Monday, May 19, 2014

Fun With Ice

The ice is finally out, or at least in the distance, in our little corner of the Lake Superior paddling world.  My ‘go to’ launch for short trips and fitness paddling is the north side of the coal dock in Washburn, WI.  It’s a nice scenic jaunt out to Houghton Point with a couple stacks and a couple small caves along the way.  The above photo was the first Saturday in May, two weeks ago.  The image below was taken a week ago Saturday.  Although the launch area is clear, ice can be seen on the horizon and mini icebergs are still floating around in the bay.  Water temp seems to be at an even 34F pretty much all over the lake.  The sat photo would seem to indicate that we are one of the few areas on the lake still ‘blessed’ with a fair amount of ice.  Saxon Harbor is still frozen in and it appears that the area from Duluth Harbor to Port Wing still has plenty.

I can’t complain however since the ice is gone a full week ahead of last year.  The ice and snow have wreaked havoc with a number of different things however.  The county crews are out replacing signs that were blasted over by the snowplow wake.  Many homes were damaged when the wind pushed the ice up on the land in inexorably inland.   In a more minor disaster, the hop trellis in my yard collapsed (gasp!) due to the weight of ice and snow on top of it.  Also, the Madeline Island ferry has been delayed and cancelled due to the ice pack that refuses to melt being pushed  around the lake by the wind. 

I had planned on padding somewhere on Saturday but everyone seemed to be busy.  Until I  got  a text from ChrisG  saying that not only was it too nice to work but that there was a pretty big iceberg floating between Bayfield and Madeline Island.  Our three man group was launched within the hour.  The icebergs are a result of a big northeast blow early in the season.  It piled up plates of 8” ice and stacked them like cordwood along the area of Friendly Valley Rd and Bayview beach.  We are fairly certain that they are what are floating around in the bay and west channel at this time.  

It felt good to get in the Explorer for the first time with the intention of paddling more than a couple miles.  It seemed like it took a long time to get to the ice but of course perspective on the  water, especially with your ass literally on the water, can be tricky.  Our guess is that this berg was about 100’ x 60’ and at least 8-10 feet high in the highest spot.  Like most icebergs 70% of it was under water and the super clear ice with the sun refracting though it made the base look like we were in the Caribbean.  A quick hand in the water dispelled that fantasy very quickly however.  We paddled around it a few times, ChrisG blasted up on it and ate his sandwich, and we got some good pictures of the beast.  This is yet another one of those Lake Superior ‘you don’t see this every day’ experiences. 

Next weekend is Memorial Day and the annual wood splitting festival on Saturday morning at Camp O.  the plan is to sneak up to Saxon Harbor and check out the progress of the melt.  Many of the Gales participants from last Fall remember our launch and paddle up to the Montreal River.  This year that could be the absolutely last place that there is ice on the big lake.  Unless we get a south blow and then all bets are off.  Fingers are crossed for one more ice paddle, a rarity on Memorial  Day weekend.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Famous Ice Tables of Houghton Falls

This year the ice caves at Mawikiwe Bay on Lake Superior went viral.  The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore had record visitors, businesses in the whole Bayfield peninsula had an amazing windfall, and visitors were both pleased and amazed.  The last time people could visit the caves on foot was about five years ago if memory serves.  No one knows how long it will be until the climate cooperates once again to allow foot traffic out that way.  Although five years seems like a long time, it's nothing compared to the exceedingly rare appearance of the Houghton Falls Ice Tables.

No one knows how long it's been since the tables last appeared.  They are created by a perfect storm of miserably cold weather and big dumps of snow.  This combination causes the culvert under the old Ashland to Bayfield railway to plug up with ice and snow and raises the level of Houghton Creek precipitously.  The newly formed pond than promptly freezes.  This condition was noted by the GreenThumbChef as she strolled along the path a week or so ago.  Alarmed, she notified the crack team of culvert unpluggers at the Town of Bayview.  A crew of thawing professionals, led by the town chairman Mr. Charly Ray, arrived on the scene and fired up a steam unit to thaw the culvert before it washed out the entire road bed.  Success was achieved, the water dropped, the rail bed was saved, but the ice remained.  It not only remained but remained in spectacular fashion.

