Monday, December 20, 2010

Turning the Wheel of the Year

     Winter Solstice, Dec. 21, 2010 offers a celestial sky show with a full moon and a full lunar eclipse at 29 degrees in the constellation Gemini, discernable in the Americas if the sky is clear. The eclipse will be visible after midnight PST, reaching it's maximum at 11:15 p.m. The last winter solstice eclipse was in 1638, and this one will be followed by the Ursid meteor shower.
     For those of us up reveling around bonfires and keeping  company with the longest night, a lunar eclipse is a very special event. To us the moon is the embodiment of the Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone. As one who celebrates holidays other than those found on the standard calendar, I wish everyone a Merry Solstice as the Goddess gives birth to the sun/son and we turn the wheel of the year once more towards the light.
Buffalo at Yellowstone © natgeographic
     This year I pay my respect to Pasowee--Buffalo Woman from the Kiowa tradition. She is a medicine woman, herbalist, and great healer. She received the sacred healing knowledge of Buffalo medicine for her tribe. Its hallmark is endurance. The crone's teepee is a place where light flourishes in the darkness, new life is protected, and inner growth and healing take place. Her time is winter when seeds lie dormant in the ground and there is opportunity for solitude and reflection.
     Tomorrow night my own tribe will gather and raise a cone of power. We will dance the spiral dance and look into one another's faces; we will turn the wheel of the year and rejoice: Light is returning even though this is the darkest hour. I will jump the bonfire for good health, love, and prosperity, and offer thanksgiving for the gift of friendship and laughter. These are the seeds I will sow this coming year. Happy Yule and Blessed Be.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Six Year Plan

     Now that I've made contact with narrow boaters I find my obsession for narrow boats and canals transformed into a refined passion--coals banked deep in my breast--which is a very good thing because in the days and weeks to come, the hurdles one must jump to stay in England longer than six months are daunting and I don't even own anything remotely exotic as a passport. After reviewing the U.K. Border Agency's complex website regarding visiting and/or emigrating to Great Britain, my brain feels like it has been tossed into a cocktail shaker and thoroughly muddled.
    Growing up in a country famous for the raised torch of  "The Mother of Exiles," and the attendant philosophy of Emma Lazarus'  "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses straining to breathe free...," with generations of ancestors who waved at Her as they passed through the gates of Ellis Island, I find the strictures on emigration/immigration daunting and confusing. The U. K. Ancestry scheme would have allowed me to immigrate easily since my maternal grandmother Lilly George was born in Cardiganshire, Wales in 1891.
     Unfortunately for me this scheme changed post 9/11 to include only those who are born and raised in a commonwealth nation. The Border Agency defines commonwealth nations as having "experienced direct or indirect British rule."  
     Do you suppose Great Britain would loosely interpret that point to include an American born and raised in a former colony as a member of the commonwealth? Since my ancestors who arrived here on The Mayflower in 1620 begot men who served as surgeons in the Revolutionary War (known as the War for American Independence by the British) and thumbed their noses at King George III and the British Parliament I don't hold out much hope!
     Ah well....I don't know why I should expect immigration to England to be any easier for me than it was for my grandmother to emigrate to America. Lily George crossed the Atlantic ocean in steerage aboard the Carmania in August of 1919 with her Puerto Rican husband and two toddlers in tow. She knew no one in this new land--not even her sponsor. 
     The next scheme to consider is the Tier II Worker category which will allow me to apply to work in the U.K. if I can find a sponsor, and a job. Under this scheme I must earn a minimum of 50 points to be eligible. An employment sponsor can earn me 30-50 points depending on whether or not the position is on the shortage occupation list, or it meets the resident labour list--which means the employer has exhausted all known eligible British citizens who have applied for the position and needs must look elsewhere. 
     The occupation shortages are in manufacturing management, mining and quarrying managers, biological scientists and biochemists, physicists, geologists, and engineers of every flavor and hue. 
     One can earn 30 points for switching from a student to a worker. I earn 10 points for speaking English. The points based system and the six different schemes require one to download a PDF manual of instructions 35 pages long just to figure out how and where to begin.
     I am quite befuddled by all the links one must click to access key information on the Border Agency website. It feels like I am playing scavenger hunt without a map and the rules are so convoluted: you may emigrate on a Wednesday in a month with a blue moon; other wise you must wait until the wind is from the west northwest at five nautical miles an hour and we must inspect your umbrella for leaking seams. Sweating blood while we check your documentation is much appreciated but will not earn you any additional points. 
Isis Lock, Oxford; © Tony  Steele
     While mulling all this over I wonder what jobs might be available in the education industry in England near a canal. This idea requires a familiarity with England's geography and employment that I do not possess. 
     I download Google Earth and begin the painstaking process of mapping out the canals and navs with different colored tacks for each one. This is an ongoing process which will take me many months--especially since boaters and others have uploaded pictures of canal features and I find myself lost in the beauty of each canal as I map it. According to Google Earth there are canals passing directly by the University of Birmingham at Edgbaston, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities. I'm certain there are probably others but it will take time to find them. 
    Meanwhile I find a link to a job listing website that allows me to narrow my search by country and industry, and it sends me postings every other week. I join Expat Forum in order to ask questions about passport processing and life abroad. The forum is not much help as the ex-pats living in England are doing it in the conventional manner: renting flats, traveling in cars, and paying an arm and a leg for it with strange money while driving on the wrong side of the road.
     I draw up my six year plan, which allows me time to pay off my home and square away my finances while working on writing a book about my journey through cancer and recovery. As they say, "don't quit your day job." 
Washington State University, Pullman, WA; © Summit Realty
     With the warmth of my passion to fuel me I head out to work each day to Washington  State University where I advise 500 plus distance degree seeking students. My students earn their degrees completely online--they never have to come to campus and they live all over the United States and fifteen countries abroad. 
     I specifically advise active duty military and international students. I have students in the front lines in Afghanistan, and on mine sweepers in the Gulf of Bahrain; on air craft carriers off the coast of Korea, and on submarines running silent and deep. I've even had a student in Antarctica. 
     I also serve as the academic integrity coordinator. If distance degree seeking students are brought up on plagiarism charges to the Office of Student Conduct, they are referred to me and they must write a ten page research paper on plagiarism  in order to continue on with their studies. 
WSU in winter;
     One of the unspoken and little known sides of academia is the rule of service. Faculty are required to offer service to their institution above and beyond teaching or advising. I grade junior writing portfolios, and sit on several faculty senate subcommittees. Surely I think to myself, there must be some way to translate all this experience into a job in England.
     In the meantime Dear Sir replies to my email: 
Hi Jaqueline,
     How nice of you to respond to my call for overseas readers. I do get some E mail throughout the year from people who are thinking of a boat holiday and some that are going to live the dream and i pride myself in answering them all. Some i have met on my travels and one couple of Canadians stopped for a chat after spotting NB Valerie as they passed by on their holiday boat.
     You mention Sue on No Problem who has been a good friend since i bombarded her with requests for info about living afloat long long before i even purchased a boat and herself and hubby Vic were the first to invite me onboard for a day a few months before i launched `Valerie`.
     Single females of all heights and ages are here on the canals so no reason for you to not one day realise the dream, everything is done slowly so any mistakes are hardly noticed and if they are we boaters will step in and help out.
      I once met a man in his eighties boating all year round on his own and he had been walking the walls of York City on Christmas day and then set off for London on his boat just for the hell of it. Certainly gave me hope for a long boating life.
     Bye for now and if you want any info e mail any of us boaters, we don`t bite.
     LES x

