Monday, October 3, 2016

Ultra light Hikers from the Past

If you follow trends in backpacking you are aware that ultra light backpacking is what many hikers are trying to achieve today. To accomplish this, hikers bring the lightest possible backpack equipment so they can journey longer and faster. As a result, backpacking equipment is made from lighter materials and hikers often use tricks to take weight from their packs such as drilling holes in the handles of their forks and making stoves out of soda cans. Today people work extremely hard and go to great expenses to earn the designation of being an ultra light backpacker. Looking to the past, it is interesting to see that people moved about the world as ultra light travelers without quite so much expense, planning, and preparation as we do today.

One example is Otzi the Iceman who was an ultra light traveler from Europe. He crossed the Austrian Alps but was killed on his journey by other travelers in the area. In 1991, his 5,300-year-old body was discovered on a glacier by some hikers. Otzi’s gear included a few tools and weapons, a piece of fungus on a leather string (his first aid kit) and two birch bark containers. One of these containers was blackened inside and had the remains of items that had been burnt. This was Otzi’s charcoal, which he carried around with him so he could easily start fires when he set up camp each night. Otzi traveled across extremely difficult terrain with only a few items carried on his belt and across his back because that is all he really needed to survive. The only expense for these items was the time and effort he put into crafting them.

One of my favorite ultra light explorers is Ernest Shackleton. His story is one too amazing to be believed. He and 27 men left for Antarctica the day after World War I began. Their ship, The Endurance, was trapped and later crushed in the Antarctic ice and they were without any communication from the outside world because of the war. To rescue his men, Shackleton and his crew sailed to Elephant Island where he left most them under the care of his trusted friend, Frank Wilde. While these men were left at Elephant Island, Shackleton and five of the men sailed 800 miles across the ocean to South Georgia Island. They went there to find a whaling station to acquire a ship large enough to rescue the men left on Elephant Island. However, once they reach South Georgia Island, they landed on the opposite side of where the whaling station was located because they had survived a hurricane the previous night in their small boat. After setting up a makeshift camp, Shackleton and two of the five men, left at 2:00 a.m. and made a 36-hour journey across the island to reach help. They traveled ultra light through crevasses, up and down mountain ranges, and endured extreme cold because they were too exhausted to carry much and were nearly out of supplies. In the end, they repelled down through an icy waterfall to get to the area where the whaling village was. On this short but grueling journey Shackleton and his two companions only brought a pickax, a small stove, a logbook, a rope, and some powdered milk. This incredible ultra light adventure has not gone unnoticed by climbers and adventures today. A few teams have attempted to humbly recreate the lifesaving journey that Shackleton and his men took. They were successful but had to use a lot of climbing equipment to make it.

Another traveler, John Muir always comes to mind when thinking about ultra light backpacking. When he took off across the country, he put bread, tea, sugar, and a tin cup in a blanket and set off. Muir mainly ate bread on his hikes, which he dried so it would not get moldy. He never brought a gun on his wilderness excursions and did not hunt so he often hiked with a calorie deficit. Today the trail that John Muir often hiked is 210 miles long and has an elevation change of 80,000 feet. This would not be a journey to be weighed down with too many supplies, however Muir’s provisions seem a bit scanty.

In today’s busy world, looking to the past gives us critical insights as to how we could be more minimalist and ultra light in our lives. Many people from long ago did not plan out carefully what they would have with them on their daily journeys, they simply used what was available to them and they survived. Technology and inventions are wonderful but sometimes the best option is to grab what you have, put it in a blanket and enjoy an adventure.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

10 Reasons why the Dutch and Their Bicycles are a Thing

            When people hear the word “Dutch” they think of windmills, wooden shoes, tulips and of course bicycles. In the Netherlands, people of all ages are on bicycles and it’s not just an activity for the fit, young guys or a cycling subculture. Riding bikes starts very early in the Netherlands, so are Dutch infant’s first memories of handlebars and the backseats of bicycles? Possibly, because in the Netherlands biking is not a singular event, it is just how it is – no matter what the distance, time of day or the amount of rain that is falling.

10. A Common Mode of Transportation
            A quick look at the geography of the Netherlands makes it obvious that the land is nearly entirely flat. And for those of us who have pushed and grunted to get up a hill on our bikes, an even path is quite inviting. Take a look at their neighbor, Germany. This is also a relatively flat country but biking never took off in Germany like it did in the Netherlands. A lot of this had to do with the attitude of the people. While the Germans saw cycling as a way for the common laborer to get around, the Dutch viewed biking as a reflection of themselves: hardworking, determined and ambitious.
            If you live in a car-centered country and don’t quite believe the universal use of bicycles in the Netherlands, take a look at the city of Amsterdam, its population is approximately 800,000 and it has about 880,000 bikes.

