Archive for July, 2012



So turning 61 is no big deal. The big “six-oh-oh” is now ancient history and I’m beginning to find that I am quietly celebrating the turning of each decade with more gratitude and anxiousness.

This year found us camping on the outskirts of Atlin, British Columbia awaiting the official kick-off of the annual Atlin Music Festival. But we had hours to fill before the first musical notes would emanate from the big tent.

After a skillet of eggy-vegetable breakfast was washed down with copious amounts of Midnight Sun roasted coffee, we laid out our “younger next year” workout for my birthday.

Younger Next Year <> is an excellent book for any middle-aged or older persons. Basically it argues that you can dial back our biological clock. It looks at the latest research on aging and then offers a blueprint for men and women 50 or older to live like 50 year olds until you are well into your eighties.   In the book the authors argue that basically your job for the rest of your life is to move your body somewhat vigorously for at least 45 minutes each day.

Nancy and I loaded our two-wheeled “bush ponies” up on the bike rack, next to Hugh and Cheryl’s canoe.  (We love our new Trek mountain bikes. . . with the 29-inch wheels. Thanks CyclovaXC!!  <>.

Hugh and Cheryl were going to paddle and explore Surprise Lake, while Nancy and I were going to pedal into the Ruby Creek area. The plan was to bike until mid-afternoon and then either meet them or we would bike the twelve or so miles back to the campground.

We got on our bikes and headed up and around Surprise Lake with a gradual climb on the gravel road. Then we came to a rugged, single-lane mining road that runs parallel to Ruby Creek. It eventually leads to a molybdenum mine. Almost immediately we began climbing a series of pitches. There were several that had us breathing oh-so-big.

Poet, Walt Whitman would have enthusiastically sang out that we were “inhaling great drafts of space,” . . .in this case, great drafts of oxygen.  While our lungs were mightily inhaling our thighs were on fire as they strained to keep the pedaling cadence that allowed us to purchase the hill. Oh it hurt so good!

The percussion of our accelerated heart rates was drumming loudly in our ears and our breaths were pulling in huge waves of fresh mountain air and releasing equally loud carbon tainted exhalations.

We would face a steep climb only to have a brief respite as we reached what we perceived as level ground. Then we would gasp one or two-word sentences to each other. A hilltop exchange might go as following: “Damn!” Then take in a big gulp of air quickly followed with a gushing exhale “Tough!”

After our fourth steep pitch we paused longer, choking down some water. I was losing my enthusiasm for this idea of getting younger next year but we both decided to push on for one more and see if the road would give us an easier grade to the head of the creek valley. We were now at an elevation that was moving us beyond the tree line. Willow and dwarf birch or “buck brush” was dominating the rough roadside.

We were also encountering more frequent piles of bear shit. On the mining road. Clearly they used this lane for easier access to the high country. Both of us had containers of bear spray in our packs but I couldn’t help wonder if my heart rate wasn’t additionally accelerated.

We both were now in the red-line zone of our heart rate. Red-lining is a zone where car racers know they are flirting with working their race machine too hard. To run too long in this zone is flirting with blowing an engine. I did not want to blow my “engine” on my birthday.

For humans, red-lining your heart zone is making it work at a level that is 90 to 100% of your maximum heart rate. You simply cannot go any higher and it is impossible to stay in this zone for more than a few minutes.  Normally one should consult with a doctor about working your heart at such a high rate.  Not possible for any consultations with the nearest hospital more than a two-hour drive in a car.

Generally, and I use the word loosely, another attribute in aging is an acquired wisdom. And so it was, on the fourth or fifth steep pitch, that my brain overrode all other systems and told me to stop. Now!

Gravity and good bike brakes are a wonderful thing. And in short order, I understood this getting younger idea. The Ruby Creek valley was filled with tandem hoots of unabashed delight as we wove our way down the switchbacks.




Foraging for Twinflower

While the river noise relaxes me, it is the collecting of plants, particularly twinflowers that puts me in a high state of contentment.

I love the little pair of pink blooms that make up this boreal dweller twinflower. Connected by threadlike stolons, or runners, many twinflowers are joined together. And the mat of small green rounded leaves that cluster above the perennial runners are nearly as appealing to me as the flower.

