Thursday, April 29, 2010

Oak Island 'Hole in the Wall' is no more

I think this might be my first two post day. I got an email from the AINL informing folks that the rock formation known as 'the hole in the wall' or 'the keyhole' on the northeast corner of Oak Island, collapsed sometime over the course of the winter.

I've never paddled through the thing and I don't recall if it would have been possible, even in high water years. I do have pictures of the arch but am off in minutes for Camp O and the annual Bark Bay Fishing Invitational. The pictures were sent by the Park Service.

This is a good reminder that the sea caves in the spring can be a dicey proposition. We've all seen the big piles of rock and rubble beneath the arches and realize that at some point they had collapsed from the arch. Chances of it happening while a kayaker is in there is slim but its much greater in the spring when the ice has done its works on cracks and crevices to force the rock apart. Nature at work I guess.

That first boat

Midwest Mountaineering moved a few boats at their Outdoor Expo last weekend. Between the auction and the actual sales floor three friends of mine acquired new kayaks, and two of them were available on Tuesday night to properly christen their new craft. After a lovely paddle on Long Lake, the entire east side of which is a regional park reserve, we cracked a bottle of champagne and anointed the boats. Actually, just a bit of bubbly was sprinkled on the boats and the balance was quickly consumed by the paddlers before adjourning to Barley John's brewpub and the best English style bitter ale within several hundred miles. Both the IrishPirate and BunkerBrian were both excited and happy about their new boats and that brought back memories for all of us about our very first kayaks and our introduction to the sport.

My first boat was a Current Designs Storm. I had paddled two boats in my brief kayaking career at that point, an Eclipse Sea Lion and the Storm. I greatly preferred the Storm and bought a used, slightly beat up rental boat from Trek & Trail in Bayfield at the end of the season. It was that lovely blue rotomolded plastic color with yellow trim. Oh, I was stylin' for sure. After a couple years I traded the Storm in on a very similar hull, the CD Solstice GTS HV, a boat now in the posession of the Podman. His first boat was actually three boats, three mammoth Northwest doubles that were trashed in a wind storm at a youth camp near Boulder Junction, WI. Between him, the GurneyGranny, and KingIronwood they managed to cobble together one Lake Superior worthy boats out of the pieces of the three busted up ones. The VOR recalled driving back to Bismarck from Winnipeg with her brand new yellow CD Storm on the roof and a big smile on her face. She purchased that boat after paddling my Solstice with its similar hull design. The KingOfIronwoodIsland's first boat was that very Storm, purchased from the VOR in a Goldman Sachs-like deal involving a Bending Branches wooden paddle, a VW Jetta sedan, a wetsuit, and some body work. RonO had a Northwest Cadence, and the ManFromSnowyLegs a rotomolded Perception of some sort if memory serves.

We all remember our first boat, the boat that officially made us kayakers. We hadn't even reached the stage of knowing just how much we didn't know about the activity, but by god we were in the game. Things like cockpit fit, edging, tracking, and nimble handling were things that seeped into our awareness the more we paddled those first boats. A new boat always gets the juices flowing and we are much more critical now before we buy, but there is nothing like strapping that first boat on the roof and officially calling yourself a kayaker. Greg Brown wrote a song called, "If I had Known", a wonderful tune that you can sample here. The last line of the chorus says it all. "Its just as well we don't know when things will never be that good again".

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Outdoor Expo 2010

One of my rare weekends in the urban jungle was spent in full kayak mode with a brief trip to Mora, wearing the even rarer sport coat. The weekend began Thursday afternoon with safety boating for Midwest Mountaineering's canoe and kayak demo, booth duty at the SKOAC booth on Friday night, frantic kayak auction activity and more booth duty Saturday, a trip to Mora to watch TheLegend get inducted into the Mora HS hall of fame (why do you think they call him that anyway??) , and finished up Sunday with a drive to St Cloud to mentor some budding Greenland kayakers at the St Cloud State pool. A long sentence and a longer weekend.

The canoe and kayak demo was anticlimactic. After hauling several people out of the water during a rainstorm two years ago, and even more last year during a steady 25-30 mph south wind last year, we didn't have a single 'customer' that I saw. One guy went over and the rescue consisted of saying, "Stand up" in the shallow water, but on a beautiful day with over 400 demos, we basically just bobbed around in Lake Nokomis and enjoyed the sunshine. The main accomplishment for the evening was checking out the Juicy Lucy at the 5-8 Club and comparing it with the one served at Matt's Bar at last years post demo debriefing. The kayakers jury is still out on that one, even though Food Wars on the Travel Channel has weighed in with their opinion.

