The Island may be Named Unalaska, but this Home of Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” Offers a Real Slice of Genuine Alaska

            Local lore claims that in the 1970s, Playboy declared the Elbow Room on Alaska’s Unalaska Island to be one of the roughest, most notorious bars in America.

            Flush with cash, Bering Sea fishermen arrived looking for alcohol and trouble.  They guzzled drinks six at a time and got into more fist fights than NHL players in a hockey game.  When they weren’t punching bellies, patrons slid on them.

            “They would pour pitchers of beer on the floor.  Everybody would strip off their shirts and slide across, seeing who could glide the farthest,” reports Rick Kniaziowski.  “The town’s matured a lot since then.”

            It certainly has.  Known to airlines and Deadliest Catch viewers as Dutch Harbor, Unalaska is the most populated port in the Aleutian Islands.  Bigger than Maui and Molokai combined, the 4,000-inhabitant isle offers business-class lodging and restaurants, an anthropological museum, nine city parks, three national historic landmarks, a national wildlife refuge and a national historic area. 

Today, it sports more churches than bars, its schools rank among the state’s best, and the notorious Elbow Room, now closed, serves booze and blows no more.  Located closer to Russia than Juneau, Unalaska’s remote allure hooks us off-the-beaten-track travelers.

            “We’re kind of like the UnCola,” explains Mayor Shirley Marquardt.  “We don’t have trees, bears, snow, moose and things like that.  What we’ve got is a real working Alaskan town that’s kind of on the fringes in the middle of the Bering Sea.”

            The island’s un-name comes from the native “Ounalashka” meaning “near the peninsula,” and the harbor’s Dutch moniker reflects a time when a ship from the Netherlands anchored there.  While “Dutch Harbor” remains commonly used, the official name for both the island and its town is “Unalaska.”

            “Calling us Dutch Harbor is kind of like calling Seattle Elliott Bay,” complains Rick.  “It’s only the name of the body of water.”

            Getting here takes a bit of effort.  A few cruise ships call, and Alaska Marine Highway ferries serve the island twice monthly from April through September.  For most of us, however, it’s a three-hour, turboprop flight from Anchorage that gets us here.

            Landing in Unalaska is like dropping onto an aircraft carrier.  Water borders the runway on three sides, and a sawed-off hill rims the fourth.  A pilot error here results in either a splash or splat.  The Elbow Room may be closed, but the airport bar, I discover, is going strong.

            I stay at the Grand Aleutian, a 112-room, three-story hotel.  Its restaurant, I’m assured, offers the best (and only) Sunday brunch in town, and its gift shop carries crafts from Unalaska’s sister city of Petropavlovsk.  I may not be able to see Russia from here, but at least I can buy souvenirs from there.

            The town wraps around Iliuliuk Bay with part on Unalaska Island proper and part spilling onto a subsidiary isle.  Connecting the two halves is the officially designated “Bridge to the Other Side.”

            Downtown Unalaska has a last outpost of civilization look to it.  Most homes seem modest with trailers, prefabs and refurbished World War II cabanas capping the real estate mix.  The town sports a public library, community center, aquatic center and a staffed visitor center run by the optimistically named Convention and Visitors Bureau.

            “Just how many conventions do you have here at the tail-end of Alaska?” I ask Rick, who served as executive director.

            “Well, we hosted a state school board meeting once,” he smiles.

            The biggest land-based employer is UniSea, which runs a highly automated pollack processing plant.  Fillet from the white fish becomes sandwiches while the rest is ground into surimi that is used in imitation crab and fish sticks.

            “There’s a one-in-ten chance that if it’s Alaskan pollack, it came from this plant,” Don Graves tells me on a tour.  “McDonalds uses our pollack in their fish sandwiches as does Burger King.”

            In addition to the commercial catch, sport fishing lures anglers to Unalaska.  A replica of a 459-pound Pacific halibut hangs inside City Hall.  Celebrities who have baited hooks here include Jimmy Buffett, who once performed an impromptu concert at the Elbow Room, allegedly without margarita belly slides.

            At the end of downtown, a block from that infamous bar, sits the Church of the Holy Ascension.  Started in 1825, this Russian Orthodox facility remains one of the oldest cruciform-style churches in the United States.  Its icon collection dates back to the 16th century.

            “The icons on the back wall, a set of 12, are called calendar icons,” explains local resident Susan Lynch.  “There are only three full sets from this era in the whole world, and we have one of them.”

            When it comes to trees, Unalaska stands as bare as Howie Mandel’s noggin.  Hoping to make their fur-trading effort more self sufficient, the Russians planted Sitka spruce seedlings here in 1805.  Six original trees still stand, becoming one of the few arboreal entries gracing the list of National Historic Landmarks.

            Not far from my hotel sits the Museum of the Aleutians.  It presents a collection of finely woven baskets, a 1778 drawing of an Unangan woman done by crewmember of Captain James Cook and a waterproof parka called a kamleika made from sea lion esophagus tissue.  There’s also a 1940’s vintage ski, a model of the Coast Guard’s USS Bear and numerous World War II artifacts.  One item, a Japanese soldier’s good-luck flag, has been returned to the family of the man whose fortune was battle ended.

            “His widow had been told he was killed in the South Pacific,” explains Bobbie Lekanoff, owner of The Extra Mile Tours.  “The Japanese kept it a secret that they were fighting in the Aleutians.”

Aleutian World War II National Historic Area Visitor Center, Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, Alaska.

            The Visitor Center of the Aleutian World War II National Historic Area displays information about the conflict and provides a mockup of a communications center with mannequins manning equipment.  Bobbie reminds me that six months after Pearl Harbor, Japanese aircraft dropped their loads on Dutch Harbor.

            “Right in front of us, you can see a dip in the ground that’s more green than everything else,” Bobbie points out.  “That is a crater from where one of the bombs hit.”

            Days after the attack, the Japanese invaded Kiska and Attu Islands further down the Aleutian chain.  To stifle possible advances, allied forces stationed nearly 50,000 solders in Unalaska.  Abandoned bunkers, pillboxes, ammo depots and gun mounts still surround town.

            Bobbie’s tour mixes history with nature.  By mid-July more than 160 species of flowering plants will carpet the mountains.  Until then, bald eagles top the nature enthusiast’s interest list.  With 878 spotted at a recent Christmas count, the national symbol can be seen perched everywhere around town.  Bobbie monitors over 30 perennial nesting sites.  The easiest nest to spot sits atop an unused construction crane in the middle of town.

            “The first year they tried to build there, the sticks fell through,” she explains.  “The following spring, a couple of local people climbed up and tied fishnet to the bottom.  The eagles successfully completed their nest and have come back every year since.”

            Another species that attracts birders to Unalaska is the rare whiskered auklet, whose range is limited to the Aleutians.  To see them, I board a boat captained by wildlife biologist Tammy Peterson.  We sail toward the Chelan Bank.

            “The sea bottom comes up abruptly here, so there’s a big upwelling.  It’s really nutrient rich, which means the bait fish are here along with whatever feeds on them,” she says.  “It’s like a fast-food restaurant in the Bering Sea.”

            We catch a pod of orcas breaching to the starboard and white-sided dolphins porpoising to the port.  A short-tailed albatross glides overhead like a white, U2 spy plane.  Tammy points out sooty shearwaters, tufted puffins and various species of gulls.  Best of all, we spot numerous whiskered auklets.  Our route back takes us past the airport.

            “Nine years ago, my brother died,” Tammy reveals.  “I got the phone call saying it was time, but I got stuck here for six days because of fog.  He died before I could get off the island.  That’s the drawback to living out here.”

            Fortunately for me, the weather dawns fog-free my departure day.  I head for the airport assured that not only will the plane will arrive and depart, but it will even be reasonably on-time.  Unlike some fellow passengers, I don’t even feel a need to fortify myself at the bar.

Yachting through the Greek Islands Offers Seas, Scenery and Serenity

            Crowds may be fine at football games, Olympic events and yard sales.  But when it comes to vacations, some of us crave getaways that truly get us away.

            For me, an ideal escape involves a clutch of friends, a teak-decked boat and a sea garnished with picturesque islands.  It’s all the better if the isles are Greek, the vessel a chartered yacht and the six chums I share it with promise not to hog the ouzo.  Even Aristotle Onassis could not have asked for more.

            Fortunately, one does not need Jackie O’s inheritance to rent a crewed yacht.  With vessels starting around $5,000 per week, a group of cost-splitting friends can charter a craft for the price of a decent cruise.  Granted, the cabins may be more cramped and shuffleboard courts absent, but these amenities pale against the freedom of experiencing the sea unencumbered by fixed itineraries.

