Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Rails of the Wisconsin

Amber waves of grain.” That line echoed in my head as the kayak slid through narrow, surprisingly current laden channels of the upper Wisconsin River just north of Rhinelander. Grain, not as in wheat , barley or oats, but rather what belongs here-wild rice.
My friend Mitch Mode, an avid bird photographer (when his sporting good store releases him) and I took a rare chance to venture into the “northwoods” and slip the boats into water. Although Mitch loves photographing pretty much any winged creature-I've grown to see he has a soft spot for shore birds-birds most of us, including myself, never give much thought. They generally migrate north in the spring and return early fall to embark on the long flights to wintering grounds in the southern US and South America.
Sora Rail

Every year when I purchase my migratory license and fill out the HIP information, I'm asked the standard questions: Do you plan to hunt rails, snipe or gallinules? Although I'm an avid bird hunter, I couldn't ID many of them, for they're not game I'd seek out.

The 1300 acre Rhinelander Flowage extends upstream from Boom Lake, another back water of the Wisconsin River, formed by a major dam in downtown Rhinelander. Above the flowage, the Wisconsin twists and turns a hundred times as it snakes it's way south of the Rainbow Flowage near Lake Tomahawk. The river here has a much different character than what it transforms to in the southern part of the state. Until it empties into the rice filled flowage where we paddled, it's narrow and meanders through dense forest-quite unlike the wide flats and sand bars of the lower Wisconsin.

It's said one should use the right tool for the job, and I was totally out-gunned by Mitch's set-up. He's done this before. His kayak was a smallish plastic drab-painted and ghillie suited affair, perfect for slipping into close quarters with wildlife. The camo-theme continued with paddle, hat, shirt and long lens on his camera. No problem-I'd be sure to scare everything away with my 18' bright white kevlar sea kayak, orange vest and hat! Being a long hard chine boat was not ideal here where I'd have to twist and squeeze through narrow passages filled with tall rice stands, weeds and lily pads. No matter-I was on new water (to me) and could sit back and watch how Mitch maneuvered to get some beautiful shots. I'd keep myself and my boat out of the way.

Rhinelander Flowage

I'd probably seen Sora Rails while duck hunting out west or even instate, but to me they were just another tiny shore bird flitting around not earning my attention. As soon as we set the boats down at the launch, Mitch's ear was tuned to their call. A loud clap of his hands invoked a hail of “weep” calls from this small secretive bird. As we paddled, any loud sound would shock the unseen rails into various calls. The long high descending “whinny” was my favorite and it seemed the entire marsh was a chorus of them when Canadian geese set them off.

Although we could hear them, it took some time before one of the little marsh walkers exposed himself at the “shore” of the channel. The slate blue/grey bird nervously sauntered across water lilies in its search for small invertebrates and vegetation. Mitch pointed the tiny bird out and started shooting, while I clumsily made a wide turn and made my way back to drift in for a closer look. The rail picked along the edge, happily chirping out a “quink-quink-quink” from time to time while feeding, unconcerned with us. 

Mitch-Fully outfitted

Sora Rails are fairly easy to identify-they have a small yellow bill with a black face and “mohawk.” A short tail flashes white underneath when it's walking or launches into the air. Legs and feet are oversize for such a modest sized bird.

I think Mitch would have been quite content to spend the entire day floating and photographing here and skipping out on “real” life in town. I could see why-the rice beds attract a host of waterfowl and other wildlife. A pair of eagles soared high above, Marsh Hawks (Northern Harrier) floated just above the vegetation hunting and a copious supply of wood ducks and teal were happy to make this part of the river home among the muskrat huts.

I love nature like this. Marshes and swamps may not be as glamorous as a majestic mountain or forest, but they team with life. That spicy snappy smell you can only find here and with the slow flowing water that binds it all together. These are good and important places.

The outside world all too soon pulled Mitch from the water, but he insisted I stay an explore-which I felt obliged to do. The long boat changed gears and set about to investigate more of the deceptive passages through the rice. As long as I kept an eye on channels with moving water I felt assured I wouldn't get lost. Hopefully. 

