To Fear or Not to Fear. . . That is the Question

Grizz and WhelenGrizz and Whelen


Something caused Miss Nancy to look up from our supper preparations.

“That’s a bear,”  she said. A moment passed for her to focus on the beast with the shoulder hump before she followed up with more vigor, “That’s a fucking bear!”

All eyes followed her gaze to the silver-backed  grizzly that was ambling towards our camp.

Our party of six canoeists was descending the remote Wind River in Canada’s Yukon Territory. We had made camp at the base of a long steep ridge that ran parallel to the river.

The moment we saw the bear, our fight-or-flight response kicked in. The amygdala, that almond-sized feature deep in the center of our brain, signaled the threat. This ancient part of our brain creates instant responses — sometimes good, sometimes bad.

In this case our prefrontal cortex vetoed the amygdala’s first response: to flee. The prefrontal cortex is located directly behind our forehead. It is the planning center where decision-making and mental processes take place. Unlike the primitive character of the amygdala, this forefront of the brain is a relatively late feature in the evolution of  humans. These two brain loci often wrestle with each other, sometimes causing delays or a poor decision. Ill decisions can result in serious injuries or death.

We knew that you never run from a grizzly bear. Our flight might trigger an attack. Knowing that, all of us merged together resembling a twelve-legged oddity.We picked up a nearby bear spray and realized that the other two cans were in the tents, some fifty yards away. So like a moving football huddle we slowly shuffled towards the tents and recovered the other two cans of high-octane pepper spray.

By this time, the bear was thirty yards from us. Nothing about the bear’s body language appeared threatening. . .yet.

Luckily for us and perhaps for the bear, a gust of wind caught a loosened corner of our tarp lean-to. It cracked loudly, like someone snapping a towel at the bear’s derrière. The sound sent the bear running.

For hours afterwards, we all experienced a welcome blend of feelings. There was a rush of pleasure tempered with a splash of nervous giddiness and sweet horror.

As I worked on writing the four regional editions of Things that Bite: A Realistic Look at Critters that Scare People, it became clear to me that we humans often wallow in unfounded fears.

While bear attacks on humans make the front page of newspapers across the continent, bees and wasps are responsible for far more deaths per year than bears. Their stings can trigger anaphylactic shock and potential death in approximately 2% of our population. Yet have you ever seen a front page story about a bee attack?

And now, as if bees and  bears  aren’t enough, we are fed daily doses of fear from the media. We are supposed to think that disease carrying mosquitoes and shadowy terrorists are lurking right outside our door. As a result we become paralyzed instead of exercising critical thinking skills in our brain’s prefrontal cortex.

I recently saw a clever photo of a sign that was altered by changing one letter.  It said, “Please Don’t Feed the Fears.”  I wish all media outlets would post that sign in every journalist’s cubicle.


The reality is that while you are enjoying a summer parade you are statistically more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by a terrorist, bee sting or a bear attack.

So get outside, take a deep breath, embrace your lightning quick amygdala and exercise your prefrontal cortex.

Embracing Winter


Perhaps it’s my Nordic lineage that requires frequent doses of frigid temperatures and crystalline landscapes of white and deep snow. In my opinion this winter has been tainted with unseasonable warm weather and too little snow. It looks like General Winter has been outflanked by the tag team efforts of El Niño and Climate Change. One descriptor I would use to describe the last few months  is, well, feeble.

Yet, in the few days when  air temps have actually dropped, barely, below zero, it has been embarrassing to hear television news and weather folks feed the “wimpifying” of society. Listening to them you would expect that the impending weather might cause social collapse. Sadly, folks eat it up. Social networking conversations and grocery store and coffee shop banter often lean timidly towards the doomsday forecast. It’s pathetic that a simple forecast can lead to such trembling and hunkering down indoors.

We in the Midwest used to take pride in our stoic view of winter. Bud Grant wouldn’t be caught dead in a stocking cap and his team of Vikings would take to the football field in bitter temps with no sideline heaters. School girls  wore slacks under their dresses when going to school, took them off in the restroom and then put them on for their walk or bus ride home. And I’ll bet there were far more tongues stuck on metal playground equipment when kids played outside, regardless of the temps. More and more we are divorcing ourselves from winter’s  embrace.

Deep cold reminds me that I am very much alive. The squeak of sharp-edged snow crystals grating against each other as I walk out to fetch kindling. The burn of frigid air being drawn into my lungs. The sting of thawing fingers.

The week after Christmas we hosted our dear Canadian friends Beth and Dieter, visiting from their remote Yukon cabin located 25 miles north of the nearest road. Their roadway is the Yukon River. During the summer months they fetch supplies and mail from Dawson in their 19-foot Grumman square stern canoe powered with a small outboard motor.

During the winter, without a snow machine or a dog team, they snowshoe, ski or hike to get around. Dog mushers occasionally pass their home while running on the Yukon River to Eagle, Alaska.  One winter, when Beth had some health issues, Dieter scribbled “Help” on a piece of cardboard and placed it along the dog mushing trail. Within a day or so a musher came by and carried Beth into the medical clinic in Dawson.

