Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday bitterness

Before driving to St Paul on Christmas Eve to visit GuitarMatt and his sweetie, I threw a growler in the car, thinking that on the way there or back I would stop at Barley John's and pick up 64 ounces of their delicious Little Barley Bitter. As it turned out, my Christmas gift was the 'Rudolph' growler, full of said bitter, in the image left. It's ironic that after stabbing another Rudolph rendition, this one could bring me so much liquid joy. To top it off, I was ordered to stop at Surdyks liquor store, hazardous duty if ever there was any on Christmas Eve, and pick up some Anchor Christmas Ale and Lagunitas Sucks Holiday Ale for the VOR who had developed a fondness for both of those holiday brews. As I hunted for them I found that 21st Amendment's Bitter American seasonal was back on the shelf. I definitely needed a large carry box as I made my way to the car with my arms full of six packs.

Bitter or ESB, Extra Special Bitter, is far and away my favorite beer style. It's nicely balanced with the hop flavor in the forefront and the alcohol content usually hovers around 4%, making it a true session ale. I am sick of the IPA craze and its high alcohol, insanely hopped brews. If you drive to a bar, two of these brews puts you at the ragged edge of .08% BAL and a trip to jail if you are stopped on the way home. If you are settled in with your buddies for a 'session', a sipping beer with low alcohol and great flavor is the hot ticket and bitter most always fits the bill. While in San Fransisco with the VOR the weekend before last, I wandered into the Magnolia brewpub in Haight Ashbury while waiting for my SU (Spousal Unit) to run the gauntlet of high end vintage shops on Haight St. I looked at the beer list on the chalkboard, walked up to the bartender and asked, voice full of hope, "Is it true you have four bitters on tap, two on cask, and aren't out of any or all of 'em?". When he assured me that they indeed had all four I started at the beginning. When the VOR walked in and looked at the chalk board to determine her beer choice, she immediately informed me, without me opening my mouth, that "you can't drink four 20oz bitters this early in the afternoon". I made a slight gramatical correction and suggested that she substitute 'shouldn't' for 'can't' and told her she was looking at the half full glass of #3. Once again the low alcohol content combined with our car and hassle free metro pass made it perfectly fine (other than a couple stumbles on the hilly terrain) to enjoy multiple bitters on a lovely December afternoon.

Why more breweries don't brew the style is a puzzle to me, although the name can throw off the more uneducated beer drinkers. I recall a beer ad a few years back for some crappy light beer proclaiming that their beer was 'not a bit bitter'. I am dead certain that it wasn't. While visiting GalwayGuy in St Louis, we discovered the phenomona of the 'session IPA'. The brewer admitted it had the flavor profile and alcohol content of a good bitter but that, "that bitter tag tends to throw the casual drinker off". Dark Mild is another excellent beer style with a off putting name. What macho beer drinker wants 'mild beer'? I guess that would be me. Here's a little secret: both South Shore Nut Brown and Northwoods Floppin' Crappie are dark milds. If these excellent brews were called dark mild they would be limited seasonals and probably on the verge of being discontinued. Summit ESB, my go-to beer for years, was dropped due to what I suspect was low sales. Surly brews both Bitter Brewer and Surly Mild as seasonals and I wish they were year round. Right now, in a cruel bit of irony Barley John's, which is within easy walking distance, brews a lovely bitter year round that's 3.5% and bursting with flavor. My local joint Grumpys, has no bitter and usually about three IPA's on tap. I would think that a bar would want to have a session ale, since Bitter Brewer (in season) and Surly Furious are exactly the same price for a pint, yet I'll have four BB's and only two Furious if I'm driving.

For now I'm good on the bitter front. Barley John's is four blocks east of me and I have my Rudolph growler to refill, a tasty as well as very green solution for beer consumption. Surdyks has 21st Amendment Bitter American in cans and I will relentlessly lobby Pat at Grumpys, like a three year old begging for a candy bar in the grocery check out line, to put it on tap. Podman is brewing his delicious Bitter Bobbi Ale and I can usually fall back on the not-truly-a-bitter Red Hook ESB. I also would like to issue a call to action for Mark Stutrud at Summit and Omar Ansari at Surly. Bring back Summit ESB and brew Bitter Brewer the entire year. Hell, call 'em session IPA's, make up some catchy name to lure the beer rubes in, I don't care. Just give we bitter lovers the tasty, well balanced, and socially responsible beer we all crave. Think light beer that actually has flavor, unlike the one, second from the bottom on the image right. It's the right thing to do!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas confession: I stabbed Rudolph

It's the season of schmaltzie Christmas movies (we watched a young Natalie Wood in Miracle on 34th St last night), Christmas music, overeating on a daily basis at work, holiday happy hours, and a generally upbeat feeling of holiday cheer. Yet for years I've harbored a deep, dark, and shameful secret. A few years ago in a fit of blinding rage, I viciously and savagely stabbed Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer to death.

