Thursday, December 27, 2012

Year in review

View from Copper Mountain, Co.
A 12,000-foot rock I snowboarded down at the start of the year.

Base camp comes before the peak

Here we are at year's end, and what a year it has been. This past summer's adventures on the lakes and rivers have been some of the most memorable I can recall, and they lead right into a busy fall, full of some very enjoyable weekends spent in the woods. I received this fresh take on life after moving back to the Northwoods in the early spring, but that wasn't possible until I decided to step up and take charge of where my life had been before then.

While working in marketing for an international company in Minnetonka, Minn., I realized I despised the person I was becoming - the person they wanted me to be. At my job, I disliked forcing products down people's throats, I was not profits oriented, and I had very little in common with the suburban drones I worked with. People who were more concerned with their next automobile purchase, or picking a restaurant to dine at according to which one they were least jaded to than they were with the colors and shapes in the sky (not to mention you hardly ever saw the sky).

In my personal life nothing felt real. I was told that a work/life balance is what I needed, and PTO was available for that. They told me to take my breaks and work only the minimum hours because I should maintain the separation of 9-5 and everything else. Not to mention, there was no connection with nature necessary in the city, and as time ticked by I began to feel my eyes, too, going dim...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Peace be with you

The most wonderful time of the year

The soft glow of hundreds of tiny Christmas tree lights bashfully illuminate the room. The scent of cinnamon apple candles extinguished the night before still lingers in the house, mixing with the pervading aroma of freshly brewed coffee. My feet are stuffed under the couch cushion and wrapped in a quilt that's drawn up to my torso. On the windows is a hardy layer of frost and fresh snowfall, but beyond them we cannot see, as it is before sunrise.

We sit in silence, contemplating nothing but the moment, making it last as long as possible because we all know by now this level of serenity lasts for only a little longer than a heartbeat. A heartbeat that happens once a year. The only discussion is when someone brings up a short story from years ago - some inside joke that only the four of us could ever truly appreciate - some ancient anecdote from a morning just like this one. The objective is to make a memory like all those in the past, to thread a few strands of memory together, to recreate and respect a tradition. The hope is that in the end we might add up one morning each year, blur them all together over a lifetime, and create one collective experience that's larger than the sum of its parts. Together, with my two brothers and my sister I sit, and we immortalize Christmas morning.

This cozy, winter morning tradition is special to me, I hope that goes without saying. While some people opt to spend the holiday on a tropical getaway or avoid spending time with their families, I keep coming back. Sure I grumble sometimes, and I complain in the days leading up to Christmas as a stressed out American tends to, but when the clock ticks midnight and I'm surrounded by the silence of these snowy Northwoods and the sleep burdened breathing of those I care about the most, I recall with great weight why there is no place else I'd rather be.

There are wrapped gifts under the tree, there always have been. When we were younger it was difficult not to start tearing at them upon waking, but now I think we all agree that makes things go too fast. So instead of small, rabid hands tearing and shredding colorful, patterned paper, there are now more precise measures taken. Instead of crawling and playing in the paper, ribbons, and boxes on the floor while screaming in the faces of the action figures we unwrap, we sit on furniture, find the seams bound with tape, and slowly disassemble the decorative gift-wrapping. Rather than dancing around the room in footy pajamas while shouting praise to Santa Claus because we received that one gift we really wanted, we turn and convey our gratitude with “thank you”, give a hug, shake a hand, etc.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Snowed in

How to be carefree in a blizzard

Last weekend I got caught in a snowstorm. I had been visiting friends and family in River Falls, and though there were rumors a snow system was moving in, I was unaware of the magnitude of white fluffy stuff we were about to encounter. The snowfall began just before midnight on Saturday, and for the next 24 hours it did not stop.

The flakes fell from the sky so densely it looked like fog outside. At night the snowfall caught the street and Christmas lights of the town and swirled the yellow, red, and green rays into a living, breathing, motion-obsessed work of art. Nature seemed to be demanding that good citizens be outside catching snowflakes on tongues, and it wouldn't take no for an answer. It was like living in a movie - everything seemed magical; everything was made new, fresh, and beautiful. The brown stale of October and November was cleared away in a single overnight, wrapping up the world in a brilliant blanket of white like a present on Christmas day.

Brick buildings, lamp posts, trees, fields, and river banks - all bright and stunning in the daylight on Sunday, and still the snow continued to fall in sheets of damp fluff. The roads, of course, were impassable. So, instead of driving 190 miles back home, I hunkered down with family.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sharpen your focus

Dull blades don't cut well

Do you ever wake up early in the morning to get an early start on something? Be it work or travel or cooking? Getting a head start helps you pace yourself so that time doesn’t become a stressor, and your day unfolds a little easier. Or perhaps you’re more of a night owl, and you prefer to stay up late the night before something needs to be done, so that you can sleep easier knowing everything is finished. Whichever your preference, I’m wondering if you enjoy it?

