A Good Day Fishing

Last week I spent a few days with my father and uncle (and my uncle’s brother-in-law) fishing off Cape Lookout.

The end of a day

We leave the jetty off the southwest side of Lookout a little after four. To the west, the sun is dropping close to the horizon.

I’m at the helm of my dad’s boat, following Dale and Larry. We race across calm waters, parallel to the beach on the south end of Lookout, heading toward Shackleford Banks. The day before, this section was so rough, we turned around and sought safety behind the banks. As we pass into the Lookout Bight, we make a hard right into Barden’s Inlet. Quickly passing the split of land at the end of Lookout, we’re soon running along the backside of the island. We’re now heading parallel to our previous heading, but in the direction, with just a split of land separating us from where we were. 

The channel cuts a path resembling a giant question mark, as we maneuver between Lookout and Shackleford Banks.

We pass a lovely two mask schooner that has taken shelter behind the banks. The still water is only marred by the wake of our boats.

After passing the Old Coast Guard and Life Saving stations, we cut back toward the Lookout Lighthouse, which not only rises up into the sky but whose reflection follows us as we snake back north, keeping the red buoys on our right. Once we pass the lighthouse, the channel straightens as we head toward the east end of Harker’s Island. The sandbars have shifted and there are places we ignore the buoys. In one place, a sandbar has completely covered the old channel and we take a green buoy to the right. If we’d stayed in the marked channel, we’d been grounded. 

We take the northern channel at the split and curve around the west end of Harkers Island. The sun has now set behind us. As we make the turn into Eastmouth Bay, the pink sky reflects off the calm waters.  As we approach the channel into our dock, I push the throttle up to slow the boat down as I raise the motor enough to make it over the sand bar at the mouth of the dredged cut. We putt into the dock. It’s been a good day. Now there are fish to clean. 

The cooler contains Day and my fish. Larry and Dale’s are in the bucket.

Heading out early in the morning

We’d left that morning around 7 AM and watched the sun rise as we were running around Harker’s Island.

The temperature was below freezing, as evident by the ice on the docks. But unlike the day before, when the gales of earlier in the week had calmed to a stiff breeze of 20 miles an hour, this morning was calm. We didn’t feel the cold nearly as much as the previous day. We arrived at the rock jetty off Lookout, set anchor, and began to fish. A dozen or so boats were already anchored and had lines in the water by the time we arrived. As the day continued, even more would arrive. 

The fishing wasn’t great the first few hours. I seemed to lose jigs to the rocks, while just on the other side of the rocks, a dude with an orange coat, sitting on a swivel seat on the bow of his boat, caught fish after fish. Most were thrown back, but he kept a few. I pondered why they liked his grub and not mine. But then I got a bite. The light rod bent over and began to work the fish, but before we could get it to the net, he got off. Fifteen minutes later, my dad caught a speckled trout. There was one in the cooler.  

We were just about to head to the other side of the jetty, when Dad caught another while I lost another. So, we stayed and kept fishing. Larry and Dale had moved their boat to the other side and texted us to let us know a wildlife officer was over there checking fish and license. We assured him we only had “legal” fish. The officer only checked a half dozen boats, and then left, but he’d written a lot of tickets for fishing without licenses or having kept more fish than allowed. 

Finally, I did land a speckled trout that was just barely large enough to keep (speckled must be 14 inches long).  As the tide dropped, exposing the rocks and the shoreline approached out anchorage, we watched another guy fishing from the surf, on our side of the jetty catch fish after fish. I began to wonder what was wrong with our technique.

Catching fish

Then it happened. Dad caught a puppy drum. It was a good fight. I pulled my line in and helped him out the net.  While dad was putting the fish away and putting a new grub on his jig, I got a bite. It was another puppy drum. This one also took several minutes to get it into the boat. I’d get the fish almost to the boat and it would begin running, pulling line off the reel. As the line was only 8-pound test, you have to keep your drag fairly loose to keep the line from snapping. Dad waited until the fish tired and I got it to the boat, where he could help net it. It was another puppy drum, about 21 inches long. It went into the cooler, too. 

The limit of drum is one a piece, but for the next hour, we kept catching and releasing them. The fish ranged from 20 to 26 inches and they all gave a great fight. I’m not sure how many we caught, but each of us caught seven or eight fish. All the fish fought hard and took several minutes to get into the boat.

boats around the jetty which can only be partially seen by where the rocks are above water

As the noon hour approached, we were both getting hungry.  We finally took a break to have lunch (beans and weenies and crackers), even though the fish were still biting. Several other boats along with the guys on shore got into catching drum, so after lunch we moved to the other side of the jetty. We anchored next to Larry and Dale and began fishing. Pretty soon, we both caught a gray trout (we could only keep one, but we only caught one apiece). Then we caught a few more speckled trout. It seemed as if for every trout I got into the boat, I would lose one jig to the rocks. About half of the trout, we had to throw back as they were not of legal size. I also caught a bluefish. 

While we fished the jetty, out in deeper water shrimp thrawlers worked back and forth. You could hear the drone of their diesels and when pulled in their nets to cull their catch, the sound of gulls squawking overwhelmed the sounds of the waves breaking on the rock.

As the trawler culls their catch, the gulls fight for that which is thrown back

As the afternoon wore on, more. and more boats left for home. There were only a half dozen of so left when we decided to call it a day.

Rocks, Water, and a Personal Note

Michael P. Cohen, Granite and Grace: Seeking the Heart of Yosemite (Reno: University of Nevada, 2019), 220 pages. A few hand drawn maps and line drawings at the top of each chapter by Valerie Cohen.

When most people think of Yosemite, they think of the valley with its huge waterfalls and sheer-faced granite cliffs where, at night, you can see the flashlights of climbers’ bivouac in hammocks slung along the rock walls. But there is another side of Yosemite. This part of the park is high above the valley and surrounds Tuolumne Meadows. The top of the park is also granite, mostly sculptured by glaciers. It is here, in a series of essays, that Cohen focuses his study of the rock that made the park so famous. For nearly three decades, Cohen taught at Southern Utah University. During the summer, he and his wife would leave the sandstone of the Colorado River Plateau for June Lake, on the backside of Yosemite. The two of them have been coming to Yosemite since childhood. Early in their life together, Michael worked as a climbing guide in the park while Valerie worked as a summer ranger.  Now in his 70s and no longer climbing the steep pitches, Cohen reflects on a lifetime living around Yosemite.

Granite and Grace centers around a series of essays that are often told from the point of view of a walker/hiker/climber in Yosemite. As Cohen recounts walks and climbs, he branches out to discuss various rock formations. Within these essays, he covers the geology of granite, how it was formed under the earth and is often found at the edge of continents. He writes about how the science around granite has changed especially within increase understanding of plate tectonics. He discussed the makeup of granite and why it’s appreciated by builders and climbers for its toughness. I had to laugh in appreciation of Cohen’s fondness for granite as he speaks of eating many meals upon it, but not wanting it as a countertop. (Granite does contain some radioactive minerals and houses built on granite have to be carefully constructed to avoid radon gas buildup). The reader will learn the role of ice in shaping the granite found in Yosemite’s high country. Weaving into his personal quests and the science behind granite, Cohen draws from a variety of literary sources. He quotes authors like John Muir and Jack Kerouac, poets such as Gary Snyder and Robinson Jeffers, and recalls songs from Paul Simon and Jefferson Airplane. While the book is part memoir that mixes in geology and literary interests, at its deepest, it is a philosophical exploration of an individual trying to understand a small section of the world.

In the concluding paragraph of the last chapter before the epilogue, Cohen writes a lyrical paragraph about granite’s “otherness and freedom.” His opening sentence, “I am attracted to granite and intimidated—especially by its textures—precisely because it is not flesh,” sets the stage for reflecting on how the “otherness” of this rock that doesn’t care or care if you care can provide a sense of peace. I was reminded of the last line in Norman McLean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. While Mclean finds peace at being in the river’s waters that gathers all that is, Cohen finds peace in that seemingly solid rock which is totally foreign and indifferent. Both views, I think, are valuable in our understanding the complexity of the human experience.

I recommend this book for anyone wanting to know more about Yosemite (this is not stuff you’ll find in guidebooks). There is something for most everyone in these pages. If you’re curious about geology, there are insights. If you want to know who we relate to the world in which we find ourselves, you’ll find parts that will speak to you.. Cohen is a deep thinker who searches for the precise word to describe his thoughts. In reading the book, if you’re like me, you’ll pull out the dictionary (or google) to look up many of his words. And, if you’re also like me, you’ll want to go back to Yosemite. His description of the Dana Plateau (which was an island above the impact of glaciation) made me realize there are places I still need to explore.

