Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dad's noble final journey - a memorial

My favorite photo of Dad, taken by me in 1963 after a week of canoeing through northern Minnesota and adjacent Canada in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness with me and my brother.  It was one of the best times of my life.

My Dad passed away quietly and peacefully on the morning of July 20.  He was 93.  He lived a full and remarkable life, leaving nearly all those he touched better for having known him.

Dad's sojourn through this world is an impressive story.  No less elegant was his passing.  He was comfortable with dying.  He faced it without fear.  Yet he squeezed every ounce out of his failing body in the last three weeks.  He would not give up on life because life is an adventure, and that adventure included full immersion -- no shortcuts -- in the dying process.

It was no less an adventure for me, and I feel blessed to have shared it with him.  He had surgery in early June.  A series of setbacks followed, but they were not a direct result of the surgery.  It was clear that his body was simply failing.

The Germans call it Altersschw√§che, weakness of old age.  No one thing killed him.  His heart, circulation, lungs, and digestive system just slowly shut down.  He was conscious and communicative up until the last few days and aware of his surroundings and the words of those around him up until the last twelve hours.

Since he came home from institutional care on July 1, he did not complain about pain or discomfort.  Not once.  He greeted everyone with a broad smile.  He reached out his hand to all who came to him, and held them up to God.  He offered prayers of thanksgiving for family, for friends, and for the aides that helped us care for him.  He was where he wanted to be.  He was the author of the final chapter of his story.  He knew it and he made the most of it.

When it was time to go he simply stopped breathing.  Those last breaths were shallow but there was no gasping, no desperation, no struggle.  He simply passed across the threshold, taking his spirit to the other side, and was gone from our sight.

And so now it is time for those of us left behind to celebrate the rest of his life.

Dad was born in Hartford, Wisconsin to a German immigrant journeyman cabinetmaker and the daughter of a German immigrant farmer-homesteader.  He was the youngest of three boys, the tag-along, the odd one out, the little brother who couldn't keep up.

That sibling dynamic was to have an impact on the course of the rest of his life.  I know this because he spoke of it many times.  He had to struggle harder to prove his worth.  It established a mindset that led him to excel.  It is why he earned a PhD.  It is why he holds a number of patents.  I believe it is one reason why he outlived his two brothers by fifteen years or more.

In 1928 the family took a pioneering cross-country tour from Wisconsin to the Pacific Ocean and back.  The fabled US Route 66 had just been completed, and driving it had become all the rage.  They made the trip in an old Buick Brougham.  I've tried to identify the specific model and year without success.

In the 1930's as a student in senior high school, he and a few buddies took an epic 500+ mile bicycle trip across Wisconsin from Milwaukee up to the 'North Woods' near Rhinelander.

A few years later he met the love of his life, Muriel, who was to become his wife of 71 years.  The war was beginning.  He joined the Navy V-12 program halfway through college.

He was valedictorian of his V-12 graduating class.  After earning the B.S. the Navy sent him to Midshipmen School at Columbia University where he was commissioned Ensign.  Before heading off to his freshly constructed ship, he and Muriel were married.

The ship was of the heavy cruiser class, the USS Oregon City.  It went on its shakedown cruise out of Gitmo - Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  Then the war ended.  The ship never saw action and was mothballed shortly thereafter.  It sat in the Philadelphia Naval Yard until the 1970s and was eventually sold for scrap.

Dad was given an honorable discharge on June 1, 1946.  He went back to school under the GI Bill and earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering.  He went to work for DuPont in Wilmington, DE on September 1, 1951 with a starting salary of $480 per month, and remained there until his retirement in 1978.

Science geeks, 1955

Among his many accomplishments he contributed to processes for refining pure silicon - a vital step in ushering in the computer age.  He earned several patents.  This one is held solely in his name.

