Monday, August 30, 2010

Camping permits, shaky weather forecasts, and sit on top kayaks

Its a long headline but its a three part post. A group of five of us headed to the Apostles for what I fear is the last Apostles overnite of the season, given our packed dance card for the fall. It was a wonderful trip with some easy paddling, some challenging paddling, and some perplexing questions along the way.

The trip began with a rendezvous at Ethels in Bayfield for $2 pints of New Glarus products and pizza. Beer enjoyment was severely curtailed however, since we had a crossing to make to get out to Oak 3 that night. We were sure that we would have a nice push since the forecast was a south wind 15-20, with 2 to 4 footers pushing us up the west channel, building overnite with small craft warnings necessary on Saturday. Actual conditions were a light south breeze with occasional 'three sisters' wave sets of consecutive 12, 14, and 16 inchers. The last half hour of the trip was in beautiful twilight, a wonderful paddle. The next day found us heading for Quarry Bay on Stockton in building conditions. The waves were capping and there were some almost three foot beam seas between Oak and Stockton. We had a quick stop on the last beach on the southeast corner of Oak to stretch our legs and met four guys from Duluth in sit on tops that they had rented from a guy on Madeline Island. They checked out our spray skirts and remarked that they wished they had those kind of boats because it was a "pretty wet ride for us and all our gear" paddling up from LaPointe. We left them on Oak and paddled to Quarry Bay to claim our group site C, a site we were assigned after being rerouted due to the rogue Manitou bear. We really coveted the individual site, a beautiful beach site, and sat there, had snacks, took a nap, and eventually claimed it when no one showed. Sunday we got an early start to beat the forecast 15-20, gusting to 25mph south winds with 2-4 footers, but had another day of bluebird paddling with a light breeze and some ripples. Now that the travelogue part is out of the way, here are the three takeaways from the weekend.

I know its tough predicting weather on the big lake but when its obvious that the forecast has been blown, isn't there a window to look out or even an online resource to use to modify it and make it useful and relevant to boaters? When I got home I checked the nearshore forecast and the realtime wave map, both of which are linked on the right side of this blog. The former was doggedly insisting on the 15-20, 2-4 footers, while the latter map was solid blue with one foot waves all over the Gitchee Gumee. I honestly don't get it but know that if they keep 'crying wolf' that someone is going to get into trouble. There are actually many times when your own senses and some of the old weather adages like 'red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morn, sailors be warned' are more useful. Bryan Hansel has some great ones in his blog, Nessmuking. If someone who knows something about the NOAA forecasting procedures would like to comment, that would be great because I'm honestly puzzled about the huge disparity between forecast and reality.

As I confessed earlier, we poached the Quarry Bay individual site Saturday night. Well, most of us did. TwoBurnerRob set up on Group Site C, which would be in high demand were the name ofthe park the Apostle Islands National Brush Preserve, because he didn't want to move in the dark if the rightful lessees showed up at dusk. Chances of that were slim on a Saturday though, and if the rightful occupants plan had been to wait for the wind and waves to die down a bit, that just didn't happen. We actually had cell coverage and called the park, who could only advise us that the permit for that site had been picked up. In talking with park staff, they said that people were pretty good about calling if they couldn't make it, but its tough being out on an island, with some paddlers not comfortable with conditions, and then trying to make contact and notify the park. I can't think of a better system but if people are considerate and call if they get waylaid, I guess that's the best. There was talk of incentives, credits for nights missed, etc., but that would be tough to administer and once again, communication can be tough using just the marine band radio. We ran into some folks that had a Presque Isle site and had been told that Quarry Bay was all full. We were the only souls in the two available group sites and the individual one. I guess sometimes we just need to play it by ear, which it seems like everyone did Saturday night.

