Daddy, the War and the Webcam

A solider feels the costs of war. By Chris “Chez” Chesak

In the wasteland desert of Kuwait, I crammed my gear into duffle bags, preparing to fly into Iraq for a year-long deployment. At exactly the same time on the other side of the planet, my wife was giving birth to our first child. I packed ammo pouches, desert uniforms, and gas masks then I talked to my laboring wife on a satellite phone. I hurriedly packed trucks with more gear and made back to the phone center just in time to hear that labor had actually started. Then I hopped onto a bus and headed to the air base.

I was told there would be no phones where I was going. So, I kept taking photos, of formations of soldiers, of the vast Kuwait desert, of a camel, with my watch in the foreground so that I could mark the moment when my daughter might be being born. I wanted to have that photo around so that I could say, “See honey, this is where daddy was when you were born.”

Arriving at the air base, we were told there actually was another phone center available. My heart jumped and I started to sweat, wanting the briefing to be over immediately. The arduous speeches and warnings finally done, I absconded from assisting my Idaho National Guard comrades in their gear palletizing duties, and sprinted to the phones.

When I called, Sally’s contractions in the Boise hospital room were coming faster and stronger. I burned through my third prepaid phone card of the day and had a dinner of a breakfast bar and some Army peanut butter, which was the only food in my pockets. Finally, after many calls and through the cheers of friends who were with her through the delivery, I was able to hear my daughter’s first wails from 7,000 miles away.

Two hours later, we boarded a transport plane and flew into a war zone. As I sat in the near darkness, lit only by one blue light near the front of the aircraft fuselage, I thought flatly, I’m a daddy. The words rang hollow in my head, then they quickly slipped away as I focused instead on the long deployment ahead.

12219537_10153773098411155_1624015156019177905_nOver the next five months, I had to forget about home and focus on the missions at hand. I eased Humvees through rain-soaked palm groves and over slick mud roads, shivered in guard towers through freezing winter dawns, and once spent 22 hours guarding a polling place during Iraq’s elections. Throughout it all, I received plenty of photos of Lillian from Sally. But looking at them, I could only think, Okay, we have a baby. I am a father. I felt little more than apprehension. I couldn’t stop wondering what it meant to now be a father to a baby girl, or at least to a stack of photos of her.

On one hand, I had dreamt about having a child all my life—I ran over the scene in my mind so often that I long ago determined exactly what I would say to that newborn. I often envisioned picking her up and whispering three specific things into her ear.

But on the other hand, I had no idea what it meant to be a father, as I was brand new to babies. I had zero experience handling, caring for, or loving little ones. My only knowledge of babies was hearing them cry in airplanes and seeing them throw food in restaurants.

The few babies I knew—friends’ children and my own niece—were all born while I lived far away. I was training with my National Guard unit during Sally’s entire pregnancy so I missed the nine-month ramp-up that allows most people to attempt to mentally prepare for parenthood.

Sitting in Iraq with scattered photos of a newborn, I could recognize that I had a daughter, but I had no idea what that really meant. At last, I left Iraq, heading home for two weeks of leave.

After 69 hours of processing, paperwork, briefings, repeated customs drudgery, ten time zones, four countries, and travel in Humvees, buses, two cargo planes, and three commercial jets, I walked up the Boise airport jet way, still dressed in desert camouflage, embraced Sally, and saw a baby in a stroller behind her—my five-month old daughter, my first child, Lillian.

“Who’s this?” I shouted, both out of the exuberance of being home and unabashed pride in meeting my daughter. For me, this was the emotional equivalent of the day of her birth.

Through tears, Sally choked, “This is Lillian. Lillian, meet your daddy.”

I picked her up so carefully, gave her a gentle hug, and followed-up with a quick smooch on the cheek. We immediately found seats right in the terminal, passing a woman who, having overheard our exchange, was trying to hide her tears. A United ticket agent took our picture, our first family portrait.

That day was full of firsts: the first family meal, the first smooch on the nose, neck, etc., first daddy/daughter play time, and the first diaper change. We took photos of every bit of it. But laying awake that first night, joyful to be able to reach over and hug my wife, drink clean water from a tap, sit out in my yard to watch the sun set over the Idaho foothills without having to worry about roadside bombs, I still did not know what it meant to have Lillian in my life. The next morning, I began to find out.

Waking up far too early, still jet-lagged, I woke and went into our baby’s room. As I approached her crib, Lillian’s eyes locked onto mine. She smiled, issued a lilting little coo, and then yawned a tiny yawn, complete with a flailing stretch of her plump arms. I melted.

Over the next days, I became enraptured by her staccato laughs, and her very determined attempts to crawl. I slid into bed one night and told Sally bluntly, “I think I’m in love.”

With Sally as my guide, I learned critical modern parenting skills, like how to change diapers while cradling a cell phone between neck and shoulder and how to work on the computer with one arm. I held serious phone conversations about U.S. foreign policy while sticking my tongue out to entertain Lillian. I hummed Raffi songs while in the shower. I became fiercely proud of the “Dora the Explorer” sunscreen in our car, it broadcasts loudly, “Hey, we havefamily in here!”

A few nights later, Sally asked me, “So, what is it like to be a daddy?”

