Just two old dogs and a hunter

I left the tree stand at 10 a.m. We weren’t seeing any deer; breakfast sounded like a better idea. I walked across the field and up the hill to the west. It was cold. At the top of the hill I stopped and looked to the skyline. The land was cold and barren; the horizon was hazy as if a holding a mystery to be unraveled. I was looking at the landscape but I was also looking at the change in the season. Autumn gone; winter ahead.

I stood for a moment then walked down the far side of the hill and into an area that 10 years ago was open field but now is growing over. I was looking for wild asparagus. I’d found two of them on this hunt. An irony, I knew, that in the waning days of the year in November’s chill I was looking for asparagus and in that, planning for spring.

 “They met my eyes, Riika and Thor, bright eyes still full of the joy of hunting.”

A grouse flushed; then another; more. Eight in all. I thought, “Well that’s interesting. More grouse than deer.”

Then I went the shack and cooked bacon and eggs.

A week later deer season was a memory. So were the grouse. But the grouse, that memory had possibilities. I loaded the two dogs in the truck and we went hunting, my old dogs and me. We were hunting for our own memories, of past hunts and past seasons and in the full knowledge that we may not pass that way again. Two old dogs; they can’t hunt forever. Nor can I. For to confront the reality and the mortality of aging dogs one, at a certain age, does the same for oneself. No dog can hunt forever; nor can any hunter.

On this day the dogs hunted well, watching me often, responding to hand signals which is all we have now; they are both deaf and the whistle does no good. But they hunted with heart and enthusiasm. What else can one ask?

We did not see grouse where they’d been. I circled closer to a swamp.

I never got the gun up on the first grouse; the stock caught on my coat as I tried to raise it to shoot. I straightened the folds of the coat. The dogs watched me. I took two steps and another bird flushed and I killed it as it flew left to right in front of me. The bird landed on the swamp ice and skidded thirty feet across until its momentum slowed and then stopped forever.

The dogs were on it, slipping on the ice, old dogs but still keen to hunt. I took the bird from Thor. They met my eyes, Riika and Thor, bright eyes still full of the joy of hunting.

I pocketed the bird on this day of early winter, on this day of old dogs and an old hunter and with memories of past hunts and memories made on this day both.

Hunting leaves time for questions, few answers

We walked to the stand under the beam from headlamps, the slivers of light inconsequential in the vastness of predawn dark.  It was heavy overcast after a night in the black of a new moon.  There was no smudge of dawning to the east, only the ocean of dark in the woods around us.  Above, the wind moved the trees and the sighing of branches in the breeze was a constant.  We walked slowly but deliberately.  We had time.

The air was heavy.  The ground was damp; leaves did not crunch underfoot.

To the north and east, distant, a shot, twenty minutes before the season opened.

“How can they see,” Ted asked.

“They can’t,” I told him. “Had to shoot over a light.”

Violators.

It was opening morning, a time of mystery and optimism, of questions and no answers. Say what you will, hunting, all hunting, has at the core of it questions seeking answers. There is no certainty.  There are possibilities; there are probabilities; there are options and plans well made.  But at its center hunting has no certainty.  At its most basic are questions looking for resolution.  In the day of the hunt the questions asked before the hunt are resolved, over time, in the field.   A hunt starts with questions.  The day, the hunt, brings answers, slowly, grudgingly, inevitably.

We did not know how the deer would move.  We did not know if they would move at all.  We had no way of knowing the unknowable, of discerning the vague and mysterious world found in the woods and field.  We did not know what was ahead. All questions.

The day started slowly. Darkness held sway beyond the time of opening.  The view from the tree stand was of dark and shadow, of indistinct shapes that only slowly took form and substance.  The overnight cloud cover held tight as if the night was holding back something secret from view.  Only slowly did the dark and shadow world come to definition in dim light under the gray November sky.

The landscape in what passes in early morning daylight is an austere palette; somber greens of pine, tawny grass and  rusted fern, russet oak leaf, undertaker grays of tree trunk and branch, umber and Sienna and watercolored blur.  It is a landscape at rest; the exhausting surge of greenery is gone to the dusty calendar pages.  The fireworks of fall color are memory now.  All that remains is the sere colors of late November.

The day is a slow starter as if it is still in slumber and awakes only reluctantly.  We hear sounds of distant rifle shots.  We wonder of them. We question them; did they end in success?  Failure? There is no resolution, questions only.

In the years we have hunted this stand we have seen deer early on the opening.  Today, none.  Today, no movement: no deer, no birds, no squirrels.  Nothing.  So we wonder, the two of us, of the why and the why nots of it all.  Questions.  No answers.  Not on this morning.  In front of us a twisted cherry tree stands, its branches turned and looped and resembling nothing more than a question mark.

Mid-morning a doe moves to our east, hidden in part by pine and oak scrub. But a doe; no question.  An hour later a small buck, a spike buck that had we not used binoculars would have passed for antler less.  The antlers were short and pointed, the size of your pinkie finger.  Perhaps not a spike as much as a spikette.  But nothing else.

I hunt until ten and then walk to the shack and make coffee, bacon and eggs.  Ted hunts til noon.  No deer.  We talk about the morning over coffee.  The wood stove brings heat.  Questions; no answers.  Then back to the hunt.

The afternoon unfolds as the morning had. All is quiet save for the sound of the wind. The temperature drops and we hunch deeper into the layers of clothing, all topped by the garish blaze orange.  We do not see deer.  We wonder why.  It’s been a bad acorn year.   These woods have oak that, if the crop is good, bring deer to feed. This year is a poor one.  Is that the reason we do not see deer?

We wait.  If you do not wait well you will not hunt well.

The doe comes first; a snap of branch broken, the beat of hoof to ground, then the doe at full run at a hundred and twenty five yards off, angling toward us on the edge of the field. Then Ted says, “Buck!” And in that instant I see him.

He is very big and he is running very fast chasing the doe.  He follows the doe, running at full bore, antlers high, covering ground.  I watch over Ted’s shoulder as the rifle comes up and tracks the buck.  It all happens fast; the doe, the buck, the rifle swinging in pace with the buck.

There comes a time when all the questions of the hunt come to this:  Take the shot?  Or not?  That is all.  That is the decisive instant of the hunt.  Shoot or not?  That is all.

The buck is in full out sprint, Ted’s rifle is marking him, the moment is now.  It is time.

The buck runs into the cover of woods and Ted pulls the rifle up.  The question is answered.  The shot is not taken.

The line was wrong; the buck angled toward us, the vitals hidden. The buck was running in full.  The point of it all, when you get to the heart of it is this:  Can I make a clean shot?  The point is not to hit the buck, the point is to make a single, killing shot. The shot, the one good shot, was not there.  The odds of hitting the buck were good. The chances to kill it clean were not.

That buck will be with us for a long time.  I have the memory as a photograph, the big body, the high rack, heavy and full that gleams as if ivory.  The buck in full.  The buck of dreams and of hopes and now, of memories.  Ted says, “That’s the biggest I’ve seen in years”.

The buck runs hard to the north.  We see him for an instant in a gap in the trees.  Then gone.  Silence.  The cool air of November comes down around us.  The leaves on the trees begin to wave in the breeze.

In our minds we imagine the buck running north, over the next ridge, down the far side, over oak leaf, past the gray trunks of silent trees that stand as sentinels to it all.

Then to the north, not far off, a shot.  It cracks the air.  The sound of the shot reaches out into the cloud and the gray sky and the November air.  The sound becomes echo but on the return there is no sound, only a final question.

The solitude of falling snow.

The gray sky was low and the breeze stiff and chill as I stood on the hillside. The forecast called for snow. The trees were bare; there would be no shelter from them today. I took it all in; the sky, the rising wind, the spare trees and skittering of fallen leaves, then started down the narrow path the led to the lake.

The fiberglass duck skiff slid into the water. I won it at a Ducks Unlimited dinner, lord knows how long ago. Thirty years? Forty? The fiberglass wears patches like scabs, bruises where the glass cracked and I laid fiberglass tape and resin as Band-Aids against leaks. It floats. It carries weight. It does the job.
I loaded a bag of decoys, the shotgun, a camouflaged bag of gear. In the bag was a camera, two boxes of shells, binoculars, a set of regulations. I have never in my life needed two boxes of shells, not on that lake, but two boxes fits the bag well and frames a gap for the camera so I carry them.

As I set the decoys, the wind gathered muscle and the boat drifted. Paddling back against the wind, I placed seven factory-made mallard decoys and an equal number of wood and cork frauds that I carved.

In a normal year I would pull the boat up on dry land and walk to the blind but this is not a normal year. The rains of last spring, when we had double the average rainfall, flooded the swamp and now the footing was uncertain. I did not walk to the blind but paddled the boat close and then pulled it into the flooded timber behind the blind.

I carried bag and cushion and shotgun to the blind and put the gear bag in front of me on a log that was above water level. Reaching into the right-hand pocket of the hunting jacket, I felt for three shells, loaded the shotgun and rested it atop the bag.

Then, for the first time since I’d left the hilltop, I relaxed.

The lake is not a good one for ducks. It is convenient to me and so I hunt it. No, on this day I was hunting solely to hunt in falling snow and driving wind. Ducks would be a bonus; the snow, forecast to start later, was why I was out.

For reasons unknown, I love to hunt in falling snow. I will sit in a duck blind as the snow falls and watch the mesmerizing bob and roll of the decoys on the late autumn wind. I hunker down in my deer stand in late November as the snow falls and the world seems to close in. I do this for hours in the grayness and wind.

Rarely do I see ducks on days of snowfall; and seldom see deer. My range of vision in falling snow is reduced and swaths of landscape disappear in the shroud of snow. For all I know deer may move and ducks may fly and I never see them. I do not hunt in the snow for the success it may bring. There are other reasons.

I hunt in falling snow because the world is small, more manageable in snow. The horizon is gone; the world draws in. On a crystal clear day you can see forever and in that expanse comes a dizzying abundance; sky and horizon and distant hills and ever present trees and leaf and lake and more. It can weary the mind. Gone, all, on days when snow comes down. In the haze of snow one can focus on matters close to hand. Snow days are restful to the mind.
A deer stand in falling snow is very quiet. There may be the sound of wind in trees or simply the sound of snow falling on the earth, which is to say, no sound at all. The far-off ridge disappears in the mask of snow as if the clouds above have fallen under their own weight to come to ground. Your eyes find shapes and forms, distinct for an instant then faded as the snow shifts and you are left not knowing, not with certainty, what it is that you have seen.

