Thursday, December 8, 2011

Grandma Beck's Ghost of Christmas

Grandma Beck's Ghost of Christmas
by Greg Larson

        It was the waning hours of Christmas Day in the early ‘90’s.  My brother, Tim, and I were in a state of semi-sleep, on the living room floor listening to the ten o’clock news. We’d had a long day, from the kids getting up early in the morning, from opening packages…too much TV football, too much turkey, ham, and pecan pie.  The day’s activities had worn us out.

     The KAKE-TV news was broadcasting into the living rooms throughout the Wichita viewing area, filling the Christmas news void.  You know the kind of news on Christmas day: feel good stories, Christmas soup kitchens, and regurgitated stories from throughout the year, packaged as “the best of.” It was not your action-packed newsworthy type of day.

     A segment titled “Hatteberg’s People” was on the air.  Larry Hatteberg, KAKE’s star reporter, routinely interviewed people around Kansas.  He had a knack for connecting the viewer with ordinary people and their circumstances, and one could learn some regional and Kansas history as a side benefit.

    We stared at the ceiling and listened to the TV as if it were a radio broadcast.  Mr. Hatteberg was interviewing people, asking them to reminisce about celebrating Christmas during their childhood.

     All of a sudden, the voice of our deceased Grandma Beck filled the room.

     “When I was a small child, my family was poor.  Our usual Christmas presents were some fruits and nuts that my parents gave us.  We had no Christmas tree, so we decorated a chair and put our little presents underneath it.” 

Tim continued to stare at the ceiling.  “TAKE ME, JESUS!”  he declared.  Evidently, he thought the rapture had begun.

     We looked at each other and then looked at the television.  There was Grandma Beck, smiling at us from the nursing home lounge.  Tim and I were speechless.

     Grandma continued, “One Christmas, Santa brought me a little rag doll, and it was my happiest Christmas ever.  I had a little girl to take care of, and it was so special.  I sat close to the stove in our farm house, and hugged and hugged my doll.”

     It seemed like her ghost had come to visit us in the living room.

     The stories were rebroadcasts of tapes from years past.  Grandma’s nursing home was located only three blocks from the KAKE-TV studios.  Our conclusion was that Mr. Hatteberg had found the nursing home as a convenient place to interview people, at a time when our grandmother had been lucid and smiling.

     I like to remember the Christmas present Grandma Beck gave us that year on Christmas Day . . . years after her time on earth.  It brings a smile to my face, and the tears well up in my eyes.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Ecclesiastical Wonder of Wichita

Preface:  As I wrote this essay, I realized it was as much a memoir as it was a document of the mid-twentieth century history of the church.  It is a deeply personal remembrance of a place of huge significance in my life.

I want to give a special thanks to First United Methodist Church and to Polly McMillen, volunteer church archivist, for allowing me to research, scan, and use some of the photos and information from the church archives.
I’ve taken the liberty to condense the name of First United Methodist Church to “First Church,” which is how I’ve always remembered it.

Ecclesiastical Wonder of Wichita
Architectural essay and memoir
by Greg Larson, AIA

Crown begins journey to top of tower

     I was one of the ten-year-old children standing on the sidewalk in downtown Wichita in the summer of 1961.  Our vacation bible school teacher corralled us into a safe spot, across the street from the church, away from traffic and the construction site.  Squinting in the daylight, we all looked upward and watched the construction crane lift the modern, giant crown towards the top of the new church tower.  Before our eyes, an architectural wonder was taking shape to create a new urban sanctuary for First Church. 

Sanctuary and tower under construction 1961
(south edge of old sanctuary is on the left)
     It was a fertile time of growth for Wichita and our church.  The post-war economy was booming.  Agriculture, oil and gas exploration, and the aircraft industry were all fueling the expansion of the city.  Young professionals and their growing families came to the church to worship, to create lifelong friendships, and to find a place to nurture their baby-boom children. 

     After sitting and squirming in Sunday school as a young boy, I would play with the drinking fountains in the hall and run up and down the stairways with my friends.  Words of our actions would travel through the “mom” network back to our mothers.  After church, while my dad drove us home, I was given a stern lecture on what constituted proper behavior in a church.  Even so, I knew that our church was a special place.  The church school teachers treated me with love, as if I were one of their own.

First Church building completed in 1923

     In the late ’50s, more church-school classrooms were needed, and the neo-gothic style sanctuary, finished in 1923, was too small to fit the growing congregation.  The young, energetic pastor, Dr. Ronald Meredith, and the building committee began to develop plans for the church expansion.  At that time, there was a keen interest in creating a bold, contemporary building for the urban setting.  The church leaders organized a chartered train trip for the congregation to visit the recently completed modern-style St. Luke’s Methodist Church in Oklahoma City.

