Sunday, August 31, 2008

Us vs. Them

These days everyone's a separatist.

Today's New York Times carries a story on how disgruntled Scottish nationalists are talking about seceding from the United Kingdom.

In Belgium, the French-speaking Walloons in the north and the Dutch-speaking Flemings in the south have long debated dividing the nation, as the Czechs and Slovaks split what used to be Czechoslovakia. And look at the former Soviet Union, today divided by a host of languages and animosities, as well as the former Yugoslavia, where everyone seems to be at each other's throat. Never mind Quebec and the rest of Canada.

At least many countries of what used to be called the Continent have formed the European Union, and its currency is strong. Maybe the French detest the Germans and vice versa, but financial self-interest will always paper over a great many cultural chasms.

Here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Yoopers resentful about neglect by rich Lower Michiganders sometimes threaten to declare the U.P. a separate, sovereign state -- before reality sets in and they admit they depend too much economically on their rivals Below the Bridge.

Three years ago a crowd of deaf Americans (I'm not one of them) talked about setting up their own town somewhere in South Dakota where they'd be treated as full citizens with their own language, not handicapped folks to be pitied. There hasn't been much news about that since and the Web site,, set up to promote it has disappeared. My guess is that the difficulty of making a living in isolation finally sank in.

It's natural for those who speak a common language, share a common history and enjoy common beliefs and a common culture to wish to band together in comfort and security.

There is a dark side to this impulse, however, and it is the deplorable human tendency to demonize the Other, those who are different. Anti-Semitism is a good example of this, and so is anti-Islamism, not to mention anti-infidelism.

A robust economy helps stifle these bloody inclinations. (Not for nothing is "E Pluribus Unum" stamped on U.S. currency.)

It's when times are tough that fissures of resentment crack the map of humanity. We're seeing a lot of them lately.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

'31 Ford roadster in HDR

Another experiment in high dynamic range photography, from today's antique auto show in Ontonagon, Michigan. The actual color of that Ford is only a little less intense than in the picture. I daresay driving it up and down Main Street on Saturday night would snare the girls . . .

Friday, August 29, 2008

High Dynamic Range imaging

The last few days I've been busy learning High Dynamic Range imaging, and the pictures here of buildings in downtown Ontonagon, Michigan, are two early results.

HDR is fairly simple: you take three to five photographs of a subject, all identical except for exposure time -- two f-stops under normal, then one f-stop under normal, then one f-stop at normal, then one f-stop over normal, then two f-stops over normal.

Next, you use special HDR software (I chose Photomatix) to combine all five photos into one. Presto. The result is a picture with highlights and shadow detail you couldn't get with one normal shot. You can also intensify the colors, as I have here, for a more painterly effect. (It works best with photos taken at night.)

Click on the photos for slightly larger and more detailed versions.

If all this has not made your eyes glaze over, you can find out more about HDR photography in the Wikipedia entry.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Not the Stanley Cup

Last night our game camera captured a raccoon and a skunk as they waited for the ref to drop the puck. There were no other photographs of the two species together; perhaps they don't get along very well. The photographs that were taken afterward (the camera snaps them every 30 seconds) showed the skunk alone, suggesting that he won the face-off and the coon took his skates home in a snit.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Porcupine County's lifeblood

Without the 25,900-ton laker John G. Munson, it's fair to say that Ontonagon, County, Michigan -- prototype of my mystery novels' Porcupine County -- would plunge into its final economic decline and become a ghost town on the shore of Lake Superior.

Several times a year the Munson calls at Ontonagon with loads of coal to fuel the town's largest employer, the Smurfit-Stone paper plant at left, as well as the power plant at White Pine some 20 miles to the west. Without easy lakeside delivery of these many thousands of tons of coal, both industries would have to shut down.

Just last year the Army Corps of Engineers, pressured by the White House, announced it would have to halt dredging, without which lake freighters could never enter the shallow Ontonagon harbor. It took fast footwork in Congress to keep the dredging going. That's the dredge at work next to the Munson.

On the night of August 23 the Munson, having passed through the Soo Locks with a load of coal picked up in Sandusky, Ohio, anchored off Ontonagon in rough waters. Shortly after dawn the ship stood in to the harbor and tied up at the Smurfit-Stone quay, swinging its "self-unloader" boom out over the shore.

