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Aging Shacks and Aging Boys

 

With five to seven inches of snow on the ground and the wind picking up, the night seemed ill fit for man nor beast.  The beloved deer shack creaked and clattered while a quorum of five of us reconvened after making our annual pilgrimage to the piecemeal shelter.

It’s not a stretch to call our first night at the shack a homecoming. The dark aged boards that make up both the exterior and interior walls are lit by a trio of staggered candles and a lantern.  Snow falls silently outside and another chunk of firewood is tucked into the glowing maw of the stove. We pull our chairs closer to the stove. I am sure we sit in the mute company of ghosts, the shack builders and dwellers from the past. And as predictable as the current of the lively river flowing tirelessly, just down the hill, we share repeated stories of past deer hunts,  hunters, modes of getting back into the remote shack quarters and encounters with the likes of lynx, moose, wolves and even a wolverine.

Without electricity the usual distractions brought on by television images, radio blather and humming appliances are absent. And better yet, sitting among a bank of alders, roughly three miles from a paved road, there are no distant car honks or Jake braking. The noises here vary from the clatter of setting silverware, to the opening of the door on the woodburning stove, the lantern hissing or mild conversation sprinkled with chuckles that often build to a landslide of laughter.

This simple hunting shelter was built in a handful of days in early July in 1940. The builders used recycled lumber and other assorted building materials costing less than three ten-dollar bills. The temperature was hot; inspiring swarms of black flies so abundant that scores of them mired down in the morning pancake batter at the builder’s camp.

The shack still provides shelter to those who plan on staying there and even those who happen to stumble upon it. The decrepit door, hinged with arthritic rust, carries a familiar squeak when opened. And it is never locked.

Those who make the annual deer hunting trip are well versed in the oral history of this place and landscape. Only in the shack’s latter years did the historical archives include the written word.

Twenty years ago, a middle school spiral bound notebook was left behind at the shack over the annual MEA (Minnesota Education Association) two-day school break in mid-October. Four months later, a solo snowshoer kicked the snow away from the door to gain access. He stayed overnight and finding the notebook of blank pages he used it to pen in a journal entry.

Feb. 29, 1996

 Well it’s a beautiful day outside but here I am in by the fire drying off.

I decided to do a little snowshoeing today destination unknown. I snowshoed up the river and feel through the ice just down the hill from the shack. Happy that it happened near the deer shack.

 Had planned on doing some winter camping but I didn’t figure I would be staying in here drying myself. Last time I was here was in ’85. I’m just glad to see the old shack is still here and standing.

 Thanks for taking care of the old place.

 Tony

That scrawled note inspired other shack visitors, scores of them, to note their particular visit. When that notebook was full we left a second and now its pages are nearly full.

The most common thread in all the journal entries is one of gratitude. “We’re back. It’s good to be here. I’m so glad people take care of this shack.”

Some relish the isolation and quietude. “Back again for a little quiet time.” Another noted, “Glad to find the cabin clean and quiet. It’s been wonderful to come and sit around and read.”

 In the accumulation of Novembers there have been many deer tales and many clattering nights where the shack groans and a piece of roof tin clatters. The shack, like us, is showing its age

The youngest among the November pilgrims is a young fifty-four. His father was one of the builders of the shack. Behind the fifty-four year old, there are no children. No camp followers.

Sitting around the fire on the last night of our stay, we broach the subject of extended care for the shack. The roof is in need of attention. Without the integrity of a proper roof, the elements of nature will ultimately cripple and fall the shack.

Nels, the most veteran of current shack dwellers, asked the question none of us want to face, “Well maybe we just let the shack die a natural death. With no one really following us, who will take care of it in years to come?”

No one disagreed and we pondered while the stove, in its frolicking fire noise, seemed to say, “Oh come on! I’ve got a lot of years left in me!”

More discussion followed and then we found renewed energy and smiled when someone said we should start a shack improvement campaign and call it, “Make the Shack Great Again.” We all agreed that our revised campaign slogan would likely be more successful than the original promise.

So just like that we came to a conclusion. We would take a few months to seek out and squirrel away the necessary steel sheets and 2x4s to give the shack a new roof. A decision was made to reconvene early next fall, two months prior to the deer hunt, to perform the makeover.

I think we ultimately made our decision based on optimism, not only for the shack, but also for ourselves. Here, where boreal forest and shack commingle, time stands still and the silence demands introspection of things greater than our sum.

We cannot ignore the health of this historic hovel. It has given us so much. Here, up at the shack, in the quiet fir-scented air where an opening decrepit door squeals a welcome every time we arrive, here, we become boys again.

It’s only right that we make the shack great again.

So with a plan in place, we blew out the candles and climbed into the bunks for the night. I like to think a host of smiling and nodding ghosts remained sitting around the stove’s banked fire.

Homeland Potatoes

 

 

When all things spoke the potato said,

‘set me warm, dig me warm, eat me warm that’s all I want.’

-Irish proverb

 

 I must grow potatoes.

It’s no different from my need for eating, sleeping, reading books and poking around in wild places. Potatoes run deep in my lineage.

For generations my Scandinavian ancestors grew potatoes in Sweden. As a boy, my great grandfather Eric arrived in Minnesota, having left his poverty stricken province of Småland in Sweden.

