Litter-ary Tease

DSC04349How to Fill a Tin Canoe: pick up and paddle.

“… all this abstract fooling around we do now just ain’t satisfactory. That’s why people act so silly. If there is no point to what you do, you might as well become a consumer.”

– Robb White, author of How to Build a Tin Canoe


Rare is the book that reveals itself before it begins. But read Robb White’s disclaimer in his boatbuilding and exploration memoir “How to Build a Tin Canoe,” and his voice is clear: “None of these stories is true … not a single word. If you think you recognize yourself in any of these fictitious characters I talk so bad about, that’s just your own paranoia. There is no point in suing me anyway. Because of the nature of the boatbuilding business, I don’t own anything at all, and if you decide to take it out on my ass, just remember, you got to bring some to get some.” 

Early on, White, who died in 2006, details building a tin canoe like the one he fashioned from a chicken house roof as a child reared in the “Red Hills” region of south Georgia during World War II. Some passages read like a conversational manual that might interest boaters more than others. But try not to skim these parts. White’s no nonsense writing style makes it worthwhile with snippets about shaping tin such as, “Do it in your backyard so you won’t attract too much attention (this is a one man project . . . you don’t want no destructive supervision.)”, and “Don’t let yourself get frustrated and frantic … hell, man, tin is cheap.” You realize White’s lifelong affection for his childhood boat when he writes, “I seldom build a boat that turns out all that much better than those tin canoes.”  

The coastal flats of Florida’s panhandle were rich exploring grounds for White and his cousins, who roamed the waters and woods unsupervised. There White and crew ate oysters and “angel wing clams as big as Coca-Cola bottles that lived in holes so deep that the excavations we left in the flats became landmarks.” White shares acute observations about tidal species, including the unusual relationship between the toadfish and the pistol shrimp. In a simple yet profound tone, White says of those summers: “You know, taking the whole summer off to go to the coast wasn’t all that unusual in the Deep South back before megalomania and AC.” 

White’s storytelling, advice and opinions aren’t confined to exploring and boatbuilding. “I think that, like hunting and subsistence farming,” he writes, “fishing for a living is a natural thing for people to do and all this abstract fooling around we do now just ain’t satisfactory. That’s why people act so silly. If there is no point to what you do, you might as well become a consumer.” And his rant against digital clocks made me laugh aloud. However, White, whose sister is author Bailey White, thrives as a storyteller. I won’t spoil or dilute his gems by paraphrasing them, just entice you with the elements of one story: a shower curtain, the Mississippi River and King Tut. And it takes place in New Orleans. Have fun.

– Edward C. Woodward

The Beaten Path

By Grant Donaldson

Author’s note: The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Montana is not a high value tourist attraction because it is overshadowed by Yellowstone National Park next door, but its beauty and majesty rival that of even Glacier National Park. It is considered a private treasure by many Montanans.

I was standing outside my snug cottage on the banks of East Rosebud Creek in south-central Montana watching a storm front roll off the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range 15 miles to the southwest. Thirty minutes later the cauldron enveloped my little valley. The temperature dropped 30 degrees. Snow and rain reduced visibility to zero and the downdraft of wind off the mountains exceeded 100 miles per hour, leveling evergreen trees in neat rows.

I retreated to the security of my sturdy cottage and experienced another typical late-September Montana snowstorm.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

The battering of the wind on the windows reminded me of another experience on the top of that same mountain range a few years earlier in which the only protection between nature’s wrath and myself was a thin layer of nylon tent fabric. I was hiking with my co-worker and friend Rod Plowman and we had stood at the base of the Clarks Fork Trailhead  near Cooke City off Highway 212 in our hiking shorts, boots and backpacks, ready to embark on a six-day hike across the largest plateau above 10,000 feet in the lower forty-eight states.

We were most concerned with grizzly bears and had our bear spray canisters in our hands and revolvers strapped to our thighs as we stepped into the silent forest. But we would soon realize that bears were the least of our challenges. The standard backcountry joke is that the spray is for the bears; the revolver is to be used on you if the spray fails.

