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. email@example.com
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....
A Sentimental Journey - June 23 - July 11, 2013
In the summer of my 66th year I went on a sentimental journey.
Firing up the new Riceburner, I punched up the sixties on SiriusXM, the pedal to the metal, and drove to Vancouver and the Left, uh, Wet, er, West Coast to see if any of my roots were showing. In search of earlier versions of myself. It was to the Lower Mainland where I initially took a train in 1964 after wrapping up Grade Twelve in June of that year in Carrot River. There's nothing in my life I hated more than school. The subjects - like algebra and chemistry - were totally irrelevant to me and utterly boring. In Grade Eleven, I squeaked through with five or six Ds. In Twelve, on Easter exams I had flunked three of the eight subjects. Changing schools, I had to rewrite the damned things - and I flunked a different three! Facing June finals, I knew I couldn't bear another year making up classes, so I hung up my pool cue - I was a high school pool shark when I wasn't roaring around wheat fields in my '48 Chev full of friends drinking beer (Bohemian) - and hunkered down and crammed the entire month of June.
First stop was for coffee with Aeneas and Shanghai Jane just 40 miles out of Toontown. He and I went to Simon Fraser University together and met there when teens, and now we're Old Age Pensioners, geezers. Shanghai Jane's parents were with China's security agency as telegraph operators cum translators and the Ping Pong Diplomacy communications between Mao and Nixon clicked-clacked through them. Her curiosity and intelligence is such that her English is superior to most Canadians - as is her deep understanding of our culture on all levels. She's one of the most extraordinary people I know.
I returned to Vancouver via Edmonton and Jasper, since Calgary was flooded and the Trans Canada Highway cut off. And eschewed the modern Coquihalla short cut in favor of the picturesque Fraser River Canyon Route I used to take in my old '59 VW Krautcan bug. Man, that thing would sputter and fart for up to two minutes after turning the key off the valves were so bad. It was hilarious.
I love it that my old university - Simon Fraser - is named after the fur trade explorer and adventurer who first, as a white guy, traversed this dangerous river to what is now Vancouver. Here is depicted a scene at Hell's Gate from his journals. And I like it that the city is named after a fellow Dutchman (though I'm actually a dog's dinner of eight nationalities).
A week after high school finished, I landed here on Fleet Street in Coquitlam, a Vancouver suburb, then under construction. My job was painting the brand new Engineered Homes on the street for my Uncle Don, a long time contractor for legendary builder Jack Poole, at $1.10 an hour. Jack, a Saskatchewan lad, later launched the 2010 Winter Olympics.
I was the "fireplace specialist" - standing, in swim trunks, on the top rung of a fully extended aluminum ladder and reaching up as high as I could to paint the tops of the concrete blocks, such as the one I did on the old Roper house here, while having to look down on a juicy Mrs. Roper in her bikini lounging with a drink. It was while painting one day in August that Don hurried up waving a letter from the Saskatchewan Education Board. With enormous trepidation I stared at it, afraid to open it. My future hung in the balance. I shakily tore it open, spread open the letter, and my eyes bugged. I not only had passed them all! But I had marks high enough to get into university!
Don jubilantly called work for us off for the day and we roared down to the Leon pub in Port Moody. It ain't there no more, this likker store is in its place. They'd let me into the old style beer hall, despite being only 17 (and looking like 15), because I was always with older men, a Friday after-work ritual. We celebrated! Don kept the beer flowing the rest of the afternoon!
When we staggered home for dinner I spent an hour propitiating the Great Earth Goddess with liquid offerings. I was still ecstatic! That stifling period in my life was OVER! It was like I was barfing out all those years of school ugliness. To this day I celebrate June 28th as my favorite holiday - the traditional day we were set free for the summer.
While working that summer on Fleet Street, I helped Don and Dot move into their brand new Fleet Street home - which provided a turning point revelation. They had paid $15,800 for it. Two years later in 1966 when I returned to live with them when I started SFU, the price had doubled to $34,500!
A lightbulb flashed over my head! I soon learned that more millionaires are made in real estate than anywhere else. Now, only Judy next door remains of the Old Guard from the early '60s - and it was a major party street then, because Don and Dot were such social cheerleaders. Judy says the house is worth over a million bucks today.
But it wasn't until after I'd finished university and was established in radio in Saskatoon with a half decent salary that I launched Schoonover Properties in 1975. To raise the investment loot, I worked and saved like a Scrooge. Besides my Promotion/Producer management job at CFQC Radio 600 in Toontown, I pioneered taped music dances in Saskatoon under Rolling Thunder Sound, wrote a column for Westworld Magazine and freelanced for CBC radio (docs and editorials).
I also freelanced as a stage producer and in '75 wrote, directed and produced ex-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker's 80th birthday party gala.
I got to play with this great toy - Toontown's Centennial Auditorium. The show involved over 300 performers and personnel. It took five months to put together, but gave my investment coffers a healthy boost. To this day, John Diefenbaker had the clearest mind of anyone I've ever met.
I kept a ledger documenting my saving regime that I framed. My old man was a drunken loser at everything and my mother was a Grade Two teacher who didn't finish her own degree (with distinction grades) until she had put her two brats through college. I had no family money. Every single cent I invested I had to earn and save myself. That's fine. There's a special pride that comes from achieving success oneself. I know a lot of self-satisfied "inheritors" - too many of whom claim they did it themselves, which makes me roll my eyes.
