We Love to Fly and it Shows

Welcome to the new friendly skies. United Airlines has set a new low for air travel. CEO Oscar Munoz must resign his post, as a start, so that the airline can begin to make amends to its customers. The fact that he has failed to recognize that the despicable ejection of a paying client is morally and ethically wrong, despite the legalities of the situation, is cause enough for United’s board to dismiss him. If they do not, Congress must investigate the sorry state of affairs that has come to be considered normal in air travel within the United States.

United employees must also be criticized for their failure to exercise common sense. They have allowed a computer to do their thinking, and have hidden behind a flawed rule book, because they were only following orders. They thoughtlessly passed responsibility to the goons at TSA (or whichever law enforcement agency did the shameful deed) who appeared to beat senseless a man who was morally correct in refusing to disembark.

This action must not be allowed to stand, and consequences should follow.

…and yes, in all probability, I’ll be looking forward to getting bumped from my next flight.

The Resurrection of Richard Nixon

The current bunch of ruffians running the government have managed to do something that until recently was thought impossible. They have managed to make Richard Nixon look good.

Richard Nixon signed an executive order which created the EPA in 1970 to implement a number of environmental laws in order to make America clean again. Republicans would like to reverse these Nixonian regulations and go back to a simpler, almost biblical time, when rivers burned and skies were scarred brown with the unchecked pollution of industry.

In 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River burned for a 13th time. It was also in 1969, that California experienced its largest oil spill when a Union Oil offshore rig dumped oil along thirty-miles of Santa Barbara coast-line. Public outrage spurred Congress to pass the Clean Air Act of 1970 and to re-write the Federal Water Pollution Control Act into what has become known as the Clean Water Act.

Trump and Pruitt see the EPA and its bothersome standards as an example of the federal government trampling on states’ rights. Which may be. But recall that one purpose of the U.S. Constitution is to “…promote the general Welfare…” This means that the federal government must sometimes intercede and protect us from our baser instincts.

So, if you would prefer not to be able to swim in your local rivers on a hot summer afternoon, to breathe the air without a respirator, to bathe on beaches uncontaminated with oil, or to eat food unladen with toxic chemicals, then Trump and Pruitt are the men to have on your side.

Workmen using pitchforks, rakes and shovels attempt to clean up oil-soaked straw from the beach at Santa Barbara Harbor, Calif., Feb. 7, 1969.  The oil, leaking from an off-shore well for over a week, covered local beaches and threatened many southern California shoreline areas.  (AP Photo)

Workmen using pitchforks, rakes and shovels attempt to clean up oil-soaked straw from the beach at Santa Barbara Harbor, Calif., Feb. 7, 1969.


Cuyahoga river burns in 1952.



Taxing Times



If Trump is serious about lifting the prohibition against political activities on the part of churches, then they must be taxed. Churches, as well as other charitable organizations, are prohibited from engaging in political activities. This is not a gag on freedom of speech. Rather, it is a condition on receiving an exemption from income tax and a well established principle of law.

In 1934, Congress amended the statutory predecessor of §501(c)(3) to include the restriction that no substantial part of an organization’s activities may constitute carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation. The intent of the Finance Committee was to stop deductible contributions for legislative ends.

The prohibition of §501(c)(3) organizations from engaging in political activities came into being in 1954, when Lyndon Johnson proposed an amendment to the tax code in order to deny tax exempt status to not only those organizations “…who influence legislation but also to those who intervene in any political campaign on behalf of any candidate for public office.” Congress had previously contemplated inserting language in the code that would have prohibited organizations from participating in “partisan politics” back in 1934, but a draft provision was deleted, because it was thought to be overly broad. Nevertheless, that same year, Congress did amend the code to restrict lobbying activities.

In Regan v. Taxation With Representation of Washington, the Supreme Court upheld the congressional limitation on §501(c)(3) lobbying activities because an organization’s First Amendment rights are preserved through its ability to speak through an affiliated action fund. The Court stated “the IRS…requires only that the two groups be separately incorporated and keep records adequate to show that tax deductible contributions are not used to pay for lobbying. This is not unduly burdensome.”

In Branch Ministries v. Commissioner, the District Court of DC upheld the revocation of a church’s tax exemption under §501(c)(3), because the church had expressed its concern about the moral character of a candidate in the 1992 presidential elections. The church had placed advertisements in USA Today and the Washington Times, stating amongst other things that “…Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws,” and “tax deductible donations for this advertisement gladly accepted.”

The Internal Revenue Code treats churches differently from other tax-exempt organizations. While a church may file for Section 501(c)(3) status, it is not required to do so in order to be tax-exempt. A church may simply hold itself out as a church and claim exempt status pursuant to Section 508(c). However, partisan political activities are a direct violation of Section 501(c)(3). The Court noted that the

…plaintiffs have failed to establish that the revocation of the Church’s Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status substantially burdened its right to freely exercise its religion…The fact that plaintiffs may now have less money to spend on the religious activities as a result of their participation in a partisan political activity, however, is insufficient to establish a substantial burden on their free exercise of religion. [emphasis added]

There are situations where an organization may engage in advocacy which is essentially political, or where the political actions of others can be attributed to an organization.

In its 2002 Continuing Professional Education Manual, the IRS discussed the possibility that advocacy of an issue might cross the line into “participation or intervention” in a political campaign:

The concern is that an IRC 501(c)(3) organization may support or oppose a particular candidate in a political campaign without specifically naming the candidate by using code words to substitute for the candidate’s name in its messages, such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” “anti-choice,” “Republican,” “Democrat,” etc., coupled with a discussion of the candidacy or the election. When this occurs, it is quite evident what is happening– an intervention is taking place…the fundamental test that the Service uses to decide whether an IRC 501(c)(3) organization has engaged in political campaign intervention while advocating an issue is whether support for or opposition to a candidate is mentioned or indicated by a particular label used as a stand-in for a candidate.

