Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

The Dark Horse Region

The Dark Horse Region
A View into the center of the Milky Way

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Photographer's Sky

It turned out as the most expensive single photograph I've ever taken. Seems in my haste to get to my shooting location I managed to zip through a speed trap and yes I did receive a ticket, over $200 worth of speeding ticket. I wasn't happy to say the least, but in spite of this setback I managed to arrive at my intended location and was greeted with one of the best Photographer's Skies I've ever captured.

Landscape photography encompasses such a wide range of techniques and venues it is all but impossible to write about them all. But, there is one element that seems to apply to almost every aspect of this form of photography...that would be a great sky.

What is a Photographer's Sky? Well, simply stated, it is where the sky becomes an integral part of the composition, so much so, it becomes the most important element of the entire image. A great sky is key to most landscape photography. Without it, most images will look lifeless and flat, almost always bland, and lacking character. I'm not always speaking about sunset or sunrise. While those two times can generate some amazing looks, some of the best skies occur in the middle of the day. The old axiom of always shooting during the early or late hour of the day does not always have to become locked down. You can shoot all day long, it is just a matter of how you use the light and available conditions. In fact great skies can occur at any time of the day. The only bad skies in my opinion are those 'hazy white sky' conditions where there is no texture at all, but even those kinds of skies have their value in certain situations.

Okay, so, what makes a great Photographers Sky? That can be defined by one word; Texture. Texture is provided by clouds, all kinds of clouds, dark ominous ones, fluffy white ones, whispy ones, bright ones, simple and complex ones...I could go on, but the point is for the most part, clouds make the sky. Sometimes a completely blank sky can become a powerful visual element. It all depends on how you use it and the compositional techniques applied around it. A dark smooth texture can be just as appealing as one with a great deal of movement associated with it.

Kentucky has some amazing skies, but finding a Big Sky situation here can be a challenge, but not impossible. It requires an unobstructed view of the horizon, which in Kentucky is not always possible. Places out west are more condusive to the big sky element. That is why I love to photograph Oklahoma's Tallgrass Prairie where you can still find horizon to horizon of unobstructed vista's of prairie grasslands.

Capturing a photographer's sky is not always easy to do. In most cases you will need to employ a good polarizer filter. This will help to darken a blue sky and help to bring out texture in the clouds by eliminating or reducing hot spot glare. You also must have some kind of connection to the foreground to provide a point of reference, something that places the moment into context.

To me the best skies are the ones where its elements provide a full range of textures from dark shadows to whispy whites and where some clear portions are visable as well. I especially savor those moments when dark ominois skies are begining to break apart and you can see a wide range of dark and light interspaced between the various levels of the cloud formations.

A great Photographer's Sky is one that translates well into black and white. Sometimes a sky will look promising in color, but when transformed to B&W it takes on a whole new expression. That is where a good polarizer is essential because it allows for the sky to be transformed into an almost black sky which can create a dramatic Ansel Adams look.

The photographers sky...its one of the most important elements I seek out when searching for that great landscape photograph.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Old Days and Places: Quail Hunting - A Measure of Class

...I felt the solid recoil nudge against my shoulder and heard the muffled pop of the shotgun echo across the draw. The bird rocketed across the opening then at the report of the shotgun crumpled and fell near a tangled mess of vines. My old Friend Ralph blurted out, "Good Shot..." as I sauntered over to my small trophy and examined it...

Based on the Oklahoma Backcountry article from August 2002.

I have lived in many places scattered across several states but my ancestral home is Oklahoma. For many years I traveled across its landscape in search of hunting and fishing opportunities. Over those years hunting for quail became one of the grandest and exciting forms of hunting I was able to participate in and historically Oklahoma possessed some of the best quail populations in the country. This article was written originally for the old Oklahoma Backcountry website about 15 years ago before we moved to Kentucky. I hope you enjoy this special look into what is truly a sport with a measure of class.


Any day spent afield hunting develops its own aura and magic. No two are ever alike. A rising sun casting a glow into wispy clouds or that feeling of change in the air when the first cold front blows in and the weather shifts. There is the wide open fun of an opening day dove hunt, the quiet reflexion and humbling atmosphere that hovers around the campfire at deer camp, and the exhilarating rush of the frigid days of duck hunting. They all contribute to the collective memories a hunter builds over time. But, one kind of hunting stands apart from all the rest; one that retains a measure of class and represents everything good about the outdoor world.

Who can forget the aggressive nature of a noble pointer working heavy cover, then spin and lock on point just before a covey of quail explodes at your feet. When you  finally react and lock onto that blur as it rockets away and feel the recoil  of a favorite shotgun, then to finally hold in hand one of natures survival experts, well, most people are forever changed by the experience of quail hunting.

The dominant colors across the Eastern Oklahoma landscape in late November is burnt tan and gray. Accented with a chilling wind, steel blue sky laced with high, thin clouds, and the encroaching dark green of Oklahoma's red cedar, a typical November day hunting in Oklahoma can run anywhere from unseasonably   warm to wintry cold. I remember it being somewhere in the low 40’s, maybe a little overcast and breezy those twenty odd years ago when Ralph and I worked our way down the eastern edge of the Verdigris River then up a tangled draw in pursuit of bobwhite quail. The draw tapered from about 50 yards wide to close to 75 yards wide and snaked between two plowed fields bracketed by thick woods. Across the outer edges bordering the plowed field, stood banks of thick, neck-high grass. Inside the draw it was more open with saplings, tangles of vines, brushy river cane and a soft semi-muddy bottom. Old Dooley, Ralph's liver and white Brit, diligently worked the cover as we strolled through the center of the draw for the first couple hundred yards. By then the high grass along the edges looked so temping we split up with one of us working the upper, more difficult path, and the other staying inside the draw.

I carried my old Stevens 16 gauge side by side, loaded with number 8 field loads and Ralph lugged his old 12 gauge Winchester Model 1894 thumb buster as he called it. I really miss that old 16 gauge. It was one fine quail gun with its relatively short barrels and modified/full chokes. It would swing as lightly as a broomstick and looked like a classic with its refinished walnut stock. It was great in heavy cover like we were encountering on that day.

As cool as it was, it didn't take long to work up a sweat stomping around in the thick grass, but the effort paid off. I don't remember how large the covey was, maybe eight or ten birds, but they busted out of the grass right at my feet and before I could react, scattered across the draw. A few of them flew down the edge; most flew into the draw and crossed in front of Ralph. With Ralph's not so good hearing, I yelled at him and he spotted them as they randomly sat down inside the tangles and along the opposite edge. Old Dooley, Ralph's liver and white Brittany Spaniel was birdy for the rest of the morning with all the quail scent floating around in there. As we worked up the draw we’d flush a single here, a double there. After the first couple of flushes, the old 16 gauge once again snapped to my shoulder and swung with the flutter that erupted a few yards in front of me. The bird rocketed up then across the opening then at the report of the shotgun crumpled and fell near a tangled mess of vines. My old Friend Ralph blurted out, "Good Shot..." as I sauntered over to my small trophy and examined it. To my surprise, it was not a quail but a migratory woodcock, the first I'd ever shot or seen in the field.

