Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

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Summer in Ketchikan

I don’t think I could ever explain my life in Portland to the people I get to know on field projects. It would be as hard to explain my field life to Portland. But I’ll try.

I’m in Alaska two months, working for the Forest Service. I’m doing plant surveys, which uses my botany skills. I’m based in Ketchikan, though most of my work is much more remote. I’m out all week where there is not even phone service.

The land around here look like Oregon at 4000 feet elevation. Imagine being on a mountain lake in the Cascades, the hills all around in green forest. The alpine starts a mere thousand some feet higher. From my bunkhouse room in Ketchikan, I look up at a little peak called Deer Mountain, an afternoon hike. The pale green alpine meadows stretch above the dark green forest. There is still one patch of winter snow high up on that mountainside, though that white dot shrinks week by week.

Now imagine your mountain lake stretches for miles, zigzagging through every valley, till it cuts up all the land into a series of islands, inlets and fjords. Make your lake salt water, and there you have this part of Alaska. There are few roads; the sea channels are too wide for bridges. So it’s mostly getting about by boat. Or seaplane.

We boat out to the work area Mondays. When I was coming up here, friends said, “Oh, you’ve got to do the Misty Fjords tour!” Well, I get the tour of misty fjords a couple times a week, and paid to do it. Misty means it rains a lot, and even when it doesn’t rain it’s wet. So a lot of work in rain gear.

The remote quarters is a barge. This sounds grim, but isn’t. The “barge” is a very nice two-story house, floating on the water. On the water makes a lot of sense. No mice, no bears trying to get in the windows. And a tugboat takes it to town for winter maintenance.

I work alongside people surveying for wildlife, forestry, and fish in the streams. Along side, to get out to the sites, on overgrown logging roads. Then, they are going up the creeks in hip waders, or scrambling the ridges giving bird calls. I’m pretty much alone in the forest.

My procedure is to go through the forest looking for any rare plants. By now, I know all the normal Alaska plants, so anything unusual would stand out. Sometimes, an atypical formation of leaf catches my eye. But then it turns out to be only a common plant, chomped by deer so it looked odd. Or something like that.

Entering the forest is like crossing the veil into another world. At first, I would look at it from the road, an impenetrable wall of brush and boulders. I could not see a person could actually get into that. But now, I scramble in. In twenty yards, I’m in a dim grotto beneath tall trees. Moving through this is not so much walking, more like the sport of parkour. Southeast Alaska forests are an obstacle course of head-high huckleberry brush, gigantic fallen logs, root wads, ferns, skunk cabbage, devils’ club, and rock formations. Fortunately, it is mostly layered in thick green moss, like foam rubber. So, when you stumble, you bounce.

This whole land was covered in glacier not too long ago. I get the impression, the ice, one day, just melted, leaving a wild terrain of jagged peaks, jumbled boulders, cliff-sided ravines, and random hollows. Then it rained. Soon, everything was covered in thick green moss and trees. Water filled the hollows to make lakes and swamps, then found its way, as best it could, into streams and creeks. The drainage patterns seem to defy gravity.

There are lots of bears. I have not seen a bear, except occasional ones as we drive around a corner. The bear looks at our oncoming rig, turns, and lopes off into the brush. I have not seen a bear when I am on the ground. But I know they’re there. Scrambling through the forest, I see lots of bear “sign”, some of it still steaming, with flies buzzing around.

I am not much afraid of bears. I have worked in the woods for years, and every bear I’ve ever come across was running away from me as fast as it could go. Bears have learned that things smaller than themselves can still be dangerous, such as porcupines. Bears that encounter humans associate us with things mostly bad. Bears have an even better sense of smell than dogs, a range measured in miles. I imagine them complaining how we stink up the forest with our boot rubber.

I am not much worried about an encounter with a bear, though maybe I should be. I do carry pepper spray. A better precaution is just letting the bear know I’m there. I try to make lots of noise, so there are no unpleasant surprises. It’s likely that when I arrive, often a bear will move discreetly one hill over, and I will never even.

The euphemism, “wearing bear repellent” means not taking showers, and thereby letting yourself smell very much like a man. I personally think that’s a very good idea. The more the bear can smell me, and knows exactly what I am, the less likely I am to ever see that bear.

Back at the barge in the evening, we cook dinner. Some people fish off the deck. There’s games and videos for relaxation, till bedtime. The long Alaska daylight comes back about 3 AM, so you can wake to a bright sky, but still have hours to snooze till time to get up.

