Thursday, August 23, 2007

High Adventure on Gichigami

This past week brought a brand new adventure and unforgettable experience. I was invited by my friends to join their crew as they spent the latter part of the week and weekend sailing two boats on Lake Superior. Each boat would have a seasoned captain provided for by Sail Superior, but we asked that the sailing mostly be performed by our group. Everyone had a pretty good knowledge of and experience with sailing. That is, except for me. I had been taken out once in a small Butterfly sailboat and, other than that, was fascinated with sailing lore and history. But this was to be an education.

We drove up north in separate groups and some of us were able to spend time at a cabin on Twin Lakes. Kjell, Gabes and Heidi cooked two large steaks over a fire pit at the shore and concocted bevies and cooked mushrooms, potatoes and even some compote in the cabin.I was able to spend some time casting a fly of the dock in the early morning. Nice having the lake to oneself.

Then we were to visit both Devil's Kettle and the Witch Tree before crossing the border. Devil's Kettle is a water fall in Judge Magney State park in which one one half of the water diverts off and shoots down into a large tube of rock. The amazing thing is that it appears to shoot directly into the depth of the earth. With that huge amount of water it really makes you ponder on just where the heck it must go. Underground caves? Does it resurface somewhere immediately down stream? Here you can see Paul and Steph taking a look.

The next stop was the Witch Tree in Grand Portage. In this town of 557, over half are Ojibwa. Noticeable structures are the casino, an Ojibwa school and an authentic reconstruction of the fort in which French and English once traded. The access to the tree was off a seemingly unmarked road with a short jaunt to the tree line marking the lake's edge. The boardwalk was very well constructed. There was a sign which warned spectators to remain at least 20 feet from the tree and to observe silence out of respect. This was a sacred site. Well, as the boardwalk was much further from the tree than 20 feet, Keegan and I took it upon ourselves to have a closer look. This brought us to a clear view of the tree on a pinnacle of rock. Flagged by lake winds for some 300 years, the Witch Tree, as White's call it or, in Anishinabe, Manido-Gree-Shi-Gance ("spirit-little-cedar)," sat in daunting defiance. After I sprinkled my offering of tobacco near where small offering bags had been left, we departed.

We cross the border with no problems, just an officer's inquiry into whether the car ahead of us was an electric car. Driving into Thunder Bay was not the most uplifting experience. We passed many residential and commercial buildings that seemed to bleach in the bright sun as we drove past them. Perhaps this is because the town felt so flat. Instead of building beyond a second story, most of the city seemed to build out. It appeared in a somewhat depressed state. Evidently, it was making a transition into the tourism industry after years of leadership in shipping by train and boat and also milling pulp. But now the switch to trucking and rising electricity costs have left the city in economic decline. Hopefully tourism, the university and it's role as medical center will bring this dying place back to life.

So, we stopped at the marina and at some point found our two sailboats. Captain Greg was our lead captain. He owned the Frodo but would be the skipper aboard the Peregrine. I believe due to insurance reasons, the other Captain, Bill, could only sail the Frodo. Frodo was a 40' Jonmeri, decks of teak, and quite the cruiser. This would be our Cadillac, whilst the Peregrine, sleeker, lighter and faster, would be our Ferrari.

We hit the yacht club and had a few pitchers of beer. They announced their racing awards and an Ernest Hemmingway look-alike tended bar.

That night we berthed aboard the boats and come the next morning we set sail. I was aboard the Frodo and as we motored out of the harbor I could see that the winds had already kicked up some big swells. The wind developed into some 25 knots and I tried to pitch in where I could but I mainly tried to stay out of the way. I eyed Paul's corrections at the helm. It began to intimidate me as I took his continual compensations as reflecting a more challenging sailing environment. So, when it came time for my 5 minutes at the helm, my knees were knocking. I had never experienced something like that. The wind in the sails was one force whilst the wind upon the water was another. So, the gusts might tell you to counter with one reaction but the waves pressing from the side and rear would tell you to react in another. It was awesome but I depended upon the advice of the more experienced.

As we were in the process of coming about, jibing or tacking, (I think we were jibing because we were going with the wind, right?) the baby stay got hit and snapped. (I believe it was because the leeward jib sheet was too slack and somehow made contact with the stay, but I dunno.) We seemed to recover pretty well but then when Greg radioed back from the Peregrine, seeing that we must be in some distress with our jib flailing around, etc., he ordered that the Frodo come about. Then there was some chaos as Bill whipped the boat around and we inadvertently did a 360. For a short bit we were bobbing about somewhat out of control and the look of concern on people's faces really helped to add to the excitement. I just wished I was more competent and could actual be of some assistance. During this the Peregrine had come back to investigate. It was another cool site, to see that boat, with Greg at the helm, clearly loving the fact he could push a bit of the envelope under those conditions. In a short time, we were under way again and would spend the night rafted together in Loon Harbor with yummy fajitas for dinner.

