Thursday, January 27, 2011

Big waves but no kayaks

Last weekend a near tragedy was averted on Gitchee Gumee when two ice fishermen were rescued from ice floes off Saxon Harbor, WI. I missed the whole thing since Lake Superior coverage is weak in the Times Picayune and learned of the story with a combination of news stories, friends in the area, and a couple blog posts. The Mpls Strib discovered the story this morning, although Sam Cook wrote about it in the Duluth Tribune a couple days ago. It's a tale that involves bad luck, good luck, politics, possibly some sketchy judgment, and some determined people.

Last Saturday was one of the coldest days of the year in northern Wisconsin this season but that didn't make a lot of difference up in the Saxon Harbor area because the herring were biting through the ice. Fresh lake herring bear no resemblence to the pickled or creamed ocean herring that we Scandinavian descendants tolerate around the holidays. Lake herring is a white,sweet, flaky fish that is extremely tasty and desirable. About 50-60 people headed out on the shelf ice which was about 12' thick. Suddenly without any big wind or real warning the ice began to fracture and break up. People said it broke into a jigsaw puzzle in a matter of minutes. One of Pod and the GurneyGrannys neighbors, a guy I've sat next to at many a Packer game at the famous Frontier Bar, lost his snowmobile and all his ice fishing gear. It happened that quickly and most of the people got off the ice but their gear didn't. Two guys, one of which was another neighbor of Pod and GG, were stranded on small pieces of ice, almost 400 yards off shore and the waves were building rapidly, eventually reaching a reported 8 feet.

We've all been out in kayaks in big waves. Even assuming that 'wave inflation' may have been in play, and that's unlikely given the experience of fishermen and the rescuers, lets say the waves were 'only' 4 feet. That is still a foot over the top of a kayakers head and requires some concentration to remain upright in the boat. Imagine standing on an ice flow the size of a station wagon, big waves rolling underneath, with the bigger 'Three Sisters' wave set every now and again. No one can get out to help and the nearest helicopter is hours away in Traverse City, MI.

Enter the Ice Angel, a 26' windsled owned by the Ashland Fire Department. The Ice Angel was an earmark on a spending bill a few years back, added by then Congressman Dave Obey when a boy drown in a similar situation and all the people on shore could do was stand and watch. The windsled is named after the boy. You can watch video of the firemen training with the equipment here. Saxon Harbor is about a half hour from Ashland on US 2 and it took about two hours from the time the ice broke up until the windsled got out to the two guys, one of which is 80 years old. It was a dicey operation because the windsled was most definitely not designed for two meter waves on Lake Superior. In the end the firemen persevered and the guys were rescued. It was one helluva a tough rescue in very nasty conditions.

Saxon Harbor is the only shelter on an unprotected piece of Lake Superiors south shore. RonO and I took two NDK Explorers there this spring, lent to us by the crafty owner of Boreal Shores Kayaks, for the test paddle that resulted in our purchasing the boats. We knew there would be big water there with a northwest wind. The guys that fish there know the water and many of them, including the two guys that were stranded, dragged boats and canoes onto the ice just in case something like this happened. They simply made an error in judgement and didn't stay with the boat, choosing instead to hop from ice floe to ice floe toward shore. Usually a big piece will break off and fishermen can simply paddle to the ice that's still fastened to the shore. In this case that didn't happen because of the big waves and wind that came up suddenly. The boat in fact, is still floating around out in the lake and the guys have gone down each day to see if they can spot it or maybe see if they can get a private pilot to take a look for them.

