Tuesday, January 26, 2010

It's time to cheer up, the worst of winter is over

I just heard a television report that January 25 is considered the most depressing day of the year. It's also my wife's birthday and she can attest to that. But there's an upside, the worst of winter is over. The report prompted me to look at some of my photos from my Michigan travel book, Michigan: An Explorer's guide, and I found one that reminds us that better weather is in store for us. It's a photo of the Mackinac Island boat dock. By the way, the TV report said that June 25 is considered the best day of the year. It's time to make plans for how to spend it.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Cabin fever has me feeling like Gabby Hayes

It’s mid winter in Michigan, thoughts of fall are fading and it’s too early in the year to start thinking about spring paddling, fishing or hiking. My winter supply of books is dwindling and like others in the upper Great Lakes, I’ve got a bit of cabin fever, and I’m starting to feel like one of those characters played by Gabby Hayes in the old western movies, the old prospector who has been alone in his cabin for too long.
The marketing geniuses who put out fly-fishing catalogues know this, and the four-color, slick products start arriving in the mail about now and tempt me to buy new rods, reels, other gear or clothing that I usually don’t need.
                Since I’m writing a canoe/kayak guide to Michigan this year, paddling catalogues are arriving, reminding me of gear I didn’t know I needed.
                I can usually resist the efforts of marketers until I hold my annual Jimmy Buffet party. The ingredients are simple – a Jimmy Buffet song, “Boat Drinks,” fly-fishing catalogues, a credit card, but most of all, a bottle of tequila.
                By the end of the evening, I’ve usually placed several orders, and sometimes I surprise myself when the gear arrives.  The after effects are usually a hangover and a big credit card bill to pay off.
                Buffet’s song speaks to me in the winter – “I shot six holes in the freezer, I think I got cabin fever.”
                On such nights, my wife makes sure my shotguns are out of reach and that the shells are locked up.
So far there has been no damage, but there’s always the first time.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This winter is the time to re-discover Houghton Lake

For several generations of southern Michigan residents, Houghton Lake was Northern Michigan, but when I-75 was built in the 50s and 60s, folks could get a lot further for a weekend. But the Houghton-Higgins lakes area has become a perennial favorite for Michigan residents, many of who were introduced to the area by their parents.
                A good time to revisit the area is during Tip-Up Town, Jan. 22-24, and again Jan. 29-31. Houghton Lake comes alive with food booths, snowmobile events, a queen contest and other events.
                But the centerpiece is still the Tip-Up, a rig used for ice fishing. Ice anglers people the lake, standing over holes in the ice, waiting for a fish to hit their Tip-Up rig.
                These days, the event may seem a bit old fashioned for some, but it’s worth going to, especially if you’re starting to get cabin fever at this time of year.  It’s also a good chance to expose children to ice fishing.
                Just a couple of tips, if you go. Wear warm clothing, a snowmobile suit if you have one, or layers of fleece make a good substitute. As a veteran of past Tip-Up Towns, I’d advise you to wear rubber boots. The ice can get slushy with all the traffic, and leather boots can quickly get wet.
                There are many motels and cabins in the Houghton Lake area, but if they’re filled, try the Holiday Inn in Grayling, which is only a few minutes north of the festival site.
                For more information, go to: http://www.tip-up-townusa.com/cgi-bin/tutusa2006/index.html