The words tumbled out. “It is absolutely amazing. It is incredible. It is literally awesome.”

2005-11-27 Homecoming 117I told Sally that I almost cheered when a determined Lilli Bean fumbled her way into finally getting her pacifier into her mouth the right way. I said that, every day, I became more and more enraptured just watching her grow and learn. I loved that each time I held her up on her feet I helped her develop equilibrium, and each time I made a funny noise I helped her learn about speech. I knew that I wanted to spend every possible moment of my time with her, teaching her, guiding her, fortifying her to someday unleash her own unique self upon the world.

But you’re never really, completely home while on leave, because you cannot stop thinking about the march of time that drags onward, pulling you closer to going back to war. You are like a condemned man, constantly aware of the passing of days, then hours, yet trying to forget it all and enjoy what moments you have left at home. Just as I was starting to learn what fatherhood was, my time was up.

The night before my return flight, I mechanically packed my bags, and slipped into bed around 4:00 a.m. for a few hours of trying to sleep, my stomach sick, a sodden ball of knots. Two hours later, I put on the uniform, laced up the boots, and, contrary to everything that my soul knew was true, contrary to the voices in my mind screaming to do otherwise, I stepped out of my home, stepped into the airport, stepped onto a plane. After 72 hours of travel on five different flights, reams of paperwork, and incessant waiting in line after line of similarly camouflage-clad soldiers, I was back in the Middle East. Returning to my base, I felt empty.

Seeing my friends and having them welcome me back helped but it still took a few days to get back into the groove of patrols, Quick Reaction Force response teams, knock-and-search raids, and guard duty. But the deeper emotional damage had been done. While it was easy to ignore Lillian before, not knowing who she was, it was impossible now. I heard the laughter and the coos behind the smiling photos pinned next to my bunk. I now knew a little bit of the tiny girl in those pictures and I missed her deeply.

Soon after my return, my squad drew an extra graveyard shift of guard duty at the summer palace of Chemical Ali, the Saddam henchman responsible for gassing thousands of Iraqi Kurds. Around 3:00 a.m. I stood alone atop an abandoned building in the tightly-packed urban compound. By chance, I looked down into the courtyard of one of the homes across the street. In the dim light of the few working streetlights, I saw a mother with her fussy newborn, rocking him on a porch swing.

I felt sick. I was disgusted that I was missing such moments with my baby. My mind raced, trying to calculate the time I had left here. It was still several months. I tried to stop thinking about it. I walked the rooftop’s perimeter, machine gun in hand, trying to calm down.

Finally, I tiptoed toward the edge, just close enough so I could see her over the rooftop wall. I tried looking nonchalant, like I didn’t even notice her, but I just kept staring, watching her rock and sing to her child. I was mesmerized, and aching inside. At last, she noticed me and, probably assuming that I was just another lust-filled, gawking soldier, went briskly inside. That empty night crept by in excruciating slowness like none before.

While simply difficult before leave, the days in Iraq now became interminable. Under the hot sun, I stood sweating in the gunner’s turret of an armored Humvee and worried if Lillian was sleeping well. I stood lonely vigil in concrete guard towers, wondering what she was learning that day. I roamed the empty nighttime streets of Kirkuk, wondering who she would be when I got home. I did what I could to make the days pass—lifting weights, running supply convoys, watching laptop movies, reading books, and always patrolling. But the days dripped past with an agonizing slowness.

Some relief came from a used webcam. Several weeks after leave, we had a wireless Internet network installed and soon we were all surfing the Web and emailing loved ones directly from our bunks (indeed, this was certainly not our fathers’ war).

Each night (Sally’s morning), I watched Lillian nurse, or nap angelically on the pillow in Sally’s lap. She would occasionally lunge, grab the camera and stick the whole thing in her mouth, allowing me a glimpse of her two brand new teeth.

When Lillian was fussing, Sally texted me about how she cheered up our daughter by holding her upside down. I would see (but not hear, since I didn’t have audio) her screaming wails of laugher on my laptop screen. Soon “Upside-Down Baby” became a hit with my whole squad, sometimes with grown men running into our squad bay once they heard that ‘Upside-Down Baby’ was on. Many night,s I had several soldiers, young and old, gathered around my computer for a chance to see my daughter’s bit-mapped, upside-down face, plastered with a huge, screaming smile.

The webcam was also a nightly reminder of my absence, however. Its images were both treasure and torture. Seeing Lilian’s digitized smile made me ache. One night I saw her stand for the first time, another night she drank water from my wife’s cup, yet another night brought my first glimpse of her eating solid food. I started to understand just how many miniature victories and tiny triumphs I was missing every day. I watched her grow and learn and thrive from ten time zones away, while concussions from car bombs rattled our barracks windows.

Lying in my bunk, I stared at the photos tacked to my plywood wall and was heartbroken every night. Not only had I forgotten to tell Lillian those three little sentences that I’d so long dreamed of telling my first child, I was missing so many more milestones as she started to grow into a little girl, all while I ran about in Humvees on the other side of the world, hoping each day that someone wouldn’t blow me up, or simply pop out of a doorway and shoot me dead in the face.

