The Mountain’s Out

Folks living in the Seattle-Tacoma area often acknowledge a clear day with a simple, “The mountain’s out.” The nuanced winter fogs and rains of the region often hide Mount Rainier from view so it’s a bonus when the famed peak is witnessed.

On a clear day, Rainier is visible 100 miles away. At over 14,000 feet in elevation, the dormant volcano, the largest in the United States, is a feature worth noting.

With the help of weather apps Miss Nancy and I found a window where sunshine was supposed to dominate and we made a day trip up to the famed Paradise area off one of the shoulders of Mount Rainier.

On May 8, 1792 George Vancouver spotted the distant mountain. He was the navigator for the British Royal Navy engaged in the difficult task of surveying the Pacific shoreline of North America from 1790-95. The team of two ships wended their way through the channels and islands of the area that the local indigenous called “whulge.” Vancouver titled it Puget Sound after his Second Lieutenant Peter Puget.

Like most colonizers he christened natural features like rivers, bays, points of land and mountains with an English title.

After spying the mountain Vancouver made a brief note merely describing it as “a round, snowy mountain.”  He was unaware or simply didn’t care to find out that it already had a title. For thousands of years previous to his “discovering” it the Puyallup people called the grand mountain “taquoma.”

Vancouver named the peak Rainier, after his good friend Rear Admiral Peter Ranier. Ironically, in his lifetime, Mr. Rainier never saw the mountain nor did he ever see the Pacific Northwest.

We filled our day packs with various layers of clothes, water bottles and food and drove out of Tacoma for our ascending two-hour drive. Upon leaving the car behind us we strapped on snowshoes and grabbed  three hiking poles equipped with snow baskets. We only needed three as Miss Nancy was fitted with a cast over her left forearm and hand. Two weeks earlier she had broken her wrist at the 21 kilometer point in a planned 50 K cross country ski workout. Before heading out in the four inches of fresh snow over the deep base, I helped her tug a long black sock over her exposed finger tips and cast.

The first white settlers in this area were the Longmire’s. In 1853 they had traveled west from their Indiana home in a wagon train led by James Longmire. Local lore claims that upon viewing the open park like high country festooned with colorful wildflowers Virinda Longmire, wife of John, exclaimed, “Oh what a paradise!” The name stuck.

The fresh snow softened everything and put us in the bliss of hush. Steadily we climbed up through scattered islands of subalpine fir trees. The trees were the only forms of visible life other than splashes of lichens on exposed rock.  Higher up, we lost our sunshine and could see a wall of gray, intimidating weather elbowing its way into our sunny day.

Steadily we climbed and finally faced a steep pitch that reminded both of us of the famed “Golden Staircase” on the historic Chilkoot Trail near Skagway Alaska.

The sharp incline prevented us from snowshoeing straight up the grade. Switchbacking back and forth, we stitched our way up with frequent stops to catch our breath.

Halfway up, Nancy slipped slightly and declared that with one arm mostly useless  she was not willing to go any further. She urged me to continue on up and said that she would slowly make her way back down.

You would think that approaching 8,000 feet above sea level would not be a big deal, but as a bonafide Upper Midwest flatlander, my lungs were breathing big. Nearing an area called Palisade Vista, the snow was more wind blown making it icier.  Now I was slipping and I stepped firmly to engage the toothed metal crampons affixed to the snowshoes.

In the early 20th century, Floyd Schmoe, a local guide, instructed adventurous clients on the best way to prevent sliding down Pinnacle glacier. “Just sit loose. Let nature take its course. But don’t roll or you might get hurt. If you start rolling, flatten out on the snow. Spread eagle and the snow will stop you.”

I thought of that advice and within a minute made the smart decision not to “bend the map” and go on all by myself. I carefully turned around and began the trip back by breaking a new trail to more easily control my descent.

Just last July I had climbed nearby designated trails through amazing collages of mountain flowers. Avalanche lilies, bog gentian, mountain heather, bistorts and so many more colorful blooms surrounded our promenade. Now, in winter, the primary color is the lack of color. White dominates with the occasional gray rock outcrop. The dormant flowers are seasonally buried under more than fifty feet of snow. Yes. Fifty.

Approaching our starting point I met an older woman who was snowshoeing up. She was making her own trail rather than following snow broken by earlier hikers. We had a short chat. In her German accent she informed me that she has lived down near the park entrance gate for 32 years. She told me of her love of hiking in this high country. I politely asked if she would mind sharing her age. “I’m 85.”

Later, I rejoined Nancy back at the parked car. We shared tales of our day. I was most amazed by two power women. One, a game lovely lady, who cast or no cast, was more than willing to go exploring on a stark but lovely landscape and the other an impressive, exuberant, 85-year old role model.

Surrender to Wonder

And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

-Matthew Chapter 18 vs 3

We gave our granddaughter, Eleanor, a small microscope for her 4th birthday. When she put her eye to the eyepiece and focused in closely on a flower, she gasped. There it was, that burst of wonder that cements indelible moments like this into our memories. 

