Saturday, October 4, 2014

Green Tomatosplotion

The fall canning season has been going fast and strong, and now I find myself in possession of a mountain of tomatoes that didn't quite make it before the oncoming freeze tonight.

I'm happy to can, pickle, fry, fire roast, and do just about anything else I can think of to get these lovelies gobbled down or put up for the winter.  If you happen to have a favorite green tomato recipe, please comment below.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pretty Fly for a Bait Guy

I've fallen away from my roots in the last decade.  Or perhaps I've evolved.  I'm not entirely sure there's a difference.  One thing is certain, I don't fish with conventional rod and reel nearly as much as I used to.  I don't fish with anything nearly as much as I used to, period, but we'll cast that aside for the time being.

It's a natural progression, much written and talked about in fly fishing circles.  Some of us, through boredom or the love of a challenge or the coveting of more sexy gear, eventually leave our spinning rods and baitcasters standing in a forlorn corner obelisk to chase fish and dreams with fly rods.  It happened to me, and it had been quite a few years since I'd been in a good old fashioned bait shop, until recently.

Buddy on planer board watch. Como Lake.
At the farmers market one morning I spied a woman sporting earrings similar to, but not quite spinner blades.  With Randi's birthday approaching, my mind leaped to fashioning earrings for her out of actual spinner blades, knowing she'd appreciate the outdoorsy bent.  In a feat resembling a protracted archaeological dig, I managed to lay hands on my own crawler harnesses from the old catfishing days on Cherokee Marsh and Como Lake, when we used to troll the mud flats for channel cats just like you would for walleyes except with heavier gear (and to only moderate and sporadic success in our case).

There were plenty of blades in my old collection in many sizes and colors, but only a few matching pairs, and mostly beaten and nicked like cheap old diner spoons.  One hatchet blade in bubble gum pink and black would've been perfect were it not for the lack of a matching partner and some unidentifiable crust of fish goo or worm innards.  Not exactly the makings of jewelry for most, although I do know a couple catfishermen who, finding a woman willing to don earrings of such earthy patina, would begin the search for an engagement ring in earnest.  Their wedding colors would be Realtree and Copenhagen, and I'd be there to tap the first half barrel in a plastic tub of ice.

I was about to order some shiny new blades from an online retailer of such things when a novel thought occurred to me... I should go to a bait shop.  I live mere miles from the the biggest inland walleye lake in Wisconsin.  I didn't need the latest in hyper-graphic paint jobs and blade design to fool fish, simply some clean and shiny jewelry fixin's.  Surely a bait shop in walleye country would have a surplus of old blades in bulk.  I was suddenly stunned I hadn't thought of that in the first place.

For the uninitiated: while both fly shops and bait shops exist to provide the tools necessary to chase fish using different methods, there exists an undeniable gulf of differences between the two.  They are, in general, two massively different sides of the same coin.

Many modern fly shops may be described as stylish.  They're appointed and polished.  Sleek.  If a bait shop is the hardware store, many fly shops are the equivalent of a wood grain Apple Store.

If there is a shop dog it will be a German Shorthaired Pointer or a setter, some pointing breed resting comfortably on a canvas and cedar chip bed from which he can preside comfortably over his fiefdom.  There will be beautifully mounted trout on the walls, and always one huge walleye for some reason (or a whitefish out west).  The shop rats will fall into a number of categories, including, but not limited to... the trimly bearded and tatted post-punk modern bug-flinger; replete with piercings, blocky hipster spectacles, and a snarky t-shirt (Fly fishing advice: free. Bait fishing advice: Don't)  He drinks only craft beer and drives a Subaru or Xterra.  The older gentleman in pressed khakis and spendy Filson flannel drinks scotch (or if he's progressive, bourbon, neat), and drives a Volvo.  He prefers to fish dries upstream, but will occasionally deign to fishing nymphs when there's no hatch on, "to pass the time."  If the shop also runs a guide service, there will be a twitchy muttering guide hidden somewhere in the corner so he doesn't bite the patrons, his shoulders copper and broad from a season of toil at the oars of a drift boat.  He drinks whatever the hell anybody sets gingerly near him.

There will be mountains of flies, organized by style, size and color in those display cases with all the little cubicles -- high rise apartments for flies.  Some will be "bought in" as they say, and some will be tied by the shop, the latter having been conceived during fever dreams in the cold off season.  The latest trends in vests and boat bags and waders will adorn the walls, a full kit of which will approach the cost of a year of college tuition.  The latest iteration of the revered Simms wading jacket alone goes, laughably, for over half a thousand dollars... for a raincoat.  Maybe that logo on the chest makes one a better caster.

The best fly shops maintain all of this with an air of comfortable welcome and free coffee near the door.  They're like walking into a nice guest cabin with a warming fire.  The less desirable among them fall deeply into the trappings of effete xenophobia.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the bait shops most of us grew up with.

Where the modern fly shop may be polished, the bait shop most often appears more lived in.  More real, bluntly.  Most are as clean as they need be while remaining a bit scruffy, much like the resident shop dog which, incidentally, will be a good workaday Lab or some other amiable mutt of indeterminate lineage and bountiful good cheer.

There will be minnow tanks in back, gurgling and churning with life and that pervasive, if subtle and pleasant aroma of wriggling life, aerated fresh water, and ammonia.  Some places let you scoop your own minnows while others leave you there peeking under the lid to watch the little guys dart and scatter willy-nilly every time you move, until you can be helped.

There will be dusty mounts of huge walleyes on the walls and always one trout for some reason.  And often, a buck of a size not often seen in that county for the last century with the arrow that felled it resting lightly in its rack.

There will be plastic bins of jigs and hooks in every single size and color ever conceived in the universe, some of them not in popular use since Chubby Checker set the world to twisting.  At the shop I used to frequent there was an eight foot wall of divided Plano boxes set as drawers and filled with ice jigs.  Brimming with thousands of them, tangled in their little prisons so you had to shake one loose to buy it.  Psychedelic pinks and oranges to muted natural tones, from minuscule one dot tear drops to monstrosities obviously constructed in pursuit of a kraken.  From factory paint slopped on junk hardware to quality one-offs from somebody's basement decades ago -- and plenty of the converse.  Well more jigs than I've seen assembled in one place before or since.

Some bait shops are stand-alone affairs, but most are tucked away in the basement of a hardware store or back of a gas station, almost as an afterthought.  In the instance of the latter your customer service representative will vary from a freaked out high school girl pulled from behind the register and afraid to scoop the "icky little fishies"... to a bedraggled guy fresh from cutting some chain and on his way to hauling some sheetrock.

The stand alone bait shops almost always have the proprietor or the proprietor's spouse behind the counter.  These are the best shops.  They know where everything is and most of them care about keeping you as a customer.  They will pass along the fishing report which can later be sussed into equal parts quality information, rumors, and mystical bullshit -- my undying favorite example of such bait shop wisdom being the time a guy behind the counter told us if we were quiet at night in our shacks, we could hear the crappies scraping the underside of the ice for bugs and follow them that way.

Bait shopkeepers are a consistently colorful bunch, and I've had the pleasure of knowing many.  There was Gene with his perpetually filthy canvas work shirt and only the merest acquaintance with the waking world.  When you could rouse him from his torpor his information was solid.  And Red, the excitable fast talker, who, upon only our second meeting, began our conversation by regaling me with a story about the time he woke up in jail after a particularly sanguine bender.

Lastly, with much trepidation, we come to the Scary Lady.

I have no inkling of her given name as she is referred to in hushed tones, fittingly, only as the Scary Lady.  Her ramshackle bait shop, attached to her rural home by a breezeway shuffled together out of warped plywood and prayers, holds a funhouse menagerie of anachronisms and dust bunnies.  It's a big place, deep and long, a warren of aisles and cubby holes festooned with dusty bubble packs and thrice-painted peg boards sporting equal parts full and empty pegs.

One is not allowed to scoop minnows at the Scary Lady's.  No, the dauntless fisherman must wait patiently near the tanks while the Scary Lady separates herself from the hapless stool that supports her impressive girth, and shuffles forward.  The organic aroma of the tanks is soon overpowered by a more feral odor.  The dreaded moment arrives when the fisherman must decide which eye to peer into, the northerly tracking one or the other, seemingly more interested in Illinois.  It should be noted that all attempts at friendly conversation will be flatly ignored.  Transactions take place only through a series of grunts and gesticulations from behind a stringy mat of frightening witch hair, followed by your purchase price appearing mercifully on the register.  Cash only.

