28 Nov

High Adventure in the Ozarks: Canoeing the Current River

cave on the current river

This summer I joined the scouts from our church for their high adventure trip to the Ozarks. We maneuvered a caravan of canoes about 50 miles down the north section of the Current River, starting near Salem, Missouri, before getting pounded by a storm that would send us home a day early.

Getting to Aker’s Ferry, MO

We left Lincoln before sunrise on a muggy Monday in June, three adults, four scouts, and five days of gear all crammed into a minivan. Sleeping pads and pillows were stacked to the ceiling behind the back seat, with all the heavy stuff underneath, giant totes full of food, stoves, the troop cookware, and an accumulation of old mess kits seasoned with food residue from many years of fireside feasts. Those ancient mess kits connected us to a long line of scouters who camped the same parks and wilderness over the decades, who tread the same earth and waterways, but who left no trace, except for the scratches and dents and the hint of oatmeal and other reconstituted meals in those thin aluminum pans with the awkward flattened handles.

cave on the current river

After nine hours together in the minivan, we were anxious for a change of scene. We arrived at Aker’s Ferry, tired but excited to paddle, around 3PM. We discussed our itinerary with a weathered old river man, who cautioned us against drinking the river water, which would give us gee-ardia, unless we drank it straight from a spring. Then, another old river man, more weathered than the first and harder to understand, instructed us mostly with gestures to throw our stuff in the back of his short school bus. And we were on our way.

Yellow school buses with glossy black trim are as timeless as aluminum mess kits. They never age or change. It’s impossible to tell when they were made, or where they come from, or how many kids, over how many years, have climbed around on those tough green vinyl seats on their way to the schoolhouse.

The bus driver took us up a bouncy country road to our starting point, Ceder Grove. Ignoring my offer to help, he unloaded the three sixty-pound canoes plus a kayak from the trailer on his own with ease, as if he’d done it every day for the past fifty years. Before he pulled away, I asked which canoe was best. I imagined he knew those battered plastic boats like a dog sledder knows his team, that he knew which one was loyal and reliable, which one had spunk. Pointing, he shared what sounded like critical information about each craft. I couldn’t understand anything he said. But I did gather that the yellow canoe was best, so I got first dibs.

Paddling and Capsizing

We distributed the heavier items across our three boats, which would later be dubbed orange crush, green monster, and the banana boat. Orange crush was gimpy, but bulky and tough, not runty. It floated about 4 inches lower on one side, with its gunwale just above the water, as if it dared the river to enter as it pushed past. I liked crush. It had experience and character. Green monster wasn’t really a monster. The scouts just couldn’t think of another name to go with its color. The monster was steady, reliable, and unassuming. Then there was the banana. Quick and confident, having been named best of the group by the canoe master himself.

beach on the current river

For our first hour on the river, we got comfortable in our boats, becoming familiar with their movement on the water, how they responded to our shifting and leaning, and how they handled sharp turns past downed trees and other obstructions. My ride, the banana, didn’t respond like I expected and we tipped into the river while trying to shoot under a tree that formed a low arch in the water. We lost about a fourth of our food as a result, since it wasn’t water tight. A giant box of minute rice doubled in size, bulging at the sides and top, within minutes. Pasta got soggy. Fortunately, we had about twice as much food as we needed, so no one went hungry.

In the end, everyone would capsize at least once. It was always caused by a downed tree that would knock the canoe off balance, usually going around a bend in the river. All sorts of gear, including sleeping bags and pillows, would get soaked. The biggest challenge was then drying the soaked gear under a cloudy sky and in the humid air. Aside from a t-shirt or hat, what got wet pretty much stayed wet.

The Water

Water is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.
Henry David Thoreau

I love water. I love gulping it, splashing it, surfing it, floating on it, bailing off a cliff or flinging from a swing and crushing through it. I love how it can smoothly separate when broken and then seamlessly reconnect, how it reflects and distorts light, how it looks and sounds as a paddle blade slices through it and pushes off it.

