Wednesday, October 31, 2012


     It's a Franklin, thirty years old. Made of cast iron, she's a beast, inefficient, requires maintenance and will outlast me by quite a bit. On its face is a profile of the inventor, said by Mad Magazine to have invented everything that Jefferson and Edison didn't. Seeing as how the wheel didn't as yet have rubber on it back in Franklin's day there were a lot of holes yet to be filled. Opportunity galore.
     Hmmm. These silk stockings just ain't doin' the job anymore. My dogs are freezin'. Shoulda built a fireplace in the workshop. Maybe if I built me an iron box, got it up off the floor so's it wouldn't burn the place down, I could build a fire in it and warm these tootsies up.
     Or something like that.
     Oak, birch, aspen and pine. That's about it. Don't much care for the pine. Burns fast and gunks up the pipe. The pipe's triple walled from the loft floor on up. A straight eighteen foot run from stove vent to bonnet. A match, five sheets of newsprint, kindling and it takes off like a jet plane. And also will burn down to coals in two and a half hours. Not the most efficient wood burner but it's attractive in a black metal box kinda way.
     When I'm up north by myself I sleep on the window seat, cold nose beneath cracked window. Seeing the light from Ben flicker on the ceiling is a warming sight. Also gets me thinking of how close I am to becoming a crispy critter. The building's all thirty year old wood. Pine, cedar, redwood and fir. A little oak and ash on the walls and floor that'd burn way too slow if it wasn't oiled for both shine and explosiveness. A few thousand hours labor would turn into a pile of ash in minutes. And there I lay with a mid-sized inferno blazing away in the next room.
     I'm a hard head. Can't think of any other reason why I gather fire wood the way I do. All of which comes from the seven plus above water acres around me. Each log dead before I had my way with it. Oak usually comes from downed trees, snapped off or leveled by wind. There's a couple ready for the taking as I write this. One looks to have been lightning struck. Not that I'd know what that looks like. But this one if twenty feet of trunk topped by a three way split bent to the ground. Not sure how to drop it as the tree could fall any which way.
     The other had been dead for a few years. No idea how or why its trunk and branches turned a smooth, shiny black, like it had been creosoted, after its bark fell off. Another mystery of life in a life full of them.
     Birch takes a bit of watching. Like me, they tend to die from the top down. When the leaves are no longer there but the tiniest of branches remain, if I want the wood, now's the time to harvest. If not it rots on the stump quickly. A year and it's pulp. Five or so and it's bark and peat on the ground.
     The hard head part of the process, the part I love like a brother, comes in my manner of gather. The second of the above oaks lays a winding three hundred feet from where it'll be dismembered and stacked. Gettin' it there is the fun part. Cut to lengths it gets lobbed enough times to reach a path where the wheelbarrow awaits. Then the wood's carted and piled in the splitting area. Split by hand with a six pound maul of course. I prefer a hickory handle for its feel when the wood pops open but a fiberglass will do. My favorite maul head is on its third wood shaft. What I lack in accuracy I make up for in profanity. My love of swearing does a job to handles. Sometimes I miss on purpose. That's why the fiberglass sits nearby knowing its time will come.
     I think Lois loves the process. Especially the stacking part. Kinda like organizing drawers except for the inevitable split fingernails at the wood pile. She stacks elegantly. Nice, trim rows with the occasional rick to break up the monotony. She's a great help and a bit of a slave driver. Gets me goin' at a pace I can't sustain at age sixty-five. And I do love to split wood but there's only so much need. Gettin' 'er done too fast is like shootin' your wad two minutes into love makin' when you'd like it to last all night. Wonder if they make a wood splittin' viagra, the kind where if you're at it for more than four hours you should contact a forester?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

