The second day started off calm. My first goal was to reach Nebraska City, Nebraska, where I would meet my parents for lunch and then continue further south.
I was excited to get on the water. The river was smooth and the air quiet save for the sounds of flowing water and the occasional bird. I jumped in the canoe and shoved off from shore with a dehydrated breakfast still cooking in its plastic bag.
Once in the main channel, I stowed my paddle and let the river gently push me south as I ate my steaming eggs and potatoes.
I was happy for the glassy water and still air. But the wind on the river is like the wind in the mountains. It is calm in the dark of the early morning and fierce during the day. Eager to cover as many miles as possible in the placid conditions, I slurped down the rest of my breakfast and put the blade of my paddle back in the river.
The main channel of the river is where the fastest moving water runs. It is the ideal place for a long distance paddler to pilot their boat—sending the boat a few extra miles downriver each day. Over the course of a long expedition this boost can add up to hundreds of miles.
As the river meandered south I followed the outside bend of its giant, smooth, sweeping curves. The channel of the river hugs the outside of the bend and this is where I found the swiftest water.
I stayed in this fast part of the channel for most of the journey. This strategy required that I cross from one side of the river to the other as it made those “S” curves—curves more beautiful than any calligraphy I have seen. The river here is about 200 yards across, sometimes more, and with each crossing from the outside of one bend to the other I felt its immensity and my smallness.
The problem with these curves is that sometimes the wind comes head on, sometimes from the rear, and the rest of the time from various angles broadside to the canoe.
The wind crept up on me slowly. I first noticed its effect on my travel while paddling a ten-mile straight away. There was an abandoned concrete building a few hundred yards ahead of me. It was an old loading dock of some kind. The structure was still solid, but its dock and windowed rooms where lonesome and long silent. I wondered about the goods that passed over its supports. Grain, perhaps? Or maybe it was a way station of some kind—a place for barges to wait while traffic came from the other direction.
Covering the short distance to the building was incredibly slow. I doubted I was moving at the speed of the current. The wind gusts felt like sticking my head out of the open window of car moving at twenty miles an hour, maybe more.
I was close to the shore and I used it as a speedometer. I paddled hard, but forward progress grew more difficult with each stroke of the blade. A small child strolling on shore and dawdling to examine rocks and driftwood would have out paced me. This was disheartening. I stopped paddling to take a drink from my steel canteen. To my grave surprise I started to float upstream at a brisk pace, against the current!
Well, I thought, this is why I’m out here. And I moved into the posture that would become my identity while on this river. I made my body small, tucked my chest down close to my legs, lowered my head, and gazed ahead with no particular focus. My paddle became a paintbrush—a tool to be deftly handled or risk losing it to the wind. A series of strokes went like so:
- I dip the blade into the water on the right side of the canoe at full arm’s reach without bending my upper body.
- I pull the blade through the water while transferring energy through my legs—which are pushing against a foot brace—to create a more powerful stroke
- Once my hands are even with my torso, release pressure on the blade.
- The blade follows through behind my torso.
- The bow now bears slightly more to the left than before the stroke.
- With hands at my side and blade extended behind me, I flick the blade to the outside—the finishing stroke.
- The flick pushes the stern of the boat ever so slightly to the right, serving as a counterforce to the main stroke and correcting the canoe’s bearing.
- In ideal conditions, repeat a total of four times.
- Even with finishing strokes, the bearing still drifts to the left. Time to switch sides.
- With the fourth stroke, I bring the blade out of the water. The blade is behind me and parallel to the water’s surface. The shaft is parallel to the canoe.
- I swing the paddle around to the front, keeping the blade horizontal. It cuts through the wind—I feel no resistance.
- The paddle stretches out in front of me, pointing toward the bow of the canoe.
- Without stopping, I release my left hand—the top most hand—from the handle.
- The right hand slides up the shaft to take the place of the left.
- The left takes the place of the right.
- And the blade is instantly back in the water, this time on the left side of the boat.
At midday the boat ramp at Nebraska City, Nebraska came into view. Standing on the concrete pad, shivering in a Great Plains wind chill of 19 degrees, were my parents, who had dropped me off in Omaha, and one other person.
That other person was a reporter for the Nebraska City newspaper. We talked for about 15 minutes while I ate a sandwich.
Meanwhile the weather was getting worse. A full-blown blizzard—pushed south out of the Arctic circle by a temperature imbalance—was scheduled to strike the Great Plains in two days. A smaller front preceded the blizzard. That front had just arrived at Nebraska City.
First, small flurries zipped across the river. But within minutes the wind pushed thick snowflakes into our faces. My three companions on the boat dock were shivering in their thick layers and I was eager to keep paddling. I jumped back in the canoe, shoved off, and headed into the whiteout that descended on the river.
I can only imagine what the reporter thought when I paddled in, wearing just two thin outer layers and uninsulated farm store muck boots. Or, what did he think when I slid into the canoe as large snowflakes whipped around us? I do know what my parents were thinking: he’s crazy.
After an hour or so the snowstorm dissipated, but the strength of the wind continued to grow.
Feeling somewhat emboldened—having paddled through an ice floe, being in my second day, talking to a reporter, and paddling through a snowstorm—I decided to try sailing the canoe.
If I can figure out the dynamics, I thought, I bet I can cover a lot of exertion-free miles.
I designed the fore wind cover so that it could double as a sail. To sail, all I had to do was release the side tensioners, hold one in each hand, and catch the wind.
At first, it worked. The wind was strong, but steady, and the boat skipped across the waves.
Then the wind changed direction. Without the guiding pressure of the paddle in the water, the wind grabbed the stern of the boat and pushed it perpendicular to the wind’s direction. With the sail out and the stern functioning as a sail, the wind pushed the boat through the growing waves at an alarming and unstable pace.
It took a few years to realize that I had executed a basic sailing maneuver—I had heaved-to in a boat not designed to heave-to, for heaving-to requires a giant lead keel. This proved to be dangerous.
The crests of wind-blown waves splashed over the gunwales and into the boat. I felt the growing instability of the boat beneath me. A gunwale nearly dipped into the heart of a wave. I felt close to the edge. A capsized boat was near at hand. And with that a complete submersion in freezing water for me. I was on the verge of losing the canoe and perhaps my life.
I dropped the jury-rigged sail, struggling to reattach the tensioner straps to keep the cover from transforming back into a sail.
Once I had reattached the cover, I grabbed my paddle and dug deep into the water for my life depended on each stroke.
Soon the boat was on the right bearing, pointed downstream and into the waves.
The wind continued to grow in force and crossing the river, from outside bend to outside bend, became dangerous. Near shore, there is the safety of proximity to land and the features of the land that break up the wind. However, making a crossing from shore to shore requires venturing out in more open waters where the wind howls up the river valley unchecked. I was nearly swamped several times during these river crossings, with waves breaking over the gunwales of my canoe.
