Thursday, September 11, 2014

Around the riverbend

The South Fork of the Flambeau River heaves steam
into the cool morning air as it cuts through the woods,
twisting and turning its way down to meet the north fork.

Time to switch lures


When I took up fishing again as an adult it took me awhile to re-learn the fisherman’s knot. I remembered to hold the end of the line between my forefinger and thumb and twist, and that the end of it went through the loop at the bottom, but feeding back through the second loop really challenged me. Add on top of that the extra performance required while sitting in a 12-foot Alumacraft on a winding river or windy lake, and you’ll have an idea why I was rather opposed to the notion of changing lures if the first one wasn’t catching anything.

I would cast and retrieve over and over, trying different speeds, different jerks and bobs with the rod, even row to a different location before I would take that lure off and put a new one on. Talk about being stubborn. I guess I figured I’d rather be actively searching out a bite than fumbling around with tackle. 'Time is limited,' I’d reason with myself.

Of course the tradeoff to this was setting me back two-fold. Not only was I not catching any fish because I refused to give another lure a chance, I was also not practicing the knot I really needed to learn if I wanted to be successful down the road.

Eventually I did of course suck it up and learn the knot. This increased my ability to adjust what I was fishing for and with what, and therefore made me a better fisherman. Of course when I say better, I mean average...

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Challenge yourself

With or without ice


I have to admit, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has got me on the fence. When the philanthropic social media explosion rolled to the forefront of my newsfeed, all I thought was ‘Hey, this is annoying and it seems silly and pointless.’ I did not understand how dumping ice water over your head was going to help anyone. I mean, yeah, it’s sort of funny to see your friends get hosed with a blast of cold water, but outside pranks between pals, how did this become such a huge thing?

If you’re unfamiliar with it, let me fill you in. The basic concept is you take a video or photo of yourself dumping ice water on your head and post to social media. When you post, you’re supposed to challenge up to two friends to do the same. If they do not comply within 24 hours they’re asked to donate money to The ALS Association, which raises funds to combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Pretty simple right? Well, why not just donate money to the organization and skip the silly sideshow? I mean, the association accepts donations as little as $5, who could say no to that? In fact, some employers will even match a donation made by their employees…now that’s pretty cool...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dangling feet

The listless habits of a stranger


There is a boy by the house that sits on a dock by the river. I see him sometimes on walks. He sits, often cross-legged, staring out across the lazy current, pondering, I suppose, some big questions.

Other times I have witnessed, he is laying face up upon the floating wooden planks. He appears at those times to be staring into the sky. I’ve observed he wears sunglasses in these instances.

Some days the sun is out, other days it’s cloudy and cool. He is not sunbathing, though, dressed casually in shorts and T-shirt. I cannot tell if he has ear buds plugged into an MP3 player or not, but I suspect this is commonly the case as I have noticed a toe tap or head bob on occasion.

I believe he is of college age, but I do not recognize him. I wonder if he is from out of town, only visiting for a while this summer. Perhaps that means he is away from his friends, and so he sits alone on a dock on the river...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

August birthdays

Happy birthday Jed and Mom

A pair of memories


August is something special to me. True, it’s unique for many reasons - fog over dew-covered grass in the morning, hot, punchy afternoon sun, and the sound of crickets on cool evenings - but there’s more to it than that.

In my family, August is the month we have two birthdays to celebrate: my mom’s on the seventh and my brother Jed’s on the 19th. That’s only 12 days apart…talk about a cake marathon.

This year my mom is a sprite 39 years of age (that’s what we’re still going with, right ma?). My brother Jed has reached the surprisingly (not) important age of 22. Only a few more years until your car insurance goes down, brother. That’s something to look forward too, right?

In the case of my mom, I have one particular birthday party memory that stands out. It was Flambeau Rama weekend some years ago and all of my friends and their friends and her friends were home. Everyone was always invited to stay at the house - whether that meant camping in the yard or on a couch - and get brunch the next morning.

Well, one particular year mom decided since Rama fell only a few days before her birthday, and so many people she loved were already gathered at one place, that it was a perfect time to celebrate...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fog on the meadow

Being part of the change


As the sun rises through the fog and mist
I get caught up thinking about a lot of things.
For some reason, this time of year always catches me looking backwards. I think it has a lot to do with all the change in sunlight and weather - which mostly translates to less and cooler - but I can't be certain. I try not to let that be a sad thing, but sometimes it has that feeling.

Sometimes I catch myself staring at the fog in a certain grassy meadow during the early morning sunlight as though I know what's about to happen. It makes me think of how short summer is in the north and sometimes I wonder where it went.

Did I take full advantage of the warm weather? Did I get outside in the sunlight enough times or could I have been out there more? How long do I have before the lake and river are too cold to swim in?

I ask myself these questions as though some year I'll have an answer for them. Perhaps if I keep staring at the fog in the meadow something will come out of it.

The thing is, year after year, my conclusion is usually the same. See the truth is summer is not quite over yet. It's changing, sure, but there's a buffer zone now until full fledge autumn sets in, so we've got (hopefully) a few more chances to enjoy the blessed strength of the sun.

That's me looking forward, not backward. The sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar on it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Work-life

Fishing and writing practically go hand in hand.

Learning to freely blend the two


I hear a lot of people talk about a work-life balance as though the two are separate entities on opposite ends of a teeter totter. Books, blogs, and employee manuals have written recipes for “workers” to follow should they seek to achieve the correct balance. In fact some people have made entire careers considering almost nothing other than how others should compartmentalize their lives.

