Portals to the Right Side



Admittedly there have been moments in the past few years where one might argue that I have had too much spare time. There are instances, often in the middle of a writing project or some other responsible task, when I suddenly feel overwhelmed by the need to break away and create some whimsical art.  The project is usually fully spontaneous and rolls freely right off my right brain.

Born in the Midwest with primarily a Scandinavian lineage, I am cursed and blessed with a strong work ethic. Some days I forget to eat lunch and other days I am so burned out that I am poor company later in the day. The work ethic can both serve me and imprison me.

So how does one find balance? My wife, Nancy, and I enjoy reading. We have a practice of having a read-aloud book as well as our private reads. Currently we are reading Helen and Scott Nearing’s classic  Living the Good Life. This sturdy couple was the stuff of legends.

One discipline they strictly adhered to was the daily practice of working four hours for their sustenance, they called it “bread labor” (i.e. gardening, tapping maple trees, building fences, buildings, etc.) and then an equal number of hours in grubbing creativity from the right brains. They would read, write, work on speaking engagement pieces or create something for the sheer joy of creation, simplicity, frugality and purposeful living. Operating on low overhead costs, they built their own stone buildings on two farms in New England and they created productive, organic gardens while writing, speaking and living a life committed to sustainability, and social and economic justice.

Imagine if we were not so wedded, or perhaps shackled is a better word, to the notion of working eight plus hours for a minimum of five days a week.

What would your life looked like if you could remove debt, reduce buying stuff and junk? And instead, live frugally, grow your own healthy food, move your body to a sweat every day and then wallow blissfully in a shower or tub and spend the rest of the day learning and creating.

Even if the Nearings had had the opportunity to buy a home computer, I think they would have enthusiastically shunned any such technology.

In recent years, I have come to embrace my affliction of  “spontaneous outbursts of creative expression “(SOCE). Rather than shove them aside, I am more likely to say to myself, “Why not?

Let me share my most recent episode. We had dropped a tall, old red oak that had stood tall next to the yard. Clean up included cutting all the branch tips and hauling the long pieces to brush piles in the woods. These have become cottontail hideouts and, based on past observations, likely nesting haunts for brown thrashers.

I cut the rest of the tree  into firewood chunks. I had gone into the garage to fetch up some splitting wedges to work on the thick butt end of the oak. I glanced over to the wall where I spied a unique old wood door leaning against the wall.   Salvaged  from a long abandoned  farmstead,  it was one of those items that I figured I would someday have a use for. Suddenly, out of the blue,  I had the urge to hang the door. It would fit perfectly at the edge of the yard where we have a trail that heads south through the woods to the edge of a county park.

I erected the door  with no adjoining walls or fence.  While the solo door looked compelling it was utterly lonely. So, like an autumn red squirrel back and forthing to its spruce cone caches, I hustled to my brush pile and dragged oak tree toppings to the door. I leaned them against a pair of slender oak joists that I had raised behind the door. The effect was that the door invites you into a large brush pile. An old barren ground caribou antler and several whitetail antlered skulls are affixed to the door structure. It’s intriguing, inviting and a little spooky all at the same time.

I’ll admit it’s a bit odd to have a door with no walls. This is a symbolic portal to leave the shards of civilization behind us as we merge into the woods. One could argue that the old door with the small round window, a portal eye, is the entry door into the home that best sustains us. Indeed the natural world was our species’ first home and we forget that as a species, we alone are capable of destroying it. I’ve found that upon entering this woodland portal, silence is more likely received than the usual “Hey-I’m-home!”salutation.

Another art project that evolved from a task happened a couple of years ago at the Outpost in the Yukon Territory in northern Canada. It was early April though the landscape clearly looked winter. I had shoveled a path through the heavy wet snow to our fire pit. We were going to celebrate the advent of April by grilling a quartet of moose steaks for supper. With the job completed, and perfect sculpting snow at hand I experienced a surge of SOCE.
I grabbed a few props, I I   I  including the remains of a six-pack of my favorite Yukon Brewery beer, Lead Dog Ale, and carried them to the top of Pulpit Hill. This high knob directly behind our house overlooks the Watson River. I hastily made a bench and then began to roll the three body parts needed to create a snowman. In less than twenty minutes I had created a late afternoon buddy to share a beer with me. I’ll confess the discussion we had was totally one-sided but I couldn’t help but reflect on the “Bard of the Yukon,” Robert Service  and his infamous opening line of the poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee.
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun. .  .”

Hmmmm. I wonder if Service was afflicted with SOCE.

Winter Mosquitoes in Minnesota

I think it’s safe to say that ‘General Winter’ has been beaten back.

In the span of a week, we hiked away from our winter camping site on a quiet lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. After several unseasonably warm days, we knew that we would have to pay the piper for the luxury of languishing in the bright sun while ice fishing for lake trout. The payment came in the form of physical exertion on our trip out as we slogged for seven hours in hiking as many miles. Deep slush prevented any skiing and soon I had to take off my snowshoes as I found myself sinking deep into the water and  heavy slush. In the last three or so miles, we found sled pulling was made easier by choosing those places on the frozen lake surface that held open pools of water. Dry feet be damned; we pushed on. The two plastic sleds pulled like boats, literally floating at times. The fourteen-foot birch toboggan pulled heavily in the slush and was made more tolerable by following the wake of the others. After loading up our gear in the truck we discovered that the air temperature was 53 degrees F.