On the political front, those who favor earmarks are say that this is exactly the thing that they are inteneded for, to provide for the public good over and above what local governments can afford. Those who dislike earmarks would say that the money should have stayed local in the first place, rather than filtering it through the federal money shrinking machine, and then the city could afford the gear it needs to keep the public safe. Good decision to go fishing or bad decision, valuable use of federal funds or another piece of pork for a long term Congressman, the fact is that two men are safe at home because of it. It was a brave rescue attempt which succeeded because both the guys on the ice and the firemen in the Ice Angel kept their cool and did what they were supposed to. In the end I guess that's all that matters.
(Ice Angel photo

The Big Easy and carp entrees

Last weekend found me and four of my cronies in New Orleans for no particular reason. Nothing to do and an entire long weekend to do it it. We managed to fill our time with a trip the the historic Fairgrounds horse track, dining at two classics, Paul Prudhomme's K-Pauls, and Emeril LaGasse's NOLA, a trip to the National WW II museum, and successfully cheering the Packers to a big win. We also had a couple beers along the way. How my bro-in-law came into possession of the snare drum and hat, and the preceding and subsequent events that caused him to be leading a parade through the French Quarter, will have to remain shrouded in mystery. Given my trip prep, it did seem fitting that we were at the origin of the Asian carp's accidental introduction to the Mississippi River system since one of the last things that I did before heading to New Orleans was to testify at the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study (GLMRIS) on the U of M campus. New Orleans chefs should pay attention; the takeaway from local jounalists in the Twin Cities seemed to be that if we just ate more carp the problem would go away.

It was kind of a disappointing turnout at the hearing. There were chairs for about 75 people and about 25 showed up. Many were from organizations such as the Izaak Walton League and National Wildlife Federation but not many interested private citizens. We had to give our name, zip code, and any organizations we were affiliated with. I threw out SKOAC and Inland Sea Kayakers but assured the panel that both organizations would be horrified if they thought I was speaking for them. Sorry guys, both organizations are now probably on some government subversive list now. The panel consisted of high level bureaucrats and Army Corp of Engineers brass. The one guy I knew and had skewered on this very blog, the Asian Carp Czar, Mr. John Goss himself, was at the podium. Only seven of us testified and only two were representing themselves, a weak turnout on this issue at the very best.

I listened to the scope of the study, what had been done so far, and what the tentative plan was. As a couple people pointed out, they had moved with blinding speed using the federal bureaucrat Beyer speed ratings (OK, I'm still excited about winning a few bucks at the track Friday....they don't really publish Beyers on bureaucrats). By any normal speed standards however, especially procreating carp standards, the pace was glacial. The image below of a memo, obtained and published by the Milwaukee journal and dated 1975, underscores that. Still, a combination of hearing what had been done so far and my personal gutlessness about savaging the carp czar to his face, made me tone down my comments. Just a bit. Like 100% of the people I called for closing the Chicago locks and physical separation of the two watersheds, actually beginning the require treatment of ballast water, and a disappointment that the study would take until 2015 to be completed. I did suggest that the Czar was more of an apparatchik and told him I sincerely hoped that some czar-like powers, like those granted the Great Lakes Fishery Commision when the lamprey problem was raging, would come his way. He smiled, nodded, and I think is sincerely hoping that will happen as well.

Our local journalists seemed to focus on a very small part of the proposed solution, namely developing an American market and taste for carp. I ate a lot of carp when I was in the Soviet Union 35 years ago. I hated all of it. I've also had smoked carp at the Coon Rapids dam Carp Fest. That just proved my theory that anything tastes good smoked. I would doubt that Emeril, Paul Prudhomme, Bobby Flay, and others are preparing for a skyrocketing demand for carp entrees.

This is the last you will hear on carp from this soapbox for awhile unless something significant pops up. I just hope we can avert the catastrophe before it occurs rather than paying to keep it under control for perpetuity after it occurs like we do the lamprey.
(Leaping carp image courtesy of National Water Safety Council)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Winter activity levels

