Paddling into Deep Summer

DSC05846FixedI awaken at 6 a.m., roll over and look at the lake outside the window. The water is smooth as a scrying mirror. The sun peeks over the spruces, encouraging a lake mist to form.

If I were more ambitious, I’d be out paddle boarding right now. Instead, I roll over and shut my eyes, lulled into a doze by the trills of hermit thrushes deep in the forest.

An hour later, I open my eyes to the same scene — the lake still calm, mist still rising.

Although in my book, 7 a.m. is still early to rise, I succumb to the siren call of my standup paddle board. It is early July and the temperature is already 70 degrees outside – one of those days that Minnesotans dream of during February. It would be criminal not to enjoy it.

Russ and the dog are still sleeping, so I quietly get out of bed and don my swimsuit. I tiptoe out into the dew-wet grass toward the boat house – feeling like a teenager headed for an illicit rendezvous. However, I am responsible enough to leave a note on the kitchen table: “Gone paddleboarding!”

DSC05814Opening the boathouse door, I inhale. There’s nothing like that old boathouse smell – decades of damp, mixed with a little mustiness and a hint of worn wood.

I heft my board and paddle, carefully closing the door so I won’t wake those in the cabin. On my way to the dock, I pass a bunch of blueberry plants covered with small blue sapphires – berries ready for picking. I can’t be distracted, though. They’ll have to wait.

As I settle my board into the water, I giggle inwardly. Hardly typical behavior for someone nearing retirement age, but a quick glance at the lake has told me it will only be me and the loons out there this morning. Life cannot get much better.

I head out in a clockwise direction around the lake. This just seems natural. The night before, a small parade of pontoon boats were all going counterclockwise. We’re living in the northern hemisphere. The toilet water spins clockwise. I figure it’s better not to go against the spin.

My board skims the surface easily. In the clear water below, bluegills rush to hide in the reeds. Water plants stand still and straight as trees. As I paddle, the mist seems an elusive dream. I know I’m in it, but I can’t see it when I arrive. The mist is always just out of reach ahead, playing tricks with my senses.

All of the other cabins are silent, still shuttered for the night. I only see a couple of other ladies, each sitting on shore, enjoying their morning coffee. I wave and they wave back.

My morning idyll is shattered by a pain in the middle of my back, between my shoulder blades. A horse fly or deer fly has found me! As I struggle to paddle into position so that I can safely use my paddle to scratch it off my back, I marvel at how these flies know exactly where to bite where they can’t easily be swatted. It’s like all the babies attend Horse Fly School were the teachers point out the safest places on people and animals to chomp.

Board in position, I carefully balance while lifting my paddle to scratch my back. Success! I don’t fall off my board and the pain disappears, along with the fly. Although a nuisance, these flies need clean water to live. Their presence is an indicator of a healthy environment.

The rest of my paddle is uneventful, if you can call relishing every summer sight and sound uneventful. I arrive back at the dock feeling like I’ve paddled into deep summer.

I am so thankful to be able to enjoy this morning, especially since there are so many people gone from this Earth due to the coronavirus, who will never have the chance to experience such things again. It was worth getting out of bed early.

Now, where are those blueberries?

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Kingsbury Creek Trail, Duluth

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A view from the Kingsbury Creek Trail, Duluth, MN.

Prepare to be confused and impressed. Russ and I checked out the Kingsbury Creek Hiking Trail near the zoo in Duluth recently. We were confused because so many trails intersect in the area. There’s a mountain bike trail, and the Superior Hiking Trail, a gravel trail, and a footpath. We were aiming for the footpath, and think we found the right one, but since it was our first time on it, I’m not exactly sure.

Whatever trail it was, the scenery was impressive. Quiet pools in the creek attracted Buddy the Wonderdog. Huge white pines evoked awe. If we have to be quarantined, Duluth isn’t such a bad place for it.

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Free Horror Story: The House

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Photo by Henry & Co. on Pexels.com

As you may recall, I’ve been writing an anthology of short stories about deceiving appearances. I think I’m almost done with the collection. I’m currently working on the last story, or what I intend to be the last story – but we’ll see if any more ideas strike!

