Camp Bangladesh

title photo with view of Bear Lake
Ralph and Olga at "The Joint" in Randsburg, CA
Ralph and the bartender Olga at “The Joint” in Randsburg, CA in 2005. Ralph grew up and went to war (WW2) with her son.

I came across this piece that I wrote in August 1999, five years before my first blog. It brought back good memories. That summer, I played the role of scoutmaster for Troop 360, chartered by Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City, Utah. Joining me as assistant that summer was my friend, Ralph Behrens. Ralph and his wife Pat were good friends of mine in Utah, and I often stayed with them when I would return to visit Cedar City. Sadly, both have died. 

We took a dozen boys that summer to camp along Bear Lake in Northern Utah. The camp week ran from Monday morning through Saturday, so we loaded up after church on Sunday. I drove a 15-passenger rental van with the scouts and Ralph followed with his pickup truck, the back of it filled with gear. We made the 330-mile drive to Logan, Utah, arriving at dusk, where we stayed overnight at the Presbyterian Church. Early Monday morning, after a stop for breakfast, we drove Highway 89 up Logan Canyon and across the mountains, before dropping down to Bear Lake. This was an incredibly beautiful drive and the lake before us as we dropped out of the mountains was so inviting. My story will pick up on our arrival at camp. 

I looked for the camp and it appears that it is no longer in operation. Probably because the Mormons pulled out of the Boy Scout program, there seems to be a consolation of councils in the West and fewer camps. This camp had a lot of strikes against it as it consisted of small spit of land between the lake and the highway. However, I am sure the land was very valuable as it had so much lakeshore footage. I have edited my story slightly. I’m also sure I have a few more pictures of the camp, but am not sure which of many tubs of photos they’re in. The one of my son preparing to scuba dive was in a collection of albums and the only one from camp that summer. 

Camp Bangladesh
August 1999


Camp Bud Schiele
Dining hall and waterfront at Bud Schiele

A lot has happened in the fifteen years since I was last in a scout camp. Back then I was the Camp Director at Camp Bud Schiele in Western North Carolina. With grounds manicured like a country club and lots of trees, it wasn’t a bad place to spend the summer. However, after eight weeks in an all-boys camp with very few females, I knew the summer was winding down when the camp cooks, who were older than my mother, started to look attractive. In order to see what improvements made to the scouting program, I signed this summer for a week at camp with our local troop. I knew a lot had changed. However, I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced, especially girl counselors.

Ralph's truck on the "Hole in the Wall" Road in Central, Utah
Ralph’s truck on another trip

Ralph and I and a dozen boys arrived safely at Camp Bangladesh on a Monday morning. It was supposed to be an aquatic camp, but it felt like an overpopulated refugee settlement on the eastern shore of Bear Lake in Northern Utah. Greeting us at the gate was Gilligan, looking fresh and neat from his recent cruise on the S.S. Minnow. He wore Navy khaki, we assumed, because he didn’t meet the six-foot height requirement for the Coast Guard (and would have been unable to walk ashore if his boat had sunk). Gilligan directed us to our campsite and told me to report to the pavilion and check in. On the way, I stopped at the head (euphemism for latrine), where I quickly surmised that the U.N. and International Red Cross Refugee Commissions hadn’t yet inspected this site.

At the pavilion, the powers that be lightened my wallet as Robyn gave the troop a tour of the camp. Robyn substituted for our camp friend Randy who was, we later surmised, in the bushes with a female staff member. We never saw Robyn again; some think he got lost in the sage brush. Unable to see over it, he may have traveled in circles till he passed out. As for Randy, he and the Misses showed up hand-in-hand halfway through the week. We learned then that Randy was quite a philosopher and explained all the world problems as “someone must be smoking something.” We all assumed he was the “someone.”

At the opening scoutmaster’s meeting on the first day, I qualified for the BSA’s “Safety Afloat” certification by listening to a lecture. Little did I realize the camp practiced another form of safety afloat. They kept most of their boats in dry dock. They reserved the fully functioning boats for staff use. Our troop re-christened the small sloop named the “Ark” into the “Love Boat.” They had suspicion as to what the staff did on the boat that they kept safely moored offshore and off-limits to campers.

I will forever remember the galley experience at Camp Bangladesh. They served dinner in two shifts (called watches). If you’re unlucky enough to be on the second watch, as we were, it was like eating in an emergency canteen following a Kansas tornado. Another unique experience was dining in this open-air pavilion during a thunderstorm. Paper plates and cups flew with the wind, ridding the camp of rubbish by sending it all to Idaho. I’m sure it was from such an experience that the shifts became known as a watch, for we watched our food fly away.

The day following, the camp staff must have had a knife sharpening contest. The cook took first place. That night we were treated to beef trimmings, trimmings so fine we didn’t even notice them. Even the camp’s sole vegetarian seemed satisfied. In all seriousness, the night with the gluey noodles made up for the undercooking of the previous night’s rice, things have a way of balancing out in the end. Quality aside, the real problem was with quantity and our neighboring unit leaders resorted to rattlesnake hunting to supplement their boy’s diet. Ralph and I, being more practical, took our boys for milk shakes at the ice cream stand on the south end of the lake.

Of course, what goes in must come out, which brings me back to the subject of the rotten white buildings dotting the landscape and were a contributing factor for the outbreak of constipation that struck our campers. The smell of these buildings was so bad that I stopped using flashlights and followed the stench from one to another on the path back to our site. People had reported several large skunks along the highway east of the camp . They all facing east, obviously running across the highway afraid another skunk laid claimed the territory when they meet their demise under the tires of moving vehicles. 

Our troop’s strawberry blonde commissioner was Ms. Pope. We could never remember her name, so Ralph and I started calling her Hillary, in honor of the First Lady. In addition to serving as our commissioner, she was also the commandant of the dining hall and ruled with an iron fist. Hillary was an electronic engineering technician student at Weber State (MIT on the Salt Lake). We found her knowledgeable about most everything except for the difference between a foot and a yard. If she gets that confused between volts and watts, we’re afraid she may be in for a real shock.

In addition to her commissioner duties and studying electricity, Hillary is looking for a good Mormon husband who will allow her to stay home and tend to a scout troop. If Robyn hadn’t gotten himself lost in the sagebrush, they’d made a cute couple. Of course, I’m sure Hillary would have wanted Robyn to grow up a bit, but until then they’d be shoe-in winners in a Dennis the Menace and Margaret look-a-like contest. However, I secretly doubt Hillary desires a husband. She really harbors ambition to be the first female Chief Scout Executive. I just hope she doesn’t get her sights on the Presidency of the U.S. of A, or our country will never be the same.

There were three classes of staff at Camp Bangladesh. The elite, like Hillary, wore Navy uniforms and look like they just walked out of a surplus store or off the set for a remake of McHale’s Navy. The second tier wear dark green sea scout shirts and various colored pants. Our favorite in this class was Hot Legs—the blonde lifeguard with a nice tanned body fitted into a red one piece swimsuit. When on duty, she looked more like a movie star posing than a lifeguard as she stretched herself out sunning on the pier. I never saw Hot Legs without large sunglasses. She wore them even when the sun wasn’t shinning. Our boys, seeing her without the glasses one day, reported that she had a serious case of raccoon eyes and better keep them on.

The bottom rung of the staff hierarchy was the kitchen crew. Without regular uniforms, their selection was based on their lack of speed and foresight. Or maybe they were pressed into service, like the British did to our seamen before the War of 1812. If that’s the case, they’ve decided as a group that indifference is a subtle way of protest. Or, maybe they really didn’t think we wanted nor needed anything to drink with our uncooked rice until the meal was nearly over. 

