Rowing Against the Wind… The Grand Canyon Series

Peggy captures Dave Stalheim and me as we begin our journey on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Note my clean and shaved look. It’s the last time you will see it.

 

With thoughts of facing headwind gusts up to 60 MPH, we began our journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park.

Peggy and I performed the ritual of asking a boatman if we could ride with him. It seems like a strange practice to me, designed to remind us who’s in charge. But we have entered the world where each boatman/woman is the captain of his or her ship, even if the ship is a 16-foot raft with two or three passengers.

“May I have permission to come aboard, sir?” Although it’s more like “Can we ride with you today?” It is courteous but I would prefer to be assigned and have the assignment changed each day.

The tradition is so old that it fades into history. Democracy is not an option on a raging sea or, for that matter, in the middle of a roaring rapid. When the captain yells jump, you jump.

Most boatmen are mellow people, however; good folks. There are few Captain Blighs. If they are slightly more than equal, it goes with the territory. We are committed to riding with each boatman. First up is David Stalheim. He makes his living as a city and county planner in Washington.

“I’ve been applying for a permit to go on the Colorado River for 15 years,” he tells us. Our ten-minute effort of obtaining a permit seems grossly unfair.

We push-off from shore, excited and nervous. The wind strikes immediately, like it was waiting in ambush. “Are we moving at all?” Dave asks plaintively.

An old rock road makes its way tortuously down from the canyon rim on river left. (Left and right are determined by direction of travel.) They are important for giving directions as in “There is a raft ripping rock on river right!” Since boatmen often row with their backs facing downriver, they appreciate such information.

Up until 1929, this is how travelers made their way to Lees Ferry. It would have been a bumpy ride.

The old road is how people once made their way to Lee’s Ferry, which was one of the few ways to cross the Colorado River between 1858 and 1929. The infamous Mormon, John Doyle Lee, established the Ferry. Brigham Young assigned him the job. Later, Lee was executed by firing squad for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre where Mormons and Paiute Indians murdered a wagon train of immigrants near St. George, Utah. For awhile, my brother and I thought some of our ancestors had been involved, had ended up dead. But it wasn’t so.

After fighting the wind for what seems like hours, we finally come to the Navajo Bridge, which replaced Lee’s Ferry in 1929. It towers some 467 feet above the river and reminds us that we are already miles behind our planned itinerary.

Navajo Bridge by Don Green

A view of the Navajo Bridge. The first is the old one and is now used as a walkway. The second is used by cars and other vehicles. (Photo by Don Green.)

Just beyond the bridge we catch our first glimpse of Coconino Sandstone. Its geologic history dates back some 250 million years when a huge desert covered the area and the world’s landmasses were all part of the large continent named Pangaea— before the divorce, before plate tectonics demanded that the continents go their own way.

During our journey down the river we will travel through over a billion years of the earth’s history.

The wind continues to beat against us as we make our way down the Colorado River. Only Dave’s strenuous effort at the oars keeps us from being blown up-stream. “Go that way,” I suggest and point down the river.

The group pulls in at a tiny beach in hopes our mini-hurricane will die down. It doesn’t. Dave develops blisters and I develop guilt. A manly man would offer to take over at the oars.

An option floats by. Dave’s niece, Megan Stalheim, is also one of our boatmen. Don Green, a retired Probate Judge out of Martinez, California, is sitting opposite her and pushing on the oars while she pulls. It inspires me. I join the push-pull brigade. Peggy also takes a turn.

The push-pull approach to rowing where Don Green was helping Megan. Peggy and I have been friends with Don for over two decades. He belongs to the same book club we do and joins us on our annual journey to Burning Man (as does Tom). Don is also quite generous in sharing his photos, which was particularly helpful on our first day since neither Peggy nor I took many.

Word passes back to us that Tom wants to scout Badger Creek Rapids. In boatman terminology this means figuring out the best way to get through without flipping. Badger isn’t a particularly big rapid for the Colorado, but it is our first. We are allowed to be nervous. It’s labeled a 4-6 out of 10 in the method used in the Grand Canyon for determining difficulty. Ten is reserved for only the most dangerous. Badger involves a 15 foot drop from the top to bottom.

Badger Creek Rapids by Don Green

Photo of Badger Creek Rapids by Don Green.

There is good news included in the message. We will stop for the night at Jackass Camp just below the rapids on the left. We’ve only gone 8 miles but are eager to escape the wind.

Dave is a cautious boatman. He takes his time to study Badger Creek Rapids from shore and then stands up in his raft for a second opinion as the river sucks us in. Time runs out. Icy waves splash over the boat and soak us. Our hands grasp the safety lines with a death grip as we are tossed about like leaves in the wind. Mere seconds become an eternity. And then it is over.

Badger Creek Rapids Google photo

The view from above using a Google photo. Our camp would be on the right (river left)  at the bottom of the photo, in the shade here. Our raft came out on the left (river right) side of the river.

“Quick, Curt, I need your help,” Dave shouts. We have come out of the rapids on the opposite side of the river from the camp. The powerful current is pushing us down stream. If we don’t get across we will be camping by ourselves. Adrenaline pumping, I jump up and push the oars with all my strength while Dave pulls. Ever so slowly the boat makes its way to camp.

Jackass campsite on Colorado River by Don Green

Not the world’s most attractive campsite. We scatter out to find places for our tents after emptying the boats. (Photo by Don Green.)

Jackass Camp Area by Don Green

Boats tethered at Jackass Camp. (Photo by Don Green.)

View from Jackass camp on Colorado River by Don Green

View from camp. (Photo by Don Green.)

Grand Canyon evening primrose by Don Green

I liked this primrose captured by Don the next morning…

Grand Canyon floers and tracks by Don Green

And found the tracks under it even more interesting. It’s like the lizard was sidestepping. Its tracks and tail trail can be seen coming down from the right. The hole on the right was made by an ant lion that uses the hole as a trap for insects. They fall in, can’t get out, and become lunch. Next Monday, we will continue our journey down the river.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: I begin my series on the Alaska Highway. We make our way to the start of the highway in Dawson Creek by traveling through British Columbia. Great wood carvings and dog agility trials entertain us along the way.

FRIDAY’S MisAdventures POST: I graduate from playing in the Graveyard to playing on a pond and discover a magical world.

MONDAY’S Grand Canyon Series POST: Beautiful waterfalls, a huge cavern, and ancient Native American ruins are featured.

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Good Monkey; Bad Monkey… A Visit to an Eco-Tourist Lodge in the Amazon

Spider Monkey hug

This spider monkey adopted Peggy. Here it gives Peggy a monkey hug. Later, Peggy wondered where all of her flea bites came from…

Spider monkey hitches a ride

Monkey hug from the back.

 

“The war of the future will be between those who defend nature and those who destroy it. The Amazon will be in the eye of the hurricane. Scientists, politicians, and artists will land here to see what is being done to the forest.” —Jacques Cousteau

 

Cousteau’s statement to Dr. Francisco Bernardino inspired him to erect the Ariau Amazon Tower Lodge in the mid 80s to accommodate the expected influx of ‘artists, scientists and politicians,’  which it did up until it was closed in 2015, attracting such luminaries as Bill Gates, Prince Charles and Jimmy Carter, not to mention the Mekemsons.

Since it was located a mere 30 miles outside of Manaus on the Rio Negro River, Peggy and I decided to visit. We ended up staying in the same room that Jimmy Carter had occupied. Today’s photo essay reflects our stay there and how we hung out with the monkeys…

Amazon jungle lodges

The Ariau is located at number 3 on the map. We took a boat out of Manaus to get there.

