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The Great Porcupine Canoe Trip

4 Feb

By Carl Coon

It was mostly Bill who arranged the Great Porcupine Canoe Trip. The idea grew out of a game of one-up-man-ship between the Millers and the Coons. Careful readers of this account, if there be any, will recall a certain canoe trip on the Allagash River in Maine that the Millers and the Coons took in the summer of 1977. Each side wrongly assumed the other knew what it was doing but we survived. Bill retaliated with the canoe trip down the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson that we took in 1980. When Jane and I were elevated to our embassies in the subcontinent I one-upped Bill right back, with a trip through the Terai jungles on elephant back. That happened during our first Christmas season, and Bill took it as a major challenge. The Porcupine River trip in August of 1984 was his masterpiece, taking upwards of three years to prepare, and it ended the competition once and for all,  as it was clear we were never going to top it.

First, a word about the Millers. Jane had known Luree in Bombay back in the early ‘60’s, when Jane was assigned to our Bombay Consulate and Bill was too, as the press and information officer. The legendary Marilyn Silverstone was also there and the three women, Jane, Luree, and Marilyn formed an indissoluble bond, fastest of friends. Bill, as Luree’s spouse, was already attached to this triumvirate and I joined it when I married Jane.

The Alaska connection was mainly through Bill, born and raised in Fairbanks, but also through Luree’s uncle, who had been a legendary bush pilot in Alaska during the thirties. Also, Luree had spent a couple of years driving a truck around Alaska roads in the postwar period. Since marrying Bill, Luree had not only become a mother of three, but an accomplished writer, with several books to her credit. She frequently contributed travel articles to the Washington Post. She was one of the sharpest people I’ve known, as well as one of the most agreeable. They made a good couple; Bill was the more overtly adventurous, while Luree was more practical.

Valerie La Breche came along for the ride. She grew up with Luree in Seattle and had made a career out of travel, often hiring out as guide-counselor or such.

And then there was Bir, already well-known to readers of my essays and Autobiography. Cheerful, resourceful, Jane and I had reached the point we could hardly imagine undertaking a long camping trip without him. Plus, we were taking him home to Washington, DC anyway. His number had finally come up and my Embassy was able to give him a completely legal immigrant visa.

When we got to Anchorage Bir was there waiting for us, cheerful as ever and looking forward to a new adventure. It had occurred to us that he might have had a bit of trouble in Tokyo, given the fact the Japanese Red Army was shooting the place up at the time. No, he had sailed right through, big smile, no problem. He even had his kukri, the Nepali hillsman’s constant companion and the Gurkha soldier’s favorite weapon. What?? He says he never left the transit lounge but even so, you’d think somebody would have noticed before they let him bring his kukri on another flight. Anyway, we checked that up as one of the first serendipitous events of the trip. We were going to need a lot more good luck, as we shall see.

Bir and Jane and I flew from Anchorage to our rendezvous in Fairbanks where we joined the other three. Then we drove to our launching pad at Circle Hot Springs. That “pad”, the Circle Hot Springs Hotel, was one of the most unusual caravanserais I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen ‘em in more places than most. Bar straight out of Hollywood except that some of the patrons were for real; there was still some prospecting, and I actually saw one grizzled prospector come in and buy a round for everybody there, paid for with a little sack of newly scratched up gold.

Bedrooms furnished in plush velvet like a fancy bordello. And then a crazy swimming pool fed by hot springs so you could actually swim in it when the air temperature was twenty below (as we did on a later trip). Outside, behind the hotel, were acres of second-hand refrigerators and washing machines and similar junk waiting for buyers that I gather never appeared. The owner, a brother of Bill’s, was a bit of a nut about such equipment. I gather that Bill, the youngest of a family of nine(?) children, was considered one of the least eccentric, which explained quite a bit about the hotel, not to mention Bill himself.

Bill had arranged our flight to Old Crow with a couple of his old bush pilot friends. The first flight carried most of our gear. Then we all piled into a small seaplane with our two canoes strapped to the landing floats and, grossly overloaded, wobbled northeast and finally splashed down next to the beach beside Old Crow.

Jane describes a certain sinking feeling when our plane left us on the river bank with a small mountain of stuff including two kayaks yet to be assembled. I agree with Jane about the sinking feeling; I had one of my own, a sense of my god what have we gone and done? But there was no time for reflection, we had a lot to do and the day wasn’t getting any younger. Our first task was to assemble the two kayaks which had come knocked down in the first flight. Bill and Bir and I did that, with some difficulty, while Luree visited Old Crow to say hello to an Athabaskan Indian named Steven Frost, who had been a friend of her father’s. Then we packed our gear and boarded, two each in the canoes, and Bill and Luree had a kayak apiece.

We were able to get a few miles down the river that same day, since it was still early August and the days were still very long. Setting up camp and preparing supper was a breeze with Bir along and the rest of us enjoyed our well-earned tot of scotch.

We had a couple of peaceful days on the river, and then entered a canyon where the bluffs rose directly from the shore, leaving a dearth of campsites. It was getting late so we picked the best spot we could find, a narrow strip of beach, and set up camp.

