Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Yankee and the Dixie

It was in 1983 that the government moved us to Paraguay. We had lived there more than two years before we realized that we were in the middle of a fisherman’s paradise. It took two co-workers from our office to convince me that the tales about enormous fish were true.

Jeffrey (Jeff) Tippen from Tyler, Texas and James (JJ) Jepson from Hurricane, Utah had gone with some friends on a fishing trip on the Paraná River near the town of Ayolas. They came back with some fish stories that not even the most gullible person could believe. I had heard many a fisherman’s tale but had never heard such lies in all my life. I said, “You guys have got to show me some hard evidence or else I’ll never let you live this down.” Within a couple of days they had developed a roll of film that backed-up their story. Could it be true? I had never been a real fisherman. Over the years I began to believe that if I should even as much as touch the bait, the fish would be repelled. I had heard and read about many great fishing trips but had never been part of one. So I said jokingly, “OK you guys, your supervisor’s appraisal is on the line. Your going to have to take me on one of these trips that fisherman dream about.” An so it was, I went with them and some other friends from the embassy for a two day fishing trip during Holy Week of 1985. The fishing was beyond my maddest dreams. It was real. There was a place where the fishing was so great that any fish weighing less than 5 kgs. (11 lbs.) was thrown back. We had a grand time and this was the beginning of several years of fishing adventure.

Renting a boat and a guide was always a hassle. We would try to set things up from Asuncion but it seemed that there was always a problem when we got there. Often we would have to make other arrangements after arriving. Our best guide was Daniel Misco but he was not always available. Some of the other guides wanted to go out late and come back early or there outfit was so slow that we lost valuable time getting to our favorite fishing spots. It was Jeff that made the first move to solve the problem. He bought a used outboard motor. With such he could rent a boat without the guide. By this time we had been with a guide enough time to know where the submerged rocks were and where the best fishing was. The motor was a ‘lemon’. On the second or third trip it sheered the drive shaft. We got a break from Peter Podest from our Panama office. He was an avid sports fisherman and he offered to purchase us a new 25 hp outboard motor at wholesale price in Panama and then ship it on one of the monthly MAC flight out of Howard AFB. Jeff had a fishing buddy in the embassy by the name of Sam who was also from the south. They decided to go in together and purchase a motor and have a fiberglass boat made. So as not to be left out JJ and I decided to do the same. What ever Jeff and Sam did we did the same. We got identical motors, both arriving on the same military flight. We contracted the same builder for an identical 12’ fiberglass boat. Jeff and Sam had theirs painted white with red trim, naming it Dixie. Ours was white with blue trim and we named it Yankee.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this was the beginning of a rivalry, two identical boats with names like Yankee and Dixie. It was the Civil War all over again. It was Jeff who started it. He came into to the office one day bragging about the Dixie and how it was going to leave the Yankee in its spray the day they were both out on the water together. He kept this up almost on a daily basis. Then Sam also got into the act. Of course it was all in fun but JJ and I would have loved to see them ‘eat their words’. It was bad enough to know that we had been the ‘copycats’. As the days and weeks went by, it never seemed that our fishing trips coincided with each other. The more they talked the more we wanted to see them get beat. At this point we were willing to do almost anything to gain the advantage. While thumbing through a marine catalog I came upon the answer, we would change the propeller for one with more pitch (speed prop). JJ was all in favor of this plan so we ordered and installed the new prop on our motor in the most confidential way. Michael was the only other person who was aware of what was going on and I swore him to secrecy. There was only one problem, the original prop was black and this one was white. Hopefully, they would never notice.

Finally, when Michael and I were taking Tío Alberto fishing did we find Jeff and Sam launching their boat at the boat club. JJ was in Panama receiving some training. There was not a word said about racing but there was no doubt in their mind or in ours what was about to happen. The normal niceties were spoken including greetings and inquiring where we planned to fish. Yes, we were planning to fish the same area, some 25 kms. (16 miles) up stream. The setting was perfect. These were not speed boats but of course they could get up on top of the water and move. We busily loaded our gear, food, bait, coolers, and drinking water. They were the first to launch and were a couple of hundred yards ahead us when we departed. By the first bend in the river we had caught up with them. We waved to them greetings and then throttled the motor to full power. The race was on. Naturally, we pulled away from them. Within a few kilometers we had almost pulled out of sight. When pulling around an island we met a wave that caused the bait bucket to over turn. It was necessary to stop to gather up the bait. In the meantime they caught up and pulled over to see if they could be of any assistance. We said that we were fine and that we would soon be on our way again. So they departed. There was still no mention of a race. By the time we had gathered up all of our bait they were almost out of sight. We went full throttle again and shortly were passing them again. We proceeded on to our favorite fishing spot and did not see them again until some time later. When we saw each other again we had both been fishing for some while. We had caught a couple of nice fish and they may have had one or two. We both avoided the subject of the unmentionable, the results of the unofficial race. We talked about the fishing, the beautiful day, what we brought for lunch, and other small talk. Finally, Jeff said, “We’ve got a problem with our motor”. And I playing the innocent responded, “What do you mean?” He said, “You know when you passed us up this morning I yelled to Sam, “give it all its got” and Sam said, “I’m giving it all its got” and you know you passed us up like we were standing still. I guess we will have to take our motor back and have it checked out.” And I showing my deepest sympathy said, “I am very sorry to hear that. I hope that it is nothing serious.” I was enjoying every minute of their stress and watching them react to this humbling experience. I think that Michael was enjoying it as much as I. I, also, wanted them to stew over this for a while at least until JJ got back.