When mats of these delicate flowers emerge, I can’t help but think of Carl Linnaeus, the charismatic Swede of the 18th century who not only was a grand promoter but he had the brainstorm of classifying flora and fauna, giving them a Latin title composed of a genus and species name. This tool, referred to as binomial nomenclature, offered a straightforward way that botanists around the world could understand.

Linnaeus assigned over 8,000 plants and animals with their scientific, or Latin, names. He named one, a favorite, after himself. That was twinflower or Linnea borealis. (Linnea “Linnaeus” and borealis “of the north”)

Some people might consider me greedy, not unlike the red squirrels that frequent these same forests.  The sassy rodent stashes pine and spruce cones for winter sustenance and I collect pressed twinflowers for creative sustenance. I always keep a stash of dried delicate botanical specimens on hand for making wedding, greeting, or birthday cards. I am also partial to small burr oak leaves and the intense blue of alpine forget-me-nots.

However, I am ethical in my collecting. I never take many flowers or leaves from one spot. And if I find only one or even a handful, I will pass them up and wish them well for healthy propagation.

Less than 10 minutes from the Outpost there is an old aboriginal trail that I sometimes hike or pedal with my mountain bike. There is a piece of fairly open forest, composed of lodgepole pine and spruce. There is very little understory here. Hugging the ground are lovely patches of ashen and green-hued lichens interspersed with abundant lingonberries that will warrant my attention in a little over a month when we take to the woods, pails in hand to garner the scarlet, tart fruits.

Most Yukoners and Alaskans call these circumpolar treats “cranberries.” So desirable are these treasure that the local organic bakery will pay pickers $15 per pound to enhance muffins and breads.

But today it is the mats of twinflower and bastard toadflax that hold my attention. You might wonder how something so delicate and freshly pink can keep company with the likes of a plant called “bastard toadflax.”

Surely, the proper Sir Linnaeus frowned at such a degrading common name. So he ignored the back alley name and gave it a more graceful scientific name; Comandra umbellata. Why such a title is fun to sing out! Comandra umbellate! Co. .MAN. .dra   umbel. .LATA!!

Maybe it gets the common name “bastard” because it is a semi-parasitic plant and it is able to absorb water and nutrients from the roots of neighboring plants. Simply put it robs; consequently it must be a bastard. There is no lilting song when you hiss “bastard toadflax!”

Both twinflower and bastard toadflax spread through seeds and vegetatively or through thier roots. A single clone of each species can cover a wide area and flourish for years.

I leaned my “two-wheeled “bush pony” against a pine and carefully sat on the ground so as to minimize flattening any twinflowers. And I began to excise flowers from the hordes. At one point I lay my head on the ground to get the perspective of the red squirrel that was clearly and loudly upset with my presence.  Each twinflower’s threadlike stem is “y-shaped.” From each branch of the “y” dangles a small pink flower that looks like a tiny tapered Victorian lampshade.  I was spellbound peering through the wee forest of tiny pink delicacies.

After a half hour of moving from patch to patch of twinflower, I carefully filled each of my blotter pages in my small plant press with tiny flowers. I carefully packed the press into my daypack next to the bear spray, retrieved my bike.

As I pedaled through the pines and spruce, towards home, I noticed multitudes of twinflower blooms flanking the old trail. It seemed that in my collecting them I was now super aware of their ubiquitous presence.  It was as if I was a two-wheeled float in a parade and the unlikely partners, the pink and bastard bystanders were mutely at attention as I passed. While in the background from beneath the pines was the pregnant pause of ripening cranberries and the unseen scolding of a territorial red squirrel.





What the World Needs


We had barely turned down the dead end 60-mile road that leads to the northern British Columbia community of Atlin, when we encountered a solitary grizzly grazing on lush July vegetation in the roadside ditch.

We were on our way to the annual three-day Atlin Music Festival. This music fest is less than ten years old but it has become a favorite destination for both musicians and festival attendees. In fact the site is so spectacularly beautiful that some performers have  requested an invitation to participate. This year’s slate of musicians and storytellers included artists from the Yukon, Cape Breton Island, Manitoba, British Columbia, Sweden, New Zealand, Senegal and the United States.

We met friends Hugh and Cheryl at the Pine Creek campground.  The quiet campground is located two miles from the music fest making it an easy bike ride on our mountain bikes. Most of the 1000-plus attendees camp in the old mining town at the edge of the festival.