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dear Sir

     After having assimilated every smidge and snippet of information I can find on the Web regarding narrow boats and British Waterways I decide to join Canal World Forum, using my 'Net handle Wyn2joy. " We are a friendly discussion based community, with focused discussion on any issue relating to inland waterways....Membership is open to anyone and is free and members are able to browse the forum, discuss issues, post pictures and contribute to an ever increasing links directory and all we ask is that you provide a valid e-mail address...With forums on boat building and maintenance, trip planning, living afloat and just about everything else canal as well as our very own 'virtual pub' there's something for everyone." (Canal World Forum;; accessed 12/11/10)
     Canal World Forum has 9000 members who post an average of 150 times a day on a wide array of issues from General Boating (all things to do with boats and the waterways) to Equipment--with threads on topics such as gas alarms, temperature sensors, tilley lamps, bilge pumps, inverters, porti-potties, and oil filled rads; Living Afloat which offers ideas regarding recipes, postal services, weather forecasting, what makes a live aboard a live aboard, organic markets near the cut, and cats on board for a start; a section for those new to boating; Boat Handling, Boat Building and Maintenance, Stoppages (which parts of the waterways are subject to closing for maintenance, weather, or emergency); History and Heritage, and the ever popular Virtual Pub. 
     (Aside: Americans unfamiliar with British humor often believe that old saw about Brits not having any sense of humor or having a "dry" wit akin to a meal of hard tack washed down by Schweppes Tonic Water. British humor as displayed by narrow boaters is brilliant--intelligent, sharp, quick, and many layered. Their play on words and with words is nonpareil--perhaps because it is their language--we Americans only imported it--we didn't create it.)
     One night I followed a string in the pub for two hours as locals virtually came and went from the UnStable Bar hosted by the Friday Beer Company. Playful verbiage and quick witted repartee ran amuck in a tongue in cheek manner. I swear I could smell the brew, hear the chatter, and feel the uneven floor beneath my feet. My sides ached with laughter. I've not been back for awhile--too hung over in the morning....
     As October 2009 turns toward November, the narrow boaters I am following are engaged in the following:
Mo and V aboard NB Balmaha are saying farewell to one navigable river and moving on to another one: from the River Trent to the River Soar.
 R. Soar, © NB Ballmaha
    " We nattered to a Canaltime hirer while we took on water and I laughed when he mentioned his reluctance to go down the river from Sawley because the maps didn’t show anywhere to turn the boat. The same thing happened to us in the summer when we couldn’t see where to turn a sixty footer on the Aire & Calder. Of course it all became clear when we got there, the navigation is so wide that winding points aren’t worth mentioning....The night was spent at bridge 34 which seems to be gathering popularity as a stop-over between towns. Sunny days and clear skies at night produce blue-grey mornings with mist off the fields swirling across the water...The uphill side of Old Junction Lock looked too attractive to miss so we pitched on the rings and spread out across the towpath with table and chairs making the most of the sunshine....
Old Junction Lock, R. Soar © NB Balmaha
Thinking it was warm enough for paint to dry I sanded and varnished the utility room floor. Leaving the windows open to get the air to circulate I walked off looking for a distraction and hearing the click-click of lock paddle gear I poked my nose out to see who was coming our way. It was Dave and Dil on Trundle with her fresh coat of bitumen (Trundle’s not Dil’s). Well one thing led to another, chatting made the throat dry, wine fixed that and before we knew it the afternoon was gone. Aren’t boaters lovely." (Excerpted from NB Balmaha's blog entry for Monday 12th to Sunday 18th October 2009, author Mo)
     Andrew Denny aboard NB Granny Buttons is at the confluence of the Grand Union and Oxford canals near Napton Junction:
Fields at Shuckborough © NB Granny Buttons, 2009