I ask because productive people have different styles of being productive, and I think that says a lot about personality and lifestyle. I also think that as responsible people, it’s important that we try different methods to see what works for us. When it comes to work, we owe it to ourselves to learn the ins and outs of how we’re most economical and most effective. Knowing that about yourself makes you that much more dangerous not only in your personal life, but in the workplace as well i.e. you understand how to produce quality consistently.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hard work holiday

Making Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving.

A tradition steeped in pine pitch

Over last weekend I took part in something that's become a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition during the seasonal get together at my paternal grandparent's house - harvesting Christmas trees. You see, Grandpa Carlson has been raising balsam on his back 40 for probably 20 years now, and as it turns out, he's got more trees in their prime than he can handle on his own. After all, the process of cutting, trimming, displaying, and selling each tree begins to add up quickly when you're moving several hundred of them in a month.

The plan was to arrive early on Friday morning with saws and shears in hand. However, the previous night's snowstorm kept my brothers, sister, and I at home until late morning and the roads were clear of ice and snow. By the time we arrived in Nekoosa, it was almost mid-day and the older generation had already put in a full first shift.

As we pulled up to the house, we were greeted by rows, piles, and stands of freshly cut, eight-foot tall balsam firs strewn about the yard. The piles seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see - an endless terrain of raw Christmas product, still seeping fresh pine pitch into the chilly November sunrays.

Beyond the bountiful harvest, I could see Grandpa's truck and trailer returning from the field with another load. By the time I walked out to them, my dad and two of my uncles had already parked on the edge of the ever-expanding drop zone and began unloading the Christmas cornerstones one by one.

They tossed the trees over the edge of the trailer, rolled them over the grass, and repeated the grunting display of brawn until the truck and trailer were depleted; brow wiping ensued.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks

24 weeks later

This writing marks the 24th edition of this column. When I started it in the June 14, 2012, edition of The BEE and Park Falls Herald, I had no idea what it was or where it was going. I distinctly remember going to Eric, the editor, a week or so prior and explaining to him that I had started working on a series of stories about my outdoor adventures, thinking it might fill some space in the Outdoors Section. What I was really looking for was an excuse to dig into something more creative and expansive than reporting high school sports. To my surprise, after only one round of revisions, words and thoughts that reflected myself on a personal level were suddenly being sent to a printing press, soon to be distributed to the entire county. Yes, it was terrifying.

In the following weeks I never assumed it was a given that what I wrote would go to print. I never took for granted that the piece I wrote stood the possibility of getting yanked with no prior notice or reason necessary, and it kept me on my toes. Every week I've tried to expand in a new direction, tried to really grab hold of some experience, no matter how big or small, and riff on it to the point of exhaustion. I have branched out into many areas, seeing how far I could take my mind wanderings before someone put the axe to this little project, before someone told me I was full of nothing but hot air and to go sit in a corner to wear a dunce hat. And yet, here I still am.

Part of the reason this project has been able to expand the way it has is because of its name (and when I say “expand” I mean morph into covering a broad range of topics). When I chose the title "Woodsman Enough" it appealed to me because it covered a few key points...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

True stories

Half the battle is allowing yourself to win it, 
the other half is finding your way 
out of the woods afterwards.

And how they bend the truth: Part II

Click here to read PART I

I was frozen stiff in fear, but I couldn't have run if I had the choice. After all, where was I supposed to run to? There I was in a cold, slippery cedar swamp, pinned between a river on one side and a steep hill and underbrush on the other. I was staring at the darkest, biggest, gnarliest looking lone wolf your imagination could possibly cook up, and I had nothing to defend myself with but my hands.

I wasn’t aware of it then, but thinking back on it now, I recall the biological response I went through when I realized my path had crossed with one of nature’s most perfect predators. Sure, all the normal things occurred - the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, my shoulders tensed up, a cool sweat broke on my forehead, but what I wasn’t expecting was for my hands to clench into fists, my spine to straighten, my legs to set themselves at shoulder width apart, and my facial expression to settle into an angry furrow across my brow. Apparently, within a matter of microseconds, I had subconsciously decided to fight a full-grown wolf with my bare hands.

