Two Weeks Before the Mast:
Sailing British Columbia's Inside Passage
It's been a dream since the '60s when I studied literature and history at Burnaby's Simon Fraser University to explore by sail the labyrinth between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. One I thought I'd never check off my bucket list.
Enter the Glickpersons - Amanda and Barry Glickman - who fulfilled it though. They're fellow fellows of The Explorers Club, Captain Amanda being a past chair of the Canadian chapter.
We sailed from Cortez Island through the Inside Passage to the thousands of islands at Broughton Archipelago Marine Province Park to Port Hardy.
We linked up in Victoria. While they attended Barry's retirement party as a biology prof at the UofVic, I grabbed dinner with Saskatoon exiles Dave, Graeme and Gord, old chums since the very early '70s.
The next day we drove and ferried to their place on Cortez Island where we were introduced to Amanda's 40-foot Papa Rumba. They're pro sailors, having spent over two years aboard their 50-foot Darwin's Passage at the bottom of South America while researching Patagonia Through the Eyes of Darwin. Too large for these waters, they downloaded to the Rumba.
It, like my books, is on Amazon.
And a gorgeous boat it is. I especially loved the picture windows. Most yachts below deck are caves.
The weather was great, often with only one cloud in the sky. However, it reached from mid Pacific to Winnipeg....
But we had glorious weather too. This is Canada. If you don't like the weather, blink.
Broughton Provincial Marine Park is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. A sailor's and naturalist's delight.
Amanda is an exotic mix of Chinese and Irish. I call her Chirish. Like Barry, she's a biologist, though marine while he's micro and evolutionary. Who better to sail these waters with than biologists? I haven't driven that many yachts, though I've crewed in regattas from Canada to Thailand, but the Papa Rumba is the best. With most yachts you make a correction, then wait two weeks for the boat to respond. Not the Rumba. It reacts immediately.
Float houses are a feature of the coast, solo loggers and fishermen towing their homes to their work.
Barry's a high level scientist, having worked all over the world and his contacts are impressive. He's even spent one-on-one time with Gorbachev. But like some scientists he's a little out of touch with popular culture. Best Barry story: he was at a cocktail party and chatting with an interesting chap. Finally Barry asked him, "So, what do you do for a living?" "Oh, I play a bit of piano," Elton John replied.
Deserted native villages dot the archipelago.
Check out the depth of this shell midden (we call them garbage dumps today). It was spread out over an impressive area reflecting thousands of years of usage.
Decaying totem pole.
The art is alive and well up and down the coast though. This one at Port Hardy where I painted houses the summer of '65 for my Uncle Don when I was 18. It was a town of less than a 1,000 then. Now 5,000. From here the Glickpersons continued for another two months around Vancouver Island. Along the way they are scheduled to pick up a film crew to continue shooting a documentary on the Father of Modern Marine Ecology, Ed Ricketts.
Note the killer whale motifs on the central longhouse of this modern Indian reserve. I wish I had my long lens for this one. It was brilliant.
The jungle is virtually all second growth, but impressive.
Old stumps from logging a century ago are everywhere. The notches were cut for springboards the lumberjacks stood on to get above the flying buttresses at the bases. Judging by the distance from the notch to the top, this lumberjack must have been tall.
While we beachcombed, Barry often kept tabs on the world on his iphone.
Thus we learned a second, 7.3, earthquake hit Nepal near Everest, an area I know well. The Prologue to my adventure-thiller Thai Gold aka Nepal Gold aka The Bangkok Collection was set there, particularly at Tengboche Monastery in sight of Everest, and on the cover of Nepal Gold. It sustained visible damage on the right. Unfortunately many of the villages mentioned in it were either obliterated or slammed hard and more Nepalese were killed.
We also learned that a close friend of Joni Mitchell has been given custodian rights to look after her health issue. Joni's a loyal Saskatoon girl and her second album (the one that featured Both Sides Now) portrays the Saskatchewan River flowing behind her with Saskatoon's iconic Bessborough Hotel on the right and with her holding the province's floral emblem, a tiger lily. She's one of the most open, candid and emotionally honest people I've met. If she rises from her coma or semi-consicousness I can't imagine her being pleased with the male bovine manure being disseminated on her website that "she's alert and...has her full senses." It's a bit early to claim that a "full recovery is expected." It's all anything but the truth, and that's what Joni is all about. The point of view of this painting is just a block from our home, BTW. (Postscript: as I post this, May 30, it's emerged she likely had an aneurism. She always claimed her defiant chain smoking "grounded" her, it being a likely contributor. Anyway, get well Joni.)
Part of my dream of sailing these waters was to crab, prawn, fish, dig for clams, shuck oysters, and live off the land. We did that and more. I love seaweed, but who would have thought that young bull kelp is delicious steamed and sauteed in butter and salt and pepper?
Are we having fun yet...? We dug about 20 pounds from a hole a foot deep by 1X2 feet.
We shared butter clams-and-spaghetti with ten young marine biologists manning the Salmon Coast Field Station.
We spent a day and half with them, studying their operation while they studied the sea. It was a pleasure to be around such a happy, intelligent, friendly and enthusiastic group of young people focused on unlocking Nature's secrets. Which is what science is all about. Curiosity rules. Here, they're emptying water samples taken at different depths.
Their main focus is on the impact of fish farms such as this, in which Atlantic salmon have been introduced to Pacific waters. There's nothing like the farms to fire passions for and against but complete data isn't in yet. Which is why they're still doing research. In the meantime, they sure are a delicious salmon. I eat it sashimi style - raw - at least twice a week.
Canuck ingenuity. Powering the washing machine.
Filleting sea cucumber. I haven't been taken with them - the ones I've eaten in Thailand are rubbery and flat. But the inside longitudinal muscles, on the other hand, are delicious sautéed in garlic butter! Andrew, one of the young PhDs here and who showed me how to clean them, complimented me by commenting that I caught on faster than anyone he'd taught. But I'm used to filleting fish.
Captain Amanda came up with several for a feast. This is what a tomboy looks like when they grow up.
Along with these humongous sea urchins. The gonads were added to our feast. One of many actually. The Dragon Lady and I caught enough rock fish for two meals.
Our prawn and crab traps both bore, uh, fruit. The Dungeness are also huge up here. Both are incredibly delicious fresh out of the salt chuck. Barry's a helluva cook.
We tried barnacles but couldn't get the knack of opening them. We didn't bother with mussels. I don't care for them. I've only been violently ill twice in Southeast Asia and both times were on mussels. They and the tropical sun while waiting to be cooked by a food vendor don't agree.
We called it the Nosh and Nap Tour. When we weren't sailing or eating Barry and I were snoozing. It was just so relaxing.
We popped corn one sunset. That's Salty Dog.
We also visited 80-year-old Billy Proctor, a local legend and author.
He built an impressive museum (no charge) with his collections over the years.
My jaw dropped when I saw the adzes he beachcombed. They are Neolithic - many identical to those I've dug up in Southeast Asia. The central North American Indians didn't have polished stone tools and most were Mesolithic in form. Clearly the coastal Natives had a cultural link with Asia during this period - and I'm convinced paddled down the coast by water craft. I'm curious what the DNA is on them.
Even their projectile points are different than those found in the interior - double pointed rather than the familiar single pointed ones we find while walking barren fields. Further evidence of a separate lineage.
I think my curly tresses are ready to go bye-bye. We'll be in Europe later this summer in a camper for 2.5 months and long hair is a pain in the ass on the road.
At least hair as fine as mine. I have a rat's nest like this to deal with every morning and I'm getting tired of it, even with conditioners. I got tired of it the last time I had long hair years ago too. But we'll see....
Hair 1972 when I was a hip and groovy DJ.
After we walked the plank and became landlubbers again, we spent a few days with my Uncle Don and Aunt Laurie who were with us on that great Turkish gulet cruise. Their multi-million dollar view at White Rock, just south of Vancouver, off their deck. Even my fish eye lens can only grab half their incredible panoramic view.
Hosting uncles and aunts - with seafood. What else? The Dragon Lady and I keep our families colour coded for convenient and easy identification.
Laurie's a soprano in a local choir and they held their annual concert. The music was great. Don laughed, "Jason, would you have thought thirty years ago that you'd be spending Friday night at something like this?" I conceded, uh, no. Several in the choir and audience were in their nineties and it was comforting to have the MC refer to us sixtysomethings as "kids."
Cousins. And before I bore you with more family stuff, I'll drop anchor here.
Eating the Big Apple: From Bugs
to Borscht to the Soup Nazi (& More)
Every couple of years we go into cultural withdrawal. The cure is Gotham - the capital of the world, with the finest of everything.
Our excuse to go is to attend The Explorers Club Annual Dinner.
The Clubhouse is this Tudor style mansion on the Upper East Side built by an heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune.
I've been a member so long, since 1986, I've been shape shifted from Fellow International to Fellow Emeritus.
The sold out black tie event this year was held at the American Museum of Natural History ably MCed by Catherine Cooke, a contributor to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives. Yes, that's a whale swimming above us.
I organized a Canuck table, mostly friends who have shared past expeditions, though we had guests from Oz (Ally), the US (Nicole) and Robin from Toronto. Long, Tree Stomper, Lady Danger and Captain Hook are here. That's Ally on the right - who landed in the NY Times as the lead picture in the spread they did:
That's Jamie Robinson on the right, with Capt. Hook bookending a member from southern Georgia at our table. The one that was part of Russia, not the y'all one. Jamie invented a fun software program called Magisto. You email in your photos and videos and in minutes it creates a movie. Have a look at what he did with the event - especially if you want to see our bug menu: http://magis.to/KD89AVVUQEQkPD4PYnZLAnw?l=vsm&o=i&c=c
Neil deGrasse Tyson was awarded The Explorers Medal. His acceptance speech was so modest, natural and eloquent he should go into hosting documentaries. He's director of the planetarium at the AMNH. Like so many who were instrumental in building the AMNH - like Roy Andrew Chapman, Margaret Mead, Theodore Roosevelt and Carl Akeley - they were also members of the Club. Indeed, some served as directors of both.
But then we boast many firsts. There ain't no club in the world like it.
How many can you name that have a Scotch named after them?
President Alan Nichols also contributed to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives back when he was a mere member.
Governor Wallace is on our board of directors. You may remember him and wife Meatless in Atlanta from our 2012 Red Deer dino bone expedition.
Uber caver Bill Steele picked up a Citation of Merit. Bill also contributed to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives. He's also been on the national directorship of the Boy Scouts of America for years, an organization I strongly support. It was the best boyhood experience of my youth and taught me a lot about the outdoors. I still use all those knots canoeing. Indeed, Capt Hook, who sailed as first mate with Thor Heyerdahl, is the only person I've met who knows more knots.
"Hey Buzz, you didn't answer my email. I had suggested we sponsor (X)."
"That's because I don't think he's qualified. What has he done but (blah blah blah)?"
"Yes, but (blah blah blah)."
Body language speaks. No. Not this guy.
Okay, differing views. I can see where he's coming from. I appreciate that he also contributed - and provided this front page endorsement.
Su-san spotted a copy in one of our Club libraries. I invited 120 prominent adventurers and explorers to tell me when in their youth their dream was born, that Aha Moment, with turning points leading to their realization. It's available in Kindle at Amazon. I priced it as low as I could but the 121 pictures drove the price up to $4.99. That's why it's not priced at $2.99 like my others. I'm more interested in having readers than making money.
Cocktails and Gene Rurka's exotic food was provided in the rotunda and Akley's Hall of African Animals. Dress is black tie, expedition gear or tribal. Gene is a living treasure in the Club, organizing this feature each year.
We stopped one couple twice to chat because they were dressed in Hmong gear. Su was wearing a Hmong necklace. They had just returned from Southeast Asia.
Ombudsman, Board of Director member and all around great guy Brian Hanson (in Adventurous Dreams naturally) told me later that was Richard Garriott who invented video games which made him a $28 million dollar fortune. Garriott booked aboard Soyuz TMA-13 to the space station, becoming the first American space traveller. Cool. And a cool couple.
The next day everyone filled the Club to bump elbows and brunch. This is the famous Trophy Room where my adventure-thriller The Manila Galleon starts and ends. Several scenes from a recent episode of Forever were shot in the Club, including here.
More readers have told me this is their favorite book of mine, which pleases me to no end of course. I really enjoyed writing it, despite its challenges balancing two separate plots and sets of compelling characters in two time periods that dovetail into a single, larger plot. Portraying New York and Manila accurately in 1704 was especially fun. It's on Kindle for $2.99.
One of the trophies, which I included in my description of the room. The rest of the whale must be that one at the AMNH.
Flags and Honor's Constance Difide in The Trophy Room before the flag Jim Cameron took down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. It's the first time we've met. I've applied for so many flags she calls me her "pen pal."
When we go to New York we make it a feast of 10 days each time. The MET - the Metropolitan Museum of Art - is always our first stop.
And we invariably hone in on the Impressionists, Post-Impressionsists and Dutch school.
I always visit my favorite - Peter Brueghel the Elder's Harvest Scene of 1565. It's one of a series portraying the seasons which form an important watershed in art. For the first time, religiosity is left behind. I especially love him because he gives me the earliest window into my Dutch heritage. In 1982 I was visiting it and thought I was alone, then sensed someone beside me. Glancing over it was Tony Randall.
An intriguing show by a young photog was displayed at the MET.
We never miss a visit to Michael C. Rockefeller's wing. The C stands for Cooked.
It's believed he ended up in an Asmat headhunter's cooking pot in 1961. Before he did so, and while still in his twenties, he put together a brilliant collection. He was an extremely talented ethnologist, something I know a bit about. Yes, he had dad Nelson's money - but he had the eye and heart. If he were alive today I have no doubt but that he would be one of the Club's Greats.
Bis funeral poles.
I do a lot of canoeing but I've never imagined a configuration like this....
An Asmat body mask. It's of a female. You can tell because the mouth is open.
Just a stroll across Central Park is the American Museum of Natural History. Here's Madame Su trying to give away another iPhone like she generously did in Buenos Aires when a jerk pedalled by and snatched it.
It's always a second stop for us. We checked out Margaret Mead's wing. It's where she was given space to fill with the ethnology of Oceana, that area that takes in the South Pacific and South East Asian islands.
While the huge permanent exhibit is beautifully laid out - not cluttered - I was taken aback by her weak eye for top quality ethnographic choices. We have a large collection of Igorot headhunting material (these last two shots) from Luzon, collected long after she was here, and the vast majority of our pieces are far superior, and more representative. It puzzles me actually.
The dino wing was a stop too, of course.
As expected, a lot of the dinos came from the Red Deer badlands and were collected by Barnum Brown and the Sternbergs in the early 1900s.
Last summer our expedition made that major discovery of the best velociraptor ever found in Alberta giving P-rex - Dr. Phil Currie - the opportunity to compare it with its Mongolian cousin.
It was such a major find that its discoverer Coy-san - Clive Coy - landed on the cover of The Explorers Log, distributed internationally to our 3,000+ members. The find warranted a two-page layout inside.
That cute little duckbilled tyke to the right was discovered by P-rex. Baby dino finds are so rare it rates a place in the AMNH. Not only that but his good buddy Jack Horner is right behind him. Both Jack and Phil are in Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives of course.
All that talk about Michael C. has made me hungry. Let's have lunch. These are Su's grand nieces from Toronto, the family twins, Ella and Abby. They attend a school for gifted children. That they're exceptionally bright and talented is obvious from this shot, isn't it?
We were here, lucky to get in it's so popular. Last visit we couldn't. It's on W57th. You're always seeing famous faces in Manhattan. Meredith Vieira was at the next booth.
I also spotted Yoko in front of the Dakota. Huh? That's not Yoko you say? It's Su? Really? Jeez, you'd think after 27 years I'd be able to tell her apart but all these Asians look the same. I thought she was Thai for years.
There's no place as great for dining as New York. Last trip we stumbled on Patsy's and - like everyone from Frank Sinatra on from 1944 - fell in love with it.
It's been a major celeb hangout for 70 years. Frank signed his portrait to Patsy. This is the "old" wall. You can see Tony Soprano to the left.
That's Glorious Leader Joe Frey on the right. Jamie and Long you've met. Wife Diane on left. Besides being a past Explorers Club director and chair of the Canadian chapter, he's currently governor of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society's College of Fellows. He was on the Sir John Franklin Erebus find in the Arctic and wrote it up for The Explorers Journal. I was his wingman in reviving the Canadian chapter from 42 to over 200 members, something we take considerable pride in.
After he returned to Toronto, he decided to do a story on the place and asked me to shoot a few images. That's chef Sal on the left with cousin Frank. Sal, who doesn't lack for friendliness or enthusiasm, showed us a page from a New York tabloid from the day previous. George Clooney and his wife stopped by for dinner.
The meatballs are as light as ping pong balls. Incredible. Sal generously gave us a jar of his spaghetti sauce. Great wop food.
We'd never been here before.
We met Snorkel Master, also on our board of directors. She'll be on our fourth expedition together this summer. They must have seen us coming because they gave us the best seat in the house.
The borscht was excellent but the vereneki, or dumplings, were not Russian! I know, I'm half bohunk. Ukrainian. Rather they were seafood filled ravioli!
I'm used to hilarious typos in Asia - but The Russian Tea Room...? Where everyone who is anyone has been? This place ain't cheap (it's not that expensive either.) We spent a very relaxed three hours.
The lone pissoir. If urinals could talk....
The Tea Room was just two blocks from our hotel...which I'm not going to tell you about...it's too good, and our regular place in Manhattan...and the Soup Nazi was only a block away. The hotel is just three blocks from Central Park, two from Carnegie Hall, a stroll to Times Square. Perfect.
The soup is so good we came back the next day!
And the nightlife? It's like Bangkok. As Frank the goombah sang, it's a city that never sleeps.
Now, I'm not a theater kinda guy. In '82, I think it was, after I did some stories for some cruise line, I checked out three hit shows.
This was another and I can't remember the third, but they were so shallow and silly I swore I'd never go to another. Especially musicals, though Sammy belting out What Kind of Fool am I? at the end was unforgettable. Man, that cat was talented. Don't pass me a karaoke mike. I wish had that talent. I can carry an armload of wet eels better than I can carry a tune, dammit.
Though I was a damned hot music director in radio and had a great ear for picking hits. I love music, who doesn't? Just not musicals. They all remind me of Oklahoma which almost made me throw up. But The Dragon Lady is quietly persuasive...and musicals mean dancers...and dancers mean great legs...and I am a great leg man...and I did enjoy Mama Mia on screen....
Okay then Su-san, how about this one? Oh, it's a spoof. I let her talk me into going to The Jersey Boys. But, hey, I grew up with the Four Seasons. And did I say that Frankie Valli has been a regular at Patsy's for 40 years? As a fellow regular, I gave in.
AND IT WAS GREAT! A meaty story of their rise, challenges and changes, natural street language, and all those great songs done so well.
And what's a visit to Gotham without dropping down to Greenwich Village for some great jazz.
Saxaphones are my favorite jazz instrument. I was really disappointed as the sixties left the fifties behind because the music left the sax behind. The evening was dedicated to the 90th birthday of the late, great James Moody, so it was a very saxy night. The average age of the quintet was old enough to collect old age pensions, and, man, could these old cats play. Like us in The Explorers Club devoted to mentoring the next generation of adventurers, they are too with jazz. They brought up a young couple, around 21 each, who could blow like crazy. The future of jazz is secure.
The quintet included on guitar Russell Malone who acted as the smooth voice of the group. After the set I watched him and, man, is this guy sauve with the ladies. I've never seen anything like it. I don't think he spends too many nights sleeping alone. Even Madame Su-san got swept up in his charm. She bought and he signed one of his CDs. I think she sleeps with it under her pillow.
This amalgam of the Duke and this mask intrigued me.
I'll bet we were the only people in the joint who knew he was blended with Maha-Kola-Sanni, a major demon of Sri Lanka. It was this devil dance cult that Survivorman Les Stroud filmed when I fixed that shoot for him four years ago. We have three of the large masks around the house, including this one.
It had been another great time in New Amsterdam. We dike pluggers know how to have fun.
But after almost seven months (five for Su) on the road we're a little road weary and are looking forward to some home time. And summers on the Canadian prairies are the best in the world, warm and dry. However, we have this compelling invitation to go sailing in BC in a month.... In the meantime, I...may...do a blah blah on the book which IS now done! I polished to my satisfaction the part I wasn't 100% happy with while in New York.
I was Eaten Alive by Man Eating Fish
and Lived to Tell the Tale,
and Other Adventures in Cambodia & Thailand
In 1994 when The Dragon Lady and I were last in Angkor Wat there was a tank, machine gun nest, soldiers with AK-47s and the Khmer Rouge were only 24 kilometers away. We had the Wat 100% to ourselves. Today, 2.1 million tourists pour through here. I knew I shouldn't have written that travel article....
Surrounding the enormous structure, the largest religious monument in the world, is a brilliant frieze.
Angkor as a whole represents, along with ancient Greece, the greatest artistic architectural achievement of ancient times. Some, like the Mayan and Aztec, are crude and often downright amateur. The Egyptian's, stiff.
There's much more to Angkor than just the Wat. Nearby is the causeway over the 100-yard-wide square moat, 5.5 kilometers long, leading to Angkor Thom, the city itself. It's believed to have held a million people, making it the largest city in the world. It flourished from the 9th-15th centuries - though the 12th saw most construction - at which time Ayutthaya, Siam's then capital, overran it. Happily, they didn't vandalize it, which is peculiar behavior for invaders. They wouldn't be treated so well themselves by the Burmese, as we shall see.
In the center of Thom is one of the two crowd pleasers - the Bayon - with it's 54 towers, each with four faces. On our first visit we spent five full days exploring the ruins which spread over a 100-kilometer-site - and on this trip we were surprised at how many we missed. This was because they were off limits then due to land mines. This was one of the world's grandest cities, while Europe largely lived in squalor.
The Elephant Terrace ran for over 100 yards. The king strolled atop it, perhaps casting his mind ahead to important decisions he had to make that evening. As Shiva's living embodiment on Earth, he was forced to keep a couple of thousand concubines. Poor guy.
Outside the moat and nearby is another causeway with me and a row of other dick heads leading to the other crowd favorite.
Ta Prahm, with its figs and banyons intermingling with the ancient ruins, is the other fave. The opening sequence of Tomb Raider was shot here.
Ahhhh. The perfect woman. No head. And gives me a place to set my beer.
The crown jewel though - and the world's single most beautiful temple - is Banteay Srei. It's 24 kilometers north of Angkor. We weren't able to visit the last time because of the bloody Khmer Rouge.
It's not a large temple, but it is exquisite. It predates most of Angkor itself, being built 950-1000AM. The sandstone carvings are the work of a master. That sandstone could withstand that many centuries of monsoons is a revelation in itself.
Being amongst artwork of this beauty imbues a feeling of softness, calm, reverence and admiration. It's an expression of the human creative spirit at its best, brightest and finest. So rare in today's world which so often seems to be going insane and self-destructive.
Our comfortable transportation for the day from Siem Reap, five kilometers away, for only $20.
The last time we were in Siem Reap it was a dusty town of perhaps 1000. Now it's a bloody city. The name is a misnomer. Siem Reap means "Siam Defeated." Well, it was Siem Reap that had the crap kicked out of it. Pub Street, incidentally is the name of all the streets downtown, which keeps it simple for Aussis. The Cambodians are a warm, friendly, sensitive, gentle people - so at juxtaposed opposites to the horror that went on here. I've been following its recovery since its lawless early Wild East days and and am pleased, and warmed and even surprised, that it's emerging as a fine, fine country. Most Cambodians are so young they have no memory of the terror. We'll be returning next year.
Any country where wimmen wander around in pajamas is also my kinda place.
Crocs are everywhere.
Including on the menu. It's the best croc I've tasted anywhere.
The croc pizza, of all things, was outstanding. As was a burger, the best I've tasted since a 1950s style diner near Union Square in San Francisco, which I look forward to returning to next summer.
I love disgusting food, of course, and they even have a menu designed just for me.
Snake, kangaroo, crocodile, dogfish, squid and ostrich. They also sell little BBQed snakes-on-a-stick on the street. This is one of the great exotic food capitals of the world.
Cambodian BBQ is popular for cooking these delights. Madame Su, being Japanese, will eat anything of course.
Asian menus are always hilarious.
Free popcorn...? Anyway, beer is only 50 cents. Prices are excellent in Cambodia, better than Thailand.
Love this one too. If night markets are so popular, why not start at noon?
It was here I was eaten alive by ravenous fish! If I look goofier than usual, it's because I'm laughing.
I'm being tickled to death! Before they stripped the flesh down to the bones I managed to heroically escape. They, of course, eat the dead skin.
We booked at two different places that looked interesting. Here I'm still tweaking that book. I was premature proclaiming its completion. I got a cold which segued into a bronchial condition and the drugs Nurse Hattori prescribed fogged me up more than usual. Writing and polishing was impossible for some time. Like all writers, I'm a perfectionist and as long as the metaphors and tweaks keep coming, I gotta keep writing and appeasing the muse. This is the spin-off to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives and an important book, I feel. As if the others weren't.... But I'm not sending it to my agent in the US until I'm completely satisfied.
The Dragon Lady feels the same way, and has proofed it twice and still isn't satisfied she's caught everything. She's a voracious reader and has copy edited most of my books and done an excellent job, something I'm very appreciate of. She wants it to cool for a few weeks before she does her final sweep. This was taken back in our Bangkok home.
I mentioned that Shiva was big in Angkor (as was Buddha). Here's Shiva's phallus embedded in consort Pavarti's yoni which you see all over Asia.
It even formed our shower head! Do you think I could get The Dragon Lady out from under it?
While there I googled "Dave Walker" and to my surprise learned his last residence was just around the corner! Dave was an old friend, a journo and film maker, who disappeared from his long term guesthouse here Valentine's Day 2014. His body was discovered by kids three months later in bush near Angkor Wat, presumably murdered.
His last digs were modest. He was a good guy, a fellow Canuck living his dream of adventure. He co-wrote Hello My Big Honey, letters from Bangkok bar girls to their boyfriends. His death is still a mystery that confounds the Bangkok writing community.
We love old colonial hotels and this beauty was our second booking. To our astonishment, it turned out to be built in 2006 to look like a century-old French Colonial! Asians are infamous for their instant antiquities and copying everything, but this was a whopper.
At the same time they did such an authentic, quality job, we were impressed. Service was excellent.
We booked an upscale room so we could see what the odd configuration in the back was. It turned out to be the shower! Water sprayed over half the room, he laughs. The door opened out onto the rooftop pool though, which was cool.
Another hilarious typo at Siem Reap's airport. Dufry Shops...duty free shops....
We jumped over to the famous flower festival in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand.
There were 16 floats, bands and hilltribes - including my beloved Hmong - the most artistic tribe in the world. These are the ones I've been studying, admiring and collecting amongst for 35 years.
The bang up festival ended with a finale.
A flower festival is an apropos place to meet an old fellow hippie buddy from my late '60s Vancouver daze. The last time I saw Ron Simpson-(Over-The)-Hill 44 years ago he was 26 and I was 25. He had hair all over the place but it's just on his face now. This is only his second visit to Thailand and he already speaks more Thai than I do - but he speaks bits of 31 languages. Trying to take him anywhere is like trying to herd a pack of puppies full of piss through a forest of fire hydrants. He stops to talk to everyone, or is continually veering off on tangents. Same as in 1971, the last time we kicked around together.
Talking about old hippies, if you were a fan of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers like I was, you well might remember Buckwheat Florida Jr. Meet his modern reincarnation, Bucklee Bell, one of Thailand's two top hilltribe ethnologists (the other is Akha Jim). Back during the Summer of Love in San Francisco he was one of the top underground cartoonists.
He's a very modest guy and always considered himself second string and thus was taken aback back then when the dean of underground artists, R. Crumb, referenced him in one of his cartoons. Crumb is famous for the Keep on Truckin' thing, among other motifs, like the fat women he loves. And this famous album cover:
Four years ago during an interview, Crumb was asked who his favorite underground artist was. Buckwheat Florida Jr. Bucklee was again completely blown away. But thus began a correspondence.
Bucklee aka Buckwheat is still tripping away on paper. This is the lead piece from his showing being displayed at a gallery in Chiang Mai right now. He's tagged it at $1500.00. I love it. And I'm tempted.... Bucklee came to Chiang Mai in 1986 and he's been here ever since and is married to a local gal.
If you're in Chiang Mai swing by Kesorn Arts on Tapae Road and flash a peace sign. He's completely without guile, fascinating company and full of stories that'll set you back laughing til you fall off your chair. Somehow he remembers the 60s. I had the pleasure of sponsoring him into The Explorers Club.
One of Bucklee's - and most local ex-pats' - favorite restaurants is Bier Strube on the moat just down from Tapae Gate. We love old homey, traditional restaurants and this one is great. A fellow writer, Sean Bunzick, introduced it to me a few years ago.
The dish - khao soi - Chiang Mai is famous for is served here. It's a kinda noodly gravy soup.
The happy and friendly Tanapan runs the joint. Chiang Mai is also famous for having the most beautiful women in Thailand, a country blessed with far more than its rightful share, and she's a splendid example. How would you still like to look this beautiful when you're in your late 70s ladies? That's no facelift.
We also had two dinners with James Hightower. An aeronautical engineer for Lockheed for 20 years until he couldn't stomach the war culture anymore, he threw it - and a huge salary - away over a dozen years ago to teach math at a local university where he's perfectly content. Math is something I don't understand. If I didn't have my fingers, I couldn't count to ten.
We also had dinner with Gerry Ivanochko, a retired biologist from Saskatchewan, and his wife Goo. Gerry launched the commercial mushroom industry in Saskatchewan. Now mushrooms are something I understand. In the wet summer of '95 Madame Su and I ate 16 wild varieties and lived to tell the tale. The Audubon's Field Guide to North American Mushrooms is the Bible. But remember: when in doubt, throw it out.
Su never having seen Chiang Mai's most famous mountain top temple, whatever it's called, Gerry generously drove us the next day.
There I met more little Hmong sweeties and learned a new Hmong word: "Mun-eee."
Back in Chiang Mai. It always gives a writer a bump to see his books still on sale, even if they're in a used book store. The gold Thai Gold pocketbook on the left is the original Bantam edition of 1988. Long time to be circulating. The two on the right are Asia Books edition.
Opium Dream is the sequel and I'm pleased to see it's still popular. I didn't see any of The Manila Galleon, but then it wasn't published in Thailand. To my, and Su's delight, we're consistently told by readers that it's their favorite read of mine. It particularly pleases me because it was the most challenging to write, with two parallel stories dovetailing chapter-by-chapter. One in 1702, one in modern times. It's an adventure tale of course, factually based and historically accurate, which is what I strive for in all my books.
We stayed in my usual favorite place. I see they haven't changed their signage, he laughs. Must dry before get out of pool? That'll be a neat trick.
On approach from the Gulf of Thailand to Bangkok's airport. The smog isn't just Bangkok's folks. It covers Asia. Welcome to the 21st century.
We grabbed a cab at the airport to Ayutthaya, Thailand's ancient city, for $38 for the 1.5 hour drive. And in a new a/c Toyota. Cabs are incredibly cheap in Thailand. Founded in 1350, the Burmese trashed the city in 1767, forcing its relocation to the present location of Bangkok 80 kilometers downstream.
Also with an estimated population in 1600 of 300,000 (and a million in 1700), it was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Meandering lakes and klongs, or canals, were everywhere.
Shiva's privates were, uh, big everywhere too of course.
SUSAN!! Damned feminists....
Period architecture forms part of the museum, a style only now going out of favor by "modern" buildings. Yeccch.
It was at the museum a long time mystery was solved. In about 1988 I bought for $5 a little terracotta head like the one in the middle at Bangkok's Weekend Market. I never knew its age or origin. Ayutthaya. It's mounted at home.
Ayutthaya was on an island, and the foreign concessions were outside of the perimeter. I'm pointing at the Dutch concession, or "factory." And here I have what is likely a family connection.
Madame Su points at the Japanese concession, which supplied samurai soldiers as palace guards. Each concession held about 1500 people. Below the Japanese one was the Portuguese.
1636-40 the "factor" or boss was Jeremias Van Vliet. As readers of the earlier New York Blah Blah know, I'm a Schoonover in name only. In the late 1600s in Kingston, New York, one Peg Leg Perrick Van Vliet had a roll in the hay with one Mrs. Debra Van Schoonhoven/Schoonover. After she got knocked up, Peg Leg stumped away as fast as he could, leaving Deb holding the squalling little bastard, my direct ancestor, which she brought up as a Schoonover. 20% of the North American Schoonovers belong to the illustrious Bastard Line. Several members distinguished themselves in acting, from Shirley who co-starred with W. C. Fields in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, to my actor-producer-playwrite ggrandfather who, with a private train car, ran a tent show up and down the midwest from 1906 until the Depression destroyed his business and him. His blood pressure soaring, he died soon after. My Van Vliet line also did well, and in show biz too. Jo Van Fleet was James Dean's mother in East of Eden and Paul Newman's in Cool Hand Luke. General James Van Fleet fought at Utah beach (then a colonel under General Teddy Roosevelt, the late president's eldest son), the Bulge and ran the Korean war for the UN. New York Mayor John Vliet Lindsay also descends from Peg Leg, continuing a long association of my family with that city of cities.
We grabbed the local form of a tuk-tuk down. That Jeremias Van Vliet grew up in South Holland only 24 miles from where my earliest Van Vliet was brought up, and that both were from notable families, it's highly likely they were related. Coincidentally, while Jeremias sailed for Asia in the 1630s my ancestor shipped out for New Amsterdam, now New York, at the same time. I long thought I was the first Schoonover to come to Asia but it appears I'm booked ended between Jeremias and my gggrandfather Wm. Leonard Schoonover II who fought in the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. They must be the source of my adventurous genes.
