Monday, February 27, 2012

Birkie weekend in the city

Congratulations to my many friends who skied and completed the Birkie up in northern Wisconsin last weekend. It took special effort this year to get in meaningful training due to our pitiful lack of snow. My gang of friends and acquaintances were almost equally divided between skaters and classical skiers and finished everywhere from a blazing hair over three hours to a determined finish of six and a half hours. That's a long time to ski and I'm not sure if the three hours or having the determination to ski for over twice that long is more impressive. Good job, strong work, and nicely done to all of the skiers. I wish we could have been up there but it was not to be this year.

Saturday found me 'gravity skiing' down at Welch once again. It was perhaps the nicest ski day of the winter, with temps starting out at 12F and slowly climbing in the bright sunshine to the high 20'sF. The only aggravation was that they had three hills closed for racing. They always race on the best hills, the ones people want to ski the most, and that typically ties up the fastest and most efficient lift, the one that most of us recreational skiers use most frequently as well. When the racing is done around 3pm they reopen the hills but they are typically iced up, rutted, and cut up like the fictional Leroy Brown in Jim Croce's tune. No discount is given on the lift tickets, of course, so we just suck it up as we have for decades and mutter to ourselves, 'thank you sir, may I have another'. There was one redeeming factor however, and that was a Schells beer tasting in the little bar/chalet on the east end of the property. Free beer can cure many ills but I don't think it really makes you ski any better. This was proven by two fairly hard crashes on my part, the last one on a run appropriately named Chicken. I wasn't chicken but probably should have been since I caught an edge at an elevated rate of speed and pretty much slid to the bottom of the hill after bouncing off the snow a couple times.

Fast forward to Sunday. After creaking down the stairs to the coffee pot, I checked the Birkie results for all my buddies. This motivated me to haul out my rock skis and head to the marginal Francis Gross golf course, a ski venue in the city that's sporadically and disinterestedly maintained by the City of Minneapolis, even during the best of snow years. I got out while it was still crusty and skied for about 45 minutes, once again crashing three times on the uneven surface as I dodged grass spots in the track. As I lay on the crusty snow after my final mishap I began yelling obscenity laden curses directed at the snow gods, the City of Minneapolis, and anyone else who cared to listen at the top of my lungs. Unfortunately a couple women and their dog chose that time to stroll onto the scene and I had to quickly explain that I suffered from Tourette's Syndrome and they should take pity on me rather than running for their car.

This morning I'm really beat up and bending down to pet Rookie, the wonder dog, was a major operation. It sounds like we will have one more good weekend of skiing out west, Taos on a business/pleasure trip next weekend, and then come back to what should be the semi official start of the paddle season, the big Canoecopia event down in Madison the second weekend of March. Then, due to a complete lack of any cross training of any sort, I can have screaming neck, shoulder, and upper body muscles when I start paddling, just as I had aching quads, gluts, and calf muscles when I converted from paddling to skiing in November. Ah, the joys of aging. At least it lets us know we are alive and functioning.

(note: in the interest of full disclosure, the images in this post were taken last spring on the Vasa Practice Loops. No cameras were present either day of my crash weekend)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Long, narrow, and fast or short, fat, and maneuverable?


I could be talking about kayak hulls of course. That discussion and debate over the relationship between the length of the boat vs. the width and amount of rocker has fueled many a blog post over the years. Most people that are into the sport can get a pretty good idea about a boat by looking at the specs, checking out a couple reviews, and discussing the boat with kayaking buddies at their favorite watering hole. The other interesting aspect of kayaks is that you can still buy a short, fat, rec boat as well as a long, skinny surf ski. This may be the case with surf skis but it's certainly not the case with snow skis and I really don't know why. Maybe it's the fashion aspect of snow skiing. For a while you were looked down upon in the downhill ski world if you wore a color found in nature. I remember that my sister looked like some sort of fluorescent, glowing alien for those years, not a brown or green to be found anywhere on her person. A peek at RawhidePhil below illustrates that fashion train wreck perfectly. A person can't buy a pair of long, skinny skis these days, except maybe in a garage sale, but fortunately many of us have a pair of said boards sitting in their own garage. Sunday I dug out my vintage Black Diamond Eclipse telemark skis and headed to Welch Village for an afternoon of retro skiing.

