Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lucky, stupid, or a bit of both?

For the first time all summer I’ve been able to both camp on an island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and also get off my ass and write a blog post about it.  I pretty much had to write this post as a confession of poor judgment, bad luck, good luck, of maybe just a bit of stupidity.  You can read the story and decide.  It turned out well but easily could have been a very problematic day on Outer Island, due in part to a phenomenon that I’ve never seen in decades 0on the big lake. 
We had a nice little trip, 50 miles or so, scheduled over five days.  Ironwood the first night, two nights on Outer to let us run up to the lighthouse on the north end at our leisure, and then Manitou on the way back.  It was a different trio than the normal Fall trip that I’ve been on since 2000 with most of the original principals scattered from Scotland to a raft on the Grand Canyon.  There was no drop in either quality or conviviality however, with long time paddle buddies the ManFromSnowyLegs and the BessemerConvivialist rounding out this fall trio.  Weather was perfect as we launched from Red Cliff but that quickly changed as it easily can on Superior in the fall.  About halfway up Manitou Island we saw small marauding bands of rain squalls moving from west to east.  We crossed from Manitou to Ironwood just before the storm indicated in that radar image hit.  We were the little blue dot and were very happy that we successfully scrambled to get up tents and tarps before the deluge. Wednesday morning was beautiful and we did a quick crossing to Cat and then Outer with a nice quartering tail breeze that made the 8 miles or so a pleasant two hour dawdle on a lovely day.  Once again as it had on Tuesday, the sky clouded up and thunder began to rumble.  This one missed us to the south but we saw the most spectacular chain lightning that any of us had witnessed in years simply hammering the Upper Michigan shore 25 miles away. Before the storm hit we could actually make out the ski flying hill at Copper Peak just north of Bessemer thirty miles distant.  There are far, far worse ways to spend an evening than sitting in camp, drinking beer, and watching an outstanding lightning show.  We all agreed on that before we went to bed.  We also agreed that given the forecast for Friday that predicted 15-25 knot northwesterly winds gusting to 35 knots, that we would abandon Outer and find an island camp situated closer in to avoid any dozen plus mile slogs into wind and waves. 

I was awakened shortly after midnight by the MFSL informing me that my boat was gone.  He had heard waves breaking on shore and got up to check on things.  Unlike Meatloaf’s famous song, in this case two out of three (boats) was bad.  Two foot waves with an incredibly long wave length were breaking and rolling well up the beach.  There was not a breath of wind and there hadn’t even been a breeze when we went to bed.  While we had all dragged our boats up we had not tied them up and mine was at roughly a 45 degree angle to the shore.  ‘Was’ being the operant phrase at this point. Luckily the MFSL spotted a white line gently bobbing about a hundred yards offshore and I verified it with the headlamp.  I had closed all hatches and put the cockpit cover on and the boat had slipped off the beach, cleanly making its escape to its comfortable spot just outside the break.  My buddy was halfway geared up to paddle out and retrieve the boat so my only contribution to the recovery effort was to assist in the launch and landing.  The BessemerConvivialist provided strong moral support as she listened to this fairly muffled and incomprehensible back and forth from her sleeping bag.  The boat was rescued, all three were lashed up to a fallen White Pine, and we crawled back to our sleeping bags. 
The morning brought constant thunder and lightning beginning around 8am with a NE wind blowing and the waves jumping up to three to five feet in the channel between Outer and Stockton.  The nearshore forecast said waves two feet or less but we remembered that 20 miles from Red Cliff and 25 or so to Saxon Harbor did not really quality as ‘within five miles of shore’.  We got on the water around one pm, thanks to prudent counsel from the BessemerConvivialist who reminded me that I promised not to drag her out in 'uncomfortable' conditions, and paddled back to Oak Island and spent two nights on the spit.  We had great fun in the large following seas with minimal wind thanks to the BC's insistence we wait for the wind to ratchet down a bit.  Saturday morning was perfect bluebird weather and we headed back to Red Cliff in time for a 11:30 date with a Whitefish basket and pint of South Shore Nut Brown at Morty’s Pub in Bayfield.
Lessons learned?  As the masthead on this thing reads, good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.  I am fairly certain that I will never crawl into the tent again without my boat tied to the shore.  The Outer campsite had moved about 150yds north after a storm knocked down a bunch of trees at the original site. The beach is narrower and the NPS even built a lovely set of steps from a big cedar log to get up the bank.  The vegetation was nonexistent right up to the base of the steps, a dead giveaway about how high the waves reached  but with the nearshore forecast and personal observation indicating a calm night I guess I ignored the potential.  Once again Gitchee Gumee proved that she was the boss.  We pondered over coffee the next morning just where the hell the swells had come from with no wind to drive them and speculated it was that storm we were watching the evening  before.  It was only when we got back on the weekend that I read about a seiche, our normally tiny mini tide, that had reached up to five feet in the Sault due to the storms and quickly changing wind directions.  That was just about the time that it hit.
The other good question would be what would we have done if the boat had decided to head north or go visit Ontonagon instead of bobbing docilely 100 yards offshore?  This could have been a very real possibility had not the MFSL awoken when he did.  I would not have woken up and the BC wasn’t going anywhere, seiche excitement be damned.  ‘When at sea the number is three’  is a good adage.  I’m sure a search for the kayak would have ensued the next morning.  Had the kayak not been located, an embarrassing radio  call to the Coast Guard would have been needed since there is zero cell coverage on Outer.  We saw exactly one sailboat off Ironwood the whole time we were in the outer ring of islands.  A couple hundred bucks to the shuttle boat service would have been the only option  since neither the BC nor MFSL wanted me on their back deck for twenty miles. 