The family eventually settled in east-central Minnesota among other Scandinavian and German farmers. Here the well-drained, sandy soil was perfect for growing potatoes. It was the potato that grew my great grandfather’s farm here on the Anoka sand plain.

I am the fifth generation of my family to plant potatoes on this piece of land. I am compelled to tuck several pounds of cut potato seed into the ground every spring. I pat the soil over each earth-cradled piece of spud and silently urge it to greatness. I don’t grow potatoes by the acre like my ancestors did, but I still plant them.

The potato is an alien in Sweden and the United States. This starchy vegetable, a native of the Andes Mountains in South America, was shipped to Portugal in 1567. Up to that point the Inca Indians had cultivated it for 10,000 years.

Potatoes first arrived in Sweden around 1655. It took almost a hundred years before Jonas Alströmer, a pioneer in agriculture and industry, started testing the plant on his farm near Alingsås, prompting Swedish farmers to plant potatoes.

Great Grandpa Eric was known for his hard work ethic. The demand for potatoes was growing along with the human population. Consequently he converted acres of his wooded lands to farmland using dynamite and his team of three workhorses to clear stubborn stumps.

I wish there was a record of the number of wagonloads of potatoes that Great Grandpa Eric steered seven miles to one of the five starch factories in North Branch, Minnesota. In those years North Branch bragged that it was the “Potato Capital of the World.

Those annual heaps of potatoes made it possible for my great grandfather to buy his first automobile, a black 1915 Buick. Decades ago, an old hired hand of Eric’s told me that Eric’s car was the first auto in the township.

A few years after the Buick, the potato harvest yielded a new gas generator in his barn. Now he could milk cows under shining light bulbs. Then he strung wires from the barn, across the gravel road, to the big farmhouse, allowing the flow of electricity to turn night into day. This was the first electrical hook-up in the township.

His son, my grandfather, grew potatoes, but he also diversified as the sandy soil became more nutrient depleted and the potato harvest dwindled. His son, my father, won a medal for his potatoes at the Minnesota State Fair.

My potato growing efforts have not earned me any medals, recognition or new cars, but it has brought me an annual dose of humility.

My yearly harvest has often been compromised by seasonal battles with pocket gophers that also find the firm white flesh of the spud delicious. For the time being I am keeping their incisors at bay by growing the spuds in deep raised beds with a bottom of galvanized wire mesh to prevent tunneling raids.

But mostly I am humbled by the privilege to work a piece of land that our family has intimately known for over a century.

Every fall, I drop to my knees on this home place ground and push my fingers into the sandy soil beneath the collapsed and withered summer stem of the parent potato plant. Like a fallen flag of surrender, it shows me where to dig and blindly probe. Each carefully excavated potato is like a gift and results in a slight jolt of joy.

Satisfied that I have found all the spuds under the hill that I mounded last June, I crawl to the next hill, a measured length of my forearm from the first. Again and again, like a magician, I pull potatoes out of the ground and set them to the side to air dry.

In good years, there is a trail of potatoes like a lumpy pearl necklace delineating my harvest crawl. I linger on soiled knees to remind myself of the privilege of growing spuds here. I understand more completely that both the potato and I are of the earth.

Later, I gather them in a bent wire basket that was used by Great Grandpa Eric. I hold a potato in my grubby hand. Thin crescents of dirt under my fingernails and a heavy old basket are testimony of a job well done.

And now, I must eat potatoes.

Gross. . . Or not

I spied a dead deer lying along the edge of the gravel road when I walked out to the mailbox.

The glazed eyes and bloated belly signaled that this deer had been killed too long ago for me to salvage some meat. However, the twenty-four hours it had been lying there had ripened it perfectly for the first scavengers.

When an animal dies, the march of decomposition begins immediately. Without breathing there is no cycling of oxygen and the wastes of carbon dioxide. Consequently, cells rupture and flesh-eating enzymes bloat the belly.

The rich bouquet of gases causes the dead animal to nearly double in size. Within 24 hours of death, during warm months, a host of odorous gases including “cadaverine” and “putrescine” begin to rise from the swollen carcass. Air currents quickly disseminate them.

For turkey vultures, the advance squad of the carrion corps, putrid exhalations of death are a silent dinner bell. The turkey vulture is equipped with an oversized olfactory bulb nestled next to the brain. Of the thousands of bird species on the planet, turkey vultures bear one of the largest sensory organs for smelling.

Flying low over the countryside, effortlessly riding thermals of swirling air with wide swept wings, the vulture can detect whiffs of gases from up to a mile from the dead.

Vultures lazily wheel overhead peering down to locate the point of death. Other vultures in the area visually hone in on the scavenging swirl and they in turn create a tall living billboard-of-sorts that attracts the attention of other scavengers. Crows, ravens, jays and eagles know that a slow tornado of soaring vultures means food is at hand.

The following day, day two since the deer collision, I was driving home from fetching groceries. When I turned down our road, I could see all kinds of activity a quarter of a mile ahead of me, where the dead fawn lay.

Six turkey vultures, two mature bald eagles with white heads gleaming, a pair of ravens and a murder of two-dozen crows, scavengers all, gathered at the death scene. I marveled at how the twisted fawn could give a clarion call for feasting.

I pulled into our driveway without disturbing the feeding frenzy. I tossed the bag of groceries on the counter, coaxed Nancy to grab her binoculars and to follow me. We eased our way into the brushy treeline that partially screened us and peered at the assemblage of seamy scavengers.