            We sail from Rhodes, largest of 12 islands in Greece’s Dodecanese chain located near the coast of Turkey.  Its major city, also called Rhodes, rose as a Bronze Age kingdom.  It became a Greco-Roman art center, and retreating Crusaders made it a fortified stronghold.  The city ultimately fell to T-shirt vendors in the 20th century.

            Our vessel awaits outside Rhodes’ Old Town, a city-fortress the Knights of St. John began in the early 1300s.  Ponderous walls made from cut rock line cobblestone streets.  Arched causeways link stone facades, thick doors fill Gothic portals and turrets tower skyward.  I feel humbled by the site’s medieval power.

            I also feel crushed by crowds.  Waves of tourists chatter in a Berlitz sampler of languages as they follow guides lofting colored pennants.  They haggle with merchants hawking wares from sidewalk shops.  They queue into columns awaiting entry to the Palace of the Grand Masters.  Like a salmon in a spawning run, I become trapped in the onslaught.  The boat offers an escape.

            The Carmen Fontana lies moored next to the Sultan of Oman’s yacht.  Our more humble craft has five cabins with beds for ten.  Its refrigerator holds the beverage supply, a topside deck provides a sunning retreat, and crewmen stand ready to serve meals onboard.  The captain fires the engines, and waving good-bye to an unseen Sultan, we motor into the Aegean.

            A few hours later, we anchor at Lindos, midway down the island’s eastern shore.  Bluffs tower over a community skirted in whitewashed houses.  Below lies a crescent of sand covered with umbrellas in such uniform rows, it looks like a military parasol parade.  If the orderly Swiss had an ocean, this is what their beaches might look like.

            Cars are banned from the hillside village.  To reach the cliff-capping acropolis, visitors either walk or ride donkeys.  Choosing beast over brawn, I hop into a saddle hard enough to bruise even Zorba’s ample padding.

            A quiet breeze brushes the summit where Alexander the Great, Helen of Troy and Hercules supposedly once stood.  Columns from bygone eras point skyward.  Below, narrow streets wind past homes and shops where merchants quietly await business.  People sit at outdoor tavernas savoring views with a brew.  Carfree and carefree, Lindos offers a serenity absent in the town of Rhodes.

            Peals from the town’s bell tells us it’s late, and we need to return to our craft.  A three-hour voyage separates us from our next island.  The motion of the ocean rocks me to sleep on the journey over.

            “Sea travel affects the thyroid differently in each sex,” theorizes my Italian-born friend Roberto Mitrotti.  “It makes men more relaxed, which is why they love to sail.  Women, on the other hand, get amorous,” he adds, winking at his young American girlfriend.  “That’s why they love to sail.”

            We dock in Symi, the main village on the island of the same name.  Twelve feet from our stern, workmen sit at a taverna drinking beer.  If we were any closer, the waiters could offer table service.  We dine on the deck, much to the delight of staring locals.

            In the morning I go for a walk.  Although popular, Symi seems less touristy than Lindos.  Two-story pastel homes, once the residences of sponge merchants, round its waterfront.  Behind, desert mountains rise toward unblemished skies.  Roosters crow, chickens peck and children play while mothers watch.  Men ride motorcycles and women scoot by on Vespas.  Cars and trucks are few.  Tranquility prevails.

            Small fishing boats bob in a shallow harbor.  Each looks like it was colored with the brightest crayons a child could find.  The transparent water shimmers in shades of teal and turquoise.  Beyond spreads a sea as blue as unwashed Levi’s.  It’s like I’m walking through a virtual tourism brochure.

            Our captain, Tasos Dimisetis, joins us for a late lunch.  He says he has spent almost 27 years at sea.  He was a cargo-ship officer for six and served as a cruise-ship master for another six.  Since then, he has captained yachts.  When he’s not sailing, he hunts wild boars.

            “This guy’s truly a man’s man,” jokes musician Iris Brooks.

            After lunch, we sail to Panormitis on the south side of the island where we visit the monastery of Archangel Michael, patron saint of Greek mariners.  A pilgrimage to the sprawling enclave is a ritual for Orthodox sailors.  Abbot Gabriel shows us the facilities.

            “I have been here 54 years,” the black-robed man says in slow but precise English.  “I came after the war.”

            He tells us that when the Italians held the Dodecanese during World War II, one of their ships carried both military officers and civilians, including Gabriel.  An Allied submarine torpedoed the vessel.  Cast to the water, the young man prayed for St. Michael to save him.  Six hours later, rescuers arrived.  In mortal gratitude, Gabriel dedicated his life to the patron saint of Symi.

            A grandmotherly woman serves us cookies and glasses of fig schnapps, a monastery specialty.  As we depart, I hear Gregorian chants coming from the chapel.  Perhaps it’s the alcohol, but I suddenly feel touched by an archangel.

            Yacht life falls into a pleasant routine.  We spend the days exploring.  Come evening, we nap while the captain sails to new shores.  Then it’s time to rise and dine.

            At midnight we arrive at Nisyros, a volcanic isle northwest of Rhodes.  After docking in the capital of Mandraki, we follow lights to an open-air taverna where late-dining patrons engage in lively conversations.  A waiter approaches.

            “Do you want your fish cleaned or uncleaned?” he asks.  “You know, with the insides still inside?”  Considering the options, I choose pork.

            At 1:30 in the morning, dancing starts.  The chef and the owner’s wife perform a traditional handkerchief dance, substituting dishcloths for hankies.  The festivities continue at the island discotheque.

            Rising at the crack of noon, the seven of us stumble out for a van tour of the island.  We motor up slopes terraced with rock walls and dotted with oak and olive trees.  At the top lies Nikia, a hilltop village perched on the crater rim.  Its whitewashed buildings sport royal blue doors, shutters and trim.  The incense of cook-stove smoke melds with the potpourri of blossoming flowers.  Stairs and walkways wind in a maze of routes.  It’s the classic Greek Island cliché of stucco and bougainvillea, only here we enjoy it free of shop-swarming cruise commandos.

            “There are only about 40 inhabitants left in this village,” says guide Vera Sakka.  “Most Niserians have emigrated to Rhodes, Athens or even the United States and Australia.  But I stay.  I like to open my eyes with a smile.”

            Back onboard, we enjoy the advantage of private yachting and vote to overnight again in Nisyros rather than move on.  In the disco, the town’s mayor shows up to try convincing us “rich foreigners” into investing in local tourist development.  Bailing on the business talk, I walk back to the boat and sit alone on the deck.  The night is dark and dead quiet.  It’s an eerie silence seldom found in my urban world.

            As we sail away in the morning, I watch Nisyros disappear into a blur of blue sky and bluer water.  I’m glad I was able to see the island before multitudes overrun its shores and strangle its allure.

            We head to the island of Chalki.  Now home to only a handful of residents, it was once prosperous with a population of 4,000.  Copper came from its hills and sponges from its waters, but the mines played out and the divers moved to Florida.  Then the sea infiltrated the water table, making the once fertile landscape barren.  Fresh water now arrives by tanker.

            Neoclassical homes line the harbor.  In their midst rises the wedding-cake tiers of a church bell-tower.  Fishing boats in a rainbow of vivid hues float on water clear as a mountain lake.  Their owners work on untangling nets.  A quarter-mile away lies the town’s beach where neither umbrellas nor vendors mar the sand.

            “My wife and I come here to do nothing,” says Chris Heather, on holiday from England.  “It’s a different life.  Anything important you must bring with you because there are no shops, no movies, nothing at all.”

            Wading the surf, I feel content.  The crowded, chaotic world of home has dropped into a distant memory.  It’s as if I have been sedated for a week, living a halcyon dream of rest, relaxation and renewal.

            Isn’t that what vacations are for?

The Most Exciting Way to Experience the Grand Canyon May be in a Wooden Boat

            Like a liquid freight train that’s jumped its tracks, the entire flow of the Colorado River careens toward the canyon’s far wall.  Beyond, it shakes and churns down a channel choked with submerged boulders.  Between those rocks and the hard place froths enough hydrological mayhem to flip the Queen Mary.

            Expedition leader Bill Bruchak guides our tiny boat toward the left side of the flow.  With a series of hefty pulls, he rows stern-first into the agitated bedlam.  Engulfed in turbulence, Bruchak yanks an oar, and we pirouette to go with the current.

            Ahead stands a wave taller than a suburban tract home.  As we graze its side, water arcs down, filling the foot wells 15 inches deep.  A series of rolling tail waves follow.  Like the mechanical bull at Gilley’s, the boat bucks through each swell with all onboard screaming “HEE-HAW!” 

            We finally reach the eddy at cataract’s end, and I’m beaming.  House Rock Rapid has just given me an exhilarating taste of how dories cruise through white water.

