Tuesday, April 30, 2013

New used boats

This weekend was Midwest Mountaineerings always excellent Spring Expo with one of it's most anticipated events being the Saturday morning boat auction.  This year it was sunny and 70F, a perfect sellers market for sure.  The year that GalwayGuy and I scored his carbon fiber/kevlar layup P&H Capella it was about 36F and the sleet was coming in on a horizontal plane.  That would be the buyers market of all buyers markets with only one fellow bidding against us.  He stopped far short of what we were prepared to spend, much to our delight and puzzlement.  The mystery cleared when his buddy strolled over to the boat, now sitting on the grass and told him, "Hey, did you know this was a carbon fiber layup?".  His buddy, the losing bidder, wandered over, took a quick look, and uttered a one word expletive I can't publish in a family blog such as this one.  On another auction occassion  RonO and I heisted a sweet Romany for the IrishPirate, right out of the auction queue, after her and the owner agreed on a fair price.  This year I was involved in some boat brokering and transport as well but it was far from Minneapolis.  Noted area paddler and winterphobe YogaYenny is moving to Hawaii the end of the month.  Her sweet baby blue P&H Capella 161 was up for sale and I was pretty sure I had a buyer.

MadCityMary has been a close friend since the Gerald Ford administration.  Her and YY are both around 5'5", 125# soaking wet with rocks in their pockets, and MCM has been paddling a large Perception Sea Lion on the big lake for far too long in my opinion.  As a marathon runner, nordic skier, and soccer ref she has plenty of power and stamina and I kept telling her she needed a boat that fit her so she could get the most out of her effort and kick some behind.  The two women chatted and the plan was hatched for me to deliver the boat up to Washburn this weekend for Mary to test paddle in the now open water north of Chequamagon Bay.  She borrowed the VOR's drysuit and on Saturday morning we launched at the Trek & Trail beach next to the ferry dock in Bayfield on an unbelievable spring Saturday morning.

I have both mental and actual pictures of her in the Sea Lion and as she paddled the Capella I actually watched her stroke and technique improve.  The narrower boat allowed a lower stroke closer to the gunwales which provided power and efficiency. The snug boat fit around the hips allowed the utilzation of more power from the legs, also transmitting power more efficiently. I told her she picked up roughly a mile and a half an hour from the boat and the improved stroke efficiency.  I also explained the mystery of the edging turn using the infamous 'farting on a bar stool' analogy.  She picked up on it immediately and the nimble Capella responded like a well trained horse.  This was her first skeg boat although she really never needed to use the thing in the light breeze and gentle chop.  After paddling the snow covered, runoff waterfall dotted shoreline and heading back to Bayfield, Mary got on the phone and immediately closed the deal with YogaYenny.  Both were extremely pleased by the transaction.

Since the weather Sunday was supposed to be more of the same with a bit of a south wind we decided to head out again for further testing.  ChrisG of Boreal Shores fame had met us after the paddle Saturday for some barley based refreshment and said he was up for a paddle Sunday as well.  He suggested a stash spot, familiar to both of us, and that's where we went.  We got some snow covered cliffs, sea caves, a nice ten knot breeze to test the new boat, some clapotis from the cliffs, and a generally excellent late April afternoon on Lake Superior.  The air temperature would alternate between a 70F off shore breeze and a 40F air conditioning off the 35F lake surface.  Sunny and damn near perfect.

I haven't heard any reports from the Midwest Mountaineering auction although several cronies were  there watching the proceedings.  I am happy that I did my part in finding a new home for a fine kayak, happy that MadCityMary has a new boat that fits like a glove, and happy that YogaYenny found a home for her beloved blue boat.  I guess that the paddle season has started, even though the northern inland lakes are still frozen solid without even any black ice appearing yet.  If people dress for immersion, and it can get hot with those offshore breezes, there is no good reason why we should not be on the big lake before the main flood of tourii head north. Heck, Boreal Shores opens for the season this weekend, what better sign can there be that the Bayfield Peninsula is open for paddling?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Little bugs that light up

After paddling in Lake Superior amongst the ice flows and then in Lake Red Rocks less than a week after ice out, we managed to get in a bit of warm water paddling in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico.  I get down there once a year for business and this year the VOR flew down and we had a little extended vacation.  About 15 years ago I had paddled in the Fajardo area in my Feathercraft Big Kahuna, before the 9/11 security BS ended that particular mode of kayak mobility.  There is a bioluminescent bay near Fajardo, one of five in the world and one of the top two for density of the plankton that provide the light, roughly one million individuals per gallon. I remember being absolutely amazed when my paddle, hand, or eventually my entire carcass moved through the water and things lit up.  When the plankton are disturbed they light up and for we elderly readers the best way I can describe it is that it looks exactly like the stars that come off the tip of Tinker Bell's wand in the intro to the old Wonderful World of Disney show on Sunday nights in the '60's.  It has to be seen to be believed and seeing it was the plan for Saturday night.

