Friday, November 19, 2010

Driving North for Deer Season

Driving north out of Lansing on US 127 the day before opening day of deer hunting season, one gets a lesson on economics and ethics.  It is also a time of great anticipation.

Of course there are the $60,000 four wheel drive trucks and SUVs that are not designed to be used in four wheel drive down muddy two-tracks.  Inside those are well-heeled sportsmen with $1000 hunter orange suits from Cabela’s.  They carry $4000 custom-bedded bolt action rifles, with $1000 Zeiss scopes.  They have $1500 Swarovski binoculars.  They are probably packing along Laphroaig scotch, not available in liquor stores between Lansing and Petoskey (who could afford it?).  Don’t forget the Saeco espresso maker and Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.

On the other hand are the 1988 Buick Centurys or 1990 Ford F-150s.  Those vehicles will see more two-track in a week than the $60k vehicles will see in a lifetime.  Two buddies riding together, at least one with a flannel shirt on, at least one with a hunter orange hat.  Their hunting clothes are faux Carhartts, the obligatory square inches of hunter orange supplied by a hat and gloves.  They shoot a $400 stock gun with a $100 scope, and carry $80 binoculars.  If they haven’t been unemployed the past month, they might splurge for Jim Beam (instead of Old Crow) or Jack Daniels (instead of Ezra Brooks), and Budweiser (instead of Schaefer).

They all watch hunting shows where guys whisper as if at a golf match about whether the deer (plural) coming toward them are “shooters.”  “That third one might be a shooter” he whispers in a Southern accent (even if he was born and raised in North Dakota) facing the camera or facing the field and talking out the side of his mouth.  By a “shooter” he means at least eight points, at least an 18 inch spread, brow tines five inches long, a massive G3 (whatever that is), and possibly stickers (not the things grandparents give to their grandchildren, or the things that stick to your socks when walking through a sandy field).  But for these guys heading north on US 127, a shooter is any deer with at least one antler at least 4” long.  When you go north of US 10, every legal buck is a shooter.  While they wish and dream for a six or eight point buck to walk past them, they hope they at least see a legal spike.

Some of these guys pack along portable tree stands, some have portable pop-up tent blinds.  They might have scouted out a location over the past couple of weekends, in between bow hunting and bird hunting.  They plan to get there the day before opening day and set up their portable stand, trying to memorize how they will find it in the dark the next morning.  Those who sit in the tree stands hope for dry weather.  Rain and temperatures below 40 make for a cold and miserable sit in the stand.  The ground blinds with a roof make for a more comfortable sit.

Some of the guys have fixed or significantly less portable blinds, made of wood and scrap materials, the size of an outhouse, maybe even a two-holer.  Those are much more work to set up the day before.  Those are usually only found on private land, where one can set them up permanently, and hunt out of them season after season.  The roof keeps you dry.  The sides keep the wind off and conceal your movements.  With the right clothing, a comfortable seat, enough food and hot liquids, one can spend twelve hours in such a blind, from 45 minutes before the first crack of dawn until 45 minutes after sundown.  Some people pay good money to go on weekend religious retreats to experience silence and solitude.  Deer hunters have their monastic temples.  They can spend a dozen hours in silence, broken only by surrounding gunshots, blue jays, and their own flatulence.  Put them in church and they are clock-watching if the sermon goes longer than 20 minutes.

Every once in a while you see a car with a couple of women heading north.  Some of them will be looking for work.  The taverns make brisk business the day or two before deer season, and the first few nights of deer season.  Like lumberjack towns one hundred fifty years ago, it is almost all guys.  A woman can make a big load of cash fast.  They aren’t looking for a mate, so no need to be flirtatious.  One just has to be blunt.  Find a guy who looks to have had a few drinks and still some money left, and just state it: “suck your dick out back for $25.”  If the hunter has taken his moral lessons from a recent President, then spending the $25 would not constitute adultery since it is not sex.   In the few days before deer season and the first few days of deer season, a person can make several hundred dollars a day, all tax free, all non-adulterous.

