Category: Outdoors (page 1 of 2)

Clockwork Game Update: 6/21/12

The Signal boost of the week goes to field naturalist Rosemary Mosco, for her wonderful nature comic, Bird and Moon. Everybody who’s read this blog knows what a giant nerd I am for the outdoors, so this seemed a natural fit. Ha! I kill me. Seriously, though, check it out, it’s really adorable.

Onwards to glory

I have one of those colds that I like to think of as a Cú Chulainn flu.

Your body comes to you in the morning, with oracular prescience, and says to you: Listen, you’re sick. You can either stay home like a sensible person and rest up, whereupon you will live a long and happy life. Or, you can not only keep to your regular schedule, but take on a whole bunch of extra stuff that sounds like a good idea, and you’ll go out in a blaze of glory, and be unable to get out of bed for a week.

Guess I’m going skiing today, then.

Thought of this while skiing this morning.

Michigan’s been just sitting around in her sweatpants for the last two months, so it seems extra special when she cleans up and puts on a party dress. Makes you want to go out and dance with her.

So how’s this for a start to the New Year?

We just got the first substantial snow this winter, so I skiied to the office, and as I went past the bar with the mechanical bull, their loudspeakers started blasting Guns of The Magnificent Seven. Pretty good music for the opening credits of 2012.

Just keep skating

Went skating on Sunday, to try out my new outdoor wheels. Twenty feet from the parking lot, I wiped out on the pavement, took all the skin off my knee. Two little boys on bikes rode by and audibly gasped at the blood. The older one said, “Man, if that were me, I’d DEFINITELY be crying.” Jumped right up, looked at them and said, “You gotta be brave and just keep skating!” And then went and got my kneepads like a smart person.

Also: Dang, you guys, skating for distance in quads is *nothing* like skating in rollerblades. Also also: Ow, my thighs.


On Sunday, Paul took the dog to the park across the street, and noticed a huge patch of mushrooms that had sprung up overnight. He thought they looked like an edible kind, so he called me over. I was 95% sure I was looking at shaggy manes, but being that I really like my liver and want to keep it in good working order, I hesitated until I could check them with a practiced mushroom hunter.

Unfortunately, shaggymanes have about a one-day window in which you can pick them, and by the time I got a solid confirmation it was three days later. Most of the patch had turned to black goo (hence their other nickname, “Inky caps“), but there were a few brand-new mushrooms that’d popped up in the interim. Those I picked tonight, and fried in butter for dinner. So good! They would make an absolutely outstanding cream-of-mushroom soup, and I know the taste would compliment chicken really well in a casserole. Seriously, they were fantastic; I like the taste better than oysters or hen-of-the-woods. Best of all, now that I know we’ve got a good patch of them growing, we’ve got many years of delicious harvests ahead of us.

Pine Paddling, again

Last weekend, my buddy J and I returned to the Pine River, following the same big group of paddlers as last year. About 70 people showed up this time.

Despite the dire forecast of 60F and perpetual rain, we had absolutely stunning weather, the best kind of Michigan autumn: bright, bright blue skies, thin sunlight, and a deep green forest peppered with a spray of fiery-colored trees.

The top half of the river is a bit slower, and this year’s water level was lower than last year, so we had a nice, calm 22-mile paddle the first day. There are these amazing sand cliffs everywhere, sometimes as tall as 60-70 feet.

The bottom half, on the other hand, is some of the only whitewater in the entire state. As I mentioned, the river was slower than last year, but we still had a nice wild ride on Sunday. It was especially gratifying because this was the first time I’ve really been able to think, rather than just react, on moving water. I was able to see and feel how the current was moving my boat, and use the current to my advantage rather than fighting against it. It was really wonderful to feel myself level up on paddling again.

And fortunately for me, I had the financial wherewithal to buy a proper sleeping bag this summer, so there wasn’t a repeat of last year’s unfortunate incident. I had a lovely, toasty-warm night’s sleep, and had a great time with friends R and K and J. I sure hope to do it again next year — maybe then I’ll take the time off of work and do all four days of the paddle. Looking forward to it already.

