Saturday, August 30, 2014

Try shooting black and white

      Shooting photos of activities is part of any outdoor experience and there are many dazzling scenes to be captured in Michigan.  The image, above, was taken on the Au Sable River with an iPhone, but instead of snapping it in color, the photographer P.A. Rech used the black and white mode, which gives it a haunting, timeless feeling.  It was taken late in the afternoon when there were long shadows and good contrast.  On the Labor Day weekend, plenty of folks will be out  and about with their phone cameras. Try taking a few pictures in black and white to send out some different images to your friends. They stand out in a world of color.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Detroit's Greektown is losing its ethnic feel

Monroe Street was the center of a thriving Greek community.
      The waiters in Greektown don't put their fingers in the water glasses any more when carrying them to the tables, they're not insulting, and most don't appear to be Greek. They do a good job of lighting cheese on fire, but that's not real Greek food.
      Saganaki is for tourists and no self respecting Greek grandmother would light goat cheese on fire in her house. The flaming Greek cheese is a symbol of how Greektown has evolved from an ethnic enclave for newly arrived immigrants into a suburban shopping mall with gambling casinos, and along the way it lost its Greek flavor. The developers have destroyed the thing that attracted them to Monroe Street in the first place. Gimmicks and gambling, not real Greek culture.
      There are now only two full-service Greek restaurants remaining. The most recent casualties have been the Laikon and New Hellas, both mainstays for decades.
      For my wife, who is Greek-American, the Laikon was her place. She says it offered food that would be cooked in Greek homes. She has given me a vantage point to watch the changes in Greektown since the late 1960s, along with teaching me the good swear words in Greek. In the early 20th century it was a Greek neighborhood. My mother-in-law was born there along with countless other Greek-Americans in the Detroit area.
       Detroit was a white, WASP city in those days, and Greeks were prohibited from moving into certain neighborhoods, which kept Greektown cohesive. Those prejudices faded and Greeks moved to other neighborhoods, but came back to Greektown for baptisms, weddings and other events, even after many had moved to the suburbs.
       They also went to college, and those of my generation abandon the traditional occupations of restaurant owner or waiter. My wife didn't want anything to do with a bar or a restaurant, as her father and both grandfathers had toiled in them. That was the beginning of the decline of Greek flavor.
      Sure, they still serve lamb, but there are now a barbecue joint, a New Orleans style place and pizza parlors, and they outnumber the Greek places.
      Greek food and culture were exotic to a white bread boy like me whose family had roast beef on Sundays instead of lamb, and the image of my father-in-law with a lamb's head on his plate will never leave me. There was also the taste of olive oil and oregano, which we never had in our house. Grape leaves? That was trash, wasn't it?
       To my wife, it wasn't special, its just what her family ate. Greektown made her proud of her culture and we went to the first Greek Festival in Detroit in the late 1960s, when it was held on Monroe Street and before it became a huge event and moved to Hart Plaza. It was an intimate gathering. The restaurants moved their tables and chairs onto the street and many of those attending were Greek.
      Although I was underage, I was able to order bottles of wine, which helped me in my first efforts to learn how to dance Greek style. It felt like a wedding in a Greek village, not the large commercial venture it later became.
       Apart from Greek dancing and swear words, my wife also taught me about the sexism that lays deep in the Greek culture. As a teenager, she would drive her grandfather to Greektown for regular haircuts and later pick him up at one of several coffee shops that catered to older Greek men. All are gone now.
      Once she made the mistake of walking into the coffee shop to get her grandfather, and was told to leave by the other men. No women allowed.
      In the 1980s I went into a Greek bakery on Monroe with some co-workers from a newspaper, and one feminist editor hesitated about buying some pastry. "Oh, go ahead," said a bakery worker. "Us Greeks like our women with some meat on their hips, so we can get a hold of them." It obviously wasn't the right thing to say.
      That intimacy and in your face Greek attitude has faded and even the Greek restaurants feel more like part of a corporate chain in a suburban mall. I can't help putting part of the blame on first, Trapper's Alley and later casino gambling. When Trapper's Alley opened in the 1980s, it gave the street the feeling it had become a suburban mall. Gone were the days when my wife would know half the people she saw on Monroe.
      The old restaurants evaporated. The notorious Grecian Gardens went. It had a back room where old guys would allegedly gamble and get drinks after hours in coffee cups, activities that now seem quaint with huge casinos operating and drug wars in the streets.
     The mainstays New Hellas and Laikon are gone. Gone also are the surly Greek waiters like one we had one night who threw a woman through the front door into the street. It was Greek Easter and families fast, attend church at midnight, and head to Greektown for dinner.
       We attended church that night and were sitting at a table having dinner. The crowd was a mix of Greek church goers and those who had closed the bars. The people at the table next to us had been at the bar, and were ordering lots of food, but when it came time to pay, the woman picked a fight with the waiter in an attempt to get out of the bill.
      She slammed the table toward us, my young son quickly moving his hand so it didn't get smashed. She then made a fuss in front of the home crowd -- Greeks. And at one point the waiter in a heavy Greek accent grabbed the woman by the neck and threw her out of the front door, yelling "You f---ing bitch." She'd picked the wrong night for her antics.
       I walked outside moments later, angry that my son had almost been injured, and saw her complaining to two Detroit police officers on horse back, one of whom I knew from high school. The cops smiled. They weren't going to do anything. The unwritten rule in Greektown was that cops ate for free in exchange for taking care of trouble on the street. My old high school friend recognized me, and asked: "Did you see anything?" I answered that the woman appeared to be trying to walk out on her bill. He told the woman to move along, which she eventually did, spewing her outrage as she walked.
       That was the old Greektown I miss, real Greeks and old style informal policing. I know things change. We're in a cleaner era, polite police and waiters, restaurants with new, modern kitchens, not ones you know you don't want to see in daylight. But I hope cops can still eat for free, and I'd like to see a waiter on occasion with his fingers in the water glasses he's carrying.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A week alone in the Porcupine Mountains