Harder still was hearing about the difficulties my wife faced every day. While even her good days were a chore, the bad days were horrid. For most of the deployment, she was taking care of both house and baby alone. The car needed repairs, the grass had to be cut, the floors needed vacuuming, and the bills needed to be paid, all while Sally, alone, maintained the constant eat/sleep/excrete cycle of an infant.

Since our families both live far away, we leaned heavily on good friends in Boise, one of whom had to come over in the middle of the night when Sally was stricken by a wicked bout of food poisoning. That woman stayed over to care for Lillian and my wife for two days.

When I heard about sickness or simply heard Sally blurt on the phone, sometimes through tears, “I just want to take a nap” (or take a bath, or read a book, or simply get away from here for a little while), I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I wanted to help, to do something, anything, to just be there for her, to simply take Lillian while Sally showered, or slept, or went out for a solitary hike. But, stranded as I was on the other side of the world, there was nothing I could do.

Slowly the countdown to our departure date ticked down from triple-digits, to double, and then, almost unbelievably, to single days. Our stoic, stone-faced replacements arrived and, soon, we cheered the takeoff of each flight toward home: the transport to Kuwait, the chartered jet through Ireland to Fort Lewis, Washington, and then one last, short flight back to Boise.

Amidst the signs and balloons of the small crowd of families gathered on the tarmac, I found my wife. We didn’t say a thing, just held each other and kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed. After loading my duffle bags into the back of our car, Sally offered Lillian to me and I held my daughter in my arms again, gazing into her big gray eyes. Wide-eyed, she stared back for a moment, then turned to her mother and pushed me away. She didn’t know who I was.

Lillian not knowing me is but one of the myriad intangible casualties of warfare and as old as warfare itself. Two other soldiers that I deployed with also missed births of their children. Sixteen years before I missed Lillian’s birth, a former Marine in my unit stood knee-deep in blowing snow in a rice paddy in Korea when another Marine handed him a telegram and said curtly, “Congratulations.” The telegram said he’d had a son born that day. He smiled, put the telegram in his pocket, and kept on training. (He still has the telegram.) While my father was missing his share of his children’s birthdays and a wedding anniversary during his year-long stint in the highlands of Vietnam, he had only letters and the occasional reel-to-reel tape recording with which to stay in touch with his family.

In Iraq, there were 4,000 other people in my Brigade, 150,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq that year alone, and that was just one war, one war of so many. While the terrible numbers of deaths by roadside bombs, vehicle rollovers, and helicopter crashes was (rightly) spread across the front page and technicians at Walter Reed Medical Center tracked the total number of limbs lost, there are no statistics for the even more numerous intangible costs of war. No one counts the number of nightmares veterans will have for the rest of their lives, forever plagued by incoming RPG rounds, burning Humvees, and charred pieces of children. No one keeps count of veterans’ total divorces and break-ups, the newfound paranoias, the discomfort around fireworks and automobile backfires, the flashbacks, the spousal abuses, or the alcoholic benders. And no one will count the days that all those military parents missed playing with children far, far away.

For me at least, I had made it home whole and I could start counting anew the days spent with Lillian. Iraq began to fade, ever so slowly, into memory as I jumped into a few weeks of accelerated ‘Daddy School’ where Sally taught me how to feed our daughter, play with her, get her into and out of her car seat and secure her while she slept.

One day, I was holding her as we danced in the middle of the living room to some blaring pop song. I rocked, dipped, and spun her around the room as she giggled and squealed, a sound I then knew was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I looked into her big eyes and it all hit me: I was, at last, a daddy. I hugged my 11-month old Lilli Bean close and finally said the words that I had for decades imagined saying to my firstborn on the day of their birth; “Hello Lillian Rose Chesak. I love you. Welcome to the world.”

Postcard: Vernal, Utah

It doesn’t take long to realize Vernal, Utah, is different from other mountain biking destinations. All you have to do is walk into the smoothie shop on Main Street (it’s called “I ❤️ Drilling”) and check out the price list above the counter. You order your smoothie, the gal makes it, then when you go to pay, she asks, “Are you a conservative or liberal?” Your answer determines how much your smoothie costs. They also sell T-shirts that say, “Yes, liberals pay more here!”

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Journey Down the Art Trail

The Hudson Valley Art Trail begins or ends at my front door. Some days it feels like living inside a Thomas Cole picture. Other days it’s like an action painting done by an artist suffering from salmonella. Today, though, it was a Frederic Church kind of day because I had an appointment at his house—called “Olana”—to talk with some high school students about the sublime, how important it was to mid-nineteenth century American artists and writers. It’s important to me too, but in a different way. Anyhoo, it was too far to walk to Olana and still be on time for my appointment, so I drove. Besides, the Art Trail is paved the whole way.

It wasn’t long into this journey before I spotted one of those dreaded blaze-orange highway signs: “Reduced Speed, Work Zone Ahead, Fines Doubled”. Things slowed down drastically from there. Soon I came upon a road crew re-paving a forlorn stretch of the Art Trail. A little late in the season, it seemed to me, as this end-of-October morning was blustery and cold. Thick and noisome vapors were rising from freshly laid tar, enveloping the workers and their equipment—not to mention all innocent passersby—in an appalling mephitis. The scene brought to mind a line from D.H. Lawrence: “Darkening the day-time torch-like with the smoking blueness of Pluto’s gloom.” It sure smelled like it.

