What Takes Twenty-three Years to Happen?

Well, twenty-three years, of course. In that amount of time, sixteen-year-olds become thirty-nine. A thirty-two-year-old becomes … never mind that part. A lot happens in that many years. And for those of us who wander about like some sort of lost Gypsies, a lot of ground gets covered as well.

Which leads me to share about an unlikely reunion.

It was 1993 when we left Alaska. My growing family, two cats, and all of our worldly possessions were bundled into the Warthog and the Getwangefargen, and we headed for America.

Some people don't get it that Alaskans feel isolated from the mainland, and we probably will never be able to explain it, so just take that at face value. As for the funny names, the Warthog was our '75 Dodge Power Wagon, full time 4x4, which was seemingly indestructible. It was ugly, with more rust than steel, but it never quit. The Getwangefargen was our boat. Trust me on this one, there's a long story to the name. And all of our worldly possessions really amounted to a bunch of junk we held on to. Some things never change.

It was a sad departure in many ways, not the least of which was leaving behind friends whom we had acquired and grown to love during those years. But, after many years, twenty-three actually, and unimaginable circumstances, we were able to reconnect with some of those old friends in Memphis, Tennessee, of all places.

It was our son's senior recital at Visible Music College, just a week ago. Our friends saw the information on Facebook. Yes, I know it's fashionable to hate on Facebook, but we have had a number of good things come about from the popular social media site.

Meanwhile, our friends had relocated to a southern state. And since they were within striking distance of Memphis, they decided to meet us there. It was a fabulous time which brought forth a flash flood of memories. I'm sure I shed a few tears during the weekend.

So I present this nostalgic little tidbit as a peek into my world. Kay and daughter Grace are pictured here with us. Often, in Alaska, we did our laundry at Kay's house. And Grace used to babysit our kids. There are so many more stories to this story, so stay tuned.

As an odd piece of trivia, the room we were in was called the Green Room because it is the prep room for the musicians before they go on stage. The name apparently has nothing to do with its actual color.

An Alaskan Christmas Tradition to Avoid

This is as much a calendar reminder as anything.

If you are intending to purchase Boathouse Mouse, or any of my other books as Christmas gifts, it is better to order sooner than later.
If you delay too long, you may need to pay for special postage and handling.
Or, you may get the gifts after Christmas. In Alaska, our gift packages came to us as late as February. It really stretched out the festivities, which never really bothered me. But younger readers may not appreciate that so much.

Order by clicking the links below.

Boathouse Mouse Series

Kingdom of the Falcon Series

In Search of Discomfort

There is a disturbing societal trend taking place in our country. It may be infecting the whole world, for all I know.

The trend is toward adventuring. Now, I am all for adventures. I have lived my life as an adventure. I have many scars and near-death stories to share as a result. What I am bothered by is the heroification of “safe adventuring.”

If you want to go camping in a motor home, that is perfectly fine with me. I'm sure I would enjoy it too. But please don't confuse that with a genuine adventure. Adventure, by my definition, requires a bold step into the unknown, the uncertain, the potentially unsafe, and certainly the uncomfortable. Carefully calculated, risk-mitigated activities are not adventures.

I suspect this trend stems from two roots. The first is the notion that we are entitled to a life of comfort and satisfaction. We are not. That is neither a Constitutional guarantee, nor is it in the Bible. Second is the proliferation of “reality” TV show. I only have secondhand experience with the reality show stuff, as we do not have a TV. But from what I have heard, “people who live just like we did in Alaska,” do not live anything like we did in Alaska.

Maybe I should have posted a spoiler alert there. Sorry. Those shows are as staged as a Broadway musical. When I got hurt, or stuck, or lost, or threatened by a wild beast, there was no one else around to record the event. There was no one to call out to for help. There was no safety network.

It may have been foolhardy, but that was reality. Try walking thirteen hours out of the mountains after getting good and lost, soaked, and all but unconscious with hypothermia. First time, do it without anyone in the world knowing where you are. Next time, try it with a camera crew, aerial shots and all. One of these things is not like the other.

Okay, that's out of my system. I feel better.

Surprisingly, the primary objective of an adventure is not discomfort. The primary objective is learning or discovering something. No one ever learned the limits of their strength, character, or skill by watching someone else do something amazing. They learned it when they surpassed their own comfort zone. That would include discomfort.