Speaking of drinks, choosing the beverages of one’s choice was another interesting experience. Any other camp would have put labels on the coolers, but that would be too much work for the staff of Bangladesh. We learned that the way to tell what a cooler contained was to look underneath at the color of the puddle on the floor. Since we were the only non-Mormon troop in camp, the dining hall didn’t serve coffee. Suspecting such, I brought my own stove and percolator and fixed coffee every morning. I quickly became popular and found myself having to go into town to buy more coffee midweek as all the neighboring Mormon leaders decided to forgo their prophet’s word of wisdom and have a several cups of Joe a morning with Ralph and me. 

Scuba divers on the dock waiting to dive
my son learning to scuba dive



Our patch for the week informed us we’ve been on an aquatic land cruise—I supposed it’s a land cruise because most that’s where most of the boats remained. But there were some good things about the experience. First, I wasn’t in charge and could blame everything on the camp director, Captain McHale himself. Instead, I passed the hours sitting in my camp chair or laying in my hammock, reading books.

Our boys averaged three merit badges and only one fight a piece and they all eventually got to sail on the one of the few fully functioning sailboats available for campers. I even spent a wonderful afternoon on a Hobie (that was reserved for scout leaders). For an extra fee, I allowed my own son to experience the underwater world as he took a scuba diving class.  Now that I’m home, I’m hoping to break my Valium addiction by the end of the year.

Afterwards:

Even though I put a light spin on this, from my experience of working within the Scouting program in the Southeastern part of the states, it shocked me the camp passed the Boy Scouts of America’s rigorous peer inspection program. The waterfront controls were lacking, and I spent less time in my hammock and more time playing lifeguard than I hoped.  

After this experience, I‘m not sure why, but we signed up for another year. In 2000, Ralph and I took the troop to a camp in the Ponderosa pines south of Williams, Arizonia. It was one of the best run camps I’ve seen. Sadly, there was no large lake, just a pond for canoeing and a swimming pool. But the food was great. After that camp, it shocked me to learn most of the boys preferred the camp on Bear Lake. But they cherished the freedom, and the lake was a great. 

A Four-Day Hike in the Sawtooth’s

Title Slide with view of Hell Roaring Lake, Idaho
Lower falls at Cramer Lakes

A car approaches from the north. I turn around and stick out my thumb. “Was this a good idea?” I ponder. I haven’t hitchhiked since the summer before, when I completed the Appalachian Trail. And now I could use a ride back to my car at a trailhead. Otherwise, I’ll have an eight to ten mile walk beside hot asphalt under an intense sun. But they’re few cars in this lonely country. The car rushes by, its wind providing a moment’s relief from the heat. With no clouds and no wind, it’s hot, even at this elevation. Heat rises from the asphalt, its waves blurring the scenery. I turn back and resume walking along the shoulder of Highway 75, south of Stanley, Idaho.

I hear another vehicle crest the hill behind me. It sounds like a truck. I turn around and stick out thumb. It’s an old jeep; this will be my ride, I’m sure. Jeeps always pick up hitchhikers.

I recall an autumn day on the beach, six years earlier. I’d been on a conference on Wrightsville Beach. A hurricane was offshore, and we had to leave the island. When I got in my car, I realized that I my gas gauze was on “E.” Shortly after cross the waterway bridge, the car sputtered and quit.

Out of gas, I crawled out of the car and hoofed it in the rain a mile or so to the closest gas station. They lent me a can and I purchased some gas and when I started back when one of those bands of blinding rain hit. About that time a jeep came by, without a top. He shouted for me to jump in, and I did. His windshield wipers worked overtime, but it didn’t make much difference for there was as much water inside the glass as out. I began to wonder if riding his open top jeep was a good idea. But it beat walking. The rain was so hard; I could hardly see my car parked on the other side of the road. I put the gas in and headed home. Thankfully, the hurricane turned and went out to sea.

This jeep in Idaho didn’t stop. “Son of a…” I started, and then thought better. I couldn’t believe he ignored me. I turned and continued walking south. A few other vehicles rushed by, but none of them stopped. Each time, I’d resume walking. Then I spotted a minivan. I didn’t expect them to stop but still stuck out my thumb. The driver flew by, then hit her brakes, pulled over to the side and began to back up. I ran up and noticed that there were kids in the back waving at me. This wasn’t who I’d expected to offer a ride, but I was thankful for not having to walk all the way to my car.

“I don’t normally pick up hitchhikers,” the driver confessed, “but the kids recognized you as the hiker on the ferry when we came back across Redfish Lake. Looking into the back seats, I smile. The oldest is probably eight or nine. We’d played some silly games on the ferry ride across the lake and they were curious about what was in my pack. I thanked her for the ride and told her my car was at Hell Roaring Creek trailhead, just off the highway about eight or so miles south. She then asked about the trip.

Hell Roaring Lake with the “Finger of Fate” to the right of center



“I started out four days ago, spending the first night at Hell Roaring Lake,” I began, “camping under the ominous ‘finger of fate’ peak. It’s a lone bent rock pinnacle could have served as a model for Michelangelo’s “Finger of God.” The lake was surrounded by dead tree trunks from winter avalanches. Many of those trunks were waterlogged, but the ones not provided plenty of firewood. Although open fires had been banned for the summer (Yellowstone and Hells Canyon were being consumed with flames while I was hiking) I counted four campfires along the lake. I was invited over to one’s family campfire. I joined them and was shocked to learn that one of men was a Forest Service employee.”

Trail high in the Sawtooths



“The next day I continued hiking deeper into the Sawtooth Wilderness area, climbing over a steep pass. There were so many lakes, I can’t recall them all,” I confessed. “Imogene, Virginia, and Hidden were some of them, each surrounded by rocky peaks sparsely covered with gnarly trees. After leaving Hell Roaring Lake, I was alone with only the pikas keeping me company at night. I ran into a group of smoke jumpers, hoofing it out after having extinguished a small lightning fire deep into wilderness. We talked for a few minutes, as I picked up my pace to keep up with them, but then they left the main trail and headed to their pickup point.” 

“It’s all beautiful,” I said, “but my favorite had been the Cramer Lakes, each with a waterfall outlet that spilled into the next lake.”

“We were there,” she said. “We took the ferry across Redfish Lake and hiked up to Lower Cramer for a picnic and a hike up to the falls.” 

I’d been looking back at her kids as I talked. Suddenly she yell, “Oh my God.” I turned around and looked out the windshield. There was that jeep, lying on its back in the edge of a field. The dazed driver stood. 

“I’ll check it out,” I said. “Park down the road a way.” 

Jumping out as she slowed down, I ran over toward the jeep yelling, “Are you okay?” Another car pulled up. The driver, shaken and with tears in his eyes, begged for a fire extinguisher. No one had one. Drops of gas dripped onto the ground and the fire was began to burn under the jeep and in the grass. Without a fire extinguisher or other equipment, there wasn’t anything we could do. I told them I’d get a ranger and ran back to the awaiting minivan. I knew a ranger’s station was across from the trailhead from where I’d left my car. We flew down the highway, turning off and leaving a trail of dust on the dirt road up to the ranger station. I reported the accident and the fire. The ranger called it in and got into his truck. 

High in the Sawtooths

Then the lady in the mini-van drove me over to my car. Rushing, I thanked her for the ride, I dropped my pack in the trunk and headed back to the accident site. There, I helped the ranger, and several other men dig a line around the fire. Luckily, as dry as it was, there was no wind, and the fire didn’t get out of hand. With everything under control, a fire truck arrived and hosed down the jeep and extinguished the grass burning inside the line we’d established. All that was left of the jeep, that I was so sure could have been my savior, was a charred pile of metal.  I got back in my car and headed back to camp. 

