Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eagle Island

Since I had only seen Eagle Island from 3 or 4 miles away, or farther in the case of seeing it on the horizon while crossing from Little Sand Bay to Sand Island, I didn't think there was much out there. One fellow described it as looking like a green pancake floating on a big blue griddle. I was pleasantly surprised when we paddled out and found mini sea stacks, mini sandstone ledges, and some mini caves. There was also ample evidence that this was a bird rookery.

One of the reasons the impulse paddle was undertaken on Sunday was because the island is closed to humanoids between late May and mid September, the nesting season for gulls, Great Blue Herons, and my personal nemesis, the double crested cormorant. I think the official distance is 500 yards away from the island during the nesting season. That isn't far enough. I've paddled near Knife Island on the north shore and Manitou Rock, just off Manitou Island in the Apostles. I've heard stories of what medieval cities smelled like before sewage systems were invented and I think bird rookeries must replicate that fairly accurately, especially ones where the denizens live primarily on fish. When I think about it, one of the keys to the survival of these bird species is that they taste exactly like they smell, both to people and potential predators. When I was a young duck hunter, I begged my dad to let me shoot a coot. He agreed on the condition that I clean it and eat it. Bad, very bad, decision on my part. It was far worse than even lutefisk, up until then the most repulsive thing I'd ever put into my mouth. It was nice to visit the island when our olfactory senses weren't assaulted and grievously offended.

There were birds there however. A large flock of gulls was wheeling over the island and three bald eagles, two immature,were perched in tall trees on the west side. We saw a flock of ducks off in the distance but couldn't identify them. Things are coming back to life in the northland and the Great Blue Herons were spotted at least as far as the Twin Cities in their journey north. I was also impressed by the mini geology that you can see in the images. It has much of the same structure as many of the other islands in the archipelago, just in miniature. There is no sand to land on and we had to do the Devil's Island style rock ledge landing and haul the boats up. The island itself suffers from major bird overpopulation. Vegetation is sparse and denuded, tree limbs are busted off from roosting cormorants (in my analysis anyway), and I would guess that the heavily fertilized soil has some issues as well. Still this 28 acre island was a pretty cool spot, stuck out in the lake, all by its lonesome, as it is. ChrisG had been there before and informed us that another island had been there and had gotten erased one winter by the ice, wind, and waves.
There is a long, shallow approach from the south and at one point we paddled over major rocks and not just sand. This had to be Steamboat Island, pictured left. It shows up on maps and was apparently simply scraped away by one of the early 20th century storms.

It was a worthwhile and interesting paddle and I look forward to returning at some point. Now if I can just knock off North Twin and Gull this summer I'll have completed the 22 island set. Gull is another rookery though, and it seems unlikely that we'll get over that way, on the far east side of the park, before the nesting restrictions come into effect. Its good to have goals however, and if I can hit North Twin, my stick roll, and a decent static brace this summer, I'll be a happy paddler.

Monday, March 29, 2010

March on Gitchee Gumee

I had mentioned a plan to get on the water in the last post but it failed miserably. GalwayGuy and I wound up visiting the new Twin's ballpark, an impressive facility. We peons were allowed to watch the Gopher baseball game and visit the areas we would likely never see again like the suites and the Metropolitan Club. The food and beer array was fabulous, with no 'Dome Dogs' or 32 oz Bud Lites in sight. A new plan began to ferment at the ballpark however, and GG called the VOR (home on injured reserve) for a Mass schedule and I dropped him off at Holy Cross and headed to Grumpy's Meditation Center to wait for him and reflect on possible Sunday options. I ran into RonO and we started talking to some folks at the table behind us. It was a very productive conversation. We managed to start the process to book the St Mary's balalaika orchestra at Grumpy's again, sold my NCAA Frozen Four tickets, and had a nice talk with a fellow born and raised in Cornucopia,WI.