I never tire of pushing the drug of discovery. Because once addicted to discovery we cannot help but explore and learn. 

Eleanor’s one-year-old brother, Thomas, is at the point of his life where he is barraged with wonder and first time discoveries. I am enthralled at his wide-eyed stare at a small rubber ball gripped in his hand. Such a simple marvel. 

We might be the only species that can gasp over a fiery sunset, a tanager at our bird bath or a stunning panorama. Photos can give us such a feeling but they don’t have nearly the same impact as encountering the moment.

We can all recollect those kind of “drop-to-your-knees” moments. My forehead is wonderfully scarred with a lifetime of what I call “wow” wrinkles. These corrugated ridges are the earned stripes of a life well surprised. 

These are not to be confused with the very similar markings of a scowl. But there is a difference: A scowl usually involves an angry cleft between the eyes. 

To check out the health of your wrinkles, stand in front of a mirror and let loose a wide-eyed “Wow!” There, did you see the excited skin on your forehead surge? If you have them, wear them proudly because they illustrate a lifetime of spontaneous “wows.” And that is a privilege.

Many theologians believe religions start from a place of wonder. I agree; when faced with a stunning moment of beauty or discovery there is an associated sense of reverence. And always after fully surrendering to wonder I whisper or shout out my own song of gratitude.

People need to be touched by unbridled wonder to really care for and appreciate the natural world. We need voices to sing praises for those sacred natural systems that make our lives possible. 

It’s time to head outdoors to engage with the morning and hopefully give my wrinkles a good workout.

Otter Play Lesson

River otter sketch from sketchbook of famed naturalist/wildlife biologist, Olaus Murie.

With a fresh skiff of snow, it was time to get outside to play. I quickly rubbed in a thin layer of green (cold weather) wax over the kick zone of my classic cross country skis and headed out. Twenty minutes later I skied out on to the white expanse of Horseleg Lake. Conditions were perfect and even though I didn’t have a groomed trail, it was delightful striding down the lake.

Up ahead of me I spied four trails of tracks converging towards me. Approaching the snow paths, the imprint appeared as a winter morse code with a long dashes, interspersed with two pairs of punched dots.  A few more strides and I glided to a stop over the tobogganing tracks of river otters.

I smiled, remembering a bitter cold hike with a University mammalogist up in Itasca State Park during a Christmas Bird Count back in the mid 1970s. I was engrossed with his tracking knowledge, particularly in identifying small mammal tracks. He became excited when we came across the track of an otter sliding through the woods. He pointed and said, “Otter tracks are like the front of a 1967 Pontiac. . . .the pushing pair of back feet resemble the stacked pair of headlights and the slide through the snow is the grill of the car connecting the other pair of headlights.”

The lake tracks I studied were clearly laid out. Each stretching glide over the snow was interspersed by two or three pushes with their feet. Sliding in snow is more efficient than continual loping on short legs.

The foot print itself is broader than a fox, more the size of a smaller coyote. Like other members of the weasel family there are five distinct webbed toes on each foot. The back foot is slightly larger than the front and I could make out the distinct rear foot toe that sticks slightly out to the side.

Was this quartet of mustelids a family group of now nearly full-grown otters? Or was it just a bunch of cronies out for a slide?

I decided to follow their path. It’s always exciting to find fresh tracks because you absolutely know that at the end of those tracks is a live animal. And in following and reading the tracks you get a snapshot of their lives. You can learn things such as the track-makers behavior and rate of travel.

The four trails converged, leaving the unbroken lake surface to disappear into the bordering wall of thick dried cattails. To navigate the dense cover, I had to get out of my skis and make my way slowly through the snapping and breaking cattails. 

I didn’t have to go far before I found a saucer-sized hole in the ice not far from the snow-covered dome of a muskrat house. A stain of mud rimmed the hole and bending closer I spied what looked like a twig but was a small jointed leg of a crayfish. Otter food. 

So what appeared as a playful slide across the lake was in fact a commute of sorts to a food source. Wildlife biologists and naturalists have noted that the incidence of otter play, fooling around wrestling with each other or sliding down a bank and in the snow, is more likely when they have an abundance of food. It makes sense. Low food resources or other stresses results in less energy to waste in playful activities.

A few years ago while winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota, I had the opportunity to watch an otter emerge from a dark section of open water where a stream entered the lake. The slender predator had a small fish in its mouth. A second otter soon slipped out of the water and pushed itself close to the successful angler. The otter with the fish quickly chewed and swallowed the fish.  Both otters began to roll over and over in the fresh snow. They vigorously rolled and shook the snow off and finished with another snow roll. 

Even though the air temperature was around zero, the fluffy snow serves as a thick towel of sorts to wick the water off the brown guard hairs of the otter. Beneath the glossy guard hairs is the soft dense layer of oily underfur. Underfur, like the down feathers of a chickadee, trap air and serve as an ideal insulating layer.