For the next several miles I was outside any pretty picture of the Hudson River School. Instead it was more like a dreadful creep through a failed installation piece, some monstrous cross between a drunken night ride on the Jersey Turnpike and a Robert Smithson glue pour. Close to the road was a fetid-looking lake with dead trees. A deer carcass lay in the breakdown lane. An old man was inexplicably riding his wobbly bike against traffic. What was going on around here? Then a billboard came into view—an ad for something called WatchTVEverywhere. com. I wanted to stop and take a picture of it but I had to keep my eye on the road, I mean, the Art Trail. After what seemed an eternity, I came out the other side of Pluto’s gloom. It was like making it to the end of Plato’s Republic.

And there was Olana, on the far side of the Hudson River, shining gloriously atop its venerable hill in golden morning light! By that point, I was having a little trouble breathing, but it would pass. In any case, I was ready to talk about the sublime.

Land in the Sky: Thoroughly

David Rothenberg and I were strolling along a path on the shore of Walden Pond discussing how tired we have grown of literary allusions. As we passed a small cove on the northwest side of the pond, we spotted in the clear, shallow waters what appeared to be a smart phone attached to a selfie stick. How did it get there? How long had it been submerged? Would the phone still work? Let’s find out!

So I extended my arm into the pond and retrieved the curious item. We pressed the button to turn it on. For some reason—perhaps pertaining to the laws governing fiction—it fired up. Should we call somebody? Neither of us had any urgent business to conduct with anybody else at the moment, so we took a picture of ourselves instead, using the selfie stick to hold the phone under the pure waters of Walden Pond.

After posting our selfie to Facebook, we put the phone back where we found it and continued on our not so solitary way, discussing other things.

My Friend, Skip Yowell

51HlaoPjadL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ed’s Note: Skip Yowell, a co-founder of Jansport, author of The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder and Other Mountains, and leading voice in the outdoor industry for decades, passed away yesterday at 69. There has been an outpouring of sadness, love and remembrance from the many who knew him. We asked his longtime friend Larry Harrison, who is currently the director of sales for adidas Outdoor, to write  about Skip, how he changed the outdoors and how he loved life.

My friend Skip Yowell will be remembered by many names:  Icon, Legend, Founder, Father, Adventurer, Teller of Tales, Husband, Writer, Philanthropist, Gardener and Surfer. And that’s just a few. To me he will be forever my friend.

I met Skip in the dawn of the 70’s. I had heard he and his cousin Murray were absolute animals; swinging from the rafters of restaurants, cutting a wide swath as the founders of JanSport (along with the more demure Jan) through the outdoor business. He was my competition though. I was with a small pack company Mountain People and later on Wilderness Experience. We battled one another but became friends.

Skip hired me in 1985 and I worked for him for 23 years. It was a remarkable time in which we brought backpacking/camping to a broad audience and daypacks to every student in America. Along the way Skip helped found the Outdoor Industry Association, assisted the development of Big City Mountaineers, and was on an Everest Climb with Lou Whittaker.

I was born in Illinois, Skip in Kansas and when together artifice slid away, we were just some Midwestern boys who spent so much time together that he would say, “I spend more time with him than I do my wife.” But everyone was Skip’s friend, there was always time for a conversation, or the familiar greeting, “Hey buddy, how the heck are you?”

Preaching the gospel of JanSport took us on an endless series of sales, promotions and clinics–retail the way it used to be, down in the trenches with customers. The JanSport Mt. Rainier climbs were another way Skip passed on his love of the mountains and the camaraderie of climbing. Thirty years ago I married my bride with Skip at my side on Rainier.

Catch this man late at night and you were apt to enjoy some great stories of adventures past, but you also would hear what his wife Winnie was up to, their plans for upcoming trips, or tales of the grandkids. There was always a special look in his eye when he spoke of his brilliant daughter Quinn. He was a man grounded in family with a heart open to all.

I will remain forever jealous of Skip’s green thumb. When you receive enough bottles of hot sauce, popcorn and gorgeous pictures of sunflowers, peppers and tomatoes you start to wonder does he have more hours in the day than me? Is it fertilizer, water, sun or love that makes his plants grow so well?

One the best known Skipperism’s has to be “The best is barely good enough.” Maybe it began as a JanSport meme but took on greater meaning through the years. I always viewed it as his commitment to others that was evidenced in the traditions he created, the institutions he founded, and the caring heart selflessly offered.

12170056_10153755032464309_1718555302_oSkip worked tirelessly to make the outdoor industry what it is today, a thriving business that takes the time to share the lessons of wilderness with all that will listen. The marginalized, the young, the handicapped, and more have a voice because he stood up for them in Washington, labored in not-for-profit board rooms and backed them with cash from JanSport. People were Skip Yowell’s full time job, that and the knowledge that the outdoors opened a pathway to personal fulfillment for everyone.

Do not canonize my friend. His great beauty was his humanity. You can take a man out of Kansas, but you can’t take the simple beauty of Kansas out of the man. That humanity, that kindness of spirit, was his gift to each of us.

I am really going to miss you Skipper.