No one ever discovered a new continent, or stepped on the moon, or climbed to the top of a rugged mountain, while walking on a sidewalk. They discovered those places long after the safe horizon had disappeared. I'm pretty sure that included discomfort too.

I could go on here, but I'm not actually promoting anything. I am only making a distinction between activities and adventures.

On second thought, maybe I am promoting something. Do you want to climb a mountain? Do you want to go to Kenya and volunteer at an orphanage? Do you want to build your own house? Do you want to study something? What are you afraid of?

Have an adventure! Live as if you are alive! Maybe don't do some of the really stupid risky stuff I have done, but stretch yourself. It will hurt. Do it anyway!

A Priceless Piece of Worn Out Rope

To the untrained eye, it looks like a piece of used-up rope. That is a shame. Every knot, every cut, and each abrasion has its own story.

This old rope may look like it has been through the mill. In fact, it has. But it comes with more than a twenty-five year history of adventure, service, and travel. It started its life in Alaska as a 200 fathom long floatline on a commercial salmon fishing net. The floats were attached to the line and the net was woven on around the floats. After the net was discarded, I salvaged the line. I can still remember the smell. It was a damp, slightly fishy, and a little bit earthy smell. It was also a hot day at nearly 70°. It would have laid in that pile and rotted over the years if I had not intervened.

As a matter of definition, a rope is a rope as long as it is on the spool. After it is cut for a purpose, it is a line. Don't ask me, I don't make up the rules. I can barely speak the language.

With a workload rating of 9500 pounds, I used that repurposed line for just about everything while we lived in Alaska. I used it as a safety line when I shoveled snow off of our roof. I used it to drag deadfall logs out of the woods for firewood. I tied down anything that needed to stay down for real. I pulled cars out of the ditch. I hung game meat in the woodshed as we processed it for winter. I probably made a swing for my kids with some of it.

When we moved back to the States in the early 90's, I used it to lash our awkward load of worldly possessions into the boat and truck. When we built a cabin in the woods in Minnesota, it was used to secure lumber to the trailer for transport, and to suspend heavy wall frames for construction.

I tied off wind-damaged trees with that line to tension and fell the tree away from the house. Amazingly, that worked each time. That success is not a universal guarantee, and I know of people who lost their lives doing that. (Don't try it, hire someone with a bigger piece of equipment.)

Through the years the line would get broken, abraded, or necessarily be cut. As an aside, I have a personal aversion to cutting line. I am sure that is a form of neurosis, but you can never uncut a line, so I do everything I can before I resort to the knife.

Eventually there were only a few pieces of it left. I saved them for use as the bowline on my boat. It is a traditional way of securing the boat to anything. I like it. But the piece in this picture was special: it was the very last piece. I was a young man when I acquired it.

As I unceremoniously tossed that piece of line into the trash can, I ended its long and interesting career. Oddly enough, all those memories were summoned into my recollection by cutting that damaged line and replacing it.

I'm looking around at the old damaged people I know. Every one of them has some story. No doubt some of them laid around in a coil and decayed. But some have been to interesting places and done amazing things.

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I Was There When the World Came to an End!

Why do you have a mayonnaise jar full of ashes? Oddly enough, quite a few people ask me that question. It is really a jar full of memories. No, this is not the remains of a deceased pet or loved one. That would be really weird in a mayo jar.

This ash is from Mount Redoubt volcano. It was across Cook Inlet, about 50 miles from our little corner of Alaska. The year was 1989 and the mountain had been having contractions for some time. The day it gave birth … the ground shook and the sky went black!

I was on my way out of Ellington's Hardware in Soldotna when I saw the ominous cloud. I stood on the porch of the hardware store with several others, just watching in awe as the cloud grew. It was enormous, like 45,000 feet high enormous. As if on cue, everyone realized that ash cloud was coming our way.

I jumped into my car and headed home. If the world was going to end, I wanted to be with my wife and kids!

I hastily filled all our water buckets at the neighbor's well and loaded in firewood as the sky was dimming. In moments, the world went dark and ash began to fall like snow. The air was thick and suffocating. We stuffed towels under the doors to seal off the choking smell of sulfur. It was an ominous experience, to say the least.

The hardest part of the ordeal was to hold my family like the world was ending, yet without causing alarm. I did not actually know if we would survive. I did not know if we would get a dusting of ash, or ten crushing feet.

It seemed like it took a long time for the ash storm to pass. I suppose it was an hour or so. The smell was oppressive, but when it ended, the sun came out. That was when it got really weird.

