Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sacred ground: A visit to the Aldo Leopold Shack and Center in central Wisconsin

Visited the Aldo Leopold Foundation last fall while my sons had a few days off school. It’s an amazingly accessible place just north of I-90/94 in central Wisconsin less than four hours from the Twin Cities.
Author, academic, parent, outdoorsman, Aldo Leopold  inspired a modern land ethic in generations of Americans (and beyond) via his writing, most notably in A Sand County Almanac. Those of us who believe all modern conservation highways lead to Leopold consider a pilgrimage to his famous “Shack” mandatory. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never visited before.
The Wisconsin River country northwest of Madison runs a little smaller than the Mississippi River bluff lands where I attended high school, but the rolling landscape still contains some wild, charming character. Leopold grew up in Burlington, Iowa, a Mississippi River town, so perhaps the call of the lower Wisconsin River valley held the same sway over him.
The five children of Aldo and Estella Leopold established the Aldo Leopold Foundation as a not-for-profit conservation organization in 1982. The building and displays at Foundation’s headquarters northeast of Baraboo, Wis., are simple yet informative. Opened in 2007, the Leopold Center proudly proclaims it was “built using pines the Leopold family planted in the 1930s and '40s, and implements a wide spectrum of green building techniques and technologies.” My family enjoyed the displays, including a short video interviewing environmentalists in other nations (like Russia and China) citing Leopold’s writing. Then my clan tromped around the relatively new 21/2-mile trail network surrounding the Leopold Center.
The cool, overcast October weekday kept crowds away, so we had the facility to ourselves. We then paid the $7 per adult to head back up the road a mile to see the famous Leopold Shack.
Leopold bought the property where the boarded-up shack still sits, a worn-out farm next to the Wisconsin River, in 1935. The shack is a re-built chicken coop where the family stayed during weekend retreats from Madison. He wasn’t kidding about the sand. It’s a short walk down to the Wisconsin River from the shack, and it leads you through some incredibly sandy soils. All that sand again reminded me of the Caledonia prairie – an old Mississippi River floodplain – in western Wisconsin where I lived in the mid-1980s.
The lousy soils didn’t stop the Leopold family from planting thousands of trees, prairie, and generally just nurturing the landscape on the property they purchased during the Great Depression. Those experiences helped spawn the collection of essays that became A Sand County Almanac, arguably the most important environmental tome ever published. Any hunter or wanna-be conservationist who hasn’t read A Sand County Almanac must do so. The Foundation says more than 2 million copies have been printed, and it has been translated into nine languages. While visiting the center I paged through a copy printed in Chinese.
The author and his family at the Aldo Leopold shack
just a stone's throw from the Wisconsin River.
(There’s something you don’t see every day.)
Near the shack, we picked up a few acorns on the property that, on our return trip in the Twin Cities, my boys planted on their grandparent’s farm in southeastern Minnesota. Maybe old Aldo himself planted some of those oak trees, and maybe someday their offspring will be producing acorns for the deer and turkeys on our hunting land.
Leopold had five children, three boys and two girls, all accomplished scientists and conservation advocates in their own right. (My wife, Annette, pointed out that we have three boys and one girl, so we’re one daughter short of the Leopold clan. I think we’ll be keeping it that way….)
Many conservationists in the Upper Midwest met or heard Leopold’s oldest daughter, Nina Leopold Bradley, speak and advocate for the Foundation’s causes untill her passing in 2011 at the age of 93. Her sister, Estelle, is the only surviving sibling. She lives in Seattle as a retired University of Washington professor emeritus of botany, forest resources and quaternary research, and she serves on the board of the Aldo Leopold Foundation as lifetime director.
Whether you consider the Leopold Shack sacred ground, or you’re just looking for a quiet piece of wild country for a peaceful hike, visit the Leopold Center the next time you’re passing through central Wisconsin.
The center holds special events and workshops throughout the year, or you can enjoy the facilities at your own pace.
For information, view the Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website.

