Original “selfie stick” provides view of a bigger picture

This is my second weekly column for the Portage County Gazette, whose new web site is almost ready. — Steve


loren & yami overlooking boquillas

The best pictures of nature show less of the people and more of the scenery, like these native grinding holes in a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande and Mexico (Big Bend National Park, 2000) .

Selfie sticks are getting whacked a lot lately.

For those still living in the world of talking to others, selfie sticks are the devices that allow one to avoid all human contact while holding a camera at more than arm’s length and blessing everyone with yet another shot of one’s beaming mug.

Banned from some Disney World rides because of the danger they can cause, they also are forbidden at many concerts and festivals because they block people’s views. Coachella’s web site called them “narsisstics.”

For obvious reasons, the secret service didn’t want them near the Pope on his U.S. visit. Reuters News Service  and Mashable recently told us that more people have died taking selfies in 2015 than have been killed in shark attacks.  Search “selfies” in the New York Times and you’ll get all sorts of cogent, thoughtful, and recriminating pieces about the meaning of selfies in our culture.

This is the story of my selfie stick.

My brother made some of the original selfie sticks and gave them to my wife and me about the time we got married, more than sixteen years ago.  One of the earliest pictures we have of them in use is in front of “The Window” at the western pour-off of the Chisos Mountains basin in Big Bend National Park.

The photo captures perfectly the massive, converging rock walls that narrow toward an opening hundreds of feet above the desert floor to the west, where water, when substantial enough to flow out of the mountains, plunges headlong toward the barren, moonlike landscape between the Chisos and the Rio Grande.

My wife sits on one boulder in the foreground off to the right, laughing with my brother, who stands in a mountain-man pose on the left.  He’s actually leaning on his selfie, while my wife’s is perched on the rock. They’re in the shade of the vertical mountainsides, while in the background is the cleft through which you can see sunlight reflecting off of cliffs miles away.

The remarkable thing about this picture is a depth of field you don’t get with modern selfie sticks. Those generally have undue focus on the foreground – the people taking selfies.

Selfies veil the fact that we are small parts of a bigger, connected, and still fragile world. My brother’s sticks helped us keep everything in suitable proportion, with primary emphasis on the nature surrounding us.

Today’s selfie sticks have Bluetooth remotes and rechargeable batteries.  But my brother’s are better – lovingly crafted out of wood, smoothed and coated with protective finish, often inlaid with personally meaningful and decorative items, wrapped around the ends with leather straps to help the user maintain a grasp.

He was going to produce and sell them, but I and other family weren’t fond of the idea and tried to dissuade him.  Strife ensued.  That’s a story best left in the family, even if it is an important part of the history of my selfie stick, one of my most prized possessions.

You might be a little confused by now, and that’s understandable.    Probably because my selfie stick is just a plain old walking stick, about 50 inches long, with a worn rubber tip on the business end, no decorations, and a simple, braided leather handhold on top.

Grand Canyon

At the Grand Canyon with my wife, Yami, and my “selfie stick” in Oct. 2000.

It’s no good for holding a camera, but it gets me to places I need to go and enjoy time for myself – mostly family “selfie” time, but sometimes on my own.

My stick has been to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Arches, Zion, and Bryce national parks, as well as state parks all over Texas, Kansas, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Anybody who has hiked with a camera knows how it can detract from the simple pleasure of enjoying the scenery, breathing the air, and breaking away from our e-mail- and agenda-driven technological world.  We all understand the impulse to frame the quintessential shot, but we often spend more time and energy trying to capture memories and less time just making them.

Selfies emphasize that we were there – but is forgetting such a thing really possible?

We have fantastic memories of that Big Bend trip and plenty of wonderful pictures, but the photo we don’t have is an image that will never fade.  We had driven down a rough dirt track to a seldom-visited, abandoned ranch in the desert.  Walking from the house’s foundation, where broken pieces of old porcelain and an ancient iron bedstead remained in the dust, we saw what looked like brush ahead of us in a slight depression in the relatively flat, scrubby area.

