Monday, November 28, 2011

Cold as well as boring?

This years Wisconsin gun season was pretty slow up at our camp on Reefer Creek. The largest buck was a forkhorn and only four deer were taken. Some venison for all, but a far cry from previous years. There were no deer taken at all until Wednesday, almost 5 days of solid hunting. What this meant was that there was no sleeping in, big buck hanging on the pole, and a lot more time spent in the woods. Most of that time was spent up in a tree stand, with weather ranging from 5oF and partial sun to a 6 hour snowstorm and 20F temperature drop when the snow ended. I figure I spent about 65 hours in the woods this season, 80% of which was spent sitting in a tree. The question I get asked the most by non hunters is almost always the two part, "So, didn't you get cold and isn't that really boring?".

The cold is actually the easier part to deal with because that's physical. If the hands and feet are warm the rest of you will be warm as well. Insulated over booties, a lovely blaze orange hand muff, and wool, wool, and more wool pretty much handle that cold part. The boredom part is mental and a bit tougher to deal with. The anticipation of the big buck walking past the stand tends to fade very quickly as the sky brightens on opening morning. This means the mind is free to wander without the external civilization sounds and stimulation that bombard us daily. A lot of my time is spent with the mental clutch disengaged, simply sitting there and watching, listening, and smelling the natural environment around me. I generally choose a spot that has a pretty nice view. It's a lot like a long open water crossing in a kayak; the whitewater guys can't understand how it can possibly be any fun without rapids, holes, and eddys but we all know the enjoyment we experience as we paddle along on the big water. I was not alone up there either. For three straight days a porcupine kept me company in the oak tree next to my spruce. He never hit the ground while I was there and for most of the time sat motionless on the end of a branch. Finches and Chickadees also kept me company, since I had my little homemade PET pop bottle sunflower seed feeder next to me. This is not purely altruistic, since deer won't be bothered by motion as much if the birds are flittering around. Bluejays and black, gray, and red squirrels visit as well, and its amazing how a gray squirrel can sound like a deer as it hops through the leaves. Which brings up the principal object of this mission, the deer. Plenty of deer passed by and even posed for some snap shots. I did not see a single antlered buck however, which left plenty of time for the mind to wander when there were no forest dwellers in the immediate area.

I can tell you about two things I did not think about, current events and work. This is after all, a vacation, the best vacation ever if the goal is rejuvenation. No civilization sounds while in the stand and no non relaxing thoughts. Dave's fantasy world is alive and well though. I usually shoot the Boone & Crockett record Whitetail buck, bequeath tons of money from my multi million dollar charitable trust to worthy causes, and enjoy a hot ski weekend at Klosters, Switzerland with Julia Roberts. I also take the occasional nap. I sometimes crawl down to the ground but I usually doze 15 feet in the air, belted safely to the tree, especially now with my new suspension harness system. If I adjust it just right it holds me sitting almost vertical as I snooze, I'm sure for only seconds at a time.

The object is hunting however and the snap of a twig, a doe blowing or buck grunting as they head towards me provides the instant adrenaline that all hunters are familiar with. Never mind that most of them are false alarms. Plus sitting and doing nothing seems to get easier and easier the more its done. I guess like most things, practice makes perfect. As I walked into work this morning I remembered that annual feeling of this being the most disconnected day of the year. Thinking about passwords, remembering conversations, making sense of work notes taken before leaving for the nine days in the 19th century is not an easy thing. But spending those nine days with the quiet, contemplation, and sights, smells, and sounds of the northern Wisconsin outdoors in early winter make it all worthwhile. In fact the computer, cell phone, meetings, and urban ambiance already have me thinking about next deer season.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Camp Cook

This will be the last post until after Thanksgiving as I prepare to depart for the 19th century at our deer camp in western Bayfield County, Wisconsin, the nine days known as 'Holy Week' among Badger State deer hunters. . No electricity, running water, plumbing, or central heating at our little estate in the northwoods. The best thing about it is no connectivity for phones or internet wireless. Rumors are that as more cell towers are erected we will get service. The only advantage of that development would be that on the VOR's birthday, which unfortunately always falls during this week, I can call with birthday wishes from the camp instead of having to drive to a high spot on my wheeler and then stand up on the seat while wearing a tinfoil hat to get one bar reception. Cooking and heating at deer camp is done with propane, Humphrey propane lights and the beloved 1924 Detroit Jewel propane stove. I am the main camp cook on that venerable piece of equipment.