No, it wasn't the real Rudolph but the scene of the crime was a spot where several of his cloven hoofed and antlered cousins have hung from a pole with their tongues protruding, en route to the freezer. This Rudolph was the oven mitt pictured above with the happy little guy printed on the front. As sappy as that is, it was not what set me off. It was the fact that this oven mitt had an embedded chip and every time you touched it or even jostled it, it would play 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' in monotone computer generated tones. Think 'do-do-de-do-do-do-do', every time you got near the thing. As regular readers of this blog know, one of my favorite things about the hunting camp is the lack of any indication of modern civilization. It is impossible to microwave a piece of pizza, flip on a light, flush the toilet, or catch a few minutes of the latest and most retarded reality show. We used to have two electronic devices at camp, the 1980's Montgomery Wards boom box for oldies listening, and the 4" screen battery powered TV that Podman received as a 'safe driving award' in one of his former jobs. We are down to one since the FCC decided to go digital. Its not a big loss however because camp rules prohibited the TV for anything other than Packer and World Series games. The quiet and natural background hum of the deer camp is very relaxing, a fact that made the incessant, mindless electronic rendition of Rudolph even more grating. Another contributing factor was that I'm only able to stand Christmas music from Black Friday through Christmas Day itself. That's plenty of musical cheer for me, but the cute Rudolph oven mitt played during snowshoe trips in February, cutting trees for deer food in March, kayaking in June, and early bow season in September. Like an outwardly calm postal worker sorting the mail, day after day after day, my hatred of this innocuous little oven mitt began to build and fester over the years until one day I snapped.

I can't even remember the exact scenario but I do remember it was during hunting season. I was cooking a fairly complex meal that I wanted to 'hit the post' and have everything done at the same time. A pork roast was on the grill, potatoes boiling for mashing, and I was chopping veggies to stir fry. As I grabbed Rudolph to latch on to a hot cast iron pan handle, the inevitable 'do-do-de-do-do-do-do' began to play. Something in my head just snapped. I threw Rudolph on the cutting board with the veggies, grabbed the 8" chef knife, and repeatedly, in a Hitchcockian, 'Psycho-like' fury, stabbed Rudolph's chirping little electronic heart until it went 'do-do-de......... Dead silence. The nightmare was over.

I do recall myself cursing as I stabbed Rudolph. My companions looked at me like I was nuts but I felt this sense of relief, like order had been restored to the Reefer Creek universe. Even though I received a raft of abuse, I don't recall anyone being sad that they could no longer hear the worlds worst rendition of 'Rudolph' 12 months out of the year. I must admit that I was impressed by the durability of the little chip in Rudolph though. Through hot summer days and -20F winter nights, this gadget just kept on playing for years. It could not survive an assault with a Wusthof chefs knife however.

It feels good to have that dark episode in deer camp history off my chest. I don't hate the song and in fact have the Gene Autry version on my iPod. I have noticed that since the assault no one had sent me one of those singing holiday or birthday cards. I've also noticed that the electronic noises at the deer camp these days are pretty much non existent. So, enjoy the holiday. I wish everyone a merry Christmas, a happy New Year, and a joyous Hannaramakwansas for the multi ethnic among us. Just don't give people 'the gift that keeps on giving' like our little Rudolph oven mitt. You never know what could happen.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"How could you like a killer?"

Last weekend found the VOR and I in San Francisco for our annual pre Christmas long weekend and a bit of honeymooning this year as well. Its a great week to travel because the airports are nearly deserted, vacancies at all accommodations are plentiful and sometimes discounted, and unless you screw up and get close to a shopping destination most things are refreshingly uncrowded. We are both suckers for a good book store and found ourselves in the famous City Lights Bookstore on Columbus & Broadway Sunday evening. It's located smack dab between Chinatown and North Beach (SF's Little Italy) and across the street from the historic Condor Club, our nation's first topless establishment. At City Lights I stumbled upon a new Jim Harrison novel, one of my favorite writers from the UP. The novel is The Great Leader, and a good part of it is set in Marquette, MI. The first paragraph got me hooked as I browsed the stacks. "It was below freezing and the surf at the river mouth was high and tormented where Lake Superior collided with the strong outgoing river current. The wind and surf were deafening and Sunderson reminded himself of how much he disliked Lake Superior other than something admirable to look at like an attractive calendar. He had been born and raised in the harbor town of Munising and two of his relatives who were commercial fisherman had died at sea back in the fifties, bringing grief and disarray to the larger family. The most alarming fact of prolonged local history was the death of 280 people at sea between Marquette and Sault St. Marie. How could you like a killer?".

I have encountered this attitude among a lot of people that have been born and raised on the shores of Gitchee Gumee. I have friends from Thunder Bay to Marquette who consider going out on Lake Superior in a kayak the equivalent of sky diving. It's probably OK if you're really lucky but sooner or later it's going to bite you in the ass. My buddy Podman related the amazement at his Ashland HS class reunion when he mentioned to his classmates that we had kayaked to Outer Island. Some claimed they would be leery going out there in a powerboat. I'm sure a large part of it is the constant stories of drownings, sinkings, and destruction of property that have occurred pretty frequently over the years, especially in the '50's and '60's when weather prediction was not nearly as accurate as it is now, an amazing statement given my criticism of the current forecasts on the lake. There is also the lore of the big lake, an attitude reflected by the quote at NPS HQ in Bayfield and at the masthead of this blog by the Rev George Grant in 1872, "wild, masterful, and dreaded". A more recent case in point is the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. We all knew and heard about it when I was in college in Eau Claire, WI but if Gordon Lightfoot hadn't written the song my guess is that it would have faded from memory like the hundreds of other wrecks on the Great Lakes. When the hometowns of the crew members are studied however, places like Ashland, Washburn, Moquah, Iron River, and Superior, WI as well as Duluth and Silver Bay, MN make it much more personal, immediate, and memorable to those that live in that area.