In less than a handful of days following that trek, still in the last days of winter, I have had two mourning cloak butterflies cavort around me like springtime nymphs as I sweated doing outdoor chores. Then that evening as I sipped a glass of wine on our deck, my winter pallid skin was pierced by the sharp stylus of a mosquito and it gorged on my winter-thickened blood before I smeared it with my swat. And the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, had seven new temperature all-time highs recorded over the span of nine days.

Just two days ago, I  spied 4 freshly excavated gopher mounds. I carefully brushed a curious paper wasp from the edge of my coffee cup as I sat out on the deck. I got in a brisk 27-mile road bike ride while the sun and the nearly 80 degree heat put me into a good sweat. And during that bike ride I listened to chorus frogs singing from a small wetland along the road. That evening I heard the lazy song of robins that carried me back to previous May songs. Oops. . . that’s right it’s still winter.

What the hell is going on? To be honest I don’t like it. There are aspects that are nice but in the big picture I find it unnerving. And then I learned that according to the  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the winter of 2012 has been the fourth warmest on record in the contiguous United States.  Not surprisingly, all of the seven years in over a century of climate data, have occurred since 1992 and over the past 30 years a warmer-than-average winter has been twice as likely as a cool one. All this data is consistent with how 97% of global scientists  agree that climate change is “very likely” caused mainly by human activity. That gives room for El Nina to take some credit. say global warming affects the weather. The average expertise of the 3 percent of scientists who remain unconvinced is far below that of their colleagues if you used rates of publication and citation rates as a barometer of their competence.

The beauty of the scientific process is that laws and theories can be disproved. In other words if someone can repeatedly test that there is not such a law as gravity, then we would have to rewrite science texts. I really hope that overwhelming scientific evidence will show that human activity is the likely cause of climate volatility. But for the time being we would be woefully remiss to wallow in our ignorance and not act to reduce our carbon footprint. So for the sake of showing caution and embracing an opportunity why in heaven’s name do we not move away from the burning of fossil fuels and move to renewable energy sources?

Certainly we need not to continue doling out  billions of dollars in subsidies to the oil and gas industry. According to Earth Track, in 2006 federal subsidies to oil and gas, mostly oil, totaled about $39 billion. And subsidies to oil-using systems are even bigger, estimated in 1998 at $111 billion a year for autos alone!

Do the math and one quickly understands there is an unfair market advantage for renewable fuel research and start-ups.

Yet even without opulent subsidies last year saw record levels of investment in solar, biofuels, and wind energy.  According to Clean Energy Trends 2012,  those three markets rose 31% to $246 billion!  Business is starting to get it and amazing opportunities will emerge which will result in far more sustaining jobs and a healthier planet, than a shovels-in-the-ground pipeline project.

Defense funding, the sacred cow of all USA funding, has a budget that keeps us at a level far beyond “super-power.”  No country comes remotely close in such spending. In fact the following top ten or more countries do not collectively come close to our spending. And yet, the Pentagon is extremely concerned about climate change because of the ramifications it has on food and water security around the world. And they, more than most businesses, understand the vulnerability of trying to move fuel and supplies to remote areas through hostile routes. They do believe and hope for a system that better utilizes electricity to move vehicles and better yet if that electricity can be generated via solar technology.

I am tired of the hollow chants of “Drill Baby Drill!” We already pay some of the cheapest gasoline prices in the world. In fact, last year the United States, for the first time in nearly two decades exported more oil than we imported.

Politicians promise that projects like the projected Keystone Pipeline will drop the prices. Are you kidding! That fuel will go on the global market to the highest bidder. With the emerging economic powers like India and China, the scramble will be costly.

It’s time to get serious about reducing the release of carbon into the atmosphere. I don’t like butterflies flying around me during a Minnesota winter. Nor are winter mosquito bites reasonable.  To continue fat subsidies to rich oil corporations is just not right.

Deer Shack Retreat Center

I needed to escape. I craved a hearty dose of quiet simplicity.

Our home office, where my fingers work the keyboard constructing words and paragraphs to assemble and sell, is a stimulating room. And while I love it, I wonder if it harbors an overdose of stimuli. There are scores of shelved old and new books, an assortment of rocks, several bouquets of turkey and ruffed grouse feathers, a wood carved hawk head wearing a finely tooled leather raptor hood, birch baskets, birch bark scraps, a pair of small carved cedar canoes, a plant press, a single antique snow ski, a tube of back country maps, two fine whitetail skulls adorned with impressive antlers, a dinner plate-sized snapping turtle shell, a scattering of turkey, crow and owl calls, photos of my two daughters and a younger rendition of me and my wife on our wedding day, a half dozen old bottles in the east window, a carnival of colors on the wall as the sun filters through them.

While this might seem like the perfect writing retreat, there are days when I pause in trying to find the perfect word or phrase.  And in that moment of respite, my gaze rests on a book title that seduces my focus and suddenly I am man-hauling heavy sledges with Shackleton in the Antarctic or I might be making the first descent down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell. I might ignore the phantom shoulder tapping of other book titles and turn my head in a different direction. It might be up and to my right, directly at the bleached deer skull with the dark, heavy antlers. And then I am back at the November deer shack that sits quietly in the boreal wilds at the edge of Superior National Forest. Clearly for a mind as wayward as mine, I have created too many wonderful distractions in this room.

Sometimes I need a change of scenery. So recently I declared to my Lovely Lady that I had to get away for a midwinter trek to the deer shack to work on some rewrites, a book synopsis and proposal. She thought it was a great idea as she was going to be gone anyway teaching a life coaching course in Minneapolis.

