Adventure



FESTPAC, the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture, was first on my Bucket List.

This week’s Sunday paper tells me that there’s a boom in people planning, but not making, travel arrangements. Until Covid clears, people just want to put some joy back into their lives. I’d don’t blame them. As an adventurer with wanderlust in my blood, dreaming of traveling again is like giving a drink of water to a parched soul. So, Gunter and I spent part of the day making out a new bucket list.

Back in 2004, during our world circumnavigation, we attended the Festival of Pacific Arts, the world’s largest celebration of indigenous Pacific Islanders. This festival is hosted every four years by a different Pacific Island nation. At that time, we’d vowed to attend another one when the country and timing suited us. This could be the year! The 2020 festival was cancelled due to Covid and rescheduled for June 18-27, 2021 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The last such event, held in Guam in 2016, drew 90,000 visitors. This year’s festival will be made up of 28 nations, 3,000 delegates and could attract 100,000 visitors. I turned to Günter: “Because we have no schedule for this year, this fits perfectly. Shall we plan but not book?”

That turned out to be the applicable question. The very next day, Günter went back to the website to check on hotel reservations. The 2021 festival is now cancelled! The next one will be in 2024. FESTPAC will remain on my Bucket List but will no longer be Number One.

Fest Pac Logo

The following story about our experiences during 2004 FESTPAC is excerpted from The Long Way Back, the third book in my sailing/adventure trilogy:

A Taste of the Pacific Arts
Palau Marina Hotel, Koror, Palau
August 1, 2004

Even though Pacific Bliss is now berthed in Australia, I’m not quite ready to put the South Pacific islands behind me. I’d love to be able to sample even more of the culture of these islands before we sail on to Indonesia and ports beyond. So, I talk Günter into treating me to the Festival for my birthday. The Festival occurs every four years and changes venues, like the Olympics, but that’s where the resemblance ends. First, it’s a celebration, not a competition. And second, the way it’s organized is island-style: It flows freely from one event to the other; schedules are treated as guidelines. Attending the Festival will be a grand finale to our South Pacific adventures and provide a taste of those islands we haven’t visited.

We arrive at the Palau Marina Hotel after a day’s layover in Guam following a flight from Cairns, Australia. In the lobby—decorated with bamboo furniture and giant shells—our taxi driver introduces us to the Japanese man who owns the hotel. We bow and talk with him while our driver translates. Smiling Filipina waitresses lead us to our table where we enjoy an arrival dinner of sushi and Asahi (Japanese beer). On leaden legs we climb the steps to our third-floor room and crash. We will have two days to rest up before the action-packed Festival begins.

The next day, we order the “morning set” for breakfast: a semi-American breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs and toast, grilled sausages cut at a slant, and finely shredded coleslaw with dressing. For lunch, we order a bento; yakitori for me and squid for Günter. The side dishes here differ from our old standbys at Ichiban’s in Pacific Beach, San Diego: fish balls, poi-like sticky balls, spinach, seaweed, and other odd delicacies. Emily—one of the trio of Filipinas who works here—fans away flies as we dine on the veranda facing the peaceful harbor ringed by the tantalizing Rock Islands. Our view is a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns, the sea’s sun-sparkles giving way to darkening wavelets as the wind freshens. A warm, tropical shower gently drifts past the veranda toward a perfectly domed, mushroom-shaped island, then encloses a backdrop of rounded hills in an ethereal mist reminiscent of Japanese paintings.

I turn to Günter. “Even if this is the rainy season here, I won’t mind.”

Mind? I will soon take back those words as I become intimate with the July-August weather slightly north of the equator!

As we leave the veranda for a sightseeing walk, a second shower appears. This time it’s the real thing. A million sharp-nosed bullets dive into the sea until it’s a mass of perforations, like a high-tech sound studio. We decide to retreat to our room to take our pensioners’ nap, a habit perfected in Australia.

Later, we don rain jackets and slog along the pitted dead-end street to the Palau Aquarium. Outdoor pools hold sharks, a hawksbill turtle, and a variety of large game fish. The magnificent interior contains the best live displays of marine life along a coral wall that I’ve ever seen.

Afterwards, we walk to nearby Fish & Fins to introduce ourselves. This premier dive-and-tour operation is run by an energetic Israeli couple who sailed their sailing vessel Ocean Hunter to Palau eight years ago, fell in love with the fabulous marine life here, and—like many cruisers we’ve met during our voyages—decided to stay in the place that captured their hearts. They charter out their sailboat for overnight excursions to the Rock Islands, along with Ocean Hunter II, a motor dive boat. We check on snorkeling tours for later in the week.

Remarkably, the Opening Ceremony on July 22 begins without the omnipresent rain. “Alii!” begins Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. “Our home is your home; our food is your food; our island is your island; everything that we have, we want to share with you…except our spouses.” I chuckle. “The Pacific Way” has evolved! In a ceremony that reminds me of the Olympics, the delegates of 24 of the 27 participating nations march or dance across the PCC Track and Field, each to their own country’s traditional music. Each delegation presents gifts to the dignitaries of Palau according to the custom of these islands, stakes a box-art gift into the soil, and then performs in front of the grandstand. And what a show it is—absolutely awesome! For cruisers, I’d recommend the Festival over the Olympics anytime.

Günter and I privately declare the delegates from Papua New Guinea Best Dressed, not that they wore a lot of clothes! They sported flamboyant headdresses topping their fierce, tattooed faces with grass skirts and bare chests. (We had the good luck to talk to a few of these delegates briefly before the festivities began and noted their friendly dispositions. Later, Günter observed two of these warrior-dancers holding hands, as is their custom, as they ambled past the craft stalls.)

Lois and Gunter with Papua New Guinea Dancers

The Maoris of New Zealand draw gasps from attendees who have never witnessed their indigenous greeting: the warriors march forward—eyes bulging, tongues protruding, and spears thrust—while their women yell threats and twirl balls on the end of bungee-like cords.

The speeches, performances, and gift giving seem to go on forever as Günter and I shift our weight this way and that on the hard stadium seating. Then volunteers hand out box dinners of rice and fish (symbolizing a feast) to all. Yes—one box to every one of the participants: the media, the organizers, the dignitaries, and the attendees in the grandstand—all 8000 of us! Why? Because that is The Pacific Way. Altogether, the opening ceremony lasts five hours—despite a downpour during the last two—and closes with incredible fireworks, courtesy of Taiwan.

The Festival incorporates multiple simultaneous venues and activities—from symposia, movies, and plays to crafts, culinary arts, and natural history tours—forcing us to make difficult choices. We decide to make dancing our priority. Each of the 27 participating islands has entered a dance group into the competition. Taiwan, Japan, and Indonesia, as sponsors, have sent performers as well. The dancing program continues day and night at the ball field, the stadium—and when raining—the gymnasium.

After attending dance venues for days, we narrow our favorites down to half a dozen:

1. Papua New Guinea: for their flamboyant style while displaying fierce demeanors and fabulous headdresses.

2. Solomon Islands: for dancing to the most primitive rhythms while hunched over huge homemade bamboo flutes.

3. The Cook Islands: for the toughest workout: Male dancers sensuously knee-slap to a fast, pulsating drum beat, then twirl their women in perfect sync.

4. Rapa Nui (Easter Island): for the best choreographed routine—sophisticated, yet vigorous—muscled bodies moving to a hot beat.

5. Yap (one of the Federated States of Micronesia): for an astounding Las Vegas style, all-male chorus routine—ending with pelvic thrusts bouncing critically placed feathers.

6. Torres Strait, Australia: to Aborigines for enacting realistic stories from their lives; in one dance simulation of fishing, the performer falls to the floor, catches the bait with his teeth, and follows a fishing line in, writhing all the way across the stage. That performance raises the roof!

The routines of the Hawaiian and French Polynesian dancers, though the choreography was polished, lacked the drama of indigenous dancing.

Festival Ceremony and Dancing

From pages 28-29, The Long Way Back.

As the festivities continue, we note that music of the Polynesians, Melanesians, and Micronesians reflects a common, linked heritage while Asian Special Performances are clearly different. The songs of the Taiwanese highland tribes, for example, are sophisticated operatic arias with the typical dissonant chords of Asian music. They are 1000 years old!

This ten-day extravaganza has to be the ultimate Pacific tourist opportunity! Imagine mingling with locals from 31 islands while you’re shopping in the stalls, having lunch in Koror, or walking through the college campus to attend a symposium. We get to know and love these islanders as never before. We talk with and photograph dancers before and after their stage performances. Often dancers are having their own photos taken with performers from other troupes; we join right in. By the end of the Festival, I realize that the participants themselves are beginning to “mix it up.”

But it’s not only the participants who are learning from each other. About 7000 people attend the Festival events here each day, including about 3000-4000 Palauans. One local says to me, “This is a tremendous once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am proud to be a Palauan; I have seen my Pacific brothers and sisters, and now I know that there is no shame in being an islander.” (In Pidgin, this enlightened view is called Blong One Talk.)

An integral part of each year’s Festival is the Traditional Navigation and Canoeing Program. At sunrise on opening day, news helicopters hover above as smoke rises from a fire, triton-shell trumpets blare, and war and sailing canoes pass below Palau’s KB Bridge. Represented are war canoes from eight Palauan states and sailing canoes from Palau, Guam, and the Marshall Islands. Missing sailing canoes from Yap and Saipan, still underway, put a damper on opening festivities. They would show up days later. The monsoon season in Palau is not an optimal time of year for promoting the canoe program!

A few days after the official opening ceremonies, the “scheduled” races are held, although not one is even close to the time on the printed schedule. Günter and I take a taxi to the Friendship Bridge near the stated finish line for the kabekl (war canoe) race. We stand on the concrete jetty, cameras in hand, on increasingly wobbly knees. Then we spread our rain jackets on the concrete. And we sit. And sit. After about two hours, an announcer explains the rules for the two heats to be held by the canoes, to be followed by the play-off. Then we sit and wait again. About a half hour later, the announcer states that, due to the delay, there will be no final race. They will hold only the 1000-meter and a 500-meter. We wait even longer.