            The sports cars of commercial river running, dories are made from wood, foam and fiberglass.  They stand about 18 feet long, 56 inches wide and comfortably hold four passengers and an oarsman.  A flat bottom and upturned ends make them easy to steer on the river, and because they have rigid hulls, they don’t flex with the waves as rubber rafts will.  Instead, a sharp prow splits the water in a way that makes even riffles exciting.  Unlike inflatables, however, these rigid-walled craft can crack on rocks, so dory drivers must carefully plot routes through rapids.

            “They’re a royal pain sometimes, but they’re worth it because of the ride you get,” says guide Shawn Browning.      

            On this Grand Canyon Dories journey through the length of the canyon, we have four boats for 16 clients, rowed by a three-man, one-woman crew of seasoned guides.  The bulk of our gear travels onboard a pair of oar-powered baggage rafts.

            Our first camp lies on a riverside beach two miles below the rapid.  In a drill that’s repeated for 17 nights, everyone first unloads gear and waterproof “dry bags” from the rafts.  While we seek sleeping sites, the cooking team begins preparing a fresh-food dinner in a portable kitchen, complete with propane stove and lantern.  The boatmen assemble water-purification and hand-washing stations, then find a secluded yet scenic spot for the portable potty.  Nicknamed “The Unit,” this toilet-seat-on-an-ammo-can offers a throne with a view.

            We spend evenings circled around a campfire.  The Milky Way shimmers overhead, its luminescence painting the gaps between inky canyon walls.  Civilization fades far away.

            Most mornings, I awaken to the descending notes of a canyon wren.  After coffee and a hot breakfast, we load boats and head downstream.  Calm current and raging white water await.

            Rapids occur near the mouths of side canyons where flashfloods have washed rocks and rolled boulders into the river.  We porpoise through most like dolphins on pep pills.  If the boat hits waves straight on, the prow shoots high into the air with nothing but blue above the bow.

            Grand Canyon cataracts are rated on a 10-point technical scale, with “one” being a dancing riffle and “10” a slobbering ogre ready to devour anything floating through.  I soon develop my own “fun-factor” rating system based on how many inches of water occupy the foot well at rapid’s end.

            Although pros operate the oars, dory passengers play a part in running rapids.  We are responsible for “high siding,” a weight-shifting maneuver that helps keep the boats from tipping.

            “If a big wave’s coming right at the side of the boat, you want to lean into it,” says guide Elena Kirschner.  “That means you’re going to get wet and cold, but it’s a lot less wet and cold than swimming in the river.”

            Fortunately, dories seldom flip, and unlike rafts, they are easy to turn right-side up.  None of ours tip over, but a private raft trip that launched the same day we did experiences several upsets.

            “There’ve been some deaths on the river by drowning and being hit,” says Martin Litton, the man who introduced dories to the canyon.  “Nearly all of them have occurred in inflatable rafts.”

            In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell led the canyon’s first float trip in wooden boats.  Built for straight-line speed, his craft proved unwieldy in rapids.  Other river runners followed, each generation improving its predecessor’s designs.  It took almost a century for dories to reach the canyon. 

            “I’d seen these McKenzie boats in Oregon made out of plywood,” explains Litton.  “We got a builder to craft a couple of hulls, and in 1962 we made the first trip in dories.”

            Litton soon began annual river-running vacations, taking along friends, friends of friends and people he’d never seen before.  To keep from going broke, he started charging $180 for his 21-day trips.  In late 1968, he quit his senior editor job at Sunset magazine.

            “I just walked out,” he says.  “From then on, I was in the business of running river trips.”

            His company, Grand Canyon Dories, became a leader in the burgeoning industry of white-water river running.  In the late 1980s, Litton sold the operation to O.A.R.S., which continues to offer a full schedule of trips. 

            If rapids provide the river’s caffeine, flat stretches are its herbal tea.  In the calm between the cataracts, we relax as oars stroke the water in metronome rhythm.  Great blue herons stand by the shore watching our passage.  Bighorn sheep gaze down from above.  Rock walls reach upward, their colors and textures revealing the canyon’s geological history.  We float through nature’s gallery, displayed at its artistic best.

            “If this was all flat water, I’d like it just as much,” admits baggage-boat oarsman Kurt Brooks.

            Although we stop at the canyon’s famous spots, it’s not the guidebook highlights that prove most memorable.  It’s the secret places.  We climb to overlooks and hike side canyons to waterfall grottos.  We see where geologic faults have bent rock as if it was made of taffy.  We examine prehistoric petroglyphs, pictographs and Indian ruins, as well as remains left by miners, railroad surveyors and would-be dam builders.

            Conventional civilization lies in abeyance.  Only on day eight when we reach Phantom Ranch, an inner-canyon lodge, is our wilderness interrupted.  There, surrounded by hikers and mule riders, we buy lemonade, T-shirts and postcards.  Escaping back into the wild, we camp for the night below Horn Creek Rapid, one of the canyon’s more challenging cataracts.  The worst lie ahead. 

            The next day, we cover what Bruchak claims is “the biggest navigable water for a dory in North America.”  In 23 miles we navigate 16 named rapids that include several of the canyon’s gnarliest.  I ride with Browning.

            After breezing through Salt Creek Rapid, we hit Granite, a boiling pot of froth and turbulence.  Browning aims down the tongue, but misses the line by a few inches.  Nipping “the crasher,” he spins around.  Suddenly, we’re rushing stern-first toward a very hard wall.

            “Schist!” I shout, naming the rock strata lying dead ahead.  

            Browning pulls the oars with every adrenaline-packed ounce of energy he can muster.  But the river is stronger.

            WHAM!  We hit with an impact that would make a demolition derby driver wince.  The collision spins us again so we’re now moving forward.  Browning catches the current, and we finally jolt out the bottom of the rapid.  Opening the stern hatch, I expect to see a Titanic-size hole, but it’s dry.  We’re only bruised, not busted.

             “Yikes, that was close,” Browning says in what may be the understatement of the day.

            Downstream, we ride Hermit’s 35-foot-tall wave train without incident.  After an inconsequential run through Boucher, we arrive at Crystal.  Once, this was little more than a riffle, but a 1966 flashflood choked the river with debris, forming one of the canyon’s most gut wrenching cataracts. 

            “At high water, Crystal is a difficult rapid with dire consequences if you blow it,” says Browning.  “We’re at medium-low water, so we’re going to do what is called the left run.  It’s big.”

            We pull into the current, nipping the edge of a gaping hole.  Water crashes down.  Like Niagara Falls hitting a teacup, the boat fills from gunwale-to-gunwale rendering it too heavy to maneuver.  Boat-shredding boulders loom below.

            “BAIL!” Browning cries.  “BAIL!  BAIL!”

            We begin madly flinging water over the sides.  Our compatriots say it looks like hoses spraying from a fireboat.  We lighten the craft enough to safely negotiate the final white water.  At the bottom, we mercifully say our ABCs – Alive Below Crystal.

            After lunch, we plow through a succession of cataracts, missing walls, rocks and holes.  It’s a repetitive cycle of anticipation and anxiety followed by jubilation and relief.  If the dories are sports cars, this is their Le Mans.

            I fall asleep, confident that our spunky guides and spritely craft can handle anything the canyon throws at it.  That’s good, because the most feared rapid lies three days downstream.

            Once, molten magma dammed the Colorado, but the relentless river eroded away the impediment, leaving only a surging drop called Lava Falls in its wake.  While not the most technically upsetting rapid, it’s the one that drives more boatmen to hit the Maalox.

            “Every time I make that turn and hear the roar, my heart jumps 15 beats faster,” says Bruchak, with whom I ride today.

            The cataract looks like a blender churning milkshakes in the river.  We slowly approach the lip of the cataclysm like condemned prisoners on a gurney.

            “Hang on,” he says.  “We’re getting close.  Get ready!”

            We teeter at the brink, then swoop into the Cuisinart chaos.  A ledge to the left has formed a gaping maw in the river.  Bruchak pulls the dory to the edge of it, gaining momentum.

            “Get ready!  Big one!”

            We sever a lateral wave and slice down to where two currents rush together to form a bulging V-wave.  The bow rises.  Water flies.  We bounce like an ice cube in a martini shaker.

            “Bigger one coming!  Hang on!  BIGGER ONE.” 

            We plow through a second, larger V-wave.  Torrents crash by the boat’s bow.  I grip the gunwales so tightly, I expect to leave indentations in the hardwood.  We bound, bounce and bash through the rapid’s gut, finally exiting through the tail waves.

            Nine seconds after it began, it’s over.  Bruchak pulls into the eddy and everyone breathes a triumphant sigh of relief.

