Monday, August 14, 2017

My Paddle to the Sea

John Lane, My Paddle to the Sea: Eleven Days on the River of the Carolinas (Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2011), 208 pages, no photos, one map.



Having grown up paddling what I considered the rivers of the Carolinas (the Cape Fear and Yadkin/Pee Dee watersheds), I have wanted for some time to take this trip (on paper) with John Lane down the Broad, Conagree and Santee Rivers.  This basin does drain both of the Carolinas, but only a part of the western part of the state.  When I lived in Hickory NC in the mid-80s, I had paddled a couple of rivers that flowed into the Santee basin through the Catawba River. Lane limits his trip to the lessor of the Carolinas (South Carolina) as he stars out on Larson Fork, a creek that flows by the back of his property in Spartanburg, and follows it downriver to the sea.  But he doesn’t begin with this trip, but with a fateful family vacation three months earlier in Costa Rica, where they paddled Whitewater Rivers.  It had been raining and on their last day, there were several fatalities.  Thankfully, the Lane family all survived, but it was a horrifying experience. 

Lane is not the first to paddle this river, nor even the first to write about it.  In his possession, he carried the writings of others who have paddled the river, including a group of students from the college where he teaches (Wofford College), who’d paddled the river in the late 60s.  Although today, much of the river goes unnoticed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the railroad, water was the easiest way to travel up country.

Lane is accompanied by two friends.  Venable, a lawyer from South Carolina who found a new and agreeable life in Alaska joins him for the first week.  He a large burly dude that looks like a bit like a John Brown and John Muir mix (139).  Although he sympathizes to environmental causes, he never joined the Sierra Club because he disliked their cup (73).  The man must have spent his time hiking in well watered locations and not had to scoop water from streams or springs that’s only an inch or so deep.  Lane and Venerable paddle through the upper part of the river.  Most of their days are rainy, but they make the best of it as they share stories of their lives and experiences outdoors.  At Lake Marion, Venable heads off to do some turkey hunting before heading back to Alaska.  Steve, a slender but strong paddler, joins Lane as they paddle through coastal plain on the way to the sea. 

The two sections of the river are very different.  The upper part of the river is fast as the water rush off the mountains and foothills.  Along the way, they pass places of history, where water powered industry.  Some of these dams are still present and present challenges for them as they canoe downriver.  This section of the river drains a large amount of the upcountry and even parts of Western North Carolina (through the Warteree/Catawba River system that joins the Congaree to form the Santee. Lane mixes into his narrative history from the region.  This area saw Revolutionary War battles.  In the early 18th Century, they attempted to tame the river for transportation and power.  The river proved especially difficult for transportation and most of the canals were soon abandoned.   However, “the rivers, like the Scots-Irish who settled the upcountry, had proved stubborn and resistant to authority” (117).

In addition to historical insights, Lane shares stories of authors who lived along the river.   Two of the more prominent ones are Julia Peterkin and Archibald Ruthledge.  I’ve not read Peterkin (but she’s now on my list) but I have found the writings of Ruthledge to be soulful.  Although I have a problem with his paternalistic views of African-Americans (but then he was writing in the 30s and 40s), I am moved by the way he describes the land and appreciates the wilderness of the Santee River.  Lane also offers a bit of advice on the art of canoeing and canoe-camping, including a nice description of the “J-Stroke” which the paddler in the stern uses to keep the canoe straight.

The book ends, unsurprisingly, at the sea!  Reading My Paddle to the Seas is an easy and enjoyable float without ever getting muddy or having a sore back from a day of paddling.

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It would probably be a toss-up as to whether I've written more about rivers or trains...  Here are are the books I've reviewed in this blog that deal with flowing water (and I may have missed some):  

The River Home (Waccamaw River)
The River of Doubt (Rio Roosevelt)
Drifting into Darin  (Altamaha River)
The Mekong  (Mekong River)
Goodbye to a River (Brazos River)
My Green Manifesto (Charles River)
Indochina Chronicles (Mekong River)
Rock Me on the Water (Green River)
River Time (Essay on World's Rivers)
The Founding Fish (about Shad and East Coast Rivers)
Trembling Earth (Okefenokee Swamp)
The Cape Fear (Cape Fear River)
Old Man River  (Mississippi)
Porcher's Creek (A coastal creek in SC)
Down the Wild Cape Fear  (Cape Fear River)
Water and Sky (Athabasca & Kazan Rivers, Canada)

Monday, August 07, 2017

A boat trip to Staffa

In my last post about Iona, I suggested that Staffa needed a post on it's on.  Here it is.  
For more about my week in Iona, see my previous post.

