Why I Dropped Out of the Explorers Club

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Once upon a time the Explorers Club was one of the most prestigious organizations on the planet. Its past members included such eminences as Richard Peary, Thor Heyerdahl, Charles Lindbergh, Peter Freuchen, Tenzing Norgay, and Sir Edmund Hillary. But the Club has recently gone downhill to such a degree that actual exploration is no more a part of its agenda than, for instance, frisbee throwing.

The location of the Club’s headquarters — 46 East 70th Street on New York’s Upper East Side — offers a window on its nosedive. The Upper East Side is an upscale habitat where money is the lingua franca, and its denizens (who include many of the Club’s officers) speak it as their primary language. Certain Club members have been known to suggest that the Explorers Club should be renamed The Upper East Side Club. Attempts to relocate it to somewhere else have come to naught…for the same reason that you can’t relocate Wall Street.

In the last twenty or so years, the Club has revamped itself to attract the corporate sponsors who live around the metaphoric corner. To do this, its officers can’t say, “Hey, we’ve got a guy who’s searching for Thule Period Inuit sites on Jan Mayen Land.” The corporate types would blink their eyes uncomprehendingly. But those officers can say, “Here’s a guy who’s an aerospace biochemical engineer.” In fact, a Lowell Thomas Award was recently given to one such individual.

“Remote sensing” is a phrase that nowadays has considerable appeal to the Club’s technocratically-biased higher ups. As a prank, I sponsored a putative explorer named Albert Yetti, an Abominable Snowman expert who used remotesensing to find his subject so he wouldn’t have to leave his UpperEast Side abode. Albert Yetti would have been admitted to the Club if I hadn’t confessed that I created him.

I’ve been one of many members who hasn’t been eager to dance to the corporate drummer. A Club president — a fellow who put an anaerobic tent in his office and lived in it — did not appreciate our nay-saying and threatened to drag us, he said, “kicking and screaming into the 21st century.” To my mind, this is a lot like Henry Morton Stanley’s (of Stanley & Livingston fame) positive take on slaughtering his way across Africa to rescue Emin Pasha (who did not want to be rescued). “I opened it [Africa] to the civilizing influence of commercial enterprise,” Stanley said.

In 2017, I asked the Club whether I could give a presentation on my exploration of a remote part of Hudson Bay. “But you’re not an explorer,” I was told. This is true, if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, both of whom have won major awards from the Club, are regarded as explorers. After all, I’ve made 40+ expeditions to the Arctic and Subarctic, but I’m not a technology entrepreneur. Indeed, I have no association whatsoever with either Tesla Motors or Amazon. I have explored a part of the Amazon, but doesn’t count…nor does the fact that I’ve been a Fellow of the Club since 1990.

“You’re not an explorer” was the proverbial final straw, and I let my membership in the Explorers Club lapse. In doing so, I was in good company, for Conrad Anker, Paul Theroux, etc, have also let their memberships lapse. I’m now planning to join the Whiskey Explorers Club, which I suspect is a much healthier organization.

Paradise Found

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Thanks to the unabashed tourist meccas of Nassau and Freeport, the word “Bahamas” calls up images of mega-gambling casinos, no less mega-cruise ships, package tours, and hordes of sun-reddened figures lying on a beach.

But consider the 110 square mile Bahaman island of Mayaguana. It’s so off-the-grid that you won’t find it in any guidebook. There are no stores, only shops in peoples’ homes, and no place where the visitor can buy souvenir kitsch. No cruise ship has ever dropped anchor in its waters. The eastern part of the island is uninhabited except for (I was told) several ghosts of pirates. And the only prints on its myriad beaches are invariably one’s own. No, that’s not true — there are also prints from sandpipers, iguanas, and scuttling crabs.

Mayaguana’s Public Library

Mayaguana is 348 miles and at least a century from Nassau, the place a visitor must fly in from. At the airport, a former fire-station, I was picked up and driven to the island’s only accommodation, the 16 room Baycaner Beach Resort, by the facility’s owner, a man named Shorty. I saw only one other vehicle en route to our destination — a bicycle ridden by an elderly woman.

Situated in the scenic village of Pirate’s Cove (pop. 90), The Baycaner defused my skepticism about Caribbean resorts, most of which seem to go overboard in trying to be Luxurious extremis. Instead of a swimming pool surrounded by lounge chairs, it boasted the blue-green Atlantic Ocean. The food was entirely local — cracked conch or conch salad, several varieties of fish, crab, rice, beans, corn, and grits. And, yes, the facility has Wi-Fi.