The pond that was created by the plugged culvert was over a dozen feet deep in many spots.  The water all drained out and left large plates of ice, almost a foot thick, some the size of a car.  But the really spectacular thing was the ice that was supported by two or more trees.  It left an entire outdoor patio's worth of tables and benches, all made of ice. I visited the site yesterday with my faithful hound, Monk.  Word must have gotten out because for the first time in my experience there was a car parked on Houghton Falls Road, overflow from the 8 car lot at the start of the trail.  My guess is that the BART shuttle from The Snug, Patsy's Bar, and points north and south will start next weekend.  I would also suggest having Washburn Ambulance on site because the whole area is full of foot thick blocks of tilted ice, major concussion country in my opinion.  If I had been thinking and brought a couple beers it would have been the perfect afternoon, high forties, sunny, and a frozen bar to keep the beer cold.  Alas, forethought was not my strong point that sunny afternoon.

My guess is that the tables will be melted by next weekend given the warm spring weather, although they are kind of 'down in the hole', away from direct sunlight.  This weekend, typically the start of mud month, was anything but.  The ice road from Bayfield to Madeline Island is still intact with a solid three feet of ice.  RangerMark and I were the only skiers at Valhalla on Sunday morning, where there was literally a four foot base.  Sunday night featured some rolling at the salt water pool of the Bayfield Rec Center.  This was preceded by an exciting Badger basketball win Saturday night which sent them to the Final Four, a game I watched at Patsy's Bar while nursing a Widow Maker or two.  Plus I got all our fruit trees pruned without climbing up a ladder.  The four feet of snow in the yard gave me just enough elevation to make a ladder unnecessary.  Say what you will about this winter but the delayed spring ain't so bad at this point from my where I'm sitting


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Cold Feet

Since I was a little kid the 'long pole in the tent', the Achilles heel, the limiting factor for outdoor tolerance in Great Lakes winters has been feet and footwear.  Once the feet get cold the choice is to go inside or risk frostbit toes.  Unlike hands which can be stuffed under the armpits or the core, which can be warmed up by another layer, there isn't a hell of a lot that can be done for the feet. Our family activity, before we all started skiing, was ice fishing. When I was young military surplus was the hot ticket. The old man at one time owned Bunny boots, Korean boots, and fleece lined USAAF boots used by the poor SOB's who flew high altitude, below zero missions in B-17's and B-24's.  None of these were really great and there was no such thing as a kids size that could be handed down from a waist gunner on a Flying Fortress, so we were stuck with the rubber 'insulated' crap that was available in the late '50's.  The green rubber 'Donald Duck' boots with the yellow sole were next to worthless and so was the technique of three pairs of socks and a bread bag over each foot before stuffing them into oversize leather boots.  In both cases the warmth lasted about a half hour, the feet would sweat inside the moisture barrier and within the hour feet would be blocks of ice. The one combo that worked the best for we kids were felts and overshoes. Im pretty sure thats what Im wearing in the vintage image of my sister and I ice fishing. A thick felt bootie, not meant to be walked in, was covered by a basic pair of overshoes, usually buckle because zippers froze,  This was indeed the right track.

Sorel figured this out as well right around 1959.  It seemed like within a few years that everyone on the ice had a pair of the classic Kaufman brown leather upper / dark tan rubber bottomed boots with the removable felt inner boot.  LL Bean had the Maine Hunting Shoe since 1912 but for some reason never figured out the insulation component or just didn't market it as well as Sorel.  I of course still had the felts and overshoes because no way was a kid with growing feet going to get outfitted with those pricey high end boots.

Fast forward to the 21st century and all its amazing outdoor technology.  No matter what you buy or how much money is spent, sitting on your ass in any weather below about 20F is going to result in cold feet.  Ice fishing, sitting in the deer blind, spectating at things like outdoor hockey or a ski jumping tourney or downhill race will result in cold feet unless you walk around a number of times over the course of the event.  This can be tough while awaiting the wily buck or if the fish are biting.  The deer hunter who can tough it out in the stand is going to see deer, pushed by the poor SOB's with cold feet that get down for a walk.  At our camp the KingOfIronwoodIsland fills this role.  A heart valve and its accompanying cumidin prescription insures that even his LaCrosse Iceman boots ("good to -40F"....yeah, right.) will result in him taking a walk.  We are all very vigilant right  around 9:30am,  those of us who have made it to the blind by then.  Icemen, Sorels, Regular Red Wing Irish Setters, which now have Goretex and 600,800, 1200 grams of Thinsulate, all claim to be comfortable down to ridiculous negative degree readings. I even pulled out the wallet for a pair of Steger Mukluks.  Unfortunately none of them work if you are sitting in cold weather.  None of them.  What seems to work OK, better than the options however, are my Red Wings, 800 grams of Thinsulate, with a thick down or holofil over bootie.  This thing prevents any walking but it insulates the entire foot and buys time before the inevitable winter walk. 

