Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Hot nights and cider

Sometimes you just need to step outside. Step away from the sticky confines of the house to go downtown hoping for a breeze and a nice cold drink. For me this often takes the form of a cider at Conor O'Niels. If I'm lucky a friend or two comes along but more often than not it is just me. Tonight is no exception.

People are out talking about topics small and large. In some ways that makes me feel very small. But that is life.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Happy birthday

Today is my birthday. I'm 41 years old, another prime number goes by the boards. While I've not done anything special today that's
alright it has been a nice day.

Happy birthday announcement

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Summer Trail maintenance along the North Country Trail

Three times a year I join Andy and John and we head over to Newago County not far from Bitely, Michigan to maintain a section of the North Country Trail. The section Andy and John adopted and let me help with is just over 6 miles long running from 13 Mile to 16 Mile Road. It runs past a handful of pretty lakes and features a few small hills as it wanders through forests of oak, poplar, red pine, and beech. It is a lovely stretch of pleasant trail. We had a great plan to do the trail maintenance and like so many plans it would not quite go as we laid out.

Those who are prone to superstition will comment that we should have known what was to come after things started to go against us. Our late start was immediately followed up by a small accident at the carpool parking lot where we all met. John slit two fingers open on his freshly sharpened ax as we learned that Andy had left his hiking clothing back home. John bandaged up his fingers and we piled into Andy's car to drive to his house to fetch his clothing. That, of course, added a couple hours to our departure time. Andy found his clothing, John dressed his fingers, we played a bit with Willow and kaila, and then it was time to pile back into the car and return to the carpool parking lot and switch cars before driving west. Our hopes of arriving before dark had been dashed but we were still in pretty high spirits. We reached the campsite after dark and quickly got our shelters set up. The mosquitos were out in force and we knew that this augured ill for what we would encounter the rest of the weekend.

We crawled out of our respective shelters not too long after sunrise. The whine of mosquitos had not prevented us from getting acceptable amounts of sleep. The humidity of the night had dissipated a little bit but it was clear it was going to be a very warm and humid day. Getting an early start was upmost in our thoughts and we drove over to Highbanks Campground and the connector trail that we had built, with many others, last spring (view video about this trail building trip last spring). Doused with bug dope we set out with tools in hand and began the search for areas that needed work. We had all thought that given the amount of heavy weather the area had experienced over the past couple of months that we would likely find a lot of blown down trees and the like. We were pleasantly surprised that this was not quite true. We marched on down the connector trail and then on to the NCT continuing to marvel that things were not that bad. Now and then we would find a downed tree that needed attention and once in a while that downed wood would turn out to be oak which is far and away the toughest wood to saw through. While we were on the move the bugs were mercifully not that awful. As we worked our way through the forest we chatted about the things you talk about when hiking: almost anything. But, given the nature of the climate we were walking through, that is the bugs that infested it, bugs came up now and then. Are we just made of weaker stuff than people of centuries past? I don't think that is necessarily true. Travel back then, and living outdoors, was slow and hard. They had no choice but to suffer the mosquitos, blackflies, and everything else that flies and bites. If you have to deal with it all the time you become used to it and just work through it. It's part of life. We are fortunate that we can get away, or at least provide ourselves with some temporary relief, from the pests. It is this difference that makes having to suffer a day of bad bugs, and this day was hardly the worst that any of us has ever seen, seem worse than it is and make you wonder if the human animal is just plain weak and squeamish. Then you remember that we have been around a lot longer than bug dope and that we have thrived in spite of everything.

We continued on and the day warmed. We found a tent city not that far down the trail and pretty much on top of the trail. Far too close for Leave No Trace camping guidelines. Big tents of car camping people. This is not the first time we have seen such things but it still annoys no end. It only gets worse when you see a fire ring with a dozens of beer cans in it. People just do not seem to care sometimes about the impact they make. Perhaps they honestly don't realize what they are doing which means education must be improved. But when you have to drive by a sign that says camping is only permitted at numbered sites and yet you pitch your huge tents in a complex right at the trail's edge anyway that points to a different human flaw.