So are we nuts for going out on the big lake in skinny boats? One of my favorite stories came from talking and having a beer with some divers from Tennessee that were diving the wreck of the yacht Gunilda in 250' of water up near Rossport, ON. They had spectacular footage of the wreck and described how a two hour dive gave them about 15 minutes on the wreck. After describing what could happen, gas mixtures, decompression, etc., I looked at one of them and said, "you guys are nuts!". To which one fellow replied, "Was that you guys out by Battle Island in the six foot seas in them two foot wide skinny boats? I think ya'all are the ones that are nuts!"

I guess in the end we all do what we feel comfortable with and try to use our heads and take the precautions necessary to keep ourselves out of trouble. Whether its scuba diving, skydiving, or sea kayaking, a certain amount of risk is factored in along with the techniques and skills to mitigate that risk. The history of the lake does give one pause but if we paddle safe and, maybe even more important, paddle smart we can enjoy and savor those big seas with more confidence and assurance.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Hey, guess what?

OK, OK, the main reason the VoiceOfReason and I headed north last weekend was to get married at the Hotel Chequamegon in Ashland, WI. It was a tiny, tiny ceremony where officiant, wedding party, and guests could easily be seated around a decent sized restaurant table. The lounge at the Hotel Chequamegon was cozy, Lake Superior was just outside the window, and the usual wedding stress and angst were nowhere to be found.

The compact ceremony started with an excerpt from Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (appropriate for a GitcheeGumeeGuy), eased through some wisdom from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, advice from Walt Whitman, and finished with an Irish blessing. The traditional champagne toast was replaced with Connemara Irish Whiskey and group headed to the Deepwater Grill and brewpub for a nice dinner. It could not have been better and both of us are happy about the whole thing. Now we just need to figure out if I'm Mr. VOR or she becomes Ms GitcheeGumeeGuy. I'm thinking the status quo in names will be just fine.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Winter sneaking in......

Winter has given us a couple little tastes but in the Twin Cities area it has not gotten serious yet. The VoiceOfReason and I headed north this weekend to try to find some winter, among other things, and discovered that it really had only taken hold in the snow belt, which begins on the top of Birch Hill, a long hill on US 2 between Ashland, WI and Ironwood, MI. That's where we wound up on Sunday and I actually got out on the skis for the first time this year, albeit briefly. The quiet and exclusive PodRong Loops were tracked for classical and the no wax skis were perfect for the warmish and sunny day. The VOR, because she is the VOR, passed on the opportunity because of the T Zone deer hunting in the area, a scheme where the DNR encourages people to reduce the herd by shooting anterless deer. I saw plenty of deer sign but no deer or hunters were spotted.

Duluth has very little snow other than the fake stuff at Spirit Mountain, and the port is still wide open. Two 'salties' the Lake Ontario (Antigua flagged) and the Zelada Desgagnes (Marshall Islands flagged) were anchored off the harbor entrance in the big lake, waiting to load grain. I asked a couple people why they were anchored off the harbor when the harbor didn't seem that busy, after asking them what they did for a living of course, but no one seemed to have the answer. Maybe there was a jam up at the grain terminal, where midwestern grain begins it's trip around the world. There is skim ice in the harbor but no fishermen or ice boaters, which means it isn't safe. Ice fishermen will sneak out on 2" of ice if they think the fish are biting. The Old Man used to put on the Stearns life vest and have two dowels with cement nails embedded in the end of them on a string around his neck. He would shuffle out on big Alaskan snowshoes, secure in the knowledge that if he went through he could both float and pull himself out. I don't recall ever seeing a change of clothes in the car but then he never went through, or at least if he did I (nor my mother) never heard about it.

We passed one of our favorite ski trails, After Hours, near Brule, WI but no snow there. Ashland also had skim ice but no ice fishermen and the big swans (Mute swans is the popular guess as to their species) have moved on. Open water is visible past the edge of the ice across the bay toward Washburn. It was only when we had reached Birch Hill that there was steady snow cover on the ground. It felt good to see the snow and good to get out on the skis. I'm not in as miserable shape as I thought I was, but am far from ski shape. Having my legs atrophy in a kayak all summer does not make for a smooth start to the ski season but I'm sure things will work themselves out. I just hope the forecast of a snowy cold winter comes through, at least the snowy part. The 'gerbil wheel', the 1k fake snow loop at Elm Creek Park Reserve, is open but every nordic ski team in the area is there now and I get bored after going around it 10 or 12 times anyhow. Nope, I think we will wait for the real thing. We just hope it shows up in manageable doses.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Closed circuit to world: I don't give a damn what you do for a living

