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Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 3: Beautiful Borderlands

Our last installment took us as far as Presidio, TX, on November 6. Read on to learn about our next several steps.

Nov 7-8 (Wednesday, Thursday): We drove to Big Bend National Park near Cottonwood, TX. The drive from Presidio was described by our RV campground host as “the prettiest road in the US,” and she may very well have been right. We were awestruck by the breathtaking views along the narrow, winding, roller-coaster road as it followed the Rio Grande River, although Pat seemed to have turned a pale shade of green by the time we arrived at Big Bend. While her discomfort was due to motion sickness and trepidation over the steep drops next to the road, we were both more sickened by the thought of despoiling the beauty with a giant wall erected to salve the irrational fears of the anti-immigrant crowd. Perhaps if more people would come to look at this place, to gaze out across the river at the nonexistent hordes of imaginary invaders … but I digress.

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After our free entry into the park (with my National Parks Senior Card), we drove to the Chisos Basin Campground, located as implied in a large basin amidst the Chisos Mountains. By the time we had navigated the road into the campground with its multiple switchbacks, hairpin curves, and severe grades – first up and then down – Pat’s color had morphed into a frightening puce. But she immediately perked up when we found a vacant campsite – probably the most dramatic one we’ve had so far.

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We paid a whopping $7 per night with my Senior Pass discount. There was no electricity, water, or sewer, so we were again dry camping / boondocking. The site was very uneven, and we couldn’t level out the camper with our existing stock of leveling blocks, so I felt a bit like a drunken sailor as I walked back and forth inside. It was also a grueling half-mile, uphill hike from the campground to the Visitor Center area, which included a store, a restaurant, and several lodges for non-camping guests. But none of that mattered as we hiked the scenic trails, covering about ten miles over the two days, or sat quietly in our lawn chairs drinking in the scenery. We had one nice lunch at the restaurant but prepared the rest of our meals in the RV. It was near freezing at night, but the daytime temperatures were very comfortable.

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Nov 9-(Friday): We awoke to find the Chisos Basin campground shrouded in fog; temperature in the upper30s and a chill wind required our jackets when we were outside. We had intended to drive to the southeast corner of the park for scenic views of the Rio Grande, but after navigating the campground road in the fog, creeping along at a snail’s pace, barely able to see anything, we decided to just head off to our next destination. The fog persisted for a couple of hours as we wended our way toward El Paso, TX, and both of us were nervous wrecks from the tough driving conditions by the time the fog finally lifted. After some five hours of driving, we decided to stop at an RV Park in Van Horn, TX, where we payed $14 for a site with full hookups (with a Passport America discount). This place even had cable TV and, having procured a cable at Walmart a couple of days previously, we enjoyed a bit of junk TV. We took showers in their excellent facilities and were ready to go again in the morning.

Nov 10-11 (Saturday, Sunday): On Saturday we covered 370 miles from Van Horn to Willcox, AZ. The El Paso metro area freeway was jammed, requiring a relatively slow pace of 50 – 55 mph, but the rest of the trip was free sailing, with little traffic other than innumerable semi-trucks carrying America’s goods to market. The freeway spanned seemingly endless miles of flat desert areas, surrounded on all sides by distant mountains. Every so often we would actually reach the mountains ahead, at which points the road would wind up and down through a mountain pass and emerge once more into the desert, with mountains again far off in the distance. The drive was very easy, but I was impressed by the incredible vastness of the southwestern landscape. We stopped at another RV Park with full hookups, wi-fi, and cable TV, though the Passport America rate was not as good at $23 per night. So why did we stay two nights? There was a golf course only two miles away, so naturally I had to play on Sunday. I’ll say only two things about the golf: 1) it was a good deal at $17 for 18 holes with a rented pull cart, and 2) I really need those new irons.

Nov 12 (Monday): We drove about 40 miles to the Chiricahua National Monument, named for the Chiricahua Apache tribe who occupied the area from the 1500s until being driven out by white American settlers and the US Army in the 1880s after some 50 years of warfare. The area was named a National Monument in 1923, to protect the unique and beautiful rock formations. RVs larger than 29 feet are not allowed due to the narrow, winding roads, but we easily navigated our 25-foot Unity into the Bonita Canyon Campground, where we had actually reserved a spot for a change. It cost $10 for a gorgeous site with no hookups.

