Monday, March 18, 2013

And Stones

     The cabin sits on what once was glacier country.  Our lakes are the pot holes left by the ice sheets and at first, melt water filled them.  Who knows, maybe some of those ancient H20 molecules are still floating around in a few of our Minnesota lakes.  Now they're filled by what falls from the sky.
     To the north of Deadman, out in the middle of the big lake to the north, sits an island of reeds.  On warm summer evenings hundreds of purple martins will be found above that tiny emerald isle, swarming and diving through columns of hovering mosquitoes. Carnage or supper, all depending on point of view.  Though tens of thousands of skeeters perish on the lake each and every evening, I've my doubts they'll ever make the endangered species list.
     The martins are there 'cause the mosquitoes are there 'cause the reeds and calm water are there 'cause there's this immense, at least from my small point of view, boulder pile beneath that doesn't quite break the surface.  On that pile roots and rock form a marginal friendship.
     Been out there a few times in the canoe and have thought, "Now those are some seriously big old rocks down there."  But I never appreciated their true size 'til my friend Greg and I passed over them on a cross lake swim.  My bare toes and other poorly protected body parts told me to choose wisely the course taken above their mossy surfaces.
     No doubt what's there is a moraine, a spot where the retreating ice shucked off a bit of its load garnered from points south.  To the glacier my immense mound wasn't much more than a sand hill.  More likely, the ice never gave it a passing thought 'til some hair brain like me anthropomorphized the possibility in print.
     Piles like that are all over the place in the north half of Minnesota.  But don't think for one minute they're everywhere.  Take our piece of land on Deadman for instance.  Over the years I've driven three sand tip wells, dug several burning pits of size, and grunted down fifteen piers on which to place the cabin.  What I've consistently found is an inches thick layer of root and topsoil followed by sand that might stretch all the way to the middle of the Indian Ocean.
      Rocks?  Never seen one bigger than a golf ball.  And those rare stones are cause for celebration, the stuff of sharing and legend, "I believe it was '91 that we found the grey one over on the shelf.  Ever so often we take Eldon down, we named him Eldon after a good friend, and set him a place at the table.  But only if we're having meatless spaghetti as he loves his tomatoes and pasta.  But better not toss in the tiniest scrap of meat or the little bugger will raise a fuss about torturing God's creatures and the dangers of feedlot beef...."
     When it came time to build the piers I wanted some stones to add to the concrete and rebar mix.  Too cheap to purchase what lays along the backroads for the picking, what would have been a simple job for a mason turned into several expeditions for me and a nephew or two.  As it stands today, what's down in those holes represents a cross section of our township's road grader efforts.
     The fifty pounders lining our cooking pit were gathered the same way.  But lifting them out of their roadside resting places was only part of the effort, the small part.  Each and every time I hoisted and loaded one I was sweatin' it out that the county sheriff would pull up in mid-lift and arrest me on the spot for grand larceny.  Innate guilt is most of the weight I carry around every day.  Should the Cass County Sheriff's Department ever read this blog, I promise I'll put the rocks back when I'm done with them.
     Over the decades Lois and I have gathered stones or sand from Minnesota, Canada, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Hawaii, Alabama, Florida and no doubt other places I've long since forgotten. Our garden beds are lined with them, drawers are filled with them, we've moved them from one house to another and are anticipating our next move with a South Dakota quartzite migration to the cabin.
     At age sixty-six there are many things I can no longer do as good I once did.  Given one wish to regain a single glory of my youth I believe I'd choose being able to hoist and tote a hundred-twenty pound stone once again.  Having my forearms hurt like hell would make me feel good all over.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


