Sunday, October 6, 2019

Eating our way across the Mother Road

It was like we were doing some crazy Route 66 tour these last two weeks.  We planned on following the old route as far as Flagstaff before heading south, it looked as though we caught the classic highway in Tulsa, but no...we actually started in Chicago, where Route 66 starts.
We flew up to Chicago to celebrate our son Tyko's (Seth) matriculation into medical school at Rush University in Chicago.  They call it a "white coat" ceremony where they issue the white coats to each first year medical student.  Each student stood and introduced themselves, said their major, where they went to school and where they were from.
One student claimed he majored at Arizona State in Partying, our son went to Ripon College and majored in Computer Sciences and Biology.  There is only one student from South Dakota at Rush, though, the few the proud, I guess.  
Our other twin, Allwin drove down from Madison and we had a nice visit, celebration and ate food at Greek Town and then he drove us back to O'hare and we flew back to Tulsa to continue our journey westward and catch back up to the fabled highway.  We had to miss a wedding of a friends' daughter in Massachusetts but our son was sort of a late addition to Rush and so we couldn't do it all in a very short period of time. 
            John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath Could not have said it better.  “Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66—the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from Mississippi to Bakersfield—over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys. 66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.”
            Now the road’s children, I-44 and I-40 are also still roads of flight, of retirees coming down from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and the Dakotas heading to points south and west to escape the coming winter.  The road through Oklahoma is now called the Will Rogers Memorial Highway and as he was from a town northeast of Tulsa, he undoubtedly traveled it many times.  Many have traveled the route to California before us trying to make it big in Hollywood, but few did.  Even Oklahoma’s most famous native actress Joan Crawford didn’t take it to find fame as she was discovered as a dancer in New York City and had already left NE Oklahoma.  Famous singers like Toby Keith (my favorite C & W singer) went the other way from Clinton OK to Nashville but in reality, he went both ways playing the bars, honky-tonks, and fairs before they were famous.

            The trip back from Chicago was delayed and our departure gate from O’Hare to Tulsa was changed four times.  It was 1 AM by the time we landed and walked to our hotel near the Tulsa Airport.  After we woke, we picked the dog back up from the kennel, and tracked down something for breakfast.  Near the dog kennel was a small manufacturing facility with the name Daylight Donuts on the trucks. 
         It turns out upon further research the Daylight Donut Flour Company has been around since 1960 even though the company started in 1954.  The founders, a couple with the last name of Day developed a light flour recipe for donuts.  59 years and three owners later, the company now has over a thousand outlets and seems to be expanding. 
            We tracked one down which looked like the 1980s were calling and the small shop out in the middle of nowhere on the edge of Tulsa reminded me of the bakery in Frederic which closed sometime during the Clinton administration.  It wasn’t much to took at and the interior was no better.  We bought two donuts and two cinnamon bearpaws.  The taste test…it was a clean and light donut, not too sticky, and best of all, no greasy aftertaste.  It was okay!
Crispy Cremes used to leave a funny aftertaste before I stopped buying them.  The donuts at most convenience stores in the upper Midwest also have this after taste.  Two coffees, a bottle of orange juice and the four donuts, the cost…just $8.50.  Quality at a good price, maybe it was 1984?  Maybe Oklahoma is okay after all?
           We drove on the famous old route through Sapulpa, home of the world’s largest gas pump, into Bristow, past DePew, and turned before we got to Stroud, where we picked our rig back up before continuing westward.  Stroud is famous for having, of all things, a UFO landing pad.  All of these towns feature cafes and old gas stations registered as National Historical Structures.

            We took off and headed west down the Turnpike after driving through Stroud, avoiding a repeat visit to the UFO landing area.  We made our first mistake of the day continuing on the Turnpike instead of following I-35 into OKC and then turning on I-40 west.  The second toll booth on the Kirkpatrick Turnpike was exact change only, we caused a back up and then finally throwing $3 into the change hopper it never gave us a green light but we drove on.  It was impossible to do this from the window at my rig.  I had to send my wife outside.  The woman in the other lane parked her car and walked out into our lane to use the change machine.  Cars were four deep when I drove off and I could see her first dollar got caught up in the wind and she was chasing it.  Why not have a manned toll booth here when the first one is manned?  Why not warn trucks and tourists to stay off this toll way, at least give a credit card option for trucks.  My okay verdict was being negated.
After bailing out at the first road, old highway 66 again and looking in my rear view mirror for troopers, we finally found a way to get on I-40 and continue the journey.  I suppose I’ll get a fine from the mail.
I pulled off the interstate in Sayre, heading for our next stop, a very late lunch at a second Punjabi truck-stop, the Highway 40 Truck Stop.  When you think of Oklahoma I'm sure you think of donuts and Indian Cuisine...right?
The line of old wheels dividing the truck stop from the restaurant.