My personal memories of Dad begin about the time he took that job.  We lived in two rented places while we shopped for some land in the country.  We bought six acres on White Clay Creek, now a designated 'Wild and Scenic River', near Landenberg PA.  There Dad personally designed and drafted the plans for his dream home, and he personally constructed the bridge across the creek using only a 1951 Willys Jeep Wagoneer and rope pulleys to hoist the I-beams into place.

Nearly every summer we returned to Wisconsin to visit family, and often we would return to the 'North Woods' at Hunters Lake, Vilas County, west of Conover where we would have family reunions and enjoyed fishing and boating.  One of those vacations included the Boundary Waters canoe trip where I took the headline photo.

I always idolized Dad.  He got a PhD so I determined to get one too.  He designed his dream home, so I did too.  I went the extra step and also built the house myself.  I wanted a stone house, but it was taking forever.  I had started it in 1976.  In the summer of 1980, Dad joined me in the Colorado foothills and worked with me for a month to finish it.

This was another of the wonderful times of father-son bonding, memories more precious than rubies.

When I moved back east from Colorado our family reunions took place at the beach in North Carolina.  Eventually we chose Topsail Island.  Dad and Mom rented a cottage there every May and invited family to join them for two weeks.  I fell so much in love with Topsail Island that I bought my own condo there.  Dad's influence once again.

It seems that as the years went on and Dad aged I only idolized him more.  We enjoyed many deep philosophical conversations starting when I was a brash and rebellious teenager.  Back then I knew I was right.  Dad had no clue.  By the time of our last conversations I had fully come to appreciate and savor his wisdom.

Dad was always a man of God.  He was active in the Avondale Presbyterian Church for nearly sixty years and served there as an Elder.  He carried his faith quietly and humbly, evangelizing by example rather than words.  There's a story from his last weeks that exemplifies this.  While in the hospital he had need of a nurse so he rang the nurses' station using the bedside call button.  When no nurse responded he pushed the button again, and several more times, still with no response.  Finally a nurse stormed into the room and proceeded to 'chew him out' for what seemed half an hour.  After a time Dad reached out and took her hand and began a prayer.  He asked God to forgive him for his impatience.  He thanked the Lord for the care that she was giving him.  And he asked God to bless her for her service.

In that moment the nurse's attitude turned 180 degrees.  All the anger and tension in the room disappeared, replaced by love.

From that moment on until the end, Dad would take the hand of every new caregiver who came to his bedside, and he offered a similar prayer.  I was there for many of those prayers and thought them remarkable.  They were so selfless and sincere.  Yet I had not known the full story until after he told it to a visiting retired pastor and neighbor.

Right up to the end Dad was more concerned for those around him than for himself.  Every day he would ask how Mom was doing.  Whenever I came to give him medications he would take my hand and thank me.

Dad was one of a kind.  Irreplaceable.  And yet there is no need of replacing him.  His legacy lives on in the hearts of all who knew him.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Hiking the Allegheny River Rail Trail and Moraine State Park

It is quiet country.  The trail is little used.  The only other soul I saw on the trail this day was this snapping turtle on the old railroad bed that the North Country Trail follows along upper Sandy Creek.

"Hither to Yon" - Days 54 through 60

 I've been tortoise-slow reporting my recent hiking exploits because they've ended.  I left the trail a couple weeks ago to be with and my Mom and Dad, both 93 years old, and to help as my Dad went into the hospital.  He's out of the hospital now, and enjoying his own home with Hospice support.  I'll be here for them as long as needed, and that may be a long time.

Perhaps I'll write more about this new journey next.  It's difficult finding time to write just now.  I wanted to wrap up this final hike report first before tackling other writing projects.

The last week of hiking found me meandering across western Pennsylvania on old abandoned railroad beds.  It started west of Shippenville where the tracks passed though what is now State Game Land.  Here the railroad bed is unimproved and so lightly used that the grass and weeds are waist high.

Farther west the trail runs through private land and a State Game Land with embedded oil leases.  Here the hiker shares the gravel road bed with ATVs and oil tank trucks and there is an 0.6 mile gap that requires a 1.6 mile road walk.