As deer hunting preparations reach a fever pitch, some folks are excited by a new rifle, hunting jacket, scent system, portable tree stand, or other gear that they have picked up. I'm excited by my new stock pot, a fine piece of cooking gear manufactured by Vollrath and acquired at the local restaurant supply store. The usual routine at a camp, and ours is no exception, is to bring some old piece of shit pot, pan, or knife that you don't want at home out to camp and proudly state, "Hey, we got a new (fill in the blank) at home and I thought I'd donate this one to the hunting camp". My thought in most cases is that it should have been donated to the garbage, which is what I actually do surreptitiously, one POS at a time. Please don't tell anyone. We have slowly acquired some knives that hold an edge, a fine aluminum Dutch Oven, stainless steel two burner griddle, vintage waffle maker, and some nice Revere Ware pots and pans. Along with venerable stanbys like the cast iron frying pans, good tools make for good chow and we are slowly but surely getting there after only 28 or 29 years or so.
The food that I cook has become very ritualized. If there are no burritos on Friday night, chicken and dumplings on Sunday night, or corned beef and cabbage on Tuesday night there is muttering, grumbling, and sullen bitching. Which is fine with me. Deer camp in Wisconsin is all about tradition and that's one of them. If the BearWhisperer didn't bring mom's apple crisp, and all the sandwich fixin's, if the KingOfIronwood didn't bring his healthful desserts, and if the GurneyGranny didn't acquire the Thanksgiving turkey, it just wouldn't be the same. I have my own little rituals as well. When I get to camp after the days hunt I get out of my heavy hunting clothes and into my cooking clothes, which is typically my longjohns. Over the years I've found cooking with my pants on to be very confining and have avoided the practice for decades now. The freedom of long underwear really helps get the creative juices flowing in the kitchen. Also, much like the pump in the yard, I'm much more productive if I'm primed before I begin supper. Depending on the day and the weather ouside, the primer could be three fingers of Bushmills, a glass of a fine red, or a cold bottle of Leinies. The camp is small enough so that I can actively participate in happy hour in the Eight of Better Lounge while preparing the meals. I also typically have plenty of help. This is because of the Third Commandment of Deer Camp: Thou shalt not put thy hands in dishwater if thou art one of the cooks. This where it get sketchy. Guys have opened the oven door for me and tried to count it as cooking. Cans have been opened and sauces stirred on the Jewel with similar claims. I am above it all however, letting them squabble over who cleans up the mess as I happily prepare the grub. If you will note in the lead image, there is a nice new chef's knife that will be taken to camp and cleverly hidden. It's the only sure way to keep it sharp since bad kitchen knife ideas like cutting rope, sawing at a piece of wood, or shaving the end off a piece of PVC pipe with a (formerly) sharp knife don't seem to register with some of the group.

Tomorrow I will be delivering the VOR and GraciousPartier to the airport on their way to St Louis to visit GalwayGuy. I will then head directly north to the camp. I may get out in the woods to look around but it's more likely that the necessary priming will begin immediately. I can only hope that, unlike last year, burritos are on the menu. I hate to hear whimpering on the very first night. I have also added the following very satisfying message to the Out of Office reply on my work email:

I will be out of the office the entire week of Thanksgiving on a humanitarian mission, assisting in reducing the potential for car/deer collissions in Northern Wisconsin. I will have zero connectivity for that period.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and may you enjoy a shopping free Black Friday. I'll be in the woods both days.

Monday, November 14, 2011


It was a gorgeous weekend in northern Wisconsin, just a couple miles south of the big lake. The plan was to finish fencing the cedar trees we had planted in the spring and then trying to reduce the number of cedar eaters in the vicinity with our archery equipment. Since I am a multi-tasker, and the Sunday forecast was for 15-20mph winds with waves building to 3-5', I had the Delphin on the roof and planned on some surfing at the mouth of the Brule where the waves against the steady current of the river would make for some interesting sport. Unfortunately the wind and waves never showed up which was actually fortunate because neither did I. We had a wounded buck to track.

The GurneyGranny shot a six point buck from her stand, Twin Towers, on Sunday morning and after waiting the prescribed hour or so we began tracking. Podman, the KingOfIronwoodIsland, GG, and Yours Truly set off at 10am following an increasingly sparse blood trail. The buck circled back and headed for the creek, a tactic we knew well but we still lost the trail a half dozen times. To find the trail again we hang a piece of ribbon in a tree and then begin circling until the trail is struck once more. We jumped the wounded deer on the other side of the creek and it was obvious the wound was mortal but we wanted to dispatch the buck and not have it elude us somehow. We trailed it up and over the ridge, down into the valley of another small creek, and then followed as it circled around back down into the small creek valley. In the interim GG managed to hit him with another arrow and on the other side of the small creek, in an area littered with fallen trees, the King managed to finally dispatch the buck. It was six hours after the initial arrow had been released, five hours after the tracking process began.