Friday, January 15, 2010

"Last Child in the Woods" helps you get your kid outdoors

At a recent chapter meeting of a Trout Unlimited Chapter to which I belong, I fell into a conversation with a veteran angler in his late 50s who was having trouble getting his children in their late teens and early 20s interested in the outdoors.
                I’ve heard this story time and time again from guys my age, 50s-60s, and when the meeting started I looked around to take note of the ages of the people there.  With a couple exceptions, most were my age. Many other conservation groups are having the same aging problem.
                Luckily, I’ve been reading Richard Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”  The well-researched book presents the facts behind what many of us now see – kids just don’t go out and play like they did.
                I’ve had those thoughts for a long time, but have resisted expressing them for fear of being thought of as a “grumpy old man,” the kind of guy who is always saying “things weren’t like this when I was a kid.”  Upon reading the book, I can now say that with some authority.
                I had my own epiphany a couple of years ago while standing in my front yard. I watched as a kid rode his bike on the sidewalk past my house. It was an old-fashioned bike, and the kid didn’t have a helmet and he was wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and had short hair.  It reminded me of what I looked like in 1957 when I spent my summer days roaming my Detroit neighborhood.
                I’m a cyclist myself, and I envied the kid because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, which I do. I remembered the freedom of movement with the wind blowing in my ears, and wondered if the kid wasn’t some sort of apparition sent to remind me of my carefree days of youth.
                You just don’t see many kids like that alone anymore.  And Louv has the answer – fear. The news media and others have young parents scared stiff of everything from head injuries to strangers abducting children. We now have “Amber Alerts,” cell phones, and even tracking bracelets for kids. We’ve got our kids tethered as though they were criminals.
                Louv’s main contention is that we’re inhibiting children’s creativity by not allowing them to form a relationship with nature, and that by allowing kids to roam fields and woods; we give them hands on experience that translates into learning.
                He also contends that modern suburbs have zoned out those little wild places where kids can get lost in nature.  I saw this when I was the editor of a suburban newspaper and attended more government meeting than I could stand. When it came to empty lots, fields or even parks that had a little wild space, residents went nuts – anything that didn’t fit into their neat, little suburban life plan was a problem.  Property values are everything.  Suburbia has made them one of their Ten Commandments – “Thou shall not allow anything that could lower property values.”
                Because of that, the fear factor and our obsession with making kids study too hard, the streets of suburbia are empty of kids these days. When I first started working at newspapers in the early 1970s, photographers could easily find photos of cute kids doing things on the street or in parks. When I left newspapers in the early 2000s, photographers couldn’t find a kid on the streets.
                And if they did, the fear factor was there.  One incident tells it best.  A photographer happily came back to our office with some photos of kids taken in a park, and was happy about it. He sat down briefly at his desk and the phone rang. His face turned beet red, and he told the caller: “Yes, that was me.” He talked to the person for a few more moments, and then looked up and said: “That was the mother of the kid I took a picture of. She called to see if I was some sort of pervert.”
                I’ve experience that myself. I do a lot of bicycling in my neighborhood and I’ve learned not to go when school is letting out.  I changed my habits after I was cycling past a school bus stop where parents were waiting for their kids. I was met by icy stares from parents who apparently thought I was a child abductor.
                Louv addresses those fears, and comes up with good, solid numbers that say there are no more child abductions by strangers than there were in the past, and that most are committed by other family members, usually as part of a child custody disagreement.
                But perhaps his most controversial premise that goes against the grain of modern educational theories is that kids shouldn’t be spending too much time in front of their computers, they should be outside gaining real experiences, not virtual reality.  When I read that, I had a flash back to my grade school days.  I don’t know if schools still do this, but my class use to take walks around the neighborhood in the fall and pick up leaves that we then took back into the class room and learned how to identify.
                That’s the kind of learning that we’re losing as a society in our seeming obsessive quest to turn out kids into little learning machines.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Road food: A list of diners and dives