Nearby, a few ladies dressed in red and white—with towels over their heads to protect them from the sun—are cheering for the local Ngiwal State of Palau. I decide to follow their example. I stand and cheer, then sit and wait…and wait. Another half hour creeps by and finally the race begins. Everyone stands to cheer—this time for real. The ladies frantically wave their towels like flags. The red team wins. In the 500-meter, Koror wins.

All this waiting gives me the opportunity to talk with islanders. One stocky man in a red T-shirt that must be XXL explains how the Festival has spurred the sport of canoeing. “We’ve had races here before, but with motorboats,” he says. “Our boys didn’t know how to race canoes. You should have seen them only a few months ago. They couldn’t even paddle!”

Come to think of it, I haven’t seen any sailboats in the harbors except those used for excursions. “Don’t they sail either?” I ask.

“No, ancient Palauans navigated by the stars and all,” he says, “but then they didn’t need to sail to other islands anymore. We have everything we need here. And sadly, the tradition was not handed down.”

Carrying on the island traditions and culture is exactly what the Festival aims to do. Hoping to learn how to navigate by the stars, we attend the Traditional Navigation symposium the next morning. Unfortunately, much of the discussion centers on intellectual property issues—how to prevent the usurping of traditional skills and knowledge by the West—as if we need those skills with the advent of GPS! Then the discussion turns toward how to get funding for the very program that some of the participants don’t want to share. The locals seem oblivious to the contradiction.

The Sailing Canoe Raceis scheduled for 1:00. This time, we take a taxi to where the canoes actually are, thinking that we will cleverly position ourselves at the start rather than at the finish line. By then, we have begun to understand “island time.” So, Günter keeps our cab while I venture toward the group by the canoes, potential racers who are preparing to barbeque their lunch.

“When do you expect the race to begin?”

“At one o’clock,” one of the racers responds.

“But it’s one-thirty now.” I point to my watch.

“I think the race is actually at four o’clock,” another canoeist volunteers.

“No, the program says that is the time for awarding of the prizes. Do you have a program?”

“No.”

“Hold the cab! We’re leaving!” I call to Günter.

Later, we hear that the races did occur that day—at 4:30 p.m. By then, two teams had decided not to race. Guam, Yap, and Palau—although mismatched—managed to paddle to the finish line against the wind and current under the bridge.

Booths and exhibits at the Festival

From pages 26-27 of The Long Way Back.

Festival activities keep us busy for the next few days. We enjoy hanging around Festival Village where we purchase souvenirs from various countries’ booths and sample their native food. We walk through the thatched-roof Pavilion to view tattooists, carvers, and weavers at work. One project, called MAT, calls for each participant country to weave a 2×2-foot square that will eventually be combined into one majestic Quilt of the Islands, to be displayed at the Palau National Museum. This Museum will also display a carved log with each country’s section, and one large storyboard representative of all carvers’ combined efforts. We view architectural displays and attend poetry readings, instrumentals, and plays. In a clever New Zealand stage play, two actresses recount the history of the Maoris from the first sighting of the white man.

During the final days of the Festival, the rains arrive to stay. A typhoon is moving toward Japan; all of Micronesia is drenched in the resulting weather system. The closing ceremony is moved to the college gymnasium. To make space, the country delegations sit on the wooden floor in the center. Even so, the grandstands are overloaded. Many Palauans are left standing outside holding umbrellas. I sympathize with this tiny country of 20,000 that has valiantly tried its best to be the perfect hosts to 4,000 visitors. But I’m proud of them as well. I’m touched by the warmth of the speeches and by the sincere effort to again feed the crowd in keeping with The Pacific Way.

“In today’s strife-torn world,” concludes Festival Host President Remengesau, “it is uplifting that so many of us have come together to celebrate the value and beauty of our heritage.”

May these Festivals continue to uplift, to teach, to inspire, and to celebrate the heritage of the islands. Attending the 9th Festival of the Pacific Arts was a birthday gift that I will cherish forever.

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Other SailorsTales blogs about the South Pacific are:

Breaking Bread with the Locals

The Pacific Puddle Jump 10-Year Reunion

Cruiser Camaraderie: Revisiting our World Circumnavigation

Reconnecting with Crew

Pacific Bliss Goes Snorkeling

The Largest Clams in the World

Visiting Levuka, Fiji’s Ancient Capital, during our World Circumnavigation

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 on Amazon.

 


During our world circumnavigation, Gunter and I loved Australia and the Aussies so much that we decided to spend another year in The Land Down Under. We stored our catamaran Pacific Bliss on the hard in Mackay, Queensland and took the tilt train south to Sydney. From there, we rented a drive-yourself caravan (camper) to tour inland through the Blue Mountains, Cowra, Canberra, and back to Sydney via the sea route. Although fall was turning to winter throughout the Northern Hemisphere, in Australia we were enjoying the spring-to-summer transition. My favorite holiday flowers for arranging are the red tropicals: ginger, anthurium, and proteas. Imagine my delight seeing fields of such flowers on display at nature preserves!

Field of proteas

Field of Proteas

Following are excerpts from my journal:  

Touring Australia’s Blue Mountains
September, 2004

Katuomba Falls Caravan Park.  Blackheath Caravan Park. Destinations roll off our tongues as the landscape passes by. We experience two days of dreary skies and depressing, intermittent rain, which makes our road trip anti-climactic after the sunny skies and excitement of Sydney. But on the third day, the weather clears and an ethereal, winter-pale sun peeks over the evergreened landscape before it descends below the foothills and treetops. It leaves a soft brush of amber on the clouds. It’s amazing how the van seems cozier, less claustrophobic, when there’s a hint of sun.  

Gorgeous, white parrot-like birds with yellow crests flit from tree to tree as we enjoy our sundowners. Ducks waddle toward the van while we throw out tidbits. I take a twilight walk up a hillside and stumble upon one lone rhododendron bush; the rest will bloom next month.  November 1 is the beginning of the Rhododendron Festival here in Blackheath. 

Called “Australia’s most accessible wilderness,” the heralded Blue Mountains looked like a collection of Sydney suburbs on a ridge of a cut-out valley—eroded highlands with valleys below. “These are certainly not mountains like our western Rockies,” Gunter grumbled.  But as we drove further, he changed his tune. Narrow river gorges wound through the lower mountains. As we rose in elevation, vistas opened to yawning canyons. Mountain streams tumbled over escarpments, falling to thick, tangled vegetation.

Eucalyptus against limestone

Eucalyptus against limestone

Blue Mountains Overlook

Blue Mountains Overlook

Sydneysiders are fortunate to have such a national treasure within a few hours’ drive. A brochure we’d picked up in Sydney stated: “What a better way to uplift the soul than a weekend of World Heritage Wilderness!” This heritage area, made up of eight nature reserves, was established in 2000. It contains 400 animal species, more than one-third of Australia’s bird species, 1,300 plant species, and 4,000 species of moths and butterflies.

For the first twenty-five years of European occupation, the Blue Mountains defied settlers’ quest to expand west of Sydney. Expeditions were turned back by impenetrable undergrowth, wandering gorges, and steep canyon walls. Finally in 1813, three men, Gregory Blaxland, William Wentworth, and William Lawson, broke through after eighteen miserable days.  They were rewarded with a view from the top of Mount York never seen by Europeans. Grassy plains stretched as far as their eyes could see—plains, they believed, that could support a continent of millions.  During the next two years, the Great Western Highway was cut through these mountains and western migration began.  

Morning brings a bright sun and clear blue skies. We are eager to begin the trip to the top of the pass. From Blackheath, we’ll backtrack to Medlow Bath, then double back and proceed on to Bell, drive along the north canyon rim to Mount Tomah, then double back again to Lithgow, finally proceeding on to our reserved cabin near Lake Lyell.  It is a fine, crisp day for touring but the drive is long and tortuous. The two-lane route—the same one followed by those early explorers—is narrow with tight turns and sheer drops. In most places, the ridge is too narrow for turnouts, look-outs, and rest stops. 

Gunter is an experienced mountain driver; even so, this route requires intense focus. 

At Medlow Bath, we stop to see the Grand Hotel, a famous meeting place for world dignitaries. Melba, a famous Australian opera star, sung here. Other celebrities have taken advantage of the hotel’s hydra baths for more than a century. While we stroll through the old hotel, we note that the place still has a regal flair: a smart-suited and suitably aloof male receptionist hands us a typed information sheet about the hotel. We enjoy a cappuccino on the deck with a wonderful mountain view and then we’re off to the next stop: Govett’s Leap.

We joke about the sign saying 15-Minute Walk to Bridal Falls.  “It doesn’t say how long the return is!” I warn. “But let’s go anyway. We need a little pensioner’s walk.”  

We’re back at the parking area in one and quarter hours. We did take our time, though, past the stepping blocks over the river to the other side. The morning sun brightened the deep, verdant valley. The river was wonderful, cascading over rocks banked with yellow blooming acacia, rust-colored banksias (bottlebrush), and delicate yellow, white, and blue mountain flowers. Bridal Veil Falls, a tantalizing stream of water and fine mist overhanging a rock garden of moss and ferns, was well worth it. By the time we returned, huffing and puffing up all those steps, lazy sheep-clouds had drifted in. They stayed with us for the remainder of the day, providing cooling interludes.

Gunter on the path to Bridal Falls

Gunter on the path to Bridal Falls

Bottle Brush Plant

Bottle Brush Plant

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Our next stop is Evans Point. We amble over to a must-see lookout over pulpit rock. Afterwards, Gunter re-parks the van so the view from the rear window has the valley view. This is when driving a campervan pays off! We enjoy our smoko of chicken breast, dressing, and whole wheat bread.      