Lake Superior sit on top kayaks. In my opinion those two items should rarely be used in the same sentence. The water is warm now, 65-70F in the Apostles and there is about a month to six week window when it's like that. It would seem that sit on tops would be great for playing around LaPointe or at Big Bay, but crossings and overnites can be shaky in traditional sea kayaks. We met a fellow at The Creamery last weekend (OK, he was the bartender), and the guys from Duluth, and both mentioned that they were a bit short on cash and didn't feel like spending the $50 and 3 hours on the required safety course at the two mainland outfitters, a course required to rent sea kayaks with spray skirts. We talked at length and both parties confessed to being wet for the entire paddle once the first wave broke over the cockpit, the hatches leaked so their gear was wet, and the sit on tops handled like a Mississippi River barge in wind and waves. We suggested to both folks that the fifty bucks might be the best $50 they ever spent, and as the guys from Duluth stood there comparing our boats with theirs I got the impression that that they would have definitely handed over the $50 at that point. The guy on Madeline renting these craft most likely isn't going away and there is nothing the park service, Coast Guard, or anyone else can do so I guess the only thing left is education. I'm also guessing the repeat business for overnite tours isn't very strong once customers have had the Gitchee Gumee sit on top experience. Our barkeep in Downsville said they 'didn't have time for the safety training' and the outfitter told them to just play around in the harbor and they would figure it out. We told both about the ISK and SKOAC training sessions as well as the Duluth Outdoor program and other opportunities. Other than that, what can we do? Its normally people with limited funds and limited kayak knowledge of the situation and just want to have an Apostle Islands experience.
After all that writing I'm confessing that I have no answers on the weather forecasting process, campsite reservation tweaks, or what do do about some poor SOB hammering it through the Basswood triangle, cold and wet, in their sit on top kayaks. If there was ever a post that begged comments and opinions, this one is it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

When it hits the fan - experienced paddlers in trouble

In my very short coaching career I''m at the stage of conscious incompetence. I know how much I don't know, especially after working with and watching Ben Lawry and Steve Scherrer up in Grand Marais. The extent of my kayaking non-knowledge is vast. Yet, like most coaches I'm pretty certain I know a thing or two and am more than happy to offer suggestions to beginners and paddlers that are working on a skill that I'm marginally proficient with. When it comes to other coaches and more experienced paddlers however, I keep my mouth shut, even if I see techniques that have changed or been upgraded, such as no longer watching the paddle when performing sweep strokes. Nowhere is this reticence more apparent than when a bunch of experienced paddlers, especially people who are so familiar with one another that they know each others preferences in everything from tent sites to choice of adult beverage, get together for a paddle. We pretty much throw our gear in the boat and go. This is not always a good thing and can bite a person in the ass, usually quickly and painfully.

Derrick had a recent post where he stated that, "As coaches,we’re all learning. Coaches are not “experts” and they are not “Gurus”. Coaches are simply folks who help you travel along the same path they’ve traveled themselves". The title of the post was 'Bad example'. At our Tuesday night skill session, we heard about two of our most experienced instructors in the club running into "carnage" on Devils Island in the Apostles over the weekend. It was somewhat sheepishly explained that gear was lost, boats were cracked, and a boat had to be swam out of trouble in some big breaking swells off the rocky north shore of Devils after an unusually early northeast blow. The real eye opener was a post that I read on Axel Schoever's blog, Travels with Paddles, (a blog that has been linked on this site for awhile) about a near disaster in the Netherlands two months ago. The incident report was just made available in english and should be required reading for all of us. To summarize, a group of extremely competent (we're talking some BCU level 5 instructor trainers here) went out to practice some rescues and hit conditions well beyond what they had expected. The party became separated, a couple capsized and had to wet exit, and the Royal Netherlands Lifeboat Institution had to launch boats to complete the rescue.

Like most situations when the feces hits the fan, there is much to be learned. Axel and his paddling companions have carefully and thoughfully analyzed and documented what went right and what went wrong on that day in June. They were brutally honest about their shortcomings yet their collective experience prevented the situation from becoming worse, a combination of training, experience, and a fair amount of luck. One of the most telling comments addressed the dynamics of the group. "We are of the opinion that this incident could happen only because we were amongst trip leaders. The feeling of responsibility that is normally ingrained in us being trip leaders was completely lacking on that Sunday being with a group of friends. We feel responsible for participants on our trips but did not feel responsible for one another on that Sunday. It's quite shocking to come to that conclusion".

