Chasing Yellow-Rumps

Clearly I need to clarify this entry’s title. One might think we are pursuing a coward’s rear end as they retreat, but in this case we are following the vanguard of yellow-rumped warblers as they migrate northward. Prior to leaving Minnesota we got word from our Yukon Outpost that these early migrant warblers had arrived along the Watson River, in the Hamlet of Mt. Lorne. It would be frivolous if I claimed that such news inspired us to pack up our pick up truck and head north from our Minnesota Base Camp to the Yukon but that would be stretching it.

Ever since we returned to Minnesota last fall, we knew we would be returning to the Yukon this spring to recharge our wilderness batteries. With a dependable house sitter in place and a truck packed reasonably full, complete with two bikes and a red canoe tied securely on the topper, we pulled out on the tenth day of May.

The pair of Vesper sparrows that flashed their white outer tail feathers in fluttering out of our way at the end of the driveway reminded me that we needed to start our “trip bird list.” Nancy began the process of jotting down the names of birds as we encountered them on the backside of an old envelope she found in the pocket of the passenger door. This exercise helps to pass the time on road trips and is simply a list of all the bird species that we observe on a road trip. Compiling a trip bird list is a great way to sharpen observation skills and note habitat and accompanying bird species. Some might argue that driving and birding could be the equivalent of driving while drinking a handful of beers or texting messages to anyone interested in such drivel. Since I will not drink and drive nor text or chatter on a cell phone, particularly since we don’t own one, I will periodically scan the roadsides and passing landscape for birds.

While I am very fond of birds and take pride in my ability to identify them, I am not a dyed-in-the-wool bird lister. Some birders are listers. They keep track of “life lists” or a tally of every bird species they have ever seen or positively identified by song or call. While I have had wonderful opportunities to watch birds from the high arctic to the Amazon rainforest and even on Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, I really have no clue how many bird species I’ve seen.

Just beyond our driveway, before the blacktop county road, we had scored our second entry, an American crow. Immediately, Nancy asked me for my prediction of how many birds we would total over the next 2,500 miles. Without any deliberate analytical thinking I blurted out “Fifty three species.”

The first day of birding on the road, particularly if you pass through diverse habitats, is like picking off the easy low-hanging fruit as you tally common birds. For nearly nine hours we drove northwest to a friend Karen’s strawbale home located on a lovely, rolling expanse of North Dakota prairie speckled with wetlands. Her closest neighbor is three miles, much further than our closest Minnesota neighbor. Surprisingly, our nearest Yukon neighbor is perhaps 150 yards away from the Outpost.

Karen joined us for a tour of her 611 acres of restored prairie/wetland complex. While we spotted no sharptail grouse we marveled at the trampled ground where the males had been earnestly dancing a few weeks ago. Karen suddenly held up her hand as if to be quiet and we listened to a pure tinkling sound that drew a smile on her face as she declared “Sprague’s Pipit.” The details of the distant sparrow were not easily observable but Karen, an avid birder and artist, is very familiar with this increasingly rare bird. It was a new bird for me, as I could not recall ever seeing or hearing one. We walked back to her house for a supper of sharptail grouse breasts simmering in a mushroom sauce.
But before we stepped in, I heard the distinctive winnowing of a high-flying common snipe. He was number fifty for the day. Not bad.

The next day we crossed comfortably into Canada, clearing the border in less than five minutes. Not bad compared to the three hour crossing two years ago. We hadn’t gone far when I scored a big hovering rough-legged hawk for the trip list. It was species number fifty-four, the bird that surpassed my own trip estimate of fifty three. We passed through the flat southern Saskatchewan country where oil wells scattered across grain stubbled expanses of fields seem to tirelessly bow up and down to unknown gods.

A couple hours west of Saskatoon, we found a small Fibre Mill Farm, where we would be spending the night in an old one-roomed schoolhouse. That evening as Nancy and I strolled through a yawning coulee that curved down through the rolling prairie, It was there that I got to watch the darting, mouse like antics of a LeConte’s sparrow As daylight eased into dusk, we flushed a great horned owl from a thicket of aspen near a livestock water dugout. It was number fifty-eight.

Two days later we finally reached the Alaska Highway. However, not until you pass through the oil country of St. John and Fort Nelson, where parades of trucks carrying pipeline pipe and other heavy equipment,  can you really ease into an epic landscape that draws out sudden exclamations of astonishment. As we climbed higher in elevation, we encountered some stubborn sightings of roadside patches of snow. The aspens here are only beginning to show the slightest of green blushes. I am confident we have advanced ahead of the primary songbird migration, as any sightings of feathers were less common.

At Summit Lake, in northern British Columbia, the highest point on the Alaska Highway, we encountered winter. The lake was white and frozen while the surrounding area was still nearly knee deep or more in snow. Leaving Summit behind us, we descended and it didn’t take long to come upon the soft greening of aspens again.

Number sixty-eight came shortly after passing five elk on the slope to our right. It was a cautious ruffed grouse that took its time in crossing the Alaska Highway directly in front of us.

The yellow-rumped warbler is generally the first warbler species to make its appearance in Minnesota each year. They move on northward and are common nesters at the Yukon Outpost. We did not see our first one until we were camped at  Liard Hot Springs. I might add I tallied a Lincoln’s sparrow while I slowly and quietly breaststroked across the hot springs to within six feet of the little foraging fellow.

Oddly we never did see a single loon the entire trip and the last bird we tallied, number eighty-six, only two hours from our destination at the Outpost, was a bald eagle. Go figure.

The irony about this whole bird listing exercise is that once we arrived at the Outpost and I settled down to read the Yukon News Newspaper, I found a story announcing that Hollywood is coming to the Yukon this summer. A portion of an upcoming movie, entitled The Big Year will be shot in the northern part of the territory and will star Steve Martin, Jeff Black and Owen Wilson. The movie is based on a book, of the same title, by Mark Obmascik who, in 1998, followed a trio of competitive birdwatchers who raced around North America trying to spot the most bird species in one year. This sort of competition attracts bird fanatics who drop everything in their lives to spend a year scouting out sometimes more than 600 species of birds. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and look forward to the movie.

I wonder if they need any stand in birders?


The following is the entire bird list. I have also included our wild mammal tally for the Alaska Highway portion of our trip.

1) Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Cattle Egret
Common Egret
American Bittern
Canada Goose
10) No. Pintail
Blue-winged Teal
Am. Wigeon
Wood Duck
Ruddy Duck
Red-tailed Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
20) No. Harrier
Am. Kestrel
Ring-necked Pheasant
Wild Turkey
Moorhen (Coot)
Upland Plover
Common Snipe
30) Ring-billed Gull
Franklin’s Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Chimney Swift
Tree Swallow
Cliff Swallow
Blue Jay
Common Crow
40) Robin
Eastern Bluebird
Sprague’s Pipit
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird
Common Grackle
Vesper Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow

Day 2 Bird List

50) Horned Grebe
House Sparrow
Harris Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Rough-legged Hawk
Horned Lark
Rusty Blackbird
Western Kingbird
Great-horned Owl
LeContes Sparrow

Day 3 Bird List
60) Avocet
Savannah Sparrow

Day 4 Bird List
White-throated Sparrow
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Water Pipits
Ruffed Grouse
70) Common Goldeneye
Barred Owl
Ring-necked Duck
Belted Kingfisher
Trumpeter Swan

Day 5 Bird List
Mew Gull
Gray Jay
Common Merganser
Dark-eyed Junco
Yellow-rumped Warbler
80) Semi-palmated Plover
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Solitary Sandpiper

Bird List Day 6
Spotted Sandpiper
Herring Gull
86) Bald Eagle

Alaska Highway Wild Mammal List
1 red squirrel
1 coyote
1 red fox
9 black bears
8 moose
20 stone sheep
5 elk
33 woodland bison
5 mule deer

Passing of the Shack Patriarch

In the dim dawning of daybreak on day four, I quietly passed Humility Grove as I headed uphill with my pack on my back and rifle slung over my shoulder to my distant deer stand. The cathedral of half a dozen or so of old white cedar trees seem to demand silence and a humble attitude. They help remind me that I’m not all that important in the grand scheme of things. For years now, I have made it an annual practice to stop and pay my respects the day before the hunt. And then, several days later, I always stop again to pay my respects before heading out of the bush and back home.

It felt good. . .real good. . .to be back in the Minnesota north woods at the renowned deer shack for another deer hunt. Actually I missed the 2008 hunt, as Nancy and I were 2500 miles north in the Yukon Territory. By this time a year ago, we had one-third of a big bull moose in the freezer. A brand new freezer I might add, purchased simply because we were the recipients of this precious stash of moose meat. I had been an unarmed participant in the moose hunt but I had helped skin, gut, quarter and ferry out the big animal downriver, around numerous bends, across small lakes and down a mile or more of exciting rapids.

Though the annual event is steeped in ritual, this year’s hunt was very different. A little over a month ago, the deer camp patriarch, Ev Nelson, had failed to wake up. The day before he slipped away, he had gone to church in the morning and then as usual volunteered at The Villages, assisted living center, where he helped push residents in their wheel chairs to lunch, where he always joined them. That evening he spoke with his younger brother and two of his sons before going to bed for the ultimate rest.

Less than a month before his passing, Ev had turned 96 years old. Not only was he one of the builders of the 1940 deer shack, but also he had been hunting in the vicinity of the shack since 1932. The only time he missed the annual deer hunt was during his three years he was in Europe during WWII and a couple of years during the Korean conflict.

For years Ev’s brother Tip, another one of the shack builders, had been part of the shack brotherhood. He died in his eighties at least ten years ago but his stories, sense of humor and presence are still felt here. In fact for this hunt, I am borrowing his old 30.06 from his son and my buddy, Nels.

For over a decade Ev has put aside his old Model 94, lever action .3030. His vision and hearing were going downhill and so in recent years he has provided our camp cook, Howard, with support while fully imparting his decades of knowledge and wisdom on the rest of us. He never smirked when he would adamantly interpret a deer track. “Now this one is a doe.” Pausing, he might add, “and she has known a buck this year.” To “know” a buck is a biblical interpretation of having had sex with it.

His deer-hunting prowess was legendary. Ev’s ability to stay in a favorite birch tree for the entire day, without any nailed boards or portable stand to aid in his comfort, is still spoken about in a tone of wonder and awe. He would wrap an old rope around his waist, tying it to the birch trunk to prevent his falling to the ground, wedge his foot, alternating it through the day with his opposite foot to prevent it from going totally numb, and stay from dawn to dusk. Only at midday would he climb down and eat his leftover breakfast pancake lathered in jelly. Then he’d go back up in the tree. Ev consistently shot deer from the Medusa-limbed birch. The tree is still standing and if you want to find it, Ev would tell you, “Cross the river, head out east, past the Sugar Tit and just north of the Black Forest.”

Every deer camp has a mythical buck that never dies. Generations of young hunters find sleep difficult on the eve of their first hunt simply because that limb-antlered buck keeps weaving its way through the tangle of their dreams. At day’s end, as the hunters returned to the shack, Ev often asked if they had seen ‘High Boy.’ High Boy, named for his towering antlers, was a favorite buck that a local North Shore bachelor used to feed in his deeryard every winter.

The last buck Ev shot was in 1988, when he was 86 years young. When I asked him how far the shot was, he answered, “Oh about a five wood.” Having golfed with Ev some time ago, I translated that he killed the deer from 100 to 150 yards. . . about a five wood.

The man was fit. I recall a story when he had a bit of a heart episode years ago, sometime in his 80s. He was in the hospital and they wanted to do a stress test so they got him on a bicycle. First thing he did was to pedal briskly along. . . backwards. Turns out he had never learned to ride a bike. He was an inveterate hiker. He walked a third of a mile on his morning pilgrimage to the town bakery, post office and grocery store. Until her death he hiked four miles each day to and from Green Acres Nursing home to visit his wife, Dorothy. In the winter he would take the shortcut and snowshoe cross-country. He golfed at least one round nearly every day, spring through fall.

Three years ago, at the age of 94, he goaded one of the upper bunk sloths into joining him in a round of morning calisthenics. During his time in the army as Staff Sergeant Nelson, known by his army buddies as “Snorkie,” Ev would sometimes lead his men with calisthenics.

In recent years Ev’s loss of hearing allowed him to easily disregard the snarl of snoring in the close sleeping quarters of the shack. After one particularly explosive night, one tired hunter wondered, “Maybe we should add another story to the shack to accommodate the snorers.” Ev quickly responded, “Shoot, we have enough stories in here now!”

And while he didn’t hear the detail in words he could make out the cadence and rhyme. Two years ago I had mentioned it was twelve degrees outside. He nodded and replied, “Oh sure a little breeze doesn’t hurt.”

