Posts Tagged ‘Outdoors’

Since I moved back to Georgia in 1979, I’ve lived in five different places around Atlanta and Athens. And the one constant since my return has been regular trips north into the mountains to go hiking.

There was a time when I took multi-day backpacking trips, but that practice evolved into the more civilized pursuit of dayhiking. Over the years, I’ve been on many hundreds of hikes in the mountains and foothills of Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee.

For any given hike, my route to the mountains depended on where I lived at the time and where I was headed. By now, I’ve probably driven 90 percent of the roads, county, state, and federal, in the northern third of Georgia.

Sometime in the early 1990s, on my way north, I came upon an intriguing road sign that compelled me to stop and take a photo.

Bates Motel Road

It appeared to be a legitimate, official road sign, not a joke. The story behind it was a mystery, of course. All I could do was accept it as a humorous oddity and take the photo.

When I got home, I made a print and put it on the refrigerator. I also saved it as a .jpg and filed it away on my desktop.

But the novelty eventually wore off, and for the next couple of decades, I gave Bates Motel Road little thought.

But then, not long ago, a curious thought popped into my head. That photo of the Bates Motel road sign — where, exactly, did I take it?

I remembered the setting clearly, but I couldn’t recall the location. It could be anywhere in half a dozen counties in the North Georgia foothills.

For a while, when I drove north to go hiking, I made it a point to take different routes, hoping to find the elusive sign. No luck.

Then it dawned on me to look online. I Googled the words, Googled the image. I checked Google Maps and Google Earth. I searched various counties for “Bates Motel Road.”

I did all that and found nothing. Zip.

Why, for Heaven’s sake, could I find no record of any kind? Has the road been renamed? Was it bulldozed to make way for a subdivision? The subject bugs me greatly whenever I think about it. Which, lately, is often.

When you consider how many roads must exist in North Georgia, the odds are pretty slim of locating Bates Motel Road by searching randomly. It’s a needle-in-a-haystack situation.

Inevitably, the elusive road reminds me of the story of Brigadoon, the fictional Scottish village that is nowhere to be found except when it reappears for one day every century.

Then there is the 1957 movie “Raintree County,” a Civil War-era melodrama that takes place in the fictional Raintree County, Indiana. Essentially, it’s “Gone With the Wind” with Montgomery Clift in the Clark Gable role.

In the story, Raintree County is named for a romantic local legend that, hidden deep in the forest, is a magnificent Golden Raintree planted long ago by Johnny Appleseed. Find the Raintree, the legend says, and you will learn the secret of life itself. The locals consider it a nice fairy tale.

I remember the movie mostly for its ending. As the main characters emerge from a swamp after a dramatic climax, the camera pulls back to show the Raintree looming behind them, shining in golden splendor, still undetected. The End.

My road sign doesn’t qualify as magnificent or splendid. Just elusive.

And undoubtedly looming just out of sight.


A needle-in-a-haystack situation.


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One of my go-to spots for a pleasant walk in the woods these days is Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens. SCNC is a 225-acre park, half woodlands and half wetlands, located where Sandy Creek and the North Oconee River merge on their way south.

The park features several miles of trails, a visitor center, a small museum, classrooms, and a gift shop. Activities include classes on woodsy lore, programs for kids, nature walks, etc. It’s a good place to get your nature fix.


By now, I know the park thoroughly. I’m familiar with all the trails, the terrain, and the various features that help make the place interesting — such as a reconstructed log house from the early 1800s and the ruins of an old brick-making factory.

A topo map of the park would show a long, elevated center ridge dropping off to lowlands on both sides. The river on the west and the creek on the east have created extensive wetlands, some seasonal and some permanent.

Even in dry seasons, the wetland areas are mostly boggy and impassable. And, being important habitat for plants and animals, the swamps and ponds are the pride of the park staff.

Claypit Pond

A century ago, long before the park existed, human activity had a major impact on this locale. In 1906, the Georgia Brick Company built a factory here on a hill overlooking Sandy Creek. Using a newly-patented “tunnel kiln,” which was six feet in diameter and 300 feet long, the company produced 25,000 bricks per day.


Ruins of the old brick factory. Ironically, a fire put the company out of business in 1923.

This being North Georgia, the red clay soil needed to manufacture bricks is, literally, underfoot everywhere. Georgia Brick Co. excavated it at the bottom of the hill where the factory stood.

As the years passed, the excavation site became a small lake thanks to rainfall, flooding from Sandy Creek, and the work of beavers. It’s known today as Claypit Pond.


Claypit Pond.

The south end of Claypit Pond has a well-defined shore, but the north end does not. It tapers off to swamp and bog, varying with the amount of water present at the time.

Now that I’m aware of the pond’s ebbs and flows, I have a habit of noting its size when I go walking at the park. The difference from visit to visit is easy to see.

The Beavers

Beavers are fascinating creatures. As you probably know, they are large rodents adapted for an aquatic life. Adults usually weight 40 or 50 pounds and live 10 to 20 years.

Beavers have large, sharp front teeth — incisors — that are designed for serious incising. Their hind feet are webbed for swimming. Their large, flat tails are used (1) as a rudder when they swim, (2) as a prop when they are sitting upright, and (3), when they smack the water sharply, as a way to warn the group of danger.

A beaver’s mission in life is to modify the environment to its advantage, usually by building dams. At a spot where water is running, the beaver will collect fallen branches, cut down small trees, and assemble them to block the moving water.

Why? Because it creates a pond of deeper water that helps protect the lodge and the beavers from predators. It also creates a new area of calm water where aquatic vegetation will grow, thus providing a food source for the beavers.

In addition, new vegetation will sprout around the edges of the pond — another source of food and building material. As a bonus, the new vegetation filters contaminants from the water in the pond.

Typically, beavers eat the tender parts of the plants they harvest, store some for future consumption, and use the rest as construction material. They are most active at night, working from sundown to sunrise and resting in their lodges during the day.

Beavers have lived in Claypit Pond for as long as the staff can recall. The beaver lodge in the middle of the pond is about six feet high and is hard to miss.


A typical colony consists of four to eight related beavers. They will accept no outsiders in the group and will drive off any newcomers who try to settle too close to their territory.