Woodcock are not all that common that far west, but some stragglers do migrate through the eastern edges of Oklahoma even as far west as Tulsa. The cane and tangle infested draw was the perfect holding area for them with its muddy bottom and tall thickets. Being the migrants they are, they stop over in these soft bottom areas to feed by poking their odd looking snout into the mud in search of worms. I can't remember how many birds we collected that day, but we had good action, good dog work, and our aim was good enough to place a few birds in our game bags. That year was a good year for quail, as were the next few years following.

We'd return to that draw on a regular basis, made an occasional foray ‘out at Morris’ and other assorted places, and made trips to Hitchita, where we almost froze on a bitterly cold, snow spitting winter day, and the Okmulgee game refuge. Two of the largest covey rises I have ever witnessed occurred in those two places. Can't say for sure how many birds got up, it seemed like a hundred or more, but was probably closer to forty or fifty. Both rises erupted in slow motion like a dark, thundering cloud when they busted, one at the end of a narrow draw and one on the edge of some heavy cover. I've never witnessed such large covey rises as those two times. It was truly an amazing example of how quail can and will survive and repopulate an area given good habitat.

For a good number of years I all but stopped quail hunting. The dogs got to old, or other events syphoned off what available time there was to get out.  Maybe it was more of an observation than anything, but not long ago I couldn't recall the last time I had jumped any quail, except for an isolated single or an occasional brace of birds seen running along the edge of the road. Way to much time has gone by since I've seen a covey of any consequence while out in the field. I've not forgotten the good times, the long hikes, the crisp wind in my face, and the sound of a covey rise. My good friend Rocky and I spent many a day in the field chasing after old Mr. Bob White. I do miss those days.

So, where have all the quail gone? The experts say the habitat is all messed up. Some hunters claim there are too many hawks that prey on the young birds, and skunks and raccoons that get into the nests, and even domestic cats take their toll. A lot of blame is placed on finicky weather and disease or some combination of the two. Some even say there's been too much hunting pressure. I tend to think, at least in part, it is because of all the above. About 80 percent of the quail are lost each year whether they are hunted or not, so hunting pressure has little effect on the overall population, unless of course the population is severely or adversely stressed from other factors. Historically, quail can bounce back rather quickly even after their numbers are reduced, but when you have habitat problems combined with too many predators and weather too hot, or too wet, or too dry, or too cold, then factor in some bird disease. It's a wonder the quail populations still exist at all. Unfortunately, some hunters think they must shoot every bird they see and forget or simply do not understand that you must leave enough birds in an area so they can survive and rebuild the covey. The old saying ‘Leave some for seed’ is a valid statement and a vital practice for today’s quail hunting environment. Oklahoma still ranks as one of the best quail states in the country, and there are still pockets of good quail populations, mostly on private land, but the old haunts I used to always find quail in just don’t produce anymore.

Sometimes in the spring or late summer would drive the twenty miles or so northwest of my home in Edmond and scan the open prairie and wheat fields of central Oklahoma. Along those back roads I'll stop and listen to the sounds of the prairie and feel the hot wind blowing across the open ranges. If I stay long enough, I'll usually hear the unmistakable high pitched 'Bahb....Whhite' whistle somewhere out in the tall grasses. It is comforting to know they are still there, still surviving in spite of the pressure placed on them from urban sprawl and the whims of nature. My home is in Kentucky now which offers it own adventure rewards, but quail hunting here is sporatic at best. Even so, I will often hike around the edge of the cornfields behind my house and will on occasion jump a small covey. When I do, I am transported back to those days in Oklahoma hiking the edge cover of a tangled draw where the quail loved to hide.

My old friend Ralph is gone now, but I will never forget those red-letter days of quail hunting we experienced all those years ago. I only hope the future holds the same for the generation coming up behind us. For now, I'll bet on the new generation of hunters and on the quail. I think they'll be around for a long time and will bounce back with a little help from nature, and a greater understanding from landowners and hunters. I plan on being there, to continue with and to pass on that legacy, with possibly a new hunting dog, a renewed spirit, and respect for a classic upland bird, and maybe another old 16 gauge, double barrel shotgun.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Old Days and Places: Musical Waters and a Country Rose

Based on an article originally written for Oklahoma Backcountry - January 1998

...The number of fish I caught that day has faded with time, but the experience of that first visit has remained forever etched into my outdoor history...


On the crest of the bluff a grove of pine trees swayed in the rising air currents. With a gentle whisper their song filled the little valley and kept time with the musical waters of Flint Creek as it rolled and tumbled across the Northeastern Oklahoma landscape. Dogwoods and Redbuds accented the hills with their flash of color along with cottonwoods and other hardwood trees just now beginning to awaken from their winter long sleep. Song birds of just about every variety added their charm which was bolstered by the occasional bellowing of a dozen or so cattle as they grazed across rolling fields surrounding the creek.

Spring was certainly in the air presenting its calming antidote to the stresses and strains of working and living in the city. Just above the creek not far from the scenic country road stood the old farm house. It was a scene where country living displayed its best flavor and before long the blur of the previous few hectic months drifted away to silence. A most wonderful place was this peaceful little valley tucked into the secluded foothills of the Oklahoma Ozarks. This special day, back in 1978, was my first day to discover the values associated with the charms of Flint Creek.

Flint Creek begins as a trickle just across the Arkansas state line, then it flows generally to the west and south as it winds its way over river gravel, through pastures and valleys, around pine accented bluffs and hills, to eventually tumble into Oklahoma's Illinois River. Along its path can be discovered some of the most beautiful scenery and best creek fishing in the Sooner state.

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The first time it came into view I knew something unique existed here. My old friend Ralph for many years when a young lad would spend time with his parents camping along the banks of Flint Creek. In turn for many years he would bring his family to enjoy the wonders of this wonderful place. An hours drive or so east of Tulsa I turn onto a gravel road north of old highway 33, now 412, to travel maybe 4 or 5 miles negotiating several cutbacks and sharp turns to eventually turn into the long driveway just before crossing a low water bridge.

I stopped at the farmhouse and was greeted by a pack of 6 or 7 country dogs all wagging their tails as they barked their greeting. Scattered along an old rickety fence and growing beside the farm house were a series of country rose bushes just now beginning to emerge into their first spring bloom. I stood outside petting the dogs and felt as though I belonged here as the warm spring sunshine filled the valley. Within a moment or two the screen door screached open and slapped closed again behind as the owners of this piece of paradise stepped outside and began to walk over to where I was standing. Several of the dogs broke ranks from around me and surrounded them, wagging their tails with their enthusiastic greeting as they followed them down the walk way.

I introduced myself to the elderly couple, the Talberts, as a friend of Ralphs which generated a warm smile of acceptance from them. They were most enjoyable folks who had lived on this property for many, many years. After a few pleasantries were exchanged, old man Talbert granted me permission to cross his fields and camp along the creek down by the bluff.

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"Real purdy spot down there by the bluff, good fish'n too. Be careful with the campfire, been kind of dry," he said as he pointed in that direction. "Don't mind the cattle, they'll mosey by after a while to see who you are."

I shook his hand and drove to the gate where his wife lifted the securing chain from the bent nail holding it in place, then pushed it open where it creaked and groaned from lack of use. I followed a cow-track trail that wound just above the creek, bouncing and bumping on the uneven texture of the pasture, then I saw it, the perfect spot for a camp. I walked to the edge of the creek where a small riffle sang a cheerful song as it tumbled toward the bluff. I thought to myself, '...this is something I have needed for a long time...'