In snowfall comes mystery; landscape seems to shift; what is solid becomes indistinct; what has weight lifts up. There is no certainty, only mystery and imagination and in a world of certainty and fact-driven answers mystery becomes an odd but wonderful feeling. Snowfall carries mystery from the heavens to the ground.

And there is this: Part of what we seek when we leave pavement and home and turn to field and forest is solitude, simple solitude as big as the world, as private as your soul. Sit on a deer stand or in a duck blind in the falling snow and solitude is your companion.

On the day I hunted ducks the snow came. Light at first then thicker and steady and the horizon was hidden to haze, then gone. I pulled the hood up on my parka and burrowed my hands deeper into the pockets.

Darkness came early that afternoon; the falling snow robbed the day’s late light. If there were ducks on the wing they were lost to the snow and the cloud. I pulled the decoys, paddled back and unloaded the boat. Then I climbed the hill, started the truck and turned up the heater.

I did inventory; no ducks seen; no ducks taken. All I had was a solitary hunt in falling snow driving wind and in that, everything I needed.

October 27, 2017

When the golden leaves of October come to the ground they lie still and the season has changed, irrevocably.

BY MITCH MODE
Special to the Star Journal

Trees blazed as if afire with yellow flame.  Across the northland last week they burned bright; yellow against blue October sky, bright as star fire, gleaming, alive.  Gone now, most of the reds; faded, much of the green; blown to tatters the brown fern.  But the yellow leaves shimmered last week, stunning in their late October glory.

Yellow leaf along the forest trails was sharp bright as gold crystal in a miner’s pan; gleaming in the sun, treasure at arms length.  When the leaves fell to the ground, tossing on the autumn breeze, they floated as if gold flakes in the swirling stream.

Everywhere one looked last week there was yellow leaf of birch and popple and maple, alive with color and spark.

In the warmth of Thursday afternoon I took Riika to the hunt grounds, wandering the old road under the arching sky and yellow leaf.  We flushed one bird, a woodcock that rose to the thinning tree tops and then fell to the shot like a leaf falls to earth.  Riika mouthed the bird.  I let her hold it then I took it and slid it into the darkness of the game pocket on my vest.

We paused at the backwater of a narrow stream and Riika swam to cool down.  In the water was flotsam of yellow leaf under the rich blue sky and when Riika swam yellow leaves bobbed in the wake she made and then drifted silently away.

We hunted for less than an hour, plenty of time to hunt and not too long to harm the old dog.  Everywhere was the color of yellow leaf in the trees above and, increasingly, on the ground below.

Friday dawned clear and sunny and yellow leaf color filled the day, as a constellation spans the night sky.  Later that day they began to fall to earth, to drift down to gravity’s embrace.  What is it that makes a leaf break free?  What features the tie that bonds leaf to limb?  What is it that causes a tree to shed it’s golden cloak on a single day?

In the front yard the yellow maple was flush with richness of amber on Friday’s dawning.  Then, seemingly on a signal, the leaves began to fall.  In hours, an instant in a tree’s span, they were gone from above and lay in a soft, rich carpet on the ground.

On Sunday, most yellow leaves were fallen across the land, fallen from limb and branch and the ground below was drifted with leaf and duff.

Early snow will come, then go; it does not last. When it falls and covers lawns and woodlots one knows it will melt.  It comes and it goes and, when the time is right, falls and stays. Early spring days bring warmth and sweet scent after barren winter; but it does not last. Warm spring days tease, then retreat, then come again and, finally, are there for the long haul.

But a leaf once fallen never rises. When the golden leaves of October come to the ground they lie still and the season has changed, irrevocably. With leaf fall there is no turning back. A leaf and branch seemingly inseparable, held together as if a single element, when that changes all else changes. The leaf gives up its hold, the branch releases and for a moment or two the leaf drifts on the October breeze, riding the invisible current of air downward, always downward, until it lands without sound, soft as a snowflake, weightless as a passing shadow.

But in that soft tumble comes the stark impact of a season that has altered. For a fallen leaf remains fallen.  It never returns aloft.

On Tuesday the wind rose and howled the dirge of seasons change, a cold north wind that lashed the trees, stripped most remaining yellow leaf.  Branches stood bare and thin,

leaves tossed as if pages ripped from a calendar and blown with the wind, tumbling and rolling and drifting into nothingness.

The woodland goes to shadows of dark gray and brown and if you were to give name to the color of the somber hues of earth and bark you would name the color November Gray.  The days of the yellow leaf, so bright, so glorious, so fleeting, are gone.

I hunted ducks in the last hour of Tuesday.  I sat on an upturned bucket in low bog on a small lake.  I sat and I waited which is mostly what hunting is about.

Near sundown the sun bled through the scudding cloud and brought light to the west-facing hillside.  The trees stood resolute and unbending and unyielding, stood as if they have been disciplined or as if they are fatigued.  There was earth-tone green of pine; the russet brown of oak leaf; the reaching gray branches of limbs now barren of foliage.  The sun gave late warmth and glow to the hillside.

Above the tree line was the lowering layer of cloud moving fast from north to south.

Midway up the hillside from lake shore to sky line cloud one, no, two, trees stand out; they held yellow leaf.  Two days prior; dozens and dozens glowed yellow.  The two trees stood surrounded by the dulled tones of pine and oak and bare trees.  The sun touched them and it was if the trees themselves became the source of the light, seeming to glow from within; standing against the muted tones all around them and giving up soft light like stained glass windows in a church.

The north wind blew; the trees quivered as if alive; the clouds above raced southward on the wind as if they too were fleeing the northland.  Then the sun dropped below the tree line to the west and the yellow trees were lost to shadow and the gathering darkness, in the way that October and autumn warmth are lost to November, in the steady march and roll of the changing season as the yellow leaves fall.

 

Three hunts...

On the first day I go alone. I leave the dogs at home. In 15 years I’ve done this a handful of times, times when they were sick or lame. But it’s rare, rare that I hunt alone. This day I do. It’s been too hot; the dogs are too old; there are too many leaves. I go alone.

I walk in the heavy greenery on old roads that the dogs and I have hunted for years. I hunt as I did in times before I had dogs, moving slowly, pausing, waiting for the bird to take wing. It does not happen, the birds on wing. I do not see a single bird.

I think to myself, if my dogs were here we’d see birds. If Thor and Riika were here they’d work the thick shadows of mystery where the birds take refuge. I think, my dogs, they’d get their feet wet in the edges of marsh, in the coolness where the woodcock and grouse lie up under the September sun. If my dogs were here, we’d make birds.

But my dogs are not with me.

I walk a woodlot thick with balsam and popple and a woodcock takes to wobbly flight as if a leaf blows skyward by autumn wind. I am hopelessly off balance and I do not raise the gun.

My cell phone rings. It is my brother calling to wish me happy birthday. I lean the shotgun against a tree.

I think to myself, this is the modern hunter, connected to the world by invisible strands as if a spider in a web. Or, worse, as if a fly in the web. We catch up some, my brother and I. The sun has warmth on that September day; there is beauty in the woodlands.

We say our goodbyes and I work my way back to the truck. I do not see another bird.

And the hunt ends thusly: no birds, no shots, nothing but the wonder and splendor of autumn and in that, everything.

* * *

Two days later I take Thor. Thor of long legs, easy striding as a marathon runner, built for the distance. He is 13 1/2 years old and he is stone, cold deaf. I hunt him with caution, tending to him, fretting that he will get separated from me and not sight me and be lost and confused and scared. And knowing that when he is gone, when he is hidden by the curtain of brush and leaves that my heart will rise with concern and I will stand in the woods alone and, as he is, scared for not knowing.

On this day we hunt well. Thor keeps in sight. We flush two birds, but I see neither of them in the wall of green and yellow leaves that seems as if a mask on the woods.

I walk him to a place I know, a stand of birch trees that slopes up to a gentle fold in the land. I go there often with my dogs not because there are birds, but because it is a place of calm and tranquility and I feel better for being there. I never see birds in the place of the birch. I never feel a loss in that.

Thor sits in the sun with the birch trees’ chalky white trunks and their yellow leaves against the blue cathedral of sky. I lie prone in the grass with the camera and take his photo. In the photo Thor sits, head up and turned slightly as if he is seeing something behind the edge of the photo. He looks regal, handsome and powerful. It is only when you look close that you can see the white on his muzzle and around his eyes and know in that that he is aged. Look closer still and one can see the tarnished plating on the bell on his collar is abraded from the brush and the years and the miles.

 

We do not see another bird that day and the hunt ends thusly: my old dog and I, with my dog looking over the horizon as if he sees something that I cannot see with his golden eyes now clouded with age.

* * *

And then another day, another hunt: And Riika. Riika who three years ago was lame and achy after every hunt and in that November I said she would not hunt again. I said the same two years ago and I said it last year. Riika defies the odds. Riika, who has hunted with me for the past 15 years from when she was a six-month-old pup that would run wild with joy and run crazy with her hunter’s heart, run to the horizon and, eventually, back. Riika, who at six months could outhunt older dogs and who never, ever, quit.

She and I hunt. She is slow; she is overweight; and she too is stone deaf. We manage. Riika keeps track of me, keeps in eye contact. We hunt, my old girl and I. We walk the old trails that we have walked for over a decade now. In the early days they were prime country, chock-full of grouse and woodcock. It’s changed. All things change. Now the woods are past their prime, grown older and heavier and the grouse and woodcock are thin. We walk nonetheless, the two of us comfortable with the familiarity.

At an intersection of two trails, Riika goes ahead and turns down the old trail that we have always turned on. She remembers, year to year, where to go. She walks down the trail, then turns to make certain I am following. Then we hunt together.

We do not flush a bird. We hunt for less than an hour. And the hunt ends thusly: Two of us, walking into the memories of hunts past, with the Harvest Moon on the rise, doing what it is that we are meant to do. It is a very good hunt.

Early autumn ritual provides solitude, beauty and sometimes, ducks

The geese came in at sundown. A distant ker-honking; then closer, louder, imminent, as if an approaching storm on rising wind. Then geese in the sky, dark silhouettes moving purposefully. Everywhere the sound of their calls.

The sky showed rose at the horizon and the geese flew toward the sunset then banked, set wings as if an origami sculpture and gave up flight to gravity. As they lowered we lost sight of them; dark birds against the ink-black tree line. All that remained was goose call and dusky sky.

Then we could hear the sound of them as they landed on the water in the darkness.
More flocks came in; dozens at a time and then more and I said, “There must be over a hundred on the lake.”