Map of Ariau Amazon Tower

This is a map of the complex with its long walkways that wander throughout the rainforest.

Jungle walkway in Brazil

A view of the walkways. Peggy and I had a lot of fun hiking on them, whether we were accompanied by our monkey friends or not.

Peggy Mekemson on jungle walkway

Peggy on one of the walkways in the tree canopy.

Jungle walkway at Ariau Lodge in Brazil

Another view.

View from Ariau Lodge walkway

Looking out at one of the sights along the walkway.

Boat on Rio Negro River

We arrived from Manaus on this double-decker boat.

Ariau Lodge pickup stick look

You didn’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about the structure. I doubt that it would meet earthquake standards. Pickup sticks come to mind.

Our room at the Ariau Lodge

We stayed in the Jimmy Carter room. The eel reminded me of current politics. You don’t want to be a small fish.

Treehouse room at Ariau Lodge

Not to disparage Carter, who I really like, but I would have preferred to stay in the Tarzan suite shown here. It was nestled up in the top of a tall ebony tree.

Snake tongue and Bone

Bone put in an appearance.

Wooley Amazon monkey

Wooly and Spider Monkeys were found around the lodge and out on the walkways. This Wooly Monkey was behaving how monkeys are supposed to behave, dangling by his tail from a tree.

Wooly monkey hat

And this one wasn’t. It isn’t my best photo. (grin) I was not happy about having a monkey for a hat!

Monkey rear view

When I suggested that he go play with an anaconda out in the jungle, he wrapped his tail around my arm and treated me to this view.

Scary monkey

And then gave me the evil monkey look…

a handful of monkey

Before threatening to take a chunk out of my hand.

Spider monkey near Manaus

Peggy got the good monkey. Given its heart-shaped face and adoring look, this seems an appropriate time to wish everyone a Happy Valentines Day!

Spider Monkey mouth

I will note that the spider monkey had an impressive set of choppers.

Peggy with spider monkey

When Peggy sat down, it settled into her lap and hammed it up for the camera..

Spider monkey in lap

Before deciding to take a nap.

Spider monkey on Peggy's lap

Monkey feet

I decided its feet and our “Travelers’ Tales of Brazil” would make a fitting photo to close my posts on the Amazon.

 

FRIDAY’S POST: I learn about cross-cultural relations as a second-grader— on a queen sized bed.

MONDAY’S POST: We finally start to make our way down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon while fighting a strong headwind.

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: Peggy and I begin a trip up the Alaska-Canada Highway, one of the world’s premier adventure-travel roads.

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I Discover I Am No Longer 30, or 40, or 50, or even 60… Rafting Through the Grand Canyon: Part 4

On a private trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon National Park, everyone pitches into help. Here we are learning to rig the rafts. Straps and more straps! The  aluminum frame provided stability for the raft and held the heavy food containers. (Photo by Don Green)

 

It was time to make the leap from life on the road to life on the river. Laptops, cell phones, good clothes and the other accoutrements of modern civilization were stuffed into bags and dumped into our transport van.

Plus I had to paint my toenails. It was a virgin experience. Grand Canyon boatmen are a superstitious bunch. Many believe their boats will flip if a person is on board with naked toes. And it’s true— boats have flipped under such circumstances. It makes no difference if the opposite is also true. Tom lectured me. “I will not let you on my boat unless your toenails are painted.” In addition to being obnoxious, he was serious. Peggy dutifully applied blue polish on four of my toes. Did this mean we would only half flip?

Two acres of paved boat ramp greeted us when we arrived at Lee’s Ferry, some 130 miles from Flagstaff. It is the take off point for trips down the Canyon and the only bridge across the river in some 700 miles. The Mormons originally discovered the potential for the crossing and sent John Lee to set up a ferry, which began operation in 1873. Brigham Young was also hiding Lee. He had been a key player in the Mountain Meadows Massacre where some 120 eastern emigrants had been murdered. A practicing polygamist, Lee and his wives ran the ferry up until his execution in 1877.

The transport van disgorged us as the gear truck made a quick turn around and backed down the ramp. Another private party was busy rigging boats. People, gear and boats were scattered everywhere.

From off to the right, a longhaired, 50-something man had emerged. I had thought 60’s hippie or possibly the model for a Harlequin Romance cover. The pirate flag on his boat suggested otherwise. A ‘roll your own’ cigarette dangled from his lips. It was Steve Van Dore, the last member of our group and a boatman out of Colorado.  No one in our group had met him, but he came highly recommended.

Steve, a week or two into the trip.

“Please let this be the truck driver,” Steve later admitted was his first thought when he met our green and purple haired trip leader. He also confided that Tom hadn’t told him we were a smoke-free group. “On the other hand,” Steve confessed, “I didn’t tell him I was on probation.” Somehow this balanced out in Steve’s mind. There was no time to become acquainted; we had work to do.

There is an unwritten 11th Commandment on private river trips: Thou Shall Do Your Share. No one is paid to pamper you. Not helping will lead to bad things, like banishment from the tribe. The truck we had loaded in Flagstaff demanded unloading. Everybody did everything. There were no assignments. Peggy and I became stevedores. Piles of beer and soda and wine and food and personal gear and ammo cans and hefty ice chests quickly accumulated around the truck. There was no shade and the desert sun beat down ferociously. It was sucked up by the black asphalt and thrown back at us. We slathered on sun block and gulped down water.

The rafts were unloaded last. Rigging them was technical but relatively easy, assuming of course that you knew what you were doing and were mechanically inclined. I made no such claims. Steve’s Cat (catamaran) was already set up and in the water, its pirate flag was flapping in the breeze. Our other four boats were self-bailing Sotar Rafts with aluminum frames. Tom owned his own, a blue 14 footer named Peanut after the Jeff Dunham character. The three we had rented were yellow, 16 feet long and nameless.

Work also required that we get our feet wet. (Photo by Don Green)

Tom was the last to rig his boat. It was approaching dusk when he finished— the end of a very long day. I hiked down the river to find a campsite for our group while the rest boated down. Peggy and I struggled to set up our new tent in 30 MPH winds. A van was coming to pick us up for dinner at a nearby restaurant and we were late.

The walls of the restaurant were covered with photos of rafts and rafters being trashed by massive rapids. I walked around and admired them with more than a little awe and trepidation. I would have preferred to see photos that emphasized the beauty of the Canyon, but this was a rafters’ hangout.

The wind storm had changed to a dust storm when we arrived back at camp. Finding our tent in the dark proved to be a challenge, and the tent provided little protection when we crawled in. I was reminded of Burning Man as the dust assailed my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I pulled out a handkerchief to cover my face. Exhausted, I finally fell asleep with the wind ripping at our tent.

I had underestimated the amount of work involved. We were floating down a river, weren’t we? I was out of shape and had a generous belly. Peggy and I had been traveling extensively, mainly helping our kids with their babies. I’d been over-eating and under-exercising. I might have gotten away with it at 30, or 40, or 50— and had. But now I was 67, and my body had some serious words for me. Mainly unprintable. A few years earlier I had undertaken a much more difficult task, backpacking for 360 miles between Lake Tahoe and Mt. Whitney. But I knew how tough that was and had spent a few months hiking 5-10 miles per day before hitting the trail. Now my only excuse was ignorance. And that is not a very good excuse.

We were awakened at five a.m. the next morning, as we would be on every day of our trip. There was personal gear to pack, breakfast to prepare, and boats to load. Any thoughts of a leisurely trip down the river were dashed in the cold reality of the early morning’s light.