If only I could become water, forgiving but resilient and consistent, fluid but strong and supportive.

Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or creep or drip or crash! Be water, my friend.
Bruce Lee

See my notes on the River Shannon for another ode to agua.

The Current is a special waterway, a diamond in the redneck rough of rural Missouri. Because it is spring-fed, it has none of the murkiness that gives any other river in the Midwest the appearance of swamp drainage. Instead, it’s as clean and clear as snow melt, but warmer and with a slight bluish limestone tint. All the pollution, the stink and muck and gee-ardia, is removed through the process of infiltration, as the water percolates down through the southern Missouri countryside into an unseen aquifer hundreds of feet below the surface, to later emerge, purified, through cracks and caves under and along the banks of the Current.

So, being four days in and on the Current was sublime.

The Caves

Every few miles the forested hills on either side of the river grow into towering limestone bluffs and cliffs. The cliff faces are moist from the groundwater seeping out through their pores, and in a few of them we discovered gaping caverns that led deep into the throat of the crags.

cave on the current river

About 25 miles into the journey, we stopped at Round Spring and took a guided tour of the cavern. Hiking half a mile into the belly of a mountain is a little unnerving, especially when the guide locks the gated entrance behind you, but the tour was well worth the 90 minute of our day. We saw what are assumed to be ancient beds and claw marks of the short-nosed bear, possibly the largest bear to ever roam the earth. We also marveled at an enormous pile of guano, easily 15 feet high, and witnessed thousands of stalactites forming at a rate of 2 millimeters per year.

I have no pictures from Round Spring cave, or anything after day three of our trip, because my phone battery died. So I’ll have to describe my two favorite parts of this trip in words.

The Storms

One evening we set up camp along a straight section of river as a thick thunderstorm formed to our north. We were battening down the hatches when one of the scouts started shouting and pointing upstream. A wall of rain was rushing toward us. The river surface showed a clear distinction between raining and not raining, and the not raining part was shrinking fast.

We waited out the deluge in our tents until the sun had set and the storm had moved to the south. Then, the lightning bugs appeared. I’ve never seen so many at once. The forest all around us was filled with an ethereal and ephemeral new species of tree. Spindly yellow saplings sprouted from the glowing paths of the rising fireflies, and then evaporated into the darkness as others grew in their place.

The lightning bugs must have been inspired by the actual lightning that flashed across the horizon. I’ve also never seen such an electric thunderstorm. The clouds produced a strobe light of lightning, with almost more light than dark. It was magical to watch the bugs with their namesake, dancing together through the same sky.

The day after the lightning rave, we encountered a storm that would stop us in our tracks. It was early Thursday afternoon. The saturated clouds were gradually descending on us as we paddled, first as a light mist, then a light drizzle. When the drizzle turned to rain, the calm turned to wind, and the two seemed to antagonize one another until an all-out brawl started, rain versus wind, with us in the middle. We sprinted to the nearest beach and set up our tents, potentially for the night.

After about ten minutes of fighting the rain was squelched. The wind had won. But it was much stronger and much fiercer now. The edges of our tent started to pull up from the sandy gravel beneath them, with us still inside. Then the tent poles started snapping. The wind was rushing and howling so loudly that we had to shout and wave our arms toward the river to confirm to each other that it was better to be in the boats or in the open than in a torn up pile of tent.

We struck the tents in a matter of seconds, wrapped them crazily into bundles, and stuffed them into totes. But clothes, hats, sleeping bags, backpacks, anything not strapped to a human or a canoe blew away down the beach as the wind increased. It was wild. We quickly formed a huddle to reconsider our decision: go or stay?! Just then we heard the deep, slow cracking of a century-old tree trunk splitting in two. We turned to watch it topple over, crushing everything beneath it. Trees were splintering all around us now. That was our cue.