The wolf’s fur was so black it seemed to suck light right out of the air. Its snout was blocky, set wide like it was almost deformed. The monster’s ears were wide and set low to his broad face, creating a permanent, menacing expression. His jet-black fur bunched around his massive neck was in magnificent layers, more like a lion’s mane than anything else. And the eyes. Oh the eyes.

They were gray, but not in a glowing, piercing, or aggressive way. No. No, these eyes were a pale gray, almost dull you might say. They were unimpressed, unthreatened, jaded. They were the eyes that had seen so much death, carnage, and horror that they hardly registered any of it anymore. These eyes were hollow, and in them, I was already dead.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Tall tales?

All at once the wonder and the majesty 
of being very alone, deep in the woods
was interrupted by the very
real possibility that I was not.

And how they speak the truth: Part I

I was out for a morning in the woods with my camera and notebook, actively searching for some inspiration to take home with me when it happened. I had left my house early in the morning, right around sunrise to get the maximum amount of time in before the day’s duties could bear down on me. Since I had entered the woods, the falling snow had increased in both volume and frequency, creating a magnificent blanket of fresh white all around me. Many ideas had come and gone. Some I liked and tossed around in my skull, others I laughed at because they couldn't possibly go anywhere. I had come up with a good statement to make for this column -- then it happened and everything changed.

Maybe 30 yards from the riverbank is where I heard it. Down where the popple, birch, and balsam give way to thick nets of cedar and moss-covered boulders. Below the cedar canopies the snow was falling like sluggish rays of light, anywhere it could seep in past the high-up blankets of evergreen leaves.

“Crack,” and then, a pitter-patter of footsteps. Heavy sounding footsteps.

I froze and scanned my eyes through the vegetation in front of me. I turned my head, and then whipped it around as I heard another sound. This one was more like the sound of... of something hard scraping against a tree or possibly a frozen patch of ground. Perhaps it was a buck making a scrape, that sound. My eyes kept scanning and my ears were wide open. I realized my jaw was clenched tight, grinding the molars in the back of my mouth.

It was a deer, right? I was sure of it. Probably that big doe I’d seen in the meadow a few nights before. Right? Or maybe it was a young buck, fresh on her trail. The rut was in full swing; it made sense he would travel into her territory even during this wet snowfall.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

To wear a hat

Prepare to enjoy winter

These days when the sun rises we're often looking at it through wet, dark, dead branches and blue-gray clouds that hang thick and heavy in a low, half frozen sky. The need to scrape car windows has become more frequent with each passing week, and through town, people's chimneys are piping warm smoke from wood stoves. By the time you read this, it will officially be November, and the crease of cold and darkness is only going to deepen from here.

This Sunday we end daylight savings time and turn our clocks back by one hour. The change will make our mornings darker but our afternoons last longer, at least for a little while. Unfortunately, by the time we get around to Christmas and New Year’s, there will be so little daylight left during our waking hours, that we'll hardly be able to justify getting out of bed for our ration of natural sunlight each day.

The fact of the matter is that this is what the onset of winter looks like in the Northwoods. It's not always such an attractive or jubilant ordeal, and some days I can't stand the thought of shuffling between work and home in the dark. I also tend to fall into the trap of letting the cold keep me inside more often than not, and that really dampens my spirits.

Over the past couple years I've learned a few new techniques to help dreary days, but first among them is simple: get outside. I have talked about this before, a lot, but the flavor and attitude of each season up here can't be fully appreciated without spending time outdoors. Now, in the summer, I'm all for running around half naked for 16 hours a day, seven days a week, but when it comes to these colder months, time outside takes a little more preparation, which is what I want to address this week.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The breath and the trigger

A bullet, a boomstick and a choice

My eye through the scope down the barrel of a gun; watched a patch of brown, almost gray fur right behind the crosshair. I watched the creature breathe, watched his diaphragm contract and expand, pull in fresh fall air, then expunge it back through his nostrils. His ear flicked slightly and for a moment I thought he had detected me. I froze. Shortly, he was back to focusing on his travels and continuing his trot down the trail towards the tree I was sitting in.

I slowly, and ever so gently, adjusted my right shoulder to add more support to the awkward position my back was in. My left hand choked up a bit further on the rifle stock, and I leaned my right elbow against the adjacent tree trunk. He was almost in position now, about to turn broadside on the deer trail that would lead him down alongside the marsh bed. My right hand was almost frozen stiff, but I could still move my index finger just enough to disable the gun safety, then lower it to the trigger.

Ever since the whitetail had come down the trail a few minutes ago, my entire nervous system was set under siege by torrent after torrent of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The adrenaline coursed through my every fiber - surged, swelled, and tensed up every muscle in my body until it gathered to form a knot in my throat. And what was I to do with all that energy but sit still. To shoot this deer I needed to be motionless, silent, calm, cool headed, collected, and smart.