I was given a copy of this book by the author (see below) but was not compelled to write a review.  This is the fourth book I’ve read by Cohen.

Michael Cohen along the John Muir Trail, 1997

A Personal Note:  My first visit to Yosemite was in 1985, thirty years after Cohen’s first visit. I had flown to San Francisco where my girlfriend at the time was in grad school. We drove to Yosemite for a few days. I was amazed as we snaked up the road that parallels the Merced River. By the time we got into the park, I had used up all my film and had to buy expensive film in a park store to continue photographing the amazing sights. It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas and was snowing. The next morning, while my girlfriend spent the day inside the cozy cabin reading and preparing for exams, I laced up my boots headed out at daybreak. I hiked up toward Nevada Falls. It was amazing (I again ran out of film). Along the way, I met a hiker with a loaded pack. He had skis and crampons strapped to his pack that was filled with winter camping gear and provisions. He was heading up over the top to Tuolumne Meadows where he planned to ski along the highway and down Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. There, he was going to be picked up three days later. I was intrigued. Tuolumne Meadows was beckoning me like Eden.

I have been back to the park a half-dozen times since 1985 and, with one exception, I have always come into the park from the east, into Tuolumne Meadows. When another guy and I completed our hike of the John Muir Trail, Michael Cohen (the author) joined us near Devil Post Pile. As I was living in Cedar City at the time, I had gotten to know Cohen when I audited his class on creative non-fiction. Michael hiked with us for several days as we made our way down Lyell Canyon and into the Meadows. Wanting to avoid the crowds of Yosemite Valley, Michael’s wife Valerie picked him there, while the two of us continued on for another two nights into the valley. When most people think of the park, they think of Yosemite Valley with its huge waterfalls, sheer granite cliffs, and hordes of tourist. Few make it over to Tuolumne Meadows. Cohen’s book will help those who only travel through the valley understand what they missed in the high country.

Michael also appears in another book I reviewed in this blog, Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

 

Alice Outwater, Water: A Natural History (New York: Basic Books, 1996) 212 pages with index and notes. Line drawings by Billy Brauer.

In this collection of what seems to be independent essays, the author describes the history and evolution of water in North America. She begins with the fur trade and nature’s engineers, the beaver. In subsequent chapters, she writes about prairie dogs, buffaloes, alligators, freshwater shellfish, as well as the forests and grasslands. She explores the path of rainfall and how its been altered as we have altered the environment. She discusses the role of the toilet and sewer systems. Toward the end of the book (175ff), Outwater brings together all these seemingly diverse ideas as she discusses our attempts to “save the environment.” She points out the fallacy in many environmental efforts. We attempt to preserve an “endangered species… as if they were items in a catalog… [while] missing the larger ecological picture.” (181). At first, I was wondering where Outwater was going with these essays as they seemed to be independent of one another, but by the end of the book, I understood her point. She encourages us to see how the natural work really does work together.

Water: A Natural History is really a history of human impact upon the waters of North America (mainly the United States). Outwater recalls how we have misused our water and are now changing our views and our behavior as we strive to clean up our rivers and streams. She appears optimistic even while acknowledging there is more to be done. And example of her optimism is from seeing how the non-native zebra mussel, which was introduced by an ocean-going ship into the Great Lakes, is taking over the role of native mussels that have been wiped out by human activity. Having lived in the Great Lakes region for a decade, I know her view isn’t shared by many who see the zebra mussel as problematic.

Much of the concluding chapters of this book comes from Outwater’s work as an environmental engineer in the Boston Harbor cleanup project. Her writing is clear and concise. She caused me to ponder much about water and how we depend on it. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in one of things necessary for life—water.  And I also find her name, “Outwater” to be appropriate for someone who writes on the topic!  This is my second book by Outwater. I had previously reviewed her book, Wild at Heart which also covers many of these same themes.

Walking Around Austin

Austin, from Zikler Park

The other day I was telling someone about going to Austin in early March. He told me of all the places he lived, that he liked Austin the best, that it was a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup (that’s a political joke, you’ll have to figure it out).

Was it only two months ago that I was in Austin? This is a weird time we’re living. In early March, two days before I flew down for a seminar by the Foundation for Reformed Theology on the writings of John Leith, a Presbyterian theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, South by Southwest was cancelled. I didn’t realize just how large of a music event this was, which may have explained why there were so few rental cars available. But I flew down in flights that, once they called up standbys, were full. This was only two months ago.

The 7 11’s where I grew up never had signs like that! Was it formerly a bar or tavern? Photo taken on a walk around town.

My flight options into Austin from Savannah were not great. Since I had to be at Austin Theological Seminary on Monday at nine in the morning, I considered preaching on Sunday and then flying down. But by waiting until the afternoon, the earliest I could get to Austin was 10:30 PM, which would have put me exhausted. Instead, I decided to fly down early on Saturday. This would leave me a day and a half to explore the city, before engaging in discussions.  It was a good choice. On March 7th, I took an early flight to Atlanta and then on to Austin, arriving in the city at 11 AM. I’d decided to forgo renting a car, so I took a bus (that seemed to be waiting on me) into town. I got off just north of University of Texas’ campus and two blocks south of the seminary.  It was a few minutes after noon when I arrived.

The guy at the guest counter was accommodating for my early arrival. I dropped my bags in my room. While they normally don’t have food service during the weekend, this day there was a multi-cultural seminar going on and some of the faculty, who were talking behind me as I asked the person at the desk where to go for lunch, invited me to join them. I had wonderful homemade tamales and other Mexican and Native American food. It was made even better as I got to talk over lunch with a number of the students at the seminar.

Near the LBJ museum

Then I headed out. As I have been reading Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of the first President I can really remember, Lyndon Johnson, I head over to his library and museum on the east side of UT’s campus.  I was curious of the spin they’d put on this complex man. I thought the library looked like an oversized mausoleum.  As I came into the museum, a docent greeted me. I was told that it was a free day, which surprised me, but I didn’t complain.  We talked a few minutes and I had to tell him the first joke I can remember, which probably came from an old Boy’s Life magazine around 1965:

What do you get when you up your finger in the President’s ear?
Johnson’s wax.

I was sure he had heard it, but it turns out he had not and had me tell it to a few others working in the museum. While the museum was honest about some of LBJ’s struggles and failures, it avoided dealing with some of his childhood and education issues and the extramarital affairs he had. Caro tells of LBJ’s affair with the wife of one of his big financial supporters. Forget morality, that took nerve (and a lot of risk)!  One of the neat displays had a wax figure of Johnson telling jokes. LBJ was known for his jokes and stories (and getting into people’s faces).

Large prehistorical Texas bird

It was around 4:30 when I left the library. I headed over to the Texas Memorial museum. By the time I got there, I only had 20 minutes, but since I was told the day was free, I decided to see what I could. I also asked why things were free and learned that this day, at the beginning of the South-by-Southwest festival, is the traditional day for upcoming freshmen to visit the University of Texas. So, they made things free. The orientation day had been canceled, but they kept the museums free.  The Memorial Museum focuses on natural history and has a huge skeleton of a prehistoric bird that practically fills the main room on the first floor. Texas does like to show off how big things are there.

After my rush tour through the Natural History Museum, I walked over to Pho Thai Son, a Vietnamese restaurant I’d seen along Guadalupe Street, on the far side of the campus.  I enjoyed an evening meal of Pork and Lemon Grass on a salad base. I then walked back to my room at the Seminary and went to bed early.

I found this a little sad… there must be some lonely rivers somewhere.

I’d decided to attend church at Central Presbyterian, which was about a mile and a half walk from the seminary.  It was the day we changed to daylight saving time, but since I was an hour off from my usual time, I didn’t notice losing the hour. Since there was no meal service at the seminary on the weekends, I left early hoping that I could find something to eat along the way. Walking through the campus on the “Speedway,” I came upon a unique sculpture. I often wondered what happened to all those old aluminum canoes from the 70s. Now I know, they are welded into a canoe tree that stands to the side of the speedway (which is really a walkway). Getting to church early, without passing anyplace to eat, I find Bidemans Deli, a block to the west.  I had breakfast and read till a few minutes before church was to begin at 10 AM. At church, they started with an announcement about the closing of South-by-Southwest. This church was a site for many of the musical venues, but without the event, they were out of a lot of money. I was impressed that the church included all types of people. There were homeless (which they feed afterwards) and those in suits. I was casually dressed as I planned to make the most of my day.  Most of the congregation was on the younger side, but I learned that many of their regulars who were older were not there out of the fear of the virus. There was a guest preacher this day. He was articulate, and I enjoyed listening to him even if he spent a little too much time talking about himself and his family.