9. A Safe Way to Travel
            Since children in the Netherlands start riding bikes before they are old enough to go to school, they experience what it is like to be an active part of traffic. In the Netherlands, those driving cars do not usually steer dangerously close to bicyclists or honk at them for being on the road because at one time or another, they have been riding a bicycle in traffic so they have empathy for those on bicycles. To increase the safety of this mode of travel, elementary students have classes in school each year to help them understand traffic laws and how to maneuver in traffic.
            Biking is not only physically safe in the Netherlands, but it increases the health and well being of the Dutch. If you are on a bike you are spared from being sneezed on in the subway. In addition, the Dutch are physically active every single day. This cuts down substantially on the amount spent on health care in the Netherlands because people generally stay healthy longer. It is not uncommon to see a 4-year-old riding alongside an eighty-four year old.

8. It’s a way of life
            In the Netherlands, the bicycle is the best way to get from Point A to Point B whether that point is school, work or running errands. Instead of getting in a car to pick up a gallon of milk, the Dutch ride their bike - that is just how it is in the Netherlands. Approximately 70% of all journeys (7.5 km or less) are made on bikes in the Netherlands. Many Dutch businesses even have company bicycles instead of company cars.
            Since bicycles are how the Dutch get about, the traffic scene doesn’t change once it starts to rain or it gets colder. Many children in other parts of the world seem to think they will melt if they get rained on. As a result, when the rains come, they are driven to school in cars while their bikes are abandoned until the sun comes out again. The Dutch would never think of doing this. In the Netherlands, an added bonus of riding a bike to school is that student’s alertness lasts throughout most of the morning because of the exercise they have had getting to school.

7. Dutch Bicycles and Dutch Cyclists
            Commuting looks different with the Dutch and their 13 million bicyclists. First of all, they view spandex shorts and helmets as unnecessary items for biking. The idea of not wearing a bike helmet would make many cyclists, outside of the Netherlands cringe. However, consider the fact that most of Dutch transportation is done on bicycles, which is a slower way to move than riding alongside a ton of speeding metal. The cars that maneuver the streets of the Netherlands move much more slowly and give bicycles the right of way.
            The Dutch have a few items to keep them comfortable when they ride. For the wet months, they have specially designed pants that will keep the top parts of their legs dry. They also have bicycle ponchos that cover the rider and extend out to cover the handlebars as well. But be careful what you do with the puddle of water that accumulates on the poncho between you and the handlebars - there is an art to this.
            Also, Dutch bicycles are different because they are usually not geared and often come with back pedal brakes. A warning to those visiting the Netherlands, don’t try to use your non-existent handbrakes to stop or you might find yourself in a pile of bicycles and cyclists.

6. Some Bike Paths provide Solar Power
            A recent innovation in the Netherlands are their solar powered bicycle paths. SolaRoad builds these paths and they are made up of sections of cement with solar panels built into them. The power from these bicycle roads is channeled to the national energy grid. The panels are skid proof, and strong enough to hold up under the daily traffic of thousands of bicyclists. One section of the solar path (230 feet) produces enough energy to provide 2-3 homes with power for an entire year. It makes one wonder if the Dutch even have a carbon footprint?

5. Bicycles during World War I
            During World War I, the Netherlands remained neutral. They suffered numerous shortages during this time but their country remained a peaceful place. During this time of scarcity, bicycles were used in the Netherlands because of their reliability as a way of getting from place to place. They were also very affordable during a time when the people did not have a lot of extra money. So during World War I bicycling caught on in the Netherlands, and the Dutch began to build an infrastructure to support all the bicycles that wheeled through the cities each day. As a result, bicycles soon had their own system of signs, paths and bridges that were separate from cars.

4. Continuing Infrastructure
            The Dutch continued to support the modest and unassuming ways of the bicycle as they built the infrastructures of their cities. In the 1920s, a law was made that each house built, had to have a shed with rear access to store bicycles. So while Americans were building sizeable garages at the front of their homes for their gas-powered vehicles, the Dutch were building tiny, little sheds out back to wheel their bicycles in each evening after work.
            During the 1970s the Dutch continued to build their roads and cities around a bike-centered way of life, they even made their historic sites and city centers inaccessible to motor vehicles. Once the infrastructure was set up, the maintenance of these roads were much less expensive than countries that used their streets for cars.

