Bald Eagle Map: My Canoe 50 Campaign


Lake McDonald, Glacier NP, Montana

Ben Franklin wasn’t a fan of the bald eagle; he called them “rank cowards” and believed the eagle to be “a bird of bad moral character.” Franklin thought, comparatively, that the turkey would be a better Seal for our nation. While I enjoy the goofy, bobbing, gobbling exploits of the American Turkey as much as the next man, I’m glad Ben’s contemporaries chose the Bald Eagle.

Most images I see of them — on bumper stickers, cable news networks, plaster gas station figurines — induce a laugh, a cringe or a sigh. Of course, the eagle can’t help it that we’ve reduced its image to a corny spectacle (unfortunately, bird law doesn’t allow for them to sue for improper use of their likeness). Alas.


Green Lake, Wisconsin

But Franklin’s views and our co-opting aside, eagles remain impressive animals to behold. Almost as impressive is that we can still see them in the wild. During the first 6 decades of the 20th century, the bald eagle’s population plummeted. Despite being engraved on our quarter, appearing on all things patriotic and legal protection, Americans shot them out of the sky (along with other raptors) at a feverish clip. However, the most substantial declines were probably due to pesticides, like the infamous DDT, banned in 1972.

Populations have since rebounded and the bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List in 1995. While they still face an array of threats, their story is good news in a field that needs it.

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Juvenile on the Chatanika River, Alaska

During my Canoe50 Campaign of 2017, I knew I’d see some in states like Colorado, Alaska and Maine. But, I also saw eagles in places I didn’t expect, like Delaware and Nebraska. By the end of my trip, I’d spotted wild bald eagles in 20 of the 50 states — a figure that would have been extremely unlikely, if not impossible, if I’d taken the same trip in 1967.


Near the mouth of the Mispillion River, Delaware

There were many places (like Florida and Oregon) where I didn’t see them, but easily could have. So, this is far from scientific. Nevertheless, my chance encounters give a little insight into the conservation success and incredible rebound of America’s sexiest bird (voted on by the Audubon Society for a third year in a row (okay, I made that up, but it’s an idea)). Below — the states where I saw eagles.BaldEagleCanoe50

See this Audubon link for a more on eagle stats and history. More importantly, go out and spot one for yourself. I promise it will beat the gas station statue.

More from the canoe trip to come! (Best wildlife shots, the GRAND animal list, real route map, 50 States 50 Photos: my favorite pic from each state, etc.).

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The Final Float! Canoeing the Rio Grande, New Mexico

DSC_1050 “We will be nearly finished, I think, when we stop understanding the old pull towards green things and living things, toward dirt and rain and heat and what they spawn.” — John Graves

State #50/50: Caught between seasons, my Dad, Uncle and I stood on the banks of the Rio Grande. The dying glow of autumn leaves beamed from the riversides while large summer-like thunderheads billowed and grew and grumbled above the gorge’s 700-foot walls. A fuzzy tarantula scurried upon sun-warmed stones, away from our shadows. This is still summer, I decided. Russell watched from shore as Dad and I launched into the flowing water, into my final float.DSC_1042

The Rio Grande is quite a river that, I’m afraid, we’ve made quite a mess of with dams, water depletion and water pollution (name something that shouldn’t be in water and it’s in the Rio Grande). After cutting through mountains, deserts and canyons, it now barely reaches the Gulf of Mexico, petering out into a muddy ditch between two nations. Hardly a glorious end for a grand river. And yet…

This river still commands the scenes it travels through. It’s commanded my attention since I was a boy, wading across the Big Bend, feet sinking into the slick warm mud. In college I paddled through Boquillas Canyon with my brothers and cousin Wesley. We spent four days floating the borderlands and sleeping under the star-laden skies. One night, for the hell of it, we held an elaborate sandbar ceremony, complete with makeshift torches and nonsensical chanting. The bonfire cast yellow light on our half-naked bodies, decorated in dead plants and river-trash, as we danced to the beat of an overturned canoe. The river had no choice but to watch.RioGrande2006

The next day the Rio Grande put on her own display, albeit with more subtlety. We stood on a rocky ledge hundreds of feet high. An enormous gulf of open air hung silent and still between the mammoth walls of stone, above the brown string of water. Tiny green canoes passed beneath us, minor details amid a sprawling canyon. She made her point.DSC_0021 copy

DSC_1082A decade later and hundreds of miles upstream, the Rio Grande maintains its dominating presence, filling the gap of a failed rift valley, dividing two lava-rock rimmed plateaus. The turbid Rocky Mountain runoff carried Dad and I along lengthy slow stretches separated by runs of tidy chutes and swift rapids. During the lulls, we watched the edge of a storm skirt the canyon, hesitant to cross the great divide. Upstream, a massive cell developed over the unseen mountains near Taos, framed by the v of the valley.

DSC_0024 copyWe passed mahogany cliffs, orange oaks and crimson creeper vines. Then Dad noticed something in the bushes, downstream. “Hey, there’s Russell!” And there he was — waiting in the shrubbery beside a rapid, camera in hand, prepared to capture every detail of the disaster. We jostled through a class II, white bits splashing up from the brown, but didn’t give my uncle the satisfaction of a good swamp.DSC_1057

Beyond, the flow slowed to a stroll and the valley walls drew closer, bringing the dark basalt boulders and stunted junipers into fine view. I scanned the slope for a particular animal. It paid off. “Dad, zoom in on the left, a hundred feet up, something white.” He saw it too and his photos confirmed — a Bighorn Sheep!DSC_1072

As we admired the young ram, a much smaller creature appeared much closer. Grasping leafy greens beneath its whiskers, a muskrat executed the joyful toils of the world’s most adorable swimming rat (with nutrias coming in a distant last). Oh, that old pull.DSC_1078 (1)

A few miles downstream, Russell reappeared along the banks of a campground. We landed, claimed a site beneath a large cottonwood and devoured a picnic lunch. Afterwards, we fanned out across the gorge’s west-facing slope. Though not the wisest, we separated and bushwhacked at our own pace, picking our way up loose gravel, scrambling skywards with no real goal.

DSC_1126I hadn’t intended to reach the top, but soon noticed a climbable gap to the summit. I crept up, boots sliding on the unstable ground, hands grabbing warmed igneous rocks and juniper snags until I pulled myself up on the rim. A flatland of sagebrush stretched eastward, interrupted only by a ranch house, then terminating at the foot of a low, forested mountain.

Then turn around…

The green string of the Rio Grande snaked the course of the canyon before vanishing in a blinding glimmer. Directly below, the campsite, the cars and the drying, overturned canoe locked to the fire pit were tiny and remote. The opposing canyon side was strewn with rockslides and sizable boulders, pausing on their downward journey. Living things grew where they could. A volcanic peak on the plateau, half shaded by clouds, broke the horizon. Like many views out west, you could stare for hours. An endless study of detail.DSC_1107

DSC_1120A golden eagle, riding the mid-afternoon thermals, flew along the cliff edge. Moments later, an osprey soared past on the same line. I scanned the valley for my family — a live action Where’s Waldo? of the Southwest — and found Dad a few hundred feet down. He sat atop a large rock, legs spread like a toddler in a highchair, enjoying his own bird’s-eye view. A minute later I located my Uncle, side-stepping his way down with a blue trekking pole. The scroll, as usual, remained lost. I took in one last grand view of the empty air and left the raptor flightpath to returned to my kin.