I woke up early the next morning, stuck my head out of the tent, and found myself eyeball to eyeball with a large and healthy looking caribou, horns and all, looking back at me with a curiosity very much like my own. I suppose if I had asked him what he was doing there he could have replied that this was his turf and what the hell was I doing on it? Anyway, after we had each recovered from our initial surprise he ambled toward the river and I looked around.


There were hundreds of the brutes, lined up nose to tail in a column stretching from the water’s edge up a very steep trail to a high ridge where the early light outlined them, still nose to tail, in a line that ran along the ridge for as far as the eye could see.

I grabbed my camera and took a few snaps as the herd continued its stately pace into and across the river. The current was strong enough so they landed on the opposite shore well downstream from where they had started, but then I noticed an exception, a caribou swimming the wrong way, toward me. It struggled ashore near me and I noticed it was dripping blood. I looked across the river and saw the cause, a very large brown bear that was climbing back on the bank from the river, having evidently failed in an attack on the caribou standing in front of me. The bear looked at me, stood up on his hind legs, and barked. It sounded like a cannon, a staccato explosion that echoed up and down the canyon. People started piling out of their tents and the party was on.

Earlier on, Bill had assured Jane that grizzlies couldn’t swim, but that didn’t cut much ice when we saw the grizzly run downstream several hundred yards, then plow across the river like a motorboat. Bir, ever practical, started to build up a roaring fire. The ladies hit on the idea that noise could scare the brute off, and started banging pots and pans. I ducked back in my tent and readied my shotgun, a round of bird-shot up front with a round of double aught buckshot backing it up. I reflected that maybe I should have brought my .30 caliber hunting rifle, but then, I didn’t want to hurt the beast unless I had to, and this way I might scare him off.

That’s what happened. When the grizzly reached our bank he charged straight for us, growling and cussing at us and carrying on like a whole tribe of banshees. I never have been able to decide whether he intended to slaughter us or was just trying to scare us off, but if the latter he succeeded admirably. He may not have made his own mind up either, but when he heard my bird-shot whistling over his head he made a command decision, pivoted like a pro football quarterback, and beat it back to his point of entry on our bank, hardly slowing down at all. Without pausing he swam back to the other bank, and then tore up to the point where he’d started, across from me. After a few more barks he ran straight up the cliff-side behind him and disappeared. A few minutes later a slightly smaller grizzly with two half-grown cubs appeared on the opposite bank where he had been, and watched us in a fairly unfriendly way while we broke camp and hit the water.

I found the whole episode deeply satisfying. For the first and probably the only time I had won a protracted argument against Luree and Jane, not to mention Valerie. The subject was guns. From the beginning of our planning, I was determined to bring one along and they were determined I should not. Who did they think I thought I was, a poster boy for the gun lobby? Guns were immoral, hunting was immoral, just having a lethal weapon sullied the whole idea of pristine wilderness we sought. I persisted, they insisted, we were still arguing when we got on the river, and I still had my trusty old twelve gauge pump-action shotgun, barrel off so it would fit in my bag.

None of us joined the gun lobby but we all agreed that it was a good thing I had that infernal device with me. Furthermore I have the only photograph I ever took that Marilyn has considered up to her standards. I took it of the other five watching that big grizzly bug off back across the river. Marilyn likes pictures that show real people undergoing real emotions and when I took that snap my fellow travelers qualified

Jane had another notion about bears that Bill had encouraged, namely that they didn’t like the smell of mothballs, so if you wanted to protect your tent or campsite against their depredations the thing to do was put a ring of the smelly little objects around the protected area. After several more days of camping on the river that idea was discarded along with the bears can’t swim idea. We got up one morning to find very fresh grizzly tracks around our tent, within the magic mothball circle.

That morning also marked Valerie’s conversion on the subject of my snoring. I now use a respirator but in those days I allegedly made quite a racket at times when sleeping soundly. Valerie had her own little tent and for the first few days parked it as far from the one Jane and I used as possible, given the confines of the site. The morning new grizzly tracks appeared around our tent, similar ones appeared around hers, and from then on we clustered our tents in a tighter configuration, noise be damned.

About halfway down to Fort Yukon there’s an abandoned settlement called New Ramparts and we stopped there for a rest day. For the first (and only) time during our whole journey down the river, we met other humans. A large canoe with a small outboard put-putted around a bend and in it was Luree’s friend Steven Frost, with son, wife, and a freshly killed caribou.

It was a family outing and a kind of celebration, with son having made his first kill. Frost and son beached and with all of us watching, butchered the caribou. They did a beautiful job, quick and clean, and presented us with a sizable chunk of steaming fresh liver. To round out the menu they also gave us some bannock bread, a relatively imperishable local version of the staff of life that is very hard.

Bir, whose teeth leave much to be desired, pulled out his little metal skillet and some wheat flour and made some chappatis. Frost was fascinated and so was I. Here were individuals from very different cultures and places exchanging technological information about how you can make grain edible, with each technique probably dating back to the Neolithic. This kind of exchange must have occurred many times in the remote past, as one of the main ways culture gets diffused and civilization advanced. Remarkable, to see it happening here, under our eyes. And they each thought it was pretty remarkable too. It was a case of mutual admiration, as this picture suggests.

