Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Great Northwest Birding Adventure of 2011 (part one)

This series of Birdstud’s Birdchat focuses on the birds (and life) along the Oregon Coast.  To the locals it’s the “Orgun” coast and to me it was “Or-e-GONE” until I was corrected enough to have it sink in my Midwestern bird brain. 

Funny thing about being in Orgun; you can’t pump your own gasoline.  It’s true…you pull up to the pump and roll down the window and “order” your gas from a person in a reflective vest.  EVERY person has to do it that way – even if you are in a hurry.  I embarrassingly discovered an important ritual after my tank had been filled and the kid walked off as I sat quietly in the rental car for about seven minutes waiting for the attendant to return to my window to swipe my card.  There I sat, and sat, watching people walking back and forth into the building, other cars arriving - being filled and finally the kid yells to me across the tarmac as I stupidly sat there, “You gotta go IN and pay!” You see, they accept cash from the car window, but if you say to “fill it” on a “debit” (only) card, you have to get out and go inside, to pay it yourself.  That’s some kind of union, I thought. There’s no state sales tax on goods, so that’s nice, however the price of gasoline was 60 cents per gallon more expensive than in Wisconsin where people are smart enough to fill their own automobile fuel tanks and lawn mower gas cans.  You might be waxing historical quaint visions through your head (if you’re old enough) about “full” service provided by gas stations of yore – don’t.  All you get for the extra 60 cents per gallon is the nozzle in your filler throat…that’s it.  No clean windshield, no offer to top off your fluids, check your oil, or wipe the bugs from your grille…nothing.

The same union (in league with the ferryman’s union) is no doubt in charge of deciding new bridge construction projects.  I have determined this because of the lack of bridges across the Willamette River near their capital city of Salem.  There’s one (way) south and one (way) north of the city and in the middle – ferries.   By the way, it’s Will-AH-met, not Will-a-MET.  And by the way, Oregonians who don’t quite hear what you said and wish you’d repeat yourself will say to you, “do what?”   Another regional lesson learned was that if something was expensive (like the $ 3.79/ga gasoline) it’s considered “spendy.”  Except the locals didn’t bitch about the price of gas or the fact that they are banned from using the gas pump dispenser, or the missing bridges…that was me.  Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

Truthfully, the entire wilderness coastal area was wonderfully bucolic in an extremely humidified way.   I have never seen so much moss.  North side, south, east and west side of every tree in the forest.  Get lost in these woods – good luck.  Talk about BIG trees!  I’ve not yet seen the Redwoods of northern CA. however these massive trunks would give most of them a run for their money, in the girth department.  As such, the woods were temporary home to many of the birds that had already left Milwaukee in mid-September. 

In the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge I chocked up a new (life) bird, the Bewick’s Wren.  Other birds of that damp and green area were Stellar’s Jays, Yellow-rumped warblers, Brown creepers, Black-capped chickadees, Red-breasted nuthatches, Red-shafted Northern flickers, Hairy and downy woodpeckers, American crows, Common Ravens, Spotted towhees, and the (ever-popular) American robin.

Stopping the car along the road into the slough next to open water, countless geese were swimming.  There are numerous subspecies of Canada geese and now, even 2 separate species (2004). What was once considered the Canada goose has now been divided into 2 species: the Canada goose and Cackling (Branta hutchinsii) goose.  There are 7 subspecies of Canada goose, and 4 subspecies of cackling goose. Each subspecies is somewhat distinct in appearance and migration patterns. All look more or less like the Canada goose familiar to us all: brown body feathers, a black neck and head, and white cheek patch. However, size among subspecies can vary greatly, and markings can vary subtly.   The two species were represented here in tremendous numbers: Canada and Cackling, with Cackling far outnumbering their larger (deeper voiced) relatives.  As well as being much smaller; Cackling Geese also tend to have rounder heads, and shorter, stubbier bills than Canada Geese. Cackling Geese generally have a more rapid and higher pitched, or "cackling" call which was quite discernable when a flock was flying over.  Maybe it was me, but I could notice that the flocks of Cacklers were nowhere as uniformly “V” looking as the Canada flocks I am familiar with.

Fall birding in the Willamette Valley presented a unique chance to view one of the subspecies of Canada goose; the Dusky goose.  The dusky is a subspecies of Canada goose that breeds only in the Copper River Delta area on the south-central coast of Alaska and on islands in the Prince William Sound and Gulf of Alaska.  They winter primarily in the Willamette Valley and along the lower Columbia River of Oregon and Washington.  The dusky has one of the smallest populations of geese in North America and were in small numbers when I saw them on the banks of the Columbia River, near Portland.  Here they feed on nutrient-rich grasses that grow in the wet, mild winters until they depart in early April.  In the late 1950s, managers recognized that wintering habitat for duskies was limited and hunting needed to be restricted to protect duskies.  At that time, duskies made up about 2/3 of the geese in the Willamette Valley, and it was recognized that the area was essential to their winter survival.  The dusky is a medium to large, dark subspecies of Canada goose.  They have darker backs and breasts compared to other subspecies in this area.  Some duskies may be wearing red neck collars with white letters.  Duskies are often found in small groups by themselves or mixed with other subspecies.

