How my dream of cruising the Mississippi began.  I grew up near the St. Croix River, a tributary of the Mississippi. I didn’t know much about that river until elementary school. There, we learned to spell M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i and some of us even learned to spell it backwards: I-p-p-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-m. Settlers learned the word from Indian tribes living along the river banks, who gave the river various names such as Mis-ipi, Michi-sipi, Kitchi-Zibi, and my favorite, Mee-zee-see-bee.

When I was seven years old, my parents took my brothers and me to Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi in the headwaters area of central Minnesota. This small glacial lake is 1.8 square miles, 1,475 feet above sea level. It is located in Itasca State Park, established in 1891 and Minnesota’s oldest state park. In this 32,000-acre sanctuary, the Mighty Mississippi begins its 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. “Just walk across on these steppingstones,” my dad said as he held my hand. “Remember this. You are walking across the very beginning of the Mighty Mississippi!”

My next exposure to the river that’s woven through the fabric of America was reading Mark Twain’s books. I especially liked The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Huck and Jim bravely raft down the great river. “I will do that someday—when I grow up,” I vowed.

Life, children, and jobs interfered but I did manage to boat down that river when I was way grown up—in my forties. Divorced and proud owner of a 20-foot powerboat made by Cruisers, Inc., I spent most summer weekends on the pristine St. Croix River, upstream from the muddy Mississippi.  As a tribute to my fascination with Greek mythology, I named my boat Thetis, after the sea goddess who married Peleus and became the mother of Achilles. That didn’t work. My friends called me the “River Queen,” and before long they were calling my boat River Queen as well.

The St. Croix RIver, a Perfect Place to Camp
The St. Croix River, a Perfect Place to Camp

Often, I camped along the banks alone, sorting through my life. Later though, I invited a few of my girl friends who loved being on the water as much as I did. During my second summer on the St. Croix, my friends and I talked about taking River Queen further down the Mississippi. Did we dare?  Finally, we drummed up the courage to plan a women-only cruise from Prescott—where the boat was berthed—down the Mississippi to LaCrosse, Wisconsin.  We spent an adventurous weekend there. On Monday, we motored upriver back to Prescott, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the St. Croix.

The Confluence of the Mighty Mississippi with the St. Croix River Credit, Pete Howard 2010

There was a reason for returning on a Monday. A major obstacle to cruising the upper Mississippi is the lock and dam system. Boaters cruising down the Mississippi were often stuck in the river’s locks for two-to-three hours per lock.  From Prescott to La Crosse, we would go through two such systems—Lock &Dam #3 near Red Wing and Lock & Dam #4 in Alma. Commercial barges transiting the locks sometimes took precedence. That policy changed after boaters reported being stuck for up to four hours in the system, forced to return upriver in the dark on a Sunday. (Some boaters used that as an excuse to miss work on Monday!) The state of Minnesota eventually succumbed to pressure. Barges were no longer allowed to run on Sundays.

Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 752.8
Lock and Dam 4, Alma, Minn. Upper Mississippi River mile 752.8

The lock and dam system is a marvel of engineering that travelers along the Great River Road enjoy without the hassle of navigating that system. Built along the upper Mississippi River from St. Paul to St. Louis are 29 lock-and-dam structures, creating a “stairway of water” filled with pleasure boats, tour boats, and commercial barges. The change in elevation is significant: for example, the route from St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, to Granite City, Illinois represents a 420-foot drop. You won’t find locks and dams on the lower sections of the Mississippi though. Why? Farther south, the Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Ohio rivers flow into the Mississippi, making the river naturally wider and deeper. The barges I detested need a lot of river to operate. A “full tow” is made up of 15 barges, arranged three wide and five deep, pushed by a single towboat. Together, these connected barges stretch as long as 1200 feet! 

Lock and Dam system, Upper Mississippi
Lock and Dam system, Upper Mississippi

Undeterred by barge traffic, I again vowed to go down the Mississippi to New Orleans, not by raft, but in my own powerboat. I ordered a complete set of maps of the Mississippi, including all 29 locks and dams.

But before I could realize that dream, life again interfered. By the end of the ‘80s, I had sold my house and boat in Minneapolis and moved to San Diego for work. I had graduated from motor boats and learned to sail. Sailing became my new passion. The following year, I met Gunter and the rest is history. He had a dream of sailing around the world and that suited me just fine. After we retired from the business we’d taken public, we commissioned a Catana 431 ocean-going catamaran in the south of France. We sailed directly from the factory dock around the world and returned to that same dock eight years later. Boating down the Mississippi was a distant dream, long forgotten.  

When we completed our circumnavigation and purchased a second home in Wisconsin, however, that dream was revived. We were less than 30 miles from the St. Croix River, not far from my birthplace. We added a Mississippi Cruise to our bucket list.

The American Cruise Lines Lower Mississippi Cruise. Gunter and I received brochures from American Cruise Lines every year. We always had bigger, better travel plans, it seemed. But during the Pandemic, our interest in traveling the U.S. increased. With international travel closed, why not see some of the United States? As soon as river travel opened, we decided to make the leap. We chose an April “shoulder” cruise downriver from Memphis to New Orleans. A longer (22-day) river trip would begin in St. Paul, Minnesota and that wouldn’t be offered until June. By then, we’d be settled into planting and enjoying our gardens at Northern Bliss. 

On April 7, 2022 we flew from San Diego to Memphis, Tennessee to begin our Lower Mississippi Cruise on American Melody. Ports of call would be Vicksburg, Natchez, St. Franksville, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans. Over Easter weekend, we’d enjoy the sights and sounds of NOLA from our hotel in the French Quarter. Mississippi—here we come!

Part II:The Role of the Mississippi in the U.S. Civil War is next.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon and on her website.


Our emotional response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is related to our life experiences with previous wars. We also watch the unfolding war through the lens of age. Those still living from the “greatest generation,” and their children, from the “silent generation” (born 1928-1945) lived through WWII, the Cold War, the Korean War, and Vietnam. Younger generations never experienced a war in which the global order appeared to be threatened, while older generations did. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as awful as they were, did not threaten this order. Older generations are less surprised than younger ones by the invasion; they have long viewed Russia as a historic aggressor. But everyone, young or old, can relate to the images of cities being crumbled, innocent civilians wrenched from their homes, and mothers with babies fleeing for their lives. 

Gunter as toddler in Munich
Gunter as toddler in Munich

I’m here in my home with my husband, Günter Hofmann, and his sister from Munich, Germany, Helga Marx. Helga arrived in San Diego February 25, just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began and has been with us the past three weeks as the bombing and horror of war has continued. This invasion is barely four weeks old, yet it has already brought trauma and death to children across Ukraine. Even if stopped tomorrow, an entire generation would bear scars from the destruction and terror of seeing their world torn apart. 

Helga and Günter: Both of you were children during World War II. Do you think you’ve bourn scars from the war? Do you relate to what’s happening now and think about what happened to you then?

Günter: Yes. I couldn’t sleep the first night after watching the invasion on the news. I had flashbacks to the bombing of Munich. The difference from what’s happening in Ukraine is that we had bombing but no occupying force trying to kill us.

In Ukraine, children have been killed by cluster bombs, munitions that have been banned by international law. Do you remember what kinds of bombs were dropped on Munich? 

Günter: Five-hundred-pound bombs. But also incendiary bombs, which started fires.

Was the bombing of Munich selective, that is, aimed at military installations, or were bombs purposely dropped on civilians? 

Günter: They called it “carpet bombing.” They just dropped hundreds of bombs every night, falling wherever—not targeted.

Helga: I had no flashbacks, but I was only three-years-old then. I have no memory of this.

Günter, you’re three years older than Helga, so you would have been a boy of six. What are your recollections?

Günter: My father was away fighting the war, first in France, then in Russia. He was assigned to the Motor Pool. We three children—Helga, her twin Helmut, and I—lived on the second floor of a four-story apartment building in Munich. When the sirens went off, my mother took us down with our bedding to the basement where wooden bunkbeds were set up. We stayed there all night with the other families and listened to the bombs falling all around us. The entire building was shaking. We went back to our own quarters when the all-clear siren sounded. 

You have said that you suffered a lot of problems during this time. Can you describe one of them?

Günter: “Yah, I was starting to wet the bed.”

What did you do during the daytime?

In the mornings, all the boys my age went out into the streets. We figured out which building had been bombed the night before and looked for fragments of bombs that we could exchange like souvenirs. 

Like American boys exchanged baseball cards?

Günter: Something like that. 

What is your earliest childhood memory?