Cornucopia. The fermenting plan instantly coalesced. Hit the SKOAC annual party, don't let Brock feed us any shots, and get up early and head for Cornie and the Meyers Beach sea caves. A quick call/email to Bayfield recruited a famous kayak shop owner and we met in the Meyers Beach parking lot at high noon on Sunday. ChrisG chose a Romany Surf from his stable, in addition to choosing paddling over sheet rock taping, and GG and I had the Capella and Q boat respectively. Skinny sticks all around. We managed to remember all the gear needed to paddle the damn things and after a couple false starts, launched in the surf for GG and my first paddle on the big lake in March. We found ice in the sea caves but not nearly as much as I had expected. The sky was as clear as a bell, with sunny skies and brisk temps, which meant that 'dressing for immersion' was exactly the same as dressing for the air temp. We were all much more comfortable than on those 75F air/42F water days. The stiff north wind dropped and veered east in the middle of the paddle. As we played in the sea caves we were looking at Eagle Island about three miles dead north in the lake. A ten second conversation convinced us we needed to go there, especially since GG and I had not added it to our lifetime island list. The island is closed from 15 May to 15 September as its used as a rookery for various water birds. I've been downwind from such islands in the summer months and, trust me, you don't want to go there during the nesting season. On the way back the swells got lazy and the water looked like liquid mercury with multiple colors flashing as the swells passed under our hulls. I can't imagine a more perfect inaugural paddle on the big lake. I number of times we just stopped, looked around, and didn't say a word.

When we got back to the beach GG and I pulled the tuliqs out of the day hatch for some March rolling. ChrisG had already earned his ice cream headache in Little Sand Bay last Tuesday so he passed. My brain survived a traditional sweep, an 'other side' sweep, and an angel roll before succumbing. GG's brain pan made it for five before freezing, including a sweet stick roll to end things. Neither of us missed being chlorinated over the winter, although mid summer rolling form is still a ways off. We had stimulated the Cornie economy on the way up with pasties from Ehlers Store and stimulated again on the way back with $2 Summit EPA taps at Fish Lipps. ChrisG set off on the 15 minute drive home and GG and I did the three hour hump home. Was it worth the drive? You damned right it was. Wind, waves, good company and a lake that showed us her absolutely best side was the perfect start to the Lake Superior paddling season.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Flood Stage

Last Sunday my efforts to find some water to paddle in coincided with the spring crest of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. St Paul did not crest until Wednesday. In the end the Q boat never left the roof of the car but I did get a nice little tour of the riverfront from downtown St Paul up to the Coon Rapids dam. It was a beautiful sunny spring day and I was not the only one checking out the river.

My first attempt was at Hidden Falls, a spot that is open water pretty much all season. I was thwarted there when the gate on the half mile long road down the hill to the launch was locked with the sign in the image. Next stop was Crosby Lake, just a bit downstream from where the Minnesota River flows into the Mississippi River at Ft Snelling. The land for the fort was purchased from the Sioux in 1805 by Lt. Zebulon Pike, a guy who later headed west and got some mountain in Colorado named for him. The island in the top image is named after him as well, Pike Island, and it was pretty much under water on Sunday.

Crosby Lake was accessible but still pretty much frozen as well as flooded, with the the swollen river flowing by to the south. The road to the park was flooded and to my great personal satisfaction, I saw two young boys riding their bikes in the water. I probably should have admonished them and asked them where their helmets were, but watching them brought back too many good childhood memories. Neither of them appeared to have a cell phone or hand held video game, neither looked like Pugsley from the Addams Family, and they seemed to be completely absorbed with their fun. Like my mom when I was their age, I'm sure their mom warned them not to go near the river and, like me, I'm sure they assured her that they would get nowhere near that nasty old river. They told me the water was really cold and I noticed they were wet almost up to their knees. When I asked them what they were going to tell their moms about the wet shoes and pants, they got this blank look (I can really relate to this)which told me that they hadn't even considered it when they pedaled into the water. For just a little bit it restored my faith in kid-dom the way I remembered it.

