Cairns #74 – Scree

Helping turn the prow of our entropyship, the Earth, back upstream so that Earth’s evolving consciousness may explore the vast headwaters of the Universe for billions of years to come.

Cairns #74 – End of the Long Days, 2013


Paddling into the Wind

When I float down a river, a headwind will turn the kayak around like a weather vane. This is because I, sitting near the back, form the center of gravity with a light prow jutting out eleven feet into the wind, presenting a long, leveraged surface for the wind to push against. If I want to face downriver, I have to somehow counter the wind.

If the boat is pointed directly into the wind, there is theoretically no turning torque. The force of the wind pushes equally against both sides of the symmetrically pointed prow. However, the moment the kayak begins turning to either side, a reinforcing/snowballing feedback spiral develops. As the prow turns, it presents an ever wider surface to the wind so the wind can push against it more, turning it more strongly. Trying to turn the kayak back once it is in this position is very difficult so I want to correct the turning much earlier, back near the beginning. Maintaining my heading directly into the wind becomes my focus. The wind can’t be my only guide because the river current can eddy and swirl, adding its own twists and turns to the boat. So my paddling becomes a playful conversation with the wind and water.

If the kayak is twisting to the left, I counter with a sweeping arc of my paddle on the left side. As the arcing stroke continues, I see the prow’s leftward turning slow, stop, and then start turning to the right. What happens at the end of the stroke is the heart of the conversation. Does the turning slow down and then start turning back again to the left? If so, the kayak has not yet turned head-on into the wind. That direction still lies somewhere to the right and so I start another sweeping stroke on the left side. However, if at the end of the stroke, the kayak keeps turning to the right, then I’ve turned the kayak past that head-on line and the feedback cycle is beginning to twist the boat in the other direction. My next stroke will be on the right side, turning the prow back towards the left. The “line of balance” in between grows more palpable with every stroke.

As the prow draws closer to heading directly into the wind, my paddling grows less frequent and gentler. It’s like balancing a pole on one’s finger. The closer one is to balance, the less effort is needed to correct. I love when, with the gentlest of strokes, I bring the prow into balance and it hangs there for 10, 15 seconds before it barely starts to drift to the side and another gentle stroke nudges it back into balance, back into the gliding dream, so calm.

I remember once as a very young child getting really cold on a walk. When we got back to the car, I wanted (in panicky tantrum proportions) it to be warm. Right now. I remember Dad saying the engine was going and it would soon start getting warm but that did not stop my screaming. I was miserably cold now and things would not be better until I was comfortably warm.

I’m older now and if I know that a balance has shifted and that heat will begin to accumulate, I’m fine. Yeah, I’m cold right now but that will pass. Once one gets near the balance point, one is moving into control. One can soak it in, get a feel for the system, and start to play.




The following is another possible linking of stories as I work on Roaming, the on-line hyperlink book I am writing.



Because I am a classroom teacher, I often remember my own schooling, reflecting on what lessons left an impression on me. I try to learn from them. In all my schooling, the most important lesson I learned was in my 10th grade Rhetoric class. Mr. Kalman came in and asked us whether we would rather be Red or Dead? This was the mid-60’s; the Cold War was in full swing. A well-known saying back then was “Better Dead than Red.”

Like fish to bait, many of us rose to the question and started arguing justifications for our position. I was in the midst of it, quite comfortable with my position. At some point, one of the less aggressive students said, “I’d rather be neither. I’d rather be free and alive.”

“So would I,” responded Mr. Kalman.

I protested, “You didn’t give us that choice.”

“But you had it,” he replied.

I was stunned. If I had been so passionately comfortable with accepting the limits of a choice that had been given me, how much else was I blind to? My map of the world no longer applied to this newly-revealed territory.  

“But you had it.” Those four words changed my life. The best example of this change was my path into college. In May of my senior year, I registered by mail for the classes I would take next fall at the college I would be going to. English Literature and European History were required but for my other two, I chose Calculus and German. A few weeks later, I realized I was just continuing along the same path I had taken to get into college. Every year I had taken English, Social Studies, math, science and a foreign language. But now I will be in college; I can make my own choice. Am I just choosing these classes because they were the ones chosen for me all through high school? I didn’t really like German. Why should I keep taking it? What are the choices I really have? What would I really want to learn about? The moment I asked that, I knew one answer right away. Astronomy! The college had astronomy classes with real telescopes. I switched from German and calculus to astronomy and philosophy.

My passion for astronomy was red hot. It had started that school year with a book my brother had lent me called Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Most of the book was depressing urban drunkenness but in the midst of that, Japhy Ryder (pseudonym for the poet, Gary Snyder) takes Kerouac mountaineering in the Sierras. They camp the first night on a tucked-snug granite ledge overlooking the world.

Up out of the orange glow of our fire you could see immense systems of uncountable stars, either as individual blazers, or in low Venus droppers, or vast Milky Ways incommensurate with human understanding, all cold, blue, silver, but our food and our fire was pink and goodies.

Snyder brews tea and later pulls out a star map.

“As I came back our orange fire casting its glow on the big rock, and Japhy kneeling and peering up at the sky, and all of it ten thousand feet above the gnashing world, was a picture of peace and good sense.”