Our next stop is Mount Victoria. Gunter buys a few used paperbacks from a quaint, old shop attached to a house that has been in the owner’s family since the early 1900s.  Across the street stands the historic Victoria and Albert Guesthouse and Restaurant, where dining on the wooden, green-railed veranda has been a tradition for over 100 years. The street is lined with blooming pink and white ornamental and fruit trees. What a wonderful time of year to tour the Blue Mountains! 

From the GWH (Great Western Highway) the Darling Causeway links Mount Victoria to Bells Road, which takes us toward Mount Tomah. We continue on to the Mount Tomah Botanical Gardens (called Australia’s Coolest Botanic Gardens) developed by Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. Here, at 1000 meters above sea level, many plants not suited to Sydney’s climate can be grown successfully. 

I’ve fallen in love with these gardens—and especially with the collection of the largest proteas I’ve ever seen. Their wide-open pink blooms remind me of sunflowers backlit against a glowing sunset. The pond’s rock garden, with shimmering lime-colored reeds complementing its gray rocks, is the perfect setting for contemplation and meditation. The blue haze from the mountains turns this place into a heavenly delight.

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Other SailorsTales blogs about Australia are: 

Climbing the Coat Hanger

The Challenge of Writing about Australia

Pavlova from Heaven? No, Australia

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 for the holidays on Amazon.


Windblown trees

Wind blown trees near the California coast.

“Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world. The forces change, yet the essence remains the same.”  —Rumi

We all recognize the survival instinct in the animal kingdom. This year, I discovered that the will to live is just as strong in trees. On July 19th 2019, Northern Bliss, our lake home in Wisconsin, was struck by an F2 tornado. We lost 21 trees on our acre of land and hired a tree service to clean up the mess.

One of the most painful moments during the week that followed the tornadoes of 2019 was making the decision to cut down our wise old oak. She stood beside our sidewalk, proud and tall, flanked by two other oaks. Her limbs held multiple feeders: a corn cob holder for squirrels, a small feeder for chickadees and goldfinch, and another for hummingbirds. The tree service was nearing the end of cutting down a dozen or so storm-damaged trees. One worker pointed to the wise old oak. “No, not that one too!” I cried. From my vantage point on the sidewalk, she appeared to be okay, but on the other side, her trunk had twisted so much that one could see right through. “Another storm—less powerful than a tornado—could take ‘er down. He pointed again: “She’d fall against your roof there.” My heart sank; objections would be futile.  “How far down?” the worker asked, chainsaw in hand. “We could cut ‘er right below the twist.”  

I consented. The canopy on that tree was so high that it took a crane to bring workers to the top. It was so wide that they were forced to chop it down branch by branch so that it would not disturb the surrounding buildings and gardens.

Chainsaws buzzed across White Ash Lake for the remainder of that Wisconsin summer and on into fall. No one talked further about the fate of Wise Old Oak—a dying stump three feet in diameter and thrice my height. During the spring of 2020, the tree service returned with their cranes to yank out the remaining root balls along the lakeshore.  After shoring up the bank, I focused on planting a row of young river birch there. 

It took most of the summer to get Northern Bliss back in shape, but during the dog days of August, Gunter and I finally got around to aesthetics: what should we mount on top of that massive stump? A life-size eagle would be too puny. Any mammal would have to be huge enough to honor Wise Old Oak. An animal native to Wisconsin? Aha! How about a carving of White Ash Bear, the one who frequents feeders and garbage cans all along White Ash Lane? 

Wise Old Oak must have welcomed all the attention because guess what? She decided to grow! She wasn’t dead after all.

Tree stump

The oak stump decides to grow.

How can a stump live? I went inside to search for our copy of tree-whisperer Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. I re-read the sections that might apply to Wise Old Oak. His book convinced me that trees are social, sophisticated, and even intelligent. They cooperate with each other and maintain relationships by sending out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals. They communicate underground but also send phenomes and other scent signals through the air. 

But Wise Old Oak was now a stump. She could not communicate through the air anymore because she had no branches or leaves. I guessed that she could communicate like most trees do: through networks of symbiotic fungi—a wood wide web—to share nutrients, carbon and other information. But doesn’t a tree need leaves to sustain itself? Wise Old Oak had no leaves for almost a year. 

During photosynthesis, the experts say, plants open pores on their leaves to allow carbon dioxide to enter. Open pores also allow water the plant has not used to be released into the atmosphere. This process, called transpiration, draws water up from the roots so the plant doesn’t wilt. But a leafless stump needs another way to circulate water. During a study conducted in New Zealand, researchers reported that kauri stumps lived by sharing water with neighboring trees. They were connected through an underground plumbing system formed when their roots naturally fused, or grafted, together. 

Wise Old Oak had a neighboring oak on either side. But why would a tree support a stump that can’t reproduce or make its own food? Did she knock on the doors of the trees next door and say: “Hey, Oakey, I’m dying. Can I get a little of your carbon?” Not likely. She probably had that underground connection before she became a stump. 

It turns out that natural root grafts have been reported in some 150 tree species. Exactly how those roots fuse are buried mysteries. One tree communication expert from Tennessee thinks that trees support stumps to maintain symbiotic relationships with helpful fungi. That makes sense, because I recently read that the coveted king bolete mushroom of Russia (known as Porcini by the Italians) grow in complex symbiotic relationships with the surrounding forest trees. But I’m way off track here—back to the bear.

Mounting the Bear.  Wise Old Oak grew a branch straight out of her bark near the top, complete with tiny oak leaves.  At first, she looked weird with that small, single branch. But as it grew, the branch turned upward toward the sun and spread wide so that it resembled the back of a chair. We had been imagining a standing bear but decided that the legs of the statue might not be strong enough to hold its weight. Now we envisioned the bear sitting on that stump, embraced by that branch, her feet pointing toward the lake. During a trip to Cornucopia on Lake Superior, we stopped to chat with an expert woodcarver in Shell Lake.  He set us straight. “A life-size bear made of wood would be too heavy, quite expensive, and would rot anyway within a few years. You should be able to find one made of resin with a hollow center.” After a few hours of internet searches and calls to customer services, I found what I was looking for: a sitting big black bear.

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When that bear statue arrived this fall, we were flummoxed. We had to open the box by cutting it around the bear, leaving it in place. Even at 60 pounds, it would be difficult to put atop that high stump. Our son-in-law Mike came to the rescue. First, he took Big Bear home to his workshop to build a wooden platform attached to his rump. Second, he added hinges to attach it to the stump. Third, he stood on the roof of his ATV to align with the stump so he could slide the bear onto his new home. This is one bear that won’t be hibernating this winter! 

What will happen this spring? Will the branch continue to grow? This one thing I know. Wise Old Oak will find a way to live—somehow. 

Wisconsin

The Oak Tree

A mighty wind blew night and day
It stole the oak tree’s leaves away
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
Until the oak was tired and stark

But still the oak tree held its ground
While other trees fell all around
The weary wind gave up and spoke.
How can you still be standing Oak?

The oak tree said, I know that you
Can break each branch of mine in two
Carry every leaf away
Shake my limbs, and make me sway

But I have roots stretched in the earth
Growing stronger since my birth
You’ll never touch them, for you see
They are the deepest part of me

Until today, I wasn’t sure
Of just how much I could endure
But now I’ve found, with thanks to you
I’m stronger than I ever knew

–Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.

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.


This the last in the series about sailing Fiji with a new crew, Lydia and Helmut. The stories in the series are excerpted from Sailing the South Pacific, Chapter 10.

Pacific Bliss docks in Levuka, Fiji

Pacific Bliss docks in Levuka, Fiji

Levuka—Fiji’s Ancient Capital
June 13, 2003
When I record the passage from Leleuvia in the logbook, I realize what day it is: Friday the thirteenth. No wonder it was one wild ride! Thankfully, the passage was short and we’re here, although Levuka is on a lee shore, the windward side of the island.

This morning at 1100, the sun appeared just in time to make the passage. It continued to shine while we navigated the Moturiki Channel, then disappeared for good as we sailed up the east coast of Ovalau to Levuka. We experienced 20-knot winds all the way, with occasional gusts to 25. The waves were 3 meters high. One of the huge waves splashed into the cockpit, drenching Helmut.

Lydia did not have a good passage. She spent it lying on her stomach on the cockpit bench, queasy and frightened. These were the highest waves she had experienced because, until now, we had been protected by Fiji’s reefs.

After a well-deserved siesta, the four of us dinghy to the wharf. We walk the length of the town until dusk. We pass by groups of women and children in flowery frocks chatting underneath shade trees lining the seaside promenade. From the sidewalk, we can see Pacific Bliss bobbing in the background. It dawns on us that anyone on Main Street can see her. They all know who we are. Tourists are rare in Levuka.

Pacific Bliss, the only boat at the dock

Pacific Bliss, the only boat at the dock

Main-Street,-Levuka,-Fiji

Main Street, Levuka, Fiji

We pass three lively pool halls—that’s where the men and boys hang out. We amble into the expansive lobby and past the charming curved bar of The Royal Hotel, the oldest continuously run hotel in the South Pacific. No one knows when it was built, but records show that this historic building has existed at least since the early 1860s. Reportedly, ship’s masters, plantation owners, and even the notorious blackbirder, Bully Hayes, frequented this hotel.

A plaque provides the history: In the 1830s, Levuka had been a small whaling and beachcomber settlement. It was virtually lawless; ships followed a trail of empty gin bottles through the passage into port, and the town was a haven for escaped convicts, ship jumpers, debtors, and other ne’er-do- wells. The Royal was the finest place in town and the place to stay. The front rooms faced the sea, so that the captains could keep an eye on their anchored vessels, just as we look out at ours now. A crow’s nest still stands atop the hotel’s top floor.

The next day, after a night as bumpy as if we’d been on a miserable passage, we venture to Ovalau Holiday Resort, a 3-kilometer taxi ride over rutty blacktop roads. We skirt around potholes and gulleys washed out by last night’s high tide at full moon. In many areas, the high seas had taken sections of the road out to sea and left debris behind.