Eluding Antarctica

What if we stayed away from Antarctica and left the place to the penguins … and the imagination? Can we simply leave a place free of human beings? By Mike Medberry

I really don’t want to see Antarctica. Imagination is more than all of the rock and ice of that southern continent. More than fire and earthquakes, more than oxygen and water, more than blood and guts and low temperatures that freeze spit as it falls, more than Byrd’s, Shackleton’s, or Amundson’s worthy endeavors, more than a rock star’s bizarre desire to be the first to play there. Disallow scientists from further probing and diagnosing the problems in Antarctica. Imagine Atarctica as the place that no one knows.

In this world of Universal Knowledge where does wisdom begin or end? I have come to know what Antarctica is from pictures of it: beautiful white and transparent blue ice, ragged mountains, colorful southern auroras and wacky, cute penguins, a few colorful birds, and itty-bitty tiny krill. You know about the krill, right? Imagine quirky little shrimp. Antarctica is a big-rock-and-ice island, surrounded by cold, salty water and chips of ice in the drink that are bigger than any ship, with penguins comically waddling along the rocky places. Seabirds and albatrosses whirl in great numbers blacken the sky. Whales pass by now and again, spouting air and water like grand, living geysers while chasing the krill. Or was it plankton that whales come for? Well, I can read about that on the fabulous world-wide-web. No need to prove reality. Neither Narwhals nor unicorns will ever live there nor will any venomous sea snakes churn the waters of Antarctica. Even I know that.

The Ancient Mariner, of Samuel Coleridge fame, lived through a raging hell of vast icebergs, the starving boredom in the doldrums, and defying death riding on a ghostly ship with “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” That is a vision of going to Antarctica that I prefer to live by. It must have been difficult to get there by any means and more difficult to live in for any time.  I think that Coleridge had been to Antarctica of the mind and recorded its life most certainly!

Do whales fall off into the space south of Antarctica? Maybe. But I haven’t seen any. I have gained faith in gravity and expect that nothing falls into the abyss of sky. That’s the scientific mind at work. That’s my reality. But that mind hasn’t done much to protect the planet. (Or does this planet even need our protection?) I know that we have affected all the world with our growing populations and technology: from developing weapons with our many brilliant theories, (lots of oddball weapons: arrows, slings, spears, bullets, fire, lasers, atomic and hydrogen bombs, ad nasuem have been the result) protecting us from people who don’t share our opinions. Destroying societies, plant and animal communities. Protecting us from all of the uncertainties, all of the irrational things in life as they are understood. From the flat world. From darkness. From the plague. From cancer. From death. From aging. From a cult of others: Russians, Chinese, Tibetans, Polynesians, the Religious, or more current villains, from the white and the black races. It is as if understanding will give us knowledge and knowledge will convey safety. Isn’t that right? But where is the dividing line between survival and domination?

We have met the indomitable opponent of own ambition. To eat, drink, and procreate in vast comfort are our birthrights. Why would any one of us want to reduce our standard of living? And so we progress to the edge of the Lemming’s cliff knowing that we will fall and fail. Is it too late to push back? We charm ourselves into believing it is not too late for oil and food and medicines to save humanity. But we only live a day before we die. And then what have we left? Today only 7.3 billion people cover the world with the gifts of humanity.

Could we simply leave Antarctica alone for a change? To have peace where no human beings see, hike on, play concerts for the thrill of it, or fly over? Of course there are already photographs, but they open our imagination more than describe the icy continent. Our survival will depend upon our creativity and using our imaginations.

I hope krill live long and prosper in the Antarctic seawater, in warmth below the icebergs, and in the ecstasy of the warming waters of Antarctica. Let the penguins waddle in peace. Do we need to deal with the fact that their habitat, and ours, is diminishing? Yes, but not particularly in Antarctica. We’ve already seen that even Antarctica has been damaged by our exploits. Food will be less, people will be more, and water will be higher, storms bigger, as many catastrophes swirl. All I ask is to just leave Antarctica alone. As alone as possible. Maybe, like Atlantis, it will sink beneath the sea. However, I need a place to hold my dreams in my time on this bloody, beautiful planet.

There are plenty of facts showing that Antarctica is changing rapidly and that we’re not doing a damn thing about it. Nothing, anyway, that is likely to stop the world from warming. We probe it and pick at it and define the loss, like lepers in the time before antibiotics. We can all take a look at ice coring and see what has happened before we came to power or look at the rising tide and CO2levels. What do we do but say “doggone it?” I’ve heard the message chimed out to the world: the world is warming.

So what? So we may go back to the Ice Age of yesterday. So what? What is the new “antibiotic?”  We need a new drug. And a new respect for this limited planet.

Scientists using the scientific method, make systematic observations, measurements, and define experiments. We form and test our hypotheses before making brash proclamations. Our knowledge is slow moving, unimpeachable, and essential. We have discovered the underlying factors of life, nucleic acid by nucleic acid. We’ve unlocked the secrets of atomic structure. And what has that accomplished? Well, among other things we may be able to reconstruct the life force of the Tyrannosaurus Rex or the passenger pigeon and save other endangered species by analyzing their genetic components. We could extend our lives to, well, perhaps, forever. And make more money to give us each a better life, a happier life, a richer life! But when one gains, another always loses. Or as poet Alexander Pope wrote more succinctly, we are “Created half to rise and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all…” Do we want to be that forever?