They spared no expense on the Japanese museum and garden built on site.
The Dutch concession with the original foundation. In the background is the reconstruction, with also an excellent museum.
The Dutch East India Company virtually invented capitalism and had a million employees go through it during its lifespan.
It certainly launched the stock market. After the Brits took over New Amsterdam at the point of a cannon, they little changed the profitable Manhattan structure the Dutch had established - but claimed they were the progenitors. Hardly. That's one of the many Dutch legacies to North America.
Jeremias was more than a trader. He was also a brilliant and highly intelligent writer, with an appreciative and keen eye for Siamese life. He wrote the earliest account of life in old Ayutthaya and his observations jump off the page. His most interesting story concerns this (from the museum):
The drunken buffoons had actually desecrated a Buddhist wat, which infuriated the king. You wouldn't dare do that today in Thailand.
We loved our stay at the Park Guesthouse. Not only is it in the middle of the ruins but Win, the outgoing owner, is a treasure.
Uh oh, a pretty girl. We must be coming to the end of another too-long Blah Blah....
We jumped back to Bangkok for a last feast with the gang - champagne and Peking duck as the first course.
Then, after six fabulous months in Tibet, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand, we winged back to this...? Are we nuts...? There's a reason. We want to get over jetlag before hopping on to one of our favorite cities and events in the world....
Wiggling Deep into the River Kwai's Death Cave - Finally!
After stymied attempts over two years to get back into the Death Cave Sir Rodney Beattie of Id, uh, Oz and I returned to Hintok River Camp for a third go. Hintok Camp was the site of the WW-II POW camp on the River Kwai's Death Railway. Now it's an upmarket resort paying homage to it, and the site of the museum we've been creating with both POW and Paleolithic find from Hintok cave on site and Death Cave a mile away.
With us was a documentary crew made up of newly minted Explorers Club member Les Nordhauser (white shirt on left) of Greenlight Films and prospective and camerman Jesper Brehe Nymand (black). Sir Rodney carries one of the 02 tanks in the red case and I have the other. Two years ago we had to exit the cave fast because of deadly CO2 levels. Last year the new tanks our silent partner, resort owner Khun Suparerk, purchased for us, failed due to a factory misfire.
Shooting a doc means interviews. First Sir Rod before the entrance to the Death Cave.
It's a fun descent.
Getting the 02 ready. You don't go in without an extra light either. Rod was hooked up with a GoPro too.
02 levels were the best ever in the first gallery. We really didn't need the tanks there. But the problems would be further back and down low.
The candle test at the entrance to the wiggle space into gallery two. Whew. No problem.
The crawl space was about fifteen feet long and so narrow we had to wiggle through on our sides. Helps that my nickname as a kid was Skin, short for Skinny.
Rod squeaks through into gallery two.
Our focus! Ten years ago Rod had wiggled in here and spotted what he thought was a collapsed burial jar but he had to exit fast because of bad air. It turned out to be what may have been an offering laid out on a flat "plate" of limestone. The large snail was a Stone Age food and commonly found in offerings, and the location also lent support to the theory.
We took samples.
Professor Ernie Walker, a noted physical and forensic anthropologist in Western Canada, identified them as from a hoofed animal, probably a pig or piccunary-like animal (though the rib was too small to ID as anything).
I sent jpgs of this odd molar to Drs. Keith Hamilton of Saskatoon and San Francisco's Gary Nomura. Both dentists concurred that it was unusual and, if human, was probably a third molar. Prof. Walker identified it as probably a pig's. I'll give him the last word:
"The images you sent to me for an opinion all represent non-human remains. The lumbar vertebrae are from an immature animal. Similarly, the rib is non-human . It is too large and I suspect an ungulate of some sort. The two phalanges are first phalanges from a mature ungulate and very likely a bovid. Anyway it is a split-hoofed animal like water buffalo or some such animal. Finally, the tooth crown is definitely non-human and looks very much like a suiid such as a pig or peccary type animal. There is very little or no wear on the occlusal surface of the tooth suggesting a young animal and in this case, I would suggest the tooth was unerupted and the root portion of the tooth not fully formed. I am not all that familiar with the fauna of Thailand, but clearly these specimens are not of human origin."
Fifteen feet away on a shelf five feet above the cave's floor we found this five-foot-long skeleton, encased in calcium carbonate, a testament to its age. Prof. Walker: "The bones...are non-human in origin. I can identify a femur which is clearly not human. As for the rest, the images are not high quality and taken at an angle, covered with calcium carbonate or sediment, and difficult to identify. A direct overhead shot would be better than an oblique photo." Great - that means we get to return next year. I followed the cave back 75 feet as it somewhat narrowed though it was still a dozen feet across. The floor was littered with waist high boulders. When 02 levels decreased I called a halt and we exited.
We only had the film crew for a day and had to shoot Hintok Cave too. It's another steep descent.
I gathered charcoal from an ancient campfire for carbon dating.
And we shot the museum which has had a soft opening. The title will go in the white space above Su and Rod.
There's still more to do, but it's coming along well.
The display cases still have to be filled properly. Call this rough copy.
Media room where a loop will run showing the interior of the caves and our digs.
If the writing blows you away, it's because I wrote the display cards. Of course.
Wrap up interviews.
My turn again. Fun day!
Taking the High Road to Tibet & the North Face of Everest
Sept. 27 - Oct. 5, 2014
I first fell under the spell of Everest in 1982 when I trekked Nepal's Solo-Khumbu - the greatest trek in the world.
It was the autumn after the Canadian Everest team in the spring with Laurie Skreslet and Pat Morrow reached the summit. Pat subsequently became a friend and pioneered the Seven 8,000M summit quest. My Sherpa had been on the climb and I bought my Everest '82 team toque from him. I've been wearing it canoeing ever since and it was with me on this trip to Tibet. This is the classic shot of Everest from atop Kala Pattar, a small mountain overlooking base camp.
It was here that a brilliant writer began his 170,000 word "tour de force" (Bangkok Post) in his Prologue 1959: "The exhausted Tibetan refugees, strung out thick and thin like a long strand of yak yarn, struggled down the 18,753-foot Nangpa La, or pass, and into the squalor of the Nepalese relief village of Thami...Their ordeal was far from over. It was now a contest less with the Chinese Red Army, breaking in a huge, crimson wave over the rooftop of the world, than with the stark fear of an unknown future...Tragedy of typhoonic proportions was ravishing their land...It was here that one man broke rank and leaned north...Among a people virtually bereft of possessions, he had fewer still, consisting solely of a rounded bundle...it was late in the afternoon—when he struggled up the rough stone steps to Tengboche monastery...Early the next morning—lightened of his load—he took his leave." Nepal gold a.k.a. Thai Gold, The Bangkok Collection.
I repeated the trek in 2002 with The Dragon Lady. Yes, I had that toque with me then too.
She developed cerebral edema and was projectile vomiting at Gorek Shep, the last stop before base camp, and I had to bring her down - fast - which took five days. Despite that, she'd like to return. The awesome beauty and atmosphere do that to you. But that's why she wasn't with me when I headed into Tibet to see the other side of Everest - the daunting North Face. It's over 5000 meters. That's gorgeous Ama Dablum in the background.
There's only one way to go - on an expensive tour - so the control freak Chinese can keep tabs on you. Christ, if they didn't invent red tape, they "improved" it. It takes two weeks to get a Tibetan visa, and then there's the Chinese one to get as well. Fortunately, this is handled by the travel agent. The road started well from Kathmandu, following a fault line, or gorge, all the way to the Tibetan plateau.
It degenerated into the worst road I've been on, even worse than the old 1995 "road" up to Sapa, North Vietnam, and I thought it was unbeatable.
One huge section was taken out by a massive landslide that also took out three villages and 155 lives. It took over two hours on foot to pick across this mess, and that's with a porter.
We passed this huge muscovite mica boulder (and thanks to Denis and Marc St-Onge for identifying it). It was seven feet long and brilliantly gleaming, the most gorgeous rock I've seen.
So what do you get for $335CAN a day for an eight night/nine day tour? For starters, a Toyota Land Cruiser, driver and a guide. When I learned my companions would be fellow Dutchmen, I was pleased - and relieved. The thought of spending a week with a legendarily haughty couple from Paris would be awful. Reinier is a bankruptsy and corporate lawyer so he doesn't have to lie as much as his colleagues, and Kim is a freshly minted lung doc. They quickly proved to be A+ company, well read and international in outlook, but then I expect that from the Dutch (really).
And you get this in the beginning, sometimes sharing. The first few days were surprisingly tough, with long days driving - and the altitude quickly kicked in, despite Diamox to fight its effects. Oh, we also got the following the first days....
This one I liked for, as there's no contact between bottom and top, so as to speak, they're more sanitary than our thrones. But for the rest, I took my travel agent's advice and just went out in the wild. Thanking the lucky stars that, before I was born, I got in the right lineup when they were handing out sexes and I chose one with a tap.
But as we drove further east it got more civilized and, indeed, we had great accomo.
Mmmmm. Yak tongue. Delicious. (It was!) Their national beer is, unlike the country, pretty flat though.
The 865 kilometer long "Friendship Highway" isn't that friendly. Not when there's 3-4 military or police checkpoints everyday. Everyone has to go through them and your papers better be in order. Mine weren't at the border and there was a delay of two hours while my guide sorted it out. Photos of checkpoints etc are verboten, so there's none here. But they're not all jerks. At the border bridge a young official was questioning me about the cash I was carrying - then grinned and said, "You look cool!" Well, I guess if that other old guy in the Dos Equis ads can look cool, I guess I can too.... And I was on my way.
The highway is in excellent condition for the most part. It's a show off highway for the Chinese. This is fast developing into one of the most famous road trips in the world.
One of the reasons is Everest, of course, and here we had to leave the highway for 70 k of horrible roads that required a land cruiser. Our driver drove like a rally driver but it still took four hours of being jostled. It often wasn't so much of a road as a web with new trails being pioneered by vehicles.
Our destination was Rongbuk Monastery, the highest in the world and within sight of Everest. Mallory passed through these doors too.
We Dutch tripled up in a room in their guesthouse, the open square at top right. None of us got much sleep. The altitude was getting to us.
The next morning early we drove to an area of tent hotels, then caught the shuttle bus to base camp in time for sunrise over Everest! Incredible! Gorgeous! Magnificent!
Of course I donned my trusty Everest 82 toque. Everest is washed out in the background. It was bloody cold and the highest altitude reached on the trip, 5360m. Actual base camp is the gravelly area below us and there was a set of tents (on the white line just above my head). Spring is the best climbing season, of course. Just to climb this hill for the epic view took our breath away - and it wasn't Everest. It was the thin air. I emailed this picture to Morrow. He asked if I found ancient monk's cave retreats off to the left that was a highlight of his trip but I had to reply that the bloody Chinese didn't let us roam around.
We crossed several passes in the 5000m range, all festooned with prayer flags.
It was harvest season and it seemed like the whole country grew nothing but barley.
Half way through the trip I began to be aware of the size of the houses. Enormous. They were all I could see. Whole villages of them. Farm houses. I didn't see anything small period.
And I began to question how people with a couple of yaks, several acres of barley and a bit of livestock could afford to live like this.
These are houses heated by yak dung. Those aren't neat loaves of bread. They're a winter's heating supply.
You see it drying everywhere.
Well, of course: they're all Potemkin Villages. The Chinese want you to think they brought this level of prosperity. Away from the highway, the homes are normal sized. This was confirmed to me by a young man I met in Lhasa. So eager was he for the truth to get out he risked talking about political matters with us. Before we left, our travel agent warned us pointedly to avoid talking politics. There's agents everywhere and the Tibetans can get into very serious trouble for speaking openly.
The Chinese control the speed limit in a unique way. Each checkpoint it's noted on your papers what time you arrived. If you arrive at the next early, you're ticketed. They don't post the limits. Cops tend to be jerks everywhere; it's in their DNA. Here they're far worse.
It's so artificially low that the driver has to doddle, then make a "rest" stop for 20-30 minutes before continuing to the next checkpoint.
Shigatse, at 80,000, is Tibet's second city and it's been overrun by the Chinese.
It's also the traditional home of the Panchan Lama, the #2 after the Dalai Lama. Built beginning in 1447 Tashihunpo Monastery is either 700,000 or a million-square-METERS depending on which of their literature you read. It sprawls over a vast area.
It, like the other monasteries in Tibet, once housed thousands of monks. Now each of the majors only has a few hundred. The Chinese would love you to think this reflects a lack of interest, that Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is dying. The truth is that the control freaks in Beijing control how many monks there are to give that impression....
Here we began our exercise in getting monasteried out. Photos inside monasteries are also verboten, but this one was allowed. Colorful Tantric Buddhism is a Tibetan stew made up of Hinduism, Buddhism and the original animistic Bon belief. It's from the latter they get their prayer flags - which send prayers to the gods of the mountains and sky.
These colorful ladies on pilgrimage from the far north were thoroughly bemused at all the people snapping their picture.
The photos are of the last three Panchan Lamas. The one on the right is controversial as he was chosen by the Chinese in Beijing where he's kept. The six-year-old chosen by the Dalai Lama in 1995 is the "misssing" Panchan Lama. The Chinese claim he's in protective custody so he "won't be spirited out of the country." He well could have had a bullet to the head, the preferred manner the Chinese have to eliminate people they don't want.
It looks vaguely like the Potala Palace but it ain't. It was an ancient fortress destroyed by the Red Guards in '66 and since rebuilt. The dark remnant to the right is how it looked previously. Mao may have been a talented revolutionary but he reached his level of incompetence as national leader. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are both testimonies to that. Both are exactly opposite to their titles.
It was at the village of Guru near Gyantse here shown that that racist, if colourful, British imperialist Francis Younghusband in 1904 slaughtered 600-700 Tibetans while "suffering" 12 wounded while invading the country. His soldiers had Maxim machine guns and wanted glory; the Tibetans flintlocks and swords and got it. Victorian England was outraged. Unbelievably, he later became president of the Royal Geographic Society, though his contributions to the geography and ethnology of the region are impressive.
Small Gyantse was easily my favorite place. You can walk across it. The Chinese influence is minimal.
Finally, after the usual daily gauntlet of checkpoints and "rest" stops, we neared Lhasa. The Tsangpo runs through it. By this time I had a pretty good feel for how tightly the Chinese control this country. Very. It's suffocating.
What can you say about the Potala...? It's just magnificent - and far bigger up close than I imagined. They may be superstitious about other things but the 13 floors doesn't faze them.
The Dalai Lama's living quarters were here, in the penthouse, of course. Unfortunately, photos were verboten as usual. Paradoxically - considering he had all that room - his living space was tiny. His bedroom couldn't have been more than 12X14 feet. Some of the tombs of past Dalai Lamas inside were larger, enormous sarcophagi of gold, silver and baseball sized jewels. Chou Enlai sent troops to protect the palace during the madness of the Cultural Revolution.
This is the tower he lived in. Here, Master takes a picture of Slave Girl Kim. Dr. Kim's ancestors were slaves on Curacao. Reinier loves the names I nicked for them.
We weren't allowed (of course...) to go on the roof to see the Dalai Lama's view. These were shot half way down.
While the Potala was the winter palace, the summer palace was on the palatial and enormous gardens of Norbulingka. That brilliant writer from his Prologue 1959 again: "Even the Dalai Lama—the Living Buddha, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet—had been forced to flee, on March 17, from Norbulingka, His summer palace in Lhasa. Disguised as a soldier, He had mixed in with some 30,000 of His loyal followers who had protectively surrounded His compound, not a few of them having been machine-gunned by the Red Hordes."
The Dalai Lama's comfortable final residence built 1954-56. The rooms are large, the feel eminently liveable. The bathroom is modern 1950s: tub, sink and throne. The other throne. One wonders, as he was rushing out in that soldier's disguise, if he turned back for a last, lingering look....
The old town is dominated by Jokhang Monastery, the most important in the country.
The views from the roof are the best. Inside are the usual ancient statues, often humongous.
Overlooking Barkhor Square, you can see the Potala in the distance.
The monastery is about a block in size and it's surrounded by this street. Hundreds of pilgrims circumambulate around it clockwise, twirling their prayer wheels, each filled with paper prayers that are sent to their pantheon of Buddhist gods. They thus gain merit and a chance for a better reincarnation. I got sucked into the vortex a dozen times in my three days there. My hope is to be reincarnated as Hugh Hefner as a young man.
Lhasa has a great feel to it - calm, tranquil, peaceful. Great vibes. The sides streets are narrow mazes fun and fascinating to explore.
One of the greatest people watching cities in the world. A camera battery usually lasts me six days. I burned through one is two. Distilling them down for this Blah Blah was a challenge....
Up and down they go doing their prayers before the temple.
Some slowly work their way around the entire temple to gain merit, like this little girl who was making a ton of money from passersby. I've never seen such generosity anywhere, people giving money to beggars and impecunious pilgrims in from the back country.
But it's not all peace and tranquillity, especially around the March anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape when the borders often slam shut. Immolations protest his exile and Tibet's loss of freedom. Most are centered at Kirti Monastery in Sichuan. The bulk of the Tibetan population of three million lives along the border with China, or in the proximate provinces. Lhasa is 400,000. According to the Chinese 90% are Tibetan. I don't believe it. the new vast suburbs are all Chinese.
As of this writing, 133 have self-immolated. It peaked in 2012. Surrounding the Lhasa monastery - of course - are more checkpoints with airport type x-ray machines. Baskets at the ends are filled with BIC lighters. There's police kiosks in the square and surveillance cameras. I fell into a conversation in a shop with a thirty-something young man who had been caught up in a sweep at the monastery during the first outbreak in 2008. He described being in a cell with 40 other prisoners so crowded they had to sleep sitting up. He spent eight months that way. He said 70% of Tibetans hate the Chinese for the cultural genocide they have wrought on their country, despite the economic advantages they have also brought. The Tibetan language is even being phased out. If you want to get ahead, you must speak mandarin.
By the time I was to leave, I couldn't wait to get out of the country. The Tibetans are great, but feeling the oppression they live under - and the oppression even directed at me - I was so wired I woke at 1am for a 7am pick up to take me to the airport. I did not want to miss my flight out....
Winging back to countries where I can think and do as I please, as long as I don't harm anyone else.
Tibet was a real eye-opener, and I got to check off a couple of things - Everest and Polala - off my bucket list. I also made friends with a great couple. Well, hey, as I say, they're fellow Dutch so they have to be. The only difference is my ancestors left almost 400 years ago for New Amsterdam, so I'm a little rusty with the mother tongue.
Let's finish as I often do - with a pretty girl. She's Chinese but they're certainly not all bad. It's the ones running the show in Beijing.
Fossils go Fossil Hunting - August 2014
There was a full moon glowing when we arrived at Namew Lake in remote northern Saskatchewan. No, wait, that's me. Speedboat Doug landed in his floatplane, Frank flew his Piper into the homemade strip slashed out of the jungle, and Ol' Griz and I arrived in a rented boat. It wasn't supposed to be a rental but more on that humorous tale later.
We were here to do a fossil survey. When I last flew in...three to four years ago (more on this later too)...with Frank to his cabin I was flabbergasted upon landing to see fossils everywhere on the limestone ledges surrounding the lake! He hadn't told me about them! His cabin was a boat ride away and there the beach was disappointingly pebbly.
One of the few pieces I found was this remarkable specimen. Not only was it freckled with fossils but, because of its natural shape as an axe, an early native had tried to knap the edge! But, seeing limestone is too soft for that purpose, abandoned it. I swore I would return to do a survey.
And return I did after doing my homework. Fossils of this sort are exceedingly rare in Saskatchewan. Namew is on the old fur trade Voyageur highway just north of Cumberland House on the Saskatchewan River and the old explorers and fur traders would have hated it. It's about 13 miles long by over four wide and you can count all the islands on one hand, if you're missing more fingers than even Frank (one paw is useless for hitchhiking). Any kind of wind and it turns into a cauldron. Unlike the rest of the "highway" that goes through Canadian Shield, Namew is on a tongue of Ordovician period limestone that licks in from Manitoba.
It's the light blue strip that turns south and sweeps down past and including Winnipeg. Just to the northeast is Garson, home of the century old Tyndall stone quarries.
They produce a famous stone in Canada used in everything from our Parliament Building in Ottawa to institutions and buildings everywhere.
Closer to home they form the foundation layer of Toontown's iconic Bessborough Hotel, just across the river from our place. The stone is used widely in the city's downtown and it's loaded with fossils. Indeed, that's where I started my fossil hunt.
Formerly Eatons. Note the white fossils in the upper right. There's at least 20 buildings downtown made of Tyndall.
That's a nautiloid in the upper right. The dark, splotchy pattern was formed by some kind of unknown aquatic wormlike animal, the burrows filling in and fossilizing and giving Tyndall stone its trademark look.
The Limestone that stretches up from Garson to Namew is Ordovician and bloody old. To put things in perspective here's a simplified geological chart:
Quaternary – Last 2 million years, time of the Ice Ages
Tertiary – Age of Mammals
Cretaceous – Age of Dinos, til the asteroid hit Mexico 65 million years ago ruining their seista
Jurassic – Same
Triassic – Same
Permian – Noted for the greatest of all extinction events
Carboniferous – When the great coal fields were laid down
Devonian – Age of Fish, when the oil fields were laid down
Silurian – The first animals crawled onto land
ORDOVICIAN – 488-443 million years ago. Near the end, the first plants were believed to be taking root on land
Cambrian – 541-485 million years ago, the first explosion of life able to be fossilized, as made famous at Burgess Shale in British Columbia
And then we’re into the Pre-Cambrian 500,000,000 years ago when life was at the microbe level. So the Ordovician is old old!
Namew was then at the bottom of a shallow ocean and the continents didn't look anything like they do today. Indeed, Namew was closer to the equator and Africa was slamming into the eastern seaboard, ramming up the Appalachians to Himalayan heights.
Finally, after "three or four years" away, I organized a team to return. Both Speedboat Doug and Ol' Griz had been on my Red Deer dino bone expedition. I should have seen problems ahead when I saw Ol' Griz's ancient boat, the paint peeling....
The long drive north was partly over gravel roads and all through the bush. Griz stopped in The Pas, Manitoba, to stock up on supplies. He serves as my fashion advisor.
Once at Sturgeon Landing, the put in, we loaded up the boat with the expedition's supplies - there was barely enough room for us - and fired up the engine. But when he tried to push the throttle forward it was jammed in neutral. An hour later as we (well, he) were trying to piece the thing together we discovered that we were sinking! The boat was rotting out. Good thing we didn't get out on the lake. Thus, the rental.
But we spent a hilarious evening up until midnight sipping Scotch and cracking jokes at his expense. My suggestion was that he sell the boat to a cruise liner as an anchor. Fortunately Ol' Griz is noted for his easy going nature, he laughs.
It was that same evening I got the shock of my life. Now, I'd been telling everyone it had been "three to four years" since Frank and I last flew up to his cabin. At that time I shot this picture of him and his buddy Ted, his partner in the cabin and one they had just purchased. It was an inauguration picture, with the two of them pretending to swig from whisky bottles (or were they pretending...?). I had framed it and dropped it off at Frank's farm in Carrot River on a later visit.
Flipping the picture over I was stunned to see that it wasn't "three to four years" - but rather THIRTEEN YEARS! It was just after I had returned from New York, and just two weeks after the Twin Towers came down! Either my mind is going...or, and I prefer to think this is the case, those fossils left such an indelible impression on me it only seemed like three to four years....
Anyway, with two boats, we started our survey. We had three full days to cover the lake. That's bush pilot legend Walter Johnston's cabin he built in the '50s, Frank's dad-in-law.
We'd land and spread out in the either direction, walking the ledges.
Sometimes the stacked ledges reminded me of seating in Roman colosseums. The fishing, incidentally, was incredible, despite it being August and normally a time they're not biting. Inside of a half hour we'd always have our fill of walleye for the evening and, boy, do they taste great coming out of a clear limestone lake..
And did we find fossils? You betcha. All trace fossils, the kind that leave impressions.
These half moon tracks were everywhere, in all directions.
I suspected horseshoe crabs were the culprits but upon investigation, they make a very different track. But they were around then, one of the few species with that kind of longevity.
These were common as well, molds of a colonial coral, probably Palaeophyllum according to Dr. Graham Young, Curator of Geology and Paleontology at The Manitoba Museum. I had sent photos to Denis St.-Onge, emeritus senior scientist at the Geological Survey of Canada and a fellow Explorers Club member and friend, and he had routed them to colleagues who specialize in this period. Another mold is below..
But - by far - the most common fossil we found were nautiloids and we found at least 100 of them. Graham says it's a cephalod siphuncle, possible of Armenoceras.
They're cephalopods, related to squid and octopi and were probably the major predator of the time.
Note the "wings" on this one.
Their only living descendent is the beautiful chambered nautilus and, it, sadly, is under seige because of its beauty. I remember being on assignment for Filipino Tourism in 1985 and I was at one of their top resorts, Tambuli near Cebu, to do a scuba diving story and we enjoyed sipping cocktails from them in the outdoor lounge.
99% of all species that ever lived are extinct so for something to survive through so many mass extinctions is impressive. They're living fossils. Most living species last only a few million years. Dinos, like T-rex, ran their course in under two million. Mammal species last a million years and rarely over 10 million and the way we're going, racing headlong like lemmings this century towards the cliff, we won't make that. We're speeding towards a major meltdown, to mix metaphors, but we're an incredibly adaptable species so some will survive to rummage through the garbage and poisoned air, at least for awhile. And after we're too extinct Nature will recover and move on in her ineffably creative manner and we'll just be one of her more interesting, if infinitely destructive, experiments. We're such a quixotic blend of intelligence and utter stupidity. In the meantime, before the coprolite hits the fan, I'm going to enjoy it.
We surveyed 80% of the lake. The north shore was rocky, not conducive to a search. Likewise, the channel that reached down towards Cumberland House, the route of the old fur traders, was largely broken up into rocks too. Only one stretch for a quarter of a mile was rich - and boy was it so. It was the reach opposite Frank's cabin, on the northwest side of the peninsula.. It was easy to imagine one was walking over the bottom of an ancient sea. Loose fossils, however, were rare. This one has a nautiloid running along the top.
And I found this water worn pebble on Frank's beach with the remains of a receptaculite. It's nicknamed the sunflower coral but no one knows if it was a coral or an algal mass. It's extinct too.
One as seen on the Federal Building in Saskatoon. The surprise was how few different species we found. Nautiloids predominated, although the Ordovician saw a radiation from the profusion of the Cambrian. Another mystery, but life is full of them and it's the curiosity to learn how it all works that is so much fun to seek out. I wasn't disappointed at all, but rather satisfied. I now, after, uh, three to four years of impatiently waiting, had Namew cased.
The living fossils! Next - the north face of Everest in Tibet and you can bet I'll be watching for fossils there too.
Solo Paddling Amisk Lake, Saskatchewan
July 8-16, 2014
Tom Thompson, who painted The West Wind, the iconic Canuck painting above, wasn't too bright. He spent all day in the wind and rain to do it, swarmed by black, deer and horse flies as well as mosquitos.
Whereas I just snapped a picture, then crawled back in my tent for a snooze. I call my masterpiece The North Wind and I'm sure it'll be just as famous. The only difference I can see is wind direction, and I even have two evergreens.
After that great dino expedition, I craved solitude so headed north to Amisk Lake. That's Cree for beaver. Anything to do with beaver I'm attracted to, of course.
I swung by my old boyhood summer camp - Camp Tapawingo on Candle Lake. I was here in 1957, 1958 and 1959 and loved it. I also loved that it is basically little changed, including using the same shacks we bunked in as kids.
The big change is that it now serves mixed sexes, which is cool. I took my Red Cross Junior, Intermediate and Senior swimming badges here. Later in life I added a NAUI scuba ticket and a Royal Life Saving Bronze Medallion, or lifeguarding ticket.
My first campsite on Amisk was on a fascinating site - an ancient lava flow. This whole ledge is the flow.
They're all but unheard of in Saskatchewan. This one was especially intriguing because it obviously flowed through an ancient river, or along a shore line, picking up rounded river rocks. And then the flow was ground flat by mile thick Ice Age glaciers.
The geology in this area is fascinating and, indeed, it's a major mining area. Just 18k away is Flin Flon, Manitoba, with its copper and zinc mine. Gold mines are dotted all around Amisk. I shot this at my second campsite. Looks like an abstract painting and I love abstract, visual jazz.
The brief may fly hatch was on and the sky was thick with them. Magical time to be paddling.
I'm often asked why I solo paddle each year. There's many reasons, one of the foremost being to keep Nature Deficit Disorder at bay. Being brought up in the bush, and early falling in love with Nature, I need to plug back in regularly. A kid brought up in the city won't be able to understand this, nor, sadly, know what they're missing. My annual week away rejuvenates me.
I relish the tranquillity, the silence, the peace, the ineffable beauty. The low of the breeze through the pines, the lap of waves, soft clunk of paddle against the ash gunwale, the crackle of a campfire, the sizzle of bacon.... I feel so lucky to live in a part of the world where there's still one of the last, rare, great chunks of unspoiled wilderness - imagine 100,000 pristine lakes and rivers. You can't see the air. I dip and drink right out of the ocean.
The flutter of the breeze through the birch and lap of the waves washes my senses clean. I feel...good. Happy. Content. Relaxed. I sleep 9-10 hours a night.
Instead of carrying on a conversation with the rest of the world, I can carry one on with me. I like my own company, enough that I've been around the world solo four times. I even laugh at my own jokes....
The circuit around the big island at the top of the lake is 30 miles. I normally do longer stretches. I also relish the challenge, physically and mentally. Testing my bush and paddling skills against whatever Nature throws at me - and out here one is ruled by the Wind and Weather. They were good to me for the first few days....
And then the coprolite hit the fan.
For three days I was storm bound on this tiny island's ledge with nowhere to escape the north wind roaring - yes, roaring - down from the Arctic, dropping temperatures to 51F at night.
Fortunately I had my field guides to local geology, plants and fossils to keep me company. And my tent and sleeping bag are top notch so I was warm and comfy and put the time to good use. Is this a stromatolite...?
Between squalls and strong gusts I explored the ledge (though I shot these after the storm). It had been gracefully carved by the Ice Age. The striations are clearly visible.
The ledge was made of Green Stone - Greenstone Belts worldwide being areas of mining. Just beneath the thin shell on the maroon and oxidized surface was the green stone itself.
A new insect to me. It had a soft, velvety body. Cute little feller. Too small to eat so I left him.
The storm finally broke. By this time I was only a day away from dipping into my extra day emergency rations, then I'd be onto buddy Les Stroud's Seven Day Diet Plan.
So I paddled the final 10-mile leg out. Here's a typical example of what the Ice Age did in shaping the Canadian Shield. This granite drumlin's high nose on the right is pointed into the northeast wind - the direction the glaciers pushed down from. And it tapers off to the southwest, or the left.
And this is all horse coprolite. I was really in Vegas.
Hangin' out with my buddies.
And strippers. Hot strippers.
Partying it up. Here's the last picture of me before I was medivaced back.
But that's what I tell The Dragon Lady each year - that I'm "going solo canoeing."
If she really knew, there'd be coprolite to pay. But I know she never reads my Blah Blahs so I'm safe in confiding in you. Just the same, let's go back to the charade.
A very typical island nose with striations. The greenstone Shield is 2.7-3 billion year old and is the root of what was Alpine high mountains deep in the past.
Heading back to Toontown I swung through my old home town of Carrot River and our old family home. When we bought this bungalow from the local dentist (who was selling to run back to Ontario) in 1956 it was one of the best houses in the 900 person town.
Now it's little more than a shack. Sad. But at least it's still standing. The roof should have been changed 20 years ago. The current owners have never heard of paint. Such are the vicissitudes of life....
I also swung through Yellow Creek, the Ukrainian village (then 160) where I started school and one of my favorite all time places to have lived, to visit some genuinely old friends. Louis on the left is 85 and Mike is 89. Mike, a month older than my mother, remembers playing in the dirt with her, making roads and such, when they were about five. I like geezers even older than me. There's getting to be fewer and fewer of them....
But I'm still paddlin'! Or at least that's what The Dragon Lady thinks. Took me a few days to recover from Vegas after this "solo" though....
Dinosaurs of Alberta's Red Deer River II Expedition
(On which we find six dinosaurs! Plus a major discovery!)
June 13-28, 2014
Alberta's Red Deer badlands have the highest concentration of dinosaur bones in the world, with the World Heritage Site of Dinosaur Provincial Park being Ground Zero. In 2012, with paleontologist Dr. Philip Currie as Field Leader, we explored a 52 mile section upstream of Drumheller. This time our 18-person expedition explored the very richest run, from Drumheller down through and past the Park. We concentrated on a 112 mile section from Bleriot Ferry above Drumheller to Jenner Bridge. That's the distance including twists and turns like the numerous rattlesnakes we met (who taught us the Watusi high jump), not like a pterodacyl flies.
80,000,000 years ago at river level, approximately 45 species are found in the Red Deer's badlands with this number decreasing as you move up over the 15,000,000 years exposed in the canyon to about 25 and finally six where Birdman sits 65,000,000 years ago (he's older than he looks). There are none in the last two meters below the K-T Boundary (created by the iridium rich asteroid that slammed into the Gulf of Mexico 65,000,000 years ago splashing sunbathers at Cancun and officially marking the end of the 170,000,000 year dino reign). It's sites only in the corridor running down from Alberta to Texas that reveal their last 10,000,000 years and they're consistent; it's become a modern myth, one that's deeply entrenched, that the asteroid was solely to blame. Sorry, it ain't so, not from the evidence. For another thing, if the asteroid was solely responsible, there should be dinos laying deep everywhere but they just ain't there either. This evidence indicates that the dinos were very possibly toast before the asteroid.
