Serendipitous Encounters of the Canoe Kind

A particle accelerator is one means to explore the nature of reality. A canoe is another. Since I’m not a physicist, I rely on my canoe. But what could a canoe possibly reveal about reality? As a recent empty nester, I carved a dugout canoe from a big tree and led a small expedition down the 2,341-mile Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana to St. Louis, Missouri. Throughout the five-month journey we experienced statistically improbable good luck, so much so, that we avoided talking about it for fear of jinxing that luck.

We enjoyed five months of serendipity on the Missouri River. Photo by Dirk Rohrbach.

Blessed with minor miracles on a near daily basis, we acknowledged the improbability of our good fortune, yet hesitated to claim it as something we either owned or controlled. At the same time, serendipitous encounters featured so prominently in the expedition that we learned to anticipate improbable good luck as the journey proceeded. 

Based on past experiences, I’ve learned to have faith in the Universe to trust that everything will work out as it should be, even if not always as anticipated. The challenge is to maintain that deep faith, much like a trust fall, where you fold your arms across your chest and fall backwards, trusting friends to catch you. I am not a reckless person. I wear my life jacket in a canoe as faithfully as I wear my seatbelt in a car. Nevertheless, trusting oneself to the river for five months in a canoe requires a degree of faith regardless of preparation or experience.

Looking back a year after successfully completing the expedition, I feel more comfortable broaching the mystical aspects of the journey, especially the serendipitous encounters of the canoe kind. 

Prelude to Passage

The magic started long before the trip officially began. I had been considering one of three possible epic adventures: hiking the Appalachian Trail, bicycling across the U.S., or paddling the Missouri River from its origin at Three Forks, Montana downstream to its confluence with the Mississippi at St. Louis. Carving a dugout canoe was an unrelated dream that converged into place at the right time. 

My friend Steve Morehouse donated his twenty-year-old dugout canoe as a museum piece for my primitive skills camp.

My friend and fellow Lewis and Clark history buff Steve Morehouse donated his twenty-year-old weathered dugout canoe as a museum piece for my primitive skills camp. His ponderosa pine canoe was twenty-seven feet long from stem to stern, and he’d had a stout custom trailer built to haul it. Having retired the canoe, Steve sold me the trailer at a reasonable price, and I became the owner of a dugout canoe trailer.  I don’t know how many dugout canoe trailers there are in the world—possibly only one—and it landed in my lap just prior to carving my own dugout canoe. Serendipity graced the way for the entire process of carving the canoe, preparing for the trip, paddling the river, and subsequently writing a book about the experience. 

I was especially fortunate to connect with Churchill Clark, the great-great-great-great grandson of Captain William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Churchill has made a career out of “carving canoes and paddling trees,” and he’d just finished an eighteen-month project to carve two dugout canoes from a tall cottonwood in Missouri. His schedule coincidently aligned with mine to come to Montana to carve a dugout canoe at my wilderness survival school. 

I run two separate programs, Outdoor Wilderness Living School LLC (OWLS) for youths and Green University LLC for adults. As I learned when buying land the wilderness camp, serendipitous luck isn’t always direct or obvious. 

The list price for River Camp dropped from $340,000 to a final sale price of $165,000 over four years.

I had felt an intimate connection to this property the first time I saw it for sale, but the asking price of $340,000 for twenty-one acres was way beyond my means. Then came the Great Recession of 2008, and the price started to fall. I felt certain it was the right property and my offer was accepted to purchase the property for $200,000. However, the contract fell through because the bank refused to finance the loan while I was in the midst of my divorce. Meanwhile, the price fell further, and I eventually bought the property for $165,000, just under half the original asking price. I intuitively felt a connection to the property from the get-go, but it took four years to prove up. We later named the parcel River Camp.

In the case of the canoe, a large cottonwood fell at a public campsite that I help manage as president of the Jefferson River Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. Churchill arrived in spring ready to start carving, but declared that the log wasn’t quite big enough.  After bringing him to Montana and organizing both our schedules around the canoe project, we went into panic mode to find a reasonable substitute. 

Big trees are exceedingly rare on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, and the only thing we could find was a 10,000-lb. Douglas fir at a nearby sawmill. I had recently volunteered to help my new next-door neighbor unload a big pile of beams off his flatbed trailer, so I asked him about moving the log. Coincidentally, he drove past the sawmill every day on his 90-mile commute to work so he could deliver it without hassle. Minor miracles happen all the time.

We carved a 10,000 lb. Douglas fir log into a dugout canoe.

As for the Douglas fir log, it was hard, full of knots, and prone to cracking and splitting, everything that a canoe wood shouldn’t be.  Was this a miracle or a curse? We used adzes and chopped by hand, then compensated with power tools to saw, shave, grind, and sand the knotty wood. It took more than three months to complete the canoe, but true to Churchill’s talent, the canoe was a work of art, and a nicer watercraft than we could have carved from any cottonwood tree. 

Belladonna, as I named the canoe, is a beast of a boat. Churchill’s previous canoes were substantially smaller, weighing less than 300 lbs. This one was twenty feet long and weighed in at 500 to 900 lbs. I removed an expansion joint from the dugout canoe trailer, matching the canoe and trailer perfectly to each other.

As the beautiful canoe took shape, it became evident that I would be paddling the Missouri River rather than hiking the Appalachian Trail or bicycling across the U.S., and I would do it like Lewis and Clark, in a real dugout canoe instead of a modern plastic one.

We did our maiden voyage with Belladonna on Montana’s Marias River. I planned a two-week canoe trip with one week on the upper river and reservoir, followed by a portage around the dam and another week on the river below the dam. Strangely, none of my friends or co-adventurers were available for that first week. As it was, we needed an extra week to prepare the canoe. Good thing too, because it rained a whopping 12 inches in the upper Marias watershed that week, an entire year’s worth of precipitation dropped over two days. That could have been a disastrous expedition! I was grateful that we failed to launch the expedition on time. The following week was sunny and dry, so we paddled the lower river below the dam where controlled water releases were precisely ideal for our canoe trip. 

We took Belladonna out for her maiden voyage on the Marias River.

We faced one other potentially serious problem that trip. The boat ramp at the end of our run wasn’t a ramp at all, but a slippery clay bank with a muddy drop where the boat trailer would be utterly useless. The canoe was too heavy to lift or even drag easily without a winch. But miraculously there happened to be seven strong Hutterite men standing around, dressed in their Sunday best, as we paddled to shore. This is a fishing access site in a remote, sparsely populated region of rural Montana where we wouldn’t have expected to encounter anyone.  How was it that they were there at that precise time?  The Hutterite men were thrilled to pull on the front of the canoe from dry land while our crew got in the mud pit and pushed from behind, dragging the canoe out and up onto a bank high enough to back the trailer under the bow. 

Some people might dismiss such serendipitous experiences as mere coincidences, yet there is a statistical improbability to consistently being blessed with good luck through the incidents above and throughout the subsequent five-month expedition down the Missouri River. 

Manifesting Good Luck

Good luck is manifested in different forms. The Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared” is an excellent way to cultivate luck. As an experienced canoeist and wilderness survival instructor, I was well prepared to lead a 2,000-mile expedition. I’ve led numerous canoe trips and wilderness expeditions before, even if not nearly as long in distance or duration. But I also understood that freak accidents happen and no level of preparedness can ensure good luck in a bad situation. Ultimately though, every wilderness adventure becomes a journey of faith that everything will work out for the best.

Rather than paddle the Missouri alone, I invited friends, former students, and complete strangers to join the expedition to explore the river. In the vetting process, I relayed a story I’d heard from a student in one of my wilderness survival classes. He told of climbing a mountain in the Himalayas where the guide explicitly instructed him Not to step off the trail. Well, he did, and he went careening down the icy mountain on his butt, he had the good fortune of shooting right over a crevasse without falling in. He skidded to a stop without hitting any rocks or breaking any bones. It was a great story, but as I emphasized to my prospective crew, I would rather have boring companions than reckless thrill seekers. I wasn’t interested in heroic tales of survival rooted in poor choices. 

I invited friends, former students, and complete strangers to join the expedition.

Out of the five-man crew that began the journey, four of us made it to St. Louis, and we were indeed a boring lot, “the most boring crew ever,” as I praised them mid-journey, and that was key to our success in achieving the mission and doing it without significant incident or injury. 

I studied the river in great detail over the winter before our expedition, tediously mapping out potential campsites and GPS coordinates for likely stops along the way. I was new to GPS devices, and in retrospect, the cell-enabled iPad I brought along was useless along most of the river corridor, where it was necessary to hike up to nearby mountain tops for a cell signal to determine location.

As luck would have it, Scott Robinson signed onto the endeavor and volunteered to obtain the necessary GPS equipment and learn how to use it proficiently for the expedition. Scott was a novice at wilderness skills, but quickly became chief navigator and effectively co-captain of the expedition. His GPS tracker accessed satellites everywhere along the journey and displayed our location, route, and distance to predetermined campsites on his connected smart phone. 

In principal, GPS mapping isn’t required for an expedition that largely consists of following a river, and Lewis and Clark certainly didn’t have it. Yet, there were moments when it seemed indispensable, especially on big man-made reservoirs where it was extremely difficult to determine the difference between large bays versus the main channel of the river. GPS enabled us to find public lands for camping and hiking, and critically enabled coordination and planning with people from the outside world for meeting and portaging the beast of a canoe via trailer around the many dams. 

Good planning helped ensure good luck. Yet, no matter how carefully one plans for all contingencies, it is impossible to control all variables. There are moments where survival ultimately depends on serendipitous good luck, the statistically improbable minor miracles that occur with surprising regularity throughout our lives.

The River as a Mirror

In western culture we are taught that rivers are functionally inert. Water is H2O, two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Accumulate billions of trillions of water molecules and we have oceans, lakes, and rain. Rain deposits water molecules upon high points of the landscape. Rivers result from gravity dragging water molecules downhill towards the oceans. H2O itself is theoretically lifeless and lacking in soul. Paddlers, however, have an intimate relationship with water, and those who are most experienced will assert that science is incomplete.

Paddlers find that rivers often reflect one’s life circumstances. A person struggling with anger and darkness in the aftermath of divorce may be confronted by brutal conditions on the river, a never-ending onslaught of pounding storms, waves, and unrelenting wind. Just as a boxer works out his fury on a punching bag, a paddler beats the water with his paddle. The river beats him back and nearly breaks him, but through perseverance, the paddler achieves his goal, thousands of miles long, overcoming not just the river, but more importantly, himself.

Having faced many challenges in my life, I know how to grit my teeth and bear discomfort to the end. This time I approached the river with nothing to prove, and more than anything, the desire for a well-earned extended vacation. The principal challenges we faced were more symbolic than substantive, and served as early tests that we overcame to earn our admission to the adventure of a lifetime. 

Missouri River thru-paddlers typically launch in May, but because I teach outdoor survival skills to public school kids, we delayed until the first of June. May weather is generally turbulent in Montana, but May of 2019 was especially cold and wet with multiple rain and snowstorms, which miraculously landed on gap days between public school programs. Summer arrived gloriously in time for our big launch. 

I originally envisioned leading an expedition of about a dozen paddlers, but trusted the Universe to provide the appropriate crew. Camping at the Fairweather Fishing Access Site that first night, I realized we had precisely the right-sized crew. With five of us in the core group, intermittently joined by other paddlers, we were big enough to enjoy diverse company, but small enough to operate with informality. In contrast, leading a dozen paddlers would have turned the adventure into a military operation to coordinate daily logistics, establish campsites, rotate cooking duties, delegate tasks, and maintain harmony and discipline. Listening to a louder group camped nearby that first night, I found it refreshing that our group was small enough to hear each other. 

Closure of the boat ramp necessitated a manual portage at Toston Dam.

We encountered our first significant challenge just twenty miles downriver when the boat ramp was closed at the Toston Dam, necessitating a manual portage of a canoe that might weigh as much as 900 lbs. when empty.  We overcame the challenge as a team, weighting down the stern to raise the bow enough to winch it up onto the grass. We moved the winch from tree to tree, using PVC rollers under the canoe to glide over a lawn to the parking lot. With the aid of a car jack, we raised the canoe high enough to back the trailer under it. We overcame this unexpected obstacle with relative ease, gaining the confidence that we could handle whatever we faced, while praying we wouldn’t have to do it again. 

When researching the trip in advance, my principal concern was dealing with the big winds on the many reservoirs of the Missouri. Fifteen dams hold back 700 miles of flat water, the equivalent of paddling from Seattle to San Francisco on a lake, except that like the ocean, the lakes are seldom flat. Winds whip across the open waters kicking up waves that can quickly swamp a fleet of canoes. 

Imagined fear came to life on our first big reservoir, paddling onto Canyon Ferry Lake just 70 miles into our journey. Paddling into a strong headwind, we moved parallel to the rocky shore where landing was impossible, yet forward momentum was negligible. For hours we paddled into the wind seemingly going nowhere, until we finally reached a sandy shore. My paddle partner and I went to shore, but the heavy dugout parked like a log and the waves hit her broadside, hopping over the gunnels to swamp her in seconds. Within moments we had all our sopping wet gear strewn across the beach, yet still we could not bail the canoe as fast as new waves continued to fill her up. But then the winds miraculously came to an abrupt stop. We were grateful for the opportunity to bail the canoe, re-organize our gear, and continue shortly thereafter.

While I intended to paddle every reservoir in Montana, I dreaded facing bigger lakes downstream in North and South Dakota. On Canyon Ferry we had an opportunity to test an idea I’d had for traversing the big lakes: hitch-hiking. Local paddler Jim Emmanuel had previously paddled the entire Missouri River, and he came to visit our expedition via motorboat, so I inquired about a trial run, towing us across the lake behind his boat. Towing all the canoes was impractical, so we hitched up Belladonna for the test ride. 

We attempted hitchhiking a ride behind a motorboat on Canyon Ferry Reservoir. It didn’t go well.

Strangely, gale-force winds blew up out of nowhere as we left the other canoes behind. They retreated to shore while we sped down the lake. We moved at what seemed like fantastic speeds, plowing through big waves that threatened to swamp us at any moment. I steered carefully using the paddle as a rudder to maintain alignment behind the motorboat or risk being swamped if we slipped crosswise to the waves. It was a terrifying journey, yet we seemed to blow by several miles in a matter of minutes until my paddle partner up front was soaked and chilled and signaled that he wanted to stop. We cut loose and headed for shore, the gnarly winds subsiding as magically as they had started moments before. The rest of the crew never bothered to launch in the big winds, and much to my dismay, we had only traveled one-third of a terrifying mile in our motorboat adventure. The crew paddled their canoes across the now calm waters to join us while I started a fire to warm up the nearly hypothermic Chris, and we established camp there for the night. Clearly, my mastermind plan of hitchhiking was not the answer to traversing the lakes!

Timing is Everything

Our society largely defines reality as K-12 education followed by a college degree, a career and family, a mortgage and bills, followed by retirement and a slow death in an easy chair in front of a television. Superseding this basic narrative, some people view reality as a contest between good and evil, God and the Devil, to win your eternal soul. Other people see reality in strict Darwinian terms, that we are apes wearing clothes and life is a random accident without meaning or purpose. 

I prefer a worldview from physicists, that our atoms consist primarily of empty space, that our building blocks are force fields of energy rather than actual substance. Our bodies and everything around us consist of energy, every rock, tree, mountain, and river, and within that energy exists unlimited possibilities, including the possibility that life is far more interesting than advertised and events are less random than they seem. 

For example, it is easy to watch the clock and stress out about prescheduled appointments. But what happens if we trust that we are exactly where we need to be at any given moment? How many times have I been late to a meeting only to discover that it was delayed, canceled, or didn’t require my participation?

I attended the Winter Count primitive skills gathering in Arizona four months prior to the launch of our expedition, bringing potential crew members with me. Two others drove down separately from Colorado to meet and talk about the expedition. I’ve never owned a mobile phone, which admittedly complicates meet ups. Nowadays, people text back and forth and adjust their destination and estimated time of arrival on the fly. 

Without a phone, I rely on an older form of coordination, one where you get up and start walking when the time feels right. In this case an instructor relayed a message to meet one of the arrivals by the corrals at a specified time. Being skeptical, I brought a book and read for two hours while nobody showed up. Winter Count is held in the desert with 500+ people spread out in camps over 200 acres among big rocks, cacti, and shrubbery. Finally, I felt the urge to get up and walk. Moments later, I randomly bumped into one of the guys, and within minutes, without a designated time or place, all six members of the meeting had accidentally arrived at the same place. 

I’ve often wondered how mated pairs of birds keep track of each other. Companion calling helps two birds track each other through the woods, but if they were to drift out of earshot there would be no obvious reference point to reconnect, especially when migrating over thousands of miles. I imagine they too have the ability to ‘randomly’ fly to undesignated meeting points. 

For the big canoe trip I bought the cell-enabled iPad to handle emails along the journey, but still didn’t have an actual mobile phone. During our stay in Fort Benton, I’d hoped to connect with German explorer Dirk Rohrbach and his partner Claudia Axmann. Dirk paddled the Missouri source-to-sea the previous year, nearly 4,000 miles from the smallest rivulet in the mountains downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. He returned to retrace the river for additional photography. We had no scheduled meeting place or time, but I ducked into a coffee shop for hot chocolate, a brownie, and email. I was still in line at the counter when Dirk and Claudia walked in the door, having just arrived in town. 

