Ascent of Long’s Peak

Last month I went up to the top of Long’s Peak. This is the dominant Mountain in the area of Rocky Mountain National Park at 14,259’  https://www.nps.gov/romo/planyourvisit/longspeak.htm,   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longs_Peak   

In the summer, mountaineers begin their ascents as early as 2am to be sure to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms that are common, but in the fall the thunderstorms are few. I left home at 4am and was on the trail at 5, beginning at 9,200’. I hiked for a couple hours with a headlight until first light came just as I left tree line, having gained 2,000’ of elevation.

sunrise from treeline

The wind was stiff as the red sun rose among clouds and smoke.

Plodding along on what was, in areas, an excellently crafted stone path (see: https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/716972245564586), I passed a woman, then a man.  My plan was to refill my water bottle (I carry a UV light to kill microbes, instead of carrying lots of water) in an area of talus aptly called “the boulderfield.” But the water level had dropped since I was there in the summer, so I had to retrace my steps back to water deep enough to fill my bottles for the ascent, and the man and woman both passed me. The wind got stronger. Soon I had my long underwear on, with gloves and raincoat hood drawn tight, a belly-full of water and one-and-a-half liters to carry. When I hit “the keyhole” pass, the wind was howling through it. I took out the shoulder strap I had made for this trip, and slung my 5’ hickory staff over my shoulder so I could use both of my hands. In the pass I caught up with the two ahead of me. The guy was “DJ” a roughneck from the oilfields of Wyoming. The woman was Jelena, a mountaineer from Serbia. There was no decision or agreement made, but we began traveling as a trio, traversing the steep north slope of the peak; so steep that a slip and fall would mean death or worse. Once completing that section, we ascended a steep couloir, made difficult because the early snow of 10 days prior had not melted in this shaded chute. This ascent gave us most of the elevation to the summit.

Jelena and DJ traversing the East face

Next we had to traverse the East face on ledges across cliff faces to get to the final ascent up a crack in the steep granite wall of the East face. At 14,000 feet the oxygen is sparse, and after 7.5 miles and over 5,000′ of elevation gain, the thighs burn as you are forced to make long steps to the next foothold.

looking to the northeast while ascending the granite face to the summit
the crack that leads to the summit

The top of a mountain is always fairly uneventful for me, because there is no photographic composition to be made.

see a video on the peak: https://www.facebook.com/TheGraniteAvatarsOfPatagonia/videos/689754581637511

The wind was gusting to 60 mph, so we looked around a bit, got a bite to eat, and began the long trip back to the trailhead. In the 10 minutes of sitting on a boulder, my thighs had stiffened significantly, making the descent of the steep section more difficult that they should have been. It was a long 7.5 miles back to the trailhead. Our trio split up once we got down the coulior, and after the keyhole, survival was guaranteed as long as you put one foot in front of the other for a few hours. I hit the trailhead just before 5pm, and drove to the Knotted Root Brewery in the little mountain town of Nederland to ease the fatigued thighs with a world-class unfiltered IPA, and met DJ there for a celebratory pint.

It is quite a mountain–about all I’d want to do without ropes. in fact, people die on it every year when the slip and fall in a bad spot. but it’s a beautiful mountain. Albert Bierstadt recognized this an painted its portrait:

Bierstadt’s Long’s Peak


The Summer of the Shovel

I’m back from two months on my property in Alaska. My time was spent working hard to dig a water catchment pond and dam, dig a 5’ deep hole under the old cabin and a trench to allow a 1,000 gallon tank to slide into it. I also dug turf from a two-foot-wide border around my buildings and filled the space with washed gravel (wildfire protection).  It was “The Summer of the Shovel”. Even though I was in decent shape before, (I had won the Denver Indoor Rowing Championship in February) my body went through some uncomfortable reorganizing to be able, at the end, to shovel dirt into a wheelbarrow and move it around the land for 7 hours straight. My hands are so calloused so that I cannot feel things like hair or tissue paper. I am lean and wiry, and my spirit renewed.

As every other year, I was once again thrilled with the view of the mountains and glaciers across the bay and the dynamics of the weather upon them, thrilled to listen to the biophany of bird songs at 4am in the peak of nesting season, thrilled to be able to harvest wild vegetables every day for my meals, and thrilled to experience the wilderness just beyond the edge of my little development of cabins and sheds. I witnessed a big black bear capturing a moose calf (I was chased my the frustrated mamma moose), and a bald eagle pouncing upon a snowshoe hare and taking off with the prey in its talons. Various birds landed beside me as I sat on my balcony, giving me smiles and goosebumps.

Video: The Biophany at my Alaska Cabin

Here is a collection of photos from this summer, all captured from my balcony

(prints are available upon request):








Nunataks of the Dixon





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Clouds over the throneroom





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Storm on the Throne


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Midnight Moon







Canoeing the Adirondack Autumn


“Raquette Reflections”

It has been a bit of a drought for outdoor adventures due to my acceptance of a job managing the installation of 400,000 square feet of tile on a project just outside on New York City.  I was there for over 7 months, and only took weekends off. Most of those summer weekends were spent in my home town on the South Jersey beach, playing in the warm ocean and hanging out with my old rowing partner Kevin McFadden, and other friends from lifeguard days in the late 70s.