Fajardo is about an hour east of San Juan, just north of the old Roosevelt Roads Naval Base which has been shut down.  It is both a fishing port and the embarkation point for the ferries that leave for the islands of Culebra and Vieques.  It also is only about a five mile paddle out to the La Cordillera island chain.  It would seem to be a great paddling spot but the only kayaks we saw were the 12 or 15 boats each owned by the half dozen outfitters that ran trips into the lagoon.  After about five minutes of instruction and explanation we were helped into an Ocean Malibu Two double.  From an instructor standpoint I thought it was probably just enough information to allow people to make the boats move forward but not enough so the glazing of the eyes began.  It appeared that about 75% of the group had paddled before. Both the VOR and I cringed a bit when shown the double since as first borns we couldn't even agree on who should be in the front.  My two hundred plus pounds of ballast finally tipped the scales to the back seat and our group of about a dozen doubles, with three guides in singles. set off up the narrow channel through the mangroves to the bio bay.  It was an interesting though uneventful trip.  I've never had to worry about hitting my knees with my paddle before, much less the flailing paddle in front of me but things went OK.  All ages and all skill levels made the wallowing Ocean doubles the perfect platform for this two hour trip.  The destination was Laguna Grande, the Big Lagoon, where limited tidal flow allowed the bioluminescent plankton to concentrate.

It had gotten darker as we pushed up the twisting mangrove channel to the lagoon.  We noticed the streams of light coming off the ends of our paddle blades as we entered the lagoon but there was still just a bit too much ambient light from the nearly half moon to get the full effect. The VOR and I paddled over to the edge of the lagoon where the mangrove trees hung well out over the water.  I wanted to make a smart remark about monkeys, snakes, and iguanas up in the trees just waiting to pounce on ignorant kayakers but decided that would be a counterproductive comment if I really wanted to get into the dark area.  As soon as we got under the trees I heard the 'Oh my God!" from the VOR.  In the total dark the plankton are simply amazing with the amount of light that they give off.  Swirls of light off the paddle blades, fingertips, and even the mangrove roots that hung into the water as they moved with the slight current.  Back in my college Haight-Asbury type days I may have altered my state to view a phenomenon like this but it was spectacular enough without any chemical enhancement.  After about 20 minutes of playing around we reassembled for the trip back down the channel to Fajardo harbor.  The tide was going out so about all we really had to do was steer the great orange whale down the twisting channel to the launch area, with its numerous food stands and virtually unlimited supply of Medalla cerveza and Barrelitos rum.

It was a nice trip and at $45 a person pretty good value as well.  The guides were professional, friendly, and had VHF radios and knew what they were doing and handled the diverse group expertly.  For we spoiled paddlers of fine closed cockpit sea kayaks, the big sit on tops were ponderous and unwieldly.  The paddles seemed to weigh a ton, nothing like our carbon fiber Werners or sleek carbon fiber or cedar Greenland sticks. That being said, all the snow down in Puerto Rico had melted a few thousand years ago during the ice ages, the water was balmy, and we both remarked how refreshing it was to sit in an outdoor bar in our swimsuits after dark and feel completely comfortable. While there were several outfitters running tours into the bay they all seemed to be coordinated to keep contact and confusion to a minimum. The overall ambiance was great. Here in the Twin Cities the decision to have a food stand along a lake or in a park is an endless city council and park board debate, angst filled, hand wringing, and swayed by the self righteous demanding some sort of wilderness park purity in the city.  In Fajardo, PR there were endless small open air stands selling every thing from mofongo, grilled meat skewers, and empenadas to full meals with rice and beans and plantains.  They all had beer and liquor.  Families were having a great time, the music was playing, and no one appeared to be unruly.  If we wanted the unspoiled wilderness feel we could, and did, drive up into the rain forest, El Yunque for hiking among the waterfalls.

