Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Eagle Cap Wilderness, Lakes Basin Region


Connor the Wrangler.
Photo by Art McBreen

Connor the wrangler wrapped our totes with canvas in precisely-executed folds and then tied them with knotted ropes looped in exquisite designs. With this skill he could have secured a job in the gift-wrapping department at Neiman Marcus’s flagship store in Texas. Instead, we met him at the Two Pan Trailhead into the Eagle Cap Wilderness in northwest Oregon. His calm demeanor settled the horses and the dogs and us. 

For more than thirty years I have camped by the Lostine River. The clear water with its rocky bottoms pleased my sensibilities. On occasion I hiked up the tributaries of this river, but never far enough to reach any of the lakes that are its origin. Friends hinted at their glory, but I was aware of my limitations. I never felt I would be strong enough to carry my shelter, my sustenance, and my weight all on my small frame. When my friend Art suggested hiring a company named Del Sol Wilderness Adventures to haul our food and equipment and ensconce us in waiting tents high in the mountains above Wallowa Lake, I was hopeful that with some small effort, I could do it. Art’s daughter Al accompanied us, but she hiked in and out.

The trip to the Lakes Basin Region of the Eagle Cap Wilderness was originally planned for September of 2022 until Art got a call two nights before informing us that a forest fire had shut down our route along the Lostine River. In rescheduling for 2023, Art considered the likelihood of more mosquitos in July, but a lower chance of fires. He was right about the fires and the mosquitos. (We carried multiple bottles of insect repellant, but by the time we returned to civilization, I even had a Big Dipper-like constellation of mosquito bites on my right calf. Still, the trip was worth the bites.)  

Both years Art and I had scheduled horse-riding lessons to get us comfortable in the saddle. In addition, I ordered a pair of horseback riding underwear in a classic black shade... well-padded in the rear. I justified the expense by deciding the underwear would be perfect should I ever be relegated to sitting all day in a wheelchair. If I have developed dementia by then and can’t dress myself correctly, these underpants are so beautiful and expensively made that I should be able to mistakenly wear them on the outside of my slacks and still look stylish.  

Before Art and I mounted our horses, Conor checked every rope, saddle, and stirrup twice. We were off.  

Lottie and I.
Photo by Art McBreen

I rode the seven-and-a-half miles to camp on a horse named Lottie. On the way out I rode Belotti. Although Art rode these same horses, when he rode them they kept their noses near the horse in front of them. When I rode them they would lollygag slightly behind and then on any straight and soft patch of trail jogged to catch up—putting the underwear to the test. The bouncing would set me to laughing until around mile six-and-a-half, I finally figured out I should stand in the stirrups during the jogs. I was tickled with my newfound skill and then laughed in delight.  

Al in the Cook Tent
Photo by Kathy McConnell

Del Sol’s campsite was off the trail on a rise overlooking the valley’s meandering stream. Al reached the camp ahead of us and welcomed us to camp at lunchtime. The canvas cook tent was kitted out with everything we needed to cook and the horses had carried in our food. 

Art Cooking
Photo by Kathy McConnell

Al had planned most of the meals, but she had consulted with us about the menu. Having the horses pack in made it possible to splurge on ingredients. Below are a couple of photos of meals. (You would hire Al to plan your meals if you could.)

Savory oatmeal with mushrooms, adocado, sesame seeds, an egg and soy sauce. My Favorite Breakfast!

Shakshuka with eggs.

We each chose our sleeping tent (already set up) and put the coolers into a small snowbank. We ate lunch, read, rested, and ate again before we made a fire from scavenged wood, watched the sun set on Eagle Cap Mountain to the east, and waited for the first stars before retiring to our respective tent cots.

Kathy and Art Reconnoitering
Photo by Al McBreen

On the second day of camping we prepared to hike a loop around four lakes, crossing four ridgelines to accomplish this. We examined maps, packed a lunch and swimsuits, and set out around 11:15 in the morning.