One of the advantages of canoeing down a big river is that usually you don’t have to worry about getting lost.  Just go with the flow. Tributaries sneak up behind you, and half the time you don’t even know they are there. This was true for us about 90% of the way down to Fort Yukon, but as we got close to our destination the Porcupine morphed into something like a delta, with a host of branches peeling off from the main stream, some of them big enough to pass as the main stream itself. It’s not too difficult if you are sitting at a desk looking at a map, but if you are facing a bunch of islands all looking alike, sitting in the front of a canoe with your wife the ambassador in the back, yelling at you to say which way do I go, dammit, right or left, and the current is rapidly taking you past the point of no return, it can get hairy.

I was the designated navigator. I would cheerfully have turned the job over to Bill but he was solo in a kayak. And we were supposed to rendezvous with Mary and Barry Morris, local representatives of the Alaska Commercial Company (successor to the Hudson Bay Company) at a very specific time at a very specific point in this delta or archipelago of little inlets and islets that our mighty Porcupine had morphed into. One false turn and we would have been up a creek, literally, or, even worse, downstream from our target. But we hit it without a false turn, and at just about the agreed hour. I felt as lucky as if I had won a national lottery. Serendipity squared. Jane sent an ardent prayer of thanks to Lord Ganesh. Our new hosts were almost as surprised as we were, as they had fully expected a long and quite possibly fruitless wait. They fit us and our gear into a large pickup and drove us back to civilization, or at least to one of its more remote outposts.

Our new hosts at Alaska Commercial were congenial and took good care of us. They had the travel bug themselves and after we went home they took their jeep and drove it around much of the world. We rested up for a day or two and flew home. End of an era.

And what an era it was! For three years Jane and I had been caught up in a social whirl in two overpopulated countries, especially Bangladesh, one of the most overpopulated of all. We were suffering from a surfeit of people. And then, like hardy Swedes rolling in the snow after steaming themselves in a sauna, we went cold turkey into wilderness, seeing nobody at all except for the one day we met Stephen Frost. It was shock treatment and it worked. On the ride back from our rendezvous to ACC headquarters we rode like Okies in the back of a pickup truck. The rest of the way home we were ordinary tourists like everyone else. Sic transit gloria mundi.

But we did have our memories, and Luree had a hell of a good travel story to write-up, which she did, and the Washington Post published it, which was a help later on persuading skeptical friends that it all really happened.

********************************************

Carl Coon recently died at age 91. He was a retired United States Ambassador, a composer, an author and essayist. This is an account of one of his life adventures. Carl lived with his wife Jane in Rappahannock County, Virginia overlooking a bend in a river.

Bruce’s Notes: Carl Coon was a good friend and one of my Personal History clients. We worked together on his Autobiography. The first volume – People of Earth: The First Forty, was published in October. We hope to have the second volume ready to publish later this year.

Bruce Summers is Personal Historian and Life Story Coach for Summoose Tales, +1.703.503.8834, summersbw@gmail.com. Bruce is a former direactor of the Association of Personal Historians. He is a founding member of the Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area.

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Digging into my Family Roots

21 Jan

A little over a year ago I was digging into my Family Roots, into my Dutch Heritage at the New York Public Library. 

There were several files there on the Van Zandt Family, and one particularly intriguing file on my 3rd Great Grandfather – Wynant Van Zandt III.  It said he founded a church in Little Neck, New York, (later renamed Douglaston, New York).

At the time my son was living in Ridgewood, Queens not too far as the crow flies from Little Neck, but a long way, over an hour, if you did not have a car. I as intrigued, but doubted that I would ever get over that way.  The only times I risked driving into Queens was to do a quick pick up to drive my son’s possessions to or from Ridgewood from our home in Virginia.

Roll forward  about eight months.

My wife and I were sitting in a bakery/cafe in Ridgewood, drinking coffee and eating lunch before heading out to visit my son in the hospital. There was a well loved (used copy) of Walking Queens, by Adrienne Onofri sitting on our table.  I thumbed through it and turned to the chapter – walking tours of Douglaston/Little Neck. In the first paragraph or two it talked about Zion Episcopal Church – founded by Wynant Van Zandt III (my third great grandfather).  I continued reading and learned that he had built a home in Little Neck, and then there was third mention.

Well, we had a car, I drove it up to Queens so we could visit my son in a hospital that was near Little Neck Parkway just a couple of miles from Douglaston. I checked the maps on my cell phone and ascertained, that yes, it was very close to the Zion Episcopal Church. We also knew there would be a gap of a few hours between visiting hours, and we like to walk and hike.  This seemed like an opportunity to explore family roots and also get some walking in.

We had a nice visit with our son, then my wife and I jumped onto the Little Neck Parkway following our Google maps instructions. As we drove down the hill into Douglaston, we saw a Van Zandt Street. I was intrigued, to say the least.

Digging into family roots

We went first to the Zion Episcopal Church, it was after hours so we thought it was closed. I took a chance, I call their phone number and the minister answered and told me she was just inside the door in the office, so she opened it and gave us a warm greeting since we were “Van Zandts”. She of course knew, everyone in the church knew, that Wynant Van Zandt III, my 3rd great grandfather, had donated the land and helped raise the money to build the church. He is the acknowledge founder of Zion.