On Monday of my week on Iona, the weather had calmed.  I’d signed up for an optional trip that afternoon to the island of Staffa, about ten kilometers from the dock on Iona.  After lunch, about forty of us gathered at the dock and crammed into a small but very seaworthy boat for the trip to the island.  We sailed across the sound to Fionnphort, where we picked up more passengers.  Although the boat appeared able to handle rough seas, I was glad it was calm.  With so many people on board, I’m sure more than a few would have been seasick in rough seas and there wasn’t enough railing for everyone to hang over the side.  

The ride over

It was a smooth and pleasant ride, so smooth that the captain was able to maneuver the ship into one of the more notable features on the island, Fingal’s Cave.  He said that this was something he could only rarely do as the waves often made it impossible.  The jagged rocks that lined each side of the approach into the cave would have done a number on the hull if he had struck them.  If I was at the helm, I wouldn’t have attempted this maneuver even on a calm day, but he slipped the boat into the cave and then backed it out without a problem.

Sailboats at mooring


Inside Fingal's Cave
Staffa is one of the smallest islands in the Inner Hebrides.  It’s just a little over a kilometer long and half a kilometer wide, with a land mast of 82 acres.  The island sits upon large columns of basalt, having been formed by volcanic activity 50-some million years ago.  While there is a layer of soil on the top allowing for grass and wildflowers to grow, the black rock is very visible.  These columns are mostly hexagonal in shape, and stand up straight.  They were formed by the cooling of the lava and have created several large caves in addition to Fingal’s Cave.  The island was named by the Vikings, who were reminded of their log homes by the basalt columns on the island. 

Approach to Fingal's Cave
We were not the only group on Staffa.  Tour boats come from Ulva, Oban as well as Iona and Fionnphort.  Hordes of people were on mulling around the island.  There were also a number of private boats including a couple of sailboats that had moored off the island and taken tenders over to the docks.  Staffa has been a stopping area for those touring the islands since the 18th Century.  This is a small dockage area on the east side of the island.  With only an hour, I took off south along the basaltic columns in a return to Fingal’s Cave, which was named from a mythological Irish warrior.  

The echo of the waves inside the cave, which was best heard without the drone of the boat’s engine, supposedly inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose Die Hebriden, or “The Hebrides Overture.” 

Photographing Puffins
After a few minutes, I headed to the north cliffs off the island, where puffins nest along the cliffs.  We had been told to sit still on the edge of the cliff, as the puffins will come to check us out.  Supposedly, they don’t go on top of the landmass during the day, as the seagulls will often attack and kill them.  But the gulls don’t like people, so when we’re present, the Puffins have learned it is safe to come up above the cliff.  These birds mostly spend their day flying back and forth from the sea below to the cliffs, where they tend their young.  In early August, the young begin their flight and soon all the birds fly off into the North Atlantic where they spend the winter. It appears to me that these beautiful birds led the most miserable life, but I was glad to be able to see them so close (a couple came up within a few feet of me). 
Aren't they cute!


West side of Staffa
A seal sunning

There was not enough time to fully explore the island.  Soon, I was rushing back to the boat (and the next to last to board).  On our way back, we were able to see seals sunning off the west side of Mull.  We arrived back in Iona in time for a late afternoon tea.
Looking back at Iona

Friday, August 04, 2017

A Week on Iona

Sunset from Dun I
 Life on Iona, as a part of the community, consists of a rhythm.  There’s a bell at 7:15 to wake you up but I was up long before then as the sun was up around 4 AM.  My assigned chores was to light the fire in the hearth in the dining room (as it was often cold and wet in the mornings), then help set the table for breakfast.  We ate at eight.  After the tables were cleared, we headed over to the Abbey for morning prayers, followed by chores.  I was back in the kitchen, chopping up vegetables and fruits for lunch and dinner.  Most meals were vegetarian and quite good.  Roasted cauliflower or root vegetables, hearty soups and such. They tried to use local produce.  After chores, there were group meetings. I was in a poetry group that was led by two British professors, both poets.  During the year, one taught English at her university and the other taught theology.  We met for an hour and a half to two hours. 
Abbey in the evening
Larger view of Abbey in Evening