The deer shack is over 200 miles north of our farmhouse that we refer to as Base Camp. A crew of Nelsons built the shack on July 4, 1940. The lumber was recycled from a dismantled potato warehouse in a local small town and the only real expenditure was the twenty-nine dollars worth of shingles. The single paneled door hung that buggy summer day has been patched, strapped and signed over the years but it still remains in place. It sorely needs a door sweep as snow blows in and drifts just inside the door. I believe a daily newspaper, perhaps not the Sunday Edition, could be delivered directly under the door.

The only interior light comes from three small windows, barred on the outside with old oven racks to keep erratically flying grouse from breaking the windows. At night, candles or lantern light up the interior. There is no insulation whatsoever, other than the lacey cobwebs that shudder and pulsate during any west-northwest breeze.  If you peer close enough at the exposed wooden planks that made up the original siding, you might discover brief penciled notes such as “1954: Ev -1 doe and 1 buck, Art -1 fawn, Tip -1 buck.” The other stories of that particular year and many years, are soaked into the old, dark boards, trapped in the tars of countless smoked cigarettes particularly during those first twenty five years. Why if those tales and the following forty years worth could emerge from the walls, I suspect new libraries would have to be constructed.

Henry David Thoreau, the simple living transcendentalist of the18 century would have nodded approvingly of this most simple shelter.

It took me about an hour to pull the gear-laden sled from my parked truck to the remote shack. For most of the pull I was able to take advantage of a snowmobile trail. The sled pulled easily here and I was glad I encountered no snowmobiles.

The first job upon opening the shack is to get a fire built in the homemade stove, made from a two-foot section of ¼ inch thick pipeline pipe. There is nothing colder, nor lonelier, than an unheated shack or cabin. The alchemy of fuel, a dry scrap of birch bark and dry spruce twigs covered with thicker sticks, combined with a single struck match must first deliver a warming fire before that evolves to a cooking fire. And only after my belly is full and dish washing water heated will I accept the company of a friendship fire where I will relax and listen closely to hear what solitude has to say.

Not only is there no nearby road, there is no electricity, nor running water. Well that’s not entirely true, there is running water under the ice of the river that runs less than fifty paces from the shack. To fetch the water I listen to the muffled riffle rapids that I stand over. I know this drop of river and it is shallow so I confidently seek out an opening in the ice or a thin skin of ice where I can kick a hole to scoop water with an old cooking pan to fill the five-gallon bucket.

For the next three days my time was refreshingly simple. My focus would be to chop wood, fetch water, keep a fire going, cook simple meals, set a chair within inches of the crackling stove and find, scribble and arrange words. Here in this most humble of shelters there is no hum of a fridge, no blathering of  a television, and no prattle of a radio. If I want music, I need to sing it myself. I found myself almost giddy with satisfaction as I reveled in the quiet simplicity and intention of tasks.

In the evening, after chores were done, I mostly read. One night I considered searching the single wood cupboard for a deck of cards. It’s been many years since I played a game of solitaire. I could have a solitaire tournament. I wouldn’t have to worry about whose turn it was nor wallow in the dregs of defeat if I couldn’t beat myself.

I celebrated a time-out from writing or reading to hike along the river and follow the serpentine, sliding dash-dot-dot-dash trail of an otter or the more purposeful single file trail of a good-sized wolf. I marveled at how the cast-off raven feather laying on the river surface contrasted with the snow, like an old black and white negative. And even more astonishing was how the delicate black feather had absorbed February sunlight and melted a custom fit, feather-shaped tub into the ice.

Each night before bed, I would stand outside under the parade of stars to pee. I always tarried a bit to listen for howling wolves but heard none. And a quick involuntary shiver would always hustle me back indoors to the companionable stove and two lit candles. And silence.

The temperature was dropping as the afternoon sun began its descent. I knew the night would be cold. I do not like getting out of bed in the predawn darkness to get a fire going. I decided to gather materials before supper. No tinder is better than a dry scroll of birch bark and you cannot beat dry cedar twigs for kindling that will explode into a fire when you give it a flame.

Across the river I climbed uphill to an area where I knew there was a good stand of old birch. I found an eight-inch tube of birch bark on the ground and stuffed it with more birch scraps. Then downhill, I walked under a dark canopy of white cedar and found an dry branch on the ground where I easily snapped off a good handful of cedar twigs. On the hike back to the shack I stopped along a snowshoe hare trail to consider the loping prints of what I guessed was a fisher. The fisher, a misnamed member of the weasel family, considers the hare its kindling and inner fuel.

I re-crossed the river and made my way uphill to the shack. I had less than 24 hours before I had to load up my sled and return to the truck. And though I had had some writing success, the better lessons were the mute ones of simplicity and intentional living.


“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

That was one of the mantras of my late great grandma. At 102 years old and living alone in her own apartment, she had tripped on a door threshold when she was bringing her recycling to the Senior Housing recycling area. A broken hip and her relocating to a nursing home were the consequences of her practicing her own wisdom. She was able to share her elder wisdom for another two years before she died.

I would love to see a bold, colorful poster with Grandma’s  phrase.  Designed like those classic WWII “Buy Liberty Bonds” posters, the “Use it Up” posters would be particularly fitting for these times when frugality has become trendy and hopefully a good habit. In my world every school classroom, post office and church would be encouraged to show the poster.