This is the same full moon and strong surf that battered Pacific Bliss. No wonder I couldn’t sleep! God has, yet again, sent His guardian angel to watch over us.

The casual resort contains about a half-dozen bures. We have chicken curry with rotis, pepper steak with rice; and a family-size coleslaw salad. The food is wonderful—especially because we don’t have to cook on board with the rain pelting the cabin roof. We talk about what we’ve seen in Levuka so far.

“It’s the land time forgot,” says Günter.

“It’s a wild west tumbleweed town transposed to the Pacific,” says Lydia.

“Don’t forget the fish factory,” adds Helmut. “PATCO employs 1000 of the 1800 people who live here.”

We call for a taxi back. The rain continues into the night.

The new day begins with more rain. We’ve signed up for Epi’s Lovoni Highlands Tour. We decide to take it despite the rain. Back on Main Street, we pile into the canvas-covered back of a truck, and off we go, bumping and slip-sliding along the muddy roads to the village of Lovoni, built on the crater of the extinct volcano at the island’s center. At the outskirts of the village, we pick up a well-known tour guide, Epi Bole.

Lovoni Village, built on the crater of an extinct volcano

Lovoni Village, built on the crater of an extinct volcano

Epi leads us past tiny homes made of western-style weatherboard. At the community hut, he tells stories of his ancestors who first settled this land. The villagers of Lovoni, he tells us, are a proud people. They are descendants of the strongest tribe in Fiji, the Cakobau, who were never defeated. In fact, they showed their displeasure with the European settlement of Levuka by burning it down three times. Men from Lovoni demonstrate their superiority by wearing hats in other villages, including in the chiefly village of Ba.

From what Epi tells us, the political climate in Fiji is depressing, and the future of the sugar industry does not look good. Epi has the typical Fijian opinions on land ownership (it should all belong to the Fijians; he is pleased that even the former Crown land is being returned) and on Indians (the Queen should have taken them all back when Fiji became independent).

“Don’t the Fijians need the Indians?” Günter ventures. “We see them working the land owned by the Fijians…we see them running the stores, and even most of the tourist operations. Seems like a symbiotic relationship to me.”

Epi nods slowly. “That’s true,” he admits. “Lots of Indians left Fiji during the 2000 coup—mostly the professionals—doctors, lawyers, businessmen.”

How can they reconcile the two positions? They want the Indians gone, yet they like them to do all the work they don’t want to do. They’re not realists, they’re dreamers. Too much kava in the blood?

“Do the people here want large families?” Lydia asks.

“Yes, they want as many children as possible,” Epi replies.

I know that the Indians, when asked, will respond similarly. Both ethnic groups want to increase their own numbers—this without regard for the quality of their children’s lives, the cost of their education, or the hazards of pregnancy.

We watch a relative of Epi making our lunch on a one-burner hotplate in the corner. Two little boys, two and four, hang on her sulu. Another child is clearly on the way. “Where will she deliver?” Lydia asks.

Epi explains, “She will deliver in Suva. The Levuka hospital lost five babies in last month. No ultrasound here. No Cesarean either.”

I imagine life in Lovoni Village. A one-room, weatherboard house. Hotplate in the corner. Washing dishes outside from water out of a bare pipe. Two beds at the edges of the mat-covered room, one for the children, the other for the parents.

No wonder the educated young people go to Auckland to find work and dream of going to America.

Back in Levuka, I ask to be let out of the truck at the ATM on Main Street. After I nonchalantly insert my credit card and pull out a pile of Fijian $20 bills, I turn to see a group of Fijian teenagers close behind me. Curious, they want to see how this new money dispenser works. Later, I would read the headline in this morning’s paper: “Westpac launches Ovalau’s first ATM.” The article explains how this is “launching the old capital into the electronic banking age.” Obviously, this ATM has quickly become the pride of the town!

On Tuesday the port captain is finally on duty after his Monday holiday. We check in and check out on the same day. We’re ready. It has been a very long weekend under mostly rainy skies. We all walk into town with our bags to provision. Then next morning, we turn Pacific Bliss around in the small wharf, and we’re on our way. We look back to see the entire island of Ovalau shrouded in gloomy, low-lying clouds. We can’t even make out the highlands in the center. No wonder they changed Fiji’s capital!

Helmut, Lydia and Gunter at Levuka, Fiji Ports Authority

Helmut, Lydia and Gunter at Levuka, Fiji–Ports Authority

Savusavu, Fiji. The sailing was great during our sail to Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island. Sleepy Savusavu, located on the peninsula that divides Savusavu Bay from the Koro Sea, is Vanua Levu’s second largest town. Because the town is a Port of Entry and a natural cyclone hole, it is a popular gathering spot for cruisers, and we met many of them. It was an ideal place for Helmut and Lydia to end their sail with us.

After docking, the couple packed while Gunter and I found our way to the Planter’s Club. In operation for 46 years, the Planter’s Club was a revelation of how colonial life in Fiji must have been. We entered a compound with a massive, colonial-style building in the back, surrounded by a white porch and picket fence. To the right, we saw a small shed with a sign, “No alcohol allowed.” I wonder whether that is still the case today. Through the open door we could see men drinking kava. To the left, we saw two lawn bowling fields, side by side. Customers with cocktails line the porch, loudly cheering on the teams.

We went inside the building and ordered rums and cokes. Everyone was friendly. All the “planters” we met were Fijian—the best-dressed and most cosmopolitan Fijians we had ever seen! No fraying 1950s-style muumuu dresses for these women: I noticed that one wore a black silk top with black-and-white vertically striped pantaloons. Her hair was straight, cropped short, and swept behind the ears. Smart! Günter couldn’t help but notice how a full-length sarong wrapped another lady’s curvaceous figure! She wore a modern stretch lace top cropped at the waist. The men wore long pants or pressed jeans and bula shirts with short sleeves. There were no T-shirts in sight except among the few white yachties who were there, like us, to observe.

Planters Club, Savusavu, Fiji

Planters Club, Savusavu, Fiji

We were happy to see such apparently well-to-do Fijians and wanted to learn more about the different world of Savusavu. But we needed to go back to Pacific Bliss to spend our last night with our crew.

Saturday went by in a flash with usual frenzy of final packing and goodbyes. Helmut and Lydia continued their own adventure in Australia before returning home to Germany. As we always do, Günter and I had mixed feelings about crew leaving. “On one hand,” I wrote in my journal, “the enthusiasm, optimism, and energy of youth has left Pacific Bliss. We feel sort of blah and alone now. On the other hand, we enjoy our solitude. Schedule becomes less important, as does wearing clothes on board! And now we will have the opportunity to explore this island and others at our leisure. We will cook only when we’re hungry—much easier on our waistlines.”

Churchgoers line up at the storefront on Main Street. Their church, The Lighthouse, is on the second floor.

Churchgoers line up at the storefront on Main Street. Their church, The Lighthouse, is on the second floor.Weighing options and making decisions. Gunter and I spent a week in Savusavu, weighing options. Advice from cruisers did not impart confidence: “This is a rather tricky triangle,” one cruiser warned. “The seas are angry there…and the wind is often gusty and unpredictable.” Clearly, we were afflicted with the local disease, Polynesian Paralysis. We prayed about whether or not to sail to Fiji’s remote Lau Group. We prayed with Darren, the minister of the Lighthouse Church. “Do you know going west is scriptural?” Darren asked. “The Tabernacle always faced east to west. First the entry, the sacrifice, the washing area, then the holy of holies. Also, all major revivals have proceeded east to west.” Perhaps that says something about God’s will for our voyage, I thought. We decided to leave it all in God’s hands.

From then on, events seemed to take over. Instead of attempting to circumnavigate the island of Viti Levu, Fiji, we decided to take the northern route back. We would reverse-navigate through those northern reefs, proceed to Lautoka, make repairs in Denarau, rest in Musket Cove until we had a weather window, then take off with the trades, going westward with the wind toward Vanuatu. But first, we would leave our yacht safely in Savusavu and travel to other destinations in Fiji. We would take a ferry to Taveuni, Fiji’s Garden Island. And then we would to fly to Suva, Fiji’s modern capital, and eastward to the Lau Group.

Those continuing adventures are recounted in the rest of Chapter 10 of Sailing the South Pacific.

In case you’ve missed them, other blogs in this Fiji Adventures series are: Reconnecting with Crew, Reef Encounters of the Worst Kind: Attempting to Circumnavigate Fiji, Part II, Pacific Bliss Goes Snorkeling, and The Largest Clams in the World.

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.

 


“I take to the open road. Healthy, free, the world before me.” Walt Whitman

Let’s go. The northwestern Wisconsin summer had succumbed to the dog days of August. Flowers continued to bloom at our happy place, Northern Bliss, but the lakeshore was beginning to look a little drab. Water lilies faded. Ferns and hostas curled and turned brown at the edges, recoiling from the heat. I felt that I might shrivel too if I hung around much longer.

I turned to Gunter, my soulmate, travel companion, and best friend. (He also happens to be my husband.) “The gardening’s all caught up—finally. The housework—well it’ll still be here. It’s not going anyplace. So let’s just take off and go.”

“Where?” Gunter asked, raising one eyebrow to show he was really listening.

“Cornucopia.”

“And what is that? Sounds like something you’d use as a Thanksgiving centerpiece.”

“It’s a town. On Lake Superior. My gardener told me about it.”

“Have you been there before?”

“No. That’s why I want to go. Adventure is out there. The freedom of the open road and all that.”

Gunter leaned forward in his recliner. That was a good sign. I pressed my advantage.

“It’s close to Bayfield, and I have been there. That town is the launching point for the Apostle Islands, where I learned to sail.

“A piece of your history I don’t know about. Hmm. Could be interesting.”

“We could take a car ferry to the largest of the Apostles, called Madeline Island,” I proposed. “I haven’t done that, because our Sailing Club rented boats and departed right from the Bayfield marina.”