DSC_1173Back at camp we cracked open beers, set up our tents and watched another storm pass us by, thundering all the way. The sun dropped. Still warm, still more summer than fall. Rich colors lit the rock faces and the sky grew golden as the clouds absorbed the evening. Eagles, distant and dark, glided above the far off reaches of the gorge.

With beers in hand, we walked along the road until we overlooked the sky in the flowing water below. The junipers and the rocks dimmed and dulled, but the yellow-greens of the banks continued to glow in the fading light.

I spotted something swimming downstream. As it emerged from the water, a massive mammal took shape on the sandbar. “It’s a bear!” Uncle Russell shouted. For a moment, I believed him. But, it was just the biggest damn beaver I’d ever seen. We laughed, maybe too much; the beer was working.DSC_1181

DSC_1174Bats replaced the birds as I lit a fire at camp. We grilled sausages and watched the stars and planets appear between the clouds. A near-full moon rose from the southeast, radiating soft, white light upon the cliffs. I pulled out my guitar. Russell and I took turns strumming. He played M.T.A., a 1960’s Kingston Trio tune, and we all sang along, laughing about the fate of poor old Charlie. “Well, did he ever returned? No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned…” What an absurd, wonderful song.

The next morning, a blanket of gray drizzle ushered in autumn; the Summer of ’17 was over. Yet, we still had one more stretch to paddle and that last morning of my Canoe50 Campaign was no lazy jaunt to the finish line, no smooth falling action preceding the credits. The Rio Grande demanded our respect and attention to the last stroke and we gave it.DSC_0077thumbnail-8

Rapids, churning cold water, poured over the gunnels, forcing Dad and I to stop and dump the canoe. On the last quarter mile, a busted down dam led into an extensive run of whitewater that, if done wrong, could spell a flip. I steered us right, shooting down little haystacks and bumping over rocks. Dad called out directions while I dropped to my knees. The swift current kept up as we cut across the channel, navigating the river at a thrilling rate.thumbnail-3thumbnail-1thumbnail

The fall colors and widening valley blurred by our periphery. We flew into one last swift shoot, rocking over standing waves. Then the Rio deposited us into a calmer channel. We looked up and spotted Uncle Russell at the landing. I ran Rider aground, hopped onto the shore, steadied the boat and Dad followed. State #50, complete.

We all took photos, shook hands and hugged. What I began with my Dad in March, I finished with him in October — with 23,000 road miles, 500 canoe miles, 48 states and 6 months in between.

Drizzle turned to rain, spattering the bottom of my canoe, as I fastened it atop the roof rack. Feeling obligated to perform one last meaningful gesture, but lacking any good ideas, I walked to the riverside where I cupped water in my hands, tossed it skyward and let the globs rain down upon me. Satisfied, I got in my car and we drove out of the canyon, heading eastbound to Texas, heading towards the horizon, heading home.

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River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Rio Grande, New Mexico
  • Dates Canoed: 10-4/5-2017
  • Weather: Sunny with highs 70’s to overcast, rain and isolated thunderstorms. Lows in the upper 50s.
  • Miles Canoed: 6.5
  • Launch Point: Public Landing at highway 576 (36.33562, -105.733752)
  • Campsite: Petaca Campground, (36.307167, -105.767146)
  • Takeout Point: State Road Public Launch on SR 68 (36.266209, -105.794595)
  • Elevation: 6075-6010 Feet Above Sea Level
  • Big Thanks to Dad and Uncle Russell! They arrived the day before, while I wound my way down through the Colorado Rockies, and spent the day visiting BLM offices and discovering our original plan wasn’t viable. Yet, by the time I arrived, the evening before the float, they had found the stretch and camping. Quite a final float as it turned out. Additionally, they put me in up in a hotel 2 nights, bought dinners and provided some pictures I used above!
  • Songs Sung on River: I’ve been Everywhere by Johnny Cash, Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty, M.T.A. by the Kingston Trio (sung by Russell on guitar).
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep!, muskrat, beaver, ground squirrel and bats
  • A few dozen Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were released into the Rio Grande Gorge in 2006-2007. They have multiplied to a population of approximately 280 in 10 years. Well done sheep!
  • Birds: Golden Eagle, Bald Eagle, Osprey, Red tail hawk, raven, flicker, kingfisher, mallard, American Widgeon, Canada geese, magpie, shoveler, great blue heron and various song birds.
  • Spiders: Tarantula!
  • Noted Species: Mountain lion and Bighorn Sheep
  • Ecoregion: Arizona/New Mexico Plateau (22f), Taos Plateau
  • Trash Collected: aluminum cans (beer/soda), food scraps, rope, cigarette butts, tiny liquor bottle, plastic bag and bits of micro trash
  • Current Threats: Dams, irrigation diversion, pollutants. Water extraction due to agriculture and domestic water uses is made worse by frequent droughts and invasive species (like salt cedar). Currently the portion we canoed is in the southern extent of the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument (as of 2013). It is now endangered of losing that protection and getting the entire protected area shrunk by the Trump Administration.
  • More information on the Rio Grande and current threats from American Rivers.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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The River Mutes the World: Canoeing the Gunnison, Colorado

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Autumn skies threaten in Utah

(State #49/50) I spent May and early June trying to shake a raw Northeastern spring. Finally, somewhere in Connecticut, I found summer. For months after, long warm days only proceeded more of the same. Then September arrived. Lingering rains soon eclipsed the more pleasant features of the season. With autumn nipping at my stern, I fled into the desert Southwest. But there was just no escaping fall. She caught me in earnest by October 1st on the Western Slope of Colorado, beside the banks of the Gunnison.

DSC_0853With my endless summer ending in a hurry, so were the favorable conditions for my last solo canoe. Driving to scout the river outside Grand Junction, gray clouds shrouded the sky, dispersing dim, even light over an otherwise striking landscape. The day grew colder when I saw a man wandering around his unkempt lawn with an older model assault rifle — any gun with a clip as long as my forearm, no matter what you call it, creeps me out in the hands of a civilian. I shimmied lower in the driver’s seat, applied the gas and drove on to the river.

The water at the put-in ran swift and muddy as I began the float. To the right, a Union Pacific rail paralleled the river below an exposed rock canyon wall. An undulating, sprawling valley ranged out to my left where dry stream-beds split the juniper-covered hills. The low sky, on the verge of brooding, gave little color to the brown waters beneath my paddle.DSC_0897 (1)DSC_0862

Wildlife, however, didn’t give a damn about the dreariness. Eagles, tons of eagles, soared above the bare-stone bluffs and sat atop the sandstone ridges. Both bald and golden dominated the high points, keeping all manner of smaller birds and scurrying furry things close to their river thickets and boulder burrows.DSC_0856

DSC_0866For half an hour the current carved its way between steep stone faces and red rock overhangs where cliff swallows built their river-mud hives. The canyon narrowed as the Gunnison swept against sheer red walls, flowing fast and creating standing waves. I dropped to my knees in a few sections, not wanting to even run the risk of swamping. In calm stretches I scanned the ridges for the desert big horns, hoping their white butts would betray them, but saw only boulders.DSC_0889 (1)

At five o’clock I opened a beer. Mother Nature did not approve — the wind kicked up from the west and blew headlong. If I took a moment off steering, the gusts would turn Rider around 180 degrees. Several times I had to wait for a lull to right the canoe and point her downstream. Frustrated and out of productive ideas, I cursed into the blowing, roaring void.DSC_0874 (1)

DSC_0895 (1)Finally, a campsite appeared below two large cottonwoods. A natural shelterbelt shielded the campground from the October nastiness. I erected my tent, put a fire pan in place and lit one up. As night fell, a light beam lit up the rocks on the other side of the canyon. The loudening churn of metal on metal crescendoed, cutting through the wind in the cottonwood trees, as the Union Pacific approached. Sitting by the fire, I watched as the freight train lumbered along, squeaking and chugging up the canyon until out of sight. What is this, 1869?

