Meeting the marsh mugger

Our excellent guide, Suman, with doongas, on the Rapti River

Our excellent guide, Suman, with doongas, on the Rapti River

Ordinarily, I’d like to share beautiful photos, or at least ones that convey useful information, such as a title sign. But today you’ll see some of my worst.

We were on a doonga (canoe)/walking safari in Chitwan National Park. For this trip, we floated down the Rapti River for about 2.5 miles, then walked through the jungle for another 5-6 miles.

Elephants passing by

Elephants passing by

In the beginning of the doonga portion we saw unusual birds, elephants, lush tropical vegetation, and along the banks, the occasional crocodile, namely, the marsh mugger (Crocodylus palustris), or crocodile of the marsh. They’re listed as threatened–vulnerable, so we were careful not to disturb them.

Gharials at the conservation center

Gharials at the conservation center

We felt fortunate to see majestic creatures whose ancestors appeared 200 million years ago in the Triassic, and which can grow to 10 feet or more long. The area also provides a home for the critical-endangered gharials, or fish-eating crocodiles. We didn’t expect to see them in the wild, but did see many at the crocodile breeding center.

Mugger under water

Mugger under water

But there was a moment when I lost all interest in the marsh mugger’s conservation status. One large one approached our doonga, possibly touching it. His shoulders and front legs were next to Susan’s seat; his impressive mouth was next to mine.

Mugger next to doonga

Mugger next to doonga

I knew not to trail my fingers in the water, but there would have been little defense against his attempting to overturn the canoe. As we had eight tasty people on board, and there were probably several other muggers nearby, that could have been disastrous.

Raju, with trusty stick

Raju, with trusty stick

I tried to get a photo, but being generally inept and only now trying out a smart phone, I mostly managed to get photos of my palm and the sky. I won’t impose those on you, but I will share a couple that do show the crocodile.

On the trail

On the trail

The most important photo shows the stick that our guide, Raju, used to bang on the head of the mugger to discourage it. Later, we learned that this was not a normal event, nor an exciting treat for the tourist, but a real emergency. The story went around Sapana Village, and Raju was a deserved hero.

On the trail (2)

On the trail (2)

Next to dormant termite mound

Next to dormant termite mound

Mugger along the trail, apparently dead, but very much alive

Mugger along the trail, apparently dead, but very much alive

The dump lives on

My friend and former student Beena alerted me to a wonderful blog post by Nicholas Delbanco. It’s a celebration of Wellfleet’s Transfer Center from U-M’s alumni publication Michigan Today: The order of ordure.

Driving down the hill away from the landfill, windows shut against the stench of it, I congratulate myself on having completed my task. I am, after all, helping to organize the planet. “The order of ordure” — I try out a phrase — “the composition of compost, the transfer of trash, the way of waste.” There’s something deeply gratifying about such distribution. Every item has its place and all can be redeemed.

This is absurd, of course. We make small difference here. Rumor has it that the 16-wheelers hauling garbage lump everything together after our dutiful sorting. And day by week by month the waste accumulates again. But as the air clears and I open the car windows, I’m seized by the conviction that what I’ve done is similar to what I also do each day: distribute words on a page.

2016-08-22 10.57.53Delbanco writes as a summer resident. As a full-time one, I can confirm what he says, and perhaps add a little texture. During the winter, the Transfer Center remains as the top attraction in town, the place where you see your friends and catch up on gossip. But it loses the bustle that Delbanco sees and definitely the stench.

By the way, I don’t experience that smell as a uniform aroma, but as one that guides you through the site, noticeable at the bottle and cans area, a little stronger near the discarded sea shells and fishing gear, not so noticeable at the metal recycling or the mulch pile.

Delbanco also emphasizes the dropping off aspect. That’s of course the reason for the very existence of the Center. But he may not appreciate how much some clients (the “cadre of those who pick over what others discard”) find to remove from the site. Only some of those do it for cash.