"Following my post about ridge and furrow a couple of days ago, I just remembered this photo of the R&F fields at Lower Shuckborough, taken from the canal.  
If only I'd set off earlier from Wigram's Turn Marina, where I'd spent the previous week.  Early/mid morning in April is the best time to capture this scene.  But you really need sheep grazing in the picture, since this helps to point out that this fossil of mediaeval ploughing methods is only preserved because of several centuries of non-stop grazing after the introduction of the Enclosures." (NB Granny Button's blog entry dated Saturday 31 October 2009, author Andrew Denny)
Clifton Locks, 1884 © Oxfordshire 
County Council photo archives
    Maffi and his NB Milly M are moored at the top of Clifton Lock above the weir on the non tidal River Thames, where he's come upon a treasure trove of trash left by some prats, despoiling the area for others. Maffi cleans up the garbage, hauling seven bags of rubbish to a "boater's dump place," leaving the area clean for others. (NB Milly M blog, dated October 30-31, 2009, author Maffi)

 © NB No Problem 2009, at Gailey Lock heading to Norbury
     In October of 2009 Sue and Vic's lovely NB No Problem is undergoing a refit of the back half at Norbury Boat yard on the Shropshire Union canal, which is hosting an Opening Day with all kinds of boat related events. Sue is thinking about taking a canal art class to learn how to paint in the style of the Roses & Castle motif. Vic is making repairs and taking care of some boat maintenance. (NB No Problem blog dated October 30, 2009, author Sue)
NB Valerie courtesy L. Biggs
     On board NB Valerie its owner, Les Biggs, is recovering from a back injury. He's been moored near the junction of the Grand Union canal and the Aylsebury Arm for 25 days while a torn muscle in his back heals. His blog post for October 31st is titled Thoughts of Freedom: "Been moored here at Marsworth for 25 days and as my back is much much better the urge to once again be free to cruise is getting stronger. Although the mooring here is 14 days max the BW guys who rescued me said they would make sure those that needed to know would be informed and for me not to worry about overstaying and just give the back time to heal. One of them has even stopped by to ask how i was and also to take away my rubbish...Quite a long time ago i added on the right of the page the NeoCounter that has so far recorded 16,879 visits from 74 countries....Come on readers if you are following the blog from outside the UK let me know. From e mails i get i do know of some but there must be lots of people who read but never comment or make contact so if you are one.....let me know..." (Blog excerpt from Boats & Cruising "Valerie", October 31, 2009, author Les Biggs)

Dear Sir
Dear Sir, 
Per your request within your blog I am following your NB experiences, as well as those of several other narrow boat bloggers. I just discovered narrow boats and canals mid October while watching Burt Wolfe's Travels & Traditions on PBS. He was on the Canal Du Midi in France...I am totally knocked sideways! How I wish I'd discovered the canals and NB's of the U.K. twenty years ago. My greatest dream at this point in life it to work out the means of buying my own NB (I already have a name for her), and retiring to the waterways of the the U.K. which is awfully hard to do for a fifty something Yank with too few points to count herself in the immigration schemes in place now. I guess I will have to write a best seller and see if they'll let me in on a retirement visa. Wish my maternal grandmother had stayed in Wales!

Sue from NB No Problem was kind enough to respond to my post asking if it is possible for a singular female of my age and vertical challenge (5'1'') to operate a narrow boat and negotiate locks on my own. Her answer gave me hope and I shall not give up. 

I was sorry to read of your back troubles.  I hope you are mending well, and will soon be out and about on the cut and adding more to your blog about your daily life. I suppose you and the other bloggers might wonder if nattering on about one's fairly run-of -the-mill daily experiences are worth the time spent blogging. I can only tell you I am thrilled to my toes every time BlogLines informs me of a new post. These missives of the un-moored are vying for chocolate and public television broadcasts of Inspector Lewis, Lark Rise to Candleford, and New Tricks, as my one weakness!
To your good health, 
Jaqueline Almdale
Pullman WA USA

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cancer, Writing, and Procrastination

("Many people hear voices when no-one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing." Anon

     Part of my depression comes from working on a book about overcoming cancer. Titled Journey of a Thousand Miles: Through Cancer to Wellness, the book chronicles my experiences dealing with ovarian cancer and choosing a nontraditional, alternative treatment (Gerson therapy) in the face of opposition from the standard medical establishment. 
© 2001 Dr. M. Walker & Gerson Institute
     When one is faced with a diagnosis of cancer, one should not have to engage in research to determine the efficacy of treatments--orthodox or otherwise. Accurate information and research on treatments across the spectrum should be readily available to all patients in order to make a truly informed decision rather than relying solely on traditional medicine practices which some statistics indicate cause nearly 40% of cancer patients to die from the treatment instead of the disease.
    In the United States the American Medical Association, the American Pharmaceutical Association, and the American Cancer Society have powerful lobbyists who ensure the federal government primarily funds research which supports and underwrites their constituents--at a great cost in the mortality of cancer patients who are not told the truth about the outcome of treatment or the ghastly and often permanently debilitating side effects.
© Devra Davis 2007
     Chemotherapy's roots lie in mustard and other poisonous gases used for chemical warfare in WWI and II. Radiation's treatment is also rooted in war--atomic war. These tools were created for their ability to destroy human life. I personally believe the last thing we should do when fighting cancer is poison the patient and then hope he or she recovers. We need our immune systems more than ever when facing cancer and traditional therapies destroy the tool evolution provided to help us survive. 
     It is my hope that by the time my grandsons have grandchildren the medical establishment will look back on 20th and early 21st century cancer treatments the same way we look back now on the 17th century treatment of syphilis with mercury.
     Writing this book means going back through five years of medical records and reliving the diagnoses, the fear, the opposition and ridicule I received from medical professionals and well meaning friends, and my children's terror of losing their mother. It is also painful.