The IRS realizes that staff of public charities may become involved in political campaigns and may even endorse candidates. To avoid attribution, charities should ensure that their staff understand the rules, particularly since the use of a nonprofit’s “financial resources, facilities, or personnel” is indicative that the actions of the individual should be attributed to the organization.

The CPE Manual states:

The prohibition against political campaign activity does not prevent an organization’s officials from being involved in a political campaign, so long as those officials do not in any way utilize the organization’s financial resources, facilities, or personnel, and clearly and unambiguously indicate that the actions taken or the statements made are those of the individuals and not of the organization.

There may also be situations where candidates speak at charitable events in their capacity as public figures. Once again, the IRS CPE Manual provides guidance:

Candidates may also be invited to speak at events by IRC 501(c)(3) organizations in their capacity other than as a candidate. Many candidates are public figures for reasons other than their candidacy. For instance, a number of candidates either currently hold or formerly held public office or may be experts in a non-political field. A candidate also might be a public figure as a result of a prior career, such as an acting, military, legal, or public service career. When a candidate is invited to speak at an event in a capacity other than as a candidate, it is not necessary for the IRC 501(c)(3) organization to provide equal access to all candidates. However, the IRC 501(c)(3) organization must ensure that the candidate speaks only in the other capacity and not as a candidate, that no mention is made of the individual’s candidacy at the event, and that no campaign activity occurs in connection with the candidate’s attendance at the event.

One example of the IRS position on organizational endorsements is a public statement which was negotiated with Jimmy Swaggart Ministries as a condition for recovering its tax-exemption:

When a minister of a religious organization endorses a candidate for public office at an official function of the organization…the endorsement will be considered an endorsement by the organization since the acts and statements of a religious organization’s ministers at official functions…and its official publications are the principal means by which a religious organization communicates its official views to its members and supporters.


We the People


Ratification of the U.S. Constitution was a closely run thing. In New York, the state’s ratifying convention to replace the Articles of Confederation with the proposed Constitution barely said ‘yes’ by a vote of 30 to 27. North Carolina and Rhode Island would not ratify until late 1789 and 1790, respectively. Thus, when George Washington became president in April 1789, there were just eleven United States. North Carolina and Rhode Island had the status of sovereign nations.

The Preamble wastes no time stating the intent of the Constitution – which is to “…establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty…”

The early arguments for ratification, The Federalist 2 – 8, emphasized defense as a selling point. European countries required large and costly standing armies to protect against incursions by their neighbors. “…the very strength of a united America would eliminate the need for a large standing army in peacetime. The result would be enormous peace dividends in both dollars and democracy” [Amar]. Individual states would have no need to maintain standing armies to protect against their neighbors in a United States. Hamilton closed out The Federalist series of papers with #85, noting that the Constitution would prevent “…extensive military establishments, which could not fail to grow out of wars between the States in a disunited situation.”

I’ll be summarizing key points from Akhil Reed Amar’s America’s Constitution – A Biography (2005) as I make my way through the book. But what is fascinating is how much of what occurred in our most recent election was by deliberate design. The moderates were swayed to ratify the Constitution “…not because they distrusted their own democratic state lawmakers…but rather because they needed to rein in other states’ legislatures” [Amar]. This is the very notion of “tyranny of the majority.” We may not like the outcome here in California, but the middle of the country sees that the electoral college has functioned as intended by checking the popular vote. In a very real sense, the rest of the country is reacting against the progressive platforms and legislators of the coastal United States.

Based on the “real” news I see daily, it is apparent that very few politicians understand the Constitution. Neither does the media, and it is to their everlasting shame that news sources do not take this opportunity to educate the country. My knowledge of the Constitution is weak at best. This stuff is vitally important, and the state of the country must not be left to the political parties and courts to sort out…they’ll just fuck it up some more. Hence this erudition and humble monograph. Remember the opening phrase of the Constitution – “We the People…”

Onward…Article I is next.


All that Glitters is not Gold


[another from the Antarctic course series]

Three days in an Antarctic blizzard on Mount Erebus with just a sleeping bag was good training for what would follow later in his life. Sir Raymond Edward Priestley was an expedition geologist with both Shackleton and Scott in the Antarctic – first with the Boss on the Nimrod expedition from 1907-1909, and then with Scott on the Terra Nova expedition from 1910-1913.


The Northern Party after their long winter in the ice cave From left: Dickason, Campbell, Abbott, Priestley, Levick and Browning.

Although not particularly distinguished academically, Shackleton related that he choose the 20-year old Priestley for Nimrod because “…I can manage that fellow.” That, and Priestley had the correct answer to Shackleton’s question “would you know gold if you saw it?” The Boss always had an eye on the expedition finances. The interview with Shackleton had been arranged by Priestley’s brother. Priestley was in his second year at University College, Bristol, when his brother inquired whether he had an interest in Antarctica. “I’d do anywhere to get out of this damned place.”

There is no great geologic discovery that can be attributed directly to Priestley. From his attitude at Bristol, one would not expect much in the way of original science. Admittedly, he was “…not so hot in school.” And yet…His geology schooling would be in the field among the outcrops, rocks and glaciers of Antarctica. Strictly hands-on lithology. Edgeworth David would be his tutor.

In science, one stands on the shoulders of giants to see a little bit further. Such is the nature of Priestley’s contribution to the science of geology. From an inauspicious beginning, he would add to the geological survey of the Ferrar Glacier and further the understanding of the geology of Southern Victoria Land by publishing a monograph with David (Antarctic Horst of South Victoria Land). During sledging on Mount Erebus, he identified raised beaches and observed eruptions. It was while on Erebus that Priestley survived one of many blizzards, in this case, with just his sleeping bag. The full geological results of the work from the Nimrod expedition would be published with David in The Heart of the Antarctic.


