This Side of the Reef (Part Three)

Author’s Note: Every weekend was an adventure. Swimming and diving on the reef in the lagoon, hiking and camping in the cool, dense jungles of the island’s interior, eating bat stew on the rim of an ancient volcano, becoming lost in a blanketing mist while swimming in a cold, bottomless crater lake, outrigger canoe trips to uninhabited islands, numerous adventures by trail bike, romance in the setting sun, and night-dipping under the shooting stars. Too many social commitments, too much fun, too damn many women and not enough sleep.

A fisherman coming in from the reef
A fisherman coming in from the reef

Once a month, I joined a group of ‘expats’ for adventure trips off the beaten track for overnights on uninhabited islands, treks into the interior of the two larger islands to hidden crater lakes, ancient lava flows, or for special birding excursions. I loved exploring the wild and mysterious jungle, as well as the boundless, clear sparkling sea.

One of the more challenging expeditions took us deep into the interior of Upolu island following razor-sharp ridge lines past spectacular panoramas across the island’s backbone and down to the sea – bush-whacking through the island’s nearly impenetrable interior. At viewpoints along the way, we could see down to Apia, and across to the other main island of Savai’i, with tiny Manono and Apolima  islands in between – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs far in the distance. 

We were climbing Mount Fito, the tallest mountain on Upolu (3,600 ft.) and extremely hard going through the dense, ever-changing, tangled undergrowth and rugged terrain. I mopped up the rear, hanging back, listening to the distant singing of bush knives ahead as smoky rays of sunlight slanted through moss-laden trees, cicadas happily buzzing high in the forest canopy.

Jim and Dave at Lanoto’o Crater

Reaching the rim of the volcano, the late afternoon sun lit up the huge forested crater. Pairs of elegant Tropic Birds – long white tail feathers flowing – rode the air currents inside the massive crater. As dusk fell, the trees came alive with huge bats or ‘flying fox’ (pe’a). In the waning light we hung our sleeping tarps while our guides blasted a couple of bats out of the sky, and made bat stew for dinner – tiny drumsticks of tender meat – not bad at all!

Accessible from the main cross-island road in the misty highlands, the trail to Lanoto’o Crater was a faint, rarely used track, shrouded by heavy clouds – dark, cool and damp. Scaling the steep, densely forested volcano, we slid barefoot down the precipitous inner crater wall to the perfectly round, emerald green lake below. Incredibly beautiful as it was mysterious and after a hard, sweaty climb up and a muddy slide down to the silent, misty shoreline, the cool water beckoned. 

Once while swimming across the lake, a heavy cloud cover descended, totally obliterating everything in sight. All was white except for the ripples of dark smooth water directly in front me as I swam. After momentary panic, I noticed my friends’ voices coming from somewhere on shore, and they guided me back to safety. On the way home, we flagged down a bus-load of well-padded women returning from a picnic who pulled me up to dance with them in the aisle – squashing me with their huge bodies as the weaving, top-heavy wooden bus lumbered around tight mountain curves. I was lucky to survive that one!

An entire roast pig filling the back of the jeep

The endless summer continued in full swing with my brother Dave’s visit – closing down raucous night clubs in Apia, trekking, swimming, diving, and visiting YMCA rural clubs (kalapus) in remote villages throughout the country.

We enjoyed tons of incredible food served by village girls seated before us fanning the flies away as we ate, followed by Samoan cocoa or the ceremonial beverage kava – a relaxing psychotropic concoction made from the root of a plant in the pepper family. Wonderful stuff that tastes like dirty dish water, but soon numbs the mouth, face and then the whole body. We endured the seemingly endless ceremonies, speeches, and tortuous hours sitting cross-legged on the floor, and returned home with Dave sharing the back seat with a huge roast pig – one of the many generous gifts from the villagers.  

Diving at the Apia town waterfront, with Mount Vaea in the background (1985)

At the time, there were no commercial dive operations anywhere in the country. But one of my friends had tanks, and the fire station had a compressor to fill them. At points along the coast where the surf was not so strong, we would hop over the reef for some ‘virgin diving’ in amazingly clear and wild waters teeming with sea life large and small.

Particularly memorable was the time I took a paraplegic friend for his first scuba dive. Jerry was from New Zealand and was in Samoa conducting research on services for the disabled in the Pacific. We suited up, wrapped Jerry’s weight belt around his ankles to secure his legs and he held tight to my stabilizer backpack while we descended together for an awesome dive. Jerry wrote about the experience later as part of his published study, describing how much the scuba diving had meant to him, including the wonderful liberating feeling of weightlessness underwater.

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.


This Side of the Reef (Part Two)

Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) from 1983-1986, I experienced some of the highest, lowest, most frustrating and exhilarating times of my life. I was in love with the people, the place, and captured by the challenges and rewards of this work.

YMCA National Headquarters, Apia

Samoa was a fascinating introduction to a totally different kind of YMCA work than I had ever seen before. The traditional YMCA programs of physical education, youth clubs and camping were almost non-existent. Instead, the programs responded to locally defined social and economic development needs and priorities as perceived by the people themselves, and collaborated with other local organizations, government, and international agencies to meet these needs.