A surprise stop along the Salmon River in the tiny village of Otis, Oregon was almost worth the entire trip.  Here in a nondescript series of buildings, sandwiched between some foothills and the highway is the one and only Salmon River Pronto Pup!  When it comes to authentic golden deep-fried crunchy corn goodness; nothing beats 'em.  This fine dining establishment has been handing oil-dipped, cornmeal-coated tubes of assorted organ meats across its weathered, laminated counter, to eager customers since 1946.  I stood mesmerized, watching from the outside through a strategically placed window into the actual kitchen area where the magic happens. I gasped as it dawned on me the secret to making a perfect Pronto Pup; wipe your weenie dry with a rag first, before dipping it. 

I recall when I attended Catholic school in Coon Rapids, Mn. that the lunch menu often had these delicasies as the main dish.  I remember it because I wasn't sophisticated enough to have heard the true name for the lowly "corn dog" I had been previously familiar with as an elementary schooler from Madison, WI. until then and the moniker always stuck with me.  I often wondered through the years where the name had come from.  I suppose it rolled off the tongue more smoothly than would say, "Fast Dog" and so now here I was 40 years later again (way) west of the Mississippi (where they've never heard of a bubbler), staring at a blast from my past.  I almost had to blink twice when I read the large menu sign over the counter.  Hey, you can get six regular pups for 12 bucks!  Lisa ordered up and paid for all of us.  Plus, she threw in an order of the homemade sweet potato fries - the best I have ever eaten; hands down.  The disclaimer sign above the counter reminds the wary health conscious among us that the pups are, "Healthy We Cook In Trans Fat Free Oil,' for goodness sake. 

The small dining area reeked pleasantly of hot oil as the six of us sat munching our piping pups.  As I am prone to doing; I looked around at the various merchandise items for sale.  One wall had the obligatory display of restaurant-fan tee shirts but also harbored a unique twist; the actual, sacred, original formula, Pronto Pup mix! I looked at the sign that advertised the five pound bag for 15 bucks and hestiated only slightly before discovering that not only one, but TWO free additional packages of the authentic pup "sticks" went along with the deal.  SCORE!  Of course I bought both the bright yellow tee shirt and the mix (with free sticks included) in a heartbeat.  I mean c'mon...who wouldn't right? Granted, I have known for some time that it doesn't take all that much to impress me, or make me want to pump my fist into the air with delight.  However, that was clearly one of those moments.  I make no apology.

With the day moving along towards afternoon, it was time to move further west toward the actual Orgun coast.  We all carefully shoe-horned ourselves into the Mazda along with Polly the toy poodle, and happily belched our way towards Lincoln City and the waiting Esther Lee Motel...more to come!


Friday, November 18, 2011

To be or Not to be?

I’ll admit it…I want to be noticed too.

I have formulated a (50-year) theory about human beings of which has yet to be disproven. This concept is the primary overarching theme for all Homo sapiens on this glorious blue planet - and that is simply: to Matter.

There are other words in the English language that get close, but don’t quite describe our mutual unconscious, life-long, need to matter - such as, to be: significant, important, vital, valuable, worthy, essential, key, and focal. I choose the word “matter” because it is simply and universally understood. Think about it; have you ever found yourself questioning your miserable existence? Have you ever decided to do something (anything) merely to have others “notice” that you (personally) haven’t left the struggle?

To fully understand and embrace this concept about oneself is to finally come to grips with previously erratic and inexplicable personal behavior.  In other words; relax and give in to it…there’s nothing you can do.  It is akin to accepting the daily tides, annual migration, and that gas prices always go up.

Knowing about (and believing in) this particular inalienable driving force of human nature will provide answers to a multitude of seemingly random personal choices.  It explains tattoos, body piercings, ear lobe gauging, radically colorful hair, myriad varieties of unconventional dress, the joining of cults, participation in protest movements, call-in talk radio shows, comments to on-line articles, blogging, Facebook, My Space, and Twitter.  It brings clarity to the motivation behind overachieving athletes, budding cinema stars and nerdy scientists.

These observances of the insatiable need to matter encompass all ages, races, creeds, genders, and sexual orientation.  No one is immune.  From the person who jumps from a bridge with a bungee cord attached to their ankles, to the one that jumps without.  From the successful professional championship team to the plain and simple discalced friar who discovers a tasty new variety of wine-producing grapes.  From the stay-at-home Mom that wins the blueberry pie contest at the state fair to the top-notch executive who implements an innovative company resource-saving idea.  Don’t exclude the inner-city youth who shows the rest of the neighborhood kids the loose grating on the drainage ditch that allows undetected travel throughout the city, or the group of bystanders who lift a burning car from a trapped motorcyclist.  In their own ways, these individuals have found ways (if only for a brief moment) to matter to the rest of their peers.

Is it healthy to attempt to matter?
That’s a good question.  Ask the car bomber if it was in the world’s best interest that he chose to end lives and spread havoc to further his chosen cause.  Get an opinion from the coach of a state championship team as to the difference they made in the lives of the participants.  Query a teenager sitting in the tattooist’s chair (for their fourth inked design) if they are gratified by showing off the result of their investment.  I frankly don’t know what carefully considered rationale you’ll get from them; however I expect they’ll be extremely passionate about their actions.  See mattering doesn't have to be can be something subtle, but something that makes one stand out and become visibly special to others.  We crave it above all else.