There are several things to think about here. One obvious one is that we all need to practice more with our bows. We all shoot but we don't necessarily do it from a sitting position 15 feet up in a tree. I, for one, am guilty as hell of that. We owe it to the deer to be the best we can with bow and rifle for that clean kill. However a misplaced twig, a deer that suddenly moves, or almost anything else can throw an arrow off target, its just not that easy people. The fact is that the clean kill doesn't always happen, no matter how we wish for and train for it, and that's where the other lessons come in, the ones involving perseverance, the doctrine of fair chase, and having a good hunting ethic. No one wanted to be trailing a deer through the thick brush but no one suggested we give up either. If we lost the trail once we lost it twenty times, but each time we circled and found that drop of blood on a blade of grass and kept going. Had we not found the buck most certainly others would have. The King left his stand early when a pack of coyotes headed in his direction Saturday night. While Wisconsin coyotes are not known to eat Yoopers, it's one thing to know that intellectually and quite another to have them howling on the same 40 acres with you as the sun goes down and camp is a half hour hike in the dark. We heard the wolves as well and I damn near hit a big black bear on the way home. Between the scavengers on the ground and the crows, ravens, eagles, and even fat loving chickadees that are bulking up for winter, the deer would have been appreciated and utilized by the fauna and flora in the area. But we started this thing and damn well meant to finish it.

By the time the deer was field dressed and on the wheeler for the ride back to camp we were all pretty much just happy to be done. We had forgotten to bring any lunch and water was on short rations. I even forgot to give GG the traditional manly handshake/forearm grasp (OK, OK, she gets a hug, I confess) congratulating her on harvesting some venison. But it was most definitely the right thing to do and for experienced hunters like the foursome in the woods yesterday, hunters with the skill and perseverance to track and dispatch a wounded buck, there was a certain element of pride and satisfaction about the end result. Meat in the freezer and a successful end to bow season, combined with that sense of accomplishment.That's not a bad way to spend a beautiful fall afternoon in the northwoods.

(note:Most images are from a prior bowhunt in 2008, the one above from last years gun camp.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Paddle? In a storm like this??

We all received the same reaction from our co-workers as we compared notes after arriving at the boat launch on the west end of Lake Minnetonka for the 7th annual Gales of November paddle. We try to hold this event on or close to the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975 as possible, unless it falls on a weekend. One of the main points of this gathering is to play hookey from work in the afternoon, usually confounding our co-workers as we did yesterday. The comments were basically questioning our sanity and wondering how a person could have fun in snow flurries, 38F air temp and 42F water temp, with a brisk northwest wind. After surviving yesterdays ordeal I'm going to have admit to them today, when I get to work, that they were right. It was pure hell and we all wondered why we didn't just stay at our warm and cozy desks rather than venturing out in the foul weather.

First of all our launch was delayed by the MN DNR truck stocking muskies in the lake. We stood shivering in our dry suits as net after net of pure strain muskies were pitched into the lake. When we finally got on the water we were all alone, per our co workers prediction that no one else would be dumb enough to venture on to this 14,000 acre urban lake with its thirty plus islands in these treacherous conditions. We snaked our way through channels and under several pesky bridges where the wind funneling the water through the bridge opening made for nasty paddling in the cold water.

We finally reached our destination of Goose Island, an island with a couple fire rings and nothing else on it. We immediately started a fire to warm our frozen toes and fingers, wondering what the heck we were doing out there. Almost at the same time the fire was lit the adult beverages were also opened, an impressive array of microbrewed beers, fine white and red wines, and hot chocolate with Kahlua to warm our chilly cores.

We sat shivering and watched the sun go down in the west. Even the snacks and appetizers could not alter our sullen mood, an attitude clearly visible in the image above. Then, just as we thought we would be able to practice our night navigation skills and paddle back to the launch site in the inky darkness with some 'walleye chop' to test our skills, the wind died down, the lake turned to glass, and the moon came out. It was as bright as day when we paddled back to our vehicles, no fun at all on what was supposed to be a valuable learning experience. It was 31F now and our boats, paddles and other gear had a fine coating of ice on them. We loaded up and adjourned to the Narrows Saloon in Navarre, where the difficult decision of which microbrewed beer to select was finally made, brains partially frozen from the paddle. Alaskan Amber and DeSchutes Black Butte Porter were selected and the debrief began. We wound up listening to the band in relative silence as we mulled over the traumatic November paddle we had just completed.