With my guide, a local man named Cando, I spent the first day exploring Pirate’s Cove on foot. The fast growing vegetation included palms, casuarina trees, lots of shrubs, and vivid purple flowers. At one spot, we found a defunct Honda Civic. Since there’s no automobile repair shop on Mayaguana, seriously injured cars end up becoming a part of nature; vines cloaked the Honda’s headlight sockets, and a casuarina was sprouting from its floorboards.

Like most of the island’s 300 residents, Cando was an authority on bush medicine. He pointed to a plant that would help my asthma, another that would cure my hemorrhoids, another that would lower my blood pressure, and then another that have a potent effect on my libido. A plant called Five Fingers (Tabebuia bahamensis) simply made a nice tea.

I had a toothache, so Cando gave me some leaves from the so-called rockbush (Phyllanthis epiphyllan) and told me to chew on them. The toothache seemed to abate…or maybe I’d simply been so distracted by Cando’s excellent tutorial that I had become unaware of it.

We ended up at a small bar that had neither a TV or music bursting from an armada of speakers. As a result, conversation prevailed. One man told me about (what better subject?) all the buried pirate treasure on the island. Yes, there’s pirate treasure even under our local church, another man said. A third man asked me if I knew his cousin in Brooklyn and seemed surprised when I said I didn’t. On Mayaguana, everyone knows everyone else.

On the next day, I was wandering around by myself in search of a local artisan’s home when a police car stopped. The police have almost nothing to do on Mayaguana, so the policeman said,“I’ll give you a lift, mon,” and then took me to the artisan’s house. The woman made such exquisite baskets from the dried fronds of silver top palms that I had no choice but to buy one.

Why, the reader may wonder, had I not yet prostrated myself on a beach?

Answer: There are far more interesting things to do on Mayaguana than getting a suntan. Like, for instance, canoeing on Curtis Creek with Cando.

Curtis Creek is not actually a creek but a saltwater inlet replete with mangroves. As we canoed around it, I saw greenback turtles, nurse sharks, conchs, small baracudas, oyster catchers, and an egret poised to impale a crab with a lightning thrust of its beak. In another canoe, we saw the only other outsiders on the island engaged in Ted Williams’s favorite post-Red Sox activity — bonefishing. “Mayaguana is bonefish heaven, dude!” one of them shouted to me.

Later we dragged our canoe ashore and walked around a spit of land to a beach. Cando told me that this was a good place to find ambergris, a quite valuable aromatic substance from the digestive tracts of sperm whales. We walked for a mile or so, but didn’t find any ambergris. However, we did find a remarkably large osprey nest with two perfectly sculpted eggs lodged in it.

Several of Mayaguana’s offshore cays are inhabited by hutias, a long-whiskered, short-limbed, large-headed rodent thought to be extinct as recently as the 1960s. I wanted to see one of these living fossils, so Shorty took Cando and me to the nearest hutia haunt in his boat. Named for a gannet-like seabird, the haunt in question, Booby Cay, is protected by the Bahamas National Trust.

We were walking along the cay’s long, untrodden beach when I happened to hear a chorus singing in a minor key out in the ocean. This chorus turned out to be a large flock of flamingoes, so large, in fact, that it turned the horizon a pinkish-scarlet color.

We stopped at a limestone depression, a popular hutia hangout, and I picked up some scat. “From a hutia?” I asked. 

“No, from an iguana,” Cando said, then looked at me as if I didn’t know scat from shinola.

As if on cue, two brownish-grey iguanas with golden irises suddenly emerged from the island’s brush and peered at us as if we were a highly unusual species. Actually, they were a highly unusual species themselves. Known as Bartschi’s rock iguana, they’re found nowhere else on the planet except on Booby Cay.

Is it any wonder that I gave the iguanas more or less the same stare that they gave me? And is it any wonder that, having encountered these critters, I didn’t mind not finding any hutias?

That night, my last before departing for Nassau, I treated Shorty and Cando to drinks at what I had begun calling The Pirate’s Treasure Bar. “Here’s to Mayaguana,” I said, lifting my glass, then added: “May it never change…”

If you’re going to Mayaguana, you’ll probably need to overnight in Nassau. A good mid-priced option is The Orange Hill Beach Resort (www.orangehill.com), while a higher price option is The Sandy Port Resort (www.sandyportresort.com).