I also needed diesel and turned in towards the pumps.  It seemed easy enough but before I could do anything about it, I either went over the edge of a curb or a speed bump.  Afterwards, I couldn’t figure what it was doing there.  I wasn’t moving that fast but when the bump hit the rear tire on my side the interior compartment of the rig was tossed violently and I heard  a huge crash.  A cupboard full of dishes lay scattered on the floor.  Potato salad in the fridge was ejected from the fridge as was a bottle spaghetti sauce didn’t bounce.  It was a disaster of broken glass, china, food, and non-broken stuff.  After making sure all the pets had avoided the carnage we started to clean up.  One of our cats was lucky he was in a kennel.  The worst was the freezer door wouldn’t now close properly.
After cleanup and fuel, we decided at least to give the food a try.  We went in what looked like the restaurant and tried to order, but the guy took one look at us and said, “no for you, other place.”  He headed out the door and then led us around to back.  I wondered where we were being led to.  I guess goat meat is only available outback.  Apparently, we were pegged as meat eaters and as such, we were offered the Goat Meat shack in back. 

               It was good third world curry, bones and all.  When we wanted a diet coke, he walked over to the trucks stop to get it.  I must say though, all in all, the food in Nebraska was better, and I’m not sure I’d stop here again, mostly due too many painful memories over the speed bump.  These truck stops still made me wonder…
               Twenty-four miles later we left Oklahoma and entered the Texas panhandle where it decided to rain, and I guess that is all I have to say about that.

There is the “Leaning Tower of Texas” in Groom, but, well, that is a story for another bit of prose.

            You see a lot of odd things on the road when you drive, odd signs, odd people, and odd weather, and sometimes you see odd things on RVs, this picture says it all
We got all the way to Sun Valley Arizona, a town that had seen better days
and camped literally a few feet off the old Mother Highway where so many came 70 years ago

Sun Valley not to be undone by the counterpart with its same name in another state also has a "gated community"  This is Arizona's idea of a gated community

So Route 66, Donuts, Goat meat, leaning towers of Texas, gated villages, and open spaces and lots and lots of species of butterflies, next stop Phoenix just a short turn south off old 66

Butterflies: 15 lifers, here are a few pretty ones, I'd seen the buckeye before
common buckeye

Red-banded skipper

Swarthy Skipper

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Oklahoma is Okay

...or is it?
We are hanging out on old Route 66 between Tulsa and Oklahoma City enjoying the warmth of the early fall as it is about 30 degrees warmer here than it is at home.
Bucket List item #149 see Spiro Mounds and the Oklahoma Runestones (yes they have at least 4), so being a bit of a rainy day, we decided to take the drive to almost Arkansas to knock off this item.
Spiro Mounds is a rather odd mound, reportedly built over a rock cairn just like those in most of the European countries and it is also weird in that there are reports that a full armored man was found buried there, reports are the key word.  Nobody really knows for sure

In one of the saddest deals ever, just about as bad as the breaking into the museum a decade ago in Kentucky, between 1933 and 1935, Craig Mound was excavated by a mining enterprise that had bought the rights from local landowners to excavate and to keep or sell the artifacts they recovered. Tunneling into the mound and breaking through the Great Mortuary's log wall, they found many human burials, together with their associated grave goods. They discarded the human remains and the fragile artifacts—made of textile, basketry, and even feathers—that were preserved in these extremely unusual conditions. Most of these rare and historically priceless objects disintegrated before scholars could reach the site, although some were sold to collectors. When the commercial excavators finished, they dynamited the burial chamber and sold the commercially valuable artifacts, made of stone, pottery, copper, and conch shell, to collectors in the United States and overseas. Most of these valuable objects are probably lost, but some have been returned through donation and documented by scholars.  The ones returned are reportedly beyond amazing.

I had to see the place.