We’re Florida boys, unaccustomed to the steep grades of the mountain west and we were determined not to be one-upped by Montana locals who glided up and down the grades with the ease of mountain goats. For weeks we had both trained in our own way to get fit. The workouts would prove beneficial but hardly sufficient for the abuse our bodies were about to endure.

One day after work I had spied Rod striding down Tampa’s yuppie promenade of jogging political correctness (Bayshore Boulevard) clad in hiking boots, shorts, and a backpack full of bricks. He was oblivious to the multicolored, Lycra-clad joggers streaming past him.

I had spent my training time on the steep stairs of Plant Hall, a historic landmark on the campus of The University of Tampa. We were both confident of our lower body strength as we started up the gradual grade ascending the Plateau. And we were comforted somewhat by the trail description of the Beaten Path: “long and strenuous, but not technically difficult or dangerous.”

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Rather than doing the sensible thing and hiring a guide, we had stubbornly decided to navigate with a “topo” map, compass and a few pages of the hike description from the Falcon Guide series. The ubiquitous Falcon series covers almost every trail in the West with accurate descriptions from author Bill Schneider who seems to have personally hiked most of them during a long career.

I had toured the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness by car via Highway 212 a few years earlier and I was vaguely familiar with some of the trails that laced the plateau. I offered Rod two options. We could drive from Red Lodge, MT to the top of the range in Wyoming and take a series of trails that would lead us back to the car, or we could take the Beaten Path that would terminate on the northwest side of the range at East Rosebud Lake  in Montana where we would be more than 100 miles from the car with no way back.

With a predictable indifferent shrug Rod picked the Beaten Path route that would take us over 26 miles of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the lower U.S., featuring remnants of ice age glaciers, hundreds of fish-filled alpine lakes, unnamed waterfalls and the state’s highest mountain at more than 12,799 feet, Granite Peak.

We were both tired of Tampa’s horizontal glut of traffic, general congestion, heat and job stress and we longed to withdraw, if just briefly, to a few days of basic essentials like sleeping, eating, and walking in the company of our friend Jack Daniel’s.

Bourbon was our weightiest commodity but we were willing to bear the extra poundage in our backpacks.

Long distance trekking is all about the weight you carry. Unlike many specialties that produce useless products, the backpacking industry has miniaturized almost everything. High tensile tents that protect you in a gale have been reduced to three or four pounds. Tiny gas-powered MSR cook stoves weigh just ounces and will cook food for several people. A folding saw is essential. Sleeping bags must be light but warm at zero or below. A lightweight water filtration pump is a must to protect you from Giardia lamblia that has infested even the alpine water sources thanks to the introduction of livestock grazing.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

A tube of toothpaste can feel like five pounds by the second day. Two pair of shoes: one to wear and one to dry. Jeans are heavy and don’t dry easily. “Cotton kills,” goes the saying. And it’s true in more ways than one. Lightweight, lined polyester and nylon shells dry fast and protect against the cold. A roll of toilet paper ranks up there with bourbon, and the carrier of this commodity is given special deference.

Even with careful planning, we were never able to get our packs below about 60-70 pounds and we’ve suffered the consequences many times at 10,000 feet in thin air with our legs burning and lungs screeching.

As we made camp in a box canyon about 1,000 feet below the plateau rim that night, we got our first taste of changeable Montana weather. Within minutes the sun blotted out, temperatures dropped, a mixture of rain and snow descended. The thunder was like the constant roar of a stream in snowmelt, amplified as it rolled around the walls of the small canyon. The savagery of it made you feel naked in your flimsy tent. Whole trees were blown off the sides of the cliffs and came crashing down. The next day we would be exposed to the full force of the summer weather on the open plateau.

The following morning we saw splinters of trees and entire trunks on the ground, but no fire.

As we broke camp we stumbled over the putrid carcass of a winter-killed moose not 20 yards away and out came the bear spray again.

