The ‘Glades of My Youth

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To summon a memory of the music of the wild that whirled from our woods each night of my childhood, is, for me, a way to recall all of Florida’s vast botanic and biologic grandeur. I don’t mean Florida as it is now. I mean the way it was back in the Fifties, when I was raised in a rural zone close to the Everglades that early settlers had dubbed the Redlands – due to wide stripes and patches of russet clay that streaked over the limestone bedrock.

Roughly speaking, this region is south of Miami, west of the ‘Glades, and north of Key Largo.

On eves of full moons during summer, frogs would ratchet with abandon, insects whirr and click, night birds sing, breezes sigh. Our entire biome seethed with a mingled panoply of “critter” sounds that soared close to the symphonic in its delectable, sensual complexity.

At times, prompted by some secret conductor’s baton, a portion of that native orchestra fell silent. And thus signaled, all other segments soon quit as well, and a heavy stillness unfurled across the landscape like a vast and humid caul. That pregnant silence commonly lasted for a number of my pulsebeats. Then finally, faintly, way off in the distance, some big boss frog would emit a bass rurp! And the whirligig calliope of swamp noises erupted once more, flooding in through the glass slats of an open jalousie window. This revived river of sound flowed in with such vigor and vibrancy, it felt like it could float me right up off my bed…

My family dwelt in a live oak hammock, a sort of grove or islet of higher terrain mainly peopled by moss-draped hardwoods. It was surrounded by pine forests, themselves bracketed by a few long, marshy arms of swamp. To say that we were just three or four miles away from the town of Homestead might render the level of wildness I describe seem ludicrous now, perhaps utterly unbelievable.

But I’d point out to skeptics that back then Homestead was a pioneer village of just a few thousand souls. By far, dominant inhabitants of the region were creatures of air and grove, of slough and bay. An automobile drive up to Miami was its own adventure, a run on a narrow stretch of asphalt that wove its way through some thirty miles of forest and brush.

This fertile swampland generated an abundance of bird life, with its overall character tailored to each season. In autumn, I recall a chorus of whippoorwills echoing through our woods. And in winter, we enjoyed the coo of doves by day, and the sonorous hoots of great horned owls by night. In early spring, migratory northern songbirds awakened with the dawn, then serenaded us also into wakefulness. Summer brought dense clouds of dragonflies, whereupon nighthawks made their roaring dives down through the sky to grab ‘em with their beaks and gobble ‘em up.

A major boyhood goal for me was “conquering” all major oaks in our woods by seeking to scramble up to their highest branches – a pursuit to which I applied all the grit and drive of a climber intent on winning a rep in the Himalayas. That habit led to one of my most rewarding discoveries. If I made these ascents just after sunrise or just before sunset, I could perch on thin branches that jutted above the forest canopy and quietly observe the vast flocks of birds flying into and out of the Everglades. The most spectacular moments came when they flew straight toward me.

I could see them arriving as a dark feathered sheet, undulating just above the treetops. A seam ripped open in the flock’s fabric as the birds whizzed past my head, slightly altering flight paths by mere inches, no more than they would were I a rooted orchid. They didn’t expect to see a human being way up there, consequently did not treat me as though I might even be one. Exhilarating!

More remarkable swamp denizens visited us on the forest floor; some of these visitors a bit more welcome than others. I recall my father shotgunning a rattlesnake out in the tall grass in front of the house when I was four, and when I was six, I went into the bathroom to find a water moccasin coiled around the base of our toilet. We dispatched that intruder with a fireplace poker. When I was ten, I and my brothers opened the front door, and a highly venomous coral snake dropped down from its top jamb. A swiftly delivered boot heel provided his exit visa. Those deaths weren’t casual or wanton, they were meant to ensure our family’s safety. Yet somehow I still regret them…

Far more benign were our giant blacksnakes. These reptile gods seemed supremely regal, yet astoundingly gentle. They writhed through the woods with utter authority and grace. Whenever I spotted them, it always seemed they were journeying – intent on some far destination. We kids would caper around these immense serpents in a kind of dazed awe. They never truly bothered us, nor we them. Instead, they’d briefly halt in their travels to fix us with an obsidian eye.

For me, that glossy black bead staring back at me formed an aperture to an alien world, one through which I detected not only a presence but also an intellect, one that seemed spiced by a glint of amusement. Whenever I try to report to modern biologists how giant these blacksnakes actually were, they scoff. “Blacksnakes just don’t get that big!” they say. Vividly, though, I can recall one such snake who stretched all the way across a two-lane road, both ends of it disappearing into the scrub on each side. And that was before it was run over by a big truck, okay? Not after…

It was one more rude death that I’m now sad to have witnessed.

Any portrait of wildlife in Florida “back in the day” (as they say) could never be complete without a paean to our bugs. To reveal how persistently and avidly we were bugged by them for most months of any year, here’s my best image. If you saw a person strolling down a rural pathway in any season but mid-winter, he’d pretty much always resemble an exclamation point or question mark.

The little dot? That was the person. All the rest of the symbol would be the cloud of bugs swarming around and above him.

We were instantly and intimately joined on most of our outdoor forays by a horde of gnats, sandflies, ants, spiders, ticks, wasps, native bees, flies, chiggers, scorpions, a near-infinite supply of mosquitoes, and still more fellow-travelers equally eager to bite, yet far too numerous to cite. Back then, I tended to leak dribbles of blood and lymph as if my lumped hide was as holed as a fleshly colander, both from the original bug nips, as well as my fevered attempts to apply first aid with the sole medical tools I had readily available – my fingernails.

Now, perhaps, I should also try to extrude some gratitude to those countless crawly companions, about whom I so often complained. Throughout my youth, I was bitten, stung, scratched, soiled and muddied so extravagantly by my environment that today I seem to enjoy a rather robust immune system. (I hear kids today, interacting mainly with their smartphones while doing diddly-squat in the outdoors, fail to enjoy a similar advantage – hence their soaring rate of allergies.)

But, by far, the most potent legacy from my halcyon years in Florida’s then-lush biome was my lasting veneration of nature’s beauty and her potency. The sheer force of that reverence has inspired and guided me throughout my personal and professional lives.

And due to that durable reverence, I’ve long fought – in the mightiest yet most peaceful manner I could devise – those who poison, raze, exploit and pollute or otherwise proceed to heedlessly trash our precious natural home. A couple of times I did that in direct action campaigns. Mostly I did so by wielding a pen, reporting for decades on ecological and resource issues in both print and video media. (But so as to avoid becoming a total scold, I also sought to celebrate vigorous sport activity and adventuring in what’s left of our natural realm.)

Did my efforts make any difference? Hell, who knows! Perhaps a small, yet a measurable one. But no matter the results, I feel quite good about the decades I spent honoring those early and most profound sentiments – acquired at such an early age amongst our live oaks.

And in the years that have passed, I’ve watched humanity race on madly to its rendezvous with an evolutionary bottleneck. And seen us drag countless other species along toward our approaching collision with consequences. It will be a time of inevitable accounting, of severe and bottomless calamity, and it’s now far too close for comfort. And all the changes that lead up to it have come so fast! The fabulous wildlife zone I felt privileged to live within? Youth of today cannot be coaxed or educated into even imagining it. Since they cannot bask in anything like the multi-level, biologic
richness itself, it’s simply beyond their ken.

I seldom return to our home hammock (my dad, in a rare fit of poetic grace, named it Acrux, after a star in the Southern Cross). When I do, each sojourn offers a sobering reminder of how many natural wonders have been subtracted from our world. But if a nostalgic visit gives me a slight hint of what once was, it also awards me a rich vision of what may come again.

Back at Acrux on an autumn night a decade ago, I stood outdoors at our rickety old house, and considered the fact that far too many years had passed since I’d heard a whippoorwill’s song. And as I pondered that, amazingly, one did call. (Most likely I’d heard and recognized it first subliminally, while indoors, which is why I’d gone outside to meditate upon that very topic.)

The night bird’s trill was like a cry of a ghost. It came from so far away, it sounded so isolated. No other whippoorwills answered, where dozens might have in the past. But I, I did not hesitate to respond. I set out upon the faint trace of a forest path that I remembered from my youth, swam out from the inky night shadows of our home hammock, walked past a delicate black lacework cast by scrub pines and palmettos, came out onto a roadway, crossed a canal bridge. I covered more than a mile in the dark as the repeated phrase that is a whippoorwill’s short aria grew steadily louder and more distinct.

Finally, I homed in on the bird herself. But as she sensed my nearness, she grew wary and she ceased her call. That was quite all right with me, though, because I had a plan, I’d done this sort of thing before. I wished for her to grow calm, to cease to see me as a threat.

I picked out a scrub pine, sat on its thick mat of fallen needles and leaned back against its rough and scaly bark. Minutes ticked past, can’t rightly guess how many. Yet I felt no worries. At that moment, like the poet William Blake, it seemed as though I could cradle infinity in the palm of my hand and glimpse eternity in an hour.

She began to sing – her pure desire to call had ultimately overwhelmed any concern about my presence. Her cry sounded so clear, so beautiful and so near that shivers rippled along my spine. I absorbed it with the avid thirst of a wanderer who arrives at an oasis on a sweltering day and rushes to gulp from a pond full of astonishingly cool water.

Truth be told, this last, lost solo did afflict me with some sadness, for I mourned the bird’s loneliness. Yet even so its solitary presence also bestowed an unusual sort of hope. For I perceived in that moment an insight which I continue to ponder nowadays – that the wild world is far more durable and resilient than any set of its living forms. Including us people. In other words, if all of humanity were to vanish into a jumbled heap of ash and mendacity and greed and radioactive bone fragments, our earth might brood for a bit. Then she will collect herself and begin again to emit many fresh living beings, all in lovely and new and amazing shapes.

So – no matter what happens to us – on some day in a far future, new tracks like unto those of a panther may be found in the rain-softened marl of a swampland path. Or of an evening, galaxies of something like fireflies may drift once more under dense beards of something like Spanish moss. And once more, nightbirds much like whippoorwills can call out to each other, over and over, across a darkened landscape. When that occurs, I hope some species which can do a far better job than we did of handling the miracle of consciousness shall also be present… to hear, and to see,
and to deeply value it all.

Musings on Storycraft

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Book Review of  “The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel)”  by Michael Connelly

I just finished my new favorite work by Michael Connelly: “The Drop,” a Harry Bosch mystery from 2011. (It displaces “Void Moon,” from 1999.) I realize the dude’s scribbled four or five more volumes since Drop. What can I say? Connelly seems to turn ‘em out more quickly than Famous Amos bakes cookies. It’s tough for mere mortals to keep up! Plus, he’s not the only writer any self-respecting mystery/thriller buff must read to stay au courant.

A path into “The Drop” was provided to me by Connelly himself in a recent New York Times book review section (Feb. 2015), wherein he assessed the debut of “The Whites,” by a colleague (and presumptive  competitor) in the genre, Richard Price. Connelly leads into that piece with a generous anecdote, recounting how impressed he was by a Price quote he once plucked from a magazine interview.

To wit: “When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city.”

Connelly cut that line out and stuck it above his computer screen, where it served as a lodestone for his own writing for a few years. I’d like to think that it was still up there as he wrote “The Drop,” because that’s precisely what this deceptively simple – at first! – procedural mystery achieves. It doesn’t only add a fresh stratum to the legend of his enduring detective cum knight errant, Harry Bosch. This book also limns the smog-wreathed skyline of LA and the city’s beleaguered PD… as well as the shadow realm that lurks below the spires and towers of this afflicted metropolis.

This author seems to be at a charmed point in his career. Not just because he’s made the best-seller lists only slightly less often than God, but also, because he now knows he doesn’t need to open a story with a garish and gory splash. His fan base will stick, so he can launch readers into The Drop with a stark and simple scene of detectives shoving files around on desks in their dingy office. And these are not even contemporary files, they’re musty records (“murder books”) of the Open-Unsolved Unit, kicking around cases from decades past.

So Connelly shows us basic cop procedure, rendered in language basic and un-flamboyant. That style happen to remind you of anything? Readers of a certain age may recall the clear and clipped cadences of the old “Dragnet” TV show of the 50s and 60s, which featured the laconic Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday. Cue the musical theme, “dum-da-dum-dum.” And then, after an image of the phallic county courthouse and his badge, number 714, hear Webb intone, “This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.”

Well, laconic at first, maybe. In some episodes Webb grew way too loquacious and pontifical. But my point is, in the opening tone of “The Drop,” Connelly invokes Joe Friday. Just as in the character development of Harry Bosch, he invokes the long-suffering persistence and battered honor of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, and other guardians of the presumed innocent in a neon-washed L.A.

Another beauty of “The Drop” is the way a single clue – a faint blood smear on the neck of a 19 year-old coed that did not come from her, nor even from her killer – is unfolded, origami-like, by Bosch, to eventually lead him to a serial murderer who’s outsmarted everyone for decades. This mystery is interwoven with another, as he digs into the truth behind the apparent suicide of the son of a city councilman. These two threads combine to weave a tapestry of deception in which the only reliable constant is Bosch’s dogged persistence.

A third charm, highly unusual in this genre, is that there’s almost no violence. Oh, there are crimes aplenty, some with gruesome evidence, vividly described. But the sole physical action occurs when Bosch engineers a take-down and cuffing of the serial killer, and next prevents his death at the hands of a former victim. The beauty of this is that it allows the reader to focus on the detective work and the character of the detective. Bosch at this point is a gruff, no-nonsense, greying eminence on the force. He needs the job – nailing miscreants is his raison d’etre. But he certainly doesn’t need to take any shit from anyone, including his bosses, and he won’t. That gives his every interaction a stolid, curmudgeonly charm.

To put it simply, in The Drop, Connelly concentrates on making simplicity a virtue. And he ends up with a stark, clear work that portrays victims, assailants and cops churning through a complex dance where death and danger call the tune, and success at completing a number only means winning the chance to do it all over again. This novel offers a map to the homes of the stars, and the retreats of scumbags, and the locations of those caught in between – plus a few unusual people who carry well the awful burden of badges – in a town that Joni Mitchell sang of as, “L.A., city of the fallen angels.”

To Be Conscious of a Cult


Film review of “Martha Marcy May Marlene

What makes a scary movie? And please, don’t say the Wayans brothers.

To induce fear successfully, a film must drill into our deep subconscious, slurp the murky liquor of willful unknowing up into daylight, then squirt it straight into the eyes of viewers – making them absorb realizations they don’t particularly care to acquire on their own. The hallmark of such a film is not that it makes you look, but that it absolutely refuses to let you look away.

That description fits the 2011 psychological drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to a T… though for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call this movie 4Ms.

The odd title of the flick is only a hint of the creativity involved in making this guided trek into the trauma-ridden mind of a youthful follower of a cult, located on a dilapidated farmstead in upstate New York. The eponymous Martha – played by Elizabeth Olsen – is a lovely girl seeking to cross over the metaphorical bridge into womanhood. But she gets stuck about midway. Confused, defensive, vulnerable and unformed, she’s seized upon by a master manipulator named Patrick – played by a supremely conniving and always convincing John Hawkes.

At first, Martha’s induction into the “family” makes her focus on new relationships, music, learning her way around a garden and a kitchen, then assuming some care of the collective’s infants. However the tide of her conversion inexorably begins to flow toward much darker matters: drugs and group sex, then robbery, violence and mayhem.

Though the film’s running-time is 141 minutes, it does feel a great deal longer. That’s a fabulous thing. Too much cinematic story-telling these days obsesses over hitting each highly-prioritized mark in a fast-paced three-act structure. In so doing, a movie can grow as boring and predictable as a pop tune.

However, 4Ms glories in a more jazz-like approach as it switches back and forth between Martha’s time with the commune – gradually turning from idyll to nightmare – and the period spent with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) once they’ve rescued her and brought her to live with them in a vacation cottage. Lucy and Ted only gradually come to see the flaming wreckage inside this apparently frail creature they’ve clasped to their bosom.

The jazz-like development of the story-line is underscored by a major emphasis on the sound edit. Over the film’s course, the hammer-blows and ax-strikes of a rural commune struggling to build itself gradually become the thump of rocks flung onto a roof to distract a home-owner before a hit-squad from the commune invades his house for a robbery. The ring of a phone gradually inflicts terror, after use of phones becomes a means for the communards to track down Martha. And the crunch of a vehicle moving over gravel pursues Martha all the way to the film’s last, unsettling scene.

All of these changes and challenges are chronicled in Martha’s face, sweet but guarded, baffled and yearning, then – increasingly – shocked, numbed, and terrorized. Elizabeth Olsen won nine acting awards for this role, while achieving fifteen nominations for other prizes. I’d say she deserved all of them, and more.

Yet as far as I’m concerned, the palm for supreme achievement here must go to Sean Durkin, 4Ms’ writer and director. Fortunately, the Sundance Film Festival thought that, too. He’s the one who assembled all the parts in this chilling and profound work of story-telling. It’s my belief that story-tellers working in any medium, including prose fiction, can learn a incredible amount from the way Durkin approached his subject and managed to accomplish his goal. In an interview for the book, “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” he told author Robert K. Elder, “When I make a film, I think about things that scare me. My exploration of those things is to try and wrap my head around them and confront them.”

Which is also a formula for the way human society can encounter and absorb some of its most necessary stories. Now, more than four decades since Charles Manson and his band of marauders left their famously bloody handprints smeared across the American Southwest, we may finally be ready to see and hear what it actually means to fall under the sway of a masterful and determined, yet thoroughly demented manipulator. And finally understand how this damage, once accomplished, is extremely difficult to undo.

So. Why might this be such a scary message for us? It’s because, my dears, there’s far more than one type of cult.