And Know How to Use Them

     Last week I began. Mid-Fall is a good time in the woods. Before the deer hunting crazies and after the bugs have gone to bed for the winter. Fall color is a thing of the past unless you look down. And when I'm pumpin' along I do a lot of that. That's where the color lies and under which roots and rocks are hidden. Lookin' up to see where that woodpecker is workin' a tree trunk calls for a moment's pause. Watch your step is a rule of thumb. Unless you get a thrill outta brief flight.
     It rained for most of a day when I first hit the cabin. The woods and roads were wet. Not a problem on asphalt but sand is another story. You wouldn't think it but sand floats. Or so it seems. During a downpour you can feel yourself sinking. Immediately after, footing is loose and bike tires tend to have a mind of their own. Skidding sideways on two wheels holds little appeal for me so I left the bike home when I headed north to the trail.
     There was no doubt in my mind where I'd begin. In the five mile stretch I'd chosen, a double handful of lakes would be passed, three of which I'd fished. Though I'd be alone, the waters would be like visiting old friends. Not much more than a passing howdy but a visit nonetheless. 
     My only concerns involved stayin' on the trail and hunters. Like I'd said it wasn't as yet deer season. Grouse was the game of choice. A glance in the mirror assured me I looked nothing like the bird. But the thought of a local doctor pluckin' buckshot from my southern exposure held no appeal. That blaze orange always set off the blue in my eyes clinched the deal. Atop my blaze sweatshirt I threw on a fishing vest. Lots of pockets for compass, keys, hard candy, phone, camera, and it kept most of the orange exposed. A matching stocking cap to warm my skull and I was set.
     Visibility of the trail was an unknown to me. I had no idea of its usage or how well it was maintained. A cover of dying summer weeds and fallen leaves might have worked their magic and turned the affair into a disappearing act. The compass in my vest wasn't so much carried to help me find the North Country Trail as it was to point me in the way of the sand roads. Should I become unsure as to where I was, south was my friend.
     Goes without saying I missed my access point. I knew exactly what I was looking for. But my brain picture and reality didn't actually go hand in glove. Lucky for me I knew the area well enough to know when I'd screwed up. Back when I worked for Fedex our system was a lot like that. We didn't always know where a package was but did have a good idea where we lost track of it.
     A mere five minutes lost, I was parked and walking to the trail crossing. Started by firing off a shot of the official marker. Then climbed the embankment leading to a long, slow rise. In our part of the world mountains don't exist. Seriously tall hills are a long way off but hundred foot rises, like the one under my feet, do happen here and there. In fact they're all over the place 'cause of the glaciers. This is moraine country. Dig down a bit and you'd hit piles of boulders, the grit that melted off the ice as it retreated to the northeast.
     Northern Minnesota is lake country. But the lakes aren't but the deep spots of much larger glacial melt pools from the last ice age. A person takes a look at Leech Lake and thinks, "ooh wee, that's some big lake." And it is. But like an old timer once said about Lake Bemidji, "It ain't but a spit in the fryin' pan compared to Lake of the Woods," compared to those glacial waters it ain't much.
     So the start was a lot like the entire day's walk. I was either goin' uphill or down. A single glance up the track said there'd be no need for the compass. Though passing through a randomness of trees, the trail was wide, well maintained and marked. Every thirty strides or so, a blue slash was painted on the closest tree. Every few hundred yards an official metal stake appeared. Let me know I was still on the North Country Trail and wouldn't have to share it with motorized traffic. Gettin' lost would be a challenge.
     The Minnesota Trail Guide said timber wolves now roamed this far south. A passing thought said maybe, a very skeptical maybe. However, no more than a city block in, I came upon the scat of a very big dog who apparently liked to eat things with the fur still on, or maybe a wolf. Didn't make me feel like Little Red Riding Hood. But it did get me to wondering about the state I've sunk to when I find a pile of crap interesting philosophical fare. From what I knew of the animal it doesn't trust people a lot and goes out of its way to not be seen. Nice to know they still exist in our world. I made a mental note to not bleat like a tender lamb and moved on.
      Unlike my afternoon of scaring trout in the state forest, this day was deep in silence. Not much wind. Total overcast to muffle what little sound there was. Just the rustle of leaves underfoot and the shupping of my pant legs. Sounded like someone was always comin' up on me from behind the way the cloth whopped my shoes. That sound's always there when the long pants are on. Just that it usually gets lost in the background noise of the civilized world. Not so along the trail. There it dominated. Hard to shut it out.
     I stopped to shoot a picture of a log covered in multi-colored fungi. My camera glitched. Wouldn't take a picture and wouldn't close. Once again civilization had reared its ugly head. Simple solution: first I found a softball sized rock. A solid piece of granite with no observable cracks. Next, finding a waist high boulder, the moss covered kind this moraine area has in abundance, I calmly proceeded to reduce the camera to something less than the sum of its parts. Whistled while I worked. Thankfully I always carry matches for emergencies. Or random sacrifices. With them I was able to build a small fire and melt the shattered parts back into a single clot. I call it Modern Man's Revenge. A fine addition to anyone's collection of 21st Century Folk Art. What the hell, it woulda been another photo that would either have disappointed or been ignored once seen.
     Ten minutes in and the real world came calling. No, not in the form of paws and teeth. I had my phone stuck in the fly vest and it buzzed and chimed 'til I answered it. Actually I wouldn't have broken stride had it not been Lois. So I found myself in a position I'd never wanted to be, on the phone while walking a national trail. As it was I stood in a narrowing of the path where it passed through a mini-grove of white and red pines. Nice spot. A person I love on the line.
     Seeing the lakes I'd fished many times in the past was a treat. Mostly in the sense of a negative view.  Yoo hoo! Wave to the me who ain't there on the lake. In years past while behind the wheel for Fedex I'd fantasized about building some kind of shelter near the best of the lakes. Even picked a mental location for the cabin. The trail passed directly through the spot I'd imagined but had never seen. For once reality exceeded fantasy. Would of been a great spot and view.
     Reaching one of the trout lakes it was time to turn around. Again the quiet dominated. A hawk passed by fifty yards away. The sound of its wings beating the calm air gave it away. I could almost hear it breath and fart from exertion.
     Another pile of wolf scat. Solid and black. Tasted like mice and snickers bars. Probably 'cause Halloween wasn't far in the future.
     I spooked a grouse near the end of the walk. Or should I say it spooked me? I'm another one of those irrational dreamers who attributes perfection to nature. It is what it has to be. And wild creatures never err in their abilities. The grouse taught me otherwise when it distinctly whacked a bush as it escaped like a bat out of hell. How about like a grouse from the underbrush?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