Everybody I work with is great. Maybe it’s something about government service weeds out any jerks. I guess you have to be dedicated, to put up with all the bureaucracy. There are some beautiful men, but I think no more than Oregon. After a while, it all feels like brothers and sisters.

When we boat back to town on Friday, the white towers in the distance make it look like Ketchikan is a space-age city of the future. But what you see is not the town at all, but the cruise ships. They are huge, taller than any of the downtown buildings. Locals diss the ships, but to me it’s all new and intriguing.

As we motor by, I study the cruise ships. They are so big, it takes a long time to pass one and I have plenty of time to look. They are stacked deck on deck, with a row of orange lifeboats clustered on each side, like barnacles above tideline. Each of those lifeboats is larger than the boat we’re in. On the top deck there are may be giant-screen TVs, or even whole water parks.

These tourist ships move during the night from one tiny Alaskan town to another. During the day, they’re docked, and the passengers stream ashore. A big part of the economy is tourism. Locals gripe that only in the evening, after the boats leave, you get your town back. But me, from bustling Portland, I don’t know the difference.

Ketchikan does Fourth-of-July. There is a parade, which I got the best part of by walking along side the lined-up floats. It was not hard to find. Ketchikan, like most southeast Alaska towns, consists of mostly one single street, wedged between the mountains and the water. The Forest Service quarters is on that street, so I stepped out the door, and there was the parade lineup.

I wonder who first thought up the theme of ten-years-after? It’s great, I’m sure, for all small town parades. Being as this is 2019, there was the float for “Class of 2009”. Decade after decade, they counted down. I picked the one closest to my graduation, “Class of 1969”. I figure the floats are populated by honorary X-9’s, in addition to those on the exact year. Even better, as you get along in life, you may be forgiven if you can’t even remember your exact year.

Of all the groups, the Native Americans are, of course the most interesting. Though, to me, the most cryptic. About when I got to the front of the lineup, the parade started, and I got to see it all over again in motion. The native people came along, chanting something utterly crosswise to the rest of the ambience. A song of religion? Of community? Of anger? And what did the blood-red face paint mean?

Portland parades are thronged. You get where you are going to watch it, and you stay there, unless you are willing to virtually swim through people. There’s something to be said for low-key small town festivities. At no time was there any difficulty strolling along the sidewalk, even with the whole town on the street.

Finally, the last float went by, and the smells of cotton candy and Filipino barbeque gave back to the clear salt scent of the sea.

That night, I climbed the 3rd Avenue hill and watched the fireworks out over the channel. Small craft spangled the water like fireflies. One of the tour ships had positioned itself offshore for a better view.

The official fireworks were not the only display. The public had been warned that the forest was very dry — incredibly, it had scarcely rained in a week. But some people couldn’t resist. As I headed back down the hill, fireworks erupted from right on the roadside. Some people, parked in the narrow verge on clifftop, were shooting off fountains and florals to rival anything in the official display. I mentally wagged a finger at those yahoos. At the same time I warmed to their generosity. I mean, those things cost money! I passed by, in a lull between guys lighting off a volley, then running for cover. In the fading glow, high-fives and fist bumps.

I walked on, figuring discretion is the better part. Well down the hill, I looked back. The multicolor fountains of incandescence were replaced by a calmer light display. The flashing red and blue of a cop car.


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Great Satan dance

In the late 1940s, Islamic leader Sayyid Qutb spent two years in the United States, sent by the Egyptian government to study US educational methods. During his time at Colorado State College for Education (now University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley, he was horrified by such sights as young men and women square dancing together at a church social. His criticisms are in the lineage of America as the Great Satan.
Too bad it wasn’t gay square dance. We can only guess that men together would have been no more offensive than Punjabis dancing the Bhangra.

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Air organ

Chris told me a story today, par-for-the-course of his abusive upbringing. How his father never gave one shred of support or validation to anything Chris did.

Chris was about age 12. He had self-taught himself to play piano, and was pretty good. His father, who had refused to pay for lessons, didn’t know any of this. There was a school recital, and Chris performed beautifully. The teacher came up to Chris’ father afterwards, gushing, “You must be so proud!”

Chris’ father was dumbfounded. All he could say was, “Thank you.”

“After that,” Chris told me, “For my next birthday, my dad bought me an air organ.”

“What’s that?”

“Oh, it was a toy,” he shook his head.

If you look it up online, you’ll see it’s true.