So motivated was I that in one Saturday and Sunday on January 18 and 19, 1975, while everyone else was partying at the lake, I spent only .41 cents, for shoelaces and popcorn - and I got into the movie free because of my radio position. Everything I invested in real estate. Despite how great my radio job and boss and mentor in Dennis Fisher were, after 3 years, 3 months and 3 weeks I couldn't take the 9-5 anymore and yearned to travel and burst out onto the world. By November 1977 I had enough revenue producing properties to cast off and since then I've been gainfully unemployed.
CFQC-radio was my university of the media and I graduated with a PhD thanks to Dennis who gave me the opportunity to stretch in all directions creatively as a multi-media writer/producer. We at CFQC were a remarkably talented team, in one rating commanding 82% of the Available Listening Audience, making us one of the top rated stations in Canada. Hell, anywhere.
But back to Vancouver. Empire Stadium stood here next to the PNE rollercoaster on August 22, 1964 when I saw the Beatles.
Since the $6.00 ticket gouged most of a day's wages, I opted to, literally, hang outside. There the fence off to the side was about eight feet high and by jumping up and grabbing the lip I could chin myself and peer into the stadium. Being skinny and fit, I could hold on for most of a song. It was a cold, dark evening and the seating was on chairs set up on the ground. These were filled with the mandatory screaming girls. Red Robinson MCed. The Beatles didn't come on until about 9:30pm, played less than a half hour then unexpectedly, right after Long Tall Sally, disappeared backstage, with nay a wave nor word. A moment later a line of limos with cop cars fore and aft sped up Capital Hill behind, then disappeared. The Dragon Lady and I are seeing Paul play in Regina in August and the Limey bugger better not do that again. This time I'm paying.... Two years later in '66 with Luney-bin and the Phenix clan I saw the Regina Roughriders trounce the Ottawa Roughies here. Or what was here....
Uncle Don no longer lives on Fleet Street and, very sadly, my aunt and wonderful godmother Dot is gone. Don and new and lovely wife Laurie live in a grand place overlooking the pier (left) at White Rock with this incredible view from their huge deck.
For someone raised hardscrabble in Edmonton with no father, his paternal instincts and related talents are incredible. He and Dot were amongst the first very few adults I knew without their generation's narrow, restrictive outlook and did a lot to set me on the rails. Helped by his incredible sense of humour that often had me in stitches.
As I often do I also bunked with Scoop in the West End for a couple nights. We took off around the world in '78. She genuinely was too good looking for her own good and I watched with bemusement everyone trying to poach her from Chicago to New York, London to Paris, Rome and Athens where she decided to return to journo school. I continued on to Istanbul and the Asia Overland Trail across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, threading the Khyber Pass down into the squalor of India.
A first stop was Sri Lanka.
I actually more than paid for my way around the world by stringing travel articles to most of the Canadian, and a few American, newspapers. Here I interviewed Arthur C. Clarke at his place on Barnes Road in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo. It started a life long friendship. He was generous to his friends. After the tsunami, it was Arthur who had his people track down a close Sinhalese friend of ours to find out if he survived. (Ari did.)
There in Colombo I shared a room at the ancient, crumbling, atmosphere rich YMCA with Tony Mayo. He had sold an Inuit collection to a museum. Another lightbulb flashed. I had read every National Geographic in the school library before I finished school. (Would that they had anthropology, archaeology and geology etc courses in school but no, algebra instead. Christ.) A door was opened....
Days later I stumbled on the Devil Dance cult and the fascination was instant.
That first major, comprehensive collection went to UBC’s Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, designed by the brilliant Arthur Erickson who had designed SFU. Two months later the Smithsonian phoned – and I was off!
That led to living in Bangkok, the hub city of Southeast Asia, equa-distant from Kathmandu, Colombo, Manila and Bali. In early interviews I used to tip my hat to Tony for planting the seed in my mind. Here I'm making time with an Akha babe in The Golden Triangle while on assignment in '86 for the Tourism Authority of Thailand and whatever airline had flown me out from Canada.
I placed comprehensive ethnological collections with major museums in Europe and Japan as well as North America.
And I really started to live the adventurous life I sought since I was, at 12-years-old, galvanized by an article about The Explorers Club. I had made two vows at that moment. One was to become a member of that club. The other was to live as adventurously as possible. I don't have a picture of the bull elephant that charged me in a Thai jungle - I was too busy making my escape - but that was damned exciting and fun.
And this all led to writing adventure novels. Here, doing the edits in Bangkok on The Bangkok Collection aka Thai Gold aka Nepal Gold (the book's now had four publishers and three titles) for Jack McClelland who sold it to Bantam who made an international bestseller out of it. Bantam flew me to New York to meet with the president and editor-in-chief. They were grooming me for the big time...but then the vacancy rate went to hell in Saskatoon and, to save my properties, I had to set aside my writing career just at this heady juncture, fire my property manager, and take over the damn things myself. By the time the crisis was over three years later - I couldn't write (at least well) during that time - my $82,000 in advances and the Bantam president and editor-in-chief were gone and so was my momentum, but it was still the right decision to make and I don't regret it. Real estate is real estate. Writing books ain't.
Among the old friends I visited in Vancouver on my sentimental journey were my masks and related collections at the MOA.
Serendipitously (the word incidentally derived from Serendib, an early name for Sri Lanka) I found Tony during the trip on Google – and living in Abbotsford! We had lost touch after he visited me in’79 in Toontown and I hadn’t been able to track him down until now, when he put up a website. We spent a great evening together, half a lifetime later, and vowed not to make it another half a lifetime because we have no halves left. He’s still an enormous, high quality collector, an amazing artist, and we share a mutual friend in Bob Bateman.
Spanish Banks in Vancouver. Luney-bin, Betty, Donna and I used to drive here in early 1967 at night when the tide was way out and walk around on the flats drinking beer (Rainier) and groovin' on the city lights.