Tis the season for holiday parties, lots of social mingling, and meeting new people. If you happen to meet me at some point over the next month, and want me to think you are a shallow, insecure, status conscious idiot, please ask me in the first minute or so of conversation, "So, what do you do for a living?". It happened to me twice yesterday. The first guy I was sort of civil to and told, albeit in an 'aw shucks' rube-like accent, "I sell stickers!". The woman that asked was so smarmy and obviously attempting to see if I had a status or social level worthy of her conversation time, that I told her I was the entertainment booking agent at the Club Seville in downtown Minneapolis. It turns out that my buddy Schu is a part owner of that fine establishment, the most high end 'Gentleman's Club' in the area. He has told me that if I want to meet a famous Laker basketball player, a man who had some trouble in Colorado a few years back, all I needed to do was be at the club about an hour after the Lakers played the Timberwolves. In any event, my comment and eager explanation of the mechanics of my 'job' made the woman back away to find another poor sap to quiz on his status and income.

I am trying to think of something more uninteresting for either you or I than what either of us does to put bread on the table. Nothing comes to mind. Even 'where are you from' or 'nice jacket, where did you get that?' have more value and conversation potential than the hated and overused 'what do you do for a living?' I've responded with 'I work my ass off so I can retire young' a few times, hoping the comeback would be a question about what I plan to to with that retirement time; that would be a conversation starter for sure. Unfortunately theusual response is an attempt to drill down and find out what they really pay me for so I can be categorized or cubbyholed in their tiny little minds. The thing that I really and truly don't give a rat's scabby behind about however, is what YOU do for a living. I swear to god, I absolutely do not care about your career. Whether you were an assistant to Mother Theresa or the slimiest used car salesman in the state, I just don't think its relevant to anything that I care to know or learn about you. I don't care if you are a self made millionaire or don't have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. If you feel that your entire identity and soul are tightly wrapped around your career then I'm probably not interested in knowing you because you won't have time to do anything fun with me anyhow, you'll be too obsessed with working. I'll be honest; I don't like to work. I guess that's why they call it work. I see the value, in that my vocation gives me the means to pursue my avocations, and I realize that in business networking (one of my least favorite terms) I need to have my cute and polished little 'elevator speech' for prospective clients. I also really like steak a lot better than Alpo so I'd better save for that retirement. But to talk about work in a purely social setting, usually in conjunction with a party or some outdoor activity eg. kayaking, skiing, hunting, to me is more boring than watching a bridge rust.

OK, OK, tirade over for now. I would however, appreciate comments and any smart ass comebacks for that insipid question when it gets asked. Perhaps if we all cut those bozos off at the knees it will stimulate intelligent and meaningful conversations throughout the holiday season. Discussing what you do when you aren't at work makes for a much livelier and worthwhile conversation. Lets keep that in mind as we circulate, spreading our own little brand of holiday cheer, during this Christmas season.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Deer Camp Reprise

It seems like I always do an overall review about what went on at Reefer Creek deer camp over the nine days of 'Holy Week' and I don't think my 'cold and boring' post did the week justice. I was a bit distracted by the SKOAC slide night last week and it's thought provoking presentations. The physical and mental aspects of spending nine days in the hinterlands is great writing fodder and I need to expand on the week in order to both put it into perspective and also to put it to rest in my over active brain.

The most overriding fact of deer camp is that the worst nine days of deer camp is head and shoulders above the nine best days of work. I don't think anyone can argue with that fact. When a person goes in with that attitude, its tough to be critical but I can compare it with other deer hunting experiences I've had. The friends, the traditions, the routines and common vocabulary connect us all at the most basic level. I used to hunt at a camp down near Modena, WI. A good group but they designated the stands in an almost engineer-like manner. Names like Gold 1, 2, 3 or Red 3, 4, 5. Another camp I hunted out of in the Lake Itasca region of Minnesota pretty much excluded women from the hunt. At least a couple 'camps' were located in buildings that are arguably more plush than our townhouse. To each his or her own, but I think we do it right.

