Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Memoir much more than just a book about birding and travel

Author Dan Koeppel had me at "A Father, A Son and a Lifelong Obsession." That's the subtitle for his book, To See Every Bird On Earth.

The book was published in 2005, I got it in 2007, but I only just read it this past winter.

I have to fight off the tendency to think, "Wow, why did I wait so long?" But I also believe - on my good days - that everything happens for a reason, everything comes at the right time.

The book is about much more
than counting birds.
I felt a connection with this book, and its author Dan Koeppel, just a few pages into the main part of the book. The prologue intrigued me, simply because it's set in one of my favourite places in the world, the Amazon. I've been fortunate enough to have paddled there and viewed parrots there on a few occasions, so any book that starts off with a segment about seeing birds there stands to keep me interested for at least a few chapters.

The fact that travel would be involved in trying to fulfill the goal described in the title is also a good way to keep me reading.

But what really hooked me - what really made me pour over the pages each night in my library in the middle of winter, where good books to read are a must-have - what really kept me coming back was the human interest story.

In reading the story of his father Richard's life - his birth, youth and adulthood - I was struck by how much it paralleled my own father's life. Not exactly the same, but certainly with enough similarities - and set in approximately the same time period - that it became a bit of an emotional journey for me, as much as it must have been for Koeppel writing it.

I could feel the anguish and frustration his father must have felt, with strict, expectant Jewish parents that thought the only way their son to live a purposeful life was to become a doctor. And get married. And have children. The typical American-dream of the mid-20th century.

His father, though, felt a passion for bird-watching early in his adolescence, and that passion never completely waned. It may have taken a backseat at times, but was always present. Richard Koeppel really would liked to have gone to university to become an ornithologist, but succumbed to parental pressure, studied to become a doctor, got married and had two sons.

But he never became truly happy.

His happiest moments were spent birding; his happiest period in his life was spent travelling around Europe on birding trips while stationed as a military doctor at a U.S. army base in West Germany during the height of the Cold War.

That was also where his his parents' marriage began to disintegrate.

Eventually, they moved back to America, life continued on, but the author's parents eventually split up and went their separate ways, another situation I can certainly relate to.

Koeppel describes some of the trials he went through as a child of split parents, than as an adult in starting his career as a journalist. Again, while not the same experiences I had, eerily similar to what I went through in my life, which resulted in my feeling a great deal of empathy for the author.

The one constant throughout all the unhappiness and struggles was the birding. Richard Koeppel continues to travel around the world recording numbers of birds seen, meeting some of the top-notch experts and authorities in the world of bird-watching and getting ever closer to a huge milestone touched on in the prologue.

Father and son, from the book jacket.
The book does a good job of explaining this world to the reader while also keeping one hooked with the emotion of human interest that always simmers throughout. Koeppel is to be applauded the way he pulls no punches in revealing what went on in his family, all the while doing it in a sensitive, non-sensational manner. But the warts are exposed. As are the good sides, as well.

I'll leave it at that, because I don't want to spoil anything. I won't tell you whether it has a happy ending or a sad ending to the tale...that's all a matter of perspective, anyway.

But it is an excellent read, whether you are a birder, a traveller or just someone interested in reading a memoir full of emotion and honesty, one that can help the reader realize we are all human with human failings.

We can begin to approach a touch of the divine in striving to, and sometimes succeed in, overcoming those failings. And getting right back up to try again, when we do fall down.

This bird - the Marvelous spatuletail - was recorded in the Peruvian amazon; 
Koeppel's book sets sail in the Brazilian Amazon.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Lilies, mergansers, and bears - oh my!

As we turned yet another corner in the sharply meandering River of Golden Dreams, I looked downstream to our next turn in what could be described as the top half of an "S" curve in the river. And there, about 25 yards away from us, sat a bear, just about to walk into the river.

"There's a bear!" I called out to the divine Ms. K., my paddling partner in the bow.


"Right ahead at 12 o'clock!"

"Oh -- holy shit...!"

"Backpaddle, hard!"

Bear encounters were the one thing the guide had not mentioned in our pre-trip safety talk.

We were essentially renting a canoe and shuttle service from Whistler Eco Tours, choosing to paddle independently on this "three-hour tour." The B.C. company offers guided trips on this river for individuals and groups, but with our experience, we felt we could handle it on our own, and go at our own pace. We could stop to take photos or videos if we wanted to, not have to wait for anyone else to catch up, and just enjoy the day without any chatter other than that from the birds and the wind whispering through the trees.
Ready to put-in at Alta Lake.