When their own offspring become sexually mature at about two years old, they are booted out of the colony. In most cases, the youngsters go out into the world, find a mate and a suitable spot, and start a colony of their own.

Apparently, that is what happened at SCNC this year.

If the park staff is right, and they probably are, a young male recently left the Claypit Pond colony, moved to a spot north of the Audubon Society Bird Blind (see map), and constructed a new dam. And a fine dam it is, worthy of a seasoned veteran beaver.



The new dam flooded the swampy area behind it, creating a new pond that, for the moment, extends north almost to the high ground at Cook’s Trail.

Accordingly, an area of the park that once looked like this…


… now looks like this.


The question now: is the pond a permanent feature? Will it survive the dry season? I’m curious to find out.

Beavers are a good example of why we should be in awe of the natural world. Amazing ecological systems are all around us — systems that evolved to perform important functions, even if we don’t understand them — systems that can perform virtual feats of magic when people don’t get in the way.


A few weeks ago, someone left this stone next to the Claypit Pond Trail. I don’t know if it’s an offering, a statement, a celebration, or what, but I sure agree with the sentiment.


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One of my favorite hiking spots these days is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens. The SBG, a 300-acre preserve, is pleasant, clean, safe, and close to home. About five miles of well-maintained hiking trails wind through it. It’s a terrific place.

The SBG was created in 1986 by the University of Georgia as a “living laboratory for the study and enjoyment of  plants and nature.” It includes a large tropical conservatory and a variety of formal gardens.


The gardens — native flora, annuals and perennials, azaleas, rhododendrons, groundcover, shade plants, etc. — change with the seasons. They and the conservatory are well worth a visit.



As for the trails, they’re especially notable because a few years ago, a geology professor and her students uploaded the complete trail system to Google Maps. Thus, the trails appear on your phone as if they were streets, and your location is shown as you progress. Very neat, very handy.

The trails are remote and quiet, but the central part of SBG is plenty active. The formal gardens require constant attention and maintenance. At the same time, various departments of UGA are conducting research and teaching field classes.

Between the maintenance, teaching, research, classes for the public, events for kids, etc., it’s a busy place. People are everywhere, focused on some task or other.

One morning not long ago, I drove over to SBG, parked at a convenient spot, grabbed my water bottle, and set out to walk the outer loop of trails. The day was sunny, the temp mid-70s. Perfect.

Not far from the conservatory, I arrived at the edge of a large field. According to a sign, the field is being restored to open prairie for the benefit of certain plants and wildlife.

As I stood there reading the sign, movement about 20 yards to the left caught my attention. I turned and saw a small brown bird entangled in a net, periodically struggling to escape.

The net resembled a badminton or volleyball net, but had a very fine mesh. It had been erected a few feet in front of a low patch of wild foliage and was almost invisible from a distance. Its purpose, I didn’t know.

I wasn’t sure what to do. I have no idea how to extricate a trapped bird, but I couldn’t just ignore it. Maybe I could go back to the main office and get help. I walked closer to get a better look.

As I approached the flailing bird, a female voice rang out in the distance. “Sir! Get away! Leave the bird alone!”

I looked up with a start. Striding across the field toward me was a small, youngish woman in all khaki. She was waving insistently and continued to shout instructions.

“Sir, do not touch the bird! Stay away!”

Puzzled, I stood there quietly and waited. When she reached me, I got in the first words: “What are you yelling about? What’s going on?”

“I am an ornithologist,” she said in a grave and decidedly snooty tone. “I am authorized by the State of Georgia, the University, and the Botanical Garden to handle birds.”

“Yeah, but what –”

“I am a member of (she reeled off a few names that may have been professional organizations). I am pursuing my doctorate.”

She reached over and began to examine the bird, cupping it in her hand through the net.

“Okay,” I said, “You’re an ornithologist. Good for you. Why are you fussing me out? What is this all about?”

“You don’t have the skills to handle this bird,” she snapped. “I have the training. I understand how the bones and joints function.”

“Lady, I’m just a hiker. I saw a bird stuck in a net. I walked over for a closer look. Why are you down my throat?”

“I can remove the netting without harming the bird. You can’t.”

“I didn’t touch the damn bird.”

“You would have.”

“No, I wouldn’t. Now that I’ve had a chance to see it, it’s too tangled in the net. I would’ve gone for help.”

“It’s not very tangled.”

“Lady, I haven’t done a damn thing except show compassion for this poor bird. Your attitude stinks.”

She ignored me and addressed the bird. “Oh, poor little guy,” she cooed. “You’re just a thrasher, not the bird I wanted. I’ll just have to let you go.”

I finally deduced what the drama was all about. “This is your net,” I said as the bird flew away. “It’s here to catch birds.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you didn’t. All you did was yell and give me your credentials. How could I possibly know what you’re doing out here?”

“This is a [word indecipherable] net. I am involved in a research project. Do you understand now?”

“Well, put up a sign so people will know! Are you afraid the birds will read it and stay away?”

“Sir, no birds will come around as long as we’re standing here. We need to leave. I hope you have a good hike.” She turned and walked away. Briskly, of course.

I didn’t reply, and what I muttered to myself wasn’t nice.

Even on my way home after the hike, I was still steamed. That evening, I Googled the subject of using nets to trap birds. The nets, I learned, are “mist nets.” This is from Wikipedia:

Mist nets are used by ornithologists and bat biologists to capture wild birds and bats for banding or other research projects. Mist nets are typically made of nylon or polyester mesh suspended between two poles, resembling a volleyball net.

When properly deployed in the correct habitat, the nets are virtually invisible. Mist nets have shelves created by horizontally strung lines that create a loose, baggy pocket. When a bird or bat hits the net, it falls into this pocket, where it becomes tangled. The purchase and use of mist nets requires permits, which vary according to a country or state’s wildlife regulations.

Mist net handling requires skill to optimally place the nets, avoid entangling nets in vegetation, and properly store nets. Bird and bat handling requires extensive training to avoid injury to the captured animals.

Okay, fine. Clear and concise. Now I know what I didn’t know when Miss Charm blindsided me.

Do us all a favor, lady. Put up a sign.