     To proceed with a contemporary design in the late 1950s was a brave decision, and somewhat controversial.  After the group of church members traveled to Oklahoma City, they decided it was time to embrace the future, and asked the building committee to proceed with a modern design.  Glenn Benedick, an architect and member of the church, began to develop final plans.  Martin K. Eby, a well-known contractor and member of the church agreed to build it.  Mrs. Olive Ann Beech, wife of the deceased aircraft pioneer Walter H. Beech, was a major benefactor.  The new sanctuary with a seating capacity of 1,400 was built to the south of the existing church. Once the new sanctuary was functioning, classrooms and administrative offices were built on the site of the old sanctuary.

   As the church sanctuary neared completion, our Sunday school class was led on a tour by a church member who was knowledgeable about the symbolic elements within the design of the building.  I was just a young boy, but the tour made a huge impression on me, touching both my interest in art and my faith.

Fish and dove ceiling
Abstract window at the nave

     I was struck by the brightness and newness of the space.  The bold colors in the giant window at the nave of the church created an abstract arrangement of lines and chipped glass on a large framework.  Our guide turned our attention to the ceiling above, which was formed in the shape of a fish.  As I looked closer, the fish turned into a dove with wings.  Every direction I turned, there was something unique, from the curved brick walls and modern pews to the gleaming white floors around the altar.  We viewed the pulpit shaped like the prow of a ship, which appeared to float above the congregation.  Above the choir, open circles were arranged on a white curved wall in front of the organ pipes, creating a giant honeycomb appearance.  On the right side of the sanctuary, vertical windows with prismatic colors washed the walls with a pleasant glow.

Abstract stained-glass side windows

     We toured the narthex (lobby area) where light poured through the window wall facing Broadway.  Medallions of jeweled glass were strategically located along the front windows where they created contemporary symbols from nature.  The colorful and playful images of worms, fish, ants, and roosters made me smile.  Our guide told us the images symbolized God’s creation and love of all things.  It was an epiphany for me. As a ten-year-old pipsqueak, I figured there was hope that God loved me, too.

Nature Medallions
"Jewels of the narthex"

     On May 6, 1962, the congregation attended the inaugural church service in the new sanctuary.  The Wichita Eagle newspaper included a full page spread of pictures with an accompanying article to announce the newly constructed building.

     Above the main entrance at Broadway, a 24 feet high by 70 feet wide sculptural mosaic mural was taking shape with swirling symbols for the universe, God and man.  Designed and installed by Bernard “Poco” Frazier, the mural was entitled “Be Still and Know that I am God.”  Over 70,000 glazed mosaic tiles were fabricated from Crawford County clay, fired and used for the mural on the fa├žade of the church.  Poco and his assistants continued work on the mosaic for two years after the building construction was completed.  More than 14,400 man/hours were required to select and install all of the tiles.

"Be Still and Know That I am God"
Sculpture mosaic by Bernard "Poco" Frazier on the church facade

     Our family moved from Wichita in 1964, and my parents often traveled back to visit and maintain friendships with many of the church members.  In 1973, my parents returned to Wichita and First Church.  For five years I was a member in the 1970s when I returned to Wichita after graduation from college.

     The sanctuary has now been in use almost fifty years.  In a culture of impermanence, the edifice remains as a tribute to God and the bold vision of the church leaders of the ’50s and ’60s.  First Church continues to be a vital and active part of the city.  In 1975, it began televising and broadcasting the Sunday morning services.  The weekly broadcasts continue today, sending out the Word to Wichita and the South-Central Kansas viewers. Due to the broadcasts, many viewers think of First Church as Wichita’s Church.

     I visit Wichita occasionally, and when I walk into the church, the memories wash over me like the biblical flood.  I recollect the times I stared into the abstract window in the nave during the countless sermons, trying to think of all the things I could see in the colorful glass.  I remember hearing my older brother singing in the choir, and my younger sister as a member in the youth choir, The Free.  In 1978, my oldest daughter was baptized at the font in the nave.  The sanctuary was also the place where our family and friends said good-bye to my mom and dad when they each passed away.

     As an architect, I now see the church design through trained eyes, and understand the quality and significance of the details.  Modern design in the mid-twentieth century reduced the elements and materials to a raw and abstract state.  The design of this church reflects the basics: a circular building, a triangular tower, a honeycomb wall, and an abstract window.  Even the colorful side windows are symbolic of light broken into the separate wavelengths of pure light.  The multiple surfaces and curved walls assist in creating a balanced acoustical effect. 

     When it is properly executed, good design has a timeless quality.  Although my view of First Church is somewhat subjective, I truly believe the contemporary church passes the test with flying colors.  I never had the privilege of discussing the design with Glenn Benedick, but it is apparent to me that he poured his heart and soul into this church, from the crown on the tower to the stitches in the designs of the altar cushions. Every corner of the new facility was designed with loving care.