The otters loped to the sloped shoreline and lunged up the shoreline hill. One otter wheeled and pushed itself down the hill. The second followed and soon they resembled kids repeatedly climbing a slide and sliding down to repeat it again and again. This was not hunting behavior. It looked to me like sheer play. 

When defining what constitutes “play,” there are a handful of factors to meet. First, according to  University of Tennessee ethologist, Gordon Burhardt, “the action of play doesn’t serve a functional purpose and is performed solely for pleasure.” Burghardt is clear that play is valuable and significant in the development of young animals. Adult animals will also engage in play but it could originate from boredom or simply pleasure.

Clearly, play hones motor skills, strengthens cardiovascular systems, and enhances social communication and bonds. 

Now two weeks later, those benefits of play remind me of the need on this cold, sub-zero day to step back into skis with my wife, Nancy, to get out and have fun in the snow. Move the body, breathe big, enhance bonds

Humbug Adjustment

I could find no photograph of a humble pie.

I have received some constructive comments about my Humbug Santa blog post. Clearly I am guilty of “ableism.” At this moment in my life I am in good health and retired. That means I can physically rake, shovel and split wood, and have the time to do so. I certainly did not want to offend any readers who for one reason or another are unable do these tasks. My list was just that, “my list. ” These were items that do not necessarily inspire me.

After a big snowfall, I am exceedingly grateful when my neighbor swings down my driveway with his plow and cleans us out. I’m no fool when it comes to accepting the generous gift of helping out.

And I have been thinking of the no tattoo request. I recognize they are an art form and many, including my daughter’s tattoo, are beautiful. Years ago, after a High Arctic canoe trip, I had the opportunity to visit with some local Inuit people. I have fond memories of a smiling older woman bearing facial tattoos. Like generations before her she did not tattoo herself because it was a fad. My reasoning for “no tattoos” failed to take into account cultural mores and norms. At this moment in my life I simply don’t want one.

And please know, if I am at your home and you offer me a cup of espresso coffee, I will take the steaming mug gratefully. I simply don’t want the coffee maker and to be honest I don’t have room for one.

Really all I want for Christmas is to lighten my impact on healthy natural systems. My grandkids’ future depends on it.

My Humbug Santa

The holiday season is here. Our Christmas tree, made from grape vine that Miss Nancy wrapped around a tipi framework of buckthorn, sits on the bay window and is decorated and lit. As usual, a tailless bobwhite quail (my one-and-only attempt at taxidermy over 40 years ago) perches as an avian angel atop the Yule tree.

My oldest grandchild, Eleanor, age 4, shared her interesting Christmas gift list of three items which includes a magnifying glass and a book. How cool is that?? The third item, a pink computer, does not excite me so much.

I don’t have a list of things I want, I have a list of things I absolutely DO NOT want.  Note that the following list is not served up in any order. And while this list was quickly thought up, I am sure I could add more.

If anything, I would request more good cheer for all humanity. I would ask Santa to back off on his full gift sack theme and instead preach that more stuff means an increased strain on the free natural systems that allow us to enjoy the holidays. You know, the systems that control floods, create healthy soils, give us clean water and air, and absorb human-caused carbon from the sky.

Last night we had our first ever Minnesota December tornado and I am fairly confident it is tied to human propensity to add more carbon into the sky. So by creating more stuff, like plastics and synthetic schlock, we tarnish the priceless gifts of the natural world.

I would have to fake a smile and hide my shudder if I got one of these items:

1)  Espresso Machine

It’s noisy, Has zero ambience. I would take a cowboy coffee made over a campfire any day. Yes, any day, and that includes a sub-zero setting.

2. Tattoo

While some can be quite artistic I can’t think of any reason at all to have one of these. I have no need to draw attention to myself. And tattoos seem too much like a fad and I’m not a fad kind of guy. And while I have a reasonably high threshold of pain, why subject myself to more when I don’t have to?  

3 Leaf blower

This is one invention that folks have really drunk the kool-aid over. Again the noise is abhorrent. Give me a rake anyday. No noise, powered only by my muscles. Consequently a rake fulfills a task while keeping me away from any health clubs. Which brings up my next “don’t gift me” item.

4. Snow blower

Egads another machine with its diet of gas, oil or electricity. Sure it can clean up a blizzard but in doing so it assaults my hearing and sense of smell. And like the leaf blower, it robs me of a physical workout. A snow shovel stores easily on the wall of the garage instead of taking up half a stall.

Last week it took me an hour and a half to push the fresh snow off our long driveway, but I got to breathe deeply of fresh air and fully earned a hearty lunch and relaxing read in front of the kitchen fire.

5. Membership to a health club

It would trouble me to go out, start a car and drive to a workout gym. I can walk, jog, ski  or ride a bike from my own house and then, on the same day, cut, split and wheelbarrow firewood. I prefer to live a lifestyle in which I use my muscles and stay fit.