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We took a nice, 4-mile hike through the Riparian zone of the park past some historic structures collectively known as Faraway Ranch – since it was so far away from any place else – which in addition to being a working cattle ranch provided lodging for park visitors from 1917 to 1973. Interestingly, the place was founded by Swedish immigrants after the Native people had been driven away to reservations in Florida and Oklahoma.

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Nov 13 (Tuesday): We drove the RV from our beautiful campsite to the Visitor Center and parked there so we could take the free hikers’ shuttle to the trailheads near the top of the mountain, along with three other hikers. The narrow, winding, 6.5-mile-long road with a vertical climb from 5400 ft elevation at the Visitor Center to 6780 ft at the trailhead might have been a challenge in the RV. We then spent about two and a half hours descending along the Echo Canyon, Upper Rhyolite Canyon, and Lower Rhyolite Canyon trails, a total distance of 4.2 miles. The hike began with spectacular vistas highlighted by the fantastical rock formations that have been carved out f the rhyolite rock originally laid down millions of years ago as volcanic ash. It was about 35-40 degrees, with a severe wind, so we needed to wear stocking caps and gloves to keep from freezing, but we hardly noticed because the sights were so incredibly beautiful. Gradually, the trail habitat morphed from the Mountain Zone back to the Riparian Zone, showcasing the incredible diversity of flora and fauna this gem of a park has to offer, and the temperature rose to a more comfortable mid-50s.

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After the hike, we headed off to the west again, stopping for the day at an RV park in Benson, AZ, which had excellent and much needed laundry and shower facilities along with full hookups for the RV (all for a rate of $25 per night with our Passport America discount).

The next phase of our trip will take us to some slightly different environs than the beautiful borderlands – check back in a week or so for the next update …

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Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 2: Canyons and Caverns

We last left off on October 29, in Woodward, OK. What excitements did we encounter during our second week? Read on to find out.

Oct 31 – Nov 1 (Wednesday, Thursday): Drove to Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Canyon, TX. The canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” the second largest canyon in the US. The state park was fantastic – we descended 600 ft along a narrow, winding road to our campground and found ourselves for the first time completely isolated from the security blanket known as the Internet. (Amazing – there are places where a smart phone can not get a signal!) We had no problem finding a space without a reservation, though rumor has it they fill up completely on weekends this time of year. This was the most expensive park fee yet at $34 per night, but it was definitely worth it. All around us were spectacular canyon views accessible by miles and miles of hiking trails. We were also visited by a road runner and a group of wild turkeys during our stay. We arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday so didn’t go on any long hikes, just wandered about getting the lay of the land. On Thursday we hiked about 6 miles on easy trails, while on Friday we hiked 5 miles on a more difficult trail to get an overlook of a feature known as The Lighthouse before heading off for parts west.

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Nov 2-3 (Friday, Saturday): Drove to an RV Park in Artesia, NM. Our lucky streak of finding places to stay without reservations almost ended when we were told the place was full, but the person in the office clicked away at her computer for a while and discovered that one reserved guest had delayed his arrival by a few days, so we got the only vacant spot. We paid $41 per night for the privilege, with my $2 per night senior discount, including electric, water, and sewer hookups, laundry, restroom and shower facilities, wireless, and cable TV service (although we did not at that time have an actual cable to hook up to the RV to WATCH cable TV). There wasn’t much of interest in Artesia, but we needed a place to do laundry, rest up from the hiking at Palo Duro and the long drive, and prepare for our next, more exciting location. We did have a nice walk around the town on Thursday, lunch at a local brew pub, including a Crude Oil Stout, and a lovely evening sky just before sunset.

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Nov 4-5 (Sunday, Monday): This part of the trip included a bucket-list highlight for me – my first ever trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I developed an interest in caves as a small boy, perhaps when visiting Wind Cave in South Dakota on a family vacation as a 4-year old. Later, I did some research on Mammoth Caves for a 4th grade school report on Kentucky. My first adult cave visit was to a rather disappointing Crystal Cave in Wisconsin. Subsequent cave visits have included Mystery Cave State Park in Forestville, MN, Oregon Caves State Park, and the aforementioned Mammoth Cave (with Pat, Nick, and Brian in 2004) all of which I enjoyed very much. But I always knew that Carlsbad Caverns would be the best, if I ever got there. And it was. THE. BEST. EVER.