So we drove three hours and then to the front gate and we were confronted by this...
The sign says closed due to flooding and should reopen by the end of September, but upon further investigation,
the duct tape that said September was over tape that said august over tape that said July over tape that said something..."hopefully" had been added at a later date.  It was a sign made from two colors of duct tape, a cooler cover, four woodworking clamps, and metal that looked found on the side of the road.  The state spares no expense, apparently.
We walked the dog.
I thought about sneaking in, but well, we just left.
I had a back up spot...
So we drove down to Heavener to see the runestone.  Found in a gully on a huge rock over a century ago, this runestone has caused controversy.  Was it real?  It seems like an odd hoax.
The place was a state park, but Oklahoma gave up on it for some reason, and the city bought the property, and this is a city that has seen better days...why did Oklahoma abandon this treasure?
It means "The Valley of Glome" a marker rune for property.  This is from a much older Futhark than the Kensington Stone from Minnesota and I could go on about how Europeans could have got here hundreds of years before Columbus, but I won't.
I would have liked to stop at the gift shop and the interpretive center, but they are closed on Thursday, and it was...Thursday.
They have found other runestones...these are listed as housed at the Kerr Museum nearby, they just have a replica of the Poteau Stone here, found three mountains north.
So after hiking back from the stone, I needed to clean off my muddy feet
My wife caught me in my redneck moment of how a country boy cleans his feet

So we drove down some back roads to the Robert S. Kerr Museum to see the Shawnee and Poteau stones...
Located at the former Kerr Mansion and Conference Center (Kerr was Oklahoma's 12th Governor, a Senator for 14 years and founder of Kerr McGee Oil Company).  It was closed and looked in disrepair.  We did a Google search standing on the driveway.  The property was declared surplus property by the state (It was donated to the State and a local college by the Family in 1978) and auctioned off for a song and a dance last year, it had been closed since 2013.  Even the wall by the gate was falling over.  So in a building that looked to have a leaking roof, paint falling off rotting walls reportedly has the best remaining Spiro artifacts and three runestones...maybe this state will auction that off too?
I guess the only thing of educational value here is football?  How can a state with so much oil, tons of oil, have saved none of it for anything like this.  Why abandon this mansion?  
You look at the cities around.....Heavener, Spiro, in fact every city and village we drove through, are filled with more abandoned gas stations, store fronts, houses, to be honest, it is quite shocking.  The only thing that looks to be expanding is medical marijuana
  Here is the "Stress Releaf" Dispensary.  These things are everywhere.  We even drove past one on a nearly abandoned road near the Kerr Museum housed in a double-wide, so this is the state's growth industry....maybe if everyone is smoking nobody cares that the state seems to be falling apart...

Well I saw my year scissor-tailed flycatcher, the state bird, I saw three lifer butterflies yesterday, but today was a 350 mile Oklahoma okay?  I don't think so.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Nuthatch Story

(Excerpt from Wearing that beach plaid wherever you go)
THE FIRST DAY of the hunt for the endemic nuthatch (Sitta Whiteheadi) of Corsica began on the 13th of September.  It was Friday the 13th.  I should have noticed. Nuthatches can be a bit troublesome but every time I needed one, if I found myself in the right habitat, the little buggers would show up.  If not, a little call could induce them out of hiding.  Like big year plans, the plan to find this life bird would not go as a simple walk up into the trees and was full of many twists and turns and most of them, were on the Corsican road system.
            The highest point on Corsica is just a bit over 8,000 feet.  This is higher than Donner Pass.  This is higher than the entire state of South Dakota.  Being just around fifty miles across, and with the whole eastern side of the island being basically one big alluvial plain, when you get to the mountains, they are steep.  Steeper than I ever imagined.
            We chose to head south towards L’ Alta Rocca to look for the bird as the road seemed simple enough and since this bird lived in pines between 2000 and 6000 feet high, and this area had a national forest, finding one should prove to be pretty easy.  The Google map function told us that it would take just short of two hours to get to Levie, just under 100 KM away.  We would not see Levie until after 3 PM, and we would drive into the mountain village minus one very elusive bird.
            Our search started when we reached the pine forest near a closed ropes course.  It was very birdy.  A spotted flycatcher fallout was there, and we saw the other endemic bird, the Corsican finch.  These flighty things buzzed around the tree tops and only a lone one stood out to be photographed as best as I could.
Corsican Finch

            I thought I heard a nuthatch but after a while I started to doubt even my own existence.  It seems all things named beginning with Corsican were interesting and unique.

Corsican Heath, a very small orange and brown butterfly, only one we saw

Corsican Wall Brown.  Common up on the mountains.