Even though we were sneaky, the crows and ravens busted us. These wary scouts got up and winged away. Their departure caused the eagles to fly off and the vultures to look up, but the vultures continued to surround the dead like mourners paying their last respects. In fact a group of vultures is aptly referred to as a “wake.”

Two of the vultures stood near the dead deer with black wings spread wide, as if ready to embrace something. In the chill of the morning they were spreading their wings to better absorb the warmth of the sun. During the night roost their body temperature drops so they need this thermoregulation trick.

One vulture walked on top of the stilled fawn, paused, and dipped its naked head into the corpse. The featherless vulture head keeps blood and bits of flesh from sticking. It’s an adaptation to keep clean.

A couple of minutes passed and an immature bald eagle glided in and landed near the deer. It hopped to the carcass. The vultures, being lower on the pecking order, sulked away from the banquet. The eagle is an important visitor as it has a sharp, curved beak to tear into the flesh. The vultures and crows are not so handily equipped and take advantage of the eagle’s skill at tearing the deer hide open.

The next day, death’s day three, I hurried out to peek at the carnage to see who was there. One eagle and a handful of crows watched from nearby. I never did see any more vultures. They prefer meat not so rotted.

Curious, I walked over to take a closer look. Some mammalian scavengers, likely coyotes or raccoons, had fed on the fawn in the night. The carcass had been moved several feet and was more skeletonized and twisted. Shiny blue and green bottle flies flew about the carcass while others crawled around the exposed flesh.

Gravid female flies were leaving batches of 150 or more eggs on the putrid flesh. These eggs hatch in less than a day and the maggots will have readily available food.

I didn’t get out to investigate the deer the next day, but did stroll out on the fifth day since the fatal collision. I found a flow of writhing life spewing from the fawn’s frozen final gasp. Resembling swollen rice grains, the tireless larvae whittled the carcass away.

While a seething mass of maggots in rotting flesh might seem repulsive, maggots’ hunger for the fetid aids human medicine. Through history, the newly hatched, germ-free maggots were often applied to clean out wounds and combat gangrene. In the 21st century the demand for medical maggots has increased 25 to 50% annually.

I stood mesmerized by the sheer numbers of maggots and their perpetual motion. The melting carcass was a far cry from the bouncing fawn I had spied in the adjacent soybean field only a week prior.

With the corps of corpse-eaters erasing the fawn while recycling nutrients into the biosphere, I could only salute them all and offer a hearty “Carry on!”

Perhaps the more apt cry of encouragement would be “Carrion!”

 

(Abundant thanks to Joe Sausen for use of the turkey vulture and eagle image!)

In the Company of a Star

 

I love putting myself into wild arenas where I am forced to pay attention. The adrenaline surge I feel while easing a canoe into the slick drop of a rowdy rapids or scrambling up a ragged peak fuels my aliveness.

Today I wanted a gentler dose of awareness. I packed a water bottle, journal, camera and folding camp chair in my daypack. After a ten-minute walk I stopped in front of a single plant in a sea of diverse prairie flora.

I had chosen a solo blue wand of my favorite prairie flower, a blazing star. I’m not alone in my fondness for this late summer bloom. The blue color combined with the essence of the blossom’s nectar hails many pollinating insects to pause on the flower for nourishment.

There are five species of blazing star in Minnesota and they are not created equal in their ability to attract butterflies. The monarch butterfly, in particular, considers the northern plains blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis) the champagne of flowers. It is not unusual to see a number of monarchs clambering over one of these flower stalks to feed.

I settled comfortably into my small chair, with my back to the sun, no more than three feet from the blazing star. Admittedly I could have parked myself on the ground and been less conspicuous but as a good friend used to say, “Any fool can be uncomfortable.”

In mere seconds a pair of copulating soldier beetles, also known as Pennsylvania leatherwings shuffled into view from the backside of the flower stalk. Both sexes look similar with orange and black colors on their wing covers. At first glance the ponderous shuffler looked to be one big beetle but closer scrutiny revealed that the male was on top of the female. The duo sidled into view like a pair of shy exhibitionists.

I did not avert my gaze but instead leaned in for a closer look. Does this make me guilty of flagrant voyeurism as I watched them move tortoiselike up the vertical boudoir of blue?

Minutes passed, then a half hour. I was impressed with their skills of lovemaking. A movement just above the beetle lovers caught my eye. A brown and orange Peck’s skipper butterfly landed momentarily and then flittered back into air before alighting closer to the intimate beetle pair. Was this arthropod equally guilty of sexual spying?

The Peck’s skipper is one of many species of skipper butterflies. Skippers are all relatively small, a quarter the size of a monarch or less. They do not flitter buoyantly. Instead they hurry to and fro and tumble as if they do not want to be seen. If you look closely you will see the unique club-shaped antennae that resemble a pair of crochet hooks.

The Peck’s skipper is named after William Peck, Harvard’s first natural history professor in 1805. The small stocky-bodied butterfly is common in grasslands and gardens.

Like most skippers, it did not alight with its wings spread out. Instead, it held its wings upright like a small sail above its back. Consequently I was viewing the underside of the hindwing. Both sexes have large yellow spots in the center surrounded by dark brown.