We arrived Sunday around 11 AM, arranged free entry with my lifetime Senior National Parks Pass, and purchased tickets for two guided tours on Monday. My tour tickets were half-price ($7.50 for the two tours) because of the Senior Pass. That lifetime pass has to be the best deal I’ve ever gotten in my life – when I bought it six years ago it only cost ten bucks! After arranging for the Monday tours, we embarked on two self-guided tours accompanied by a nifty audio guide we rented for $5. The first self-guided tour was a 1.5-mile walk into the cave via the natural entrance, eschewing the elevator to the bottom. The walk follows a lighted, paved path with handrails, so it’s relatively easy, though there are some segments that are quite steep and others that are rough and uneven. At any rate, it certainly felt like a 1.5-mile hike, even though it was made as easy as possible for the multitude of visitors. There are many switchbacks and passages through dark, narrow spaces or arches, and with each turn or emergence from a dark area we were rewarded with another breathtaking view. Immense open rooms contained stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and boulders, many decorated with popcorn formations or delicate etchings. The second tour was the “Big Room” route, a 1.25-mile circuit around the perimeter of the cave’s largest open room. That was a bit of an understatement – I’d call it the ENORMOUS Room. This also followed a paved path, and the most impressive features were artfully lighted. Along the route, we passed the “Bottomless Pit,” its actual depth of 140 feet proving that the original explorers were also capable of overstatement.

Monday’s first guided tour was the King’s Palace tour, passing through four highly decorated chambers. This tour also followed a well-lit, paved path but was only accessible with a guide. We spent about two hours with a group of thirty or so as our guide explained the history of the Cavern and pointed out interesting features. Finally, the Left-Hand Tunnel tour included only nine guests and the guide, as we made our way along a much rougher, unpaved path using only hand-held candle lanterns for visibility. This tour provided a taste of the conditions experienced by the cavern’s original explorers. The guided tours each included a few minutes of total darkness, a time to drink in the silence, broken only by echoes of slowly dripping water, and think about on the amazing place we were visiting.

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These photos do not do justice to the beauty of Carlsbad Caverns. The various formations were reminiscent of the Gothic Cathedrals we visited in Europe, though sculpted by Mother Nature rather than man and perhaps celebrating mythical creatures of the universe rather than the mythical saints revered by Renaissance sculptors. I was profoundly moved by the natural beauty and by the sheer immensity of it all. At one point while admiring a highly decorated formation I whispered to Pat, “That one looks like Mother Nature’s tinnavala!” (Finnlanders will understand …)

Just a brief word about our lodgings: We stayed Sunday and Monday nights at an RV Park in Whites City, a cheesy little tourist town located just outside the gate to the National Park. There is no overnight camping in the park, so that was the closest possible place for us to stay. Again, we didn’t have a reservation but were able to secure two nights for $44 per night, including electricity, water, restroom and shower facilities, and wireless service. Nothing to write home about, but it was close to the Cavern.

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Nov 6 (Tuesday): We made a brief stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park near Salt Flats, TX, on Tuesday morning since it is so close to Carlsbad, although the strong winds nearly blew the RV off the road as we approached. The park is unique in that it includes three distinct life zones known as the Desert Zone, the Riparian Zone, and the Mountain Zone. We walked a mile or so along a trail into a canyon near the Visitor Center before driving off again into the hurricane and catching a view of the famous peak, El Capitan. Luckily, the wind died down as we made our way toward Presidio, TX.

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In Presidio, we planned to stay a couple of days at the Loma Paloma RV Park and Golf Resort so I could play golf. Unfortunately, we discovered that the golf course had been ruined in a flood nearly a decade ago. Supposedly they are “remodeling” the course, but it didn’t look like it to me. Such is life.

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We did get a site with electric, water, and sewer hookups and wireless service for $15 with a Passport America discount. We spent the evening watching election returns before heading off in the morning to visit our third National Park in as many days.

Check back for updates as we continue to explore warmer regions of the USA …

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 1

On October 22, 2018, we departed from our cozy cabin home in Grand Marais, MN, for a 6-month tour in our RV (a 24-Foot Unity model by Leisure Travel Vans of Winkler, Manitoba, Canada). We’ve been talking about and looking forward to this new adventure since we got the RV back in April. We were going to do all sorts of research and lay out an itinerary for the trip. However, neither of us is very good at detail planning, and before we knew it, it was time to go. So we left, without making a single lodging reservation and with only a general notion of what we might actually do, leaving our youngest son, Brian, in charge of the homestead while we’re gone.