Reflection of the Catholic Cathedral

After church was over, I backtracked and attended the sermon part of the mass at the Catholic Cathedral.  There, the priest must have been Vietnamese or from somewhere in Southeast Asia. His homily was packed with information, but he read the sermon and never made eye contact. I found myself wondering if he had even written the sermon, or if he was just reading someone else’s. However, unlike the Presbyterian Church where people were already staying away due to virus fears, the Catholic Church was packed. I listened to the homily and then left, heading to the capitol as my first stop as a tourist.

The Texas capitol looks a lot like the United States capitol, only dirty. It is also a few feet taller, something Texans are proud of and I have no idea how many people bragged about this to me. Not wanting to start a war, I did not tell them I thought their capitol looked dirty. I wanted to make it safely out of the state. The “dirty look” comes from the reddish colored marble. Originally, they were going to use limestone, but found that Texas limestone discolors. The contractor suggested importing white marble from Indiana, but that flew over about as well as a block of marble. Instead, they found a Texas quarry that could mine this reddish-brown marble and used it. Texas tried to build its capitol on the cheap (using convict labor). The miners in the quarry decided to strike instead of teaching the convicts how to do their job, which meant that the marble cost more than planned. But they saved on all other aspects of the building.

One of many water features in the Botanical Gardens

After touring the inside of the capitol, I walked around looking at the monuments dotting the grounds, then headed South. I had wanted to go see Ladybird Johnson’s wildflowers, but learned that was two miles beyond bus service. So instead, I headed to Zikler Botanical Garden. Walking south, I crossed the Colorado River on the Congress Avenue Bridge, known for its large colony of bats during the summer (they are not normally seen until April). Then I headed up Barton Springs Road, stopping for an ice cream cone to tide me over till dinner time. Along the way, I passed Terry Black’s Barbecue. They had five huge cookers going, using split hardwood. I talked with one of the pit workers and knew where I was going to go for dinner.  I head on to the Botanical Gardens, which sit up on a hill overlooking Austin. I enjoy the view and the scenery, especially the Japanese garden. There were many lovely water features that started at the top of the hill and created cascading creeks flowing down the sides.

After a few hours of walking through the gardens and some time to write and read, I began my walk back along the river, watching several rowing crews practice on the water. Then I cut back over to Barton Springs Road, where I’m shocked at the line at Terry Black’s. I was told it was a 45-minute wait. If folks are waiting that long it must be good, I thought, and joined the line. It was.  I had some of their pork and a brisket, both which were good. The banana pudding was passable.

The sun was setting by the time I was fed. I continued back toward the campus several miles away, crossing the river on the Lamar Street bridge.  I walked fast through a mostly empty city, arriving back at the campus around 8:30 PM. Several of those in the seminar had arrived and we talked a bit. They had not eaten and decide to go out for dinner while I read a bit before turning in early.  It had been a good day and I figured I’d walked at least 15 miles.

Chapel at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (The trees were just beginning to bud out)

The rest of the week rushed by. We meet for three hours each morning and another three hours in the afternoon, followed by dinner. The first night was at La Mancha, a Tex-Mex establishment. On Tuesday night, we had barbecue at “The County Line,” which had a wonderful view of a stream that look so inviting for fishing. Wednesday, we ate “Hoovers,” a well known Southern cuisine establishment that’s been featured on “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.” All were excellent restaurants. While we were involved in talking and making presentations, we kept an eye on the stock market and on the news of the country shutting down due to COVID-19. The market was taking some huge drops, would regain a bit, then drop again. There was a weird feeling in the air. In the seminary’s lunchroom, they were wiping the tables and putting up safety signs.

On Wednesday evening, I worked on a letter to go out to the congregation. With staff, we sent drafts back and forth, ironing out safety procedures for worshipping during a pandemic. After several revisions and phone calls, they sent the letter (which I posted here) out on Thursday in an email blast.

“The Bible”

Our last day was Thursday. John, another participant, and I had half a day, so we skipped the airport shuttle and walked over to the Harry Reason Center at UT’s campus. This building holds collections of interesting historical artifacts and papers. We both took pictures standing behind an original Gutenberg Bible. They had an exhibit of David Forster Wallace and Gabriel García Márquez, both of whom the Center holds many of their papers. Both exhibits were interesting. We then headed back to the seminary, picked up our bags and took the bus to the airport. It was March 12, and a completely different attitude could be felt. The place was not very crowded. We flew through security and after a final dinner, we were on our way home in half-filled airplanes. The world had changed.

I was always a little nervous walking around this tower on UT’s campus

When I went into the office on Friday, exhausted from the travels, things were seriously shutting down. While we decided not to shut-down worship on Sunday, we sent another email out to the congregation, encouraging them to stay home and to watch our service via live-stream. All but one other of the churches on the island had closed. We only had around 35 in worship on March 15. It was the last week of any kind of regular service. Ever since, a skeleton crew of 6 or 7 have put together a live-streamed worship service. Our draft pandemic procedures were quickly made obsolete.

It now seems as if it was two years ago that I was walking around Austin.

Paddling the Lumber River with my Dad (September 30-October 2, 2019)

A high bluff along the western bank of the Lumber River just south of US 74, Pea Ridge is a lovely spot. We arrive early enough to enjoy it. For a wilderness site that is only accessible to the public from the water, this is near perfection. There are a few benches, a picnic table and a trash can and grass! Across the river stands several huge cypresses, their needles turning brown. Around us are a variety of trees. The bank of the river is lined with cypress and water birch. The site itself features sweet gum, maple, sycamore, pines and holly. I place my hammock between trees and find a mossy place to set up my tent so that I have a good view of the river. After setting up camp, I lie in my hammock resting and reading for an hour, then go for a swim before dinner.

This is our second night on the river.  We’ve covered 14 or so miles after launching at Matthew Bluff bridge late yesterday morning. The first day was supposed to be easy for we knew it was going to take time to shuttle vehicles. Not wanting to leave a vehicle at a bridge for two days, Joe Washburn, the pastor of First Presbyterian in Whiteville agreed to help us with the shuttle. After we got everything ready and loaded in our boats, we slid them down the muddy bank into the river. My dad has his boat in the water first but falls into the water as he tries to enter his boat. The river drops off quickly. After fishing out his equipment and restowing it, we were soon on the way. The river around the Matthew Bluff bridge was trashed with beer and soda cans and household waste, as some people treat the area as a dump. Thankfully, after a couple turns, the river becomes more natural. We’d been warned when we presented the ranger with our float plans that the river had not been cleared of blow-down trees since Hurricane Florence. That was a year ago. Sadly, they’d just finished clearing the entire 100-mile waterway from on Drowning Creek and the Lumber River of down trees from Hurricane Matthew which occurred in 2016 a month before Florence struck. He told us to be aware that there would be some blow downs above Boardman (Highway 74). He was right. About a mile into our trip, we came across the first, a huge old oak that laid across the river. The water was deep and I pulled my kayak parallel to the log, slid out of the boat and straddled the log (as if I was riding a Clydesdale, pulled my boat over the log and tied it off and then helped my father get his boat across. Thankfully, there were no problems and we were soon on our way.

After crossing the Willouby Bridge, four or so miles down the river, we came to another blowdown where we had to get out and cut a path for our boats to make it through the branches of the down tree. Our first campsite, Buck Landing, was a mile or so south of the Willouby Bridge, on the east side. I kept wondering when the site was going to show up, as I saw few pine, trees that indicate high ground. This area was swampy and populated with cypress, tupelo, river birch and a few bay trees. But soon after wondering where the pines were, they appeared and right afterwards was the campsite.

my tent at Buck Landing

Like Pea Ridge, Buck Landing was also a wilderness/canoe-in site but with easier access by locals as the one trash can “over-runneth” with beer cans. I spent a good deal of time emptying the trash and crushing the beer cans so that they were all able to be contained within the provided can. Although I may be mistaken, I was pretty sure the no one had paddled the river with that many cases of beer. This site also had a small pavilion, which wasn’t needed due to the clear skies, but the supports made a good place to sling my hammock. As the site was on the eastern side of the river, we saw a nice sunset through the hardwood swamp on the other side. Shortly thereafter, a thin crescent of the new moon was visible. After a dinner of some MREs that my father had brought along, we both decided to avoid the mosquito battle and headed off to bed, listening to the owls hoot and the buzz of insects.