One of the spookier stories in the collection was just published on the website of a local group of Halloween enthusiasts who are collecting horror stories from local authors for future publication in a ‘zine called “Twin Ports Terror.”

My story’s title is “The House.” It’s a cautionary parable about curiosity. I characterize it as a mix of speculative fiction, mild horror, and suspense. A nameless woman is the main character. She walks by a house in her neighborhood every day — a house so nondescript that it looks like it’s trying just a little to hard to fit in. Her curiosity about the place sets her on a perilous path . . . .

Read more here to find out what happens to her! I apologize for the story’s formatting.  The Haunted Duluth folks’ web hosting platform has limitations.

Thank you to the Haunted Duluth folks for this opportunity to share my work. Thanks also goes to my writer’s group for their help and edits.

Writers from Duluth and Superior – Haunted Duluth is looking for more stories for their ‘zine. Click on my link above to access details.

Say Hello to the Great Lakes!

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I’m psyched that a photo of Lake Superior I took while on vacation last year is being used by my employer for ads that will soon appear in “Milwaukee Magazine” and the Milwaukee Airport. The ads are designed to increase awareness and appreciation for the Great Lakes.

I took this photo from the top of Spar Island during a sailing trip last year. (Read about it and see more photos in my blog post about the trip, “Wilderness Sailing in Canada, eh?“)

We need to do all we can to protect this source of life for so many!

Coronavirus Chronicles: The Social Distancing Police

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Image courtesy of The McLeod County Chronicle.

Today, I saw a news photo on social media that was taken by a former intern of mine. Brianna Taggert is working for The McLeod County Chronicle in the small Minnesota town of Glencoe. Her photo shows people kneeling in a public square in a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest. Four people in the foreground are kneeling close together.

One social media commenter criticized the protesters’ lack of social distancing. I’ve found myself thinking the same thing when I see personal posts on social media of big families, who I know don’t all live in the same house, getting together for gatherings during the pandemic. It’s only natural to question the wisdom of this.

However, I’ve refrained from commenting. I don’t know the circumstances of the people involved.

  • Maybe they are all living together temporarily and are exposed to each other every day – they are in a pandemic social bubble together.
  • Maybe they’ve all had the virus and are not contagious now.
  • Maybe they’ve all been super careful about their exposure and have made a considered, conscious decision to expand their bubble to include other family members now.
  • Perhaps the viewpoint of the images gives a false impression of how close people really are to each other.
  • Maybe the photo was taken a year ago.

For example, in the protest photo I mentioned, it looks like the people in the foreground who are right next to each other could easily be members of the same family. They are well away from other people. Seems pretty responsible to me. For the people in the background, I can’t really tell how close the groups of people are to each other because of the viewpoint of the photo. But if they are family groups, it looks like they are appropriately distanced.

The New York Times posted an article about social bubbles back in April. It offers excellent commentary on this topic.

One of Brianna’s professors from the University of Minnesota Duluth, John Hatcher, said this about the photo:

It’s Brianna’s “second day on the job and she’s covering what may be the most important story of her career. What I most appreciate is that this story shows us that the impact of George Floyd’s death is not just being felt in larger cites or solely by people of color. This is a story that is prompting action by people across our country and the world and in even in Glencoe, Minnesota, population 5,467. Let’s hope all of this is just the beginning of how we all reflect on what needs to change in our society and our own lives.”

That’s the real takeaway message of this photo.

Of course, this photo is different from images of protests in larger cities where it’s obvious that people are not practicing social distancing. And that’s why public health officials have asked them to self-quarantine for two weeks. I have serious doubts about whether any of them will do so, but I can’t control what other people do. I can only control what I do, and I can make suggestions to my family about what we should do.

I refrain from commenting on social media because I am not the social distancing police. And even if I did comment, it’s not going to make people change their behavior. Such commenting is for public health officials, not me.