At first, I thought Chris had said “air guitar”. That’s about the size of it.

three-bladed wind turbines standing in the desert hills

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United we stand

Chris and I were on vacation. We were driving up the Gorge, and pulled off for lunch at the Braggs exit. It was all truck stops and travel centers, lots of tourist on their way. This wide open desert land along the Columbia River was all scoured rock and yellow grass. It had little to offer in attractions, other than convenience.

We went into a restaurant, “Gloria’s”, and sat at the counter. It was typical, good, basic road food. I got one of the breakfast-all-day offerings. Chris tried pork chops and eggs.

I had recently read a book about the founding of Astoria, the first European settlement in the Northwest, at the mouth of the Columbia. Two parties had traveled there, one by sea and the other overland. The overland route was right by here.

The ocean voyage was by sailing ship, which the author brought out in details we do not usually think of. It would have been like a bunch of people cooped up in a space not much bigger than a commercial airliner, with equally no option to go anywhere else. Literally, for months. Bad food. Low water. Personality flares. We can scarcely imagine it.

The overland party had the benefit of the Lewis and Clark expedition’s records, from a few years before. However, hostilities with some native tribes had flared, so the Astor party branched off to look for a different route. They found what we now know as the Snake River. This flowed along westward in a promising way for some hundreds of mile, but the travelers had no way to know about Hells Canyon. After deaths, and destruction of their boats, the survivors limped down the Columbia, right by where these truck stops are now, to their destination.

The settlement struggled along for a year and some. Then a force of British ships arrived and took it over. The Americans had to make their way overland, back across the entire continent, as best they could. Again, right past where we were eating lunch.

The author speculated that many early pioneers suffered what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, explaining for example the suicide of Meriwether Lewis a few years after the expedition.

So here we were, just about two hundred years later. We can drive in air conditioned comfort through the desert. The land is prosperous with wheat and fruit and wind turbines.

three-bladed wind turbines standing in the desert hills

wind turbines

How did we get from there to here? Yes, there were horrible injustices to the native peoples, and downright stupid policies that needlessly inflamed their wrath. There is still plenty of misery in the world. But a lot is working.

Chris had taken some pictures on his phone and wanted to text them to his sister. I didn’t much do texts, so I couldn’t help. But this big fat guy sitting on the other side of Chris started showing how. The guy looked to me like a gamer nerd, someone I wouldn’t expect to care about anybody but himself. But here he was, taking the time to help out this little black guy, with the sputtery cellphone connection. He suggested, with the low bandwidth, to only text one photo at a time.

Our waitress had a careworn face, but a kindly smile. A Mexican guy sat down at the counter and started puzzling over the menu. When he began to order, our waitress raised a finger, just a moment. She went in back and returned with one of the other staff, a Hispanic woman. Through this interpreter, our waitress, went back and forth over the menu. I have just enough Spanish I could make out, “… you can get bacon, OR sausage, OR ham…” She made sure our Mexican customer got just what he wanted.

This is who we really are, I thought. We help each other out. The news is full of brutalities and shootings. Sure. But they are, really, very few. That’s why they make the news. Instead, this is who we really are. We work together. The upcoming divisive election would have us believe we’re at civil war. But this is who we really are. One people, just making it all work, together.

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A little radioactivity

I’m going to have radioactivity in the house. Not often. But you keep track if you ever feel bad, and we’ll try to correspond it with when I had radioactivity in the house.

Sometimes late at night, I just need to give myself a radiation treatment. Burn off a wart, or something. I’m sure nobody in the house will mind these little experiments I’m doing on them. This way we’ll know for sure if radioactive dust in the house is ever a problem.

And we’ll have clear communication.

As clear as you can over something so loaded!

 After the talk on “just a little smoking, in the house”.

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Psychic vs. Knowlege

I was talking to my psychic friend, who I fictionalized as “Deva” in previous posts (here and etc.). As I’d said, from knowing her, I came to quietly see that psychic is a real thing, although of course there is also a huge amount of hype and fakery about it in the world.

This time, I was asking her what it’s like to be able to read people. She laughed and explained it took her a long time to understand that other people couldn’t.

“Well,” she said, “I look at someone, and I fall in love with them. That’s just something I do. Then, impressions start to emerge. Some things are obvious. Like, as soon as Chris walked in, I knew he was a good person. But I pick up the high points, the turning points. Like I might say to someone, ‘So, tell me about what happened with your teacher, and the peanut butter sandwich, when you were in the third grade?’ And they’ll say, ‘How did you know about that?'”.

I asked, “So, is it a matter of emptying yourself, so your own stuff doesn’t get in the way? Or knowing your own stuff so well you can compensate for it?”