We go to the dump (aka2016-08-22 11.01.46 Wellfleet Transfer Center and Recycling Station) with our Forester filled to its gills, but often return with just as much stuff. That leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand there’s a sense of the great find, such as the canoe we retrieved, which only leaks a little. We typically come home with eight buckets of compost or mulch for the garden. The swap shop often has the perfect item that even Amazon can’t find.

On the other hand, there’s a feeling of complete failure to progress. We use up Energy to make the exchange, but the Conservation of Mass is maintained.

12291159-the-enormous-room-now-available-on-web-bookscomDelbanco suggests that transferring and recycling trash is not so different from doing the same with words. He mentions E. E. Cummings in that regard, but may not realize a connection to Wellfleet.

William Slater Brown was a friend of Cummings, best known as the character “B.” in Cummings’s  The Enormous Room. That book details their temporary imprisonment in France during World War I. B. was arrested by French authorities as a result of anti-war sentiments he had expressed in some letters, and Cummings stood by him. Today, Brown’s daughter Rachel is a prominent photographer living in Wellfleet.

Quetico again

Setting out at Bayley's Bay

Setting out at Bayley’s Bay

On my first canoe trip to Quetico, I was too young to grow a beard. If I’d been able to do so, it would have been dark brown, almost black. On my second trip, just completed, I managed to grow a thick beard, this time all white.

Lingering snow

Lingering snow

In the intervening 53 years Quetico has remained at the heart of one of the most popular wilderness areas in the world, one that includes five major jurisdictions across the US/Canadian boundary. It’s still a place with no traffic, no roads, no plane flights, and no motorboats. There aren’t even marked campsites or portage trails.

"Enjoying" a portage

“Enjoying” a portage

At the time of our recent trip there were instead, moose, wolves, eagles, loons, beavers, frogs, turtles, and abundant plant life, but no humans or much sign of humans for nearly the entire trip.

Adapting to cold

Adapting to cold

I can now feel every joint and every muscle in my body, from my toes to my fingers. There were times on portage trails where dead trees blocked the path and rocks seemed impossibly high and slick, when I wondered what we could have been thinking to plan such a trip.

Camp visitor

Camp visitor

Pictographs at Picture Rock

Pictographs at Picture Rock

Stream between lakes

Stream between lakes

But there were other times when we could hear wolves howl or watch loons play, when we could see waterfalls, follow meandering streams, or just connect with nature in a way that rarely happens, even on Cape Cod. At those times, I felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity go on both Quetico trips, and was reminded how fortunate we all are that such (semi-)wilderness places still exist.

Canoeing to sanity?

More and more do we realize that quiet is important to our happiness. In our cities the constant beat of strange and foreign wave lengths on our primal sense beats us into neuroticism, changes us from creatures who once knew the silences to fretful, uncertain beings immersed in a cacophony of noise which destroys sanity and equilibrium. –The Singing Wilderness, 1956, by Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson

Sigurd F. Olson was an author who sparked the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s. It is now 60 years since he wrote The Singing Wilderness, where he talked how wilderness helps us become “aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.” Even then, he realized how modern life can destroy our “sanity and equilibrium.’

Olson spent most of his life in the Ely, MN area. For more than thirty years, he worked as a canoe guide during the summer months in the Quetico-Superior country, then taught and wrote about natural history, ecology, and outdoor life. He helped draft the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as to establish Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Point Reyes National Seashore in California.

As a culmination of his half century of effort, full wilderness status was granted to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in 1978. The combined region of contiguous lakes and forests comprising the BWCAW, Superior National Forest, Voyageurs National Park and Ontario’s Quetico and La Verendrye Provincial Parks is called the “Quetico-Superior country”, or simply the “Boundary Waters.”

Picture rocks on Crooked Lake

Picture rocks on Crooked Lake

Is it crazy to do something crazy in order to become less crazy, to seek to restore that sanity and equilibrium? Susan and I are about to set out on an adventure that should be fun, enlightening, challenging, even joyful, but which I question in my saner moments.