Then the color bleached from the sky to the west and it was dark and it was quiet except for the sound of goose chatter.

We cooked burgers over charcoal and ate them with a side of heirloom tomatoes sliced thin, topped with mozzarella cheese and drizzled with oil and balsamic vinegar. Lingering heat from an 80-degree-plus day gave way grudgingly and we had the windows to the hunt shack open full. We ate dinner with a balmy breeze and the sound of geese in the night.

Sally left for home; I stayed for the night.

Out on the deck I listened to the geese that warm September night. There was the occasional sound, distant, of cars on highway. Other than that, silence, save for the geese. Silence and darkness and stars overhead.

I sat in the dusty old arm chair and read stories of long-ago hunts. The air in the shack was musty as if an attic or a basement. Air as that has substance as if weighted with memories and age and times now past.

After reading for an hour, I stood and walked to the deck. It was very dark and very still. Then in the blackness across the lake a crazy, wild sound rose as if a spirit: coyotes yipping and yelping and howling in the night. The geese went silent. The coyotes carried on, loud and spirited and alive with wildness. Then quiet. In the dark and silence I went back inside and turned off the lights.

It was warm the next morning in the dark hour before the dawn. I pushed the duck skiff out, paddled down the lake, tossed a dozen decoys, then paddled back to the blind. I sat in the calm of dawning, loaded the shotgun and waited. Most of hunting is waiting. You’d better be good with it.

The geese flew from the lake after sunrise; there had to be near 200. I hunted an hour and a half. I saw a couple dozen mallards, half that many wood ducks. I killed one duck, missed another. Then I packed up drove back to town and went to work.

Two nights later I was back again in the dark of night under a cloudy sky and steady wind. The temperature had dropped in late afternoon. There was the sound of wind in the tall trees, of leaves on leaves, branches on branches and sounds that had no discernible source and served to add mystery in the night. There was an occasional sound of goose, nervous ker-honks as if there was uneasiness in the birds. The coyotes did not sing that night.

The shack was still warm; I did not need a fire in the stove. I’d taken the blankets home and washed them and hung them to dry two days earlier and now I pulled them over me and smelled the freshness of air-dried laundry. Then I fell asleep and did not wake up until 5:30 a.m.

The wind was gusty. I made coffee and dressed. I set decoys in a different place, where I did not have a blind and so I knelt in the wet bog behind a screen of brush. I waited.

I killed a mallard at first light and at the sound of the shot the geese rose in startled flight and the sound of their wings and their calls carried across the lake. They lifted up, off the lake and above the trees and turned to ride the wind away from the lake. There were about 50 this morning. I wondered of the others, the ones from two days ago. Had they left the area and moved south?

There were fewer ducks on this day. I was okay with that. Sometimes I feel that there is too much keeping of score in our world today, of tallying up, in the field, birds seen and birds bagged. Years ago, maybe that was important to me. No more. Now I’d rather sit and take what I can and if that is an empty game bag at the end of the hunt, it is not a measure of failure.

I watched geese in flight that day, high over the trees, skeins of them, all high and all heading south. The season was changing. The geese were moving. I killed one more duck and then called it a day. It was 9 a.m. in late September. I had had a very good morning.

I lay the ducks on the sidewalk at home and the dogs came to inspect them, breathing in the rich scent. Riika picked one up and turned to me, life sparking in her aging eyes. I told her that some day we would hunt again.

The dogs, they don’t care if I get one duck or a dozen or none at all. For them all that matters is the hunt. It is part of their heart and soul. It quickens their heart. Perhaps that is what we, the dogs and I, share as much as anything.

I hung the ducks. Then the dogs and I went inside. We would hunt together another day.

Finding satisfaction in the effort put forth

The grass was heavy with dew in the half-light before dawn. The tent fly sagged, sodden, and the bicycles were dimpled with droplets. We wore high rubber boots as we walked across the field, kicking water off the wet grass. The sky to the east was showing light. There was the feeling of autumn in the air.

It was chilly, mid 30s, and I’d not slept well in the lowering temperatures. Now I walked, bleary-eyed, to the big tent and breakfast and hot coffee. There was a small-town coffee roaster from central Wisconsin there. He’d named his coffee brand after his grandmother, Ruby: Ruby Coffee Roasters. He offered fresh-brewed coffee and we talked of his grandmother who lives in Gleason. His coffee was very good. Fortified more by the coffee than the breakfast we were ready for the day.

“There were no adrenaline-fueled speed junkies driven by fast times. This was laid back, a celebration of riding culture.”

The sun broke the tree line and the world came alive with early morning light; the dew reflected as if sparks of light had fallen to ground. There were dozens of tents and hundreds of bicycles and now people, walking slowly, quietly, in the early morning light.

In my world I see bicycling as a solitary pursuit, done when I want to do it, at a pace I enjoy, on a route that I choose. I rarely ride with others. Yet were I to call up a handful of favorite rides one of them would be a group ride. A dozen years past. We were staying in Bend, Ore. and a cycling shop sponsored a ride for a few dozen employees and friends. I got an invite with a dear friend. We loaded bikes in his pickup and drove to Crater Lake. The group would ride the road that circled the lake.


The few dozen cyclists went their own ways and we soon came down to a few riders, my friend, a couple more. Old guys. Riding steady. We rode into the thin air under blazing July sun past remnant patches of snow. I don’t know how long it was; 25 miles, maybe more. I don’t know how long it took us; time had no importance. I just know it was a ride rare and wonderful.

The next day I watched the Tour de France on Bastille Day and in the afternoon Sally and I got married. Sally, to this day, refers to the ride as my bachelor party.

This day, a group ride. We were at the Salsa Bike Camp, put on by Salsa bicycles, delivering a mix of rides and camaraderie as a few hundred riders descended on a field just outside of Cable. This was no race camp. There were no adrenaline-fueled speed junkies driven by fast times. This was laid back, a celebration of riding culture.

Sally went off on her own for a fly fishing workshop to refine basic casting technique. She loaded fishing tackle, rods and waders into a backpack and bicycled a few miles to ply the area waters. The last I saw her was as she pedaled past where I stood with another group waiting for our ride.

Our ride was 70 miles on mostly gravel roads. There were 14 of us. We loaded bikes in a van, riders in a bus and drove to Cable. There we posed for a photo in the warming sunshine and, at 10 a.m., set out.

It seemed, back in June when we registered, a simple task to prepare. Ride the bike consistently, increase the distance gradually, let things go as they would and, come September, be ready to go 70 miles. Piece of cake.

You know the summer we had. All those days of rain and cool? Those miles I’d planned? Didn’t happen.
I rode, don’t get me wrong. A 35-mile loop; a longer one at 42 miles. I rode those. But not often enough. A week prior to the ride I planned a longer one, a confidence builder. I rode 60 miles.

I’ve never cramped up so bad in my life! My legs locked up in knots and I could not walk for hours after the ride. Confidence builder? Not quite.

So it was with some trepidation that I mounted the bike Saturday, 70 miles ahead of me. We rode 25 miles or so at a steady pace, visiting among ourselves. It was pleasant as group rides can be. We stopped at a diner for snacks and I ordered a sandwich. Then we got back on the bikes.

I do not ride well on a full stomach and now I had a full stomach. My legs were tight and weak; I broke a hard sweat. It is not that I should know better, it is that I do know better. I lagged and I struggled. I cursed myself for my stupidity.

It got better over the miles. I recovered some. I held my own. I rode, chatted with other riders. It was a group ride and it was a good time.

There is a truth to all long distance sports: You reap what you sow. If you do not do the miles in training you will not have the legs when you need them. I’d not done the miles. Now I paid the price.

It was not an easy route. The old fire lanes undulated over the Wisconsin backwoods and my mind went to the Birkebeiner, run nearby. The same rolling countryside, the easy parts and the difficult parts. The hills late in the event that sap what energy you have remaining. This ride, this had all that. It was a good, hard, honest effort.

I was not a picture of grace and strength on the final hills over the last few miles, but I pushed on. And in that, in the not quitting, I took some satisfaction. That, in the end, is what it is all about: Taking satisfaction in what one does. That, in the end, is what unites solo rides and group rides. In that satisfaction lies the common ground.

Weight, strength and wonder

I live in a state of wonderment of things of seemingly inconsequential weight and mass that bear strength above expectations. I see objects built wafer thin and light and in some cases put under tension that would seem to rip them apart; but no, they hold together. I heft an old violin; slivers of wood glued and shaped and strings pulled taut; one would think the stress would fracture the wood. Then rosined bow meets strings, pauses, draws; music rises.

I lift a bicycle wheel, silver rim gleams like a circle spun around the sun. Spokes like spider web strands; hold one between two hands, bend it; it has no strength. But weave the spokes into a sun web, turn them tight, tighter; hub and spokes and rim become wheel. Wheel takes on a strength beyond its weight and I ride the bike and the wheels, ride them for miles over rough road and they do not fail.

“I have done this for years, have held up the lightweight elements that become part of my life and wondered at them; so light, so strong, so marvelous.”

I marvel over fly rods; long and willowy and seemingly too light to hold force but they cast the fly and wear down the fish. I ski for miles on skis so light and flexible that they would seem destined to fail under my weight. They hold together and they bear my weight and such strength as I can bring and they do it for season after season. I paddle in the Boundary Waters with a paddle of carbon fiber that seems at once incongruous in the wilds and at the same time a godsend, seemingly weightless but stiff and unyielding to the cool waters.

I have done this for years, have held up the lightweight elements that become part of my life and wondered at them; so light, so strong, so marvelous.

I held the violin in hand when I was in sixth grade. It was my grandfathers. I was in music class. It would be tempting to say I played badly but that would suggest that I could play at all. I may have been the worst violinist in modern times. I simply had no talent. But I remember holding that violin firm under my chin and bringing bow to string and sound, not music, not melody, simply sound coming forth. It was a wonderful sound even if it had no formal structure to it. It simply rose into the air as if a balloon released from a child and drifting high and free.

But the violin was so light and it had so much strength and that has stayed with me. The lightness and the power and the sound it could bring against all odds that would suggest it would collapse under that tension.

The bicycle wheels and the skis, they came early to my life and have stayed a constant; lightweight, under pressure and tension and yet delivering back to me so much. One would think, in an objective light, that they would fail. They are, after all, so light in heft. They seem to defy all we know about such things and in that, the defiance of the norm, have more special meaning.
And canoes. Yes, canoes. But not all canoes. There are some of bulbous lines and heavy build. There are some of aluminum, wonderful in their own way but heavy and loud. And then there are the lightweight canoes of trim lines that just look right even when standing still. Canoes that when you lift them have that “wow” feel of lightness.