Before long my camp was set and I was eager to try some fishing. The creek was low and easy to wade but it was still quite cold. It almost didn't look deep enough to hold fish in places but a couple of quick casts with a yellow Roostertail spinner along a weathered blowdown produced my first Flint Creek smallmouth bass. He wasn't all that big, 11 maybe 12 inches or so, but was typical of their type with a scrappy nature. The number of fish I caught that day has faded with time, but the experience of that first visit has remained forever etched into my outdoor history.

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I spent the better part of the day meandering along the creek making a cast here and there exploring every deep hole and the eddy's below each riffle. It was all new to me and around each tight turn in the creek a new 'fishy spot' presented itself. The whole creek looked fishy.

The day passed much to quickly and as the light began to fade I returned to my campsite and stirred a fire into life. As night fell across the valley a chill fell with it, yet the skies opened their first Flint Creek performance for me with a splendid display of stars. Long into the evening I fed the fire mesmerized by its glow, warmed by it flames. Below where I camped the little creek provided an orchestrated symphony that played all through the evening and I slept to the soft music of the flowing waters.

By the next morning I was awakened by the bellowing song of cattle. I stumbled out of my tent and shivered in the chill of the morning air to witness a shallow haze drifting across the pasture highlighted by the first rays of a rising sun. I rekindled the fire and as I waited for that first cup of coffee, I could hear the fish jumping seemingly calling me into action. A short time later I braved the cold waters and waded over to the base of a blue hole that formed a pivot point at the base of a long bluff. I could not help but wonder who the first person was to stand where I then stood. Surely it was some ancient Native American who made this little valley home. I discovered later that arrowheads could be found in the plowed fields.

I found myself at times sitting calmly just listening to the creek telling its story. I managed to doze off in the warmth of a sunbeam as the verses from Flint Creek; The Story continued to play. Most all the day was spent resting and fishing along with some exploring. Later that evening I sat next to the campfire late into the evening gazing up at the sky which was again filled with stars with an encore performance. Another morning greeted me much the same way as the first one. I felt sad in a way knowing that my time here on this first and possibly most important visit, was soon to end. After a morning of fishing, I reluctantly secured the tent and the gear and chaotically tossed it into the back of my old vehicle. Before leaving I stood one final time next to the blue hole at the base of the bluff to listen to the music of the flowing waters and absorb the sweet smell of pine drifting from the bluff above.

Over the years I continued to off and on return to this little farm on the creek for some much required R&R. The old timer and his wife were always gracious and inviting. Some years later, when Kris and I first started to spend time together, I took her to Flint Creek for a day visit. It was then I suppose, when I first realized she was the one for me.

Circumstances eventually prevented me from returning for a few years but a time came when a longing inside of me boiled to the surface where I needed to seek the solitude of this little valley.

I stopped as I had always done at the old farmhouse. The dogs were gone. A new, much younger face greeted me as I walked toward the porch which now sagged almost to the ground. When I asked the young man about the Talberts he lowered his head and somberly said, "Seems they passed away about a year ago. Someone else owns the farm now, a doctor out of Siloam Springs. I'm only the caretaker and I've been told to no longer allow people to camp on the property. You can still fish it if you want to, but you'll have to park down by the bridge."

I thanked him and started to retrace the path down the long gravel and dirt driveway toward the crossing. Somehow it just wasn't the same. I cut my visit short that day, saddened by the passing of the original owners. Oddly enough I never took very many photographs of the area, just a few fleeting ones.

A void was created by the passing of the kindly old man and his gentle wife, yet they became a special part of a special setting fitting enough to inspire poets. I may never run across such people and places again, yet from the few outings I managed on Flint Creek, all I have to do is close my eyes to hear the musical waters of this little creek and for visions of its paradise to appear, visions as sweet and fragrant as a country rose, like those I saw on that last day still blooming along the old fence and next to the old house.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Old Days and Places: LOST in the High Country

I, for many years dreamed about hiking in the Rocky Mountains when during 1995 - 1996 I spent the better part of a year working on a contract programming job in Denver Colorado. Even though I would be away from home for extended periods of time, the opportunity afforded me the ability to finally do some serious hiking. Most of my hikes were of the day hike variety, but I was able to make several overnight backpacking trips into several areas. The most notable were Homestead Meadows; a rustic location not far from Estes Park where old homestead cabins were still partially standing; and into Rawah Wilderness, a difficult and demanding hike into the high country of Northern Colorado. Rawah Wilderness provided the backdrop for a near disastrous hike where I was almost lost in the backcountry.

LOST in the High Country

During the spring of 1996 during my time in Denver, I caught wind of a seminar being presented at one of the local branch libraries by one of the local hiking clubs. The subject was Hiking the Rawah Wilderness. Up until then I had managed a few short day hikes to some lovely but relatively easy locations, but I was itching to try something a bit more challenging. The seminar presented the perfect opportunity and location, and after speaking with some of the presenters I decided Rawah was to become my next big hiking adventure.

Rawah Wilderness is located in the north central part of Colorado and is characterized by numerous mountain lakes stocked with willing and hungry trout. A series of these lakes marked the end of the trail that wound its way upwards to around 11,000 feet. The lower camp lake sat just over 10,000 feet while the others were scattered higher up. I could not wait to give it a try, and it was this enthusiasm along with my inexperience of hiking in the mountains that nearly got me into trouble.

There were several trails that lead up to the lakes. One of the longer but less steep portion wound its way for a good number of miles mostly along the northern side of the climb. A shorter, but much steeper climb arched its way along the southern flanks of the climb.

For my first attempt to reach the lakes I decided to give the northern route a try in late May. As luck would have it I barely made it half way up the trail when I ran into a deep snow pack that completely obliterated the trail. There was no way I would ever be able to follow it with that kind of snow pack so I simply turned around and hiked out again. A few weeks later I gave it another try, this time about the third week in June. I managed to make it in to what I figured was maybe 3/4 of the way in when I ran into more snow pack. I was frustrated and tried to see if I could follow the trail on up. I managed to go maybe a quarter mile or so and realized I had no idea where the trail was so to keep from getting completely lost I simply turned around and followed my footprints back to where I could see the trail.

At that point I made a big mistake. While I was sitting down taking a short break I started looking at an inadequate topo map trying to figure out where I actually was along the trail. A few dozen yards off the trail was a steep mountain stream now filled with snow runoff. Coming out of the lakes area was an outlet stream that angled down the slope...actually there were several, so I figured this particular stream must connect up with the lakes and from where I thought I was on the map, in a straight line up hill the lakes were only about a mile or so from where I was. I figured I would just follow the stream to its source and I'd have to run into the lakes.

So that is what I started to do and began the slow and difficult climb up slope through deep snow roughly following the streams path. After what seemed like way more time than it should have taken to get there, I began to realize that my plan was flawed. This stream did not appear to lead to the fact I had no idea really where it was leading me except deeper and deeper into a thickly wooded area. There were no lakes to be found. I stopped for a few minutes to get my bearings and decided to venture a little ways off from the stream hoping maybe I would be able to find some kind of landmark where I could tell where I was. At this point I was not really lost. All I had to do was to retrace my steps back down the slope which would lead me back to the original trail. However, events and circumstances were soon to turn for the worse.