I drew in a breath and slowly let it out. Conscious of every faculty of my biology, I did my best to focus my thoughts upon peace, serenity, and the silent, softly falling November snowflakes. I felt some of the tension dissipate through the pores of my skin, as if it rose with my dwindling body heat, and seep into and out of the several layers of wool clothing intended to bundle me against the cold. I repeated one word over and over in my head --"Breathe.” Over and over I stapled the word onto every frantic notion that whipped, shuttered, and tromped around in my brain.

What if he catches wind or sight of me, and I have to shoot him on the run? Could I make that shot? Did I even want to try? Did I even want to kill this unsuspecting animal? Did I need to? Could I go through with it? Why was I hunting in the first place? Breathe.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Wood-stove perspective

And a cabin full of city folk

Perspective affords us a lot. I've been reflecting upon my experiences of living in three different cities and two different states over the past seven years as a tool to help me piece together definitions for life. I have mentioned before my experience living in Minneapolis and how disconnected I became with nature, and therefore, myself.

While I was there, however, I talked to the city folk about this place. I described how easy it is to get away, to find silence, to explore the woods, canoe the rivers, fish the lakes. I tried to describe the simple yet incredible joy of physical labor, of swinging a maul over your head, of hiking cross-country, of shoveling snow by hand. When I talked about camping, I tried to describe the nuances you experience when you find the perfect spot to make camp. How when you're hiking or biking or camping in the woods (and you're well prepared), the world is your oyster and nothing seems impossible.

My stories must have had an impact after all, because a few weeks ago, a trio of them decided they wanted to make the trip to Up North Wisconsin, and that I should be their guide. This past weekend they arrived, and I had a slue of backwoods foolery in mind.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Canine companion

The dog chooses us

I remember her face the best on the day I walked into that flower shop. She was there with her sister, and the two of them turned to look at me when the bell on the door chimed, sounding a customer arrival. She was the shorter of the two, with a curious look in her eye, standing in a mischievous pose next to the violet rhododendron. Her hair was a startling, stark black, while her sister was bubbly and blonde. Oh, young love.

They certainly wasted no time with introductions. By the time I had taken two steps into the doorway, the pair of them had run towards me and were now wriggling on their backs for tummy rubs and jumping at my knees for attention. These were the cutest puppies I had ever seen.

Sure, I like to think of myself as a manly man, but my heart melted that day. As it turned out, the little black puppy was the last of the litter unspoken for; though I speculated it was due to her definable quirkiness, and I had little resources to take care of myself much less a young canine, I could hardly say no. I was like a kid in a candy store or a petting zoo. I flashed back to my days as a youngster, begging my parents to take me to the local pet store several times a week.

Three days later I went back to the flower shop, and this time I wasn't there for flowers. I took home the tiny black dog, and after some short deliberations, decided on a name. I would call her Bean. She was a munchkin, a dark little thing that jumped around on her hind legs like a kangaroo. Her bulging eyes and goofy ears (one sticking up, one hanging down) made her into an instant hit with everyone that met her. Her minuscule size and prancing gate still garner the same reaction from new human friends - "What is that?" Her constant persistence that she's a much larger animal than she really is still cracks me up, especially when she meets large breed friends like golden retrievers or husky mixes.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Paddling upstream

Stand and feel your worth

A friend and I were paddling upstream in kayaks when I started wondering what I was going to write about for this week. I looked around for ideas, and saw the same outdoor material I usually consider using. I was looking at the banks of colorful trees, the rippling Flambeau River water, the beaver houses, the cars whipping past on North River Road. I began considering how to use each as a symbol, or how I might personify one of them to draw a conclusion I couldn't yet see.

While the journey upstream was on the challenging side, the float back down was more leisurely, and left room for us to talk. We started with the latest sports scores and weather predictions, but eventually got down to brass tacks, discussed where life was heading, what work there was to be done. He admitted to me a few thoughts he was just preparing to admit aloud, things I could have told him about himself years ago. I smiled, and assured him I understood, that I was happy for him.

He was struggling a bit, grasping for straws if you will. The revelation that the current we're riding is not quite what we'd envisioned is a frightening one. When it comes down to choosing a career path in life, it's a bit more complicated than the board game. There are some very big decisions laid in front of us, and we need to be prepared to either accept the consequences or chose something else. Sometimes it's just about the angle you take something on, a different point of view that changes your opinion entirely. That's how it was for me.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ground-swatting grouse

My youngest brother, Bo, and I with two ruffed grouse

More hungry than proud

Last weekend I went grouse hunting with my father and my youngest brother. Our intent was to collect enough game for a meal, figuring we needed about four birds for four people. Now, I hadn't used a shotgun for a number of years, so when my dad gave me the option between the pump and the single shot break action, I took the old single shot out of familiarity. Well, familiarity and my brother challenged me to use it (it's an unwritten rule you can't turn down a brother challenge).