Its an honest and humbling assessment of the incident, one that we should all read, study, and lodge in our memory banks. I applaud Axel and his buddies for taking the time and effort to analyze and break down what happened that Sunday so we all can learn from it. I've got a bunch of friends, three of them insructors, that are heading north for the classic Lake Superior Silver Islet to Rossport trip tomorrow. I hope they have time to read and react to Axels report. It's the kind of wake up call we need every so often when we start feeling complacent and bulletproof. We sometimes need a reminder that no matter how skilled and confident we are, the lake (and the sea) is indeed the boss.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cross training in the Chippewa River valley

Last weekend the VoiceOfReason and I loaded up the bikes and headed to the village of Downsville, WI. Since the MN State Fair, the harbinger of fall here in the State Where Nothing is Allowed, begins in a couple days, we figured we better sneak in the long discussed bike weekend before we ran out of weekends. Our base of operations was The Creamery, an upscale little inn in Downsville, which features an excellent restaurant, and is the perfect place to push in the clutch and coast for a bit. Its also 2 blocks off the bike trail system so a person can throw the keys on the counter and visit the local spots via two wheels.

The trail is one of the old rail grade trails, a concept pioneered by Wisconsin with the Elroy-Sparta trail and several others that have been added over the years. It's densely packed crushed limestone and follows the Red Cedar River and runs into the Chippewa River trail on the far side of a long railroad bridge over the Chippewa. A left turn takes the cyclist to Meridean, Careyville, and Eau Claire, about 25 miles to the northeast. The former two villages were the sites of two of the last operating car ferries in the state and as kids we crossed them frequently on weekend trips with our grandparents. A right takes bikers to Durand, a town that's just discovering that cyclists will spend a few bucks in town and actually enjoy spending time along the river. We chose 'the road less traveled' and headed for Durand. Even though the plan was to escape kayaking for the weekend, we sat and watched a flotilla of kayaks and canoes pass under the bridge. The Chippewa is very wide at that point and the recent rains insured that there is plenty of water in the river. The view from the bridge reminded the VOR of the Missouri near Bismarck, a river she spent considerable time on as well. Like most Wisconsin towns, Durand had an impressive number of bars and grills to chose from. There was a lot of construction at these bars, mainly the feverish building of smoking additions for the nicotine addicts that the statwide July smoking ban displaced, but some was deck expansion on the rivers. As recently as 40 years ago these rivers were open sewers that the buildings all faced away from, but as the rivers get cleaner and towns and businesses slowly figured out that its pretty enjoyable sitting by the river. We enjoyed a couple of fine products of the Leinenkugels company on the deck and I had some broasted chicken, a child nutritionists nightmare according to the VOR. On the way back to Downsville we spied some wild hops growing along the trail. This was a great segue into the evenings cross training event, an activity that careful scouting the weekend before had uncovered.

During last weekends drive back from the beer fest we decided that we should probably have a beer somewhere in the Eau Claire/Menomonie area. One of the boys remembered a brewpub in Menomonie that brewed German lagers and we quickly tracked it down. It turns out that the annual St. Gambrinus Day celebration was last Saturday at Das Bierhaus, complete with fun, games, prizes, and a costume judging. Since we had our kayak changing robes in the back of the car and plenty of wild hops for an excellent crown, we decided to go for it. We mingled with kings, swordsmen, damsels, and serving wenches and had a damn fine time. The Gambrinator Blonde Doppelbock was brewed for the event and was excellent, although not a session beer by any means. The VOR even won the bronze in the 'how long can you hold two half liters of beer' competition.

The weekend was a good break but now its back to kayaking with a weekend in the Apostles and the annual fall trip, this year back up to the Sauna Islands. It was lots of fun to kick back with some biking however, and these trails whetted our appetites for some of the other trails in the state. The scenery is great, the trails well maintained, and there are plenty of nice distractions along the way. Who knows, a person might even run into a religious celebration, maybe even the patron saint of brewing, along the way?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Check out RonO's blog......