            “There’s no place on the river like that,” he exclaims, grinning. 

            I look at the bottom of the boat.  Only four inches of water slosh in the foot well.  Maybe Lava Falls isn’t so bad after all.

Arizona’s Superstition Mountains Lie Laced with the Legends of Lost Lodes

            It was my first ever hike.  I was nine years old when my father’s friend, Scotty, invited us to join him on a trek into the Superstition Mountains, a rugged jumble of bluffs, buttes, crags, cliffs and canyons rising 35 miles east of Phoenix.  Naturally, I wore my Roy Rogers cowboy boots.  Six blisters later, I realized why Roy rode and seldom walked.  Only Scotty’s tales of treasure kept me going.

            As every Arizona kid of my era knew, the Superstitions held the Lost Dutchman Mine, and Scotty was an expert on this missing treasure trove.  He led us into an area known as the Massacre Grounds where the story got its start.

            According to Scotty, the Peralta family from Mexico opened 18 mines in the Superstitions from which they extracted gold in unbelievable quantities.  Their last foray, a procession of 400 men and 200 pack mules, came in 1847.  On their return, they were ambushed, their gold was scattered and their mines were soon covered over.  Skeletons, rotten saddlebags and $18,000 in loose, gold-veined concentrates found later in the area support the story’s accuracy.

            The only thing we discovered on our adventure was an arrowhead and a shallow cave whose campfire-sooted walls stood black as a chalkboard.  Somebody spent many nights camped here.  I figured it was the Dutchman.

            As the story goes, two German prospectors, Jacob Waltz and Jacob Wieser, drifted into a small Mexican village where they rescued a man from a barroom brawl.  In gratitude, the saved señor, a Peralta relative, gave the partners a map and ultimately rights to the family’s Arizona diggings.  The two Germans headed north, and in a land so rugged that even a lizard could get lost, they found the Peralta site left uncovered.  It held, according to Waltz, an 18-inch vein of pure gold.

            “World’s richest mine,” he bragged.

            Wieser’s good fortune remained short lived.  With Waltz allegedly out buying supplies, someone murdered Wieser.  All the gold now belonged to the “Dutchman,” whose nickname either came from Deutsch, the German word for German, or his contemporaries bore a worse sense of geography than today’s sixth-graders.

            I’ve logged hundreds of trail miles in the Superstitions since that first experience.  Today, I’m introducing my wife, Dianne, to the area.  As Scotty did for me, I’m sharing with her tales of the Dutchman and the “Dutch hunters” who followed. 

            Our springtime hike from the First Water Trailhead begins, appropriately, on a trail named for the Dutchman.  The cool morning air carries the fragrance of wildflowers.  Mourning doves coo plaintive dirges in the distance.

            Although historical records cannot confirm Wieser’s or the mine’s existence, Waltz was a very real person.  Born in Germany, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1839.  A decade later, he headed west for the California gold rush, obtaining American citizenship in Los Angeles.  He later moved to Prescott, Arizona, where he filed mining claims.

            In his snow-bearded years, Waltz settled down in Phoenix to raise chickens on a 160-acre plot near the Salt River.  The stream flooded in 1891, and Waltz spent two frigid nights in a tree before being rescued.  He contracted pneumonia from the incident. 

            Julia Thomas, a German-speaking ice-cream parlor owner, cared for the ailing Dutchman.  After eight months’ convalescence, the 81-year-old Waltz took a turn for the worse.  Prior to cashing in, the Dutchman attempted to disclose his mine’s whereabouts, but all he ended up bequeathing were vague directions and a few pounds of gold-laced rock.

              Firmly believing she could find his mine, Thomas sold her shop and rode into the Superstitions the following August.  Waltz’s deathbed instructions ultimately proved impossible to follow.  After repeated searches, Thomas did the next best thing.  She sold maps to the mine she couldn’t find.

            Our trail parallels First Water Creek as it whispers through rock-lined pools.  Come summer, the creek will be deathly dry.  I know because like Julia Thomas and a slew of other Dutch hunters, I’ve hiked here in the height of heat.

            Years ago, a group of us wanted to see what it would be like to explore the wilderness when temperatures topped triple digits.  It wasn’t fun.  By the time we reached our campsite, we were sizzling like pigs at a luau.  We spent the remainder of the day simmering away beneath a cottonwood tree.

            Dianne and I cross Parker Pass and head down to Boulder Basin, an open area studded with cactus and laced with wildflowers.  A short detour up East Boulder Creek takes us to the site of Aylor’s Caballo Camp.

            Arriving from Colorado, Chuck and Peg Aylor moved into the Superstitions in 1939 hoping to find the Dutchman’s lost diggings.  They remained here until the Forest Service evicted them in the 1960s and dismantled their camp.  Although the Aylors found nothing of value, they at least left alive.  Many were not so lucky.  One of the most famous of the dearly departed was Adolph Ruth.

            A retired bureaucrat from Washington, D.C., Adolph Ruth came in 1931 with an old map his son had obtained from a Mexican diplomat.  He arrived in mid-June and immediately hired a couple of cowboys to pack him into the Superstitions.  A week later, a rancher found his camp empty.  Ruth was nowhere to be seen.

            A 45-day search ensued with no results.  Six months later, members of an archeology expedition found a skull several canyons away, which authorities confirmed was Ruth’s.  Bullet holes punctured both sides of the cranium.

            The rest of his skeleton and personal effects turned up a half-mile away.  In one pocket was a sheet of paper on which Ruth had written “Veni, Vidi, Vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered).  His map was missing.

            Dianne and I continue our hike over Bull Pass and down into Needle Canyon.  A buzzard circles overhead, perhaps hoping that we, too, are doomed Dutch hunters.  We aim to disappoint.

            Weavers Needle, icon of the Superstitions, towers to the south.  In the shadow of this thousand-foot-high volcanic monolith, two rival groups battled in the 1950s over lost gold, but not from a mine.  They sought a treasure allegedly stashed by priests.

             After King Carlos III evicted the Jesuits from New Spain in 1767, a missionary-led pack train supposedly entered the Superstitions with 240 heavily burdened mules.  When the convoy reemerged, the animals bore no loads.  The toted treasure, the opposing factions figured, must be hidden in these hills.

            One heavily armed band was led by Celeste Jones, a black woman who claimed to have studied music at Juilliard and sung with the Metropolitan Opera.  She traipsed about the mountains in sneakers, Bermuda shorts, sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.  Jones believed gold lay hidden in Weavers Needle, guarded by a band of people visible only to her.  To win their favor, she serenaded them.

            Ed Piper, a lanky white prospector, led the opposing armed camp.  He generally donned khaki trousers and, like Jones, always sported a sidearm.  He was an accomplished farmer and planted fruit trees in the desert near the base of Weavers Needle.  Both groups shared the area’s sole water source. 

            Animosity peaked when Piper killed one of Jones’ men.  He was questioned, but for lack of witnesses, the court ruled self-defense.  Diagnosed with stomach cancer, Piper left in 1962 and died two months later.  Jones stayed another year before departing the Superstitions for good.

            We follow Boulder Canyon downstream to the Second Water Trail, our return route to the trailhead.  Afternoon light glints off cholla and saguaro needles.  Butterflies flutter among purple-flowered thistles, globe mallows add dollops of orange and century plants stalk upward in their single reproductive shot before death.

            “Does the mine really exist?” Dianne asks.

            Scant documentary evidence exists to support the existence of Dutchman’s diggings.  No claim was ever filed, and tax records show Waltz claimed only around $200 in personal property.  But folks occasionally lie to assessors, and locals saw Waltz brandishing gold from somewhere.

            “I believe there is a Lost Dutchman Mine,” Mike Smith, who formerly managed a local prospecting supply store, once told me.  “There are enough facts to conclude something is out there.”

            Critics speculate that Waltz may have stolen ore from the Vulture Mine northwest of Phoenix.  Others contend the Dutchman’s nuggets came from a mine in Goldfield, four miles north of Apache Junction.

            “That was a possibility,” Smith countered, “but Dr. Tom Glover did electron dispersal analysis of ores from Goldfield and the Vulture.  None matched the Dutchman’s.”

            Longtime Dutch hunter Ron Feldman, owner of Apache Junction’s OK Corral stables, suggested to me that the Dutchman’s mine may already have been totally gutted in the ’20s.

            “Think about it,” he argues.  “If you found the mine and staked a claim, foes would come right to you.  Your best bet would be to keep your mouth shut.”

            History may never reveal the truth of the Dutchman’s gold, which is fine by me.  The lingering mystery offers a inexhaustible excuse to poke around this inspiring El Dorado.  After all, as Scotty pointed out on my first hike years ago, “If failure foiled dreamers, no one would drop a second quarter in a slot machine.”