Phil Currie and wife and palynologist (studies fossil pollen etc) Eva Koppelhus were joint Field Leaders and I was Team Leader. Tyrannosaurus phil is the recipient of The Explorers Club's highest honour, The Explorers Club Medal, and all three of us are awardees of the Club's Stefansson Medal. This time we had the honour of carrying Explorers Club Flag #134. It's the most illustrious flag of the six I've carried, has been to both poles with a friend, Marek Kaminski, and has been carried by two Club presidents and another close friend, Joel Fogel:
"The Explorers Club Flag is a symbol of courage and fidelity. The award of the flag is a significant accomplishment. Since 1918, the flag has been carried to all of the Earth’s continents, as well as under the sea and into the stars. To date, 850 explorers have carried the flag on over 1450 expeditions. A select handful of the 202 Explorers Club flags have been framed and now decorate the Club house in New York. These include flags carried by Roy Chapman Andrews, Bob Bartlett, Thor Heyerdahl, Naomi Uemura, and miniature flags carried aboard the Apollo 8 and Apollo 15.
"Your expedition will now become part of the rich history attached to this flag. Earlier expeditions include:
H.R.H. Peter of Greece/Denmark 1948 3rd Danish Central Asia Expedition
H.R.H. Peter of Greece/Denmark 1953 Danish Central Asia Expedition
John C.D. Bruno 1985 The High Tartra Expedition to Poland
Alan H. Nichols 1986 Xinjiang-Tibet Mountain Bike
Melvin Marcus, Ph.D. 1986 West Gulkana Glacier Research Project
Joel S. Fogel 1987 1987 Yangtz River Expedition
James H. Smith, Jr.1989 Cueva Cheve Expedition
Donald G. Geddes, III 1990 St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica Columbus Caravels Survey
Evan Davies 1994 Rainforest Land Use Survey Expedition
Evan Davies 1998 The Illa Tiki Expeditions' Manteno Voyage
Alan H. Nichols 1998 Journey II Cycling the Silk Web
Matthew Stubbs 2002 Yukon 2002:Expedition & Environmental Survey
Marek Kaminski 2004 Together to the Pole
Marek Kaminski 2004 Together to the Pole - Antarctica
Charles J. Moore 2009 Algalita Marine Research 10 Yr. Retrospective Gyre Survey
R. Craig Cook 2012 Phoenix Island
Robert Schmieder 2013 The Clipperton Project
Robert W. Butler 2013 The Salish Sea Expedition"
Explorers Club members who flew in from across Canada and the US, L-R: Tony Mayo, Lee Treloar, Dr. James Anthony, Jessica Lansfield, Dr. Phil Currie, Dr. Eva Koppelhus, Jason Schoonover, Jessica Lindsay Phillips, Rob Tymstra, Susan Hattori, Capt. Norman Baker, Kumiko Yokoyama, Clive Coy.
Tyrannosaurus phil drew up the objectives of our expedition:
Background: The Red Deer River cuts through a series of Upper Cretaceous rocks that produce a succession of dinosaur faunas that represent the last fifteen million years of non-avian dinosaur history on the Earth. In 2012, Explorer’s Club Flag Expedition #176 worked its way down the upper part of the sequence, looking for new dinosaur specimens, and old dinosaur sites with historical significance (and the potential of additional work). The expedition succeeded in its objectives, and follow-up work is being done by the University of Alberta in 2014. The trip ended in Drumheller in 2012, and the intention was always to continue the trip farther downstream in 2014.
The 2014 Expedition: On June 13, 2014, eighteen members of the Explorer’s Club will put their canoes into the Red Deer River carrying Flag #134 just downstream of the Bleriot Ferry. The rocks in this area represent the lower part of the Horseshoe Canyon Formation, which has produced numerous dinosaurs of the Edmontonian Land Mammal Age. Over the next two weeks, they will work their way downriver, stopping at exposures to look for new dinosaur fossil sites, and to attempt to re-find several quarries that had been worked by early dinosaur hunters before the availability of good topographic maps and GPS. The expedition will pass through the lower beds of the Horseshoe Canyon formation, the marine beds of the Bearpaw Formation (which are unlikely to produce dinosaur fossils, although occasionally good skeletons of dinosaur cadavers that had drifted out to sea have been found), the world-famous beds of the Dinosaur Park Formation, and the upper part of the Oldman Formation, and will emerge from the badlands at Jenner on July 28th. Any dinosaur skeletons with good potential for excavation will be worked in subsequent years by the University of Alberta. However, in addition to the specimens, a significant amount of data (on the stratigraphic and geographic distribution of palaeontological resources) will be collected and incorporated immediately into several palaeoecological studies that are assessing the changes in dinosaur diversity as they approached the extinction event of 65 million years ago.
Tyrannosaurus phil and the Danish Delight in their brand new 17'6" Kevlar Hellman Prospector. He's still catching on to the J Stroke, named in my honour.
Due to cattle and heavy siltation, the Red Deer is not potable. Each person was required to bring 13 gallons. That added 260 pounds to each of our nine canoes.
We launched with the traditional popping of champagne. Getting back to Nature - and seeking to unlock her secrets - is always reason to celebrate.
All good expeditions begin with maps. Love 'em.
Each evening I announced our river and dinner plans for the following day, then turned it over to Tyrannosaurus phil who programmed the field. Most of our 18 were amateurs and he told them what to look for - particularly articulated specimens - to leave them in situ and to take GPS coordinates. For smaller pieces, to bring them for identification to him, Eva The Danish Delight, Clive (P-rex's brilliantly talented technician from the University of Alberta where P-rex teaches), or me, though I'm certainly the least knowledgeable, though I've been bone hunting since 1979 and my first of four paddles down the Red Deer River.
For this purpose members grouped around those of us with GPSs.
A final briefing about the dangers. Spread out - 18 sets of eyes are better than two - but stay in nothing smaller than pairs. Don't let anyone get out of sight. Drink lots of water. Watch for sinkholes. At the first splash of rain, get down. The bentonite - a volcanic layer which is so slippery it's used in everything from drilling mud to soap - is deadly slippery. Oh, and watch for rattlesnakes once we reach Dinosaur Provincial Park. We knew when that was because the prolific voles disappeared....
We were running into up to four rattlers a day. I was ducking under a fence gate when I heard the first of several familiar buzzes - causing me to do the Watusi. And I had only walked down the trail a mere 20 feet further when I saw this guy lurking in the grass, though I'm not sure, it might be a bull snake. Actually, I kinda like rattlers. They're considerate, and give you fair warning, which a lot of others don't do, but rather just sink their fangs into you. If you give our rattlers time, they're happy to slither away. Our Canuck rattlers are like us, polite and nice.
Well, this one Birdman shot don't look so friendly....
We had an even closer call paddling through Drumheller!
But getting back to P-rex's briefing, we spread out - and up.
The Dragon Lady taking a find to Tyrannosaurus phil for identification.
Incredibly, we were only an hour into our first field trip when P-rex hit paydirt - a Hadrosaurus! In that it takes four months of man hours in the field to yield one find like this, it's no wonder this is a picture of one happy paleontologist. "If this is the only find we make on this expedition, I'll be happy."
Also called duck-billed dinos, they were the cattle of the Cretaceous, so numerous were they.
It takes an experienced paleontologist to recognize a major find, to read what's below. These ribs were the only clues that the rest lay locked up. Major finds are often made from less than impressive surface finds. Here's an example:
Sue Hendricksen's famous T-rex Sue, which auctioned for 8.36 million dollars and which now stalks Chicago's Field Museum, looks like this mounted. Sue, like Phil and Eva (and Marek Kaminski, Joel Fogel and current Club president Alan Nichols who previously carried Flag #134) , contributed to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives.
But her world famous find looked like this when she discovered it in 1990 in South Dakota. Sue didn't see any of that money, by the way. Rather it cost her $100,000 in legal fees, so ugly was the fight over ownership. A movie has been made about the find, Waking the T. rex3D: The Story of SUE. It's shown at the Field.
The weather was hellacious our first week. Near record rains were sweeping the Canadian prairies causing disastrous floods in many communities. The Red Deer was considerably above normal and sped along like a conveyor belt. With light paddling our canoes could hit a searing 6 mph, hurrying us to our next planned exposures...if we could get onto them. On those dry days, they needed drying until 2pm before we dared hit their treacherous slopes. As luck would have it, our wettest two days coincided with the days we had the most miles - over 20 - to put in between exposures so we didn't miss many anyway. Also as luck would have it, the days we had full days for exploration were invariably sunny. Mudstang Sally shot.
Fortunately, we had lots of wimen to do dishes in the rain. (Just kidding, just kidding....) Hey! Didn't you read the preamble? Get that black pot off the table! It's impossible to get the soot off!
Everyone and everything was wet inside and out of our tents by the time the weather broke several days in and we had a chance to dry out.
But we had gorgeous days too.
And the canyon country is beautiful too. Our row of tents can just about be made out along the row of cottonwoods on the other side.
Bones were everywhere, needless to say.
I took the GPS coordinates of this rib for P-rex.
I saw at least two dozen vertebra of all sizes and kinds. Well, Hadrosaur, Ceretopsian and Champsosaur, the latter kinda like an early croc. It's an interesting fact of dinos that each species only lasted two million years, at most, evolving and out in that time. Some reptiles, like crocs and turtles, did far better and have been around for forever it seems.
Diane, the One Woman Party, is always among the most observant on a brigade, whether it's for mushrooms in northern Saskatchewan or esoteric finds here. She came up with a perfectly fossilized pine cone, like the one on the left here. It helps bring that early world to life to imagine the familiar sighing of the breeze through 70,000,000-year-old pine trees as dinosaurs stomped between them. She also found at least two teeth. Long Lansfield was also sharp on finding raptor teeth, always primo finds and saved for study.
The tooth fairy wasn't good to me this time. Last expedition in 2012 I was the Tooth King. This time all I found in the way of teeth was this croc specimen, and a bit of broken Hadrosaur tooth.
And a lot of small stuff. L-R: croc, turtle, tendon, Champsosaur vertebra and the tooth magazine from a Hadrosaur. The latter constantly moved into position, replacing what was worn away. You'll see an excellent example down a bit.
Here's what a piece of turtle shell looks like in situ, the pockmarked light yellowish piece in the center. Below it. and to the right, are bits of light-coloured bone.
I didn't even find this beauty. Unfortunately, it had been exposed to freezing and thawing and was cracked up.
Paleantologists like bones that tell a story - and this one does. See the grooves meeting on the right? They're tooth marks. This was a meal for a raptor like T-rex 70,000,000 years ago.
I'm also equally interested in paleoarchaeology, of course, and the badlands are also a place to keep an eye out for tools. That's the largest hand axe I've ever found, with a couple of crudely made tools, by an early aboriginal hunter who possibly brought something down in the badlands and wanted to cut it up on the spot and didn't have his buck knife with him. I showed the hand axe to P-rex. There was a pause. "Rock," he said. I laughed. His focus is intensely and exclusively on dino.
By this time he'd found his second Hadrosaur and was saying, "If this is all we find this year, I'll be happy!" Here he shows us his favorite view in Dinosaur Provincial Park, the area of the highest concentration of dino bones on Planet Earth and his playground since 1976. We were given an exclusive tour (and we had a rare permit for prospecting for bones which was a fantastic privilege). Educating is as important to him as prospecting and he never misses a chance to pass on his incredible knowledge.
You'll remember Lady Danger - Jessica Lindsay Phillips - from the Turkish gulet cruise, Explorers Club Annual Dinner in New York and San Francisco Tribal Art Fair Blah Blahs, as well as Mantracker, Treasure Trader and Four Walls. She's not only lots of fun, but damned handy on an expedition.
P-rex's greatest find ever at the Park was this baby Ceretopsian called Baby, on display at the Park's field centre. Baby anything is very rare, the T-rexs quickly gulped them down, and this specimen is exquisite in detail. Clive aka Coy-san did the meticulous restoration and it's as much a work of art as of paleantology. Tyrannosaur phil showed this to The Dragon Lady and I and others as part of a field trip to Dry Island a few years ago. It was then in Edmonton at the UofA dino lab when Clive was still prepping it, and it was largely still encased in the matrix. We had instructions to take no pictures and not to publicize it then. Now it's been unveiled to the world.
Although I was striking out, I was a small part of Lee's major find though. We were on a shelf when she called me over to see something odd she had found.
It was Lee's first time in the field and just two days before she had asked me what a dino bone looked like. It's difficult to tell when you're new at it and although we were virtually standing on hundreds of unidentifiable broken bits that I call Tim Bits. I picked up a small whitish-brown piece like one of these and handed it to her. She was ecstatic, excited as a 10-year-old kid, which all of us explorers are inside, as she studied it. Then - just two days later - she makes a MAJOR find!
I didn't know what the hell it was either. I'd never seen anything like it. I called Eva, The Danish Delight, over. She studied it and grew serious, something uncharacteristic of her as she's normally radiating happiness. "That looks like skull material. I better call Phil over." She hurried away with me in tow. P-rex was about 150 yards away, over a couple of badland ridges with another group. We hurried back together. He studied it for 15 seconds. "It's an Ankylosaur skull."
Ankylosaurs were the tanks of the Cretaceous fully armoured and with a nasty bone club at the end of their tails.
"We found seven one year years ago," P-rex explained high fiving Lee, "and then we haven't found another until now." He's not given to excitement, but I haven't seen him so happy since we discovered that century old lost Sternberg quarry last expedition in '12. But that didn't compare to Lee's smile - she had a coprolite eating grin on her face for the rest of the trip. And this, indeed, was the highlight of my trip: enjoying seeing someone so delighted - absolutely tickled pink - about their discovery. And a BIG discovery.
Coprolite happens. It sure does. "We'll be here awhile, I can see," he said. He and the Danish Delight settled in for the lengthy extraction job, beginning by Dee Dee injecting a special crazy glue that absorbs deeply into the bone to give it added strength, carefully excavating it with awls and brushes and wrapping it in a jacket of burlap and plaster-of-Paris. Lee - now Ankyleeosaur - grinning from coast-to-coast the whole time.
The jacketed head. Lee's going to take part in the restoration in Edmonton next year...though she has no idea how long it takes when you're working with dental picks and the like. We Schoonovers, born lacking a patience gene, make great prospectors but lousy restorers.
Yes, twas reason to raise a few cold beers! LR: Capt Hook, P-rex, Long, Lady Danger, One Woman Party, Coy-san, Birdman.
Here's how Long got her river name. She's, well, long. A Ph.D student, she's the Canadian Chapter's Student Rep, and doing a bangup job of it too.
Just a minute! My luck is turning around! Paydirt! A big find! A Stegosaurus!
No, wait, it couldn’t be. Steg is from the Late Jurassic. But, what the hell, Spielberg had all those Cretaceous beasts charging around out of time in Jurassic Park. I was forced to rename this one Sandstoneosaurus.
It was on one field trip that P-rex spotted footprints, not as clear in the photo as they are to the eye. Imagine a five-ton, three-toed chicken with teeth plucking your head off. He's pointing to a middle toe that's pointing at him.
It was on this field trip that Mudstang Sally and Coy-san returned with the jacketed Maxilla (upper jaw) of a Hadrosaur which Sally had discovered, proving once again the usefulness of amateurs in paleontology. Sally had once worked with Jane Goodall. She shot the following two pics.
Coy-san also jacketed the foot, ankle and partial tail of a Dromaeosaur. He's got a helluva fine tuned eye and also added a Hadrosaur to our finds. Droma were a nasty little critter. Imagine a trailer park teenager on crack riding a dirt bike. Note the typical raptor claws as I'll come back to them in a moment. Nearby Tony found the frill of a Hadrosaur. Sally shot the following as well.
We didn't know it then - as I didn't know it when I originally posted this Blah Blah - but he was at the nascent stages of unearthing a major discovery, one of international significance! More later.
A tiny claw find I made intrigued me much but I lost it! There was a hole in my collecting bag! I wanted to show it to P-rex as baby anything he takes a huge interest in. "It'll probably turn up at the bottom of your gear," he offered, unconcerned. I was sure it was toast and was enormously disappointed but, sure nuff, when I was cleaning out my daypack once home, out it fell! It was found on the same site as Ankyleeosaur's find.
By this time, P-rex had found at least one more Haddie. It was enough for more celebrating and cannonballing was the order of the day. Speedboat Doug (author of Their Names Live On), Long and the Danish Delight.
P-rex walking on water he's so pleased with the expedition's finds so far.
And Dee Dee. The great thing about being on expedition is just how much fun it is. But then, as I said, we're all basically 10-years-old inside, just following our curiosities around like we did as kids, playing in the dirt.
Ah, finally, a few moments in my beloved hammock.
Still explorin' after all these years. Mudstang Sally shot, n below.
Jeez you guys - I asked you to keep the damned black pots off the table! YOU try to get the black crap off....
Thanks, that's better. We found several excellent campsites, which ain't easy along this river, especially in flood.
And it's back into the badlands. These rods were placed here as an experiment by the University of Alberta to determine the annual erosion rate. This is how we know the badlands are melting back at a 1 cm average a year. The last two years have seen heavy snows, read heavy runoffs, and summer rains, thus the exposure of that Ankylosaur skull of Lee's. All it takes is one year of water getting into it and freezing, expanding and cracking and it ain't the same. Which is the reason we had to take it out.
One of our goals was to seek out old quarries and we found several. This one at Site 24 was likely a major one. It's believed it was excavated by the legendary Barnum Brown of the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1911.
Indeed, over 50% of the dinos at the AMNH are from Alberta and that period.
Nearby was an early iron chisel perhaps lost by Brown. We salvaged it for Coy-san who is forming something of a museum of old dino bone equipment. His library of books by and about Roy Chapman Andrews, past Explorers Club president and whose 1928 expedition by vehicle to the Gobi Desert for the AMNH is one of the legendary adventure stories of all time, is in the hundreds. Different members of our expedition gave talks on their widely diverse specialities each night and Coy-san did his on Andrews.
I found two Centrosaurus quarries.
What was interesting about this one was that two large bones were missed, that had eroded out subsequently.
The fossil wood - stumps - at one site were incredible in size. Dee Dee guessed they were conifer. Fossil wood is very hard to ID.
To Dee Dee's chagrin, plant fossils are rare in the badlands, and particularly Dinosaur Provincial Park where this beauty was shot.
Who Doo Dat? We took a couple of side trips.
Another was to a national historic site and an old coal mine. Hundreds used to line the river. They were first discovered by a young geologist, Joseph Tyrrell, in 1884, who also first noted dino bones along the river. An outstanding explorer, the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, which P-rex was the major guiding force behind, is named after him. I still think they should have called it House of Currie, but I'm always told people would have thought it was an East Indian restaurant. In any case, he's having another museum named after him - the Philip J. Currie Museum will open in December near Grande Prairie, Alberta. It's not enough that Tyrannosaur phil has been gathering up top medals from everything from The Explorers Club to the Royal Canadian Geographic Society lately....
There's goes Capt. Hook again - to the top. 84 and he just knows no fear.
He became one of our two casualties though - but not from a fall. On one hot day in the badlands, he didn't drink enough water. The dehydration caused his feet to swell and bad (very bad) blisters to form. "On Ra II we were all dehydrated the last month. Who would think dehydration would cause this!" Capt. Hook - Capt. Norm Baker - referred to one of the three reed boat floats he was first mate on with Thor Hyderdahl, specifically Ra II across the Atlantic in 1970. As any outdoorsy knows, digits infect fast and furiously while living outdoors. Our medical officers, The Dragon Lady and Tipper, determined he had to be evacuated. Because Tipper is a veterinarian (though of which war I don't know), Hook was required to make a sound like a cow while having his hooves examined.
This was our 8th expedition together and the last thing Hook wanted was to leave - he lives to be on expedition - but "I'd be crazy to refuse medical help." We fortunately had a crude road to this site and were able to call in a 4-wheel drive. Hugs went all around and it was a sad parting.
The driver kindly drove him to Brooks about 30 miles distance where he was treated, and took a hotel room. The Dragon Nurse is seeing him off. Going with him was the Cabbage Lady Phyllis Biegun, who had flown out with him in his Skyhawk from Massachusetts. The docs pumped Capt. Hook full of antibiotics, bandaged him up and he was fit to fly his plane after the expedition ended to Toontown where he got weather bound for a day, giving us a chance to enjoy another dinner with him at Yoko's and Chicken Leg's, the latter who couldn't join the expedition. Phyllis, whose food restrictions were such that she virtually had to live on cabbage this trip, was able to grab a $500 commercial flight back to Boston.
He wasn't our only casualty. Tony Mayo, aka Firestarter, and appropriately the author of Twenty-Nine Lives: One Man's Twenty-eight Brushes with Death, tried to make kindling out of his fingers.
This time he whinnied like horse while Dr. Tipper squeezed his cut together and used super glue on it. That's dino techie Coy-san in the middle, who found the Dromaeosaur. He also nailed down a Hadrosaur.
By this time, well into our two-week expedition, the discoveries were piling up. The Danish Delight found the top frill of a Ceratopsian which will be excavated next year, for the University of Alberta's collection. To put numbers in perspective:
Total Found Worldwide - Total Red Deer
T- rex 30 2
Hadrosaur 300-400 20-30
Triceratops 100 10-15
Ankylosaur 30-40 10
Our last find was a baby Hadrosaurus jaw which P-rex made and which was timely because he was working on a paper about baby finds. In the end, our final count was incredible: six new articulated specimens:
1 Dromaeosaurus foot, ankle, tail – Coy-san
4 Hadrosaur – Tyrannosaurus Phil 3, Coy-san.1
1 Ceratopsian – The Danish Delight.
And we also brought out the three jacketted specimens, two of which were discovered by amateurs Mudstang Sally and Ankyleeosaur, as well as a selection of teeth which will be passed on to graduate students for study. "Awesome." "incredible" and “absolutely delighted” danced in the air as cold cans of beer were cracked on our last day's blowout. I had surreptitiously ensconced several cases of beer in the back of our truck and our ferrying vehicle brought in the ice.
P-rex confirmed our expedition was not only well within the top 10% most successful he's ever been on, but one of his most successful period. The biggest conclusion we drew is the value of amateurs to paleontology. 18 sets of eyes are better than one, even if they are green. We also had the advantage of hitting the badlands after two of the heaviest rain and snow years back-to-back in decades - indeed, the previous summer saw major flooding in Calgary, 100 miles away. This certainly eroded back the badlands more than the 1 cm annual average.
P-rex and Dee Dee generously presented me with a bottle of my favorite Scotch, Lagavulin-16, for my efforts organizing and leading the expedition. And I had spotted this apropos Far Side cartoon for P-rex. His passion for dinos began at six when he pulled a little plastic dino out of a box of Rice Krispies. It was the spark that led to my book Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives. He still has that plastic dino, in a position of honour in their Edmonton home.
When Birdman isn't raising beers with me on the Kwai (see previous early Blah Blah), or getting 5-6 Thai massages a day, he's birdwatching. In fact, he's one of the world's top birders. Here's his report on the trip:
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Saw Whet Owl
Western Wood Pewee
"The birds we saw were remarkably consistent with those observed by Percy Taverner in his 1919 report,“The Birds of the Red Deer River.” Species we observed that were not on Taverner’s list included the not unexpected White-breasted Nuthatch (one seen at Bleriot) and the introduced European Starlings and Rock Pigeons which were seen on a number of occasions.We saw White Pelicans regularly while Taverner failed to see any himself (although others had seen them in the area). Prairie Chickens were still extant in the Red Deer in 1919 but have been extirpated across Canada. Interestingly, Taverner mentioned that the Red Deer River was cloudy in his time, too, making it difficult for fish-loving species such as Belted Kingfisher. We only saw one. Taverner thought that the introduced Hungarian Partridge had disappeared but Phil found them, confirming that they had indeed survived! All in all, the birds we found were the expected species and in roughly the same relative abundances as in Taverner’s time.
"Here's the link to Taverner's interesting paper:file:///home/chronos/user/Downloads/birdsofreddeerri00taveuoft.pdf"
The complete 18-member expedition, Explorers Club members and future members L-R: Tony Firestarter Mayo, Speedboat Doug Chisholm, Cabbage Lady Phyllis Biegun, the Danish Delight Eva Koppelhus, Tyrannosaurus Phil Currie, Long Jessica Lansfield, Lady Danger Jessica Lindsay Phillips, Birdman Rob Tymstra, Capt. Hook aka Capt. Norm Baker, Clive Coy-san, Madame Su The Dragon Lady Hattori, Ankyleeosaur Treloar, James Tipper Anthony, Mudstang Sally McIntosh, Yoko Kumiko Yokoyama, Brian Ol' Griz Gentner, Diane The One Woman Party Fay, Jason Capt. Magnus Schoonover.
Another great adventure with The Dragon Lady!
And with that I head down the hill, sad to finish this magnificent adventure I'd looked forward to all year long...but the whole summer lies ahead and there ain't no better summers than Canadian summers....
UPDATE SEPT 29!
This exciting letter with photos came in, appropriately, the day I was at Everest's north face in Tibet. Appropriate because both represent the heights. It concerns the subsequent excavation of one of ours finds:
Dear Fellow 2014 Red Deer River Dinosaur Expedition Members;
Phil, Eva, Susana Gutarra [a volunteer from Spain], and Clive spent four intensive days in mid-September in Steveville collecting the specimen that Clive found in June during our canoe trip.
While the overburden was not too deep, the sandstone was very hard, and we had only hand tools to attack it with. After several nine to ten hour days, we reached the bone level and began to uncover just enough of the skeleton to determine the outline of the body -- what wonderful things we uncovered!
As you will recall, in June, Clive had seen only a few toe bones sticking out of the sand. During the few hours he had there, he exposed an ankle. This time, we exposed the other foot, leg, roof of the skull, and a very wicked looking ungual (claw) from the hand – all bones were in their approximate life positions! From what we could see, it appears to be a completely articulated skeleton! Phil has identified it as the small theropod Saurornitholestes, which some researchers believe is the same as Velociraptor.
This is a very exciting find for the University of Alberta and for Cretaceous dinosaur research worldwide. For Phil, it represents the culmination of a 34 year quest for a small theropod from Alberta that is complete enough to resolve how closely related the theropods of Alberta and Mongolia are! He was extremely excited and proclaims it as the best small theropod ever found in the province.
The 2014 trip was highly successful; with the ankylosaur skull found by Lee, the ceratopsian found by Eva, the juvenile ceratopsian jaw found by Phil, and the other important specimens we collected, the trip exceeded all our expectations.
The field jacket is now open, and the painstaking job of exposing the delicate bones and stabilizing them for research has begun. We will keep you up to date over the next year as the project progresses.
With best wishes
Phil, Eva, and Clive
.Almost down to the bone.
T.phil finds the skull.
Claw from hand.
Rnncher helps with quad.
The Happy Gang Two.
Out it goes.
Safe in the van.
Clive begins preparation.
Bobbing Beyond Bangkok's
Bombs & Bullets
February 8 - April 7, 2014
I ducked the fireworks in Bangkok by ducking back into the Jolly Frog on the River Kwai where I enjoyed two, delicious, unbroken months of writing and finished laying down a 72,000 word first draft. I also dropped 23 pounds (three more to go) since New Years to make me a smaller target.
I was so happy about both I went out and celebrated by having a couple of drinks.
But we're jumping ahead. During The Dragon Lady's last week before eagerly flying back February 8th to ICU and the -40 she missed so much there was lots of action. I've been here through 2-3 coups and coup attempts over the years and if not within clanking sounds of the tanks, you wouldn't know anything was amiss. The smiling Thais just go on smiling and living life.
And so did we, taking in a 2.5 hours spa at one of The Big Mango's best. Two masseuses oiled, soaped and kneaded us into nirvana in this private room for two. Try finding this for $160CAN total back in North America or Europe.
And we dined. One always eats in Bangkok, the food is so fabulous. "Thai" restaurants in North America only rarely taste remotely Thai. Naturally, we enjoyed the fabulous garden of our favorite restaurant, Cabbages and Condoms.
We got together with the Ol' Gang, natch. Three authors here with a total book count exceeding forty. Three of these old friends have jumped over to Canada to join us on two different canoe adventures.
Ummmmm. Pond snails. Delicious. You suck out the meat, ptewing out the little trap door.
Out for another dinner with movie guys Kiwi sheep bonker Kevin and Muskeg Lars.
I'm often getting email asking if I'm okay because of what they see on TV. Really, this is the greatest danger I encountered and it was back in Kanchanaburi. This nasty got into my room in the very early morning through a loose ceiling tile and began buzzing around like a Stuka dive bomber.. They can not only swell a man's arm to twice its size but kill a child.
I also had a gecko but the Thais consider them good luck as they eat insects. Mine was gay. I know because he lived in my closet. I called him Liberace. Kanchanaburi just had its Nude Miss Kwai Contest. It's unfortunate they call it this because "Kwai" means "water buffalo" but then this is a country where the biggest mall chain is called The Big C, there's a shoe store chain named Athlete's Foot and there was a major hotel shaped like a ship sailing into an iceberg. But the girls were succulent! Here's my two favorites, a Thai and a Chinese, both real juiceburgers.
Sorry, damn camera is still acting up....
Here's a shot of Thai pussy though. "Stop that! You hurting kitty!" When she yanked the black cat's tail - it was oblivious - I ran for my camera. But that was the picture I wish I had grabbed.
I'd write in the morning and have the rest of the day off. Birdman, researching a book on Thai oil massages - I'm serious, he gets up to five a day - visited. I'm thinking of changing his river name to Lube Rob. He leaves a grease trail wherever he goes but, boy, is he relaxed.
There's always interesting people passing through the Jolly Frog. This Kraut couple were in the 12th year of their around-the-world pedal. They brought two dogs with them. In Asia that's called carrying fresh food. Another couple, Frogs, had a 1974 VW Westphalia camper, a year older than our Krautcan, and were doing the same thing.
On a weekend break, I joined Sir Rodney Beattie and his uber railway researcher Andrew Snow fro the Death Railway Museum for two days of GPS mapping way up the Death Railway line.
We met this chatty little guerilla from the Karen Liberation Union which is stuck in the No Man's Land between Thailand and Burma. He knew what Sir Rod's metal detector was and explained they used them to locate and dig up Burmese army mines, which they'd then moved onto their path, he laughed.
We used it on this freshly cultivated field which was the site of one of the POW camps Andrew's father, who survived the ordeal, stayed. I asked, "What are your thoughts being here Andrew?" "I've been here several times now so it's not the same, but the first few times I'd go off by myself on the edge of the field and imagine him being here, seeing the same mountains he was seeing and so on."
"My dad walked down this road every day...." The road is next to the field. Since The Railway Man came out the museum has been getting a lot of emails saying basically, "I always wondered why my dad was such a miserable, mean drunk and now I understand!" Andrew's dad died when he was still a child.
On an earlier scan they discovered an iron spear point, no doubt from the many battles between the Thais and Burmese in days gone by, but pickings were lean this time. The clamshell I found would have been POW food. The tiny shells were spread through a wide area of the field and appear ancient.
The shallow trench was the location of the line going through this palm oil field. It's being covered over and in a year or two will have disappeared. Nearby, though, Rod had made an earlier discovery which took me totally by surprise. On a high bank above the River Kwai there was Neolithic pottery, recognizable by the distinctive cord design, scattered liberally around.
The Hoabinhian Sumatralith on the right is only the second that I've found. The Hoabinhian culture of mainland Southeast Asia largely overlaid the Mesolithic Era here. The other tool is a crude cutting tool. And Neolithic potsherds - all surface finds!
The pretty town of Thong Pha Phum is a living legacy from the Death Railway. 200,000 coolies, mostly Tamils imported from Indian by the Brits to work the rubber plantations of Malaya, were gang-pressed by the Japanese to slave on the railway. 100,000 of them died, mainly from cholora outbreaks that raged through their camps without the organized latrines like the POWs had, and unmarked mass graves dot the entire course of the 250-mile railway. Many of the survivors were repatriated after the war but some stayed and this now prosperous town became their focus.
Their East Indian and POW background is written onto their faces - and that of much of the town. We couldn't believe the prices. We guzzled four quarts of ice cold beer after a long, hot day whacking through jungle and a big meal of whole fish, green curry, rice and veggies and it came for the three of us to all of $20.
We bounced through rough country in Rod's Land Rover to reach some sites.
They showed me Sugano's Cutting - arguably the most dramatic and massive cutting on the entire railway. It's a bench cutting, to the lads' left the slope continues falling into the River Kwai itself. It absolutely blew me away. I had no idea it existed and seemed to go on forever.
Sir Rod calls it Sugano's Cutting after Renichi Sugano, the then-young Japanese professional photographer who shot the entire railway. Sir Rod took him to the cutting and Sugano was gracious enough to donate 300 b/w shots to the Death Railway Museum. Here's a couple of his shots of the cutting itself being constructed.
Next January Sir Rod and I are organizing a10ish day cost sharing canoe trip from near the top of the Kwai to Kanchanaburi where the famous bridge is, staying at resorts, and taking in both the death railway (like Sugana's Cutting) and archaeological sites along the way, including museums and old Khmer empire ruins. It'll include an authentic day's dig in Hintok Cave as you'll see later in this Blah Blah for we made more discoveries! And we know there's more down there. If you're interested in joining us, let me know and I'll keep you informed as to progress in planning. This is the beautiful Kwai now...
...and then. The current is so strong our trip will be more of a float than a paddle - and no portages!
We visited innumerable sections of the old rail bed that I hadn't discovered in my solo research, greatly expanding my knowledge. Here Rod clears jungle overgrowth in one cutting into which a boulder had rolled.
This near pristine section ran on for miles. All this ballast had to be carried up from the river 200-300 feet below and a quarter of a mile away, or broken by sledgehammer from the surrounding solid matrix.
But every couple of hundred yards it was cut by canyons. Andew's dad worked this section too.