Book excerpt
I walked across campus in the searing August heat to the Human Resources and Benefits office and spoke with a benefits specialist for fifteen minutes. I told her I had been through an initial diagnosis and surgery for ovarian cancer in 2007 and had just been given a preliminary diagnosis of stage III metastisized ovarian cancer. I had $25,000 worth of life insurance coverage, and if I died while still in the employ of the University and the State of Washington my daughters would split the sum. I asked her to please explain the procedure to me, so I could inform my daughters of what needed to be done to ensure they collected on the insurance at my death. I took notes, avoiding the woman's sympathetic eyes as she explained my executor needed to mail or hand deliver a copy of my signed death certificate to her office and checks would be cut and mailed within two weeks.

I left her air conditioned, artificially lit room and sat on a bench in the shade, weeping. I was filled with sadness and terror as young, healthy, oblivious students hurried by to their next class. I was going to die and it was going to happen soon--a painful death from metastasized cancer.  A totally surreal feeling enveloped me. I felt myself dying and fading away, becoming a ghost in what was left of my own life. 

     The more one cares about what one writes, the more painful the process. One of the assumptions non-writers make of those driven by their nature to write, is that if one is considered good at it then it is somehow easier for them than for everyone else. As someone who has been compelled to write whether anyone ever reads it or I am ever published; with a University degree in English who tutors in a writing lab on a college campus, and grades research papers and university junior writing portfolios, I can say unequivocally: writing is hard work for everyone.
      American author and journalist Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead." This is why procrastination is a hallmark of writers. Knowing what we are compelled to do, we will spend hours on our hands and knees cleaning grout between bathroom tiles with a toothpick or crawling around in the basement looking for termites with a mini mag lite and a flyswatter. My procrastination takes the form of a growing obsession with narrow boats and English canals.

Narrow Boaters and Their Blogs
     Somewhere in my Internet forays I come across a link to a boater's web site.  The site is a touchstone--a critical clue to a new field of knowledge for me. The boater's name is Maffi and his blog header and profile offer simple instructions: "This blog has no more importance than the writing on a toilet wall...I am old enough to know better but seldom do. View my profile page only if you let others view yours."  On the far right Maffi asks viewers to consider the words of the great American Patriot Benjamin Franklin: "If you value peace over freedom, you will lose them both." I am hooked.
     Maffi's blog conveys his opinions and thoughts about a wide variety of things, from chimney pots to human nature; the function or non-function of certain locks and bridges on the canal system, British Waterways bunglings, boaters in distress, the beauty of the Oxford canal, and the importance of receiving a full measure pint of beer for one's money, in the local pub.

Maffi's boat  Milly M © Mortimer Bones
 His crusty, curmudgeonly insights reduce me to belly laughs. I concur with his barbed wit and canny ability to uncover human absurdities. Over time I come to respect and enjoy Maffi's slyly astute commentary on the human condition without apology; I witness the kindhearted person who steps in to help boaters in trouble, and who cares intensely about a wide range of issues he makes an effort  to address rather than ignore. Monsieur Maffi is based on the Oxford canal where he lives aboard his boat the Milly M. He attends courses at Oxford University and works for a hire boat company.
     These are all things I discover over the course of a year reading his blog. In the beginning though, it is the bright green and yellow color of Maffi's web page that keeps me anchored there.  He has links to nearly every other boater's blog in existence, divided into those he has met and those whom he has yet to meet.
     As I click on web links, hopping from page to page, I find myself at British Waterways/Waterscape which provides basic information on how to purchase a narrow boat, insurance, moorings, etc. One may purchase a boat but it will not be released unless the owner has obtained a marina mooring or declared one's self as a continuous cruiser. The second option appeals greatly to me.
     I also find Canal World, and NABO (National Association of Boat Owners), where I am confounded by the statement that approximately 16,000 people are retired and living on England's canals! 
Narrow boats at Bugsworth/Wikipedia
     Pure happiness fills my heart! I have discovered an alternative culture underlying the status quo; it is filled with people seeking a way out of the rat race on their own terms--an escape from the dominant paradigm--at a top speed of four miles an hour! After spending several years battling cancer, recovering from multiple surgeries, and losing a year to the gray fog of depression, I have found something better than Ponce De Leon's Fountain of Youth, the Hermetic's elixir of life, or a lifetime prescription for Prozac; I have discovered a way of living which seems like the sanest option since I left Alaska behind and let go of the notion of homesteading alone in the wilderness. (This probably seems like a lunatic idea to most folks but since I was born in the Alaskan Territories and my parents were homesteaders, it is not as far fetched as it sounds). 
     Joy settles in my bones as I realize my main goal in life now is to immigrate to England, buy a narrow boat and continuously cruise the cut as a single hander while I write books and glory in a lifestyle that will remove me from the rat race, allow me to use the skills and self reliance obtained growing up in Alaska, and maintain my stubborn independence.
    In a fever I find I have dozens of tabs open to boat blogs and it is like the book in the movie The Neverending Story. I am lost in cyber-space and I cannot remember where I started from or how to find my way back to the beginning until I recall the vivid green color of Maffi's web page.
    Over a period of days I make a list of the boater's blogs I have visited which offer me comprehensive information presented in an easy to understand manner and whose author shows some stylistic skill at writing. In addition to Maffii, I narrow my choices down to Sue & Vic's Retirement With No Problem; Mo & V's NB Balmaha; NarrowBoat Bones and Andrew Denny's NB Granny Buttons. 
     Sue and Vic along with their dogs Lucy and Meg, are continuous cruisers with many years of practical experience living aboard a NB with a wealth of solid knowledge on canal boat living. Their blog has links to picture albums, fellow narrow boat bloggers, where to buy diesel, setting up satellite TV, and a page about Tesco's grocery deliveries directly to the boat!  