The Nunnery on Iona
At 1 PM, there was lunch.  It was amazing to see what our cook had prepared with the chopped vegetables.  The afternoons were generally free.  One afternoon, I took a boat trip to the Isle of Straffa (it deserves its own post). One day, we took a long walk (maybe seven miles) around the island, stopping for contemplation and to learn about the island.  While I appreciated the history, I wish the guides were a little more prepared to also discuss geology and plant-life, as much of this was foreign to me.  On the day, a group of us had a very short swim in one of the bays.  It was cold, colder than a summer dip in Lake Superior between the United States and Canada, or Lake Baikal in Russia (Or maybe I’m just getting older).  Some afternoons I took a nap or read.

Chapel to left is a burial ground for islanders and kings

North End of Iona
At 4 PM, we’d gather for tea.  If it was rainy, as it often was, we’d take our tea by the hearth in the dining room, where we’d dry out and enjoy a “biscuit” (cookie for Americans) and some tea or coffee.  At six was dinner, followed by evening prayers in the chapel.  These services were special as the sun coming in from behind gave a warm light to the chapel (I posted a photo of the inside of the chapel a few weeks ago). Some nights were free, others there were events such as dancing in the town hall.  On the last evening, there was a talent show, with stories and songs from various parts of the world where we’d all come.  A couple of evenings, I’d take a walk down to one of the hotels or the bar for internet access and a drink of some of Scotland’s finest.  Afterwards, I’d walk, often up to the top of Dun I, the high point on the island (about 330 feet above sea level).  As it was late June, the sun was setting around 10:30 PM and it never really turned totally dark.  Several evenings, I sat on Dun I till nearly midnight and had no problem making it down in the twilight without a flashlight (or torch, as the British call it).  One night, it got dark enough and there was enough break in the clouds that I was able to see two stars.  It was after midnight!
Twilight, looking north 


That's me on the South End of Iona
It was a delightful and restful week.  
South end of Iona (notice golf course in sheep's pasture)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Kingdom by the Sea


I hope to finish my posts on Iona this weekend.  This is a book review of a book that I read on the plane ridge to and from the UK.  It is a little dated but there were some good insights, too.  


Paul Theroux, The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain (1983: New York: Marina Books, 2003), 353 pages, no photos or maps.

In the spring of 1982, Paul Theroux decides that after living a decade in London, he should see the countryside.  He sets out with a backpack and a pair of oiled boots to follow the coastline around Great Britain.  Parts of the coast he travels on foot, other sections, when available, he takes trains.  On a few occasions, he takes a bus.  For three months, while the British are engaged in the “Falkland Business” (no one called it a war), Theroux travels.  Although he’s curious about what the British people think of the war, he agrees with the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who describes the Falkland War as two old bald men fighting over a comb (39).  By the time he’s finished, Britain has retaken the Falklands from Argentina and the railroads have gone on strike.  It seems to be a fitting end to a wet and miserable (but well described) journey across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I picked up this book to read on my recent trip to Scotland, and read the first hundred or so pages on the flight over.  Theroux, who was only forty at the time of his journey, bickers as if he was an old man.  This is the seventh book I’ve read by Theroux and I have yet to become comfortable with his style.  He’s not the type of author that makes you want to go out and follow his footsteps and I’m pretty sure that he would be a terrible travel partner.  Yet, I keep reading him because I like how he uses dialogue and how he’s most often talking with common people he meets along the way.  I also appreciate how all his journeys are packed with interesting facts and tidbits of information about the places he visits.  Finally, Theroux is a master of metaphors and similes, using contrast and the ironic to point make his point.   A collapsed castle stands like a set of broken dentures.  (77).  He finds the Isle of Wright so beautiful and it’s train so ugly, that was as painful as it would have been to see a peddlers’ pack on the shoulders of a lovely woman” (69)  In Portsmouth, where the poet Shelly wrote “‘O Darkling Woods, My Sweet Repose,’ one looks up and sees a gas station.” (67)

