Thursday, September 19, 2019

Animal Stories

When friends visit the shack they sit on the futon looking east through the glass patio doors at the ravine and me, while I sit in my chair looking west at a more solid shack wall and them.   My friend Lonny visited the shack and while talking looked past me.  His face changed, eyes got wider, mouth formed an O.  I knew he’d seen something.

“Look behind you.”

I turned.


“Right there in the tree by your woodshed.”

I looked harder.  Slowly the figure of a big ass owl emerged sitting calmly on the branch of a maple twelve feet away.  His head rotated like the girl in The Exorcist, first looking at us, then looking the opposite direction, then at the ground all around, and then back to looking at the two men standing in the shack, staring in fact, for a long time.

The name of that species of owl, not really big ass but beginning with a “b”, is technically the barred owl.  It was the second time that week I’d known something was around by seeing people react rather than seeing the thing to which they were reacting.

At a meeting in a DeKalb church basement last week the same sort of thing happened.  In the middle of a churchy discussion, while I was sitting with my back to windows at the top of the wall, talk stopped and the eyes of people across from me began tracking something else.  Whatever it was, by their faces I imagined it to be fascinating.

“A fox just walked past the windows,” a woman said.

I didn’t see the fox, but it wasn’t necessary to realize its impact.  I felt it was there.  When humans encounters wild animals it’s a showstopper.  I think there is something wonderful about it.  Animal images, and the way we feel when wild animals are near, stay with us.  Especially when they are big.

Lonny got a great picture of the owl.

Seeing that owl up close nails down evidence of its existence in the ravine outside the shack.  I think it’s most likely this very owl, or a member of its family, that I heard two summers ago.  My son Dean and I were having drinks and conversation in the shack, windows open, nice breeze, when our talk was interrupted by a loud series of hoots.
“What the heck is that?” Dean said.

“Sounds like a hoot owl,” I replied.

Hoot owl is redundant slang for most all owls, because hooting is what they do.  Hoots are the lingua franca of owls, except for screech owls, which of course, screech.  English can be so direct and to the point can’t it?  Different kinds of owls possess, like a copyright, distinctive sounds.  Here is the basic hoot of every barred owl that ever lived, according to those in the know.  Dean and I confirmed its identity that night by googling owl hoots and matching what we heard to the Audubon society’s recording.  Click on this link to hear it.

Hoot analyzers liken the barred owl’s song to this phrase.

Who cooks for you?
            Who cooks for you’all?

Nine syllables, the accent rising on” you” at the end of the first line, falling on “all” at the end of the second.

I identify with animals closely.  I think it’s because of growing up on a small farm and living closely with domesticated animals.  Wild animals are a different deal, especially birds.  Close encounters tend to be rare, and because of that more precious.  I especially envy the freedom of wild birds, their ability to fly away at a moment’s notice, their songs.

I suppose I feel close to birds because I love to whistle.  Searching the library of remembered songs in my brain for patterns of notes, and then hitting those notes in a whistled song, clears my head of other nagging thoughts.  I wish it was the same for song makers like the barred owl, but I’m afraid they have a different experience.

We tend to ascribe human qualities to animals, for example assuming the barred owl hoots as an expression of joy and creativity.  Sadly, bird experts think birds’ songs are a compulsion.  Birds are born with brains wired to sing only a handful of songs with specific purposes.  Usually finding each other and a few simple warnings..  There is not a speck of originality in my local barred owl’s hoot.  Instead it’s the ultimate ear worm.  Throughout its entire life it sings those same nine syllables over and over.  Who cooks for you?  Who cooks for you’ all?  It must be driving him crazy.  But there I go again, equating animals with humans.
If I could take on the form of a barred owl for a day, retaining my human brain of course, I’d find my neighbor in the ravine, land on a branch next to him, and teach him new songs.  Centuries of genetically inherited hoots could be complemented by new tunes.  My first choice for the barred owl would be I Am the Walrus by the Beatles. There’s a line in that song tailor made for a barred owl.

Coo coo kachoo ka coo coo kachoo

That owl would probably turn his head and look at me with his big eyes like I was crazy.

Foxes are another story.  If they yip and bark, which I’m told they do, I’ve never heard them.  But I’ve seen them up close, and I think there is something special about being in their presence.  I’ve read accounts of Native Americans recalling spiritual encounters with animals, communicating on some level, adopting the animal as their totem, or incorporating the animal into their name.  I’m fascinated with the concept.  If I had a spirit animal, and it wasn’t some whistling bird, it might be the fox.