Camp on Mount Erebus. 1912 and 2012. Credit: Picture Library, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

But it was his experience wintering in an ice cave with the Northern Party of Scott’s Terra Nova expedition on Inexpressible Island, in what Vivian Fuchs called “a story of human endurance which has rarely been equaled,” that puts Priestley in the same league as Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton. Cherry-Garrard would add his own wisdom to Priestley’s tale in a summation that is concise and packed with relevance to a twenty-first century audience. “The necessaries of civilization were luxuries to us: and as Priestley found under circumstances to which our life at Hut Point was a Sunday School treat, the luxuries of civilization satisfy only those wants which they themselves create.”

Priestley published an account of the Northen Party’s expedition in Antarctic Adventure: Scott’s Northern Party. At times, his writing is the equal of Scott or Cherry-Garrard:

“I think the coldest thing I ever remember to have seen was the aurora which met our eyes when we tumbled out of our tent that morning to fetch the primus and cooker. It looked absolutely the essence of frigidity, and I know well enough now what I shall mean in the future when I speak of a cold light. A single arch of brilliant greenish-grey, like the curved blade of an immense scimitar flashing in moonlight, stretched across the sky from south to north.”


Plan of the Snow Cave – Priestley.

After his dark Antarctic winters, “…the Winter of the world with perishing great darkness” (Wilfred Owen) closed in on Priestley as the lights went out in Europe. Like many men from Shackelton’s Endurance expedition, Priestley served in World War One. He received the Military Cross for his involvement in taking the Riqueval Bridge on the Hindenburg Line (a German defensive position) in Northern France in 1918. On one-day, nearly one-million shells were fired during a twenty-four hour period. To Priestley, it must have seemed like the katabatic winds of Antarctica were shredding his tent once more, and that perhaps he was back on Erebus with just a sleeping bag.

After the war, he helped create the Scott Polar Research Institute in 1920, and followed that with the distinguished academic career he initially abandoned when he made his “Easting down” with Shackleton in 1907.

Priestley meet Roald Amundsen onboard the Fram in January 1911 when Terra Nova sailed into the Bay of Whales. Thus, he speaks with some authority when he compares the three great explorers of the Heroic age in what is perhaps the best analysis ever written, made all the more poignant for its brevity. “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

Though his science was not necessarily geologic gold, he can most certainly be considered one of the geologic glitterati.


The Really Deep Challenge



[the following is from a paper I wrote for an Antarctic course last spring]

“Airborne platforms…are ideal for ice-shelf cavity exploration due to their…operational insensitivity to crevasses (compared to surface-based data acquisition) …” (Southern Ocean Observing System). This is the scientific way of explaining that whereas people can fall into crevasses, airplanes generally do not. The challenge for scientists has always been one of translation. How to take meaning-laden, complex words and concepts and, without losing the gist, set them in a context for public consumption and discussion. Newton had it easy. Although the inspiration was brilliant, his expository was simple. The apple fell from the tree.


The Crossing of Antartica (Thames & Hudson)/George Lowe, Huw Lewis Jones, the 1957/58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Modern scientists have a harder challenge. Not only is the science more complex and difficult to understand, but the reality television mentality of many politicians and policy makers has promoted a culture that embraces ignorance. Witness Anderson Cooper’s comment to Donald Trump at a recent “debate” – “that’s the argument of a five year-old.” Such is the milieu in which the Challenge is set.

New Zealand is getting it right with its Deep South Challenge. Accepting that climate changes, the idea is to “adapt, manage risk and thrive in a changing climate.” To do so, and arrive at correct and economically viable decisions, a multi-disciplinary approach involving a positive feedback loop consisting of the public, educators, scientists and policy makers helps inform the science. For instance, what do civil engineers and architects need to know about extreme weather events when planning infrastructure; how do farmers manage crops in the face of more frequent droughts; how should tax and insurance policies be designed to benefit those communities most at risk to sea level rise so that the larger public good is not abused? This is the ground-truthing of public policy – using societal concerns and issues to prove the value of the science.

The Deep South Challenge has developed various engagement strategies to ensure that the science done in the Antarctic “…remains focused on and directed by societal needs.” Through lectures, seminars, briefing sessions and technical workshops, the Challenge responds “…to the most important national-scale issues.” Open and continuous communication is achieved by the use of online media, science festivals and public workshops among other tools. In this way, scientific priorities and research programs are established which lead back to the ground, or ice, in Antarctica.


Antarctic sea ice. NASA.

Data and observations gathered on and around the continent help in the development of an earth system model which allows better management of climate risks. Climate observations in Antarctica help improve atmospheric models which in turn provide more reliable and precise weather forecasting. This allows the constituents of the Challenge to more effectively determine and plan for the impact of climate change on the economy and infrastructure. For instance, infrastructure decisions are improved by adding the stressors and risks associated with climate change to existing tectonic based models. It is well enough to understand what happens when the earth shakes, but you also need to know what energetic storms laden with heavy rain, wind, snowfall and resultant flooding can do to the roads.

Extreme weather events can be seen as beginning in Antarctica. In situ work on ice-shelf cavities, as an example, feed directly back into weather models and test the validity and predictive value of the computer programs. Ice sheets lose mass at their boundaries which are generally where ice meets water along the leading edge and underneath the sheet itself – the cavity. As warm water enters the cavity, the sheets thin and are more vulnerable to fracture. But unlike a dental cavity, you can’t X-ray an ice sheet cavity. Gravitational measurements taken from aircraft, and ship based radio echo sounding and magnetic data help to map the relevant geography. This complex interaction of water and ice is the beginning of a deep river that cascades off the continental shelf and drives global ocean currents. So it is important to understand this interaction and to have models that predict what is observed on the ice.

