Hurry Tom Hurry!

The juncos and white throated sparrows have arrived from their boreal summer haunts.  And this morning’s winds are loosening Autumn’s colorful skirts, sending tatters to the ground. Fall has taken on a new sense of urgency.

While temperatures drop and politicians yammer, I find a joyful quiet as I commute one hundred feet from our house to my perfect Covid project: building a little log cabin. Since last April, I have missed very few mornings strolling into the woods to the work site. 

Now the days are arcing towards darkness with daylight hours shrinking and I feel an inner restlessness to zip up the project for the coming winter. In my mind, I hear “Hurry Tom!  Hurry!”

Two Novembers ago I helped thin a friend’s red pine plantation. He shipped truckloads of logs to be rendered into garden mulch, and I bought enough logs to attempt to Lincoln-log a cabin together. That winter I resurrected my antique draw knife and peeled them all. I levered them into neat piles with plenty of air space between so they could slowly dry. 

For the most part I am a one-man show. Admittedly I lack the skills of famed Alaska cabin builder and public television star, Dick Proenneke, but I often invoke his spirit.  In late March when I decided to skid the logs from the drying site, seventy five feet to the building site, I hooked up my electric winch which is rated to pull 1,200 pounds. I was mortified when I turned the winch on and almost immediately it overheated. I looked with dismay at the red warning light. 

I was devastated. What do I do now? I have no tractor, ATV, or even a draft horse to pull the logs. For that matter I didn’t want anything that required undo maintenance, fuel or food. How was I going to move the logs? I returned to the house and broke the news to Miss Nancy. 

I reached out to dear Yukon friend, Mike, who is a fine wood craftsman specializing in timber framing. I have never seen huge beams with such fine joinery as his work. Immediately he offered a solution.

 “Tom,” he said, “Why don’t you build using short log construction?”

 I recollect my answer as a simple “What?” 

He replied, “You need to read James Mitchell’s book, The Short Log and Timber Building Book.”

I turned one hundred eighty degrees in my chair to face the floor to ceiling bookcase. I scanned for a moment, reached up and pulled down a book. “Oh this one.” Mike laughed and then like a master ordered, “Now read it.”

And so that led me to my current project. Instead of a classic log cabin with scribed interlocking corners, my walls consist of shorter horizontal logs slid between vertical posts. The beauty is that by using levers and fulcrums, I can handle most of the logs by myself. I don’t want to even consider how many pounds of logs I have hefted, grunted, rolled and pushed.  Since starting this project, I have lost 15 pounds and punched two holes in my belt. 

October is ticking away. Snows are coming, at least I hope they are. My goal is to finish the walls in the next few days. Then recruit some human power to help position the hefty ridge log. After that, the log rafters can be erected and roof put on.  

Hurry Tom!  Hurry!

Oh and of course through this project, I am committed to bow hunt for deer. I am hoping for future winter stews and steaks grilled in our kitchen woodburning stove. Hunting is hard because my mind nags me to climb out of October’s tree canopy and get to building the cabin. 

Leaves are blanketing the work site adding a seasonal charm. No time to admire the decor, winter is coming on!

Hurry Tom! Hurry!

The Verdict on Goldenrod: Not Guilty

(Note: I apologize for the delay in getting this 2-week old post up on your screen. I was battling computer issues that included something nasty called malware. But the subject here is still of use.)

I used to know a man who every September  mowed down nearly an acre of lovely goldenrod. He was convinced that he was halting the march of allergies. I gently mentioned to him that goldenrod pollen is too large to be easily blown in the wind and that the plant depends on insects for pollination. I told him that it was the unseen pollen from ragweed that was causing his wife’s hay fever.  Approximately 23 million Americans will experience the late summer symptoms of an allergy to ragweed pollen. Not only will life be made more sneezy and wheezy but the allergy can trigger asthma.