Ahead of us was a steep 1,000-foot climb of switchbacks to the undulating plateau above the timberline. The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness alone is 943,377 acres, but it is contiguous to the Yellowstone and Wind River ranges that stretch 100 miles to South Pass, WY, that comprise more than 5-million acres of wilderness. The Beartooth Wilderness is so large it creates its own weather. In summer, the high plains can be baking under searing-dry heat for 100 miles in any direction and snow and rainstorms will be raging in the Beartooth with temperatures in the 20s and 30s.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

It is one of the world’s largest hydrological machines, spewing water out through nine major drainages to the thirsty desert year round.

After we topped the rim of the plateau on the second day the going was easier. Lichen covered rocks and fields of wild flowers poked through the snow patches and a relatively gentle 20-knot breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay unless you stopped in the lee of a scrubby tree. The mountain mosquitoes are gentle compared to Florida’s saltwater variety that provoke instant flailing. These cold weather cousins just sit there and drink until you run your hand over them. Their bite is hardly worth noting.

The literature says the Beaten Path and its network of trails can swallow a thousand hikers. We saw only three or four parties in our six-day crossing and all but one party were day hikers at either end of the trail.

We were grateful for the one party that had preceded us because they broke trail through a two-mile field of knee-deep snow along the edge of Fossil Lake, the highest elevation of our trek. Even at 10,000 feet, the peaks still towered above us. One end of Fossil Lake flows into the Rosebud drainage of Montana. The other end connects to a lake chain that feeds the spectacular Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone that flows east onto the Great Plains of Wyoming and north into the Yellowstone River of Montana.

We set up camp on a dry spot beside Fossil Lake the second night in anticipation of a trail dinner consisting of a brimming pot of macaroni and cheese sauce, topped off with candy bars and hot coffee with a splash or two or more of Jack Daniel’s. Freeze-dried soups, pasta, rice and other condensed foods sound ghastly back in urban society but they are epicurean delights when your life has been reduced to the essentials of food and shelter.

The Montana night sky at 10,000 feet glows with luminescence that appears to be obscured by dust clouds until you realize the clouds are actually shoals of stars and galaxies whirling through space. The magnitude of it humbles the soul and reminds you of your insignificance.

I crawled from my tent the next morning to see a plume of black smoke rising into the clear, still Montana sky. The source of the plume was our campfire as Rod incinerated a pair of heavy black boots he had been lugging for three days. The scene would have driven a Sierra Club member into seizures but Rod had carefully weighed the amount of the environmental damage against the strain on his back and arrived at a logical conclusion. He was pleased with himself.

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness

Most afternoons we were chased by sudden soaking rain and snow flurries, high winds and swollen streams. We learned that Gortex-lined waterproofed boots are of little value if the stream depths exceed the height of the boot. So we sloshed along, absorbed in the knowledge that we were seeing pristine country as it was when Lewis & Clark came through in 1803.

We had saved the best for last, which is why we had started at the Cooke City end of the trail. As we tipped over the northwestern side of the plateau at the Fossil Lake outlet we descended through a nine-mile canyon of thunderous waterfalls, each one spectacular in its own way. And each one, had it been located back east, or nearer civilization, would be a major tourist attraction.

We camped amidst the roar, tried to dry our boots and finished off the last of the Jack. “No Trace” camping is the rule out West, a concept that seems to have escaped the Eastern hiking mentality. During six days along the trail we had picked up a single crushed beer can that had perhaps fallen out of a saddlebag.

The trail terminated at a deserted campground and a community of cabins built around deep, clear East Rosebud Lake. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that we were still 20 miles from the nearest paved road. There was one occupant in the state campground. But he was packing up and offered to drop us at the small community of Roscoe, home to the famous Grizzly Bar and its platter-sized steaks, gigantic hamburgers and inexhaustible quantities of beer.

Satiated with the glories of red meat and beverage, we stumbled down to Highway 78 with our gear, which was now becoming burdensome. An early model Ford LTD the size of a yacht cruised by in the opposite direction, turned and stopped next to us. It was driven by a mid-fortyish piano teacher on her way to a lesson but she would be happy to take us 20 or so miles into Red Lodge where we could find beds, showers and food.