Her bait is fresh and lively or nobody would ever go back there again.  Local lore says that during one oppressively hot and humid summer years ago, she appeared in a bathing suit and slipped into one of the bait tanks for a refreshing dip with the shiners.  I hope, for the good of humanity, that is merely an exaggerated folk tale.  On another occasion I know to be true, after I'd paid for my crappie minnows and she'd apparently forgotten in the following instant, she snarled a gravelly, "What is that... what is that," her voice growing louder as she pointed a crooked finger at the minnow bucket in my hand.   Being the staid, fully grown man of the outdoors that I am, I followed her inquiry with the most practical course of action I could come up with -- I scrambled out the door with my bait.  Some would even say I ran, but I prefer to think of it as relieving a poor old woman of her confusion.

You may think the Scary Lady and her exploits a figment of my imagination made up for the enjoyment of my readers, perhaps even an homage to Rancid Crabtree of McManus fame.  I assure you, she is quite real and more frightening than I've managed to describe.  Ask Brian.  If we deem you worthy and brave, we may even take you to visit her sometime.

So it was thus armed that I ventured into a local stand-alone bait shop recently, in search of those spinner blades needed to make earrings.  I found myself in an open and clean bait shop, one that I'd never seen before but knew through memory.

Plenty of earring blades in those dusty old bait shop boxes
The register was attended by the proprietor and her daughter while two ancient, sun-beaten men in seed caps talked about old guy stuff down the counter -- how much the recent rain would bring the river up, and the running concerns of a certain Janice and her useless bum of a husband.

When I related my search for blades as a fly tyer making jewelry,  the owner and her daughter fairly jumped into action.  The daughter is a fellow tyer who produces a locally famous walleye jig, and the mother quickly produced dusty box upon box of bulk spinner blades from the back.  Both were helpful and cheerful in our conversations.

As I finished up my purchase, one of the old guys called over to the daughter, "Hey Brenda, you got a pair of scissors?"

"Yeah... why?"

"I'm gonna cut that goddamn muskrat off his face," pointing at my substantial beard.  Laughs all around.

He continued, ambling over to me, "You ever meet the Fishin' Magician?"

"I haven't," I replied, growing slightly wary.

"Well, now you have, son," shaking my hand.  That earned another laugh from me and eye-rolls from the captive audience who'd obviously been privy to his shtick a few times before.

You can get all the lustrous "latest and greatest" in any modern fly shop, but I'll venture to bet you'll never be treated to a good-natured threat of debeardment on your first arrival there.  And I'm certain you can't get spinner blades... or sun-drenched earring selfies from a happy birthday girl.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Short Loins: Candlestick Maker

If you've been reading here recently, you're aware of my current holy war against the invasive and detrimental common buckthorn and my odd disquietude concerning its mass murder at my own hands.

In restive moments I've continued my attempts to come up with ways to use the waylaid wood
constructively.  While ideas that would consume all the trees I've killed yet elude me, I did come up with one yesterday that allowed me to use one more trunk and produce a comely fall arrangement.

Aside from a few moments in which I was convinced I was about to start the shop ablaze while drilling end-long into the sections of buckthorn with a huge spade bit, there's no real story here.

Some time with the chainsaw and drill press, a selection of archetypal autumn harvest from the
garden, and some persnickety arranging soon led to an attractive centerpiece for the dinner table featuring buckthorn votive candlesticks.

For those of you interested in cobbling together such a thing, it's really quite simple.  All you need in the way of tools are a saw of some sort and a 1.5" spade drill bit.  I'm currently in possession of a mountain of buckthorn and I do quite enjoy the asymmetrical orange heartwood, but a softer wood such as birch or basswood would be much easier to deal with.  In which case, you could forego the drill press and simply use a large pair of channel locks or vice grips.  Add some votive candles and a mess of autumnal goodies, and you're in business.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Genocidal Tendencies

There were two moments.

Late last winter I built a cold frame, a small wooden box with a second-hand window for a "roof" in which the hopeful northern gardener can start seeds before warm weather comes and continue to grow fresh greens after the frosts and early snows arrive.  I filled it with annuals and greens to be enjoyed all summer long.  And beets, because beets are awesome.  Roasted beets, smoked beets, boiled beets, pickled beets, beets beets... I'm even coming around on smaller raw beets even though they sometimes make my mouth itch in what I can only assume is a mild but annoying allergic reaction.

Normally, a gardener would direct sow beets in the garden after the soil had been sufficiently warmed, and I did that as well, but I wanted to get a jump on some by starting them in a tray in the cold frame because, as we've learned, beets cannot come soon enough.

Beet and tomato salad
Beet seeds are teensy-weensy little buggers, and I, being of sound mind and hammy galoot mitts, went with the less than precise but ultimately easier method of broadcast planting the seeds, followed by a sprinkling of potting soil on top and a spritz of water.  In no time I was greeted by a minuscule jungle of crimson and emerald seedlings needing to be properly thinned in order to grow big and strong and delicious in the garden after being transplanted.

It was then that I had my first moment of introspection.  A real, honest-to-goodness emotional reaction.  Keep in mind that I've finished off a wounded deer with a knife to the jugular after a less then perfect rifle shot (though, to be honest, the first time I was confronted with that same dilemma I had to defer to Roger when I quailed with blade in hand). I've stomped on a bunny to end its pain after I'd unknowingly maimed it with the lawn mower, punched a bat when he finally landed on the living room wall, and hammer-thwacked a face cord of nuisance chipmunks stuck in traps out in the shop.  I'm no stranger to taking a life up close, just as none of us who pass time out in the wild world are.

Yet there I stood, Mr. Tough Guy, repulsed by the thought of yanking out the innocent little beet seedlings I'd doted over.  So their brethren could grow large enough to be murdered in my mouth months later, no less.  It was startling.

I said it was a moment, I didn't say it wasn't an odd one.  I got over my rare and unexpected wanderings into tenderness, and thinned the beets.  Transplanted them, direct sowed more alongside, and they are all currently in season and delectable.

The second moment dawned in one of those gestalt explosions that rip through your delicate little monkey brain on suddenly seeing a certain situation as a whole.

I was hoofing it down to the creek to do a little warbler watching in early May, the woods just coming alive with green and sun and little midges spinning up over the water.  Migrating songbirds gather down there to feast on the hatching aquatic bugs, and in so doing, refill their energy stores for continued voyages northward or the upcoming mating season if they stick around here.

All different sorts of colorful and drab fliers arrive, many of whom we have the chance to see only briefly as they pass through to Canada – a thrill I am unashamed to admit that I've yet to outgrow.  I'm especially partial to the kaleidoscopic clan of the warblers, with their bright plumage and hyper flitting about.  There are so many different species that I'll never keep them all straight, but the annual rite of parking my butt and watching them gorge is always a pleasant refresher course in their names.

I am slightly ashamed to admit, however, that even with it staring me directly in my apparently blind face, I'd never noticed all the buckthorn.  Not properly noticed, anyway.  I'd seen it, but I hadn't looked at it.  Somehow looked past it and around it without acknowledging it.  I even mentioned it as a growing problem in a previous post without ever giving it much of a second thought.

Common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) is an invasive species in North America, and a pretty harmful one at that.  It's a tall shrub or small tree listed as "restricted" here in the state of Wisconsin, meaning it can "...cause or have the potential to cause significant environmental or economic harm or harm to human health..." (WDNR Invasives Rule - NR 40/terminology).  And it is presenting a full frontal, brute force takeover right outside these windows.

As I stood there drenched in springtime rays and surrounded by this European invader, I came to the instant-if-belated realization that war had been declared without my consent or knowledge.  In my blissful blunderings through the woods here, I had missed the call to action.  On closer inspection, the invader was everywhere.  And with that knowledge, I began to notice the springtime absences.  No jack-in-the-pulpit, no trillium, no Dutchman's breeches.  I can't be completely assured the presence of dense stands of buckthorn directly correlates to these absences (and many more), I've not done a controlled study, but I do know that it can't help.  Buckthorn greens up earlier in spring than natives, produces dense shade, stays green longer in fall, and releases chemicals in the soil that retard the growth of plants nearby.  In short, it chokes everything out.

It is not a climax tree.  I don't know if, left unchecked, it would eventually create a completely homogeneous forest, but even an understory monoculture is hugely detrimental to everything from insects to deer to my beloved diminutive warblers.

And so, it has to go.  A jihad has been declared.