 The acre of goldenrod that he cut down represented an amazing supply of nectar for beneficial insects. Each of the roughly 45 goldenrod species in Minnesota bears clusters of tiny yellow flowers. I have sat and watched as many as six different species of insects probing and hurrying together over the blossom heads. A bee visits a flower seeking nectar for food. As the insect clambers about the blossoms it accidentally picks up sticky pollen grains on its slightly hairy legs. Always on the hunt for nectar, the insect leap-frogs in flight to nearby blossoms.  In doing so, pollen grains, carrying the male gametes or sperm cells, are transferred to another plant and if they come into contact with the flower’s female parts called pistils, fertilization can occur. 

Ragweed, in contrast,  has tiny greenish, not colorful, flowers so it mostly goes unnoticed. Each of the three ragweed species found in Minnesota is native. Its success is due to its ability to quickly establish itself in any disturbed ground.  Of all the wild plants across rural and urban landscapes none is as prolific as ragweed in casting out so much highly allergenic pollen. One ragweed plant is capable of sending out one billion microscopic pollen grains that are easily picked up in a breeze. 

According to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council, pollen allergies are worsening due to a changing climate. Warmer summertime temperatures and shorter winters means longer ragweed seasons and more high pollen count days. Between 1995-2013 the ragweed pollen season in Minneapolis and St. Paul lengthened by 21 days. 

North American natives used goldenrod to treat fevers, sprains, lung problems and sore throats. The Anishinabe referred to the plant as “sun medicine.” Later, goldenrod was classified by Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish 18th century botanist. He titled the genus Solidago. The prefix “sol”  comes from the Latin word solidus which means “whole” or to “make whole.” 

Given that this fall is an election year, it would be wonderful if we could create a goldenrod salve and spread it across our society “to make whole.” 

Insect Apocalypse

For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without.”

-John Lundgren, farmer and entomologist

“Anyone that gets two dollars worth of gas or more gets their windshield washed,” growled George, the owner of Georges 66 gas station in my home town of North Branch. 

The locals knew this glass cleaning practice and many of them depended on gas jockeys to keep their windshield clean of the smeared insect gore.

It was the early 1970s and I had just started working weekends pumping gas and doing other light auto maintenance duties such as tire repair, oil changes and grease jobs. There was not self pumping at the gas stations nor did you wash your own windows.

Cleaning the windshields on some nights was almost like a cardio workout. We used cotton rags, a spray bottle of glass cleaner and plenty of elbow grease. Many windshields resembled Jackson Pollack paintings with a smearing of colors and textures hiding the identity of the driver until they stepped out of the car. The worst windshields were those that had been ignored for a few days and the bug parts were baked in by the midday sun. Sometimes we had to use a scraper along with the spray cleaner and rag. 

It occurred to me recently that I haven’t seen a windshield like that in some time. I can drive hours on a summer night and have only a spattering of bug corpses.

One night this summer, I had stepped out of the house to the edge of the woods to listen to coyotes socializing and a slow flying firefly blinked its way past me. Back in the woods I spotted a couple more. Returning to the house, I mentioned the sighting to Nancy and then in the same breath I pined for the old days when there were so many fireflies that it looked like restless constellations on the move. 

I have an indelible memory of camping with fellow cub scouts on a local farm where we chased and captured fireflies. We filled an old pop bottle with blinking bugs and brought it into our tent for an amazing strobe light show.

Even insect noise is less prevalent.  The August nocturnal cricket concerts no longer pulse with the same intensity.  

Pollinating insects, responsible for the production of one third of our food, are declining and in the meantime I hear folks almost giddy when they observe, “mosquitoes sure haven’t been bad.”  

No group of animals, birds, mammals, fish, reptiles or amphibians is declining as rapidly as insects.  The ramification of an insect apocalypse is horrific to consider. 

One recent study looked at 73 historical reports on insect populations. The researchers conclude that nearly half of all insect populations could disappear in decades.  Such a crash will send other life systems into a cascading collapse. Our survival depends on healthy natural systems. Without insects, life as we know it will go extinct.