 My new partner, Don McEachern, and I took 2nd in the Alumni Race (Kevin beat us)

But as the project neared completion I was able to get away for a long weekend in the Adirondack Mountains of New York with Lauren who lives in Vermont. She wanted to canoe there, as we did 10 years ago. On that trip we paddled a series of lakes, portaging between them and making a 4-day loop. This time I wanted to paddle a river. The many river trips of my life have all been one-way, due to the flow, and so they require shuttle-driving between the put-in and take-out (sometimes hundreds of miles), but I found a slow-flowing river that allowed us to put-in and take-out at the same spot.

So we paddled up the Raquette River. This took a little focus and intention to make headway by staying out of the current. Having read many stories of the adventurers of the last few centuries who routinely paddled upriver as well as down, it was an interesting experience. We were six miles upriver in less than three hours. There we found a quiet lean-to just below a long stretch of rapids and falls which ended the possibility of up-river travel except by the tedious work of lining the boat from shore and portaging around each of the falls.


Canoes are cargo vessels, especially the lake canoe which we were paddling, so provisions were plentiful for an enjoyable Italian dinner. Wet wood made a fire something that needed constant tending and fanning (the cutting board was an ideal flame-fanner)

The next morning we hiked up a few miles along the fast water and enjoyed the remote forest in the early stages of fall color. It was a Monday, not a soul was around.

The float downriver was easy and peaceful. I enjoyed watching the reflections of the foliage in the glassy river, and watching the river bottom slide by. A black bear was swimming mid-stream as we rounded a bend, and it burst out of the water and up the bank with that bear speed that looks effortless, but is awesome once you look at what the animal just did, and imagine how long it would take you to do the same.


kingfishers and red-brested nuthatches, chickadees and blue jays, warm autumn sun, the smell of wet leaves, and the delight of the colors on the trees. The silence of the canoe passing over the river bottom, leaves drifting crazily off the trees after a puff of wind.




Unexpected Old Growth Forests in Autumnal Foliage

I just drove about 6,000 miles, from San Francisco up to the Columbia River, and then crossing the country, with stops in Colorado, Vermont, New Jersey and North Carolina.

On the way I hiked in the woods, beginning with my favorite redwood hike in Prairie Creek State park.


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I wasn’t thinking of fall color because I knew I’d be hitting Vermont after the colors had peaked, but I was in for many surprises. The first of these was the intense color of the underbrush of the old growth coniferous forest at the crest of the Cascades in Oregon.

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I crossed hundreds of miles of high plains sage in Idaho and semi-arid scrub in Utah, and when I visited my favorite put-in of all whitewater rivers, Deerlodge Park on the Yampa River in NW Colorado, I was surprised that I was lucky to catch the riparian old growth cottonwood groves in peak color.

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Further on, after passing Steamboat Springs I was in the Rockies enjoying the brilliance of the aspen groves on mountainsides of dark coniferous forests.

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When the road passed through an aspen grove, I’d stop and walk through the splendor.

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It was a long haul from Colorado to Vermont, and the forests of the midwest, East of the Mississippi were not memorable. Even when I got to the hills of Eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, the colors were not impressive. New York had a few nice groves along the thuway, but the western edge of Vermont was well past peak color, cold and rainy.

Southward, New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway was a pleasant surprise, as was I-95 south through Delaware and Maryland. I decided to detour into the Shenandoah of Virginia, and was rewarded not only with some beautiful color, but with occasional groves of old growth Eastern Hardwood Forest.

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This brought back great memories of college days when I spent so many autumn weekends in the Appalachians. Old growth forest is rare in the Northeast, but my school of agriculture and environmental science had its own majestic grove of huge oaks, maples, ashes, hickories, sweet gums and more of the many species of the East. After school I spent one fall walking through Vermont and have fond memories of old growth beech forests–massive elephant-skin trunks in an atmosphere and carpet of yellow leaves. These can no longer be found. Because they are so rare, the mature Eastern Hardwood forests probably fill my heart more than it did the painters of the Hudson River School, who have had such an influence on my eye as well as my heart.

Imagine then, what I thrill it was to discover the abundant old growth forests of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. I had never been in this area before, and I had assumed old growth forests were as rare here and anywhere else in the East. Indeed, the maps I’ve seen of the last vestiges of virgin forests in the United States have never shown anything in the Southern Appalachians. I had my mind blown by the extent of mature stands of trees with a diversity beyond anything I’ve ever seen in North America. Species of the North, like Maples, grow in the shady north-facing coves, while on South-facing slopes I saw my first huge mature ancients of Southern species like Sassafras. There are well over a hundred species here.

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It turns out that there are over 100,000 acres of virgin forests in the Southern Appalachians. ( https://www.blueridgeoutdoors.com/magazine/july-2005/ancient-appalachia-the-southeasts-old-growth-forests/ )

The first question that comes to mind is “Why?’ I assume these areas escaped the pressures that the industrialization of the North put on those forests. Also, these Southern species tend to be softer and not preferred woods for shipbuilding.