Please, think twice before you make knee-jerk judgments on such photos. I’m not trying to control what YOU do, just making a suggestion to think before you type.

That Time I was Invited to Join Mensa

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Credit: National Institutes of Health.

Back in my high school days – when cowl neck fuzzy sweaters were in, hair styles were big, and women’s shirts sported shoulder pads large enough for the wearer to participate in professional football – I took the ACT test to get into college.

I studied out of a large book, which offered practice questions and reviews of math concepts. Now, I’m sure students must be able to do this all online, but this was back in the 80s, before most people had any inkling about computers.

I’m not sure if the test is still in the same format, but back then, most of it was multiple-choice. The most useful thing I learned from studying for the ACT was how to identify incorrect answers so that I could home in on the correct ones. The hardest things about the test were figuring out its format and its unwritten rules.

All my studying paid off. I scored very high in the English section, and higher in the math section than if I hadn’t studied. My overall score was good enough that I didn’t need to worry about admission into the college of my choice. It was also elevated enough that I received a letter from Mensa in the mail one day.

Mensa International is an organization for people with high IQs. As author and comedian David Sedaris says in “Me Talk Pretty One Day” (which I just finished reading), Mensa members “come from all walks of life and get together every few weeks to take in a movie or enjoy a weenie roast. They’re like the Elks or the Masons, only they’re smart.”

Growing up in the northern hinterlands of Minnesota, I had never heard of Mensa. After opening the letter, I mentioned it to my mother, and her first, and only, response was, “Ach, you don’t want to join that!”

So I didn’t.

I was so taken aback by her reaction, I didn’t ask her why I shouldn’t join them.

Looking back over the decades, I have a twinge of regret that I so blindly followed my mother’s advice. How might my life have been different if I had surrounded myself with high-IQ people?

But I also realize my mother’s knee-jerk reaction was truly Minnesotan. It’s not part of our culture to brag or make ourselves stand out. (See more in my post about “Minnesota Nice.”)

Perhaps my mother was afraid my head would swell with self-importance were I to hang around other intelligent people. Or, maybe she figured they were all a bunch of dorks and exposure to them would increase my social awkwardness. Or she could have been threatened by having a daughter labelled as “smart.” I don’t know. My mother has passed, so it’s not like I can ask her now.

A couple of years ago, I looked into the qualifications for joining Mensa. They’ve upped them now. My ACT score is a few points short. Another way to qualify is through an IQ test. But an IQ test just seems like a lot of work to me now. I wonder if they grandfather (or in my case, grandmother) people into the organization based on the year they took their ACT?

Even if I did get in somehow, I suspect I would feel like a fraud. I am not naturally brilliant; I just know how to study, and I read a lot.

I guess I’m satisfied I was invited and could have joined Mensa if I really wanted to — but that I am just too Minnesotan to do so.

Guest Post: Eating Invasive Species, A Pandemic Alternative

By Sharon Moen

If you know Marie of “Marie’s Meanderings,” you know a few things. She loves her family, which includes biological kin and people like Russ, Buddy the Wonderdog, and me. She enjoys food and foraging, is committed her job at Sea Grant, and devours books. Knowing these things about Marie prompted me to ask her if I could share some words with you about food and COVID-19.

If you are reading this, then she said, “Yes.”

“No, no, a thousand times no!” That’s what I imagine Marie said when a far-right-wing talk show host spluttered his willingness to eat his neighbors in the aftermath of the pandemic, given the high meat prices and shortages. She is against cannibalism and stuff like that.

Someone like Marie would invite you over FOR dinner, not AS dinner. If you accepted the invitation and whatever COVID-19-inspired guidance was in vogue, Marie might deftly turn a local invasive species into haute cuisine.

Here in Minnesota, invasive species foragers could rustle up a rusty crayfish potpie in a cattail-root crust accented with dandelion salad. If in Florida, they might prepare a double lion: lionfish with dandelion greens.

Posh, eh? I bet someone like Marie would even ferment some dandelion wine to complement the meal, if only there were time. I know for a fact that she recently cooked fern fiddleheads from her local forest.