I hereby swear to tie the boat up.  When I think back, I’ve actually witnessed a couple close calls with boats over the years.  One was at the GLSKS when a large wind sucked a bunch of boats that we thought were securely up on the beach into Grand Marais Bay.  The other was a day on Sand Island at the north camp when we actually pulled the boats up on the berm and Gitchee Gumee proceeded to erode the berm from a yard behind our sterns pretty much up to amidships.  This is also illustrates the ‘one little thing’ aspect of sea kayaking.  Life jacket, spare skirt and paddle, pump & float, dressed for immersion, radio, etc., etc., would have all been moot with no boat.  Fortunately most situations that end really badly are when errors tend to compile and make it impossible to back off or recover.  Thanks mainly to my good buddy the ManFromSnowyLegs,  the possibility of compounding errors was nipped in the bud. I would encourage paddlers to think like good pool players, two or three shots ahead, as wey practice our sport.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Fun With Ice

The ice is finally out, or at least in the distance, in our little corner of the Lake Superior paddling world.  My ‘go to’ launch for short trips and fitness paddling is the north side of the coal dock in Washburn, WI.  It’s a nice scenic jaunt out to Houghton Point with a couple stacks and a couple small caves along the way.  The above photo was the first Saturday in May, two weeks ago.  The image below was taken a week ago Saturday.  Although the launch area is clear, ice can be seen on the horizon and mini icebergs are still floating around in the bay.  Water temp seems to be at an even 34F pretty much all over the lake.  The sat photo would seem to indicate that we are one of the few areas on the lake still ‘blessed’ with a fair amount of ice.  Saxon Harbor is still frozen in and it appears that the area from Duluth Harbor to Port Wing still has plenty.

I can’t complain however since the ice is gone a full week ahead of last year.  The ice and snow have wreaked havoc with a number of different things however.  The county crews are out replacing signs that were blasted over by the snowplow wake.  Many homes were damaged when the wind pushed the ice up on the land in inexorably inland.   In a more minor disaster, the hop trellis in my yard collapsed (gasp!) due to the weight of ice and snow on top of it.  Also, the Madeline Island ferry has been delayed and cancelled due to the ice pack that refuses to melt being pushed  around the lake by the wind. 

I had planned on padding somewhere on Saturday but everyone seemed to be busy.  Until I  got  a text from ChrisG  saying that not only was it too nice to work but that there was a pretty big iceberg floating between Bayfield and Madeline Island.  Our three man group was launched within the hour.  The icebergs are a result of a big northeast blow early in the season.  It piled up plates of 8” ice and stacked them like cordwood along the area of Friendly Valley Rd and Bayview beach.  We are fairly certain that they are what are floating around in the bay and west channel at this time.  