I Still Have Feet

     For most of my life I've found a use for my feet. Besides just keeping my butt from falling on the ground. When I was a kid they were my only form of transport until my first bike at age eleven. In the Army I was a grunt. The jobs I've held longest were car runner, messenger and courier. Couldn't have done a one of 'em without my feet. A look at my education, all the way through half a year of graduate school, says I had my brain in mind. But it didn't work out that way.
     Kept my ass reasonably small by running, walking and biking. Even went off the deep end in the '70s and early '80s by runnin' marathons and ultra-marathons. Can't say I recommend that to the reasonably sane. If time was no matter and I had no social attachments, some years would find me, pack on back, traipsin' along the Appalachian or coastal trails. Not sure why those things attract me. But they do.
     Up in the northland we have two main walking trails, the Superior Hiking Trail and the North Country Trail. Both are more to my abilities these days. Scaled down from thousands to tens of miles. And parts of the North Country Trail pass right through a region I love to fish. In the Chippewa National Forest sixty-eight miles of it wind over rolling hills and within sight of small lakes. I've got it in my mind to cover those sixty-eight, most of it twice 'cause of the way I'll have to do it.
     The plan is to take small segments of it at a time. At present I see no need to pack gear and spend nights camping. Instead, park in strategic locations and do single out and back hikes. Say five miles up the trail, then five return. Not repetitious to me at all. One direction I'll get to see the north side of the trees, on the return, the south. Uphills magically become downhills. Obviously, I'm easily entertained.
     Sometimes I'll stash my bike at the destination and pedal back on forest roads. Traffic is rare in the forest, at least during the mid-week when the ATV freaks aren't out tryin' to get airborne on the hills. On the bike days I figure on eight miles one way. With a little luck using both methods the Trail could be covered in ten or twelve segments. At least that's the plan for now. Time and my back will tell.

