Previous Lost Stories

St. Martin of Tours

The Impostor

I was still so small that I could only touch the horse’s nose when I reached up my hands as far as my arms allowed. Then I felt the velvety nostrils, calmly exhaling its breath of moist warmth. It caressed the back of my hand, while at the same time, it made the hairs stand up on my arms. The thrill was nearly unbearable. I had waited for it for weeks. Today was the day.

And it happened year after year, at exactly the same date: St. Martin’s Day, November 11th. 

Read on

In November, daylight bleeds fast into the misty grey of a fall afternoon. The autumn air starts to chill, set on its way to defeat the lingering heat of a sunny day.

I was still so small that I could only touch the horse’s nose when I reached up my hands as far as my arms allowed. Then I felt the velvety nostrils, calmly exhaling its breath of moist warmth. It caressed the back of my hand, while at the same time, it made the hairs stand up on my arms. The thrill was nearly unbearable. I had waited for it for weeks. Today was the day.

And it happened year after year, at exactly the same date: St. Martin’s Day, November 11th.

The horse was one of the German Police Force’s horses, a tall, sleek and well-trained Hanoverian. Even in my childhood’s time, they had been retired, but some lived out their veteran life in our Frankfurt community.

On St. Martin’s Day, they would get a short time of celebrity when being used for the annual St. Martin’s lantern course.

The legend of the Saint Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier first, then a bishop, was that he had cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar during a snowstorm, to save the latter from the cold. St. Martin became known as patron of the poor.

As a widespread custom in Germany, on the night of November 11, children walk in processions carrying paper lanterns, which they have made in school, and sing St. Martin songs. Usually, the walk starts at a church and goes to a public square. A man on horseback dressed like St. Martin leads the lengthy procession of churchgoers, community people, and children along the cobblestoned streets. When they reach the square, St. Martin’s bonfire is lit and the scene of St. Martin helping the beggar is replayed. Bretzel (*) are handed out to the children’s extreme delight.

I knew all of this legend, for my oldest brother in our Catholic household had been christened Martin. So, we never missed the day his Saint was honoured.

I loved it all, the procession, the lanterns, the singing, and the bonfire. But most of all I loved to come an hour before it all started to the place where a representative of the German Police was waiting with his horse. Every single time he stood at the crosswalk between the church and the Catholic Kindergarten, right across from our house, the horse waiting patiently at his side.

I was allowed to go pat the horse’s nose until the church proceedings began. Which I did right up until the very last minute. Awed by the size of the horse, awed by the chance to pat it, and reassured to do so by the friendly policeman, still dressed in his uniform.

Shortly before I joined my family at church, the policeman disappeared and a helper took care of the horse. By the time the procession began, night had fallen over the city. Scant light from the then-gas streetlamps hardly illuminated the churchyard, let alone the road beyond. We all gathered with our self-made lanterns in hand, letting our parents light them with their matches.

Excitement rose until we saw him coming, from around the corner of the church. A splendid knight, clad in a blood-red cape, and atop a proud warhorse chestnut dark in colour, slowly approached us. Making its way to the tip of the procession, St. Martin took the lead and we followed along: the priest and his ministrants, in gleaming white starched frocks, the music band with their drums and flutes playing out the music, the flickering light of torches reflected in their golden trumpets and oboes. Next, marched the parish congregation with us kids in the front.

I was exhilarated by carrying my lantern and singing with all the might I had in my lungs. Far down the street, I could still see the golden helmet of St. Martin high on his regal horse, the long feather swinging above the crowd’s heads. If I concentrated, I could even smell the faint fragrance of frankincense, wisped out of censers swung with slow grace by the altar boys.

In the end, there was the replay of St. Martin’s deed. We had reached the churchyard again, after meandering through my parish’s familiar streets.

On the parking lot, a bonfire licked its flames high into the ink-black night, as if reaching for the silvered moon as sharp as a clipped coin.

My fingers were cold, but I was warm everywhere else.

Soon the knight rode up to the poor person huddling in the half-shades of the fire. St. Martin drew his sword and – with one cut – divided the cloak in two. From his stead, dead calm in the night, he offered the warm clothing to the beggar – and saved him. Which is what the scriptures tell us.

The somewhat solemn mood dissolved into the slapping of winter boots, the chatter of adults, and shrieks of delight by the kids. Bretzel had been given out.

***

Fast-forward six years.