We would continue on. I wonder if the people who use the trail appreciate what we are doing. I am sure backpackers do but what about the car campers who are breaking the rules. I would not be surprised to learn they have no clue what a group of folks like us are about. After seeing how some of them reacted to the forest service ranger when he tried to tell them they had too many tents and people at one site I feel fairly certain that they have no idea what we were about. But then you do not start doing this sort of work in the hopes of receiving open praise from those that you meet along the way. If that comes it is a bonus. All in all we zipped through the section fairly quickly reaching the end, some 4 miles and about two thirds of the whole section, in not much more than 2 and a half hours. Walking back along the back roads and two tracks was a bit of relief for us all as the open space afforded us a break from the ever pesky bugs. Even after a respite at a lake watching kids on a rope swing plunging into a lake and then a quick drive back camp we found it was only early afternoon. We had plenty of time to hike the stretch of trail from camp to Highbanks Lake and deal with any trail clean up that section required. It would turn out not to need that much and we sauntered back into our bug infested campsite by mid-afternoon.

WIth a bit of help I set up my hammock and quickly dove in for cover. John crawled into his tent and Andy under his great pyramid tarp. I suspect that I was the most comfortable. Andy's tarp is a remarkable shelter, tall and spacious but also very hot. John's small tent was also no doubt quite toasty and he had to leave his door open to improve ventilation. The air was still and thick with humidity. It was also thick with bugs that had designs on our flesh and our blood. But within the gently swinging confines of my hammock under the sheltering bug netting I did not notice. I dozed. Later on after I left the hammock unguarded Andy took over and being the soft touch that I am I let him have it for at time while I hunkered down in my tent. Definitely a poor second choice. A person in the hammock might look a little odd, rather like an upside down blister pack, but their is no denying the comfort level of a well protected hammock shelter especially when the air is still and thick with bugs and humidity.

We were, in a way, victims of our success. We were done with the trail work too soon. I don't think any of us expected it would go as quickly as it did. We had idle time on our hands and given the bug situation, the bites I received still itch today, our mood was not as joyous as it could have been. We would eat our adequate backpacker meals under Andy's pyramid, wander around a little bit, but in the end scramble for cover against the increasing hordes of flying menaces as the sun would dip below the horizon and out of sight. In the distance we could hear a yapping dog and music blaring. Perhaps both were at the same location. In some ways I think our morale was a bit down. We would swelter through our second night, warmer and more humid than the first, and at least in my case I found myself wishing it would hurry up and end. Sleeping in the hammock was quite nice but the constant drone of bugs trying to get at me was annoying and I feel certain some did bite me when I would roll up against the bug netting.

Sunday morning saw us breaking camp in a less than enthusiastic fashion. We had high hopes for some day hiking but it would turn out those would be dashed when we saw trail closed signs at Rogue River and also saw vast stretches of poison ivy and knew that the mosquitos, now larger and more aggressive than the day before, would be legion. We felt cheated but in the end we would drive back to the carpool lot and count ourselves lucky to not have been eaten alive.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Swift Currents and Timeless Travel: Gallup to Island Drive Park on the Huron River

The river is running high this month. It was running high in the spring. With higher water comes a faster current. Eddies of some size actually near bridges and by other places where water can be forced around in a curve into a backwash as happens with downed logs and rocks. Little riffles can actually grow to something we could consider a respectable class I rapids instead of the barely visible riffles they usually are. For people who want to run a stretch of the Huron in a tube conditions like this are wonderful. You need not worry about scraping your butt on a rock as you float down. You have to work a little harder to wade back upstream, but the tradeoff is more than reasonable.

The high water though wasn't the excuse Steve and I used to get out this past Sunday to paddle. I had read the article, and watched an interview, about two men who were going to paddle upstream along the full length of the Huron over a ten day period. They were going to do it in circa 1760 style as far as their boat and camping methods were concerned. A nod to living history (1). We both wondered about the hoops they would have had to jump through to get camping permission since the bulk of the land they would be passing was private and even the public lands did not allow overnight stays. The fact that Sunday was also Huron River Day was an added bonus though by the time we arrived at Gallup Park everything for that event was pretty much packed up.