    When I walk into First Church in Wichita, I always feel at home.  It’s the place where a seed was planted for my interest in architecture, and a place where my love of God began to grow. 


To the Glory of God, Wichita, KS, First Methodist Church, 1961 budget summary.

J. Lester Hankins, Ten Adventurous Decades 1870-1970. Wichita, KS, First United Methodist Church, 1970.

Harvesting Our Heritage, 1970-1995 Wichita, KS, First United Methodist Church, 1995.

“First Methodist Church Services to Be Held in New Sanctuary Sunday.” The Wichita Eagle, 6 May 1962:  A14 – A15.

Beccy Tanner, “Sculptor left mark on state.” The Wichita Eagle, 22 May 2006, 1B

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Nightmare on Pine Street

Preface:  Some of you might have read this memoir in its earliest form.  After some condensing and editing on the story, I entered it in one of the largest writing contests in the country - the Annual Writers Digest magazine competition.   There were 11,300 entries in 10 categories. 'Nightmare on Pine Street' was entered in the memoir category.   Recently, Writers Digest notified me that the story was awarded 58th place in the memoir category.

Nightmare on Pine Street
“Greg, please bring your books and come with me.”
     My high school English teacher’s command in her soft, southern accent broke my streaming daydream and rudely confronted my senses. The class was almost over, so I couldn’t imagine why Miss Riggs insisted that I grab my books to go somewhere.  My friends looked at me with shrugs and frowns.
     In the hallway I saw a man in a suit.  He had a crew cut and his arms were folded across his chest.  Miss Riggs wore a concerned look and said, “This is Mr. Harding, the county juvenile officer.  The vice principal, Mr. Olson, has instructed that you go to the court house with Mr. Harding for some questioning.”
     My heart raced and my palms became sweaty.  Why would a juvenile officer take me from the school?  I was treading into Twilight Zone territory and I began to wish I could wake up from a bad dream.  I had no idea why they would want to question me.
      In the late '60s, I was an honest, church-going teenager from a straight-laced Midwestern family in Garden City, Kansas.  We ate together at the dinner table each evening, just like the Cleavers, and went to Sunday school each week.  My mom and dad complemented each other in their parental upbringing tasks.  Mom doted on each of us siblings, and Dad was the provider.  The time he spent with us is what I would call instructional time.  He taught us how to play golf, and he took us fishing and camping.  I cherished the time I spent with Dad, although he could be stern and tough when there was a teaching moment.

The alleged criminal is on the left
     To be a teenager in Western Kansas was akin to being banished to Siberia.  Books, Music, and art helped divert my attention from the bleak existence.  I planned to go far away to college once I had finished high school, and leave what I considered to be a God-forsaken land . . . a land of tumbleweeds and sandy roads, a land of flat fields, irrigation pumps and giant green circular fields that dotted the arid high plains.  It was a land where the few trees that survived were stunted and deformed by the unceasing south winds.  My nature-loving older brother once said, “This land has a beauty all its own.”  I looked really hard, but I couldn’t see much of anything to call beautiful.
     Mr. Harding did not waste any time.  “Come with me.  We’re going down to the courthouse.  I want to ask you some questions.”    
     Questions? About what?  What deep dark secret had they uncovered?  What could I have possibly done that would warrant an interrogation?  Had they seen me hop out of a car trunk with my friends a few nights ago at the drive-in theater?  Was this some kind of divine pay-back for an unknown and grievous sin I had committed in a past life?
     Mr. Harding marched me to his car, parked in front of the school.  The sidewalk, located just outside the classroom windows, made my exit visible to the students in the building.    
     As Mr. Harding drove towards downtown, he told me they had reason to believe I was involved in a recent car theft.
     “Sir, you have the wrong person!” I exclaimed.  Then I asked, “Would it be okay for me to call my mom or dad?  This is a mistake.”      
     “We’ll let you call them eventually.  First we want to ask you some questions,” replied Mr. Harding as he looked straight ahead. 
     He had a “no nonsense” air about him, somewhat of a Marine-in-a-monkey-suit kind of look.  A sense of terror overwhelmed me.  I was afraid I might lose control of my bodily functions.  Oh, the horror of it all!
     The sunny March day began to grow very dark to me.  Mr. Harding drove to the courthouse at Eighth and Pine, and pulled into an angled space reserved for the sheriff’s cars at the rear of the building.  He escorted me along the courthouse sidewalk as shadows of the elm trees danced eerily in front of us.  The cold wind buffeted my body, which already shivered with fright.
     We entered the rear of the Finney County courthouse, brought to life in Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, the story of the senseless murder of the Clutter family.  Was I walking down the hallway where the murderers, Hickok and Smith, had walked to trial?  Would I be thrown in jail and surrounded by vicious criminals? 