Gunter warmed up to the idea, so we blocked three days off our calendar—Monday-Wednesday, August 10-12—for which we had no commitments. Basically, we would need to book a safe place to stay for two nights. Other than that, we’d play it by ear, keeping to the back roads of rural Wisconsin as much as we could, stopping at small towns along the way. Gunter and I embrace the concept of slow travel; we like to make memories instead of rushing to destinations. That way, we can expect the unexpected.

We’d be traveling across Northern Wisconsin from west to east, through counties in which COVID-19 fatalities were in the range of 0-10. (Our county, Polk, has only two fatalities since March so we’ve become accustomed to low numbers; here we have a .005% chance of dying from this disease. We didn’t want to increase our risk. My task was finding a hotel or B&B that had safe procedures in place. Through my internet search, I came across Timber Baron Inn, a secluded forest get-away that serves up to eight guests. Breakfasts would be delivered to the rooms and they maintain strict cleaning policies. Bingo!

Timber Baron Inn photo Timber Baron inn, back view.

We set out to drive the rolling hills and lush green valleys of Wisconsin under a cobalt blue sky and puffy white clouds—a perfect morning with temps in the low seventies. Our SUV was stocked with a well-balanced diet of caffeine, salt, and sugar. We would stop along the way for “real food.”

Spooner. Our first stop was the town of Spooner in Washburn County. At the River Street Family Restaurant we enjoyed a late breakfast of bacon, eggs, and homemade potato fries. There was not a mask in sight! Spooner, with a population of 2700, calls itself the Crossroads of the North, because Hwy 53 and Hwy 63 meet there. But in the past, it was a busy railroad hub. The Wisconsin Great Northern Railroad still operates a historic train line centered in Trego on 26 miles of track, between Spooner and Springbrook. The Railroad Memories Museum, unfortunately, was closed due to COVID. We stopped at a wood-carving museum instead where we garnered advice about putting a bear statue atop our high oak tree stump.

Hayward. From there, we followed the Namekagon River, part of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, to Hayward, Wisconsin, 2300 population. The county seat of Sawyer County, Hayward is best known for its chain of fishing lakes. It is home to the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. That facility contains a 143-foot (44 m) musky, the world’s largest fiberglass structure. It is also known for the Lumberjack World Championships, an event I attended one summer with Gunter and his sister Helga.

Ashland. Our next stop was Ashland, Wisconsin, 50 miles away on the shores of Lake Superior. This port city of 8200 is known as the Historic Mural Capital of Wisconsin, where the ghosts of the past appear in living color. Strolling through Ashland’s lively business district was a treat: I loved walking past all the old brick and brownstone buildings—still open for business. Along the way, we stopped to view more than a dozen murals depicting the city’s history.

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Ashland has been a working trade town, ever since French fur traders Radisson and Chouart landed on its shores in 1659 and built a shack that became the first European dwelling in Wisconsin. Two hundred years later, Chequamegon Bay was filled with rafts of cut timber and boats ferrying locally quarried brownstone to the cities in the east. Later, when the Upper Peninsula’s Gogebic Range began producing iron ore, freighters carried it out of Ashland’s docks. Now, none of those docks remain.

Before leaving town, we filled up at a rare gas station—with a beach. Lake Superior stretched out in front of us, for as far as the eye could see. This magnificent lake is the largest of the Great Lakes of North America, the world’s largest freshwater lake by surface area (31,700 square miles), and the third largest by volume. There, we sauntered along the Lake Superior shoreline, stopping occasionally to photograph sun-struck, red-iron boulders and wave-weathered driftwood. Afterward, we sat there for a while, thinking about that busy port of long ago. I turned toward Gunter. “This lake looks calm right now. But did you know that she’s dangerous? She caused about 350 shipwrecks and she’s known for keeping her dead in the deep? I had his attention. “Yes, over 10,000 lives have been lost in these waters.”

Lakeshore Superior

Lakeshore, Superior.

Lake Superior boulder

Lake Superior boulder.

During a road trip in America, one must down at least one big burger. We fulfilled that goal on the way from Ashland to Bayfield. I picked up my burger so Gunter could take the photo. I tried to take a bite, but it wouldn’t fit into my mouth!

Big Burger

Big Burger.

We drove through the town of Washburn and followed the GPS where it said to turn, three miles south of Bayfield to Ski Hill. I could understand how this road got its name! We drove up and up and up, to the foot of Mt. Ashwabay, and took a left onto a long dirt driveway. There it was—The Timber Baron Inn, our secluded forest getaway. Through the trees, one could see the waves of Lake Superior dancing under the sun.

Ski Hill

Ski Hill.

Sunrise view

Sunrise view through our window.

Tuesday morning, we could have slept in. We knew that the first departure of the Madeline Island Ferry was not until 9:30 a.m. But at 6:30, a gorgeous sunrise beamed through our sheer curtains, daring us to join the day. Gunter went for coffee in the lobby and by 7:30, our breakfast tray arrived filled with goodies: scrambled eggs, sausage, blueberry scone, and yogurt-with-granola. That could fuel us for the entire day!

Breakfast

Our breakfast platter.

Bayfield and Madeline Island. The town of Bayfield—with a population of 500 and many times that during tourist season—is a popular resort, yachting, and vacation destination. It is also known as a lumber and commercial fishing town. But to me, this town has always been the gateway to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, the group of islands where I learned to sail. These islands are a national treasure, with lighthouses, sea caves, and some of the best kayaking in the world. The year 2020 marks fifty years as an official National Lakeshore. You can take a virtual tour here that includes a hike around Stockton’s Julian Bay and Raspberry Lighthouse, one of nine lighthouses within this national park.

Gunter at the wheel on the car ferry to Madeline Island.

Gunter at the wheel while on the car ferry.

View of Bayfield Old Mansions from ferry.

View of Bayfield Old Mansions from ferry.

Bayfield Yacht Club

Bayfield Yacht Club as seen from ferry.

The process of taking the car ferry on the 3-mile trip from Bayfield to Madeline Island, the largest of these islands, went like clockwork and soon we were driving through the quaint town of La Pointe. Unfortunately, the museum was closed but as we drove, we came upon a garden store with gnomes and fairy garden figures. These would be our souvenirs of the island. After that stop, it was time to find some nature. The island is home to Big Bay State Park and Town Park. Since we would only be there for the day, we chose the Town Park rather than buying a sticker. We were not disappointed! A conifer-lined walking path took us down over a bridge to an islet with a wonderful sandy beach and fantastic views. We sat on a log and took off our shoes. I dipped in a toe, then my entire foot, and then walked in up to the hem of my shorts. Brrr! It was then I realized that only children were in the water. The parents—those wimps—sat watching them from their portable chaise-lounges on the sandy beach! It was then that I remembered another statistic: The average temperature of Lake Superior is 36ºF, 2ºC.

Madeline Island Road Sign

Madeline Island road sign.

Lois

Testing the water.

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Back in Bayfield, we enjoyed smoked lake-trout salad for a late lunch and purchased more smoked lake fish to take home.

Smoked Lake Trout Salad

Smoked Lake Trout Salad.

“This was nice, but I look forward to Cornucopia,” Gunter said as we left Bayfield.

Washburn. We returned to The Timber Baron for a rest and then drove further south to the town of Washburn (population 2200) for dinner. We stopped for made-to-order pizzas at Dalou’s Bistro & Wood Fired Pizza Oven. Mine was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had! We preferred the laid-back, hometown feel of Washburn to tourist-filled Bayfield. After our dinner, we discovered a local city park where we watched the sun set over Lake Superior—just the two of us—along with a group of friendly seagulls.

Dalou's Bistro

Dalou’s Bistro.

Cornucopia. “I want to finally see Cornucopia!” Gunter said during our second home-cooked breakfast at The Timber Baron. He was practically jumping up and down.

I laughed. “Today’s the day.”

We plugged our destination into the GPS. It was not a straight route. We didn’t mind the scenery, even though the track took us inland from Lake Superior most of the time. But when we hit detours and then a miles-long stretch of road construction, we both grew impatient. A supposedly-27 minute drive stretched to two hours. Finally, the official green sign came into view. “Cornucopia!” we shouted in unison. A mile later, we spied another sign. This one contained a drawing of huge cornucopia right in the center—just like the Thanksgiving centerpiece Gunter had envisioned.

Cornucopia sign

Welcome to Cornucopia sign.

On our way into town, we spied at a rest stop—if you could call it that—with one picnic table under a colorful wooden pergola. We pulled off the road into a sandy parking area large enough for about five cars. We followed a nature path to a deserted sandy beach, complete with two worn Adirondack chairs. We walked the narrow beach for a while, stepping over more weathered logs and gray driftwood. As we returned to our SUV, another vehicle pulled in. A family of five poured out, each carrying his or her own container, promptly pumping the handle an artesian well. “Oh, that’s what this stop is for,” Gunter muttered. “Wish we had a container.”

We drove toward a small marina, with working fishing boats, surrounded by a few cute tourist shops. “Stop!” I demanded. “This must be where the Siskowit River meets Lake Superior. “They’re bound to have some shops there.” The harbor was quaint and picturesque, old fishing boats and quaint shops reflected in clear water. But I was disappointed to see that they were all closed with “Due to COVID” signs. We never met a soul.

Further on, we saw a commercial fish factory. That was open! We purchased smoked whitefish, all cut up and deboned for a salad, and loaded up on ice for our cooler. It felt wonderful, just to talk with someone! Outside, we found unlocked, public restrooms. Hooray!

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Expect the Unexpected. Surmising that was the town, we were more than a little disappointed. But as we drove on, we noted that the business district was off the main drag. There was more! There we found “Wisconsin’s Northern Most Post Office,” Ehlers General Store, a large brick building that could be the town hall, one café, and a few businesses fronting two sides of a wide, paved street.

Little Nikki's Restaurant

Little Nikki’s Restaurant.

Ehlers Store

Ehlers Store.

Siskowit Farmhouse

Siskowit Farmhouse.