Let’s give a listen to the lines that Patrick whispers to Martha, as he attempts to convince her that the murder she’s just watched being committed by her fellow communards during a home invasion should not bother her.

“You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right?… It brings you to now, makes you truly present. That’s nirvana. That’s pure love. So, death is pure love.”

If you’re able to watch that scene and audit that line without a shudder, I’ve got a job for you. I hear Dexter may be looking for an assistant.

In Murder – Does Neatness Count?


Review of “Bones Are ForeverBones are Forever.” by Kathy Reichs

There’s a compulsion inherent to mysteries and thrillers – no matter how messy the crime scenes get. And that’s an impulse to clean things up. Baddies enter the story to upend the social order, tie the blond to the railroad track, chew on the scenery and summon all the demons of chaos. But! Then along comes Marshal Jones, in his (or her!) guise as the lonesome stalwart blessed with the inner (and outer!) strength to dish out just desserts, then make the baddies eat ‘em.

That’s the reassurance, the medication – hell, let’s face it – the opiate that most of this genre serves up. The exceptions only prove (or at least serve to underline) the rule. Then, there’s works like “Bones Are Forever,” by Kathy Reichs, a mystery that dances so closely to the line of “too clean” that a reader can practically hear the sentences squeak. Not to mention the wooden gears of the plot.

There’s no question that Reichs has been a huge success with this approach. Her first book won an Ellis and rocketed to the NY Times best-seller list, as have subsequent works. So, you argue against it at your peril. Clearly there’s an audience out there that’s avid for it. My main concern is that a) such overall tidiness does not mirror the world, and b) that it telegraphs most of the punches – which leaches tension out of the narrative.

“Bones” is a novel that features her recurring heroine, Temperance Brennan. Like Reichs herself,  Brennan is a professional forensic anthropologist. The story opens as she examines the corpse of a baby that appears to have been slain by its mother, and in rapid succession, other children who’ve met a similarly tragic fate. Brennan is soon on the killer’s trail, in the company of homicide detective Andrew Ryan and a Canadian Mountie named Oliver (“Ollie”) Hasty. Brennan has a history with both men, so a romantic triangle descends to complicate the investigation. Unfortunately, it’s a triangle that clanks more than it rings, a formulaic element that feels imposed simply so the guys can snarl at each other while they flirt with Brennan.

The simplest way to indict the repartee that thumps into the story to provide you with a sample. Q: “Why are you looking for her?” A: “I’m a dentist, and I’m worried she’s not flossing her teeth.”

Apparently, this is what passes for tough cop chatter north of the U.S. border.

The trail leads them to aboriginal – Dene – settlements in the northern territories. They find the killer, a simpleton with barely enough brain-power to invent aliases for herself, a witless woman who has worked as a prostitute and deploys infanticide as birth control. But another dimension of the woman’s sad plight is that her family has been targeted by white, pseudo-environmentalists who scheme to deprive the native people of land rights and steal the potential diamond mine that lies underground.

Reichs is a scientist, and her forays into the history of diamond mining, like her scenes of forensic analysis, are all informative and illuminating. She’s a clever enough story-teller to show Brennan making a few mistakes and getting into a bad jam or two. She’s particularly good at rendering some Native American minor characters. But since cleanliness is the overwhelming and dominant virtue of the narrative, there’s never any doubt that her feuding cop partners will cooperate on rescuing Brennan, and all problems will be solved with the smooth efficiency of a softly ticking Swiss watch. As, in the due course of time, they thoroughly are.

Reichs is a master at her own tidy modality, and her readers apparently love the dickens out of her for laying it on them. But me, I’d infinitely prefer to see a truly rogue element – or three, or four – ride in to kick over her far-too-orderly apple-cart, and infuse the literary proceedings with a few bolts of genuine demonic chaos. In this novel, the only true agent of chaos that ever shows up is the hapless infant-killer/prostitute. She’s hardly a worthy antagonist. She’s almost another victim.

Aboard the Good Ship “Thriller”


Review of Dublin DeadDublin Dead. by Gerard O’Donovan

In one of her lapidary poems, Emily Dickenson incisively summoned for all time our image of a book as an argosy, a ship that can transport a reader to foreign climes and cultures. And indeed, readers can readily expect time spent with a thriller or a mystery to transport them into deeper dimensions of crime and social dysfunction, the horrors of violence, and the harrowing challenges willingly taken up by the champions of justice.

A good mystery or thriller can accomplish this, and more besides. It can also illustrate Dickenson’s literal point by bearing a reader as nearly as far into a distant nation as an actual physical trip might. Such an achievement is scored by Dublin Dead.

In this complex tale of crime in modern Ireland, O’Donovan brings back a pair of main characters from a highly successful debut novel, “The Priest.” One of them is Siobhan Fallon, a pretty and feisty investigative female reporter for The Sunday Herald who was literally crucified and almost slain by the demented killer Rinn in O’Donovan’s  earlier work. Mike Mulcahy is a dedicated and dour, implacable detective inspector who heads up the National Drug Unit for the Gardai – the Irish national police.

O’Donovan grasps well that the most potent part of human sexuality is yearning. Siobhan and Mike clearly have got the steamy hots for one another.

Unfortunately they, like many native Irish, carry a mental infection brought on by generations of Manichean Catholicism. For them, strong desire is reason enough to develop resistance to the very thought of getting together. Instead, both members of this potential couple stand frozen before the gleaming apple of temptation. To them the prospect of romance seems simultaneously forbidden and alluring, powerful yet poisonous. Besides that, Siobhan is traumatized by her experiences with Rinn, and Mike is rattled by the blend of his own flight impulse, coupled with excessive concern for her frailty. So all they can seem to offer each other is a bumbling camaraderie that switches back-and-forth between angry confrontation and awkward affection.

In short their situation is so bloody Irish, it fairly sweats Guinness and reeks of peat smoke.

Frustrated passion doesn’t prevent Siobhan and Mike from rushing fiercely into danger over and over again to save each other’s lives. Rather, it actively forces them to do that very thing. Because, you see, it’s a mighty form of sublimation, a substitute for that other consummation which they struggle with all their strength to avoid.

The shamrock is flamboyantly branded on some other story elements that are more atmospheric. These include: a Church whose once-omnipotent presence has faded to a dim, decaying backdrop; a turbulent history whose modern harvest is a glowering belligerence readily accessible to most of the characters; and the faltering spasms of a “Celtic Tiger” economy everywhere reduced to mewling-kitten status.

One more major element helps “Dublin Dead” bear readers away on a voyage to a tarnished Emerald Isle: the well-rendered, rich vernacular language, robust and profane, which is scattered throughout the book’s scenes with a prodigal hand. Here follows a few of my favorite phrases.

Rain is a, “feckin’ downpour”; a criminal is a, “yellow gobshite”; a suspect is, “some eejit”; and the deity is either, “Jaysus” or “Christ on a bike.” For complete sentences, I savored, “All the molly-coddling, it’s complete bollocks”; and, “How do you fancy that pint I owe you?”

As to plot, it primarily deals with the fallout from the seizure of ninety bales of Columbian cocaine, taken from an ocean-going yacht off the Irish coast; this find is Mulcahy’s main focus. Another mystery is presented by the suicide of a promising young Irish real estate developer, who takes a flyer off a high bridge in England; this is the focus of an investigation by Fallon. As the troubled duo of detectives flail through a welter of confusing clues and false leads, they belatedly come to understand they’ve been laboring to unravel opposite ends of the same sprawling conspiracy.

I loved many parts of this novel, except for its climactic finale, which held too many head-snapping reversals-of-fortune for my taste.

However, overall, the part of it I far-and-away loved best was a chance to fly straight into Ireland and linger there for a good while, without any need to purchase or endure a six-hour plane ride.

“There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!” – Emily Dickinson

Crime Without Villains


Review of Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch

My older brother likes to spout a theory that the hippies were correct about everything. I don’t particularly subscribe. However, I will admit that long-haired, herb-smoking mob did create incredibly nifty slogans. Such as: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

After you’ve mulled that idea for a bit, try this one on for size. What if someone wrote a crime novel that had few if any crimes? Or presented a mystery that had all its major truths laid out in plain sight?

Such a conundrum is provided to readers by the wonderfully crafted Truth Like the Sun

A major clue that author Lynch is up to some creative play with ordinary story formulas is that he offers us two protagonists, yet no clear villain.

The first major character is Roger Morgan, a charmed and charming Seattle socialite who draws an idea for the city’s iconic Space Needle on a napkin, and then manages to get the thing built just in time for it to serve as the centerpiece for the Century 21 Exposition, aka the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Morgan, then young, is described as jug-eared, loose-limbed, bushy-haired, and is hailed as a “silver-tongued p.r. Hercules” for accomplishing this task. Ever afterward he’s known by the sobriquet, “Mr. Seattle.” In fact, he serves so well and so long as the unofficial social leader of the city that, as the 40th anniversary of the fair approaches, he decides to run for the actual position of mayor, and in this way invoke some of the can-do optimism that prevailed during his heyday.

Enter a muck-raking reporter on the prowl, one Helen Gulanos, an East Coast scrivener who has been lured West by promises of a loose leash and big play for her stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gulanos, a single mom with a hapless love life, is damaged goods. She struggles to raise her pre-schooler son, tries to justify her existence by writing hard-hitting stories, and takes only occasional refuge from stress by sawing away on a violin.

Asked to write “enterprising” stories about the anniversary of the fair, Gulanos first observes Roger Morgan at the party where he announces his candidacy. She suspects Morgan can’t possibly be as clean or as idealistic as he presents himself, decides to probe into his past and Seattle’s, and soon – as Sherlock Holmes might say – the game is afoot.

Lynch cleverly designs “Truth” with two timelines. In the first timeline, set in 1962, the young Roger Morgan is shown afloat on the flood of the energy and enthusiasm that creates the fair – made all the more poignant by the fact that the era was also haunted by the Cold War and a looming specter of nuclear holocaust. Still, the 1962 Morgan enjoys intriguing encounters with actual fair guests like a neckless Ed Sullivan, sardonic John Glenn, hip Count Basie, witty Prince Philip and profane LBJ. His best meet-up by far is with a surprisingly thoughtful and sweet-tempered Elvis.

This timeline also dips into Morgan’s shadow side, as he explores the dark dimensions of his hometown, its illicit gambling halls and dens of vice, its corrupt cops and old-boy network – the elements of any city, really, that must evolve rapidly from a raucous frontier character to a more civilized and modern one. But Morgan himself never seems guilty of anything other than strong curiosity about how things actually work.

In the modern timeline, set in 2001, the reporter Gulanos chases after tiny crumbs of information, bits of historic record, and the grumblings of Morgan’s enemies (any public figure will have them) as she tries to figure out the extent to which he participated in the city’s corrupt practices. Ultimately, she’s only able to brew a weak tea – but her editors insist on distilling it into a far stronger indictment, albeit one based on innuendo rather than verifiable fact.

The character of Gulanos’ face-to-face confrontations with Morgan and his shrewd aide, Teddy Severson, I will leave to the reader to discover – as these are some of the best scenes in the book. For a teaser, though, here is Morgan summarizing Gulanos to her face: “She gets a visceral thrill from unleashing somewhat true stories about him without once imagining what it would feel like to be stalked by herself.”

By the book’s end, a reader is left with plenty to think about. Not just images of the rain-swept Pike Place Market or the soaring Space Needle, or a remarkably well-informed tour of the city and its past… but also an insight into the difference between an almost mythic era and a modern time of greatly lowered hopes. Compared to the grand vision that inspired the building of the Needle and the Expo, Gulanos’ grubby effort to mount a threadbare expose’ stands revealed as a tawdry game of smallball.

And a dearth of dreams soon leads to the death of the dreamer.

The Bliss of a Deeper Dive


Review of “Patient Number 7,” by Kurt Palka

It is rare when a mystery or thriller attempts to do more than entertain. But when a book does shift away from the genre’s shallow end and charges into the deeps, most often it will do so by analyzing an issue, dissecting a threat, or diving into unexplored history. These are all worthy efforts. Best of all is a book that finds its depth in its characters, that through their story reveals something about what it means to be human.

“Patient Number 7,” set in Austria and Germany during the dismaying rise and precipitant fall of the Nazis, accomplishes this in spades. It might bear a goofy title (the meaning of which only becomes clear in the last pages) but is an excellent book because of the depth of its interest in what constitutes a genuine person.
Patient Number 7

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

However, the dark dawn of the Third Reich already looms over their idyll – as indeed it does over the entire Western Hemisphere. In short order, Austria is absorbed by Hitler via the Anschluss in 1938, then  British prime minister Neville Chamberlain secures his everlasting post in infamy by appeasing the Reich and handing over part of Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement.

These events first entangle, then ensnare our characters. Albert is dragooned into the German army and becomes a tank commander under Guderian and Rommel. Meanwhile Clara and her family are swept up in the rising Nazi dominance of society at large, and are ceaselessly badgered to join in it. Amid such fraught and parlous times, how can the lovers endure? After they marry and have children, how can they help them survive?

Their salvation is not just that Clara is a strong-minded woman. It is that she’s a woman who knows how to maintain a strong mind, no matter what challenges her. Since the early Thirties, she has taken advantage of a liberal wave in European education to study philosophy, not as a heap of abstract theorems, but as a way to foster inner strength, peace and poise. She studies with Wittgenstein and Freud, and the book presents amusing and intriguing scenes of her with them and other deep thinkers – she even spots Martin Heidigger musing on a park bench, and convincingly imagines what he might be brooding about.

Clara comes to realize you can make philosophy a house that you live in, and regard the world and all its tumult through the windows. You can live in that world, yet still refuse to be of that world.  This poise, coupled with Albert’s innate sense of honor, duty, fair play and dignity, are what see the pair through – even when the story’s great villain, SS Obersturmfuhrer Bonninghaus corners her in a farmhouse to attack her while Albert is gone. The couple have already prepared each other to survive and win.

You know, plenty of stock characters wind up getting deployed over and over again in this genre. One of the hardest-working guys in the thriller bizz, for example, is a former Special Ops military man, cynical but brave, skilled with weapons and adept in martial arts, who wanders about the world’s mean streets to ceaselessly deal out his own special brand of justice, while cracking wise every step of the way. I know you’ve seen this cool bastard in action, since he turns up almost everywhere! He’s Jack, Frank, Clete, Magnum, etc. etc.

And at this point, the guy bores me to tears.

That’s why it’s so compelling to spend quality reading time with a fresh and strong, smart and unique, well-drawn and intriguing heroine like Clara Eugenie Herzog.

Birth of the Metaphysical Thriller


Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Everything old is new again. If you spot an exciting, fresh-seeming book called a “metaphysical thriller,” it’s easy to proclaim it as signaling the birth of a genre or sub-genre. But I’m afraid we’ll have to term this only a re-birth. I mean, think about it.

Much of the Bible could be described as a metaphysical thriller, with the entire world’s damnation or salvation as the ultimate high stakes. Prior to the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey similarly fit the bill. Afterward, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost did so too, quite ably. In modern times many of the books of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams add religious, spiritual or philosophic dimension to the rollicking ride of their plots.

Now, there’s “Alif – The Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson, a work so compelling and original that it seems to invent a new category of thriller writing, although it Alif the Unseen only re-imaginines one.

As the story opens, the eponymous Alif, a young hacker in a nameless emirate on the Persian Gulf, is breaking up with his high-class girlfriend. In order to block her messages, he constructs a new tool, a computer algorithm that’s capable of identifying any keyboard user – no matter how well shielded – by the pattern of their typing and their style of message entry.

The down side: this unique program is a golden grail for the world’s spy agencies. Alif soon finds that he’s drawn the murderous attention of the local government’s digital watchdog, a vicious and spiteful entity known only as “The Hand.”

Complications, as we like to say, ensue. Even Alif’s adept hacker-pals at their undercover HQ, the Radio Sheik (one of many deft jokes that leaven the story), are unable to do much but wring their hands. However, his young Egyptian friend, Dina can help – she’s a hijab-wearing teenager who grew up near Alif, who believes both in “the man he will become” and devoutly in Islam. Both these elements will grow crucial as the plot thickens. Other boosts come from an American woman known only as “the convert,” an aged mullah of the emirate’s principal mosque, and a wily, ancient djinn (genie) called Vikram the Vampire.

Once Vikram enters the tale, it departs the quotidian earth of normal human affairs and enters a scary realm where the physical and spiritual form a combustible mix. The tinder is a manuscript called the Alf Yeom or “The 1001 Days” (a shadow version of the classic, “The 1001 Nights”) that has been narrated by the djinn. A masterpiece of indirect logic and story-telling, the Alf Yeom seems to hold the key to a paradigm shift in computing, one that will move users from rapid-binary to quantum calculations. With this discovery comes immense power, and possibly the ability to unwind creation.

“Alif the Unseen” is a layered work. Besides achieving success as a metaphysical thriller, it is also: a coming-of age novel; a crime story (covering, without seeming to really stretch, crimes by both individuals and governments); a Mideast fantasy-parable; and a digital-sleuth yarn that picks up where cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer’ left off. Perhaps most impressively, it’s an East-meets-West story. It introducers a Western reader to the power of Islam’s basic beliefs, and the magic lore of Arab countries. Meanwhile, it also shows Eastern readers how aspects of their culture might appear to Westerners. The net result is a hemisphere-spanning piece of informative entertainment.

Generally I’m not a big fan of metaphysical or fantasy elements in mysteries or thrillers. A little of that goes a long way, and a bunch of it tends to go way too far. And I say that even though the next two novel manuscripts I’m ready to unload on an unsuspecting public include: 1) a philosophic thriller, and 2) a metaphysical thriller. What I truly object to is an unbalanced use of these elements, which I’ll explain like this. Once an author begins to conjure, he or she can only maintain tension by staying internally consistent (within the realm of the story) and externally consistent (within the elements of culture). Too much rule-breaking results in a world where everything is possible, and consequently nothing is important.