As Einstein pointed out, everything is relative. We had an article in the local paper about a guy that rides 18 miles to and from work every day on his bike, no matter what the weather. When I commented on this to a co worker and said that I wished I could get a bit more outside time in the winter, he offered the opinion that I was a known maniac and that I already spent far too much time outside in the cold, snowy environment on skis and snowshoes. When I asked him what he did in the winter he told me that he walked to and from his car, drank beer, and watched football.
For many of us, kayaking aside, winter is the favorite season of the year. I think my winter activity is average, but then I have a pile of friends training for the Birkebiener and Vasaloppet ski race and both require some serious time on the boards. Everything is relative. RonO, the IrishPirate, TheMayor, BDofMahtomedi, and LoneRangerRob are all getting 4 times as much time on the skis as I am. My main problem is that my vocation cuts into my avocations, a situation I hope to remedy a couple years down the road. For now, its a matter of choosing events and activities carefully and enjoying that choice. Valentines weekend is a case in point. Many of us will be skiing the Vasaloppet 58k relay. At the same time hordes of 'freeheelers' will be gathered at the Porcupine Mountains ski area for Tele-Fest, an excellent weekend of telemark skiing, good music, and good friends. To the south, the paddle season will be ceremonially kicked off with the Iowa Paddlesports Expo in Indianola. More good friends will be attending and speaking at that event.

I want to go to all of you hear me?.....ALL OF THEM! However even an individual like me that suffers from Time Compression Syndrome realizes that's not possible. So I will send out my best wishes to the folks in the UP and down in Indianola, IA, and hope they have successful events.

Get out in the winter folks, it makes it fly by. There was complaining up at the cabin last that winter was too short. Last year we tried to extend it by skiing on the snow then walking across the melted spots, but the fact is that it will be over for skiing in about 5 or 6 weeks. People with that sort of mindset seem to be immune from SADS and have a kind of wintry glow when discussing the snow and cold. Embrace it folks. Be sure to get out and enjoy it as best you can and remember, there is no bad weather, only crappy gear.

That being said, there will be some indoor activity. Last weekend I headed to the pool, sans boat, to help with some rolling instruction. Even though I can still smell chlorine when I take a shower, it was a nice break. Tomorrow a three person mission will be heading to New Orleans to assist Woody in occupying his timeshare, drinking beer, and watching the Packer game. This afternoon I will be testifying before the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study folks, congratulating them on their herculean efforts to stop the Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes......not! Yes folks, even though most of you seem bored with it, there will be another post on this topic shortly. It's one of those environmental issues, like sulfide mining, that people will ignore and then scream for piles of federal money to fix it when its too damn late. Which reminds me. I'd better get my 10 votes in today for Grand Marais harbor before that's too damn late.

Embrace Winter!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Something old, something new, something borrowed.....

In my haste to head north Saturday and hit the Vasaloppet practice loops and the cabin, I managed to forget my classical ski boots. This was critical because the sky was clearing and the temperature was plummeting. Skate skiing on very cold snow is very similar to attempting to slide across sandpaper in a pair of tennis shoes. The crystal structure of cold snow makes skating a a ton of work, while the kick and guide style of classic skiing seems to work as good or even better in the cold weather. TheLegend bailed me out however, and reminded me that there were a pair of backcountry boots up at the cabin that would fit me. The one possible glitch was that the only pair of skis that they would fit on were the '70's vintage wood skis that were leaning in the corner of the cabin and hadn't seen wax for 3 years. A quick 5k skate when we arrived convinced me that it was time to haul out the wooden skis.

For years I was a wooden ski guy, mainly because they were cheap. In the mid 60's photo to the right I have my $19.95 Holiday downhill skis with cable bindings, my double lace Treviso Italian boots, $14.95 at K-Mart, and a Towncraft jacket, one of JC Penney's finest. The high end guys back then skied on Head or Hart metal skies and had the prestigious buckle ski boots. I thought about my Atomic World Cup skate skis, Atomic boots, carbon fiber poles, and 'technical' ski clothing and kind of chastised myself for falling into 'gear' mentality. For a hacker like me spending money on that kind of gear is a complete waste, yet somehow I wind up convincing myself that I need it.......kinda like extra kayaks. The one mitigating factor is that I won't be buying next years hot ski or clothing, I'll use what I have until it disintegrates or my skiing career ends.

The wooden skis brought back good memories. Wooden skis always seem to work with about one wax colder than the fiberglass ones. The kick is also much more forgiving. Its like gently letting out the clutch in a car as opposed to 'dumping' it. The one problem is that the skis were too short for me and I never did get the kick wax pocket off the snow. As a result I was very slow and the boys had to wait for me several times along the trail. It did prompt me to think about hauling out my old wooden skis and using them for classical. In the photo left TheMayor used the very same skis I used and did the Vasaloppet 42k classic in the brutally cold -16F year, complete with bamboo poles. TheLegend skied the race, and likely many others, on those same ski god knows how many times.