English Bay, a stroll from Scoop's. It rains all the time in Raincouver but when the sun comes out, "all is forgiven" and it becomes the most beautiful city in the world. It was that rain I couldn't take so I moved back to the sunny prairies in 1970 determined to get into the media. The Star-Phoenix had an opening in September, but this was April, so I applied as a copy writer at the rock station, CKOM. They didn't have an opening but gave me a voice test, were impressed, then permission to use the control rooms to practice, and then the all night show. After a winter of that I'd had enough. I loved the thrill, relative creativity of the rock format, and challenge of radio but I'm not an all night guy and I couldn't sleep worth a damn in the day. I left, and after a wonderful hiatus landed at the #1 station, CFQC, as a weekend swing announcer, then full time Music Director (with the Saturday night show), the only such position in Saskatchewan at the time.
Penny Lane and Georgie Girl were boppin' out of the old Krautcan radio when Luney-bin, Betty, Donna and I lived here on E. 13th in the early months of that magical Expo year, 1967.
Life is good when a long legged blonde picks you up in her convertible. Charlotte the Harlot and I hung with the same crowd during our university daze, and she lives near Scoop in the Wet End. (Actually she's one of the classiest broads I know though I'm ashamed to say she is a, a, a lawyer, though with the Law Society setting policy etc, but with a name like Charlotte she has to be Charlotte the Harlot, right?)
In '68 and '69 during SFU, we lived in different suites at this magnificent place with pegged floors and leaded windows near campus. It was in my basement suite in July of '69 that her, Donna and I watched with saucered eyes on our snowy $25 b/w TV as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.
If she would have told me then that years later Buzz would contribute a chapter to my Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives and write the cover endorsement (I had no idea when I had my first youthful dream of flight that it would take me all the way to the moon - but that's the power unleashed in following one's dreams. Jason Schoonover's book should be required reading in every school. - Buzz Aldrin) I would have told you were inhaling that stuff going around way too deeply.
We also browsed our old campus. Wanting to be a writer - the only thing I enjoyed and excelled at in school, writing compositions - I studied literature. SFU was a great educational experience. Being brand new - it opened in '65 and I started in Year Two - it was experimental and attracted top talent in profs. The tri-semester system was wonderful - a class was bite-sized, 3.5 months - and there were actually interesting courses! My marks turned around. I was awarded innumerable bursaries and even a scholarship, which shocked the hell outta me. Erickson designed a gorgeous campus. It was like going to university in a gigantic work of art. The architecture imparted a lightness, a freedom. It still does.
It was in a seminar room here in the Quadrangle that I took a Romantic poetry seminar with Margaret Sinclair/Trudeau that tragic, assassination summer of '68. There were only six of us and I always sat across from her because she was so juicy. We both gave reports on William Blake, she in a tiny, shy, self-conscious whisper. I felt sorry for her during her high profile years. She was in way over her lovely head.
It was also a left-wing pinko radical place then, the late sixties, and SFU was the Canadian Berkeley. I got caught up in all that bullshit, mainly because it provided a packaged, ready-to-wear direction for my healthy distrust and disrespect for authority. After graduation, it took some doing to deprogram, but I was greatly helped along by Saskatchewan’s socialist NDP government with their utterly immoral bias against anyone trying to make an independent living. Their Office of the Rentalsman, the part of their Dept. of "Justice" which adjudicates tenant-landlord issues, made no pretense to fair play and cost me tens of thousands. The NDP demonstrated that they are every bit as morally corrupt as the Liberals and Conservatives can be, just more hypocritical and self-righteous about it. Happily, a rare fair minded government is finally in now and fired the lot of those sleazebags. Our old student rallies were held in the mall behind us.
Our old study carrels where we wrote many an essay. One semester during a major student revolt and strike I got behind on five term papers and had five days to meet their deadlines. I knocked off a paper a day and - to my amazement - got 4 Bs and a C! I was pleased to learn that Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives is ensconced in the library. That was a rather long essay, he laughs.
I was delighted to discover that a painting on display near the class concourse, by Betty Meyers called The Shoestring Experience, is of Saskatoon!
I could even see the area where The Dragon Lady and I live - just above the river and between the bridges! It served to bond me even closer to my old alma mater. Because of all the bursaries I received I'm leaving an endowment for more and a scholarship in anthropology.
Alas, The Cariboo pub - the Boo - where so many of us students poured many a glass of beer back is also gone. Time has been hard on all the old beer parlours. At least another likker store is in its place.
This house (lower picture) in upper Burnaby no longer stands either and that's fine. My post-grad year-long hiatus was spent here and I learned what it felt like to be dead broke. No fun. Money is tickets to all the rides in the world and we didn't have none. This is our wildly painted '62 Krautcan van, Donna and Stokely my dog. God, I loved that dog. However, we did do the mandatory Mexican trip in the van - where I became fascinated with Aztec archaeology.
I headed up the Sechelt Peninsula and for once the Sunshine Coast was just that.
Janet Steffenbagel and I kicked around in the early '80s when I researched one of my most widely published articles on the prairies, on Joe Began, Master Moonshiner Retires. She just retired herself days before from the Vancouver Sun, catching up to Adrian Young who packed in Finance in Ottawa a decade ago, and I’m pleased to see that she’s still a good looking broad. They built this fabulous log-and-stone property on several acres at Grantham’s Landing.
She popped for lunch at the old Beachcomber’s place in Gibson’s Landing before I headed further up to Halfmoon Bay.
