original but in capturing it’s experience, its feeling, and its essential connection with ourselves. I spent a couple of hours absorbing the Grand Californian resort. Designed in the “Arts and Crafts” motif made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright, this is a spectacular hotel. Displaying a basic interplay between nature and geometry, the space is both soothing and exciting.

Now I must confess that I am a sucker for souvenirs. Not cheap trinkets so much as useful, well made items, especially clothing that also serves to remind me of enjoyable places that I have visited. I often tell friends that Walt Disney is my clothier since it is a rare winter day in Boston that you will find me without a sweatshirt depicting some Disney character or resort. So when I spotted a fiftieth anniversary jacket in the gift shop I knew it would join me. All leather, the body was black with embroidered artwork commemorating the event on front and back. The tan colored arms had swatches with artwork depicting the four preceding decades. It was all I could want… at least until the next time something worthwhile came along to celebrate, like the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. I paid for it along with a sweatshirt with the Grand Californian logo and a baseball style hat also heralding the anniversary and headed out the door with plans to visit the local bank to replenish my now depleted wallet. Then the reality of the moment struck me… I came here on a bicycle.

The temperature was in the high eighties, above normal for June. There was no way to attach the coat, sweatshirt and hat to the bike. And I had to travel to the bank before finally returning to the Cave. When faced with unusual challenges, the fearless will rise to the occasion and, against the better judgment of lesser souls, prevail. So on with the sweatshirt, coat and hat, which I wore backward with the brim low against my neck so that my bike helmet would fit over it.

It must have been quite an unsteadying sight, this old man with a disheveled beard, various appendages hanging from his belt and wearing a sweatshirt covered by a leather jacket during the year’s hottest day. The hoards seemed to part like the Red Sea as I moved through the crowd. This may be southern California but clearly nothing quite so unique had passed this way before. Mothers glanced toward their children as I approached ready to spring at the slightest provocation. I headed the bike toward the nearest exit and onto the street. My GPS advised me toward the bank via a direct route that put me alongside countless rush-hour travelers. Not wanting to be the object of more rubbernecking, I diverted onto lesser-traveled residential roads that parallel the preferred route. The bank was in a busy strip mall. I chained the bicycle to a tree and went inside and approached a teller. “Hello”, I smiled. “I would like to make a withdrawal from my account. It is in an out-of-state branch”. I gave her the check that I had made out earlier for one thousand dollars, payable to cash. She looked at me a long time… at my hat, coat and sweatshirt… at my belt with obviously suspicious pouches… filled with who knows what! Then she spoke… “How’s the weather out there today?” She was smiling, but the slight tremor in her voice exposed her true feelings. I passed her my driver’s license, which she studied as if it were a winning lottery ticket. She looked at my face, then the license, then back at me. “Do you have any additional photo identification”, she asked? “Just this”, I responded as I handed her my Firearms Identification Card that I had gotten before leaving home to allow me to carry bear repellent spray. That didn’t seem to help much, because she excused herself and sought out her supervisor. I watched them converse. There was a lot of hand gesturing on the part of the teller. Followed by a puppy dog expression designed to enlist the immediate intervention of the supervisor. Soon they both returned. “Mr. Spence, we need a little time to confirm your account. Please bear with us”. I smiled and nodded removing my hat and helmet so as to give a bit more normal appearance… not that there was much hope anymore. They hovered around a computer… whispered to each other… then nodded as if to agree on a course of action. “Would you write your social security number on the check”? I complied and soon after it was carefully matched against the computer screen. I was passed an envelope with the requested money, which I promptly put into my coat pocket.

Now I know that there must be a lesson here somewhere. Is it that cleanliness is indeed next to Godliness? Need I dress more for the masses than the mountains? Or perhaps it has more to do with understand one’s limitations and learning that shopping and bicycles don’t always work well together. Oh well, I have a little time to figure it out before the next withdrawal.