DSC_0900Once the eerie beam of the engine had disappeared down the tracks, my campfire was the only light around. There were no stars or moon that night. Darkness shrouded all else — the flowing water, the eroding outcrops above the stark canyon walls and coyotes hunting out on the rolling plateau. Alone but not lonely, I sat by a crackling, popping, warming fire, eating car-trunk pasta and drinking a poor excuse for a Rocky Mountain Bulldog.

The next morning gray skies spit light rain, pattering the top of the tent. The constant drizzle continued for hours and my mood mirrored the weather. This was the fall I dread. I boiled water for coffee and fried up a makeshift burrito. Ah, the restoring power of a warm breakfast and hot, instant coffee.DSC_0914

Autumn’s gloomy grip lessened as I walked up the trickling creek to the hills above camp. Low clouds hung on the ridges to the west. Junipers, pinyons and  yuccas peppered the rolling landscape covered in yellow bunch grasses. Glancing down, I noticed flecks of colorful chert and volcanic glass — the unmistakable signs of knapping. I spent an hour wandering, head down, looking for arrowheads. For me, the activity is equal parts treasure hunting, equal parts meditation — noticing minute details, studying the ground, DSC_0906 (1)searching more for color than shape while screening out all the world in the name of pure focus. I found one great looking point, which I was tempted to pocket, but it was federal land, an ancient artifact and it wasn’t mine. Besides, it would wind up in a box in a closet anyways, so I placed it back where I found it, tucked under the damp branches of sage.DSC_0913

I got a late start with six miles left to canoe before the real adventure — a sixteen-mile journey back to my car. The rain ceased, but the temperature fell as Rider carried me down the high-flowing Gunnison.

DSC_0917 (1)Fall seemed poised to give way to winter as I reached the takeout. The clouds clearing from the mesas to the north revealed a fresh silver coat of snow and ice. I locked my canoe to a pillar of a train bridge, kept my lifejacket on and started jogging. After a few miles my path became a four-lane highway. I walked backwards, smiling and pointing a finger out and down as fifty cars and trucks blew past. I couldn’t blame them; U.S. Route 50 is a busy stretch of highway where even I wouldn’t pick me up.DSC_0944 (1)

HitchCoAfter calculating the hours of light left, I turned and resumed running with my finger pointed to the side. Moments later, a white, duel-wheeled pickup pulled onto the shoulder. I jogged up, took one look inside the cab and climbed aboard. “Looked like you were in a hurry,” the driver, Chuck, said. Eleven miles down, the friendly roughneck from Arkansas dropped me at Bridgeport Road, un-murdered. Prepared to do sixteen, the three miles left were a breeze.

Deciding I’d best tell people I was alive, I turned on my phone to find several texts about Tom Petty’s death. I called my Mom. “Did you hear the horrible news?” she asked. “Yeah, I can’t believe Tom Petty died!” I responded. “Tom Petty? What are you talking about?” Then Mom told me about the shooter in Las Vegas, the 500 people injured and 58 killed. And just like that, with the push of a button, the greater world, almost always the worst of it, leaks out into nature.

As on most of my paddles, I had a 24-hour respite from any and all news. While the country consumed the horrific events of October 1st, I sat by a campfire, watching a train creek along a river, listening to the chirp of bats over the Gunnison’s river song while trying, in vain, to recall all the lyrics to Neil Sedaka’s “Calendar Girl.” I’d have the next day, weeks and months to think about all facets of one of the worst mass shootings in US history. But on that night, my largest concerns were of the elements and the inevitable creep of autumn. Free of the modern information onslaught, I ruminated in thoughts of my own choosing.

Indeed, nature’s ability to mute the greater world and shrink outside distractions is incredible. It’s one of many undervalued benefits of the outdoors. I still revel in those empty spaces on the cell phone coverage maps, while network providers and the general public celebrate the closing of those frontiers as pure progress. Progress, yes. But progressing to what?

When staring at a screen to check emails and read headlines instead of staring into a campfire becomes commonplace in the wilderness, we’ll lose the goodness, the pureness of being alone in nature. It shouldn’t take Tom Petty dying and a killing spree to bring this point into focus, but that’s exactly what happened after one cold fall canoe in Colorado.

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Gunnison River, Colorado
  • Dates Canoed: 10/1-2/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 12
  • Weather: Overcast, windy to cold and rainy. Highs from low 60’s dropping to high 30’s.
  • Put in: Dominguez Canyon Trailhead off Bridgeport Road (38.849303, -108.373054)
  • Campsite: Sheep Haven Campsite: (38.908686, -108.451235)
  • Takeout: Whitewater Boat Ramp (38.971273, -108.45459)
  • Songs Sung on River: Calendar Girl by Neil Sedaka, Rocky Mountain High by John Denver, Tell Me Why by Neil Young and Cold and Lonely by Slaid Cleaves
  • Books to Read: Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Shelly Turkle
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Bald Eagle, Golden eagle, raven, magpie, songbirds, swallow, flicker, great blue heron, ducks
  • Mammals: River otter! Bats
  • Noted Species: Mountain lion and desert bighorn sheep
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus (20b), Shale Deserts and Sedimentary Basins and (20c), Semi Arid Benchlands and Canyonlands.
  • Trash Collected: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, styrofoam cup and micro trash at camp
  • Current Threats: Potential diversion of waters to Front Range sprawl, salt cedar and other invasive species. Check out this American Rivers article on the Gunnison River’s past and future.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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The Green River Crawl: Canoeing Utah!

DSC_0679 (1)(State #48/50) Across the mesa and through the arid grasslands, I traveled before halting at the edge of a cliff. Beneath my wheels, a red clay road zigzagged down, coursing the steep walls of the canyon as it descended eight-hundred feet to the Green River. Recent rains left the narrow switchbacks slick and there were no guardrails to forgive a momentary distraction. I creaked down Mineral Bottom Road with uncharacteristic caution, both sweaty palms wrapped around the wheel and my vision fixed on the wet surface before me. That morning my car had passed the 22,000 mile point of my canoe trip and there was no contest — this was the most butt-clinchingly scary road I’d encountered.

In 1974 my Mom rafted down a technical stretch of the Green with her best friend, Diane. The young ladies were escorted by a collection of what were surely buff, tan, tiny-shorted, pot-smoking outfitters. According to her, they’d met them the previous winter… at a bar… in Vail. All together, ingredients for stories involving one’s Mother that you hope to never hear. Still, I pried a bit.

They were smoking dope, which worried me a little, but they were excellent on the water,” my Mom explained. “Once we were going so fast towards this wall. I thought we were going to die, then they turned at the last second. Oh! And I had a crush on one of the guys,” Mom continued to my unease, “but he brought another girl along.” Thank God. Not only did this other girl reduce the awkward story potential, but she also helped ensure my future existence.