We set out on a logging road that began in an old clear-cut and wound back to a dense stand of mature hardwood. We switched off as point man around every couple corners, as those tend to be the best chance you have at catching a grouse off guard just long enough to get in a shot.

We made it all the way through the 2-year-old clear-cut without a trace of partridge, though we did see a few deer. To be honest, it was probably our constant chatter that cleared out any game in the area as we spent the first mile catching up on life. It wasn't until we flushed a bird 10 yards in front of us that we finally cut the talk and all ducked into hunting mode.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

To ask for help

No man is an island

It was many years ago now that a friend asked if I would help him and his dad put in their seasonal boat dock at their cabin by Mercer. The dock was in pieces, as it had been taken out of the water for the winter and put into storage. At the beginning of each summer the dock needed to be reassembled and put back into the water. The job wasn't all that difficult, but it was time consuming, and an extra set of hands would help things go smoothly.

Simple right? What got me was the way this friend asked me. He asked in a voice that sounded timid, like I would say no, and that asking for my help would burden me, would push me away when really I was more than happy to help. In fact, I literally couldn't wait to help as I thought this would be a good way to express my gratitude for all the hospitality he and his family had extended to me through many years. This was a confirmation that I had something worth giving back, that I could help.

It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in mid-June when we traveled up to the cabin and went to work. The water was cold to wade into, but the sun had some kick, and the view of the lake with all its white pines was second to none. The other two men grumbled a bit, as they had clearly gone through this process before and preferred to just get it over with. I, on the other hand, was eager to learn and happy to help; I became the cheerful one.

As we tinkered and toyed and bolted and latched I made jokes, asked questions, and kept up the pace and focus of the endeavor so that it might be enjoyable for everyone. The level of happiness increased as our progress brought us to the end of the dock, and thus, the end of the project. It was past dinnertime when we finished, and though starving, the three of us stood at the end of the sturdy structure to look out over the lake.

It's a good feeling, working together to complete something. Both of them shook my hand, said thanks, said they really appreciated the helping hand and that I was welcome back any time. For the hundredth time I told them I was more than happy to help, glad to help, glad they asked.

As the years have ticked away at my worldly existence, I've learned to call upon many people for help. If I have discerned one thing during my quarter century, it is that no man is an island. No matter how hard I push, how committed I am, how determined, single minded, or how much flame-kissed focus I summon, I cannot do all of this on my own.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Far side of the lake

Nightmare fisherman, they buy too much

Last week I went out fishing with my uncle. We planned it out ahead of time to have most of the late afternoon to be on the lake, and I had been anticipating it for a few weeks. Anticipating, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn some new tricks, add to my fishing repertoire, and of course, hide away in the woods.

As we zipped along county highways with boat trailer in tow, the sun bore down through the windshield at just the right temperature to keep the windows cracked, the fresh autumn air streaming in. We talked manly talk, sharing stories of hunting and camping trips, of times with old friends and relatives, of hard work and big dreams.

I would share with him my affinity for the notion of the frontier - that I would never want to feel so tied down I could never disappear. You know, pack up and move to the Yukon to build a cabin on the far side of a lake and live out my days. He nodded in reciprocation, with one of those little life advice tips you come to expect from these types of conversations, "Don't buy very much."

Thursday, September 6, 2012

On the deer trail

Like a deer trail in the woods, there are many paths
availableto us that are not always the most obvious.

Listening to your muse

Could we have asked for better Labor Day weekend weather? To close out the long weekend, I spent Monday evening sitting atop my garage roof and watching the orange and pink cumulous clouds roll in from the west, carrying the last of the daylight on their journey through the atmosphere.

In between endless pondering of life's meanings and greater lessons, I jotted down some notes as phrases and ideas came to me. This is a process I often utilize when riffing on ideas for creative projects - sitting alone outside and staring. The notes I take are not final draft caliber, but sometimes all I need is that one well-put phrase to come through all of the mediocre rambling for me to be convinced I'm onto something. It's what is known as the hook in music, or the hero in a narrative. The piece of the puzzle that everything else revolves around, and you like it because you relate to it - it makes you see yourself, and you want to hear it again.