Last fall, when  I backpacked the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, time and time again I was reminded of Grandma’s words. My old Vasque hiking boots were wearing out. The lugs on the soles of the boots were beginning to resemble stream-smoothed stones rather than a sharp-edged waffle and I found myself a tentative hiker when I encountered steep sections, particularly going downhill on smooth rock. Clearly it was time to retire the boots.

Just as one can measure their life by the collection of dogs they have frolicked with, good boots can also firmly hold our heartstrings.

I recall a favorite pair of eight-inch Red Wing leather boots that I wore for several years. They were so comfortable that towards their last years, they felt almost like slippers. Eventually the leather covering my toes was compromised and began to wear through. I anguished over the simple act of throwing them away. . . . so I didn’t. I carefully cut the soles away from the leather and then cut the shoe area of the boots away from the upper portions of the boot that wrapped around my ankle. With the help of some brass rivets, I closed that opening. I loosened up the bootlaces and slipped the retrofitted boot over the head of one my axes and I now had a stout leather axe sheath.  I did the same with the remaining boot and have tucked that piece in some shop drawer for future use.

Even the handle of the axe has been a poster child for the “Use it up and Make it Do Campaign.” When the handle of the axe started showing some tough wear near the point where the axe head and handle are married together, I beefed it up with some sheet metal and duct tape.

After a decade of hugging and protecting my feet up and down rugged trails around Lake Superior, climbing various summits in the Yukon Territory in Canada, even slogging through across rivers and through North Dakota sloughs in pursuing pheasants,  it was clear that something has to wear out. The vibram soles were wearing away while the upper leather portions were still in pretty good shape as I have oiled them on a regular basis to keep them in good shape.

This pair of companionable boots has been like a good dependable and reliable friend. I could hardly bear to say goodbye to them. So I didn’t. I found a cobbler who specializes in repairing and resoling hiking boots. And rather than spend nearly $200 dollars to replace the old Vasques with new leather ones, I would spend $60 to have the old soles removed and new ones stitched on the boots that have had a decade to form to only my pair of feet.

Had I bought a new pair of Vasque hiking boots, I would have had to hike miles, maybe days in them for them to accept and shape themselves around my feet. So when the mailman delivered the box housing my companionable old boots, I was like a Christmas morning boy in tearing the box open. There nestled in a blanket of white tissue were the “new” boots. Why the cobbler had even oiled them and threw in a pair of good laces. Like a homesick salmon, the boots had returned to our old porch.

Of course, the makeover boots fit like a glove with no breaking-in period required. With the boots laced snugly onto my feet, I stepped outside confidently on to the partially ice-covered sidewalk. Stepping onto a canvas of new snowfall, my print was bold and sharply defined. Every lug print of the boot sole was crisp.  This was the print of virgin vibram.

Giddy with this gift of resurrected boots and a nearby trail meandering through the woods behind our house, I found myself heading into the woods. And suddenly I pulled up a stanza of Robert Frost poem from my memory bank.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

With the perfect boots for me to keep.

Guilty of Taking the Bait

Baiting is an effective way to attract the attention and movements of a target species. I fill, or bait, my bird feeders with sunflower seeds to help augment the bird’s diet during the food scarce winter months and to provide me with the joy of watching birds. I bait my weighted chartreuse jig with a lively leech to entice a walleye to strike. And so on.

We are often subjected to baiting in grocery stores. Consider the small squares of hot pizza that are offered by a smiling middle-aged woman at the end of the grocery store aisle. She hands me the bait while telling me of the special sale on this brand of pizza.  More than likely, I taste the cheesy offering, raise my eyebrows and emit a satisfied “mmmmmm.” The hook is set and it often results in me reaching into the freezer for multiple boxes of frozen pizza. Baiting. . .pure and simple.

With the wrap up of the 2011 Minnesota deer hunting season we are getting the final harvest numbers. Overall, it appears that the season’s kill is down slightly from last year. However, illegal deer baiting incidents were higher than ever before. If you choose to hunt deer in Minnesota, baiting is unethical, illegal, greedy and in my book, simply cheating. No real hunting is involved.

In Minnesota it is illegal to set out foods, such as apples, shelled corn, carrots, etc. to attract and hold deer to an area. According to the baiting law, “an area is considered baited for 10 days after complete removal of the bait or feed.”

Baiting is not about hunting; it’s solely about “getting.” On the other hand, in Minnesota, baiting is legal when hunting black bears. Consequently it is my opinion that we should change the activity to “bear-getting” rather than bear hunting. It requires a minimum of skill to sit up in an elevated stand over a pile of old doughnuts soaked in molasses and/or bacon fat.

While living in the Yukon Territory, bear baiting or hunting bears with dogs is illegal. Instead, they actually hunt bears. Whether it’s on foot, floating downriver in a boat or driving through bear country, hunters are glassing the countryside to spot a bruin. Once an animal is sighted, they have to begin a quiet and often arduous stalk. This is truly hunting since the hunter must assess the animal’s route, its speed, note the wind direction and then begin a quiet and often difficult stalk to put them in position to make a quick killing shot. And then begins the work of skinning and fetching the animal.

With hunter numbers decreasing in Minnesota and over most of the United States, the issue cannot be that there are too many hunters competing with each other. Instead, I wonder if the modern day hunter is simply becoming lazier and looking for instant gratification. . . the quick fix? I wonder if we haven’t put too much emphasis on securing a bigger buck than the next person. And why? I would argue that the motivation for many is simply the need to be noticed and highly regarded.