Of course, there are different approaches and focuses. Forbes guest writer Ron Ashkenas writes about work-life integration in his book "Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done." In the book he makes observations on how businesses can become more efficient by allowing for more flexibility in employee schedules. Or one of my favorites, Chris Guillebeau, NYT bestselling author of "The $100 Startup” and a series called “Unconventional Guides," which focus on a holistic change in thinking in regards to status-quo roadblocks in how work and life interact.

All of those are good resources, but most of that thinking can be summed up by a John F. Kennedy quote that says “The best road to progress is freedom’s road.”

Now you know I am no expert in these matters, just a man with enough opinion to share it in hopes someone has something to say about it. This topic being one that is often at the forefront of my consciousness, I thought perhaps here I would share my story as it has so far unraveled...

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Traditions of July

Ready, set, lake!

Newman Lake water levels are higher than they have been
in years. That means less beach but more swimming
space at the lake of my childhood.

Our humid summer days have finally rolled onto the land. Many of us have been out looking for them. Whispers of a summer version of the polar vortex were beginning to sound all too familiar only a week ago, but early this week all those rumors were put to rest.

I recall the heat of July when I was a child; those days of sudden, sweltering sun. The air would turn into a heavy quilt, pressing up against you in an invisible yet bracing fashion like you’d been made frail from the winter and needed safe keeping. Shirts would come off, shorts put on, and a day at the beach was often the best cure for beating the heat.

My family would go to Newman Lake on those sort of days. Mom would pack a cooler with water bottles, fruit, and cold salads. My sister or I would be charged with getting the beach towels from the linen closet, and one or both of my younger brothers would tear recklessly around the house, scarcely clothed, screaming “swimming! swimming!” or something to that effect. They never wore many clothes when we were little.

We would all pile into the car after it was loaded with the cooler and a pile of towels. Some of us smelling strongly of sun block, others of bug spray, and others just smelling. Adorned in faded yet somehow colorful swimwear, it was always a rush to get the car on the highway so we could have some air moving in the vehicle.

Windows down, arms flailing in the wind, great big smiles - that’s how I remember summer...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stress

And some brain rattling


Too much and you'll break.
Stress is a force that happens naturally in the wild world. The stress of gravity forces species to develop skeletons for support, muscle for movement. The stresses of wind and water force flora to dig deep roots and grow hard skins. The stress of multiple hard winters may kill a certain portion of wildlife, like turkeys or whitetails, and subsequently cut down predators the following years due to a dwindled food source.

In our human world, stress takes many forms socially. Often when we talk about stress, though, we consider it a bad thing. True is the maxim ‘too much of anything is a bad thing,’ but I think, as with most things, a healthy dose can go a long way.

I’ve been going back and forth a lot lately as to whether I should be adding more to my plate, taking on bigger and different endeavors, or instead shoveling some of those obligations off. See I think there is a lot to be said for open, unstructured time that allows your mind to wander...

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Social media

The tools of the trade are evolving


I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time not stopping
on the side of the road to take pictures of this awesome
place we live.
Sharing these photos and other snippets has become
interwoven into the fabric of modern culture
and I think we should embrace that fact.
Compared to most folk writing about the outdoors, I probably spend a disproportionate amount of time considering technology in a social sense. That is to say, I’m a big fan of not only using social media, but of the industry in general. If you think about it, the whole thing evolves in a rather biological fashion - birth, growth, fight or flight in a competitive market, IPO phase, and eventual death (in relevance at least).

Ok so maybe dragonflies don’t experience an initial public offering, but you get my drift.

I’m bringing it up because the woodsman has always used technology, and I don’t see how the web is any different. The use of a compass, a brush axe, or even rubber boots are examples of technology designed to work for us. Utilizing online databases to access lake information or locate new and used boat trailers - that’s the internet as a tool.

And yet I still get this sense somehow that outdoors enthusiasts are behind the times when it comes to utilizing social networks online. Is it because disclosing a certain location in a photo or GPS marked update might lead others to your secret fishing or hunting spot? Or is it because there’s a lack of interest or proficiency with the tools? And truly, why should you or I care?

I’m going to say this once - it’s time to get over this mantra of hardened and unplugged.

I’ll be the first guy to tell you getting away and untethered to the web and today’s advanced technologies is a major factor in the enjoyment I take in the outdoors. That said, though, I am inspired by thoughts and see a lot of things outside that I simply think would be of interest to other people, and sharing those snippets online can be a great way to network with other people in the same vein.

Furthermore, there has been a growing discussion about how to maintain and grow outdoors traditions in hunting, fishing, even trapping in the state of Wisconsin in recent years. The main concern is dipping numbers of involvement of youth in today’s outdoor programs, and I think better engagement in the social media realm is the proverbial missing link.

Look at it this way: Millennials are the most interconnected, social, sharing generation currently breathing. We are engaged constantly in exchanging information with our friends, family, and extended networks (friends of our friends) and are more likely than any generation before us to rely upon each other for information than any other source.

Yes there is research to suggest all that, but I’m speaking first hand...

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Sand and fireworks

Focused enough to unfocus


It’s summer time and I’m getting the heck out of dodge!

This is one of my favorite times of year, when everyone is just sort of floating around trying to get out into the sunshine and on the water. I’m trying to do my part to enjoy all that summer has to offer by planing camping trips and visiting family and friends as much as possible.