We sauntered past the two fellows who were resting under their canvas (it appeared) shelter, wearing their period clothing, chatting with people about the river and what they were doing. We did not stop. We looked for a put-in point and then got our boats. At most we said hello to the gentlemen. Our reason for getting out to Gallup had not even really been fulfilled. They really were, at this point in time, merely the prod to get us out. Ironic and amusing. By 5:00PM we had our boats assembled, I almost got my Puffin assembled before Steve finished putting his Puffin together, that would have been a first for me. We pushed off from the slightly steep bank (after I dumped out excess water after a screwed up entry) and began the slow paddle upstream ourselves. The afternoon was warm, the sky pretty clear, and the sun shone glaringly bright off the water.

Paddling against the current is always a tough chore. It is tougher if you cannot really see the current and where the eddies are. Steve always found the better line. Having him as a guide was helpful especially as we crept islets and under bridges. In one spot, not far from the southern end of the Arboretum I found that I had gone the wrong way. I should have stayed to the left to paddle through the chute of the swift little class I rapid. Had I done that I probably would have made it but I went around the wrong way and ground to a halt. Would I have made it without the assistance of a fellow who was wading the river and found himself curious about my Pakboat Puffin? I like to think I would have. But I appreciated his help and he got to learn about my folding kayak. In fact on this journey both Steve and I shared a fair bit of information about the Puffins with interested bystanders. This experience does go to show how important being able to read the water is. It brings into sharp focus the fact that I'd be mediocre at best navigating upstream solo. Perhaps I could get better with some serious practical training but, sadly, at some point you need to accept your limitations. Having written this though I still would do this stretch time and again.

We were not in a hurry. You can't be in a hurry when the current is running as swiftly as it was. We avoided the worst downed logs and tried to stay on the river's edge poking our boats out past the worst of the branches now and then and then aiming them back at shore to avoid the worst of the current. Steve's better at this than I am. But that's the way it is. In time, after passing numerous beer barges (aluminum rental canoes with people in various states occupying them) we worked our way to the north end of Island Park. By this time, perhaps some 2.25 miles upstream from where we started, the sun was much lower in the sky and the glare off the dark brown shaded water was fierce. Neither of us could really see. It was time to turn back. We began our return journey in the company of a family of tubers. I began my journey in ignominious fashion running into a strainer of tree branches that took me a minute or two, that felt much longer, to work my way out of. I'm sure I provided amusement for the tubers. Amusement at my own expense. Oh well. I can live with that. We fell into an easy, so much more relaxing on the arms and upper body, paddle back towards Gallup Park. With the current helping us out we zipped right along. Steve had switched to a single blade and I was paddling a gentle rhythm that added a bit of speed to my travel but probably did more for steering control. Now and then, as we had on the upstream leg, we would chat but that's hard to do when someone is leading and the other boater (usually me) is trailing. Voices just don't carry well if you are facing directly away. We would pass a handful of rental canoes and other boats on the way back down. Including a couple boats with people who definitely had lightened their loads of beer perhaps a bit too much A little past 8:00PM found us pulling our damp boats, both of us had shipped water in at various times from drips and such, up on to the shote near where the living history duo had set up their camp. I think they were finishing off dinner and talking with people about cooking when we arrived. We found ourselves talking with a couple people, including a couple kids who seemed to care a lot about the fishing rod Steve had picked up, about our kayaks as we took them apart and bagged them up. The 3 or so hours on the river had been very enjoyable and I think we both felt pretty good about the trip we had just finished.

As if to make up for not chatting with the two canoers before we started we ended our trip by talking with them at length before heading to the car. They represent an interesting mix. Yes they're doing the river paddle circa 1760 style, but that can only go so far. After all, in 1760 you couldn't stop in the morning at Denny's for a bite. Nor could you call your wife at home and check in. Would a paddler using 2108 technology do the river that much more quickly than they are or be that much more comfortable? Perhaps. I reckon I can get a modern tent up more quickly than I could the shelter they are using. Certainly a modern liquid fuel stove would cook more quickly than the brazier they were using. But you can sleep comfortably with a wool blanket or a contemporary sleeping quilt. You could argue that some of the modern garb might in fact be more fragile even though it might let you get things done a bit more quickly. The point though is that what has to be done whether it is 1760 or 2108 is the same. I hope they make it. Unless something unexpectedly bad happens I do not see any reason why these two, seemingly pretty experienced, gentlemen will not make it.