According to the April, 2020 journal of Science, roughly a ¼ of the world’s terrestrial  insects have disappeared in thirty years. The Midwest alone has experienced a decline of 4% of its insect population.  What is becoming clear is that the chemical intensive monocultural agriculture is playing a major role in the insect demise. 

According to a recent article in The Land Stewardship Project (vol. 38, #1, 2020), South Dakota farmer and entomologist, Jonathan Lundgren, says that agriculture should not be painted as the “bad guy” but instead should be seen as a key part of the solution. Lundgren is a retired scientist for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  

More and more research shows that striving for biodiversity is the most significant action farmers can take for not only the health of their farm but for the insects that are part of that natural system. Most insects are beneficial and in fact many of them will control numbers of the so-called “pests.” The problem is that many insecticides kill indiscriminately, killing the targeted pests as well as those that are important for pollination or naturally controlling insects that feed on crops.  According to Lundgren, “For every species of pest, there are 1,700 species of insects we can’t live without.” 

Turns out that farmers that practice regenerative methods turn out a larger profit than the conventional, chemical dependent farms. While their yield might be less per acre, without the input costs of herbicides and pesticides, there is more girth in their wallet.  It’s all about building soil health. 

Lundgren is effectively educating farmers, particularly young farmers, that industrialized systems of farming leave no room for biodiversity. This is not only a disaster for bugs but for humans. 

Hurrah to Jonathan Lundgren and others like him who understand the big picture of the necessity of healthy natural systems. Bugs are simply too important in the cog of life for us to ignore their disappearance.

I want my grandchildren to have the opportunity to net a few fireflies, place them carefully in jars and bring them into our tent for the coolest camping light ever.  And then to watch their faces define joy and wonder as they release the fireworks back into the night sky.

The idea of “lights out,” is too tragic for me to consider.

I Have Known a Frog

I’ve formed a bond with a gray tree frog this summer. The first meeting was on the deck while I enjoyed my morning coffee. I noticed its head sticking out of the wren nesting box that sits at eye level on the edge of the deck. The frog faced due east as if to greet the rising sun. This ashen blotchy frog was an adult rather than a bright green juvenile.

I know there are several tree frogs that hang out around our deck because at dusk I often hear their musical trills. In my opinion, their song is the most melodious of all local frogs.  

I was inspired to write a few lines of poetry. I decided to allow no more than two minutes to write a few lines. No editing or revisions. I found the following:

This house is mine. All mine!
No wren wants it 
but to me it’s sublime.

From my lounging perch, 
I watch sipping humans with hands
wrapped around a mug like a prayer in church.

And me on my pulpit of divine!

The next morning, I returned to the deck and was delighted to find the frog in the bird house waiting for the warmth of the sun. Being amphibians, their body temperature is the same as their surroundings rather than a constant like our 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Since we were acquaintances, I decided to name the frog. I landed on the genus of tree frogs: Hyla. It’s easy to say and is gender neutral.

I placed a black-eyed Susan flower on the tiny ledge outside the birdhouse entry only a couple inches from the expressionless frog. Did Hyla even care about my gift?

Minutes later a small fly hovered in front of the flower and in a flash Hyla’s tongue rocketed out and the fly became breakfast! I hurried in for a scrap of paper and pencil to scratch out a second two-minute poem: 

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz called it “holistic contemplation.”
I set the prairie bloom on the step, not for decor,
but for pollinating insect temptation.

With the patience of Buddha 
the tree frog practiced being.
A bug buzzed in, a tongue flashed and all was gooda.

On the third morning, I stole a glance from inside the house through the deck window for my little friend. Nothing. Really?

I opened the door for a better look. As it swung, I felt something brush my head. I thought it was the lilac branch that is starting to bend over the deck. But the feeling was not a gentle stroke as much as it was a plop. I looked at my feet and there was a sprawled Hyla, legs and toes extended on the deck. 

I had obviously disturbed the frog from its narrow hideout between the top of the door and the door jamb.

Tree frogs use their sticky toes to gain nocturnal hunting perches on glass windows and doors. Attracted to the indoor lights, nighttime insects will hover or sit on the exterior of the glass, making easy pickings for the frogs.