04RoadtripVanMy first visit to the area came thirty summer’s later when, in 2004, three friends and I embarked on a high school graduation road trip. We broke down in Arches NP on our first day in Utah. Waiting on van repairs, we slept one night under a gazebo in Moab’s city park… with a drifter… until the sprinklers came on at four a.m. The next day we hitch-hiked to HitchHikeUTArches in the bed of a truck driven by a long-haired fellow named Mark. Afterwards, he deposited us at the Lazy Lizard Hostel at the edge of town. Mark, being a righteous dude, bought us some cheap beer and wine coolers, much of which ended up, along with the night’s dinner, on the ground outside our cabin. Those few days had to be the best of the entire trip.BreakdownUT2

Arriving in Moab in 2017, I stopped at the Lazy Lizard out of curiosity and nostalgia. As always, the communal room buzzed with an assortment of old hippies, seasonal workers and Europeans. It’s the sort of atmosphere where someone might start reading poetry aloud or turn the contents of the free food bin into chicken potpies for all to enjoy. I’ve witnessed both. That night, one drink turned into many and I found myself wandering into town, coerced by a group of rowdy young lads. After an impulsive stop for tacos, the journey ended in an empty, lifeless bar. It was anticlimactic, but at least no one puked up red wine coolers.

DSC_0710 (1)The next day, after negotiating the treacherous canyon road, I caught my first glimpse of the Green River — brown water flowing beyond a verdant thicket. I launched on a chilly, cloudy afternoon and immediately understood traveling up the Green would be more difficult than the Colorado. I canoed across the river to an inside turn, where I assumed the current would be slower. It wasn’t. Against a bank thick with salt cedar and willow, I struggled at a one-mph pace, unable to take a break. My pores leaked cheap beer as I crawled up the river, between the towering tan walls of Labyrinth Canyon.

This muddy river was channelized, lacking sandbars, with little difference in flow rate between the inside and outside bends. I hunted for eddies behind boulders where I’d build up momentum to pass over the swift water pouring around the obstruction. I’d stroke at the current with little resistance, almost stalling before creeping into the next slow portion. On and on, this repeated.DSC_0721 (2)

To make matters more irritating, I passed multitudes of happy down-streamers. “You’re going the wrong way!” Every. Single. Group of floaters shouted as they paddled with ease by me. We all had a good laugh until, about the fifth time, I pulled out my six-inch knife and repeatedly punctured one of the rafts. The occupants fled overboard as their watercraft went limp and submerged. “Anymore knee jerkers?” I asked the wide-eyed, ashen-faced members of the sister vessels. “Didn’t think so,” I said before wiping my nose with my arm still gripping the open blade. Then I let the knife drop to the bottom of my canoe and continued paddling up river, the right way.

DSC_0702 (1)Dark fantasies behind me, I pulled Rider onto a muddy sandbar at the mouth of Hell Roaring Canyon. I walked up the arroyo to stare at an etching of a boat, a faint eyeball with wings and the script “D. Julien, 1836.” A French-American fur-trapper, Denis Julien was the first European of record to enter this land. He was white and traveled up stream, but that’s where our similarities end. Julien entered this unexplored canyon unsupported and alone nearly 200 years ago — I can only imagine. And there I was, muttering about my difficulties in a boat filled with a GPS enabled phone, computer, butane stove, synthetic tent and supermarket fried chicken.DSC_0716

DSC_0733The clouds broke and the warm colors of Labyrinth Canyon deepened as I made camp above the river. Tall grass, long-needled prickly pear, sage brush and fruiting persimmon bushes occupied the flat shelf around my tent. A boulder field of decaying canyon wall lay thirty feet away at the base of the mighty cliff. Beer in hand, I took pictures before stepping on a cactus; two-inch white thorns went strait through my sole. I hobbled back to grab another beer and preformed an evening tweezer surgery.

Bats chirped and the mosquitoes turned to prey as the first stars appeared behind the clearing, high autumn sky. The ceiling dimmed westward, color drained from the landscape and the canyon walls went dark. With no fire,* I fled from the chill and went to bed.DSC_0728

DSC_0779 copyThe next morning, I canoed up to Horseshoe Canyon, landed my boat and trudged through a jungle corridor. Sun-cracked clay, saltbush and tumble weeds met me on the other side of the thicket where I found the petroglyphs carved by the Fremont Culture (500–1275 A.D.). There were herds of bighorn sheep, antlered deer, dogs and people. I tried to imagine the artist carving them. Perhaps for spiritual purposes. Perhaps out of boredom. Perhaps to take advantage of the shade and breeze on a stifling day. What I do know is that these petroglyphs have survived a thousand baking summers and a thousand freezing winters. They’ve withstood the Spanish explorers, the French trappers and, so far, the Americans. If they can make it through the Trump presidency I’d say they’ll have a real shot at another millennia.**DSC_0797

DSC_0802After the easy paddle down, I pulled off the river, got in the car and drove towards the great switchbacks. Movement on the cliffs above interrupted my thoughts of a hot meal in town. I looked up through my windshield as a man stepped off a ledge and onto a line. I stopped and exited my vehicle to gawk in silence. Arms spread, feet shifting back and forth with the slack line, the man took one careful step at a time. He maneuvered for balance, walking hundreds of feet above the empty desert air. I remained quiet, fearing any noise might cause him to lose concentration and, well, I wasn’t that desperate for his wallet. Eventually, he reached the far side totally unaware of his one-man audience. Satisfied with my key role in his safety, I patted the upside-down canoe, got back in the car and drove up the steep, red road and out of the canyon. Across the plateau and through the high grasslands, I traveled onwards to Moab, which, in my experience, is never a bad direction to head.DSC_0816

*Before beginning my paddle, I spoke to a ranger at the Mineral Bottom launch. He was friendly, but went over my signed BLM permit with me and pointed out the many ways I was not in compliance. Like many legal documents, I signed without reading the form. He knew I was honest in my ignorance and let me go, making me swear I wouldn’t make a fire without the required fire pan (fire scars can and do last generations in the Southwest and other environments). I was also supposed to have a throwable floatation device, as required by Utah State law. He seemed less concerned with this one as I didn’t have another passenger to rescue. Finally, the rangers gave me an extra wag bag, for crap, as there are no pit toilets on the Green River in that section. With all of the floaters, they don’t want the river turning into an open sewer. All made a lot of sense and it was a bit embarrassing as I am no stranger to canoeing and various restrictions and rules. Still, it goes to show, there’s always more to learn. I’d say always read everything you sign, but let’s be realistic. Just always be sure to ask about special restrictions and research must-haves for any float.

**The Trump Administration recently reduced the area of two National Monuments in the State of Utah. The President cut Bears Ears by approximately 85% and Grand Staircase-Escalante by around 45%. Western land use and ownership, especially when it comes to the US Government, will always be a contentious issue. Many praise the decision as reigning in federal overreach while others scorn the decision, arguing that it will open up the land to development and exploitation. It’s complicated.

I bring it up because much of the nearly two million acres, which Trump de-monument-ified (let’s pretend that’s a word), contains a vast array of petroglyphs (like the ones I saw) and historical artifacts from the Fremont People and other ancient cultures.

Personally, I love American public land and how could I not? Public lands allowed me camp, hike, explore, canoe, often for free, all around this nation. I come from a state that has around 2% public land and, well, it sucks. Human history is filled with regrets of all the places, peoples and environments we could have protected. I struggle to find examples of the times we look back and say, “thank the heavens we opened that land up to small herds of cattle, development and natural resource exploitation.”