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A few years ago, I wrote a post about Theodore Roosevelt, who was President from 1901 to 1909, and his relationship with the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Both men were fiercely determined, undeterred by obstacles. They elevated stubborn to an art form.

Teddy got that way by sheer willpower. He overcame a sickly childhood (asthma and other health problems) and grew to be an energetic outdoorsman — a rancher, big-game hunter, and world explorer. He went on to become a war hero and a political leader of great significance.

Roosevelt T

Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (1858-1919)

Roosevelt’s love of nature and the outdoors made him an early champion of wildlife protection and land conservation. He became President at a time when westward expansion and industrial progress were beginning to take their toll on the environment, and he happily used his powers to protect public lands.

Teddy was a fan of national parks in particular because park status blocks private development on the land. By law, however, national parks are created by Congress. And Congress isn’t always cool with a President’s wishes.

Roosevelt responded by turning to a controversial workaround: the presidential executive order.

Back then, executive orders were a rare thing. One example: Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation by executive order. But Roosevelt applied the concept often and to more mundane matters.

In 1906, concerned about pot-hunters raiding prehistoric sites around the Southwest, Congress passed the Antiquities Act, which charged the executive branch with “the proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” The act gave the President the power to establish protected areas called National Monuments.

Teddy saw the opening and made his move.

Congress had long resisted making Grand Canyon a national park, so in January 1908, Teddy declared 800,000 acres in Northern Arizona to be Grand Canyon National Monument. Congress was furious, and Grand Canyon wasn’t given national park status until 1919.

But, as of early 1908, Grand Canyon was under federal protection. Teddy relished the opportunity this presented. In all, over the course of his presidency, he established 18 national monuments.

Roosevelt’s first visit to Grand Canyon was on May 6, 1903. (Accompanying him was Territorial Governor Alexander Brodie, a veteran of the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War. Brodie had served with Teddy in the Rough Riders; their friendship led to Brodie’s appointment in 1902 as the 15th Governor of the Arizona Territory.)

Teddy’s speech that day, part prepared text and part impromptu, was memorable. His genuine concern for the Canyon and his passion for conservation are clear.

After the usual acknowledgments, accolades, and blah-blah, Roosevelt said this:


In the Grand Canyon, Arizona has a natural wonder which, so far as I know, is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.

I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it, in your own interest and in the interest of the country: to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.

I hope you will not have a building of any kind, not a summer cottage, a hotel, or anything else, to mar the wonderful grandeur, the sublimity, the great loneliness and beauty of the canyon. Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.

What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American, if he can travel at all, should see.

We have gotten past the stage, my fellow citizens, when we are to be pardoned if we treat any part of our country as something to be skinned for two or three years for the use of the present generation, whether it is the forest, the water, the scenery. Whatever it is, handle it so that your children’s children will get the benefit of it.

If you deal with irrigation, apply it under circumstances that will make it of benefit — not to the speculator who hopes to get profit out of it for two or three years, but handle it so that it will be of use to the home-maker, to the man who comes to live here, and to have his children stay after him.

Keep the forests in the same way. Preserve the forests by use; preserve them for the ranchman and the stockman, for the people of the Territory, for the people of the region round about.

Preserve them for that use, but use them so that they will not be squandered, that they will not be wasted — so that they will be of benefit to the Arizona of 1953 as well as the Arizona of 1903.


If Teddy were around today to see Grand Canyon, he probably would be disheartened.

Yes, the Canyon abides. It remains much as it was in 1903 — largely intact, still stunning and majestic.

But the place is too popular for its own good. At certain times and in certain places, it is overwhelmed with visitors.

GC Railroad

GC entrance

GC tourists

As for Roosevelt’s plea not to erect buildings of any kind at Grand Canyon because they would “mar the wonderful grandeur” — well, posterity ignored that part.

Surely Roosevelt knew that was a pipe dream anyway.


Aerial view of one section of Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim. Shown are three large hotels, a three-story gift shop, and an employee dormitory. Plus that passenger train in the foreground.


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“You do it for the stories,” said my friend Jackie, an author who has published eight books. Jackie was just back from a road trip to Savannah, researching book nine.

“When you stay home, everything is routine,” she declared. “You don’t get good stories that way. To get stories, you need to venture out, go places, do things.”

Well, that isn’t entirely true. Some of my favorite stories on this blog were written after I spent the day babysitting my grandkids.

For example, if you type “intervention” in my search box — there in the upper right corner of your screen — you can read a story I wrote a few months ago about the consequences of kids obsessing over the computer game Minecraft.

But still, Jackie has a valid point. Most memorable stuff happens out there in the world somewhere, away from home, away from the routine.

To wit, if you type “fiasco” in the search box, you can read about my spectacularly ill-fated trip to a remote part of Grand Canyon back in 2001. No trip to Toroweap, no fiasco, no story.

All of which leads me to a special story that is dear to my heart. It came about because in September 1998, I got away from the routine, ventured out, and went on a two-week raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

That 1998 trip wasn’t my first. It was, in fact, my third raft trip down the Colorado and my sixth visit to the Big Ditch. By then, I knew the routine, knew what gear to bring, knew the best rapids and dayhikes, and understood what was expected of the paying customers. Looking back, it was easily the most satisfying of my Grand Canyon raft trips.

Typically, on a non-motorized raft trip, there will be 20 or so paying passengers, four or five rafts, and four or five guides.

One of the guides is designated as Trip Leader — the captain, the head honcho, the boss of things. The TL runs the trip like the coach runs the team, or the boss runs the office, or the mom runs the household.

Keeping the passengers in line rarely is a problem; most, being out of their element, are cooperative. Easily led, like sheep or cows.

On the other hand, river guides can be an unruly, undisciplined bunch, especially out in the wilderness. Wrangling them requires a serious degree of tact and aplomb.

The TL on my 1998 trip was a smart, cheerful, likeable guy in his late 20s. He was tall, lean, tanned, and fit. He was a technically proficient oarsman and fully capable of keeping the passengers happy and the guides under control.

I won’t divulge the TL’s name, as you will understand later. For the purposes of my story, I’ll call him Clark. Clark Kent.