We saw the species that were around, two species of butterflies only fly early in the year, so we had no chance for them.  We saw pretty much everything, and a surprising total of butterflies which were as numerous up on the hiking trails as anywhere I’ve ever been.  One can tell that insecticide is not used here to the degree it is elsewhere.
The views from on top of the mountains were stunning.  It was almost too much intensity for my camera, but we got the last parking spot at this trailhead and by the next village, even the cattle had to stand in the road as there was no place for them to even stand.

            The roads got narrow, my tire warning light came on for a low tire, but it looked okay, and so not ever seeing a place to do anything about it, I cautiously continued up the scary road.  the traffic heavy and the climb, steep and slow.  We had a nice picnic down on a stream near the road and then continued our search for the elusive nuthatch.  It was a bird that didn’t seem to exist at least not where we were.  We drove on and eventually focused on seeing some of the megalithic ruins, hoping that a nuthatch would just find us. 

            We drove around to Levie and then tried to find the museum to get some direction to find Cucuruzzu, one of the hill-top forts that are here.  The signs here are hard to figure out.  Nine times out of ten, the distance is blacked out, and half the time both the French and the Corsican word for the are blacked out, the French name is almost always blacked out.  No one here understands anything remotely in English so asking directions, not a chance.  I finally parked at a church in Levie and we walked to where I thought the museum was.  It was below that without much of a sign.
           We paid 4 euro to see the museum and get direction to the ruins.  We communicated in hand gestures and by the woman working at the museum in holding tickets.  We clearly understood that our ticket to the museum got in free to the ruins.
            We drove to the ruins and got slowed down by a flock of sheep on the road and then found the parking lot being careful not to hit this rock.  
Maybe they should have just moved it?  We then learned that after we showed the woman at the ticket place here, that we got in free at the museum in Levie, not the other way around.  It was only another 2.50 Euros, so it wasn’t that bad.
            We were hot and tired but survived another two kilometer walk up and down the hills and saw the ruins.

Olaf at Cucuruzzu.

I got a nice photo of a silver-washed fritillary as we were stumbling around.  It was my seventh lifer butterfly for the day.
Silver-washed fritillary.

            It was half past six and we had two hours of sunlight left and tow hours of hard windy driving to get home, minimum.  I took off thinking of lifer beer.  I drove, Chris played odd music for a while until something more fitting to driving, Lady Gaga came on, and the ladies in the back got tossed around the back.  The tire held and best of all, I beat the computer estimate of arrival by ten minutes.  I was drinking my beer by 8 PM.  
It was a long twelve hour day, everyone was exhausted, and we dipped on the elusive nuthatch.  I spent the next day buying internet and looking for better options of where to go to get this bird.  I also needed a day off from the narrow roads.  Only one person on Ebird had reported the nuthatch in the past two months, just one.  This one was quite far away and on the downhill side of the mountains.  I looked around and the closest looking hit, and one I thought I could find was in a village named Ghisoni.  It was about 40 kilometers away.  This tick was from April and he had seen four, but…had walked four kilometers.  So did he just start in Ghisoni or what?  I looked at other spots and some were about 2000 feet above Ghisoni in elevation so I figured if we struck out there, we’d keep going up, the road, however looked like it was a lot less of a road after that.
I spent the rest of the day sans clothing, it was just too dang hot outside and drank about a gallon of water and almost four glasses of wine.  I even drank a couple of beers, make up beers from previous lifers.  I watched French volleyball after everyone went to bed.
The next day started early as warning light and all, we headed up the hill again in the search of the little bastard nuthatch.  I had thought the roads were scary from before but this road quickly narrowed and then on the other side of the tunnel is got even narrower.  I crossed a bridge that was only eight feet wide but still had the lines painted down the middle.  I needed a break and we were in the pines so we got out and started looking.  A brownish bird flew up.  I took a quick picture.
Cirl Bunting

            A lifer Cirl bunting greeted me, the nice yellower male flew away from my side, but one takes what one can get.  I walked up a small road and we called and called.  We did find a pair of lifer goldcrest for both of us but the only bird that came out well were coal tits, yet another tit on the island of Corse of course.
Coal tit, resembling a couple of our species of chickadee