I had briefed JJ before he got back so he could savor the defeat to its fullest. It was a couple of weeks later that JJ returned to the office and he immediately started in. “Jeff, I hear the Dixie and the Yankee were out on the river together. How did she do?” Jeff kind of hung his head and told JJ what had happened as if JJ didn’t already know. He again stated that they had a problem with their motor and would have to have it worked on. Now JJ was having his fun. “You see Jeff, you have been letting you alligator mouth over run your humming bird behind.” Jeff was squirming, I could see he really hated this moment and JJ was enjoying it to its fullest. When he got through having his fun, I said to JJ, “Shall we tell him?” Those four word caught Jeff completely off guard as if he had been wounded. “Tell me, what?” he retorted. “I guess so, he will find out sooner or later anyway.” So we told him the details from the beginning to the end. JJ and I had a big laugh but Jeff appeared mortally wounded. How did we dare humiliate him in such a conspiring way? We didn’t play fair.

When Sam found out about our conspiracy to humiliate them, he too was offended. This only lasted a couple of days and then it was all behind us. However, we were never again challenged for another race between the Yankee and the Dixie.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Cerro Piuquencillo

There are many beautiful places on this earth that cast a magic spell on some of us. We find ourselves returning again and again to relive those special feeling that we have experienced in the past. For me one of these places is Cerro Piuquencillo, a 13,200 ft. peak nestled in the Andes Mountains of Central Chile.