We also had a lecture on the Grand Canyon’s numerous rules by Ranger Peggy. Somewhere in the middle of rigging boats the previous day she had stopped by to check our equipment. Life vests had been dutifully piled up; stoves and bar-b-que were unpacked. Even the groovers, which I will describe later, stood at attention. You don’t mess with Ranger Peggy.

She knew Tom from other river trips and was amused by his hair-do. He introduced me as the permit holder. “Tom’s in charge,” I noted. The smile dropped from her face. “You are responsible,” she said icily. “I’ll try to keep Tom under control,” I replied meekly. Yeah, fat chance that.

Bells, whistles and alarms started going off in my head. I would face heavy fines if any of our party misbehaved.

Our second encounter with Ranger Peggy began after the boats were packed for our first day on the river. Tom started off with a discussion on river safety. Naturally we were required to wear our PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) any time we were on the boat.

Tom, with his interesting hairdo, and Ranger Peggy check their lists to see which of the many rules they have forgotten to inform us about.

What’s the first rule if you fall overboard: Hang onto the boat. What’s the second rule? “Hang onto the boat,” we chanted in unison. And so it went. Tom saw his wife, Beth, go flying by him the year before as he bounced through a rapid. He caught up with her down river.

If the raft flips, what do you do? Hang onto the boat! “Easier said than done,” I think.

“Your head is the best tool you have in an emergency,” Ranger Peggy lectured. Right. When the river grabs you, sucks you under the water, and beats you against a rock— stay cool.

For all of the concern about safety on the river, the Park Service seemed more concerned about our behavior on shore.

Over 20,000 people float down the river annually. And 20,000 people can do a lot of damage to a sensitive desert environment. Campsites are few and far between and the major ones may have to accommodate several thousand people over the year.

Picture this: 20,000 people pooping and peeing in your back yard without bathroom facilities. It isn’t pretty. So we pack out the poop. And we pee in the river…

Packing out poop makes sense. But peeing in the river, no way! I’d led wilderness trips for 36 years and for 36 years I’ve preached a thousand times you never, never pee in the water. Bathroom chores are carried out at least 100 yards away from water and preferably farther.

The first time I lined up with the guys, I could barely dribble out of dismay.

The rules went on and on. Mainly they had to do with leaving a pristine campsite and washing our hands. Normally, I am not a rules type of guy but most of what Ranger Peggy preached made sense. Sixteen people with diarrhea is, um, shitty.

And few things disturb me more than a trashy campsite in the wilderness. The least we could do was to leave our campsites sparkling clean.

Finally, we were ready to launch. Eighteen days and 279 miles of the Colorado River and Grand Canyon stretched out ahead. Ranger Peggy checked our IDs against her list. We were who we claimed to be. The boatmen strapped down the gear. It was time to climb aboard and Tom was anxious to get going.

The same up-canyon winds that whipped dust into our tent were threatening to create a Herculean task of rowing. Headwinds of up to 60 MPH were predicted.

The group, ready to launch. Wife Peggy, as opposed to Ranger Peggy, is holding her and my purple PFDs. I’m second from the left, looking chunky.

 

WEDNESDAY’S POST: It’s back to the Amazon and monkey business. While Peggy gets the ‘good’ monkey, I get the ‘bad’ monkey.

FRIDAY’S POST: I learn a bit about cross cultural relations as a second grader— on a queen sized bed.

MONDAY’S POST: Fighting ferocious headwinds, we begin our journey through the Grand Canyon.

 

 

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The One, the Only, the Interview with Bone….

Bone has been in many tough situations in his life; he can handle tough questions. Here he rests on top of a saguaro cactus in Arizona looking for border patrol agents. His lack of official papers, or even a birth certificate, can cause problems at times. President Trump has yet to tweet about him, however.

 

One of the more recent followers of this post, Gunta, was doing an Internet search on Tom Lovering a week or so ago when she came across this interview that Bone did— and laughed a lot. Again, many of you will have read this interview, but I am reposting it on behalf of the new folks who have joined my blog in the past year.

 

Q: Do you really talk? We’re speaking ethics here, Bone. Blogging is about transparency. That means honesty.

A. Are you crazy? Have you ever heard a bone talk? Of course I don’t talk. I just think out loud.

Q: Curt sometimes refers to you as he. Does this mean you are a male bone?

A. No. He makes assumptions, lot of them. He was showing me to a biologist at a writers’ conference and she suggested I have my DNA tested. “Just cut a small chip off of it,” she said nonchalantly. “You can determine its sex and breed.”

“Just cut a small chip off of it!Outrageous! I am not some it to have chips cut out of. Besides, I lead a rich fantasy life and have no desire to know whether I am male or female. Call me she, he, or Bone, but never it.

Um, I think Bone is definitely a male in this photo. –Curt

Q: You have travelled all over the world and met thousands of people. How do they usually react to you?

A. With befuddlement. You should have seen the look on the face of the customs agent in New Zealand who tried to seize me as ‘animal matter.’ But emotions run the gamut. There was a Japanese man who got off a tour bus at Yellowstone National Park and wanted to hold me for good luck. Soon there were 40 other Japanese handing me around, oohing, and taking photos. I was thrilled. On the opposite side, I know a woman who refuses to touch me, like I have cooties. “I don’t know where Bone has been,” she states primly. Not surprisingly, there is also jealousy. “I want to be you and travel the world,” a good friend in Sacramento told me.

Some people act like I have cooties. This woman almost dropped me and then washed her hands! –Bone

Her daughter, on the other hand, so to speak, understands proper bone etiquette and respect. –Bone

Q:  What is your favorite thing to do?

A. Visit graveyards; there are lots of old bones there. My favorite grave is Smokey Bear’s in Capitan, New Mexico. I once stood on his tombstone for ten minutes trying to communicate but all I could get was something about ‘growling and a prowling and a sniffing the air.’ A close second is the grave of Calamity Jane in Deadwood, South Dakota. What a woman! These are difficult choices, though, when you toss in the likes of Hemingway, Daniel Boone and Billy the Kid. On the light side I once visited Ben and Jerry’s graveyard of discarded ice cream flavors in Vermont. My spookiest experience was a visit to the Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Bones, in Evora, Portugal. Those folks definitely have a skeleton in their closet, lots of them.

Bone has a special fondness for unusual graves. Here he hangs out with Billy the Kid in New Mexico. Has he been in a shoot out? Is that blood on his vest?

Q: So, what’s your second most favorite?

A. Too hard; I am a dilettante dabbler, but here are a few.

  • Wandering, of course, anywhere and everywhere and by all modes: bikes, kayaks, rafts, skis, backpacks, sailboats, planes, helicopters, trains, cars, RVs, etc.
  • Visiting wild, remote and beautiful natural areas. I started life wandering the Sierra Nevada Mountains, John Muir’s Range of Light.
  • Seeking out the strange such as ghosts and aliens (I’ve been to Roswell four times).
  • Attending unique events like Burning Man but I also have a fondness for any type of fair.
  • Meeting weird people like Tom.

Bone backpacking on the John Muir Trail.

Tom being eaten by a bony desert monster.

Q: Speaking of Tom, he and Curt ‘discovered’ you in 1977 and you have wandered extensively with both. Which do you like best?

A. Eeyore, the jackass who can’t keep track of his tail. We’re traveling companions and he saved me from being strung up and buried on Boothill in Tombstone, Arizona. I’d robbed a bank, cheated at cards and hung out with women of questionable character. (This is what I mean by having a rich fantasy life. It’s also known as evasion.)

“I was in deep trouble in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp had arrested me for robbing a bank and Doc Holiday was checking me for weapons.”

“My life as Bone was in serious jeopardy.”

“Odds were I was going to end up on Boothill, along with Billy Clanton.”

