Friday, December 27, 2013

Shattered-The Real Deal

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou

Every once and a while I connect with a writer that I just “get.” Maybe it's their style or the flow of words or the subject matter. I'm not sure, but I know there is a connection there somehow, and I'll take every opportunity to see what else they have to say. Earlier this fall I'd participated in a crazy fun mountain bike event called Gnomefest, a rolling knobbie tire gathering taking place each autumn somewhere in the state. There have been ten additions landing at some the best mountain bike trails in Wisconsin. It also attracts a diverse group of people who have little in common but a love of bicycles and fun. Not a bad thing.

I've been fortunate to have met some great people over the years at the event-they come from all over, including foreign countries ! Well, Canada counts, doesn't it? Shona Living is a lover of all things bikes, so it was more than appropriate that she make the arduous 860 kilometer 9 hour drive to Gnomefest. Somehow word had escaped across the border and she couldn't resist a weekend of riding at the Nicolet Roche trails.

Shona hails from Winnipeg Manitoba where she keeps a stable of bikes stashed in the garage and spare bedrooms, mostly of the skinny tired variety. Bikes and Beyond is the local shop keeping them running since she saved up her lawn mowing money to buy one at 16. Seriously, how many 16 year old girls do that? Yeah, she loves bikes. Currently she describers herself as an inner city math and science teacher in search of adventure. She can add exceptional writer to the resume in my opinion as well.

By chance I happened to run into a short blog post by Shona the other day. It was one of those pieces that as I mentioned earlier I could connect with and have an appreciation of. It was called “festive 500 Shattered” and recounts a winter training ride, or perhaps a soul searching spin on the raw icy roads of her hometown. This is serious riding for you'd be hard pressed to find many of us out on road bikes this time of year. As I continued reading the words I realized I'd been in those places-maybe 20 or more years ago, pounding out the miles no matter what the weather. No such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing I'd remind myself.Those are mental toughness miles.

I found the blog post part dairy, part poetry and a good dose of reality and realizing she is baring her spirit and soul and her story. She's one of those writers who sculpts the words into sentences that you feel rather than read. With her permission, what follows is “Shattered.” You can follow Shona at “Authentic living via a bike.”