It's a popular trip, and it was a perfect day for it.

We took our time paddling north from our put-in on Alta Lake. We paddled across the glassy surface past swimmers, kayakers, canoeists and other boaters, surrounded by mountains on all the shores and under a sunny, blue sky. As I said, a perfect day for a paddle.

As we came to the end of the lake and the marshy outlet that would eventually connect with the River of Golden Dreams (that really is its name), a family of Canada geese swam in front and lost themselves in the reeds to our right.

We paddled leisurely through along the stream, which was thick with yellow water lilies, soaking up the sun, happy to not have to share the water with any other paddlers. Under a bridge, then we soon came upon the only portage we would face that day, a short carry around a fish weir.

The stream is very narrow and close at this point, and within a minute or two, we spied the junction of this stream with the river.

As the guide mentioned before we bid adieu at the lake, entering the river can be a little tricky if you're nor prepared, since you're moving perpendicular into a moving river from a still stream, with the current hitting you broadside.

We had no difficulty.

Then the fun began.

The river is not terribly fast - it's considered Class I - and not that deep; still, no one ever wants to swamp a canoe. It is fairly technical in that, it's narrow and there are numerous sharp turns, cut banks on which you can become grounded - and plenty of deadheads (partially submerged logs), sweepers and strainers that can cause issues for inexperienced paddlers. However, we managed to deal with anything that came our way with a minimum of fuss.

Time to get out and walk.
Although the river is slow and shallow, any moving water needs to be respected. Particularly on a river like this one, there is not much time where you can say, "Okay, let's stop paddling and rest for a while," like you can on a calm lake or pond.

That can present a few problems if you want to take photos, since by the time you get set to snap a pic, you've probably already floated past your subject. We saw an entire family of common mergansers standing on a bank that protruded out into the river. Paddling past it would require both of us paying attention to the task, so we pulled over to a bank that allowed us to sit relatively still. Too far away for good shots with an iPhone, though. C'est la vie. We enjoyed the experience.

Further on, we encountered another merganser. This one seemed to be eager to "lead" us, as it continued to swim downriver about 20 feet in front of the canoe. We dubbed the bird "our guide," cracking jokes about how we thought this was supposed to be a trip without a guide. After about 10 minutes, the bird swam off down into a small indent in the river and we continued on without it.

It was a few minutes after that we came around the curve of the river and saw we were pointed smack dab straight into a black bear that was preparing to bathe.

We backpaddled and grabbed onto some reeds, and as we reversed our direction, the bear climbed into the river and sat down with only its head above the water's surface. There was no place to really pull ashore here, at all. It was just a mater of waiting.

"There's our guide!" said Ms. K.

Thinking she meant from the tour company, with another canoe that had opted for a guided trip, I said (only half-kidding), "Good! Let him go first, that way the bear will get him!"

She turned around and gave me a funny look - and I realized it was the merganser.

Eventually the bear turned around, walked out of the water, back up the bank and into the bushes, and we were able to continue along, chatting about how that was a highlight of the trip and comparing notes as to how close we'd ever been to a bear in the woods. Ann had been closer, than me --- or so she thought.

We accidentally paddled past where we had planned to take out for picnic lunch, at Meadow Park, and crossed underneath a railway track and a bridge that held the Sea-to-Sky Highway.

Trip completed at Green Lake.
We were continuing to discuss our "bear encounters" when Ms. K. said, "There's something moving on the left bank...you can see the brush moving."

I should point out that at this point, the river is only 10-12 wide.

"Maybe we'll get to see a heron or some other bird," I said, thinking it was something small.

As soon as those words came out of my mouth, a big black snout peered out from behind the brush, looking right at us.

Another black bear. But one we could "reach out and touch" with our paddles if we didn't pass on the far side of the river.

I got us over there and there weren't any issues. But at one point, we were close enough we could have literally reached out and touched the bear with our paddles.

"Well, I guess that's as close as we've both been to a bear in the woods!" I said.

And that became the day's No. 1 highlight.

Within a few minutes, we reached Green Lake, paddled around a point and landed at Edgewater Lodge.

Like its counterpart, this lake was glassy and surrounded by mountains on all sides. As we rounded the point, another family of geese swam past. Geese must be the official greeters for canoeists on these lakes.

As we pulled the canoe up out of the water, I was reminded of that old saying, "A bad day paddling beats a good day working."

And a great day paddling beats just about everything.

The River of Golden Dreams: a great day trip full of fun and adventure.

Want to see more photos from the trip? Check out my photo album, Canoeing the River of Golden Dreams on my Facebook page.