Finney Co. Courthouse - the torture chamber lies within
  The interrogation room was just like those in the movies.  A single light bulb burned beneath a small metal lampshade suspended in the middle of the room . . . a room so dark I could not see the perimeter walls.  There were two government-issue gray metal chairs for the detectives.  Six feet away from the chairs was a short stool with a hard seat.
     I sensed that a lot of sweat had been expelled in this dreary room.
     “Have a seat over there Mr. Larson,” said Mr. Harding as he motioned towards the stool.  “My partner, Mr. Jones, and I want to ask you some questions.  Do you know anything about a stolen car that was put on the railroad tracks and hit by a train last week?”
     “I saw the picture and I read about it in the newspaper.” I offered.
     Mr. Jones looked directly into my eyes and boomed out in a loud voice, “Greg, you’re going to have to tell us the absolute truth about what happened. If you lie, or if you don’t tell us what you know, you will be in bigger trouble.”
    “I’m telling you, I’m not the person you are looking for.  I didn’t have anything to do with the car.  I don’t know anything about it!”  I began to quiver and shake.  The warmth of the high school and the friends in the hallways seemed a world away.
     This was a tag team event for the two detectives.  Mr. Harding took his turn. “Greg, you’ve got to tell us the details, and tell them to us now.  If you don’t confess to everything, your life is going to get much worse.”
     Tears started streaming from my eyes. 
     “I don’t know what you are talking about,” I blurted out. “You’ve got the wrong person.  I want to call my dad.  He’ll help get this all straightened out.” 
     I was sure by now that if they didn’t hear what they wanted to hear, they would lock me up in jail.  They continued pressing me for information for what seemed like an eternity.  They wanted names of all the people who were involved.  They wanted details.
     Mr. Harding paused for a moment and then he rubbed his chin. “Nick Slade is the man who says you were involved.  Do you know him?”
     I tried to keep from rolling my eyes.  Nick Slade was the toughest, meanest hoodlum in the school.  He had a greaser hairdo and wore a leather jacket. He was short, but everyone was afraid of him.  His look was a mixture of a sneer and a grin, and it never changed.  I vaguely remembered we were both in the Junior High choir.  I suspected Nick must have picked the name of the most innocent kid in school and then gave it to the detectives just for jollies or as a stall tactic.
     “I know who he is,” I told the detectives, “but I don’t know him very well.  We were in a class together years ago.  That’s all I know about him.”
     “Mr. Larson, we’re going to take you to a room where Nick will be able to look through a window and see you, but you will not be able to see him.  We want to know if he still says you were involved with the stolen car.  Come with us.”
     I should be the one to see Nick the snake.  Why should he be able to see me?  Is he going to have a big laugh when he sees me upset like this?
      The detectives walked me to a small holding room that had a smoked glass pane about six inches square in one end of the room.  They told me to stand there for a moment and they left.  In a couple of minutes they came back and said, “Nick is now saying that you are not the suspect, and that he was mistaken.  We’ll call your parents and have them come and pick you up.  How do we contact your mom or your dad?”
     The tide had turned in this nightmarish affair.  They didn’t know that now I had the upper hand. 
     For the first time in the entire ordeal, I looked Mr. Harding in the eye.  “Wallace Larson is my dad.  He’s a Special Agent with the U.S. Treasury.”
     The blood drained from his face.
     He’ll have to answer to a Fed now!  And that Fed happens to be my dad.  This detective is an amateur, and now he’ll have to deal with a professional!
     I’m glad I wasn’t in the room when Dad arrived and talked to Mr. Harding.  My dad did not swear, but he could scald you with his words until you felt smaller than a piss ant.  After confronting Mr. Harding, Dad was still hot under the collar when we left.
     “Are you okay?” he asked.
      I nodded.
     He fumed all the way home, “I can’t believe it!  Mr. Olson goes to our church.  He knows our family.  Why, for the life of me, didn’t he stop them from taking you out of school?  Why didn’t he call your mom or me before they took you from the building?  He knows where I work.”  Dad’s face flushed with rage as he slammed his fist against the steering wheel, “He knows we’re not a bunch of criminals!  This is not right!”
     He took me home, and as soon as he assured Mom that I was okay, he made a phone call to the high school.  They quickly left to meet with the principal and vice principal.  I had no doubts about who controlled that meeting.       
     As for me, I was none the worse for wear.  As soon as school was out, my friends called me at home to hear what had happened. 
     “There were stories all over school within the hour that you had been dragged out of the building and taken to jail!” they exclaimed.  “Wow!  Did they handcuff you?  Let’s go to the A&W and you can tell us the whole story!”
     Some excitement had come into my life that day.  Western Kansas didn’t seem so boring after all.  The warm sun streamed through the car windows while we ordered the root beer.  And even though the cold wind swirled into the car as we grabbed the frosty mugs, it felt good.