Montanans are famous for their generosity to fellow travelers. A cynical friend of mine says it’s because people know that if they don’t lend assistance, especially during the winter, the stranded traveler could be dead from hypothermia in an hour. I have witnessed a car go over an embankment and within 10 minutes there are half a dozen cars and pickups stopped. Ropes, shovels, and chains come out to assist and within minutes the driver is either back on the road, on the way to a hospital or at least out of the ditch.

Grant Donaldson nears Cooke City

Grant Donaldson nears Cooke City

After a night on clean sheets and a soak in a hot tub in Red Lodge it took us two more rides to get back to the rental car. The first was with a young man and his kids and dog, towing a boat who stopped to let us pile into the truck bed on top of his camping gear. A family from Iowa on their way to Cooke City took us the rest of the way to the car.

We would be back in Tampa before it dawned on us that the headaches, dizziness, extreme exhaustion and sense of motion that we experienced for days afterwards were all symptoms of altitude sickness. Maybe it was better that we didn’t know. But it wouldn’t have changed our plans anyway.

The author is an outdoor writer who has fished and hiked the remote reaches of Florida and the Western states for 25 years. Grant Donaldson can be reached at: Stillwater2007@verizon.net

Obama Girl and the Crashes of ’08

by Tim Ohr

At first I did not notice the woman’s body lying in the path ahead of me because of various distractions.
I could tell you the main distraction was the wildflowers. This wouldn’t be true, but it sounds better than the real distraction. 

Blazing star, a purple spear tip on a green shaft, has sprung up all over Flatwoods Park.  Goldenrod is bright yellow again and tickseed never left. 

There are new purple flowers of a species I cannot identify, and things blue. Purple and blue stand out when everything else is green. 
I was taking mental pictures to compare to flower books when I got home.
But it was not the flowers distracting me while I rode my mountain bike. It was the creating of songs for Obama Girl, so named for the campaign sticker on her gray truck. A frequent marathon jogger at Flatwoods, Obama Girl’s former “Indian” name was White Girl Jogging. Writers while exercising do not write WAR AND PEACE or have lofty thoughts. At least not this one; I compose odes to Obama Girl and take mental photos of plants. 

The first song was in tune to David Bowie’s “China Girl.” My verse went, “I’d like to meet you, Obama Girl.” 

The second tune ripped-off “Wild Thing.” It went: “Obama Girl, You move me, but I’d like to know for sure.” 

This is the puerile, childish mind of a 62-year-old author of five respected books and editor of more. What can I say that my wife won’t already have said and said better. “Grow up, will you, Tim.” I think my father said that too. 

But that’s the problem. I have grown up. I have grown so far up that I am no longer young. 
“How are we doing?” I asked a familiar rider at the crash scene. 
Standing above the injured woman, a retired paramedic named Jimmy. I caught the scent of Polo. 

Jimmy urged the woman on her back not to move until the ambulance arrived. Jimmy is a sort of Richard Simmons of the flatwoods, always encouraging those with flagging energy. He passes me at about twice my speed and says I better hurry up because I’m losing the lead. He tells me to keep those legs pumping. “Where’s your helmet, man?” he snarls at me when he whizzes by White Hair Riding. 

“She’s a cancer survivor,” Jimmy said of the woman on the pavement. “If she can beat cancer, she can handle this.” 

The bicyclist who ran into the woman squatted on the side of the road. “Broken collarbone,” Jimmy said of the squatting man, who was in obvious pain. It turned out to be a dislocated shoulder, but Jimmy had the right idea. 

The woman on the ground thought blood was running down her forehead. “No blood,” Jimmy said. Later we learned the blood was running down the inside of her skull, but no concussion. She would be all right. 

I offered my cell phone, but a call to 911 had already been placed. I intended to go to the ranger station, but someone had been sent earlier. I decided to go to the head of the circle to direct the ambulance to the left fork. But at the head of the circle, there was Obama Girl. She was on duty, waiting to direct the ambulance, and I was useless. 

“How badly is she hurt?” Obama Girl asked. 

Blond, half my age, and twice as fit, Obama Girl would not have noticed me even when I was thirty, but it was encouraging to see such youth on a sunny morning in fall. 