I walked out into a moonscape. Everything was a dull blue-gray, and there was no sound. Walking in the volcanic fallout was so silent my ears hurt. I spoke to hear something. “Is there anyone else alive here?” My voice was muffled an inch from my lips.

It was a long time before there was another sign of life.

As I carefully measured the ash on several surfaces, I decided to save a jarful for memory. It was carefully scraped from a one square foot portion of my car's hood.

That ash is more than the sum of its parts. It reminds me of the numerous times we saw that volcano erupt. It reminds me of the indescribably awesome upward lightning coming from inside the volcano during a night eruption. That one was viewed from a friend's roof. We weren't just hanging out on the roof, we had to shovel the snow off.

There is more, much more, in that jar than ash. And if you ask me why I have a jar of ashes, I will correct you and say that it is not ashes, but ash!

Adventures at 35 mph!

The old proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” That is very true, but there are still a thousand miles to travel. Unless, of course, the trip is longer, which was our case. Actually, in all, our trip was about 7500 miles. Thankfully, only about the first thousand miles of that journey involved continuously brutal travel conditions.

We were moving out of Alaska, and everything we owned was packed into the back of our 1975 Dodge pickup and our boat, which was pulled behind it. I called that truck The Warthog, because it was so rusty, so ugly, and so tough. It was the only appropriate name. For our trip, The Warthog was grossly overloaded.

That first step was March, 3, 1993, at four in the morning. The sky was clear and it was a brisk twenty degrees below zero as we rolled out. It was an emotional event as we intentionally said goodbye to our chosen homeland and began our journey back to the States.

We had not gone far when the trouble began. Actually, we were probably still in the driveway when I noticed it. Frost heaves! Frost heaves were, and continue to be, part of northern living. The roadbed freezes and buckles upwards creating a speed bump effect. It's annoying for sure, but after so many years of driving on roads like that, I had become complacent. What made those frost heaves special was the fact that The Warthog was so loaded down, and there was so much weight on the trailer tongue, that driving over 35 mph was impossible.

We heaved, bounced, bucked, and jostled our way down the highway. It was like crossing a railroad switch yard for over a thousand miles. And that is how we spent the first thirty-odd driving hours of that trip. It did rock the kids to sleep nicely, I'll say that much for it. I had a less relaxing experience.

Our first stop was Beaver Creek, Yukon Territories. We pulled in at about two in the morning. After a few short hours of sleep, we got on the road again. That's where the lodge owner's oversized dog bit me on the shoulder as I was checking the tires in the morning. There were a few tense moments of standoff between me with an ax that magically came into my hands and the dog that evidently had never been threatened with extinction before then. The anti-social dog got a stay of execution due to an owner who hastily locked it up while I was deciding if it was worth the trouble in a foreign country. I had avoided injury due to a thick Carhartt coat. The owner never apologized or even made eye contact with me as we checked out. I was less than impressed.

The next night's stop was Watson Lake, Yukon Territories. I don't remember how late it was when we arrived there. I do recall that the motel was attached to some kind of night club, and seemed to be of questionable character. It was ridiculously noisy. It didn't matter, there were no other options for hundreds of miles, and I was too exhausted to drive any further.

Watson Lake was actually about 1100 miles into our journey, and the road conditions improved after that. Our travel speed average went up to 45 mph. Doesn't sound like much, but it improved morale.

By the third day, we were hopelessly behind schedule with no possibility of making the next planned destination. Fortunately, as we entered British Columbia, there were more frequent towns with amenities. We rescheduled our next stop to be realistic and pressed on. That day we stopped at Liard Hot Springs and took a fifteen minute dip.

All the emotions of leaving my life-long dream of living in Alaska, all the tension of the difficult driving through the icy mountains, all the stress of the horrible roads, all the pain in my lower back, washed away in that 105 degree spring. So did all my ambition and all my ability to stay awake. I felt like a rag doll after that stop. Somehow I managed to drive to our next destination. It has been twenty-two years now, and I still think about that hot spring.

There were yet thousands of miles to travel on that trip. It took a long time. But, in the end, we had a great, wonderful, horrible, delightful, frustrating journey in the books. We had encountered deadly cold, blizzards, treacherous travel conditions, wonders of nature, hostile animals, near brushes with death, mean people, wonderful people, breath-taking scenery, pleasure, pain, unexpected adversity, and unbidden assistance.