Digging into family roots - Zion Episcopal Church

There was a plaque commemorating his founding the church in 1829, there is a Van Zandt Service Award given out annually, and Wynant Van Zandt III and 8 of his family members are buried in a crypt in the basement of the church.  There is a plaque commemorating Wynant and his family members.  The church had a fire a number of years ago. It was rebuilt and it is lovely. It is on a beautiful large piece of property right off one of the main streets of the town.

Digging into Family roots - Zion Episcopal Church, Little Neck/Douglaston, NY

Wynant III had been a successful merchant, and an Alderman for New York City. He lived in the area near Wall Street, and he had headed the building committee that built the current New York City Hall. Later in life, perhaps in his late 40’s, he retired to the country for his health.

Summoose Tales - Wynant Van Zandt III - my third great grandfather

He retired to Little Neck with view of a beautiful bay with wild geese and ducks. The bay was also famous for the “Little Neck clams” it produced.  In 1819 Wynant III bought a 100 acre farm and an 18th century Dutch farm house, the Cornelius Van Wyck House, was built in 1735.

Summoose Tales - Wynant Van Zandt III bought the Cornelius Van Wyck House in 1819

Wynant III and his family lived her for several years while he built a new home on his farm.

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Wynant III’s new home was started in 1819. It later was bought by the Douglas family and called the Douglas Manor. Little Neck was renamed Douglaston. The Manor later become the home of the Douglaston Yacht Club.

Summoose Tales - Wynant Van Zandt III built this home in 1819 in Little Neck, NY. It later become the Douglas Mansion and the Douglaston Yacht Club

I am proudly standing on the steps of the family house Wynant III built for his retiring years. I have vague memories of my mom talking about Douglaston. I asked my Dad, but he does not remember her ever talking about the town and they never visited there. I suspect my grandfather knew a lot about Douglaston and Little Neck since Wynant III would have been their great grandfather.

I went back to “Little Neck” a second time to walk around. The marshes around the town are beautiful.

When my son got out of the hospital, he and I also drove over to Little Neck for  a quick look around. We were very fortunate to find the new owner of the Cornelius Van Wyck House visiting and he was kind enough to spend about an hour with us, sharing stories about Little Neck, Douglaston, and allowed us to see the inside of the house that he was renovating.

It felt to me that the nearly 300 year old walls could talk. I sensed a family connection.

The house has a lovely view up and down the Little Neck Bay. 

It was a real treat to walk around the home and yard, to “dig” into and explore some of my family roots. For me it was a bit of family history coming alive. I hope you also have an opportunity to dig into your family roots.

**************************************

Bruce Summers, Founder, Summoose Tales, Personal History Consultant and Life Story Coach, +1.703.503.8834, summersbw@gmail.com

See Also: Family History, My Stories, Personal Historian


Counting more blessings and saying Thank You.

30 Nov

Let’s go hiking for a week in February… My wife, as usual, had a great idea. Normally we would try a couple of day hikes in February, on the weekends, and if the weather was mild.

Blessing #1: We would be hiking in Southern Arizona, I had never been there, and it is quite a bit farther south than Northern Virginia.

Blessing #2: This was our first hiking Trip hosted by REI, so we would be hiking with a group, with trained guides.

Blessing #3: They would help us with transport of our luggage and would provide lodging and food… on the trail or otherwise.

Blessing #4: Another couple, two of our good friends, would also be taking the same hike with us:)

Blessing #5: One of my wife’s cousins lived just north of Phoenix and we could stay overnight with them on two separate nights; first between adventures, and then just before we flew home.

Blessing #6: We were going to be able to get in a couple of days of bonus hiking in Sedona, AZ.  We had driven there once, the landscape is spectacular, and we were looking forward to exploring the region around Sedona for a few days.

Mixed Blessing #1: we had to get up really, really early for our flight to Phoenix. But, we had gotten up early before, and it meant we would have more time to visit the old town in Scottsdale, AZ. We were overnighting there and meeting up with our REI Group the next day.

 

 

Mixed Blessing #2: Though the weather was temperate, we noticed large gobs of people all heading to some type of stadium. We asked a stranger on the street, where’s everyone going? It’s Opening Day of Spring Training for the Cactus League he said. We took a quick walk around Old Town to spot a potential restaurant for dinner, but then we were each bitten, or at least I was bitten, by the spontaneous bug. We saw a man standing along the street trying to sell a pair of “great” tickets to the Opening Day game. “It’s sold out,” he said, he may have mentioned that his wife was ill also.  It may have been a story, but we felt we could afford a pair of tickets and decided to head to the Park to watch a bit of Professional Baseball Spring Training.

Blessing #7: Even though it was not sold out, the crowd was large, for that size stadium, and in a great mood. We sat, down the first base line, a bit into right field. We had a great view.

Blessing #8: Yes they did have hot dogs, no it wasn’t Southwestern food, but it went down easy with a bit of mustard and sauerkraut along with a nice cold bottle of water.

Blessing #9: We saw a couple of home runs, some decent pitching, some decent hitting and fielding, and a few errors of course. It was a hoot.

Blessing #10: We had a yummy Southwestern dinner with our friends. We live in the same area, but we had not seen each other very recently to catch up on the news. It was a great shared evening.