Booth duty Friday night was like watching a bridge rust. Not many folks wandering around and everyone seemed tired from the work week. That all changed on Saturday. The auction began at 11am in a steady rain and there were lots of folks bidding on a bizarre variety of paddle craft ranging from solo whitewater canoes to folding boats to touring and rec kayaks of every way, shape, and form. The IrishPirate was in the market for a boat and I served as her auction mentor, having purchased everything from an antique bicycle tire pump to 80 acres of land in this, the most pure form of capitalism. I won't go into the details but we got her into a boat after frantically running around the Expo looking for the owner, whose identity had been divulged to us by an associate. We found the elusive owner and the deal was done and the boat on RonO's roof before the ink could dry on the check. All's fair in love, war, and auctioneering and everyone, at least everyone I knew, was happy. My 1-3 pm booth duty was just the opposite of Friday night. Lots and lots of people interested in kayaking and the club. Both clubs actually, ISK and SKOAC, and I'm a member of both. One guy asked an ISK friend, "How are you different from the competition?". She replied that she didn't know there was a competition but that ISK probably had more skinny stick aficionados and SKOAC did winter stuff like camping, nordic racing, and some rock climbing. Which pretty much sums it up.

Saturday night found me racing northward for the rubber chicken banquet to watch TheLegend get inducted into the inaugural class of the newly created Mora Mustang HS Sports Hall of Fame. I found the program from a 2006 orchestra recital in my sport coat pocket which is about as often as I'm accessorized with a sport coat. I did wear it over my Hawaiian shirt however, so I was able to feel a little comfortable. TheLegend went both ways for the Mustangs at offensive center and linebacker in the late '40's and was of course, instrumental in getting the nordic racing program going at the high school. It was nicely done and the VOR (on IR with a skiing induced broken fibula that was diagnosed after she hobbled around for a month on a 'sprained' ankle) and I headed for home and........

........The next morning I picked up RonO at the hanger and we headed for the St Cloud pool. We had a nice 1-1 instructor to student ratio and the flexibility and ability to pick up Greenland skills among the 20+ year old students pretty much disgusted most of us graybeards. We had one guy who had not been in a skin boat before that was doing hand rolls by the end of the session. The pride and sense of vicarious accomplishment was tempered by the jealousy and unfairness of having mid 50's bodies that just don't bend that way, no matter how much we want them to. The weekend ended the way they all should end, at Grumpys Bar with a cold pint in front of us. Hectic but rewarding, schedule driven yet plenty of fun, and with the Midwest Outdoor Expo in the rear view mirror, the outdoor kayak season is officially underway in the north country.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Creating the Flowage

As I mentioned in the previous post, it was a superb weekend on the Chippewa Flowage and the Flowage is a superb body of water. Over 15,000 acres, 150+ islands, bays, tributaries, passages only a kayak can squeeze through, world class musky fishing, and a true wilderness flavor with minimal development. Yet the Flowage didn't exist until right about the time my parents were born. Many times I have driven through the village of New Post, not really knowing where the name came from. I learned, relatively recently, that there was a village named Post a bit northeast of there, originally named Pahquahwong. It had just under 200 full time residents, a trading post, a Catholic Church, and a cemetery. It's residents were forcibly relocated and it was flooded when the forerunner of NSP, now Xcel Energy, constructed the Winter dam and closed the gates in 1923. It is now under approximately 20' of water.

In a fairly typical land grab of that time, the power company, then Wisconsin-Minnesota Light & Power, purchased the rights to develop the dam from a consortium of lumber companies and then helped lobby for the passage of the 1920 Federal Water Power Act. This piece of legislation basically let them build the dam without the consent of the Lac Court Oreilles tribe and allowed the Federal Power Commission to determine appropriate compensation for land that was flooded as a result of the dam. Eminent Domain at its finest. The power company was supposed to build a new village, replant the wild rice beds, pay a yearly fee, and most importantly, move the graves out of the cemetary to New Post. Most of those things they didn't do and the others they did in a half assed fashion. The tribe and the poor whites got screwed, NSP received a 50 year lease to manage the dam, and the state of Wisconsin got a big brand new lake for outdoor recreation and to generate income for the businesses that sprung up around it.

My personal encounters with the Chippewa Flowage began when I was about 5 years old. There is an old black and white photo of me and my sister standing in front of my grand uncle's cabin where Hay Creek entered the Flowage. Those were the days of catching big muskies and eating them (catch and release was a long ways off), shooting them so they didn't destroy the inside of the boat when you landed them, and visiting the town dump at night to watch the black bears. Grand uncle George was an employee of NSP and I suspect got a sweet deal on the land somewhere around WW II. My grandfather, who I was very close to, would head up with his brother in law to fish muskies and 'ground swat' partridge while hunting on the gravel roads, constantly trying to elude either the game warden, state troopers, or the county sheriff. As a kid I liked eating both fish and partridge and thought nothing of it. My grandfather would drive through New Post on the way home to Eau Claire and make comments about the lifestyle and work ethic of the inhabitants. Nothing was ever mentioned about the Winter dam, even though he and George were both young men in their early 20's when the dam was constructed. We visited the Winter dam frequently, mainly to watch the water spill over it and because it was at the end of a gravel road that partridge frequented.

As I got older and more mobile, I would jump in the my 1966 Econoline van, the Blue Max, ('three on the tree', purchased for $110) with my buddies and head up to the Flowage to fish and deer hunt. At about the same time, AIM, the American Indian Movement, was founded in a church basement in Minneapolis by Clyde Bellecourt and others. NSP's 50 year lease was expiring as well at this time and the BIA and NSP were prepared to rubber stamp the lease renewal. Clyde and AIM had other ideas. We kinda ran into one another at the Winter dam.

The Mad Dog, Kuehner, and I left Eau Claire in August of 1971 with our fishing poles and crudely altered fishing licenses. These licenses were used to prove that we 16 and 17 year olds were actually 18 so we could get into Bob & Pearl's bar in Ojibwa, WI to drink 35 cent shorty Pabst's. We left Bob & Pearls barely conscious one evening and, being both cheap and nicely intoxicated, decided to drive the short distance to the end of the dirt road at the Winter dam and sleep there in the van. Shortly after midnight I was rousted by the Mad Dog who called my attention to the drumming that I hadn't noticed in my sleep, and pointed out that, "We're surrounded by a pile of goddamn Indians with guns!" Surrounded may have been too strong of a word, and the triple whammy of it being midnight, relying on a faded 40 year old memory, and me full to the brim with shorty Pabst's, makes remembering the exact scenario difficult, but I do remember one thing. I jumped in the drivers seat, fired up the Blue Max, and we got the hell out of there.

In the end things worked out pretty well. In 2000, after 12 years of negotiation, the Lac Court Oreilles tribe, the US Forest Service, and the Wisconsin DNR signed the Joint Agency Management Plan for the Chippewa Flowage. Xcel Energy is prevented from making the massive winter drawdowns of past years and the agencies have so far preserved the wilderness character of the area by putting the kibosh on a plan for houseboat rentals, a big condo development, and (you can't make this up) a business that wanted to offer scuba diving tours of the flooded tribal burial sites. In my opinion, getting these three groups to agree on approving any changes to the area would make the health care debate look like a slam dunk. That is a very good thing in this case. The Chippewa Flowage is a special place that needs to be protected and this would seem to be the perfect inter agency trio to do just that. Eminent Domain is still alive and well however, as evidenced by the Kelo case in 2005 where a bunch of lower income folks had their homes seized and condemned so that some rich guys could build a development and increase the taxes going into the City of New London, CT's coffers.You certainly don't need to be a Native American to have your land expropriated these days, just watch when they decide they need a new freeway for the 'public good'.

I enjoy the Flowage immensely and will continue to do so. Otto Von Bismarck said, "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them made". The same could apply to the Chippewa Flowage. Enjoy it, savor it, and do what you can to help preserve its unique character, but understand and respect the duplicity and suffering that created it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Return to the Flowage

At camp the weekend before last, we menly men talked about paddling the Chippewa Flowage again this spring. We must have been sending out subconscious brain waves because when we got home Sunday night we had an email from the GurneyGranny informing us she had booked the R&R Bayview cabin and she was going whether we all did or not. That sort of decisive action is hard to duck so we all did go and it was another superb, unseasonably warm, spring weekend. The owner of the resort says he remembers standing on the ice and working on his docks this weekend last year, but the only ice this year was in the cooler keeping the beer cold.

Seven of us pretty much had 16,000 acres of lake and 140 islands to ourselves. We saw one boat on Saturday, one on Sunday, and that was the total extent of human contact on the water. Migrating waterfowl and birds on the other hand, were all over the place. The ducks, geese, cranes, herons, and eagles were around every turn and in every bay and indentation. The water was calm enough, and I felt confident enough in the Aquanaut HV, to have the very non waterproof Nikon around my neck and got some excellent images. It was almost like jump shooting ducks in pothole country back in my youth, except this time we went home to a supper of pasta rather than mallard.
It's late, I'm brain dead, and I'll write more in the next couple days. For now you have to look at bird pictures. The weather, company, and birds were fabulous. I think we may sneak into May without a snowstorm yet.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The timber sale

After a fine day on the water, some adult beverages, a hearty meal, and blistering hot sauna, we awoke to another unbelievably balmy morning last Sunday at the deer camp. It was decided over coffee that we would hike across the creek and check out the select cut that had been done over the winter. The early spring pushed the loggers to the limits and a large pile of timber is still out on the road because weight restrictions on the spring thaw softened gravel roads won't be lifted for a bit yet. Due to the heavy clay soil, most logging in the area is done in the winter when the ground is frozen to avoid rutting up the woods with the heavy equipment. I was a bit worried about what it would look like because I'd been staring at those trees for 25 years and, after all, the only person that truly welcomes change is a baby with a diaper full of you-know-what.

I was relieved when we crossed the creek and climbed the hill on the other side and saw lots of trees. The loggers had cut the areas that had been marked, avoided the RMZ (Riparian Management Zone or 'land on the creek banks' for acronym haters), left all the hardwoods and big white and red pines, and generally done an excellent job. The pockets where the aspen was clear cut will come back as aspen unless we decide to keep it as game openings and we plan on planting white pine seedlings. These will require either protective cages or annual applications of deer repellent to keep the few deer that have survived the brutal wolf predation (according to the barroom biologists anyway) from eating the trees. According to the Podman and CounselerMatt, there were at least 100 deer in the area, eating the aspen tops in the winter, while the timber cutting was on progress. I was very proud of our little wolf pack on the hike over to the cut. I found the beaver skull in the photo, which just far enough away from the creek to indicate that the wolves caught him before he got back to the water and his aspen cutting.

The early spring is well underway too. None of the trees even have a hint of leafing out yet but the ferns and the wildflowers are blooming nicely. The woods are drying up, a bit too dry in fact, and the ticks are out in full force. The bear are up and at em' and as you can see from the image, don't seem to be too afraid of hanging out in the yard of the camp.

Even though I will miss gazing at the big bolt sized aspen as I sit in my deer stand, I'm happy that the select cut looks good and the forest is rejuvenating itself. I'm also happy that the timber sale money will be heading to Woody and my pockets rather than watching the beaver cut down the big trees and have them rot on the ground. As the abandoned beaver dam in the image indicates, they are indeed industrious and can do a ton of damage. Blog readers should also be happy that they will continue to have newspapers to read, nice flooring and finishing lumber to build with, and soft fluffy toilet paper to complete one's morning bidness. In 3-5 years the cut will be hard to spot and the remaining trees will 'release', growing bigger and faster than when they were in the shade of the big aspen. It seems like its another one of those win-win situations.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Spring in Bark Bay

We managed to get Podman and the KingOfIrowoodIsland on the big lake for their first pre May paddle ever. The group was rounded out by RonO, CribbageQueen (her first trip with this rough crew), and Yours Truly. The lure of coho salmon biting in the bay got the boys on the water, and in the King's case in the water, but in order to catch the light sensitive coho it's usually a good idea to be trolling slightly before the crack of 11am and that was just not the case on this outing. The waterfowl and weather more than made up for it though, and an early spring is creeping into the northland.

We launched from Bark Bay slough, a known bird haven as well as the spot where the gigantic Lake Superior northerns spawn. We immediately flushed a large flock of bufflehead ducks which wheeled over us and headed west. The goose were honking pretty much continuously and a pair of common mergansers paddled out of our way, apparently realizing they really didn't need to fly to avoid us. Every corner that we rounded as the Bark River snaked its way to into Lake Superior's Bark Bay brought more waterfowl to see and hear. By far the most exciting discovery was two Sandhill cranes standing on a floating bog as we drifted by. They didn't seem too concerned by the kayaks and I got some very close shots. When they took off their squawking made the geese seem like they had been whispering. I didn't even have time to crank down the telephoto they were so close.

We left the slough and paddled into the bay, a view that always does my heart good. It almost reminds me of the scene in African Queen where Bogart and Hepburn were stuck in the marsh and all of a sudden it opened up into the huge lake. The last river bend is rounded and Roman's Point pops to the east and is framed by the two sand spits at the mouth of the Bark River. King Ironwood took this opportunity to capsize as he was landing for a comfort break before entering the big lake. His later comment, "my legs and feet are warm and my upper body is warm, but my ass is freezing" was classic.

We trolled all the way around the base of the horseshoe bay with only one lousy strike. We spoke with folks that had caught fish but they all had their success before the sun burned off the overcast. Coho or no Coho, it was a beautiful day for a paddle. After a quick beer and a sandwich we crossed the mouth of the bay, a short 3 mile paddle with a light tail wind, to the partially ice clad cliffs of Roman's Point. A lazy paddle down the lee side to another obscure state owned marshland, the Lost Creek Bog. The water was high enough to paddle in and once again the waterfowl, including the first Great Blue Heron I've spotted this season, were utilizing the area extensively. I also thought, as a fairly ignorant birder, that I'd captured an image of the rare Piping Plover but the GurneyGranny (an actual birder) told me it's actually the not rare at all Lesser Yellowlegs. Oh well.

The paddle ended at Cornucopia beach, one of the longest and prettiest sand beaches on Lake Superior. Not only was there a free flowing artesian well at the take out, but there was also RoyM, with his multiple piece Greenland sticks. The other thing within easy striking distance was the Village Inn with its inviting pitchers of South Shore Nut Brown Ale, the perfect end to another surpisingly perfect early season paddle on Gitchee Gumee.

We are all confident that the 'other shoe' will be dropping at some point. The lake certainly won't allow this bluebird weather for much longer. We will take full advantage of it while it lasts however. Its just way too rare and way too inviting to miss.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hockey sadists

Some people just seem to revel in the misfortune of others. As Mel Brooks said, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die". In a normal year our Gang of Four would be watching the college hockey Frozen Four tournament from the stands but alas, circumstances beyond our control (plus its in Detroit and I don't have Michigan reciprocity for my carry permit) have kept us home. With our beloved Wisconsin Badgers in the finals tomorrow night, led by Blake Geoffrion, grandson of Montreal Canadiens legend, Boom Boom Geoffrion, friends and relatives are puzzled that I'm actually in MSP and at work. Most people who know me are asking 'what the hell are you doing in town on Frozen Four weekend, you sick?' Readers of this blog phrase the question a bit differently.... "Are you going to go out and fall on your ass again this year at the hockey tournament?" So here, back by popular demand, is me falling on my ass at the Frozen Four at the Verizon Center last year in Washington DC. Enjoy it all you sadistic yahoos out there! BTW, the trophy at left is indeed the 'real McCoy'.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Live at the Dakota

Lots of potential paddling coming up this week so we chose to transition from the Easter festivities to the cold water by listening to a friends band, Romantica, at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. The club moved down there from Bandanna Square, a failed retail project in St Paul's Midway district, about 10 years ago. One of the main reasons they survived, in my opinion, is because the owner, Lowell Pickett, is a really nice guy.

Club owners don't always endear themselves to musicians and Mr Pickett seems to be the notable exception. The VOR, BC, and I are heading down next week to see Madeleine Peyroux. One of the waitresses told us that Ms. Peyroux stopped by when she was playing the Orpheum last year, just to say hi to Lowell, and slipped the waitress a couple tickets to her show. Legend has it that when the club was having financial difficulties in the rapidly dying Bandanna Square venue, Lowell got a call from a young singer/pianist that he had booked a few years before. I think the cover was ten bucks for that show. Harry Connick Jr. said he'd come back and play the club and Lowell said there was no way he could afford him now. Harry told him that he had really appreciated his support when he was up and coming and would do two shows for union scale and Lowell could charge whatever he wanted to for the tickets.

My favorite story however, is one that I'm involved in. A number of year ago I took an up and coming young bass player, 1stLtOlson, to see Christian McBride, one of the best jazz bassists on the planet. Lowell noticed the youngest guy in the club, then a sophomore in high school, and wandered over to say hi and see how we were enjoying the show. He asked if 1stLtO was a player and he said he was. He then asked him if he'd like to attend a workshop the next afternoon that Christian was putting on for young bass players. I sprung him from school the next day and he and several other young players were mesmerized byMcBrides stand up bass wizardry.

Fast forward to New York City, 2004. Then SSgtO had just returned from a tour of Iraq as a Humvee gunner. Not really interested in a quick return to the middle east, SOP for MP units at that time, he wandered down to the HQ of the 319th Army Band, the Statue of Liberty Band, and told the CO he was a bass player and was available. Every band needs a bass player and he was able to transfer to that unit.

Infer what you will from the stories but the Dakota remains the best jazz club that I've ever been in and the musicians genuinely like performing there, which makes a world of difference. Back to the kayak world this weekend with a bit of coho trolling from the Ore Freighter (Valley Aquanaut) up on the south shore of Gitchee Gumee. Rather than thinking about the return to work on Sunday night however, I'll be thinking that I have tickets to Madeleine Peyroux on Tuesday at my favorite jazz joint. Its the kind of mental health boost that everyone needs on Monday at the start of the work week.