Monday, November 30, 2009

Why we paddle

There was ice on the bird bath this morning and I mournfully put away all my paddling equipment. It hasn’t been used in the past couple of weeks, but I kept it out anyway, probably as a way to forestall the inevitable onset of another Michigan winter.
As I put away the paddles and other gear, I got to thinking, why do we paddle? If we just wanted to cross a body of water or fish, we’d use a motor boat, they’re faster and easier. But I think motor boats cut down on our horizons, while canoes/kayaks expand them. I’m attracted to the irony that paddling expands your world.
That’s because it slow you down. Zipping quickly from place to place on a small lake uses up the scenery at a fast pace. When you’re paddling, the landscape gently unfolds and you notice the small bays and you don’t frighten the wildlife.
There’s a small lake near my house that I paddle in late summer and early fall to catch a glimpse of sand hill cranes. They only nest in two places in Michigan, one in the Upper Peninsula and the other near my home in southern Michigan. A motor boat would send the cranes flying, but in my canoe, I can glide close enough to them so they can put on their gangly dance of a walk for me.
Also, a canoe/kayak can easily be landed on a shoreline, where you can explore small wetlands or natural features.
The horizon of the natural world gets larger, rather than contracts when paddling.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A snap shot of Detroit in the 1930s

“It is not at all unusual for extreme statements to be made about Detroit as a center of radical thought, or for the city to appear at times to justify them.”

No, that quote wasn’t from the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine or The New York Times, all of which have shown up from time to time to chronicle the downward spiral of the city; it’s from the WPA guide to Michigan published in 1941 as part of a depression –era federal program to put writers to work.
As the writer of travel guides, I’ve long wanted a copy of the book, Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State, and found one recently in an Ann Arbor book store. I didn’t know what to expect. Chamber of Commerce stuff, a smiley face placed on the Depression. What I found was an honest assessment of Detroit in the 1930s. The writers at the time observed the growing seeds of what would become the city’s demise, the one-industry town where life revolved around an auto plant.
The word picture drawn by these writers 70 years ago are for the most part still true. Here’s how they described us: “Detroiters work hard. The bulk of them have little time for culture, for the theater, the night club, or the erudite lecture. They find their recreation in going on Sunday drives with the family or cheering for their favorites at the baseball park. The Detroit Tigers enjoy the most loyal following of any baseball team in the major leagues – whether they win or lose.”
Apparently following losing teams like the Lions has been ingrained in our DNA for several generations.
The book points out that Detroit was a “respectable size (285,000 in 1900) before the automobile appeared,” and had a diversified economy. That changed as auto production became the main job of Detroiters, and the factories became focal points of the city.
The WPA writers in the 30s saw it this way: “Where, then, are all the people? A vantage point near one of the large factories at the end of a working shift will provide the answer. Here is the most exciting spectacle in all Detroit. The exodus of the crowd from a big football game is as nothing compared with it. Shrieking whistles signal the end of the work period, and the factory disgorges a veritable flood that fills the streets almost from curb to curb. It is a flood, not of men, solely, but of automobiles, and on the steering wheel of each are the calloused hands of a workingman.”
As for glitz, Detroit never had much, the WPA writers noted. “…it lacks something of the bloom and glitter of such cities as New York or Chicago. ‘Doing the night spots’ consists mainly of making the rounds of beer gardens, burlesque shows, and all-night movie houses.”
If you substituted the words “top-less bars” and around the clock “cable TV”, it would still be an accurate look at Detroit.
If we’re to diversify our state’s economy, we have a lot of work to do, and a nearly century old factory culture to change.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving for a Jeep