This skipper was likely a male, as they typically alight on a perch at midday to survey the area for the appearance of a female. In other words, he was cruising.

I didn’t get to study the little skipper very long as it suddenly dropped from the blazing star and fluttered into some nearby grasses. Had he seen a female rustling nearby?

Unflustered by the skipper and me, the pair of soldier beetles continued their lazy coupling.

Minutes passed. Soon a similar skipper landed on the blazing star. Was this the same male or a different one? It soon tumbled off while the soldier beetles practiced connectivity.

I sat for two hours observing the comings and goings at the blazing star.

My water bottle was empty and I was getting warm. If I were to take a lesson from this prairie sit it seemed I had two options. One, the skipper model, would be to tumble away. The other, the way of the beetles, would be to amble back to the house and share my learnings with Nancy.

And who knows what might come next?

The Charge of the Loosestrife Brigade

 

 

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the marsh of Death

Waded the three

Forward the Loosestrife Brigade

Charge for the purple he said

Into the waters of Death

Waded the grim-faced three*

 

Our squad slipped into the swamp. Cattails, alders and other vegetation screened us from our objective. We slogged through the tangled morass and shin-to-waist deep water. We placed boards ahead of us to make it easier to walk without sinking too deeply in the boggy ground. It was like a short slow conveyor belt across a giant waterbed. Lay down a board. Shuffle a few steps across. Drop a second board, reach into the muck and retrieve the first board and repeat. And repeat.

For three Augusts we have gathered at this swamp to make our assault. This year we had increased our forces by a full third so now we were a trio. Our targets were the formidable and invasive plants labeled purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).

Like my own ancestors, the first purple loosestrife seeds came across the Atlantic Ocean to North America in the 1800s. No one knows if the seeds were brought intentionally as an ornamental plant or accidentally such as in the wool of sheep or in the ballast of a ship. Once the seeds landed on the east coast they began to creep from wetland to wetland across the continent.

Ferociously fecund, a single spike of loosestrife flowers can produce up to three million tiny seeds. Their viability is equally tenacious, with nearly 100% germination. To advance across the landscape, the small seeds can disperse in the wind or cling to the legs of water birds or hulls of boats. Most experts believe the spread of purple loosestrife and nearly all the harm done to natural habitats by invasive species has come at the hand of arguably most invasive species of all: humans.

In our desire to control landscapes, humans have cut, burned, hoed, plowed, and planted vast acreages or small garden plots with plants of our choosing. The tall spike of pink-purple loosestrife has been cultivated in gardens for years. Most infestations into the wild are the result of garden escaped loosestrife. Domesticated cultivars can successfully cross with the wild variety of loosestrife.

Without any natural predators or diseases, this foreign exotic can overtake a wetland and snuff out existing, native non-woody vegetation. Dominant stands of purple loosestrife can radically decrease the biodiversity of wetlands and affect everything from wildlife usage to nutrient cycling. Ecologists fear that many impacts of loosestrife infestations are still unknown.

Spying the six-to-eight foot spires of purple, we forged forward. Hand-to-stem combat got ugly as we struggled to pull the plant from its tight grip in the marsh. Loosestrife is exceedingly stubborn to pull out, and to assure yourself of complete victory you must extract the fibrous root system. Most of the time we could not.

To prevent this year’s seed crop from sending out tens of millions of seeds, we mostly used hand shears to cut through the tough woody stems. We had to be satisfied with this partial victory. We rolled up dismembered plants and tucked them into garbage bags that we dragged behind us. In short order the tough stems poked through the bags and soon we were pulling bags weighted with plants and water.

We didn’t use chemicals to kill the loosestrife because we were in a wetland and we didn’t want to endanger innocent vegetation and other life.

In the 1990s two species of European beetles were introduced in Minnesota as a bio-control to deal with the loosestrife. It worked. The adult and larvae of one of the species eats the leaves and flowers and another species bores into the roots, killing the plants. The beetles have greatly reduced invasions over several years as large swaths of loosestrife were killed.

In recent years there has been a comeback of loosestrife; hence our brigade’s effort to control it before it gets too thick to handle.

Gritting our teeth, with sweat running down our faces, we wrestled with tough stems. The towering plants were not silent. Scores of bees hurried from flower spike to flower spike. The aromatic nectar attracts these insects to unknowingly help complete the miracle of pollination and plant dispersal.

We were never stung as the bees simply moved to another clump of purple. As I sloshed to the next target, I felt the angst of eliminating the foodstuffs of bees and butterflies. In recent years, pollinating insects have seen frightful decreases in their populations mostly due to modern agricultural practices that include floods of herbicides and pesticides.

I justified my lording over loosestrife in the name of biodiversity. Without biodiversity, natural systems that sustain the world, including humans, collapse.

After five hours of battle we pulled six stuffed bags of mutilated remains out of the marsh. We dragged the bags to the road and heaved them into the bed of a waiting truck. They were going to be hauled away and burned, thus terminating all potential of rising to purpledom.

When can their glory fade? 

O the wild charge they made! 

All the world wonder’d. 

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

Noble the grim-faced three!*

 

*I like to think that Alfred Lord Tennyson would smile in my reformatting his classic 1854 poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.

 

 

Perseverance Overture No. 2

 

“Only when I experience something do I compose, and only when composing do I experience anything.”