3. A Different Kind of Rush Hour
            Rush hour traffic in the Netherlands is a walk in the park compared to big city traffic jams that last for hours in large American cities. In comparison, it is necessary to describe rush hour in the Netherlands so it can even be recognized as such. For example, during rush hour in Amsterdam, a city of over 800,000, the streets are filled with hundreds of people in casual clothes riding their bicycles home from work. To someone who is new to the Netherlands, you may hold your breath as you watch hundreds of bicycles weave in and out of one another’s path. Although it may seem a bit chaotic, the traffic is continually moving and no one is left endlessly waiting in line for their turn to move through traffic. During this time, some cyclists are stopped at the store to buy groceries, while other ride side-by-side talking to each other. Cycling in the Netherlands is a very natural, safe and, relaxed way to get about.

2. Bicycle Warfare
            During World War I while the Germans fought and built up machinery to inflict destruction and death upon their enemies, the Dutch stayed out of the war. Then in May of 1940, during World War II, things changed when the Germans attacked the Netherlands and this gave the Dutch no other choice but to join the war. Since the Dutch had lived a peaceful existence during World War I, they hadn’t put any effort towards building weapons of any kind, like the Germans had. So after the Dutch joined World War II, some of them went to war on their bicycles armed with guns with bayonets on the end. You have to really give the Dutch credit for bravery here. Imagine going up against a tank and machine guns on a bicycle with a bayonet – go Dutch people!

1. The Healthy Highway
            One of the newest bicycle roads built in the Netherlands is the Greenport Bikeway, also called the Healthy Highway. It is a bicycle road that is good for the environment, the people, and the animals in the area. It helps the environment because 15,000 people use it each day to get to work on their bicycles, cutting down on their carbon footprint. It is helpful to the people of the Netherlands because they have a more efficient way to get to work and will be healthier and happier for continuing to commute to work on their bicycles.
            It is helpful to some of the animals in the area because it is a bat friendly path. How many times have you considered whether or not you are using a bat friendly path as you go to work? The path uses “bat-friendly” lighting and the Dutch have planted 500 fruit trees along this bicycle road to help the bats and other mammals. These trees provide shade for people who want to stop and visit on their way home from work, and fruit for hungry bikers and for the bats. The trees are also helpful to badgers and other small mammals that ramble around at night and eat the fruit that has fallen to the ground from the trees.

So remember, the next time you need to grab something from the store, leave your car behind; pump up your bicycle tires, take a deep breath and bike like the Dutch.


I found this topic interesting because my husband and I commute together to work everyday on our bicycles. There are no huge crowds of cyclist as there are in the Netherlands when we ride; it’s just the two of us with a lot of people hurrying to work in their cars.

As an extra addition to this post I wanted to share a video of what bicycling looks like in the Netherlands. It is impressive to watch the unbelievable amount of Dutch bicyclists weaving in and out of one another’s path. Enjoy!


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Reading and Writing

As I writer and a student of history I enjoy reading all that I can to increase my knowledge and add perspective to events from the past.  I decided to share a few books I’ve read recently that have impressed me, and hope those of you who read my blog will also enjoy them.

The first book I would recommend is “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing. Ernest Shackleton was an Antarctic explorer who set off from England with his crew on The Endurance, to complete the first Trans-Antarctic Expedition in the early 1900s. He and his crew left the day after World War I began, so they ended up at the bottom of the world with no communication with civilization. Their journey was filled with constant and unbelievable hardships, but with Shackleton’s leadership and the crew’s amazing physical endurance they all make it back safely. This is a remarkable and inspiring story.

Another book I really enjoyed was “Brothers” by Elise Holden. This book is not based on any particular historic event but it is filled with things that people interested in history love – graveyards, mysteries, wars and stories of long ago. “Brothers” is a fast paced book with well-developed characters. These characters draw you into the story and hold your attention until the very last page. This book reminded me that we are all connected to people we pass by each day and to others who may be in a different realm, but closer than we think.

The last book I’d like to mention is “A Life of Her Own: The Transformation of a Countrywoman in Twentieth-Century France” by Emilie Carles. This book is an autobiography about a woman who lived in the French Alps, became a teacher, and lived in very humble circumstances. Part of this book takes place during World War II so the effects of the war are realized as you learn about her like. Emilie’s book teaches self-sufficiency and gives the reader a glimpse into what daily life was like for people living during the early 1900s in France.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

New York: September 11th - 1609, 1689, 2001

There are 365 days in a year, and each one is filled with endless events and activities, year after year. Throughout our lives some dates become more important than others. Some days witness events that connect that date over and over through centuries of time. September 11th and New York have one of those momentous connections.

Event #1: September 11, 2001, Lower Manhattan, New York
This is one of those dates that you remember exactly what you were doing when you heard the news. For me it was early in the morning. I was teaching a class to high school age students. When they came into the room that morning a few of them mentioned they had heard something about planes crashing into a building in New York; it seemed like a serious event.

