Archive for July, 2010

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No Name Rocks

Not long after we returned to the Yukon this past spring, Nancy and I took up prospecting. One would think that with gold prices at record highs, over $1000 an ounce, we might have started the search long ago. But no, it was not gold we were after; we were looking for another rock. In our world at the Outpost, the rock had no name. Though I took a semester of geology in college, any knowledge on the subject has weathered away long ago.

We wanted rocks with strength and beauty for replacing the steps down to our river deck. The steps were beams salvaged thirty years ago from the old Annie Lake Road bridge. The foot high steps were too much of a leg lift and they were rotting. We wanted hefty rocks that had flat surfaces for stability and smooth, or mostly smooth, treads. We had been told by a long time Yukoner that flat rocks are a rarity in the Whitehorse area and that the best flat rocks are found several hours north. We began by searching the area close to the Outpost. We drove down a remote road, past the terminus of road maintenance, to some outwash areas that resemble deltas of rock spilling down off the mountains.

In our search we discovered a particular kind of rock that had an intriguing color and pattern, though it is rarely flat. The rock was black and splotched with irregular white to cream colored splats. The color like a reverse Dalmatian dog: white spots on black. All the specimens were rounded and smooth, indicating that over the millennia they had been tumbled in water.

Over the course of three or four trips down that part of the valley we would stop and pick rock for the truck ride back to the Outpost. Eventually we had a fair-sized rock pile on the riverbank. These included a couple of very flat rocks we had collected up in Keno. Keno is an old mining town, mostly deserted now, nearly six hours north of our place. I had also grunted a couple of reasonably flat stepping stones into the truck that I had spotted along the Alaska Highway.

The old beam steps mostly crumbled apart as I dug them up. Then I dug another three steps into the bank so that the rise was more gradual. Two days later I nudged the last flat rock puzzle piece into place. I spilled washed gravel into the joints of the placed rocks and danced up and down the steps to check for stability. While I had used some of our speckled rock in the treads and risers I still had quite a few left so I placed them down along each side of the steps to serve as sloping retaining walls.

Visitors commented on the fine workmanship and the pattern of the rocks. No one seemed to know what the speckled rock was called. One friend suggested I bring a small sample to Whitehorse to the Yukon Geological Survey staff.

So the next time we went to town for supplies, I took a golf ball sized sample rock and made my way into the sunlit foyer of the downtown building. I figured I was in the right room when I found the reception counter bearing a worn bumper sticker reading, “If it can’t be grown it’s gotta be mined.” This proclamation is to remind us that most everything we have and everything we use comes from our natural resources. And there are only two basic industries and those are agriculture and mining. Whether you like it or not, the economy north of sixty degrees is primarily driven by tourism and mining.

Luckily one geologist was on hand while all the others were at lunch. The well-tanned, strong looking woman, named Daniele, had an easy smile and was eager to see what I had found. Her first question was going to make her job easier. “Where did you find it?” Rocks can be like a signature to a particular locale.

She pulled out her small magnifying loupe to peer more closely at the rock. She began by explaining some simple geology, “Well this is clearly an igneous rock.” She peered over the loupe at me to see if I understood. I nodded and she continued. “It is a granitic rock that formed deep in the crust and slowly cooled under the crust of the overlaying material. These are called plutonic rocks.”

Scanning the surface of my sample rock with the rock held inches from her eye and magnifying loop, she continued. “You can see the large crystals. That is a good clue that tells of a slow cooling process.” She handed the lens to me for a look. Sure enough the small rectangular crystals were very evident. She went on to explain about the iron rich and dark colored blend of minerals called hornblende and the more abundant blend of minerals called feldspar.

And then I learned that over 700 types of igneous rocks have been formally described. How can I possibly retain the little bit that Daniele explained about my pocket sample when I am surrounded by a landscape of rock hard questions?

So if you come by our place I will gladly show you my new steps made up of a handsome collection of what I will continue to refer to as “no-name rocks.”