The next morning, I’m a little panicked. When I pulled out my glucose test meter (I am a diabetic) to check my blood sugar level, it wasn’t working. I wasn’t bothered too much until I made my way over to my boat and pulled out the small dry bag I always carry with me whether kayaking or sailing, in which I keep a backup meter. The battery was dead. As they are different kind of meters, I can’t change the battery from one to the other. I wasn’t sure what to do, but my father was more concerned than me as he’s never dealt with diabetes. I told him I thought I would be okay and hopefully I could get a new meter when we crossed US 74 at Boardman, later in the morning.

cutting our way through a blow-down so we can push the boats under

After breakfast of coffee, an orange, and oatmeal, we shoved off a little after 9 AM. It was to be a difficult morning. It takes two hours to cover just a few miles as we spend almost as much time in the water as in the boat as we pulled over, under, through, and around fallen trees. When we weren’t pulling ourselves through down trees, we enjoyed watching kingfishers dart up and down the river, and great blue herons led us downriver when we interrupt their hunting. I even saw a red tail hawk. Throughout the morning, I keep snacking, not wanting my blood sugar to drop.  After two hours of exhausting work, we finally get to where the river opens up more. Then, maybe a mile from the bridge, we passed a fisherman who’d pushed a jon boat up the river with a small battery powered motor. Only then did we know we were done with blowdowns.

Going over a blow-down

At the wildlife boat ramp at US 74, I knew better than walking into the village of Boardman. It used to be a large town, back in the early 1900s when the area was heavily lumbered,but the only business left today is a gas station. I tried calling local pharmacies in Fairmont and Chadbourn, hoping to find one that delivered. Unfortunately, as it was now noon, all their delivery drivers had gone out to make their daily runs. They laughed when I asked about Uber or Lyft.  But, while I was waiting, with my meter out in the sun, it began working again, which made me pretty sure it was a problem with humidity. Being able to see that my blood sugar was in a good range, we continued paddling another mile to Pea Ridge campsite.

For being in his 80s, my dad did well on this trip!

Notice the grass around the fire pit

That night, we built a fire and talk. For some reason, my dad asked me about which of his guns I want him to leave me. While I have guns (all of which are in need of being oiled because they haven’t been shot in decades), I’m not a gun collector. All my guns stay locked up in a gun safe. But I told him I’d take the 30-30 Winchester lever action in case I move back out west. He suggests instead taking a higher powered gun, but I told him the Winchester was enough. Then he asks about shotguns and I was surprised to learn that he has a 20 gauge double barrel coachman (short barrel gun that those who rode “shotgun” on stagecoaches carried). What are you doing with that? I ask. “It’s your moms.” “What?” Then I learn the story. They were visiting my great aunt who, after my father’s uncle had died. She lived by herself out in the country. My mother asked if she wasn’t scared living out there. She said no, and showed my mother the gun. My mom, who I am sure was trying to be nice or trying to make a joke, said “maybe that’s what I need.” Well, lets just say, “I don’t think her next birthday went over well.”

Pea Ridge Campsite launch

After crawling into bed, I have a great view of Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and Andromeda, rising over eastern bank of the river. I fall quickly asleep and wake up once before morning. Taurus is overhead and Orion is rising just behind him.  It must be well after midnight, but I don’t check the time and when I wake up again, it’s dawn. I get up, write a bit, then prepare coffee and water for oatmeal.

timbers left over from an old logging railroad

 

not what I thought Paradise would look like…

Queen Anne Landing

We’re on the river at 9 AM. It’d been cleared from here on down to our takeout point at the State Park at Queen Anne’s Landing. It was an easy 9 ½ miles. Down trees are not a problem, but at one place there’s a sandbar that runs across the river and we end up getting out of our boats and pulling them across it. After a lazy float, we arrive at the landing a little after noon.

 

 

The Lumber River is located in Southeastern North Carolina. The river starts north of Laurinburg, as Drowning Creek and wanders 115 miles as it passes the city of Lumberton and the town of Fair Bluff on its way to merge with the Pee Dee RIver a few miles into South Carolina. The state of North Carolina maintains a linear park along the river from the 15-501 bridge to Fair Bluff. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew dropped so much water into the river basin that much of Lumberton and Fair Bluff were below water. I used to work this area back in the early 80s for the Boy Scouts of America. At the time, Fair Bluff was a delightful small town. Today, the town is mostly deserted. To learn more about the river, check out the Lumber River State Park website.

that’s me (a selfie)

 

Between Full Moons (A photo saga)

Moonglow at Cumberland Falls

It’s been a while since I had a post on my activities, so I decided I’d do a full moon to full moon post. The August full moon occured on the 15th, and I was at Cumberland Falls, Kentucky. It was a clear night and those who came out to the falls an hour or so after the moonrise, were treated with seeing a “moonbow.” It’s just like a rainbow, except it is more whitish, appearing a little like a ghost of a rainbow. The moonbow occurs in the spray from the falls, which also creates a lovely rainbow in daytime, as you can see from the two photos I’ve posted.

Rainbow the next morning

From one of the historical markers around the site, I learned that the Cumberland River was named by Dr. Walker, an early explorer in the area. According to him, the river was the crookedest he’d seen, so he named it after the Duke of Cumberland because it reminded the explorer of the Duke.

Leaving Cumberland Falls, we headed toward Cumberland Gap. It was about lunch time when we hit Corbin and we decided to have lunch at Colonel Sander’s place. The original restaurant and hotel was torn down, but they rebuilt a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the site many years ago. In addition to the children and biscuits, three was a small museum showing how it was back in the 30’s. It’s also a major stop on the old Nashville and Louisville Railroad, so I had time to watch a few trains.

At Cumberland Gap, we rode the bike/horse part of the Wilderness Road. We needed Daniel Boone, for it was rough with several down trees. Also, after a long downhill run, we crossed a small bridge and at the other end, a horse had relieved himself. It took some maneuvering to miss that pile of crap! We enjoyed the delightful town of Cumberland Gap which has an interesting bicycle museum and several good coffee shops/restaurants.  I had my first beet burger at the Pineapple Tea Room and Coffee Ship. It was good! Camping, we also ate good as we picked up in a rural grocery store some rib-eyes to grill. They were local and grass fed and it was some of the best meat I’ve had in the eastern part of the country where all the meat tends to be corn-fattened.

Black-eyed Susans along the Wilderness Road bike/horse path

After a couple of nights at Cumberland Gap, we headed over to Abingdon and Damascus for the purpose of riding the Virginia Creeper trail. We found a wonderful camping spot (with a cucumber tree, which I had to look up to identify).  I enjoyed being back in this country, as it’s been well over thirty years since I came through here while hiking the Appalachian Trail.

 

The Virginia Creeper is a neat trail that follows an old railroad bed from Abingdon to Whitetop, Virginia, and on to Todd NC. The train stopped running in the mid-70s, and in the 80s, it was converted to a bike trail. Where were lots of people on the trail. You can catch a shuttle from Damascus to the top of Whitetop, which we did. There were several shuttles running every hour. Talking to a driver, I learned that during the fall color season, there are as many as a dozen vans an hour coming up to the top!  It was a nice and easy ride. I stopped and walked a bit on the Appalachian Trail for old time sake (but the AT has been relocated here since I hiked this area, so I wasn’t exactly walking in my old steps.

New River as seen from an old trestle

 

Leaving the Damascus/Mount Rogers area, we headed over to the New River State Park, where the state of Virginia runs a fifty some mile long linear park along the New River from Galax to Pulaski.  We road the trail from from Galax to our site, about 28 miles, which made a nice day. But this trail involved more peddling than the Creeper trail in which you could almost coast the whole way.

 

I-77 bridge over the New River

My bike resting against a mile marker on the New River trail 27 miles from Pulaski

One of two tunnels on the trail

One of many trestles along the New River Trail

The campsites are rather expensive for pit toilets and no showers ($25/night), but we loved our site. It was just steps from the river and we had the place to ourselves. We slept to the sound of water running over rocks (augmented by the sounds of birds, frogs, insects, and the wind). It was a wonderful place to camp. And every evening, I took a swim in the river.

 

After getting back and having a hurricane threaten, another full moon came around. This time, at home and on a semi-clear evening, I made the best of it by paddling around Pigeon Island (about 6 miles). It was a magical evening starting with incredibly red skies and then the beauty of the moon.

Riding the “International” (Butterworth, Malaysia to Bangkok, Thailand)

This is another “recycled blog post” from an old blog from my journey from Indonesia to Europe taken during a sabbatical in 2011. I am concentrating on my travel blogs (mostly by train) instead of the others where I was visiting tourist sights. Here I make my way from Malaysia to Thailand. 

Question: What is the largest train station ever built that never had train tracks? (answer at the end of my story)

 

With mixed feelings, I leave Penang behind. I have enjoyed my time here.  After a couple of weeks of constant movement around Indonesia and Malaysia, it was nice to slow down for several days. The Hutton Lodge provided excellent accommodations and having Mahen, a blogger friend who lives in Georgetown, Penang, as a guide was a special treat.

