Every dog has its day
For 16 years, I led month-long wilderness expeditions in the fall and two-week winter expeditions in January for North Country Community College. People told me I had the best job in the world, and I said, “I do, but you’d hate it.” I reminded them I had to leave my family for those periods, and I was out in the rain and mud, bugs and winds, snow and cold. I spent 1,000 nights in the field with the students, and I was responsible for their safety, wellbeing and making them the best outdoor leaders possible. I loved it, but it required sacrifice.
So, what did we do all those days and nights? You mean besides having over 50 lessons to teach and learn, 30 camps to set up and break down, 70 meals to prepare, and miles to hike and paddle? How about reading and assessing journals, and evaluating leadership?
But in between, we had a lot of fun. We experienced the beauty and uniqueness of the Adirondack wilderness. We went days on end without seeing anyone outside of our group and we explored corners of the Adirondacks that few ever see.
One of my favorite activities was storytelling. It ate up lots of hours on the trail, taking our minds off our heavy packs. From my mother I learned to love “shaggy dog stories.” Which was only natural, since, for over 50 years, she raised shaggy Newfoundland dogs. Shaggy dog stories are long-winded tales characterized by interminable narration of irrelevant incidents and typically ending with an anticlimax or a groan-inducing pun.
A standard one was about The Tiz Bottle. It takes about 20 minutes to tell and involves lots of “tiz this and tiz that” and ends when the protagonist finds the last tiz bottle in existence. And when he does, he taps the bottle and sings: “My country TIZ of thee.”
As much as the students groaned when they heard these tales, they all wanted to remember them to tell in the future.
Minute Mysteries were another form of storytelling that took the grind out of a long hike. They are riddles where folks try to solve them by asking yes or no questions. The name is a misnomer since they usually take a half hour or more to solve. A typical one is, “I want to go home but I can’t go home because of the man with the mask. Who am I?” I won’t ruin the fun by giving you the answer. A hint: Finding the solution frequently involves figuring out the person’s job. You can ask me yes or no questions via my Facebook page if you like.
Then there were campfire stories and poetry. There were Robert Service standards like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and, less common, “The Men that Don’t Fit In.” My Robert Service favorite is “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill.” It’s about a sourdough’s promise to bury his buddy when he dies. He gets challenged when he arrives at Bill’s cabin to find him frozen. He thawed Bill for 13 days, but to no avail …
“Sparkling ice in the dead man’s chest, glittering ice in his hair,
“Ice on his fingers, ice in his heart, ice in his glassy stare;
“Hard as a log and trussed like a frog, with his arms and legs outspread.
“I gazed at the coffin I’d brought for him, and I gazed at his gruesome dead,
“And at last I spoke: ‘Bill liked his joke: but still, goldarn his eyes,
“‘A man had ought to consider his mates in the way he goes and dies…’
“His arms and legs stuck out like pegs, as if they was made of wood.
Till at last I said: ‘It ain’t no use — he’s froze too hard to thaw,
“‘He’s obstinate, and he won’t lie straight, so I guess I got to — saw.'”
Morbid? Hell yes. But it’s a great poem to tell when you’re out in the woods and the high temperature for the day is ten below.
Then there’s Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” No matter how cold our group was, we were never as cold as the protagonist in “To Build a Fire.” The sourdough neglects to listen to the old timer who told him one must never travel alone in the north when it’s colder than fifty below zero. When he gets a foot wet he stops to build a fire but fails. Slowly and tragically he freezes to death, but admirably he admits to himself that the old timer was right.
On a hot summer day, I get cold just reading it.
Of course, scary stories were also part of the repertoire. We even made up our own. When camping near Newcomb Lake, the actual site of an 8-year old’s disappearance in 1971, students made up a tale where “Sammy Santanoni” disappeared. Twenty years later his ghost came back as an adult and started murdering college students. That’s enough to keep you awake at night — especially if you were a college student.
And then, best of all, there were the story pranks. I’d sit next to someone who’d make a good victim and tell a story that went something like this:
My wife and I were in Atlantic City for a conference and had a break, so we took a stroll down the boardwalk. We walked by a fortune teller’s booth, and I told my wife I didn’t believe in any of that stuff.
She nudged me and said, “I dare you to go in and see what she has to say about you.”
I couldn’t resist the challenge, so we walked in.
The woman was dressed in the traditional gypsy garb.
I said, “I’m not a big believer in this kind of stuff but I thought it’d be fun to give it a try.”
She ignored me and motioned me to sit down. She didn’t have a crystal ball or tarot cards, but within a minute she fell into a trance and said, “You have lived a previous life … but not as a human. You were a dog, a German shepherd.”
I chuckled to myself, but she was so serious I didn’t want to be rude, so I just said, “OK.”
She continued, “You were a guard dog for the German army during World War I.”
At this point, even though I’m of German heritage, I thought the entire thing was a joke and I was ready to get up and leave. But what she said next made me a believer.
She said, “You were beaten every day and as a result you had bone damage to your skull. To this day if you feel behind your left ear, you’ll feel a bony protrusion.”
I immediately reached behind my ear. And sure enough there it was: A rock-hard, grape-sized lump.
Then I’d turn to the student on my left and say, “Here, behind my ear, you can feel it.”
When she reached behind my ear, I’d turn and bark ferociously three or four times. Inevitably she’d recoil in shock, let out a shriek, and the others would burst out laughing, grateful they weren’t sitting next to me.
Politically incorrect? Probably.