The wind does not like the shape of a canoe. I once thought that a canoe, especially a long and narrow canoe like mine, would work like a weathervane—wanting to point into or away from the wind along its length. Sometimes this is true, if the wind is striking the boat at a perfect angle. However, it is the opposite that is true most of the time. The boat itself becomes a sail and turns perpendicular to the wind. In these conditions I used all of my strength to cross the river and keep the boat pointed in the right direction, often paddling on one side for twenty or thirty minutes without rest—for a moment’s rest would allow the wind to flip the boat.
After several strenuous and nervous crossings, I found a tiny cove where I took a breather. I ate an original Cliff Bar—those amazingly lifeless, dry, gritty bars that remove an athlete’s desire to eat anything at all. But it was fuel, and I needed fuel.
The break allowed my nerves to settle and my courage to recharge. I decided to push on in hope that the wind would ease its onslaught.
I quickly consulted my maps before picking up my paddle. I would have to cross the river again in a couple of miles. And a mile or so after that, I would arrive below a hilly, wooded landscape that rose out of the seasonally barren plains.
Hills, I thought, in their shadow maybe I will find some relief from the wind.
But first I would have to get there.
Crossing the river had put me on the outside of a long straightaway with a slight bend, so I could paddle next to the shore for a few miles. This was a comforting thought as the possibility of capsizing danced in the front of my mind.
I paddled past a summer river retreat—tattered trailer homes and shacks dotting the bank—and the retreat’s private boat ramp. A rope swing hung from a cottonwood branch that dangled over the river. It looked abandoned.
Then I thought I saw someone on the shore standing among the structures—I latched on to the thought of someone nearby to help should something go wrong. But the shape was not a person. It was a stump. This little island of civilization was soon behind me and with it went the strange comfort I had found in its presence.
Over an hour later I came to the end of the straightaway where I had to make another crossing from one bank to the other to follow the channel and avoid the exposed wing dikes.
I was nervous. I didn’t want to make the crossing. But I needed to—I needed to move forward. I dipped the blade of my paddle into the leeward side of the canoe and paddled hard.
The inside bend of the bank and its tall river bottom trees created a small wind shadow. The shadow protected me from the brunt of the wind. But within several minutes I paddled beyond the shadow. The wind slammed into the port side of the canoe. Every third wave sent water splashing into the boat. I was trying to paddle a weathervane through a gale. I fought hard to keep the boat pointed downriver. But the wind had other plans.
Despite my muscle and sweat, the wind slowly pushed the boat broadside to its direction and to the waves. By the time I reached the other shore, the wind had pushed so hard that I was paddling upstream, against my will!
As a neared the shore a release of tension came over me.
I’m not going to die just yet, I thought. I can easily swim to shore from here should it all go bad.
My struggle against the wind and waves continued as chugged toward the hills.
The hills were a mirage of sorts. They did not give the protection I had hoped for. Instead, they created a bottleneck that channeled and concentrated the southerly wind right into me. The fast-moving and cresting waves quickly grew to over two feet high.
On my streamlined canoe, the freeboard was only about 12” or 14”. Freeboard is the height of the boat above the water. On flat water, this enough distance to keep the inside of the boat and the paddler dry. But in heavy chop, like on this day, I had a strong feeling that I needed more freeboard—a lot more.
Generally, the waves that day had high frequency and the bow of the boat could bounced from the crest of one wave to the next. However, about every sixty seconds the frequency of waves faltered and the bow plunged into the trough of an oncoming wave. Each plunge threatened to dump gallons of water into the boat, but my homemade spray skirts, stitched together from hardware stores tarps, held back the water and kept the boat dry.
Undeterred, I prepared to make another river crossing over the expanse of the wind ravaged river.
And then fortune struck in the form of a complete inability to paddle forward—perhaps saving my life. The winds increased, gusting up to 50 mph. Paddling with all of my strength, each stroke only pushed the canoe an inch forward. The wind pushed the boat closer and closer to the riverbank.
As the riprap of the bank neared, I paddled harder. I had to keep moving forward. I had to cover more miles that day. But the weather refused to allow me passage.
Before I could act, waves threw the canoe into the riprap of the bank. I scrambled to get out of the unstable boat and pull it ashore before waves and riprap bashed it to pieces in their iron grip.
I tied up the canoe and walked up the bank to the forest where I found a grove of trees to sit amidst. I looked into the tempest the river had become.
I’m not getting back out there today, I thought.
Not only was it impossible, but it was foolish to paddle in those conditions. I called my parents, who were only a few miles away in a warm hotel, to let them know that I was done for the day.
Contented to rest there for the night, I set up camp. The sky was growing ominously dark, so I hastily strung a tarp between four trees to provide shelter from above. Then I pitched the tiny bivouac tent a friend had loaned me. I barely fit inside. Was it a coffin or a shelter, I thought. With shelter built, I stripped off my sweat soaked clothing, with the ignorant hope that the synthetic garments and wetsuit would dry by morning. Then I cooked a quick meal and climbed into the claustrophobic shelter.
The wind howled far into the night. At some point, the thermometer hit zero, but I didn’t know it.
However, I do know that it was a long night and sleep evaded me.
Read the next post.
The Thule Sonic M (M is short for Medium) is a great cargo box, though at $569.95 it is on the expensive side.
The Thule Sonic opens and closes easily with one hand, holds a ton of gear when packed smartly, and makes no noise when zooming down the highway above the box’s recommended 60 MPH limit. It can also hold short skis, up to 169s. And the silver top looks very sleek!
Note: Scroll to the end of the post for photos.
Ease of Use:
The Thule Sonic comes with a built-in lock and two keys—a major advantage over Yakima’s lock system. The lock is easy to turn. Inside, lock activates three latches. The mechanisms for these latches are internally housed. This means that when your gear shifts around while driving, you will still be able to open the box because a climbing rope won’t be clogging up the moving parts of the lock.
The Thule lock system requires that you lock the box to remove the key. This is a safety feature designed to prevent accidental openings on the highway should you forget to lock the box. However, I managed to find the hole in this system. I left the key in the lock with the box lid closed but the box unlocked. Then I drove 80 MPH down the highway. Guess what happened!? Nothing. The lid stayed closed! That is pretty good aerodynamic engineering. Of course, I do not recommend that you do this, and I did it purely by accident.
The lid opens easily with one hand. At first, I didn’t feel like this was a big deal. I have two hands and can use them. But actually it is a big deal. For example, it was really nice when I skied back to my car in a blizzard and had to keep gear from blowing away with one hand and open the lid with the other.
The lid closes just as easily. Again, this is really nice for retrieving gear with one hand, holding onto it, and closing the lid with other hand … like in a blizzard.
The lid also opens from both sides! A feature I never use.
The Thule Sonic makes no noise, at all. Which is funny, because the word sonic denotes a speed equal to that of sound, and when an object goes at the speed of sound it is really loud.