When I told the news of Ev’s death to an older neighbor of ours back home, he exclaimed, “Oh gosh, you don’t say? You know that’s how Irving Anderson died, peaceful like, in his sleep.” I nodded, “I remember. . . Irving was my grandpa.”

Dr. Andrew Weil, world renowned leader in the field of integrative medicine and best selling author, speaks of how we should all ascribe to living a full life, eating right, moving the body, engaging in community, reducing stress. He lectures that we should strive for “compressed morbidity.” Which basically means when you die you don’t linger, you go fast and hopefully easily.

Now as I glanced uphill at the giant cedars in Humility Grove, I wondered how their aging process was going. For years and years, this temple of trees has not openly changed. Stout trees and men like Everett teach me much on how to live and how to die. His oldest son Mike shared, “You know I never knew dad to be angry or say an angry word about anyone.” I’m not sure Ev even knew what the word ‘stress’ meant.

The hefty buck I shot later that morning died quickly. Feeling the usual mix of emotions upon approaching a dead deer, I was mostly grateful for a winter’s worth of prime meat. It had been a privilege to pause among the giants of Humility Grove. And I lived a day long prayer in sitting up in a tree watching the climb and drop of the sun’s arc.

I leaned the rifle against an old birch snag near the dead animal and silently thanked Tip for the use of the gun. I turned and walked slowly over to the buck, knelt down by his head, took off my hat and said aloud “That’s for you Ev.”

Firewood and Lace

It’s Halloween and I’m a zombie. . . .and I haven’t even dressed up or applied any pallid make-up. I’m feeling beat after a day of multi-tasking and my little plate of pickled herring and crackers and a cold beer are my own treat.

Nancy and I have been back at Basecamp in Minnesota after leaving the Yukon Outpost, a little over a month ago. Much of our time has been catching up with family and friends, getting settled in cleaning, unpacking and trying to find a garlic press. I suspect we might find it as we ready ourselves to follow the bird migration north, returning to the Yukon, next May.

Perhaps I was punished and transformed to an eventual zombie for languishing in bed in the gray dawning this morning while I enjoyed time reading my current novel. Maybe the fact that I am reading fiction, rather than the usual non-fiction, was enough to send me towards the dead.

Nancy is in the cities staying at a sister’s house so I am tending the fire here at the Basecamp. With daylight coming on, I had a terrible thirst for a cup of coffee, but first I had to earn it by cleaning ashes out of the kitchen stove and then lighting a warming fire. Then I began assembling the components for a big pot of French Canadian split pea soup. While the soup simmered, I sipped strong coffee dusted in the bathroom and swept the kitchen floor.

I was nursing a second cup of coffee while reading a handful of emails when I learned of the death of a friend’s father. I immediately sat down and wrote him a card. This was followed by another sympathy note to another dear one who lost her husband.

Suddenly at midday, the clouds parted and the sun broke out. Rather than run for the shadows in a Dracula sort of way, I scurried from the dirge and headed outdoors. I grabbed my limp, leather gloves and hustled out to the woodshed to split some firewood.

It’s irritating to establish a rhythm of swinging a maul, bisecting a hefty piece of oak and then have the splitting block tip over. Clearly, the stout chunk of wood that I used to set my blocks of oak on had seen its better days, as it is a bit tippy and punky. So my task was interrupted by the need to head to the woods to cut a new stable piece of oak for which to serve up pieces of firewood.

I confess I am easily sidetracked. My wife, Nancy, is often directing a started conversation back to the original source of discussion.

As I fetched the chainsaw and other tools to load in the garden cart, I wondered what it would look like if I had simply assigned one task to this Saturday. What if I made it a mindful Saturday and wallowed in the silence that could be a viable option. What if we all practiced an occasional ‘Zen-turday?’ Somehow the idea of having a single task to perform seemed lovely and indulgent. Why is it that I tend to mark a ‘good day’ by measuring how much I have accomplished? Am I cursed by a Midwest work ethic? Or am I insecure in my accomplishments and need to boost my ego by crossing off those tasks scribbled on a scrap of paper?

In the Yukon, splitting wood is much easier than here where we have multiple species of hardwoods. At the subarctic Outpost I have two choices of firewood and both are softwoods. Lodgepole pine and spruce. Reading grain prior to delivering the arc of a swinging six-pound maul is not as critical with softwoods as it is when dealing with hardwoods. Yukon friends who make their living in working with wood wince when they hear that we burn mostly oak and some black cherry.

So looking for a new splitting block was like going on a hunt. I was hunting a dead oak that had its growth rings crowding each other making it dense and capable of fending off years of delivering well-aimed splitting maul blows.

I had forgotten how tangled the woods are here in east central Minnesota compared to the boreal Yukon. The pine forest where I cut in the Yukon was mostly clear of underbrush and made for easy walking. Here I had tangling vines of wild grape, hazel brush, young cherry trees, elderberry and multiple saplings of at least half a dozen species of trees. It was like a jungle.

I lost my focus for an hour as I confronted the alien buckthorn. Pursuing yet another task, I trotted back to the house for a strong herbicide and a bucksaw and lopping shears. I sawed the invasive buckthorn trunks, dribbled the toxin on the cut stump and moved on to the next.

In a corner of our woods oak wilt disease provided me with a good selection of splitting blocks. It didn’t take long to locate the perfect one. I found a section of red oak trunk where three large limbs spread out like an upside down tripod. Cutting this junction of three distinct platters of concentric rings was slow but I knew that this oak platter of merging growth rings would stand up to many years of my swinging maul.

I manhandled the newly designated splitting block into the cart and weaved my way through the woods pulling my treasure back to the house. Daylight and my body were fading. I was hungry and tired and the prospects of a cold beer and pickled herring and crackers urged me on.

Inside the house, I added some kindling to the reenergize the kitchen stove. I glanced to the side and my eyes landed on a lovely lace valence that I was going to hang. And so once again, my intent was thwarted by yet another task. Luckily, hanging the sweet lace valence over the door window took only ten minutes.

So perhaps I should honor Halloween as a ‘renaissance guy.’ A guy who can wax poetic in a sympathy card, split stubborn oak chunks and hang lace curtains all in the span of a day.

Someone’s at the door. Now where is that bag of candy?

