Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Top of the Farm

Day 26 (11/20/09)
“The top of the hill” or “the top of the farm”, as we often times called it, always held fond memories for me. My earliest recollections are of trips to the top of the hill with Mom and my brother delivering lunch to Dad when he did field work. To this day I remember how much better simple food tasted when eaten outdoors with the family around, especially coffee. Our first taste of coffee was on these special occasions. As we got older we were allowed to deliver the goods to our dad unattended, which probably meant for some grand adventures and late lunches. The top of the farm was the site of the original homestead, the Loewenhagen place sometimes pronounced laebenhagen depending on the branch of the family you had sprang from, at the highest point of the farm. Rumor had it that at some point two brothers had feuded and ever after half of the family went by Laebenhagen even thought they were both spelled Loewenhagen. There were also rumors that the Loewenhagen’s had a still and made moonshine during prohibition. Indeed there was enough copper tubing and other suspicious objects laying around to lend credibility to these stories. I should point out at this point that, being of Norwegian descent, truth is somewhat subject to good story telling. Not to say that they are not an honest people, if anything I probably have gotten into more trouble for my somewhat brutal honesty, but if bending the truth a little will make for a better story so be it. After years of telling, it will become truth anyway, sort of like in a history book. At any rate to a young boy truth had very little to do with anything anyway. We all knew there were still Injuns living in those woods and even a few Nazis and pirates. Upon calling my mom for the spelling of Loewenhagen, she said that the differences in pronunciation had more to do with the enunciation in German verses English. Whatever, next she will try to tell me there were no Injuns. At any rate this is more about the stories that made growing up on a farm such a magical place then any historical exposition. By the time my parents bought the farm all that existed of the original homestead were some foundations, a hand water pump and some of the most beautiful walnut trees you could ever see. Another memory that I have is of later, when I was in High School. Mom had sewn me a down “frostline” expedition parka. The only way, I figured, you could really tell if a parka was any good was to climb to the top of the hill, on the coldest night of the year, and lie down and watch the moon. I remember very distinctly the ring of ice crystals glowing around it and how peaceful it all was. In many ways the top of the farm was a destination. It was probably about a half mile from the farm buildings and all of it up. It was a great place to escape to and since you had to go get the cows anyway it was a place to stop and waste some time or eat some plums. I forgot to mention the plum trees. Many a trip to get the cows was interrupted with a stop at those trees. This year we added another memory. After a Saturday of deer hunting, my friend Nelly, my brother Larry and I built a bonfire and had a few beers. I had forgotten how large the sky is up there. Even though it is not totally uninfluenced by light pollution, compared to what I am used to it was like seeing the sky again for the first time. I could see star clusters that are never visible even in our small town. I was also amazed by the air traffic. Probably due to the proximity to the Twin Cities every time you looked up you would see five or more airplanes. I have another goal for next summer to spend the night camping on the top of the farm.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Waldo

Day 25 (11/13/ 09)
Who would have thought we would get another chance at Waldo? I had resigned myself to cleaning up the kayaks and putting them away. I had the afternoon off though and the temperature was above 50, or a least it was when we set out for the lake. By the time we got to the lake the wind had picked up and we could tell it was getting cooler. We weren’t going to miss our last chance at some kayaking though. Fortunately, we had learned very early on that paddling with the wind at your back can be a dangerous situation, what seems easy on the way out can be hell on the way home. Because of this we were very careful not to go too far. That turned out to be lucky because as anticipated the trip back was slow and grueling. It is interesting to note that when we started out it was quite sunny and when we were heading back the sun was gone. By the time we started loading the yaks our fingers were getting quite cold. We had done it though. We had kayaked on the 13th of November. On the way home we celebrated by making one last stop at the Renaissance Bakery in Adell, which had become our go to, after kayaking, splurge during the summer. Needless to say the lady at the bakery, who always gets a kick out of our stops with the kayaks, thought that we had elevated to a new level of madness. We took a different road home and found a really distinctive little church that I would like to explore further at some time. It has a unique combination of masonry techniques cobbled together and at once looks both discombobulated and remarkably interesting. I would like to see what the interior looks like. I can’t imagine we will get out any more this year so it was fitting to end the season on the Onion.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reflections