They can tower 125 feet tall, with trunk diameters of 4 feet or more, like this majestic oak:


But even the areas of younger trees had a charm:


Maybe it was because they were enchanted, or maybe it was me that had been enchanted.



Blog readers are welcome to buy prints of these photographs at a holiday discount of 50% until December 15. Because I am on the road, I cannot sign the prints. They will be shipped to you directly from the printer. the discount prices are:

11×14″ $78,          16×20″ $150,             24×30″  $225.              tall aspen photo, 8×16″  $70.

Not all photos an be printed at any size. Please email me to inquire: tomreed@mcn.org



Backpacking in the High Sierras

I was so busy at my job from 7/1/17 to 6/1/18 that I never was able to take a vacation day. So I decided that after I left work on June first, I’d go to Alaska for a few months, then I’d take an extended backpacking trip in the High Sierras. I had the idea of hiking from Bridgeport to Lone Pine–surely a great trip—an I applied for a permit that would allow me to cross Donohue Pass, just south of Tuolumne Meadows, but I did not win a permit in the daily lottery on any of the 14 days I entered my name. So I decided to enter the mountains just south of that pass, from the June Lake area, but in the spring I was working hard all week and moving out of my apartment on weekends, so didn’t have time to plan the trip. What needs to be planned?  The resupplying of food and a few other things like batteries. No big deal, I thought, I’ll pull it together once I arrive in the Owens Valley, on the east side of the Sierras. But after a couple days in the towns along Highway 395 I realized I had to shift to plan C. I couldn’t get a single horse or mule packer to take a supply of food into the mountains for me. Back-country lodges who offer resupply services to thru-hikers require that you mail them your provisions at least 3 weeks in advance.

Well, I’ve seen most of the country I was going to hike–been on most of the trails already. Plan C: go hike some sections of trail I’ve never seen.

My first hike began at South Lake, West of Bishop. The route would take me over Bishop pass (11,972’), down to LeConte Canyon, Northward, over Muir pass and into Evolution Valley, and then up the Piute Canyon heading Eastward and over Piute pass to North Lake. I would then try to hitchhike back to South Lake. It would be a 56 mile route if I didn’t deviate from the trail, but I wanted to explore the high lakes near Piute pass. So it would be 60 miles in 6 days.  Just right.

The first day retraced the route that I hiked in 2010 with Lauren and Dan–over the pass and into Dusy Basin. Dusy is such a beautiful setting—many small lakes at the feet of granite peaks—that on the last trip we laid over for a day and explored the basin and the high granite beyond it to the south without backpacks. This time I blew right through to the West end of the basin, trying to get some miles to allow me to be near Muir Pass the next day. Notable during the hike was the collection of about 15 deer carcasses in the talus just below the pass. I’m guessing they gathered on a cornice in winter and the cornice broke. They fell and the cornice toppled on them burying them in snow. After the hot summer all that was left was bones, some dried and hardened sinew being picked by ravens, and a little fur.

I found a good camp at the lowest lake of the basin as light rain began. A few aspirin helped me sleep with the elevation headache that I expect–a guy from sea level arrives to the Sierras and carries a pack over an 12,000’ pass.


Dusy Basin

The morning light was good, and I got a few photos before I descended to LeConte. That descent was so beautiful (again) that it made me a little mountain drunk and I took a brief video of the experience:

And that was before descending into the grove of huge, ancient Junipers that made Lauren cry on the last trip. There trees are spectacular and have stood on these slopes for many centuries.

At the bottom of the canyon I hit the Pacific Crest Trail (also the John Muir Trail) and turned North instead of the South turn we made last time. Heading into new country, I hiked for a few hours among thick-trunked old growth pines with sheer granite walls overhead. Eventually the forest dwindled as I gained elevation and in the late afternoon I was hiking in a barren rock landscape towards Muir Pass (11,955’). There is a series of lakes on the approach to the pass, and they are surrounded with talus, so tent sights are few and far between. A hiker who was descending told me he saw a good camp on a hogsback between the trail and the stream about a half-mile ahead, and I was looking forward to dropping my pack. When I got there another hiker had taken the site. I pushed on to the next lake which was in a bowl of talus and had no place to camp. I dropped my pack and looked all over, finally finding a flat rock just big enough for my tent. It had a bunch of marmot shit on it, and a puddle of water from last night’s rain right in the middle of it, but it looked good to me. 

In the morning I was over the pass within an hour of breaking camp. This pass features a stone hut with an igloo-like dome roof. It was built in 1930 for hikers to take refuge if needed. 

Down I went, through Evolution Valley, where the granite is more broken and fractured than I had hoped. Funny how we respond to the aesthetic quality of unbroken granite; its resistance to erosion, its clean lines. I was reminded of the forward that Thomas Campbell wrote for Moved By A Mountain. 