Friday, September 30, 2011

In the Land of the Mountain Kings

Moraine Lake - Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada
In the Land of the Mountain Kings
travel essay
by Greg Larson

     Those who know me understand my quest for the perfect bike ride or the quintessential hiking experience.  The goal is to find the right fit, the nirvana, which lasts a few minutes or possibly a few hours.  It’s a mountain road in Italy or a trail on the Welsh coastline . . . something unforgettable.  The body, the mind, the weather, and the surroundings are in sync with each other.  It’s a moment in time you wish you could bottle and cork like vintage wine, to open and taste at a later date.

     For Gretta and me, our hopes were high in early August when the adventure tour guides drove our group of ten to the trailhead at Moraine Lake in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.  The majestic peaks, enveloped with snow and forests, had a fairy-tale quality to them.  Mt. Fay sat before us with its shelf glacier perched a thousand feet above the lake.  The glacial melt cascaded down the cliffs and continued to seek a path to Moraine Lake. The water which has a suspended powder, or “rock flour,” creates a turquoise-blue lake reflecting the grandeur of the Ten Peaks range.

     I looked at the timeless panorama and became spellbound.  In the early morning, the men on the dock were readying the rental canoes for a busy day.  It could have been a scene from the ‘50s, or any decade of choice.

     Gretta was full of energy as we started up the path on the eight-mile round trip hike.  She had talked me into carrying both of our lunches in my pack, so I used that as my excuse for hiking more slowly.  Our guides, Marcy and Anne, told us we would be hiking up the mountains all morning, so we needed to pace ourselves.

     The first third of our hike was a series of switchbacks on a mountainside opposite Mt. Fay.  During the morning we hiked in the shadows of the Engelmann spruce and the subalpine fir trees.  Every now and then we’d get a glimpse of the lake below and the glacier above.  The waterfalls from the shelf glacier whispered to us from across the valley. We crossed small creeks rushing down the steep slope, and spied columbine flowers and other flora under the shaded canopy of the trees.

Mt. Fay shelf glacier
     There was a split in the trail where we gathered with our guides.  The switch back trail had brought us closer in elevation to the shelf glacier.  It seemed as if we could reach out and touch it across the valley.  Our guides told us that the second third of the hike would be much easier.  They directed us to the Larch Valley and told us that we would hike through it to our lunch destination.  

     The trail changed to a mild slope and we walked through a forest of larch trees (or tamaracks), which grow near the timberline.  They are conifers, but lose their needles each year.  The spindly branches look like pipe cleaners and grow in irregular patterns.  When the wind blows the branches begin to wave like the arms of a ballet dancer.

The Larch Valley and the Ten Peaks range
     The zone between subalpine forests and alpine meadows was magical.  Green meadows and a marshy creek filled the valley.  Alpine flowers dotted the spaces between the rocks.  The sun was shining and pleasant warmth filled my body.  Our group stopped at a plank bridge to take a break and snap some pictures.

     The Ten Peaks range was much closer now.  The jagged rock faces and patches of snow looked like pictures of the European Alps.  It was a perfect day in a perfect place.

     I almost expected to find a group of Lilliputian mountain kings celebrating the rites of summer, assuming that on a day when their world was in harmony, they would dance in a hall of spruce and fir.  I imagined a scene of mountain people, wearing alpine flower garlands, deerskin clothing and silk shirts, playing their harps and flutes to celebrate the rare summer perfection.  The animals would surround the hall to witness the festivities while the sun shone and the larch trees danced in all their glory.  Maybe the altitude was getting to me.

     Marcy pointed out the flowers and plants, which included valerian, a cluster of small pinkish-white flowers on a green stem.  She stated that a root extract is used as a sedative.  She led us to tiny patches of flowering moss, called moss campion.  The little fuchsia-colored flowers bloom once every ten years in each clump.  I was careful not to step on them.  We bent down and breathed in the mossy-woodsy aroma.

Greg & Gretta - time for lunch
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures
     We hiked on to our lunch site while listening to the high-pitched squeals of the squirrels communicating across the meadows.  The larch trees were sparse and shorter in height than the trees in the lower elevations.  Small evergreens and moss hugged the rocky slopes.  With massive peaks towering in every direction, I kept turning 360 degrees, snapping pictures at a feverish pace. During lunch, we snacked a bit, and then wandered a bit, taking in the magnificent views of snow, rocks and alpine flowers.  That's when I spied our final destination.                    
     Our tour literature listed the day’s destination as Sentinel Pass with scenic views in every direction.  I peeked around a larch tree and stared at a saddle ridge between two large peaks.  A switchback trail was visible on a vertical wall laced with snow fields. That’s when I heard an angel’s choir singing in the back of my head. I realized I was looking at our destination.  I gasped.  No way!  They can’t expect us to climb on those steep trails!  That’s insane!