I was suddenly outraged.  Stupidly, angry at the buckthorn itself, but more with my blindness and inaction.  There were none of the seedling thinning related questions of morality.  In my mind, those trees were threatening me and my personal space, so I did what you do in that situation – I steeled myself for a fight.  Plum topped off with righteous disgust, I wanted nothing more than to kill those trees as I sharpened the chainsaw. While seething blood lust may not be the most cordial reaction, nothing lends more instant drive and determination than getting oneself all snarled up in a good old fashioned snit.

Another tow strap load to one of the piles
I began cutting and poisoning in earnest.  Great swaths of the evil invader buckthorn fell to chainsaw, brush cutter, and triclopyr. The last necessary as buckthorn is not a wilting violet.  Unless it's poisoned directly after cutting, multiple shoots will appear from the stump with even more vigor.  There were initial pangs of trepidation, applying poison so freely in the woods, but then I found purpose-made applicators that look exactly like those fat Bingo markers, and I was comfortably murdering trees and shrubs with blue-dyed poison in perfectly dabbed Bingo dots once again.

For a while, anyway.  With some deeper internet research, I was reminded that clear cutting entire sections of the forest isn't the most healthy practice unless you're going to replant.  A bit of moderation has to be applied lest a person slash the entire place wide open to buckets of sunshine and a new crop of invasives.  Secondly, righteous anger can only fuel a person for so long.  It's damn hot to be crawling around wrestling with a chainsaw in the thick stuff, and the mosquitoes have been atrocious this wet summer.

Most importantly, after having established multiple brush piles (one as big as a two-car garage), the old beet seedling questions began to creep back in.

What is our relationship to any given ecosystem?  Are we stewards or simply inhabitants?  In the hours of bending and cutting, skeeter swatting and sweat dripping, I've broken those questions down into three categorical answers that work for me.

One can simply remain inside and ignore whatever's happening out there.  Most of America does – video games are fun, I'm told.  Or one can inhabit the outdoors passively.  Go for a nice leaf-peeping hike in the fall, pick some apples at the orchard with your sweety, and never venture off any beaten path.  Lastly, a person might elect to jump in with both feet – explore, learn, eat off the land and with the seasons, and even sometimes attempt to actively manage it, keeping in mind that many of these attempts end in abject failure or full-on disaster.  The presence of woods-choking buckthorn where it doesn't belong being the blatant example here.

We can all point to a dozen examples of the introduction of a non-native species, applied even with the best of human intentions, leading to the natural equivalent of act three in a Jerry Bruckheimer flick – shit is gonna blow up in your face.

The understory looks a mess when freshly cut, but it'll bounce back
The sheer numbers of trees I killed (and continue to kill) was what became the crux of my more careful thinking.  From the standpoint of sheer biomass, never before have I slaughtered on such a grand scale without plans to heat a domicile.  But they are only trees, I'm not killing puppies.

Which raised another question while slowly wrestling and tripping my way through the thickets.  In the removal of invasive species, is sentience of said species morally relevant?  Is the absence of it?  Surely, killing trees at a staggering rate because social and scientific convention tells us they are "bad" is not equivalent to mass murder.  Or one murder, for that matter.  But by killing them en masse, I am removing from the land a great deal of some sort of "life force."  

They aren't inherently evil, they're just standing there... tree-ing.  I remain diligent but slightly ambivalent in my genocidal tendencies toward buckthorn.  There is some kind of bass-ackwards comfort in knowing I'll never kill it all, even on this small scrap of land.  And if I do get close to eliminating it all, there are plenty of other invaders here to contend with like honeysuckle and garlic mustard.  Best keep that saw sharp.

Not all of the cut buckthorn will be going to waste.  Some of it will be burned, and in a small token gesture to the spirits of the woods (at least on my end of the deal) Frisbee has picked up a load of it to be turned into pens, wine stoppers, and various doodads on his lathe at home.

One of the lesser-known upshot qualities of buckthorn is the beauty of it's grain and color when finished.  While the sapwood remains pale, the heartwood varies from light umber to a deep, golden orange.  And if you look closely at a well finished piece of buckthorn, you'll notice a very comely slight sheen or pearlescence seeming to glow from behind the coral orange grain.  In woodworking circles this is known as chatoyance, which comes to us from French where it means "to shimmer like cats' eyes."  (Le chat being the French word for "cat") That is one of most lovely English word origins I know.  It's so visually perfect.   

If you'd like to purchase pens or wine stoppers like those pictured below, turned from buckthorn cut here, you can contact Frisbee at  He's also turning implements in sumac at the moment.  Call him Paul. While we do annually question his father's sanity as gun deer season approaches, his parents did not actually name him after a plastic flying disc.

Buckthorn wine stopper

Buckthorn pen

Sumac wine stopper

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fleet Farm Time Machine

Suspended with feet drifting up for the surface in water as clear as the air, face down with one hand clamped on a piling grown slimy with feathery green algae.  Frozen in breath-holding time above a clean cobble bottom – this is how I first fell in love.

It wasn't big, but it was ours
It seems nearly impossible now, but there was a time when a simple auto mechanic and a school teacher, merely by the location of their modest ranch home amid the ever-multiplying McMansions along one of the most picturesque and adored lakes in Wisconsin, could be afforded access to a small private beach denied to those nearby with much greater means.   That is indeed how the world worked when I was young.

Records were kept on index cards in little wooden boxes at the public beach house back then, the gateway to all summer fun, much like Mom's box of cards for creating cherry cheesecake and Salisbury steak at home.   In a rite of spring dripping with that rare satisfaction rendered when the “have-nots” triumph over the “haves,” local kids would troop into that little clapboard beach house, and announce our names a little too loudly in case there were any rich kids from Illinois within hearing distance.   Surnames would be ticked off on the cards, and small fabric seasonal passes would be freely dispensed from a roll much like tickets at a raffle, square nylon patches little more than an inch square with the year embroidered in a circle around the perimeter.  One for each member of the household and a few extras for guests.  But ours came from the roll with the colored embroidery thread.  We got red or blue or sometimes gold, depending on the year, while those from away got only black and only after they payed.

That little colored badge of honor was quickly sewn on the lower left thigh of your trunks to be displayed proudly for the gate attendants and life guards the rest of the splashing and frolicking summer, and more importantly, for the kids emerging from shiny foreign cars with air conditioning and upholstery who had to hot-foot it all the way across the sweltering blacktop to the far entrance of the public beach.   The yuppie scum.

All socioeconomic injustices temporarily waylaid, we were free to cross the much shorter route to our gated private beach.   Or, more often, to simply hop the fence and tear down to the water in unbridled youthful glee for a day of cannonballs and jacknives on top of each other.   The gate attendants knew who we were anyway.   They were our babysitters and waitresses in winter.

In our house we had to finish our chores before mounting bikes for the almost daily speed run down the huge hill to the water, and I submit that was cruel and unusual punishment.   Dishes or vacuuming or the inexorable pain of cleaning a bathroom.   Imagine the horror.  But once our work was done we were set free to rocket our way to sunburned freedom.  On that ride down “The Big Hill” I was stopped more than once by Mr. Hutchinson, the town cop, for passing cars on my single-minded mission to achieve soggy summer fun.   The posted speed limit there was (and still is) a residentially staid 30mph, and I can happily recall glancing over to see the startled visages of drivers as I shot idiotically by on the double yellow line.   I cringe to think of the stitches and dental work (or much worse) that would've been involved had I ever put that old Schwinn down as it began to shimmy and wobble in my haste to get to the beach.

As we grew into rowdy young men, burgeoning with hormones but still too young to drive, the true proof of manhood among us was the ability to ride our bikes back up that same hill at the end of the swimming day without once touching the handlebars.  A feat I came very close to achieving many times, but never completed, I'm sorry to report.   I can rest easy now, from the remove of adulthood, with the fact that I failed.   I believe all claims of having achieved this monumental task were exaggerated or flatly untrue.   I don't think it's possible for a kid to do, and you wouldn't either if you saw the hill or a topo map.  Except for maybe in the case of Brian.  He claims to have done it a generation before me, and I believe him.   He's not normal.

Yet another rite into young manhood was the willingness to sleep “under the stars.”  There came a time when even the flimsy comforts of a tent and foam pad were eschewed by all who wished to deem themselves men of the woods.   We'd practice our young bushcraft skills, often giving up on the bow and drill fire in collective resignation that a one-match fire was almost as cool as a no-match fire and far more comforting than none at all.   Having mutilated a couple flimsy perch or shiners with a fillet knife and fire, and maybe with some wild greens or berries, we'd enjoy our paltry repast. Things were sometimes bolstered with hot dogs or beans or Oreos from home, but young mountain men in the making have amazing powers of selective memory, and these treats we summarily erased from the public record.