Day 24 (11/8/09)
After a month of cold and rain we finally have our “Indian Summer”. Yesterday it hit 71 degrees in Milwaukee, a record for November 7th. Although not as warm as yesterday, we decided to try to sneak in one last trip to Gerber before winter sets in. As expected, it was quite different. By now almost all the leaves are off the trees. It actually makes the lake look a lot smaller somehow. Even the water lilies and other surface plants were absent. You could still see weeds growing below the surface. The next thing you notice is the absence of shore birds and birds in general. We saw a few small song birds and a hawk but that was about it. Later in the day as we were getting ready to go I heard the call of possibly a heron. It was a day of reflection which was echoed in the landscapes. Since Gerber had been our go to lake for the summer (eight visits in all) it was a fitting way to end the summer. We visited each of the more memorable places that we had come to value over the summer including but not limited to the bridge on the outlet stream, the female figure, the scene of the battle of the Ents and of course the corner were I had caught my big northern. Looking back on the summer I am content with the amount we used our kayaks, 23 trips in all but disheartened that the year is over. On the other hand I have something to look forward to for next summer. I still want to navigate as much of the Onion as I can and finish my trip down the Buffalo. On our way home we were already planning a cross-country ski trip to Gerber and the Kettles. I can’t wait for next summer.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The magic is back at Gerber

Day 23 (9/27/09)
The Gods of Gerber must be smiling on us again. After a couple of lackluster trips to Gerber Lake this one was wonderful. It was the type of early fall day where everything looks extra brilliant. The leaves hadn’t started turning a great deal yet but the ones that had added a splash of color. So what, I wondered, made this trip so much better then the two previous ones? Yes, there were less people but really no more wildlife and it was really too windy for great fishing. I think it comes down to expectations. Who hasn’t heard somebody, after complaining about some movie or show they went to say, “It just didn’t live up to my expectations”. We had become so accustom to great days at Gerber that when we just had good days they “just didn’t live up to our expectations. Even my ranting about our last trip to Mauthe Lake was rooted in expectations. When we had been to Mauthe the first time we had seen abundant amounts of wildlife. So, when suddenly our expectations were dashed we were disappointed. This time at Gerber we didn’t even expect to be there. Earlier in the week the forecast had called for bad weather all weekend. When we woke up to beautiful weather Sunday morning we knew we had to take advantage of it. We knew that later in the day it was supposed to get windy so we went out early. The wind was already blowing but if we stayed tucked into the corners it was calm enough. I manage to get a couple of Bass before the wind picked up. As always, we went up the little river. We decided that maybe what little current there is might be running out of the lake. It is really hard to tell because it is hard to see any movement at all. The rains had clarified the water and everything was crystal clear. We got out of our kayaks at the bridge and scouted out the land a little. We found the water more interesting. It is good to be back in the favor of Gerber.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