Author G. Willow Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, has side-stepped this chasm. I rarely quote from blurbs (I’d rather be quoted in them), but in this case, I can’t resist. On the cover, Steven Hall calls Wilson’s book, “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.” And I believe that’s exactly it is. This book can foster communication between wildly different geopolitical worlds. Way off the charts for the achievements of a thriller, and no mean accomplishment for a book of any stripe.

Pushing the Throttle in Thrillers


Review of “Start Shooting” by Charlie Newton

Any work of art can be judged in two ways. You can assess it according a larger set of values – applying an exterior frame of reference, as it were. Or the work can be evaluated on the merits – does it fulfill its own premise?

When we look at thrillers – especially noir-cop-thrillers like Charlie Newton’s “Start Shooting” – the second method has to sit on the judge’s bench.

Start Shooting [ START SHOOTING BY Newton, Charlie ( Author ) Jan-10-2012

That’s due to the fact that the dynamic of a thriller is essentially internal. A thriller may have some things to say about the world as it is, but it mainly has things to say about itself. That’s how a writer keeps his reader aboard the equivalent of Mister Toad’s Wild Ride.

A thriller requires a writer to keep raising the stakes, to keep shoving the accelerator down on the engine of narrative. The author does not do his (or her) job well unless the tachometers stay red-lined, then get pushed ever higher, until it sounds like narrative progress cannot possibly be maintained, since all the pistons are about to blow out through the hood.

The story’s protagonist always must face a growing threat. So the level of dangerous elements, bad characters, murderous impulses, deadly surprises, stinging betrayals, shocking revelations, astonishing plot twists and the ilk constantly must be heightened. And the more exciting a story grows, the less like quotidian life it becomes. Thus, maintaining consistency within the story becomes paramount. An intrigued reader will allow the narrative to part him from the recognizable earth and bear him off like a hot air balloon, but only if the design and operation of the vehicle that carries him are self-reinforcing.

In other words, if the author sets it up that the balloon burners (or narrative engines) are running on fermented rat piss, then the supply of rat piss has to be a consideration. If the pilot is a hair-fetishist ax-murderer with mommy issues, then the lady passenger who’s got her locks tucked under a hat needs to have a slight advantage over the lady passenger who doesn’t. The interior dynamics of the book will determine whether the suspension of belief can be sustained; not the reader’s evaluation of whether or not the events described could ever happen in the “real” world.

Which brings us to “Start Shooting.” The genius of this thriller is how well it succeeds – or even exceeds – at its task. It opens with a prologue, in which one first-person narrator (there are two) says, “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible. But I hadn’t.” The speaker is Bobby Vargas, a Latino lover of his tough Four Points neighborhood in Chicago, whose refuge from the stress of police work is strumming blues guitar in dive bars. His older brother Ruben is a homicide detective with a dangerously slick skill-set and a sociopathic sang-froid.

Bobby might be a lover, but the love of his life is apparently a dead girl, Colleen Brennan, an Irish kid with whom this “Rican” had a forbidden teen romance. But she was raped and killed. And the first threat to the adult Bobby comes when a muck-raking Chicago Herald reporter launches a series which looks to indict Ruben and Bobby himself for the crime. The second hit follows rapidly on the first: a supposed ex-FBI, ex-DEA agent, a short, blond stick-of-dynamite named Tania Hahn, parachutes onto the force to facilitate drug busts of the main Four Points gang, the Latin Kings.

Instead, she precipitates untoward violence, and ropes Bobby into a series of frame-ups – including a child-molestation charge – in order to coerce him into assisting with her real agenda: investigating a looming bio-weapon terror attack that will use a plague agent developed by the Japanese in WWII. Tania can get away with all manner of illicit manipulation, see, because she’s an off-the-books contract player hired by the CIA.

If your head has begun to spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, good, get ready, because as you read on those cranial rpm’s will only increase.

Colleen Brennan’s twin sister Arleen has just come back home to Chicago. She’s a gorgeous waitress-actress with more than one dark secret, who’s returned to grasp at the straw of a possible role as Blanche Du Bois playing opposite Jude Law in a “Streetcar” to be staged at the Chicago-Shubert Theater. Big problem with her plan is that Ruben has Arleen in his grip, and uses her as a pawn and go-fer in arranging a way to profit from the terror attack. Got it? Then add another complication: Arleen is the book’s other first-person narrator; and it just may be possible, as a teen, that she was playing twin-games with Bobby’s head, and she herself was his real first true love.

I tell you all this to reveal what a crafty and complex set of throttle pushes Newton provides on the threat levels in his thriller. Can’t reveal much more without turning my teasers into spoilers, which I don’t want to do, because I wish for you to read the book and enjoy its roller-coaster ride as much as I did. As wild as it gets, the story never quite leaves the rails, because a) it’s internally consistent, i.e. it adheres to its own premises and b) because the prose is so saturated, knowing and gorgeous that it provides a narrative propellant of its own.

There are thrillers more hyperbolic than this one, but they tend to shake you out of the cart before you reach the destination. In “Start Shooting,” the hand on the controls stays masterful.

A Starring Role for Meals in Mystery


Review of “Outerborough Blues” by Andrew Cotto

Great food is sensuous, alluring, and… reassuring. That means well-written eating scenes can serve plenty of entertaining and useful functions in thrillers and mysteries. Such scenes can offer readers a break in tension while serving as a bridge between much higher-octane situations; they can both  promote and illustrate bonding between characters; and they can also reveal that our hero chef (or villain) has a nurturing side, and a few skills other than delivering karate kicks and impressive feats of marksmanship.

An excellent case in point is Andrew Cotto’s “Outerborough Blues.”

outerborough blues by andrew cotto

This concise, fast-paced novel is illuminated by a half-dozen well-crafted food scenarios. They actually are an integral part of the story, since cooking is the singular skill that allows the hero – a young, half-Sicilian drifter named Caesar Stiles – to roam around the U.S. and make a living wherever he happens to land. During the six days of this tale, he’s hanging his hat in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and working a bar, restaurant and juke joint called The Notch.

Among the many creative and unusual charms of the book is that it takes quite a while, nearly half its length, to present its true villain, Caesar’s ex-con brother, Sallie. En route, it artfully establishes a gritty urban setting, invigorated by music, wreathed in smoke, and inhabited by a highly believable ethnic cast of characters. It also establishes a plot somewhat grander than the typical noir conceit (a hero must traverse a noisome pit of crime and sleaze, somehow defeat or evade the baddies, and emerge amazingly intact on the other side). In this case, an extra dimension is conferred by a home-coming theme: wanderer Caesar must fulfill his mom’s dying wish that he root himself back in his family’s old place, and learn to inhabit his true identity and his life.

To achieve this, Caesar must unravel twin conspiracies to capitalize on the coming gentrification of Brooklyn, choose a winner, defeat hoodlums bent on his destruction, and help a cute French girl save her artist-brother from drugs and decadence. There’s a lot going on, but Cotto lets the reader rest by periodically providing a feast like this: “With the bones I’d taken out of the ducks, I made a stock; from that stock, I made a reduction. From the reduction I made a glaze. With that glaze I shellacked the roasting ducks to a deep mahogany, then stuffed each duck’s hollowed cavity with jambalaya, a thick rice dish with heavy seasoning and crumbled Cajun sausage. For the final step, I surgically cut each duck into eight slices, held the body together, re-glazed one last time, and put them all back in the oven to seal.”

If that scene doesn’t make your mouth water, go buy yourself a baggage tag, write down your name, age and address, tie it to your big toe, then lie back and wait for the morgue boys to come pick you up.

This is a fine banquet of a book, yet not without its flaws. Numero uno problemo is that Caesar’s pal, Don from Trinidad, is a good-hearted bad-ass who j-u-s-t happens to show up big-time whenever Caesar gets in a tight spot. The creaky sound of a deus ex machina being lowered into a plot is never a good thing. And the other problem is a number of copy-editing mistakes so lousy that they jolt a reader right out of the story. Here are a few: “viles” for “vials”; “women” when it should be “woman”; “sown” for “sewn”.

Memo to “ig Publishing” (which brought out the book) – a computer spell-check does not suffice! Hire a good copy editor! With the shrinkage of newspapers, there’s plenty of experienced people out there, many of whom are eager to find work.

End of sermon. Now, I’m hungry. Wonder if I can find a restaurant that serves jambalaya-stuffed roast duck.

Writing Risk


I believe that realistic action is one of the toughest elements to create for a reader, in any form or forum of writing. I’ve turned the problem over in my mind since I posted my first Kindle Single at the end of October. Titled, “Big Wave Virgin,” I built this story to bring a reader deep into the fast-moving tumult of a surf ride on one of the world’s most powerful waves, the break at Maverick’s in Northern California.

Big Wave Virgin

The first key to a good action sequence is accuracy. There’s nothing more jarring to a reader than plunging into the excitement of a pivotal scene, only to be brought up short by a dumb mistake on the part of the author. For example, several times I’ve seen heroes in thrillers or mysteries get ready to take a shot at the bad guy, only to have the gun “jam.” This is major bullshit.

First, the only way a revolver or wheelgun gets jammed is if it’s a double-action weapon that’s been crushed with a dumptruck or pounded with a sledgehammer. Second, if it’s a semi-automatic pistol, the hero needs to have a round in the pipe and the safety on as he approaches the confrontation. If he’s qualified to use the weapon, he’s not going to wait to chamber that round until he’s deep in the jam. So he’ll own the chance to shoot one bullet. Now, when the slide tries to cycle the next cartridge into the chamber, then it could jam. But not before! The only way(s) to keep the first round from going off is if the firing pin breaks or if the primer on the cartridge is defective and fails to ignite. Or your hero is too stupid or gripped to flick off the safety before squeezing the trigger.

People, please. If you’re going to write about guns, let’s spend a reasonable amount of time shooting first, all right?

In the case of that surf piece, I had spent thirty years surfing myself, in conditions ranging from crapulous to sublime. This is not to brag, only to point out the value of relevant experience. Also, in my purview as a professional outdoor sports journalist, I had interviewed and written about big wave surfers up to and including multiple world champ Kelly Slater.

My aim was to describe the high-risk action involved in confronting a wave with a 50 foot-high face, a dynamic, moving structure that releases the mass and energy of a collapsing building as it breaks. And then, to take the reader on a second-by-second voyage through that adrenalized experience. Note that I had two major streams of info available to help me build a realistic scenario: personal experience (my own time in the water) and acquired experience (the interviews).

Not every author can come to crime writing after years with a police department (or a life as a “made man,” eh?) but every author trying to pull off a realistic description can certainly talk to cops, hang out with them, go on ride-alongs. Not every author trying to concoct a fight scene is going to have a black belt in a martial art, but he or she can certainly spend a month learning the basics of an art and talk to practitioners, masters and fighters.

The point is that a story is a virtual world, and one needs to deepen it using best-possible materials. Then the reader has a scene he can dive into without banging his forehead on the shallows.

Other key values to bear in mind? Economy, for one. I give you the top message from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.” And another: consequentiality. Try to make a large result depend on the outcome of your action scenes.


Hike Like a Deer Hunter

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Or How to Skulk In the Woods

Our first lesson is stillness.

Not easy, perhaps, to generate or even locate deep quietude in frenetic modern times. But nature doesn’t tend to do frenzy for long – that realm prefers to remain tranquil, rational, and chary of waste. Sink into nature completely, and her reason and peace may come to you.

Pull your body and mind out of the kingdoms of concrete and electricity, of jittery phones and social demands. As you do, you’ll find that a portion of your natural birthright stands there waiting. Pay close attention to instinct, and it can help you follow a trail of cues on the proper way to immerse yourself in the wild.

To begin, just believe it’s possible.

That swarm of crapola loosely summarized as “civilization” has only been hung around our necks for 10,000 years or so. Origin of us homo saps as a species wends through the millennia way further, ten or twenty times as far, reaching back into a now-dim yet then-vivid era in which we were simply other animals. Cognitively sharper than most critters, maybe, but not living so distant from our furry, scaly or feathered compatriots in terms of habitat or lifestyle.

Be invisible in the wild –

I’ve trodden a fortunate path. Not only did I wander around forests and swamps nearly every day as a child, I’ve spent much of my adult life continuing to roam the outdoors, acquiring and reviving capacities that help me relish moments like this one…

Thick mist shrouds oaks, bays and buckeyes clumped in a thicket filling an ephemeral creek channel. A forked branch a hundred yards up this gulch tilts, gleams, and turns. Seeing it as a tip of a big deer’s antler rack, I glide to a halt. Ceasing my movement is easy; I’ve only taken a single pace forward every three seconds or so.

Horns appear once again. The buck hasn’t detected me, and he continues to walk my way. I slow my pulse, deepen my breathing. Let stillness flow through my body in the same way that cool morning fog threads along this creekbed. The big buck reaches the edge of the trees, looks right past me, rotates his head away, then steps out onto this trail where I stand.

He’s five feet away.

I can nearly count the hairs on his muzzle, almost see the fleas crawling on his butt. I definitely can smell his odor, since he’s positioned slightly upwind – he broadcasts an earthy and acrid tang of warm venison.

His tongue flicks out, making that black nose shine. He sniffs the air. Big ears rotate like fuzzy satellite dishes, seeking to net a signal. His environs apparently feel good and safe to him overall. Yet, some detail seems to nag. It’s as though the visual cortex of his brain taps his situational awareness on the shoulder, and says, “Hey bud, wasn’t there something weird about that stubby tree-trunk you saw before you stepped onto the trail?”

His head swivels back to me, and the pupils of his eyes dilate into dark saucers.

Emotions are forms of primitive cognition that both animals and humans share, biologists say, and I agree. I’ve watched animals reveal a menu of feelings that include embarrassment, even mortification. As with this buck, right now. In anthropomorphic terms, it’s as if he thinks, “Can’t even imagine how I ever let myself get caught so near to a freakin’ human!”

He launches a swift riposte. All four hooves come a yard up off the ground, he pulls a mid-air end-for-end swap like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, then bounds away from the creek to the closest ridge, using a Columbia blacktail deer’s escape gait (termed a “stot”) that makes him hop so high and long he looks like he’s riding a quartet of atom-powered pogo sticks. Just before vanishing, he takes a final look back over his shoulder.

I don’t even raise my rifle. For one thing, on this day, I’m out after feral hogs. But mainly, some wildlife interactions strike me as so grand and wondrous that taking a shot just doesn’t occur to me. This is one of those times.

Getting near wildlife is a win —

Achieving such moments of contact, for me, is like the Plains Indian practice of counting coup. Getting near enough to touch your quarry is far more artistic and worthy than attacking it. Fulfillment of your skill comes in scoring a marvelous opportunity. What you choose to do with it next ends up as a secondary matter.

Since bloodshed isn’t hunting’s most satisfying aspect for me, I find that techniques of a hunter can also be easily and profitably deployed in a more peaceable fashion. My aim on a given day might not be to fill the cookpot, but simply to score a great sighting or take a photo. The primary goal is learning how to share life in the wild with its animals so that you can blend in adroitly, and not bother them unduly. A day well-spent in the woods can be its own sublime reward.

How do you accomplish this? By developing patience, by honing perception, then investing both of these in all aspects of your sylvan behavior and appearance.
By investing in appearance, I don’t mean draping yourself in camouflage till you look like a SEAL Team Six wanna-be. True camo is what I wish to talk about. That miraculous stuff isn’t woven of cloth, but assembled from choices in movement and from skillful use of light and shadow.

It’s achieved via deft navigation past landforms, through exploitation of textures on the earth, and by synchronizing yourself with the very pulses of air – waves one can observe bending a hillside’s grass fields as though they were receiving steady strokes from a vast, invisible hand.
Immerse yourself in understanding and use of these techniques, and you wrap yourself in a cloak of invisibility. Step slowly through a forest while using them, and you make yourself a far more successful hunter than you would by zipping on any garment decked in colored blobs that you can ever hope to purchase.

This might arrive as dismaying news to the folks who like to roar around on dirt roads sitting in large, jolting, 4WD crew-cab pickups. You might’ve seen them, macho guys all camo’d up from their snakeproof boots to their military field hats – some even daubed with streaks of facepaint – who leap from their vehicles infrequently, to blast away at such unwary game as they manage to spook out from cover and into the open. (To dub such men “slob-hunters” is to insult your true slob, a harmless, stubble-chinned guy who likes to lounge on couches and view televised sports while he drinks beer and munches on cold pizza.)

Tarted-up teams of pseudo-commandos just plain miss the point. Both main points of being outdoors, actually. They don’t strive to pursue game quite so much as to overwhelm it. Plus, the grand style and the blunt tools of their overwhelming are such, they barely notice they’re out in the woods. They’re like ham-fisted gardeners trying to till window-boxes with a roto-tiller.
Whatever one wishes to label that style of operation, right now I’d like to discuss its opposite.

Move to stillness, slowness, silence –

Stillness has a cousin named slowness.

In wildlife viewing, speed kills! I realize that’s a slogan cited to combat meth addiction. Associating it with another kind of overwrought behavior is intentional. At what point did we begin to celebrate outdoor activities done at a rabid pace?

The Appalachian Trail is just under 2,200 miles of rolling hills, chuckling streams and sumptuous forest, and Karl Meltzer ran it all in 2016 in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes. The Pacific Crest Trail is almost 2,700 miles of epic alpine vistas, and Joe McConaughty ran the whole thing in 2014 in 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes. Both men averaged 50 miles, performing some two trail marathons each day. Anyone like to convince me these gents fully appreciated the splendor into which they’d thrust themselves? Instead of having to concentrate on mainly avoiding sprains and twisted ankles?