Beyond that, the road led to the Siskowit River waterfalls my gardener had raved about. We ventured down a path to the lower falls, but it was dark, with fleeting river views between the foliage, and full of mosquitoes. The best photo op was from the gravel road that crossed the wooden bridge. There the upper falls dropped energetically from a ledge in the stream to a twelve-foot-wide sparkling pool of foam. We sat there for a while and ate one of our salty snacks.

“So this is Cornucopia.” I said. “A population of only 100 souls.”

“Pretty in its own way,” Gunter volunteered.

“Yes, it is. Just not what I expected.”

River walk alongside waterfall

River walk alongside falls.

Siskowit Falls, Cornucopia

Siskowit Falls, Cornucopia.

Road trips are the equivalent of human wings. Ask me to go on one. Anywhere. We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history and stories, feel the ground, and capture the spirit. Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our story to carry with us, always. Because stories are more important than things.

–Victoria Erickson

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.


Giant Clam

Giant Clam.

Expect the Unexpected

Often when traveling—whether on sea or land—I’ve grown accustomed to taking the road less traveled and coming across unexpected delights. During our Fiji adventures with Lydia and Helmut as crew, we took a sailing detour to visit a little-known research station located on a small Fijian island. We heard about these magnificent clams from another cruiser and decided to check it out for ourselves. We were not disappointed! Here’s an excerpt from pages 230-231 of Sailing the South Pacific:

Makogai Island, Fiji
June 20,2003

0630: Roosters crowing. Birds gossiping. Fish splashing. What an idyllic morning! As I sit in the cockpit, the only sound of civilization is the generator from the research station located farther into the bay. We will visit that facility today. The coffee pot whistles. As I turn to the galley, I notice fountains of cumulus clouds at each of the bay’s entrances. Palms fringe the mountain tops, rimming the dawn. It is the type of morning I love.

Makogai is one of these rare jewels that few know about. It’s not listed in the Lonely Planet. The only way to get here is to sail as we did or hitch a passage on boats visiting the government aqua-culture operation and sheep station. This island, transferred over to
Suva in 1979, has a history as a leper colony. Now it’s a spawning area for an exotic species of giant clams called Tridacna gigas.

Our snorkel over the reefs is perfect. The spawning beds are specially marked. The giant clams bred here are the largest I have ever seen—humongous mollusks with lips of cobalt blue, emerald green, and mottled brown. They are set in corals covering every color of the spectrum. Fan coral in shades of amber and taupe wave at me while iridescent reef fish dart in and out of the coral. A huge sea slug that looks like a fat crooked finger lazily makes its way over the sandy sea floor. What a wonderful day! We enjoy a glorious sunset, sipping cold white wine in the cockpit while we admire the western sky at the opening to Dalice Bay. I feast my eyes while Lydia excitedly snaps one photo after another.

The next morning, we snorkel through the two reef gardens again before heading for the fishery. We learn that the fishery plants hundreds of baby clams along the reefs throughout Fiji and exports some to Tonga and the Solomons.

A supervisor there gives us a tour of the giant clam incubation tanks. He tells us that this species are the largest of the bivalve mollusks. In ten years they can be measured end to end with outstretched arms. They have a 100-year lifespan and can weigh up to 500 pounds. With their shells wide open, they bask in sunlight so the symbiotic algae living with them can produce their food. Interestingly, hundreds of tiny eyes dot their skin, allowing them to sense sudden changes in their environment. The shells then close defensively. The man says that the adult clams here are incapable of slamming their shells completely shut because of their massive bulk. Still, no one volunteers to put that to a test with an arm or foot!

In case you’ve missed them, other blogs in this Fiji Adventures series are: Reconnecting with Crew, Reef Encounters of the Worst Kind: Attempting to Circumnavigate Fiji, Part II and Pacific Bliss Goes Snorkeling.

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.


Pacific Bliss sails to the next island in Fiji

Pacific Bliss sails to the next island.

Sunset over reefs of Leleuvia

The sun sets over the reefs of Leleuvia where Pacific Bliss went snorkeling.

Continuing our adventures in Fiji with Lydia and Helmut as crew, my husband Günter and I sailed our 43-foot ocean-going catamaran Pacific Bliss, to the backpacker’s paradise of Leleuvia. This far into our world circumnavigation, we have learned to treat Pacific Bliss as a person. In this story, she shows human emotions, such as jealousy. The following section has been excerpted from pages 226-227 of Sailing the South Pacific.

Leleuvia, Fiji
17° 48.5 S, 178°43 E
June 11, 2003

Yesterday, the four of us snorkeled through colorful coral in crystal clear waters dappled with the refracted light of a beaming sun. We swam from our anchored dinghy, Petit Bliss, to the palm-covered islet of Leleuvia in a sea of teal glass. We ambled around the islet, digging our toes into the sunbaked sand. Every so often, one of us stooped to examine a shell, a piece of driftwood, or one of the delicate pink-and-white magnolia blossoms that had wafted onto the shore.

Perhaps Pacific Bliss had become jealous. After all, we left her anchored in the bay while we went off in our dinghy, Petit Bliss, to explore. Or perhaps Pacific Bliss was determined to go snorkeling as well. Why else would she allow herself to be pulled into a current and blown onto a coral bed?

Today, before 0500 and still pitch dark, I am rudely awakened to a thumping sound. I head topsides to check it out. It has just begun to rain so the sky remains ink-black. I take the torch (flashlight) and check the anchor chain. It is pulling tightly; the wind has returned. I check the stern. Petit Bliss is bobbing furiously, pulling on the painter and occasionally hitting the swim ladder. Much ado about nothing.

So Petit Bliss is the one making all the noise! No worries.

Then I notice the pale teal color of the water highlighted in the torch’s beam. My pulse quickens. Something is not right. Pale means shallow. I rush back into the salon to turn on the instruments. Yes, the depth meter shows only 3.8 feet! I check the wind direction. South. It was from the northeast when we anchored here. Then the weather turned calm for one glorious day of sea and sand.

Gunter comes up from the starboard hull, and I fill him in. “We have over 90 feet of chain out, but the wind has shifted almost 180 degrees, pushing us toward the reefs.”

“We’ll have to take in some more,” he says.

We pull in about 8 feet of chain by hand. Besides the chain stripper being broken, our up/down windlass only functions intermittently.

During breakfast, we discuss re-anchoring with our crew. We are not comfortable in this small anchorage with reefs on three sides.

The seas are benign and the wind calm as we head for another anchoring location that allows us more swing room. We proceed to a familiar, sandy area that is farther out to sea from our snorkeling area of yesterday. A South African Cat, Sea Rose, had anchored there before they left. It must be safe. Before we can drop the hook, a wind comes up.

“Now we have wind and it begins to piss,” Gunter complains as he grabs his rain gear. “We should have done this before when it was calm.”

Men! Monday-morning quarterbacking.

He motors and stops at our selected spot. “Drop anchor,” he commands.

The crew complies as the wind pushes Pacific Bliss toward the reefs. Then we all realize that by the time the anchor hits bottom, we will be in too close to these new reefs to allow for swing room if the wind changes direction again.

“Pull anchor,” the Captain Gunter commands. This time, the windlass control doesn’t work at all. Helmut has to pull the anchor with all that chain hand-over-hand. Both engines are in neutral.

Then things happen at warp speed—too quickly for us to analyze. A fierce gust of wind appears out of nowhere. And we think we hit the dangerous area of strong current that the Fijians on shore have warned us about. Pacific Bliss is pushed out of control; we haven’t cleated off the anchor line; and the line begins to pay out. Helmut had not cleated it off. Now he cleats it, but we can’t pull it in. It is probably caught on the bottom—and not where we want it.

“Go forward, Gunter,” I yell, but the wind swallows my words. Gunter comes up to the bow to evaluate the situation, with the engines still in neutral. “No. Take the boat forward so that we can pull the anchor loose!” Gunter rushes back to the stern, but it is too late.

Pacific Bliss, stubborn as she can be sometimes, has stopped right in the spot where we had gone snorkeling the day before! What audacity! What obstinacy! Her bottom is sucked into coral and she is not budging!

Helmut and Lydia jump into the water with their snorkeling gear. They find no damage anywhere—so far. But the bottom tip of the starboard dagger board has snagged a coral head. Gunter helps me winch Pacific Bliss forward since the anchor is still out and holding. No luck. Helmut is still in the water, trying to push Pacific Bliss off the coral head from the starboard hull. That doesn’t work either.

Then we get lucky, very lucky.

A dive boat is returning to the islet because of the inclement weather. I wave frantically. The passengers all wave back, nice and friendly.

“Come here! Pull us!” I yell from our bow. Immediately—no questions asked—the Fijian boat roars closer. The driver throws me a long towline, which I tie to the bow cleat. The boat pulls, Helmut pushes, and Pacific Bliss is coerced into deeper water while we all pull in that chain. Her snorkeling escapade is cut short.

They say that there is always a first time for everything. This is the first time during our circumnavigation, though, that Pacific Bliss has gone snorkeling. In over 17,000 miles of sailing, half-way around the world, she had never kissed a coral head. Until now.

And if I have my way, she will never kiss one again!

Later, we sit around the salon table sipping hot chocolate and munching cookies, attempting to nourish our shaken souls. Captain Gunter has finished beating himself up. Now he sits there, glum and dejected. “I don’t need this,” he says. “Lois, what do you think we would be doing if we were back in San Diego right now?”

“Thinking about snorkeling in teal, crystal-clear waters near a sandy palm-covered island somewhere in the South Seas?”

Swimming in Fiji

Gunter swimming alongside the boat.

In the next installment of this series, we explore Levuka, Fiji’s ancient capital. I had researched the town’s past: In the 1830s, Levuka had been a small whaling and beachcomber settlement. It was virtually lawless; ships followed a trail of empty gin bottles into port, and the town was a haven for escaped convicts, ship jumpers, debtors, and other ne’er-do-wells. What will it be like now?

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.