I’ll also mention that the guide in charge of the paddle boat (a smaller raft propelled by passengers and steered by a guide from the stern) was Clark’s girlfriend. Let’s call her Lois. Lois Lane.

After two weeks on the river, you find that you know your trip-mates pretty well. Happily, you have lots of new friends. And, at the end of the trip, someone always volunteers to gather contact information and shares it with the group.

That was how I came to have the address and phone number of Clark Kent and Lois Lane at their home in Flagstaff.

And that was why, on my next trip to Flagstaff in May 1999, I gave them a call, and we got together for lunch.

When I was in Flagstaff again in November 1999, the three of us met for breakfast.

When I was there again in April 2000, we went out to dinner.

for several more years, the pattern was the same: I always saw Clark and Lois when I passed through Flagstaff. They would bring me up to date on the latest river guide news, update me on local environmental concerns, and recommend new restaurants.

Sometimes, Clark would show me the latest photos he had taken on the river. He was an accomplished photographer, and he sold prints online. I own two of his enlargements.

The fact is, Clark and Lois and I lived in different worlds, and we had little in common. But I enjoyed those meetings immensely. And Clark and Lois always seemed genuinely glad to see me.

But things change. At some point, the two of them left Flagstaff, and we lost touch. Later, I read they had moved to Telluride.

Specifically, I learned about Telluride from a news story that identified my buddy Clark Kent as the scion of a fabulously rich American family, heir to a fortune beyond the dreams of avarice.

My guess is, Clark fell in love with the river, took a sabbatical, and got qualified and hired as a guide. He was able to sustain that life for quite a while. He met Lois on the river. Probably, the weight of obligations finally pulled him back into the family business.

No doubt his river guide friends knew who he was. Some probably went easier on him as a result. Some probably did the opposite.

But I had no idea who he really was. To me, he was just Clark Kent, my former TL and friend. Just a nice fellow I got to know on the river.

Thinking back, Clark probably scrutinized me very carefully before deciding to be my friend. Was I genuinely clueless about his identity, or was I some gold-digger, angling for an advantage? His fate surely is to worry about such things constantly. I’m pleased and flattered that he decided to trust me.

Like Jackie said, you do it for the stories.

I have great photos of Clark and Lois from that 1998 river trip, but I won’t show them. Instead, here’s a happy photo of some of the passengers and guides on an earlier trip. That’s me on the left.

River trip 5-94





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The Rio Grande begins in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado and flows south through New Mexico, dividing the state neatly in half. From El Paso onward to the Gulf, the river is the border between Texas and Mexico.

About 85 miles north of El Paso, where the Rio Grande passes through the broad, flat Rincon Valley, is the little town of Hatch, New Mexico.

I love Hatch. Dearly love it. I’ve been there twice, most recently on my drive home from Arizona earlier this month.

To me, the appeal is the town’s fun, friendly vibe — due mainly to the charming small operations in town that grow, harvest, process, and sell the product for which Hatch is renowned: chile peppers.

Hatch bills itself as the Chile Capitol of the World. The valley surrounding the town is dotted with numerous chile farms — acre after acre of hardy chile plants lovingly irrigated with water from the Rio Grande.


You’ll notice that I use the term chile, not chili. Hatch is 90 percent Hispanic (or Latino; I never know which is proper), so chile, the Spanish name of the pepper, is considered correct.

No known connection to the nation of Chile in South America.

The word chili, I learned, is an American bastardization. A discerning person should use the word chili to refer to the restaurant chain and chili con carne, but nothing else.

For reasons that escape a journalism major like me, chiles thrive in the climate and soil around Hatch.

The local farms grow many varieties of the plant, each variety having a known degree of heat. Thus, when the chiles are processed into, say, chile powder, the packages can be labeled as mild, medium, hot, extra hot, or ¡ay, caramba!

Unavoidably, Hatch is a tourist town. Most of the processing operations I’ve seen are fronted by a retail store, where you can buy not only fresh, frozen, dried, and preserved chile products, but also chile-related souvenirs, Hatch t-shirts, and, usually, an assortment of Mexican pottery.

But somehow, the businesses haven’t morphed into tourist traps. I know of only one shop where the prices are high and the atmosphere is a bit mercenary. The rest are simple, casual, friendly places with reasonable prices. What’s not to like?

But enough blather. Here are some photos.










Lastly, a bonus: interesting facts about peppers…

— Peppers are flowering plants from the nightshade family. They are cousins to the tomato, potato, and eggplant.

— Peppers fall into one of three categories: bell peppers, sweet peppers, hot peppers.

— Green peppers have been harvested early, before they’ve ripened to yellow, then orange, then red.

— Red peppers have been on the vine longest and are the most nutritious. A red pepper can have 10 times more beta-carotene and almost twice the vitamin C of a green pepper.

— Peppers also are loaded with potassium, magnesium, iron, and B vitamins.

— Hot peppers get their heat from the chemical capsaicin, which triggers the pain receptors in your mouth.

— The degree of heat depends on the pepper’s rating on the “Scoville scale,” which assigns each variety of pepper a rating in Scoville Heat Units (SHU).

— At the bottom of the Scoville scale are bell peppers, with zero SHU. Banana peppers and cherry peppers barely register, with a few hundred SHU.

— By contrast, Serrano peppers are rated at 10,000-23,000 SHU, and jalapeños are rated at 1,000-4,000 SHU.

— The hottest pepper in the world, according to Guinness World Records, is the Carolina Reaper, with an astounding 1,569,300 SHU. The Reaper was cultivated by the Puckerbutt Pepper Company of Fort Mill, South Carolina.

— India is the world’s largest producer, consumer, and exporter of chile peppers. But the citizens of Hatch probably pretend not to know about that.


Stuffed Hatch green chiles with cilantro-yogurt sauce. ¡Se ve delicioso!


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Highlight 1 — Wrapping Material

On day four of my recent road trip to Grand Canyon, I pulled into the parking lot of a dilapidated antique store in Clarendon, Texas. I needed to take a rest break and walk around a bit.

The place was old and shabby and packed with a jumble of merchandise that appeared to have been on the shelves undisturbed for years. Perfect.

The clerk behind the counter was a rotund, 40ish man with a flat-top haircut. He looked up from his magazine, welcomed me to the establishment, and returned to his reading.