Like most Canadians, they are unpretentious, polite and refreshingly understated. After finishing supper the discussion came around to Beth’s work as a fibre-artist. She occasionally flies across the Canadian Arctic, particularly to remote villages to teach her skills to others. She shared how a year ago she walked on the frozen Yukon River into Dawson to catch a flight the following day. Remember, it’s 25 miles to Dawson and winter days that far north are brief. As an afterthought she shared, “It was pretty cold.”

I asked, “How cold?”

Very matter-of-factly, she answered, “Minus 40.”

“Yikes!” was my wide-eyed response.

She played down the stroll by adding that Dieter walked with her for two hours to keep her company before he headed back to their small boreal cabin to tend to the fires while she was gone.

“In my pack of clothes and art supplies I had a spare pair of boots and a mess of moose meat. The trip took twelve and a half hours.”

She paused and smiled, “I have to admit I relished the hot shower at the Dawson hotel I stayed in that night.”

In northern Norway, the town of Tromsø has played host to studies looking at the role of winter on human attitudes. Folks in this community, located well above the Arctic circle, actually love the polar-dimmed landscape of winter.

Pessimism is one of the greatest contagions on the planet. If someone gripes and whines about the cold, it’s always easy to agree and before you know it everybody says the cold sucks.

I  urge you to rebel against others in your shivering tribe and sing praises of the quiet cold.  Backyard trees, shrubs and many
flowering plants depend on the mid-winter interval of cold to thrive in the summer. It offers them needed dormancy.

Winter is suited for our own sort of dormancy and quiet introspection. There is no better place to embrace the quietude than to get outdoors, at ALL times of the year and silently marvel at those abundant natural systems that make it possible for you and me to thrive.


Yeti Search

These Boots Are Made For Walking


“Well, these boots are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do.”                                                                                                      -Nancy Sinatra, from her 1966 hit song, These Boots Are Made For Walking (written by Lee Hazlewood)

A little over a month ago, I strolled through unseasonal Pacific Northwest sunshine amidst the tall canyons of downtown Seattle. I could have sworn my faithful foot companions clutched my feet tighter when we entered the REI mothership store and passed ranks of stiff, new hiking boots. While those boots were awaiting to be chosen for the trials of the trail, my old Vasque Sundowners have tromped, scuffled, leaped, slogged, crept, climbed and waded well over a thousand miles.

 When my feet slide into the snug foot-formed stable of Vasque, I am one with them.  Donning them usually signals an adventure.

 My beloved Vasques moved into my house about eighteen years ago. Their maiden voyage was a “courting” backpacking trip with Miss Nancy in Ontario’s Pukaskwa National Park on the true north shore of Lake Superior.

I have just picked up the boots from the top of the kitchen woodburning stove. Like a dog curled next to the warmth, the pair of worn and scruffed boots were heated to better absorb the mink oil that I was about to massage into the leather.

 I rubbed slowly, working the oil into the dry leather. I was careful around a small tear in the leather on the left foot. The tear has been patched for the time being with a glob of Shoe-Goo.


Repairs and maintenance are not foreign to my boots. Three years ago I mailed them off to a distant cobbler’s bench where a new pair of Vibram soles replaced the old ones. The originals were worn nearly as smooth as a creek’s stone. The boot doc told me that this would be the last pair of soles my boots could handle. Like a desert elder, my boots’ skin is showing its years in the accumulation of tiny cracks and wrinkles. And yes, I have been a steadfast applicator of mink oil. The leather uppers can only go so many miles before they tear or open up and release the sole.

I leaned into the stove’s warmth and kneaded the boots like a sinner worrying rosary beads. I reflected on previous adventures that we three old pals have had together. 

Did they form perfectly to my feet after being soaked in the icy rush of Skookum Creek in the Yukon Territory? Wearing wet boots until they dry allows them to  mold perfectly to my feet.

Or was it the frequent post-holing of my feet in deep snow patches on summer Yukon summits with names like Goat, Tally-Ho, Twin, Perkins, White, Caribou or Needle that soaked and stretched the foot wear’s hide to form so well on me?

If the frequent soaking was the Yang, then the parched heat of desert was the Yin. These boots navigated through slickrock speckled with sage, cacti and juniper in Utah’s Canyonlands. Here the boots became dulled with sandy dust. This country is conducive to cracks in boots and grander ones in the land.

Then there was the dizzying, eleven-mile hike along Kauai’s lush Napali coastline where sticky red mud clogged the lugged soles.  

The boots even made a pilgrimage to the old country in arctic Norway. I strolled among enormous boulders called erratics. Left behind after the last glacial sheets melted thousands of years ago, these massive markers lie like giant dice in the midst of a craps game and invoked a welcome humility.


The Sundowners have been bloodied. After taking a fall on top of Needle Mountain, I broke a metatarsal in my left hand and my gashed right leg spilled blood down into my boot. It should be noted that both feet, firmly protected in my snug Vasque shells were fine, allowing me to take take the long descent down the mountain.  The blood of several whitetail bucks have spilled onto my boots as I field dressed the animals in northern Minnesota. 

I rubbed my boots and stared through the stove glass at the pulsing embers. I wonder who first tried tying some semblance of a shoe or protector on their foot. The earliest evidence can be found in the15,000 year old cave paintings in Spain and France. The illustration shows what appears to be animal skins bound to the feet.

