Monday, January 30, 2012

The snow was found!

This weekend was the thirtieth something annual Intensive Training weekend near Lake Namekagan in northern Wisconsin. I've only been in on a dozen or so but have been coming to the area for those same thirty years that the event had been held. When my boys were young we would hit the same ski trails and many of the same drinking and dining establishments that we do now. The main lure for us, both then and now, was the Rock Lake trail complex across the road from the Lakewoods Resort.

The trails, 2k, 4k, 7.5k, 11.5k, and 16k concentric loops, are relatively unchanged over the years. They wind through mixed hardwoods and mature White Pine, and go up, over, and around glaciated hills at the terminal moraine of the last glacier that scoured the area. The trails are intimate, classical single track only, and are what I feel is the perfect cross country mix of 1/3 up, 1/3 down, and 1/3 flat. There are hills on the longer loops that are a bit hairy but they are all very do-able if a person does not lose their nerve on the way down. They are of course, much less intimidating once they have been ridden once successfully. The lack of snow in the city made us a bit conservative in the mileage department. It made me conservative anyway, because I peeled off on the 7.5k before Podman and KingIronwood caught us. RonO and the ManFromSnowyLegs were talked into the 16k and confessed that the sight of the parking lot was very welcome at the end. I felt energized and pumped to be on real snow without high school ski teams streaking by me, and wound up doing the 4k as well for a moderate total of 11.5k, just perfect for the first 'real' ski of the season.

When I was out with the boys back in the mid 80's, mileage was always a question mark. As you can see from the grainy image above, chances were pretty good that at such a young age the 16k would likely not be tackled. Nor was going uphill a painless process. Bribes of a French Canadian hard candy, which we called 'hill pills' were dished out, carrot on a stick fashion, when the hills were summited. Downhills, no matter how steep, never were an issue. It was generally just a good time in the out of doors. Campfires were lit, wiener sticks cut, and we enjoyed the moment. It always amazed me and still does when I hear guys say, "Man, my wife is out of town and I gotta watch the kids this weekend". Huh? You can't figure out something fun to do with your kids, just kick back and enjoy 'em? And what the hell are you 'watching'? In my compassionate, life affirming manner, I generally suggest that they get off their fat ass, use their head just a little bit, and figure out something that they all might enjoy. Our modus operandi was to go full bore with the fun and then about two hours before mom was due home, the fun would cease and frantic cleanup efforts would commence to erase the signs of the 'fun' that had left the house in complete shambles.

The Rock Lake loops bring back wonderful memories, both of when my guys were little as well as the many times the menly men of the Intensive Training weekend skied the trails and then rewarded themselves with a sauna, hot tub (five bucks at the nearby Lakewoods), adult libations, and a friendly card game. The trails are excellent for hiking in the summer and are designated single track mountain bike trails in the CAMBA system, but even though those are admirable activities, they simply can't be beaten as the nicest, narrowest, and most scenic classical cros country trails in the state.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Drive to the Snow

This no snow thing is getting ridiculous and I'm getting as tired and bored with writing about it as you are of reading about it. The problem is that it has turned many outdoor lovers winter into what I imagine it's like for the people who curl up and cocoon at the first sign of cold or snow. Weather induced SADS. The indoor life stinks and if you do anything to excess, whether it be TV, Netflix, reading books (beer drinking excepted of course) it tends to drain a person mentally and emotionally. Hiking is fine but lets face it folks, the fun part of winter is its unique difference from the other seasons. You can hike on a stinkin' beach for God sakes! Sure, that chance of slipping and falling on your ass on the ice makes winter hiking a bit more interesting but it pales in comparison to the classic ski, skate, and slide. No, I want to glide over snow and skate on the ice, moving much faster and more effortlessly than can be done on plain old dry ground. We have not all curled up in the fetal position with a bottle of Bushmills and Tolstoy's "War and Peace" however.