Walking and Talking in the Company of Bears

“You’ve got bear spray?” is a commonly heard query in the summer.

Recently we picked up our truck from Rick, a mechanically inclined neighbor some three miles down the Annie Lake Road from the Outpost. We had just told him we were off to head up the Alligator Lake trail on our mountain bikes. The plan was to ride six or seven miles and then rest our “bush ponies” as Nancy calls them, and hike to the summit of Goat Mountain. We assured him that we had a couple of cans of the potent pepper spray.

Pepper spray, also known as OC spray (from “Oleoresin Capsicum”), OC gas, and capsicum spray, is formally known as a lachrymatory agent. This is a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain, and even temporary blindness. It is frequently used in riot and crowd control, and personal self-defense. The pepper spray used on bears is far more potent than the human deterrent.*

In writing the series of regional books, Things That Bite: A Realistic Look at Critters that Scare People, I have consistently found that across the continent, there is an overriding fear of bears. (The book is available online, in most major book stores, Amazon or through Adventure Publications.)

I believe there is a deep-rooted, primal fear of large carnivorous animals. Somewhere in our brief history we were prey to larger animals that sometimes found our flesh tasty. These included alligators, sharks, large cats and bears. Most people believe that all bears are inherently dangerous and consequently many bears are killed without a charge of guilty.

Let’s set the record straight. The wild critters that cause more human deaths every year than any other beast in North America is the honeybee and other stinging wasps and hornets. And the only reason they sting is that when they feel threatened they will sting to protect themselves and their home colony. Two percent of the human population is allergic to their venom and could go into anaphylactic shock. Without proper diagnosis or medical attention the person who has been stung can die of breathing complications.

Rick, the mechanic, went on to say that in his thirty plus years in the Yukon he had never seen so much bear sign as this year. Other long time residents have been echoing Rick’s observations. Indeed we likewise had noted the abundance of piles of bear crap alongside the road. And no, there was no distinct odor of pepper spray nor any bear bells in the feces.

When we get visitors from Minnesota, they almost always ask about bears and usually show real concern when we venture out for a hike. While Nancy and I are out mountain biking, backcountry hiking, canoeing or camping at least three times a week, we have yet to spray our bear spray. This summer we have had two encounters with grizzly bears and one night while I was on my mountain bike I suddenly found myself less than ten yards from a husky black bear. Both of us looked surprised. I kept pedaling, no faster and no slower, the bear simply stood and watched me moving on.

Two years ago we had a very blonde and very adult grizzly come ambling down a hill towards our campsite while on a canoe trip in the remote country of the Wind River of the northern Yukon. The bear came within 35 yards of us; six of us all huddled together to make ourselves look large and ominous. It was a sudden flap of the tarp in a gust of wind that scared that bear away.

Three weeks ago we were taking a break from hiking up in the alpine area above Fraser Lake in northern British Columbia, when we spotted a very large grizz ambling along swinging its massive head back and forth as it munched on the abundance of wild produce. It was about 300 yards from us and we simply sat and watched. With a breeze blowing towards the bear, it suddenly stopped, lifted its snout skyward and sniffed our presence. In the briefest of moments, the bear swung around and took off running. We watched the bruin gallop for at least a mile.

Then yesterday we were up on top of White Mountain in the alpine area. We hiked over s a slight rise and there was a grizzly bear about 150 yards from us. The bear paused to look at the four hikers and three leashed dogs. I might add that the dogs stayed silent but they were straining at their leashes. The handsome bear did not dally and it turned an about face and loped away.

Seeing grizzly bears is a tremendous highlight but we have learned that the best deterrent is to simply be aware of where you are. You are in the bears “house.” It is best that you do not slip in quietly. You should be making noise.

Last summer I interviewed Rick Sinoff, a wildlife biologist from Anchorage, Alaska. He is very aware of bear/human issues. “You don’t want to ever surprise a bear. You should make noise, sing a loud song or whatever it takes to make your presence known, particularly while in thickly vegetated areas.” Most bears will do their best to avoid you if you let them know you are in the area.