At 14 years old, I am still living with my parents in the house across from the church and the Catholic Kindergarten. I have become very active in our parish. Leader of the youth group, ministrant myself, and later ministrants’ supervisor, member of the church council, and committee board for a church spire that would never be built.

The annual St. Martin’s procession is coming up. And fast approaching besides is the lack of horse or rider. None of the police force’s horses are alive anymore and no person came forward to play the knight turned Saint.

There are solutions: The nearby “Cowboy Club” has ponies, short-legged, stocky, dappled ponies with a quilt of matted hairs in several colours.

And a little girl grown teenager, agreeing to be St. Martin.

I get wrapped up in a scratchy, musty-smelling cape; a wooden sword is stuck to my belt. A red plastic Go-Kart helmet gets wrapped in golden tinsel paper; the tired old feather fluffed up with sugar water. I am to ride the plucky fat pony, lucky that my feet are not scraping the cobblestones of our street.

But, for all the glory gone and the mysteries laid bare, I glow with honour and excitement. I will be this year’s St. Martin. Even at 14-years-old, I feel the honour.

I ride ahead of everybody else, followed by the band with only four musicians, never able to scare my stumbling mount, a fraction of churchgoers behind along with a handful of children. However, the lanterns still swing and throw their lights under a sky of knife-sharp stars. I can smell my horse’s sweat, alas no incense.

I sit bolt upright, the cape spread out over the pony’s ample hindquarters, my one hand has a tight grip on the sword so it would not slip. Always, I crave to be perfect, rise to the occasion, and aspire to do things right. My pride that night leaves no room to recognize and grieve the loss of a childhood’s illusion. Had I not learned, years ago, the procession to be a mere re-enactment? A re-enactment, though, of something at the very heart of our Catholic Church’s philosophy: the teaching of empathy, the teaching to help, and share in a moment of need.

So I play my role well.

Nobly, I ride through the streets of my district, as dark as they were those six years ago when I was a child, but much more familiar now. I feel the congregation at my back, walking behind the horse. Although leading this – much shorter – procession I am aware enough to be still a part of them.

we reach the churchyard again, I make sure the wooden sword separates the Velcro strips nicely, so I can hand the one half down to my neighbour-friend the beggar.

And there still are Bretzel. Even for the Saint.

But then!

I had my moment of history, my honourable ride. But I had to pay for it. In those days I was making some money from babysitting for a neighbor couple in our street. When the next night came up for me to look after their three-year-old, my parents were told, I could not come. I couldn’t babysit anymore at their home.

During the recent St. Martin’s procession, they had watched from the sidewalk with the small child in their arms. Melissa, tiny as she was, apparently had recognized my face on the horse, where she expected, after all the stories she was told, a stoic man, a gallant knight, one who became a famous Saint.

Not me.

Melissa’s confusion could not be overcome. She did not want me in her life anymore.

So, I lost my job.  The price one pays for celebrity, no matter how short it lasts. In my case, just one night. But I still feel it was totally worth it.

(*) The German spelling: “Bretzel” may derive from Latin bracellus (a medieval term for ‘bracelet’), or bracchiola (‘little arms’), describing a brittle savoury biscuit, in the form of a knot or stick, glazed and salted on the outside, eaten esp. in Germany.   

Bretzel

Liz sailing in Spain

Left behind in a Spanish Harbour

We were a group of six to nine friends, all of us studying at the Frankfurt University in Germany. Some sports, some law, and some literature, like me. This loose band of action-frantic people also joined in activities outside the campus.

In the winter months, we regularly went skiing, seeking out the Austrian Alps, fearlessly throwing ourselves down any black-marked hill or route that was available. Sometimes we brought along the rugby ball and passed it between us, going down the slopes forward and backwards alike. For better agility we left the poles behind at the lift station. Our nights were spent in a rented old farmhouse, sprawled over several rooms, all wood panelled and so low-ceilinged that Tom and Sago, our tall members, had to be careful not to knock their head against the smoke-darkened beams. We cooked for ourselves and passed the evenings with games, music, and many laughs, until the farm burned down around our ears, but that is another story to be told at some other time.

Our group size varied, but there was always a six-person hardcore bunch that went together. In the summer, sailing became our latest fad after having exhausted all the nearby ponds and little lakes surfing and swimming and sunbathing.  