Here the business end of the boom deposits the vital black blood that keeps a small town's heart beating.

After four hours and several thousand tons of coal, the Munson rides high in the water, still unloading in this photo taken from the M-64 highway bridge more than a mile south.

Barely two hours later the Munson stands out into the lake, four miles from Ontonagon and three miles from the beach of the Writer's Lair, headed for Two Rivers, Minn., where it will pick up bulk cargo and return to Ohio.

[August 29.] Three days later a tug towed the dredge, itself pulling a small barge, to its home port in Duluth. I happened to be on the beach with a long lens as the tow went by two miles out.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sweets from the landfill

Each time this summer we've hauled our trash to the local dump, an Upper Michigan landfill operated by a national company, I've stopped at the office to pay the bill and swipe a few of the delicacies illustrated above for our candy jar. They're ordinary mints (I tried one) but, let's face it, the packaging suggests all kinds of subliminal phenomena, mostly laxative in nature.

Someone really ought to talk to the PR/marketing guy who came up with the idea.

However, in the next Porcupine County mystery, Sheriff Steve Martinez is going to keep a bowl of the things on his desk and wonder about the mental capacities of the deputies who dip into it.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What's this?

Purple thistle-like flowers fading to white, purple stem, long, sawtoothy leaves. What is it? Some kind of knapweed? It was growing all by itself on a sandy, stony crib on our beach at Lake Superior. If anybody has a clue to what it is, please let me know.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Mike Royko lives again!

For the last week, my old stamping ground, the Chicago Sun-Times, has been re-publishing decades-old columns by the late Mike Royko.

Old newspaper columns usually enjoy the half-life of a stray electron, but when they are by Royko -- America's last great daily newspaper columnist -- a surprising lot of them are worth rereading.

It's a smart move. The Sun-Times has chosen columns that celebrated the actions (or antics) of ordinary people and has made an effort to discover where these folks are today. In a couple of cases so far the result is anticlimactic, but in the larger scheme of things that doesn't matter. It's good to see Royko's stuff again and lament the sad facts that no one writing today could carry his water and that no corporate newspaper would employ a difficult personality like him today. He was a great talent, and he was also a mean-spirited drunk.

It's not costing the paper a dime to publish these columns, which they own -- not the writer's estate. That's a cool move in these budget-constricted times. And it's a way to catch the eye of geezers who remember Royko and perhaps get them to buy the paper again, although the younger generation won't care -- it's never heard of him. (Nor have a surprising number of young journalists.)

On Aug. 14 the paper published a 1979 column about a Polish immigrant with such poor English that the cops arrested him instead of the brutes who mugged him, endangering his efforts to get a green card. (He was eventually naturalized and returned to Poland, where he died some years ago.)

The Aug. 15 entry is a hilarious 1981 story about a homebound commuter who accidentally jumped a freight train and was carried 180 miles into Iowa, where he was arrested as a suspect in a cop shooting. (He successfully explained it all to his wife and is now a 54-year-old Chicago handyman.)

The 1979 column that ran Aug. 18 is oddly lame for a Royko column -- it concerned a veterinarian who made golf club handles from bull pizzles. (The business failed, but the vet is still alive in Minnesota at age 84.)

Many SUV owners today will identify with the Aug. 19 column, in which Royko -- who had just bought himself a gas-guzzler -- discusses the shame of driving a big car during a fuel crisis in 1979. (No follow-up needed to that one.)

The Aug. 20 column, from 1982, chronicled the troubles of a cop who favored gun control in the editorials he wrote for a police newsletter, running afoul of loud and well-organized pro-gunners and losing his writing job. (He regained it almost immediately, thanks to the column, and retired as a lieutenant in 1997.)

Yesterday's column, from 1979, told what happened when a Bloom High School teacher assigned his students to write letters to Royko after he savaged fan behavior at a rock concert. With glee Royko quoted illiterate and abusive passages, so embarrassing the school that the teacher was nearly fired. (His career survived, and today he's retired and teaches part-time at St. Xavier University.)