There was no Hyla on the fourth day . In fact each following day was made more lonely as I sipped my coffee.

A week later, I was pleased to find Hyla sitting at the entrance of the wren house. I ached to have a human-to-amphibian chat. I would have asked, “Where did you go? A pilgrimage? Chasing the opposite sex? An escape from . . . me?”

Then there was another series of days without a Hyla spotting.

Until the other night when Miss Nancy and I were relaxing on the deck, reading aloud. I was seated only a couple feet from the wren house.

I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning my head I met the wide-eyed gaze of Hyla who had just poked out of the wren house. The frog bore the sagacious look of an ancient philosopher as it tilted its head towards me. It was as if the frog was shifting to better listen to Scott Russel Sanders’ thoughts on stewardship of natural systems. 

I could swear Hyla tipped its head in agreement.

Note: None of these photographs have been digitally altered. Hyla is not shy.

Climb on!

Stretching out over the driveway is a reach of wild grape vine. During daily walks to the mailbox I’ve been noting its growth. Its parent vine twists and climbs up a tangle of willow growing next to our drive. It does not have its own stout stem so it has evolved to pull itself higher against gravity using the anchor of other trees or structures. 

Mountain climbers hammer metal pitons into the cracks along their climbing route. These become anchors to affix their climbing ropes. 

Similarly wild grapes provide their own organic pitons. Slim green tendrils blindly reach out from the ascending vine and seek anchor points by snaking themselves around nearby tree branches, wires or any firm structure. Once anchored, the vine continues its steady sprint to the sun.

The vine I have been watching over the past week had boldly sent a new exploratory reach over the chasm of our driveway. New leaves, the solar collectors that make photosynthesis possible, add weight to the reaching vine and it is clearly losing its pathfinder advantage to gravity as it droops earthward. 

The vine’s stretch is something to behold. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel masterpiece, Hands of God and Adam, the tip of the curling tendril appears to plead for connection.

Ultimately grape vines will summit in the canopy of a tree where it will spread its photosynthetic carpet of foliage. Sometimes the weight of the vines, foliage and fruit can pull a weakened limb out of a tree and then all comes crashing down. And once again the intrepid vine will snake its way to another nearby ladder.

Late spring or early summer is when the broad leaves can be gathered for stuffed grape leaf rolls. I collect tender leaves near the tip of the vine that are roughly four inches across. 

You can use your imagination in making the filling but I recently used cooked rice, shredded salmon, chopped shitake mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes and caramelized onions with a couple of cloves of minced garlic and some other favorite spices. Nuts are also a nice option and chicken or lamb is also good.

We like to blanch the leaves for a moment to make them supple for easier rolling. You can also marinate grape leaves in olive oil, vinegar and salt and store in a wide mouthed jar in the fridge for future use. 

Remove the leaf stems, spoon a tablespoon of filling on the flattened leaf and roll it starting from the leaf base. Then fold the leaf sides towards the center covering the stuffing. Continue rolling the leaf towards its tip creating a short, cigar-shaped morsel. Apply a bit of olive oil to the grape rolls before eating. These are simple and delicious. 

I need to head up to the mailbox and make my daily observation of the futile effort of one bold grape vine. But hey, if you don’t dare go where no grape has gone before how does one reach out to new possibilities?

Unseasonable Visit to the Deer Shack




For over thirty years I’ve made the annual November pilgrimage to the deer shack. I’ve only been there in autumn and winter. However, with an opportunity to help maintain a seven-mile section of the 300 plus miles of Lake Superior Hiking Trail, my wife and I couldn’t resist a first summer visit to the old shack. 

Rather than stay at a motel, we opted to don our backpacks, swing our legs over our mountain bikes and spur our “bush ponies” into the wilds. 

It was a hot day when we pedaled away from the car and headed down an old abandoned road. There are no public roads within a mile of the shack. With the dry summer conditions we made surprisingly great time and arrived at the lush jungle of tall cow parsnip and curly dock that almost hid the front of the shack. Both plants are edible and if necessary they could provide nutritious condiments to the sandwiches we brought in. 

