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…

Monday, July 29, 2019

Driving The Punjabi Road

Overton, NE
Sitting in the middle of Nebraska in Overton, west of Kearney is quite a gem.  I call it the best 1/2 star truck stop in the world and better yet it is just one of a series of such truck stops.  They are not a chain and not centrally owned, but all have a similar theme.  I call it, "Following the Punjabi Road", The Los Angeles Times wrote an article a month ago, calling I-40 the Punjabi American Highway, where many of the immigrant truckers from the State of Punjabi drive routes to Arkansas and Indiana.

There is more to travel than a bunch of bland extremely overpriced monopolistic truck stops called Flying J, Pilot, Travel Center and Love's (Flying J and Pilot are owned by same company including Warren Buffet), but you need to take a chance.

These hidden gems are scattered out here serving the Indian Truckers, There is the one in Sayre, OK on I-40 near Lawton featured in the LATimes article which we will hit in September that is vegetarian and leans more Sikh, although a Sikh trucker driving for the Singh Lines was a couple of booths away happily eating his lunch in Overton and talking in native tongue to the owner's son, serving him.  These are in Deming NM, Laramie WY, and somewhere just in the border in WY and many other places.

Punjabi-operated truck stops
 from the LATimes
There are Punjabi trucker schools, mechanic shops and these truck stops cater to them more than just the food.  The owners of the place in Overton, the Chaudhery's sent their two sons to business school in Lincoln at Univ Neb to help run the operation.  

These truck stops are also giving them great prices on fuel.

These have the cheapest diesel of any truck stops by far.  Near by to Overton, the Pilot charges $3.02 for diesel but Jay's the Truck stop in Overton, Nebraska.....$2.58

$44 cents a gallon cheaper?  That is no typo.  I saved $30 on a 2/3 fill, for a trucker?  Wow!   Why give your money to Warren Buffet?  I can go on how Love's etc is gouging America's travelers but I won't get into that.  Now this truck stop ain't much to look at and is just out of a 1982 movie, or is it 1975?  The expansive parking area is rough, and filled with pot holes, ruts, and weeds.  It desperately needs gravel and a grader.  The whole place needs a coat of paint, maybe three.  They are unbranded as that costs money.  The bathrooms, well I've had worse in outhouses, but that isn't saying much and the whole place hasn't had a cent of overhead done to it in a decade.  The Chaudhery's run a low overhead operation, and you know, I'd rather buy cheap diesel, but the restaurant was clean, even though the booths had lumpy seats.  

The food, though, IS to die for!  Wow!  Like best meal for 15 bucks a man could eat!
The naan bread is the best I've eaten and the curried chicken good and the coconut milk chicken was even better than that.  It was the highlight of the day!

One happy passenger boarding Big Bird filled with coconut chicken goodness.  

So do the Punjabi Highway, save a few bucks and have some good food and find these gems, just don't worry about the outside.  Come eat until you're stuffed and drive off happy.  Exit 248 on I-80 should be circled on your road atlas.  I'll report from Lawton next month.


PS.  a few wildlife shots...
Some bugs of Nebraska:
Common checkered skipper

Gray Copper

Colorado bugs:
Colorado haistreak (state butterfly of CO)

Mountain checkered skipper 

Dun skipper (cell phone camera)

taxiles skipper (cell phone camera)

Some birds:  I was hand feeding the hummers, and from hanging a feeder on my awning on the RV, but even though I got a good haul of birds, cameras and pictures were scarce where we were camping (banned?) so all I have are these.

Broad-tailed hummingbirds

rufous hummingbirds

Juvenile western bluebird

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

You know...we are at the end...