Last weekend found me strolling out on the ice of Lake Nokomis for the US Pond Hockey Championships. There were a couple dozen rinks with a half dozen divisions competing for the coveted Golden Shovel Award and lots of spectators braving the 15F temps with a rare southeast wind. I had planned on a beer in the tent but the organizers had sold out to Bud as some sort of Gold Level sponsorship deal. Instead I spent my money on a useful container called the Whiskey Puck. It's pictured right with what became it's contents. The outdoor exposure continued when I headed over to the BessemerConvivialists annual Jilleah Loppet, typically a ski event but this year kickball had to substitute for the skiing. It was a great idea and great outdoor fun but it was obvious that only about 15% of the group had any idea of kickball and its similarity to baseball. Once we realized that throwing to the wrong base, ignoring base runners, and other baseball atrocities would be the norm, everyone had fun. Had the whiskey puck been full it would have been quickly emptied by the kickballers.

Sunday I sucked it up, after being encouraged to abort my downhill ski plans due to freezing rain, and headed over to the Elm Creek Hamster Cage. It consists of a couple kilometers of man made snow cross country trails, one of what I think are three such areas in the metro. It was congested like a rush hour freeway with everyone from elite Birkie racers getting in their 'K's' to plodding classical skiers, basically walking on skis along the trail. I resolved that my Elm Creek trail pass would be for two sessions: my first and my last. No more of that, I'm waiting for real snow.

Which apparently we will find this weekend. RonO, the ManFromSnowyLegs, and I are joining a number of the usual suspects on Lake Namekagan for the annual Intensive Training weekend. This is mainly classical skiing on the superb Rock Lake loops east of Cable with a bit of skating on the Birkie trail. There will likely be a beer savored and a card dealt as well after the intensive ski training. The VOR is joining the Wild Women for a weekend of skiing on the private yet tortuously confusing Fauerbach Maze in rural Saxon, WI. Some wine drinking and extensive menu planning and recipe discussion will be featured as well.

There is still no snow in the forecast so I guess a bit of driving is the only solution. The one thing the hamster cage bluntly pointed out to me is that although the brakes and supsension are top notch, the motor on the Olson ski machine is carboned up, out of tune, and missing on several cylinders. There is no hope for a complete tune up before the Vasaloppet on February 11th, if its held, but I will take comfort in the fact that every little bit helps and that I will be enjoying real winter, if only for the weekend.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I want snow!

Another snow storm tracked south of us yesterday. This was after the one at the end of last week tracked north and east of us. The bottom line is that its nearing the end of January and we have no snow. Zero snow. Not enough to make a decent snowball. Oh sure we can travel for about three hours and find decent, not great,but decent snow, but the joy of getting up early to knock off a few kilometers on the way to work or stopping on the way home to ski is absolutely non existent. This no snow funk was made worse last night when I finally figured out the FaceTime app on my iPad. I was mildly amazed when the face of No1 son showed up on the screen and then as jealous as hell. I asked him why he was still at work at 8pm at night and he told me it was because Mt Hood got two feet of powder and he planned to be at Hood Meadows for first chair in the morning. He then kindly sent me the attached 7 day forecast for the area. 90 to 100% chance of snow for the next week. Avalanche warning, high winds, the classic snow dump. "Wow, that's great Erik....(grumble, fume, stew, bitch, whine)....have fun gliding through two feet of fresh pow-pow tomorrow. Let me know how it goes". Click. Stream of vile obscenities muttered under my breath.

I do plan on getting on the boards this Sunday. I will pack up the tele skis and my skate skis and head down to Welch Village, a local ski venue with lots of fake snow, and combine some gravity skiing with mindless skating back and forth at the base of the hill. Pathetic for January in Minnesota. There are other activities to occupy the time however, lesser activities that should be done in their proper seasons but ones that can be enjoyed in a pinch during this non winter. I actually found myself at a pool session, albeit with no boat last weekend. I sat in a clown shoe whitewater boat for the first time in years but was thinking about how I could have been outside skiing for most of the session.