In the Lake Superior region that stretches across the UP, through Wisconsin, and into northern Minnesota the phrase 'deer camp' has three distinct and interchangeable meanings. 'The camp' can be the actual building and/or grounds such as, "I'm heading up to camp late Friday". It can also be the nine days of the season as in "We had a pretty damn good camp this year". Finally, it can be the people involved like, "I've never seen a camp inhale so much chicken, dumplings, and beer before". Usually these three distinctions blend and meld together like that big pot of chicken and dumplings to encompass all three iterations. Like the previous post on the Thrill, the whole point of deer camp is to have fun. It's nice to get venison but for years the deer were sparse and that was the case again this year. Whether this was due to the small size of the herd or hunter incompetence on our part is uncertain. But good food, good friends, a quality hunt, and the cameraderie have always been at the forefront of the experience. Heck, we have people who have forgotten knife, gun, and rope for almost a quarter century now, but they still come up for the unique ambiance. Regarding some of the issues at other camps mentioned earlier, our stand designation is organic. They pretty much name themselves. A guy hurts his knee building a stand and it becomes Wounded Knee. Miss a deer and drill an arrow into an aspen tree that's impossible to remove?: Excalibur. He who removes this arrow shall be king of Reefer Creek. Ground a bit swampy on the way to the blind? Noah's Blind. Take your first buck from the stand on Thanksgiving Day? The Virgin Turkey stand. They really do name themselves. We also love our women hunters and hangers on. The GurneyGranny and MadCityMary chase the elusive buck year after year. GG shot two eight pointers on opening day in '09, much to the chagrin (not really) of we menly men and MCM has some fine racks on the wall. The VOR, StAnnOfLittleCanada, FunSisterBarbie, and other women who have no interest in killing bucks wander in at out at random and are perfectly comfortable at the joint. It can be an interesting wander in as well. Isolation is part of the deal and to get there you need to take the state highway to the county trunk to the gravel town road to the marginal dead end town road, two ruts with grass growing in the middle. The road dead ends, just stops, at the creek and its roughly a 1/4 mile, or a 'forty' as we like to say, hike into camp.
Once a person has arrived at camp they are treated to all the amenities of the early 20th century. Propane stove and lights, wood cook stove and pot belly for heat, as well as our green, long handled hand pump have been described here before. If heat is needed wood is split. If someone needs a drink they pump. Hungry? Fry up some venison bacon, slice off some venison bologna, or grill some venison backstraps. Being connected to the natural surroundings and having direct results of your actions without the intervention of the water utility, Xcel energy, of Kraft Foods is good for the soul. The hunt is top quality as well. There has been select logging, trail mowing and seeding with clover, and careful stand placement. To get to that stand, the rifle is grabbed off the rack by the door and the hunter strolls into the woods. OK, in the last decade we've acquired ATV's, but that's mainly to keep us graybeards from having a heart attack after dragging a 200# buck back to camp over hill and dale like we did in the old days. They are also nice for making firewood and hauling gravel for the road. I think I got up to 12mph one time this year, and that was mainly because of the gravel road improvements.

Deer were scarce on the buckpole this year. We saw lots of deer but no large bucks, except on the game camera at 2am. It's very apparent they are getting smarter than us. Wolf tracks and scat, bear, fisher, and a myriad of other animals, including my buddy Porky the porcupine share the woods. The concept of Quality Deer Management states that by harvesting only large bucks and anterless deer the herd gets healthier and inbreeding is reduced. We try to do that but lots of times that out of state $160 license that the KingOfIronwoodIsland and I have results, like this year, in the small buck winding up in the freezer. There are plenty of deer however, as evidenced by the browsing of the aspen that's naturally reproducing as well as the beating they give our evergreens that we plant in the spring. Weather this year ranged from near 50F bluebird weather to a six hour snowstorm and temps in the mid 20F range. All par for the course when we're two miles from the south shore of Gitchee Gumee.

Melded together, the factors outlined above make for my most enjoyable week of the year, my 'happy spot' as the VOR would say. It seems crazy but with all the skiing, kayaking, travel, and other distractions along the way, I'm already thinking about next November 16th and rolling into camp armed with rifles, a ridiculous amount of food, adult beverages, and the knowledge that no matter what happens in the woods this will once again be the best week of the year.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Remember the Thrill

On Wednesday night SKOAC, the Superior Kayak & Outdoor Adventure Club, had its annual 'movie night' in the bowels of Midwest Mountaineering. This is a chance for club members and guests to get together and look at slides and video of the various outdoor endeavors, mainly kayaking, that had taken place over the past year of paddling. Other than running out of beer about halfway through the presentations, an egregious oversight that RonO helped to alleviate by adding several Rolling Rock's to the cooler from his truck stash, it was a great night. The beer shortage was precipitated in part by the overflow crowd and the presentations were excellent. They ranged from the Vasaloppet nordic ski relay, to bar stool races, to grizzly bear watching in Alaska, and to various kayak symposiums and trips around the Great Lakes. On one end of the spectrum were the PunctualGerman and Newman, who took a long wilderness paddle from Jackfish Bay near the Slate Islands down to Wawa at the end of September. It looked like a great 170 plus mile trip with some 'active water' on Gitchee Gumee and the discovery that 38 cans of Surly Furious in various hatches was not quite enough for a 7 day paddle that involved a windbound day or two. On the other end of the spectrum was a great presentation on the awe and wonder that one of our newer club members experienced on this years Lake Superior beginners trip, an overnite to Sand Island. It hearkened many of us back to our first time on Lake Superior in a kayak and provoked a great discussion of how that felt and the pure thrill of the experience.

The thrill and joy of paddling is something that seems to fall into the background at times. Endless instruction, gear tweaking and upgrading, focus on mileage and completing circumnavigations, whether it be Sand Island, Isle Royale, or Australia, seem at times to overshadow what should be the main focus of kayaking: it's simply one hell of a lot of fun. Whether you favor a high angle stroke or low angle, paddle a cedar stripper or a Valley Aquanaut, prefer a Greenland stick or a surf paddle, long shaft or short, or even favor a wet suit over a dry suit just doesn't make that much difference if you are not having fun and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of being on the water under your own power. The goal is fun and there is no room for angst in my humble opinion. Too many times on a trip I've seen well meaning instructor types (and yes, I have looked in the mirror this morning) attempting to alter someones sculling draw or reverse paddle technique as they explore the sea caves. In the end it just doesn't make that much difference. Paddle, savor, and enjoy the moment. Have fun. Take in the wonder of your surroundings. All the other stuff, the skills improvement, hunt for higher and higher certifications, and the 35 mile days all have a place and value in their own right but I would submit that the overriding goal of getting out on the water in a long, skinny boat, is to have fun and soak up nature in a situation where you are in control.