     Sue's pictures offer interesting details for someone like myself who has never been to England, set foot on a narrow boat, or traveled the cut. Her eye for photographic composition is quite fine.
     Retired live-aboards, Sue and Vic share their personal impressions and basic useful information with straightforward detail and lively wit. I post a comment for the first time ever on a blog, asking about single handing as a woman. Sue's answer cheers me as she reassures me it is possible. In the months to come her kindness will lift my spirits repeatedly as I sit in Pullman longing to be on a canal in England.
      Continuous cruisers Mo and V aboard  NB Balmaha share descriptions of their travels with a gentle tongue in cheek humor and very good writing which draws me back repeatedly to find out where they are and how they are doing. I finally post to their blog for the first time when they mention visiting a local library to check out books. Public libraries rank up there with fire, hot water, and the wheel in my estimation of truly great inventions. 
     Mo responds to my post with an email reassuring me it is possible to live aboard, cruise the cut, and patronize village libraries along the way. Thus begins a friendship between us filled with fine humor and insights on the world in general. Mo and V have traveled the earth on giant ocean going carriers, and their experiences make for fascinating true tales. (After many months of writing back and forth, I think enough of Mo's writing skills to ask if he will provide honest feedback on the rough draft of my book. He did, he does, and his viewpoint is invaluable as I Iurch along toward the finish.)
     Mortimer Bones' blog captures my heart in a totally different way. A PhD at Oxford University where she studies the brain, she has a scientist's keen eye for observation coupled with the sensitivities of a lyrical poet.
     Bones lives on her boat and writes a monthly column for Canal Boat magazine sharing her experiences as a  DIY boater. Her web site offers detailed pictures and postings on her boat renovation.  Bones' pictures are some of the most beautiful I've ever come across. 
     Mother to a narrow dog named Boots, her self deprecating humor is a gentle poke reminding her readers not to take themselves too seriously. I am in awe of the intimate way she uncovers the surface of every day things and finds the hidden beauty underneath.
Interior of NB Granny Buttons
     Andrew Denny's blog is the unabridged version of anything and everything related to canal boats--wide and narrow; canals, canal side development and living; marinas, politics affecting waterways and narrow boaters, and historical facts of interest dealing  with the same. Andrew is not living aboard when I initially pick up his blog, but he does get out on his boat whenever possible and he has many years of experience single handing on the cut.
  The only thing missing from my blog picks is the viewpoint and experience of someone who is currently continuously cruising the cut as a single handed boater and who writes about it. Everyone else whose blog I follow is either part of a retired couple, land based, or living on a dedicated mooring somewhere along the canals. A search of boaters web sites from Sue and Vic's blog turns up a single bloke living aboard his boat and continuously cruising since 2005.  His blog is titled, Boats and Cruising "Valerie."  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Canal Fever and Narrow Boat Dreams

   My obsessive Internet sleuthing turns up Canal Junction, with links to several dozen canals and a main link titled Choosing a Route. This useful feature allows one to consider personal attractions such as scenery, historic cities, peace, hustle & bustle, interesting villages, canal features, industrial history, pubs, and literary connections. Clicking on a canal link opens a page offering a map of the canal with a brief historical overview and canal facts: length in miles, number of locks, time to travel its length, and other features. It is here I discover England's waterways taken together consist of man made canals and navigable rivers or "navs."