Last Saturday we attended the Vasaloppet fund raiser dinner. It featured good food, plentiful beer, and a nice percentage of the SKOAC Renegade Relay team, who donated some money and in some cases got lucky. In the case of the BessemerConvivialist pretty damn lucky. The next day found JackiePack headed for some chlorine immersion at an ISK pool session and a few more of at the ski cabin on the north loops of the Vasaloppet trail. Even BjornDaehlieOfMahtomede, who had a half dozen pairs of skis in his car, did not attempt to ski the light dusting that was on the ground. Instead we celebrated that troika sanctioned and lumped together by our own Federal government; alcohol, tobacco, and firearms. A number of handguns were fired from .22 long rifle up to the decidedly non handgun caliber 7x30 Waters, with .357mag, .44mag, .45acp, and a couple .38 specials thrown in just for sport. Cuban cigars and then some fine ale were enjoyed, once all the hanguns were safely cased of course. We then headed south and the more masochistic among us gathered at Grumpys to watch the Packers choke, reminded once again that defense wins championships and that we did not have one.

I need to get my skates out and I hope to head down to Lake Nokimis for the annual pond hockey tournament this weekend to spectate. Maybe being out on the ice and getting a little skiing in will help me out of this brown winter funk. I think I may be suffering from the 180 opposite of SADS, UADS, the Unseasonal Affective Disorder Syndrome. I hope some artificial snow, like artificial sunlight for SADS, can alleviate my debilitating symptoms.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mining hearing update

It looks like there was an overflow crowd at the mining hearing in Hurley yesterday according to the Ashland Daily Press, the Ashland Current, and a much more reliable source for me, the GurneyGranny who had her 'mukluks on the ground' in Hurley for the better part of yesterday. Accounts in both local papers were nicely done and well worth a read. It would appear that few people, other than Wisconsin State Treasurer Kurt Schuller, support the bill exactly as it's written, mainly because half the money would go into the black hole that is the state general fund rather than being returned to the area of the state where it was generated. The tribes and environmental groups in the state were well represented and made their opposition clear. Mining advocates also made their case for the benefits of the project.

Whether a person was on the pro or the con side however, doesn't make a damn bit of difference. This bill will be voted on next week in the Assembly just exactly how it was written, written with the able, unbiased assistance of GTAC of course, and it will pass. I get to use one of my favorite analogies for most public hearings: they are like those little cars seats with a steering wheel on them that we AARP members had when were kids, before car seats became the miniature space capsules they are now. Having that steering wheel gave us the illusion we were turning the car and every once in awhile the car would turn in the same direction that we turned the wheel, making us giddy with power and smug satisfaction. The fact of the matter of course, was that the old man was driving the car and we had exactly zero say on which direction it went.

This bill still has to be introduced in the senate, passed, make it through the conference committee, and then be signed by the Governor. We shall see how that process goes. In the meantime, please check out some photos of the area the mine will be located in. These images are by Joel Austin of Big Bear Sundries who lives in the area, and are far more evocative than the snapshots I throw up here. The chairman of GTAC, Bill Williams, says there lots of pristine areas like this in Northern Wisconsin and the UP. Take a look at the images in Joel's blog and then please let me know where the other areas in the state are that are like that, I'd like to head up and check them out. My paddling buddy and naturalist extraordinaire, ProfessorLichen, visited a reclaimed coal mining area from 80 years ago down in Iowa. Take a look at the pictures of that area vs. the shots from Mr. Austin. Which landscape do you like better?