Temperature: - 30
Wind: 60km/hr
Bike: ATX cyclocross bike
Companions: none
Clicks: 60
Soundtrack: 65daysofstatic, Electric Quaterstaff and deadmau5
Lesson Learned:
1. Slicks are not a good choice unless you like laying in the middle of a busy street trying to unclip while the oncoming traffic is on it’s way to teach you a lesson you won’t forget.
2. Baptized by the unrelenting wind and cold, I think, am I  going to shatter.
I decided to shatter. There is no coming back from that, the pieces are too small.
3. Always carry lights so you can keep on riding, not having the right gear is not excuse not to ride.
My bike lay hanging on the stand. Slick in the back for the trainer, knobby studded tire in the front from past rides. It was not clean. It was not ready. But these days nothing is ready, I am 30 and single for the first time. My plan has become moments, my life has become enjoying what I have now. And I have this bike, it is not perfect, it is not clean. But it is here. And willing to accept the challenge. Not to say that one day I will not lovingly clean it while whispering over and over thank you for carrying my body over roads so my mind can achieve what it simply can not do when not on the bike. I will. But not today. I am a rider, not a lover and today I ride.
The local bike shop was having it’s annual eggnog. Asking people to join they said “next year” or “it is too cold, too windy, too crazy”, maybe they're are right. But I have one of those souls. And it needs to be cracked. As I leave a bit later then I wanted to and a bit more drunk from the eggnog made on a bike blender someone saids “she is the real deal,” and I think the only deal I have made is to shatter myself into pieces and see what lies beneath.
I choose to ride into the wind. Oh that wind (you bastard). It is a special sort of connection to a route when the wind is blowing that hard, you see every inch of it, you have to slow down, and breathe. It is meditation, it is hell for the mind. It is a battle against you, are you ready for it? Was I ready for it?
Once leaving the city I was eager to eat up the kilometers, though I love hitting the city on the way in, on the way out it is like a little kid, demanding my attention and I don’t want to give it. I was frustrated from the wind that was enough, never mind the lights and cars.
Finally leaving the city limits I reach for my water bottle it drops. The lid shatters off the body. I stare at it. It is that cold. The barrier has been set and the battle has been drawn to full length. I am going to do this?
I want to ride for another 40km.  The eggnog starts to wear off, the fat from the cream starts to turn in my stomach. The wind gets stronger. The light gets lower. Fast moving trucks, lots of trucks, speed by allowing me a split second of relief from the wind. I think they are probably late to reach their dinners, presents and families. Yet here I am fighting a battle against myself, alone. All I can do is remind myself I of all I have, and move on.
I am moving at 15km/hr. I feel like I am moving through plasma, no longer wind but a slow moving goo that is holding onto my tires and dragging me slowly back. I can’t stop. It is too cold. I can feel my eye lashes glued together and all I can do is peer through slits, my toes are numb from the cold, my fingers burn from the lack of circulation. I dare not stop.
I reach the end of the small highway and see the semi’s speeding down the main highway. I have to cross it if I am to do another 20km. I have moved from some shelter to nothing. This is the prairies. We have nothing. We are nothing except space. There is space between mountains, space between hills, and then there is space on the prairies. It is the emptiness you get when your lovers moves out and you are left with nothing except empty drawers that seem too deep for you to fill. It just stretches on and on and the wind is refusing to give me peace.
I decide to turn back. It is getting too dark. I am too old to take these chances. Lights next time. The more tired I get the more my back wheel keeps on acting on it’s own devices and slipping under me. The last thing I need is to go down in front of a truck and watch my mustang of a bike try to defend me against the horribly indifferent tires.
I should have cared for my bike, so it can care for me.
I turn around and head back. And it all changes. Explosion of force is behind me and all I have to do is move my legs. A new paradigm of mind is created, not one of determination but of random thoughts. I enjoy the speed, remembering why I started, remember what it is like to ride and not just crawl. I feel free.
In the city it is dark and cars cut a bit too close. I pull out my ponytail but it seems not to matter. People are rushing to open expensive gifts and consume rich foods. All I can think about is how I love the harshness and how it breaks me where the cracks become larger and deeper.
Returning home re-heat some pasta and jump in the shower. Maybe it was two minutes or ten minutes but the water feels so good running down my spine. I can taste the salt and sand still lingering in the corners of my mouth. My clothes have been peeled off and are hung next to my bike, who is dripping like a lover after long sunday morning rumble in bed.
I take my water bottle and look at it, shattered, no use trying to fix it. Yet still some ice exists around the edges, clinging as if warning what will happen when I leave my house again. I wonder, why do some of us like to be shattered, to be broken, to create cracks in our souls to see how far we can make them. I fill it up and drink from it, enjoying the coolness the ice gives the water. Once finished I throw it in the recycling and go downstairs to look after my bike.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Snowy Owl “Invasion” of 2013

It seems the winter of 2013-2014 is starting with a bang-sub zero temps and a solid blanket of snow are leading us out the door with skis and tip ups in hand and fatbikes rolling on packed trails. In my case, I've headed out the door armed with a binoculars and long telephoto lens bayonetted onto my camera. Reports on and in the news are reporting an invasion of Snowy owls across the state.

Although it's not entirely understood why we in Wisconsin (and other states) are treated to this arctic visitor, theories abound. Bust and boom populations of their preferred food, Lemmings, may drive the majestic birds south, in search of better hunting. Successful breeding may also lead to abundant adolescent birds being pushed south for new territory. No matter the reason, every few years, when the birds arrive, we have a wonderful opportunity to experience them. To non-birders, the regal white bird may be familiar as Harry Potters' pet owl Hedwig. And indeed, no other owl is quite as striking as the Snowy. Not entirely white, the bird has perfect camouflage for our Wisconsin winters. The often more observed juveniles, tend to have greater black or dark grey barring across the chest and head, while mature adult males are “cleaner” in coloration.

I can remember maybe seeing just one Snowy owl in the past, on a telephone pole near my parents home in Wausau. I do enjoy birding and photographing birds, so when the “snowy alarm” went off on facebook a few days ago nearby, I just had to make an attempt to see one again. Our local game warden, Adam Hanna, had observed a snowy along a county hi-way north of Neillsville and recorded a fuzzy video of it from his truck. The following morning a good friend asked if I'd like to go in pursuit, cameras in hand, for the birds generally will stay on one area if food is abundant.