We met up with German adventurer Dirk Rohrbach and partner Claudia Axmann in Fort Benton.

Serendipitous timing is neither a superpower nor particularly uncommon. Many people have a talent for walking in the door precisely at meal times, even without a consistent dinner schedule. Merely needing to talk to someone may bring that person to the door or the phone.

In comparison, coordinating meetings via phone or text often requires constant renegotiation of the time and place. Yet the body knows what the mind does not. I’ve developed a preference for randomly or instinctually arriving in the right place at the right time without a pre-coordinated plan. I worry that people will lose that ability when relying too much on technology. 

On the other hand, we found texting essential to coordinate with people from the outside world to assist with portages around the many dams of the Missouri River. 

Some Missouri River paddlers have packed wheels to portage their own canoes in the determination to traverse every mile of the river. Others have paddled without a portage plan, hitching rides from helpful bystanders at each dam. In our case, paddling an absurdly heavy dugout canoe required bringing the custom trailer to portage each dam. We didn’t have a backup crew to follow us to St. Louis by road, so we brought the trailer without a truck, relying on friends, family, and complete strangers to hand off the trailer from dam to dam all the way to St. Louis. 

Coordinating a portage plan might easily have turned into a logistical nightmare. There are fifteen dams on the Missouri, five of which are portaged as one around Great Falls, Montana, while other dams are in remote, sparsely populated areas. Yet, creating a portage plan required shockingly little effort, slightly more than no work at all, thanks to the generous outreach of those who volunteered to help us and the serendipitous good timing of everyone’s schedules. 

There are fifteen dams on the Missouri River, necessitating the use of a trailer to portage the dugout canoe.

To coordinate with drivers, I’d worked up a theoretical timetable for the expedition across Montana, then asked family and friends to help out with the local portages. I anticipated a string of back and forth emails and phone calls, but everyone’s schedules magically lined up with each other, so that there was always someone to assist with portaging, even hundreds of miles from home.

Later we were assisted by “river angels,” volunteers who kindly moved the trailer from one dam to the next. Some we connected with online in advance, while others were complete strangers we met on shore who volunteered to drive the trailer to the next portage point. And after all the dams were behind us, we were still 800 miles from St. Louis, but a local river angel happened to be driving that way for a meeting and delivered the trailer to our final destination. 

In planning for the adventure, I had hoped to visit the American Prairie Reserve’s bison restoration project north of Fort Peck Reservoir in north central Montana, but hadn’t made contact ahead of time. As luck would have it, I met a bird photographer at Fred Robinson Bridge, the last outpost of civilization before the big reservoir. He had just come from the Enrico Education Center at APR and provided me with a name and email to reach the on-the-ground contact there. Arriving at Fourchette Bay a week later, we hiked up through the badlands and ponderosa pine forest to reach cell service. By chance we reached Hila Shamoon via email and she drove out to pick us up. We were doubly lucky to accidentally walk to the ideal pick-up point, since the other roads were impassible with wet clay due to recent storms. Timing is everything, but it does require a degree of faith and trust in the Universe. 


The idea that success entails hard work is deeply embedded in western culture, and I’ve worked harder than most to make my dreams come true. Having clawed my way forward an inch at a time for decades, I found it unsettling that other people could simply broadcast their dreams to the Universe and be effortlessly showered with all that they asked for and more. I went at life like a bulldozer, trying to physically shape the world to my ideals. All that blew up in my face with the loss of my marriage, the fracturing of my family, and having to start my life anew. The experience ultimately taught me to cast my Dreams to the Universe without being in such a hurry to achieve them, accepting that events would unfold if or when the time was right. 

Proceeding downriver, I still hadn’t come up with a plan to overcome 400 miles of flat water paddling on reservoirs through the Dakotas. I had nothing to prove and saw no benefit to paddling a heavy dugout canoe against choppy wind and waves for weeks on end. I was here to explore the river, not beat myself up and incur repetitive stress injuries trying to overcome artificial conditions on man-made reservoirs. 

I had considered portaging around all the lakes, but didn’t want to miss anything. My test run hitch-hiking behind a boat with a tow rope on Canyon Ferry Reservoir was a near disaster. My only other idea was to attach a motor to the canoe and power across the reservoirs when the wind wasn’t blowing. But I had run out of time to research the idea, so we paddled downstream with no motor and no plan. I was, however, contacted by a guy who liked my books and wanted to drive up from Georgia to join the expedition for a week. He could only get away in early August, connecting with us in western North Dakota. When he first asked what he could bring, I couldn’t think of anything, but when he inquired again, I asked if he happened to have an outboard motor lying around. 

Charles drove up from Georgia to join us in North Dakota.

Charles Tatch gifted us with an outboard motor, clamps to attach the motor to the dugout canoe, gas cans, Georgia peaches and much, much more. We padded together for a couple days on the river and the upper portion of Lake Sakakawea before taking a three-day layover at Tobacco Gardens Resort where we installed and tested the outboard motor.  We lashed one of the other canoes to the side of the dugout canoe like an outrigger and towed the third canoe behind us. With the aid of the motor, we could roar down the reservoir at 4.5 to 5 mph, more than twice as fast as we could paddle. It still took us six weeks to cross all the lakes of the Dakotas, much of that time spent on shore waiting for winds to abate so we could get back on the water. But when fair weather came, we could cover as much as forty miles in a single day, greatly facilitating our downstream progress before we parted with the motor. 

Charles stayed with us for a total of ten days. He asked how one manifests something into existence, and I said I didn’t know, but here he was, like an Angel from Heaven, arriving at exactly the right time with precisely the right equipment we needed to successfully traverse the lakes. How many other people would do that?

North Dakota includes a sixty-mile section of free-flowing river between reservoirs, so we untied the “Contraption,” as we called our motorized watercraft, and returned to paddling. We normally avoided paddling in the rain, but the day we did was the day we also hoped to tour Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site near Stanton, North Dakota. The site was a few miles off the river, so we chose the closest point and tied the canoes at a private boat ramp and started walking in the rain. A hundred yards down the road, immediately after walking past the Private Property signs, we encountered the landowner driving home. 

Bill and Debra Marlenee were among the many river angels who reached out with kindness and generosity.

Bill Marlene rolled down his window, and after we explained what we were doing, he kindly offered us a ride to the historic site. Then he told us about this guy he knew named Churchill Clark who carves dugout canoes. Such was the serendipitous nature of our journey that we would stumble into a friend of a friend a thousand river miles from home. Bill not only gave us a ride to and from the historic site, he provided a warm cabin for us to bunk in through a cold, rainy night. 

Not far downriver, we were approached by three guys in a motorboat who yelled out, “Are you guys the Corps of Rediscovery?” “Yeah, you found us,” I replied, assuming they were tracking our progress online, But they had not heard of the expedition; it was just a lucky guess made in good humor. Shortly thereafter, we pitched our tents on the lawn at Clete Burbach’s home north of Bismarck, joining his family and guests for a big steak dinner with fresh corn, mashed potatoes, and a big green salad.

Clete’s next door neighbor was a retired veterinarian who happened to have some spare medicine available to give our expedition puppy a free distemper/parvo shot. Jubilee was a stray found on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. Chris and Josiah had walked into Wolf Point for ice, and didn’t return for an unusually long time, ultimately wandering back to the canoes with this two-month old puppy. They explained the rationale by which they determined it was a legitimate stray and brought her on board. Chris tried to schedule an appointment for the shot in Bismarck, but none of the veterinarians could fit it in their schedules. Chalk another one up to serendipity, that the neighbor came to the rescue. The need was broadcast to the Universe, and the answer manifested itself in the generosity of strangers. 

Chris adopted a stray puppy along the way. Jubilee grew up on the canoes as we paddled down the river.

Not far downriver, we stopped at a campground where the host went the extra mile to make sure we were well situated with everything we needed. Then he brought us a big lasagna baked by his wife for a dinner party that was unexpectedly canceled. Was this a random event or serendipitous timing, or did we somehow unknowingly manifest this situation into existence? I don’t know, but the lasagna was delicious as was the gracious hospitality of our camp hosts. 

Given all the minor miracles that occurred on our trip, I cannot claim to be in control of anything. If I could manifest my dreams into reality, I would have met my ideal life partner, and I would have won the lottery to invest in conservation projects and green business enterprises to make the world a better place. I’m still waiting.  

UnManifest Destiny

From nothing, the Universe exploded itself into existence, yet instead of celebrating the miracle of life, people want to get wasted on the weekends to forget the misery of the daily grind. People are more interested in watching sports, smoking a joint, or going shopping, rather than marvel over the mystery of life. But to me, every day is a new opportunity to re-ask the question: What is the nature of reality?

Although born in California, I am otherwise a fourth generation Montanan on both sides of my family lineage. Through my childhood years, we drove to Montana every summer to visit family, and I was thrilled to permanently return to Montana at the age of twelve to begin junior high. However, I’ve always struggled with the fact that my Montana Dream came true only because my father died of cancer, thus freeing the family from his electronics career in what later became known as the Silicon Valley. 

The loss of my father at an early age enlightened me to the shortness of life and the necessity of living one’s dreams without delay. That early awareness of mortality is not a gift I would wish on anyone, yet it propelled me forward in pursuit of my dreams. Without that lesson, it is possible that I would have chosen a more conventional career-oriented path without building my own home or seeking great adventures, like paddling the Missouri River in a dugout canoe. Through chance events or Divine plan, my fate has always been linked to that of my father with uncertain questions about what that means. I’m fairly certain I did not manifest his death to live my dreams. 

The loss of my father at an early age taught me the shortness of life and the necessity of living one’s dreams.

On the river we grappled with a similar issue in regards to floodwaters. We paddled the Missouri through one of the wettest years on record, with heavy precipitation and runoff continuing all season long. We observed, with a twinge of guilt, that billions of dollars in downstream damage gifted us with optimal river conditions for our expedition. 

I had anticipated a parched, dead prairie landscape where we would be plagued by searing heat and unrelenting sunburns. Yet with rainstorms sweeping through twice a week, the reservoirs were full to the brim and the land was as green as spring all summer long, so green that we enjoyed harvesting mushrooms on the prairie. 

Had we paddled the river in a dry year, we would have struggled to navigate around sandbars in the river. Of primary concern was the point where water enters a reservoir and slows, dropping its sediment load to create miles-long mazes of muddy mire, sandbars, and dead-end channels that can thwart forward progress. Reservoirs are also ugly as they drain down, leaving a bathtub ring of mud, sometimes hundreds of feet wide, that must be transversed to reach solid ground and vegetated surfaces. The Missouri River remained optimally beautiful from one end to the other. 

Abundant rain would seem a bad deal for a canoe expedition, but almost without fail, we reached our chosen campsites moments ahead of incoming storms, putting in the last tent stakes with the first drops of rain. On wetter days we stayed put and enjoyed reading or journaling, so we seldom paddled in the rain. 

Launching June 1st put us behind the floodwaters for half the journey. We caught up with the flooding below the last dam, with more than 800 miles left to reach St. Louis. In some places the river was miles wide, flooding out through the trees with no land in sight, which was disconcerting, but not particularly dangerous. The river is so flat that floodwaters resemble a slow-moving lake. Boat ramps and marinas were flooded out, making it nearly impossible to get boats on or off the river. We largely had the river to ourselves with little other boat or barge traffic. State parks mostly waived camping fees, and it felt like we landed on Free Parking wherever we went. 

We paddled the Missouri River during one of the highest water years on record, here showing the river spread out miles beyond the riverbank.

Members of the crew frequently noted our fortuitous luck while trying to be sensitive to those who suffered flood damage, including some of the river angels who were so gracious with their hospitality under difficult flood conditions. 

The biggest rainstorm we encountered hit at Decatur, Nebraska, which fortuitously had a large sheltered picnic area. The park manager advised us to pitch our tents on the concrete slab under the shelter, where we waited out two long days of rain. The rain raised the already flooded river by another foot.

Some events seem fated to happen, even if not always obvious why. Trapped under the same roof was Dan Hurd, who was sixteen months into a journey to bicycle the lower forty-eight states for suicide awareness, peddling north and south with the seasons as he gradually moved West. Dan became an honorary member of the expedition, joining us for the next week as we traveled together, us by water, and him cycling by land. Dan typically arrived in camp ahead of us, securing permission and connections before we caught up.

We camped out with bicyclist Dan Hurd under a covered picnic area through two days of rain.

A week after parting ways, we bumped into Dan again very briefly in St. Joseph, Missouri while touring the home of outlaw Jesse James, where he was killed in 1882. The following day Dan cycled into the historic tourist town of Weston, Missouri where resident Wendy Maupin recognized him from our online posts. It’s a small world. I didn’t know Wendy personally, but she stopped by my house in Montana earlier in our trip to see her friend Churchill Clark, who was there for a few weeks to wrap up old business. Now we were in her neck of the woods, and she brought Dan and a kayak out to join us on the river. We spent a couple more days paddling together before parting ways again. Eleven months later, Dan’s ongoing bicycle adventure brought him to my home in Montana. Dan later interviewed me for his Movement Monday podcast. For unknown reasons, destiny connected us in a rainstorm and our paths remained intertwined. 

Of all the mysteries of our Missouri River Expedition, one of the most puzzling to me was the sudden lack of emails. At home I organize my life around the constant effort to pick away at projects in my inbox. Some emails are easily answered. Others require hours of work to complete a task prior to responding. Being self-employed, I’ve enjoyed a great deal of freedom to go on lengthy vacations and travel the world, yet self-employed people, and particularly self-employed writers, are seldom ever truly free. My vacations include regular stops for WiFi in coffee shops. Still, after three or four weeks abroad, I typically have a long list of unresolved emails to which I’ve promised a more thorough response upon returning home.  

In preparation for the Missouri River expedition, I bought the iPad with cell service so I could manage emails whenever cell service was available. Most people who email me would not know that I was out of the office for five months, yet inexplicably, the emails largely dried up when we hit the water. My sister kept my publishing business running and checked my voice mail weekly, but shockingly very few emails appeared in my inbox.

The lack of email correspondence was especially surprising because a day before the expedition I sent a mass email out to 500 newspapers in the states along Missouri River route with the first installment of what I offered as a free weekly column from the river. I wasn’t sure if all 500 newspapers might reply to my query! I’d always dreamed of writing a newspaper column, and several newspapers along the route did carry the weekly installments. With the initial email ready to go, I hovered over the Send button, not sure if it was a good idea or not, then finally said, “What the heck…” I clicked the button committing me to writing the newspaper column and a potential blowback of hundreds of email queries in response, yet very few found it necessary to bother me with questions. 

Afterward, I had no intention of turning the newspaper column into a book. I intended to be done with the river trip when we reached St. Louis, without spending the next two years of my life turning it into a story. But writing the newspaper columns was an excellent writing exercise that pushed my abilities as an author, and it was evident within a few weeks that I was writing a book while on the water. 

Joanna Walitalo provided illustrations for Five Months on the Missouri River.

The  book was also evident to Joanna Walitalo, an artist who did hundreds of line art drawings of plants on wooden blocks based on illustrations in my book Botany in a Day. Joanna followed my blog and offered to illustrate the Missouri book while we were still paddling the river. Her illustrations precisely complemented the photo-rich book, which she presented on yellowed paper with mildew spots that provided the perfect backdrop for the historical-themed book.

Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe

The book, Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe, was 80 percent written when we reached St. Louis. With the timely delivery of Joanna’s excellent illustrations, I finished formatting the book in just four months and held it in hand shortly thereafter. I was soon honored with three awards for Five Months on the Missouri River, including the Writer’s Digest First Place Award for Nonfiction. Not bad for a book I didn’t intend to write.

Happy Accidents

As the old Hank Williams Sr. song goes, “I’ll never get out of this world alive.” The world is a dangerous place, and there is more than enough suffering and misery to go around. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy largely good health, aside from several days in an oxygen tent as a baby, bouts of asthma as a child, and a bee allergy that persisted until adulthood. Our culture teaches us that health issues arise from the physical world, such as a bad diet, toxins in the environment, and unfortunate accidents for which we are unwilling participants. While that seems logical enough, I’ve often wondered if all accidents are truly accidents, perhaps some are physical manifestations of emotional pain. 

As an avid hiker, accustomed to long rambles in the mountains, I have been keenly aware of the importance of knees. I saw my Great Aunt Evie sidelined to a sedentary life by bad knees. For me, the loss of mobility equated to the loss of identity, the greatest physical loss I could imagine. In retrospect, it seems hardly surprising that I suffered a torn ACL in my left knee at the same time my marriage and family came unraveled, and with it, my identity as a family man. The physical pain of the injury and the loss of mobility matched the emotional pain of my broken heart and the wholesale loss of my identity. 

ACL reconstruction surgery gave me a new knee, but a knee with pain that directly reflected the continuing pain of my broken heart. On good days I could walk three miles out and three miles back, by which time I needed a couple days to recover. On the worst days, mired in the heart aches of the past, my knee felt like a jumble of separate parts grinding together as if it could all come flying apart at any moment. But as my heart healed, so too did my knee. 

Hiking at every opportunity along the way was almost more important than paddling.