We lived in Munich in a second-floor apartment with kitchen, living room, and bedrooms. I remember back to when my father still living there before he went to war. I had to take afternoon naps on the couch in the living room, which had a very intricate pattern. I looked at that pattern and put my fantasies into it, whatever they might have been. There was a beer tavern next to the building. My father would give me 50 pfenning to go get him a mug of beer with foam to the top. I had to carry it back carefully, so it didn’t spill. But sometimes, I licked the foam.

Gunter, parents, and siblings
Gunter, parents, and siblings.

Did your parents provide you with any type of schooling during this time?

I went to a Protestant kindergarten a couple of blocks away, which was very nice. There was a spinster Sister there who was very sweet. And in the afternoon, we all had to lay down on the floor on a big mattress. I remember that.

When was your father conscripted into the military? 

It was 1942. The German armies conquered France first. I think he had a good time there. He went to cabarets. He went to Moulin Rouge, and he had a Pathe movie camera. He brought back souvenirs. He took movies of the topless dancers and showed them to us. That was the first time I saw a woman’s breast! 

What part of the military was he in and what were his duties?

He was an engineer, so he oversaw maintenance of tanks and resolved mechanical issues. Then in 1943, the Barbarossa started, and Germany invaded Russia. And I didn’t see him for two years. After that, he would come home—just for a short time—on leave. 

How did your mother make the decision to evacuate?

Günter: Several nearby houses had been bombed or destroyed. So, she knew it was only a matter of time before a bomb would hit our building and we could be killed.

Who did she know in the countryside?

Günter: During this time, when a girl reached 18 or so, she would spend one year with a family with children. We had such a girl, Lotte. She was very sweet, and she helped my mother a lot—especially with my twin brother and sister. She had relatives in this village of 1000 or so. She helped us get into two rooms in a farmhouse. 

Helga: This is when my first memories of the war began. I was five-years-old and we siblings were evacuated to a very small village near Munich called Paunzhausen. There was no bombing, and the only noises were the mooing of cows and the clucking of chickens. No tractors or cars. Very quiet. I had a nice and beautiful childhood there. But our family had to live in one room—five children—including two cousins—and my mother.  Later, we got another room.

Günter, what are your memories of the country and the home you lived in?

Günter: I think my mother took us out there in 1943. Yah. It was strange because the two rooms were one big room, actually, with a stove and an oven and two couches for the women. Five children slept in the bedroom. There was no toilet, no running water. There was one toilet downstairs, but we had to go into the barn where the cows were. There was a little compartment there. We moved a pump handle back and forth to get water and bring buckets up to our second floor. And we had to dispose of the water after we used it. We also had a chamber pot which I had to empty each morning—being careful not to slosh it around! I was only seven or eight years old.

Did you have a wood-burning stove? 

Günter: Yes, and of course, we had to bring the wood upstairs each day.

Helga: My mother had to take care of five children, and that was really hard work. And there was no washing machine. There was a small room off the farmer’s kitchen. My mother had to heat water in a very big pot and bring it to this little room to hand-wash the clothes. In the summer, she could dry clothes outside and during the winter months, she brought them  to the unfinished third floor attic to dry. 

The farmer had two sons in the war and another son, Heir Michael, who was disabled. He could barely talk intelligently but we always played with him and never teased him. At this time, children like him would have been killed, had the authorities found out. In this little village, nobody told, and he was safe. Michael was very quiet, but he liked to sing. We had a record player and he loved listening to that.

While on the farm, did you get enough to eat? 

Helga: Well, we always had enough milk. We put it into a big wooden drum to turn to make butter. Next to the farm was a baker. He made very good bread, and once in a while, he’d give us a roll. So, we always had enough to eat. The farm lady had a little garden and sold some of  her vegetables.

Günter: My mother hitchhiked 40 miles to Munich and had a very good trade going. She brought butter, milk and eggs to Munich and, in exchange, brought back lamps, light bulbs, shoes, and clothes for the people of the village. She did way more than her part!

Günter, you told me about the time when the farmer butchered a pig, which was illegal. I think my readers would be interested in that process.

Günter: Yes, the government owned all the cattle and produce of Germany. But my uncle was a butcher. One weekend, he came out to the farm, and we all blackened the windows with newspapers. It was a Sunday and so, while the church bells were ringing, he stabbed the pig. For the rest of the day, the adults made boiled pork in a big pot and made sausages. It was a long, busy day! The children, too young to help, were shooed out of the way.

I can imagine. How did your parents explain the war to you…what they had to do?

Günter: My father was away in Russia. My mother didn’t explain much, so we didn’t know much about the war. And there was no information from the outside. We were not allowed to listen to BBC or any other station. We had a radio, so we got the Nazi propaganda.

Helga: But Lois, the adults had no newspapers. The radio news came on only in the evening. Our days were pretty calm. We had no idea what was happening in the world.

Did you have your own thoughts about what they must have called “the enemy?”

Günter: What was there to think about—just the enemy.

What kind of clothes did you wear? You had no stores open, no way to buy things, right? How did you get new shoes when you outgrew them?

Helga: We had only old clothes handed down from my two cousins. Luise was four years older than I and Gitta, two years older. If clothes were torn, you had to patch it. And you couldn’t buy new clothes.

Günter: We had a tailor in the village. He could mend clothes and also make new ones from blankets and stuff. I had no one to pass clothes to me, so I got pants made by my grandmother from material she obtained somehow. She also knitted sweaters and high socks for me. 

Helga: In Ponzhausen, old ladies spun wool from sheep, and Mutti made warm pullovers from this.

And shoes?

Helga: We wore no shoes from April until October. Except for church, we were barefoot all the time. Helmut and I had to go out into the pasture to tend to the cows, and when it was cold, we put our feet into fresh cowpies to warm them! (Laughter) For winter, we had shoes with wooden soles and a leather strap. 

Günter: I remember, we pulled up beets, hollowed them out, and filled them with milk from the cows to drink. A nice treat for us out there.

When I was eleven, I had to attend school in Munich, so I lived with my stern grandmother. I came back on the weekends. On Saturday afternoons, I took a train all by myself to Reichertshausen, the closest station. Then I walked about an hour through the forest to Paunzhausen. It was very scary. 

Panzhausen and surrounds
Panzhausen and surrounds.

What was it like when the Allied Forces came through the town at the end of the war? You were about ten then?

Günter: Yes. My first experience: I saw the remaining men in Paunzhausen make a tank barrier at the entrance to the village. Which was a joke because the tanks just drove around it. There was a group of young SS soldiers, kids really, 18 or 19 years old, stationed on top, next to the barriers, supposedly to hold off the tanks. I saw some tanks shooting, hurting, and killing some of these young soldiers. I saw one with his head half blown away. I’ll never forget that. Anyway, those tanks went around the barrier, came down the main street, past our house. 

My mother put out a white flag. They stopped and went into our yard. I remember there were black American GIs on top of the tank who threw down chocolate and oranges. They were so friendly! 

Had you ever seen a black person before?

Helga and Günter in unison: No, never! 

You weren’t afraid because they were friendly?

Günter: At first, of course we were afraid. We didn’t know what they would do. But later, not.

Was this the first chocolate you’d ever tasted?

Günter: Yes. It tasted wonderful! I loved this new taste, the way it melted in my mouth.

Helga: And so sweet! They also gave us chewing gum. 

So, your impression of Americans turned from negative to positive based on this experience?

Günter: Yah.

And did it stay that way?

Günter: All the way to right now. 

You’ve told me that you were very impressed by the Americans that came through Bavaria. Why?

Günter: Well, they were not as vengeful as the French and British occupiers who oversaw other quadrants of Germany. Those countries had endured hardship and wanted to punish the German people for that. For instance, our relatives in Mainz—controlled by the French—didn’t have much to eat. So, Mutti sent them packages with bread and ham.

Helga: They were always hungry. It was sad. They had wine, because they had a big vineyard and wine restaurant, but they had nothing to eat. So, they sent us bottles of wine in return for food. 

Günter: Also, the farmer’s sons, Bert and Lenz, were in a prisoners-of-war camp, and didn’t have much to eat, so she sent them packages of food as well. They never forgot that.

I thank you very much for your comments as children of World War II. Now, I’d like to close by going back to Ukraine. Helga, as a European, are you surprised that Russia invaded Ukraine?

Helga: No.

Günter: I’m not surprised either. Putin rejected Ukraine’s legitimacy as an independent nation and surrounded the country with troops and weapons. Of course, he planned to attack. 

You said Putin would not be content with “a minor infringement.” Do you think this invasion by Putin is in character?

Günter: He wants to restore the Soviet empire. Russia was very brutal under Stalin. He took all the wheat from Ukraine and brought it to Russia, starving four million Ukrainians to death. Putin is in that mold. After World War II, Russian soldiers were encouraged to rape German women who lived in the Russian sector. They were vicious overseers. Putin won’t stop until he’s forced to. 