I taught my class but in the back of my mind was a fear about what might be happening.  As soon as I finished, I got into my car and turned on the news. The events of the destroyed buildings and crashed planes were so unbelievable that I had a difficult time even comprehending what had happened. The terrorist attacks that had transpired in New York were beyond my understanding.

My husband called from work to see if I’d heard what was going on. He was teaching 6th grade at the time and pulled all of his students into the library to watch the live coverage of the attacks. Together they saw a plane fly into the second tower of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan; they watched in bewilderment as portions of it toppled to the ground.

Our family spent several weeks listening to NPR (National Public Radio) every chance we had to try to understand what had happened in New York, why these terrorist activities had happened and who was responsible. We silently worked on projects with our hands as our minds listened and tried to untangle the numbing events.

Event #2: September 11, 1609, Entrance of the Hudson River, New York
September 11th of 1609 goes back to a time before the Twin Towers stood in New York. Instead of terror, this day began with great hope as Henry Hudson looked up the North River (today know as the Hudson).

Previous to this date, he embarked on his third voyage to find a passage to Asia from Europe, but as his ship became encased in ice, Hudson decided to change his plans and take an entirely different route. He charted a course suggested by a fellow explorer, John Smith – yes – THE John Smith, and decided to search for a Northwest Passage instead. The Northwest Passage was believed to be a river that would go from the east coast to the west coast of North America and as he approached the North River, he felt this was the illusive passage so many explorers had been seeking.

As Hudson headed up the North River, he was optimistic that he had finally met with success but after a few weeks, Hudson realized this path was not what he had hoped for. After trading with Natives in the area he headed back to Europe.  He did not find a Northwest Passage but briefly explored the area that soon became the Dutch Colony of New Netherland and centuries later, New York.

Event #3 - September 11, 1689 Wallabout Bay, Long Island, New York
The September 11th of 1689 falls between the two previously mentioned years. It is the day that Catalina Trico died in what is Long Island, New York today; she was 84 years old. Catalina married Joris Rapalje in 1624, only a few days before they set off on a ship across the Atlantic Ocean to settle in the Dutch Colony of New Netherland. They were both religious exiles that went to the Netherlands for protection from Spain during the early 1600s. Little is known about how Catalina and Joris met but we know that Catalina’s sister was the only family at their wedding. Both Catalina and Joris were illiterate as their marriage certificate bears their signs, not their signatures.

Together they sailed across the ocean on the first ship that carried colonist headed for New Netherland. They were daring enough to start fresh in a new place they had never set foot on and willing to work hard to be successful there.  They were among the families that were placed at the far north end of the Hudson River, deep in the center of a land filled with Natives; the same river that Hudson had sailed up years before. Catalina and Joris had 11 children in New Netherland. They bought and sold land, cleared land and then cleared more land to rebuild homes and farms to raise their family on. Catalina outlived her husband Joris by 26 years. As a widow, she lived independently, raised her own garden, and even though her family was nearby, she took care of herself.

I have thought about the possible events for Catalina on September 11, 1689 many, many times during the past several months as I have attempted to pull some potential details from what that day might have been like. Had she spent the day gathering winter squash into her home with a few of her grandchildren? Had she enjoyed dinner with one of her children and their family? The interesting thing about Catalina is that she lived in New Netherland from the very first day to the very last and then a bit longer. She was on that first ship that landed before any homes were built; and she was also there on the day Peter Stuyvesant surrendered the Dutch colony to the English. She was one of the very few that saw it all!

Making Connections
All three of these events happened on the same date, in the same area, and each had an effect on New York that rippled out and changed the entire world – forever. The September 11, 2001 event took away a feeling of safety; people were hurt physically and emotionally, and there was a little less trust in the world.

September 11, 1609 eventually brought the Dutch to the area that would later become New York where they established a colony that was different from any other settlement in the New World. They brought tolerance, cooperation, and free trade to New Netherland and these ideas have become part of what New York is today.

September 11, 1689 brought the end of a life that was full of courage and determination. Catalina was one of the few that witnessed and experienced New Netherland in its entirety – every single day of it. She took a chance and changed her future because of her willingness to work hard and improve herself and the places she lived. She has over one million descendants living in the United States today.

The designer, Charles Eames, said, “Eventually everything connects - people, ideas, objects.” As I consider September 11th, and examine events that happened on that date in New York, I realize that everything does eventually connect; that a single day can link people, places, and events throughout generations. These associations send out concentric ripples that shape the course of many histories in places far from where they first began.