This basin has many features named by John Muir: lakes named for his daughters (how did he support them if he was out screwing around in the mountains all the time?) and peaks named for scientists with insights about evolution.

After about 11 or 12 miles, I wandered through the woods, way off the trail to the edge of Evolution Creek and made camp on a smooth granite bench beside a small waterfall.


Evolution Creek

A big tree fell in the middle of the night.

In the morning it was onward to low elevation along the creek, only to turn up Piute Canyon and make for the high pass. I am always trying to travel light, and water is heavy, so if I think I can get water ahead, I will allow myself to run out of the life-giving liquid. Sometimes I make a mistake. The big side-valley on the north side of Piute Creek  had been baked by the sun all summer and was bone dry. I was parched by the time I hit water about 4 miles into the ascent. I drank a liter and refilled for the rest of the day’s  ascent. I positioned myself for the off-trail exploring the next day, and made camp by Piute Creek, well below tree line. Besides the beauty of being in old-growth forests of pines and aspens, and being able to get more oxygen from the air, there are two good things about the low country in the valleys between the high granite of these mountains. One is the ability to have a fire at night, the other is the ability to bathe in the streams (the water and air are a bit warmer, making it tolerable). This year all fires were prohibited, but I got clean two nights in a row.

On day five I approached Piute Pass (11,9460’), but left the trail a half-mile before the pass to cross a tundra valley, and scramble up talus to the shore of Muriel Lake, and from there on up to Goethe Lakes, a pair of tarns sitting in a cirque with the same name. As the sun lowered, the views from the ridge above the lake were rewarding. The granite walls of Goethe Cirque were well-lit.


Goethe Cirque

And Mt. Humphreys, to the North, took on a glow:


Mount Humphreys from camp in Goethe Cirque

My last day was an easy descent to Piute pass and on down to North Lake. I got lucky and was back at my van at the South Lake parking lot an hour after hitting the road, thanks to a pair of kind drivers.

After a few days of eating in Bishop, including the traditional steak at the bowling alley and a few fine ales at the new brewery, Mountain Rambler, I was ready for another hike. 


from the Pine Creek trailhead

A bartender at the brewery became my friend, and he recommended the country above Pine Creek. It was a good idea. I had no set plan of travel. The idea was to ramble around the high granite and lakes in the area. I went up into the Granite Park area, but drifted off trail towards an inviting pass where I made camp at 11,800’ on the shore of the upper Royce Lake.

At this elevation the sky on a clear day is dark blue, and if I had better eyesight I could probably see stars.

Before my dinner of instant mashed potatoes and butter and jerky, I reconnoitered the next pass to the North and found it passable. So in the morning, after a night under the brilliant full moon, I traversed the talus and slid through the pass on a snowfield, and descended into the Granite Park, an impressive amphitheater. I was on a mission to cross two more passes that day, so I didn’t linger. I had lunch in the lee of a big boulder in Italy Pass, in the NW corner of the “park”, at about 12,000’. The wind was stiff and chilly, so I didn’t hang out long. Through the pass, I immediately traversed the talus bowl around Rubble Lake to walk through the pass to White Bear lake to the South, and then to the shores of Black Bear Lake, which is nestled up against the west side of the wall that forms the west side of Granite Park. Here was my camp, at 11,600’, and I had time to go explore the neighboring lakes, all with bear names. These are the Bear Lakes, at the Eastern foot of the majestic peak called Seven Gables. 

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Seven Gables from Black Bear Lake

There is a pass from Black Bear Lake into the Granite Park, and it looks like a cakewalk from the lake, but having been through the park the day before, I knew it was very steep on the other side, and I was working on deciding where to go in the fine morning. The other passes in the area all lead to valleys that drop below tree line, and I didn’t want to leave the high country, so I decided to negotiate that steep pass. I was on no mission this day, so it was a lazy morning, and only a one-hour ascent to the pass—easy, at times following deer prints in the scree which gave me confidence. If deer can do it, I can. Another lunch in a pass (cheese and jerky). I walked along the top of a tiny glacier (the remnants of a much bigger one on the map) hanging in the pass, trying to see what challenges were below, and I couldn’t see. It was that steep. But off to the North side I found a route through the steep talus and scree, and took it, slow and steady, for an hour until I was able to traverse out of what was a very wide couloir, and on to a ridge that led back into the “park.” I was crossing the bottom of the amphitheater when I turned around to see the granite spires beyond a nearby small waterfall, and was stunned. What a gorgeous place! Why go anywhere else? It was only noon, but I dropped my pack. This would be my camp. I wrapped my pack in my silver groundcloth and took off to see the rest of the amphitheater.


Camp (tent at right) in Granite Park

After all this time in the high country I had produced more hemoglobin to carry every bit of oxygen that I could grab out of the thin air, and with no pack I felt good scrambling around the big basin, but when I climbed the central knoll, I was still breathing hard—“Sucking the wind”, we used to say as oarsmen. I typically breathe like Darth Vader if I’m ascending a slope at over 12,000’.

