Archive for July, 2013

Where’s the Balance?



The Whitehorse hospital doc finally came back to the exam room carrying the x-ray. “You broke your hand,”he said far too matter-of-factly.  “The good news,” continued the doc, “is that after consulting with the surgeon, he doesn’t think it needs to be pinned since everything lines up well. . .it’s an oblique fracture. So let’s get a cast on your hand.”

Damn. . . I was really hoping for just a bad, painful bruise.

And that is why I’m pecking painfully slow at the computer keyboard. Too tough to type upper case; good thing the apple knows to use upper case at the beginning of a sentence. bear with some abbreviated wrds and mispelings.

But it all could have been so much worse. Doc didn’t think the gash on my left shin required stitches. Bummer that the gauze leaked and left a crimson, abstract version of the big island of Hawaii on our bed sheets the night before. i didn’t show the doc the hand-sized scrape on my right thigh.

So what the hell happened?

For the sake of brevity (oh this is tough to keep it brief because I like to spin a story) I fell off a little pitch of a rocky spire. Stupid.  stupid decision to climb it. The handholds and footholds looked good. And I did note the scrabbly rock near the bottom. The rock pyramid was house-sized and I was tantalized by the challenge and the higher vantage point. And I have to admit some vanity rose up as well. Being a sixty something, I like to show myself and others that i can still scramble like a mt. goat rather than an old goat.

To get to this craggy mountain bump involved a long, bushwhacking hike through some pretty scrabbly ground that has, for the most part a pretty stiff grade where you are mostly leaning into the slope. Four of us, wife, nancy, friend banjo kim and her plucky, 16 year old, stone deaf husky, named  smoke and myself were trying to get to the top of needle mt.  nancy and I had been there  before but never going this route.

We were less than ¼ mile fro the top but decided to rest, collect some alpine flowers and snack. Also decided not to risk the tough climb. All of us were fine with the call it a day.

While we rested near the seductive spire, my inner dumbness nudged the moment of repose. Perhaps the spirit of George Mallory sidled into my dulled, decision-making process. (Mallory was the famous early 20th century british mtn climber who died on mt. Everest. When a news reporter asked Mallory why he wanted to climb Everest his now famous response was “because it’s there.”

Well if it’s good enough for George it was good enough for me. Sounds rational. And besides it was only about 20-25 feet up; not 29,000 feet.

I carefully made my way up. I noted some sketchy holds close to the bottom. I remember being super intentional. Almost guiltily, I glanced back towards nan and kim. Both were watching. I remember being relieved that nancy wasn’t questioning my tiny summit attempt. She is usually far more cautious. And sometimes I get frustrated in her black belt caution. So I was clear to go.

But now with this cursed cast onmy hand, and quiet time to ponder the fall,I wonder if subconsciously I was expecting, no wanting her to check my climb?

Long after that scrabbly foothold crumbled, (luckily only four feet off the ground) and long after we made the long slow trek back down to our truck, and long after kim went home after a shared supper, did nancy light into me. Mallory’s spirit sulked away like a wisp of Everest fog.

For full effect, nancy employed tears interspersed with corrosive cursing and Olympian gesticulations. And all of it was fully justified. It wasn’t enough that I had already claimed my stupid decision. An apology wasn’t enough. I had selfishly played mt. climber without clear thought on the ramifications of a bad accident. I had put us all at risk high up on Needle, hours away from any phone or road. A bad injury would require a helicopter evacuation that could only happen hours later and even then you would be racing good light.

My finger is getting tired of this keyboard tap dance so I need to wrap this up. Besides its taken far too long to write this post.

Lesson learned: be more patient with nancy’s more cautious stance. It’s in the interest of both us. We are so lucky to have each other and to share a desre to ramble around in scrabbly, wild places.

We leave the Yukon in 3 days. Catching the ferry to Washington. I reckon 4 days of cruisin’ the inside passage will be perfect for bone repair. Then we get a few days of hanging out with daughter, maren and so-in-law, ben at their home in Tacoma.