Courtesy A. Denny,
   The Canal Heritage link connects to canal history, folk art, engineering, boats and barges, horse drawn boats, canal restoration news, pubs, canal side castles--oooh! Be still my heart! Every evening for a solid week I investigate these pages discovering more about narrow boats, canals, and Engineer James Brindley: He went on to act as senior engineer on the Trent and Mersey Canal. When his fame spread he then became involved, in some capacity, in work on 363 other canal projects before dying with several key projects left incomplete. Brindley set the standards for most of what followed, especially the dimensions for the narrow canals. (Canal Junction:; accessed 11/20/2010) 
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over R. Dee
   Thomas Telford and John Rennie follow in Brindley's wake, expanding the canal system further. Telford (1757-1834) favored the use of cuttings and embankments in the construction of canals and is the architect of the Llangollen Canal's cast iron Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts--engineering feats recognized for their brilliance as a UNESCO World Heritage site in June 2009. Telford opts to use long embankments and deep cuttings to ply a more direct route from point to point.
   One evening perusing Canal Junction I spot a button titled Boat Owner Centre. It is the Mother Lode of links to boat yards & marinas, canal boat builders, boat sales, and canal boat systems. I visit dozens of boat builders' websites. I am amazed and enchanted by the beauty and variety of the boats available. This site is a smorgasbord of delicious options and a feast for my canal and narrow boat besotted mind. I discover modern narrow boats offer the same amenities as motor homes and caravans.
   One may purchase a used and more or less well loved boat for the reasonable amount of thirty five to seventy thousand dollars, or commission the build of a new boat for seventy five to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars--or more. Depending on the length of the boat and the amount of money one wants to spend, it is possible to cruise simply with basics such as a shower, toilet, modest galley and living area, cabin with built in bed and closet, and central heating or--if money is no option--splash out on a custom interior with fine woods and extras such as air conditioning, washing machine, dish washer, a full size galley and bath, and satellite television in multiple sections. How on earth did narrow boats go from working barges with scant cabin space for a boatman on the move, to luxury water dwellings?
   By 1835 the English canal system was functioning at its peak. Great Britain's waterways stretched from London to Oxford, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, York, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Bristol, with a history of seventy year's service to trade and commerce. There were those who refused to believe anything could displace the canal system in England's economic schemes--and others who saw a new technology making steady headway, and who sought ways to cash in on it.   
Courtesy L. Biggs, NB Valerie
   Railways began development in England at the turn of the nineteenth century when the first public railways began operations in London in 1803. By 1807 railways in Wales were hauling coal to collieries and the first passenger fare paying railroad was established in Swansea. The era of railways launched itself in 1830 with the viability of the Liverpool & Manchester steam passenger rail service and large scale rail lines were built across England; the age of the steam engine arrived with a cloud of vapor and a piercing whistle to challenge the economic feasibility of canals. 
   According to Stan Yorke in his book English Canals Explained: Under the original canal acts the canal companies were prevented from transporting goods....the boats were therefore owned and operated by separate carriers such as Pickford, who also employed the boatmen. The boats themselves were all wood construction, as they always had been, and drawn by horse. The ability of the narrow boats to use both wide and narrow canals made them virtually standard for all long distance work...cabins had been fitted to the boats early on to allow the men to take longer journeys which might involve being away from home for several days. These cabins carried the boat's registration number, the name of the owner and the boat's home town....the boat men were well paid and were able to maintain a home for their wives and children. (p. 24)
Courtesy of  L. Biggs, NB Valerie
   The inevitable growth of the railways was faster and more unstoppable than the canals had been. The advent of rail overtook the canals and carrying companies had to find a way to cut expenditures in order to compete. Some companies formed alliances with the railways; others cut expenses closer to home, and by the mid- nineteenth century boatmen were faced with the inevitable truth: they had to cut the cost of their labor or find other work.
Traditional cabins courtesy  L. Biggs
Necessity is the mother of invention and the hard truth facing the boatmen meant giving up their homes on land and moving their families aboard as crew. "The carrying companies paid the master of the boat for the mileage traveled and the type of load, from which he had to reimburse his crew and feed the horse." (English Canals Explained, S. Yorke, p. 29) With no additional monthly bills, the boatmen managed to continue making a good living, and a few were able to become independent operators owning their own boats, known as number 1s. Eventually things became so tough on the cut many families disconnected from land life as they struggled to make ends meet. Working incredibly long, tough hours they raised entire families in a cabin seven foot wide by nine foot long. The boatmens' wives sought to make their cabins homey by hanging brasses and having the interior painted when the boat was in for repairs. The familiar roses and castles motif appears on boats during this period.
   At the turn of the 20th century diesel engines begin to replace horses. By the 1940's horses were nearly gone from the cut. With the development of modern gasoline powered engines the age of the long haul truck--or lorry as they are called in England--ascended in importance and roads were improved to support freight hauling.
© Sonia Rolt 1994
   By 1939 the nearly 3000 miles of canals and navigable rivers passed unnoticed by the majority of the British population. Many of the canals had fallen into disrepair and some had disappeared all together. A writer and engineer named R. T. C. "Tom" Rolt purchased a 70 foot ex-working boat named Cressy and refitted her for living aboard. He spent his honeymoon and a good part of the following year cruising up the Oxford canal and throughout the Midlands. He and his bride Angela witnessed firsthand the weed choked cuts, broken lock gates, and dried up canals. Published in 1944, his book Narrow Boat became a best seller, bringing the derelict canal system to the attention of the public, leading to the formation of the canal restoration movement and the founding of the Inland Waterways Association. 
Reading, England © Sue & Vic,
    Today canals are being restored at an unprecedented rate and new canals are in the planning. Canal side properties command a high price, and cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, and Reading have rebuilt and redefined canal side civic space with shops and public moorings. Towpaths offer space for walkers, joggers, bikers, and those who like to fish. They are linear parks passing through some of the most beautiful country on earth. England's canals and navs travel through every major city and hundreds of miles of open countryside. One can moor up in the heart of London at Paddington Basin, take a walking tour of the area, do a bit of shopping, see the sights, and be on the move again out into the countryside. In the space of a few days one might pass the 12th century ruins where a long dead English king was born and five miles further on around a curve come upon the 5th century Roman ruin of a long forgotten god. 
Oxford Canal, © Mortimer Bones
   In America one travels across this vast continent measuring distance traveled in thousands of miles; in England one travels across an island barely 800 miles long, measuring distance traveled in thousands of years. 
   Now I go to bed at night and have narrow boat dreams. I am standing with my hand on the tiller;  I can hear the low put-put of the engine and feel the boat underneath my feet. The wind picks up my hair riffling it gently, and I see the water moving in the canal. Looking out toward a curve ahead, I spot a boat approaching me from the opposite direction. Night after night my dream ends here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Curiosity Becomes Obsession

     (Yes this blog is about love and my beloved who is the rainbow and the treasure at the rainbow's end, but it is also about my love for narrow boats and life on the cut. Every story begins somewhere--and we are still in the beginning before he and I ever exchanged a word. One cannot reach the treasure until traveling the length of the bow.)
     As the days rolled forward into late Autumn I found myself dashing home after work to log in and search the 'Net for information on Narrow boats and British waterways. I was consumed by a need to know who built the canals, when, and why; the answers to which tell us why narrow boats are designed as they are: seven feet wide and thirty to seventy two feet long. 