We'd stretch out in the grass and gaze up at the stars, fully codified in the belief that we would one day be remembered among names like Boone, Lewis, and Clark.   But here's the thing: Even on warm summer nights, even as a malleable, nearly indestructible pre-teen, you don't get a lot of sleep sprawled out right in the dirt.  Not if you've evolved past that stage twenty-five millennia prior to trying it again, anyway.

So we'd be up early.  Very early.   In that light that isn't really even light yet -- the bottomless pre-dawn calm. A time of day known best to duck hunters, third-shifters, and young knuckleheads who think it's rad to dirtbag it right on the ground.

What was there to do at this hour? The same thing there was to do every day all summer long – make for the beach.

Lake Geneva is one of the largest kettle lakes in Wisconsin.   A kettle lake, in quick and dirty lay terms, being a dent in the ground left by a retreating glacier and filled with water.  It is spring fed, deep and cold, and almost heartrendingly clear.  Like looking through a window into the earth.   One of those lakes where you park the boat in twenty five feet of crystalline water to fish for spawning bluegills in fifteen feet of water, instead of anchoring in five to cast up into two.   And sometimes, if you're paying close attention when you pull a thick spinning gill up out of those depths, you will notice a long, heavy pike or musky hovering deep down there in the wet void.   A monster of the deep glaring back up through the window.

Standing in the fishing section of the local Fleet Farm (a mid-western hardware store chain) the other day, I spied the cardboard and plastic packets of Eagle Claw snelled hooks.  The very same packs that inhabit every tackle shop, hardware store, and gas station peg board near water in the known universe, and seemingly have since the beginning of time.  They have bronze finish bait holder hooks or little gold aberdeens snelled with an eight-inch leader and a loop on the running end.  You know the ones.  I know who buys them too – twelve-year-old boys who ride their bikes down The Big Hill to the beach before the sun comes up.

Seeing those snells hanging there, I was instantly transported back to that little beach in the last throes of night, the sun not yet coming up over the drumlins seven miles to the east across the flat, dark plane.

Armed with the loop of one of those snells over your little finger, you could slip into that cold spring water and swim out to the weed line at the very deepest reaches of the white and blue swimming pier.   A few big breaths to prepare, and then a long dive down through the clear nothingness to the bottom in earliest slanting dawn.

Grab onto the pier and hover there.  The shimmering mosaic of flat round skipping stones before you in the quickly gathering morning, nature's most perfect fresco. Let the twinkling golden hook fall from your hand and hang by its leader.  Still yourself.  Just be.  If you are patient, if you become nothing in the water with your bowl cut hair standing on end and tickling, a curious sunfish will come up from the sashaying green and bite that bare hook, and you will be pinky fishing in paradise.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

June Food Porn

I haven't been posting here lately mostly because I've not had the time or opportunity to wander the woods.  That does not mean, however, that I've been shirking my duties in the kitchen.  So here, in case you don't follow on other forms of social media, is a photodump of recent culinary travails.

Enjoy, but remain assured they were much more satisfying in person.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Short Loins: Chain Reaction

Chicks dig scars.  That's what we used to say while gushing blood back when we were young and dumb enough to bring about that condition fairly regularly -- and young and dumb enough to call women chicks.  I said it the time my left ear was half torn off my head in a particularly nasty scrum and the time I was wobbling around like a sot, concussed and bleeding with a ruptured ear drum on the other side.  That ear remains numb to this day, but the one that got yanked off around the top shows no ill effects other than a cool white scar around the crest when I pull my ear out taut.

Men love to talk about their scars.  Spend some time around a campfire with pleasantly tired fly fishermen or upland hunters for a while.  You'll see.  My hide sports the average number of scars for a man my age who, in the course of his life has played the roughest sports with relish, grew up with a pocketknife at the ready, splattered molten roux on his forearms, and occasionally consumed sufficient quantities of alcohol to be rendered incapable of dealing with the force of gravity.

On my left pointer finger, right at the first knuckle, there's a minor crescent-shaped scar that transects about a third the circumference of the digit.  It was earned through devious trickery and a jaw-dropping surprise that nobody saw coming.  Allow me to elaborate.

Roadkill at Lake Wisconsin, near Okee. Circa 1995.
There was a time long ago when Easter weekend meant that Roadkill and I would make a day's ride on our mountain bikes from Madison to either Governor Dodge State Park or Devil's Lake Sate Park campgrounds for some quality time around the fire.  Frisbee and Brian joined us a couple times too.  For the maiden voyage Road and I auspiciously carried all our camping gear on our backs, much to the chagrin of our tender backsides.  In subsequent years we wised up, and had my dad meet us at the campground fully provisioned.

On one such occasion Dad arrived, and I dug the hatchet out of his truck to split up some kindling and get dinner going.  In doing so I was met with the standard half-mocking admonishments from the crew about taking care with a sharp and dangerous implement.

They need not have worried, we all knew the truth.  My father had a great many wonderful qualities as a parent, friend, and outdoorsman.  Found nowhere among his burgeoning skill set, however, was the ability to sharpen tools.  The man simply could not do it.  He'd never owned a sharp tool after its second use in his life.  He was an outstanding mechanic, or so I'm told by people who understand such things better than I (one of my shortcomings being the steadfast, if unmanly, conviction that the internal combustion engine functions solely through some blend of gingersnaps and the prayers of virgins).  But given a dull axe, grinding wheel, and enough time, he could fashion you only a perfectly adequate sand wedge.  And that's alright.  We all have our weak points, and if the inability to properly hone edged tools is our most glaring, we should count ourselves very lucky.

So I took to making kindling for the cooking fire, and with my first mighty hack using the very hatchet I'd known to be dull as a mud fence my entire life, sliced neatly through the slab of firewood and a good portion of my finger.  I stood dumbfounded, reeling not at the sight of my filleted finger, but the fact that Pop had somehow managed to sharpen a tool to a razor's edge.  I honestly could not believe it, and still think he'd taken it to a person more skilled in sharpening, though he steadfastly refused to admit that in all the grinning retellings over the years.

Last week it was time to sharpen chainsaws.  One had grown dull from use in spring brush clearing, the other  larger saw was (and is still) staring a big upcoming job in the face.  I pulled down Dad's battered blue toolbox that houses the sundry little wrenches, files, and accouterments one acquires in the use and upkeep of chainsaws.  I inherited this toolbox from him, and it functions just as much as a touchstone to something we used to do well together -- putting up firewood -- as it does a place to store tools.

All was going swimmingly in the sharpening of the saw until I needed the depth gauge to hit the tooth guides square and level.  It wasn't in the upper tray of the toolbox where it should have resided, so I lifted that up, only to discover a dirty little secret that, when the realization of what I was beholding hit me, made me guffaw aloud.

When I used to come home from Madison, I would often sharpen things for Dad.  Not out of some weak demonstration of  feigned superiority -- it simply needed to get done.  I knew he wasn't the best at it, he knew I was fairly proficient, and so it just sort of became a tacit tradition.  Kitchen knives, axes, scissors, chainsaws... whatever needed undulling.  I failed to consider it at the time, but in hindsight the chainsaws never needed much more than a light touch up, which is odd considering how often they were used in the procurement of winter heat and brush clearing -- chainsaws do go dull fairly quickly.  And now I know why they always seemed to be in good shape.

In the bottom of that toolbox, hidden under the insert tray on top, was a stash of barely used chains.  Apparently Dad had been using them for one season (or less), then retiring them instead of trying to sharpen them.  This was a  man I once witnessed calmly use a metal nail file to get his car restarted while double parked in Chicago Loop rush hour traffic, something I could not pull off with every Chilton guide ever made and divine intervention. (he tore up the console when he smelled that acrid electrical burning/melting smell, and jumped the neutral safety switch, I'd be taught later. Insert serious childhood veneration)  But he'd given up on sharpening chainsaws, and decided to simply purchase a new chain when the one in current use got dull.

Now that may be seen by some as sidestepping a problem, but I (perhaps through the rose tinted glasses of sonhood) see it as a perfectly viable work-around.   It's important to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and use whatever you can to get around those shortcomings.

I took a moment to smile and thank him, shaking my head, and got back to the business of sharpening.  Thanks to his inability to do it well, I'm set for chainsaw chains for the next 20 years.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Motley Chanteuses and Nanokames

Spring is stuttering and stumbling in slowly, like a drunk after last call having some trouble getting the key in the front door.  I've been there myself, but I always managed to get through the door, and so will spring.