I guess this means there will be no mt. biking with ben. but he is a doc so maybe?????

Bush Kids


I had just pulled my knife out of its worn leather sheath. It was raining and we had retreated into a picnic shelter at the camping area for the Atlin Music Festival to grab a bite to eat. I had barely cut into the banana bread when a child’s voice next to me  matter-of-factly noted, “Nice knife.” I finished the cut and looked to my right. Sitting a couple feet from me at the picnic table was a pixieish brown haired girl.

“Thanks,” I said. I was caught off guard as I had never been complimented by a young girl for the knife I carry.

“I’ve got one too,” she quickly added and in an instant she was holding up a handsome Swiss Army Knife. “My dad gave it to me last year.” I nodded. “Here take a look at it,” she added as she held it out for me.

In a few minutes I learned that she was named Emma and that her favorite of the multiple tools on her knife was the fact that it had not one, but two blades. “It’s easier to carve things with two different sized blades.”

I handed it back  and she kept up the testimonial. “The scissors attachment is pretty cool too but it’s the hardest one to open.”

I’m guessing that Emma was maybe ten or eleven years old. I thought of how astute it was that her father gave her  the gift of a knife the previous year. Seems to me that we need far more parents willing to give kids pocket knives. Oh blasmephous words! I can hear the cries of horror at the thought of giving a child, and a girl no less, a sharp-edged tool. A good, sharp knife gifted to a child is a rite of passage. It is a pronouncement of confidence that the youngster can and MUST handle and care for the knife properly . So such a bladed gift must come with a serious discussion on the proper handling and care of all knives.

Mors Kochanski, a friend and one of the top survival experts in North America, is the author of the highly regarded book, Northern Bushcraft. Last fall, Nancy and I stopped on our return trip to Minnesota to spend a couple nights with Mors at his home in northern Alberta. We got to talking about kids and bush skills. Mors said he always encouraged parents to teach knife skills and campfire building skills as early as five years old. He insists there is no better age to instill the correct and safe use of matches and knives.The real danger is having kids play with these things on their own without proper instruction.

In chatting with little Emma, I learned she liked to camp and was eager for the music to begin the following day. It was clear that her world did not revolve solely around knives. As she and I watched an impromptu music jam begin next to our table, Emma said, “I play piano and some guitar, but I really want to play a stand up bass.”

Suddenly something shifted and she got up and headed out into the drizzle. “Well Tom, I’ve got to go. . .see you later.”

I had just met an honest to goodness “bush kid!” Had I been an eleven or twelve year old boy, I would have been mightily smitten by Emma. The youth designation of “good bush kid” was a label I had never heard of until we came up to the Yukon in 2008. And right away I knew I wanted to be knighted with such a noble title. I became aware of such a designation in casual conversations.

“ Oh, Knute is a good bush kid,”  said one good friend.

And one mother declared , “My 16 year-old daughter, she’s a good bush kid.”

It’s not a title that is cast out freely; one has to earn it. I would have far preferred being known as a “good bush kid” than a good boy scout or good Lutheran.

So what are the qualifications for such an honor? There is no definition or secret order of bush kids. But here is what I have observed. A key component  of  bush status is you must be really confident. You can handle yourself well anywhere and you don’t loose your cool.

Clearly these are excellent bush skills for surviving in the wilds. But besides being super comfortable rooting around in the outdoors, these kids carry the confidence throughout their day whether they are in school or on a trip in the back country.

Emma seemed profoundly happy. And no surprise here as studies show that kids who play and explore outside are less stressed, more relaxed and tend to have greater social skills and confidence. Bingo!

Stephen Kellert, a Yale professor with the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, has written extensively on the subject of child development and nature. In his book Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection he argues that, not only is contact with nature important for children’s emotional, intellectual, and evaluative development, but that their “physical and mental well-being depends on the quality of their experience of the natural world.”

My guess is that if I looked closely at the lives of those “good bush kids,” I would likely find that each of them spent a lot of time outside messing around with their imaginations.