Ling-Ling and I poured back a lotta beer at the old Cariboo pub. He went on to a career as chief negotiator for Indian Affairs in BC and he and Koko, a fashion designer, also built a fabulous property on a large acreage overlooking Georgia Strait. To keep amused in retirement he’s morphed into a local marriage commissioner - marrying people.
The view from their deck. Toontown gal Joni Mitchell lives directly below them on the shore. She’s one of the most down to earth, candid people I’ve met, while filtering everything consciously through an artistic prism. She also doesn’t photograph well – teeth everywhere. In real life, she’s attractive, relaxed, natural and spontaneous, deeply comfortable in her skin. I haven’t seen her in years so I didn’t go a knockin’, and I was on my own journey anyway. Just to the left a bit is the Lululemon guy, choppers flitting around like a herd of dragonflies.
Ling-Ling, Koko and I took in Canada Day in Sechelt.
Canada is a Disneyesque country where pigs ride horses though these oinkers had to hoof it on their hocks.
You can’t say they don’t have a sense of humour up here. I laughed about this ad for a local butcher shop for days.
I also visited Barb, with the most beautiful voice straight out of a person's core I've ever heard, in Sechelt, married to an old friend who I went to first year university with in Saskatoon in '64. Blair was a workaholic who worked a full time job besides co-owning Orca Brewery in town, and other interests. It was a helluva good beer. He didn't come home one night and was found croaked at his desk, while still in his 50s. The lesson is obvious.
I caught another ferry up to Powell River, then to Comox on Vancouver Island, and cruised down to Victoria. Here on Superior Street in old James Bay is where Wende and I lived the summer of '74 when I wrote one of my two training bra (unpublished) novels. I had resigned as Music Director to travel in Europe and write for a year and Dennis, my radio boss, signalled me that a position would open on my return. I'm fortunate in that I'm close to many of my old girl friends but Wende isn't amongst them. She's a dog doctor now and probably a good one, despite having trouble getting into Vet College because of low marks, as she was far more sensitive to lower mammals than hominids. Let's just say that it took me years to forgive myself for getting involved with someone like her and leave it at that. A mistake.
A lot of my early '70s musician friends from Toontown landed here, such as Gord Pendleton-Budd, who happily runs Gordie's Music. He's a major content guy drivin' a yellow Boxster, livin' his dream, and lovin' it. I stayed with him and Heather for a couple of days as I cruised old haunts around Victoria. In '74 the town was dead and most everyone living in it was close to being so too, but now it's a happening place with great vibes.
The Three Amigos. In the middle is ex-Humphrey and the Dumptruck's Graeme Card. He, Gord and Rosie formed The Chattering Class which recently disbanded. Gord and I used to hit the bars together in Toontown in the early '70s, and I wrote the review for his first album. In '72 Wende and I took over Graeme's great place on Broadway in Toontown when he moved to Toronto. When Gord was still in real estate in Toontown in the '70s, he sold me a house on Broadway he owned that Scoop rented from me.
In school my nickname was Skin, short for Skinny. Now, as I geezinate, I augmented it to Wrinkled Skin – and please meet Old Fat Mike, as he calls himself. We were in the same grade from 6 to 12 and the UofS and in everything together from Scouts to Drama to Cadets. When we had IQ tests done in Grade Eight Old Fat Mike had the highest score in the whole school my mother told me when I asked. He didn't know that until this trip. We sat up way too late drinking Laphroaig and remembering things we’d forgotten. When you've known someone that long - he was also glued to a transister radio when Mickey Mantle saved Don Larsen's perfect game back in that incredible '56 World Series by making that impossible running back, backhand catch - they’re no longer just friends, but rather are brothers. And that's Old Fat Mike. He’s CEO of an internet provider, & once negotiated land claims. When I asked if he knew Ling-Ling, who had done the same thing, the answer was yes! Actually, Charlotte the Harlot was acquainted with Ling-Ling too. Small world.
I've been around the world three times (and I'll be doing it for a fourth this winter incidentally) and the most beautiful 250 mile drive in the world hands down is through the Rockies on Canada's #1 between Canmore and Sicamous. And that's the route I took back.
And I got to see parts of it in detail.... A blocked highway lined traffic up for miles and hours not far from Craigellache.
That's where the Last Spike was hammered in 1885. I didn't make it to Calgary that day, but that's fine. I put up in Golden.
Once in Cowgary, uh, Calgary, I drove by the old family home. Mom bought it new in '69 and sold it just a couple of years ago to go live with my kid sister Karen in Regina where she's the curator of the Art Gallery of Regina. It still looks as spic-n-span as when she moved out. Lots of ghosts here....
The founder of the Cowgary based Humpty's restaurant chain is Don Koenig. I hadn't seen him since '74 but because of my sentimental journey, I decided to drop by his office unannounced. We were good friends in 1966 & '67 when we were 20 and at SFU. At a student stag off campus that fall the revelries spilled out into the street and the oinkers roared up and began shoveling students into the paddy wagons wholesale. They could get away with crap like that then. One of them scooped up was Don. The next morning a bemused judge adjudicated over a huge herd of dishevelled, hungover students who had spent the night piled in a heap in the drunk tank. In typical oinker fashion the arresting pig lied and grunted that Don was in the thick of it. I testified that he had been walking away from the "riot" and was half way across the street when the oinker had trotted up and grabbed him from behind (asshole pig didn't want to be left out arresting someone, anyone) and the judge tossed out his case. Don finally thanked me for saving him from becoming someone's bitch in Oakalla Penitentiary.