Helga, Günter has lived in the U.S. for the past 55 years and is accustomed to U.S. news and viewpoints. But you’re visiting here from Germany. What do the Germans think about the Russians now? They apparently embraced wandel durch handel, “change through trade.” Are you surprised that hasn’t deterred Putin? 

Helga:  I’m not surprised.I think that this Russian leader, Putin, will never stop. He will not only take Eastern Ukraine. He likes to get the whole Ukraine. That’s my view.

Helga and Günter, I thank you very much for giving me this interview. 

Children in Ukraine

As of March 25, 2022, more than 3.2 million refugees have fled the violence in Ukraine, the majority of whom are women and children. Children on the move are at risk of hunger, illness, trafficking and abuse. Another 7.5 million Ukrainian children under 18 years of age are under grave danger of physical harm, severe emotional distress, and displacement following escalation of this war. According to Save the Children: “Ukraine’s children are caught in the crossfire of this adult war. It should never have come to this…the risk to their mental health and potential for long-term trauma cannot be underestimated.” Save the Children has been operating in Ukraine since 2014, the Russian invasion of Crimea, delivering essential humanitarian aid to children and their families.  You can donate to the Ukrainian Children’s Emergency Fund by going here or to UNICEF here. 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Update on Tonga Relief:

Thank you, readers, for your interest in Tonga. International humanitarian aid continues to arrive by air and sea from Australia, China, France, Japan, and New Zealand.

  • Initial Damages Assessment (IDA) data has been completed and being is collected and analyzed by Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office (NEMO).
  • “28,900 people have received water, sanitation and hygiene assistance throughout the country.” (“TONGA: Volcanic Eruption”)
  • “Some 1,000 people (204 households) have received shelter assistance.” (“Tonga: Volcanic Eruption Situation Report No. 3 (As of 3 …”)
  • The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) has supplied about 1.5 tons of maize and a variety of vegetable seeds to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forests.
  • Donors and international organizations have committed some US$ 27 million in financial assistance plus a considerable amount of in-kind support to the relief effort in Tonga. (“Tonga: Volcanic Eruption Situation Report No. 3 (As of 3 …”)

This Polynesian country of over 170 islands has intrigued me ever since I viewed a TV broadcast of Tongans on the beach greeting the new millennium on January 1, 2000. Their feverish dancing was contagious. Later that year, I was captivated by the news that the 440-pound King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV had gone on a diet-fitness program and lost one hundred pounds! Gunter and I vowed to include this charming island in our circumnavigation plans.

Now, my heart continues to go out to the people of Tonga as I reflect on the few months that Gunter and I spent there during our travels. We sailed our catamaran Pacific Bliss to Tonga from Palmerston Island and arrived at Port of Refuge, Neiafu on August 28, 2002. I wrote this in my journal:

“The Kingdom of Tonga. The name evokes mystery, a sense of the exotic, perhaps because I have never been here before. Or perhaps because it is one of the few remaining absolute monarchies in the world. Tonga has a fierce reputation: It is the only island in the Pacific that was never colonized.”

Friendship, Tongan style. Captain Cook called Tonga the Friendly Islands because the inhabitants welcomed him warmly and graciously provided him with the supplies he needed. We cruisers enjoyed the warmth of the locals as well. One Tongan who became my friend was Lucy, the owner of the Unisex Hair Salon. Her salon was the best because it was the only one in town! A mother of seven, she didn’t sit around—even though she’d had a stroke three years earlier. “Do what you love,” a wise Tongan doctor told her. “You will gradually improve.”

A hairdresser to the Royal Family, Lucy talked about them unceasingly while she did my hair. “We love our princess,” she gushed. “She is a princess of the people. She is beautiful, like Diana.” Lucy continued to let water run through my hair. “And she comes to all our functions. She likes us.” 

I told her that we can’t let the water run that long on our yacht. “We make our water from the sea, so we have to use it sparingly.” 

“You can come here and use my shower any time you want,” she said. That’s the way they are on those islands!

Dedications in Tonga are a big deal. The first one I experienced was shortly after we arrived in Tonga when I attended the dedication of an elementary school. Gunter and I arrived at the stated time, but these events run on island time. And island time means take your time. Being early, we had the privilege of watching the preparations. Teachers decorated the speaker’s podium with Tongan mats, then they fastened them in the back with rolls of duct tape. King Tupou IV was in attendance, but a pole holding up the canopy hid him from view! We changed our seats so we could see him clearly. 

Tonga
The King of Tonga (left) and President of French Polynesia (right) speak at the dedication of a new school in Vavau.

A few weeks later, I attended the dedication of the new Arts and Handicrafts Center. The princess Lucy had praised took her seat on the stage and with a desultory stare, fanned herself during the monotonous dedication speech and long-winded prayer that followed. Halfway through the speeches, an intermission allowed us to walk around the hall and study the handicrafts for sale. The governor and princess dutifully rounded the tables. I watched them walk up to each display and talk with the artist. The ceremony continued. The princess spoke in Tongan and then English. “We have so many guests visiting us in Vavau. Welcome! May you enjoy your stay here.” Her warmth was contagious. I was impressed. After the princess spoke, groups of dancers performed, facing the princess—with their backs to the audience! 

Tongan children dancers
Boys pose after they dance for the Princess.

At the end of the performances, we all rose as the princess and royals stepped down from the dais and walked along the aisles toward the rear of the hall, shaking hands. I was seated on the aisle. The princess reached out and grasped my hand with a firm, confident handshake as she looked me right in the eye. Her smile was genuine, warm, and inviting. I began to understand why the only Polynesian monarchy continues to exist.

These stories, and many more, are told in the second book in my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” trilogy, “Sailing the South Pacific.”

  • Catholic Church, Colonial Style, Neiafu
  • Hut in Vavua, Tonga
  • Whale watching in Tonga.
  • Dance in Tonga
  • Boy dancer, Tonga
  • Cruising yachts

The death of King Tupou IV in 2006. The King died on September 11, 2006. Gunter and I were on a passage from Bali to Singapore and didn’t know about it until we read the Singapore Times at Raffles Marina. We realized that was the first King either of us had met. We were sad but weren’t surprised; he was 88.He had been the King of Tonga since the death of his mother, Queen Sālote Tupou III, in 1965. His son was sworn in immediately as King Tupou V, but the coronation would be held in 2007 after an official six-month mourning period. That made sense to us. What blew our minds were the Tonga Riots of November 2006. By then, we were in Yacht Haven Marina in Phuket, Thailand, pre-occupied with preparing Pacific Bliss for our January Indian Ocean crossing. As we worked, we wondered: Why would the peaceful, law-abiding Tongans storm their capital, Nuku’alofa?

The Tongan Riots. Tongans expected democratic reforms under the new monarch; after all, the government had formed a committee to do so following a 2005 strike by government workers. They demanded that a vote on at least some of these reforms take place before Parliament adjourned for the year. That didn’t happen. So on November 16, 2006, a pro-democracy rally of several thousand marched to parliament in Nuku’alofa. After the peaceful march ended outside parliament, an irate crowd of 2,000-3,000 took to the streets. The rioters spanned all ages, from children to the elderly; however, most were young men. As they rampaged through town, they tipped over cars, attacked government buildings, smashed windows, looted businesses and then set them on fire. For many Tongans, it was like a Christmas give-away bonanza that had come early. By the night’s end, the mob had burnt down a remarkable 80% of the Central Business District of Nuku’alofa. Six people were dead, and damage totaled millions of Pa’anga (the currency of Tonga). 

Building burns in Tonga during 2006 riots
Building burns in Tonga during 2006 riots.

The Tongan government, fearing that it was facing a revolution, quickly requested armed assistance from Australia and New Zealand to quell its unruly subjects. About 150 Australian and New Zealand troops and police officers arrived. After a few weeks, over 570 people were arrested, most of whom were beaten by soldiers and police.

Tonga’s Transition to a Constitutional Democracy. The ceremonial accession of King Tupou V was deferred to 2008 due to his decision to focus on the reconstruction of the damaged capital. 

Two ceremonies marked Tupou’s coronation. The first was a Taumafa Kava(Royal Kava Ring Ceremony). The king sat on a pile of handwoven pandanus mats facing the sea while 200 Tongan nobles and chiefs wearing woven skirts and seashells marched around him. He wore a garland of flowers and the traditional Tongan ta’ovala (woven mat skirt). Hundreds of baskets of food and seventy cooked pigs were presented to the King and his assembly of chiefs and nobles. Later that night, schoolchildren carrying 30,000 torches lit the sky to proclaim the coronation. 