6. Harley Davidson Motorcycle

While any motorcycle would make me unhappy, a Harley would be horrific. My hearing is already compromised and why offend others with this noisy assault? It’s offensive to fine pork to call this two-wheeled noise fest a “hog.”

I could emulate a good friend who bought his first Harley after a lifetime of owning motorcycles labelled  Honda, BMW, Triumph and Indian. He ordered his “hog” with a muffler. He wanted the Harley but he hated the noise. The dealer looked at him as if he was confronting an alien. I respect that.

But as I consider shunning a Harley I could always take an electric one (yes, they do make them) and then I could sell it and use the money to get a real bike: a full-suspension carbon frame mountain bike.

7. Boat and motor

I’m a canoeist. I paddle, not motor. The canoe is quieter than the boat and motor. Four stroke engine or not, it makes noise, requires a trailer, fuel and maintenance.  The only boat I might consider, and that’s a big “might” would be a john boat and moderate motor to use for fishing on the St. Croix River.

 8.  ATV 

There is a pattern here. I really try to stay clear of noisy machines that require fuel, oil and maintenance. I cringe at the idea of even owning one. Perhaps as I age I will need one to clean snow off the driveway, haul firewood or pull in a hunted deer, but for now a rousing “no thanks.” And if I do submit, I’m hoping I can get an electric option.

I prefer receiving and giving shared experiences. And best of all if they include wild lands, a campfire and a starlit night.

So Santa, pay attention!

I hope all of you readers have a safe, healthy and memorable Holidays!

From Quiet to the Big Noisy

Over the past three weeks I have been putting in many hours, particularly those bookending dawns and dusks, perched in various trees. As an archer trying to bag a deer, I’ve tried my best to become one with the tree.   Mostly these arboreal ambushes have been a series of silent retreats. Even though I haven’t had a shot yet, I have relished banking heavy doses of quietude. 

I break the creed of quiet when I hiss at a nearby red squirrel that is scolding my presence. Or I might blow a series of deep grunts as I halfheartedly try to challenge any bucks that might be within hearing distance. Ideally a buck would amble towards me to see what amorous intruder might be in his thicket. Mostly I maintain a silent vigil.

My mind wanders to arenas where I rarely venture. Lately I have wondered about the interplay of a swirling breeze and a lingering withered leaf gripping its summer berth on a naked twig. The wind will ultimately reign victorious in pulling the dry shard from its parent tree. But why are the neighboring parched leaves not shuddering? For the moment they are still. But if they follow the seasonal script of death and decay, their destiny will eventually be the same as the shivering leaf. Is the solo leaf shuddering only because of the physics of the passing air? Or is it the architecture of a wrinkled leaf? Or both? Or none of those factors. 

This is only one of the things I ponder while a baseball-shaped conk pokes into my lower back. The fungal jab provides the necessary discomfort to stave away any urge to doze. It’s imperative that I cannot get too comfortable or I won’t be able to pay keen attention . 

The pressure to add venison to our winter larder was lessened a couple of weeks ago when Miss Nancy arrowed a big doe. She had already filled much of the freezer with her summer gardening efforts. After butchering we canned seven quarts of venison and the rest we wrapped and stowed in the freezer  

Tranquility partners with me when I sit inside the log walls of the small cabin I built. Not only do the red pine logs block out noise but there are no operational clicks, buzzes or hums of electric appliances that effectively hijack silence inside the conventional home. 

I relish silence and yet rarely experience blanketing quietude. We live awash in noises that range from barely imperceptible to intolerable. We can’t avoid it. As our species has become more urbanized and “cyber-connected,” silence is a rare commodity. The constant thrum of daily living becomes more normal. 

When Miss Nancy and I spent extended periods of time in the Yukon Territory at our beloved Outpost, we came to meet a precocial three-year-old boy named Juneau. Juneau and his parents were neighbors of sorts. They lived 16 miles further down the gravel road. Their house, a stone’s throw from the Wheaton River and in the winter shadow of Anderson Mountain (no relation), was more of a cabin. It was small, totally off-grid and far from the rush of traffic and city noises. 

Juneau’s mother Rose was born and raised in New York City. After returning from his first ever odyssey to her hometown, he told us about his visit to what he called “the Big Noisy.” He preferred talking about how good red squirrel stew was as a favorite supper.

Tomorrow I fly to Tacoma to spend some time with my daughter, her husband and two grandkids. Silence, during waking hours, will be a rarity. Amidst the banter of make-believe, potions, and oh-so-much-dancing and singing, the space will be punctuated with squeals, owl calls,caterwauling, howls and expected bouts of overtired wails. At such moments I will display the amazing ability for humans to adapt and I will cherish the familial noise while simultaneously reaching into my vault of stillness for the necessary balance. 

Because I need both.