Friday, January 13, 2012

BWCAW 2012 Reservation Changes

The U.S. Forest Service changed its long-standing reservation system for 2012, so there’s no longer a lottery for many areas.
The lottery still exists for Fall Lake entry points D (Fall Lake and Beyond) and 24 (Fall Lake) and Moose Lake entry points F (Moose-Newfound-Sucker), G (Moose-Prairie-Basswood) and 25 (Moose Lake). People wanting day use motor, overnight motor, and overnight paddle permits for those entry points can continue to use the lottery to make their reservations.
Lottery applications began starting from 12:01 a.m. CST on Dec. 19, 2011 to 11:59 p.m. CST on Jan. 19, 2012. The lottery will run on Jan. 20.
Reservations for all other entry points can be made on a first-come, first-served basis starting
9 a.m. CST, on Jan. 25. Make reservations online at or call (877) 444-6777.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Destinations on The Big Island

The Big Island’s greatest asset is its size and ample number of sights and destinations. Too much of a pulse to sit around sipping Mai Tai's? Me too. We drove around the outer edge of the entire island and saw all the major highlights, and then some. That said, I could spend another week on the Big Island to enjoy more trail hiking and off-the-beaten-path sights. Highlights started with Volcanoes National Park. The Kilauea Iki Trail is marvelous, and all three of my kids loved hiking its four-plus miles. The trail back up is no worse than your average Minnesota bluff country trail – maybe a 400-foot elevation gain through an incredible rainforest.

Oh, about that, the “rain” forest. It was remarkably dry. A park ranger said the area had three inches of rain for the year when the average is 60! I wouldn’t think of blaming it on climate change.... Other points of interest at Volcanoes include the Thurston Lava Tube and of course the always steaming Kilauea Caldera. No one else in the automobile was particularly interested in hanging around all night to see the glow from the caldera, or to try and find some actual lava, so it being six against one, we bailed. (In their defense, it was a four-hour drive roundtrip from the resort to the Park.) When I return to Big Island, I will spend a night or two near the city of Hilo, just to be closer to the volcano at night.

Word of advice: the rangers and other staff at Volcanoes are fairly worthless. I found one old guy who appeared to know more about the national park than me, and after some steady prodding I coerced some useful information out of him. The mission of most staff appeared to be to keep visitors on the pavement as long as possible, then move them out of their park. Always while admitting nothing about any flowing lava anywhere on the island.

Driving back to Waikoloa via Kona, we checked out the black sand Punaluʻu Beach, in southeast Hawai’i. Lots of people and sea turtles. (Ain’t nothing can make a Drieslein boy dirty like black sand!) Also saw macademia nut trees and coffee plantations around the southwestern corner of Hawai’i. Very slow driving on the two-lane road, so you can expect to only make about 45 mph. Makes for a long day, but kids rolled with it well.

Weather, by the way, is ridiculously marvelous everywhere. Temps probably topped out in low 80s by day and low 70s at night. Exception was walking out on lava rock, which absorbs heat like a sponge and must have been pushing three figures in the afternoon. Rooms were air conditioned, so we slept well. Length of day and night were remarkably uniform, and I understand that the time difference between summer and winter solstice is less than one hour. The tropics, go figure.

Our day trip on Wednesday, Oct. 13 was excellent. We drove over the Mountaintop Road that bisects the northwest portion of the island – the so-called Kohala Peninsula. This is the oldest portion of the island (farthest from the volcanic “hot spot”) since the Pacific Plate moves in a northwesterly direction. That means lava rock has had more time to erode into actual soil in this area. Thus more vegetation and a lusher, classic Hawaiian vibe. There was a stop in the town of Hawi along the way, complete with the senior citizen/tourism center and locals singing karoake at 10 a.m. We enjoyed learning some of the history of King Kamehameha during the trip and snapped a gratuitous tourist picture in front of his statue. A similar statue exists adjacent to the Hawaiian capitol on O’ahu, I’m told. This tough guy unified the Hawaiian Islands almost exactly 200 years ago. Read about him here.

The Pololu Valley (photo atop this blog) offers a spectacular vista, but the hike down was really awesome. It provided some fine exercise that morning. We returned right before a rainshower struck. I would NOT want to hike that trail when wet.

Side note to nude swimmers at Pololu: You are effectively cutting off half the beach with your decision to recreate in the buff. Yes, Americans have a ridiculous fear of bare flesh (example), but given my courteous nature, I didn’t hike down to visit your end of the beach. Neither did the other dozen-plus people visiting that day, because we were trying to respect your privacy. Problem was, it’s a public beach, you assholes. I don’t give a flying bleep about your private parts, but clearly, given your “body language” you were uncomfortable with people coming near you. If that’s the case, keep your clothes on and don’t install a defacto “private beach” sign by stripping, then acting nervous when anyone comes with 150 yards. Idiots.