I believe on the whole (with some obvious exceptions) that it IS healthy to aspire to matter, and to furthermore be educationally tolerant with those who are struggling with understanding the concept.  With youth, that means explaining that they are an extraordinary person regardless of the trappings of expensive physical alterations.  Granted that’s a tall order in today’s instantly broadcast society which glorifies the unconventional; but an important one at that.  Adults require validation too.  The workplace; where most of us spend the majority of our time, is a perfect environment in which to acknowledge the efforts placed on mattering.  A few simple words of encouraging acknowledgement to humans act as warming sunshine does to struggling plant life.

Think about that toddler who beamingly displays their new shoes to all in the room and understand that it's in all of us from the beginning.  So the next time someone you feel ignored and insignificant and someone finally notices enough to ask you, “What’s the matter?” Stand tall and answer confidently (if not mysteriously), “I AM and I DO!”

PS: I got new vanity plates for the white pick-up truck...SEE?  In other words; Look at Me!

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Mighty Mississippi chronicles

In this edition of Birdstud’s Birdchat, we’ll be focusing on the birds of the Mississippi Flyway at Mid-August reverse-migration point of the year.  We’ll also delve into some more small-town American (Wisconsin-style) moments as we do. 

The trip from Milwaukee to Grant County, WI is about 3-1/2 hours at the maximum posted speed limits.  I have found that I drive at the limits (watching everyone, and I mean everyone pass me up), because I am older, wiser and don’t want to have constant stress while I drive.  You might imagine that I (driving the speed limit) might frustrate other zooming motorists who encounter me on the road, feeling the need for speed as they blast past, and you’d probably be correct.  My response would have to be, “so what?”  If you are one of these types of drivers; you get what you deserve in the racking up of multiple moving violations, dealing with fender benders, and the incredible non-stop mental angst you put yourself through.  But then, I digress…

Our target for the weekend was indeed an incredibly wide and serene section of the Mississippi River adjacent to the US Army Corps ofEngineer’s Grant River Campground, but there were also a few other stops we planned to make in the area before the weekend was over.  Long ago glaciers advanced and retreated across Wisconsin, with the last retreat about 12,500 years ago. The southwestern corner however, was untouched and is known as the "driftless" area or Paleozoic Plateau.  It is a land of deep valleys, ridges, and bluffs never leveled by the glaciers.  The campground (off Hwy 133) is nestled between a vast stretch of the big river and the tiny “Catfish Capital of Wisconsin”; Potosi.  Nicholas Perrot discovered southwestern Wisconsin's first lead mine in what is now Potosi.  By 1850, the area embraced more than 10,000 hand-dug lead mines, supplying more than half of the nation's supply.  Mississippi riverboats carried Wisconsin lead throughout the nation.  The region produced virtually all of the lead shot for the Northern forces during the Civil War.  One more interesting feature that we soon discovered was also in between the river and Potosi, were two long shiny railroad tracks running right next to the tent campsite I had booked unseen on the Internet.

The 56 other reservable electric sites were all in use with large and impressive (hard-sided) RV units.  We later learned that a strong contingent of Good Sam campers from neighboring Iowa had all decided that this weekend was their chance to get together in Wisconsin.  They were incredibly organized and had a multitude of activities planned all weekend for their (mostly) aged members to enjoy.  One such delightful couple was Bob and Kathy Michael, (from Dubuque) who took up residence adjacent to our track-side site in their (home away from home) pull-behind “hybrid” camper.  At one point Kathy brought over to share; the most wonderful homemade molasses cookies I had ever eaten.  Once our site was set - complete with tent and sleeping gear and the majority of other (brought-along) items were in place; we motored off to nearby Lancaster, WI and the Grant County Fair.

The fair was located off a non-descript side road from the main highway that split the town of Lancaster.  We only found it because I am unopposed to asking directions.  I had driven about as far in and out of the town as I dared without seeing the fairgrounds when (at the northern edge of the city) I spotted a large Pamida (next to Gassers True Value hardware – imagine the sad and endless childhood taunting of the little Gassers in elementary school).  I drove up to an elderly man, circling his pick-up truck in the parking lot on foot.  He was wearing a GB Packers shirt and using a cell phone.  The two even older white-haired female passengers in his vehicle quickly deferred to his cartographic prowess when we asked where the fair could be located.   He came around to my side of the car and said the following, “you know back the way ya came, where the road kinda’ dips down…you know, then where the road takes a jog…well, the road you want is right there across from the library.”  Barbara and I smiled at each other and bid him and his equally smiling passenger’s goodbye, and headed off to the only landmark in his rambling directions that made us certain we’d eventually find it – the library.

After the car was parked in the field earmarked with a hand-painted sign indicating which aisle we had self-parked into, we walked past the wooden sandwich board indicating that an “adult season pass” to the fair was seven dollars.  We then halted our advance opposite two elderly VFW-garbed men with a huge roll of entry tickets.  “Day or season?” enquired the nearest one, extending the ticket roll.  Since I could find no handy reference whatsoever to any other admission choice or price, I opted for two “season” passes, citing the (what the heck, slim to none) possibility that “we could come back on another day.”  The surrounding grounds were filled with smiling adults, children and entire families as we worked our way around the perimeter of the fair; past the sprawling antique tractor collector and Platteville Optimist booths.  It was going on 6:30 PM and we were both wanting to learn the details of the advertised 7:00 PM Tri-State Truck and Tractor Pull and to get something to eat before the big event.  We headed for a huge grandstand-looking building with our questions and our appetites.