The bare bars without the cargo box make lots of noise, though the noise is not so bad if you tie some cord to the bars, as I did in an earlier post.
I have the narrow bars on the Corolla, and I was still able to fit a bike rack next to the cargo box, even though Thule and people at REI say that you can’t do this. Guess what REI, I did it anyway! Worked great for me.
Clamping the Sonic onto the roof bars is ridiculously easy. Four giant knobs that can slide the length of the box are attached to four giant crab pincers that grab onto the bars. Turn the knob to open and close the pincers. Easy as that. No nuts and bolts to mess with!
The lid has ribs of extra plastic molded into it. These ribs make the lid rigid and thus easier to open. I think they also help to make the Sonic ride better. The ribs are one of the reasons the Thule Sonic is more expensive than other cargo boxes.
There is also a sway bar in the nose of the Sonic, which I imagine also helps to make the Sonic glide down the highway and open easily.
It’s a great box if you have the money to blow and lots of gear to move around.
The hike from Wawona to Buena Vista Peak and Mount Bruce is a long one. But excellent views of the Clark Range and Southern Yosemite National Park will reward those willing to make the trek.
Buena Vista Peak, 9,709 feet, and Mount Bruce, 9,724 feet, can be climbed from many angles. I ascended both of them from Buena Vista Pass, making for quick and easy strolls to the summits.
The final ascents to the summits are very easy Class 2 scrambling over large boulders.
The 14+ mile one-way hike from Wawona is a lot of work to just climb these two peaks. However, if you are backpacking in the area, then they are worth the short digression.
Slowly but steadily I am working on climbing a long list of peaks in Yosemite—some obscure and some well-known.
One of the most recently climbed mountains was Camiaca Peak at the head of Yosemite’s Virginia Canyon, between Summit Pass and Virginia Pass.
At 11,739, Camiaca Peak is most easily accessed via Twin Lakes. But I came in from Tuolumne Meadows, which is a 20 mile hike, one-way.
I ascended the south slope from Summit Lake and descended the northwestern slope to Virginia Pass. Both ways are Class 2 scrambling over loose talus and scree.
According to the book Yosemite Place Names, Camiaca Peak was named for a Yakima medicine man.
The First Day
As my paddle cut its first strokes through the muddy water, the enormity of the journey quickly took hold of my mind.
But the beauty of the river, even on that cold and dreary day on the Great Plains, distracted me from any thoughts of doubt or regret of the commitment I had just made. Instead, I was reminded of the adventure and experience that I had first set out to find. And there it was stretching out before me!
Each time my paddle touched the water, I felt the intensity of the force that pulsed below my canoe. I was riding on the largest moving thing in the world—a continuous body of water that reaches across the globe and whose tentacles probe deep into the continents. And the Missouri—the Big Muddy—and the Mississippi—the Mighty Mississippi—are but thin, wispy offshoots of this organism.
I put miles behind me and my moment in Omaha entered the past. Away from city limits, birds appeared in the sky. A bald eagle flew low overhead as it crossed from one shore to the other. And later I saw another.
Yes, there is life out here, I thought.
The seeming silence of the river replaced the noise of civilization. But the river is not silent. The sounds of water carry across its surface.
Often, when the river is smooth and the wind low, noises become magnified while bouncing across its glassy veneer. Thousands of feet away, water rushing around a buoy sounds like Class II whitewater.
Water flowing over a submerged wing dike goes unheard until mere yards away. There the sound compounded with the effects of the horizon give the feature the appearance of a waterfall.
Around midday I turned a small bend in the river and came across a new and intimidating sight, though not unexpected.
A large floe of ice spewed into the river from the west. The source of the ice was Nebraska’s Platte River. The river no longer looked serene. A wall of white chunks of ice stretched across the river. The large pieces ground against each other with enough force to crush or capsize my canoe.
A thin channel of ice-free water hugged the opposite bank and I steered my canoe into it. I paddled in this sliver of clear water for several miles, occasionally bumping into a block of ice. Each of these little collisions stirred visions of the Titanic within my mind.
But before long the ice of the Platte melted into the warmer water of the Missouri and only a few sluggish and slushy bergs remained in the river.
With the last of the ice disappearing around me, two men standing on the shore near a boat ramp yelled out to me.
“Where are you going?” They yelled.
“Memphis!” I yelled back.
Their response was silence.
It felt good to say that. I felt like a true adventurer. I was out there doing what I had set out to do. I was connecting with the explorers, mountain men, and pioneers of ages past. Through speaking the words I made it real—I confirmed that I was actually doing this, that I, Joe Reidhead, was paddling to Memphis.
Yet I was only 20 miles and a few hours into the journey, the comfort of civilization never that far away. And I had already experienced the fear of the river. The size. The ice. The solitude. The cold. A fear—of the river and of possible failure on the river—nagged at me. But fear on the river grows slowly, stroke by stroke. It accumulates in the tissues of your muscles and the folds of your brain. Fear becomes experience and experience becomes fear. It is not a fear of the short-term, but rather a fear of the long-term.
At that moment, any fears I had were fleeting and young, my muscles unconditioned. I didn’t have long to think about my fears, for ahead, standing on the bank, were my parents, each shivering but smiling. They had seen me off at Omaha that morning and would follow me for the next four days along the river—now was not the time to have fear!
And so I was greeted with a sandwich and encouragement—encouragement that was critical in those first days of unknowing and uncertainty, before I had the confidence of experience.
After several minutes on shore, stuffing down the sandwich and shoving a bag of chips into my coat pocket, I pushed the canoe back into the Missouri and continued south.
Around sunset, with migrating flocks of geese flying overhead, I found a secluded sandbar—the first of many—where I set up camp and fell into a fitful, but happy sleep—happy to be on the river—to be doing it!
But I worried for the long haul that awaited me. The monumental size of the journey finally revealed itself to my eyes.
When I stood at the base of Yosemite’s 3,000 foot tall El Capitan for the first time, I wondered how I could ever climb something so tall. Well, one move at a time.
And on the river one paddle stroke at a time would get me to Memphis.
Read the next post.
Preparations and Gear
I never considered myself much of a paddler. The first boat I owned was the Wenonah canoe—a Prism—that carried me down the river.
The boat arrived three days before the trip started. I took the boat out for a test run around Howell Island in the Missouri River near St. Charles, Missouri. It was fast, tippy, and easily caught the wind causing it to frequently behave like an erratic weathervane. Before the Wenonah, I had only paddled heavy Old Towne and aluminum Grumman canoes that steered like a box of rocks. The Wenonah, however, was spry and quick. Even though it caught the wind, I knew it would handle better with the heavy cargo load of an expedition.
One of the nice things about paddling is that weight is not as much of a concern as in backpacking or climbing. In my new canoe, I actually needed a minimum amount of weight to balance it out and make it perform better in the wind. So I was able to pack luxuries like external cell phone batteries, plenty of dry clothes, lots of fresh water—which I used as ballast—and a couple of books—which I never read.