Paddling the Missouri River was, in part, an opportunity to finish rehab on my knee by returning to the earth, to live on the ground as our ancestors did. I enjoyed five months of getting in and out of the canoe, sitting around the campfire, crawling in and out of the tent, and hiking the surrounding countryside. With my kids out of the nest, the canoe trip was therapy for my knee and soul together, marking the start of a new chapter in my life. I was rarely stationary at any of our camps, coming and going, wandering in circles as long as daylight allowed. My longest hike of the trip was about fifteen miles, entirely pain free, giving me the assurance that I could resume multi-day walkabouts through the wilderness. 

We can never truly know what curve ball life will toss our way, but as a result of the knee injury and other lessons learned, I’ve strived to pay deeper attention to the intuitive internal compass, constantly questioning the path ahead. Too often we force ourselves down paths that don’t feel right in the name of duty, obligation, and the almighty dollar until our only means of respite is physical injury. Overworked and overstressed individuals are at risk of an “accident” or illness. While it may seem impossible to take time off, a hospital stay and rehab makes that ‘vacation’ possible.  Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to sun on a tropical beach? The challenge is to recognize and acknowledge underlying issues and alleviate the stress before triggering an inevitable accident or illness.  

In another happy accident, we paddled into Lexington, Missouri Riverfront Park late one afternoon. After setting up camp, Scott and I waded through the floodwaters to get to town, arriving at the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site after hours. However, the museum was serendipitously open for a board meeting, and we were allowed to tour the exhibits, gaining critical insights into local Civil War history that factored prominently into the newspaper column and book. 

Echoes in Time

According to our culture’s linear sense of time, events happen in sequential order, one thing leading to another forward through time. Time, however, is in many ways an illusion, a bi-product of the physical universe. Time moves at different rates according to gravity and speed. Time doesn’t apparently exist outside the universe, implying that everything happens all at once within the Universe, although we may perceive it otherwise. Through personal observation, I’ve often wondered if time flows in both directions, that events in the future echo backwards through the past. 

As a teenager I decided that botany was too complicated and decided to write a book called Botany in a Day to make it easier to learn about plants, although I didn’t know exactly what that entailed. I eventually wrote that book, which has become a best-seller, with more than 130,000 copies sold worldwide. It is used as a textbook in many university programs around the globe. In retrospect, I wonder if my teenage vision to write the book was motivated in part by the fact that I did write the book in the future, an event so prominent in my life that the memory echoed back in time to my younger self. 

Such experiences may be fairly common. For example, my ex-wife pretended to sort the mail as a child, placing letters between the balusters of the stairway railing. We ultimately bought a small town general store which included a postal contract to sort the mail. Did her childhood fantasy world echo a future memory?

Did the dream to paddle the Missouri River in a dugout start with a log ride at an amusement park… or vice versa?

We were far down the Missouri River before I recalled another echo in time, this one directly related to the river endeavor. As a child I wasn’t drawn to the fast and scary rides at amusement parks. But the log ride resonated on a deep level. Sit and take a slow ride up, tick-tick-tick-tick, then crest the top and slide down the watery chute to the big splash at the bottom. Who would have thought that early interest in the log ride would lead to carving my own log canoe?

I didn’t start canoeing until age 31, when we invested in an Old Town canoe as a convenient means to bring our children on wilderness expeditions without resorting to heavy backpacks and a forced march. That first river experience inspired more canoe trips and ultimately led me to found the Jefferson River Canoe Trail to acquire land for paddler campsites as part of the Lewis and Clark Trail National Historic Trail. Immersing into Lewis and Clark history further led to carving the dugout canoe with Churchill Clark and paddling the Missouri River, coming full circle with my childhood fascination with log rides in amusement parks.

Did the forgotten childhood fascination with the log ride lead to one day carving my own dugout canoe, or did the river experience somehow echo back in time to plant the seeds of fascination with the log ride at the amusement park? Some questions are worth asking even if difficult to answer definitively.

Walk the Line

Whatever reality is, I’ve seen enough minor miracles to know that it is not as advertised. There is something more to life than going to school to get good grades to be awarded a job sitting in a cubicle for forty years to retire and die in an easy chair in front of the television. Life is something much more beautiful, mysterious, and confounding.

I’ve often felt that my own path, for better or worse, was pre-determined, and that my role in life wasn’t so much to create my future as to merely intuit what I’d done and do it again. That assurance should be comforting, yet I’ve often found it disconcerting, as if my life doesn’t belong to me. I often feel like an actor trying to remember a play without having seen the script. 

The path has never been easy. I’ve worked hard to make my dreams come true, applying thousands of hours to build my own passive solar stone and log house without a mortgage, thousands of hours more staring at a computer screen to write books and establish a publishing company. I’ve worked sixteen-hour days most of my life to make a positive difference in the world, often with less-than-optimal results. 

For any glimmer of intuition about the future, it is easy to glom onto that and create logical, rational plans to bring it into fruition. It is only in having those plans blow up in my face that I’ve learned to progressively let go and to trust the path to unfold as the Universe sees fit. The more I learn to trust the Universe, the more I’ve been blessed with minor miracles, like those we experienced on a near-daily basis throughout our five months on the Missouri River. I don’t, however, control the process.

Trusting one’s fate to the Universe is like walking an invisible tight rope across a great chasm with roiling waters below. There is a measure of intuition to predict the path ahead followed by leap of faith that there will be solid rope underfoot. The greatest challenge may be accepting that we own neither our lives nor our death, but must continuously step boldly and blindly into the unknown for whatever that may bring.  

We arrived at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri on November 3rd, after five months and three days on the river.

Roadmap to Reality.

For our time on the Missouri River, we committed ourselves and our canoes directly to the roiling waters with faith that the Universe would carry us through. Our final great obstacle was the notorious “Chain of Rocks” after the Missouri merges with the Mississippi, a few miles upstream of our endpoint at Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The subsurface line of concrete slabs, rock, and rebar creates a serious hazard for paddlers, one that we easily floated over thanks to unprecedented floodwaters that fully submerged the Chain of Rocks to the end of the paddling season.  We completed our journey of faith and rediscovery on November third, after five months and three days on the river. 

Thomas J. Elpel is the author of Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit, as well as Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe, plus numerous other books on nature, botany, and sustainable living available from

Go to: Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe

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Freedom to Roam: Restoring the Right of Responsible Access

Having the freedom to roam across the countryside can help foster a greater sense of gratitude and stewardship.

Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans from before statehood, lasting until recent times. I was privileged to grow up with that culture of open access, when fences were intended for livestock, not for people. Unfortunately, people unfamiliar with Montana traditions bought land and posted the first No Trespassing signs. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, the people of Montana lost access, and with it an essential part of our identity. 

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomenon in Montana.

Montanans cherish a deep connection to nature, they always have. Yet, without the right to roam across the open countryside, children grow up on paved or gravel roads, manicured lawns, and mind-numbing electronics. That isn’t the Montana way. Ask any middle-aged or older person about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, and generally exploring, passing through fences regardless of property boundaries. 

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were unlikely to leave gates open, cut fences, litter, or vandalize properties. Those are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, better described as the “right of responsible access,” and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners.

Freedom to roam was widely considered a basic right in early America, enough that the Pennsylvania delegation proposed a right-to-roam amendment for the U.S. Constitution, wrote Ken Ilgunas in This Land is Our Land.


Freedom to roam was widely considered a basic right in early America, enough that the Pennsylvania delegation proposed a right-to-roam amendment for the U.S. Constitution, wrote Ken Ilgunas in This Land is Our Land. Unfortunately, the amendment was not adopted and was likely regarded as unnecessary. Walking across private property was as natural as walking down the road. People knew they could walk across each other’s lands and forests while being respectful of crops, livestock, tools, structures, and privacy.

Freedom to roam was so deeply embedded in early American culture that people didn’t think to ask permission. Why ask for something that already belongs equally to all? Asking would have implied that wanderers needed permission to cross private land. A few cases that were contested in the courts typically involved egregious abuse of private land, such as militia training or cutting down a large number of trees. Yet, so strong was the custom and precedence of public access to private land in early America that the courts ruled in favor of wanderers, not the landowners. 

The cultural shift towards private property rights began in the wake of the Civil War. Having lost the war, southern states passed private property laws to prevent newly freed slaves from hunting, foraging, or even walking across white-owned land, subjugating them to a lower social and economic strata.

Property rights culture spread from the South, slowly shutting down freedom to roam for people of all races. It happened one private property sign at a time. It was annoying when outsiders posted the first No Trespassing signs here in Montana, but people adjusted their routines to walk elsewhere. We lost the state a piece at a time until we effectively lost all private land access. Worse than losing the right to roam, Montanans became conditioned to fences as corrals for people, subjugating ourselves like livestock. 

Moreover, posting property to keep people out fosters idleness and thus boredom, which can lead to vandalism and abuse that makes No Trespassing signs seem necessary. If we wish to raise a populace that is fit, healthy, responsible, and free, then we must reflect on the meaning of freedom and whether private property rights conflict with our ideals as Americans. We can start by comparing our expectations of freedom with those of other countries.  

New Zealand is crisscrossed with such an amazing abundance of public walking tracks that there is little incentive or need to trespass.

The Everyman’s Right

Touring in New Zealand for five weeks, I did not encounter a single No Trespassing or Keep Out sign. The most stringent sign I saw was a “Multiple Hazard” warning, cautioning people about entering farmlands with active farming operations. On the other hand, the country also has an amazing system of trails or “tracks,” as they call them. These tracks are easily accessible trails, providing little incentive for anyone to trespass. 

I learned from talking with locals that New Zealand laws and customs are very access-friendly. For example, most beaches and watercourses are considered public property. I enjoyed walking one public track along the waterfront near the town of Paihia, along the Bay of Islands. The track meandered along private properties where at times the trail skirted along a tool shed, or a brushy hedge served as an impediment to straying into a yard, or in rare instances a fence blocked view into a house, but always the track always took precedence.  As long as people have the ability to walk unimpeded, what need is there to trespass?

Access to watercourses includes every perennial or intermittent stream across any pasture or down any hill, with public access along either side to the width of the “Queen’s chain,” or about sixty-six feet. In addition, New Zealand has an extensive network of “paper roads” across otherwise private property. These public right-of-ways were defined when the land was settled and surveyed, and they remain legally open to public use, even if roads were never built.

Public tracks in New Zealand often cross working farms and ranches. In this case, the trail went across a cattle pasture and through a unique gate.

In addition to access-friendly laws, it is culturally acceptable for New Zealanders to cross private property, although it is considered polite to ask when crossing private property near a farmhouse. Conversely, it is culturally unacceptable to lock people out. One local mentioned neighbors who migrated to New Zealand from Pennsylvania and bought a large farm. The newcomers could not legally close the public track across their land, but in order to discourage anyone from using it, they let the trail grow so thick with brush and tall grass that nobody wanted to go there. Neighbors frowned at the inhospitality of these American transplants!

While touring New Zealand, I appreciated the fact that litter was relatively scarce compared to the states. Of the litter that was there, I wondered how much of it was dropped by American tourists who have lost their sense of connection and stewardship of the land. I realized that No Trespassing signs are also a form of litter, an eyesore on the landscape. It was refreshing to travel in a place that wasn’t marred by inhospitable signs tacked to fence posts. 

The idea that people should have freedom to roam is not unique to New Zealand. It is also a long-standing tradition in Scandinavian countries. In Sweden it is known as allemansrätten or “the everyman’s right.” Centuries-old traditions have been coded into law in recent decades across Europe. 

In Norway, Sweden, and Finland, people have the right to hike, ski, camp, and forage for wild food on undeveloped private properties, provided they respect landowners and don’t harm the environment. Bicycling is also allowed where appropriate. While the public is not allowed to enter cultivated lands during the growing season or pastures when livestock are present, other times of the year are okay. Similar customs and laws are found in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Austria, Switzerland, Belarus, and the Czech Republic.

England and Wales recognized everyman’s right to roam in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, while Scotland recognized the right with the Land Reform Act of 2003. Scotland recognizes the public right to walk, bicycle, ride horseback, and camp on private lands, provided that visitors don’t damage the environment or interfere with farming or other private land uses. 

Europeans visiting the U.S. are often dismayed to discover they are not allowed to walk anywhere in the “land of the free.” 

A Montana Tradition

In my home state of Montana, freedom to roam has been a custom, tradition, and presumed right since the days of the frontier. Trappers, traders, gold seekers, homesteaders, and cattlemen traversed the country in every direction by foot and horseback. The tradition of open access continued long after livestock fences went up. That was the world I knew as a youth, hopping across fences as if they weren’t even there. 

As a teenager I built a grass hut among the trees at the edge of a farm field near town, nurturing a healthy connection with nature.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I lived in Bozeman and walked nearby farm fields regularly where I tracked foxes, pheasants, and skunks in snow-covered fields. In a tangle of brush along an irrigation ditch, I built a hut of sticks and grass thatching, deepening my connection with nature. During weekends and summers, I went to my grandmother’s house in the country, where I walked for miles in every direction, crossing livestock fences all the way.

No Trespassing signs are a recent phenomenon, first introduced by wealthy newcomers who, oblivious to Montana’s tradition of openness, imported their own cultural expectations. Orange paint on a fence post signifies the same thing as a No Trespassing sign, so we gained a few signs and a lot of orange paint while losing access to millions of acres of land. Sadly, there wasn’t a public debate about it, because our cultural values were neither recorded nor publicized, and the loss occurred slowly, property by property across the state.

People were unaware that by posting No Trespassing signs, they were not only closing access to their own land, but also encouraging neighbors to do the same. Unfortunately, “the everyman’s right” to roam was never formalized into law, nor was it written down as a guidebook for new residents. Is it really too late to recapture our lost freedom?

Montana landowners traditionally welcomed hikers and fisherman on their land. No Trespassing signs were largely introduced by newcomers to the state.

Landowners express liability concerns as an excuse for posting their property, worried they might get sued if someone were injured or killed scrambling over rock outcroppings or impaled on a century-old piece of metal sticking out of the ground. However, according to Montana’s Recreational Use statute (§70-16-302, MCA), “A person who uses property […] for recreational purposes, with or without permission, does so without any assurance from the landowner that the property is safe for any purpose.” Landowners are potentially liable only if the visitor has paid a fee to be there, or in cases of “willful or wanton misconduct” by the landowner. Any natural or artificial hazard on the property, such as a natural or man-made fishing pond, is considered a “condition of the property,” for which the visiting recreationist accepts all responsibility. 

The cultural shift can be shocking to someone who experiences it for the first time. I met one Montana rancher who spoke of how much he enjoyed seeing people fishing streams on his property. Then he retired and sold his ranch. He was dismayed to see that the new owners posted the property, and then even he was not allowed to revisit the land despite having lived there for decades. 

Journey of Discovery

In 1804 through 1806, Lewis and Clark led the Corps of Discovery on an expedition up the Missouri River, over the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia, in search of a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. They didn’t find the Northwest Passage they had hoped for, but their journey of discovery led the nation westward and continues to inspire people today.

Individual journeys of discovery can be deeply powerful experiences that shape a person’s life.

Similarly, individual journeys of discovery can be deeply powerful experiences that shape a person’s life. For example, after the devastating loss of her mother and her marriage, Cheryl Strayed rebooted her life alone on the trail, as told in her best-selling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, later retold as a Hollywood movie. 

Having the freedom to engage in a journey such as this is a basic need and fundamental human right, “the everyman’s right,” that should be easily accessible to all people, especially young adults who are searching for their path in life. Every person should have the opportunity to walk or paddle and camp to the horizon and beyond in their own journey of discovery.

I have undertaken several such journeys myself. In 1988, at the age of twenty, my high school sweetheart and I walked five hundred miles across Montana, starting at my grandmother’s house in Pony and ending at Fort Union on the North Dakota border.

We first walked across private farm fields from Pony to Three Forks, then followed the active railroad down the Missouri to Sixteen Mile Creek. Our map still showed the tracks of the former Chicago Milwaukee Railroad ascending Sixteen Mile, but here the tracks had been removed and there was a locked gate plastered with No Trespassing signs. 

I understood the words well enough, but the idea was incomprehensible to the free-roaming lifestyle I’d grown up with. Not having anywhere else to go, we climbed over the gate and followed the rail bed upstream over wooden trestles and through convenient tunnels. We saw 28 elk and 250 deer that day. 

The property manager found us camped by the creek, but fortunately decided we were harmless enough and let us continue our journey. The next big ranch was also posted, but they invited us to join them for hamburgers. Most people we met were supportive of our adventure. A few were mildly disgruntled and suggested that we should be responsible and get a job, but waved us onward. Journeys such as this have been greatly empowering, giving me the confidence and determination to follow my dreams in life.

The consequences of posting property runs much deeper than may be readily apparent. Fencing people out is effectively the same as fencing them in. A person who cannot walk out the door and across an open field is living in a cage.

Zoo animals are known to have severe psychological disorders from living in cages. Cages impact people too.

Zoo animals are known to have severe psychological disorders from living in cages. Cages impact people too. I’ve met many young people who are angry at society, angry at the machine of civilization, angry at the way the system enslaves and dehumanizes people. Having grown up constrained by fences, they feel trapped by society, as if they lack freedom to live their own dreams. Conditioned to being in a box, they do not recognize freedom even when they have it. I’ve had summer guests who would not think to walk off my homestead on their own, even though there is 100,000 acres of public land accessible via a short walk up the road.

Like my horse who would pace back and forth along an invisible fence after I removed the electric wire and plastic posts, these young, well-intentioned people were controlled by fences even when there were none.