Very nice Alaska bear stuff, along with some succinct commentary.

We must be getting a bit disinterested as the kayak season moves inexorably toward water too stiff to paddle in. On a beautiful night with perfect temps and flat calm, only three of us were bobbing off Talley's dock on White Bear Lake, listening to good live music and sipping adult beverages. Come on people, in two months you'll be ready to kill for a night like last night. Think about that work/life balance and lets move the teeter totter toward the life side!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Boy Scouts

I know some of the readers of this drivel will find it hard to believe but yes, I was indeed a boy scout. I made it to age 15 and the Star rank before the twin discoveries of beer and the opposite sex waylaid my single minded merit badge quest. I learned a lot in the organization, especially in the camping and outdoor skills department, and our troop had virtually every meeting outdoors, rain or shine, summer or winter. No church basements for good ol' Troop 133. This week I've been inundated by Boy Scout stuff including a customer/buddy relating his Scoutmaster experiences, one of my co workers attending Wood Badge training at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, and some paddling friends from St Cloud returning from a kayak trip to the Apostles.

I learned a lot in the scouts and still think its a great organization, no matter what the ACLU, the atheists, or various gay rights groups think. "I want to be in your group but I don't like your rules so please change them or I'll sue you" is always an interesting concept in my mind. Also, if the United Way wants to drop the Boy Scouts that's their prerogative, just like its my prerogative to drop the United Way. I think that electing our own patrol leader from amongst our buddies was my first inkling that this democracy deal was a pretty good thing. But enough political crap. The Boy Scouts, and this blog I would hope, are about having fun and maybe learning a thing or two along the way. My first long trip away from the parents was to Philmont Scout Ranch (one of those guys in the above image is me) , a two plus week trip in the very interesting year of 1968. Among the things I learned were that your clothes got really smelly if mom didn't wash em, Mexicans ate different food than we did, Greyhound buses are really hard to push when they run out of fuel, and no way was I ever joining the army. They had us stay at Ft. Carson army base on the way back and I think our impression was exactly the opposite from what the army had hoped. These big 'adventure base' experiences like Philmont and the Charles Sommers Wilderness Canoe Base, where No1 son put on several hundred canoe miles one summer as a 'Charlie Guide', are kind of the peak experiences for scout campers but good troops organize a number of smaller trips, which can be easily as instructive and as much fun as the big ones. From the trip report on the Apostles adventure, it sounds like that one fit the bill.

From talking with the guys on a rainy Mississippi River paddle, it sounds like they did all the right training, practiced rescues, had the correct paddles (see image) and lined up a double, always a great idea if someone is injured or ill on a trip. Gitchee Gumee gave them some flat water, a bit of bumpy water, a nice day at the sea caves, and and some hard paddling. She also gave them a great experience that will provide both lasting memories and valuable lessons. I guess that's what I got out of my Boy Scout experiences and would hope that its still the core focus of the organization.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Great Taste.....more than one taste, actually

This weekend an elite foursome headed to Madison to join another half dozen our our cronies who were lucky enough to get tickets to one of the finest beer events in the country, the Great Taste of the Midwest. The event is held under the live oaks in Olin-Turville Park on Lake Monona in Madison, WI. Unlike other beer festivals I've attended this one always comes off like clockwork. The buses transporting folks to and from the venue are efficient, there are plenty of Porta-potties, there are several tents for the brewers which disperses the crowd and makes getting your beer sample easier, and they managed to get 6,000 people in the gate in around 15 minutes. Six thousand out of the roughly 25,000 that applied for tickets.