Lydia and Helmut
Lydia and Helmut on Pacific Bliss, Fiji, 2003

The adventure continues. In the last blog, we left the four of us—Lydia, Helmut, Gunter and me—setting anchor alarms while we tried to sleep. Strong winds were battering our catamaran Pacific Bliss in the Tomba Naloma anchorage in Viti Levu, Fiji. This next section, excerpted from pages 224-226 of Sailing the South Pacific, continues our effort to navigate the reef-strewn northern side of Fiji’s largest island. Our goal: to sail to Fiji’s ancient capital, Levuka.

     “One wouldn’t know by the peacefulness of this morning that this is the bay that I had grown to hate only yesterday. From the cockpit, I watch seabirds soar over still waters; they fly by me in pairs. Golden light breaks through low lying clouds hugging the bay. Hills hug us on three sides, purple-gray, silent, protecting. Yes, yesterday I wanted out of here, never to return.

How quickly and easily the sea changes its face! One minute brooding, the next minute inviting. One minute savage and threatening, the next, calm and pristine. Like she is right now.

Will this be yet another cruising day that points out our vulnerability out here, how simple mistakes can lead to dramatic and immediate consequences?

This morning, Pacific Bliss faces west, pushed by a gentle SSW Force 2, 7-knot breeze. The hills brighten as the sea wrinkles.

How long before the high trade winds roar in from the southeast again, turning the sea into a monster?”

It didn’t take long for us to run into problems again. We turned Pacific Bliss to follow the path on the electronic chart, just as we had the day before. But we were in for a surprise. There was no path between the reef and the marker! From that point on, we knew that we could no longer rely on the reefs being marked. All alone out there on the Northern Passage, we couldn’t afford to take chances, so we crept along until dusk.

     “With a 20-knot wind, we’re afraid of dragging anchor. We head for a big bay instead and set the anchor with 140 feet of chain, in 41 feet at low tide. It’s deeper than we’d like and not very sheltered, but at least we won’t swing into anything.

     Lydia and I fire up the breadmaker to bake wheat berry bread while Helmut continues to fish. Toward dusk, he hauls in a trevella. We gorge on warm bread while the fish marinates, then fry potatoes and plantains. The high wind gusts cool the salon, so we sip on hot Good Earth tea spiked with rum.

     Life isn’t so bad after all!

     As we let down our guard and begin a leisurely dinner in the salon, the day falls apart. It begins slowly— this falling apart—as one event careens into the next.

     First, Günter notices that the anchor alarm shows that the boat has moved 500 feet. “Can’t be!” His face pales. “Must be a mistake—it didn’t go off. Helmut, let’s check our calculations.”

     The computer shows that we have drifted halfway into the bay! We quickly clear our half-eaten dinner. I tell everyone to shut the hatches, in case we end up on a reef today, after all. Then Günter calls us all into the cockpit for instructions.

     The night is pitch black.
     “Lois, go to the nav station. Follow our MaxSea track back to our original anchoring location. I’ll just motor slowly. Helmut and Lydia, after we pull anchor, you’ll use the flashlight and spotlight to warn us when we’re near shore.”

     Pulling anchor is difficult now with the stripper broken, but our new crew makes fast work of it. Günter inches toward shore while I direct our autopilot carefully, using plus or minus one degree, until we are a few boat lengths from our original anchoring spot. Fortunately the wind has died, and the anchor sets easily.

     I never want to see this Nananu–I–Cake Anchorage again. Our crew wanted a learning experience; well, they’re certainly getting it.”

June 4:
     “…As the day drones on, the strong wind returns. It whistles through the rigging, swinging our little home around as she pulls tight on her two anchor chains. We all know that it’s a given that we stay here until the weather cooperates.

     While the men focus on boat maintenance, Lydia and I bake up a storm, creatively using ingredients we have on board. We realize that we will need to provision soon. But how?

     We jump into the bay to cool off after cooking. The current races so fast between the hulls that I dare not let go of the swim ladder. The dinghy goes wild, bouncing on the waves.

     The wind blows so hard that we have our sundowners inside. Lydia compares her expectations with how she feels about sailing now. “I thought we’d be sitting outside, in a calm anchorage, sipping piña coladas in the sunset,” she says, discouraged.

     “Did you expect to have wind for sailing?” I ask.
     “Of course. I dreamt about sails billowing in the wind, pulling us along.”
     “But then when you wanted to sip those piña coladas, the wind would suddenly disappear?”
     “I didn’t think of that…in fact, now I wonder whether I should buy into Helmut’s dream of sailing around the world.”

     The next day, the bay is still too rough to deploy Petit Bliss, so we order a pick-up from Safari Lodge nearby. Günter opts to stay with the boat.

     The three of us take off in the skiff. It turns toward Ellington Wharf, where we receive the brunt of the east wind racing through the channel. The spray comes over the high sides of the launch. Helmut’s T-shirt is sopping, but he laughs.

     “It’s good I brought a spare,” he shouts over the shrieking wind.

     When the launch stops at Ellington Wharf, I’m amazed. I cannot imagine Pacific Bliss—or any large boat for that matter—pulling up to this dilapidated structure. We disembark. On the wharf, angry brown froth smashes against the jetty. Palms bend over in pain.

     Wind-dried and salty, we hike toward the bus stop. After a mile or so, an Indian cane farmer with thick black hair and dusty clothes offers us a lift. We pass field after field of sugar cane.

     He drops us off at the farmer’s market. What a scene! Colorful blankets cover the grass. Fijian mothers hold the babies and toddlers, while older children play games together in the shade trees across from the market. Under the shade of a banyan tree, men drink kava and gossip. The produce is laid out in mounds. A mound of limes: $1 Fijian. A mound of oranges: $1. A bunch of bok choy: $1. One green papaya: $1. Soon our canvas shopping bags are full, with a $1 bunch of bananas topping it off.

     “Bula!” Women wearing colorful muumuus greet us with wide smiles. They even smile when we don’t buy from them. They do not cajole, like Indian vendors.

     We find three grocery stores containing everything else we need, including a Fiji Times and lots of chocolate to placate Günter. After catching a taxi back to the wharf, it’s another wet ride back to Pacific Bliss, where the high winds have continued unabated.

     Finally the next day the sun shines, and the wind decreases enough that we dare to leave the bay. We navigate the reefs past Ellington Wharf and through the narrow Navelau passage to Viti Levu Bay. The process is horrendously slow. Our disturbingly inaccurate electronic chart shows us going over land in many places. We are thankful to have sharp lookouts on board. By the time we anchor twice in the bay, we are all tense and tired.

     The following day, we motor for five hours and are forced to pull in at 1315. The skies turn dark and foreboding; ominous clouds line the entire horizon. Navigating through the reefs had been tricky with full sun; no way do we want to take this route under an overcast sky. We anchor in a muddy area south of the Natori Ferry Terminal. Then we set a second anchor as well. Appropriately, Günter plays Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, one of his favorites.

     We come topsides in the morning, overjoyed to see a flotilla of 12 sailboats passing by the bay’s outer limits. This makes navigation easier; we’ll be following them. Even so, navigation is extremely tricky. By the time we anchor again, I collapse into my berth while Günter takes Lydia and Helmut to a nearby reef to fish and snorkel. I’ll have my chance to snorkel in Leleuvia, a small sandy island that is touted as a backpackers’ paradise.”

Helmut snorkeling

Little did I know then that Pacific Bliss would decide to go snorkeling herself! That story is coming up next. And in the event you didn’t read Part 1 of this Fiji series, you can access that link 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.


Reef Encounters of the Worst Kind: Attempting to Circumnavigate Fiji

This past weekend brought a pleasant surprise: Gunter and I reconnected with a crew we’d had on board our catamaran Pacific Bliss when sailing in the Fiji Islands during the spring of 2003, seventeen years ago. Here’s how I described this couple in my book, Sailing the South Pacific:

Denarau Marina, Viti Levu, Fiji, May 30

Lydia and Helmut Dueck are an adventurous German couple who decided to backpack around the world before they marry and have children. We first met them through our website. Helmut’s dream has always been to sail the world when he retires. He is a sailor, but Lydia, his fiancé, has never been on a sailboat. Crewing is an opportunity to find out whether his dream will work for them. Only in their twenties, they are wisely thinking ahead!

…Lydia is a pert, fun-loving blonde. Helmut is dark-haired and serious, yet I suspect that he can be fun, too.

We had arranged for a taxi to meet the couple at the Nadi airport and to take them directly to Pacific Bliss. They appear to be relieved to see a berth freshly made up for them and towels and washcloths in their own port head. Frugal backpackers, they find Pacific Bliss luxurious. We find them to be a refreshing, happy couple and look forward to spending time with them.

Lydia and Helmut Pacific Bliss

Lydia and Helmut on Pacific Bliss, Fiji

 

Sunset Denarau, Fiji

Sunset in Denarau, Fiji

Since that introduction to the cruising life, Lydia and Helmut married and succeeded in their professions, Lydia as a midwife and Helmut as a businessman and entrepreneur. They raised four children, lived in various countries—including Germany and China—all the while holding onto their dream of sailing around the world. They never forgot their adventures sailing Pacific Bliss in Fiji, where they experienced the highs and lows of the cruising life.

Here’s a taste of what they experienced:

We arrive in Vitago Bay and anchor easily with our new crew working in unison…After a delicious dinner, we all go into the cockpit to watch the stars light the sky with no city lights to interfere. Helmut and Lydia are in their element. They are truly amazed by it all…

Following that high, we’re rounding the northwest point of Viti Levu during our attempt to circumnavigate that island. This is what happens next:

We are all on lookout now as we navigate through the reefs…To make the turns, I take the nav station inside, Gunter takes the helm, Lydia takes the pulpit seat using our powerful binoculars, and Helmut takes the other pulpit seat…Strong gusts hit as we slowly approach Tomba Naloma, our anchorage. We know that this bay is full of reefs close to shore, but because it’s not low tide, we can’t see them. We motor in slowly. I take up my position at the bow, with the anchor windlass control.