Fellow work colleagues, you were absolutely right. Venturing out on to the lake this time of year, weather hovering near freezing was a terrible experience. However, like child birth I'm told, the human mind will block these bad memories over time. I'm certain that by next year the lesson of yesterday will be forgotten and the usual collection of saps will take to the water and subject themselves and their equipment to abuse for yet another year. This can be a cautionary tale however, to those folks heading out to paddle this weekend, at least two groups that I'm aware of: Don't do it! Watch some football, maybe even Penn State, and avoid those nasty conditions. Me? I'll be hiding up in a tree. Happy weekend folks, and don't forget our veterans on this 93rd anniversary of the end of 'the war to end all wars'. Don't we wish!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Last Superior paddle for 2011?

Last Sunday morning found me leaving the detrius of the Grouse Kill and heading to Red Cliff for an attempted rendezvous with an intrepid foursome coming the Oak 1 site on the south spit. Early rising and an early departure from that event is more easily said than done for multiple reasons, but I figured that only two nights camping would leave enough room in their hatches for at least thirty plus cans of Surly Furious, which would put us on roughly the same schedule. I was wrong. Just as I was launching I was surprised by the PunctualGerman and ManFromSnowyLegs coming around the breakwall with RonO and Newman close behind. They tried to persuade me that Fitgers Brewing would be a good place to be since it was raining lightly and the wind was building, but I was geared up and ready to paddle. I will also admit that after the Grouse Kill weekend the thought of more beer was not a primary motivator.

When I rounded the Red Cliff breakwater I was the only person on the lake. I met some bowhunters at the launch who were coming off Basswood Island with three deer in their boats. They were from a combination of Wisconsin locations, including Rhinelander and the Reedsberg area, and were obviously experienced guys as I checked out their clothes, boats, and gear. They had hauled bows and tree stands to Basswood and had a great weekend with a productive, quality, and out of the ordinary hunting adventure. The fact that they were experienced guys was driven home when one of them asked me, as I prepared to launch and wished them good luck, "Are you gonna be safe out there all by your lonesome?". That question was echoed Thursday by a Lake Superior sailor, actually a competitor in my business, as we stood, bored as two humans could be, at an industry trade show in downtown Minneapolis. He said his wife always insisted on heading back to port when thunderstorms were in the forecast and the 'is it safe?' was always the primary concern out on the big lake. He asked the same question as the bowhunters when I told him about what may be my last kayak trip on Gitchee Gumee for the season.

While a person is never perfectly safe solo on Lake Superior I felt that I was plenty safe. I never want to be 'perfectly safe', I find that even more boring than a Medical Device Manufacturer's trade show if that's possible. I will admit that I did mentally run through my gear list when it became apparent that Fitgers and not Basswood Island was beckoning the Oak Island quartet. Radio with charged batteries, paddle float/bilge pump, first aid kit, dry suit, pfd, spare paddle,whistle, light....check, check, and check. The wind was building from the south, the waves were beginning to cap with about a 20 mile fetch from Ashland, and the rain was intermittent with water temp around 45F and the air just about the same. It was a day when some fun could be had and I certainly had some. I paddled straight across to the Basswood dock to check out the new construction. It's good that the area is out of the wilderness zone. I'd hate to have to put in a new dock with an army of people with shovels. Or would a shovel be a 'mechanical assist'? There are some interesting requirements when we invent a wilderness area. The second wave of fall colors was evident after the red maple leaves had dropped and the golds and yellows of the oak and aspen were in full swing and the smell of fall combined with the fresh smell of the lake was intoxicating. I paddled south to the floating rock at the north end of Basswood, thought about crossing to Oak but was too lazy to paddle back upwind so I snuck south along the shoreline to the south end of Basswood where all the individual campsites are located. I would not have wanted to attempt a landing there with the south wind but, as I mentioned, I was by myself so no one needed to attempt a landing.
I have friends in the area that paddle solo most of the time, either due to spur of the moment decisions where no other paddlers are available, or just to clear the cobwebs from the brain. I rarely have the opportunity to paddle solo, social animal that I am, but I must say I savor the freedom from time to time. The decision not to hit Oak, seen looming between Red Cliff Pt and the north end of Basswood above, required no debate or discussion. I just edged the Explorer, took a couple sweep strokes for the 180, and down the shore of Basswood I went. Not only did I feel (almost) perfectly safe but I also had the feeling that I was the only guy in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore that was on the water. I could see a long, long way and no sail, motor noises, wakes, or paddle flashes were evident. I guess that's what made it the great paddle that it was, the mix of solitude, self reliance, and quality thinking time on my favorite body of water.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lake Superior Herring....or is it Cisco?