     I remember it being 1984 when we planted our mini-forest.  The idea was to create a screen between us and from the road out front.  Not that the gravel was all that close, more that it was closer and more naked than we wanted.  Relativity strikes again.  We figured five hundred pines, spruces, maples and a couple of decades would do the trick.
       Five hundred cuts, a single lift and a stuffing of inches high seedlings with a garden spade isn't much of a burden when seen from the present.  The difficulty comes with the five hundred being dug one at a time in very real, thickly rooted soil.  Ye shall know the pretend foresters by the sweat on their brows and the bottle of chilled riesling they sip as they plant (an unpretentious auslese off the bottom shelf. We like our German wine sweet).
     Before we owned the land up north I thought planting pines up there to be a coals to Newcastle operation.  Couldn't envision Mother Nature needing a hand at what she did all by lonesome, one hand tied behind her back.  The picture I carried in my head was of endless tracts of lofty conifers shushing and bending in the breeze just like the one's in the Hamms beer commercials.  Why plant more?
     Turned out neither Hamms nor I had a clue what the woods were really like. Seen at a distance the photos we took for gospel showed nothing but needles against the blue.  A closer look told the truth. The pines tend to stick up higher than the oaks, birches, aspens and occasional maples down in their shade and dominate the skyline.  From the ground you get the real picture and would swear hazel brush is the be-all, end-all, with a hardwood here and there.  Not a lot of pines at all and a little research told me they may may never have as dominant as in the picture between my ears.
     And it wasn't just Hamms that bought into the pine tree myth.  When Lois and I went in search of affordable stock we learned the State of Minnesota had tree nurseries with yearlings free for the asking, in clots of a hundred.  And they were pushing pines.  Oh yeah, lets hear it for the red pine (or is it the white?) the state tree of the Great White North (that we're south of three million square miles of Canada doesn't mean squat to us yankee doodlers, eh!?).
     Not wanting to be caught short as to variety we ordered a hundred apiece of red and white pines, white and blue spruce, along with soft maples.  They were planted in an area we'd first cleared of bush.  Not much rhyme or reason to the way we put the yearlings down.  Some here, some there in a ragged series if lines. A lack of order seemed the way to go.  And appropriate to our skill level.  Also more nature-like and not the symmetry that gets you immediately thinking tree farm or German farmers planting corn via GPS.  When done, each of the four of us, me, Lois, Annie and Allan, posed by a baby tree for a photo.
     Twenty-nine years have passed.  Of the five hundred no more than tree hundred remain standing.  Might have been more had not a mowing misjudgment done in all but one of the maples.  Oops.  Beyond that, not all fared equally.  Typically, our pines and spruces stand thirty feet tall and six to eight inches in diameter.  But a fair number are quite a bit smaller, particularly the blue spruces.  Might be that a tree native to Colorado has no place in the northwoods of Minnesota.
     That the trees have been slow growing might be a good thing, tighter grain makes for better, denser wood.  Not that I can foresee a harvest.  Should each and every stalk still standing outlive me, I'd be a happy man.
     That they might eventually live to a true old age, two centuries or more, is doubtful.  Inevitable climate change will alter the face of our woods.  What was once a mix of conifer and hardwood will become oak savanna in less than a century.  Dry, hot summers will breed more fire and remove much that now stands.  Perhaps our land will someday be home to walnut and hickory.  Or worse.  I pray for the hardwood and fear the possibility of barrens.
     We've lived in apocalyptic times since the days of WWI.  Seems like there's always someone predicting the end of the world be it from aliens, collision with an asteroid, or some form of self-infliction like nuclear holocaust.  None of those have come true though we've given it our best shot.
     However, climate change is another animal.  We've put some long term work into it, and thrown in some extra elbow grease for good measure, for better than two centuries.  Can't say anyone really wanted destroy the planet on purpose.  Just a case of shortsightedness, a need to feed ourselves, and a healthy dollop of greed.  There's probably not a happy future awaiting either our grandkids or the woods.
     As it stands today, our plantings at the cabin have done a good job of screening off the road and lining our two-track driveway.  Lois had a vision as to how our entry drive would eventually look and she made it happen, with a little help from the trees.  If you were to enter today - on foot 'cause there's two feet of snow still on the ground - you'd pass through a hundred foot long, car roof height, bower, before popping into our three quarter acre clearing.
     Down in the pine grove the hazel brush has all but disappeared.  Seems brush doesn't have a fondness for the acid of a pine needle floor.  A path meanders through the grove alongside our strip of water and bog.  Take it and you'll wind through alder, mountain ash, birch and jack pine on your way out to Deadman.
     We've spent many an hour keeping our paths open.  Every time I'm up north I walk them several times, stopping now and then to see what I may see.  Nothing stays the same.  Trees split, branches fall, some trees just die, maybe of old age, or disease, or insect incursion.  But for now, there's always something new coming up to fill the holes.  At the moment it seems the red maple is front and center.  Maybe a sign of things to come.
     Our little pine grove has grown to be a thing of beauty.  A thicket of trunks rising from a floor that is rarely touched by the sun.  Should Little Red Riding Hood come strolling through, she'd feel right at home.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Walleyes for Hawkeyes