Other people may not feel the same depth of malcontent or may not verbalize it the same, but a sense of confinement underpins some of the biggest issues we face as a society, from alcoholism to drug abuse, obesity, and a simmering cauldron of civil unrest that threatens to undermine our country.

Having grown up without cages, I felt free to pursue my dreams in life even if I didn’t have the traditional credentials or certification to do so. I built my own passive solar stone and log house without a mortgage, did my own plumbing and wiring, stared at blank pages long enough to launch a successful writing career, and I’ve successfully incubated three businesses and a nonprofit organization.

I worry about the future for our young people who have only known cages. Freedom to roam is critical to inspire a new generation of thinkers, doers, and leaders. How will people think outside the box to solve humanity’s most pressing problems if they’ve grown up inside walls of No Trespassing signs?

Limitations of Public Access

The logical citizen response to the rise of No Trespassing signs is to seek better access to public lands, which is an essential, yet inadequate step to meet the level of need. Here in Montana, we are blessed with large tracts of public lands, comprising nearly 30 percent of the state. Public officials continue working to secure legal public access to tracts that didn’t previously connect to public right-of-ways. A never ending series of court battles also work to maintain established public routes through private lands. 

Even with generous public access opportunities, people are forced to drive past miles of open farmland and forests to reach legal access points, causing car dependency, more traffic, more pollution, bigger parking lots at trailheads, and increasingly congested, eroded trails. 

Trails and bridges fell into disrepair after private property owners closed off access to Beall Creek, making the area largely unusable even to those who lived right there.

Ironically, some private landowners have blocked access to public lands to their own detriment. For example, Beall Creek in the Tobacco Root Mountains has no formal public access, and consequently, the forest trail has fallen into such disrepair with logs across the path and bridges rotted away that it is difficult to walk anywhere, so now the watershed is largely unusable even to the people who live there.

Montana does, however, retain a friendly trespass law, which states that a person is allowed to enter private property as long as it isn’t posted or painted orange at any obvious entry points and the landowner hasn’t verbally or otherwise stated that the visitor is unwelcome. Any rural property that is not posted is theoretically open to public access.

Montana retains a friendly trespass law, which states that a person is allowed to enter private property as long as it isn’t posted at any obvious entry points and the landowner hasn’t verbally or otherwise stated that the visitor is unwelcome.

Montana has some of the best stream access laws of any state, which have been codified in law and protected by the courts, thanks to the tireless efforts of advocacy groups, such as the Public Land/Water Access Association, Inc. PLWA has thwarted numerous attempts by out-of-state landowners and their attorneys to claim the land for themselves and lock the public out. 

In some states the rivers are considered public, but the land underneath is not, such that a person is technically trespassing if they step out of a boat. But in Montana, anglers can float down a river and get out to fish or camp anywhere “within the ordinary high water mark,” provided that their camp is not too close to a neighboring home.

Hiking and camping on private lands along the Jefferson River led to concern over subdivision, development, and “No Trespassing” signs on the river. It ultimately inspired me to found the Jefferson River Canoe Trail to help sustain the Montana traditions of open space and open access.

As an avid hiker, I typically spend my summers exploring public lands in the mountains, but when winter comes and the mountains are deep with snow, I forgo the winter boots and keep my regular shoes to hike across thousands of acres of low-elevation private lands, principally along the Jefferson River. I’ve come to know a lot of special places along the river, and I’ve been alarmed to see development and No Trespassing signs chip away at the integrity of the Jefferson.

Thus, I founded the Jefferson River Canoe Trail ( and led group efforts to secure quality public campsites while encouraging conservation easements along the river corridor. The water trail includes several previously ignored scraps of public land, which we named and claimed as campsites. Each campsite has different recreational opportunities, in some cases connecting public lands where canoeists can hike and explore while journeying down the river.

With overland travel largely banned, water trails become the best available substitute because they cut through private lands, enabling ordinary people to experience their own journey of discovery.

Rail trails cut through private lands much like water trails, yet unfortunately, Montana is far behind other states in securing old railroad beds for public trails, permanently losing vital trail opportunities. I have enjoyed bicycling rail trails in Idaho and South Dakota with my kids, but have not found any rail trails in Montana long enough to allow for multi-day touring. 

Montana is far behind other states in securing abandoned railroad beds for rail trails.

Most other states have been more proactive with legislation claiming abandoned railroads as public rail trails, but Montana did nothing, letting easements on most old railroad beds fall to private landowners, losing hundreds of miles of potential rail trails across the state. Advocacy groups are working to reclaim abandoned rails across public lands for trails, but railroad beds on private lands rarely become public again.

As part of the effort to replace lost access, our state passed legislation allowing public use of state lands that are leased out to farmers and ranchers, provided there is legal access to those properties. The state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has also set up a Block Management program where landowners are compensated to keep land open to hunters. 

Thanks to the Stream Access Law, water trails, Block Management, and efforts to purchase public access routes across private lands to public lands, Montanans are trying to recapture our freedom to roam. Yet we can do much more to improve access here and to provide a positive role model for other states to follow. 

Chicken and the Egg

In school we were taught that laws are passed by the legislature and enforced by the courts. Reality works somewhat differently, such was the case with Montana’s Stream Access Law. When outsiders bought riverfront property then attempted to claim rivers and streams as their private property, advocacy groups sued on the grounds of longstanding precedence of public use. The courts agreed and directed the legislature to create the Stream Access Law to codify traditional practice. Montana’s Stream Access Law was built to reflect court rulings. The court ruling therefore became the law.

Montanans similarly owned the right to roam the open landscape since before statehood. Unfortunately, when the first No Trespassing signs were posted, citizens failed to take the landowners to court, and we lost the freedom to roam through forfeiture. Walkers grudgingly shifted to non-posted parcels until those too were closed to the world. 

Today, the issue of corner crossing remains unresolved. A corner crossing is the point where two public parcels meet at their corners. Geometry dictates that the meeting point is infinitesimally small. A person must physically enter adjacent private property to move from one public parcel to another, which could be argued as trespassing, even if the hiker or hunter never sets foot on the ground while scrambling over a corner fence post.

Much Montana is a checkerboard of public and private lands. National Forest (green), Bureau of Land Management (yellow), and state lands (blue) often do not have road access, making corner crossing the only viable public access option.

The issue has not yet been tested in the courts, and thus far efforts to codify corner crossing into law have failed in the state legislature. This seemingly small issue is actually a big deal, given that much Montana is a checkerboard of public and private lands. The legislature could settle the issue with a public access law, or it may be settled first by the courts if a landowner attempts to charge a walker with trespassing for corner crossing.

Not knowing which way the courts would rule, it is important to advocate for a law in favor of corner crossing.  We also need to initiate a broad dialogue about restoring the right of responsible access. 

Allowing people expanded freedom to roam can foster a greater sense of stewardship and gratitude, which ultimately reduces vandalism and litter. It is much like the question of the chicken and the egg… which comes first? Do we restore freedom to roam and hope for reduced vandalism and litter, or do we first nurture a greater sense of stewardship to prepare Montanans to reclaim the right of responsible access?

Reclaiming our Heritage

The nonprofit Western Sustainability Exchange published a Welcome to the West guide to educate newcomers to Montana about key issues that many people don’t otherwise consider. For example, people often see a beautiful site and decide to build a house in the middle of it, not realizing that they are damaging exactly the asset they valued. All newcomers to the state should be provided with this Welcome to the West guide, and a section should be added to educate newcomers about the Montana tradition of open space and open access. We also need a statewide educational campaign to encourage landowners to paint their fence posts green to welcome responsible trespassing.

In addition, we need to reconnect our young people to the land and its natural beauty to ensure that they will honor and respect both private and public property. One way to achieve that is to encourage partnerships between public schools and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, such that every school adopts, monitors, and helps manage and maintain state parks and local fishing access sites. FWP can benefit from student labor to help repair old picnic tables, fire rings, outhouses, or other facilities, as well as help with weed control, picking up litter, and collecting data on vegetation and wildlife populations. Students can benefit from the experiential real-world opportunities while developing a sense of ownership and stewardship that will carry forward whenever they visit other sites around the state.

We need to reconnect young people with nature and foster an ethic of stewardship.

We can also expand the Montana Conservation Corps (MCC) and encourage young people to do a year of service between high school and college, working with the MCC to build and maintain trails, again cultivating an ethic of stewardship and a love for the outdoors that will stay with them for life. 

Seniors need not be left out. We can encourage retirees to adopt a local fishing access site or nature trail to help keep it clean and maintained for the next generation. State and federal agencies are understaffed and overworked. Anyone can volunteer and ask what needs to be done. Being a good steward is the first step to honoring our true freedoms.

In Montana and across our nation, outdoor recreational opportunities are essential to the wellbeing and quality of life of the people. In lieu of a codified “everyman’s right,” we need to expand water trails and rail trails and facilitate access to existing public lands. Just as importantly, we need to initiate a dialogue about the longstanding tradition of public access to private lands and bring awareness and desire to reclaim our essential heritage to freely roam the open countryside.

Thomas J. Elpel is the award-winning author of Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe and numerous other books on nature, wilderness survival and sustainable living. He is the founder and director of Outdoor Wilderness Living School, LLC (OWLS), dedicated to reconnecting children and nature. For adults, he founded Green University® LLC to “connect the dots from wilderness survival to sustainable living skills.” Elpel also founded HOPS Press, LLC and the Jefferson River Canoe Trail.

Thomas J. Elpel is the award-winning author of Five Months on the Missouri River: Paddling a Dugout Canoe and numerous other books on nature, wilderness survival and sustainable living.


Filed under Conservation, Public Access

Books I’ve Read on the Missouri

Book and canoe.

I am enjoying reading great books on our Missouri River Expedition!

One of the rewards of paddling the Missouri River is that we have a great deal of mostly uninterrupted reading time. Turning pages is just as satisfying as covering miles down the river. Sometimes there is an opportunity to do both together.

When possible, I prefer reading books more or less “on location,” so this year’s adventure is the perfect setting for catching up on some Lewis and Clark-themed books that have been on my reading list for a long time. Now, having read everything I brought, I’ve started buying a book in every town, trying to stay in theme with the area we are paddling through. Here are the books I’ve read so far, mostly in the order I read them:

Colter’s Run by Steven T. Gough (2008)

The author gave me a signed copy of the book nearly ten years ago, and I finally had the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves. Colter’s Run is a work of historical fiction about the life of John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition who spent the next several years trapping beaver in what later became Montana. He was the first westerner to see the thermal features of what later became Yellowstone National Park, and he had several harrowing encounters with the Piegan Blackfeet near present-day Three Forks, Montana. I read this book first because we launched from Three Forks. It was a good read, written in first-person narrative form. It is challenging to get into the mind of someone who has been dead for two centuries, so I was occasionally distracted with debating whether or not it was an accurate portrayal of Colter’s character. I think it would be difficult to write a book of historical fiction like this that is 100% convincing, but Steven Gough did exceptionally well. Ever since he published the book he has been working to get the story picked up as a motion picture. It may yet happen!

John Colter: His Years in the Rockies by Burton Harris (1952)

There are very few historical references about John Colter’s life, but this book compiles the available information into one comprehensive work. This text was obviously the source for much of the factual information behind the narrative in Stephen Gough’s Colter’s Run. Gough’s book is easier to read, and I probably would have gotten lost with Harris’s book if I hadn’t read the other first. It was enlightening to see the connections between fiction and nonfiction.

This Land Is Our Land: How We Lost the Right to Roam and How to Take It Back by Ken Ilgunas (2018)

I learned of this book shortly before our launch. Freedom to Roam is a topic I am very passionate about, and I’ve written some essays about it as well, so the book jumped to the top of my reading pile. It was the best read of the expedition so far, and I wish it were required reading for all Americans to better understand how we all formerly owned the right to roam the open countryside. I could easily buy this book by the case to gift to friends and family. In any case, I just started reading it a second time.

William Clark and the Shaping of the West by Landon Jones (2004)

This was an exceptional and riveting book, which introduced the backdrop of William Clark’s life  through the exploits of his older brother George Rogers Clark. While I am fairly well versed in the history of the West, I feel more ignorant of American history east of the Missouri River. In particular, Landon Jones details the many act of Indian removal to systematically displace Native Americans from eastern states, sending them West of the Missouri. Jones shows how William Clark the Clark family were deeply involved in Indian removal, even when William was otherwise friendly to the natives. The book lays out the facts without judgement right up to the very end where Jones simply points out that in today’s world, William Clark’s actions would be considered ethnic cleansing. It’s a gut-wrenching read, but an essential one to better understand American history and the dark side of some of our greatest heroes.

The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World’s Most Fascinating Flora by Michael Largo (2014)

As the author of Botany in a Day, I am always picking up plant books. Although there were a few interesting tidbits about unusual plants, I wasn’t greatly impressed by it, and I concluded that the author doesn’t have a botanical background.

The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend By Bob Drury and Tom Calvin (2014)

This was the first book I bought on our journey, having picked it up in Fort Union. It is a fascinating read about Red Cloud and how he defeated the U.S. Army and made the United States abandon the Bozeman Trail and all the military forts along it, which Red Cloud burned to the ground. The book deals more with Wyoming history and the Powder River Basin, than the Missouri, but it was a really great read.

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People by Elizabeth A. Fenn (2015)

I bought this book at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in North Dakota. Elizabeth Fenn wrote of the confluence of the Heart River with the Missouri as the heartland of the Mandan people, which happened to be about one hundred feet from my tent when I started reading. That was very location relevant, and the book greatly helped fill out my understanding of the Mandan people. It was very helpful to be in the midst of the earthlodge villages referred to in the book to help fit it all together. I thought it was an excellent read.

Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark by Richard S. Wheeler (2002)

Richard S. Wheeler was a Montana author who died just this year. I was unaware of his work until Norman Miller suggested it to me. Eclipse is a work of historical fiction about Lewis and Clark. I brought the book from home, but didn’t crack it open right away because I’ve heard the Lewis and Clark story so many times that I wasn’t ready to go through it again until I ran out of other books to read. Then came the pleasant surprise, the story actually starts right at the end of their expedition to the Pacific Coast and back. I found it immediately entrancing, and read the entire book in a couple days. The book is written in first person narrative form, switching back and forth between Lewis and Clark. Like all historical fiction, I found myself debating the accuracy of the portrayal, but still considered it a great read.

Sister to the Sioux by Elaine Goodale Eastman (1930s)

I bought this book at the Klein Museum in Mobridge, South Dakota, opposite from the Standing Rock Reservation. Written in the 1930s, Elaine Goodale recounts her experiences as a young woman when she left home in the northeast on a mission to educate the Sioux people to western ideology. Unlike other reformers who advocated taking children away from their parents to go to distant boarding schools, Goodale believed in bringing schools to the people. She embraced the Sioux people, lived with them, learned to speak Dakota, and preferred wearing moccasins. She and a similarly young gal worked among the Sioux largely unchaperoned right at the close of the frontier when the West was still truly wild. Goodale later married a western-educated Sioux named Charles Eastman, leading to multiple collaborative books between them, which I would also like to read.


That’s all so far. I just picked up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, so that’s my next read! To learn more about my own books, please visit: Thank you!

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The Joy of Recycling One Nail

Recycling one nail

“The quest to recycle everything, or avoid buying it in the first place, is a lifelong journey, one where the end goal seems both incrementally closer and infinitely far away.”

Rationally speaking, it is admittedly futile. Why worry about recycling one rusty nail when other people seem callous to recycling anything? What’s one nail compared to two huge dumpsters overflowing every week with unsorted recyclables mixed with garbage? Cardboard, aluminum cans, tin cans, copper wires, and recyclable plastics… people pitch it in the dumpster along with equally recyclable scrap metal and easily compostable kitchen scraps and lawn clippings. It is shocking how much waste we generate in my community of just 250 people. It is sad how many recyclables are discarded with the trash when there are recycling bins conveniently located at the dumpster site. Extrapolating from our tiny rural community to the colossal mountains of trash generated nationally in a country of 325 million people, the waste is inconceivable, beyond imagination. Why would anyone keep trying?

Recycling a recliner

A couch or recliner is almost entirely recyclable.

Nevertheless, I carry on. I’ll wipe out a metal paint bucket and dry the can before recycling it as scrap metal. I poke holes in the bottom of empty aerosol cans with the can opener on my pocketknife, releasing any residual gasses, while pointing the can away from myself for safety. For insurance, I wear safety glasses. If the aerosol can is spray paint, I completely remove the bottom of the can to extract the glass marble inside. Then it is a simple matter to dry the can on the woodpile before smashing it flat with the back of the ax to recycle with other tin cans.

I’ll go the extra mile to recycle anything that can reasonably be recycled while pondering how to recycle whatever trash is leftover. A couch, for example, is almost entirely recyclable. After disassembly, all metal bolts, springs, and plates can be recycled as scrap iron. A five-gallon bucket is handy for collecting random bits of metal. Any untreated wood can be cut up for firewood, extracting warmth for the house while reducing the need for fossil fuels. The fabric covering can be washed and dropped off at Goodwill stores to be shipped out for sale to the rag market. The remaining foam pads make great sponges, easily cut to any shape or size, eliminating the need to buy big cleaning sponges at the store.

Recycling a trailerhouse

I dismantled a trailerhouse for recycling and successfully re-used about eighty percent of the materials.