Bahamasair (www.bahamasair.com) has twice weekly flights to Mayaguana. You can contact The Baycaner Beach Resort, the island’s only place to stay, via its website: (www.baycanerbeach.com).

A Walk on the Wild Side

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So there you are, walking along the Atlantic City Boardwalk. The crowds are oppressive, Nature seems to have disappeared, and there’s nary a spouting whale in sight. You’d still like a boardwalk experience, so what do you do? You go to Rigolet, Labrador, of course.

“I don’t even know what street Canada is on,” Al Capone reputedly said. Scarface certainly wouldn’t have known what street Labrador — the northerly part of Newfoundland — is on. So seemingly unimportant was Labrador to Newfoundland that the latter put up the former for sale in 1909 for $9,000,000, but there were no takers.

Rigolet itself is not really on any street or at least not on any highway. A small (pop. 300), mostly Inuit community accessible only by air or by ferry (recommendation: take the ferry), it’s the last place where you’d expect to find a boardwalk longer than the Atlantic City Boardwalk. In fact, its boardwalk is probably the longest in the world.
“We missed the boardwalk that once connected the old Hudson’s Bay buildings here,” Rigolet’s mayor Jack Shiwak told me, “so we decided to build a new one, and then we kept adding to it, finishing it in October 2015. Of course, the Atlantic City Boardwalk was always in the backs of our minds. If it could attract tourists, we thought ours could, too…”

“But you don’t have any gambling casinos,” I joked.

“True, but we do have a major archaeological site,” Jack said.

I decided not to walk the boardwalk’s entire six miles, ending in that archaeological site, all at once. There was too much to see, too many opportunities to stand and stare. Here, for instance, was an old cemetery whose wooden crosses were tilted in every direction of the compass. And here were several seals whose bobbing heads looked inquisitively at me. Benches and picnic ta bles also encouraged me to take my time.

The boardwalk had boreal forest on one side and the tranquil waters of Hamilton Inlet on the other. As I walked, the only sound I heard that didn’t come from the natural world was my own feet on wood. The natural sounds included the chuf-chufs of grey jays, the flutelike calls of pine grosbeaks, Arctic hares or rabbits thumping across the boardwalk, the occasional grunt of a moose, barking seals, and gulls whose raucous laughter suggested that they thought it was hilarious for me to be walking rather than flying.

On another walk, I felt the need to answer Nature’s call, so I wandered into the adjacent spruce forest. While answering that call, I noticed a black bear rummaging for berries thirty or so feet away. The bear saw me and continued rummaging, but politely turned its head away. What civilized behavior, I thought.

After a while, I found myself suffering from a bad case of the Shangri-Las, so I decided to take a break from the boardwalk and visit a local woman, Sarah Baikie. I’d seen quite a bit of lyme grass on my walks, and I heard that Sarah
was one of the locals who made baskets out of it.

“I began making grass baskets as soon as I was old enough to hold a needle,” Sarah told me. She also made grass bowls and mats, along with moosehide boots and slippers. Her crafts as well as those of other Rigolet residents are available at the village’s craft shop.

After “yarnin’” (chatting) with Sarah and her husband, I returned to the boardwalk. After a while, it began to rain, so I climbed up to a gazebo, under whose cover I had my lunch. As I was eating, I saw two minke whales rising and spouting repeatedly in Hamilton Inlet. Eat your heart out, Atlantic City!

On one of my walks, I met a middle-aged local nurse who informed me that she walked back and forth to the end of the boardwalk almost every day, a distance of twelve miles. When I told her that I hadn’t yet made it to the end, she looked at me as if I was a complete wimp.

I asked the nurse about the brick ruins I’d seen not far from the shore. They were the remains of a military fort built to protect Labrador from a Nazi invasion, she told me. I thought she was joking, since Labrador would seem a bit remote for the Nazis. But I later learned they had torpedoed a Canadian ship not far from here.

But by far the most interesting ruins were at the very end of the boardwalk, at Double Mer Point, where the remains of three 18th century Inuit sod houses lie above a Paleo-Eskimo site several thousand years old. Among the many artifacts found here was an Ottoman pipe from Turkey — how the blazes did it get to Labrador?