People seemed to be standing at a small table near the backside of the stands, receiving a paper wristband in exchange for a business card slip of paper.  I found out that this was the “Fair Bonus Card” redemption center and if we had been savvy enough to pre-purchase one; we’d have received “deep discounts” on all purchased beverages and food.  Since we had not, we shuffled away to a tall painted plywood kiosk under the stands that was selling beer “tickets” (one for $ 2.50/ two for $ 5.00).  A man and woman were both wedged into the small booth.  The man leaned toward the window ledge as I approached to ask what purchasing the tickets meant to me.  “It’s for the beer” remarked the jug-eared bespectacled, string bean man.  He was wearing one of those old-time red and white striped aprons.  My second question of “is a beer one or two tickets?” caused him to look backward to the woman as if to ask her if I was for real.  He looked back and grinned, “one beer for one ticket.”  Wow, I thought and said as much to Barbara.  This was great!  Being accustomed to paying over six dollars at any number of venues in the greater Milwaukee area for a 12 ounce cup of adult malt beverage, I was elated.  “I’ll take two (for now”) I said with real joy in my heart.

After waxing a lengthy Lions Club conversation with the Lancaster Lions members who staffed the beer ticket redemption counter, we got in the queue for the homemade foods.  A pork loin sandwich was recommended for me by one of the volunteer grillers and Barbara decided on the “Walking Taco” (A neatly snipped bag of Fritos as the main course, covered with taco meat, cheese, diced tomatoes and shredded lettuce.)  We ate at a wooden picnic table under the grandstand with a large cow-barn fan pushing natural coolness onto the bystanders; thoroughly enjoying the local fare.  I then wandered over to the ticket window and bought a pair of general admission tickets to the truck and tractor pull for another 14 bucks; plus two more beer tickets later and we were sitting on the aluminum bleacher seats awaiting the next exciting participant in the contest.   From the eyes of a complete novice; the Tri-State Truck and Tractor Pullers run a nice, neat, tight competition.  Mod 2wd Trucks, Modified V8 Trucks, Hot Farm Tractors, Super Farm Tractors, Super Stock/Pro Stock, Tractors, and the ever popular 2011 SUPER STOCK 4X4s make up the six categories of sliding weight-pulling vehicle.  The membership entry fee to the Tri-State club (allowing the members to participate in multiple annual contests) is $100.00 per vehicle (tractor or truck) and $25.00 for each driver to cover insurance.  Each puller is allowed two attempts to make a measurable pull within 100 feet. Moving the sled a measurable distance (one inch or farther) is an attempt.   Weights pulled, range from 6000 to over 10,000 lbs!

You’ll be happy to know (as I certainly was) that (according to the 69 official general rules) “when a vehicle motor is running someone must be in the driver’s seat at all times in the pits or on the track,” and that “no shorts are allowed during pulling or while working as an official.”  When one unlucky puller got off to a great start and suddenly blew something up inside his rig, the sage and wizened track announcer stated the following for the benefit of the assembled crowd of anxious onlookers; “You know these tractors are pushed far harder than God ever intended them to be sometimes.”   Amen brother.

The 30-minute ride back to the Grant River Campground was uneventful.  We climbed into the small nylon tent to collect some blissful shut-eye when the first of the eight, nightly speeding Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) freight trains, suddenly slammed onto the tranquil scene.  Our campsite was strategically layed out midway between two (mandatory 140 decibel, locomotive horn-blaring) crossroads.  We were particularly ensured to hear both engineer-delivered warning blasts with equanimity.   The brain does crazy things when the lights are out and imagining that the incredible cacophonous racket caused by the passing train cars would evolve into a screeching, twisting, accordion wreck of massive landscape-flattening freight cars is an easy one.  The BNSF (formed in 1996 out of the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railways) is the second largest freight railroad in America, and is based out of Fort Worth, Texas.  BNSF directly owns and operates over 24,000 miles of track, in 27 states, hauling primarily grain, coal and intermodal freight.  These fascinating BNSF details were unfortunately lost on the both of us in the middle of the night while fighting to stay asleep between repeat performances.  Oh, and it rained too.  Hard.

Bird watching the next morning was wonderfully diverse.  While the coffee perked on the old green E-Bay Coleman stove; bright orange and black Baltimore orioles sat singing on an overhead electrical wire.  A large group of Red-winged blackbirds gathered in a nearby tree to verbally strategize their day as (over twenty) Turkey vultures soared in low trajectory arcs over the dual train tracks.  Cicadas were just warming up to their full pitch when the morning sun began to dry the moisture from the green tent and red bag chairs.  Many other birds could be seen and heard within the campground confines.  The list we tallied includes: Indigo bunting, Northern cardinal, Black-capped chickadee, American goldfinch, American robin, European starling, House finch, House sparrow, Downy woodpecker, Eastern wood pewee, Gray catbird, Chipping sparrow, White-breasted nuthatch, Field sparrow, Tree swallow, Barn swallow, Chimney swift, Mourning dove, American crow, Cedar waxwing, Least flycatcher, Great crested flycatcher, Eastern kingbird, Tundra swan, Great blue heron, Solitary sandpiper, Blue-winged teal, Ring-billed gull, American pelican, and Belted kingfisher.