West of the little town of Van the paved Sandy Creek Rail Trail begins.  This popular spur trail crosses meandering Sandy Creek more than half a dozen times on high trestles.  Here's the view from one.

There is also one short tunnel at Mays Mill before the trail and Sandy Creek emerge together at the Allegheny River at the century-old Belmar Bridge.  It's an impressive structure, now exclusively the domain of bicycles and joggers and runners and the like.

Belmar Bridge over the Allegheny River, now part of the Sandy Creek Rail Trail, as seen from the Alleghany River Rail Trail

At Belmar Bridge the North Country Trail turns south, joining the Allegheny River Rail Trail, part of an ambitious, mostly unfinished greenway between Erie and Pittsburg. But the part that the North Country Trail follows is finished except for one three mile section between Foxburg and Emlenton.  It is nicely paved and features two very long dark tunnels built in 1913.  The Kennerdell Tunnel is 3350 feet long, and the Rockland tunnel is also well over half a mile in length at 2868 feet.  Headlamp or flashlight required.  Here's a look at the south entrance of the latter and the north entrance of the former.

The trail passes the old oil town of Emlenton on former refinery property and then goes under the I-80 Emlenton Bridge, which was the highest bridge in the entire US Interstate Highway System when it was completed in 1968.

At the town of Parker the North Country Trail says farewell to the Allegheny River.

After a road walk through town I entered a section lovingly maintained by the Butler Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.  I got to meet the chapter president, Ron Rice, 81 years young, as he was out blazing a trail reroute.  And I got to plunge back into the woods on foot-traffic-only trail.  There are two engineering marvels here, arched-truss foot bridges made of wood and assembled on site.  Here's the more photogenic of the two, called the Dead Crow Bridge.

The trail here is very lightly used but it deserves more visitors.  There are some wonderful mixed woodlands and wetlands, including this peaceful pond.

On my last day of hiking I went through Moraine State Park, which is centered on Lake Arthur.  It's a relatively new lake.  The dam was built in the 1970's.  The trail passes under US 422 and nearby is a pretty vantage point where old US 422 plunges into the water.

The trail through this park is all in deep and majestic woods and the wood thrushes were filling the air with their song.  I met another reptilian friend here too, a young black snake still clinging to his juvenile markings.

Next I was looking forward to hiking the Slippery Rock Gorge and Hells Hollow through McConnells Mill State Park.  But that's when I checked my phone and got the news.  I'm looking forward to coming back here and resuming my trek westward into Ohio and beyond, but it will have to wait.


Here's the series of daily GPS tracks for those final hikes, the last days of June.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

North Country Trail - a premier hiking experience

The Forest Cathedral, Cook Forest State Park.  Here the North Country Trail passes through a rare virgin forest with 2200 acres of giant pine and hemlock trees that have never been cut.
Flowers and sky.  The trail provides a number of opportunities to walk quiet upland meadows.

"Hither to Yon" - Days 49 through 53
The sign said it all.

Through western Pennsylvania between Allegheny State Forest and Shippenville the North Country Trail crosses a patchwork of wonderfully quiet land, usually through the woods, and posted at road crossings with signs such as the above.  They announce that the trail is reserved for those on foot in order "To reduce trail impact and insure a premier hiking experience."

Premier it was.  One of the hidden benefits is that this section of the North Country Trail is not heavily used, yet there seems to be a community of local trail friends and maintainers who love their trail and have worked to improve it and live up to the language on the sign.

For backpackers there are three lean-to-type shelters, all built within the last two or three years and all in wonderful wild settings.  There is the Maple Creek Shelter on state forest land just north of Cook Forest State Park.

There is the Highland shelter nestled in the woods on State land, I believe, high above the Clarion River.

And there is the Doe Run Shelter near the town of Clarion, built as an Eagle Scout project on private land generously made available to hikers.