We both can highly recommend the experience.  Head in with an open mind, a 'let the chips fall where they may' attitude, and you will have a wonderful time in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, both in town and in the outdoors.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

RIP Willy

One of the great Americans passed away this week in Eau Claire, WI.  Willard "Willy" Johnson and family lived across the street from us for most of my childhood.  His son the MadDog was a year younger than me and an unindicted co-conspirator in a number of episodes from the 2nd grade well past high school.  Willy was a 100% purebred Norwegian, master carpenter, WWII Pacific veteran, generous neighbor, excellent skier, and probably the most patient guy I ever knew.  He never seemed to get pissed off, a Herculean task given some of the trials his son and I put him through.

One of the first incidents that we vexed him with had to have been about the 2nd or 3rd grade when MadDog and I were apprehended 'borrowing' what we thought was spare lumber at a home construction site down the road.  The plan was to build a tree house and we were turned over to Jack and Willy for proper disciplining.  My guess is that Willy  must have known the carpenters on the site and got to explain the actions of his son and derelict buddy from across the street.  Much baseball was played in the neighborhood, usually in the lot that bordered the Johnson residence.  After at least three balls, baseballs folks, not much whiffle ball for this group, crashed through the garage window which was poorly located in deep center field,  Willy finally put up a wooden shutter to avoid any more glass bills.  We may have busted a couple more after forgetting to close the shutter but Willy never came out and ragged our asses, an activity that other dad's in the neighborhood seemed to excel in and relish.

There was one dad in the neighborhood that would go out of his way to yell at us if we so much as leaned on his car while standing in the driveway.  We abused poor Willy's vehicles horribly and he never raised his voice, at least at me.  When it came to lending the MadDog and I a car, the common wisdom in the neighborhood was that, "I wouldn't lend an anvil to either of those two clowns, much less a car".  We took Willys van up north ice fishing and I don't know what we did to it but I do remember stopping and adding three quarts of oil on the way home before we saw anything on the dipstick.  We also drove this same van out on Half Moon lake so we could be the first car on the ice for the season.  The van had every tool he owned in the back but that never crossed our minds.  Probably the most disgusting episode was when we went fishing for bullheads in that same Half Moon lake one beautiful May night.  We had read in the Sportsman's Column in the local paper that liver was a great bait for bullheads and they were right.  We absolutely nailed the bullheads and then took them home and cleaned them.  What we forgot to deal with was the leftover half pound of liver in the trunk of Willy's Oldsmobile.  After a couple days of the May heat there was a telltale odor in the car.  After a couple more days it was no longer telltale.  I was not present when the trunk was opened but I heard it was an impressive stench.  Once again no tongue lashings or beatings were administered.

The 'double S' incident had to be one of the most memorable stories involving the male members of the Johnson/Olson families.  For some reason no sisters or neighbors were involved in a ski trip to Viking Skyline in Strum, WI, a small town about a half hour south of Eau Claire.  The typical ski day had two or three adults and four or five kids stuffed into a large mid 1960's Oldsmobile or Buick along with all their equipment.  This time it was just my dad Jack, Willy, MadDog, and me.  After a fine day on the rope tow hammering the 250' vertical drop of Viking Skyline (the image above may have actually been on that very day) the boys drove across Hwy 10 for a drink in the clubhouse.  They ran into some ne'er do well buddies from the area and two hours of beer drinking dragged on into three.  Neither the Dog or I had a drivers license but we were so bored and the dads were having so much fun that they flipped us the car keys to 'practice driving' in the parking lot.  I immediately took off down the road with MadDog clinging to the wipers on the hood.  To this day I don't know why.  I put it in the ditch and he ran back to the clubhouse to rat me out.  Jack and Willy showed up on snowmobiles and we hauled the car out of the ditch.  They figured it was an excellent time to head home since skiing ended at 4:30 and it was now around 8:30.  They had been notably overserved but were smart enough to realize that neither of them should be behind the wheel.  The alternative was to put one of us unlicensed drivers behind the wheel and since I had basically stolen the car and put it in the ditch I was disqualified and the MadDog was tapped for driver duty.  Things went fine and it was decided that we should cleverly get off the highway and sneak into town on the back roads to avoid any law enforcement.  The Dog was instructed by Willy to 'take a left on double S (county highway SS)'.  Except it was apparent to both MadDog and I that it was actually county S.  "But dad, it's highway S".  Willy's response, "I don't give a shit what it is, just turn on it".  At least they had only had enough beer to turn it into SS and not SSS.  Our driveways faced one another across the street.  When we pulled in we both noticed that only one light in both houses was on, the small light in the kitchen. We aren't sure if Jack or Willy made the same observation or not.  We could see the shadowy figures, both holding rolling pins we assumed, of Mary and Anna waiting to see what the boys had to say for themselves.  When the car doors opened and the MadDog got out of the drivers side we just looked at each other, secure in the knowledge that for just this one time, neither of us was in any trouble at all.  Unfortunately we can't report the same for Jack and Willy.