As the boys were pulling their shoes and sox off and making up a story for mom, a dad and his two little girls showed up with a canoe. My first thought was that it was time for my 'water safety/how could you be so stupid as to take two little girls out on the flooded river' talk and I sidled up to hear what I was sure would be a stupid, ill conceived plan. I was happy and relieved when he said that they walked in the park frequently and wanted to paddle the flooded walking paths just so they could say they did. Twice within 15 minutes I had a life affirming experience that gave me hope for mankind. I had a bit of a return to reality when I headed down to the St Paul waterfront however. By now I had given up hope of launching anywhere downstream from the Minnesota /Mississippi confluence and was just looking at the water with my fellow gawkers. The cops had the road and trails blocked off and a cop was stationed there to prevent the curious and/or stupid from going past the barricades into the river. As I stood there, a perfectly coordinated couple on a tandem, nicely spandexed in colors not found in nature, blew right through the barricades and headed for the water. The cop hollered, "Hey, can't you see that area is closed!" The offended Yuppie woman got off the bike and in that irritating vocal intonation where the voice rises the end of every sentence, making it sound like a question, told him, "I don't think you need to raise your voice? We weren't planning on cycling into the water?". I gave the cop a little smile, and he returned it. The Yuppies pedaled off toward their riverview condo and I headed for the Coon Rapids dam, hoping to get my hull wet.

It was not to be. A narrow channel led from the launch site out into the river which was really cooking. The thought of a possible screw up on a solo paddle above the dam in flood stage made me think that, like the previous day, beer drinking might be the safe and logical choice. The Q boat and I headed for Grumpys and Sunday T-bone bingo and I still have yet to get the boat wet. This weekend the VOR's boys are heading into town, which would normally keep us here. I have a plan however. Trust me, I have a plan. Whether or not I can execute it is another thing but I do have a plan.......

Sunday, March 21, 2010


The VoiceOfReason is out in Colorado with her nephew visiting siblings, including the infamous JeremiahJohnstone and the ColoradoKid. Normally I never let her attempt this dangerous mission without me because the snow is usually great at about 10,000' this time of year. This year however, work conspired to keep me stapled to the Twin Cities area. I was gone last week and my boss is gone next week. In the week between we needed to keep the plates spinning and i just couldn't make my escape. I received a report that Friday morning dawned in Idaho Springs,CO with fresh powder, a fact that made me even surlier and more uncommunicative than I already was. Wind, waves, and temps in the mid 20F range, as well as a first hand report from Podman, convinced RonO and I that staying in the area was a good plan. We thought about paddling around here but the lakes still have a foot of ice or more on them and the Mississippi River is at flood stage, peaking today in the metro area. So what does a man do when he can't ski, kayak or play outside? He drinks beer.

We had discovered that a bar called the Happy Gnome was having the 2nd Annual Firkin Fest in a big tent in their parking lot. Forty breweries from as far away as Maryland, Colorado, and Oregon send a total of 68 firkins for sampling. A firkin, for the uninitiated, is a small keg thats filled with cask conditioned ale and pints are poured either by gravity or pulled from the keg with a beer engine. The beer carbonates naturally in the firkin and does not need to be pushed from the keg with CO2. When a misguided individual sips a lovely Miller Lite, Bud Lite, or something even worse, at the required 35F, the taste sensations are cold, CO2 bubbles, and a flavor not far removed from bottled water. When these beers warm up a bit, lose carbonation, and get down near the bottom of yer long neck, they become virtually undrinkable, urine-like in their flavor profile. Cask ales, firkins, 'real ale' if you will, has fairly light natural carbonation and the flavors really stand out and blend well when the beer is served at around 50F.

A group of the usual suspects, seven strong, took off for St Paul with our designated driver, the BemidjiIntelOfficer. The crowd was much larger than expected (what a surprise), beer ran out early, and the line to the porta potties was around 15 minutes. Next year they need to figure something out because this event does not seem like it will be getting smaller anytime soon. Once we were all bellied up though, the inconveniences were quickly forgotten. Drink tickets were a buck a shot for a 4 oz sample and all of the SKOAC Renegades in attendance sprung for a twenty. It was nirvana. Summit had their outstanding Winter Ale in the cask and it was even more complex and savory than the regular pushed product. Surly had their Mild ale, the finest session beer in the midwest in my humble opinion, and it too was sublime. My buddy Dale from Lake Superior Brewing brought Strong, Dark, and Handsome as well as Sir Duluth Cocoa Oatmeal Stout (GalwayGuy will be licking his chops when he reads this). Bells had their formidable Hop Slam, weighing in at 10% ABV, and the new kids on the block, Brau Brothers from the Marshall, MN area, had Elisha's Old Ale. This beer reminded me of Theakston's Old Peculier Ale, a beer that was my Holy Grail when I was homebrewing, attempting to replicate the flavor in at least a dozen batches. My results were always eminently quaffable but nothing like what these pros had on display in St Paul on Saturday.

