Axel Heller Tribute
A Great Explorer, Leader, Father and Friend
From his daughter Sarah: As for stories or memories... there’s a bunch! I remember we used to go camping like half a dozen times each year. I’m so grateful he took us since it was always so much fun! I remember when he was driving and there would be puddles or just any water that he would drive through, we would stick our arms out the windows and we’d get all wet and muddy! LOL! Playing with all the dogs too on the trips was great. I also remember him putting food in foil, like corn on the cobb or meat and potatoes, little packets of food and he’d put it on the engine of his truck so that by the time we got to the campsite, we’d have dinner already cooked! He’d always make sure to pack my sister’s and my favorite Capri-Sun drinks too.
We used to go to Big Bear too a lot just to get away from the stress of the world down the mountain. He put my sister and I into ski lessons. He loved skiing! He just got his back surgery done in September 2021 and I remember him saying over and over that he can’t wait for 2022 ski season since his back will be good by then and he’ll be able to go skiing again since that was a passion of his. He had so many projects too - he cut down a limb from the cherry tree in the front yard of the cabin and he sawed those into little discs and he was varnishing them to make coasters! So very crafty and creative!
He was always helpful to me and would give me random things here and there... like he’d come down the mountain to visit and he’d bring me a bag of avocados and pistachio nuts. I told him my deadbolt lock on my door was sticking... so what does he do? He goes to his car and gets out his tools (he always had his tools in his car!) and completely removes my deadbolt, sprays everything with WD-40 and puts the deadbolt lock back on and viola! No more sticking! I always joked and would be like “who randomly has all this stuff in their car?” My dad, that’s who! I guess you never know when you’ll need things like that but he was there to always help.
I still can’t believe that he is truly gone. It breaks my heart each time I think of him, look at pictures of him, or just anything that will remind me of him. He was taken far too early! I seriously expected him to be around forever... at least like 20-30 more years!! He was always there for me and my sister, and a whole bunch of other people too. He had the biggest heart and he always had the best intentions for everyone. I have a friend who has been living with me since end of July 2021 (she had personal issues with her ex), and I’ve known her since elementary school. So every time my dad would bring me something, he would bring something for my friend too. My friend works in Downtown LA so it isn’t the best area. When he brought us each pepper spray and a taser, he said “I need to take care of my girls, all my girls” and he included my friend in that. So very sweet of him! He truly was the best father anyone could ask for. He was always making sure we were okay and helped us out when we needed it, or heck, even helped us out when we didn’t realize we needed help!
We are tentatively scheduling his “Celebration of Life” memorial to be on Saturday, February 19th, at the Shoreline Yacht Club in Long Beach. I’ll let you know once that has been finalized. ~ Sarah Heller
Axel Heller Reminiscenses by Ron Lipari. Pictures from 1991: One of my first experiences with the Backroad Explorers in the late 80’s was attending trips with my kids led by Axel Heller. In 1986 the Backroad Explorers was a section in the Sierra Club. Axel was also a member of the Little Hikers – a group that also included trips with children.
The first trip I remember was to Carruthers Canyon in the East Mojave. I arrived the night before the trip was to meet Saturday morning. When I arrived at the meeting location that evening, I was the only car there with my girls, Amy and Melanie. Thinking that I had arrived at the wrong location Axel arrived at 9:30 a.m. the next morning with several cars! Axel’s directions indeed were excellent and correct! My kids had a great time and played with Axel’s kids as well as the others that joined the trip.
Axel continued leading Desert Explorer/Little Hikers trips, usually with Tom Church (Tomás). Tom loved all of the kids and enjoyed leading the trips with Axel. Particularly memorable were the yearly Father’s Day trips to the White Mountains and Cottonwood Creek. Axel met the group in Big Pine at the Country Kitchen coffee shop where we had breakfast.
The trip continued up Westguard Pass over the pass to Fish Lake Valley, and then up Wyman Canyon. This trip was perfect for the adults and kids alike for there was enough interesting sites including old cabins, waterfalls and stream crossings, as well as somewhat challenging 4x4 roads. The Schulman Bristlecone Pine forest was always a delightful stop, as some of the trees were over 3,000 years old. On one occasion on a particularly snowy year, Tom threw snow at my son Jeff who was 3 at the time. Tom was rewarded with a snowball fight! The campsite for the evening was located at Cottonwood Creek, and found therein were protected Piute Trout. The kids played in the creek, climbed the rocks, and were free to roam – much to the dismay of absent wives!! We had a wonderful pot luck dinner and campfires with excellent stories for the kids. Tom Church was always a hoot!!
The weather at the 8500 foot campsite could get cold but a warm fire, hot coffee and a hot breakfast were always appreciated. After gathering up camp the trip continued out of Cottonwood Creek up to the summit of Silver Canyon with a spectacular view of the Eastern Sierra Crest. On one occasion Axel’s rear axle U bolt had broken leaving the axle loose on one side. Axel’s resourcefulness was demonstrated when he used a come along to strap the rear axle in place and the trip continued!
Going down Silver Canyon was quite an adventure! Steep downhills, beautiful views, and for the kids a dozen or so water crossings that could be taken at speed!! Splashing water over the hood and sometimes into the windows always thrilled the children!
The trip ended up at the Laws Railroad museum at the bottom of Silver Canyon. A grove of cottonwoods stood across from the museum. After a brief museum visit Axel and Tom would take out ice cream for all of the kids – frozen in a Styrofoam ice chest and kept cold with dry ice! What a treat as the temp in Bishop was usually in the mid 90’s.
My kids and I will never forget these fun times. Axel was a confident, yet low key leader, who was happy to have young children on the trip. Axel enjoyed people!
Axel will be greatly missed, but the memories will live on. ~ Ron
From Jay Lawrence: Right from the start, Axel was one of those people who made the Backroad Explorers and Desert Explorers a special group. He was a friend from the moment you met him and always ready to help get your vehicle back on the trail or share stories around the campfire. In the 1980s he would lead trips all over, from the East Mojave to the White mountains. He cajoled many parents to get their kids out with him and his daughters to camp before the snow melted in the Sierras or explore old mines in the New York mountains. He had an understated, humble manner yet he was incredibly capable at everything he undertook. A rare person in today’s world. Someone you could count on.
At some point, the lure of the sea drew him to sailing and though he wasn’t with us on the trail we would get reports on his boats and his ports of call. A few years ago, he decided to get back to dry land and follow his dreams of more explorations of the western U.S. He was able to realize many of those dreams before the restrictions that kept us all at home the last two years.
Axel will live on with all of us who knew him. He loved and was loved by his family. He lived his dreams. He quietly set a very high bar. ~ Jay