Models must also explain the apparent inconsistencies that are so often picked up and paraded in public by politicians and talk show hosts. If global warming exists, why has the extent of winter sea ice around Antarctica been increasing? Recent extreme winters on the east coast of the United States have been used by politicians as evidence that global warming does not exist, and a significant portion of the population follows along.

There was a brief time when science captured the imagination of the world. From that moment when man walked on the moon, an entire generation was motivated to achieve the astounding. The benefits of the science, research and education that flowed from the Apollo missions can still be seen today in medicine, communications and computer and earth sciences. Because of its global impact, the next wave of imagination can be stimulated by Antarctic science.


Water circulation – Antarctica.

Not Going Gently into the Night – Pacing at Western States



bob 49

Bob Halpenny. Photo courtesy John Onate.

This is my friend Bob at the Devil’s Thumb aid station (mile 48) where he had just 52 miles to run to complete the 2016 Western States Endurance Run. Short of the type of asteroid impact that wiped the dinosaurs from the face of the planet, Bob Halpenny was determined to finish. It was my great pleasure to pace him through the night.

Bob gets things done. I’ve seen him tree a bear on the Brown’s Bar trail while out on a training run. I’ve seen him stare down rattlesnakes. He told me he once saw a mountain lion on Quarry trail. To the lion’s credit, she continued on, giving Bob a wide berth. Bob is someone you want on your side along the dusty, hot trails of Western States. Pacing Bob involves, more or less, just following him along the trial as he gets things done. I was taking notes the whole way.

I picked up Bob at mile 55.7 – Michigan Bluff – just after sunset at 9:07 pm. We headed purposefully into the warm and pleasant night which was clear with very little wind.

Time is a quiet sentinel during a night run. There is nothing to indicate its passage. No shifting of light, changing of colors nor lengthening of shadows. No landmarks but aid stations. Just a constant cocoon of light cast by our headlamps, at the perimeter of which is ever present darkness. And only the sound of our feet stirring up trail dust which sometimes glittered in the beam of our lamps.

Except for a few expected stumbles late in the evening, or perhaps early morning when our soporific bodies insisted we should be sleeping, we continued along our somnolent journey without event, stepping one foot in front of the other. The red eye of Mars guided us as did the glowing reflectors that marked the trail, sometimes looking like a runner headed the wrong way towards us. Occasionally I would remind Bob it was time to eat or drink, and also occasionally, from one or the other of us would come the question “doing alright?” to which the answer was always a brief “yes.”

Around 2:30 am, I was leading into the Ford’s Bar aid station when there occurred a great roar of cheerfulness from the Fleet Feet staff once Bob’s number was sighted on my pacer’s bib. “It’s number 191, Bob Halpenny,” I called out. Water bottles filled, a cup of soup and slaps on the back all around, and we were quickly back into that good night.

I cannot say whether we heard the river crossing before we saw it, but we rounded a bend and perhaps one-half mile ahead we saw lights strung across the river like stars. At 3:59 am, we arrived at Rucky Chucky, fueled up, put on life jackets and were instructed to keep both hands on the line. Glow sticks were placed at intervals on the river bottom, and gracious volunteers instructed us where to step and when to be cautious.

Upon reaching the far side of Rucky Chucky, Bob’s second pacer Wonkyo Lee, was waiting as fresh as the morning sun that would soon rise, breathing new warmth into the day and giving Bob the boost he needed to finish. Much to my delight, my wife Debbie was sitting smiling on a rock waiting for me. We had a two mile climb to go to Green Gate…

Polar explorer Roald Amundsen said that “adventure is just bad planning.” With Bob there is no adventure. What you get is experience.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas


Laura, Debbie, Kim and James at the finish.


Laura and Wonkyo Lee in Auburn.


Bob Halpenny on an early climb.


Bob crossing Ruck A Chucky.


Rick – 4 AM river crossing.

Keeping up with the Trumps


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When people talked about how Richard Nixon disgraced the office of the presidency, little did they know that this was the start of a forty-year slide in the degradation of that office to no more than a televised reality show. After what now appears to be the certainty of a Trump nomination, that process is complete.

Imagine if you will (cue Rod Serling), a political party so detached from the mood of the Country, that it would rather commit suicide than continue with the lingering malaise and lugubrious drollery that has characterized American politics.

As the rest of the world watches aghast, the United States has now entered…The Twilight Zone.

More later…

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 11: Rod Serling, host and narrator of The Twilight Zone. 'Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,' episode of The Twilight Zone. Initial television broadcast on October 11, 1963. Image is a frame grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – OCTOBER 11: Rod Serling, host and narrator of The Twilight Zone. ‘Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,’ episode of The Twilight Zone. Initial television broadcast on October 11, 1963. Image is a frame grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Paradise on the Tahuayo


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“Don’t touch anything,” Rafael cautions as we begin our night hike into the rain forest. To emphasize his point, he directs the blade of a machete towards a tree that has what look like stingy spikes protruding in every direction.

“Very sharp…If you fall, do not reach out as you go down.”

The trick will be to remember his admonition when the fall occurs. We are not practiced in the art of walking through dark, sticky mud concealing roots and who knows what else while simultaneously ducking under branches teaming with ants or containing lurking snakes and tarantulas. Again…a gesture from Rafael towards a branch hanging just over the trail reveals a snake…that is pretending to be a branch. Perhaps fifty feet into the jungle, I realize that everything around us is alive. We are walking softly through the living, breathing heart of the planet.


Sunset on the Nanay River. A tributary of the Amazon.

