Sunday, June 27, 2010


Observations of a formerly virgin cruise-line passenger:

“What the hell is that?” I said to my dinner companion as we sneaked into my stateroom late in the evening. On the bed sat a frog made out of a towel. I had never heard of towel sculpture, also called towelgami, but it seems that it's been a big thing in the cruise industry for many years. As part of the evening bed turndown, stateroom attendants all over the ship fold washcloths and hand towels into all sorts of amusing critters. We had a turkey, a lobster, an elephant, a rabbit and I can't remember what else.

Maybe the purpose is to demonstrate the exalted level of service to which the cruise line is devoted, or maybe it's just an elaborate Filipino joke.

I can't speak for other cruise lines, but the thin and fit Holland-America passenger seems to prefer the formal dining rooms to the cafeteria-style eatery, called the “Lido” aboard HAL ships. The dining rooms (at no added cost) feature white napery, attentive service and sensibly sized portions of excellent cuisine, while the Lido offers ass-to-elbow jostling and unlimited self-shoveling of much less tasty fare for the wide of body and prone to coronary.

The dining rooms offer open seating, but the au courant passenger makes reservations to minimize waiting for a table. With reservations I was always seated immediately, either alone or with others according to my preference.

The waiters will always suggest a bottle of wine, but those who prefer single glasses are politely accommodated. The prices are reasonable, too – my party had Alice White chardonnay and shiraz from Australia, a good deal better than bargain plonk, for $6 a glass plus a 15 per cent service charge. Everything else in Alaska and aboard cruise ships is expensive, but not wine.

My table companion, a champion long-distance eavesdropper, overheard quite a few fellow diners complain that “Holland America isn't what it once was.” Whether they were talking about HAL in general or the Statendam in particular I don't know, but this ship is 17 years old, quite mature for a cruise liner, and perhaps small mechanical glitches occur with more frequency. For three days my room was way too cold, and a nice lady from the hotel staff took its temperature with a fever thermometer several times a day until a technician arrived, screwed and unscrewed several hatches, and put things right. By way of polite apology the staff sent a platter of chocolates, which I didn't need but appreciated anyway.

Computers being what they are, mistakes get made and tickets go missing, but upon being shown a printed itinerary brought from home, the shore excursion agent quickly reissued the ducats. At least for me, HAL always fixed its errors.

I for one am not terribly sociable, so the shipboard events and classes held no attraction. But those who need to be entertained all the time will find plenty to accommodate them: travel classes, ranger lectures, culinary instruction (even for children), computers with “Techspert Hana,” tai chi, fitness classes, shopping previews, tennis, volleyball, bridge, trivia games, AA meetings, movies, musical shows, dancing – and, yes, towel sculpture.

At sea the Internet is hugely expensive – 50 to 75 cents a minute, depending on the plan you buy. Part of the problem is that the marine satellite Internet is so slow, and the meter ticks while you impatiently wait for pages to load. I learned quickly to read only important-seeming e-mail and compose my answers offline, pasting them online. Several times the ship lost the satellite signal in mid-post, wasting expensive minutes. But reading the New York Times web site is free.

Speaking of the Times, each day an eight-page digest of that newspaper is printed and distributed at breakfast in the restaurants and to the rooms. You may not know what day of the week it is (although the elevator floor mats will always tell you) but you will not be unaware of what is happening in the rest of the world. On a cruise to get away from it all that is not necessarily a good thing.

The cruise lines, it seems, make their money not in the stateroom sales but in the ancillaries. We wondered why the Statendam's shopping "director" kept pushing the jewelry stores onshore (“Diamond necklaces by the yard!”) – what's so special about Alaska gems? Not until we were in a Native American museum at Ketchikan did we find out: "The cruise lines own the jewelry stores,” said a guide. Oh.

Would I do it again? Sure, but in a different way. If I were returning to Alaska, I'd skip the cruise liners and go from town to town by state Alaska ferry, making my own independent bookings. No regrets, though, about taking this inaugural cruise tour; for my first visit to Alaska, it was better to use the expert hands of Holland America to book the entire trip. It clearly knows what it's doing.

Those with suspicious minds might wonder what I was doing with a dinner companion in the stateroom. None of your business.

But she indeed is the familiar Lady Friend with whom I live; it just seemed wise not to let the world know our house was empty while we took a cruise. Even the most trigger-fingered burglar alarms can't prevent everything.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Eagle . . . finally!

Those who frequent this blog know of my repeated efforts to get a good shot of a bald eagle in Upper Michigan. Finally I nailed one, but in Alaska. Not that that was such an accomplishment -- this state is hip-deep in eagles, both the bald and the golden variety. This one was taken near Juneau on a guided photo safari. All by itself this picture makes the expensive trip worth the effort, so far as I am concerned.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Rails, whales and eagles

JUNEAU, Alaska – Up here at the roof of North America it rains. And rains. And rains some more. One can almost feel one's joints corroding.