A second, European-style coronation ceremony took place on August 2, 2008 in the Nuku’alofa Centennial Chapel, attended by royalty and nobility from around the world. Archbishop Bryce presented Tongan regalia: the ring, scepter and sword; then he placed the Tongan Crown on the monarch’s head. 

As a Crown Prince, King George had been in favor of a gradual transition to democracy. He said that the Constitution of Tonga protected free speech. After his coronation, he announced that he would relinquish most of his power and follow the recommendations of his Prime Minister, who would manage day-to-day affairs. The King also sold off lucrative business interests and announced parliamentary reform and elections in 2010. The royal palace spokesperson announced, “The Sovereign of the only Polynesian kingdom … is voluntarily surrendering his powers to meet the democratic aspirations of many of his people … [The people] favour a more representative, elected Parliament. The king agrees with them.” 

In July 2010, the government published a new electoral roll and called on Tonga’s 101,900 citizens to add their names to the document so that they could take part in the historic vote on November 25. King George would lose his executive powers, including the ability to appoint the prime minister and ministers, but he would remain head of state. Unfortunately, a year later, Tupou V died from cancer. Friends and political leaders from around the world sent condolences. “He believed that the monarchy was an instrument of change and can be seen as the architect of evolving democracy in Tonga,” said New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. “This will be his enduring legacy.”

The politics of Tonga currently takes place within the framework of a constitutional monarchy. The King is the head of state and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The Prime Minister is appointed by the King from among members of Parliament, after having won majority support of its members. Executive power is vested in the Cabinet of Ministers. Legislative power is vested in the King through the Parliament, and judicial power, in the Supreme Court. 

The “Kingdom of Tonga” we experienced during our circumnavigation is no more. Tupou VI, the younger brother of the late King George Tupou, is now the King of Tonga. The current prime minister is Siaosi Sovaleni, elected on December 15, 2021.

King Tupou VI
King Tupou VI

“If a boat ends up on a reef you don’t blame the reef;
you don’t blame the boat;
you don’t blame the wind;
you don’t blame the waves;
you blame the captain.”

— Tongan Saying

(Tongan riots, 2006 – libcom.org)

The Tongan monarchy eventually got it right. The country may have floundered on a reef temporarily, but now it is solidly on course.

In case you missed them, click to read my Tsunami in Tonga Part I and Part II.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Tonga tsunami damage
Images from Tonga’s shoreline to structures and trees following the tsunami.

News about Tonga. “The volcanic eruption in Tonga that triggered a tsunami was hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima during World War Two,” NASA says.

From the BBC: “The eruption “obliterated” a volcanic island north of the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa. Tonga says more than four-fifths of the population has been affected by the tsunami and falling ash. Three people were confirmed killed.” 

Before the eruption, the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic island was two separate islands joined by new land formed in 2015. NASA says the eruption was so powerful all the new land is gone, along with “large chunks” of the two older islands.

The widespread emission of volcanic ash, gases and particles from the eruption has proven to be a massive challenge for Tongan officials.  Early on, there were fears that water sources had been polluted by the thick blanket of ash, increasing the risk of diseases like cholera and diarrhea. However, testing in recent days had cleared ground water and rainwater as safe to drink.

Fine volcanic ash and emissions, however, continue to pose a public health risk. Exposure could potentially cause breathing difficulties, affect the cardiovascular system, and irritate the lungs, eyes and skin.

New Zealand naval vessels have conducted contactless delivery of vaccines
New Zealand naval vessels have conducted contactless delivery of vaccines.

An additional complication is that Tonga has been Covid-free. Now the island nation is fearing that the virus will tag along with the aid that’s being delivered. An Australian warship on its way to this South Pacific island nation has recorded about two dozen positive cases onboard, and will now continue in a “Covid-safe manner.” Aid agencies are providing coordination assistance remotely, but local authorities and community groups run the response on the ground. New Zealand delivered vaccines to Pacific Island nations by naval ship, then on helicopters or inflatable boats, before handing them over to teams on land. The international aid community is familiar with non-contact measures during the pandemic. For example, contactless methods were also used to distribute relief supplies to Vanuatu, in the aftermath of Cyclone Harold, in April 2020.

Photos from Tonga are still hard to come by. The country is only now re-establishing some connections through satellite telephone links. Tonga’s only underseas communication cable is still ruptured.  The country’s internet is still down, although a repair vessel is underway.

Here’s another photo from the Tonga Consulate:

The island of Tongatapu has been coated in a layer of volcanic ash. 

In Part I of this blog series, I wrote about the volcanic eruption in Tonga and the tsunami that followed. I ended the blog with the story about the New Year’s Eve cyclone that hit the Vavua Islands of 2000, and how Gunter and I decided to give back.  This is Part II of that story, excerpted from the second book in my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” trilogy, “Sailing the South Pacific:”

Giving Is Receiving, Part II

Hunga Lagoon, Ika Lahi Resort, Vava’u, Tonga, August 2002.

I consider how to go about giving back. In the past we have had unfortunate experiences with giving to village chiefs and matriarchs. We would find out later that our gifts were not distributed to the needy families and children. Many times our donations were resold for profit. So after breakfast at the Lodge, I seek the advice of the friendly New Zealand proprietress.

“I’ve had bad experiences with giving as well,” she says, tossing her long red hair. “One of my vacationers, a doctor from New Zealand, gave a box of medical supplies to the clinic in the village up over the hill. Hundreds of dollars worth. That should have lasted the little village an entire year or more! Yet a few days later a villager came asking at the resort for a tube of antiseptic cream. He had a badly skinned knee. ‘Have you been to your nurse?’ I asked him. ‘He should have some.’ It turned out that the nurse at the clinic had sent the entire box to his family in Nukualofa, where they sold them all!”

“Would it be better if I walk house to house and distribute gifts where they’re needed?” I ask.

“Hmm,” she answers. “You could, if you had someone to point out the needy families… I know! I’ll ask Moule to accompany you after her shift. She is done working at the Lodge by noon. She herself comes from a family of nine, and they could use some help.”

I return to our table where Günter is picking up the tab. I tell him what I’ve discovered. Then I suggest that we start with our unopened box of 96 servings of Idaho potato flakes. “Moule’sfamily would be perfect for that.”

Before we leave the Lodge, the owner introduces me to Moule. She is a teenager with a wide but shy smile and an unusually slight frame for a Tongan. She agrees to lead us to her village at noon. When she calls on the VHF, we find that she has enlisted the help of two Tongan girlfriends who live in the village high on the hill.

Tongan women
Gunter poses with the local girls who selected the families in need.

The girls accompany us to Pacific Bliss. There we gather tins of food, clothing, shampoo, bars of soap, and cosmetics. Then, back on land, we trudge up a narrow footpath for what seems like forever, carrying everything in bags and backpacks. Finally we reach the crest of the hill. Cyclone Waka has destroyed everything!  Not a tree stands. There is no longer a jungle, not even a path to lead to the village clearing. Such devastation is shocking. All I see is a pitiful assortment of run-down, hastily built bamboo huts. What misery and poverty! I feel like crying.

Moule leads us to the first hut, where her own family lives. I give the introductory speech I have prepared. Moule translates for her family. “We travel and live on a boat called Pacific Bliss. We are moored by the Lodge in your very beautiful Hunga Lagoon. You are blessed with such wonderful Nature here. Because your lagoon has given us so much pleasure, we want to give back to your village. We understand that your village suffered a horrible cyclone and that it will take a long time to recover. So we want to help by giving you some small gifts and food.” 

I explain how to use the Idaho mashed potatoes by heating water and then stirring it in. Then we let each of the family members choose a T-shirt from our bag. Afterward, I distribute cosmetics and soaps to the women. 

Günter holds up a petite princess-waist dress that we had purchased in a used-clothing store. “Who can fit into this?” he jokes.

“Not any of us!” Everyone laughs.

Moule appears to be the only lean one of the family, but the dress is too small even for her. 

Our second stop is a bent-over widow with scraggly gray hair whose children had left Vavau for Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. She seldom hears from them. She lives alone in a tiny dilapidated one-room shack. We leave her a supply of tinned food and a bag filled with soaps and shampoos. 

“I’ll begin to eat this today,” she says haltingly, holding up a can of chicken breast. 

Next we visit a man whose leg has been crushed in an accident. He sleeps on the floor, on a woven mat. There is no other furniture in the hut. We leave him cans of stew and trust that someone will come in to make it for him.

After this a wizened grandmother, who looks to be over a hundred years old, breaks into a wide, toothless grin as she sees the food we carry. We can’t imagine her being able to chew!  So Günter hands her a stack of canned soups.