The view from the knoll was impressive:

My camp was stunning, at the base of a granite outcropping, with a large tundra meadow carved by deep rivulets of pure water, home to young trout. Wandering about the meadow, I enjoyed the last sun of the day and got in bed once that heat source was gone and the temperature dropped. I was up at midnight though to enjoy the moonshine that lit the park well.

By morning the slow-moving sections of the rivulets were capped with ice, and the meadows were alive with flocks of pipits looking for breakfast. 

After breakfast I was almost out of food, so I walked about 10 miles and descended about 3,500’ to the trailhead, with great pleasure. See video:

My lunch spot was a sweet crossing of Pine Creek that, lower down, tumbled off steep slopes of granite. I sold books in the trailhead parking lot, and took the money to Bishop to buy food and ale at Mountain Rambler. 

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An ancient juniper overlooking the Owens Valley

I was running out of time before my school started in September, but had a few days to spare, so I decided to hike up to Mono Pass from the Mosquito Flats trailhead, which is way up a road from Tom’s Place. This was an easy hike up to Ruby Lake, where I dropped my pack, and then a steady climb to the pass (10,600’).

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The ascent to Ruby Lake

In the pass there is a small lake that has good water. From there I ascended the ridge between the pass and the Fourth Recess. Years ago, on another backpacking trip with Dan and Lauren, we camped at the Fourth Recess and explored Pioneer basin. We entered the mountains from Lake Thomas Edison, about 15 miles to the west, down Mono Creek. It was interesting to look down on all that country, and so much of the country to the North to study the lay of the land. in the distance were the Minarets, which I wrote about in this blog just a couple years ago. See video:

 back at the lake I had a little bivouac in some small firs on a granite ledge overlooking the glacial tarn, and watched trout breaking the surface for bugs at sunset. See video:


I would hike out the next day and make my way back to the Bay Area, making the traditional stop at the Iron Door Saloon, the oldest continually operating saloon in California, for their spicy “Rimfire Burger” and a local IPA.

The high granite is medicine for my soul that makes me feel more alive, fills me with appreciation for this planet, and appreciation for my strong body.  The views are stunning, but when you’ve spent so much time up there that you no longer get stunned, its time to leave.


The Aleutians

It’s not often that a guy gets a job because he rowed lifeguard surfboats through the waves, and rafted many whitewater rivers. Alaska Maritime Expeditions needed someone to drive an inflatable skiff to take marine biologists from the 72’ steel hull Puk Uk to stellar sea lion rookeries in the Aleutian Islands. I was recommended for the job, and though I have more hours in oared boats than in motorized, I got the job.

I flew to Dutch Harbor, where we began a 900 mile round-about sojourn back to Homer, visiting rookeries and haul-outs along the way so that the biologists could track the many animals that they had branded.

See video on GAP facebook page:


I have surfed beside stellar sea lions out on the wild coast of Northern California, so being close to these beasts was to be nothing new, but I was hoping to photograph the fantastic volcanoes of the archipelago, and maybe I’d get the thrill of seeing a walrus.

The Aleutians sit on the downstream side of a tectonic subduction zone; the Aleutian Trench–a 2400’ deep arching crease in the floor of the North Pacific. Here the sea floor is being thrust Northward and slides under the floor of the Bearing Sea. Once down in the Earth’s boiler room, some of the crust boils back up to the surface to form cones of basalt. These are the chain of islands; a necklace of volcanoes in various states of erosion. Those in the Eastern half of the chain are sitting on top of the continental shelf–relatively shallow water

But the wild waters of the two seas (North Pacific and Bearing) do not honor this boundary of trench and volcanoes. The waters mix, and they mix violently. I have never seen such intense currents, especially the tidal currents between islands. Running the skiff was often more similar to running on a river than on the ocean, with tall standing waves in a current of 8 knots or more. We had to time our travel with the tides to avoid wasting time and fuel by fighting the current.




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For 16 days we did this, and unfortunately, in high winds and  rough seas. But my problem was that the skies were almost always cloud-covered, and often socked-in with a low dark ceiling. I only had two opportunities to see a volcano, and both times I saw the same one, Mt Shishaldin, once from the West, once from the East, each time through a hole in the clouds.

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These mixing waters stir up lots of nutrients in the waters and they are rich with fish, bringing many whales to feed. We saw more than 50 humpbacks, sometimes very close to the boat. There are rafts of northern fulmars numbering in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of birds; birds on the water every in direction as far as you can see.


Immense flocks of tufted puffins–ten thousand swirling over the water like starlings in tight formation. There were frequent flocks of storm petrels, auklets, murres, and then there were the occasional loners: the laysan albatross, with an 8’ wing span passing by, hugging the contours of the waves, the parasitic jaeger in a direct flight, a few red-necked phalaropes bobbing.

As we traveled Eastward towards the Akmak Island rookery, we passed near the southernmost enclave of walrus. Off the bow I saw what looked like a whale, but it was rust-colored. Immediately I grabbed the binoculars, and during brief window of sunshine, a big walrus rose up from the water and looked right at me; tusks, whiskers and all.