There are a lot of different approaches for going through a creative process, but being outside is what works for me. The open air and the movement of all the living material around me helps ease my mind and feeds me energy for thought. The outdoors is my muse, and all I need to do is watch and listen carefully to be inspired.

The beauty of finding your muse is that once you've identified it, your troubles are over. It's like going home for the holidays. A warm, glowing sensation that heals from the inside out, soothes the soul, and requires nothing more of you than simply existing. It's as though you were fighting a war every single day without even knowing it before; as if you've suddenly found your calling.

Everyone has a muse, even if they haven't identified it yet. Your muse is something that makes you think outside yourself. It is a condition or experience that sets your perspective ablaze, ignites passion, generates within you the inclination to create. Your muse provides motivation, inspiration, provocation. We all have this ability, this drive within us to create because you know what, every single human being is creative.

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing people say, "I'm not creative. I can't do things like that because I'm not a creative person."


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Hillside heretic

From the journal of a daydreaming window addict

Correct me if I'm wrong, but am I in a minority of people that holds value in daydreaming? What I'm saying is, if you see the value as much as I do, please, for the sake of us all, speak up.

Ever since I was a kid I've had a problem with windows. Be they open or closed, during morning, mid-day, or night, showcasing a scenic hillside or a brick wall, I would stare out the window. I remember during high school geometry a lot of time was spent staring out the classroom window, which explains those test scores. Through classroom windows, car door windows, workplace windows - I could spend half my day staring outside. I still catch myself doing this from time to time as an adult, and though I still don't know what triggers this habit, I know that I hope I never lose it.

Maybe it’s the fact that life seems more immediate and more immense on the other side of the glass. Out there I know there is a breeze, and I know that the air and the sunlight will cleanse the frustration out of my mind. Out there I can't help but think of the places I could go, the things I would see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. The possibilities seem endless, and I used to (and still do) let my imagination go wild. Why? Because it gives me hope.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

At season's end

A foggy Flambeau River morning

The air smells different, especially on foggy mornings and as the dew sets in the evening. It’s a damp, crisp, sharp, natural scent - made of grass clippings and old twigs fallen from their tree limbs. The fragrance is accentuated by the slightly shorter days, the sun that has begun to diminish in strength, as it goes to bed earlier and earlier. The nighttime can officially be considered chilly, and the mornings are way more brisk than they were a month ago.

Don’t let me get you down, though, it is still summer after all, just quietly fading. There are still warm, sunny afternoons to be had, still nights warm enough to lay under the stars, still mornings where the sun makes its appearance bright and early - they are just no longer unlimited.

Past are the days of July, when it seems as though the summer is endless, like it’s always been that hot and when an occasional rainy day is a reprieve from the heat. Long ago was June, when the summer’s plans and warmth and length of days ramped up into high expectations and reprieve from duty and the dreary of winter. Even May, with its early blossoms and careful, hesitant promise of sunny days is far, far behind us.

Instead our minds now turn to harvesting the garden, putting time into firewood, and making plans for Labor Day - one last summer send-off. As the weather changes, so too does our thinking. Our attention is pulled into a mode of preparation for the next season, and as a byproduct we tend to reflect upon the path over which we’ve traveled this season.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

To be hungry

A rogue seagull sighting

Sometimes it's very hard to sit down and write an article. In fact, it never happens that way. Instead, when I have an idea it comes to me not in front of a computer screen or at a convenient hour in front of a desk, but while I'm out, moving, in the moment, or in between sleep and awake. During those times, I do all I can to stay disciplined enough to jot down the idea before it escapes me.

All too often, these single-phrase ideas are mostly useless. I go back and read them and wonder, "What could I possibly have been thinking with this one?" Or I laugh at myself and say, "I'm glad nobody else will ever see this." I think this is a common practice for most people though, so I don't let it get to me.

The truth is, to get into the good stuff, the things you really want to talk about and have a strong opinion about (what other people actually want to hear), you have to dig through all the crud on the top of your brain. To get into the meat of the issue, the concept you can cling to and make something of, you must be harsh. You must be willing to discard, tear down, and rip up conventions in order to find your own angle to a subject. Once you do that, tear down, rip up, and create an angle, you'll find yourself much more connected to the idea you want to discuss than ever before; you'll have adopted the topic -- be it politics, design, engines, computers, or forestry -- it’s now more than an issue to you, it's a passion.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The American dream

Be a woodsman - find what works and cut your own path.