While I might be lousy at planning, I am certainly capable of documenting things after the fact. Therefore, I’ll be posting a series of articles with brief thumbnail sketches of where we’ve been and perhaps a few pithy observations about the joys and pitfalls of this nomadic existence. Here goes my first effort.

Oct 22 (Monday): Drove to the Twin Cities, specifically Brooklyn Park, MN for brief visits with my oldest son, Matt, his wife Shaina, and our middle son, Nick. We stayed overnight in Nick’s back yard just off the alley – in RVer’s parlance we were “dry camping,” or “boondocking,” with no electricity, water, or sewer hookups.

Oct 23-24 (Tuesday, Wednesday): Drove to Pine Lake State Park in Eldora, IA, just far enough south to find a State Park campground that was still open for the season. It was a lovely little spot next to a lake, the vibrant fall colors enhanced by a bright blue sky. We shared the park with about ten other campers scattered about the hundred-plus sites. There were no operating personnel in attendance – registration and payment of the super-cheap fee was self-service only ($22 for two nights per the Senior Citizen rate for an electric RV site). The biggest surprise of all was a 9-hole golf course just a short walk from the park; naturally, I walked over and played eighteen holes on Wednesday.

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Oct 25-26 (Thursday, Friday): Drove to Watkins Woolen Mill State Park in Lawson, MO, located adjacent to a historic woolen mill first established in the late 1860s. This place had attendants who drove around in little carts to greet campers and collect fees. We were lucky to find one electric RV site available for two nights – the campground was essentially full by Friday evening. Again, the fee was quite reasonable ($28 for an electric RV site for the two nights). This senior citizen discount thing is pretty cool! The bathroom and shower facilities were outstanding compared with the more spartan Iowa version. On Friday we went to visit the old woolen mill site which was very interesting and educational.

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Oct 27-28 (Saturday, Sunday): Drove to Eisenhower State Park in Osage County, KS. This place had hundreds of campsites located on five or six different loops on or near a large body of water called Lake Malvern. We had the option of registering with a ranger at the office or using the self-service method. We chose the latter, because they required a Social Security Number to establish an account in the office. While the ostensible reason given was to prevent use of the facilities by people who are delinquent on child support payments, I suspected a more nefarious purpose based on my opinion of the anti-immigrant views of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. At any rate, the park was excellent, and the fee was again very reasonable ($29.50 for an RV site on the “prime” lakeside Blackjack Loop, with both electricity and water supply – discounted for late season and, you guessed it – senior citizen rate). I missed the best picture opportunity – cloudless, bright blue sky as sunlight reflected off the white feathers of a flock of birds fluttering in front of a full, shadowy moon on Sunday morning. We spent a couple of hours biking around the park on Sunday after driving to town to get groceries – and succumbing to the lure of corn dogs at a Sonic drive in, our first meal so far not prepared in the RV. The Blackjack Loop was about two-thirds full when we arrived on Saturday, but when we departed on Monday, we were the only campers left.

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Oct 29-30 (Monday, Tuesday): Drove to Boiling Springs State Park in Woodward, OK. This was our longest driving day so far, roughly 5.5 hours including stops. We had our first experience with something called Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF), a consumable fluid that minimizes pollution from a diesel-powered vehicle. A warning message appeared on the dashboard stating that the DEF level had fallen to 2.5 gallons. Pat read the operator’s manual as I drove, learning that once the DEF level falls to 0.8 gallons it is only possible to start the RV 12 times. After first unsuccessfully attempting to add DEF from a pump at a truck stop (during which process I splattered DEF on various engine parts and also warped the strut that holds the hood open), we went to an auto parts store and bought a 2.5-gallon container of the stuff. Once we arrived at our RV site, I poured in the DEF and cleaned up the mess I made at the truck stop. Now we’re all set, and we will be adding another 2.5 gallons once we’ve driven 4000 more miles.