But the infamous summer weather of the Alaskan coast can be dealt with simply by donning raincoats, over one's camera as well as one's torso, and forging on into the wet. The sights are just as spectacular in fog as they are in sunlight.

Aboard Holland-America Lines's Statendam on the way south the last couple of days from Seward through College Fjord and Glacier Bay, we saw glaciers from up so close we could almost reach out and touch them. (A watched glacier never calves, don't you know?) At the dinner hour emerging from Glacier Bay the ship passed close aboard a school of whales playfully lifting and slapping their tails.

The next day in Haines a high-speed catamaran ferried some of us from the ship's mooring 40 minutes to Skagway, the world's capital of tourist schlock, a place so shameless that it's amusing. The town's most popular bar features pretend hookers with real bosoms bursting out of camisoles. Cheap gift shops (Polar Fleece! $9.99! T-shirts! $1.99!) choke the main drag.

Even the storied White Pass & Yukon narrow-gauge railroad resorts to artifice – most of its scores of little open-platform coaches are steel replicas, not restored wooden carriages. But its distinctive diesel locomotives are the real thing, and so is the twisting 67-mile-long line up the Skagway River to Carcross, Yukon Territory, over gorges and high trestles and past willowy waterfalls hanging from the clouds.

For the rail buff with a camera, riding on the open platform of the last car of the 15-car train (evidently a Holland-America perk) is heavenly. Only the locomotive cab could afford a better view.

My group detrained at Fraser, B.C., Mile 27.7) after a Canadian customs agent cursorily glanced at our passports. (“Do not photograph the agents. Your camera will be confiscated.”) Others returned to Skagway on the train, but we chose to make the trip back to the ferry dock on a bus. (A U.S. Customs agent made a similar cursory passport check at the border.)

The WP&Y, like much else in Alaska, is devoted to the tourist trade. A few freight cars molder in the yards, but they're not used to haul cargo into the hinterlands. Rather, the road hauls passengers, and it's fun to watch the trains come in, some of them heading directly for sidings across from cruise ships. Incoming locomotives are uncoupled from one end of their trains, then are run around and coupled to the other end for the journey into the mountains. It's a quick, slick operation that made up for the kitsch of the town and the four glitzy floating Las Vegas cruise palaces in Skagway harbor.

There are no railroads in Juneau, today's destination, but this town is as elegant as Skagway is skaggy. The weather at this time of year is just as wet but the visit just as charming. I took a “photo safari” to Mendenhall Glacier, one of Alaska's most impressive ice fields, and a boat across the bay to watch bus-sized humpback whales broach and crash in clouds of spray. On the way back we did a close-in drive-by shooting of several bald eagles perched on a rocky outcrop.

The day wound up with a tram ride 1,800 feet up Mount Roberts overlooking Juneau Harbor and a visit to a raptor rescue center there, where I snared a frame-filling head shot of a one-eyed eagle.

Tonight, on to Ketchikan, the ship's last port before entering the Inside Passage.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shipboard life

AT SEA IN THE GULF OF ALASKA – Cruising is a singular experience for a traveler whose preferred mode of conveyance is flanged wheel on steel rail. When the Statendam, one of the Holland-America Line vessels, is at sea, there is a whole lot of nothing for the rail buff to do. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Lectures, origami demonstrations, yoga classes, cooking instruction, shopping-till-you-drop, extreme dining and other such crowd-pleasing shipboard activities have no appeal for the longtime introvert. Rather, I've found it much more congenial to sit in the Statendam's library and watch fellow passengers, speculating on their personalities and stations in life – just as I do in the lounge car of the California Zephyr or Empire Builder.

That must be Marv and Madge from Oklahoma, farmers who have pinched pennies for decades to take this two-week trip of a lifetime. Or Bertil and Hannelore, well-to-do Swedes checking items off their international bucket list. Mr. and Mrs. Teabagger, corpulent Arizonans who smoke endlessly, bitch endlessly about Mexicans, and support the ship's economy with endless hours in the casino.

There also are Evie and Edna, elderly sisters from Cincinnati, taking a rare vacation from their husbands and letting an unanticipated world blossom before them. Bill, a leathery Wyoming rancher, is inseparable from his Stetson, even at meals, but cleans up well in suit and tie for formal dinner nights. He may even have gone to college.

The glowering fellow who never seems to change out of his warm-up suit might be a stowaway, a killer on the lam hoping to drop out of sight ashore if he can get past the watchful eyes of security.

There is one splendid similarity between ship and train: Watching the people who ride them is good for the creative juices of the mystery novelist.

And oh yes, there's a lot else to see. Yesterday we cruised College Fjord, taking in the spectacular views of ice-strewn waters and distant glaciers, and today we will enter Glacier Bay National Park, hoping to see noisy calving of icebergs as well as marine life such as whales, orcas and seals.

I do have one bit of useful information to offer you today: If you take a cruise tour, aboard Holland-America or any other line, be sure to bring along printed documentation of everything you've paid for.