“Don’t worry,” Gunter says. “I’ll bring you right to the anchor symbol we put on MaxSea. 30 feet, 28 feet, 26 feet…we should be there in five minutes.”

We creep cautiously. The wave heights gradually decrease but the wind keeps blowing.

“24 feet. Drop anchor,” Gunter commands.

I drop but the wind blows us backward rapidly. The windlass won’t release the anchor chain as fast as the wind is pushing us back. Then all of a sudden, the anchor catches and jerks the boat.

“Let out more chain,” Gunter shouts from the helm. “I’m letting it out as fast as I can,” I shout from bow back into the wind. “I’ve got 120 feet out and she’s still pulling.” Gunter comes forward. “Let’s deploy the bridle with a short leash this time. Let out some more.”

He sets the bridle, but now the entire chain has payed out. At the anchor locker, I can see the rope, all the way to the bitter end. I try to bring some back by reversing the windlass control. The rope binds and bends the chain stripper (the device that pulls the chain from the wheel and lets it fall, pulled by its own weight, into the chain locker.) Helmut helps me straighten out the mess.

Now we have a “broken boat” again. Until it’s fixed, we’ll have to haul anchor hand over hand, which is not only physically strenuous but can also be dangerous when timing is critical. We brainstorm the next port where it can be fixed—Tonga?

We could have scrapped this daring venture and headed back to Denarau but to our crew’s credit, they agreed to continue on with our plans. We set anchor alarms that night and took turns standing watch as 25-30 knot winds howled through the rigging.

Trevella

Helmut catches a huge Trevella along the coast of Viti Levu, Fiji

This was only the beginning of this couple’s adventures on Pacific Bliss. We took a launch from Ellington’s Wharf and hitchhiked to a colorful village market to provision; we snorkeled in Leleuvia while our yacht decided to pull anchor and go snorkeling the reefs herself; we visited Levuka, Fiji’s amazing ancient capital; we viewed the largest clams in the world at Makogai Island; and we sailed on to Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, where the couple departed to continue their backpacking trip. I’ll share more of those stories in future blogs.

Here is the letter Lydia sent to me last week for inclusion in this blog:

After sailing with Lois and Gunter in 2003, my husband Helmut couldn’t stop thinking of doing this one day in the future. We never stopped traveling but cruising on a yacht seemed very unrealistic to us. Living in China for five years and in Mexico for two, our feeling got stronger that if there’s anything we’d like to do in our lives it’ll be sailing!

Here we are—17 years and four children later, we will start our own journey on a Lagoon 45 Catamaran from Croatia. Not sure where the wind will carry us but for sure we will go back to Fiji where it all began.

Feel warmly hugged,

Lydia

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I strongly urge you, my readers, despite all the obstacles that may be in your paths, do not give up on your own dreams. Continue to pursue your passions, and those dreams will come to pass!

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.

 

 


It’s been a year since the tornadoes touched down on July 19, 2019. I still shiver when I think of that day when everything changed at Northern Bliss. From that day until October 15th, when we left our lake home for the winter, I heard the grating buzz of chainsaws from sun-up until sundown. See my blogs about that terrible tornado and recovery efforts at https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/08/16/tornado-disaster-at-northern-bliss/ and https://sailorstales.wordpress.com/2019/09/28/recovery-from-natural-disasters/.

One year later, a pontoon ride around White Ash Lake shows that residents have done an awesome job of clean-up but still more work remains. So many have planted new trees that will never reach maturity during their lifetimes. Indeed, “to plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow.”

Tornado

Last night, the National Weather Service issued warning for many counties in Wisconsin, including Polk. “This time, we will be spared,” I muttered, “for the simple reason that one should not have to endure a tornado for the third time.” I remembered the tornado of 1955, all of us on our knees praying in the kitchen of our farm home in Eureka township. (The house didn’t have a basement to run to for shelter.) I’d never written a story about that experience, but my brother Dave did. Here is his story:

From the Memoirs of Dave Glassel:

The Polk County Wisconsin Tornadoes of 1953

I was watching the weather channel the other morning and it brought to mind the tornadoes of 1953 in the St. Croix Falls, Polk County, Wisconsin area. I was about eight years old and it was my job to go get the cows at milking time. My sister Lois, three years older than I, used to go get them, but as she grew older, that became my chore. She was relegated to house chores by then.

Our small dairy farm was at its best in 1953. Dad was milking about 18 cows and we were filling about 5 or 6 milk cans per milking. The milk house was quite a way from the barn and Dad built a two-wheel cart that would hold 2 cans. It had big wheels he’d taken off an old horse-driven hay rake. I would help Mom push on the cart uphill on the last leg of the journey to the pump house where we put the cans into the stock tank to cool the milk. We had two tanks. Mom and I were able to lift the cans into the low tank. It was not easy because when the can went into the water it settled to the bottom slowly because of the buoyancy, subsequently one needed to keep it upright all the way to the bottom. I guess that is why my knees and back are bad. Too many hay bales and milk cans wrestled with in my youth!

We had a hired man in those days. His name was Larry. He was from McKinley and from a family Dad had known for years. He was a genuine slacker and Dad never could get him to do any work to speak of. He was always out behind the horse barn smoking cigarettes and that made Dad furious. When it came time for milking he was never around. He and his friend Wayne would be off riding Wayne’s Indian Motorcycle instead. Dad despised Wayne as well. He finally told Larry’s Dad to come get him. It was the same day of the Big Storm. No one came and he finally hitch- hiked his way back to McKinley.

I went to get the cows about 6 p.m. They were way back in the southeast corner of the 80 acres on the border of the Rock Creek Farm and the Old Rehbien Farm. Dad had made a pasture on the back of the big hill that always washed out when he planted corn there. The grass was green and lush and had lots of cow pies to step in.

I am suggesting it was probably in June when the tornadoes were spawned. I had gone to get the cows and bring them home for milking. I always carried my walking stick that Grandpa Glassel had made for me. I also had the Lassie, the cow dog, with me. I don’t know which Lassie as we had numerous Collies, all by that name. The cows were all bunched up in the far corner of the pasture. Lassie barked at them and tried to get them to get into the cow path and head for the barn. The cows always walked single file and had a deep rut cut in the ground. But this was a new pasture and the cow path was not well-defined. I thought that was the reason they wouldn’t start going to the barn. Between Lassie and me, we finally got them heading north to the barn.

Then, without any warning the cows all started to walk really fast. Then they began to run! I was scared because when they ran, they would let down and all of the milk would start coming out of their udders. Dad used to scold Lois and me for letting the Collie dogs make them run by biting at their heels. But soon, I couldn’t keep up with the cows.

Meanwhile, Dad saw the cows rush toward the barnyard. They ran frantically through the gate and into the barn—all into the wrong stanchions. “That had never happened before,” Dad told me later.

He figured out something was wrong and when he didn’t see me, he climbed the hill to go looking for me. By then I had just reached the top of the hill.

Dad later told me that he heard about the tornadoes on WCCO radio in the barn and then saw the tornadoes on the horizon over the St. Croix River, heading in our direction. I was scared and was running as fast as I could go but I kept tripping. I calmed down a bit when I saw Dad coming for me. He grabbed my hand and pulled me down in a gully. The storm blew over as fast as it came. In a matter of seconds, its fury had passed us by. It skipped over our farm but we watched in awe as the huge barn at the Rehbien farm flew into the air and landed in a million pieces.

The next day Mom and Dad loaded us all up in the rusted, green 46 Ford and we went for a ride to view the devastation. There were 18 tornadoes spawned by the storm stretching from the Glassel farm to Grantsburg and East as far as Clam Falls. The majority of the damage was done west of Eureka and north of Cushing. We drove past areas where as many as six barns and a few houses were totally demolished. Dead cattle were strewn everywhere. Unfortunately, most all of the milk cows were in the barn for milking at that time of the day and the barns collapsed on them. We stopped to visit Donald Christensen, Leroy Christensen’s Dad and Mom. Their barn was blown down and there were dead Holsteins everywhere. Some were still alive but immobile. They didn’t shoot them because they wanted to keep them alive until they could be butchered. The slaughter houses in Luck and Milltown were all backed up, however, and unable to take more cattle. Mom cried like a baby for hours for all those poor, injured cows. She loved animals!

But she loved her babies more. After the storm I remember Mom hugging me and thanking Dad. Her nine children were all saved.

The next Sunday, we went with Aunt Gertie and Grandma and Grandpa Glassel to Clam Falls. The old Glassel house where Dad and his brothers and sisters grew up was leveled to the ground. The farm had been vacant for several years. I went back to find the place years later but there was nothing there. Nature had taken over.

I often think about that storm. At the last class reunion, I talked to Judy Jensen, a historical writer for Polk County who worked for the Polk County Museum in Balsam Lake. She told me that they had numerous photos of the devastation from those 18 tornadoes in ‘55. It was the most devastating storm to ever hit Wisconsin and has since been recorded in the records as such.

I don’t know if I can actually say I was “in” the tornado or not. I just remember being really scared and Dad being on top of me. There was an unbelievable wind and then a flood of rain. I remember seeing Dads lips moving but couldn’t hear anything because of the overwhelming noise. Perhaps he was praying. Dad claimed that what saved our farm was the fact that it was built in the ravine sheltered with hills on all sides. During later years, he recalled that he saw the funnel going overhead and it looked like as if it went right over the barn and house. We never even lost as much as a tree limb!

As for the cows, later I came to understand that their erratic behavior was related directly to their sensing the oncoming storm. That is why they were all grouped in the corner of the pasture. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that the animals can’t detect weather and storms. Dad used to say to Mom, I know it’s going to rain. I can hear Landahl’s horses whinnying. He was right every time.

I’ve forgotten many things about my St. Croix Falls childhood days. But there are many stories that I do remember—especially those events that took place on that 80-acre Dairy Farm during the fifties.

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.

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