I think it was C. S. Lewis who said, “we’ll spend half of eternity thanking God for prayers not answered.” And I was thankful this jeep had not stopped to offer me a ride. 

Another story of a solo backpacking trip during my Idaho summer of 1988

A Tribute to my Dad

photo of sunrise and of my Dad

I’ve been quiet on social media lately, especially in blogland and on Facebook. Let me explain. I have also not posted any sermons recently as I have been away from the pulpit. This has been a time of reflection and change, which came to a head this past Monday, May 6, around 11:30 PM. That’s when my brother called from hospice to let me know our dad had died.


Dad paddling in the Okefenokee (2015)
Dad paddling in the Okefenokee (2015)

As you may imagine, I didn’t get much sleep the rest of the night, and was up way before sunrise to walk the beach (I was staying in Kure Beach). As the sun rose, I remember all those times being with Dad on the boat running out of Carolina Beach, Masonboro, or Barden’s Inlet as the sun rose. Dad’s timing always seemed perfect as we headed out toward the sun for a day of fishing. Of course, there were other days with rain or fog… But now, they’d be no more of those adventures.

On April 30, my father had his fourth intestinal surgery in twelve days. The first surgery was on Thursday, April 18. I was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the time. My dad came out of the surgery doing well and things were looking up. We had several conversations by phone. He expected to get out of the hospital in four or five days. But before this happened, his intestines started to leak and there were infections. The next Thursday, he had the second surgery. They were not able to do everything, so they scheduled another surgery for Sunday and kept him sedated. There would be one more surgery for Tuesday morning, April 30. I arrived in time to meet the surgeon as he met with my brother, sister, and me. While he expressed hope, he also warned us that our father couldn’t survive another intestinal surgery. 

Dad shooting a basketball after his 25th Wedding Anniversary celebration
Dad, after his 25th Wedding Celebration (1980)

On Wednesday, they removed the respirator and Dad slowly woke up. Things looked even better on Thursday morning, May 2. I was there first thing that morning and when the doctors and staff made their rounds. They discussed moving Dad from ICU to a step-down unit that afternoon. Later in the morning, my brother came in to relieve me. I went out to have coffee with Billy Beasley, a friend of mine whose friendship goes back to my elementary school days. While there, I got an urgent text from my brother to come back, that Dad’s intestines were leaking. Over the next hour, we learned there was nothing more they could do. Dad understood what was happening and with my brother Warren and I on each side of the bed, sniffling, he told us not to cry. He later thanked us for being there and for being good boys. They moved Dad that afternoon to hospice, where he spent the next five days. 

Fishing off Jetty at Masonboro Inlet, Wrightsville Beach
Fishing at jetty at Masonboro Inlet (~2010)

Thankfully, the first two days, Dad did well and was able to see a lot of friends and family members. My younger brother was even able to make it in late Friday night from Japan.  One of the highlights during this time was one of the visits of the pastor of his church. He is relatively new and thank my father for all he did to support his ministry and how he checked in on others within the congregation. My father said, “that’s what we’re supposed to do.

By Saturday, May 4, Dad began to slip and mostly slept. Once, he woke up enough to say, “That was nice,” after I prayed over him. They had to keep increasing morphine to keep his pain under control. Although a strong man, fate took over. Yet, it took him a long time to give up. He would eventually stop breathing when alone (my brother was in the room but asleep). 

Probably ten years ago, my father had me write an obituary for him and my mother, Barbara Faircloth Garrison, who died in 2020. I pulled out the obituary from my files, updated it (mostly increasing the number of great-grandchildren), and began editing it with my siblings. Below is the final product: 

Mom and Dad in front of a camellia bush
Mom and Dad in the 1990s the (copy of photo wasn’t the best)

Charles Albert Garrison died on May 6, 2024 from complications following intestinal surgeries. Charles loved being on the water and never felt more alive than when he was out on his boat or fishing. He and his late wife were known for their love for each other and their hospitality toward others, including annual New Year Eve oyster roasts. 

a b&w photo of dad in a cap and gown in 1942
Dad at six years of age

Charles was born on December 29, 1936 in Pinehurst, North Carolina to Helen McKenzie and A. H. Garrison. He was an Eagle Scout and while a high school student played football, basketball, and baseball. In 1955, he graduated from Pinehurst High School and two months later, on July 29th, married Barbara Jean Faircloth. Their marriage lasted 65 years, till Barbara’s death in 2020. Together, they had four children: Charles Jeffrey (Donna), Warren Albert (Sheri), Sharon Kaye and David Thomas (Monica).

In 1962, Charles went to work for the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. He was employed by the company for the next forty years. He began his career in Petersburg, Virginia in January 1963. In 1966, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Wilmington, North Carolina where he could be near the ocean. He would live the rest of his life in Wilmington except for two overseas assignments in Japan and Korea. During his career with the company, he was an insurance inspector, an ASME Code Inspector for Boilers, Pressure Vessels, and a Nuclear In-Service Inspector. He retired from Hartford in 2002 but continued to do consulting work for another five years. He finally gave up working to care for his wife. 

Surf fishing at Cape Lookout
Fishing off Cape Lookout (Fall 2008)

Charles remained active throughout his life. In his younger years, he hunted and fished, played basketball and softball. Once he moved to Wilmington, he continued to play softball for a few years and limited his basketball to outside pickup games with his sons and their friends. He devoted as much time as possible to fishing. He often spent weeks in the fall of the year camping and fishing on Masonboro Island. Later, he would make a sojourner of a week or so to Cape Lookout, where he would camp and fish with family and friends.  

Mom and Dad with grandkids in the 1990s (notice the reindeers in the yard)
Dad with grandkids in the 1990s (notice the reindeers in the yard)

The church was always important to Charles. Like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, he was a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church. He served on many committees, especially the building and grounds committee at Cape Fear Presbyterian Church, where he remained a member for 58 years. Charles attended church every Sunday he was able. He and his wife made many friends at Cape Fear and often visited new families within the church. They also delivered tapes of the church services to shut-ins within the congregation. 

Basketball goal
Basketball goal (in need of a painting)

Charles was a craftsman and handy man. He restored a home in Pinehurst and added on to his home in Wilmington. In high school, he made his future wife a cedar chest which they used for the rest of their lives. An excellent welder, he built the basketball goal which still stands in his yard. His great-grandchildren now play basketball on this goal. He also welded a Christmas tree stand out of steel that would have survived a nuclear war (the tree might have snapped off, but the steel stand wasn’t going anywhere).  Charles was also known for his handmade wooden Christmas decorations including a sleigh and reindeer which populated his front year during the season. He also built many Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer door hangers and poinsettias holders which he gave away as gifts. 

Charles also served as a leader in the Boy Scout program when his sons were in scouting and helped coach baseball. Charles continued to enjoy attending the ball games of his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. He also served for many years as a Myrtle Grove Volunteer Firefighter and as a Gideon. 

Charles was preceded in death by his parents, a sister (Martha Kay), and his wife. In addition to his children, he is survived by his brother Larry (Louise), his four children, seven grandchildren (Craig, Kristen, Elizabeth, Jonathan, Clara, Thomas, and Caroline), twelve great-grandchildren, a niece (McKenzie), and many cousins. For the last three years he enjoyed the company of Ginny Rowlings and her family. They spent many evenings at the NC Symphony, concerts and plays and eating ice cream. 