The surrounding farmland was planted and thriving with eight-foot tall corn and acres of soybean plants.  The entire area along the Mississippi basin seemed lush and green; apparently plenty of rain had fallen in this year’s growing season.  We put the Canoe-dle in at the handy concrete campground  landing in the early evening, to partially escape being broiled within the shiny watercraft.  Light intermittent rain showers caused us to head for the shelter of overhanging trees near the northeast bank on several occasions, but the two hours we spent slowly paddling and exploring were relaxingly splendid.  Lilly pads along the sides of the river were huge and plentiful.  Duck weed covered the surface of the still near-shore water with a speckled brilliant green.  Large Catfish and other unknown shallow water creatures stirred the muddy river bottom as our aluminum canoe passed them overhead.

All in all, the trip was satisfying on many levels.  The camping, biking, and canoeing each complimented the surrounding beauty of the countryside, and even the noise of the trains was a unique opportunity to study the strength of American rail commerce.  We included a delightful Potosi Brewery tour and beer-drinking experience as part of this trip; however it will be detailed in another blog installation at another time.  This one’s getting long and I’m sure you need to take a break now.  Thanks for reading and (hopefully) enjoying the journey along with us, at this little slice of the Wisconsin bank of the Mighty Mississippi!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Canoeing the Milwaukee River (part two)

The Beautiful Milwaukee River (downtown)
In part one of this (two-part) vignette, the intrepid voyageurs of the “USS Canoe-dle” (17’ aluminum hand-me-down canoe) paddled and floated down a serenely bucolic, nearly four mile stretch of the Milwaukee River upstream of the focus of this next installation.   This time they were going “downtown” and into the actual shipping lanes of the same river, for their eventual take-out.

On a mostly clear and humid Saturday morning in late July 2011, the two vehicles (the canoe-bearing Mountaineer, and the IBIRD Dodge retrieval truck) left the driveway at around 9:30 AM.  A cooler full of iced-down sparkling water, sun screen and other typical canoeing gear was loaded aboard for the trip down river.  We (Barbara and I) both had our bird watching gear and digital camera along to capture the day’s watery adventure.  The first thing to do was to spot the retrieval truck at a convenient point at which to take out, also considering the important aspects of economically and safely parking for hours while we came southward along the Milwaukee County Urban Water Trail.  After consulting the awesome Milwaukee Riverkeepers river map-book we had printed off the home Epson, we decided that Milwaukee County Parks, Riverside Boat Launch at Bruce Street held promise.  At around 9:45 AM, we parked IBIRD on Water Street (no signage), south of the launch and looked at the launching fees posted there.  No attendant was on duty.  We figured since all we were planning to do was take-out (not launch and park) there would be no fee associated.

Launching, 2011 Rates, Pending DNR Approval
(prices listed include sales tax)

Age 60+
Jet Ski, Resident
Jet Ski, Non-Resident
Non-Motorized, Resident
Non-Motorized, Non-Resident
Under 20 feet, Resident
Under 20 feet, Non-Resident
Over 20 feet, Resident
Over 20 feet, Non-Resident

Together we drove north to Commerce Street and parked opposite the concrete ramp down to the dock area of the Milwaukee Rowing Club.  This is designated as a “public” launch and may be used at any time the Rowing Club is not utilizing it for exercises.  No Rowing Club members were visible at 10:00 AM when we carried the Canoe-dle and her gear down to the aluminum boat ramp that lead to a convenient floating plastic dock.  Barbara handles her “end” of the canoe quite expertly as (even though it is aluminum), it is quite heavy.  Loading equipment and bodies went well with no mishaps.  We first set off upstream about 800 yards to the base of the North Avenue dam’s churning outflow for a quick look.  We were able to swing into the rapids from behind the walking bridge abutment and get a “push” from the current, sending us downriver once more.  That was enough of a look, so away we went towards downtown.

The river was plenty high and wide at this point and the sun was baking down directly from above, so we kept primarily to the somewhat shaded sides.  The other reason to do so were the occasional other boaters, kayakers, canoeists and Milwaukee Rowing Club trainees who would paddle, churn, and slice by our canoe.  The long oars of the sculling craft reaching out and twisting like that of giant water striding beetles, paralleled by encouraging teammates on their motorized follow craft.  There was a more pronounced “odor” of storm sewer on this section; the closer we got to downtown.  Bascule bridges were plentiful as we drifted underneath each one in turn, generally on the leftmost downstream channel.  The rusty red underpinnings and peeling black paint showed their age.  The sea wall alongside both banks was predominantly of a corrugated iron make-up with deterioration aplenty.  Large scaly bolts protruding from the sides; nuts and washers no longer doing the job of holding anything, as their supposed adjoining steel cross members were rotted or missing sections, twisted and bent.  Small inlets from some unknown storm drain (or worse) trickled water into the main flow of the river.  A Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) barge worked its way up and down the center channel with hard-hatted, hi-vis vest wearing workers tending to something obviously important as they scurried fore and aft along their specially outfitted rig.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has been working to clean the Milwaukee River since 2007 and recently replaced its River Skimmer.  The new $387,200 (larger) River Skimmer boat (Aquarius Systems division of D & D Products Inc. of North Prairie), skims garbage from the surface of Milwaukee's rivers and harbor near downtown.  In 2010, the skimmer removed 1,683 cubic yards of debris, plus 38 tree trunks. It cruises the inner harbor, the Milwaukee River upstream to the Humboldt Ave. Bridge, the Menomonee River upstream to S. 13th St., the Burnham Shipping Canal off the Menomonee, and the Kinnickinnic River upstream to Lincoln Ave.