Larger than Life Health Plan

In January of 2007, after nearly thirty years of working with the Science Museum of Minnesota, I not only walked away from a memorable job, but I was cutting our household lifeline to health benefits. No more easy six month dental check ups, no more running to the clinic when a persistent cough urged me to make an appointment. Consequently for over two years, Nancy and I have chosen to gamble and participate in the Larger than Life Health Plan.

Formally, we are covered under a catastrophic health insurance plan—more formally known as a High Deductible Health Plan. This plan lowers overall medical costs by providing a lower monthly premium in exchange for a higher annual health insurance deductible. We pay out-of-pocket for most medical bills until the total of payments reaches the amount of our annual deductible of approximately $11,000.

The high deductible insurance we purchased is intended to protect us in the event of costly and catastrophic health services. We are responsible for the not-so-catastrophic. While it would be easy to wallow in the place of fear and keep ourselves locked in a padded room stocked with food and water, we have found it more healthy to act in the contrary and breathe big.

Though we are sitting North of 60°, in the evil den of socialist Canada, more than 2000 miles north of our home in Minnesota, we are not closed off from the loud southerly ruckus debating health care in the “Excited States of America.” The discussion mostly frustrates and infuriates me, as the debate seems to fall in line with the usual bipartisanship whining. And through all the discussion of “becoming Europeanized or socialized” we, the supposedly greatest nation in the world, continue our unhealthy ranking of #37 in health care among all the countries in the world.

I wondered if the problem lies in the fact that our North American culture has become beset with insecurity. Or at least the machine of consumption would like you to believe that you are a pathetic and insecure mass of protoplasm and could break out of that dismal form if you only used their products. So in our depression and eternal chase for ‘beauty and success’ we keep eating and buying stuff.

Could it be that our unhealthy ranking is largely due to unhealthy practices? In a recent Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times, author Michael Pollan reported, “according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.

We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.”

So in search for my own answers on this national dilemma. I took off for a mountain bike ride where after eight or so miles, I would stash the bike and begin hiking up the gilded slope and into the reddening alpine. I scrambled up the steep slope and in short order had to jettison a lyaer of closthes and stow them in my day pack. Pausing to wipe my brow I drank deeply from my water bottle. . . .chilled water taken directly from the clear flow of the Watson River. I munched  on fresh blueberries and lingonberries and moose jerky that we had dried over the wood burning stove the previous winter. It was during one of those hiking halts that it suddenly occurred to me  that the best health plan is one I call the Larger than Life Health Plan.

Let me explain the title. As you enter the Yukon from one of the three highways, you encounter a large, handsomely designed sign. There is an image of a sun rising from behind a range of mountains. The sign welcomes you to the YUKON.’ The brief, but beckoning message in both English and French is hard to forget. It says, “Larger than Life.” Obviously Yukon tourism lavishly uses that compelling phrase and now I have lifted if for my health plan.

The Larger than Life (LTL) Health Plan is really simple. It costs only a few hours of your time and is more of an investment than a cost. I can summarize the policy provisions in four words: “Get off your ass (GOYA).”

Subset to the summary include:

1) Get outside and move your body often and vigorously.

2) Eat good healthy food, particularly organic food that is raised without any genetic modifications and best of all, raised close to your home.

3) Laugh abundantly and particularly with others.

4)Partake in music festivals and jams, even if you don’t play. Be sure to have room to dance in a lively manner. In other words make music even if you can’t.

5) Enthusiastically love someone or something alive.

6) Help someone or volunteer for a good cause that benefits someone less fortunate than you.

7) Fear can make a good dance partner at times. Don’t run from it.

9)Pause often, focus on the big breath and give thanks.

Building Roofs and Social Capital

It has been far too long since I have put words on paper. Okay so it’s not paper. I confess I am a flaming romantic and I prefer the idea of “putting the pen to the paper” rather than typing at a computer keyboard. I am only writing now because the dark morning clouds overhead seem far too heavy with rain for me to work outside.

For three weeks I have been working on the roof of the Outpost. It has literally become my ‘other room.’ The original project was to have been much simpler than it has become. The original goal was to tear off 30-year old shingles, remove the thin plywood roof decking, re-insulate the roof with a low density foam and blown in cellulose, sheath it with new 4×8 sheets of oriented strand board (OSB), and re-shingle with Aged Redwood asphalt shingles. Simple. . . well kind of . . . at least straightforward.

However the last three weeks have often been punctuated with rain and overcast skies. These are not good conditions when you have already torn off shingles and now have a mosaic roof covered in a patchwork quilt of various colored tarps. But the big surprise came when I tore off the ridge vent and exposed the rafter tips. It was as if two continental plates had met here. The peaks of the rafters rose up and some dipped down, others were left and the remaining were right. Sighting down the range of rafters betrayed an undisciplined row of peaks. No straight line here. They were off by 4-5 inches!!

Suddenly the project has become a Project. I learned that the builder of the Outpost had set these rafters in late November thirty years ago when the temperatures hovered around -25° C. Consequently, a job that demands focus and precision was compromised and hurried by the bitter cold.

When I made the horrific discovery, I was torn as to whether I should throw myself into the river or sit down and cry. Clearly, I was in over my head and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t sleep well that night and the next morning I called two dear Yukon friends, Mike and Dave who happen to be excellent builders who are truly both craftsmen. They are likely the top timber frame builders in the territory.

Together they came to the rescue. Dave, who lives only five miles away, came first to assess things. He sighted down the rafters and uttered a low rumbling that sounded to me like “Holy F..k!” Then he began to laugh and quickly apologized for laughing. “Sorry Tom but I’ve never seen anything like this. I really should get a picture of this.” His words were not comforting.

After a half hour of looking things over, mumbling and head shaking, we climbed down, each cracked a Lead Dog Ale and sat at the kitchen table discussing options. He called his partner Mike. “Hey Mike, we have to help our good friend Tom here.” In the next five minutes a plan of action was formulated.

In order to accommodate the skewed rafters, it was decided that we would strap the rooftop with 2×4s fastened two foot on center and perpendicular to the rafters. These would be shimmed with what turned out to be ridiculous sandwiches of lumber pieces, plywood and even shingle fragments in order to create a level nailing surface to lay down the new roof deck. The new plan is to complete a portion of the roof and then in the spring finish the job on the four small steep pitches.

Oh and did I mention that we are heading back to Minnesota on Sept. 24th, the day that our new renters move in? With all the rain and the immensity of the impending Project, I felt the anvil of pressure growing on my shoulders.