This past winter was far beyond harsh - it was down-right cruel - and I for one believe we’ve all earned the right to play outdoors as much as possible this summer.

With plans in the making and adventures pending, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the best part of a vacation is. Is it the place, the people, the food, the (in)activity? Or is it broader - being somewhere else, traveling somewhere new, or even the mounting anticipation just before departure?

As I write this I’m less than a day away from departing for an annual U.P. camping trip. I’ve wrote about it here before because it’s usually quite the adventure. My friends and I, we pull out all the stops. Typically we communicate on Facebook in a group to lock down a date sometime in January (it gives everyone something to look forward to in the dead of winter), and as the date draws near make calls to prepare the food and beverage menus ahead of time. This year we’re even pre-cooking the meat products… yes, we’re almost professionals at this...

Thursday, June 26, 2014

106 weeks later

The journey is the destination


I’ve pictured for a long time writing this article. I’ve imagined what it would be about, visualized how it would look on paper, daydreamed about the feel of each keystroke. For two years this one here has been the goal to keep striving towards. And yet, now that I’m here, it’s not quite what I’d envisioned.

"The truth of the matter is that a good portion of my
week-to-week life revolves around Woodsman."
For the past two years I have tried to be the wizard (albeit a shabby one) behind the curtain of this column. That means each and every week, since June 14 of 2012, I’ve done my best to put myself in the mindset of a woodsman in training, just for the sake of writing a little bit about what that means - to redefine, perhaps, what that means.

When I began I had this notion that I would simply write about all my adventures outdoors. I had a lot of backlogged stories to share to fill the gaps between telling new tales, and that strategy worked… for awhile.

Then came times when I wanted to tackle broader topics. Some weeks I would struggle for hours to tie in all sorts of theoretical strings to everyday life and subject matter related to nature. I think this worked for a while, I had a good formula.

Eventually, though, my life grew and changed, and my intent, focus, and involvement with my career also developed. The types of things I wanted to talk about were soon much larger than a piece on canoeing the Flambeau in June or shoveling snow in January. Maybe I just grew up.

“You must write, whatever else comes,” has continued to be my motto. For the journey thus far I’ve put my faith in the relentless pursuit of content generation. I figure if I keep digging, someday, eventually, I’ll find something.

I go back and forth as to how insane that sounds...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Tomato debate

Our tomatoes made it through the storm.

A drop in the bucket


Monday night was a blustery one. At dusk the sky turned into a fight between fire orange and blood red hues, battling it out in a vibrant fashion. The colors from the sunset radiated bright light across thick, low-hanging clouds resting just above the western skyline.

For a brief time, the world looked like an impressionist painting.

Then the winds rolled in. Warm, heavy gales turned up every leaf on every tree. The humidity still hung in the air, but now it was rushing around and smacking into things like a linebacker. The treetops danced to some silent yet violent song, with a heavy yet extraordinarily inconsistent bass beat.

We were already in bed by the time everything reached a fever pitch. Airbursts smacked against the walls of our house, making the four walls shudder and groan. I kept waiting for the sound of thunder to roll out of the blackness but it never came, only bright flashes of light on the interior walls thanks to the heat lightening without.

That’s when Bec mentioned the tomatoes. “Do you think they’ll be alright out there?” she asked.

All our poor little tomato plants, potted and sitting in the wind-swept yard. I lay in bed, wondering what the right answer was. Should I run out and usher them into the garage for the night? They’ve been coming along so nicely this spring and to see them snapped in half the next morning would be just terrible...

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The good and the ugly


The cherry tomato plant outside our
Park Falls office has begun to bloom.

Fresh food and lots of bug bites


There are two headlines in town right now - gardening and mosquitos.

With the final winter frost just barley out of everyone’s rear view mirror, gardens have been going in like crazy. Tomatoes, beans, carrots, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, corn - everything delicious under the sun is being dumped into the soil right now.

My own effort has only a handful of cherry tomato plants in terra cotta pots, but hey it’s a start. We also planted petunias because they’re easy to take care of. We found some that are an interesting orange/pink color called papaya. In my eye, they mix really well with the classic purple ones.

We also started a little herb garden in separate pots and have been enjoying fresh oregano, parsley, chives, and dill in many recipes. If you’re like me, you’re probably sick of hearing people tell you that fresh is the best, but holy wow it’s the truth.

I guess that’s the bane of clichés, is that they’re clichés because they’re true. Still doesn't help the fact you get tired of hearing them. Anywho, if you like to cook, grow your own herbs...

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Battle birds

Nature unfolds on the front lawn


They were sitting on the front porch when it happened. Back then, just a few weeks ago, this was a likely scenario. Lounging outside was still a possibility in the absence of the mosquito legions who had yet to hatch.

Three Common Robin chicks who have,
since the sudden and tragic death of their mother,
grown up and flown the nest and are
“on to bigger and better things,”
as my Mom puts it.
They were probably considering whether or not to play yard games, my sister and her boyfriend, sitting in wicker chairs alongside my mother and stepfather. I imagine the four of them gazing out onto the sunlit lawn late in the day on that fateful afternoon. I was not there when everything went down, but I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye.

In the lawn, below the tall dandelion stocks topped with fuzz, grew lush green grass. Can you see it? Bursting to life the way everything does in the spring. Below that lush green blanket sat life’s baser things - dirt namely, but also bugs, beetles, and worms.

