Backcountry

Required reading for explorers (part 3)

One week from now, God willing, I’ll be winging it back across the Big Pond. I’ll have a day to get my business in order before meeting a group of ministry residents at the Tel Aviv airport. We’ll take them on the loop-de-loop in the Heartland, cruising up the Mediterranean coast, across Galilee, down the Jordan Valley, and concluding in the highlands around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hopefully I can wear them down before they wear me out.

The only reason I bother you with such details is because it was on this exact trip one year ago that I had my little “animal encounter.” Should you have a strong constitution and care to read about it, you can find the story in a series titled “Rabies is not the way to go” beginning here.

The good news is that while I do gnash my teeth and foam at the mouth from time to time, it seems to be more related to my work as college administrator than something prompted by a stray Lyssavirus (the “fury” virus from the Greek λύσσα).

Nonetheless, to prepare for the journey, I thought it might be useful to study a book that my kids got me for Christmas. Aren’t they stinkin’ hilarious? Here’s the cover.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

The book has been hanging around my table since Christmas. I’m reading it now with a chuckle.

Rachel Levin’s first book, Look Big and Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds (New York: Ten Speed Press, 2018), offers an interesting take on our North American friends from the wild side. The author chooses 50 animal species and devotes a page or two to each of them. Some of her choices are expected: bears, jellyfish, rats, and ticks. Others are surprising: cockroaches, bison, whales, and woodpeckers.

In the case of each Levin offers tidbits on where these critters can be found, what size or shape they come in (black bears are “as big as a sofa” and rabbits are “the size of a pineapple, but softer”), sounds they make (the elephant seal “snorts and grunts, like a long and epic burp”), why they are dangerous (owls can “stab your head,” geese squeeze “out two to three pounds of poop every day,” donkeys “will bite your butt with their big-ass donkey teeth”) and what one could possibly do to avoid or survive an encounter.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

All illustrations in the book come from the hand of Jeff Östberg. Even in the case of rats (p. 103), his art is mellow and creamy and delightful.

It is this last category that sells the book. Levin wryly pitches it as a guide, but the volume is more entertainment and less reference. In the case of a black widow spider bite, don’t try to suck out the wound. Call the poison center. Attacked by a swarm of bees? Run! Tackled by a grizzly? Fight for your life. Confronted by a wild hog? Do what you must but don’t get knocked down.

For reasons already described, I took great interest in the section devoted to dogs. I found it surprising that “man’s best friend” kills more people than sharks, alligators, snakes, and bears put together (p. 55).

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Levin’s advice to “avoid eye contact or smiling” when encountering a stray seems reasonable. The same is true with her “don’t run” command. It is a “total trigger.” I do take issue with her wisdom that if you are bitten, “curl into a ball, wait for it to be over, and admit you might be more of a cat person” (p. 55). This tip is ludicrous for one clear reason: cats are of the devil.

If you haven’t figured it out already, the book is front-loaded with humor. Some of it hinges on the author’s neuroses about all things wild (Levin is a food critic in her other life); other bits of it are suspended from the stupidity of humanity “like the dad who smeared peanut butter on his toddler’s nose, then waited for bear to lick it off (p. 18).

Between the lines is a moralistic edge. Dangerous animal encounters seem to be more frequent today because the human population is increasing, animal habitats are shrinking, and social media rewards asininity.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

The Florida turnpike. Looking big is of little help in these parts. You become a yummier target.

Even if these trends are true, I suspect that the chances of being killed by one of your human neighbors is astronomically higher than the possibility of being killed by some foraging critter. This is especially true if you have lots of wind chimes, cats, or are the president of your HOA.

By the way, can you guess which wild animal is responsible for 200 deaths annually and is hands-down the most deadly in North America?

Big-eyed Bambi. Those dang deers.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.

Our greyhound, (Turbo High) Dutch, is fawn-colored, has big eyes, and at times resembles a deer. He may even contemplate danger between naps and meals.


Look Big lists for $14.99 in the U.S. You can find your copy on Amazon.com right here. You need to have it on your bookshelf for smile-value reasons.


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I’ll keep you posted on how our upcoming trip pans out. While I offer stories on this website irregularly, I try to post a picture-of-the-day almost daily. See the tab marked POTD at the top of our home page here.

For a complete list of upcoming travel opportunities in the Lands of the Bible in 2019, see our schedule here. Some seats are still available. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Naturally I lost my bearings

Gordon lifted the oversized compass to his face. The transparent plastic flexed in his hands, making his nose appear to wiggle. His voice was less animated. His words came out deliberately.

“Turn the bezel until the arrow is in the box.” He turned the disk on his plastic demonstration model. His nose wiggled again.

We complied. Our group sat at the table with real compasses balanced on our upturned palms. I twisted the bezel on mine. The needle danced briefly, then settled dutifully.

“It doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles a compass has,” Gordon said. “It does just one job...” We recognized the prompt and chimed as chorus, “…it points to magnetic north.”

This was old school at the local REI. We were studying the compass, paper quadrangle maps, and the mystery of declination. Gordon was the perfect teacher. He was articulate and patient.

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He also warned us about ever-present danger of table legs.

“Watch.” Gordon slid a compass across the plastic table. At one point the needle wobbled and forgot its singular purpose.

“Remember, it’s a magnet. The table legs are metal.”

He illustrated his point with a story about hikers he had once observed working off a quadrangle spread across the hood of the car. “That engine block will really mess you up,” he chuckled.

Tools and tricks of the trade.

Tools and tricks of the trade.

He didn’t need to remind me.