“But then the ever brave Eeyore came to my rescue! I hopped on his back and we went riding off into the sunset while leaping over large rocks.”

Q: Which of your journeys has been most memorable?

A. I would have to say traveling the length of Africa in the back of a truck from the Sahara Desert in the north to Cape Town in the south. Almost falling off the back of a riverboat into a piranha infested section of the Amazon River would have to be a close second. I was perched on the back railing doing a photo shoot. And then, of course, there was the 10,000-mile bike trip.

“I was much smarter when I rafted down the Colorado. I wore a life jacket!”

“That didn’t protect me from pirates. The dreaded pirate Steve held a knife to my throat and demanded to know where I buried my treasure.”

Q: You are often seen scrambling over rocks in remote sections of the Southwestern United States. What’s that all about?

A. I’ve developed a fondness for Native American Rock art. It resonates with my bone-like nature. It’s also another excuse to go wandering around in the outdoors. Plus, some those places might be haunted and it is a great place to look for UFOs. Some of the petroglyphs look amazingly like aliens. Finally, wandering in the desert is known to be good for the soul. Ask the Prophets of yore.

“How can this guy and his strange dog not be aliens?”

“Here I am making tracks across White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. It’s a great place to watch out for UFOs.”

Q: Ah, being a born-again bone, do you have any insights into the great unknown?

A. Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Q: Finally, and this may be a little sensitive, but do you always run around naked?

A. What kind of a question is that? Do you think I am uncivilized? For shame. I am the epitome of haute couture! A bow and arrow toting, card-carrying NRA member in Montana has designed and made me two leather vests. What’s more, an 80 plus year old woman in Kansas going on 20 with a crush on Johnny Depp and a room devoted to the Egyptian gods has made me a kilt and several other outfits. Then there is the horse woman actress in Ohio whose husband is an ex-secret service agent who has promised me an outfit and the artist head of a PR firm in the Bahamas who has promised me another. Face it; I am hot stuff, clothed or naked. I may take up a modeling career.

Rod Hilton fashions a new leather vest for bone.

“My Bahamian/Canadian friend makes me a new vest in the wilds of Montana.” 

Bone, wearing his newly made kilt, fights off a ferocious sea monster in a scene straight out of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’

MONDAY’S POST: Back to the Grand Canyon.

Up Close and Personal with Piranhas on the Amazon River… The Wednesday Photo Essay

Fishing for piranhas

How do you take the hook out of a piranha’s mouth. Carefully! When one fell off the hook into the bottom of our boat and started flopping around and snapping its teeth, all feet immediately went up into the air.

 

It’s photo Wednesday and today I will be featuring a trip that Peggy and I took up the Amazon. It was the pre-digital age and the photos produced by our camera weren’t quite as clear as we produce now, but I felt we did a fair job of capturing our experience. Enjoy.

Whenever I think of the world’s great rivers, associations pop into my mind. The Mississippi immediately throws me back into early American history with Mark Twain and riverboats. The Nile takes me even further back in time to Ancient Egypt and pyramids. I think of Hindus plunging into frigid waters when I picture the Ganges. The Yangtze or Cháng Jiāng carries me off to the heart of China and the ‘mysterious East.’ The Danube makes me want to get up and slow-dance— thank you Strauss. And, I imagine exotic adventures when I think of the Congo or Niger. All of this relates to the fact that I am an incurable romantic fascinated with both history and adventure.

But nothing spells exotic for me like the Amazon. The river with its 1,100 tributaries provides a seemingly infinite number of opportunities to get lost. One could easily spend a lifetime exploring the river and unlocking the secrets of the massive rainforest the river and tropical rains supports. More than 20% of the world’s oxygen and fresh water comes from the region. And it is one of the world’s richest centers of biodiversity.

Amazon parrot

One third of the world’s birds, some 1500 species, can be found in the Amazon. This parrot stopped by for a visit. Every evening large numbers would fly between the trees in the forest canopy.

Curt Mekemson searching for wildlife on Amazon River

I spent a lot of time checking out the shores and canopy for birds and wildlife.

Catpillars on tree in Amazon Rainforest

Our trips ashore introduced us to some of the more exotic insect life such as this parade of caterpillars that somehow reminded me of a dancing Kokopelli from Native American mythology. All that was lacking was his flute.

Kokopelli

Kokopelli playing his flute as he appears on a drink coaster of ours. The girls were said to go crazy over him.

Peggy and my journey into the Amazon was tame as such adventures go. Still, we managed to work in a five-day river boat trip out of Manaus and a stay at a tree house lodge up in the rainforest canopy where we hung out with monkeys and slept in a bed that Jimmy Carter had once occupied. Our riverboat trip introduced us to the rainforest plus gave us a slight flavor of life on the river— including fishing for and eating piranhas. It was the law of the jungle: Eat or be eaten. (Grin)

On today’s photo essay, I will feature our river boat trip. Next week, we will hang out with the monkeys.

Amazon Clipper on tributary of Amazon River

Our boat, the Amazon Clipper, settled in for the night on the Rio Negro. Our crew would tie it off to trees in the rainforest.

View out window of river boat on the Amazon

The view out our port-side window.

The Amazon Clipper river boat

A closer view of the boat. Six cabins provided space for passengers. The top deck served as an excellent viewing platform.

Peggy Mekemson assuming a Titanic pose on an Amazon riverboat

Peggy also used it for a Titanic-type pose. I would add that the deck made an excellent location for evening cocktails.

Map of South America

Our journey into the rainforest took us to the city of Manaus which is located at the confluence of the Amazon River and its tributary, the Rio Negro some 1000 miles above where the Amazon runs into the Atlantic Ocean.

Manaus and Rio Negro River

Our riverboat journey would take us out of Manaus, up the Rio Negro River, through the numerous channels of the the Anavihanas, and to the community of Novo Airao. First, however, we boated down to the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon near the # 319 marker where the dark waters of the Rio Negro meet the lighter waters of the Amazon. (Photo from Google Maps.)

Meeting of Amazon and Rio Negro

They call it the ‘mixing of the water’ where the Rio Negro meets the Amazon.

Tributary to Rio Negro

The braided channels of the Anavihanas brought the rainforest in close to the boat.

Amazon Rainforest

Evening in the Anavihanas on the Rio Negro River

An evening view.

Bone with river boat pilot on Amazon River

Bone took his trick at the helm.

Bone on tributary to Amazon River

And then posed for a photo-op on the rear railing. It almost turned into a disaster as the boat sped up. I leapt up and just caught Bone as he started to fall into the piranha infested waters! I guess if you have to go…

Piranha dinner

Later, as I noted above, we took the boat’s skiff and went fishing for piranhas. These fellows made a tasty treat.

Peggy swimming in Amazon

Peggy gave the piranhas their chance for revenge but no one bit. (The crew assured us that this section of the river was piranha free.)

Covered boat on Rio Negro River in Amazon Rainforest

We saw a number of small boats along the river…

Small boat on Rio Negro River in Brazil

House boat on Amazon

Home along Rio Negro in Bazil

And houses.

Homes along Amazon

We stopped here and went for a walk in the forest.

Brazilian with machete

This fellow split open a Brazil nut with his machete and gave us all a taste.

Tree platform for hunting in the Amazon Rainforest

While another machete wielding man showed off a hunter’s platform.

Rubber tree in Brazil

Rubber trees provided the wealth that drove the development of Manaus in the 1800s. Rubber is made from the sap that comes from the cuts in the tree.

Igreja Santo Angelo - Novo Airao, Amazonas Brazil

The town of Novo Airao gave us a feel for how people lived in Brazil’s rainforest communities. This is the church of Igreja Santo Angelo.