We had two rookies and a number of grizzled veterans in the group. We always bring folding chairs and set up a small enclave under an oak tree that serves as a base camp. Every year the plan is refined a bit and this year we decided to set up as close to the Real Ale tent as humanly possible. Out of the 125 or so breweries, three or four beers apiece, there were roughly 60 cask conditioned ales and this is where the brunt of our groups attention was focused. One of our rookie members managed to take notes for a couple hours and also had a mental beer progression from the bitters to the IPA's, and then on to the brown ales, porters and stouts. We warned him that this might fall by the wayside and sure enough, hedonistic and indiscriminate beer tasting without a single note began to occur a couple hours after the gates opened. It was hotter than hell and more humid than a Florida swamp but since this event is a well oiled machine, plenty of drinking water was available and taken advantage of. I ran into Mark Stutrud, the man behind Summit Brewing Co, and we discussed the fact that on year two of this event, roughly 1986 or so, they were so busy brewing with their 4 man crew that they sent me down to the event with a lone half barrel of Great Northern Porter in my trunk. It was held at the old Fess Hotel, current site of excellent Great Dane brewpub, one of the few spots where cask ale is always available. I seem to remember about 6 or 8 breweries there, including Summit, Sprecher, Schells, and the sadly defunct Hibernia from my hometown of Eau Claire, WI.

The people watching was great. Everything from the humorous to the erotic to the bizarre was represented as these three humorous, erotic, and bizarre images illustrate. The cops even love working this event because, as one told me, 'nothing really happens and no one gets out of hand...its like free money'. We did notice that there was a significantly greater amount of singing, yellling, and smart assed commenting on the bus ride back to the Weary Traveler than there was on the way over. And my seat companion did fall off the seat and into the aisle when we rounded a corner, and never did get back up into the seat. It was the usual fine event although it may cost me some money. I invested in a merino wool T-shirt at Midwest Mountaineering's Outdoor Retailer of the Year party on Thursday. To show their appreciation for the award they had free Summit beer and brats in their parking lot, a sure winner in my book. I wore the T shirt in the steam bath that was last Saturday in Madison, with a cotton collared shirt over it. While saying I was cool would be a bold faced lie, I was very comfortable and not a bit clammy as I would be when my cotton T shirt became soaked through with sweat. Damn it, I may need to pick up another one and they ain't cheap.

I always feel slightly guilty 'burning' a weekend with no paddling, biking, or other activities but I think this is on the annual list to stay, at least as long as we keep getting lucky with the tickets. My top five beers by the way, were all real (cask) ales: Barley John's Bitter, the Great Dane bitter, New Albanian Beak's Best, the rare Summit cask EPA, and Surly's Teabag Bitter. Did I mention that ESB, Extra Special Bitter, is my favorite beer style? I thought so. I hope you enjoy the post as much as I liked the beer.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Herbster closed due to bear activity?

My earlier bear post generated some emails from the faithful readership. Apparently Kykr13Steve and his paddling buddies from Illinios were some of the first on the scene of the Manitou campsite closing and found the above note on the fire grate. Apparently, and this is what I had heard as well, another sick or possibly injured bear was dying between the fish camp and the campsite on Manitou. The NPS closed the island to let Yogi live out his last days in relative peace. Apparently this bear died but another bear had been pestering the volunteer at the fish camp (shades of the legendary Katie outhouse incident from a couple years back!) and the island was once again closed. The image in yesterdays blog was what I assume to be the younger, smaller Manitou bear and the one below is the larger bear that we spotted and photographed the next spring on Manitou. I'm not sure which one took the dirt nap, but the survivor seems to be up to his old tricks. Kykr13Steve said that they also saw bear and bear sign at the other campsites they visited. I'm trying to think of a beach that we've stopped at for lunch this year that didn't have bear sign and I can't really come up with one. Typically one of us, generally not me, combs the beach for beach glass in both directions at our lunch stops, and its pretty easy to find bear tracks. I guess we need to come to expect bear sign and bears on the islands and learn to deal with them. Make yourself big, wave your hands, make noise, and 99 44/100ths % of black bears will take off running. That's all well and good for island camping in the ostensible wilderness area, but what about in the heart of downtown Herbster, WI?