Rowing Kachemak Bay




The text of my book, Moved By A Mountain, describes me finding my land above Alaska’s Kachemak Bay and building my cabin with a view of the majestic Throneroom. It does not mention the fact that I built the cabin to have a small living space on the first floor (more space above), and that most of the footprint of the timber frame was a woodworking shop. The shop was 20′ long and 16′ wide; big enough for me to build a 16′ two-man rowing dory.

As mentioned below in the post titled “Big Water,” I was an oarsman. I began rowing as a kid when I was a mascot to the lifeguards on the beach of my small home town on the southern tip of Absecon Island in Southern New Jersey. Later I joined the rowing crew and rowed for 4 years at Holy Spirit High School, winning several championships in 8-man shells, and culminating in an undefeated senior year (1974) that brought us the National Championship as well as the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta in England.


At the age of 16 I began working as a lifeguard in the summers, and began competing in rowing races. My rowing partner was the Virginia state wrestling champion who’s parents had a summer house in my town; Kevin McFadden. We had a few years as our town’s champs, which earned us the right to represent the town (Longport) in the big inter-city races. Kevin became an exceptional oarsman and we loved our daily evening workouts on the ocean. He was such a fine person, that it was pure joy to be in his company, and we became like brothers. Rowing was at the core of our brotherhood, and I associated rowing with a feeling of being vibrantly alive.


So, when I was first looking at beautiful Kachemak Bay, I had a yearning to row on it, which was the reason for the large workshop. I built a dory to resemble the South Jersey surf boat, but with a flat bottom and hard-chines. It would not need to go through surf, just be seaworthy in rough water. It was built for two oarsmen, but I rarely had someone in the stern, as most people have no rowing experience, and think of it is what you have to do when your outboard breaks down. The boat was not easy to to row because it has a narrow bottom, and traditional thole pins instead of oarlocks. There are no collars on the oars, so the oarsman has to maintain balance with feet and center, not with hands. The dory was named “Itality” which was a play on the Jamaican Patois word “Ital” — “vital”, so Itality meant Vitality–what you needed to row this boat on Kachemak Bay.

Itality was launched from the tip of the Homer Spit one late spring afternoon in the mid 80’s, after a bottle of stout was poured over the bow. I rowed it solo across the bay and up Sadie Cove, a fjord, to another boat launching celebration (about 10 miles). A boatbuilder in the fjord had just finished the hull of a wooden fishing boat, and was going to let it slide down greased rails into the water, so it was a good way for me to celebrate my wooden boat’s launch. On the way up the fjord I was followed by a curious bull orca and three cows; an experience I will never forget.


I rowed around Kachemak Bay to camp on the beaches and continued to have several wonderful experiences for a few years, then the boat got stored in my pole shed and hung there for decades until it was recently splashed. The occasion: Kevin McFadden, still a great athlete at the age of 60, came to row it on the bay with me. We spent 4 days rowing around Kachemak Bay (about 25 miles total distance) and camping on beaches, cooking on campfires and drinking beer. The weather was less than fair, but the bay was calm and the rowing good. We did get to negotiate the choppy shoals outside of Peterson Bay, but once past that, we were riding a small swell entering the bay from the gulf of Alaska, speeding by otters floating on their backs and sitting up to see a rowing dory for the first time in their lives.

It was an event that made the building of a 2-man rowing dory worthwhile, or “vale la pena” as they say in Spanish–worth the trouble. Its only now that I realize that I built that boat for Kevin and I to row, so the trip was the boat’s coming to fruition. The trip was a landmark event for us, and deeply satisfying.





the runoff of ’17

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Now that I work in San Francisco, I’ve been taking 3 trips into the Sierras every summer; adding a day to the 3 day weekends. The memorial day trip has to be in the valleys or low mountains because the snow is still deep in the high passes. This year there are drifts up to 50′ deep in places. But if you can find a steep-walled glacial valley, the falls and cascades that are fed by the spring runoff can be quite dramatic, and even awesome (as most of you know, I only use that word when appropriate).


This year’s trip was the first that was entirely on trails that I have hiked in the past, up King’s Canyon, past Mist Falls to Paradise Valley and then back down to ascend Bubbs Creek valley. The entire 30 miles was in old growth forest below steep granite walls. There is the luxury of an evening campfire at low elevations (camps were below 8,000′) but the most amazing aspect of the hike was the violence of the snowmelt making it’s way towards the sea.


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This is difficult to capture in still photos, so I will upload videos to the Granite Avatars of Patagonia Facebook page. Go to:   The Granite Avatars of Patagonia


Alberta Falls


Alberta Falls,    10×20″ canvas, signed

Spring is upon us and the waterfalls of the sierras will be raging soon. Such spectacular falls have inspired American artists for over 2 centuries.