I suspect that if we were to look deeply into the reasons that hunters will break laws or even practice unethical hunting and fishing, is that these hunters/anglers are simply stuck in an immature level of development. Robert Moore, professor of psychology and religion at Chicago Theological Seminary, addresses male development in a book he co-authored titled, King Warrior Magician Lover.

Dr. Moore explains that “most men are fixated at an immature level of development. These early developmental levels are governed by the inner blueprints appropriate to boyhood.”  Clearly nobody has showed them what a mature man (hunter) is like. Consequently, their vision of “manhood” is skewed and is actually a pretense of manhood. Those stuck, in what Moore calls “boy psychology,” will practice unethical means to kill game. The problem is that no one has shown them how to be a noble, respectful and humble hunter. (I confess that my viewpoint is mostly gender specific in relating to males rather than females, but at this time males still make up the vast majority of hunters and I suspect they make up an even greater percentage of those found guilty of game violations.)

I fear far too many so-called hunters have not been shown or are not willing to put in the necessary work of paying attention and reading sign. These have always been attributes of successful hunters. More and more it seems we are creating a generation of hunters who will take whatever shortcuts or look for the advantage they can grab in order to bag their deer or shoot a limit of birds.

I stand in awe of the good hunters of previous generations who intimately knew the land and animals they hunted. They had no battery powered GPS, trail cameras, fiber optics, archery trigger releases, robo-ducks or charcoal-infused clothing. Perhaps the real blame on such shortcuts are the ads that hunters are faced with online, in magazines and even this newspaper. We are made to feel less than adequate if we don’t use their products. We are encouraged to out-compete other hunters and anglers. And if we can’t out-compete them we ironically turn on the natural world that we supposedly love for scapegoats. It’s far too easy to blame tree swaying winds, bitter cold, rain, too many wolves and coyotes and so on.

To increase profits each year, we are lured to new hunting and angling products that we can’t live without and promise you the “advantage” over the competition. Just as you can count on the ticking of the clock, you can count on new, “hot,” products for the coming fishing and hunting season. Space age lure colors, fantastical camo-patterns, electronic spying devices and hi-tech clothing items, new gun and rod/reel designs are introduced like bait to the hungry schools of hunter/angler consumers. Indeed, we are a gullible critter and easily take to piles of advertising bait that say“you-ain’t-good-enough-so-get-one-of-these-and-beat-the-rest-of-the-competition.” I get it, that’s called business marketing.

Are we such an insecure lot that our egos must be measured and displayed by what we bag and how many points it has, field weight or inside spread?

If I were the teacher, I would require that every beginning and veteran hunter and angler would be required to read three books: Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, The Old Man and the Boy by Robert Ruark and The Earth is Enough: Growing Up in a World of Old Men and Trout by Harry Middleton. In my opinion, these books get to the core of what hunting and fishing is really about. And in the process of ethically and respectfully  pursuing your favorite game and fish,  we will recruit more young people into the field. And research, as cited in Richard Louv’s best-selling book “Last Child in the Woods: Preventing Nature-Deficit Disorder,” tells us that anytime we get kids outside for extended periods of time we increase cooperation, problem solving, innovation and a healthier lifestyle.

An Infusion of Pumpkin

As I drove past the large pumpkin that graced the entry of a neighbor’s driveway, I noticed something unusual. A length of bushy tail was hanging out of the recently excavated Halloween fruit. I stopped the car and the tail whisked into the hole and was replaced by the head of an alert gray squirrel.

The rodent dashed for safety up a nearby bur oak. The squirrel had been mining the pumpkin for its treasure of flesh and seeds. No paring knife had sawed into this pumpkin to create a snaggle toothed smile. The squirrel incisors had opened a simple cavern for access and egress. Do squirrels assess the cost/benefit ratio when digging upside down on the bright orange stage of a pumpkin? Seems like a reckless and dangerous act to work with your head inside a hole while your backside advertises squirrel hams. Clearly, when facing the march of winter, the season of scarcity, a normally shy squirrel becomes bold and reckless in its foraging for food.

A few days after the squirrel was busted in its excavating, I stopped the truck and strolled out into a fifteen-acre field that had been covered with pumpkin vines and thousands of beautiful pumpkins. Now, with Halloween a memory, the piece of ground looked like a war zone. Thousands of pumpkins had been adopted by Halloween practitioners, home interior decorators and pie bakers. The remaining pumpkins literally never made the cut. They were the unchosen ones and now I found them broken and crushed in the field.

At first glance the site looks devastated, but then as I strolled among the shattered fruits, I could see that the field was actually an early holiday gift to the area wildlife. Deer tracks were most common but here and there I spotted a pheasant track moseying among splattered pumpkins. Tiny piles of rabbit pellets showed that rabbits had lingered here. On a nearby gopher mound a pile of coyote droppings held undigested pumpkin seeds. Each of these animals had dined on some portion of pumpkin.

By next June, the earth will be warm and countless microscopic beasties will have rendered the rest of the pumpkin remains into sustenance for next years crop of pumpkins, squirrels, pheasants, deer, coyotes and rabbits.

And I am left wondering how a pumpkin infused venison roast or pheasant breast would taste.

Listen. . .No Really Listen

What is quiet? And the companion question that begs to be whispered is, “Where is quiet?”