Gustav Mahler, Austrian composer 

 

Over a lifetime of canoeing into wild places, I’ve known my share of portages.

Portaging requires unloading packs and gear from a canoe and carrying them overland to another body of water then stowing them again in the canoe. The carry-over can be short or it can run for miles. The longest portage I’ve made was a three-mile carry around Kasmere Falls in northern Manitoba while the shortest is literally a handful of steps. Sometimes, like in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the trails are well worn. In more remote areas, you might find an old hatcheted blaze on a tree that marks a seldom-used portage route. In really remote areas you literally tread your own trail.

Portaging doesn’t get any easier as I age. But with the accumulation of experience I have learned how to cope with the exercise. While fitness and perseverance are handy traits, sometimes you need to use your brain.

Earlier this summer four of us faced a mile and a quarter portage in northern Saskatchewan. It wasn’t a new experience for us since we had made this very portage about ten days earlier. Knowing we had to deal with the carry a second time had me strategizing for a diversion. How could I mask the physical discomforts of the effort?

My strategy was simple. I would shroud the task with an exercise in creativity. The resulting release of painkilling endorphins would blot out any potential pain. I decided to compose a live classical music piece.

I’ve never written music in my life. Birthing an original tune would require sharp focus and increase the odds of successfully masking pain and fatigue. The result was not a well thought out score but rather an improvised collaboration.

Instead of lifting a conductor’s baton, I flipped the canoe upside down onto my shoulders, shrugged it into its comfortable berth and stepped boldly towards my composition.

After fifty foot-sucking steps into a bog, the first inspiration for my symphony descended on me. I love classical pieces that open with only the notes of strings. Mine opened with the sound of wings. Mosquitoes joined in a most energetic chorus as they bounced around my head underneath the canoe canopy.

My wife is an accomplished violinist and fiddler. But never has she been able to reach the high pitches of the genus Aedes. On this overcast day, these female mosquitoes would aptly provide my ostinato in the score. Derived from the Italian word meaning “stubborn” this phrase is persistent with the melody delivered at the same pitch.

How perfect for me to co-create with these spritely musical blood-letters. There was no doubt as to how my symphony must unfold. I had to walk fast to escape the onslaught. This was the perfect place to insert a spirited allegro, a brisk and lively tempo, into my score.

Collectively, mosquitoes’ passionate peals have the power to make grown men weep. And even a single mosquito solo can snap you out of a deep sleep. Now that is pure inspiration.

I tried in vain to step onto hummocks or clumps of leather-leaf bushes but soon my feet were soaked in the muck. There was a tympanic rhythm to the squelching percussion as I pulled each foot from the peaty mire.

With a surprising flourish, a duo of lesser yellowlegs hammered out a string of flat “tu-tu-tu” whistles. The alarm calls of this boreal shorebird added a much-needed fanfare to my piece. I tipped the front of the canoe slightly skyward so I could watch the pair of birds alighting on the tips of black spruce trees. As they fluttered to balance on their perches, I could imagine them dancing in time to the score. They flew from tree to tree, upset at my intrusion into their bog where they probably have their ground nest.

Their musical contribution is nothing compared to their physical efforts during their migration. Amazingly, this year’s young will depart for Central and South America after the adults leave, yet will still find their way to the tropical coastal regions.

As the trail left the wetland, it rose gently upwards. Passing through a screen of alders I encountered birch and aspen trees. The wind rustled the leaves, adding a gentle patter to my composition. My own breathing provided an underlying beat.

I interrupted the rhythm of my piece with a couple syncopated steps to avoid two piles of bear scat.

Soon I crested the slight rise and began heading downslope. At this point there was a poignant shift in energy. The descent to the next lake was quiet. Surrounded by a blackened landscape of burned spruce and jack pine, I felt that my piece had become a dirge.

In the flooded last stretch of the trail, my footsteps splashed like the clashing of cymbals. Finally, I stopped at the lake’s edge and rolled the canoe off my shoulders. I released a sigh. The conductor’s baton was lowered.

Finis.

Perfecto.

Windbound

 

“No man knows the ways of the wind and the caribou.”

Chipewayan proverb

 

Sixty miles into a planned 180-mile canoe trip in northern Saskatchewan, the world told us to stop.

So we stopped. And for three days a tireless headwind buffeted the boreal waters of Reindeer Lake making any paddling progress nearly impossible and dangerous.

The thousands of islands, bays and coves on this frigid giant lake, Canada’s ninth largest, could not offer respite from wide-open crossings. This is a lake more than 100 times larger than Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota.

During the first two days my three buddies and I found our paddling muscles with a south wind nudging us north. Life was good. Of course life was good; we are privileged to have the opportunity, the means, the time and the resources to make annual forays into wilderness areas.

Luckily, the day before the wind showed up we had found our best campsite of the trip. It was a sunny, somewhat open site and even though it was midday, we decided to stop early to relish some time off from paddling. We aired out sleeping bags in the sun and dug shorts out of our packs to enjoy this perfect summer day. The sunset that put us to bed that night had been stunning on a lake so still that the sky and water seemed to merge.

While we slept a wind began to whisper. By morning it had grown into an unadulterated blow.

We donned stocking caps and long johns and gathered around the coffee pot. We were going nowhere on this day. Even the offshore gulls were absent. They usually followed us like groupies with hopes of snagging the remains of fish that we filleted.