                Eating on the road isn’t always a pleasant experience, which I learned while researching my travel book, Michigan: An Explorer’s Guide.  My goal was to stay away from fast food places, and review and list as many locally owned spots as I could.
                I found plenty of new favorites and renewed some old acquaintances during the year I spent on the road.  I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the small, mom and pop breakfast restaurants, where locals start their day.
                There seem to be more in the Upper Peninsula, probably because they haven’t felt the competition from fast food places.  One favorite is B’s Country Café on U.S. 2 in Iron Mountain.  The wait staff knows the patrons by first name and how they take their coffee. The décor is 1950s, but so are the prices. A cheese omelet cost me about $5 and kept me going all day.  Another U.P. favorite is the Kaleva Café, a fixture in the mining town since 1918. The breakfast I had would have kept a copper miner working hard all day. There’s also a bakery, with bread and pastries.
                I also renewed my friendship with the Union 76 truck stop on U.S.  west of  the bridge near St. Ignace.  I’ve had a fondness for it since the 1970s when I first stopped there on my way home from a back packing trip to the Porcupine Wilderness State Park.  I was young, and didn’t have a credit card, and had just enough money for gas, the bridge toll and one meal. Perhaps, that’s the reason I can still remember the taste of the bacon and eggs at 2 a.m.
               For some reason, I can't help stopping at Spikes Keg 'O' Nails for a burger if I'm in the Grayling area anytime near dinner. My fondness for the place goes back nearly 20 years, when I stopped there with my hungry sons. The power was out but they managed to get me a beer and feed my boys. The experience made me a repeat customer.
                But while I love roaming the U.P., Sunday evening isn’t a good time to go looking for a meal.  I pulled into Ironwood on a late Sunday, planning to spend the night and check out the town. Pretty much everything was closed, so I ended up in my motel room with a dinner of beef jerky, cheese and beer. As I dined, I watched Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel, as she was eating in a small bistro in Italy, and realized not all travel reporting jobs are created equal.
                After my adventure in great eating in Ironwood, I came up with a list of travel food that I now carry.  I doubt it will ever make the Food Chanel, but here it is:
·         Beef jerky.  It’s a great source of protein, and besides I love to stop at those roadside jerky stores and outlets.
·         Pickled eggs. They usually can be bought at the jerky stores, and make for a good, quick breakfast.
·         Canned corn beef or Spam.  Both can be consumed cold they’re cooked, but can easily be fried in a pan.
·         Canned sardines and herring. Both are fish dishes and I’ve convinced myself that they’re healthy and are brain food.

So take that Samantha, you can have your Italian bistros, and please pass me the Spam.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The nation gets a taste of Michigan weather

             Watching the various TV networks talk about the so-called Arctic winter freeze the nation is experiencing is amusing when you live in Michigan.  It’s not really news to us; it’s just another typical January in Michigan.
                A friend recently moved to a Deep South town in Mississippi, and sent me an e-mail about how the town is in a panic because there’s a bit of snow and temperatures hit the 20s. Folks there are worried their pipes are going to freeze and they’re buying winter coats.
                Us folks from Michigan don’t have to do that, we’ve already have coats, and as one northern Michigan guy once told me: “You just get up in the morning and put on layers until your warm. But you never really get warm, and at some point you get use to it.”
                I think he said it best for all of us. Too bad the TV networks don’t interview him, its good advice for our southern cousins.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Secret hide aways: State Park cabins, yurts

One of the best kept secrets in Michigan is that the State Park system rents wilderness cabins and yurts to stay in during both winter and summer. They're scattered around the state, but my favorite are in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula.
It’s the largest state park in Michigan, with 60,000 acres and it offers a wide range of activities, from cross-country and downhill skiing to backpacking and mountain biking.
For years, many cross-country skiers have headed to the park in April for spring skiing at its best. Temperatures hit the 40s and there’s still snow on the ground.
During the winter, the DNR rents yurts, which are 16 feet in diameter and are equipped with bunk beds, mattresses, a cook stove, axe, bow saw and cooking and eating utensils. Reservations are suggested. Rates are $60.
There are 17 rustic cabins scattered around the park. The most popular is the Lake of the Clouds cabin, which sleeps up to eight. Rates are $60.
For larger parties, there’s the Kaug Wudjoo Lodge, which originally was the park manager’s home. It has a stone fireplace and a rustic interior, and sleeps up to 12. Rates are $1,225 a week. Reservations are required.
For more information, call 906-885-5275, or go to the DNR website, www.michigan.gov/dnr.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