Back in 1963, I found that quiet beauty on a two-week trip to Quetico Provincial Park in the southern part of NW Ontario. As I wrote,

It was a wonderful trip in many ways. We stayed up most of one night watching a rare display of the Aurora Borealis, which filled the sky for hours. The sun was shining, the fishing was good, and there was great singing, story-telling, and endless argument about the meaning of life around the campfires.

However, the trip ended in disaster, as you can read in the post linked above. Coincidentally, Olson wrote about the area in a National Geographic article, “Relics from the rapids,” which appeared the very month we returned from that trip. Although I’ve canoed nearby, I’ve never been back to Quetico itself and certainly not to the Picture Rocks where the disaster occurred, until now.

Quetico Provincial Park, with 2000 lakes

Quetico Provincial Park, with 2000 lakes

There are several reasons to advise against a return to Quetico at this time. As I get closer to the day I wonder whether it’s wise to revisit the site of the disaster. Beyond that, I find that I’ve somehow grown older over the past 53 years. I hear that lakes can take longer to paddle across, that portage trails are steeper, and that nights are colder than when one is 16. On a messageboard I saw this about one of our planned portages from someone probably much younger:

The Side Lake to Sarah one known as “Heart Attack Hill” did me in but it was hot, I was low on water, and I had too much gear. I remember laying down at the top and seriously thinking that I could die. It’s rough.

The quiet beauty of Quetico derives in part from the fact that there are no trucks to move your gear. There’s also no wifi, no cell phone signal, no motorized boat craft, no flights overhead, no buildings or pavement, and no prepared campsites. Those features are 99% heavenly, and only worrisome if you choose to worry.

The major concern we have is that we’re going at the start of the season. Guidebooks suggest that June and July are uncrowded, but have more mosquitoes; August and September are warmer with fewer bugs, but more competition for good campsites. No one talks about May, because it’s too cold and the ice may not be out. Even the Canadian ranger stations are closed.

Minnesota II kevlar canoe

Minnesota II kevlar canoe

In their April 19 “dispatch” from BWCAW, Amy Freeman and Dave Freeman show photos of sled dogs, a snowman, and frozen lakes. This is from the year they’re spending there, which is south of Quetico and possibly a degree or two warmer. We’ve been told that the ice should be out on most lakes by the time we start and the day that this post should appear (May 4). I’m too charitable to think that that optimism on the ice forecast reflects the outfitter’s desire not to have to return our deposit!

Nevertheless, we’re committed to the trip. We’ll be renting new equipment, including a Wenonah Minnesota II kevlar canoe. We’re relying on a good outfitter in Ely (Piragis). We have maps, long underwear, extra socks, compass, signal mirror, and poison ivy lotion. Could anything go wrong?

Stay tuned for Part 2, when we return.


Namskaket Creek

On the day after Christmas Stephen and I decided to venture out. Seeing no snow, we did the best we could by a short canoe trip on Namskaket Creek in Brewster.

To get to the creek, we made a short portage on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Another option would have been to launch in the bay at Skaket or Crosby Lane beach.

The whole journey, including a PB&J lunch, took only four hours, with about half of that paddling. It was still a bit of an adventure, since it wasn’t easy to find our way through the salt marsh and occasionally we had to fight the wind. But the weather was perfect and the birds were joyous. The mix of forest, marsh, beach, briny water and ocean was unbeatable.

The Canoe of Theseus

Not long after I was born, the Chestnut Canoe Co. in Fredericton, New Brunswick built a 17′ 2″ Prospector model canoe. Chestnut was a leading builder of wood-and-canvas canoes, which unfortunately failed with the onslaught of inferior aluminum, fiberglass, and rubberized plastic imitations.

The Prospector design is awesome. With no keel, wide ribs, and high gunwales, it can tackle whitewater that flips kayaks and rafts. It can carry two large people and a summer’s worth of gear, or as many as four adults without swamping. It’s quiet, strong, beautiful, and easy to paddle. It can take a sail or motor. And it’s light enough to carry on a portage trail. No design is perfect, and no canoe can meet all needs, but this one comes very close.