The Polar Vortex, a phenomena that wore out it’’s welcome a month ago, is back and there is no way in hell your feet are going to be warm for extended outdoor activity, unless you keep moving.  My advice would be keep snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and leave the ice fishing (unless you are one of the upwardly mobile fisherman with a heated shack) to those warm March days. The ice is getting black and honeycombed and the fish are practically surrendering.  Many of us will be attending Woodyfest this weekend.  Rumors are the woodpile for the bonfire is smaller this year, although smaller is relative.  Perhaps that means that the volunteer fire department wont show up to extinguish a reported garage fire, or maybe the main fuel for the fire, the hated Box Elder trees, have been exterminated from Woodys property.  Whatever the reason, standing by the fire drinking beer will be interrupted by frequent strolls into the house to warm up.  Stay warm!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Deer Camp 2013 - Ten Days in Hell

 Every year when I head for what I refer to as my week in the 19th century at the deer camp, people marvel that we can survive without electricity, plumbing, or central heat.  These are just the minor items of depravation however, there are a number of other things that we do without for this hellish week on the cusp of winter. 

At one point we did have a generator but the smell and the noise just didn't seem worth it.  Since we have no hair dryers, Fry Daddys, or small appliances of any sort it's just not much of an issue.  We can still make toast without a toaster and excellent waffles with the cast iron waffle maker.  It operates on the 1924 Detroit Jewel propane stove, and propane Humphrey lights provide indoor light as well.  Plumbing consists of the hand pump outside the camp and the outhouse. While the seat is very, very cold on a 10F morning, careful timing can result in a prewarmed seat.  A sauna takes care of the other aspect of no plumbing, a shower.  Finally the vintage pot belly wood stove takes care of the central heat issue.  We just throw another log in if its cools down and damp the stove down and open a window if it's too hot.  No, these basics are not the problem, it's those other subtle reminders of civilization that we really miss.

I personally find electronic background noise to be very soothing.  A TV or radio on in the background, beeps and alerts from electronic devices, the whirring of various motors and drives firing up. Soothing for sure, but we are deprived of such enjoyment due to that pesky electricity being gone.  We do have a battery powered Montgomery Wards Airline model radio, dual cassettes and all, that was a circa 1977 wedding gift and we will have the oldies station on from time to time so I guess that offsets the lack of electronic buzz. The one reliable source of electronic noise was eliminated when I stabbed Rudolph during a psychotic episode, but that's already been discussed on these pages.  We have discovered that if one climbs up into the Wounded Knee blind that two bars of Verizon service can be achieved.  This has been used for birthday calls to the VOR as well as emergency calls to Woody to bring another buck tag in particularly good years.  Having to work to make a call, hiking a half mile and climbing a tree stand, puts a whole new light on prioritizing which calls are important and which are not. 

Thanksgiving dinner is another depravation.  How can you make a large turkey with gravy, stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, squash, and three desserts in such a primitive and tiny space?  Every year we manage to battle adversity and get it handled with the Weber grill, the above mentioned Detroit Jewel, and some creative juggling.  This year we managed to pull off dinner for seven of us with a four course wine flight to accompany the above courses, in the face of this adversity. 

The other thing that we go without for the week of deer camp is angst and expectations.  The only thing scheduled permanently is happy hour.  Stroll in after hunting, eject shells, place gun in rack, and pour beverage of choice.  There is total freedom on whether to go out and hunt or drink coffee, read a book, BS with the crew, or hit the sack at 8pm or midnight.  There is some whining about pumping water, filling the wood box, and stoking the sauna stove, but minor bitching is part of camp as well as the smart assed and predictable comebacks to said whining.  After going without schedules and expectations, coming back to the world, especially that first morning at work, is unusually invigorating.