War drums at Mauthe

Day 22 (9/19/09)
We decided with the swift approaching of fall we would try to return to Mauthe Lake for another trip up the north branch of the Milwaukee River. Things looked good, the sun was shining and it was pleasantly warm, fall like weather. Eileen was able to sneak up on a Sand hill Crane fishing on the edge of the lake and we got some photos before it flew off. We decided to start up the river right away because our last trip had been such a good time and we could hardly contain our excitement. Among other things, last time we had come across a fawn casually eating water lilies on the edge of the river. We wanted to be as quite as possible to sneak up on any wildlife that might be hiding around the next turn. Suddenly, I heard what sounded like approaching war drums. I looked around to see a family of four in two large sea kayaks coming at breakneck speed. The drumming was coming from the youngest, a boy, banging the paddles off the side of the boat. Ironically, I heard the father shouting how beautifully peaceful and quiet it was. I am thinking, how quiet it was before they showed up. I also figured out from there booming conversation between husband and wife that they had seen us come into the river and followed us. In the future I will remember to be more careful when breaching the weeds to get into the river and make sure nobody is watching. Needless to say, our trip up river was ruined. At first we tried to stay ahead of them but since they were on a mission to check off yet another goal in there guide book and not really there to enjoy the river, we finally conceded and turned back for the lake. Anybody who has read any of my blogs on biking knows how much I hate what I have named “Eddie Speders”, people who attack the bike trails at breakneck speed, hell bound for glory. I realize that I am probably a minority on this but I still like to take the slow road and appreciate nature around me. It is interesting to note that I had this family pegged when they first pulled into the parking lot with their bigger than life kayaks on a trailer pulled by their bigger than life vehicle and their Eddie Bauer uniforms. They were not out to enjoy nature but to conquer it, to whip it into submission and have something they could brag about at the board meeting on Monday. Whether in a restaurant, theater or out in nature these people always seem to need an audience and force everybody around them to partake in their production. Perhaps it is because of people like this that I prefer places like the Onion and Buffalo Rivers where other people don’t go. To call these rivers untouched by humans is laughable, since it is probably due to human influence or destruction that nobody uses them for recreation. The Buffalo River is on its way back, as farmers and industry have been forced to practice more conservation friendly practices. The Onion on the other hand has a long way to go but there are a growing number of people who are noticing its potential, especially at the northern end. These rivers have their own beauty though and you never have to worry about other people spoiling your day.

Gerber

Day 21 (9/5/09)
Perhaps we are getting jaded but our latest trip to Gerber Lake was quite lackluster. Possibly because it was the beginning of Labor Day weekend and there were more people around then usual, there was no wildlife about. Wee tried our usual cruise up the small river and even that held little in the way of interest. We did see a family on horseback ride across the bridge where we turn around and that was somewhat cool. Maybe the most interesting part of the trip was when I heard what I thought was a bull elephant charging at me from the woods and looked up to see a Tom turkey plummeting through the trees. There is a reason these big birds prefer to stay on the ground. It must have been scared up by the horseback riders and when the forest was too thick to fly through just sort of tumbled to the ground.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Note on Corners

If, as they say, “Eyes are the window to the soul”, corners are the doors to the river. With each curve you go around a new vista opens up. Often it is totally unrelated to the one you just left behind. One door closes as another opens up. If done quietly you never know what may be waiting around the next bend. Often I have spooked an eagle or heron and wished I would have been a bit more cautious. Unlike a road which usually sits above the surrounding landscape the river lies below it magnifying the significance of each turn. This tunnel vision only enhances the intimacy of the experience like looking at something through a microscope.

Monday, August 31, 2009

The Onion River at Last

Day 20 (8/31/09)
After all summer of waiting I finally was on the Onion. I had been putting it off because everybody said it was to low to navigate. I kept hoping for some rain but school was about to start and I could wait no longer. I talked my friend Roger into giving me a ride from my “Yak Hauler”, which I left at the end of my journey, to my starting point. I had planned on going farther but fortunately, at the last moment, decided to shorten my trip by a couple of miles. I had never actually kayaked the onion river, where I was going downstream from one spot to another, so I had no idea of how long it would take. I found out it was much slower than the Buffalo River had been. In fact, in many ways it was in direct contrast to the Buffalo. It took almost twice as long to travel the same distance on the Onion. I passed under the bridge to start my journey at almost exactly ten o’clock. I had spent a little time going up river just to see what was there. It was here that I realized that my camera battery was dangerously low and I would have to conserve energy. Never again will I set out with out charging the battery and taking a backup camera. It actually did pretty well and didn’t fail completely until I was almost done. As I was saying, in many ways it was the opposite of the Buffalo River. There were no sand bars and the bottom was very rocky. If you are the type of person who is concerned about scratching the bottom of your kayak stay off the Onion. Also unlike the Buffalo, which was up to the top of its banks, the water in the onion was low and I often dragged on the bottom. There is a certain skill to shallow water kayaking and you learn with practice to read where the deepest channels run. There were actually very few places where I had to get out and most of those were man made. Rocks have been dumped in the river to serve as bridges to get across with tractors and machinery. I found these actually kind of nice because they provided an area to get out and build cairns. At one of these sites I found a little mowed area complete with a picnic table on which to have my lunch. I have often been asked why I would want to kayak the Onion. It is certainly not a clear mountain stream and is actually quite muddy. That being said, it has its own kind of beauty and certainly an abundance of wildlife. My favorites are always the birds of prey and it did not disappoint. Along with countless hawks I saw an immature eagle and what I think was a barred owl. I had a couple of deer scamper away and one ran up the river in front of me. The herons and cranes were constant companions along with wood ducks and an assortment of shore birds. The biggest surprise for me was the number and size of clams I cam across. They must have been a favorite food of raccoons because the shells were scattered everywhere. My one concern was the vast number of pipes running out of the banks. I am not sure what flowed out of them but probably don’t want to know. I did come across a couple of impasses where I had to get out and help the kayak through or over a downed tree but I never actually had to leave the river. As these things go, the largest of the impasses was almost at the end of my run. It took a little finagling to get from beginning to end but ultimately I was through. The biggest difference from the trip down the Buffalo was the weather. Where the day on the Buffalo was constantly threatened by rain the day on the Onion was as beautiful as a day can be. It left me wanting more and wondering when I can get out again.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Gerber yet again.

