Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “outdoors”

A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)

StanfordAlaska37_ZachOratingdocOn my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary.  His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.

Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait.  Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane.  When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.

The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family.  One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added.  A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above.  The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48.  For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”  

As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.”  The name stuck.  The brothers built a guest house.  Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn.   Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.

Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale.  The brothers were retiring.  And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food.   But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work?  Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.

 On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night.  In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere.  Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead.  When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.

From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole.  Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable.  And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants.  They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018.  Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps,  and work parties at the site.  They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel. P1030646web

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the  Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip.  It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran.  The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.  Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station.  And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit.  The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.

We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology.  It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up.  And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.StanfordAlaska47_HobbitHoledoc

 

Freeway Free in France – Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One (cont.)

september-2016-377webAt about the halfway point of our first day of hiking (9km) we felt raindrops.  Drizzle turned to gentle rain, enough to rate dragging out our rain gear – all except DB, who had left her poncho behind to save weight. (DB has some curvature of the spine and her backpack is not very comfortable, so she chose to leave some basic stuff, including sufficient water.  Fortunately both W and I tend to err in the opposite direction, and were able to keep her hydrated with our extra bottles, and fairly dry with my little polka-dot umbrella.). The ponchos added an unnecessary extra layer of warmth, so we kept trying to do without every time we felt the rain slacken, and then had to re-don when we got out of the sheltering woods or the rain renewed its attack.

september-2016-382webWe oohed and ached over a chateau whose ruined towers loomed above the woods on the left (it was burned by the Nazis in WWII) and exclaimed over weird fungi growing on logs and near the edges of the path.  We noted pear orchards, apple trees heavy with fruit, an occasional vineyard lush with grapes awaiting harvest.  We sampled wild blackberries at the side of the road, and tried to open chestnut husks to get at the chestnuts inside. (Chestnuts are stickery!”  And we were counting down the remaining KM by tenths.

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Finally we made it to Sarlat  after about 7 hours on the walk.  (It was supposed to take 5, but we missed a couple of turns, and some of us were pretty slow on the up hills)  The usual hotel for this tour company was booked up, so they put us in a backup – W and I are sharing a tiny room with two twin beds, minuscule night table shelves, one chair, and a clothes rack hung over the door on which we must try to dry our wet / sweaty clothing.  But the shower has cold water for my feet and warm water for the rest of me, and after the appropriate ablutions I am snuggled under the matelasse bedspread in my nightshirt while W in her night shirt is rapping out emails at the skimpy shelf-desk in the corner.   Our dinner reservation is in a half hour and we are hoping to be able to walk that far.

Today’s walk was the second longest of the 7.  Tomorrow we will be in Sarlat for the whole day; there is a “suggested loop” of 14 KM which takes about 4 hours per our tour route guide, or we can just wimp out and enjoy the famous market and explore the car-free streets of the old medieval town.  I’ll see what a good dinner and night’s rest does for me!

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But at the moment wimping out sounds great.

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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Freeway Free in France: Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One

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W and I are in our shared room decompressing after our first day hiking in the Dordogne.  The day started out well, with a street market going full blast out our window, a good night’s sleep after our six course kickoff dinner the evening before, and a good assortment of stuff on the buffet table at breakfast suitable for stuffing into a surreptitious bag for lunch.

20160916_025454docWe were dropped off in Roufillac after a brief orientation on French hiking route markings, and told to “go between the houses and up the path”.  Packs on back, hiking sticks in hand, we set off.  The sky was partly cloudy, the temperature was in the low 70s, couldn’t have been nicer for our purposes.  We wound up through wooded hills past houses and barns built of glowing yellow sandstone, some with tile roofs, many with stone roofs.  We came to a small village perched at the top of the hill and realized we had climbed quite far, and there was a ruined castle inviting us to explore just at the tip of the cliff overlooking the valley.20160916_005258doc

Some of the ruins were Roman, some 12th century, some newer. The castle had been a stronghold against the Gauls, the Huguenots, Charlemagne, and the Moors at various times.  This day, two friendly and muscular young men were busy setting up the stage for a music festival inside the keep starting this weekend.

We continued on down into the valley and up the other side.  By this time the air was warmer, and we stopped to take off our jackets and have our noontime snack of bread, cheese, and fruit from the hotel buffet.  We were already starting to keep track out loud of how many kilometers we had come and how far we had to go – a bad sign. But we felt good, and eager to see what would be coming around the next corner. (To be Continued)september-2016-379doc

 

 

Canada – the Alien Next Door – Day 3 – The Jasper tourist loop

Mystery Island, Maligne Lake

Day 3 is fully scheduled.  We are given an itinerary review at our

8AM breakfast and STRONGLY CAUTIONED not to be the last on the bus.  We managed despite accidentally locking ourselves out of the room safe with all our desirables inside – security has its price. After breakfast, a

9AM  lecture by our Canadian co-leaderBarry on Canadian people and politics build on the theme of successive immigration.  I had somehow never thought about what was going on in Canada next door while the US was experiencing its two hundred years of history.   I hope I will never take Canada as lightly again. At

10AM, the group clears its collective head from all that back-room political talk with a ranger-led nature walk around the periphery of the lake.  I would have liked to go the whole route, but we were due back at the lodge by

11AM  to  purchase “lunch on our own.”  That’s codespeak for “we’d have no hope of getting you all out on time if we tried to organize lunch for you.” We munched and crunched sandwiches from the downstairs deli so that by

12 noon we were all on the bus to Maligne Lake.

12:30  – more sheep at a road turnout.  More photos.Tourist-savvy sheep

1:30 – on a boat tour of Maligne Lake.  This interglacial gem was put onthe Canadian maps by a woman  who had lost her 20-years – older husband and  both parents, within a short space, wanted to get away from her life, came to Jasper and married her 20-years-younger tour guide, a “Meti” (half Indian, half Anglo) who led her to Maligne Lake.  (“She was a cougar!” says tour guide Mark).  We take a boat tour out to the Photo Opportunity which makes all the post cards – a little island with a small grove of pine trees just off the shore.  (See the  Opportunity above).

3:30: Bus back to Jasper lodge.

4:45: we blow off a lecture on Rocky Mountain wildlife adaptation strategies and go swimming.  The Lodge includes a lovely 88 degree pool with  lots of sun, not too many children… very QUIET – no one lecturing or asking questions, blessed peace.

Beats a lecture!5:45:  We leave the swimming pool,return to our little cabin/haven to  dress leisurely for dinner.   Dinner is  outside on the deck with a 180-degree lake and mountan view,  fresh air and all the outdoors to dissipate the chatter of conversation.

9PM: The deck is the place to be, with the lake still glimmering, the late summer sun still loaning a glow to the sky,  and a storm visibly gathering, with clouds billowing grandly as if to belittle the mountains’ puny pretensions.  The wind picks up; the mosquitoes are gone, the stars are playing hide and seek beyond the clouds.

I have to keep reminding myself:  It’s probably not this perfect in February.  But for now – Wow!

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