For the better part of a week the most discussed item in the house (besides the last family high school graduation) had been the Robin’s nest in the rafters of the wood shed. In the nest, it was confirmed, lived three Robin chicks. Fuzzy, yet hardly feathered, the first thing anatomically developed by each member of the front yard trio was their gaping yellow mouths, into which their loving mother deposited the yard’s finest fair.

Earthworms...

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Socioeconomic intervention

An open letter to Northwoods citizens


There is perhaps nothing more frustrating than recognizing someone’s vast potential for success and then witnessing them squander it right in front of you.

Often this seems to happen with the naturally talented folks who are not fully aware of the great gift they possess. Other times it happens with people who simply take for granted all that they have been given. And still yet it happens to those in denial or who are blinded by something to distract themselves with, whether that be money, substance abuse, or even a pious nature. Focusing inward too long breeds these deviations.

Each of us reacts differently in this scenario, but if it’s someone close you normally try to help if you can. Maybe you’ll stage a sit-down talk or an intervention or even acquire the resources you think will help that person and hand them over as gifts (be forewarned that money does not mend hearts). Maybe you’ll be as innovative as to ask what they really want out of life, or maybe you’ll just cut ties and get on with your own business.

Probably the hardest thing to do is confront the individual. A confrontation means you’ll be putting all your thoughts and feelings on the line, and that may either force the person away from you or leave yourself open to cross-examination. If you really care though, that’s exactly what you’ll do...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A couple of busy guys

My father and I wearing matching jackets to celebrate
his birthday during a fishing trip on the
Ontonagon River and Lake Superior.

Attempting to fish the big lake


“It’s kinda like we’re on a vacation together or something,” dad said and tossed more driftwood on the beach fire at his feet.

“Yeah, I guess that’s because we are,” I replied. The sun was setting but the fire was keeping the chill off of us as we stood on the shore of Lake Superior just outside of Ontonagon, Michigan. We were spending the weekend at a friend’s house with the intent to learn how to fish on the big water, and fish we did.

No, we didn’t catch anything with scales, but a few beer cans did find their way to our boat. According to our guide we were a bit premature in the season for the optimal bite of cohos, lake trout, and walleye, but he showed us the ropes anyway. Literally, the ropes.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Spring beaver

Considering traditions and resources


My dad tossing a beaver onto the marsh bank
after pulling it up from the depths of a drowning set in late April. 
Trapping beaver in the spring is far easier than in the winter. In the winter a trapper has to chop his way through pond ice with chisels. And that’s after trudging through the snow (oftentimes including tag alders, slopes, banks, and frozen marsh structures) for a half mile or more. Think about doing that while you’re bundled up against the sub-zero wind, hauling a basket or sled full of steel and stakes. That’s not to mention the return trip out, when you’re wringing wet with sweat, which will soon be freezing to your skin in all sorts of places, slowly encapsulating your entire body in a suit of extreme uncomfort.

Oh, and if you do catch your beaver, back there, in the far reaches of the woods, have fun hauling the 45-pound carcass of the largest North American rodent out of those woods on your own two legs. Heaven forbid you double up in there.

Then you have to consider that trapping a single beaver pond is going to severely limit your catch. If you want to make any money with your endeavor, you’ll need to visit at least a half dozen ponds, if not more. In addition, you’ll have to add up your own time and investment in traps, clothing, and other tools such as knives, wire, stretching boards, etc.

And remember, that’s trapping just one pond, way back in the woods. Now, imagine doing that on a large scale and tell me why trapping isn’t profitable...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Pooj grows up

My youngest brother, Bo.

Happy birthday little brother


Eighteen years ago today my youngest brother was born. He was a stubby little thing back then, with fiery red hair and pale, freckled cheeks. I would call him “Poogie,” or “Pooj” for short because he was a round, little jellybean as a toddler. He loved it, I’m sure.

I had already been an older brother twice before Pooj, but each time it was different for me. My sister was too close in age for me to remember graphically, and when my first brother was born I was five and just excited to have a baby brother to play ninjas with (no offense sis, you tried).

By the time Pooj entered the equation, I was already nine and well on my way to becoming a starter in the NFL…or a fighter jet pilot…or possibly a Power Ranger. Whatever the case, I already knew how to be a big brother. I knew that babies were not good at war games, that they did not sleep at night, and that all they did was make messes, smell, and get all the attention. Despite the obstacles though, I fell right in line with the rest of my family adoring the little tyke.

My sister, no doubt, had the best time with him as a baby. She would dress him in doll clothes when he was old enough and make him play house. She may even have tricked him into holding (gnawing) on Barbies at one point...

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Fanatic for a day

Hook, line, and sinker


The monofilament fishing line unwinds from between his forefinger and thumb when a sharp gust of wind saps his ability to feel the thin material. The fishing knot comes undone before it was finished.

The fisherman hunkers down a bit lower in his boat, leaning over his lap to guard against the gales howling across the lake at his rickety little boat. He does not flinch but sets to tying the knot once more.

Again Mother Nature throws her vigor at the man, this time with freezing rain, sleet, and broad, wet snowflakes carried on the wind. The fisherman remains hunkered over his tackle like a fisherman should, unaffected by elements around him that would make anyone else miserable.