 

Mahen outside of his clinic

Before leaving Georgetown, I spend the morning at Mahen’s clinic where I was able to see first-hand the work they do with children and young adults with cerebral palsy. I got to play with the children and watch as they work to teach a trade to the older children.

 

 

selfie from the ferry

By late morning, it was time to head to the ferry. The train was scheduled for 2:20 PM, but the woman who sold me the ticket suggested I be on the ferry to cross the bay by noon.  As it turned out, there was only a few minute wait for the ferry and then crossing took only 30 minutes. Once on the other side, I walked by the train station and made sure I knew where I needed to be at, then crossed the tracks and found a place for lunch. There, I talked to one of the few Americans I’d seen on the trip, a recent MBA graduate from Harvard who was traveling in Southeast Asia for a month.  We chatted as we at, then we explored some old train equipment, including two old steam trains, in a park by the tracks. Coming back to the train station at 2 PM, a woman working for the Malaysian tourism asks me a bunch of questions about their tourist advertisements and what I liked about Malaysia.

 

Waiting for the train in Butterworth

From the walkway over the tracks that connects the train station to the ferry terminal

I’m shocked, when the “International” begins to load, that there are only had two cars, both second class sleepers. Even with just two cars, the train is less than half full. I’m alone in my seats, which turns into two single beds at night, with a canvas covering that provides some privacy. Sitting across the aisle as we wait to pull out of the station are two women, sisters, from Penang who were heading north for a wedding. One of them now lives in Hong Kong. We begin talking, but then the conductor informs them they are in the wrong seats and makes them move into the other car. Then, an older Indian couple boarded the train and sat in their compartment. In the seats behind me, an Australian man sits alone and we strike up a conversation.

 

For much of the afternoon, as we head toward the Thai border, Malaysia work on upgrading their rail system (with plans that the north/south line to be fully double-tracked and electrified) is evident. New trestles are being built, tracks laid and electrical lines strung. These tracks are also a lot smoother than those tracks on Malaysia’s “Jungle Train.”

 

At the border crossing with the bright “Thai” engine

At the Thai border, we have to leave the train to clear customs. The cars continue on, but the rather plain looking Malaysian engine is replaced with a colorful Thai engine.  The staff also changes. Instead of the Malay staff, we now have Thai attendants. All of them wear fancy uniforms with enough stars to create a small galaxy. A car to prepare food is also added. We check out of Malaysia, go through a gate and have our passports stamped for Thailand. The train moves forward a hundred feet or so, into Thailand, where we re-board. As we step into the car, a Thai attendant greets us with cart selling bottles of Singha beer. As a Muslim country, there had been no beer on trains in Malaysia. But now we’re in Thailand, beer is readily available.

 

After leaving the border, I join Allen, the man from Australia, and two Japanese men who are sitting across the aisle from Allen. We take turns buying large bottles of beer and pouring them into glasses, serving each other. The Japanese speak only broken English, but we are able to communicate. When they take orders for dinner, we all have pork, which was unavailable in Malaysia, it being a Muslim country. I have pork with noodles with oyster sauce, which was delicious.

Allen and I talk through much of the evening.  An Australian, he retired to Tasmania.  Most of his life was spent in the military.  He’d joined the British army as soon as he was eligible (his mother signed for him at 16).  He was originally from Great Britain, just south of Scotland. After seeing action in Yemen and in Malaysia in the mid-1960s, he transferred to the Australian army where he spent most of his military career. He even spent a year in the United States, in the late 60s, training American Non-Commissioned Officers for jungle warfare. He served three tours in Vietnam as well as in Malaysia (there was an undeclared war between Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo in the 60s and 70s). He’s well-read and we discussed books (we’d read many of the same), theology, government and health care, world politics, our families and the weather (it was a 23 hour train ride).  Allen takes off for a few months every winter (remember, he lives in the southern hemisphere) and travels in Southeast Asia.

Allen has a lot to say about Vietnam and his experiences there. He’s critical of American forces (noting that our military is more disciplined now than then).  Then, he confessed that most Australians in Vietnam didn’t like working with American units. The Australian units had jungle warfare experiences in Malaysia, and were more prepared for Vietnam. He told of once incident on his last tour in 1971. His squad had been in an ambush position for a day, waiting. He said that in the jungle it was hard to hear and to see very far and that his troops knew to wait till an enemy force was all in the killing zone (set up between two machine guns, before opening fire. If the enemy unit was too large (more than 18 men), they’d let it pass, but if smaller, they’d attack. A unit came into their trap, talking loudly. In the jungle, they couldn’t make out the words or even the language. It was assumed, because of where they were at, it was a Vietcong (VC) unit. He was also critical of the VC, saying they were no more disciplined than American soldiers. As the leader, it was his job to detonate the claymore mines as a signal for everyone to open fire. But seconds before he blew the mines, one of his machine gunners yelled, “Hold the fucking fire.”  He was shocked, but the machine gunner was in position to have a good look of the last soldiers in the unit, a 6 ½ foot tall African-American. He could have been basketball player, as his head stuck up over the grass. The machine gunner realized this wasn’t a VC unit at all, and his yell saved 13 American lives.

As bad as Vietnam was, he said it didn’t compare to his short stint in Yemen with the British army early in his career. His time there makes him feel for the soldiers in Afghanistan, who are fighting a determined enemy who believes they’re on God’s side.

Thai train attendant

At about ten o’clock, the train attendant lowers our beds. We all head off to sleep.  Across from me, the Indian couple who, especially for  their age, are having a good time. The canvas covers over the sleeping areas don’t dampen the sound. Sometime in the night. after the Indian couple quiet down, , I feel the train bumping around and in the morning, there are no longer just two passenger cars, but a dozen or so. The morning also brings a different view as the mosques and minarets of Malaysia have been replaced with colorful Buddhist temples and chimneys for crematoriums of Thailand. The tracks are not as smooth as they were in Malaysia, showing their age as we pass over them.

I join Allen and the two Japanese for breakfast. For 100 baht, I get some fruit, coffee, juice and a ham sandwich. While we eat, we whisper about what must have been going on in the Indian couple’s compartment. Everyone heard them. No one is sure of their age, but we all are impressed. As we approach Bangkok, the stations become closer together and towns are larger. We pass over canal after canal, making our way on toward the city’s center, pulling into the station just a few minutes late.

At Hau Lampong, the Bangkok main train station, I say our goodbyes to my Japanese friends and Allen and I depart ways. Then I realize I am not sure where I’m going and can’t believe that I didn’t write down directions to Sam’s Lodge, where I have reservations. I find an internet café and log into my gmail account to get the directions—which are rather easy: just find the subway, go four stops and get off at Sukhumvit, leave the subway at exit three, walk to the corner and take a left… I stop to eat lunch and am at the hotel by 2 PM, where I drop my luggage off and set out to explore around Bangkok.

Answer: The majestic Georgetown train station on the island of Penang never had a train make it’s way to the station. The trains always ran through Butterworth, on the Malaysian mainland. But the British did a wonderful job in designing this building on the Georgetown waterfront:

Malaysia’s Northeast Line: The Jungle Train (Saturday, June 16, 2011)

Later in the morning

This post is from an older blog of mine from when I was on a Sabbatical and traveled overland trip from Southeast Asia to Europe. As much as possible, I traveled by trains. 

 

We pull out of Singapore’s Tangong Pager Railway Station right on time, promptly at 4:30 AM. As we board the train, a Malaysian official stamps our passports. The train slowly moves through the dark city that’s not yet ready to come to life, the coaches swaying back and forth on the tracks. In two more weeks, this train will cease to exist. Everything is dark. I think back to the day before when I visited the station to see it in daylight. It’s a grand station, like many built in the early 20th Century. It was still young and in its prime when the Japanese invaded. Yesterday, I spoke with an old Chinese man who had come to see the station one more time, while the trains were still running. He told me about being an older child when the Japanese forced all the Chinese into the station and several other places around the city. Then soldiers came and randomly selected people and forced them to march to the beach, where they were shot and left for the tides to claim.

Murals within the station

I arrived by cab at the station around 3:30 A.M. It was still dark, but the front door was open. The great hall was dark, but people had already started to gather, so I found a seat on one of the wood benches and waited, trying to catch a bit more sleep. At 4 A.M. the lights come on and I notice the large murals of rural Malaya life that lines the walls. All this was build when Malaya was a British colony and Singapore was just another city. But as the British pulled out, Singapore established itself as a separate country. I buy a water bottle and some snacks from a vendor and then, once the gates to the tracks are open, head over and join the line. The Malaysian official by the gate wastes no time checking documents and asks no questions as he stamps our passports. We’re sent out into the humid heat of early morning. I walk down the platform, under the hanging railroad clock that no longer works, to the five waiting coaches. These cars are attached to a power car that’s billowing diesel fumes as it provides electricity and air conditioning for the coaches. As of yet, there are no locomotives. I hop aboard, seeking relief from the heat, and find my seat. A few minutes later, we’re jarred as the locomotive is coupled to the train. Shortly afterwards, we leave and weave our way through the city.