Heading back through Hawi, we hit the Tropical Dreams ice cream shoppe where the ice cream was every bit as good the guidebooks suggested. The gal behind the counter, originally from Minnesota apparently, needs to hone the customer service skills, but the ice cream was delicious. (Always irritating when someone charging $4 for a scoop of ice cream acts as though she’s doing you a favor by serving it.)

Rounding out the day, we visited Lapakahi State Historical Park, the remnants of a Hawaiian fishing village that remained active up until just over 100 years ago, and Pu’ukohola Heiau, a temple that Kamehameha built before unifying the islands. The latter is managed by the National Park Service. (Again, featuring staffers who can’t provide a straight answer about anything, presumably because they’re in constant fear of losing their jobs, health benefits, and federal pensions.) Heiaus (ancient temples) are all over the islands, and we stopped at several during our weeklong visit.

Speaking of beaches, because of the ubiquitous rock, massive, mile-long beaches are rare on the Big Island. But there are a number of small beaches that offer marvelous white sand, light surf and everything you expect from an old-school Pacific beach. We hit several along the west coast of Hawai’i in the so-called Kohala region. My favorite was Mauna Kea Beach, which was a little more difficult to access through the adjacent resort. Hapuna Beach felt a little beat up, though it has a reputation, according to Conde Nast Traveler magazine, as one of the top beaches in the United States. Anaeho’omalu Bay (A-Bay) was a brief walk from our resort, and – feral cats aside – was nice, too. There are many others we didn’t visit.

An aside: Ever wonder why Hawaiian place names are so long and use the same letters repeatedly? It’s because the Hawaiian alphabet has only 13 letters. With fewer letters to choose from, words must – by definition – be longer; sorta like binary counting. (Work with me.)

City of Kona had a Costco for gassing up and purchasing food and other items, but other than that, Kona will be at the bottom of my visit list when I return to the Big Island. Felt like a huge city with a busy urban center. We visited long enough on our last day to see the Palace and a couple other historic sights, including the Moku'aikaua Church, the first Christian church in the islands. By the way, did you know the Brits called these islands the Sandwich Islands? Photo above, by the way, shows Middle Boy at the finish line of the Hawaiian Iron Man. He declared that the next time he visits that site, it will be as a finisher of the granddaddy of all triathlons, which of course happens here.

Van from Alamo worked fine, and most of the staff was great, other than the obnoxious sales guy who must receive a massive commission from upselling insurance on the vehicle. Wouldn’t take no for an answer. What a jerk.

Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed probably is the best guidebook for checking out Hawai’i. Obviously, it focuses on the Big Island, so that specificity is helpful, and the book has a no-nonsense style from author Andrew Doughty that I appreciated. I paid $16.95 for it at Barnes and Noble on the Mainland. Saw it at Kona Costco for $11. Must have a corner on the market on The Big Island, because we saw it everywhere while in Hawai’i.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Snorkeling with Seaquest

After about 20 minutes of sitting poolside (or lakeside) at any given resort, I need to explore. Hence the name of my blog. Anyway, said nervousness erupted at the Waikoloa Hilton on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and I needed to hit the ocean for some snorkeling. Annette recognized the signs and told me to hit the road and bring the big boys with me. A little snooping online produced a decent-looking operation, Seaquest, snorkeling and rafting adventures out of Kona. Price was OK, especially if you booked online (like $15 off per person) so it came to about $200 for the three of us. That was for the four-hour Deluxe Morning Adventure tour. That’s steeper than I like to spend on a half-day’s entertainment, but the tour offered great access to arguably the two top snorkeling destinations on Hawai’i: Kealakekua Bay and Honaunau Bay.

Boys and I took off around 6:45 a.m. so we could reach the operation south of Kona by 7:45 for the 8 a.m. launch. (We got there early.) Parking was odd, and the whole area felt a little seedy, but it ultimately was safe. A bunch of water-access operations are clustered along the same bay, so you’ll see lots of folks getting geared up for a day on the water. We covered ourselves in sunscreen (Logan was thrilled), then loaded onto a big inflatable raft with two 150-horse Yamaha four-stroke outboards. There was the three of us, a 30-something couple from O’ahu, and about 10 aging babyboomers. Logan offered a clever nugget as we boarded: “I think we’re with a bunch of old, rich people trying to finish up their bucket list.” Cripes, who’s he been hanging around?