Even though the tent was too small, the line too long, the number of dunnies (as the porta potties are referred to by the MFSL) inadequate, and the beer supply disappearing way too early, it was a pretty unique day for beer lovers. The beer loving continued at the Half Time Rec in St Paul, since I felt that a designated driver volunteer needed to be utilized to the utmost. St Pat's day continued there as the Irish Brigade performed, and we adjourned to the secret bocce ball court in the Half Time Rec basement. I still need an outdoor fix and am weighing several options today. It was hard to beat cask ale tasting as a fall back plan however, and I think my compatriots would agree with that wholeheartedly.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Seasonal schizophrenia

The mud month is officially here in the north country. Other than the massive piles of dirty gray snow at the ends of parking lots, we are pretty much in the snow free, sloppy brown mode. Things are much the same in northern Wisconsin, as we discovered on our trip this weekend. Our timber sale is completed but spring thaw weight restrictions on the roads have left lots of wood sitting on the landings until the roads dry out. North flowing creeks are delivering millions of gallons of snow melt tinged with red clay into the big lake and the water had a red ochre color for at least a half mile out into the lake, with the break from the crystal clear water clearly visible from shore.

The normal plan for this St Pat's party weekend, hosted by the WoodFondling Barrister, is to ski on Saturday, take a power nap to build stamina, and then eat corned beef and cabbage while listening to quality music through a soft mist of Bushmills Irish whiskey. The plan changed when Saturday dawned with 50F temps, mashed potato snow conditions, and a drizzle. We took a trip down to Saxon Harbor to see the new marina expansion that Federal stimulus money purchased. Due to the fog we could only see about 50 yards out into the lake and a bunch of ice had blown into the shore. Rumor was that the herring and coho had been biting the week before but the ice looked very shaky and no fisherman were present. We then tried to hike down to the falls on the Montreal River but the trail was so slippery we feared we might be in the raging river. This left bar stool warming in Saxon, WI as the only viable form of entertainment in the area. The Saxon Pub was deemed a bit more 'light' on a number of levels and was chosen over the Bear Trap, Don's, the Driftwood, and Harbor Lights. This faciliated the power nap much more readily than the skiing did, and the rest of the day went as planned.

Sunday was a different story however. Once we descended Birch Hill on US 2 toward Ashland, the sun came out and temps were in the 50-60F range. People were out running and cycling in shorts and the ice fisherman in the photo (sorry about the cell phone image) were hugging the edge of the open water. We drove along the lake and most of the south shore it open and could be paddled. This realization, combined with the loss of snow cover, put my brain firmly in kayak season. I'm thinking that next weekend a guy could pull on the dry suit, break out the neoprene gloves and hood, and do some playing in the big lake.

I didn't make Canoecopia this year and that's what normally gets me in the paddle mode mentally. Seeing open water in my favorite kayak playground however, drove home the point that the season is here for those of us that have the gear for it. Even though I didn't make it to Madison and my wallet stayed in my pocket, I am officially ready to hit the water.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Deer hunting and the high school hockey tournament

Yes, this is a crazy combo of topics at a time of year when I should be obsessing about the hull coefficients of various kayaks and dreaming about optimum paddle lengths in preparation for Canoecopia. I'm not attending Canoecopia this year however, I'm relying on the reports of my various cronies in the blogosphere to fill me in on the Madison action. I will be attending the MN State High School Hockey tournament however, and also a DNR hearings on various changes to the hunting season. Believe it or not, there is a tie between deer hunting and the hockey tournament and it has to do with perceived fairness, opportunity,and the sense of entitlement.