Cartoon building in Novo Airao, Brazil

We were amused by the cartoon characters that decorated what was probably a school.

Open market in Nova, Airao, Brazil

This open market reminded me of the shops in Gbarnga, Liberia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Dog in Nova Airao, Brazil

And this handsome dog reminded me of Do-Your-Part, the basenji that adopted me in Liberia.

Business in Nova Airao, Brazil

Another typical town building.

Flower in Novo Airao Brazil

We found this flower on a walk through the town…

Breadfruit in Amazon

And what I assumed was breadfruit.

Boats at Nova Airao, Brazil

The boats were on the waterfront of Nova Airao.

Peggy Mekemson sleeping on Amazon River boat.

While I could never break myself away from watching for birds, snakes and wildlife, Peggy found a comfortable place to snooze on our way back to Manaus.

Apartment complex Manaus, Brazil

Manaus is a bustling city. I liked the unique apartment house on the left, boxes stacked on top of each other and leaning slightly to the right.

Amazon boats in Manaus Brazil

Passenger boats are lined up along the waterfront to begin the thousand mile journey down to the ocean and points in between. Their schedule is that they leave when they are full!

Sunset on the Amazon River

I’ll close today’s post with a couple of photos of the sun setting on the Amazon.

Sunset on the Amazon

FRIDAY’S POST: Reading guarantees that I become a wanderer.

SATURDAY AND SUNDAY: Since Bone is traveling with us on our trip through the Grand Canyon, I introduce him/her to those of you who don’t know the small fellow with a huge personality and ego to match. Sunday’s post includes an interview.

MONDAY’S POST: I kick off our raft trip through the Grand Canyon with a fervent wish that I had spent more time getting in shape!

WEDNESDAY’S POST: Peggy and I continue our Amazon adventure with me ending up with a monkey on my head and Peggy with one in her lap.

 

 

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Homeland Security Goes Searching for a Bomb… Rafting through the Grand Canyon: Part 3

Essential Grand Canyon supplies DG

All of my wilderness experiences have been motivated by a go-light philosophy when it comes to food, which makes sense if you carry it on your backs. River runners, on the other hand, have rafts to carry everything. Other rules apply. Extra pounds don’t matter. And if you are going to carry all of these oranges, you might as well carry some alcohol to mix with your orange juice. (Photo by Don Green.)

 

The fact that we were full-time travelers made our Grand Canyon trip easier. There was no house, mail, job, pet or the other factors of normal life to worry about. We just pointed our van toward Flagstaff and drove, stopping along the way at places like Arches and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

Bryce Canyon

While our fellow rafters were scurrying to wrap up business to prepare for our 18-day raft trip though the Grand Canyon, Peggy and I were visiting Nationals Parks in Utah. This is Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon 1

Another view of Bryce.

Great adventures usually start with mundane tasks, as most of you know. For example, did you cancel the paper? Common sense, travel pundits, (and probably your mother) admonish you that devious burglars have nothing better to do than to cruise the streets looking for rolled newspapers in front of your home.

More importantly, what about the cat?

Once upon a time Peggy and I had a cat named FE. Vacations meant I would carefully measure out twice as much food and water as she could possibly eat or drink and four times the kitty litter she might use. The likelihood of her using our house as a litter box was much greater that the likelihood of her starving. As a reward for my thoughtfulness, she would shed enough fur in our absence to fill a dump truck. For weeks after we arrived home, she would also pad into our bedroom in the wee hours each night and meow loudly to make sure we hadn’t abandoned her again. Or possibly it was punishment…

FE and Sylvester dressed for Christmas

FE and her buddy, Sylvester, dressed for Christmas. Note FE’s Rudolph-red nose. I recall that a bit of photoshopping was required to get her ready for the Christmas letter.

We weren’t getting off scot-free on preparation for the river trip, however. In Flagstaff, we had food to worry about. Lots of it. Tom Lovering, his wife Beth and their friend Jamie Wilson arrived in Flagstaff three days in advance of our Colorado River trip. Their car was packed to the brim with empty ammo cans for things like cameras and huge ice chests for food. They were late.

The Department of Homeland Security had delayed their journey at Hoover Dam. The Agency is paranoid about mad bombers, rightfully so. And this was before the new bridge across the river had been completed; people still had to drive across the dam. A vehicle packed with C-4 could conceivably blow a big hole. Stern faced agents carrying guns were posted at each entrance. No smiling was allowed. Homeland Security’s normally low sense of humor (have you ever joked about a bomb during a security check at an airport) dropped to zero when the agents saw all the ammo cans Tom had packed in his vehicle. Rafters love these containers because they are waterproof and easily obtainable at Army Surplus stores. You can imagine what went through the minds of the agents. The whole car had to be unpacked and each ammo can carefully checked out.

Tom Lovering

This was the face that Tom greeted the Homeland Security agents with— furry but friendly. His looks were about to change…

Tom getting a do

Tom getting a ‘do’ in Flagstaff…

Tom Lovering with horns

What if Tom would have met the agents looking like this with green horns? We still might be waiting for him in Flagstaff.

Tom is even more paranoid about food than DHS is about terrorists. In addition to being a highly experienced rafter and trip leader, he’s an old restaurateur who had spent months planning the menu.  Each dish had been tested several times and quantities had been measured down to the teaspoon. Recipes were spelled out in minute detail. We would eat gourmet on the trip and cook it Tom’s way— or die. The options were clear.

Beth, Peggy and I were dispatched to Sam’s Club with marching orders. We filled seven large shopping carts with food. Think of it this way. There were 16 people going on an 18-day trip and eating three meals a day. This equaled 864 individual meals.

When we arrived back at the motel, Tom and Jamie had set up a staging area. Food needed to be organized by meal and day and then stuffed in the appropriate containers. The containers would then be assigned to rafts. It was important that we knew where to find the beer.

Large food containers for Grand Canyon trip

Large food chests waited for us when we got back to our motel. Each would be filled with food. Dry ice would be added to keep our food fresh for 18-days.

We still had to shop for perishables and more food was also coming from Sacramento. Our room, we discovered, was to be the recipient of most of the food. Apparently, it was written into the fine print of being ‘permit holder.’ There was barely space to sleep. Not that we slept much. Soon, we would be on the river! But first, Bone had to be appropriately dressed for his trip.

Supplies for Grand Canyon trip

We went to Safeway to purchase our perishable goods, and once more our small RV was filled to the brim.

Gear and food Grand Canyon trip

We discovered that the majority of the large food containers would be stowed in our room. With our own gear spread out on the bed, it was questionable if we would have room to sleep! Tom provides a perspective on the size of the ice chests. The yellow container is an ammunition can.

Bone in life vest

One of our final responsibilities was to make sure that Bone was adequately dressed for the trip in his PFD. Once, he almost fell off a boat in the piranha infested water of the Amazon. It would not do to lose him in the roaring rapids of the Colorado. Next Saturday and Sunday, I will provide background on Bone since he was an active participant on the river trip.

Loading truck for Grand Canyon trip DG

Finally, it was time to load our food and gear on this truck for transport down to Lee’s Ferry and the beginning of the trip. The truck was completely stuffed by the time we were finished. We were finally on our way! (Photo by Don Green.)

 

WEDNESDAY’S Photo Essay POST: A river boat trip on the Amazon River. The piranhas are biting and we bite back.

FRIDAY’S MisAdventure’s POST: There is nothing like reading to seduce you into becoming a wanderer.

MONDAY’S Travel Blog POST: We start our raft journey through the Grand Canyon with 30 MPH headwinds. So much for a peaceful (between rapids) float down the Colorado!

