Passed Dec. 15, 2017
FTA Awards: Special Service 2009
Five Million Steps and More: Gordon Johnson’s Legacy
by Sandra Friend
“So you’re hiking around the lake?” The lone customer at Old Habits, an Okeechobee watering hole, perched on a quaking barstool. “I’ve heard they’ve got a committee working on putting a paved trail on the dike, for bicycles and horses.”
Gordon Johnson, leading a group of hikers through a rare November heat wave on a 109-mile walk around Lake Okeechobee, looked at the fellow and said “the trail has great potential. It was hot out there today and there are no trees. You should go out there and build some shelters and plant some trees. We need shade.”
The man scratched at his chest. “You don’t need trees. Just find a partner who is taller and bigger than you, and make her walk on the sunny side.”
Awed by Okeechobee
Some people just can’t sit still, especially in retirement, and so it has been for Gordon Johnson. We’d see him pop in at regional and annual conferences, at special events, and of course at his beloved Big O Hike. So it was a surprise and a bit of a concern to the regulars, especially our friends from the Loxahatchee Chapter, when this long-time Florida Trail Association volunteer, who’s been actively involved since the late 1970s, didn’t show up in Okeechobee this November.
At the Big O Hike kickoff, past FTA President Paul Cummings shared his memories of how FTA’s longest-running annual group hike began. “It started with two old folks…who used two cars to hike around the lake.” The couple, Hank and Irma McCall, did their hike in 1991 to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Paul’s wife Sherry, a long-time volunteer with the Loxahatchee Chapter “read it in the newspaper, and said ‘why don’t we do that?’ Next time we had a meeting, Gordon said ‘I saw that article, why don’t we do that?’ The next thing we knew we needed someone to lead it, and Gordon was the one.”
Gordon led Paul, Sherry, and 18 other hikers around Lake Okeechobee in 1992 as a series of long day hikes, and the Big O Hike was born. Eight people made it all the way around the lake. Within a couple of years, 150 people showed up for the Big O Hike kickoff. “A lot of people were impressed with being able to have such a rugged adventure, yet still swim in the pool and sit in the hot tub at night,” Gordon said. It didn’t hurt that he and other volunteers organized group activities, including pontoon boat rides, agribusiness tours, and meals out at local eateries.
Gordon acted as trip leader for the first three years, but continued to play a supporting role, arranging activities, doing promotion, and eventually overseeing an annual talent show. Over the years, regulars for the hike came and went, but Gordon and Paul kept walking around the lake, until closures by the Army Corps of Engineers made it no longer possible to walk a complete circle safely. By 2011, the 20th anniversary of the Big O Hike, both Gordon and Paul retired their records of 20 consecutive circuits of the Okeechobee section of the Florida Trail. That’s roughly 2,180 miles, about the same distance as the length of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, or five million steps.
Granted, the Florida Trail around Lake Okeechobee is much flatter than the AT, but as many have learned, it’s no easier on the feet. “You need good boots and thick wool socks,” said Gordon, to walk the 9-day, 109 mile route.
Why walk around Lake Okeechobee? For one, it was in his backyard. It had great views from the dike. And it made a loop. “Where else,” said Gordon, “on what trail, with trail map in hand, can you view with the naked eye where you were two days ago and where you will be” in two more days?
The culture around Lake Okeechobee also intrigued him. “I planned we would go around town and country and interview locals,” said Gordon “and I’d make a program on it.” As it turned out, “We were too tired to do that. However, I did get some good interviews.”
The beauty of this little-known Florida landscape beckoned as well. His most glorious morning in Florida came along one of the treks. “Between Clewiston and Belle Glade, the fog was as thick as oatmeal. It didn’t dissolve for two hours. Everything was smothered with glistening dew.”
It was the type of moment that Gordon would capture with his camera and with words, with the hopes of sharing its joy with his next audience.
Life Inspires Art
Growing up in Embarrass, a Finnish enclave in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota, Gordon Johnson was the youngest of a family of eight. “We were Finnish youngsters with radiant faces that glowed from a summer of sun and a lifetime of saunas,” he wrote in his memoir, Life Was Good: Voi, Voi. It was on the family farm where he learned to love the woods, where “tall majestic spires of jack pine, birch and poplar trees brushed the sky.” He would find a place where he could “crawl into the hollow of a charred stump…and wonder if Chippewa children had played in that same stump.”