To me, manic activity like this reduces our great outdoors to another consumer product. It shows as much respect for nature as hot-dog-eating contests do for nutrition. Instead of winning renown, participants should be awarded a dose of Ipecac and a bucket. There’s no appreciable difference between running double-marathons through the woods in a day, or charging along on an ATV or snowmobile. Waves of visual and sonic disruption spread wide, and the critters you’ll see are mainly those you shocked out of their naps.
The basic goal of a hunter should be to explore a landscape thoroughly, not rapidly. The overarching aim is to put quality above quantity.

A thoughtful footfall –

Even strolling at a regular pace through a forest is inimical to good wildlife viewing. The crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch of a typical human stride is a dead giveaway – a presumed master of the food-chain is touring the woody ‘hood. For a clue on an alternative, examine how wild creatures move, even the eentsy wren hopping about in your backyard. The bird will hop-hop, pause, check around, hop.

Save your driving rhythm for a dance floor. In the woods, pitch change-ups. Animals move, pause, scout, in a sequence that is seemingly random and highly variable – due to instant responses to fresh inputs. If you hope to blend in, do the same.

Smoothly glide from stillness to slow movement, then back into stillness.

If you think humans are among the planet’s noisiest creatures, you’re right. Yet every being produces some noise while moving, whether it’s a bobcat or a newt. The trick is producing less, plus making the unavoidable amount sound more like it’s been produced by a wild animal.

We’ve already talked frequency, so let’s mention amplitude or volume. Of two places to put down your foot, one will always be better. Study the earth till you know which is which. Are those dry, fallen leaves from an oak or a manzanita? Did those blown away from beneath the tree’s branches happen to get soaked by morning dew? If you step on that patch of gravel, will it grind? What generates more noise, stepping on squishy moss or slimy mud?

Your style of foot placement is also of great consequence. Most people hike by landing their boots with heel strikes. On steep or slippery ground, this is a terrible gait, since if your heel slips out, you’ve got nothing left. Heel-striking also deprives one of the ability to truly sense the resilience of the material underfoot. However, if you slow your pace, and deliberately lower your toes and the balls of your feet to the earth, you can rock back onto a heel and use it to brake should you happen to slip, while you are also able to carefully manage your overall delivery of pressure to the ground.

To put it in simple terms, instead of making a twig snap! you can make it go s-m-u-s-h. From a long and disciplined series of tactical footfalls can emerge a considerable measure of stealth.

Native strategy in the woods –

Early American writers made a big deal of the ways of forest Indians and of their stealthy movements. James Fenimore Cooper who penned his five “leatherstocking” novels in the early 19th Century, praised that “noiseless step” of indigenous warriors. Much of Indian ability should be ascribed to their well-practiced technique, but a certain portion must be credited to their equipment. I can’t conceive of better footgear for feeling the earth and accommodating your step to all it might lands upon than using soft leather moccasins. Hard-soled boots constitute a poor substitute. But should we step carefully, we can render our boots much quieter.

A beau ideal would be imitating the footfall of lynxes and cougars, whose paws mold themselves like beanbags to the ground as they touch it. Even maintaining a conscious intent to have your footfalls land that way can make them more quiet.

Cooper also mentions that Indians heading out on a raid tended to put one supremely talented warrior in the lead. All those who coursed along behind him would carefully place their own feet in the prints of that first man. Thus, each brave traveled more silently than his predecessor, and the war party as a whole made much less noise than it might’ve otherwise.

Delight in finding game trails –

Which brings us to game trails. Pristine, undisturbed nature is a myth. All woods and meadows are wreathed with a network of pathways, some a trough of faint scuffs where a few animals have passed, some worn bare and smooth by many sharp hooves and sets of padding paws.
How do you locate and tread these paths more traveled?

Remember at the beginning, when I said nature tends to be rational? The ancient Greeks perceived that reason isn’t a whimsical blessing or curse that the gods bestowed solely on humans. The Stoics maintain that reason flourishes at the heart of all reality. It’s something inevitable, ineluctable, ordinary, and shared.

Animals seek food, water and cover. As you study a landscape, visualize yourself searching for these, as well. Pursue them in the most logical, efficient manner. Odds are you’ll discover a game trail – at the smartest place to cross a stream, the easiest way over a ridge, the most secure spot to drowse into a nap, and along routes that let you stay hidden under a line of foliage for the longest period of travel.

Walk a game trail that’s already had its sound-generating potential tamped down, and you’ll harvest a large degree of silence. Wild animals grasp this principle well. Even a novice human hiker should be able to pick up on it.

Use of shade and sunlight –

Forms that make up landscapes may be emphasized or muted by sunshine and shade. A wise hunter finds advantage in their interplay. Pop chanteuse Joni Mitchell sang on a live album, “Every picture has its shadows, and it has some source of light…” The genius inherent in Joni’s line is that it acknowledges a multiplicity of shadows can be cast by various shapes, while (outdoors, at least) light generally streams from a single point. On the “downstream” side of hillsides, trees and rocks lurk banks and blobs of shadow. You can connect these dots like beads on a necklace to create a concealing line of travel for yourself.

I know I dissed camo-clothing earlier, but that was mainly to make a point that wearing camouflage is no substitute for smart use of natural features. Out in the woods, I do tend to wear drab clothing, with the shirt a light color and the trousers dark, or vice-versa. That way, whether I’m illuminated or shaded, as long as I’m not moving, I’ll appear to animals to be half my size. If I move through a bank of shadow, I stop before emerging into the light, and take a moment to study what’s out there before proceeding. Animals do this, too.

Exploit all false horizons –

The many horizons our earth affords can be used in this fashion, as well. On undulating terrain, every single hill, slope or ridge provides its own horizon line, as does each thicket or line of brush. While out hiking, as soon as your head rises up past any of these crests, you should pause – because at that moment, you hold a clear advantage.

You can see everything on the other side, but animals on the other side can only see your head, which means, at that point, they won’t necessarily be able to ID you as a human. You could be just a small, head-sized critter, say, a porcupine with an odd pelt. If you don’t reveal the rest of your body, if you traverse instead of continuing up over the hill, if you don’t act predatory and instead mimic animal movements, you may well avoid spooking them.

Of course, once they notice you at all, they will use all of their senses to try to figure out what you are, and whether or not you pose a threat. Animal senses of smell do tend to be better than our own, so if you appear upwind of them, it’s usually game-over. If you stay downwind, however, you’ve got a fighting chance to keep them uncertain of your identity. Even when air seems still, there are often subtle currents. To discover which way a mass of air might be moving, pinch some dust or duff (leaf litter), raise it up, let it go, and watch it drift. But even if you find out the direction of the main current, air flows in boils and eddies, just as water in a creek bounces over and re-circulates around rocks. So don’t be surprised if the critters score a whiff even while you imagine you’re still downwind.

Waltz with nature’s rhythm –

Moving air demonstrates another characteristic that can be further discovered and exploited. Wind commonly arrives in pulses which can be observed in the waving of grasses, the bobbing of branches, and the vibration of brush. Such movement is multiplied by the corresponding dance of shadows around and beneath this vegetation. The pulsation inherent in wind does not adhere to the firm beat of human music, yet it does own a loose rhythm, all the same. By perceiving it and incorporating it into your movement, you’ll instantly turn less noticeable. It’s a giant step toward truly blending in.

I used to call the way I moved out in the woods, “stalking,” but now I’d term it, “drifting.” It’s a better term for the way I seek to blend into terrain, as well as the forces that flow constantly over and through it. As side benefits for maintaining a slow, sensitive, rational pace, you’ll find yourself becoming less thirsty, less tired, less sweaty, and releasing less scent. You will also learn a hunk of geography more thoroughly. An enduring map of it can then dwell in your awareness.

Camo-up your consciousness –

Okay, we’ve talked some about how to achieve true camouflage by fitting yourself into the woods the same way that animals do it. Now let’s take up the topic of superficial camouflage – in other words, the camo that one can buy in a store. Besides my mix of light and dark main garments, I like to add drab fingerless gloves, to keep light from glaring off my white-boy hands, as well as a soft and foldable camo hat with a brim that shades my eyes. That last aspect is of great importance.

Most wild animals become nervous if they feel they’re being studied too keenly – since this may well signal predatory intent. If your eyes are under a band of shadow, they can’t tell that you’re looking at them. Similarly, when using binoculars, sweep with them rather than holding them steadily on a given set of critters. If you freeze while holding field glasses, from an animal’s point of view, it’s being stared at by a giant black pair of eyes.

Our eyes actually work amazingly well without aids. Humans don’t give ourselves sufficient credit. Some biologists say, in terms of overall capability, we possess the animal kingdom’s second-best eyes, only exceeded by predatory birds, such as hawks, owls and eagles. Compare your talents to those of other animals, then figure out how to exploit the differences.

What stops us? We’re a bit too used to thinking of ourselves as underdogs, in terms of the raw power of our senses. For example, real dogs have 50 times the number of scent receptors that we do, and 40 times the number of brain neurons for analysis of same, so their olfactory ability is about 10,000 times as potent. Dogs can locate truffles, sniff out cases of prostate cancer, and detect victims buried under avalanches. Cool work, if you’re able to pull it off. But if any human could, his mental model of existence would be astonishingly different from a visual model that presently dominates our awareness. In contrast, the theme song of a Disneyland for dogs would have to be, “It’s a Smell, Smell World.”

Classic American woodland pattern.

When it comes to eye-power, a dog only rates 20/75 vision, compared to that sharp 20/20 benchmark that humans often achieve. Pooches might be able to follow a bouncing tennis ball, but they do it nowhere near as well as we can. (Serena has nothing to fear from a border collie.) Since we humans possess binocular vision (eyes placed in the same plane at the front of our skulls), we can range-find – that is, estimate distances. We have decent resolution and depth perception, as well as superior color recognition. We are “trichromates,” meaning we have three types of cones or color receptors in our retinas, for red, blue and green, as well as any of their mingled shades. During our evolution, this helped us select ripe fruit and veggies, and shun boldly-colored poisonous critters – like coral snakes, venomous frogs and lion fish. Nowadays, it helps us parse meaning in all manner of vista. And our vision is backed up by substantial cranial computing power, capable (for instance) of rapidly inferring the whole from a part. (Recall my recognition of the approach of a buck from the brief flash of its antler tine.)

Deer, on the other hand, are mere “dichromats,” they have just two color receptors, and they must seek happiness in a world they perceive as utterly drenched in the blues. In addition, they can see a bit of gray and yellow, and possibly have some UV (ultraviolet) sensitivity. Their retinas are short of cones, but high in rod receptors, awarding them good low-light sensitivity. Not only that, but a membrane behind the retina, the “tapetum lucidum,” reflects any un-absorbed light back out, giving them a chance to process it twice.

Which is why deer eyeballs glow if they are spotlighted at night. If you drive around a curve and smite them with headlights on high beam, the reason they freeze as if stunned is because they are. You’re like a SWAT team assaulting a hostage-taker with a flash-bang grenade.

Vietnam-era tiger stripes.

But far away from roadways, on woodsy deer turf where you have to play by deer rules, their strengths show a few definite advantages. Deer are “crepuscular,” creatures of dawn and evening, and they see much better in twilight. Bulging eyes positioned toward the sides of their heads provide a remarkable field of vision, on the order of 280 degrees, quite useful for a prey species, because it makes them hard to approach. They are attuned to spotting movement, not so hot at defining form. Their top usual visual acuity is rated no better than 20/40. They can only use binocular vision in a narrow band, extending perhaps 10 degrees to each side of their noses.

That’s why a deer who seeks to figure out who you are and what you might be up to will assume a classic “Y” configuration: Two great ears that jut up and out and cup at you, the nose down and pointed at you and snuffling, the eyes fixed in an unyielding stare.

And what does that staring buck or doe see? Should you cease all movement, and if your clothing blends with your surroundings, not much – not by human standards. If you use what I call true camo, and conceal your shape against landforms and inside patches of shade, essentially you turn invisible to them. You can become just as hidden when you stand unmoving out in front of a tree trunk, as you could be by ducking behind it.

Next camo-up with clothing –

Any drab clothing with minimal patterning works well for this. Of course, you want to avoid blue, since that shade appears quite bright to deer, and shun white also, since that can reflect blue light (along with everything else). But your granddad’s old red, “buffalo” plaid lumberjack shirt would work fine on a deer hunt.

Classic buffalo plaid

Another hunter can also see it easily, which makes you safer in the woods. Can a deer pick it out from a forest background? Not so much.

Even better performance can be won by use of the feathers, furs and fringed skins that indigenous peoples wore. Recall the pulses of air current I described as constantly wafting over a landscape? Imagine a warrior standing perfectly still, whose garments and adornments slurp up gusts of breeze, and sway with them in loose synchronicity with all those nodding branches, shuddering patches of brush and fields of grass. Think that might help him blend in?

European settlers were not slow to pick up on native ways of concealment after they arrived in the Americas. Well, maybe some were tardy, but it’s fascinating to read about the ones who weren’t, like Pilgrim raiders led by Benjamin Church, who often snuck up on Indian camps during King Phillip’s War. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, writing 140 years later, describes his most worthy and enduring hero, Natty Bumppo (aka Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, etc.) as clad in, “a hunting shirt of forest green, fringed with faded yellow.”

Basically, the hunting shirts or smocks worn by settlers mimicked native buckskin garments. These were linen garments dyed in muted or drab shades, which sported frayed or fringed layers of cloth on the shoulders, chest and limbs. We could do worse than imitate colonial hunters. Some re-enactors do precisely that, stalking the regrown East Coast forests while toting a replica flintlock and powder horn, with a leather “possibles” bag (the day-pack of its day) flung on a broad strap over one shoulder.

German flecktarn.

However, since the majority of us will never attempt to dye linen fabric in a cast-iron kettle simmering over a wood fire laid on a rock hearth inside a log cabin, nor stitch it up into a hunting smock, let’s talk about the camo garments you can go right out to a store (either online or brick-and-mortar) to buy with a credit card, smartphone or whatnot. But just before we go there, let’s check out some more camouflage history.

Camo through time –

Military design exerts a strong tug on camo now. It wasn’t always thus; early on in Western armies mass concealment was undesired and unsought. From the phalanxes of Greek hoplites to the marching Roman legions to Wellington’s infantry squares at Waterloo, bold and assertive fashion in battle dress was order of the day. Bright and gaudy elements bore high value. By comparison, unobtrusive wear made a soldier look feckless and unheroic. In the heydays of pikes and muskets (the infamous “Brown Bess” had an effective range of just 50 yards), one pretty much had to stare an enemy in the face before you whacked him, and taking the field in a huge, bright, cohesive mass was itself a tactic of intimidation and often a key to victory.

Even so, there were counter-currents. British redcoats marching in formation became utterly flummoxed by colonial sharpshooters who concealed themselves by wearing buckskin and hunting shirts as they flitted between trees and fired from cover. Germany and Austria had a tradition of using skilled riflemen, termed “Jaegers” (hunters), who dressed in muted colors, including forest green, and could be assigned to sneaking up on and eliminating the officers on an opposing side.

British woodland

Starting in the mid-19th Century, bling in military dress was gradually subsumed by drab. An early-adopter was Sir Harry Lumsden, a veteran of the battles at Khyber Pass in 1842, who five years later got tasked with forming a Corps of Guides to gather intelligence and help direct English forces along the frontier of Punjab Province in northern India. The Urdu word for dust is “khak” (to remember this, consider the sound you’d probably make after inhaling a puff of it), and Lumsden asked his guides to wear outfits dyed in a dust color – which was swiftly dubbed khaki.
The advantages of blending in with the landscape, so opponents would have a tougher time detecting your force or estimating its size, soon grew apparent. By 1857, khaki was being adopted by other regiments, and by 1899 – in order to cope with daunting reversals sustained while fighting guerillas early on in the Boer War – it became the new standard throughout Britain’s army.

Whereupon, generals stroked their mutton-chop whiskers and began to visualize other possible advances in invisibility.

Disrupt or blend? What’s best? –

Nature displays two basic types of camouflage: the “blend-in” kind, similar to the spots an ambush predator like a leopard uses; and the “disruptive pattern” kind, such as stripes that a tiger displays, which can befuddle prey about a big cat’s size and movement amid a stalk or a charge.
Tim Newark, who wrote “Brassey’s Book of Camouflage” in 1996 and followed it with a further pair of authoritative volumes on the many methods humans use to hide in plain sight, says that disruptive pattern camo began to crop up in WWI, when the oddly bold lines known as “dazzle” camouflage began to be painted on the sides of ships, to make it harder for U-boat skippers to estimate the course and speed of a target vessel or a convoy.

Once aircraft came into use for recon, next in spotting for artillery, then finally to make bombing runs, ground forces adapted dazzle camo covers to break up the shapes of tent camps, gun emplacements, vehicles and so forth, coating them with so many aberrant angles they proved nearly impossible to recognize from the air. And yes, civilian artists (camofleurs) charged with making the stuff were heavily influenced by local trends in art, including Cubism.
Newark says that when a young Pablo Picasso noted a camouflaged cannon being drawn through the streets of Paris, he exclaimed, “C’est nous qui avons fait ça!” – “It is we who did that!”

Modern pixel camo.

Sporadic efforts to supply individual camo suits and helmets to trench scouts and snipers in WWI morphed into a wholesale effort to equip troops in WWII, especially by Germany, and a variety of patterns got designed and deployed, particularly to divisions of the Waffen SS. The U.S. experimented with camo uniforms, decided it actually could handle making troops in motion become more visible rather than less, and settled for outfits of famed olive drab.