If you visit these ruins soon, you’ll probably see archaeologists from Memorial University of Newfoundland at work digging or sifting soil— they may even ask you to help them! If you visit later on, you’ll see a reconstruction of one of the sod houses and perhaps a local person in period costume talking about his or her heritage.

On my last day, I happened to be walking back from the archaeological site when I encountered one of the few tourists I’d seen on the boardwalk. “I heard this is longer than Atlantic City’s, eh?” he said, immediately identifying himself as
a Canadian.

“I don’t even know what street Atlantic City is on,” I grinned.

For more information, contact Rigolet Tourism Manager Kerry Pottle or write
tourism.manager@rigolet.ca

Sir John Franklin’s Lost Diary

On September 9, 2014, Parks Canada discovered the remains of the HMS Erebus, explorer Sir John Franklin’s remarkably newsworthy flagship. Among the artifacts retrieved from the ship was a Fortnum & Mason jar labelled “Sweets.” The jar did not contain any sweets, but rather a diary written by Sir John himself — a diary that solves at least part of the so-called Franklin mystery. What follows is that diary’s final entries:

FranklinApril 30, 1847. Ship lies groaning & straining in the ice off King William Island. On a whim, I brought out my maps of Arctic Canada, only to discover that the Admiralty had provided me with maps of Polynesia — an unfortunate error.

May 2, 1847. Sore gums & loose teeth indicate that many of the crew have scurvy, so I spoke out against this nefarious French disease & initiated tango lessons and likewise bench pressing of the ship’s spittoons to ward it off.

May 3, 1847. Ship still mired in the ice. The bosun, in the midst of a tango maneuver, fell overboard, went through the ice, & was promptly torn to shreds by a school of man-eating isobars. Bloody Arctic!

May 5, 1847. Dreamt Lady Jane came for a visit & asked, “Sir John, why are you late to supper?” “I’m looking for the Northwest Passage, dear,” I told her. “But you can’t eat the Northwest Passage, can you?” she replied ominously, then vanished.

May 8, 1847. Lost three men today, one to scurvy, another to terminal gingivitis, & yet another to ennui. To make matters worse, the steward told me, in his inimitable fashion, “we ain’t got no more elevenses for you, sir.” How can I captain this expedition without my elevenses?

May 11, 1847. The cook extremely upset over our empty larders. Says there isn’t even any solder left inside our food tins. “Hang in there, old chap,” I told him, but the roar of the wind in the ship’s rigging garbled my words, & he tried to hang himself. At least the men are still obeying my orders.

May 12, 1847. Dense fog. We can’t even see the ship’s prow, much less a possible shortcut to the Orient.

May 14, 1847. We’re totally out of crumpets, so I had to feed Cedric [Cedric was Franklin’s pet toucan] a few forlorn scraps of hardtack. Not surprisingly, he squawked in protest.

May 15, 1847. Took bearings & discovered that, instead of corpulent, I am now merely portly. Remarkable that I can now ascend the mast-head as well as descend from it.

May 17, 1847. Men shivering almost constantly, & their beards are hung with icicles, as the Admiralty somehow has seen fit to supply us with tuxedos & cummerbunds rather than parkas. Wrote a letter of protest to the First Lord, then such was my hunger that I proceeded to eat it.

May 27, 1847. Several Savages [Eskimoes] with prognathous jaws visited the ship today. They brought us a batch of pemmican eggs. Alas, all rotten. Must have been laid before the great pemmican migration south. In return, we gave each of the Savages a tuxedo & cummerbund.

May 29, 1847. More misfortune — one of the crew, doubtless a petty officer, has eaten poor Cedric! I said to Fitzjames [Franklin’s second-in-command], “Find the bounder responsible for this & give him a taste of the cat.” “Sorry, sir,” Fitzjames told me, “but we’ve already eaten the ship’s cat.”

May 31, 1847. Lieutenant Orme, a clean-shaven fellow except for his clump of grizzled whiskers, broke into my cabin & consumed the contents of my chamber pot, then began singing “Rule, Brittania.” I put him in the section of the sick bay reserved for nutters.

June 5, 1847. Weary of being mired in ice, we abandoned ship & began making our way to Back’s Fish River, thence, we hope, to England’s green & pleasant land. The men carried me in a sedan chair. Two days into our journey, I realized I’d forgotten my robe & slippers, so we marched back to the ship.

June 8, 1847. Abandoned the ship a second time. Curiously, my sedan chair seems to have disappeared, & I’m now being manhauled in a sledge filled with towels, kettles, sail-maker’s palms, porcelain cups, bedding, checkerboards, our portative organ, longboats, etc.