Mirror Lake
Photo by Kathy McConnell

The first lake, Mirror Lake, was a stunner. A large group of teenage boys were camped on a ledge above the lake. We moved on to Moccasin Lake where we ate lunch while watching a large dog retrieve sticks on one side of us and someone fishing on the other.

Al, Kathy, and Art
Photo by Al McBreen

Afterwards we walked the length of Moccasin Lake and left Eagle Cap Mountain behind us. This is when I found myself pleased that I could walk the length of a mountain. It felt as if I had moved the mountain from in front of me to behind me. As if I had lifted it up and repositioned it. This sensation happened again after crossing a ridgeline, descending to Douglas Lake with its blooming lily pads, and walking along a good portion of Craig Mountain. Just before arriving at Sunshine Lake over another ridgeline and through heather-lined paths, we looked back and were surprised with a view of both Craig Mountain to our right and a huge mountain, the Matterhorn, on its left. 

Matterhorn Mtn. (left) and Craig Mtn. (right)
Photo by Art McBreen

By this time we had passed a handful of backpackers. We noticed that no one was anywhere as old as Art and me. In fact, no one seemed older than in their mid-forties. As we approached Mirror Lake again and stopped to soak our feet in the cold lake water, we checked how far we had to go to get back to the camp. 

Kathy and Art at Mirror Lake Soaking Our Feet
Photo by Al McBreen

All of us were flagging as we crested the last ridgeline about 7:15 in early evening. My step count for the day totaled 28,424 steps. We had walked 9.2 miles on the loop and I had walked a total of 11.58 miles for the day. I am not sure that I could repeat this feat (seven hours of walking and moving two mountains) when I am in my eighties.  

The next day we “rested.” I walked a short distance in the cold mountain stream near the camp, taking photos of rocks on the stream bottom.

My Cold Foot in the Streambed
Photo by Kathy McConnell

I had taken off my outer pants to keep dry. (I was in a secluded spot after all.) By the time I was thigh deep in the chilly water, I was gasping. The experience was exhilerating. (More stream photos were taken the next morning.)

A Curve of Water over Rocks
Photo by Kathy McConnell 

I dried my legs with my camp towel and walked the banks looking for photo-ops of flowers. Even if I thought it was summer, the high valleys were in the middle of their spring season. Snowbanks were still in evidence. Larkspur, elephant’s ears, heather, buttercups, penstemon, pearly everlasting, and so many other unknown flowers carpeted the valleys.    

Heather and Larkspur
Macro Photo by Kathy McConnell  

Us in camp with Eagle Cap Mtn. in the background
Photo by Al McBreen

We took a photo from camp of us the last evening with the sun setting on Eagle Cap. Later, when I woke in the middle of the night, I slipped on my coat and shoes before going out to see the stars. Across the sky lay the Milky Way. I had almost forgotten of its existence.

The trip to the Eagle Cap Wilderness Lake District will be on my top-ten weekend trips of my entire life. Art, Al, and the Del Sol horses with their capable wrangler, Connor, made it all possible. Thanks, everyone. Lovely trip. Gorgeous place.

Sky Above My Tent on the Last Morning
Kathy McConnell

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Waiting for the Results of a Biopsy