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Green River, Utah (Labyrinth Canyon)
  • Miles Canoed: 14 miles (7 up, 7 down)
  • Dates Canoed: 9/28-29/2017
  • Launch/Take Out: Mineral Bottom Launch (38.524917, -109.99341)
  • Campsite: 4 miles up from launch on river right (38.564542, -110.00304)
  • Furthest Point Reached: Outflow of Horseshoe Cayon (38.572937, -110.040296)
  • Songs Sung on the River: Moab by Conor Oberst
  • Big Thanks to Kevin and his wife with Moab Rafting and Canoe Company! They showed me where to put in and pointed out the locations of 1836 etchings and the petroglyphs at horseshoe bend. They prepped me for canoeing up river and warned me about the road conditions. Both were a joy to hang out with and  knowledgeable. Also, they outfit Wenonah canoes! Highly recommend.
  • Also thanks to Helen with the Utah Welcome Center on highway 70. She let me spend hours there, writing, researching and having some free coffee on a rainy day!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: bats
  • Birds: Great blue heron, Steller’s Jay, ducks, raven, flicker, lots of songbird in the riparian thickets
  • Dominant Vegetation: Willow and now more Salt Cedar (tamarisk). Still some large cottonwoods, but the species has suffered from the changed river flow regime. A few cedars clinging to the top of the canyon. Also, oaks were prevalent in areas above ordinary high water mark.
  • Noted Species: Mountain lion (Ranger’s recently found big tracks near Horseshoe Canyon) and desert bighorn sheep (once nearly extinct, now plentiful)
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus, (20d) Arid Canyonlands
  • Trash Collected: part of a burnt gatorade bottle, paper scraps and micro trash at camp
  • Current Threats: Salt cedar, people fire scars, human waste improperly buried and changed stream flow from dam far upstream.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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Down in Glen Canyon: Canoeing the Colorado River, Arizona

DSC_0604(State #47/50) Night approaches down at the bottom of Glen Canyon. The moon sets to the south, paralleling the opposing canyon wall, absorbing all the light as the land around darkens. Growing brighter and brighter until beaming white, the quarter sliver is impossible to ignore. I extend a hand, count my fingers and guess the time it will take to exit the scene, giving way to a sky lush with stars.

Ducks wing past, filling the dry air with rushing feathers and nervous quacking. A blue heron follows, emitting loud, echoing croaks. Tiny bats flit above, erratic in flight, piercing the evening with their own echoes. Crickets chirp, fish splash and unseen birds sing their final notes of the day. Upstream, in the distance, an owl hoots. Deep in the canyon I’m the only human representative for miles and, for the first time in over a week, I can enjoy nature’s visuals with the accompanying soundtrack of twilight.DSC_0507 (1)

Four days previous, I stirred to bleary-eyed awareness at dawn, following a wheezing and restless night. At 8,000 feet, gusts ripped across the Kaibab Plateau, flattening my tent against me. I pulled the poles from their grommets and crawled back into the collapsed tent, trying in vain for shuteye. More concerning than the pole-snapping wind was my six-day-old cold, which wasn’t getting better. Admitting defeat, I drove into town and spoke to a supermarket pharmacist. She asked a few questions, frowned and told me to see a doctor.

Afterwards, I spent a few more crummy nights trying to sleep in my car in the desert outside of Page. And yes, if I listened close, over the howling winds, I could hear all of the world’s tiniest violins playing just for me. My parents must have heard them too, because they put me up in a motel. I realize a respiratory infection doesn’t rate high on the Hugh Glass spectrum of wilderness adversity, but I didn’t care by that point. A real shower, a real bed and actual sleep (along with antibiotics) worked. Finally, I woke up rested and ready to paddle up the Colorado River.DSC_0457 (3)

Sunshine poured down on Lee’s Ferry on a Sunday afternoon. Large groups loaded rafts, preparing for three week floats through the Grand Canyon. With slightly less gear, I set


I took this a week earlier in Pinnacles NP, California — another Condor release site (notice the numbed tag)

off and paddled up the Colorado. As the miles passed, the wide expanse of Glen Canyon closed in, narrowing the gap of blue sky above where two huge soaring birds caught my eye. I confirmed with my camera — California Condors, a critically endangered animal saved by an aggressive capture/breed/release program. In 1987 only twenty-two were left on the planet. And there they were, two ten-foot wingspans, a few dozen deaths from non-existence — an incredible bird and feat of conservation.

DSC_0482Below the enormous scavengers, winds polish the rough edges of the high walls and shadows fill the cracks where ice has cleaved off enormous chunks of sedimentary stone. At river level, I guided Rider over the green-tinged, clear water. Twenty feet down, trout darted between aquatic vegetation anchored to a sandy bottom. This river has run this course, cutting down through the uplifting plateau, for millions of years, but it has only been clear and cold for fifty. When John Wesley Powell floated down the Colorado in 1869, it was muddy and warm. The 1963 completion of the Glen Canyon Dam changed everything — the hydrology, the sediment load, temperature regimes and the entire riparian ecosystem. Three of the eight native fish species — Colorado pikeminnow, roundtail chub and bonytail — disappeared. I know people enjoy catching trout, but I’d prefer the natural Colorado to Lake Powell’s 46 degree outflow. I’m not alone either, there’s a growing movement to drain the reservoir.DSC_0471 (1)

Continuing up, I kept my canoe to the sides, taking advantage of slower moving eddies in the shadows of the gorge. I paddled over occasional riffles and past pontoon boats of waving tourists. Motorboats roared by every ten minutes, most leaving behind large f-you and your canoe wakes. People were a constant feature on the river. Then a few kayakers slid past in late afternoon. That small group, the last bit of weekend traffic, rounded the bend and disappeared downstream with the current. The canyon went silent and there was peace on the Colorado.DSC_0495 (2)

Upstream of my eventual camp, the early evening light reflected off of the walls, onto the placid water. Gawking at the canyon rims, I drifted, careless of my boat’s path as I studied the faces in the stone. To my left, a rock figure skulked, watching me with a demonic smile beneath the shadow of a larger, hooded wraith. And no, I wasn’t overdoing my medication: see for yourself.DSC_0567

Higher up, two hawks flew in tandem against the sunlit wall, patterning their every move off each other, which wasn’t difficult as one was feathery with a white undercoat and one was its shadow. The canyon face, sheer and flat, was an excellent backdrop for the display. The sun was at the perfect angle to create an undistorted silhouette, as if Wendy Darling had stitched the raptor’s dark half to its talons. The hawk circled higher and higher, riding thermals to the clifftop, but never able to leave its specter behind.

I floated back down to a campsite in reverence of my surroundings. The bed the night before, though fantastic, could not compare. After all, wasn’t this the reason I endured restless nights in my car, quit my job and drove tens of thousands of miles around America? Simply, yes. While there are multiple reasons for my trip — to be quiet and to behold the natural world from my canoe is reason enough.DSC_0529

Evening drifted on towards dusk as I created a friend from leftover firewood at camp. Wary of sitting, I paced around my sandy site, rotating my gaze between the fire, the stars and my sandaled feet, where I checked for advancing spiders, snakes and scorpions. Then, for the hell of it, I began singing as loud as my recovering lungs allowed. I belted out “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona,” before scouring my memory bank for more of The Eagles, James Taylor and Robert Earl Keen. Hours after celebrating silence, I was creating the noise pollution.


Ring-tail cat tracks the next morning!

I retired to the tent to read after dinner and spent fifteen minutes dozing off on the same page of The Invention of Nature. Eventually, I lost the battle and awoke, face stuck to the book, to a clinging tin can. Outside the tent my mesh trash bag was gone. I looked around camp: nothing. Expanding my search, I scanned the shrubs with a flashlight from the top of a boulder. Two glowing coins shown bright from a gap in the bushes. Narrow faced and slender-bodied, the creature moved like a cat — a ring-tailed cat! The scamp fled and I found my bag amongst older scraps of trash; this critter wasn’t a first-time offender.


