Thursday, August 14, 2014

Freefall: The Last 2,500 Feet?


In 2003 depression, related substance abuse and thoughts of suicide led me to load my backpack, toss my wallet in the garbage, step off my front porch in Missoula, head north, and spend the next 10-weeks by myself hiking through the most remote, wild country left in the continental United States. It saved my life. Here's how it began: 

  “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
                                                                              -- Helen Keller              

              As a Force Recon Marine I dove out of planes from altitudes as high as 32,000 feet, night and day, sometimes with full combat gear sometimes without (sometimes right into the ocean, with SCUBA gear attached) from the swamps of coastal North Carolina to the deserts of southeast California, in the scorching heat and humidity of Puerto Rico to the brutally-frigid tundra of northern Norway -- or, as the Marine Corps hymn simply states: in every clime and place.
 
And I would tumble, fall, and fly. At least it feels like flying, falling at terminal velocity, speeds of 180 miles-per-hour; a slight tilt of the right hand would turn me quickly right, the left hand would turn me that direction, or I could cuff both hands inward to go forward, or outward to slow my descent. I could hunch up to slow down, or pull hands and legs in to speed up. Place hands and legs together and a missile-like nosedive results, or do flips, or spin, and so on.  By maneuvering in such a manner, a team of Marines can remain together in the sky, and even approach each other and “link up” by locking arms. I once kissed my friend Jim at 10,000-feet above the Earth. 

And as the ground gets bigger and closer, I would check my altimeter on my wrist until reaching a point to “wave off” (a flagging of the hands to warn those above me that I was about to open my chute, so they could move and not crash into me), move my right hand in to the “rip cord” at my chest (making a counter move in and over my head with the left hand, so as to remain in a stable fall and not spin out of control), then pull, rapidly thrusting both hands and arms out, up and forward, like a referee’s signal for a touchdown, tightly gripping the ripcord handle that pulls out the long, thin wire that releases the nylon flaps on the pack, allowing the small spring-loaded pilot parachute to burst free, like a jack-in-the-box, catching wind and pulling the main chute out behind by a cord. The rest, if all went well, happened rapidly – the main chute blossoms open, bringing acceleration to what seems a sudden halt, with such shock at times it once literally jerked me out of my boots over northern Norway  (I got frost bit toes after landing in socks on snow in minus-40 temperatures). And then everything would seem calm, compared to the previous rushing of wind in the ears, and I would gradually steer my way down to the ground, pull down hard on toggles to flare, pause, and land sometimes softly, sometimes hard, depending on the wind, skills and luck.

At other times, the pilot chute might get caught in the wind pocket in the small of my back (a “snivel” we called it), so I would bang away with my elbow until it caught wind and deployed. Or the main might malfunction, which never happened to me, but if it did, I was trained to “cut away,” or release the main and open the reserve. (“No worries,” my instructor said, “If your main doesn’t open, you have the rest of your life to deploy your reserve.”)  It could sometimes take 1,000 feet or so for the main to open, if everything worked right, and another 1,000 or more to try and rectify things if it didn’t. For this reason, we had a general rule to open at 4,000 to 3,000 feet, and always, always before reaching 2,500 feet; an altitude that shows on the altimeter as red, danger zone – like the “low on gas” signal in a car, only with more severe consequences. 

About the time I was doing lots of jumps, I had a reoccurring dream: I am freefalling, enjoying the ride, when I look at my altimeter and it’s in the red zone, 2,500 feet! I wave off, reach to pull, but I have no parachute on my back. Nothing. At first I am terrified, but quickly calm down. It’s my last 2,500 feet, I figure, I may as well enjoy it. So I smile, and begin doing front flips, and back flips, and then I wake up to the dark silence of the night.

Twenty years later I felt like I finally slammed into hard-packed earth.  My father died. My wife of 14-years filed for divorce. I could no longer focus on the work I used to love, nor any of the activities I used to enjoy. I had spent much of my life feeding secret shadows of shame, guilt, anger and fear until they finally loomed large, like the monsters I imagined in my closet as a kid. I lost all desire and passion to go on and thought, maybe sometimes it okay to quit, perhaps best to quit. I drove late one drunken night to a trailhead a few miles from my home in Missoula, Montana, to the edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, with a shotgun I used to hunt ducks and geese. My plan was to walk a few miles in and blow my head off. Instead, I sat in my car and cried. I thought of my son, then only three, and wondered how he would turn out. I thought of my family. I thought of my friends. I even had the twisted thought; I can hardly hit ducks with this thing. Then I thought of my dream, the last 2,500 feet.  And I thought of my maps. The maps. Maps of the wild country surrounding my home.

For years I had studied the maps, intrigued by the notion that I could walk off my front porch in town and walk all the way to Alberta through the most remote, wild country left in the continental U.S. and only cross three main (paved) roads. It was a fantasy, a journey of the mind, until that inebriated night I drove to the trailhead with a 12-guage. At that point I thought:  

What the hell. It’s the last 2,500 feet; what do I have to lose?  