Some were so deeply cut they would have required the construction of four- and five-tiered bridges. It took nimble scrambling for us to descend and ascend each in turn. You can see the bridge footings.
The neat stonework sometimes looked uncannily like archaeological ruins of old buildings in the South Pacific or Peru. So tightly tamped was the ballast that 70 years later there's little or no sagging or slumping. This is the nose of a section of line where it drops off into a canyon.
A lone monk - squatting with his back to camera - chose months ago to set up his retreat right on the nose of another section, which is way off in the middle of spare, bamboo jungle. Here, a friend is visiting who supplies him. The monk reported that at night he "sees ghosts." No wonder....
On another expedition just days after finishing the first draft, Rod and I saddled up and galloped off for our long awaited return to the Death Cave with oxygen. Along the way, he stopped to show me the third authentic site he chose for use in the filming of The Railway Man. This cutting, now overgrown, was used for the night scene where the POWs slaved by torch light.
Arriving at Hintok River Camp, the oxygen which owner Khun Suparerk procured and had delivered was waiting.
So was our usual comfortable, complimentary accommodation, which is where our upcoming canoe brigade will spend two nights as well (though then we'll have to pay of course). We got our digging clothes on.
Sharpened the ever present machete.
And it was back through the rubber plantation. I don't know what happened...when I ogled, uh, noticed all those beautiful bare breasted native girls in those old National Geographic magazines when I was a kid, which got me doing all these fun things as a supposed grown up, I imagined I'd have them as bearers too. But, no, I end up with boys as coolies. Oh well. Sir Rod - take note for next time. The white thing they're portaging is line so we could lay a trail back into the cave as we went, so we wouldn't get lost, or if our flashlights, including our backups, failed.
And back through the bamboo jungle...
...and the vertical descent into the round pit and the staging level of the entrance to the Death Cave itself.
Anticipation was high as we geared up. The entrance down a steep grade into the first large gallery is behind Rod. It's connected to another gallery by a crawl space and that has been our target for three years and for Sir Rod much longer. Years ago he had discovered a burial jar with remains in the first gallery and after crawling through the narrow tunnel to two, had spotted a second, collapsed. But he had to retreat because of the bad air and wisely didn't want to return alone. Then we took up the quest together. Our first year, high CO2 levels drove us out and we weren't able to procure O2 until this year. Last year we were able to work the first gallery. Just two months ago CO2 levels were okay (but not perfect) without apparatus and Rod, The Dragon Lady and I continued excavations and dug test holes all over and returned with a few Neolithic potsherds.
We entered a short way into the first large gallery where we knelt to access the situation. CO2 levels were at an all time high - due to recent pre-monsoon downpours which picked up CO2 in the decaying vegetation and soil which it carried into the cave system. Worse - there was something wrong with our O2 kits! Despite cranking the flow valves up to the max, we both were breathing to the bottom of our lungs, not getting enough oxygen! After eight minutes we aborted the mission. (Note Rod's sweaty shirt; it was hot and humid as hell. That's alliteration. We writers love it.)
We scrambled out and recovered in the staging area. My CO2 headache - something I'm quite familiar with from this cave - quickly subsided. And we tried to figure out what went wrong...? We discovered that the little, round, plastic valves on the sides of the clear plastic mouthpieces were missing, thus allowing CO2 to be sucked in as we breathed. Oh, well, there's always another year, when we have the problem rectified - and we'll go down in the middle of the dry season when the CO2 is at its lowest.
We returned the next day with a candle. Rod's standing at the entrance. As he slowly lowered it the flame reduced until...
...it extinguished. Note the smoke drifting away from the cave. Sometimes the smoke would still, then bend again, as the cave breathed.
Now with time unexpectedly on our hands we decided to check if there was a problem with CO2 in Hintok Cave, the scene of our 169 Paleolithic finds over the years. It's a good thing we did because we hit paydirt! Well, Sir Rod did, because he descended on the rope and I acted as safety man on the surface. At the bottom he discovered that water flowing into the cave last monsoon had washed mud away in a section we hadn't completely excavated and he came up with this wild boar's jaw.
Most interesting were teeth marks on two sides of the bone, as if chewed. We conjectured that it was done by the owner's dog in the Paleolithic. This turned out to be the smaller of the finds though!
Rod came up with these 11 tools and a potsherd from a large, flat and low pot! It also included, far right, the first microliths found on the site. Microliths were the last innovation in stone tool evolution before the advent of the Bronze Age.
The latest Stone Age finds include the most perfect - and absolutely classic - Hoabinhian sumatralith we've found. They're only in Southeast Asia where the Hoabinhian culture the tool style spawned largely overlaid the Mesolithic Era, as I mentioned earlier. You can recognize a sumatralith because one side is smooth river pebble like this above...
...while the opposite side is flaked completely away but for a bit of the smooth river pebble that is left wrapping around one end and a bit onto the flaked side, like it does here on the right by my thumb. That dates it to 8,000-4,000BC, even older than Madame Su, and brings the number of finds we've brought up out of that little cave to 181. We're saving continued digging until we pass through here on our canoe trip next January, giving participants a genuine archaeological experience. There's no doubt there's more down there and they haven't been seen by a human eye in at least 6,000 years. Participants people are going to have the experience of a lifetime.
The sumatralith is such a classic that it'll be specially mounted so visitors to the soon-to-be-opened Hintok River Camp Museum can view both sides. Construction starts this week with interior walls being knocked down and the building extended to the front, doing away with the open foyer and veranda. It'll be open for ANZAC Day the third week in April, which is commemorated at nearby Hellfire Pass. I just signed off on the display boards I wrote but, alas, I won't be here to help lay out the museum, but Rod's the expert here in any case. Worst - I'll have to wait a year before I see the results of all our fun getting (literally) down and dirty these last years! Here's three examples of our display boards. I wrote the Stone Age ones; Rod, the POW history. I can't embed the pdfs so I have to include them as links.
The two ten-year-old explorers in their sixties celebrated appropriately with a fine old single malt from the very north of Scotland. The pooch sought shelter with us as another pre-monsoon dump dumped. Sir Rod, a lover of Asian food, eyes it hungrily.
With everything wrapped I said goodbye to Harry the Kraut next door at the Jolly Frog. We'd become good friends and hopefully we'll catch up in Spain.
I headed back to The Big Mango, arriving in time for a parade of some kind. Tens of thousands had joined in though. Also strangely, I saw no elephants or clowns or majorettes or brass marching bands...? Guess their parades are different than ours, they just seemed to blow a lot of whistles. A Canuck friend and real estate heavy hitter, Bill, was visiting so I took him.
We couldn't find cotton candy, so we had hot and sour soup and dim sum.
I see another of these medical clinics has opened, it's apparently a chain. It must still be a little slow as the nurses sit around, though here a patient heads in seeking treatment. Nurses sure dress different than back in Canada, though mind you it is cold there and hot here.
It was great to catch up with friends in Abdul's famous White Room. The Single Malts flowed liberally - and I was introduced to two I wasn't familiar with. Abdul has a collection of 300. Better than collecting stamps, that's for sure.
More catching up was done around the rectangular bar at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in the penthouse of the Maneeya Building. From the balcony one can sip a Scotch while taking in the riots at a nearby intersection, the busiest in Bangkok.
A jolt struck Bangkok's large but close knit media community when Edmonton born journo Dave Walker disappeared Valentine's Day from Siam Reap, next to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia. We've been friends since about 1986. He was working trying to launch a Killing Fields type of movie about Khmer Rouge days and it seems he upset some people, and that country is still crawling with cold blooded Khmer Rouge killers. Indeed, the government is run by old KR. He always loved living on the edge. In late 1988 the Karen hilltribe, who live in that No Man's Land along the Burmese-Thai border, were caught in one of their periodic vises and getting shot up and he wanted me to join him going in to investigate. No thanks. Not my kinda adventure. I went to Railay Beach instead. A real good guy living his adventurous dream...a dream cut short. Always up, always full of energy, always smiling....
Another friend, John, who's made a ton of money catering the Renaissance Fairs in the States for 40 years, also looked me up. He has a great condo on the beach at Playa in Mexico.
More catching up. Guys from the CIA Secret War in Laos in the '60s: Mac, Air America Chief Pilot Les and Tony.
And The Gang for one last feed. I was having a helluva time keeping my diet discipline.... We'll finish with Miss Congeniality from the Miss Nude Water Buffalo Competition and I'm sure you'll agree she's another knockout.
...Damn camera.... Well, let's finish with flowers then. April is the Hot Season but it's also when several huge trees like the flame tree and others bloom like gigantic flowers. This is one of my favorites, a golden raintree.
And, being assured by friends back in Toontown that spring had arrived after an absolute winter from hell and it was safe for me to return, I flew home via Tokyo and Chicago on April 7, completing my fourth trip around the world!
The World's Most Beautiful Beach
January 21 - February 5, 2014
In late 1988 when I stepped off a long tail boat onto Thailand’s Railay Peninsula I was awestruck. No, I was flabbergasted. I couldn't imagine that a place on Earth existed of such stunning, astonishing beauty. There were three incredible beaches - Pranang at the bottom, Railay West in the middle left and Tonsai above it. Then there was only a scatter of simple bamboo beach huts, all at Railay.
As a lifelong beach bum, I was in ecstacy. I've beachcombed 'em all - from Waikiki & Sunset & Waimea & Black Sand et al, Copacabana & Ipanema, French & Spanish & Turkish Rivieras, Tambuli & Borocay & El Nido & Puerto Galera & Tacloban, Kuta, Phi Phi Island & Ko Lanta & Ko Samui & once idyllic Ko Samet (indeed I lived in a $1 a day hut right on the beach while I wrote the first five months of Thai Gold) & Hua Hin et al, Gold Coast, Dover & Brighton (both yecchs), Sunset to Santa Monica to La Jolla, Tahiti, Hikkaduwa, Goa, Dunkirk, Burma's Mergui archipelago, Coney Island, Barbados, English Bay & the Spanish Banks & Long Beach & White Rock, Acapulco & Puerto Vallerta & Mazatlan & Cancun, Batu Ferringhi & Kuantan & Kota Bahar, Nha Trang, Sihanoukville, even the Dead Sea and I'm sure there's more. Thus I feel eminently qualified to name this beach - Railay West - Numero Uno. The most beautiful beach in the world.
Since my discovery in 1988 I've been back to the crown jewel of Thailand's beaches several times while crewing on a friend's yacht during the annual Phang Nga Bay Regattas. Today there's 1,000 mostly upmarket resort rooms but it hasn't lost its beautiful, bucolic feel. Unlike Bali whose waters are clogged with plastic, it's clean. Railay is still one of my favorite places in the world. How can it not be, being surrounded by such spectacular beauty? And everyone else there being like inspired?
What makes the Railay Peninsula so especial, besides the icing sugar sand, are the karst formations of course - and that one throws up an impenetrable wall clear across the peninsula's neck barring entry by vehicles.
Even Mr. Sandman - who knows more about sand than anyone - hangs here, giving Railay his endorsement. Lemme show you the other two beaches.
...Oh, Jesus, I hope this isn't happening again! Regulars to Blah Blah will remember the frustrating time I had with a Nikon on Bali's Kuta beach a year ago. Every time I tried to take a picture of, say, a temple a shot of some girl's ass would appear on the screen. I hope this is just an aberration with this new camera.
We'll start with Pranong, a very close second, but this photo was taken before a greedy 5-star hotel pushed down halfway onto the beach putting it out of contention.
However, I actually have to give this little patch of it a platinum plated honorable mention. If you look carefully at a cave entrance on far stage left, you'll see this....
Do you think I could drag The Dragon Lady outta there?
There's another cave right next to it. Thai women, like these two, hoping to get knocked up come here to light incense and pray to the spirit in charge of that department. And add their carvings as offerings, often whittled by the husbands. Wimmen worshipping a woodpile of wopper wangs, to alliterate, makes imminent sense to me.
The limestone formations often look like candle wax melting down the side of a wine bottle.
Oh no - there it goes again. I was so disgusted with that last camera I put it on eBay for two cents just to get rid of. I was astonished when a bidding war started, skyrocketing the price up to $9,769, 569.69! What the hell would anyone want with a camera that took pictures like that? And what the hell am I going to do with all that money?
Pranang is one of several venues for rock climbing for which Krabi province is famous. The Japanese are big into it. It's even a bigger spectator sport.
This pretty Japanese climber's soft grunts, groans and moans as she ascended had nothing to do with my decision to shoot this mini-series. No, nothing at all. Honest. Really.
Can't hear her anymore. Time to move on and there's a fabulous temple shot I want you to see.
Oh bloody hell! This camera is going on the fritz too! And I love this Olympus Tough! Let's try for that temple shot again.
Oh, dammit. Well...we'll just stumble on....
Strolling back one follows the line of this fascinating huge outcropping. It runs for 150 yards and is not only indelibly beautiful, but with numerous caves. This would have been the Bel Aire of the Paleolithic world, housing numerous families, with a rich source of sea food just a stroll away. This would have been inhabited by Homo erectus and then Homo sapien for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, the peninsula's innumerable caves probably housed one of the largest Paleolithic communities anywhere during the wet season. During the dry, there being no fresh water, they probably migrated past the karst barrier to one of the many rivers and streams flowing into Phang Nga Bay.
My alumni rag at Burnaby's Simon Fraser University are doing a small splash on me and requested a photo so The Dragon Lady shot this. That's, uh, not the Nikon from Bali around my neck, by the way. That's a different one. Looks really different. Really, really different. Honest. Really.
Madame Su's relatives from Japan are found along here. While they're often aggressive - as at Ubud, Bali, in the Monkey Forest - these crab-eating macaques are surprisingly polite. But then they are Japanese.
On Railay East is...oh, Jeez, just ignore this.... I apologize. This is a real, uh, bummer.
On Railay East is the Great Wall of Krabi, as I call it, arguably the most popular wall for climbers.
Tonsai Beach is the least developed of the three beaches and the backpacker hangout.
There's places here to stay on the beach for $20. Back further in the coconuts it's a lot cheaper. I'm surprised at how many young Europeans smoke. That's good. There' s too many people in the world.
Ostrich Legs and I did the enjoyable two mile trek around a karst uplift through beautiful jungle to reach it. We had to wait at this restaurant for an hour and half waiting for the tide to go out so we could return to Railay by shore. Can you imagine how we agonized that time away with nothing to do but relax and enjoy one of the world's most glorious tropical views?
...I'm just ignoring...ignoring....
Ostrich Legs and Tiny Tush are Explorers Club members and headed our medical team on the David Thompson Expedition and will be the chief medical officers on June's dino bone search down Alberta's Red Deer River with Phil Currie. They're the kind of docs that knock you out so you don't scream when another doc plunges in his knife and cuts up your giblets. They joined us for several days so we could go out and play.
We pooled out of course, and I got play with our new camera. Uh, Ostrich Legs, what do we say when they ask, "Dear, does this dress make my ass look big?"
Ahhhh, the perfect woman! No, wait, there's no place to set my beer.
Our accomo at the Sand Sea Resort on the beach (thanks to beachfrontclub.com, another blatant plug for a friend's site, but it's great) at Railay is a little different than the Jolly Frog. At the same time, the Grand Deluxe at $160 is a special down from $325. I love visiting countries in the grip of martial law (the Thai "emergency decree" in place at this writing is just that dressed up politically correct) and riots and unrest. It scares tourists away. You can count on bargains and no problems getting accommodation and transportation. Throw that Molotov!
Just continue to ignore. Maybe it'll go away....
The bath is, I admit, better than my cold water shower at the Jolly Frog.
Who's that sleeping in my hammock, said the Big Bad Wolf! I pulled the travel writer's card and they gave us a preferred corner room opening out onto the pool.
Two days in a row a herd of Oriental Pied Hornbills flew into the trees beside it. Another family of Hattoris, dusky langurs, lived in these same trees.
Now I actually shot this one at our pool purposely wondering if I then would have a temple shot appear but no such luck. Ruskies predominate though there's a babel of languages. I'd recommend the Sand Sea Resort except for one thing. To scrimp the owner (or else the contractor ripped him off) didn't install a complete set of plumbing traps; thus the odor of white water permeated. Fortunately, I carry a flat rubber stopper which I slipped over the shower drain which alleviated the problem. The food's nothing special, nowhere as good as the Jolly Frog. Actually, finding good food anywhere on the peninsula was a challenge - the Monsoon down Walking Street had good eats - as we're getting into the southern Muslim area of Thailand and away from classic Thai cuisine.
We explored by kayak those formations and caves we couldn't reach by land.
Another day I visited this old friend from 1988 - this steep climb of a few hundred vertical feet to a viewpoint half way up a karst formation. I used to do this every couple of days for exercise back then. It's still as much fun.
The viewpoint. Railay East is on the right. When the tide goes out it's just a mud flat and is used to supply the peninsula.
Indeed, it was so much fun I brought The Dragon Lady up the next day. I've never known her not to be game for adventure, and she's athletic and nimble, my kinda broad. Next is a dramatic shot from a different viewpoint, overlooking Railay West.
Well, nice view, but not the one I want, dammit. Let's try again.
This is it. The tsunami struck here 10 year ago of course. Bjornar Tomassen was in the right place at the wrong time to shoot this, so as to speak.
It hit just minutes after devastating beautiful Phi Phi Island, above, just 18 miles away, sweeping across the narrow waist and washing away over 600 lives. Today, it's Party Central again. Railay is more family oriented, except for Tonsai.
Fortunately, Railay was somewhat protected by reefs and islands. You'll recall on TV the bottom shot in a video as the sailboats rocked violently as the first wave rolled towards Railay West. Sam Nicols shots.
Tonsai beach. Damage was relatively minor though it scared the crap out of everyone of course. I can't find on google if any died here at Railay Peninsula, but if there were, it was very few. I was in Bangkok when the earthquake hit. I felt nothing at ground level, while having breakfast at a restaurant that fateful morn, but while walking home frightened workers were streaming out of high rises under construction. They had been swaying at the tops. I'll never forget that day. A week later I was planning to sail up into the Burmese archepeligo.
But beach life is back to normal. And I wish this crappy camera was as well.... It's to Ebay for this one too it seems.
...Just a minute...there's a subtle change taking place. It's just not ass shots. Maybe there's hope for this camera after all...? Certainly the wifi waves in and out and you never know when you can get online.
Yes, yes, perfectly respectable shots, although it's still defaulting away from all the fabulous temple shots I took to pretty girls, but at least it's a move in the right direction. Maybe I shouldn't have sold the Nikon? The wifi was even worse there. That camera might work perfectly well now. Let me try for a shot of an idol in a crevice for the next shot.
It worked this time! Yes, I'll bet it's the wonky wifi in Thailand causing the problem. I'll ask Chicken Legs, my geek, to have a look at it. I do want to keep it. It's perfect for shooting rapids and trekking in the rain and the rough-use outdoors life I live.
We'll wrap with a sunset shot in paradise. We'll be back. Of course.
Along the Death Railway
and into the Death Cave
Nicole Kidman shot her final scene in The Railway Man in this cutting along the infamous Thai - Burma Death Railway. Sir Rodney Beattie, as technical advisor, had pointed the film crew to this location. Many men suffered and died creating this wedge through the rock in WW-II.
With Sir Rod's daughter Tracy we spent the day exploring the old bed.
70 years ago one stretch was spanned by a wooden trestle like this.
Now this is all that's left after Sir Rod 20 years ago cleaned out everything that was left after the jungle reclaimed the bridge. Here, he sweeps the dry grass for artifacts.
At the base where a trestle beam rested against a foundation is a snapshot in time: finger marks left by a POW or Asian coolie slave levelling out the cement by hand. The finger marks are wide; it was probably a POW. The poignancy of seeing this is so moving I can't describe it.
You can see why they called these dogspikes.
There were several different types and this is one of the more interesting ones because of the shape and date. The lettering indicates it was stolen from the Malaysia State Railway.
All the larger trestles were bombed and re-bombed by Allied RAF bombers. There's craters everywhere of varying sizes. This is a small one. They don't photograph well so this is the only shot I'm posting.
Using his machete as a B-24 bomber and a decaying bamboo stick as the railway, Sir Rod demonstrates how they did their bomb runs. It wasn't along the track, or at right angles to it - but rather at a 26 degree angle. This offered the greatest opportunity for a string of bombs to strike the target.
With his trained eyes, it didn't take long to turn up shrapnel. Pieces the size of a man are found at his Death Railway Museum and Research Centre in Kanchanaburi.
Further along we came to the site of a station. Sir Rod is walking between two parallel rail lines faintly visible.
With his sharp eyes he quickly picked out broken telephone insulators. He explained when he found a grouping of them, he would piece them together so as to determine the number of lines.
At this point a water tower stood. The clues? Rivets that once held the tank together.
Several were collected and will form part of the Hintok River Camp Museum which we have been working on for some years and which will open very soon.
Dry mixed cement was transported by the Japanese in wooden barrels but when it got wet, it ended up like this. As you can see, archeology isn't confined to ancient times. Sir Rod, a fellow of the Explorers Club, is an archeologist of significant proportions.
Ahhh, a map, compass and GPS, things we're both at home with and love. Our next project was to trace the underground flow route which leads to Hintok Cave. We knew from other sightings that there had to be a connection between other sink holes leading up Hintok Mountain. We wanted to GPS them but the Thai military offset waypoints by about 400 yards along the Thai - Burma border making this impractical.
We struck off from near Hintok Cave and moved up a shallow valley through a rubber tree plantation.
Oops, there goes another rubber tree plant. Sorry. Can't help myself. It's the old disc jockey in me.
We didn't need the GPS anyway. Sir Rod has one imbedded in his brain. He just struck forth through the bamboo jungle at a rate hard to keep up with. At one time we were halted by a startled 3-foot-long snake beneath the wide, dry teak leaves and directly in our path. It presumably moved on though we didn't see it, so thick was the leaf fall in that area. Sir Rod, being an Aussi, wasn't worried and just cleared the area with a bamboo stick to make sure it was gone.
As we suspected we found a long line of caves, most of the sink hole variety, that ranged in size from 1-2 feet across to a size like this one that you could drop a bus into. There were eight that we counted, but we're sure there's more.
Some we were able to clamber down into - and one was HUGE. But the boulder strewn floors didn't offer a suitable accommodation for Stone Agerites. Also, being this far from water it's unlikely they would have been used as ongoing residences. Hintok Mountain is several hundred feet high and it was a helluva tough climb through all the fallen rocks and vegetation. My kinda country.
This massive boulder was probably dislodged by an earthquake and came bounding down the mountain to land here with one hell of a thump. Beneath it is a potential rock shelter that bears further investigation.
This is your tree on drugs.
Descending was almost as hard. You can see The Dragon Lady high up this 45 degree slope with fallen rock everywhere. That's actually what Hin Tok means - falling rock. You have to be in damned good shape to follow Sir Rod into the jungle for several miles and I'd been spending too much time hammocking out, I'm afraid. We slept well that night....
Day three we finally struck off for the Death Cave, our major focus, with Khun Suparerk in tow. He's managing director of the Serenata Hotel and Resort Group, our host at Hintok River Camp and our partner in the Stone Age and POW museum project there.
Remember this scene in The Deer Hunter aboard a raft? The actors and crew stayed aboard rafts which belonged to Khun Suparerk and that was where and when he started out, for the movie scenes were shot along the Kwai. I asked if he had any memories of the shoot. He remembered that Bob DeNiro signed the guest book.
His resorts have grown to 16 all over Thailand, each with a specific theme - like the POW themed Hintok River Camp on the site of the original POW camp - and all topping at 40 rooms, and all class acts. I've never seen anything like his unique, creative approach in over 40 years of writing travel all over the world. He's a major force in Thai tourism.
His companies have grown to 30 with over 1,000 employees and yet he's the most relaxed, easy going and good humored tycoon - and that's what he is - imaginable, in the Warren Buffet mold. His work is his fun and is revealed by his infectious smile and quiet laugh. "My friends say, 'Why don't you retire and play golf?' Golf bores me. This is my fun, ha ha ha." He's great fun to be with. A genuinely happy guy.
Sir Rod at the bottom of the vertically sunk entrance to the Death Cave. "Khun Suparerk, are you coming down?"
"Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha."
Well, it's not easy getting down. In fact, The Dragon Lady lost her footing and scraped her side.
But she's a major trooper and we - carefully - entered. With relief, we found the CO2 levels low. It quickly opens out into a major gallery, and a beautiful one too.
We went to work by headlamp, Madame Su and Sir Rod excavating in the most likely area, where we found the baby human bones and Neolithic potsherds last season. And where Rod found the original jadeite polished axe now with the Thai Fine Arts Dept, which oversees archaeological projects.
I, on the other hand, roamed around the cavern digging test holes in likely locations. All the time we were highly aware that CO2 could waft in at anytime but we were close to the entrance. We could detect a distinct difference in levels, with much better air when we stood. Indeed, after an hour and half on our knees both Su and I had to leave as we were developing headaches. They disappeared soon after returning to good air.
An unusual find. Several of these rose up to eight inches above the cave floor. They're either roots covered in calcium carbonate and then decayed away; or created by tiny termites, Rod's guess. Cool anyway.
We found very little in the two days we worked the cave. This long bone has been tentatively identified as human by our medical sources. We've shot a further series of pictures to help an accurate ID.
We found much more than this amount of potsherds, some of it displaying the characteristic Neolithic cord design, and the rest somewhat more recent, in addition to snails left as food with the grave furniture. We left the rest and brought this out. We're satisfied this cave wasn't use for habitation, but only for burials.
It'll form part of the displays in the Hintok Museum which will be housed in the renovated brown house in the camp above - and it'll be open for Anzac Day April 24, which is pretty exciting for those of us involved in this volunteer project. I did the final sweeps of my Stone Age display boards and Sir Rod's POW ones and they're ready to be manufactured. Unfortunately I won't get to see the final result for a year! April 10 I'll be landing back in a melting snowbank in Canada!
With the explorations over for now - Sir Rod and I'll be returning with O2 tanks in a month to explore back deeper in the Death Cave - The Dragon Lady and I took in some RnR at the camp.
And I got to play with our new Olympus Tough, good to 50 feet deep, can drop it from seven, and with a great, fun fish eye. It's also fast: turn it on and shoot. The bloody digital camera technology is finally getting to the level where it should be. This is the first camera since my Pentax 500 back in the 70s that I really love.
For our return - Sir Rod had already headed back in his Land Rover - Khun Suparerk kindly arranged a long tailed boat for us for a trip down the Kwai.
We passed several river raft outfits and they all appeared to be empty. I wasn't surprised. The day we cruised down was January 13 - the first day of the Bangkok Shutdown. Tourism was being whacked.
At the landing, a vehicle was waiting to transport us on to the railway station for the 40 miles run of the Death Railway still in use. If you saw the Blah Blah I did on the deplorable and dangerous condition of the track a couple of years ago you'll wonder what the hell I was doing, but I like to live a little dangerously. Like I like a little spice in my Thai food but not too much.
This is the sight Japanese soldiers would have had as they were transported to the Burmese Theater.
Wang Po Viaduct, the most dramatic stretch of the entire 250 mile line.
Here at the end of the viaduct is a 5-star resort, built on the POW camp that built this particularly murderous stretch.
Back in Kanchanaburi, still sore from Sir Rod's latest Death March, I was looking forward to a 2-hour massage.
But The Dragon Lady dragged me off shopping at the Night Market instead.
Just for that, I'll finish off with a goofy image of her. (Actually, it ain't true; I was just fishing for an excuse to use this shot.)
My Strange Experience Interviewing
The Everly Brothers
As music director of Saskatoon’s CFQC-Radio-600 I had the strange experience of interviewing the Everly Brothers on their last tour in 1973—strange because I was surprised to learn that they hated each other so much that they not only had separate managers but I had to interview them separately. It was done in the Green Room of the Centennial Auditorium. They were very different. I basically did the same interview twice, asking them about their formation and the genesis of each hit song. Don, the older, darker one, was first. He slouched in the sofa chair, exuded cynicism and kept responses to questions he’s heard a million times concise. Phil was much easier to engage, and the much more likeable of the two—though he was completely stressed out and could barely sit still. He looked like he was ready to explode with pent up frustration of some kind. He spieled off the answers to the very same questions he too had heard a millioin times before like a 45 rpm record (remember those?) cranked up to 78. The interview over, he bolted from the chair. Then they went onstage to perform, with a minimum of banter, and they were flawless and magic and, for a huge fan like me, it was indelible (as was the whole experience).
I then took both interviews into the studio and spliced them together as if they were together, talking about their career and songs. And I produced an hour long music documentary which was distributed nationally through the CAB (Canadian Association of Broadcasters). But I never forgot what a strange experience it was—and I wasn’t surprised when, just a few months later, they split up and didn’t talk to each other for ten years….
Like Martin and Lewis, they later made up. Much later. As Don said, "We've been hitched to the same plow for a long time." But as Phil said about their incredible harmonies, "It's an art." And it was.
RIP Phil Everly.
Escape to the River Kwai
December 9-28, 2013
Ok, after heroically putting up with this white crap for three weeks, I'm outta here!
On the first leg to Calgary I looked down with anticipation on the Red Deer River, its badlands holding the greatest concentration of dinosaur bones in the world. Next June I'll be team leader on my second 18-person expedition down it with paleantologists Phil Currie and wife Eva Koppelhus as field leaders. Explorers Club members are flying in from all over North America and Thailand.
The second leg was to Frankfurt where this huge sign rotated in the airport. I've always been struck by the similarity of Bayer's symbol to the swastika. Little remembered is that Bayer was a major sponsor of medical experiments at Auschwitz. How they survived that association I'll never know. To this day I boycott their products.
There I boarded my first 380, one of Thai Airway's fleet
I thought the first generation pods as in Air Canada's biz section were comfortable. Thai Air's are a step up on their 380s. From the second level, it's like looking down from a four-story building.
Ah, complimentary champagne....
The entire atmosphere instantly changes when you enter a Thai environment, everything becomes softer, gentler in that magic Thai way. My gawd, they even have a massage feature!
After taking off on the final leg to Bangkok, I adjusted my seat for maximum comfort, sipped my champagne, and flipped through the movies. Seeing a Thai one set in Tibet called Shambhala, I checked it out, since Tibet is high on my list before the bloody Chinese destroy it completely. I was hardly into it when I was startled to see Ananda Everingham, left, stick his face into the screen.
Ananda's the Brad Pitt of Thailand and the son of John Everingham. John's Southeast Asia's top photographer and he and Jade are close friends of ours. The four of us collaborated on a shoot and story on Sri Lanka's Devil Dancers about 15 years ago targeted at National Geographic. The movie was a serious one and damned good and I wasn't surprised that Ananda's won virtually all of Thailand's top acting awards. The lad's got talent.
John's latest career move is worth noting. Over several years and using his incredible talent as a photog he developed www.thebeachfrontclub.com . Want to be sure the hotel you're booking anywhere in the world is right on the beach, as advertised (and often fibbed)? Check it in detail on his site which covers 7,500 hotels in over 100 countries that are right on the beach period.And you can book right on the site too, of course. It's a monumental website. This is Thailand's Railay Beach BTW, for my money the most beautiful in the world and I've bummed 'em all.
Landing in The Big Mango, as we call Bangkok, I checked out my old neighbourhood, greeting and being greeted by long familiar street vendors.
Bangkok's come a loooong way since I first landed from Rangoon into this then-grubby city in the late '70s. Then, there was no visible middle class. Now, it's everywhere and incredible shopping centers like Terminal21 seen here are going up. Just a few Skytrain stops down is the Paragon Shopping Center, the most frequently photo posted on Instagram.
There's even great food here, like these pickled duck tongues. And only $6.00.
Thai cuisine is justifiably world famous and never tastes even close to it outside of the country. Don't laugh. She's into her second edition.
Health care has come a long way too. Why, there's drop in clinics all over the city.
Friendly people. Especially the girls.
Great shopping for your favorite endangered species. (To be fair, croc is farmed here.)
And a nightlife second to none, that I don't care about anymore as I'm invariably in bed by 9:30 every night. The Uzi-going-off-in-bar-scene in Hangover II was shot in the Tilac (means "darling") on the left, here on Cowboy Soi.
Got together with friends at Cabbages and Condoms. Next to me is Mike Wiss, bridge expert and author of How NOT to Play Bridge - The Bridge Seminars of Professor Gaston Gitane-Gauloise. And Jerry Hopkins, author of over 30 books including No One Here Gets Out Alive about Jim Morrison that Oliver Stone used for The Doors. Jerry also authored Bangkok Babylon: The Real-Life Exploits of Bangkok's Legendary Expatriats are often Stranger than Fiction in which he generously included a chapter about me called "The Collector."
Jerry kindly saved me copies of a great two-page review on Opium Dream which appeared in Bangkok Metro while I was away. It not only mentioned that most of my books are available on Amazon's Kindle for less than $3 but included a tribute I always take pride in and which invariably appears in my reviews: Opium Dream is "an action-packed adventure novel that makes use of true archaeological, anthropological, historical and geographical facts."
After a week to de-jetlag, I grabbed a mini-bus for the 2.5 hour drive southwest to Kanchanaburi and the bridge over the River Kwai, here at war's end damaged from RAF B-24 bombing.
Same view today with the missing two curved spans replaced by rectangular ones - and the shrapnel gouges patched.
On the far bank of the river I found something new to me - two shrapnel gouges that weren't patched, providing a peek inside the cement quality. For someone who has been studying the Death Railway for 30 years like I have, it added a smidgen to my knowledge.
I don't care for stiff, cookie-cutter 5-star hotels and have always had a warm spot for guesthouses and the Jolly Frog is one of my longtime favorites. This has always been a great place to cool out and I need it.After 10 years of helping squire the Canadian Chapter of The Explorers Club from a moribund chapter of 46 to its present vibrant 215 - I sponsored 15 worthy members in the last year alone - I recently stepped down as communications director.That Canada is a powerhouse in exploration worldwide is best exemplified by the last three recipients of the Club's highest honour, the Explorers Medal: Jim Cameron, Phil Currie and Wade Davis.