Early in the book, Theroux describes Brighton as “having the face of an old tart and a very brief appeal.” (53).   Having read this during my overnight flight, I was shocked later that day day when, while eating lunch by the Portobello Beach, my friend Ewan spoke fondly of the time he lived in Brighton.  I laughed and told him what Theroux had written about his beloved city and discovered that Ewan and Theroux were there at the same time (during the Falkland War). Appearance is in the eye of the beholder.

While traveling, Theroux stays in a lot of old small and nearly empty hotels.  He notices that the owners often say that as the summer comes, the hotels will fill up but he never finds that the case.  He often makes fun of the British idea of a “holiday” as they travel to these gray beaches.  This is at a time when Britain is cutting out rail lines.  Surprisingly, as one who has made a good living writing about trains, he doesn’t have much sympathy with the train lovers who lament these cuts.  “Their interest always seemed to me worse than indecent and their joy-riding a mild form of necrophilia” (121).  He challenges another railroad buff who advocates for steam, noting how, like “many other railway bluffs, he detested our century” (175).

Theroux travels takes him out of London and along the southern coast visiting places like Dover (at this point the tunnel under the channel is still talk and Theroux insists a Brit by pointing out the Japanese built a longer tunnel under the sea connecting their mainland to Hokkaido.  He follows the southern coast through Cornwall, then comes up to Wales.  At Cardiff, he notes how he dislikes cities.  “In Britain they were cavernous and intimidating, like the fortresses they had once been.  They seemed to have heavy eyebrows” (141).  In Wales he sees the poverty after the closing of the mines.  He travels over to Northern Ireland where he learns about the troubles there, where they don’t worry as much about the Falklands as there is enough violence of their own.  Then he travels by ferry to Glasgow and makes his way around the Scottish Coast, before coming back down to London.  As he travels, he tells people that he’s in publishing (which only gets him in trouble once when an aspiring writing wants to show him a manuscript) instead of a writer.  However, in St. Andrews, Scotland, a local bookstore owner discovers him! 


In many ways, this book is out of date.  Much has changed in the United Kingdom as well as in the world.  It’s been a while since I read Theroux earlier books (The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster), and it was fun to be reminded that he was just as ornery in his early middle ages as he was in the last book I’ve read by him (Last Train to Zona Verde). That and for Theroux unique way of describing the countryside and the people, I am glad that I read it.  
North end of Iona

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Columba's Iona

Rainbow over Mull taken on Sunday Afternoon 25 June 2017
I plan to provide at least two more posts on Iona, before I head off to other places in Scotland like Skye and Wick and Inverness. One will be on my time on the island and another will be about an afternoon trip to Straffa (a neighboring island with interesting geology and puffins (birds).

I picked this book up at the bookstore in Iona and read it while I was there and traveling.  For those of you not familiar with Iona, this provides more background to the island and the community.  In addition to  a review of the book, I've added a few personal comments and a few photos for your enjoyment.


 Rosalind K. Marshall, Columba’s Iona: A New History (Dingwall, Scotland, UK: Sandstone Press, 2014) 210 pages plus 24 color plates, 8 black and white plates, notes, bibliography, and index.