Founded in 1978 with the assistance of the New Zealand YMCAs, the National Headquarters of the YMCA of Western Samoa was located in the capital and only city of Apia. The local Rotary Club raised $10,000 for the construction of the YMCA headquarters facility, consisting of a large open meeting room with attached office, classroom and kitchen. The main fale (Polynesian house with no walls) was built in the traditional manner entirely without the use of nails. Instead, twine woven from coconut husk was used to bind the beams together.

Evening Training Program in a YMCA Village Club

YMCA programs focused mainly on rural development, vocational training and youth development in Apia, and in 40 village YMCA branches throughout the country. Leadership training seminars and field practicums covered topics such as farm management, small business management, marketing and credit unions. The YMCA Sales and Marketing Program helped local communities find overseas markets for their produce, and organized competitions to encourage increased crop production. Cash crops included taro, the starchy root staple consumed locally and exported to Samoans in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, and kava, a mildly sedating and culturally important beverage consumed widely throughout the Pacific.

Carpentry and Building Construction Training

Trades training programs in carpentry, construction, furniture sales, and motor mechanics prepared young people for jobs in town, while vocational skills development for self-employment were promoted in the rural areas. Weight training and aerobics classes were offered along with a popular Social Survival Skills course to help prepare Samoans who were planning to move and settle in New Zealand for school or for work.

As the YMCA Public Relations Officer, my first assignment was to produce a newsletter by April which was four months away (high stress!) and I quickly realized the need to slow down and put any overly ambitious hopes for swift and immediate progress aside. Most importantly, I worked closely with my local counterpart at the YMCA, who would assume my responsibilities when I finished my assignment in Samoa.

Village tollgate and a determined toll collector

Traveling to villages around the country on a Honda 185 trail bike, I gathered stories and photos for the YMCA newsletter, ran youth programs, and enjoyed long, lazy lunch hours free-diving at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of Apia, with fresh fish and chips, bananas, papayas, taro and palusami (baked taro leaves filled with coconut cream) washed down with a couple of young coconuts. It was my favorite refuge from the ‘fishbowl’ intensity that a small place like Samoa can sometimes feel like to a foreigner.

My job at the YMCA was really fantastic. But I  needed to work at relaxing more, and learn how to roll with various challenges, and the slower pace of life in general. So, whenever I was exhausted or just frustrated from taking my work too seriously, it helped to simply stand out on the far reef and shout into the wind – unleashing my pent up fury at the top of my lungs – relieved and recharged as my anguish merged into the thundering roar of the pounding surf.

YMCA Urban Youth Group

Samoa is a small place, and I was able to involve the YMCA in various collaborative efforts with other local organizations. With the Ministry of Health and other community organizations and businesses, the YMCA helped establish the first National Health Fair,  which is celebrated each year on World Health Day. The event kicks off with a ‘fun walk’ and includes free medical and dental check-ups, general health education on topics such as nutrition, sanitation and first aid, and a poster-making contest for the kids.

With the Samoa Red Cross Society, and the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, the YMCA helped establish the first National Red Cross Water Safety Program in Samoa, and assisted an International Youth Leadership Camp involving young people from 14 Pacific Island nations. The YMCA also helped organize the annual Special Olympics and Games for the Disabled, and took the lead in establishing a National Suicide Awareness Campaign to address the epidemic of youth suicide that was spreading across the Pacific at the time.

Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

This Side of the Reef (Part One)

Author’s Note: It was dark and raining as the plane approached the island. Through the gloom I could see some flickering lights of a village clustered along the shoreline, but nothing else. I shuddered with the thrill of excitement and some apprehension as this was my first trip to the South Pacific and the start of a 3-year stint with the National YMCA of Western Samoa.


The plane landed and we were told to remain in our seats. When they opened the door a flood of hot, damp air enveloped us. A man entered the plane and while walking down the aisle began spraying the cabin with some unknown white chemical. I tried not to breathe as the mysterious cloud of mist floated wetly down onto our heads. I learned later that treating all incoming passengers with insecticide this way was standard practice. Disembarking at last, I walked across the tarmac to the airport terminal and a tiny arrival hall lit by dim, greasy lights. A girl in uniform checked my passport, and I officially entered Pago Pago, American Samoa.

South coast of Upolu Island, Samoa

Outside in the darkness, a throng of heavy-set Samoans lounged against a barrier that seemed on the verge of breaking under their weight. While waiting for my connecting flight, I noticed the sharply rugged mountains that towered ominously in the shadows above me – shrouded in ragged clouds and mist. It was a cold, damp place, and I was glad to board the plane for the short flight to Western Samoa, where I was met by one of the YMCA staff.

Two of my four pieces of luggage had been lost somewhere along the way, so we loaded my remaining bags into the minivan, and began the long drive to town – past what seemed like villages and homes, but I could not make out much in the darkness. There were few lights, and I could only imagine what this mysterious island I had just landed on looked like. A light breeze was blowing, the air was soft, moist, and remarkably fresh – and again, I began to shiver with excitement as the whole long-awaited adventure was finally beginning to unfold.

