May 28 2015

Remembrance of Things Past

Into the Past

Tendrils of mist rose from the swift water, joining and parting like swirling dancers. Their numbers increased from minute to minute, until the river was all but hidden behind an undulating gray wall. Somewhere up ahead was the gravel bar marking the place where I’d make my camp for the night. But where was it? I could see nothing that looked familiar. Then a fluke of wind pushed the curtain of mist to one side. And there it was: Jack’s Point. I drew the pack canoe’s bow upriver and ferried toward it.

Years had passed since I last stopped here. Decades, in fact. But as the tendrils of mist twined around me, past and present became one. You can go home again, I thought. The bow of the canoe scraped against the bar. I threw a leg over the gunwale and staggered upright, leaning heavily on my paddle in lieu of a wading staff. Even here in the shallows, the current made its presence felt. It tugged gently at my ankles, urging me onward. But I was resolved to stay the night. So I freed the painter from its loop on the bow deck and sloshed ashore, pulling the little canoe behind me.

The journey that brought me to this point had not been an easy one. I’d struggled for miles against the flow of a powerful river, then plodded more weary miles carrying boat and baggage over a height of land, only to lose myself for hours in an unmapped maze of new beaver flows — the headwaters of the lively stream that carried me here. What looked easy on the map had proven to be a test of both muscle and mettle. The day now drawing to a close began long before sunrise, and I’d been on the river more than 13 hours. I was soaked, hungry, and exhausted. But none of these things mattered. I’d come home.

I emptied the canoe and made the painter fast to a solitary gray birch. After that, I scrambled inland, pushing my way through a tangle of spruce until I broke free and found myself standing in a birch wood. Years ago this had been a brushy glade. Before that, it was a logging town. Now pines were growing tall among the birch.

And there it was, just as I remembered it: a blackened fire ring, fashioned from cobbles quarried in the riverbed. Someone — I wondered who — had cleared a circle of ground around the stones, and a rusty wire grill lay nearby. I looked for a level spot to pitch my tent. I found it, and immediately set about making myself at home. I brushed needles and leaves away from the old hearth, gathered several armfuls of downed limbs, and lit a fire. Before long, a pot of pea soup bubbled on the grate, and not long after that, I went to bed. I slept well.


Morning came — a clear, still morning. Once again, I kindled a fire in the ring and made preparations to boil a pot of coffee. On this trip, I was making coffee like Grandad had made it: throwing a handful of coarse‑ground beans into freshly boiling water. The resulting brew was bitter, strong, and silty. Grandad wouldn’t drink it any other way. And as I drank my first cup of the day, I couldn’t get over the feeling that he was watching me. I often felt this way when I was in the woods, and I always hoped Grandad approved of what he saw. Today was no exception.

I’d just refilled my cup when I heard soft footfalls behind me.… Read more…

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May 26 2015

Dog Tags: ID That’s as Tough as You Are

Whether on two wheels or two feet, I like to stray far from the beaten path — to explore hidden places and follow the gravel lanes that branch off from unsignposted town roads. I track wild creatures through hawthorn thickets and scratchy spruce hells, and I watch them from hastily improvised hides on the shores of lonely ponds. Sometimes these excursions leave me standing in driving rain for hours. At other times, they require that I trudge through seemingly bottomless mires.

In any case, carrying unprotected ID isn’t always practical. Moreover, I don’t fancy dropping my driver’s license and other documents in the ooze at the bottom of a beaver pond. Of course, I could seal my ID in a ziplock bag, but that would only keep the contents dry; it wouldn’t prevent loss. Which explains why I often leave my wallet at home. Still, I don’t like the idea of being anonymous. What if a windfall or crumbling ice cornice were to knock me senseless? What if a distracted driver crashes into me and leaves me sprawled unconscious on the highway? How would any passerby know who I was? And how would they contact my family?

While such eventualities don’t make for happy reading, they can and do happen. Every day. When a dog ran under Farwell’s front wheel some years back, the crash sent him over the bars at 20 mph and left him lying unconscious in the middle of the road. It was some minutes before he came to his senses. Long enough for the dog’s owner to spirit his (uninjured) pet away, in fact — but not, curiously, quite long enough for him to call an ambulance. To make matters worse, when Farwell finally came to, he couldn’t remember who he was, let alone how he’d come to be standing in the middle of a county road next to a broken bike, with a mouthful of shattered teeth and a haze of blood dimming the vision in his only good eye. Luckily, he rallied quickly. He had a cell phone in his ‘bar bag, and — miracle of miracles — he was just inside a coverage area. So his story ended more or less happily. But it could easily have gone the other way.

So I like to carry something that identifies me and gives any first responder enough information to guide my immediate treatment. But how best to carry it? That’s the question. At first, I considered an identity bracelet, but I don’t like wearing anything on my wrist besides a watch. Many runners and cyclists buy Road ID tags and strap them around their ankles, but my aversion to bracelets extends to all my extremities. Moreover, paying USD20 (or more) for what amounts to a tag on a strap didn’t really appeal. Then I hit on something that should have been obvious from the outset: the dog tag. It was, after all, the original all-but-indestructible ID.

The rest was easy. A Web search quickly led me to DogTagsOnline, a business which — surprise! — does nothing but make custom dog tags. Ten bucks got me a pair of the sturdy metal lozenges, two breakaway chains (one long and one short), and a couple of rubber silencers. Standard shipping had the whole package on my doorstep in four days. I now wear one tag around my neck whenever I venture out. The other gets clipped to my ‘bar bag or key ring. Peace of mind seldom comes so cheap.

Tabula Rasa


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May 25 2015

Bike Monday for May 25, 2015: Far From the Madding Crowd

With high summer only a month away (in the Northern Hemisphere, that is), this is good time to explore new routes and find new campsites. And your bike is the perfect vehicle for the job. After all, it’s a lot easier to survey the passing scene at 12 mph than it is at 60. Here I’ve found a promising spot to string a hammock or pitch a shelter. This small clearing on public land is wonderfully quiet, and it’s just remote enough to ensure a measure of privacy. Best of all, it’s not mentioned in any guidebook.

A Clearing in the Woods


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