Read on

Sailing meant we hired a yacht and ventured out for two to three weeks. Our preferred destination was the warm south in Italy, France or Spain. Sago was our captain, in possession of motorboat and sailing licences allowing us to pursue hair-raising adventures either in the Mediterranean or Adriatic Seas. With his uncanny calm composure, his broad knowledge in sailing and motorboating and his aptitude to keep us all in check, Sago was the tranquil centre of the group who probably kept us alive all these years. Hard-muscled and tall, with thoughtful brown eyes, he organized the necessary papers, planned the routes and harbours, and brought us safe across the oceans time and time again. While we, the crew, handled everything he told us to do. Together we became the perfect team.

Summer 1984 saw us renting a 9-metre sailing boat in Marseille on France’s Côte d’ Azur. The plan was to sail west to the Balears, an archipelago of islands near the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. There, we would languish for a couple of weeks island-hopping under the Mediterranean sun.

Again, we were down to six friends, all knowing each other inside out and well attuned to each other’s ticks and spleens.

Or so we thought.

My boyfriend, Misha and I were the only couple and therefore occupied the only private cabin, located in the bow of the boat. This tiny room presented two narrow bunks each anchored to the inside of the hull, and joined at the feet’s end. Back from our cabin, at midship, more bunks, a tiny living area and the scullery found their places. Among it all our nautical instruments at the captain’s place. Further back a short step led out of the lower deck and onto the open stern area. Under a one-mast sail and its boom was the captain’s stand, with wheel rudder and compass. The small sloop was equipped with a small outboard motor, able to help us maneuvering in and out of harbours and inside small bays.

The sun was burning down like a grill. We had all turned dark-skinned, with salt-crusted hair and wrinkles at the corner of our eyes, when finally, after a gruelling passage of two days and one night without any sight of land, the island of Majorca raised its rocky head at the horizon. Having been wind-beached for over 10 hours in the middle of the sea, it had taken us much longer crossing than expected. Our freshwater was low and we all needed a shower. But most of all we wanted to set foot on land again and go out for a delicious meal which someone else had cooked and a few ice-cold beers.

Majorca was just the place. The designated playground for sun- and party-hungry Europeans, it welcomed us with noisy and colourful activity, so strange to us after days of silence and solitude. Nonetheless, we dove right in.

Twenty-four hours later, however, we had had enough. Enough of crazy people, running naked on sun-bleached beaches  during the day and dressed-up in most absurd costumes, and half-cut in the streets at night. We had had our fill of paella and gazpacho, overpriced souvenirs and too much sangria.

We made ready to leave. Ready to sail along to the next island, preferably a secluded bay, a serene deserted beach, tranquility and peace. While Sago paid the harbour fees, the boat’s water tank was filled up. To save as much as possible of this valuable fluid for the days we were out sailing, we all marched to the marina’s facilities. As long as in port we should make use of its flushed toilets and running water.

I took my time. Relished the shower, brushed my teeth a long while then looked one last time into a slightly marred mirror. Off to the beaches again, sand, saltwater, and living on the boat.

The moment I left the building, I stepped into a wall of heat and bright light. This was Spain. And summer. A cloudless sky spanned the interior mountains, from where its crisp scent mingled with the sharp tang of sea. Mercilessly the silvery sun burned the ground, heating up the rock slabs under my bare feet until it was nearly too hot to walk on. I felt a tiny breeze on my arms sticking out of the tiniest T-Shirt ever. We might get some wind today, was what I was thinking, as I turned around the corner on my way to the quay, where our boat was tied up.

Only it wasn’t there.

My eyes fell on an empty space between all the other crafts from small motorboats to elegant yachts. An empty spot where our sailing boat should have been. I knew I was at the right quay wall. Right there our boat had been moored for two days, the anchor dropped in the harbour and the bow rope fastened to an iron tiling on the quay.

For a brief moment the idea played in my head that my crew had tried to play a trick on me, having left, but waiting somewhere close enough to watch me panic. Pretty quick I discarded that thought. Not a chance! It took us way too much time and effort – and a few foiled attempts –  to park the long sloop between other boats by craftily maneuvering the boat backwards and sideways. During these attempts, it was my task to gauge the distance and signal to the captain when we got too close to the stony walls of the quay or any fancy fellow sailor’s boat. In critical situations, I was trained to throw out one of the fender bumpers kept aboard for just that situation. Mooring was amongst the most stressful moments in our sailing days.

No. A funny hide-and-seek in the harbour was definitely not at play.

Then I saw it. Them. The boat. Our boat. In the middle of the harbour. It had turned away from the moorings and slowly moved towards the open sea. Sails not raised yet, they traveled steadily under motor.