Do an internet search for “Hudson River School, waterfall” and you will see many fine paintings of the cascades of North America. These painters of early America recognized the intense and sublime beauty of the North American Wilderness. This was a pivotal stage in the evolution in the development of Human aesthetics, which, up to that time, considered wilderness to be a hap-hazard tangle of disorder. Men like Asher Durand, Thomas Moran, and Albert Beirstadt saw beauty in that hap-hazardness, and I have always distilled this aesthetic appreciation down to the leaning tree, the downed tree, and the dead log. This is the element that places the North American Romantics at a distance from the Europeans that taught them. In a word, it was “wild,” not kept, tended, or groomed. Hap-hazardness had beauty just as it was. This was revolutionary.

Still, one had to find that sweet spot–a best location to view the scene. It fascinates me that this is so–that we have to hunt for the right composition. It raises so many questions about beauty and Nature.

Thomas Cole didn’t bother. He just created compositions of wild scenes that were influenced by what he had seen in his travels. Photographers do not have that luxury. We have to hunt, and I enjoy the hunt.

This image is 90% Hudson River school, 10% Ansel Adams, whose years in Yosemite yielded many photographs of waterfalls, often with dead logs strewn below them.

My image was taken in Rocky Mountain National Park. It is of a small yet quite exquisite wild fall. This is printed on canvas to refer back to the Hudson River School. It is part of a series of prints that have a 2:1 ratio. This one is 10 x20”. Normally it is priced at $250, now you can use your tax return to get it at half-price for $125 (until tax deadline, 4/15/17))


big water



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2010. fellow boatman Chris on a wild ride through Hermit

I just finished reading The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko.  Fedarko did a good job of describing the big whitewater of the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon and the navigation of it. The reading made me realize that all of my writing of canyon river trips focused on the beauty of the rocks and my love of river travel, but rarely did I go into detail about the rapids and the waves in them. So I thought I’d revisit the canyon with some photos of boats, oars, and waves, and a quick story.


After 6 years as an ocean lifeguard, and 3 years representing my home town in the big lifeguard surfboat rowing races as bow man in a doubles crew with my partner (who is still an excellent athlete), rough water rowing was easy for me. I became a guide after my first day on the river with Sierra Whitewater Expeditions in 1980. That summer I learned to read whitewater as I worked on the American River and rowed private trips on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne before they were dammed. The next summer I was hired as the sole whitewater guide for Alaskan Rivers Touring Company, based in Anchorage. Before the weather was warm enough and the glacial melt was high enough for whitewater trips, I worked as a salmon fishing guide on the remote Deshka River and as a freight runner on the Susitna River System. The Susitna drains the glaciers of the Alaska Range near Denali, and takes the water down to the north end of Cook Inlet. On the Susitna I ran a big pontoon boat similar to the ones used in the Grand Canyon, but this river had only small class I and II rapids. The challenge was that we ran under the power of outboard engines with propellers in a shallow river full of hidden gravel bars. If you hit a gravel bar your prop would be worn to nothing in a few seconds, so you had to read water well. And you had to read it constantly. Glacial rivers are not clear. They carry glacial silt and are typically the color of concrete. The beds of the river are silt, sand and gravel, so the river channel is constantly changing in a never-ending process of erosion and deposition. Even if you are on the river every day, you never run the same river twice. We had large plywood decks on the rafts on which we hauled building materials to remote wilderness cabin-building projects. We would launch from the single highway that crosses the river and run as much as 40 miles downstream before turning up some tributary and fighting the current to deliver the load. Then we would make the trip back up the Susitna in the empty, now over-powered rafts, gunning it open throttle right up the chutes of the rapids. Reading the water could get tricky, especially in the midnight twighlight, or when wind and rain made it hard to see the subtle ripples that indicated shallows. One time I tried to take a shortcut in a bend and hit a gravel bar, disintegrating my prop. We carried several spares.

Once the whitewater season got going, I ran the Matanuska River which charged out of the melting glacier of the same name. This river flowed through a rocky gorge above and eventually spilled out into a typical glacial flood of braided channels across an outwash plain of cobbles. In the gorge there was one big rapid that featured a giant hole with a big wave below it. All other guides of the other rafting companies avoided it, but I’d usually run right through it. I had a big Campways Havasu raft which featured 30” diameter tubes (an extra 6”) and for some reason this gave me confidence.

It was this summer that the rain began in late July and never stopped, which is when my book Moved By A Mountain begins, and it is exactly for that reason–that I moved myself to build a cabin by that Alaska mountain–that I never guided again. I was disillusioned with guiding because I was fascinated with the rivers, and their hydraulics, and how they acted as a geomorphological agent, and I had a good grasp of the ecology, and I wanted to share my knowledge with the customers, but the customers just wanted a roller-coaster ride and a party.

Coming from a wooden boat rowing tradition, I had an attraction to the dories of the Grand Canyon and had been considering applying for work there in 1981, which would have put me on the scene as the Emerald Mile raced down the Colorado during the flood of ’83. But I didn’t know who Martin Litton was, and at the time the company was billed as “Martin Litton’s Grand Canyon Dories,” which sounded kind of like a knife scraping a plate to me after my experience with rafting company owners and their egos that could eclipse the sun. I also declined to work for SOBEK International rafting company because they wanted me to work for free until I was approved to be a guide. I would have had to pay my own fair to fly to New Guinea to run tropical whitewater without pay and I declined. The decision to quit and enjoy the wilds of Alaska (I found work as a freelance instrument man with various surveying companies who had wilderness projects) was one that changed my life more than most decisions I have made. I might have remained a river guide for life, working the grand canyon in the summer and in the tropics during the winter.