I am not a spiders and snakes kind of guy. Yet I am oddly calm at this moment. The flash lights and headlamps of our little group create a visual cocoon that feels safe. I cannot fear what I cannot see.

For Rafael, this is his paradise. Over the next eight days, we will come to agreement with him on this view. Everything that is needed to sustain life is here, but is difficult for Western eyes to see. A particular vine holds drinkable water. A tree has “jungle iodine” that can be used to sooth and protect scratches made by sharp, stingy things. Food can be found in the form of nuts and fruits, and of course there are fish. Without Rafael, we would be bloody, battered, bruised and full of nasty parasites, wallowing in the mud and utterly lost just ten yards along the trail from the lodge. But in his care, we are well looked after and kept from harm.


Near the main lodge on the Tahuayo.

Just yesterday, we landed in Iquitos where the passengers applauded the skill of the pilot who made an exceptionally smooth landing in what must sometimes be a difficult approach. At just 3 degrees south of the equator, this is where equatorial waters evaporate and rise into the air beginning a great global energy transfer – the very birth of the winds that drive Earth’s climate. Currents of water become worldwide currents of air. Powerful forces are at work here, and you can see it in the fast moving clouds.

A mosaic of organized chaos, Iquitos rises with the sun and is at work in the markets and on the river in skiffs and boats. The action in the streets begins as quickly as the sun shoots into the sky. “Rapido, rapido,” calls a foreman to the soft banging of hammers just out of sight. Some Latin pop calls out from the cantina to no one in particular across the Itaya river. Moto taxis swarm the streets like mosquitos on a sweaty body. Lane markings are mere suggestions – a framework upon which to practice the art of driving Iquitos style.

We are wandering no particular street of Iquitos when a dark wall of clouds some distance away spreads like a curtain across the visible horizon obscuring the jungle. It advances over the river in a clear line and soon drops torrents of rain. A river of water falls from the sky into the three rivers which surround Iquitos. For a moment, the river seems to rise appreciably.

As the first drops begin, boatmen paddling offshore pull on ponchos, although they are in no hurry to do so. We are caught without a poncho between us and huddle under an overhang, watching as the moto taxis pull up their rain guards – square sheets of plastic through which the drivers strain to see who has the lead position.


Moto taxis at night – Iquitos.

While staring at this elegant dance of moto taxis, each continually jostling the other to get at the front of the pack, a little girl looks around the corner at this soaked group of gringos. She asks if we are lost. Her mother invites us into their home. Peruvians are an easy going and delightful people – ever generous and hospitable.

“No, gracias. Nosotros estar bien.”

But you can’t be in Iquitos long before you hear of ayahuasca. Later that evening, we meet William just outside of Dawn on the Amazon Café. He is an American expat who has been in Iquitos for ten years.

“Have you tried ayahuasca?” William explains that Iquitos is the ayahuasca capital of the world. One must be careful to choose the right curandero.

Ayahuasca is basically a purgatory with a psychedelic side effect. It cleans you out, and then you see God. Or something like that. Since it “…opens up the sluices at both ends,” someone must look after you for three days…we politely decline. Because as we are to find out, who needs psychedelics when you have giant river otters, which we will soon see when we head upriver in the morning.


Nanay River sunset.

Some fifty-six miles south of Iquitos we are at the Tahuayo Lodge positioned on the left bank of a bend in the Tahuayo River, a tributary of the Amazon. Away from the bustle of Iquitos, the cycle of activities throughout each day becomes perfectly synced with the natural rhythms of life. You awake just before sunrise to the sound of monkeys far off in the canopy. They are also beginning their day. To start, there is some physical activity in the form of a hike before breakfast, which is followed by an excursion – perhaps a trip in a boat looking for pink dolphins and a refreshing swim in the river. It is then time for lunch, after which there is a nice quiet paddle in a canoe. During the hottest part of the day is the important siesta. Then dinner follows announced by the beating of a drum. The day is capped with either an evening hike or a boat ride to look for giant caimans which refuse to be coaxed out of favorite hiding spots, appetites apparently sated, despite the persistent bird calls of the guides. Shine a flashlight into bushes lining the river, which are really tree tops because of recent floods, and many eyes stare back like stars fixed in the night sky. Finally, it is bedtime, and you discard the clothes that have been soaking wet since the moment you dressed in the morning…A hush descends over the lodge, and the sounds of the rain forest take over, covering you with a soft aural blanket.


Hiking the white sands of Iquitos.

My most vivid memories of the Peruvian Amazon are the sounds. Many birds with different calls; innumerable frogs – chirping frogs, gladiator tree frogs, clown tree frogs – the smallest of which seemingly has the loudest rumble; and, whatever passes for crickets in the Amazon. These sounds serenade us to sleep each night. Think of waves washing up on a shoreline and receding across sand and pebbles, this is the effect. Towards morning, the monkeys awake and become active once more, joining the chorus. The day begins again…

The Hike and Fishing Trip

Before sunrise, we are on the slippery trail behind the lodge to look for monkeys – specifically, howler monkeys.

Sounding like an ill wind blowing through the trees, one group is close. But Rafael says they are across a swamp and unreachable. There is a second group that is further away. Taking a moment to listen, Rafael points in their direction. But since their deep howls can be heard up to three miles away, there is not time to track them before breakfast.

On the way back to the lodge, Rafael points to a branch covered with spikes sharper than hypodermic needles.

“Don’t touch.”

Later, he points to a plant that looks not dissimilar to many others.

“Don’t touch. Very bad.”

One of my legs slips between two submerged logs, causing me to lose my balance. Remembering not to touch anything, I go straight into the mud. It is a soft landing.

“That’s one set of clothes for the laundry.” Fortunately, it looks to be hot and sunny today – good laundry weather…otherwise, it can take days for anything to dry.