(All photos courtesy of fellow paddler Eric Stallsmith. Thanks, Eric!)

Further skating adventures

Two skates ago, I lost a wheel again, but through sheer luck, managed to find axle (on the asphalt), wheel (four feet off the trail under a poison ivy bush), and even the precious nut (in the gravel), which is a darn fine thing because I have no more spares, and a new set of axles and nuts is $20. Fixed everything and skated another five miles without further issue.

One skate ago, I managed to keep all my wheels, but was done in early by the sunset — though not before I saw a slender teenage buck sporting a tiny, six-point rack, its tallest tines no longer than my index fingers, and later, a mother deer with her twin fauns, their spots all faded for the autumn. Tried to point them out to the other people on the trail, who studiously ignored them, and me.

Tonight’s skate brought rain, and the knowledge that wet pavement and skates don’t get along well. Managed not to fall, but had a couple close calls on steep uphills. Still managed eight miles.

Even if I never set foot on a track, I’ll always be deeply grateful to roller derby for inspiring me to get my skates out of the closet for the first time in five years. I’m really going to miss skating the trails when the snow hits — though I’m sure the cross-country skiing will be a good consolation prize.

Lucky me.

Last week I finally felt my skate wheels — now thirteen years old — probably needed replacing, since I’d rotated them earlier this spring, and by now the fresh sides have worn down to match the old sides in curvature (did I mention I did a lot of skating this summer? ). I went to the local sporting goods store and bought a new set of wheels and bearings, and replaced them that evening, along with a new set of brake pads. These bearings had aluminum spacers (called “floating spacers,” I found out later) which rattled loosely on the axle, unlike the plastic spacers on the old wheels, which hugged the axle. Well, I thought, they’re brand-name Rollerblade wheels, same as my skates, and the wheels are the same diameter, so they must fit. And away I went skating tonight, eager to try out my shiny new wheels.


I got about four miles in to my usual twelve, and felt a strange tug on one skate. I looked down, and the rear wheel axle on my right boot was hanging loose, free of its nut, the wheel rattling dangerously in the frame, and held in place only by the brake assembly. I figured I must not have tightened the nuts enough, so I took off the skates and hoofed it back to my car where (lucky me!) I found that the replacement brakes, luckily stowed in my trunk, had a pair of spare axles and nuts. So I fixed the wheel, finger-tightened all the other nuts to be sure, and got back on my merry way.

In the *exact same spot* about a half-mile out, I felt the same strange tug on my *left* boot. Sure enough, the left rear axle was hanging loose, free of its nut. A few limping strides later, and the wheel popped loose of the axle and rolled away behind me. I’ve never in my life lost a wheel while skating, so two in one day was a bit of a shocker. This time, with no hanging brake carriage dragging behind, I was able to slowly skate back to the car (lucky me!) and give up for the night. I’m fairly certain that all the extra rattling and looseness on the axles caused the nuts to come loose, so I saved my last replacement nut and ordered a set of the correct spacers (lucky me!).

I’m scoffing, mostly, but my real luck tonight was that I made it to the bottom of the biggest hill in the park with a shot wheel *twice* without breaking my neck. It really could’ve been disastrous, and I’m really very lucky that I’m all right.

Pre-Fourth paddling

Work generously gifted us with a four-day weekend, which I spent mostly doing a comics intensive, trying to get caught up, and a little ahead on my page count, so that I can spend a week getting caught up on digital corrections. I allowed myself one day of vacation, and spent it out on Lake Michigan with paddling buddy R.

It was a beautiful day, slightly overcast, but just right in temperature and humidity, about 85F, and a little cooler out on the lake. The week’s heat had made the water beautifully warm, and getting wet was a treat rather than a hindrance. I’d never done any deep-water paddling before, and was more than a little worried about the trip, but R is on her way to her safety certificate, and we had the full compliment of safety gear, so I felt comfortable giving it a shot. We put in at Deerlick park, just south of South Haven, and paddled up the coast. The waves were about as large as I felt I could handle — 1-3 foot swells with minimal whitecapping. It was like being on a rollercoaster: three feet up, three feet down, and several of the waves pulled an unintended yelp out of me. Things never got to a point where I felt I couldn’t handle myself, and I kept my seat the entire time, but if they’d gotten any more serious, I’d have headed for shore immediately.