Finally, he finishes his knot by cinching it tightly. Affixed to the line, in a fashion taught to him by his great-grandfather, is a small treble hook on a spinner, surrounded by red and black squirrel fur and accessorized by a brass spoon the size of a fingernail. The fisherman smiles down at the tackle, satisfied with his work and confident he’s chosen the right color and action type given the season, weather conditions, and time of day. Now to try his hand…

Thursday, April 24, 2014

American breeze

An everyday anthem


I have this tendency to be hard on myself. If I feel I’m not being as productive as I think I should be, or as efficient or healthy, or supportive of others and I beat myself up about it. I feel the pressure to always be reaching for the next step on the ladder and if I’m not climbing fast enough I get frustrated. I guess I’m ambitious.

Sometimes I wear myself out on the weekly climb. I get up too early and stay up too late trying to force just a few more drops of productivity out of this old hide. "I need to produce more widgets, and of consistently higher quality if I’m ever going to get ahead,” I tell myself. “I have to be better, I want to be stronger, and I know I can be faster,” as I sit at my laptop staring at the blinking cursor in the dark and nothing seems to be happening.

This is the case more than I really care to admit.

The thing is, you can’t always make things happen out of nothing. We live in a finite universe and when we run out of energy, it’s all gone, for good. Now, we have the ability to reconstruct some of that energy within our bodies and minds via nutrition, mental breaks, and exercise, but those processes take time and we need to allow ourselves that time to recuperate and grow.

Part of the pioneer mantra is for men to be callused and hardened - to have a willpower like red granite and old pine roots - tough and unwavering. In the midwest we still respect people of this nature, men and women alike, because it’s a proven recipe for success. Self-discipline is part of the package deal with a person or it’s not. You can’t cultivate it in someone else, but you can within yourself and if you invest in that maxim, there will always be a need for you...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shooting the goblin moon

View of the moon on April 15 at about 3:30 a.m. as the Earth
came directly between the moon and the sun for a total eclipse,
also known as a blood moon.

Full lunar eclipse on a cold dark morning


Tuesday morning we experienced a rare celestial event - a full eclipse of the moon. Also called a “blood moon” for its dark red hue, the entire event lasted around three hours. As the full moon swung in orbit behind the Earth’s shadow it picked up red highlights from sunrise and sunset bouncing off opposite sides of the globe, turning it into a ghastly red goblin, then silently traveling back into the sun’s direct beams to once more becoming a pale white ghost.

Of course I had to be one of the crazy ones that couldn’t bare to miss out on watching the show. Setting my alarm for 3 a.m. before I turned in about 11 p.m. Monday night was not exactly a happy moment. Funny thing was, I didn’t even sleep until three, as I was awoken at about 2:30 a.m. by a little girl who had a bad dream. Well, needless to say I conceded the rest of the night’s sleep was lost and began to don winter layers for my frigid pursuit of the famous celestial body.

The night before I had prepared the DSLR camera by fully charging the battery (it drains quick in the cold), affixing the tripod mount to the camera, and laying everything out to cut down on finding reasons not to go outside in the dark, cold morning. You know how these things go, the more obstacles you can eliminate through preparedness, the less excuses you give yourself to not follow through.

Finally all suited up, gear at the ready, I set foot into the black. I remember turning the doorknob and thinking about all the times my father left the house to work long before the sun rose and couldn’t help but smile. I understand it better now, the drive to get out and trap something. I might be capturing photos and him furbearers, but I believe the principals are the same.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Life’s seasons

And a pile of princesses


It seems as though spring has finally arrived in all of its foggy, slushy, mucky glory. Rivers stream out from below every snowbank, mounds of dirt line every road and sidewalk, and fog banks ensnare all of us nearly every morning.

The ice is rotting on the lakes and the rivers are kicking and screaming to open up. Birds are returning in droves. Marshlands are filled with redwing blackbirds, rivers are teaming with ducks and geese, and robins are on the prowl for worms anywhere there’s a patch of grass to work with.

The world is changing around us as a new season struggles to find a decent foothold where old man winter has finally given up his claim after so long.

Some of it is ugly. Namely, the dirt and trash that melting snow reveals along roadways. Yet other things are stunning, such as the wonders of seeing the sunrise once again, the sounds of flowing water, and the feeling of sunshine and warm air. With beauty comes danger in nature, and we don’t get to choose how or when.

In this season of change we go along with the uncomfortable growing pains of sprouting a new year. Spring puts forth shoots to lay the the way for summer’s lush endeavors, and so it goes with my life in the Northwoods.

Writing Woodsman Enough has often been about personal growth for me, the author. I have made it a journal into which has been recorded intimate details of the fabric of my very being as often as I have used it to distance myself from facing reality. I suppose that is the way life flows, and I am not ashamed...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Customer service

New York couldn't help me out.
Maybe our local postal service can.

500 words from a five minute phone call


I spoke on the phone this week with a young man working out of an office in Manhattan. When ordering a package from his company's swanky downtown eyewear boutique, I inadvertently missed one number in my own street address, and was, therefore attempting to have that misplaced number put back where it belonged so my package might find its way to the correct house in rural northern Wisconsin.

A little embarrassed, I called the minute they opened Monday morning. As soon as the customer service rep answered, I had the feeling this was not a normal request; most people don’t mess up their own house address when filling out shipping information. He did, in fact, confirm this suspicion.

The guy, let’s call him Manhattan man, was helpful in walking me through the steps. This was a much better experience than attempting to wrangle customer service out of a cable company, mind you, but Manhattan man still seemed stressed. He did apologize for the wait and for putting me on a brief hold a couple times, but really, the whole thing only took five minutes.

It wasn’t until I got off the phone that I started to think about it more. See, I was very relaxed and slow on the telephone. While half of this is because I have to take a few deep breaths before calls because I otherwise become anxious, the other half I chalk up to my pace of life as compared to his.