A few years back the hockey tournament split into two classes. The basketball tournament now has about 37 classes and has had them for years. This is because certain people feel it isn't fair for the smaller schools to compete against the larger ones, that the playing field needs to be leveled to everyone has the opportunity to win medals, trophies, etc. Before the two classes the Minnesota tournament was arguably the premier tournament in the country, with small schools like Roseau and Warroad coming down to do battle with the city and sububran schools. As a kid in Wisconsin, I remember when tiny Dodgeville defeated one of the large Milwaukee schools for the state basketball championship. The the movie Hoosiers chronicles a more well known event in Indiana. Apparently even Indiana has gone to a multi class basketball tournament and I guess that's fine. No one can argue that being the State Champion means significantly more than being the Division XVIII State Champion but I guess having a trophy on your shelf or a medal around your neck is crucial to someones self esteem so we'll keep dishing them out and pretending that they are meaningful. I must say that I do admire tiny Roseau up on the Canadian border, population roughly 2,700, who has told the high school league no thanks, even though we are eligible for the small tourney we will stick to the big one and see how we do against the best. I will be in the stands watching, hoping they can pull it off.

Now there is a push for a youth deer hunt, a four day season before the regular one, where kids 10-17 only can hunt deer without adult competition. Same concept I guess, apparently our youth need a special assist to build self esteem by having a rack on the wall. Having all those people in the woods makes it tough for kids to compete for the available deer and by tilting the playing field a bit in their direction we can get them interested and maybe once they shoot a deer it will inspire them to take up the sport. This is a bad idea on several levels.

First of all, its not about shooting a deer. Its about being in the woods, cameraderie with the other hunters in the camp, learning the ropes, and sharing the excitement of the 'big show', the opening day of gun season. When I was a kid we hunted in the Mondovi, WI area, one of the best big buck counties in the country. The Old Man, me, his hunting buddies, and their kids, would gather for breakfast at 4am on opening morning at the Crossroads Cafe, along with a pile of other deer hunters. The stories would fly, coffee and bacon smells mixed with cigarette smoke would be wafting around the room and by the time breakfast was over we were all fired up for the hunt. It wouldn't be the same experience with a half dozen people sitting in a corner talking amongst themselves. Enter the next generation, specifically son No2. He dutifully sat in his stand from age 12 to age 17 without shooting a deer. He saw deer, could have shot deer, but decided in his head that his first deer was going to be a big deer. A personal hunting ethic of sorts. He enjoyed the woods, the food, the smart talk, and the friendly, rough, funny, loud week of camp life and knew the deer were out there, he just had to put in his time. At age 17 a very large 11 pointer walked by and he was on the board. Would it have been better to have harvested a doe during a special 4 day season when he would have been the only one in the woods? I think he would tell you no without even thinking twice about it. My own personal experience with this type of 'special youth hunt' was with the grandson of a friend at our Wisconsin camp. We tried to make it fun and get him fired up but the fact remained that it was a Division II hunt, the consolation prize, so to speak and it was apparent that he didn't really enjoy the experience that much.

Even if they do decide to go ahead with this hunt, everyone still has the choice to take their kid out during the regular season. A person isn't entitiled to harvest a deer, it involves learning, putting in the time, and actual work. Gathering this knowledge from a collection of friends and relatives in a setting where everyone is focused on the same thing is a wonderful experience. If this 4 day youth season comes about, and I think that it will, mainly because other states do it (remember mom's comment, "If Billy ran naked down the middle of the street would you do it too?") we still have a choice. I would hope that most people would be like the Roseau, MN hockey team and say no thanks, we prefer to participate in the main event.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Last ski (maybe.....) of the season

After looking at the snow, checking the weather, vacillating, emailing, and whining a bit, four of us finally decided to head north and try to get in one last ski day on the Vasaloppet practice loops north of Mora, MN. I would have to say that we were all glad we did.

It was over 40F when we left at 8am Sunday morning and the water was already running in the streets. My scheme was to do a pursuit, that is a few kilometers on the skate skis and then switch to my no wax classicals as the crust melted and the snow turned to mashed potatoes. I became a bit more concerned as we neared the cabin and the sun peeked out from the overcast skies. The crust was still there however, with the cabin area being about 10F cooler than in the city. RonO and the IrishPirate arrived and, along with the VoiceOfReason and I, strapped on the skis and headed out on the Lantern Loppet trail, which happens to be exactly 4 steps from the cabin front door.