Willy will be missed by many.  Countless times, especially on crisp fall days our garage doors would be up and would wander across the street, down his driveway and up ours to BS with Jack for ten minutes or maybe an hour.  He would have on the flannel shirt and be gnawing on a Swisher Sweet cigar.  I don't remember ever seeing him light one but they would talk and every so often Willy would lean over and spit some stray cigar leaves into the grass.  I desperately want to attend the wake on Friday but am stuck in Puerto Rico for work and will miss it.  I am now officially lobbying for a "Willy Wake" up in Chetek this summer, preferably on a pontoon boat where we are all drinking beer and chewing on Swisher Sweets.    I am certain Willy would get a kick out of that.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Ferry opener

Before we get into closed ice roads and ice breaking ferries, there is some followup on the Peace Tree expedition of Easter weekend.  The first item would be the excellent write up in Professor Lichen's blog Out and About, linked on the right of this page for years.  His blog inspired a feature in the Des Moines Register over the weekend as well as a guided kayak trip for the feature writer with some of the Red Rock luminaries.  The article doesn't mention rescuing any vermin although they did have just the man for the job in the kayaking party.  It's always great when history and paddling can come together, as they often do on Madeline Island, the topic of this post.

The Lake Superior Chippewa have been on Madeline Island for centuries.  The French established a fur trading post in 1693 which became the town of LaPointe and Madeline was the wife of one of the fur traders, hence the name.   Getting to the island from the mainland has always required some form of water transport over the years and the Madeline Island Ferry Line is the current means of crossing.  Once the ice road is done, 33 days this year according to ice road guru Arnie Nelson whom we met in the Beach Club while waiting  for the ferry, and the ice is thin enough, a path can be broken between LaPointe and Bayfield, roughly two miles.  To accomplish this, the Coast Guard ice breaker USCGC Alder heads over from Duluth to bust a path through the ice for the ferry.  This year that occurred just before the first weekend in April.  That Sunday we headed over on the ferry.

It had been a relaxing kick back type of weekend where the VOR and I were joined by her folks as well as SSMatt.  We had last traveled over the ice road two weeks earlier and wanted to catch the ferry on opening weekend for that rare ice breaking experience.  We go it.  The ferry is not an inexpensive proposition with a car and four adults costing right around seventy bucks for a round trip.  This is one of the main reasons that all sorts of commerce and freight travels over the ice road at no cost when it's open.  It's a short two mile ferry ride and the presence of all that floating ice in the ferry lane causes them to proceed at a much slower pace  than when the lake is ice free.  There is still a solid 12-18" of ice either side of the path.

Spring is interesting on the island although not much in evidence this time of year.  The deer look healthy and appear to have wintered well; there are certainly plenty them. It's fun to be able to go wherever we wished on the island without droves of tourists and people everywhere, an impossible task during the summer months.  Big Bay lagoon is still frozen solid but the big lake on the east side of the island is wide open all the way up to the Porcupine Mountains in the UP, an area that was easily visible on that bright, haze free Sunday afternoon.  Since time on the island revolves around the ferry schedule, we headed back to LaPointe to await the arrival of the ferry at the Beach Club. It's the perfect spot to wait since the ferry makes the turn into port right in front of the big picture window in the bar. In a prime case of small world theory, the VOR ran into the man that hired her at the State of North Dakota back in the '80's.  In case readers aren't aware, any action taken when away from home must be filtered through either the 'small world' theory or the 'they'll never see me again' theory.  Choosing the correct one can be crucial in certain instances.  In this case we chose correctly, were well behaved, and the VOR's former boss bought us a round.  The round also taught us a valuable legal principle.  One of the few places that you can drink in a vehicle in the State of Wisconsin is while it is sitting on the deck of the Madeline Island ferry boat.  We were promptly offered 'go cups' and strolled down to the dock.  The GraciousPartier as well as TheLegend thought that was a pretty good concept as we sippped our drinks on the short crossing.