In addition to saving natural resources from the waste stream, recycling provides a unique opportunity to consider green business opportunities working with recycled content. For example, a trailerhouse is built for temporary use and disposal, a poor use of natural resources. Most trailerhouses are ultimately bulldozed and landfilled. I once dismantled a trailerhouse for recycling and successfully re-used about eighty percent of the materials. Clean fiberglass insulation went in the attic of an adjacent building to conserve energy. The aluminum siding and copper plumbing and wiring went to the recycling center. Wood paneling was cut into nine-inch-wide strips on a table saw and screwed to the salvaged 2 x 3s to make formwork to pour the foundation of a new house built to replace the trailerhouse. The metal frame underneath the trailer was reconfigured and welded together as a deck on the back of the new house. Recycling the trailerhouse removed it from the jobsite without paying to haul it away. I also saved hundreds of dollars in materials costs.

Barbwire Basket

I’ve bounced around ideas for starting green businesses with free recycled glass, free tires, free barbwire, free wood, free rocks, free cinderblocks, free insulation, free deer hides, and dozens of other possibilities.

I see other decaying trailerhouses where landowners truly don’t know what to do with them. It occurred to me that anyone looking for work could knock on a few doors and offer to dismantle and recycle these old trailerhouses for a modest fee, less than hiring someone to haul the structures off to the landfill.

I’ve bounced around ideas for starting green businesses with free recycled glass, free tires, free barbwire, free wood, free rocks, free cinderblocks, free insulation, free deer hides, and dozens of other possibilities. Writing and publishing is career enough, but we incorporate recyclable content where possible, such as recycled paper for printing. For shipping wholesale orders, we salvage cardboard boxes and packing material from dumpsters, conserving natural resources and hundreds of dollars every year.

Most resources are recyclable in one form or another. I use a screen to sift nails out of the ashes from the woodstove. The nails go into a scrap metal bucket for recycling while the remaining ashes are distributed in the pasture for nutrients. Even used kitty litter is a valuable resource, scattered in the pasture to add water-holding clay particles to the sandy soil. All food scraps go to the chickens. Tree trimmings are used in landscaping projects. Woodchips from chopping wood are added to mulch piles to retain moisture for planting trees. Nothing organic is thrown away.

Boat in Dumpster

Everything purchased must necessarily meet its end somewhere, either composted, recycled, or landfilled—mostly the latter. Whole hot tubs are dropped in the community dumpster, as are whole boats, some nearly dumpster-sized themselves.

Through the recycling effort I learned that the most efficient means to recycle is to avoid buying disposable junk in the first place.

Everything purchased must necessarily meet its end somewhere, either composted, recycled, or landfilled—mostly the latter. Whole hot tubs are dropped in the community dumpster, as are whole boats, some nearly dumpster-sized themselves. Through consciousness of recycling I’ve developed an aversion to buying anything new. I buy about one item of new clothing per year, purchasing the rest secondhand. Good clothes gradually degrade into work clothes, which further degrade into rags, or in the case of cotton jeans, become char cloth used for flint and steel fire-starting in our wilderness survival programs.

It is still disconcerting how much trash I haul off to the dumpster, the twinge of guilt lessened by the fact that most of my trash originated at the dumpster. Today, for example, I discarded a clear plastic tarp, remnant of a larger sheet I hauled out of the dumpster a year ago and used for multiple projects. The garbage can was full of hanging plastic flower pots which I brought home to salvage the potting soil and organic matter, returning the unneeded pots back to the dumpster from whence they came.

The quest to recycle everything, or avoid buying it in the first place, is a lifelong journey, one where the end goal seems both incrementally closer and infinitely far away. By processing roadkill deer, I get free organic venison while avoiding those annoying Styrofoam trays that come with store-bought meat. Packaging the venison in bread bags doubles the use of the bags and eliminates the cost and consumption of purchased wrapping paper.

Wild game in the dumpster

We’ve squandered our natural resources in an orgy of consumption, impoverishing the world for the next generation.

While inching ever slowly towards the goal of recycling everything and eliminating all waste, I have to admit that my efforts are arguably meaningless in context of the waste that defines our culture. Why trouble myself to clean and save every tin can, aluminum can, plastic bottle or glass jar when other people thoughtlessly dispose of natural resources by the truckload? Why recycle a used compact fluorescent light bulb or the brass fitting from the end of a garden hose when other people don’t seem to care?

Do they not have children? It is difficult to comprehend how any parent or grandparent could carelessly dispose of a child’s future in a landfill. By any reasonable measure, we’ve squandered our natural resources in an orgy of consumption, impoverishing the world for the next generation.

Many people have given up already, not bothering to recycle only because no one else is. What’s the point? Industrial civilization must inevitably collapse they say, because we are consuming ourselves out of a planet. Recycling only delays the inevitable. Why bother trying to save civilization when it is demonstrably unsavable? By any reasonable measure, the future is a lost cause, and our children are doomed. Give up now, enjoy life, and quit worrying about the issue. Forget the nail and chuck it in the garbage.

Scrap metal bucket

Although a miniscule amount of metal, a bent and rusty nail can be melted down and fashioned into a new nail. Recycling one nail immediately saves one itsy-bitsy-teensy-tiny piece of the planet that won’t be mined.

Yet, I cannot. It is a nail after all. Although a minuscule amount of metal, a bent and rusty nail can be melted down and fashioned into a new nail. Recycling one nail immediately saves one itsy-bitsy-teensy-tiny piece of the planet that won’t be mined and refined because market forces registered the creation of a replacement nail through recycling instead. In a world of chronically bad news, there is something microscopically heroic about saving a cubic centimeter of a mountain.

In addition to saving a small piece of the world, recycling ensures that there will be resources for the next generation. If nothing else, there will be at least one nail for our children’s children, and one nail is infinitely more useful than no nail at all. Imagine then, recycling two or three nails, or a thousand.


“Recycling a nail may seem an inconvenience. Yet, to dispose of a nail requires a far bigger inconvenience, for one must also deconstruct the reality of hope.”


Recycling Glass

At a time when humanity often seems Hell-bent on its own destruction, recycling is a small act of hopeful defiance.

Recycling a nail may seem an inconvenience. Yet, to dispose of a nail requires a far bigger inconvenience, for one must also deconstruct the reality of hope. A world without recycling is a world without a future, whereas recycling is an act of faith and hope that there will be another tomorrow. And where there is hope there is joy.

Hope is a particular kind of joy. It is the joy of rebounding from a bad situation towards a better one, when hope seems lost then is restored. At a time when humanity often seems Hell-bent on its own destruction, recycling a nail is a small act of hopeful defiance.

Much like planting a tree for one’s grandchildren, recycling is the act of giving something back for tomorrow. Faith in the future is implicit. That is the irony of the iron nail, for most of the world’s problems are easily solved. Recycling reduces resource extraction, pollution, and waste to ensure a better tomorrow. The more we recycle, the more reason there is to be hopeful about the future. And that is something to be truly joyful about. logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams, and numerous other books about nature and sustainable living.


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Filed under Conservation, Economics, Recycling, Sustainability

One Public Lands Agency for All

Anyone looking at western public land maps will quickly notice the multi-colored hues of different federal management agencies, including green for the U.S. Forest Service, yellow for Bureau of Land Management (BLM), typically dark green or purple for the National Park Service, plus various shades for the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Other than the Forest Service, each of these federal land agencies exists within the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Forest Service originated to manage forest reserves, and the BLM originated to manage mineral rights and grazing leases, yet both agencies have coalesced towards increasingly similar missions and often cooperate with each other on projects with overlapping jurisdictions. Therefore, we should logically consider the potential benefits of merging the Forest Service and BLM together, or potentially merging all public lands agencies together as one entity.

Agency vs. Agency

In the 1800s, most federal lands were managed by the General Land Office within the Interior Department for sale to the public.

Forestlands were eventually transferred to the Agriculture Department through a series of moves that stemmed from an 1876 appropriations bill. A bill to fund a forestry study within the Interior Department failed, so the appropriation was added to the Agriculture Department budget instead, leading to the establishment of the Division of Forestry in 1881, later renamed as the Bureau of Forestry in 1901 and renamed again as the Forest Service in 1905.

Meanwhile, the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed Presidents to withdraw and protect timberlands from disposal, and The Transfer Act of 1905 moved those forest reserves from the Interior Department to the Agriculture Department to be managed by the newly named Forest Service.[1]

In 1946 the General Land Office and U.S. Grazing Service were merged together to form the Bureau of Land Management. Its purpose was to manage miscellaneous scraps of land that were neither set aside as forest reserves nor claimed by homesteaders. Although the BLM and Forest Service are different federal agencies, they often share common borders and similar management plans.

For example, my home in Pony, Montana is nestled into the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains. The mountain range lies mostly within Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, administered by the Forest Service, while surrounded by a fringe of BLM parcels, requiring separate offices, duplicate personnel, different management plans, separate maintenance crews, and a constant stream of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) back and forth between them.

Tobacco Root Mountains

Like many western mountain ranges, the U.S. Forest Service manages the core of the Tobacco Root Mountains as National Forest, while the Bureau of Land Management manages scattered parcels around the perimeter.

Although timber sales are predominantly the domain of the Forest Service, the BLM also conducts timber sales, as happened just up the road from my home. And when a mining company did a short-term project in the watershed, both agencies had to dedicate personnel towards writing Environmental Assessments, collecting public input, coordinating with the reciprocal agency, and issuing permits.

From the map shown above it seems immediately apparent that any BLM lands bordering national forest should be transferred to the Forest Service to consolidate and simplify public land management. However, there isn’t an obvious line that should separate what stays with the BLM versus what transfers to the Forest Service without leaving behind other fractured land management issues. It is more sensible to merge all lands from both agencies together, eliminating one federal agency altogether.

The Forest Service and BLM both manage for multiple uses of public lands. Across the West, they manage for recreation by providing public campgrounds, roads, trails, trailheads, vault toilets, and the associated weed control and maintenance. Both agencies manage wilderness areas and a portion of our national monuments. The Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area here in southwest Montana, for example, includes both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Lee Metcalf Wilderness

Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area includes both BLM and Forest Service lands.

Both agencies oversee grazing permits with private ranch operations. Both agencies must employ recreation specialists, grazing specialists, mining specialists, timber specialists, wildlife biologists, fire-fighting crews, and a litany of secretaries, managers, supervisors, and public relations specialists.

Our cash-strapped federal agencies are unable to afford such superfluous duplication. Decades of federal budget cuts have necessitated extreme belt-tightening. As noted by a local trail maintenance employee, there were sixty seasonal workers maintaining forest trails in the district when he started work thirty years ago, yet now he is the last one. Some projects are parceled out to private contractors. Other trails are neglected, abandoned, or maintained by volunteer groups such as Backcountry Horsemen.

Additional layoffs have been driven by escalating fire-fighting costs due to encroachment of housing developments bordering federal lands, past management decisions that allowed greater buildup of fuels, and warmer, drier conditions due to climate change.[2] Fire-fighting costs rose from 15 to 55 percent of the Forest Service budget over a twenty-year span[3], forcing drastic cuts to core services. Local district offices have been closed to consolidate remaining employees into ever more centralized offices farther and farther from the forests they manage. The few remaining employees must manage remotely, rarely leaving the office to step foot on the lands they manage. As noted by one former Forest Service employee, whenever they actually left the office, they typically spent six hours per work day driving: three hours to get to a site, one hour to work there, and three hours to drive back. This is no way to manage our public lands. The system is broke and broken.

Failures and Corrections

Proposals to return forest reserves to the Interior Department or to otherwise consolidate public land agencies were debated shortly after the initial separation, appearing in different incarnations through nearly every administration of the 1900s. These efforts were summarized in a 2008 study by the Congressional Research Service titled, “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.”[4] Some administrations proposed transferring the Forest Service to the Interior. Others proposed transferring the General Land Office (predecessor to the BLM) to the Agriculture Department. Meanwhile, national parks were carved out of national forests and transferred back to the Interior under jurisdiction of the National Park Service, established in 1916, a move that was opposed by Forest Service officials.

Following formation of the BLM, proposals surfaced to merge the BLM and Forest Service together. Different administrations favored mostly Agriculture, but sometimes the Interior Department as the principal public lands agency. Several administrations proposed combining the two agencies with others to form a new Department of Natural Resources or some variation thereof. All such efforts died due to interference from political infighting, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, special interests, and an ongoing tug-of-war between the Interior and Agriculture over the right to manage our nation’s public lands.

The 2008 study was initiated in response to rising wildfire costs in the search for means to make the federal agencies more fiscally efficient. The report outlined potential issues and variables to merging the agencies, without actually formulating any proposals.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a similar report in 2009 titled, “Federal Land Management: Observations of a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of Interior.” The GAO report did not address merging the agencies, just transferring the Forest Service over to the Interior, which offered few tangible benefits without actually merging the duplicate agencies.[5]

Unable to reach an agreement on merging the agencies, Congress authorized the Interior and Agriculture departments to cooperate where convenient, starting in 1998 and solidified in subsequent years. Known as a “Service First” policy, as of 2012, “The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, subject to annual review of Congress, may establish programs to conduct projects, planning, permitting, leasing, contracting and other activities, either jointly or on behalf of one another; may co-locate in Federal offices and facilities leased by an agency of either Department; and may promulgate special rules as needed to test the feasibility of issuing unified permits, applications, and leases.”[6]

In effect, Congress gave broad authorization to the Interior and Agriculture departments to function as one entity to whatever extent deemed practical. However, one of the key challenges to cooperation is that public land agencies developed different rules and procedures for similar functions. For example, is it not uncommon for ranchers to hold grazing leases with both the BLM and Forest Service where agency lands intermingle, but with different laws applying to each lease. If both agencies cooperate as one, the rancher need only meet with one range conservation specialist, but that specialist must understand the rules and procedures of both agencies.[7]

To date, interagency cooperation remains more symbolic than substantive. A list of cooperating projects reveals that the BLM and Forest Service share a common campus in Missoula, Montana, but not the same buildings. The Forest Service pays the BLM its share of a joint janitorial contract. The BLM pays Forest Service employees for cutting timber, and employees from both agencies share many resources. The BLM purchased storage lockers for Forest Service fire employees to store their equipment.[8] These are two separate federal agencies attempting to cooperate from the bottom up in the absence of leadership to merge them together from the top down.

To deal with escalating fire costs, Congress explored the idea of creating an independent U.S. Fire Service. However, part of the fire management effort by the Forest Service and BLM includes ecological management, such as fuels reduction projects, controlled burns, and cooperative timber programs with neighboring private landowners. An independent fire agency would clash with BLM and Forest Service goals.[9]

Congress ultimately agreed in 2018 to treat wildfires like other natural disasters by authorizing an additional $2 billion per year in fire-fighting costs to be shared between the BLM and Forest Service as needed, hopefully reducing the fiscal drain on public land agencies, although the funding doesn’t begin until 2020 and may not keep up with escalating fire-fighting costs.[10]

Through increased cooperation, the BLM and Forest Service are slowly merging into a single entity without actually making the final leap. It is conceivable that the two agencies could ultimately integrate rules and procedures until both utilize the same paperwork. Once merged at the ground level, it would be natural to take the final step to unite the upper hierarchy. Then again, why wait?

Re-emerging the Merge

The split between today’s BLM and Forest Service took root in the 1876 appropriations bill that directed forest funding to the Department of Agriculture instead of the Department of the Interior. Most other public lands are managed by various agencies within the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service should logically be transferred to that department. The benefits of merely transferring the agency may be negligible, but there is much to be gained by also combining the BLM and Forest Service as a single agency within the Interior.

While the Forest Service principally manages forests and the BLM principally manages rangeland and desert, neither agency is exclusively dedicated to one ecotype or another. For example, in addition to National Forests, the Forest Service oversees National Grasslands, properties that were acquired and rehabilitated by the federal government in the wake of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.[11] Therefore, it is reasonable to merge the BLM into the Forest Service while moving the Forest Service to the Interior. The expanded Forest Service would then oversee national forests, national grasslands, and national deserts, all within the Department of the Interior.

Although the BLM oversees more acres of land, the Forest Service is the larger agency with a greater budget and nearly three times as many employees. The Forest Service name should be retained, since it is older, more widely recognized, and less cumbersome than the “Bureau of Land Management.” This proposal completely eliminates a federal agency, the BLM, while retaining all of its offices and employees within the expanded U.S. Forest Service.

Comparing the Forest Service and BLM

Although the BLM oversees more acres of land, the Forest Service is the larger agency with a greater budget and nearly three times as many employees.

Regardless of organizational changes, the land itself would continue to be managed according to pre-existing management plans, at least until those plans are due for revision. All prior programs and commitments would remain ongoing. Merging the BLM and Forest Service would gradually reduce staff duplication, thereby freeing employees to focus on other work that has been neglected due to budget cuts.

The expanded agency would effectively regain local offices in many communities through the merge. If a Forest Service office closed due to budget cuts, but a BLM office still remains, that office now serves the combined public lands from both agencies, bringing forest management back to local communities. Similarly, any existing Forest Service office would now manage former BLM lands in its vicinity, bringing management closer to the land.

There is no need to make such a merger hasty, stressful, or expensive. BLM and Forest Service employees could show up to the same job at the same office, doing exactly the same work as before. Only their letterhead and a sign on the door would be different. Uniforms and badges could be replaced at the regular schedule. Signs could initially be replaced as they wear out or modified with smaller signs or stickers signifying the new agency. The expanded agency could set benchmark goals, such as to switch all BLM grazing leases over to Forest Service leases within five years.