Freefall
by Dave Stalling

For years
I fed illusions
Of flying high
Until the ground grew frightenly close
Terrified, I suddenly realize
I am falling

Leaving the womb
Like leaping from a plane
Begins a tumultuous freefall
There are choices:
Remain frightened, out of control
Or get stable, and enjoy the ride
Until we meet the end
(And we will)
As sure as sky meets earth

Best to see it all now
Long before impact
While there is still time
Precious time
To enjoy an exhilarating ride
And make the most
Of the last 2,500 feet

So I will flare, flip and tumble
Through clouds and clear skies
And pretend I am flying, sometimes
Though I know better
But it still brings me joy

It’s my jump, my journey, my fall
I’ll do it as me, not to please others
Critics and skeptics be damned!
Who cares what they think?
They don’t even know
That they too
Are falling fast









 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

That Great Big Wonderful Grin: Happy Father's Day Dad!

When I was growing up along the shore of Long Island Sound in Connecticut, my father often took me fishing for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, flounder and mackerel. From the start, he taught me conservation basics: To keep only what I would eat, to fish fairly and honestly with respect for the quarry. Later, he showed me the varied ways of pipers and horseshoe crabs, jellyfish and sea robins, scallops and mussels, cormorants and terns. He also spoke of the importance of clean water and healthy estuaries for striped bass and all ocean creatures. He served as president of the Westport Striped Bass Club and helped protect and restore the fish he so passionately pursued. 

He took me camping, backpacking, trout fishing, taught me to identify trees and other plants, got me involved in Boy Scouts and shared with me all of his enthusiasm, knowledge, love and respect for the natural world. He not only inspired me to cherish all things wild and free, but encouraged me to speak up for and defend the things I love.

In other words: He greatly influenced and shaped not only who I am, but my core values, beliefs and what I do for a living. He was a wonderful and amazing man.

I remember one time, in particular, sitting on a log along the banks of the Housatonic River on a beautiful, crisp fall day. Listening to the sounds of dry golden beech leaves rustling in the breeze, my father asked, “Do you know what that is?”

My father and I with some hefty stripers, around 1973
“Leaves?” I replied.

“Nope,” he said, while grinning that great big wonderful grin of his that was always accompanied by a hunch of his shoulders, a flick of his eyebrows, a twinkle in his eyes and sometimes a wink (all signifying he was about to say something he found amusing), “It’s a ‘rustling’ grouse! 
 
“Ha, ha, funny Dad,” I said (or something along those lines, being the teenager I was at the time).

But right about then, startling us both, a real ruffed grouse with rustling wings actually flew in and landed right near us. And then we both really laughed, long and hard. Such things seemed to happen often around my Dad.

My Dad and I, Rock Creek Montana, 2001
It seemed he always caught the most and biggest fish; was always first to spot terns diving over feeding bluefish; was always first to see deer browsing in the forests, hawks circling in the sky, or trout rising in the currents. He could find a four-leaf clover most any time you challenged him to. Yet it never even seemed like he was trying (and I don’t think he was); things just happened that way for him. Most everywhere we went, even on out-of-state trips, he ran into people he knew -- and everyone loved, admired and respected him. 

Once, driving alongside a meadow when he was visiting me in Montana, I was looking hard for moose and said, “Dad, keep an eye out, this is where they sometimes hang out.”  And he immediately, calmly, and nonchalantly replied, while pointing his finger and grinning that big wonderful grin of his, “Like that one right there?” And sure enough, there was a huge bull hidden in the willows that I would have never seen.

He had a tough upbringing; grew up in the depression; never knew his real mom; had a not-so-nice step mom; quit high school to join the Marine Corps and fought in the most brutal battles of the Pacific Theater in WWII (Iwo Jima, Saipan, Tinian and Okinawa). He never had much money. Yet he was the happiest, luckiest, most patient, most honest, most loving, most wonderful man I have ever known -- and I am one lucky guy to have had him for a father!

When he was dying, in the fall of 2003, I found a few particularly bright, brilliant sugar maple leaves and brought them to his bedside to show him. He grinned that great big wonderful grin of his I will always remember him for.

I miss him, and I think of him every day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Long Ago Hunter Today: Finding Humanity in Our Wild Roots



While hunting in the remote Tatshenshini Provincial Park along the British Columbia–Yukon border, my friend Bill discovered the headless but mostly well-preserved remains of a fellow hunter, frozen for more than 550 years, who had been exposed at the foot of a melting glacier. “Kwaday Dan Sinchi,” he is called by First Nations people, “Long Ago Person Found.” His clothes were made from the skins of 100 ground squirrels. He carried dried salmon, a medicine bag and hunting tools. He likely fell into an ice crevice and froze to death. Fortunately Bill didn’t suffer the same fate, but if he did, would another hunter find him 550 years or more from now? Unfortunately few places remain as wild as the Tatshenshini, where humans can hunt as Bill and Kwaday have.