Two nights later I was in the main tent waiting for the next band to take the stage. Hundreds of people were in the tent enjoying the day’s music. I looked over to my right and sitting on the ground in the front row, about twenty feet from me, was my friend Emma. She had a bandanna wrapped around her forehead and was having a good time. She glanced my way and saw me looking towards her. She waved… and winked. Yes, she winked. Now that is confidence!

If we had a generation of optimistic and confident  bush kids on the rise, the world would be a better place. I have a “good knife,” received a wink and the band onstage was about to play a new song. Life is looking real good.



“One man’s rubbish may be another’s treasure”

         – 19th century proverb


I find it interesting that when Europeans first settled in North America they found the natives had no name for “waste.” There simply wasn’t such a thing.

America, alone, accounts for over one-third of the world’s waste and most of that trash ends up in landfills. It amounts to one ton of landfill waste per USA citizen per year.  That is shameful and we call ourselves advanced.

While living at our Yukon Outpost in the hamlet of Mt. Lorne we have discovered a virtual “gold mine” far from the rich ore strikes of the Klondike gold fields. Our weekly schedule often involves going on one or two all-day hikes, going to town for groceries, supplies and an art fix and going to the dump. All of these are highly desirable activities.

In fact, exploits of  our dump discoveries have spread far and wide.  When friends and family make the trip from the Midwest to the Yukon they expect their travel itinerary to include a visit or two to the dump.

There are three community dumps within an hours drive of us and they are the best dumps I’ve ever been to. For one thing, there is very little trash. The recycling efforts here are the best I have ever seen. You can recycle aluminum and galvanized cans, bottles, cardboard, paper and ALL plastics, but they will also take all batteries, from those tiny ones found in hearing aids to the 12 volt variety found in autos. (Note: It is estimated that ten percent of all the world’s plastics end up in the oceans.)

They also take tires, milk and juice cartons, computers, televisions, speakers and sound systems. There is a large dumpster for metal recycling and for household appliances. And there is even a shed to leave compostables.

The Mt. Lorne dump does an excellent job of  minimizing the concept of waste. By the time you throw away your actual trash here, it amounts to very little.  It only requires that you take the time to separate things. This dump is a model for the rest of North America.

Here at the dump you can enjoy a community picnic, an impromptu music jam or an athletic workout. Admittedly the Mt. Lorne dump does not appear welcoming with a four-strand electric fence surrounding the grounds. While it might keep out after hours trash dumpers it is designed to discourage black and grizzly bears.

The dump’s greatest attractions are the two “Free Shacks.”  The sign actually reads ” Reuse Area.” One is for clothing and the other is for just about anything else. The larder that accumulates in the Free Shacks increases with the spring and fall cleaning tides.  Residents in the area live back in the bush or are thinly spread in the hamlet. Garage sales are not practical with a spread out population so it is easy to simply give stuff away to someone who might need it.

One day I pulled up to the Free Shack  and in moments I was putting a a thick sheepskin winter coat and a German-made backpack in the truck. I’ve also added some nice wool sweaters to my Yukon wardrobe and secured a favorite belt, though it’s a bit long for my svelte midsection.

I always scan the books and have found some great reads like “Deep Survival” by Lawrence Gonzales and “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman.

For my wife Nancy, the dump is the equivalent of a rich blueberry patch. While I can often make my scan in a matter of five minutes, she wants at least triple that. On the other hand, Nancy’s plunder has far surpassed mine. She has snagged garden tools, quilts, duvet covers, cute pants, shorts, tops and even hats that look like they just came off the shelf at L. L. Bean.  She even found some of our kitchen holdings  including, plates, mugs, glasses, silverware, a nearly brand new bread machine and a sparkling, unscratched Cuisinart blender.

Over the past weekend I learned that over at the Marsh Lake dump, a 45-minute drive from our dump, a woman connected with a mink coat that was in excellent shape! I’m serious.