We made our way up the coast, stopping briefly for lunch, and came to the clay cliffs north of the city, these weird wonderful river-sculpted gray cliffs that look like something out of a lunar landscape. Our buddies R&S were camping there on the beach, along with a bunch of their friends, and were dipping hunks of freshly-caught steelhead into batter, preparing them to go in a deep fryer. Now that’s living.

Back in our kayaks, we headed back towards the South Haven lighthouse, arriving just as the sun was setting. It was a bit dodgy, as tons of boats were all headed out to watch the fireworks, including the beautiful replica sloop, the Friends Good Will, flying the 1812 American flag and a long green pennant. The sunset was spectacular: long thin horizontal bands of clouds alternating molten orange and purple stretched from north to south along the western horizion, the sky to the east gone pink in harmony.

As a result of last year’s lackluster fireworks, the mayor got together a bunch of donors and promised an impressive show. We moved further south, far out of range of both city and citizen arsenals, and past the outer ring of boats, where we bobbed gently on water as flat and calm as Lake Michigan ever offers. The show definitely delivered, and lasted at least its promised 25 minutes. We could hear the synchronizing music — a mix of movie themes and such — coming from the boats around us, but I thought the music actually detracted from the show. Seeing the lights reflected in the water was a real treat.

After the show we found our way back to the park, and then spent two hours crawling back east along M-43. If we do this next year we’re taking county roads, I swear. All told we got at least ten good miles paddled, the first five against steep swells. I’m surprised my arms still work at all this morning, but so far, I’m only a little stiff, and hardly even sore. I really hope to do this kind of all-day paddle again; the sunset alone was worth the trip.

Solstice Skating

Went to Derby on Saturday, watched Whip It on Sunday, and so today felt the uncontrollable urge to skate. Went out for about a half hour through the city streets, up and down newly-paved Davis as the dusk gathered. Nice to get the heart rate going again; I think this is the first time since I got sick that I’ve broken an honest sweat. Good times.

Part of me really, really wishes that Derby had existed around here around the time I quit LARPing. I think I would’ve been a natural fit. Now I’ve gotten too old and slow and comfortable, and afraid of pain. I’m pretty sure I could take the falling-down part, and even the being-knocked-down part. But this last bout, Naptown started playing dirty, and in retribution, my favorite skater Javelin sent a smaller skater flying so high and so far that she must’ve knocked a couple teeth loose when she finally hit the ground. There was hang time, I swear. A parabolic arc, with wheels.

My favorite opposing skater this time out was Bonnie Barko, of the newly-formed JackTown Rollers out of Jackson. Long and tall with an uncannily lithe grace and spectacular, sparkly, furry legwarmers. Paul’s dad got down on the track and shot a ton of photos, so I’m hoping I can show pictures of her soon. Yay, Derby.

Snowpocalypse: Meh

We got a good eight inches overnight, all nice powdery snow. I skied into work this morning, and tied for being the first person to enter the department.

Work continues to be awesome: they let everyone take their computers home last night so that they could telecommute if their drive was too bad. Me, I prefer to work at work, and the opportunity to do some urban skiing was too good to pass up.

It’s about 20F out there, which is just perfect for skiing. I got right into a good wheel-rut and made excellent time. The streets were pretty much empty, even Michigan Avenue, and what people were out smiled and waved as I went by. “Pretty wimpy snowpocalypse, ” I said to one shoveler. “Thats for sure, ” he replied.

Bat Eviction, Bat Extinction

Paul and I were awoken at 4:30am by the cats tearing up and down the hallway– or rather, Paul was awoken, because I had my earplugs in and was sleeping like the dead. A bat was lost in the house again and was doing laps around the second story. Paul quickly isolated it in the bathroom and left it there to calm down until morning, where he found it sleeping on the floor of the shower and quickly evicted it with the help of a tupperware container and a vinyl LP. We’re getting rather good at bat extractions.