Day 19 (8/28/09)
It was Friday, the last Friday off before going back to school. It looked like rain but the forecasters’ had promised sun in the early part of the day and rain later. It would not be the first time we got caught in the rain so we decided to go for it and return once again to Gerber Lake. Gerber has become a favorite due to its abundance of eye candy. When we got there we had the lake to ourselves. As promised, soon after getting to the lake the sun came out. The lake provided many photo opportunities for Eileen and once again she spent her time stalking wildlife. She got some great shots of a Green Heron. She also tried out the camera’s underwater feature for the first time. As much as we do not want summer to end we are looking forward to photographing Gerber in autumn. The fishing on the other hand was not great. I did manage to get a couple of bass and a northern but nothing like on my first trip to the lake.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Buffalo River

Day 18 (8/19/09)
It was finally time to take my expedition down the Buffalo River. Do to bad planning on my part, or possibly a subconscious desire to do it alone, I found myself preparing for a solo journey down the Buffalo. Neither of the two friends that had shown interest in going with me was available because I had a problem committing to an exact date to start the journey. I am not sure that I didn’t harbor a secret desire to do it alone the first time. I have done many adventurous things in my life but I have always been accompanied by a friend or two. Because of that, and the fact that I had no idea what I was up against I really didn’t want to submit somebody else to what might be a bummer of a trip. The day before I was going to take off to drive over to the river I received a phone call from my mother advising me that I may want to call off the trip. They had got over six inches of rain in the last week with reports of over five inches in one night. Needless to say, the river had been over its banks and was still running very high. My brothers and everybody she talked to thought it would be crazy to make the attempt right now. I had spent the summer planning for this, however, and was not about to back down so easily. I knew by the time I drove over there and spent the night at my moms it would have had some time to subside. I must admit that when I got to Mondovi and looked at the River, at the point I was planning on starting the trip, I was a bit apprehensive. I had counted on the many sandbars as sort of a safety net to get off at if things got to rough. Since the river was up to its edges it looked like those sandbars would be far and few between. The river also had a bit of an angry boil that made me think it wasn’t going to be the slow leisurely trip, down the river I had intended. I had spent hours mapping my route though and had included several places along the way to get off if I had to. I decided to go for it.
After a bit of a restless nights sleep I was at the river before seven and getting all my gear loaded on to my kayak. The mosquitoes were quite nasty so I rubbed down with repellent, took some pictures and pushed off into the river shortly after seven. I wanted to see how hard it would be to paddle back up stream if I needed to and found it nearly impossible. So much for coming back to the starting point, I was committed. Although beautiful, the first four miles gave me little time to reflect on scenery. It was a lot like being in a giant video game, once you cleared one obstacle you better be looking and planning for the next. I found preparation to be the key to success. Most of the obstacles were trees lying across and debris in the river. I actually got into a rhythm where most of the time if the “out”, which I started calling the way through the obstacles, was on the right side one for obstruction it would be on the left for the next. It left little time for taking pictures so even though I saw two eagles in the first four miles I was never able to get photos of them. The first one I saw was an immature which I chased up several times right outside of Mondovi. Not much farther down the river I scared up a mature one. As many times as I have seen eagles, I never fail to be impressed by the shear size of them. In all I saw at least four eagles along the trip, two of which I got photos of but to far off to be really exciting. In the first four miles I took one short break. I had come up on an obstacle that had a sand bar blocking the only “out” so I decided to pull up on it, have a drink of water and collect my thoughts. By eight thirty I was at the first bridge crossing over the river at Highway 88, four miles south west of