My paddle busted, solidifying its place, one day, on my mantel

The next morning my schedule had one item — canoe three miles upstream to Horseshoe Canyon. Entering the famous bend, I traversed one swift section before polling up another riffle. I was nearly to flat water, prying at the riverbed when I should have walked the boat, then SNAP! My paddle broke in half. First cracked in Florida’s mangroves, repaired with a hose clamp in Rhode Island, my faithful paddle finally met its end in Arizona. Time to turn around. DSC_0635 (1)

A thousand feet up on the rim, fifty people looked down on the postcard image and, presumably, me. The air was warm, the sky was clear and I could breathe, so why not put on a little show for the tourists? While traveling through fast riffles, I began a two-minute canoe dance routine. Standing up, I turned my boat 180 degrees and made exaggerated gestures, using paddle #2 as a prop and, occasionally, pointing up at the humans. Though faraway, I’m confident dozens saw my spinning boat and body flailing against the green Colorado and thought, Holy Smokes, I hope he didn’t quit his day job.DSC_0640 (1)

River Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Colorado River, Arizona (Glen Canyon)
  • Miles Canoed: 18.5
  • Dates Canoed: 9/24-25/2017
  • Elevation: Approximately 3120 feet above sea level (Lee’s Ferry)
  • Launch/Take Out: Lee’s Ferry Boat Launch (36.865642, -111.586847)
  • Campsite: Mile 6 Camp ( 36.875298, -111.561783)
  • Furthest Point Reached: Horseshoe Canyon (36.880022, -111.514621)
  • Huge Thanks to my Parents for getting me that Travel Lodge for a night in Page! Thanks to the medical professionals that helped cure my respiratory infection. Thanks to the Park Rangers at Glen Canyon for keeping me company and letting me crash the Star Party one night.
  • Songs Sung on the River: Your Cover’s Blown by Belle and Sebastian, Take it Easy, Take it to the Limit and Peaceful Easy Feeling by The Eagles, Fire and Rain, Hey Mr. That’s Me Up On the Juke Box by James Taylor, My New Life in Old Mexico by Robert Earl Keen, Me and Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin and Boss D.J, by Sublime
  • Delicious Local Restaurant: State 48 Tavern in Page — Tasty beer battered fish tacos, fantastic smelling wings and no one beat me up in the alley for rooting for the Cowboys over the Arizona Cardinals.
  • Book to Read: The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Mammals: Ring-tail Cat! Golden Mantle Ground Squirrel, Rock Squirrel and small bats (22 species live in the Grand Canyon).
  • Birds: California Condors! Osprey, hawks, vulture, great blue heron, coot, merganser, blue wing teal, mallards, canyon wren and swallows.
  • Reptiles/Amphibians: Multiple Lizards and a small, tan toad with brown spots
  • Fish: Rainbow and possibly Brown Trout (tons in the deep clear water)
  • Spider: Black Widow! (in the metal fire ring at campsite, way too close to my hand during firewood collection)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Cottonwood (Fremont’s/Alamo), Box Elder, Willow and now more invasive Salt Cedar (tamarisk). A few cedars clinging to the top of the canyon.
  • Noted Species: California Condor, mountain lion, desert bighorn sheep, and chuckwalla lizard, Grand Canyon rattler and the Colorado’s original fish species (most endangered)
  • Ecoregion: Colorado Plateaus, (20d) Arid Canyonlands and (20e) Escarpments
  • Trash Collected: tin can lid, beer can, micro trash and paper scraps
  • Current Threats: Flood regime (or lack thereof), hydrology and water temperature. Invasive species like Salt cedar (tamarisk), trout, burros and mudsnails.
  • Future of Lake Powell: Serious recent discussion about draining Lake Powell, opening the gates and allowing the waters to flow down into Lake Mead, dammed by the Hoover Dam. Experts believe combining the two reservoirs will reduce water loss. Lake Powell loses more ever year to evaporation and seepage into underground fissures. Hotter temperatures and reduced precipitation due to climate change serve to exacerbate the current water losses.
  • American Rivers has also recently published an article about the potential of draining Lake Powell and Restoring Glen Canyon to its natural state. The movement, as both the AR blog and NYT article convey, is not without controversy. Water in the West and controversy? Surprise, surprise.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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Katie, California and the Ghost Canoe of Morro Bay

DSC_0377(State #46/50) Morro Bay is an odd town. It’s certainly not Bakersfield, but it’s not Big Sur either. This coastal community is somewhere in between — an agreeable mixture of blue collar and boutique.

The waterfront is awash with life. Tour boats patrol and kayakers meander while paddle boarders school together for protection. Sea otters barrel roll atop kelp beds, sea lions laze on floating docks and spotted harbor seals surface for quick glimpses of the above-water chaos. Three smokestacks of a closed 1950’s era power plant tower over the town, while Morro Rock, the 581-foot monolith, guards the entrance to the bay. Together, these landmarks, natural and manmade, reign over the surrounding beaches and waterfront bistros.

DSC_0338 (1)I overlooked it all from a bayside park, waiting for Katie. My longtime friend was driving up from Los Angeles where she works in the moving pictures. As teenagers, Katie was on my first multi-day Current River canoe trip. Back then, when not foraging in caves, she thrived in mud fights, cliff jumping and in developing our unique sense of humor. To this day, we never fail to entertain ourselves. And though we haven’t lived in the same town since high school, she’s remained one of my closest friends.

When Katie arrived in the late afternoon, we hit the bay and paddled towards Morro Rock. Our first point of interest was a raft of basking sea otters. With their white fuzzy faces, whiskers and tiny paws, they appeared more like living stuffed animals than wildlife. I tried to count the delightful creatures, but the damn things wouldn’t stay still — never have I seen animals so energetic in their apparent relaxation.DSC_0353 (1)

We turned around at the choppy mouth of the bay. Passing a group of paddle boarders, I had the urge to canoe into the mob at full speed, sending as many diving and scattering into the water as possible. I refrained from the unnecessary attack and settled on a picture. I figured having Katie in the front of my boat gave me a little extra latitude to be the shirtless, bearded creep with a camera. Still, I wasn’t about to point my lens at one of the bikini-clad women. Instead, I photographed a nice young man, who stared at me in confused amusement.DSC_0359 (1)

Reaching the calmer waters protected by a several-mile long sand spit, we cracked open Tecates and canoed into a sea lion village. We kept wanting to jump in and squirm around with them, but we recalled the lesson from Arrested Development about swimming with loose seals. Keeping both hands intact, we cut between rows of anchored sailboats and weaved through kayakers traveling with the tide.DSC_0360DSC_0363 (1)

Towards the estuary, the bay widens and the sand dunes on the peninsula grow higher. Only barking sea lions and calling gulls pierce the salt-thick air. The background hum of tourism subsides and the sound of the distant, crashing ocean exists at that almost imperceptible level of putting a shell to your ear. Civilization is still visible, but a mile and a half from Morro Rock, nature regains dominance.