Good stuff for the most part. But you'd better hustle to read the foregoing columns, for the Sun-Times keeps them online only for a couple of weeks and is too broke to maintain an archive.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ready . . . Aim . . .

But this skunk, captured in the back yard on the game camera at 1:22 a.m. today, didn't fire. I'm posting this photo as a public service to inform clueless city slickers that if a skunk should present its posterior in this manner, it is most advantageous to vacate the premises with alacrity, as Henry James would have said.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bristly fellow of the forest

Here is the south end of a porcupine headed north, a photo I took by the side of the road this morning on the way to the Upper Michigan wilderness state park that is his namesake. I tried to entice him to turn so that I could get at least a profile of his head, but he remained in full defense mode, keeping his hind end, quills elevated at the ready, aimed at the threat.

This is the first porcupine I've encountered in years up here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. They are not rare, but they tend to stay out of sight in the deep woods rather than hanging with humans the way skunks do. Good thing, for while after a skunk encounter we could fix Hogan the Wonder Dog with a little elbow grease, it would require major veterinary surgery after a run-in with a porky.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From hither to yon, in short steps

A potpourri (or "poopery," as Mike Royko, never the world's greatest speller, once wrote, but he may just have been pulling our collective leg) of jumbled and unrelated thoughts:

1. Planning a budget trip to Alaska next May is an ongoing exercise in sticker shock. That state both pumps oil and fleeces tourists.

2. This has been such a cool August on the shore of Lake Superior that I am reminded of Mark Twain's "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." We even had an October storm yesterday, with such wild surf we had to rescue the kayaks twice and roll up the boardwalk to the beach.

3. Every day we see bald eagles, sometimes three, sometimes four. Why is it they're never around when I have a camera in hand?

4. Newspapers everywhere are publishing the most incredibly trivial feature stories on their front pages in order to stay afloat a little longer as they circle the toilet. One Chicago paper yesterday featured 1,000 badly overwritten words about the upcoming opening of a new fast-food restaurant in a strip mall. The other the same day ran a story about a drunken wedding reception during which the cops Tasered both bride and groom -- a story that had appeared in July in a supermarket rag. (The names of the dailies will not be mentioned to protect the guilty, but you could Google the subjects.)

5. Every day I thank my stars that I retired from newspapering when I did (in 2006).

6. Will anyone remember Michael Phelps a year from now? (Mark Spitz' name comes up only during Olympic years.) That's because, let's face it, watching swimming is about as exciting as an afternoon on the cricket pitch. Full disclosure: I was once a competitive swimmer myself.

7. Donna Leon's first Guido Brunetti mystery, Death at La Fenice, originally published in 1992, is still her best. (I just finished it.) But the others are all well worth reading.

8. Of all the liberal pundits, Frank Rich of The New York Times writes the best political commentary. How is it that his column appears on the same page as the often mean-spirited Maureen Dowd, who can rival Ann Coulter for sheer nastiness?

9. The next book I plan to read is The Barn House: Confessions of an Urban Rehabber, by Ed Zotti (New American Library, $22.95, to be published Sept. 2). The advance notices make it sound like a latter-day Mr. Blandings Fixes Up a Dream House. Zotti is best known for his syndicated "Straight Dope" column, which he claims just to edit, but we fellow Chicago writers know better.

10. I am not capable of thinking about more than nine things a day.

11. I lied. Way down at the bottom of this page (keep scrolling) is a Google News "gadget" that will give you the service's idea of the important headlines of the day. I almost put up a gadget devoted to South African humor but decided this one might be more useful.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Theroux meets 'the world with its pants down'

It's considered bush-league to begin an essay about a book by quoting a long passage from it, but God help me, I can't resist when the author is Paul Theroux and the work is his splendid new rail-borne travel narrative, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (Houghton Mifflin, $28):

I hate big cities, probably for the same reasons many city people hate wilderness (which I love), because I find them vertiginous, threatening, monochromatic, isolating, exhausting, germ-laden, bristling with busy shadows and ambiguous odors. And the mobs, and all the shared space. Cities look like monstrous cemeteries to me, the buildings like brooding tombstones. I feel lonely and lost in the lit-up necropolis, nauseated by traffic fumes, puzzled by the faces and the frenzy.