While attending business school in Minneapolis, Gordon was inspired by the way visiting Finnish students were amused at American life. “Since I spoke Finnish, they were quite open to talking about the good and bizarre aspects of life in the United States,” said Gordon.” One student remarked ‘It’s hard to understand why girls wear curlers and look ugly all day so they can be beautiful at night, when it’s too dark to notice them anyway!’” Using a Nicormat 35mm slide camera and Sony tape recorder, Gordon photographed and choreographed a multimedia show he called “Minnesota Finns.” He toured the presentation to Finnish cultural centers throughout the United States before knocking on the door of the United States Embassy in Finland in 1969. They sent Gordon packing—right across the Finnish countryside on a lecture tour.
While presenting his American show in Finland, he photographed the beauty of his ancestral land to develop his next multimedia show, “Song of Finland.” Traveling and developing visual presentations – and the live storytelling to go with them – became his passion. He called Finland his home until 1976. “It was a great experience to look at America through Finnish eyes,” said Gordon. He acted as a tour guide for Finnish groups flying to New York; gave private English lessons to doctors, singers, and actors; had bit parts in movies by director Mikko Niskanen; and attended the premiere of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Magic Flute.” He also remained outdoorsy and athletic, skiing in Lapland regularly and running marathons, and hiking through the Nordic countryside.
In 1976, Gordon Johnson arrived in Fort Lauderdale in the middle of winter – when the sun never rises in parts of Finland – and zeroed in on the Finnish-American community of Lake Worth. Because of his success with presenting slide shows and working on commercial photography projects in Finland, he signed up for courses at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. By day he worked as a court reporter, transcribing a constant stream of almost-unbelievable stories. Evenings were spent in studies. He joined the Loxahatchee chapter of FTA “to get away from the scandals of criminal court. The woods were my outlet.”
He quickly became a busy FTA volunteer, using his creativity for the benefit of the organization. He got involved in special events like regional and annual conferences—and the Big O Hike, of course. His “Prairie Home Companion” takeoff “A Trail Home Companion” was a hit back in the day when FTA conferences often had humorous skits as entertainment. With experience on the flute and the bowed psaltery, a type of dulcimer played with a bow, he played to an appreciative crowd at many events. He led hikes, gave presentations about the Florida Trail statewide to civic groups and other FTA chapters, and promoted the trail on radio and television. In 1989, writing lyrics that spoke of respect for the earth, he found fellow musicians to add their instruments and voices. The result was “Song of Florida Trail,” a fundraising album featuring “The Florida Trail Song,” an anthem for FTA for many decades.
One of the first hikers in Florida to use Nordic poles for walking, Gordon also brought that tradition from where they were invented, in Finland. Today, the collapsible poles – found under brand names like Leki and Komperdell – are a mainstay for backpackers and day hikers who want to put off worrying about knee replacement in the future. “Look at how a baby starts to walk, moving forward in jerky steps,” said Gordon. The Nordic poles “are an offshoot of that motion, mimicking a child’s first steps.”
Completing the Circle
We kicked off the 26th annual Big O Hike this November on a sad note, for Sherry Cummings had passed away earlier in the year, and we were there to be there for Paul. It was Paul Cummings who tracked down Gordon, no longer in his home in Oxford but in a nursing home in his Finnish-American community in Lake Worth. He was able to visit. When two more of Gordon’s old friends from FTA stopped in to see him on December 16, they were told that Gordon had passed away the day before. He was 82 years old.
“It was just before dark, and I was walking alone,” said Gordon, of one morning on the Big O Hike. “Clyde (Hopkins) walked up next to me just as the sun started coming up, reflecting in the Rim Canal. I started noticing a rainbow that made a complete circle, and in it was Clyde’s shadow. It followed us for a little while.”
Gordon’s circle was the beauty of nature, the friends he’d made through FTA, and the lake that called his name every year until this one. “I will always count it my privilege to have walked the entire 109 miles of the Big O with Gordon, on the dike, before the construction began,” said Clyde, when we shared the news. There are many of us statewide who are proud to say we’ve walked with Gordon on his journey.
View Sandra’s published writeup about Gordon and more photos of him in the Footprint Fall 2017 Edition.