I had a long moment one afternoon with a red fox in my yard in early spring.  He was in the sun just past the patio.  Not at all wary of being so close to the house, he stretched, did a downward facing fox, laid in the grass, his legs splayed out behind him, and looked directly at me for a long time.  It was sort of a stare down.  And then he yawned, got up, and trotted slowly into the ravine.  He was completely relaxed.  At ease with life.  My kind of animal.

I saw him or another fox (not to imply that all foxes look alike, but I couldn’t swear it was the same one) just a few days ago.  My wife saw him first.  This time he was smelling the ground, maybe on the trail of another animal.  Again, he was completely at ease among our bird feeders, flowerpots, picnic tables, Weber grills, and assorted human possessions in the back yard.  Could I walk around a fox’s dens as casually?  This time he sauntered casually, slowly in a circle, and magically, disappeared under my shack.  I’d love for him to live there, he and I co-existing peacefully.  If he would have me that is.

Oddly the attraction of both the barred owl and red fox is probably due to our oak trees and the animals that live off their acorns.  We have a big red squirrel population, but more numerous than them are the ground squirrels.  My wife calls them chipmunks.  They’re so common we hardly notice them anymore.

Manic little guys, the ground squirrels dart around, scurry under the steps, disappear into the ground, dig holes in my wife’s potted plants, and are always on the go and very busy.  If we leave a door open to the garage they get in and poke around the bird food bags.  Sometimes we hear them scurrying around in there, clap our hands, and watch them dash out the door.  Humans forget about the food chain because we are on top of it.  But the squirrels and ground squirrels are why the owls and foxes hang around.  They’re lunch.
At the end of our close-up owl encounter Lonny and I watched that barred owl spread its wings and drop down from its branch, scuffle on the ground, then fly away with a small animal hanging from its talons.  Ground squirrel I’m thinking.  We couldn’t tell.   And the fox sniffing around the shack?  Looking for the same thing I’m betting.
There’s more.  Earlier in the summer my wife and I watched for twenty minutes as a young white tail deer kept a mother racoon from her three kits.  The mother was near the compost pile, the three kits halfway up trunk of a big oak, crying, and the deer in between, threatening the coon with a head butt every time she neared the tree.  The deer finally got bored and left, the coons were reunited, and all of them lived happily ever after as far as we know.

It probably helps that I am retired and spend a large amount of time in a shack with a glass wall facing a wooded ravine on the edge of town.  Or that my wife’s favorite chair faces the back yard and she has a clear view of everything that goes on there.  But we’re not the only ones.

Our friends in Seattle live in house in a rather dense residential block and keep chickens, six laying hens, in their backyard.  One evening they heard the hens raising a ruckus in the yard (free range you know) and when they went out to investigate the next-door neighbor reported seeing a coyote with one of their hens in its mouth loping through their yard.  Yet only four hens remained.  They shut those four up in the coop, looked high and low for the missing old girl (a favorite they explained) and, fearing the worst, turned in for the night.
About an hour later the hens were at it again.  This time they came out armed with a flashlight and when they shined it around the perimeter of the yard saw a coyote standing on their neighbor’s deck and the missing old hen hiding underneath it.  They ran off the coyote and rescued the hen.  Middle of a big city for god’s sake.

Animals are living lives all around us, radically different lives to be sure, but not unconnected to ours.  Watch for them, tune in to their vibe, and see which one you relate to most.  I am still undecided, but I've narrowed it down to a Jersey dairy bull, a barred owl, a fox, heck maybe even a ground squirrel.  I'll keep looking.  You do the same.


Sunday, September 8, 2019

North of the Border

My day to day life is soft.  You can see it in my hands.  And when life gets hard, soft hands take a beating.

Of course, age changes our hands too.  These sixty-eight year old hands of mine have blotches and liver spots.  Veins pop out and they bruise easily.  I don’t know what that’s about.  Thin skinned I guess, although I’m  rarely bothered by criticism anymore, if ever.  I’m just grateful both hands work and don’t hurt.

I went on my annual fishing trip to north Ontario last week.  Eight men drove from Ottawa, Illinois at various times and congregated in the town of Red Lake.  Five went slowly, spending a night on the road, two (still employed) drove straight through, while one was already there having just ended another nearby fishing adventure.
Gary Robinson plans the trip, books the cabin, organizes the guys, then we shop for food together, and gather at his house the night before to pack our groceries, fishing gear, and clothes for the lake in a two-wheeled trailer.  We've done that for years.