Before long, I spotted a colorful piece of Mexican Talavera pottery high on a shelf. It was a small vase, about seven inches tall. Quite attractive and a functional size.

I took it down and checked the price tag. Ten bucks. I had no idea what I would do with it, but I liked it. Sold.

For the next few minutes, I browsed around the store, but nothing else caught my eye, so I took the vase to the cash register.

The clerk took my money and reached under the counter for wrapping material. He came up empty.

“Mama!” he yelled toward the back of the store.

“What?” Mama replied from somewhere out of sight.

“We got any bubble wrap back there? Ain’t none up here!”

“No, we’re out! I ordered some!”

“But I got a pot to wrap! It’s fragile!”

After a pause, Mama yelled, “Go back to the storage room and look in the closet! Papa’s things from the nursing home are on the shelf! Look in that big white box! There’s wrapping material in there!”

“Okay, Mama!” The clerk picked up the vase and departed.

A few minutes later, he returned and handed me a bulging, oblong package. He had wrapped the vase in the material, which was surprisingly thick and dense, added a double layer of plastic bags, and taped it up.

I thanked him, returned to the RV, found a safe spot for the package, and resumed my journey.

I didn’t think about the vase again until 10 days later, when I arrived home and was unpacking the RV.

Ah, yes, I recalled, the Talavera vase from Texas. The one protected by the substitute bubble wrap. I placed the package on the bed and unwrapped it.


Highlight 2 — The Raisin at Mather Point

Mather Point is one of 20 viewpoints along the South Rim of Grand Canyon. Being the closest viewpoint to the entrance station, and to the visitor center, Mather is the first stop for most of the hordes of tourists when they arrive at the canyon.

Most of the year, the place is a zoo, which is why I usually skip Mather in favor of other viewpoints. But when I arrived at South Rim Village on day seven of my trip, the Mather parking lot was unusually empty. I decided to stop.

The day was sunny, but windy and cold. Shades, gloves, and a hat were in order. I proceeded to do what I always do at Grand Canyon: take photographs of scenery I’ve already documented thoroughly on previous trips. I can’t help myself.

As I fired away, a raven, a particularly fat and handsome one, flew in and landed on a nearby rock.

Ravens are a common sight at Grand Canyon, especially where tourists congregate and leave things to eat in their wake. The birds are quite intelligent and are known to work in teams; one will squawk and dance to distract the tourists while another darts in to snatch an apple core or candy wrapper.

The raven at Mather that morning was only 10 feet away from the tourists, but safely out of reach beyond the safety railing.

All 20-25 tourists at the viewpoint took note and studied the raven with interest. The bird appeared to do the same in return. I proceeded to take photos of the raven as it assessed the food situation, strutting and looking hither and yon.

To my right, a child’s voice rang out.

“Mama! Mama! Look! A raisin!”

It was a boy of about five, bouncing with excitement and pointing at the raven.

“It’s called a raven, Eli. It’s like a crow or a blackbird.”

“Yeah, a raisin! I hope he don’t fly away!”

“Son, it’s ray-VEN. Ray-VEN. Not ray-ZEN.”

The raven chose that moment to squawk loudly, which delighted young Eli.

“Mama, that raisin is talking to me! Squawk, squawk, raisin! Squawk! Squawk!”

The raven answered in its signature deep, throaty croak. Eli responded with his best little-kid imitation.

The conversation continued a bit longer than I expected. But finally, the bird concluded that no food was to be had from the humans at Mather Point, and he flew away to look elsewhere.

“Goodbye, raisin!” Eli sobbed, choking back tears as he waved to the receding bird.

Then he broke down crying and ran to his mama’s arms.



Highlight 3 — The Canyon Gods

On day eight of my trip, a storm rolled into Grand Canyon from the west. At first, the blustery clouds made for dramatic photos, but then the rain began in earnest, and visibility was reduced to nothing.

That afternoon, I was trapped for half an hour inside Desert View Watchtower, 400 yards from the parking lot, waiting for a rather alarming deluge to subside.

By the morning of day nine, the storm had cleared out, and the rain ended. But that afternoon, another front came in, this time bringing heavy snow up from Flagstaff.

At 4:00 PM, I went to the General Store, bought a deli sandwich for supper, and, with some concern, retreated to my campsite at Trailer Village. That evening, I hunkered down in the RV and watched cable TV (South Rim Village finally has cell phone reception, too) as the snow piled up outside.

By morning, the sun was out again. The park roads had been graded overnight, and the remaining snow was beginning to melt. I checked out of the campground and drove out East Rim Drive toward the park exit.

One of my favorite overlooks along the east rim is Lipan Point. From there, you get a wonderful view of the Unkar Delta, where the Colorado River makes a dramatic “s” curve, culminating in Unkar Rapid at the base of a sheer cliff 400 feet high.

When I stopped at Lipan Point, I was delighted. I had the overlook all to myself.

I was further delighted by what I saw when I stepped to the railing:


Wow, I thought. Wow.

Being at Grand Canyon is awesome enough. What could possibly make the experience better?


I’m a huge fan of Grand Canyon and a regular visitor. I’ve been there 24 times, which is pretty excessive for a fellow from Georgia. I’ve seen the canyon in every season and in every conceivable kind of weather.

I’ve seen it from the South Rim, from the North Rim, and from both ends. I’ve seen it from the air, from the plateaus halfway down, and from river level. I’ve backpacked it, day-hiked it, rafted it, and ridden the mules.

But in all my trips to Grand Canyon, this was my first rainbow.

I stayed at the overlook for a long time, savoring the moment. I studied the color bands, watched the roiling clouds in the distance, listened to the wind whistling through the rocks, enjoyed the solitude.

River guides say that the success of a raft trip depends on how the River Gods judge you. Be nice, and the trip will go well; be a jerk, and they will punish you for it.

Maybe I was good, and I pleased the Canyon Gods, and the rainbow was my reward.


In my next post, one more highlight from the drive home: a stop in Hatch, New Mexico.


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“Dell” is a delightful, evocative word.

Forget Dell, Inc., the perpetually-struggling computer company. I mean a “dell” — a place — a secluded spot in a verdant forest somewhere.