The next day we were on our way to Horseshoe Cove but first stopped in Otter Cove to check out a waterfall. As the Frodo carried the GPS I had to navigate it into the harbor following a set of way points. As we neared the narrowest passage there was a gentle, but sudden jolt as we hit the sandbar. Greg came on the radio asking if I had followed the way points as instructed. Though anyone could have made the mistake, I still felt dumb. But Bill was able to free the boat. Later, Greg pointed out where we must have hit, believing that I may have overcompensated in avoiding the marker where he grounded previously. He treated it like no big deal. Still felt dumb. When there Bill rowed us ashore in the dinghy and we trekked to a waterfall (mostly a cascade) some 30 plus feet high. I climbed up the fall (though unbeknown to me there was a simple trail up there) and had a little pool and cascade to my lonesome. After Steph, Heidi and I lost the main trail and did some makeshift trailblazing through the thick boreal/river growth, we returned back. This time I would travel on the Peregrine.

The Peregrine was a different experience. With Gabes and the Skipper aboard there was a more performance-oriented atmosphere which, for me, was a little more intimidating but educational. Everyone, including the skipper, helped to shepherd my ignorance, pointing out tips and encouraging me. It was here, in fact, that I took the helm, with knees knocking as before, and proceeded to catch up with the Frodo. The closer we got to the Frodo, the more I was ready to pass the helm to someone else. In my mind was my freshman exposure and lack of confidence which seemed a necessary trait of a sailor. But as the $200,000 vessel came in stones throw of another of equal value, my job remained. I eventually passed the Frodo, much slower than any other helmsmen, but passed it nonetheless. That helped to increase my confidence.

That eve we pulled into Horseshoe Cove, where our boats were rafted together and one could jump off the bow of the Frodo and be on land. We made a fire, had a good meal and Bill and I smoked our pipes. Half of the crew played some Mexican and others did their own thing. It was nice to catch of view of the stars framed by our masts.

In the morning Keegan was hoisted up the mast and took some footage of us lying upon the deck. We then jumped in the frigid water. Keegan had done so on several occasions. In fact, Greg had told him he needed to do so to moor the boat in the first place. He would have made such a jump regardless.

Off to Thompson Island the next day. On our way we stopped in Silver Islet, in which the largest silver mine in the world lived for 40 years. In fact, one legend stated that the feature known as Sleeping Giant signifies the lying place of a great spirit which died when the White people discovered silver. We stopped for some blueberry pie and soup and to pick up Greg's wife that had taken the hour and a half drive from Thunder Bay to join us. Upon docking the entire crew looked on while Greg had me tie a bowline. Believe it or not, I knew how to tie the dang thing, but a combination of the audience and the correct procedure through which I was being instructed made it look like I had never done the dang thing before. But, I completed it, to a kind-hearted but embarrassing applause.

Thompsons Island was a very long and thin island upon which a well-constructed dock and decking had been created by boaters - our captain Bill being one of them. For many an excited Norseman there awaited a sauna, painstakingly constructed, to offer a hot and moist reprieve from the chill of Superior. Abandoned by the rest of our crew, Andrew and I prepared dinner. After we turned up the Gypsy Kings, we were having fun.

That night brought another 'when in Rome' experience by heading to the sauna and doing the obligatory jump in the frigid Superior. It reminds me of a site we saw in Silver Islet - a fishing boat whipping by, towing two little children upon a raft. Now, these waters don't advance much pass the 50 degree mark. More than 4 minutes and your blood really has naught to do with your extremities anymore and hypothermia sets in. This Nordic race really revels in such a bloody thing!

The following morning I went off on a lone adventure to find the pits, which were believed to be carved by paleo-Indians some thousands of years before. First I visited the path to the island's reverse side and looked at the rusted rocks. The path was beautiful, with some of the softest textures I have seen. Then, I started on the well-marked path that offered a nice look-out of the harbor. The trail completely disappeared at times as is natural of any forest, especially a boreal, with it the deadfall and the consumption by moss. So, I looked at the many different ad hoc trails that people had created and selected one, sometimes crashing through overgrowth or stepping on pads of moss and wading through tunnels of Old Man's Beard. As the trail descended to the opposite side of the island that I wanted to be, I turned back. I did not realize that one had to go around the island and double-back to the pits. If a Thompson Island veteran reads this I'm sure they would shake their head and chuckle. Then again, any sailor will as well.

Homeward bound on Sunday. Under motor, we had to tow the Peregrine out of the harbor as it had lost it's engine. The wind, which initially blew quite strong, diminished almost entirely. But this afforded us a relaxing view of such places as Flatland and Pie Island. The Frodo had to turn around to tow the Peregrine once again and that is how we entered the harbor. But it was symbolic of the symbiotic nature of that voyage and the kindred relationship of the boats and of our crews.

Thanks to everyone for letting me join them. To Heidi & Kjell, Gabes, Paul & Steph, Keegan & Andrew, Silas & Karen, thanks for allowing me to hang with your crew. To the kindly and seasoned Bill, it was great hearing of your stories, intimate knowledge of Superior and smoking a pipe with you. Au Greg sportif et conduit, merci de nous mener sur notre aventure grande. (Pardon pour ma francaise pauvre!)