The State Park was very nice, though slightly more expensive at $40 for an RV site with water and electricity for two nights. I guess the Oklahoma senior citizen discount is a bit skimpier than the other states, or they haven’t yet enacted off-season rates (although there are more deer than people here at the campground), and/or they are attempting to raise more revenue from campers. All was forgiven, however, since there is a nice, 18-hole golf course adjacent to the park. I played 36 holes on Tuesday while Pat enjoyed hiking the nature trails. I managed to hit some excellent wood and hybrid shots but was frustrated by generally lousy iron play. At some point during this adventure, I will obtain a new set of irons to remedy this problem.

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Stay tuned as the adventure continues …

Minnesota’s Treasured State Parks

Minnesota has a total of 67 State Parks and Recreation Areas, ranging alphabetically from Afton to Zippel Bay. Way back when we were young whippersnappers, Pat and I decided it would be fun to try to camp at (or at least visit) every one of them over the coming decades. Now that we’re both sexagenarians, accomplishing that goal seems very unlikely. But we did add two more new ones to the list and revisited another during the month of September in the course a trip that took us to Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, and back. That brought our totals up to 24 total State Parks visited, including 13 where we have camped.

The first State Park on the trip was Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park, which we have visited in the past. The highlight of our visit was a tour of the retired underground iron mine, first established in 1884. We started by travelling a half mile underground in a cage lowered by a cable that unwrapped from a large drum driven by a 1920s-vintage motor. We then rode on an old ore train along one of the many branches to see where and how the ore was mined. Learning about the hard lives led by the old miners was fascinating, and the displays were interesting and informative. When our guide turned out the lights, it was so dark I literally could not see my hand in front of my face.

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In its time, the mine was a critical source of iron for steel making, helping to build the railroads and supply the military through two world wars. It was shut down when its technology became outdated. There’s plenty of iron ore left, but it would be too costly to mine it any more. (Here’s a hint for the old coal miners waiting for their jobs to come back — the same thing is happening to your industry. Wake up and smell the coffee — or the coal dust.)

Our next park stop was Lake Bemidji. This was a new one for us, and we were very pleased with our campsite. Unfortunately, it rained all night and we awoke to the prospect of another rainy night. So we wimped out and traded the tent for a nice little Camper Cabin, in which we stayed cozy and dry the second night.

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The park had miles and miles of well-maintained hiking and biking trails through the woods and along the shore of Lake Bemidji. We especially enjoyed the bog trail.

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On our return from Winkler, we were slotted to camp again at Zippel Bay, another new one for us, located alongside an inlet of Rainy Lake with a lovely sand beach. Unfortunately, it was still raining and getting colder by the hour, so we blew it off in favor of a motel in Baudette. We did at least stop and look at the park — it was very beautiful and had three large campgrounds with spacious sites nestled in the woods.

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When we got back home, we had to admit that our tent camping days are most likely over. Which brings me to the reason for traveling to Winkler in the first place. Next spring, we will be the proud owners of a 24-foot RV from Leisure Travel Vans, located in (you guessed it) Winkler, MB. We went up there to tour the factory and confirmed that our selected model is a very high quality unit suitable for traveling about and camping at many more of our beautiful State Parks during the months they remain open. With the new vehicle, we can laugh at the rain and cold and just enjoy the parks. Hopefully there will be many more yet to visit, even if we don’t make it to each and every one.

We also plan to spend time in the winter months traveling to many of the fabulous National Parks. I’ll probably do a blog post about that in late 2018.

Adventure awaits.

A Tale of Three Wells

Living here above the shores of Lake Superior is truly wonderful. I get to look at the lake every day and live like the natural hermit I am (most of the time anyway), yet the wonderful town of Grand Marais is only a few minutes away by car (or 20 minutes by bike, or an hour walking if it comes to that), providing a convenient place to shop for necessities and get an occasional jolt from contact with other humans. Not to mention being close to a couple of nice golf courses, without which the place would be simply uninhabitable.

However, there is one interesting challenge associated with living outside of an actual city. Out here, one can’t just connect up to a city water system — one has to have a well to obtain water. Hermit though I may be, I can not live without running water.

Way back when we were planning to build our cabin, my father had a plan. We would build a long cable down to the shore, supported by pulleys, to which we could attach buckets. We would go down to the lake every day and fill said buckets with water, then crank them up to the cabin and store said water in a cistern. We would have an outhouse for our daily “excretionary” needs. I promptly vetoed that plan. He was a real hermit. I am only a fake hermit.

But, I digress.