Finally, John Tornius, the Chairman of the Board of Serigraph (a Wisconsin company that my company works with) and author of The Company That Solved Healthcare, wrote a well reasoned and spot on piece on the process of launching a new mine. The last two paragraphs are key. The state needs an open, deliberate process but not an unending one. The current process we are in the midst of, if you read his post, do not seem to fit this description. Lets hope, but not bet the farm, on the Senate injecting at least a bit of openness and deliberation into this issue.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Proposed GTAC mine

Mines have been in the news lately. Just yesterday Interior Secretary Salazar announced a 20 year ban on mining uranium next to the Grand Canyon. Settlements should be announced today in the mine disaster that killed 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010. In Wisconsin, unless they live under a rock, people are aware that GTAC has proposed a massive iron mining operation in Iron and Ashland Counties in the northeastern part of the state. In both instances the usual suspects have mobilized, the issue has been defined in black and white (mostly along ideological lines), and swords are being sharpened and the name calling has begun. For one side, it's jobs for a perennially under employed part of the state and acceptable environmental destruction; for the other it's a northwoods utopia with old growth forests and sustainable environmental tourism jobs for all. The sad fact is that neither side is prepared to admit is that there actually can be a middle ground.

Goegebic Taconite, GTAC, is affiliated with the Cline Group in Florida and is registered as a LLC on the Toronto stock exchange. They want to mine iron ore in the area mentioned above but have determined that Wisconsin's iron mine permitting laws are far too restrictive and if they aren't changed they will take their dynamite and giant dump trucks and go home. To assist with this problem, they helped the Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly write a law that would make it far easier to get a permit, cut the permitting time in half from what our neighboring mining states of Michigan and Minnesota require, and limit damages from any unfortunate environmental accidents that may occur. (Before I go on, I want to say that I could load up this post with links to dozens of media outlets but you, dear blog reader, are going to have to use the Google on your own. I will say my old high school classmate, Lee Bergquist, has been covering the story quite nicely for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) There is a hearing on the bill in Hurley tomorrow. An overflow crowed is expected and the rhetoric will be heated.

My one link in this post.......OK, there will be one more......has a quote from the Executive Director of the Ashland Area Development Corporation, Dale Kupcyck. "You’ve got this 10 percent who want it no matter what it costs, probably 10 percent who don’t want it no matter what. But you’ve got 80 percent who are willing to work with the state and say yes, if we can do it cleanly, let’s do it.”. That is exactly the point I'd like to make. This is not a zero sum game like most of the people on the far end of both viewpoints would have you believe. It's a cost benefit analysis that needs to be done using data and information that is gathered and published with peer review by independent scientists, not shills and hacks employed by either the mine developers or the environmental groups. GTAC is interested in maximizing profit as are all mining companies and that's it. Recall the asbestos laden taconite tailings that were being dumped into my favorite lake by Reserve Mining from about 1955 to 1970. Was is a voluntary cessation of the practice, once altruistic company officials from Reserve realized that Duluth residents were buying bottled water due to drinking water contamination? Hell no, we all know that it took a lengthy court case and holding then holding Reserves feet to the fire. Conversely, there are environmentalists that would love to see the end of all mining and logging on planet earth. Maybe when the bamboo and plastic....oop, sorry, petroleum based product..... bamboo and acetate buses and light rail trains are invented and we return to wiping our hind ends with sustainable corn cobs that might be possible. Nope folks, there is a middle ground here and I hold very little hope that our elected officials will attempt to find it through negotiation and analysis of independently collected data. The mining companies will continue to attempt to purchase Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets and the tree huggers will continue to predict the end of civilization as we know it if one scoop of Penokee Range earth is mined.