Bur Oak Elders


Head down, I strolled beneath the centenarian-plus bur oaks reside along the city streets elders of my hometown North Branch. My intention on this lovely evening was to collect bur oak seeds (acorns) from what I call the “North Branch heritage trees.” I was  searching for only the most robust and unscathed acorns from bur oaks that had a girth well beyond my own. These elder trees were part of the now extremely rare oak savanna that was growing here before North Branch was incorporated in 1881.

These trees are loyal providers of shade, beauty and sustenance, but they will die. I fear that future city decision-makers will remain blind to honoring the tree that set roots here first.

The most rotund acorns were from the bur oaks found on the block where I lived until third grade. These were easy to pick since they had fallen on the asphalt of the Methodist church parking lot. Some of them had settled in cracks where they sat like a perfect row of tomatoes in the grocery produce section. I wondered if these especially healthy looking acorns were more blessed by growing where they can hear the tunes of hymns sprinkled with prayers?

In his most informative book, Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota, Welby Smith writes, “Bur oak is the most common and ubiquitous oak in Minnesota.” It has me wondering why the red pine (Pinus resinosa) was selected as the state tree. Don’t get me wrong, red pine are lovely and I have just built a log cabin whose walls are red pine, but I would vote for a long-lived tree that wears the title “most ubiquitous oak.”

These oaks are the easiest of oaks to identify with the broad upper leaf with deep cut lobes. The acorns are capped with a bur of fringes unlike any other acorn.

I am puzzled why a spruce tree imprint was used on the North Branch freeway overpass. The spruce is a fine tree in a boreal setting, but in these parts it is entirely introduced rather than native.  The ground of east-central Minnesota is genius at growing oaks.

Sadly, homeowners rarely plant bur oaks in their yards. Instead, following our human nature of being sorely impatient, they lean towards a faster growing tree that will more quickly give them shade.

I argue that planting a bur oak, with its adaptations to cope with drought would be a smarter choice given the direction the climate is going. Besides, the bur oak is sturdier than most and can better withstand severe storms to assure future generations of dependable shade. 

I took my small bag of acorns home and tried three methods to keep the lineage of North Branch heritage oaks going. I strolled out in our 3-acre prairie and cast small handfuls into the native grasses and forbs.  I suspect that many of these broadcast acorns will be prized by foraging rodents.

With a lesser number of acorns, particularly the rotund Methodist ones, I stabbed a trowel two inches into the ground, tucked in an acorn, and pinched the soil back together to cover the seed.

I  planted other acorns in pots to bring indoors sometime in November, to plant out next spring.

I dispersed over 80 acorns, but if I get half a dozen oak seedlings to emerge next spring, I will be quite happy.

For the moment the simple act of planting was enough. I find great contentment in knowing that perhaps one of these acorns will stand strong in another 200 years.

Muscle Car

Easing up to the stoplight, I was startled to hear a staccato of loud pops as a svelte, wannabe-sports-car pulled up in the lane next to me. I looked over at the loud pronouncement.

The driver was sitting low in his seat so all I could see was his tousled hair sticking out from his ball cap. He looked over at me. Was that a slight smile or a sneer? He gave a subtle head toss aimed in the direction we were faced. The message was clear. “Want to go?” The question was accented with a sharp second volley of pops from his steed. I could not answer his car’s tinny challenging call with an engine that runs closer to mute.

I never had a muscle car until now. As a teen if you had a muscle car you could turn heads, particularly female ones.  As for me, I drove a six-cylinder 1963 Comet. That little pale green Buick did not turn heads. 

The Comet flared out when I was a freshman in college so I bought a four-year-old blue-green ’65 Ford Mustang. The $750 car was in excellent condition with 36,000 miles on it. It was not powered by the more common snappy eight- cylinder, 289 cc engine. Instead, it charged down the highway with the help of a mighty six-cylinder engine with an automatic transmission. I didn’t even have to think about shifting. I tried to macho it up  with four shiny baby moon hubcaps and installed a wood steering wheel. Man that car could purr. 

So it seemed only fitting that a year ago, when our 2004 Prius edged towards 300,000 miles we decided to go “muscle car.” And the new muscle car on the street is unequivocally the electric car. 

Two words make it such a hot car: instant torque. The fast acceleration is made possible by the electric current combined with magnetic fields in the motor powering each pair of wheels. A gas engine takes much longer to combust gas and turn the crankshaft.

We started our research and talked to folks who either had one or knew more about electric cars than we did. Ultimately we chose the electric vehicle (EV) that currently gives the best range per charge and that was a Tesla. The greater impetus was to lessen our household carbon footprint. It was just over a year ago that we silently drove a Model Y home. 

While the up-front cost was far more than I had ever paid for a car, we will save significant money during the course of its life. The two primary maintenance items will be replacing wiper blades and tires. No dollars will be spent on an exhaust system, radiator, water pump, timing belt, transmission, gas or oil, and more. We will not have to replace our brakes nearly as often since the car uses regenerative braking which creates electricity the second you let your foot off the accelerator. Best of all there will be zero tailpipe emissions. 