“Both,” she answered. “As I stay with it, more and more images emerge about a person. Finally, it can be almost like watching a movie about them.”

It gave me a lot to think about. I am anything but empty. I am full to the brim, in learned knowledge. The maturation in my life has been curbing myself, so as not to spew it out indiscriminately. Rather, I now wait for people ask. But it’s always what I bring to the situation; learned information.

I worry that I come across as a pedant, or a know-it-all. But I have got feedback that people like it. On a hike, they can ask me if what kind of tree that is, and I can say whether it’s a limber pine or a whitebark pine, or if I can’t tell why I can’t tell, and what you would need to be able to tell.

At my best, I weave a safety net of knowledge. People feel secure. They sense that nothing bad is going to happen because — this guy knows. He knows what to watch out for. He knows what’s poisonous and what’s not. He knows how to fix things. He knows how to keep bad things from going wrong in the first place.

But now I think, what would it be like to be some other way? To just fall in love with everyone I see? And, without knowing, let myself know all about them?

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Jury selection

Three days of jury selection.

It wasn’t brutal. It wasn’t like the lawyers were grilling you. It was sitting in a room, fifty of us, gradually coalescing into a forum.

The lawyers would pose a question about something. And you’d have to think if that would be an issue for you. People would raise their hands, the judge would recognize them, and they would say their piece. That would get you thinking in another direction. And you’d have to decide whether you had anything to say. And always, in the back of your mind, whether what you said was going to make it less or more likely you’d end up on the jury.

Nobody “wanted” to be on the jury. Like the Monty Python line, “Nobody ‘expects’ the Spanish Inquisition.”  There’s never a “good” time to sit on a jury. It’s always inconvenient. It’s always an imposition. It’s always a bother. Lost pay, childcare, canceled trip, or what. It’s always a bad time for it, one way or the other.

Another thing in the back of your mind is if what somebody says is a stunt to get rejected from the jury. Sometimes it sounds like it is. And, over time, that comes to seem pretty low. Like, here we all are, all in the same boat, having to risk whatever we do to be on this jury. And you’re pulling some cheap shot, to bail.

Of course I can’t tell you anything about the legal case itself — except it was clearly going to get complicated. The judge estimated the trial would take about a week. That was when the fifty of us were first called. Jury selection alone took twice as long as expected. That raised the specter that the actual trial might be in proportion.

No, the process wasn’t grueling. But it was like starting a new job. You weren’t exhausted at the end of the day, but you felt like you’d done a good day’s work. It was time to go home, chill out, and not do a whole lot of anything else.

The judge was very sweet. She was firm, professional, but very sweet. I couldn’t help wondering if there were evaluation forms for judges, and over the years there had been a steady — something. Like water dripping on a rock. Comments, “The judge was so strict,” “The judge was too stern.” Till finally all the strictness and sternness of judges has been eroded away, and they have to be sweet.

The closest she came to being sharp was when one of the jurors got lost after a break, went to the wrong room, and sat there about an hour, holding everybody else up. She dispatched clerks, sweetly but firmly, to the jury assembly room, where our lost juror had gone, to find out why they hadn’t caught the mistake. And she impressed on us, trying not to make it personal, the importance of being where you’re supposed to be.

It took us awhile to get it that, even though we couldn’t talk about the trial, we could talk to each other. We formed the natural human connections that always happen. You come to know about other people, from hearing what they say. Sometimes it’s common interests. Sometimes it’s things you glance at, scribbled in their notebooks. Sometimes, it’s that he or she is just kind of pretty. So you strike up a conversation. And there ends up being plenty of time for conversation, waiting for whatever the legals are doing, off in the other courtroom.

So, what determines the final jury cut? It was all over so quick. After waiting in one of the other courtrooms for over an hour, they called us in, read the names, and that was that. The jury was seated, and the trial began.

During the preceding days, some people had spoken a lot, and raised issues. Not many of those people were seated on the jury, but some. We had declared our hardships; kids at daycare, out-of-town conferences, software releases, first day of college classes, upcoming exams. Not many of those people were seated, but some. It seemed like a lot of the quiet ones, the individuals nobody had much noticed, were seated. I would like to think a judge who was so sweet could not be so petty, but the juror who had got lost was seated.

In the end, I was not. I left the courthouse, out through the security cordon, shifting gears back to my usual life. Relieved. Liberated. But, at the same time, a little disappointed. Of course I can’t tell you anything about the case, but that trial was bound to be interesting!