Since the BLM and Forest Service are already cooperatively working together, it is sensible to finalize the marriage and give the expanded agency an official name and address, that being the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of the Interior. That is a small change in comparison to other Cabinet-level shuffling efforts, such as creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, which cobbled together federal agencies from seven different Cabinet level departments.[12] It is time to make an official legislative proposal and make it happen.

Amended Organizational Chart for the U.S. Department of the Interior

Since the BLM and Forest Service are already cooperatively working together, it is sensible to finalize the marriage and give the expanded agency an official name and address, that being the U.S. Forest Service within the Department of the Interior.

Alternative Mega Merge Options

Merging the BLM and Forest Service into a single agency would greatly streamline public lands management while reducing bureaucracy and redundancy. Continuing this line of reasoning, additional efficiencies could theoretically be attained by merging additional federal land management agencies into a single entity. For example, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service presently works across boundaries with the BLM, Forest Service, National Park Service, and other federal lands agencies, while managing its own National Wildlife Refuges. Every agency hires its own wildlife biologists, and part of their job is to coordinate with USFWS wildlife biologists.

In north-central Montana, for example, USFWS manages the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the smaller, embedded UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, surrounded by public lands managed by the BLM. Wild animals do not recognize jurisdictional boundaries, so USFWS and BLM personnel must coordinate to manage the collective area. If the BLM were merged into the Forest Service, it wouldn’t effectively enhance the management situation. USFWS would still manage the middle, but within Forest Service land instead of BLM land.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge

The Charles M. Russell and UL Bend National Wildlife Refuges are surrounded by BLM lands, requiring cooperative management between the two different federal agencies.

Therefore, it could be argued that the Forest Service and USFWS should also be merged together. If either agency’s name were retained, that agency would then be in charge of managing all our national forests, national grasslands, national deserts, and national wildlife refuges.

On the other hand, USFWS also works across national parks, monuments, and recreation areas, while offering wildlife enhancement programs on private lands, making an agency merge less practical. A more probable solution is to embed USFWS employees within other agencies. For example, instead of the Forest Service hiring wildlife biologists, USFWS would place their own biologists within Forest Service offices, while the Forest Service would take over management of national wildlife refuges, smoothing out management across borders.

Similarly, this expanded Forest Service could take over management of campgrounds and other recreational lands currently managed by the Bureau of Reclamation or Army Corps of Engineers, which presently hire their own specialists for these tasks.

Consolidating federal land management into a single agency would simplify maps and management, where all federal lands and campgrounds are managed by a single entity, except that we have not yet included the National Park Service. Here again, there is significant duplication where separate federal agencies share common borders.

Consider the Pryor Mountains of south-central Montana. Half the land is managed by the Forest Service and half by the BLM. In addition, BLM lands also border Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, which is managed by the National Park Service. Overlapping boundaries with all three federal agencies, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is cooperatively managed between them, requiring triplicate personnel and paperwork and numerous meetings and MOUs back and forth between the different entities.

Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range

Overlapping boundaries with the BLM, Forest Service, and the National Park Service, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range is cooperatively managed between them, requiring triplicate personnel and paperwork and numerous meetings and MOUs back and forth between the different entities.

Management issues are also evident in roads within the Pryor Mountains. Quality roads within Custer National Forest end at the forest boundary. Access on the northwest side traverses heavily rutted clay roads across Crow Indian lands that are only passable when dry. Access from the southeast side traverses similarly poor roads across BLM land, greatly limiting the ability to enter or exit the Pryor Mountains. Merging the BLM and Forest Service and potentially all federal lands agencies together can facilitate more consistent management with less duplication and waste.

In this mega merge scenario, the National Park Service would be elevated to the prevailing public lands agency, absorbing the BLM and Forest Service as well as USFWS lands and other federal public lands. The Park Service already manages national parks, national monuments, national seashores, national recreation areas, etc., so why not also national forests, national grasslands, national deserts, and national wildlife refuges?

A national forest would still be managed with the existing rules as a national forest, but with Forest Service employees rebranded as Park Service employees and all federal land managers working in one theoretically cohesive agency.

Some people might contend that the mega merge would create confusion between national parks and national forests. However, many people who live far from national forests refer to them as national parks anyway, since it is all public land open to recreation and camping. Our national forests effectively function as parks, but with looser rules for camping, recreating, cutting firewood, and hunting, while also allowing commercial grazing, logging, and mining activities.

Consolidating all public lands agencies within the National Park Service is the most sensible, efficient long-term plan, although undoubtedly more politically controversial than merely merging the BLM and Forest Service. In the final analysis, federal policy isn’t determined by what is good or optimal, but what is politically achievable. From that standpoint, merging the BLM and Forest Service within the Department of the Interior is a reasonable and potentially achievable goal, provided someone will assume leadership to shepherd the legislation through Congress. logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the author of seven books on wilderness survival, botany, and sustainable living, including Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams. He is president of the Jefferson River Canoe Trail Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the founder/director of Green University LLC of Pony, Montana.


[1] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008. URL:

[2] Moseley, Cassandra. “Why wildfires are bigger and harder to control.” EarthSky Voices. August 2, 2018. URL:

[3] “Forest Service Wildland Fire Suppression Costs Exceed $2 Billion.” Press Release. U.S. Department of Agriculture. September 14, 2017. URL:

[4] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[5] “Federal Land Management: Observations on a Possible Move of the Forest Service into the Department of the Interior.” U.S. Government Accountability Office. February 2009. URL:

[6] “Laws Authorizing Service First.” URL:

[7] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[8] “Service First Locations: Montana.” URL:

[9] Gorte, Ross W. “Proposals to Merge the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management: Issues and Approaches.” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress. May 5, 2008.

[10] Scruggs, Gregory. “Wildfire funding fix will take ‘a period of years’ to protect U.S. forests.” Reuters. March 26, 2018. URL:

[11] “United States National Grassland.” Wikipedia. URL:

[12] “United States Department of Homeland Security.” Wikipedia. URL:

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Sweden versus America

What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Sweden vs. America: What can we learn from each other?

Every country, every culture has something to teach. Dating a Swede for the past two years has led to numerous conversations contrasting our two countries. What is better about Sweden? What is better about America? In the ideal world, people would cherry-pick the best customs and laws from every culture to create a more optimal human society. Unfortunately, people are stubborn and change is slow. Yet conversations and sharing can plant seeds of change that take root over time. This essay compares and contrasts six broad areas of personal interest, revealing opportunities to improve quality of life in both our countries.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside.

  1. Land of the Free, or Not?

America is often championed as a land of freedom, yet Americans are among the least-free peoples in the developed world. We are everywhere confronted with “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs that effectively lock us out of our own country. In comparison, Sweden, along with many European countries, recognize allemansrätten, “everyman’s right” to roam the open countryside. The public is allowed to hike, camp, and forage on private land in Sweden, provided that individuals are respectful, don’t trample crops or harass livestock, and don’t intrude on the landowner privacy, such as by pitching a tent near a home.

Similarly, although one cannot legally drive on a private road in Sweden, it is perfectly okay to walk, bicycle, or ride your horse down that same road. Swedes naturally respect private property and maintain positive relationships with landowners. (Click here for details and exceptions.) America would be a much nicer place if we emulated allemansrätten here, as detailed in my more extensive essay, Posted: Please Trespass.

Counter-intuitively, the Swedish right to roam doesn’t include the right to hunt or fish. Hunting and fishing rights largely belong to private landowners, who typically participate in regional cooperatives to manage leases. For example, we did a week-long, 116 km (72 mile) canoe trip on Sweden’s largest river, the Klarälven, which crossed through three different cooperatives. Each cooperative issues a separate fishing license, which must be purchased in person at different towns along the way, from stores that may or may not be open. (Click here for details.) In the U.S., hunting and fishing is managed by individual states. A fishing license in Montana, for example, is good throughout the state. If you can legally access the water then you can legally fish there.

Overall, Swedes enjoy more freedom than Americans. However, Americans recognize other basic rights that Swedes do not. For example, the need for a toilet is dictated by bodily functions, making it a basic human necessity and a fundamental right according to American customs. Free public toilets are often abundant in the states. Americans also expect free access to toilets in most private businesses, including grocery stories, office supply stores, and banks. Free toilets are comparatively rare across most of Europe. Public institutions, such as museums, are often vastly underserved for the number of visitors, and many public places, such as train stations, offer only coin-operated toilets. In Sweden, the typical cost to access a public toilet is 10 krona ($1.30). Swedes can ask to use toilets in private businesses, but it is culturally uncommon to do so.

Swedish houses.

New houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today.

  1. Everything is Bigger in America

It is well known that portion sizes are smaller in European countries than in America. A “large” cup at a fast food restaurant is equivalent to a small cup in the states. For better or worse, Americans typically have bigger houses, bigger trucks, bigger stores, bigger containers, bigger portion sizes, and bigger bellies.

Family size has shrunk over recent decades, yet house sizes have significantly increased, at least in the states. Current statistics are hard to find, but new houses in Sweden averaged 893 square feet in 2009, compared to 2,164 square feet in America, trending towards 2,700 square feet today. Americans possess more indoor space, often chock full of toys ranging from treadmills to pool tables.

Ditto for recreational vehicles. Few Swedes own campers, preferring to rent camper vans as needed, offering about 80 square feet of living space. In comparison, many Americans park oversized RVs and motorhomes in the driveway, with larger models exceeding 400 square feet and some new models exceeding $200,000.

Cars and trucks are also larger on average in the states than in Sweden. I had one neighbor who drove an oversize, 12 mpg pickup with a one-ton haul capacity, which she used to haul her 50-pound child 15 miles to school and back (four trips x 15 miles daily). Not surprisingly, Americans consume 50% more oil per capita than Swedes.

America has vastly bigger stores than Sweden, including numerous “big box” stores such as Walmart, Costco, or Target. Aside from Ikea, Sweden’s own big box chain, most Swedes shop at smaller, specialized stores.

Container sizes and portion sizes are also larger in the states. Coming from Sweden, my girlfriend is astounded by our 60-ounce peanut butter jars and 3-pound bags of M&Ms, all at affordable prices. Before going home, she stops at the grocery store, filling empty space in her suitcase with peanut butter, oversize cans of beans, pancake mix, brownie mix, and anything else she can squeeze in the load.

On the surface, bigger seems better. But is it really? Americans are plagued by more square footage to heat and cool, vacuum, paint, and organize. Americans are vastly wealthy in possessions, yet often unfathomably indebted. We pay less for fuel, but buy more of it. We “super size” our meals for a bargain price, yet we pay for it with bigger bellies, reduced mobility, and arguably a lower quality of life. Not surprisingly, Swedes live an average of three years longer than Americans.

Swedish Coins

The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. Similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

  1. Money Matters

Although Sweden is a member of the European Union, the country has thus far retained its own currency, the krona, rather than adopting the Euro. As with the Euro, the krona has substantial value for loose change. For example, 1 krona, the Swedish equivalent of a penny, is worth approximately US12¢, while the 10 krona coin is worth about $1.25. The loose change pictured here, leftover from my travels, adds up to 47 krona or approximately US$5.77. In other words, loose change has real value, unlike the U.S., where similar denominations would add up to 47¢.

Traveling in both Sweden and Italy, I noticed that coins were convenient for cash transactions. Larger denomination coins are common in either country, such as the 20 krona coin ($2.46) in Sweden or a 2 Euro coin in Italy ($2.35), so a handful of pocket change might add up to US$10 or $20, making coins at least as convenient as paper currency.

In comparison, American coins lack sufficient value to make ordinary purchases, consuming an enormous amount of time for customers or vendors to count out worthless change. Coin currency could be greatly improved in the U.S. if we discontinued the penny and nickel and potentially the dime. The U.S. Mint would greatly prefer that Americans use $1 coins, which cost less than shredding and reprinting worn out $1 bills. Adding a $2 coin and possibly a $5 coin would simplify coin transactions and likely make $1 coins much more popular.

On the other hand, while coin transactions are easier in Sweden, the nation is actually leading the world transition towards a cashless economy. Overall, cash transactions are rapidly declining. Checks are virtually unknown and unimaginable in Sweden. I received incredulous stares when I described using checks in the states. People prefer to pay via online payments and credit cards. Even credit card use is beginning to fade as commerce transitions to all-digital payment systems.

Visby Medieval Festival

At the Medieval Festival in Visby, Gottland, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene.

This trend towards digital commerce was especially evident at the Medieval Festival in Gotland. As might be logically expected, cash still circulated at this old-time market. Yet most vendors also boldly displayed SWIFT code numbers for digital payments. Standing in line at a Medieval food vendor, the juxtaposition of customers wearing centuries-old clothing while buying lunch with smart phones created a strangely incongruous scene. In comparison, few vendors at the festival accepted credit cards.

The downside towards adopting a cashless economy is that older generations are slowest to change, creating inconvenience for many, especially now that the country has begun dismantling ATMs due to declining use.

Cut finger.

Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

  1. The Great Healthcare Debate

The most common comparison between Sweden and America regards our vastly different healthcare systems, for which Americans have strong opinions, typically with little actual experience or knowledge to back it up. In Sweden, going to the doctor costs 200 SEK or about $25 per visit for a maximum limit of 1,100 SEK ($137) per year. All subsequent appointments are free. As if that isn’t free enough, healthcare is entirely free for minors in Sweden. Like most countries with socialized medicine, Swedes like their healthcare system.

Knee X-Ray

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment.

Medicine in America is a more terrifying prospect. Americans typically avoid doctors and hospitals when possible, and many people suffer debilitating ailments for years or decades because they cannot afford treatment. Visits to the emergency room are avoided except in dire situations. Instead of seeking immediate help, patients must debate the severity of an issue, and when possible, delay treatment long enough to schedule an appointment with a doctor days or weeks later to avoid emergency room or hospital rates.

My girlfriend, for example, had an allergic reaction to a bee sting in my front yard, which is 30 miles from the nearest medical clinic. To a Swede, it is a no-brainer to go directly to the hospital or even call an ambulance to ensure expedient care. Being in America, however, the same issue requires more extensive monitoring and evaluation. How bad is the allergic reaction Can we control it with Benadryl? How fast is it spreading? Can she still breathe? Will she still be breathing if I drive to the emergency room instead of calling an ambulance?

These are serious questions that must be cautiously addressed. Responding too conservatively can be dangerous. Over-reacting can be fiscally crippling. In our case, I brought her to the emergency room myself, sans the ambulance, yet still paid $580 for emergency services for a mere bee sting. American healthcare lacks any safety net to compensate for the loss. Coincidentally, this incident happened just as Mylan jacked the price of the Epipen up to $800 each, which industry analysts estimated cost the company only $30 to produce. Janeth went back to Sweden and purchased an Epipen for approximately US$40.

Knee Surgery

ACL Knee Surgery: With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300.

The Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare,” was intended to help fix the American system. However, instead of addressing root causes of outrageous healthcare costs, Congress merely passed legislation requiring citizens to purchase costly health insurance or pay a tax penalty. Obamacare led to my first-ever health insurance, which I needed for surgery and physical therapy to replace a torn ACL, the tendon in the middle of the knee. With my “bronze” insurance plan, I paid “only” for the insurance, plus the $5,600 deductible, while the insurance company covered the balance of $20,300. I was fortunate that the operation and physical therapy fit in the same calendar year, so I didn’t have to pay the deductible twice. In Sweden, the clock starts after the first appointment, so the total cost would not exceed $137, even if it the appointments were split over January 1st.

Americans worry that adopting socialized medicine would result in vastly higher taxes like Sweden. Although Swedes pay as little as 29 percent of their wages towards income taxes, other taxes and employer payments push the effective tax rate up to 40 – 60 percent, depending on income levels. In comparison, the American cost for federal, state, and local taxes, plus Social Security and Medicare withholdings, adds up to an estimated 30 percent average tax rate.

Swedish taxes are higher, but not necessarily due to socialized medicine. Ironically, Americans pay more taxes ($5,960/person in 2013) to subsidize healthcare in our privatized system than any other nation, including countries like Sweden that offer universal healthcare.  Free enterprise should theoretically lower prices and improve healthcare, yet we have among the most expensive healthcare and poorest life-expectancy of any developed nation. We could probably learn something from the Swedes, whether or not we precisely copy their healthcare system.

Stockholm Central Station

Within Stockholm, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city.

  1. Beam Me Up

Public transportation in Sweden is truly one of the wonders of the modern world. Sweden is slightly larger than Montana with a population equivalent to Georgia, yet with comprehensive and thoroughly integrated public transportation that includes busses, subways, trains, boats, and “bicycle highways.”

Within Stockholm, for example, a single magnetic stripe card can be used to jump from bus to subway to commuter train or even boat to travel quickly to any part of the city. Stockholm is sometimes described as the “Venice of the North,” being spread out over many islands, hence the necessity of including boat travel for shortcuts in the city transportation system.

Stockholm Subway

Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the Swedish system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Stockholm Central accesses layers upon layers of subways, with the newest platforms located three, three-story escalators below the surface. Although not cheap, at approximately $14 for 72 hours or $106 monthly, the system is efficient and the subways, trains, and busses are mostly new or in like-new condition.