I had invited two friends down to the event, a couple that lives on a lake north of the Twin Cities. They are interested in getting into paddling since they are now officially empty nesters and I thought it would be a good night to get some perspective and whet their appetites with all the slides of the various adventures. In the end I think I was the one that wound up having the 'aha moment' when that Sand Island beginners trip slide show made me remember and think about the Thrill. We live within a two hour drive of the worlds most impressive freshwater body of water. Getting new paddlers out on the water and watching and listening as they explore the sea caves, lighthouses, and moods of Gitchee Gumee is something we should all take vicarious pleasure in, no matter if their torso rotation is acceptable or not. And we should remember the Thrill.

(P.S. for those who mocked and ridiculed me as I attempted to get this video to work during my slides, here you go.....;) Jumping off a hunk of basalt into Lake Superior is indeed both a thrill and pure fun)
video

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cold as well as boring?

This years Wisconsin gun season was pretty slow up at our camp on Reefer Creek. The largest buck was a forkhorn and only four deer were taken. Some venison for all, but a far cry from previous years. There were no deer taken at all until Wednesday, almost 5 days of solid hunting. What this meant was that there was no sleeping in, big buck hanging on the pole, and a lot more time spent in the woods. Most of that time was spent up in a tree stand, with weather ranging from 5oF and partial sun to a 6 hour snowstorm and 20F temperature drop when the snow ended. I figure I spent about 65 hours in the woods this season, 80% of which was spent sitting in a tree. The question I get asked the most by non hunters is almost always the two part, "So, didn't you get cold and isn't that really boring?".

The cold is actually the easier part to deal with because that's physical. If the hands and feet are warm the rest of you will be warm as well. Insulated over booties, a lovely blaze orange hand muff, and wool, wool, and more wool pretty much handle that cold part. The boredom part is mental and a bit tougher to deal with. The anticipation of the big buck walking past the stand tends to fade very quickly as the sky brightens on opening morning. This means the mind is free to wander without the external civilization sounds and stimulation that bombard us daily. A lot of my time is spent with the mental clutch disengaged, simply sitting there and watching, listening, and smelling the natural environment around me. I generally choose a spot that has a pretty nice view. It's a lot like a long open water crossing in a kayak; the whitewater guys can't understand how it can possibly be any fun without rapids, holes, and eddys but we all know the enjoyment we experience as we paddle along on the big water. I was not alone up there either. For three straight days a porcupine kept me company in the oak tree next to my spruce. He never hit the ground while I was there and for most of the time sat motionless on the end of a branch. Finches and Chickadees also kept me company, since I had my little homemade PET pop bottle sunflower seed feeder next to me. This is not purely altruistic, since deer won't be bothered by motion as much if the birds are flittering around. Bluejays and black, gray, and red squirrels visit as well, and its amazing how a gray squirrel can sound like a deer as it hops through the leaves. Which brings up the principal object of this mission, the deer. Plenty of deer passed by and even posed for some snap shots. I did not see a single antlered buck however, which left plenty of time for the mind to wander when there were no forest dwellers in the immediate area.

I can tell you about two things I did not think about, current events and work. This is after all, a vacation, the best vacation ever if the goal is rejuvenation. No civilization sounds while in the stand and no non relaxing thoughts. Dave's fantasy world is alive and well though. I usually shoot the Boone & Crockett record Whitetail buck, bequeath tons of money from my multi million dollar charitable trust to worthy causes, and enjoy a hot ski weekend at Klosters, Switzerland with Julia Roberts. I also take the occasional nap. I sometimes crawl down to the ground but I usually doze 15 feet in the air, belted safely to the tree, especially now with my new suspension harness system. If I adjust it just right it holds me sitting almost vertical as I snooze, I'm sure for only seconds at a time.

The object is hunting however and the snap of a twig, a doe blowing or buck grunting as they head towards me provides the instant adrenaline that all hunters are familiar with. Never mind that most of them are false alarms. Plus sitting and doing nothing seems to get easier and easier the more its done. I guess like most things, practice makes perfect. As I walked into work this morning I remembered that annual feeling of this being the most disconnected day of the year. Thinking about passwords, remembering conversations, making sense of work notes taken before leaving for the nine days in the 19th century is not an easy thing. But spending those nine days with the quiet, contemplation, and sights, smells, and sounds of the northern Wisconsin outdoors in early winter make it all worthwhile. In fact the computer, cell phone, meetings, and urban ambiance already have me thinking about next deer season.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Camp Cook

This will be the last post until after Thanksgiving as I prepare to depart for the 19th century at our deer camp in western Bayfield County, Wisconsin, the nine days known as 'Holy Week' among Badger State deer hunters. . No electricity, running water, plumbing, or central heating at our little estate in the northwoods. The best thing about it is no connectivity for phones or internet wireless. Rumors are that as more cell towers are erected we will get service. The only advantage of that development would be that on the VOR's birthday, which unfortunately always falls during this week, I can call with birthday wishes from the camp instead of having to drive to a high spot on my wheeler and then stand up on the seat while wearing a tinfoil hat to get one bar reception. Cooking and heating at deer camp is done with propane, Humphrey propane lights and the beloved 1924 Detroit Jewel propane stove. I am the main camp cook on that venerable piece of equipment.