Fast forward to the 20th century and most mountaineers were wearing boots with small nails sticking through the bottom. These hobnail boots provided better gripping in icy and slippery conditions.

In 1935, Italian alpinist Vitali Bramani lost six of his friends to exposure in the Alps when they could not get off the mountain due to severe weather conditions. The tragedy inspired him to develop a new lugged sole made from vulcanized rubber. It left an imprint like a waffle iron and gripped well in wet and dry conditions. Named after merging the first few letters in his birth name and surname, the patented sole was christened Vibram (pronounced VEEB-rum). 

When I retire these excellent boots, I’ll find another similar pair and introduce them to wild places and frequent massages. These are ingredients that assure a long partnership.


wading the little missouri

Gramma’s Bodybuilder for Colds






I was mired in the “mother-of-all-colds” when we returned home from a week of thanks and giving in Washington State. I can’t blame the airplane bugs for this one. I was already experiencing the harbingers of tough times ahead with a scratchy sore throat as I checked in at the airport. I felt some relief when the airline agent handling our solitary checked item went wide-eyed after asking what was in the old cooler that was wrapped in duct tape. “A dead turkey,” I replied.  But that’s another story.

For a week I suffered mightily. I fought my flagging health with naps, lots of water, tea, and perhaps too many vigorous hikes. Returning to Minnesota, I had another five days of middle of the night coughing jags that were so intense they squeezed tears out of my eyes.

When you lay in bed you have time to think. I recalled various cures such as hot chicken noodle soup, oil of oregano in hot water or a nightly shot of peppermint schnapps. I tend to eschew pharmaceuticals but I had even resorted to some tablets of something that phonetically sounded spooky.

As I lay semi-comatose, sketches of a life unfinished danced through my mind. One was like an angel-delivered epiphany as I recalled how my late Great Grandma Schmidt dealt with a cold.  She lived 104 years, but this tale took place when she was younger, in her spritely and sharp 90s.

I remember it quite clearly because Gramma, as the family called her, was battling a cough and cold. She had gone to the doctor and reported to him that the prescribed medication wasn’t working. She told the doc that she was going to go home and make a batch of Bodybuilder just like her mother used to make her when she was sick.

Curious, the doc asked about the ingredients of this miraculous potion. As she told him she wondered aloud if she could get all the necessary ingredients.

Like all honorable Grammas, this one never went to the liquor store and she wasn’t sure if they would have the needed rye whiskey. I don’t know if it was out of genuine curiosity or because he felt bad that his prescribed medicines didn’t work, but the doc called the liquor store to ask if they had rye whiskey. They did.

Born in Nebraska well before Henry Ford wheeled his first auto out, Gramma moved with her family to South Dakota when she was eleven.

I recall asking Gramma how she garnered the recipe for this healthy concoction. “Well,” she said, “I was seven or so . . . .no, no, I was six.” (Remember I noted her sharpness.) She continued, “My parents had just bought a new Round Oak Heater. You could load the firebox with coal before bed and that stove would hold heat all night. A pamphlet called Home Remedies and Household Hints came with that stove. And my mother recognized a recipe for ‘consumption’ because she had a bout with consumption when she was five years old in 1864. It was called Body Builder.”

Gramma explained, “Consumption could get in your lungs and begin to deteriorate your body.”

For centuries, “consumption” was used to describe any fatal wasting disease. In essence, the body was consumed by the unknown malady that most often affected the lungs. It wasn’t until 1882 that a German physician, Robert Koch, identified the bacterium that caused tuberculosis.

I was visiting my recovering Gramma when she showed me the Body Builder recipe:

½ lb. of fresh beefsteak, finely cut or ground with no fat

1 dram (or 1 oz.) of pulverized charcoal

4 oz. pulverized sugar or powder sugar with no cornstarch

4 oz. of rye whiskey

1 pint of boiling water

 Mix all together and let it stand in a cool place overnight. Take 1-2 tsp. of liquid and meat before each meal.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: If you choose to try this cold fighting remedy, you do so at your own risk.

Gramma smiled as she recalled recruiting her perky 75-year old daughter-in-law to drive her around town to pick up the Body Builder components.

First stop was the local butcher shop. Gramma closely watched the grinding of the fat-trimmed piece of beef. Then they went to the drug store for the pulverized charcoal. The local pharmacist knew her well and asked, “Elsie, are you going to make gunpowder?”

Both tee-totaling ladies felt “a little naughty” at the final stop, the liquor store. When the clerk set the fifth of whiskey on the counter, Gramma asked if she could have just half the bottle as she didn’t need that much. Regrettably she had to buy the whole bottle. “But,” Gramma reported with a grin, “the nice man gave us each a pen.”

While Gramma was relaying the story to me, she walked slowly over to her fridge and returned carrying a jar of what I thought might be a glob of oil sludge. She opened the jar and dipped a teaspoon in the Body Builder and offered a few drops for me. Not bad. Really. Not bad.

Then she shuffled over to her cupboard and carefully took out a nearly full bottle of rye whiskey. She unscrewed the cap and held the bottle up to my nose. With an impish, elderly smile she said, “Smells kind of strong doesn’t it?”