The location was a bit of a drive fro us, so we scanned every tree, every power pole and fence post on the odd chance another owl was in the area-a real possibility. As we slowly made our way within a few miles of Adam's sighting, I happened to glance out the side window and amazingly,  a Snowy was flying right at us! Without thinking, my thumb hit the power button on the camera in my lap, I swung the lens up and started firing through the glass window and the bird closed in. It gently flew over the car and lit in a corn stubble field a hundred yards away. From our vantage point, we could just make out the grey and white blob resting on the snow. Both of us kept shooting, but with a paultry 300mm lens, chances of having a good image were marginal at best. The owl seemed to be in no hurry and after observing “him” for sometime, we decided to continue our search in case this was a different owl than was seen the previous day 3 or 4 miles away.

Nothing else turned up and we returned to the corn field where besides glancing our direction from time to time, the bird seemed content where he was. We hoped to get closer shots, but also didn't want to disturb him in anyway so for this day, we would be happy with the extremely lucky images captured on my camera. We did return the following day, but no luck-there are a lot of woodlots between these one mile county “blocks” so he could have been about anywhere or moved on to better habitat. If that's the case, perhaps someone else will have this fortunate opportunity to observe one of natures rare treats-if so, take every advantage of this invasion! More sightings here: ebird

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sturtz Creative Lighting

: having or showing an ability to make new things or think of new ideas
: using the ability to make or think of new things : involving the process by which new ideas, stories, etc., are created

I can think of no better word to define good friend Rick Sturtz and what must go on when the synapses are firing inside his mind.   He invented “thinking outside the box.”  He’s one of those people who has a canny ability to see things different (taking nothing from Steve Jobs here) no matter what his endeavor.  

Over the years, and especially since he and wife Toni moved “down the road” as country neighbors,  a highlight of my day would be stopping by their home for a visit.  I’d be pretty much guaranteed the best cup of coffee in the world and some stimulating conversation, ranging from the beauty of their restored prairie and farmstead, to living life in retirement (not me yet) to his latest projects.   No one could be more excited to share things he’s working on than Rick. 

“So what’s with the lights?” I’d asked recently. Word on the street (dusty dirt and gravel roads of the Town of Hewett anyway) is he’d started a company tackling the world of buying, refurbishing and selling old industrial lights.  Now Ricks talent as an artist in the woodworking field is well known, where he creates magical pieces of furniture from stockpiles of amazing wood.  Rick is a true wood connoisseur, but old lights? 

Rick always has had a menagerie of things he finds and repurposes-again, thinking outside the box.  I’d seen some of his lights in their remodeled farmhouse and a local supper club and they are very interesting pieces.  I love them.  It seems now he’s jumped in with both feet.  I was dazzled by the variety of lights hung from every nook and cranny of his workshop, even spilling out the door.   He’d wisely decided that instead of going the ebay route, a more professional tactic would be creating a web page with examples of his best inventory.  By chance I was invited to just hang out and monitor Rick and son Eric’s progress in photographing these intriguing pieces.  Of course, my camera was in hand and I could photograph the photographers, plus ramble around the shop and record anything else of interest-no shortage there.

What follows are some of my favorites from the session and for me on a personal note, it just felt good to press the shutter again and again while trying to “see” pictures.  In the background, Eric and Rick experimented and tried new lighting techniques in their shots, while attempting to stay consistent in the images for the web page.  I rather enjoyed their banter, along with the oldies Christmas music in the background which we were constantly quizzed on.   It didn’t take long for me to forget these were once (and would be again) purposeful items as I just enjoyed them as shapes, forms and abstractions casting shadows within the confines of the shop.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

NoDak 2013

Duck Hunters wear waders cause of the stories they tell.

For my Wisconsin duck hunting friends and myself, the almost-annual fall hunting trip to North Dakota really begins about ten miles down the hiway the previous year.  12 months earlier, we are already talking about “next year” and what we can do different and what we learned during this addition-no shortage of curriculum there at all.  Being from a state that really isn’t known for high volume waterfowl  traffic or emptying a lot of ammo boxes, my group of buddies look foreword to the wide open pot hole country and the opportunity to clean the cobwebs out of our 12 gauges.