The other thing we go without is decorum. Casual visitors might find that people walking around, drinking beer, and cooking in their underwear is a bit disconcerting.  It is said that I do my best cooking in my underwear and this is yet another cross that we bear during deer camp.
The ultimate lack of expectations is sitting up in the blind.  Thought uninterrupted by background noise or other people is a powerful thing.  Being deprived of  the distractions can steer your mind to all sorts of interesting spots and time tends to slow to  it's slowest passage of the year, especially when the temperature is in single digits and a northwest wind is coming off Gitchee Gumee.  Oh for the warm office, with the comforting glow of the computer screen, emails and co-workers stimulating your mind, and the prospect of a productive meeting looming in exactly 18 minutes.  Being deprived of that is certainly one of the most disturbing things about those ten days at camp.

This year three 8 pt bucks were shot, one each by Pod, GurneyGranny, and the KingOfIronwoodIsland.  The very late spring had reduced the herd in our area and even though we had doe permits aplenty, it was decided to pass on the smaller deer this fall. Every year I hear morons bitching about the wolves but our DNR has effectively reduced the population with their ill conceived, non science based hunting seaon so I find it difficult to figure out how there were more deer and more wolves last year and fewer of both this year.  Maybe the fact that we had snow and tip ups out on a foot of ice on opening fishing in May had something to do with deer mortality?  Nah, sorry I blew up there.  It is the latest that deer season can be in Wisconsin and it was cold and especially windy for most of the week. My guess is that part ot the 26% reduction in the deer kill in our area is not just the late spring but the attractiveness of the bar stool blind in the rough weather.  Poor weather, fewer deer, and the depravation described above made it a particularly hellish year at camp.  And we would do it all over next week if we could.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Unarmed hiking

Sorry readers, I'm waaaay behind on posts due to ten days of deer hunting among other things.  Here is one on hiking up on the Bayfield Peninsula.  Annual deer hunting post to follow shortly......
To the best of my recollection, this is the first hiking post that I've ever written.  It's not that I never hike but the whole concept of a hike is something I just don't spend that much time thinking about.  It's more like a walk in the woods, usually with some other purpose in mind rather than just a hike.  I hiked several miles yesterday, but with a shotgun in my hand as we hunted pheasants and chukar in a lovely little snow flurry.  Last weekend though, two true 'hikes' were completed. 

Both sisters and spouses were in town and the one thing that we all knew how to do was walk.  Kayaking, skiing, or biking would not have fit the skill set and motivations of this diverse group at all.  So we hiked, Saturday along the mainland sea caves and Sunday in the new Houghton Falls area.  We were led by Monk the puppy in all cases.  He's the only male dog I've ever had that doesn't immediately head for the hills when let off the leash.  For a lab/boxer, he is water shy, although he eventually splashed across the creeks, perhaps from peer group pressure if nothing else.  It was a bit of a drab, misty, sometimes rainy weekend in the low 40's F, but that was almost perfect for hiking.

In all my years up in the Bayfield Peninsula I had never hiked out to the mainland caves, although the VOR had with some women friends.  It was a bit of a sloppy slog with all the wet red clay and one had to be careful not to go on one's ass as the wet clay is 'slipperier than snot on a doorknob' as the old saying goes.  It's about two miles out to the lake view and the giant crack that we've all paddled up into.  It's an interesting perspective from above looking down rather than on the water gazing upwards.  The whole area appears to have suffered a major windstorm with lots of downed popple and balsam as well as the occasional large cedar tree.  The wind must have been accompanied by heavy rain as a couple bridges were washed out and laying on the bank downstream.  We could have continued on to the one mainland campsite but the rain was beginning and the siren call of the Snug was a powerful lure back to Washburn.

Sunday we did the short hike along the Houghton Falls trail out to the overlook of Chequamagon Bay.  This gem just became a public nature area a couple years back though the combined efforts of the township, state, and environmental groups including the Bayfield Regional Conservancy.  Its a short hike on an excellent trail and both the geology and the trees are spectacular.  Hemlocks pretty much end here, the western end of their zone, and there are some monsters interspersed with equally majestic white  and red pine.  Your reward when hitting the big lake is worth the short stroll as well. 
While I enjoyed the hike in this cusp season between kayaking, hunting, and skiing, I must admit to looking at the nice inviting lake and thinking about a last Lake Superior paddle.  I will be 'hiking' starting tomorrow, deer rifle in hand for nine straight days up at the deer camp.  A couple ski areas have opened and the rumor is that ABR in Ironwood has been tracking trails a bit already.  Hello winter, I hope you provide some outdoor fun for us this season and don't wait until March like you did last year.