Here upon meeting, Don said I was sarcastic and I thought he was increasingly and insufferably Teutonically arrogant and full of himself, a classic case of short man's Napoleonic complex. Gawd, he took the translation of his Kraut name too seriously: King. The last time I visited him in '74 our relationship had sunk to the point where there was no subject we could find to talk about, he was obviously thoroughly bored and felt supremely superior to me (although at that time all he had was a sandwich kiosk). I had decided to play him, knowing there would be one topic that would surely grab his interest: Him. So I subtly interviewed him, like I would in radio, focusing attention on him - and he suddenly came alive. He straightened from his slouch and leaned forward, his eyes widened and flashed with life and fascination because here was a subject he could really sink his teeth into! One he just loved talking about! When I left his home that evening I didn't let him see the disgust on my face, and I never called again. But that was years ago, and we were probably both right - I was sarcastic and he was arrogant and boring - and he's now a good model for the dome-topped Humpty Dumpty himself and I'm a smelly, hairy old guy. We talked about old college mates. I told him about the time at SFU in early '67 when I was playing poker with mutual "friend" Bob Bennett, a scion of that wealthy Okanogan political dynasty, and Bob thought he had a hot hand but didn't have the $50 to hold the pot. I was opposite him with my cards and staked him his 50 - and as we laid down our cards, he withered when my hand beat his. Bob skipped out on that debt, and Don and I agreed that he was less than honourable (though we used more colourful terms). That $50 would be worth over $300 today and was a ton of money to a student, and to me if I would have lost. But, anyway, Don's done well for a college dropout, now up to 47 franchises in his Western Canadian chain. Business bores me, to me it's a means to an end, but to him it's a life. I've got him and his truly much better half Jan, another Toontown gal, thinking of visiting Thailand in the next couple of years as he shifts his life from the office to the pasture, where I look forward to whipping his ass at snooker again (it irked him that he never could beat me, being a highly competitive guy with that disgusting superiority complex) and I'll try to keep him from being chucked into a Thai monkey house. Like the Bangkok Hilton. Maybe.
One old friend I was disappointed I didn't get to see from SFU on my sentimental journey was Babs, who skipped Grade Twelve to fire right into university at age 16. Cute little blonde with a head full of brains. I wanted to return this poignant cartoon and inscription she gave me which I've saved for 46 years but, alas, I couldn't roust her. She and Don were an item for awhile.
While in Cowgary local Explorers Club members gathered at Prairie-NWT Regional Director Lil' Mur Larson's (at right, looking uncannily like a big garden gnome) place and I was greatly honoured by being presented by Murray with The Explorers Club's Stefansson Medal. L-R: Susan Eaton, Andy Hogg, Robyn Usher, Hairy Smelly Old Guy, Gord Currie, Garden Gnome. Lil' Mur's wife Patsy, who cooked a great meal, shot the picture. Gord brought his bottle of Shackleton's whisky and the Gnome even sprang for a jug of Lagavulin-16, knowing it's my favorite Scotch and despite the cost. It was truly a memorable evening. And thank you to you all for it.
"The Stefansson Medal is awarded to Jason B.R.M. Schoonover FE (Fellow Emeritus-Jason) ’86 of Saskatchewan ‘For outstanding service as Communication Director, literary contributions, leadership of wilderness exploration by canoe and ethnology in Asia.” John Pollack, our Chapter Chair, added: "As our Communications Director, Jason is the voice of the Chapter. He is a prolific author, ethnologist, and explorer who actively supported TEC and the Canadian Chapter, for more than a decade. Additionally he has led numerous Flag Expeditions in SE Asia."
When I got home after three weeks Madame Su suggested we have a few friends over so I slapped a chunk of dead camel on the barbie. She surprised me when it segued into a larger celebration. Thank you Su. (Photo by the brilliantly talented Natasha "The Beast" Yokoyama-Ramsay, a fresh graduate of photography school. And many thx to her old man, Chicken Legs, for fixing my website, Blah Blah recently screwed up.)
It was a nostalgic three weeks. Reflections as I drove the last leg back to Toontown via the badlands of Drumheller? I’ve shed a lot of, uh, Skins along the way but feel eminently comfortable in the one I'm in now. A lot of life is spent becoming and not enough just being.
I feel a deep satisfaction how life turned out. It often felt like pushing a boulder up a steep mountain but somehow I got the sucker up there and now I’m happily sliding down the fun slope on the other side. And actually have been for a lotta years. I feel very lucky. It’s amazing how the long arc of life, if visualized and mapped early - and with a bit of luck - can unfold if desire and focus is sufficient. You only get one run at life, so get all you can out of it and do it now. That philosophy has stood me well.
Other thoughts? Great friends are the cherries on the sundae of a great life, to use an awkward metaphor, and we’re blessed with more than our share (even if some are lawyers....). A few are in this much, much too long Blah Blah.
I’ve made some bad decisions with wimmen but mostly good. And one very good one was The Dragon Lady (looking bewildered when I surprised her with a forest of roses). In April we celebrated 25 years of being happily unmarried and it just gets better. But, of course, if you want the highest quality vehicle, TV, camera - or woman - you automatically pick up a Japanese model, right?
I'm also damned glad I returned to Saskatchewan in 1970. It's a relief to return to the still and quiet after all the people and pollution. Not just on the coast and Cowgary, but when I return each year from even more crowded Asia and elsewhere.
And particularly running back to Saskatoon. It's one of Canada's most beautiful cities - an oasis surrounded by hundreds of miles of grain fields keeping the crazies at bay. It's very easy to live here. It's eight minutes from everything. Rush hour is less than that. People are friendly. You can talk to anyone. The air is clean.