Looking into the scouts eyes I saw confusion and fear, but, in a frenzy, we finished packing and loading. Sand and gravel pelted us now, as gravity was overpowered and the surface of the beach began to erode into the air. This was now a battle between wind and earth. As people climbed into the canoes, I couldn’t resist stopping for a moment to take it all in. With sand and river spraying my face, I put my hands up and shouted into the storm, frightened but exhilarated. Then, I jumped into orange crush and pushed off into our only refuge, the open water.

swimming in the current river

19 Nov

Gear Review: GI Leather Trigger Finger Mittens

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My first inaugural gear review ended up being more of a eulogy to the greatest pair of shoes I’ve had the privilege of knowing. I’m really going to miss those Rockports. My next pair has some big shoes to fill.

Today I’m moving on to another essential piece of clothing that has already had a big impact on me in the year we’ve been together. At the start of last winter I purchased some GI Leather Trigger Finger Mittens on Amazon for $19.24. I’ve gone through a dozen or so pairs of gloves and mittens over the past ten years, hiking, camping, and biking through the Minnesota and Nebraska winters, and these are hands-down my favorite.

In Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire, an arrogant Klondike explorer nearly freezes to death, alone in the woods, when his fingers ice over so fast in the open air that they wont flex or bend to pick up a match. In a revised version of the story [spoiler alert] only the explorer’s dog, warm and secure in its natural covering, survives without the revitalizing warmth of a fire.

With stiff fingers which he could not bend, he got out a bunch of matches, but found it impossible to separate them. He sat down and awkwardly shuffled the bunch about on his knees, until he got it resting on his palm with the sulphur ends projecting… But his fingers stood straight out. They could not clutch…

The frost had beaten him. His hands were worthless.
To Build a Fire, by Jack London

I think the original is better than London’s second, less juvenile version of the story. But the second version does highlight nicely the strengths and frailties of being human, in contrast to those of being canine. In most cases, human strength dominates. But at sixty below zero, the scale is tipped against us, and our dexterity, which depends on warm blood flow, isn’t effective enough to sustain itself.

Side note: I just learned that our brains are only 2% of our body weight, but use 20% of our oxygen supply and 20% of our blood flow. Wow!

Finger coordination in cold weather is an example of a key tradeoff in evolving from something primitive, like a dog, to having specialized skills, like dexterity and rational thought. Specialized skills make us more reliant on specialized circumstances. As a result, we are less tolerant of adverse conditions. Just as our fingers can now only operate above a certain temperature, our complex economy and way of life can only operate with a certain amount of electricity and fossil fuel. Someday, we might evolve ourselves into a corner where our skills don’t match the conditions.

The solution, as always, is getting back to basics and spending more time outdoors. But I’m getting carried away. Back to mittens.

after the snow campout

I’ve noticed that cold hands are the leading cause of not playing outside in the winter months, second only to cold toes. This is especially true for kids, who have no idea how to keep themselves warm, and whose boots and gloves seem never to fit right. Cold digits, sad kids.

Cold hands have been a problem for me too, especially when camping and biking. My previous mittens were the typical black nylon over some insulation with a thin layer of plastic and a fleece liner. This standard construction works fine for normal winter use, skiing, sledding, and snowball fighting, but it’s not durable or versatile enough for serious cold-weather activities.

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The key to long-lasting winter warmth is layers. You need a strong mitten shell with removable fleece or wool liners. The GI mittens are an affordable, no-nonsense solution. They’ll keep you outside longer, while also demonstrating your disregard for the fancy new-age glove technology and whatnot. Leather palms and drab nylon-something on the outside, with wool inserts, and giant wrist covers. All that’s missing is a Snuvv.