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad Offers a
Colorful Autumn Excursion on Tracks Through the Past

In the movie “Back to the Future,” a plutonium-powered DeLorean sportscar catapulted Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, 30 years into the past.  Onboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a coal-fired locomotive does a similar thing, transporting me and my fellow passengers a century and more back in time.

The longest and loftiest narrow-gauge route remaining in the country, the Cumbres & Toltec snakes back and forth along the state line between Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico.  Just as passengers have done since the train’s inception, we hear steam-driven pistons throb and wheels clack as cars sway down the tracks.  Billowing smoke from the boiler scents the air with the heady aroma of burning coal.  Over most of its 64-mile route, there are no paved roads, no powerlines and to the dismay of social-media addicted teens, no WiFi, internet or cell coverage.  A panorama of wilderness-worthy scenery passes by in blissfully slow motion.

 “It’s the past as far as the eye can see in any direction,” observes Cumbres & Toltec president John Bush.  “It’s this eddy in the current of time.”

The route dates back to the early 1880s when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad laid tracks linking Colorado’s capital with the mining mecca of Silverton.  Rather than using standard gauge with rails spread 56½ inches apart, the Denver & Rio Grande placed its rails 36 inches apart so their trains could make tighter turns through sinuous mountain terrain.  While many of the line’s narrow-gauge tracks were later converted to standard, the route between Antonito and Silverton remained unmodified.  Today, the preserved sections from Durango to Silverton and Antonito to Chama offer scenic escapes into a bygone time.

Unlike its more northerly sister, which follows the Animas River through a lush canyon, the Cumbres & Toltec climbs through the mountains with sweeping views of hills and valleys along the way.  Come fall, those slopes glisten with the Midas-touched leaves of autumn aspen.

“Riding this train is on my bucket list,” an excited passenger told me over breakfast at the vintage Steam Train Hotel in Antonito.

One-way Cumbres & Toltec journeys depart daily from either end.  On this journey, I chose to head westbound from Antonito, which allowed me to watch herds of pronghorn dart across the San Luis Valley in the crisp light of morning.  After the conductor punched my ticket, I left my reserved seat in a closed passenger car and headed for the open gondola where docents from Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec provide a commentary about what we’re seeing.  As we approached a wooden trestle five miles from town, docent Bob Ross related a tale of its multiple monikers.

“There are two stories, the first of which I don’t believe,” he admitted.  “Theoretically in 1880, they hung a guy named Ferguson off this trestle.  That’s why they called it Hangman’s or Ferguson’s Trestle.  The second story is definitely true.  Willy Nelson made a movie out here in 1988 called ‘Where the Hell is That Gold.’  During the filming, they accidently burned the trestle down.  So, they had to build us a new one.  We now call it the Willie Nelson Trestle.”

A trackside sign soon revealed that we’d passed into New Mexico, the first 11 border crossings.  We’d gained several hundred feet in altitude, and the sage and rabbitbrush of the San Luis Valley were giving way to piñon and juniper.  Crossing back into Colorado, we rounded Whiplash Curve, a series of horseshoe-shaped loops needed to maintain an ascent angle of less than 1½ percent or roughly 80 vertical feet per linear mile. 

As the piñon and juniper slowly surrendered territory to ponderosa pine, we were treated to sneak peeks of the autumn magnificence that lingered ahead.  Trackside willows shimmered with gilded leaves.  Nuggets of golden aspen began to salt slopes and line the tracks.  A motherlode of 24-karat color sluiced down hillsides beyond. 

The train stopped at the former railroad station of Sublette to take on water.  Here, in seemingly the middle of nowhere, stands the home where a section foreman and his family once lived year-round.  There were seven such section houses between Antonito and Chama, but only three remain.  They have all been restored by the Friends along with trackside signs, whistle boards and mileage markers along the route.

 “About 10 years ago we were out here painting the mileposts,” Ross told us.  “All of a sudden, we heard something and looked up the hill.  A mountain lion was staring down at us from maybe 50 feet away.  Fortunately, the lion was not hungry, and we were able to get out of there without any problems.”

One of the advantages of narrow-gauge trackage was that many obstacles could be rounded and tunnels avoided.  There are two exceptions on the Cumbres & Toltec.  The first is the 342-foot-long Mud Tunnel, so named because it was bored through soft, loose volcanic material.  It needed to be lined with heavy timbers to keep ceilings and walls from caving in.   It, too, was featured in Willie Nelson’s movie.  Fortunately, his pyro-crew avoided setting this one aflame.

We rounded a curve lined with freestanding rock pillars known as hoodoos.  These monoliths cast eerie shadows in locomotive headlights at night, causing crewmen to christen it “Phantom Curve.” 

Three miles later, we reached a bar hanging above the tracks with weighted ropes dangling down.  Called a telltale, its purpose was to bonk the heads of brakemen walking atop boxcar roofs, warning them to duck.  Rock Tunnel lay just ahead.

The 366-foot, curving shaft was blasted through solid igneous rock and needed no shoring.  Immediately beyond, we enjoyed a quick glimpse into Toltec Gorge where sheer cliffs plummet 600 feet to the canyon’s floor.  A sign asks passengers to not throw rocks as there may be fishermen below.  Beyond stands a monument to James A. Garfield, America’s second president to be assassinated in office.

A bit past high noon, both the westbound and eastbound trains converge at Osier Station where a hot lunch, included in the ticket price, is served.  Here, the railroad built a section house and depot, which the Friends have restored and opened to visitors. 

While we stuff stomachs, wrench-wielding crewmen oiled bearings, checked brakes and attended to other maintenance needs.  Unlike a living history museum where staff mimic tasks for show, crewmen on the Cumbres & Toltec perform the very same jobs their forebearers did to keep the trains running.  Not only are the tasks the same, but many of the employees come from families who have worked on the railroad for generations, including our conductor’s son who’s a fifth-generation railway worker.

Back onboard, we crossed the 13-story-high Cascade Trestle, looped a hill, circled a meadow and chugged past a few summer homes.  Here we got our first glimpse of Highway 17 connecting Antonito and Chama.  Topping Tanglefoot Curve, we crossed the highway and stopped for water atop 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass where a depot, section house and other historic buildings still stand.

Cumbres Pass was a busy place in the old days.  Because long, eastbound freight trains couldn’t ascend the four-percent grade from Chama, cars needed to be uncoupled in town and hauled up a dozen or so up at a time.  When all the cars were atop Cumbres, they would be reconnected to a single locomotive and hauled down to Antonito and beyond.  Even today, if more than eight cars are in the train, the railroad has to use a double-header arrangement up Cumbres with a pair of locomotives linked together to power the train to the top of the hill.

Departing Cumbres, we wound around Windy Point and began our steep descent toward Chama.  The open valley beyond looked like a giant fruit bowl bursting with shades of lime green, lemon yellow and tangerine orange.  The pavement winding below provided a silvery bow through this cornucopia of color.  Where tracks recrossed the highway at the bottom stood a gaggle of camera-toting railroad groupies.  Like paparazzi shadowing stars in a Technicolor blockbuster, they filled their memory cards with pictures of us as we chugged by.

Passing the Cresco Water Tank, we entered New Mexico for the final time.  The land flattened out.  I saw cattle grazing near the tracks, some of which looked as hairy as a Summer of Love hippie.  They’re Asian yaks being bred for meat. 

We passed the fake, movie-set water-tower pipe that the young Indy swung from in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”  No fewer than 15 movies have been filmed on the Cumbres & Toltec line. 

After traversing a narrow section of the route, appropriately named the Narrows, we cross the Chama River on a steel-truss bridge, waved to campers at the Rio Chama RV Park and entered the rail yard where locomotives and scores of bygone freight cars line the sidings. 

The present-day world awaited, but unlike Marty McFly, I didn’t need a silvery DeLorean to power me there.  A thoroughly modern bus idled beside the depot, ready to whisk me and my fellow passengers back to the 21st century. 

A Russian Icebreaker Carries International Cruisers to Antarctica for an Attempt to Break the Record for the Farthest South Ever Reached by a Surface Vessel

            BAY OF WHALES, Antarctica – A stifling fog shrouds the still, dark Antarctic water.  Flat-topped icebergs loom through the snowflakes and mist on either side of the Russian icebreaker.  Dead ahead, a gap in a jumbled ice wall allows passage into a narrowing inlet.  Cautiously, the Kapitan Khlebnikov creeps forward.

            Second mate Stanislaw Ul’uanov attempts to plot the ship’s course on the admiralty chart, but his position line has reached the map’s southernmost margin.  The vessel is literally sailing off the charts.