            I had wasted enough of the day down low, and we needed to get up to Ghisoni.  We parked the car on the outside of town and I looked up as I got out of the car and saw small birds working right away in the pines.  One certainly looked like the ass-end of a nuthatch and I called it out.  Chris never saw it and I lost it without a picture.  Would that be our only chance?  I sure hoped not, but sometimes…it can be.  If you are a birder, you understand that.
We walked around the road into Ghisoni without seeing another bird.  Dejection and desperation began to well up inside me.  “Oh, the futility of it all.”  I muttered as again Chris fell behind me and started to photograph passing motorcycles making the first corner into the village.  I kept looking for something, anything that would take us up into the pine trees.  I got to a very narrow bridge, probably the narrowest one of the whole day, so narrow, no one had even bothered to put a line down the middle, just in case two motorcycles would dare cross going in opposite directions.
I spotted a sign, not unlike ones I’d seen in the alps giving hourly directions to major cities, it was six hours to somewhere, 9 to another, 12 to somewhere else.  It was just across the bridge and so finally getting Chris going, we crossed and turned right up the trail.  We noticed a lack of traffic.  Chris stopped and started to snap pictures.  A dog was chewing on something leisurely lying in the middle of the road.  Traffic had stopped and the dog, didn’t care.

I walked up the trail leading my dog photographer buddy, Chris behind as I walked up the trail.  It soon split and I remained following the river for about a hundred meters before the trail became either a cement driveway into someone’s house or a narrow bridge that appeared to end in a garden, a really small garden.  There was also a gate,  I was apparently at a dead end.  I turned around and met Chris 50 meters behind me and passed him and led him up what looked like a set of switchbacks up the mountain above town.  Two hairpins later, the trail straightened out above town following the back of some three-story buildings.  I followed a retaining wall when I heard a man on top of the retaining wall shout at me something in the local version of French or is Corsican a version of Italian?
            “Pardon?”  I asked, trying to process.  He repeated himself with even more gestures and stood, domineering over me about six feet above me.
            “Je’n comprend pas.”  I said honestly, I had no clue what he was saying. 
            He uttered what was clearly a frustrated obscenity.  Smacked himself on the head.  Yes, I am dumb.  I thought.  He motioned for me to go back using both hands. I lifted up my camera.
            “Si, si.” He said forming his hands into a square which I took as being a picture.  He then said something else and now as I was still standing used both arms his hips and his head to get me to go the other way.  Confused I obliged.  He mumbled what could only be another expletive as I met Chris at the corner.  The man was still watching us and Chris could see him now as well.  I stopped and as we caught his eyes. 
He motioned up the hill again.  He said something that Chris described later fully.  “He is speaking Cussican to us.”  He said laughing going up the hill.  From then on, we called the local language Cussican.
What this man was trying to direct us to, wasn’t clear.  In the back of my mind I remember similar episodes always from non-birders that without exception led to finding the target bird but I looked up where we were going, very scattered old pines next to clearcut areas.  I walked up, passed an old narrow trail to a cemetery, and then the trail nothing more than a cow trail which eventually petered out.
“He must have thought we were looking for the cemetery.” I said turning around and feeling hot.  The coolness of the morning was gone.  The dry Corsican heat was replacing it.  I had given up, it was time to head down the hill.  The nuthatch would remain unseen.  Chris agreed and led me down the hill.  I played the nuthatch song some, but as of yet I hadn’t heard anything concrete and it seemed the only thing I had called in was tits.  I saw a bird come in and figuring it was a coal tit, decided I wanted a picture.  I put the camera on and noticed something…IT WAS A NUTHATCH!

“Nuthatch!”  I said loudly trying not to scream.  We were in ear shot of the local guy.  I wasn’t sure if Chris heard me, so I repeated more slowly, but loudly.  “Nut…hatch!”  I kept taking pictures.  Chris was right behind me and got the bird.  It flew off.
“Bingo!”  I said.  “I’m not doubting any local again.  “Chris though wanted better pictures so deciding seeing a bird straight over our head was not a good plan, we got up higher in the ancient cemetery.  For all I knew, Napoleon was from this village and his parents are here. 

Corsican Nuthatch the lifer bird of this trip.