*Please excuse any misuse of terms or misunderstanding about what took place! Regardless, I think I may be hooked!

Run With the Celts

Though not an accomplished distance runner, I joined in the second annual Run with the Celts which took place on the Saturday morning of the Irish Fair. It was great to run down Plato, past the caves I used to explore years ago, back to Harriet Island, to receive a Killian's at the finish and take in the Celtic realm. From the Hibernians to the haunting sounds of Uillean pipes, the race was a part of this special event. Downtown St. Paul stood in attention just across the Mississippi, as the pipers marched on. Though a laughable 5k time of 22:08, it did put me in 29 of 318 runners.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Mississippi River Challenge

Over August 4 & 5 the annual FMR Mississippi River Challenge took place. Unfortunately, the tragedy of the I-35 bridge collapse cut our route in half. So, with some last minute scrambling and logistics shuffling, FMR changed the event to commence at Fort Snelling and end at the original finish point, Grey Cloud Island.

This year I volunteered as a safety captain. The responsibilities involved keeping people safe, leading the course and assisting wherever needed. It felt good being purposeful and if you really applied yourself there was always something to do no matter how small.
After dropping my kayak at the landing at Fort Snelling Park, we dropped our vehicles at Grey Cloud and then, when our time came, we gave the safety briefing to the participants on the bus, traveling back to the Fort.
That gray evening saw a tent with a band performing, good food and a canoe full of Summit beer. It always feels a special privilege, to pitch your tent in the middle of the fort's parade grounds and roam the walls and towers. After helping with the set up and the service from the beer canoe, a few of us had a special invite to the VIP tent in which the head chef from Muffaletta was serving some incredibly tasty ribs and dolmades. After that we made our way back to the main food tent and then returned to the beer canoe.
I was happy to get away and take the path down from the fort to where our boats lay in anticipation. After taking a shift monitoring the boats, I had a nice conversation with a new friend and then I crawled into the canoe of the voyageur re-enactors, who had tipped it over and constructed a tent from it's new position. We had a brief chat about voyageur history. Then, it was back to the Fort where I climbed into my tent whilst some others still remained partying.

Morning saw us push off after the drum ceremony of some Ojibwa Indians. The paddle was a nice one. No major emergencies popped up, though I did have to radio back to the headquarters to help some abandoned park rangers at the 694 landing.
It was a nice ride but a little sobering to pass the St. Paul storm sewer drain where the bodies of two missing sewer workers had been found only a week previous. I had been down in the water then, looking by the piers, barges and even under the paddle wheel of the American Queen, to hopefully find the last missing worker. Keeping that in mind, as well as the continuing search of the I-35 victims, the river took on an even more sacred presence. The eternal flow of the Mississippi would carry the equally eternal souls of those who had passed upon it. It was that river which now carried me.

At Lion's Levee came the most precious part of the journey. A separate back channel could be found here, just past the marina. In fact, it was completely new to me until I volunteered to scout it's depth just a few days before. So, I did my best to guide some boats into this secret path but most opted for the main channel. Which, in my own ignorance, I had done until recently as well.

The channel was quiet and peaceful, only some 30 feet across and bordered on either side with lush trees which atop a 10-foot sandstone ledge on the northern side. We paddled down, looking at the trees, arrowhead plant, white geese and occasional egrets and herons. Eventually, the back channel joined with the mighty main channel, but not before I took the opportunity to paddle beneath a special rock overhang that held itself some 7 feet over the water.
With some weariness we made our way to the end. The clapping of volunteers, though embarassing, also signified the end to the long 22, or so, mile paddle. Getting out, walking down to recover my vehicle, loading my kayak, eating a mock duck sandwich, handing in equipment, saying last goodbyes, marked the end of the adventure.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Rescue Diving Certification

Well, I am now a PADI certified rescue diver! The class consisted of two classroom sessions and two diving sessions. Before the classes I made a point of doing some heavy study of our text book and wanted to be as fully prepared as possible come the actual application in our dives. As is the case with most things, common-sense could be applied to every situation. However, it was important to be able to know and apply the correct procedures in rescuing a victim. Some examples of what was learned: rescuing an unresponsive diver beneath the water, rescuing panicked divers at the surface, diver tows and CPR, performing lost diver searches correctly, equipment removal, diver extraction to land and use of oxygen systems, amongs other things.
I had a great dive buddy, who was a firefighter, and felt comfortable with the other divers in the class. During our in-water rescue testing, I snapped into a leadership role when we were notified that a diver was missing. First checked that the lost diver had not gone to shore, have someone contact emergency services, then had some rescuers scan the water, sent two surface divers to snorkel a search pattern, had my buddy team and another initiate a correct diving grid on the bottom and finally requested a surface team have a way to recall searchers (with a tank tap). We were applauded for the speed in which we acted, the coverage of necessary steps and how quickly we located the victim. It rocked! We were able to complete the dive early due to our success. Just as we were ending the class and awesome and rare roll cloud came up!

So, I feel very satisfied and secure after taking the course. I only hope that if a real emergency arises we can react in such a good fashion! I would recommend the course to anyone.

Next step . . . Dive Master.