I spied our destination - Sentinel Pass

     After lunch, we ascended a trail to a small lake at the basin below Sentinel Pass.  The wind became stronger and cooler at the higher elevations, and the clouds continued to darken.  Occasional patches of sunlight danced on the rocks around us.  Our group exchanged glances of consternation as we huddled around Marcy.  It was after one o’clock, and I was concerned that the weather could take a turn for the worse.  My experience in Colorado taught me that hiking above timberline in the afternoon was considered insane.  Too many times I’d been drenched in rain and guilt for having made the decision to continue hiking upwards after midday.  The mountain kings must be sitting by the fire and smoking their pipes by now.

Basin lake below Sentinel Pass
     Marcy gave us a pep-talk regarding the final third of our upward hike.  “The hike to Sentinel Pass is not as bad as it looks.  I’ve watched all of you this week and you are all capable of climbing to the pass.”

     We turned and looked at each other but no one seemed to be exuding a high level of confidence.  She continued, “It will take us about forty-five minutes to reach the pass.   We’ve got plenty of time.  If you want to chill out by the lake while we continue, that’s your option.”

      I pulled my jacket from the pack and put it on.  Chill. . . what an appropriate word.  But we won’t be here again. You only live once.  Let’s go for the gusto. 

     Gretta and I knew that we could turn around whenever we wanted, and that we’d stay warmer while hiking.  I had to give myself a pep talk to get the engine going and the legs moving again.  Just put one foot in front of the other. It’s no big deal, even if we’re still climbing. Nine out of ten decided to make the climb.

The climbing gets steeper
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures

Treacherous snowfield
photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures
     The snow fields were treacherous.  The melting snow was slippery and the path narrow.  One slip and your ticket would be punched for a 500-foot slide to the rocks below.  The boys in our group were wearing running shoes and they had problems getting a grip.  It was a bit slow going forward, but once over the snow, we moved on to the switchbacks and up the steep trail.  Just before three o’clock we reached Sentinel Pass.

View from Sentinel Pass back towards Larch Valley
     It felt like we were on top of the world.  Unparalleled mountain vistas lay before us in every direction.  A whole new world of peaks and rocks were unveiled on the other side of the pass.  Behind us, I could see most of the trails we had hiked that day.  Many of the rocks, glaciers and peaks were below us!  The climb to the pass had been worth it and the rain never came.  Marcy and Anne handed us some special treats and opened a bottle of sparkling grape juice.  They poured it into glasses of plastique for us to toast and celebrate.

View on opposite side of Sentinel Pass
     After ten minutes of relaxation at the top, it was time to start down.  We had four miles of downhill climbing ahead of us.  The steep downhill trails were harder on the knees than the uphill climb.  But we had conquered the pass!

     Although we began to tire on the way down, we had a feeling of satisfaction.  Across the snowfield and back to the basin lake we went.  After we regrouped, our guides led us back into the Larch Valley.  No evidence of the mountain people.  They must live around here somewhere, strategically hidden from view.

     Finally, we took the switchbacks down to Moraine Lake.  In the late afternoon, the lake color was a deeper hue of turquoise-blue.  The last of the rental canoes were gliding into the dock as we returned to the trailhead.
Rental canoe on Moraine Lake
     When I returned home, I looked up some information about the valerian plant.  At weddings in medieval Sweden, the plant was placed in the groom’s clothing to ward off the “envy of the elves.”  Was this a reference to the mountain kings that I had sensed were near?  The information stated that when the valerian plant is taken in excessive doses it causes giddiness and disorientation.  Was this the reason the mountain kings were nowhere to be seen?  Would I have been able to see the mountain people if I had taken the extract? I’ll never know. 