When city slicker utopians praise their cities I want to laugh. They whoop about museums and dinner parties, the manic diversions, the zoos, the energy of the streets, and how they can buy a pizza at three in the morning. I love to hear them competing: My big city is better than your big city! They never mention the awful crowds, the foul air, the rackety noise, the marks of weakness, marks of woe, or how a big city is never dark and never silent. And they roost like tiny featherless birds in the confinement of their high apartments, always peering down at the pavement, able to get around only by riding in the smelly back seat of a slow taxi driven by a cranky cabbie.

In that passage Thoreau -- oops, Theroux -- is savaging Tokyo, but he could also be giving the fish eye to Chicago, a city I worked in for so long that I don't miss it at all up here in the woods on the shore of Lake Superior, five miles from the nearest town -- a small one. If I ever should meet my fellow urbanophobe on the beach or a forest trail, the first thing I will do is give him a leaping high five.

Most of my camera-bedecked rail-buff brethren wouldn't, for Theroux isn't interested in the hardware that excites them. He doesn't count rivets or babble about driving wheels. To him a sleeping car is a simple conveyance, a vehicle for intellectual adventure into hearts and minds and the rambunctious and ramshackle worlds they inhabit.

Ghost Train retraces the route he took in his 1978 book The Great Railway Bazaar, from England and France to Hungary and Romania, then Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam, Japan and back to Europe via the Trans-Siberian Express. Not, however, Afghanistan (too dangerous) or Iran (refused a visa).

Theroux travels by night train whenever he can manage it, and never in red-carpet luxury. "Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet."

Wonderful stuff, and there's a lot of this. Though Ghost Train in some ways lacks the raw, often smart-alecky freshness of Bazaar, a book that redefined the travel narrative, and though it does reflect the wiser, more mature outlook of a sexagenarian who has learned both patience and forbearance, Theroux has lost none of his acerbic, often contrarian brilliance at describing people, places and culture. The grimy dining car on the Euronight express to Bucharest spurred Theroux to write: "At the sight of this filth and disorder, my spirits rose. . . I felt I was seeing the real thing, a place with its pants down."

Occasionally he will give the mean-spirited back of his hand to types he has long detested, such as Blimps and missionaries. Cliched they may be, but in Theroux' hands these encounters are still devastating. I wish I had been there when in Thailand he met an American, "tubby and short, duck-butted, about fifty or so, in black capri pants," working noisily on a baguette sandwich. She is a missionary from Missouri.

"Spreading the word?"
"You got it."
"Quoting Scripture?"
"'The letter killeth,'" I said. "Who said that?"
"Paul, Corinthians. 'The spirit giveth life.'"
"They have plenty of spirit."
"Not Christian spirit."
"Like they need lessons in piety in Thailand?" I said, my voice cracking with impatience. And I thought of all the Thais I'd seen bringing flowers and incense to temples, their crouching and their prostrations, their faces glowing in the light of candle flames, the special quality of their beauty when they were in the act of praying.
"They need Jesus."
"I took a deep breath and said, "What is it with you people?"
She just chewed defiantly.
"They need Almighty God."
I said, "If Almighty God had been an immense duck capable of emitting an eternal quack, we would all have been born web-footed, each as infallible as the pope -- and we would never have had to learn to swim" -- a quotation from Henry James's father that I find useful on these occasions.
More often Theroux takes surprising delight in the people he encounters. Some of them are writers -- he sought out Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul and Haruki Murayami in Tokyo, for instance. He offers, sometimes uncharitably, his views of the work of other travel writers, reliving his celebrated feud with V.S. Naipaul and reiterating his disdain for Bruce Chatwin's alleged fabrications.

He is at his best when encountering people ordinarily below the notice of most travelers. Now and then Theroux, who despite his perhaps studied crankiness is really a decent fellow, befriends rickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, prostitutes and other invisibles, sometimes with financial aid. He especially enjoys Indians, "good-humored and polite on the whole," although he is appalled by "the sheer mass of people, the horribly thronged cities, the colossal agglomeration of elbowing and contending Indians, the sight of them, the sense of their desperation and hunger . . . " He is devastated, because although he can and does help individuals out of their despair, he can do nothing about the masses.