While the endeavor is certainly worthwhile, it appeared to me (the novice) that simply driving the thing back and forth (dead center) on the river (that particular Saturday) was doing nothing to really grab the trash.  It (the garbage) was all collecting against the sides of the channel, and there was particularly dense floating debris lining in the wide expanse near the Hoan Bridge.  It was impressive however with those men scrambling around the deck, but picking up trash?  I’m not so sure.  One particular place on a concrete river wall had two large inlet pipes, one of which was blowing thousands of gallons of water into the river.  There was a happy and whimsical painting of a curly-Q waterslide depicted on the wall at the outlet, perhaps to make the sight more appealing and less questionable.  A saying on the wall read: A Clean River is a Fun River.

As we drifted under one downtown Milwaukee bridge to another I could not help but remark out loud, “This is just so cool!”  All my Milwaukee life I had wanted to something similar and now we were actually doing it.  No super-expensive boating equipment was needed; just something seaworthy, a little pre-planning, some carrying muscle, and a good attitude.  Nicely dressed small groups of people hanging out on the Riverwalk that morning looked down at our small craft and smiled; we waved back and kept on drifting and steering on course.  Swallows (Barn, Cliff, and Rough-winged) were becoming more plentiful now and the occasional bank-side Herring gull stood watch on brilliant orange webbed-feet as we passed.

The outflow of the MMSD combined sewer (emergency dump) sites were clearly marked as such, along with a prudent warning about drinking the water in that area.  I wouldn’t go swimming or even dip a hand into the water in those areas without some way to sanitize, however it was water and it was wet, and it was fun.  We’d rounded a bend near Saint Paul Avenue and under the bridge when a public dock came into view.  We were getting a bit hungry and decided to pull alongside and tie off.  Before we knew it we were comfortably ensconced at a riverside table belonging to the Milwaukee Ale House, ordering one of their fine craft brews.  A pair of adorable elderly ladies was seated quite close to us and began to engage me in conversation as we sipped our beer.  Before we knew it we had discovered their names and the fact that they were both artists.  By the time each of our “Wisconsin Brat” meals had been eagerly consumed, and immensely enjoyed; they wanted to adopt the both of us.  Promising to get in touch, we waved goodbye from the canoe as we passed, and drifted out of sight.

A small detour upstream towards the west, and we had passed by the largest Milwaukee Post Office building, and then the Intermodal (Amtrak and Greyhound) station.  I wanted to get near the 6th Street Bridge, so we went that far before turning around and paddling downstream again.  The Harley Davidson Museum building was in sight as well as the Iron Horse Hotel.  More Milwaukee Rowing Club craft were in this area in what appeared to be training mode.  Dozens of gulls lined the old train bridge underpinnings and pilings.  This old brown and rusting hulk was permanently in open (perpendicular) position and someone had even been tending blooming flowers in pots placed on its deteriorating skeleton.  Riverfront Pizzeria was on our left and reminded us that a Metro Milwaukee Optimist Club meeting was coming up.  The seafood restaurant at the end of the point (formerly named Riptide) was open and sported the new name of Sail Loft.  I don’t think much of that name.  Perhaps the food is good, but with a name like that; good luck.

We made final a concerted push to sail through the wide river inlet, along the sea wall.  Floating garbage was plentiful and the waves were choppier.  I told Barbara that I wanted to go out into the big water, around the bend towards Lakeshore State Park.  That proved a tiny bit dicier than I figured as the waves from passing boats, and the natural Lake Michigan movement threatened to cause us some grief.  We basically arrived at my chosen landmark, took a picture; staying low in the canoe, and worked our way back into the channel as fast as we could.  We both figured our luck to date had been good; so why chance it.  The next stop was the Bruce Street take-out.

With a final stroke, the canoe went nose-first onto the gravel bottom next to the concrete boat launch.  Barbara got out and pulled me the next little bit up onto dry land.  I walked the three blocks to where the IBIRD was parked and (Ta-Da!) had the key with me.  I drove back and pulled to the side of the generous parking area to load up the Canoe-dle.  A middle aged County Parks attendant got up from his aluminum lawn chair and approached us, clipboard in hand.  I was in the middle of hoisting the long boat onto the top of the vehicle.  He walked slowly around to the front of my truck and began studying my license plate.  I stopped fiddling with the tie-down straps and approached him asking, “Do we owe you something?”  He straightened up, pulling the clipboard to his chest and replied, “Oh yeah you do…you launched here didn’t you?”  I replied that we had not in fact launched there and that all we were doing was taking the boat out.  He looked suspiciously at me and asked, “Where?”

Did you ever notice that even when you are totally in the right, and have a plausible explanation to relay, that circumstances sometimes cause your tongue to get tied and your delivery to become woefully weak?  Well, for some reason (for me) telling the God’s honest truth can sound like I’m trying to hide something.  Like the time my Dad, brother and I had just spent a long week in Canada fishing and were about to hit the customs waypoint back into the United States.  I was driving the vehicle and pulled up to the first window where the customs agent was to ask me a series of questions related to my whereabouts and intentions.  There could (and are on occasion) also be a full-blown, “Get out of the vehicle and get inside that holding pen while we totally dismantle the car down to the frame, while we look for contraband including too many Walleye fillets!”  All I needed to do was to stay cool and tell the truth.  We had no contraband, or too many Walleye fillets after all; we were Boy freaking scouts when it came to taking chances.