I walked maybe 1/4 mile parallel to the slope and came to a steep snow packed escarpment that dropped off a good 20 maybe 25 feet almost straight down. I knew I would never be able to climb down it much less back up, so I stopped for a few moments and stood on the edge so I could survey what was below. Without warning, I suddenly found myself plummeting down the face of the escarpment. I must have been standing on loose rock or tree limb or something hidden by the snow that gave way under my weight. When it happened It happened so quickly I had no time to grab anything to keep from falling. Luckily several smaller saplings and several large rocks broke my fall as I bounced and slid down the face of the escarpment. Even so, I landed with a shocking thud at the base of the slope and my ankle buckled under me.

To say it hurt was an understatement. I really thought I had broken it, at the very least sprained and/or tore the ligaments. I sat there hurting for several minutes before trying to stand, but I was eventually able to get to my feet. The ankle was not broken, but it was strained and hurt something fierce and any walking required a noticable limp. My 35 - 40 pound backpack felt more like a hundred pounds.

By this time it was mid-afternoon. I was not in any kind of serious situation...yet. I still had my backpack with enough provisions to get me by for several days. The problem was as much as I tried I could not find a place where I could climb back up the escarpment to be able to retrace my steps down to the trail. I stopped, removed my pack, pulled out something to eat, and calmed down. While I was eating I looked at my topo map again and it seemed to me that if I were to follow the slope down hill, I would eventually have to run into the trail. It was a risky idea, because my ankle really hurt and if my logic proved faulty I could end up deep into the wilderness and have no idea where I was. Fact was, I had no other choice. I could not retrace my steps back because of the steepness of the escarpment prevented my being able to climb back up. The only thing I could do was to head down hill which is what I did.

I slipped and stumbled, zigged and zagged trying to maintain as straight a path as I could and after a while I was beginning to believe I had made another big mistake, but then all of sudden there it was...the trail. I was never so glad to see a piece of worn dirt trail as I was then.

I stopped again and rubbed my sore ankle which was starting to swell, so I tightened the laces of my boots and started back down the trail to where my vehicle was parked. Several hours later I removed the heavy pack and threw it inside my truck and crumpled into the seat. It had been a full and difficult day, but, my ordeal, except for the long drive back to Denver, was over.

Several weeks later, about mid July, my ankle had recovered enough to where I was willing to give it one more try. This time I took the steeper southerly route deducing correctly that it would be exposed to more of the sun and the snow pack would be gone. After an exhausting hike I managed to find the lower lake and spent a peaceful, except for the thunderstorm that rolled in around dusk, and rewarding afternoon and evening enjoying this marvelous part of the Rocky Mountains.

I learned a difficult lesson. I thought I knew more than I did about backpacking in this kind of mountain environment. Turned out I did not and I managed to make several really dumb mistakes which could have easily ended in disaster, but it did not, and in the end I became a much more experienced and certainly a more cautious hiker from that moment on.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Old Days and Places: To An Old Friend

Some years ago long before starting Beyond The Campfire and long before moving to Kentucky, I maintained a website called Oklahoma Backcountry. It was hosted on the old, no longer available AOL Hometown site and was listed as one of the top five personal websites on the Hometown location accumulating well over 100,000 hits. Some of the best Old Days and Places stories I ever created were posted on that website. I'd like to share one of my favorites and one of the most popular.


To An Old Friend - (originally written August 2002)

Attempting to pass through the Chouteau Lock and Dam on the Vertegris River leg of McClellan/Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System was ordinarily routine, but securing the bow line to the floating bouy embedded into the walls of the lock was essential if the river tug and barge were to safely lock through. Even so, as hard as I tried my lassoing ability failed with each attempt. Our skipper, who was struggling to maintain position in the stiff Oklahoma wind, shouted at me several times from the bridge, "Get that line secured!"

Him shouting at me only served to rattle me even more which did not improved my lassoing ability but did add another chapter of color to my sailor language skills.

I happened to glance upward and noticed from the visitors overlook high above stood an older man watching the event unfold. He was obviously entertained by my feeble attempts to secure that line. Half aloud I grumbled some derogatory remark as I again failed to secure the line. Somewhere around the ninth or tenth try I fianlly connected with the loop and took three quick turns around the cleat on the bow of the barge. Holding the open end of the line taut, I raised my arm and fist shouting so the skipper could hear me, "Hooked up!"

Internet Image - Chouteau Lock and Dam

The powerful diesel engines reversed thrust and the line stretched and popped under the strain but held firm. Near the stern another crewman secured a second line with a single toss and we were ready to "lock" through.

I shot a defiant look toward the stranger standing above us and while holding my hand on my hip and a smirk on my face, not unlike someone who had just tripped and jumped to his feet, muttered to myself, '...I really do know how to do this...' Strangely enough, he seemed less amused and more releaved that nothing was damaged in the process. It was a chance encounter with someone I had never seen or met before. It turned out to be the start of a life event I never knew was coming.

It is odd how random chance meetings have a way of developing into more lasting and meaningful parts of your life. Although I did not know it at the time the strangers name was Ralph Baston, and little did I know at the time, but he and I would become life long hunting and fishing partners and more importantly, life long friends.

USCG Forsythia
The year was 1977.  I was close to 25 years old at the time serving out the last few months of my enlistment service in the United State Coast Guard on the river bouy tender Forsythia out of Sallisaw, Oklahoma. (Don't ask what a Okie was doing in the Coast Guard stationed in the landlocked state of Oklahoma. Just trust me on this one.) Those last few months saw me performing some of the dirtiest, nastiest, hottest, coldest, grubbiest work I've ever had the misfortune of doing, but I would not trade the experience for anything. The previous three years or so I was stationed out in Oregon performing search and rescue operations at the Umpqua River Lifeboat station. Truly a life adventure, but a career in the military was not in my future.

Ralph was probably in his mid-fifties at the time, with a rather stout and somewhat gruff appearance, but tender hearted and filled with character. He turned out to be the father of a young lady I was to start dating shortly after our chance encounter at the lock and dam...that is how we met. Turns out the relationship with the young lady faded after a year or so, but by then Ralph and I had hunted and fished together more than enough times to become quite comfortable with each other. Neither of us saw any reason for that to end so we continued to do so. By then my friend Rocky and Ralphs friend's Curt and Neuman along with my brother had formed a comradship which evolved into our own hunting and fishing fraternity. We formed a unique cross section of personalities which for the most part complimented our personal whims and provided enough contrast to create some truly memorable moments filled with laughter.

Ralph was one of those guys who possessed a subtle but strong sense of humor and whose patience was legendary. He couldn't hear a thing without his hearing aid, yet in spite of his infirmary, he accomplished many things in life. He was a great musician and appreciated all talents he discovered in others. Like many of his generation he rarely spoke of his service during World War II thinking of it simply as his duty and preferred instead to concentrate on other things like hunting and fishing or working in his yard.