Among the Rice

With some satisfaction, I did manage to navigate a few narrow corridors and wind up back at the launch. From time to time, I'd try Mitch's hand clap and chuckle at the response from unseen rails tucked nearby in the weeds. Cheap entertainment I guess. This flowage will have to be visited again-spring would be best, with many more migrating stop-overs passing through. A better camera (than my iphone), proper attire (and different boat??) would be along next time. As Eiseley eludes to-these are magic places and must be returned to.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. -- Loren Eiseley

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Away to the Waters

Paddling the Potters

I have need of the sky, I have business with the grass; I will up and get me away where the hawk is wheeling lone and high, And the slow clouds go by. I will get me away to the waters that glass the clouds as they pass. I will get me away to the woods.” -- Richard Hovey

There is a mystery inside me that perhaps I never am aware of, but one I realize with time spent outdoors. It's what Hovey speaks to here-a need, an obligation to myself to be outside, to see something that gives me pause, to discover a presence of what can only be experienced outdoors. I like that I never know what it'll be until it's recognized, and it's never a conscious effort.

A lot of my interests “get me away to the woods,” hunting, fishing, biking and skiing and even my job as a wildlife technician. Stepping out the door begins the best part of my day.

As if I needed another distraction, paddling entered my life full swing this summer. I've dabbled in it from time to time, and in a way, kind of feared it, because I knew I'd be pulled toward the water away from trails and other pursuits. I finally gave in...and love it.

Being inches above the water, slipping silently forward as the shores pass by, it's much different that most anything else. Quietness, save for an occasional misplaced paddle dip that splashes clumsily alongside the boat. I'm still not smooth at this. In a kayak or canoe it's easy to be taken back in time, when Native Americans used their small boats to move from place to place or inuits skillfully surviving harsh waters in the north to survive. I have a whole new appreciation of their skill.

As important as that connection to the past a kayak offers, maybe more-so, it slows me down. Mountain bikes and skinny skis tend to propel us through the woods at breakneck speed and we miss much. These boats slide calmly in the water inviting more pause, more observation, maybe even reverence of the surroundings. Speed has little place here.

These thoughts were at the surface the other day as the kayak and I pushed off from shore in central Jackson County into Potters Flowage, a 250 acre lake 20 miles east of Black River Falls. I'd known about “Potters” from fishing friends who try their luck from time to time summer and winter, but I'd never visited it. Looking at a map, it appeared perfect for a paddle-it's a drainage lake with lots of little fingers off the main body of water, and one, several miles long to the South begging to be explored.

The put-in is located at Merlin Lambert County Park off McKenna road, once the site of the bustling lumbertown of Goodyear. Nothing but elusive foundations exist east of the campground now, where in 1898 the timber supply was exhausted in less than six years. The same dwindling fate met the towns of McKenna and Zeda further to the South, now sparsely populated and covered with cranberry marshes.

Potters Flowage is best known for it's bass and panfish abundance and rumor has it muskie fishermen hit it hard in the fall. A few boats trying their luck were my only company on the water-no complaints, this is not a lake for the power boat crown. The lake has a max depth of 24 feet, but just a mean of 7, so it's shallow and weedy on the edges. Water quality is moderately clear.

I stayed along the shorelines wanting to partially circumnavigate the main part of the lake and then head down into the inviting narrows. Even with a brisk headwind, my 18' boat made it across surprisingly easy and eventually sliced through a broad expanse of lily pads to the original flooded streambed of Hawkins Creek. A ribbon of clear water here guided my adventure south deep into the county forest.

If one didn't know better, you'd swear the boat was slipping into the wilds of the boundary waters or Canada-the shore mostly lined with towering white pine-remnants perhaps of saplings loggers missed 100+ years ago. This part of the state is better known for squatty Jack Pine, Aspen clear cuts and gnarled red oak than majestic straight pine. The further I paddled, the better my surroundings became.

Morrison Creek (different from the Morrison flowing into the Black River) feeds Potters from the far east near the boat launch, while the Hawkins section of the flowage forms the wide channel I venture into, gradually narrowing and winding its way to the McKenna Creek spilling in from the far south. There are several small fingers stabbing into the forest on either side with one across from a primitive landing off Larb Lane on the west bank where folks were camping. Going around each bend was like turning a page in a book to discover something new-I never tire of that.

Potters Flowage finally squeezes down to a fork in the road so to say-one short arm leads west and vanishes, the east bound one heads further and finally succumbs to the skinny alder lined McKenna. Trails end for me. I brace the paddle far to the side and swing the long boat around to start my journey back. Skies had start to darken and I seem to remember a forecast of possible rain, so what was a leisurely cruise took on a more purposeful stroke of the blades through water. Even with some urgency, I did stick to the opposite shore than when I entered-still time to explore I thought.