Last week, a single canoe. We had driven to Minnesota to the place they build canoes, talked to the men who designed it and built it, who coax canoes to life from static plans on paper to canoes sleek and of comely lines. And light of weight. And strong beyond that weight. Northstar canoes.
The canoe was a present for Sally and they’d trimmed the canoe with ribbons and candles and she stood in the workroom with the scent of epoxy in the air and rain falling outside and a smile on her face. Now, a week later, we were on the water.

To lift a lightweight canoe is to know what I have coveted all my life; lightness with strength beyond what one would expect. Lift the canoe; carry it to the water, for a canoe of any weight is not a creature of the land. Set it in the water, gently, not out of concern for damage but out of respect. Then ease onto the seats, hold paddle at the ready. Drop paddle to water, begin the dance of the paddle; the canoe comes to life.

We paddled the canoe on a backwoods lake in the county forest under a late summer breeze. Water lilies shone white and bright under the sun and if you looked at the lilies and squinted your eyes and let your imagination run you might think that the lilies looked like stars in a dark night.
The canoe weighs a shade over 40 pounds and held the two of us with room and capacity for gear. The canoe came to speed easy and we paddled with joy. I thought that afternoon of violins and bicycle wheels and skis and, yes, canoes, of that theme in my life of things both light of weight and strong and how they have woven through my life.

Thought also that it is really not just about the weight and the strength that at times seem so contradictory when one is coupled with the other. But there is the third element and that is the feeling of wonder that weaves like a strand of DNA along with physical strength and weight and bonds it all together as one.

That wonder, that is at the heart of it all. The feeling of wonder adds emotion to the blend and static objects come alive, breathed life by our sense of wonder, which, of course, is weightless and immeasurably strong.

Surviving the dog days of summer

If time is of a river then summer is when the waters run slow; no urgency in the speed of days as the river flows deep and moody. Summer days are of a leisurely pace. Come autumn the river of time picks up speed again; days are as riffles and then rapids as autumn hastens toward gray November. For now, August, and time and days seem to move at a different pace.

Odds are that August will bring heat; history suggests this will be true. Temperatures will rise; days will seem to slow; time will last forever it will seem. August; time of heat and somnambulant days. Dog days.

My dogs live the dog days in the rising sun of the waning summer. Fenway is most comfortable; Thor less so; Riika not at all. Fenway will lie in the sun stretched out as if a bather on a beach, rolling over occasionally as if to even out his tan. Thor sleeps in the heat but then it gets to him and he rises to plod to shade. Riika has nothing to do with it. She goes out, feels the heat, goes back to the door and barks; she wants in.

Riika has never done well in the heat. Come autumn and the hunt and I hold her back on days when summer heat lingers into September and, more often of late, into October. The heat sends her to misery and she looks at me with sad eyes. I leave her at home on those days.

For the past 15 years we have hunted the autumn woods and for past two, maybe three years I have come home on a day in November and thought, this is the last time she will hunt. The years have caught up with her. She is slow moving and deaf as a stone.

We hunted an afternoon last November in stands of young popple under a cool blue sky. She put up three birds; I missed them all. That has been our tradition; she finds birds, I miss them on the wing. We have adjusted. She seems not to care; I pretend not to. But we hunt. She has slowed down as the days of August slow. Still, the body may be older and slower but the desire remains.

Thor, ol’ Thor, he never had that desire, not like Riika has. But he loved to hunt just the same. Long legged and with a goofy look about him he had the skills; the nose and the build to go long distance in the woods. But he never had the hot desire that burned in Riika’s soul.

But Thor lost his hearing as well and in the thick woods he has not adapted as has Riika. I see him look for me but not see me. Then he moves farther away and I often lose sight of him and in the absence of knowing where he is feel a fear in my gut. It is not a relaxing hunt for all that.

Then there is Fenway, 18 pounds of Boston terrier with an 88-pound attitude. Fenway, who owns the backyard as his kingdom and woe be unto any other beast that may venture there. Fenway the sweet dog who in his fast beating Boston heart is a hunter of a peer with the big dogs. Fenway who, this summer has killed a full grown rabbit (he outran it and caught it); dispatched two voles (they’d burrowed deep in to the dirt; he scented them and dug them up); and killed two chipmunks (he chases them with abandon nearly every day).

Fenway loves the dog days; he is a summer dog at heart. He lies in the direct sun in the morning as if in his morning bath. He sleeps in it during the heat of the day only seeking shade only when the heat builds to uncomfortable levels.

This is the time of the dog days for us, for the two old dogs and the one that, at four, we still call the puppy. Summertime and the living is easy.

Summertime and the river of life moves slowly for us and the dogs alike.

Outside darkness comes. The slow-moving day comes to an end. The heat of the day begins to fade away and the night of the dog days is on us.

The fullness and emptiness of wilderness

We paddled the length of Clark Lake under a clear blue sky, aided by a trailing breeze.

Three of us in two canoes; a tandem and a solo, all riding steady under a full load of camp gear. There were no other boats on the water. Paddles rose and fell in a metronomic cadence. The red canoes rode steady on the gentle swells.

We were in the Sylvania Wilderness Area, 18,000-plus acres on the north side of the Wisconsin-Michigan border 60 miles from home. It felt as if we were a lot farther away.

We paddled to the far end of Clark, portaged canoes and gear a third of a mile to Crooked Lake, reloaded the canoes and pushed off. Eagles and osprey soared; loons chased across the water. In the distance one canoe crossed against the far shore and then was gone.

Lakes have personalities; to meet one for the first time is to initially be tentative, take it all in slowly. Crooked Lake was true to its name, a meandering lake that seemed larger than its nearly 600 acres. Portions of Crooked paddled more like a river than a lake, narrowing down, turning the corner, each new bend opening up a new horizon, a new vista. It was enthralling.

“There was solitude and there was time for reflection and there was the ease into sweet relaxation.”

At the far northwest corner of the lake is the portage trail to High Lake. We landed, portaged.
Then across High Lake (90 feet deep at its deepest), Kerr Lake (a pothole, merely 8 acres) and finally to West Bear Lake. Four portages from the start and at each one the mosquitoes seemed worse than the others. There was only one camp site on West Bear; we had it reserved.

If lakes have personalities, so do campsites. The site named Coyote on West Bear Lake was centered on a point under the high arches of maple and pine. We viewed it first glance with some trepidation: Would the heavy forest hold mosquitoes? We unloaded the canoes. Sally and Kerry set tents and a mosquito net; I went for firewood. We unpacked cooking gear, unrolled sleeping pads and bags, set up small camp chairs.

A thin breeze blew across the point and helped keep the mosquitoes at bay.

I started a campfire and when the bigger pieces of wood burned down we cooked tenderloin steaks over the coals. Shadows grew longer; sun reached the horizon. Then dusk and darkness and the coals glowed red and the dark of night surround us like a blanket. Overhead, the first stars. We walked to the far end of the point and looked out at the western sky and the myriad of stars. The Big Dipper held its ground to the north. A falling star blazed then burned out.

Back at the campsite; marshmallows over the embers; loon call in the dark. Then silence. We may as well have been at the end of the earth.

By daybreak our lives had slowed down. We had coffee, bacon and eggs, watched the sun dapple the tops of the trees then rise higher and bring light and heat. Sally and Kerry took the canoe and fished the far shore. I wandered with the camera, found a profusion of whitish, ghostly Indian pipe plants, the odd plant that lacks chlorophyll. They stood pale in the rich forest floor. I lay prone on the ground in dry leaf and pine needles with camera; the plants stand only 3 or 4 inches tall, one has to get to their level.

We did very little. Visions of taking the canoes to nearby lakes dissipated as morning fog burned off; it sounded like too much work. The world slowed. The world narrowed; all that remained was the lake and the sky and the woods. There was no more. All else faded away. There was the sound of the wind in the trees. There was the occasional bird song. There was nothing else.
And in that absence was everything.

If wilderness is a fullness, it is also an emptiness. Empty of human noise and bustle. Empty of phones and computers, too often the twin banes of modern life. Empty of stress and pressure and all that we accept as normal until it is gone. On West Bear Lake on a July afternoon the decisions are simple; fish or not fish, hike or not, lie in the hammock and feel the summer breeze.

There was solitude and there was time for reflection and there was the ease into sweet relaxation. In the two days we camped on the lake we did not see another individual. Nor did we feel poorer for that. For those two days the world as we knew it was campfire and tent; lake and canoe; woods and water and sky. All this. Nothing more. And nothing more needed.

On the afternoon of the second day I found a downed cedar tree a mile from camp, cut it to lengths, hauled it to the lake shore, paddled the canoe over and brought it to camp. I sawed it into short bolts, split a few of them; sweet, tangy scent of cedar in the air. In the time of sundown I started a fire, added the cedar, took in the smell of the cedar in the night air. The fire burned bright and hot and fast.

We sat next to the fire in the early darkness. There was no need to talk. Loon called. Nothing more.
Next morning we broke camp, loaded canoes and paddled out; one portage, another. Sun brought heat and on the High Lake landing Sally said, “Let’s swim” and the three of us swam in the cool waters under the July sun. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that can refresh one as well as a swim in cool water.

Another portage, another hour under paddle. Then the boat landing. Canoes ran up on sand; stilled. The trip was over.

We loaded the truck, headed for blacktop.

Adventure is defined by those who enjoy it

There are places where gravel is loose and deep and swallows the bike tire as shadow pulls light into darkness; there and then gone. The road is old; packed gravel and dirt and it’s been there for who knows how long, a relic of the logging days long past. The road remains even as the big trees do not. Now the road is mixed shadow and light and on this dry day the dust rises as memories.
In open areas the blue sky is a dome overhead. Where the trees grow there is shadow and an arched tunnel of green over the dirt and gravel firelane. It is July Fourth, mid afternoon. The heat is rising.

I’d worked until 1 p.m., walked home, told Sally that I was going for a bike ride.

“How long?”

“Couple and-a-half, maybe three hours.”

“Make sure you take enough water.”

I filled two water bottles for the bike and grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator and put it in the handlebar bag. Then I rolled the bike out of the yard and started to ride.

I was out of town in five minutes into a stiff southerly wind. Traffic was light. I rode 20 minutes on blacktop then made a hard right turn onto gravel. The first mile was in the open; I could feel the sun on my arms and back. Then into the trees and I rode in dappled light in a canopy of summertime green which is a rich and lush shade of green, different completely from the green of springtime.