And traveling with others is a good idea. Sinoff noted, “Grizzly bears rarely attack groups of 4 or more people. Because almost all brown bear attacks are defensive, often involving cubs or food, and contact is rare, the best way to avoid an attack is to talk to the bear, increase distance without running, and play dead only when contact is made. Black bears are usually much less dangerous. They tend to avoid people. However, if a black bear follows you or approaches closely, the bear is not behaving defensively, so be prepared to fight it off. It’s too late to wish you had a can of bear spray in your hand when a bear charges or approaches very closely: much better to carry it with you within easy reach.”

Just this morning Nancy and I walked downstream through the brush along the Watson River hoping to find two plastic chairs that blew off our river deck during a recent blow. While we didn’t find the chairs, we did find some blueberries.

And yes, we carried the bear spray and chattered along the way.

*In the past few years the US Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a study comparing the effectiveness of bear spray to firearms. The following is a synopsis of that study:
When it comes to self-defense against grizzly bears, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem. In fact, experienced hunters are surprised to find that despite the use of firearms against a charging bear, they were attacked and badly hurt. Evidence of human-bear encounters even suggests that shooting a bear can escalate the seriousness of an attack, while encounters where firearms are not used are less likely to result in injury or death of the human or the bear. While firearms can kill a bear, can a bullet kill quickly enough — and can the shooter be accurate enough — to prevent a dangerous, even fatal, attack? The question is not one of marksmanship or clear thinking in the face of a growling bear, for even a skilled marksman with steady nerves may have a slim chance of deterring a bear attack with a gun. Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality — based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research — a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used. Awareness of bear behavior is the key to mitigating potential danger. Detecting signs of a bear and avoiding interaction, or understanding defensive bear behaviors, like bluff charges, are the best ways of escaping injury. The Service supports the pepper spray policy of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, which states that bear spray is not a substitute for following proper bear avoidance safety techniques, and that bear spray should be used as a deterrent only in an aggressive or attacking confrontation with a bear.

A Delightfully Noisy Neighbor

Yukon residents generally keep to themselves but our neighbor to the west, Watson, must never sleep. Always restless and on the go and always, always making noise.

Silence, real silence, is difficult to secure. Even in the wee, dark hours of a new day, any home might sound quiet, but true silence is nearly impossible. Granted, such noiseless moments are more difficult for those who live in urban areas or near a highway or hospital with its string of sirens. And if you live in a rural area you will likely find that long after the lights and bedding have been turned down and all seems quiet, you can focus your fading attention to the simplest of whispers. In some houses it is the quiet hum of the fridge or the seasonal blow of cool air-conditioned or heated furnace air.

Here at the Outpost, only seven miles inside the power grid that allows me to type these words and listen to my own fridge, we are always in the company of a lively neighboring river titled Watson. Some would argue that even a formally named neighbor who constantly drones on in liquid tones would be tiresome.

How is it that the music of moving waters, whether they are hurried downstream by gravity, splashing over rocks, boulders and sheets of gravel settles my inner being, lowers my blood pressure and carries away tensions? Or how can wind-heaved waves cast onto lake and ocean shorelines draw my attention and then peacefully hypnotize me? Even small drops of a steady rain on a roof or tent will inspire me to pause and anchor to rest in my quiet place.

What is the magic hold, the power to stop us, to slow us down from pretended urgencies, that moving water has on us? I wonder if it is a primal calling. A calling us home so to speak. That would put us in the company of the salmon that are called home from the ocean to the very stream from which they were born. Powerfully, they swim, leap up hefty rivers and subject themselves to a gauntlet of nets, claws, teeth and talons as they are determined to drive on towards their home waters.