The lights are dim and I’m about to nod off, when we abruptly stop and the lights come on. We’re told to get off. It’s only been twenty minutes or so since we started and I’d forgotten about this stop. We’re at Woodlands, on the far side of the island at the causeway and we have to go through immigration. Starting July 1, 2011, this is where the train will begin as the tracks through Singapore will be removed and the land used for development. We’re told we can leave our luggage behind (I still take my daypack) and shuffle out onto the brightly lighted platform and lineup behind the yellow line waiting to meet with the official. I scan the crowds. There is only one other western couple that I pick out, a Brit and his wife who live in Singapore. They are in the line for Singapore residents. Our entry cards for Singapore are taken and our passports checked and stamped. We then circle back around and re-board. It’s interesting that Malaysia stamped our passports at the Singapore station, before we get to the border, and we’re officially “checked out of Singapore” here.

The jungle rivers are all brown from silt

As soon as we’re onboard, the roar of the diesel is heard as we’re pulled across the causeway. The docks along the shoreline here light up the night air. We move slowly and shortly after reaching the mainland, we stop again, in Johor Bahru, Singapore’s sister city on the mainland. More people board the train.

In preparation for this trip, I had read Colonel Masanobu Tsuji’s account of the Malaya campaign in 1941—42. He was the staff office in charge of operations for the Japanese and after the war wrote an account of the Japanese planning and execution of this invasion in a book that was translated into English in the 1960s. Japan’s Greatest Victory: Britain’s Worst Defeat tells how the Japanese army was able to quickly move down the Malaya peninsula, using cheap Japanese bicycles on the excellent British roads, never allowing the much larger British force time to set up a defense line. When they reached Johor Bahru, the Japanese command set up offices in the Sultan’s Palace, an exposed position, but one that gave them the best view of the vast island that was their objective. From here, they directed their armies in their operations to break through Singapore’s defenses. Britain had felt that they could easily defend the island (just blow up the causeway), but their defenses were mostly on the seaward side. They were caught surprised by a fast moving Japanese army. Only when the Japanese got to this point was Britain able to slow their march, as they turn their big sea-facing guns around and used them to bombard the Japanese positions.

It’s raining as the train pulls out of Johor Bahru. I make myself comfortable, putting a pillow up against my window and fall asleep. I wake up an hour later, at Kluang. A crowd of people are boarding the train and a Malaysian man sits next to me and soon there are a dozen children crowding in around us. The man and his brother are traveling with their families and their kids range from about five to fourteen. The older children collaborate in translation and throughout the trip. Their father moves to another seat, allowing each of the children opportunity to sit a next to me. The older ones practice their English, the younger ones play silly games, always laughing and smiling. I show the pictures of my family. Wishing to have more photos, I pull out my netbook and show them photos on the computer. Other adults in the surrounding seats ahead of me turn around to see and all seem amazed at the photographs of my daughter skiing. Living near the equator, these children can’t imagine snow.

Old turntable in Gemas

The train makes a long stop at Gemas, where they change engines. It’s just a small town and doesn’t appear on my Southeast Asia map. But it was an important town for the Japanese to capture in the Malaya campaign. The town is a railroad crossroads and securing the town cut Butterworth, Penang and Kula Lampur’s land connection to Singapore. There’s a lot of work going on the tracks here as KLM, the Malaysian Railroad, is building a doubled-track electric line all the way from the Thai border to Gemas. The Northeast Line (which I am riding) will continue to use diesel electric locomotives (I’m told the ones we’re currently using are built in India). The train consists only of coaches. There is no dining car and I’m glad I’d brought snacks along for the only food available to buy is in a cart that gets pushed around once during the trip and consist mostly of water, juice and chips.

Much of this land is filled with large plantations of palm oil or rubber trees. And then there is the jungle, places were the vegetation is so thick that one could easily get lost. When we travel through jungle areas, the greenery is so close that the windows become a psychedelic blur. The Japanese, when they moved down the peninsula in late ’41 and early 42, found that having a smaller force wasn’t necessarily bad as the battlefields were so narrow due to the jungles. Some of the vegetation looks like kudzu, the plant from Asia that has taken over areas of the American South. Old warehouses and buildings no longer in use are covered with the vines. The towns along the tracks are small, mere villages. There is no rice (Malaysian rice is mostly grown on the west side of the peninsula). Roofs here are mostly of rusty tin, which makes sense with Malaysia also being a large producer of the metal.

A little later in the morning, I’m standing by the open door at the end of the car. My seat mate from early in the morning is sitting in the open door, rolling what has to be the skinniest cigarette I’ve seen. He offers me one, but I decline. I’m making use of the open door to snap photographs without having to deal with dirty windows. Another man asks me where I was going and we begin to talk about my trip across Southeast Asia and China and on to Russia and Europe. It turns out that he’s done much of my planned trip by rail, including the trans-Siberian. We talk about trains and he tells me the best are in Iran. I laugh and acknowledge that I’ve heard good things about Iranian trains, but that Americans are not especially welcomed there. We talk, off and on for the rest of the trip, until his stop which was 30 minutes or so before mine. His name is Mahud. When he tells me that Detroit is his favorite place in America, I wonder if I should check his temperature and see if he’s feverish. But he goes on to say that there are many Muslims there. Although he’s not wearing any of the traditional religious garb (like the guys looking a lot like Bin Laden, in white robes and turbans), he’s a devout Muslim with a PhD in Islamic Studies from a Saudi school. We talk about religion and my travels. I also learn that his brother, who teaches Chemistry in KL (as people call Kula Lampur), has a doctorate from Ohio State…

Mosque and soccer field

Mahud’s wife is Chinese. I ask which part and he says “Canton.” Surprised, I told him that I thought most of the Chinese Muslims were in the western part of the country. “There are very many Chinese Muslims,“ he assures me, “more than any other country.” I question his statement, having always heard that Indonesia had the most Muslims. He then complains about Indonesia, saying that there, a man can be a Muslim with a Christian wife and a Buddhist son. In Malaysia, the state bans Muslims from converting to other faiths. When I question if the government should enforce one’s religion, he backs down and says only God can change what is in the heart. I agree. He also complains that in Malaysia, only ½ of the people are Muslim (another questionable fact). But when I prod him some, I get the impression he’s talking about those who take their faith seriously, not those who claim to be of the Islamic faith.

My conversation with Mahud isn’t limited to religion even though we do spent a lot of time discussing it. At times, he stops to point out sights along the way. Near Gua Musang, we pass the first of limestone hills that appear so prominently in Asian art. He points to the caves in the humpback hills. At Kemubu, he notes some of the highest points in Malaysia (at least on the mainland). There is a waterfall here that he wants me to see, but unfortunately clouds and haze now blur our view, making it difficult to see anything clearly. After Dabong, he notes that we’re on a part of the track where the sun will come up in the west (the track goes south for a bit here as it navigates the mountains).

 

There is supposed to be a waterfall up there

Later in the afternoon, rain sets in and by the time the train arrives at Wakaf Bharu, the stop for Kota Bharu, it’s pouring. This city was the first in British Malaya to be attacked by the Japanese early on December 8, 1941. The attack happened only a few hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, but being on the other side of the International Date Line, it was already December 8th. I get off with most of the remaining passengers that’s left on board. The train will continue on a few kilometers to Tumpat, near the Thailand border. The Jungle Train has been a magical experience. With few Westerners on board (I did get to talk with the two Brits after Mahud and the kids had departed), I’ve been able to make some new friends. Mahud had even given me directions to his house in case I want to stop by. I thanked him, but insisted I wasn’t going to be in East Malaysia long.

Days 4 and 5 in the Okefenokee (May 6-7)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is my third and final post about a 5 day, 4 night paddle in the Okefenokee Swamp. The map shows our route as we started at Kingfisher and paddled to Maul Hammock platform. I wrote about this on my post for Day 1. From there, we paddled to Big Water on Day 2 and to Floyd’s Island on Day. This is covered my post on Days 2 & 3.  Counting the extra miles I paddled on Day 4, I paddled a little over 50 miles in 5 days, covering a variety of wilderness settings. 

 

 

The storms clear out early Sunday evening while we camp on Floyd’s Island. After dark, we can see the stars overhead, through the trees, along with hundreds of lightning bugs, more lightning bugs than I’ve seen since I left Michigan. Of course, there are also mosquitoes and biting flies. In fact, the biting flies are so bad that when away from the fire, I find myself wearing a bug net over my head. But things are fine once I crawl into my hammock where I read and catch up with my journal before falling asleep. On Monday, we plan to make it an early start as Gary needs to get back home in order to be at a meeting on Tuesday morning.