The trail was a bit of a mixed bag but eminently ski-able. Hard work and good grooming over the course of the winter left a base that won't be melting any time soon in the shade of the woods. Open fields with south exposure were another story. As you can see from the image, there were areas where the kick was excellent but the glide not so good. If you happen to be a cidiot (the affectionate name those up north have for certain citizens of the metro areas) and whine when there are too many oak leaves on the park board trails that might stick to your Atomic World Cup skis or a bare spot or two, this was not the day for you. We on the other hand, found the sunshine, 40F temps, great stretches of snow, birds and wildlife enjoying the spring weather, and good refreshments and company,to be postitively delightful. We even stopped at JeremiahJohnstones cabin for a celebratory slug of Bushmills that RonO just happend to have in his fanny pack. My grandma's dutch oven full of smothered pork was simmering on the woodstove back at the cabin and the Legend and GraciousPartier had rolled in. The Legend even installed a pay phone at the cabin in case any non cell phone owners got into trouble. It was a good day in the woods.

Ski season recap: New areas, including Phalen, Hickory Hills, and Tower Ridge were discovered....record time for the SKOAC Renegades in the Vasaloppet Relay, even after missing the City of Lakes, Book Across the Bay, and Intensive Training Weekend.....IrishPirate smokes Birkie course in 3:22......Bloody Mary's enjoyed at the JillLeah Loppet......and lots of good fun up on the Vasaloppet Practice Loops and the cabin. We hope that the GurneyGranny and Podman hang on to their snow in northern Wisconsin since that's on the agenda for next weekend. But even if we are forced to fall back on some hiking and happy hour on the deck, it will have been a successful cross country ski season for the second year in a row. Now bring on those long skinny boats.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A great game!

Sunday found us driving back to the Cities from a cross country ski weekend on two superb trail systems that we had not skied before, Hickory Ridge near Bloomer,WI, and Tower Hill in my old stompin' grounds near the Eau Claire River. Both were excellent and skiing in 32F (0C) weather with a bright sun is one of the true joys of life. We even did a moonlight snowshoe in the Ice Age Preserve, amongst the glacial kettle lakes and drumlins. We did an early morning ski on Sunday however, because the VOR had church committments and I had bar stool committments. The USA was playing Canada in the Olympic Gold Medal game.

This was truly a matchup of the best vs the best from both countries. Like World Cup soccer, the best players represented their countries in true international competition. The 1980 Miracle on Ice was legendary, but part of the thrill was our collection of college students defeating a professional Soviet Union team that gave the NHL all stars all they could handle in earlier matchups. Near perfect timing had me strolling in the house 4 minutes after the opening faceoff. GuitarMatt was watching the game and, when forced to choose between church with mom and Gold Medal hockey at Grumpys with me, chose the hockey with a minimum of agonizing or angst. I called RonO and caught him and a number of other paddlers attempting to cleanse the chlorine from their systems after a SKOAC Sunday pool session. The group headed from Psycho Suzy's down street to Grumpy's Bar and we settled in for the game.

It was quite a game. Good back and forth action with minimal clutching and grabbing and not a whole lot of chippy play. No one wanted to get tossed from this game. The US battled back from two goals down and our local Prior Lake and Fighting Sioux kid, Zach Parise, tied the game at 2-2 with an empty US net and 24 seconds on the clock. Sidney Crosby, arguably the best player in the NHL right now, won it in OT and the nation of Canada exhaled. A beer was raised by the entire crowd at Grumpys to toast valiant effort by Team USA and a great game.

Hockey as it should be and a fine and fitting end to the Vancouver Olympics. I did suggest to the VoiceOfReason that, were she indeed the VOR, that she may not want to wear her comfy pullover (pictured above) on the street Sunday afternoon but it wasn't really that kind of antagonistic atmosphere, at least here. When they look back, I think the US team should be happy with their performance, especially since they weren't even expected to medal at all. Once again, it was a great game and a great afternoon.