If things with White Nose Syndrome keep going as they are, though, we may never have another bat infestation again. This Wired article is just plain terrifying, and makes me fear deeply for the future of agriculture in this country. Between bats who eat insect pests, and honeybees who pollenate the crops, we may be heading for seriously difficult times in farming.

Flirting with hypothermia

Yesterday, my friend R and her sister and I all went out winter kayaking. We picked a relatively shallow lake to make rescues easy on the off-chance one of us flipped, but thankfully we all stayed warm and dry.

The day was a stunning one — stark blue skies traced with thin cirrus clouds and contrails and nothing else. Hundreds of wildfowl were out on the lake with us: ducks, geese, and swans kept lifting off in advance of our boats. The water was mostly clear until we got past the portage point on the little creek we were following, at which point we had to smash through a good half-inch of lake ice to keep going. It felt a little wrong, at first, breaking up such a clear, still, beautiful surface, but once we realized it wasn’t going to do any damage or have any real consequences (the lake froze tight again that evening) we had a lot of fun in the destruction. The ice was thick enough in places that you could ease your boat up on to a shelf of it, and it’d take the weight for just a split second before it gave out and cracked off in huge plates six and eight feet long. The noise was like smashing plate-glass windows with a hammer; sometimes you’d hear these weird zipping noises that sounded like hitting a miked-up slinky, like what the sound engineers did to make the blaster sounds for Star Wars.

I was wearing completely waterproof gloves which, while ridiculously expensive, turned out to be one of my wisest paddling purchases. I was able to reach down into the freezing water and fish out big hunks of ice with no discomfort. I even made a little ice-dolmen at one point, stacking slices of frozen lake into a neat little tower. The little floes made the most oddly musical sounds as you paddled through them, like the world’s biggest rocks-glass. Ducks and geese stood on the ice and watched our paddles skid comically across the surface until we finally reached more open water.

We got pretty far on our excursion, but we eventually had to turn around because the exit point we’d intended to use was behind a good fifty yards of ice. We’d broken through about twenty feet, and while not particularly rough going, it wasn’t exactly fast, and we didn’t have enough daylight left to make it a practical pursuit. So instead we played Russian Icebreakers all the way home. And then I pulled out my audiobook of Endurance and listened to Simon Prebble tell Shackleton’s frozen story.

Pine Paddlin’

Two weekends ago, I went on a really amazing trip down the Pine River. It was my first time paddling on really fast water; the Kalamazoo river’s pretty much a beer float unless it’s rained heavily the week before, and I’d been hearing for months about how great the Pine was, so I was really looking forward to it. Anyway, every autumn this big group of paddlers gets together at this campground near Wellston and paddles two or three of the nearby rivers. It was bucketing down rain on Friday, so we elected not to leave after work, but to get up early on Saturday morning and drive up for the 8am launch.

Only problem is, Wellston is three hours north. Which means me and paddling buddies J and R got up at 4am. To be on the road by 5am. Yeah, we’re a little stupid when it comes to paddling.

So we roll into the campground just as the 8am convoy was forming, and fortunately for us everyone was a little slow getting moving. We had just enough time to pitch our tents and get things set for our evening return. After some minor issues with staging we were on the river by about 9:45, and had an awesome 4 hour trip down to Dobson Bridge. The river was definitely faster water than I was used to, but I didn’t see anything that really made me feel I was at risk — until we got right in front of the bridge, where there were some really sweet Class II rapids. As soon as J and R and I shot through, we shouted “AGAIN!” like little kids, and tried to get our boats turned around so we could take them again. No luck; the river was fast enough that we’d get close to the top, but the instant we missed a stroke, we’d get turned around and sent back downstream. It was a bit like trying to swing at a big brother who’s got his hand on your forehead.