At the border between International Falls and Fort Frances, for the first time in anyone’s memory, the Canadian border official in the booth when our first vehicle pulled up took on a much more critical posture. Gary was in that vehicle, pulling the trailer, with his son Nathan.  Just the two of them.  After the perfunctory questions, where are you from, where are you going, do you have any firearms, live animals, whatever else they ask, he said:

“What’s in the trailer?”

“Food and fishing gear.

“Is it all yours?”

“No.  It belongs to seven guys.  Three of them are in the vehicle behind me.”

“Did you pack their gear?”


“Then how do you know what’s in it?”

“I know the guys.  It’s their fishing rods and tackle, our food, each guy’s clothing and personal stuff.”

“I don’t care how well you think you know the guys.  They could have contraband in their luggage, and you wouldn’t know it.  Yet you’re responsible for it.”

“I doubt there is any contraband in my trailer.”

He told them to pull over near another building, which is normal to pay duty on our alcohol and tobacco.  But as Gary was pulling away, he saw the border official pick up the phone.  We didn’t see that, but Gary knew something was wrong.
We pulled in behind them, showed our passports, and breezed through.  That same border official told us to leave the area and park farther down on the street if we wanted to wait for our friends.

“They are going to be a while longer,” he said.

After parking we looked back and saw Gary and Nate standing at the front of the truck while a team of uniformed border officials were unlocking the back of the trailer.

“Should we go over there you think?” 

“I think its best we stay in the truck.”

We did.  We watched as all our gear was tossed out and thrown back in the trailer helter-skelter.  They opened every box and bag.  Gary was upset.  We all were.  No one likes to see a friend treated that way.  We don’t believe we fit the profile of human traffickers or drug smugglers.  Why they picked us out this year is a mystery.

Hard telling though what our country is doing to Canadians these days at border crossings.  Maybe it was tit for tat.  As Americans we aren’t used to getting hassled at borders.  American passports are the best in the world, allowing us to travel freely and visit more countries without visas than perhaps any other.

We forget that when crossing a border, any border, we are subject to another country’s rules, no matter how much money we bring in to spend along the way.  We should be thankful for our status as Americans, especially given the ways our own government is currently disregarding its own rules and values for treating foreigners.  Imagine crossing our Southern border as a citizen of El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala these days.  Our humiliation was no doubt slight in comparison.

We stopped just over the border in Fort Frances at Einar’s (rhymes with wieners) where we repacked the trailer, which was a huge mess.  Einar’s on the other hand was a tidy little shop with a meat counter and a butcher on the main drag.

We were there for the first time because our bacon supplier in Red Lake closed.  Bacon is a big deal on this trip.  At Einar’s we picked up our order of ten pounds of thick Canadian bacon.  BACON was written by hand in grease pencil on the red butcher paper in which each pound was wrapped. The Red Lake bacon was damn near like ham.  As good as it was, Einar’s bacon proved to be even better.  It was so thick just eight slices made one pound.  I doubt you’ll be passing by Einar’s anytime soon but if you do, we recommend you stop and buy bacon.

After the bacon buying and getting our shit together, so to speak, we were on our way to Dryden, where we always stop at a big Safeway store to buy perishables, a special Canadian Rye bread, and have lunch.  Last year after shopping we blundered onto The Patricia Inn, a local independent restaurant across from McDonalds with a big menu .  We liked it and went back this year.

Our waitress was from Thailand.  Lots of First Nation (indigenous) Canadians were eating there, families jamming the tables.  They serve breakfast all day.  On top of that they serve good perogies. I had an Asian style vegetable noodle stir fry.  Liver and onions and hamburgers were also on the menu.  Go figure.  They seemed very glad to have us white American fishermen.  Canada seems to do the cross-cultural thing so much better than America.  Why is that?  Accommodating both French and English as national languages?  Never practicing slavery?  Just guessing.

After a night in the Red Lake Super 8 we lifted off the water in a 1953 Otter floatplane at 7:45 heading way the hell out there somewhere north beyond roads, towns, and houses.  Escaping roads improves fishing greatly.  As we flew over uninhabited lakes and forests, we could almost feel modern life as we now know it slipping away.