© National Portrait Gallery, London, England

Brief  History of the English Canals
The canals were designed to move freight and goods from the interior factories of  the country to the large ports at Bristol, London, and Manchester. Prior to the development of the canal system, large amounts of freight were moved coastally by boat, or horse and cart on medieval rutted roads that often washed out or were churned into knee deep muck.
     James Brindley, father of the English canals, was born to gentlemen farmers and craftsman in Leek, Staffordshire. Given little in the way of a formal education, he was apprenticed at age seventeen to a millwright during which time he developed exceptional talents. Brindley set himself up as a wheelwright gaining renown for his extraordinary ability to repair a vast array of machinery. In 1752 he developed an apparatus to drain water from coal mines which brought Brindley to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, a 17th century coal magnate.
     The Duke needed an expeditious and inexpensive means of transporting his coal from Worsley to Manchester. In 1759 a commission was granted for the Bridgewater canal which opened in 1761, and the age of the canals was brought into being to serve the burgeoning industrial revolution underway in England. (Wikipedia, English canals, 2010).
     Brindley's genius in canal design displayed itself in the concept--borrowed from the Chinese--of contouring. Instead of digging costly tunnels, locks, and embankments in order to bore a straight path from point to point, a contoured canal follows the lay of  the land, meandering along much as a river might. Man made engineering projects were kept to minimum as a result. Later canals would require these mechanisms so the system could flourish and grow, reaching out across the face of England, connecting small villages, larger towns, and populated commercial hubs with coastal shipping ports.  The minimum width of the canal locks and bridge holes was seven feet, hence the need for a "narrow" boat.

Horse Drawn Narrow Boats
Originally designed to haul freight on the canals, narrow boats have remained unchanged in their basic design for nearly two hundred years. Original working boats were made of wood and pulled by horse power. Boats were towed by the horse while it walked the tow path along side the canal. A horse drawn narrow boat could haul ten times the amount of freight as a horse and cart, saving the producers of coal and pottery money and time in getting goods to market. 
     The basic boat design starts at the back end with the stern and the tiller--the platform upon which one stands and the means of steering the boat. Next comes the cabin, and for those on the old wooden work boats this was miserly space indeed. They were lucky to have six feet by eight  for a wood or coal fired stove, a drop down table, cupboards and lockers, built in benches, and a make shift bed. Continuing forward the remainder of the boat was dedicated to hauling freight with beams, stands, and top planks allowing for the deck to be divided, and freight stored and covered with tarpaulins rolled up over the top of the planks and tied down. A small fore deck at the very front of the bow allowed a bit of storage space and a place to perch with a lantern when entering tunnels.
     Ever heard of the term "legging it?" As a child growing up in the Alaskan Territories, we often didn't have a reliable automobile--or if we did it was in use transporting the man of the house to work and back, which meant women and children walked everywhere they wanted and needed to go. My Welsh grandmother used to call this "legging it," as in "we shall be legging it to the market." I always wondered how Lily George came by that term--and now I know! My mother's mother was born and raised in the coal mining country of Wales and lived as a young woman in Cardiff and Swansea. She would have been more than passing familiar with the site of coal laden barges on the canal system.
     The oldest canals did not build towpaths through the tunnels. This meant widening them which was costly business. Instead the horse was unhooked from the boat, and it went on with its minder to the other end of tunnel to wait. In short tunnels the boatmen would balance at each end of a plank and "walk" the boat through the tunnel. In the longer tunnels professional  leggers were available for hire. According to the Marsden History Group "At the three mile long Standedge Tunnel expert leggers could get an empty boat through in 1 hour 20 minutes, taking 3 hours with a full load, for which they were paid 1s 6d." ( Legging it on a narrow boat was extremely dangerous and many's the man who lost his life in the doing of it. I am in awe of the technological savvy of the British engineers, and the hard working heart and soul of the boatmen. 
     Every time I watched a BBC program or British movie throughout the years I was always amazed at how many lovely bucolic streams seemed to meander across the face of such a small island, appearing in the backgrounds. Now I laugh in wonder and delight as I realize they weren't streams at all-they were canals!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Narrow Dogs, Narrow Boats, and Narrow Escapes