I headed south by myself because a goodly bunch of cronies were up winter camping (shudder!). I guess that's why it's called the Superior Kayak & Outdoor Adventure Club. The reason that I thought of the Black Diamonds was because of a new app called Ski Tracks that I put on the iPhone. It keeps track of runs, vertical footage, actual routes down the hill, actual time skiing, maximum slope angle, and, oh yeah, the maximum speed for the day. It was this last feature that caused me to pull out the old skis. People say the reason that bars don't have breath testing machines or list the ABV of their beers is because then it would turn into a contest. People would always buy the high gravity beers and try to outdo one another with higher blood/alcohol levels. I've always pooh poohed that notion, but that maximum speed thing on the Ski Tracks app did pique a certain interest in me. Those short, heavily side cut skis tend to turn when the thought of turning enters one's head. The downside of that however, is that when you go fast they feel like a car that has loose lug nuts on the front wheels. Shimmying, fishtailing, and generally moving all over the place at higher speeds is not a comfortable sensation. That made me haul out my old Black Diamonds, both for some speed work but also to remember how to actually ski again. Moving the hips, driving the knees through the turns, and staying dialed in to the big toe/little toe nuances of the telemark turn were all things that I'd gotten sloppy with on my 'automatic' side cut K2's.

I had a great time. In addition to really skiing like the old days and having great stability when I pointed the boards down the fall line, I had some great conversation with my fellow chairlift companions. Since I was solo, I always rode up with someone and most of the time got some sort of comment since my skis stuck out considerably more than most of theirs did. It was a beautiful day, albeit a bit warm with snow that was a bit sticky, but I was happy to take what I could get in this non winter. Driving my knees through the turns to move those long boards was a blast, although my elderly muscles reminded me of it when I creaked out of bed this morning. As far as speed, Ski Tracks told me that I'd gone 17% faster than last weekend on the side cut K2's for a maximum speed of.........a maximum speed appropriate and prudent for an AARP eligible guy, pushing 60, and known for his prudence and good judgement ( You know I wouldn't do anything unsafe or inappropriate....right honey?).

Like jumping into a skin boat or playing around in something other than a 17' sea kayak, skiing on the long boards was something that I will be enjoying from time to time. Unfortunately in the mono culture that is downhill skiing, I was the only person on the hill that was out of step with the rest of the herd. Snowboards and those irritating two foot long skate/skis were all over the place to lend a bit of structured diversity, but none of the original long boards that made the sport popular back in the '60's. If that is a persons choice, that's OK but if they have never experienced the mechanics, technique, and fun of actually skiing a pair of skis, I think they are missing out on something that should be experienced.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kayaks and wolves

I've been a subscriber to the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine since way back in the '60's when it was the black and white, Stalinist formatted, boring Wisconsin Conversation Bulletin. It's come a long way since those days of posed black and white photos, feel good articles, and DNR party line propaganda, printed on that cheap glossy paper that had actual chunks of wood floating around in it. The February issue of the 'new' magazine features the headline article, A Smart Start to Kayaking. Before I started reading it I decided to try to transport myself back to the 'unconscious incompetent' days of the mid '90's and see what I could glean from the article that might make me decide whether or not venturing out on Lake Superior in a long skinny boat was a good idea. After all, if I went over I might get trapped upside down in the thing for God's sake!