I was introduced to this place by a seasoned Chilean mountain climber and old timer, Edison Sandoval, in 1979. I thank him for introducing me to the mountains of Central Chile. For many years I spent most of my annual leave climbing peaks near Santiago. Now that I have reached the golden years I limit myself to backpacking and trekking.Getting there is all part of the fun. Cerro Piuquencillo is approximately nine miles east of Lagunillas, a small ski resort in the Cajón del Maipo. To get there from Santiago I would recommend taking local inexpensive public transportation (metro and bus) to the town of San Jose de Maipo and hike from there. Follow an unpaved road to Lagunillas (about 10.5 mi.). One starts out at an elevation of 3200 ft. (San Jose) and ascends to 7400 ft. (Lagunillas). From Lagunillas follow a trail mostly used by arrieros to move cattle to summer pastures. In general it follows the ridge that separates the two drainage sheds until you get to the base of Cerro Piuquencillo (elevation 10,000 ft.). The base is a cirque created by ancient glaciation. This is an excellent place to make camp prior to making an ascent to the top or, if you like, just exploring the surrounding area. Good water is readily available at this location.During the summer I would recommend hiking the San Jose - Lagunillas leg during the early morning or late afternoon as it tends to be hot. Keep an eye out for the trail that cuts though the many switchbacks. This will cut off considerable distance. Be sure to carry plenty of water. There is a spring a couple of miles below Lagunillas and another about a half mile above. However, if you miss them there will be no water until you get to the base of Piuquencillo. During the first leg one often sees cottontails , California quail and many other small species of birds.The Lagunillas - Piuquencillo leg is a real treat. About an hour up the trail one passes the profile of a face in the rock. I'm sure it has a name but since I don't know what it is I have named it "Cariguagua" meaning baby face. A friend calls it "El Alcalde" meaning the mayor. It is more than 12 feet high from base of chin to top of forehead. My favorite time of the year to do this hike is in late December or early January. This is when the wild flowers are out in all of their glory and splendor. There are dozens of varieties, some are very small and minute while others are much larger, each having its own particular color, display and beauty.There are yellow meadows, white meadows, and burgundy meadows. They bloom soon after the snow melt to take advantage of the residual moisture. The beholding of such is a pleasure to the eye. I'm sure this would be a botanist's paradise.Another reason I enjoy this hike is that inevitably one has the thrill of seeing the majestic Andean condor as it soars over the ridges and down the mountain valleys. They are easily identified by their size, the white feathers on the back of their wings and the white collar.According an official web site "The Andean Condor has a body length of 43 - 51 inches and an 11-foot wingspan. The smaller female weighs 17 1/2 - 24 pounds while the larger male weighs 24 - 33 pounds" ( I have been hiking this route for almost thirty years and I can't remember a trip that I have not seen a condor. If one is observant he is likely to see a dozen or more. The rising air currents above the ridges are ideal for the condor to gain altitude. They glide in from across the valley in search of an updraft. Once over the ridge they will continue to circle until they achieve the desired altitude. Then they glide off to another destination. They prefer roosting and nesting on high mountain ledges in the Andes. Piuquencillo provides such a place. During one excursion years ago having summited with a friend, Liam O'Brien, we laid motionless on the ground observing a condor in the vicinity. We laid there with the hope of attracting it for a closer view. Soon it was joined by two others, all circling over head. With each pass they would come a little closer until it appeared that one was going to land on us. Due to its enormous size my survival instincts caused me to raise my leg. With this action all three departed. This really made our day. In my many years hiking in the Andes this was my closest encounter with a condor. I have no explanation for what had transpired however it was possible due to a small dog that had tagged along with us from Lagunillas. It may have attracted the condor as it also laid motionless.This whole area excluding the peaks is summer pasture for cattle, horses and goats. It is not uncommon to meet an arriero (Chilean cowboy) on his horse taking care of the livestock. One may also see viscacha, a South American rodent about the size of a very large rabbit with a long bushy tail. They are mostly nocturnal and can only be seen at day break before retreating to their den in the rocks. Camping in the cirque is a pleasure. First, there is an abundance of delicious cold spring water. Second, the view is spectacular. One is surrounded by rugged, colorful, sheer rock cliffs dropping thousands of feet to the cirque floor. In the evening as the sun slips over the western range of mountains, the surrounding peaks take on an alpine glow. The colors change from a bright crimson orange to a pastel purple as the sun disappears and night begins to fall. Weather permitting, sleeping under the stars on a moonless night is a sight to behold. This is the night sky that I remember as a child in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Northern Chihuahua. However, instead of the Big Dipper and Polaris one sees the Southern Cross and other stars of the southern sky. The view is magnificent and the stars are without number. An occasional satellite is visible as it reflects light from the departed sun as it journeys through the night sky. The color of the early morning sky begins with an indigo blue which silhouettes the black of the mountain peaks. Gradually the sky takes on warmer tones as day begins to break.Summiting Piuquencillo is an all day affair. The route that I would take was up the loose stuff where you take two steps forward and slide one and a half back. This is slow and tiring but if you stay with it you will eventually get there. Snow and ice fields are a welcome change. Crampons and an ice ax are very handy and a must in the steep areas. Rock outcrops also make climbing easier. The ice field were once very large (1979) and remained throughout the year. However, over the years they have continued to shrink and now will often completely disappears at the end of the summer. This is just another fatality of global warming. The view from the top, needless to say, is superb and exhilarating. The lofty peaks of the Central Andes are all in plain view. Each with countless stories of mountain climbers who over the years have attempted to reach their summits.I found the ice formations (penitentes) near the summit very interest and strange. I don't understand the forces behind the creation of these ice pinnacles but they are a sight to see. The forces of nature are at there best. I have seen similar formations on other peaks but none like these. At the head of the cirque (north end) there is a boulder strewn landscape. These boulders are twenty to thirty feet high and may have been left there when the glacier melted or maybe they are a result of seismic activity. If that is the case I would not want to be camping around them during an earthquake.
The Boots. I had an expensive pair of swiss mountain climbing boots that had served me very well on many climbs in the Andes. They had summited Cerro San Ramón more times than I can count, Cerro Piuquencillo several times, Cerro El Plomo several times, and Volcán San José twice. When they wore out I felt that they deserved a dignified internment. So in 1994 while climbing Cerro Piuquencillo I selected a spot at the base on one of the gigantic boulders at the head of the cirque to bury them under some rocks. Fourteen years later (2008) I find that they are still there and in fairly good condition.Will I return? Yes, you can count on it, just as long as these old bones will get me there.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Winter Hiking at Wolf Hole Mountain

One of my most difficult challenges during the cold winter months is getting enough real and meaningful exercise to make a difference. It becomes very easy to follow the path of least resistance finding a soft chair and slouching down in front of the TV. But no, I'm not going to let that happen! During the summer months long backpacking treks have been a lot of fun and great for the body and the soul. Thankfully, my brother who is also my friend shares similar interests. With the help of Google Earth and Topozone he found a forty mile circuit just south of St George, UT off I-15 that makes a suitable winter hiking circuit. This is public land under the jurisdiction of the BLM. We left the car at the Western Gypsum Mine a couple of miles south of the Black Rock Exit and hiked around and over Wolf Hole Mountain (see image). The hiking elevations range between 3000 and 6200 feet. It took us three days to make the full circuit at a relaxed pace. Water is a major concern on a trek in the desert. There are some springs and water tanks (for cattle) along the route (see maps at Topozone for locations). We found the spring water to be strong with minerals but drinkable. At the higher elevations we were able to melt snow which was much more palatable. However, one can't always count on snow. We have made the trek twice this winter (Dec & Jan) and both times snow was available. The roads vary between well maintained gravel roads to jeep tracks. The road along Quail Canyon has a considerable amount of traffic but the rest of the circuit is little traveled. This route is relaxing and soothing to the soul. The views are breath taking whether it be desert gulches or cedar/pinion pine forests. Sleeping under the stars if the weather permits is another unexpected delight. Caution: as the morning sun thaws out the frozen ground at the higher elevation it may become a little muddy. Our meals were simple which usually meant hot cereal for breakfast , snacks during the day and Top Ramen Noodles for dinner. After this bland diet for three days a Whopper and fries at Burger King tasted mighty good. Would we do it again? You bet! There is more to life than watching TV.