     That's Hawkeyes as in, People from Iowa for those of you not into Big-10ese.  Sounds like they're coming again and they're interested in the state fish, on the end of their lines even.  Maybe I'll have them stop at Morey's fish market in Baxter on the way up and pick up some fillets.
     But I've got a plan, a three laker, with walleyes, smallmouth bass and a little wilderness in mind.  If it's just fish on the line that they want, that's no problem.  Walleyes, on the other hand, are fish of another color. But if the DNR's reports are correct, I've got a body of water in mind that fits the bill nicely.  Typical pot hole and bedrock track off a backwoods sand road gets you there.  And walleyes?  Uf dah, lots of walleyes.
     The lake's a hundred forty acre, snaky cut through birch and pine.  Drops to forty-five feet in places with points and coves galore.  And it's those points that'll tell our tale.  We'll work 'em inside and out.  Tipped jigs bounced along the bottoms and maybe slip bobbers if the fish are suspended.  God forbid we should we should troll for them but who knows?
     The other two lakes are uncharted waters to the Iowa men.  One's a hidden, tiny boat only, access to a classic lake without a public access.  Even has a good walleye count if you can keep them out of the mouths of the muskies.  But, for me it's smallmouth country.  The other is the backwoods micro-chain of lakes I came upon last year. The one with the hillbilly encampment.  Probably just bass and panfish but fresh water is always a treat.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Prep Work

     To some extent it's my old man's fault, though he doesn't have a clue that it is.  Bein' dead for seventy-three years kinda takes a man out of the loop.  And has truly made him a man of the soil.  That's a thought for you, my dad's been dead for a lot more years than he was alive.
     You see, he died when he was fifty years old.  A life of high blood pressure finally blew a hole in his brain.  One minute he was there, the next, gone.  Poof!
     That happened when I was three.  Too young to know the man or even remember him.  There's a few photos of him in the Navy, with my mom, and with my brother and sister, crinkled black and whites one and all.  Without them I wouldn't know what he looked like.
     That said, you wouldn't think his life would have a long lasting effect on mine.  But it has.  His dying young scared the bejeezus out of me.  Seemed a portent as to what was up my road.  Same for my brother.  Rather than sweat over an early demise, the two of us have done our sweatin' over the roads and under the weights.  He goes in for ballroom dancing, me, I bend my body in other ways.  And we do it every day.
     I used to run marathons and ultras 'til one misstep on the job put a deteriorating end to that.  But I still bike or walk/run.  This morning was typical.  Fifteen minutes of stretching followed by a few sets of push-ups and crunches.  Then on the bike for seventeen miles.  When I was working, my ride was to and from work.  As a FedEx courier a lot more calories were burned between the rides.  Sweat, sweat, sweat. A few more sets on the floor as the day passes.  Squeeze 'em in when no ones looking.  It's a sickness that I can live with.
     So it's fear that got me going and a kind of addiction that keeps me from stopping.  It's what I do.  And it still lets me get in and out of a canoe.  And might allow that for another decade or so.
     Burning calories, particularly in the outdoors, clears my mind. Gives it the strength and freedom to wander the world while the wheels turn beneath me.  Sometimes it's there scanning the road and path sides.  Other times it's checking out the world of Alabama as it turns from winter to spring.  Pines, loblolly and yellow, magnolia, live oak, pecan.  Cardinals, sparrows, red-headed woodpeckers, sharp shinned hawks and mocking birds.  Sand dunes, forest and burn areas.  The whirr of the wheels on my thirty year old Fuji as they dodge pines cones and droppings of coyote or fox.  Days get planned, years gone by get relived.  Once in a while I even consider what I might write for the day but that doesn't usually happen 'til the fingers hit the keys.
     Behind it all is the desire to live as long as I can and feel good enough to live well.  Life's a gift after all.  Staying in shape is merely gratitude.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Just Guessin'

     Over the decades I've read a lot of them, philosophers that is, mostly men.  Seems like, over the years, it's men who do the pontificating.  Oops, better watch what I say. It's a trap for sure.  Maybe I better not say anything.  Just be guessing about what's unknowable.  How's that for pointlessness, eh?
     That happens every time I get thinking about the important things out there, the things that can't be seen.  I have this powerful notion then it evaporates into the unknowable.  Better stick to fishing.  At least there I'm not always skunked.