I brought two paddles. My primary paddle was made of carbon fiber and had a bent shaft for better performance. It was feather weight and rigid as steel. I loved that paddle. My backup paddle was made of wood and had a bent shaft. It was fine paddle, but couldn’t compete with the carbon fiber. Even in the hands of an inexperienced paddler like myself, the paddle and the boat made me feel like a professional and capable of anything.
After my test run, I realized that wind covers would be an essential part of my gear and make the trip far more enjoyable. The wind covers would cover the fore and aft cargo areas of the canoe, preventing the wind from catching the inside walls of the canoe and pushing it in random directions as I experienced on that first run.
I had heard of a small home business that made custom covers for canoes. But such a cover would cost a few hundred dollars and require a few weeks to be made. I was putting the trip together on a limited budget and didn’t want to drop that much money on a cover—especially when I could make something similar for less than fifty dollars.
I’ve always enjoyed making my gear. In the case of the wind covers, I used a hardware store tarp, polypropylene webbing, bungee straps, and a sewing machine to make two covers that perfectly fit my canoe. The fore cover wrapped the bow and extended to the thwart just above the foot rests. The aft cover wrapped the stern and extended to the thwart located behind the seat. Adjustable backpacking snaps held the covers to the thwarts and bungee straps maintained tension. It took about half a day to make the covers—a success.
I pieced together the rest of my gear from various sources. I borrowed dry bags from my friend and adventure partner—Dan Rapp. My life vest came from Tim Pfeil, another climbing and paddling partner. My summer tent was a gift—it was bought for $10 at a discount grocery store. And my uninsulated muck boots were what I used when shoveling horse manure out of the stalls at my family’s farm.
As the deadline to launch the canoe neared, I became more and more concerned with the water temperatures and the possibility of capsizing the canoe. Most cold weather paddlers use a drysuit to protect them in the event of a sudden cold water immersion—which can lead to severe hypothermia and death in under an hour. A drysuit is a waterproof rubber suit that covers the arms, legs, and core of a paddler. Warm clothes can be worn under the drysuit and they will stay dry even if the paddler falls into the water. Arctic divers use drysuits to keep the frigid cold of polar waters at bay. If I capsized while wearing a drysuit, I would be inconvenienced, but I would live. The only problem was that a dry suit would cost about $1,000—far beyond my means.
The alternative to a drysuit is a wetsuit. A wetsuit is made of neoprene and comes in different thickness for different temperatures. A wetsuit is not waterproof, but it keeps the body warm nonetheless. Wetsuits come in different designs. Some cover the entire body, while others cover just the core.
As I tried on different wetsuits, I realized that paddling in a full-body wetsuit would be incredibly uncomfortable and cause bad chaffing. So I settled on a design that looked like a leotard—no sleeves and the legs of the suit only extended halfway down my thighs. Wetsuits are incredibly warm, so I choose one that was thin. Most importantly, it cost only $100.
The thinness and minimalist design had one major flaw–in the freezing waters of the Missouri River the wetsuit would only buy me a few more minutes if I fell into the water. It was a poor insurance policy, but at least it was something.
I also took a GPS tracking device on the journey. The SPOT device is a personal location beacon. It doesn’t tell the paddler where he is, but it does tell other people. It has a tracking mode, which broadcasts the location every ten minutes. It has a check-in mode, which informs people that everything is okay. And it has an SOS mode, which sends a Mayday signal to emergency responders.
Before the trip, I thought that the SPOT would be a handy tool and a good way for people interested in the journey to follow my progress. I soon learned that the SPOT was a burden. Sometimes it wouldn’t communicate with a satellite, sending ripples of panic through the minds of the people tracking me. And other times the battery would die and I wouldn’t notice for several hours, prompting calls to emergency dispatchers. I will never use a SPOT again.
My last piece of gear was introduced to the mix after I had started the trip. It was an iPhone. Other than the canoe, this was my most used piece of equipment. I loaded it with river maps made by the Corps of Engineers, the definitive maps for big rivers and coasts in America. I used it to take photos and make videos. And I used it as a GPS device to find my exact location on the river or on shore. When camping, I could load satellite images of my campsite and make sure that there were no houses, shacks, or government facilities near me.
A couple days of paddling and a few last minute gear purchases—this was the extent of my preparations. I had no idea of the magnitude of the journey I was about to begin, the commitment it would require, or the difficulty. But if I had known these things, I may not have gone. I may have talked myself into a lesser journey, and maybe talked myself out of that. Instead, I stumbled head first into something I did not know. I would emerge alive and intact, but probably not any wiser.
Paddling for a Cause
As I thought about the journey and what it would demand, I realized that it would be a tough endeavor and an endeavor that would draw some attention—wanted or unwanted.
“Well,” I thought, “I will probably meet a lot of people along the way. Other paddlers. River rats. Boatman and the like.” At this point I still had visions of Huck Finn floating lazily down a fat, swollen, Mississippi in the early summer—that period of time when everyone goes to the river to either work or pass the time.
Then a switch flipped and a light turned on in my brain, “Why not use this as an opportunity to raise awareness for something that I feel strongly about. What a great way to draw attention to a cause!”
Autism affects several members of my family. The impact of this mental disorder on both the person on the spectrum and the people caring for that person is immeasurable. For unknown reasons, doctors are diagnosing massive numbers of children as on the spectrum. It is an epidemic. And in this I found a mission for my journey beyond simply going for a paddle on the river in the winter—which, I should note, is a perfectly worthy reason in itself.
I like goals, especially quantifiable goals. Paddle this many miles. Climb that peak. Get that job. Learn this skill. Goals keep me on track. These types of goals are clean and definitive.
Contrary to these goals are abstract goals, like trying to answer the question, “Is there life after death?” Or “Why do I exist?” Obviously, with the limited brain power of the human species, these questions cannot be answered with certainty. Faith, yes. Certainty, no. The person attempting to objectively answer them is doomed to disappointment.
My trip now had two goals:
- Paddle from Omaha to Memphis.
- Raise awareness for autism.
The first goal was quantifiable. When I arrived in Memphis, mission accomplished.
The second goal, however, was abstract in its infant form. How could I quantify raising awareness for autism?
“By raising money for autism research and advocacy,” I thought.
So, I partnered with Autism Speaks, the largest charity in the world dedicated solely to autism research and advocacy. As I met people along the journey and as people followed me down the river (people from around the world, as it turned out), they could also donate to a fundraising campaign, managed by Autism Speaks, in which all the donations went to the charity.
Folks from Autism Speaks in St. Louis, Missouri and New York City gave me a few pre-journey social media tips to help draw more attention to the mission and the cause. Apparently, none of these tips stuck because I wasn’t very good a social media and still lack these critical life skills.