As we take time out from our work on Thanksgiving to be with friends and family, we count our blessings, children, grandchildren, parents, friends, our faith, having a job, but this year as we give thanks I’ll secretly be thinking of my 2001 Jeep Cherokee sitting in my garage.
The black Jeep will be turning 165,000 miles soon, and it’s only now after nine years of ownership that I’m really trying to appreciate it. Over the years, I’ve neglected it, left it mud caked after grouse hunting season, and dusty after trout fishing in the spring and summer.
That changed last spring when I ran into a Chrysler “car guy” while attending a Trout Unlimited banquet in Ann Arbor. He give the Jeep an admiring look, as though it was a lost child, and told me it was the last of the tough Jeeps made during the last year of production at the Toledo plant and had a six-cylinder engine that was made to last. He said it was made for 60 percent off road use, and for 40 percent highway driving. These days the percentages are reversed, which makes me want to hold onto the Cherokee.
His comments give the old buggy a new shine in my eyes, and I took it in for an oil change and washed it. In its shiny condition, it drew an admiring glace from a DNR worker at a State Park toll booth, who said it looked to be in good condition, and that she’d like to buy one like it, and I was prompted into further action. I cleaned the rust off the rims with naval jelly and covered a few rust spots on the rocker panels with black primer.
But even with the new good looks, I still wasn’t certain I’d hang on to it for as long as possible.
Then came the rack. I picked up a paddling guide to research and write for my publisher, and I knew I’d be hoisting a canoe and kayak on and off the top of the Jeep. For years, I’ve just been using the luggage rack, and tying my canoe to the front and back bumpers. The rope burns on the hood have been mounting, although I view them as patina – battle scars, like the squashed bug bodies, which I don’t seem to get rid of.
I bought a new Yakima boat rack that will handle a canoe and a kayak at the same time, and which has clamps that make it unnecessary to tie the boat down – no more scratches on the hood. The rack was a commitment because it wedded me to the Jeep for years to come. That’s because it fits on the rain gutters, a feature most new SUVs don’t have any more. I’d have to buy new parts for the rack system, if I bought a new car, and the new piece of equipment wasn’t cheap.
Although I know it’s not true, I feel I have a rack that’s worth more than my Jeep. That thought led me to decide I’ll be this Jeep’s last owner. That's a wonderfully liberating feeling.
The scratches and dings won't bother me, they’re the patina of my life worn on my Jeep for all to see.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Real travel means letting a trip take us someplace