            We did get better photos from the cemetery and while we were there Chris got a lifer bonus bird, a long-tail tit, yet another tit.
Long-tailed Tit, a much different looking subspecies than the one I previously saw in Sweden

            We saw a cow walking up the path and I told Chris to get my picture petting it and then something odd happened.  It stood its ground, snorted and feigned a charge.  It didn’t have a great tit, a blue tit, a coal tit, nor a long-tailed tit, it only had one tit because it was a bull!  I could see the headline.  American Tourist Birder killed by bull, the Corsican Nuthatch was his last bird.  Maybe the old man was warning me about the bull?  There was a bit of a stand off with this creature before it gave way a little and then took a quick step toward us, and then gave way again.  It was time to go, bird gotten, bull avoided, and it was getting hot, and I had a long trip back to Riva Bella.
            The road was more scary going down and when I got two cars behind me I let them pass and when we got to the one lane road where we met some cars, two of the women in the lead car we hanging out the window cell phones in hand, trying to get video from the chasm below.  Then, they just stopped, for no reason, finally I got back around them, avoided cars, vans, and many, many motorcycles and got to the bottom.   Then I pulled over to look at a red kite overhead.
            “Look at that pipe.”  Chris said pointing to a massively leaking water pipe feeding water to the towns below. 

            It made for entertainment, if nothing more as the water was just falling into the chasm below where a smaller creek had been sucked almost dry by the water diversion plan.  The leak was just giving the channel more of its water back.
            Later, we saw a nice red kite perched on a power pole.  This was our best look at this bird the entire trip.  Many are seen soaring overhead but we weren’t in a place to see them like this at Riva Bella.
            We were back by one, we had seen the nuthatch as one of three lifers for me on this little outing and had been safe.  Safety when driving in Corsica is a big issue as people here drive aggressively and many of the (mostly German) RV owners go up roads I’d never try to even my pickup truck.
            They say Corsica is a place where the locals believe in omens and the supernatural.  Napoleon never trusted the Corsicans despite being from here.  He thought it was better to have someone other than a Corsican govern them.  I had met an old man who ordered me to do something.  It was either, get your ass up that hill and see that nuthatch or get the hell off my island before you hurt yourself.  I’m not sure which but I hope he gave me the bird, like I said this has happened to me before, and it seemed a rather strange coincidence, but for me, coincidence and birding seems to be commonplace, maybe too commonplace for just my own dumb luck.
            The Corsican nuthatch was off my lifer board, I don’t think I will ever see the rarer Algerian nuthatch which lives in an isolated mountain range in northern Algeria.  I’d probably have to convert to another religion to do that and I already have a couple of religions.  The bird I found in Corsica numbers are declining as well and I suspect might be threatened soon as woodpeckers and logging of all things have taken their toll.  See them while you can, I guess, and at least I have this one.  

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Ode to the blueberry god

SO THIS takes us all back around to the Smoothrock Lake fish camp trip.  This is now the annual tradition that started way back in 1982.  I’ve written about this many times before in my blog and various books.  August 8th came like a thief in the night, silently, unexpectedly, and without a lot of prodroma. I woke up at my Enemy Swim Lake cabin on the 7th after hearing a short-eared owl outside, a year bird, and drove to our home, mowed my vacant lot, completed the closing and rental of my ranch, drove to my RV,  found the rest of my stuff, went to bed, got up early, drive to my dad’s place, packed a car, and started the long drive to northern Ontario.
            What would happen this year?  There were no forgotten passports or expired ones this year.  Things were going well.  The border guard looked at us funny and asked “are you with the guys ahead of you?” 
            Taking the lead, I quickly quipped.  “It depends on what they have done.”  She smiled and then asked how much alcohol we had.
            My friend Jeff Rapp parroted the rehearsed tally.  “Four liters of booze, a case of beer and a bottle of wine.”
            “I see you aren’t the drinkers of the group.”  It turned out the other pickup with four adults in ti had 10 liters of booze and other assorted liquors and my boat partner Greg doesn’t even drink.  They got a $94 USD fine for the duty on this hoard of spirits at customs.  At least we didn’t have to stop at the LCBO in Thunder Bay, the provincial liquor store for more.  I guess it was going to be the usual fun trip. 
            While we were paying the customs fee, we missed the visitor center closing time by three minutes, and then had to go to Canadian Tire in Thunder Bay to buy our fishing licences.  As I waited for the others, my boredom led me to the fishing tackle section and well, it cost me a further seventy dollars because too many baits from Canadian manufacturers were looking intriguing.  I was shopping my way north this year, or so it seemed.  I had done the same thing in Duluth.  Maybe I’d even catch a fish or two on one of them.  I always tend to use the same baits so I probably wouldn’t.
            This year’s trip had an odd feeling about it.  It was like I was just going through the motions.  I didn’t have a real plan, no feelings of some thing I needed to do, and no bucket list items.  I circumnavigated the lake last year, which used to be on my bucket list.  I have caught so many really big fish that I don’t really expect any more.  So, we just went fishing, and right away on the second day I caught a marginally decent pike.