Mondovi. This was my first chance to get off if needed. At this point the trip had been totally exhilarating and there was no chance of quitting. Now things started settling down a little. I started moving into a more agricultural area and the frequency of trees across the river started to decrease. I had been warned about fences spanning the river so I kept a watchful eye for any sign of one running down from the edge. Possibly because of the high water I never encountered any. I came upon a couple of permanent campsites along that stretch, one with a slide shooting out into the river. That pleasantly surprised me to see other people using the river for recreational purposes. Since getting on the river I hadn’t been bothered at all by mosquitoes but I am guessing those campsites were probably pretty infested. I also started running along Highway 37 occasionally at this point. I had several passersby wave to me as I continued downriver. I found the sight of others comforting even though it wasn’t like I had been gone for days. I kind of marveled at that. At about ten o’clock I passed under the bridge going to Gilmanton on highway RR. As I moved closer to where I grew up, things continued to get swampier and the frequency of slough holes increased. At one of these slough holes, in a very remote area, I decided to pull in and have a look around. Almost immediately I noticed the smell of fish, like I had just taken one off a hook. It looked quite deep and I am guessing that if I would have brought my pole I could have probably snagged some northern pike. Since it was pretty much inaccessible, I doubt it had ever been fished. That will be something to remember for next year. A little further down river I came across a man on a bulldozer doing some landscaping, I am guessing for a house or cabin. Again I was amazed at how nice it was to see people. I must just be a social person even though I never really considered myself as one. Not far from there I stopped for lunch. It was only about eleven thirty but I was getting hungry and the opportunity presented itself. It is amazing how good simple food can taste when you are really hungry and outside. After lunch I took some time to throw together a quick sculpture of found objects and was back underway. I had been watching for rocks to build with but never really even saw any in the river. It wasn’t long after that I came to the bridge to cross under Highway 37. I was now on the side of the highway that the family farm lay on but still had many miles to go. There was finally got a chance to photograph an eagle but it was still not a good photo. Whether it was because I was starting to get tired or overconfident I am not sure but I had two incidences at that point. The first one I was watching a beaver swim down river and made my choice of an “out” too late. It caused me to miss the opening and end up sideways against a tree trunk lying across the river. I was lucky though and kept the kayak from turning over. As the boat turned sideways against the tree I looked over just in time to see the beaver staring at me with what might as well have been a smirk. I managed to climb out on the tree and horse the kayak across. I was not as lucky the second time. Not much farther down the river I came upon another tree across the river. This time the “out” was obvious but what I didn’t see was that immediately after it a second limb came out from the other direction. Had I been prepared I possibly could have powered my way around the second one but it caught me by surprise and before I knew it my kayak was upside down and I was struggling to stand up. Again in a way I was lucky. The water was only chest deep and the only thing I lost was my poncho, which didn’t really matter now because I was wet anyway. I must admit that along with dampening my clothes it did dampen my spirits. I was so close to the end and I had just gotten careless. I floated the kayak to the next sand bar and got back in. Shortly after this, I started to notice the familiar scenery that meant the end of our farm and the end of my journey. My plan had been to camp there for the night and continue on down the river to the Mississippi the next day. It had started to sprinkle on the river but by the time I started to set up the tent it had changed to a downpour. With no end of the rain in sight I decided to stay the night at my mothers and see what the next day would bring. It brought more rain and cold. When we checked the rain gauge the next day it had an inch and half of rain since I had got off the river. It was a bit disappointing not to get to finish the journey but there is always next year.
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