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Fishing on the Apia town waterfront (1984)

The YMCA National Headquarters was located in the capital and only city of Apia. Compared to the back villages, Apia’s 35,000 people seemed like a bustling metropolis. In fact, it was more like a small town, with slow-motion traffic jams at rush hour, two-story wood frame buildings (tallest was six stories), live music and dancing at night clubs in the evenings, movie theaters, ice cream parlors, fish and chips stands, grocery stores, plus many small shops and a large open-air produce and fish market. A “fast” photo shop developed prints in 24 hours! Several historic downtown churches added to the town’s picturesque waterfront that formerly served as a whaling port for the early colonialists.

Three days after my arrival in December 1983, the YMCA closed for six weeks for the Christmas and New Year holidays, so I had ample time to begin learning my way around – at first by bicycle, making it up the steep incline to the Mount Vaea trail head for the short but steep climb to the summit where Robert Lewis Stevenson is buried, and for the fine views over Apia town area and out to sea – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs.   

Falefa Falls on the main coastal road, Upolu

Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of town quickly became my favorite swimming and luncheon spot. A simple wooden platform and open fale perched on a small island of reclaimed land made from coral rocks at the edge of a spectacular open area of deep water in the inner lagoon – it was like swimming in a giant natural aquarium stretching far out to the barrier reef that protected us from the open sea.

It was at Palolo Deep that I learned how to use my rubber thongs not only as protective foot gear for walking on the reef, but with no place to safely leave them while swimming, they made excellent hand paddles – one of the many practical Samoan ‘lifestyle habits’ that I carry with me to this day, especially when swimming in coral seas. It quickly became apparent that anything left unattended on the beach – or anywhere else for that matter – had a reasonable chance of ‘walking away’ by itself.

Cooling off in Piula Pool

Piula Springs was perfect on hot afternoons. The 24-mile round trip bicycle ride along the scenic coast was a stretch in the tropical heat, but well worth the effort to soak in the cool spring water flowing from a cave right at the seashore. Diving down into the dark cave, a distant spot of light marks an underwater tunnel leading to another cave further back where you surface in another hidden pool!

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

A Visit to an Island Paradise (Part Two)

Author’s note: Weekends with my aiga (extended family) on Manono Island were excellent opportunities to practice my Samoan language skills. My hosts spoke no English, but were exceedingly patient and had a wonderful sense of humor – often roaring uncontrollably with laughter at my efforts to learn the language – which I eventually succeeded in doing.

Manono and Kirisimasi

Living in Samoa brings one close to life – and death. Babies are born at home. Chickens and pigs are raised, then slaughtered and eaten. Fish is caught from the sea and other delicacies are gathered daily from the reef at low tide.

Sunday mornings, we were up well before dawn to build the umu (rock oven), scrape coconuts and squeeze the shredded coconut meat through the husk into cream. I held the torch while my brother Malie knocked a pig out with a few well-aimed rocks to the head before finishing the job with a pipe pressed across its throat. 

After singeing the hair off in the fire, we scrubbed and scraped it clean. I held the carcass steady as Malie slit the belly and then thrust his hand into the warm gut to rip out its contents, including the heart and liver, which we wrapped in banana leaves for the oven.

Stuffing the cavity with dry leaves, we covered it with hot rocks along with taro (starchy root), palusami (young taro leaves filled with coconut cream and fresh vegitables), bananas, and fish wrapped neatly in woven coconut leaves and covered with large green banana leaves to bake. 

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Malie scraping coconuts to squeeze into cream

Manono Island is a prime example of tropical beauty and unspoiled Polynesian culture. For the most part, people live as they have for thousands of years, with the addition of one significant influence – the Church. Since 1830, Christianity has become a central part of Samoan culture.

Each village has at least one church. Everyone goes to lotu (worship services) each evening and twice on Sundays. Women dress up in white hats and puletasi (full-length dresses). Men wear white shirts and lava lava (a skirt-like wrap-around).

Kids sit together in church under the watchful eye of an adult parishioner wielding a long switch poised to quiet a fidgety youngster. The faife’au (pastor) reads scripture and delivers a thundering “fire and brimstone” message in the tradition of the early missionaries. In full and perfect harmony, the congregation sings hymns accompanied by a small organ. Monetary offerings are announced in church – a real “keep up with the Jones” obligation to the church.

Lotu-a-Tamaiti (White Sunday or Children’s Sunday) falls on the second Sunday in October and is as big a day as Christmas for the children of Samoa. It is the only day of the year that the children get the best food, eat first, and enjoy tasty deserts at home. To’ona’i (mid-day feast) is prepared by the adult family members and served to the children – a complete role reversal. As usual, the best and largest portions are given to the faife’au (pastor) as a meaalofa (love gift).

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Children’s Sunday

The children lead both Sunday services (morning and evening) singing songs and performing skits. At lunch, women offer their breasts to the babies – so, as we feast on baked pig, taro and fish, the little ones get mother’s own freshness.

A Samoan fale (house) typically has very little furniture, or anything else for that matter – except a boom box, for news and music. Mats woven from locally grown flax cover the floor for sitting, eating, and sleeping – and although I brought gifts (soap, basic medicines, etc) whenever I visited my aiga, even special items like swim goggles and a fishing knife for my father Uila would be gone the next time I visited, having already been given away to someone else.