We “fill” our car by charging it at home with off-peak wind-generated electricity.  The first month we charged at home our off-peak bill was $12. Since then our highest monthly bill has been around $20. If we had good southerly exposure we could charge it with sunshine collected by a photovoltaic system. 

As with all vehicles there are emissions released in the manufacture of EVs. People who are concerned with the use of cobalt and the rare earth minerals will be glad to know that Tesla is going to zero-cobalt batteries and other EV manufacturers have cut cobalt use by 70 percent. 

According to a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, EVs will be cost competitive with combustion-engine cars by 2022. The trend is due to the plunging price of EV batteries. In addition, the cost of renewable energy is drastically falling.

The cleanest unit of energy is the one that is not used. But we are still going to need energy. So where do we get it?  In order to drive down carbon emissions and attempt to slow the climate crisis, we need to move quickly to renewable energy sources. Throughout human history, energy transitions have never been easy. Whether it was steam power, coal, oil, nuclear and solar power, there are segments of the population that are resistant to the change.  Consequently change is ponderous.

We tested the range of the electric car when we drove from Minnesota to Tacoma, Washington for Christmas. The heavy battery is under the floor of the car so it is close to the road. Consequently the car handles curves and quick moves like a darting red squirrel. 

We learned much. Our fears about running out of power were set aside. We asked the car, “Navigate to Tacoma” and a map of our route appeared on the screen that resides alone on the dash. It showed all the Tesla Supercharger stations on our route. We assumed that we would be charging the battery fully at each stop. Not necessary. The car tells you how much you need to charge to get to the following charging station. Only once, in the long open country of Montana did we feel a niggle of anxiety when a message appeared on the screen that told us we had to drop our speed by 5 mph to get to the next charging station. We made the adjustment and got there with 4% of a charge remaining. 

Our average time charging the car was 20 minutes. Admittedly that is slower than filling a gas tank, but after a couple of days of traveling Nancy and I realized the gift in the longer breaks. Not only did it allow plenty of time for a bathroom or snack break, but it had us taking a brisk walk or short jog. After a day of driving, our bodies felt much better with the periodic exercise.  

The average cost for charging was $10. In summertime we can expect to get about 315 miles with a fully charged battery. As with traditional gas powered cars, efficiency drops in the winter. 

We were nervous about going over the mountain passes in winter. We encountered a couple inches of slush and while we carried chains we did not need them. The car handled wonderfully. Some people worry about really cold weather and EVs. In northern Canada, two Yukon Territory acquaintances drive EVs and they have had no problems. 

 Back at the stoplight, I waited for the signal to turn green. 

I struggled with my decision to give the “the kid” a sobering lesson on what instant torque was all about. I decided  this was not the place for such a duel. I was not willing to be party to a traffic violation or a potential accident.   

I politely smiled, gripped the steering wheel and raised two fingers in greeting. The light turned green and his explosive farewell was a lingering cloud of exhaust that rose to merge with a civilization’s legacy of denial and inaction.

Note: Feel free to contact me if you have Tesla questions. And if you do choose to buy one, the following link and referral code will garner each of us 1000 free Supercharger miles.

Keeping Company with an Old Tree

I’m partial to white pines.

When I go to bed each night I sleep in a house framed in old growth white pine lumber built by my great-great grandfather in the late 1800s.  Recently, I felt compelled to reacquaint myself with an old living pine friend. It was a foggy early morning when I hopped on my mountain bike and headed to the matriarch white pine, a half mile from our house.  

The thick trunked pine has been a giant landmark ever since I was a kid.  She grows in a scrubby narrow strip that once harbored a barbed wire fence denoting farm borders. The fence is long gone but the tree remains robust. Flanked by open land, it has been tormented and tested by winds that have ravaged lesser trees. The silhouette of this tree is not the typical white pine with a tapering terminal summit. This one wears a truncated canopy, likely the result of the wind’s barbering of the top. When a tree’s apex is sheared, the lower limbs grow more bushy and start curving skyward.

I laid the bike down in the pine needle duff below the thick arcing lower limbs. I counted 22 smaller white pines of various ages, growing within twenty yards of the mother trunk. Each of these is likely progeny from the overhead giant. Recent science has shown that a parent tree’s roots and accompanying fungal strands are in communication with the offspring.  

I walked around the tree, assessing my squirreling route. My first steps would be on the heavy low limbs. Each of these limbs carries more girth than most whole trees. At fifteen feet up I still could not begin to encircle the thick trunk with my arms.  

I have a vivid memory of climbing high in this very tree as a youngster. Back then this land I looked over was soybeans, corn, rye or alfalfa. Now these fields harbor a restored prairie. On that boyhood summiting I carried my official boy scout manual with me. From my high perch I studied its pages.  I still have that book but on this day it remained shelved back at the house.  