Captain Steve eyed the boys somewhat warily as we exited the cove, then we cruised about a half-mile offshore and headed south along the Big Island’s west coast. Fun fact: We were immediately over deep water, like 1,000 feet plus, because there’s no continental shelf off Hawai’i. These are volcanic islands that rise off the sea floor rapidly, and the drop-off from the land is even steeper than the volcanoes on shore. Consequently, some of the greatest near-shore “deep-sea” fishing in the world exists right here off Kona. We could see several fishing boats a little father offshore.

Bouncing along, I could tell Logan was a little concerned about seasickness. He’d developed some airsickness during the five-hour flight from LAX, and this was on his mind. I encouraged both boys to monitor the horizon and breath deep, and they were fine. Calm seas didn’t hurt.

Twenty minutes later we arrived at Honaunau Bay, the so-called “Place of Refuge” among the Hawaiians. The history of this ancient safety zone, almost a purgatory for those who violated the Kapu laws, is fascinating. A national monument now, its history is available here.

Captain Steve smiled as my boys were the first ones in the water and took off snorkeling without any whining or direction. He apparently deals with a lot of kids who want no part of being on the water but are pushed into the “adventure” by their parents. Not a problem with the Drieslein lads. Snorkeling was very good, though to be honest I recall seeing a wider variety of colorful coral and fish during my dives in the Bahamas. I suspect these sites in Hawaii get pounded with snorkelers and divers so they’re not in the greatest of shape. Nonetheless, we kicked around admiring the brain coral and parrotfish for 30 minutes before Alec swallowed a little too much seawater. He’d also become a little spooked at the currents that pulled us toward some rocks a couple times. I pulled him away and brought him to the boat where Captain Steve, his terribly personable first mate, and several of the boomers who’d already returned fussed over him and stuffed him full of cookies and fresh fruit. Logan and I continued snorkeling until Captain Steve called us in. A couple times we swam through a group of fish nibbling on a piece of apple someone had thrown from the boat.

Firing up the raft, Steve then headed back north along the coast, swinging the craft into sea caves and lava tubes multiple times. Most had names I can’t remember and my photos don’t do them justice (lighting was tough.) You’ll see very few seabirds along the Hawaiian coast. There are few offshore islands for nesting, and a nest has virtually no chance on the main island because of the cats, rats, and mongoose. Very odd being on the ocean and seeing no seagulls.

Our second snorkeling destination, Kealakekua Bay, also has a fascinating history. Also on the National Register of Historic Places, Kealakekua Bay has a monument commemorating this as the location where Captain James Cook of the U.K. became the first European to discover the "Sandwich Islands" on January 17, 1779. Read about its history here.

To Seaquest and Captain Steve’s credit, they insisted that we avoid the rocks and not climb up to the monument. Feet and snorkeling equipment destroy the coral, and – even though they’re ultimately taking care of their cash cow – I give Seaquest credit for stressing ethics. The same could not be said for people renting kayaks on the far side of the bay, then paddling over and kicking the hell out of the site.

Diving was better here. A wider variety of fish and the coral was close-up, so close that we needed to be careful not to touch or kick it. I started diving down in some areas for a better view of sea urchins and other spiny critters (don’t touch!) hiding in the crevices of the coral. Both boys soon were testing their diving skills as well. They did great, going down 8-10 feet. Logan headed back to the raft about 10 minutes before last call, and Alec and I were the last ones to load.

A few more stops at some sea caves, and we returned to our launch site four hours after we’d left. Logan couldn’t believe how quickly the time had passed. Captain Steve complimented me on having great, non-whining kids. “No one cried,” he said. “That always means we’ve had a good day.” Then he qualified, “I don’t mean to suggest just your kids didn’t cry. You’d be surprised how many adults get upset on these trips.” I can see that. If you’re inexperienced with snorkeling, swallow a little water, get seasick, or maybe the whole jumping into the cold ocean thing overwhelms you, then yeah, someone might get emotional. We had no problem, however.

I’d highly recommend Seaquest as an efficient way to safely see two of the top snorkeling sights in all of the Hawaiian Islands. Send Cap’n Steve my regards.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hawai'i — The Good, Pt. 1

Confusion generally dominated my psyche while considering trips to Hawaii over the years. Many islands with so many confusing names with so many letters, especially k’s. They really like k’s in Hawaii. Gradually, however, I drew a few conclusions. O’ahu – that’s the island with the big city and famous Waikiki Beach. Too urban. Lots of people. Not my bag.