Apparently it is more honorable to give your possessions away than to accumulate things. On the other hand, sandals left unattended or clothing drying on the line might just walk away. Whenever I ran into someone wearing one of my shirts (or my sunglasses, etc), I would be politely assured they would be returned – and even laundered. Otherwise, they were gone.

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Jim and Emi on the beach in Manono

Uila told me he had 14 children, but every time I visited there were new faces, others missing from the gathering, someone else pregnant, etc. It was not uncommon for family members – young children included – to move from one extended family household to another as circumstances dictate, including unmarried daughters to the pastor’s house – presumably for safe keeping.

An interesting phenomenon in many parts of Polynesia is mo’i totolo (sleep crawling) whereby secret rendezvous are managed by sneaking under the raised floor of your sweetheart’s fale and poking a stick through the floor slats, then sneaking down to the beach together – romance in the islands! 

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

A Visit to an Island Paradise (Part One)

Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer from 1983-1986 in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), I enjoyed weekends with my adopted Samoan aiga (extended family) on the tiny island of Manono, one of the four inhabited islands of Samoa known also as “The Cradle of Polynesia”. While some things have changed since then – notably electricity – otherwise, much remains the same. Here is a taste of what life was like in those heady days on my favorite South Pacific island paradise.

Arriving at Manono Island

The trip from the larger island Upolu took 30 minutes and cost 50 sene (25 US cents). The small, extremely weathered wooden boat was overloaded with people and food – including a sacked pig or two. There was barely enough free-board to repel the swelling seas.

Rain was coming down in buckets. Someone calmly bailed while the boat threatened to nose-dive in the next trough. Amazingly, we did not go under. It was comforting to reflect that these waters were within the protection of the reef – which reduced our chances of meeting a shark.

As the boat approached the tiny island, half of the passengers hopped overboard to haul the soggy vessel through the shallows to a rock jetty. Palangi, palangi (name given to white people) came the excited cries of half-naked children gathering around – some brave enough to venture a quick touch of white skin or golden hair.

There are no roads, cars or dogs here. A sandy path lined with flowers and tall, sweeping coconut palms follows the coastline, and it takes just under an hour to stroll leisurely around this tranquil island. The place is Manono Tai, one of the four inhabited islands of Samoa – the legendary birthplace of Polynesian culture and language, in the middle of the South Pacific.

My Samoan Aiga - a family photo (1984)
My Samoan Aiga – a family photo (1984)

There is a battery operated telephone box on the island, but it hasn’t worked for some time. One of the four villages that dot the coastline has electricity generated by a petrol generator. Power cuts off at 10:00 PM nightly.

Frequent rains provide fresh water for the approximately 600 inhabitants of this lush, tropical island. Messages broadcast on local radio alert the islanders whenever someone is coming for a visit. 

Fales (houses) are traditional Polynesian open construction, round or oval and have high peaked roofs of woven leaves or tin, and have no walls. Food is cooked in an umu (rock oven). Toilets (faleuila) are outhouses perched on stilts over the beautiful white sand beaches. As the tides come and go, these ‘toilets’ flush twice daily. 

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Jim, Emi, and Gary, dressed for church

In one village, a winning Fautasi (longboat) is enshrined in a special fale along with its trophy until next year’s races. Nearby, children play kilikiti –  a Samoan version of cricket.

In the evening, the fishermen take their outrigger canoes out to the reef. The women in the open fales – seated cross-legged on the floor – are weaving mats from dried flax, preparing food, or just chatting. Gravestones in front of many fales are reminders of family members who have gone before.

Presenting our customary oso (food gift), we are invited to malolo (take a rest) after our journey from the capital city Apia, before being fed our own food plus heaps of taro (starchy root) boiled bananas, coconut cream, palusami (coconut cream and fresh vegetables baked in young taro leaves), breadfruit, baked fish, pork, chicken, eel, octopus, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and Samoan cocoa. Seated cross-legged on the floor, we eat with both hands, as is customary in Samoa.

My Samoan father, Uila, with two of his grandchildren, Fala and Kirisimasi

Seated in front of us, the kids fan the flies away and will eat after the adults are finished. Pleasantly stuffed, we are each given a pillow and a woven mat, and join everyone for an afternoon nap, a sheet hanging down the middle of the fale – men on one side, women on the other. 

Lounging in the main fale by the water’s edge, gazing out to sea, the cool breezes are soothing as light rain falls on the tropical greenery all around.

Samoan life revolves around the aiga (extended family group) and the enduring tradition of Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way of life) is the dominant social force. Strong obligation to the aiga under the patronage of the matai (elected head of the family) ensures security for its members in return. 

Uila, the pulenu’u’ (village mayor), asked me to be his son, along with Gary, a US Peace Corps volunteer. Our friend Emi, a young Samoan police woman, was also adopted into the family.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

North to Alaska (Part Two)

Author’s Note: In July 1983, my brother Dave and I (a.k.a. Joe Juneau and Skookum Jim) pulled on our mukluks, smeared our chins with whale blubber (so to speak), and headed off for a three-week trek into the vast frozen reaches of the Klondike – and lived to tell about it. Our story resumes in the uncharted wilderness of Yukon’s Kluane National Park.