Does my homage to the moving water align me with the ancient waters from which our evolution as a species might have come from? After all my own blood is more like saltwater than freshwater and it could be that I carry my birth waters within my humble frame.
Or could it be that the fondness for water symphony is not unlike the internal watershed of our own circulatory system? Perhaps our nine months, or in my case seven months, of floating in our mother’s amniotic pool and surrounding circulatory flow has left an indelible emotional bookmark, an affinity towards songs of serenity delivered by moving water.

From spring through fall and even into early winter, no matter what the weather is, Watsons ramblings are the first thing we hear when we step outdoors. We often stroll, coffee in hand, to the small section of dock that is perched over the river. The river’s movement and score of music demand our attention so we often sit in silence and just watch and listen. We are not alone in our attraction to Watsons neighborliness. One day a mink hurried by as it bobbed expertly through the rapids in passing us. More recently, a trio of red-breasted mergansers dawdled, preening themselves on a mid-river boulder that sits at the river bend just upstream from the dock. Was it the river’s restful noise that attracted a mid-May cow moose and her newborn, gangly calf to the river’s edge near the merganser resting rock? And even bears have left clues of their riverside dining in the diggings of succulent roots located just feet from the river.

Spending enough time with Watson has made us keenly aware of the river’s cadence and signature song. So it came as no surprise when we suddenly became aware of a new sound coming from the river. Curious I went down to investigate and discovered that Watson was being retuned.

I am married to a fine musician. Nancy loves jamming with other players and does so weekly. While she adds her lively fiddle to the mix, I sometimes will join them by contributing some simple and tentative percussion. We have found that a cylindrical Scotch container housing a handful of rice makes a good shaker that almost sounds like raspy snare drum. Or beating our five-gallon blue water container adds an amazing variety of percussion tones. While mindlessly beating or shaking, I like to watch the real musicians. The guitarists, usually a pair of them, will often affix a clamp, called a capo on the neck of their guitars, compressing the instrument’s strings to raise the guitar’s tone.

Down at the river deck, I looked upstream towards the merganser’s boulder and discovered that Watson now had its own capo. A long, smooth log had floated downriver during the late spring high water period and had jammed itself up on the boulder. It had now swung on its rocky pivot point and stopped perpendicular to the river’s flow creating an instant small ledge from which new river notes were coming. Like a metronome, the log slowly rose and fell in the surging current, as if it were tapping its thick trunk in time to the music.

I wondered if I were to brave the cold, mountain-born waters and wade into the river and roll some of the large rocks into new positions if I could, in fact, be a composer of sorts. I would argue that such a task would make me a songwriter of liquid lyrics.

The capo log has not gone unnoticed by another neighbor who lives north of the Outpost. The other day, ten-year old Anthony urged me up Pulpit Hill to look down on the river. Excitedly, he pointed out the recently stranded log. I loved the fact that he had found this newsworthy event worthy of neighbor news. Earlier in the day I had noticed that the log had also attracted the attention of a passing spotted sandpiper that paused and bobbed its tail up and down as it inspected the river log. I like to think it stopped to take in the new music, raising and lowering its tail in time to the rivers beat, rather than look for small invertebrate tidbits on the log’s surface.

Our bed is less than forty feet from the river. During the we often open the window above our heads. When my head settles into the pillow, the river never fails to lull me to sleep. In the evening, Watsons flow sounds like a distant applause that rises and falls but never tires.

Good night Watson.



Nancy and I made the trip to Dawson last weekend to watch some of the River Quest Canoe and Kayak Race come into the finish. The total race distance was 460 miles. Due to the rainy, cold weather at the start and then facing a very rough paddle on Lake Lebarge, nearly 1/3 (around 22 teams) of the teams that started the race scratched. The winning team, the Texans, a voyageur canoe with six paddlers won the race again this year. This mens team has won the race three of the last four years. They finished the grueling race in 42 hours and 48 minutes. Eleven seconds behind them was a solo kayaker from Sausalito, California.