Now more than fifty-five years later, my climb is more deliberate and slow. It felt good to be back up here. The soft sigh of the breeze through the needles, the resinous smell and the pulpit view brought to mind the book Anne of Green Gables. I read it aloud to my daughters when they were little. The scene that had me fall in love with Anne was when she stepped off the train to her new home on Prince Edward Island. No one was at the railroad station to pick her up. She had time to kill so she climbed a tree. Finally, Mathew arrives and she tells him, “I had made up my mind that if you didn’t come for me to-night I’d go down the track to that big wild cherry-tree at the bend, and climb up into it to stay all night. I wouldn’t be a bit afraid, and it would be lovely to sleep in a wild cherry-tree all white with bloom in the moonshine, don’t you think?”

How could you not be smitten by her?

Days before I climbed the tree, a pair of yellowthroat warblers busied themselves in the underbrush and lush canopy. On this hazy morning, there was not the bird activity that I hoped for. No surprise with summer here, there are young to feed and fledging going on.

Instead I kept avian company with a song sparrow that was still tirelessly declaring territorial boundaries in the brush below me.  In the same thicket a catbird mewed its feline-like call and a chickadee paused on a limb below me and vocalized its name for me.  In a nearby strip of woods I listened to a red-bellied woodpecker and a flicker call.  I soon realized that most of the birds were below me, including a  pair of mourning doves that rocketed by the tree.

I made my way up 30 feet before feeling trepidation. There were still plenty of stout branches to use as rungs but an inner voice said “that’s enough.” I paused where there was a natural opening through the limbs where I could peer out over the prairie. An unexpected surprise arrived with a pair of swans trumpeting their hoots in flight as they passed my pine window. 

The tree shared the movement of a breeze born on the warming day. That settled it. I would go no further up. There was no sense in pulling a John Muir moment of riding in the treetops in a strong wind. Muir was a famous Scottish-born American naturalist of the late 1800s and early 1900s who became a key advocate on behalf of land preservation and was instrumental in preserving land for national parks. 

Muir wrote about an experience where he climbed a tall fir tree in northern California and a storm swept in. “Never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion. The slender tops fairly flapped and swished in the passionate torrent, bending and swirling backward and forward, round and round, tracing indescribable combinations of vertical and horizontal curves, while I clung with muscles firm braced like a bobolink on a reed. . . I kept my lofty perch for hours, frequently closing my eyes to enjoy the music itself.” 

Up high peering through the gentle sway of limbs, I was content. I couldn’t help but revel and honor the last of the twelve scout laws found in my scout manual. It states a “A scout is reverent.” I still live by that law. To me reverence is a firm belief of the need to respect others and the natural world.

Admittedly I couldn’t stay tree bound as long as I did as a boy. The boughs were not fitting to my twisted form so easily. I was about to return to the ground when I spotted three crows flying at eye-level towards the pine. I tracked them with my binoculars until they were almost at the tree. They swerved and the closest one turned its head slightly towards me. I think I spied a wink of acknowledgement. 

An Unplanned Pause

Four of us were one hundred sixty one miles into the two-hundred mile canoe trip. We were traveling the historic Voyageur’s Highway, a paddle route that follows the border between the USA and Canada.  We were along a stretch of the Granite River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area when we faced a sudden change of plans. 

Sometimes the best laid plans go awry. A favorite joke punchline that had been guffawed at an earlier campsite was the conclusion, “It’s a whole new ballgame.” And now, in an instant, that line was no longer part of a joke. 

In his book Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales makes the point that there are no real accidents. Instead, he argues, there are a series of decisions that lead to the mishap. The decision to paddle this route set this unplanned moment into motion. 

Our average age was 68.  I had dubbed the four of us friends as “Boyageurs” when we pushed off on Crane Lake and paddled east with the hopes of reaching Lake Superior in sixteen days. I would be remiss to not acknowledge the tinge of trepidation about the fifteen miles of portaging required to reach the giant freshwater sea. Our planned sixteenth day would be an all-day walk as the last carry would require us to carry packs and canoes the final nine miles to Grand Portage. 

During the days leading up to the Granite River, we had experienced some unseasonably hot weather. The heat combined with more canoeists vying for campsites had us quickly changing our strategy. We began paddling early in the day, usually by 6 AM, and then stopping after a couple of hours and preparing coffee and breakfast. 

Traveling west to east, similar to voyageurs carrying canoes ladened with ninety-pound bales of furs headed to the fort at Grand Portage, we expected westerly prevailing breezes to help push us along. Instead for the first two days we had very calm and hot weather. Then the winds came but from the south and east. One day we were windbound for 3 hours before we could push on into a lessened wind.   

It was Day 11 and we pushed off before 6 AM into unusual early morning headwind under welcomed overcast skies. Our goal on this day was to paddle up the rest of the Granite River, making six portages before reaching Gunflint Lake where we had promised ourselves a break with a cold beer and burger at Gunflint Lodge before moving east on the lake. 