 

Blessing #11: We hit the lottery with our tour guides.  One was rated the #1 or 2 guide in the whole system. The other would have been a #1 guide on any other trip.

Blessing #12: It had rained recently in Southern AZ and the Saguaro Cactus were magnificently tall, plump, and everywhere.

 

Blessing #13: You never know how a week-long hike in higher altitude, in a desert, and during winter will go. Will we be fit enough, we wondered.  How will we shake down with the rest of group. Despite a small miss-adventure crossing the 3rd of 12 streams; we both did great with the hiking as did our friends.  About half of our group stayed back at the 2/3rds point of the hike and then the rest of us, “the rabbits”, I reflected charged off at an enhanced pace to reach the destination waterfall.

 

Blessing #14: The hiking was a bit more challenging, but the view of the waterfall and the catchment pools, and the ducks swimming in the lower pool was magnificent.

Blessing #15: We stayed overnight in a downtown Tucson Hotel. We had a superb southwestern dinner, slept well, geared up, and had breakfast in an old western bar. We then headed out for another great day of hiking, then lunch and visited a great park filled with southwestern Flora Fauna.

 

Blessing #16: We learned a lot about Saguaro and other Cacti during the trip, we saw animals, scat, climbed mountain ridges, and saw spectacular views across wide vistas.

 

Blessing #17: We had another restful night. Then an early morning departure, a tour of a large, now defunct pit mine, a talk with a local Native American Guide, a nice long hike, and then lunch in the park at picnic tables.

  

Mixed Blessing #3: A highlight was our visit to the border fence between Arizona and Mexico. We were surprised to learn that the high fence disappears after going east for a mile or so.  The conditions are arid and dry, not forgiving. Twice during the next day and a half I spotted black painted jugs. These are usually filled with water for the hundreds of people who  attempt to cross this desert border each year.

 

Blessing # 18 and 19: We drove up a high ridge to take in an amazing view of setting sun looking across multiple mountain ridges and ranges. Then we ate a scrumptious picnic supper outside. A special opportunity was an open discussion with a Border Patrol Agent who answered our questions and discussed the challenges, for Border Patrol Agents, to both help people survive who crossed the border to escape bad conditions and sometime threats to their lives, while at the same time trying to discover, and thwart, bad actors who tried to smuggle drugs and even children to become slaves or worse across the border.  I had the pleasure of riding down the high ridge with him back to our lodging for the night. It was a blessing to talk with him and to learn more about the nuances of protecting our border that are experienced by individual agents.

 

Blessing #20: After one more great hike, and a picnic in the rough, we head back to Phoenix. We rented a car, fought through an hour of congested traffic, and then arrived at my cousin-in-law’s home. We had not met her husband. He was a gem. Even better, he was a rock hound, and around his home he had grapefruit and other citrus trees and…

Interim count: Needless to say we got to 20 Blessings and 3 Mixed Blessings and we had not even started our excursion to Sedona yet. We highly recommend a week of walking in the Winter and we are very thankful for our health and opportunities to walk, hike and explore.  We hope everyone has a great Holiday Season and that you take a few moments to count your blessings.

*********************************

Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian at Summoose Tales, summersbw@gmail.com

He served as a global board member and director, regions and chapters for the Association of Personal Historians Bruce is a founding member of the Life Story Professionals of Greater Washington Area

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Counting blessings and saying Thank you.

Counting blessings and saying Thank you.

18 Nov

It snowed Thursday. I needed to be at work downtown in Washington, D.C. early, but not too early.  I was co-facilitating a training class at 9:30 am.

Blessing # 1: As promised it had snowed overnight and it was still snowing. But it wasn’t too bad, the World Bank Group was open and cars were moving on the roads.

Blessing # 2: My driveway is built on a hill, so it was pretty easy to push 3/4 inch of snow down and away off the driveway. Though, it was a bit disconcerting that the snow was replacing itself almost as fast as I was scraping it off.

Blessing # 3: When I started sliding in my work-shoes, I could quickly transition into the snow boots I had already placed in the car for just such an eventuality.  “Be Prepared” I had learned as a Boy Scout.

Blessing # 4: I could quickly clear the snow off of my car with a broom. I think I learned this trick from a story about Chinese workers in Beijing being able to clear the sidewalks and roads with brooms, vs. snow plows.

Blessing # 5: I got on the roads and they were not too bad, people were driving a bit slower and cautiously, just right for travel in light snow. I turned right, then right again, and then left onto Prosperity.

Mixed Blessing 1: Traffic was starting to stack up at the first big hill down on Prosperity.  I saw a half-dozen cars turn around, some took an alternate route but it also had steep downs and steep ups. I decided to try my chances on Prosperity’s hills.

Blessing # 6: We slowly approached the congested section of the big down hill. After pauses and appropriate waiting, and timing when each up hill bound car would start its ascent,  we each slowly worked our way cautiously downhill. So far so good.

Mixed Blessing 2: The somewhat level part worked fine, then we started to stack up by the park. A couple of cars pulled into the park to wait it out. Ahead of us, up the hill, we could see two or three cars turned a bit askew.  They had tried unsuccessful tactics in climbing the big hill and were stuck slightly sideways blocking both the cars going down, and the cars like mine, that needed to go up. I duly queued up to wait my chance about 5 cars back.