 

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Peggy Wins the Lottery… Rafting through the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Mule trip into Grand Canyon

I have journeyed into the Grand Canyon several times over the years. The first was in the late 60s. That’s me, second from the top on Charlie the mule. I was heavier than Charlie liked, so he kept trying to bite me. He also walked as close to the thousand foot drop off as he could. His ultimate revenge, however, was that I was sore for a week afterwards!

 

Having reported on being in Flagstaff for the beginning of our raft trip down the Colorado River on last Monday’s travel blog, I thought I should back up a step and tell you how we got there.

It started with a strange phone call.

Peggy and I were in the middle of a three-year trip around North American in our small RV when the phone rang late one night. It was 10:00 p.m., far past the time I normally accept calls. They make me grumpy. Usually they are from a Nigerian Prince who wants to make me incredibly wealthy. All I have to do is send him a thousand bucks. But this was from my old friend Tom Lovering. I’m used to him calling at weird hours. He has zero sense of what constitutes a normal day and fervently believes that no one else should either.

He wanted me to immediately stop whatever I was doing (sleeping), jump on-line, and apply for a private permit to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Permits are scarce and the number of people who apply could fill a rock concert. So the Park Service does an open lottery for interested folks. Odds of getting a permit are small— teeny tiny— and Tom wanted to increase his. He’d been scrolling through his list of friends and had already talked a number of people into applying. The clock was ticking; the lottery closed at midnight. Given the late hour, I must have been near the end of Tom’s likely candidates, which isn’t surprising. I know zilch about running rapids.

Thrill sports aren’t my thing. I have always figured that the type of outdoor things I do (like bicycling 10,000 miles around North America by myself, or disappearing into grizzly bear country alone) have enough inherent danger without my challenging raft-eating, people swallowing rapids, or climbing up the sheer face of a thousand-foot rock. Not that I have any problem with the sports. In fact, I have nothing but admiration for people who have the skill and temerity to pursue them and make a career out of flipping off the old guy in a hoodie who carries a big scythe.

My normal response would have been, “Sure, Tom, I’ll get right on it,” followed by promptly rolling over and going back to sleep. But this wasn’t accounting for the love of my life, Peggy, who actually likes water sports and enjoys jumping off cliffs. During college, she had actually attended a session of the Nantahala White Water School in North Carolina where you learn to maneuver rafts through raging rapids. She followed up on Tom’s request immediately: jumping on-line and putting in for a permit— in my name.

I was checking my E-mail the next morning when I came across the note from the National Park Service: “Congratulations you have won a permit for you and 15 other people to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon! We will be sending you a 5000-page document (slight exaggeration) that outlines your responsibilities.” Oh joy. I called Tom immediately. He was the experienced river runner. He had promised the night before that if, by some miracle I did win, he would take full responsibility for organizing and leading the event. It’s a huge job that takes considerable knowledge about white water rafting.

At first, Tom didn’t believe me. He thought I was joking. Neither he nor any of his rafting buddies had won a Canyon permit in several years. And then he was ecstatic. Yes, he would recruit experienced boat people and their boats for the trip! Yes, he would make all necessary arrangements. Yes, he would plan the menus and organize the food! Yes, he would lead the adventure!

Then the other shoe dropped. Doesn’t it always? I was, after all, “the permit holder.” It was my job to turn in paperwork. But I also had serious responsibilities. If anything went wrong; it was on my shoulders. This ranged from people pooping in the wrong places, to how we washed our dishes, to more serious things. The Park Service had a long list of safety and environmental concerns. I’d be signing on the dotted line. There would be an inspection before we left!

I admit I had concerns. But these were countered by the fact that I love the Grand Canyon. I have returned to it numerous times over the years. I have both hiked and backpacked into it. One time I rode mules into the Canyon. Another time I flew in by helicopter. And I am perfectly happy just sitting on the edge and staring out into the vast space at the incredible rock formations. I did that for Christmas one year (and many other times). Floating down the Colorado would give me a totally new perspective. I was almost as excited as Tom and Peggy. Almost.

Between three tours of duty as a Marine helicopter pilot in Iraq and then serving as a Coast Guard pilot flying rescue missions, our son Tony did a brief stint of flying tourists over the Grand Canyon and into the Havasupai Indian village in the canyon.  When he flew Peggy and me into the village, he was playing the theme song from Star Wars as he swooped down past the steep cliffs.

Waterfalls at Havusupai

This gorgeous waterfall was the main attraction at the Havasupai Village.

I am sitting on the edge of the Colorado River, red with mud.  Peggy and I had backpacked down the Tanner Trail retracing a solo trip I had made several years earlier. Our raft trip would bring us through this section of the Canyon and over the Tanner Rapids. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Occasionally, backpacking through the Canyon requires a bit of scrambling.

But you don’t have to hike or backpack into the canyon, or raft, or fly, or ride grouchy mules to enjoy the beauty of the Canyon. You can drive up, and enjoy numerous pull-offs that give you incredible views. Short walks provide many more. Be sure to include early morning and late afternoon to capture the full beauty.

Grand Canyon 38

The rocks come in a seemingly infinite number of shapes and colors.

A final view.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: We travel to the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

FRIDAY’S POST: I learn that there is more to life than dead people.

MONDAY’S POST: And why is Homeland Security checking out our food containers for a bomb on the our Grand Canyon rafting adventure?

 

 

Hopi Gods and Squirrelly Squirrels… Rafting the Grand Canyon: Part 1

Rowing on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon

While a veteran crew of boatmen handled the more dangerous parts of our 18 day journey through the Grand Canyon, I was allowed near oars on some of the tamer sections.

 

Since Peggy and I will actually be hanging out at our home in Southern Oregon for a couple of months and not generating new material for my travel blog, I thought I would dip back in time to the very beginning of my posts.  I had attended a writer’s conference in San Francisco during the winter of 2010 and been told that writers need an Internet presence. I felt doing a series on an 18-day trip we had just completed rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon would make an excellent start. It was an epic-adventure, one that was burned into my memory banks.  Part of the experience was that Peggy and I would be traversing some of the earth’s most challenging rapids with a true cast of characters. That alone was enough to make it an epic adventure, but even more important, at least for me, was that we would be traveling through the heart of the Grand Canyon, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Please join us on this adventure. By the end, I think you will see why the Grand Canyon has earned its world-class status. I will start with Peggy and me in Flagstaff, Arizona getting ready for our adventure…

 

Tom and Bone

One of the ‘cast of characters’ and our group leader, Tom Lovering with Bone in his hair. Tom and I had found Bone when we were backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1977 and he has traveled the world ever since.

Five squirrels with long tufted ears just went charging past our van— in a row. I think it must be love and Peggy agrees. We speculate that a female is leading the boys on a glorious romp. “Catch me if you can!” she giggles. It’s that time of the year when the Albert Squirrels are excited to make babies and perpetuate the species. Lust is in their hearts. Or maybe it’s just the guys working out territorial differences.

Someone they won’t be mating with are their northern cousins, the Kaibab Squirrels. It isn’t that they couldn’t or wouldn’t if they could, it’s just that the giant hole in the ground known as the Grand Canyon is too deep and too wide for them to cross. As a result, a new species has been created. Scientists and natural history folks call this process allopatric speciation— a pair of two-bit words for sure.

We are located at a KOA in Flagstaff, Arizona as we prepare for our raft trip down the Colorado River. It’s a big campground. Everywhere we look men and women wearing yellow shirts are busily preparing for the onslaught of summer tourists. It feels like a beehive, or squirrel’s nest. The camp cook tells us 28 people work here. Jobs are highly specialized. The man who straightens misplaced rocks stopped by to chat with us this morning.