I’m not in a hurry. What is there to race towards? More important to me is a day-to-day lifestyle in which I do not feel rushed at every moment and can take the time to see things done with care and decency rather than quick carelessness. Not to say that Manhattan man was careless, in fact he was anything but. I just noticed a different pace in those five minutes, and that’s one of my favorite aspects of the Northwoods lifestyle - the pace of life...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Out like a...


Relentless winter?
Flckr

Slush season or new ice age?


March is a blustery month full of chilly gusto and empty bravado; all huffing and puffing and generally making a mess of things. It is a shifting thing born between the sharp winds of winter and the bursting sun of spring. Cumulous clouds sometimes peak out upon the horizon now where all winter was seen only banks of dull, shapeless grey or sinewy wisps of clouded atmosphere.

Suddenly roadways and sidewalks make appearances again, and though they're surrounded by high heaps of snow on all sides and at all times, can sometimes still channel enough sunlight to melt the frosty world for a few inches around them.

Some years it even gets warm enough that we can call it slush season. Water running in the streets and flooding the storm sewers creates estuaries and muddy deposits in low places; the landscape is changing right before our eyes.

This year it’s not so much so, not yet anyway. We’re still locked up in ice and snow pretty well in these parts. March came in like a yeti, I think, and is leaving…like…a yeti. It’s cold outside! The wind howls night and day like a hungry wolf sitting outside on the doorstep. Random snow flurries fling fistfuls of fluffy stuff at our windows like a troop of psyched baboons. Forget roaring like a lion, March this year is a stampede of half-frozen wooly mammoths, brought crusading out of the depths of ancient glacier locks lost and forgotten under leagues worth of earthen graves...

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Man and machine

Sawdust and steam


The wood splitter sputtered and rattled and shook like some burly hog stuck with an arrow. It choked out dark grey puffs of smoke trying to clear its mechanical lungs, prompting a few drops of engine oil to fall from its greasy green carcass.

The green machine was an old steel husk from a bygone era but it made no difference. It was still being asked to perform at its best on a cold winter day. Man’s houses had gone cold without enough firewood for the winter, and so the splitter would obey the command to work, forcing the remnants of tree trunks into bite-size slivers for fires to consume.

Together, two men used tongs with talons to heft tree stumps upon Splitter's beam. There they would roll each stump into a strategic position to produce the best angle at which to split wood fibers and create smaller pieces. Splitter's hydraulic push arm did the work from there, forcing the dead tree meat onto its blade at the other end of the beam.

Splitter showed her age on this particular day, however. As the men tried to split tree trunks, the old green machine would shudder when forcing the gnarly wood at its blade, stalling the engine. This caused the men grief. One man would have to work to free each stuck stump with a sledge hammer. The other man would attend Splitter’s old, greasy motor systems with a puzzled look, inspecting oil levels and checking her spark plug.

On this day, it seemed to be a carburetor issue that was stalling the old gal. The man taking care used a pinch of gasoline to clear the lines and get her running smoothly again. The trick worked for a bit, but what it really took was the men being a bit gentler with the old gal and sensing the limitations of her strength.

Back to work they went...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Weather or not

Spring, are you out there?


It’s happening, can you feel it? Here and there are beginning to be signs of winter giving way to spring. I almost hesitate to say anything, as if daring to hope the cold and snow are lifting will bring old man winter roaring back to life.

The sun was up and there was fog rising in the woods on Monday, I even heard some birds that were not chickadees. The temperature was above freezing all day long and I didn’t even need to wear long johns. I’m pretty sure I’ve been wearing long johns since December 3 last year…

Could this be the end of the relentless winter? I guess only time will tell. Who knows, by the time you read this it may well be -20 again with 14 inches of snow expected overnight. Hopefully not.

This is a touchy time of year. Most everyone is anxious for change, expecting the sun to pop out, the air to warm up, and for the water to unfreeze. We begin to imagine what the land once looked like before the ice and the snowbanks and the constant stream of plow trucks up and down every road. Dare we picture days at the beach in the sun?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Poor guides

Lead by example, not policy


My uncle and I got stuck in an unpleasant situation during a weekend of fishing in Minnesota recently, and I was reminded what a bad leader looks like. We had to hire a leader, a guide, for the trip and boy did that backfire.

We had arrived in northern Minnesota Friday afternoon to meet the guide at a small bait shop and fishing outfitter along the highway, just out of town. My uncle lives 40 miles south in Brainerd, and though he knew some of the area, he was unclear yet on how to fish it, thus we hired the guide.

The area is lowland, mostly swampy areas and shallow lakes all around. Our plan was simple: hire a guide in the  area who would know the lakes because he lived there, go out for the day to fish, and head back to my uncle’s house that night. We hadn’t been able to get out much all winter due to all the snow and cold, so in a sense, we put all our eggs in this one basket.

On the phone we had made plans to meet the guide early in the morning and do some trout fishing. Ever fished through the ice for browns or brookies before? Well, it’s a blast. That is, unless your guide is incompetent.

We put out on the ice early, sleds in tow behind us as the sky was just lighting up over the lake, and that’s when it began. My uncle asked our guide, Ben, where we were headed, and right away you got the sense Ben had no idea what he was doing.

“Well I always try to go where the fish are,” he said with a smirk and tramped onto the lake in snowshoes...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Myotis lucifugus

The little brown bat’s latin name is Myotis lucifugus,
which makes it sound a bit more terrifying than it really is.