This 35-inch northern that held lead for trophy for some of the week

The weather had been in a bit of a constant pattern, warm with a western wind and as such, it appeared that the pike had turned off from eating or at least in the way we liked to fish them.  Later, the second day we I dropped Greg off for blueberry picking and I went birding for a little while.  I went out to the hanging rock, a rock deposited on an island that looks like it should fall in.
There is a herring gull colony and sometimes a common tern colony on this island or the one a hundred yards away.  I saw some herring gulls, no terns and came back to see what I could see in a bay, but all I flushed up was a merlin.  It was something.

Herring gull

            I was going to title this chapter the legend of Seamonster Bay continues, except that nothing truly odd happened in Seamonster Bay.  For the legend to continue, something odd or memorable had to happen, but nothing did.  For some strange unexplained reason, four eagles circled us as we came into fish coming back from our annual grilled cheese run.  I make grilled cheese in the old barbecue near the seemingly abandoned camp at Fungar Lake Outpost.  This year, I lit the gas grill without looking inside and as it heated up, a grill scraper melted and caught on fire, I had to pull out liquefied plastic and stomp on it.  We still had tasty grilled cheese sandwiches. 
            I began to start asking questions.  Are seeing seamonsters, a vortex, or even bigfoot prerequisites for having a memorable trip?  Don’t ask questions you don’t want answers to.  We didn’t run into the game warden.  We didn’t have engine trouble.  I didn’t hit a rock and I guess we really didn’t catch any good fish.  That’s okay.  Mediocrity is the expected and the expected is normal.
            I did see a dorcas copper next to the cabin, a diminutive lifer butterfly I had never seen before, and then I saw a few others.  That was about as good as the trip up this end of the lake went. 

Dorcas copper

Green Comma

Common branded skipper

The wind was, as usual, howling in our faces coming out of the Caribou Arm into the main lake but it wasn’t that bad.  I have experienced much worse.  We went back to camp, the guys had beat us back and were both out of ice and diet coke for mix but like good drinkers they made do.  A good drinker can improvise, and they did.  I was reminded of the first few years we were here when they had an icehouse and harvested ice in the winter and kept it all summer covered in sawdust.  Brian, my dad’s best friend, had to chip off ice for his cocktails making sure that no sawdust got mixed in with the Canadian Club.  Now it just takes a trip to the ice machine.
It was a couple of days later when I felt fate had again taken over my life when we were heading up old, Lonebreast Bay.  I passed a single canoeist and we stopped to chat with him.  Later when we decided to have lunch, after a walleye fishing bonanza, we came to Lunch Island and found this same canoeist setting up camp.  “Hey, are one of you two doctors?”  Daniel, the canoeist asked. 
This old guy, at least mid to upper seventies in age was on a twelve-day solo canoe adventure and was about five days from getting picked up.  He had scraped his shin a few days earlier and it looked bad.  It didn’t hurt him to walk on it, but it was in that marginal area between inflamed and infected.  If I had seen him in the Emergency Room, I would have given him a shot of something but was it worth calling for a seaplane to evacuate him?
I looked again and marked the edges with a pen and told him if the redness expanded, he needed to use his device he had with to signal for help and have them fly him out.  We ate and left, and then later that evening, I began to think.  Did I run into him for a reason?  Five days is a long time and maybe I should try to help him. I found a bottle of antibiotics I had at the cabin and then convinced a camp employee to drive me up in a faster boat.  It was a twenty-two-mile round trip, but I think the older guy was worth it and hopefully if there is a little infection, what I scrounged up will knock it down.  It may not help but doing nothing wouldn’t help either.
I worried that no good deed ever goes unpunished, but we as people don’t seem to help out the unfortunate as much as we should.  Helping a guy out in the bush with a bum leg is the least a doctor should do.  Maybe I would get some credit from the local fishing deity who would let me catch a large fish?  I could only hope.  Unfortunately, it was a different god that paid me a visit the next day.
The Finns have a pagan god who they say is in charge of the blueberry crop.  Vainamoinen was said to have saved the starving Finns one year by making the blueberries grow lush.  It is said he is the deity one prays to when they need something done.  I’m not sure what that means.  His powers, though, are not absolute and praying to him only has mixed success.  The Swedes probably would have had one for blueberries too except that at some point, they took the Norse gods, probably as some missionary for Odin made it to Uppsala and everyone converted from the old form of paganism to the new.  The Norse gods and goddesses don’t seem to care about the berry crop.  In the process, blueberries lost out and the old gods left.  Maybe Vainamoinen also left and went to Canada?   On a small island we call Burnt Over Lunch Island, the old Finnish blueberry god had apparently found a home.  I have never seen such clumps of berries and our fishing trip turned quickly into a berry trip.  I have never filled a half of a bucket so fast.
I’m not sure if any of the First Nation bands worshiped a god of blueberries.  If they or the European Canadians ever did, the blueberry god would be worshiped every summer.  It was odd how on a place of destruction, such bounty grew.