Loading camper

Last week I helped a local woman load a camper on the back of her pickup. Yep. . . a bonafide over-the-cab camper! Word has it that the week before the fellow who brought in the camper dropped off a boat and trailer. It disappeared very quickly. Apparently the guy who dropped off these treasures is moving south and he did not want to fuss around trying to sell any stuff.  (For clarity’s sake, “moving south” means moving anywhere south of the Yukon).

Camper loaded

Given that many folks that live in the Yukon are here for only a few years, they  often accumulate more than they need.  Consequently to make the move south more easy they often bring good quality items to the dump.

Recently, my good friend Mike stopped at the Marsh Lake dump and got himself a car.  His brother is running that dump this summer so he could have provided insider information.  The car was half-filled with gas, and an easy starter with a perky battery. There was a note on the front seat that included a phone number so the car’s title could be transferred. He called the phone number and discovered that the owner was a neighbor! She had been trying to sell the car for some time and simply gave up. Oh yeah, the glitch turned out to be a bad axle. He noticed when turning a corner that the car made some noise. Upon further inspection he discovered it had a bad axle. So he found a used one and replaced it himself.

The same day I helped the woman load up the camper, I found two gas stove knobs in the dirt outside a dumpster. I eyed them over and jammed them in my pants pocket.  Our small stove/oven is missing two knobs and we have tried several but none have fit. I am pleased to say that we now have four perfectly operating burners that are easily adjusted with a turn of the knob. Who cares if they don’t match.

In regards to social benefits, the Annual Dumpster Dining event offers grilled bison burgers and bison smokies (brats).  Combined with  live music the event attracts scores of folks. When we first arrived in the Yukon and had to make a trip to the dump we soon found other folks flocked there. Consequently, we have met some of our dearest friends after a visit to the dump.

People get a little wacky going to the dump.  During one cold winter day, I saw a bundled man hunkered over a row of computers. Suddenly he let out a steaming, triumphant cheer. I walked over to see what he was celebrating and he excitedly told me that he had just found some sort of computer component that would have cost him hundreds of dollars if he bought it off the shelf.

While shack “shopping,” the protocol is honorable and polite. Although I have seen folks anxiously wait for you to put down the wool shirt or mixing bowl that you inspected and then like a hungry raven drop in and claim it as it slides from your hands.

This dump will get you in shape. We now have a nearly new spare life jacket, a taped hockey stick and puck, cross country ski poles and a set of weights. I’ve passed on rickety looking treadmills. But a neighbor girl got a very nice mountain bike that simply needed to be cleaned up and have it’s tires pumped with air.

Mike, the Mt. Lorne dump manager, enjoys golf and basketball. So it is not unusual to see him practicing sand trap shots from the sandy landscape that sits under the dump.

mike BB shot

Mike and I both enjoy picking up the basketball and shooting hoops on the backboard and basket that came in to the dump. We can make up some very inventive shots for a wicked game of Horse when you consider dumpsters, crates of bottles and parked cars.

The dump can provides forays into the arts. One day Jeremy, dump watcher on duty, reported proudly that he had his new guitar along. He asked if Nancy had her fiddle in the truck. She did so in minutes they were jamming.  Soon neighbor Ruth pulled up to leave some things and she quickly pulled out her mandolin. I found a reasonable chair from inside the Free Shack and listened to the spontaneous concert.

And the beautiful thing is that if we don’t like something that we found, we can bring it back next week. A stack of pocket books are poised to make the trip and  I see that Nancy has put the bathroom scale by the recycling tubs. That means it’s going back to the dump as social currency.

Sad, I rather like that I only weigh 69. . . . kilograms.



It had to happen sooner or later. Particularly in a land that has far more large wild mammals than humans. It’s only more ironic that as the author of four regional editions of Things that Bite, something other than invertebrates like mosquitoes and black flies should finally nail me.

But before I give you the sordid details, let me lay out the events leading up to the attack.

It was my birthday. . . 62 years old.  With the day opening with a flawless blue sky, Nancy inquired what I would like to do. Smiling at my first request, she wondered what else I would I like to do. I said, “How about hiking that unnamed peak a couple peaks south of Red Ridge by Annie Lake?” We had never climbed this peak and I was curious about it and wanted to get up to alpine to collect some flowers.