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to Cape Fear Presbyterian Church and the Lower Cape Fear LifeCare of Wilmington (hospice).  A graveside service will be held at Oleander Memorial Gardens on Monday, May 13, 2024 at 2 PM. The Rev. Aaron Doll of Cape Fear Presbyterian Church will officiate. Charles will be buried by his wife in a plot they picked out and where his body will lie in rest near the salt water he loved and where, at high tide, it might even tickle his toes.[1]

Paddling in the Okefenokee, 2014
Paddling in the Okefenokee, 2014

Some more “Dad Stories:

Four days in the Dry Tortuga’s

Lessons from Dad (with some great photos)

Lumber River Paddle (my last great adventure with Dad)

Fishing off Cape Lookout, 2020

Thanksgiving Day Hunt

Dad’s 85th Birthday (and my last time paddling with him)


[1] Some might wonder about this last line, so let me explain. My parents brought cemetery plots in the 1980s, after coming back from Japan. His mother (my grandmother) wanted to know why he wanted to be buried so far away and not with the rest of the family at Culdee Presbyterian Church in Moore County. My father told her that he wanted the salt water to tickle his toes during high tide. My grandmother didn’t think it was funny, but I Dad (and I) got a laugh out of it.

Solo Backpacking in Idaho, 1988

title slide with photo of camp sign and the Boulder Mountains

Hunkered down in a storm

dead tree high in the Boulder Mountains
Dead tree (probably from lightning) in the Idaho high country

Looking back, it was foolish. Out west, in the summer, one should never climb high passes late in the afternoon. But the summer of 1988 had been so dry. Afternoon thunderstorms were infrequent. I didn’t give it much thought. but should have known better. Hiking alone and cross-country made my decision even more dangerous.

I could have spent a lazy afternoon sulfur springs by the old Bowery mine, reading, napping, and soaking. But instead, I decided to make it back early and spend Saturday night in Ketchum. Or maybe I would head north to the Stanley Stomp. After a week of hiking alone, a cold beer and real food sounded good. So, I set out up the climb up the backside of Ryan Peak. But at around 9,000 feet, I found myself huddled in my sleeping bag under a tarp weighed down with ice.

The Storm

The storm blew up quickly, not long after I left tree line. I still had 1000 feet or so of vertical to cover when I first heard thunder. I hasty retreated downhill, to where the stubby trees began. Soon, lightning popped around the dusty mountains, dry from the summer’s drought that had burned up much of Yellowstone.  I could smell the ozone.

Then came the rain. I pulled on my rain parka as hard pelting drops of cold water assaulted. Quickly, I strung a line between two trees. I threw my tarp over the line, and quickly tied off the ends to rocks and logs as the nylon sheet flapped in the wind. Securing it enough not to blow away, I climb under it. Stripping off my rain jacket and pulled on a sweater and slid into rain pants to warm my wet legs. I leaned back against my pack, while watching lightning bolts pop around me. Waiting, I ate a candy bar and wondered again, what I was doing this high up in mid-afternoon.

The storm didn’t last long. When it had passed, I heard more rumblings from behind the mountains, so I set about making sure the tarp was secure and all my gear dry. Fifteen minutes after the first storm passed, the second one hit. This time the sky dropped hail and sleet. I again retreated to my tarp, which was soon covered in accumulating ice. Shivering with cold, pulled out my sleeping bag and covered it with a ground cloth and crawled inside. I quickly warmed up. I began to ponder the danger of fire from lightning strikes. 

My plan had been to spend this week hiking in Yellowstone, but so much of that park was burning that I decided to stay in Idaho where I’d been running a camp for the summer. This was my one week off and I’d planned to spend it in the backcountry. 

At least, I thought, we’re getting some rain. Of course, it wasn’t enough to reduce the fire danger and the lightning made it move problematic. However, I shouldn’t have to worry too much for at this altitude, even if a fire occurred, there wasn’t much to burn. 

Preparing for evening

After the second storm, I walked to a nearby stream and filled a pan with water for noodles. Coming back, I set up my stove and fired it up. The roar of the burner drowned out any other noise as I boiled water. Before adding noodles, I poured off a cup for some tea, then added noodles and let it boil while I savored the tea. At this elevation, it seems to take forever to cook noodles. When they were done, I drained off the water, mixed in some powder milk and the package cheese mix and was soon devouring a pot of macaroni and cheese.

My week on the trail

I’d been hiking all week. The first four days I did a loop within the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness Area. Then I came back to camp, picked up more provisions, and set out on my second leg of my journey. I was dropped off just north of Galena Summit. I hiked up Grand Prize Gulch. Mostly, I hiked cross country, following streams flowing from the north side of the Bounder Mountains into the Salmon River. 

West Pass, Boulder Mountains, Idaho
West Pass

After crossing the pass at the end of Grand Prize Gulch, I dropped down into the West Fork of the East Fork of the Salmon River, or at least I think that’s the name of the stream. It’s certainly not a very creative name, but most of the streams in this part of the country seem to have such names. It was also just a small creek. I followed it a few miles stopping for the evening. I set up camp under lodgepole pines. After dinner, I sat around enjoying a cup of tea while watching the light fade from the valley. .


Birds woke me the next morning as the valley filled with light. The sun rays seemed muted a bit with so much dust and smoke from the Hell’s Canyon fire burning to the west. After my usual breakfast of oatmeal and tea, washed down with a pint of Tang, I continued hiking downstream. Soon, I came to a two-track road that hadn’t been used for a long while since there were no tire tracks in the dust. The road was probably built for mining, but I had a suspicion it was now only used occasional, mostly in the fall by hunters. 

Bowery Hot Springs

I continued along the path heading for the hot sulfur springs at a place on the map called Bowery. I could smell the sulfur before I arrived. Once there, I shed my pack and took a leisurely lunch, eating crackers, with cheese and peanut butter while soaking in the creek at the confluence of the water from the hot springs. There, where the hot and frigid waters met, I found a place where the temperature was just right and soaked my body. 

After lunch, I explored the area. There was an old mine that drifted back into the hillside, from which flowed warm water. I took out my flashlight and looked inside. I knew better than to go exploring. Mines are hazards, not just from cave-ins or unmarked shafts, but also from bad air and gasses that might quickly cause one to lose consciousness. Unlike most mines, which are quite cool, this one was warmed because of the hot water. From the entrance, I could see the supporting timbers had rotted. 

Heading toward Ryan Peak

Lupine along a trail
Lupine, this photo was taken on another hike in Idaho

In early-afternoon, I packed my stuff back up and continued, following West Pass Creek. A few miles upstream, I came to an old mining cabin. The roof had collapse and the logs were rotten. Looking around, I found a rusty shovel and a pile of old tin cans. I kept hiking. About 3 PM, left the creek, cutting cross country, aiming for the saddle west of Ryan Peak. I spotted snowbanks, tucked in under the high peaks, shaded from the sun. While climbing up a draw and breathing heavily, I surprised a large elk. The beast turned to look at me, allowing me a good view of his large rack. Then he fled. 

Climbing higher, the trees began to thin out and the slope became steeper. With no trail and a steep pitch, I began to zigzag, crossing back and forth over a small stream of snow melt. The trees became shorter. In the draw, by the trickle of water, Indian paintbrush and lupine with their tiny purple flowers grew. Such discoveries had been set aside once the thunderstorms hit. 

Evening

That night, after the storms and dinner, a third thunderstorm moved through the area. I went to bed early, reading till the light faded from the sky, then falling asleep. I dreamed of fires. Every time I woke, I’d looked around for flames and sniffed the air for smoke. 

Morning

I was relieved when morning arrived. Everything was fresh and clean; the dust had been purged away and sage scented the air. A cool light breeze blew out of the north, gently flapping the tarp, helping it dry. I fixed myself a cup of tea and a bowl of oatmeal. After eating, I wrote of yesterday’s adventures in my journal and read some Psalms. Then I packed up, shouldered my pack, and continued the climb. 