Wooden skis are one of the many instances where older stuff offers an interesting contrast and different feel than current technology. Many of us still use those funny paddles that look like a 2x4 flattened on both ends that the Inuit came up with a few centuries ago. I still hunt deer with a single shot rifle that has an action patented sometime around the Civil War. In many instances older is not just different but far superior. I think that that merino wool outperforms any synthetic fabric by miles and so does Bushmills Irish whiskey, founded in 1608, head and shoulders above the more modern competition. The really great thing is that people are discovering and preserving retro gear, a practice that will allow us to compare and enjoy that gear well into the future. Pull out the old stuff and give it a try. You may be very pleasantly surprised.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Yet another Czar!

In the heyday of the Romanov's in Russia, it was pretty much a crap shoot as to whether the people were ruled by a good czar or a bad czar. Nicholas I, the guy that killed roughly 1200 of his subjects in the 1825 Decemberist revolt, would be the bad example and Alexander II, who freed the serfs and instituted several democratic reforms, would be the good example. Peter the Great, in the image above, was a mixture. In our non-fight against invasive species on the Great Lakes, the Asian carp in particular, I can't figure out if we have a good czar or a bad czar. What I think we have is an invisible, ineffectual, do nothing czar. More of an apparatchik as long as we are so fond of Russian terminology. Now we actually have have two false czar/apparatchiks.

Cameron Davis is the Great Lakes czar, appointed by President Obama in June of 2009. If Mr.Davis is Googled, the story of his appointment is pretty much all you will find. That would lead a cynic like me to conclude that not a hell of a lot of newsworthy achievements have been forthcoming in the 17 months since the appointment. If the determined Googler digs a bit deeper, they can uncover some testimony that was given to Congress by the Great Lakes Czar about a year ago. If you can read it (it actually makes an Alan Greenspan statement sound sparse and almost Hemmingway-esque) and figure out if we've done anything or plan to do anything constructive about the issue or not, then please explain the plan to me.

It's pretty obvious from the record that having only Mr Davis to wield his powerful czardom for the cause of carp control does not seem to be working. The solution of course, would be to appoint a special, all powerful Asian Carp czar and that, by god, is just what President Obama did. Back in September John Goss was appointed as Asian Carp Czar. "I believe that will be one of my strengths, talking at the level of the department of natural resources in each of the states so that we can very carefully coordinate our efforts," Goss said. So far we have 'very carefully' done next to nothing. The waterway that connects the Mississippi River system to Lake Michigan is still wide open, other than the 'barrier'. Scientists devised a genetics based test to detect Asian carp DNA and used it to find said DNA in 58 water samples over the past year on the Lake Michigan side of the 'barrier'. These peer reviewed results were called into question by....drum roll.....attorneys for Chicago shipping interests, a group known internationally for their keen interest and legendary expertise in DNA research. Much like critics of the global warming research, these highly trained 'legal geneticists' are certain that the science is faulty.

The depressing thing is that we know exactly what to do. We actually geared up, got our heads on straight, and had the political will to do it in the 1950's after the lamprey had destroyed the Great Lakes fishery. Dan Egan of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a superb article on the history of the lamprey issue, how Tasmania is dealing with a similar carp issue, and how it all relates to what is NOT happening today on the Asian carp issue. Even if you don't finish reading this post, please read that article. Its not only wonderful background but spot on.

Minnesota is attempting to work on the issue and has begun to lurch in a forward direction. Chris Niskanen of the St Paul paper attended the two day public meetings in Brooklyn and wrote a very succinct summary in his blog. The issues in Minnesota parallel the issues in the rest of the Great Lakes region.