However, this association of charitable cause and adventure created two unique problems:
- I had to finish the journey no matter the conditions. With so many people following me and invested in my success, a failure of the journey would be a failure for the cause. No waiting it out until the summer, next year, or the year after. Once started, I was committed.
- What if something happened to me? How would that affect the message that I was carrying about the cause? I set out to paddle on two massive, commercial waterways in the dead of winter. Other paddlers do not go out there at this time of the year for a reason—it’s dangerous. How would the cause appear if I was injured, had to be rescued, or died on the river? My simple desire to move through the water from one corner of the state to another could do more damage in an instant than any good that the entire trip would create. There is a fine line between reckless and fun. So, I couldn’t die or get hurt.
And thus 1,000 Miles for Autism—as I called the journey—was born. Now all I had to do was find a canoe and get a ride to Omaha.
First, an Idea
I don’t know when the idea of paddling long distance on these rivers first took hold of my imagination.
Perhaps it was seeded there in my youth while learning about Lewis and Clark. Monuments to their feats and signs marking their route are found throughout rural St. Charles County in Missouri, where I was raised. I remember seeing these signs as a boy and wondering where the next marker could be found and what part of their adventure it might reveal.
Or perhaps the idea came later, as an adult, when I floated on a log down the Missouri with my brother, from New Haven to Washington, drinking river-cooled beer and embracing the grit of the river and carefree summer days just as Huck Finn did before us.
I do know when the idea for this journey surfaced. It was early October, 2012 and I was driving across the country, from Yosemite Valley to Augusta, Missouri. I had climbed in Yosemite for the past month. I was fit, healthy, and felt that I could do anything. But the old maxim, use it or lose it, is true. I needed an adventure, something big, to keep my body fit and my thirst for adventure wetted.
Somewhere on that drive an idea swept my imagination. I don’t know if came to me in the lonesome deserts of Nevada or the bleak Great Plains of Colorado and Kansas, but the inspiration was there. It would be a journey through space and history. I would connect with the adventurous spirits of the mountain men of old. I would traverse the entire state of Missouri in a canoe, from Kansas City to St. Louis on the Missouri River.
Like all good ideas, this idea succumbed to the slippery slope of bigger is better. Missouri is a state of many rivers. Yes, it can be traversed from West to East in a canoe. In fact, there is an annual paddling race that does just this in under 84 hours. But Missouri can also be traversed from North to South in a canoe.
So I decided that I would paddle across Missouri from the Northwestern most corner to Southeastern most corner. Longitude and latitude, every direction would be crossed. And I needed to do the project soon or risk losing the thirst for adventure that I had built while climbing in Yosemite. This meant I would paddle in the winter.
And then I looked closely at a map, and the journey instantly expanded—a common outcome of map-perusing.
While counting the river miles that I would paddle from the northwestern most corner to the southeastern most corner of Missouri, I learned that if I tacked on a few days to the beginning and end of the trip, then I could paddle just over 1,000 miles. Those 1,000 miles neatly spanned Omaha, Nebraska on the Missouri River to Memphis, Tennessee on the Mississippi River. And the route passed right through my backyard.
1,000 miles—in the winter—that sounded impressive!
It’s been over three years since my winter paddling voyage down the Missouri and Mississippi; and it’s about time that I wrote something substantive about it. For a quick background on the trip and lots of photos, check out these other posts. Here is part 1 in the series …
The Missouri and the Mississippi are the same river. Cartographers and land surveyors may disagree, but any paddler or river rat will speak an unalienable truth—these rivers beat with the same heart. They are the veins of a great land and through them pulses its thick, rich blood. The mountains and the hills are the bones—the structure—and the river is life.
Yet, settlers, geographers, and mercantilists determined the naming of each branch and the unique cultures that formed along these branches.
The Missouri in the summer is a river of picturesque towns and lazy days. For the people of these towns, the Missouri is still an important part of their life. It is a place to fish and swim and, for some, a place to work. I am from one of these towns.
I have early memories of sitting at boat ramps and watching the river pass us by. No matter the conditions—flood or drought—or the direction of the bend, the river kept moving past the horizon and into the south, a place of swamps, deltas, and seas that I knew only in my imagination.
Below St. Louis, the Mississippi in the summer is the river of Huck Finn. His adventures occupy a prominent place in the minds of all those plying its banks and waters.
For many years I have kept in my car a print of a young man dancing to fiddle and flute while floating on a log raft down this mighty river; it is an image of the steamboat era, and one that has permeated my mind as an ideal of the good life to be pursued.
The water is always gumbo thick with some of the finest silt in the world. It is slow and steady, just like the generations who have tilled the rich soils that the river leaves behind as it carves out a plain that stretches from Southern Missouri to Louisiana.
The Mississippi is also the river of my mother’s childhood, where the family boated and played. In his youth, my grandfather swam laps from one bank to the other—it is a story that my mother passed on to me and will be passed on to future generations of my family.
The Mississippi is a river of tradition.
In the winter, the Missouri loses its warmth and charm. In the northern stretches, the river freezes solid. During warm spells the lower stretches of this frozen mass and its tributaries break free in grinding and destructive ice floes. The charming towns appear abandoned except for a few plumes of wood smoke drearily escaping chimneys and the occasional passing car. Fierce winds and snow storms rip south across the Great Plains.
The shore and beyond emerge from gray, abstract horizons as a monochrome lifeless post-apocalyptic wasteland. Only the occasional brave solitary soul appears among the starkness, clothed in a blanket of layers that meagerly shuts out the winds.
The Mississippi in the winter is no longer the familiar scene of Twain’s novels. The vast farms and their wealth of soil lie quiet. The fishermen are few. The young river boys of fore are gone and the music quite. And the families in their pleasure boats are missing. The southern charm that one anticipates encountering is also missing, waiting for the warmer months.
What one does encounter are active and dominating fleets of barges and the giant machinery needed to load, unload, repair, and recycle them. It is a presence that knows no seasons.
Both of these rivers are the scene of massive industrial efforts that persist through the generations despite existing in a perpetual state of rusty decay. The difference between an abandoned grain elevator, crane, or dock and their active counterparts is as subtle as the presence of a single human being toiling away at a mysterious task at the interface of flesh and steel. Structures line the shores and emerge subtly from the muddy waters as a pier emerges from fog. Just like the river, these pieces of civilization appear to have always existed. Their dominance of the bleak, stripped landscape causes me to think that they will continue to exist, in a space separate from the limitations of humanity.
Often, these hunks of iron seem natural. It is as though nature intended for them to be there—an integral part of the river and its essence. Sometimes it seems that the river and its industry, together, will endure, impervious and ignorant to the rest of us.
To keep all the machinery moving and the cargo flowing, we have had to alter the entire river. Since the early 20th century, the Corps of Engineers has built dams and wing dikes, dredged and straightened the channels, and stabilized banks. It is an ongoing construction project on scale with the Great Wall of China and the Egyptian Pyramids.