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I took a break at the top of the pass, tanking up on water. Dropping down the south side of the saddle, I came upon the trail to Ryan’s Peak and followed it as it zigzagged through the sage, down into the valley. I passed a few day hikers, the first people I’d seen in almost 48 hours. They were  As they headed up to the peak, we exchanged a quick greeting. I didn’t stop until I was at upper stretch of the North Branch of the Big Wood River. These waters flowed into the Snake River and through Camp Sawtooth, my home for the summer.. 

I paused for a snack while watching a man with a fly rod cast into a pond behind a beaver dam. He didn’t seem to be having much luck. After a short rest, I continued, walking the dirt road toward camp. I was surprised the ground was so dusty. When I got back early that afternoon, still in time to get to town for the evening, I discovered that although those at the camp could hear the storms and see the lightning the evening before, the camp didn’t receive a drop of rain.

Boulder Mountains look up from Idaho 75, mountain reflecting in a small lake along Big Wood River.
Boulder Mountains looking from the west along Idaho 75

Easter Traditions

Easter Tradition title slide with photo of me and my siblings from the early 1970s, along with a photo of a jitterbug

I can recall many Easter traditions from my childhood. Of course, we went to church. That was true regardless of the holiday. If it was a Sunday, we were in church. We often had ham with pineapple baked on top for dinner. And sometimes we’d go for a ride around Greenfield Lake, looking at the flowers. I can only remember going once to a sunrise service before I could drive myself. I think it was too much to get a family of six up that early!.

Me (to the left) with my siblings in front of my Dad's Ford Torino in the early 70s
In front of Dad’s Torino, early 1970s
from left; Me, my sister, my brother, & in front, our younger brother

But two traditions stand out. The first, before Mom allowed us to ditch our new church clothes for play clothes, we had to pose for a family portrait. My parents made us stand at attention in front of some flowers, generally azaleas which often bloomed in Eastern North Carolina around Easter. But one year, Dad had a new yellow Ford Torino that was brighter than any of the flowers in the neighborhood. They lined my siblings and me up in front of the car. It must have been around 1971 or 72. 

Before church, we always received our Easter basket, even though we had to sit them aside until afterwards because my Mom didn’t want us to get chocolate on our new clothes. Of course, this didn’t keep me from trying to sneak a piece of candy or two into church. Each basket came with a small gift. I’m pretty sure Mom prepared the baskets for us kids. It included eggs which we’d dyed the day before, along with a variety of candy. My favorite were the malt balls covered with chocolate and hard candy. It’s still a favorite just in case anyone is reading needs a hint. 

While Mom handled the candy and decorating, I’m sure Dad picked out the small gift, at least for us boys. I have no idea what kind of gift my sister received, but the males of the family almost always received some sort of fishing gear. Over the years, there were packets of plastic worms and a variety of lures, but the one that I will always remember was a yellow jitterbug with silver strips on top. This was the Easter after my brother and I received a Zepco fishing rod for Christmas. I was in the second grade. My brother’s jitterbug black. They were both larger lures. When it came to fishing, Dad’s ambition was large.

Interestingly, I thought I remembered what happened to those two lures. My brother’s ended up on a powerline over my Uncle Frank’s pond and for years you could see it dangling there, beside other lures and tackle, looking like a trotline for a flying fish. He grew tired of me joking about his failure to catch flying-fish. But my memory tricked me. A few years ago, when I told this story, my brother insisted he still had his jitterbug. The next time I saw him, he even produced it. So, it must have been another lure that my brother sacrificed to flying fish. 

I never lost my jitterbug while fishing. It remained in my freshwater tackle box; its paint having flaked a bit over the decades. Someone broke into my car and stole that tackle box when I lived in Utah. I only hope the lure still catches fish.

A jitterbug is an ideal lure to catch bass. In the evening, as the air cools, the fish move close to the surface to feast on bugs. The lure stays on the top of the water, and waddles back and forth, much like giant water bug. The fish hears and feels this movement across the surface and strike, ending up on the wrong end of a triple hook. 

Recalling this tradition of receiving fishing lures for Easter, it seems this is an appropriate Easter gift. My favorite post-resurrection story of Jesus is him on the beach, roasting fish for the disciples who’d spent the evening on the water. A few of the disciples were fisherman and Jesus tells them that they’re to continue to fish, only for people. They’re to continue to cast out metaphorically onto the water.

the author fishing at sunset in the Quetico Wilderness in Western Ontario
Fishing in the evening in the Quetico. While I don’t think I caught this pike on a jitterbug, I do remember catching a few bass on such a lure while on this trip.

Confessing is Good for the Soul (or so they say)

title slide with peaches and my grandmother
my grandmother
My grandmother, 40 some years later, in her 90s

In the early 1970s, as a young teenager, I would spend a couple weeks each summer with my grandparents. The evenings were often spent fishing with my grandfather, as I’ve shared before. But on other evenings, we did other activities. This one evening, we headed over to J. B. Cole’s Orchard in West End to pick peaches. Cole grew huge redskin peaches, as big as a softball. And when ripe, they were so moist that biting into one sent juice streaming down your chin. 

After dinner, I got myself ready. I strapped my trusty Ka-bar sheath knife on my belt. I don’t remember why I thought I needed it, but during these summers, I kept it close. At least I’d be able to defend myself if wild animal attacked us while there amongst the peach trees. 

Once we arrived, we each took a bushel basket and set out into the trees. My grandparents worked one side of the tree. I picked peaches on the other side, carefully placing the ripe peaches into a bushel basket. While it was a peasant evening, my stomach wasn’t quite right. On occasion, I released a fragrant whiff of gas.

“Jeff,” my grandmother called in a rather angry voice. “Did you cut one?”

“What?” I shout back while thinking “Did my grandmother ask what I thought she asked?”

“Did you cut one?”

I’d never heard my grandmother speak this crudely. She sounded like a one of the boys in my seventh-grade class. Why was she asking if I’d farted? It’s just not polite. And how could she even tell on the other side of the tree? I had quietly released the gas. 

Finally, I spoke quietly and confessed. “Yes, a little one,” I said. My face was red with shame.

“Don’t be doing that,” she said. “Put your knife away. These aren’t our peaches; they don’t belong to us until we pay for them.”

“That’s why she’s talking about,” I thought to myself. “How do I get out of this situation?”

I accepted my grandmother’s chiding, not wanting to admit to my misunderstanding. In my young teenage mind, it was better to be thought of as a petty delinquent than one with gastrointestinal issues.

That evening, after picking several bushels, we paid the man and took them home. That night, instead of a Pepsi ice cream float, we had peaches on our ice cream. There were peaches for breakfast. For the next couple of days, my grandmother busied herself canning peach halves in quart mason jars, saving up for winter cobblers. And that weekend, we churned a freezer filled with peach ice cream. . 

Confession is good for the soul, they say. I’m not sure that includes confessing for transgressions not committed, but since I’m sure there are a few misdemeanors I’ve overlooked, confessing for this one transgression didn’t do me any harm. I never told my grandma that I confused cutting a peach with passing gas. There was never a reason to bring it up, even when she was in her nineties. 

My Church Youth Group in High School and my first canoe

title slide for blog post. Photo is of me and my brother canoeing on Town Creek in the late 1970s

Buck and Nancy advised Cape Fear Presbyterian Church’s youth group during my senior high years. Buck, after a stint as a Marine Corps officer in Vietnam, taught high school biology. Nancy taught elementary school. Young and full of energy, they helped form a small but tight-knit group. One of my fond memories was spending a weekend painting the youth room. The cinder block walls were painted, each block a different color: green, blue, and yellow. These ran in diagonal strips up the walls. Then we outlined each block, painting the mortar black. When done, we had created a psychedelic show piece. It was very 70s!  By the time I graduated from college, the youth who were then in the group had painted over our masterpiece.