We will not be up in Washburn this weekend, we will be considerably south of there and kayaking is on the agenda.  My guess is that when we return the last weekend of April, that there will still be ice on the bay as well as ice floating around in the big lake.  There will however, be open water to be had for paddling and most likely smelt for netting.  The march of the seasons continues on Wisconsin's south shore.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Search for the Peace Tree

Last month the VOR and I received disturbing news from Marion County, Iowa.  Some early season paddlers had braved the shelf ice and ventured out on to Red Rocks Lake,  an impoundment on the Des Moines River.  During their trip they were unable to spot the remains of the famous Peace Tree, a giant Sycamore that marked the boundary between Native American land and the settlers land as far back as the 1840's.  The 'Red Rock Line' was the informal boundary and the Peace Tree was a gathering spot for trading and other interactions. When the Corp of Engineers flooded the valley in the late '60's they put five villages and the Peace Tree under water, effectively killing the trees as well as the villages.  The trunk of the tree remained a landmark, one which could be seen from the Mile Long Bridge to the south.  Something was up.

It was apparent that this situation needed to be explored further and the following advertisement was seen on a number of semi reputable internet venues:

Enterprising Not-Quite-So-Young Men and Women
The subscriber wishes to engage TEN MEN AND WOMEN, to ascend
the reservoir Red Rock to its source, there to be employed for one,
two, or three hours. For particulars enquire of Major Brian
Lange, near the Canoe &camp; Kayak Launch, in the County of Marion, (who
will ascend with, and command party) or to the subscriber at
St. Louis.
J.A. Pearson

Eleven intrepid paddlers responded to this call to action and launched from Elk Rock landing in the rain on the day before Easter, year of Our Lord 2013.  The air temperature was in the 40's and a SE tailwind pushed the expedition toward the site of the famous tree.  When we reached the Mile Long Bridge a low shape in the water was spotted by the forward scouting party.  Group discipline was a bit lax on this first expedition of the year and things tended to get a bit strung out but then so was Major Lange.  He got exactly what he paid for with this motley crew.  As we approached the site through the drizzle, it became apparent that the ice had hammered the Peace Tree severely over the course of the winter.  The upper part appeared to have broken off and the stump was now cocked at an angle.  This new configuration offered a pretty good looking Lazy Boy-like perch and one of the expedition members took advantage of that.  Like the Lewis and Clark expedition of two hundred years ago we had our own naturalist.  President Jefferson reminded the expedition "Other objects worthy of notice will be the soil & face of the country" and that they needed to be observed and noted. Our very own naturalist, Professor Lichen, disembarked from his kayak and 'took possession' of the remains of the Peace Tree.  Maj. Lange offered to sell his kayak back to him or to bring it around on Memorial Day but relented and returned it after several majestic and heroic images were taken.  Satisfied that the Peace Tree still had visibility above the water line, the group headed off toward the sandstone cliffs to the west, an area where snow and ice were still present on the north faces of the rocks.  A comfort break further splintered the party but the intrepid eleven reunited at the Mile Long Bridge and paddled  back to Elk Rock. In honor of the Peace Tree, as well as a slick new double kayak picked up at Canoesport Outfitters in Indianola, IA, an intrepid quartet stopped at the Peace Tree Brewery, a fine local micro named after the tree. It was a dangerous place, an establishment frequented by Red Ramblers, Hop Wranglers, and the extremely dangerous and alluring Blonde Fatale.  We all adjourned to the home of the VerminWhisperer and his long suffering wife for debriefing and chow.  OK Deb, OK, there might have been too much beer talk among the guys, if there is such a thing.  Too much talk that is, not too much beer.

We wanted more.  That new double needed to be christened by the UndergroundHippie and the FlowerChild and the weather forecast was sunny, although the wind was building and forced a launch on the lee shore of the lake.  Ten of us headed north into the wind and when we hit the cliffs and got out of the wind shadow it became apparent that we had all of 20 knots blowing from the northwest.  Since the wind was coming straight down this thirty mile long impoundment there were some nice swells and some significant clapotis near the cliffs.  Once again group discipline deteriorated and a third of us headed into the soup, another third hung back and watched, and the balance turned around and headed back to the launch.  Since we had ten paddlers we still had groups of three or four but ProfLichen and I hung in the midst of this paddling schism and kept an eye on everyone.  Five of us wound up shuttling cars a few miles downwind and surfed down to the cars.  There was much whooping and hollering as we all got some pretty decent rides no matter what model of boat we were in.

Two weekends in a row on two very different bodies of water is a good start for the paddling season in these parts. My guess is that we will have ice on the local lakes until Tax Day at least.  Chequamagon Bay still has two feet plus, Little Sand Bay is choked with pack ice, and Bayfield is completely iced in, although the ice road is closed. Some folks have been out on the river and that will be an option until the snow melt starts in earnest.  No matter is there is a hiatus of a few weeks, we are still happy the boat got wet and are ready for more.

(Photo credits: me and the two of the three kayak divas on the right side of the image)