Just two days later HQ at the Clubhouse in New York offered me a worldwide ambassadorship. I was greatly honoured but after weighing it for a week, I respectfully declined. After 500 weekly 2000-word updates and 39 consecutive contributions to the quarterly Explorers Log (our international newsletter), a Club record by far, I need a healthy break to rest and recharge. They well understood.
And the Jolly Frog is the
place for me to string my trusty hammock and do just that. That
two-three days a week for a decade devoted to the Club feeds
prominently, if indirectly, into my next book.I'm still in the
research phase, though I have it roughly blocked out and have laid down
over 16,000 words, but now I can devote more writing time exclusively
to it, once the well refills.I won't say more other than that it's
another non-fiction, these Blah Blahs are integral to it, and I still
need a few more research years to fill it out. It builds on Adventurous
Dreams, Adventurous Lives, a book that is going to be a
very hard act to follow, but I'm sure going to try. That's been described several times as an "important" book and I hope this one to be a worthy successor.
Would you believe that the cost of a clean, neat room - and that's the door to the private bath on the right - costs less than $7? Prices in Thailand are still incredible.
Food prices in the restaurant have gone through the roof though. For several years the steamed whole tilapia, one of my favorite dishes, was $3. Now it's skyrocketed to $4. The cooks here are incredible though the "alleged service" takes a few years to get used to, he laughs.
Helping me shake off the West is my favorite little massage parlour, a delightful and tasteful little place. An hour's massage? 150 baht, $5.00. And Thai massage is an ancient art, unlike whatever is practiced by those hairy brutes in Istanbul.
But even before I get too settled in my first visit is to pay my respects at the POW cemetery. Indeed, I go virtually everyday day. It never fails to move me to the core.
12,227 POWs and 100,000 Asian coolies died in the 16 months it took to build the 250 miles of railway from Thailand to Burma. That's an appalling average of 250 a day. There's a reason it's called the Death Railway.
"Always thinking of you Fred. I will be with you soon. Love, Den X"
My second stop was to the incredible monument Sir Rod Beattie built in memory of all those men lying across the road.
That's Sir Rod in the middle, just back from London where Prince Charles presented him with an MBE to add to his Australia Medal, the knighthood from the Dutch Queen and the fellowship in The Explorers Club I sponsored him for. He has so much silver hanging from him he clanks when he walks, but then he should, as he is a knight after all. On the left is Andrew Snow, the Centre's outstanding researcher.
While Sir Rod gets (and deserves) the accolades, it's Andrew who is in many ways the backbone of the Research Centre. It's he who meticulously assembles the massive - MASSIVE - and always growing data base on each and every person who served on the railway.He showed me an email request he received from a POW relative who had little more than a regiment number. It took Andrew - whose uncle, and father slaved on the railway (and who survived the war only to die a few years later) - 3.5 hours to assemble the deceased POW's story: from capture in Singapore and imprisonment in Changi Prison, trained up to the railway, following completion, trained back to Singapore, put aboard a ship bound for Saigon but turned back when the harbour was blockaded by US subs, to his eventual death.The fulsome email he received in return is his reward. Andrew deserves a medal or two too.
Sir Rod will be with us on the Red Deer dino expedition next June. As you know, everyone gets an appropriate river name and he felt his - Sir Rodney - was too formal.I pointed out that, not to worry, this is the Sir Rodney we picture. Being an Aussi with a typical no hold's barred Aussi sense of humour, he had to laugh. We had important biz to conduct: lay down dates in the New Year when The Dragon Lady has arrived so we can commence excavations on the Death Cave, continuing the Stone Age digs we've been doing together the last three years in caves he discovered while doing his monumental railway research.
In the last cave we excavated, at the site of the Hintok POW camp where it was used as a garbage pit, came many of the hundreds of objects in the museum. Below the POW level he discovered Neolithic tools, and thus began his continued digs, to which Madame Su and I joined. Hintok is now the site of an upscale resort which pays homage to the original purpose and we'll get an update on the mini-museum we're building there in cooperation with the owner.
So I'll be heading back to The Big Mango to meet up with The Dragon Lady and spend New Years with friends. And looking forward to the imminent release of The Railway Man which Sir Rod acted as technical advisor on, and another close friend, Kiwi Kevin Chisnall, handled the special effects for. If you see steam issuing out of strange places on a locomotive, blame him. Colin's shooting for an Oscar on this one, incidentally. Based closely on a true story, it's head on, gut level drama and I expect it to make a big splash.
And I always like to leave on a happy note - and what's happier than a coupla kids? Especially at Christmas. Even if these cuties are Thai and ain't never heard of it.Oh, several friends say they live vicariously through me. Next blah blah I'll show you the friend I live vicariously through.... In the meantime, M'ey Cistmas as the Thais say!
Trotting Across Turkey
September 21-October 1, 2013
We landed in Constantinople August 31, one of my very favorite cities.
The view from the terrace of the Deluxe Golden Horn Sultanahmet Hotel where my Ugurnauts linked up. It's the same view from our room and the best in Istanbul. That's Aya Sophia on the left (and in the lead shot above, with Topkapi Palace behind) and the Blue Mosque in the centre. Roughly in between is the old Roman Hippodrome.
Turkish is one of the world’s great cuisines. Lift the top lid and you have a steaming pork dish. It’s surrounded at the next levels with aubergine, dolmas, pureed spinach and so on. The bottom two rows of little pots contain a mouth watering selection of condiments. There’s not only tall grinders for salt and pepper but also for…excuse me…what’s that? This is the Blue Mosque up close? Oh, sorry. I thought it was some kind of Turkish cooking thing. You know, you light a fire inside…?
Billy Hayes in Oliver Stone's Midnight Express began his misadventure here, at the nearby and infamous Pudding Shop, then a grubby meeting place for backpackers heading across the old Asia Overland Trail. It wove across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan before threading the Khyber Pass down into the squalid pandemonium that is India. I was one of those in '78, and that's how I discovered Bangkok and Southeast Asia which has been a key component in my life since. The Pudding Shop's been upgraded considerably but the old message board is still there. The pudding is actually a tasty concoction of pounded chicken, flour, sugar and cinnamon. I included the Shop in a full page feature on Istanbul I wrote for the papers I strung to (which on this first solo around the world expanded to 16) and mailed a tearsheet to them but, alas, it wasn't one of those framed on the walls. Actually, with only a paragraph mentioning them I'm not surprised. (Point of interest: Oliver Stone and I were born on the same day: September 14, 1946.)
Then, in '78, Constantinople was down on its luck and I led that article with the metaphor of her once being a Grand Old Dame whose raiment now was tattered, torn and blackened by hard times. I was lucky to be there when the old wooden passenger steamers still chuffed around the Bosporus, and the decrepid floating Galata Bridge still bobbed across the Golden Horn. Now the city has undergone a renaissance and facelift - and the once dormant Turkish economy is percolating. I'm happy about that (as much as I hate change in places I fell in love with) because the Turks are amongst the finest peoples I know, up there with the Nepalese and Tibetans. Honesty and fair dealing is imparted to them in grade school lessons and in few nations will you find a people with deeper and finer character. Nowhere will you find greater hospitality. It's a point of national pride.
Then, the walking street of Istikal Caddesi was deserted. Now, it's swarming with the burgeoning middle class. (If you wonder where Breaking Bad's Saul Goodman escaped to, look no further. That's him on the left, with a few pounds added to help his disguise.)
And whereas Istanbul and Istikal looked traditionally like this, represented by one of the ubiquitous and colourful shoe shiners...
...it now looks more like this.
This is my fifth time to Turkey and third to Constantinople, the last time with The Dragon Lady in '95, but we still hit the usual touristo hot spots, like the centuries old and enormous Grand Bazaar.
The heart and soul of Istanbul for me has always been the Galata Bridge - and especially the old, decrepid floating one that gently bobbed about, which has been replaced by a modern solid spanning structure. The old one didn't allow large water craft to enter the Golden Horn while at the same time locked in the city's runoff, making it something of a Stinking Horn, as I described it in that '78 widely published travel article.
Then, two or three large, crude rowboats bobbed wildly by the quay alongside the bridge, serving up grilled fish slapped into a thick bun, for the equivalent of about .50 cents. Those rowboats proved so successful they've evolved into these three gaudy, luxurious craft at the bottom of this shot which I shot from the new bridge. I was pleased to see that this Turkish delight has become a tradition.
A sultan would be comfortable cruising in one of these floating kitchens today.
This delicious piece of Istanbul now costs $3.50. Still cheap.
No visit to Turkey is complete without a visit to one of the 500-year-old hamams, or Turkish baths. I survived two. Gimme my 2-hour $12 deliciously gentle Thai massages any day. These hairy Turkish gorillas still rip the flesh from the bones and the bones from their joints. Yet, perversely, it's still a worthwhile and unique experience and it is very relaxing (once you get over the pain, terror, horror and shock). I'll do it again. Maybe.
Could use this lad on a canoe trip, good portaging skills, almost as good as The Dragon Lady and Good Yoko, but they have the advantage of that incredible coolie DNA. He's a hamal, a porter necessary to haul goods up the steep, narrow, winding streets of the Old City.
After reacquainting ourselves with Constantinople, we flew south to board our charter. (See the following Blah Blah for that adventure.) The prow-like peninsula at the bottom is the Old City, Sultanahmet, with Topkapi Palace on the tip prominent in white surrounded by green. Snaking off to the left is the Golden Horn, and weaving north is the wider Bosporus to the Black Sea at the top. Europe to the left; Asia to the right.
This is our complete route, Istanbul to Bodrum - sailing to Finike - and then by land to Antalya, then by bus back to Constantinople via ancient dead cities. If you want to see Greco-Roman ruins, you don't go to Greece or Italy. You fly to Turkey - where entire cities are liberally scattered along the Aegean and Mediterranean perimeters. I've explored several others in the past, and we explored another several while sailing along the coast. But this time we took in four major inland sites, three off the beaten path. (I've already seen Ephesus twice and Troy but there's still lots more to go - including the 500k Lycian Trail parallel to our sailing route, one of the world's great treks. Next time.)
Arykanda was the first, an hour's mini-bus ride inland out of Finike, then a 1.6k uphill walk. Built on five levels, the view is outstanding. Flasher and Angry Planet producer Peter "Don Pedro" Rowe and Carolyn joined us.
Although we saw considerable intricate Inca-like stone work along the coast, nowhere was it so dramatic as here. Despite earthquakes, this wall stayed intact. No wonder.
The cruise over, most of us hired a van and driver and headed through a national park to Antalya. This corner of Turkey is the most beautiful. The only bit I haven't seen is the Black Sea coast and around Lake Van in the southeast.
Antalya...the capital of the Turkish Riviera...and one of the loveliest places in the world. This is my third visit and I'll be back. The archaeology museum is brilliant.
The Old Town is a magical, Ottoman place. When I first stumbled through here with a weak Wende in 1973 it was a poor, tumbledown dump like this where a funky, neat, character filled room in a guesthouse cost $8.00.
Now most of it has been gentrified and looks like this. That $8 room is now spiffed up and over $100. It's still a wonderful place. Here seen with Uncle Don and Laurie of White Rock.
My ugurnauts having dispersed, we started our interior explorations. I was immediately sold on this bus line.
The second major city we visited was Perge, an hour by transit bus and a further walk of 2k out of Antalya. But at least it was a mostly flat walk this time.
These bases are new - and help the imagination take wing to visualize the city as it was during its days of splendor. And it would have been astonishingly beautiful. Magnificent. Stunning.
This mystery groove in old bases I saw everywhere, so I emailed Tuba Ekmekci, new friend and Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology in Bodrum. She explained, "The groove you asked is a lead attachment piece hole. If you see the channel to the center, this is where they pour the lead, so when the lead dries it attaches the two column pieces together. On the ancient sites it is difficult to find lead piece anymore because of the metal smugglers!"
I love finding things like this. See how the square-and-grooves along the top are leaning to the left? And now the acanthus leaf in the middle is off centre? This was obviously carved by a snotty nosed apprentice still learning his craft. I'm surprised it wasn't rejected.
Here's how the Master does it. Everything nice and even.
This is where the archaeological dig left off, at the end of a long, completed street, with three feet of overburden laid down by the winds of the centuries next to sift through. If you look carefully, there's two columns lying on top of the rubble to the left. And before the archaoes even get to this level, they have to clear away ten-foot high and thick brambles with thorns.
Three of the four sites were harder to get to, which we like. Less tourists. The next was a 4.5 hour bus ride, then another hour's mini-bus, and finally a 300m walk to Aphrodisias - the original City of Love. And, yes, the citizens would have been called Aphrodisiacs.
That's Aphrodite on the right after having an overnight trist with a shepherd. I wonder what kind of rituals they would have had in a city dedicated to the goddess of love?
The Greeks and Romans were an uninhibited lot and loved a good orgy. My gawd, they even put lusty scenes on their sarcophagi. The party pooping Christians put an end to that, twisting sex into something dirty and shameful, the Catholic Church learning it could nefariously use the manifest guilt to mind control the masses. Now, that's disgusting. The Catholic Church is the most evil institution to plague Western Civilization in the last 1,600 years, flogging the masses with centuries of the Inquisition, co-sponsoring genocide on Central and South American civilizations, stifling science and cultural advancement (outside of art, I'll grant them that) at every turn, even facilitating an escape pipeline for Gestapo mass murderers. My gawd it was so greedy and immoral it even made a business out of selling Indulgences (passes to heaven). Fortunately, its self-serving influence is waning as the Evil Empire's massive moral corruption, as with pedophilia, can no longer be kept under wraps and science dissolves superstition. Coincidentally, it was Constantine - who Constantinople is named after - who tossed out the pantheon of colourful gods, from the Greeks'-which-evolved-into-the-Romans', to the current one now in vogue.
There was a healthy appreciation for the attractive human form, whether male or female. This babe could have served at Hooters.
One of the biggest lessons I learned on this trip to these ancient dead cities is that the citizens had not only a high quality of life, but they had a high level of enjoyment, of happiness. Their cities were designed to facilitate pleasure and happiness. This is clearly evident from their buildings. Outside of the temples to their gods, the largest are given over to entertainment - theatre and sports, and these arenas were filled with beautiful statuary reflecting their appreciation of art. They were just like us in their tastes and desires. Since grade school and on previous explorations I could intellectually grasp this but on this trip it finally sunk in to a visceral level. I could be transported back to Greek and Roman times and know I'd feel at home. In some ways I'd feel more at home than in my own times. I prefer their gods to ours. Given a choice between Aphrodite and that blood-thirsty, sadistic SOB in the Old Testament, which would you choose?
Aphrodisias has the best stadium in antiquity. It's easy to imagine the cheering crowds, sloshing back wine, perhaps watermelons on their heads like Saskatchewan Roughrider fans, as Ben Hurs charged around the course. Today's, it's the chariots' descendent, harness racing - or NASCAR. No difference (though, yes, their tastes in some sports, gladiatorial, did run a bit bloody, and I couldn't stomach that. Hell, hockey violence disgusts me.). You can spot, in the centre, the tiny speck of Madame Su directing traffic.
How many thousands of butts have sat on these comfortable, cool benches over the last 2,000 years?
Abstract art a recent innovation? Hardly. With our modern arrogance and sense of superiority due to our advanced technology and more complex and evolved culture, we severely underestimate the early Greeks and Romans, indeed, all early civilizations. We conjure all kinds of insults to their intelligence, creativity and skill - projecting that aliens had to have built the pyramids and crap like that. As we rocketed out of the Neolithic - where we first learned to polish stone - we perfected this particular technology to its artistic zenith long before Michelangelo's David. We became masters in stone first off, from sculpture to the pyramids. And that arrogance and short sightedness extends to our ability to recognize and appreciate the high level of pleasure and happiness the people enjoyed (outside of the slaves, of course, but they often became part of households, not unlike live in servants in Africa and Asia today). Like sports, they loved arts and entertainment - drama and comedy - as much as we do.
The skill of this sculptor is such that the fabric hangs entirely natural. Our movies and TV programs portray the masses as crude and unsophisticated, which is also unfair. There is no reason not to believe they were as well mannered and natural and sensitive et cetera as we are today. Human nature is human nature and it evolved to our level far sooner than we think. Dignity is a natural trait that was found by early explorers in many first contact situations, from fur trading Canada to Asia.
Here's more brilliant examples. This is the 4th Century BC so-called "Alexander Sarcophagus" in the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology at Topkapi.
Detail. Brilliant. On the level of a Michelangelo or a Da Vinci and predating them by 1600 years and us by 2400 years.
This was from the same cache found in Sidon, Syria, in the 1880s.
Detail. If this isn't one of the world's greatest art treasures too, nothing is. It stands up today as high art. A masterpiece.
We bused on to Pergamon. Also off the beaten path.
And one of the best guesthouses I've stayed at anywhere in the world. Turkish hospitality, as I've said, is amongst the best I've had the pleasure to enjoy and Ozden Bavli's place has it in spades. He even jumped on his motorbike and bopped down to reserve our bus tickets for no charge. It was also fabulously funky and clean and we love the Ottoman style. His wife's breakfast was incredible. $45 with bath. Wonderful place. firstname.lastname@example.org
The major ruins were on the highest acropolis I've seen. The wind was blistering up here. The theatre, left, is by far the steepest I've seen. Vertigo inspiring and with a view forever. Alex the Great took over all these sites though this is the one that could have put up a fight.
Like most acropoli, habitation dated back to Paleolithic times. Turkey is one of our cradles of civilization and the entire story of man is written on its face. Without hardly looking I found a thumb scraper and projectile point. (I left them.) Pot shards are everywhere as they are everywhere in Turkey. Children, after rains, scour the Acropolis and its the steep sides looking for ancient coins.
At another Byzantium site I stumbled on this Neolithic stone axe in an old olive orchard! It was a site abandoned in the 7th century AD. I knew stone tools were used into the Bronze Age but didn't know that some even even found use in the Iron. I'm guessing that it would be used by poorer people who couldn't afford iron. Either that or it has been lying around since 10,000—5500 BCE, the Neolithic. A mystery. The entire Stone Age fascinates me and I'm trying to shed more light on it.
The thickness is consistent with the style in this area of the world. The axes I've found on archaeology digs in Asia are very similar, but thinner. It impresses me greatly that the evolving technologies of these early times, from fire making to the five evolutions of tool making over the 2 million years from the Paleo- to the Neolithic - from cracked, sharp rocks to the sophisticated polished tool above - all made their way around the world. I wonder how long each wave took to do this? And who was the inventor of fire? My buddy Les Stroud can make it, and it sure the hell ain't easy, as you can see on Survivorman reruns. But how did that first inventor do it? It takes sustained very, very hard work and no one would rub sticks together with the intensity needed just for fun. My theory is that it was an early young mental defective with an obsession for rubbing sticks together that, literally, lit the world on fire. There is evidence in the archaic world of care being given to children with physical deformities, so why not mental? We'll never know the answer to these mysteries and it drives me mad.
One doesn't remove artifacts from Turkey unless one wants to end up like Billy Hayes. Security at the airport is incredible and everything is X-rayed more than once. Su's luggage was even opened downstairs after check in and two lighters removed (and an official note left). Therefore I was startled when I got home and was washing my clothes and heard something clattering around in the drier. I thought it was probably a coin I'd forgotten in a pocket, and was taken aback when I discovered the sound originated with this Roman square cast iron nail, one that I had absentmindedly pocketed to study later with my loop and had forgotten all about! So I guess I'm an antiquities smuggler after all. A check on eBay confirmed it was Roman. Sorry Turkey. Mea Culpa. I'll bring it back when I return. (It's interesting to note that forged square cut nails like this were used right up the 19th century in the West. I sometimes find them on early sites in Saskatchewan.)
Pergamon is particularly important because of this site - Asclepion - the granddaddy of all medical centres and healing spas, its three healing springs still running.
This is where the medical symbol of the serpent winding around a rod originated. My old man was in the Army Medical Corps and I still have his beret badge with that motif, which puzzled me as a kid. (It was believed that a person could shed a disease here much like a serpent shedding its skin.)
Ruins are one of Turkey's major attractions and, as an old travel writer, I felt a responsibility to contribute....
The Romans, master builders, built edifices to last and if it weren't for the region's frequent earthquakes, everything would still be intact, like this bridge in the Old Town near our guesthouse. Today, we have trouble building a bridge that lasts a century, and we think of ourselves as superior. The Roman architects and engineers would be rightly disgusted, appalled with how temporarily we build everything.
It's no pretention that the Ionic capital consists of a scroll and is far more common than the Corinthian with its stone acanthus leaves, or the less used and plain Doric found on the Parthenon. These were a literate people, they were proud of it and wanted to advertise it. Indeed, the library at Pergamon boasted 200,000 or 240,000 books, depending on what you read (though how these figures were established, I don't know). But every city boasted large libraries - Ephesus the most famous outside of Alexandria. The two story face of the famous Ephesus library still stands (though frankly I don't know how they established it as a library).
The Ottoman Old Town was a delight to explore. This fountain from a spring has been used undoubtedly since Hellenistic, even Paleolithic times.
It even has my kinda store. A gezerler. Deals in goods for geezers like me. I don't need false teeth or hair so I didn't check it out though.
The sunset Magic Hour view of the Acropolis from the rooftop terrace of the Pergamon Guesthouse. Thoroughly enjoyable on the lounge with a glass of red wine and The Dragon Lady. Turkish wine is perfectly acceptable, with a mild character all of its own, if not great. A bit flat, but I prefer that to French wines which are all too sharp for me.
No kidding? I have a Su too.
How many people do you know who can spell their names in cuneiform? The Dragon Lady can. From the Archaeo Museum, Istanbul. One of their tablets has the oldest love poem in existence, something like 4,000 years old. That says something about human nature and how we are the same. 2000 years ago is only 20 lifetimes of people who live 100 years. We haven't changed except superficially, how culture has remolded us.
Though sometime I think I should call her The Dragging Lady. Never one to travel light, when she learned she could check in two luggage on our flight, she promptly bought and filled up the green bag. There's reasons I also sometimes fondly call her my Golden Hoarder....
And note she carries her field bag in the front too. Be damned if I'll help her if she insists upon bogging us down lugging all this crap. Be damned if she'll let me help her either! Good legs on this broad a mine.
But I do get to enjoy her artistry as a dresser. As everyone who knows her knows, she's the ultimate clothes horse. It's not a surprise that legendary fashion photographer Bill Cunningham included her in one of his equally legendary montages in the New York Times when he shot The Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria in March. (Actually, Lady Danger was included as well, again to no surprise. That Blah Blah is a few down.)
How a classy dame like her landed with someone who dresses virtually only in jungle khaki...
...or Hawaiian ersatz, or a combination like this in the Spice Market, I don't know. I think it has to do with her having a Bad Boy Syndrome. But we've been happily unmarried now over 25 years.
Okay guys, skip ahead to some man stuff I have lined up, including another buff shot of Treasure Trader's Jessica Lindsay Phillips aka Lady Danger. This next bit, a fashion show, is for the gals. This was taken at the Tuvana Hotel in Antalya, the converted Ottoman mansion most of us finished off at.
And this final one...oh, wait...that's Jyll Batten-Not-So-Young.
Enuff of that crap. Here's stuff for the guys. The intricate plumbing at Perge fascinated me. Plumbing was a full on trade even then and I was immensely impressed with the intelligence that went into everything. They invented plumbing and the basics have little changed.
Anyone gotta go? You have your choice of styles.
Even a sporty version.
And here's the centerfold shot of Lady Danger I promised.
What the hell, here's another dirty picture.
From Pergamon we did our last 11-hour bus ride to Constantinople. Buses are so comfortable they have stews working the aisles with juice, snacks and wipes.
We checked in at the fabulous 1892 Grand Hotel de Londres (London) - a living museum. Hemingway supposedly stayed here while covering the Civil War in 1923.
It's the last old grand hotel in Istanbul that hasn't been refurbished and they have no plans to do so, knowing its vintage condition is its strongest selling point. The nearby Pera Palace, where Agatha Christie wrote Death on the Orient Express, has been semi-ruined by restoration and charges almost $300 while this place was a little over a $100 (and there's rinky-dinky rooms cheaper). Uncle Don and I poured back several here at the bar one evening. This place is authentic.
It became a famous stop on the Orient Express.
A stroll away is Taksim Square where the riots took place and where I shot this 360. It's no wonder citizens were up in arms. There's damned few open, green spaces in Istanbul to begin with - and idiot Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to raze it and put up a bloody shopping centre? And tear down the adjoining and popular Ataturk Cultural Center to put up another mosque? Ataturk is rightly the father of the nation - one of history's most forward thinking leaders - and Erdogan wants to turn the clock back. Because of Ataturk Turks are almost as secular as we are, with Canadian churches disappearing and mosques here all but empty. Television is a hoot. One channel will show an Imam pounding a Koran; the next will feature explicit porn; and the third a vintage Hollywood movie where everyone smokes - but the cigarettes are blurred out - demonstrating what is considered unhealthy and unacceptable in this culture. Wanna bet the would be developers had a large sum placed in a Swiss bank account for the PM if this abomination went through...?
Normally I would wrap with a shot like this, from the terrace of the Grand Hotel de Londres overlooking the Golden Horn. While enjoying a raki.
But I wanted to sneak these in. These are of islands just past Baffin Island on the Frankfurt-Calgary leg of our return.
And this is as we cross over above Melville Peninsula in Nunavut above Hudson Bay in the high Arctic. Both are at the same latitude as the south Arctic Ocean which means the Northwest Passage was probably still open, at least on October 1.
Finally, this is how I feel about returning home after such a magnificent once-in-a-lifetime trip. I wish I was still in Turkey - but it sure won't be another 18 years before we return. There's an excellent chance it'll be next year. Trekking parts of that Lycian Trail sounds fascinating. Turkey simply has everything.
In the meantime, this is the photo on my desktop and fridge door reminding us of this fabulous adventure with 12 equally fabulous friends....
Jason and the Ugurnauts
Sail Turkey's Turquoise Coast
September 7-21, 2013
I chartered this gorgeous 35 meter Turkish gulet for $36,000. It's named the Ugur which means luck. And it also means that The Dragon Lady and 12 friends sharing in the cost and adventure were my Ugurnauts.
With a captain, two deckhands, and an incredible cook we plotted to sail and cruise 280 miles from Bodrum eastward to Kemer. It was along the historically richest section, with Greek and Byzantium ruins everywhere, and along ancient mariner shipping routes. But before we explore the coast, let's explore the yacht.
The dream to sail this magnificent coast was born in December 1973. It was after being stuck in a 24-hour curfew during the Athens coup, tanks everywhere, when my then girl friend (Wende, the uptight one that became a dog doctor) and I flew into Cairo, then Beirut. This was just three weeks after the Yom Kuppur War, the region was still uber tense, and the planes empty. We planned to head across Asia to India but in Damascus we ate bad chicken and she got so sick, spewing out of every orifice, and wasted away so fast I feared she was going to croak. I phoned the British Embassy doc who was kind enough to do a hovel call and pump her full of antibiotics.
I have a Kevlar stomach and quickly (and mostly) recovered but she was very weak so we limped up through northern Syrian to Turkey, heading to Rhodes and familiar food and surroundings to recover (which we did for three weeks in December and over New Years of 1974). It was while busing along the southern Turquoise Coast that I first laid eyes on the graceful gulets and a yearning was born to sail this coast. Especially when the bus kept passing ancient, over grown ruins every 15 miles! Just lying there! Unexcavated!
Well, it took five trips to Turkey - one of my very favorite countries, right up there with Thailand and Nepal - but that dream finally came true 40 years later. And I ain't a backpacker traveling on a shoestring no more. We did it with class.
The master cabin. Because my name is Jason we got it, naturally. The others weren't so bad either, but I enjoyed bragging about how ours was so far down the hall that I had to take a taxi, and then a camel caravan across the enormous expanse of the bed itself. And how for my birthday on Sept. 14 I booked the Eagles to perform in it (but communications got mixed up and they ended up playing Toontown on that date).
We met at the fabulous Su Otel in Bodrum the day before boarding. This, and all the fish eye shots, are from the camera of Angry Planet producer Peter Rowe, aka Don Pedro. He arrived the day after wrapping principal photography on Shipwrecked on a Great Lake about a true life adventure during the War of 1812.
There's no other museum in the world like the one filling the Crusader castle in Bodrum. I've been reading George Bass' stunning articles in National Geographic since the '60s. He's one of the living giants of adventure and exploration - the Father of Underwater Archaeology - and since the late 1950s he's discovered and excavated over 200 Bronze Age shipwrecks along the coast, most from the section we were sailing.
Indeed, George is such a Bronze Age man that he's even been cast in it. He's retired back to the States but since he contributed to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives, and wrote one of the best endorsements (challenging readers to try to put down the book after reading my introduction), I emailed him that several of us planned to visit his museum.
George kindly set us up with Tuba Ekmekci, the local Director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology which operates the museum as well as continuing exploration along and under the coast. George founded the Institute which does underwater research all over the world, including in the Yukon with John Pollack, head of the Canadian Chapter of The Explorers Club and a good friend of mine. George was an Honorary Director of the Club. He's a man who has lived his dreams of adventure big time.
The museum is stupendous - and made more so for the eight of us by the intelligent, knowledgeable, personable and dedicated Tuba who generously took the afternoon off from moving house (into George's old digs) to take us behind the scenes and deep into George's World. Her passion poured through as she led us through the entire, huge museum, and it was late afternoon before we wrapped. To say it was an enriching experience is to speak in understatements. Thank you again Tuba.
Then we boarded and began exploring the coast George - and the ancient mariners - knew so well. When I asked him if there was a place where he found most of the wrecks, he replied, "Points. When we dived on a point, we always found wrecks."
We couldn't sail past a point without me thinking of George being here. I was NAUI certified in 1967 and have dived all over the world, and love it. And I love archaeology, and the thrill of discovery that goes with it, of course. If there's one life I'd trade in Adventurous Dreams, it would be with George's.
The coast above the water line is loaded with old Greek, Byzantine-Roman and Ottoman sites as well.
This is an ancient, crumbling Hellenistic ruin. No, wait, sorry. This is Jyll Batten-Not-So-Young. She's an ancient, crumbling Hellish ruin. The following are ancient, crumbling Hellenistic and Lycian ruins:
Cusco? Machu Picchu? No, Arykanda, an ancient Lycian (a confederation of Greek cities) city near Finike. This was probably done about the 2nd century AD.
Carolyn Rowe, Hooker (cousin Leanna's last two men were Johns) and heroic Jason of the Ugurnauts.
"Stand in the door and I'll take your picture."
"...Uh, no, you stand in the door."
"I said it first."
"Well, I said it second...."
When we weren't exploring ruins we were cruising - or sailing. Exploring those ancient Greek and Roman mariners' trading routes in their manner. The Mediterranean climate is incredible, perfect.
Several swims a day in the lapis lazuli blue water was a given. This is lovely Maya Batten-Young, who I've known since she was dumping her diapers and who won the Best Actress Award at the Whistler Film Festival for her co-starring role in 2007's feature River. Atom Egoyan praised her to the rafters.
This beauty is a Don Pedro shot. He should dump whatever it is he does for a living and take up photography. The tootsies belong to Lady Danger - Treasure Trader's Jessica Lindsay Phillips, in January to dive into a new CBC-TV series, Four Rooms.
The Out Of Tune Singers entertained. (Well, Laurie left, can carry a tune well. The rest are Flasher, Hooker and Don Pedro.)
Some read dirty books. This bunch were as politically incorrect as Lee Rivers, the protagonist in this grand adventure sweeping across Southeast Asia, from the mountains of Nepal to those of Manhattan. My kinda people. And you can guess whose life Lee Rivers is modelled on.
Others relaxed. I've said I'm never happier than when I'm in my hammock in northern Saskatchewan canoeing. Well, hammocking while sailing the Turkish Riviera is just as good.
Though admittedly Lady Danger looks better in it than I do.
It's hilarious walking down a street with her, especially when she's dressed to the 10s and in 4" lifts making her 8' tall. Heads everywhere swivel so fast they almost spin off. She also shot an episode of Ihor Macjiwsky's Mantracker. Both are fellow members of The Explorers Club. You'll be seeing a lot more of her. This fun, high energy broad's on her way to stardom.
Don Pedro's a member too. So over it all we flew The Explorers Club pennant in addition to our national colours.
I mentioned I had a birthday, rolling over 67 on the odometer. The Urgonauts threw me the best party of my life. With Don Pedro doing a remarkable Ed Sullivan as MC, he brought on the rap quartet of Carolyn, Kristi, Hooker and Lady Danger who did a hilarious and energetic rap thing that was brilliantly funny, followed by Laurie who did an excellent and breathy Marilyn Monroe Happy Birthday imitation a la John Kennedy at Madison Square Gardens.
Then we partied and danced until the wee hours...or at least 11pm for me, which is incredibly wee. I don't have good pictures. Ah, hell, you hadda be there....
Jason at 67, but still 10 inside. The big difference is that now when I go out to play, it's out to play all over the world.
The old Romantic Mediterranean still exists here in pockets, but it's Westernizing fast.
Thirty years ago the standard uniform of the women was that of this buba. Now the young generation is all about halter tops, shorts and cell phones.
The Turkey I first fell in love with was this traditional old Ottoman one. It's largely given way, at least along the coast, to modern buildings with a fraction of the character. The standard issue to men then was a mustache, a brown "sports" jacket and pants, the backs of shoes stepped forward on creating goofly looking slippers, worry beads in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
The cigarettes are mostly still there but now they're all blue jeans and Western European. Cross cultural miscues - the most humorous being "Beauty Saloons" replete with Wild West swinging doors - are all MIA.