While the passage of seasons is often described in such terms as miracles. It is nothing compared to the miracle of community in action.What has happened in the past week has been remarkable. Dear friends, Mike, Andrew, Claire, Al, Clare, Neighbor Mike and Gerry have shown up with tools and tool belts, ladders, pots of hot homemade soup, cookies, bars, curried lentils and rice and a willingness, in fact, a dose of cheerfulness and sharing has been rampant.

Nancy is quick to tell me that she is not surprised as I have invested great amounts of “social capital” during out Yukon experience. I enjoy getting to know people and I have a reputation as a “talkaholic.” True, I have helped some of these friends out with various tasks of their own. Clearly this is a classic example of “what goes around, comes around.”

So even though I haven’t been able to hike the yellowing mountains or push a canoe onto Bennett to try for a lake trout, I have been getting a workout. Repeatedly I have been climbing up and down the ladder with heavy bundles of shingles, lumber, tools and tarps. I have new aches, no hint of a roll around this belly and my finger tips are sore. But every once in a while I remember to pause while high on the top of my house and look upriver. The river is never tired and it inspires me. The view is great from atop the Outpost. And the gathering of friends is balm for any frustration and ache.

Skies are lightening. It’s time to get to work.

Finding Religion

Destinations in the Yukon are still in the realm of newness as I have lived here for only fifteen months. In that time I have had the opportunity to follow each of the cardinal directions, north, south, east and west. In each region I have found new favorites. The excitement of a Christmas morning happens on a regular basis rather than once a year.

My criteria to qualify as a “favorite” are really quite simple. The site must evoke either a hearty or hushed “Wow!” Or if not a note of admiration, it must result in a humble bow and an inner stirring of my heart. And if you experience both you have experienced a genuine place of magic. I tend to have those experiences in remote areas where bumping into the trappings of human civilization are unlikely.

I strive to find newness and beauty on each of my outings on the land. To do so forces me to look through
cheechako (rookie) eyes. . . as if seeing it for the first time. The challenge is not to take any hike or paddle for granted. It is my job to be observant, to see what others have missed.

The other night, a glance out the window from the Outpost on the Watson River, provided a blushing sky with the sun was flirting with bedding behind distant Goat Mountain. I pushed my chair away from the task of sorting through digital photographs and hurried outdoors for evening vespers. Racing the very orbit of the earth as it tucked the sun in for the night, I scrambled up a steep knob of land directly behind the Outpost. I have come to call this small,grass-topped bump, Pulpit Hill. While I don’t consider myself a particularly religious sort, I have my best conversations with any listening gods and goddesses from the summit of Pulpit. Here, I become the congregation rather than the orator of fire and brimstone.

It is here, at this ‘near wilderness’ that I am most often humbled. Here I am reminded that ultimately my very survival depends on the integrity and health of natural systems. Here I can breathe big and whisper “thanks” for the gifts of stunning views and sweet gulps of air made possible by plant chemistry. Each time I come up here is like a first visit. The big sky is never the same. Even a canvas of unclouded blue sky is made different by the tumbling of a pair of ravens. And the briskly moving, sinuous river below Pulpit Hill delivers new, tireless hymns. And if I study, really study the river surface I can always find a new ripple or eddy for me to wonder about. Here I can imagine new adventures when I gaze up the watery aisle towards a river bend that beckons exploration. It is here that I am reminded how very small I am. And it is here that I want to bring others seeking insight into what is truly important.

The 98

“An empty bar is a sad place.”
-Nancy Conger, July, 2009

And that is what the newly renovated Capital Bar in downtown Whitehorse is, a sad place. Once a favorite watering hole for Yukon government workers, politicians, miners, trappers, guides, and most other Yukoners, the Capital recently reopened after a long closure and a major renovation. Beers on tap include locally brewed favorites but a mug will cost you more than most bars and the place was entirely too hygienic and sterile with newly painted sheetrock. Without years of stories, laughs, stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer, I would expect only hollow echoes.

Other enshrined bars that have a colorful Whitehorse and Yukon history include the Kopper King. Once much larger, it hosted live bands and bouncers. Now most of the action is playing on the giant television screens.

For nearly a year, I have been joining newfound men friends at the Kopper King late every Thursday afternoon to revel in brotherhood and take advantage of $2.50 pints of beer on “Thirsty Thursday”. We enjoy a beer or two, polish off a platter of honey garlic chicken wings, talk green building practices, politics, exchange jokes,  discuss waxing strategies and combinations of waxes for cross country skiing. They are particularly fond of Sven and Ole jokes, one of the better Midwest exports.

Until last week I had never been to the third historical bar, ‘Hotel 98.’ Indeed this is the most historical of the three. It is also a common destination for the Whitehorse paramedics and ambulance. A close Yukon friend, who until recently worked as an Emergency Medical Technician, claimed that every weekend and many a weeknight they make an ambulance run to pick up a very pickled human being. On the rare occasion they have to deal with leavings of a fist fight or, rarer yet, a knifing.

So on a day where the mercury climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I boldly entered the bar with my wife Nancy, her visiting brother Bill and his wife Cindy.

The bar, once a popular dance hall, claims to have pulled the second liquor license in ALL of Canada well over a century ago. And if you don’t believe it, look on the wall just to the right as you enter the sanctum, and you will see the bar’s framed Yukon Liquor Cocktail License. Right next to it, also trimmed in a nice 8×10 wood frame is the following declaration, “If it has tits, wheels or a propeller, it will give you problems.”

In fact as you enter the darkened and happily smoke-free setting, one is greeted by an oily wave diversity and salt-of-the-earth Yukoners. Against the wall on the left is a row of slightly elevated tables offering the best view of bar doings. Nearly all the tables were taken, by First Nation clientele.

Directly above the wall tables, pegged on the wall, are stretched pelts of wolverine, wolf, and lynx. There are also a pair or two of old native made snowshoes. My eyes paused at a poster looking like an ad printed right out of the 1950s. The caption read “Girls in the Arctic.” At the opposite end of the wall, near the ATM cash machine are framed photos of what I surmised to be hall-of-famers to the ‘98. One of them in particular caused me to stare. I don’t know if it was the two cigarettes in his mouth, or the ones in his nostril or ears that caught my attention or if it was because I recently saw a documentary on the guy at a Yukon Film Society fest.