East side of Floyd’s Island (notice the cart for hauling gear)

We wake early and begin to pack up our gear. As we’d portaged our kayaks across Floyd’s Island the day before, we quickly eat some fruit and granola and haul our gear down to the boats. After loading up, we cast off into a narrow trail clogged with cut chunks of logs. The last time I was here, this trail wasn’t even open. A hurricane several years earlier had clogged the trail with down trees. It appears as if someone came through with a chainsaw, cut the down trees into firewood lengths of logs, and left them floating in the water. Because the logs are small, we can pushed them under the bows of our boats or push them off to the side. While it is hard work, it’s doable. After a hundred or so yards of difficulty, the path clears from logs

Like the path into the island from the west side, the east side was fairly narrow, but is only a mile or so long. It’s also fairly shallow and we follow (chase?) a rather large alligator (13-14 feet) for a while. He’ll come up, look at us, and then swim fast for a ways, before stopping. I’m pretty sure it’s male, for females don’t generally grow this large. As we paddle straight ahead, we soon close back in on him, and he takes off again. He does this several times until he finds a place to leave the channel for the swamp. All I can figure is that water is too shallow to dive and let us pass over top, which is what the alligators normally do.

Egret in Chase Prairie (on the edge of Floyd’s Island)

After thirty minutes of paddling, the heavy vegetation departs as we entered Chase Prairie. A few hundred yards later, we came to the point where the trail runs back up through Bluff Lake to Kingfisher Landing (where we had started our paddle on Friday). I have been to this spot a few years before, on a solo trip with an overnight on Bluff Lake platform. But instead of turning north, we turn south toward the Suwannee Canal, 2 1/2 miles away. Along the way we pass the turn off for Round Top platform, where I plan to camp for the evening. It’s just three miles down the purple trail. I decide to go around the long way to make sure that Gary finds the Suwannee Canal, which will take him back to the main entrance to the swamp.

Chase Prairie

 

This is my third time in Chase Prairie and, like the other times, there are plenty of alligators around. The prairie is fairly open with lots of pitch plants and irises in bloom. There are also a number of egrets and herons around. In the distant, I can hear the calls of a sandhill crane.

 

When we reach the canal, the path opens up with the tall trees forming a nice canopy blocking the sun. We paddle south, and shortly after the 9 mile marker (the mileage to the main entrance where Okefenokee Outfitters is located), Gary and I say goodbye. He continues paddling on straight, while I slip through a channel that takes me back into Chase Prairie. I have a reservation for one more night at Round Top platform, which is about two miles back into the prairie. The sun is up and its warm, but the paddling is easy and a little before 11 in the morning, I arrive at the platform. I’d stayed here once before and it is by far my favorite place to camp in the swamp as it has nearly 360 degree views of the swamp.  Getting out, I set up camp, fix an early lunch and then catch up with my journal. Later I start reading. I’m only half way through David Halberstam’s The Fifties and with nearly 400 pages left, I have plenty to do to occupy my time.

late afternoon paddle

After an afternoon of reading and napping (I found myself enjoying two nice naps), I put the kayak back in the water and paddle north on the purple trail which takes me, after three miles of paddling, back to where we had been earlier in the morning. I had not paddled this section before and am glad I decided to make the effort for its beautiful, especially as the light softens late in the day. On the way down, I see an alligator catch a duck by the tail. The duck is flapping and the gator, which is in very shallow water, drags the duck toward the channel, where I am located. Seeing me, the gator pauses and the duck quickly flies away. I assume the gator had planned to drown the duck in the deeper water and enjoy duck for dinner. I also spot a pair of sandhill cranes.

paddling back in the early evening light

mileage sign on purple trail

As I come back after a six mile paddle (three up and three down), I notice the crescent new moon is in the west. Most of this trip was in the dark of the moon, but not that I could tell it as the clouds had pretty thick. In the east, the sun sets as I snap a few photos. Then it is time to fix dinner, some noodles and canned pork. Twenty minutes after the sunsets, the mosquitoes appear as soon as I can finish my dinner and clean up, I crawl into my hammock, under the safety of my bug net.  I wake up in the middle of the night and step to relieve myself. In the south, Scorpius and Sagittarius are just above the horizon. But the mosquitoes soon find me and I crawl back into my hammock.

Around 3 AM, I wake again, as I was the first night, to what appears to be the sound of a chainsaw attempting to be started. Soon, all over the prairie, alligators are bellowing and making this weird sound. I listen off and on, between snoozing. They are so loud (one sounds as if it might be underneath the platform), that I can’t hear the mosquitoes buzzing just outside my netting. They continue on till dawn, and by the time I get up, they are quiet.

In the morning, I fix coffee and oatmeal for breakfast and enjoy eating slowly, taking in the sights. I leave around 9 AM and paddle to Coffee Bay platform, where I stop and rest, taking time to read a few chapters in my book, before resuming my paddle. I don’t see anyone until I run into a couple fishing in a jon boat a mile or so from the entrance into the swamp. They are the first people I’ve seen well over 24 hours. I am back to entrance at 1:30 AM. After loading my gear in the car and putting my boat on top, I am soon heading north to Savannah.

Click here to go to Day 1

Click here to go to Days 2-3

pitcher plants (in bloom)

 

Adventures in the Okefenokee, Days 2 & 3 (May 4 & 5)

Preparing to leave Maul Hammock

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on a recent trip through the Okefenokee Swamp. Click here for part 1

It is amazing how tired one can be after a day of paddling. Last night, we both were in our hammocks about 30 minutes after sunset, when we were suddenly bombarded by mosquitoes. For a while, I tried to read, but found myself falling asleep to the sound of night, frogs croaking and insects singing. The most bothersome insects, mosquitoes, were just inches away, on the outside of the hammock’s netting. I wake only one during the evening, to find my left arm pressed against the netting. Several mosquitoes had already feasted upon me through the net. The next time I wake, it is getting light. I hear the mating roar of a few alligators around the edge of the lake. They sound like someone trying to start a two cycle engine, such as an old boat motor or a chainsaw.  I get up. With long pants and a long shirt and a little repellant, the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. I decide to fish a bit while Gary slept in.  There were only a few open places around the hammock where I am able to drop a popping bug on a fly rod.  After a few casts, a fish rises for the bait, but doesn’t take it and soon, I have an alligator friend, a small dude about four feet, watching me. Knowing what I’m doing, like a good friend, he’s ready to help me take any fish off a hook without me getting my hands all slimy. Sadly, for him, I don’t have another bite and, when I put my rod away and began to make breakfast, he heads back under the lily pads in search of his own breakfast.

 

Gary paddling in Maul Hammock Lake

With only a little over ten miles to paddle to the next platform at Big Water, we take our time getting ready. The morning is gray with a light breeze. As soon as the sun rises, the mosquitoes mostly disappear. We enjoy a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, finish drying out our clothes from the day before, and pack up. At ten, we leave the platform and paddle toward what we thought was the exit from lake only to find that we’ve missed it. In the high lily pads, it takes us several attempts to find the narrow channel that leads us back to the red trail. As it was with the last five miles the day before, we are often paddling through lily pads that are high and require and extra effort to push our boats through. It’s exhausting work and soon I’m sweaty.

Shortly after leaving Maul Hammock, the trail begins to look more like a regular stream bed as we are entering the headwaters of the Suwanee River. We spend the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon fighting through the lily pads, making a measly mile and a half an hour. The highlight of this day is seeing a large owl fly out from the trees just over me and down the river, where he gains elevation until it’s above the trees and then it turns and leaves the channel and flies into the swam. At one in the afternoon, when we break for some lunch, which we eat in our kayaks. We’ve covered less than five miles. Shortly after lunch, we arrive where, sometime in the past few months, they’ve cut back the lily pads with a machine mounted on a small dredge that chops up the lily pads roots. These roots or rhizome, when floating on the surface, look a lot like an alligator. Despite the looks of the floating rhizomes, the paddling is now easy.