The GurneyGranny, a woman feared by most wild game from red squirrels and chipmunks to 8 point bucks, was at her semi annual Wild Womyn weekend in the heart of Herbsters high density population area. Whilst lounging around the campfire Tuesday morning, she spotted Mr. Bear strolling around the garage and peering at the relaxing wild womyn through the hammock. Since her trusty .257 Roberts bolt action was back in Gurney, all they could do was leap to their feet, which caused the bear to head south as they say. Apparently this boy had been found twice in the garage and once with his nose on the kitchen window, smelling home baked bread cooling. It's pretty obvious to me that this is a problem bear that has lost his fear of humans and could present a problem for garbage cans, bird feeders, and coffee drinking Wild Womyn all over uptown Herbster. My guess is that he's already visited Isaakson Lumber, Woody's Bar, and Northern Lights Gifts and its only a matter of time before he stumbles on to the Herbster Camprgound on Lake Superior. I think we all know the logical outcome to this situation. Herbster must be closed.

I can have fun with this, and believe me I do, but I don't have to deal with the myriad of regulations, bureaucracy, nut case interest groups, plaintiff's bar, and ignorant members of the general public like the NPS does. The fact of the matter is that bear attacks in Wisconsin just aren't' much of a problem. The last ones that I heard of were 11 years ago, other than the drunk woman that got her fingers bitten off this spring when she stuck them in the bear cage at the Manitowoc Zoo, another prime example of the rank stupidity of the general public. Maybe we need to sign a "Yeah I know there's bear activity but I still want to go there" wavier of some kind and then sit through some sort of bearmanship training, perhaps like the info in this Wis DNR article. A scheme like that would likely need to be approved by a battalion of government lawyers, administrative law judges, park service bureaucrats, and maybe even Ken Salazar after a lengthy and repetitious series of public hearings. Nope, I think I'll just camp at the sites, bearproof our camp, deal with any bruins that show up, and keep my mouth (and blog) shut when it comes to any close encounters of the Ursus Americanus kind. If don't ask, don't tell works for the army, why not the National Park Service, right?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

He's baaack!

It's been a weak year for my overnites in the Apostles this year. Circumstances have conspired to leave me with only two nights of camping in the park this season but we have a permit for the end of August after two weekends of non kayak activity. Last week however, I received a call from a fellow blogger (you need to get that thing going again MsK!) at the NPS informing me that Manitou Island.....the entire island......was once again closed due to bear activity.

Cohort and fellow co-conspirator, RonO, just got back from a month long working vacation in Alaska. He was wrenching on aircraft for a company that offered bear watching tours in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks. These are not the stunted Stockton Island black bears, these guys are big grizzlies. Even grizzlies with cubs as you can see from the photo. If folks can fly in and take pictures of these notoriously unpredictable bears, why does an entire island need to be closed because of one punk black bear? Don't airplane motors and camera clicking tourists disturb the natural zen-like state of these wild bears? What if a bear had simply 'had it' and attacked the awed photographers? Aren't the park officials afraid someone will get hurt? What about the children!!??

Seriously, as I've written before, it has to be tough to be the park service with the gamut of regulations and nut cases they have to deal with. I'm not a big fan of the wilderness designation because I don't think its been wilderness since the Anishnabe first settled there hundreds of years ago. All the Wilderness Act seems to do is further tie the hands of those in charge of managing the area but I'm getting a bit off topic. Lets zoom back into this renegade bear on Manitou. Camper stupidity is likely what got him used to people but maybe not. Like people, this could be the psychopath bear. I'm sure some of you are thinking 'the bear was there first'. No, he likely swam out there or walked out on the ice and what the hell difference does that make anyway? I know there have been lots of bear visits to campsites this year and only a fraction of them have been reported. One friend had 5 visits in one night a couple weeks ago, and another group had to shoo the bear away a number of times, both on other islands. Is it good to report these encounters or will it only diminish the number of available campsites when the reported ones inevitably get closed? A couple years back a young grad student at UW came up with a model for estimating Wisconsin's bear population which showed that the bear population was double what the DNR had thought. DNR scientists reluctantly agreed that the model was correct. The bottom line is that we have plenty of bears. Plenty. Manitou Island is open to bear hunting and I offered to go out there with a bag of honey covered marshmallows and a .357 magnum but that was met with less than enthusiasm by MsK. Relocation? That just moves the problem to another area, a situation we had personal experience with when we found that our hunting camp was the 'bad bear' dumping spot for Bayfield county a few years back.