And then the float plane landed on Job Lake, deposited eight of us and our gear on the dock, loaded six guys and their stuff for the return trip, taxied across the water, accelerated and lifted off.  As the sound of his engine faded, we were wrapped in quiet. We walked up the hill to the lake’s only cabin where we have lived for the same September week each of the last three years.
Like dairy cows who return to the same stall each time they come in the barn, the men who would spend a week together entered the cabin and went straight to the same places they occupied last year, claiming bunks by putting our bags on them.  It was 10:30 a.m. and the weather was sunny and warm.

A day of fishing lay ahead of us.  We first unpacked fishing gear.  We put rods on reels, tied jigs to lines, located stringers, put bait in boxes, put personal floatation devices over thin shirts, hooked up depth finders, gassed up boats and shoved off to find and catch walleye.  We were eating fish that night, and each of our four two-man boats were to contribute three fish for supper.  The sun was shining.

That was to be our last warm day, and the last day we saw the sun for more than an hour till our last day on the lake.  You never know what's going to happen up North.  You never know what’s going to happen anywhere.  You just think you do.  The next morning’s sunrise fooled us with its beauty. The first rays of the sun reddened rain clouds that stayed with us most of the week.

Somewhere on the way to Job Lake we lost all access to outside information.  We travelled beyond the reach of cell phone towers and internet connections.  Slowly we were reminded of how that disconnect feels and what it means.  We get a lot of information these days, data of all kinds, whenever we want it.  When that level of knowledge disappeared, we noticed.

It’s a fishing trip.  The fishing is interrupted only by meals, sleep, and occasional bad weather.  Gary Robinson printed up the weather report for the week and it was in the cabin on a piece of paper.  Given how often those forecasts change these days, and how often we consult them, we knew it was probably out of date.  After a few days we stopped looking at it.

Questions about the weather stopped being answered with any authority and were instead guessed at by looking at the sky and determining the direction of the wind. There was a lot of conjecture.  You would think we were all amateur weathermen, the way we made predictions.  Few of them turned out to be true, except for the most pessimistic.  It got colder.  It rained more.

I don’t take a heavy coat up there, relying on layers instead.  On the coldest day I wore a tee shirt, a flannel shirt, bib overalls, a heavy wool sweater, a thick felt vest, a hooded rain jacket, with a stocking hat.  On the bottom I wore wool socks, leather shoes, sweatpants, bib overalls (bibs are a twofer) and rain pants.  When I came in for lunch that day, I was considering adding another shirt but after looking at the sky thought it would warm up.  It didn’t, but I was OK.

It was the combination of wind and rain that proved problematic.  After that first nice day the wind swung to the west, then settled in blowing straight out of the north.  North winds can bring in very cold air in Ontario.  At times the wind blew hard.  We didn’t know how hard of course because we had no media.  We judged the strength of the wind by the size of the waves on the lake, the appearance of whitecaps, and how the trees swayed.  Mostly pines up there.  They were moving pretty good.

Oddly enough we knew very little about the air but a lot about the water.  The depth finders not only told us how deep the lake was wherever we were but also the temperature of the water.  The lake’s water temperature dropped five degrees during the week we were there, which is a lot for such a big body of water.  Job Lake is 3800 acres give or take a few.

The water was between 60 and 65 degrees, while the air (ew guess) was between 55 and 40.  The fish felt warmer than my hands, I know that for sure.  The fish, the ones we released anyway, may have had it better than we did.

You can bundle up everything but your hands when you fish.  I tried wearing cold weather golf gloves, but it didn’t work.  You can’t tie knots with gloves on, you can’t hold the hook well when removing it from a fish’s mouth, gloves feel awkward on the knobs, levers, and bails of the open spinning reels we use.  So, I gave up on gloves.  All you can do is try to keep your hands dry, which was damn hard on Job Lake that week.

If it had been only strong wind and low temperatures my layers of clothes would have worked fine, but the water confounded things.  We had 16’ Alumarine V hull open boats with 9.9 motors.  Plenty fast and powerful for the lake we were on.  But when you bounce across white capped waves, and wallow around in between them, those boats kick up a lot of spray.  Both the driver in the rear and the passenger up front get splattered.

And if it had just been the spray, we might have handled it, but we often fished in rain.  The boats have molded plastic seats with backs that catch and hold water.  Despite the rain gear, our asses were wet most of the week.  In fact, first on my to do list after returning home is BUY BETTER RAIN GEAR.  I’m not sure even the best rain gear would have kept us dry that week in Ontario.  Click on  below to get a feel for what it was like out there.