This could not be true. I was shocked to the very bones of my skinny tanned legs.

There I was, standing in bare feet wearing only shorts and a T-Shirt, holding a toothbrush in one hand and the paste in the other. Nothing else.

And they were leaving. Leaving me behind. They had forgotten me.

Then another flash: my boyfriend was onboard! How could he not have noticed that I was missing?

With all the strength I could muster I suppressed the wave of panic creeping up into my throat on its way to my eyes. Tears welled up, but I fought them back.

While I told myself to remain calm, I realized how pathetic I must look. Alone. No shoes. A toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste the only things I had. No money. No phone. But what would it serve anyways? Our onboard VHF never worked at the best of times.

My mind raced. When would they notice I was not there? How long until they turned the sails around and made their way back?

I decided not to wait. “Pat-Pat”: I heard my feet slapping on the rock slabs along the dock. I steered straight towards the neighbouring boat, which had spent the night tied up beside us. They happened to be also Germans. I had heard them talk, high up in their cruiser, a magnificent huge motor yacht that towered loftily above our sailboat, sporting massive stern engines and hull sides so tall you could not see into their state rooms on deck. But more importantly, I had seen a smaller motorboat hoisted above it all on sturdy chains. It was their dinghy, necessary when tying up at the quay wall was not possible, the craft was anchored somewhere and one had to transfer to land by the smaller vessel.

If I was fast enough in convincing them to water the small boat and take me on, we could catch up with my miserable comrades, before they had passed the harbour walls and turned out of sight. I had no idea where we planned to go today. Cruising around the island, and mooring in the next nice bay, was all I remembered.

So, I stood there, barefoot, holding on to toothbrush and paste, then raised my head towards their railing. “Hello there! Could you please help me? Help me catch my friends. They, ahem, left … without me. I can still see our sailboat. It is about to leave the harbour.” The words alone sounded embarrassing enough to make you wish to disappear into the ground.

I tried to give my voice a more matter-of-fact tone, less ashamed and foolish than it rang back to me. My heart, however, tapped out a rhythm of anger and frustration.

They were lovely people, really. Friendly and understanding. (“Who the hell could possibly understand this?”) And they were ready to help. But not with the tender boat. Their plan had been to leave the harbour that morning anyways, so why not take me onboard and set the yacht on my friends’ heels?

Grateful, I came aboard. Aboard a ship with real rooms, in which you could stand up still with room to the ceiling. Rooms with tables and chairs, and paintings on the walls. With a real bathroom and wide beds. A truly fine yacht.

It took forever for their automatic windlass to lift the anchor. Slowly like a caterpillar, the dripping chain creaked upwards. Foot after foot after food. While in the meantime the little sailboat of ours got smaller and smaller. Nervous and afraid my comrades would soon be out of sight, I willed myself not to squeeze the toothpaste in my hand.

Meanwhile, the owner went to pay his mooring fee at the marina’s office. His wife and I waited on deck. Among all this splendour I felt like a scrawny waif at the court of King Charles of France.

But no, the yachters were really nice. They laughed and chuckled when we finally tracked my vessel out of the harbour. “This could happen to anyone,” they said.

Surely not.

We had nearly caught up with my comrades, when, apparently, they finally realized they had neglected to count the crew. They began lowering the newly raised sails, fired up the motor, and brought their boat about.

I was aware they had no idea I was on this beautiful yacht and they might easily have gone by us back to the docks. And they probably would have done so, had it not been for the yacht’s lady waving her colorful silken scarf up in the air, shouting, “We have your friend!”

My embarrassment ratcheted up a few notches.

My friends eased up on the throttle, heaved to, and, after the half-hearted attempt by my rescuers to ask for ransom failed, I jumped over.

Misha folded me right into his arms. I got good and crushed along with the toothbrush between us. My return was greeted with a flood of muttered words, half-laughs, and tentative shoulder pats.

Over my boyfriend’s shoulder, my eyes met Sago’s as he stood at the helm, softly holding our boat alongside the yacht. He looked somewhat relieved, but also troubled. What is it like to forget and almost lose a crew member?  I wondered.  He remained mute, but a hesitant smile crept up on his face. I smiled back.

I was back. Back on our boat, back with my friends, on our route to more adventures.

And then the tears did come.  