Friday, February 6, 2015

What You can Learn from an Old Map

I enjoy roaming through thrift stores because it is always a quest for the unknown; you never know what you will discover. Recently I found an amazing treasure at a thrift store. My husband and I were looking at some chairs and as I turned around, my eyes fell on a map that was matted on foam core. I love maps so I studied it for a few seconds before I recognized it was an old map of Amsterdam! The writing on it was not in English and although I have never been to Amsterdam I recognized it instantly. I first noticed the canals running in a c-shape throughout the town, old ships, houses of red roofs and windmills surrounding the outside of the city. I snatched it up for $2.99 – best deal ever!

I spent the next few days studying my map and becoming familiar with its origins. I also made some connections with facts I already knew about what Amsterdam was like in the 1600s. I learned Johannes Blaeu created the map in 1649. It is titled “Celeberrimi Hollandiae Emporii Delineatio Nova” which roughly translates to “New Delineation in Amsterdam, the Most Famous Port in Holland.” The mid 1600s were the Golden Age for the Dutch, they were successfully involved in world trade and Amsterdam was the leading trade city in Europe. Blaeu made the map to celebrate Dutch independence from Spain after the Eighty Year War and show the dominance of the Dutch’s position in world trade.

Blaeu’s map is oriented with southwest at the top, which is typical for the 1500 and 1600s. With this orientation. Amsterdam is drawn above the Ij Inlet, (labeled Ya Flavius) the waterway that gave the Dutch access to the entire world, and made Holland the most famous trading post at the time. The water on the map is filled with ships of all types; large ships line the docks of the Ij Inlet and the canals are filled with smaller sloops.

Johannes Blaeu and his family were all well known for their cartography skills.  Johannes’ father Willem was a Dutch cartographer, publisher, globe, and atlas maker. He gained his expertise of being a globe maker when he worked with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer painted Willem’s maps into the backgrounds of three of his paintings.

On Johannes’ map, the buildings of Amsterdam are tightly fit side-by-side, and covered by distinctive, maroon-red roofs. At the center of Amsterdam none of the houses have a yard. Further out from the center, many homes are without a yard but have access to a commons area. The land outside of town was for farming and divided into strips of land filled with various crops and animals.

The Amsel River runs through the center of Amsterdam and the map shows various sizes of ships, coming and going along this path. In the very center of town, the river is dammed and without canals. This area is home to the fish market and Henry Keyser’s Stock Exchange; it is covered with land and roadways instead of canals.

Around the outside of the city was a series of medieval walls in a zig-zag pattern. Inside each peak of the wall is a windmill. This system of walls and windmills was one way the Dutch fought to keep their land from being flooded. Windmills constantly pumped water out of the lowlands and back into the nearby rivers and inlets and kept land available for planting and homes.

So why does it even matter that I found an old map of Amsterdam from the 1600s? To me, it brings to life a time and a place that I have never been before. It allows me to see people living their daily lives along the streets and canals of Amsterdam more than 350 years ago. With this map I see little children sitting on the front stoop of their tidy houses waiting for a ship to come into the canal by their home. When one arrives, they excitedly jump up and down, and call their little friends to join them in the discovery, as goods from other parts of the world are unloaded.

I picture yards filled with trees and gardens, busy with activity. When the trees were loaded with fruit and the gardens filled with extra produce, families gathered the excess into baskets to bring to the market at the center of Amsterdam. I can guess that they sometimes trade their extra goods for a new painting or vase from a newly arrived ship; and these luxury items are brought home, enjoyed by all who enter the house - a unique idea for the time.

I imagine the borders of the city where windmills slowly turn keeping excess water on the outside edge of the dykes. These areas are home to families who are fishermen, and are also able to do the upkeep against the ever-encroaching water. They gather piles of long grass to put on top of the earthworks to keep the water of the Netherlands out of the farmlands and city. I visualize older children walking in their wooden shoes to bring a cloth sack filled with food to their father for his lunch. As they walk over the soggy land along the dyke, their feet do not sink because the shoes hold them up.

I see docks at the edge of the Ij Inlet lined with warehouses. During this time the Dutch East India Company bought items from all over the world, and because of the joint stock business model, they could buy more than they needed. The excess was then stored in warehouses until the demand increased for the items elsewhere in the world and they could be sold for a higher price.

The South American explorer, Alexander von Humbolt said, “The richness of your life, depends on what you are able to see.” Keep this in mind the next time you glance at a map, and take a deeper look. Dive into the details; allow the lines and labels to teach you about the people who lived out their lives there. Explore the map enough so you can understand the people who walked the paths of the map each day; places where they loved and lived and died.