Hikers will find a pleasurable variety of trail environments, the most outstanding of which is the 2200 acres of stately old trees in Cook Forest State Park.  Some of these trees date back to the time of William Penn and the naming of the Pennsylvania colony as "Penn's Woods".

Elsewhere, to expound on the highlights from NE toward SW, the trail passes beaver ponds, crosses one on a unique floating bridge, then meanders along the Clarion River, with excellent views.

Next it crosses through a private Dude Ranch with 200 miles of horse trails that are meticulously kept separate from the hiking route.  There is a large Game Land where the trail crosses extensive remote 'Bald'-like high meadows filled with drifts of late spring wild flowers, a segment that follows an old pipe line along a grassy right-of-way on private land, then the remote woods walk near Clarion on private land where the Doe Run Shelter is located.

Finally there is a state game land where most of the trail is on gated forest roads.  There is a significant ford of Deer Creek here, a hundred feet wide and knee deep.

And on the day I came through (and fortunately after I made this ford) I was caught by a heavy thunderstorm and took refuge in a big culvert, big enough to stand up in.

I was safe and dry there until a flash flood rolled in.  Water volume increased tenfold in seconds and I had to scramble out into the rain.

Fortunately the rain ended within ten minutes, so all ended well and I did not get soaking wet.

Bottom line:  Yes, for the hiker seeking a premier hiking experience, this section of seventy or eighty miles of North Country Trail can't be beat.  Start at the SW end near Shippenville and you can continue on through Allegheny State Forest and Allegany State Park in New York for a wonderful wilderness walk of about 250 miles.

Here, for reference are the maps with tracks of each of the day hikes of this 'Premier Hiking Experience'

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Hundred Mile Walk in the Woods - Allegheny National Forest

Mountain Laurel in bloom adorns the North Country Trail in southern Allegheny National Forest.  This is near the northwest edge of the range of this species.

"Hither to Yon" - Days 42 through 48

To hike in the deep woods, away from the scourge of the man-machine, is to revisit the creation.  The forest evokes a primeval time when man still depended on his connections to the forces that molded him.  Coming here awakes vital ancestral memories that are etched into our genes like glyphs on a stone.  It gives those memories life, lets them speak again.

It is to breathe this clear and ancient air that I come to Allegheny National Forest today, to read the runes within, to re-connect with myself.

These are connections that we forget at our peril.  This path through the woods is a true path, shaped by the timeless land, not straight, not smooth as our machines would make it.

Trees are king here in Allegheny National Forest.  The trail builders have respected that, and have built minimal footpaths that avoid roads or the rumor of roads.  They even avoid tracks cut long ago that have not seen a machine in half a century.  The trail through this national forest is a joy.

Few people hike here.  In the more remote areas the trail stands knee-high in the fresh late spring vegetation.  Yet it is well blazed and easy to follow thanks to a few dedicated maintainers.  A trail can be loved to death.  I'm here to declare that this trail is worthy of such love.  Heaven forbid that too many read this!

When I walk in the woods I find that it is not the trees that gain my attention.  It is the little things.

But there are a few big things, too.  This forest is notable for some massive rectangular house-sized blocks.

And there was the walk beside Alleghany Reservoir, built just fifty years ago.

The reservoir is a monument to the power of our machines, and when it fills with silt our folly will be exposed.  Yet today it sits quietly on the land and I can imagine that it formed naturally, as the nearby Finger Lakes did.  Most of the forest animals do not know the difference, and for me it's just a little self-deception that lets the runes etched in my DNA continue to speak as I wander the trail. 

The deer huffs and scampers away.  The one small bear I saw fled before I could say 'boo'.  The birds fill the sky with wing and song.  The chipmunks scoot into their holes chirping their alarm.  And I pass by and smile, because all these voices come from the same deep-rooted glyphs that drive me.

It took me a week of day hikes to traverse the national forest.  Here's an overview map.  The section of trail discussed here is marked in orange, within the green-stippled portion of northwestern Pennsylvania.

Zooming in, here are the seven daily GPS tracks.