At any rate, we had the local well driller out to drill a well for us. He used a divining rod to locate a likely spot, then set about drilling. Lo and behold, after only a few hours, he struck into a great source of water only 45 feet below the surface, in a sort of gravelly soil. That well has served us faithfully and faultlessly for thirty years now, with good, clean water.

Not long after our well was drilled, our neighbor, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent, engaged the same driller for a well on her property. This time not bothering with a divining rod, he selected a site only about 25 yards away from our well and began drilling. Down and down went the drill, for several days, through gravel and rock and mud and more rock, until finally finding a dribble of water at about 320 feet. Over the next several years, the neighbor tried and tried to get more water to flow, finally resorting to hydraulic fracking. She did get more water, but it was often muddy, so she had to install a complex filtering system.

The neighbor sold her place a couple of years ago to some wonderful folks who shall also remain nameless, except to mention that they are my wife’s sister and her husband. Being on friendly terms, we were happy to accommodate them when they showed up with plastic jugs in hand, asking to collect a supply of our water for drinking and cooking. That has continued to happen whenever they come to stay at their cabin.

They finally grew tired of borrowing water and decided to have a new well put in. Out came the local driller again, now accompanied by his grown sons who are continuing the business into a second generation. Out came the diving rod again, presumably to make up for the previous error of their ways, and a third well locationwas selected, this time only about 15 yards from our successful site.

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Hoping to find a good water source near the 45 foot level, they were disappointed when only a dribble of silty stuff appeared. So, they needed to go deeper. And deeper. And deeper. A couple of insufficient or silt-filled water spurts were encountered along the way, until finally they hit a gusher at 440 feet. As of yet, this new well has not been connected up to the cabin, but it certainly appears to be steady and clean. The neighboring property should soon, at long last, have a suitable water supply.

I find this all quite fascinating. In an area that could easily be covered by a large tent, three wells were drilled by the same company. One has great water at 45 feet, one has crummy water at 320 feet, and the most recent required 440 feet to get good water. This surely speaks to the complexity of the geology in our region, as well as the futility of the divining rod.

ADDENDUM: In an interesting twist, it turned out that drilling the new well caused the crummy old well to start flowing very clean water at a very high rate. So, the neighbors didn’t even need to hook up to the new well — it’s mere existence solved their water problem. Apparently the new well passed through or created an underground channel communicating with the old one. So the new well was capped and now stands as a silent reminder that drilling for water along the North Shore of Lake Superior is a mysterious art.

Grand Marais Author News Redux

A while ago, I posted a self-congratulatory piece about my books, explaining that they are now available for sale at a local bookstore here in Grand Marais. In that piece, I described a writer’s salon I had attended featuring Lorna Landvik. Ms. Landvik is not only an outstanding Minnesota author, but also a very entertaining speaker. In her remarks, she mentioned one of the things her mother had ingrained in her: “You don’t toot your own horn!” Getting past that well-meaning but not terribly helpful advice was one of Lorna’s struggles on the way to becoming a best selling author. Eventually, she decided that an appropriate response to that advice was something like this: “Well, what do you think a horn is for, ma?” Perhaps another one might be: “If I don’t toot it, who will?”

So, here I am, about to toot my own horn — yet AGAIN. It doesn’t feel right, but I’m doing it anyway.

Last night, I attended the monthly meeting of a local group known as the Grand Marais Writers Guild. This very supportive group holds meetings in a relaxed and informal setting at the Grand Marais Public Library. While there, I learned that my books have now been added to the Library catalog. How cool is that?

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The photo above only shows one of the books since I didn’t see the other two, but here’s a screen snap from the on-line catalog showing that they truly are carrying all three books.

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So now, if you really want to read these books but can’t stomach the $2.99 each price for the Kindle editions or the $13.50 to $15.00 price for a print edition, you can travel to Grand Marais and read them FOR FREE!

(RELATED SPECIAL ALERT: All three books will be on sale as a Kindle Countdown Deal, starting at $0.99 each, from September 2 to 9 in the Kindle Store. They’re also free all the time for Kindle Unlimited members.)

When I got home from the meeting, I was thankful that I hadn’t worn my golf cap — my head was so swollen I may not have been able to get it off. What an emerging success story! All-time sales of my books have now exceeded two hundred (no, not two hundred thousand — let’s try to stay in the real world), they’re selling in a real bookstore, and now they’re IN THE LIBRARY!