But the best highlight of my time with our youth group was spending a weekend at Camp Kirkwood, a Presbyterian camp between Burgaw and Wallace, North Carolina. These trips also included a day-long canoe trip on the Black River. By my junior year in high school, I was paddling my own canoe!

The water was high and fast that late winter day in 1973, on our first river trip. When we reached a bend in the river, water continue to flow straight, cutting through the swampy side of the river. This made it difficult to navigate by canoe as the water attempted to push the boats out of the main channel and into the swamps. We struggled and paddled hard, especially at the bends and in the shoots through blow downs, where the force of water threatened to push us into trees that had fallen into the river. Buck and Nancy paddled up and down the line of canoes, offering suggestions and encouragement, trying to keep everyone together and dry.  

Paddling and fishing on the Black River, 1975 (photo by Donald McKenzie)

Most of the canoes had two paddlers, but a couple of boats had three. One of these was a boat with Marge and Rosa in the bow and stern with Billy sitting on the floor in the middle. Billy always marched to his own drum. At one point, Buck was yelling for everyone to stop. Billy, thinking he would be helpful, reached up and grabbed a branch of a tree to hold the boat.  His choice of branches wasn’t the best. He picked a rotted one, that broke off and fell across the canoe. Luckily, they didn’t capsize. Seeing this large branch straddle the canoe, like out-riggers, gave us all a laugh.  

At lunch, on a high bluff overlooking a bend in the river, clouds began to come in and the temperature cooled. Buck hurried us on, saying we might be getting some rain. But it never did rain that day and by mid-afternoon, we were pulling our canoes out and loading them on the trailer for the trip back to Camp Kirkwood.

This was my first river canoe trip. I’d paddled a canoe on a lake at scout camp, but there was something about the river where every bend held new possibilities. The Black River gets its name from the dark water that’s stained by the tannin acid from the cypress which grow in the swamps around the river. Although I didn’t know it at the time, we’d canoed through swamps that contained some of the oldest trees in the Eastern United States. One tree there is over 2400 years old.  But that didn’t matter, I was hooked. 

Not long after this trip, I began working at Wilson’s Supermarket (for the tread of my time at Wilson’s start with this post). I immediately started looking at canoes and saving some money. My dad suggested that before buying a new canoe I try to find a used one. We placed an ad in the classified section of the Star News. It was a simple advertisement, “Wanted: A Canoe” and included our phone number.  A few days later, while at school, a man from Southport called and left me a message.  I called him back. A day or two later, my father drove me over to look at his Grumman Canoe.  

The man was moving and needed to sell it and offered it to me for $60. At this time, a new would have cost me nearly $350. I brought it and we tied it to the top of my father’s car and drove home, stopping along the way to buy paddles and life jackets. 

Coming off the Waccamaw River (early 1980s)

Over the next ten years, I got more than my money’s worth out of the canoe. That $60 investment was the best I’ve ever made as it provided me over a decade of explorations all over North Carolina, and into Tennessee and Virginia. But mostly I used it to paddle the black water swamps of Eastern North Carolina. In addition to the Black River, I paddled the upper part of the Northeast Cape Fear River, the South River, Colly Creek, the Waccamaw River, Town Creek, Lockwood Folly, Holly Shelter Creek, among others.   

I was heartbroken in 1985. I came home from the National Jamboree of the Boy Scouts of America to discover that during my absence, someone stole my canoe. It had it out behind the garage but had unlocked it to mow. I forgot to lock it back, so the thieves didn’t even have to bring bolt cutters. Thanks to the “replacement cost rider” on my insurance (along with a decade of high inflation) I was paid significantly more than what I’d originally paid for the canoe. I upgraded to a Mad River Explorer, the canoe I still have and which has been in waters all over the United States and deep into Canada.  

Paddling on Town Creek with my younger brother

The Haw River (another story about my canoe)

Blue Hole Canoes (along with other stories of my canoeing)

A stop at the Congaree

Title slide "A Stop at the Congaree" with photo of a kayak in the swamp
Cedar Creek

As I hadn’t planned on returning home until Monday, I decided to add another stop on my return. I have wanted to visit Congaree National Park in central South Carolina. The park is one of the nation’s newest, established in 2003. It’s also one of the least visited parks in the nation. The park consists of river bottom land along the Congaree River, which tends to flood.  A few weeks before I arrived, 80% of the park was underwater. While I was there, the water within the park was once again rising. 

Cedar Creek flows through the middle of the park, paralleling the Congaree River, which forms the park’s southern boundary. To the north, the land rises above the lowland, creating an area ideal for longleaf pine forest. Sadly, there are few longleaf, but I’ll get to that later.  

Leaving Folkston, Georgia, I determined to stay off the freeways. I followed US 301, through small towns in South Georgia, Nahauta and Jessup. This was familiar territory from my time living in South Georgia. The GPS on my phone drove me nuts as it kept trying to lure me back on I-95. The GPS even said it was the safe route as the National Weather Station reported flooding on other routes. I found myself rerouted to the interstate.  This I discovered this when I arrived in Hinesville. Turning the GPS off, I take a road that cuts through Fort Stewart, and picked up 301 again.  I drive through Claxton (the world’s fruitcake capital) and Statesboro and Sylvania, where I stopp for a late lunch in a Chinese restaurant.  While the rivers are high, they are nowhere near cresting over the bridges.

Crossing the Savannah River on an old bridge, I enter South Carolina. As I drive on, I listen to Edward Chancellor’s Devil Take the Hindmost, which is a history of economic speculation.  Traveling through towns like Allendale and Bamberg, who appear to have long passed their better days gives me time to ponder what happens when an economic bubble bursts.  I passed through Orangeburg, probably the largest city that I passed (Statesville might be larger, but I only skirted around it). 

When I crossed Intestate 26, running from Charleston to Columbia, I stop and grabb a burger for later, knowing that I didn’t feel much like cooking. 

Giant Loblolly Pine

I arrive at the Congaree National Park’s Longleaf Campsite at dusk. It’s a walk-in campsite, so I lung my waterproof bag containing my hammock, tarp, and sleeping bag a few hundred feet to my assigned site. I quickly set up my hammock, for there was heavy lightning to the north. But the storm took another path and by the time I was set to withstand the storm, the lightning has disappeared. 

I then set out to explore. The waning moon, only a few days after full, rose and offered plenty of defused light. I hiked the longleaf trail to the Visitor’s Center. Of course, everything was closed, but in the darkness, I came to understand that the name of my campsite and the trail to the Center was aspirational. I was camping and hiking under loblolly pines, the type of pines loved by paper companies. When the old growth longleaf were cut, they were replanted with loblollies, as they grow faster. The loblollies have shallower roots than the longleaf, who grow deep roots before they grow tall.  The only longleaf I’d seen in the dark were a few youthful plants near the outhouses. 

Returning to my campsite, it begins to drizzle. I retreat into my hammock and read a few chapters of Cecile Hulse Matschat’s The Suwanee: Strange Green Land, before falling asleep to the sound of rain. It rained off and on throughout the night. 

Coffee pot on my stove
(inside the fire pit because of the wind)

While I had enough water for the evening, I have to go find water for breakfast. I hike back to the Visitor’s Center and fill a couple of liter bottles. Coming back, I perk a pot of coffee and make some oatmeal. The wind slips through the pines as I enjoy breakfast. In honor of the Christian Sabbath, read several Psalms and commentaries in Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms. The sun burns the fog and clouds away. Along with the wind, my tarp dries by the time I finish breakfast. I pack up a head back to the Visitors Center where most of the trails originate. 