We hit the road Kerouac style in the early 1960s

                A recent re-reading of Jack Kerouac’s classic American travel novel, “On the Road,”  has made me realize that we’ve lost the ability to hitchhike or drive across the continent and actually experience the country, rather than watch the countryside speed past us on a freeway, with stops at the same fast food places that are at every interstate exit.
                The irony is that freeways and the Internet have expanded our worlds, but at the same time have diminished our ability to experience it.
                When ever it’s practical, I get off the freeway and take the old state roads that wind past small mom and pop operations, and look at the skeletal remains of towns and businesses that once thrived on travelers who were “On the Road.”  My own travel blog, On the Road in Michigan is a homage to Kerouac and that time in the 40s and 50s when we could experience the country by traveling.
                My family’s first trips were from Detroit to Arkansas to visit family members, and I remember in the fall driving through cotton country and seeing African-Americans in wagons pulled by mules, taking the cotton to market. I also remember a fuss in a gas station when a black man tried to use the rest room. I didn’t have to read about racial intolerance, I experienced it.
                But even those were the bad old days, there was still a sense of excitement to travel, the was a sense of the unknown that we’ll never be able to recapture in these days of GPS coordinates in our vehicles, and apps on our phones that put every bit of road information at our finger tips.
                For some reason writers tend to portray the 50s and early 60s as a placid era when everybody was boringly compliant, dull and conservative. I think it’s based on the assumption that somehow the late 1960s were a more exciting time, with the Vietnam War going on, civil unrest in major cities and drugs rampant.  Take your pick. When would you rather be 10-years-old, 1958 or 1968? My pick is 1958.

                Kids were still free to roam. For Kerouac hitching a ride was a way to see the country, but for the kids in my Westside Detroit working class neighborhood in the 50s and 60s, it was a way to get around. Not everybody had a muscle car.  And it was acceptable.  My football coach advised us to wear our letter jackets because it was easier to get a ride if motorists thought you were a jock.
                On occasion, friends would go the Kerouac route and hitchhike to California, with a variety of consequences. Some made it out there, others ended up in jail along the way when money ran short, and petty larceny was the only way to get out of a small town in Iowa.
                My neighborhood wasn’t exactly made up of college bound, preppy kids portrayed in the TV show “My Three Sons” – it was pretty solidly blue collar, with a lot of auto workers.  For a while in the early 60s, the thing to do was drop out of school and join the Marine Corps, which you could do at the time.
                These 17-year-olds who returned home, many of them hitchhiking, in their uniforms looked pretty romantic to us, and they talked about what seemed to be faraway places like Parris Island or San Diego.  They were headed to places like Okinawa.  We hadn’t yet heard about Vietnam that was yet to come.
                They’re experiences opened up the world to us, and we were able to get a few places by hitchhiking.  One of my early hang outs was a pool hall about five miles from my house which I regularly hitched a ride to. It exposed me to a world of pool hustlers and other con men, when I was about 14 years old. In my small way, I could be part of Jack Kerouac’s world of shady pool hustlers, con men and guys who spent their afternoons at the race track.
                I once told my then teenage sons they should get out of the house and go hang around on a street corner, like I had done. Their answer ways that I was “old fashioned.”
                And what should I expect from a generation that grew up on video games and computers? Why bother to go see something, when we can look at it via Google Earth? There it is on our computer screen in living color, so why bother to take the trip?
                Kerouac still has the answer, to get the feel of the country.  In “On the Road,” he paints a broad mural of what America looked like in the late 1940s, with the beauty of the countryside and all the warts of big cities like New York or Los Angles.
                His descriptions of pool halls, bars, teen soda fountains and greasy spoons took me back to my teenage years in the 1960s when we hung around on street corners, and hitchhiked where we wanted to go.  We weren’t trapped in subdivisions, like kids are now; we had the city of Detroit at our disposal either via bus or our thumbs.  We were free to roam unlike middle class teens these days who are tethered to the parents via a cell phone or text messaging. 
I remember my parents asking me where I was going and my response was “out.” They’d then ask when I’d be home and my answer was “when I got there.”  These days I suspect that would be considered child abuse. But those days seemed much safer in retrospect, and it’s understandable that my parents didn’t have too many worries about letting me wander around the city.
Recently, I quizzed some folks about my age who grew up in my old neighborhood about hitchhiking and general street life.  One woman said she met her husband when he was hitching a ride, and another friend told me about the people he picked up. “One guy was wearing a fur coat in July. Another asked me what planet we were on.”   On another occasion, he picked up a woman, and the conversation turned to where they worked.  He told her about his job, and asked her where she worked. Her reply was: “I’m working right now.” She then asked to be dropped off on a street corner, where she went back to plying her trade.
It’s all pure Kerouac and kids now don’t know what they’re missing.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New U.P. Almanac delivers facts, funny stories