Arms and back started to ache, but no complaints from the boat-she steadily cut through the water and around reeds and occasional water lilies on the return trip. I'd make it back fine-the threatening sky stayed at bay for the moment.

Campers at the county park busied themselves with Labrador retrievers, swimming and prepping small boats for perhaps a bout of fishing. I slid into the shallows near the landing and managed to extract myself from the cockpit (still tricky) and hoist the kayak on shore.

A few sore muscles were fulfilling indicators that I'd done something worthwhile, that I'd “gotten away to the waters that glass the clouds as they pass.” That “need” and obligation to myself to be outdoors had been met...for this day, and I'd be back.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Faces of the Games

The first time since I've been involved in Special Olympics, national media coverage finally discovered what we have known all along-how sport can change lives for people with disabilities and that they all have a story.  ESPN did an exceptional job covering the World Games and their writers sought out and featured our athletes narratives-so much so, that we as coaches experienced more of the public "getting it."  Not just saying they know what SO is about, but really understanding and accepting it.

Through countless interviews for TV coverage, newspaper stories, online pieces and social media, the athletes shared their lives with the world.  Smiles, high fives, hugs, ribbons and medals were their reward for hard work and dedication to their sport.  I think the joy in what they've accomplished can be reflected in their faces-pride in themselves and for everyone who has supported them.

I hope I've captured some of that-these are the athletes of our Athletics (track and field) team.

Laurene-Race Walk




Mark-Middle Distance

"D"-Middle Distance

Alex-1/2 Marathon







Karen-1/2 Marathon

Brittany- Sprinter

Olivia- Sprinter

Briana- Sprinter

Josh- Distance




Alberta- LJ

Gillian-Middle Distance

Laura-Middle Distance

Hayden-Race Walk


Dillon-Middle Distance
Steve-Head Coach

Monday, May 4, 2015

The (Almost) Grand Slam


There is a “Grand Slam” in nearly every sport imaginable and in Great Lakes fishing, anglers rarely score one. A Coho salmon, a King, Brown Trout, Steelhead and a Lake Trout. Five species- a tough spread of fish to put in the box on one outing considering their varied lake habitat. Most of the year, it would be nearly impossible. Spring does offer a limited window of opportunity-cold waters warm and many great lakes fish move nearer to shore than where they normally haunt. If a big water fisherman wets lines on just the right day, it could happen. For my fishing partners and captain, we almost did. Almost.

Good friend and charter captain Kris Davis of Northfork Sportfishing knows how elusive the grand slam can be. I try to make a couple trips down to the Kenosha marina, where Northfork is based. He's hunted down great lakes fish everywhere from Ashland to Keewaunee to southern Lake Michigan. His crew consists of Uncle Dan Davis and kids Megan and Blake-they're fisher-kids, born into the sport. I'm lucky enough to be invited to join them and I mark early May on my calendar for the coho run. We've had exceedingly good luck over the years out of the Kenosha port and the waters north and south of there.

Arriving early in the morning, Kris had the boat ready and Uncle Dan started in with jokes that had the kids eyes rolling. A prettier sunrise you won't find and glass flat water greeted us as we slipped the bounds of the break wall. My friend John Merreck joined us-a consulate inland fisherman, who loves to dabble in this big lake thing from time to time.

The report from Kris centered around slow action so far this season. He traded a first-ice-out smaller boat for the “Corkscrew,” a Luhrs 290, Northfork's usual fishing rig and one I can attest to being a perfect boat for the job. Most of the charter captain's chatter indicated the big coho run hadn't started-inconsistent weather perhaps was the culprit. Kris was confident we'd get something and predicted (as it turned out, rightly) that we'd have a mixed bag. Boats had been bringing in a few of the small salmon, a brown here and there and even a laker, which is unusual at this time of year in near shore angling.

Spring fishing usually means shallower depths and we motored out less than a mile off shore. Other fishermen had the same plan and near “the bubbler” ( Kenosha's warm water discharge) it looked like a parking lot. The water here ran 25-40 feet and had temps of 46-49 degrees. Finding exactly what depth and temps the fish liked was Kris' challenge and one he's exceedingly good at. 
Kenosha Harbor

“BING” “Fish on!” Even before we had a third of the gear down, John was on a pole cranking in a nice fish. A big 8 pound brown-perfect start to the day. When a fish is on, it's a team effort-a net is grabbed, planer board removed and who ever is battling the fish given room while the captain keeps the boat on course. Having the first fish “in the box” so early made us all pretty optimistic.