Pushing open the unlocked door, we were pleased to see the shack clean and in good shape. The interior atmosphere reminded me of the torturous “hot box” used to house Lt. Colonel Nicholson in the epic war movie, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. With only three small, fixed windows with no screens, there was no way to air out the stuffy shelter other than to keep the door open for a while.

High on the wall, above an upper bunk is a faint penciled declaration of the shack being built and the names of the handful of builders. The date was July 4, 1940. 

Years ago one of the late builders was reminiscing of that summer day. It was hot. “The next morning the black flies were so bad they looked like pepper in the pancakes.” Luckily they had the river to refresh themselves and fetch drinking water.

Before bed, Nancy and I bathed in the rapids of the nearby river to cool our bodies down. It felt good to lie down on the old bunk for the night but the goodness didn’t last. Whether it was a squadron or just a patrol of insurgent mosquitoes, they managed to sing in our ears and sneak in for a bite. 

In an hour our sleeping sheet was littered with the carnage of self-defense. Eventually the temperature started to cool down. Surprisingly we finally slept and sometime during the night found ourselves pulling the sleeping bag over us. 

The next morning we cycled to a rendezvous point to meet the work crew. With the pandemic in progress, we kept ourselves a good distance from each other while instructions were meted out. We spent the warm day clearing brush and fallen trees from the trail.

When we returned to the shack after the work day, we jammed scraps of tissue paper in any opening of the nearly 80-year-old walls to prevent a repeated mosquito incursion.

The next morning, we breakfasted on our hard-boiled eggs, banana bread and coffee while sitting in the front “yard.” We relaxed by pressing wild flowers and writing in journals. 

Last November I had noticed that every page of the shack journal had been scribed on so we packed in a blank notebook. This would be the third shack journal over the last thirty or so years. Sadly none were kept prior to that. Most of the entries are from strangers who discovered the charm and shelter of the shack. 

I came across an entry from “George” penned back in June 2002: I decided to day hike (without pack) and see the area in detail when I happened upon this wonderful deer shack. I figured I owed myself a relaxing time with a chair and table so I stayed here.  It was nice to get cleaned up, been out here since Wed. 5/29/02. I’m in no hurry but tomorrow I’ll be on my way THANK YOU VERY MUCH for the chance to stay here.

We tidied up the shack, put on our packs. Before pedaling off, I turned for a last look. Thank you dear Deer Shack.


T


Silence Among Many Ears


I strolled up the driveway to the mailbox. No mail. I looked over the neighbor’s cornfield across the road.  I decided to explore. Zigzagging between the thigh-high corn plants, I went in a dozen rows. Then I lay down.

I gazed up through the swaying corn leaves where soft clouds dallied eastward on the faintest of breezes. With a good rain the day before and full-on sun today, the corn should be climbing. An old farmer’s adage optimistically declares, “On a quiet night you can hear corn grow!” 

It turns out that with highly sensitive recording equipment you really can hear it. The noise is the tearing and pulling of corn stalk fibers. The process is similar to an athlete building muscle mass. Strengthening the muscle requires a multitude of micro rips of tissue. As they repair themselves the muscle becomes stronger. 

I rolled close to a stout stalk of corn. All around me was eerie silence; no insects, no birds. Staring into the sky, I spotted a high-flying dragonfly hurrying directly overhead. Why should it stop when this sea of sameness harbors no insect sustenance? 

From my prone position I peered far down the orderly row of corn stalks. There was absolutely nothing else growing there. I was lying in a desert made through the intentional poisoning of the ground.

This firmament of sand holds little organic matter. In order to grow corn it is augmented with a swill of herbicides, fertilizer, nitrogen and who knows what else.   

Looking through the genetically altered crop, I recalled a visit to a long-time farmer near Ames, Iowa. He was over 80 years old and was farming the land the same way his father had in the early 20th century, with no pesticides or herbicides. He really didn’t intend to farm “organically,” it was just the way his father taught him.