A tickling of raindrops urged us to put up the large tarp and we gathered there to wait for the wind to die. In minutes the lake surface erupted as the slow moving rain front deluged us. We read, sipped coffee and napped.

While it is easy to get frustrated with the anchoring wind, I realized that a lake frothing with whitecaps is a gift. It’s very elemental to be still in a remote and wild place. Here I am humbled, a Paleolithic participant in humans’ first religion of worshipping the natural world. Yet I am simultaneously a 21st century civilized man of culture and arts. The wilderness gives me a needed dose of balance.

The second day broke and while the rain had stopped, the wind had not tired. Now we absolutely knew that we had to be smart about continuing with our planned route. If the winds were bad here we could only imagine how wild they must be on the bigger water that was ahead of us. With water temps in the low 50s any swamping out in the lake would be life threatening. So we shifted gears and created a safer and easier plan that would still offer new country to explore.

Day three came and we were still held hostage by the wind. I fattened my journal entries with more paragraphs. Doug finished his book and traded it for mine. I collected some flowers for my plant press and got down close and personal to peer into the colorful world of lichens. Kurt simply stared faraway while inhaling full breaths of the unfettered wind carrying essences of pure boreal nectar. I foraged near camp for the new growth of light green spruce tips. Duane fired up the stove and steeped them in hot water for a fresh tea that had hints of citrus and was rich in vitamin C. We had abundant time for tea and storytelling.

I told the guys about a 1986 high arctic canoe trip on Victoria Island in the Canadian Archipelago. Located just north of North America, there are no trees growing there and in summer, no darkness. Much of the vast wild land is covered in frost-shattered shards of limestone with only patches of stoic greenery.

I recalled a long, rugged day that ended with us unloading the canoes and hauling our gear up a rocky slope to make camp. Carl, a tall, big man was worn out. He dropped his bulging pack to the ground. He looked around, raised his arms and smiled a weary grin before he made a pronouncement: “Here we are, learned men, men of culture. Rising at dawn. Paddling miles through a barren landscape. Running dangerous rapids in ice cold water and nearly being swept over a falls. Only to arrive here, to sleep on rocks!” Now over thirty years later, the story still gets a chuckle.

We shared more stories. We spoke of aging and gratitude. Being windbound had us being more introspective and we more easily settled into ourselves.

On the fourth day we rose early and the gale had broken. It was time to go. We dismantled our familiar camp, had a quick cold breakfast of granola and pushed off to continue the dance with wind and water.

Dawn Awakening

At this time of the year I often tuck my pillow directly on the sill of an open window next to my bed. While lying down I can easily position my head next to the window screen. The advantage is that while sleeping in the comfort of my bed I enjoy the fresh air benefits of camping outside. The disadvantages are the loud exclamations of the neighbors.

Earlier this week as the morning light washed over the treetops, I opened my eyes at “crane o’clock.” Rather than a rude buzz or radio blather waking me, a pair of sandhill cranes were trumpeting, bugling and rattling from a nearby hayfield. Their raucous wildings had me wondering if I had awakened in a Paleozoic jungle.

I am reminded of Aldo Leopold’s description of sandhill cranes. Leopold is author of Sand County Almanac (which incidentally should be required reading by all Americans): “When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”

The morning following the crane reveille, a male robin blasted his song from the canopy of oak branches just a few feet from my second story windowsill nest. And “robin o’clock” is definitely earlier than “crane o’clock. How can I get angry when this common member of the melodic thrush family initiates the dawn chorus?

Now consider how most folks wake up in the morning. An alarm clock startles them awake from a deep sleep. It’s no surprise we use the word “alarm,” for the way it accelerates our physical self out of restful sleep. The damn thing is alarming.

When we are abruptly awakened, our brain accelerates our heart rate. We experience the flight-and-flee response. Following the rude awakening we often experience a period of wallowing grogginess before we are fully awake. Sleep experts refer to this response as sleep inertia. Even with a shower and a cup of coffee, it can take several hours to fully awaken.

Many sleep experts feel that people who use a regular alarm clock have an 89% chance of sleep inertia.

Compared to our ancestors, who went to bed when it got dark, modern humans have developed poor sleep patterns. Television, computers and cell phones rob us of quality sleep. The blue light emitted from these devices halts the natural release of melatonin, an important hormone regulating our sleep cycle.

To awaken naturally we would rely on our circadian rhythm, the internal system that responds to intervals of light and dark. It regulates cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals.

Few of us honor our natural circadian rhythms. For a majority of folks this would require going to bed soon after it gets dark outside, and awakening naturally as the day dawns. Waking up naturally to the dawn’s light and a pair of cranes or a singing robin is best for my health.

On the third morning I woke up at “swan o’clock.” A pair of trumpeter swans passed directly overhead calling their deep “oh. . . Oh” calls.

The swan’s deep notes remind me of a meditator’s “ohmmm.” There is evidence that the vibration and rhythmic droning slows the human nervous system and calms the mind.

Now get to bed. Shut off all electrical screens and don’t forget to open the window. And I dare you to unplug the alarm clock.

Wanted: A Lawn Revolution

I just finished mowing the lawn. I find it a mindless and boring job. Through the years Nancy and I have intentionally reduced the monotony of our lawn and let the wild and diverse woods slowly reclaim what was once its own. What used to take an hour now takes just over 38 minutes.

