Tall tales, true stories and the author's life in ink fill 'Tattoo Machine' by Jeff Johnson.

On shipwrecks, backpacks and tattoos

Just because it's summer doesn't mean you have to throw a sappy novel into that bag you're taking for a weekend getaway to the coast. Here are three new, sharply observed nonfiction books, each from an Oregon author.

"Taking the Seas," by Dennis M. Powers, (AMACOM, cloth, 304 pages) is the latest entry in what's rapidly becoming a series by Ashland resident Powers, whose previous books include "The Raging Sea," "Sentinel of the Seas" and "Treasure Ship."

In the 19th century, men known as "wreckers" rescued foundering ships and raised sunken ones with, at least early on, little legal constraint or supervision. If a vessel was stuck on rocky shoals or rolling helplessly in surf, and the crew abandoned it, it was considered a derelict and subject to salvage.

In the age of sail up to 100 ships a day passed Key West, and there were shipwrecks as often as once a week. Wreckers watched like hawks, keeping sloops and schooners ready and even building towers to watch the sea. News of a shipwreck was like the start of a horse race.

The crew that got to a wreck first and made contact with its skipper won the lucrative salvage rights. The "master wrecker" who made a deal with the captain might make other on-the-spot deals with other wrecking crews even as they clambered aboard. The goods, often very fine goods indeed, would be auctioned in Key West.

Early U.S. court decisions generally were favorable to owners, who often had disputes not only with wreckers but with their own captains. But in 1855, a ship called the "Crescent City" (interesting, since Powers has written about the 1964 tsunami that ravaged the Northern California town of that name) washed ashore on a Bahamian reef, and the court set the wreckers' reward at 65 percent of the $90,000 in cargo they saved. In contrast, after paying the wreckers and governor's and consul's claims and auctioneer's fees, the owner was left with $4,500.

Powers is a thorough researcher with a feel for the wet environment he writes about. The book includes a bibliography in addition to the nervous-making adventures and salty characters.

"The Boomer's Guide to Lightweight Backpacking," by Carol Corbridge, (Frank Amato Publications, paper, 102 pages, $18.95) included this subtitle: "New Gear for Old People." The point is well taken. Backpacking at, say, 50, raises a whole set of issues you didn't worry about at 20.

The author claims to have been a backpacker of sorts as a teenager and to have forgotten it as she became busy with grown up life. In her 40s, she writes, she rediscovered the outdoors and set about finding — a la Ray Jardine, whose book "Beyond Backpacking" started the lightweight revolution — the lightest, most comfortable gear she could get her hands on.

The author weighs stuff on either a postal scale or a hanging scale. Her summer sleeping bag is a down number from Western Mountaineering that weighs just 16 ounces. She says her gear for a six-day trip weighs just 35 pounds, but a large part of the difference in that and the typical 50-pound pack is that she assumes 1.8 liters of water. That's good for one day, maybe, if it's not hot, and you don't do any cooking. She obviously researches the trail for water and plans to purify.

She's also one of those packers who have no qualms about taking their dogs into the wilderness. Those quibbles aside, the book is a nice, common-sense look at modern gear informed by an attitude that this should be fun, and as comfortable as possible, otherwise, why bother?

Hikes take in the Kalmiopsis and Russian wilderness areas, the Trinity Alps and other spots familiar to Rogue Valley residents. It might even help get folks on the wrong side of 40 out in the woods.

"Tattoo Machine," by Portland tattooist Jeff Johnson, (Spiegel and Grau, an imprint of Random House, cloth, 249 pages, $25) is a tell-all book about an underground industry that's been reborn in recent years (see The Learning Channel's "L.A. Ink," the star of which, Kat Von D, saw her own book hit The New York Times best seller list).

Johnson is an 18-year veteran tattooist and co-owner of The Sea Tramp Tattoo Company, which he says is the oldest tattoo shop in Portland. He's inked gangbangers and suburban moms, tended delicate egos, broken up fights and learned to avoid "bunnies" — or customers on pain pills.

Many industries have their own lexicon, and this one is no exception. A chudder is a customer who barfs. A night hog is a crappy artist. A swamp panther is an artist who can handle potential disasters. A tramp stamp is one of those lower-back tattoos popular among young women.

Johnson himself rose, if that's the word, from a life of petty crime as a youngster. His life introduces him to weird, outrageous and sometimes dangerous characters, and he has the chops (even first time out as a writer) to tell the fascinating and bizarre stories he's collected.

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