“We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charley

For years I’ve embarked on outdoor trips such as trout fishing, hunting, backpacking, skiing, and canoeing/kayaking with good reasons for going. I’d plan the trips down to the last detail, even though I knew they wouldn’t turn out the way I envisioned while sitting in my den.
There was always gear to buy. Always more gear. I would check it out to make sure I knew how to use it properly. I’d pack my bags in a way so that I was certain to find the gear when I needed it.
As we all know, those plans veer off course when we encounter our objective, just as we do when we’re hunting for grouse in a new woods. Over the years, I’ve given up the idea of staying on course, although I still make my detailed plans in the den. It’s a habit by now.
I’ve come to the realization that getting lost is a good thing. And being by yourself makes it a better experience. For once, you can’t blame your spouse for the mess you’re in. It’s only when you’re lost or when nothing goes according to plan that you actually learn something.
Of course there are different kinds of travel. No, you don’t want to get lost while going to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, the kids will get bored and relatives will be waiting to eat, and you’ll have to embarrassingly try to explain how you got lost when you’ve been there hundreds of time.
As for business travel, you’re shuttled from airports to hotels, and back again. That’s not travel at all. There are also the packaged trips on cruise liners or to a destination resort. You’re usually with somebody, and there’s little chance to wander by yourself.
Real travel is when you have no timetables, obligations or routines to maintain, for it is only then that you can slow down and really look around.
One late winter I had the urge to see the South, the South I knew as a kid during the 1950s, and used the excuse of attending a relative’s wedding in Arkansas, so I packed up my Jeep, and hit the road alone. I got off the freeway and zig zagged through the Ozarks, and found a bit of what I remembered.
At one point during the day, there was a dog standing in the middle of the road and it wouldn’t move until I honked my horn several times. There was little traffic on the maze of Ozark roads which tend to follow valleys, and don’t stick to the normal north-south, east-west grid, so I could drive slowly and check out the mostly abandoned farmsteads. These days we see out buildings of farms as quaint, but in reality each had a specific, practical purpose, and I wished my father, who was from Arkansas, was with me, because he knew their uses.
I saw a few mules in a barnyard, and later a man walking a lonely high country road carrying a cross that said: “Jesus Saves.” I wondered who the sign was aimed at, as there was no traffic. Was I the only sinner around? I took it as a message aimed at me.
Another time while fly-fishing in the Upper Peninsula, I crawled out of a remote spot on the Fox River and saw a truck parked near mine. They were the only two vehicles around.
Its owner was looking at burned pine stumps, of which there were thousands in the cut over, burned out forest land of the central U.P. I’ve wondered why the forests didn’t regenerate over the nearly hundred years since they’ve been cut. The stumps still have the axe marks made by long-dead lumber jacks.
Midwesterners aren’t an effusive people, particularly the Finns who populate the U.P., and who tend to look at their feet when they’re forced to make conversation. Whether the guy was a Finn or not, he followed the model, and we exchanged a few words. He was from Escanaba, and was wandering around looking for a particular stump that he and his step-father used 20 years ago to cook a meal when fishing.