The river after the Corps is nothing like the wild and free river before the Corps.
Before the Corps, the river wandered, just as rivers tend to do. It would crawl through broad, shallow bottoms, race through narrow shoots, meander across the flood plains, and collect in backwaters where fish, fowl, and game found peaceful seclusion.
But the river before the Corps was not a river favorable to commerce. Hundreds of boats wrecked after hitting snags or running out of the channel, which was incredibly difficult to navigate. Countless passengers and crew lost their lives when boats sank or boilers exploded.
The Lower Missouri, from Sioux City to the Confluence at St. Louis, and then the Mississippi south of St. Louis, run free. But even though dams are absent, the Herculean efforts of the Corps of Engineers are constantly present.
To stabilize the banks, the Corps has lined them with a layer of large rocks called riprap. Generally, the riprap is limestone quarried from the hills through which the Missouri and Mississippi cut their courses.
The wing dikes are made from the same rock, but jut perpendicular into the river at frequent intervals. Wing dikes are jetties that force fast flowing water into the main channel. This prevents sedimentation in the main channel, which keeps navigation lanes open, and slows the current near the banks, which prevents erosion.
Regardless of the apparent permanence of the industry and the manmade changes to the rivers, the creations of civilization clash with the power of wilderness all along the river’s course. With the persistence of the Count of Monte Cristo, the rivers tear at the foundations of the piers, rip barges free from their moorings, erode the wing dikes, and breach the levies. I have learned that the river always wins. Maybe not tomorrow. Maybe not in a thousand years. But eventually, it will reclaim everything that is rightfully its.
I see the river as a prisoner of something beyond its comprehension. Yet it is determined to overcome this injustice to its freedom. Its only choice is to persevere; to chip away at the wall just like the Count. That is the only thing it knows to do. To push forward is its nature.
Though the river is ultimately stronger than the all the machinery, the machinery is stronger than me. I am the weakest thing in this great wilderness of water, earth, and metal. The presence of the industry adds to the infinite smallness of my being. Throughout the journey, I was most aware of this fact when pitted between the two warring parties.
The massive barges filled with grain, coal, and steel are constant reminders of how insignificant and weak I am in the face the great powers of civilization. A fleet of barges could run over me and the pilot would never know.
And then I see what the river does to the strongest, most persistent efforts of civilization. I ask what it will do to me, a single human being floating among all of this power in a fiberglass canoe. If am just a flea to the barges, then I am nothing to the river. And yet, here we are—industry, nature, and me—sharing this expansive space and creating something out of nothing that none of us understand.
I came across this book while browsing the stacks in the Yosemite Research Library. I’ve wanted to learn more about the early mountaineers in the Sierra Nevada and this biography Clarence King offered just that. I read it cover to cover over three days and generally liked it.
As with all of our heroes, they are ultimately human beings, and thus imperfect.
In “The Explorer King”, Robert Wilson examines the life of Clarence King—the scientist, adventurer, romantic, first superintendent of the United States Geological Survey, and failed business man of the 1800s Gilded Age. And in the process the author learns that King, while brilliant, was not the incorruptible icon people wanted him to be.
“The Explorer King” covers the first half of Clarence King’s life, which was his most productive in terms of science and adventure. However, the author gives only a chapter of the book to the second half of King’s life—the period when he coasted on his earlier accomplishments and suffered failure after failure in mining speculations.
Concerning Clarence King’s mountaineering accomplishments, the book does an excellent job of retelling the stories and picking apart what really happened from the romantic zeal found in King’s popular writings like his book Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. We’ve all had our doubts about some of the early mountaineers in the Sierra, with the back of our minds quietly asking, Did he really do that? For me, that little voice has often spoken up when reading an account of John Muir’s or looking up at one of Mendenhall’s ascents (for example, the Death Couloir on California’s Mt. Morrison).
I enjoyed the retelling of King’s and Gardner’s first ascent of Yosemite’ Mount Clark. The book also includes accounts of the first ascents of Mount Gardiner, Mount Brewer, and Mount Tyndall.
The book briefly investigates King’s secret second life. He was married to a black woman who had been the maid at one of his friend’s homes. The two were married for 15 years until King’s death and had a family together. The marriage was only revealed after his death. I wanted more details of this relationship and its aftermath, but the author only gives superficial coverage to this part of King’s life.
Overall, it is a good book, though for the mountaineer who is a reader, there will be some slow parts.
The Mountain Hardwear Lamina 0° F is a good, durable, and versatile bag, but don’t be fooled by the 0° F rating because it shouldn’t be used in those temperatures. If using this bag, stick to the shoulder seasons or mild winter nights.
I’ve been using my Mountain Hardwear Lamina 0° F for about six years in all conditions and environments. Here are my impressions:
Fit and Comfort
While I am lean guy, I am tall and broad. I like to have plenty of room inside of a bag because I don’t like feeling like a mummy. The regular Lamina 0° F gives me this comfort. It also has a large toe box—big enough that I often store my pants in it.
The nylon is very comfortable and rarely sticky.
The neck baffle is critical feature of any sleeping bag and I won’t buy a sleeping bag that doesn’t have one. Fortunately the Lamina 0° F has a neck baffle!
0° F? Really? I don’t think so.
At 0° F in the Lamina 0°, I didn’t die, but I didn’t get any sleep either. Yup, I’ve had plenty of shiver bivies in the Lamina.
Durability and Portability
Sometimes I really miss my 0° F Army surplus canvas down sleeping bag. I once slept on a bed of coals in that thing. But I’m pretty sure it was possessed.
When you consider the weight and the compressed size, the Lamina 0° is in the middle of the road. It’s too heavy and bulky for the ultralight go fast hikers and climbers. It’s too much sleeping bag for the “once a year in the summer” hikers.
Having said all of that, it is a workhorse. After years of use, the bag shows no signs of serious wear and tear aside from a small area of minor abrasion shown in one of the photos.
The zipper is durable and has never derailed or separated from the stitching. But, like many zippers, the wind baffle or other loose fabric from the sleeping bag tends to get caught in it, which is really annoying. So you have to zip carefully, with tension, and often holding the baffle out of the way.
How quick does it dry and does it keep you warm when wet?
The synthetic Lamina dries quickly if you can get it out of the wet or damp conditions.
The Lamina has kept me warm on plenty of chilly, wet nights. I like to sleep under the stars, and not under a sheet of rip-stop. This means that I often wake up with dew or frost on my sleeping bag. That small amount of moisture has never caused me a problem in the Lamina.
Weight and Size
Here are the specs for the bag:
Weight 3 lb. 10 oz.
Bag Stuff Size: 9 X 16.5
Bag Compression Sack Size: 9 X 13.5
It’s been a good bag. But I’m ready to upgrade and downgrade. For winter conditions, I want a bag that keeps me warm at 0° F, not alive. And a down 20° F bag will work for the rest of the year.