Maybe what we need is more 'bearmanship'. No1 son was in southwestern China a few years back and planned on climbing up a popular mountain in the area near the Vietnamese border. Chinese entrepaneurs at the base persuaded him that he needed to rent a monkey club from them since the monkeys along the way were bold food and pack snatchers. He did and, sure enough, monkeys needed to be clubbed. I would not advocate bear clubs however. The BearWhisperer, a buddy who tags and monitors black bears with the DNR, tells of a hundred pound yearling waking up and pretty much kicking his 6'1", 200# ass until his partner came over and helped subdue it. More bear interaction education, tighter control and watch over the food we bring out, bear spray, and maybe even a firecracker or two could help cut down on the problem. In this particular case, I'd encourage one of you northern Wisconsin bear hunters to seriously consider Manitou Island. You won't have to bait for weeks or deal with the mostly smelly and stupid bear dogs. Just head out in your fishing boat, throw out those honey glazed marshmallows and slam the bear box door a few times. I think its pretty much a sure thing.

Good luck campers and good luck NPS. When 'the public' runs the gamut from Naugahyde wearing PETA members to shifty bear dog runners in northeastern Wisconsin it would seem to be a problem with no solution, one that has the park service's hands tied. We need to collectively figure out this bear-human interaction since what we are doing now does not seem to be working.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Safety boating the open water swim

For the second year in a row a number of us served as safety boaters for the Bayfield to Madeline Island open water swim, an event to benefit the rec center in Bayfield. This event has grown geometrically from 24 people the first year to just under 300 this year. Rumor was that over 60 people were turned away when the event hit the Coast Guard mandated cut off number. One of the key safety elements is lots of folks in people powered craft keeping an eye on, guiding, and encouraging the swimmers. They are supported by power boats with EMT's as well as Coast Guard craft. The whole exercise seemed to me a lot like herding cattle. I was then corrected by one of my fellow safety boaters. No, she said, it was like herding cats.

The whole point of course, was to get from Bayfield to the island in the minimal amount of time. There are really no course markers, just giant buoys placed in an arc shape along the course. They reminded me of a trajectory or ballistics chart for a rifle round as they arced south toward Chequamagon Bay and then back toward the finish. Actually it was more like a shotgun slug, with a considerable curve away from then back toward the finish. Some swimmers followed the buoys but they got to swim a considerable extra distance. I was on the north end of the route, patrolling with the KingOfIronwoodIsland. I had my gps on and we took a dead straight line across the channel. We were encouraged to 'move em in, move em in' but the fact is that the folks that we were shepherding were on a pretty straight line to the finish which, according to Ms Meinen my high school geometry teacher, is the shortest distance between two points. No one seemed to know why the buoys were so far off the straight line course to the island but two theories were to compensate for the current or to keep swimmers away from the ferry route. Even though there was a bit of kayaker/swimmer acrimony and a bit of kayaker/kayaker acrimony (people who are pretty sure they know what they are doing resent being told that they don't) it was a great event once again. There were a couple Coast Guard evacs but almost all of the folks made it on a perfect day in rare 70F water with a light chop from the south. Unlike last year, the places on the island that offered free breakfast after the race were open and we had a lovely buffet at Grandpa Tony's,which was not one of the designated breakfast spots on last years lineup. A leisurely paddle back to Bayfield followed by a debriefing at Patsy's Bar in Washburn completed the morning.