I rolled down the window and said, a timid “Hi.”  The responding, hat-wearing official’s one-word reply was, “Country?”  I blanked.  Country…what the hell is “country”?  At the risk of becoming unreasonably chatty, I asked for more clarification with a small, “country”? of my own.  He said, “Which one”?  All of a sudden t came to me…he wanted to know which country I was from!  Now, knowing what he wanted is one thing and being able to utter the words, “the United States” is quite another.  About the only thing I could think to do was to point in the direction the car was heading and emphatically state, “That one!”  I sat there like a deer in the headlights saying nothing, convinced I was about to be forcefully evacuated along with my open-mouthed father and brother.  Fate smiled on me as the official laughed and threw a couple more softball questions in my direction, and off we went into the good ‘ol USA once more.  To this day I’ll never know what the man thought of that exchange; however I’m leaning more towards being too stupid to lie to him, as my ultimate saving grace.

Back to the Parks attendant’s question of “Where” (had we launched from?).  My mind went blank as usual and I started to gesture with my hands in the direction of the Rowing club, miles up the river while saying “Commerce Street.”  I threw in an equally unconvincing “Milwaukee Rowing Club, you know, over there by the brewery?”  The man stood there for a minute and looked at me.  Barbara came to my rescue with solid competent-sounding reiteration of my ravings and the man just finally, mercifully, walked away, saying nothing further.  Whew, that was close!  I had almost turned a solid truthful story into something that sounded like premeditated subterfuge (again!).  I was breathing easier and thanking my luck, when I noticed and heard Barbara following the guy back to his lawn chair asking him questions.  I heard something to the effect of, “…when was he (the man) supposed to be on duty this morning, because how could a person be expected to pay for a launch when the only pay envelopes were (in fact) locked in the unattended booth?”  I blanched and pleaded with my eyes for her to leave well enough alone.  She looked back at me and (thankfully) did, walking over to help me finish loading.

Know that I can’t (nor won’t) ever blame her for having my back 100%.  On the contrary, it’s one of her most amazing qualities and one that any man would give his right arm to be the recipient of…however, discretion is quite often the better part of valor, and why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?  I thanked her for her undying support, love and vehement protection of the logical and drove back to Commerce Street’s Rowing Club to fetch the Mercury.  It was getting really hot outside and I was thirsty…ready for an air-conditioned nap and so was she.

What a GREAT (Milwaukee River) DAY!

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Canoe-Birding the Mighty Milwaukee River (Part One)

♫ ♪ Ol' man river, dat ol' man river he mus' know sumpin', but don't say nuthin', he jes' keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin' along. ♫ ♪♪

The Milwaukee River begins in the Kettle Moraine State Forest Fond du Lac County, with the most recognizable “starting point” flowing south out of Long Lake near the tiny village of Dundee, WI. It rolls south past Grafton to into downtown Milwaukee, where it finally empties into Lake Michiganbeneath the yellow arch of the Daniel Hoan bridge. Cedar Creek, the Menomonee Riverand the Kinnickinnic River are its three main tributaries, fueling its motion towards the big lake. There are 31 automobile and four train bridges over its Milwaukee county run alone. Several inviting parks line the banks of the Milwaukee River. These include Estabrook, Gordon, Kern, Lincoln, Pere Marquette, Pleasant Valley, and Riverside Parks in Milwaukee, Kletzsch Park in Glendale and Hubbard Park in Shorewood.

In an effort to connect the natural current of the Milwaukee River with a current of business and leisure activities, the City of Milwaukee launched the RiverWalk Initiative in 1988. The City and Business Improvement District (BID) together share the price tag of RiverWalk construction and other RiverWalk capital expenditures in accordance with the terms of a Development Agreement. Property owners with a RiverWalk constructed on their river frontage are solely responsible for maintaining such riverwalks to a standard acceptable to the City and the BID. In September of 2009 the Milwaukee River was named to be one of “10 great places to stream through cities”. According to Kit Cramer for USA TODAY, the Milwaukee River is on her list of “great places to take a boat ride.”

With all those worthy reasons to enjoy the Milwaukee River in mind, plus the possibility to see some birds while traveling the waterway; Barbara and I decided put the Canoe-dle to “play.” Utilizing the wonderful and comprehensive map created by the Milwaukee Riverkeepers, I chose a likely non-threatening place to “put-in” at Kletzsch Park, just below the bucolic waterfall. A persistent angler was working the eddy below the churning white water with a fly-fishing rig as watchful Canada geese lingered nearby. We nimbly carried our aluminum steed from our street-parked vehicle from the nearby (parallel oriented) Milwaukee River Parkway, down a gentle gravel embankment and scuffed it into the water; ready for our trip down river. We each took turns carefully getting in, becoming situated, and eventually shoved off; scraping plenty of rocks as we eased into slightly deeper water.

The 3.5 mile journey downriver was quite pleasant. The Milwaukee’s current, was more than enough to maintain forward momentum with only general course corrections necessary. The temperature was around 75 degrees at 9:30 AM and the sun was beating down through a mixture of clouds and clear sky. Private residences dotted the shoreline on each side, however not tightly packed together. It seemed as though those who were either fortunate or intelligent enough to initially locate their dwellings along this rather quiet stretch of urban river, had decided to stay the course and maintain occupancy, if not to actually have established a permanent dock or mooring. There were few actual piers or launch areas to be seen amongst the thick undergrowth that lined the riverbanks, let alone any actual watercraft. Smallish tributaries, (akin to neighborhood drainage causeways) joined with the main body of water as we drifted along the main river channel. Concrete storm water outlets pierced the embankments at various intervals; trickling a few gallons per minute into the flow, from some unknown runoff source, and the traffic noise was nearly nonexistent.

