Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fresh air at the Birkebeiner

A theory on the cabin fever mechanism

"I am not a skier." There, I've outed myself, I thought, as I watched the woman sitting next to me contort her face in an attempt to understand.

"Well you must do something in the winter? Everyone's gotta have something to do in the snow," she told me as the bus rocked back and forth on our journey. At that I looked past the seat in front of me, across the aisle, out the foggy window. Cross-country skiing fanatics surrounded me.

The shuttle bus I was riding was packed to the brim with people garbed in all manner of winter clothing - from scratchy wool pants to puffy down vests, though most were wearing form-fitting, neon ski apparel. Everyone but me gripped skis and ski poles bound in bundles, and everyone but me had some crazy story to tell from past Birkie races, or training, or speculations about the snow conditions affecting wax.

"I've really gotten into ice fishing this year," I finally responded. I turned and looked at her then to gauge her reaction. It wasn't much. In fact she looked a little confused, or perhaps unconvinced that counted. Or, maybe she just didn't quite understand what ice fishing is. After all, she's from Milwaukee, I reasoned with myself.

Either way, I was prepared to talk her ear off about fishing and snow and ice until she suddenly piped up about people who grumble in the winter.

"If you can't find a way to enjoy the snow and cold months then you don't belong here," she said, and then I knew we were friends. "Not to be mean, it's just that you're going to be miserable for half the year, half your life." I nodded in agreement as this 50-something mother of three rattled on about how clean and pure the air is in the winter. About how getting out in the cold was rejuvenating.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Winter logging

The day I grew steel talons

A woodsman is defined by multiple dictionary sources as a person who is accustomed to life in a woodland environment; who is skilled in the arts of the woods such as hunting and trapping; as a lumberman, forester, or woodcutter. Therefore, if my training is to be successful in any classical sense of the term, I figured I had best learn how to cut down trees. I've mentioned firewood in passing multiple times, having been familiar with that labor all my life, but logging is another thing entirely, as I was reminded last weekend.

As with other endeavors, I apprenticed this trade under my father, a man who has fell more trees than anyone would care to count since moving here a couple decades ago. I remember as a child the stench of wood chips and tree sap mixed with sweat and chainsaw oil as he came in from a long day in the woods to collapse in a hot bath. The starch and fight all taken out of his voice, drained by the aches of grappling the forest all day; nothing left but a quiet contempt to be back in a warm house.

In those days I couldn't quite understand why he would do that. Why would he get up before dawn to frigid temperatures, trudge through knee-deep snow wrapped in wool and burdened with a chainsaw and chaps, sweating, cursing, and knocking down trees - any one of which could kill him in a single swoop from above? The answer, as is often the case, was money. He was out to make a living, to get by, because it was necessary.

Logging has deep roots in our part of the country. The whole of Wisconsin was brought up by this land's vast supply of raw lumber product. With rivers, and later railroads, to ship, distribute, buy, and sell the goods of the land, many people first came here prospecting timber, not gold. They earned a living with saws and axes, sawdust and splinters, and while the industry has changed dramatically, it's still being done today.

These are the things I considered while I laid the eight-foot measuring pole across the trunk of a fallen balsam...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pensive lens

Considering how we see

If you've been following along with these writings, this trail of breadcrumbs I've left in the forest, then perhaps I've beaten you up enough with my struggles as well as my appreciation for the opportunity to write this stuff down. Perhaps it's time we talk about the other half of this column - photography. Now don't get me wrong, I still plan to shout from every woodland pulpit available, but didn't someone once appraise a picture to be worth several hundred words?

Likely, I'm not telling you anything new by admitting I love photography. Since starting this column I've rarely printed an article without an image to accompany it, and I've never put one up online without a photograph (no matter how loosely associated the image may have been). I have been taking photos of things outdoors for as long as I remember, even before I understood why I was doing it. In fact the why came much later.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Steel and fur

An honest trade, wrought with worth

As I clamored down the reeded river bank, trudging through a snowdrift up to my thigh, clumsy thanks to a pack-basket filled with steel strung to my back and several layers of heavy wool clothing, I braced myself on a braided iron spike in my gloved left hand. Another step, another lift of the hefty, five-foot iron pole, the bottom of which was sharpened to a chisel point, the top of which was affixed with a ring as large as my head welded to the top. The chisel end was for chopping ice, the ring end for catching the tool before it fell through the hole. It was a gift from my great-grandfather to my father many years ago, and that day I carried it.

Lifting each leg was a chore, but I knew once I made it onto the river ice ahead the snow would be less than half as deep. The wind whipped and shortly I had an ice mustache below my nose. Not yet 70-yards from the truck, and already a few beads of sweat prickled at the line of the beaver-fur hat hugging my forehead. I didn't dare turn back or slow down though, not with my father and brother hot on my heels - Carlson's don't slow down once they're in motion.

Only a few more steps, and I made it onto the open river, gasping something unintelligible about being out of shape. Behind me came the other two, equally as burdened but with the advantage a trail broken before them. On the open ice in front of us the shallower snow of the frozen river was a highway of footprints.

"Coyote," pa declared, marching in front of me to inspect. "They use rivers and creeks and any other advantage they can during the winter."

"I can't imagine why…" I said, catching my breath. He pointed up and down the narrow avenue of hard water that carved through the brush and reeds. "It's like a highway for critters," he continued, mildly oblivious to the fact his sons had heard this lesson hundreds of times before. "See, there's fox tracks too." 

I leaned heavier on the ice chisel.