As many of you know, the very first time I sat in a sea kayak was at Trek & Trail beach and I made it about 50 yards before I went over, but that's another story. Reading this article from the perspective of the uninitiated 'thinking about it' kind of guy made me want to give it a try. Our 'chief paddling evangelist', one Mr. D. Bush of Madison, who runs that company named after a tuberous root vegetable, was quoted, as was DNR warden Dave Oginski, a kayaker himself. The article is a good overview of the sport in Wisconsin and the focus on the yin and yang of Lake Superior, the opportunity and danger, is well balanced. Its not so alarmist that it scares people away, not the "place where kayakers to die" as one person that called the WI DNR put it, and it also does not sugar coat what needs to be done in order to paddle the lake safely. There is a great list of Lake Superior tips, a nice page full of hypothermia info, and some useful websites. Probably the most succinct piece of advice was from Warden Oginski, who thinks its all about safe outdoor fun. "I won't ever put myself in a situation where I put my life at risk". Good advice and the article is a good start for helping paddlers decide what is risky and what is safe behavior. I think the 1996 version of me would have sought out a good outfitter to run me through some sea kayaking instructio......oh wait, I guess that's actually what I did do back then.

On the other end of the DNR gamut of responsibility is our old friend the Timber Wolf. The DNR are actually completely responsible for wolf management since 27 January when the Federal government 'delisted' the wolf. I won't go into the debate of the pros vs anti wolf people here. Suffice to say that it's pro choice/pro life in its intensity and the unwillingness of those on either end of the spectrum to see any possible compromise or moderate position. As most readers of this blog know, we have wolves on our hunting land yet seem to persist in shooting nice bucks year after year. Are our wolves just underachievers or are they satiated on calves, toddlers, and defenseless lambs? Which brings me to the central point of this story. My buddy up in Minocqua, SilenceOfTheLambChops, a man who raises lambs as well as serves them up as tasty, melt in your mouth, medium rare chops at various kayaking events, got to do some wolf tracking last week. Since he is also the Loon Ranger,monitor and protector of the loons on Trout Lake, he managed to wangle a ride in the DNR wolf tracking aircraft for a bit of radio telemetry. He sent us some great pictures but confessed that the 45 degree banking turns when the 'beep' was heard was not easy on the old stomach. The GurneyGranny, notorious car/air sickness victim, said she got queasy reading his account of the flight. The fact that a sheep farmer in prime wolf range is interested in having wolves as part of the natural environment is both interesting and instructive to me.

The DNR, an agency often maligned by both sides of any debate about the outdoors, most definitely has its hands full. However trying to keep people safe as they kayak on Lake Superior and tracking and monitoring wolf activity would seem to be two activities that any sane outdoor lover would support. Like dang near anything, looking at the facts (not making up your own, like a Presidential candidate) and weighing the pros and cons before making a decision is a good process whether you're thinking about kayaking, evaluating the wolf's spot in our natural environment, or deciding who to vote for to lead the country. I just wish more people were willing to do it.

(Photo of wolves courtesy of SOLC, zero permission given. I may need to offer a rolling lesson.......)

Monday, February 6, 2012

Ranger down - Reflections on the final check out

In the past few days I've been confronted with a number of end of life issues. Among them, a close friend that is a grandmother herself, lost her grandma after a long stint in long term care, a couple other friends lost close relatives, and I got to guess about my own demise as I studied the many nuances found in a long term care insurance plan that I pulled the trigger on. On the kayaking front the School of Let's Go For It Paddling lost it's Professor Emeritus when Eric Soares left us last week. Over the weekend the VOR and I attended an annual party near Madison, WI, an event older than many of it's attendees, and the topic of both the route to and the ultimate check out itself were discussed around the bonfire.