June 9, 1847. Met a group of Savages & asked them using signs for the route to Back’s Fish River. They fled in terror when Fitzjames produced a loud blast of flatulence. “Sorry, sir,” he said, “but starvation seems not to agree with me.”

June 10, 1847. Longboats abandoned owing to the terrestrial aspect of the land.

June 12, 1847. Dr. Goodsir, our surgeon, tried to enliven things by asking us which vegetable the Admirably forbade us to take on board the Erebus. Answer: Leeks! Only Goodsir himself laughed at this feeble joke, & as he did, several of his teeth loosened in his gums, then fell into the snow.

June 13, 1847. What a nuisance! I seem to have left my monogrammed cutlery & all my medals on the Erebus, so we had no choice but to march back to the ship, which was now a sorry sight — both the fore & aft decks were covered with a thick coat of scurvy.

June 14, 1847. A blizzard has kept us on the ship, so I began working on a talk to be given tomorrow at tea-time. Key sentences include: Eat your boots, men. They’re quite tasty. Give me a nice fresh boot over steak-and-kidney pie any day. [On an earlier expedition, Franklin had been compelled to eat his boots]

June 15, 1847. Hallo, what’s this? Fitzjames has barged into my cabin without a knock. “Sir John,” he says, brandishing his cutlass, “the men & I have made an important decision. The cabin boy is lean & emaciated, while you…”

Here the diary necessarily breaks off, but the percipient reader will have no trouble ascertaining why Franklin’s remains have never been found.

Mystery Writer

One of my finest moments occured at Na-Bolom in San Christobal de las Casas, Mexico, in the fall of 1992. I had just given a talk about the Labrador Innu in the hacienda’s library, and when I sat down, Trudy Blom, the facility’s 92 year old owner and a prominent ethnographer, said, “You are sitting in B. Traven’s favorite chair.”

A Traven book that is perilous to ignoreB. Traven was — and is — my favorite fiction writer. If you’ve seen the Humphrey Bogart film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then you might know that the film is based on the Traven novel of the same name.

Traven would not have wanted you to know anything about his life, however. He gave a wide berth to interviews, journalists, prizes, and publicity of any sort. Such a wide berth, in fact, that he makes Thomas Pynchon seem like a David Letterman regular.

There are quite a few theories about Traven’s identity. One theory is that Traven was the illegitimate son of the German Kaiser. Another theory is that he was Jack London, who faked his death and became Traven. Given that he, like London, wrote about down-and-outers in remote locations, this theory at least makes literary sense, which is more than I can say for the theory that he was the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in Mexico in 1913.  Traven died in 1969, and if he were Bierce, he would have been 126 years old at the time of his death.

In all probability, Traven was the German anarchist writer Ret Marut, who, being pursued by the Kaiser’s secret police, fled to Mexico around 1925 and adopted a new name, lest he be extradited to Germany. To consolidate his camouflage, he engaged in a number of manual jobs — cotton picker, oilman, miner, etc — which gave him an excellent window on his subsequent subject matter.

“An author should have no biography other than his books,” Traven wrote, and perhaps we should respect that sentiment rather than try to prove he was really (for example) Flannery O’Connor. Perhaps we should respect that sentiment with all authors, not just Traven…

What of Traven’s books? I’m not easily moved by fiction, but I’ve been powerfully moved by The Bridge in the Jungle every time I’ve read it. This novel concerns the disappearance of a young Indian boy and a small village’s efforts to find him. I also recommend the novella Macario, which describes an elderly Indian man’s encounter with Death right after he’s obtained his life’s wish — a roast turkey.

And if you want a reading experience that out-Kafka’s Kafka, then you should procure a copy of the doubtless autobiographical novel The Death Ship, a tale of a sailor who has lost his identity papers and who signs on a “death ship” — i.e., a ship destined to be sunk at sea so that the owners can claim the insurance money.

Or you could read The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which, believe or not, is a lot better than the movie.

Speaking of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, let me conclude this bog entry by quoting a passage from that novel — a passage that should be memorized by the myriad mining companies that have laid waste to natural environments. Howard, a gold miner, says to his fellow miners:

“We’ve wounded this mountain. It’s our duty to close her wounds. It’s the least we can do to show our gratitude for the wealth she’s given us.”