What does any of this have to do with leaving Antarctica alone? I suppose not much. But my Antarctica allows mysteries to remain. I will imagine that continent of ice. It is a place, just like all other places, that is—today–being made less mysterious. Is more known of Antarctica today than yesterday? Probably. But why, what has been gained by this expanding knowledge?

doug-enduranceI want to know that Shackleton didn’t make it to the South Pole, that it was unattainable, that human ambition has its limits. Struggling serves its purpose for humanity but I don’t want to know exactly what happened to him. He survived an Odyssian journey is plenty. Must we know everything?  Can we? Failing is our greatest victory; it is the one thing that we cannot fully achieve until the moment of our death when we fail decisively, enormously, and finally. We all fail.

This is the beauty of Antarctica: it is futile, basically useless to me and to you. Sure there are plenty of beauties in Antarctca: the vicious cold, tall mountains, deep crevasses, and all of that. But this is the place where, if you choose to go, you should risk only death and the unknowable. If I go I must go alone—not with a crew of others to support me–and if a small thing goes wrong I won’t return: no heroic flights, no resupplying, no support groups. It should be a place where the world remains flat with our fear of falling off into oblivion. Or we just freeze.

Antarctica embodies the greatest mystery, the only reality that I know that I know. Antarctica, is the place where all my dreams might come true! Tread carefully on this forbidden continent and don’t bother to record its decline. Know that it is receding and there will never be another left like it.  Isn’t it enough to let it be and tell tall tales, Viking tales, of Antarctica? Perhaps you might come back from Antarctica as wise as the Mariner realizing that “He prayeth well who loveth well; both man and bird and beast. He prayest best who loveth best; All thing both great and small.” We should love Antarctica by letting her be herself.

Mike Medberry is the author of On the Dark Side of the Moon: A Journey to Recovery.

Postcard: Inside autumn’s belly

By now maybe you know: I have a thing for loitering inside an aspen grove. If I’m riding by one on my bike, I feel a tug to stop. If I’m driving by, gawking, it’s all I can do to stay on the road. I just love the peace you feel within a grove. And I always feel better about life after I visit one, like this little gem in Colorado’s upper Blue River Valley.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Land in the Sky: Home Before Dark

I persuaded a couple of friends to follow me on a bushwhack that began in deep obscurity, perhaps somewhere behind Pandora’s Tavern, and led to still deeper obscurity. We plunged into the wild woolly-wags and started up a mountain, only to get beech-whipped and bush-hobbled for mile upon bloody mile, till at last we stumbled upon a vague path that led to a tenebrous prospect, somewhere high above a dusky, slow-moving river. There we encountered other wanderers, bewildered as we, gathered upon a ledge, discussing the options. Arising from the crepuscular woods below came a riddlesome sound, perhaps the snoring of Rip Van Winkle or the growling of Cerberus. Or both. Nobody could explain it. So we kept walking. And found a way home before dark.

Postcard: Fall Backpacking in Northern Colorado

For years I had wanted to visit a particular lake nine miles up this sleepy drainage, dogleg right under the headwall. My brother, a friend, and I finally made it happen this fall. If you could bottle the positive energy one feels at the outset of a backpacking adventure like this, I believe you could solve a lot of the problems damning our society. Not so much the energy you feel when you return to the trailhead the next day … but the front-end vibe is enough to get you through the six-month winter, until you can seek it out again.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Baptism by Whitewater: Running the Middle Fork of the Salmon

One man’s determination to run the Middle Fork of the Salmon in his kayak turns into a story of mermaids, fly fishing, punishment, and camaraderie. By Nicholas O’Connell

It’s a rock dodge. I point the red 9-foot kayak toward Orelano Rapid on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The rapid is rated a III (on a scale of I – VI, from easy to hazardous), putting it at the limit of my abilities as a kayaker. Earlier rapids have boosted my confidence, but I hope they haven’t lulled me into a false sense of security. 

I enter the rapid on the right, weaving past one rock and then another, relishing the feeling of dashing through the whitewater. A boulder looms ahead. I glide past it, but overcompensate, turning my kayak to the side. The current smashes it against a large boulder, high-centering it on the top. I dig on the paddle, trying to free it.

As I try to shove off, the current catches the underside of the kayak, flipping me into the drink. The water is cold, fast, and powerful. I clutch the boat and pin the paddle between my knees. The river surges past me, threatening to knock me over.  I remember the guide’s advice about staying calm, facing down river and releasing the boat if necessary, but I keep fighting and drag it over to the bank. Taking a moment to catch my breath, I assess the situation.

For years, I’ve wanted to run the Middle Fork and experience every riffle and rapid of this wild and scenic river. Despite the spill, I’ve progressed with my paddling and hope to develop some decent chops during the trip. Easing myself back into to the kayak, I shove off and re-enter the current. I steer more decisively, avoiding the last boulders and gliding into the smooth water below.

“Nice job!” says Willi Cannell, owner of Solitude River Trips, as he pulls up next to me in the larger raft. “That’s what we call an unscheduled swim.”