After a short drive, we parked the truck, donned our packs, adjusted our hiking poles and headed up. With no trails to follow we started up through the bush. The base of the peak rose up quickly through lodgepole pine, aspen and some clumps of hefty willow with lots of thigh-high soapberry bushes and dwarf birch in the understory.  Dwarf birch is commonly referred to as “buck brush” up here and no one likes hiking through it.

The volume and volubility of our chatter accelerated as we eased through the thicker cover. There is no need to ever surprise a bear. Let them know you are coming and they usually will vanish before you are near them. And a bear around here could be either a black or a grizz.

Our route was not direct. There were plenty of zigs and zags as we slowly slalom-trudged uphill. After half an hour of climbing we encountered our first patches of exposed bedrock.  Here and there were small clumps of sub-alpine fir and always some clumps of willow. But now most of the willow was shorter than the plants we encountered at the lower elevations.

Willow is everywhere up here. There are approximately 30 species of this woody plant in the Yukon. It can found in the lowlands, along rivers, on mountainsides and even a stunted version high in the alpine.

The grade became steeper and even with hiking poles, we found small willows and aspens as handy anchor points to pull ourselves up. About a third of the way up we found an open patch of grass and crowberry to sit down on and enjoy some water and snacks. Enjoying the view, we turned and looked up and realized that we still had some gnarly climbing ahead of us.

We resumed the ascent and soon found ourselves scrambling in more exposed areas of rock. The rock was scrabbly in spots so we proceeded cautiously, never directly below one another so as to avoid any dislodged rocks from hitting the other person. Now we were more frequently encountering pitches that required us to use our hands to grab secure rocks to help us along. Hiking was morphing into rock climbing and this is not what we really wanted.

About two thirds of the way up, we did a check with each other. “Are we bending the map?” I asked. “Bending the map” is a phrase coined by Lawrence Gonzales in his fine book, Deep Survival. In the book he explores who lives, who dies and why when confronted with an accident, catastrophe or being lost.

When one “bends the map” they are attempting to make a trail or route conform to them. In other words I was wondering if we were trying to minimize the difficulty of our route to the top. Nancy and I often check each other with that “bending the map” question when we are out on big hikes or paddles.

This time we both agreed that perhaps we were biting off too much. And besides, with a birthday supper of halibut enchiladas and rhubarb pie for dessert, we didn’t want find ourselves in a sketchy situation with the coming of evening. So we began to traverse to the north looking for an easier route down.

We had only gone about 200 hundred yards or so when we found the grizzly bear den.

The opening was large enough to easily let me walk in if I bent over at the waist. I didn’t. This was likely a den where a grizzly spends the winter. If it was a female’s den she might have birthed a pair of cubs here. Or a lone male could have claimed it. Once the warmer spring weather starts to melt the snow up this high, the bear(s) would leave the den and head downhill looking for some greening produce to eat.

We moved past the den and were celebrating the fact that we found a less steep descent but it also was a thicker garden of undergrowth. We could take bigger steps downhill and the gravity helped our momentum.

Suddenly the attack came.

As I passed through a moose-high clump of willow, one of the supple limbs I was pushing ahead of me snapped back and had its way with the orbit of my eye. I grumbled a curse and in stoic, male-stubborn fashion, I forced my way through.  No blood; just a good smack on the head.

We ultimately made it down and back in time for a wonderful birthday supper with some friends and Nancy’s sister, Jane. (Jane had wisely stayed back at the Outpost while we hiked.)

It was the next day that I discovered my tattooed left eyelid. The funny thing is the bruised eye socket didn’t hurt. In fact I had to pause to recollect how I hurt it.

Some folks up this way call willow “moose candy” because it is the most preferred moose food around. Funny how this plant, the same one that is the origin of the ubiquitous pain reliever, aspirin, got a “sweet” lick at me.


Willow Attack