Archive for May, 2020

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?”


“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.   

Eternal Goods

Early last month we made a final deposit at our local bank of firewood. The woodshed is our own version of Fort Knox and each piece of wood is a bar of gold. 

Over the winter, every other day, we pulled a sled filled with firewood from the shed to the back stoop. The cargo was carried into the porch and arranged in the old wood box that had been my great grandparents’. Over the snowy months we slowly excavated a cavern out of the woodshed.

In the annual task of refilling the firewood shelter, a piece is hefted from the pile or wheelbarrow. We quickly assess its shape, weight and length.  Then like fitting a puzzle piece, we turn to the stack and basically fit it where it will help lock the rising stack together. A row is filled only when it reaches the woodshed lean-to ceiling, roughly seven feet off the ground. 

When finished, we scribble the date, tack it up on a post. That way we can manage which sections of the sheds have the driest oak for woodburning. 

As I stacked the split oak chunks I celebrated the conclusion of that seasonal chore of “putting up wood.” I found my mind drifting to the writings of the late author, E. F. Schumacher.  He was a British advisor in economics and statistics but he is best known for his international best-selling book, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973). The book has been ranked as one of the top 100 influential books since WWII.

 In the book, Schumacher challenges the idea of Western materialism and economic exploitations. He was a pioneer in integrating the idea of sustainable development; that we must not whittle away the natural capital (clean air, water, healthy natural systems, etc.). To do so deprives future generations the benefits of those diverse and healthy systems. 

In a later book, This I Believe, he speaks of ephemeral and eternal goods. Ephemeral, or short-lived goods are “depreciating assets. ” These would include most of what we buy; household appliances, phones, computers, televisions and a gallon of gas. 

Eternal, or long-lasting goods are “never depreciated but are to be maintained.” These would include major art or natural history treasures. Eternal goods tend to enrich our lives physically, culturally and spiritually. Examples are the Statue of Liberty, and the biological integrity of Lake Superior.  

The actions of cutting, splitting, hauling ,stacking and heating with wood are part of my physical well-being and spiritual program. Each of these tasks honors my eternal goods program. 

And I can feel good that the carbon emitted from my wood fuel is carbon already in the carbon loop of the  biosphere and not pulled up from fossil fuels.

This early May morning was unseasonably nippy so we laid a fire in the kitchen stove. I sit, with coffee in hand, before the gilded warmth and am reminded of true riches.