I spoke with Rod Price, the Floridian, when he finished at about 7:30 AM. He said that at about 6 AM, that morning, he had drank two cans of Red Bull to try and stay awake. Not long after drinking them, he actually lost his balance during a stroke due to his drowsiness and he tipped over into the cold river. Alone and no one in sight, he had “to do a Michael Phelps” and swim after his drifting canoe, grab it and get he and the boat to shore where he could empty it and change into dry clothes. “It did wake me up though.”

Not Fit for Man nor Beast

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Overcast and rainy all AM,
Morning Temps (F): 40-mid 40s

I was out of bed before six o’clock. Rain was falling and it looked gloomy. I was supposed to be in Whitehorse at 7 AM. I had shuffled to the kitchen, got a pot of coffee going and turned on the computer to log in for the regional weather check. Hmmmm. . . .what was this? A “Rainfall Warning? ” Predicting up to 15mm of rain!?!? That means a deluge of just over a half an inch to those of you metric phobes out there. Is that an ark I see the worried neighbors building? Why back at Basecamp in Minnesota, a half-inch of rain is generally praised in platitudes rather than deemed a “warning.”

Perhaps in this part of the Yukon, that is officially deemed arid or semi-arid, such warnings are necessary. Visitors are surprised by the dryness found here. No cacti or hump-bearing moose mind you, but plenty of sand and stunted and sparse vegetation.

Watersheds are fed by numerous creeks and freshets and they will rise when a rainfall occurs. The mighty Yukon River is fed by a whole landscape of gurgling and rushing circulation. And on this day, this mighty river provided a speedway for the start of the “Yukon River Quest, the Longest, annual canoe and kayak marathon.” The 460 mile race starts in Whitehorse, the territorial capital and goes to Dawson City. . . .a city built during the famed Klondike gold rush back in 1898.

Though I fantasize about paddling this race, I am reluctant to subject myself to hours and hours of sitting, going without sleep, enduring rain, winds or scorching sun and then continuing for more hours and hours. It’s not that I mind a bit of suffering in a competition, as I have endured running marathons, short sprint canoe races, cross country skiing for over 50 km and more recently cycling a leg of the Chilkat International Bike Relay over the Coastal Mountains from the Yukon to Alaska. I have likely paddled thousands of miles on various remote canoe trips and not-so-remote canoe excursions, but for some reason I have a block on paddling the Yukon River Quest. If I ever do it, it will be simply to do it and not compete in it.

So one way to participate in the event is to volunteer. I did so and so I was there helping with equipment checks on the paddler’s boats. With clipboard in hand, I went down a list of gear that each boat must have. The needed equipment included things like a spare paddle, spray skirt, a throw bag or heaving line for rescue purposes, a navigation light for nighttime paddling, river maps, adequate food as there will be no stores to buy food while enroute, sleeping bags that are rated for 20 degrees F or colder, a proper first aid kit with a minimum of listed items and so on. We had done our first equipment check the day before so that any missing items could be secured for the final pre-race equipment check on race morning.

Before leaving the Outpost I downed a cup and a half of hot coffee, chewed down a bowl of cold cereal and made a sandwich out of leftover salmon cakes before I suited up in stout rain gear and headed out the door.

In a little over a half an hour I pulled into the Yukon Visitor Center parking lot, grabbed my umbrella and made my way through steady rain to the starting area. A green tarp was strung up for the volunteers to gather under and get final instructions. We donned our orange mesh volunteer vests and began greeting arriving racers.

It was a dismal morning and as we did equipment checks it was clear that there were two distinct schools of thought on the weather. One was “It’s quite perfect and lovely.” And the other was “Yuck. . .it’s cold and miserable.”

Teams like the tandem Seattle young men and voyageur team of British fellows actually wanted more wind and chop so as to replicate their respective home training waters. Another paddler, Rod Price, a veteran of several paddling competitions, including the Great River Amazon Rafting Race in Peru. He is the author of a recently published book, Racing to the Yukon. Rod was mixing up a gallon jug of a Hammer energy drink under the Volunteer Tarp. Home for him was Florida, yet he thought the conditions for the race were good and he wouldn’t mind more wind as it would quickly separate the competition. He clearly came here to compete. In fact he was on the winning tandem canoeing team for last year’s inaugural Yukon 1000 Mile Canoe Race down the Yukon River.