Toot, toot!

Hoito House RULES!!

I just returned from our annual August visit to Thunder Bay, a venerable, sprawling city located in Ontario, Canada, along the north shore of Lake Superior. I say annual because various family members and I have been making a trip there sometime in August nearly every year for the past several decades. (Disclaimer: This was actually our fourth or fifth trip to Thunder Bay this year – since we now live so close, it’s no longer that big a deal to go.) There are many things we enjoy doing in Thunder Bay and surrounds: go to the great shops in the Bay and Algoma district (Finnport, Scandinavian Delicatessen, Finnish Bookstore, Cheese Encounter), explore the Marina Park, sweat away stress at the Kangas Sauna, ooh and aah at the Kakabeka Falls, immerse ourselves in history at Old Fort William, visit the amethyst mines, even an occasional round of golf. We usually do at least one of those things each time we visit.

But one thing reigns supreme and simply MUST happen every single time – we eat lunch at the Hoito Restaurant.

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A sign at the corner of Bay Street and Algoma Street proclaims that the designated Bay and Algoma Historical District is the home of the “World Famous” Hoito Restaurant. The restaurant was founded in 1918 at the site of the Finnish Labour Temple, itself established in 1910. According to the Hoito web site, “The idea for the restaurant came about in a logging camp outside of Nipigon. Finnish bush workers at Kallio’s camp were concerned that, while they could find cheap lodging in Thunder Bay, they couldn’t find reasonably priced home-cooked meals. The request to open a co-operative restaurant was taken to the Board of Directors of the Finnish Labour Temple and was approved. Fifty-nine people pooled their money into $5.00 ‘Comrade loans’ and hired union organizer A.T. Hill as the restaurant’s first manager.” (My, my – those old Finns almost sound like Communists, eh?)

My parents always referred to the place as the Hoito House, though that’s not the official name. The restaurant is almost entirely lacking in ambience, but the food is authentic Finnish fare that always transports me back to my youth, sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table. Here are the delectable eats we savored today.

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Karjalan Piirakka (Karelian pie) – rice enclosed in a sort of pocket crust made from rye flour.

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Suolakala voileipä (saltfish sandwich) –  salted cured salmon sandwich, served open faced on rye bread.

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Hernekeitto (pea soup) – pea soup with ham.

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Ice cream with salmiakki – a salted licorice concoction that most non- Finns or non-Scandinavians probably consider just plain weird.

Former Italian Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi once proclaimed Finnish food to be the most boring and the blandest in the entire world. He may be right, but to me it tastes like manna from heaven. And I don’t even need any Tums after eating.

Today, I salute the Hoito House – maybe the best place on earth for a good, cheap meal.

Grand Marais Author News

On June 26, I attended a Writer’s Salon at Drury Lane Books in Grand Marais. The speaker was Lorna Landvik, the well-known Minnesota author of best sellers such as Patty Jane’s House of Curl, Angry Housewives Eating Bonbons, and her latest, Once in a Blue Moon Lodge. Ms. Landvik was extremely engaging and entertaining — I highly recommend that any book reader or writer attend one of her presentations if opportunity arises.

Meanwhile, two and a half blocks to the east, at Birchbark Books and Gifts, a somewhat less famous Minnesota author is now featured on the bookshelves.

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Yep, that’s right — Birchbark is now selling books by yours truly! At the time of the photo, they were only carrying Snowman and Slice. They initially purchased 3 copies of each as a trial. When they actually sold some of the initial allotment (perhaps to their amazement), they purchased three additional copies of Snowman, five additional copies of Slice, and four copies of Lateral Hazard. Each of them is personally signed and adorned with stickers that read “Local Author” and “Author-Signed Copy.” I realize these sales numbers are pitifully small, and Lorna Landvik probably sold more than that in one hour at Drury Lane, but still … she doesn’t actually live in Grand Marais.

So perhaps I now qualify as a best-selling Grand Marais author of books physically sold in Grand Marais? What fun!

Our Eagle Friends

About five years ago, when we were still only visiting our Lake Superior place occasionally during the summer, we began to see a family of eagles in the vicinity on a fairly regular basis. We would often see one or two of them perched in a tree overlooking Lake Superior, presumably watching for a juicy morsel of some sort to come along. Here’s a picture of one of them flying away from its perch after I blundered into the area.