As we approached, the depression began to open up, and with awe we eventually realized we had come to the lip of a deep, narrow arroyo. The “brush” was the top of a small cottonwood tree, sprouting from about 25 feet below.  There were ferns and reeds and a gurgling spring, as well as the collected detritus of a ranch family’s life thrown over the edge decades before – old tin cans, some rusty and broken gears and other mechanical parts, more broken dishes and glass.

We climbed down and explored until we were done, and we didn’t worry about pictures. Maybe if I’d had a good portable digital camera, I would have tried to go back and recreate our approach.

But I didn’t.  A picture wouldn’t tell the story anyway.  We went on to other hikes and more memories, and I wouldn’t trade that time with my brother and my wife for anything.

That’s what my selfie stick is for.


Perhaps the finest state park in all of Wisconsin is Devil’s Lake.  My wife says she likes it more than the Grand Canyon and Yosemite – in fact, more than any park we’ve ever visited.

The beautiful, almost-oval lake is nestled among high, rocky bluffs on three sides. On its most active end, it is bordered by smaller hills, a lovely gift shop and restaurant, a swimming beach and other facilities. It’s a charming place that combines the feel of a summer camp and a national park, including copious numbers of visitors.

Despite its prodigious natural beauty, it may not be for everybody, as it can get pretty crowded.  It definitely was that this past weekend, when at least six Boy Scout troops from the Mushkodany District – which totals 711 scouts in the Stevens Point, Plover and Whiting areas – attended the district’s fall Camporee.

That happening coincided with the third of Badger Trails’ annual trail-walking events on Oct. 3. Troops 201, 255, 293, 297, 298 and 299 were among dozens of others from around the state, along with crowds of other hikers, who took part in a day of exploring segments of the Ice Age Trail in the park.

Scouts completing portions of the trails received badges for their efforts, as did other visitors. The event publicizes Wisconsin’s spectacular trail systems as well as the group Badger Trails, an organization I was unfamiliar with before the weekend. (I tried contacting the group by phone and e-mail this week to find how many people participated, but was unsuccessful.)

I’ll be writing more about Devil’s Lake State Park in the coming months, as it’s one worth revisiting time and again for its history, beauty and outdoor opportunities. An entire issue of the Gazette probably couldn’t begin to do it justice.

Thanks to my son, Sam, and his 12 Troop 293 buddies for letting me join them on their great adventure. It was a much-needed break from the working world.  In return, I’ll  keep mum on their hijinks, along with those of the six other so-called adults on this outing.  At least for now.


It seems difficult to throw a rock anywhere in Wisconsin without hitting portions of the Ice Age Trail, which I wrote briefly about last week and which will be a frequent  topic in this column (disclosure: I am not a member of the group).  The big news for October is the working event being hosted next week by the Portage and Waupaca County chapters of the statewide Ice Age Trail Alliance.

Starting Tuesday, Oct.  13, and continuing through Oct. 17, the group will welcome an expected 100 or more volunteers from around the state for the Hartman Creek Mobile Skills Project.

The effort is one of several that targets segments of the trail statewide for development or renovation.  This one will build a new portion of the trail in Hartman Creek State Park that is separate from the existing trail, which is groomed in winter for cross-country skiing, said Julie Schneider, Portage County IATA coordinator.

“For years they’ve been trying to re-route the Ice Age Trail so that snowshoers can go on it without mucking it up for cross-country skiers,” she said. “The project is run by the alliance out of their main office, and there are maybe 10 projects during the spring and summer. This is the last one of the season.”

Schneider said there’s still time to sign up for everything from trail-clearing to being a “baker fairy” and helping feed the hungry volunteers. “There will be armies of folks,” she said. Even the inexperienced can be trained with trail tools, and many volunteers will be camping for the entire five days, she said.

More information is available on the chapter’s web site at http://www.portagecoiat.org/ or by calling IATA’s Brad Crary at 800-227-0046.


A final note: After more than 30 years of serving the trail, Portage County IATA coordinator emerita Sally Freckmann was honored by the alliance with a retirement reception at Gallery Q Oct. 7.  We can all appreciate the efforts of those who make the outdoors a better place.  Sally, we salute you.

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