We chatted for a while, and he went on his way, looking for more stumps and I headed back to the stream for more fishing. I thought about his seemingly impossible task, and the futility of it. Was he telling the truth? Why was he really there?
Then as I made my seeming one hundredth cast into the bend of a river, hoping for a trout to rise and thought: “What am I really doing here? I’m no less ridiculous than the man looking for one stump among thousands.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Finding a new, old favorite beer

For more than 30 years I’ve been a devotee of beers from the Upper Midwest, usually ones from Wisconsin and Minnesota. My relationship started on fly-fishing trips to the Upper Peninsula, where I’d stop at small party stores along U.S. 2 to see what they had to offer.
I discovered Leinenkugel’s during the 1970s when it came in simple, Old School bottles with an Indian maiden on it. The beer was fresh, unpretentious, inexpensive and made to be drunk cold after a day of trout fishing. However, my loyalty has waned in recent years as Leinenkugle’s has become more popular and has adopted fancy labels and joined in the Beer Revolution with different types and flavors.
When the Beer Revolution started, my sons filled our garage beer fridge with all sorts of concoctions that test the notions of what beer really should be – a simple refreshing drink. As a reminder of the excesses of beer makers, I keep a bottle of one of those revolutionaries in garage beer fridge. Even though my two sons have had tons of beer drinking occasions, nobody has ventured to try it.
Least of all not me, I don’t need my beer to be made by Tapist monks from Belgium or to know that the hint of orange in it reminds the brewer of the early morning sunlight in Germany.
There’s a line in Norman McClain’s, A River Runs through It that says it all about beer. It’s a throwaway line that doesn’t drive the plot or characterizations, and it jumps off the page for that reason. To paraphrase it: Life was better when every small town had its own brewery.
McClain must have liked his beer fresh, and I share his enthusiasm. The major brewers push out so much of the stuff that it sits on the shelves for a long time, and is trucked thousands of miles. Smaller, local breweries produce less, and ship it for shorter distances. They also tend to use bottles only, which is the only way beer should be sold.
My relationship with Leinenkugel’s held fast, even as the price increased from $5 to about $8 a six-pack, but is coming to an end with a discovery of Lakemaid Beer from August Shell Brewing Co., of New Ulm Minnesota. I was in quest of a six pack of Linnies during a recent trip to Manistee Michigan when I saw the Lakemaid beer. Upon seeing it was brewed in the Upper Midwest, I bought a six-pack.
It reminded me of what Leinenkugel’s once was – a simple fresh beer. I’ve noticed over the years that as a brand of beer becomes too popular, its quality tends to suffer.
As it turns out Lakemaid is a gimmick beer produced by August Shell Brewing Co. and Rapala, the fishing lure giant. The bottle features a mermaid-like woman and is obviously intended to appeal to anglers. They hooked me. Shell makes the popular Grain Belt beer, along with its own brand, which you don’t often see in Michigan.
Mermaid Beer comes in various types, pilsner, lager, dark lager, pale ale and other. Each type is adorned with an image of a different mermaid for the various species of fish, such as Miss Muskie, Miss Rainbow Trout, Miss Salmon and even a Miss Catfish.
When I returned home to southern Michigan, I unexpectedly found a 12 pack of it in my local store, and quickly purchased it. The clerk told me another customer requested the store carry it, and I was thankful to the stranger. The cost was $12, which is reasonable these days.
I’ll be back for a second round.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A brutal U.P. fly-fishing weekend