Though he has almost nothing good to say about governments, European or Asian, Ghost Train is full of grace notes about people Theroux meets on the train and in the villages and cities. "If the military in Myanmar was odious, the people I met were soft-tempered and helpful, and it was perhaps the only country I passed through where I met nothing but generosity and kindness. And the Burmese were the most ill-treated, worst-governed, belittled, and persecuted of any people I met -- worse off than the Turkmen, which was saying a lot."

A few nations do win a bit of grudging approval, such as Vietnam, thriving and forgiving despite American attempts to bomb it back into the stone age, and Turkey, courageously trying to bridge the chasm between Western energy and Islamic piety.

Not the rest, none of them, and especially the authoritarian regimes. Reading Theroux's words during the week Putin savaged Georgia hit home: "In spite of all the talk of change and reform, [Russia] seemed exactly the same place as it had ever been: a pretentious empire with a cruel government that was helpless without secret police."

Ghost Train is probably the closest Theroux will ever come to autobiography. During the Bazaar trip, he confides, his first wife left him for another man, and the white-heat writing of that book afterward helped him through the pain. "I had not been missed," he admits. "I had been replaced."

Still Theroux does not wallow in the past. As the world changed -- and not for the better -- over the 30 years since Bazaar, so has he. In fact, he almost sounds content in his melancholy at the end of Ghost Train, although he entertains no illusions about today. Most of the world's far too many people are poor and brutalized, as the true traveler -- the one who keeps his eyes and mind open -- will always see. "The going is still good," he writes in the last line of this thoughtful and humane book.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Night-ridin' buddies

Deer seem to be the Swedish peacekeepers of the animal world. They get along with skunks and they get along with bunnies, as attested in this photo (cropped) from the new game camera of a neighbor two miles away. Maybe President Bush should airlift a few deer to Georgia instead of rattling dull and rusty sabers. The rabbit, by the way, is a domestic one that escaped its enclosure, went feral and now cruises with wild cousins.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The joy of thimbleberry jam

The other day John and Joanie, our neighbors to the west, bestowed upon us a jar of thimbleberry jam John had made himself. Yesterday morning I slathered it on pancakes (it's great on toast, too) and immediately perched atop a high cloud in heaven. The delicate flavor resembles that of the raspberry (to whose family the thimbleberry belongs) but subtly fills the mouth with a sweet tartness like no other.

The thimbleberry looks like a fat, squat raspberry but is much softer, with a very brief shelf life, so you never see it in supermarket quarts -- only in jam form in gift shops with a ready and nearby source of the berries.

Though the thimbleberry is found in northern climes from Connecticut to Washington State, its finest flowering is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There the natives jealously guard the locations of their favorite thimbleberry patches in the national and state forests. I've made some good friends among Yoopers, but not so good that any has vouchsafed his thimbleberry secret. No wonder, for bears are enough competition; the human picker needs to keep a weather eye out for brown ears bobbing among the berries.

The best thimbleberry jam is ridiculously easy to make, according to the experts. One takes equal measures of thimbleberries and sugar, mixes them together, and boils them in a pot until the stuff looks right, about two minutes. Then the mixture is poured into Ball jars. No need for pectin or preservatives.

The jam is readily available on the Internet from such places as and, but I have no personal experience with them. Commercial thimbleberry jam is costly because picking the berries is so labor-intensive.

Thimbleberry leaves, by the way, are large, maple-shaped and soft, and are said to make very good emergency TP in the woods.

Someday I'll find my own patch -- and maybe it will become Sheriff Steve Martinez' deepest secret in the Porcupine County mystery novels. Certainly it will join the Finnish delicacies nisu and viili as well as the Cornish pasty as edible "furniture" for the settings.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Never mind Michael Phelps. This bird, captured the other day at our backyard feeder at the Writer's Lair on Lake Superior, deserves its own Olympic gold for its prowess on the high bar. It is a red-breasted nuthatch, a sparrow-sized species notable for its ability to scoot headfirst down tree trunks. Who would have thought it also can hang upside down while it dines on sunflower seeds?

Not this city slicker, although many bird sources cite the nuthatch's ability to dangle headfirst from twigs while feeding. In fact, chickadees can do that, too.