I’ve ridden blacktop roads all my life, from kid on a single speed to adulthood on bikes lighter and modern but united in the one thing that counts over all else: They were all a joy to ride. Now I ride the mix of blacktop and gravel.

I like the solitude of gravel roads. I like the places they deliver me up to. I like the intimacy of roads being close to the trees, the privacy of roads less traveled. I love the twists and turns and rises and falls, the jazz-like rhythm of old roads.

I like the demands of the dirt roads, the need for constant focus for potholes and ruts, of washouts and divots. I like the challenge of it all. It is different from blacktop. Not better, not worse, just different.

I ride for an hour on the gravel; I do not see another soul. At the outer edge of the long orbit I am riding I take a section of blacktop, two, maybe three miles, then turn back into the woods on gravel lanes.

The temperature is rising to 85 degrees. I keep drinking water which is what one must do in times of heat. I finish one of the bottles on the bike and pull off next to a lake. I take the bottle from the handlebar bag, have a long drink and then use it to refill the bottle on the bike.

The sun is high and the lake is very blue. It is not a large lake, simply one of the hundreds of small lakes scattered across the countryside as if blown like blue leaves off a giant tree that landed where they may. It has a name but the name has no importance. There is nobody on the lake. There are lakes on this day that are alive with activity and sound and motion. This is not one of them.

I stand in the sun and the heat. My back is achy from the bone jarring potholes on the gravel road.

I stretch out best I can. It is a small price to pay for the ride. Then I get on the bike again.

A bicycle ride is like a series of snapshots taken from the saddle; one never has time for a full view of things. I see flashes of blue/violet irises in the marshy areas; rich green moss on the low lands; a pair of fawns that run across the road and bound into the green woods; a turkey and a grouse; wood lands that seem to go on forever. There are images, momentary clicks of a camera shutter: a turtle in the dust; a pileated woodpecker in flight; thick roots of pine embracing rock, as if growing from the stone; small flowers, large trees; and always the blurred greenery of Wisconsin woods.

I do not question why I ride: I ride because it is summertime. No reason more than that; no reason less. I ride because on a hot summer day it is what I do. I ride because it is part of who I am, forged in the heat of a summer day decades past and now solid and unyielding as will power and desire.

I ride with the thought of the title of this column in mind: Outdoor Adventure. And I think there is hardly adventure in this. There is, really, adventure in very little of what we do these days. I know a man who last week took his one person canoe into Canada for a month and when I looked at the map to find where he was going there was very little information.That is an adventure. An afternoon bike ride is not.

Sometimes the best adventure is one that does not happen. Sometimes the best we can do is simply spend time outdoors doing what one does. One is foolish to wish for more.

I ride back into town on blacktop. There is a sharp boom; fireworks. A shroud of smoke in the air where it exploded.

I coast into the driveway; the dogs run to the gate.Sally asks, “How did it go?” and I tell her it went well. In the distance is the snap of fireworks. Independence Day. I sit in a chair in the yard, put my feet up and close my eyes to the sun of the July day. All is good.

Wild Beauty

There is a splash of blue where I do not expect to see blue. It is not the color of the sky; not the color of water which, of course, is usually the color of sky; a glint of blue-violet in the mass of greenery. Then gone. I turn my head; all I see is green leaf. Then it is behind me.

I am riding the bike on old fire lanes. To ride is to relax but it is not to be without focus. I am focused on the gravel ahead, the rock and the divots, the puddles and the potholes. The forest to the side is mostly a blur of green; there is very little definition to it, just the mottled green and gray and browns. It is a good growing season what with all the rain. Then that flash of blue. There; then not.

The road is muddy in places. I ride on, steady pace; can feel my heart beat. My legs ache and I am glad for that; I want to push a bit and leg ache is the barometer for effort.

The road winds and rises and falls. Then ahead alien color; orange. A sign: Road Closed. I slow and ride to the sign and coast past it. The road ahead is washed out, rutted and gutted where the rain has run off with speed and volume and washed away portions of the road. I stop.

One hundred yards ahead the road looks passable. I stand, think it over and then lift the bike off the gravel and into the woods and push it through fern and mud.

The mosquitoes come down in clouds! They land on forehead and forearms, legs and back; I breathe them in. I push the bike faster. Both of my hands are holding the bike; I cannot swat the bugs. They dig in. I rush as best I can.

I regain the road, swing a leg over the bar, click into one pedal and push off; engage the other pedal as I go. I am covered with mosquitoes but I pedal hard and find a speed and rhythm and only then do I hammer away at the bugs.

I ride on, bug bites and all. I ride the 20 miles that remain between me and home. All the time in the back of my mind is the glimmer of blue I saw miles behind.

The next day I drive back to where I’d seen the blue. I park the truck, spray myself down with bug repellent, lift camera and close the truck door. The bugs are bad again. I walk down the road and into the woods. The woods are heavy with humidity, dark underfoot, rich green overhead. I walk 100 yards then cut to my right.

Ahead of me the woods open up over a boggy area perhaps a city block in size. The open area is filled with wild iris flowers, hundreds of them. That is the blue I’d seen from the bicycle; that is what I’d caught the glimpse of as I’d ridden past. A bog-full of iris.

I see iris often, along the wet areas, along lake shores, tucked into marshy areas that I kayak or canoe past. They stand, in those places, in small clusters; a handful of plants, a dozen, or just a few. But I’ve seen places, only a few, where they grow in profusion, dozens and dozens and hundreds and hundreds. Now I’d found another. I’d never known it was there.

The bog beneath my feet is soft and mossy, vivid green. It gives as I walk across it; in some places there is standing water. It is very soft underfoot and the greens are unique and rare. Everywhere there are irises.

They stand tall over long, pointed leaves and the flowers are blue and blue-violet and all shades and hues of those colors. It is very quiet and it is very beautiful and it is a very special place.

I kneel in places, camera on tripod, looking for a photo, lining the flowers up in the morning sun, looking for the right light and the right angle. When I kneel I push the moss down and my knee is in water and in a short time my pants legs are soaked. It does not matter to me. I take a lot of photos. I want to hold in a photo what I see in that bog; the iris flowers in bloom on an early summer day.

After a time I give it up as a fool’s errand; there is no manner in which to take it all in. A camera cannot capture it. I simply stand and look.
I stand in the bog on the moss like I am standing in a garden or a cathedral where the light

comes through stained glass and all is beautiful and peaceful. I stand in the garden of the irises with the high arching dome of summer sky overhead and I do nothing more than take it all in.

After a while I walk slowly along the edges of the marsh where bog meets woodland and sun is lost to the shadow of the trees. Everywhere there are irises. Everywhere, beauty.

Two weeks ago I stood on the shore of big water on the Canadian border and looked to the distant horizon and the endless sky of the Boundary Waters and in that was taken by beauty expansive and wild and bold. Now I stand on a sunny June day a handful of miles from home in the county forest and a bog the size of my neighborhood. I hold a flower smaller than my hand. I find beauty in equal measure.

In wild things and wild places we find our peace. And beauty; beauty is where one finds it. In the blue of lakes large and wild or in a flower that glows as if lit with a blue fire.

The awe-inspiring reality that is the BWCA

There was no reason to believe that the rest of the world existed. There was no manner in which to judge if we were the only ones left alive on the planet. There was nothing, nothing except everything: The big lake and the overarching sky and the boundless woods, the wind and the crystal air and endless time.

To the south, the sound of stream running over rock. West, the setting sun. North, an expanse of lake and on the horizon, Canada. Nowhere did we see another person. No human sound rose into the evening air. No smoke from campfire smudged the sky. No contrails or planes in flight. Sound of geese; sound of wave on shore. Nothing else. We were alone.

We had paddled that day from Lower Basswood Falls, north on Crooked Lake, all the time nudging up against the underbelly of the Canadian border. We crossed Wednesday Bay, Thursday Bay and turned south on Friday Bay.

“At sundown I start a campfire just because it seems the right thing to do. The cedar burns hot and fast and the color of the coals is the color of the sunset.”

We stopped mid afternoon, tired. A decision: Push on or pull up for the night. We leaned over the map to see what lay ahead. Three portages and one was a beast, nearly a mile long. We talked it over, Sally and I, then we turned the canoe toward shore. We’d stay the night.

We made camp on a west-facing spit of land with the breeze in our faces. That would help keep the bugs at bay. I cut firewood and found a bonanza; dry cedar! Perfect. Sally set up the tent, unloaded cookware. I split wood and stacked it.

We did not see another soul that afternoon and evening. We were alone in the vastness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

We had put in the previous morning under a rising sun on the last day of May. We were a day late; circumstances, as they say, beyond our control. We had no clear idea of a route, just two possibles: We’d paddle north for a day and then turn west in a longer loop or to the east for a shorter one. It would all depend on how we felt after the first day.

We started late, 11 a.m., and pushed hard for 11 miles and 7 portages. I’d packed the wrong portage yoke for the canoe and my shoulders ached from the unbalanced load. The portage trails were rocky on the high places, mucky in the low.

We got to Lower Basswood Falls at 5:30 p.m. and set up camp downstream from the maelstrom of the falls. I gathered wood, damp and soft; it was all that I could find. We cooked steak over a weak fire, ate dinner as the shadows grew longer. A loon swam close to shore near the canoe. We could see white survey stakes that marked the border between the United States and Canada. In the dark of night a loon called.

The next day dawned clear and mild. We made coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon. Loaded the canoe and pushed off. A mile north of the campsite we came to the Native American pictographs painted on the steep rock cliff that rises from the waters, 100 feet high.

The pictographs are the color of rusted iron. Nobody knows their exact age; hundreds of years for certain. We drifted close, looking up, for the pictographs are higher than one would expect (which begs the question: How did they paint them, given that they are far higher than the water line?). It was calm and quiet and we looked in wonder at the images; moose, pelican. To view the pictographs is to feel a connection with times long past, with peoples who lived and paddled and endured the winters in this wild land. We paddled back, drifted past the pictographs one more time. Then we paddled on, to the north.

By afternoon the wind had come up and we pushed hard into it, across the upper ends of Wednesday Bay and then Thursday Bay. We stopped for lunch, checked the maps and then paddled into the rising wind and on to Friday Bay. There were whitecaps on the lake, scattered but very strong and we worked hard into the wind to the far shore then turned south and made camp. It was mid afternoon and we were done for the day.