Arrial at the Bering Sea

Not a New Canoe

It was 1991. Rainer, my partner, and I were – for the very first time – on our way up to the Yukon. At thirty-some years, and equipped with a fiery spirit of discovery, we did not feel invincible, but pretty close. Great plans lay ahead of us. While spending a whole year in Canada, we wanted to paddle the Yukon River. No, it would not take the entire year to paddle this river, but certainly two to three months. At least we gave ourselves that much time, after having read the then very sparse literature of the Yukon River running from its headwaters in Yukon, Canada, to the delta at the Bering Sea in Alaska.
Yes, we planned to paddle the Yukon River along its whole length: 3,200 kms or some 2,000 miles. Just the two of us. In a canoe. Paddling all the way.
But that was what was still missing. The canoe.  

Read on

After our long trans-Atlantic flight from Europe, interrupted by a lengthy stop in Calgary, we finally landed in Vancouver. Similar to our previous visits to explore British Columbia, we stayed with our friends Marion and Michael in the city’s West end. We also needed a vehicle that would bring us up the Alaska Highway to the Yukon.

It took a while and a lot of determination to learn the cryptic lingo of the used car sales ads. But finally, we became the owners of a wonderful station wagon, boat-like in its dimensions, at least it seemed that way to us, coming from Germany, where most things are on a much smaller scale. Cars for sure.

We crisscrossed Vancouver peering out over a sheer endless hood, sitting, still shell-shocked, on the soft-covered “honey-come-over” front bench, but otherwise maneuvering the crazy traffic without problems. Because that was something we were used to.

A lot of trips around downtown had gotten us stocked up on last-minute equipment, such as an ax, saw, life vests, and rubber boots, as well as white gas and some groceries, all items which were either banned from airplanes or just beyond our carrying capacity. Everything was in place.

Just one thing was still missing. A very crucial part. The canoe.

Abbotsford is the cradle of canoe manufacturers in BC, so we turned the crocodile snout of our station wagon eastwards on the highway. We arrived in Abbotsford and found the canoe dealership.

We were students, we were German, and were planning not to work for at least a year. Any of those reasons or maybe all of them made us very partial to our money. After an hour walking around their showrooms, admiring gracious canoes, wooden, fibreglass or extravagant Kevlar, painted in all the primary colours and then some, shaped for rivers or lakes and equipped with various seats, we definitely were confused and a little anxious about the costs.

The salesperson must have sensed our discomfort. When, at one point, he feared losing us as customers, he made a bold move.

Turning to our screwed-up but desperately friendly faces, he smiled broadly declaring, “I think I might have just what you need.” Two pairs of hopeful German eyes (two blue and two brown) swiveled towards his towering build, his arms crossed in front of a capacious belly. I mean, one had heard such assurances a lot, actually all the time when one was just about to leave a store. Any store. But we were optimistic people. At least, I was. Rainer, my long-time friend and adventure-partner, not so much. He never trusted people easily. But we were also desperate, so we followed him, when he waved us through the store, to enter the backyard.

Shortly before we actually did that, he turned around, stopping us in our tracks. “Don’t be overwhelmed by what you first see. It looks totally different from what it means.”

That definitely set our suspicious antennae on red alert.

In the yard, a warm and calming BC sun poured down on us. This ever-fresh air, compared to European standards, inundated our nostrils, pacifying our minds and setting our hearts at ease. We felt confident. This would work.

Until we stared at the culprit.

A gleaming white Clipper Canoe sat in front of us, equipped with fitted seats and adjustable foot-braces. Polished metal yokes and a silvery gunnel held up the virgin shape of the boat – except its bow. There was no bow! The whole front of the canoe was missing. Nearly two feet of the canoe wasn’t there. The hull ended in a gaping hole, with the walls crumpled or broken away.

Only slowly did we surface from shock to the reassurances of our friendly salesperson, still stating that we should not be worried. At all.

We shouldn’t?!

On reflection, I put it down to the rudimentary vestiges of politeness Germans can deploy, that we stayed and listened further to our sales friend.

He promised this canoe could be completely fixed. Built back up to its normal shape, crowned with a brand-new gunnel, the body repainted, maybe not in exactly the same white as the rest of the hull, but all its original stability and maneuverability would be regained. The canoe would be as close to new as possible. It was actually a brand-new canoe. Only ….

We learned what had happened. A lady, having just purchased this elegant, new, and shining toy of a 17-foot Clipper Canoe was driving home with it. When entering her garage, she completely forgot the load on top and crashed the canoe right into the door frame. It, being plastic, naturally smashed into pieces instead of merely being dented.

She brought it back to the dealer, apparently, but what arrangements were made there and then, we were not informed.