Through Ralph I learned more about the ethics of sportsmanship and why being an outdoorsman required a deep commitment and understanding of a greater responsibility than most people realize. He truly was the anchor of our group in more ways than one. He wasn't in a hurry to do anything and time after time we would chomp at the bit waiting  for him to finish tying on a lure or pull his waders on, or light his pipe. Sometimes he seemed like a real anchor holding us back with his lack of hurriedness. But, when the opportunity presented itself, everyone of us would arm wrestle the others for that coveted position to sit in front of Ralph's canoe.

His old Grumman aluminum canoe was a classic and reflected much of his personality. It was beat up, banged up, and long ago lost it's new charm, yet it kept on going and doing things every bit as well as the newer canoes. When the rest of us were talking about the high-tech vessels that were just then becoming available and how nice it would be to own one or even better own one of those fancy new high powered bass boats, he would simply nod favorably, then go about his business catching fish in his old trusted Grumman.

Ralph was wealthy only in character and goodness of heart. He would bend over backwards to help out someone, but was wise enough to know when to back off and step away. I cannot count the number of times he would take his day off to help me repair my broken down vehicle. All you had to do was to ask and he'd be there, and yet, he rarely asked for the favor in return.

Our younger bodies had a difficult time keeping up with him. There was not much he could not do physically. He often joked about his 'wide bottom' but we all knew those strong shoulders and back could out perform all of us when push came to shove. Not until he reached his upper 70's did he start to slow down and we were able to catchup with his capabilities.

His way with words belied his vocabulary skills. "Blast", or "No Kidding", or "Come On", or "Boy, Boy" were repeated so often I find myself using them even today.

I'll never forget the day I caught two 4 to 5 pound bass out at Old Beggs Lake. It was the first year or so I knew Ralph. He was the first person I showed them to..."No kidding!...Boy Boy...." he repeated over and over as we gawked at them. The next Saturday we were all down there frothing the water eagerly anticipating producing a wall hanger with each cast. Fishing reports were an expected thing with Ralph. If he knew you went fishing and he didn't get to go he'd act all  indignant, then want to know how we did and what we caught them on..."No kidding," he would exclaim as he complimented you on fine day afield.

Whether it was wetting a line from a canoe, wading Flint Creek, floating Baron Fork, quail hunting inside some tangled draw, or standing waste deep in freezing water waiting for an elusive flight of ducks, Ralph always had a story to tell. Seems his story telling was the highlight of our outings and we all relished those moments when the sun climbed higher and hunting or fishing slowed down. Heaven forbid if he started a story and you were in a hurry. What would take an ordinary person two or three minutes to tell, he could drag it out for half an hour. Twenty minutes into the story, if you paused to check the time, he would wrinkle his brow and growl, "Waht cha looking at your watch for! You aint got nothing better to do," and he'd be right, often extending the length of the story making up for lost time in telling it. He was also one of the few people I know who could tell the same story a dozen times and it would still be funny.

Many of his stories and many of our outings took on the flavor of the outdoor adventures chronicled by Patrick McManus, a brilliant and hillarious writer of outdoor wit. I suppose it was because we could relate to many of his created adventures is why we enjoyed them so much. Some of our greatest laughs were spawned while discussing Patrick's most current book. We'd run into some real-life character who would remind us of one of the McManus clan. Characteres like Rancid Crabtree, or Retch Sweeney, and even Eddie Muldoon. Sitting around the campfire we would laugh so hard recalling those tales tears would roll across sunburned cheeks. Man., those were good times.

As Ralph grew older we became less adventuresome and more intune with the greater pleasures of simply getting away. A morning of fishing became less an attempt to catch fish and more of an attempt to unwind, shake off the grime and stains of modern society. I didn't realize this so much the first few years I knew Ralph, but he was already a master of applying that concept long before I knew him. Over the years some of his ways were subtly adopted by all of us. They were the kinds of lessons one learns from experience and observation. Ralph was able to demonstrate his laid back appraoch to life and because of his subtle mentoring, we all grew not only in outdoor wisdom, but learned a great deal about life in general.

Ralph eventually began to slow down as he grew older. There was a noticeable shaking of his hand and a tireness in his eyes. When we were informed by his wife Pink that he had been diagnosed with Multiple Myloma, a type of blood cancer, we felt time was finally catching up with him. His hunting and fishing days were limited after that, yet his humor never left him and as far as I could tell he never complained about his condition, just about the orderlies, doctors, and nurses. At times it looked like he would beat it and occasionally he found enough strength to make an outing even finding the ability to sit in front of Curts canoe on one of his last canoe fishing trips to Old Beggs Lake. Now that I think about it, Old Beggs was the first and last place place I ever fished with Ralph. Fitting it seems, for there I learned about the joys of fishing from a canoe and how simple pleasures is what fishing is all about. It was also where I first leaned what being an outdoorsman meant.

Rocky called me at work one day in the middle of the week and said I better get over to Tulsa and see Ralph because he had taken a turn for the worse. I would not be able to go until a day or two later, but by then it was too late. His youngest daughter, my exgirlfriend, called me at work. Through her shakey voice and somber tone I knew before she said anything a friend, a father figure, a mentor, had passed on. I did not get much work done that day.

Many kinds of people are met traveling along the paths of life. Few make an impression and even fewer change the lives they encounter. Ralph was one of those life changers. Oddly enough, he probably never took much notice of it. He was simply being himself. He never expected anything different from anyone else.

There is no way I can explore all of Ralph's life or even the twenty-five or so years I knew him. I'm not sure what my favorite moment was, there are so many memorable ones. For example the time Rocky pulled the canoe out from under him after he stood up in the back and subsequently caused him to perform a backflip off the stern landing with a giant splash. Or maybe the time he and I found an ailing Redtailed Hawk while we were quail hunting. He took it home to see if he could find someone to nurse it back to health, much to his oldest daughter kept staring at her. Or the time he met me up at Canton Lake for some late season goose hunting and we witnessed one of the most awesome displays of nature I've ever seen when thousands of ducks and geese took to flight across the backdrop of a spectacular sunrise. Or, I suppose it could be all those times when on every outing we stopped hunting or fishing and sat for a spell in a shade to listen to one his never ending supply of stories. We would talk about how we ought to go frog gigging, or, or make that dream trip up to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area. We never made those trips.

I think my favorite times were after the sun had gone down and the campfire was casting a warm glow across our camp. It was then time-worn stories were shared again for the hundreth time and images of hilarious misadventures and triumphant moments were enhance by the warmth of the flames.

What ever mansion Ralph has earned up in Heaven, I can rest assured there is a campfire somewhere near by. I actually believe old Ralph has cornered the Good Lord up there offering him a warm cup of coffee along with whatever camp grub he may have simmering. I also see him asking, "Why did you put so many blow downs on the Baron Fork...speaking of blow downs, do you remember that time when..."

...Twenty minutes later into his story, the Good Lord will look at his watch, Ralph will wrinkle his brow and growl, "Waht cha looking at your watch ain't got nothing better to do..."

...then in the end they will laugh so hard they will both wipe a tear from their cheek. Once they laughed themselves out, both will look down here and they will see his family and friends and remember all the good times of our lives. Another tear, one of happiness, will roll down his cheek to join the ones we have already shed, some in saddness knowing he is gone from us, but most in joy knowing he has a good friend up there who will forever share in and will never tire of listening to his stories.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Old Days and Places...Wave Warriors - 1973


Keith Bridgman Image
I stood alone, wedged between that appointment when day becomes night, and gazed toward the hills that surround this lost corner of Oregon at Winchester Bay.  Caught as I was where obscure memories find a fresh avenue of awareness, old recollections were aroused by sights, sounds, and the aroma of low tide. I returned to my old duty station back in 2007 and stood on a pier, alone, and searched the depths of my heart and rediscovered a part of my past which at that time was thirty-four years removed.