It felt good to get in the Explorer for the first time with the intention of paddling more than a couple miles.  It seemed like it took a long time to get to the ice but of course perspective on the  water, especially with your ass literally on the water, can be tricky.  Our guess is that this berg was about 100’ x 60’ and at least 8-10 feet high in the highest spot.  Like most icebergs 70% of it was under water and the super clear ice with the sun refracting though it made the base look like we were in the Caribbean.  A quick hand in the water dispelled that fantasy very quickly however.  We paddled around it a few times, ChrisG blasted up on it and ate his sandwich, and we got some good pictures of the beast.  This is yet another one of those Lake Superior ‘you don’t see this every day’ experiences. 

Next weekend is Memorial Day and the annual wood splitting festival on Saturday morning at Camp O.  the plan is to sneak up to Saxon Harbor and check out the progress of the melt.  Many of the Gales participants from last Fall remember our launch and paddle up to the Montreal River.  This year that could be the absolutely last place that there is ice on the big lake.  Unless we get a south blow and then all bets are off.  Fingers are crossed for one more ice paddle, a rarity on Memorial  Day weekend.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Famous Ice Tables of Houghton Falls

This year the ice caves at Mawikiwe Bay on Lake Superior went viral.  The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore had record visitors, businesses in the whole Bayfield peninsula had an amazing windfall, and visitors were both pleased and amazed.  The last time people could visit the caves on foot was about five years ago if memory serves.  No one knows how long it will be until the climate cooperates once again to allow foot traffic out that way.  Although five years seems like a long time, it's nothing compared to the exceedingly rare appearance of the Houghton Falls Ice Tables.

No one knows how long it's been since the tables last appeared.  They are created by a perfect storm of miserably cold weather and big dumps of snow.  This combination causes the culvert under the old Ashland to Bayfield railway to plug up with ice and snow and raises the level of Houghton Creek precipitously.  The newly formed pond than promptly freezes.  This condition was noted by the GreenThumbChef as she strolled along the path a week or so ago.  Alarmed, she notified the crack team of culvert unpluggers at the Town of Bayview.  A crew of thawing professionals, led by the town chairman Mr. Charly Ray, arrived on the scene and fired up a steam unit to thaw the culvert before it washed out the entire road bed.  Success was achieved, the water dropped, the rail bed was saved, but the ice remained.  It not only remained but remained in spectacular fashion.

The pond that was created by the plugged culvert was over a dozen feet deep in many spots.  The water all drained out and left large plates of ice, almost a foot thick, some the size of a car.  But the really spectacular thing was the ice that was supported by two or more trees.  It left an entire outdoor patio's worth of tables and benches, all made of ice. I visited the site yesterday with my faithful hound, Monk.  Word must have gotten out because for the first time in my experience there was a car parked on Houghton Falls Road, overflow from the 8 car lot at the start of the trail.  My guess is that the BART shuttle from The Snug, Patsy's Bar, and points north and south will start next weekend.  I would also suggest having Washburn Ambulance on site because the whole area is full of foot thick blocks of tilted ice, major concussion country in my opinion.  If I had been thinking and brought a couple beers it would have been the perfect afternoon, high forties, sunny, and a frozen bar to keep the beer cold.  Alas, forethought was not my strong point that sunny afternoon.

My guess is that the tables will be melted by next weekend given the warm spring weather, although they are kind of 'down in the hole', away from direct sunlight.  This weekend, typically the start of mud month, was anything but.  The ice road from Bayfield to Madeline Island is still intact with a solid three feet of ice.  RangerMark and I were the only skiers at Valhalla on Sunday morning, where there was literally a four foot base.  Sunday night featured some rolling at the salt water pool of the Bayfield Rec Center.  This was preceded by an exciting Badger basketball win Saturday night which sent them to the Final Four, a game I watched at Patsy's Bar while nursing a Widow Maker or two.  Plus I got all our fruit trees pruned without climbing up a ladder.  The four feet of snow in the yard gave me just enough elevation to make a ladder unnecessary.  Say what you will about this winter but the delayed spring ain't so bad at this point from my where I'm sitting