And it was not important to us anyways.

Repairs would take a couple of days. But time was not a problem. We had given ourselves plenty of it to drive up to the Yukon and possibly test the canoe on our way at lakes we had visited on previous trips. Some were – as we later found out – still partly frozen. Our earliest start date would be five weeks away.

But was it wise? Would this boat do what we wanted it to do? Needed it to do. Or would it put an early end to our journey? And ruin our dreams. We hesitated only briefly. Rainer, the technician of the two of us, said yes, and I trusted him. Had we not trusted ourselves with impossibly high stakes in the past? Time and time again.

This whole trip was based on confidence. Confidence in our skills, confidence in scant base data to accomplish a highly unpredictable mission. And also, confidence in our equipment, to which we would soon add this reborn canoe.

So, we purchased the canoe.

Two days later, we drove out again to Abbotsford, quietly sitting behind the panorama windshield of the station wagon, which had already become familiar to us. I played nervously with the radio channels, while Rainer stared straight ahead on the road. Avoiding eye contact, both of us secretly played with the possibility our decision could have been wrong. Had we fallen victim to a sale’s pitch by a person that did not give a damn about us and our adventure?

Not being very superstitious, I still took it as a good sign, that the warm Canadian sun led us into the dealership, just as it had when we first came. Through the sales room out into the yard.

And there it sat, gleaming white. A full-bodied canoe. Crowned by a silver gunnel and ending in a tapered and closed bow. The paint a shade off, but even and sturdy looking. I felt my throat constrict. Seeing already where I would paint the name of our new and for the next weeks – or months – best friend, all the strain fell away.

I felt Rainer pass me and kneel down at the boat. His hand glided expertly over the hull’s surface. Back and forth. Then he turned his head and smiled his amazing brown eyes to me: “It’s good! We are ready to go North!”

We were right. The salesperson was honest. The dealership was capable. All would be well.

Rainer lifted our canoe onto the accommodating long roof of the station wagon and strapped it down tight. I saw it in his movements, confident and determined. He believed in it. And so would I. We were a great team. This would work.

The canoe served its purpose to the utmost. We had a smashing and adventurous trip, with so many exciting and tense situations, all of which had nothing to do with the state of the canoe. The canoe itself was more than great, it was the best. We loved it.

We christened it “Ho’ for the Yukon”, wrote the name on its white hull, and paddled it all the +3,000 kms to the Sea. It carried our gear, our always too plentiful food, the souvenirs we picked up along the trip and us proud adventurers, day after day, after day. In rain and wind, in sunshine and calm weather. It lifted us over waves a canoe should never have to encounter and brought us along endlessly straight river stretches, which seemed so infinite that you feared to fall off the earth once you reached the horizon. It beached us each night at a new, calm or wild shore, among amazing wildlife and primordial landscapes. It showed us remote villages and lonely fish camps.

Finally, it rocked us on stubby waves into the river’s delta at the Bering Sea. So wide and open we couldn’t tell if we were still in the river or already in the sea. Tasting the water, its saltiness gave us the final confirmation – and peace! We had reached our goal: the end of the Yukon River.

Our journey ended here.

We had started in Canada’s interior, the Yukon Territory, paddled north first, then straight west, through all of Alaska to its Pacific Coast. In the delta village Emmonak, where the Yukon River spills its fresh water into the ocean, we finished. With heavy hearts we sold our beloved canoe “Ho’ for the Yukon” to an Indigenous fisherman. Jonny Shephard had already bought it days prior, upriver, when he met us working his nets. He had promised to come and meet us in Emmonak.

And he did.

Ten weeks after our departure from the headwaters of the Yukon River we said “Good Buy” (!) to our trustworthy friend, the canoe.

Without it we would have never come here.

Clipper Canoe

Clipper Canoe

It certainly was a leap of faith, when we adopted the poor thing and made it a crucial part in our adventure.

Just as much as it was a leap of faith to believe in ourselves, or the trust we put in the river, that it would keep us enthralled to the very end.

But nothing compared to the leap of faith when, a year later, we came to Canada to live there forever.

Lost Stories

Gummy Bears on Bushes

This story goes back to the ’60s of the last century. In Germany, my country of birth, university students were rallying against police with water tanks to protect residential houses from getting turned into commercial buildings. In Canada, Indigenous children were scooped up and America drooled at Woodstock in a bra-less, flower-power hippy-and-Hair-concert delusion. Chairman Mao was a rising star in the far East and Che Guevara gathered weapons and followers in the southwest of this world.