As deer hunting preparations reach a fever pitch, some folks are excited by a new rifle, hunting jacket, scent system, portable tree stand, or other gear that they have picked up. I'm excited by my new stock pot, a fine piece of cooking gear manufactured by Vollrath and acquired at the local restaurant supply store. The usual routine at a camp, and ours is no exception, is to bring some old piece of shit pot, pan, or knife that you don't want at home out to camp and proudly state, "Hey, we got a new (fill in the blank) at home and I thought I'd donate this one to the hunting camp". My thought in most cases is that it should have been donated to the garbage, which is what I actually do surreptitiously, one POS at a time. Please don't tell anyone. We have slowly acquired some knives that hold an edge, a fine aluminum Dutch Oven, stainless steel two burner griddle, vintage waffle maker, and some nice Revere Ware pots and pans. Along with venerable stanbys like the cast iron frying pans, good tools make for good chow and we are slowly but surely getting there after only 28 or 29 years or so.
The food that I cook has become very ritualized. If there are no burritos on Friday night, chicken and dumplings on Sunday night, or corned beef and cabbage on Tuesday night there is muttering, grumbling, and sullen bitching. Which is fine with me. Deer camp in Wisconsin is all about tradition and that's one of them. If the BearWhisperer didn't bring mom's apple crisp, and all the sandwich fixin's, if the KingOfIronwood didn't bring his healthful desserts, and if the GurneyGranny didn't acquire the Thanksgiving turkey, it just wouldn't be the same. I have my own little rituals as well. When I get to camp after the days hunt I get out of my heavy hunting clothes and into my cooking clothes, which is typically my longjohns. Over the years I've found cooking with my pants on to be very confining and have avoided the practice for decades now. The freedom of long underwear really helps get the creative juices flowing in the kitchen. Also, much like the pump in the yard, I'm much more productive if I'm primed before I begin supper. Depending on the day and the weather ouside, the primer could be three fingers of Bushmills, a glass of a fine red, or a cold bottle of Leinies. The camp is small enough so that I can actively participate in happy hour in the Eight of Better Lounge while preparing the meals. I also typically have plenty of help. This is because of the Third Commandment of Deer Camp: Thou shalt not put thy hands in dishwater if thou art one of the cooks. This where it get sketchy. Guys have opened the oven door for me and tried to count it as cooking. Cans have been opened and sauces stirred on the Jewel with similar claims. I am above it all however, letting them squabble over who cleans up the mess as I happily prepare the grub. If you will note in the lead image, there is a nice new chef's knife that will be taken to camp and cleverly hidden. It's the only sure way to keep it sharp since bad kitchen knife ideas like cutting rope, sawing at a piece of wood, or shaving the end off a piece of PVC pipe with a (formerly) sharp knife don't seem to register with some of the group.

Tomorrow I will be delivering the VOR and GraciousPartier to the airport on their way to St Louis to visit GalwayGuy. I will then head directly north to the camp. I may get out in the woods to look around but it's more likely that the necessary priming will begin immediately. I can only hope that, unlike last year, burritos are on the menu. I hate to hear whimpering on the very first night. I have also added the following very satisfying message to the Out of Office reply on my work email:

I will be out of the office the entire week of Thanksgiving on a humanitarian mission, assisting in reducing the potential for car/deer collissions in Northern Wisconsin. I will have zero connectivity for that period.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and may you enjoy a shopping free Black Friday. I'll be in the woods both days.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Perseverance

It was a gorgeous weekend in northern Wisconsin, just a couple miles south of the big lake. The plan was to finish fencing the cedar trees we had planted in the spring and then trying to reduce the number of cedar eaters in the vicinity with our archery equipment. Since I am a multi-tasker, and the Sunday forecast was for 15-20mph winds with waves building to 3-5', I had the Delphin on the roof and planned on some surfing at the mouth of the Brule where the waves against the steady current of the river would make for some interesting sport. Unfortunately the wind and waves never showed up which was actually fortunate because neither did I. We had a wounded buck to track.

The GurneyGranny shot a six point buck from her stand, Twin Towers, on Sunday morning and after waiting the prescribed hour or so we began tracking. Podman, the KingOfIronwoodIsland, GG, and Yours Truly set off at 10am following an increasingly sparse blood trail. The buck circled back and headed for the creek, a tactic we knew well but we still lost the trail a half dozen times. To find the trail again we hang a piece of ribbon in a tree and then begin circling until the trail is struck once more. We jumped the wounded deer on the other side of the creek and it was obvious the wound was mortal but we wanted to dispatch the buck and not have it elude us somehow. We trailed it up and over the ridge, down into the valley of another small creek, and then followed as it circled around back down into the small creek valley. In the interim GG managed to hit him with another arrow and on the other side of the small creek, in an area littered with fallen trees, the King managed to finally dispatch the buck. It was six hours after the initial arrow had been released, five hours after the tracking process began.