Then he hides what you paid him away in his Snuvv,
his secret strange hole in his gruvvulous glove.
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

Some parting remarks. These mittens have no insulation, aside from the wool liner, so you’ll have to supplement them in some way when it gets Klondike cold. I have fleece liners from another pair of mittens that I wear under the wool insert. My bike commute ranges from 45 to 60 minutes and sometimes gets below 20°F, but the frost hasn’t been a problem yet.

gi leather trigger finger mittens

gi leather trigger finger mittens instructions

gi leather trigger finger mittens instructions

17 Nov

Roadtripping and Camping in Southern Ireland: Part I

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Last year we increased the number of kids in our family by 25%. Our oldest will soon be nine and the rest are spaced about two years apart, so seven, five, three, and one. It’s a lot of kids. Actually, the term a lot doesn’t do them justice. When they’re all together in one place you naturally refer to them with collective nouns that usually apply to animals. They travel as a herd. They eat as a swarm. They talk as a gaggle. If they all swam in the same direction together, they’d be a pod. Otherwise they’re just a horde.

Side note: According to Wikipedia, lots of alligators and magpies are both called congregations; however, a lot of magpies is also called a murder. That’s interesting. I wonder how magpies, and not alligators, earned such an endearing term.

I just realized that there aren’t any words specifically for collections of children. The first one that comes to mind is cacophony. This highlights the most striking characteristic of a lot of kids: consistent, mind-wrenching noise.

Five is a cacophony of kids.
Me, and anyone with a lot of kids

Anyway, five kids take about ten years to create if you have them one at a time, which we did. This means that my wife, Jill, sacrificed most of her twenties to the sorrow of conception. For 520 weeks she was perpetually multiplying and replenishing, growing, birthing, and then nursing babies.

It occurred to me last year that she deserved some kind of recognition or award for her prolific baby-making, something more than the crayon scribbles on construction paper that we call a mother’s day card, something like a trip to the UK, no kids attached, to see her best friend. I promised to make it happen the following summer, after baby five was weaned.

I thought about the logistics of such a trip about as much as I had thought about the logistics of having a horde of kids. So, not very much. But, I figured that minor details like cost, and timing, and who would watch the gaggle, besides me, would work themselves out. When something seems right, I say, go for it. Make it happen. Life is short. And ten years of parenting is cause for celebration.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.
W. B. Yeats

In the end, everything came together like it was meant to be. As this summer approached I was surprised to learn that the next meeting for a project I’m working on would be in Ireland in July. Thus, I excused myself from the sorrows of herding all the cats alone. My parents agreed to step in as zookeepers, bless their hearts. And so, after driving the crew back to California this summer, Jill and I packed our bags for our second vacation without children in ten years of marriage.

This is the first installment of what I can still remember from our camping road trip through the quiet, childless countryside of southern Ireland.

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County Clare

Before the road trip campout with Jill began, I spent a week in County Clare, on the west coast of Ireland. Jill stayed four days in Scotland, with her friend, and then we met up in Dublin for our grand giro.

For most of my first week I was in meetings. But during any free time I quickly went into tourist mode. I walked the streets, saying halloo! and howya? to everyone and taking pictures of things that are totally normal for Irish people but fascinating for a curious American, like plants growing out of chimneys.

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My first observation of County Clare was that plants grow everywhere. This proved to be true for all the other counties too. Plants seem to thrive on any surface, including vertical and overhanging ones. Even rolling stones gather moss. In contrast, Nebraska plants grow wherever you put them, but you have to put them there first, and they at least need some damp soil and a little sunlight, the standard plant diet.

But Irish plants just propagate. They multiply and replenish, even in dense shade, or shallow soil, or chimney soot. I actually saw two shrubs growing from different chimneys in County Clare. It was fascinating. Did someone plant them there? A disgruntled woodland fairy, maybe? I don’t have an answer.

ireland plant tunnel

My second observation as I toured the streets and countryside of County Clare was that everything is made of stone. Houses, paths, walls, and bridges are all stone, and in some shade of grey. It’s like there’s a surplus of stone, and they don’t know what to do with it, so they keep making paths and buildings, and then stacking stone walls around them. Like the plants, this also continued for the rest of our trip. In Glendalough, southeastern Ireland, we stopped at an old village where all the buildings have vaulted, gabled stone roofs. No joists or beams, no flying buttresses. Just stone. And some pixie dust, of course.

ireland stone gabled roof

Killaloe

I stayed at the Lakeside Inn in Killaloe, a village about 20 kilometers north of Limerick on the River Shannon. In Ireland, the names of places always come after the thing that they’re naming. So, it’s the River Shannon in County Clare, instead of the Shannon River in Clare County. I’m not sure why they flip it around. It does sound more Irish this way.