Earlier this evening, I sat in my small sauna in the basement. I closed my eyes and strained to hear anything. Nothing. I was pleasantly surprised. Clearly the sauna’s insulated walls sheathed in white cedar  keep those faint or not-so-faint household noises such as the hum of the fridge, the blowing of the furnace or the disgorging of a flushed toilet muffled.

I fear that true silence is an endangered sense. We rarely take time to be quiet and it is getting more and more difficult to find those spots that aren’t tainted by some distant human-based noise.

After a 90-mile backpacking trek on the Lake Superior Hiking Trail last month, I was most disappointed that we could not find a campsite where human noises were absent. And bear in mind that much of the trail goes through or is adjacent to large tracts of state parks and Superior National Forest.  Whether it was a distant train, a pack of roaring Harleys on Highway 61, nearby ATVs or overhead jets, it was annoying and unexpected.

For most of last week, I made a daily hike from an old deer shack to a favorite deer hunting knob in Superior National Forest. I relished the thought of sitting quietly up in a spruce tree waiting for a deer to come by. In our household, venison is our primary source of meat.

When I’m up in a tree, the world slows way down and I get to inventory the sounds of a day from its dawning to sunset. Here I have the privilege of interpreting the croaks and gurgles of ravens or listening to the uninhibited play of wind through overhead branches. I swayed on a small portable stand fifteen feet up in a spruce while naked birch and maple limbs rattled against each other like a tireless battle of sabers.

Thankfully,  the third morning broke dead still. In the first hour of hunting, my anticipation and focus is most keen. All noises out here are accentuated in the calm. I turned my head to the left when I heard a faint tick. Over the next few mornings this thin fragment of birch bark clicking in the breeze would repeatedly grab my attention.

But the overall quiet is almost overwhelming. As a society we are awash in human-induced noise and it is only growing worse. How often do kids get to experience the awe of complete silence? Or would it be so alien that it might make them nervous or frighten them?

I recall a December day when, as a naturalist, I led a small group of sixth grade urban students into the snowy woods. Our intent was to practice observation. I told the group that I would drop off each of them along the trail and that they had to stay at their drop-off point for about ten minutes. I made sure that each student was out of sight from his or her classmates. Their charge was to sit or stand silently until I returned. Some were nervous and others were excited. I assured them that I would return.

After I picked them up, we returned to the nature center for lunch and the kids then wrote in their journals about their solo observation time. The following day the teacher felt compelled to share with me a couple of the journal excerpts.

One girl wrote, “At first I didn’t see anything. . .  just snow and trees. But then I began to notice all the animal tracks. Some very tiny ones right by my sitting spot. I really liked it. I felt like I could see within myself.”

I smiled when I read a boy’s observation: “I heard a bird that sounded like a computer.” I was both saddened and not surprised that his perspective revolved around computers. I wish I had been there to tell him that his computer bird was likely a white-breasted nuthatch.

During the calm on my deer stand, I could close my eyes and hear the investigating pecks and flits of a small flock of chickadees and downy woodpeckers as they foraged for insects in the bark of nearby trees. But even this rise of boreal wilds is not shielded from human noise. A few gun shots, a distant ATV and eight, yes eight, commercial aircraft passed high overhead before noon. Their out-place roar was most obnoxious. And yet, how many of us simply tune out the background of constant noise?

It was mid-afternoon. I was still perched like a knob on a tree and it was still wonderfully calm. Then the silence was interrupted. I heard a slight rustling coming through the leaves directly in front of me. The noisemaker was screened by a mixed growth of balsam fir, birch and some maples. Suddenly I felt the tell-tale tickle in my throat that clearly wanted to grow into an out-of-place cough. I tried desperately to swallow the tickle. I couldn’t do it so as a last resort I tipped my head down and pulled the five layers of clothing from my neck up over my mouth and coughed gently down in the heated, muffled cavern.

For a moment all was calm. Nothing was moving. And then after a few seconds the red squirrel resumed its November chores. And in reasonable silence I could only smile.

According to some anthropologists, current humans are only four hundred or so generations removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. That’s not much time in the big picture. Their hearing was likely far more acute. I wonder which generation will find silence only an idea?

Amazing Weight Loss Secret

My blog has been dormant for over a year now. The brown fat of hibernation has long burned off and creative neurons are awakening from my right brain hibernacula. It’s time to write.

The last blog was written up at our Yukon Outpost, 2500 miles from our Minnesota Base Camp. I wish I could say I was beyond any computer range, say advancing on the Himalayas, paddling across the continent, or bushwhacking down the Amazon, but nothing quite that arduous.

I like to think of the blog-drought as a sabbatical while we tended to a full calendar year. There was a major kitchen renovation, Ben and Maren’s (my daughter) wedding, a long road trip to Boulder, Taos and Helper, Utah, a trip to San Francisco to visit my older daughter, Britta and her husband, Blake, three major writing projects (The Rocky Mountain and Southwest Editions of Things that Bite <http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field keywords=great+lakes+edtion+of+Things+that+Bite&x=0&y=0> are now at the printer and I completed  an informational brochure on the Anoka Sandplain.) Whew. . . just noting these mental and physical forays down makes me crave a nap.

It’s significant that my youngest daughter was married this past June in New Orleans because with both daughters married, I am in position to be a legitimate grandfather. I even turned sixty this past July and somehow that makes grandfatherhood more credible.

I can always use tutoring from a neophyte grandfather. It was time to go for a walk with my dear childhood compadre, Nels. He is at the brink of six decades, but unlike me, he has a young grandson, and I have been granted the title of “Uncle Tom.” Even though the linkage of Nels and Anderson DNA likely intersects centuries ago in Sweden, I am an honorary uncle by virtue of being a steadfast friend for a long time.