Sharp peaks, glistening snowfields and glaciers reflected the warming sun and piercing blue skies. The days were incredibly long – the sun seemed never to set. Camped on the tundra after full days of hiking, the cool mountain air, rich fragrance of the land on the breeze, and the intoxicating flow of water all around conspired to knock us out each night. 

Backpacking in Kluane National Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

An occasional Grizzly moving across the green plateau was a prudent reminder to set the bear bag (with any scented items that might attract bears – food, toothpaste, soap) far out on the tundra at night. There were no trees to hang it from.

Our tent is cozy – a tiny speck in this vast wilderness.  Steady rain slapping the sides of our tent, Joe Juneau and Skookum Jim lay warm in their bags. Cold and windy, at times calm and silent at approximately 5,500 feet elevation, our lonely little tent sat in all its vulnerability on the wide, alpine plateau.

Spectacular 10,000 foot peaks white with glaciers and laced with long, silvery tracks of cascades filled our view. Barren, green tundra everywhere else. But the cold and wet were of small consequence, as it was pure pleasure simply to be there to experience it. Indeed, we were lucky to be alive. Caught on a steep, crumbly precipice above Sheep Creek, I might not have made it had Dave not been there.

Kluane – a vast wilderness reserve

We got tired of rock-hopping along the creek with full packs and got the bright idea to climb what appeared to be a steep but short bluff at a bend in the stream. But it turned out to be very high, with few sure foot and handholds – one of those never-ending rises that keeps going up the higher you climb.

But Dave managed to make it up, and I was stuck on a slippery ledge, just out of reach of solid handholds. I carefully dug out a foothold, made the move – and missed! With both hands I dug into the loose soil and gripped with all my might while feeling frantically with my feet for a solid hold. But I began to slide – slowly down towards the edge. Had I fallen over that would surely have been the end!

Thankful for another chance at life – to breathe, and smell, and eat, and sleep, and look around at the land, water and sky – to feel the wind and the rain, to bundle against the cold, crawl into a warm, cozy sleeping bag, and share that little tent with Dave, who reached out his hand and pulled me to safety. It was indeed wonderful to be alive and well – we just hoped the Grizzlies wouldn’t bite our asses!

Camped on the tundra

Eventually the sun returned, lighting up the glistening peaks – snow fields and glaciers reflecting the welcome sun and blue sky. Ground squirrels chirped from all reaches of the pock-holed meadow. Delicate butterflies alighting on moist, frail flowers.

Four Mountain (Dall) Sheep scampered from a nearby hillside to become four pure white dots against the dark talus of a distant slope. Bees buzzing, magpies landing close by – fresh bear scat and diggings everywhere.

But the nights were bitter cold. The stars came out and shown despite the brilliance of the moon, which lit up the brief darkness of the snapping, clear cold nights. Dave broke the ice in our precious stream for morning tea. Our tent looks very homey even in its smallness in this vast wilderness.   

Descending to the treeline and into the tall pines lining the windy shores of Kluane Lake, a local pickup brought us along the Alaska-Canadian Highway past rugged peaks of the Alaska Boundary Range in the Coast Mountains to a cold, swampy campsite at Haines Junction

Catching a few rays on board our ferry

After fruitless hitching, we splurged and took a bus over Chilkat Pass back into the USA. Through relentless freezing rain, ice and snow, we followed the Chilkoot River along the back side of Glacier Bay past a native village called Klukwan, and finally to the beautiful little seaport of Haines, Alaska

Four relaxing days on BC Ferries carried us through the Lynn Canal Fjords to Juneau and down the rest of the Inside Passage along the coast of British Columbia to Seattle, USA.

We had survived our Klondike expedition!

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

North to Alaska (Part One)

Author’s Note: In July 1983, my brother Dave and I (a.k.a. Joe Juneau and Skookum Jim) headed off for a three-week trek into the vast frozen reaches of the Klondike. It was Dave’s first backpacking adventure – and probably his last. He was not big on tent camping in the freezing rain, or surviving on freeze-dried meals for weeks at a time – nor was I. But having recently graduated with a college degree in camping, I was eager to put my new knowledge into practice.

Sailing deck fare on the BC Ferrys

Departing Seattle at dawn, the ferry carried us north to Alaska through smooth, opaque water in the early morning calm. The Inside Passage weaves through coastal islands on the Pacific coast of North America, and was one of the sea routes carrying prospectors north during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898. 

Traveling deck fare – warmed at night under heated lamps – we sailed for four days past jagged snow peaks and glaciers flowing in awesome silence down to Spruce and Hemlock-covered ravines, streaming with cascades. A few fellow deck passengers snored easily as we approached Juneau, Alaska’s remote capital.

Camped by Auke Lake at the terminus of Mendenhal Glacier – calving huge chunks of ice into the lake – we broke out our rain gear as a few drops began to fall from an overcast sky and hitched into town for dinner at the Red Dog Saloon. Chatting with a local “fisherman by trade” in the drizzle of Juneau, we met fellow passengers Kate and Terra who saved us deck chairs the following day for our trip to the Tlinket Indian settlement at Sitka City on Baranof Island.