Blessing # 7: I saw a woman from the second car, she was wearing a red coat, she got out and started walking up the hill to help.

Blessing # 8: I saw a second woman from the first car get out. She started walking up the hill to help the first.

Blessing # 9 and 10: Another man and I came to our senses and got out of our cars to walk up the hill to help the two woman push the stuck car.

Blessing # 11: A third man join us. The hill was steep, but with five of us pushing we gradually eased the upper most stuck car up about 75 to 100 feet and it had enough traction to keep going over the summit.

Blessing # 12 and 13: We walked down to stuck car # 2 and repeated the random act of kindness (RaOK), pushing the car up the hill until it could get traction. We walked down and repeated the RaOK with stuck car # 3. Then we all hurried back down to our cars since the hill was now clear.

Blessing # 14: the first car in the queue, with one of the pushers. Calmly and successfully scaled the hill no problem. The second car in the queue was also successful.

Mixed Blessing # 3: The third car got about half way up and got stuck. the fourth car in the queue, the one just in front of mine had to stop 1/4th of the way up. Then the man got out to push the third car.

Blessing # 15: Knowing one pusher likely would not work. I got out and ran up the hill, acknowledging blessing # 3 again and the two of us got the third car moving again.

Blessing # 16 and 17: The man in the fourth queued got a good start in his SUV and cleared the hill. So now it was my turn. I remembered to drive a snowy hill in lower gear.  I think I learned this from my Dad about 45 years prior. I started moving and kept moving at a slow but steady pace and easily cleared the hill, hopefully opening the path for 30 or more other cars that were queued up to go up or down the Prosperity hill.

Blessing # 18: I had no problems the rest of the way. The Metro (Subway) worked fine.  I realized that even with the hour lost pushing the cars up the hill, I would only arrive five minutes late for the start of the class.

Blessing # 19: I emailed my co-facilitator. She had negotiated her way into the World Bank Group by bicycle; a minor miracle I thought, this so she would not have to depend on the Metro buses, which are notoriously slow in snowy weather. I estimated I would be 5 minutes late for the start of the class.

Blessing # 20: The session started on time, with a recap quiz from last week’s session. My colleague was well prepared to carry on.  I was only four minutes late and we had a great session.

Final score: 20 Blessings, 3 Mixed Blessings, 4 cars pushed up the hill, a few RaOKs, I showed that I was prepared for life’s eventualities and I had done my good turn for the day. I was not the first to get out of my car to help, but I was one of only five that did get out to help our neighbors.

For all these blessings and for the lessons I learned in Scouting and from my father and my mother, I am truly thankful. I also remembered afterwards, that I had watched my son and three Boy Scout friends push 3 or 4 cars up a snowy hill in West Virginia about ten years ago, that was also a blessed memory.

I hope each of you has an opportunity to count your blessing, to do a good turn, and perhaps and RaOK this week.  Have a great Thanksgiving Holiday. To my four fellow pushers,  thank you for being good neighbors and for inspiring me to do my part.

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Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales. He is a member of the Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington Area, and a former global board member and director of regions and chapters of the Association of Personal Historians. Everyone has Life Stories to share. Learn how – summersbw@gmail.com 

See also:

What does Thanksgiving mean?

Thanksgiving – Show and Tell

Thanksgiving checklist: cranberry salsa, bread, and the Voice Recorder App.

Skills to “Actively Listen” and Record Family Stories during the Holidays?

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Uluru Adventure

10 Aug

Our hiking tour drove right past Uluru. We knew this was the plan, but still…

Uluru is a fantastic geological gem. I had seen many pictures from Uluru as it is now known. For many years it went by its Anglicized name Ayers Rock.

I thought we would climb Uluru.  I have read and ghost-written accounts of travelers climbing this Monolith.

The climb was on my bucket list for our Australian Adventure.  However, starting with our first day in Australia, we started hearing stories about not being able to climb Uluru, that this is the last year to climb, and that the mountain is sacred to local Aboriginal Peoples and they would prefer if no one climbed.

They are very sad whenever someone gets injured or dies climbing Uluru. The local Aboriginals co-own and manage the Uluru-Kata Tujuta National Park along with the Australian government.

Our hiking tour guide similarly told us why climbing Uluru is discouraged. Currently, less than 20% of visitors climbed the mountain.

We were planning on doing a base walk at Sunrise the next morning about 3/4th of the way around Uluru. I was really looking forward to this hike and being up close to this famous UNESCO World Heritage Site.

As planned we were going to tent camp nearby overnight our first night.

Before that though we had a hike planned for Kata Tujuta. (But that’s a different story).

This to be followed by watching the sunset on Uluru while we had some hors d’oeuvres and champagne at an overlook. The colors of Uluru are fantastic at Sunset with many different subtle shifts from orange, to rose, to red, and to purple.

Sunset at Uluru was spectacular.

We slept well, ate an early breakfast, and then headed out the next morning to start our base walk” of Uluru before sunrise.

It was still dark when we arrived at our starting location.

Uluru already had a dull reddish hue

As we started our walk the sky start to lighten

I shivered a bit as I walked. But I quickly forgot the chill as I stared up at the huge rock faces. Up close they were very pock-marked on the eastern side. They displayed huge interesting depressions and holes carved out by wind, water and extremes of hot and cold temperatures.