The “unscheduled swim” serves as my baptism by whitewater on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, one of the premier multi-day whitewater trips in the world. It’s the first day of our 77-mile, six-day journey.  My friend, Chris Olsen, an avid river rat, and five others make up our group of seven. With its abundant whitewater, outstanding fishing, and fascinating native pictographs, the trip represents an intact fragment of the American West.

“It never gets old,” says Willi, 28, a calm, bearded guide who has run the river some 70 times. “I notice something new every time.”

0E4A8195_4791The river begins high in the Sawtooth Mountains near Stanley, Idaho, north of Boise, Idaho. It runs fast and hard for its length of some 100 miles, passing through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area which contains one of the deepest canyons in the continental United States. At 7,000 feet of relief, it’s almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. At 2.367 million acres, it’s the largest contiguous wilderness in the lower 48. Rafting the Middle Fork is the most spectacular way to explore it.

At the end of the first day, my arms ache, but I’m pleased with my progress.  I navigated a number of moderate rapids without taking another “unscheduled swim,” as Willi would put it. An enthusiastic teacher, he coached me through each of them, describing the easiest line and then leading the way with the raft.

Chris and I steer the kayaks into camp and pull them up onto the rocky shore. The guides have set up tents for us on a grassy ledge. All we have to do is assemble our cots and lay out our sleeping bags. I feel guilty about not doing more, but the guides are a cheerful, well-oiled machine, now busy preparing a fried chicken dinner. So I grab a cold beer, sit in a lounge chair and watch the river run by.

We chat with the others about the first day. Charles Gehr, an expert fly fisherman from Ashland, Oregon, swaps fish tales with Orville and Vince Talbert and Katie Peterson, vacationing from Maryland. We have no cell reception. No television. No contact with the outside world. We’re back to the pleasures of storytelling.

 

SWIMMING WITH MERMAIDS

0E4A7873_5390After breakfast the next morning, I shove off, eager to test my paddling skills.  Chris and I warm up on a couple easier rapids before hitting Jackass Rapid (Class III). Willi gives us advice about running it.

“Hug the side along the gravel bar and then go left,” he says, above the roar of the rapid.

He goes first. I watch him maneuver the raft through it and then follow. The current pushes me left and I go with it until I whip past the gravel bar. I dig hard on my right to avoid getting smashed into the ledges.  The kayak pivots left and bursts into the wave train below. Pleased with this accomplishment, I raise my paddle in celebration.

Turning around, I see Chris entering the rapid. He steers toward the gravel bar, but doesn’t paddle quickly enough to clear the rapid on his right. The wave engulfs his kayak, which disappears beneath him. The current spews him into the eddy below.

“The mermaids got me!” he says, grinning. “They pulled me under.”

The mermaids appear to be active today. With his unscheduled swim, Chris and I head downriver, gaining confidence with every rapid. The kayaks travel much faster than the larger rafts, so we wait in an eddy until the rest of the group catches up with us.

“Are you enjoying the kayak?” asks guide Adam Grogan.

“It’s great fun,” I say.

“Watch out for Killer Fang Falls,” he says ominously. “Only one man has survived it. May the force be with you!”

I easily navigate the rest of the rapids and Killer Fang Falls never materializes. The force appears to be with me today.

Later in the evening, I ask Willi for a lesson in fly casting. I have fly fished before, mostly in my teens, and would love to try it again.

Willi demonstrates how to cast. “Remember to take the line back as far as you throw it forward,” he says. “The line will send the fly out.”

He hands me the rod. My first few casts are messy and awkward, the line snaking around and hitting the water in back of me. Then I allow the line to go back far enough to launch it forward. After a few times, I fling the line forward into the current.

0E4A6854_5990I get a couple bites and then—Wham—something grabs the fly. The rod bends double as I madly try to bring in line and keep the rod tip high. The fish works back and forth across the river, trying to throw the barbless hook. I try to bring in line, but the fish keeps fighting. Slowly, I bring it closer.

“Willi, can you help me land it?” I excitedly move it toward the shallows. Willi comes over, takes the line, and guides the fish into the sand. It’s a beautiful 14-inch native cutthroat, a great omen for the trip ahead.

“Nice job!” Willi says as he removes the hook and releases the fish. With a flick of its tail, it disappears into the current. There’s nothing like a catching a large trout to stoke fishing fever.

 

READING THE RIVER

The next day, I trade places with Vince. He wants to try the kayak, while I’m psyched to fly fish, another way of reading and experiencing the river. I hope to avoid hooking Charles or guide Roger Goth and perhaps even catch a fish in the process.

Just watching Charles improves my own casting. His cast is fluid and stylish. Roger rows back and forth across the river to put us on the best fish habitat.

We cast into the banks, landing our flies in the seams alongside the main current where the fish congregate. The idea is to put the fly, a dry attractor pattern, right above the trout’s nose. I sometimes hit and sometimes miss the mark, but either way the trout don’t seem impressed.

 

Charles makes a cast, watches it drift, and then reels in his line. “That fish came up, looked at it, gave me the fin and then swam away,” he says, shaking his head.

We pass through prime fishing water, the river rushing past huge pink granite boulders. I’m expecting a strike but it doesn’t come. Fishing is about belief; you have to believe the fish will take your fly.

