Friday, May 25, 2012

Man Stuff with a Side of Wildflowers

     Spent three days at the cabin with my sister. She'll be eighty come June and would be the first to say she's no spring chicken anymore. When we sit and talk, Kay seems no different to me than had it been thirty years earlier. Except I'm no longer as idealistically blind to life in the real world. Of course with all those years under our belts there's a whole lot more history to bring up and chew over. Mostly we talk of ourselves and those close to us. Children come up a lot. And grandchildren. What comes as a surprise to me is when she gets up from her chair and moves about. Yeah, she's not a spring chicken anymore. But that doesn't stop her, just slows her down a bit.
     Besides catching up and getting to know each other a little bit more, the idea behind our trip up north had at least two other angles. Me, I wanted to check out the exact location of three lakes. I knew where they were on the map and from the satellite photos. But that's not the same as finding them and seeing the water. Well, it might be if I wasn't such a hard head. My pencil sketched map sure looked fine to me and would have done the job nicely had I'd taken a little more time when drawing it. Or bit the bullet and bought a Geologic Survey map. But I didn't.
     Looking for the lakes was really an excuse to get off the pavement and onto the gravel and two-tracks back in the woods. You see, my sister is a big fan of wildflowers. Guess that happens when bow hunting for bear turns into a thing of the past. Last year we'd done something similar. Kay had a good time scouting out a couple of dozen varieties and I got to scout out some water off the backroads. Worked out well for both of us. And that's not even including all the good conversation.
     Out of our three days, the last two were washouts but we sure did make good use of the first. Couldn't have done any better. Got some work done around the cabin, the kind that's never ending. Buildings, furniture, even bird houses, all require maintenance. Each comes with its own degree of fun and challenge. Look at the empty space and figure out how to fill it. At the same time keeping it in reach of the wallet and making it useful. A touch of pleasing design also helps.
     Of course it all starts to fall apart over time. Kind of like my body and brain. So I'm into the keeping it going for as long as I can mode. Maintenance. Pure and simple. Chop the weeds, clean the porch, ride the bike, do some yoga. Clean things last longer. Don't know if that applies to minds. If it does I'm oh so screwed.
     By ten o'clock we were on the road with a game plan. It didn't much look like it from the outside but between my ears a map existed that took us from hunting for lakes, to wildflower search, to lunch. Mid-afternoon would find us doing the same thing in a different area. We'd done something similar last year. The fun part had been rolling through the forest over the last ice age's moraines on muddy sand, clay and gravel. No problem so long as I kept a fair head of steam on the up hills. Kay got a little skiddery when the drive wheels would break loose and we'd start weaving. I did too. Always have. But I've been through that kind of drill before and try not to do anything overly stupid. Can't say it's always worked out that way but I seem to be getting better. Take your pick as to which way that 'better' bends.
     Rule number one concerning maps: if you're gonna draw them on a piece of scrap paper there's no such thing as too much detail. Had I been the official Spanish cartographer in 1492 there'd still be plenty of bison on the Plains. Columbus might have found the Western Hemisphere the first time but good luck on a repeat. That's my way of saying I found the lake I was looking for but it really wasn't the lake I was looking for. Good thing my sister brought a book.
     The area we were checking is a Minnesota state forest. Unlike most state forests this one is borderline primitive. That's a good thing. And it's filled with little lakes, nearly all under forty acres. Also good. Most can be reached by car though I'd think twice if the car lacked eight inches of ground clearance. A fair number are reached over minimum maintenance sand roads. That means they might get scraped once in the spring after the ground thaws. Most any good rain can turn those marginal uphills into eroded slop with the occasional bottomless sand hole. So I drive them carefully. Twenty miles an hour is top end. The side roads we were on called for parking lot speed. If you want to see what's in the woods, you best get out and walk.
     A quick check of the satellite photos when we got back home told me the story. My spiffy little map was short a lake. And the sign directing us to the correct lake called it by a different name. That point was at a 'Y' in the trail. Trout lake to the left and ATV or snowmobile only trail to the right. Also to the right was a second lake that had drawn my attention from the satellite photo. It had a name but the State's DNR website did not list it as water they'd ever netted or mapped. In my warped mind that didn't mean it wasn't fishable. A little research turned up a secchi disc index of about eleven feet. Had to be at least that deep and probably a good bit more. Deep enough to not freeze out. Best part was the only way to put a boat on that water was to carry it in for something over a hundred rods. Guess where I'm going next week?