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It seemed clear that they had a nest somewhere nearby, but we couldn’t find it. Last year, after we moved here permanently, we continued to see the eagles throughout the fall, though we still had no luck finding their nest. Here are two of them perching on a tree in our front yard last September.

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We stopped seeing the eagles once winter actually arrived, but we then made an exciting discovery while out snowshoeing – the great nest was located! No birds were in residence; presumably they had migrated south for the winter.

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Our first eagle sighting of 2017 occurred on February 27. I was eating breakfast when I looked up to see a deer staring me in the face, and then I noticed an eagle in a tree in the background. The great birds were back!

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Since we now know where the nest was located, we would periodically trek into the woods to see how they were doing. Here’s a picture taken on March 24. One bird sat vigilantly in the nest while the other was presumably off hunting for food. I’m guessing that one or more eaglets had been hatched at the time of this photo, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

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Here are my most recent photos, taken on May 31. With the increased vegetation, it was really hard to even see the nest, but again, one bird was standing guard. Based on the noise level coming from the nest, I’m quite sure there was at least one eaglet in there, though I wasn’t able to see it.

We’ve seen the birds flying and perching along the shore several times this spring, and we often see one flying past our house and into the back woods, heading home for the evening after a day of hunting. Pat even saw one scoop something out of the water and fly along the shore as we were driving back from town one day. Hopefully I’ll get some more eagle pictures during the summer and fall, and maybe we’ll see the juveniles when they get big enough to leave the nest.

I am so thankful for the wise people who decided that these magnificent birds were worth saving. Once nearing extinction, in the 1960’s, they have flourished since the government enacted much-needed protections. On August 9, 2007, the bald eagle was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species. I can only hope that the current crop of right-wing politicians who believe that nothing matters except jobs – even those that have become irrelevant in today’s economy – will be deposed before they cause irreparable harm to our environment and the many remaining endangered species. We are all diminished when we allow nature’s beautiful creatures to perish due to the constant pursuit of the almighty dollar and the cynical quest for votes.

Invasion of the Turkey Vultures

Spring is here, although it’s been a bit of a stuttering start so far. We had sleet and snow Wednesday and Thursday, but today is a beautiful, sunny day and the the new accumulations are nearly gone. What was really interesting this week was a sudden influx of birds, which unfortunately coincided with the brief winter-like storm. There were white-throated sparrows everywhere, scrabbling around on the ice trying to find food. I put out some bird seed and they devoured it like a starving mob. Along with the several dozen sparrows, I also saw what I think was a rose finch sneaking in to grab some seeds. There was also a fat robin walking very close to the cabin — apparently too cold to fly, just sort of stumbling around, who didn’t even have enough energy to go after the seeds. If a robin can shiver, that’s what he was doing. I could just imagine him saying, “What the #$%^^&, they told me it was springtime up here!”

Toward evening on Thursday, we started to notice some eagle-sized birds soaring around the place. I got out the binoculars and looked at one perched in a tree nearby, and it looked just like this, complete with the bald, red, wrinkled-up beak-face:

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I looked in our bird book and concluded that it was a turkey vulture. (My phone isn’t good enough to get a close-up so I copied that picture off the internet.) He flew off to the west and settled in another tree, and I then noticed that there were several of them gathered in the general vicinity.

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You can see six of them in the picture above, but there were probably twice that many. They weren’t making any sounds at all, just sitting in the trees looking things over. They kept that up for ten or twenty minutes, and then they all flew off together toward the west and I didn’t see a single one again that day. I’ve seen a couple since, but not the big group. They fly very quietly and are graceful in an odd sort of way, kind of bobbing along on the air currents while barely moving their wings at all. The bird book says they are the champions of the bird world in terms of soaring ability. It also says that the bald beak-face is an adaptation for scavenging, since they are scavengers only and do not eat anything live.

So, it wasn’t actually an invasion, and I’m relieved to know that they won’t be attacking us up here as long as we remain alive and kicking. (I just called it an invasion to make the article seem more interesting. Sorry for the fake news — I must have been infected by our Tweeter-in-Chief.)

Anyway, I just though this sudden profusion of birds was interesting, especially the turkey vultures, which I don’t recall seeing before. Maybe they only hang around here in the early spring on their way to someplace else. In the past, we wouldn’t be up here this early, so this was just one more delight from our first full winter season on Lake Superior.