All of us hail from the Wausau area originally and grew up in the woods, often at the end of the day streaking out of the doors of the high school, searching for coveys of grouse.  Back then a couple of .20 gauge shotguns and tattered bird vests in the trunk in the school parking lot was no big deal. Close friend Mike lived on Lake Wausau, so he had duck hunting in his blood and I’d tagged along with my Grandpa Schutlz bagging a few mallards and Woodies when I was a kid.  As all of us grew up, we made it a point to hit the woods and marshes together as often as we could.  That’s all well and good, but we also wanted to experience what “real” hunting was like- out west….shooting box after box of shells at endless flights of ducks and pheasants. Chatting with a Neillsville neighbor one day, I learned of a farmer in North Dakota with tons of land and reasonable rates.  Perfect opportunity. Some quick calls and consultations with the hunting buds and soon reservations were made for the following fall.  It was a good decision back then-we’ve  had good years and slow ones but never unsuccessful if one measures in number of laughs, stories and solid camaraderie.

 Prepping for the trip may start in our minds right away the preceding year, but for the dogs, it really begins in earnest during the hottest months of summer.  This year would be my 5 year old Black Lab Molly’s first out-west trip.  She’s performed well on pheasants in state, but retrieving on big cold North Dakota water through a pile of decoys could be tougher.  Several times a week, we’d  head down the road and do drills in a small lake.  She enjoyed this game immensely and even when I set a handful of decoys out off the beach, she managed to navigate though them to make the retrieves.    I felt she was ready and couldn’t wait to see her hit the water,

The guys are scattered a bit now-Mike and Moe in Wausau, Dave in Ladysmith,  Mikes son James (with a new dog Wally) near the cities and I’m in Neillsville.  With a bit of coordination we all gathered and shoehorned gear, guns and dogs into two trucks and a trailer.  I’d also be delivering a young golden retriever puppy to a new owner in ND as a favor and she was no problem during the 8 hour drive.  At one time landowner Allen’s cash crop farm was over 5000 acres, but he’d downsized now and we had to work harder to find which potholes the birds were using.  Pheasants suffered a huge downturn this past year, so we hunted those as incidentals as we jump shot marshes.  Our intent was to try goose hunting as well, and no expense was spared getting deeks bought, painted and prepped-they never left the truck box.  Crops were still standing and finding giant Canadians proved difficult.  Snow geese would tease us, but are tough to hunt.  We stuck to what we’d learned over the years-set decoys in the morning, jump shoot later, relax and catch the sun lengthening shadows late in the day.

We’ve hunted  NoDak in about every conceivable kind of weather-from unseasonably warmth to breaking ice on ponds cold.  No different this year.  We arrived at 3:30 am and caught some zzzz’s in a gas station parking lot only to find snow blanketing everything an hour later.  Typical North Dakota.  Melting snow meant soils turn to black grease and the truck stayed in four wheel drive all week.  Overcast and damp actually helped duck hunting as one would expect and we managed to get plenty of shooting opportunities the first 2 days.  Bluebird skys and temps sliding up to the 60s seem to put the kabash on our waterfowl hunt later.  We did get a few more, but they were tough to find-no cold front flights of northern birds would arrive this year.  We managed a few rooster pheasants, but the hens outnumbered them 15 to 1 if we did find them.  No matter, we still were in a beautiful place and away from work and for the dogs, it was nirvana every day.

I think we all appreciate the opportunity to make this trip and don’t take anything for granted.  We’ve learned that hunting here doesn’t have to mean pounding the fields and marshes every minute of every day like maybe we did when we were younger.  We stop more, we quit earlier and we take the time to breathe it all in.  As we sat one night this year making a point to watch the sun go down,  we all agreed that even though it takes a good deal of effort to pull this off, it’s all worth it.  An early exit by 3 of the guys for a family emergency lead to a text from Mike the following day- “We need to do more of this kind of thing….life is too short.”  I couldn’t agree more.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Faces of the Parade

Homecoming-lots of controversy of one kind or another this year-the merits or not of toilet papering, powder puff football and of course dress up days in school-are they educational?  Are we following PBIS, RTI etc?  ;)  I love that at the very least the homecoming parade skirted rain and still marched down 4th street like usual.  It's a "target rich environment" as photographers say and since I know all the kids lined up at the edge of the curb, it's even more fun to get some portraits.  The younger kids are more fun-they are still full of enthusieasm whereas the older kids see it as a half our out of class-even if it is robbing them of some Friday afternoon instructional time.  Maybe that's why they don't smile as much?  Well, either way, here are the Faces of the parade.