He spoke of his corn and its yields compared to his neighbor’s fields where they grow genetically modified corn using conventional methods that include applications of pesticides and herbicides.   Even when his fields didn’t produce as many bushels per acre, many years his profit margin was better than farmers who grow corn using chemical inputs. 

I asked if any of his neighbors ever consider growing organically to cut input costs. He looked at me and said, “Well they can’t.  Their ground is addicted to chemicals. All the microscopic life in the soil is dead. My neighbors have to keep the chemicals going if they want to make any money at all.”

He paused and looked out over his summer field. “They’re are in a tough spot. In order to build up the life in the soil they would have to let the field sit idle for a few years. And how are you going to pay the bills then?” 

He turned his head and looked at me, concluding, “It’s sad. I doubt any of them ever really intended to kill their soil.”

Across the dirt road from where I lay is our patch of restored prairie, a wild tangle of stem and deep roots. The explosion of bloom buzzes with thousands of pollinating insects. It hosts pheasant and vesper sparrow nests. The soil beneath teems with microbial life. 

Up to forty years ago this piece of ground grew corn and soybeans. Then I said “No more.” Instead I gathered native prairie seed from nearby wild patches and scattered and poked them into the ground. I let the remnant prairie in the roadside ditch slowly claim the cropland. Over time the ground has begun to wear the face it had prior to my ancestors farming it. 

After a half hour of corn cogitation, I could stand the sterility no more. I got to my feet and retraced my path out of the geometrically perfect rows. 

Returning home through the patch of prairie, I noticed a dragonfly zigzagging over the clumps of big bluestem and between the slalom gates of the blue-flowered spiderwort. 

A nap in the prairie would not be easy with the racket of biological diversity. 

The Riches of an Unkempt Lawn

Nobody on their death bed is going to wish they had mowed the lawn more frequently.

The neighbors were buzzing with excitement over our beautiful lawn until I commenced the seasonal atrocity of mowing.  The neighbors I am referring to are the fat bumblebees and other assorted members of the insect tribe that bobbed and crawled from purple blossom to purple blossom on the ground ivy that carpets much of our yard. It’s a thing of beauty. 

The gang of the genus Bombus, our plump buzzing bumblebee friends, are part of the insect clan that pollinates approximately 1/3 of the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Our society’s lawn maintenance practices threaten their livelihood. 

Most folks refer to the fragrant ground ivy as Creeping Charlie. European immigrants intentionally brought the beloved plant to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Britain and other Old World countries this short herb was also known as runaway robin, ground ivy, or Lizzie-running-up-the-hedge.

For more than 5,000 years this little relative of the mint family has been an important medicinal plant. It is high in Vitamin C and is valued for soothing coughs, colds and headaches. 

So how is it that this plant slid from sainthood to lawn villain? 

Can you say “money?” 

You can never fail to make money if you can convince the public of a lurking monster, something to be very afraid of, and then hail yourself as savior for having the product to defeat the real or perceived fiend. So it is no surprise that big chemical companies like Monsanto, Scotts, or Dow declare this innocent ivy and other lawn companions such as dandelions as “bad.”

Clever marketing convinced lawn owners to buy the chemical panacea needed for a lawn of sameness. A monoculture is not nature’s way. rather than follow nature’s blueprint for the strength in diversity.

When you create a single-species lawn you have to work really hard and spend money to keep it that way. Roughly 80 million Americans have lawns.  According to a national Time Use Survey, American lawn owners spend roughly 40 hours of care on their lawns each summer. That is a full workweek! 

Then there are those who fertilize their lawns so they have to mow even more. Go figure!

If you really want to be the same as everyone else, then be my guest. I’m going to keep company with the mesmerizing buzz of the Bombus clan and gather up some nutritious plants like Creeping Charlie, sheep sorrel, and dandelions from the yard for a salad. That way my lawn pays me.

Cups Men!

Brian Gnauck and the author contemplating a very old inukshuk above the Kuujua River in the High Arctic.