The return of migratory bird species is among the first signs of the impending warm-up.  I was greeted by my first rather frozen looking robin of the season a few days before St. Patrick's Day this year.  The earliest ones always look a little indignant to me when the weather turns back to snow and cold -- as do the rest of us, I guess.

I look forward most to the brightly adorned, wee warblers that will soon make their way through.  These are some of the most musically gifted songbirds we get around here, crooners every one.  They flit and sing from understory to canopy and most everywhere in between, bright little harbingers of spring.  For years I've intended to finally learn how to identify them each by their individual song, but here we sit on the cusp of yet another migratory warbler concert, and I remain wholly unable to distinguish between Yellow-throated, Chestnut-sided, and Blackburnian solely by their teeny chirps and whistles.  Not to mention the near-countless others.  Somehow I'm fully capable of digesting four straight hours of Game of Thrones in preparation for the upcoming season, but I can't get around to learning warbler songs.  That pretty much exemplifies how priorities can sometimes run askew.

The Sandhill Cranes have returned as well, though they've remained hidden from view, betrayed only by their prehistoric clattering calls as they traverse the sky.  Grackles and geese too, the vernal parade begins anew.

Even the birds who never parted for warmer climes are more active now.  There are a couple of male cardinals, for instance, who now pose and posture in front of the single, demure female resident seemingly all day long.  I believe the trio consists of a mated pair and an interloper.  When the uninvited suitor arrives on the scene, the mated male will crouch forward on his branch and spread his wings low and wide to ward off the hopeful bachelor, looking for all the world like he's bowing in some imperial court.  He chases the intruder off time and again, but the unwed male is relentless in his attempts to woo the female away.  Like bar time again.

Nuthatches creep and hop improbably upside down on hardwood trunks.  For such a small bird they certainly do carry on with those surprisingly strident yank yanks!  Last year a pair nested right outside the dining room window in a natural cavity, where I witnessed for the first time their so-called "sweeping" behavior.  According to my extensive research (I clicked on two Google results), Nuthatches will find a particularly stinky bug or other wisp of debris, hold it in their bill, and "sweep" their doorstep with it in order to mask their own scent from predators like squirrels and raccoons.  I knew nothing of any of that until I watched it happen one evening last year, stuffing a Reuben into my gob.

Trickle inspection can be even more gratifying with a partner
I'm a longtime proponent of trickle gazing, and there have been plenty of opportunities for that in recent days.  After the third coldest winter in local history, the snow pack is finally giving in to sun, and everything is a glorious, gooey mess on the ground.  The standard gravel driveway glaciation has retreated in the form of perfectly delightful rills and tiny streams at all sides.

And while I playfully choose to employ the term "glaciation" to denote that the driveway was covered with receding sheets of ice, it's not without a purpose here.  As I was enjoying the last of the ice retreat and cogitating on all things kettle and moraine one warm evening, I noticed a natural phenomenon, writ infinitesimal, coming to fruition directly from the pages of my Earth Science textbooks of yore.  I'd venture it's exceedingly rare to happen upon a demonstration of fluvial glacial geoformation happening right before your eyes, but that is precisely what took place, albeit it on a minuscule scale.

Dundee Mountain, a moulin kame, from afar
Dundee Mountain, though perhaps a bit enthusiastically monikered, rests comfortably nestled in the Northern Kettle Moraine State Forest not far from here.  More of a conical hill than a mountain, it's nothing more than a pile of glacial till.  A kame, by name and definition.

A kame is a type of hill left behind by a glacier, put plainly.  Sometimes they are irregularly shaped, but to my mind, the most iconic among them are the blatantly conical examples.  Sand and gravel are deposited by a meltwater river in a depression on the top of a retreating glacier.  With further regression of the glacier those materials are deposited in a pile on the ground surface.  Boom.  Kame.

In the case of our vastly smaller example, the depressions atop the driveway "glacier" in question were formed by dark spots under the ice (last year's plantain and lambsquaters, specifically) causing it to melt faster in those areas.

Snow melt runs across and down the driveway in this area, and often forms a surface better suited to hockey than driving, but that's the way it's gonna be until somebody regrades that entire section of driveway and yard.  When the melt happens with enough vigor, the runoff carries with it some of the sand and gravel hurled up into the adjacent snowbanks by the plow.

And when the ice is finally all gone we're left with little piles of sand and gravel, formerly retained in their weedy depressions, deposited onto the surface of the driveway.  When the vegetation that caused the depressions and holes in the first place rots away, we will be left with what, in fact, will be teensy-weensy little kames.  Nano-kames perched atop the very Kettle Range that was formed in antiquity by a glacier which shares a name with our state.  That's some heady Hakuna matata, circle of life shit if you think about it too much.  Especially while standing in the driveway drinking a beer on a gorgeous late winter evening.

I've dubbed this miniature glacial formation The Bucket-head NanoKame Field after the bucket-head dog who kept stepping on them while I was trying to take the picture.  They probably won't last through the April storms, but as long as they do remain I'll be reminded of the immensity and tiny detail of the natural world every time I walk by.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Short Loins: "The Crick"

The crick is high out back.  That's how one properly pronounces the word "creek" around here, by the way.  If an otherwise upstanding and well-adjusted looking person pronounces it to rhyme with "sleek," beware.  They might be from Minnesota... or worse.  Yikes.

We've recently enjoyed a tantalizing respite from lingering winter gloom -- it even got above freezing a couple times.  The melt started.  The creek swelled and went muddy.  It's high and robust still, with that cold steel cast a stream will sometimes take from a distance when it's newly invigorated and ripping through.  Not yet out if it's banks, the big runoff was cut short by a dip back down below the freezing mark, and it crested well below flooding.  Last year it topped its banks and filled a couple acres of low forest almost overnight, but it appears we'll avoid that this year.  Unless, of course, April becomes a month-long deluge as it sometimes does.  We're back to grey sub-freezing temps and gentle flurries for the moment.  All the mud is refrozen, winter refusing to let go for just a bit longer.

It's just a small farm country creek back there, fed by one spring at the head and a couple feeder trickles between here and there.  Down here in the lower wooded stretches it's warm and meandering before it goes through town and dumps into the big lake.  It's wide enough in a couple outside bends that wood duck pairs and singles will sometimes spend the night in fall.  I can hear their sharp, raspy zeep zeep whistles at dusk, and occasionally catch a bit of that brilliant drake plumage in the binoculars when the leaves start to fall.  There are no trout -- no game fish at all barring the occasional wayward spring walleye who made a bad turn somewhere in his spawning run.

When the water returns to summer levels you can cross in the riffles without getting your calves wet.  You can also go down there and catch creek chubs till you tire of it on, well... basically anything small enough.  The males turn rosy orange and get little bumps on their heads while spawning.  When you're twelve you call those bumps "horns," and giggle.  Then they're horny fish, and that's resoundingly hilarious because it's true.

The one time the creek is absolutely full of writhing life is during the the spring sucker run.  They pack in the riffles and runs, splashing up nearly out of the water when you approach the bank too loudly.  One could mosey down there with a net, and fill buckets with suckers sometime around the start of May.  I haven't done that yet, and I probably won't any time soon.  Firstly, I'd have to check the regs to see if it's still legal to dip suckers.  Nextly, I'd have to want to eat smoked suckers.

A long time ago, when we were much more malleable, Roadkill and I rafted this very water (though in a section farther upstream) during the spring runoff.  "Rafted" is a generous term, in this instance.  The raft was a flimsy purple and yellow toy, hastily purchased months before from a beachfront shop in Tampa Bay through the generosity of my father.

We were both broke college kids, which led to one of the exchanges with Dad that I hold fondly nearest my heart to this day.

Standing on the beach in Tampa, "Dad... um, I need some more cash."

"What for?"

"A prank.  Something kinda... mildly not legal."

Eyeing Road and I with equal parts suspicion and amusement, "Will a hundred cover it?"

The remainder of that story will have to remain a mystery unless you get me drunk around a campfire someday, but I will say that it involved covering the gaudy raft in black garbage bags and duct tape to remain unnoticed under the cover of darkness, a nighttime aquatic assault on municipal infrastructure, and narrowly avoiding the sweep of a bow-mounted search light while paddling like hell just like in a prison break movie.

So we were feeling pretty invincible the day we decided to run this creek in the midst of a full spring tempest in that raft, little more than a beach toy.  Road spent his youth in a small town, kicking at the dirt and playing in the mud just as I had, but he'd not spent nearly as much time in canoes, kayaks and rafts as I.