Besides the amazing music, I loved the gathering of people. Smiles came easy. Children roamed around like small packs of playful fox pups. And most amazing is that they were often alone, without their parents. However, the community of folks here are clearly caring and quick to tend to any young mishaps.

And those human-cubs that were barely able to run, quickly joined those who could as they hopped, spun, stumbled , flew with outspread arms, and dashed back and forth in front of performing bands. There were numerous collisions that result in staggering tearful dashes back to mom or dad. A quick hug and words of comfort always performed healing miracles and the youngster was quickly pulled back into the vortex of little people energy.

The sand pit, about the size of a two stall garage, was littered with colorful plastic shovels, rakes, sifters and pails.It attracted the kids like no candy store could. Once, as I walked by the hump of sand, I paused to watch the kids. There were  thirteen wee ones totally engrossed in their efforts. Most amazing is that each was working alone. Each was fully immersed with their imagination in carving, excavating, building or burying. I wanted to crawl into every one of their brains and listen in to the process.

As a species, we humans have an affinity to gather in tribes rather than keep company with loneliness.  Like iron filings jumping towards a magnet, we tend to merge towards song, dance and food. The Atlin festival provided these critical elements in spades.

Jonathan Byrd*, a highly regarded and awarded songwriter and flat-picking guitarist from North Carolina, repeated a stanza from his song, The Ballad of Larry, “Loneliness is poverty.”

Looking around to the sea of warmth, I felt like a rich man.

Swede-gone-Canadian, Sarah MacDougall, who has spent the last few months living in the Yukon, repeatedly pleaded, almost wailed, during the singing of her hit Ramblin’, “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Clearly a crowd favorite, she was in no way alone anymore.

Nationally regarded and Yukon-born storyteller, Ivan Coyote told tales that clogged my throat with a wagon train of lumps and blurred my eyes with a surprising surge of tears. She wove tales of loneliness in her growing up and realizing that she was more boy than girl but that she had no choice but to follow and honor her sexuality by boldly and mightily declaring her being a lesbian.

If you were lonely at the Atlin Music Festival it was due to your own sinking spirits.

The festival ended Sunday evening. It didn’t take long for caravans of tired attendees to begin the drive back down the dead end road. I suspect the earlier spied grizz was dining no where near the road on this busy evening.

Suddenly we found all the campsites . . . well . . . a little bit lonely. Nancy and I chose to spend another night so we could have more time with Hugh and Cheryl before they pulled out for the long drive south to their Canmore, Alberta home. After good byes and hugs were exchanged we hoisted our daypacks, loaded with snacks, water and extra clothes, for the hike up Monarch Mountain.

We climbed and climbed, as did our heart rates. Soon we were beyond any vestiges of aspen and into the sub-alpine fir. Climbing higher, out of the fir, we  finally we found the party-colored slopes of alpine. Carefully we stepped around carpets of stoic, stunted and showy flowers. The views in all directions elicited gasps and croons. Here we could see miles and miles of the long Atlin Lake. We spied a white horizon of icefields high in the Coastal Range Mountains.


After a picnic lunch, in a wind-sheltered draw where we kept company with the sky-blue blooms of alpine forget-me-not, we reluctantly turned around and began our trek back.  As we crossed the summit alpine we nearly stepped on a female blue grouse. She didn’t feign injury to lure us from any nearby nest or young so she was clearly not alarmed.

I considered pausing to photograph the bird that stood on a smooth rock less than ten feet from us. Nancy whispered, “She’s not a very impressive bird is she?” She was right so we moved on to let her be unphotographed.

We climbed a knoll and were dropping down when we spied a male blue grouse.We stopped to watch the unalarmed bird. These game birds are the second largest grouse species in North America. A Yukon friend always liked to hike up into the bird’s haunts in the sub-alpine fir groves  in late September to secure his favorite Canadian thanksgiving table fare of two plump blue grouse.

The solitary male grouse seemed totally oblivious to us. We grew new smiles when the bird paused, raised his fanlike tail, inflated his bare throat patches and provided us with another Atlin music number.  He elicited a few “booms,” that sounded like a slow series of deep-throated hums.