I knew she was feeling better when she said, “You know I’m a naturalist, I let nature dictate my life.”

Hmmm. I wonder if she added a bit of “Wisdom Builder” in her last batch?




Taking the “Ish” Out of Fish


Dead animals are magnets for children and flies.

Nothing morbid about that since such a rendezvous is often one of the first encounters a child has with death. Try this scenario. A parent is walking with their child and they come upon a dead robin, rabbit, June bug, salmon or whatever. Rather than being curious about the moment and taking the opportunity to ask and receive questions, parents often command, “Don’t touch that!” or “Ick! Get away from that!”

Sadly, those utterances will serve as walls, rather than building blocks for learning.

Granted, if the child could get hurt then I understand the need to divert his or her actions. And I fully appreciate the need to teach good manners.  But all too frequently hawking parents are stifling their child’s curiosity. Ironically such parental hovering shackles a child from surrendering to pure wonder.

There is a fine line between managing children’s safety and letting them discover the magic of spontaneity.

More and more it seems that child-rearing has become an exercise in casting out broad nets of “don’ts and “be carefuls.” We are creating a culture based on mis-guided and phantom fears.

The irony is that we are now learning that exposing  kids to the plethora of germs is the healthier option than the ultra-hygienic path.  Research shows that exposing kids to germs  builds stronger immune systems and  diminishes problems with allergies and asthma.

Over Thanksgiving,  my family and I were in Bellingham, Washington.  It occurred to me that one of my all-time favorite students from my days of working at Warner Nature Center in Minnesota was now living with his family in the area. A little detective work and a phone call put us in touch.

Peter was 8 years old when he showed up at a class I taught about reptiles and amphibians. That began an eight year history in teaching each other. We fed off each other’s enthusiasm and to this day I only have to reflect on those days to recharge my own.

Shortly, we joined Peter, his wife Lucy and their children Grace, age 10 and Wilder, age 8 for a  post-Thanksgiving lunch of delicious planned-overs. We were actually helping them finish off a turkey they had raised and named “Thanksgiving.”

I was pleased to learn that the raising of the bird, the killing and butchering did not cause any family strife. These kids have been involved with home-grown food before and understood that plants and animals die for us to eat.

After eating and visiting we took a 20-minute drive to a small  fast running creek where Peter and his family had seen some salmon the day before. We parked and walked a short distance to the ten-foot wide flow, less than a hundred yards from the Pacific. Standing on a low railroad bridge over the water we could see a number of chum salmon directly beneath us  that were slowly making their way to their death.

These salmon are sometimes called “dog” salmon because of the long, curved canine teeth that the males develop during the spawning stage, the last hours of their lives. Some say their namesake is derived from the common practice of feeding these fish to sled dogs.

Both adult male and female chum return to the stream of their birth and make their way up the gravel-bottomed shallows. Here the female  prepares a shallow depression on the  bottom to lay hundreds or even thousands of eggs. The dominant male will shoulder his way close to the egg-laying female and release a thin milky cloud of sperm or milt. This act might be repeated several times before both the male and female are worn out and shortly thereafter die.

Spent salmon, those in their final hours of life, have lost their fresh color of living in the ocean. Now they become mottled, with patches of their body turning pallid and ragged. The fish literally begin to decompose while alive. In their final minutes of life, they lie on their sides, with only their gills slowly fanning the last drinks of oxygen from their home waters.

It was such a fish that eight-year old Wilder stood over in the creek shallows. Nearby, fresher fish surged upstream against the current and a handful of salmon carcasses were grounded in the shallows.

Wilder excitedly looked up at his dad, Peter, and asked, “Hey dad can I touch it?”

This would have been the moment that I dare-say most parents would respond with “No! Ish!” Any curiosity and potential for learning would be immediately skewered.

Peter paused a moment and answered, “You know, I don’t know Wilder.” Another pause and he asked his son, “Why don’t you listen to what your heart and gut say about it.”

Brilliant. He honored Wilder by giving him the chance to make the decision himself and in doing so communicated that he, as a parent, was perfectly fine with either choice. It was that simple.

Wilder leaned over the stilled fish and tentatively reached forward to touch it. He had barely poked its flank when the not-quite-dead fish found the energy to flop and struggle in the shallows, splashing a very surprised young boy.

Wilder pulled away and stood frozen.”It’s alive Dad!!”

Peter and Lucy had told both Grace and Wilder about the salmon’s cycle of life and death the previous day.  For children, death is hard to comprehend. Encountering death can be an opportunity for a quiet and reverent discussion that honors a child’s natural curiosity.

The sun was setting on that cool November afternoon and we all walked away with our own memories of what we had experienced. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilder’s fingers smelled a bit like fish. No problem, he had just found an amazing  story.

Surrender to Wonder 2





Food Close to Home


Yesterday we butchered Nancy’s deer.

This was the second deer in as many years that she tagged with her archery license. Her hunt required lots of practice, learning about the life of a whitetail deer, looking for deer sign (without the help of a game trail camera) and then putting in hours of practicing stillness on various deer stands. And I might mention that she really doesn’t like climbing up and sitting on small platforms that are nearly three times higher than she is tall.