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A speared lionfish in Belize. Be careful not to touch the poisonous spines! Image by Mike Sierszen.

I’ve joined Marie for meals and meanderings from Scotland to St. Martin. Believe me, the experiences were memorable! I’ve also had the privilege of tagging along with people trapping rusty crayfish in Minnesota and spearing lionfish in Belize to be used as food.

During these adventures, I learned a few valuable lessons about attracting and handling these pesky invaders:

Pro tip #1: Bait your invasive crayfish traps with fish heads and leave the traps in the water overnight. You’ll likely have a pile of bones and a mess of crayfish by morning.

Pro tip #2: Tie scissors to your spear when hunting lionfish. Use the scissors to cut off the poisonous spines before touching the fish.

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One night’s rusty crayfish catch on the St. Louis River several years ago, reflects the scale of infestation: 57 traps, 2,140 crayfish. Image by Sharon Moen, Minnesota Sea Grant.

I also learned that as invasive species harvests make their way to tables, people along the way often gain a better perspective about why these species are so economically and ecologically harmful. Aquatic invasive species like rusty crayfish and lionfish tend to outcompete native species and disrupt food webs through their sheer numbers and voracious appetites. Crayfish claws and lionfish spines also make playing in water more hazardous. Their presence can reduce property values, and hurt recreation and tourism industries.

Through her job at Sea Grant, Marie and her colleagues conduct public education initiatives helping to control the spread of aquatic invasive species. During her storied career, Marie even organized an invasive sea lamprey taste test.

While you wait for her to tell you that story, consider reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma in which Michael Pollan challenges readers to understand where food comes from, what’s in it, and the processes involved in bringing it to human lips. The challenges of feeding yourself and those you love have always been real but they are manifesting differently through the COVID-19 pandemic. Be a thoughtful omnivore. Weigh the choices about what could be eaten and what is et.

Our friends at “Northern Wilds” magazine recently published an article on consuming dandelions. You can find many crayfish and lionfish recipes online. There’s even a cookbook published by the Institute for Applied Ecology you could add to your pandemic collection: They’re Cooked: Recipes to Combat Invasive Species.

Someday soon I’m looking forward to inviting Marie and Russ over to share dinner, not to be dinner. I’ll likely include an invasive species in the mix. What would you serve?

Be kind and stay optimistic.

 

Editor’s note: Sharon is available for freelance writing work. If interested, please contact me through my website and I’ll put you in touch with her.

Paul Wellstone and the Chickadee

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Russ, Buddy the Wonderdog, and I recently nudged our way north to visit the outdoor memorial to Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone. Wellstone, his wife Sheila, one of their daughters, and several aides died in a plane crash in 2002, along with the pilots, near the small town of Eveleth, Minn.

I never saw the senator in person, but I had contact with his staffers in the 1990s, particularly Kim Stokes. This was early in my career when I worked in public affairs for the Forest Service. Part of my job was coordinating responses to inquiries from federal congressmen and representatives who received complaints from their constituents about Forest Service activities in the Superior National Forest.

I would receive the letters, decide which Forest Service person should write a response (sometimes this was me), and then follow up, making sure the Forest Supervisor signed the letter and that it got mailed. I know, snail mail – how quaint!

I always enjoyed my discussions with Kim. She was so enthusiastic about the democratic senator, which wasn’t something I usually heard from staffers for other federal legislators. That piqued my interest, and I watched Wellstone’s career from afar.

Despite early public relations gaffes after his election in 1991, the short, feisty, and energetic senator learned from his mistakes and became an effective leader. He even explored a run for the presidency, but did not seek it due to health issues, which ended up being multiple sclerosis.

One of his well-known quotes is, “We all do better when we all do better.”

20200404_123600Russ and I had driven past the signs for the memorial off Highway 53 in several times, and finally had the time to stop. The first thing to greet us in the parking area was poetry. A snow-covered stone mantle sat at the entrance to the memorial. We brushed off the snow, trying to read the poem that was etched into the rock. We couldn’t do it because of the moisture, but were able to make out some of the words later, after it had time to dry.