“Tom, how did you ever pick up your love of canoeing rivers in the far north?”

That question was posed to me about a month ago by my wife Nancy. 

“Well,” I answered, “there were two influencers: Glen and Brian.”

In the first months of 1974, Glen Sorenson, a dear friend I had met in college, asked if I was interested in paddling the Churchill River. We would paddle east from the Saskatchewan border, across northern Manitoba to Hudson Bay. He was recruiting me as a crew for a trip that his previous White Bear Lake neighbor and veteran wild river paddler, Brian Gnauck was putting together. 

It took little time for me to jump at the chance to go on a month long 500- mile paddling adventure. (Since we paddled the Churchill River, a large diversion dam was completed making it a very different flow.)

Nancy’s query released a trove of memories and she sat politely listening as I began sharing. This was a time before there was such a thing as a GPS or satellite phones. With maps and compasses and Brian’s knowledge of the land combined with his skills in paddling whitewater and wilderness tripping, the trip proved to be the catalyst that would ultimately send me on numerous remote, northern Canada trips.

After my shared stories, I wondered aloud how Brian was doing. So the next day I tried calling his Marquette, Michigan home. A recorded message told me his phone was disconnected. No big surprise because he likely had cancelled his landline to go with only his cell phone.

I tried emailing him at the only email address I had from his University of Northern Michigan site.  It bounced back. 

Four years ago Brian retired after serving as a dean and professor at the University of Northern Michigan Business College in Marquette for more than forty years.

I decided to write him a good old- fashioned letter. In the letter I wondered how he was doing with retirement. Given the shackling of the pandemic, I asked if he had any summer adventures planned.  Mostly I told him how much I owed him for sparking my interest and teaching me river skills.

About ten days after I sent the letter, my cell phone rang while I was putting up some firewood. I answered and a woman asked, “Tom Anderson?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Brian Gnauck’s daughter. “(At this point, I felt a surge of dread.) 

Jumping in, I blurted, “Shefali.”

Then I heard crying. In fits and starts as she told me her father had experienced a massive heart attack out in his firewood yard next to his beautiful Lake Superior log home. Brian was 80 years old.

Sniffling she said, “At least he was outside, doing something he loved.” 

After a short chat I hung up and went for a slow walk in our woods.  

I cannot think of a single person who has paddled more Canadian rivers than Brian. By 1987, Brian had paddled more than 9,000 miles of Canadian rivers. And he kept paddling remote rivers well into his seventies.

After getting his doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota in the mid-1960s, he began teaching college courses. This gave him the summers off to travel north to paddle remote rivers. Many years he undertake TWO such paddling trips over a summer. 

He loved maps. He owned all the topo maps of northern Canada and over the winter he would pour over them to study potential river trips. 

As an economist, he had a thing for numbers and he could easily tell you the rate of travel, the drop in a river’s elevation and then tell you how many calories we had to carry. 

He was an excellent trip leader. His skills at organizing and preparing for a trip were second to none. He studied situations and always was calm. He invited discussion when key trip decisions had to be made. 

Brian was always tinkering, sewing, experimenting and making improvements on his gear. Back in the early 1970s, Brian fabricated the first nylon canoe cover or spray skirt I had ever seen. Such a cover made it possible to remain comfortable while paddling in rain and more importantly it helped keep out splashing waves in bad weather or while running whitewater. Now they are considered essential among tripping canoeists.

I learned my skills in whitewater paddling from Brian. He was an excellent whitewater paddler and instructor. Before paddling with Brian I had never heard of a draw stroke, pry stroke, cross-draw stroke, backpaddling, bracing or doing an upstream or downstream ferry. Nor had I ever heard of lining or tracking a canoe.

Of medium build, Brian was an animal on the portages. I once offered to carry his 17-foot Mohawk canoe across a portage but he quickly said he would take it. Beefed up for rugged trips, it turns out his boat weighed in at just over 100 pounds. Brian hoisted the canoe on his shoulders and headed up the hill on the faint portage trail marked by old blaze marks on trees. 