Hiking through coastal rain forest

We saw Bald Eagles, Killer Whales, hiked historic trails by Native totem poles carved from massive Red Cedar trees, visited a Russian Orthodox church and climbed Castle Hill, high above the city where Russian Alaska was formally handed over to the United States in 1867.

Sailing on to Skagway at the northern turn of the Alaskan panhandle, we hiked through lush, moss-carpeted coastal rain forest bursting with life – eager to live it to the fullest during the short summer season.

We climbed from sea level up into the snow and ice and finally over the steep 3,500 foot Chilkoot Pass, made famous during the 1898 Gold Rush. Information boards along the trail told the story of that epic journey undertaken by so many hopeful prospectors, including historic photos of the huge loads of supplies and equipment – even horses – being transported over the pass.

Summiting Chilkoot Pass

In winter, Gold Rush stampeders struggled through blizzards, freezing temperatures and avalanches, transporting thousands of pounds up 1500 steps of the “golden staircase” cut in snow and ice. Indeed, many items never made it, including neatly piled caches of long wooden slats wrapped in canvas we passed along the way, that were to be assembled into boats to float down the Yukon River to the gold fields.

Descending into British Colombia, Canada, we entered yet another world of snowy boulder-strewn tundra and moraine. Glaciers flowed in every direction from towering mountains feeding the clearest, coldest cascades of snow melt.

Camped by pristine lakes, twittering loons laughed from across the water. Happy Camp, as it was aptly named, was the first camp established by prospectors as a welcome reward and rest stop after summiting the steep and perilous 26 mile pass, which shoots up a additional 1000 feet in the final half mile. Happy Camp was also reportedly the first camp where prostitutes were available. Although those services were no longer in evidence when we arrived, we did meet two friendly Canadian lasses camped there who joined us for the rest of the journey.

Paddling down the Yukon River

We also met a nice couple in Whitehorse, the capital and only city in Yukon Territory, whose 28,000 people comprise the majority of Yukon’s population. They graciously lent us their canoe and then picked us up downstream a few days later.

So off we went, paddling down the mighty Yukon River – through wide open, empty wilderness – 10,000 square miles of Yukon Territory to every resident. North-country breezes bracing and invigorating, and not a soul in sight.

On the Alaska-Canadian Highway, we hitched to the park entrance and registered the color of our packs at the ranger station for identification in case we did not emerge on time. We were given instructions to be on the lookout for Grizzlies, particularly when hiking through patches of Sedge Grass that the bears like to eat (we soon noticed that stuff was everywhere!) and set out on foot into the uncharted wilderness of Yukon’s Kluane National Park.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

Traveling Road Show USA

Author’s Note: Re-entry into ‘fast lane’ USA after six months exploring the backwaters of Asia was culture shock in reverse – a relief at first, then stressful as time went on. Back on the American diet, I gained 20 pounds in 20 days, and embarked on a six-month around-the-country excursion – hitting 30 states by year’s end.

‘Trunkated’ Auto Mechanics

It was a typical road trip back east – traveling in a broken down ‘65 Mercedes with four of my college buddies. We were the Czechoslovakian Bobsled Team running, pushing furiously down icy roads to jump-start it. Then hopping in, we drove merrily on our way from Colorado to Connecticut without a clutch, a faulty electrical system, and through the Pennsylvania hills with no brakes. Somewhere in New York the fuel pump burst.  But eventually we made it home safely for Christmas.

The Traveling Road Show, as we christened ourselves, rolled into the New Year, as our merry band skidded across the frozen northern reaches to descend upon unsuspecting households, picking up and dropping off friends along the way. In Atlantic City, we came out ahead by snagging quarters from the floor by the one-armed bandits.

From New York City, we headed to Lake George in the Adirondacks for a grand reunion of Silver Bay YMCA friends on winter break from university. I had just returned from Sri Lanka, and was itching to get back overseas. But these reunions with summertime friends were not to be missed, and there were many others to visit all around the country.

Winter reunion at Lake George, NY

But it all ground to a halt suddenly on a cold, dark night of nasty sleet and freezing rain in State College, Pennsylvania. Mononucleosis (also known as “the kissing disease” because the virus is spread through saliva) turned a 3-day visit into three months – sick and stretched out in a sleeping bag for 10 weeks on the floor of a forgotten upstairs closet.

Months of relentless fatigue, illness and gut pain had taken their toll on my body and spirit, as the strength and energy ever so slowly returned to my weary limbs and weakened spirit. A hefty price for that fling with the British girl in Kathmandu!

Indeed, it was the longest Spring in memory, and I wondered if the sun would ever return to the dreary Appalachians. Cold gray skies, relentless rain, and finally a few cautious rays lighting up the dogwood, cherry and apple blossoms – brilliant in the long-awaited sunshine. At last, I was well enough to travel and headed south and then west, visiting YMCAs and summertime friends all along the way.