By Jeff Counts
MSJ publisher

So what should you expect in mid-May in the western U.P.? Hopefully the snow has melted in most places and you don’t have to wear fleece under your waders. That’s about all. You don’t expect to do any sunbathing, but you don’t expect to see snow swirling in the air most of the day, with high winds whipping it around. But that’s what we had on a certain Saturday. My guide and fishing complain Chris Gestwicki had one word for it – “brutal.”
It was all of that. Chris knows I love U.P. brook trout fishing and for several years he has been trying to get me to his favorite western U.P. haunts. For various reasons, I couldn’t make it until this year. The western U.P. along the Wisconsin border is a special place for me. It still has some mystery. After more than 35 years of traveling through the state, I can get along without a state map in most areas, but not in the western U.P. when I get disorientated, even though I wrote a travel guide to Michigan.
Time gets warped there because you’re in and out of the Central and Eastern Standard time zones, and the towns look similar and most have the word iron in them Many of the rivers are big sprawling ones like the Escanaba, Paint and Brule, and remind you of ones in the west, river where I have a hard time finding fish. With all my landmarks gone, I was in the hands of Chris, who is one of the few fly fishing guides in the area, and owns the Caddis Shack Fly Shop in Escanaba. The place is a throwback to the old days of fly-fishing, when some shops were operated out of a garage. It’s refreshing to find a shop features that sells nothing but flies, rods, reels, lines and a few other items. There’s no expensive clothing, art objects or trinkets and it’s only open when Chris is around.
Our brutal weekend actually started out fairly gentle. I made the six and a half hour trip from my southeastern Michigan home to Escanaba on a fairly balmy Friday, and in less time than I expected. From his shop/home, Chris drove to one of the Iron towns, and pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of the downtown area and said: “Here we are.”
I looked at him with disbelief. I have this innately held belief that fly-fishing should be done out of the watchful eye of people, preferably as far from town as possible. Part of that belief stems from my not wanting anyone to expose my fly casting abilities to on lookers. It’s like drinking martinis, if I’m going to humiliate myself, it will only be in front of family and friends.
I cast off that old belief fairly quickly. Chris and I rigged up and entered the stream next to the town tavern, when the locals were gathering for the Friday night cocktail hour. I briefly considered joining, figuring I’d have a better time in there than in the river, but I followed Chris to the stream that wound through a park, and past old. frame mill worker homes that looked to belong to the 19th century.
Before I stepped into the river, which was strewn with boulders and large rocks, Chris, who is more than 20 years younger than me, was quickly downstream, and I poked my way along with a newly adopted wading stick. A false pride has kept me from using one, thinking it signaled senior citizen status. But that changed last fall when I took a tumble on the Pere Marquette River while salmon fishing and I accepted one from our host, John Bueter.
It has expanded my fishing range, given me the stability to reach places I normally don’t, and it has save my bad knee a number of times.
To my surprise, a nice caddis hatch was coming off the river, and Chris hooked me up with a few of his specially tied flies for the river. It’s a good thing to have somebody like Chris around when you’re not quite certain about a new river, and what may do well on it. Before knowing Chris, I made several ventures to the Paint River in the western U.P., and was frustrated by my lack of local knowledge.
We caught a few brookies on dries, and it wetted my appetite for the next day. I was tired of using streamers and wet flies; dry fly fishing was the antidote. We then headed out of whatever Iron Town we were in, Chris has sworn me to secrecy, and headed to a back woods cabin in Wisconsin to meet up with the rest of Chris’ crew, mostly Wisconsin guys. Although I had purchased certain adult beverages, I’d forgotten the main ingredient for a trout fishing weekend – beer. Chris told me not to worry. I did, but shouldn’t have.
When we arrived in the camp, there was a fine camp fire going, and plenty of beer flowing, but most of it light beer, which is not to my taste. One of the Wisconsin guys said: “Hey, just look in the back of my truck, I won five cases of Linenkugles at a Trout Unlimited banquet and I can’t get rid of the stuff.”
All I could figure is that if you live in Wisconsin where much of our beer is made, you can get pretty blasé about the stuff. Actually, Leinenkugel’s is my favorite, so I was in beer heaven. All we needed were some brook trout the next day, and I’d consider the weekend as close to a religious experience as I’d ever have.
In the glow of the fire and beer, Chris made a $20 bet that he and I would out fish two of the Wisconsin guys the next day, and we were to count all the fish we caught. In the warmth of the night and under the influence of the Leinenkugel’s, it made sense to me.
But that night it rained hard, and when I stepped outside shortly after dawn to answer the call of nature, I felt a chill in the air, and saw what looked like snow swirling in the air. I tried to make myself think it was ashes from the fire, but then I looked at a thermometer and it read 37 degrees. I went back to my bunk for a while, hoping that in another hour the sun would come out and brighten my spirits.
It never did that day, and the snow was still making its unscheduled appearance when we finally hit the bunks for the night. What occurred between dawn and dark was brutal, and as with any such fishing venture, it ended early and in a tavern.
We did fish though. We hit a tributary to the Paint River, a lovely looking stream. And as we went to the river, the fishing bet was still on. After four or five hours, all bets were off, and we were frozen stiff. Luckily, I’d remembered to bring my neoprene gloves, so my hands still worked at the end of the day. The others weren’t so lucky. One guy, half my age, and a fish guide himself, said his hands were so cold that he couldn’t tie on a fly. Chris went into the river, and had to spend an hour in the truck with the heat going full blast to keep hypothermia away. I actually couldn’t stay in the tuck, it was so stifling hot.
But I had my own casualty, a lost spool for my fly reel. My hands were so cold that I apparently didn’t properly zip up my vest while wading, and the spool went missing. All this for no fish. We’ve all had days like this, and they turn anglers into philosophers. The question asked is – Why? Why am I out doing this? Some fancy fishing writers come up with words that border on the poetic, others of us quote John Voelker and some just stand there freezing. I simply use my Midwestern pragmatism. “What else am I going to be doing? I’m not going to bring peace to the Mideast, find a cure for cancer or engineer a new economic boom, so I may just as well be standing in a river. It beats watching talking heads on TV.
That night at the camp fire, there was plenty of Leinenkugel’s, no fish, except some walleye one of the guys had been foresighted enough to bring, and there was not talk of the $20 bet on the number of fish caught. I was relieved.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Late fall travel reading