A winter slumber disturbed


So far, no good in operation rodent vanquish. In fact, far from elimination of household vermin, we’ve actually discovered more.

In case you missed the first half of this journey, let me catch you up to speed: there’s a mouse in our house. Well, there was a mouse in the house. Now I’m confused as to where the little devil went and how he’s getting by on no food at all.

Upon discovering this mouse a couple weeks ago, I set traps and sealed the hole in the wall where I knew he was getting access to the main floor dog dish via the crawlspace below. No dog food has been removed by rodents since, but the traps in the crawlspace remain undisturbed.

In fact, upon first check of the two-trap trapline, I found the sunflower seeds removed from the peanut butter encrusted trap pan and little mouse tongue marks in the peanut butter itself. The dirty bugger outfoxed me! I reset the trap with additional seeds, and this time put a layer of peanut butter on top of the seeds to make it more difficult for the intruder to tiptoe his way to a tasty meal. Every check since then, though, reveals no sign of additional action at the sets.

I’ve had some additional suggestions since my initial report on this issue came out the 13th of this month, including a baiting technique described to me by a fellow Wintergreen Resort patron. He suggests threading some mono fishing line with a needle through a piece of dog food to tie to the mouse trap pan. Not a bad idea. I’ve held off getting that technical with the trap though, insisting (to myself mostly) the tiny fiend will succumb to the peanut butter-sunflower seed speciality I’ve cooked up for it.

That’s what is going on in the crawlspace, anyway. In the attic, there’s a different situation on hand - bats...

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Man about town

Something as simple as finding your favorite cap
can make for a good story to share.

Slap me five, I found my Kromer


Of all the highlights of a small town, one of my favorite has got to be standing in the doorway of the local grocery store to catch up on life with other town folk. You’ve been there before, I’m sure. While walking in you see a face you recognize and are either delighted or obliged to extended a “hey how are ya” greeting. The ensuing conversation can be as short as five seconds or as long as 20 minutes, depending upon what mood the other person is in.

The time varies so much, I think, because folks in a small town have a lot to say to each other. You already know who everybody is, so if you extend the greeting you’re being consciously friendly, at the very least. By expanding from a simple greeting to engage in subjects like the weather, work, or the economy you’re at least expressing an interest in the other person’s opinion - a sign of recognition.

And it can go further than that. If the acquaintance is an old time family friend, or of some distant relation you probably check in on each other’s family matters.

“How’s aunt Susie doing? Does Greg graduate this year already? How are the dogs?”

Have I just aged myself by 30-some years?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Operation rodent vanquish

House mouse needs to die.
Photo by Ryan Somma

Horrified fiancé, determined father, indifferent dog



Let me cut right to the chase - we’ve got a mouse in the house.

I saw the little bugger when I was letting the dog out Saturday night before bed. A little brown blur that moved silently along the baseboard right in front of my feet before vanishing into a thimble sized hole in the wall. The weirdest part about the whole thing is how fast it all happened. One minute I’m yawing in a half daze at the end of a long day, waiting for the dog to come back inside from doing her business, and the next thing I know I’ve got that creepy crawly feeling.

That’s the worst - the sensation your house is suddenly very much not in order.

“How can I go to bed like this,” you start to think to yourself. I wanted immediately to start scrubbing every square inch of the house. Instead I just stood there in shock repeating “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” over and over out loud while the dog clawed at the door to come back inside.

She snapped me out of it, my dog Bean. It was well below zero so she was eager to get back inside. And no, PETA, no animals were harmed in the making of this haunting incident.

No, the dog only suffered my ridicule upon reentering the house, upon which I began shouting (in a hushed voice) things like “Where are your killer instincts?! Sniff that thing out and dig it outa the wall! You mutt!” along with a multitude of nastier choice words.

I started to look along the baseboard in both adjoining rooms, on a mad frantic search for any other breaches of security. Bean just sort of huffed and puffed in the doorway, waiting for her bedtime treat...

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Hibernation inclination


I do enjoy being outside in the cold
but shoveling day and night has got me thinking
about burrowing deep into a snowbank until spring.

In the silence with the tea


You know, the indoors aren’t such a bad thing. I know I've been pushing to get outside and find ways to enjoy and thrive in the cold and snow, and while I do really believe that’s important to do, the relentless arctic assault has made that admittedly challenging this year. As a result, I’ve spent a lot more time inside.

I still slip into long underwear and a wool hat the moment I crawl out of bed, but that’s just because the heating bill is breaking my back, so I keep the thermostat down. I still fumble at the coffee pot first thing in the morning and chomp down a hot breakfast of oatmeal, but that’s just to work up the nerve to go out and shovel.

I’ve been saying “It’s either blistering cold or a fresh six inches of snow, there’s no middle ground out there,” all winter long. The problem is I’m continually right. There have been days (many, many days) this winter where I've shoveled not once, not twice, but thrice in the same day, only to get up and do it again first thing in the morning.

There have even been cases where we’ve been expecting guests up to the house, so I go out and clear off the walk in advance of their arrival, only to have them tramping in clots of snow because the wind was blowing so hard it covered everything back up within 20 minutes.

 I’m starting to weigh the benefits of simply standing on the porch with a shovel all day...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

To keep building

Shooting stars are, after all, made of flaming stones
hurling themselves through the sky.
Photo by Stuart Heath

What it takes to make a shooting star


I’ve got to tell you something difficult, perhaps a little embarrassing. This is not easy, writing these essays. In fact a lot of the time it’s really rather super extremely painful and I’m left thinking about how much less stress there would be in my life week to week if I stopped writing for awhile.

Sometimes I have only mere slivers of stories to share, other times absolutely nothing. Neither seem enough to bother printing. Other times I need to really dig deep into something with about 2,500 words, but those are just too complex and a tad on the long side for this spot. I don’t have time to do those plus the rest of my work.

Truth be told, sometimes I resort to sending work out that I’m not happy with. The way I write, I usually find one or two turned phrases that came to fruition only through the other 700 words surrounding them.

Is it still worth it then? Is the rest of the time and energy worth the two catchiest phrases in the whole piece - the two shooting stars?

What are my options here? Do I forego writing a column for a week until I can get my ducks in a row, or do I spit out something mediocre - something that’s not exactly right and certainly not honed?

One journalist I follow on Twitter recently said this: "Writers put themselves through hell for peanuts and write off anxiety as a personal problem.”

That kinda hits the nail on the head. For the sake of thinking broader, let’s call the writer/artist/whatever a builder, so we can see how far this concept actually stretches. The builder wants his project to be perfect, wants it to shine like a diamond in the rough, stand upon a windy mountain top, burn like a ball of fire in the sky. He or she wants it to be memorable, stoic, steady and stalwart. The project should be built as something for a portfolio - an example of his or her best work.

What stress that is, to consider all of that each time you sit at the keyboard, err, excuse me, each time you’re about to pour the concrete...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Morning snowfall


A singular experience
Morning snow crystallized to a pane of glass.


Silence.

I wake to move in a house undisturbed. It is one of life’s greatest blessings, the deep, dark quiet of early morning. Before the world wakes. I try to move in a way that keeps things that way - quietly.
I sit at the kitchen table with my first meal of the day to break the night’s fasting. The sun is just beginning to shed light through the window, and I’m made aware of the wonders happening outside. Snow is falling.

It seems a small thing, almost, that if not for sight and a little light I’d be unaware of what was happening outside the window.

I watch, enamored. The twisting and swirling, the gusts and the shapes. White flakes fill the air so completely and at all times. And yet, each flake is always only moments away from finally resting.

Alone I watch a silent symphony.

There, another gust and the wind takes mute forms outside my window.

How does it move in swells? What changes the direction of a group of flakes here, a clutch of crystals there?

They’re all moving at different speeds, yet at once in synch. Sometimes I see planes of depth, as though sister air masses are riding the same merry-go-round. Or maybe the swells are brothers pushing and shoving.

I notice the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder are frozen. Oh, I am sorry little chickadees.

There goes the snowplow...

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Weather events

Instantly frozen coffee in the -20º F polar vortex.
Photo by Hannah of StonehousePhoto

A bit of research and observation


Cold winter nights in the Northwoods are fended off by staying indoors and cranking up the heat. We’ve lived through winters before. However, last week was the coldest it’s been for a full three-day stretch since 2005.

Dubbed by the media as a "polar vortex," the cold blast that froze a large portion of the nation Sunday through Wednesday had millions focused on one very specific topic - how to stay warm.

The difference this time around was the amount of time since we last combated several days in a row where the mercury just wouldn’t rise above zero. Many of us had lapses in memory as to just what we needed to do to keep warm and still be operational during the 72-hour event.

Our neighbors to the west shut down their government offices, public schools, and other state-run operations even before the air mass from Siberia stretched out its cold fingers to clutch us all helpless in its grasp. Minnesota shut down; Wisconsin plugged on. The cold reached as far as Florida, providing a brief cooling spell over orange groves that growers say will actually improve the crop by sweetening the fruit.

In Kentucky, the Associated Press reported an escaped prisoner turned himself back into the police because it was just too cold to be running around outside. Now that’s cold...

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Uncharted



The hardwood stronghold on the snow-covered sea


With a frosty mustache and one foot soggy wet I kept marching. My insulated rubber boots were just a hair too short for the snow, so I was ill prepared for one particularly deep drift. It didn’t matter though, that my foot was wet, I was almost there. Promises of shelter and warmth whispered softly from somewhere in my head.

The wind-whipped snow flurries were dancing violent swirls through the trees before crashing onto the ground. Gusts coming off the lake burned my cheeks and split my lips. The small section of my face that was exposed to the elements was tortured ceaselessly. The rest of my head was bound in beaver fur, and my coat, flannels, and long underwear kept safe the remainder of my mortal form. If only I had worn snow pants over my boots...

Strapped to my back was a rickety old pack basket, stuffed to the brim with winter clothing, frozen fish, and an assortment of things I would need to spend the night at a snow laden cabin in the woods. I’m sure there are better suited and more modern solutions for back baggage, but the basket was my father’s and it’s rather romantic in an old-timey way.

There were no chickadees in my ear that day. There was no sign of the sun, but grey and white illuminated by a vast, cloud abyss overhead. Truly, daylight in the dead of a Northwoods winter only achieves a sliver of what is seen the rest of the year, especially in June. It’s almost like living under ground (a hard, frozen, unforgiving mound of black dirt), surviving these winters. But that was the point of my venture; I wasn’t going to let the cold and dark keep me down - I had to get out.

My walking stick was icing over at the bottom and my legs were burning. I should have worn snowshoes. I should have been more prepared ahead of time. I should have known better than to bring this much stuff.

I could see the cabin now, at least...