That’s where the affair stood until jungle combat in Vietnam made U.S. brass recalculate, goaded by seeing American military advisors show up with duck-hunter camo bought at Sears, or trying to adapt tiger-stripe outfits worn by Vietnamese special forces. In subsequent decades, the U.S. played with a variety of camo styles, yet always tended to founder a bit on these competing and initially exclusive aims: do you want a soldier to blend in with his background, or do you want to disrupt his shape? Do you want your camo to work best when he is concealed and still, or function better when he’s in motion?

SEAL desert pattern.

Computer-aided design eventually squared this circle by creating digital patterns that achieve both ends, with blots of pixels that function on both a micro and a macro scale, which can seemingly blend with vegetation if a viewer is close, but also suggest shapes that break up the human form if seen at a distance. (One example of this is OptiFade, developed for W. L. Gore; another is modern Flecktarn, an advanced iteration of a WWII German commando pattern.)

Go cheap, but well-considered –

If you hope to bolster invisibility by adding the superficial camo of clothing, which items, plucked from a spectrum of outfits in sport catalogs and Army/Navy surplus stores, should you acquire? Well first, toss out any idea that the fancier and pricier stuff is, the better it works. You seek to hide from animals, not people, and most animal vision is just not acute enough to make camo that slavishly renders the shape of every twig all that useful. To a deer, that stuff is just a confused blob (might help you fool a keen-eyed wild turkey, though).

What I do, besides wear the drab shirt and pants, and brimmed camo hat and drab fingerless gloves, is add a field jacket either in a classic U.S. Army woodland pattern (with four colors: sand, brown, green, and black) from the 1980s, or a modern digital pattern jacket. The woodland coat I use amid bright light, from late morning onwards; the digital at twilight or in foggy situations.

But again, camo garments are mere aids, and do not provide us with a deep answer to the question, how does one fit into the wild world? For that, let us return to our first topic, stillness, and take up its manifestation in a fresh venue: the human brain.

Words from a poet of the wild –

Gary Snyder won renown as a Pulitzer prize-winning “Beat” poet. I prefer to think of him as a laureate of wild zones of the Pacific Northwest, since nature herself remained Snyder’s constant muse, as well as his dominant theme. I also admire his role as a cultural pioneer who brought an understanding of Zen to the U.S. (he studied in Japanese zendos for more than a decade). I’ve chatted with Snyder off-and-on since the 1970s, and felt intrigued when he said he thought the practice of hunting was at the root of all meditation.

Peace-loving Buddhists tend to go off their rockers when they hear an idea like this, since “ahimsa” (the spiritual rubric of trying to do no harm to any sentient being) leads directly to their First Precept: Take no life. However, I lean toward Snyder’s more nuanced view. He notes that, “It’s better to be a lousy Buddhist, than no kind of Buddhist at all.” He has deeply studied the web of life in which we’re all enmeshed, and perceives Indra’s Net: a living, densely woven mandala with a naturally enlightened being at every node.

Energy and wisdom and organic molecules remain in flux from one node to the next. It is all union, and the sacrament of eating is communion, within and throughout existence.

And I also ponder the tumult within my own bloodstream, where macrophages (white blood cells) constantly function as semi-autonomous hunters, tracking down, absorbing and slaying invasive microbes (sentient beings in their own right). In fact, if I, as well as every vegan, did not have such violence occur within us regularly, we might have an immune deficiency syndrome making us feel ill, right up to a point when we rather messily expired.

I prefer to translate the First Precept this way: Do no wanton harm.

Snyder summarizes this approach by quoting a T’ang dynasty Zen master, Hsiang-yen, to make a title for a poem in his “Turtle Island” collection: “One should not talk to a skilled hunter about what is forbidden by the Buddha.”

Mind of the hunter –

When I raise my rifle to take a shot, I wish to be in a state of mental calm, physical relaxation, and emotional confidence. That helps ensure the animal will drop as if struck by a thunderbolt, and so will experience minimal suffering.

One does not achieve such tranquility by accident. It must be fostered through your whole outing. You must begin to establish it long before setting out.

It’s easiest to achieve poise in “still” hunting, where one takes up a concealed position near a game trail and awaits the animal’s approach. Yet even such an ambush-style hunt can be ruined if the mind is not silent, if the hunter allows boredom to strike, and lets “busy-brain” thoughts intrude to overwhelm input from the senses. I.e., “Did I pay the utilities bill… What the hell is that weird noise in my truck engine… Are my daughter and her boyfriend having sex yet?… What did my boss mean when she told me…” etc., etc.

The sole way to do this effectively is to empty the mind of ego-focus and personal thought, and to allow sensual awareness of the wild world to take its place. And just sit with that. Stillness will finally grow past being able to hear yourself think. Your mind can flow on into being able to hear yourself not-think.

One should not even nurse a desire for game to appear, because, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “To hope would be hope for the wrong thing” – which can induce impatience and give you the jitters. Of course, nobody is able dwell continuously in a state like this upon the first outing, so plan to try it out as a mental respiration. Then whenever you catch yourself fretting, take a deep breath and return to emptiness. As you do, you’ll find that calling a nest built for hunter concealment a “blind” is a misnomer. Really, it should be named a “see,” since you’ll find yourself able to observe, and smell, and hear – and intuit – far more than before.

It grows more interesting if you take this act out on the road, by which of course, I mean a trail. Then you must try to maintain a state of clarity and calm and openness to the world as you move. We’ve already covered many techniques for moving through the woods with minimal disturbance, so I shall not bother you with a re-cap.
However, I will add one.

Enter the stalking game –

Once you and an animal notice each other, a psychic chess match is initiated. To keep the game afoot, don’t act like a typical human, and beyond that, definitely don’t act like a predator. Prey species are keen readers of body language. To convince them to hang around, you need to shape your messaging.

How? Number one, don’t “startle” or jerk in surprise or too-avid interest if you spot an animal. Instead, perform what I call a “soft freeze,” and let yourself glide to a halt. For two, don’t stare at them, but regard them fleetingly from the corners of your eyes. Acknowledge their presence, yet also scan around, as though you might be a prey animal yourself, and also on the lookout for predators. This is a policy of many flock or herd animals; they strive to maintain joint watch. Act this way, and you might score an encounter such as this…

A setting sun sent amber light through trees on the hill, and painted a broad swatch of gold-leaf on a hidden meadow. A large buck was grazing there. He did not scent me due to the upcanyon wind, yet had heard me coming. Since my footfalls were tentative and slow, similar to those of a wandering deer, the buck was curious about me rather than alarmed. Once we had each other in view, I reacted as described above. In addition, I bent over and plucked at the ground as if browsing. I’d move a few steps, browse, move a few more. I took a line tangential to the buck’s position, did not head straight at him.

I acknowledged him with a few glances, but clearly showed that I planned to quietly shuffle on by. He continued to graze, sometimes put up his head and chewed away with grass fibers hanging from his chin as he looked me over, once lifted a rear hoof and scratched his belly with it. I climbed slowly over a strand of rusty barbed wire, and got within 30 feet of him.

He was a magnificent animal, with a tall rack of branching antlers, a deep chest, well-muscled haunches. His tawny hide seemed to glow in the late evening light.

I wondered how he’d react after I moved completely past him, when he’d get hit by my scent. As I did so, I watched him glance back over his shoulder, but otherwise, he calmly continued to graze. I’d already demonstrated that I was focused on going someplace else, and was no threat – I was only another animal, out for a stroll. Yes, perhaps I did reek of humanity, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.

My Winchester remained slung over my shoulder. I had been out for a walk in the woods just a few days before deer-hunting season, to enjoy a bit of a scout. Well then, after the season got underway, I never so much as got a glimpse of that grand buck again. Which was perfectly fine with me. Bathed in all that sublime, J. M. W. Turner light, he stands there yet, still and proud, in my vivid recollection. And actually, I’d much rather visit him in that mental space, than see his untenanted skull and antlers hung up on anyone’s wall. Including my own.

Orwell’s Last Resort

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Optimistic subtext in 1984

A literary pilgrimage can be rather fraught. One might journey to a famed writer’s studio or home, only to make a utterly unwished discovery – something that will diminish an author or his (her) work. But still worse, what if you gain zero insight – and the entire effort your trip required seems a waste?

A trek I made to George Orwell’s final writing retreat, on the wild isle of Jura, off Scotland’s west coast, fortunately resulted in no such debacle. Instead, I rambled into a scene of startling natural beauty, one providing some clues to messages of hope buried within Orwell’s dark and dystopic masterwork, 1984.

If you’ve not re-read 1984 recently, don’t worry! Present world news still invokes all its principal themes. Orwell envisioned a grim earth shrouded in three totalitarian governments, all perpetually at war against each other, with their benighted populations held in subjugation by a ceaseless flood of disinformation, comprehensive political oppression, as well as grinding poverty.

I’ve always been greatly impressed by Orwell – his biography, his general oeuvre, and 1984 in particular – ever since I first became familiar with them. So, my trip to Barnhill on the isle of Jura was indeed pilgrimage, as well as a sort of literary investigation. I’d sensed a deeply buried subtext in 1984, a suggestion the world it described was not quite as bleak as it initially seemed. I’d never been able to put my finger on how or why I felt this.

With our guides – descendants of the Fletcher family who had rented the country estate to Orwell – my wife and I rumbled in a Land Rover over the last miles of boggy track that led to the north end of Jura. Off in the distance, we saw a white stone farmhouse nestled in isolated splendor, in a lush valley that opens to a sweeping view of the blue sea between Jura and the Kintyre Peninsula. Soon, I would stand at a window in the centuries-old farmhouse, gazing out upon a vista that greeted Orwell’s eyes whenever he happened to glance up from his desk. It was captivating to think of him sitting in that exact spot, seven decades before.

A long, winding road led Orwell to a room in this rustic house.

Of course, he was not George Orwell at the beginning. The boy was born Eric Arthur Blair, in 1903, in Motihari India. His father worked in the Opium Department of the British Raj, so young Eric had an early education in the abuse of power. England fought two wars to ensure that a great many Chinese customers would stay addicted and craving copious supplies of a “special product.” By the early 20th Century, Queen Victoria and her successor King Edward VII could’ve laid strong claim to fame as our globe’s leading drug lords – had they lusted for such a reputation.

Eric Blair attended college at Eton, but by 1922 was back East in Burma, as an officer with the Imperial Police. Finally, the writer in him – and the political theorist – began to stir. One of his first pieces, A Hanging, published in The Adelphi quarterly in 1931, told of the death of a poor Hindu – one of 70 hangings performed yearly to keep the Burmese in line. As that man went to his death, Blair saw him leap to one side to avoid wetting his feet in a puddle.

Until that moment, he wrote, “I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man … I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting life short when it is in full tide.”

He launched into a lifelong devotion to the causes of the working poor and underclasses. Books like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier firmly established this egalitarian mission. And Homage to Catalonia revealed that he himself was unafraid to put more than a literary life on the line. That book recounts how, in 1936, he went to fight in Spain against Franco on behalf of the anarchists and socialists – and survived being struck in the throat by a fascist bullet.

By then, Eric Blair had split the difference on a writer’s quest for success and renown and his own instinctive suspicion of fame. He picked out the nomme de plume George Orwell, as a “good round English name” – that could keep the public from “working magic” on him by knowing his true identity. Amid the war years, he worked for the BBC, making him an astute analyst of propagandists on both sides. He and his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, adopted a child, Richard.

Wildly woolly sheep are prominent denizens of the Hebrides Islands, like this rampantly rambunctious ram.

But 1945 bestowed upon Orwell both tragedy and triumph. Eileen died during surgery. However in that same year Animal Farm got published, and to rave reviews. This pithy novella combined Orwell’s sentiment for animals (he was an unabashed Beatrix Potter buff) with a stinging critique of political manipulation and mendacity. It brought him substantial acclaim, a robust income that he dubbed, “faery gold.” Renown made him flee off to Jura, into the bargain.

Then as now, Jura’s north was about the most remote area in all of the Hebrides. For Orwell, getting out there from London was an ordeal that involved linking a medley of trains, boats and taxis, then making a hike of five miles up a frail and boggy track to reach an old farmhouse he rented from the Fletchers. After moving out to Barnhill in 1946, Orwell used a motorbike to cover that last bit. It often broke down; locals would commonly see him on the side of the road, poking at its innards with a screwdriver.

In modern times, one can either take a ferry over from ports in Scotland or a commuter flight from Glasgow. In both cases, you should first make landfall on Islay, the island just to the south of Jura, which boasts a half-dozen towns, many lovely B&B inns, and – as an added incentive to visit – eight of Scotland’s top single-malt distilleries.

Islay also has car rental agencies near its tiny airfield. To get to Barnhill, drive your car north past Loch Finlaggan (seat of the ancient Lords of the Isles, back when the Hebrides were a separate kingdom, around 1400 A.D.) to the ferry terminal at Port Askaig, then cruise across the narrow strait to Jura.

Next you drive upon a long and winding single lane (oft shared with livestock), past the looming Paps of Jura – a pair of tall quartzite peaks. After nine miles, you come to the village of Craighouse, holding Jura’s sole hotel, single pub, solitary distillery

Distant Jura, as seen from a summit on Islay.

and only store. Twenty-one more miles brings you to the pavement’s end. Here, you can either park and hike out to Barnhill, or do what we did, hire relatives of the Fletcher family (Kate Johnson and her charming teenage daughter, Kirsty) to take us in a four-wheel drive SUV the rest of the way.

This last stretch makes you appreciate the isle of Jura as Scotland’s best wilderness – home to 5,000 red deer, but just 170 people. Our rig meandered over heather-clad hills (don’t call them “moors,” as that’s an English term) and rumbled over logs laid atop soggy peat bogs, to eventually deliver us to Barnhill’s splendid views.

Orwell didn’t trek out here just to achieve aesthetic distance from the big city bustle, but also to make highly productive use of his remaining time. In 1935, he had been diagnosed with a fibroid form of tuberculosis, a condition that progressively worsened. It wasn’t helped by long hours spent conjuring up bleak visions of 1984, as he puffed hand-rolled cigarettes of black shag tobacco.

The protagonist of 1984 is Winston Smith, age 39, a peon paid to distort reality in the oppressive government’s Ministry of Truth, dominated by now-famed slogans such as: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Freedom is Slavery. Smith tries to hide his infinitesimal spasms of rebellion from Thought Police, and takes scant comfort in oily gulps of Victory Gin. Then a rare dose of light comes via an unlikely romance with the feisty Julia. A core tragedy of the story is, after Julia and Winston have their hearts and wills crushed by Inner Party leader O’Brien, they wind up betraying each other.

Kate Johnson and her daughter Kirsty, descendants of the Fletcher family that rented to Orwell, guided me to Barnhill.

Well then, where’s any ray of hope? A first bit of it appears in the sheer resilience of the “proles” – or proletariat. These commoners might reel about, their simple minds engorged on jingoism, tawdry pornography and paltry pop tunes. But, “The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held onto the primitive emotions, which he himself (Smith) had to relearn by conscious effort.”

I believe that description somewhat reflects Orwell’s time spent amongst the workers in Spain. “I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites,” Orwell wrote, in Homage to Catalonia.

“One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

There’s yet another optimistic clue in 1984’s appendix. Orwell dissects Newspeak, the language of oppression, designed to destroy the tools of independent thought. Interestingly Orwell describes Newspeak as a past tense phenomenon – which was surely no mistake for such a meticulous wordsmith. In this manner, he suggests that, by the time his manuscript is being written, Newspeak’s already faded into history.

Red deer – resembling American elk – far outnumber human residents of wild Jura in the Hebrides Islands.

However, by far the most durable hope in his book derives from that grand natural beauty he saw pour into his upstairs window at Barnhill, whenever he happened to glance up from his work-in-progress.

Winston Smith scores a fleeting escape from the Party in 1984 as Julia lures him to travel out beyond Paddington Station to a forest-fringed field. It’s the Golden Country, otherwise existing solely in Winston’s dreams. Here he finds sweet air, singing thrushes, flowering bluebells, and – however briefly – a bold and beautiful girl in his arms.

That idyll passes, and Winston and Julia indeed are destroyed by the Party. But in his fullest vision, genuine nature endures beyond the Party’s corrosive grasp, out beyond all those gray and grim urban streets. And there it remains ready for the delectation and nurture of other Winstons, other Julias, until, as Orwell implies, the Party and its system can be overthrown. Or at very least, succeeded by something else…

After he finished the novel, Orwell went in and out of hospitals in England (mostly in) until he passed away in 1950. He hoped to the very end he could make it back to his favorite refuge.

The old stone farmhouse at Barnhill on Jura. Orwell wrote at a desk behind the window of the upper left-hand gable on the second floor.

Barnhill on Jura is where a talented writer planted fruit trees he would not live to harvest and roses he would never see bloom. Yet here, he could look out upon tumbling, brushy fields, alive with birds, the sweeping arc of the rocky cove, and beyond, a blue, breeze-swept seascape. That brief refuge of the would-be hero Winston Smith was Orwell’s also – and could be ours.

By adroitly placing this spot of bright Yin in a large and muddy puddle of Yang, by providing a few bright counterpoints to contrast with his dark themes, the author managed to provide us with a lesson in literary art, as well as invoke a durable if hidden wellspring of hope for us to visit amid dark times.

Which is why, in our present era, when a living earth and our shared nature undergo determined and unfeeling assaults far beyond anything ever experienced before, preservation of their vibrant health for sake of our conjoined futures should be a grand, overarching value for us all.