In all, it turned out to be a great adventure, and we had not even been looking for one.

Do You Want to See My Legs?

That question came from a lady who was a regular customer in a feed store I worked at in Alaska. The year was 1980 something. And the question seemed to come out of nowhere.

Um, AWKWARD! I fought back the gut wrenching panic that wanted to surface.

Something was way out of kilter in my universe. A lady who was substantially my senior, and who was normally all about her pets, should not be hitting on me.

I looked up. Yikes! She was walking toward me!

There was no where to run and no way to hide. I quickly tallied the odds of keeping my job if I had to jump through the window to escape.

“Look, here's the picture. Those are my legs.”

I'm a married man! My silent plea echoed in my head.

“And this was So-and-so, a such-and-such breed that won first place in …”

My blood pressure dropped back into a measurable range. My alarm was alleviated. The picture was in a book about show dogs, and the lady, whose name has long escaped my memory, had a winning dog in a show way back when. That her knees were visible in the picture was only noticed because she pointed it out.

“That's my claim to fame there,” the lady remarked with chuckle. She then went into great detail about what a great dog that was.

I don't really remember much of that monologue. My mind was busy being relieved to have the universe spinning in the right direction again.

Some days, I think it must be really weird for regular people to be around me.

The Tyranny of Facts

“Weak ink is better than a strong memory in a court of law. Write everything down.” That tidbit of advice was dished out on a regular basis from a man I worked for many years ago in Alaska. He was a retired Alaska State Trooper. That advice has proven to be invaluable many times over the years, especially when it comes to remembering complicated things like passwords.

One place it has not been helpful, however, is writing stories, true stories, like about my past. Once I commit an event or detail to writing, it loses its dynamic nature and can no longer change itself for the convenience of the story. Fact morphology is one of the greatest writing tools available. Hard facts can really cripple a good story. Photographs have the same negative effect. I'm really glad I don't write true stories for a fishing magazine. Or, maybe they don't require too much truth in the stories in those publications.

Fiction writing, on the other hand, is great fun. There are no rules. The writer is free. I can call something historical fiction and the only part about the story that must be factual is the date. And for that matter, it only has to be in the past. Five minutes ago was the past, by the way.

There is, of course, the intentional misrepresentation of facts in writing. In the news, it's called … news. In non-fiction, it's called lying. On my Meet the Author Page, it's called fun. In fact, my page has four “author bio's” to choose from. One of them is pure fiction bordering on fantasy, the other three are actually true. In the interest of not messing up a good story, I'll leave it to your imagination to determine which is which.

That Tacky Star

It's been nearly thirty years running that we have topped our Christmas tree with a hand-made aluminum foil star. It has seen better days.

It was hand made by me our first Christmas in our own cabin in Alaska. Our old star had suddenly become obsolete. The design was so inadequate that it required electricity to light up … and we did not have electricity. We did not have indoor plumbing either. For that matter, we didn't have much. We would have been considered poor by any standards, but we were so, so far from poverty.

While it is true we had very little of this world's “goods,” we had enough to eat and firewood for the stove, and we had our loving little family. Doesn't that just sound cliché?

Sorry, schmaltz may sell, but I don't do it. The real story is we had all of the above, and a huge sense of adventure. Actually I had a huge sense of adventure. And it was following that dream of adventure that led us to that point.

I had been “going to Alaska” since second grade. In my defense, I promised my wife adventure when she signed up to marry me. She probably got a lot more than she bargained for.

So there, in our tiny cabin that would have never made it into a Norman Rockwell painting, I cut out a star from the cardboard backer in a spiral notebook and wrapped it with aluminum foil. It was simple and crude, but it worked, and the foil reflected the lamplight very nicely. We were poor in money, but fabulously rich in imagination, and we were surrounded by adventure. It was not a vacation, it was real life.

In our real life, it seemed that there was always something going wrong and we would have to overcome the circumstances, sometimes at way below zero temperature. But we did overcome and years later we relish those experiences of long past.

Which brings us back to the tacky star. It is symbolic of so much more than I can share here. It is a small token of our life of adventure in Alaska. It is a testimony that being broke could not stop us from celebrating the birth of Christ. In fact, it may have helped. It is a reminder of times when we had so little, which in turn, reminds us to appreciate what we have now. And it faithfully sits on top of the tree, reflecting the lights around it.

It is sufficient, and we are pleased with sufficient.