The “hunting hypothesis” of evolution suggests that hunting literally made us human in the sense that the development of tools and capabilities to kill for meat and defend against predators allowed our early ancestors to wander from the safety of trees, expand far and wide, and eventually start walking upright. Scholars debate the details, but I feel no need for evidence. I know I am a hunter and always will be. As Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux said, “When the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters.”   

Scholars debate the details, but I feel no need for evidence. I know I am a hunter and always will be. I was born a hunter, just as I was born gay. The two elements of my life are intricately woven together through nature and nurture and anchor me to my wild roots.

I particularly love elk. I spend all the time I can in elk country around my home in Montana, year-round, hiking, backpacking, and snowshoeing, observing and admiring elk. And each fall, I head into elk country with the intent to kill one. I like to think I’m a vegetarian of sorts, living off the wild grasses, sedges, and forbs that grow near my home. Most these plants are not palatable to humans, so I let elk convert them to protein for me. Perhaps someday I shall travel through the digestive system of a grizzly and fertilize the vegetation elk eat: Seems only fair considering all the elk I’ve killed and eaten.

In his essay, “A Hunter’s Heart,” Colorado naturalist and writer David Petersen summarizes it nicely:

Why do I hunt? It’s a lot to think about, and I think about it a lot. I hunt to acknowledge my evolutionary roots, millennia deep, as a predatory omnivore. To participate actively in the bedrock workings of nature. For the atavistic challenge of doing it well with an absolute minimum of technological assistance. To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. To accept personal responsibilities for at least some of the deaths that nourish my life. For the glimpse it offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closet thing I've known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can't help myself … because I was born with a hunter’s heart.

From a young age, I found comfort being alone in wild places. Once, during a ten-week solo backpack trip, I watched a sow grizzly and her two cubs 100-yards or so upwind of me. She was lying down, resting, keeping watch of her young ones as they wrestled, rolled, and chased each other in the grass. The cubs ran and pounced on their mom a few times, and she nudged them away with her snout. When one cub tried to suckle her, she swatted the youngster with her powerful paw and sent the startled cub rolling. Then she got up, walked over, and reassuringly licked the cub until all seemed well in the world.

Then it struck me: I had spent so much time alone in the wilds because in the wilds I could truly be myself. In nature there are no societal-created norms, judgments, and expectations. Everything is what it is. A grizzly might judge me as a threat or feast but doesn’t care who I fall in love with and sleep with. I was drawn to the wildness and freedom of wild grizzlies while denying and suppressing my own wildness and freedom. Like the grizzlies, I am what I am. I accepted myself that day while watching those magnificent and tenacious animals. In a real way, those bears helped save my life. I am truest to my own nature in wild places among wild animals. And the more time I spend in the wilds, the less I want to be just a visitor and the more I want to be intimately connected to the wilds. So I pick and eat wild huckleberries. I catch and eat wild trout. I kill and eat wild elk.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Wildlife and wild places preserve truth of reality, of life and death, and of our primeval connection to this Earth. To deny that is to deny ourselves; to destroy it is self-destruction. To embrace, understand, and accept it is to embrace, understand, and accept our own innate nature and wildness.

But to think that hunting from an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) armed with high-power rifles, scopes, and other technology resembles our hunting ancestors is akin to thinking that an arsenal of modern semi-automatic weapons resembles our colonial Patriots armed with muskets—and somehow equivalently needed to launch a Tea-Party-like rebellion against the improbable event that our government (armed with aircraft carriers, fighter jets, tanks, drones and nuclear warheads) turns against us. We hang onto the past without grasping today’s differences. As Aldo Leopold once put it, “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”

We apply space-age technology to a stone-aged pursuit.

We hunters raise money to fund state fish and game departments overseen by politically appointed commissions (made of mostly of ranchers and hunters) who too often pressure agencies to lead us away from wildlife management to something more resembling animal husbandry, with a focus on producing more elk and deer for hunters to shoot. The good news is that many hunters rally around efforts to protect what little remains of our wild places, which benefits all species—including non-hunted species and fellow predators such as mountain lions, grizzlies, and wolves. But it seems a lot more hunters want roads and ATV trails punched into our wilds; want wolves killed off because they think they’re killing all “their” deer and elk; fight against efforts to protect the wild places that sustain the wildlife we hunt; and deny the human-caused changes in climate that melts glaciers and exposes ancient hunters. Most modern-day hunters are as detached from nature as the rest of society, and so we naively, ignorantly, and sometimes maliciously kill what sustains us.

And that, too, is part of being human.

Hunting is a significant ingredient to what made and makes us human. It is also, in large part, why hunting exposes all aspects of human nature—the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Note: This essay was originally published by the Center for Humans and Nature as part of their series, "Does Hunting Make Us Human?"  Here is the link: Long Ago Hunter Today