I drifted out of the classroom to a dark and rainy night on the streets of Jaffa, Israel. I was driving a tiny rental car. Inside was Tanner, my son, Jody my graduate assistant, and Karl, a good friend. We had just arrived in Tel Aviv a few hours earlier and were quite bleary after an all-night flight. We were attempting to find a hostel where I had made reservations.

This was back in the 1990s before the widespread use of miraculous technologies like the handheld GPS, the cell phone, and the Ninja smoothie blender. We were true pioneers, just a generation away from the discovery of fire. Jody held a paper map and a compass. “Turn right.” “Turn left.” “Try right again.” We wandered for what seemed to be hours. Hopelessly befuddled, we found ourselves at the spot where we started.

Without alternatives (like the mossy side of trees) to guide us, we gave up. We deadheaded our way to Galilee. We pulled onto a dirt road beside the Horns of Hattin at about four in the morning and slept in our seats to sunrise.

Jody, Tanner, and yours truly from a compass-directed Israel experience many years ago.

Jody, Tanner, and yours truly from a compass-directed Israel experience many years ago.

Only later did we discover that something in the vehicle was messing with Jody’s compass.

Thanks to Gordon I now know that it doesn’t take much. The earth’s magnetic field is relatively weak. Science suggests that this force is measured at 5 × 10−5 tesla (or 50 µT).

Did you that before it was a space car, the Tesla was a unit of magnetic field strength? I didn’t. Neither did I know that while the value of the earth’s magnetic field is strong enough to protect the earth from harmful solar wind it is not strong enough to overcome the mysterious powers of some small European rental cars.

The earth’s magnetic field protects us from dangerous stuff flying around in space. I’ll bet Starman has a GPS. He is not going to mess around with distortion or declination. Image from    here   .

The earth’s magnetic field protects us from dangerous stuff flying around in space. I’ll bet Starman has a GPS. He is not going to mess around with distortion or declination. Image from here.


Our local REI store offers a variety of courses regularly. One of them is “Map and Compass Navigation Basics.” For a small fee, you can find yourself in a good introduction to compass navigation or be reminded of things you forgot since your Boy Scout days.

If an REI is not convenient, the book of choice is Bjorn Kjellstrom’s Be Expert with Map and Compass (Wiley, 2010). This is the classic guide to compass use. Its author was a Swedish orienteering champion and cofounder of the Silva compass company. Be Expert has been revised since the original 1955 release and is now in its 3rd edition.


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We have seats available on a couple of trips scheduled for summer of 2019. The good news is that we will be traveling in a wondrous GPS-equipped motor coach. I haven’t gotten lost in a few years now.

Registration will be closing soon on our May 25-June 4 excursion as well as our June 4-15 trip. These are similarly paced and priced. If you are interested in either please contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com.

For a complete list of travel opportunities in 2019, see our schedule here.


Taking a safari

Taking a safari

We pitched our duffels and then ourselves into Saidi's knobby-wheeled truck. Saidi found the gear and we lurched forward. Our aim was to encounter the wildness of East Africa, God-willing, in a bloodless way.

Fingerprints on a frosty pane

Fingerprints on a frosty pane

Great sheets of ice flanked our walk on Kibo's rim. Aside from the fact that we were tripping along a corridor that was 19,000 feet in the sky, it could have been someone's gravel driveway. Or one of Jupiter's moons.

Then I let myself believe it

Then I let myself believe it

I caught her in my headlamp. She might have pretty in another place but she was beyond defeat here, maybe even beyond consciousness. She was draped between the wings of two laboring guides. Her head was lolling. Her toes were dragging. That little Piper had stalled.

The big push

The big push

Three other members of the team had walked out of camp an hour earlier. We assumed they were already pressing the envelope on the ridge above us. It was now our turn.

The most interesting man in the world

The most interesting man in the world

Ernest Hemingway dangled a riddle of death at the front end of his short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." But what kind of epigraph is this? A freeze-dried window decoration? A chewy historical tidbit? The most interesting man in the world may have solved the riddle.

It has an odd ring

It has an odd ring

The old king climbed into the icy womb of Kilimanjaro. On his finger was the ring of Solomon. His porters carried a vast treasure. None of it has ever been found, of course.

15K+

15K+

It was one of those nice mattresses with a heat-reflective layer that is supposed to keep you snuggly warm even if you choose to bed down on an iceberg or glacier or such. It also shared many qualities with a Wham-O Slip-'n-slide.

Mush balls

Mush balls

West African fufu has a an unusual odor and taste. And that's just the upper end of the experience. This is why I shuddered when they brought in the East African ugali.

Come and see, the moon is dancing

Come and see, the moon is dancing

Jason turned on a small speaker clipped to his packstrap. The speaker pulled tunes from a phone. It  bounced as he walked. So did we. And we sang. And it was magic.

Breakfast scramble

Breakfast scramble

The icy stream clawed at the bottom of the ravine. This contest of strength was initiated more than a century of millennia ago. Water versus rock. Fluid versus solid. Speed versus size. It is difficult to imagine a struggle more sublime . . . or primal.

Shark fin and teeth

Shark fin and teeth

Jason offered a weather report at breakfast. "It's two degrees above zero" (it sounds more sinister in celsius). 

He meant no evil, nor did I return it, but his words did prompt a flashback to my days of fieldwork in the deserts of Jordan.

And we ate it too, twice

And we ate it too, twice

In Paul's hands was the most beautiful birthday cake I had ever seen. We secretly thanked Tommy's mother for bringing him into the world on a day when his future friends would appreciate a special dessert.

A stone-cold cauldron

A stone-cold cauldron

At some point in the distant past, planetary nausea triggered a spew of subterranean chunder. The blow was horrific enough to empty a mountain of structural support, causing it to collapse into its own throat.