“Japhy, kneeling there studying his star map, leaning forward slightly to peek up through the overhanging gnarled old rock country trees, with his goatee and all, looked, with that mighty grawfaced rock behind him, like, exactly like the vision I had of the old Zen Masters of China out in the wilderness.”

Kerouac’s words created a picture of an experience I wanted. I wanted to camp up by timberline and feel at home within the stars. I wanted to have a star map and know the constellations. So I went down to the library and checked out a star book.  I took it outside at night and there indeed were the brighter stars outlining the major constellations other than the Big Dipper and Orion. I wanted to know more so I checked out more books on astronomy and as I plowed through them, I realized I was reading college textbooks and that I was teaching myself astronomy. Learning did not require a teacher! This is where my passion for astronomy came from that led me to change my freshman year’s courses, from a passage I read in Dharma Bums.

With this passion, I breezed through the introductory astronomy class freshman year and next year, I became the professor’s teaching assistant for that course. I gave planetarium shows and supervised the night-time observations with a couple of 8” telescopes. Four years later, when I applied to the National Park Service, I got hired partly because they were looking for someone who could give star talks. So Dharma Bums helped open my path into the park service.

I loved being a ranger/naturalist. The weekly highpoints of my two years rangering in Denali were my Discovery Hikes. I’d introduce people to the joy of cross-country hiking by taking them into areas I had never been where we would just roam in search of beauty and wonder. One day I led an enthusiastic group of ten to fifteen hikers up through a steep, mountain meadow on the flank of Cathedral Mountain. I had never been up there; I didn’t know what lay ahead. We got to the top to discover that “our top” was detached from the higher peaks of Cathedral. To get over to them, we would have to cross atop a hundred foot long, pointed ridge of crumbly rock flanked with steep slopes of scree sliding a thousand feet down on either side.

Scree covers the sides of mountains whose rock weathers into smaller pieces faster than they can be carried away. These rock fragments pile up and cover the mountain slope at their angle of repose, meaning as steeply as they can. Nothing grows on a scree slope because (a) water quickly sinks through the loose rocks to far beneath the surface and (b) the unstable slope slides slowly over time, shredding any roots. So those scree slopes appeared bare, slidey, and hostile. On the other side of that ridge were broad grassy slopes leading to the true summit of Cathedral Mountain. But first we would have to cross that ridge—so, without hesitation, I strode buoyantly along the ridgeline. About halfway across, I looked back to see how the group was enjoying this exciting part of our roaming. They were all huddled back at the beginning of the ridge. None had dared step onto that steep ridge. “Oh,” I said with cosmic delight as Dharma Bums came flooding back to mind, “you’re afraid you are going to fall off this mountain, aren’t you?”

The day after the star map, Kerouac and Snyder hiked upward and reached the final summit slope in the evening. They were slogging up the final scree slope when there came a point where fear of falling overcame Kerouac . He stops and huddles against the mountain, afraid. Snyder continues to the top. Kerouac hears Snyder’s wild yodeling from on top but continues hugging the mountain.

“Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats or I’d say like Chinese lunatics of a thousand years ago, enough to raise the hair on the head of the meditating Morally by the lake, who said he looked up and saw us flying down and couldn’t believe it.”

That exultant image had resonated with me in high school. I look back at my frightened group and realize I have the opportunity to recreate this experience and pass on to these people what Snyder had passed on to Kerouac. I joyously exclaim, “This is a scree slope. You can’t fall off a scree slope. Watch.” and I leap off the mountain as far as I can and land upright 10 yards further down with the scree sliding a foot as it absorbs my impact. “It’s fun! It’s like a big sand dune!” I shout and they all begin jumping off, scrambling back up, leaping further and further, laughing and shouting in the ecstasy of the wilderness embraced. Then we casually ramble across that now-easy ridge, shake the pebbles out of our shoes, and continue to the summit above.

This passing on of experience from one time to the next forms the heart of Axe Handles, a wonderful poem by Gary Snyder. Check it out. (  ) then buy the book. “How we go on.”



Just learning how to play with all of this.

2 comments on “Cairns #74 – Scree
  1. Eric Saumur says:

    30 years ago I went for a hiking/camping trip in the Presidentials with my high school class. We were in the zone where erosion was getting too intense for plant life and we started across a sloping outcrop of shale with loose broken bits of shale all over it. At the base of the outcrop there was a sheer drop of over a hundred feet into a treed slope.

    My feet started to slide down the slope toward the drop as loose shale started sliding over loose shale under my boots. I only slipped a couple of feet before I was able to check my downslope movement and continue on my way. But it stuck in my mind.

    A few years later I was being interviewed for a summer job with a geologist in university. The job was to go to British Columbia and collect fossils for the summer. The interview was going pretty well but then I was asked if I was afraid of mountaineering. I said no and then the memory came back and I said “except for shale. I had a really scary experience with loose shale once. ”

    Turns out the area he was going to be collecting in was the Burgess Shale! One answer blew the interview and I missed the only serious chance that ever came my way to do field Geology. Instead I ended up with a series of data analysis jobs.

    Still l always say never regret the path you took because, no matter how good another path might look in retrospect, you can never be certain it was as promising as it looked.

    • pkrafel says:

      Your story is so rich with the complexity of life. You spoke truth – so that should set things on the right path. But then you missed the Burgess Shale! Wooo – the topography of life can get disorienting at times. But great story. Thank you.

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