            “Ladies and gentlemen, about 30 seconds ago we reached a position of 78 degrees, 40.572 minutes south,” announces Robert Headland, archivist for Britain’s Scott Polar Research Institute.  “We are out of the position where there are reliable soundings.  To avoid touching, the captain is taking precautions.  I’ll keep you informed.”

            The icebreaker, leased by Quark Expeditions, presses southward in an attempt to break the nearly 95-year-old record for Antarctica’s southernmost point reached by a surface vessel.  The existing mark was set February 15, 1911, by the Norwegian ship Fram, which had just dropped off Roald Amundsen’s party for their own record-setting push to be first to the South Pole. 

            Measuring solar angles with a sextant, First-Lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen of the Fram determined their southernmost position to be 78 degrees, 41 minutes.  The Kapitan Khlebnikov, which comes equipped with the far more accurate satellite Global Positioning System (GPS), lies less than half a nautical mile away from the historic milestone.

            Relishing this rare 21st-century opportunity to set a new geographical record, nearly all of the 93 passengers have taken watchful positions around the ship.  The heartiest huddle like penguins outside on the bow.  Others watch from the warmth of the bridge, standing at the windows or lingering by the navigation station where they gaze at the GPS readout.  Its display now shows 78º40.656.’

            The southernmost-by-sea quest caps a 24-day expedition to the seldom-cruised Ross Sea.  Most voyages to the Great White South begin and end in South America, exploring only the northern reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula.  Departing from New Zealand, Quark’s “Great Antarctic Explorers” voyage heads to where explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott began their journeys to the South Pole nearly a century ago.  Their historic huts, still stocked with original foodstuffs, remain preserved in Antarctica’s freeze-dried environment.

            Passengers range from retired teachers to working professionals and hail from nine different nations.  All hold a keen interest in Antarctica.  In addition to visiting historic huts and modern science stations, they welcomed the opportunity to march with penguins, search for whales, sidle past sea lions, sail with seals, amble by albatrosses and scope scores of sea birds.  They also helicoptered over icebergs, picnicked on sea ice and partied under the midnight sun atop the Ross Ice Shelf.  Then it was on to the Bay of Whales.

            “This is the closest body of water to the South Pole.  That’s why Amundsen set his base up there in his rush to beat Scott to the pole,” explains Quark executive Prisca Campbell.  “The plans for our trip are to reach the Bay of Whales in optimum weather and ice conditions to break the record.  We think we’ve got the right vessel, and we have a captain with extraordinary expertise and years of experience.”

            Clad in a navy blue sweater, Capitan Victor Vasil’yev, a short, middle-aged Russian with closely cropped hair, stares out a window on the starboard side of the bridge.  A helmsman sits at the wheel in the center.  Second mate Ul’uanov, a lad in his 20s, scurries at the back between the green-glowing radar and the now useless charts.

            “Keep the voices down so the captain can communicate with his officers in this tight navigation,” requests Quark expedition leader Shane Evoy.  “Keep the aisle clear so the navigator can navigate.”

            The GPS numbers slowly rise.  It now reads 78:40.728,’ less than half a statue mile short of the record.  Every six feet the ship moves south, the GPS increases by one-thousandth of a minute.

            “I almost hope we don’t make it,” British passenger Jenny Coverack whispers.  “Maybe it’s better to just let the old record stand.”

            It seems improbable that a 1911 record set by a wooden ship could still stand, but reaching the farthest south is not a reflection of horsepower and willpower.  Instead, it’s governed by the whims of nature.

            A triangular shelf of ice fed by a string of Antarctic glaciers permanently covers the southernmost 450-600 miles of the Ross Sea.  Called the Ross Ice Shelf, this floating sheet of frozen freshwater covers a 200,000-square-mile area, larger than the state of California.  Its 600-mile front consists of a sheer wall of ice cliffs that poke as much as 200 feet above the water and nearly a thousand feet below.  This is an ice cube no breaker on earth could penetrate.

            The barrier, however, does have one minor break.  Near its eastern edge rises Roosevelt Island, which breaks the glacial flow like a boulder parts water in a stream.  While some of the ice covers the island, much of the rest pushes to one side or the other.  A weakness where the flows rejoin forms a natural breach in the ice wall that varies in magnitude from year to year.  This year, the break looks big.

            Captain Vasil’yev gives an order in his native language, and the helmsman silently makes a slight turn.  The GPS reads 78º40.858,’ three football fields short of the record.  It seems so close.

            There remains one small problem.  On the ice ahead stands a group of molting Adélie and emperor penguins.  Each year, these flightless birds must replace every feather on their bodies, and during that three-week period, they have to remain out of the water and thus, do not feed.  Reaching 78º41’ may require nosing the bow into the penguins’ perch at a time in their lifecycle when these birds should be using stored reserves for making feathers, not dodging icebreakers.

            Evoy and the captain confer in hushed whispers.  An order is given and the ship turns.  Latitude readings begin to recede.

            “Kapitan Khlebnikov achieved the far southern position of 78 degrees, 40.871 minutes.  That is less than the 41 minutes achieved by Amundsen at the southern limit of southern navigation,” Headland announces.  “I do not think that we can say we beat it, but bearing in mind instrumental accuracy, I think we equaled it.  We will now assemble on the bow.”

            On the slushy foredeck, Quark staffers pour champagne.  Headland, whose heady English accent makes him sound like a Harry Potter schoolmaster, repeats his “let’s call it a tie” proclamation.  The mood is jovial.

            “Nobody celebrates failure better than the British,” chuckles New Zealand geologist Malcolm Laird.

            But all is not lost.  The ship anchors for the night near the mouth of the bay, and the next morning, the crew drops Zodiacs into the water.  These inflatable, Jacques Cousteau-style motorboats will allow another attempt at the record for the farthest south by surface vessel.  It may not have the cachet of an oceangoing ship, but a Zodiac is a vessel and it does travel on the surface.

            The fog has lifted, but snowflakes continue to fall and the sky remains stone gray.  Temperatures hover in mid 30s.  Evoy mans the motor and Headland, armed with two portable GPS units, rides near the bow.  Between them sit ten hopeful passengers. 

            The craft planes across the smooth surface toward the inlet cloaked in monochromatic shades of gray and black.  Slabs of ice resemble frozen white cakes snow-draped in vanilla frosting.  Icicles hang like crystal daggers from overhanging ledges.  Cracks, fissures and ephemeral cavities in the ice-shelf walls allow wisps of neon blue light to glow, and teal green luminescence shimmers from just below the waterline.  The Zodiac’s waterline vantage yields an inspiring, intimate view of Antarctica’s stark, imposing grandeur.

            Three minke whales spout in the smooth water.  Crabeater seals lie on the ice.  Snow petrels fly overhead, their pure white bodies visibly disappearing against the white of the ice.  Ahead, the penguins remain perched on their sloping slab.

            Evoy throttles back and quietly motors in their direction.  At a nonthreatening, 10-yard distance from the birds, he points the rubber bow of the Zodiac toward the wall and thumps into the ice.  Headland looks at the GPS.

            “Ladies and gentlemen,” he proclaims.  “Looking at the instruments aboard this vessel, we have exceeded Amundsen’s farthest south with a position of 78 degrees, 41.030 minutes.  These vessels are thus the farthest south on the planet – ever.

            Everyone gets a chance to smack the southernmost shore.  Back at the ship, the mood is even more buoyant than before.  It’s February 2, 2006 and a new mark has been set, which Headland will submit to the folks at Guinness.  Of course, the record may fall when the Kapitan Khlebnikov or another icebreaker returns in some future season, but until then, the achievement for southernmost navigation by sea belongs to the folks onboard.  Down in the ship’s bar, the drinks flow.

            Up on the bridge, the ambiance remains sober.  Captain Vasil’yev gives the order to fire the engines and the icebreaker heads north.  It’s the only direction it can go from here.

       Jet-lagged and cranky, I lingered more than two hours in line waiting to trade my passport for a cabin key.  When I finally unlocked my shipboard stateroom, I found the quarters dolefully furnished in a ’50s motif of faded Formica and stuffed Naugahyde.  It reminded me of the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

            I would have chanced a shower, but my luggage hadn’t yet arrived.  It seemed to be as lost as Jimmy Hoffa, interred in a mausoleum of satchels, duffels, trunks and suitcases that stood floor-to-ceiling in the reception area.

            Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I learned that the executive chef was English.  I envisioned four months of dining on kidney pies while waiting for clean underwear to arrive.

            Such was the inauspicious start to my trip of a lifetime — a dream cruise around the world.

            Since Ferdinand Magellan captained the first globe-encircling voyage in 1519, travelers have longed to circumnavigate the planet by sea.  Several firms now offer world cruises.  Itineraries vary, but most have one commonality– they are palatially expensive.