Train and bus service is available to towns big and small throughout the country, and local busses are pervasive. In the small town of Höllviken (population 10,000) for example, sparkling new busses continuously crawled the streets for passengers to transport across town or to local hubs to connect with larger cities.

Highways in Sweden seemed thoroughly adequate, yet Swedes also found the resources to develop a parallel system of bicycle trails and “bicycle highways” along most highways and main roads throughout towns big and small. Rather than sandwiching bicycle lanes between traffic lanes and parked cars, as is common in the states, the Swedes largely built a separate system, providing safe and separate tracks and underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians. Consequently, bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Bicycle Rack in Uppsala, Sweden.

Bicycling is so popular in Sweden that bike racks for 500+ bikes are common. The town square in Uppsala, a college town, included a bike rack complex filled with several thousand bicycles.

Many sidewalks are texturized into separate lanes for pedestrians versus cyclists, and standing in the wrong lane can be hazardous to unaware foreigners when cyclists expect pedestrians to be in the other lane. Swedes extend their coding system to the blind, providing specially-textured lines down many sidewalks, even through many public buildings, that can be navigated by feel underfoot.

In comparison, the entire state of Montana has fewer bicycle trails than any moderate-sized town in Sweden. Only the largest cities in Montana offer city busses, mostly underutilized and too few and far between to be of much use anyway. Bus service to small towns is largely nonexistent. The nearest train station is a six-hour drive away, and since it is more expensive than flying, I’ve never yet been on a train in America. Being a rural state, we have no subways or commuter trains whatsoever. If you don’t have a car in Montana, “public transportation” largely requires hitchhiking.

BART Subway System

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation.

Coming home from Sweden through Oakland, California seemed like going to a third-world country. The BART commuter system was old, ugly, slow, and too loud to carry on a conversation. Some passengers plugged their ears to endure the journey. A one-way trip across the Bay cost almost as much as a 72-hour citywide pass in Stockholm, yet didn’t include bus fare beyond BART. Outside the windows, the Bay Area was heavily covered in graffiti, litter, and old, decrepit cars. I felt like I just landed in Mexico, except that I was in Mexico City earlier this year, and their subway system was vastly superior.

Many American cities have better public transportation systems than the Bay Area, but no city or state compares to Sweden’s comprehensive, futuristic network covering all facets of transportation. How does a tiny country fund a public transportation system that is more elaborate than anything Americans could conceive of funding? Higher taxes are unquestionably a factor. In addition to funding free healthcare for all, the Swedes heavily subsidize public infrastructure, and as we shall see, many other public perks as well.

City Library in Stockholm

The City Library in Stockholm. How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up.

  1. Magical Math

In Sweden, the numbers don’t seem to add up, even with higher taxes. It isn’t just free healthcare or the expansive public transportation. Its also free higher education, and at times, seemingly free everything.

In the states, college students often graduate $100,000 or more debt (the national average is $37,000), even while working through school, with no guarantee that they will get a job with their degree. In Sweden, college is free. Students must pay for textbooks (or borrow them from the library), and they need to cover living expenses, but tuition is 100 percent free. Swedes can enroll in school full-time, part-time, finish in a few years, or take classes continuously for life.

Nevertheless, student loan debt is surprisingly high in Sweden due to the high cost of urban living and a Swedish tradition for children to become self-supporting a couple years after high school. Students can obtain school loans for up to 12 semesters worth of study before age 54. The debt incurs low interest, presently about 0.6 percent. Students are expected to begin repaying the loan six months after receiving the last payment, according to each person’s ability to pay. Any remaining student loans are forgiven when a Swede reaches 65 – 68 years old.

The government also heavily subsidizes tuition for Swedes at other universities throughout the word. Until recently, Swedes even offered free education to international students schooling within Sweden.

In addition, the government subsidizes families of all income levels with a modest 1,050 SEK (+/- $130) monthly stipend to help offset childcare expenses. Families with six children are paid the standard 1,050 per child (6,300/month), plus an additional 4,114 SEK family supplement to help defray expenses (Source).

Parents are granted 480 days paid leave from work to split between them when they have a baby or adopt a child. Employees can claim an additional 120 days paid leave per child per year up to twelve years old to care for sick children. In addition, Swedish employees enjoy approximately 25 days of paid vacation, plus 16 paid holidays every year, varying by profession and age.

Brownie with Swedish Flag

America once offered a beacon of hope to the world. Yet, in 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

To top it all off, Sweden accepts more refugees in proportion to its population than any other developed nation. In the 1990s Sweden accepted 100,000 refugees from the Balkan Wars, mostly Bosnians, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Since then, Sweden has accepted refugees from throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, recently including vast numbers of Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians fleeing Middle East conflict. In 2016, Sweden topped the U.S., with 163,000 refugees seeking asylum there, compared to 101,000 refugees and asylum seekers admitted in America.

Fifteen percent of Sweden’s population is now foreign-born. Immigrants often lack the higher education, language, and job skills necessary to find employment in Sweden, leading to years of welfare dependency. Yet, the Swedes have somehow provided transitional funding for food and housing expenses, plus ongoing child subsidies and the similar education and healthcare perks enjoyed by all Swedes.

How can a small country on top of the world afford to provide free education and free healthcare for all, plus family subsidies, a first-rate public transportation system, and scores of other perks? Even with higher taxes, the math doesn’t seem to add up. To a certain extent, it doesn’t, which is why Sweden is necessarily trimming services to citizens and re-evaluating its immigration programs.

Nor does the math add up in the states, where Americans spend as much on national defense as the next eight countries combined, including China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany. Including direct and indirect costs, sixteen years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, have cost the U.S. an estimated $5 trillion, with little tangible improvement on the ground. (Indirect costs include interest on the debt and long-term healthcare costs for veterans.) Sadly, the national debt stands at $20 trillion, meaning that we could have significantly reduced the debt if had not gone to war. Americans may not pay as much in taxes today, but we are billing war expenses to future generations while settling for second-rate services and crumbling infrastructure.

Old Visby City Wall

Throughout history, civilizations have funded civil works projects to consume surplus wealth. Projects such as the City Wall around Old Visby, Gottland, served as an early form of defense spending, arguably to fend off outside attacks, but also useful for taming civilian unrest.

  1. Surplus Wealth

All industrial nations struggle with the misunderstood problem of surplus wealth. Due to industrialization, only a fraction of the population does real work to provide houses, roads, cars, schools, hospitals, food and medicine to the masses. All other people must be employed in pseudo jobs that serve the dual function of spreading wealth throughout the populace while keeping everyone too busy chasing their own tail to complain about or revolt over the status quo. Call it an unconscious conspiracy. We worry about the unemployment rate and strive to create new work whether it produces anything useful or not.

The American economy nurtures many inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything, but effectively redistributes wealth and keeps unemployment rates down. For example, American households and businesses collectively spend 8.9 billion hours per year on accounting and paperwork associated with filing federal income taxes. That’s the equivalent of 4.3 million people employed full-time to do nothing but tax paperwork. In dollar terms, that works out to about $409 billion/year for no tangible return.  In comparison, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) survives on only $19 billion/year.


NASA’s budget of $19 billion/year is miniscule compared to the $409 billion/year in time Americans spend complying with federal tax paperwork.

Instead of paying engineers and astronauts, we dedicate resources towards paying accountants and tax consultants. Millions more people are employed to provide their computers, tax software, office buildings, janitorial services, and espresso. Even logging and pulping interests benefit as trees are cut and converted to paper to print copious copies of paperwork. Switching to an automatic, fixed tax, such as a carbon tax, would virtually eliminate the labor cost associated with paying taxes and eliminate millions of jobs, or arguably free those resources to work on something else, such as public transportation or the space program.

Comparatively, Sweden’s tax system is largely automated, Skatteverket, the Swedish Tax Agency, sends annual tax forms to citizens already completed, requiring only a cursory check for accuracy. The more efficient system allows resources to be directed towards public works projects.

Nevertheless, the Swedish economy nurtures other inefficiencies that consume resources without producing anything. As any Swede will testify, authorities regulate nearly everything. As one Swedish friend discovered when applying for a building permit, the government mandates that a new house must have baby-proof drawers for knives, trash, and medicine before you can move into your home—even if you have no children.

Flock of Sheep

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

Just owning a flock of a dozen sheep requires government oversight, and authorities can show up any time for an inspection to insure that the animals are being properly cared for.

The difference between the Swedish and the American systems for consuming surplus wealth is that the Swedes consume resources and provide free education, healthcare, and subsidized public transportation, while Americans consume resources and produce copious paperwork and lots of bombs. Overall, the Swedes arguably get a better return for their investment.

Socialism vs. Capitalism

Tom and Janeth Canoeing

Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, yet we are in many aspects a socialist country.

The difference between America and Sweden is often viewed as the difference between capitalism and socialism. Strikingly, while Americans are deathly afraid of socialism, we are in many aspects a socialist country. Visiting most national parks, we can be grateful to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression for building the infrastructure we enjoy today. In America, we enjoy toll-free roads, toll-free bathrooms, and millions of acres of toll-free public land for recreation.

Comparatively, at the central station in Malmö, Sweden, as is true across most of Europe, there are no free public bathrooms. Leaving the espresso shop in search of a toilet, there isn’t one in the food court as it would logically be placed in the U.S. Five minutes of wandering around the station tracking signs finally revealed the centralized bathroom, with the desk clerk waiting with an outstretched palm to take 10 krona ($1.25) to enter the restroom. That is the capitalist model we idealize in the states, yet it is not the reality we earnestly desire.

In conclusion, there is much that Americans can learn from the Swedes, and much the Swedes could learn from Americans. No country on earth is perfect, yet we can emulate the best that each nation has to offer to improve quality of life, prosperity, and sustainability for all. logo.Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Green Prosperity: Quit Your Job, Live Your Dreams.



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Save Lake Mead, Save America


Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area.

If we can save Lake Mead, we can save America. The issues that face Lake Mead, formed by Hoover Dam in 1935, are emblematic of the issues that face America. Water from the Colorado River, like the federal budget, is over-allocated. The deficit isn’t so much a lack of water coming in to the lake, but too much going out to water users in California, Arizona, and locally at Las Vegas, Nevada. The result is a permanent white bathtub ring 150 feet above the remaining lake, leaving an oversized dam, and decaying infrastructure throughout Lake Mead National Recreation Area. There is a potential solution to this slow-motion crisis, which can be found three hundred miles to the West.


Lake Mead is the closest place to Montana with palm trees, where a person can comfortably pitch a tent and camp in the middle of winter.

Lake Mead was established as America’s first National Recreation Area in 1936, originally named the Boulder Dam Recreation Area. Measured by capacity, Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the United States, but water levels have fallen to 37 percent of capacity. Lake Mead National Recreation Area is administered by the National Park Service, similar to a national park, but with greater emphasis as an outdoor play area than on natural preservation.

Lake Mead has been slowly drying up since 1983. I first discovered the lake in the early 1990s on a winter trip from my home in Montana south to Arizona. Lake Mead is the closest place to home with palm trees, where one can comfortably pitch a tent and enjoy camping in mid-winter. If need be, I can drive the 822 miles from home to the campground at Echo Bay in one long day on the road.  Back then it still looked mostly full, as if the white rim around the lake was due to seasonal fluctuations, rather than a cumulative drop.


Touring Hoover Dam with my boys back in 2008. The white bathtub ring in the background is much larger now.

For better or worse, Hoover Dam was constructed when America still had the vision and balls to dream big and tackle the impossible, in this case, the most challenging engineering project ever undertaken, temporarily diverting the Colorado and building a 726-foot dam to restrain the mighty river. 660 feet thick at the bottom and 45 feet thick at the top, the Hoover Dam required so much concrete that the core is still cooling down from the chemical reaction of cement and water nearly a century later. The entire job was completed in just five years with the aid of 5,000 workers.

Throughout American history, we were a nation of dreamers, from the founding of democracy to construction of the transcontinental railroads and the founding of Yellowstone as the first national park in our country and in the world. Inspired by the dream of America, oppressed peoples in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Poland, and around the world rebelled against autocratic governments and founded democracies of their own, spreading freedom without American intervention beyond the inspiration of our existence.

Ditto for America’s parks. Author Wallace Stegner described our national parks as “America’s best idea,” an idea that inspired other nations to form similar parks to preserve their own national treasures for future generations. As part of our national parks system, Lake Mead is effectively one of our ambassadors to the world.


Every city should be surrounded by wilderness!

Lake Mead and Las Vegas is also a model for the interface between urban centers and wildlands. The city is uniquely surrounded by vast public lands and outdoor recreation opportunities, what former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt described as a “city in the wilderness.” Every person in Vegas is about a half hour drive from the middle of nowhere, where hiking, camping, and boating opportunities abound. Wouldn’t it be great if every city shared similar opportunities?

Despite proximity to town, Lake Mead is strangely deserted in winter. High temperatures hover from the mid-50s to the mid-60s in December and January, sometimes dipping down to the 40s, chilly, but not unlike camping in the mountains of Montana in summer. By February, temperatures often reach the mid-70s and the cottonwoods leaf out three full months ahead of spring at home. Still, the campgrounds are largely deserted as Las Vegans consider this winter.


Lake Mead is a great winter getaway, especially coming south from Montana.

The lake doesn’t get busy until spring break or later, when urbanites from Vegas to Phoenix to Los Angeles begin flocking to the lake to cool off and play in the water. That suits me just fine. I’m content to paddle around the lake in a canoe, enjoying the lack of noisy motorboats and the waves they leave in their wake that could potentially swamp a canoe.

I also enjoy hiking the park’s rugged backcountry before it gets too hot. Lake Mead is rich with wildlife from bighorn sheep and burrows to jackrabbits, roadrunners, and Wile E. Coyote. Unfortunately, the recreation area has taken on an increasingly apocalyptic look as water levels have dropped and facilities have deteriorated or been completely abandoned, mirroring a general decline across America.


As water levels fell, the National Park Service poured more concrete to extend the Echo Bay boat ramp, eventually becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere.

The Echo Bay Hotel was still a waterfront resort when I first visited Lake Mead. I savored ripe dates below a date palm on the west side of the building, wishing I could scale the tree to pick more. The boat ramp in front of the hotel provided easy access to the lake. Each time I returned, the lake was a little farther from the hotel, and the Park Service had poured more concrete, extending the initial board ramp downhill to catch up with the receding lake, ultimately becoming a one-third mile boat ramp to nowhere, terminating far from the present lakeshore.

The marina was also pushed farther out into the lake, requiring constant re-engineering of the facilities and ever-longer water pipes, electrical lines, and anchor cables. A quarter mile beyond the boat ramp, the marina was abandoned, and the Park Service plowed a mile-long dirt road from the hotel to access the remaining lake.


The Echo Bay hotel and marina were abandoned, contributing to a post-apocalyptic aura.

Not surprisingly, the hotel soon went out of business. Vandals broke the windows and destroyed the interior. Ditto for the abandoned marina. Yet neither place has found room in the budget for demolition and removal, presumably because the Park Service has prioritized chasing the lake to keep facilities functional, rather than cleaning up old messes. The race to migrate the marinas with the receding lake has left behind a litter trail of old docks, parts, cables, concrete blocks and tire anchors. Abandoned boats are surprisingly common in the old dead stands of tamarisk far above the present lake.

Some of my anti-establishment friends see the decline of Lake Mead as prophetic to the inevitable abandonment of Las Vegas and Phoenix, desert cities that shouldn’t exist, sustained by water restrained by a dam that shouldn’t have been built. We should blow up the damn dam and every other dam to allow rivers to flow wild and free and restore the healthy ecology and natural fisheries, they exclaim. This article isn’t about whether or not Hoover Dam should have been built, but as long as it exists, I believe we might as well use it. Besides, if the lake ceased to exist and Las Vegas dried up, all those people might move to Montana.


There are many abandoned boats in the dead and dying tamarisk around Lake Mead.

There are also people who cheer the decline of America. Civilization as we know it is not sustainable. We’ve paved over paradise, fracked the planet for consumable resources, and terrorized the world with warfare. They see the collapse of our nation as a necessary step in the path to sustainability, to restoring balance with nature. I see it a bit differently, since there are enough guns and ammo to turn our country into Syria and to wipe out all remaining wildlife for food. All our toxic chemicals would spill unchecked into surface and groundwaters—and best of all—our untended nuclear reactors would melt down and irradiate all life on the planet. Collapse is no longer a viable option. Saving America, and saving Lake Mead, seems like a much better plan.


Vandals broke windows and destroyed the inside of the inside of the Echo Bay hotel before it was boarded up to prevent further access.

The doomsayers do have a point though. America has overreached and become a world terror. Gone are the days when we were the most respected and admired nation on earth. Somewhere we transitioned from inspiring other nations to bombing them in the name of peace and democracy. In the latest round of democracy-or-else, we invested $5 trillion dollars a) to remove Saddam Hussein (whom we previously supported and armed against Iran), b) to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (after originally arming and training Afghans to fight the Soviets), and c) to destroy ISIS (which was born in our own Army prisons and armed with American weapons left behind from tasks a and b). In terms of bang for the buck, we don’t have much to show for the investment. Invested differently, $5 trillion could have saved Lake Mead as well as most of America.


Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas is dependent on water from Lake Mead.