On one northern Ontario trip, he wrapped his canoe around a boulder on a nasty piece of whitewater during flood stage. The gunwales of the canoe were made of ash and both had snapped. Given the remote setting and that it was in the early days of the trip Brian didn’t waste no time removing the splintered rails. Then he took his saw and axe and found the two properly sized alder trees.  He cut and split each of them lengthwise and with the help of his Leatherman knife he fabricated a “new” pair of gunwales that served well to finish the canoe trip.

At the end of each day, after camp was set up and supper was cooking, Brian would always call out, “Cups men!” This was the signal to grab your mug and gather for your ration of gin spiked with a tablespoon of Wylers lemonade mix for a version of “bush gin and tonic.” There was also a toast to the river.

So it seems fitting that tonight, I will enthusiastically call out, “Cups Nancy!” And we will toast Brian and his life of canoe exploration.

I Take Thee, Art, for my Wedded Wife

“The real artist’s work is a surprise to himself.” 
― Robert Henri, The Art Spirit

My wife Nancy and I have taken this period of viral siege as a gift. The quiet solitude moves us towards the meditative, focusing on the now, and impermanence. And it has nudged creativity. 

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been shooting photos of some of Nancy’s art. She thrives on creativity and directs herself to new outer limits. She has coached and led workshops on the subject. I have grown used to her occasional need to rise from the bed at 2 a.m. and carry an idea down to her work area. 

Her creativity has given us the most artsy mailbox on our dead end road. And I have never seen a steering wheel and dashboard of a car that was artistically painted until shortly after I married Nancy and she went at our Honda Civic like an unleashed Salvador Dali.

She has written and performed three one-woman shows. Each of them, The Truth about Women and Horses, When God was Fun, and Instruments of Bliss were very well received by audiences that numbered in the thousands.

And she has played major roles in several Festival Theater productions, including Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Linda Lohman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

After writing the book, Sensuous Living, she was flown to New York City for a guest appearance on the Sally Jesse Rapheal show. And last summer she wrote an illustrated a one-of-a-kind book for our granddaughter called Eleanor Visits the Yukon.

She has written music that she can sing and accompany herself on her guitar, mandolin, ukulele or fiddle. As I write this she is in the adjacent room plucking and strumming clear-noted, old tunes on her mandolin. 

Her creative courage even had her once give a solo original dance performance at St. Catherine’s University in St. Paul, MN.

So it should come as no surprise that when an appeal came to sew masks for medical personnel Nancy would turn a humane endeavor into an art project. 

As a person who loves to make art, she can never have too much art material. I sometimes accuse her of hoarding but I need to be careful because I have my own secret stashes of potential. 

It was easy for her to come up with the necessary mask material and the accompanying ties and elastic loops.

Before donating the masks, she merged all of them into a timely skirt and top, a wearable artwork entitled “Mask Skirt.”


Nancy is an organized thinker. Every day I can find a scrap of envelope or a piece of blank paper with a list of chores she plans on tending that day. Success comes in the elation of crossing off tasks from such a list. 

Rather than tossing the list into the fire or the recycle box, she saves it. I had no idea that she was secreting hundreds of these archival scraps of her history into a file. From this art material was born “Busy Skirt.”

The pleated skirt is made of accordion-folded to-do lists. The brilliance in the outfit was the faux blouse and collar made from lists. For the photo she stood in front of a wall of lists that spilled out under her feet. 

She is currently working on her third skirt and top, entitled “Handsy.” It is made up of an old leather bag fringed in our worn out work gloves supplemented with orphaned ones found during bike rides along the shoulder of roads. 

Women continue to be treated like objects and subjected to wolf whistles, calls and worse. The gloves symbolize men’s claiming of women’s bodies.

Like all art, her skirts are not for use but rather to provoke. One of the functions of art is to move the viewer to change for a safer and more sustainable society. 

So the creative spirit has been haunting our Basecamp. In turn, our seemingly cluttered home easily morphs into a center of creativity where we find ourselves wedded to wonder.   

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