The Turkish Riviera boasts arguably the largest yachting community on Earth and that's sailed in a lot of change.
There's a hell of a nightlife. Several times Lady Danger (she backhanded one rude guy off a bench, giving me grist for jokes forever), Maya and Kristi - our younger contingent - disappeared into it until 6am. Well, girls just wanna have fun. And geezers like me just wanna have sleep. I'm still partied out from Bangkok's Patpong Road in the '80s.
But the essential Ottoman character is often kept. I'm sure back in the interior of Anatolia there's still the old Ottoman Turkey to be found.
And when we weren't exploring we were EATING.
Husiyan Karatas is one of the BEST cooks we've experienced. I live in Thailand part time and love their world-famous cuisine - but Turkish food is its equivalent. Stir in Husiyan, and it's even better! Madame Su and I agree: we have never spent two weeks eating better and with a greater variety. And he did it all on a grill like this - or a hot, galley kitchen 10 feet long. He became a close friend to many on this voyage, including us. We hope he'll guest at our place so I can cook him Canuck food.
I pigged out. This is a picture of me boarding a bus after the trip. No, wait. That's Bigelow.
As it turned out poseidon.com, the nautical weather website, threatened a storm and we had to end our trip a day and 55 miles short of Kemer, at Finike. But that was fine with the majority. There were lots of sights and sites to see and it actually worked out better.
The cruise was a dream fulfilled (and I'm all about living dreams). My noble and high spirited Ugurnauts, L-R lower: Peter "Don Pedro" Rowe, "Admiral" Don Bigelow, my Uncle Don Symons. 2nd row: Sultan Jason, The Dragon Lady, cousin Leanna "Hooker" Keyes, Jessica "Lady Danger" Phillips, Shirley Bigelow, Kristi Pavelich, Laurie Symons. Top: Bev "Flasher" Pavelich, Maya Batten-Young, Jyll Batten-Not-So-Young, Carolyn Rowe. Thanks much to Jyll for the appro t-shirts.
We regrouped in the fabulous Old Town in Antalya, with most of us staying at the Tuvana, a great old refurbished Ottoman place, and we had our Last Suppers. The first overlooking the dramatic Roman harbour presenting one of the greatest dinner views on Earth. Across the bay mountains surge toward the sky. I don't want to show it. My travel writing has done enough damage over the years.
The second was the next evening at an old Ottoman place with the stragglers. I got a kick out of teasing Uncle Don about his pronunciation of Istanbul as Instanbul. "Bigger stones than that have bounced off me," he joshed in his inimitable manner.
Partings after such a dream trip were emotional. Indeed, the tender hearted Maya was in tears. I tried my best to console her by soothing, "Hey, if Jyll was my mother, I'd cry too. All day. Every day." It didn't work. She just wailed louder.
Good-night Turkey's Riviera. It's on to the next adventure, but we'll be back sooner than later. Fortunately, we still have another 10 days exploring this fascinating country with its wonderful people, places, history, food and national hospitality. And that'll form the next Blah Blah.
The David Thompson Explorers Club Flag #51 Expedition - Phase II July 20 - Aug 4, 2013
In Phase I in June and our search for Bedford House on Reindeer Lake Speedboat Doug Chisholm and I thought we had struck out.
But before we left, we swept low to shoot high res aerial photos of the site. Later studying them, neither of us could spot anomalies ashore. However, premier fur trade researcher Dale Russell could be right - the post could be underwater because of the dam built on the Reindeer River during WW-II.
This rectangle just offshore bears further investigation. Coincidentally, it borders on the tiny beach where we docked our boat!
In any case, in Phase II I'm delighted to report we whacked a Mickey Mantle style home run right outta the park. We found Fairford House - and more.
We were searching for the last two Hudson Bay Posts - simple structures, similar to these, or even more primitive - that explorer and mapmaker David Thompson stayed at before jumping ship to the HBC's bitter rival, the North West Company, in 1797.
Once he had done so he continued on to map an incredible 52,000 miles of paddling, all of the major waterways from Lake Superior (bottom right) and Hudson Bay (top right) to the Pacific (left) after descending the Columbia River, the first white man to do so. He literally put Canada and the Pacific Northwest on the map, his life's work culminating in this, his Great Map of 1814. So accurate was that it was used by the Canadian government for a century. It made him the great terrestrial mapmaker in history...but in typical Canadian fashion he's relatively little known outside of the BC river named in his honour. And he didn't even paddle that.
Although our primary focus was the confluence (right - 7) of the Reindeer and Churchill Rivers where Fairford House stood, we chose to paddle the 90 miles along the "Main Highway of the Fur Trade and Exploration" to reach it, along this all important sector which Thompson had mapped. I wanted to study how accurate his map was from the field, and to get closer to Thompson and his experience. An important point to understand about the Churchill River is that it's not a typical river; rather, it's a series of beautiful lakes, each with individual character, joined by rapids or portages. Thus, one finds themselves paddling through a series of lakes. Some of these, like back-to-back Drinking, Keg and Trade have names that ring with the fur trade. 1. Otter Lake 2. Mountain Lake 3. Nistowiak Lake 4. Drinking Lake 5. Keg Lake 6. Trade Lake 7. Confluence Reindeer and Churchill Rivers 8. Iskwatam Lake 9. Reindeer River flowing south 10. Frog Portage 11. Jim's Camp/early NWC post on Rapid River leading to Lac La Ronge 12. Stanley Mission, site of Holy Trinity Church 13. Missinipe launch site
Comparing Thompson's map with the Google Earth imagine, one cannot but be impressed. Every famous explorer from Sir John Franklin, Simon Fraser, Alexander Mackenzie, Peter Pond to Peter Fidler and thousands of colourful, singing Voyageurs and natives in their birchbark canoes have paddled this liquid highway. And it's virtually unchanged.
The David Thompson Expedition Brigade L-R: Drunken Joe, Capt. Hook, Tiny Tush, Ostrich Legs, The Dragon Lady, Capt. Magnus Twat, Agent Orange and Tree Stomper. We had 12 booked but in the last two weeks before launch five had to bail (for very legit reason), but we were able to replace one. All those who aren't already Explorers Club members - Capt. Hook, Tree Stomper and myself - are in the process of being sponsored as all, having been on an Explorers Club Flag Expedition, qualify. Some have been on several. This shot was taken by our outfitter in Missinipe, Ric Driedeger, who very generously dealt out Robin and Arlene Karpan's brilliant book Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Country with 230 colour plates.
As always at our first campsite, we toasted to the success of the expedition with champagne.
We started out with the usual beef tenderloins and wine the first night, but the second is always a favorite too - good ol' hot dogs and beans, just like when we were kids. Which, really, we all still are. Other nights we had the usual venison stew with bannock, and fish chowder. We eat well. Very well.
It's great to be back up north. I suffer from Nature Deficit Disorder if I don't get back with at least one brigade, or a solo, each summer. The peace, tranquility and beauty are magic - and perform magic on the soul. I'm immensely happy that The Dragon Lady loves this world as much as I do.
Amuchiwespimiwin Cliff - the "shooting up place" - is a historic site dating to pre-contact. Nearby Stanley Mission has for centuries, if not thousands of years, been a summer gathering place for the Cree and/or Dene. In the fall, upon dispersing, the strongest archer from each group would attempt to shoot an arrow over the 60m high cliff. If successful, it heralded that hunting would be good. An early missionary found numerous arrowheads atop. Thompson would have known its history.
Just a mile down is the oldest structure in Saskatchewan, Holy Trinity Church built between 1854-60. It's kept in excellent condition.
The next and important site visited was the NWC post at the bottom middle of Peter Fidler's sketch of June 20, 1792. Fidler - to whom I'm allied by family, which amazes me - was a major explorer himself and took over Thompson's duties for the HBC after the latter had jumped ship. They certainly knew each other, particularly as both were mentored in sextant use by Philip Turnor. The HBC post is on the island just above the NWC one. It's interesting to compare their very different styles of mapping.
Jim's Camp - at the site of the NWC post. Thompson visited in 1798 - while mapping the river - reaching the "River aux Rapid where I found Roy by himself." The Rapid River flows down from Lac La Ronge and is home to the highest waterfall in Saskatchewan, Nistowiak Falls. While the brigade trekked the half mile up to view the falls, I stayed and had a coffee with Annie McKenzie, the Native wife of the late Big Jim. Both had managed the camp since about 1980. To my amazement, she had no idea that a trading post was situated here! Such is the Canadian level of interest in our own history.
Nistowiak Falls with Capt. Hook and The Dragon Lady.
Finally escaping boat traffic after several days we took our first day off at Island Portage, separating Drinking and Keg Lake which is beyond the line of #3 rapids. Here I was very disappointed that the river levels were at a high not seen since 1942, according to one Native woman. They were up three feet, and it was unseasonably cool, harkening back to the 1990s which saw a long spell of cool weather. Note the island just left of centre.
I was disappointed because these incredible potholes were underwater and I wanted Su and the brigade to see them. There's several but this is the largest and the one Fidler wrote about. This shot was taken when I was last through in 2010. Cousin Pete, the next day, June 21, 1792, after paddling 12 miles downstream from that Rapid River post, was also fascinated by them. "Carry over an island (Rocky) in the middle of the river, good carrying, called the Kettle carrying place - on account of several very round holes of a cylindrical form, from 1 to 5 feet in diameter, perfectly smooth & round, some with a stone within loose - that has served to make the excavation by the falling waters and strong current moving the stone, and by its friction causing those kind of stone kettles above mentioned, these have been formed when these places have been the bottom of the river, now the rocks are above the surface 4 to 5 feet...." Clearly Cousin Pete was experiencing a very low water year when he wrote that.
Something's obviously funny. Probably Drunken Joe cracking a joke; he has an incredible sense of humour. As always on a canoe trip, that fabulous "group high" rocketed everyone's spirits into the sky and they stayed there for the entire two weeks.
Taking the Inman Channel towards Keg Lake we stopped at a pictograph and I pondered what Thompson made of them, for surely he had seen others. To the left is a hunter with a bow and, above it, what appears to be a snake, though I've never known of even a garter snake at this latitude. To the right is a well drawn moose cow with its calf.
You'll note that one canoe is heading in the direction it's supposed to be going in, he laughs. You can guess who is paddling that one. Actually, it was a damned efficient brigade and often The Dragon Lady and I were lagging.
Winds were the most favourable in years and we got to pop up the sail.
Half way across beautiful Keg Lake we were taken aback to see a massive blowdown along the north shore, so bad it reminded me of the 1908 Tunguska asteroid explosion over Russia.
I couldn't imagine the sound and fury as his enormous plow wind, generated by a massive thunderstorm, smashed into the land and lake. And it would be bloody dangerous too. The poplar leaves were still quite fresh. It had to have taken place in the last two weeks, even week.
As I feared, it extended as far as the 600 meter Grand Rapids portage six miles down, and we had to drag our gear though this enormous field of pick-up sticks, feeling like ants. 400 meters of the portage was blown down into this nightmare. Normally a portage this long would take about 1:15 hours but it took us an exhausting three hours.
Damage was spread along a 20 mile path, the last 10 of which it appears to have skipped and dropped down here and there, and as far as famous Frog Portage where the "Main Highway" turns south. Frog is one of the three most famous portages on the entire Montreal to Athabaska fur trade and exploration route, the others being the 12-mile Methye (also in Saskatchewan) and the 8.5-mile Grand Portage on Lake Superior. On the right is the railway trolley for portaging boats the 340 meters into the Saskatchewan River watershed, which leads to the once key HBC post at Cumberland House and on to the Hudson Bay itself.
So high was the water that it was overflowing the banks into this watershed itself, a rare event. We had camped on an island a half mile distant the night before and the roar of the new rapids was something to behold.
A well shot up plaque on a cairn marks the portage. Obviously the Natives aren't fans, for some reason, for every calibre from .303 to .22 to shotgun pellets is represented. I'm surprised there's not an arrow sticking out of it.
Here we left the "Main Highway" and continued northeast and downstream towards the confluence. So high was the water that #1 rapids sometimes turned into 2s, 2s into 3s, or obliterated them altogether, replacing them with turbulent, boiling water that threatened to sweep the canoe over. Capt. Hook was in his glory. Although 84, he's fearless and damned disappointed when we have canoe expeditions with few rapids. This wasn't one of those. We had lots of great runs and he was in his element. As usual, he flew out in his Cessna 172 from his home in Massachusetts, a three-day jaunt.
Along this stretch we stopped at this pictograph Cousin Lube Al Schoonover and James Tipper Anthony discovered when we were last through here in 2010 - and which doesn't appear in Tim Jones' landmark study Aboriginal Rock Paintings of the Churchill River. It consists of several spots semi-surrounded by a line capping, giving the impression of perhaps a head. Tim confirmed to me when I had emailed him the jpg that it was a new find, and the only new one discovered since his study in the late '60s. I expected him to be excited - I certainly was by this original discovery - but he was non-plussed. Hell, I'm still excited by it.
The boys had discovered it while actually looking for this (in)famous one only 100 feet further down. Lichens have played havoc with it since Tim was here.
Tim's rendition clears the picture. He would tape cellophane over the pictographs and then stencil. For obvious reasons we call this, and the nearby island we camped at, Wolfy Style Island. You gotta admit, those injuns were a tough lot, having their way like this with a timber wolf.... Coincidentally, it was while camping on this island that we heard a lone wolf howling plaintively for a long period that night. It sounded like it might have been loved and left.
Fishing was good to excellent. Here Drunken Joe - some call him Echo Joe for his own howling one night - nails another one.
His river name is my fault, though Hook gave it to him. I had sat phoned Speedboat Doug to fly in a couple 26-oz jugs of vodka for the last night, as there'd be a dozen of us and we'd be hosting dinner on shore. Well, Speedboat brought in two 40-ozs. And Joe stayed up after our guests left echoeing everyone's names off the horizon. A significant jock, he went for a swim, and coming out he slipped - and tried to dive back in..... Ostrich Legs, one of our two docs, sewed him up by flashlight. And, dammit, I slept through the whole thing, the only one to miss the drama. But we're getting ahead.
Tree Stomper was in charge of keeping our Explorers Club pennant flying at each site. He did a conscientious job.
Reaching gorgeous Kettle Falls - the most beautiful site in northern Saskatchewan that I know - and being ahead of schedule, we happily settled in for four nights and three days. We weren't due to meet Speedboat Doug, and Archaeology Professor David Meyer whom I had engaged to join our expedition, until that time. They would be flying in in Doug's floatplane.
I'm honestly never more content, relaxed and at peace anywhere in the world than I am each year in my Thai hammock up north with something good to read. We needed a good break anyway after that much paddling. I certainly did coming off a three-week road trip to Vancouver which took me away from the gym. I admit to being a bit soft.
The walleye/pickerel fishing was incredible, so good we kept them alive and fresh in this natural holding formation.
We gorged twice a day on fish so fresh, sauteed in butter, it was still kicking going down the tubes. What a luxury.
Well, it was good fishing for everyone but Capt. Hook, here frustrated and hooked again, and who was given his river name for his prowess hooking Saskatchewan. (Actually, he reeled in a ton of fish and has caught onto freshwater fishing so well, he rarely gets hooked anymore. And he's a fishing fanatic. He'll stand casting for three hours at a time.)
When Speedboat Doug buzzed our camp three days later we were ready with a high kicking chorus line for him. Time to meet the rest of our expedition, we loaded up our wagons and got them rolling towards the confluence five miles down.
The confluence from the air, looking west. The Churchill flows in from the left and continues towards the bottom of the picture. The Reindeer flows in from the right, around that big island. Then both massive rivers join and surge through 1300 meter-long Capt. Hook Chute.
Hook Rapids on Hook Chute with its namesake, Capt. Hook who, in 2008 with bow Sandi Woods, got caught sideways in it. And guess what? They had an early morning bath. I had then pulled alongside Hook and chortled to him on the bouncy ride all the way to the bottom, before we towed both to a nearby island for a fire and dry out. Hook was non-plussed by the dunking, but poor Sandi was shaken. We'd just started a two-week trip from the confluence on down two miles before. But she stuck it out and had the trip of a lifetime.
Hook's used to getting wet. Here he is on his knees trying to repair the reed boat Ra as it sinks off Barbados in 1969.
Then (and on Ra-II and Tigris) he was First Mate, celestial Navigator and Radioman for Thor Heyerdahl. Really, best friends.
He can't count the expeditions he's been on, but this is our eighth together, including three official Explorers Club Flag Expeditions. He's on the Board of Directors. Six were here in Saskatchewan and two in Thailand.
Here Madame Su and I feed into the chute, in the less turbulent rapids alongside Hook Rapids. Madame Su's a helluva skilled bow, with a perfect paddling style, and I have complete confidence in her cool, competent head and quick responses. I couldn't ask for a better partner.
The Churchill comes in from the top left, the Reindeer top right - both surge down the chute into beautiful Iswatakam Lake, our final destination.
And the end of the large peninsula sticking out of the left middle.
Speedboat Doug Chisholm was at the Fairford House landing site to greet us.
He got his river name because of the toy 4-HP motor he carries in his Cessna. (Besides recently retired University of Saskatchewan Archaeology Professor David Meyer, Speedboat flew in Les Oystryk, a retired conservation officer with a long term interest in these matters, and Jeff Russell, Dale's brother. It had been Jeff, while Speedboat Doug and I were searching for the Bedford House site on Reindeer Lake in June, who had generously done a day trip to Winnipeg's HBC Archives to search out information which we needed in the field, and which Dale passed on to us by sat phone.)
His motor pushes a boat so slow that our lads, Tree Stomper and Agent Orange, beat them the next day in a half mile race to the last of three archaeological sites we investigated - and despite Speedboat cheating! Prehistoric archaeologist Professor David, along with fur trade historian Dale Russell, are the two top scholars in fur trade and exploration history in the province. Both both have contributed to the Atlas of Saskatchewan and the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan on these matters in their fields. David had searched unsuccessfully for the site in 1973 but had found it the following year. He said he had been standing beside what he thought was a large erratic covered in moss before he realized it was a chimney, the largest he had seen. Having found it on that occasion, the search thankfully didn't take two years again this time around. We successfully located the second last site that David Thompson was at before jumping ship.
The chainsaw and handsaws came out and the site was cleared. From Prof. David's 1974 field notes: "It was built in the fall of 1795 by Malcolm Ross but appears to have been used for only the winter of 1795-96 (Dale Russell, July, 1974, Personal Communication). Two very large chimney heaps were found as well as several cellar depressions." This is where Thompson recovered after nearly downing, then almost starving to death that summer of 1796 after dumping in his canoe in what is now Thompson Rapids on the Fond du Lac during his first attempt to reach the Athabaska country. He and Kasdaw and Paddy, his two young Natives assistants, had been left without provisions (though he recovered his sextant, and had a flint and steel). It was only by meeting a Native family while making their way back that they were able to procure powder, balls and food. After an amazingly short period to recover at this post, he had then set out a second time with his boss Malcolm Ross for a renewed attempt on the same route. His drive to return to the route that almost killed him is remarkable; this lad could get back on the horse! But the late season had turned them back to Reindeer Lake and resulted in the construction of Bedford House, his last post, to wait out the winter. But, of course, they didn't continue north in the spring because Thompson then jumped ship. But this post, his second last - Fairford - would have been a lifesaver for him. It meant food and rest and one can only image the scene upon his arrival.
There were two collapsed fireplace mounds. Recognizing them in the thick jungle undergrowth was something else, for they appeared to be little more than low mounds. It's the flat stones chosen (so that they stack well) that really gives them away. The largest one had collapsed - or been knocked down - since David's last visit in 1974, as we found clear evidence of illegal excavation because of this trench. What they expected to find in a fireplace, I don't know. David estimated it was done about a decade ago. Behind David a few feet is a depression from a cellar. Cellars are a clear sign of a trading post for this was where trading goods were secured: under the floor. David - as he did on all three sites we worked on - prepared and/or updated field reports.
Remains of the fireplace and the illegal excavation. Whatever they found - if anything - is now lost to archaeology.
Professor David and I have a long history - we were in the same grade and high school graduating class in Carrot River, population 1000, in 1964. Only he wasted his youth stacking up straight As while I was the hottest pool player of our generation. I dug into our old yearbook (you gotta love a high school that named their yearbook The Climax...someone finally caught on and unfortunately changed it....) for our grad pictures but the b/w photos are so grainy I couldn't recognize him, not even from his giant zits, the size of ripe tomatoes. If one would have exploded they would have had to have hosed down the whole class. Hell, and the walls and ceiling too. And the school would have had to have been evacuated. And burned down (yes - especially burned down.). I could only recognize my photo because I was a beanpole with ears sticking out of it; I was so skinny I didn't even cast a shadow. A fascinating activity he did back then - that I didn't know about - was canvassing many of the local fields and putting together a giant collection of projectile points and hammer stones. In the thousands, he donated it to the University of Saskatchewan. He told Madame Su that the first time he found an arrowhead he was hooked. He should have been in my Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives book as a great explorer, which he is. This was the first time we'd seen each other in 39 years and it was a great reunion of two (truly) old classmates.
This remarkable blueprint of what is believed to be Fairford House was discovered by Dale Russell: "The sketch is in one of David Thompson's Notebooks in the Archives of Ontario. It is untitled so it is not known what post it is. However, I suspect he must have drawn it at Fairford in one of his two stopovers in the summer of 1796, the only times he was there. Either in June, on his trip to the Athabasca, or July /Aug while waiting for Ross to come from York Factory so they could go north." I compared the handwriting with photos I have of it (see Phase I) in Thompson's journals and it matches.
We shot the requisite shot of the expedition with The Explorers Club Flag (#51 which has been from the South Pole to Baffin Island to Panama and beyond) on the shore at Fairford House. L-R: Freckles, Explorers Club Student Member Nathanael King-Cormier, Les Oystryk, Joe Strasser, Expedition Co-Leader Doug Chisholm, Professor David Meyer, Explorers Club Fellow Capt. Norman Baker, Explorers Club Fellow and Expedition Co-Leader Jason Schoonover, Susan Hattori, Frank King, Dr. Lorrie Hansen, Dr. Martin Stockwell, Jeff Russell.
While the mamby-pambys borrowed a cabin to sleep in, we camped on site. But I suppose Speedboat needed a secure place to park his air force.
One could see why this was chosen for the Fairford House site - the shore offered an ideal place to draw their huge - delicate - birchbark canoes up onto. And, note, that the lake is three feet up so the shelf would have extended further. It was while setting up our camp that a highly inquisitive local couple with a summer home motored over, wondering what all the action was about, and the small plane zooming around. We tried to keep our mission quiet, to protect the site, but it leaked out. This proved to be propitious. They surprised us by informing us that they knew of another old chimney site a couple miles away! (That crack half way up was caused by Drunken Joe's head.)
It was a gorgeous day - the best we'd had - as we paddled to the Mystery Site. It was on a peninsula. While standing in the middle, one can see water on both sides. It consisted of three - three! - collapsed chimneys. Each was about 50 yards apart.
#1 consisted mostly of several stacked rocks still in place, although fallen over.
#3. David estimated the sites date from the early 1800s but they didn't appear to be trading posts because there are no cellar depressions. He explained that natives adopted the European manner of building log cabins by then, although their chimneys weren't as elaborate, they making use of more mud than stone in the upper levels. But without an archaeological permit, we couldn't dig to find out - and we didn't have time or prep anyway. Excavation was beyond the scope of this expedition. The best guess is that the three were trappers' cabins, perhaps an extended family group and, certainly, Natives traveled and hunted in the winter in small groups.
The third and final site we investigated was Raymond's House on this small peninsula that looks like a turkey vulture's head. Prof. David's 1974 notes again: "In 1974 a second trading post was discovered, this on (sic) on the southwestern corner of Iskwatam Lake. This house was built by Raymond around 1804 for the H.B.C. (Dale Russell, July, 1974, Personal communication). Named "Deer River House", this establishment was more extensive than Fairford House as three chimney heaps were found, all associated with cellar depressions, plus one hole deep enough to have been used for potato storage."
David's original 1974 field map. We trekked the whole thing, with David updating his notes, and we were pleased to find it unmolested. It's entirely possible that the NWC post was situated here as well, to account for all the buildings. The rival posts often built right next to each other. To contact Professor David Meyer or Dale Russell for research information, please email me and I'll gladly pass things along.
I'm standing up to my waist in the potato storage pit, on the very south and sunny side of the peninsula and the only place where there was dirt deep enough to dig into, the rest having a bedrock of Canadian Shield. The pit would have been two feet deeper originally but is filled in somewhat due to accumulated leaf vegetation.
David said a highlight of the expedition for him was tracing the path of the ancient portage from Raymond House south which Les and Jeff (below two pics) initially sussed out.
Raymond House on the peninsula at bottom. The portage trail leads to the narrow lakes right top.
It's in surprisingly good condition for being at least 200 years old (and it's probably a few millennium old). It's clear that it's had use, even a few decades ago. Considerable post-expedition debate and research followed.
We know it was used by PG Downes, the young Boston myopic school teacher who came up here and to the Barrens between 1936-1947, some trips which culminated in his canoeing cult classic, Sleeping Island. He was the last white explorer to enjoy it in its original state: after WW-II floatplanes landed and the north was never the same. He described this portage in less than flattering terms. This is from To Reindeer's Far Waters: P.G. Downes' Journals of Travels in Northern Saskatchewan, 1936, from the Journal of Polar Studies 2, 1984, edited by R.H. Cockburn. "The first portage, ¼ mile, is, I must say – though I don’t like to use profanity in writing or in the bush – simply indescribable, a son of a bitch. You climb up a rock slide over a height of land. We lost the canoe here, and it went crashing down in the bush and rock, fortunately doing no damage, though how come I do not know." David couldn't say with confidence he had found this particular treacherous stretch though. It would also have been used as a game trail and by trappers, back when the price of furs made that endeavor worthwhile.
The position of Raymond House is on an auxiliary route, secondary to Frog Portage (20 miles upsteam from the confluence), onto the Saskatchewan River watershed. Both led to Pelican Narrows, a long time native settlement (and where a famous Blackfoot massacre of the resident Cree took place in the early nineteeth century), and then down the Sturgeon-Weir River to Cumberland House and onward to Hudson Bay itself or continuing on the "main highway" to the Pas, then down Lake Winnipeg and on to Montreal. It shaves off five miles.
Les Oystryk: "I had the opportunity to call a Pelican Narrows Cree elder by the name of Gilbert Linklater. Gilbert is a good friend and turned 73 yesterday. His family has had many decades of involvement with various activities up on the Churchill River (Pita Lake) and Reindeer Lake. Gilbert's experience and recollections say that this portage from Manawan to Iskwatam Lake was essentially a bit of a short-cut that the canoe freighting brigades used to get back home a little quicker. It was shorter and much easier to do with empty loads. The canoe brigades sort of took over when the much more arduous York Boat trips started to end as the HBC could not continue to find sufficient numbers of men who wanted to work on those trips and it was getting to expensive for them to provision those large crews by the 1920's. Working on those York Boat cruises from Cumberland House to Brochet was no easy job and definitely not what working on Caribbean cruises is today!! But that is a whole different story.
The HBC and the RF began to experiment with more local canoe brigade groups who could move goods from either Cumberland House, Pelican Narrows or Beaver Lake after the railroad got to Flin Flon in 1928. Gilbert's father Peter, was one of the men that used to do some of this canoe freighting for both the RF the HBC and later, free traders such as the Shieff brothers and the Russick brothers on Reindeer Lake. Gilbert said that the canoes were loaded going north to Southend and Brochet so they used the Frog Portage and Kettle Falls route to Reindeer Lake, but when going home empty it made sense to go the shorter route through that portage as you were not going up-stream anywhere of any significance. Although he was not involved with this personally he knew and heard about the short-cut a lot.
The larger aluminum boats of this era simply cannot go that way so it has fallen into disuse.
Besides the P.G. Downes / Solomon Merasty description of this portage in 1936 I have heard of only one other recreational use and that was in 1975. I am quite sure that there were others as well. A man by the name of Allison Connell and his canoeing partner, the late C. Stuart MacKinnon of the University of Alberta - History Department used this difficult portage in the summer of 1975 when they were part of some local protests regarding the proposed Wintego Dam."
Where does Dale find these things? He came up with this incredible period sketch of the confluence, Hook Chute, Iskwatam Lake - and the portage! I wonder if it was Charles and his extended family who built the three buildings at the Mystery Site...? Charles is a common Native surname in the region. There's actually very few full blood natives in Western Canada, so mixed did they become during the fur trade. We were business and trading partners with Natives in Canada and, while liquor and our influence ravaged their culture, we weren't out to commit genocide on them, which was the US policy. Our Saskatchewan Natives often have names like Charles, Fidler, McKenzie, McKay, Letendre and a host of other Scottish, French and Orkney names. The Twats/Twatts - from whence my river name of Magnus Twat derives - for some reason changed theirs. I think it's now Starblanket.
As I said, we hit a Mickey Mantle home run (yes, yes, I know that dates me, but we are delving into the deep past). It was a highly successful expedition and we were jubilant. Both phases deepened immeasurably my knowledge and understanding of Western Canadian exploration, the fur trade, and its present archaeological state - and David Thompson. He was fastidious, a major perfectionist, hugely disciplined, even an anal retentive. He was also a Bible thumper and wasn't known as always the most welcome company around a campfire (Voyageurs were a rowdy lot, very happy to be away from the tyrannically repressive Catholic Church, and Thompson was a teetotaler and vehemently against trading booze to the natives). He could be a pain in the ass, unlike that other giant of Western exploration, Alexander Mackenzie, a brilliant leader and explorer and the first white man in North America to reach the Pacific Ocean, and who enjoyed a good piss up with fellow fur traders. I hugely admire Thompson but I'd much sooner hang with Mackenzie. Mackenzie would have a sense of humour; Thompson, not much if any. Thompson, though, at other times was noted as a significant raconteur. At an 1820 dinner party he was described as having “… a very powerful mind, and a singular faculty of picture-making. He can create a wilderness and people it with warring savages, or climb the Rocky Mountains with you in a snow-storm, so clearly and palpably, that only shut your eyes and you hear the crack of the rifle,, or feel the snow-flakes melt on your cheeks as he talks.” He was described as short and compact, with long black hair cut off square, and with an odd, pug nose. No painting of him exists (fergit that one on Wikopedia). In 1799 he married Charlotte Small, of mixed blood, and they had 13 children, which accompanied them on their explorations, if you can imagine. It was a solid union that lasted 58 years and he lived to a grand old age, especially for the times, 1770-1857. Unfortunately in their latter years, due to bad investments in Lower Canada (Quebec today), his sizeable stake disappeared and he was reduced to pawning his sextant. Life ain't fair.
A small point of interest. Canada's national symbol - the beaver - is featured on NWC coinage as well as our modern nickel. You gotta love a country that puts a beaver on its coins - and it rightfully ties us to our fur trade roots.
The history of Canada is much like a chrysalis that transformed into another form, so different outwardly are our two major periods. The first was during the heady days of the fur trade which much more than the US defined and shaped Canada. The second, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, particularly after the Louis Riel Rebellion of 1885, is our modern world. The roots of the latter are very much sunk into the former, though it's not always apparent. Where the twain meet is in Saskatchewan's north where the world that David Thompson knew and loved is virtually unchanged. If he woke to this same beautiful, calm morning with the mist rising he wouldn't feel out of time - for it's just that, a timeless land, a great, silent, lonely, lovely land.
Each summer I live and breath this era and I'm never happier than when I'm in a canoe. There's times when The Dragon Lady and I have been at, say, the pyramids of Giza, and she'll shake her head, "Here we are at one of the wonders of the world and what are you talking about? Next summer's canoeing...." But she loves it as much as I do. A family that canoes together stays together. But for now it was time to knock down the tent a last time for the season....
And sat phone in Osprey Airways' air force, a turbo Otter and two pristine Beavers. Gary Thompson really knows how to refurbish an airplane and he runs a first class service, as bloody expensive as it is.
I miss the sound of that lone wolf howling as it did that one night. But it's time for this expedition to fade into the mist of time, much like the early explorers and voyageurs of this most romantic of eras in Canada already have....
The David Thompson Explorers Club Flag #51 Expedition - Phase 1- June 4-13, 2013
Who was explorer David Thompson?
Joe Tyrrell, no small explorer himself, described him as the "greatest land geographer who ever lived." And the most crucial turning point in his incredible career took place here in Saskatchewan. Let's set the scene:
The southern half of the province is all flat grain fields and potash mines. But the top half is made up of 100,000 pristine lakes and rivers—one of the last great wildernesses on the planet—a thin population of mostly Cree and Dene natives, uranium, gold and diamond mines but otherwise virtually unchanged since the halcyon days of the fur trade and exploration. Then—this was where it was at. The southern half, with few furs (and little wood for either homes or fuel to heat them, as believed then), had no economic value.
And here's where it's at in this Blah Blah. At the top is Wollaston Lake, which leads north to Lake Athabasca and, ultimately, the Arctic Ocean. Not shown is the river connecting the bottom of Wollaston with huge, elongated Reindeer Lake. At 140 miles long Reindeer is North America’s 10th largest lake; with 2,500 islands, it’s one of the most beautiful; in 2006 I paddled its length, penning an article for Paddler magazine and some photos from that appear here. From its bottom flows the Reindeer River down to the Churchill River - "the main highway of the fur trade and exploration" - which pours across the bottom of the picture. That junction, that Confluence, is an important part of this expedition and blog.
This rendering, which looks like an anatomy drawing by Da Vinci, of the Confluence is from Thompson’s own famous 1814 Great Map (more on this later). In the fall of 1796 David “The Great Mapmaker” Thompson and his boss in the Hudson Bay Company, Malcolm Ross, with three canoes left Fairford House situated here and paddled north up the Reindeer River, hoping to find a viable route to the rich Lake Athabasca fur country.