DSC_0378The peninsula became our port of call as my bladder demanded we make landfall. We jumped out and I pulled Rider halfway onto the sand. I looked around for trash as it happened to be California’s Coastal Cleanup Day, but couldn’t find much (it seemed the annual event was working). Katie and I took our beers, a bag of chips and journeyed into the dunes, with no fixed destination. To our left was the Sahara of coastal California. To our right, the evening light shone through the sea haze and lit the grand rock face. We trudged up the high dunes until we gazed upon the greater Pacific — white foam waves curled onto an uninhabited beach. Katie and I sat down in the sand, talked, drank and ate BBQ chips.DSC_0388

At length, I stood up and surveyed Morro Bay. Something stood out in the water. My mouth opened wide as it sunk in. Katie saw my face and looked out, too. “Ohhh Nooo!” I cried. Out in the bay, already a hundred yards from land, my green canoe drifted, unmanned. I began laughing as I ran down the dunes, Katie following behind, laughing as well. After forty-six states, she’d had enough; Rider was trying to escape.DSC_0390 (1)

I wasn’t worried about getting my boat back, eventually. The question was when and whether I was going to have to swim for it. Approaching the water, I saw kayaks, canoes and lit grills. Two women poured wine on a red cloth-covered folding table. A few dozen people milled about, sipping California red, enjoying the fleeting sun while watching, with vague curiosity, the lone, drifting ghost ship of Morro Bay.

To my delight and shame, I spotted a kayak making a beeline for Rider. I slowed my run and handed Katie my empty beer. “I might not want to be holding this when I meet this group.” I said, thinking of all the probable judgement. “Is that your boat?” a man asked. “No, it’s not mine, but whoever’s it is must be mighty embarrassed” I said before telling the truth. Katie walked over, still laughing. “Katie, I told you to secure the canoe!” I said, trying to pin it on her.DSC_0394 (1)

Though it wasn’t a formal affair, I felt a tad self-conscious as the other humans mingled about in clean clothes, drinking wine, while Katie and I stood there panting, covered in sand and holding crushed Tecate cans and a half-eaten bag of off-brand BBQ chips. Instead of judging from a distance, a woman named Mary approached us and offered us wine from Lone Madrone vineyard. We accepted. Katie and I toasted as a man in a kayak towed my canoe in by a tether. Both red blends were fantastic and not just in comparison to cheap Mexican beer. Sometimes life isn’t fair in a good way.DSC_0397

Not wanting to meet the kayaker retrieving my canoe with wine in hand, I asked Katie to hold my glass. To my surprise, the man didn’t scold me or lecture about the tides. He seemed genuinely happy to help. I thanked him, still ashamed of my rookie mistake, but more so in explaining I was at the tail end of canoeing all 50 states. Again, I didn’t detect judgment. “We watched it for a few minutes,” he said, “and thought maybe someone was napping at the bottom.” It was only after a seagull landed on the bow that they realized it was unoccupied. We posed for photos, finished our wine, thanked our hosts and returned to the bay.DSC_0401

That night we enjoyed a lively dinner at our beachside campground until the neighbors shushed us from their RV window for being too loud. I’m sure we absolutely were, but it was 9:05 on a Saturday night. “How many eggs do you think you’ll want for breakfast?” I asked Katie. She was confused. “Let’s say two apiece, so that gives us eight to throw at their camper… When they come out, we’ll be sitting here and say, ‘Oh man, those damn kids on their bikes, we wanted to yell at them to stop, but ya know, we didn’t wannabe too loud.”

Instead of shelling our neighbors, we walked down to the beach, where the Pacific drowned out all our laughing and outbursts. We sat atop shemaghs and fixed drinks from the cooler. With no moon and low light pollution, the stars shown bright and a few fell over the ocean. We joked, talked and found brilliant solutions to most of the world’s problems as the thin white lines of the surf grew together, dissipated and reformed out in the black sea.

When writing this piece, I asked Katie if she remembered any quotes from our float. She thought about it before responding, “I just know that there was a lot of discussion around how sexy the otters were.” Yeah, I thought, that about sums it up.

Bay Stats and Fun Facts:

  • Morro Bay, California
  • Dates Canoed: 9/16/2017
  • Miles Canoed: 4
  • Weather: Highs in the low 70s, party cloudy
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch Point: Beach near Coleman Park (35.372239, -120.860298)
  • Furtherest Point Reached/where I lost the canoe (35.349134, -120.857506)
  • Campsite: Morro Strand Campground (35.401026, -120.867493)
  • Massive Thanks to guy (didn’t catch his name) that rescued Rider and towed her back to shore. Big Thanks to Mary and Lone Madrone for offering us wine (The Dodd and The Will, red blends) and for being so damn friendly. Thanks to Christine at Morro Bay State Park for advice and the rangers at Morro Strand Beach for helping me get a campsite on short notice, on a Saturday… not an easy task on the coast. Also, thanks to Pam at the waterfront for giving me a cold bottle of water and sharing her grapes!
  • Wildlife Spotted:
  • Birds: Seagulls, Brown Pelicans, Osprey, Long-billed curlew, multiple species of shore/wading birds and Vultures
  • Mammals: Sea Otters, Sea Lions, Harbor Seals and California Ground Squirrels
  • Noted Species: Morro Bay Kangaroo Rat (Close to Extinction, if not already gone),
  • Ecoregion: Central California Foothills and Central Mountains, (6aj) Southern Santa Lucia Range
  • Current Threats: While in better ecological condition than many coast estuaries in the state, threats include increased sedimentation from tributaries, elevated pathogens, nutrients and reduced dissolved oxygen. Stormwater runoff and toxic materials related to boats and the marina are also a concern for the bay’s waters.
  • Trash Collected: I only managed to find a flattened can, a bottle and a little plastic in the dunes. Remarkably clean for a coastline. It happened to be California Coastal Cleanup Day that Saturday. So by the time I arrived at Morro Strand Beach at eight in the morning, there were dozens of people collecting trash and a table set up to provide volunteers with litter cleanup buckets/supplies. So the beaches near my campsite were pretty well combed by the time I began hunting for garbage. Great program.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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I Am (not) Moana: Kayaking Malaekahana Bay, Hawaii

DSC_1045(State #45/50) I felt my blood pressure rising as I tried to keep a level voice. “I’m not trying to be difficult,” I said, “but the name of my thing is Canoe50, not Canoe 49 and Kayak 1.” Matching my tone, the man replied. “So, you want to find a Canadian-style canoe on this island?” Canadian canoe? I thought. “Where I come from, they’re just called canoes.” I shot back, continuing our transpacific argument.

This guy wasn’t the first person to scoff at my inquiry to rent a canoe in Hawaii, but he was the first to make sure I knew I was an idiot for asking. He continued about the hazards of ocean waves and all the terrible realities which would befall me if I tried to pilot a traditional canoe in the sea surrounding Oahu. “Alright, I’ll take the damn kayak!” I relinquished and packed my bags for Honolulu.