Then there are the teams who will measure victory by simply finishing the race downriver in Dawson City. There was the father/daughter team from Cleveland, Ohio. They were easy to check in as they were so organized. With an indelible Sharpie, the twenty eight year old daughter had neatly printed the number of calories contained in each sandwich or snack bag.

Another pair of paddlers, two young men, dressed as a pirate and an accompanying parrot were trying to use humor to relax themselves and other paddlers. Secretly I hoped they would kick ass and win but you know they won’t.

Then there are the teams of voyageur canoes. These boats hold 6-8 paddlers and one of them will most certainly complete the 460 miles in the fastest time. . . .likely around 40 hours. There is the team from Texas, plus one Californian, who barely lost to a team of Canadians two years ago. They created a stir with complaints about the high tech, all carbon canoe that the Canadians used. The Texans came back to win it last year, in a carbon boat, and are here to defend their title.

Looked to me that there were three lightweight carbon voyageur boats in this year’s race. The prize of “most beautiful” arguably went to a team of middle-aged British men. The boat, not unlike several of the entries that have sailed in the highly prestigious America’s Cup sailing race, was kept under wraps most of the morning. In recent years, several of the Cup entries have been cloaked so the competition cannot see design innovations in the boat’s hull. The group of British paddlers, were so properly polite and looked fit. Indeed, it turns out that several had experience in rowing the Atlantic. Their all-black wardrobe of rain gear and head gear matched the canoe color and marked them as the team to be reckoned with. Hardly villains, but why not start the race psychologically before you even get in the canoe? I heard a competing paddler mumble in reverence something about “Men in Black.” Clearly he had already thrown in the towel.

Temperatures not much above freezing had the a pair of paddlers from South Africa concerned. It appears they assumed that a race across the land of the midnight sun, means eternal summer. I suspect the team from Finland and maybe Austria and France were better equipped.

This year marked the tenth anniversary of a Yukon voyageur team of women breast cancer survivors. A dear Yukon neighbor, Claire, who lives about two and a half miles upriver from us, was paddling sixth race for the Paddlers Abreast team. About four years ago a wonderfully moving film was produced by the National Film Board of Canada < > called the River of Life. It is a documentary that tells the story of this amazing group of women.

Two years ago a group of Australian women, all breast cancer survivors, watched the film and were so moved that they have made the long trip to North America and with their husbands or family as support teammates, they are entered in this race. Several of the women have dragonboating experience and all of them have completed a 24 hour paddle challenge. Out of respect and solidarity the Aussies have chosen the team name: “Yukon Buddies.” At 10:30 AM the two cancer surviving teams gathered at the river’s edge and tossed pink carnations into the river’s current. Clearly they are all winners and they hadn’t even shoved their boats into the current.

Finally, chilled to the core, we completed the equipment checks on all the canoes and kayaks. We helped the teams carry their loaded boats to the river’s edge. It was quite a scene looking up and down the river and seeing all the colorful craft with their bows floating in the river and the stern still tucked on shore.

All the racers gathered about one city block away for introductions and comments from race dignitaries. And at noon, the loud horn signaled “Go!” This dash would be the last exercise their legs would have for many hours and even days. Most of them will have to be helped from their craft at the first mandatory seven hour layover in Carmacks, some 200 miles downriver.

I stood watching the last of the paddlers disappear around the distant curve of the river. This wasn’t a day suited for even a leisurely paddle, not to mention a nearly 500 mile outing. I quickly shed my volunteer vest and with water dripping off my wide-brimmed hat, I shivered and hurried for my truck for the ride back to the Outpost. I couldn’t wait for a hot shower and a piping hot cup of hot chocolate. And maybe a mid-afternoon nap under a heap of blankets might be in order.