     Some say he looks like me.  Probably in Jake's mind I look like a wrinkled old man and people who think we look alike must be out of their minds.  Way out.  Probably outside the galaxy.
     Jakob's my oldest grandchild and the first one I've gone fishing with.  The truth be known, we do look something alike.  If you see us together, he's the short one.
     Every year my daughter Annie and son-in-law Ryan, with the help of my son Allan and daughter-in-law Maria, make up a calendar for Lois and I (Damn that's a lot of names.  Makes me feel pretty good I can remember them all).  The cover photos for March, my birthday month, are of my three grandsons and me.  For these thirty-one days I wander by it now and then to scope out the pictures.  Matt and Luke are a thrill to see but they're still too young for boy versions of man-stuff.  Not so Jake.
     The shot with the two of us is a front step scene at the cabin.  Dark red cedar, aluminum screening and silvered steps with rustic railing frame us.  That railing's my pride and joy.  Free-form, jack pine log and branch construction, peeled and sturdy.  She's a thing of beauty that makes little sense.  It's the 'little sense' part that I like the best.  At the moment there's an agate sitting atop the base post where I sometimes lay found treasure but you can't see it in the photo.
     Jake stands on the landing to my right, clad in red, left hand on hip, right hand holding a walking staff.  Me, in white and tan, left hand on hip, right hand on Jakob's left shoulder.  We even pose the same, not intentionally but blood runs deep.  Jake gathered the staff to accompany him on his woods wanderings.  You yearn for those poles when you're young 'cause they speak of adventure. With a little luck, a man lives long enough to need one for other reasons.  At both ages it's all about getting from here to there.  You never outgrow the need for that.
     Looking at that photo tells me there is a tomorrow, maybe a whole lot of them, up the road.  And three grandsons to share some of those tomorrows with.  For now it's just Jakob (and maybe his dad) and to tell you the truth, I'm thrilled.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Words Fail Me - or so it seems

     Wrote and e-mailed my last  Boundary Waters Reader entry today.  I had no intention of writing a fifth one but I was bored. And am a word junkie.  I broke down and now need to go to rehab. My name is Coolfront and I am addicted to words, cheap ones. What else could I do?
     It's about rolling a canoe, mine.  The words all look fine.  Kept it short and sweet 'cause they need some quick, in and out, get it over with but keep it interesting, pieces.  There's even a little humor but it just doesn't sit right with me, no depth.  Sister Eleanor Marie would have said it's too cut and dried.  But I've already sent it off. Ah well.
     The last few days I've gone back and reread parts of Learning Curve.  Can't say it's all that bad, at least 'til it starts into the actual fishing and canoeing.  I like Uncle Emil and his sarcastic wit a lot.  But I just can't see all of our trips as a beginning to end story.  Too much of the same thing once we hit the water.  We came, we saw, we did pretty much the same thing but in a different place.  Journal, yes.  Story, no.
     But maybe as a couple of pieces set in a series of essays.  Humor and meaning in the big woods.  Father and son doin' stuff together.  Uncle Emil coming along to throw in a couple of wise cracks now and then.  Don't know about that. Probably it's just so much speculating on a writing future that will never be.
     On the upside, I've gotten an e-mail about possible dates for this year's spring fishing fling.  Something to think about.  Seems to me I remember this year's theme as being walleyes, walleyes, walleyes but will settle for bass.

Friday, March 1, 2013


     Yes, that's where I am.  On the sunny, well it ain't exactly sunny at the moment, gulf coast.  Makes me feel like a traitor to the northland.  You'd think a fisherman like me would fish while surrounded by all this water.  And there are fish down here for sure.  But the poles sit at home.  
     Maybe it's because the water's too big and I don't recognize it as fishing territory.  Kinda like John Steinbeck's dog in Travels With Charley (if you haven't read it, Charley's the dog).  Steinbeck takes Charley from Long Island to the redwood forests of California just so his dog can pee on one of the largest trees in the world.  Since he takes a kind of convoluted, roundabout way to get there, Steinbeck figures he might as well write a book about the trip (okay, I realize that might be an exaggeration but the trip and the book really did happen and the dog Charley did find himself upside a redwood just so his master could watch him take a leak on a big tree).  
     Anyhow, Charley doesn't realize he's standing next to a tree 'cause the thing is so big.  Like nothing he's ever seen before and doesn't know he's supposed to piss on the trunk so Steinbeck can be happy and have something to perk up the book.  Finally Charley's master (that's Steinbeck in case this story has gotten too wordy) uproots a little bush and leans it against the bigger tree.  Charlie's lightbulb then pops on, he lifts his leg and fires.
     So, maybe that's why I don't fish down here.  The water's too big for me to recognize as fishing territory.  But I am tempted to take a leak in the water one of these night's when no one's looking.