Between the bar and the elevated seats are scattered tables and chairs. The bar stools were mostly taken by a blend of laughing and chattering First Nation folk and whites. Most of the whites had goodly amounts of facial hair. A sign hanging at the end of the bar read, “Perverts Row”. Opposite the entry, at the far end is an old fireplace and a couple more tables. The gaunt guy sitting there, watching the bar proceedings was sharing his space with a white Cockatoo that was sitting on the railing. He was disgusted because the bird would not eat its treats, only wanted to steal his beer and was shitting on the floor, missing the pieces of paper hand towels that had been placed in line of the parrot’s release-aperture.

My lovely wife Nancy, always the engaging one, got up and walked over to the grizzled, man and bird and asked questions about his feathered companion. While his eyes appeared like a summer Yukon sky, hazy with wildfire smoke, he had an amicable manner.

In the far right corner are the two restrooms labeled “Pointers” and “Setters”. Seems pretty casual here as I watched two men come out of the washroom minutes apart and each was still zipping up his pants.

At a table next to us, a very thin, well-tanned man, in camouflaged pants leaned towards us and asked in his distinct French accent, “Where are you from?” His eyebrows rose dramatically when we told him Minnesota. Soon we were all chatting. We discovered that the 62-year-old man was one of 24 children, yes, that’s an even two dozen, and that he was originally from Montreal. Somehow the discussion slurred all over and soon we learned that by not eating meat we could prevent the cobbling of one’s face with wrinkles. “Moose meat is not so bad. . .no chemicals in the meat.”

There was background music playing and I knew we were someplace special when I heard a sudden loud outburst, “Hey I wrote this song!” I didn’t recognize the guy but he had a happy smile and a raven-haired lady draped to his waist.

Another boisterous bellow behind us, begged for us to turn as he yelled across the room to the bartender, “Hey Mary! How’s your love life?”

She glanced up at him as she simultaneously poured two bottles, one in each hand, impishly smiled and called back, “Much better since you left!”
The mustached inquirer waved her away with his hand and countered, “Yeah, well I’ve had lots of sex lately.” A second or two passed and then he added more quietly, “By myself.”

Bill looked at his watch and realized we had to leave in ten minutes for supper. We had reservations at the Cantina. Supposedly the best Mexican food in town and voted to have the best patio dining in all of Whitehorse. At that moment the waitress showed up at our table and with a toss of her head towards the Cockatoo, said that the guy with the bird wanted to buy the four of us a round.

With the lure of Mexico pulling us from the roots of Canadian history and another cold beer, we expressed our gratitude and thanks but had to decline. With a wave of his fingers and an unlit cigarette, he smiled and said, “Maybe another time.”

The odds are good there will be another time. Besides I want to come back and hear more on the discussion the neighboring table. They were boldly stating that was having about next winter will be the worst in 100 years and that according to the Bible or Koran no one can live past 127 years.

We did not have forty years in the wilderness but we did have forty minutes of wildness.

Wicked Bluff Trail Mountain Bike Race

In the absence of real darkness, the long summer days continually beckon us and pacing is critical. Having had weeks on the treadmill of fun, I feel a need for a refresher course in keyboard skills.

We have been busy. Way too busy. . .but in a good way. We have managed to summit the mountains titled: Caribou, Tally Ho, Anderson, Mount Lorne, and Perkins. We aborted an attempt on Red Ridge when we were driven back by legions of mosquitoes.

Then there were the two three-day music festivals and accompanying dancing. At the Atlin Music Festival a new energy source was revealed in the music of Vancouver-based band Delhi 2 Dublin <>. Don’t even try to resist your body’s urge to move and dance.

Canoeing excursions have resulted in battling headwinds on the Yukon River, discovering a lovely skinny dipping point on Annie Lake and successfully navigating the Takhini River rapids called “ The Jaws of Death.” And we managed to concentrate on the path of continual whitewater for over two hours while descending a section of the Wheaton River.

Cycling has been minimal but we did get out on our road bikes and have explored more trails on our mountain bikes.

Yesterday I came in second in the first ever, Wicked Bluff Trail Mountain Bike Race. Really.

I loaded up a mid-size backpack with a folding saw, a long handled lopping shears, a can of bear spray and a bottle of water and waved goodbye to Nancy as I pedaled my old black and mostly muddy, bike away from the Outpost. Unable to participate, Nancy is wearing a neoprene knee brace. Nearly a week ago she had twisted her knee after stepping on a loose boulder and falling during a hike last week in the high country near Fraser Lake in British Columbia. She is patiently playing patient at home dining on occasional Ibuprofen while her propped leg balances an ice pack.

My intent was to warm up by pedaling the race course in reverse to check out the dips, drops, edges, tree roots and tight turns. I stopped periodically to saw dead lodgepole pines that fallen across the race trail during the past couple months. Using the lopping shears, I removed eye-and-head-threatening. On parts of the trail I wished I had a stowed a shovel to fill in the multitude of holes. My bike is of a vintage that predates newer models that come equipped with disc brakes and shock absorbing front forks or seat posts.

By the time I got to the race start, I had cut and cleared eight trees out of the way. I never did see the other contestants as we started in staggered starts.

I carefully packed the trail clearing tools, tightened the backpack waist belt and snugged up the chinstrap on my helmet. Taking a big swallow of water, I mentally pedaled the racecourse, remembering various obstacles and tricky sections. Drawing in a deep breath, I took off down the trail.

I swear the wind blowing through the tops of the pines sounded like ecstatic spectators.

With the bear spray buried deep in the bowels of my pack, I chose to provide a fairly loud commentary of my race progress. I figured that my loquacious nature might make any bears aware of my racing down the trail.

A friend had a close encounter with a large grizzly bear on this very trail system. She simply stopped her bike, twenty feet from the bear, had a few quiet words with it and it walked away.

Like the thirty-seven-year-old road cycing legend, Lance Armstrong, I wanted to show the world that a fifty-eight-year-old boy still has the legs and the drive. In going for a chance to step up on the podium, I did not want to stop for anything so I managed to find loud superlatives in my race strategy and bike handling.

“Look at the line Anderson has chosen on this tricky descent! He seems totally oblivious to the drop off on his right and the raking shrubs on his left!”

All was going well and I knew I was ahead of the pace of the racer who was holding the lead position. I knew he would be very tough to beat, as the twenty-two-year-old thick-thighed stud had not lost a race all spring and summer.

A second before I crashed I knew I was going to crash. I was weaving through a section of young lodgepole pine, no thicker than my slender arms. The trail slalomed in tight turns and it was the top of the lopping shears, projecting out of the top of my pack that hooked one of the pine trunks. It was as if the rooted tree simply grabbed the back of my collar and said, “That’s far enough Champ!” The momentum of the bike sprang forward and I was spun to the ground. My commentary was cut. The unseen crowd of horrified spectators watched in silence.