                For Upper Peninsula devotees, the newly published Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Almanac is a must have.
                Put together by Ron Jolly, a Traverse City radio broadcaster, and Karl Bohnak, an Upper Peninsula meteorologist, and published by The University of Michigan Press, the Almanac is a hefty 580 pages, and provides almost more than enough information.
                There are plenty of numbers and statistics, which often tell us what we already know – the U.P. is cold and snowy in the winter and it can be hot in the summer. But there are some real nuggets of information, such as the name “Cloverland,” which an Upper Peninsula newspaper man used to describe the region in an effort to attract farmers and stock raisers.
                The campaign did attract some sugar beet farmers and some ranchers from the West for a short time in the early 1900s, but the endeavors didn’t profit and most were gone by the late 1920s
                Not much has escaped the notice of the authors, including the exclusive Huron Mountain Club northwest of Marquette, which has long been a retreat for Midwestern business tycoons, including Harvey Firestone and Henry Ford. The club along the shores of Lake Superior has 30,000 acres and is limited in membership to about 50.
                The Almanac  features a section on well-known Upper Peninsula residents, and while many people know that George Gipp, the Notre Dame player made famous by the movie line “win one for the Gipper”  was from the Calumet area, it also takes note of the lineman who played on the same team and was a blocker for the Gipper. He was one Hunk Anderson who was born in Hancock and graduated from Calumet High School.  The Hunk eventually made it to the NFL and eventually was head coach at Notre Dame during the 1930s.
                Jolly and Bohnak have really done their homework on this one. The actress Doris Packer, no her name wasn’t ever on a movie marquee, played the principal of Grant Avenue Grammar School on the “Leave it to Beaver” television series.  Packer was born in Menominee in 1904 and later moved with her family to California.
                The are many Mackinac Bridge facts, which include the famed Yugo that when over a side rail and plunged 150 into the Straits during a blizzard in September, 1989.  But there’s also the story of an Air Force pilot who flew his $3.5 million jet under the bridge on April 24, 1959. The pilot, John Lappo, of Muskegon, said at the time he had a life-long dream of flying under a bridge.
                There’s also a section on how various U.P. towns got their names, and my favorite is the Baraga County town of Covington.  Seems that when it came time to name the community in the late 19th century, nobody could come up with a name, so in the spirit of the times, they looked to the bottle – a whiskey bottle -- for inspiration.  On the bottom of the bottle was the name where the whiskey was made – Covington Kentucky. So the town was born.
                Perhaps those who name the subdivisions where many of us now live could use some of that inspiration, and maybe we’d have Jack Daniels Acres instead of Quail Ridge, or something equally as silly.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thoughts of a hidden beach in January

With the temperatures in the teens this weekend, my thoughts went back to summer days and beaches that I want to see again. I found this one between Copper and Eagle Harbor on Lake Superior in the Keweenaw Peninsula. I was doing the research for my travel guide and stopped to snap a picture, but didn't have time to explore he beach as much as I wanted to. There wasn't a soul around and I would have liked to have walked out on the wooded point in the photo. I plan on getting back there this coming summer when doing research on a new paddling guide to Michigan for my publisher, The Countryman Press.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Cardinals and Blue Jays

In the winter I try to help out our little feathered friends as much as possible with a bird feeder and a water source, but this year there seems to be fewer birds. But then on Thursday there was a sudden attack staged on the feeder by Blue Jays and Cardinals. Not quiet certain what accounted for that, but it was an exciting moment. One poor bird flew into a window. It survived. I'm sitting here on New Year's Day waiting for them to return. It's better than watching the Rose Bowl Parade.