A selfie with Gary in background

We arrive at Big Water platform at 3 PM. There’s a group of three guys who’d paddled up from Stephen Foster State Park. They are taking a rest before paddling back out, as they were not planning on staying the night. They have a cooler with them and offer us a cool beer. I enjoy not just drinking it, but putting the cold can on my sweaty forehead. This platform is on the western edge of a wide spot in the river, with nice views of the cypress line stream in both direction.  Later that evening as we prepare dinner, we notice how the bullfrog chorus will seemingly start in one direction and slowly make its way up or down the river, almost like a wave makes itself around a ball park. There are also a number of alligators and we watch several of them argue over territory (or mates).  I spend a few minutes fishing but have no luck, but as it was in the morning at Maul Hammock, an alligator stands on point, waiting for something to bite my line so he (or she) might help me keep my hands clean by relieving me of any fish I might catch. There’s a journal in the shelter register and someone suggests that if you hook a fish, you have to reel very fast if you want to keep it away from gators. With all the good food we have with us, we are not going to starve without fish. Instead, we enjoy a peaceful dinner along with a couple of ounces of Woodford Reserve Bourbon (Gary brought the good stuff) as we watch the light fade in the evening. Again, soon after the sun sets, the mosquitoes are back out and we head to our respective hammocks.

Big Water Platform (notice privy in the background)

Sleep isn’t quite as deep this evening. I leave the fly off my hammock in order to get maximum airflow, but at 1:30 AM, a storm is approaching. I get up and put my fly on (while we are under a tin roof, it’s not that wide and the rain will be blown under the roof). Next, I make sure that everything is put up and secured and won’t blow away. Once done, I watch the approaching lightning turn the swamp into a magical place as the cypress and their bearded Spanish moss are silhouetted by the flashes of light. Soon, instead of flashes, we there are streaks of lightning dancing across the sky. I’m in awe. The wind picks up and I get back into my hammock in order to stay dry. Soon, I’m asleep, but wake up several more times as more storms move through the area.

Paddling through Big Water

When I wake in the morning, there is still thunder to the south. But the birds are singing throughout the swamp and the heavy humidity is moderated with an occasional cool breeze. Gary has brought along a can of corn beef hash along with eggs. We have a feast for breakfast, taking our time as we have a fairly short day paddling to Floyd’s Island.

 

Notice young cypress growing in a burned over area

 

We leave Big Water at 10 AM.  The river stays wide for the next mile or so, then it narrows up into channels where there is some flow of the water, but with tight turns that I often have to stop and backup to get my big kayak (18 foot) through the passage. We paddle through areas that have been burned in fires. Over the past two decades, there have been several summers in which the swamp and surrounding areas have experienced massive fires. But the good news is that the cypress is coming back and are standing eight to twelve feet tall. But it is still sad to see many of these burned out areas, but fire is a natural part of the ecosystem and they open up opportunities for new species of plants and animals to thrive.

Five miles south of Big Water platform, we come to the cut off trail to Floyd’s Island. Both Gary and I have been here before, when we paddled into Floyd’s Island from Stephen Foster State Park. The canal pathway takes us across the bottom of Floyd’s Prairie and then narrows up into a tight tunnel like passage where paddles are used for poling instead of paddling. It rains off and on, but never very hard. Before we know it, we pull up on the sandy beach. We are at Floyd’s Island and it wasn’t even 1 PM. We’d paddled 7 ½ miles.

Floyd’s Island Cabin

Floyd’s Island is named for the leader of the Georgia militia who invaded the swamp during the second Seminole war in 1838. His men found and burned a Seminole village, and named the island for him. They then continued to bushwhack through the swamp. As they headed into the swamp, they were in good condition and well equipped. When they came out on the other side, having done something no Europeans had done, they were ragged, but they had conquered a vast unknown section of the country. Floyd was both intrigued and horrified at the swamp. He called it a most beautiful and an infernal place.

 

With all afternoon to kill, we haul our gear up to the old cabin on Floyd’s island. We string our hammocks and set up a living room on the front porch. The back of the cabin is blocked off because a huge pine had fallen and crushed part of the back of the cabin. The last time we were here, in 2015, Gary and several others (there was a group of nine of us) slept in the cabin. I decided that night I would stay in my hammock. After hearing about the rats, I assumed I’d made the right decision.

 

We eat lunch under the front porch during a downpour. A turkey and a fawn with spots make their way through our camp as we wait for the rain to clear. Later in the afternoon, when the storms have cleared, we move our kayaks, portaging over the quarter mile or so of the island, so that we’d be ready for the next day’s paddle. That evening, we cook over an open fire. The smoke helps deter the biting flies. We enjoy crackers and cheese, party nuts, along with some Johnny Walker Black Label. Again, I’m impressed with Gary’s beverage selection. I’m saving my cheap bourbon. Tomorrow, Gary will paddle out of the swamp while I will stay for another night.

Write up of Day 2-3

Write up of Day 1

A final view of Big Water

Day One in the Okefenokee (May 3)

Paddling through a prairie (before Double Lake)

Old Railroad logging skidder

We leave our vehicles at Okefenokee Adventures where we have arranged for a shuttle to our put-in site some twenty-five miles to the north. In five days (four for Gary, who will leave a day before me), I’ll come out of the swamp here. Our shuttle driver is a retired mechanic from CSX railroad. As he drives us to Kingfisher Landing, he points out old Hard-shell Baptist Churches that still sing shape-note music. When he hears that our first night will be at Maul Hammock, he tells us the story of the first reported account of Bigfoot, which occurred in the early part of the 19th Century near where will be camping. Seven men went into the swamp and were attacked by a huge hairy beast. Supposedly, the beast was killed but not before he killed five of the men. The other two fled before any of Bigfoot’s friends could finish the job. A hammock, in this country, is a piece of high ground with trees. The “Maul” part comes from the supposedly attack by Bigfoot. When we arrive at Kingfisher Landing, he points us over to the woods opposite the canal, where the rusty remains of an old logging truck designed to run on rails sits.

 

Preparing to launch

We push off from Kingfisher Landing a little after 10 AM. The air is hot and heavy with humidity. There are some clouds in the sky. Our trail, an old canal, is mostly straight, fairly wide, and runs eastward into the swamp. We pass a few alligators. Occasionally a frog jumps into the water as we approach. At the two mile mark, we take the red trail to the northeast and skirt along the northern edge of Cedar Prairie. The water is low, as it often is this time of the year. I am a little worried that we may have a hard time in places, but the first five or so miles, to where there trail folks with a side trail running to Double Lakes, is clear and easy to paddle. This area is open to boats with motors under 10 horsepower. It seems the fishermen have kept the channel clean. I hope they bring plenty of shear pins for their prop, for the lily pads would do a number on them.  I’d thought about paddling up into Double Lakes, but there’s now clouds in the sky and thunder is occasionally heard in the distance. We are only halfway to Maul Hammock, where we will spend the evening on a platform above the water.

 

 

It’s good that we didn’t explore because after the turn-off to Double Lakes, the trail becomes more difficult. In places, lily pads and other weeds fill the channel and often seem to grab and hold on to your paddle. It’s a workout, but we keep paddling. The lily pads include the elegant blooming white lotus plants and some of the more bland yellow blooms. Along the sides of the path, where it is open, are hooded pitcher plants, purple swamp irises and pickerel weed with its purple torch-like flowers. At places, bladderworts, odd flowering plants that grow in water, are seen. Like the pitcher plants, they too are carnivorous. With so many insect eating plants, you’d think bugs wouldn’t be a problem. The abundance of these plants are an indication of the poor soil, so they have evolved to obtain nutrients from other sources. And there seems to be plenty of mosquitoes and biting flies to feed these plants, as we’ll later experience.

Finally, the trail turns to the southwest. We still two miles to go, but the thunder that’s been rolling for the past hour or so has moved closer. We pick up the pace, but paddling through thick vegetation is exhausting.

 

the start of the rain

We leave the prairie and paddle through tall cypress and bay trees, with briers and other vegetation lining the channel. There are few lily pads to fight, but the channel is so tight that we must keep the paddle up and down, close to the sides of the boat. The thunder becomes more intense and we hear it crackle across the sky. When we enter another prairie and have a better view, clearly defined lightning bolts are popping all around. It’s beginning to rain. Soon, the bolts are striking only a few hundred yards away, followed by a nearly instantaneous boom that vibrates across the swamp. We paddle harder as the rain comes. The drops are think and heavy and drown out the sounds of the swamp. As the rain becomes heavier, the lightning moves further away. We continue to paddle harder and after an intense 20 minute downpour, that soaks us both and, since neither are us are wearing spray skirts, drops a few inches of water into our boats.

 

Gary setting up his hammock at Maul Hammock Platform

As the rain subsides, we pump out some of the water from the boat and paddle on toward the side trail to Maul Hammock platform. We enter a lake filled with lily pads that, in places, are up to our shoulders. The platform is to our left, at the edge of the lake. We head toward it as the water continues to drizzle. As we are pulling the boats up onto the platform, we notice a few stray bolts of lightning on the backside of the storm. It’ll be good to get into dry clothes, to fix a drink and dinner, and to rest. It’s been a long day as we’ve covered nearly 13 long miles.

Sunset from Maul Hammock Platform (right before an air force of mosquitoes descend)