Boardwalk with evidence of recent flooding

The park has an amazing 2 ½ mile long boardwalk that takes you deep into the cypress lowlands. At places, the water is just below the walking path. I can see where, a few weeks ago, the water crested over the boardwalk.  When I get to the trail to the river, I take it, but only make it about a half mile before the path is blocked by running water. I return to the boardwalk.

Along the way, I pass one of the largest loblolly pines I’ve seen. It’s huge. This is the natural location for such trees, as they tolerate water around their base better than the longleaf pines. These trees are obviously old growth and this one next to the boardwalk is thought to be the largest pine in South Carolina. 

Water moving into bottomland. The rotten trees create bird habitat

These bottomland swamps, populated with cypress, loblollies, holly, and tupelo (gum) trees remind me of the swamps I started exploring as a teenager in Eastern North Carolina. While there is some similarity to the Okefenokee, it’s also different, especially with the amount of tupelo. After hiking about 4 miles, I make it back to my car and drive to the boat landing on Cedar Creek. I must get one more paddle in before driving home.  

I eat lunch at the boat launch on the edge of the National Park boundary, a few miles from the Visitor’s Center. From the number of vehicles, it seems there are many others on the water, and a few are hiking, even though much of the trails are underwater. As I’m putting in, I speak with a guide who is bringing back a couple of patrons from a paddle. The water is high. He informs me that you can only make it about a mile upstream and three miles downstream. I head out, paddling upstream against the hard current for about 30 minutes, till I arrive at a place I can go no further without pulling my boat over a log. Then, I turn around and make it back to the takeout in only 10 minutes. 

I continue going downstream for a few miles, passing many boaters struggling to fight the current as they paddle back to the takeout. This water is naturally blackish, but with the silt from the rains, it’s milk chocolate brown. As I turn around and paddle upstream, I pass many of those in small kayaks still fighting to get back to their takeout. My boat, 18 feet long, is easier to paddle against the current. I also read the water better, and am able to stay out of the fastest current. 

One of the local paddlers from Columbia is impressed with my sea kayak and asks me all kinds of questions as he helps me load it on the car. He’d come down from the state capitol for a day trip and had never paddled this area. As we talk, we realize that we have probably raced against each other. He used to crew on a friend’s boat out of the Savannah Yacht Club and raced in many of the regattas I have also raced in. 

A little after 3, I’m loaded up and heading north, driving the backroads of South Carolina through the Sandhill region of the state. In an old tree in a pond next to the road, I spot a bald eagle, I slow down, but there is no place to pull over. The car behind me honks his horn and gives me the “Hawaiian good luck sign” as he passes. The bird takes off. I have no idea what kind of hurry he was in, but he missed seeing a beautiful bird. As I enter North Carolina, the light fades. I cut over and take Interstate 77 toward home. Stopping only for dinner and gas, I arrive home a little after nine. 

Selfie taken on Cedar Creek

My recent Okefenokee Adventure

Title Slide, kayak following a canoe

I’ve been away (taking my last week of vacation from 2023), and spending time paddling in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a place I’ve been many times. In May 2019, I did a five day trip into the Okefenokee which you can read about by clicking here.  From my count, I have spent 15 nights in the swamp and paddled in it 20 days. After my recent trip, I have paddled all the canoe trails in the wilderness area of the swamp. 


A selfie of me on the water

Drops of water hit just above my head as I wake from a dream of helping a college student host a seminar for families who have hosted exchange students. I have no idea of the genesis of that dream, but before I attempt to process it, I need to relieve my bladder. It’s 5:15 AM. I crawl out from my hammock, realizing the rain of the last couple of hours have stopped. Water still drops from the branches of trees. The full moon has moved to the west and, with the morning fog, brings an eerie light into the swamp. The moon also reflects off the dark water of the canal. The insects, so active earlier in the evening, have quieted. In the distance, I heard a large splash followed by a squeal. Did a gator find dinner? 

Bill and I are camping at Canal Run, in the heart of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. The water in the swamp is as high as I’ve seen and flows hard toward the Suwanee. Yesterday’s paddle of a little more than 7 miles was tough, especially for Bill who paddled one of his Blue Hole Canoes. 

Dock at Billy’s Island

We’d left Stephen Foster State Park on the Southwest corner of the swamp yesterday morning around 10 AM, just as the fog rose. The current as we paddled the length of Billy’s Lake wasn’t too bad and it took just an hour to make it to Billy’s Island. We stopped to explore then took an early lunch. The island has long been inhabited by humans. The Lee family lived there for 50 years in a self-sufficient homestead. They raised crops, chickens, hogs, and cows, but also lived off the wild bounty of the swamp. Sadly, having never obtained title for their land, the logging company forced them out in the 1920s. Next came a logging camp which existed for a few years while they logged the swamp of its cypress and pine. Today, the island remains uninhabited, with only a few pieces of rusting logging equipment and a cemetery remaining. 

heading into the narrows

A short way up from Billy’s Island, the channel narrowed as we entered the wilderness area. From here on, motors are not allowed. We entered a quiet world. We pushed our way eastward.  At times, I had to make multiple turns in my 18-foot kayak to navigate the winding narrow channel. The real difficulty was in the first couple of miles, then the old canal straightened out, allowing us to make better time. Land speculators dug the canal in the late 19th Century with the hopes of draining the swamp and opening it up to farming. The plan was to drain the water through the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic, which was an engineering mistake as most of the swamp drains through the Suwanee River. 

As the canal straightened and widen, I paddled ahead of Bill. Once I found the campsite, I backtracked and gave him the good news. Arriving at the campsite was a milestone for me, for it meant I have paddled all the canoe trails within the swamp. It took us four hours to make the five-mile upstream paddle from Billy’s Island. Along the way, we saw many alligators, a few turtles, a couple of cardinals, plenty of ducks, and one great blue heron. 

Bill (dress coordinated with his Blue Hole)

We set up camp. Afterwards, Bill prepared the hot dogs he brought for dinner. I took his canoe and paddled upstream a bit more, collecting pieces of wood for a fire. Most of the campsites in the swamp are on platforms and fires prohibited. However, Canal Run is along the canal bank, so there is land and a campfire ring.  We enjoyed a campfire and talked of folks we knew when we both lived in Hickory, NC back in the mid-80s.  As we talked, the moon rose, and we could see it’s light through the trees and reflected across the waters. 

We both turned in before nine, but I laid awake in my hammock for a while reading a chapter in Cecile Hulse Matschat’s Suwannee River. She had traveled in the swamp and then down the Suwannee in the early 1930s, to study orchids and came out with a handful of tales. She told about Snake Woman and her pet king snake. Some of the boys of the island caught an old rattlesnake with 21 rattlers. They let the two snakes fight it out. Everyone knew the king snake would kill the rattlesnake, but the wagers were on how long the old rattler could survive. After a chapter, I fell asleep to the night sounds of the swamp. I only woke up one before 5:15. Around 2:15, to the sound of raindrops. Checking to make sure things stayed dry, I fell back asleep to the sound of raindrops. 

Canal Run campsite (the fire pit was to the left)

At 7 AM, I crawl out of my hammock and start heating water for oatmeal while perking coffee. We eat and takeour time packing up, discussing what to do next. Our plan had planned to continue down the Suwannee River, but it is so high, we know we would have a hard time finding camping spots. We discuss going down to Florida, where there are campsites up on bluffs, but when I suggest how much different the other side of the Okefenokee was than the west side, Bill decides he would like to see it. 