It's a complicated issue, with governments from the township level through the Feds, and citizens and business interests all being major stakeholders in the outcome. this would include the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, who have came out in opposition to the mine. I gotta think that Manhattan for twenty four bucks thing might be on their minds, as well as the water quality issues. I will disclose here that I have a horse in this race as well. Twenty plus years ago a group of close friends bought a decrepit old resort that was in tax arrears, a property that would be about a short dynamite blast away from the proposed mine site. They have turned the property through sweat equity, with some of the sweat being mine, into a quality retreat. The above image is from the property. How will the blasting, which will be very clearly heard, affect the property? Will the giant 900' deep pit affect the lake level? How will a giant mountain of' overburden' impact the watershed and drainage? Will diversion of the creek that feeds and flows out of the lake turn it from a natural lake into a lovely wetland? Will dust and air pollution make sitting next to the lake intolerable? And what are all those possible scenarios worth, from a cost/benefit standpoint, in the overall scheme of things? I go up there a lot and want answers to those questions as does the group that owns the place and surrounding landowners and communities. One organization is attempting to disseminate information, ask questions, and offer a usable resource on the issue without too much finger pointing: The Bad River Watershed Association. That's that second link I promised. I would urge people concerned about the watershed, which drains into Lake Superior, to become informed on the issues. The big deal with the uranium mining ban in the Grand Canyon was the impact on the Colorado River watershed. That water provides drinking water and irrigation for a number of states, including Southern California where a large proportion of the nations vegetables are grown. Do we want to risk that water supply or the health of Lake Superior without independent scientific data? Should the Wisconsin Assembly pass a bill that states if the DNR can't gather and verify the data in one year that the mining permit is automatically granted? I sure as hell don't think so. If we are gonna sell em Manhattan, lets get fair market value for it this time AND make sure the cost doesn't come back and bite us in the ass twenty years down the road. This issue needs to be examined with hard data, eyes wide open, and looking toward the future. This ideological political bullshit we've heard so far just does not cut it. I plan to work towards the goal of cooler heads prevailing.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Snow hunt

We headed north for our traditional New Years escape, a weekend of cross country and gravity assisted skiing as well as some snowshoeing and New Year's Eve midnight beer drinking around the bonfire. As it turns out only the midnight beer drinking was reliable, with the usually dependable lake effect snow being noticeably absent for most of the weekend. It did eventually snow, just not in the timely fashion that both we and the local business folks would have liked.

It has been a weak snow year, which is exactly the opposite of what the long term forecasts predicted. Downhill areas have been making snow but for dedicated cross country skiers, both recreational and racers, it has been pathetic. This mornings Strib had a photo of the 18" of manmade snow at Elm Creek Park. Every high school Nordic team in the area is there training and that, combined with the hamster cage-like 2.5 boring miles, has kept me and most of my cronies away. The problem is that both the Vasaloppet and Birkebeiner races are right around the corner and those of us who refuse to train by any method other than actual skiing are already in trouble. Resorts up north that rely on skiers and snowmobilers piling cash into their tills over the holidays are deep in the hole already. We are in desperate need of a good dump and there does not seem to be one in the forecast.

Lake effect snow has even been weak. Last weekend at CampO there was not even enough snow to track trails. We got about 10" on New Years Eve, seen in the image above, but by then everyone was heading for home. Or for the Frontier Bar to watch the Packers in the case of Podman and I. We did get a nice hike in on Saturday on a new segment of the North Country Trail, a hiking trail billed as running from New York to North Dakota. It has been a long time coming and I remember working on the trail along the ice age segment in Rusk County Wisconsin in the mid 1970's. The terrain in the part of Iron County that we hiked is glaciated rolling hills with lots of rock outcroppings, small streams, and mostly hardwood forest with a smattering of evergreens, mainly balsam. We also ran into an old gold mine, an area with several deep holes and an ancient piece of equipment used for God knows what in the process. This quaint reminder of the mining past in the area will be dwarfed by the proposed GTAC iron mine, which would be sited within a good sized dynamite blast of the area. A post on that issue is long overdue and will be the next thing coming out of this word processor. As usual, nut cases on both sides of the issue are trying to turn the debate into a zero sum game and that just ain't how it is.

I guess the only thing we can do on the snow thing is cross our fingers, and maybe do a little snow dance and appeal to Hekki Lunta, the UP folk hero of snow. I guess we need to get into the woods to hike, do a little downhill or tele skiing, and maybe strap the skates on. Podman told me that he was going to tell me that Saxon Harbor was completely ice free last weekend before we headed up, but was afraid I'd throw the kayak on the roof and try to talk him into paddling on Lake Superior. He may have been right.