I continued to hike on, pausing often to take more pictures of the now rising sun and of the ever-changing rock faces.

 

   

Seemingly every minute they displayed a different color and nuanced shadows.

Finally as the sun rose over the eastern horizon it lit up the monolith..

Uluru glowed and I smiled. I suspected it would be an interesting morning as I continued my walk just feet away from one of the world’s most fascinating geological features.

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Bruce Summers, summersbw@gmail.com, is professional personal historian and life story writer. He also enjoys hiking, travel and photography (and the occasional fascinating geological wonder). I hope you enjoy this and other Summoose Tales. 

Cactus League – then Cactus Hiking

5 Mar

   

We were just looking for a place to eat… we kept seeing all these people with “Giants” and “SF” hats?

We flew into Phoenix, took a taxi to overnight in Scottsdale, AZ, stowed our luggage for our 4 PM check-into our hotel, and then got directions to Historic Scottsdale, “it’s just half a mile by foot.” We listened intently, received a map with some marked in suggestions of possible places to eat lunch and dinner, and then we were on our way to starting our Arizona hiking adventure.

We would meet up with friends for dinner, so we needed to do some scouting of interesting places to eat. Scottsdale is known for its historic, western feel,  and its old town. On our way to historic Scottsdale, we noticed a baseball stadium. There were police, traffic control, and significant streams of people laser-focused on going/getting to the stadium, this at noon on a sunny Friday afternoon.

Then we started to notice that everyone was wearing Giants and SF hats and jerseys.  They seemed to be in a festive happy mood. So we asked a couple. “It’s the first game of Spring Training, (professional baseball), it’s the San Francisco Giants versus the Milwaukee Brewers (two teams in the Spring Training Cactus league).”

We walked a bit further and saw lots and lots of more fans streaming towards the stadium.  We asked another couple, what time is the game? “1 PM they shared, each with a huge grin.” So, this planted the seed; should we check out Spring Training? When else will we ever get the chance to see a Spring Training game?  We like baseball, but we are not likely to schedule a vacation around attending Spring Training, but why not take advantage of this opportunity. “And we can get a hot dog… for lunch and watch the game…”

Next, a man on the street had two good tickets he was offering to sell, “My wife could not go, it’s sold out, these are good seats.” He explained that the Giants always do Spring Training in Scottsdale, so they are the local (favorite) team. Others later shared, that they buy season tickets for the local minor league team, mostly so they can get tickets to watch the Giants during Spring Training. We thought about it, and we bought two tickets for the game.

We completed about a mile survey of Historic Scottsdale, took photos of the historic artifacts, of the gardens and sculptures, and of a few restaurants and their menus.  It looked like a nice place to explore.  We picked out two or three good options for dinner with our friends and then joined the throngs headed to the stadium.

Inside we got our hot dogs, mine was a tasty bratwurst with mustard and sauerkraut, and a bottle of water. We found our seats, lower level, just a bit past first base on the right field side.  There were perhaps 30 Giants fans to each Brewers fan and there was a buzz in the air… Spring Training… first game.

“Our” Giants took an  early 3-0 lead, the Brewers closed it up, so by the 7th inning it was 5-3 with “Our” Giants still in the lead. We had seen two home runs, some decent baseball, some good, and some bad pitching, fun, but we were ready to go check into our rooms.

We had a nice Mexican dinner with our friends in Old Town.

We got a good night sleep a healthy breakfast, and then met up with our REI Hiking group and two guides.

We packed up our hiking gear and suitcases and headed south towards Tucson and our first of four days of hiking in Southern Arizona.

We arrived at the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area, checked our gear, filled up our water bottles, and saw a mountain lion head with pelt attached. “Yes there are mountain lions and bobcats in this hills, shared a docent.” Good to know I thought.

We had already seen many miles of Saguaro Cactus, hills, mountains, desert on our drive down. This should be interesting we thought. We would ride a tram 2 miles to the trail head then start our hike up to Seven Falls. We passed endless hills of Saguaro and other Cacti. In less than 24 hours we had visited a western old town, attended the opening day of Spring Training, eaten a great Mexican meal, packed up and prepared to hike up our first desert Canyon. What a great first day:)

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Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian, a  former Board Member of the Association of Personal Associations and Director for Regions and Chapters.  He is a member of the Life Story Professionals of the Greater Washington, DC Area and an avid hiker and photographer. Summersbw@gmail.com 

 

How did you celebrate Christmas?

23 Dec

This has been one of my favorite questions for the past 50 years. I was chatting with a colleague at a holiday party after work recently. She said, I remember Bruce what you shared about your work as a Personal Historian? Yes, I explained, we record people’s life stories and help them to preserve and shared them with loved ones.

She then asked, you were telling me about how I could capture stories from my aunt. What questions should I ask her and how should I record it? I shared, “Well, first ask her about her earliest memories. To record, you can use the voice recording app on your smart phone, or buy a digital voice recorder.  These cost about $90 or so. You can download and save the recordings on your computer. So, when your aunt calls, you can receive the call on your iPad and then start recording. I shared several other sample questions, and then I shared one of my favorites – How did you celebrate Christmas?