“The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing,” Orwell wrote.

Three Family-Style Sierra Resorts

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Smaller, family-friendly ski resorts offer their own more-affordable charms at Lake Tahoe.

Cross-country skiing reigns at Tahoe-Donner; Soda Springs offers Planet Kids.

Granlibakken has snowplay, sledding and a modest ski slope.

You can’t say that California’s grandest winter resorts score all the media coverage – they just win most of it. Their dramatic terrain often forms a backdrop for the best sport photos and film clips.

Yet smaller, family-friendly venues display a charm of their own. They can be more affordable, offer a more personal touch and provide a less-stressful path into winter fun.

Here are three such resorts in the North Tahoe area.

Fifty years ago, large ranches in California were eyed by developers as sites for residential communities built around a unified theme. One result was rustic Sea Ranch, built along Sonoma County’s rugged coast. Another is Tahoe-Donner, which occupies 7,000 acres of wooded mountains just north of Interstate 80 and the town of Truckee. Completed in the 1970s and now run by its homeowners association, Tahoe-Donner offers some major resort amenities – such as its snow play, downhill and cross-country ski areas.

In February, that latter operation was even chosen among the nation’s 10 best cross-country (or Nordic) ski resorts by readers of USA Today. Tahoe-Donner took third place, right behind spots in Vermont and Wisconsin.

“When the homeowners’ board asked me to run the Nordic center here in 2012,” director Sally Jones told me, “they said they wanted me to make it the world’s best. I thought, ‘Well now, there’s a job I can really sink my teeth into.’”

A Brit with a degree in recreation, Jones went to New Zealand to help launch its first cross-country center, then arrived in the United States to run a center for Auburn Ski Club at nearby Donner Summit for 16 years. Next came her invite from Tahoe-Donner.

Jones soon won a bonus assignment. Some $9 million was slated for infrastructure improvements that included a $6 million new Nordic lodge, which she could help design. The resort’s sprawling Alder Creek Adventure Center opened its doors Nov. 27.

The new lodge is a spacious, dark-wood chalet, with staff quarters on the north end, a gear rental shop, bathrooms and lockers in the south wing, and a large communal space and good cafe at its center.

On Presidents Day weekend, early arrivals flitted away on the groomed tracks on skate-skis (the most modern gear for Nordic skiing). They deployed on the resort’s 62 miles of trail just after sunrise, and I followed them on my Rossignol OT waxless skis, doing a duffer’s diagonal stride (old-school gait). The Tahoe-Donner trail system begins at a flat beginner’s meadow, then opens into a network of forested routes that wriggle a thousand feet up from the lodge (at 6,650 feet) to the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Drifter Hut – one of five warming huts located on the system.

Jones boasts that all ski trails are groomed daily. I did indeed find them formed to perfection. They were garlanded with skate-skiers zooming along on their aerobic workouts, as well as striders like me simply cruising the woods. I visited two huts using easy trails, but felt intrigued by the intermediate and expert routes and the vistas they seemed to offer. Back at the lodge, adults took gentle lessons in the meadows, and a mob of enthusiastic kids enjoyed a beginner class nearby. Tahoe-Donner prides itself on offering lessons for all comers, particularly youths.
My visitor’s verdict was that Tahoe-Donner deserves its high USA Today ranking, and provides a fine venue both for beginners and experts. Day-use passes are: $12 for children ages 7-12, $22 for seniors and teens, and $30 general. Learn-to-skate-or-ski packages on weekends and holidays include a 1.5-hour group lesson, full-day trail pass (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and rental gear.

In addition, the resort’s downhill ski area is just over a mile to the south as the raven flies, offering a 120-acre bald hill with 600 feet of vertical rise, a quad and a double fixed-grip chairlift, and three beginner lifts including a magic carpet. The focus here, again, is creating an excellent place to begin. Ski school director Dave Walker told me they offer group lessons to children as young as 3, and private lessons to any child able to walk. Lifts operate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; tickets are $23 for children and seniors, $43 for teenagers, and $49 general.

A new snow play area with tubing, sledding and a food truck lies just a little farther south and is open from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Fridays and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends. Entry costs $11 for children and seniors, $16 for teenagers, and $19 general; ages 3 and younger and 70 and older are admitted free.


At the end of a cul-de-sac, in a shaded glen of its own near Tahoe City, lies a compact, 74-acre resort that can be used as a comfy base lodge for exploring the entire region. Alternatively, guests and visitors can enjoy what’s found right here: a sledding and snow-play area, and a modest but well-groomed ski slope with 300 feet of vertical that’s served by a fixed-grip chair and a Poma lift.

There’s a classic log cabin that provides gear rentals, lesson sign-ups and serves Mexican-style lunches. Granlibakken also offers a trailhead for Nordic ski excursions, with 1.5 miles of groomed track that connects to user-skied-in tracks along the Tahoe Rim Trail a few hundred yards to the west, and Paige Meadows a mile to the south.

Granlibakken’s name, meaning “hill sheltered by fir trees,” was conferred by a Norwegian sea captain who launched the modern resort here, building upon a base begun in 1928 when a snowplay field and an Olympic-trial ski jump were created. Today, it’s a tranquil conference center in summer, and popular snowplay destination in winter, owned and run by the Parson family. The site was shrewdly chosen. Despite a base elevation of just 6,350 feet, a shaded, north-facing slope cradles and preserves all the snow falling here.

“Our strategy is to keep prices low, and work it out on volume,” says marketing manager Annora McGarry. That translates to: $14 for snowplay and sledding all day ($7 for lodge guests); $30 (adults and teens) or $20 (children) for lift tickets; and a beginner package including gear, ticket and group lesson for $70. A striking new offering, “Bed, Breakfast & S’more,” starting at $99/person, includes lodging, a buffet breakfast, use of spa, and a $50 lift ticket credit to any one of seven top North Tahoe ski resorts.
McGarry’s top guest tip: For ease of parking when using the snowplay area, arrive close to when it opens each day, at 9 a.m.

More information: 800-543-3221 or

Soda Springs

Powdr is a mighty ski corporation, with famed resorts such as Killington, Vt., Mount Bachelor, Ore., and Copper Mountain, Colo., as assets. So why on earth did it bother to acquire tiny Soda Springs, a few miles west of Donner Pass in the Sierra?

“OK, we’re not all that big by Powdr standards,” admits operations manager Mike Spain. “However, we still have a ton of potential for serving families. Other places offer child care, so parents can drop their kids, go off and ski without them. Here, we turn that on its head, and try to create an opportunity so parents can ski or play all day with their kids.”

Soda Springs is found just off a spur road at Norden, and occupies the end of a north-facing ridge with a base elevation of 6,750 feet and a vertical rise of 550 feet. Its sunny 200 acres are served by two lifts and three moving carpets. Eight years ago it started its Planet Kids snowplay area; that turned into an instant – and crowded – success.
Planet Kids was moved to a safe and secluded corner at the resort’s west side (accessed by a Jeep-pulled tram), enlarged and enhanced. Today it includes a snowplay area with “volcanoes” (big snow piles for climbing and sliding); a mini-slope with a moving carpet where parents or resort instructors can teach tots to ski and snowboard; and a carousel where kids can plop into small tubes and get used to sliding around on snow. The area boasts its own new lodge, with snack shack and bathrooms. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; all-day access is $34 for one child age 8 and younger, plus a parent or guardian, and $10 for any additional adult.

Just to the east is Tube Town, presenting up to 20 lanes that run 400 feet, served by a moving carpet, and end in an upswept snowbank for a safe landing. On occasion, two lanes that go 500 feet higher are added, and the construction of a Tuber-Cross lane with terrain features could be on the way. Access costs the same as Planet Kids; but tubers must stand at least 46 inches tall.

Finally, back at the Soda Springs old main lodge are the lifts, a mini-snowmobile park and a Euro-style terrain park. Once each year, in March, a hand-dug half pipe is built for the Tom Sims Retro World Snowboard Championships. Lift tickets are $48 general, $44 for teenagers, and $39 for children; a ski or snowboard beginner package for ages 8 and up includes a limited-access ticket, rental gear and two-hour group lesson for $79.

The resort welcomes visitors who not only are new to winter sport, but strangers to snow – even loaning them weather shell garments, if needed.

Avocets at Cullinan Ranch.

New Habitat for Waterfowl, Human Recreation

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That darned pair of mute swans steadily out-maneuvered me. Plus, a breeze from the west slowed my kayak as I tried to position myself between a setting sun and that lovely pale duo so that I could take a photo. The swans weren’t frightened and didn’t bother to take flight. They simply swam off on a clever escape route to foil my plans. After giving up, I just let myself feel grateful for the sighting – and for managing to score it in one of California’s newest wildlife preserves.

I sat in a sea kayak, but I wasn’t at sea. I paddled on a newly flooded lagoon of Cullinan Ranch, a unit of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) found near Vallejo on San Francisco Bay’s north shore. There, a string of preserves form a broad and verdant arc of habitat that sprawls between the Napa and Petaluma rivers.

Avocets at Cullinan Ranch.

Avocets. Cullinan Ranch. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Sacramento citizens who value waterbirds and shorebirds as feathered friends have many potential options to watch them frolic in their native habitat. They can go north, to state and federal refuges in the Sacramento Valley, or south a few miles to the Cosumnes River Preserve. Or they can jaunt an hour west on Interstate 80 and admire the startling abundance of the San Pablo Bay refuge units.

“It’s been terrific to see the canvasback ducks migrate back here in such numbers,” says Don Brubaker, who has managed the refuge here (as well as two others) for six years. “Giving them a winter home was a big reason our San Pablo refuge was established in the first place. Those ‘cannies’ and other migrants will stick around a while longer, but be gone by the end of April. We’ve also seen lesser scaup in great numbers, mallards, wigeon, American coots, even some ruddy ducks already starting to color-up for mating – with those neat blue bills.”

One thing that makes San Pablo Bay NWR unique is how much of this feathered abundance can be glimpsed on both sides of Highway 37. Of course, to truly observe it well, and score photos, it’s better to pull off at a turnout and hike or bike one of the levee-top trails. Best of all, this refuge encompasses an array of lagoons, ponds and deep-water sloughs that can accommodate hand-launched boats.

San Pablo is a fun place to paddle – as long as you adequately plan for the yo-yo effect of the tides, a potential for wind and strong currents that can ripple through the levee breaches that let water flow from lagoons into main channels. During that day trip when I saw the swans, I rode an ebb tide out of Cullinan Ranch into Dutchman Slough, went into the Napa River estuary, then south to a Vallejo launch ramp. Here, I parked, ate lunch and read. After the tide turned, I rode the flood back in, for a round trip of about 16 miles that took some seven hours – including my lunch stop.

A much shorter voyage can be had by just paddling around the main Cullinan lagoon during a high or incoming tide. A floating launch dock at the principal Cullinan access point makes this relatively easy.

Once upon a time, the 470 square miles of San Francisco Bay were ringed by 306 square miles of tidal wetlands, the abode of tule elk and grizzly bears, and waterfowl in such abundance they could blot out the sun when they took flight. Now, a tiny percentage (5-10 percent) of that remains unaltered by development. The present refuge system seeks to bring back additional habitat, primarily by converting bayside salt ponds, ag land that can no longer be farmed and obsolete military facilities.

The San Pablo Bay NWR is dwarfed by its neighbor to the south – the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR in Fremont. But since San Pablo has room to expand, it may do much better in coping with global warming and sea-level rise. San Pablo at present holds 19,000 acres, of which 11,200 are open water. The official boundary, set by Congress in 1970, encloses about 30,000 acres. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hopes the infill will be accomplished by acquisitions from willing sellers.

Sonoma Baylands, on the west end of the San Pablo refuge, flooded 960 more acres of marsh recently and will open a new 2.5-mile-long hiking trail in May. Skaggs Island and Haire Ranch on the north side will add about 4,400 acres to the refuge, and public access will gradually be provided. Continuing that broad emerald swath of preserves are the nearby Napa-Sonoma Marshes and American Canyon state wildlife areas.

In all of this restoration labor of love, the wildlife service’s efforts have been ably and steadily assisted by an array of other agencies and non-governmental groups, including Point Blue, the Sonoma Land Trust, and especially the sportsmen’s conservation group, Ducks Unlimited – which planned much of the “terra-forming” to engineer the restored habitat.

Renee Spenst, the regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited in Sacramento, says all this doesn’t just benefit flocks of resident and migratory birds, but also provides enjoyment and enlightenment for human visitors eager to experience all the beauty and tranquility.

“It’s great for the people in Sacramento to find out about what’s been happening in the North Bay refuges,” Spenst said, “because they’re only about an hour away from our city. Plus, we just got new interpretive panels put up at the main Cullinan access, and they really help explain what’s going on out there.”


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Sacramento Bee, August 17, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

California’s link to the Hawaiian sport of surfing goes back more than a century.

Bay Area adventurer and writer Jack London helped to forge a lasting connection in 1907. After sailing his ketch Snark to Oahu, he eagerly tried to imitate local Hawaiians he watched scoring rides in the surf zone at Waikiki.

London’s first effort – as described in his popular magazine article at the time, then a book about his whole epic cruise later – was a type of body surfing.

He got under way with the aid of a tiny board kids used for their romps in the beach’s mild break. He followed it next day by scoring a lesson on a large adult board that he and a pair of guides paddled to a mightier surf line, out beyond the reef.

Even today, that’s a good progression for anyone who hopes to pick up surfing.

Articles-Learn-to-Surf-ThumbFirst, soak yourself in a mild version of the power of surging seas. Grow comfortable there. Learn a thing or two about the water and shore, before you seek to take on any more.

It’s a topic I had to face recently: How should one begin to learn to surf? An odd subject for me, since I already should know. I’d taught myself decades ago around the beaches and sea caves of Mendocino by paddling a kayak there, and was later on the first U.S. Kayak Surfing Team when we took top scores in a world championship in 1988.

Ever since then, I’ve surfed fanatically, and in a variety of ways.

However, I had to focus on basics again, seeing as my wife decided that she wished to learn them.

Her first desire was to try body surfing, without using any kind of board at all. She’d shifted two years ago from a running discipline to a swimming regimen, so her fitness level was both good and appropriate. However, she saw the Bay Area’s cold seawater as utterly intimidating (however pleasant its coolness might appear to folks, say, who sweat under an August sun in the Sacramento Valley).

So I took advantage of a trip to Hawaii to get her off to a start precisely where Jack London did, in those clear and balmy seas off Waikiki. Each of us geared up with flippers (for speed and foot protection from underwater rocks), a face mask (for clear vision and eye protection from salt spray) and a T-shirt (for protection from sunburn, which had seriously toasted Jack London).

We set out to ride the mild swells breaking across a shallow reef at the beach near Diamond Head. In short order, we both caught dozens of easy glides across the reef. None of them were amazing, none were very long, but the upshot was that now my wife’s enthusiasm for the enterprise knew no bounds.

When we got home, she announced she was ready to acquire a wetsuit and score new rides off Northern California shores.

So my next step was to scout out Bay Area coves that presented reasonable conditions: clean waves of a safe size, easy shore access and few-to-zero beach configurations liable to cause or strengthen problems, such as “rip” currents.

I gathered a list of likely sites. On one beach in particular, I hit the jackpot.

At Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, I encountered a beginner surfboard class being taught by two highly experienced instructors from Adventure Out – a Santa Cruz-based company that guides and teaches an array of sports and Adrenalin activities. At a spare moment, both guys were willing to chat with me about my quest.

“Body surfing can be a good way for someone to start out,” said Warren Harasz, 32, who began on a short board as a kid in Florida, and has chased waves ever since. “One question we ask students is, have you ever swum in the Pacific Ocean? Because just immersing yourself, knowing how ocean energy feels, can be a big part of learning to handle yourself out there.

“When you body surf you can really find out what’s going on in a break, where the waves or currents are strong, where different types of surfers tend to line up. But a down side is that you’re sunk deeper in the water, and you are not all that visible to others. So you can’t develop tunnel vision. You must stay aware of what goes on all around you.”

His partner instructor, Alan Wu, 41, told me, “If your main goal is to get familiar with how the how ocean works, sure, body surfing’s pretty good. But if your aim is to end up riding on a surfboard, you should understand that body surfing is harder than boogie-boarding to master. And beginning with a boogie-board is more challenging than just starting out on a longboard.

“I’m self-taught as a surfer. Now that I’m finally an instructor, I see what a knucklehead move it was for me to begin like that. Now I say, if you want to end up as a board surfer, the best way to go it is to take real lessons on a surfboard from an experienced teacher.”

However, if one does instead choose to begin as a body surfer, you’ll discover a wide range of paths to follow in the surf zone after one learns those special basics. For the record, body surf basics are as follows:

  • Locate yourself right where the waves steepen and begin to crest. As a swell approaches, lie flat, stroke and kick, begin to move.
  • As soon as a wave picks you up, turn roughly parallel to it, and try to slide down at an angle to the face. (Don’t stay perpendicular, because a close-out wave can drive you straight down, creating a danger of head or neck injury due to impact with the bottom.)
  • When swimming back out, make sure you don’t pick a course that interferes with any other surfer riding in.
  • If a wave looks too big to swim through, dive beneath it.
  • If caught in a rip (seaward) current too strong to swim against, swim out of it at a right angle, then surf or swim back to shore.
  • If conditions happen to look terrifying to you, simply wait for a day to come along when they don’t.

For body surfers, the planing surface of chest and hands can be enhanced by using webbed neoprene gloves, or additionally bolstered with use of a hand-plane or handboard (like a tiny surfboard that straps to your palm). Beyond that – gradually increasing in surface area – one finds surf zone vehicles such as skim boards, knee boards, boogie boards, short boards, longboards and wave skis. Each vehicle has charms and advantages, each its own necessary skill-set.