We go from home to home on bare ground that is broken only by thin tufts of grass. No landscaping or flowers grace these homes. 

This is the poorest, most downtrodden village I have ever seen in my life! 

Tongan
One of the families to whom we donated food.

Later, Günter turns to Moule, “You chose the eight needy families well.” He tries to lighten the mood. “But I’m still worried about finding a Tongan girl to fit into this small dress.”

“I know a lady who has a small daughter,” Moule laughs.

We head toward their house. The daughter is quite small. The dress will fit. After my standard speech about our enjoying the bounty of the lagoon, the mother says, “But I don’t have anything to give you in return.” 

Moule assures her that it is okay; we expect nothing in return.

Our trip has been well-planned. Our bags are empty—except for some nail polish and costume jewelry. We give these to the girls who have helped us so cheerfully. They are amazed and flattered. As they walk us down the hill and back to our dinghy, we again emphasize how much we appreciate the beauty of Vavau and the wonderful friendliness of the Tongan people. I do not know whether they understand what I mean, but I do know that Günter and I will treasure this special day in our hearts for the rest of our lives.

A special thanks to each of you who contributed clothing, glasses and gifts during our Bon Voyage Party in San Diego. Some of those items were used in Tonga.

Click here to read Part I of this series. For Part III, click here.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


I first heard about the volcanic eruption in Tonga when I received an emergency alert on my iPhone. Back in San Diego for the winter, I was surprised to see a tsunami alert for the entire California coastline. (We live in a condo overlooking Sail Bay; on a clear day, we have a view of the vast Pacific.) All we experienced was a high surf, but I was glued to the news about Tonga. Gunter and I had sailed into the port of Neiafu, in Tonga’s Vavau Island Group, during our world circumnavigation and have a special fondness for the area and its people. 

Out of 181 countries in the World Risk Index, Tonga ranks only behind Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands for its vulnerability to natural disasters. The recent explosion of the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano, located about 43 miles north of Tonga’s main island, shot ash and gas nearly 20 miles into the air. Much of that ash fell on Tonga’s islands, including airport runways and wharves, complicating initial efforts to reach and evacuate villages or bring them emergency supplies. Stored rainwater sources were also contaminated with ash. The majority of houses on some islands were destroyed. Not long after the explosion, Tonga’s primary internet and telecommunications cable was severed, and the country lost connection with the world.

The confirmed death toll so far, is three. Tongan officials said the Pacific nation’s practice of running tsunami drills had played a part in saving lives. The first airplanes since the Saturday, January 15 explosion finally arrived on the cleared runway on the following Thursday, carrying emergency supplies and water.

Volcananic Eruption, Courtesy NASA
Image of volcanic eruption in Tonga taken from the Himawari-8 satellite on Jan. 15, 2022, at 5:50 p.m. Tonga Local Time. This volcanic eruption produced a 3.9 foot (1.2 meter) tsunami which struck Nukuʻalofa, the capital of Tonga. Also visible in this image is the remnants of Tropical Cyclone Cody to the southwest. (NASA/public domain)

Tsunami waves may have been as high as 50 feet closest to the volcano. The sound of the final eruption that triggered the tsunami was reportedly like a bomb exploding. “Our ears were ringing,” locals said. “We couldn’t even hear each other.” 

Tonga tsunami 2022
Photo credit, Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga
Photo credit, Beach, Consulate of the KIngdom of Tonga
Photo credit, Consulate of the Kingdom of Tonga

Tongans are no strangers to natural disasters. Cyclone Waka was one of the worst. Her category 4, 115 mph winds devastated the South Pacific in the waning days of 2001. We arrived in our catamaran Pacific Bliss a full nine months after the storm had wrought her damage, yet we came upon people in remote areas who were still suffering. For them, there was no government safety net, no FEMA disaster supplies, and no officials to help the stranded. We anchored in Hunga Lagoon and brought what supplies we had on board to the villagers on top of the hill. This is our story, excerpted from the second book in my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” trilogy, “Sailing the South Pacific:”

Giving Is Receiving

Hunga Lagoon, Ika Lahi Resort, Vava’u, Tonga, August 2002.

Branches flailed against corrugated iron roofs. The wind rose like an approaching freight train, moaning through the shuttered windows and doors of the little village on the hill above Hunga Lagoon. Fierce gusts found their way deep into the homes of the huddled occupants, causing the flames of their kerosene lanterns to flicker and tremble. Entire groves of frangipani trees toppled like lines of dominoes.  The angry wind had already ripped away their leaves and flowers. The delicate flowers of the hibiscus trees had disappeared; then the branches began to break.

But that was only the beginning of Cyclone Waka’s fury this past New Year’s Eve.

What a sadistic irony!  Exactly two years after they appeared on television channels around the world––the first to celebrate the New Millennium––the joyous dancers of Tonga entered this New Year frightened and full of despair.

In Vavau, Tonga’s most beautiful and treasured island group, the sea slammed against the shorelines, devouring anything in its path. Waka destroyed docks, overturned boats, and ground churches, schoolhouses, and hospitals to rubble. Even in the relatively protected harbor of Neiafu, a catamaran broke loose of its moorings and flew right into Ana’s Waterfront Café, where for some weeks afterward, the owners continued to carry on business around it.

Most of the waterfront docks and structures had to be rebuilt. The governments of other South Pacific countries such as French Polynesia contributed workers and materials to rebuild schools and hospitals. Missions and charities rebuilt churches and handed out food necessary for survival. But for the inhabitants of Vavau, there was no such thing as government aid to rebuild. 

Nine months later, these poor people are still recovering.

In Hunga, the village near where our yacht, Pacific Bliss, is anchored, the villagers staggered drunkenly in the wind as their homes fell around them, sand stinging their faces like icy sleet. 

They ran for cover to whatever dwelling was still standing, carrying a few meager possessions with them. Coconuts thudded on roofs and cisterns with the force of exploding cannonballs. Shade trees were uprooted and torn apart until none were left standing in the little village. Every gust of wind hurled more branches and debris against any structures left standing until the landscape was finally flat.

Then came the rains.

Water rushed and swirled until horrid, twisting ravines replaced pleasant, tree-lined paths. When it was all over, the villagers struggled to rebuild their simple homes out of the muddy mess.

But then came the sun.

The rays shone mercilessly upon their barren and ugly world. They had no protecting shade.  They labored under the sun’s cruel glare for weeks on end.

Afa, the storm, was over in a few days. But the devastation it wrought would seemingly last forever.  During this time of misery, the villagers found it hard to believe that beauty would ever again come to Vavau.

But it has! Lush vegetation has returned to Tonga’s beloved Vava’u. Nevertheless, there’s no escaping the lasting after-effects of Cyclone Waka. Overturned boats and canoes still line the shores and reefs of the anchorages and lagoons. And the luxuriant new growth cannot hide Vavua’s uprooted trees, sawed-off tree trunks, and stacks of old wood. For the 80 percent of the population that lives off the land, recovery is painfully slow. It can take ten years for a coconut tree to bear fruit. Replanting right after the storm meant using nuts that the farmers could have used immediately for food. Newly-planted banana plants will not bear fruit until the following year. The most immediate crop is the papalangi (European) vegetables—such as tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, string beans, and cabbage—the produce that we have been enjoying here. These vegetables could be produced quickly and sold at the markets in Neiafu in return for nails and building materials. Fish from the sea, of course, was another source of income.

Tonga from the book, "Sailing the South Pacific" by Lois Joy Hofmann
Path from village to the people we helped in Hunga Lagoon.

Günter and I have enjoyed all the bounty that Vava’u has to offer for over a month now. We have purchased fresh produce at the market every time we return from gorgeous anchorages to the port in Neiafu. We have feasted our eyes on the lush landscapes, pearly beaches, and multihued rock formations of the islands. We have frolicked and snorkeled in the emerald green waters of the lagoons. By the time we anchor off the Ika Lahi Gamefishing Lodge in Hunga Lagoon, Günter and I have decided that we want to give back.

I consider how to go about it. In the past we have had unfortunate experiences with giving to village chiefs and matriarchs. We would find out later that our gifts were not distributed to the needy families and children. Many times, our donations were resold for profit. 

How we decided to give back to the locals in Hunga Lagoon is told in Part II of this story.

Click here to read Part II of this series. For Part III, click here.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


One cannot circumnavigate the world without sailing to dangerous places. One of those places was Sri Lanka in 2007.  We hadn’t planned to stop at this island nation, southeast of India; we’d flown there a few years before and had taken the country tour then. Our planned circumnavigation route would have taken us across the Indian Ocean from Thailand to the Maldives. But the weather gods were not cooperating. The three of us on Pacific Bliss—my husband Gunter, our crew, Chris, and I—had endured a miserable crossing of the Bay of Bengal, six days of one rainstorm after another. We welcomed any refuge from lumpy seas, even though we knew that Sri Lanka was at war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of this island shaped like a tear-drop.