Most of the fifty-or-so paddlers pulled out at the campground, just a short trip away from Dobson bridge, but R was keen to keep going, so while I caught a quick nap in my tent, she organized with another couple paddlers for a shuttle, and then we were off for another 3 hour paddle down to Low Bridge.

That part of the river was AMAZING, and I was so glad that R talked me into giving it a shot, despite having slept like crap the night before and surviving a 4am wakeup call. Class I the whole way with lots of exciting Class II rapids, and the previous day’s rain kept our minds in the present moment — most of the river was so tricky that we couldn’t even hold a conversation for fear of getting dumped. Tall dunes fenced us in, topped with maples just beginning to turn orange, and though we hardly saw any wildlife other than the occasional pissy kingfisher, the gorgeous, unspoiled forest views totally made up for it.

It was pretty damp all day, and alternated between sun and medium-heavy rain. We got dumped on as we ate our lunch, and despite my usual aversion towards schmancy yuppie gear, I was really, really glad I’d spent the money on waterproof pants and a paddling jacket, though my old wool pendleton shirt did well for all but the worst of it.

At the end of the trip, my arms felt like noodles, and I was so glad to have set up the tent before leaving. Eight of us all piled into the shuttle, a minivan with four seats and a monster homemade roof-rack, on which we managed to pile two canoes and four kayaks — Getting out was a bit of a clown-car experience. Back at the campground we got changed and headed over to the potluck and bonfire, where we fell on the buffet like ravenous wolves and had a great time passing around J’s bottle of spiced rum. Loaded with booze and good humor, J became the instant hit of the weekend, and I’m pretty sure that R and I won’t be allowed back without bringing him along.

Unfortunately, this is where the day started to go south. I’m still pretty broke from this summer’s big vacation, so rather than buying my own sleeping bag and pad, I borrowed Paul’s, the same one he’s been using since he was in Boy Scouts. We’d unrolled it the week before to air it out, and it looked just fine, but as soon as I crawled inside, the zipper burst like a sausage. The temperature was dropping fast — it was already down around 40F — and since it was a mummy bag, I was hosed. There was no way to get the bag shut all the way, and no matter how I lay, I still had a good eight inches of exposed body. The pad didn’t help any because I’d paddled for about eight hours, my shoulders hurt too much to lie on them. After about two hours of misery, I finally gave up and tried to sleep in the backseat of my car. It being a VW Golf, this was only marginally better. My legs were cramped and aching all night, but at least I was warm. I may have dozed off for about fifteen minutes in there somewhere, but I doubt I got more sleep than that. I kept shifting around in the bag all night, and eventually tried propping my feet clumsily against the window. I was parked right near the bathrooms, and I can only imagine what people must’ve thought as they walked past in the middle of the night, the kayaks on my car swaying back and forth as I tossed and turned, bumping my feet against the window. It must’ve looked like the most clumsy, awkward backseat sex ever. Yeah, dignity. I remember that.

So dawn comes, and I drag my sorry ass out of the car and head over to build the fire and make breakfast. Everyone else popped up fresh as daisies, and here I was running on three hours of sleep in two days. Things were not looking good until the campers next door offered me coffee. It was kinda weak for my taste, but I dumped in some of the powdered starbucks stuff (shut up, it’s good) I brought with me and then it was extra good. I was about to head home and leave R and J to keep paddling, but aparrently I was making the dog face well enough that some other folks took more pity on me, and soon I had even more coffee. Three cups later and I felt human (and stupid) enough to sign up for one more day of paddling.

So off we go to put in at Dobson and do that amazing stretch of river again. This time the sun shone down on us and it was a beautiful blue-sky day. Soon we did away with our extra layers and had a grand old time of it. Doing the same section twice was a great idea; the second time through I was able to see what I’d done wrong and make corrections, thinking instead of just reacting. I feel like I really levelled up in both ruddering and edging that trip. Being such a clumsy, accident-prone person, it’s an amazing, gratifying experience to feel myself actually becoming physically competent at something. I’m the type that usually trips over cracks in the linoleum, the one that’s usually wearing evidence of everything I ate for lunch, who can’t make it through the day without acquiring a new bruise from whacking into a desk-edge — and here I managed thirty miles over fast water without falling in once. Does wonders for the confidence, it does.