The young doe died quickly after a single arrow shot and Nancy gutted it with little help.

About two years ago, Nancy was exasperated with the deer come into the garden under the cover of darkness and pilfering her tender crops.

“It makes me want to hunt deer,” she hissed.

“Maybe you should.” I replied.

“It would increase our odds of putting venison in the freezer and besides, I think you might like the zen state of archery shooting. It can be very focusing and at the same time relaxing.”

I suggested she  bow hunt since she could get out into the woods during the fine days of autumn rather than later in the fall when the temps grow colder and snowfall sometimes makes an appearance. Nancy doesn’t do well with sitting still in cold weather.

While I use the tools of bow and arrow for deer hunting, I choose to use a recurve bow with no sights or trigger releases. But I suggested she buy an easier to use compound bow that uses a sight and a trigger for releasing the arrow. The compound bow uses a a system of cables and pulleys to bend the limbs of the bow. It makes it much easier for the archer to draw the bow back as far as possible and take timeto relax and aim at the target.

Several months later she bought a second hand  bow, from our friend and avid archer, Willy, co-owner of Full Draw Archery. He took time in making sure the bow and arrows fit her needs. Willy showed her several trigger releases to choose from and of course she chose a pink camo release.

Last year was her first year in attempting to kill a deer. As I mentored her, I recall one question in particular. “What if I cry when I kill a deer?”

My immediate response was that she should absolutely feel remorse. Crying is totally okay. More than once I have walked up to a freshly killed deer and have had tears well up. Killing an animal is not an easy act. You look at the animal as its eyes glaze over and you realize that only minutes ago this was a noble and fully alive animal. And now you have killed it.

However, I would argue that the charge of murderer can apply to anyone who chooses to eat meat.  I am also complicit in the murder of the convenient rotisserie chicken at the grocery store or the salmon I order in a restaurant. Consequently Nancy and I prefer to eat meat that we have had a direct and intimate relationship with rather than that which is wrapped in plastic or shrink wrap.

As the hunter/executor, I believe you have the obligation to treat the dead deer with the utmost respect. For me it always means a minute or so of silence and reflection with my hand resting on the animal before I begin to the task of gutting and transporting it home to hang.

I added, “The day you don’t feel remorse for killing any game of any size, you should likely not hunt any more.”

So it was not surprising when I found Nancy sitting on our porch steps crying  the evening after killing her doe. We had just readied the deer for skinning it. After the hide was removed we would hang in our cool garage another couple of days for aging before butchering it.

I sat down next to her and put my arm around her. She said, “I’m not sad for killing the deer. I’m sad at the realization that our whole food system is based on killing things.”

She is right and we all should be so mindful of the things we eat.

In killing game, I become responsible for taking the life. Call it murder if you like. But I would also argue that I commit murder when I pull a grown carrot from its nursery earth and then mutilate it by chopping it up. Or consider the green peas, embryos if you will, that I scrape from the wall of the mother pod as I shuck the peas with my thumbnail. If a seed is the promise of life, then I have cut it short by taking them from the pea pod.

We need to understand that all fresh food is made up of life and in harvesting it we are responsible for its death.

Early in the twentieth century, Knud Rasmussen, a Danish anthropologist whose mother was Inuit and his father Danish, traveled thousands of miles across the arctic collecting stories and artifacts of the Inuit way of life. These northern peoples lived a life that depended on hunting for clothing and food. During his dog sled travels, an Inuit shaman told him, “The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls.” He told Rasmussen that it was very important to gain the favor of the animal’s spirit so they continue to give themselves to the people so that the people might survive.

Last night we dined sumptuously and humbly on her deer’s most tender of tenderloin steaks. We barely chewed the broiled rare meat as we closed our eyes in bliss. The accompanying salad was made up of greens and cooked squash all grown out in our garden. The cranberry sauce was cooked from cranberries we picked on a piece of boggy land located two miles from our house. The apples used in finale of apple crisp were collected from a friend’s apple tree only a handful of miles away.

On many levels, the meal was the very essence of  home cooking.

Doorway to Heaven


A sun-up cup of coffee inspires both my creativity and inner bowels. Most days there is a moment, when I must excuse myself from deeds or a relaxed morning conversation with Nancy and head out the door. The destination is our beloved outhouse, christened as the “Doorway(s) to Heaven.”

The structure was built years ago when I tired of repeatedly moving a collection of old doors that I had stored in the garage. I had been struggling with rearranging the doors when I  felt the unmistakable urge to purge my bowels. It occurred to me that I had the structural materials needed to build an outhouse that would provide me with my own “fortress of solitude” while not having to rush back indoors, kick off my shoes and negotiate a slalom course to the bathroom.

While we do have plumbing and a perfectly functioning flush toilet, Nancy and I both prefer the intentional outdoor stroll to the privations of our sweet little outhouse.

I have written of our “Long Drop” that is at our Outpost in the Yukon Territory. Having spent over a total of three years in the Yukon, I am proud to admit that, no matter the season, spring, summer, fall or winter, I have yet to sit on the flush toilet in the log house. I love my quiet time, where the winds blow restful tunes through the overhead spruce limbs and I can sit and watch red squirrels and maybe even a grizzly bear.