Reaching Reindeer Lake, they paddled right by Deep Bay meteor crater, shown here in a sat shot. It's at the very bottom of the lake.
Thompson even included it his famous map.
The bottom of the circular crater bay is obliterated on his map by time. I'm sure he had no idea what he was drafting onto his map, though he possibly wondered at the high sides. (I've been there twice.) With Thompson's enormous curiosity, one can imagine his jaw dropping to the bottom of his birch bark canoe if he only knew.
The only other lake as beautiful as Reindeer is Lake Huron's Georgian Bay.
After being stymied by low water in the Swan River between Reindeer and Wollaston Lakes they were forced to retreat and build Bedford House nearby on the western side of Reindeer Lake to wait out the winter. It was the winter of Thompson's discontent for he reached the end of his patience with Ross and the HBC who, apparently, wanted to limit his explorations - for in the spring, in May 1797 he snowshoed the 80 miles down the lake to the mouth of the Reindeer River and to Alexander Fraser’s rival Northwest Company House and changed companies.
It was the most momentous decision David Thompson ever made. He subsequently continued on to map a million and half square miles in a career that took in an incredible 52,000 miles of paddling.
His life's work culminated in his famous 1814 Great Map which is ensconced in the Ontario Archives at York University in Toronto. So accurate was it that it was used by the government for 100 years. It was an achievement that confirmed him the greatest of the terrestrial mapmakers and land explorers of all time.
The goals of this two-part expedition are to find the last two HBC posts Thompson stayed at. Fairford House at the Confluence we are confident of rediscovering as its 1974 discoverer, David Meyer, has generously pinpointed it on a map for us. David's a retired archaeological prof and a major fur trade and exploration researcher who has contributed to both the Atlas of Saskatchewan and the Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan. We, incidentally and coincidentally, graduated from high school in Carrot River in the same class (though he was the one with the straight A+s while I excelled as the top pool shark of our generation). This will actually be the second part of our search, July 20-August 4.
Bedford House on huge Reindeer Lake is another matter. It has never been discovered. My enquiry at the HBC Archives in Winnipeg turned up no Peter Fidler maps. Fidler filled his role as HBC surveyor and pathfinder after he jumped ship; Fidler's not without well deserved fame either, James MacGregor wrote an excellent biog about him called Canada's Forgotten Surveyor, and Fidler's Metis descendents are common in Saskatchewan. I'm even allied by family to them. I was disappointed about the news from the Archives, but through good old Google I was startled—and delighted—to stumble across the above map Fidler drew July 13, 1807! It even had his sextant readings for Bedford in the bottom left!
Fidler placed the post just back of a little bay!
Excited, I fired up Google Earth. I don't think I blinked until I had honed in, unmistakably, on the site! Grabbing the phone, I called Doug Chisholm. Doug is famed in Saskatchewan for assisting families place bronze plaques on lakes, points, islands, bays and rivers honouring deceased veterans, and authoring Their Names Live On about it. No one knows north Saskatchewan better than Doug, and I know him from helping out with promotion during the early stage of his magnificent passion (which you can learn more about from his Woodland Aerial Photography website at http://www.woodlandaerialphoto.com/). I also knew about his deep interest in early exploration and the fur trade—an interest I fully share, having been leading cost sharing (up to) 12-person brigades here since the 1970s. We had already tossed about doing a search for both posts together, which sparked my research in the first place.
When I blurted out my find, he casually informed me that he had the map already! David Meyer's colleague Dale Russell, the other major scholarly researcher and a fellow contributor to the Saskatchewan Atlas and Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, had been feeding Doug notes, maps and information to help in his search! And this included the all important Fidler map! Indeed, Doug had flown there three times already on short expeditions but he had mistaken the nearby Swan River Post for the Bedford. He'd never told me any of this! But out of this Dale became an important mentor to me as well and, as Doug pointed out, we all arrived at the same conclusion about the actual site independently, which definitely has value.
Thus was our expedition launched. We would fly up together with tent and gear. I applied to Club HQ in New York for a flag, the committee saw the value in the exploration, and awarded Explorers Club Flag #51 to carry with us. Flags have been carried everywhere from the moon by Neil and Buzz to the bottom of the Mariana Trench most recently by Jim Cameron. I also flew to Toronto and the Ontario Archives at York University.
No 5 1796 – 7 Journal & Observations
Reindeer’s Lake an Journey in
The N.W.Co’s Service to Oct 17, 1797
1796 Oct 9
Meteorological) – 1797 Oct 17 only Journal
I was delighted be given access to original David Thompson Journals. (Here I have to take a jab, har har har, at James Raffan. He's also a fellow Explorers Club member and the author of several high profile and outstanding books on the fur trade. He admitted to me that he had to crank through "kilometers of reels" before he was given access to original material. I alluded to him that, the Archives staff all being female, it was because I was more handsome.) In these I found a wealth of information, such as Thompson's astronomical readings. (Permission from the Ontario Archives was required, and received, to publish all the research photos seen here and they ask that I credit them and include the following information so other researchers can easily find the same source: “Journal and Notebook No. 3” [1793-1797] (Archives of Ontario, F 443-1))
While the latitudes were both dead on (well, Bedford was a bit off), the longitudes, understandably, were less accurate and both fixed a point significantly further to the west. Still, they were a help in confirming we were in the ball, er, lacrosse park. I could have brought the Journal with this info in on inter-library loan from HBC Archives in Winnipeg but I went to the Ontario Archives to get as close to Thompson as I could. And the best way would be to see and hold his original Journals, to study his handwriting, to see exactly how he laid out things - and to see his Great Map - all with raw eyes. But there was another reason. I remember when I was doing genealogy and a court house in Missouri claimed they had sent me copies of everything they had. Well, when I got there I was stunned to discover the lazy clerk had been was lying through her false teeth. I found bundles of records on my ancestry she was too lazy to xerox - including the invaluable signature in pencil of my ggg-grandmother Almira who was born in 1836! If you want something done right, do it yourself.... Here, I didn't know what, if any, surprises I might find that weren't in the reels. That James had to use. James Raffan. The guy who runs the Petersborough Canoe Museum. Big time author.
One major curiosity was the relative accuracy of Thompson's and Fidler's independent readings. Thompson's was 1.4 miles off while Fidler's was 7 miles off the mark, though it appears that it was a throw away reading as only the "103" degrees is written on his map. In his favor, Fidler's latitude was spot on while Thompson's was, inexplicably, half a mile south of the line. I say inexplicably because Thompson was a major anal retentive about numbers and record keeping and he shouldn't have made that mistake. Being a bible thumper and teetotaler, he was known as a bit of a pain in the ass around the campfire, much unlike the much more gregarious Alex Mackenzie who enjoyed a good party. He was the first, in 1793 just three years earlier, to reach the Pacific overland (via the Churchill River), several years before Lewis and Clark. The same discrepancy to the left, or west, occurred with Thompson's shoot at Fairford. This isn't to be wondered at since the accuracy of early chronometers left something to be desired.
I wanted to know what was going on in Ross' head, and the full circumstances and I was helped in this by Dale. Immediately after our June expedition, he contacted his brother Jeff who was visiting in Winnipeg asking him to research the HBC Archives, which he kindly did. Dale reported, "Altogether, there were two buildings and a warehouse. Hard to say how many chimneys - it would seem there was only one for each house. It is not clear if they made trenches for the canoes or not." And here's what Jeff summarized from Ross's Bedford Journal regarding the establishment of Bedford:
"NOTE (from Jeff's previous emails):
Ross had returned from the aborted trip up Swan River on Sept 12/96 to
find the house was half up [seemingly 20 x 24 or 26 feet]. They
finished the warehouse on Sept 20.
Ross had mentioned building chimneys on Sept 23/96 and then they moved into the main house on Oct 1/96.
Throughout there are only vague references to men working at building.
Oct 11/96: the people moved into their House last night
Oct 14/96: Cuting greass [grass] for
Covering the Canoes with to prevent the wet snow geting at them
[ the early traders mention digging trenches and covering the canoes with grass, etc. for the winter. Later traders seem to have only covered them and (^Ross's group) don't mention trenches. It would seem that Ross's men did not make trenches, but it is not at all clear]
Oct 15/96: the men repairing their chimney on account of smoke
Oct 17/96: men working indoors at their bed places
Oct 19/96: gets birch for making
- [making fish-drying frames]
Oct 20/96: puting by the Canoes
- [i.e. for the winter]
Oct 22/96: getting more birch for stages. Myself, Thompson, and Park making snowshoe frames."
I burned to know what was going on in Thompson’s head that last momentous winter. His Journal (above from the Ontario Archives) began with 8 pages of precise, 4-times-daily meteorological observations. The season started with a pleasant autumn and even Nov. 1 it popped up to +35F. But it dropped and rollercoasted from two days posting lows of -49F, to a Christmas high of -11, and January dipping to the coldest reading of 50 on the 20th. March came in like a lion but by the 31st it was a lamb of +44. “Rime,” or hoar frost, was frequently reported. It was a tough winter, as Ross recorded in his Journal for the “15 English men of us and two women and 3 Childering.” That Ross reported building multiple chimneys gave us something more to search for because that's all we expected to find - mounds of boulders from the fireplaces, and perhaps indentations where cellars were dug, if possible as this is Canadian Shield country. There are very few Thompson Journal notes, since Ross was keeping the main record. However, the glimpses of Thompson we get, according to Dale, in Ross’ Journal reveal a "difficult man." I'm not surprised.
Dale provides background on the crucial, climactic period in the spring:
“Fraser (NWCo) had meant to come up from the south end to Bedford in the fall
Of 1796 but couldn't get a pilot. He showed up on April 6/97 with 5
men so he could intercept as much of the HBC trade in winter furs as possible.
Apparently, he remained after Thompson left, although Ross makes no
further mention of him, according to my notes.
Fraser’s presence undoubtedly precipitated the break and one can imagine hushed conversations between the two men in the woods as they negotiated a deal. The final break must have been with considerable tension and bad feelings, but it was never recorded.
“Thompson mentions that Bruce and a young Canadian left with him for
the south end of Reindeer on May 23/97. They walked over the ice. It
is clear from other entries in his fieldbook that there were also
several Dene with him. Ross himself says that Thompson left with 2 Frenchmen and two Indians."
Thompson picked up his Journal April 25:
“April 25.“Knocked down my traps. The hunt of this winter being of black bear, ?, 1 otter, 1 quickhatch (wolverine) and 23 martins, about 21 ?. Rabbits a few, wood partridges, a few white partridges, not a ? and 1 Deer a young buck.
“May 10 In the morn a single goose seen which is the first this inclement Season has presented to our sight
“May 19 Five geese killed by Paddy & ?, two Chipaywyans.” Paddy, of course, was with him on the first adventure north towards Athabasca when he almost drowned in what is now Thompson Falls on the Fond du Lac, and then almost starved to death because they lost most of their equipment. Kasdaw was the other, and is perhaps the other Chip. I've been there, and tried to reconstruct in my mind the event, which was difficult.
“May 20 The Snow still deep in the woods about the shores and on the Lakes; no appearance of summer” and it trails off, the last of his very short Journal from Bedford. A new page - a new Journal – opens overleaf which outlines the crucial days of decision and which includes the most famous sentence he ever wrote, the last line on 23 Tuesday. It's underlined by a later researcher, perhaps Tyrrell who resurrected Thompson's Journals from obscurity, edited and published them a century ago:
“May 22 Monday – A cold day - put my baggage in bow etc etc”
“23 Tuesday - at 3 1/2am ? of with Bruce and a Canadian young man for Mr. Alex Frasers House at the Head of the Deer River – went about 10 miles and then put up at 9am – snowing very hard. Two Chipayways in company – This Day left the service of the Hudsons Bay and (^entered – added in pencil by a third party) that of the Company of merchants from Canada - May God Almighty prosper me.
“May 24 Wednesday A dark cloudy snowy day. at 2 ½ …off went about 12 miles and then put up at 10am. The snow of yesterday having made for very bad hauling and the Day inclinable to thaw –
“May 25 Thursday A cold cloudy morn – at 2 ¼ out off and walked til 11am when we put up. The thaw having come on. The snow very deep an average about 18 inches with water between it and the ice. Pierre a Chipaywyan killed Two Swans received one from him – Showers of snow.
“May 26 Friday – A very cold cloudy stormy morning and Day – at 2 in set off – went in ? 10 1/2am when we put up. In the evening the clouds cleared away from NW to SE and we had once more a sight of the reviving Sun – a sight which I believe we had not seen for upward of 23 Days before –
“May 27 Saturday – a clear sharp frosty morn – at 2 1/2am set off and walked till noon when we put up at the Birch Point - sounded some water – wind still northerly – for the last 3 miles of this day we walked without snowshoes – saw several geese and ducks.
“May 20 Sunday – a sharp frosty still morn and fine Day. The wind Northerly then veered round to SSE and a small gale – at 2 ¾ am set off and walked til 11/ ½ am when we arrived at the House…Three Hen/hew/? At The House and a small tent of Chipawywyan walked all this Day without snowshoes – saw many geese - ? and dried the Bundles we brought with us…The ? Trout paid 2 beavers of Mr. Simon Frasers Credit – gave him a note specifying the same and that ? in meat is yet unpaid –Two or 3 martins for 5 Inches of the narrow ? – 1 beaver whole and 2 half or a pair of leggings of the above common ? – gave the Trout ? inches of
Tobacco a flint and ½ pint of grog – Paid the two Chipaywyans who guided us here and who hauled two sleds – 2 pints of pure Rum in grog…the Trout afterwards traded his leather Frock and a moose leather skin for Rum….”
He paused here at what is now Southend at the bottom of Reindeer Lake, now a town of 904 in the 2011 census, and the start of Reindeer River. (Here with mostly Bangkok friends when we paddled the river in 2008.) He remained settling in and hunting til June 6 when he struck off “from the House into the lake No 1/4 m. & down the main river…to the point on which stand the ? Houses of ? Frasers” to arrive June 11 “to the junction of the Deer River with the Misinippe. The Deer River has now the least water in it, that I have seen it have, yet it is still a fine deep navicable River every where and exceeds the English River (Churchill) singly by much in quantity of water it throws out”
He was now fully a member of the NWC and at the Confluence would have turned right – and not left to the HBC’s Fairford House – but rather towards Frog Portage to continue the journey to the lakehead to meet his new bosses, who would confirm his desire to do what he burned to do: explore for the rest of this career (which would, in economic terms, extend the NWC's trading reach).
Dale Russell: “Ross didn't leave Bedford until July 2/97, when most of he ice had
gone out, although they still had serious troubles with ice coming south.
“I have no further mention of Fraser (Ross did say he was expected to
summer at the south end). Thompson doesn't mention him at the south
end where he spent May 28 - June 7. Ross doesn't mention him at
Bedford nor at south end of Reindeer where Ross stayed overnight on
July 8. Ross left 2 men there with goods who were to rendezvous with
him later in the summer on the Churchill.
“I expect Fraser remained at Bedford and left shortly after Ross once
the ice was better cleared out. Since Fraser had walked up the lake on
the ice, they would have had to build canoes at Bedford- unless he got
his men at the south end to send one or two up after the ice went out.
I suspect the latter.”
On special interest is that Ross didn't paddle down until July 2 for it took that long for the ice to go out! Today and for anyone's memory, the ice is invariably out a month earlier.
Doug and I flew the 170 miles from Saskatchewan's northern "capital" of Lac La Ronge June 17 in his mint 1954 Cessna 180. As the retired maintenance chief for the water bomber fleet, and with the majority of his 5000 plus hours in the plane he's owned for over 35 years, I had complete confidence flying over so much (beautiful) wilderness and drinking water (and we drank right out of it of course). Doug lives to fly.
It had clouded in by the time we reached the Bedford Post site after 1.5 hours in the air.
We set up camp at a tiny beach with a bit of a clearing 10 minutes away. That's my new blue Wanderer II tent from MEC, our second. Excellent tent.
We phoned Dale. Although 73-years-old, his voice was as excited as a 10-year-old's to hear from us and that we were in the field. It makes one's day when you know you've made someone else's.
Our prime target search area was approximately 150X250 meters. After setting up camp, we did a preliminary survey of the field but left the main exploration for the following day. That evening, we roughed it with beef tenderloins, followed by Lagavulin-16 and Cohebas before hitting the sack. Because of the latitude, it was light virtually all night - and all night it poured! I feared for our expedition. But the rain propitiously cut back by the time it was bacon-and-eggs and coffee time.
"Mowing the lawn" in a systematic fashion in this crap proved impossible so we split up and did the best we could. In most sections it was like being an ant in a field of pick-up-sticks. You could hide a fire engine in this jungle and we were looking for mounds of rocks from those fireplaces, all that would be left after 200-plus-years of forest fires and time.
The search was made much more difficult because the site proved to be a major glacial dumping ground. Whereas a mound of rocks from a collapsed chimney - when the rocks had to be carried in from a stream or shore - would stand out like a sore thumb even if moss covered, the damn things were everywhere! I nixed this assembly of rocks as the site because they were flat to the ground and the surrounding ground had erratics everywhere. The cabin sites would have been cleared of rocks, on flat ground, and not in a drainage path when spring melt came.
In fact, an esker ran atop the ridge back of the bay.
The view from the ridge towards the small bay. Between the pick-up-sticks, thick larch and spruce scrub and - at lower levels - Labrador tea, the slogging was bloody tough. Everything was wet of course.
And got more so as massive explosions of thunder began to tremble the water and lightning pealed across the blackening sky. We retreated to take a break and wait it out.
When it came we were pummeled by hail, cold rain and wind - and Doug had forgotten his rain gear, though he didn't mutter a single complaint. If you can be cold, wet, tired, miserable and stuck out in the middle of nowhere - and a level of you still enjoys it, you have the makings of an explorer. That, or else you're nuts. Or both.
Afterwards, it was back into the jungle. Note my soaked pant leg. This row of rocks was the only possible human construction I found - but, again, the surrounding terrain was littered with those damned erratics and I couldn't see a purpose for the row. They would surely have removed erratics from cabin sites so they weren't stubbing their toes in their moccasins.
In the end we struck out.
We were pooped and disappointed. A distinct possibility exists, Dale warned us, that it's underwater. A dam built on the Reindeer River in 1942 raised the lake level 10-15 feet. We had covered the target area thoroughly, and expanded considerably out from it. The bread crumb trail on my GPS looked like that of a drunk voyageur after he'd been paid off for the season and had dived into a keg of grog. The GPS also showed that I'd pushed through almost 3.5 miles of this rough country.
Flag #51. In over 50 years it's been on expeditions from the South Pole to Greenland to Panama - including two cave expeditions with old friends the late Jim Chester and Ron Zuber.
The next morning it was clear and before we flew out, we did several low sweeps over the sites and Doug shot high res shots which we will study, looking for human anomalies. We may have lost this game, but the season ain't over. There's the possibility the site could be further back than we checked out. They weren't here for the view, but being deep in the jungle gave them a full radius for conveniently scoring firewood.
Mission unaccomplished, we swung over to Swan Lake Post which operated in the early part of the last century. Landing, we found rusting tin cans and excavations for homes and out buildings and the like. Amazingly, the site hadn't grown in, but we were close to the land of the little sticks. Few trees were of any great height.
Flying back, we passed the Wathaman River, infamous for its rough rapids.
At the top is the donut shaped Gow Lake meteor crater, an important early aeronautical nav aid.
As a columnist for Westworld Magazine in the mid-'70s, I interviewed archaeologist Tim Jones - the expert - for a piece on the Hickson-Mirabella pictographs cliffs in this channel, with the highest concentration in the Canadian Shield.
I always wanted to see them...and I didn't want to paddle. The major portage is forever long. Doug hadn't seen them close up either - which must be the only site in the north he hasn't - and the winds for landing were right up the chute, favorable.
We also dropped down to Bill Layman and Lynda "Dutchy" Holland's Bob Lake. They're famous for their marathon canoe expeditions to The Barrens. Lynda, as a major Dene researcher, has published books on them; and both appeared on an episode of John Lovelace's Wings Over Canada. We knew Bill'd been up the Swan River, the one that turned Thompson and Ross back, and we wanted to learn what it was like. "It was hell. The lining upstream against a fast and very cold current went on forever, and this was a high water year. One step you're in knee deep water, the next you're up to your fucking neck." Reminds me of parts of the William. Dutchy startled me by bringing out a 1987 hardcopy of The Bangkok Collection, which she had read twice. I've said it before, I'm always flattered by how many times people have read it (and its namesakes, Thai Gold and Nepal Gold) more than once. Bestselling author Jack DuBrul still has the record, as far as I know, with 12 reads. He loosely modelled his Philip Mercer series protagonist and best buddy loosely on my Lee Rivers and Snake, as well as some of the humour and even scenes (which I don't mind, it's flattering, if it initially took me aback. Yank authors are into suing for things like that but I'm a Canuck, and I like Jack). Naturally, I signed Dutchy's book.
We were going to drop down to Greg Marchildon's as well. As another major scholarly researcher of the period and co-author of the instant classic Canoeing the Churchill: A Practical Guide to the Historic Voyageur Highway. I had sponsored him into The Explorers Club. I was hoping to enjoy cracking open that bottle of Scotch newbees traditionally buy their sponsors, toasting them into the Club and bonding in fine manner, but he obviously knew we were in the area and he was hiding. At least there was no boat at the dock.
So we flew on to La Ronge.
A requisite stop was to Robertson's Trading. The sign in the window ain't a joke. La Ronge is a bit on the wild side. One of the local hotel beer parlours is called The Zoo with very good reason.
It's one of the wonderful, rare general stores that's a partial museum, rich in regional character. Want an air tight stove? A cast iron hand pump? Skillets big enough to feed a lumber camp? Here with Scott Robertson, a close friend of Doug's, who helps keep native crafts alive by providing an outlet. The pile of white birchbark baskets to the left of Doug are $50 each. But not all of it's for sale....
Those trader guys in that TV show, Canadian Pickers, flew up and it was apparently hilarious. Scott wouldn’t sell them anything they wanted. Nope. Nope. Nope. With a “ding” after each of Scott’s s Nopes. Mind you, if you want buckskin with beads (almost) anything, that's for sale. (I miss Ribtors in Cowgary that had been around for a century, what a place.)
Their butcher, Guthrie Winn, has won so many blue ribbons for his sausages and they line the wall. Last time I was here I bought a muskox roast. I wanted another. He was apologetic. “Nope, I haven’t had any in a year.” “Yeah, that’s the last time I was in. Whadya have that’s exotic?” “Camel.” Camel? What the hell is camel doing in Lac La Ronge? He explains that it comes out of Hill Food in Vancouver. I know the place! I used to buy horse there 15 years ago; you see, a horse almost killed me when I was eight, so I relish eating them. Horse steaks are pink, major lean and tough, probably because it's old and it's either my plate or the glue factory. Back to the camel, Guthrie says off handedly: “I’ll sell it to you for cost, $13 a kilo.” (That's cheap! Mind you, it’s dead. But also camel doesn’t seem to be a big seller amongst the Cree and Dene.)
Remembering Exotics Chairman Gene Rurka’s delicious camel at the Exotics Table at The Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf in New York in March, I bought 4 kilos in 2 roasts. We’ll surprise dinner guests half way through the meal….
So I was still so happy I was walking on water. Phase 2 of the expedition starts July 20, with a 12-person brigade paddling to the Confluence searching for Fairford House.
The Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York...March 2013
It’s not surprising I feel at home in New York. Family associations reach back to 1653 when early namesake Claus Van Schoonhoven (most changed on the 1700 US census to Schoonover) clomped in wooden shoes into New Amsterdam. A developer, he purchased and built on three (perhaps four) plots, three on what is Wall Street today, then the outskirts and cheapest. It was then a town of 1200. For those of you geographically challenged, New Amsterdam is known as New York today.
Two sites have disappeared under high rises but the third is where the doors to Trinity Church open at the head of Wall Street.
Actually, my blood line through the notorious Kit Davids arrived even earlier, on Aug. 4, 1638, when there were only 80-90 structures and 400 people. A founder of Kingston, he was often at odds with Peg Leg Peter Stuyvesant (seen here) for selling whisky to the Indians but when there was an uprising, it was Kit Peg Leg turned to. Kit became a hero of the 1663 Esopus Indian uprising and massacre when he paddled his birch bark canoe down the Hudson to Manhattan to raise the alarm with Peg Leg Pete. And it was Kit, who spoke the language and knew the injuns, who negotiated the release of prisoners. The wild Kit warrants chapters in two books and references in at least one other. Ben Brink in 1914 in Olde Esopus wrote: “One of the most colorful personalities of the 17th century in the Hudson valley was Christopher Davis, English-born, known to the Dutch as Kit Davidtsz. Kit might well have served as the proto-type for Rip Van Winkle, for he hunted the woods, fished the streams, acted as interpreter between indians and whites, drank heavily, engaged in numerous brawls, was in jail for contempt of court and wandered hither and yon throughout a romantic career in which he was both the tool and the despair of the authorities.” Goes a long way to explain my gggrandfather Will's wild behavior while fighting in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war in 1898, as seen in the previous Blah blah.
It was Kit's daughter Debra who yanked my line sideways. Although she had married Claus' son Hendrick Van Schoonhoven/Schoonover, she carried on an affair with Peg Leg Derrick Van Vliet (his leg was shot off during a drunken New Years party when he was 17) and had a bastard son by him. It’s in court records. She raised the boy, Nicholas, with the Schoonover name and he launched the famous Bastard Line, which comprises 20% of Schoonovers living today, including me. If people say I’m a genuine bastard, hey, it’s true. Or at least of a line of bastards.
That’s okay. The Bastard Schoonover/Van Vliet line is as illustrious as the so-called "legit" Schoonover one, the latter with its historic author Lawrence Schoonover and illustrator Frank (who did Call of the Wild). And that brings us back to my New York connections, which includes Mayor John Lindsay (his mother a Van Vliet). Van Vliet morphed to Van Fleet in one branch and that includes cousin Jo who won the 1954 Tony for Best Actress for Trip to Bountiful with Eve Saint Marie - which is in revival on Broadway as seen in this poster I snapped in the subway. This led to Jo's movie career, launched by picking up the Best Supporting Oscar after working with James Dean in East of Eden. Captain Beefheart was a Van Vliet but I haven’t been able to tie him in directly, although I enjoyed his eccentric music. As you may have gathered, societal/legal/religious "approval" of a union means less than zero to me. This April Su and I will have been happily unmarried for 25 years, and it just gets better and better. I have no time for politically correct bullshit.
Blood cousins also includes General Jim who was honored with a ticker tape parade and this strip on Broadway. He also led charges at Utah Beach, fought at the Battle of the Bulge, founded the Green Berets and somehow lived to be 99. There was a lot of military on this side and, I'm ashamed to say, lawyers galore.
I'm standing on cousin Jim's strip coincidentally within spitting distance of Trinity Church, enveloped in scaffolding behind me.
But we’ve come home to attend The Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf. What is The Explorers Club? We're 3,000 adventurers, individualists and eccentrics worldwide with oversized curiosity genes in our DNA, filling up the field sciences - the ologies like archaeology, anthropology, oceanography and so on. This is our incredible Clubhouse on the Upper East side. It was built in 1912 by Stephen Corning Clark, grandson of the man who built the Dakota where John and Yoko live(d). The Clark fortune began with Stephen Clark’s grandfather who was also the business partner of Isaac Singer who invented the sewing machine. Tudor style. Incredible interior as you'll see when I take you inside.
Our members have numerous firsts. Name the famous explorer or adventurer in the last century - from Teddy Roosevelt, Peary and Shackleton to Lindbergh, Yaeger and Hillary to Armstrong, Goodall and Ballard - and they were or are all members. It's filled with a Who's Who of names like Cousteau, Leakey and Piccard - and those names, in turn, filled up my Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives book (indeed, Meave Leakey wrote the Foreword). 120 of them described when their own youthful dreams were born launching their own adventurous lives. I first read in Readers Digest about the Club when I was a skinny kid of 12 in 1958 in Carrot River and it launched a dream that I, too, would become a member, and a vow to live as adventurous a life as I could. I was elected a Fellow in 1986 for my ethnological collecting for museums around the world and related writings. It's a great honor to belong - it's one of the world's most exclusive clubs, with very stringent qualifications - and it's a major component of my life. Hey, I get to hang with all these fascinating people that share as many esoteric passions as I do. We're essentially all just a bunch of ten-year-old kids who never grew up, though hoards have PhDs, IQs going through the roof, and are household names.
Now I've been advanced to Fellow Emeritus status. That means I'm turning into a geezer. This was taken in the famous Trophy Room. My adventure-thriller (which conveys what I think is an important point) The Manila Galleon starts and ends in this amazing room - my favorite in the world. (BTW, all my books are now available inexpensively on Kindle and Amazon and the other ebooks sites, though hard copies are available in many cases, including The Manila Galleon).
Here's the view in the other direction. Unfortunately, just out of sight in the dark corner right is our 3 foot whale penis.
This is the famous globe that one of our greatest stars - Thor Heyerdahl - planned his electrifying Kon-Tiki adventure over.
Matter of fact, here he is doing just that, second from the right. The recent Norwegian movie Kon-Tiki about the voyage is very much worth seeing, BTW. Great homage to a great explorer. Capt. Hook aka Norm Baker has told me many wonderful, respectful stories about his great friend Thor ("Tor"), that he was a great leader, internationalist and visionary. And Thor, in his book The Ra Expeditions, writes just as highly of Hook. And I've seen many of those great traits Thor wrote about - like when Norm finished his chores, he immediately went looking for something else to do. He's that way on our expeditions and canoe trips. A great asset. (Scroll down to the Red River dino expedition with Phil Currie.)
The Club was famous throughout much of the 20th century, but its profile dipped during the late '60s and '70s - it's partially because major explorers like Neal and Buzz and Cousteau and Goodall and those at that level stopped identifying publicly with the Club although all were (and in Jane's and Buzz's case, are) proud members. It just wasn't fashionable for the times. But its profile is rising with a vengeance of late. In recognition of this sea change is that even Johnnie Walker has begun distributing two brands in our name. While Red is undrinkable in my opinion (especially since it's apparently Dick Chaney's favorite), Black is a damned clean blend and I hope one or both meet this standard. (Although a single malt aficionado I'm not among the snob mob most of my friends belong to, as I know some decent blends. Shackleton drank a blend and that's good enuff for me.) I look forward to test driving both which are apparently only available at duty frees.)
The Dinner is a black tie affair and heavily covered by the media. If I look stupid happy, it's because I am. Indeed, fashion legend Bill Cunningham shot The Dragon Lady and BJ Mikkelsen and they landed on the society pages of the New York Times, along with Treasure Trader's Jessica Lindsay Phillips (see the following San Francisco Blah Blah for more on our wonderful Jessica). They're respectively #16 and #14 below and, for a larger picture, please go to http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2013/03/24/style/24PARTY.html?ref=fashion. I'm not surprised. Madame Su is an incredible clothes horsette, and BJ's silk hat is always a hit.
The evening started with the (in)famous Exotics Table put together by our great "Exotics Chairman" Gene Rurka. The wokked earthworms were excellent, as was the camel. The kangaroo was a little too gamey and tough for my tastes and the alligator was a bit swampy. It all goes to prove, as our close Bangkok friend Jerry Hopkins wrote in his classic Strange Foods, that what is disgusting in one part of the world is merely lunch in another.
The Madagascar hissing cockroaches were delicious though, sweet and liquidly, though the exoskeletons were bony. That's old friend BJ, a long time transplanted Dane/New Yorker who now lives on a farm upstate. We met in 1984 when I was in Manhattan and he set me up for a month long junket in August touring the four Scandinavian countries, writing travel stories for the newspapers coast to coast in Canada I strung to, and a few in the US like the LA Times, Boston Globe and SF Examiner. That was back when one could string travel and actually have it pay for one's trip around the world, which it had done for me in '78-'79. Then newspapers began their decline in '82, which is accelerating, and that great source of freelance publication virtually dried up. (Actually, in '84 I flew from Helsinki via Moscow back to Bangkok, and then on to Canada, completing my second circumnav. I swung around a third time just a year ago.)
After bugs and champagne, a guy from that part of northern England where men wear dresses blew into his funny sounding bag and we followed him into the Grand Ballroom.
As Communications Director (though I anoint myself CommCzar) of the Canadian chapter, I organized the Canuck table, though we had close friend Capt. Norm "Hook" Baker of Thor Heyerdahl's Ra, Ra-II and Tigris fame, left of Su-san, with us as a guest. Capt. Norm is one of our living treasures and on the Board of Directors. Then Cam McNaughton, lads Max and Jonty with proud dad Chris Considine, Treasure Trader's Jessica, Angry Planet's and now the Weather Channel's George Kourounis and BJ. No room for them although Canucks were Amanda and Barry Glickman who were at Snorkel Master's North West Chapter table next to us. Many thanks to a lovely and smiling Su for gifting me my $375 dinner ticket.
With 1200 guests, the dinner was sold out. It's been held in this very same ballroom, always black tie, since forever.
This is the what the same ballroom for the Explorers Dinner looked like in 1909. Wall-to-wall penguins.
The program is always fascinating. Jim Cameron received The Explorers Medal for his solo dive into the Mariana Trench and gave an excellent and long speech ("I'm not known for being humble, but...."). He was a table guest at Club sponsor Rolex’s table hosted by Rolex rep Colette Bennett and husband and past president Dan Bennett. As a favor, Dan asked Jim if he’d straddle our Canadian chapter as well as his primary California one. Other honorees were John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. I remember clearly in Grade 10 our old battleaxe French teacher Hop-a-long suspending one of her mind numbing, soul destroying "lessons" so we could follow John's flight on a transister radio. The arc of it was riveting.
I also remember in Grade 9 in 1960 being galvanized by pictures in Life magazine which greatly influenced me, of the submersible Trieste bobbing on choppy waves after ascending from the deepest trench in the world, the Mariana. It also pictured its handsome young captain, Don Walsh, and I thought, "Wow, what an incredible life! And what a great adventure!"