I was reading recently about how some people are genuinely obsessed with the earth and all things outdoors. It’s called biophilia. Two episodes from my week in and around Killaloe confirm that I’m a complete biophile.

First, I had an incessant urge to swim in the river. This happens anytime I’m near open water. I’m drawn to it like a baby to a flame or to something fragile. Until I get my fix, I have a hard time focusing on anything else.

One night, we had dinner on a patio overlooking the river. Everything was fine until a group of local lads started jumping in from the stone bridge. It looked really fun. The bridge was about 20 feet high, perfect for diving and flipping. If only I had an excuse to join them. Unfortunately, no one needed rescuing, and no one dared me to go, so I just had to suffer, clothed and dry, while my land-loving colleagues finished their meals.

I swam the River Shannon the next day, in the 15 minutes after our meetings ended and before we met again for dinner. It was awesome. The water was cold and dark, with a reddish tint that reminded me of the River St. Croix, in State Minnesota, which is silted with iron and tastes a little like blood. Besides the color, everything else was new, from the smell of the river air to the consistency of the water itself. Long slimy leaves from unfamiliar river plants slithered past me like eels on their way to the Atlantic. Tall stone retaining walls on either side made the river feel like an ancient castle moat. And the tint of the water made it look more like ale. Overall, swimming in the Shannon felt very Irish.

Swimming is such an immersive experience. It connects you in an instant with the essence of a place. In a hot tub or jacuzzi, for example, you’re immersed in a bubbly soup of human microbes containing the essence of all the other people who join you, and those who dunked themselves before you. It’s sort of gross if you think about it. In a river, you’re immersed in a vast, complex flow of animal, plant, and mineral life. It’s not just a few other people staying in the same hotel as you. It’s everything that the rain touches. Limestone particles from a mountain stream mix with the starchy runoff from a potato farm and the organic runoff from pastureland and open countryside. These combine with the runoff from city streets, over rooftops, through gutters, and down storm drains, to form the one thing that contains a piece of every place. As a result, when you jump into a river, you jump into the essence of everything.

What I love most about rivers is, you can’t step in the same river twice. The water’s always changing, always flowing.
Pocahontas

I also had an incessant urge to explore the nearby mountains. A lad named Fergal who worked at the hotel recommended Ballycuggaran, about a mile north of the village. To save some time, I took a taxi to the trailhead right after my meetings ended.

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From the trailhead, I followed a dirt and gravel path west, climbing slowly to the top of Feenlea Mountain, and then crossed east along the ridge of Feenlea in an attempt to shortcut my way back to the “You Are Here.” After sliding about fifty feet down a slope of thick ferns, I ended up having to crush my way through endless head-high overgrowth. Occasionally, and unexpectedly, I’d slip down ten feet through something thorny that would thrash my shins and arms. In the end, I was dripping with blood, both mine and the plants’. It was stupid, but exhilarating.

Before I became a blood-brother with the Ballycuggaran flora, I also bonded with some of the local fauna. First, I stumbled upon a herd of sheep, lazing and grazing on the slopes of Feenlea. Then, a few minutes later I found myself directly above a family of foxes. Very awesome. And very Irish.

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Swimming and hiking were the highlights of my week in Killaloe. I did get some work done too, and I had some great food, and met some “really coo” people (that’s how they pronounce “cool”). On Saturday morning, having bid my colleagues farewell, I rented a tiny, stick-shift Opel and started an entirely different experience – nine days of driving on the wrong side of the road. More to come.

12 Nov

My First Gear Review: Anonymous Rockport Hiking Shoes

rockport hiking shoe review

I started this blog about five years ago, with the goal of encouraging people to make babies and take them camping. My family and the earth are two of my favorite things, along with raindrops on roses and cream colored ponies. I also love good gear. However, I enjoy spending money on gear, or on anything, about as much as I enjoy a bee sting or a dog bite. My frugality has lead to a blog about family matters and the outdoors that is devoid of gear reviews.