Read on

At eight years of age, I was completely oblivious to such grave circumstances in the world, more concerned with living up to the expectations in my family. Growing up in a well-off, stern Catholic doctors’ household, my father was the law and mother the lovely counterweight. I had three siblings. Being placed in the lower middle of that horde, I lived with a sparkling imagination, loved teddy bears more than dolls, and too often thought the impossible could be made possible.

The oldest brother, Martin: a tall, nerdy smart-aleck, with such black hair nobody in our family shared. Looking back, his ever-condescending smile and behaviour should be forgiven, for being the first-born he probably bore the brunt of my parents’ strict education. Just out of spite he became a lawyer, when my father wished nothing more than for all of us to become doctors.

Three years down, there is Franz, my other brother, a free thinker, humanist and revoluzzer. He could do everything, knew answers to all my questions, and did wonderful things such as taking me shotgun on his Vespa motor roller, showing me the planetarium or teaching me words in Latin.

Four years younger than Franz, I adored him. With every fibre of my heart, I was determined to marry him. Looking at his kind, brown eyes, partly hidden behind those fashionable “Woody Allen” glasses and ready to brush aside the fact that you cannot marry brothers, I was convinced, if I could only show the officials how much I loved him, they would let me marry him. What we did manage instead, was to become the two extraordinary “black sheep” in our family. Non-conformists and talk-backers.

I was also baggaged with a two-years’ younger, useless sister, whom I ended up loving more than anybody in this mysterious family. With her puppy-like brown and eager-to-please eyes, Hildegard doggedly followed me around wherever I went. Later, when we were adults, we grew closer to each other than anything. The only one of us to become a doctor, she is the one thing I really miss after having emigrated from Germany. Besides dark bread, maybe.

So, here we go. In this episode from my “Lost Stories” collection, I am still eight-years-old caught between believing in wonders and the sacrosanct truthfulness of my elders.

Sweets were very rare in our lives, given out only at special events such as holidays or birthdays, or by far-flung relatives that came visiting, oblivious to our laws. Or because of them. Not because they cost money, but my parents thought it good, educational even, to make them rare. Really rare. My parents’ rule worked: we appreciated treats like gold nuggets in the river.

I was able to be very conservative with whatever I got. I could make candy last, string them out for weeks, so I could have a daily delight and then some.

Eventually, they were all gone. And then I would have to wait for the next occasion, Christmas or Easter, or maybe someone else’s birthday, if any of my brothers or even my sister was in a mood to share.

So, I was very excited when my oldest brother, Martin, one day casually dropped the comment that those colourful gummy bears can grow on bushes. I was stunned. That was it. I never even questioned it; my brother was seven years older. He knew things. So, I waited for the next occasion when they would fall into my possession: my birthday, March 21st, the beginning of spring.

Then, on that bright and sunny day, when all my presents had been opened and appreciated, I quietly stole away with a handful of gummy bears, that were part of a treasure trove of sweet chocolate bars with hazelnuts, a soft stuffy, rainbow crayons, and exciting sounding children books.

I was going to grow them; I was going to put some into the soil and wait for the bushes to sprout. Then I could harvest gummy bears all summer long and would not have to wait. The world had suddenly changed.

I chose a secret location in our garden, where I usually played with my Smurfs, building houses, little gardens, trails, bridges, and ponds for them. Beside the red currant bush. They went into the ground, the dark soil patted and watered. I wiped my dirty hands on the back pockets of my jeans.

Then I waited.Watered. Watched and waited some more.For weeks.

Some part of my brain must have doubted this whole miracle from the start. When I “seeded” the gummy bears, they were wrapped in one of my cloth handkerchiefs. Not my favourite, but an older one, which I was ready to sacrifice. The little red and golden bears folded easily into the soft cotton, blending with the faded pattern of yellow ducks with their red beaks. I wanted them to be at least comfortable in the foreign ground. I wanted to keep them together or just to keep them.Lost Stories by Elisabeth Weigand

When nothing happened and I finally gave up, I unearthed the bundle and rescued the poor bears.Then I ate them.

 

 

smoky in my arms

Near Death on Dezadeash Lake

“It was our first winter living in Canada. We had immigrated six months earlier, in the middle of the summer, and we loved it with all our hearts. Slowly we were getting the toys one needs up here in the Yukon.”  

Read on

A skidoo was the newest addition to staples like fat winter coats, Sorrel boots rated to -40C, a four-wheel drive truck with a snowplow, and, of course, skis and snowshoes.