A dell is a small hollow or a hidden valley, typically lush and green. The word comes from the High German telle (ravine) and the Old English dael (valley). It implies peace, seclusion, green things.

About an hour north of where I live, in the extreme northeast corner of Georgia, is a dell that fits the classic description better than any place I know.

“Warwoman Dell” — what a wonderful name — is a Forest Service Recreation Area in the mountains a few miles east of Clayton, located where a small creek, Becky Branch, crosses Warwoman Road. The place features picnic shelters amid the trillium, mountain laurel, and wild azaleas under a canopy of hardwoods.

In addition to the picnic area, the dell has a loop trail that passes a small waterfall on Becky Branch. Plaques along the way describe the flora and history of the place.

For a modest, out-of-the-way spot, quite a bit is going on there. Allow me to elaborate.


Warwoman Dell Recreation Area was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The crew of 129 CCC workers lived nearby at Camp Warwoman, which they constructed themselves.

Working for $1 per day plus food and shelter, they built the road into the dell, the shelters and fireplaces, and a fish hatchery that raised speckled trout to stock the local rivers and streams.

But Warwoman Dell had plenty of history before the CCC boys arrived. Also passing through the spot is the Bartram Trail, which follows the route in the late 1700s of naturalist William Bartram, a journey he meticulously documented in “Bartram’s Travels.”

Actually, the formal title of Bartram’s book is Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws: Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Embellished With Copper Plates.

Bartram, a young botanist from Philadelphia, left Charleston in 1773 and spent four years exploring the Southeast, mostly to study the flora of the region.

Alone and unarmed, he traveled through wilderness areas where both the Indians and the white settlers inevitably were friendly and helpful. He rarely faced serious danger.

Being out of touch during his travels, he was unaware that the American colonies had rebelled against England.


Warwoman Dell also marks the westernmost point reached in the 1850s by the Blue Ridge Railroad, which was being built to haul coal from Cincinnati to Knoxville to Charleston.

The railroad was completed and in use from Charleston west to the edge of the mountains. From there, right-of-way was cleared to Warwoman Dell. But as the Civil War loomed, the company went broke. The project was abandoned in 1858.

In the 1890s, entrepreneurs resurrected the project as the Black Diamond Railroad. They tried valiantly to round up investors to finish the right-of-way west through the mountains, but failed.

The project left behind a series of unfinished mountain tunnels, including one a few miles east of Warwoman Dell. Both ends were destroyed long ago by landslides and  highway construction.

Today, the railroad right-of-way serves as a walking path through Warwoman Dell.

A section of the abandoned railroad bed.

A section of the abandoned railroad bed.

Also, if you look, you’ll see a series of sturdy, hand-made granite culverts beneath the right-of-way. They’ve been providing reliable drainage for the unused railroad bed for 160 years.

A culvert beneath the abandoned right-of-way. Note the light marking the far side of the roadbed.

A culvert beneath the abandoned right-of-way. Note the light marking the far side of the roadbed.

Okay, so Warwoman Dell is beautiful and historic, and the “dell” part of the name is clear enough. But where did “Warwoman” come from? Historians can’t agree.

Some attribute the name “Warwoman” to Nancy Ward (1738-1822), a prominent and respected Cherokee leader. Others credit Nancy Hart (1735-1830), a frontier woman, patriot, and occasional spy who lived in the Georgia mountains during the American Revolution.

Their stories are fascinating.

Nancy Ward, Cherokee

By long tradition, the Cherokee Nation is a matriarchal society. In the years before the Europeans arrived and turned the world of the Cherokees upside down, most questions of justice and war were decided by women.

A council of women meted out punishment for offenses within the tribe, chose the War Chief, and determined the fate of captives.

The Cherokee called the leader of the women’s council Tsi-ge-yu, which means Beloved Woman or Pretty Woman. To the early white settlers, she was the War Woman.

The last and best known War Woman of the Cherokee Nation was Nanyehi, known today as Nancy Ward. (Note the similarity between Nanyehi and Nancy.)

Ward rose to prominence in a battle with the Creeks, during which her husband was killed and she stepped forward to lead the Cherokee to victory.

But she believed in peaceful coexistence with the Europeans. She served as the tribe’s ambassador to the early settlers and made sure relations were peaceful. She also helped the tribe transition from hunting to farming and raising cattle.

Because of these societal changes, the Cherokee left behind many of the old ways. Soon, a new style of governance emerged that had no place for a War Woman.

Eventually, Nanyehi moved west to the mountains east of Chattanooga. She married a settler, Bryan Ward, had a daughter, and operated an inn on the banks of the Ocoee River until her death at age 84.

Nanyehi, the last Cherokee War Woman.

Nanyehi, the last Cherokee War Woman.

Nancy Hart, Patriot

Nancy Ann Morgan Hart is a bona fide Georgia legend. Hart County is named for her. So is the city of Hartwell. So are Lake Hartwell, Hartwell Dam, Hart State Park, and the Nancy Hart Highway.

During the Civil War, a group of women in LaGrange, south of Atlanta, formed a militia company called the Nancy Harts to defend the town from Union troops.

Nancy Hart was said to be six feet tall, well-muscled, red-haired, and cross-eyed, with a face scarred by smallpox. She was hot-headed, fearless, a skilled hunter, and, despite being cross-eyed, a crack shot.

Although no real evidence of her supposed exploits exists, stories about Nancy Hart abound.

During the Revolutionary War, the colonists were sharply divided between supporters of independence and those who remained loyal to the British Crown. Nancy Hart fiercely supported independence.

While Hart’s husband was away fighting in the Georgia militia, she was left alone on the family farm in Elbert County with her eight children.

Always anxious to help the cause, she sometimes slipped away, disguised herself as a man, and quietly visited British garrisons to gather information.

As word spread about Hart, area Loyalists began to keep watch on her cabin. In one famous story, a British Loyalist crept up to the house and peeked in through a crack. One of Hart’s daughters saw the peeking eye and quietly informed her mother.

Hart, who was making soap at the fireplace, flung a ladle of boiling water through the crack, badly scalding the Loyalist. She tied him up and delivered him to the local militia.