(1). I first read about this on the Erie Hiker Blog. The specific article is here..

Sunday, July 6, 2008

On the Waterfront

OK, so perhaps not as in the old movie but I needed a title for the post and that fit. It fits because I spent the afternoon with a friend paddling a small section of the Huron River between the docks just north and west of Argo Canoe Livery (Vandermeer Park area) up into Barton Pond. I don't know how far we actually ended up going but that doesn't really matter too much (6 miles tops would be my guess). What matters is getting out with a friend and having a fine time doing something you both enjoy. I think we managed to achieve that just fine and in the process we even learned a few things.

Steve and I both own Pakboat Puffins. He has the 10 foot Sport and I have an older 12 foot version. In many ways the boats are quite similar. Mine has a couple extra ribs you need to insert and I always seem to be fighting a lot more with my gunwales than Steve ever does with his. My boat takes a spray deck while the Sport, as Steve got it (perhaps things have changed) does not. But both boats are fine for paddling gentle rivers, lakes, and sheltered water. I could imagine doing modest multi-day trips in either of them as long as you did not take them out on big open water. As usual Steve got his boat assembled more quickly than I. SOme of that is practice making perfect, some better natural ability to put things together. But once we were all set, and after answering a couple questions from interested people who had not seen folding kayaks before, we plopped our boats in the water and paddled forth under the clear blazing sky. Finding shady spots along the river as we paddled upstream was always a nice change. Finding those shady spots also gave relief to tired eyes from the fierce reflections of the sun off the water.

Steve and I have both paddled this lazy stretch of the lazy Huron before. The river flows easily against our passage but the current is hardly an impediment to our boats. The cool waters don't stop other people from swimming or standing waist deep with fishing lines angling for who knows what below. Those cool waters would drip off our paddles as we raised them out of the water moistening our legs with pleasant doses of cool enjoyment. In a reversal of usual roles I had decided to forgo using my spray deck and Steve was experimenting with a newly crafted half-spray deck. I would receive more drips and drops because of the change but I reckon I also enjoyed more freedom of movement so in these conditions out in a warm afternoon sun on a cool river it hardly mattered.

It is hard to chat while paddling. Someone is always ahead and voices don't carry well backwards. But you still manage conversation. The topics might not be grand but the mood is good and when conversation isn't practical that is fine too. We enjoyed the river, the company, the weather, the entire afternoon out. We knew we had ample time to go where we wanted and we took advantage of that time whiling away hours before we knew they had gone. At least they seemed to pass quite quickly to me.

When you can end a good day out with a friend with a nice meal and good drink sitting outside in downtown Ann Arbor (or where ever you are) that is the capstone to a very fine day. I know I had a good time and I feel sure Steve did too.

For those of you looking for a point to this ramble I'm sorry to tell you that their is no deeper meaning than that when you have a chance to do something you enjoy do it. That sounds trite but it is still true.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Independence Day

232 years ago the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. It's as good a day as many to call our national birthday as it marks our desire to become a distinct national state even though it doesn't by any means totally define what America is. That would take more time, the development of the Constitution with its Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments that would improve, or so we all hope, things for everyone.. But things need a beginning and this day is definitely a good marker for the beginning of what would become the United States of America.

It's too bad I couldn't celebrate the event really. No parties to attend, no big fireworks shows to gawk at and enjoy. Just little neighborhood fireworks going off in the street. Some legal; some not so much. This probably says more bout me and my desire to try and get something going than anything else. I enjoyed the visceral pleasure of watching those neighborhood fireworks being fired off but that is something I would enjoy (like most everyone) whether it was July 4th or not. After all, fireworks are cool.

Perhaps with the dawning of a new year for the nation we will be able to start to see a re-awakening of what is best about us throughout the nation and that will spread worldwide. Who knows perhaps next year, as I walk across Scotland again taking part in the 30th TGO Challenge, people will be able to say how they like what our image is becoming. I hope so.