And why you need a hatchet

I have known many people freshly graduated from college, who, for the life of them cannot seem to find a position pertaining to their degree. I have been in this pickle myself, and I can confirm what an awful predicament it can be. Applications, resumes, references, personal Web sites, portfolios, professional contacts, calling, e-mailing, calling to confirm e-mails, interviews, second interviews, parking, hotel stays, gasoline, business attire, etc, etc. The list goes on.

Job searching is a full-time job, and you don't get paid. You will experience more rejection than at almost any other period in your life. The voices oozing pity and the faces with frowns on the brows of loved ones begin to take their toll, and you have to drag yourself out of bed every single day if for no other reason, it seems, than to acknowledge your feeble existence and your dwindling bank account. It can last for weeks, months, even years, and all the while you will be expected to renew your vigor and commitment to each new "opportunity."

Discouraged yet? I don't blame you. The reason some people, many people, choose to put themselves through such a painful process is because they know they will come out on top in the end and have the dream job they have always wanted. Struggling through this phase takes a mountain of courage because it is a right of passage. This process is what separates the committed from the uncommitted. It is, in essence, the American dream, because, and I truly believe this, anyone in this country can do it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Festivities and friends

How best to marinate a hotdog

There’s an argument, or an inside joke rather, that has been ongoing between myself and a good friend of mine for a very long time. The joke stems from my unfounded belief that it is possible to marinate a hotdog in ketchup, thus creating the ultimate American dinner, and his (probably more rational) assessment that the idea is ludicrous. The experiment, conducted many years ago, failed miserably, but I still believe it is possible to do, and therefore refuse to relinquish my opinion (and ongoing research) on the matter.

The reason I bring up such an important topic this week is because it is a timely matter. You see, the first marination argument occurred during a Flambeau Rama some decade or so ago, and to this day I get passionate about hotdogs the first week of August. The whole ordeal is hilarious, light-hearted and keeps memories from days long gone fresh in both our minds. Such is the goal of festival season though, and I’m glad to be around for another one.

Festivals are important. Cutting loose, catching up, and shaking hands - it's all-important. They are time set aside to be merry, celebrate our similarities, our differences, and create together a living culture. Festivals are timeless, but they are always about a time, and a place. Annual events like Lumberman’s Day, Pioneer Days, Flambeau Rama, the Price County Fair, Prentice Progress Days, and the Ogema Christmas Tree Festival are cultural cornerstones that signify cooperation, tradition, and growth. Getting out, catching up and being social are essential to maintaining healthy relations with the other people that help make our land fruitful. While I may be a proponent of reclusive habits, I will be the first to acknowledge the importance of the social side every well-rounded person needs to exercise.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

To go barefoot

Forest urchins, an alley, and a classical lesson

It's been hot out, so to help combat the inevitable bucket's worth of sweat each day, I've been wearing shorts and sandals as much as possible. Sometimes, rather all the time, sandals get on my nerves though as I don't feel as agile as I'd like to while walking around. Fixing this problem has left me with the choice to either adorn shoes and sweat it out or forego footwear altogether and walk around barefoot, which was my solution last weekend.

The grass was not a problem, and I didn't mind walking over the gravel all that much until day two, when I stepped on a pinecone. All at once I was reminded how perfectly engineered those little forest urchins (think sea urchins) are for piercing the undercarriage of fleshy human feet. I grimaced a little, and complained of the pain, then retold the tale of how this wouldn't have bothered me years ago, how I used to run around barefoot all the time as a kid, how I used to be so tough.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Northwoods

You can keep your concrete jungle

Someone once said that in every human soul there is a harkening to a particular geography, whether that be seas, mountains, lakes, rivers, wooded highlands, or wide open prairies. I cannot recall where I heard that, but I will never forget it, because I believe it.

I have come to recognize this trait within myself, this gravitation towards a particular shape of nature, and it is now a way in which I identify myself. I have swam in the Atlantic, and I have explored the Rockies from east to west. I've traveled many, many times through the plains of the Dakotas and lived my share of time next to the Mississippi. I have developed an absurd fondness for Lake Superior (which I will always consider a second home), but the one place that keeps me coming back time and time again is the wooded landscape of northern Wisconsin.

Commonly called the Northwoods, this region is known by many as a vacation in the middle of nowhere. To Madison, Milwaukee, and everywhere south of there, this land is sparsely populated, uninfluential, and wild. When you look at a map of our great state, you see the interstate highways end at its midline, and in their place dark green patches that mix with specks of dark blue paint a picture of expansive forests and hidden lakes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Building cabins

A clear view atop 40-foot scaffolding

Last weekend was a scorcher under the sun. Not optimal to be atop 50 feet of scaffolding, covered in dirt and sweat, climbing, lifting, nailing and caulking together a SIP panel cabin. And while that may sound like a form of torture, I was there by choice.