I am using the Salewa Pro Vertical as my ice climbing and Lower 48 (Continental USA) technical winter mountaineering boot. I need to put in many more mile before I can come to a definitive opinion about the boot. But with the winter upon us, I decided to post some preliminary findings based on a few ice climbing forays into the Sierra.
First, on their website, Salewa has this to say about the boot:
Lightweight pro boot for winter mountaineering and icefalls. A SuperFabric Perwanger suede leather upper with a 360° rubber rand offers reliable protection against rain and cold weather. The boot also features a tough Vibram sole with maximum grip and the ability to stiffen the sole when needed – perfect for use with crampons. A waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex membrane, together with an added aluminium layer, ensures that feet stay dry and warm. Includes a 3D lacing system for individual, three-section lacing and the 3F System for optimum ankle and heel support. The ‘wide’ version features a wider fit around the front of the foot.
Sizing and Fit
I cruxed out on this one. Salewa has two different lasts for this boot: medium and wide. The wide is harder to come by, but if you are like me and need a wide toe box, you will be extremely thankful for this last.
Side note: if you are also looking at the Salewa Pro Guide, as I was, then you will be happy to know that they are built on the same last. I talked to someone at Salewa and he informed me of this fact. So, if you are an 11 wide in the Pro Guide, then you will be an 11 wide in the Pro Vertical. Thank you for making it easy Salewa.
The sizing seems to run standard. I am an 11 in the Pro Vertical and an 11 in my Five Ten Guide Tennies.
All of Salewa’s footwear comes with a blister-free guarantee—if you get a blister in one of their shoes, you can return it to them for a refund. Pretty cool.
Fit for Warmth
I fit my boots with a single mid-weight Smart Wool ski sock. For those of us mentored by climbers of a certain older generation, or climbers of that older generation, the axiom was: two layers of thick socks crammed into a boot equals warmth. Well, as it turns out, you can wear a single sock inside of a comfortable boot (i.e. the boot does not cut off your circulation and you can easily wiggle your toes) and have warm toes. This translates to better footwork on those technical routes.
My feet tend to run cold. The other morning, before I started breaking trail up the talus toward the ice at Lee Vining, the thermometer on my car read -3° F at one point. Hmm, why am I out here? Anyway, I failed to pre-warm my boots before the hike in. Even with the vigorous hike, my toes started on the downward cycle of getting colder and colder. Then, while scrambling on some easy but low-quality ice and rock, my right toes went completely numb. After much stomping and shaking, the warmth flooded back into my toes (Oh, the pain!) and stayed there the rest of the day. The moral is, no matter what boots I had on, my toes were going to get cold, but once they rewarmed the Pro Vertical kept the warmth inside.
Is it a gimmick? Or is it for real? It’s for real and it works (with one caveat)!
Do you want to walk? Or do you want to climb? Do you like walking in a full-shank boot? Do you like climbing in 3/4-shank boot?
Salewa’s answer: Why not do all the above in one boot!
The Pro Vertical and the Pro Guide come with a small hex wrench that allows you to quickly retract or extend the boot shank. This means you can have a 3/4-shank boot for walking and a full-shank boot for climbing with rigid crampons.
It is a great idea and works very well. Except that the bolt is made of a soft metal and easily strips if you over-torque the hex wrench or if ice is packed into bolt and you torque on a shallowly placed hex. That said, I am willing to deal with it in return for the extra comfort when walking. A key piece of beta: bring a small point stick, like a tooth-pick, or a paper-clip with you to dig ice out of the bolt so that you can adjust the shank. Also, don’t lose the hex key!
This is the most innovative feature of the boot and the feature that needs the most improvement. Can Salewa create a design that doesn’t need a hex key? And why doesn’t Salewa use a stronger, strip-proof metal?
The Pro Vertical and the Pro Guide have Salewa’s 3D lacing system. Essentially, one set of eyelets has a camming device built into them, allowing you to create different tensions in the laces at the toes versus the laces mid foot and at the ankle. They work.
The burly bright yellow laces on the boots are easy to tie and untie with gloved hands. They are also very long.
Featuring big, fat grippy lugs! The Pro Vertical has excellent grip on compacted snow, granite covered in snow, and all of those other wonderful forms of frozen water.
The Snow Cuff
At the top of the boot is a cuff of fabric with an adjustable drawstring. If you pull the drawstring tight, the cuff snaps to your shin, giving you an extra layer of protection against that cold, white fluffy stuff getting inside your boot and melting. My impression after going gaiter-less for a day of thigh-high post-holing: sweet, it works.
So far I really like what Salewa is producing. They recognize that not every foot fits conveniently into a one-model-fits-all approach. Yet, they also recognize that no one these days is having boots custom built to their feet (Imagine that!). So Salewa has found a middle ground—two lasts for the same boot. Further, they are actually trying to innovate. Albeit, they are sort of copy and pasting from AT boots, which have a “walk” and “ski” mode. But why haven’t the climbing boot manufacturers (especially La Sportiva, who makes AT boots) gone down this path? Hmm …
So far I like the boot and I recommend it.
I’ve had the Garment Vetta Mnt GTX for over a year. In that time I have used them to climb an easy technical winter first ascent in the Sierra, to patrol Yosemite’s wilderness, and to do all-day and all-night pushes in the mountains.
Garment has this to say about the Vetta Mnt GTX on their website:
An extremely light and versatile boot for hikers and climbers that is at home in multiple conditions. Suitable for light mountaineering, low-grade climbing and via ferrata.
Overall, it is a great boot and I have no regret over the purchase. After putting 200+ miles on the boots, here is what I have found:
When I first tried on the Vetta Mnt GTX at the Gear Exchange in Bishop, California, the toe box felt too narrow for my wide feet. But with a leather upper that resembles a traditional lace-up rock climbing shoe, I took the risk of buying the boot, knowing that the upper might stretch a bit and better conform to my foot. Additionally, with the laces extending all the way to the toe box, I knew that I could lace the boots to give my toes more room.
After a year of moderate use, the Vetta Mnt GTX has become my go to everyday hiking shoe and my mountaineering boot for adventures of low technical difficulty.
The biggest drawback for the fit of the Vetta Mnt GTX is the thick stock insoles. These thick insoles are common to Garmont shoes—indeed, the Sticky Lizard approach shoe has the same insoles. For a boot of this weight and intended use (backpacking and light mountaineering), the insoles are way to thick. For me, the added height causes the boot to feel unstable and reduces my ability to feel the ground underneath my feet. Further, the thick insoles make the boot feel too tight.
BUT there is a simple solution! Remove the insole. Hidden below this monstrous insole is a beautiful, lined footbed with smooth stitching (i.e. no blisters). The result is an excellent fit and a boot that doesn’t throw me off-balance every time I step on a bump in the trail.
The Vetta Mnt GTX is a well-built boot. The rand, which wraps almost to the heel of the boot, is still firmly attached to the leather with no signs of separation (I wish my Five Ten Moccasyms could do that).