     I've said it before, and once more won't hurt, I'm an idiot. It's no sin to be unprepared for tromping through the woods but it would make for a nice change. That's me with chainsaw, boots and shorts on. Legs coated with woodticks, mosquitos and, worst of all, old man knees exposed. New lakes such as the ones we were looking for beg to be explored even if only by foot. And once there standing on the shore, I'm compelled to check out any reachable points. Getting to those points always seems to involve a hundred yards of blackberry brambles. Jeans were made for that kind of ramble. Not so shorts. Felt like second degree burns. Good thing I've always kept my quiet, macho, suck-it-up-and-move-on side in shape. Stupid and manly go nicely together.
     We eventually back-tracked after one of my pointless half-mile hikes to nowhere and moved on. Last spring we'd stumbled upon a thicket of marsh marigolds in full bloom along the Pine River some fifteen minutes from where we now were. To me coming on a scene like that is a lot like fishing. Hitting it just right involves a little skill and a whole lot of luck. This year we were a few days early. Some were in blazing gold bloom but not a lot. That didn't stop us from snapping a couple of dozen photographs. Even found a few jack-in-the-pulpits not quite in pulpit mode. Twenty yards from us sat a mature man, Eagle Claw fiberglass rod in hand, working the river as it passed through a culvert beneath the gravel. Got me wondering what's happened that got me into bypassing fishing simply to check out a few yellow flowers. And having a pretty good time doing so. My sister was having herself a great time. Maybe it's not so much what you do so long as you're sharing a bit of joy. Misery's supposed to love company, looks like happiness does also.
     Lunch done we headed north toward the second trout lake. Also along the way, a hillside site Lois and I'd once seen a cluster of pink Lady's-slippers. Two bird time again. Lakes and blooms. The Woodtick Trail has a long history with me, mostly for fishing, and it all started with those flowers. The Showy Lady's-slippers, Minnesota's state flower if you didn't already know, had caught us by surprise. Like the Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition, nobody expects pink Lady's-slippers. And when you first see them there's no doubt what they are. Yeah, they're pink but they're also big honkin' orchids that look more like a moccasin than a slipper. Maybe that's why they're also called moccasin flowers. Most of all, they're not common. That's an understatement. Come late spring, when I'm in a boggy wood, my eyes are always ready for them. Unlike morels, the flashy orchids have a hard time hiding. Seen 'em twice. That's it.
     Call it four miles. We weren't driving fast, maybe fifteen. No hurry to get anywhere and lots to see. I was checking out every embankment on the right side of the road looking for Lady's-slippers. That's where they'd been fifteen years earlier, why not now? Caught a single slash of pink and pulled over. Didn't say why. The excitement is in the discovery. Letting Kay find it without any introduction would make it that much better.
     But it was a disappointment. And a pleasure. Trillium. One here, another there. Across the road, more. We burned ten minutes checking them out and snapping photos. Some pink, some white. When we moved on it was at an even slower pace. Coulda sworn we were passed by a porcupine on crutches. My range of vision also changed to include both sides of the road. The Woodtick Trail is not a road you want to accidentally leave just 'cause you were into scoping out wildflowers. All that'd do would be to give the tow truck driver something to laugh about. Bog and drop-offs were the planting grounds for dumbasses from the Cities. So ten miles an hour was tops.
     For the next eight miles the road was intermittently lined with trillium. Many quarter-mile stretches up the banks and way back into the forest. White and pink triple petaled flowers. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions? No way to tell. All seen in dappled sunshine if you must know.
     And then, here and there, clusters of yellow Lady's-slippers. Even a miniature. Yeah, they do look like moccasins. Photos with film and digital. Every one of them in my sister's cameras.
     Almost forgot. We did manage a side trip to the easily found trout lake. Too easily found for my tastes but it sure was a fine looking body of water. There I learned my new, fully rebuilt spinners work like a charm. No fish but it wasn't a day for fish. Still it was a small thrill to cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve. Meditation in the middle of glory. Damn fine day.
     Back at the cabin and still in a wildflower mood, we broke open the cheese and crackers to go along with an unpretentious merlot. Like A. K. Best said, "A real man does whatever the hell he wants." If that includes pink flowers and red wine, so be it.

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