Naturally, that meant he took the bow of the raft, and I manned the stern.  I would've suggested this set-up in any case as the more experience paddler generally takes the back seat to do the steering around strainers and not drowning everyone part, but I don't mean to imply that I didn't have a good idea what was going to happen.  Or that I "forgot" to mention it to Road before we got started.

We put in up near the county road, and were almost immediately swept away in the high water.  There were standing waves and holes and pillows just like the Ocoee and Nolichucky runs of my youth, and we had a time of it keeping our nearly shapeless raft out of trouble with plastic toy paddles, but seldom have I had more fun.

The highlight of the run featured Road's world-class cussing talent, repeatedly rendered in the highest volumes humanly possible every time we bashed against a midstream rock.  There was little protection for him, kneeling in the front of our tiny craft never intended for this sort of use -- a few mils of vinyl between the repeated high speed collisions of patella with Ordovician dolomite.  His howling epithets were drowned out only by my laughter, and that raft was sinking fast by our journey's end.

We soon exited river right, fully drenched and shivering, but we were young and laughing and alive.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Short Loins: Red Squirrels Can't Walk

It's true.

Or maybe it isn't, but it seems like it.  Even at their most languid pace (if there exists such a thing in the red squirrel world) they don't walk very often.  They bound.  Grey squirrels will walk, especially under the bird feeders where they have little reason to move more than a foot at a time, but their diminutive crimson cousins almost always leap from start to finish, the length of their leaps being the only variance used to regulate their speed, which is most often frantic.

I know this because since moving to the country I've become an expert squirrel watcher.  You heard me.  If squirrel watching were an Olympic event, I would've been on the podium in Sochi.  There were squirrels when I lived in the city, of course, but not in these numbers.  Or at least not able to be viewed as a single scurry in these numbers. (Yes, I just Googled the proper collective noun for a group of squirrels)  I now live where there are a baker's dozen mature shagbark hickories in the yard, more in the woods, and the squirrels are surprisingly numerous.

And there remain hundreds of unfallen nuts on the trees yet
 2012 was an off year for hickory nuts here, probably due to the spring drought which hit particularly hard in this part of the state.  There were a few laying about, but almost not enough to bother with.  Last fall, however, we had a bumper crop.  Falling hickory nuts pinged of the steel roof of the pole barn with enough frequency and volume to keep me awake at night, like an especially percussive drippy faucet.  Driving down the driveway sounded like popping bubble wrap.  I picked up forty gallons of nuts, and failed to make a dent in the overall crop.

These nuts have been featured on the plate so often and in so many ways this winter, that frankly, I'm running out of ideas short of the classic brownies.  I recently chopped some up in the food processor with a handful of kale, and sauteed that up with caramelized sweet onion and apple.  I still don't know what you'd call that concoction, but it was downright fantastic on a pork chop.  Whatever the cheffy name be.

And the squirrels came from everywhere.  On a warm day this fall and winter, precious few as they were, it was not uncommon to see more than a dozen squirrels out there harvesting -- one or more for every tree, cumulatively.  Where the plow had pushed snow partially across the yard under the hickory trees nearest the house, in preparation for yet another potential blizzard, a perfect sheet of ice formed over the dormant grass.  I especially enjoyed watching the squirrels dig and pry there, slipping and flopping over as they worked.  When one of them did gain a single edge on a nut frozen to the ground, they'd poke and pry, chew and fight, sometimes even chattering in frustration, until they got the nut free.  That perfect rink of ice was soon pocked full of squirrel diggings so that it resembled a miniature minefield.

I'm comforted by that.  Let them grow Carya-fat and content that they will fill my stew pot from the neighboring woods all the more, come fall.

Surely at this juncture you've noticed that we're trying something a bit different with the above.  No sweeping panoramas of the hunting and fishing world, no waxing pansophic on the wonders of the natural universe and pike slime.  The muse has been away for quite some time now -- I heard she's vacationing in Aruba.

That's all well and good for her, but in her absence and in order to try to establish some more consistent posting around here, I'm going to be trying out a bi-weekly (ish?) format of shorter posts concerning the changing flora and fauna around here as spring comes alive.  I shall endeavor to come up with an appropriately snazzy and droll title for these mini posts as a group, like "Weekly Wildlife Journal" or "The Nature Report" or "Shit I Saw in the Yard While Waiting for the Dog to Pee" so that you may differentiate them from my regular, more sporadic stories when you see them linked on Twitfacetube, or however you usually find yourself here.

Fear not, gentle reader.  My normal, over-palaverous and wandering ramblings will still be featured here, as often as they come to me.  As soon as she gets back from Aruba.  Better bring me a t-shirt too.

Thank you for guinea pigging with me, voluntarily or not.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Notes From Twenty Below

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (California), I was a wee beardless freshman attending the Rose Bowl with the University of Wisconsin Marching Band.  For a time no less than my entire childhood, our beloved Badgers had been the laughing stock and cautionary tale of Big Ten football -- seasoned basement dwellers, perennial losers.  Then, through some fortuitous twist of fate, I arrived in Madison just as the Barry Alvarez era of football domination was really starting to pick up a head of steam.  There was a t-shirt in campus stores back then that read, "Wisconsin Football: Not Just A Great Band Anymore."

The football team hadn't been to a bowl game, had scarcely completed a winning fall campaign, since dirt was young.  Then my class of band-mates and I came along to ride the coattails of the football team to four consecutive bowl games.  Spectacularly foresighted family planning by our parents, I have to say.

We played a pep rally at Disneyland early one day leading up to the game, replete with cardinal and white cheerleaders suddenly vaulting toward the heavens, crimson Whack-A-Mole against the clear California sky from my vantage point buried in a tidal throng of revelers; and rousing choruses of On Wis, Badger, Bud -- jargon for the playing of "On Wisconsin," "If You Want to Be a Badger," and "You've Said it All" sequentially.

I remember the fans of our Bruin opponents in the upcoming game were in the habit of approaching and abruptly screaming a unison, "UCLA!" at any group of people wearing red.  As startling (and a little "on the nose" for my tastes, honestly) as this repeated staccato demonstration of fandom was, I didn't begrudge them their right to a few pre-game antics.  I rather enjoyed them in fact, being an unabashed and hopeless rah rah guy when it comes to Wisconsin sports myself.  I hear "On Wisconsin" (especially the Soft and Strong version) or Matt Lepay screaming his patented touchdown call out of the radio while driving home from a bird hunt in October, and I can still go immediately and downright verklempt -- a little gooey in the middle with my forearm hair standing on end.

Back at Disneyland, my ragtag dirty dozen or so took to quickly yelling four randomly selected letters back in strong reply to the UCLA fans, a sudden cacophony of Tourette-esque GSCA! and PJRD!, which often left the blue and gold fans to carry on satisfyingly befuddled.

As we stood in yet another interminable line for some ride, we struck up a conversation with a family of locals, the vociferous bellowing of random alphabet soup having been omitted.  When they inquired about the weather we'd left behind back home, one of the fellas casually replied, with that subtle touch of implied hometown bravado, that it had been "four below" when we left.

The coiffed and over-sparkly California soccer mom asked without pause, "Four below what?"

"Below zero."

"You can't live like that!"

Commence with the bulging eyes and dismayed expressions of  horror.  They always regard you with something between pity and amazement in that moment, and follow up with the landslide of clich├ęs concerning how they miss having seasons living in California, but would never trade it for a life below zero.

But you can live a life below zero, futbol mama, and we certainly have this year.  I'm hard pressed to recall a winter in which I've woken up to a negative number on the thermometer so many days in a row.  Honestly, I don't think I have -- at least when I've been of an age to competently balance the state of the woodpile against the severity of the forecast.

Swirling vortices of sub-arctic air always present some challenges in winter, as well as few high points.

Plastic breaks in the cold.  Over the years, I've been through three red plastic knobs on the Mr. Heater I use ice fishing.  You only really need it when the mercury is doing the limbo under the zero degree mark, and that is the precise point at which that plastic knob will shatter from nothing more than a startling glance directed its way.

The new squirrel guard comes with a five round clip, and turns them into stew.
More recently I rigged a homemade squirrel guard below the back bird feeder using a Frisbee, a pair of tin snips and a few squirts of flat black spray paint.  There is no doubt that it was ugly as a mud fence, but it was also effective.  I lubed it up with lard from the kitchen, and had more than one belly laugh at the squirrels beating feet like little machine guns trying to get up and over.  Until the temps remained well below zero for a week or more, and one intrepid tree rat attacked it with such vigor that it shattered in a half dozen pieces on the ground.