It's now 249,000, booming, and it's predicted there'll be a million in just 50 years. I'm damned glad I'll have moved on to the final adventure by then. I don't want to live in a place that big and the rest of the world is way too overpopulated already. But the Left Coast, the Wet West Coast, will always be a warm part of my life and I visit frequently. Toontown is provincial, it ain't culturally plugged into the New York, Paris and Bangkok circuit, and I like that. I get to them frequently anyway. (Oh, and I don't have to spend winters here - and I don't!)
I'm a prairie boy. The one Skin I'm still most connected with is this one, the 10-year-old kid with the slingshot in his back pocket and a bonehandled jacknife in his front. I know it's bonehandled, I still have them both, including the ball glove, I was a snappy Little League shortstop. And I still have the same boundless curiosity for the natural world. Those and his bike are all he needed to be happy as he burst out the screen door (letting it slam and a mother who didn't mind) seeking adventure and exploration. I'm still doing that and it feels exactly the same. I just had to go through several intermediate reincarnations to get set up before I could return to my childhood roots.
And the best is yet to come....
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!
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.
The Red Deer River Badlands Dinosaur Expedition
Paleontologist and 2012 Explorers Club Medallist Phil Currie was Field Leader and I was Team Leader on a 16-person dinosaur bone hunting expedition down Alberta's Red Deer River and badlands June 23 to July 2, 2012. Nine Explorers Club members and scientists converged from as far as Massachusetts, Atlanta, Washington state and Vancouver. This is Phil with wife and palynologist Eva Koppelhus, both in Explorers Club caps, and his son Devin.
Explorers Club Flag #176 was granted. The stated objectives of the expedition were:
*To search for new dinosaur sites, for potential excavation;
*Visit the Albertosaurus bone bed found by Barnum Brown in 1910;
*Attempt to locate the site where T.C. Weston found the paratype skull of Albertosaurus in 1895;
*Attempt to locate the purported second Albertosaurus bone bed that was found and partially excavated by George F. Sternberg in 1916;
*To relocate a quarry where C.M. Sternberg collected three skeletons of Ornithomimus in 1926.
As you'll see, we fulfilled most - including the most unlikely - and much more!
The key to being a successful team leader is to have fun and make sure everyone else does too - but that's easy because explorers are basically just big kids and so am I. Crack lots of jokes, preferably politically incorrect because explorers soar far above the petty, pathetic, prevailing winds blowing through society, and give everyone a fun river name. For example, L-R is Eva "The Danish Delight" Koppelhus, always exuding happiness and good cheer; vegetarian Julie "Meatless in Atlanta" Wallace; and Cathie "Dr. Spock" Hickson, a volcanologist like the other Dr. Spock, also a Vulcan. Behind sitting is Garth "Chicken Legs" Ramsay because, well, you gotta see his legs, pluck, pluck, pluuuuuuck. Oh, and launch with champagne! It's a Schoonover tradition to solicit virgins for the popping of the corks; failing that, as we always do, newbees to the brigade.
Also feed 'em first class - start with beef tenderloins. A happy stomach ensures a happy brigade.
The first step on the expedition was for P-Rex (Tyrannosaurus Phil was too long to say) to teach the neophytes how to develop a "search image" which he did with infinite patience, answering and re-answering basic questions he's heard 10 million times. Most don't know what a dinosaur bone looks like (although they're often standing on them) until shown, then it becomes obvious - thus is born the search image.
Then we scrambled over the badlands like ants on a hill. That's P-Rex climbing effortlessly towards the top, after someone discovered bones eroding out below. All seek the source.
Probably because I have a well developed search image after over 30 years of amateur bone hunting, I was fortunate in making several finds, such as this Albertasaurus tooth lying in situ on a hillock nearby. You can see the still sharp "steak knife" serrations of this smaller cousin to T-Rex.
P-Rex documenting and collecting it. By The Danish Delight's (Dee Dee for short) right toe is a large bone, perhaps associated.
This section of river has the highest concentration of dino bones on the planet and is unique in revealing the last ten million years of their existence before the famous KT Boundary, which marks their demise. We concentrated on 50 miles of river, from McKenzie Crossing to Drumheller, arguably the most dramatic and beautiful portion. During this run we descended from the KT boundary itself 65.5 million years ago back further in time. I've never been on a river with so much bird - those living dinosaurs - life. Which was to the Gov's delight, he being a birder. If this panorama appears wonky to you it's because one of us were into the champagne.
This landmark signalled that the KY Boundary (as one wag anointed it) (ahem) was just downstream. We men wouldn't have noticed this unusual formation but for the women on their knees in the mud along the river bank worshipping something.
The climb to the KY was something else because of the steep slopes, raging wind and moist bentonite, so slippery when wet it's used in everything from soap to drilling mud. The Dragon Lady's expression is telling about that climb and fierce wind. Helluva view from up here though. P-Rex said it was the first time he's been here from the river. From the prairie level, it's just a short stroll down and that's the normal, sane route.
Note P-Rex with shovel.
Long on my bucket list has been to see the actual demarkation, which P-Rex is pointing to.
The KT Boundary marks the end of the Cretaceous, or the Age of the Dinosaurs, and the beginning of the Tertiary, or Age of Mammals. Consisting of fractured quartz and iridium, a rare element on earth but common in meteorites, it was deposited in a worldwide layer by the asteroid which splashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, darkening skies up to four months, and ruining everyone's vacation in Cancun. I collected a sample to study under our microscope.
Although it's widely believed that this asteroid was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs, P-Rex finds that dinosaurs were already mysteriously dying off during the last 10 million years of their 170 million year run. During this 10 million year period they reduced from 45 species found in Dinosaur Provincial Park (with the highest concentration of bones anywhere, and 120 miles downstream and further back in time) to only 25 near the top, closer to the Boundary. Indeed, there are no dinosaur bones at all in the final three meters before reaching the KT Boundary! It leads one to conclude that the dinos were not only already dying off but may, indeed, have been toast before the asteroid hit. Or, at most, it merely struck the final blow.