But the nuthatch seems to have one truly singular habit, according to the Cornell ornithology website. It
"applies sticky conifer resin globules to the entrance of its nest hole. It may carry the resin in its bill or on pieces of bark that it uses as an applicator. The male puts the resin primarily around the outside of the hole while the female puts it around the inside. The resin may help to keep out predators or competitors. The nuthatch avoids the resin by diving directly through the hole."

I wish I could do all that with my front door.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Ontonagon Job

It's not often that I'm able to wear my engineer's cap as a photographic rail buff, but yesterday, thanks to fortuitous timing, the Escanaba and Lake Superior Railroad's "Ontonagon Job" emerged from the paper mill at Ontonagon, Mich., and crossed the Ontonagon River just as a fellow on a Jet Ski passed by -- and I had my camera with me on the highway bridge a hundred yards south.

That's the paper mill at upper left, and you can see Lake Superior on the horizon at upper right. Click on the photo for a slightly larger version.

Watching the Ontonagon Job at work can keep a railfan rapt for hours. Just before noon the train of 20 to 30 empty cars comes up from Channing, Michigan, 92 miles south, and battered old Engine 500 (for you foamers, it's a leased former Milwaukee Road SD40-2 about 40 years old) dances a complex ballet of switching.

First the locomotive cuts off from its string of empties and leaves it on the main line, then clatters north through a "wye," then backs trainless to the west across the river into the Smurfit & Stone mill to pick up a string of cars, mostly boxcars loaded with paper but also a few trailers on flat cars and some empty pulpwood rack cars.

The engine then heads back east across the river with the loaded train (that's when I took the photo) and after passing through the wye couples onto the the string of empties head-on, pushing it south down the main line.

Once the loaded cars behind the engine are clear of the wye, No. 500 pushes them backwards across the wye north into the town yard, where the cars are uncoupled from the engine.

No. 500 trundles back south over the wye, then pulls the string of empties backwards across the river to deposit at the mill.

Finally the engine crosses the river alone, re-enters the wye, backs onto the loaded cars, and leaves town, headed for Channing.

There the cars will be switched onto a train for the E & LS's southern terminus at Green Bay, where they will be picked up by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Clear? Not to anyone but railfans, I'm sure, and even they might need a track map to puzzle out the wye operations. I can assure you, however, that watching a short line (the E & LS has just 208 miles of track) at work is an education in old-time railroading, a peek at the ghosts of Industrial Revolution technology.

Besides, freight trains are cool. Old locomotives emit lots of exhaust and noise. And they make pretty photographs crossing a river.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Raccoons? We got raccoons.

The other day I opined, on the scientific basis of never having seen any myself, that raccoons are rare in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I knew, however, that sooner or later someone would set me straight. A neighbor who lives a couple of miles away -- the same one whose place was trashed by Bruno the Bear on July 30 -- e-mails:

"Rare raccoons? Last fall four rare raccoons appeared on our deck, pooped all over and methodically destroyed my bird feeders. My husband live traps them and takes them for a long ride into the boonies. Dad swore they'd slink off into the woods and then as soon as you got into the vehicle they'd run out, hop on the rear bumper and hitch a ride back home. He went so far as to spray paint their backs in an effort to prove that the same ones kept coming back. Either they were unique individuals or the paint wore off on the journey home.

"I wouldn't mind having them around if they could dine with some manners, didn't have howling fights beneath the bedroom window in the wee hours, and learned to hang their butts off the deck before unloading. Until then, it's the live trap and ride into the country for them."

I stand corrected.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nothing to say, but . . .

The Beijing Olympics and the war in Georgia seem awfully remote today to a fellow who just woke up on the sunny shore of Lake Superior 400 miles from anyplace that makes the national news. But this morning I posted a photo of one of the season's better sunsets on my other blog, and that should count for something.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rare raccoon?

Last night the game camera in the back yard captured 41 deer (or, perhaps, 41 pictures of the same deer; they all look alike to this semi-city slicker) and one raccoon. Deer are a dime a dozen up here in the Upper Peninsula, but raccoons? One hardly ever sees them here. At least I haven't.