For Bryan
Like discovering a small tear in the fabric of your favorite sweatshirt, a cancer diagnosis induces reflection. Could you not have been more careful? Eaten better, slathered on more sunscreen, refinished furniture with less toxic components, or donned a mask on those smoke-filled summer wanderings? Or be born to a different family, in a different place, or at a different time? Started a relationship sooner?
Everything has a lifetime: in the photo above my father’s sweatshirt with that little tear had its lifetime, my first Volkswagen (which already had rusty floors when I bought it) had it, my childhood cat had his, and then there is you—you have a lifetime. Were you surprised about yours maybe coming sooner than you expected? I was. When my friend Missy died of pancreatic cancer in her early 60s, I regretted that her lifetime hadn’t extended into her 90s. I had always assumed we would run stairs together with our senior knees creaking out a rhythm. It is frustrating when longevity doesn’t match up with an individual’s capacity for living—particularly living with bright intentions, intellectual acuity, and beloved.
Waiting for the result of a biopsy is like waiting for an icicle to melt. It will melt in time, just as you will know the results of the pathology report in time; and yet, the result comes too slow and at the same time too fast. Too slow to ease the anxiety of what will be possible and too fast to entirely comprehend what might come next.
How much longer will your life last? Where have you not seen yet, who have you not loved enough, or what stories have you neglected to tell? Even those, who have faith they will somehow exist in another world beyond, surely have regrets in leaving this gorgeous plane of existence. They may dither about whether their spirit has garnered sufficient substance to even exist in the next world. (Don’t worry on this count, you tote gobs of good karma should there be an afterlife.) Prior to knowing the results of a biopsy, the tear in the fabric of your life is small, but it has become a slit through which worries and regrets slip.
I have often tried to photograph the very moment when a drop of water shapeshifts and falls earthward. Hence, my pleasure when I discovered a drop of sap dangling from the loose threads of a rope. Here was a drop for whom I didn’t need to wait. By the bounty of physics, it would test my capacity to hold a camera long enough. Its life as a drop would be extended. For you—waiting for the biopsy—your journey onward will not be precisely like you imagine. The scientific world, that incredible, innovative medical community in whose times we live, may help you hold your shape longer than might seem possible. And maybe not. Your days ahead, all of them, will be different. Mostly intense in a lovely sort of way. Celebrated for what was and what is. Shared by family and friends and acquaintances. There will be difficult moments though. Breath deep, gather your atoms, and stay with the rushing current of this life as long as you can. You are loved by many and we hold you with care. The biopsy will be what it is.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Privy to the Secrets of Fish, Ode to My Dad

My dad was already legally blind when he stepped down into the small boat that squeaked and banged as it nudged a dock in Nanaimo, Canada. In his peripheral vision—the only vision remaining after the most recent stroke—the horizon must have bobbled, tilting disconcertingly into the slate sky before dipping like a roller coaster into the choppy water. Cocking his head to the side, my father found his footing on a cross bench before stepping down to the fish-slick, water-splashed hull floor. Being more experienced than either the kid or me, my father took the stern seat and rested his hand on the motor’s control lever to steady himself as the boat rocked when the kid and I boarded behind him. From under the brim of his fishing hat, he smiled at his small accomplishment or maybe for the adventure to come.

Across the dock four guys (among them the kid’s dad and the kid’s uncle along with a couple of his uncle’s friends) carelessly jostled each other as they boarded their manly bulks into a similar small skiff. Exuding confidence and casting superior and pitying glances our way, they were already blustering strategies to each other on how to catch their limit of salmon. As they pulled away in a hurry to use every minute of their boat rental time, one of them shouted a flippant encouragement our way as if doubting a blind man, a boy, and a woman would manage to even steer clear of the dock.

Among my earliest and dearest memories of my dad, I faced him in a rowboat on a lake on Grand Mesa, Colorado—near where his ashes now nurture a grove of pines. Rain dappled the surface of the lake and sent ever-expanding ringlets off to kiss the shoreline, a smack smack of gentle kisses. My dad said, "Fishing in the rain is best. Fish think the raindrops are insects hitting the surface. They jump to catch them." I watched with my child-eyes-a-wonder as shimmery mermaid-like trout leapt from the water around us, gently slapping the surface with a farewell wave upon each re-entry. I felt like my dad had imparted to me a trout’s secret, fish lore of the most basic and useful kind. 

Me Shore Fishing on Grand Mesa

My family never owned a boat. Rarely boated. Knew no friends with boats. My dad usually shore fished. In fact after he died, his fishing buddy mentioned that there was a package of recently shore-caught fish from a lake on Grand Mesa in dad’s freezer. At the lawyer’s office, where my sister and I went to hear the will read, we were inspired by a Japanese fish print hanging on the wall and were excited about having dad’s trout ink-printed on elegant paper and then water colored as a memorial to his love of fishing. Back home I yanked open the freezer door, pulled out the package of trout, and laid it in its wrapper on the counter. But—so like my dad, thorough as always—he had cleaned the trout and cut off their heads before freezing them. Printed, their image would be too macabre to grace a dining room wall, so my sister and I decided to forego the effort.