Sometimes events and opportunity pass our way and we fail to grasp the moment until years later.  The months and years I spent at U.S. Coast Guard Station Umpqua River, so long ago, were no exception.  In recent years I am finally beginning to understand how the emotions, personal connections, and the chance happenings I experienced then, touch me now. 

In so many ways I’m not the same kid I was then. Even so, I realize more than ever that I would not be who I am now if not for those days.  As middle age evolved into those first vestiges of old age a desire inside to return to that place, to touch base again with a part of my past began to burn into my life.  It took a decade for those desires to find a path that lead back to Winchester Bay. It was as though I was called back to find an answer to some unknown question.  Over the next few days I sought a resolution to reconcile those emotions.  The riposte I uncovered lifted me onto another plateau of understanding, with a warming sense of confidence, and an elevated measure of respect for the current young men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat service.  A respect they so mightily deserve.

During my tenure at Umpqua River from November 1973 until January 1976, life changing events, character refining moments, and memory building people, became my world.  We were a good crew back then, somewhat on the edge at times, always ready to lay it on the line.  We loved and hated our job at the same time.  We were young and searching and often foolish, but just as often, we were amazingly resourceful.  We had to be, as funding for the Coast Guard in those days amounted to a few crumbs of left over resources not allocated to the big four services.  
 It was a sense of adventure we sought, but more often than not our lives consisted of routine, mundane work dictated by long hours of  port and starboard, or maybe at best, two out of three duty rotation.  Even so, more often than we dared to discuss…circumstances carried us into that realm of high adventure and the searching inexperienced-lives that we were, became young men forced to deal with difficult and sometimes tragic life and death situations.  Although we never considered ourselves ‘elite’, under challenging circumstances we performed our job well, and whether we wanted to admit to it or not, we did so with a sense of purpose and duty.

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They call them Wave Warriors these young people who challenge the treacherous waters that collide with the edge of a continent. For good reason as the coastline of Oregon and Washington is home to some of the most dangerous waters on the planet. The lifeboat units of the 13th Coast Guard District have garnered a rightly earned unique place in history as a result of their efforts. Often overlooked, rarely spoken of outside the confines of their respective locations, these brave young men and women, place themselves at risk virtually every day, standing ready to save those placed in jeopardy by the whimsical nature of the Pacific Northwest

This is the First-Person account of my initial experience chasing the waves across the Umpqua River Bar. (Check out the video at the end)


November 1973....

“Standby one!”

United States Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat CG44303 rolled to starboard as it coasted to a stop less than two hundred yards from the mouth of the Umpqua River Bar as Myron Dale replied to a radio call from the lookout tower.

The forty-four foot surfboat gleamed brilliant white in the foggy dim of the morning light.  Deep echoes rumbled from within the twin diesel engines as they settled into idle. Coasting to a stop the 303 turned broadside to the swells and rolled along its central axis, bobbing and whipping left then right then bow to stern. It was a typical November winter day on the bar in 1973, overcast dreariness where a diffused layer of fog hovered suspended above the main channel to boil against the abruptly angle ridge that formed the eastern wall of the river channel. Multiple rows of twelve to fifteen foot breakers collapsed across the narrow three-hundred yard gap separating the ends of the north and south jetties. The surge rolled heavily well inside the channel away from the main surf action.
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The Umpqua River Bar held the reputation as one of the most dangerous bar crossings on the west coast, or anywhere for that matter. Rightly deserved it was. It turned into a liquid hell at times when black storms rolled in to meet the outgoing tide surging with the stained runoff of the Umpqua River to blend into a boiling dirty brown cauldron. From its source high on the flanks of the ancient Mount Mazama deep in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon, the Umpqua River cut a jagged course across the western reaches of the state. It’s personality a beautiful, lively river for most of its length, a resource of unspoiled natural wonder, its flanks widened, its color turned brown, and its pace slowed as it approached the coast to eventually arch behind a thick layer of primordial sand dunes and spill into the Pacific Ocean. 
It is here the Umpqua changes into its alter ego and becomes manic depressive in nature, almost Jekyll and Hyde. There are days the mouth remains deceptively calm and serene only to turn violent and depressing at the slightest provocation. It is during those manic times rows of breakers exploded from the depths a turbid boil upon the edge of the continent. This anger could only come from an entity that was alive it would seem, an evil unto itself without enmity, without concern for those who must cross through it, ready to spring from its lair a watery trap for those careless enough to forget. Its history is such that numerous sailing craft large and small have suffered because of its volatile nature, and with them the lives of sailors caught within its hellish waters.
First Class Boatswain Mate BM1 Myron Dale surveyed the face of his rooky crewman, me, perched nervously to his right in the coxswains flat of the CG44303. Myron stood tall in the coxswain’s seat helped by a frame that stretched almost two inches over six feet. His athletic form was showing signs of softening around the mid section. Even so, his youthful appearance and longer than regulation brown, wavy hair, gave him a younger look than his years would show.
Station Umpqua River was one of the older Coast Guard stations on the west coast originally established well back in the days of the old Life Saving Service. In the year 1915 it became part of the newly formed military service officially known as the United States Coast Guard. The first new older facilities originally constructed in the late 1930’s up on the hill overlooking the bar now stood boarded and abandoned after 1962 when the newer station was built on the entrance channel into Winchester Bay Harbor. Today those older buildings house a museum.
Keith Bridgman Image
Small units like Station Umpqua River were not just places to put personnel, they were part of the communities in which they were built. Crew’s of these units became like foster sons to the people they interacted around and it was important to maintain as much as possible that sense of family and connection. Family is simply treated different. Experienced personnel like Myron became invaluable assets to maintaining productive relationships. Winchester Bay exemplified the quaint life that was small town life along the Oregon Coast. Scattered here and there amongst the Victorian style homes and coastal shops were well attended, stout, old churches weathered by wind and rain.
Today’s drills were my first time out on a 44, first time on breaker drills, first duty station out of boot camp, first time to get seasick. Slightly behind Myron and to his left stood Third Class Boatswain Red O’Neil, along with Dan McKean, our engineer, another sandy headed with a dark red beard old timer.

 “Come on Sport…let’s get you strapped in,” Red shouted as he swung around the backside of the coxswains flat where he opened the white equipment storage box behind the coxswains chair and extracted two sets of a seatbelt-like harnesses. He fumbled with the tangled mess before handing one to me. After receiving it I am sure I looked somewhat puzzled as to what to do.

See this part…snap it around low on the hips like a seat belt then pull it tight…like this,”  Red demonstrated using his harness, “ then take the two end pieces and snap them into the eyes built in the bulkhead there and there. Once you’re snapped in, lean back and take out the slack…use your legs like shock absorbers and hold on here and here…it’s going to get rather bouncy once we head into the surf…like this…

Again he demonstrated by placing tension on his harness, leaning back until the straps tightened and then he began to rhythmically bend at the knees.  I followed suit.