When the temp does plummet, though, the song birds are plentiful and voracious at the feeders.  By the dozens, they arrive in fleets to peck away at seeds and bob for suet, devouring birdseed collectively by the pound.  I'm looking at a red-bellied woodpecker and a handful of juncos right now.  I've seen both the tufted titmice (mouses?) and white-throated sparrows quite a bit this winter, though I don't recall them on the feeders of my youth.  Maybe I was just too busy ramming around like a nitwit to notice them among the more common players back then.

I especially enjoy watching a couple pairs of resident mourning doves sunning themselves at the base of the spruces and assorted evergreens at the back of the yard.  Twenty below zero, and there they sit all puffed up against the cold, looking nothing short of content.

There's a winter ritual around these parts and all over the north.  It takes place when entering a domicile or other familiar setting.  A person enters, and stomps the snow off a couple times, then sometimes gives a full body shake meant to ward off the following cold like a retriever coming out of the water, and says to anyone or no one in particular, "Damn it, it's cold out there!"  The leading expletive and any other intensifiers will vary from "golly gosh darn" to the other, more revelatory and satisfying end of the spectrum depending on circumstance, but I frankly find the entire rite a bit jarring and crass for some reason.  I prefer to aspire to the more serene and accepting state of the mourning dove, and skip the whole clomp and bitch routine.  Nansen and Amundsen didn't whine about the cold, at least not in my mind, and so neither will I.

Purple finches flit about like animated Christmas ornaments. Juncos hop and pace, almost never leaving the
ground. Doves remain stoic. They appeal most to my hereditary Scandahoovian winter serenity.

When you want to do nothing else outside, when the appeal of the woodstove and written word against the deep arctic stillness are almost irresistible, that's the time you should be out there splitting firewood.  Hunks of hardwood at temperatures above freezing, when driven with the maul or ax, often absorb the blow with spongy indifference.  Upon closer inspection, the area along the cheeks of the buried blade will sometimes reveal drops of water and sap being forced out by the intrusion of steel.

Make your very same swing below zero, however, and that piece of wood will likely clatter apart easily.  The open cleft will reveal an intricate and beautiful tat-work of icy crystals, and the smell -- at least if you're me -- will remind you of working next to Dad in flannel and sweat.

This is the time of the year when many of my cyber-friend fly fishing specialists (some known to me, others who remain yet faceless in our digital interactions) sometimes take to the ice for a little fishing to ward off the cabin fever.  You can only tie so many flies and watch so many fly fishing short films, even when most of them nowadays are exceptionally beautiful and well done.

Their skills on the ice, familiarity with the gear and tactics, and attitudes toward ice fishing itself vary vastly, from savvy pro to shivering newbie.  For my part, I was staring down a hole long before I ever picked up a fly rod, and still consider myself an ice fisherman converting to the way of the fly, even though I tie and cast much more often than I huddle over a Vexilar these days.  So I read and watch as they venture forth, and I try not to judge.  But if I'm completely honest, I do have to admit to experiencing a delectable sliver of schadenfreude here and there.  It happens while witnessing guys I admire and look up to in the fly fishing world, guides and fishers from the pinnacle of our sport, stumble through a day on the ice.  It's easier to remember they're just outdoorsy guys like me, in few ways deserving of my sometimes misplaced veneration, when you can watch them sort through stumpy bluegills and fall on their asses.  It's all just fishing, anyway.

I can clock my evening walk this time of year with the rise of Orion over the red pine at the end of the driveway.  I like to go out again and look at the stars before bed too, like how the air seems clearer somehow, the stars impossibly close.  Recently Jupiter was bright and clear up there, crowding in as close as it ever gets to the moon from our egocentric vantage point, and we did have a nice showing of the northern lights a while back before the clouds rolled in and cut the festivities short.  Last night was particularly clear and bright, the moon two days short of full.  We'd had a fresh bolus of powder in the afternoon, and it glinted and shone like fields of gems in the moonlight, the bare hickory and maple shadows gently brushing over but failing to erase their glimmering.

I stood fighting off the shivers (I somehow always think I can manage without a coat for the scant five-minute jaunt before bed), and tried to conjure some transcendent thought about our insignificance in the universe, but nothing came so I just stared at the moon.  The Great Horned Owls continued their sonorous nightly chorus.  The dog at my side snuffled deeply into a deer track, her protracted snoot and face buried up to her ears.

Then the fox that lives down by the creek started in with her strident bawling screech, and I remembered once again, beatitude cannot be forced.

Monday, January 20, 2014

He Ain't Heavy

Note:  This post is darker and more graphic than most found on this blog, and is as much (or more) for my catharsis than for your reading enjoyment.  Continue reading at your own discretion.

It has been a bleak winter for the families tied together by our deer camps up north.  We've lost two of our elders in the camps -- grandpas and husbands -- to the cold winter winds.  Solid men equally adept at fixing tractors as they were gibbering to grandbabies perched in their callused hands; they lived long productive decades, and raised gorgeous, loving families.  I will not suffer so much as those families in the face of their great losses, but I can empathize.  Death has put me in a qualified position to do so.

There is a certain conversation that happens when I run into a friend unseen by me for a decade or so now.  I'm fairly adept at this particular catching-up confab, but that does little to ease its taking place.

We make our greetings, exchange in a little small talk, and it's then that I sometimes attempt to politely extricate myself from the encounter.  Not to preserve my comfort, but theirs.  I've had this dreadful conversation dozens of times before.  If the exchange goes on long enough, though, they come to the subject of my family as anyone would in that casual updating mode, not knowing that they're stepping into a conversational bear trap.

They inquire about my parents.  They ask about my brother Josh and my great love Erin.  The fishermen sometimes ask of my exploits with longtime buddy and salmon trolling fiend, Kirk, on Lake Michigan; an ill-fated and desperate attempt to steer the conversation toward brighter shores.  Time and again I'm forced to inform them, reticking the boxes on a worn list of despair, that all these folks are dead.  Taken.  Gone.

I'm the last man standing, though I've yet to figure out what I won.

The varying circumstances of their deaths no longer matter as much as the stark reality of their absences.  That there were a few years there when I wondered if the seismic emotional pummeling would ever stop.

Sometimes these surprised friends from my past cry, sometimes they hug me right there in the frozen foods aisle (which is nice, I guess, but uncomfortable), but most often they simply stumble through a clumsy apology, and wander off looking slightly bewildered after their impromptu encounter with an emotional wood chipper.  I always secretly hope they go home and hug their families.

I should go no further without making it known that throughout those three years of bottomless calamity, while everything was falling and broken, four men in particular remained unassailable and true for me.  The steadfast and centered Frisbee of that solid up north deer camp stock, unmoving and patient.  Spanky, a font of the greatest side-splitting rants ever witnessed in this hemisphere, always present with hilarity and that plain-spoken genuineness small town guys often have.  The ferociously bright and deep Bender, smartest man I call friend, our long conversations wending and ranging over the spectrum of our combined interests for hours.  And the indomitable, irrepressible, jarringly crass and sweet at once Roadkill -- so much the other half of me that we've occasionally been accused of speaking in (often gleefully profane) "Twin Talk." 

We don't see each other as much as we once did, The Boys and I, separated by both geography and my post-traumatic predilection for running solo most of the time, but I know if I picked up the phone in need once again, any one of them and a host more, would run through a brick wall to help me.  I'd return the favor without thought.

During the time in which my loved ones were tipping over one after the other, like metal plate targets at the range, my brother's passing was sort of lost on me.  The way things went down, the order they happened in, I didn't have time to really acknowledge he was gone.  When my dad died six months after my brother did, I'm fully confident that it was partly of a broken heart.  I'd barely had time to think about Josh in the interim.  There's no shame in that, it's simply the way things happened.

With the perspective of time, though, things have a changed a bit.  The pain of all the losses dims with time, but his remains more clear to me at times because I was unable to give it proper treatment then.

Josh was just over a year younger than me, and we grew up in that classic brothers mode of bickering interspersed with laughter -- him following me around with my friends, begging to tag along; always the last in a train of bikes, struggling to keep up.  We swam at the beach down the hill from home, and built jumps for our dirt bikes in the woods up the hill.  And there were all-out wars.  I've had a straight-back chair broken over my back (they don't explode satisfyingly like in a good Western) and a hatchet whiz right by me to come to a clattering halt in the woodpile.  The boy did not mince about when it came time to throw down.