The one thing that most everyone agreed upon was that the Thelma & Louise plan was the preferred ideal. No draining nursing home stay, just careening off the cliff yelling 'yeeehaa!' at the top of our lungs. We also determined in our beer fueled wisdom that the route to the edge of the cliff was to stay healthy, active, and avoid 'acting our age'. One of my early deer hunting mentors was found by his son, dead in his tree stand of a heart attack at age 76. Ronnie told me that every one of the old deer camp group came up to him at the funeral and told him they would sign up for his dad's check out method, no questions asked. It would seem, and various studies agree, that when a person quits engaging in activities because they consider themselves to be too old, that's when the long slide to the soft bland food, adult Depends, and drool cup begins. Sadly, friends that have attended Woodyfest, as this party is known, in the past stopped coming because they decided that standing around a bonfire drinking keg beer in the snow and watching illegal fireworks was something more 'appropriate' for college aged people. The Guardian had an article on the biggest regrets of terminal patients. Number one was a failure to be true to oneself and a wish that they hadn't worked so much was a close second. Five years ago I got a call from No 1 Son on a Thursday in mid October. "Dad, Loveland (our favorite CO ski area) got a two foot dump and the Pack plays the Broncos on Monday Night Football. Lets head out tomorrow, ski three days, and then scalp tickets to the game!". I regretfully told him that it sounded great but that I had meetings scheduled at work, a ton of other stuff, short notice, etc., and that we would just have to do it another time. I hung up and called him back five minutes later and told him you get the motel and I'll take care of the air. We had a great time and I was happy that we were able to go for it. I realize now, after reading the Guardian article, that by doing that I had pretty much given regrets No 1 and 2 'the finger'.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Eric Soares, co-founder of the famed Tsunami Rangers, in person but we had exchanged some notes on various blog posts over the years. I like the way he wrote, his philosophy of paddling, and how he wove it into his life in general. One of his last blog posts, the Ten Commandments of Sea Kayaking, was one of his best and spot on. His 4th of July post on the hunt for stars and levels resonated with me as well. I've watched Level XX instructors that could not connect with or communicate worth a damn with their students, and frankly should not be allowed on Lake of the Isles alone in a breeze over 10 knots. I've also personally had a number of instructor/mentors that passed on the star/level routine, yet have developed both excellent skill sets and the ability to pass them on and connect with students. The main thing I sensed with Eric Soares, his writings and actions, was that he had the mindset and attitude to go for it. Take proper precautions, have your 'out' scouted in advance, use the right gear, but push that envelope and give it a shot. Early reports said that a fall skiing at Tahoe exacerbated an aortic condition that he had surgery on before and that he passed unexpectedly in the hospital. My best to friends, family, and those who knew him well, but I have to believe that he went out doing one of the activities that he loved.

I guess the moral of this somewhat disjointed ramble around these end of life issues is to stay active, play smart, and for God's sake be true to yourself and others. Be inquisitive, assess your strengths and weaknesses, and push that envelope just a little bit. If you don't fall on the ski slope, get knocked over by a wave, or make that little extra effort to hang with family or your buddies then you are cheating yourself. In other words, go for it. Something tells me that Eric Soares had no worries about the five regrets in the Guardian article when he finally left us, and I sincerely hope that none of us do either when the time comes.


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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mars & Venus: the two edged sword

This year two events happened to coincide about an hour apart in northern Wisconsin. The Intensive Training weekend for the guys and the Wild Women Gathering for the women. Planning for the two events was very different and most definitely had a gender bias. I happened to see one of the VOR's emails on menu planning, a communication full of 'I'll bring this and you bring that, and we'll have this for supper #2' type of thing. The communication on our event was, well, nonexistent. We all show up with some stuff and there you go. The GurneyGranny stated it perfectly when she commented that, "You guys all show up with the same sack of potatos, a big hunk of meat, and a case of beer and call it good". Not exactly but close. You can imagine my bemusement on Saturday when I heard four women in the warming cabin at the North End Loops and Birkie trailhead planning their ski day in the same detailed fashion.