Back on the waters of the Strait of Georgia, I don’t recall how many hours our little crew of the disabled, the young, and the woman fished, but it wasn’t long before we caught the first salmon. With a large net the kid lifted it into the boat and we were all elated. The second salmon snared a hook shortly afterwards. 

The three of us hadn’t planned this trip. The guys had. They had reserved the ferry crossings, the overnight accommodations, and the boats with their accompanying fishing equipment. There had been no prior discussion about who would ride in what boat. Not to my knowledge. The next salmon my dad, the kid, and I caught evened the tally–one each.

In the turning of our boat, we sometimes caught sight of the guys, the serious fishermen, off some distance from us, sitting solidly in their little rocking boat, too far away to ask about the salmon they were catching.

Our catch box filled nicely, salmon being so much larger than trout. The top fishes would look up at us with their round and lidless eyes, gracing us with puzzled stares and gaping mouths. Their silent protests were slightly unnerving, but not enough to dampen our delight. As the salmon piled up, our grins widened. 

We docked a few minutes before the guys. I jumped out and wrapped the ropes around the cleats. As carefully as he had entered the boat, my dad shut off the motor and climbed out to the safety of the dock. The guys approached, averting their eyes, busy as they gathered their gear. Finally one of them, reading our faces, queried, “Salmon?”

In back of me I heard a familiar little whistle and the snap of fingers before my dad said, “Caught a load! Eight!” His cheer and excitement floated in the breeze across the dock and infected the guys who smiled at his joy. 

“And you, guys?” my dad said.

After a pause of sideways glances, one of them said, “Ummm, none. Yeah, none.”

Graciously, the men helped us unload our catch and laid it out by the fishing hut for photos. The fishery would process the salmon and can it in jam-sized jars to be retrieved the next morning. Later, when my dad and I boarded a train in Pendleton heading to where my dad now lived, Grand Junction, Colorado, his suitcase was filled with t-shirt-buffered jars, each pasted with a label we had designed for him. The illustration on the label was a neatly drawn salmon and was printed with “Caught by Ed Templeton.” Actually, the labels should have read, “Caught by One Blind Man, One Boy, and One Woman Privy to the Secrets of Fish.”

Friday, March 24, 2023

The Connection Between Homelessness, Graffiti, and Mental Illness—Observations on the Street

On a cold evening in Seattle within sight of the iconic Space Needle I passed a couple bedding down for the night under the eaves of an entry way. The man cheerfully called out about my cute dog, casually engaging in conversation as if he were calling to me from his front porch. Later that same evening, I passed the couple again. They sat in their sleeping bags with their backs against a brick wall watching a movie on a laptop and eating popcorn. The man waved in recognition. The woman smiled. 

Residential architects wax melodic about the separation between public and private areas. A typical description might introduce you to the foyer from where the drama of a double height living room beckons through an archway. The kitchen might be enclosed or at least partially blocked from view, straddling it’s sometimes private, sometimes public status. The laundry room is always private as are the bathrooms and bedrooms. Exuding another level of intimacy, the primary suite is sometimes further isolated from the other bedrooms. 

For the homeless what is private has become public.

Each evening as I took my pup for his last walk, I observed some of the residents of the streets locating their night’s ‘primary suite.’ I happened to catch sight of a gentleman as he hopped a gate to bed down behind tall bushes in the relative privacy of a school’s play yard. Other night lodgers settled in doorways, their only privacy a stocking cap pulled low over their eyes or the edge of their sleeping bag pulled high over their chins. Evidence of ‘cooking’ came in the form of fast-food wrappers and cans left in their wake. 

On the same trip, I took this photo of the base of an abandoned tower on the waterfront of Bellingham. The smudged over graffiti and writing on the railing made me consider how what once was reserved for the privacy of studios or homes has also taken to the public sphere in the last many years. Like the homeless, the many talented graffiti artists have had to take their work to the public landscapes—to free surfaces of walls, train cars, bridges, and fences. It seems to me that the two phenomena are related, grounded in the increasing inequities of income.