On another alleged occasion, six Loyalists came to the cabin, shot Hart’s prize turkey, and forced her to cook it for them. While they ate, she grabbed their weapons, shot two of them, and held the rest captive.

When her husband and others arrived, the Loyalists were hanged, at Nancy’s insistence, from a nearby tree.

Later in her life, Hart reportedly found religion. Georgia Governor George Gilmer wrote that Hart “became a shouting Christian” who “fought the Devil as manfully as she fought the Tories.”

In 1803, Hart, then a widow, moved to Kentucky with her son John. She spent the rest  of her life there, living quietly among relatives.

Nancy Hart gets the drop on the Loyalists.

Nancy Hart gets the drop on the Loyalists.

Other Stories

Other tales have surfaced that also claim to explain the origin of “Warwoman.”

— A Cherokee woman named Cateechee killed a settler during a raid and was made a War Woman by the tribe.

— A young female colonist whose baby was stolen by three Indians sneaked into their camp as they slept, killed all three with a tomahawk, and took her baby home. Thereafter, she was called Warwoman by her neighbors.

— In a similar tale, two women colonists who lived near Clayton were abducted by Indians. During the night, they freed themselves, killed the sleeping Indians, and escaped. Warwoman Creek (and subsequently Warwoman Road, etc.) is named after them.


Most likely, the true origin of “Warwoman” will never be known, but that’s okay. Any one of the explanations will do, and a bit of mystery is a good thing.

It makes me want to drive up to Warwoman Dell — what a wonderful name — for a restorative day of peace and seclusion.


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Martin Litton, environmental activist and Grand Canyon river runner, died late last year at 97. He was a fierce and effective advocate for conservation in the American west for 80 years.

Litton was a staunch opponent of roads in wilderness areas and dams on the Colorado River. He was the spark behind the Sierra Club’s celebrated activism in the 1960s and 70s.

At a time when river-runners were switching to inflatable rubber rafts, he founded Grand Canyon Dories, which carried passengers in traditional wooden boats. In 2004, at age 87, he became the oldest person to row the length of Grand Canyon.

Litton has been lauded profusely, and I won’t list the battles he fought or recap all the posthumous praise here. For that, go online.

But I do want to pass along some statements he made over the years that are revealing of his character and influence.


People always tell me not to be extreme. “Be reasonable,” they say. But I never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation. Because what you give away will never come back — ever.


There are reasons why the river should be natural. One is the joy of running on a natural river, knowing you’re as close to nature as you can be. And the other is — whether we run it or not — nature has its right. It has a right to be here, untrammeled, unfettered.


My feeling has always been, you can’t always win, but you can always try. And that we’re not as poor for the battles we’ve lost as for the ones we never fought. Win or lose, there’s a measure of victory in the endeavor.


Man doesn’t have to screw everything up, and yet we go out of our way to do so. Greed is the motive, and it’s important to frustrate greed. We’re all greedy for one thing or another, but some of our desires are on a higher plane.


We have no right to change this place. Do we have a right even to interrupt nature, even for a short time? To exterminate species? To kill the last fly? That’s not really our right. We’re the aberration on earth — humans are what’s wrong with the world.


It was once said in a Sierra Club publication that the only way we’d ever accomplished anything was through compromise and accommodation. That’s exactly the opposite of the truth. The only way the Sierra Club ever won anything was by refusing to compromise. Grand Canyon dams, Redwood National Park — you can go right back through the whole list. When we compromised, we lost.


We created something more beautiful by not defiling it. Saving it is an act of creation. We kept it undesecrated. We had made the case that the Grand Canyon was worth saving. The Grand Canyon is holy, you know. In the public’s eye, the Grand Canyon should not be fooled around with.


The best way for people to understand how important it is to have the bottom of the Grand Canyon preserved, and have its aquatic life saved, and its riparian zone, with the beauty that’s there, kept, is perhaps to have them on that river and let them feel the way it stirs and rumbles and moves you along at its own pace, and to sense the kind of “life” the river has. It has a tremendous force and appeal that I can’t describe.

And the memory of the majesty of the Grand Canyon — what it does to their lives to be away from their routines for a while — even a short while. They begin to realize there’s something more in the world than their tiny little bit of it. The experience has somehow opened their eyes to something bigger and greater in life. They understand the whole universe better because of having been in the Grand Canyon and isolated from other things and having time to think.


You’ve still got to try to save the earth, even though we know it’s hopeless — it’s too late. But that’s when great, heroic things are done — when you’re going down with the ship.


Litton and a small group of contemporaries created the environmentalist movement from scratch. They made it effective because they didn’t pull their punches.

We can thank them for the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and many other important protections to our national parks and wildlands.

I’m a true believer. It’s clear to me that our survival depends on the preservation of the world we have left. But the reality is, I’m just a follower. I’m not cut out to be a take-charge activist.

Over the years, I’ve tried to pay attention, made my feelings known, and donated more than my share to a range of environmental organizations — Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, and others that were passionate and effective, but stopped short of spiking trees.

A few years ago, I stopped donating.

Today’s environmental groups are bigger and richer than ever, but they lack the passion and dedication of Litton and his contemporaries. Greenpeace acts up on occasion. But for the most part, the organizations are preoccupied with fund-raising and deal-making. The fire has gone out.

In the 1960s, the Disney Corporation wanted to build a resort in Mineral King Valley in the Sierra wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service was on board. Litton opposed the plan (which was abandoned because of much vocal opposition) at a Sierra Club board meeting.

When board member Ansel Adams expressed surprise that the Mineral King project would involve constructing a highway through Sequoia National Park, Litton barked, “Look at a map! Pay some attention!”

Litton had a long and consequential life, and now he’s gone. He was a voice and a conscience that we really couldn’t afford to lose.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

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Before I get to the post, a brief note…

I started Mr. Write’s Page on February 3, 2009, nearly six years ago. My first post was a story about pet goats wreaking havoc in my neighborhood.

Back then, I had no idea how long I would keep the blog going, or would want to. But so far, I still feel compelled to speak up about stuff, and I have no problem finding material. Plus, I enjoy the hell out of it.