I wrote earlier about the restoration of the particular Chestnut Prospector that owns me. Today, we took the aging Prospector out for a paddle. Looking at it, I can enjoy the new canvas with its new brick red paint and new decals. There are new brass fittings to replace those that had corroded over sixty plus years. There are two new ribs and a new portage yoke, many new screws, and new varnish.

Restoring or replacing?

It feels like a new canoe. However, the remaining parts though serviceable for now, show signs of age, and might need to be replaced in a future restoration. Is it simply a fixed up old canoe? Or, is it a new one? Could a time come when I’d no longer feel that it’s the same canoe that Chestnut built in 1954?

Being a bit older myself, I note that I carry replacement parts, and have lost some parts from the original. And while my entire set of body cells may not turnover every seven years, cells are dying and being replaced all the time. What does it mean for something to be “the same,” when that something is changing constantly?

When Theseus returned from his successful mission to slay the minotaur, the grateful Athenians pledged to honor Apollo by maintaining his ship in a seaworthy state forever. Any wood that wore out or rotted would be replaced. Over centuries, the original parts were replaced many times. Had they kept their promise? Plutarch writes:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.

Is it the same ship? If not, when did it become something else? If it looks and functions more as it did in the beginning, is it more the original than if it’s not repaired? Centuries later, Thomas Hobbes introduced a further puzzle, wondering what would happen if the original planks could be located and used to build a ship. If one could assemble the old planks and other parts, would that be more the original? Which ship, if either, would be Ship of Theseus?

The shakedown cruise

We took the new/old canoe out today on Gull, Higgins, and Williams Ponds. I can tell that it creaks a bit and the wood is more brittle than it once was, but so am I.

Nevertheless, it tracked as well as it ever did and handled an occasionally stiff breeze very well. The September sky was beautiful, the trees are just beginning to turn, and the birds are busy all about.

I know that I change over the years, sometimes noticeably from day to day. Can I remain the same person? Can I become someone new?

The old Prospector is still the canoe I’ve known and loved for many years. In many ways it’s a new canoe, but it still serves as the magic vessel it’s always been.

Restoring the Chestnut

The Chestnut canoe company of Fredericton, New Brunswick, was a preeminent producer of wood and canvas canoes. Teddy Roosevelt purchased their canoes for his South American expedition. Before aluminum, fiberglass, ABS, Kevlar, and other synthetic materials, Chestnut used wood to make canoes for every purpose.

Around 1954, they produced a green Prospector Garry, serial number CHN47317M75J, 8770HF. I don’t know all the waters that boat traveled, but somehow it wound up as a display item at Wilderness House, an outfitter on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Hanging from the rafters as a signature trophy was some kind of honor, I suppose.

However, Prospectors were canoes made to be used–for work and expeditions. They had no keel, high gunwales, and wide ribs and other features to make them whitewater capable. They could carry a half ton of people and cargo. Unlike canoes made from most of the new materials, wood-and-canvas canoes are infinitely varied, beautiful, quiet, repairable, and sensual.

The Story of the Chestnut Canoe

The Story of the Chestnut Canoe

Three decades after it was made, my friend Brian Smith called from Wilderness House. He said that WH had decided to sell the Prospector and that he was waiting in line to buy it for me. There was a clear assumption that I would come up with the cash. His action was simply to make sure I didn’t lose the opportunity, not a major gift. And Brian already had a Chestnut himself. So, shortly before Emily and Stephen were born I adopted a 30 year-old canoe.

It’s an oxymoron today to say “whitewater, wood-and-canvas canoe.” But before the 1950s, wood-and-canvas was the material of choice. We took this particular canoe on some rough waters, including the Oxtongue River in Ontario, although to be honest, we didn’t run Ragged Falls.

The canoe performed well in every setting, in salt water, ponds, and rivers; in wind and rain, carrying four people or one. But like everything it aged. There were some small dings from expeditions; the paint faded and peeled; the canvas sagged; some gunwales had separated; and two ribs broke, probably during our move to Massachusetts. It was time for a makeover, for what was now a 60 year-old canoe.