Maui: That’s the place where an increasing number of people my age go for their second weddings. No plans for a trophy wife….

Ka’uai: Wet and small. Probably less kid-friendly than…

Hawai’i: The Big Island. Twice as large as the other Hawaiian islands combined. Volcanoes, some decent beaches, coffee plantations. Plus, a number of friends had recommended it as the most family-friendly for “things to do.”

So when, on a whim, my parents and my family decided to visit the 50th state, The Big Island came out on top.

My lovely bride cashed out all of our frequent flyer miles, so four of our five family members could fly free, and through Costco Travel she found a great room at the Waikoloa Hilton (west side of Hawai’i) for a ridiculous price. I’m not averse to bragging about numbers. Airfare, oceanview room, two breakfast buffet tickets per day, and minivan cost about $3,500 for our family of five for a week. (Little guy was free for breakfast and by skipping one other day, we all ate breakfast basically for free on the trip.) This trip obviously occurred during the off-season; the boys had the entire week off from school for MEA week. We had to pay for gas, some other meals, and incidentals, but we found ways to do that as cheap as possible. We bought every gallon of gas that flowed through the carburetor – er... fuel injection chambers – at Costco in Kona. Grabbed a few lunches and miscellaneous items there, too. No, I’m not above plugging Costco.

The flight. It’s a long damn way to Hawaii from the Mainland. (Don’t call it the States, or “Back in the U.S.” Hawaiians of all races don’t like that. You’re in the U.S.) From MSP, you’re looking at three hours-plus to LAX, then another five-plus to the surprisingly undelightful open-air airport at Kona.

To Delta Airline’s credit, all flights took off and landed on time, and they conveyed my clan to and from the tropics safely. Those compliments behind us, the airplane was small, dirty, and had lousy airflow. There were NO overhead air vents on the flight from LAX to Kona, so it was stuffy and hot the whole flight. How is that possible in 2010? Gotta love monopolies.

The boys, age 11, 8, and 5 handled the flight better than me. Logan got airsick, but rolled with it very well. Will give my boys credit: They love to travel. They’re always pretty well behaved, but especially when they know they’re doing something special – like a trip to Hawaii. To the credit of my fellow Americans, we didn’t deal with any crabby babyboomers – or any other generations – who took offense to the mere presence of children on the aircraft. Thank you fellow travelers.

Driving from the airport to our lodging, we were surprised to see… rock.

Lava. Rock. Is. Bleeping. Everywhere. On. The. Big. Island.

Hey, you’re sitting on a still-growing island about the size of Connecticut with five volcanoes, three of them potentially active. Guess one shouldn’t be surprised to see a whole lot of rock. Still, for those who expect to view waterfalls around every corner, miles and miles of vast, black lava rock fields generated surprise.

Aside from the irritants I'll mention in separate blog, which we will pretend don’t exist here, the Waikoloa Hilton was a great place. Friendly, helpful staff, clean rooms, great pools and other amenities, and a reasonable drive to and from Kona Airport. We made lots of time for the boys to swim in the magnificent swimming pools, snorkel the lagoon, and watch the sunsets every night from the lava-rock and coral-strewn coastline.

The lagoon had surprisingly good snorkeling! We saw many species of fish, including some small baracuda, eels, parrotfish, plus sea turtles. Though the lagoon lacked coral, we arguably saw as many different fish species in its calm waters as we did while snorkeling a half-day with Seaquest Adventures in two prime spots. (See future blog specific to Seaquest.)

Though we skipped the $90/person luau, the boys and I enjoyed watching a couple of staffers bury a pig in a fire pit. The friendly pair of Hawaiians provided ample insight into the history behind this style of cooking and their personal backgrounds. Annette and I perhaps can tackle a luau together someday when we’re paying for two.

The Waikoloa resort complex contains some of the best examples of Hawaiian petroglyphs, stone carvings, in the state. The petroglyphs, I understand, are possibly the closest thing to a written language that Hawaiians used. Info from the resort website says some petroglyphs are thought to be astronomical symbols, travel markers or commemorations of historic events. What struck me was how the semi-urban resort area was simply built around them. Park near Tiffany’s, walk past the ABC store, cut through the gas station parking lot to reach the trail through the petroglyphs carved into the lava rock. (Try to ignore the clearly more recent – often phallic – graffiti.) Oh, and don’t forget to dodge the sliced golf balls bouncing through the sacred ground. Some idiot missed the fairway by 100 yards (even I’m not that bad!) and his ball came within a couple feet of me. He witnessed multiple foul gestures from yours truly. Ban golf.