And there in that camp we were alone. It was if nobody else existed. There was only the wide and wild expanse of the Boundary Waters.

I find the dry cedar and stack it. I wander off with camera in hand seeing what I can see. We set up camp chairs and sit in the afternoon sun. We fish with no success. I tell Sally, “If we don’t catch dinner by 6:00 it’s mac and cheese.” We do not get a bite.

We cook over a small camp stove, the cedar lies unused. We eat dinner as evening falls and the wind drops. It is very quiet and very peaceful and we would not trade places with anyone.

At sundown I start a campfire just because it seems the right thing to do. The cedar burns hot and fast and the color of the coals is the color of the sunset. Then the sun drops below the tree line and darkness falls and all that is left is a smudge of pale light in the western sky and the glow of embers in the fire. Then the faint light in the west is gone as if a curtain has dropped. There is the sweet scent of cedar smoke. Sally goes to the tent for the night. I pour Scotch into a metal cup and sit in the dark. I sit for a long time in the night next to the waning embers as they fade to dull copper color then to black. I think to myself, “The real world seems so far away.”

Then think, “Or is this the real world?”

I do not find the answer.

American sacrifice is memorialized on the Normandy coast of France

The sand beach seems to run forever. Waves roll in from the north; reach over the sand and then retreat. The sky to the east is burdened with heavy cloud and the sun on this morning barely seeps through. To the west the land rises in steep cliff. Inland, where the sand gives over to grass and tree, high bluffs swell and block the way south.

The sand is firm beneath my feet. The air is cool and fresh. In the sand at my feet lies a single, long-stemmed yellow rose. The rose is dusted with sand and the yellow is aged. It lies, simple and unadorned, its beauty and vitality faded.

I lift my eyes from the rose and see a stark metal sculpture rising from the sand. Stainless steel forms, over a dozen of them, lift from the beach as if seeking flight. It shines bright in the weak sun.

We are on Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France. The metal work is a memorial to the American soldiers who came ashore on June 6, 1944.

“I stand at the water’s edge and squint my eyes and try to imagine it all. But I cannot.”

I stand on the sands of Omaha Beach and the waves come in behind me and I look to the south and see the bluffs that rise, dark in shadow on this day. The bluffs that were studded with German guns that raked the water’s edge when the American kids waded the surf to the sands of Omaha Beach.

And died; so many.

There is an iconic photograph of that dawn, taken from a landing craft. Black and white; slightly out of focus. In the photo you can see America soldiers in the foreground; then the water and beach. The horizon is dark with shadow and fog where the German fortifications were dug in. I stand at the water’s edge and squint my eyes and try to imagine it all.

But I cannot.

They rolled the dice on that day in June all those years ago, threw everything they had on the razor’s edge of sand along the north of France. It was all or nothing. There was no way to turn back. That day would turn the tide of the war. Or fail.
On that dawning the Americans came ashore and the German guns tore the air and the American soldiers died on Omaha Beach.

I walk the beach where the yellow rose lies, torn from a bouquet by the onshore winds. I walk in the shadow of the memorial to those that died that day. I walk, attempting to imagine what it was like and knowing there was no way I ever could.

There are houses now on the strip of land between the sand and the bluffs and nearby, a small restaurant. We stop for lunch.

There is music playing in the kitchen and I hear a faint harmonica riff drifting like the wind over the sand. I strain to make out the song. It is an obscure Springsteen song, “This Hard Land,” and I can hear bits and pieces of it and my memory fills in the words that I cannot hear. This hard land; it seems appropriate.

We have fresh seafood and I have a salad with foie gras. We order some local hard cider (they pronounce it see-der and I like that better). The restaurant fills slowly. I listen to the talk, the voices, the languages: Americans to our left, British at the small table, Germans in the corner. The Springsteen song ends. The chatter of the diners rises. Outside through the large windows we can see the memorial on Omaha Beach.

I have an unsettling feeling; the diner is built on blood-stained sands where on the June morning the young Americans came on shore under heavy fire and died on the beach and there seems something inherently wrong about a restaurant there. Outside a group of school children arrive on bicycles and run laughing on the beach in the shadows of the memorial. They run like spring colts in the sea air and their voices and laughter are like the cries the seabirds in flight.
We have a pleasant lunch.

In the afternoon we drive away from the beach, up to the bluffs and on narrow country roads that twist and turn like a small stream through the farmlands. At the end of the road is the American Cemetery.

We walk from the visitor center and ahead of us we can see the sea that meets the horizon. We stroll the pathway and then turn left and up a rise and then we are in the cemetery. And I cannot move.

I stand there and look out at a field of white crosses, row after row after row. The sun has come out and the white crosses gleam in the light, stark and pure against the rich green grass under the blue sky. There are over 9,000 Americans buried here. Nine-thousand white crosses. Nine-thousand lives given.

I walk among the forest of crosses. Most bear a name, a state, a date of death. Some read simply, “Known But To God.” And one does not know which is sadder; knowing or not knowing.

It is a silent place. It is a place of reverence. It is a place of sadness and joy both.

We leave the cemetery and drive back toward the sands of Omaha Beach. The war memorial shines bright and the ocean swells glisten. We walk again on the sands of the beach, over the fallen yellow rose. The sound of the surf is constant.

White sea birds lift from the beach and wheel and cry and circle over the memorial. They drift inland, over the sands of Omaha Beach, over the houses and the restaurant, over the bluffs on the high ground. The birds disappear in the direction of the American Cemetery and soar high in the spring sky, white birds against the blue sky over the pure white crosses of the men that died.

Paris. Again.

There are stories and then there are stories. There are stories that are neat and tidy like a gift, wrapped and tied off in ribbons. Happy Birthday. Merry Christmas. Stories like that. And then there are stories that seem simple and complete but in time unravel like a tightly tied running shoe lace that comes undone.

There are stories that you build tight and solid like Lego blocks; the parts fit snug and at the end stand firm. Other stories look the same but then a flaw, a gap and a story that of a sudden is no longer complete.

I wrote a story two weeks ago about a runner in Paris, about his near death and about two women who came from the pack of runners and saved him. Two anonymous women doing CPR on an anonymous man on a warm spring day along the Seine River. It was a story about a man dying and then, miracle! Not dying.

Death and dying and young men lost were on my mind. We’d visited Omaha Beach days before and the American Cemetery where 9,000 Americans lie under white crosses on the high ground over the beaches of D-Day. Maybe that was in my mind under the high sun on a Paris morning where a young runner in a white shirt lay near death. It was Palm Sunday; perhaps that was in the mix of thoughts that day with that man who lay dying.

 “What are the odds? A runner in Paris; my article in a Wisconsin newspaper; two women in New Zealand.”   -Mitch Mode

There were loose parts in that story: Who was the runner? Who were the women? What became of him? But overall it was tidy enough; sometimes answers are elusive even as questions are rock solid.

I sent the piece to the paper; they ran it on Sunday. I had a few people comment on it. Then it was over and done with.

Until it wasn’t.

Until a week or so later I got an odd request on Facebook Messenger, a friend request from a name that meant nothing to me. This was the day that Google got hacked and the web was buzzing with warnings about not clicking on things that seemed familiar let alone things that seemed suspicious.

Here was a request from a name I’d never heard next to the box that read: “Accept”.

I looked at it for a while, kicked it around, hesitated. Then moved the cursor arrow over the box and clicked: Accept.

A message: Was I the one who’d written the story about the runner in Paris and the women who did CPR to save him? The neat story, the tidy story, the one with a beginning and a middle and an end. That story. The one that was complete as it stood.

I wrote back: Yes.

And the story that was complete became something else.

The woman, Robyn, who wrote me had her own story to tell, the story of her best friend who was running the Paris Marathon and saw a runner down and stopped and performed CPR until his heart started. She did this without fanfare. Then she continued on her way and finished the race.

She got home and told Robyn about it, said it was not a big deal, didn’t want any interviews, no attention. She’s a nurse; said she was just doing her job. And I thought, Just doing her job? Tell that to the guy on the ground looking up at the blue Paris sky as it goes black and the world fades away.

Robyn’s friend was one of the women who I’d seen. She messaged me, her friend, and told me her story.

Her name is Mary. She’d been having a difficult race. Two bad knees, slow time. Thought about dropping out. Saw the guy on the ground and worked on him. She’s a hospice nurse; she’d done CPR before. The other woman was an anesthetist from the UK. They saved the guy.

He was a young man, looked late 20s, maybe 30, from Japan. Each runner has a number and on the number is their first name and their country. His name started with K. That’s as much as she knew.

Oh, and he wore a wedding ring.

That last part really bothered Mary. Was his wife waiting at the end of the race? Was she watching along the course, hoping to cheer him on? When you run distance your mind sometimes in goes strange directions. And the wedding band, that haunted Mary.

She finished the race. And she wondered: What happened to the man?

She got home and told Robyn about it and Robyn started looking online and came across my story and wrote me. From her home. In New Zealand.

I read all this and thought: What are the odds? A runner in Paris; my article in a Wisconsin newspaper; two women in New Zealand.

I wrote back and we, all three of us, started to search. We looked for news stories that might have mentioned the death of a runner. Nothing. That was the good news; he’d not died afterwards. We searched for injury reports. Nothing. I found a passing mention of him in a runners’ online forum in the UK. The writer had run past the downed man, saw the two women doing CPR, wondered what happened. Nobody knew.

I checked newsletters from Japanese running clubs. I woke in the middle of the night with new ideas and chased them down in the light of day.

It’s not happened. We have not found the answer. We’ve not found a Japanese runner with a first name starting with K who nearly died in the Paris Marathon.

We keep looking. But the story that looked neat and tidy now has loose threads, unanswered questions. Some stories are like that you know. They start out solid but then the end frays like a braided rope come undone and you are left in the dark of night with questions and no answers and a story without an end.

A spring day in Paris…

We took the train to Paris from the Normandy coast. It took two hours. The countryside looked like southern Wisconsin coming to season; spring green, flowers and trees in blossom. It was an easy train ride.

Paris was busy on Sunday morning under a sunny sky and rising temperatures. We took the Metro from the train station to the stop nearest our hotel and walked from there. The streets were crowded.

We walked south to the Seine River then turned on the sidewalk that paralleled the river. The sidewalk and street are well above the level of the water and midway between river and street was a one lane roadway along the river. It provides a pleasant diversion from the sidewalk, a place for a leisurely stroll in the evening. Grass borders hold picnickers and young couples with a bottle of wine.

On this day the narrow causeway was crowded with runners, a steady stream of them and I had a realization: it’s the Paris Marathon.