Okay, fine. But, why, in December 2014, do I harken back to the beginning of this blog? Because the nice folks at WordPress keep precise statistics, and you are reading my 1,000th post on Mr. Write’s Page.

Pretty cool.

And now, on with the blog story.


A few weeks ago, the polar vortex discharged an arctic blast in this direction, and the weather forecast for where I live was grim: lows in the 20s, highs about 40.

Okay, that isn’t horribly terrible, but I wasn’t ready for it. In Georgia, winter isn’t supposed to arrive for real until the first of the year. I was still in the frame of mind for shorts and sandals. I wanted none of it.

So, I packed a bag, checked Paco into the doggie spa, strapped my kayak to the roof of the car, and drove to Florida.

I had been thinking about going south for a kayak trip anyway. North and Central Florida are loaded with rivers and springs that are great places to paddle, at any time of the year.

Last March, for example, I went kayaking at Crystal River, where the manatee herds congregate. The weather was perfect, the trip sublime.

So anyhoo, with the arctic blast on my heels, I drove south on I-75 with a goal of outrunning the cold weather and enjoying a couple of balmy days on the water.

As it happened, I didn’t outrun it. The cold front followed me deep into Florida. When I stopped for the night in Ocala, the news media and the citrus industry were freaking out about the cold.

The next morning, I was pretty alarmed, too. I walked outside to find overcast skies, a brisk wind, and a temp of 28 degrees. That, plus the car and the kayak were covered with a thin, but very real layer of ice.


At that moment, a day of paddling didn’t sound too appealing.

But it was okay. The cold spell was spent. Afternoon highs would be back in the 60s. All I had to do was wait.

By mid-morning, I arrived at my destination, Manatee Springs State Park, ready to do my thing.

The park is located in north-central Florida, where the Panhandle meets the Peninsula, not far inland from the Gulf of Mexico. That region, where the coast curves and turns south, is sometimes called “the armpit of Florida.” You can draw your own conclusion about that.

Manatee Springs is a “first-magnitude” (high-flow) spring. The water emerges at a constant 72 degrees and flows into the Suwanee River, which passes a few hundred yards from the spring. 30 miles downstream, the river meets the Gulf at Cedar Key.

The park gets its name from the manatees that, in the colder months, swim upriver to bask in the warm water flowing from the spring.

In the warmer months, Manatee Springs is a teeming mass of humanity. Hoards of tourists gather there to swim and paddle in the crystal clear water. Frequently, the parking lots fill up and the gates are closed. When someone leaves, the next carload of visitors is allowed to enter.

But in the off-season, such as November after a spell of cold weather, you can count the tourists in the park on one hand. The day I was there, I was the only kayaker.

That was fine with me. When it comes to non-whitewater kayaking, silence and solitude are the big attractions. That day, it was just me, the shorebirds, and the manatees.

And I’m here to tell ya, the place is incredibly clean, serene, and beautiful.

From the put-in at the spring, I slowly paddled down the run to the Suwannee River. For the next few hours, I explored both sides of the river, upstream and down.

Along the banks were a scattering of homes, some new and opulent, some old and modest, and several boat docks, but I saw not a single soul.

The only other vessel on the river was a small motorboat with two local fishermen, trying their luck along the east bank.

As predicted, the day was sunny, calm, and 65-plus degrees. I drifted, paddled, and drifted some more. I tied the kayak to a cypress knee while I ate a ham sandwich for lunch. It was idyllic. Blissful. Restorative.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

At the source, the spring was lined with Cyprus trees beginning to show fall color.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

Water from the spring flows down a 1/4-mile run into the Suwannee River.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

This far south, the Suwannee River is slow and wide. The clear spring water quickly blends into the tea-colored river.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Way down upon the Suwannee River.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Two turtles surface to check me out.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

Water hyacinth, an invasive species, grows in profusion along the river bank, including the inlet in the distance, where the spring discharges into the river.

At the mouth of the spring run was a group of manatees — two large adults, two juveniles, and two four-foot babies. As long as I drifted quietly, they tolerated me just fine.

This video tells the story.

I was, of course, taking photos constantly, using my camera and my cell phone, both of which I kept in easy reach.

The cell phone was in front of me inside the open deck bag. The camera (a small Canon Powershot) was at my feet, on the floor of the kayak, on a folded golf towel.

On the water, kayaks drift in unwanted directions as soon as you stop paddling. So, I would pick up the camera, take a photo or video, and quickly drop the camera onto the towel so I could get back to paddling.

Although I didn’t know it until I got home and reviewed the photos and videos, it appears that on two occasions, I dropped the camera onto the towel from too great a height, causing the shutter release to fire accidentally.

The first time, the camera took a photo straight up from the floor of the kayak, with me as the subject:


Remarkably, the shot is in focus and relatively well composed. The ivory-colored curly thing is my paddle leash.

Wait. There’s more.

A few minutes later, as I was paddling back toward the take-out point near the spring, I dropped the camera onto the towel — and again accidentally triggered the shutter release. And this time, the camera was in video mode.

The accidental video shows me paddling for a few seconds, then reaching down for the camera, then holding it in up and composing a shot of the spring, then pressing the shutter release — which, of course, stopped the recording.

Wait. There’s more.

Back at the take-out, I beached the kayak and secured my gear. I put the paddle in its holder on the side of the deck, zipped up the deck bag, and prepared to get out.

Then — oops — I remembered the camera on the floor of the boat. I picked it up, placed it in the left pocket of my paddling jacket, and proceeded to disembark.

As I leaned over to do that, I felt the camera slip from my pocket. I heard the kerplunk as it hit the water.

Wide-eyed, I looked over the left side of the boat, down through eight inches of crystal-clear spring water, and saw the camera at rest on the sandy bottom. Tiny bubbles of air were rising from the housing.

Then my left hand flashed down, seized the camera, and brought it dripping to the surface.

That night at my motel, upon further inspection, I sadly concluded that the camera was, in fact, officially kaput. Toast. History.

The battery, being a sealed unit, was fine. So was the SD card. I may have lost a perfectly good camera, but at least the day’s photos and videos survived unscathed.

And, optimist that I am, I chose to look on the bright side: I was free to go out and buy a replacement camera (the latest and most advanced Powershot) with a clear conscience.


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