Myron looked on with approval and started to verbally give his opinion when the radio cracked.

            “…303 this CG44331.”

Master Chief Boatswains mate John Whalen, Commanding Officer of Station Umpqua River and one of the best surfboat operators in the Guard, also one of the most unorthodox…was approaching from up channel in the 303’s sister craft CG44331.

I turned to my right and spotted the 331 loping along about three hundred yards behind our position. It was mid-morning and the early fog had not completely burned off. Behind them the black bulk of the Umpqua River jetties curved away into the distance filtered by the haze until they disappeared. Nothing was more beautiful than morning on the channel where the haze blended the features of the surrounding terrain into a soft gray. Then, when the sun poked its disc above the ridge, its rays would spread through the haze like golden beams and generate highlights on the dunes against the darker background. I soon discovered that I would never grow tired of witnessing such moments.

The 44’s were powerful rescue boats, yet at the same time they often appeared vulnerable out on the bar almost like toy boats thrown up against an unforgiving adversary. They first came on line in 1964 a few years before my time. Chief Whalen was one of the first to operate them, a new breed of surfboat operator in his day, who helped write the book on how to handle the new vessel.

Tom McAdams
During the 44’s initial evaluation the legendary Chief Tom McAdams would run the prototype through the treacherous waters off Cape Disappointment, where the Columbia River met the Pacific, until they broke it.  Afterward they would limp back to port, have it repaired then they tried to break it again. When it didn’t break anymore, they figured they had themselves one fine rescue boat, certainly a much better craft than the old wooden hulled 36 footers. The old 36 footers were venerable craft, but ancient by the standards required of the new era. Even so, two old 36 footers were still under commission back then, one, the CG36498, sat tied to the fuel dock still used from time to time but only when necessary. Even with the newer 44’s it was still seat of the pants operations, only now they had a vessel with far greater capabilities.

The 331’s gleaming white hull glowed against the dark gray background as a beam of sunlight broke thru the haze, and its red slash across the bow became readily apparent in the new light. On the hill beyond and somewhat to the south, the Umpqua River lighthouse cast its one red and two white beams through the thinning fog. Less than one hundred yards to the north of the lighthouse was the lookout tower which was not really a tower but a small building resting on the edge of the ridge that commanded a view of most of the channel and the bar along with a long stretch of coast as far as the eye was allowed to see.

            “Go ahead 331…” Myron responded.

            “Looks like a good day to break in our rooky, how's Bridge doing?”

Being the reserved sort of fellow I was at the time, I was embarrassed by the comment. Everyone at the station had nick names or shortened names…that’s just the way it was. To have one made that person feel like they were an accepted part of the unit.

            “Ah Roger that Chief…I think my young cherub here is a bit nervous.”

            “He won’t be in a few minutes. How ‘bout you take a quick run through the surf then sit outside by the number two buoy as I come through.”

Myron removed his tight fitting helmet and propped it against his leg. It felt good to get it off his head and feel the fresh air circulate around his ears again. The 303 continued to slowly roll from one side to the other and the light wind whipped the diesel exhaust into the coxswains flat with its noxious fumes. His bright reddish orange neoprene survival suit squeezed him a little too tightly around the shoulders, but was loose around the waist. He glanced at me and detected distress in my expression. He winked at Red and cast a sly grin while nodding at him. Red chuckled.

            “Hey Sport…you’re look’in a might peek-ed around the gills there bud.”

I could only muster a forced grin as my insides were beginning to turn to mush and my head was spinning. My once rosy cheeks were now pale and my jowls and under the eyes contained a delightful greenish hue. Red could not hold his laughter.

            “You know they say there are two kinds of seasickness…”

            “Oh yeah…I didn’t…ummmph…know that," I naively replied stepping feet first into Red's joke.

            “Yeah…you see there’s the kind where you get so sick you’re afraid…and there’s no doubt about it… you’re going to die…”

            “Must be pretty bad….what’s the other kind?”

Red laughed again knowing he had set up his young rookie, “Well sport…then there’s the kind where you get so awfully sick…you’re afraid you won’t die.”

 He, Myron, and Dan burst into a loud obnoxious laughter at the old worn out joke. Red must have told that to every rookie that ever passed through the station at one time or another. I could only grin but wasn’t going to let them get the best of me. I replied,

            “I figure I’ll…ooouuuumph…survive.”

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 A moment later I leaned over the side and emptied my gut with a loud retching much to the delight of the gulls swarming around the boat. They dove into the slime covered water and fought each other for some of the larger of the regurgitated chunks. I felt much better afterward, but also felt foolish and embarrassed. Red laughed and patted me on the back.

Aint it amazing at how wide your mouth opens up when you barf big like that…and how those stupid gulls…man-o-man…they’ll eat anything won’t they, even something as vile as puke.”

The laughing continued, but Red could see the disappointment in my eyes. He knew that everyone was different when is came to getting seasick. Some of the boys never had a problem, while others almost never got used to it.

“Hey Sport, don’t let us laughing at you bother you none”, he said slapping me across the back, “most all of us have done the same thing at one time or another. You’ll get used to it soon enough. Next time out have ole Cookie get you a bag of plain peanuts still in the hulls so you can crack and eat them while you’re out…keeps your mind occupied where you don’t think about it so much and it helps settle your stomach. You ain't a real Coastie, until you toss your cookies a time or two.  We’re expected to ride the big stuff…and if that don’t get your insides churned up…”

           I interupted him, “Gee thanks Red…that makes me feel just all warm and fuzzy inside," then I leaned over the side one more time, only this time a thin ribbon of yellowish fluid oozed out between the strained retching sounds.

Reds laughter increased in volume as he patted me across the top of my helmet, “You’re alright Sport…you’re going to do just fine. Now, let’s get this here show off high center and have some fun.”

By now the 44331 had pulled alongside and cut the engines to idle about twenty yards off the starboard side. Myron spun the 303 slightly to get a better angle so they could hear each other above the roar of the surf and the grumbling of the engines.
Looks like the middle ground is beginning to lay down some…I guess we better get some drills in before we lose the tide”, Chief Whalen shouted.

Chief Whalen loved to operate the 44’s on drills. He was quick to talk affectionately about what he considered engineering marvels. Equipped with LORAN navigation and RADAR technology, and a tough hull design, they could plow through the waters of the North Pacific in any kind of weather, and they could turn on a dime and tow a battleship with the twin diesel engines rated at 180 horsepower each. Geared and supplied with special props, they could handle breakers upwards to thirty feet, designed to make a 360 degree roll in heavy surf, snap upright in a few seconds and keep on going.  It was a simple conclusion to him and anyone who operated a 44…they were the best surfboat design in the world hands down.

The small fleet of fishing trawlers and charter boats that operated out of Winchester Bay had grown to admire the abilities of the 44’s and the crew of the Umpqua River Station. There was a kind of unwritten acknowledgment and respect they showed for each other, an almost symbiotic relationship. Each needed the other, each depended on the other, each, could only function if the other were there. The Umpqua River Lifeboat Station had a unique relationship with the community of Winchester Bay as they were located in the heart of the small community. The local folks knew the station boys treating them as though they were their own son’s in many cases. It was a bond with roots going back several generations, a bond of trust not easily broken, nor easily mended once lost. A monument dedicated to those who lost their lives operating out of Winchester Bay served as a reminder of the dangers a life on the sea subjects on those who dared to challenge it.