     What I do know is that I’ve saved the day we climbed to Sentinel Pass in my memory “bottle.”  I’ve corked it tight.  It’s a rare vintage.
Moraine Lake in early evening

Friday, September 9, 2011

Frozen Secrets

Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
Frozen Secrets
travel essay
by Greg Larson

Ancient water unlocked
(photo courtesy of
     A cool breeze blew across my face while I looked at the dusty, rocky surface under my feet.  I could have been standing on another planet.  The rising slope in front of me was dirty ice, with streams of icy water scattered about the surface, flowing in earnest on a sunny August day.  The melting ice fed a rushing creek at the edge, or toe of the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.  The glacier flows from the Columbia Ice Field down a long curved valley between mountain peaks which are covered with snow and other glacier remnants.
Toe of Athabasca Glacier with Mt. Andromeda above
     The Columbia Ice Field straddles the continental divide in Alberta and British Columbia.  It is one of the largest ice fields below the Arctic Circle, covering over 130 square miles with a thickness that varies from 300 to 1200 feet.  Seven glaciers flow from edges of the Columbia Ice Field.  They create the headwaters of rivers that flow to three oceans:  the Pacific, the Arctic, and the North Atlantic.
     The Athabasca glacier is the most accessible of the seven glaciers, and is closest to the Columbia Ice Field Visitor Center and the highway.
     My wife, Gretta, and I walked towards our guide, Ron, and introduced ourselves.  He was to lead our tour group of ten people on a three hour tour across the surface of the glacier.  Yes, just a “three hour tour.”  His veiled reference to Gilligan’s Island made me realize that we were probably about the same age.
     We told him we were from Kansas.
     “Kansas!” exclaimed Ron.  “My relatives are from Kansas.”
     “What part of Kansas?”  I asked.
     “Oh, that’s the area where my great grandfather came from a long time ago,” answered Ron.  “It was after the Civil War, and there were carpetbaggers and lawlessness and such.  He roamed around Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma as a member of the Jesse James gang.”
     Ron’s story about his great grandfather intrigued me.  From what I could remember, there were somewhere between fifty and a hundred James Gang members, and most of them ended up face down in a ditch or at the end of a rope.  What other stories were tucked inside Ron’s past?
     “Wow!” I responded.  “How did your family end up in Canada?”
     “Well, once Jesse met his fate, my great grandfather didn’t stay long in those parts.  He high-tailed it up here to Canada to start a new life.  And here we are.”
     While we waited for the rest of the tour group to gather, I remembered the line from a song I once heard, “the dirty little coward shot the man named Howard [aka James] and put poor Jesse in his grave.”
     One of the tour members heard the trailing end of our discussion about Ron’s ancestors, and then asked the question, “Ron, what’s your background?  How did you become a tour guide on a glacier?”
     The sun reflected off Ron’s sunglasses as he looked up towards the frosty face of Mt. Andromeda.  His pause was uncomfortably long.  I wondered if he had heard the question. 
Our guide, Ron, gazing at Mt. Andromeda
     Finally, he took a deep breath and the words came forth. “I got a couple of degrees.  Then I lived in a cabin in the bush for many years.  I was into mountain climbing for a while.”  He pointed to Mt. Athabasca and Mt. Andromeda, “In fact, I’ve climbed most of the peaks around here when there was a lot more ice on them than there is now.  I was a ski instructor, and then I was a guide on some heli-skiing tours.  But now I’m older. I’m sixty.  There were a lot of young guys who wanted my job. They were young bucks . . . smart and strong.  So I decided to take things a bit easier and now I lead these glacier tours in the summer.  It’s a nice way to spend time outdoors in the summer and then take it easy in the winter.”
     His hesitation and response made me realize that we all have stories in our past that are frozen, untouched, not usually shared.
     With all the tour members gathered around him, Ron was ready to begin the glacier trek.
     “The most important instruction I’ll give you today is that you need to follow me in single file.  The glacier surface and its features change from day to day, and I’ll make sure we have a safe path.  I will take you to the most interesting features so that you can see them first hand.  The water in the gullies is one degree above freezing, so you don’t want to fall in.  You don’t even want your boot to slip into the water.  There are deep crevasses and waterfalls, and some of the edges have frost and snow that won’t support you.  If you fall into a crevasse or a big hole, it will be an experience of a lifetime.  In fact it will be your last experience of a lifetime.”
     “Any questions?”  There was no response.  “Then follow me.”  Ron turned and led us along a rushing creek at the toe of the glacier.  Eventually we crossed a bridge to the glacier surface.  It consisted of a narrow plank about 12 ft. long, situated about six feet above the rushing icy water.  Ron yelled before we crossed.  “Don’t look down at the water.  Focus on your feet and keep your balance as you cross.”
Walking the plank
(photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures)
     At last, our boots were on the icy surface.  The breeze was remarkably cooler.  Ron told us that the sun had been shining for the last four days.  The melting on the surface created tiny pockets that allowed us to grip the ice with our hiking boots.  We were lucky that we didn’t have to wear crampons.  They are required during cooler times when the surface is slippery.  According to Ron, when it rains, the glacier is like a sloped skating rink.