            Then along came the now-defunct World Cruise Company.  By chartering older vessels and abridging amenities, the Toronto-based outfitter planned to offer around-the-world voyages at down-to-earth prices.  With rates starting at about $100 per day, a lifelong fantasy could become reality.

            But nightmares came first.  Needle-jabbing nurses used my arms as immunization pincushions.  I had to order extra passport pages and a slew of advance visas.  Suitcases needed to be packed, unpacked and repacked until they squeaked under airline weight limitations.  Ultimately, hurried good-byes and a flight to Athens led to one long-anticipated moment.

            Along with 600 others, I boarded the Ocean Explorer I in Greece.  After a frustrating initiation, the journey began.

            Tunis, capital of Tunisia, became our first port of call.  Formerly controlled by the French, this North African coastal city offers European-style prosperity springing from Arab, Roman and Phoenician roots.  Islamic but liberal, Tunis is where sheiks come to be sinful.

            A tour guide led us through the ruins of Carthage, a Phoenician city so old it had been sacked by the Romans before the birth of Christ.  Next came the Bardo Museum and its collection of ancient mosaics.  For one shopper, this was too much sightseeing.  She dashed into the museum’s book shop in a desperate quest for souvenirs.  To pay, she flashed American cash.  When the clerk said he could only accept Tunisian dinars, the woman became indignant.

            “I can’t believe they wont take real money,” she moaned.

            “This is a foreign country,” I suggested.  “I doubt Barnes & Noble takes Tunisian currency back home.”

            Exiting the Mediterranean, we passed Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar on our way to Casablanca, Morocco.  There, I signed up for a 12-hour bus trip to Marrakech, a vibrant city whose buildings echo the ruddiness of desert clay.  As we wended our way there across the Saharan emptiness, our tour guide, Mohammed, bragged how Islamic men could have up to four wives.  Eventually, one of the passengers had enough.

            “That’s nothing,” the man shouted.  “In North America, there is no limit to the number of wives we can have.”

            “Really?”  Mohammed looked puzzled.

            “Sure.  We just have them one at a time.”

            Serial polygamy was even promoted onboard the ship.  A plaque on the bridge assured potential newlyweds that marriages performed onboard lasted only for the duration of the cruise.

            This ship’s initial passengers did not have such options.  Built in 1944, the vessel began its life as an American troopship hauling soldiers to World War II.  Since then it has been refitted and refurbished into an ocean liner.

            Old enough for AARP membership, the craft showed its age.  Plumbing sputtered and ventilation wheezed.  Threadbare carpets revealed years of stains, and paint barely concealed bathroom rust.  The shabby conditions caused some to cancel passage and leave in disgust.  Others shared their unhappiness, whining to anyone who would listen.  I took it all in stride.  For what we were paying, I could not expect opulence.  Besides, the scruffiness reminded me of home.

            On day 10, we reached the Canary Islands, a Spanish beach playground off Africa’s northwest coast.  Rather than take a tour, I opted to spend the day sauntering solo through the port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife.  Its sidewalk cafes, fountained parks and shady promenades provided a refreshing touch of Europe.  Even though most places took dollars, I found an ATM and bought local currency.  It felt liberating to escape fellow passengers.

            Unfortunate for my waistline, one of my initial fears proved unfounded.  The meals cooked by our English chef tasted fine, although some dishes were not what one expected.  This especially applied to desserts.  The tollhouse cookies, for example, contained nary a chocolate chip, and the pumpkin pie was best described as, “It sort of tastes yellow.”

            The worst culinary disaster was the coffee.  The muck brewed onboard came from beans that must have been ground beneath Juan Valdez’s mule before being dumped aboard as bilge ballast.  Greenpeace would have never allowed this foul substance to be spilled overboard for fear of killing whales.

            Our last stop in the eastern Atlantic was Cape Verde, a former Portuguese island colony located off the coast of Senegal.  In slave-trading days, African natives came through here on their way to Brazil.

             Many of us crammed into pregnant minivans for an all-day, cross-island tour.  In spite of cheek-to-cheek seating, the trip proved delightful.  The island’s arid, volcanic landscape reminded me of Arizona.  Everywhere we drove, smiling, colorfully dressed residents stood by their homes and waved.  Best of all, we did more sightseeing than shopping.  It was a perfect “guy trip.”

            For six full days we crossed the Atlantic, and as it was throughout the journey, the time at sea was pure pleasure.  Professional lecturers and retired professors gave talks about the science, culture and history of the places we visited.  Passengers and staff taught classes on writing, dancing, painting and more.  Between brain stimulations, there was time for reading, sunbathing and swimming.

            At sunset, some poured drinks and gathered on deck.  Eyes gazed westward in hopes of catching the elusive “green flash,” a teal burst that can occur when the top of the solar disk touches the horizon.  Those with stronger drinks claimed more sightings.

            After dark, some of us searched for the Southern Cross.  Others retreated to the lounges where musicians performed everything from Frankie Avalon to Frank Zappa.  The ship’s theater offered standard cruise-fare stage productions featuring magicians, comedians, cabaret singers or concert pianists.  We even had guest speakers onboard.

            Salvador became our first Brazilian port.  Built on cliffs, this former colonial center features a color-splashed historical district.  As I wandered around, a school-age lad approached.  In his native Portuguese, he told me what I was looking at, but I failed to comprehend a single word.

            “Obrigado,” I thanked him, and walked on.

            He followed, intent on providing a guided tour.  Assuming he was freelancing, I offered money, but he refused the payment.  The two of us continued through town.  He explained the sights in his local language.  I responded as best I could in a meld of pidgin Portuguese and Taco Bell Spanish.  He grinned, graciously pretending to understand.

            On world cruises, most port stops last only one day, and plans can be dashed if the weather proves uncooperative.  Such was the case in Rio de Janeiro.

            We arrived on Sunday, and I had hoped to go birding.  Our onboard aviary expert said Rio’s sugar-sand beaches should be rife with curvaceous, string bottomed chickadees.  Unfortunately, gloomy drizzle greeted our arrival, and the only species I spotted were gaggles of Speedo-briefed beach roosters strutting plump plumage on shoreline volleyball courts.

            Buenos Aires proved much sunnier.  Parks, monuments and outdoor cafés fill Argentina’s colorful and cosmopolitan capital.  Here, fabric shrinkage seemed to be endemic.  I encountered hundreds of young women whose apparel fit so tightly, if they had a peso in their pockets, I could read the year it was minted.  It’s no surprise that anorexia is rampant in this Paris of the South.

            The windswept Falkland Islands became our first English speaking port.  Looking at the barren landscape, I wondered how anyone but the British could desire such a desolate outpost.

            But the Argentines apparently did.  Two decades ago, their soldiers invaded the Falklands, battling the English in what one reporter said was akin to two bald men fighting over a comb.   Temporarily victorious, the first thing the Argentines did was require traffic to drive on the right side of the road.  A few months later, the British liberated the islands and restored left-lane motoring.

            Steaming south, we crossed the Drake Passage, the 600-mile gap between South America and Antarctica that is billed as the roughest water on earth.  Passengers downed Dramamine, wrapped wrist bands and plastered on patches, all in a desperate attempt to alleviate seasickness.  Only when we reached frigid Antarctica did seas and stomachs calm.

            In the South Shetlands, inflatable Zodiac boats unloaded us on a rocky Antarctic beach.  There, we watched three-ton elephant seals lounge like lard-bellied couch potatoes while tuxedoed penguins strutted by like midget maître d’s.

            In the cool of Antarctica, our geezerly ship showed its years.  A few cabins received enough heat to turn them into Finnish saunas.  The ducts in mine, however, exhaled less warmth than a zombie’s breath.  I kept hoping the menopausal heating system would have a hot flash, but it never did.

            We recrossed the Drake, passed Cape Horn and headed into the Beagle Channel off the island of Tierra del Fuego.  After stops in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, wecontinued through the Straits of Magellan and on to Punta Arenas, Chile.

            On day 48 we headed up the Patagonian coast through the incomparable Chilean fiord country.  Its dark passages dripped with glaciers, ice chutes and waterfalls.  Although temperatures hovered slightly above freezing, I spent as much time as possible on deck.  With no cabin heat, it felt cozier outside.

            As we turned to cross the Pacific, the journey dove to a low.  Not only was the room colder than my ex-wife’s stare, but the coffee quality tumbled from ghastly to worse.  Rather than using beans, the cooks began making the brew from a bottled syrup that resembled crankcase-drained Pennzoil.  I sipped the loathsome liquid only for warmth.  Fortunately, Polynesia loomed ahead.