Walter Baron, a neighbor and expert boat builder, agreed to take on the task. In the photos below you can see some steps in the process. Walter removed the canvas and stripped the inside.

I asked him to add a beautiful new portage yoke I purchased from Essex Industries in New York. Essex is a sheltered workshop, which unfortunately is facing difficult times. It seems to be one of the success stories for that type of facility.

Today, we took final delivery on the rejuvenated and now, brick red, Chestnut Prospector. I wanted to try it out, even in the cold, but the local ponds are covered in 14″ of ice. So it now hangs in our garage. much as it did at WH, but knowing that its true destiny is to be loaded with gear, carrying its passengers silently and safely wherever their adventure leads them.

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The Chestnut family started marketing canvas canoes in the late 1890′s in Fredericton, New Brunswick. The early Chestnut canoes were modeled after a canoe built by B. N. Morris, and indeed, these early canoes clearly show the influence of Morris canoes. . . The Chestnut factory burned down in December of 1921, and was quickly rebuilt. Chestnut Canoe Company and Peterborough Canoe Company merged under the holding company Canadian Watercraft Limited. Canadian Canoe Company joined them in 1927. . . Chestnut shipped its last canoes in early 1979, then closed. Most of the Chestnut molds survive, and are being used in several wooden canoe shops in Canada. For more details about the history of the Chestnut Canoe Company, see Roger MacGregor’s book When the Chestnut was in Flower. via Chestnut Canoe Company.

Canoe sculpture

Monochrome for Austin, Nancy Rubins

Monochrome for Austin, Nancy Rubins

While we were in Austin last week we saw a dramatic 50-foot diameter structure composed of roughly 75 canoes and a few rowboats jutting out at various angles. The boats are suspended from a steel framework by cables, with a design claimed to withstand Austin’s winds.

Some of the boats are damaged boats donated by canoe rental companies, still showing their logos. I tried to imagine the rapids that could lead to such a massive, beautiful disaster. The structure represents the far end of a spectrum that has my wood and canvas canoe quietly plying a Wellfleet pond at the other end.

A few students, assuming that the sculpture was funded through tuition, started a petition asking the University to return their tuition money.

Unveiled on January 17, the canoe nest is the newest piece in the Landmarks collection, the University’s public art program. It sits in front of the Hackerman Building at the corner of Speedway and 24th Street. Eventually it will be part of a larger outdoor art project stretching a half dozen blocks along Speedway, with a pedestrian walkway.

New 50-foot-tall sculpture makes waves on campus | The Daily Texan.

Bow Trip

The Bow Trip, near Jackman, Maine, has to be near the top of any list of great canoe adventures. It’s usually completed in only three days, or just one without camping gear, but it packs in lakes dotted with islands, hidden bays, squiggly peninsulas, and watchful mountains, balsam fir forest with beech and birch tree stands, bogs, wildflower gardens, and giant boulders. There are loons, cormorants, moose, and bears. At this time, the white trillium is in bloom, along with many other wildflowers.Image

We just finished the circuit, starting from the outlet of the Moose River on Wood Pond, crossing Attean Pond, portaging to Holeb Pond, then down Holeb Stream to the Moose again, and back to Attean. A nice feature is that one can put in at various places and return to the starting point, in our case, a rustic cabin on Wood Pond.

The Bow Trip calls for flatwater river and lake paddling, rips and falls, lining, carries, eddy turns, and even sliding canoes down an incline or pushing under fallen trees. We had a scare when we rounded a turn under the one bridge, an old railroad trestle, to discover a downed power line. Parts of it were in the water, and it rose up to ensnare canoes.