We watched the runners from above on the sidewalk.

I had no idea where on the race course we were. The runners below us looked slower than the race leaders, more like recreational runners out for a long day in one of the world’s best known marathons. Nearly 44-thousand runners started the race.

We walked on to a bridge over the Seine and stood again. A seemingly endless river of runners passed, a flowing stream of color and sound and motion. Most were happy. That told me they were midway in the race; by the end of a marathon nobody is talking much. By the end of the marathon things get very heavy and very quiet.

Then a runner fell.

It happens. Too many people running close together; easy to make a misstep and stumble, sometimes fall. A runner was down. The flow of runners swirled like water around a rock in the river bed. The runner did not move.

It was hot that day, unseasonably so. It would reach near 80 that day. Where the runners ran, below street level, was isolated from shade and breeze. It was direct sunlight; the heat was building.

You can get acclimated to heat over time. It just takes time. You do short, easy runs in the heat; build from there. You get used to it. Gradually. By the time a long race comes in the heat, maybe in June, July, you’re ready.

What can get you is early season heat, the kind that comes up unexpectedly, a spike from the norm. Temperatures as they had that day in Paris. Running long and hard in that heat can be a killer.

The runner lay motionless on the pavement.

A slim woman, a racer, stopped, knelt over the downed runner; looked up in alarm. Then she started CPR. The runner was dying. Stiff armed she pushed on his chest, paused, pushed again. Repeated it again and again. The runner did not move.

Another woman runner stopped, knelt. The two alternated CPR over the dying man. Minutes passed. There were distant sirens.

The stream of runners did not pause; nobody knew. There were just the two women over the prone man. Someone said, “Twenty minutes of CPR is the max.” How long had it been? Ten for sure. Fifteen?

Every ice cream stand in Paris had long lines that day. Cold ice cream cones on a hot day; what can be better? At Notre Dame Cathedral the line to visit stretched out across the courtyard like unspooled thread. It was Palm Sunday. There were no clouds; the sun shone and the temperature rose.

The fallen runner was not aware of this. He lay flat and did not move and the two women worked with urgency. Sirens; closer now.

 “One should not die on the streets in the middle of the day with thousands of runners streaming past and spectators to a race all eyes to it all.”

It was difficult to get to the racers. The ramps from street level to runners’ lanes have concrete barricades. This is a country familiar with terrorist attacks. It was less than a year ago when the driver of the big truck mowed down over 80 people. Getting to the runners pathway was not easy. Two ambulances raced past on the street, looking for a way down.

A four-wheeler pulled up; two people jumped off. One had what looked to be paddles for heart defibrillation. That man on the ground had still not moved; it had to be 20 minutes.

Two men ran up, security; blue uniforms and stubby-barreled semi-automatic rifles. They stood, diverted the runners. The woman on the four-wheeler took her turn doing CPR.

Death should be a private affair. One should not die on the streets in the middle of the day with thousands of runners streaming past and spectators to a race all eyes to it all. Death should be private. We watched. We knew we should leave. It should be private.

Unexpectedly, an ambulance. Then two more. A flurry of activity as EMTs surrounded the man.
And then, against all odds, the two women who had been performing CPR lifted their heads and their eyes met. And then they raised their hands and slapped hands. High five! The man was alive.

The EMTs took over, white coats bending as penitents under the sun. IV bags raised, shining silver in the sun as chalices. The man still had not moved but now there was hope. Now there was life. Death had been pushed back.

The two women who’d first stopped stood and stepped back from the man. They hugged. Then they turned and began to walk, stretching some; long, willowy legs, runner’s legs. They began to run, slowly, then with more determination. They melded into the river of runners and were gone. Nobody got their names.

The runners continued to flow along the banks of the Seine on a hot spring day, Palm Sunday.
They loaded the man into the ambulance.

We walked across the bridge over the Seine River. It was a very warm day. An ice cream cone sounded wonderful.

The last day: An early morning on a smooth frozen lake

It froze hard overnight. Morning sky was bright with stars; east horizon turning pale, a springtime sky. But the air was cold, a late wintertime chill.

The day prior had been mild; evening brought drizzle. Bare ground took the rain and turned to mud. On the lakes the top surface was wet and smooth; water a leveler no matter where it flows. Backyard puddles were as if jagged-edged mirrors. Lake ice held the water and in late afternoon light shone bright as polished silver. All level, all smooth.

Then the temperature dropped and it froze up hard. In the darkness before dawning the backyard puddles were iced and the lakes were smooth and dark. In the woodlots the maple trees stood tall and alert in the dawning. There was frost on windshields and yards. It was very calm as if the day, as if the season itself, was poised and about to change.

 “We skated down the length of the lake and the rhythm took over and there was nothing but the wind in our faces and the feeling that comes when doing a simple task well.”   

I got a text at the time the eastern sky was smudged with light: “This could be the last day!”
It was not, as it may have appeared, a forewarning of apocalypse or end of days. It was, instead, an observation: The lake ice was smooth and hard and it could be the last day of the season to blade.
I did a quick calculation. Predawn now; have to be to work by 8 a.m. Maybe, just maybe, if I get off my butt and move I can get in half an hour, forty-five minutes. I thought about it. Then I texted back: “Be there in 15 minutes.”

It is, technically, not ice skating. One does not use ice skates as such. We use ice blades which are not the same. Think of a skate blade, many 18” long, just the metal blade; thin and by itself nothing exceptional. Put that blade on edge, long side down. On top, is a flat deck so the blade and deck make a T shape when viewed from the end. On that deck one screws a binding designed for cross country skis. So, blade, deck, binding; an ice blade.

With that setup one can use cross country ski boots, clip them into the binding and be ready to go. The end result is essentially a speed skate but less expensive if one owns ski boots.
It is rare that conditions are right for blading. Early season in a bad snow year is best. The lake ice is thick enough for safety and there is no snow to hinder glide. A season like that comes along infrequently with that combination; good, clean ice, thick enough to support one and clear of snow.

Early season is best.

But late season can be exceptional.

We’ve been winding down the winter of late. Snow is long gone, ice remains. Sunny days or days of rain flood the lake surface. A good, hard freeze firms up the top layer; snow melt and rain water in the afternoon become hard ice come dawn.

I drove in haste and parked the truck, met my friend. The two of us walked down to the lake, clipped into the bindings, took a few tentative skate steps. The lake was gray and any traces of snow gone with the warm afternoon and rains of the day before. The blades glided smooth and easy.

We began to skate, the long blades clacking on the hard ice. The ice was the dead color of ice that will not last long in the warmth of spring. There were striations in the ice, deep fractures that spoke of a restlessness, of shifting and moving and uneasiness as the winter ice battled with the springtime sun. We skated across them; they were not open, not this morning.

A small circle in the ice ahead; ice fishing hole, augured through the ice. I stopped, reached my hand down to the bottom where ice gave way to water; twelve, maybe fifteen inches thick. The ice was clear and pure below the lead gray surface. We went on.

In all things physical there comes a rhythm when done well, a synchronized motion as arms and legs work together and at such time effort seems reduced and pure movement is all that exists. We skated down the length of the lake and the rhythm took over and there was nothing but the wind in our faces and the feeling that comes when doing a simple task well.

It is a small lake, 250 acres or so, and with the fast ice we went from one end to the other in a short time. To the east the sun was breaking the tree line; it would be a beautiful day. We looped at the end of the lake, bladed back to where we’d started, then repeated the down and back.

It is easy to think that such times will go on forever, that the ice will be perfect and the temperatures on the rise and the sun breaking into a clear sky. It is easy to think a perfect morning will not repeat tomorrow. That is not true; all things end.

Sometimes the best we can hope for is to take satisfaction in simply physical acts, skiing or riding or paddling or skating. In those often mindless tasks one can put the burden of the day to come or the day just past, put them to rest, out of one’s mind.

We bladed that morning with the clear mindedness that comes at times as this.

A sharp, loud cracking noise, the sound of ice fracturing, not breaking apart yet but starting that process. A week ago was the rumble of making ice; now the whip-like crack of decay.
It was time to quit.

We walked from the lake into the new day and the rising warmth. In the woods the tall maple trees pulsed as if waking from winter slumber. In the afternoon the sap buckets would be full. By night sweet syrup off the boiler. Ice blade season was over.

An annual pilgrimage signals the change of seasons, new adventures

I find myself drawn, inexplicably, to late season ice. I do not know why. I am not comfortable on ice. Anxiety rules; stress tightens my gut. Yet I seek late winter ice.
Used to be I ended my ski season on lake ice. I’d ski a big lake studded with ice anglers.

On good days a bit of snow crust would soften about 10 in the morning under the March sun. Skis could hold an edge in the softening snow but it remained granular enough that the skis would glide as if on ball bearings. I’d make a long loop, dodging ice fishing holes, skiing the edge of the lake and then out across the middle.

I’d ski for an hour, maybe more, fast and easy. I’d come back to shore for a picnic lunch and sit in the sun. Then I’d drive home with radio talk of college basketball’s March Madness. I had my own March Madness; me and the skis and the ice.

“I stood and watched the water and knew something had ended, that winter was gone and with it things undone and pledges unfulfilled.”    –Mitch Mode

One year I went late and there were no fishermen on the lake. I skied out far from shore and wondered why I had the lake to myself. Then realized that the ice was dark as a grave and nobody was out because it was perilously close to breakup.

I said to myself, “Shoot, that’s why nobody’s out here.” I was near the middle of the big lake. I stood there on the black ice and gazed at the shoreline. It looked a long way away.
I started to ski, easy at first and then faster, fast as I could go, heart racing not just from exertion but from the realization of the stupidity that had gotten me out too far, too late.
I made it to shore that day. The ground felt good. It felt safe. Being on ice puts me on edge.

In the waning days of late winter I look for the shelf ice along the Wisconsin River west of town. I know a place. A place, when conditions are right, that has long stretches of ice extending out over the water. In cold of winter the ice is firm and hard rock solid, as safe as ice might be. I never go there then. I wait.

In the days after February rolls to March I drive, park the truck where the road changes from drivable to impassible. I take skis or a fat bike and make the rest of the way either kicking and gliding on skis or pedaling over hard crust on the bike. There is a ridge where the high oak woodlot slides down to the river valley and I go down that hill fast, go down to the river at the end of the slope.

When conditions are good I go upriver on the ice that remains. The river water runs dark and cold; the current is smooth and rising with snow melt. The sheets of ice extend from shore to water and then fall away. There are cracks and crevices everywhere and at water’s edge the shelf ice is broken and tilts to the current.