Yesterday we watched two employees struggle for an hour on laying out the base of Teepee. It had all the flavor of an old Laurel and Hardy film. They kept measuring and re-measuring the angles. I expected one to leap up and start chasing the other around camp with a 2×4.

We wonder what the Kachina deities who live in the San Francisco Mountains overlooking our campground think about the squirrelly activity taking place beneath them. There are bunches of them up there, over 300 according to Hopi lore, and each one has a lesson to teach, wisdom to disperse. They come down from their perch in the winter to share their knowledge. I’m sure that they would have made quick work of the Teepee project.

Peggy and I hike up the mountain following Fat Man’s trail. Of course, there is no irony here as we desperately try to beat our bodies into shape for the Canyon trip. We’ve been out travelling in our van for months and the pounds have accumulated. The trail’s name suggests this is a gentle start. Instead it takes us straight up into a snowstorm. The Kachinas are rumored to mislead people under such circumstances. I once spent a week up on the mountain by myself and restricted my wandering to fair weather.

Grand Canyon rock formation

I’ve sometimes wondered what, if any, role that rock formations in the Grand Canyon influenced how the Hopi Indians pictured their Kachina gods.

Once they had the mountain to themselves but now they have competition. Technology has arrived— modern gods. Tower after tower bristling with arrays of tracking, listening and sending devices look out over the sacred lands of the Hopi, Navaho and other Native Americans.

It’s hard not to think Big Brother is watching or not be disturbed by the towers’ visual intrusion. But their presence means we can get cell phone coverage and climb on the Internet. We are addicted to these modern forms of communication so it is hypocritical to whine, at least too much.

But back to the squirrel theme, Peggy and I are a little squirrelly ourselves as we go through our gear and get ready for our grand adventure. I am nervous. This is my first multi-day river trip. What have we gotten ourselves into? Do we have the equipment we need? Will we survive the rapids? What will the people who are joining us be like? What challenges will we face that we are ill prepared for? There are many questions and few answers.

Would people who should not be let near knives suddenly be wielding them?

Would Canyon spirits stalk us?

Would we be required to paint our toenails so our rafts wouldn’t flip.

 

A note on photos: Peggy and I took most of the pictures that will be included in these posts on the Grand Canyon trip. Our friend Don Green was also along, however, and has generously shared his photos with us. I will note which photos are his.

WEDNESDAY’s Photo Essay POST: It’s back to the featuring the beautiful red rocks of Sedona, Arizona.

FRIDAY’S Blog a Book POST: The next chapter in MisAdventures sees my brother and I in a death-defying race to the top of the 75-foot tall Incense Cedar in the Graveyard.

MONDAY’S Travel Blog POST: It’s all about food, seemingly tons of it, as we make our final preparations for the Colorado River trip. Homeland Security puts a crimp in our efforts as it checks our supply for bombs.

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Want a Small House— Think Narrowboat… A Trip on the Trent and Mersey Canal: Part 2

Swan in black and white on Trent and Mersey Canal

Graceful swans share the Trent and Mersey Canal with narrowboats. I decided to render this fellow in black and white to emphasize its feathers and show how swans tuck their wings over their backs.

 

This is my second post on the Trent and Mersey Canal. My first post took us from Sawley to Burton upon Trent. In today’s post, Peggy and I, along with her sister and brother-in-law, Jane and Jim Hagedorn, visit Burton on Trent and return to Sawley. 

 

Josiah Wedgewood’s concern about his pottery was a driving force behind the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal in the 1770s. Too many of his fine dishes were being broken when they were transported over the bumpy, rough roads of the time. A canal would provide for smooth sailing, or, at least smooth boating, and every industrialist wanted one to connect his plant with growing markets. For a brief period of time in the early industrial revolution, canals were the in-thing. Hundreds were built throughout England and Europe— as well as in the youthful United States.

Jilly Dee Narrowboat

This painting on the Jilly-Dee narrowboat spoke of earlier times on the canals when manufactured goods were carried on barges towed by horses and mules.

The painting reminded me of Erie Canal in New York state and one of the first songs I learned in elementary school. Here it is:

I’ve got a mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
We hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal and hay
We know every inch of the way
From Albany to Buffalo

Low bridge, everybody down
Low bridge, we’re coming to a town
You’ll always know your neighbor
And you’ll always know your pal
If you ever navigated on the Erie Canal.

It was one of my favorite tunes, right up there with Old Dog Tray. I was particularly enamored with the idea of having a mule as a pal.

We passed under several low bridges during our trip, but none made us duck. Fortunately, our journey didn’t involve any of the long, low tunnels located on other parts of England’s canal system. I read that the earliest tunnel on the Trent and Mersey Canal was so low that the boatmen would lay down on their backs and push the boat through with their feet, using the top of the tunnel for leverage— for a mile! The mere thought of this sent claustrophobic twinges through my body!

Low Bridge on Trent and Mersey Canal

“Low bridge, everybody down!”

Railroads and modern highways made canals obsolete for transporting goods and would have spelled their doom except for the interest of historians, hobbyists, and the recreational industry starting in the 1950s. Recreation is booming today and numerous people have also discovered that narrowboats can provide the ultimate in an inexpensive, small house lifestyle for those with a gypsy nature. Sounds good to me. Most of these homes are uniquely decorated and come with interesting names like Belly Button, Idunno, and In the Mood. Others, such as Nomad Dreams, Sacagawea, and Gone Roaming, suggested the wandering nature of their owners.

Belly Button narrowboat on Trent and Mersey Canal

Narrowboats that people use for homes are often gaily painted and uniquely named!

Narrow boat dog on barrel on Trent and Mercy Canal

One of the boats had this painted barrel sitting on top…

Narrowboat dog on Trent and Mercy Canal

And then we spotted the model!

Peggy, Jim, Jane and I explored Burton upon Trent, spent the night, and then began our journey back on the Trent and Mersey Canal to the Sawley Marina. Once again, we enjoyed the challenge of piloting our 65-foot boat around obstacles and through locks, while appreciating the beauty and peace of the British countryside. Our most exciting moment was when Jim decided to park our boat up on the bank…

View near St. Pauls in Burton upon Trent

We wandered around admiring buildings in Burton.

Gargoyle on St. Paul's church in Burton on Trent

And found this gargoyle with its tongue sticking out at St. Paul’s Church.

Row houses and chimneys in Burton upon the Trent

Row houses, chimneys and threatening skies provided a photo-op…

Marston's brewery in Burton upon Trent

Marston’s original brewery is located in Burton on Trent and has been a longterm mainstay of the city’s economy. I went onto Marston’s website and found this quote: “No Marston’s, no beer, no beer, no Burton.”

Bargain booze in Burton upon Trent

Of course beer wasn’t the only alcohol available…

Carved kingfisher sculpture with fish in Burton upon Trent

Walking back to the canal, we were reminded by this carved kingfisher of the birds that make the canal their home.

Swan profile on Trent and Mersey Canal

Including swans and their Canadian Geese cousins.

Mallard moves along on Trent and Mersey Canal

A mallard moved along on some important mission…

Swans mating on Trent and Mersey Canal

While a pair of swans decided to make babies.

Baby ducks on Trent and Mersey Canal

Of which the mallards had already contributed a substantial number. There was no lack of baby ducks on our trip back…

Swan and narrowboats on Trent and Mersey Canal

Or swans.

Resting cattle along Trent and Mersey Canal

Cattle enjoyed a moment of sun…

Peggy Mekemson enjoying sunshine on Trent and Mersey Canal

As did Peggy!

Scenic view along Trent and Mersey Canal

We all continued to enjoy the scenery and serenity along the Trent and Mersey.