Like most volunteer run events there are things that can be improved. I plan to shoot an email off to Scott with some ideas that may help if the event grows again next year, ideas fermented in Patsy's by Keweenaw Widow Maker and Summit EPA. There is nothing like a good after action briefing and discussion to help facilitate progress. Even with the minor issues it's a very worthwhile event for a good cause. Safety boaters receive a T-shirt, $25 gas card (OK, its actually a card from the Washburn IGA so it can be used for gas, groceries, or.....even beer.
'Fuel card' can be interpreted several ways), and the breakfast on the island coupon. If you're a paddler with a Lake Superior worthy boat and an intermediate skill set, think about it next year. Its a fun and rewarding way to spend a beautiful Saturday morning in August.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Grand Island, Pictured Rocks, and Grand Sable Dunes

Before this kayak travelogue begins I need to do a bit of housekeeping. A 'blog name' has never been changed in this space before but I guess never say never. I've always avoided names that refer to a person's vocation unless it really speaks to who they are. The two rangers in this space are notable examples. Therefore TheCommish, a bit of naming laziness on my part, shall hereafter be known as the BadHatter (my apologies to Lewis Carroll). When a person has a god given talent, in this case making even the most elegant or attractive piece of headgear look ridiculous when placed upon his head, it must be memorialized. In any event, our entire fall kayaking crew was in Christmas, MI after the symposium ended in Grand Marais a couple weeks back. In addition to RangerMark, the GreenThumbChef, FrugalFisherman, and the VOR, the BadHatters spouse, MsMouseketeer (now THAT'S a good story!) was able to shake loose and join us. We stayed in a small mom & pop resort in Christmas, MI, appropriately named the Yule Log, right on Lake Superior with Grand Island and its National Recreation Area a short 1.5mile crossing away.

It was a great spot. 15 yards from the water with a nice beach to launch from, a picnic table in the front yard, and a lovely, spotless two bedroom cabin as our base of operations. The MO for the week was big breakfast, paddle, happy hour, gourmet meal, and kick back at the picnic table while gazing out at Gitchee Gumee. I suspect I could only do that for a couple months or so before I got tired of it, so 4 days was a bit short. We did manage to hit Grand Island, Pictured Rocks, and the Grand Sable Dunes in that time though, solid work given the short window.

The scenery and topography is much different than either the rocky north shore of the lake, the sandy south shore, or the rocky nooks and crannies of the Keweenaw. It had the sedimentary rock normally found on the south shore but in a much grander scale than is seen in the Apostles. We spent one day paddling along the south and part of the east shore of Grand Island, attempting to check out some shipwrecks and get a feel from the area. Being astute observers, we deduced that when the glass bottom tour boat stopped near a buoy, it must be a wreck. Unfortunately there was a bit of breeze and we did not have glass bottom kayaks so wreck viewing was spotty at best. We did enjoy the old wooden East Channel lighthouse,which has recently been restored. The cliffs and lighthouse on the north end of the island will have to wait until next time.

Pictured Rocks from Miners Beach to Chapel Rock is an amazing stretch of lake. I guess that's why its designated a national lakeshore. Soaring sandstone cliffs that dwarf a kayak, amazing natural streaks of color, and rivers and waterfalls that tumble directly into the lake make it one of the most interesting stretches of the lake to paddle. Did I mention sea arches?

The Grand Sable Dunes don't look that impressive from a distance. But as kayakers keep paddling and don't seem to get any closer, they realize the scale of these massive sand dunes. As many a tourist that visited from the top has discovered, its really fast and easy to roll/slide to the bottom but not quite so easy to get back up. When you land at the base and do the hard part first, its much more manageable. We paddled from the Hurricane River east to the Au Sable lighthouse, past the entire length of the dunes, and back into Grand Marais harbor, the 'scene of the crime' the weekend before. I was worried sick that the Cabin Fever ESB at the Lake Superior Brewpub had become stale since I'd left, but a couple test pints proved quality was still at a high level.

There is talk of making this yet another annual event and I guess since the GLSKS already is, extending it would only be logical when we are in the area. One of the reasons that this lake has planted itself in my brain is the variety that can be found by paddling around it. So much lake, so little time. I guess we just need to keep biting off pieces and revisiting the ones we've already bitten off. The other attractive thing about the lake is that the experience changes with the season, weather, and even the company we keep. That's why I'll never get tired of going back. Never.