I like to fish. I've always liked to fish. During the times when the large predator fish are in shallow water and accessible I always figure that if I'm paddling I might as well have a lure in the water. In addition to being lots of fun there is nothing better than fresh Lake Superior trout or salmon grilled over the fire on a long paddle trip. When I was a kid though, trout were pretty much non existent on the big lake. Because there were no trout, species like the alewife and smelt were rampant. When we crossed Lake Michigan on the car ferry in the above photo, circa 1966, the one thing I remember was the almost constant sight and stench of dead alewives on the water from Ludington, MI to Kewaunee, WI. As the Egan article pointed out, at that point they made up almost 90% of the biomass of the lake. Lamprey control and stocking of native lake trout and non native salmon got those populations under control but we don't need to go through that headache again. Unlike the lamprey, there is no selective poison to get rid of zebra mussels or Asian carp. The end of Dan Egan's article sums up the issue best:

Lamprey pioneer Louis King says the lakes, battered as they are, deserve the best we have.

"We're obligated," he says. "These are the greatest bodies of freshwater in the world."

But here is the critical question: Exactly who is obligated, and who should be held accountable?

"When it's everybody's responsibility," Alliance for the Great Lakes' Brammeier says, "it's nobody's responsibility."

Friday, January 7, 2011

Camera angst

Two almost simultaneous events have me thinking cameras these days. The first was my sister dropping around 600 35mm slides on me, all carefully loaded in Kodak Carousel projector trays. The other was dropping my Nikon digital SLR on the floor when I was unloading the car after the latest northern expedition. This unlikely combination of events caused me to ponder photo quality, camera durability, and why I bother taking these damn pictures in the first place.

The slides were from when we were kids through some classic shots when I was in college. After a near cardiac event when I learned what it would cost to digitize the damn things, I went the cheapo route. I rented a real projection screen from West Photo (more on them later), projected them with the Kodak Carousel projector, which I now own as well, and just shot them with the Nikon. It worked out pretty good. There is lots of evidence of my early Lake Superior fascination including my first backpacking trip to Isle Royale in 1974, late 60's shots of the Madeline Island ferry, and a backpacking trip to the Porkies in college. Lots of family stuff as well. I had completed this digitization before leaving for Iron County over New Years and it was when I stumbled into the house Monday night, arms full of gear, that I dropped the Nikon on the hardwood floor.

After braving the elements outdoors, temps from -20F to 95F, humidity, Lake Superior spray and sand, sweat, and all the other conditions it could possibly encounter, a small two foot drop did the dirty work. The lens filter was smashed, glass all over, and the lens ring was bent. After my usual vile stream of obscenities when things like this happen, I took the camera to West Photo the next day. West is one of those joints that can help you with almost anything camera related, including renting a screen for the Kodak Carousel. They carefully removed the trashed filter, played with the bunged up lens threads, put a new filter on the lens, and called me the next day. The bill was under a hundred bucks. Everyone knows you can buy camera gear online for cheap but 'for cheap' is what you get if there are any issues. I just stroll down to West, conveniently located next door to Surdyks Liquor Store, and talk to Kyle, a very real non-digital human being, and good things happen.

One of the things that Kyle and I BSed about was water proof cameras. I love the Nikon D5000 for its picture quality, ease of use, and size. My sphincter always puckers a bit when I pull it out of its Sagebrush deck bag on Lake Superior however. Although I practice the crook of the elbow roll religiously, the thing would still be soaking wet and likely inoperable when I rolled up with it in my hand. When its really nasty and you want those 'look at just how nasty it was' shots, I'm stuck with the little Olympus SW 790. It very waterproof and I've had it in my pfd while rolling but it doesn't have very good glass and the shots are always a bit hazy. The question is do I need the perfectly focused, framed, crisp shots or are the more marginal ones OK? I am most certainly not a photographer, a fact that can be confirmed by a look at Travis Novitsky's or Bryan Hansel's websites. As I looked at the slides from the good old days, I remembered that they were taken with everything from a Kodak Instamatic 104 to my beloved 1960's vintage Zeiss Contaflex 35mm. No matter which camera they were taken with, the images seem to still evoke the same emotions, in focus or not. I also remember owning an innovative camera harness and waterproofing the camera using the double ziplock technique. I didn't kayak then but it got plenty of water time in the 14' Crestliner fishing boat with 20hp Johnson motor on it.