At the (rather vague) invitation of a close friend to help with constructing a cabin, I’d signed away my Saturday and Sunday of swimming and fishing for sweating and working. You know what though, I didn’t regret it once, not even when the baseball cap I was wearing was too saturated to absorb any more sweat, and the salty streams began to leak into the corners of my eyes, and the absolutely blinding sun seemed to reflect off everything, and my head was pounding and splitting, and I was spitting sand out of my mouth every couple minutes. If the job wasn’t finished, I wasn’t about to be the first to quit, so I kept working, just the same as 14 or so others, ferociously chugging water every 15 minutes to stave off heat exhaustion.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Fishing and solitude

A personal preference for cracked oars

I don't want to use an outboard motor on the lake I frequent because they are too dirty, and the water is too pristine. I don't think the nesting pair of loons out there would like the noise, and I don't want that racket either. I don't want to see gas and oil reflecting the sunset, or for that matter pay for and maintain yet another machine. So I use a pair of old, cracked, chipped, grimy, wooden oars to propel the 14-foot jon-boat in pursuit of fish over 65 acres of clean, clear Northwoods lake water.

The lake treats me well - it is my refuge, my sanctuary, my peaceful place, and it has never disappointed me. I am dedicated to ensuring it is treated properly, appointed myself steward, and concerned myself with treating the water and the land around it with respect and gentleness. The lake has taught me patience, perseverance, and gratitude. It is a living, evolving organism, and I am symbiotic with it.

Some of my favorite memories on the lake involve very little fishing at all. Don't get me wrong, I always have a line in the water, but the sentimentality arises from other things. I recall the breeze, the clouds, the sunlight off the trees. I think of the silence when the water is placid, or the choppy swells as a front is moving in. I think of all the stories spoken in low voices with close friends, and I like to remember the times we'd fish until it was too dark to see the dock, and how we'd wait until the moon came out from behind the clouds before making the rowing trip back to shore.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Slow summer down

Summer is upon us in full swing - the days are the longest they will be all year, the average temperature is rising, the humidity continues to increase, as does the frequency of summer weddings, festivals, reunions, vacations, and get-togethers. In short, the outdoors have never been more appealing.

Most of these summer events are fun, social, fulfilling activities that folks around here have hard-earned after weathering yet another long winter. Leaping from weekend to weekend though, with each week seeming to be more booked than the last, is what concerns me. Letting these few golden months slip past seems like a waste to me, and to remedy it, I propose the following.

Slow summer down.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

To pitch a tent

And the battle with the winged wolves

Last weekend I went camping with a few good friends on some private land adjacent to my favorite lake, the great Lake Superior. We had been checking the weather every day that week and were well aware of the storms we were about to subject ourselves to. However, we couldn't wait to get our journey underway and decided to head north anyway. Our trip up Highway 13 was highlighted by a black bear and a quail trailed by its chicks along the roadside, and foreshadowed by dark clouds gathering in the west. We hoped to outrun the rain and make camp in relative peace and harmony, but that didn’t quite happen.

Upon arrival my comrades and I were nearly stricken from the woodland cliff under sheets of rain, but we had come prepared and immediately began construction of a not-so-intricate tarp canopy. We strung ropes from everything available. Ropes from tree trunks, tree branches, a cinderblock, a rotten post, even a kitchen sink (I’m not kidding). The process proved to be more like sailing than camping, as the large tarps turned out to be better designed to catch wet gusts than keep us dry in wind topping 30 mph. Somehow though, between tying knots, shouting at one-another, and getting soaked to the bone, the three of us managed to construct a dripping, unstable, hem-haw excuse of a shelter to set up tents beneath; high-fives ensued.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Outdoor exercise as enrichment

Creating a Northwoods exercise routine

Before we start, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Seth Carlson and I was born in Park Falls in 1987. I grew up in a family that like many others in this area holds outdoor skills as a deeply ingrained, cultural tradition. My father taught me how to hunt, fish, trap, hike, camp, canoe, swim and make a lot of noise if I saw a bear. I learned how to dress in layers and check lake ice in the winter. I learned how to ignore mosquitoes while fishing and get over a fear of spiders in the summers.

The funny thing is, I took all those experiences for granted. It took a seven-year journey of living in other areas of the Midwest for me to appreciate what the Northwoods has to offer – the great outdoors.

This piece is the first in a series of stories meant to highlight ways in which residents of this area can take advantage of the natural resources surrounding us. I do not pretend to be an expert with any of this, just a student. I am always learning new things in the woods, just enough to get by, just enough to be woodsman enough.