 Myron replaced the helmet and secured the strap under his chin. Turning toward me he said,

            “You ready for this…

            I nodded.

            “Okay…Let’s do it…

He waved his hand in the air in a circular motion then pointed toward the bar and pressed the twin throttles full forward.  The 303 surged, the stern driving low as the torque of the props driven by a combined 360 horsepower bit deep. He spun the wheel to straighten the bow and then cut across the front of the 331 about fifty yards out. A foamy wake exploded out from the bow and the deep staccato rumble of the engines vibrated the air. Without taking his eyes off the bar, Matt shouted above the roar so I could hear.
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         “Always remember…let this be the first and most important lesson you learn…never underestimate the bar and never overestimate your own abilities, once you hit the surf you have to stay on top of it at all times always keep your head moving, look ahead to the next series before you come out of the first, know what you are going to do before you do it, learn to react, learn to think quickly, this bar never stops coming at you, it will pound the crap out of you, always pushing, always shoving, always looking for a way to bust your butt. You must not let it have it’s way but you must control it. You must be in control of your vessel at all times, know what it will do and more importantly, what it won’t do.”

I barely heard a word. My mouth was dry, but my body was wet partly from sweat, partly from the spray blown into the coxswains flat as the powerful boat surged into the ever increasing chop. Oddly enough my seasickness disappeared with the adrenalin rush. I was scared but excited, intrigued, but wished I could have more time to prepare. Time ran out.

The first layer of breakers across the middle ground rose to meet us and Myron throttled back causing the 303 to surge downward toward the bow. He spun the wheel to port then to starboard lining up the next breaker, waiting for the swell to build…timing his approach…full throttles forward and the 303 lunged into the rising wall of foaming water. The bow shot upward to what seemed like vertical, then hung for moment on the crest and in a rush slammed into the trough behind the cresting swell. The jolt caught me off guard and I didn’t bend my knees in time and almost lost my footing but recovered.  The 303 sat seemingly lost between two walls of giant swells that now surrounded us.  
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Myron spun the 303 to port, backed off the port engine and pushed the starboard engine forward spinning the 303 within its own length. A second later he jammed the port throttle to meet the other and spun the 303 to starboard timing it exactly to rise into next breaker cresting in front of them. The 303 plowed through the top of the crest and became airborne. For a moment we were weightless as the bow of the 303 arched slowly toward its collision with the surface, the engines screaming in protest as their props broke free. The impact staggered all of us, but we adjusted to the forces applied to our bodies, our heads jerking downward and forward, our bodies twisting against the torque. An arm of the curling breaker slammed into the corner of the 303’s coxswains flat and a jolt of water slammed into my face as it shot through an opening along the side. It took my breath away as it surprised me at how cold and salty it was.  I shook my head to clear my vision and glanced over toward Red whose smoke stained teeth glowed in the dim morning light through his wide grin.

            “The old 44’s are the bulldogs of the surfboat fleet. They power their way through the surf with brute force”.  Red yelled above the roar of the surf and engines so I could hear.

 Myron slowed the 303 turning the port side broadside to the next approaching swell, working the throttles causing them to alternately rumble then whine, then roar, spinning the wheel with a delicate touch, rubber necking his head right to left and back again. He rose up slightly to get a better view, then plopped his seat down quickly and cursed aloud as he realized the next breaker was approaching more quickly than he anticipated. He spun the wheel and jammed the starboard throttle forward…there was a delay and the 303 did not respond…a loud clanging bell began to ring indicating the engine had died. I wasn’t sure what was happening as my eyes were transfixed on the approaching breaker. Myron instinctively cursed out loud and he repositioned the throttle to neutral and slammed his free hand on the red starboard engine re-start button located in front of the helm. 

The engine sputtered…and he cursed out loud again and repressed the switch.  The engine roared to life and the ringing stopped as he jammed the throttle forward while spinning the wheel to port, but it wasn’t in time and the 303 angled at 45 degrees across the breaking swell. It rolled sharply 90 degrees to starboard and tons of water began to fill the lower well and swirl around our bodies. My eyes grew wide as the 303 tipped, close to rolling, and I was plunged into a dark, salty, freezing torrent of foaming water. I held my breath knowing from previous indoctrination that the 44 can and will roll 360 degrees…it was designed to do so…but I had no desire to experience this activity, not on my first outing.  A few seconds later the 303 snapped sharply to port righting itself from the near rollover and surged forward, the water that collected in the lower well draining out the self-bailing ports.

Myron yelled out loud with a whooping laughter and Red joined him as he turned toward the stern to take a glance of what they had just come through. I hadn’t taken a breath in close to a minute and gasped for air while I shook off the shock. That 90 degree roll on my side drenched me as much as a full roll would have. The 303 spun again lining up with the next and final line of breakers. Myron pulled the throttles back and brought the 303 to a complete stop waiting for the swell to develop before pressing them slightly forward. The final swell broke about 10 yards in front of us and slammed into the bow with the force of several tons. The 303 lunged upward and then through the swell and Myron kicked the throttles forward and headed out to open water.
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            “And that’s the way we ride the waves!” he shouted as he high-fived Red.

 I was speechless. Never had I experienced such a rush…such a sense of fear tempered with excitement and now the knowledge that I too was a full fledged member of the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station having seen the elephant for the first time.

Myron delighted in breaker drills but his concern was with the engines as it was a real problem when they shut down during drills.

            “Dan, when we get back in take a look at that engine and figure out what’s going on there…that’s the second time it’s shut down on us this week.” he shouted at our engineer.

           Dan shouted back, “Done that already. Can’t find anything wrong with it Myron…we’ve checked it out top to bottom…everything is set up like it should be.”

            “Well, something’s wrong.  Check it out again when we get back in.
For the next hour the 303 and 331 traded turns running breaker drills through the Umpqua River bar. By the time we finished, I felt like I was a real veteran. As the bar began to moderate and the surf converted into shallow swells, we headed back in. By this time, the sun was full up and the fog mostly burned off.  The experience, the sights and sounds taught me to enjoy those moments when the golden dunes were illuminated by the beams of sun that broke through the clouds. It was the colors, the sounds, the odors, and the feel of the moment that moved me the most.

Now as part of one of the oldest military branch of the United States my purpose was to perform my duty at the best of my ability. From that point on I wanted only to be prepared to do what had to be done when the time came. Somewhere inside of me I knew that destiny would bring me into conflict with this purpose.  

Any surfboat pilot could perform the routine stuff…train with breaker drills…tow in the broken down boats or run bar patrols as had been performed hundreds of times. Only the best could do the impossible.  Only the best could look death in the face and tell it to move aside. Only the best was what was expected of us. There prevailed a hovering specter lapping over our shoulders, always watching, always taunting. Somehow after that first introduction with what the Umpqua River Bar had to offer, I knew it was only time before something more seriously sinister would thrust its ugly world into ours...into mine. As it turned out, it wasn't long before I was to witness near tragic events that rammed home the importance of always being ready to face the dangerous unknown challenges that is the life of a Wave Warrior.

(From the Lassie series: footage of the CG44303 vs the Umpqua River Bar)