Raphael cuts me a walking stick with his machete, something he must have done many times…then a quiet pause as he scans the treetops.

“There is a sloth.”


“You see this tree? Follow the base up to where the two branches go like a ‘Y.’ Take the right branch and behind it is another tree. You see the yellow leaf on that tree?”


“Look at the black spot to the left of the leaf…that is the sloth.”


With a slight smile, Rafael begins again. I finally spot the animal, and even through a sloth moves as slowly as a… well….it still moves too fast for me to get a focus lock with my camera…

Raphael makes one of many astute observations. “Blue eyes don’t work in the Amazon…blue eyes are for decoration.”


After breakfast, fishing gear is loaded into the skiff. Not being a lover of all things fish, I plan on being an observer. The plan is to fish for piranhas.

Quickly, in the medium distance, strange forms are leaping straight out of the water. What initially sounds like barking, actually turns out to be “a chorus of loud snorts.” We are apparently the object of this attention, and “they” are getting closer.

Giant river otters are very territorial. They will fiercely defend their young and have even been known, when attacking as a group, to drive a jaguar away (Neotropical Rainforest Mammals). The otters decide we are not a threat and are a nice surprise.

Rafael is at the bow of the boat and guides, while Beto mans the outboard at the stern. Once Rafael is satisfied that he has found a suitable spot, the outboard is silenced and the fishing gear, sticks with a bit of fishing line and a hook, are passed around.


The lunch catch.

Beto, it turns out, is a champion fisherman. Lightly slapping the water a few times with his line, he dips the hook below the surface and instantly he has got a fish along with a contented smile. He slaps the line again on the surface, drops the hook into the water, with the inevitable result – another fish. The process is repeated again, and before you can say “Beto,” another fish has been landed. Raphael calls out the name of each fish Beto hauls into the boat – a paiche, a catfish, a piranha, another piranha…no one else in the boat has the “Beto touch” – slap water, lower hook, fish, big smile…It is back to the lodge where piranha will be on the lunch menu.

The Lodge

At Tahuayo Lodge there is a domestic cat. He has the run of the place and is sometimes seen at the river’s edge plucking catfish (truly) out of the water. He also gets into the rafters and walks on the screen that serves as a ceiling – all the better to look down on his domain. The screen over our heads must occasionally be shared with snakes and tarantulas. Given that the cat is still around, it has clearly mastered some unique survival skills.


Near the Amazon Research Center

And now, thanks to Debbie, there may also be a resident dog named “Kenny” at the Lodge. Let me explain…

There is a dog which was seen swimming across the river to the Lodge, and then there is Kenny. Kenny called Dr. Paul (the proprietor) earlier in the summer and asked if the Lodge needed an intern. “Book a flight,” he was told. Kenny does a great job doing whatever needs doing around the Lodge. It may be helping with repairs or construction, or clearing the dishes after a meal. He gets the job done with obvious delight and a smile. He is well liked, and, as a consequence and in gratitude, he is happy to report that a recent birth in El Chino was affectionately named “Kenny.”

Some think the dog may have come from a nearby village – clearly hungry and starved for affection. Dogs are viewed as work animals in the Amazon, raising the question as to what a dog does for work. Apparently, they assist with the hunt but do not share in the spoils…The staff are bewildered by our attention towards the dog. But Kenny promises to look after him. One can only imagine that if the dog takes up residence, it will be named….”Kenny.”

Speaking of large cats, at dinner I was asking Rich, one of the scientists working at the research center if he has seen a jaguar.

“You don’t want to see one. They’re huge. Even the guides get nervous if they sense one is nearby. They are so leery of humans that if you see one, there’s a good chance it’s been stalking you, and it’s probably too late to do anything about it.”

Rich was finishing up his visit at the research center where he had been studying the shy and elusive Saki moneys. He was heading back to the states, whereas we were bound for the more rustic research center the next morning.

Amazon Research Center and The Lake Hike

Just as the name implies, serious research is conducted at the Research Center. It is a “…long-term conservation initiative undertaken in consultation with government offices in Iquitos, Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the Missouri Botanical Garden, and the Chicago Botanic Garden.” This is the place to be if you are looking for monkeys.

Rafael explains that the “survival hike” to the lake will take two to three hours and the same back again. It will be swampy.

“Don’t touch anything,” he reminds us as we disembark onto the always muddy river bank.


Tree tops submerged.

Arevalo is leading the way in front. So far, the walk is delightful. A deep carpet of leaves and branches is soft to walk on. But it quickly gives way to a muddy swamp. We begin slogging through a bog. It is hard going, but good exercise.

Arevalo pauses and is still as he listens to a sound I cannot hear. Then there is a distinct sound which to my ear sounds like a large animal. It is merely a branch falling through the canopy. Another sound focuses his attention. Placing hand to chin, Arevalo signals his decision by gently raising his machete and pointing it in a certain direction.



Rafael soon announces that “the lake is in ten minutes.” Thirty minutes later, he repeats this announcement with a smile. “The lake is in ten minutes…”

It is the mating season for birds, and they are making quite a fuss in the trees when we arrive at the lake. Hoatzin are the most vocal and argumentative of the birds that are vying for mates. Potential suitors are rejected in a fluttering of wings and squawking.

Arevalo pulls out the fishing sticks to rustle up lunch while Rafael tries to start a fire in order to charcoal grill freshly caught fish. He is ultimately unsuccessful. “The wood is too wet.” So the fish are packed away to reappear at dinner.

The hike back to the boat? Ten minutes…

Hiking the Grid

Arevalo is with us again the next morning as we begin to hike the grid. Today, we are looking for Saki monkeys. The grid is just that. A sign posted collection of trails with A through P oriented in one direction and 1 through 22 in the other – like city streets.