Believe it or not I managed a silly smile as I sat in the thankfully soft pine needle duff. I got to my feet, made a slight adjustment to the skewed pack and swung back into my seat. The crowd cheered with the same intensity as they did when Lance got up and went on to win a memorable Pyrenees Mountain stage of the 2003 Tour de France after he crashed. Like Armstrong, I was back in the race.

I had lost some valuable time and found myself taking some very tight corners, turning my shoulders to twist by trees, not unlike a skier negotiating each gate on a giant slalom course.

With the most treacherous part of the course behind me, I sped up my pedaling revolutions. My thighs burned and the commentary was absent as I had to efficiently use the fuel of oxygen reaching my lungs. Leaning downward into the finish I knew I had not won the race. Six seconds separated me from the guy with oaken thighs.

Catching my breath, I pedaled more slowly home. “There will be another day young man.”

With a squiggle of blood tapering down my leg, I put the bike in the shed and made my way to the awards podium. Today the podium was in a small pool behind a large boulder in the rapids of the Watson River. I shed my sweaty clothes and slipped into the caressing stream. The brisk water was pure bliss and the shot of Yukon Jack and lime juice over ice helped etch my smile to a greater span.

And the crowd went wild. Another task turned into play.

A Civil Bear

I had made the two day drive from the Outpost to Anchorage to visit a dear friend. The drive was scenic and relaxing. Even the border crossing, back into the Excited States, was pleasant. After running my passport through the computer and asking the usual questions, including my intentions, the young border patrol agent asked me where I lived in the Yukon. After telling him I lived south of Whitehorse out on the Annie Lake Road, he asked if I knew dog musher Hugh Neff. Seems the patrol agent was a musher himself and for a couple of minutes we both mused at how Hugh had shot himself in the foot at the last Yukon Quest Race when a silly penalty basically cost him first place.

Two days later, Alaskan friend, Elaine, her dog, Charlie-Four-Legs and I were hiking on the wide, snow-free, cross country ski trails in Far North Bicentennial Park, a large three mile by three mile green space on the edge of Anchorage city limits. A fifty-ish, male mountain biker suddenly came careening down the hill at us. An  To add to the level of biking difficulty, the wide-eyed cyclist was managing his running leashed dog. And it was suddenly ears-and-tail-up and when it spotted Charlie-Four-Legs.

Snap decisions were made. Flirting on the very edge of pandemonium, we scurried to the edge of the trail and the cyclist skidded to a stop while trying to maintain control of his strong dog. An abrupt introduction soon melded into the joint actions of friendly conversation and energetic dog tail-wagging. Almost as an afterthought the man thought we should know about a bear that he had just spotted over the hill behind him.

“I wouldn’t walk that way,” he said as he tossed his glance back uphill. “I’ve just confronted a bear with my dog and it might feel a bit retaliatory.” He paused and calmly added, “But all in all it seemed a “civil bear.”

Years ago, when I was writing a book on black bears, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of highly regarded North American bear biologists. From them I heard plenty about “dominant bears, submissive bears, and nuisance bears,” but I never had heard of a “civil bear.” Was using the word “civil” dispelling any liability? Should he have used the word “courteous”? I rather liked the title ‘Civil’ and somehow did not feel so vulnerable for leaving the bear pepper spray back at Elaine’s house, a half mile away.

The cyclist went on to share that a bear had mauled a friend of his, a few years back, while out on a trail and that you can’t be too careful. With that he pedaled away talking about a .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum handgun that he owned.

My god! I own a few hunting rifles and shotguns and I didn’t even know there was a handgun that powerful!

As the human-bear-alarm pedaled out of sight, my hand burrowed into my pocket seeking the feeble comfort in the familiar heft of my thin, bent-tipped, antique Boy Scout pocketknife. We had no pepper spray. Armed with only a duet of two excited voices, we moved slightly faster in the direction we had come. I was imagining the next day’s Anchorage newspaper headlines: “Two Hikers Attacked by Civil Bear.”

Talking while moving through thick underbrush in bear country always lets a bear know that you are there. Whistling is not always a good idea, especially if you are hiking in areas where there are arctic ground squirrels and marmots (over much of the Yukon and Alaska). Both of these members of the squirrel family whistle in communicating and both are considered delicious to bears. Speaking loudly, even in incomplete sentences, is usually enough to let them move quietly out of the way. You NEVER want to surprise a bear, because suddenly you are in their personal space.

The personal space MIGHT be as much as 200 yards if the bear is napping next to a cached dead moose or other food. A solo ambling bear might only require 60 yards while the same bear with cubs might need double that. While the distance can vary from bear to bear, the bottom line is to have a lively conversation with a fellow hiker or yourself.

The green space we hiked is bisected by the Campbell Creek watershed and abuts the half-million acre Chugach State Park. Consequently, the wilderness pours into the city and is therefore an excellent wildlife corridor. Occasionally there are sometimes-uneasy alliances between outdoor human enthusiasts, moose, wolves and particularly bears.

Every summer Campbell Creek beckons runs of silver and king salmon. Both are favorite bear foods. We had chosen this particular trail to hike as it was not near the creek and would reduce possible bear confrontations. Obviously the bear that the biker had just spotted was not unlike us and was simply out for a stroll.

Up here, the seasons spring, summer and fall can all be rolled into one mega-season called “The Un-Winter.” And this is the fair season that bears gambol about. Hmmmm. . .ever notice that bear attack statistics are non-existent when winter holds us firmly in its grip locking us into a supreme stillness? I find that there is a wonderful relief or freedom during those darker days in knowing that I did not have to go on strolls into the bush without carrying pepper spray or even having that sixth sense of bear alertness.

Fifteen minutes after waving goodbye to the cyclist and we returned down the trail speaking rapid-fire, like two loud  auctioneers simultaneously working a sale. We finally got back to the busy street while the rush of afternoon Anchorage commuters hurried home. Seeing a break, we scurried across the highway. I was reminded of the irony that I was in far greater danger dashing across Abbott Street, between homebound traffic, than being attacked by a bear. Here we had to be really alert. There is nothing worse than a tired driver at the end of a long workday trying to get home. No sirree, there is nothing “civil” about them.