       The ship began reeling, its course pummeled by the dual punches of the Humbolt Current meeting a South Pacific gale.  Spray flew as the bow jabbed and lurched through churning swells.  Passengers staggered, dishes tumbled, and lunches were lost in more ways than one.  From the safety of my cabin, I gazed awestruck at Neptune’s fury.

            On the journey’s 55th day, we reached Easter Island.  This was our first overnight stop, and many passengers seized the opportunity to sleep ashore.  For once we could dine on fresh seafood and sip coffee that didn’t taste like Jiffy Lube sludge.

            Mysterious stone effigies called moai have made Easter Island famousSculpted centuries ago, these statues can stand 32 feet tall and weigh 80 tons or more.  Scientists have debated why primitive Polynesians carved the moai and erected them around the island.  Personally, I believe it was a preliterate Chamber of Commerce ploy to reward us tourists for journeying to the most isolated isle on earth.

            Easter Island’s nearest inhabited neighbor, Pitcairn Island, lies 1,200 miles away.  On this two-square-mile hunk of rock, mutineers from the Bounty came to hide in 1790.  Fifty of their descendants still live there.  We were to go ashore, but rough seas precluded a landing.

            Since we could not visit the island, the islanders came to us.  They brought goods to sell — clothes, carvings, books, stamps, postcards and even plaques bearing scraps of the HMS Bounty.  A shopping orgy exploded on deck.  When the spree finally ended, the islanders held wads of green and the ship looked like a Pitcairn Island T-shirt emporium.

            Although every age cohort was represented onboard, the majority of our passengers had long been receiving Social Security checks.  While the kids behaved like grown-ups, many of the adults acted like spoiled adolescents.  They squabbled, bickered, fussed and complained about everything from saving seats to tipping.

            The biggest problem, however, was theft.  Personal property seemed safe, but items belonging to the ship or staff vanished with regularity.  Passengers ripped out sections of guidebooks for their own use.  Someone pilfered the VCR used by instructors, then allegedly threw it overboard.  Reference materials and dictionaries disappeared from the ship’s library while maps and notices vanished from walls.  One brazen thief even stooped to swipe Christmas tree tinsel from the ship’s chaplain.

            We soon sampled the siren isles of the South Pacific.  In Tahiti, I rented a car and explored the land that inspired Gauguin and drove the Bounty crewmen to mutiny.  As I pedaled a bicycle around Bora Bora, locals greeted me with smiling bonjours.  In the Fiji Museum, I saw cannibal forks used at a 19th-century dinner party whose guest of honor and main entrée was a Methodist missionary.  Off New Caledonia, I got a wet-dry double feature as I snorkeled near a catamaran on which several bikini-clad lasses lounged.  Below the surface, it was A Fish Called Wanda.  Above, it looked like out-takes from Baywatch.

            A torrential downpour dampened our arrival to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  There I discovered that snorkeling in a deluge could be fun, in spite of a chilling, pelting rain-driven back massage.

            Near Darwin on Australia’s north coast, I took a river tour to see man-eating crocodiles.  I had high expectations, but the guide said we would not be allowed to toss disgruntled passengers to the toothy reptiles.

            Actually, most of my shipmates were pleasant to be around, and after months of prison-close confinement, we knew each other by face if not by name.  With some I bonded well.  Others I found as endearing as in-laws and prayed we would never cross paths again.  They probably felt the same.

            Bali, my favorite shipmates’ favorite port, came next.  On this Indonesian island, rice paddies terrace volcanic hillsides, sacred monuments rise godward, dinner can be had for $5, and everywhere the people seem honest and genuinely amicable.  Friendly, sacred, scenic and cheap, I had to agree Bali offered a touch of paradise.

            The biggest deterrents to enjoying the island were the hoards of vendors who greeted our arrival.  As I stepped ashore, a clutch of walking Walmarts swarmed me like flies heading for a steaming cow-pie.  These sidewalk salespeople proffered blue-light specials such as three T-shirts for $10, four ball caps for $5 and “genuine” Rolex wristwatches at two for $15.  Show interest in their products and they latched on like swamp mosquitoes slurping a nudist.  I was lucky to escape solvent.

            After stops in Java and Singapore, we hit Sri Lanka, the island nation southeast of India.  The country was enduring an ethnic civil war, but our main danger was not bullets and bombs.  It was deadly traffic.  I spent a white-knuckled day riding with shipmates to the interior to see the ruins of Sigiriya.  There, a fifth century ruler, who also feared for his life, built a stronghold atop a 600-foot-tall stone monolith.  At least he had 500 dancing concubines to allay his worries.

            Residents of the Maldives have a wetter fear.  The highest point in their chain of atolls towers only six feet above the Indian Ocean.  If global warming causes seas to rise, these folks may have to snorkel to bed.

            After calling on the mountainous Seychelle Islands, the ship docked for three days in Mombassa, Kenya.  Many passengers departed for brief game safaris.  A friend and I opted instead for an overnight visit to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar.

            We spent an afternoon exploring Stone Town, a timeworn Arab seaport that once served as the capital of Oman.  Small shops lined narrow streets, and vintage buildings bore exotic carved doors.

           The following morning, we took a taxi out to a preserve for Zanzibar red colobus monkeys, one of Africa’s rarest primates.  Locals call them poison monkeys and believe that after the animals feed in an area, plants and crops will die.  For the hour we watched them flit through trees, the only thing dying was time.

            Our driver dropped us at the airport for our return flight to Mombassa.  We secured boarding passes and seat assignments, then paid departure taxes and cleared immigration.  Finally came security check.

            A military officer directed us one at a time to an armed soldier who stood behind a small table.  My friend went first.  He opened his bags, talked, smiled and left for the departure lounge.  The directing guard then sent me to the soldier.

            “You have Tanzanian shillings left?” he asked.

            “No, I exchanged no money here,” I honestly answered.

            “Then you give me one dollar,” he said.

            I immediately understood.  This was the baksheesh shakedown table.  I looked at the soldier.  I looked at his gun.  I looked down the hallway to the strip-search examination room.

            Without hesitation, I pulled a single from my pocket and slipped it to the soldier.  He smiled and sent me on my way.  The man never did check my bag for guns, bombs or contraband.

            The journey’s most touching stop may have been Eritrea, an impoverished nation on the Horn of Africa.  Well off the tourist track, they get fewer visitors per year than some McDonalds rest rooms get in one day.  With 600 onboard, our arrival became a national event.

            A group of white-scarfed women greeted the ship, dancing and chanting with the verve of hoedowners at a backwoods revival.  Uniformed school children presented floral bouquets to the cruise director and her assistants.  A videotographer filmed our arrival for Eritrean television, and reporters interviewed passengers as they toured the countryside.  Either we were the biggest event to hit Eritrea since its liberation from Ethiopia, or this was a very slow news day.

            At the Jordanian port of Aqaba, four of us hired a taxi for a drive to Petra, the 2,300-year-old Nabataean city carved into the walls of a desert canyon.  The driver agreed to $120 for the day.  At journey’s end, he demanded $250, claiming he provided “extras.”  The up-charge must have been for thrills he provided by playing chicken with oncoming traffic.

            When we refused to yield to the gouging, the scene became ugly.  Both sides threatened to call the police.  Finally, we plopped $120 on the pavement and walked toward the ship.  I kept glancing over my shoulder, half expecting to see squad cars and flashing lights.  I just hoped Jordanian jails served decent coffee.

            The World Cruise Company’s inaugural voyage was drawing to a close.  By now, most of us had forgiven the ship’s shoddiness.  The pain of heatless rooms and slow-draining showers had been more than offset by the journey’s extraordinary itinerary and education program.

            Unfortunately, negative feedback eroded confidence back home.  In spite of prices starting at about $100 per day, bookings for the second cruise faltered.  When fuel costs tripled, the company was doomed.  Our journey went full term.  The follow-up on a different vessel folded mid-route, leaving passengers stranded Gilligan-like in Tahiti.

            The idea of offering budget-priced, around-the-world voyages seems viable.  Perhaps another company will continue the practice.

            We sailed through the Suez Canal and stopped in Israel, our final port before Greece.  I took a tour to Jerusalem.  Ambling through the ancient walled city, I felt the holy auras of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Before heading back to the ship, the bus made a rest stop at a small cafe and gift shop.  It was called the Elvis Inn.

             I had covered 27,646 nautical miles and explored 33 ports in 25 countries.  Now I stood in perhaps the most revered city on earth.  There before me, shadowed in the halo of the late day sun, rose a towering statue of Elvis.  Transfixed in humbled awe, I gazed into the eyes of the gilded icon from Graceland.

            Suddenly, everything made sense.  It was time to go home.