While underway, I had a pleasant SSB radio conversation with a commercial ship captain with a clipped British-Indian accent:

“Where are you from?”

“America. California.”

“Oh, such a nice place. I’m Sri Lankan. My name is Colombo. Welcome to my country.”

“Thank you. I look forward to being there.”

“Are you coming to Galle?”

“Yes.”

“It is very safe there. But do not be afraid of the depth charges they set off at night. It is to ward off the Tamil Tigers. Tamil divers could swim into the harbor to plant a bomb onto one of our navy ships. The charges will sound like a bomb, and you will feel it with your little ship.”

“Thank you for letting me know”

“It is safe to travel in my country. You must go to Kandy, in the highlands, and to Colombo. Not to the north-northeast though. That is where the fighting is going on.” 

What a pleasant exchange that was!

The following is an excerpt from my book, The Long Way Back:


An Unplanned Stop in Sri Lanka
06º 01’N, 80º13’E
Galle, Sri Lanka
February 9, 2007

Despite the miseries that we’ve endured this past week, part of the joy of traveling is encountering the unexpected…Serendipity brought us to Sri Lanka. And I’m fascinated that the country’s original name was Serendip, an Arab traders’ word applied to the land long before the Portuguese came on the scene. It reflected the lucky circumstance of their discovery and contact. Today, in its native Sinhala tongue, Sri Lanka means Land of the Blessed. For us, being here is indeed blessed and serendipitous.

Günter and I intend to understand its people and culture better—and, yes, even its continuing civil war. This war caused us to strike Sri Lanka from our original circumnavigation plan. Now, though, we cannot avoid its ongoing cruelty. We arrive at dawn’s light, crossing the shipping channels at 90 degrees and deviating course twice to sail behind giant freighters.

“You never want to cross in front of a freighter,” Günter tells Chris, “because it can take one of those monsters up to four miles to stop.”

As instructed via VHF, we prepare the ship for anchoring outside the harbor. It doesn’t take long to see the guns. We’ve never experienced an entrance like this! Two small runabouts, with mounted machine guns, race toward our boat while men wave and point to where they want us to drop the hook. Next, we spot a huge navy vessel—tons of sleek steel glinting in the morning sun—coming around the breakwater. Three Immigration Officers from the navy vessel board Pacific Bliss, while the two speedboats keep circling us. 

The officers conduct a thorough inspection of Pacific Bliss and give us forms to fill out.  These are immigration forms, and each asks the same questions over and over. The process lasts half an hour. Then, after stamping the paperwork, one officer asks for “smokes.” Wisely, we had purchased a few cartons just for this purpose. Chris distributes a pack to each officer.

We’ll have a two-hour wait before being shown inside the harbor, but we don’t mind; we’re happy to have our first onboard breakfast in a week in calm water. After breakfast, via VHF, we hire a local agent, G.A.C. Shipping, to handle the rest of the voluminous paperwork that will allow Pacific Bliss to berth here. 

Later, a navy officer boards our ship to direct Günter to a berth inside the harbor. As we enter, we note that it’s entirely roped off, except for one small lane for fishing boats and yachts. The officer presents us with three choices: to tie up to a black buoy in the center, where we’d have to use our dinghy to get to shore; to Med-moor to a floating dock, consisting of wobbly plastic sections with no handholds; or to raft to one of the monohulls along the sea wall. We choose the third option and raft to a small monohull flying an Italian flag. Now we can walk across the monohull and from there, onto dry land.

“Well, we’re finally safe,” Günter declares with a sigh. “But we’re not going to do any serious touring until we graduate to a berth directly on the sea wall. Tomorrow, we’ll just walk around Galle and mingle with the locals.”

That first night, cradled by Pacific Bliss and swaying with the current, I fall asleep feeling like we are still at sea. KA-BOOM! I jerk awake. I hear and feel the thunderous boom right through the water and the hull. Oh my God! What have we gotten ourselves into?

Günter pulls me over to him and hugs me tight. “It’s the depth charges, remember? They told us this would happen.”

Talk about encountering the unexpected!

“It feels like we’re in a war zone!” 

“We are. It’s the price we pay for taking refuge from the storm.” 

***

Touring Sri Lanka. After exploring Galle our first day ashore, we were invited to our shipping agent’s home for dinner. Later we hired a car and driver and took a South Coast tour, including a one-day safari. Then we drove to Kandy and rode a train through the highlands. A few days later, we explored Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) a pilgrimage site. Chris rose at daylight to climb the peak; I went there later and made it halfway before turning back.

A fisherman in southwestern Sri Lanka
A fisherman in southwestern Sri Lanka Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 227
Sri Lanka Waterfalls
Our crew, Chris, at one of the many waterfalls in Sri Lanka’s interior Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 228
Elephant near Kandy, Sri Lanka
An elephant bathing near Kandy, Sri Lanka comes right up to us on shore! Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 231

After a week, we three were well-rested, invigorated, and ready to leave Sri Lanka. Chris provided a creative surprise: he brought local monks over to bless our catamaran! They tied a string around the entire perimeter, came on board, and gave their blessing to everything inside, including us! Now we could safely leave this magical land of Serendip.

Monks
Monks bless Pacific Bliss before we sail off to the Maldives Photo credit: The Long Way Back, page 229

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

Last night was a turning point for the seasons here in Northwestern Wisconsin. We went to bed in the summer. We awoke in autumn.

Yesterday, a summer wind from the south blew strong, rustling leaves and causing whitecaps on White Ash Lake. At bedtime, I thought I heard rain. I stepped out onto the patio. In the darkness, wind brushing against branches sounded like rain, but the patio was dry underneath my bare feet. By 3 a.m. though, wind blew through my open bedroom window, followed by streaks of lightning and claps of thunder. In that moment, summer passed into autumn. 

Coral Bells in Autumn.
Coral Bells in Autumn.

The morning dawned cool and fresh. The gardens looked bedraggled and drowned, but I knew they would recover. Our wind-chime lay shattered on the porch steps. The plastic watering cans were beaten up, but they’re easy to replace. The top-heavy canna lily suffered the worst: left lying, root-bound among pottery shards. I ambled around Northern Bliss, picking up a dead oak branch here and there, marveling at the sudden change. How had autumn crept up so fast? Then I realized that the subtle signs had been there all along: hostas and lilies yellowing, hydrangeas turning burgundy red, trees changing half-green and half-red, grasses swept red and gold  by cooler breezes. Black-eyed Susans and lavender asters fill the roadsides ditches now.

Gunter and I purchased the properties that became Northern Bliss ten years ago this fall and since then, we’ve been “snowbirds,” flying back to San Diego at the first sign of frost. But this year will be different: Gunter is scheduled for a complete knee replacement this week, and he intends to do his physical therapy here. Equipment is being delivered almost every day: stand-up chair, walker, raised toilet seat, special shower seat, recumbent exercise bike—all intended for his recovery. We’ll most likely return after Thanksgiving—our first at Northern Bliss.

Although I don’t look forward to the first frost, or the second, or the final “killing frost,” I do relish the thought of pumpkins on the doorsteps and mums on the patio. My basement storage shelves contain décor for spring, summer and winter; I have no section for autumn. Yay! That means it’s time to shop. Recently I purchased a pair of pilgrim statues for the fireplace mantle. Rest assured, there will be more to come!

Trees change from green to gold
Trees change from green to gold.

This year, instead of packing up to leave,  I’ll be celebrating the change of seasons—all the while trusting God to keep Gunter safe while the surgeon changes out his knee. We can all look at fall, with its colorful, dancing leaves, as a second spring. The trees are about to show us how lovely it is to let useless things go.

May you enjoy the changes in your view and in your life, wherever you live. Bring it on!

Read more blogs about Northern Bliss:

Returning to Northern Bliss: 50 Shades of Green

A Winter-Wonderland Holiday in Northwest Wisconsin

The Miracle of Autumn

Tornado! Disaster at Northern Bliss

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


I have wild and nursery-grown Joe Pye Weed blooming in the naturalized section of Northern Bliss gardens this month. Despite the recent drought in the Midwest, these plants are taller than ever. The only differences between the wild Joe Pye—which has grown in the same spot for years—is that the nursery variety has a more intense color that doesn’t fade as fast.

Joe Pye weed
One stem of Joe Pye Weed at Northern Bliss Gardens.