One must make a significant effort to visit Iona.  It’s a small island in the Inner Hebrides, just to the west of the Isle of Mull.  Such a trip usually involves traveling by car, bus or train from Glasgow to Oban, a ferry ride to the Isle of Mull, a long journey on a one lane road across Mull, and then a short ferry ride to Iona.  Leaving Glasgow on an 8 AM train will allow one to arrive on Iona just before dinner.  Despite the remoteness of the island, people have been coming to Iona ever since Columba, an Irish monk, supposedly landed there on Pentecost 563.
Marshall’s book, which was commissioned for the 1450th anniversary of Columba’s landing, provides a quick but well researched overview of the island’s history.  She refuses to just recite traditional accounts and is willing to call into question many of the legends that exist about the island.  Was Columba the first missionary to Scotland?  Did he really have 12 monks with him or was this suggested to link his followers with Jesus’ disciples?  Was the real reason for Columba leaving Ireland a burning desire for evangelism or were there political factors that caused him to seek a new place to build a religious community?  She also raises other questions.  Did the carving of large stone Celtic crosses begin on Iona and then spread to Ireland?  Unfortunately, there is little written history to allow us to understand all this.  What was written, such as a biography of Columba by his disciple Adomnan, included fantastic myths obviously written to enhance the saintly status of the abbot.  According to mythology, Columba even chastised the Loch Ness monster after it had eaten a man (supposedly the monster has since found new sources of food).
There are four distinct periods in Iona’s history.  We don’t know much about the early period, except that the community flourished and became a regional center between Ireland and the Islands off West Scotland.  During this era, Iona wasn’t as isolated as today.  In the 6th Century, sea travel was easier than traveling overland on non-existent roads, and Iona’s location played a role in its prominence.  Even the famed “Book of Kell’s” was produced in Iona.  In its second period, Iona’s location led to its demise as the ancestors of Hagar the Horrible (yes, the guy in the comic strip!) sailed down from Scandinavian countries looking for loot.  Churches and monasteries were favorite targets for their treasures. On several occasions, Viking raiders sacked Iona and many of the monks were killed.  Being exposed to the sea made Iona dangerous and its center of learning, along with its treasures, were moved back to Ireland.  However, a few monks continued to remain on Iona and throughout this time, pilgrims did come to the place where Saint Columba died.  The island also became a favorite burial place for Scottish and even some Scandinavian kings.  The “who’s who” of legend include kings MacBeth and Duncan, both immortalized by Shakespeare.
After the Viking threat faded, Columba’s old community was replaced with a Benedictine abbey which contained the stone edifice that still stands (although reconstructed).  Just to the south of the abbey was a Augustinian priory.  In the centuries leading up to the Reformation, these two communities, one male and the other female, existed side by side.  The ruins of the nunnery have been shored up and can be viewed today.  In 1560, the Scottish Church reformed and most priests became Protestant ministers.  The communities slowly ceased to exist and in time the roofs collapsed, leaving only ruins.  Yet, people still kept coming to Iona, including many notable ones:  Joseph Banks, a famous naturalist; Dr. Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott and John Keats, all known in the world of English literature; and the composer Felix Mendelssohn.  Although Marshall doesn’t mention it, Robert Lewis Stevenson may have visited Iona.  In Kidnapped, the ship upon which David Balfour has been enslaved rounds Iona before it flounders on the Torran Rocks, south of Mull.  This area was known to Stevenson as his father had built a lighthouse on the rocks.  That lighthouse can be seen at night from Dun I, the high point on Iona. Throughout this period of time, between the Reformation and the end of the 19th Century, the ruins were owned by the Duke of Argyll.  He allowed a variety of religious denominations to hold worship services in the ruins on the island, but no community existed except for those who farmed or fished there.
The final period for Iona began when the 8th Duke of Argyll sought to protect and restore the ruins.  A staunch Presbyterian, he donated the ruins to the Church of Scotland (a Presbyterian Church) before his death.  The deed was transferred with the stipulation that the site had to be open to worship by all Christian denominations. Marshall does a good job navigating the reader through the political and ecclesiastical minefields as debates were held over how best to handle the properties.  The Great Depression and a series of wars (the Boer War and the two World Wars) complicated matters.  A trust was set up to manage the property and eventually a community was founded by the Rev. George MacLeod, a pacifist Christian Socialist.  The two groups (the trustees and the Iona Community) have not always had the same vision, as Marshall illustrates.  The primary concern of one was restoration.  The other wanted a community that could help build Christian communities.   MacLeod saw Iona as a place to train people to go back into the world to work for peace and for the poor.  He also desired it to be a place where new forms of worship could be tested.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing more about Iona.  It was the most detailed history available at the Iona bookstore.  The book certainly fulfills the needs of the Trust for a 1450th anniversary book, but personally, I would have liked for the book to have been a little more encompassing and include some of the natural history of the island.  Perhaps such a book will be posted at the 1500th anniversary, if I’m around to read it.
Heather on Iona