Of course there is not as much of that as the wider public sometimes imagines.  I have been in a few bars, and have never been asked.  In all my life I have not wittingly met or seen a prostitute.  I have seen attractive women looking at me.  At least I thought they were looking at me.  They were probably looking past me to find the “Restrooms” sign.  When attractive women look at me, or I see them first, I tend to avert my eyes.  Not that I am a moral saint.  Beauty would put me like a deer in the headlights.  So as not to stare trance-like, I avert my gaze.  I have to admit that I do the same thing with the other end of the spectrum of attractiveness.  I avert my gaze.  I am not one to gawk at a car accident as I drive by.  Again I am no saint.  It is not that I consider ugly women like a car accident, not wanting to look upon another’s pain.  No.  I just don’t want to give them any impression that I find them interesting.  As if the thought might even cross their minds.

The mind wanders with anticipation and imagination on the drive up north.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

To the end of a road

I can recall three times I have driven to the end of a road.  That seems very un-American.  You get there, then you have to turn back and retrace your steps.  Roads are via, ways to places.  The end of a road isn’t exactly no place.  It is no place important.  If it were important, there would be additional roads to it and out of it.  If it is important, it is a place you can pass through.  Two of the ends-of-the-road I have been to are ones that probably not more than a couple hundred different folks go to in a year.  Perhaps a few of them, and certainly billions of others, should they arrive there would think “that is it?”

The one that is less like that is the end of the Gunflint Trail.  Officially it is Cook County Road 12, beginning a few blocks north out of “downtown” Grand Marias, Minnesota, ending 57 miles later at Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.  The stunning image of that trip, especially after the Ham Lake fire in the Spring of 2007, is the moonscape appearance suddenly after you pass by the west end of Gunflint Lake.  Many people travel that road for fishing, camping, backpacking canoe expeditions, and hunting.  An odd story is from a family that lives near the end of the Gunflint Trail, 57 miles into wilderness.  A public school bus driver has her route to drive the trail morning and night during the school year to take kids to and from school in Grand Marais.  A young mother who lives at the end of the trail, half a step from wilderness, drives once a month the nearly 170 mile trip (one way!) to Duluth to get her hair done.  You live where the wolves howl, bears bang your trash cans, you see moose on the highway, you don’t see many other folks except your family and a few neighbors, and you have to burn a tank of gas to get your hair done.

I have been to the end of the Gunflint trail only once.  But my two other ends of road I’ve been to numerous times.  I don’t want others to go there, so I won’t reveal their exact location.  Like a good fisherman, I cannot reveal my good locations.  These roads are short, perhaps two miles long, one on the north and one on the south side of what I’ll call Beaver Creek.  I’ve never seen a beaver there, but I’ve seen evidence of beaver around there.  So close enough.

Back in the 1970s, those roads, two-tracks actually, took me back to within 50 yards of a river, not too bad for fishing in.  The last quarter mile or so led down a hill steep enough to get badly rutted with rain and snow melt.  Sometimes it was not worth the risk trying to get my 1967 Pontiac Tempest Custom (two-door coupe with a 326 V-8 and a two-speed automatic transmission) down there.  Getting down would not have been the issue; getting up would be the challenge.  Sometime in the 1980s, state officials determined that vehicular traffic was too destructive of the ecosystem near the river.  A gate was put up a half mile from the river.  Now you can drive back that far, park, and hike the remainder of the way to the river.  Good decision.  Nobody thought of such measures in the 1800s when that area was logged for its white pine, with logs rolled down the hills into the river and down the river to the sawmills on the Lake Michigan coast.  What might the river banks, and river itself, look like had there been a quarter mile boundary on the river back then?

The trail along the sound side of Beaver Creek was always in better shape than the one on the north side.  The north side trail cut through some swampy areas.  Depending on the rainfall or snowfall that year, the trail might be impassible for my Tempest.  That Tempest rode low.  If the crown between the two-tracks was a bit too high, I risked ripping off the exhaust system.  Big four-wheel drive pick-up trucks could get down the road.  But they tended to put the road in worse shape.  There were some years I could not get down the north side at all.

One of my best experiences being down the north side was with my son, when he was just an adult.  We were back there to go fishing and camp.  After fishing in the evening with a small campfire, we enjoyed some good Scotch.  Sipping Scotch that might cost as much or more than new fly line.  It was peaceful.  The fishing had been fine, but nothing great.  It was very typical of my visits to the north end.  The worst experience was the time we were up there just before a July 4th weekend.  As we had our camp set up, the little fire going after dark, three loud pick-up trucks showed up with at least eight people.  They got out battery powered flood lights to light the area.  The doors of a truck were open with loud music playing.  Had it been Wagner, or Mozart, or Rachmaninov, or even Billy Holiday, John Coltrane, Patsy Cline, or Hank Williams, the music might have been suitable for the setting.  At a lower volume.  But the not-very-talented early 1990s popular rock surely desecrated the area and sent the sprites and other faeries to the next county.