The four women in their mid 40's, two sking on classical and two on skate skis. They were poring over trail maps and discussing distances, routes, and the expected endurance of their group like a person chews a piece of toast when they have a throbbing hangover. They kept chewing and chewing but the actual swallowing, the decision, kept getting put off. Anyhow, it was finally determined that Chris would go 2k with Patty and that Denise and Jen would take the 3k loop and meet them at intersection 63, where Denise and Jen would then take the 6k, leaving Chris and........you get the drift. They finally left for the trail and we all kind of smiled. Our communication consisted of grunting 'I'm heading this way' and then winging it. The FamousCrimminalDefenseAttorney, attending the Intensive Training event all the way from Austin, TX, had done his 5 or 6k and planned to enjoy a cigar and a beer while we knocked off a few more K. Two vehicles were available and we all took off with the loose plan of meeting back at the cabin 'at some point'. I left my pack containing water, snacks, and my cash with the FCDA. RonO and the ManFromSnowyLegs had a bit more ambition than I did at this point. The cigar and beer supply back at the cabin had piqued my interest and I told the boys I was going to peel off and head back and hang with the FCDA. Somewhere out on the trail our fifth skier, the WoodFondlingBarrister, was also chewing up kilometers in his obsessed, compulsive, and extremely focused manner. Long story short, I missed a cutoff and was off on an additional 6 or 7 kilometer tour. When I got back to the cabin I looked around and saw no sign of any of the guys or my pack. So I walked down to the parking lot to put my skis in one of the vehicles and there were no vehicles. The bastards had left me there and headed to the Evergreen Bar. Not only had they ditched me, but they had absconded with my water, food, and money. I had the forty dollar deposit that had been forfeited by a guy who was ill and could not attend the event, and the plan was to spend it on 'healthful supplements', eg. carbo loading on Leinies. My fear was that I would not get picked up until the forty bucks was gone, not an unfounded fear given this crew, and that I was in for a long wait due to the reasonable price of pitchers in the north woods.

As I sat in the warming cabin our four ladies returned. Actually only three because one of them was missing on the trail. Apparently the well conceived plan had gone a bit awry and they were very concerned and discussing whether they should head back out to find her, when we spotted her skiing down the hill toward the warming cabin. The three were profusely apologetic as was she for losing track of them. They all had a figurative group hug and pulled out their energy drinks and pita and hummus snacks. The reception was not quite the same touchy/feeley lovefest when the boys finally showed up to see what happened to me. "Where the f@*k were you a#*holes, I've been stuck in this shack for a half hour!?" "Kiss my a** Olson, you said you were heading back and when you didn't show we figured you left with the other two guys to drink up that forty bucks before we got there!". Apparently the WFB and FCDA had left first with my pack. They found Podman and KingIronwood holding down bar stools at the Evergreen and left my pack with them. We couldn't even agree to ski on the same trail system and they had finished a couple beer earlier than the rest of us. To RonO and the MFSL's credit, I believe they only had one beer before heading back to Cable to retrieve me. The four ladies had offered me a ride, as well as some hummus, but I passed on both.

So which is better, obsessive planning or zero planning? And how should one react to an incident of that type, with gracious aplomb or a brain explosion? I'm sure the ladies had a great time and headed off to Cable for wine, light appetizers, and a spirited and positive discussion of the days ski and little mixup. Meanwhile we knocked off several beers, a couple Bloody Mary's,
one Brandy Old Fashioned and traded insults like tennis players trade volleys. We also had the deep fried grease platter, an appetizer plate consisting of chicken, curds, rib eye, mushrooms, and assorted veggies, all battered and seared in the same deep fat. I don't think any conclusive statements can be made on either the Intensive Training or the Wild Women weekend or the planning question, but we all had fun at both events in our own unique ways. The two images in the post are from the two events. I'll bet the reader can guess which image goes with which event. I think the bottom line is that a couple of gender specific events over the course of the year makes for healthy fun and underscores the belief that the Mars/Venus analogy is indeed an appropriate one.