 It was just after 9 when we pushed off to make our way back to Stephen Foster State Park.  The sky clears. With a warm sun, we see more alligators than the day before. We again stop at Billy’s Island for lunch. As I paddle into the boat ramp at the park, I noticed a gator with a square box on her head. Then I saw the tag on her tail with the number 209. As we pulled ashore, I ask a ranger alligator 209. “That’s Sophia,” he said. “She’s part of a study. Go to the University of Georgia’s website to learn more.”

Sophia

Having packed up, we drive across the bottom of the swamp to St. Mary’s, where we picked up some ice and beer before heading north. We stop at Okefenokee Pastimes, a public campground just outside the Suwanee Canal Recreation Area.  Interestingly, as I’ll later learn, the grandmother of the woman who runs the campground, was born on Billy’s Island. 

Okefenokee Pastimes
Okefenokee Pastimes

After setting up camp, we plan to head into Folkston for dinner, but discover the campground has their own restaurant (serving dinner and on weekends, breakfast). We eat there both evenings and had breakfast together before we left on Saturday.  I highly recommend their cheeseburger and their Philly cheese steak sandwiches. The place has a party atmosphere that includes some locals and a lot of folks from Jacksonville. We hear a lot of stories from colorful individuals including the former drummer of 38 Special. He travels around in a sleek airstream camper, and this is one of his regular campgrounds. One of the patrons even offered us a shot of “swine,” a local home brew mixture of moonshine and sweet wine. I tried it. It was okay, but not good enough to ask for a second round. 

After sunset photo, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, 2015
Cedar Hammock Sunset, 2015

On Saturday, Bill and I set out to explore the east side of the swamp. I leave my kayak on the car and take a position in the stern of his Blue Hole canoe. This side of the swamp is more open with large swampy areas known as prairies. As the water is high, we could paddle most anywhere we wanted to go. We explored Chesser and Mizzell prairies and  stop at Cedar Hammock platform. I remember taking some incredible sunset photos from here in 2015. We see lots of large birds including sandhill cranes, egrets, and hawks. There are plenty of alligators and turtles. While few of the flowers are in bloom, we see lots of dried pitcher plants, which will come back to life later in the spring. We also hear the bellowing of bull gators, which seemed a little in the year. 

After paddling maybe 8 miles, we toured the Chesser homestead and hiked out to an observation tower over Chesser prairie. After dinner at Okefenokee Pastimes, we built a fire and sat around enjoying it. Bill plays guitar and we talk till bedtime. The next morning, after breakfast, Bill heads home and I head into Folkston to watch some trains, before my next adventure (which I’ll write about later). 

a long train of mostly tank cars running the “Folkston Funnel”

Coming Home to Pittsburgh, 1987

Title slide with photos taken from the Capitol Limited along the Potomac River in winter

This is a follow-up story to the one I posted before Christmas, when I wrote about my first long distant train trip from Pittsburgh to Florida and the only train wreck I’ve experienced. Click hereto read the story. Click here to read about my visit to Pittsburgh last summer. 

New Years Day 1987

Soon after the conductor checked me in and shortly after pulling out of the DC Station, I headed to the lounge car for a beer and a sandwich for dinner. In a corner booth, several obviously intoxicated guys played cards. I sat diagonally across from them, in the only open seat. Across from me, another conductor did paperwork. We exchanged greetings. He went back to his work, and I took a bite into my sandwich and looked out the window. 

Darkness was upon us. But every so often the flashing red lights at gates dispelled the descending darkness as we crossed highways. Leaving DC, the tracks snaked along the Potomac. The icy winter mix we’d been experiencing all day had changed to big snowy flakes by the time we reached Harper’s Ferry. After finishing my sandwich, I purchased another beer and pulled out The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I only had a few pages left, which I read while downing my beer.

The guys in the poker table in the corner kept hollering and then one of them told a racist joke. The car attendant came over and told them they’d been inappropriate and need to return to their seats. When they asked for another beer to take with them, he refused, saying they’d had enough. The game broke up and all but one walked away. This guy became louder, shouting obscenities and racial slurs. The conductor immediately stood up in support of the car attendant, as he called for assistance on his radio. 

I wondered if I was going to witness my first mobile bar fight. The three men, the drunk on one side, the conductor and attendant on the other, appeared locked in a stand-off, waiting for someone to blink. The man was told again that had better go back to his seat or he’d be removed from the train. He refused and sat back down in defiance. 

I’m not sure who made the call, perhaps the other conductor who had stepped into the car and stood at the back. Everyone remained quiet, with the drunk staring at the attendant and conductor. A few minutes later the train slowed. At a lonely snow-covered road, with the flashing lights of a sheriff’s car competing with the crossing lights, the train came stopped. The engineer had parked the lounge car in the middle of the road. 

The attendant opened the door, and two sheriff deputies entered. They spoke briefly to the conductor, and then to the drunk’s amazement, told him he was under arrest. He asked if he could go back to his seat but was cuffed and led out into the night. The conductor made a call from his radio, the whistle blew, and the train jerked forward. Everyone in the lounge car remained quiet, surprised by what we’d witnessed.

The day, cold and gray, had started early as I’d boarded the Silver Star in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I’d spent New Year’s Eve with my Grandma, barely making it till midnight. I was in bed soon after Dick Clark finished clicking off the seconds of 1986 at Times Square. 

Boarding the train, I was seated in a coach that I soon learned had a malfunctioning heating unit. Everyone was cold and the attendant had given out every blanket he had. I pulled my sleeping bag from my backpack and sat down, sliding my legs into it. My eyes alternating from the barren winter landscape outside to the pages of The Bridge over the River Kwai.

In Raleigh they tried to fix the heating unit, and again in Petersburg, but in both cases, as soon as we were running, the unit kicked out. The train, filled with folks heading home for the holidays, was full. There were no available seats in the other cars. That afternoon, I napped, warm in my bag, as sleet and freezing rain pounded against the window. There wasn’t a second to pause when we reached Washington, D. C. We were late and I had to immediately board the Capitol Limited for its run toward Chicago. Winded, I was at least pleased to find a warm coach with a working heat unit. 

After my light dinner and the evening entertainment, I’d returned to my seat. The train crossed over the Appalachians and began the downhill dart through coal towns nestled along the Youghiogheny. The snow piled up. When we stopped at the little hamlets, folks getting off the train would leave footprints in the powder as they head toward the station or awaiting cars. Some looked around, as if waiting for someone who wasn’t there to greet them. This was such a lonely scene, I thought. As the tracks approached Pittsburgh, running through the Monongahela Valley, I saw flames coming from the few steel mills still operating. Their red glow cutting though the darkness. A few minutes later, we pulled into Pittsburgh. As I got off, I wonder if I’ll have a ride, if Rusty has been able to make it through the snow to pick me up.

Sure enough, Rusty was waiting in the station. Pittsburgh had received nearly a foot of snow, but he was used to driving in it. The roads were vacant as we drove through town. Once we got back to the school, I dropped my bags in my apartment, pulled on my boots and headed outside. It was early in the morning, January 2nd, but I couldn’t sleep. Outside something magical happened. The dreary day had been transformed and now, at night, the snow added a cheerfulness to the air. I walked along Highland Avenue, enjoying the left-over Christmas lights that pierced the darkness. I was home.

Church steeple high over a Pittsburgh neighborhood in January 1987
Taken from the 3rd Floor of Fisher Hall at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in January 1987. Sadly, the Catholic Church with the high spires closed two decades ago. Many of its slate shingles had fallen off when I was in Pittsburgh last summer.

Postscript: Two days later, my mother called to make sure I was okay. She had heard of a terrible train wreck in Maryland. I don’t know why she worried that I was on that train unless she felt that my former trip’s wreck made me unlucky on trains. The accident turned out to be the one of the worse rail accidents in Amtrak history as a set of Conrail engines ignored lights and crossed in front of the Amtrak train.