Denver, North Carolina

The train rolled through utterly grim coal-mining towns to Philadelphia, then followed the Delaware river south to Baltimore, Chesapeake Bay, Washington DC, through Virginia and finally to Greensboro, North Carolina to meet a certain southern belle. A couple days in Raleigh, then by car to Boone where we stayed in a cabin overlooking the misty valleys and heavily forested ridges of the Appalachians.

Relaxing on the deck with a guitar, or in total silence but for a few woodland birds, we gazed out over the vast expanse of endless ridges and densely forested valleys. Bright spring flowers beside rustic homes pushing up through pungent, black earth. Eerie mists rising from forgotten valleys. Wondering at all the lost tales of men – their lives and deaths held secret by these, the oldest mountains on earth.

The train out of Charlotte swept south and west through Georgia for more reunions in Atlanta, and on to Alabama and the flats of Tuscaloosa, Meridian and Hattiesburg Mississippi – flat and flooded. Then a five-mile trestle spanning Lake Pontchartrain into Louisiana and New Orleans where the local YMCA hosted me. Another southern belle gave me a wonderful historic and cultural tour of the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, jazz and street parties everywhere, and to the mighty Mississippi for a ride on a grand old paddle boat — all under the full moon of a balmy Louisiana night.

At home in Colorful Colorado

By June I had traveled through 23 states, hitting 30 states by year’s end. Back at home in Colorado, the mountains were as peaceful and magical as ever with summer colors. Beautiful flowers everywhere – there had been plenty of water that year, streams bubbling merrily along. 

Local TV and radio interviews organized by my sponsoring YMCAs in Illinois and Wisconsin helped raise enough money for my assignment with the YMCA of Western Samoa. And again, I had to find a map to see where they were sending me!

I was recharged and ready for more adventure out in the world. But not before taking advantage of the summer months in North America. So my brother Dave and I set off for Alaska and Yukon territory, following the trail of the 1898 Gold Rush. Stay tuned for “North to Alaska” coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here



India and Nepal on $3 a Day (Part Two)

Author’s Note: After two weeks in Nepal, I traveled the length of the Indian subcontinent and across the channel to Sri Lanka (about 4000 kilometers or 2500 miles) for just $30 dollars but it took 12 days.

indian-subcontinentIncredible India – you either love it or you hate it. From the Taj Mahal – truly magnificent in the setting sun and reflecting pool, I returned to Delhi and boarded the Taj Express Railway for the southern coastal city of Madras (Chennai). First class passage took three days and three nights and entitled me to one of the four fold-down wooden berths in the compartment. But this was India – with wall-to-wall people. So, each time I returned from the toilet I had to eject one (or more) people from my berth.

Rail stations fronted with dusty, ramshackle housing, and chaotic jumbles of electric power lines. At every stop, a sea of hands thrust through the compartment windows with various snack items for sale. Hot sweetened milk coffee served in a glass swished “clean” with the seller’s finger. Then slowly rolling on past people squatting on the cement rim of a canal wall streaked with lines of shit dribbling down.

A Sacred Cow at the Beach

Ocean breezes at Madras were pleasant, and the beaches looked inviting from a distance. But I quickly realized swimming was out of the question – with the kids and just about everyone else taking their morning dump on the beach. 

The instant I stepped down from the train, I was hit with the usual frantic press of bicycle rickshaw drivers all insisting you ride with them, and you know none of them can be trusted to give you an honest price, or even a direct ride to where you want to go.

After a few minutes of this madness, I shouldered my rucksack and walked to my guesthouse, which took me past the local bus station (a field strewn with shit), back alleys with pigs rooting in horrible garbage, pitiful dogs hairless with mange, one with prolapsed entrails hanging out its back side, and covered with flies. And yet, colorful and festive processions seemed to fill the streets at almost every turn. 

The best beach scenes were at night – when you can’t see all the rubbish, but then you risk skidding through one of the numerous cow pies, scattered everywhere. But the women were lovely, in colorful saris or loose trousers narrow at the ankles and topped with a tunic, a red dot (bindi) on the forehead, and loads of jewelry – golden nose rings, ear rings, arm rings, wrist bangles, anklets, and toe rings. Villagers skinny with hard work. Sharp, flashing eyes.

A  fingerless leper and friends

From Madras I boarded a local train to the southern port at Ramamswaram to catch the ferry for Sri Lanka. But it was a horrible time there. From the moment I stepped off the train I was sick. Fever, sweating, weak, and had to wait four more days to get on the ferry.

With any number of possible causes, and not uncommon among travelers in India, I had developed a bad fever and dysentery and was laid up in a guesthouse while waiting to get on the ferry. Was it that dubious glass of ‘supposedly’ boiled water – discovered only later with mosquito larvae swimming in it – who knows?

Fortunately, another traveler brought me food each day, and together we endured the long lines at the ferry terminal only to be told each time the tickets were sold out – until we realized “grease” money was required. At last we got on the ferry, caught a train to Colombo, and I somehow ended up at a nearby Christian Mission Hospital. I was seriously ill, delirious, and still have no idea how I got there.