The skidoo was Rainer’s best friend. Not mine. So, we only had one.

Rainer, my partner, and I had come over from Germany to live a better life, more simple, free, and surrounded by nature. Now his parents visited to see what our new life in the faraway “Frozen North” was like.

On a slate-grey winter morning, we left the little community of Haines Junction, with its just under 600 people, behind on our way down the Haines Highway. This narrow band of handmade asphalt winds through 250 uninhabited kilometres of Canada’s finest wilderness before it breaches the Alaska Coast Mountains to its Pacific oceanfront.

Soon we were greeted by Dezadeash Lake, a massive water body along the fringes of Kluane National Park. In late January the lake is completely frozen. Gripping the waters in its arctic fist, winter had laid a thick cover of ice on it. Stopping the waves and wakes underneath, its icy palm was holding everything in place.  

In winter, means of transportation had changed from boats and four-wheelers to dogsleds and skidoos.

After unloading the heavy machine from the truck bed, we attached a low-flung metal sled to it. Since we were three people and the skidoo had only two seats, the sled was for me. (Writing this now, I have no idea why I wanted to go in the first place.).

On the sled sat a bale of straw, to smooth out the rough ride expected ahead. This was where I would ride with my puppy. My new puppy, my first puppy, my so very young puppy. His marine-blue eyes had already locked onto me with that incredibly unconditional trust. A roundish ball of black-and-white fur with still quite short legs, altogether small enough that it easily found room inside my parka, right close to my chest. A place that comforted us both.

Low winter skies of ethereal pale blue and pinned with tufts of white guided us off the shore. Soon we were on the wide-open lake. At the horizon, the glacier-ground hills of Dezadeash Range awaited us, brindled with snow patches looming over a darker band of firs.

We headed for the opposite side of the lake. Rainer was driving. At one point, his father wanted to try this exciting toy and they switched seats, father at the helm (and gas throttle) with Rainer behind him, clinging to nearly nonexistent handles. He is not a good co-pilot at the best of times, as we had learned in cars or on motorbikes alike.

Despite the wind, I was sitting with relative comfort on the straw bale, my coat tight around me, the parka hood pulled down low over my woolen tuque to shield my face. My enormous mitts trying to hold the fur collar tight, but open enough so my puppy’s head could stick out.

Crystal clear winter scenes flew by as we dashed through an air of diamond-cut frost. Alternatingly, we tore over bumps and ridges, then smoothly hissed along level surfaces of the immobile lake towards the small strip of brown and evergreen at the far side.

It was cold.

When halfway across, the ice underneath, without warning, opened up plunging us into aquamarine waters. Fountains of arctic water were spraying sideways and backwards all over the sled, my puppy, and me.

My heart must have stopped.

Through all my shock I heard a faint, “Gun it, gun it!” and saw Rainer pounding his father’s shoulders. No surprise, he had let off the gas handle.

My mind raced. We were done and the unfair part of it was that this had happened in our first winter, robbing us of at least a few years in this colossally wonderful land. So much too early.

While I was sure there was no hope for me, I thought of how I could save my puppy. If I snatched him out of my coat and flung him wide, far enough could he reach, falling down, frozen, solid, and safe ground?

Would that save him? Where would he go? But at least he would not drown.

Luckily, I never had the chance to act on these thoughts, as miraculously we were still driving forward, out of the murderous arctic waters. Rainer’s father had followed his son’s advice and given the machine full throttle. For some gracious reason we were again – or still – on the lake’s surface, no opening below us, speeding towards ever-approaching shores.

And I was still sitting on my now ice-crusted straw bale, soaking wet, with rivulets quickly turning into frozen beads.

We had hit overflow. A very common occurrence up here, when water gets between two layers of ice forming a liquid pocket, often completely obscured to the eye. It can be disastrous going into overflow if you get stuck and your equipment is frozen useless.

But we were lucky. Thanks to Rainer’s knowledge of all this and his advice to fly out of the situation with all speed.

At the other shoreside, Rainer started a fire quickly. The crackling dried small branches emitted tremendous heat. Still in a daze, I got dried out fast.

The puppy squirmed inside my coat, now crusted with ice, its tiny head poking out of my collar, was not even sprinkled. His heart, I have no idea. Mine was still pounding like a crazy drum, emitting endless thanks that we had not drowned. So early.

And also, thankful that I had not given my puppy that unnecessary boost into the freezing winter air.