It was Nels’s idea to hike the 240-mile long Lake Superior Hiking Trail. The lovely trail climbs and drops and crosses many creeks and rivers. Its route is never more than a handful of miles from Lake Superior as it parallels the shore in a NE/SE course. <http://www.shta.org/>

Nels and I have shared an adventurous history together. It has included paddling remote Canadian rivers, numerous BWCA/Quetico wilderness canoe and winter camping trips, hitchhiking in Mexico’s Yucatan area and years of searching for the mythical whitetail buck, named “High Boy” in Superior National Forest. So it only seemed fitting that we shoulder our backpacks and head north.

As we carried our forty pound packs, hour after hour, I noted that this was a great base work out and that this kind of physical activity was key in being fit and burning calories. We stopped for a break to snack on my homemade “Save your Ass” bars and to rest the protesting shoulders. And there, beneath a tall white pine, we had a brainstorm for teaming up to write the ultimate diet book.

Every year there are scores, perhaps hundreds or thousands of new diet books published that promise “a new you.” And every year, those same diet books get put in boxes and carted to thrift stores or serve as a quick fix couch leg.

It was after a few more roller coast ascents and descents that I heard Nels offer a partnership of sorts. He wondered aloud if we should co-author a new diet book; a book that would make the Atkins Diet or South Beach diet books look archaic. Now I was surprised by the offer because I have never known Nels to be an ardent scribe. He is perhaps best known for his one sentence entry into his journal that he kept during a one-month Canadian sub-arctic canoe trip we shared in 1982. Printed neatly, barely taking up half a line, it said, “Left Andy’s at 9:15AM.”

As we climbed another rise, he enthusiastically declared, “This book would be a guaranteed weight loss book and the best part is that we can complete the premise of the book in one or two sentences.” I smiled as I knew what was coming. “All you have to do,” he continued, “is to take in less calories than you burn.” And since this was a team effort, I added, “And to burn calories all you have to do is move your body more than snoring.”And there’s the book. Like his succinct journal entry of nearly thirty years ago, Nels still carries his skills at getting quickly to the point.

Even after we shouldered the backpacks again and steadily climbed another ridge, we chattered excitedly about the book that would likely allow us to each create a non-profit foundation for the causes we hold most dear. It’s amazing how enthusiastic brainstorming can distract pain receptors from growing watery feet blisters or cramping shoulders.

Three days later, we finished our walk. We were stronger, less soft in the middle and solid on the ultimate diet book.

Any comments or suggestions?

Looking for Ernie

Sometime during a three-day span in early July, our adopted dock keeper, Ernie lost his balance during a strong blast of wind and was quickly washed downstream through the rapids that flows by the Outpost.

When Nancy and I returned from a canoe trip over that period, we were saddened by disappearance of Ernie. Ernie’s, companion dock sentry, Bert remained, standing stoically on the dock.

This past May we had found Bert and Ernie at the Annual Mt. Lorne Dumpster Dining Picnic at the local dump and recycling shack, called the “Free Shack.” This is a shack you can bring items that are too good to throw away or you are tired of and leave for someone else. Well on this day, when our eyes fell on the pair of faux stone Easter Island heads, both made from foam and painted stone gray, we whisked them to our truck.

Our monoliths were not twenty feet tall like the real stone giants on Easter Island. These were maybe thirty inches but no more. In short order our pair, christened “Bert” and “Ernie” were firmly wedged to the edge of the river dock. In an odd way the dock guardians looked perfect.

At the time of Ernie’s disappearance the river levels were still high from June snowmelt in the upper Watson River. Mounting a canoe rescue operation was too dicey.

The Watson is born well upstream in an area known as the Yukon Stikine Highlands ecoregion. Located in the cool rain shadow of the Coastal Mountains, this region is home to the greatest mammalian diversity in the Yukon. This area has historically been a network of trade and travel routes for First Nations people and later Europeans who entered the region to prospect gold and fur.

In three summers at the Outpost, we have not observed a single canoe descending the river. Two weeks after Ernie disappeared, my younger brother Scott arrived from Minnesota for a visit. The river levels had dropped and we immediately made plans to initiate a recovery expedition. We knew little of the river and its character. I had spoken with a couple of folks who had paddled it over twenty years ago. There was also a brief description of the river in a local paddling guide but the emphasis is on the lower river.

Canoeing is usually done as a recreational sport. But for Scott and I it would provide a means to accomplish a task. We would weave around river bends, drop through rapids, pull over trees lying across the river and do what we must to find the foam statue. How long this fragile statuary last in the wilderness was anyone’s guess.

So with packs of food and camping gear we waved goodbye to Miss Nancy. The following day she and two other women backpacker friends would shoulder their packs and take a 15-mile hike far up the Watson River to spend the night at an old trapline cabin before returning.

While a canoeing warm up is nice, Scott and I immediately had to contend with the boisterous rapids that pass our dock. We were so focused on the run, that we could not even salute the solitary Bert who forlornly stood on the dock as we passed him. Within seconds we rounded the bend and were feeling good about negotiating the first of many stretches of rapids.

Scott and I have each logged thousands of river miles in a canoe. Oddly we have never been paddling partners for a river trip so this was a rare opportunity. Scotts passions are his dog Dingo and messing around in a canoe. He is a very good bow paddler and does a great job in moving the front of the canoe around. A good bow partner makes an average stern paddler look good.