My backyard was pretty frosty this morning, so I didn't get out to rake the leaves. I considered other tasks, including cleaning hunting gear and putting it away. Instead I picked up a book, "Travels with Charley" by John Steinbeck, the author of "The Grapes of Wrath." I read the book long ago, but decided to revisit it. It's a delight. I've caught up with Steinbeck since I first read it. I'm now in late middle age, like the author was when he took his three-month long trip through America to get back into contact with real people, and maybe to see the country again for the last time, as he was in failing health.
When we pick up a book at various stages of our own lives, we bring something new to it because of our own experiences.
When I read the introduction this morning, a sentence jumped out at me:
"We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us."
After reading that simple sentence, I thought of a dozen places I would have liked to have been then, the Arkansas Ozarks, on the Shores of Lake Superior, Key West, Arizona, Montana, Scotland, Norway and others. I thought about where those places would take me.
We all have our lists, and dreams, and like any really good writer, Steinbeck gives you the solid words to hang your dreams on.
Steinbeck was ahead of his time. The trip took place in 1962, and to take it he had a firm put together what we would now consider an RV, but which was then fairly uncommon.
For any traveler, it's a good winter read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A vist to Dublin's country store

This the in between time in Michigan, the salmon runs are done, and the grouse and woodcock season is on the wane. It's too chilly for a day at the beach, so it's a good time to wander around Northern Michigan, just checking things out.
On a recent Sunday, my son and I drove around Manistee County, where he lives, and checked out some trout streams for next spring, and look at some good grouse cover. It was a "pretty day," as my father from Arkansas would say, sunny skies and temps in the 60s. A gift from God in Novemember.
We made a stop in the town of Dublin, near Wellston, and visited the Dublin Country Store, which my son said had a large selection of jerky. Being a fan of the stuff, I couldn't resist the stop. I expected a small jerky shop, but instead stumbled into a classic country store, something out of the 19 century, but with 21st century goods.
There was everything from clothing, to food stuffs, hardware, shotguns and rifles, ammunition and even plumbing and heating fixtures. There's also a bakery and a deli. The store also sells alcohol. If you're a rustic person, like me, there was pretty much anything you needed.
And of course, there was jerky, all kinds, from wildgame like elk and venison to beef, chicken and turkey. We tried the tradtional venion. It was great. I like the softer version of jerky, having tired of trying to chew on the dry stuff and challenging my teeth. And that's what the Dublin store offers.
It would be a great stop during rifle deer season.

For more information, and for online sales of jerky, go to

Locations: The main store is on Hoxeyville Road near the town of Wellston. The store has another site in the Grand Rapids area at 4763 Wilson, Grandville, MI.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Support Michigan book stores

We listened to John Grishom on the Today Show recently, and a brought up a good point -- book prices. This guy doesn't need to worry about money, he sells millions of books, but he did a good deed by pointing out that readers need to support their local book stores, or they will be gone. Local book stores employ local people, rent buildings and pay taxes in Michigan, online stores don't. In Michigan we have are own local nationwide chain, Borders, which has its headquarters in Ann Arbor. They are worth supporting, along with Barnes & Noble, which has many stores in our state.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Finding a new campground

On my annual fall grouse hunt in the eastern Upper Peninsula, a companion and I spent a few hours exploring instead of hunting. It paid off. Like others who are passionate about a pursuit, I'm often too single minded searcing for grouse in the fall and trout in the warmer months, and I miss looking at my surroundings.
We were hunting near the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore between Munsing and Grand Marais, along the Lake Superior shoreline.
We tried an old hunting ground near Melstrand, but found it was no longer productive, so as we drove along, we decided to check out Little Beaver Lake. It was a real find. There are about eight campsites, all with a view of the lake. They are set up for tent camping, so don't even try getting an RV of any kind on the sites. Each has a fire pit, a soft sandy place to set up a tent, a picnic table and a lantern hook. There are outhouses nearby and water. The National Park Service deserve credit here for its thoughtful planning.
Little Beaver Lake is connected to the larger Beaver Lake. Anglers and paddlers could spend a week camped there and paddling the lake. There are panfish, pike and trout in the lake. There's a small boat launch.
I'm currently working on a new guide book for The Countryman Press, A Paddler's Guide to Michigan, due out in the spring of 2011, and plan on including the site in the book.