American infrastructure is declining, and Lake Mead is drying up. Due to falling water levels, Las Vegas invested $817 million to construct a new intake pipe to reach deeper into the lake, yet it too is in danger of becoming a straw to nowhere as lake levels continue to drop. The problem is that downstream water users claim too much of the Colorado’s flow, such that experts forecast that Lake Mead will never rise to capacity again. At this point, I haven’t heard of a plan, a vision, or apparently even a discussion on how to remedy the problem. As a country, we lack the dream or the initiative to tackle our most basic problems.

Being landlocked in the desert, Las Vegas and Phoenix depend on the Colorado for their very survival. Farmers in California’s Central Valley also depend on the river to grow much of the nation’s produce. Los Angeles and San Diego, however, are situated adjacent to the world’s biggest bowl of water, the Pacific Ocean, three hundred miles west of Lake Mead. If these urban centers obtained their water from the ocean and left Colorado water in Lake Mead, the lake would refill at the rate of about 4 percent per year, enough to eventually fill the lake to capacity and potentially restore partial flows across the Mexico border to the Gulf of California.


Investing in desalinization to provide water to Los Angeles and San Diego from the Pacific Ocean could save enough Colorado River water to refill Lake Mead.

At present, desalinization is considered energy-intensive and cost prohibitive, about $2.20 to $5.00 per thousand cubic feet of treated water, compared to $2.00 to purify river water. Yet, the cost of desalinization is falling as other countries, notably Israel, invest heavily in the technology. The cost of wind, solar, and wave power are also falling, making desalinization a realistic possibility, if not now, then in the near future. The federal government and all water users would have to work together to determine who would pay for construction and operation of the desalinization plants.

Notably, Carlsbad, California has recently completed a desalinization plant to augment their water supply, and other plants are being discussed in the state, but apparently not towards the goal of restoring Lake Mead or guaranteeing future water supplies to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Due to the 1922 Colorado River Compact governing water use, any water saved on the California coast would likely be utilized by other entities to fulfill their own claims. This is not an insurmountable problem. The effort required to renegotiate the water compact and build desalinization plants is far less than the bold action initially required to build the dam and create the lake.

Lake Mead needs what America needs, a bold vision for a better future and the gumption to commit to making it happen. If we can save Lake Mead, we can just as easily save America and once again become an inspiration and positive role model to the world. logo. Thomas J. Elpel is the director of Green University, LLC in Pony, Montana and the author of numerous books on wilderness survival, nature, and sustainable living. In 2006, Thomas Elpel and friends paddled the Virgin River from Mesquite, Nevada downstream to Lake Mead… dragging canoes ten miles through the sand. Read the full story.

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D-Day Every Day

Nature, Warfare, and the Illusion of Self


Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these mangrove seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.

I often wonder what it was like for the Allied soldiers to step off the boats into a hail of bullets on the beaches of Normandy. As an empathic person, I get emotionally entwined with other people’s realities. For our soldiers on June 6, 1944, there was nowhere to hide. Allied forces took the beach through sheer numbers, by putting enough bodies on the beach that the Nazis couldn’t shoot them all, that enough soldiers would survive to overtake the German positions, enabling the Allied forces to get a toehold in France, put down roots, and slowly reclaim the European continent. I cannot imagine the horror of advancing across the beach that day. And I can’t help but notice the curious parallels among nature, where D-Day happens every day, and wonder what we might learn from it all.

Landing on another beach on the other side of the world in New Zealand, I was fascinated to discover a legion of army-green seeds amassed on the sand, deposited there by the tides. Any normal seed would have succumbed to the salty ocean water or quickly desiccated unprotected in the sun, but these seeds made a heroic effort to sink roots in the inhospitable sand to gain a living toehold in biologically hostile territory.


It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

The seeds shed their outer seed coats, and the folded seed leaves had begun to spread. A few had grown short roots, although the roots were fully exposed to the mid-summer sun. One was several inches tall. The prop-roots on the sides tipped me to the identity—mangrove seedlings. It was strange seeing the seedling lying there on the beach, exposed to the intense sun waiting and seemingly hoping for a lucky wave to plant it upright in the sand.

I soon discovered that the mangroves lived in a nearby estuary, well adapted to the brackish water where slow moving river water mixed with salty tidal water from the ocean. They rooted easily there, growing in dense profusion within the sheltered backwater. But the seeds on the beach were doomed. The lack of previously established mangroves on the beachfront implied that the odds were against them, that nature could send battalions in wave after wave to take the beach and each seed soldier would try its utmost to sink down roots and unfurl its leaves, only to be bounced around in the tide, doomed to slowly desiccate in the sand, salt, and sun. Yet, nature doesn’t stop sending in more troops and trying again, because that’s what nature does every day, everywhere.


Apricots produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity.

Closer to home, I see the same story played out again and again. Thousands of inch-high plant seedlings carpeting otherwise barren ground in early spring when the soil is moist, only to whither and die as soon as the sun dries the soil. Perhaps one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, survive to carry out their mission. I’ve seen it with feral apricot trees, too. They produce tens of thousands of seeds for every one that successfully establishes itself and grows to maturity. It isn’t just about plants either, because every year there is an explosion of new life, new baby birds and cuddly little mammals, and by the following year there are, on average, no more of any given species than there was the year before.


How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road?

Being empathetic, or rather sympathetic, I cannot help but think that it all seems unfair. Seedling plants, baby birds, newborn fawns, nineteen-year-old soldiers; their lives cut short before they’ve begun. How many mothers lost their precious teenage sons as “cannon fodder” to use up the Nazi bullets? How many soldiers trained for battle, yet took a bullet in the choppy surf, dead before they reached the beach or even fired a shot? How many baby birds are devoured alive by snakes or rats or raptors while their parents helplessly watch and scream in protest and pain? How many spotted fawns are torn limb from limb by coyotes, dogs, and mountain lions, or run down by a car the first time they cross the road? How many newborn seedlings have given their utmost to put down roots and send up leaves, only to be desiccated in the sun or starved out by more established vegetation?


We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes.

We often talk of natural selection eliminating weak genes and favoring the strong, and that is true to a point, but luck is often a bigger factor in determining who survives to pass on their genes. On the beaches of Normandy, there was no significant advantage for seasoned war veterans over new soldiers seeing their first tour of duty. All were equally exposed to the unrelenting hail of bullets screaming across the beach. And so it is with plants and animals. The seeds that survive to grow into plants or trees are not always those with the strongest genes, but rather those that are lucky enough to find bare ground to take root, yet not so much sun that they dry out too quickly. The shadow of a small rock may provide the magic microhabitat that allows a seedling to take root. If it isn’t grazed off or stepped on then the plant might survive to maturity.

Reaching maturity doesn’t necessarily provide any guarantee of survival either. Many birds have over-wintered in the tropics and flown thousands of miles back to mate, nest, and raise a family, only to be eaten by a house cat upon arrival. I cannot help but sympathize and anthropomorphize with ground squirrels that wake up from hibernation and excitedly run about in a celebration of spring, only to be flattened by a passing car.


What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world.

What we perceive as peace and tranquility in nature could arguably be described as a war zone of peril and risk for pretty much every plant and animal trying to make its way in the world. The ground squirrels that are instantly flattened are perhaps the lucky ones, at least compared to the deer that are mortally wounded by cars, hunters, or mountain lions, only to die a slow, painful death alone in the brush.

Spend much time in the woods, and you will notice that there are bones everywhere. Everything dies, and frequently in the most painful ways imaginable, such as for a mouse that is repeatedly tossed into the air by the claws of a cat or carried off in the talons of a raptor, often eaten while half alive. For the soldiers, too, I suppose the lucky ones received instant death from a killing shot, while most were just brutally torn apart, gut shot, or totally incapacitated by an exploded femur bone, bleeding to death in agony.

We live in a society that is highly insulated from death and the realities of life. People feel no twinge of pain when they buy a beefsteak neatly shrink-wrapped on a Styrofoam tray, or a head of cabbage decapitated from its roots yet very much alive, even while being finely chopped and mixed in coleslaw. We euthanize our pets or “put them to sleep” as we say it, to mask the reality that we are killing them, indeed murdering them. We hire morticians to embalm our deceased loved ones in lifelike form and display them in pretty boxes. We are so detached from death that we don’t understand what it means to be alive.


As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock.

As a wilderness survival skills instructor, I find it necessary to sometimes throw sticks and rocks at adorable cottontail bunnies in the quest for food. I wish that I could say I kill them with the first shot, but the impact often only stuns them, and it is necessary to sprint, grab the animal, and bash its head in with a rock. It feels like murder every time, as it should, because that is the reality of living. As Buddhism teaches, “life is suffering.” The nature of existence is inherently painful, yet we can have compassion for all living things.

Whenever I kill an animal, I find myself wondering who might be left waiting back at home. Did it have a mate? Did it have a mother or father that was still watching over it? Did it have young ones hidden away in a nest or burrow, forlornly waiting for a next meal that will never come? What was it like for women back home, waiting for letters from the war front, never knowing which letter might be the last?


In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things.

In nature’s battlefield, the dead and dying are nameless. It is easier to accept the circle of life that way, that death is part of the natural order of things. Every plant and animal is a unique individual with its own genome, and with animals at least, a unique “personality.” Yet they are nameless and therefore selfless, celebrated as part of the interconnected web of life, rather than as individuals with personal biographies and self-importance.

The soldiers of Normandy were also selfless and that is difficult to appreciate in a world of selfie sticks and Facebook profiles. I see the names of fallen World War II solders engraved in plaques in city parks across our country. Each one was somebody’s son, somebody’s brother, or maybe a father, their lives cut short by warfare. Collectively, they were bodies who selflessly threw themselves at the battlefield, much as the mangrove seeds tried to storm the beach with sheer numbers.


Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty.

Whatever befalls the living world, whether it is a volcano, a landslide, mining work, or a literal nuclear bomb, nature storms over the barren land with sheer numbers, throwing bodies at the problem to restore life and beauty. The same could be said about the Allied invasion of France.

Our world would be a much darker place today if the Allied forces had decided to accept a Nazi Europe, knowing that the price for taking back the continent would be so high. But a great many young men understood that being a body for the cause was more important than being an individual.

I think about the selflessness of that generation and wonder what we could learn from that today. We live at a time when life is more imperiled than ever before, and the cause is arguably the rise of the self and self-importance. We are a consumer culture, consumed with ourselves. It is the ego of the self that drives people to bulldoze a mountaintop or riverfront property to build a house with a view. It is the self that wants a trendy new car, a big flatscreen television, and organic coffee imported from the other side of the planet. It is the self that cares only for itself, celebrity news, and who wins or loses the Super Bowl.


We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago.

We are witnesses to a destabilizing climate, bigger “natural” disasters, and the initial stages of the biggest extinction event since a rogue asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs sixty million years ago. Yet we are consumed with trivial things like getting a job and buying useless stuff, as if saving the planet were somebody else’s responsibility. But the reality is that there is nobody else, and the only thing that will save us from ourselves is to lose ourselves, to recognize that our lives do not belong to us and never did. Our lives belong to the earth and we are here to serve future generations to the best of our ability.

Halting the destruction of our world and creating a sustainable future will require a selfless commitment equal or bigger than the commitment that took back Europe. For it wasn’t just soldiers on the front lines that made a difference, but all those back home who worked to grow food, build equipment, and recycle metals needed for the war effort. At this late juncture, healing our world will require similar selfless commitment, coordination, and camaraderie of everyone working together towards a single unifying goal: Life. If we pull together towards the common cause, we can make the world a better place for all.

            Thomas J. Elpel is the founder of Green University® LLC and the author of seven books, including Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit.


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Freedom to Roam


Freedom to Roam was published in the May/June 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine.

Freedom to roam has been a fundamental right for Montanans since before statehood, lasting until recent times. Ask anyone middle-aged or older about growing up here, and most will reminisce about rambling the countryside, hiking, fishing, exploring, and crossing fences regardless of property boundaries. Unfortunately, many newcomers to the state, unaware of Montana traditions, posted “No Trespassing” signs to keep people out. Acre-by-acre, property-by-property, we lost access, and with it, part of our identity. Montanans have always cherished a deep connection to nature. Yet, without the right to roam, children grow up on roads, lawns, and electronics. That isn’t the Montana way.

Our traditions are rooted in Europe, where freedom to roam is recognized by numerous countries from Scandinavia to the U.K.Several nations recently codified the right to roam into law. For example, England and Wales recognized everyman’s right to roam in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000, while Scotland recognized the right with the Land Reform Act of 2003. The public is allowed access, provided they respect private property in their wanderings.

Freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with nurturing a sense of respect for the land and landowners. Those who remember owning the freedom to roam were not likely leaving gates open, cutting fences, littering, or vandalizing properties. Those are symptoms of bored and disconnected citizens, lacking an ethic of stewardship. Montanans can restore the right to roam, and with it, we can cultivate a renewed sense of stewardship and respect for the land and landowners.

An abrigded version of this essay was published as a letter to the editor titled “Don’t fence us in” in the May/June 2016 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine. For more depth be sure to read the related blogs:

Posted: Please Tresspass The Green Post Campaign to Reclaim Everyman’s Right to Roam


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Author Interview: Thomas J. Elpel

I was interviewed by Write Coach David Alan Binder. Here is a copy of the interview, originally published on Binder’s website.

Author Thomas J. Elpel

Author Thomas J. Elpel

How do you pronounce your name?  Elpel is pronounced El-pel, kind of like El Paso, but it is German or Lithuanian, not Spanish.

Where are you currently living?  I’ve been in Pony, Montana since 1989. My grandmother moved here before I did, and she mentored me in edible and medicinal plants and wilderness survival skills. Three years out of high school, I bought land a block from her house and starting building my own.

What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?  Use simple language. There is no need to impress anyone with big words. Any word that isn’t familiar to the majority of the population requires a definition embedded in the text, so that the reader can fluidly absorb the new word and continue reading without interruption.

Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills.

What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk? I like to dedicate each book to a different person who is special to me and somehow connected with the book. The dedication and a photo of the person is included on the title page.

Foraging the Mountain West.

Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?  My publishing business, HOPS Press, LLC, started very out very slowly. As a young man, I was selling photocopied books with plastic comb bindings. Over time, the quality of my writing improved, and I started printing real books with paperback and hardcover bindings and ISBN numbers. The publishing business matured with my writing, and I really like being able to design and market all facets of a product on my own schedule, without anyone else dictating how they think it should be.

Any insights eBooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing? Most of our titles are rich with pictures and captions, so converting from paper to eBook can require major reformatting. We are tip-toeing that direction, but otherwise prefer traditional printed books.

Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?  The most important step is to write the book you want to write, not the one you think the market wants. Stay true to yourself, and you will build a deeper connection with your audience.

How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent?  Any tips for new writers on getting one?  I’ve never worked with an agent. Maybe I should. On the other hand, being my own publisher and not having an agent has necessitated learning and understanding how to connect with my audience directly, and I prefer that deeper connection.

Botany in a Day.

Do you have any suggestions for new writers?  A book is never done, especially a nonfiction book. It can take years to get a book ready for publication, yet a publisher may only market the title for six months or a year, then remainder or shred the rest. As my own publisher, I prefer to market a book until I’ve sold every copy, then revise, improve, polish, and print it again. Some of my titles have six editions, each a significant improvement over its predecessor, like wine that improves with age.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?  Writing continually improves with time and experience. When I finish a book I’m sure it is the greatest work ever written. But by the time I sell out and revise the book for the next edition, I am embarrassed by what seems like shoddy writing, and I wish I could buy up and burn the old books!

How many books have you written?  I’ve written seven books so far, plus I’ve produced several videos and a card game. Books include:

Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99
Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification
Foraging the Mountain West: Gourmet Edible Plants, Mushrooms, and Meat
Participating in Nature: Wilderness Survival and Primitive Living Skills
Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction
Direct Pointing to Real Wealth: Thomas J. Elpel’s Field Guide to Money
Roadmap to Reality: Consciousness, Worldviews, and the Blossoming of Human Spirit

Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer?  Weed out the little words and make your writing more concise and to the point… Weed out little words for more concise writing. 

Shanleya's Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids

Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story? I write mostly nonfiction, which is easy, because it doesn’t have to be invented, just documented well. My children’s book, Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99 is a fictional story, yet only on the surface. It uses mythology to teach science and botany. It is successful because the substance of the story is real, rather than invented.

What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?  I write about topics that matter to me and haven’t been covered adequately by others. There is a niche and a need, and I write the books I’ve been searching for myself.

Living Homes.

What are some ways in which you promote your work? My books sell through word-of-mouth. People like what they read and share it with others. The challenge is to introduce a new title, often a new topic, to a new audience, to entice enough people to read it and start talking to other people about it. Botany in a Day was the easiest book to market. I delivered review copies to herbal schools, and they recommended it to their students and have continued to do so ever since.

What is the one thing you would do differently now, concerning writing or editing or publishing or illustrating, and why? I get excited about a new book and print thousands of copies, when it might be smarter to launch new titles with print-on-demand and refine them for another year or two before doing a large printing.

Roadmap to Reality.

What saying or mantra do you live by? Carlos Castaneda once said something to the effect of, “Death is stalking you over your left shoulder.” I don’t want death to stalk up on me lazing around in front of the television. I seek to make the most of every day I have in this life. I try to keep pushing my own boundaries and limitations to do more and to contribute more to humanity and the natural world with whatever time I have left in this world.

Author book links:  HOPS Press, LLC | Personal Website | |

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