The suede leather is tough. Other than some stains, it shows no signs of damage.
The Vibram sole is sticky enough for easy technical scrambles, but still durable enough to last one year and counting in the mountains. The inside front edge of the sole has a specific flat rock climbing design for edging (similar to what you will find on good approach shoes). And the lugs are big and blocky, the way lugs should be, which means good grip on snow, gravel, and other slippery surfaces.
The Vetta Mnt GTX features a heal-lock loop that wraps behind the foot, just above the heal. The loop is made of a simple nylon strap. The ends are sewn into eyelets and the laces pass through these eyelets, creating the heal-lock. So far, these straps have held up. HOWEVER, the same straps on my Garmont Stick Lizard approach shoes broke, rendering the laces practically useless, and thus the shoe too.
I wear a US size 12 in the Vetta Mnt GTX. Normally, I wear shoes in the US 11 – 11.5 range. For example, my Salewa Pro Vertical heavy mountaineering boot is a US size 11. But my Garment Stick Lizard approach shoe is a US 11.5. So the Garmont lasts seem to run small.
The Vetta Mnt GTX is lined with Gore-Tex, hence the GTX designation in the name. Gore-Tex—it works. That said, you should still apply some Nik Wax to the suede uppers.
It’s a good, solid boot. What more could you want?
The sky has cleared but another storm is coming—hurry! Get on the wall! Climb fast and take falls. The Captain is here today; the Captain will be here tomorrow. But you and I, our time here is short before we discover eternal flight with the ravens. Mount Broderick, Washington Column, Half Dome, Leaning Tower, El Capitan … our temporal sanctuaries from the noise below. But what kind of sanctuary is this—our hands are broken, our ankles are sprained, and our backs are busted. We throw ourselves against the wall again and again and again, for in pain there is … salvation? redemption? LIBERATION! We are artists, poets, philosophers, teachers, rangers, loners, models, wannabe surfers, bums, laborers, guides, wanderers, nurses, unemployed (and unemployable), doctors, photographers, and lumberjacks. But none of this matters because we are just monkeys yearning for the jungle paradise hidden in this vertical playground of granite where we don’t have to ask permission to swing and jump and climb and eat bananas all day long and then finally pass out in a stinky pile of bodies on a ledge thousands of feet above the ground, safe from all the dangers below.
In fire there is life.
In fear I find comfort. In pain I find pleasure. In death I find rebirth. And when I have finally lost myself in this great wilderness, I will find everything.
I embrace these opposites. I let the light lead to darkness, and the darkness back to light. Show me your joy and I will show you my scars. Open your wounds and I will make you laugh.
In places the land is sterile. In others life springs forth. Autumn comes and leaves fall, winter storms bring water to feed spring meadows, and summer flames renew it all.
I trust in the earth and it takes from me. I trust in the earth and it gives to me. Today I have a body and tomorrow I may not. This is life. And so I sit in the aspen grove and breathe.
Keeping the wilderness wild and protecting the place I love as I wander through untrammeled canyons and forests. “What tree is this?” “Why it’s the dapper Douglas fir!” “Can I camp here?” “No. But over there is an excellent campsite that doesn’t involve killing the meadow.” Friendly education for friendly visitors who want to reignite the primitive being inside their soul. But quick referral to the law for those to good to respect this wilderness that belongs to all—past, present, and future. Merced Lake, here I come, a bit overdue, but here nonetheless… and so happy to be here on your shore, not too far from the source of life herself. Fighting a fire and picking up litter—it’s all in a day’s work. Hmm—yet another radio dead spot. A few feet to the left and… “Copy that Yosemite. Lat and Lon are…” Now that wasn’t too painful. And now for a quick ranger respite in this healing pool of wild and scenic Fletcher Creek—away from it all, just water and mountain and air… John Muir is out here somewhere… I think I saw his silhouette up on Mt Clark—Galen Clark, I’ve got a few questions for you. And to the mosquitoes of Rafferty Creek: ours is a love-hate relationship. You love me. I hate you. But I love that you love me with such passion! And you hate that I hate you with so many swats. What’s that smell?! Smells like Bolivia. It’s a PCT hiker! Oh the memories and textures of that smell! A smile crosses my bug bitten face. And finally back to Tuolumne Meadows. Tuolumne! Where the commissioned rangers cruise main and the thru-hikers flock to the grill like moths to a bug zapper. “Wilderness Three Five out of service.”
Catching thermals with the birds, it’s 98.6 degrees and rising—rising and rising and rising up this sculpted granite column—a staircase to … where we don’t know, but with our heads held high we keep pushing downward to move upward, upward and upward into the blue sky—an oasis of never ending vistas and hanging belays—floating islands of nylon and steel where we genuflect with knees pressed hard against stone while staring into these quartz crystals that tell of the beginning of time itself. And it is here that we find ourselves cast free from the chain of time to dance and create and breathe in a space with no seconds nor minutes nor hours nor days for here everything is one. Then with the snap of a carabiner, dark clouds travel over the horizon and fill the sky—and still we push upward—always upward on the razor’s edge—a panorama of stormy seas above our heads, but all is well for we are sailors and storms our delight! This ship of rock is home and muse for we are poets and artists and philosophers looking for the inspiration that we know lives in the depths of these cracks and on the edges of these ledges—oh! these ledges if only I could live here forever, a sentinel gargoyle perched over this kingdom of castles and cathedrals, my eyes ever watchful and my body hard as the stone where I sit and my chiseled face battered by storm and sun and my shoulders roost to the ravens whose ebony eyes contain the secrets of the universe but their language is foreign to all. But I cannot stay here for I have yet to metamorphose and we are out of water and the hallucinations have begun.
Three days, about 8,000 feet of vertical, bears, friends, Clouds Rest, more bears, Half Dome, peregrines, 60 lbs of gloves removed from Half Dome, more friends, hundreds of visitors educated, waterfalls and back to the Valley.
Pushing through the day and into the night, climbing to lonely summits with the world and the stars swirling all around, speaking with ghosts who flitter in the wind, learning from the wrinkles of sage trees that burst from the fragrant soil that now lives under my fingernails and with fingers pressed to nostrils I inhale forgotten memories, rubbing the gritty soot of fires past between my hands, savoring water that trickles through moss and rock and teems with small moving things, calves strain high on exposed granite slabs glittering with life and radiating warmth, lost and bleeding in a maze of manzanita and thorns that fills the horizon, feet ache while eyes find eden in moonlit meadows, lungs spasming while wading through another freezing creek and bare feet find slippery cobbles below, Venus rises and birds sing under the stars and to what I do not know but the owl gave me a ticket to the symphony and the night crawlers ushered me down the isle to a decomposing seat, a bed of grass under my body and how I came to this spot I do not know but somewhere out here is the center of everything and so I stride deeper into this wilderness.