As I shared earlier, I have used this one many, many times with personal history clients and with family members, some now long gone. The holidays or Christmas are a great time to share and record family memories.

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As I look across my living room I see my mother-in-law’s Christmas tree decorated with perhaps 100 ornaments that we have collected. Most have a special story – the pink one from Bermuda, the trolley from San Francisco, the round ornament with the great image of a bird we bought with my father-in-law at that birders’ shop on Cape Cod.

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The Christmas season is a great time admire an ornament and ask, “Is there a story behind that ornament?” Perhaps it is old, a child’s photo from an early Christmas or an ornament that has been passed down through the family for two or three generations.

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Some of the ornaments were presents from a lifelong friend. “Tell me about your friend, where did you meet?”

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While you are visiting friends during the holidays you may be offered cookies or other treats. “This tastes great, what is this cookie called? Do you have any special memories of making cookies with your mom? What did you make? What did it smell like?”

For me, music has always been part of my life. This is especially true during the Advent Season. As a teenager, I would go caroling with a group from my church. We would walk around New Freedom and stop and carol at the homes of shut-ins, people who could not easily get out to church. It was often cold, but it was joyous. Sometimes we just sang, received thanks, smiles and then we moved on.  Quite often though, we were invited in for cookies or a cup of cider or hot chocolate. We visited and warmed up a bit but had to move on, we still had quite a few stops and more carols to sing. “Do you have any special traditions that you and your friends did every year? Do you have a favorite Christmas carol?

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When I was growing up my grandmother lived nearby. My grandmother owned a farm going down the hill from her house. She lived in a regular house at the top of the hill, but there was a farm-house and a big barn down the farm lane. To the right of the barn, she, my dad and my uncles had planted a grove of pine trees to prevent a steep section of the hill from eroding.

One of my special memories was going down the hill with my dad and one or more of my brothers and picking out our Christmas tree from the pine grove. This was a big thrill.  My father still has the same saw, hanging in his shed, that we used to cut down those trees decades ago. I remember the fresh scent of the pine needles and the pine sap that would always get on our hands and our coats. We would help dad carry or drag the tree out of the wood to the car. We would also cut sprigs of pine boughs and holly that my mom would use to decorate our home. “How did you decorate your home for the holidays?”

We would go over to my grandmother’s house a week or two before Christmas and set up her Christmas tree, we got out her ornaments, the lights, perhaps some garlands and tinsel.

On Christmas Day, we would wake up early at our house. We would run down the stairs to get our stockings, they were hand-knitted by one of my aunts. We were allowed to open these early, before my parents were up and ready for breakfast. There always was a comic book or a classic comics book stuffed in the top of the stocking. Since I was one of four brothers, we would always read ours first and then trade them around.  This was a brilliant “delaying” tactic by my parents, to keep us quiet and engaged for a while so they could grab five more minutes of sleep, get a cup of coffee or tea, brush their teeth, and get a few special treats ready for Christmas breakfast. It also helped to distract us from those “other” presents piled around the tree. “What was it like when you woke up Christmas morning?”

We had a great time opening presents as a family, then later around eleven o’clock my parents would drop my three brothers and me off at my grandmother’s house. I suspect this was to allow mom time to prepare food for Christmas dinner and dad some time to clear away the debris from the unwrapping, hmmm… what did they do with those two hours while we were at grandmother’s? Perhaps this is a new question I need to ask my parents?

My grandmother would always have a few presents for us around her tree. Sometimes my aunt Mary would be up visiting with grandmother for the holidays, so she would be part of the celebrations. She liked to travel, so there might be a small gift, a toy from another country that we would enjoy throughout the day. After opening gifts, my grandmother served the best sandwiches, some type of tender melt-in-your-mouth beef on buttered bread with the crusts cut off.  I can still taste them. “Did you have other relatives and family living nearby? Did you celebrate together during the holidays?”

Later in day we would have a gathering of three families, our family, my dad’s brother’s family, my dad’s first cousin’s family and of course my grandmother and aunt Mary. We would rotate each year which family would host Christmas dinner. Each family would bring special dishes, the host family would provide turkey and dressing. The ten children would spend time together and the eight adults would gather, perhaps to share memories of Christmas’s past. This is when I wish I had my digital recorder back in the 1960s and 70s and perhaps a camera and a camcorder.

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The good news is that I have been actively recording the Christmas and holiday memories of my parents and my extended family in more recent years. Perhaps this season is a good time for you to ask your friends and loved ones, “How did you celebrate Christmas?”

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For us it is great to have our kids home from college and grad school. We did some shopping together, we saw a movie together, we catch up on each other’s news, retell stories from the past year, and chat about future plans – what’s next? My son played a few songs on the bassoon while I hummed a few Christmas carols. We will have a few upcoming holiday gatherings with friends and family… hmmm… I wonder when I need to put the ham in the oven tomorrow?
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I hope each of you similarly takes time to celebrate the holidays, to visit with friends and family, and to capture and share memories.

Happy Holidays and best wishes for a great new year.

Bruce Summers is a Personal Historian with Summoose Tales, summersbw@gmail.com. He is a board member and serves as the Regions and Chapters Director of the Association of Personal Historians

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