The flags - including our friend Milbry Polk's Wings WorldQuest - at the Boundary. Wings promotes women in exploration. P-Rex's legs (mind you, they're long) are in the Cretaceous while the rest of him and us are in the Tertiary. P-Rex & Dee
Dee, Dr. Spock, Capt. Hook and Milbry all contributed to Adventurous Dreams, Adventurous Lives. Want to meet and hang with interesting people? Write a book about 'em. Oh, and do field work in one of the ologies so you can be elected to The Explorers Club.
The Dragon Lady and I - each with one foot in the Cretaceous and the other in the Tertiary! Bloody wind is damned near blowing us off, back to the river 12-15 million years back in time.
So steep was the climb that P-Rex wisely cut steps in the steepest portions descending. Going down is always more dangerous than ascending.
Tired of waiting is Capt. Hook aka Captain Norm Baker, Thor Heyerdahl's (remember Kon-Tiki?) best friend, first mate, celestial navigator and radioman on the reed boat expeditions Ra, Ra-II and Tigris, on his fifth adventure with The Dragon Lady and I. Capt. Hook, so named for his reputation snagging Saskatchewan while fishing, is on the Board of Directors of The Explorers Club in New York. He's fearless, bursting with curiosity, the compleat adventurer and explorer. He flies out each year in his Cessna 172 Skyhawk.
After a climb like that, we're ready to kick back.
Back in the field, everyone brought their finds to the bone guru for identification. This was another old quarry site.
The more recent ones were marked thusly, though erosion sometimes left them standing on rods a meter high. We sought out several old quarries not mentioned in the Objectives, but weren't able to pinpoint one, although P-Rex had a GPS bearing. Yahoos had apparently absconded with the marker.
Back in camp, the daily ritual of examining the day's finds. Everyone was always laughing, cracking jokes and having way too much fun. I have to put a damper on this in the future. A team leader doesn't want people to be too happy. It's just not proper.
I found a digit from a bird-mimic or ornithomimus. We didn't find too much up at this higher elevation of the river, close to the KY Boundary, but that was to be expected. Mostly we picked up a lot of Tim Bits, like you see on the table. (Tim Bits for you not fortunate to be Canuck are the holes in donuts sold at Tim Horton's, a famous coffee chain up here.) The large chunk is fossilized wood with carbonization still bearing growth rings, evidence of seasons loooong past. Dee Dee will saw this and study them under the microscope.
Fulfilling one of our goals was another climb, this time to Barnum Brown's 1910 Albertasaurus bone bed in Dry Island Buffalo Jump Provincial Park which P-Rex found from this century old photo in 1997. In true explorer fashion, he discovered the site the very last day of that expedition, floating down the river on a replica barge of Brown's. It was broiling hot: 42C. Everyone had all but run out of water but gave P-Rex their last dregs so he could go on one last search. He ran out and was suffering from heat exhaustion - legs cramping on the descent - when he finally discovered the site. He and Dee Dee spent 12 seasons excavating it, which revealed 12 to 26 skeletons (depending on how you count them) scattered along an ancient flood wash for 500 meters. A herd with everything from adults to youngsters had been caught in a catastrophic flood event, complete with log jams. It was the first site in the world to indicate gregarious, or social, behavior amongst raptors. In other words - a major site.
Explorers Club expeditioneers with the same background 2012, from L-R: Cathie "Dr. Spock" Hickson; Northwest Pacific Chapter Chair Capt. Lynn "Snorkel Master" Danaher; Phil "P-Rex" Currie; Eva "The Danish Delight" Koppelhus; Board of Directors member Capt. Norm "Hook" Baker; Jason "Capt. Magnus Twat" Schoonover; Atlanta Chapter Chair and Chapters VP "Governor" Alex Wallace; Julie "Meatless in Atlanta" Wallace; & James "Tipper" Anthony. With Flag # 176, a veteran of numerous expeditions around the world over numerous decades.
You're perhaps wondering where I got my river name. It's in honour of a highly respected but unknown member of the Hudson Bay Company during the fur trade. From 1771-1801 he worked mostly at Cumberland House, the first settlement in Saskatchewan and only 70 air miles from the small town where I was brought up. He died while paddling up the Carrot River, which my home town is named after, thus the connection. Although the Orkney family now spell the name as Twatt, in HBCo Journals, it's with a single 't' and that's how I spell it. Kim Twatt, author of Full Circle, is an honoured member of our Voyageur List.
On the climb down darned if I didn't spot another beautiful Albertosaurus tooth (left) - and right on the very trail we had all trodden going up! P-Rex, nearby, was hailed and he hurried over, immediately spotting a matching one only two feet away (though, ahem, his was broken). With the most delicate of care, he moved soil away from around mine with a leatherman blade before carefully wrapping each in tissue. He has grad students at the University of Edmonton who specialize in different areas of toothology, let's call it, and they'll examine them. That's the biggest and best example I've ever found. Teeth are always premier finds. It's incredible how perfectly they're preserved after 70 million years.
Then it was back on the river and down to the next site. The river was high and fast from heavy, continuous June rains, which was to our advantage as it turned out.
It sped us along like a conveyor belt, but had receded enough to expose campsites. The wild weather had me major concerned throughout June though - I feared a disaster - but we lucked out.
Well, except for one late afternoon and night. But we had a ball throwing up the tarps, and we had lots of the finest wine available in boxes along.