Either their numbers are small or they are wizards at concealment as well as the highway scramble. Almost every day I pass either a deer or a skunk D.O.R. (dead on the road) on the way to town, but can't recall ever having seen an Ontonagon County coon flattened by a semi. (Down in southern Wisconsin it's hard to drive half a mile in the country without slaloming around two or three raccoons D.O.R.)

All of which leads me to believe the raccoon population in the U.P. is a small one compared to that in Wisconsin and even in Evanston, the Chicago burb where I winter.

Maybe the Davy Crocketts of the 19th century trapped the coons into near oblivion at the same time loggers were denuding the white pine forests.

I am ready to stand corrected, and am sure I will be.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Manabezho Falls

Here is a scene familiar to anyone who has ever hiked in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan: glorious Manabezho Falls on the Presque Isle River in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. I took the shot today, and am posting it because it's a bit of a milestone: It marks the first time in half a decade that I've been able to negotiate the steep half mile to the falls, thanks to the skill of the shipwrights who overhauled my keel three months ago. (The photo looks more spectacular in the original bandwidth-hogging 10.2 megapixels you can see if you click it on.)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mornings on horseback

Sunrise on Lake Superior at Green, Michigan, August 5, 2008

I am a Morning Person. I arise at the crack of dawn -- sometimes before -- full of vim and vigor and vitality and other virtues that piss off people who are not Morning Persons, those unfortunates whose energy does not kick in until at least noon and who find their most productive hours to be those pushing midnight. Non-Morning Persons tend to be gloomy and irascible before the third pint of Starbuck's crankcase cleaner, and they hate the chirpy cheeriness of those whose engines run at full throttle from the time they awaken.

This does not mean that Non-Morning Persons are Bad People -- just, uh, different ones. It is not their fault that science has proven that Morning Persons score higher grade point averages than Midnight People, enjoy better health, have better sex, make more money, and so on. Being a Night Person is not a character defect, just a minor but not insignificant biological flaw, like six toes or hairy nostrils. Genetics have a lot to do with one's circadian rhythm. Midnight People just can't help being Midnight People, and one should not cast judgmental aspersions but view them with pity and compassion.

True, early risers tend to be early retirers -- that is, we start yawning after dinner and hit the sack by 9. Yes, this crimps our social life; you do not find us haunting midnight balls or even night ball games. We tend to be wallflowers after sundown while everyone else is having a high old time through the wee hours drinking and smoking and swearing and otherwise truncating their lifespans.

Being a Morning Person, however, enabled me to rise at 4 a.m. every day and write a few hundred words, resulting in six published books, before going to my day job at the newspaper. There is a lot of truth in those chestnuts about birds and worms.

Even in retirement I still get up early, around 6 a.m., to write and chop wood and milk the cows and harrow the lower 40 and surf the Net while the rest of the local cable and DSL users are still sleeping, allowing me to hog the bandwidth. In my habits I am blessed and lucky, as well as steadfast and righteous, and that is why I was able to capture that glorious Lake Superior sunrise at 6:29 this morning.

Midnight People, eat your hearts out.

Monday, August 4, 2008


The big excitement at the Writer's Lair yesterday was the discovery of a gypsy moth caterpillar crawling across our lakeside picture window. Out came the camera with a macro lens and out limped the geezer with the camera to capture the thing. From outside (above), the caterpillar looked like an elongated Shih Tzu. From inside (below) it looked like an extra from "Men in Black."

While all this was going on, Tina, our cabin guest, captured the captor at work:

Up here we are so easily amused.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Finally . . .

. . . a Great Blue Heron held still long enough for me to get this early-morning shot of a fine specimen on the neighbor's crib.

These birds are fairly common in Upper Michigan, but not so common that we see one every day, and when that happens, we're usually without a camera, or beyond effective range of even a 400-millimeter lens. My goal now is to capture one in flight, its ungainly neck held in a S-shape, its huge wings slowly beating the air.

I'm concerned about that stick of driftwood behind the heron. The Lady Friends say it adds something to the photo, but I think it's distracting and should be removed by Photoshopping. What do YOU think? Leave a comment and let us know.

Monday, August 4: Tina, our house guest at the Writer's Lair and no mean Photoshopper herself, de-sticked that heron photo. In my opinion, it's a considerable improvement.