But these are not the sign posts I am used to. They are easy to miss, and because of the recent floods, some have been loosened from their moorings and deposited not in their original locations.

Raphael said that before the sign posts were added, one of the guides got lost on the trails. He was found later in the day, only his pride bruised. I ask Raphael how he navigates. He can orient his direction by the position of the sun. On unfamiliar trails, he will make a slight notch on a tree trunk with a machete.

A half rotted post is lying on its side just off the trail. It indicates “M 13.” Rafael and Arevalo begin a discussion in Spanish as to which trail is “M” and which is “13.” Once resolved, they plant the post upright in the muddy goop.

Then we see, or rather Rafael sees, the recent prints of a jaguar. Later there are tapier prints. Rafael also spots the path that a wild pig has taken and the muddy pool of water in which it took a bath. He also points out where a jungle rat has grabbed a bit of food in the shelter of tree roots during the night. The jungle itself is vast, yet the details are tiny.

Rafael turns over a leaf and uncovers a poison dart frog no larger than my finger nail. He places the frog on his machete and raises it so that we have a better look. The frog crawls onto the back of Rafael’s hand, and he ever so slowly lowers it back to the ground. Careful not to touch its poisonous back.

This is his paradise, and we are his guests…


Morning at the Research Center.

The Map of My Heart


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This heart’s geography’s map—this limitless small continent—this soundless sea…
-Walt Whitman

First of all, let’s get all the Latin and cursing out of the way with right at the start. SVT is supraventricular tachycardia which is Latin for Fucking Fast Heartbeat. There!

In my case, my heart clocked in at 238 on September 9, 2015, sometime after five in the evening after five and one-half miles of a planned sixteen-mile run, just as I was beginning to ascend ball bearing. I was running with a heart rate monitor that would do an electrocardiogram (ECG) in case this very thing happened. It was a hot day – probably 95 when I started my run at Quarry parking lot near Auburn. My hydration pack was filled with ice. The moment I felt my heart rate spike from 130 to 238, I pressed the transmit button which sent my ECG to somewhere in Florida, then back to California, and I sat down to concentrate on breathing.

I imagine people experience SVT in different ways. For me, there is a brief instant just before tachycardia when I know – a feeling of what I later learned is a sort of skip in the heart beat preceding a beat so fast that my brain loses oxygen and I begin to feel light headed. An event in medical parlance. So I sat down to breathe…now that I knew. What I knew was that I didn’t want to pass out at the base of ball bearing at that moment.


Near the base of Ball Bearing (Maine Bar Trail).

Here is how my medical team reported the event:

Cardiology was notified of your event and it showed a supraventricular tachycardia. They recommend you be evaluated further by our cardiac electrophysiology specialists to discuss the best treatment options for you.

Specifically, my diagnosis was AV Nodal Reentrant Tachycardia (AVNRT), the most common type. Essentially, this is an electrical short circuit near the center of the heart.

The heart has a natural pacemaker called the sinoatrial node (SA node) which kicks off this wondrous sequence of events that is the heartbeat (your pulse is simply the number of signals the SA node generates each minute). Starting near the top of the heart, this spark of life begins at the right atrium and travels down along electrically conducting pathways.

cardiac-conduction-systemThe first signal tells the heart to contract and pump blood. Electricity then flows along two pathways (the fast and slow pathways) to the AV node, where there is a slight pause to allow the right and left ventricles to fill with blood. It is here that an extra pathway may cause the signal to loop in a circle (the reentrant in AVNRT) and override the SA node’s normal pace-making duties, greatly speeding up the heartbeat in the process.


The reentry circuit – AV node

So, one week later, I was patched into an IV and getting hooked up to all kinds of wires, after having undergone various blood tests and electrocardiograms, in preparation for a radio-frequency catheter ablation of my heart. What you should keep in mind, is that SVT is not considered a disease of the heart and is usually not life threatening. And neither is it caused by running. Although in my case, running triggered SVT. Other triggers can include caffeine, antihistamines and stress. But the underlying cause is an unknown abnormal electrical circuit.

Toward the unknown region…

April 11
During runs earlier in the year, symptoms sometimes presented as difficulty breathing and tightness in the throat. As I was in the midst of allergy season, this was what I naturally thought of as the cause. It even seemed that a bad day at Lake Sonoma on April 11 might have been down to having received the second of three doses of the rabies vaccine the day before (another tale). “Headache, nausea, abdominal pain, muscle aches, dizziness,” are the possible mild problems associated with this vaccine. Yet they are also indistinguishable from the “mild problems” associated with running an ultra marathon. But in retrospect….


At Lake Sonoma 50 – photo by John Evans

There was a moment during Lake Sonoma around mile thirty-five when I could not take another step. A tightness in my throat (a symptom of SVT) made breathing difficult, so I sat for a moment. I am going to have to drop, I thought. But to do so, I had to get to the next aid station at Warm Springs Creek, three miles distant. No one could help me get there. So I dumped everything left in my pack into my body. This consisted of two packets of Scratch, two GUs and some Endurolyte tablets. Minutes later, I was moving again and feeling optimistic. Thoughts of dropping were gone.

But wait…weren’t you wearing the heart rate monitor that came with your Garmin? A good question, to which my answer is…no. It took a run on May 28 on Quarry Trail when my throat tightened up and I had to stop short at Brown’s Bar that made me think I should strap the bugger on again. And then nothing happened, until June 16 on a run from the Overlook just before starting up K2.

I stopped to catch my breath, which was short and rapid, and glanced down at my Garmin. It read 235 bpm. Well that’s my max…hold on, isn’t it that less your age? Must be something wrong with the watch! I later saw that my heart rate was 235 for four minutes that day.