Migration Run

There is a northerly race underway. Flocks and flocks of shorebirds are impressively winging their way to sub-arctic and arctic nesting grounds on the soft tundra. The race is among tens of thousands of shorebirds. For many, the prize is to simply survive the migration, set up a territory, breed, lay a clutch of eggs, raise the young and then hurry back to the southern hemisphere for another winter.

Over the second weekend of May, I was attending the Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer Alaska. Hundreds of us two-leggeds gathered there to honor the Olympian efforts of thousands of shorebirds that migrate through this bay every year. The mud flats behind the famed three- mile Homer Spit are rich in invertebrates and that means valuable fuel for staging shorebirds that rest here for the final dash.

I was with two dear Alaskan friends on my first-ever visit to Homer. As we registered for the three-day event, complete with presentations, storytelling, optional field trips and shorebird identification sessions, I found myself reluctantly agreeing to run in the Annual Migration Run. I figured if these birds could cover thousands of miles to get here, I could certainly shuffle the three-mile run along the Homer Spit. It had been nearly 30 years since I had run in a sanctioned marathon and with a bothersome knee, I had moved to the bike rather than run. But this was only three miles and I should be able to finish that.  Besides it would be fun to humor the avian athletes as these not-so-efficient two-leggeds huffed by them.

Through the weekend, binoculars and spotting scopes were trained on the mud flats. We marveled at the synchronicity of the tight formations of the wheeling, rising and settling of hundreds and hundreds of tightly bunched western sandpipers and dunlins. And we couldn’t take our eyes off the natty attire of the male Pacific Golden Plover. His jet-black front seems incongruous with spring. And the glacial blaze of white that extends from his head, down his neck and spills out on his flanks couldn’t be more contrasting. If you are lucky he will turn to show that he is not so very monochromatic with his cryptic back sprinkled with golden specks that would excite any Klondike sourdough prospector.

The three plovers we watched hardly looked like they were on the last leg of the most impressive of all shorebird migrations. These birds are second only to the arctic tern in long distance migration. Each spring they cover thousands of miles in non-stop flight over the Pacific Ocean. That means no eating or sleeping for over two days of continuous flight. Prior to their flight they spent a full month eating and putting on fat reserves derived from rich supplies of invertebrates. Literally one third of their body weight is fat before they lift off.

According to a local biologist the plovers we watched had likely wintered in Malay, Polynesia or even Australia. Some think that these plovers helped ancient Polynesians discover the Hawaiian Islands. Suddenly my 700-mile drive from the Yukon to Anchorage seemed puny. These birds are the epitome of efficiency.

In order to complete the feeble migration run, I would need to acquire a spring plumage of sorts on my feet. As I had no running shoes with me, I needed to find something to wear on my feet for the race. The thought of running in sandals or hiking boots seemed ludicrous and painful.

I asked the nice folks at the registration headquarters if there was a thrift store in Homer and we were directed to the local Salvation Army Thrift Store, down the highway a half-mile or so.

Hurrying into the store, I bypassed the temptation of stopping by a rack of fleece clothing and went directly to the shoe corner. Scanning the assemblage of shoes, looking for anything that looked like running shoes, my eyes landed on a navy blue pair of shoes that resembled a hybrid of tennis shoes and clown shoes. Upon further inspection I found that they had flip down roller skates inset into the soles of the shoes. For a whole nanosecond I considered the fun of such shoes, but then I wondered about the course. Would we be running on a hard surface or perhaps, like running sanderlings, we would move up and down the Homer spit.

I finally found a pair of slightly faded, but wholly intact running shoes that were a size 9. I would prefer a size 91/2 but these would do. On the way to the cash register, I couldn’t resist an impressive black cowboy hat for $5.50.
The cowboy hat would not make the run. I’ve never had a real cowboy hat and somehow the time seems right.

Two days later and it was race day. There had been no training in my new shoes. The sun broke behind the ridge that overlooks the bay. There was no wind and the temperature was 40°F. If this were to be a true migratory effort, we would have staged along the shoreline and hoped for a good brisk south wind to push us north in our spring migration. The shorebirds can cover hundreds and hundreds of miles non-stop. And they oftentimes migrate at heights nearly 20,000 feet.

On this perfect flight morning, my 15,040-foot (three mile) migration run required only a single banana before lift off. No sirreee, no fueling on invertebrates or fat reserves for this old bird.

Even though I had not gone for a run of three miles in over five years, the morning was perfect for such an outing. Come to think of it, since I have come to prefer moving my body on a bicycle or cross country skiing rather than running, I haven’t run a continuous nonstop mile in years.

We parked the car near the race start and put on our shoes. It was then that I discovered that my newly acquired running shoes were not a men’s size nine but a women’s size nine. We had twenty minutes before the start. I jammed and crammed my feet into the shoes. Feeling like one of Cinderella’s stepsister trying on the glass slipper I pushed and winced. I was reminded of the old Chinese practice of foot binding where wealthy women trained their feet through the painful practice of binding and wrapping them so they would sometimes be no longer than three or four inches. I wished that I had bound my feet tightly in duct tape the evening before to shrink them up. I barely tied the shoes, keeping the laces loose  and gamely trotted in my reduced feet to the registration area.

There were several cleverly adorned racers wearing shorebird costumes. Two young, svelte women wore tufted puffin masks. The eventual winner of the costume contest wore a large origami swan around her middle with each wing reaching out nearly two feet from her hips. For obvious reasons no one crowded her position as we shuffled to the starting line.

Suddenly we were off. As usual all the young hot shots lifted off very quickly. With my toes curled under the balls of my feet, I tried not to think of my feet and I concentrated on folks ahead of me and slowly made my way forward. As we passed the area where we had watched the plovers the day before, I glanced over the mudflats. The wheeling and leap frogging feeding flocks were nowhere to be seen.

While running I developed my strategy. My toes were curled like a May fiddlehead fern and the bliss of sucking in morning oxygen was offset by pain in the toes. So I simply picked up my pace so that I might finish the race faster and free my ten bent hostages as quickly as possible. Surprisingly, I finished better than I thought I would. I finished 21st out of 137 participants. I was almost exactly five minutes behind the twenty year old who flew the fastest. The two puffin masked young women finished three minutes ahead of me.
But I did beat the origami swan.

After the race, I gave the shoes to one of my Alaskan friends, who informed me that the shoes were a little tight for her. Two days later I noticed three toenails taking on the midnight color of the plover’s breast. Watching a migration is far more memorable and painless.

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