My wife Lek and I are fortunate. We live in a beautiful, remote corner of Thailand during the winter and in a beautiful, remote corner of Minnesota–Cascade Lodge!–during the summer. These two places are as different as coconut palms and white pines are, or elephants and moose, or Buddhist temples and Lutheran churches.
As Lek and I hike throughout Cascade State Park and the adjacent Superior National Forest, we often make comparisons of our two homes.
The king of the forest here (in my opinion, anyway) is the timber wolf. It’s impossible to walk for long in Cascade Park without finding fresh coffee-cup-saucer-sized wolf tracks in muddy areas. We’ve happened upon the remains of their deer kills at least a dozen times this summer, and once, early last month, we encountered a wolf itself, loping nonchalantly down the trail in front of us.
The king of the Thai forest is the tiger. I’ve never seen one in the wild, though I’ve certainly tried. Unlike wolves, tigers are rare, their numbers ever decreasing under the tragic woes of habitat loss and poaching.
The most majestic mammal in Minnesota has gotta be the moose. Every time I see one, I am impressed anew at their awesome size. At present, there aren’t any moose in Cascade Park west of Cascade River, but a short hike beyond the park’s boundaries puts us in prime moose stompin’ grounds. Lek and I have encountered several, and we note their tracks and droppings on every hike.
Thailand’s most majestic mammal, hands down, is the elephant. Wild elephants roam the more remote Thai jungles. While camping in a national park in Thailand once, I saw a cow elephant and her calf strolling across a field at sunset, unaware of my hidden presence. Another time, while driving through the jungle at night, we had to break for a herd of elephants crossing the road. Most wild elephants, like moose, aren’t comfortable with human contact. Occasionally, a wild elephant encounter turns deadly for people in Thailand, while moose in Minnesota, although sometimes impressively aggressive, don’t actually ravage people. Seeing a wild elephant or a wild moose is exciting, but there’s an element of justifiable fear with an elephant encounter in Thailand that simply doesn’t exist with a moose encounter in Minnesota.
Minnesota has one bear species, the black bear. There are two bears currently living in Cascade Park west of the river, a large male and a juvenile or small female. Lek and I have observed their tracks, their “calling cards”, and many signs of their activity in the park. And we’ve had three bear encounters this summer, two with the large male and one with the juvenile/small female.
Thailand has two bear species, the Asiatic black bear, similar in size to Minnesota’s black bear, and the smaller sun bear. Thailand’s bears, unlike Minnesota’s, are secretive and avoid human contact at all costs. Indeed, their survival depends on living unnoticed by humans. It’s no surprise, then, that I have never encountered a wild bear in Thailand, but I have seen their tracks while hiking in remote jungles, and I’ll probably have to be satisfied with that.
We see black ant mounds throughout Cascade Park, and lately we’ve noted where bears have gone digging in them for tasty morsals of larvae. Place your hand on an ant mound here and it will immediately be covered with excitedly scurrying ants, yet nary a one will even consider biting you.
Not so in Thailand! Red ants and black ants, both tree-nesters there, are programmed to inflict nasty and slightly toxic bites upon contact with human skin. Ant encounters in Thailand are not pleasant experiences, let me tell ya! I’ve had plenty of painful first-hand experience!
If any of the several species of Cascade Park snakes one may spy slithering across a trail on a warm afternoon strikes fear, it is irrational fear, for snakes here are 100% harmless. This is definitely not the case in Thailand, where a large percentage of the serpentine population consists of pit vipers, kraits, and cobras, all capable of causing death with a bite. And let’s not forget pythons big enought to devour deer! We see pit vipers occasionally in our garden or on jungle walks, and have even had them inside our house on several uneasy occasions. Once, I was thrilled to catch a glimpse of a fleeing king cobra! Cascade’s snakes certaily don’t inspire the cautious alarm that many Thai snakes do. Yet snake bites in Thailand are as rare as wild tiger encounters, so we don’t really worry ourselves to death about them.
Both Minnesota and Thailand have mosquitos. Minnesota’s relentlessly assault us on our evening hikes in the park. Thai skeeters are few and far in between, but they do carry the risk of malaria or denge fever.
Both Minnesota and Thailand have have ticks, but our deer tick bites can mean Lyme’s disease or some other serious illness, while Thailand’s ticks are only annoying at worst.
Both Minnesota and Thailand have leeches, but those here live in still water while those in Thailand thrive on the jungle floor.
These are but the tip of the tip of the ice berg of comparisons Lek and I have made of life in northeastern Minnesota and life in northeastern Thailand. We live in two completely different worlds, no doubt about it. But there is one comparison that equals out between Minnesota and Thailand: the kindness of people. I am showered with kindness wherever I go in Thailand. Lek and I are equally surrounded by kindness here at Cascade Lodge and wherever we go in Cook County. We have experienced the very best of the human soul in both beautiful, remote Thailand and beautiful, remote Minnesota, and for that we are eternally grateful.
How ’bout one more comparison? A very warm summer day at Cascade Park equals a very cold winter day in Thailand.
David Eklof and Lek Thongchan-Eklof