After visiting the commemorative circle, which featured monuments made of local stone to those killed in the crash (except the pilots), we walked the surrounding legacy trail. The path was covered by about a foot of snow, and it didn’t look like anyone had been there in at least a week. Sinking through the crunchy thin snow crust every other step, we gingerly made our way, marveling at the quiet and the sun streaming through the skinny pines. Interpretive signs lined the route. After brushing off the snow, we read about Wellstone’s career progression.

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An image of Wellstone from his college professor days at Carleton College in MN.

The final sign on the route was dedicated to his wife, Sheila. The feminist in me did not appreciate this. I thought her sign should have occurred earlier on the trail, perhaps after the sign about their marriage, because I’m sure Paul could not have accomplished even half of what he did without her support. Having her sign at the end seemed like an afterthought.

After coming full circle back to the poetic entry, we walked the trail to the crash site narrative. The trail ended in a viewing platform about 2,000 feet from the actual site. Signs on the platform described the lives of the people lost. Descriptions of the two pilots were notably absent, but I suppose this was because the crash was deemed their fault, combined with poor visibility.

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Looking down the peaceful legacy trail.

As we stood, looking out into the pines, a flock of chickadees twittered among the branches. One brave energetic bird alighted only two feet from me, calling loudly, as if berating me for intruding. I extended my gloved hand to see if the bird would land, and made a “phish, phish” sound that often works to attract birds.

This feisty little guy was too smart for that. He stayed where he was, continuing his call. Eventually, he flew away to join his friends.

The chickadee reminded me Wellstone. I would like to think his spirit and those of the others in the crash were somehow absorbed into the forest and live on there.

Wellstone leaves a political legacy in the form of the legislation he passed and in Camp Wellstone, a training program for people interested in political action. His wife Sheila’s legacy lives on in her tireless work against domestic violence.

With Buddy leading, we made our way back to our truck, filled with appreciation for these lives well-lived and duly recognized.

Mexican Silk Pie

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If you’ve ever eaten Mexican chocolate, you know one big thing that makes it different: cinnamon. Here’s my twist to the traditional French Silk Pie recipe, in case you are searching for new cooking adventures during this global pandemic.

Some of my friends joke that they are gaining the COVID-19 pounds from staying at home (and near food) so much. This pie is very helpful if that is your goal, ha ha!

Mexican (French) Silk Pie

9-inch baked pie shell or graham cracker crust
¾ cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

Cook pie shell, if needed. Melt and cool chocolate. Blend butter and sugar in mixer bowl. Add vanilla and cinnamon. Add eggs, one at a time, beating two minutes after each addition. Blend in chocolate. Spread in pie shell. Chill at least one hour. Garnish with whipped cream and nutmeg, if desired. Keep refrigerated. Makes 8 servings.

The Power of Spring

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The Horton Covered Bridge over the Amnicon River lower falls in northern Wisconsin.

Lured by free entrance to Wisconsin State Parks during the pandemic and a sunny day, Russ, Buddy and I meandered down to Amnicon State Park to see the surging waters and feel the power of spring.

We weren’t the only ones. Many others had the same idea, and almost all of them brought their dogs, too! However, everyone was careful to keep the six-foot distance rule while hiking and enjoying the view.

The Amnicon River did not disappoint.  Standing so close to such power is a reminder of forces we have no control over, and that nature does just fine without us.

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Upper Falls, Amnicon River State Park.

The river is thirty miles long, flowing from headwaters somewhere near Amnicon Lake, through eight counties and into Lake Superior.  Along its journey, the river’s elevation changes 640 feet, about a third of which happens in the park.

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Huge ice chunks piled along shore of the Amnicon River. Each one is about half the size of a car.

The picturesque Horton Covered Bridge has graced many a calendar page and no doubt hosted many a wedding ceremony.

Happy spring, everyone, despite everything.

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