People who buy things are suckers.
Ron Swanson, after forging a wedding band from a sconce

I’ve always been uncomfortable spending money, even in insignificant amounts. I especially dislike spending money on complex, state-of-the-art technology that’s intended to help me connect with a simple, natural world. Good gear is basic and essential. It’s a means to an end. It’s not flashy or distracting, or the reason you go outside. In the end, good gear isn’t purchased often.

Thoreau warned in Walden, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. Along these lines, I would add, beware of all gear that you didn’t know you needed until you saw it.

That said, an enterprise can’t happen without reliable footwear. When a person isn’t wearing shoes, you know they aren’t going on any serious outdoor adventure.

Two standing orders in this platoon. One, take good care of your feet. Two, try not to do anything stupid, like gettin’ yourself killed.
Lieutenant Dan, shirtless but not shoeless, to Forrest and Bubba

About ten years ago, while browsing the clearance section at a store called Ross in northern California, I found some hiking shoes that would become my feet’s most loyal friend: the Anonymous Rockports. They’re anonymous because I’ve never known their given name, and I’ve never been able to find another pair like them. All I know is that they’re Rockports, with Vibram soles, and the tag claimed that they were waterproof.

rockports at work

Since that fateful day ten years ago, these shoes have taken a beating across all types of terrain, in sunny and severe, dry, wet, and freezing conditions, without complaint. For most of their life, they were fully weatherproof, four-season hiking shoes. They were also light, flexible, and surprisingly breathable given their thick skin. Overall, my feet have been happy.

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rockport hiking shoe review front

Now, my feet are sad, as winter is here and my Rockports have finally succumbed. The toe has torn open, rendering them useless for anything involving even a small amount of moisture. RIP, Anonymous Rockports.

29 Aug

Platte River State Park, Nebraska

Platte river cabin

This spring we spent two nights at the luxurious Platte River State Park, which sits about 15 minutes off highway 80, halfway between Lincoln and Omaha. The trip was definitely a new experience for me. Although I grew up camping in an RV, and had a great time, for the past ten years our campouts have been as primitive as possible. Sometimes there’s running water and some form of outhouse. But, ideally, it’s just us and the woods. Some people call this “primitive” or “backcountry” camping. I just call it camping. Anything else is glamping.

Platte River State Park is glamping. It has the unassuming woods, plus everything else you might have left at home because you aren’t supposed to have it while camping. We rented what they call “modern” cabins. In addition to four walls, a roof, and a floor, which is already excessive, the modern cabins are furnished with real beds, carpeting, and soft things to sit on, like couches and chairs. You can store your mess kit in the kitchen cupboards, next to the actual cookware. And you can put your baggie of toilet paper rolled up in a rubber band on the shelf in the actual bathroom, next to the porcelain toilet.

The flat-screen TV took the experience from slightly awkward to offensive, from weird to wrong, from questionable to blatantly unethical. Adding a TV to camping is like “enhancing” your water with artificial sweeteners and flavoring. I like a little sugar in my water. But you can’t enhance water, just like you can’t enhance mother nature. They’re already perfect. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re still drinking water.

That said, we did have a great time. We shared two adjoining cabins (called Chokecherry) with two other families. This put us slightly way over the recommended occupancy, with six adults and thirteen kids. But that was part of the fun. Also, the cabins were right on a pond, and our canoe was the only craft to tread the water. And we found some decent hiking nearby, with noteworthy changes in elevation. We spent an afternoon walking down to the humble Platte River, which is more of a really wide creek, and were surprised to find a waterfall along the way. Nothing grandiose, but still an nice getaway with family and friends.

Next time we might try the modest “camper cabins,” which only have a fridge and beds, in addition to the walls and roof. It’s still glamping, but slightly less glamorous.

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