“Probably a concussion,” I surmised. 

“Was she wearing a helmet?” she asked. 

“No,” I said, noting that I was not wearing one either. I received from Obama Girl a look of disapproval. “I know,” I said. “But I just can’t stand a hat.” 

Then the ambulance came, and I rode away from Obama Girl, accompanied by her well-mannered red hound. 
It has unfortunately become a common sight – an ambulance pulling into my favorite recreation area. Within the past three months, I have seen the paramedics arrive three times. 

This does not count the friend of the woman who cleans my teeth who fell and broke his neck in two places and died at the nearby off-road bicycle trails. That was long ago. It does not count my own finger-bending spill. 

Both Obama Girl and White Hair Riding had assumed the woman on the pavement was a slower bicyclist who had pulled into the path of the racer. However, it was not so. The woman was walking, and the racer, bent over “in the pit,” had not seen her and had run into her back at 22 mph. 

Jimmy was right behind him. He had shown me the bent thousand-dollar wheel. 

“Know what his wife’s first question was a the hospital?” Jimmy asked, and when I replied I did not, he said, “How’s the bike?” 
“Stupid,” Obama Girl said on Monday when I explained what had happened. 

I liked saying “in the pit,” a phrase I picked up from a park ranger. It made me sound like I knew what I was talking about – a real biker – in the pit. 

“Well,” I said, repeating what a machinist I once employed always said, “I never heard of a smart accident.” Perhaps I have no original thoughts. 

Since then Obama Girl waves to White Hair Riding, which makes his day. 

“I’m going to add mirrors to my bike,” I told her, and have. It is frightening to think someone could ride into you from behind. 
Not two days later, I followed an ambulance to an off-road trail. A young woman had fallen in the sand. I suspect she was riding a bike with narrow tires not meant for sand. Down she went. Broken arm. 
Where she fell was not a particularly difficult course, if taken slow. 
The worse spill, however, occurred earlier. I felt the spill would happen before it did. Three out of four bikes went down hard. 

Line racers, ironically all paramedics. Four in line – only the young woman in the third position was riding far out of line. In fact, I wasn’t sure if she was in the second or third position and had to move to the right when she passed coming toward me. I thought that if she moved into line, she might hook two of the other bikes. 

Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe not. 

Twenty minutes later, all four bikes lay on the asphalt. The woman and another rider sprawled on the path. The man clearly had a broken or dislocated shoulder. 

The young woman lay on her back saying that she was a single mother and this couldn’t be happening to her. It was a constant refrain. She worried she was paralyzed. She thought she could not move her fingers or toes or feel them. 

“You’re moving your toes and fingers,” the man standing above her said. 

My friend Peter, a neurologist, rode upon the scene and asked if a doctor was needed. He told the woman she had a concussion and would be fine. This, however, did not calm her, and she repeated over and over that she was a single mom and that this could not happen to her. 

Perhaps because they were a group of paramedics, at least two ambulances, two fire trucks, a police car, and a helicopter arrived. I was told later that she was fine, that Peter was right; she merely had a concussion. No paralysis, no broken bones. I hope this is so. 
It was quite a display of rescue power. 
I have pondered what this increase in the frequency of accidents means. I have some theories. One is that it just might be random, but that doesn’t feel right. 

Recent surveys indicate that about 90% of men exercising are thinking about sex. (Does composing sonnets to Obama Girl count?) Women – something less than 80% are thinking about sex. 
As women are fond of saying, at least to me, sex always confuses things. 

OK, I’m joking, sort of, let’s start again. 

It is October 2008. My stocks are sinking faster than the Titanic. My wife has been offered early retirement and accepted it: end of job. Such reduction in force has swept many industries. We are glad this happened to her. But… 

Unemployment is climbing. 
Florida tourism is falling. 
Credit has dried up. 
Houses aren’t selling. 
General Motors can’t sell cars, neither can Ford. 
My bank, Wachovia, has become Wells Fargo. Or Citibank. Or Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang Bank or something. 