Buildings along Trent and Mersey Canal

Including the buildings.

Narrowboat with rain cover on Trent and Mersey Canal

And other narrowboats. This boater had created a canvas pilot house as protection from the elements. There were occasions when we were envious.

Poling narrowboat off shore on Trent and Mersey Canal

Our progress was delayed when Jim decided to park us on the bank. That’s when we really learned just how heavy our boat was.

Double-wide lock on Trent and Mersey Canal

Locks continued to slow us down as well. This was a double-wide. Just barely.

Church near Sawley Marina

When we spotted this steeple, we knew that we were close to home.

Sawley Marina

And thus we arrived.

Intrepid narrowboat crew in Burton on Trent and Mersey Canal

A final shot of Peggy, Jane, Jim and our moored boat.

 

SATURDAY’S POST: It’s back to blogging my book on MisAdventures. This time I hire the family pets to protect me from the dangerous ghosts that live in the graveyard next to my childhood home.

MONDAY’S POST: Peggy and I return to our before-Christmas adventure along Washington’s coast.

WEDNESDAY’S POST: A photograph essay on Scotland, which is where we went after our narrowboat trip.

 

Piloting a 60-foot long, 6-foot wide Narrowboat along England’s Trent and Mersey Canal: Part 1

 

Scenic reflection shot along Trent and Mercy Canal

Operating a narrowboat along Britain’s scenic Trent and Mersey Canal became a bucket list item for us as soon as we learned about the possibility.

To call me a boat person would be a very serious misnomer. Backpacker definitely— that’s where my true passion lies. It gets me into the wilderness. But boating, as a general rule, is something I’ve done little of. There are exceptions.

Peggy and I have boated up the Amazon, rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and kayaked in numerous places throughout North America. I’ve canoed across the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska and down the Sacramento River of California. Peggy and I have even cruised the Mediterranean and crossed the Atlantic. And I’ve tried my hand at fishing for marlin off the coast of Mexico. Mainly, I see boats like I do bicycles, however: as a way of getting me to places I want to see. Bicycling or boating as sports in themselves have little appeal to me.

Our boat, the Amazon Clipper, docked for the evening deep in the rainforest on the Rio Negro River, Brazil.

Peggy and I enter the infamous Lava Falls on the Colorado River, a perfect ten… that’s 10 as in rapids don’t get any more serious. Shortly after that the boat, our boatman Steve, Peggy and I disappeared under the water. Happily, we resurfaced. (Photo by Don Green)

Sea Kayak Adventure kayaks roped together in small inlet on Hanson Island. Photo by Curtis Mekemson.

I took this photo of our kayaks off of Vancouver Island while we were at lunch. The kayaks were roped together so they wouldn’t run away.

Given my mixed feelings about boating, I found myself surprised that I enjoyed piloting a narrow-boat along England’s Trent and Mersey Canal. There was something about making the 60-foot long, 6-foot wide boat go where it was supposed to, including into boat-wide locks, that I found both challenging and gratifying. It helped that we were only traveling 3-4 miles per hour (4.8-6.4 k)! Peggy and I had invited her sister Jane and brother-in-law Jim along with us on the 2011 adventure. While Jim and I took turns at the helm, Peggy and Jane operated the locks.

Instructions for piloting the boat and working the locks were provided when we arrived. Peggy reminded me that we had less than an hour of instruction before being turned loose with out 60-foot long, several ton vessel. I can only imagine how experienced boat people along the Trent and Mersey Canal view newbies coming out of the marina. Peggy and Jane’s lesson on operating the locks was more like 15 minutes! But we did have instruction sheets.

What it looks like from the helm of a narrowboat

This is what our boat looked like from the helm. Let’s just say that I was more than a little nervous when I took my first turn.

Jim researching our Trent and Mercey Canal trip

Jim, who never admits to being nervous about anything, studied the manual, or maybe he was reviewing our trip.

Piloting narrowboat under bridge on Trent and Mercy Canal

The challenges we would face included maneuvering our 60-foot vessel around sharp corners under low bridges…

Piloting boat into lock on Trent and Mercy Canal

And piloting the boat into narrow locks, some of which were hardly wider than the boat. In fact, the width of the locks was the reason for creating the narrowboats. It was even more challenging when you had to slip into a lock of this width with another narrowboat while pretending to know what you were doing!

Narrowboat in lock on Trent and Mercy Canal

Fortunately, being perfectly straight wasn’t necessarily required when we had the lock all to ourselves! Water flowing in will raise our boat to the level of the upstream canal.

Peggy works lock gates on Trent and Mercy Canal

While we were mastering entering and exiting the locks, Peggy and Jane were mastering opening and closing them. Fortunately, some helpful veterans were present the first time our companions were faced with the chore.

Jane Hagedorn works lock gates on Trent and Mercy Canal

Piloting around boat on Trent and Mercy Canal

Passing other boats could be challenging when the canal was particularly narrow.

Piloting past moored boats while metting another boat on Trent and Mercy Canal

Now, picture meeting another boat when both sides of the canal are filled with moored narrowboats!

Mooring narrow boat

Another skill we had to master was mooring the boats when we stopped for the night or at a local attraction— such as a pub. Camping was free along the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Peggy doing dishes in our tiny galley

We lived on the boat, which came with a small galley, sitting room, and bathroom.

Single bed on a narrowboat

While the master bedroom had a small double bed, the other beds were barely wide enough to sleep on.

The Sawley Marina is located close to Nottingham and borders on the shires of Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. (Being close to Nottingham took me back to my childhood days and tales of Robin Hood.) Our objective was to follow the Trent and Mersey Canal to Burton upon Trent and return, a short distance of 34 miles (54.7k). The literature said we could make the trip in a leisurely three days. We chose a more leisurely six. How else could we check out all of the pubs and fine English ale along the way?

Enjoying pub along Trent and Mercy Canal

Jim, Jane and I enjoy one of the several pubs along the Canal while Peggy took the photo.

In addition to piloting the boat and checking out the pubs, there was a generous dose of bucolic beauty to enjoy along the way— as one might expect in Britain’s Midlands. Graceful swans, lots of ducks, and lazy cattle provided entertainment while walks through small villages and the larger town of Burton upon Trent gave us breaks from boating.

Direction sign on Trent and Mercy Canal

A sign takes us onto the Canal proper.

Scenic flowering tree and mustard along the Trent and Mercy Canal

There was considerable beauty along the canal and traveling at three miles per hour, we had plenty of time to enjoy it.

Scenic view with flowering tree along Trent and Mercy Canal

Since it was May, everything seemed to be in bloom.

Building along Trent and Mercy Canal

Numerous buildings along the way added interest and color.

Bridge number 11 on the Trent and Mercey Canal

Bridges also provided variety. Each one seemed different. Numbers on the bridges told us where we were.

Bridge number 13 on the Trent and Mercy Canal

The bridges also added to the beauty.

Fishing on Trent and Mercy Canal

This one included guys fishing. Check out the length of the poles!

Scenic view from under bridge on Trent and Mercy Canal

Coming out from under a bridge.

Swan and reflection on Trent and Mercy Canal

Swans, ducks and other birds provided entertainment. I liked the reflection here.

Swan nesting on Trent and Mercey Canal

Nesting.

Swan chows down on Trent and Mercy Canal

And chowing down!

Mallard hen and chicks on Trent and Mercy Canal

I’ll conclude today with this mallard hen and her chicks.

I will be posting more photos of our narrow-boat tour on Thursday. Saturday I will return to blogging my book on MisAdventures with a story of how I hired our family pets to protect me from the fearsome ghosts that lived next to our house when I was a child.