More to come…

Monday, August 30, 2010

Thriving in the BWCAW

Bruises on my biceps. A spouse getting X-rays. Offspring crying from exhaustion. No, Annette and I aren’t having marital problems... we just returned from four days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The bruises are from lifting and hauling a 23-foot canoe solo over nearly two miles of portages over four days. The X-rays are on Annette’s knee after she tumbled off a multi-ton granite boulder. The boys are sore and crying from days of running wild through the woods from dusk till dawn.

As late as early last week, I seriously thought this trip wouldn’t happen. Just preparing and assembling the gear was a major undertaking. The portages were looming, daring me to stay away. Take the family to a waterpark instead. But every time I convinced myself that it wasn’t worth the time or effort, Middle Boy would sidle up to me, blink his massive blue eyes, and say, “Golly Dad, I just can’t wait for our trip to the Boundary Waters!”

So with all the equipment I could beg, borrow or steal, we loaded up to leave last Tuesday afternoon. Then that nagging problem in the working man’s life, the day job, kept me from leaving the office, and the family leaving for Ely, that afternoon. Resolute that we would hit the “trail” early, I declared that we’d load the van that evening, then awake at 2 a.m., and I could drive up while the family slept in the mini-van. My phone alarm went off at 2 a.m., and the portages taunted again. “Roll over. You delivered a 56-page newspaper last night to the printer. You deserve to sleep. You know the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t maintain these portages. They’re brutal. You’ll never make it. The dwarves dug too deep and unleashed a Balrog.” You get the point.

I got up, my wife loyally followed. We awoke the lads, directed them into the bathroom, then seated them in the van. They slept soundly and Annette didn’t stir until the engine slowed four-and-a-quarter hours later as we rolled into a quiet Ely. 51 degrees, windy and overcast. “It’s like you’ve taken me into another world,” my lovely bride stated in a tone both flat and perplexed.

“Looks like fall is here,” said Bob at Canoe Country Outfitters around 7 a.m. as we loaded the 23-foot We-No-Nah Minnesota IV onto my minivan – a process that went more smoothly and efficiently than I believed possible. Then we checked the weather: clear and sunny for the next three days. Highs topping out around 80. “Doesn’t get any better than that,” Bob said. I tried the same line on Annette as we cruised out of Ely. She didn’t respond.

I could hear what she was thinking as we drove eight miles north up the Echo Trail, then northeast on six miles of gravel U.S. Forest Service “roads” to Mudro Entry Point 23. “Where the hell is this guy taking me. I didn’t sign up for this 15 years ago.”

The whole clan was surprised when we arrived at the entry point and saw probably 35 parked cars, and a dozen-plus people standing around. The BWCAW remains a popular destination and Mudro a popular entry point. Chainsaw Sisters saloon, however, is history. The Trust for Public Land bought out the sisters, Michelle Richards and Marlene Zorman in 2006 and demolished the building. So sad I couldn’t show the boys their sign inside their facility, “Go save the world somewhere else.” Always found that rather arrogant, taunting those irritating do-gooders who protected the environment. Those efforts, still scorned and mocked by some in northern Minnesota, provided them with a living along the wilderness for 20 years, and presumably a tidy paycheck when they sold out. But that’s intense rant fodder for another time...

We unloaded, the boys scampering excitedly underfoot, then occupied the four seats – Logan up front, Annette in the second seat, two small boys side-by-side on the largest third seat, and the navigator (and major source of propulsion) in the back. We paddled, first through a long, swampy inlet then across Mudro Lake to the first of three portages.

Rock. Is. Bleeping. Everywhere. In. The. BWCAW.

I’ve spent two weeks in the BWCAW before, and a lot of time canoe camping in the Sylvania Wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Sylvania portages are wide and sandy, tame even for beginner canoe campers (and easy on scratch-prone kevlar canoes.) The rocky nature of the BWCAW augments the region’s incredible beauty, but also poses muscle-numbing challenges. Navigating a 23-foot canoe through rocky minefields, along granite shelves to unload, then climbing over all those boulders – at least with three kids in tow – burns major calories. Dozens of times over the next three days, we’d find ourselves clinging to slippery boulders, every ligament in our bodies stretching to its limit, trying to steady a watercraft to enter or exit safely. Looking for a great “core” body workout? I give you the BWCAW.