The time together was rich in conversation and observations and yes, even for brotherly spats. Being older and supposedly wiser I am quick to offer advice to my brother. I should have learned long ago that this is not a good strategy. But some things never change and consequently we had a couple of river miles of grumbling at each other and making accusations. Amazing how incidents from nearly half a century were still simmering.

And suddenly, a stretch of whitewater would show up and demand that we focus on more important issues. It worked. The wisdom of the river prevailed and demanded that we focus on the surroundings.

Both of us were amazed at the serpentine nature of the river. At times we swore that we had just completed a complete circle. We certainly covered each of the cardinal directions: north, south, east and west. Repeatedly I pointed out Caribou Mountain. During the third morning of the trip, Scott challenged my woods knowledge by asking, “Tom, this is the third day of passing Caribou Mountain. Face it you don’t know where we are.” He was right. . . kind of. Because the third day it was the real Caribou Mt. and the others were some other peaks.

There was usually an accompanying maze of timber piled on every outside river bend. We peered through the trunks and branches hoping to see the somber face of Ernie. No luck. We did see a few old pieces of foam insulation and I wondered if these were fragments of a rapids battered Ernie. Could there be some sort of DNA tracing of the chunks to Ernie?

At one point, during a break, I slipped into the spruce forest to make my way upstream to cut a leaning spruce trunk that was bulging in mid stem with a softball-sized burl. I cut the burl and an accompanying two-foot section of the trunk and carried it back to the canoe. Proudly I showed Scott my future sauna water-dipping ladle. No Ernie, but I had a souvenir of spruce.

The river became a boa of bends, slowly drawing us further and further along. Each sand bar was riddled with moose tracks, beaver sign was abundant and here and there we saw where bears had been digging for tender roots. On one bend Scott pointed out a massive shed moose antler so we stopped and fetched it. Still no Ernie, but we had a handsome antler.

As we turned one tight corner and looked ahead, we spotted a pale orb in an upcoming logjam. We drifted towards it puzzled as to what it was. Only when we were within a few feet of it could we tell that under the coating of mud and grime that it was a soccer ball. I splashed water over the ball to wash it off and in the process discovered its name. Franklin. Still no Ernie but we had found Franklin.

After scores and scores of river bends, enough to hypnotize a swimming beaver, we suddenly found ourselves at the brink of a major gorge where the water roared its deep throaty challenge for us to enter. No way. Quickly we got to shore and were faced with a nearly vertical scramble up a very steep climb of fifty or so yards through spruce and brush.

Scott was not happy. Not at all. He let me know and in the process taught me a new word. ““This is idiocracy! If I’d had know this was here I would have not agreed to this trip.” Tired, we settled around the campfire as our supper cooked, sipping on the last feeble ration of Yukon Jack. Still no Ernie but I had been issued a new word to take home.

The third morning broke as a blue-sky repeat of the previous two days. We finished the portage and paddled into the river current below the gorge. During a pee break, we discovered large wolf tracks prancing around the point of sand. Looking up we discovered the reason for wolf giddiness. There was a trail of dry moose bones strewn along a trail. We wondered how many wolves did it take to kill the cow?

We rounded another bend, perhaps our 168th bend, and found ourselves facing the mother lode of all logjam. It spanned the entire river. We groaned about the work that lay ahead of us. Luckily we discovered that the right side of the jam was partially open next to shore. With the help of a camp saw and pushing some logs out of the way, we were able to heave the loaded canoe over partially submerged logs. We cheated the ragged jam that was easily six to eight feet over the water. We looked all over and around the jam for Ernie. He could have easily been buried under the tons of tangled logs. Nothing.

We knew there was a lower river gorge to deal with and while we heard tales of canoe carnage inflicted there. But we had also heard the set of rapids was runnable. Not long after the logjam, we rounded a corner and suddenly the river accelerated hurrying us towards a canyon of steep granitic walls. There was no choice but to quickly read the water and slalom our way through three bends of whitewater. We got hung up on a rock less than forty yards from the bottom. Quickly the current spun the canoe around, like a compass needle spinning north, and suddenly Scott was facing upstream. “We’ve got a problem!” he called out. I yelled for him to turn around and I did the same. And just like that we had changed paddling positions. I stepped out with one leg and pushed off a rock to free us and we finished the canyon in fine style. We earned our lunch.

Just downstream from the lunch spot, we entered another set of rapids and I mistakenly called out “Right!” I actually meant the other right. There was confusion and Scott blew up. This was our third spat in three days. This was the third of three brotherly verbal sparring matches. I was scolded in a rather biting way. Scott hissed accusations that he was tired of a lifetime of me telling him what to do. Of course, I hissed back at him which only added fuel to the argument.

Silently we paddled the next two bends. Sullenly I considered his biting words. He was right. It was no longer necessary for the older brother to watch out for his little brother. And to a degree he was right. I should lay off. But I love him and I will likely fail in not making future suggestions to him.

Suddenly we discovered that we earned the last river bend and the world opened up into Bennett Lake. After a half-hour of vigorous paddling on the windy lake we beached the canoe in Carcross where the truck was parked. We raised our hands and high-fived each other. We had made it. Alas, there was no Ernie. But over the two and a half days we had engaged with a river shaped like a series of question marks and discovered an antler, a unique burl and recovered Franklin, and perhaps the greatest treasure, a bonding of brothers.

(Written: August 18, 2010)

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