The author alone in the Porcupine Mountains. 
     We've all read the warnings in outdoors publications: "Don't go alone."  It's good advice, anything that can happen will, if you tempt fate enough.  But on occasion you need to ignore common sense and head out by yourself. There are rewards, but to receive them, you have to take responsibility for yourself.
     These days most of my lone trips are taken in my fishing kayak and are on fairly well-used recreational rivers or lakes. There's also the ultimate umbilical cord, a cell phone. I carry mine most of the time, even though I don't always have a connection.  It doesn't worry me, I wandered in Michigan for more than 30 years without one and I'm alive to tell my story.
     I yearn for the days when I wasn't connected. There was more of a sense of adventure, dangers to overcome and a sense of accomplishment when you finished a solo trip. I'm glad I had my basic training during the unconnected era. These days, people are prone to get into trouble because they think  a GPS and cell phone will get them out of anything. It makes them reckless. When you know it's just you, more thought is put into your actions.
     Over the years, I've taken two lone significant off the grid trips, and countless smaller ones. All have been rewarding, but the two long ones helped guide me through difficult times in my life and set the tone for things to come. Since I saw no one for a week on each trip, I've learned how to be alone in the woods and enjoy it. I also learned to move slowly, so as not to hurt myself. Those are lessons I used in my shorter ventures.      When you go into the woods alone, you never come back the same. It's like a temporary stint as a hermit. A favorite nature writers, Sig Olson wrote an  essay on hermits he'd met in northern Minnesota and Alaska and concluded that some are nuts, especially those who don't come out of the woods. It's important for those who come back to tell their stories so others can learn to be alone.  I'm trying to do that.
     My first long, solo trip laid the ground work for much of my life. It was a backpacking venture in the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park in the mid 1970s. I was living in Bay City Michigan, and my wife had family obligations in Detroit for a week, so I headed north. I'd backpacked once before, nearly a decade previously on Isle Royale, but had a companion, plus there were lots of people on the island, and I expected the same in the Porkies.
Lake Superior in the Porcupine Mountains.
     Backpacking was experiencing a boom then, with lighter equipment, better camp stoves and freeze dried foods. I expected the park to be  well used in late August. It wasn't. I spent six days without seeing a soul and it tested me. The first shock was a warning from a park ranger to watch out for black bears, as a camper had been attacked by one a few weeks previous. The hiker was cooking in his tent, a dumb move, especially that year because the DNR had closed most UP dumps where the bears fed by ripping open plastic garbage bags. To bears a small tent with the smell of food on it looks just like a garbage bag.
     My first night was spent in a cabin, of which there are several in the park, and I safely slept without fear of them, but there were visitors -- mice. They ran through the place looking for scraps of food left by hikers. I used a flash light to keep them at bay, but didn't get a lot of sleep that night. Small feet make big noises when you're alone.
    I knew about the bear danger, and had tied bells to my boots to warn them I was coming, but I worried they weren't loud enough as I hiked the next day. When I entered brushy areas, I swore I could hear them, although I never saw one.
     The next night, I opted for my tent, no mice there. The camp site was in view of Lake Superior in an open area, so I could see if bears were around. I collected enough wood during a short walk to make a small camp fire, mostly for reassurance. It was in the 80s, and humid, with the look of rain.   I got a decent fire going, and retired to my tent hoping the blaze would keep interested bears away. The thunder started rolling over the lake and there were lightning strikes, but the fire reassured me I could dry out, if needed. A gust of wind hit, blowing  the logs out of the fire pit and they rolled in all directions, sparks flying, a scene from hell.
     It was only after I hiked out that I discovered a tornado had moved through the area. Without a cell phone or weather radio, I didn't know if I'd been in the middle of it. Perhaps that was good.
     As the week moved along, I got accustom to being alone, and spent time taking pictures with a heavy, old school, metal Nikromat camera.  The slides still have brilliant color.
     The experience was strong and confusing. Something powerful  happened to me, I knew it at the time, and for decades I was afraid to tell others for fear they'd think I was nuts. But in my 60s, those fears vanished. I've embraced my crazy side and don't care what others think. I know what happened to me, it was a Native American vision quest.  I realized that when I read Indian myths. Young Native Americans went into the woods alone, fasted for days and waited for spirits to visit them. Mine were  fire, storm and black bears. Powerful stuff to be inside your head. Those spirits told me not to be afraid when I was alone in the woods.
      That was about 40 years ago, and the spirits are still giving me good advice.

     For more information about seeing the Porcupine Mountains, check out my travel guide,

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Misty day at Lake of the Clouds


   The Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Wilderness State Park in the western Upper Peninsula is shrouded in mist on a summer morning, in the photo at left. For those with hardy streak in them, they can rent a cabin on the lake from the park and walk into the site. It's an alternative to tent camping at the park.

For more information on the cabin and the park, go to