There are always surprises on a trip like this. We timed ours to be at the cusp of the transition from black fly to mosquito season, managing to have plenty of both. But they had to wait their turn behind the gnats and midges.Image

In our case, the big surprise was the high water. It made pull-outs and camping challenging. The portage trails looked more like streams than pathways. Our Tripper canoe has somehow gained weight over the years so that flipping it overhead while standing in muck and swatting flies seemed less fun than it once did. Because of the high water, we managed to run Camel Rips without noticing it and Attean Falls, which usually requires a carry.Image

We heard and saw birds everywhere. I unwound a little, floating down the lovely river, rediscovering muscles and bones I’d forgotten about. The clouds were a fantastic and ever-changing background to the lush Maine forest. The rips and falls were exhilarating. Image

The Bow Trip is a special treat, a highlight of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. We were alone most of the way, seeing a friendly group from the Maine School of Science and Mathematics at a couple of points, but mostly enjoying alone a precious resource that some people know well, but most will never experience.

See additional photos from our Bow Trip.

Voyages with the Rob Roy

rob_royI had shoulder surgery on August 18, so my days of paddling through rapids or hoisting a canoe on my shoulders need to be postponed. As a substitute, I’ve been reading A thousand miles in the Rob Roy canoe on rivers and lakes of Europe (1866), by John Macgregor (1825-1892).

singers_wagonMacGregor himself led a life that sounds like an overdone adventure yarn. At the age of three months, he was rescued from a burning ship whil een route to India with his parents. At the age of 12, he helped launch a rescue boat for a ship in distress off Belfast, then slipped aboard secretly a the last moment to help out. He grew up sailing, boat-building, riding, reading, and experimenting with home-made steam engines, batteries, and chemicals that led to several major explosions. He attended seven schools before graduating from Trinity College, Dublin in mathematics. He traveled throughout the world, fighting Greek pirates and crocodiles, climbing Mont Blanc, Etna, and Vesuvius. He won awards for sharpshooting, drew for Punch and illustrated books, and wrote his own books on marine propulsion, patent law, travel, and transcriptions of Syrian and Egyptian melodies he had heard in his travels.

MacGregor built a hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and a double-bladed, kayak paddle which he named the “Rob Roy”. He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. His account of the journey became a best seller and was the beginning of the recreational canoeing movement. His trip inspired many, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who made his own voyage in a Rob Roy, and then wrote about it in his first published book, An inland voyage.

morningMacGregor’s account portrays a Europe with only distant resonance to today. Instead of shopping centers and freeways, there were people cutting hay with hand tools. Instead of the Web, there were newspapers, 3241 in Germany alone.

A thousand miles displays a buoyant optimism and refreshing sense of discovery. MacGregor talks of “a strange feeling of freedom and novelty which lasted to the end of the tour,” (p. 15), and throughout, of a reverence for the canoe, which I share:

Something like it is felt when you first march off with a knapsack ready to walk anywhere, or when you start alone in a sailing-boat for a long cruise.

But then in walking you are bounded by every sea and river, and in a common sailing-boat you are bounded by every shallow and shore; whereas, I was in a canoe, which could be paddled or sailed, hauled, or carried over land or water to Rome, if I liked, or to Hong-Kong. (p. 15)

digueI also like his descriptions of wildlife, for example of herons “wading about with that look of injured innocence they put on when you dare to disturb them.” (p. 35) Later, he refers to a gathering including the

long-necked, long-winged, long-legged heron, that seems to have forgotten to get a body, flocks by scores with ducks of the various wild breeds, while pretty painted butterflies and fierce- looking dragon-flies float, as it were, on the summer sunbeams, and simmer in the air. (p. 71)

At the village of Geisingen it was discovered that the boiler of my engine needed some fuel, or, in plain terms, I must breakfast. (p. 59)

meuseMacGregor’s challenges along the way become not discouragements, but the very stuff of the journey. He  reminds me that a broken shoulder is just a toss on the billows, one that can be an opportunity to learn:

It is, as in the voyage of life, that our cares and hardships are our very Mentors of living. Our minds would only vegetate if all life were like a straight canal, and we in a boat being towed along it. The afflictions that agitate the soul are as its shallows, rocks, and whirlpools, and the bark that has not been tossed on billows knows not half the sweetness of the harbour of rest. (p. 37)