Joe Pye weeds (Eupatorium) are native essentials for any pollinator garden. These plants are attractive because of their hardiness as well as their popularity with butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. There are several species; all have tall leafy stems with flat or rounded heads of small-but-bountiful, showy flowers. Because they can rise to 6-8 feet tall, I keep them confined to our lot border near the Rain Garden, and also behind a couple of tall boulders. Joe Pye is a tough perennial that loves moist conditions but can withstand high summer temperatures. The flowers bloom bright purple-pink in August when most perennials are fading.

Nursery-grown Joe Pye weed
Nursery-grown Joe Pye Weed (eupatorium purpureum).
Wild Joe Pye as backdrop to black-eyed susan
Wild Joe Pye forms a backdrop to Black-eyed Susan, Swamp Milkweed, and Cardinal Flower.

 

What’s in a name? When my friends and family tour Northern Bliss Gardens, they ask,” Why is this called Joe Pye? Who was he?” The story begins with an Eastern Algonquian Indian medicine man named Zhopai and is set in the area around Stockbridge, New York (east of Syracuse). His name was anglicized to Joe Pye. When a typhoid epidemic struck the area, Joe successfully treated Indians using two plants of the genus Eupatorium, “Joe Pye” and Boneset. Legend has it that a white man from a neighboring town had befriended the local Indians while repairing their plows and harnesses. He begged their medicine man, Zhopai, to cure his two young sons who were dying of the fever. “You can see that I’m an older man, I probably will have no more children,” he said. “Save their lives and I will give you everything I have—including my farm.” Because the white man had done a lot for his people in the past, Joe turned down the offer but agreed to help the man’s sons. He treated them with Boneset and “Joe Pye.” Miraculously, they lived!

Later, the Stockbridge Indians were forcibly removed to Wisconsin to make more room for European settlers. They were taken to Wisconsin in the dead of winter and deposited on land belonging to the Menominee people, who pitied them and even gave them part of their land. This band is still in Wisconsin, where it is called the Stockbridge Munsee.

Zhopai stayed behind with whites in New York State, but as his family left, he gave each of his grandchildren a bag filled with Joe Pye seeds. “Scatter them on your journey, whenever you pass a wet or swampy area,” he said. “When I’m well enough to follow you, I will know you passed this way.” The old man never made the trip; however, Joe Pye Weed, his legacy, is indeed scattered all the way from the eastern U.S. to Wisconsin. Source: Plants Have So Much to Give Us, All We Have to Do Is Ask, by Mary Siisip Geniusz.

A second legend: Another version of the Joe Pye legend was told to me by a nursery worker: In this story, the medicine man, Zhopai, used a brew made from this plant to cure the blacksmith’s two sons of typhoid. Because of this, the father’s lifelong dream was to spread Joe Pye from east to west. His sons heeded the call, “Go west, young man!” and prepared to take off to settle the new land. Their father was too ill and old to make the trip, but asked his two sons to spread the seeds along ponds and marshes as far west as they could go. They stopped in Wisconsin, and that’s why Joe Pye Weed is sold as a “native wildflower” here.

The facts as we know them: My curiosity drove me to dig deep into research, where I unearthed archives of The Great Lakes Botanist, Vol 56. The year Joe Pye Weed entered the English language was 1818, according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It gives the origin of the name as “unknown.”  Popular literature on native plants associate Zhopai with the colonial days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, specifically to English settlers from 1628-1691. Some records attribute spectacular success to Zhopai’s treatment of typhus using the plants that now bear his name, even to the extent of the saving an entire colony of early settlers. Other stories (with no sources cited) portray Zhopai as a traveling salesman with a horse and wagon! Another claimed that he traveled around the Northeast peddling medicines around the time of the American Revolution. Some insisted that he came from the Carolinas. As recently as 2011, Joe was considered to be a Caucasian “snake-oil salesman.” There are also discrepancies about whether Zhopai used the leaves and stems of the plants or the roots. 

Legendary expansion, as it is called, is a phenomenon quite familiar to folklorists and historians. The Botanist found no evidence to support the statements that Zhopai was Caucasian or that he was a peddler or showman of any kind. I prefer to believe the first legend and that’s the one I plan to tell. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the exuberance of Joe Pye Weed blowing in the wind at Northern Bliss.

Rain Garden backed by Joe Pye Weed
Rain Garden backed by Joe Pye Weed.

Other stories about Northern Bliss:

How to Drain a Wet Lot https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/how-to-drain-a-wet-lot/

I Never Promised You a Rain Garden https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/i-never-promised-you-a-rain-garden/

Returning to Northern Bliss: Fifty Shades of Green https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2016/06/15/returning-to-northern-bliss-fifty-shades-of-green/

A Winter-Wonderland Holiday in Northwest Wisconsin https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2021/02/14/a-winter-wonderland-holiday-in-northwest-wisconsin/

Wise Old Oak https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/11/13/wise-old-oak/

The Miracle of Autumn https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/10/25/the-miracle-of-autumn/

April is the Cruelest Month https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2020/04/25/april-is-the-cruelest-month/

Tornado: Disaster at Northern Bliss https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/tornado-disaster-at-northern-bliss/

Recovery from Natural Disasters https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/recovery-from-natural-disasters/

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Icelanders are at odds with each other, and they are split 50/50. This battle has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with aesthetics, conservation, and the color purple.

Lois with lupines
Lois with lupines

The Alaskan lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) is under attack. Warriors head for their battlefield in Eastern Iceland, armed with long knives and weed whackers. Their enemy? Purple lupines, stretching high into the mountains above—alien invaders that carpet gorges, sprawl over lava fields and climb the very mountains trekkers used to climb—without pushing through meter-high plants. These Icelandic warriors found that if they slash lupines during their peak blooming season in June, when all their effort goes into the blooms, they have a better chance at killing the enemy. Under the cover of twilight, Lupine Defenders, their pockets full of lupine seeds, visit the scene of devastation to spread them among the fallen, hoping they will rise again. 

Iceland botanicals

Defenders have a point. Tourists and half of Icelanders think the lupine fields are breathtakingly gorgeous. Plus, Lupine Defenders say lupine beauty goes well beyond skin deep. They point to conditions before lupines were introduced by the Icelandic Forest Service. Up to 40% of Iceland was covered by forest before the settlers arrived. Today, there are very few trees, and those that remain are small and twisted. A common joke among Icelanders goes like this: “What do you do if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.”

After 1,100 years of settlement, much of the island was ecologically exhausted from overgrazing and slash-and-burn agriculture. Less than 25% of the island’s green cover remained and strong winds were blowing the remaining soil into the sea. In 1945, Hakon Bjarnson was sent to Alaska by the Forest Service to find plants suitable to revegetate his country. He returned with Alaskan lupine in his luggage, along with a clever plan. Besides reducing erosion, lupines would improve the soil at almost no cost. That’s because—as part of the pea family—they are “nitrogen-fixers.” The plants host bacteria that gather nitrogen from the air, transferring the gas to its root nodules and providing nourishments for other plants. 

Those plants grew quietly around Reykjavik for 31 years until 1976 when an initiative was made to spread the seeds throughout the country. The objective: to improve the soil so trees could grow. When tall, their shade would dominate the three-foot lupines. 

Iceland
Field of lupines Iceland
Field of lupines near Reykjavik.

The plan worked well—too well, detractors say. Scoops of lupine seeds to spread were made available at gas stations! Lupines are tall and dense, so they can starve small plants and moss of crucial sunlight. When I visited Iceland with my granddaughter in late July, 2018, we missed most of the early summer lupine season. When we drove the Ring Road, Route 1, we saw lupines growing alongside a stream, in a few fields, and at the botanical garden in Borganes (Skallagrimsgardur).  Along the way, we talked to many friendly locals and the divisive subject of lupines never came up. We were amazed, however, at the 600-plus species of moss! These lichens draw their nutrients from the environment and are easily contaminated. They grow slowly—about one centimeter in length each year. I’d hate to see any precious moss fields overtaken! 

There are over 600 species of moss in Iceland.
There are over 600 species of moss in Iceland.

Lupine Creep. “Exponential growth is the nature of an invasive species,” says Pawel Wasowicz, a botanist and lupine expert at the Institute of Natural History. The growth curve, he estimates, will peak in the next two decades. Eastern Icelanders have experienced lupine creep in real time. Over the past 17 years, the plant has spread up to 35-fold in areas of East Iceland. 

“We are at the point of no return,” says Arni Bragason, director of Soil Conservation Service of Iceland. “The best thing we can do is reach a consensus about where the plant should be. That has been hard too.”  In the spring of 2018, his agency, the one that introduced lupine decades ago, called for its eradication. After 42 years of providing seeds to the entire country, the agency terminated its lupine project. Grabbing a free scoop of seeds at gas stations is no more! Most of the culling of plants, however, is carried out by volunteers. Cities and towns have been hesitant to allocate money, given the controversy that would entail.