In Bellingham late one afternoon, the ruckus of a young man yelling and singing called my attention to him. As he sang, gyrating with his arms akimbo, he took off his jacket and then his shirt and changed into another garment. Here was yet another illustration of private behavior conducted in public. Worse, it illustrated the tragedy of society’s intentional neglect of those with mental illness. Yes, President Reagan signed legislation that made it more difficult to place people in institutions involuntarily; the law caused mental institutions to close. But it was the failure to then adequately fund less restrictive homes that has created the situation we see today. At one time there was a mandate for schools to place children in “the least restrictive environment.” The terminology sadly fits the state of homelessness. Least restrictive.   


On my last day on the east side of the state, I walked a park with pup before getting into the car for the return trip. It had rained the night before but temperatures had been rising. As I paused to take the above photos of a budding pussy willow and rain drenched cherry blossom, yet another homeless man passed behind me. He was the fourth that I had seen in the park, including two encamped under a bridge fronted by bushes. As lovely as this park was, still it is not adequate housing. 

When will we loosen our purse strings (public and private) and grant everyone the privacy of an abode or artists a work space? When?   

Friday, January 20, 2023

Without Obligations—A Widow's Walk on the Town

An unaccompanied adult, widowed and unbound from obligations on a holiday’s eve, can walk a town alone on a frigid night and raise no suspicions, no concerns as to what she is about while she captures the loom of old buildings against the velvet fogged skies,  

the solicitations of streetlight shadows, "cross hither,"

and lights fuzzed soft, jeweled by the freezing air.

Only one car is parked in the five blocks of downtown. 

Only one couple strolls ahead of me. 

Only one man casts a shadow at a crosswalk.

Only a few cars pass as if erratically-tossed footballs post game.

 Everyone else must be at a celebration, eating leftovers and discussing... more football. I’ve come from a holiday dinner hosted at my cabin from which everyone has scattered homeward across the state or to another celebration. I’m left to walk alone with only my delighted breath, its cloud of crystals in the cold air accompanying me.

Widowhood—or any expansive time alone—allows for the practice in the art of consulting with oneself over impulsive endeavors. The gathering of options (the shoulds and the shoulds not), the inner dialogue (hmmm...), and the final decision takes less time than it does to turn off a car and step into the cold night air.

Had I tried to encourage someone to leave the warmth of the heated car seats while I took a few photos of the old Liberty Theatre, now delightfully devoid of the usual cars parked across its front, they might have acquiesed or chosen to stay in the car.

Without obligations, I wandered back and forth across the empty streets enjoying the city's holiday light displays as if they were meant for an audience of one, a widow on a walk.

The farther I walked, the colder my fingers, the colder my toes, the more pleased I became with my choice.

Rare it is to have a town to oneself. At night the closing of an old established store, it's facade brilliantly lit and yet soon to be extinguished, felt more grevious than in the daylight.

The circumstances of this walk: a winter holiday (sans tourists in a tourist town), a nippy forecast, the lack of momentarily any company, and a practiced consultation with a party of one all made this evening unforgettable.

Night, Foggy Town

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Dummies, Mannequins, and Lay Figures