To the list of gear my wife wore in Hawaii, I now plan to add a custom-fitted wetsuit for her (by far the most pricy item), plus webbed gloves.

We’ll see what gear and what type of surfing she ends up with; that shall indeed be entirely up to her.

As for me, I proceeded to get wet and check out other body surf sites for her to try at Red Rock Beach in Marin County, and at Grey Whale Cove State Beach in San Mateo County.

And I mulled over the interesting fact that some of the best surfing advice I’d ever heard actually did arrive courtesy of that good ol’ local scribbler, Jack London. Maybe he did not manage to end up as an accomplished surfer, but he certainly was a fast learner, and achieved some genuine insights.

London wrote, “The whole method of surf-riding and surf fighting, I learned, is one of non-resistance. Dodge the blow that is struck at you. Dive through the wave that is trying to slap you in the face. Sink down, feet first, deep under the surface, and let the big smoker that is trying to smash you go by far overhead.

“Never be rigid. Relax. Yield yourself to the waters…”

If you do so, London claimed, you’ll soon be on your way to discovering the “royal sport for the natural kings of the earth.”

Take a Ride in a Time Machine

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…with wings

The Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

Stearman biplanes are sailboats of the skies. Not only because their tails have big, curved rudders that appear to have been swiped off yachts, or because they’re steered by a wooden stick that resembles a tiller. They also bob on the shifting currents of air like a sloop breasting the waves. And when you ride in a biplane, you sail at a stately pace above a landscape much like a ship cruising along an enchanted shore.

These aspects combine to make a biplane ride relaxing and thrilling at the same time. The aircraft transport the rider back to an era when taking flight was both a romantic event and a beguiling adventure – the polar opposite of today’s scarcely tolerable commutes aboard jet-powered cattle cars.

Pull off Highway 121 at the Sonoma Valley Airport – just a few miles south of town – and it becomes clear you’re about to pass into a different realm. First, the toothy grin of a “Flying Tiger” logo painted on a fully restored P-40 Warhawk fighter plane greets you. Next, there’s a line of restored World War II-era jeeps, poised as if ready to run pilots from a ready room out onto an airstrip to mount a raid.

As you start believing a rigid martial discipline permeates the entire place, that impression wafts away like a puff of blue exhaust smoke with an introduction to the low-key Chris Prevost and his charming wife, Sheryl Prevost. The Vintage Aircraft operation was founded in 1975; Prevost acquired the business in 1984. His broad shoulders and barrel chest fill out a sun-faded T-shirt, and his face bears a perpetual tan from open-cockpit flying. A reassuring aura of calm emanates from this highly experienced pilot, suggesting that nothing short of a tornado vacuuming up his airfield at F-5 strength would be cause for any alarm.

“Love of airplanes is something I think I was born with,” Chris Prevost said. “I’ve always just found them naturally attractive.”

He first glimpsed this airstrip as an awestruck schoolkid from Marin, out on a field trip. Now, at 53, after also buying the airfield in 2008, he owns the entire shebang. Between those time brackets, he flew his first solo in a Citabria as soon as he could (at age 16), buying a Sopwith Pup (World War I British fighter) as his first plane at 17, and flying to New Zealand at age 36 to harvest the wrecked hulk of the P-40 – after which he spent eight years and $600,000 restoring it to airworthiness.

Now, with an estimated 11,000 hours of flying under his seat harness, Prevost (and his companion pilots) purvey rides on Vintage’s fleet of four Stearman biplanes four days a week. It’s his company’s bread and butter, bringing in $175 for one rider or $270 for two, on basic 20-minute flights.

As for the operation’s steak and truffles? Well, that comes with rides in his three restored World War II warbirds: 20 minutes in an AT-6 Texan, $399; 20 minutes in the P-40 Warhawk, $949; 30 minutes in his P-51 Mustang, $1,699.

“Basically, we sell smiles,” Sheryl Prevost said. “When people see our planes up close, they seem happy to plunk down some money for a ride. And many look beyond thrilled after they come back in for a landing, just completely over the moon.”

While I was present at the Sonoma airfield, a pair of test cases showed up in the form of two Coast Guard “boaties” who drove over from that service’s training center west of Petaluma. Matt Becker, 23, and Jay Hewitt, 25, both veterans of small-boat search-and-rescue teams, said they had now gotten halfway through training to become petty officers.

“We found Northern California was plenty beautiful as seen from a car, so we thought it was high time to take a look from the air as well,” Becker said. “Also, we hope to get our adrenaline pumping a bit, so we decided to add on the aerobatics package.”

Heads clad in canvas flight helmets, they were strapped into the front cockpit of a Stearman PT-17 Kaydet – the primary training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy both before and during World War II. However, this plane had been upgraded with a Pratt & Whitney 450-horsepower engine (double the original’s power). That meant, after Chris Prevost roared off the runway and into the sky, he could treat his clients to a hot roller-coaster ride that left the rails far behind. He provided a set list of airborne stunts that included Cuban eights, loops, a hammerhead stall, plus aileron, barrel and point rolls, all for a nominal $50 added charge.

Once back on earth, Becker and Hewitt acted as if their dollars had been well-spent. They clambered out of the plane, chiming a burst of politically correct expletives that included “Wow!” and “Great!” and “Awesome!”

“Chris’ flips came out of nowhere for me,” Becker explained. “But I loved that feeling of big G-forces, followed right away by a sense of weightlessness.”

“We wanted to soak up as much adventure as we could while in California,” said Hewitt. “So this was a perfect box to check.”

Prevost’s restored fighter planes are right near the top in the rara avis (“rare bird”) department. For example, his P-40 is one of just 27 that still soar the world’s skies. But those Stearman Kaydets are turning rather scarce, too. Of the 8,584 that Boeing built – plus another 2,000 planes produced from official spare parts – Prevost reckons only 1,500 or so can still fly. He also estimates just about two dozen FAA-approved operators like himself in the U.S. can still provide legal rides in the biplanes.

“Main thing you want to ask your pilot is if he’s got an LOA – a letter of authorization – from the FAA to take up passengers in a historic aircraft,” Prevost advised. Among other considerations, an LOA stipulates desirable maintenance protocols.

The Stearman he took the “boaties” up in was an ex-crop duster that Prevost found in Watsonville in 1983. He promptly bought it, rebuilt it and nicknamed it “Big Red.” In subsequent decades, he’s rebuilt it three more times. That’s apparently the sort of effort required to keep ’em flying.

“Just locating parts for old planes is a sport, even a full industry. People wander all over the world hunting for stuff,” he said. “But I’ll bet you, in back of almost every barn in the Sacramento Valley, somebody who looks around carefully can find a box that holds a few old Stearman parts.”

That description almost exactly matches the actual history of another vintage aircraft, used to provide rides out of an airfield located in the next big valley to the east. Mark Feldman, the proprietor of Napa Valley Biplane Co., says he discovered his Stearman in a barn in Colusa, after he bought the remnants of a crop dusting outfit from the pilot’s widow.

“I imagined I might be getting a basket case, yet it turned out to be a gold mine,” Feldman said. “That old pilot had been throwing airplane parts into dusty boxes inside his barn for about three decades.”

After eight years of restoration work, his $32,000 investment in those cobwebbed crates has resulted in a gleaming historic aircraft Feldman says he wouldn’t sell for a cool million. (That’s at least one measure of love, since Prevost said his Big Red would probably go for around $125,000 on the open market.)

Feldman, 67, is a pilot with 14,500 hours of airtime, from flying the U.S. mail to years serving as a flight instructor. His regular job now is managing Aviation Consulting Services Ltd., which handles aircraft acquisition and flight crew services for both corporations and individuals. But his favorite gig is taking folks up in the Stearman (which he does at the rate of $249 for a 30-minute flight; $349 for 45 minutes; or $449 for an hour).

“I offer people a spectacular way to see the Bay Area,” Feldman said, “and I never get tired of it myself. It might be slower, but it’s a far more thoughtful way to fly. You get to be exposed, dealing with all of the elements. And it provides a mythological link, as well. You develop a feel and appreciation for all the stuff pilots needed to deal with, way back in flying’s early days.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 4 to reflect that Mark Feldman spent $32,000 on parts for his Stearman airplane.

Next Door

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Sacramento Bee, June 22, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

Hey there, breeze-seekers! Sure is growing warm ’round Sacramento. I suspect that you’d love to find a way to play around outdoors, yet simultaneously cool down a tad. Maybe you’d give extra points to any cooling excursion that grants you remarkable new vistas to contemplate. Would you not?

Specifically, those points are the Fremont, Emeryville and Martinez train stations, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Note, the big, operative word here is “bay,” as in a giant scenic body of water, constantly refreshed by Pacific tides and sweeping banks of fog. From these train stations you can swiftly pedal onto trails that bring you out to breezy picnic spots and touring routes, all with minimal exposure to automobile traffic.


This is a charming, old-school station with a Depot Café that serves breakfast all day. Once fueled up, you pedal three blocks northwest on Fremont Boulevard, turn right and go two blocks north on Thornton. Take a left and travel eight blocks west on Paseo Padre Parkway, then go right on Isherwood Way.

Immediately, you’ll see ramps leading down to the bike trails lining both sides of the green ribbon of Alameda Creek, a resting and roosting zone for white pelicans, herons, egrets and wrens. These trails ruBikes-Trainsx400n eight miles west, to a broad estuary where the creek opens to the bay. The north-side trail has patches of firm, graded dirt and ends at a picnic site. The south side boasts more and better pavement, and also provides an option to turn south and visit Coyote Hills Regional Park (open 8 a.m.-8 p.m.) and its visitor center.

Returning to the place where Isherwood crosses the Alameda Creek, you also have the option of pedaling 0.7 mile north on Isherwood to the Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area (open 6 a.m-7 p.m.), which boasts a swimming beach, shaded picnic area and fishing pier.


The biggest blasts of cool, bay-conditioned air can be found when you debark from the train at this station sandwiched between Berkeley and Oakland. Use the pedestrian overpass to cross west from the station to Shellmound Street. Pedal south a mile for access to a paved stretch of the Bay Trail that bends west under the infamous Maze of freeway overpasses, then travels another 1.5 miles out to the new bike path on the south side of the east span of the Bay Bridge. During daylight hours, the bridge path is always open for two-thirds of a mile. As the old bridge’s deconstruction allows, the span is mostly open for another 1.8 miles, out past the graceful stayed main tower, to a stopping point at Treasure Island. There is no exit onto the island as of yet, but this open stretch is visually exciting each step of the way.

Add distance and more great views on your return by jogging off Shellmound onto Christie, then go west on Powell, and follow it out to a marina and shoreline greensward and trail areas. After that, head north on the paved Bay Trail on the west side of the freeway’s frontage road. Decades ago, spontaneous sculptures were built out of driftwood and debris on the Emeryville tidal flats by anonymous artists. Two of these have been restored and kept: Snoopy in a Sopwith Camel flying a sortie, and the Red Baron in his Fokker.

You’ll find University Avenue 1.25 miles north; you can then go west a half-mile to ramble around the Berkeley Marina, associated greenswards, as well as trails in Cesar Chavez and McLaughlin parks.


The town began as a ferry terminal in 1847, where scows laden with goods, people and livestock could sail across the broad Carquinez Strait waterway to an opposite port on the far shore (Benicia, which served briefly as California’s state capital during the Gold Rush). Martinez was named for the rancher who held the original Spanish land grant. Today, it preserves a historic air, thanks to a lot of older homes and office buildings. When the mournful hoot of a train horn echoes about the valley that cradles this pioneer town, it sounds just right.

Martinez is also blessed with a number of nature preserves, parks and open spaces. Chief among them is the Carquinez Regional Shoreline, and its main feature is the Carquinez Scenic Drive, which lines the strait’s south shore, connecting Martinez to Crockett. Because nearly two miles of this road have been converted to a paved, multiple-use pathway, there’s no through traffic – except for cyclists, hikers, and folks on horseback.

Start at the modern train station (just west of the venerable one) and go southwest on Marina Vista road. At Talbart Street, take a right. In two blocks, the road bends left and becomes Carquinez Scenic Drive. The initial hills are steep, and the route does undulate over its course. But as Nordic skiers know, every uphill slog is rewarded by a downhill glide.

Gates that control car traffic are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the route stays open to hikers and bikers from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. After covering 2.1 miles, you’ll reach the segment open only to nonmotorized visitors, which continues for another 1.7 miles. It’s named the George Miller Trail, after the congressman who secured funding to develop it. Along the way, there are picnic tables scattered at vista points, and what vistas they provide! The strait is the main outlet for Sacramento and San Joaquin river waters to the San Francisco Bay, and it’s broad, deep, full of powerful currents and shipping, and bracketed at both ends by the Highway 80 and Highway 680 bridges.

At the end of the Miller Trail, you come to a staging area with a restroom. Then – if you want to pedal more distance and visit a few more outdoor sites – you can continue (sharing the road with vehicles again) the four to five miles down to Crockett.

Otherwise, you can retrace your route on the Scenic Drive and profitably spend time cycling around old Martinez, taking in sights like the John Muir National Historic Site. The visionary naturalist moved to Martinez in 1880. The Victorian mansion where he lived out his days and penned his greatest works can be toured.

Big Bonus Trips

Once you cut your eyeteeth on short outings like these, it becomes far easier to visualize and plan multi-day, Bay Area bike trips that link various types of public transportation (such as ferries and buses) with long pedals on Bay Area rural roads, and allow you to use camping and lodging options. For example, one might hop off the Capitol Corridor train at Richmond, board a BART train to the El Cerrito del Norte station, and there get on a VINE express bus to Calistoga. Stay at a spa in town, or camp at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. Then the famed Silverado Trail becomes your gateway for miles of pleasant riding, visits to Napa Valley wineries and bistros, and much more.

Badger Pass

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Sacramento Bee, February 3, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer, Special to the Bee

As a legend has it, the magic Scots village of Brigadoon comes to life once each century – but true love can help someone stay there longer. The historic ski haven of Badger Pass at Yosemite is like Brigadoon, but the main ingredient needed for Badger to arise and flourish is more basic: snow.

Our current El Niño winter is delivering that stuff by the bucket-load.

While I rode the comfy shuttle bus up from Yosemite Lodge in the valley, I stared out at droplets smacking its windshield. As we neared the base elevation of 7,200 feet, I noticed that spatter held ice crystals. By the time I debarked at the classic ski lodge – California’s very first, opened in 1935 – the snow had become a deluge of soft grains.

I must admit, I felt a jolt when I saw the old, fixed-grip double-chair line of the resort’s Eagle lift. I own decades-old memories of getting smacked in the rear end by that chair as I boarded. But on this day, I rose to Badger’s 8,000-foot summit aboard the new triple-chair, built alongside the old lift, and can report that it gave a much smoother ride.

Badger Pass celebrates its past, but does not seem mired in it.

Both the Eagle triple and Badger double-chair are new, and the lodge has revamped its foundations, bathrooms, locker rooms and food service areas. The downhill and cross-country rental equipment is well-sourced (Fischer, Rossignol), well-maintained and up-to-date.

Other aspects have not changed, nor would one wish them to. An emphasis on friendly, enthusiastic and skilled instruction established by legendary ski school director Nic Fiore (a charismatic French Canadian who set an amiable tone for 43 years) still holds sway. The 90 acres of Badger’s groomed terrain aren’t so much narrow runs as broad glades, where a skier or boarder can swoop at will and do some modest tree-skiing.
A grin spread on my face as I cut back and forth across slopes I’d not had the pleasure of visiting in years. Skiing on 7 inches of fresh snow dropped atop Badger’s carefully groomed runs was like carving whipped cream.

I dropped by the National Park Service’s A-frame cabin at the edge of the base area for a bit of perspective. The bearded ranger inside consulted a thick pad of statistics. The current snowpack is the best the park has seen in 10 years, he told me. Last January, on this date, with a 0-inch pack, Badger had to close. But now, he said, the depth was a full 5 feet thick, including those 7 inches that had fallen over the past 12 hours.
Outside the cabin, ski instructor Chris Moore, who goes by the nickname “Cowboy,” stepped up to ring the ski school’s bronze bell to start the morning class, a tradition that goes back to the Fiore heyday and beyond. In fact, Moore, now 60, said he himself was taught by Fiore (who died in 2009, at age 88) as a lad of 8, and considers himself a torch-bearer for the Fiore style.

As long as our present train of cold storms continues, Badger Pass, like the region’s other small and relatively low-elevation winter resorts (Dodge Ridge, 6,600-8,200 feet; Soda Springs, 6,700-7,325; Homewood, 6,230-7,881; Tahoe-Donner, 6,750-7,350; and Mount Shasta Ski Park, 5,476-6,866), should all be able to prosper, since they offer a combo of uncrowded slopes, cheap ticket prices and family friendly programs as their principal stock-in-trade.

Badger Pass’s special advantage within is that, once in Yosemite National Park, you win views of a wonderland featuring 1,169 square miles of grandeur with mist-wreathed, snow-draped massifs such as Half Dome and El Capitan.

It’s good news that Badger is presenting revived options for beginner and intermediate downhill skiers and boarders (as well as mountain veterans on a sentimental journey, like me). The great news is that Badger’s center for cross-country or Nordic skiing also has sprung back to life. There’s a school and gear rental facility, plus more than 90 miles of marked trail to ski on. The trail-system centerpiece is a 10.5-mile-long track, groomed all the way out to Glacier Point Hut.