He looked up to me for almost everything growing up, starting from a very young age.  When my parents and some ambiguous (to me) health professionals were fretting at his remaining speechless well past the age he should have, I knew better.  He only spoke to me in the secret comfort of our darkened bedroom.  Later he'd whisper to me in the half acre vinyl backseat of that olive drab Impala, and I'd make his wishes known to our parents up front.  When he did finally begin to talk in public, it was with a painful, often debilitating stutter, but that did little to dampen his zest for talking... and talking... and talking.  Josh was a singularly determined and unstoppable chatterbox from then on, prone to flights of fancy, and relentless to the point that he sometimes drove normally sane and serene people, family and relative strangers alike, to beg him to please, shut the hell up for two minutes!

As we grew through elementary and middle school, it became apparent that Josh was not progressing normally.  The incessant yammering and inability to keep up with his peers in the classroom landed him in remedial classes, the offices of mental health professionals, and eventually, in the worst case, jail.  Our paths could not have been more divergent.  While I was being carted off to advanced courses and programs with my fellow nerds, he was mired and frustrated and acting out.

By the time we were in our late teens, he'd been diagnosed as bipolar, having OCD, and being mentally deficient or whatever the acceptable term of the day was.  Not to mention a entire passel of other monikers.  Learning disabled, special needs, retarded... whatever.  The lay truth is that he was a naive 3rd-grader living in a behemoth 6'8" frame.  Easily lost and confused, easily led astray by any who wished to do so, and easily provoked into violence when those two situations arose in unison.  Or when some inelegant, about-to-be-mangled asshole made fun of his stuttering.  I never blamed him for that one.  I'd beaten them bloody for him until he was old enough to do it for himself.  He was labeled a dropout, an offender, and a delinquent by the time I was in college, when all he really wanted was to ride his bike and have me visit.

He wrote me heartbreaking letters from jail and halfway houses and and mental hospitals, in his jagged childish scrawl, about how I was going to come home someday, and he was going to get a Corvette, and we were just going to drive and drive.  I sat in 262 Witte Hall B, and wept for his simple beauty, his relentless hope over reason.

In the end, I couldn't save him.  Nobody could.  But we did one day, in a different way, long before then.

We were Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts together, Josh and I, and Dad was our Scoutmaster much of the time.  Dad wasn't much for bloated organizations like the BSA, or for regulations and party lines, but he was for getting young boys out in the woods, and that's what he did.  If you pack 8 boys in a van and head for the woods on your own, you're a creepy molester.  Add uniforms and some paperwork, you're a Scoutmaster.  Simple as that.

I was eleven, one of the oldest boys in our fledgling troop, and easily the most comfortable in the woods having been raised by my father, the winter we found ourselves camping and generally running around like little imps at a Scout camp in central Wisconsin.  We'd been there before as a troop in summer, and knew the sprawling grounds well, from the lake well up into the woods that surrounded the camping area proper.  After our mandated activities one morning, we were left free to scamper about the place until dinner was to be made.  I have no recollection what those activities may have been, but I'll bet they involved canvas or leather at some point, and fire.  And pocketknives.  If you've ever been part of (or come in close contact with) a Boy Scout troop, you'll know that every one of them is fairly bristling with pocketknives.  Big ones, little ones, sharp ones, dull ones; you could fashion and outfit an entire ark using solely the knives found in the pockets of any Boy Scout troop in America.

The snow was deep and dense that day-- outstanding for sledding -- as a few of us trundled off in search of a perfect sledding hill.  Josh was smaller than the boys my age, and as usual, soon found himself bringing up the rear of our group as we trekked overland most of the afternoon, always searching for a sledding run to top the last.

We eventually found one to our liking in the form of a steep and icy footpath that cut straight through the woods down to a clearing near the river.  It was slick and dangerous enough to be cool and a little hair-raising, but you didn't let on with that to your friends.  We took it one at a time, narrow and fast as it was, and laughed as we wiped out in a pile of snow pants and stocking caps at the bottom.

Josh went last as he'd gotten there last, and was taking forever, as usual.  I was getting impatient and ready to leave him behind yet again when he screamed my name.  A sharp, frightened scream full of adrenaline and need.  Not the prolonged, whiney... Looookisss, waaaait uuuup! I was accustomed to, no, it was immediately apparent, even hidden from view over the crest of the hill, that Josh was hurt.  Another yelping and pained Lucas, Help! sent me hurdling uphill as fast as I could manage.

The first thing I saw was blood in the snow, and a lot of it.  Splashes of bright crimson against the white.  He was lying flat on his back, head uphill, his right leg essentially case skinned from just below the knee to his ankle, boot peeled off in the fray.  There was a wad of "meat" balled up around his ankle like an old tube sock, its elastic long since given way.  I wasn't sure if his foot was still attached, but when I asked him to wiggle his toes, I could see tendons and muscles trying to work behind his shin and in his foot.  I froze for a moment, and we stared each other in the eye, both panting and scared.  Then he did the strangest thing in that moment.  He let out a resigned sigh, almost relaxed, and gave me the same comforted look he often did his entire life --  I'm in your hands now, big brother.  I trust you.  You got this. 

And here's the thing.  I did have it.  If ever there was an eleven-year-old prepared for this, it was one who poured over his dad's wilderness survival and first aid manuals at bedtime just as often as he read Encyclopedia Brown mysteries and Jim Kjelgaard. 

The blood seemed almost neon red in my amped-up state, and I was worried it was arterial, but there wasn't any real gushing or squirting, just seeping and dripping everywhere.  My young mind took that to mean no tourniquet and potential loss of limb.  We spun him around so his leg was above his heart uphill, and I had my buddy Jason apply heavy pressure to the inside of his thigh by kneeling into it right at the groin.  I flopped his fake-feeling and plastic-y skin back up and over his lower leg, packed some clean snow in there, and tied it all back together with his boot laces.  To this day, I don't know if that was the "right" move, but it seemed like it at the time.  We piled our coats on him to keep him warm and maybe treat for shock a little.  I told them to keep talking to him, and Jason not to lift his pressure no matter what.

Then I ran.

Like I never have before or since, I ran.  Hard.  Through the deep heavy snow until by teeth hurt and my hands shook uncontrollably.  Until the tunnel vision and peripheral firework sparklies of oxygen deprivation set in.  Until I vomited down my front, and still I didn't stop.  I ran with the fear for my little brother's life at my back, a flat out sprint for love through rough up-and-down riverine gullies, mainlining adrenaline and hope.

I got to the campsite, and Dad drove to us to a phone to call 911.  Honestly, it gets pretty blurry after that.  I do remember the medics arrived in slacks and dress shoes, apparently fresh from a meeting.  They couldn't get him up the hill once they had him stabilized, slipping and flailing on the icy slope.  A walrus-mustached sheriff's deputy was there by then, standing next to me and exhorting them from the top of the hill (in language I'd only heard Dad use after he'd stepped on a Lego in the night) to get their goddamn heads out their asses, and bring that boy up.

Once again, my little troop of Scouts swung into action, and rigged Josh to his sled to be pulled up the slope with a rope by the cop and Dad while the medics slipped and fell all over trying to get back uphill to their rig to call for... I don't know.  Boots, a crane... a clue?

As was later discovered, some Scout from one of those anonymous troops bristling with pocketknives had carved himself a stout and sharp, nice long spear, and then, meaning no harm of course, thoughtlessly cast it aside along that trail down to the water, where it froze solid to the ground, point uphill, waiting patiently for my brother to coming zipping right over the top of it kneeling in the front of a plastic sled.

I remember he had 300-some stitches and 38 staples to close up his initial surgery, figures that boggled my young mind then, and still do today.  There were more surgeries after that, and a handful of skin grafts, but eventually he recovered fully, and had a cool story about the badass giant scar on his leg.  He always painted me the hero in the retellings, looked at me with that same fawning, completely open trust.  I shied away with a wince of the undeserving.

If this were a weepy episode of Grey's Anatomy, I'd have been there to hold his hand when he woke up from the initial surgery.  But it was real life, and we never held hands anyway.  I slept at least as long as he did in my own bed an hour or more by car from the hospital, and when I was taken back there, he simply said, "Thanks, brother."

Anytime, brother.  Anytime.

I'm not much into cars, but if I ever do find myself in possession of the means and desire to own a classic American sports car, it'll be a 1967 Corvette in Rally Red, just for him -- just like he wanted when we were kids.  And I'll just drive and drive.

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