Mighty Beltedkingfishers, and four different kinds of swallows (Barn, Tree, Cliff and Rough-winged) were the birds of the majority, as well as the occasional Northern cardinal, American robin, American goldfinch, Mallard, Canada goose, Several sandpiper varieties (Solitary, Least, and Spotted), Dunlin, Yellow warbler, Eastern kingbird, Blue jay, and American crow. Binoculars were welcome equipment, however nearly unnecessary due to the close-quarters sightings. One backwater area we canoed into was literally "swimming" with large carp in very shallow and muddy water. We paddled upstream in this channel until we almost ran aground; rough fish zipping this way and that to avoid the hull riding over their scaly backs, clouds of brown muck in their wakes.

Human beings were few and far between on our journey; mostly seen at overpasses as they stood to look out and downward at the glistening river. The color of the water was decidedly brown and murky, however lacking any objectionable odors. Painted turtles could be seen sunning themselves on the occasional shoreline-captured log; slipping quietly into the cool wetness as we passed too near their comfort zones. Slight sprinkles kicked up from passing rain-fattened clouds, but nothing steady developed. The shade actually brought small amounts of fleeting relief to the sun-baked reflective aluminum. I called out each bridge (street) name to Barbara as we slipped underneath them; watching the swallows darting to and fro catching the plentiful water striders from the rusty surface of the river.

The gentle and relaxing trip took about two and one-half hours from put-in to take-out, just ahead of the Estabrook Park Dam. The Estabrook Dam was put into service in 1937 to elevate water levels in the Lincoln Park area after a prior project to blast bedrock from the bed of the river to minimize flooding drastically reduced water levels. The Dam creates an impoundment or small lake behind it that has been loved by local residents, and used by both motorized and non-motorized users alike as a recreational area. Unfortunately, the Estabrook Dam has been on a long decline in the past several decades, and Milwaukee County has not addressed several outstanding maintenance and repair requirements per State Dam Safety regulations. It is currently the subject of much debate and argument as to whether it should or must be saved from dismantlement. Total costs to keep/repair/renovate the dam include $4.8 Million to $6.3 Million depending on amount of sediment removed. Environmental opponents argue that removing the dam would yield the greatest positive impacts on river ecology, flood management, water quality, sediment management, fish and aquatic life, terrestrial wildlife, and recreation. They further argue that dam removal will help restore the natural and wild aspect of the Milwaukee River for current and future generations. Additionally, they maintain that the ecological health created by a free flowing river offers greater long term value than maintaining the present lake behind the dam.

Before we became entangled in the upstream portion of the decrepit concrete structure, we landed on shore at the designated (signed) spot. Either that or the sign that clearly stated "Canoe Take-Out" was for fast food pick-up intended for canoeists only.  We reversed the process on board the Canoe-dle in order to set foot on dry land. The temperature was now over 90 degrees and it was time to carry the canoe to the previously spotted second vehicle. You see, if you intend to have a splendid and relaxing time going down river, not intending to paddle (and perhaps fight) your way back against the natural flow; you need to plan ahead. We had done so before driving the canoe to its launch site, however one critical step had been overlooked; I had left my set of keys three and one-half miles upriver in the other vehicle! Well, as my father had sagely told me time and again (in what should have been my formative youth); “what you don’t have in your head, you gotta’ have in your feet,” off I embarrassingly went with the awesome Usinger’s liver sausage sandwich and can of sparkling water (intended as a post-trip picnic) in hand, to walk the distance as my self-imposed penance for being stupid.

Forty weary minutes later, after passing far too many bone-chilling, union-backed Sandy Pasch for 8th District senate lawn signs (I much prefer the duly-elected Alberta Darling myself) and going through my water supply faster than my perspiration was running; I arrived at the car. I cursed my decision to wear less than adequate footwear not truly fit for schlepping my sweaty body, however the Mercury Mountaineer's AC controls set to sub-zero quickly took the sting out of my shame and frame. I texted Barbara that I would be driving back to her shortly, and pulled away from the curb chuckling to myself, while my wracked brain mercifully decided to give my (second-guessing) subconscious a rest - No sense ruining my own glorious day. Loading up went quick and Barbara was all too gracious in excusing my truck keyless faux pas. I thanked her for a fantastic time and promised that “next time” the keys would ride down river with me.

Rivers are always changing with constantly flowing, moving water. Spring (melt-away) snows remodel their slumbering wintry banks, recovering their jutting bottom rocks with off times explosive seasonal rebirth. Renewing rains freshen and refill the waterways like welcoming breaths of oxygenated vigor. Rivers turn and twist; meandering a bit here and there, but always with a purpose…rivers unlike lakes; go places. Similarly, I turn, I twist, I meander with purpose (mostly)…I love going places (sometimes even without the proper equipment). I guess rivers and I have a lot in common. Plus…there’s always the mutual communion of “canoe-birding”…and anything combined with birds is always a winner in my book.
Part Two – Goin’Downtown…stay tuned.