Fifteen minutes from camp, I cast again, sending the line out in a curving S-shape, the fly lightly landing on the surface. Bright and buoyant, it rides through the seam. A fish engulfs it. I pull back on the rod, hooking the fish.

“You’re going to have to net it yourself,” Roger says. “I need to steer.”

0E4A6841_5976A small rapid looms ahead. I keep reeling and hold up the rod as we head through the rapid. At the end of it, I reel in the line and feel the fish struggling to throw the hook.  I bring it toward the raft until Roger nets it, a beautiful 14-inch native cutthroat, wriggling and flapping. I take a long look at the fish: its green, black-spotted back, bright red slashes along its jaw, and fierce, surprised eye. Then Roger drops it back in the water.

Late in the afternoon, we pull into Grassy Flat, a wide open field above the river bordered by a grove of ponderosa pine trees. The guides have already set up the tents among the trees.  Like all the other campsites, this one looks as pristine as when Lewis and Clark passed through the region in 1805, avoiding the Salmon River as too tough to navigate. No garbage. No pop cans. Not even a fire ring. The guides bring a portable metal fire box for cooking. It feels like we’re the first ones to visit this place.

“I’m jealous of people who come down the river for the first time,” Willi says over a beer. “I love to hear people say, ‘It’s amazing this place exists in the lower 48.’”

The next day, we take out the kayaks again. The rapids will be challenging, but Willi is confident in our abilities. By this time, my paddling skills have improved, but the volume of water has increased. At the start of the trip it was low and “bony,” but now it’s broad, flat, and powerful, barreling around rocks, making the hydraulics more challenging.

After we run a couple riffles, Willi announces that Waterfall Creek Rapid (Class IV) is coming up. “It’s complicated and technical,” he adds. “You’ll start to the right, go left, and then back to the right.” 

The roar of the rapid is deep and powerful. Chris and I wait in our kayaks until Willi’s raft hits the rapid on the right. Willi skillfully pivots the raft to the left, churning through the whitewater. Then he brings it back to the right, the water surging around him.

Chris is right behind him, fighting his way through the rapid. I back paddle, waiting my turn. I don’t want to enter too soon and crash into Chris. He disappears into the rapid. I can’t wait any longer; I don’t want to lose sight of him. I head for the right side of the rapid, feeling it buffet the kayak. I spot Chris and stroke right, turning my kayak until—Whoa! —I plunge over a drop into the pool below. Cursing, I fight hard to follow him as he bobs and weaves through the waves. The current knocks me around like a bathtub toy, but I keep moving left, following a path through the tumult, the current shoving me toward a large granite boulder, threatening to high-center me like at Orelano Rapid, but I stroke madly, just missing it. I spot a chute amid the spray and go for it, shooting through it like a grapeseed through fingers. Waves smack me from both sides, trying to wrest the paddle from my grasp. I grit my teeth, clench my paddle and take my punishment.

The river releases me into the calm water below. I execute a wide pirouette, catching my breath and feeling the knot in my stomach release.

Chris raises his paddle in the air. I do the same. I let out a yell, jazzed by the jolt of adrenalin.

That evening we camp at Ouzel, a narrow strip of sand on the bank. It’s our last night and everyone’s in a celebratory mood. The guides serve London Broil steak and pop the corks on several bottles of wine. Sitting by the river, I take in the beauty of the surroundings: the broken line of cliffs on the opposite bank, the bright half moon rising in the distance, the chorus of crickets and frogs serenading us. Later that evening, guide Charles Baker takes out his guitar and sings “Old Crow Medicine Show” with the Milky Way overhead, his voice harmonizing with the river murmuring in the background.

 PAGES OF STONE

On the last day, Willi says the rapids are “consequential” and so we put away the kayaks and board the rafts for the final leg of the trip. I’m alternately disappointed and relieved not to be running these rapids in a kayak, but it’s a moot point. Willi has spoken.

0E4A8152_4748Right after breakfast, we pull in at the Stoddard Creek. After a short walk, we reach an extensive series of pictographs drawn by the Sheepeater Indians who lived in the Middle Fork canyon for centuries. The drawings depict deer, elk, and the stick figures of those who preceded us.

Getting back on the rafts, we barrel through some of the biggest rapids on the river­—Rubber, Devil’s Tooth, House of Rock. In between rapids, I stare up at the steep rock walls of the Impassable Canyon, awed by the intricate patterns and whorls of minerals. It’s the history of the Middle Fork written in pages of stone, a history unfathomably long, complex and mysterious, with human life just the last brief page.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that you never experience the same river twice. This has certainly been true of this trip. Every day has brought new sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and experiences: the exhilaration of the rapids, the satisfaction of learning to run them, the camaraderie of the group, the graciousness of the guides, all wrapped up in the powerful and haunting rhythms of the river.

As we approach the confluence with the main Salmon, I marvel at how quickly the time has passed. Then I spot a dirt road, the first real sign of development in the last week. As we haul our gear up to the take out, a trio of ORVs roars by, welcoming us back to “civilization.”

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Nicholas O’Connell is the author of The Storms of Denali and teaches for www.thewritersworkshop.net

TOP PHOTO courtesy Solitude River Trips; ALL OTHER PHOTOS by Kat Smith.