     Earlier in the year I had heard an NPR (National Public Radio) commentary on Terry Darlington’s book, Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, about traveling on the French canals with his wife Monica and their whippet Jim. Darlington had a new book out called Narrow Dog to Indian River. I picked up the two books from Neill Public Library and devoured them in one evening. Suddenly I realized my web searches hadn’t touched on canals in other parts of Europe. Better to spend the waxing hours of the encroaching winter darkness searching the web for European canals than spend them with spoon to mouth disease and my old pal Haagen Daz.
     With Darlington's books in hand I searched the 'Net and found narrow boats and the canals of England. These boats are not plastic cruisers. They are stunning! Seven feet wide and thirty to seventy two feet long, most of them are beautifully painted works of art. While the canals of France have their charms, the waterways of England stirred something in me. A far off voice echoed the word, “Home.” Home??  Really??? Clearly grief, loss, and too much time spent Googling in the dark have driven me mad. I’ve never been to England and I don’t like to travel. Let me repeat this: “I don’t like to travel.” And why is that?
     I was six years old the summer of nineteen sixty three. After a late winter suffering through chicken pox, measles, and mumps I weighed all of thirty eight pounds; a tiny flaxen-haired doll with skinny arms and legs and large green eyes. My mother and Bill--the man who would become my step father--thought a month long vacation in Mexico was just the ticket to repair their fraying relationship. It would also be a great escape from Alaska’s short, mild suggestion of summer.
     We flew out to Seattle, Washington where Bill bought a new cream colored Volvo sedan. Driving south through Oregon and down into southern California, we passed palm trees and sandy beaches. I remember the San Diego Zoo. It was where the heat began to squeeze me in its fist. The animals were wildly fantastic to a child used to bison, bears, fox, and moose. I rode on a giant tortoise and laughed with delight at the long, black tongues of the giraffes.
      We drove southwest into Texas. This was in the day before seat belts and air conditioning. It was a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the shade—literally--and probably one hundred and five in the car. The further south we traveled, the hotter it got; the hotter it got, the sicker I got. I vomited all my meals, crying for water, only to lose it shortly after draining my cup.
     We made it to Mexico City where I fainted in a fancy restaurant. I also remember the doctor who called on our room and examined me. His hands were lovely; long fingered, brown skinned, and cool.  I recall him telling my mother,
     “Your child, she is sick from the heat. I think this little one cannot tolerate it and you must take her north right away to a cooler climate or else we will have to bring her to the hospital. She has lost a lot of weight and she will not last much longer here. It is very serious heat stroke.”
     Mother and Bill took turns driving and sleeping; the car ate up the highway at eighty miles an hour. Volvos in those days had a small compartment behind the back seat, under the curved rear window. It was there I slept, curled up in a fetal position four days and nights, passing the long, dreamless miles of insufferable heat. I recall waking once when we stopped for gas somewhere in the desert north of Mexico City. I opened my eyes and looked up to the curved window and the bright, blue sky. Three old abuelas were bent over the back window staring in at me in amazement, their skin brown and folded with wrinkles, eyes black with wonder and surprise. Wizened faces framed by scarves of dark lace, the women whispered softly, “Ang-hel! Ang-hel!” They thought I was an angel like the ones seen on the tops of Christmas trees and carved in bas relief on cathedral walls.
     The further North we traveled, the cooler the weather grew. By the time we reached Montana my appetite returned. In Canada I finally began laughing again. My body remembers every torturous, sweating, life sucking mile of that trip. I still associate travel with high speed, heat, vomiting, and loss of self control.
     I suspect my liking of small, cozy spaces is also a leftover of the ill-fated Mexico trip. The Volvo’s back cubby was small and safe. After we returned home I refused to sleep in a bed. I could only fall asleep by climbing into the black fabric fold attached to the sofa bed in which Mother and Bill slept. During the day it covered the metal hinges when the sofa was folded up. At night this fabric sling hung down underneath-- a small, dark hammock of safety.
    In the October darkness of the present moment my heart was absolutely taken by the British Narrow boats. They are form and function wrapped in art and history. I think to myself that a Narrow boat is the best of all worlds! A self contained miniature version of a homesteader’s cabin traveling at a top speed of four miles per hour. I am knocked sideways by my sense of surprise and delight.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Curiosity Leads to Synchronicity

    In the October dark evenings I spent countless hours searching the internet for information about European canals. I Googled the Canal Du Midi first and discovered this “canal of the two seas” was conceived in 1662 by Pierre-Paul Riquet as a short cut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as a means of safely delivering freight from one coast to the other.
     In the 17th century the only means of freight transport consisted of month long voyages in open ocean where the likelihood was high one might lose one’s ship and its contents to devastating ocean storms, Barbary pirates, or hostile Spanish ships.
     12,000 men and women labored by hand for fifteen years to dig this “trench” across the width of Southern France. The canal opened in 1681. Many of its ninety one locks and three hundred and twenty eight structures such as bridges, aqueducts, and tunnels were carved by hand out of solid bedrock. Commercial cargo traffic ceased in 1980—two hundred and ninety nine years of freight safely delivered though human ingenuity! In modern times France’s Canal du Midi serves tourists and pleasure boaters.
     I found an engaging article on the European canals titled “The Water Way” by Pierce Hoover and printed off a copy for Chrisi. I also included a picture of the Canal du Midi. She was bowled over by the incredible beauty of the waterway and the idea one could vacation on the canals, cruising through cities and towns, large and small, stopping to sample the local culinary and vinerary delights. 
    Two days later Chrisi charged into work all excited. The previous evening she went to her hairstylist Lacey, for a cut. Her mother-in-law Sue was with her. Chrisi sat in the stylist’s chair and showed Lacey and Sue the pictures I gave her of the canal. Sue said, “The canal du Midi. Hmmm…that sounds so familiar. I am pretty sure Keith’s Aunt Arlene vacationed on that canal.”  Sure enough Arlene called Chrisi a day later and told her all about their wonderful experience in France and it was the Canal du Midi! I love it when the universe underscores one’s actions. It reminds me there are no accidents in life. This was not the first time synchronicity was active in my life, connecting me to the right person at the right moment in time.
    Back home in Alaska in 1987 I was stumbling along after my divorce, eking out a living as a hair stylist, and continuing in my spiritual search for the path on which I belonged. I started attending Unity Church in Anchorage. I always sat up front on the far right because it was closest to the pianist/organist. She played the most incredibly soul soothing music which my torn heart needed so very badly.  It was here I first heard Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I looked forward to Sundays for the sermons which were engaging, but mostly for the music that would soothe my battered soul.
     My daughters, Shiery and Jesseca, aged five and eight, attended Chinook Elementary School just down the street from our apartment. Jesse was particularly excited about her third grade music teacher, Mrs. Field, who organized a school district wide music and folk dance extravaganza, held at Diamond High school gymnasium. This teacher loved children and teaching, and knew how to create support in the school district ranks for a subject that is so often sidelined in favor in “serious studies” like math and reading.
     Imagine my utter astonishment upon introduction in Pullman, Washington in 2003 to Chrisi Kincaid’s mother—Sandy Field. After her divorce, Sandy longed for excitement so she packed her belongings in a pick up truck and drove the Al-Can highway from the lower forty eight states through Canada and into Alaska, where she taught music in the elementary schools and played organ and piano for Unity church! 
     We truly never know who will enter our lives and our hearts just as they are needed—and perhaps when they also need us. I believe when we follow our muse, our bliss, our passion or obsession—call it whatever you will--it inevitably leads us to where we belong, and to whom we belong.