Back to my hands.  I began most mornings laying thick strips of bacon into cold cast iron skillets, four to a pan, illuminated by Helio Ruvulcaba’s cool flashlight, which you wear around your head.  It shines wherever you look.  That’s also on my to do list: BUY A  LIGHT LIKE HELIO's.

By using that light, I could keep the kitchen light off a little longer, letting my fellow cabin dwellers, essentially in one big room, sleep a little longer.  At least those that were sensitive to light.  Bob Brue sleeps through anything.  Many envy him.  Bob is a champion sleeper, and maybe because of ample sleep the most positive guy among us.

On the first morning, kitchen light on, while removing a Dutch oven warming two pounds of cooked bacon from a hot oven, I touched the knuckle of my left index finger on something hot.  Almost right away a big blister began to form.  Let the record show that I didn’t drop the bacon.  Have I conveyed the importance of bacon up there?

Two days later, while doing the same thing with a pan of biscuits I burned two parallel lines into my right hand by touching it against an oven rack. Those didn’t blister, they just seared away the top layer of skin.  It is not often I burn myself twice in one week but then, I don’t usually cook that much.

The good news is I didn’t cut myself prepping food on the cutting board this year.  Instead, I cut myself in the boat.  Those walleye look so sleek and smooth, but they have sharp edges somewhere, when they flare their gills, I think.  A walleye sliced me on the inside of my right hand where the thumb meets the palm.  It hardly bled, but it hurt like hell,  for only a short while.

Mid-week I grabbed an oar to push the boat off a rock on shore and got what looked to be a small splinter on the ring finger of my left hand.  I woke up the next morning with it throbbing and managed to get a bigger than imagined sliver of wood out of that finger with my Swiss army knife.

And on the next to the last day fishing I hooked a twenty-inch walleye and somehow, while getting the hook out of the roof of his mouth, managed to bury the hook into my right thumb.  Not past the barb fortunately, and it came out right away, followed by a perfectly round blob of blood.
Ironically, the splinter hurt the worst.  I treated all the slices, punctures, and burns with Bag Balm, my Dad’s preferred treatment for almost everything.

As that blister formed on my knuckle, about a quarter inch high, I remembered my Dad.  He had ideas about everything.  His advice for burns that blister was to never pop the blister but leave it until it opens on its own.  Then after it opens and drains, he advocated leaving that bit of damaged loose skin in place over the sore and slathering it often with Bag Balm.  He reasoned that first the fluid and later the skin were the body’s own bandage.

So that’s what I did.  He would have never advised using a band aid, believing that fresh air helps dry wounds making scabs form more quickly.  I put a band aid on it anyway after the blister popped, but the band aid got wet and came off in the boat, so in the end I took his advice by default.  There is something wonderful about the way human bodies heal.  Now a week later that burn its almost completely covered by new skin. 

Our minds are equally supple.  Fortunately, we found we were to a man concerned about our President and the direction he was taking our country.  Being able to safely talk politics, we shared examples of what outraged us the most but as the week went on, without fresh bruising bits of news coming from our smart phones, that faded.  I was the last to complain about national politics and as I did, on the fourth day perhaps, I realized we had moved on.
In place of external stimuli, we talked about ourselves, our families, our worries, and our joys.  Some of the men I had not talked to in at least a year.  We had different concerns from a year ago, different goals, new ideas.  Unfortunately, we discovered we had few new jokes.  We need new jokes.  All of us.  Really.

Thankfully, we found in the past year each of us changed and became new in both small and big ways.  We talked about our lives, both current and past.  We listened to each other, which sadly I think is becoming a rarity.  Lots of people think men no longer communicate that way.  I’m happy to report they do.

We did all this in an utterly beautiful place, nearly overwhelmed by nature.  I think that helps.  As the week went on, I remembered once more that we are but human beings in a big world which can, and hopefully will, be fine without us.  Sometimes I think our planet would be better off without people entirely.  I constantly hope that humans can humble themselves and learn to live on our planet without damaging it further.  It will be a loss of epic proportion if we do not.

So today my hands are back in use as they usually are, on this keyboard, fingers hitting keys which correspond to the right letters most of the time, one thumb slamming the space bar, both thumbs swiping and manipulating my smart phone.

I’m back in the civilized world remembering the world that exists in the wilderness.  I can’t wait to be there again.