I wish we could’ve done that stretch a third time, and if the weather and the day hadn’t both been turning on us, I think we might’ve. Alas, we loaded the boats on the car and headed for home, gassed up on rapids and sleep-deprivation and sunshine. I am so going back next year.

Stars and fish and beaver and cranes

Feeling so much better today. Went kayaking right after work with R., and had the most lovely time. We arrived at Barton Lake just before sunset, and paddled all through the golden hour on water so still that it seemed a shame to dip your paddle in. We made it upstream on Portage Creek as far as the bridge at 22nd street, and saw fishes great and small, cranes, herons, and an absolutely enormous beaver, all in the fading light under the barest slender crescent of first-quarter moon. It was such a gorgeous night, not a cloud in the sky, that we lay back in our kayaks and just watched the stars come out. We were far enough away from the city lights that we could clearly see the Milky Way; the sky at its darkest with the moon long gone. Satellites and airplanes and shooting stars, with Venus and Jupiter so huge in the sky that they seemed artificial.

When I got home, all de-stressed and happy and stinking of swamp mud, I found that Paul had spent the evening cleaning the house and running errands so that I could have most of the day on Saturday to relax and make comics. Ladies, you might think you have the best husband, but I’m sorry to tell you that mine is the bestest in all the land. And people wonder why I don’t care about flowers or cards or Valentine’s Day.

More on the oil spill

Stay classy, Enbridge.

Trip Report Day Four: Hurricane Ridge

We went sea kayaking at Freshwater Bay in the morning — I don’t have any photos of the trip, because I didn’t want to risk the camera to my clumsiness. The trip was great, and we saw all sorts of wildlife we’d never seen before — pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets, and a mother harbor seal carrying her pup on her back. The seals followed our boats in quiet curiosity, disappearing backwards into the water whenever we noticed them.

The kayak-tour company (which we recommend wholeheartedly) shared a building with a winery, so at the end of the trip we got to sample some nice local wines, and wound up getting a bottle to share later.

Afterwards, we drove up to Hurricane Ridge and did some hiking, which is where these photos are from.

Closer to home

Man, the Kalamazoo River oil spill is just heartbreaking. Nearly a million gallons of crude, dumped right in my back yard, gives me new respect for the horror the Gulf Coast’s been going through. Terrible pictures of oil-slicked Canada geese and muskrats are everywhere, and the beautiful river I’d been hoping to kayak tonight is ruined all over again.

Poor Kalamazoo River. It’s been the dumping grounds for all sorts of heinous shit for as long as western settlers have been here. Things were finally looking up — after years and years of Superfund cleanup and local efforts, the river was clean enough to sport and play in, again. Festivals, like Kanoe the Kazoo, sprang up in an effort to lure residents, long taught to avoid the smelly watershed, back to the rejuvenated river. And now it’s all gone, those years of effort will have to start all over again, thanks to one company’s negligence.

The summer-long Kalamazoo Water Festival — sponsored by the watershed council — couldn’t be more timely. Maybe the last few events of the year will be turned into volunteer cleanup parties. God knows we’ll need it.

I confess that I’m kind of scared to volunteer, myself, though this is kind of thing is right up my alley. But something’s got to be done, and we can’t count on the folks who made this mess to clean it up.

Trip Report Day 2: Forts Worden and Flagler

On the second day of our trip we got up early, had a nice breakfast with Dave and Brenda, and then drove and ferried our way out to Port Townsend for an Orca Tour. Alas, there was a gale warning, and so the tour didn’t go — so we decided to hike out to nearby Fort Worden, which has been turned into a nature preserve, and also has a really super Marine Science Center, which I wholeheartedly recommend to any fellow visitors who are big nature nerds like me.

Our next stop was nearby Fort Flagler, on Marrowstone Island, a short and beautiful drive away.

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