The walls of the Basecamp outhouse were easily erected by nailing the five doors to the frame. Scrap plywood and assorted two by fours were used as well.

The main entry door is a very nice all glass, high-end entry door that was freed from the confines of a Duluth dumpster along London Road. Three of the doors are old paneled doors I had salvaged from our 100+ year old house when I gutted it over 35 years ago. Two of them still have their old white porcelain door knobs. The door immediately to your seated left is our old entry door and it has a two panes of glass that now offer a lovely view of our garden and orchard and beyond that our wannabe prairie. From my seated position I have watched pheasants, bluebirds, deer and passing sandhill cranes while listening to wind inspired spruce symphonies overhead.


Here at Minnesota Basecamp, another day has broken and it’s time.  I empoly a hurried shuffle through October’s shards of maple leaves. Even this autumnal red and gold carpet cannot slow me into a regal proambulatory mood.

Got to hurry. I need to celebrate the greatness of regularity. Tis a gift to have a digestive system that is dependable as a dog’s wagging tail.

Past the first wood shed, whose gut is gorged with seasoned and split oak. I find contentment in knowing I’m ready for the slide of winter over the landscape. Not pausing, with the Doorway to Heaven in sight, I move past the second equally bursting shed of firewood. This shed is just in case winter goes an extra six months or is arctic cold. I call this shed, “Money in the Bank.”

I slip under the feral apple tree, adjacent to a stand of big white spruce, that arcs over the outhouse.

The one-holer, where we settle ourselves comfortably in position, was cut out of two antique white pine boards; one of them measure 22 inches in width! These boards are sacred in that they were cut from old growth ancient white pines. Some might consider it demeaning or sacrilegious to void their fetid wastes while perched on such royal timber. I beg to differ. Daily I pay homage to both the marvels of old white pines and my not-so-old well functioning digestive system.


About ten years ago, Nancy, was invited to deliver a guest sermon at Joan of Arc Catholic Church down in the Twin Cities. She gave a bold and insightful presentation based on the popular Peter Mayer song, Holy Now. In the song, he shares with the listener of his spiritual journey and has come to realize that everything is holy.

She challenged the congregation that they needed to stretch their platitudes of gratitude. She implored that we often give thanks for our food, health, and job but rarely to unlikely arenas such as our sexual nature or “having a good bowel movement.” She beseeched the smiling congregation to celebrate these wondrous movements and to consider such an act as holy.

While some might argue that the title of our humble little outhouse is irreverent and confusing. All I ask is that you think about the feeling you experience after having an honorable bodily void. It’s absolutely heavenly!


A Gnarly Winter Coming?


I’m going out on a limb. I’m forecasting a gnarly winter ahead of us.

No, I have not referenced the current Farmer’s Almanac, first published in 1818, and I have shunned the sophistication of doppler radars or fleets of orbiting weather satellites.

I am making my prognostication based on simple observation. In the first days of  September I have seen two birds whose out-of-season appearance have me wondering about the upcoming winter.

First, on a recent hot and humid day, we  bicycled around a curve in the road and a large bird swooped out just ahead of us. Upon first seeing it, I knew it was a raptor and in the next moment, its bulk and head shape told me it was an owl. The large owl  pitched low across the road and then swooped up and landed in a birch growing adjacent to the roadside ditch. I wondered, great horned owl?

As we passed it, I stopped  pedaling and looked into its wide yellow eyes and the large, unmistakeable facial disk of a great gray owl. This was weird. Here it was a sultry late summer day and I was witnessing a bird that I wouldn’t expect to see, and then only rarely, until winter.  Some years these large owls migrate from their boreal haunts to these more southerly parts in east central Minnesota when there are few rodents to hunt in their normal northerly home grounds.

I really want to believe that this wayward traveler has set up home in a nearby large tamarack swamp with another great gray of the opposite sex.

Two days following the owl sighting, Nancy and I were cooling off at the end of the day on our deck with a gin and tonic, when a northern goshawk shot by, not twenty feet from us and four feet off the ground. It looked like a feathered F-16 as it rocketed by and zig-zagged into the adjacent oak woods.

Typically the goshawk is another boreal dweller and a sometimes fall migrant but I typically wouldn’t spy one in these parts in the first days of September. What’s up?

Piqued, I went to the American Birding Association website. I was hoping that this up to the minute report of Minnesota birds might shed some light on my two puzzling observations.

I found nothing about an unseasonable movement of great gray owls. These huge owls are easy to spot since no owl in North America has a larger wingspan. But I did discover that on September 1 “there was a mass migration event that stunned the bird counters at Hawk Ridge in Duluth.” Even the hot and humid day on the shore of Lake Superior did not hold up over 91,000 birds of various species passing by, migrating south. This included, “28,054 Common Nighthawks, “12,842 Cedar Waxwings (represents a new state high count)” and “1,085 Blue Jays (seems early for a count of this magnitude).”

Note the tally for the blue jay count: “seems early for a count of this magnitude.” Hmmmm what do the birds know?? It almost seems like a flood of environmental refugees fleeing the threat of the inevitable unforgiving march of General Winter and his cold-hearted army.