There followed three other events: June 23rd, 226 bpm for five minutes; August 23rd, 230 bpm for nine minutes; and August 24th, 233 bpm for seven minutes.

When I met with my primary care physician, I expressed concern since I was planning on running Rio Del Lago on November 7. “Well then, we better figure out what’s going on,” was her response, and she gave me a heart rate monitor to wear for thirty-days.

Since I was wearing only the Kaiser provided heart rate monitor during the pivotal event on September 9, I can’t tell you how long I sustained a rate of 238 bpm. It was probably around nine minutes. I had trashed my Fenix 2 the week before taking what Bob Halpenny called a most spectacular fall which gave new meaning to Garmin’s metric “ground contact time.” Thankfully, x-rays confirmed nothing was broken except the Fenix 2. My doctor, no doubt, was wondering what I was up to again and gave me what I considered to be sound medical advice…“don’t fall.”


Normal ECG waves.

Which takes us to September 16 and the cardiac ablation…

The map of my heart…

September 16
Before the ablation, there is the electrophysiology (EP) study. Since heart tissue will be destroyed during an ablation, it is nice to know that nothing critical is being zapped, which might result in implantation of a pacemaker. The EP study is the process that maps the electrical pathways of the heart, and points to the precise spot of the abnormal circuit.

Access to the heart is gained from an artery or vein near the groin (good grief!). Since I must remain awake during the procedure, something special is dripped into my IV to keep me calm. Conscious sedation is the medical term. Which works well. In order to get the catheter into the artery (think of a plastic tube not unlike spaghetti), some lidocaine is used as local aesthetic. After this, I feel more like an observer than a participant.

The tachycardia must be triggered to identify my aberrant circuit. My heart is now in my doctor’s hands. He controls its beating – as like a switch he effortlessly turns on and off. Painlessly, I feel my heart being fiddled with, speeding up and slowing down, as my electrical circuits are mapped. At one point, my heart feels like it is trying to leap out of my chest. “That’s nice,” I think, without a bit of concern. Then some ablations begin which I sometimes feel as warmth in my chest. Afterwards, for sometime, I will occasionally feel as if someone has the barbeque on when I take a deep breath. After two-hours, the procedure is done. Several spots were ablated.


Normal sinus rhythm from 12 lead ECG.

Recovery takes four hours. My doctor turns my heart from his hands into the hands of my nurses. Poetry is insufficient to describe their care. I know, because I have searched for some to use in this piece, and the words always fall short of what I feel. Nursing is one of the noblest pursuits. A major complication during recovery is bleeding from the puncture sites in the groin (good grief again!). But I am well looked after, and there are no complications.

This precious heart set in the silver sea…

September 24
One week later, I laced up my Altra’s to take my first post ablation run. The first mile was good, but there followed a skip, and my heart rate instantly spiked to 220 bpm. Pressing briefly on my femoral artery, I was able to bring the heart rate down and walked home – feeling blown about like the fall leaves that swirled in the warm Sacramento breeze. That was the moment I knew I should drop from Rio Del Lago.

After another consultation with my cardiologist, we both felt it was worthwhile to go back into my heart and take another look around. He doesn’t like to be too aggressive when he does these procedures. There is no line over which he can backup if he goes too far. He had ablated about one-dozen spots in my case, which is quite a lot. I have a stubborn heart, he noted. So, the usual blood tests were ordered and another date set.

You again…

October 7
Glenda and Jack instantly recognized me when I walked into the Cath Lab. We proceeded to have a grand time – like old friends. The preparation and electrophysiology study were done as before, although the procedure took longer at two and one-half hours.

My doctor accessed my heart from arteries on both sides of the groin this time (good fucking grief!). Despite this, I felt more relaxed in recovery. My pulse was hovering in the 60s, and somewhat tired, I took a yawn. My heart rate leapt to 120, and the alarms started ringing.

Oddly, every time I took a deep breath, my heart rate jumped, sometimes up to 130. A 12-lead ECG was ordered, but the rhythm on the monitors looked different from that of supraventricular tachycardia. The doctor said he ablated quite a few spots for a total of nine minutes of burn time. At one point, he said he didn’t think he could do anymore without risking a pacemaker. In my consciously sedated state I thought “hmm…” But then he took another look and zapped a few more bits after which he was unable to induce tachycardia.

The general consensus was that after two ablations close in succession, my heart was essentially saying WTF (latin again)! A stress test on the treadmill was scheduled, and I was temporarily prescribed some heart medication.

October 13
Although it was no Goat Hill, the stress test did get my heart pumping. Strapped into all sorts of wires again, and with a blood pressure cuff on my arm, the treadmill gradually increased its speed and slope. Thankfully, the technicians were unable to induce SVT. Although I did have palpitations and some skips in the heart beat originating in the atrium. These may be a result of bruising and swelling from the procedure and should subside. Looking over the before ablation and after ablation ECGs with my doctor, he pointed out that these skips were happening before the first ablation.

October 20
It was not without some trepidation that I went on my first run following my second ablation today. At the start, my heart rate jumped to 150, and you probably have a good idea what I thought…I stopped and walked whenever it spiked. But after three-quarters of a mile, as I deepened and slowed my breathing, it started to stay below 130 in my aerobic range. I still experienced palpitations, but I managed four miles, which was all I set out to do. In two weeks, I’ll take another heart rate monitor from Kaiser out for a spin, and we’ll see if the ECG has calmed down.

Until then, keep the trails warm for me. I have big plans for 2016 which include a 100-miler. The trails and ultra community are lodged deep within the map of my heart.

Supraventricular-tachycardiaSaint-Exupéry was a pilot in the early days of aviation. He was also an author. Although he was writing about flying, to me, this quote captures an important reason to run “…it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.”

Heart and ECG graphics are courtesy Life in the Fast Lane.