Here, Don annotates his contribution to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives in my author's copy. In Pre-Expedition Notes, my preface, I found myself quoting Don more than any of my other 119 contributors, I think three times. His succinct definition of exploration as "curiosity acted upon" was repeated by Jim three times in his speech. Don had graciously and generously mentored Jim on his great solo dive and, appropriately, Don's was the first face Jim saw when he emerged from his dive capsule after his solo conquest of the same trench Don had descended to over 50 years earlier with Jacques Piccard.
Afterwards The Dragon Lady and I and George and Snorkel Master (blonde with paper) through Amanda and Barry Glickpersons were invited to an 8,000-square-foot penthouse party on the Upper West Side. Everyone seemed to be 37-years-old and worth hundreds of millions from high tech, bio and films, though one unassuming lad, a cofounder of PayPal, was probably worth in the low billions. Good for them. We had a lot of interesting conversations. The next day everyone met here (this picture) at the Clubhouse, jampacking it for brunch and, for some, lectures. There's 25 chapters worldwide and regular canoe and expedition buddy Snorkel Master - sometimes known as Lynn Danaher - is chair of the Pacific Northwest Chapter. She's a major Polynesian explorer and more fun than, than...there just ain't nobody more fun....
A highlight of the dinner presentation was mountaineer and photographer David Breashear's presentation on the big screens of Rivers of Ice, utilizing the latest still-in-development video software from microsoft. From crystal clear wide angle shots of Everest taken from helicopters whizzing around the massif, he would zoom into the smallest bit of grit in ice with the same outstanding resolution. David (on left), of course, shot IMAX's biggest hit, Everest, with mutual friend and star Araceli Segarra and was a hero of the 1996 disaster on the mountain when he suspended shooting to throw every resource he had into the rescue (only then did he finish the climb and shoot). After Sunday brunch, some of us were invited to past president Dan and Colette Bennett's apartment overlooking Central Park where David expanded on his brilliant work in the private screening room. And Don, our Honorary President, was there too. He's such an incredibly understated and down-to-earth gentleman. I told him that Jim had borrowed his definition of exploration and he replied modestly that it wasn't really his, that Scott Carpenter and John Glenn had said the same thing, just in different words. Yeah, well I know where they got it from.
Then a handful of us sat around sipping wine, enjoying Dan and Colette's two boys, and kicking back until closing in on the pumpkin hour. As I say, hey, where do you get to hang with your youthful heros like Don and Norm Baker and many others than in a Club like this? I call Dan (far left) The Savior because, while president, he took on the unpleasant, often misunderstood and thankless task of flamethrowing a large cabal of lazy and inept Club employees who had gathered like a ball of leeches over the years - and through not processing dues and unbelievably incompetent office mismanagement threatened the very financial underpinnings of the Club. I could see this only too clearly from my many years on the Canadian executive and was his biggest cheerleader. Dan got the Club humming efficiently again. He's one of our greatest presidents. (Yes, David is doing his imitation of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. He's a man of many talents. Just don't piss him off or he'll vaporize you. )
During the week, we were house guests of Maura Moynihan, daughter of the late Senator Patrick and a one time Warhol Girl. She's brilliant, a multi-talented author, singer/composer, dancer, model, designer (Saks), hilarious and dead on mimic, dear friend and gawd knows what all else - a beautiful person with an overflowing heart, and amongst the greatest of the Renaissance women I know (and I know several, like Milbry Polk, Catherine Cooke, Anne Doubilet, Snorkel Master and many others just to name a very few, all members of the Club). Maura, it turns out, also knows David, but then she knows everyone from the Dalai Lama to David Rockefeller to the Kennedys to several presidents to Oliver Stone and Mick Jagger and the list never ends. Although spending as much of her time as possible in Kathmandu as a leading voice of the Free Tibet movement, she's part of our Bangkok gang. With Maura as guide we checked out Asian Art galleries - it was Asia Week in New York and, as with San Francisco a month earlier, I was feeling out the biz to see if there was interest in our collections, but Gotham is all about high end art, not tribal, as it turns out. We also checked out Christies where one 12th century bronze went for 2.4 million. Man, there's money in this town.
She has fascinating insight into her mentor, Andy Warhol, who had put her on the cover of his Interview magazine when she was fresh out of Harvard. She worked with him at the mag for five incredible years. I led, "Warhol had this reputation for being monosyllabic...." "Oh, NO! That was just his persona! After a reporter would walk away frustrated, he'd turn to us and giggle and say, 'They swallowed it again!' And then he'd continue" - Maura made a chatterbox action with her hand - "until 5 in the morning. He was a non-stop talker, always cracking little jokes and making observations. He was a very hard worker - everyone I knew who was successful was a very hard worker. Andy took a real interest in people. It didn't make any difference if they were famous and worth a billion dollars or a beggar on the street he showed the same respect and interest. He was also small and delicate, my height." Maura's 5'5". You can see photos of her dad on the wall. Her Yoga Hotel, as she calls her apartment (named after one of her books), is decorated in Himalayan, let's call it. Great vibes. It's impossible not to love Maura. She's just so full of it.
She's sold all her Warhols to fund her travels but she still has Avedons on the walls. She was married for a time to Richard's son and they had a son Michael, just finishing studies in photography himself.
Su and I love great dining and grand old bars and Manhattan has both. This is the oldest bar in town, Pete's Tavern, opened continuously since 1864. During Prohibition it was a speakeasy protected by Tammany Hall just around the corner on Union Square. (That's where one of Warhol's reincarnations of the Factory was, BTW.)
What a great ambience. I'm not much of a beer drinker but I had two of their excellent in house brand. I hated to leave and I'll be back. All the stars have been here and it's been the NY hangout of Johnny Depp for 20 years. But the bar is more famous because of O. Henry, one of the greatest of the short story writers.
For it was here in booth #3 in 1905 that he penned...Gift of the Magi....
And we got to act like dumb, hick tourists, hitting the Frick to check out the Impressionist show (they even had a Brueghel the Elder, though insignificant, that I wasn't aware of, in their permanent collection) and the Met. We also hit the American Museum of Natural History where I was keen to study what they had on Paleo- and Neolithic man. At Dan and Colette's that evening of wine and relaxation we had met their close friends Mark Siddall, head of invertebrates at the AMNH, and attractive wife Megan Gavin. They generously supplied us with tickets for several shows at the museum, which was much appreciated. And we wandered through Times Square again. If you look carefully on the big screen above, you'll see that I made the big time. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere....
Can't see me? Here. I'm up in lights twice. Ain't that acting like a real hick from Saskatchewhat...?
They begged me to be keynote speaker but I was having way too much fun.
The following weekend we caught the train upstate from Grand Central up to Poughkeepsie ("Puh-kip-sea") and BJ's farm. When we're with BJ we always seem to laugh until our faces fall off. (Though here it looks like a scene from Wuthering Heights.) When he had a place on Bank Street in the East Village (where we used to stay with him and his wonderful and much missed late wife Maria), John and Yoko lived a couple of blocks down in the 1970s in a dingy basement suite before they moved up to the Dakota.
The Hudson Valley is home turf. BJ drove us up to Kingston, which my wild ancestor Kit was one of the founders in 1652. He owned the Strand - the shore on the left - along Rondout Creek which runs into the Hudson a quarter mile down. Kingston town is up the hill to the left. My forbearers escaped being massacred by injuns three times over the centuries. Once was here in Kingston. Claus, the first namesake referred to earlier, croaked in his early 40s but not before having a son, Hendrick. Claus' wife remarried and had a second baby. During the 1663 massacre in which 18 people were slaughtered, she lost her new husband and the newborn. Her two-year-old, Hendrick, who survived, become Hank the Cuckold after he married Kit's wild daughter Deb and she took a shining to Peg Leg Derrick's other peg leg, resulting in Nick the Bastard, my ancestor.
Downstream 28 miles is where I'm standing, on the wharf at Newburgh, shooting across the enormous Hudson. Newburgh is where Nick the Bastard's grandson and my gggg-something-uncle Christopher mustered out of the Revolutionary Army in 1783. His younger brother, Richard, my ancestor, was too young to join and fight. Directly across the river in the middle you can see the white outline of a town.
It's Fishkill. ("Kill" in Dutch means "stream," like the nearby Catskill Mountains, where Kit also owned land.)
At this church in Fishkill in 1750 Uncle Christopher and Grampa Richard Schoonover's dad Jonas Van Schoonhoven married Engeltje Van De Water. It's in perfect condition. Jonas was Nick the Bastard's boy. Poughkeepsie is half way between Kingston and Fishkill and BJ has the great honor of living there, surrounded by all this fabulous Schoonover history which bored him (and Su) probably as much as it's boring the hell out of you. I wrote an enormous 880 page (with photos, maps and diagrams) book on my genealogy, Westward from New Amsterdam, that actually sells more copies in DVD than some of my others. We advertise on my website and on the enormous Schoonover Family website at https://sites.google.com/site/schoonoversinamerica/ which cousin Mary in Milwaukee rides herd on. I spent thousands of dollars, hours and miles since 1968 pushing my line back 13 generations. It was quite an adventure! (Actually, it still is, one is always learning new things.)
The church was also used prominently during the war with the dastardly, chinless, warm beer swilling Limeys.
Let's wrap with love alive on Fifth Avenue. Thank you Su!
In Search of the Group of Seven - June 4-12, 2013
Long on my bucket list has been to visit gorgeous Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, homeland of Canada's iconic early 20th Century Group of Seven painters. Modern abstract artist Candy Wilson, the Bow Buba, made it possible by inviting us to her equally gorgeous, century old "cabin", a living museum right in the heart of it all. It was everything I imagined and more.
I Left My Heart in San Francisco - February 2013
There for the annual tribal art show, I also chronicled the Beat hangouts and we reacquainted with dear old friends.
Dumpster Diving into the Stone Age:
The Archaeology of the River Kwai
December 2012 - January 2013
Winging to the next adventure in December my plane passed over the route of last summer’s Explorers Club Flag #176 paleontological expedition with Phil Currie down Alberta’s Red Deer River. Brrrr. Damned glad I’m leaving that four letter word—s-n-o-w—behind….
The study of early man along Thailand’s River Kwai started in a most unlikely manner. Dutch POW and archaeologist H. R.Van Heekeren was literally slaving away on the infamous Thai-Burma Death Railway when he stumbled upon stone age tools.
He noted the site, managed to survive the war which 2,490 fellow Dutch POWS didn’t, and returned as part of the 1960-61 Thai-Danish Prehistoric Expedition.
It surveyed 20 sites along the river, which the railway had followed, and excavated two, including Ban Kao which proved to be “fantastically rich,” producing 700,000 potsherds alone. The most startling aspect to me about the Ban Kao discoveries is the beautiful, highly polished carnelian and agate beads seen in the museum of that name. Early man early developed a sense of self decoration and beauty and was often buried with bracelets and beads. Why did we develop a sense of beauty? Where in Darwin does that increase our chances of survival? The excavations also turned up the first stone implements in Thailand, consisting of choppers flaked on one side only, similar to this hand axe below, one of many such we found.
While Harvard Professor H.L.Movius identified this type as the same made by Homo Erectus in Java and China about 500,000 years ago, and postulated Thailand as the migratory route leading to those countries (and, incidentally, there were other hominids in surrounding countries prior to this), carbon dating of related material on the River Kwai placed axes of this design at 10,000 BP. I'm confident our finds are in accordance with this because this design is of the Hoabinhian culture which was predominant across mainland Southeast Asia during this period (18000BP to the Neolithic).
Movius was right in that this is the natural route into Thailand. When India slammed into Asia 70,000,000 years ago, jacking up the Himalayas, it also pushed up their smaller, but still daunting, limestone karst cousins forming a fence along the Burma-Thai border and down into Malaysia. The Kwai-Three Pagodas Pass route was the way of the earliest trade and culture from India and beyond.
In 1975 a study was done prior to the building of the dam near the top of the river in which 23 more archaeological caves were surveyed, concluding man, as mentioned, had been in the valley for at least 10,000 years. The Thai Fine Arts Department returned in 1976 and again in 1980-81, surveying a further dozen or so caves. In 1984-5 Dr. Ian Glover was on the Ban Don Ta Phet cave excavation up the Kwai where all the stone tools displayed at the National Museum in Bangkok originated. This mystery tool has been stumping us and our experts. Ritual use?
The amalgamated conclusions remind me of a taffy pull, with dates and migration routes (another study sees early man in Thailand as having come down from China) being stretched in all directions. Certainly, dates are flexible and one doesn’t just flip a switch and everyone reverts from, say, Neolithic to Bronze Age in an instant. But the National Museum estimates that man has been in Thailand for up to a million years, that this early Paleolithic period lasted until about 10,000BP (Before Present). The Mesolithic in Thailand stretched until about 6,000BP with the Neolithic, or New Stone Age with the introduction of rice growing, from then until about 4,000 years ago. While the Bronze Age started about 7,000 year BP in the rest of Thailand, it only reached the Kwai at the 4KBP date - an indication of how flexible and overlapping these eras are. Indeed, one cave in Vietnam had Neolithic polished tools in conjunction with Iron Age ware. The Iron Age itself on the Kwai is dated from 500 BCE. The two big tools above, surrounded by later Neolithic polished adzes, are Hoabinhian sumatralithic handaxes (unifacial discoids) from the Hoabinhian culture overlying (primarily) the Mesolithic. Confused? That’s ok. Another reading and it’ll make more sense, or check out Charles Higham’s Early Cultures of Mainland Southeast Asia. He’s the Father of mainland Southeast Asian archaeology (though he was as puzzled by the mystery tool 2 pictures back as we were when I emailed him a jpg). All the tools above came from our Hintok Camp cave.
The goals of this expedition were two fold: to continue excavations for both POW and lithics here at the Hintok River Camp site, and to continue our investigation of the Death Cave. That's Capt. Norm Baker, Thor Heyerdahl's first mate, by the thoroughly undramatic Hintok cave entrance, though we simply call him Capt. Hook, or Hook. If you look carefully behind Hook you'll recognize that the Hintok Cave - basically a limestone drain hole - is on the edge of this:
(The cave is off to my left 50 feet, the Kwai behind me a stone's throw.) From May 1943 to February ’44 Hintok Camp was a squalid British POW camp of 300 in which 79 died, a far higher percent than the normal 20% prisoner death rate. From here it was a steep 250 foot climb to work on the railway.
It’s a tough slog for a healthy, reasonably fit person, requiring rest stops to get your breath. The rails were removed after the war over much of the line. Hook with Martin Saunders and Sir Rod behind him.
Down the line 2-3 kilometers is Hellfire Pass, the most dramatic cutting on the entire 250-mile-long railway, so named because of the oil lamps that lit up the worksite at night. Sir Rod and wife Twee singlehanded cleared this of growth - including the steep sides - years ago, as well as long stretches of line (though here often with Martin).
Today, Hintok River Camp is an upmarket tourist resort which pays homage to its predecessor in name and theme, with an old jeep on site as well as a guard tower, the entrance fenced with railway ties. The Masai Mara-like safari tents are reminiscent of the POW’s bell tents.
Mind you, our comfort level in the field was somewhat improved, thanks to the generosity of Suparerk Soorangura. A major player in the Thai tourist scene, he owns this and 15 other individually themed resorts throughout Thailand, follows our work with great interest, and pledges to refurbish a large building on site as a museum displaying our finds. And they’re substantial, both POW and early man..
This is looking up from near the bottom towards the steep entrance which requires a rope to descend. The other, smaller rope is for our bucket and the hose for water. Sir Rod originally sold the property to Khun Suparerk in order to finance his museum and research center, but before he did so he discovered the cave, one of many interlinked like Swiss cheese below the old POW camp. It became apparent that it had been used as a trash pit during POW days and was filled to the top. But not for long.... He went dumpster diving.
After removing the first couple of feet of modern garbage, he reached the POW midden level. For five months over a year he dug and sifted through 20 feet, recovering well over 500 POW artifacts.
Many are displayed here, at the magnificent privately funded museum he built in Kanchaburi to honour the war dead. His museum and research center is open to all seeking information about lost relatives and his massive data base of 105,000 names, built in conjunction with researcher Andrew Snow (whose father and uncle were on the railway), continues to expand. But there's hundreds of artefacts left over for the Hintok River Camp Museum.
After reaching the bottom of the POW level, he kept going - and immediately hit stone tools! At first they were polished Neolithics (top eight), and they steadily got cruder towards the bottom of the shaft. At this point some 25 feet down, it flattens out and descends at a slight slope towards a narrow point about 15 feet along. It was at this juncture last year that I joined and we attempted to complete the excavation but we ran out of time and only turned up three crude Paleolithics, or early stone tools, and a few animal bones, below:
We decided to pick up next - this - year with proper lights and a water hose. Thus was born the Explorers Club Flag #50 expedition. In Grade III I read in a Grade IV Social Studies book about cavemen and couldn't wait to get to that grade to learn more. Once there I was disappointed when only about eight seconds were given over to it and, more disappointing, there were no caves at all in Saskatchewan to explore. Thus discovering Southeast Asia with its virtually unlimited limestone karst formations riddled like, well Swiss cheese as I said, with caves that cavemen actually lived in is a Grade III dream come true. This is Caveman Central. Alley Oop country.
To this point we had an inventory of 67 lithics, and 91 pottery shards, most Sir Rod had collected in the upper most layers. With water to wash away the dirt, we moved forward much faster and it was a lot of fun, getting covered in mud. We also added another incredible 101 lithics and 20 potsherds, bringing it up to 168 and 111.
The water we (and the monsoon) poured into the cave had to go somewhere and Sir Rod discovered exactly where. At the low point we removed rock and debris, revealing a largish gallery below, running off in either direction. We were able to descend by sliding down on our bellies and walk back standing upright some 50 feet to a pool, upsetting kitty hog nosed bats (the world's tiniest), but found no lithics.
Sir Rod did find on the lower floor this animal tooth locked in conglomerate. Our Explorers Club veterinarian identifies it as a herbivore and probably a ruminant. There were very few animal remains anywhere in the entire cave, only a few stone flakes, but there were two charcoal campfire lenses atop each other in this lower gallery, the first four inches down, the second 2 inches below that. This was perplexing because water would pour into this cave like the drain hole that it is during the monsoon, it certainly wasn't a rock shelter, and even in the dry season it's wet down there. The descent is too steep and long and there isn't room at the bottom anyway and those fires would smoke even a caveman out. Both charcoal lenses were very thin, indicating likely single usage. Then why the long sequence of tools and potsherds in the main, upper cave? Did seasonal floods wash them in? Or was it used as a garbage pit by the hunters and gatherers as well? It's a confounding mystery that has the team flumoxed. On the steep slope to the lower gallery Sir Rod found the orange tool several pictures ago. That dirt slope proved to yield lithics and treasures like nothing before when he began to cut through it, back into the main cave.
One of the first was this excellent hammer stone, showing considerable use on all edges. But we had hardly begun when we had to break in order to gather together more equipment needed for excavating this level. Our greatest discoveries would come in a month's time.
Sir Rodney of Id, uh, Oz, our Knight in Shiny Mud. Because of his magnificent obsession, keeping the memory of these terribly abused POWS alive, he was knighted by the Dutch Queen. Other honors include the Australian Medal. But like every other 10-year-old boy at heart he just loves getting down and dirty.
We advanced on the Death Cave, so named because of our dangerous experience last year when we hit a CO2 layer, which sent us gasping for breath and for the entrance. This is how I looked recovering.
Years ago Sir Rod was able to get back 200 feet where he reached a narrows guarded by two animal skulls. After bellying through he found a broken secondary burial jar. This year, on our test exploration, we were able to explore back, though the air was tacky. We brought out several bones which our medical advisor, Dr. Martin Stockwell (who was on the Red Deer expedition last summer), identified as human, and of a child's.
That's a piece of the skull cap, top right. The majority of bones were on a waist high ledge, where the parents presumably placed the child's body in a jar ancient times. But some, including the skull cap, were some distance apart, found with pottery fragments with a cord pattern dating it to at least 1700BP or as early as 4000BP. Determining we needed better lighting here too and an O2 system, we broke off from here too. We didn't know it then but we would never make it back to the Death Cave, at least this season.
But it wasn't all mud and games and cheating death. It was my pleasure to sponsor Sir Rodney into The Explorers Club, here bonding him into our fraternity with the traditional sharing of a bottle of Scotch brought by the inductee. Capt. Norm Baker is on our Board of Directors in New York and I serve as the Canadian Chapter’s Communications Director, or CommCzar as I prefer to enshrine myself, since no one in their right mind would knight me. Next to Rod is his long time railway line clearing partner, Brit Martin Saunders, who was part of our team.
Explorers Club #50 dates back to 1932 and this is its first expedition back to Thailand since then, here taken under the Bridge over the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi. It was last carried July (2012) by Explorer Bertrand Piccard in the cockpit of his history making solar powered flight from Switzerland to Morocco. L-R Sir Rod Beattie, Martin Saunders, Jason Schoonover and Capt. Norm Baker.
Above us were the usual young Japanese tourists mugging at the entrance. Being taught that the bridge and railway was a triumph of Japanese engineering, pushing it through 250 miles of inhospitable jungle from Thailand to Burma in only 16 months in 1942 and ’43, they cheer. They’re not taught that to do so their grandfathers starved, beat and worked to death 12,300 prisoners of war and 100,000 Asian coolies. Germany has come to terms with its WW-II past; Japan hasn't faced it yet.
This educational process will be helped by the release of The Railway Man, the true life story of Alex Lomax, one of torture, forgiveness and redemption. I had a small part to play in having facilitated Sir Rod meeting producer Charles Salmon through my close friend and Thai Gold co-screenwriter Kevin Chisnall, the special effects and armouries man on this shoot (and who has worked with everyone from Lucas to Jolie to Gibson). That's Sir Rod with the DOP or Director of Photography.
No one could recreate the actual conditions of creating the railway like Rod, of course, the expert. Sir Rod, as technical advisor, recommended the use of this actual cutting originally dug by POWs and Asian slave labor, and these on location shots are his. With stars such as Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, it’s sure to have an impact on the intractable Japanese as well as reawaken international awareness of the horror that went on here.
As a sidebar, you’ve heard how fast tropical jungle reclaims its own? These last two pictures were shot in July. And these next two—of exactly the same site—I shot in December.
Even I was stunned at how fast and thick the jungle roared back.
To help Colin—an unpretentious, down-to-earth chap—into his role Rod searched the data base for Firths. He not only found one but when he brought this information to Colin, the actor was further taken aback to learn that the deceased was from Yorkshire—his own region—and they thus could be distantly related. Greatly moved, Colin asked to be taken to the headstone.
The movie is in post production as I write (February 2013) and due out in the spring. Unlike the first movie on the railway, David Lean’s highly fictitious (but brilliant) Bridge on the River Kwai of 1957, The Railway Man is deadly serious and presents the period accurately. Sadly, Alex Lomax himself—both Firth and Kidman visited him in Scotland as part of their research—died, at 93, in October. By the way, Sir Rod described Kidman as basically a good ‘ol Aussie gal with a from-the-gut good ol’ Aussia gal haw haw haw laugh. He quite liked them both.
While waiting for Sir Rod and Khun Supareck to round up more gear and The Dragon Lady to arrive I jumped up to Chiang Mai to continue my Flag #112 expedition among the hilltribes. That's Capt. Hook with another Explorers Club member, Birdman Rob Tymstra, with Bucklee Bell of Kesorn Tribal Arts in Chiang Mai. A one time underground cartoonist in San Francisco during the acid days he was high from having just received a note from Haight-Ashbury period legend R. Crumb who confessed that he launched his career because of early cartoons by Bucklee. I made purchases here to add to our Hmong collection.
During the month (October) I spent shooting and documenting the Hmong collection I've been collecting for 30 years (and with Su since '94) I realized it had holes. I filled them with 80 acquisitions, and put a ribbon on the collection: 17,500 words on 606 pages photo documenting 562 pieces, which includes 12 display ready costumes. I just have to number them all back in Toontown and it's museum ready. It's the largest - by far - ethnographic collection of my life.
With Madame Su's, The Dragon Lady's, arrival and our needed gear ready we jumped back down into Hintok Cave. And so successful were we, as I say, that we put aside further investigations in the Death Cave for the season.
Sir Rod at his happiest - ankle deep in mud.
It started with turning up another hammer stone, an excellent find and our second. We called it the Hammerstone from Hell because of its vicious bi-faced cutting/breaking edge (top).
And then the discoveries really started to pop out of the mud! Here's one of 10 beautiful Hoabinhian sumatraliths that turned up, seeing light for the first time since it was discarded thousands of years ago by an early relative. The thrill of the find is akin to picking up an Albertasaurus tooth along the Red Deer River, being the first to see it in 70,000,000 years.
Some we could determine if the owner was right or left handed!
Yes, the ologies are all about having fun, feeding one's ravenous curiosity...and getting down and dirty like a kid again. As Sir Rod laughed after the steep descent into a third cave we did a preliminary dip into, "It's a good thing we're doing this while we're still young."
Because we were at the lowest level we didn't expect to find many POW finds and we didn't, two buckles, two tin cans, a blackened battery, but then - jackpot! - homemade dog tags! Washed down along the narrow track left to carry away rain. It reads**692. POW CHA*** (probably Changi, the Singapore prison) - ELLWOOD, W - 1942 16TH DEFEN** REGT, RA831692. A check of the Thai-Burma Railway Centre data based turned up Sergeant ELLWOOD, William Jenkinson, 16 Defence Regiment, Royal Artillery. It's mystery in that Ellwood was a member of E Force sent to Borneo and he died there on 1 December 1944; so who carried his dog tags to Thailand? And why did they end up down in that hole?
Some of our second stage discoveries. Row one primarily potsherds. 2: the Hammerstone from Hell with a smashed bovine bone probably done by POWs to reach the marrow.. 3&4: Paleolithics of a primitive nature. 5&6: 6 central stones classic sumatralithis, with a jungle cat claw below and a small bovine skull above, probably from the POW period. Finally rows, flakes and small cutting tools.
The cord design on the potsherds dates them from 4000BP to 1700BP, amazing me that a design feature could last this long. Without doing an thermoluminescent dating, we won't know the exacter date.
Flag #50 with my Su Hattori and Khun Suparerk before the cave. Note that we're in our glory - covered in dirt. Sir Rod is holding the Hammerstone from Hell.
Our finds - both POW and of early man - will be housed here in what will be the Hintok River Camp Museum, just feet from the cave itself. Sir Rod is scribing and designing the POW side, because of his obvious expertise; and I'm penning the copy and handling the 'Early Man on the Kwai' display boards and concepts. "If you need more room, I can expand it," Supareck offers.
Wrap dinner on the Kwai with a most fascinating man. Next to me is 93-year-old Jack Thomas of Oz who was a POW and at Hintok (after the Brits moved on and the Aussies took over) and later worked in a coal mine in Japan. He was there half way between Hiromshima and Nagasaki when they went poof.
Jack is one of the most remarkable people I have met. He not only has all his marbles, but all his teeth and excellent health. But it's his positive attitude and happy equinimity which is so inspirational. He bears no animosity or ill feeling for his brutal treatment (it was "standard issue"). Asked how he coped on the Kwai then: "The jungle was beautiful and the birds were singing. I could have been in a 6X6 box with bars." Whereas many (most?) POWs suffered terrible long term, even life long, physical and psychological debility, he's completely at peace with the past and - talking to his son Graeme - seems to have been so all his life. Then was then and now is now. I've never met anyone whose positive attitude carried him so well through life - and a life with the most terrible challenges imaginable.
Madame Su with (Dame?) Twee and the twins, Michelle and Linda. Or is it Linda and Michelle? I'm not sure they know they're so similar. Missing in action is Sir Rod's 16-year-old daughter Tracy, at boarding school in Oz. (The girls are all in the 3.8 scholarship range.)
I’ll wrap this too long blog with an apt quote from Professor Higham: “In prehistoric research, one site imparts only limited information. Hence the concern for locating a number of sites in order to reconstruct a settlement pattern.” The discoveries from our quixotic cave/drain hole blend with other sites along the Kwai and with Hoabinhian culture across mainland Southeast Asia. Like all the other flag expeditions I’ve been on, this one isn’t limited by the stated dates in the application but rather is ongoing. Sir Rodney of Id, er, Oz and I will be back next year trying to draw aside further the curtains on our hunter-gatherer ancestors in order to let a tiny bit more light shine through the window on what are truly the Dark Ages of Mankind.
Cheers - Jason Schoonover Fellow Emeritus '86
PS. And I can't wait for next year when Sir Rod and I can go out and play in the mud again.
A Bali Hi - February 2012
Wonderful Bali and Kuta Beach, where my camera for the first time acted up. Everytime I took a picture of one of Bali's fabulous temples, some girl's bikinied butt would appear in the frame!
Welcome to the Wangcome Hotel
Somehow I have to weave this Chiang Rai, Thailand, hotel into the book I'm working on.... I hear it's popular with newlyweds. If you think this is delicious, check out the name of this massage parlour:
This must be one of them there rub and tug places in Thailand one hears about, with the "happy endings." Whatever - this has to be a classic. (Actually, pervs, it means "golden palace.") (I was disappointed to find out too.) I love these Asian malapropisms, like the sign at the pool in my Chiang Mai hotel: "Must dry before get out of pool." And Dewi Kunti, the heroine in the Indonesian epic the Mahabarata.
While on the subject of pervs, I've got a lead on the one messing with my camera in the last Blah Blah, the Kuta Beach one. He's shooting for the cover of Bangkok Airways in-flight mag, Fah Thai! I appeared on the cover a dozen years ago but I don't remember this babe being there.
Anyway, enough sexually inexplicit material for now. I'm really here to tell you about my hilltribe collecting expeditions this season. I made two jumps to Chiang Mai in Thailand's north (with Bali in between, to give markets time to recharge) and one to the remote northwest corner of Laos where I rented a bike to get back into the jungled hills. That's a Lantan woman behind me. If it looks chilly, it is at night at elevation and on a bike..
Here's a better shot of the Lantan, who impressed me greatly. Each of the hilltribes has individual dress, customs and language. And they all get along smoothly - unlike most other tribes on the planet. The Igorots of Luzon and other headhunters of Papua and Borneo were always whipping off heads to impress the girls (I mean it); African tribes are still at each other with machetes; and our North American tribes were also big on counting coup and taking scalps from each other. The Southeast Asian hilltribes are unique in that peaceful regard - and it allowed their individual cultures to thrive, particularly artistically.
Vietnam has the most hilltribes with 54 (Vietnam officially states 126-7 but these are sub-groups); Thailand has 7; and Laos has 47. The Hmong are one of the largest and my main focus for 30 years. They impress me so much I made the love interest, Meow, in my adventure-thriller Opium Dream one of theirs.
Hilltribes were reported in Chinese writing 5,000 years ago and they began moving down into Southeast Asia in the last 1,000 years. (No, this isn't a Hmong home; theirs are on the ground; but this is the largest grass house I've ever seen - a veritable mansion. It's in NW Laos.)
There's no adolescence among hilltribes. That's a Western luxury, now taken to absurd extremes with dependent children still living at home deep into their thirties. Here, they flow into adulthood smoothly and there's few psychological and dependency problems.
This is a Hmong woman. They have far and away the best embroidery of all the tribes. I purchase most of my textiles and ethnology at markets such as this. Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino told their story as immigrants to the US compellingly. They fought with the CIA and spooks like the legendary Tony Po and Jack Shirley against the commies in the Laotian Secret War of the sixties. Tony and Jack, the latter a particularly good friend, were woven into Opium Dream.
Although I'm wrapping on 30 years of collecting Hmong, I'm moving into the other tribes. From the French era coins in this gorgeous Akha headress, it's been passed down several generations since the early 20th century. I can't imagine what it would sell for at Sothebys. I didn't disgrace myself by asking if she would sell it - and in any case, I strongly prefer these to stay with the people themselves, keeping the culture alive and vibrant. 99% of hilltribes, I learned in my 4 season Laos survey, no longer wear their tribal dress. Laos has lost so much to globalization.
Enough of this elephant shit. Let's get back to sex. The readers are getting bored. (I was a bit jittery when I shot this picture, while motorbiking along a jungle road. I had a bull elephant charge me in the '80s in a Thai jungle, but I had huge trees to escape behind, and right now I was exposed.)
The first time I trudged, exhausted after a long day's trek, into an Ahka village in 1979 and saw this at the gate, I thought, "What he hell...?" It's to inform the spirits that people live here. They're guardian images. If he looks well endowed....
When Honey Bunch says "Wash the dishes and while you're at it, do the floor" you wash the dishes and while you're at it, do the floor....
I got some damned good collecting in - 200-300 pieces that weigh 120# - as well as writing. These two pictures above are just a fraction. Good thing I was flying biz because I needed every ounce of that 64 kilo allowance. I didn't take Scotch and cigars back this time - a massive sacrifice! Next is the equally massive job of shooting and documenting it all, though it'll be fun too. Then I'll decide which Canadian museum to donate it to.
And what does a collector do after a hard day in the jungle? Why, hang with the guys, of course. Some of the best looking women in Thailand are men. Here at the Chiang Mai Night Market.
Then grab something good to eat. Lao food is something else.
And then it's time to wave bye-bye to another great season in Southeast Asia, which I love. I flew back to Toontown April 11 via Tokyo, completing my third solo around the world. Upcoming: I'm leading in June a 14-member canoe brigade including eight Explorers Club members and with famed paleantologists and friends Phil Currie and wife Eva Koppelhus down the Red Deer River, Alberta, canyon and badlands on a sanctioned Explorers Club Flag Expedition. Captain Norm Baker, Thor Heyerdahl's first mate, will be along on his fourth trip with us. Thaz gonna be fun.