My broker, Morgan-Stanley, has become a bank and sold an interest to China. 

Busch Gardens got sold to a European company. 

Lehman Brothers is out of business. Crap, I own Lehman Brothers’ CDs. 

Why does every mutual fund I own have Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, and Washington Mutual in it? 

What does my broker say? Mostly that he doesn’t know. 

If it is not sex distracting us, it is the economy, stupid. 

John McCain blames Obama and the Democrats. Obama blames the Republicans and Bush and the Republicans. Who will be the next president? Obama Girl has her opinion – I’ll keep mine to myself. 
Come to think of it, what has happened to Missy and Leslie and Margot and Buck and all the people I haven’t heard from for a month or longer.
Have they all disappeared? Don’t they like me any more? 
How about the colonoscopy I chickened out of and now have rescheduled? Will I have the courage this time? 

While I ponder whether to cash in mutual funds, I am writing what Paul McCartney penned “silly love songs” to a woman with a dog – I don’t even know the dog or the dog’s name. Don’t know the woman’s name either. 

Accidents occur due to distraction. We are “in the pit” and don’t look up. And these are distracting times. So be careful. Keep looking up. 
In the morning after spewing these thoughts, I wonder why we ride when, after all, it is a dangerous sport. With pardons to Bob Dylan, everyone will someday fall, some more than once. 

My neighbor, adventurer David Jones, has taken a number of falls. Last time, I think it was over a cottonmouth. His thoughts on the way down were, “Please don’t let it bite my face.” He has broken ribs and bruised shoulders.

I have pains in my left arm from the last spill that are random. Some are like being stabbed with a knife on my wrist. Others are like a heart attack coming on with shooting pain in my left arm. I can’t fit my wedding band over my ring finger – my wife suspects this is on purpose. It’s not. When I get the gold band over the knuckle, I then have difficulty getting it off. 

Is it really worth it, the risks of falling and busting your tail or worse? 
No hesitation: Yes. 

My favorite days are when there is a wind blowing across the flatwoods. If you stop on a dirt path and listen, you can hear the sighing of trees. Each type of tree has a different song as it bends and creaks. 
You can hear the wind coming, rushing through the saw palmetto. I like that. It gives me peace. I like the oncoming of a light rain when I am riding for the same reason, and because it brings out the wildlife. 

When it is not so wet, I enjoy walking into the shade of a cypress dome and watching the raccoons and red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. 
The wildlife pleases me. The quail remind me of my childhood home, the one my father built, where long coveys marched.

In the flatwoods there is still for me what science-fiction writer Damon Knight used to call “a sense of wonder.” Maybe it is a feeling of innocence and the fresh newness of childhood discovery. We almost all have this feeling in childhood, but we lose it somewhere growing up and in our daily struggles to look up from the pit. Perhaps psalms to Obama Girl are merely a means of escape to a time when life was less complicated and not so frightening, a time before the spoiling of our youth. 

I continue to risk myself. Why? I know what I see and feel when I ride in the flatwoods. 


About the Author:

A lifelong writer, Tim has published fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Tim has edited five books for World Publications. A frequent contributor to regional magazines, he is the author of four books in the Florida’s Fabulous series: Natural Places, Trail Guide, Canoe and Kayak Trail Guide, and Lighthouses.

Tim’s newest novel, Under the Gun was recently published. His books can be purchased thru Amazon.com or Barnes&Noble.com. He is currently working on a second novel entitled, Cheap Tricks.

Tim Ohr can be reached at timohr@mindspring.com.

Paddle & Path

Welcome to Paddle & Path’s blog, where we explore Florida’s historic waterways and woods (check out paddleandpath.com for more stories and resources … we’re posting stories here so you can share your thoughts and experiences). Like you, we’d rather be paddling than typing these words. But words help us reflect on our experiences, which, unlike indigestion, can be enjoyed a second time.

Milking a food metaphor, hopefully you’ll be hungry to share your explorations or observations, too. So check out our sections at paddleandpath.com to find out where your work fits into our word buffet, then pitch a story to edward@paddleandpath.com .

Dig in and enjoy.