The second portage was particularly brutal. 140 rods one-way (20 rods short of a half mile), up and over a large, boulder-strewn hill, with tiny s-curves significantly shorter than our 23-foot canoe along the way. I tried writing a poem in my head as I walked “140 rods” but the words escape me now. With kids, it was a three-tripper. Back and forth three times, so one mile of hauling gear and one mile of walking back to retrieve it all.

Don’t cry for me. I have weight to lose.

Fourtown Lake, a body of water with a wonderful reputation for scenic beauty, greeted us after the third portage. Now, to find a campsite. Unlike Sylvania, where you reserve sites, one reserves entry point permits at the BWCA, then searches for site. This adds stress, especially with children in tow, but we kept a positive attitude, even while paddling into a north wind. Some relatives had rated a spot on the west side highly, so we headed that way. Occupied. The map showed another spot across the bay. Ten minutes of paddling across the bay. Occupied. Another spot to the west. Five minutes of paddling. Unoccupied. “I don’t know, looks like kind of a crappy spot,” I declared as we approached.

“We’re there,” Annette replied. So we became happy campers.

The next three days we paddled around the vicinity, tackling portages sans Duluth packs, only water bottles and granola bars. Boot Lake, a pretty little lake to the west, had several open spots, and the second campsite north from the portage along the east side is gorgeous. We attempted a long day-trip up toward Basswood Falls, but two unmarked portages (unfair!) immediately slowed our progress. Then Annette slipped on a rock and twisted her knee terribly. She wasn’t sure she could walk out of the wilderness the next day, much less haul packs. Basswood Falls was probably still 21/2 hours away, so it must wait for another day. The boys trundled around another stream and inlet instead.

Two things worked ridiculously in our favor during our trip: marvelous weather and few mosquitoes. No bears either, though hanging our food didn’t hurt. Repeatedly, I told the clan not to take this for granted, though they probably did. Annette enjoyed herself more than she expected, even declaring several times, “This isn’t horrible.”

The highlight of the trip occurred Thursday morning, around 1 a.m. A single wolf began howling, then at least five or six others joined in chorus. It only lasted 30 seconds, but it was an unforgettable sound, especially under a nearly full moon. Definitely different from coyotes, which I’ve heard multiple times in southeast Minnesota and -- believe it or not, folks -- Eden Prairie. A pack of coyotes sounds like a big dog party, almost cackling and hyena-like. Wolves are clear, somber and strong. Unmistakable to even the amateur ear.

One piece of equipment has evolved since my wilderness travel days of the mid- to late-1990s: water filters. The hand-held pump varieties still exist and probably have improved. When staying at one campsite, however, the new gravity-fed versions are tough to beat. Fill the filter bag, hang in a tree, and let gravity perform its magic. Two minutes later, there’s a liter of safe water for drinking, cooking, or washing. Very slick. Tim Lesmeister also lended me a flexible two-gallon bag that lays flat without spilling. Weighs almost nothing, but insanely handy for retrieving clear, low sediment water from the middle of the lake. (Logan and I took water trips out in the canoe multiple times to avoid the silt-heavy agua near shore.)

We paddled away early Saturday morning into a strong south wind (no kidding, Murphy’s Law.) Three adults males in front of us left some garbage along the nasty second portage, which we picked up. A 60-something couple, also exiting, chatted with us about their trip and how they admired “young” parents for hauling kids into the B-Dub.

“We went by your camp,” they said. “Saw your kids scurrying about like little chipmunks. So good to see a family out here.”

I hope Annette and I are paddling through the wilderness together like that pair in 2035.

Three portages and an intense haul through the Mudro Inlet (water had dropped several inches in a few days), we pulled up onto the only soft-bottomed canoe launch on our trip. Annette limped up and drove the vehicle down, so I wouldn’t have to haul gear quite as far. We opened the van door, and 5-year-old Jameson immediately crawled into his car seat. Something familiar. A little piece of home. Safe.

After loading and commiserating with some fellow Twin Citians completing their trip, I pulled off my soak-sweat T-shirt and changed quickly in the parking lot, all personal insecurities remaining somewhere back in civilization. “If anyone sees me, I’ll just speak in a German accent,” I told Annette.

Ely was not quiet when we exited Saturday. The town, quite frankly, was a zoo. We considered checking out the International Wolf Center but that, dear readers, must wait for another blog. After four days in paradise, the residential calm of Eden Prairie held more appeal than the chaos of Ely on a summer Saturday.