 He paraded by, not twenty feet from us. His bright orange eyebrows belonged to a Mardi Gras parade. When not hooting, he busied himself by pecking cream-white mountain avens petals off the stunted plants. I eased the camera out and slowly slid on my rear downhill to get closer. I did not make eye contact. Perhaps he thought I was a grazing Dall sheep or caribou.

We listened to his low crooning booms; his own rendition of “I don’t want to be alone anymore.” Maybe, just maybe, on the other side of the flower festooned knob, there was a female grouse that was on her way to the Atlin Alpine Music Festival.


*Note: Jonathan Byrd was a major favorite of mine and I highly recommend going to his website to listen to a sample of his work and check out his tour schedule. He will be in Minnesota in November.


Voices of the River


Small rivers typically murmur, chuckle, bubble, shusssh, or maybe at best sing. But recently, the fast watershed that passes our Outpost in the Yukon, the Watson River, has shown us that it doesn’t even know to how to murmur or chuckle. No wimpiness or meditative score for this flow. Instead, it has been full-voiced in a bawdy song that at times borders on a rage. This early summer chorus has been a loud, hoarse sea shanty that is a prelude to its destiny of merging with the Yukon River and finally the Bering Sea nearly 2,000 miles away.

With abundant snow in the Coastal Mountains to our west combined with some heavy spring rains, the rivers rose quickly. Looks like the release of snow melt will be a key player in water levels here for the rest of the summer.

We had come north this spring with the intent of putting the Outpost up for sale. Not only is it apparent that our securing Canadian permanent residency is a bureaucratic maze and no longer worth pursuing,  but the housing market in this area is crazy high and if we were astute financial game players we would sell and make a tidy profit. And then there is also the 2500-mile drive back and forth from Minnesota. It is a haul and with gas prices climbing, the trek bears a significant migratory cost.

However, in less than a week after we settled down at the river’s edge, the river in true preacher form delivered a tireless sermon on riches beyond dollars and cents.  The river has shown us that experiences are priceless and clearly the library of life has far more experiences waiting for us to add to the book cart.

Perhaps our feeling of renewed euphoria has to do with the indefatigable, yet restful message delivered to our ears. The constant river pitch is a comforting drone, not unlike the inspiring drone of the famous Highland bagpipes.  Neurologists have found that our brain waves slow and we perceive a sense of tranquility and well-being when we are in the company of droning noise. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Gregorian monk chanting, a bagpipe rallying or even a rushing river; each of them creates a droning sound.

You can even download or buy CDs of running rivers, ocean surf or rain showers.  This collection of pleasing water sounds promises to induce a state of relaxation and serenity.  A dear friend uses a free app of a lively, running river to put their baby daughter to bed. It has such become such a predicable success in creating the ultimate  lullabye that when the cell phone is tucked within a foot of the baby’s head she quickly falls asleep.

I prefer the real thing. So the other day, I headed over to the river’s edge to check out the tunes. As I walked beneath the upper windows of our log home, I nearly stepped on a dead bird. Crumpled in the grass with partially dried eyes, it didn’t invite petting. But I stopped, bent over and gently picked the bird up for a positive ID. It was clearly a thrush and given that there was no sign of any distinct buffy eye ring or reddish rump, I could disqualify a Swainson’s or Hermit thrush. This was another northern cousin, a gray-cheeked thrush.

It seems so unfair that this Yukon songbird that has run the gauntlet of dangers during its thousands of miles of spring migration from Central America back to the sub-arctic boreal forests, flying most of those miles during the night darkness, met its end by flying into a stout pane of glass. To the bird, the window was not a barrier. Instead, it likely looked like a blue-sky portal. I hoped that death came quickly for the thrush.

I walked over to the river’s edge with the dead bird and  reached out to gently set its body on the tossing whitewater.

The river’s tone changed to a droning dirge as the thrush bobbed through the curling waves, surrounded by a constant wash of white noise.  Disappearing and reappearing the bird looked as if it were swimming through liquid clouds towards an eternal spring.

I turned to the house and felt anchored and inspired at the same time. The bird had quickly bounced past the river’s bend, past the two big boulders that kicked up loud waves.

Less than a week later we wove our way through the same rapids in a canoe. Our hoots harmonized well with the river’s tenor voice.