A brainwave of mine I have to show you. Finding rocks along the river for firepits I knew was going to be a problem so I came up with trailer stanchions - and they worked fabulously. I remember only too well several years ago poor Neal "Sits-in-a-canoe" Pennycook on the swampy Mudjatik River (one Joe Tyrrell hated, more on him later) spending a half hour a day sweating, swearing and sawing thick, living pine for firepits. These lightweight aluminum jobs I'll carry in our black bag from now on on wilderness trips. Brilliant, I must say. I only wish I could reach my back so I could pat it.
This was from another quarry, from 1959, we located, a Hadrasaur dig. As always, P-Rex was interested in determining if it should be re-opened. The Danish Delight also found T-Rex bones and broken teeth. I'm embarrassed to say I had just checked that very section - you can see her on the ledge bending over the spot - but her search image is obviously far more finely honed than mine. Even if she is a girl.
It was a particularly beautiful area. I love the badlands. I'm sure Gaudi and Disney must have celestial permission to work their wonders on the magical formations.
What a great job. Getting to play in the dirt like kids for a living. And they know how fortunate they are, which is great too.
The Danish Delight studying Tim Bits people piled up on this convenient hoo doo.
But when I found, in the top right hand corner, a vertebra on the top ledge and then a large bone growing out of the matrix just below the grass line, P-Rex's disappointment was palpable. With little overburden, there couldn't be many bones left. Nix this site. The brown detritus in the foreground are tailings from the 1959 dig.
So we mounted up and moved 'em out. And downward (the river) and upward (the badlands) to our greatest discovery!
The most important objective we fulfilled was this - finding the site of George Sternberg's long lost 1916 dig. He had taken out a lot of the big bones, now unfortunately lost - but there were still bones, bones, bones everywhere! The Danish Delight immediately discovered a skull case! "I'll bet it won't take Phil long to get up here," she laughed as he heard the news and swivelled his head in our direction. And there were bones from Hadrosaur, Triceratops and T-Rex! P-Rex isn't given to overt excitement but his eyes were gleaming and his grin was coast-to-coast. He shot a camera load of jpgs and hurried us along before we contaminated the site. (An amateur had located it, providing coordinates, thus proving the value of amateurs in paleontology.) This one is sure to be re-opened.
It was a find to cheer about!
P-Rex and Dee Dee had to leave two days early for a fund raiser but they pointed us to another large area to investigate - and here I hit paydirt.
Between Capt. Hook and I are at least two large bones, unfortunately badly degraded, but there's gotta be more inside.
Like this one which grew out of the matrix and in excellent shape.
Everything and much more was lying on a horizon from The Dragon Lady, through Capt. Hook and the hairy one to Chicken Legs - and back up both gullies bordering, which were also loaded with bone, often healthy and indicating things are going on in this toe. I'm not concerned that you'll find it from this shot. As The Dragon Lady and Good Yoko say about us foreign devils: we all look alike. And so do the badlands. I was damned excited though. I've sent the jpgs to P-Rex and taken the GPS coordinates.
Unbelievably, Meatless found this in situ on the site! And gave it to me! Unlike the Dimetrodon - the "dino" - that P-Rex pulled out of a Rice Krispies box when he was six that launched his lifelong fascination, my Stegosaurus is a real dinosaur (even if it wandered out of the Jurassic). I'll keep mine in a like place of honour though.
We finished up in Drumheller, one of the most colourful, unique towns in Canada. Kinda reminds me of Moab, but with dinosaurs, like Phee Phee here, wandering around looking for handouts.
A visit to the Royal Tyrrell Museum was a given. They were going to call it the House of Currie but they thought that might confuse people into thinking it was a restaurant so they settled on Joseph Tyrrell's name instead. It was appropriate. He was the first whitey to discover a dino skeleton along the river, back in the 1880s. As Dee Dee, who studies fossilized pollen, laughed to me a year ago while on a field trip: "I can put all my finds in a pill box but Phil needs a whole bloody museum for his." It's one of the most important dino museums in the world with almost half a million visitors annually..
Everyone checked into the Ramada, left bathtub rings an inch thick, then strolled next door to O'Shea's and a private room for our blow out. Our guests were Sonny Long Legs and museum techies Darren and Patty Tanke, Patty having been one of our shuttle drivers. They were thoughtful enough to bring us a case of cold beer when they picked up P-Rex and Dee Dee. I don't think it was a fair trade. They should have brought two cases.
Many thanks to whomever of you surreptitiously picked up Su's and my dinner bills, much appreciated. And to the Gov and Meatless; Snorkel Master; and Ostrich Legs and Tiny Tush for the single malts. They are also very, very, very much appreciated. Again, people are too damned happy and laughing too much. Gotta find a way to dampen spirits. Just not Presbeterian behavior or however the hell it's spelled.
The Badlands Brigade Class Picture L-R standing: Garth "Chicken Legs" Ramsay, Lorrie "Tiny Tush" Hanson; Martin "Ostrich Legs" Stockwell; Cathie "Dr. Spock" Hickson; James "Tipper" Anthony; Bev "Flasher" Pavelich; Su "The Dragon Lady" Hattori: filthy hippie who wandered into pic; Capt. Lynn "Snorkel Master" Danaher; "Governor" Alex Wallace, Julie "Meatless in Atlanta" Wallace; Capt. Norm "Hook" Baker. L-R sitting: Phil "P-Rex" Currie, Kumiko "Good Yoko" Yokoyama, Devin "Sonny Long Legs" Currie. MIA photographer Eva "The Danish Delight" Koppelhus.
To repeat what I said as I rose at dinner raising my glass to make the shortest speech of my life: Thanks for coming!
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.