The world-class operation up here, run by staff of the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS), is where I, as an ignorant immigrant from Florida 30 years ago, initially clipped into a set of boards. Then-director Bruce Brossman pushed me into a class and encouraged me past my first clumsy set of falls and bruises. He flogged me on into Yosemite’s classic Nordic race, then an outing to Glacier Point and finally a trans-Sierra ski trip.

A high point of my visit to Badger this January was taking another run out to Glacier Point. I started off under tranquil, sapphire skies to find another foot of powder compacted on a trail groomed with diagonal-stride tracks on each side and a skating lane in the middle. (YMS grooms all the way out to the point every Thursday or Friday, then after “as needed.”)

On the trail, I met and passed more folks heading out for snow-camping sessions or a visit to Ostrander Hut (a higher, more distant, and more rustic option). About 4 miles down the road, the lovely snow-clad peaks of the Clark Range appear, luring me on to further effort. At Mono Meadows, the trail bent north to climb for the next 3 miles. A 1.7-mile descent then ended at an overlook where the bulk of Half Dome rears in total magnificence against the northern horizon.

To term the Glacier Point facility a “hut” is kind of a misnomer. It’s actually a 3,000-square-foot alpine chalet, designed in an Ahwahnee/Craftsman style by Henrik Bull, with a soaring ceiling, peeled log beams and granite accents. In summer, it’s a drive-up visitor center for the point; in winter, it’s a ski-up lodge with dormitory bunks erected in one wing and food service in the other; a huge wood stove dominates the center.
I made my trip to the point in the four- to five-hour time window the park suggests for intermediate skiers, and was met at the door by Ryan Mann, 38, a former pastry chef from New York. Bearded, burly and smiling, he inquired if I wanted a hot beverage and snacks. My instant response: “Absolutely!”

Mann came to Yosemite to camp and grew spellbound by the park at first sight, then contrived a way to stay. Four years ago, he moved from cooking at the Ahwahnee Hotel to caretaking this hut.

“It’s a perfect job for me,” Mann said. “I like wilderness and solitude, but also love visiting with people and cooking for them.”

Soon, nine skiers ages 20 to 65 had slid up to spend the night. We shed jackets and boots, warmed up by the stove, and tucked into hot nachos and wine. As sunset rinsed Half Dome, Mount Starr King and the Clark Range in the pastels of alpenglow, we grabbed snowshoes from the pile by the door and strolled outdoors to soak in the view. We returned to further refuel on Mann’s stir-fry and salad, and get to know one another. Our cozy hut was soon full of yellow light, abuzz with chatter and laughter, as a blue darkness fell outside.

Our group included husbands and wives, a father and daughter, and a pair of friends: John Mullin, 43, and his pal, Ryan Wiley, 39. Both had been eyeing a Glacier Point End ski trip for years, and decided to jump on it as soon as conditions looked good.
“I grew up skiing in Colorado, but gave it up after college,” Mullin said. “Doing a job and having a family just didn’t leave enough time. Skiing out here today was my first time back on the boards in 21 years. It felt exhilarating to catch these views, and to pull mountain air back into my lungs. Maybe it’s time now to teach skiing to my kids. Probably, we should do it at Badger Pass.”


Badger Pass downhill ski area is open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Basic adult lift tickets are $48.50, but even cheaper if purchased in advance, online ($44 weekends; $37.50 mid-week). The free shuttle bus runs twice daily from stops in the valley. Schedule, deals, rates, etc., online at Badger Pass Downhill Ski Area

The cross-country ski area at Badger Pass, operated by the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS), is open daily, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Access to the groomed and signed Nordic trails is free, but YMS provides gear rental and lessons, including performance ski-skate packages, ski mountaineering and telemark gear. Guided overnight trips to the Glacier Point Hut are $350 (one night), $550 (two nights); self-guided trips are just $138 per night (provided a basic quorum of six skiers have signed up for that night). Custom guided options range up to trans-Sierra ski trips through the park. (209) 372-8444. Badger Pass Cross Country Skiing

Outings to the high-country’s Ostrander Ski Hut are arranged through the Yosemite Conservancy.

Information about lodging and other visitor services: Yosemite Park

Information about Yosemite National Park (includes special bulletins on road and weather conditions): Yosemite National Park

New Trail Provides Access Along the Waterfronts

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Special to The Bee

Water-sport fans, take heart: The sea won’t go dry despite the drought. Access to the ocean can begin with San Francisco Bay, essentially a long tongue of the ocean.

A new and growing “water trail” system is devoted to providing recreational access to the bay’s rippling blue expanse of 470 square miles.

Current sites along the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail range from Suisun City to the new Tidewater Boating Center at the south end of the Oakland Estuary to Alviso Marina County Park in the South Bay, McNear’s Beach County Park in Marin and even a Main Street boat dock on the river in downtown Napa. And there are more to come.

Bay Area Water Trail. Paul McHugh, Photographer.

Bay Area Water Trail. Paul McHugh, Photographer.

“When an opportunity arose to get two units of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail designated on our waterfront, we leaped on it,” says Suzanne Bragdon, the Suisun City harbor master and city manager. “We want people to see us as a recreation and vacation destination.”

Suisun, now the nearest outpost of the Bay Area Water Trail to Sacramento, offers a visitors dock next to a hotel and restaurants on the north side of Suisun Slough, and launch ramps and guest slips at a marina on the south side. Bragdon says both fit nicely into a sparkling redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, a $60 million project decades in the making. Fans of power craft, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes, dragon boats, Jet Skis, rowboats and the latest craze of SUPs (stand-up paddle boards) all have a close and choice spot to ply their craft just a 45-mile drive from Sacramento, or a 40-minute ride via Capitol Corridor rail.

“The water trail was a fabulous idea to get people out on the water,” Bragdon says. “We’re happy to participate.”

A band of ardent kayakers in San Francisco waterfront bars and bistros schemed in 2001 to improve their ability to use the bay, not just for day outings but also for overnight camping and multiday jaunts. These informal gabfests gave birth to a nonprofit organization dubbed Bay Access, which identified 135 sites that might be utilized.

Some of those sites were existing marinas and launch ramps that could be improved to accommodate nonmotorized small boats; some were informal access spots hallowed by use; some were just gleams in the eyes of navigators who saw no easy way to get from Point A to Point C unless some type of Point B happened to be established.

“It’s been a long slog, much longer than I thought it would be, to get this project up and rolling,” says Penny Wells, an early member of Bay Access and its current president. “After all our surveys and research, we had our lawyer members write a law to establish it, then lobbied to get it through the Legislature in 2005.”

Because the bay’s shoreline properties were held in so many different hands – state and county and regional parks, federal and state wildlife agencies, cities and private parties – an umbrella authorization was a preferred method to get them to operate in unison. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission took the initial lead on feasibility and environmental studies as well as planning. Then the State Coastal Conservancy served as lead agency for getting the project’s environmental information regulations accomplished. Other collaborators included the Association of Bay Area Governments and the state’s Division of Boating and Waterways.

Ann Buell has been a water trail project manager at the conservancy for the past 10 years. “Participation in the trail is entirely voluntary,” Buell says, “whether it’s an agency or an individual site owner.

“We’ve got 10 sites formally signed and designated now, and we’re in a good position to begin expanding much more rapidly. It’s all very exciting,” says Buell.

The plan is to fill in facilities between the existing sites like adding spokes to a bicycle wheel. Buell says around 110 sites will likely be available at full build-out.

Proponents hope to integrate the shoreline access with The San Francisco Bay Trail, a 500-mile walking and cycling route that has 340 linear miles already finished. That plus the outer ring of the 550-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail at higher elevations (with 330 miles built) could produce a sizable recreational synergy as these three huge activity loops grow toward completion. Visualize paddling or sailing for a day, hiking for a few more days and then relaunching your craft to top off a journey.

One of the hardest nuts to crack on the water trail system has been establishing overnight accommodations. For years, the only legal and easily accessed lodging sites on the water trail route were camps at the state park on Angel Island and just outside the Golden Gate at Kirby Cove, in the national recreation area. But recently, the East Bay Regional Parks District put in a camp at Point Pinole, and Marin County has permitted some group camping at McNear’s and Paradise Beach. Buell says that fresh options may open up soon at Candlestick Point State Park in San Francisco and Hudeman Slough in Sonoma County.

Other options under consideration include persuading shoreline inns and hotels to provide shuttles and boat storage, and perhaps invoking the new “sharing” economy by locating Airbnb-like rentals on houseboats and yachts that are moored in marinas.

There was a brief spate of objections to the water trail from members of the Audubon Society, who thought encouraging small-boat traffic might lead to wholesale disruption of wildlife – such as basking harbor seals and rafting waterbirds. However, Buell says, these complaints were answered by mandating new signage at all official sites to explain how to preserve distance buffers between humans and animals while traveling. Since the sites were already in use, the hope is that educating users will minimize or eliminate problems.

From a pipe dream of a handful of kayakers, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail has grown into a robust project that’s already outlived some of its initial visionaries. The torch is still being passed, with Buell planning her retirement from the conservancy. New personnel will take up water trail chores there and at ABAG. But, Buell says, she feels sanguine about the potent legacy left in place.

“The water trail will meet a real need for people to get out and enjoy the largest natural area in the bay,” she says, “which, of course, are those bay waters themselves.

“And it’s not just a system for the water sports elite. I don’t own a boat; I can’t even lift a boat. But there are plenty of groups that can and will assist and teach newcomers. I’ve taken trips with outrigger canoe clubs in Benecia and Alameda, and the people were all very friendly and welcoming. And with our focus on making sites quite accessible, the water trail can also be useful to retired folks and even the elderly. Getting out on the bay and learning new ways to exercise and appreciate nature is a very healthy thing to do.”

Wells illustrates this point rather well. Now 71, she reckons she’s paddled all over the bay for 30 years. It’s kept her fit as well as alert to the chance for more adventures. Soon she plans to take a break from her work with Bay Access and trot her bay-honed skills up to Alaska for a fresh bout of shoreline exploration.

Wells says her feelings about her kayak paddle are not unlike Charlton Heston’s attitude toward his flintlock rifle: It will take a maximum effort by the universe to pry it from her hands.


▪ The San Francisco Bay Are

Coast Range Wilderness on Path to Preservation

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Special to The Bee

Brush grew so thick on the ridgeline I could not see a hiking companion just 20 feet away from me. I looked down at cuts on my hands and rips in my shirt, then gazed back up at the summit mesa of Cedar Roughs Wilderness. Despite our hours of effort, we apparently hadn’t drawn a whole lot closer.

“This is nuts,” I shouted to Andrew Fulks. “Let’s stop, and call it good.”

“No,” he said. “You wouldn’t take a boat onto Lake Mead, then claim you’d seen the Grand Canyon, would you? We can’t quit until we actually touch those famous cedars! So don’t wimp out on me.”

Osprey. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Osprey. Photo by Paul McHugh.

In truth, I’d invited Fulks to join me on an exploration of one corner of California’s newest proposed national monument to provoke exactly this kind of response. The man’s a bushwhacker of huge experience and vast enthusiasm. I could predict that he’d flog me every bit as much as this undergrowth would. When he insisted we had to keep going, I took a deep breath and thrashed forward.

Fulks is also president of Tuleyome, a local conservation group that promoted designation of this 6,300-acre wilderness area in 2006. Today, with a much broader range of support, Tuleyome promotes designation of a Snow Mountain-Berryessa National Monument. This would encompass roughly 350,000 acres sprawling east, west and north of Cedar Roughs. Fans of this huge new preserve claim it would award long-deserved fame to an ignored region of the Coast Range that actually holds impressive natural and recreational resources. If the push succeeds, they say, new economic activity in surrounding towns should be invigorated by enhanced visitation.

But for that to work – as our foray into Cedar Roughs demonstrated – improved access must speedily become a top priority.

The first 2 miles of our uphill route lay on a rustic, volunteer-built path; the next mile consisted only of faded trail tape knotted to twigs; but our fourth mile had been a brutal, improvised slog.

“I love this,” Fulks said, as he leaned down to take a close-up photo of a wild flower with his iPhone. “No exotic species, just native plants doing their thing. This is a real wilderness.”

The proposed new monument would run 100 miles northward from the cool, trout-fishing waters of Putah Creek on the edge of Solano County to the rocky crest of Snow Mountain, at 7,000 feet, the highest point on the shared border between Lake and Colusa counties. It would embrace oak woodlands, grasslands, conifer uplands, wild and scenic streams, three off-highway vehicle recreation areas, and fling arms of protected land around the 21,000 acres of the Lake Berryessa reservoir (which itself would not be included). The whole region is a home to tule elk and black bear, osprey and eagles.

“It’s a spectacular place for all kinds of recreation, it’s got diverse and beautiful wildlife and native vegetation – especially the spring wildflower displays,” says U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, whose 3rd District holds most of the proposed monument. “It will become widely known as a special place in California if we can only get this done, then integrate a unified management for the whole area.”

He points out that more than 9 million people are living within a two-hour drive of the proposed monument. Lake Berryessa itself is just 40 miles from Sacramento, 20 from Napa and 50 from San Francisco.

Garamendi credits Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, of the adjoining 5th District with launching and spearheading the bill for this new monument and says they are both trying to whip votes for it in Congress – either with a stand-alone bill that’s in committee, or by bundling it into a lands omnibus package.

Simultaneously, a parallel route to designation – via presidential proclamation – is also being sought. President Barack Obama’s naming of three more national monuments in February, including the 21,000-acre Browns Canyon preserve in Colorado, brings the president’s total to 16 named during his administration, and inspires hope that he might see a Snow Mountain-Berryessa monument as one more part of his legacy.

Another cause for optimism on the part of proponents is simply how many proponents there are. “Our town hall meetings have been packed with supporters,” says Sara Husby, the executive director of Tuleyome, and its manager of the monument campaign. “We’ve gathered expressions of support from 80,000 individuals, 200 local businesses, and gotten resolutions in favor from five of the most affected counties.”

The support ranges across stakeholders and user-groups, including the off-highway vehicle advocacy organization, Blue Ribbon Coalition, that signed on after negotiating assurances that a major BLM (federal Bureau of Land Management) riding area in Knoxville and areas in the Grindstone and Upper Lake districts of Mendocino National Forest would remain unaffected.

This does not mean that nobody objects. Colusa County, which includes a small slice of existing wilderness in the Mendocino National Forest, is not in favor.

Nadine Bailey is the operations officer for the Maxwell Family Water Alliance, with more than 2,000 members – primarily drawn from ranchers and farmers from the Sacramento Valley. “We don’t support monument designation,” Bailey says. “It’ll just put one more layer of government on a landscape that already has too many hoops to jump through when you’re trying to get something done – like thinning out overgrowth to lessen fire danger. Fuel loads already are way too high in those hills. If they burn, it’ll wreck the watersheds.”

Garamendi counters that management of monument lands – which would bring together federal, state and local agencies with concerned stakeholders and user groups – would just unify government, not add a layer. And it would tend to preserve water quality, not only through joint projects like controlled burns, but mainly by sponsoring concerted efforts to rid the region of illegal marijuana grows.

Other doubters, such as the tiny Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce, wonder if the claimed economic benefits of a monument designation can materialize. Over the past dozen years, Berryessa has undergone an upheaval that saw several shoreline resorts dismantled, and visitation plunge from 1.5 million people a year to a third of that number. That change also removed a jumble of private trailers and corresponding access and pollution problems. Their replacement by public campgrounds, day-use areas and new concessionaires is underway, but visitation has yet to rebound.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the lake, plans a 165-mile-long multiple-use trail to encircle the lake, providing not only a route for hikers, but also a venue for running, equestrian and mountain bike events – adding to the lake’s traditional draws of power boating, angling and waterskiing. This rim trail will have spokes that radiate out to other attractions in the monument, some already under construction. Tuleyome volunteers have built a 7.5-mile route to Berryessa Peak, routes up onto Blue Ridge and begun a link between Putah and Pope canyons, as well as establishing the 2-mile north entry to Cedar Roughs.

Napa County’s Regional Park and Open Space District presently is concluding negotiations for a parcel that would allow a much shorter east access into the Roughs, directly from a site on Berryessa’s shore.

That means it might not be much longer than a year or two before other visitors – but expending far less effort than Fulks and I did – can enjoy the fragrant cedar groves we found up on the mesa. Truth be told, these are not really cedars, but Sargent cypresses, trees endemic to California and particularly fond of serpentine soils that are thoroughly inhospitable to many other types of plant.

We broke out of the brush and into a quiet swale dominated by a grove of shaggy trunks twisting up out of a thick carpet of brown duff. Six stories over our heads, vivid green needles formed a canopy framing ragged patches of blue sky. I sat on a mossy rock to relax, and inhaled the spicy aroma of resin, and listened to breezes swishing through the boughs. We had come to a peaceful and magical spot. All around the rim of the grove, vistas of Coast Range hills rippled out to the horizons.

I rubbed some of the stout, fragrant needles between my fingers, and beckoned to Fulks.

“Well, as it happens, you were right,” I told him.


Cedar Roughs Wilderness – Access is via a trailhead near the Canyon Road, 2.2 miles west of the junction with the Knoxville Road. Get map and directions from BLM Ukiah,

Cache Creek – A 7-mile, mild whitewater run on this stream in the proposed monument will have enough water for flows through most of June and July. The outfitters are: Cache Canyon,; Rubicon Adventures,; and Whitewater Adventures,

Tuleyome – This Coast Range conservation group provides a comprehensive list of trails, hikes, recreation opportunities and volunteer activities:

Lake Berryessa – Recreation directly around the big lake is managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation,; contacts with area resorts and visitor-serving businesses are also supplied by local chambers of commerce,, and

Mendocino National Forest – Manages the Snow Mountain Wilderness and other recreational assets in the northern portion of the proposed national monument: