Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Trust and discrimination

Silbs got me thinking, as he does frequently, with his recent post on trust. Trusting yourself and your skills and trusting your paddling companions plays a crucial part in safety and enjoyment of any kayak trip. But how does that trust develop and what are the components and attributes that make up our decision to trust ourselves on big water or trust our paddling companions on a long trip with potential challenges? Discrimination plain and simple.

Discrimination has bad overtones from its common usage of judging a person based on their class or category rather than individual merit. The basic definition of the word however, is looking at various aspects of a situation and making fine distinctions. I have a very discriminating taste in microbrewed beers for example. I would hope that most of us have developed discriminating judgment on both paddling conditions and paddling companions. My dad used to say he would go fishing with anyone but chose his hunting companions very carefully. I think most of us do the same with our paddling choices. If anyone wants to go down to Lake Calhoun on a summer evening and paddle I have no qualms whatsoever. Bring the 8' Walmart plastic boat, a nice cotton hoodie, a couple beers, leave that spray skirt at home, and let er' buck. Going to Lake Superior this weekend would be a much different story. Bluntly put, if I've never paddled with you and you've never paddled with anyone who's opinion and skills I respect, there is no way in hell I will be paddling amongst the ice flows and 33F water on Gitchee Gumee with you.

Trips in potentially shaky conditions and remote spots are another situation where discrimination comes into play. On any Apostle Islands trip we normally try to max the seven people allowed on a tent site. Subtle and not so subtle mental weighing and evaluating a whole bunch of factors is the process that finally results in the group and an itinerary that is workable and attainable for the whole group. Again, a group crossing three miles to Sand Island vs. a 4 day swing to Devils, Outer, and Michigan Island are very different sets of circumstances. Lots of common sense but mental discrimination on an infinite number of qualities and anticipated reaction to potential issues go into the decision.

The tough part of course, is some people have an inflated of their paddling abilities. The disease is worse in some than in others. We would all hope that our abilities are in line with our perception of our abilities but that is not always the case and the worst place to find that out is on the middle of a crossing when the wind comes up. As naturally competitive human beings, we all have a mental ranking of our paddling companions abilities and where we rank within that hierarchy. The natural manifestation of that mental scorecard is the person we all look to when it appears the defecation is going to hit the rotation. Conversely, those who are not as confident of their abilities often step up when put in a situation that challenges their skill level. I think most of us are able to identify that paddler as well, mainly by observing and cataloging subtleties and hopefully reinforcing the person's opinion of themselves with positive comments. While safety boating at the Midwest Mountaineering boat demo every spring a few of the more cynical among us have a 'whos's going over' contest,with the winner rewarded with post demo free beers. After watching dozens of test paddlers with a discriminating eye, their body language, the way they sit in the boat, paddling nuances, and other little things, predicting who is going to swim becomes fairly easy.

Use that discriminating eye that's been developed over your paddling life for conditions and paddling abilities. Most of the time that input, along with the input of other members of your group, can be the thing that drives the correct decision whether it be 'paddle or not paddle' or deciding the group makeup of a particular trip. Things can go much more smoothly if proper attention is paid to the discriminating judgment that's been developed over your paddling career.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Still Plenty of Ice

Although we missed the 'snowless blizzard' that hit Duluth on Tuesday, the aftermath was still very apparent. Winds measured with 70mph gusts on the Blatnik bridge pretty much blew every piece of ice in western Lake Superior from Silver Bay to Cornucopia smack into the Duluth area and piled it up along lakewalk and Park Point. The ice ridge ran for a couple miles and ranged from 10' to 30' high. The ice pile actually consisted of a couple of ridges with the farthest out ridge being over a hundred yards from the normal shoreline. The peaks of the roofs on Park Point are visible in the image below. Beyond the last ridge was another two hundred yards of pancake and pack ice, ice that undulated like an exotic dancer as the swells rolled underneath it toward shore.

It was fairly treacherous going to get out to the edge of the ice ridge. Daytime temps had been above freezing and nighttime temps below, which ice had frozen the into a solid, slippery, and irregular mass. Right at the edge of the shore there were a few yards of sand laden ice that could simply be crunched through. Then a relatively flat layer of shingle ice shelf led out to the first berm. When we reached and climbed the first berm we noticed that it was covered by chunks of ice in various sizes up to fist sized. These pieces of ice were the clearest ice that I've ever seen, transparent as glass. It was like being in a diamond field and I have no idea how they were formed or how they came to be littered all over this mini ice mountain. I continued on through a flat area out to the second berm. I've surfed in this area in the summer and had a pretty good idea how far out I was and roughly how deep the water was. Going through a soft spot would have not been a good thing given the tons of shifting ice, and I proceeded cautiously. Once on top of the berm I saw that it was beginning to fracture in spots and pieces had calved into the lake, kind of our own little glaicer in northern Minnesota. That was far enough for me. When I looked to the north I figured I was nearly even with the small twin lighthouses at the end of the ship canal. Although I've learned to hate the casual usage of the word 'awesome', especially when followed by 'dude', I thought it apt and appropriate as I looked out over Gitchee Gumee and her temporary ice mountain.

The other thing that I hadn't realized was that the Soo Locks had opened on 25 March. As I dozed in our discount room at the South Pier Inn, virtually right underneath the aerial lift bridge, I heard the bridge horn sound about 5:45am. I was too groggy and lazy to get up and missed the queen of the lakes, the largest freighter on the Great Lakes, the Paul R. Tregurtha as it glided past the window 35 yards away. Once I quit cursing I checked the Duluth Shipping News and saw that the Canadian Olympic and Mesabi Miner, another thousand footer, were due in that day as well. I photographed one from canal level and the other from up on Skyline Parkway. It was a good day in Duluth indeed.

Due to the below freezing weather forecast, 15-20mph east northeast winds, and limited play time, we wimped out on the kayaks. I vowed that will not be the case next weekend and am laying the groundwork for 2011's first Gitchee Gumee paddle. I need to keep my buddy in Cumbria England's motto in mind: "There is no such thing as bad weather, only crappy gear". And I got gear.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Another big blow on Gitchee Gumee

It would appear that my half baked plan to paddle Lake Superior this weekend may be delayed. What most people hope is the last winter storm of the season rolled through town last night and is still rolling. When my buddy and I walked into the Xcel Energy Center to watch the Wild lay down to the second Canadian team in 3 days, first the Montreal Canadiens and then the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was raining and windy. After the depressing 3-0 shutout ass kicking we had to almost skate back to the car on the freezing slush. Morning dawned with the scene below on my formerly snow free back patio.

I always get fired up when I click on the realtime wave map on the link to the right. Looks like 15-20 footers are roaring right straight down into western Lake Superior and Duluth harbor, a classic nor'easter. The image at the top of the post was shot by Bob King of the Duluth News Tribune, not me unfortunately. If I'm lucky my schedule will be clear for one of these storms and I can head up, stand on the shore in my paddle gear, and revel in the power of the storm. Today however, I'll be heading to work. I am certain that I will be sneaking peeks at that wave chart throughout the day and fantasizing that I'm up on Park Point, the Port Wing jetty, the mouth of the Lester, or some other outdoor, non boring, desk and fluorescent lighting free environment. As Eric Burton and the Animals said, "We gotta get out of this place, if its the last thing I ever do".

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On the cusp

I skied for what I fear will be the last time of the season on natural snow Tuesday morning. It had reached 40F during the day and then dropped down well below freezing overnight. This gave Francis Gross golf course a crust of frozen snow that allowed me to go anywhere on the course and ignore the rutted and pitifully groomed track. I think that skating on that crust is the closest a person can come to flying without leaving the ground. Effortless 15-20 yard glides as the sun is just peeking over the horizon is a pretty good way to start out the day. Temps are expected to flirt with 50F for the next few days though. My snow barometer, the picnic table outside my office, is shown two weeks ago at the top of the post and again yesterday at the bottom of this 'graph. This along with other omens, reminders, and upcoming events are driving me relentlessly back toward a paddling mindset, a mindset that I shelved last November with the season ending Gales of November paddle on Lake Minnetonka.

Canoecopia came and went without my presence but the bloggers have reminded me of what I missed. Planning has begun for the Traditional Gathering and a meeting is in the works for sometime in the near future. I received my invitation to be Third Assistant Junior Instructor at the biannual Inland Sea Kayak Symposium in Washburn in June. Registration has opened for the Granddaddy of Lake Superior kayak events, the GLSKS up in Grand Marais, MI, (winner of the Readers Digest $5MM grant contest, I may add, for restoring their beautiful harbor) and my guess is that we'll be hearing from Bill Thompson as soon as he hangs up his tele skis. In a real 'spring is coming' wake up call, the Coast Guard ice breaker Alder will be busting ice from Bayfield out to LaPointe on Madeline Island this morning. The ice road season was very short this year. But anticipating paddling is not the only thing that has been driving me back toward the water. Lots of folks have already been out on the water, some here and some well to the south of here.

I got a comment on my post earlier in the week from RocksNFeathers that Red Rocks reservoir down near Pella, IA is open and people have been paddling up a storm. On the other end of the spectrum Bryan Hansel completed 12 months of paddling, a piece of cake down south but not so easy up on the north shore of Lake Superior in Grand Marais, MN. Our own buddy RonO, snuck up to Split Rock last weekend and got in the first cold water paddle of the season as well as some great ice shots of the shore. Switching back to the south, fellow blogger and member of the "O family" PeggyO (along with DaveO and RonO) headed down to Tybee Island, GA to play in the surf with Ben Lawry and company. I suspect that she was one of the ISK folks that was instrumental in getting Ben up here after GLSKS for some instruction as well. I do believe she has BCU 4 star firmly in her sights.

Okay, okay, I get it. Put the skis, take the crap off the top of the kayaks and get on the water. I still have to get a couple tele days in on the fake snow and Colorado beckons with my Loveland 4 pack of lift tickets needing to be used but the mental shift from the hard water to the liquid stuff is in full swing. First however, I need to celebrate my 50% Irish heritage this evening at my favorite hangout. Who knows, a paddler or two may show up and we can discuss heading up to Gitchee Gumee next weekend, along with the intricate subtleties of the world class flavor profile of Bushmills Black Bush Irish whiskey. Just a splash of water to release the aroma and a person holds nirvana in their hand. Happy St Pats all!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Still alive and well

This has to be a record 'no blog' period for me but it seems like my ass has been in either an airplane seat, car seat, or conference chair for the past two weeks. Trips to St Louis, Cincinnati, and then up to northern Wisconsin this weekend have curtailed much blogging but I hope to be back in the saddle, at least for a while. I didn't even make it down to Madison for Canoecopia or the protests, but we did manage to join the group that organized to welcome Gov.Walker to Washburn, WI on Saturday afternoon. The big lake is beginning to open up, although there are still plenty of cars out on Chequamagon Bay ice fishing. The ice road to Madeline Island is gone for the year and I even had a nice whitefish for lunch that was netted off Raspberry Island the day before, as well as some homemade pickled lake herring that was caught off Saxon Harbor. Open water and paddling draws near and I swear a paddling post is in the works. But first I need to apologize to the city of St Louis.

In 2007 our stalwart crew of NCAA Frozen Four fans decided that we would pass on St Louis, mainly out of ignorance and a loathing of Anheuser-Busch products. Cities like Anaheim had been avoided in the past and cities like Buffalo, NY, where we did attend the event, will be avoided in the future. Whether we were right or wrong in our St Louis avoidance, my trip down there last weekend opened my eyes to the food, architectural, and neighborhood focused highlights of the St Louis area. But it was an event in 2008, a year after we decided to avoid the city, that arguably had the biggest impact in the city's ambiance revival; InBev's hostile takeover of Anheuser-Busch and the 'right sizing' of 1,400 employees.

GuitarMatt and I flew down to visit older brother GalwayGuy at grad school. This is year three and GG knows the city well, and also knows that decent beer would be a priority for all three of us. It seems like a few of those employees that the new InBud conglomerate 'right sized' not only knew how to brew beer but were probably chomping at the bit, like a good chef that's been stuck making hamburgers and macaroni and cheese for years. We hit the venerable Schlafly's, a brewery that's been around for probably 20 years but we also hit the newest brewpub, Urban Chestnut, as well as Buffalo Brewing and Six Barrel, which is owned by one of GG's classmates family. One of the more heartening trends was toward flavorful session ales. A 'session' is when you go out with a group of friends with the express intent of having more than a couple beers. Two of my favorite session beers are northern English style mild and the venerable ESB (Extra Special Bitter). Both of these are hard to find, I think mainly because of the names. What manly man would order a 'mild' beer? Who wants something that's bitter? The fact is that most mild's that I've drank have 10 times the flavor and color (most are as dark as porter) of any American or Euro lager at around 4% ABV. The ESB style is typically a lighter, nicely balanced pale ale at around 4% as well with a bit more hop bitterness and aroma. Both are 'beers to drink when you're having more than one'. The trend toward double IPA's, Russian Imperial Stout, and other high gravity beers is not one for the devoted beer drinker that has to drive to the bar. One and done is often the case. That's why I was drawn to a cask ale handle that was labeled 'Session IPA'.

When the barkeep pulled my pint I smelled it, tasted it, and thought......'hmmmm....tastes like a good ESB. The barkeep assured me that it was a 'Session IPA' but I'm certain that its a wolf in sheeps clothing, a true ESB that's pretending it's an IPA to sell more beer. Most folks that have tried South Shore Brewing's Nut Brown Ale have been impressed. Great beer and, oh by the way, one of the truest examples of the English mild ale style that you will encounter. But that nut brown moniker sells more beer. As a beer lover I would encourage the brewing of more 'session IPA' and 'nut brown ale'. I won't tell a soul!

Ethiopian food, a mountain of sushi, Vietnamese Pho, and a great 'new cuisine' prime rib rounded out the dining and we managed to hit the arch, the cathederal and its mosaics, history museum, and the detritus of the mardi gras in the Soulard neighborhood. Cincinnati was a work trip and marginally tolerable and we managed to sneak in some skiing up north over the weekend, as the hazy cell phone image below of Little Joe rapids on the Brule will attest. Saturday nights music at the Frontier Bar was exceptional. I hope to experience Canoecopia vicariously through the blogs that will result and will not miss next years event. I swear I'll have a paddle post soon. After all, this is a Lake Superior blog, not a travelogue or beer tasting forum.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Minnesota beer laws........??

On the same trip that introduced me to Lake Superior at around age 7, I also had my first encounter with Minnesota beer laws. In Wisconsin, when the Old Man ran his errands after work he took my sister and I along and he invariably stopped at one of his favorite taverns for a couple 7 oz. taps of Walters or Leinies beer. We usually got a Coke and a dime to play pinball, bowling, or the ultra cool rifle arcade game. When we took our trip to Minnesota's North Shore we impressionable youth were not allowed in the bar, an ordinance that had me very puzzled at the time. Even though Minnesota had a large German population, as did Wisconsin, perhaps all those Scandanavian Lutherans banded together to put 'the kibosh' on too much beer related fun. When I moved to the state in 1978, on the cold January weekend when the Happy Warrior was buried, I discovered a person could not buy a six pack, other than the insipid '3.2 beer', on Sunday. How that contributes to the public good is a puzzle to me. I guess if I was Jewish I'd be offended that you could buy beer on Saturday, and if I was Muslim I'd be offended that you could buy beer at all. Religion and beer shouldn't mix but a person still can't buy beer on Sunday in Minnesota and I don't think a kid can accompany the folks into a bar. A couple things have changed in the state however, and there is some pondering about changing a couple more.

Back in 1996 Vine Park Brewing, a shop where people could produce their own homebrew, opened after a law allowing such radical behavior slipped through the legislature. This was a pretty big step in the State Where Nothing Is Allowed and Vine Park has done well over the years. Minneapolis, a city where opening a new business is like extended hemorrhoid surgery (and where I'm pretty sure they have inspectors to inspect the inspectors), the city council recently passed a law allowing small breweries to sell growlers, refillable glass half gallon containers, out of their facility. I've racked my brain attempting to figure out how not selling growlers would advance the public good but I'm at a loss. Fulton Brewing will open a brewery in the city (good luck with the myriad of inspectiors boys!) in part because of the ordinance change.

Just north of the city Surly Brewing can no longer sell growlers. Why you ask? Because they made too much beer. Think of the blow to the public good if a brewery that made more than 3500 barrels of beer was allowed to indiscriminately sell growlers! My guess is that it would make the mess in Madison look like a kindergarten roundup. Oh, the humanity! The state is also protecting us from the horrors of a brewery owned restaurant that sells.....gasp....pints of its own beer on tap. Omar Ansari, the owner of Surly Brewing, wants to build a new brewery with a restaurant, beer garden, and pub where Surly beer and only Surly beer is served. No wine, martinis, or Bud Lite, just Surly beers. This is against the law in this state because of the 'three tiered' distribution system. Breweries need to sell their beer to the distributor and the distributor needs to sell it to the bar or liquor store so they can sell it to you. Of course brewpubs can sell their beer directly to the thirsty beer lover but none of them cross that pesky 3500 barrel threshold.

I'm struggling to see the damage to the brewing industry if breweries could sell a pint at their facility. I've had many a free pint at both the Summit and Schells tap rooms and would not mind a bit if I could plunk down a few bucks for my said tasty pint. Yet two guys that I know, respect, and have consumed pints with, Mark Stutrud from Summit and Ted Marti from Schells, have expressed reservations about any change in the three tiered system. I guess I'd better do a bit more research on the topic. An extensive state brewery and brewpub fact finding tour may be in order during the 'tweener month of March.

One thing is for sure, we have some fine breweries and brewpubs here in the state. It would be nice if we had the reputation of a Colorado, Wisconsin, or Oregon because we brew a number of beers that are equal to or better than beers brewed in those states. I sat in the Deschutes brewpub in Portland and the significantly less plush Double Mountain brewery in Hood River, and sensed no impending doom from their public desecration of the three tiered system as I sipped my pints. Portland airport is the least stressful airport I've ever encountered. The agents seem more friendly, the TSA personnel more human, and there is a general vibe of low key accommodation. I attribute this in part to the presence of a Rogue Brewery pub in the concourse. They serve only Rogue Brewing products and its very hard to be pissed at the air travel experience if you have a pint of Dead Guy Ale or Brutal IPA in your hand. Minnesota should give some serious thought to loosening up. It seems to have worked well in other states.

(image above of Eric hand pulling a pint of Surly Cask Mild at Grumpys NE.....mmmmm!)