We had just completed the third portage of the morning, were loading packs into the canoes. Kurt stepped away to relieve himself. Hearing a loud grunt and a crash in the brush I called out, “Kurt! You okay?”

There was a long moment of silence followed by a forced “No.”

We ran into the woods and found him on the ground. 

“My hip is out.”

One of his two artificial hips had dislocated itself when he negotiated the underbrush by bending, squatting and twisting his upper body. During the entire trip, he had carried packs, set up the tent, tended camp chores with absolutely no problem but this simple move had put into motion, “a whole new ballgame.”

We were relieved when Kurt assured us that he was in no pain at all. 

We managed to help him to his good leg and we hobbled him out of the woods and ultimately into the stern of the canoe. It was a half mile paddle to the next portage and it was there that we realized we would not be able to get him up the steep, rocky trail. So we got Kurt comfortable and made a plan. 

 Duane and I would travel fast in an empty canoe, taking only a small pack with some snacks and rain gear. Nels would stay with Kurt with our packs. They had the tent, food, stove and other gear for spending the night if necessary. 

We hurried over the steep and rocky portage, paddled a short lake, made a second and a third portage around Blueberry Falls. Two lakes away from Gunflint Lodge, we pulled the canoe up the knee-deep fast water to avoid a last portage. Approaching thunder had us securely fastening our life jackets.  As we paddled out onto Magnetic Lake, the skies opened up and torrents of rain pounded us. 

I wondered if we were “bending the map” in jeopardizing our own safety. But I was not seeing lightening flashing anywhere so we kept our fast paddling cadence up. We were about to push through the narrows leading into Gunflint Lake when the rain stopped.  The east wind however, seemed to find strength. 

Gunflint Lake runs east-west and we had to cross a two-mile stretch on the west end of the lake. That meant that the waves had plenty of fetch to build to big swells punctuated with trains of whitecaps. We paddled hard, unable to switch paddling sides because we had to maintain an angle to reach the distant lodge. 

At times Duane rose above the swell in his bow seat and then loudly slammed into the wave again. We both had to employ stable brace strokes to keep the canoe from rolling too much. Without the solid ballast of stowed packs, I worried about all the water that our canoe carried as it sloshed back and forth. From a distance we could make out a person standing attentively on the Lodge dock. 

Finally the bow of the canoe eased up onto the Lodge beach. The person we had been watching, the dock manager hurried over to us. Watching through binoculars he figured we were not out for a recreational paddle in such seas. All the Lodge fishing boats were tied up and were rising up and down alongside the dock. It was as if the lake was breathing hard from the exertion. 

We explained our emergency. The dock manager immediately summoned Jacob, the Lodge Site Manager.  Soaking wet we went into the Lodge and ordered a hot cup of coffee and a thick burger. As a member of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Search and Rescue/Fire Department, Jacob laid out a map on the table. We pinpointed Kurt’s location and provided details of Kurt’s physical appearance, his height and weight and so on. 

We assumed a float plane would fly in and pick Kurt up, but Jacob said that the lake was not large enough for the local Forest Service Cessna planes. They would have to take a team of volunteers, traveling by canoe to get Kurt out.  

But within half an hour, a Forest Service Beaver aircraft was floating at the end of the Lodge dock. It had flown in from Ely, a twenty-five minute flight. Known as “the workhorse of the north,” the Beaver requires very little area for taxiing, landing and take off. Little did they realize that Kurt absolutely loves the signature throaty growl from its radial engine. 

Kurt later recalled his spirits lifting mightily when he picked up the song of the approaching plane.  He knew he would get a ride unlike any other Beaver flight he had taken prior to this trip.

At the same time five members of the rescue effort paddled in in two canoes to fetch Nels and to pick up our other canoe and packs. The three canoes paddled out through the serpentine low country of Larch Creek back to the Gunflint Trail.   

Within an hour of taking off, the plane was back and the crew was unloading Kurt and putting him on a gurney to the awaiting ambulance. He was hustled off to Grand Marais Hospital. But they were unable to set his hip so he spent two more hours in the ambulance aiming for Duluth. That evening at 11 PM his artificial hip and socket were married again. 

A bunkhouse room was found for the three of us remaining at Gunflint Lodge. We finished eating a delicious evening meal and the Lodge chef came out of the kitchen and asked, “Have you heard how your friend is doing?” No news yet. We told him we would be back for breakfast the following morning.  The chef highly recommended the “Trail Hash.”

And suddenly it was morning. The hash was fantastic and so was the chef’s  generosity when he brought a boxed piece Gunflint Lodge blueberry pie to deliver to “our friend.” 

It was just after noon when we pulled up to the front of the hospital.  Kurt walked out with an aw shucks grin and joined us for our ride back home. 

And now there is talk of completing a job undone. The “Boyageurs” will return to Gunflint Lake to pick up the old Voyageur trail and finish the trip later this summer. 

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