There are several things to think about here. One obvious one is that we all need to practice more with our bows. We all shoot but we don't necessarily do it from a sitting position 15 feet up in a tree. I, for one, am guilty as hell of that. We owe it to the deer to be the best we can with bow and rifle for that clean kill. However a misplaced twig, a deer that suddenly moves, or almost anything else can throw an arrow off target, its just not that easy people. The fact is that the clean kill doesn't always happen, no matter how we wish for and train for it, and that's where the other lessons come in, the ones involving perseverance, the doctrine of fair chase, and having a good hunting ethic. No one wanted to be trailing a deer through the thick brush but no one suggested we give up either. If we lost the trail once we lost it twenty times, but each time we circled and found that drop of blood on a blade of grass and kept going. Had we not found the buck most certainly others would have. The King left his stand early when a pack of coyotes headed in his direction Saturday night. While Wisconsin coyotes are not known to eat Yoopers, it's one thing to know that intellectually and quite another to have them howling on the same 40 acres with you as the sun goes down and camp is a half hour hike in the dark. We heard the wolves as well and I damn near hit a big black bear on the way home. Between the scavengers on the ground and the crows, ravens, eagles, and even fat loving chickadees that are bulking up for winter, the deer would have been appreciated and utilized by the fauna and flora in the area. But we started this thing and damn well meant to finish it.

By the time the deer was field dressed and on the wheeler for the ride back to camp we were all pretty much just happy to be done. We had forgotten to bring any lunch and water was on short rations. I even forgot to give GG the traditional manly handshake/forearm grasp (OK, OK, she gets a hug, I confess) congratulating her on harvesting some venison. But it was most definitely the right thing to do and for experienced hunters like the foursome in the woods yesterday, hunters with the skill and perseverance to track and dispatch a wounded buck, there was a certain element of pride and satisfaction about the end result. Meat in the freezer and a successful end to bow season, combined with that sense of accomplishment.That's not a bad way to spend a beautiful fall afternoon in the northwoods.

(note:Most images are from a prior bowhunt in 2008, the one above from last years gun camp.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Paddle? In a storm like this??

We all received the same reaction from our co-workers as we compared notes after arriving at the boat launch on the west end of Lake Minnetonka for the 7th annual Gales of November paddle. We try to hold this event on or close to the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975 as possible, unless it falls on a weekend. One of the main points of this gathering is to play hookey from work in the afternoon, usually confounding our co-workers as we did yesterday. The comments were basically questioning our sanity and wondering how a person could have fun in snow flurries, 38F air temp and 42F water temp, with a brisk northwest wind. After surviving yesterdays ordeal I'm going to have admit to them today, when I get to work, that they were right. It was pure hell and we all wondered why we didn't just stay at our warm and cozy desks rather than venturing out in the foul weather.

First of all our launch was delayed by the MN DNR truck stocking muskies in the lake. We stood shivering in our dry suits as net after net of pure strain muskies were pitched into the lake. When we finally got on the water we were all alone, per our co workers prediction that no one else would be dumb enough to venture on to this 14,000 acre urban lake with its thirty plus islands in these treacherous conditions. We snaked our way through channels and under several pesky bridges where the wind funneling the water through the bridge opening made for nasty paddling in the cold water.

We finally reached our destination of Goose Island, an island with a couple fire rings and nothing else on it. We immediately started a fire to warm our frozen toes and fingers, wondering what the heck we were doing out there. Almost at the same time the fire was lit the adult beverages were also opened, an impressive array of microbrewed beers, fine white and red wines, and hot chocolate with Kahlua to warm our chilly cores.

We sat shivering and watched the sun go down in the west. Even the snacks and appetizers could not alter our sullen mood, an attitude clearly visible in the image above. Then, just as we thought we would be able to practice our night navigation skills and paddle back to the launch site in the inky darkness with some 'walleye chop' to test our skills, the wind died down, the lake turned to glass, and the moon came out. It was as bright as day when we paddled back to our vehicles, no fun at all on what was supposed to be a valuable learning experience. It was 31F now and our boats, paddles and other gear had a fine coating of ice on them. We loaded up and adjourned to the Narrows Saloon in Navarre, where the difficult decision of which microbrewed beer to select was finally made, brains partially frozen from the paddle. Alaskan Amber and DeSchutes Black Butte Porter were selected and the debrief began. We wound up listening to the band in relative silence as we mulled over the traumatic November paddle we had just completed.

Fellow work colleagues, you were absolutely right. Venturing out on to the lake this time of year, weather hovering near freezing was a terrible experience. However, like child birth I'm told, the human mind will block these bad memories over time. I'm certain that by next year the lesson of yesterday will be forgotten and the usual collection of saps will take to the water and subject themselves and their equipment to abuse for yet another year. This can be a cautionary tale however, to those folks heading out to paddle this weekend, at least two groups that I'm aware of: Don't do it! Watch some football, maybe even Penn State, and avoid those nasty conditions. Me? I'll be hiding up in a tree. Happy weekend folks, and don't forget our veterans on this 93rd anniversary of the end of 'the war to end all wars'. Don't we wish!