Decades ago I gave up the silly notion of fertilizing the grass each spring. Why in the world would I want it to grow faster? And on top of that, why add a host of poisonous weedkillers that sicken far more species than the target weeds. Such a practice sounds like a potential sequel to the comedy Dumb and Dumber.

Lawn mowing is a thief of valuable summer time. I could be using that time to embrace meaningful activities in my life like cycling, watching birds, fishing, or reading a book while lazing the summer hours in a hammock with a cold beer at my side.

The growl of gas-powered mowing assaults and batters my hearing. Its stink washes into my olfactory system. And it releases more carbon in one hour than my car does in 40 hours of running. It’s all a choice.

So why is it that 80% of all Americans have a manicured lawn? Pooled together, these “Made in the USA lawns” equals 40 million acres. That translates to more than 50,000 square miles or an area larger than Pennsylvania!

Some landscape architects believe that our infatuation of lawns come from our desire to attain status. Status often can be shown by appearance. In the 16th century, French and English aristocracyl kept lawns so guards could have clear sight lines for potential hostile invaders. They also used them for recreation such as playing  croquet.

The love of lawns was an immigrant product and came to North America by those who could afford such a luxury. By the end of the American Civil War lawns were becoming the norm.

A controlled lawnscape came to be considered a thing of perfection. From the perception of many, the natural world is a “mess.” We like to control things and that means controlling the march of the natural world into our living area.

Over the past couple of years I am noting more and more rural ditches being mowed by the adjacent landowners. I’m sure County Commissioners are smiling in glee as this means the local jurisdiction is not spending taxpayer money on their roadside maintenance budget. However, the loss is severe for bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects as well as for roadside nesting birds like pheasants and many songbirds.

Accompanying our gas-powered mower in the garage is a quiet reel push mower. It requires our muscles rather than a combustible engine. Admittedly, I threw in the towel on using the non-gas reel mower. Moles have created an undulating surface with their serpentine upraised tunnels that makes pushing more difficult. I harbor no animosity for moles. They love worms and insects and are unaware of yard boundaries so I deem them innocent of wrong-doing.

To keep lawns looking  homogenous requires a drug-pusher’s tenacity. Homeowners with mono-lawns are encouraged and brainwashed to purchase what I call “lawn drugs.” Every year, Americans spread more toxic pesticides and herbicides on lawns than farmland. It’s true. Nearly 200 million pounds of herbicides and pesticides are used on lawns alone. According to the EPA, approximately 100 million pounds of glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient are applied to our nation’s lands each year.

Monsanto’s product Roundup has been touted as a safe weed killer to conveniently spot spray on evil floral insurgents like dandelions and creeping charlie. Now we are learning that the supposedly inert ingredients in Roundup “might cause pregnancy problems by interfering with hormone production, possibly leading to abnormal fetal development, low birth weights or miscarriages.” (Scientific American, 2009)

Roundup is so effective at killing weeds that it has decimated milkweed abundance, which has resulted in a crippling crash in the monarch butterfly population in the last twenty years by nearly 90 percent.

Businesses that depend on our hamster-wheel- chase of the perfect lawn often define the natural world as bushy, weedy, tangly, scruffy and even spooky. This is the place that evil mosquitoes and ticks might be amassing to rush your home. It is the job of herbicide and pesticide companies, as well as those that manufacture lawn mowers, to make you feel insecure about your yard.

The profits of lawn products are tied directly to keeping the message of fear and insecurity in front of your face. Not surprising, these messages of doing battle with dandelions, creeping charlie and other so-called noxious weeds air more frequently in May and June. In my world these “undesirables” add diversity and color into my lawn. Bumblebees seem drunkenly giddy as they lob into nectar-rich patches of purple creeping charlie. Dandelions are visited by pollinating insects and Nancy and me. This time of the year there is no need to buy salad greens. We have all we want only steps away from our back stoop.

The other day, I processed a jar full of delicious dandelion pesto. And we are drying creeping charlie for a minty tea. All this is free organic food. I would never collect these foods in an area that has been sprayed.

I would argue that the manicured lawn is a greater threat to our collective well-being. Biodiversity loss can even affect important (free) ecosystem services, such as removal of carbon dioxide (CO2) and pollination services.  More biodiverse ecosystems can uptake more CO2, a greenhouse gas, than ecosystems with less species diversity. (Source: Research paper published in Nature, 2001 by Reich et al.)

 

What are the alternatives?

•Mow less often or not at all.

•Save money by avoiding pesticides and herbicides. Poisons have a way of making their way into our waters and potentially into our bodies.

• Plant a diverse prairie or wild flower, pollinator-friendly garden. There are even shade loving sedges that look like grasses and they never get tall so there is no need to mow.

•Plant native and diverse plants along lakes and wetland to create a filter strip that helps retard contaminants from entering the water. The strip acts like a buffer and creates a natural shoreline.

Time for some of that pesto, chips and a cold beer.

Surf’s Up Dude!

Let’s go surfin’ now

Everybody’s learning how

Come on safari with me

-Beach Boys

 

 An ocean wave is a beautiful thing. Each travelling swell, born from wind energy, orbits quietly like a wheel in the water until it rolls into a reef or shoreline. Then it finds its voice and becomes either a loud surging and foaming cascade of rhythmic poundings or a more gentle series of “ssshhhhhs.”