Reviewing our pictures that evening, we marveled at the beauty of place we’d left 10 hours earlier. Usually exhausted and stressed during the trip, we probably didn’t pause enough to appreciate our surroundings. As the pictures reveal, we slept at a beautiful campsite. That’s OK, because this trip was for the boys, and they absorbed wilderness for the first time. Some, maybe most, people never acquire a similar experience. The 11-year-old matured a little bit before our eyes those three days. When the canoe hit an unnavigable rock field, he hopped out and towed us. He watched and learned the first steps of some basic survival techniques six miles from the nearest gravel road, and he hauled packs and gear over miles of portages, I watched him study the environment around him, and admit in amused disbelief Saturday night just how much he enjoyed the experience. All three lads found out that there’s life and fun “off the grid.”

And Annette hasn’t ruled out a follow-up trip in 2010.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Looking back one year later: Greenpeace crashes family visit to Mt. Rushmore

I wrote the following piece exactly one year ago during a family vacation to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
My family took advantage of the Fourth of July weekend and headed west to the Black Hills. Prairie dogs, caves, Badlands, Harney Peak, buffalo, Lakota and Custer history – the works. My three boys acted like they’d died and gone to heaven. A week later, the 4-year-old still refuses to remove his new cowboy boots. Of course, no trip to the Black Hills is complete without a couple of hours at Mount Rushmore, and we picked quite a day. If you’ve followed the news, you know that Greenpeace visited the “Shrine of Democracy” last Wednesday. We saw the whole stunt unfold.
Early risers, my parents and wife and kids arrived at Rushmore at 8:30 a.m., snapped the obligatory family photos, then walked the short, highly accessible trail to the base. (En route, I chuckled at one gentleman demanding of a park official, “Where’s the escalator?!” Sadly, he wasn’t joking.…) We returned to the main observation deck, and were about to leave when we noticed people in hardhats atop the monument. Mount Rushmore of course requires routine maintenance, but the midmorning, peak visitor timing struck us as odd. Other visitors queried park staffers, but no one behaved like it was out of the ordinary. After browsing the gift shop, however, we took a last look. A massive banner – adjacent to and as large as Abe Lincoln’s head – was unfurling in high winds with a message challenging the Obama adminstration’s apparently lackadaisical approach to global warming. “America Honors Leaders, Not Politicians: Stop Global Warming.”
“Uhhh, I don’t think they have a permit for that,” I told my dad. Pretty soon news cameras arrived and hundreds, maybe a couple of thousand visitors stood around in disbelief. Many lamented the protestors ruining their photo ops and visit to Rushmore. I traded a few barbs with a highly offended gentleman ranting aloud that park officials should “Throw those protestors off the mountain!” “That’s what they’d do in China or Iran,” I quipped. (Let’s just say the gentleman didn’t like that.) As the minutes ticked by, I became increasingly amazed that Greenpeace had pulled off the stunt and the 2,275-square-foot banner remained up for more than an hour.
It definitely was irritating, and I hope the courts don’t let the protestors off easy. After rappelling down, 11 people (including a Minnesotan) were charged with trespassing – a charge punishable by up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine. From news reports, it appears the protestors used existing maintenance anchors in the monument for rappelling. They didn’t harm the face of the monument, but they apparently damaged some security systems en route while scaling it, and that delayed rangers’ response. Park Service officials tell me they recognized the breach within minutes but aren’t revealing much else, because they fear other potential protestors could use such information for their own shenanigans.
At a press conference last Thursday, monument officials said “all security measures functioned exactly as designed.” Uh, what exactly is happening at our national monuments when – in this era of homeland security – a dozen Greenpeace punks can have the run of the place for 90 minutes in broad daylight? During peak tourist season! What could have happened if a group with more nefarious intents had breached the monument? Here’s betting that NPS brass said a little prayer last week thanking the good lord that this incident wasn’t more serious.
This scribe has visited Mount Rushmore four times, and my family certainly will never forget our visit on July 8, 2009. I just hope the NPS pulls its head out of the sand and ensures the monument is properly protected for future generations.
The 11 Greenpeacers eventually all pleaded guilty to the charge of climbing Mt. Rushmore and received a fine of $460 each. They also had to perform some community service in the National Park system. There had been three additional charges originally brought against three of the protesters, but those were all dismissed. One protester was sentenced to two days of jail time.