Could it be that even the large,well-feathered great gray owl and and the fleet flying goshawk got an advance notice of a tough winter?

Reading weather, by noting birds and other wildlife and even how it affects how we, as humans,  feel, is officially know as the science of biometeorology. This is basically the same stuff old farmers have been doing for years. According to the International Society of Biometeorology, “The most important question that biometeorology answers is: How does weather and climate impact the well-being of all living creatures?”

For example, my Grandpa always could tell it was going to rain because he would feel his knee stiffen up. One theory the medical community  considers is the impact of barometric pressure on our bodies. Barometric pressure is the weight of the atmosphere that surrounds us. It could be that before a rain, when the barometric pressure is low,  the pressure pushes less against our bodies, allowing tissues surrounding our joints to expand and put pressure on the joint. Hence we might ache.

I recall that same Grandpa, upon hearing a common loon calling from a nearby lake, declare, “It’s going to rain.” He made no comment about the bird making a territorial call or appeal for a mate. No, it was simply going to rain. And you know Grandpa was always right, it did rain. Now I don’t recall if it rained in the next hour, day or even week, but it did rain.

There are hundreds of old weather proverbs that served as weather forecasters. Here is a summer forecasting proverb I can always depend on:

Birds flying low,

Expect rain and a blow.

Birds that feed on flying insects adjust their flight to where the insects are concentrated.  It turns out that just prior to rain, air pressure is low and insects are more comfortable flying near the ground.

I am fascinated with biometeorology and its role in animal movement.  I am feeling  a mysterious urge to fill the porch wood box. You can’t be too ready for a gnarly winter.

Back from the Dead


Four generations of my Anderson ancestors are buried less than a mile south of our 100+ year old farmhouse. While my great-great grandparents framed and sheathed the house out of old-growth white pine, the landscape surrounding them was oak savanna, where oaks grew interspersed with prairie. To farm it would require the clearing of acres of oaks and other trees.

My great grandfather, Johan Erick did just that.

He worked for years to clear the land for his successful potato growing.  His efforts earned him the money to buy the first car in the township, a 1915 Buick, and the first gas generator to provide electricity to their farmstead.

Johan Erick, known locally as Erick, used various means to clear his farm. He used Dynamite was for blasting out stumps. The dilapidated dynamite shack used to stand, isolated from other outbuildings, a couple hundred yards east of where our house now sits. He also used a horse-drawn scoop to dig ditches in his failed attempt to drain a 3 acre wetland. The same horses were hooked up to stump pullers to yank oak stumps out of the ground. And the oaks that his crosscut saw dropped eventually made their way into the large cellar furnace to heat the big farm house.

His tireless efforts rendered the shaggy savanna and wetlands into an orderly farmstead.

Fast forward to the 21st century and that farm no longer exists. Most of that 200 acres is now Anderson County Park. The fields that my great grandpa worked so hard to clear have been replanted to prairie grasses like big bluestem, Indian grass, Canada wild rye, and side-oats gramma grass. Prairie flowers like large flowered penstemon, black-eyed susans, yellow coneflowers, bush clover, goldenrods, and wild bergamot paint the grounds in a collage of summer and late summer colors.

The long range plan of the park is to transform the land back into an oak savanna.  Great grandpa Erick would roll in his grave.

Recently I noticed that the bur oak outside our house was dropping its prodigious crop of   acorns on our roof. No oak in North America is capable of bearing acorns so long into its life as a bur oak. Some trees that have tallied more than 400 years are still producing good crops of seeds.

I knew it was time to go visit the oak-shaded Lutheran cemetery down the road. I rode my bike to pay my respects and to collect a couple handfuls of bur oak acorns.


It was important that I collect the acorns from the big oak that shades my ancestors’ grave. I like to think that their long buried remains have nourished this tree. In essence, the acorns I gathered bear molecules of Great Grandpa Erick and his wife Ida. As I cycled back home past the big farmhouse they had built, I was glad to be on a mission to bring a bit of them back to the homeplace.



During the mid-1990s, my  former ecology professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. John Tester, was speaking to our local Audubon chapter about his then-recently released book, Minnesota’s Natural Heritage. He was passionate about climate change models that the University was involved in. I vividly recall him say, “If I were to plant trees in my yard I would now be putting in bur oaks. These oaks will be able to withstand a drier and hotter future.” But he acknowledged that most folks don’t have the patience required to watch a bur oak grow and instead choose weaker trees, like silver maples, poplars or willow, that can offer quick shade but far less strength and resistance to storms and dry spells.

Returning from the cemetery with the distinctive shaggy-capped acorns bulging in my pocket, I put my bike away and strolled through our small woods to our grassy property edge where it meets the park’s prairie restoration. I tucked acorns every 20- 30 yards into the soil, no deeper than a squirrel might bury one. I also planted some on my aunt’s adjacent property. She grew up with Great Grandpa Erick living in the same house and I suspected she wouldn’t mind that I tuck a few acorns into her fallow field that is wide open, except for scattered red cedars.

With over six decades behind me, I will certainly not enjoy the shade of these slow-growing trees. I hope to see the emergence of some of them.