Hours passed by and the number of boats staying on the water dwindled. Kris kept the boat further out hunting for that subtle difference in water temperature where we seemed to pick up a fish once and a while. The radio talk was lamenting a lack of action by the other captains- “crickets” as they say. We kept at it and were rewarded with a nice 14# king, which fired up the boat and crew. A few more average sized cohos were boated and a real nice one....turned out to be a steelhead. Hmmmm, that's four species onboard, and thoughts of the grand slam surfaced-we'd just need that “pretty one” (A laker as the fleet calls 'em).

It was not to be-we'd miss that fifth species but not for lack of effort. For much of the day Kris had a full pull going-15 lines in the water, from 35' down to just below the surface. Downriggers, dipsy divers and the 8 little soldiers (planer boards) all trying to coax a bite. By afternoon, the Corkscrew was about the last boat on the water and we kept a few lines in all the way through the harbor entrance, just in case.

That elusive last ditch fish never took the bait so to speak, and the grand slam would be safe for another day. No matter-we felt pretty good about the excursion compared to most of the other fishermen. It was slow, but we'd put 8 in the cooler and would have great meals ahead. For John and I, who don't get on big water very often, just being out there was reward enough-as I commented when we slid through the morning water, “This pretty much doesn't suck.” I know, not very eloquent, but in the warming colors of the sunrise and cool air coming from the cold water the Corkscrew slipped through, everyone nodded in agreement.

For more information: Northfork Sport Fishing,

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Just Ride

This spring exploded out of the door just 2 days after snowcover welcomed snowshoes and skis in early March. Pow! It arrived. Sure, we had a few stubborn snows after that, but in truth, we knew spring was winning the good fight. As such, any open mountain bike trail in the state is going gang busters and Levis Mound, ( one of the first, has had 3 weekends of packed parking lots. Not that it matters, with 25 miles of singletrack, riders spread out quickly.

It seems that early season also brings out mountain bike enthusiasts of all types, shapes and sizes. Some maybe with shiny new rides, others with solely a resolution to just ride more often and this is their start. It makes for interesting people watching post ride outside the chalet. My little gang of trail building friends are no different. Some of them like the latest greatest full suspension rig- sporting gram saving carbon and Ti doo-dads, and others just clip into last years dirt caked mongrel steel steed.

Relaxing in old camp chairs, we sip our beverages and conversation moves back and forth between the next new wheel size (“28.2” wheels-they'll be awesome and I'll be killin it!”) and lamenting the poor souls lifting old school 26” bikes from their racks. “Those look so tiny” -commenting on the bikes that were perfectly fine for all of us a few short years ago. Yeah, they still do work you know.

My friend Dan is on the old school-steel-is-real end of the spectrum. He's built up a rare “69er” which you'd be hard pressed to see at any trail head, rides a single speed 29+ Krampus and a fatbike. He loves to give people grief anytime the weight weeny conversation gets too serious. I like that. He'll tirelessly needle folks anytime the chatter is more about the bike than the ride. Sure-we all like the hardware, but it shouldn't come at the cost of why we're out there in the first place. Sometimes we need reminders of that.

I like riding with Dan- he's fit and can hammer with the fast dudes who power up and down the Levis trails, but he keeps it all in perspective and I'll join him for a no-drop-just-ride-along as well. I'm not in the jet set racer mode mentality any longer, so I appreciate going my own pace and riding within my ability-fitness or skill wise. I can use the excuse that I want to enjoy the time outdoors “just riding” (and that is true) but to be honest, I wish I still had the horsepower to keep up. It is what it is. “Next month I'll be in better shape. Dan's favorite prevailing philosophy may be “Just ride and shut up.” That, and don't take yourself too seriously- “pass the flask dude.”

The conglomeration of bikes continued to stream past us in the parking lot. An old Klein Mantra, a brown 26” Schwinn High Sierra, four bar linkage suspension bikes, a 750B and enough single speeders to keep my quads quivering. Strutting riders in their flashy new 2015 kits walk by all serious, others in tattered shorts and t-shirts with shin guards not so much. Some pay their trail fee others sadly “forget.” The no helmet people are the most worrisome-they, if anyone, need the protection the most. They all continue to parade by, click in and head out the trailhead entrance. It's all good.