Each wave becomes an ephemeral ocean summit. These fluid peaks break the monotony of a flat oceanic plain giving dance to the water that holds our gaze like a flickering campfire.

Waves are transformers. Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagen said, “You wonder what on Earth the waves might bring – and where the sea might deposit you – until one day you know you have lived between two places, the scene of arrival and the point of departure.”

Like a pulsing beast, waves can transform stones to pebbles to grains and grains to beach. They can carry tiny seeds and heavy seeds, like coconuts, hundreds, if not thousands of miles. And somewhere in the history of oceans, a human learned that there is joy in riding a wave.

Ever since I was a teen and heard the Beach Boys singing Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA, I have fantasized about catching a wave and  the adoring gazes of scores of bikini-clad, tanned young women as I casually ride my board down into the tunnel of a massive, breaking wave.

Decades have put me beyond the bronzed, sun-bleached blonde hair and trimly muscled body idea. Nonetheless, I recently fulfilled part of that dream and finally had a surfing lesson. It seemed fitting that my wave riding session would be on the very day, at the very location of the 9th Annual International Women’s Surfing Cup on Siargao Island one of the 7,000 plus islands in the Philippines. There were lots of attractive young women on location.

The competitors would be carving 180°s and 360°s on a famous reef breaking set of waves called “Cloud 9.” These waves are ranked as the 7th best surfing waves in the world. I was feeling trepidation that my first-ever surf lesson would be within sight of the competitors, the spectators and the lenses of photo drones zipping over the water like scavenging gulls.

Confidently, I followed, Darwin, my young Filipino instructor as we headed to a strip of beach a quarter mile north of Cloud 9. As we walked I was tempted to speak like a surfer. After all I had picked up a ragged old surfing magazine at our accommodations and picked up some lingo. I could have said, “Hey Darwin, looks like the surf is going off today. Sure hope I can keep the grubbing down.” Translation: The surf is really good. I hope I don’t fall off my surf board too much. However, I suspect Darwin would have seen through the charade as I gingerly walked over the stones and old coral in trying to keep up with him. And it was likely that the smeared gobs of sun-screen clinging to parts of my face like misguided patches of toothpaste might have pointed at my rookie status.

I was feeling both nervous and amped to ride the “ankle busters”or lesser waves of a nearby set of waves.

Before we hit the water, Darwin set the board on the beach, digging a small hole in the sand to accommodate the single blade of the rudder. He had me lay on my belly on the grounded surf board and pseudo-paddle both arms, like a pair of windmills, as if catching a surging wave. Then I had to quickly scramble to my feet just as the wave begins to crest. I stood up, crouching, with my left foot, three-feet or so, in front of my right foot. I stretched one arm out in front of me with the other reaching out behind me for better balance. It was the classic surfing pose.  Darwin was pleased with my quick dryland progress and we took off for a walk through the coconut trees to the beach. I was wondering if I might be a surfing prodigy.

Wading out to the reef, where the curling waves pushed a few other surfing pupils, was a slow process with the coral punishing my bare feet. Darwin’s seasoned surfing feet moved steadily through the water.  Before long he signaled me to lie on the board and he towed me, like a parent pulling a child in a wagon, out to the waves.

Turning my board to face the shore, Darwin kept looking over his shoulder for the approach of a wave I could hitch a ride on.In his broken English, I heard him eagerly say, “Get ready!” A few seconds passed and he yelled, “Paddle! Paddle!”

I conjured my inner Michael Phelps butterfly stroke and paddled like hell. In barely a moment, Darwin was yelling, “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up!

This is where the fantasy of slicing down a wave fell apart. I had barely managed to get my feet under me, almost like a football lineman ready at the line of scrimmage, when I was tossed like a puny piece of pallid flotsam.

After my fourth attempt to cleanly stand up and breath in fresh ocean air rather than fresh and salty water, I thought of the advice I had read from world champion surfing champion, Kelly Slater. Known by many as the greatest surfer ever, having won the world championships eleven times, Slater said, “A wave isn’t like a skate ramp or mountain; everything’s moving around you and you have to time how to move along with it. That’s easier with a slow wave.”

Clearly, Darwin should have started me on slower waves and offered me a board with training wheels or outriggers.

Let’s just say that my outing did not resemble my surfing fantasy. For the next hour, I repeatedly paddled myself back out to Darwin while experiencing some spectacular and some not-so-spectacular wipe-outs. I grubbed repeatedly and did it well. Once I actually managed to sort of get to my feet, looking more like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I cruised contortedly for perhaps twenty feet before I ate it into the salty washing machine. I was thankful I was shackled to the surf board by a leash that was velcroed to my ankle, keeping my board close at hand.

Finally the lesson was blessedly finished. I was spent. Slowly we walked to shore. Darwin, politely slowed down to walk at my side. Only then did he ask my age.

“I’ll be 66 this summer.”

Looking surprised, he said, I did very well for someone my age on their first lesson. I think he was mining a tip when he followed up with a confidence builder.

“You look like you are only 50. No way 65!”

Though my sinuses were filled, and my shoulders felt like pudding,  I felt a slight bolstering of my waterlogged ego and I managed a tired smile.

I was, after all, a surfer.

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