I ate some herring last night. Actually I ate lots of herring last night. This was not pickled herring, the modifier our brains typically put in front of the word 'herring', or the disgusting creamed herring that some of my relatives of Scandanavian descent savor. This was fresh, sweet Lake Superior herring, prepared by some of the best executive chefs in the area, and served as part of an event sponsored by Minnesota Sea Grant called A Salute to Lake Superior's Sustainable Fisheries. Restaurants like Fire Lake Grill House, Stella's Fish Cafe, and the Oceanaire Seafood Room were involved in creating the entrees, which were judged in a competition endorsed by the American Culinary Federation, with a grand prize of $1,000. A cash bar was available and Michael Monroe, the eclectic Grand Marais singer/songwriter came down, along with the herring, from Grand Marais, MN to perform at the event. It was his website that alerted the VOR, a big fan along with her sisters, of this event. I kinda favor Jimmy Page and Robert Plant but the music was fine.

The event was held on the U of M campus in the McNamara Alumni Center, a building that always rankles me a bit because they tore down Memorial Stadium to build it and then played losing football for 25 years at the giant, sterile, teflon smelling pot pie, the HHH Metrodome downtown. Now there is a brand spanking new outdoor stadium right across the street. It is a great space however, and the event was wonderful for both the VOR, a big sustainable local food advocate in her job of feeding 11,000 kids a day, and for me, an 'early herring adaptor' according to the VOR. In the little restaurants around the lake a diner can get herring in season and I always order it. Places like the Angry Trout in Grand Marais, MN, Don & GG's in Ironwood, MI, and the Village Inn in Cornucopia, WI have lake herring on the menu, especially now during the spawning season when a lot of the catch is harvested. I noticed the 'fresh herring' sign on the Halvorsen's Commercial Fishery operation in Cornie on my way through Sunday, but they were closed. As good as the herring entrees are at those restaurants, the chefs at the McNamara Center last night took it to another level. Herring and fresh micro greens salad garnished with herring caviar, blue cheese risotto with sauteed herring and a squash based reduction, mashed parsnips with coriander, caramelized apples with Panko breaded herring, Nepalese dumplings with saffron infused herring and a lentil sauce............hell yeah I ate some herring; I ate a pile of herring and so did most everyone else at the event. As you can see from the food shots with my lovely 'herring model' the food was outstanding and I'm glad I wasn't the judge, although my favorite, an entree that I had to sample twice just to make sure, won the silver medal.

I spoke with most of the chefs and this was the first time that many had been exposed to fresh Lake Superior herring and all were impressed by the quality of the fish. One compared it to the reef fish that he would buy from fishermen when he learned his trade in Hawaii and said that if there was a distribution system that could get the herring here as fresh as the ocean fish that are flown in daily, it would be a great seller. That and coming up with another name. He mentioned that he once served Lake Superior Whitefish as 'freshwater char' and it flew out of the kitchen. It reminds me of the conversation I had with a brewer in St Louis about his 'session IPA'. I told him it tasted suspicously similiar to a good bitter or ESB and he confessed that he had indeed brewed a bitter. He said that people shy away from the word 'bitter' (speak for yourself buddy) and that he sold a lot more 'session IPA' than had he called his beer bitter, even though they were identical brews. I talked the Red Rocks crew from Iowa and Nebraska into some fresh whitefish at the Village Inn in Cornie when we were storm bound and they all raved about it. Yet I suspect a few burgers would have been ordered had I not pointed out the virtues of the whitefish, which came out of the lake about 4 hours earlier.

You can read about the rebound of the herring population in Gitchee Gumee and its life cycle here. There is also a recipe or two on this site. It's a great fish, high on Omega 3's, and it tastes wonderful as well, a claim that can not be made for all 'healthy' foods. It dovetails nicely with the Eat Local and sustainable food movements and it's great on the grill. In fact I may need to talk the GurneyGranny into picking up some fresh herring on the way to deer camp this weekend.

Next time you are in a restaurant around the lake and see herring or cisco on the menu, give it a shot. You won't be disappointed and perhaps the lake herring, which the taxonomists now officially refer to as cisco, can filter its way inland and become a staple like the venerated walleye, a fish not nearly as interesting in the taste department as the lake herring.....sorry, the cisco.