     The hike was slow and mentally taxing.  It was important to follow the person in front, but difficult, due to the slopes and streams we were constantly crossing.  Ron stopped every 200 yards to let us catch our breath.  He used the opportunity to share his knowledge about the glaciers and the ice field.
Our guide leads us single file
(photo courtesy Austin-Lehman Adventures)
     He showed us the lateral moraines, which were piles of rock, gravel and ice pushed aside when the glacier flowed downhill.  These dirty ridges show the extent of the glacier in centuries past when the ice was much thicker.  The rock and gravel insulate the ice, thus it doesn’t melt as easily as the exposed glacier surface.
Lateral moraine with exposed ice
     Ron shared some historical photos of the glacier and explained that it was shrinking significantly each year.  We had also viewed plaques along the dirt road to the glacier which showed where the toe was located during different decades throughout the twentieth century and up to the present time.
     In 1844 the Athabasca Glacier and the Dome Glacier flowed to the opposite side of the valley and deposited piles of gravel past the current location of the highway and visitors center.  The amount of ice in the glacier is now a fraction of the volume that existed 170 years ago.  Ron said there are varying estimates on how long it will take before the Athabasca Glacier disappears.  Some studies estimate it will be gone in 70 to 100 years, other studies estimate longer time frames.  Natural global warming has continued for tens of thousands of years.  The question is: How much is man contributing to global warming, and has he quickened the pace of the melting process?  Ron didn’t have an answer but said, “It should be cause for concern and we should all have an interest in finding out the answer.”  He told us the Columbia Ice Field would remain indefinitely, due to its massive size and depth.
View up the glacier - it's two more miles to the edge of the Columbia Ice Field
     He directed us to a vertical pipe that had been installed to take core samples of the glacier.  Tape was wrapped on the pipe about two yards above the surface of the glacier.  It was where the surface existed at the beginning of spring.
     Ron then pointed to a long piece of pipe that lay horizontally on the surface.  “See the tape about six or seven yards from this end of the pipe? That pipe was vertical last year, and the tape marked the surface at the beginning of last year.  More ice is melting than is being replenished by snow and by the flow from the ice field.”
     There was always something interesting to show us, like the blue color of the solid, undisturbed ice that appeared when he scraped the white surface with his axe, or the clumps of ancient microbes that are considered a building block of life.  He also pointed out yellow patches of pollen that had been deposited centuries ago.
Our guide, Ron, shows us the microbes insulating a pile of ice
Ice cold drinks
(photo courtesy
     We stopped within fifty feet of an icy road plowed on the surface of the glacier.  It was created for people movers, which were large tourist busses with giant tractor tires.  Every few minutes a bus came by spewing out stinky diesel fumes.  The occupants waved to us as they leaned out the windows to take pictures of us hiking on the ice.  I felt like an animal at a zoo, but I was proud that we had walked an entire mile up the jagged surface to view the cracks and rivulets in intimate detail.
     The most unusual stop on our hike was at a feature called a moulin (French for millwheel).  It is a point on a glacial creek where the water finds a fissure or a break on the surface, and the water seeks the bottom of the ice instead of traveling on the surface.  The opening was about fifteen feet across, and the rushing creek fell into the bluish-white void.
     Ron yelled above the crashing noise, “This waterfall goes down 300 feet to the bottom of the glacier.  It continues to carve out the ice as it seeks a path to the bottom.”  He took his ice axe and chopped foot-holds at the edge, and then he said he would hold each of us if we wanted to take a photograph of the waterfall.
Water rushes towards the moulin
     I took my turn and leaned over the edge and snapped the picture while Ron held my other hand.  The waterfall gushed towards the hole and launched into the abyss.
Looking straight down into the moulin
     Then Ron shared, “One of my buddies climbed down a moulin that was near the toe of the glacier and he made it all the way to the bottom.  He said it was just like going down a giant, cold drain pipe.”
     He continued to share tidbits of what the glacier reveals, and pointed to his ice axe.  “I found this out here on the glacier one day.  Then one year, when the spring thaw was going pretty good, we found the better half of an army jeep sticking through the surface.  It was used during training in World War II, and must have rolled or was driven into a crevasse.  You never know what you might find out here.  Stuff just shows up.”
     Yeah, like bodies and stuff.  Surely people have fallen in out here.  Creepy.  How long does the glacier keep them, and what condition are they when they resurface?  I didn’t share my thoughts or ask Ron any questions about “stuff.”
     I came to the conclusion that people are like glaciers.  There are frozen secrets deep inside us.  On rare occasions they are revealed during a spring thaw to those who are intimate with what is on the ever-changing surface. 

     My focus returned to the mountains and glacier surrounding me.  It was a blue-sky summer day in a rare place, at one of the last remnants of the ice age . . . one of those days when you thank God for being alive, for the opportunity to experience a unique spot on the planet.  The receding glacier and the awareness of the centuries of melting ice gave me a broader perspective of nature’s time clock and man's relationship with it and each other.