I planted acorns close to the prairie line, hoping that someday maybe some acorns from these pioneer trees will push Great Grandpa Erick’s essence further on to the land he once toiled to clear.

Two pioneering species, my great grandfather and an oak, each have left their mark on the land. Yet inevitably, the perseverance of oaks and the natural world will outlast our need to have things go our way.




Monarch Rescue


Nancy and I found the phone message light blinking in the kitchen after returning from a 30-mile bike ride. The message was from friend, Sarah. She was scrambling to solicit folks to collect monarch butterfly larvae (caterpillars) that were in danger of being harvested in a combine. She explained that a nursery owned by Minnesota Native Landscapes was going to combine a three-acre field of swamp milkweed pods within 24 hours and that the milkweeds in the field held many monarch larvae.

According to their website, Minnesota Native Landscapes is a “full service ecological restoration services company that designs and installs naturalized landscape features that are biologically diverse, ecologically and historically accurate and aesthetically pleasing for corporate, municipal and private landowners.”

Within two hours of Sarah’s recruiting call, we pulled into the nursery.  We were met by the affable nursery production manager, Keith Fredrick, who drove us to one of the back fields on the 80-acre nursery. As we drove he pointed out various plots of native plants being cultivated. Some of the plants are grown for direct transplanting and others, like the milkweeds, are grown for seed production.

The deep purple of a back corner field caught my eye. It was meadow blazing star (Liatris ligulistylis). Of the five species of blazing star in Minnesota, this one is the ultimate monarch butterfly magnet, a key nectar producer for adult butterflies.

Keith went on to explain that given all the recent publicity on monarchs and other pollinators, there has been a surge of interest in the public to procure milkweed seed. He added that next year this nursery will likely increase  production of various milkweed species to try and meet the demand.  He also remarked that the general public is not aware that there are several species of milkweed.

My favorite of the local milkweeds is the aptly named, butterfly weed in its flaming orange color. But on this day our focus would be on swamp milkweed.

Monarch butterflies can lay their eggs only on a milkweed plant. It doesn’t matter which species of milkweed, but it has to be a milkweed or nothing. The female is capable of laying about 300 eggs but she lays only one per plant to reduce feeding competition for the larvae.

I would argue that the monarch butterfly has snagged more media time this year than any other wild species in Minnesota, including the moose and walleye. Monarch populations have dropped 90% over the past 20 years.

In February of this year, the Center for Food Safety released an 80-page scientific report that made it clear that over the past two decades of increasing Roundup Ready crops, particularly corn and soybeans, in North America has nearly erased the sole source of food for the monarch butterfly. The dose of herbicides has made the genetically modified crops  “clean” of these supposed weed species. Sadly these chastised plants are the necessary nurseries for monarchs and other diverse insects.

Keith stopped the truck in front of the field. Very few of the broad rows of swamp milkweed were adorned with their characteristic pink flowers. Instead they bore the fruit, the slender pods, that would split and send their fluffy seeds to the winds if Keith waited too long to harvest them.

Soon Sarah and friend Vivian also showed up and we each slowly made our way, buckets in hand, down the rows looking for the monarch larvae. Within minutes our eyes were trained to pick  out the striped caterpillars in the foliage. We began to intersperse our conversation with exclamations of  “Got one here,” or “Here’s one!”

Delicately we removed the feeding larvae from the milkweed and set them in our buckets that were bedded with a thin layer of milkweed leaves.


For the first time in their short lives, many of the collected larvae were NOT eating but were climbing up the inside wall of our buckets. Normally these striped larvae don’t have to worry about escaping since they spend their two weeks as a caterpillar eating and only eating. The larvae go from being the size of a rice grain to nearly the size of a child’s little finger. During that span they will literally shed their skin five times to accommodate the rush of growth.

I recall reading about an entomologist who calculated that if an eight pound human baby had the same growth rate as a monarch larvae they would, after two weeks, be the size of a school bus!

Earlier in the summer, this field would have been producing monarch butterflies that could be the parents of the larvae we picked. The big difference between those June adult butterflies and these eventual butterflies, is that this late August-early September crop of monarchs will not be mating and producing eggs until next spring after a winter high in the mountains north of Mexico City.

In the earlier summer generations of monarchs, the reproductive organs  start to develop while they are larvae. The development is driven by the presence of a  juvenile hormone. But monarchs birthed in late summer have low levels of the juvenile hormone and they will remain low until the following spring. Only then does the overwintering monarch complete its sexual development. This delayed maturity is likely a strategy that conserves energy and makes it possible for them to direct their energies into migrating thousands of miles and then quietly overwintering.

By the time we finished our rescue efforts, the five of us had easily collected over 300 caterpillars.

Driving home, Nancy and I stopped on a back road near a healthy patch of the common showy milkweed and  relocated the larvae. We ambled down the shaggy ditch, setting one caterpillar at a time on its own milkweed plant.


It is humbling to believe that these pudgy little striped caterpillars contain the genetic material that will program  each monarch to lift off in less than a month and begin the long, dangerous flight to Mexico.

In comparison our 30-mile morning bike ride seems laughable.

Buena suerte amigos!! (Translation: Good luck friends!)

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