We are camping at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Akron, Colorado.  A couple with a baby and a chihuahua walks past while I am photographing a tornado (above).  "You know it's the end!"  The woman says to my wife.
       "What you say?"  My wife replies.
       "You know it's the end!"  She repeats.
      "I don't think the tornado is coming this way."  My wife replies ignoring the question about salvation given to us poor tourists from South Dakota
       The woman tried to reengage my wife about her being saved and she just wasn't getting what the woman was asking so finally as the rain came, "God bless you." she said scurrying away, dragging the chihuahua who possibly wanted to stay, I had just made a steak, it smelled good outside. has been one of those days, answers to questions not asked, directions given to places we aren't going, and solutions to problems we don't have.
     Ah travel, got to love it.
     I'm just thinking I may have come up with a pithier answer.
     We lived the parable of the sewing and harvesting of wheat today, except even those seeds sowed on the ground here, bad ground which is marginal looks really good, so go figure, maybe that is me, sew the Good News with marginal me, and maybe even that will even bear fruit.

They've had so much rain up in NE Colorado there is even standing water and American Avocets, something this drought prone country rarely has.   McCown's longspurs were playing in the mud (photographs for another time) and I even got a spotted sandpiper

I'm up here doing a little business on my way to a convention, Big Bird the RV is out and about and we are doing the camping thing, we were up in Minneapolis and got to see the Union Pacific Big Boy drive past
UP 4014 BigBoy, only functional 4-8-8-4 left operational, built 1941

I had a presentation at the Minnesota Global Birding meeting in Uptown in Downtown Minneapolis and on my third slide the power went out and stayed out for the entire period until 5 minutes before closing and I had stopped giving my photo-less description of the birds of the South came back on 1 hour 40 minutes after it went out, it couldn't have been more precise to screw up my presentation...It was the biggest fiasco in public speaking, maybe even birding, and it was so Olaf.....I spent so much time on that talk, I could have cried, but actually I did.

so then we headed west, and stayed last night dry camping at a boat landing ten miles west of Lincoln, NE, I had taken steroids for my trismus (jaw pain) and frozen jaw from too much oral surgery last month and I got severe abdominal pain, that at times put me to tears, or maybe it was just the jaw pain, or was the dang presentation....what are the odds of a power failure....

It wasn't all for naught, as I heard my year bobwhite and I got a photograph of a silver spotted skipper, the commonest skipper but one I hadn't photographed before

So tonight, I'm thinking this is my lucky week...
I got severe gastritis
I had the presentation from hell
The dog had diarrhea twice in the RV
The internet where we camped in Minneapolis went out
The Twins blew a big lead again the Yanks
My computer fried a motherboard, and 800 bucks to fix so I'm pitching it, I got most everything transferred out

Why do I think its been so lucky?
because the tornado didn't hit us, being this close to the ends times, I guess I guy needs to be careful...and is so nice to get out with the RV, spend time with my wife, and see and experience new things, I'm sure I got a chapter in a book about this trip and we really haven't gotten anywhere yet

More to come....mountains tomorrow, if this continues there are going to be a lot of blogs because there is going to be some really crazy things happening

be safe, the end is nigh and it will come like a thief in the night or so I've read


Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Milk and Butter(fly) Run

Its Butterfly Season out on the prairie and I've been searching the grasslands for new and interesting butterflies as well as seeing many of our native species of birds.  Next week should be an even bigger week of bugs as the flights of early summer skippers should begin.  The week before and after July 4th tis the season of prairie flowers and prairie butterflies, but with the late spring, it could be a weird year of say Dakota skippers about without cone flowers up yet
       In the middle of this, I see a post about a bonanza out west of me, Baird's Sparrows in the Grand River National Grassland and in numbers....I've looked for them out there before, almost every year, and some years I see one, but other's I've struck out.  Dan Svingen posted last that he'd seen many, and had some great photographs, so I was smitten, It was time to go....It was time for the MILK RUN!
       I name this annual tradition the Milk Run because it is an early morning point to point focused trek of birding.  The true Milk Run, I leave my cabin at 0130, head west, sometimes stop at Grand River Bridge on the river if low water but I need to get to Lemmon, SD 250 miles west of me about first good light.
      In my experience with Baird's, they start signing way before dawn, not as early as Nelson's but early, and if the sun is too high, they stop and become hard to get.  My usual trip is to turn on Reidy Road, drive it south to County 2, drive through pasture 7, go south to a couple of pastures areas that hold long enough grass for Baird's, scour the prairie dog town for Sprague's pipit, hit the state highway, go south, two miles to the campground, use the facilities, then drive across the dam on Hugh Glass Road.  Back in 1823, almost exactly where I always get Spotted towhee on a hillside, Hugh Glass was attacked by a grizzly bear protecting two cubs, Glass abandoned for dead by his party, came to, and stumbled and limped back over 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, near what is Chamberlain SD now.  
      On My normal milk run, after the towhee stop I drive hard back up near Lemmon, hit Hwy 12 head west and drive to Bowman County ND.  I scour the Rhame prairie for McCown's Longspurs, sometimes driving almost in Montana near some sage crouse leks I know of, then turn for another historical site at Riva Gap area, where our starving Calvary massacred women and children native Americans, I get some birds and drive like a maniac back home crawling in sometime after midnight, tired, car weary, but happy after seeing a lot of birds.
     This year, I had hoped to look for some butterflies and as such planned on turning back around after cursing Hugh Glass and thanking the grizzly bear's spirit, although it should have killed him, leaving the Arikara tribe the honor of doing so in 1833.  The only good thing that came from Glass is a free camping site near his monument near a Bureau of Reclamation Dam on the Shadehill Reservoir, I ponder if we ever needed, that ruined some good birding habitat.
     The rain continued, so I didn't go out to get butterflies, but Baird's sparrows were everywhere.  It was such a surprise.  Baird's along with their cousins, Nelson, Henslow, and Le Conte are notoriously skittish birds, heard but never seen, or seen as LBB flushing and never sitting up, but this year, I kept hearing the sparrow in the green lush prairie grass (some years, it only grows a few inches, but today, it was almost knee high, and so I'd walk into the grass, flush the bird and try to get a photo, it was so dark so long in the morning due to the weather, the birds never turned off, and so it continued.  I got soaked being out in the wet and instead of quitting, just peeled off the wet clothing and continued.  You know I'm not a shy birder in terms of what I wear and I hate such wet duds.  They were drying nicely on the passenger seat with the heat turned up and car running. I didn't want to wear my bathrobe I had with outside and no one was anywhere near me, so it didn't matter.  It was just me and a prairie full of sparrows.
Baird's Sparrow one of about 50

Grasshopper sparrow, actually less numerous than Baird's if can believe that

Chestnut collared longspurs, numerous especially on "Longspur Hill" where I always get their tick for the year, lately I go see them near my cabin but a bird historically I list from the same spot over and over again

The willet pair is still at Willet Valley a name I give for a valley with a pond.  They always get territorial just by driving by and stand in the road

It was so dark out then, I also heard my first Baird there and this is the typical photo I can get of this elusive bird, if I can even get this
That is about as good as I ever get.  Some points on Baird's ID, first, they are very light, almost looking white, much much lighter than a Savannah, and is their face from other small sparrows on face, they also got more tail than grasshopper, or Nelson's, the second....when you flush them, they fly low and dive right in never sitting up.  If they post, they are something else.....except....this year, on the road, on fences, anywhere but in the grass.  Maybe it was because the grass was wet, maybe it was because there were so many, maybe it was just luck, IDK, but it was some good butter from the milk run.

I left for home photographing old grain elevators from near ghost towns before getting harassed by a drunk Native getting gas in McIntosh SD.  "Indian Killer" was his accusation against me.  I'm not sure if it was my "Wapiti" plate on my car that attracted him thinking I was kin only to be a white man in a Shoshoni named car.  Then he asked me for a few bucks.....He wondered off, and I drove away
There are a lot of things dying on on the prairie the last 200 years, Natives, Grizzly Bears, the frontier spirit, small towns, butterflies, and thankfully Hugh Glass 

Views of the prairies from my hopefully ranch Monday and Tuesday

Upland sandpiper

Common ringlet

tawny-edged skipper

Melissa Blue

Pearl crescent

American Lady

Peck's skipper

Silvery Blue

The craziest thing I saw this week was this moth, a snowberry clearwing also called the hummingbird moth

just a taste of butterflies yet to come
I'm around in July.....make NE South Dakota your butterfly stop, or better yet, go see those Baird's next week!  It will never be like that again

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....