The water is gunmetal gray and moves without sound. Pieces of ice float; the water is very cold.I go upriver on the inside edge of the ice and if I get too far out to where the ice plate has broken I slide toward the water and have a moment of panic at the thought of going in. I never have. But I worry.

Half a mile upriver there is a small set of rapids and past that the ice is usually gone and I turn back and follow my tracks to the landing where I have started out.

I am anxious at all times and I do not know why I do it; there is simply something about the late ice and the change of seasons and the failure of the ice shelf that appeals to me. I do it every year, late, when March brings sun and warmth and the ice shelf collapses and falls away into the river.

When the ice is gone winter is gone. When that shelf ice fails and falls winter does not come back no matter how cold it may get. The ice crumbles and calves as the winter falters and fails. When the ice shelf is gone the backbone of winter is fractured, forget what the calendar says.

Last week I rode the fat bike to the river on a day of late chill and cool breeze but when I got there the river was wide open and full and the ice had gone to ruin in the thaw of earlier days. I stood on the edge and watched the river flow silently. There were two otters in the distance. They saw me and moved away then dove and I did not see them again. When they were gone there was nothing except for the river and the woods and what little ice remained.

I rode the bike along the edge of the river where crusty snow gave way to dirt and then back to snow again. It was chilly and I thought, how odd to be chilled when the temperature is 20; a month ago that was thaw weather.

I hoped I’d find more ice to ride on but it was gone. The long white ribbon of ice that I’d hoped for was no more.

I laid the bike down and walked to the river’s edge. The water was moving like time itself moves, moving steady like the wind and cloud and the seasons. I stood and watched the water and knew something had ended, that winter was gone and with it things undone and pledges unfulfilled. It is that way with seasons; they flow like the rivers in our lives, moving all the time. We look back at opportunities lost; look ahead to the new times.

I turned my back to the river and to winter and rode the bike up the hill and into a new season.

The Birkebeiner that wasn’t

In the old days there were Friday Night Fights. Grainy TV and two boxers in the ring; a square of canvas reality bound by rope as if the intent was to confine within the boundaries the energy and mayhem of those inside. Two boxers; a fixed arena; slugging it out.
At times one fighter would be hopelessly overmatched, struggling against all odds, against all hope, against what seemed the cruelty of the world beyond the ring.

You’d always root for him. We love to pull for the underdog, for the certain-to-be-loser, hoping against hope that in the waning minutes of the final round, down but not quite out, against the ropes and seemingly without hope, the underdog would reach back and unload the haymaker of the right hand and connect hard and in the end raise his hands in triumph. Against all odds.

It rarely happened. What are the odds? What odds that the overmatched pugilist, pummeled time and time again, would rise up in victory? Slim and none. That was the chance: Slim and none. Not unlike a team in the Super Bowl being down a couple dozen points at halftime and coming back to win. Really, what are the odds?

That was the story last week at the American Birkebeiner. A week of thawing weather hit like the heavy-handed punches of a boxer and put the race on the ropes. A day of 60 degrees; a hard shot to the body. Another 60 degree day; a right hook to the jaw. A warm day, again; a body blow like a boxer taking a hard hit, staggering back on his heels. The Birkie took on a personality, an organic being not just an event. You felt bad for it in the way you would for a person.

The weather pummeled the Birkie. Temperatures above average and not by a little. Early week and a breaking news report; the lake over which the last kilometers of the race ran, Lake Hayward, was opening up near town. The race director, via Facebook video, summed it up: “We can get you on the lake; we can’t get you off.”
Wham! A hard shot to the head of the Birkie. Now the race would not finish downtown in Hayward, that glorious three-block stretch of Main Street, covered with trucked-in snow and lined with throngs of cheering spectators. That would not happen. The race would be shortened.

The skiers watched it unfold. Watched the weather come in big and dark like an overweight puncher, seemingly all fat and flab but no, with a mean streak cut into its soul with a jagged knife and the ability to hit hard. The race stood like the patsy and took another blow.

The big haymaker came on Monday night when hard rains moved in, near an inch and a half. The rain beat and battered what remained of the race course, that hard-packed ribbon of compacted snow that ran from Cable to Hayward and on race day would be the center of the ski world for many. The rains hit it and hit it hard and left the race backed into the corner, beaten and bloodied and stumbling.

After the rains came they announced the race would, at best, go halfway, from Cable to Co. Hwy. OO, known in Birkie parlance as “Double Oh.” The Birkie was on the ropes and barely hanging on.

The rain on frozen ground left pools of water in low areas. The race crew brought portable generators and sump pumps to remove the water. The sound of generators and pumps filled the late February air in the middle of the winter woods; the heartbeat of the race on life support.

There is always hope. It springs, so we are told, eternal. There is hope when Rocky is beaten to a near pulp; there is hope when your team is down 25 in the Super Bowl; there is hope when Aaron Rodgers throws a Hail Mary that rises into the stratosphere before rainbowing down toward terra firma. Always hope.
The hope last week was the snowstorm forecast for Friday.

Five inches, maybe eight. Did someone hear a foot? Yes, a foot of snow coming in on Friday! They’d pack that snow down and Saturday morning run a race, a race shorter than planned but a race nonetheless. The snow would fall hard and pile up and the Birkie would swing hard, connect and raise arms in triumph.

Against all odds.

The snow was the hope and the salvation. That big storm was the Hail Mary come to Birkie-land, the Rocky Balboa comeback over Apollo Creed, the beaten and downtrodden rising up in triumph. The snow, the big snow, oh yes, that would make all things right and the largest race on the continent would rise up in all its power and glory and majesty.

On Friday it would snow; on Saturday we would ski. It was destiny. It would be the Miracle Birkie.

It didn’t happen. Not even close. The big storm was a narrow band of heavy snow but it moved south, shifted just a few degrees off target. The storm, on the weather map, was the shape of a dagger, long and thin and pointed. It missed the Birkie trail and in so doing cut out the heart of the big race.

Thirty miles away they got snow. Thirty miles; the distance, give or take, of the full length Birkebeiner, Cable to Hayward, start to finish.

On Friday morning skiers in town for the race pressed faces to windows and looked out at gray, funereal skies and snow flurries. The forecast had changed; less than an inch was due.

On this day there would be no comeback; on this morning there would be no glory; on this day, only heartache and disappointment and loss.

Eleven o’clock Friday morning and the announcement came: The race was cancelled. There would be no miracle comeback this time around.

February weather ….

I look at the weather forecast with a sense of foreboding. It looms as something not quite real, ethereal and dark like a thin edge of storm cloud etched dark on the horizon. It is unsettling as a sound in the dark of night. That’s all a forecast is, really: A sound in the dark that suggests ill will to come, nothing concrete, thought versus a reality, portent with the power of suggestion.

A mid-February forecast of temperatures at 50 degrees makes me edgy. That forecast is to me the sound in the night on the fringes of hearing that leaves me awake and wide eyed and straining to hear more. It is only after a while I can relax and accept what comes.

That’s the way I am. A winter forecast of warm weather to come unnerves me.

I look at the weather forecast repeatedly through the day; first thing in the morning and last thing at night. And in between as if it might change by repeated viewing. It never does, never changes, at least not a major shift. I may as well look at it once a day or not at all and just take what comes of it. But I do look at it, look at it a lot.

This weekend’s forecast shows warm and a chance of rain and all this in what should be prime ski season with the Birkebeiner a week away. I don’t think of the Birkebeiner as often as I think of the weather but the difference is not as great as you may imagine. I never put on a pair of skis without thinking of the Birkie and usually, if the snow is good, I start skiing in December so the race is on my mind a lot; a constant, just like the weather.

Ski the Birkie enough times and you’ll see most of it all when it comes to weather. I’ve started out at minus 15 degrees and over 30 degrees. I’ve skied it during a snowstorm and during freezing rain. I’ve seen deep snow on beautiful days or decaying snow that left bare patches on days that smelled of springtime. I’ve seen good days and bad, good times and not so good; felt exhilaration and despair.

Now, with a week to go, I look at the weather forecast and feel unease and uncertainty. And I think to myself, “Why doesn’t it get easier?” For the worries still are with me in the days leading up to the race. I check the weather forecast with what appears to be an obsession, fret over the possibilities, worry with each day about the potential for things to go wrong.

Things blur with time. I can remember bits and pieces of races but I do not have crystal clarity of any of them. The Birkie to me is a tapestry of interwoven threads that form a whole cloth; no one thread stands alone.

Except, perhaps for one. A time ages ago, 1981, when we had a thaw come roll over the land like a wave of despair. I remember calling friends who were at Telemark Lodge when there was a lodge and when all things Birkebeiner were orbits of that place. I remember calling and asking of conditions and being told it was 60 degrees with pouring rain and the snow was going fast.

That was not good news but in my life it was the least of it.

My mother died that week. Cancer took her after a long struggle. I’d watched her suffer in pain without complaint. She died on a dreary day as February snow was decaying. Despair and sorrow were heavy on my mind. We scheduled her funeral for Saturday, the day of the Birkie.
I can’t really say if I felt any sadness that I’d miss the race. It wasn’t important, not that week. Not much was.

Then it rained that ungodly rain and the snow washed away and they could not hold the race. On the day the Birkebeiner was scheduled we buried my mother under sullen cloud in late February.
They did not cancel the race, they merely postponed it. As if, fat chance, there would be snow in two weeks after the original date. Except that there was. Except that a freak blizzard dumped a ton of snow on the race course and two weeks later against all odds and against all expectations they held the race.

I don’t remember much about the details in that race. I remember it was a smaller field of skiers; many who’d flown in for the original date could not return. I remember there was plenty of snow and the track was good. I remember that I skied very well, moving up through the ranks of skiers ahead of me, passing one and then another.

I remember getting to the halfway point and a friend was there and he looked at me in wide-eyed shock and said, “Geez Mode, you’re in second place!” I remember thinking to myself, I don’t think I can hold it.

I didn’t. The lack of training caught up to me and one skier and then another and another passed me. I remember leaning on my poles, dead in the water with a long way to go and knowing it was over for me. I remember wishing I could have skied a better race in memory of my mother.

I ended up, heck, I’m not even sure; 12th or 18th or something; a long way from second.
So it went. So it goes. Next year I skied it again and I’ve kept on skiing it.

But I still worry about the weather. I still obsess about the forecast. I still fret and worry. And every year, every single Birkebeiner, I remember my mother and all she meant to me.