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cold Feet

Since I was a little kid the 'long pole in the tent', the Achilles heel, the limiting factor for outdoor tolerance in Great Lakes winters has been feet and footwear.  Once the feet get cold the choice is to go inside or risk frostbit toes.  Unlike hands which can be stuffed under the armpits or the core, which can be warmed up by another layer, there isn't a hell of a lot that can be done for the feet. Our family activity, before we all started skiing, was ice fishing. When I was young military surplus was the hot ticket. The old man at one time owned Bunny boots, Korean boots, and fleece lined USAAF boots used by the poor SOB's who flew high altitude, below zero missions in B-17's and B-24's.  None of these were really great and there was no such thing as a kids size that could be handed down from a waist gunner on a Flying Fortress, so we were stuck with the rubber 'insulated' crap that was available in the late '50's.  The green rubber 'Donald Duck' boots with the yellow sole were next to worthless and so was the technique of three pairs of socks and a bread bag over each foot before stuffing them into oversize leather boots.  In both cases the warmth lasted about a half hour, the feet would sweat inside the moisture barrier and within the hour feet would be blocks of ice. The one combo that worked the best for we kids were felts and overshoes. Im pretty sure thats what Im wearing in the vintage image of my sister and I ice fishing. A thick felt bootie, not meant to be walked in, was covered by a basic pair of overshoes, usually buckle because zippers froze,  This was indeed the right track.

Sorel figured this out as well right around 1959.  It seemed like within a few years that everyone on the ice had a pair of the classic Kaufman brown leather upper / dark tan rubber bottomed boots with the removable felt inner boot.  LL Bean had the Maine Hunting Shoe since 1912 but for some reason never figured out the insulation component or just didn't market it as well as Sorel.  I of course still had the felts and overshoes because no way was a kid with growing feet going to get outfitted with those pricey high end boots.

Fast forward to the 21st century and all its amazing outdoor technology.  No matter what you buy or how much money is spent, sitting on your ass in any weather below about 20F is going to result in cold feet.  Ice fishing, sitting in the deer blind, spectating at things like outdoor hockey or a ski jumping tourney or downhill race will result in cold feet unless you walk around a number of times over the course of the event.  This can be tough while awaiting the wily buck or if the fish are biting.  The deer hunter who can tough it out in the stand is going to see deer, pushed by the poor SOB's with cold feet that get down for a walk.  At our camp the KingOfIronwoodIsland fills this role.  A heart valve and its accompanying cumidin prescription insures that even his LaCrosse Iceman boots ("good to -40F"....yeah, right.) will result in him taking a walk.  We are all very vigilant right  around 9:30am,  those of us who have made it to the blind by then.  Icemen, Sorels, Regular Red Wing Irish Setters, which now have Goretex and 600,800, 1200 grams of Thinsulate, all claim to be comfortable down to ridiculous negative degree readings. I even pulled out the wallet for a pair of Steger Mukluks.  Unfortunately none of them work if you are sitting in cold weather.  None of them.  What seems to work OK, better than the options however, are my Red Wings, 800 grams of Thinsulate, with a thick down or holofil over bootie.  This thing prevents any walking but it insulates the entire foot and buys time before the inevitable winter walk. 

The Polar Vortex, a phenomena that wore out it’’s welcome a month ago, is back and there is no way in hell your feet are going to be warm for extended outdoor activity, unless you keep moving.  My advice would be keep snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and leave the ice fishing (unless you are one of the upwardly mobile fisherman with a heated shack) to those warm March days. The ice is getting black and honeycombed and the fish are practically surrendering.  Many of us will be attending Woodyfest this weekend.  Rumors are the woodpile for the bonfire is smaller this year, although smaller is relative.  Perhaps that means that the volunteer fire department wont show up to extinguish a reported garage fire, or maybe the main fuel for the fire, the hated Box Elder trees, have been exterminated from Woodys property.  Whatever the reason, standing by the fire drinking beer will be interrupted by frequent strolls into the house to warm up.  Stay warm!