DSC_1053 (1)Days later, the sun radiated tropical heat as I un-strapped a sea kayak from atop a rental car. Already struggling with the physics of carrying an unfamiliar watercraft, I blew out a flip flop in the parking lot. My soles burned as I lugged the kayak towards the crowded beach below Diamond Head. By the time I reached the water, I was a black-footed, sweat-soaked and red-faced mess. Melody, with KITV Island News, didn’t seem to mind and began the interview. Though it wasn’t my dream that my first moments in a kayak since 2010 were going to be on television, I was confident my off-key versions of Moana songs would distract the viewer from my poor technique.Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 4.42.11 PM

Afterwards, I drove through the rainy mountains to Malaekahana Bay, where azure sky and happy, white clouds stretched overhead. Above my tent, branches swayed and dropped fermenting fruit, which pattered upon the dried leaf litter and exuded a sweet, pungent smell. The breeze found a gap in the waxy vegetation and added the aroma of saltwater to the air. Through that corridor, a path extended from my camp and ended at the glinting, blinding blue sea.DSC_0026

I followed the trail, dragging the kayak through the loose sand and out into the cool surf. Waiting for my chance, I hopped on and used the double-bladed paddle to cut through the incoming waves. Saltwater lapped against my legs and filled the kayak as I sat right atop the ocean. I peered into the bay — straight down to a sandy bottom between rocks and patches of coral, all vibrant in the distorted evening sunlight. Twenty feet away, a green sea turtle popped its head above the water to investigate me. Then a big wave rolled over the boat. Nervous about ruining my camera and phone, I decided to hide the dry bag in the mangrove brush. I surfed in on a thrilling wave, which deposited me on the beach. A moment later, another crashed down and sent me and the boat tumbling.

After stashing my bag, I paddled out a half mile, up and over more large waves. Goat Island, a flat, grassy affair, protected me from the open sea to the north. The crescent sweep of La’ie Bay guarded the south. Straight ahead, a single small rock island marked the entrance to the great ocean. Already, ten-foot high, white-capped swells, curled and broke at my flanks. The trade winds nipped at their crests, sending sea-mist sideways like steam drifting off moving volcanos. The combination of this sight, my supreme inexperience and the knowledge of all the terrible things that happen out at sea gave me zero desire to paddle into the unprotected Pacific. Despite my singsong claims from earlier in the day, I am not Moana.DSC_0013

DSC_0004 (1)Beyond the developed southern end of La’ie Bay rose the Ko’olau Mountains, the main range on Oahu. Light from the dipping sun illuminated the towering spine of deep green. Each ridge spur cast a shadow, shading the vertical-running crevices between the lush, rainforest-coated mountainsides. Dark orographic rainclouds shrouded the tallest peaks, extending their arms of gray out towards my bay. The clouds only dropped a few sprinkles upon the water, but enough to precipitate an intense rainbow. My first urge was to take a picture, but I remembered I’d left the camera behind. Oh well. I just sat, rocking up and over waves, transfixed by the most vibrant display of color you can imagine.DSC_0031

On the way back, the sun dropped into the trees lining the steep, beige sand beach. It found a window through the thicket and cast wide, outward angled beams of gold through the visible humidity, like the classic shot of the steaming jungle. I landed near camp, ran to dig up the camera and capture what remained of the rainbow.DSC_0034

Then, drink in hand, I plopped down in the sand below a nodding pandanus palm and watched the clouds turn pink and orange. Ducks and sea birds flew towards Goat Island. A little DSC_0057shorebird patrolled the surf, tiny legs skittering along, beak searching the wet sand for creatures as the water receded, before fleeing from the next rush of sea. Crabs tunneled up out of their fresh burrows, scattering for cover when I tried to get a picture. The turtle surfaced again, spying from the waves, as I sat still and listened to the rhythmic pounding of the ocean. Night fell on Oahu and stars blinked to life.DSC_0087

I took a refreshing shower, grabbed my cold shrimp burrito and asked to join a large group under a tent. They were all local, tattooed, tan and worked at a Honolulu hospital. I listened to them talk, in their distinct Hawaiian accents, about everything from drunken parties to local school issues. When they asked about my trip, I mentioned my sea turtle encounter. “That’s a good omen in Polynesian culture. Seeing a sea turtle when you start a trip means you’re being watched over,” one man said. Though I doubt any spirit would choose me, I liked the thought of sea turtle protection.DSC_0137

DSC_0066 (2)The next morning, wild roosters began crowing by six a.m. Outside my tent, feral cats prowled, a mongoose scurried through the jungle and myna birds fed their young (all three are on the IUCN’s list of 100 worst invasive species*). Leaving the terrestrial pests behind, I drug the kayak back into the sea and paddled out into the bay. A large wave crashed upon me, but I remained upright. Bobbing up and over the rolling blue sea, I sat watching a pair of surfers catch breakers off Goat Island. The two guys found a few good rides, pumping down on the board to maintain speed before falling back into the Pacific. Part of me wanted to try to surf one in the kayak, but a larger part of me wanted to not die in Hawaii.

Zigzagging my way through the waves, I completed another circumnavigation of La’ie Bay. As I closed in on shore, my stomach fell as something large passed beneath me. My mind raced for answers. For some reason — some utterly absurd reason — my initial conclusion was a swimming deer. A half second later it took the form of a massive green turtle passing through the clear water. My spirit animal disappeared into the blue and I rode one last wave onto the beach, completing my foray into sea kayaking.DSC_0165

On the final morning in Hawaii, I strolled out from my campsite on the North Shore to let the tide rush over my feet. Taking one last reflective gaze over the tropical sea, something caught my eye in the surf; it was the head of a sea turtle. We regarded each other for a quick moment before the turtle submerged and I left for the airport. Good omen, I thought.DSC_0181 (1)

*Invasive species are non-native animals that wreak havoc and severely degrade natural ecosystems. Feral house cats and mongooses are incredible hunters, wiping out native animals where they are introduced worldwide. Mynas aggressively displace (stealing nesting sites) native birds from their natural habitats. For a number of reasons (small populations, lack of competition, restrictive specialization, etc.), islands, like Hawaii, are particularly susceptible to such unwelcome inhabitants. I recall the first time I visited Hawaii as a kid, we bought a guidebook and realized all these birds we had seen were the now dominant, introduced species… What a pity. Sometimes humans alone cause ecological disasters and sometimes we do something stupid, like bring cats and mongooses to Hawaii, and pit nature against nature.

Bay Stats and Fun Facts:

  • La’ie Bay, Oahu, Hawaii
  • Dates Canoed: 9-10/11-2017
  • Miles Canoed: 3 (about 1.5 miles each day, though difficult to gauge)
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point/ Campsite: Malaekahana State Rec Area (21.65934, -157.927331)
  • Songs Sung on Bay: Margaritaville by Jimmy Buffet (mostly because I blew out a flipflop),
    Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas song), I am Moana and Flake by Jack Johnson.
  • Thank you to Go Bananas Watersports for the kayak and being flexible with my pick up and return times. Thanks to the group of locals for letting me crash their hang out and for the beer. Thanks to Melody and KITV for the interview, I had a good time doing it!
  • Birds: Great Frigatebird, Sanderling, Ducks, Seagulls, Chickens, Mina Birds, Egrets, small song birds I couldn’t ID
  • Mammals: Mongoose and Feral Cats
  • Reptiles: Green Sea Turtle (Honu)
  • Noted Species: Humuhumu nukunuku apua’a (Hawaiian state fish. Saw one snorkeling a few days later on the North Shore)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Pandanus Palms, coco nut palms, salt cedar and mangroves (both of the last two are invasive to Hawaii)
  • Ecoregion: Hawaii Tropical Dry Forests
  • Current Threats: Invasive species (like Mongoose, feral cats, feral pigs, rats, mangroves, etc.). The islands native species are vulnerable to extinction (75% of all US extinctions have occurred on these islands). Development, sea trash and sea level rise and change due to climate change are also major concerns.
  • Trash Collected: 3-4 grocery bags filled with all manner of sea-garbage (part of the nation of The Garbage Isles no doubt). Soda bottles, thick hard plastic containers of unknown origin, shoes, ropes, buoys, and micro trash. Most of it was washed up from god knows where. I cleaned a 100 foot section of beach and not even completely.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $4134 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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