It's dirt on your legs that is more important than the latest greatest gizmo and what bike you're on seems to disappear once the pedals are spinning. While Dan loves his steel, I'm not a frame material zealot-I've had them all and am on a bamboo bike at the moment for gods sake! They all worked and got me out the door pedaling. Earlier in the day, my little group sported a fatbike, a couple single speeds, a pair of 29+, a full zoot FS and a lightweight 29er hardtail. Quite an array. We stopped every once and a while, waited, chatted it up, viewed the scenery and kept the Strava feeds mostly at bay. That's riding in my book.

The best bikes aren’t at the extreme ends of the functionality spectrum, so specialized that they’re a bike-length away from dysfunctionality. The best ones are boring jacks-of-many-trades, and you stretch them to their limits with skill and experience.” ― Grant Petersen

I'll admit-back in the race days there was a new bike in the garage every year and any new shiny thing had to be hung on it. I followed the sport and it's iterations constantly. Cost was almost no object and I figured I needed all of that to make me a better cyclist. Those folks, like my old self, will always be there, and I was knee deep in it. Nothing wrong with all that per se, but in hind sight, it didn't make the ride any better.

It seems, as really has always been the case, the best rides are ones with no agenda, no attitude and they unfold with no regard to the clock or a distance travelled. Legs can burn or not, wheels can roll solo or with others, and training logs are forgotten or not even considered. Maybe it's my age, my wisdom (ha) or maybe it's just an appreciation of how lucky I am to be doing this at all. Just ride.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Opening Day

It's known as the winter that wasn't, but was. Cold temps, lack of snow, but also no melting the whole season. For winter fat bike riders it was great. That said, there is a longing this time of year to get knobbie tires on dirt-real dirt on real trails.

Opening day at the trailhead is like giddy kids in toyland. Every rider and bike of every size and shape squeezes into any remaining parking slot. Such was the case at Levis Mound Trail this past weekend-Opening day in southern Clark County. Levis is blessed and cursed to have very light sandy soils, and just 2 weeks ago we were on packed snow-what a difference a week or two of warm weather makes.

Typically, the trail shuts down in March or April to allow spring thaw to allow a drying period. There are no hard opening and closing dates-Mother Nature dictates that. This year, with minimal snow cover, the singletrack was ridable much quicker than expected. With social media and web sites announcing trail conditions, it's possible to inform the riding public on a short timeline. They were ready.

The Levis Mound Facebook page had constant inquiries about as soon as the last snowflake disappeared. Patience...difficult for some-especially the non-fatbike crowd who haven't turned a pedal all winter. Our scouts and volunteer trail builders started in almost immediately checking the status of the quickly drying trail and digging dirt for re-routes. Not that there really was pressure to have maintenance and re-routes done by the opener, but when you have help-one wants to take advantage of it. Grub hoes were slinging in ernest.

Once the call was made to open her up-word spread like wildfire. Riders from all over the midwest posted on the websites-Levis was possibly the first trail open to riding for the 2015 season. A small hiccup of snow showed up a few days before, but melted and still allowed for good riding. Some north facing trails clung to snowcover a bit longer and riders on fatbikes held an advantage, giving the illusion of multi-season riding in one day. The recent trail work was welcomed and riders who made the trip to West Central Wisconsin, got their money's worth-long rides and frequent stops at scenic vistas-no shortage of them here.

As a trail builder here for 30 odd years, and head instigator of a sorts, it was a blast to be out riding by myself-stopping to chat with others and snapping as many photos as I could. A friendlier crowd of bikers you won't find. Luckily Levis has an extensive 25 mile network of singletrack, so even though there were a lot of riders-they tend to spread out and you're left feeling you have the place to yourself.

Post ride was time for a beverage or two and chatting with visitors-some who have been here before- others, like a pilot/rider from Appleton, set a small bush plane in a farm field down the road, changed into riding gear and had a wonderful day on the trail. Departing late in the day-he did a fly over and wing wag to the trailhead crew below.

Just like in baseball-opening day is a highly anticipated event and getting dirt under the tires signals the start of a new season. Weather is fickle, and within 24 hours, the trail was covered in freezing rain and sleet, but she'll bounce back quickly and mountain bike riders will return. “You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen. - Joe DiMaggio.

I totally agree.