Lunch with a group of Hindu “Sadhus” (holy men)

Local hospitals typically don’t provide food service, so patients must rely on friends and relatives to bring them food and other essentials. While being treated for dysentery, my skinny orderly brought me a large bowl of vegemite (fermented yeast) soup each day, and regularly dragged me out of bed  and onto a scale – I suppose to see if I weighed as much as he did. At that point, I didn’t.

Somehow, the YMCA found out where I was, came to collect me and I recovered at the YMCA.

Still incredibly cheap today, India and Nepal are not easy traveler destinations. And of course, the grim and astonishing poverty is shocking and draining. After a month of hard travel, I was ready to leave. But love it or hate it, I keep returning for more life-changing experiences in these fascinating places.

 Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here

India and Nepal on $3 a Day (Part One)

By Jmhullot - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwindex.phpcurid=40358783

The Annapurna Range behind Phewa Lake, Pokhara (Jmhullot/ Wikimedia Commons) (CC-BY-SA)

Author’s Note: In 1982, after finishing my assignment with the Colombo YMCA in Sri Lanka, I traveled for a month through Nepal and India before returning home to the USA. I flew from Colombo to Kathmandu, and after two weeks in Nepal, traveled the length of the subcontinent to the southern tip of India, and back to Sri Lanka by ferry – averaging about $3 a day – and lived to tell about it!

All roads lead to Kathmandu – really! Very few tar-sealed roads in the this mountain kingdom, and the narrow, winding streets of Kathmandu, stuffed with people in a land of stark contrasts.

Temples of Patan Durbar Square

I awoke to the sound of vomiting next door. It seems someone is always sick, spitting, gagging, vomiting, or blowing snot from overhanging rooftops. Men, women and children smoking, silver anklets on naked children taking dumps in the street. Old women with boat-anchor earrings, golden nose-rings. Men affectionately holding hands and wearing funny little hats with warm smiles and greetings of “Namaste” everywhere (with wobbling heads).

Many different costumes are worn, depending on the ethnic group. Tibetan women draped in colorful rugs, spitting red betel nut chew (pan), sporting nose rings and ear tacks. Daily baths for the water buffalo. Pagoda-style temples reflect the sense of harmony between Buddhist and Hindu shrines. Nobody hassles you – just pure, simple and open curiosity.

Eyes of Boudhanath, Kathmandu. By Bikram Pratap Singh – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Meanwhile, “Riders on the Storm” throbs on with the typical Doors sense for the ominous in the residual hippy atmosphere of cheap guesthouses and simple eateries where the backpackers hang out – searching for Oriental philosophy, religion, enlightenment, or just an affordable good time with plenty of dope.

Everything was incredibly cheap – at $4 per night my luxury hotel was a splurge. I was new to the traveler scene and had no idea where to stay, where to go, or what to do – but quickly began meeting travelers from all over the world. Many young Australians or Europeans were on year-long and multi-year trips – and this was a real eye-opener for me.

It was a friendly place, and I soon joined a young Aussie couple for a three-day trek to see Mount Everest (Sagamatha) at dawn – rising in a ring of snow peaks all above 25,000 feet, with the great green expanse of the Kathmandu valley spreading out behind us.

img_013aWe hiked through massive mountains rising out of the greenest valleys painted with meandering streams and morning mist. Tall, sharp, snowy peaks rising above the steep, green terraced and irrigated hillsides of rice and corn, carved and altered all by hand, loads carried on the backs of young and old, usually strapped over the forehead, barefoot.

I carried just a simple day pack with a change of clothes, basic medical supplies and other essentials. In contrast to backpacking in the States, where you carry everything (e.g. food, cook stove, bedding, tent) the villagers living along these mountain footpaths make it easy by providing lodging and food, and for a mere pittance – along these, the main thoroughfares of the region.

It was the height of the rainy season, and leeches were out in force. Rock salt inside our boots did little to deter them, and we carried bottles of salt water and cotton balls in our breast pockets for easy and swift access to dab the blood-swollen bodies that turned up wherever veins were available to latch onto.

We trudged on through the rain, pulling off the blood-swollen worms, skin bloodied with tiny leech cuts. Stands of tall, wet grass were particularly notorious for the tiny parasites which soon became engorged on our blood, and rained down upon us from trees. But the skies cleared on the final morning for spectacular views of the world’s tallest mountain.

Nepali girls on the trail

Confident, with the first trek under my belt, I struck out on my own to tackle the Jomson Trail – a 21-day trek around Annapurna, the second tallest mountain on Earth. One is never alone on these trails, with a constant and determined following of kids: “hello rupee”, “one pen”, “what’s your name?”

But a week into my solo trek, the rains, leeches, and finally a frightening rain-soaked mudslide sent me packing out of the bush, and I headed for Pokhara, a laid back, lakeside travelers’ haven about an eight hour bus ride from the bustling capital Kathmandu.

Swimming and boating, lazing in the cool shade of the forest, insects buzzing high in the trees – a silent, empty skiff on the glass surface of the deserted lake reflecting explosions of color, life and enchantment all around. No beggars, no leeches, no urchins no hassles – just quiet solitude and nature’s beauty and mountains all around, snow peaks aglow in the evening twilight.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.