This would have but me right in the years that the book describes. As a former world champion oarsman working for Grand Canyon Dories, who knows how that would have changed the crew on The Emerald Mile in 1983.

The Emerald Mile’s author had done some guiding in the Canyon, and though there are a few mistakes, he writes well about the river, the water, the rapids and how to run them. Reading the book made me miss the life of a river guide, or, more so, life on the river while rowing on a private trip.

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2009. life on the river: for 18 days every morning there is the necessary ritual of loading the boats and securing the cargo.

What I have never written about is the excitement of the whitewater. The nervousness while scouting a big rapid, that stillness above the rapid when you are 100% committed but still sitting in calm water that is about to drop, the chaos when big water has its way with you as you struggle to make the boat go where you intend, and the alarm when something goes wrong–you bounce off a rock and spin, or miss a crucial eddy. This book covers it all.

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2009. the calm water approach to a rapid

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2010. scouting a rapid is a team effort. here I am giving my read of the dynamics and how I plan to navigate the torrent (I may change my mind after hearing the next boatman’s plan)

In later years I was lucky to be invited to row many different rivers in The West, many of them desert canyon rivers, and I had the good fortune to row the Canyon 3 times. First in 1990 in my own little 13’ tub-floor boat, solo–the boat would fill to the brim on some big rapids and I’d have to row the ton of water into an eddy below and bail the boat out with a 5 gallon bucket.


1990. I’d occasionally roll a cigarette after lunch–something I’ve only ever done in the wilderness.



Fedarko writes at length about Crystal rapid, which ate all boats in 1983. in 1990 the water was not quite as big. my strategy here was to row stern first for the power to break through the lateral wave. failure to do so would mean getting drawn into the hole you see beyond me–certain catastrophe.

Second time was in a rented 16’ self bailer, and third in another rental, this time an 18’ raft that was the kitchen boat of a 12 person trip. I hauled all the steel and cast iron and propane tanks and tables. The boat weighed about 1800 lbs. I’d launch from the beach in the morning after singing a line from the B-52s’ Love Shack to my passengers: “Hop in my Chrysler, it’s as big as a whale and she’s about to set sail!”.


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pushing the Chrysler into a rapid

It was hard to get it moving, but once it was moving it was hard to stop, and that helped me bust through a lot of big waves. It was on this trip that the damnedest thing happened in Lava Falls:

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’09. Fellow boatman Sandy entering Lava Falls

There’s a giant hole in Lava with two waves below it breaking in a V. I was hoping to get to the left edge of the thing, but the river sucks everything into that hole, nobody ever gets around it, and I hit it about a quarter of the way in from the left. A 10’ wall of water slammed us and knocked us into the center of the hole. The flow took us back into the wave and roared over the entire boat and blew one of my passengers right overboard. All I saw was his red life jacket flying by me as I myself almost went out from the same impact of water. While the entire boat disappeared below a curtain of white, the splash lifted me from my seat and was carrying me overboard when my elbow got pinned on my oarlock–the only part of my body touching the boat for a second–my elbow pressed on my ribs, and that resistance held me in. I got back in my seat. We were still in the hole! Again we surged forward, and with all my strength I pushed and we passed through the giant wall. The next move is to avoid “cheese-grater rock” (not mentioned in the book) and after that I was searching for my lost passenger. I saw him and rowed to the same line in the river so he would come to the boat,  I bent over to grab the rescue throw-line and turned around to see where he was–gone. I stood on my seat (another thing never mentioned in the book). I love to stand on my seat to get a good view over waves and over the horizon at the top of a rapid. I stood high to see where he was–gone. I looked all around in all directions–gone. He disappeared, and his girlfriend was still in my boat, worrying. Imagine what was going on in my mind. For a few seconds that seemed like minutes I was trying to make sense of my reality. Meanwhile he was doing the same, but he was underwater. The turbulence of the river after Lava Falls is tremendous. Imagine a man floating in a lifejacket in green rolling waves when two masses of water collide and so the water just decides to go down. He got sucked straight down and held in the cold green depths for about 10 seconds. And then he popped up right before my eyes. What a relief! I threw him the line and got him on board quickly. Soon we were at Tequila Beach–at the eddy below the rapid, passing the traditional bottle around to celebrate the success and to end the nervousness and anxiety and tension and chaos of Lava Falls, the last major rapid of the river. The tension builds for days as you approach this gauntlet. It was about 11:30 in the morning on a hot sunny day, and the crew were not drinkers, but the bottle of tequila was emptied.



1990 running the little tub through Lava Falls. thats my head at top left. you can see a bit of my blue boat being to bulge out of the muddy water. at this point the boat is overflowing with water and I have little control–about the best you can do in this rapid.


January 2021

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