Meanwhile lupine slaughtering parties, followed by determined lupine seeders, continue to roam the landscape.

Lupines along stream Iceland
A stand of lupine alongside a stream.

Do lupines destroy the view? The question is also a point of friction among Icelanders. Old-timers don’t care all that much about revegetation and reforestation. They care about image—and memories. They show visitors an iconic picture of Neil Armstrong salmon fishing in Iceland in 1967, two years before he made history with one small step on the moon. They’re proud to tell you that nine of the twelve astronauts who walked on the moon came to Iceland first. “They were there because in the middle of Iceland’s highlands, NASA had found a landscape that paralleled the lunar: no vegetation, no life, no colors, no landmarks. The entire area was essentially a natural gravel field,” wrote Egill Bjarnason, in his recently-published book, “How Iceland Changed the World.”  

“The term ‘lunar landscape’ is a phrase often used to describe the boundless Icelandic deserts shaped by volcanic eruptions and covered in different shades of lava…their very barrenness is an asset,” Egill continues. 

Magnificent Desolation is the phrase Buzz Aldrin once used to describe the moon. Some Iceland homeowners love that view and regret that their magnificent desolation has been replaced by the color purple. Farmers, on the other hand, appreciate the lupine cover. They recall roads blocked by sandstorms many times every year. 

Magnificent Desolation in Iceland
Magnificent Desolation.

And so the debate continues. If you were an Icelander, which side would you take?

Stories about Iceland: 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


Pain in Paradise. The first half of June has passed in a whirlwind of activity. Due to a drought enveloping Wisconsin and Minnesota this spring, the unexpected happened: I had to water—not only the new plantings, but everything—trees, bushes, perennials, annuals, and yes, even parts of the lawn! As I trudged around our entire one-acre property called Northern Bliss, dragging a hose during sweltering, record-setting 90-plus-degree heat, I wondered “Where is the bliss?” Other summers, I’ve divided my time between gardening in the morning pursuing creative projects during the hotter afternoon. This June, I’ve spent the mornings watering and the afternoons recovering. For two weeks, muscles aching, I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. 

The local evening news was filled with stories of the unusual Upper Midwestern drought. After the first nine days of temperatures over 90, the talking heads exclaimed: “Our record in here for all summer is 13 days over 90! So far, we’ve had nine days and counting.”

 

Gunter and I chuckled at first. It never rains in Southern California, where we spend our winters. And here, the locals complain of the heat when the temps climb over 80! After 5 more days, we quit laughing. The temperature kept breaking records, the nearby St. Croix River descended to record lows, and even the Great Mississippi shrank under the bridges crossing from Wisconsin to Minnesota. Here at White Ash Lake, one could walk on the shore alongside the riprap that prevents dashing waves from destroying shoreline. 

The local electric company chose the middle of a drought to rake and sow grass to repair the parts of the lawn damaged by burying electric cables last October. We appreciate the good job they did, but their timing was way off. “Just make sure to water those two sections and you’ll be fine,” a worker told me as he climbed into their truck and it rumbled off.  Those sections are at the far corners of the property. Reluctantly, I joined hose lengths together to reach them. More watering! I ordered more sprinklers from Amazon (the local Menards—similar to Lowes or Home Depot—was 100% sold out). With sprinklers spread like octopus legs from the house and cabin, the two well pumps ran all day. The next morning, still in my PJs, I moved and reset them before the sun rose high.  But after 30 minutes, the 1946-era cabin pump had enough. It blew its fuse. 

“Better call Mike,” we said simultaneously.  (He’s our son-in-law and “fixer.”) He found that the pump had burned out—probably because the sand point well was depleted due to receding groundwater. 

“Better call a well driller,” Mike said. Well drillers here are busy, as are plumbers, builders, electricians, and handymen in this part of rural Wisconsin. They are “backed up” until late fall or early spring. Fortunately, we have no visitors booked for the cabin this summer and we do have water in our main house, so we’re okay. Besides, drilling a new well at the cabin would mess up my perennial garden. As for the grass, watering was no longer an option. We would just have to wait for the elusive rain.

Day Tripping. “Let’s blow this pop stand,” I said last Saturday morning. “The forecast is for rain on Sunday—Father’s Day. God knows the farmers need rain more than any other gift they could receive. I think it will happen.” We threw a bag with snacks and water bottles into our Equinox and we were off to Crex Meadows, a wildlife area north of Grantsburg, less than 40 miles away

Crex Meadows is known known as a staging area for Sandhill cranes, but they would have already migrated; however, there’s always something to see. The Meadows encompass 30,000 acres, with wetlands, brush prairies, and forests scattered across a gently rolling landscape. It’s part of the Northwest Wisconsin Pine Barrens. These “Barrens” extend from northern Polk County (where we live) to southern Bayfield County (where we visited last fall); it covers 1500 square miles. This huge, sandy plain was left when a glacier retreated about 13,000 years ago.  The southern part of the Barrens where Crex is located contains huge marshes, part of ancient Glacial Lake.  

The 30,000 acres of Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area is managed by the Wisconsin DNR, Bureau of Wildlife Management. This habitat is now home to over 280 bird species, 720 plant species, 96 butterfly species, and a wide variety of reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Amazingly, every species of mammal found in Wisconsin has been on the Crex property at some point; even moose and mountain lions wander through occasionally.  You can download a map here. 

The Visitor Center wasn’t open when we drove through, but we picked up a map and bird checklist outside in a box to the right of the entry door. In addition to a number of small birds, we saw hundreds of trumpeter swans. Even though we have a resident pair on White Ash Lake, seeing flocks of them was exhilarating! Some swans were close to the overlooks and dike roads, so hiking wasn’t necessary to take these photos:

The Burnett Dairy Cooperative. This co-op has piqued my curiosity ever since I read an article in the local press about how they helped the farming community. It was the last week in March, 2020. Covid-19 had shut the country down.  Within a few weeks of the U.S. lockdown, Gunter and I escaped San Diego to wait it out in the country. With Wisconsin schools shut down, farmers here had lost a valuable distribution outlet. Milk and cheese were a vital part of state school nutrition programs. Restaurants also closed, causing the cheese market to dry up. And shifting butter production from tiny packets for restaurants to large blocks for grocery stores couldn’t happen overnight.

With distribution channels decimated, local farmers were forced to dump most of their milk. “Milk is being disposed of because of a massive and sudden loss of markets — more than half the nation’s restaurants are closed, sales of cheese are down 70 percent and some 44 percent of the nation’s cheese is sold through food service channels,” Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin announced.  Burnett Dairy, a vertically integrated cooperative, came to the rescue: “The Burnett Dairy Cooperative and our member farmers recognized an opportunity to make a difference during an extremely challenging time for our country and the dairy industry,” said Dan Dowling, CEO and president. “Farmers have always been the backbone of the national food supply, so we felt a responsibility to marshal our resources — and a little ingenuity — to fight hunger in our communities….” Cooperating farmers donated milk, Burnett Dairy made it into cheese, and Chell Trucking of Siren, Wisconsin donated refrigerated trucks to distribute cheese to food pantries and other nonprofit  organizations supplying free meals—including the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

Dumping milk

Burnett Dairy was on our way back to Northern Bliss—that is, if we took the Hwy 70 route from Grantsburg. From the highway, we couldn’t miss the humongous dairy with its sign supporting Wisconsin farmers. As we entered the retail section, we couldn’t believe our eyes! The store is designed with an array of tempting eye-candy islands. It has separate sections for cheese, deli meats, souvenirs, and snacks. In one corner, customers were lined up for scoops of every flavor of ice cream imaginable. Grouped around the perimeter were coolers full of milk, cream, cheese, sausage and pizzas topped with mozzarella, Gouda or cheddar gruyere. The store was packed with families—a destination in its own right. The goodies are also available online. Go to the SHOP NOW section on their website to have cheeses, snacks, puddings and gifts delivered right to your doorstep. We tried the potato pork sausage: excellent!

Support Wisconsin Dairy Farmers sign
Burnett Dairy Coop
Burnett Dairy Cheese Board

Upon returning home, I had the urge to water, but I refused to give in. It WILL rain, I told myself. Sunday, I woke to the sound of a light, gentle rain—perfect for settling all that dry dirt. And later, the rain came down in torrents—a real soaker. Yay! A multitude of prayers were answered. The cold front brought a windy Monday but as I write this, the weather is perfect. The drought isn’t over, but this is a great first step!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.