I had no bad experiences on the end of the south side.  I would often head there as close to summer solstice as I could.  On a clear evening, I had enough light to see for fishing until 10:30 or 11 pm.  One of those evenings I was in the river casting.  A raccoon was on the opposite bank digging for larvae and crayfish.  A large dark object swam under water from downstream up just past the end of my rod.  I thought it was a salmon, except salmon aren’t in the river late June.  Then it surfaced, a beaver, about 15 feet upstream from me.  It was all peaceful.  I belonged there.  I didn’t see another person the day before or the next day.  I could fish in the morning until it got warm, take off my fishing get-up and clothes and take a swim and clean off in the river, lie in the grass to dry off.  After a lunch of some fresh fruit and a peanut butter sandwich, I’d read a few chapters, then nap until 6 pm.  On my way back to the river, I’d sequester a bottle of cheap but tasty wine in a spring to chill, fish until I couldn’t see to cast, return to my tent collecting the chilled wine along the way, fix an almost mid-night meal, and get six good hours of sleep before dawn was calling me to return to the river.

Some people find their home at the end of a road.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Cold weather bicycle commuting

I had mentioned on my facebook page earlier this week that my ride into my office in the morning was in temperatures in the mid 20s, the coldest since back in March or April.  I mentioned yesterday that my ride home might be in rain with temps in the low 40s.  Someone commented that his own "couch potato lifestyle" (his words) was looking good to him now.  Two thoughts occurred to me almost immediately, and they are complementary to each other.  The first is that you do not become an avid bicycle commuter in a day or a season.  The second is that you do not become a couch potato in a day or a season.

I have been bicycle commuting for about 30 years.  Even eight years before that, before I had a drivers license, I used my bicycle to get around.  I lived in a rural area, ten miles to the nearest small town.  It was a mile and a half to the lake where I'd go fishing, two miles to a corner store where I could return bottles I'd find along the side of the road for deposits to buy candy and ice cream, ten miles to girls I was interested in.  We, my dad and mom and us seven kids, were poor (never hungry poor), had one car which dad used to take to work.  Usually he had a motorcycle which he could take in good weather so mom could have the car.  Good weather meant anything but snow, ice, and bitter cold.

It was when I was in graduate school that I became more serious about bicycle commuting.  My wife and I had one car, which she used to get to work.  I would ride my bike the two to eight miles (depending on where we found the cheap apartment) to campus.  It was in Nashville, so there were few winter days too miserable to ride.  When I got my first faculty position after graduate school, we purposely found housing within a mile of my office so that I could ride a bicycle most of the time, and walk in bad weather.  There I was for 21 years, a mile from my office.

My second faculty position was in St. Paul, MN.  Our home was over four miles from campus.  The Twin Cities area is well-designed for bicycle commuting (lots of wide paved shoulders, lots of bicyclists).  I bicycled to my office into November.  Usually my Thanksgiving, it was getting tough, partly from the snow (which would be plowed into but not out of the shoulder) and the cold.  The Twin Cities, contrary to many folks' assumption, does not get a lot of snow; it gets about the same amount as Detroit.  But the snow the Twin Cities gets the end of November is usually still on the ground the end of January.  It does not get back above 32 degrees much, if at all, between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day.  I could walk to my office in just over an hour at a brisk pace.  I'd start bicycle commuting again in mid-March.

My most recent job has me in Lansing, MI, with my home less than eight miles from my office.  Over the years I have acquired clothing that enables me to ride my bicycle in a wide range of weather, not just fair weather.  I have also acquired bicycle handling skills, and road savvy, to enable me to be reasonably safe in a wide range of conditions, including heavy traffic, low-light and night-time riding, rain, and snow (as long as it is not a heavy snowfall with accumulations).  Norwegians say "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."  I had an elderly cycling friend who often reminded us that the rain won't hurt, "you do have a water-tight asshole" he'd say.

How my facebook friend became a couch potato probably has a parallel story.  How did he move from a 6'1" 150 pound senior in high school three dozen years ago to a 220 pound couch potato now?  Not in a day or a season.