I'll still keep looking for a portable and effective method to use my 35mm DSLR on the water. These grainy and out of focus slides I have will serve as a reminder for me to just keep shooting. Like most of life, it just ain't gonna be perfect.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Plan B is executed perfectly

The VOR and I headed north Friday morning in what was supposed to be treacherous and icy road conditions. While this was true west of us, with I-94 shut down for a near record 4 days and a 100 car pile up west of Fargo on Thursday, we had clear sailing. We passed through St. Croix Falls, Cumberland, Spooner, Hayward (didn't even stop at the Angry Minnow brewpub, probably because I was napping), as well as many other Wisconsin burgs, and reached the friendly confines of the CampO 'bar that never closes' around Happy Hour. There the VOR schooled the KingOfIronwoodIsland on some sure fire wooing techniques over a bottle of Menage a Trois wine, while I thought about the wonderful weekend of cross country skiing that we had planned. Unfortunately, the weather decided that there would be minimal skiing when it turned from 20F and balmy to 0F with a 20mph northwest wind and a track that had frozen solid as a skating rink from the unseasonable rain on Wednesday. Fortunately Plan B had been considered early on in the planning. No, not sitting in the bar watching football, although the Badgers and Packers did need to be viewed. Plan B was to go for a nice snowshoe, a couple nice snowshoes actually.

The frozen crust actually helped the snowshoeing, although only the lightest member of the party with the lowest weight to snowshoe surface area managed to stay on top of the crust. The weather was tolerable in the woods and this was no rookie group when it came to staying warm in cold and nasty weather. Layers, lots of wool, Steger mukluks, and wind shirts were the hot ticket. In recognition of the continuing debate between traditional rawhide laced snowshoes and the new aluminum and plastic models, we were divided down the middle. The key is snowshoe surface area vs weight of the snowshoer and the only one that had that down perfectly was the BirdWomanOfGurney. The rest of us took turns breaking trail. When the lead person tires, they step out of the track and move to the back of the line and get that snow that's nicely packed by five other people. It was good exercise and a great way to get into the woods without necessarily being on a trail. The winter woods is great because there is a record of what has happened since the last snowfall imprinted on the snow. Deer had been traversing the area as had the wolves. Bobcat and Fisher tracks were spotted as were grouse, snowshoe hare, and various small rodents. Someone wound up as a meal as evidenced by blood and hair in a trampled area near the creek. It was a great alternative to skiing with a much lesser chance of falling at high speed and sliding along the hard ice for a few dozen yards. It was so much fun we did it again the next day.

Parks are great. From town and county parks all the way up to National Parks, they give us a designated area to enjoy, usually one with remarkable natural features and all sorts of marked trails, overlooks, and spectacular scenery. Remarkable scenery outside of a park can be a bit more elusive in the civilized lower 48, and its usually tougher to get to. The advantage is that there are no trails, signs, facilities, or people to contend with. Solitude is a rare commodity. Sundays snowshoe trek found us at one of those rare spots, an area that for secrecy's sake I'll refer to as the Rutabaga River basin. The river cuts through a forest of White and Red pine, Hemlock, White Spruce, hard Maple, Aspen, and a dozen other species of trees as it drops to its juncture with the Bad River and eventually Lake Superior. There are rapids pretty much every hundred yards or so and only the edges of the river were frozen, although in cold years brave souls can ski the river to the sound of water rushing underneath the ice (Kids, don't try this at home unless accompanied by a parent or guardian). The temp was about 10 degrees warmer, the wind 10mph lower, and the sun was shining very nicely. It was indeed the perfect afternoon to be out in the woods.

We still need to get on the skis but its fun to get out and bushwhack on the snowshoes from time to time. Those snowshoe muscles are screaming a bit this morning but that's just one more muscle group that needed the winter wake up call. There will be serious skiing this week, both cross country and downhill/telemark, but we enjoyed the snowshoeing with friends and will enjoy it a few more times before the snow melts. It's not every year that we have enough snow to even make it worthwhile and this is one of em. Get out and give it a try.