Photo Credit: Kathy McConnell

    Dummies I spied while out on a walk. Dummies—white-skinned, stiff-limbed, and disarmingly beautiful where they lay displayed on silver racks behind the plate glass windows of a former car dealership. Dummies has such a derogatory connotation nowadays, but its etymological origin, according to the On-line Etymology Dictionary, is in the word 'dher,' whose meaning is the lovely vision of "dust, vapor, and smoke." From the lips of mutes and from those who spoke in gibbish, their breath and nonsense—like vapor—left no meaningful trace. From 'dher' to dummy, from vapor to vile.
    The history of words and their changing meanings detail inequities and slights and more optimistically have begun to reveal the evolution of humanity towards a more tolerant, sympathetic, and equitable world. Today dummies of the human sort and also mutes would more appropriately be called 'differently abled.'
    Consider the other words for human-like models: lay figures (in art) and mannequins (in the fashion world). Both words are grounded in eras when males held almost all the positions of agency, power, and employment. In Belgium in the Middle Ages only male pages were allowed to model clothes, even female clothing. These young men were known as ledmen (limb + man). Ledman became leeman and then layman and now lay figures. The layman was in use beginning in the 18th century to mean an artist's fabricated model. These models were ordinarily rendered in leather or wood and passed from one generation of male teachers to their apprentices. (Note male to male only.)
    Since painting a portrait was a tedious affair that required a patron to sit for long hours, artists would have their subjects sit only while they painted their heads. Later, their clothes could be draped on the fabricated layman's body (headless for ease of changing clothes) and painted at the artist's pleasure. Today the word used for an artist's model is 'lay figure,' a term which allows a model to be male or female, reflecting how women are now included into the artistic profession both as models and artists.

    Fashion's fiberglass and plastic mannequins (a word which still incorporates 'man' in its makeup) have themselves evolved. The bone-white mannequins in the car dealership window are old. Maybe not too old, but old enough to have been sold only in one skin color. And with women's feet molded into a shape formed to wear only high heels, a crippling fashion designed to make women into sexual objects and helpless on the run.

Photo Credit: Kathy McConnell

    The female mannequins were offered in only one body shape.

Photo Credit:  Kathy McConnell
    That one.
    But no longer is there one body type in female or male mannequins. Mannequins now come in all sizes and shapes. Large hips and breasts. Flat-chested. Muscular or rope thin. Short, tall, and everything in between.
    Skin Colors? Browns and blacks began appearing not many years ago. One company now makes all its mannequins in a neutral tone of gray, while another offers over three hundred realistic skin colors. All of this is a sign, a good one recognizing that humans are made up of only one race, the human race—equal in capacity regardless of gender or color. Maybe one day we might even come to call mannequins, humaquins.

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Bears and Poop


   Poop # 1

"The school could fail," said one of the founding parents of The Kids' Place childcare center, but that was before the Ziplock bag of bear poop showed up in the sharing box early September of our first year—eliciting an uproarious delight of giggles and touching off an argument between the sharer and another knowledgeable child about whether the poop was pooped by a brown bear or a black bear, a detail that warranted a month-long study of bears, culminating with that founding parent saying, "I don't think we need to buy all those brightly-colored plastic toys to attract parents; if you can make curriculum from poop, I think the school will survive."
The bears in my neighborhood—same neighborhood as that of the infamous Ziplock bag of poop—have created some of the most gorgeous scat this summer. The photo above of poop (pressed flat by a tire in the middle of the road) looks like the bear had raided a bowl of Trix cereal. I was confused until I heard a bear has been raiding birdfeeders, even carrying the feeders themselves off into the woods.  

Poop is a taboo topic among American adults. Entire books—illustrated ones at that—display rooms where we poop without ever mentioning the word poop or its euphemistic name “number two.” 

On a recent four-mile walk up the canyon, I passed two piles of bear poop, each unique. (Does even a bear find his poop aesthetically pleasing?)

Poop # 2

Poop # 3

I marveled at how mammals manufacture poop. How in the world our digestive systems can withdraw only what they need and eliminate the rest is a marvel. I thought about how “wild-grown” poop has its uses. Besides offloading extra useless weight for the animal, another benefit is that the poop becomes a part of the food chain for dung beetles and other insects. On closer inspection of last of the bear poop piles shown above, I saw a spider and ants wandering about like they were explorers on an outcropping of rock.  (Can you spot the spider?)

As of today, I have seen more piles of bear poop (three) than bears (one) this summer. I like that the bear poop piles significantly increase my bear “sightings." I think I will continue the tradition of tallying bear poop along with bear sightings. If the bears don’t appreciate their poop’s beauty, I will. And of course, I'll continue admiring the bears—black or brown.

A bear who visited a few years ago, eying me from a neighbor's cherry tree.