Monday, October 22, 2012

War Zone

     Spent a few days up north in the last week. Seemed the entire countryside was gettin' ready for the invasion. Not sure which invasion. But, by God, should there be, the boys and girls - didn't seem to be any of the girls but I wasn't looking so much as hearing - up in the northland will be ready.
     The duck hunt is on and has been for a while. 'Bout the time the sun shoulda been coming up - hard to tell when that was 'cause the cloud cover was thick - the tump, tump, tumps of the twenty gauges, almost like artillery back in the hills, could be heard from several directions. Shotguns don't much bother me but the sound of a thirty caliber bein' sighted in by the neighbor puts a squeeze on my bladder and makes me suck my head in every time. Sounds way too much like an ambush in Vietnam for my tastes. When you've hit the paddy floor or dike top enough times the sound of rifle fire will always catch your attention. And drop you forty years into the past.
     Deer opener is in a couple of weeks. Not a good time to be in the woods in my opinion. Lived my time in the Army under the graces of favorable irony. Gettin' my ass shot off at home would be kinda funny. At least in a literary sense. So when the boys hit the deer stands, if I go up north I won't so much as saunter to the out house without day-glo orange from head to hip. Too many dudes with high powered firearms and hangover eyes for my tastes.
     So, I headed over to a trout lake in the state forest. Overcast, cold water, they might be up in the water column where even I could catch a few. I've written of the peace to be found in the quiet of small, hidden lakes. Not so last Saturday. Dozens of ATV aficionados roamed the back trails. And, of course, duck hunters. Why not? It was a perfect day for the ducks to fly low. The hunters, fine. But the incessant roar of the ATVs eventually got me to bag it. Didn't have a strong enough mind to close out the matter I guess.
     Come November 3, there'll be far more armed Minnesotans out to bag a deer than armed troops in Vietnam at the peak. By a long shot. Shoulda sent the deer hunters over there. Issued them permits for VC. They'd a cleaned up.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Passing Thoughts

     A decade or two ago a lot of my dreams were about becoming and what I was searching for. In some of them I found a handful of lakes no one else seemed to know about. Small and out of the way but they weren't so far off the path other people couldn't find them. But nobody else did. Just me and Al. The fish weren't big. Hell, that there fish at all would of surprised most anyone. But they were there.
     The lakes had little in common with each other besides being so common no one seemed to notice them. Or much care about them even if noticed. Drive by without so much as a passing thought.
     Me, I got a kick out of them even if they weren't spectacular. Catchin' fish on water where a two pound bass was a lunker was a thrill. Guess I was a small fish, small pond kind of guy. And happy to be able to see treasure in the lesser things.
     Recently it dawned on me I'd spent the last fifteen years of my fishing life looking for and finding lakes just like the ones I used to dream about. Huh, imagine that. Don't always have them to myself. And it pisses me off just a little bit when I don't. But it's a big world with all kinds of people, some about the same as me. Seeing me on the same small water might just piss them off just a little bit also.
     Accessibility is the key. On a mid fall morning late last century - I like the sound of that. Almost like we're into an archetypical moment - Allan and I spent ninety minutes of the best bass fishing we'll ever see. Maybe a dozen fish, no more than that. But, the size, pushing four pounds average. A couple well over five pounds. Al had never caught bass that big. In a tiny bay off an oak covered island, the first one stripped line repeatedly. When it ran under the boat Al thought for sure he had a large pike. In the deep bog stain she'd grown to be black as the ace of spades. Had a mouth so big, a wrong move and Al coulda fallen in. By good-old-boy-down-south standards these weren't huge fish, just nice sized. But here in the red and white pines they were huge.
     The morning was deeply overcast with banks of fog here and there. What wind there was puffed from the south. When it turned to the north it did so gently at first. Then hit us full force with a wall of cold rain. Goodbye summer, hello winter. Probably coulda watched the mercury fall in a thermometer. That was all she wrote for the weekend.
     The access off the minimum maintenance road was a trenched and mudded two track. Ruts deep enough to make the oil pan nervous. Next year the fishing was nearly as good on the hundred acres. A gem for sure. Then the forest service got busy and cut a new drive. Smooth and graveled. Why not? This was prime water. Too bad that the improvements made it possible for anybody with a pickup and bass boat to work their way in.
     We've gone back a few times since and been skunked most every time. Kinda ironic how that works. A treasure that few can use turns into a mediocrity in the name of improvement. A person could get all philosophical about that but I'll pass.