I was thinking of how a crazy bunch of canoeists accidentally burnt this island a few years ago and now, the blueberry god returned with such a bounty of the tasty and succulent small blue orbs.  At camp we made blueberry pancakes and then homemade ice cream with blueberries on top, such is the extent of the roughing it that we partake here on Smoothrock Lake.   
The penultimate day was a fishing bust.  The pike were turned off and even catching small ones became a tiring chore, so we went again to pay homage to the Blueberry God.  I was still hoping to get a year bird on this trip, and I was kneeling as if in prayer.  Then I heard them.  I walked to the boat and stood out on a rock.  A flock of Canada Jays (formerly gray jays) flew in and I took some photos.  I watched and eagle fly by.  It was that easy—a gift year bird and then satisfied for a while I went back to picking berries.

Vainamoinen delivered me a bird I needed.  Sometimes we get what we need and not what we want.  I got a bird and blueberries, but big pike and walleyes…maybe next year.
            I ran into the old canoer again.  His leg was better, so I guess I helped him.  He never made it to the Wendell Beckwith cabin on a neighboring lake.  The idea of this cabin was like a little seed.  Who was Wendell Beckwith?  Why do people make a pilgrimage to such a forlorn spot in the middle of nowhere just to see a cabin?  
The Wendell Beckwith cabin from the internet, is it the House on the Rock in cabin form?

Also why did he call the island he lived on, the center of the universe?  These are questions I need to know and visiting this cabin is now getting added to my bucket list…maybe next year I’ll have more answers to this. 
            The last day was like a Seuss story.  we caught no fish in No-fish Bay, and also no fish in One-fish Corner, but we did catch a single fish in Two-fish Corner.  One fish, two fish, blue fish, green fish or something like that.  It was better but nothing to brag about.  We ended back up at Seamonster Bay and stranger things began to happen.  We were being watched by an eagle and a herring gull expecting us to leave them some culled fish or something.  When we didn’t, the gull got mad and took things into its own control and started attacking my marker buoy.  Then it started to tow it away before I scared it off.  It was an omen and possibly the Blueberry god was giving me a not so subtle hint that it was time to stop fishing.  Something like this would only happen in Seamonster Bay.  we spotted an elusive pine marten and then called it a fishing trip and drove back. 
So, there it was, a week of fishing.  A couple of chances for birding but not much.  We picked a lot of berries, and we caught fish.  The pike-ometer showed 189 pike at trip’s end, my second lowest total in a week ever here, finishing off the last ten years at over 3000 pike.  A slow year for us is like a lifetime trip for others.  Everything is relative.
I also heard of a strange and mysterious place nearby, do I have to even mention that it got added to my bucket list?  I now have to figure out how to get to it but that would be a trip and a tale for another time.  This trip was about Vainamoinen, or so it seems.  It seems blueberries were what we caught the most of.  This god is one that gives a little and takes a a little and it was now time to go home.  Hopefully, I had given enough.
What about the Pike Championship?  It wasn’t my year this year.  Dr. Jerry McCollough of Wadena caught a 41-incher.  It was his year to win the ugliest trophy in angling and pet the beaver.  The annual tradition for the winner while holding his prize money.

Dr. Jerry with the Falun Trophy behind him

I also helped an old canoer.  Vainamoinen provided and yet, he didn’t help me out with the pike, but that is the way of this deity, he is both good and bad, much like the Finnish and Canadian bush.  There is always a bigger fish and, for me, another fishing trip.  Until next year…

Eating our way across the Mother Road

It was like we were doing some crazy Route 66 tour these last two weeks.   We planned on following the old route as far as Flagstaff befo...