Several times there have been minor glitches in the proceedings, usually involving computers. I wasn't on the manifest for the Cruise Train from Anchorage to Seward, but a printout of my official schedule persuaded the conductor to let me aboard. The cruise line upgraded my stateroom from an obstructed to a full ocean view, but my shore excursion tickets went to the original room, not the new one, and disappeared. The excursion guy checked my bona fides and issued new tickets.

Tomorrow will bring a train ride – aboard the storied narrow-gauge White Pass & Yukon from Skagway into British Columbia. With, of course, new opportunities for people-watching.

One more thing: I won't upload any photos until returning home next week. Using the Internet at sea is slow and expensive, and pictures just take up too much bandwidth.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Cruising on the train

SEWARD, Alaska – “Black bears at three o'clock!” the engineer called, and a hundred heads swiveled as the Alaska Railroad's Cruise Train ground its way along a rocky outcrop deep in the Chugash National Forest.

This 114-mile journey from Ted Stevens Airport outside Anchorage to the quay at Seward where cruise ships dock seemingly is one of the better-kept tourist secrets of the Far North. The Holland-America factotum running our land tour from Fairbanks said his charges almost never took the twisting 4 1/2-hour trip, preferring to save money by taking a bus from downtown Anchorage to their ship in two hours. Too bad for them.

They could have spotted bear, moose and eagles from the train, which follows the coast eastward along the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, then southward deep through the wild interior bush below glacier-strewn coastal peaks to the Bay of Alaska. The mountains loom close over the twisting line, affording sights you can't see from the highway.

Except for its start at the brand-new Alaska Railroad terminal at the airport, the Cruise Train follows the route of the Coastal Classic (which begins at the downtown depot in Anchorage). Each day it carries a different load of passengers for whichever liner – Holland-America, Princess, Celebrity and so on – has docked at the lone cruise liner quay at Seward. You get off the plane, hop on the train, and debark right at your ship. That couldn't be more convenient.

Two of the five cars are full-dome cafe lounges with tables for passengers willing to pay a little extra. An attendant serves a decent light lunch and drinks all along the route. There's a locomotive at either end of the train so that it doesn't have to be turned at each terminal – and I'm not sure it can be anyway.

The ride is a slow one, with a lot of 30-m.p.h. running – the best kind for sightseeing. What's more, the vestibule windows are kept open for. photography, something you'll never see aboard super-safety-conscious Amtrak in the Lower 48. (The engineers of the Cruise Train will yell at you if they catch you with your head or camera out the window. They had to do that dozens of times throughout the trip. Of course I was not one of the guilty, was I now?)

I do think the smart cruise passenger will opt for the Cruise Train, which costs a first-class supplement of $48 per person over the bus. It's one of the least costly items on the Alaskan shore-excursion menu, and in my opinion one of the best.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Aboard the Denali Star

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Now let us compare Amtrak and the Alaska Railroad.

Both are government entities that own and operate passenger trains. There the resemblance ends.

Much-maligned Amtrak tries to serve everybody, from commuters to vacationers, folks afraid to fly and those too obese to fit in an airline seat. Except in the Northeast Corridor, it is at the mercy of the freight railroads that own the tracks. Its on-board crews can be surly and lazy (although that seems to be changing).

But the Alaska Railroad's much-praised passenger operations are of the tourist, by the tourist and for the tourist – especially cruise ship passengers. Local trains do carry ordinary Alaskans to flag stops in and out of the otherwise inaccessible bush, but that is a tiny part of the ARR's business. Its cheerful conductors and attendants are mostly well trained in serving the public.

Most travelers on the Alaska Railroad ride 456 miles in 12 hours between Anchorage on the coast and Fairbanks in the interior, more than half of them stopping at Denali National Park on the way.

And they ride in style. Sure, the budget-minded can rough it in coach aboard the train called the Denali Star, but most tourists choose to go first class, either in dome cars painted in Alaska Railroad colors or in huge, gaily decorated luxury conveyances owned by cruise lines and towed behind the regular train.

I rode the cars Holland America calls the McKinley Explorer from Fairbanks to the national park, then two days later from the park to Anchorage. Oh, it was lovely, passenger railroading as it should be but too often is not.

These two-story cars – reputedly the largest rail passenger carriages in the world – feature a full-length Lexan dome unmatched for rubbernecking, with extraordinarily comfortable seats. The lower level is devoted to dining. Best of all, each car features an open vestibule platform for wind-in-the-face photography. (Leave your hat inside. The breeze carried away my favorite ball cap.)

Lunch and dinner were only OK, a cut above Amtrak cuisine but somewhat short of four-star. The young waitstaff, evidently college students in summer jobs, needed a bit more seasoning, as did the soup. (The berry pie a la mode was fresh and fine.)

The car crews could also use training in dealing with the aged and infirm; they allowed a shaky nonagenarian to descend the potentially treacherous spiral stairway from upper level to lower unescorted. One of the crew should have gone ahead to catch her if she fell.

It was the scenery that was the real attraction. We dashed down river plains, rode over high trestles spanning deep valleys and chugged slowly through high, weaving rock cuts. We spooked moose, caribou and trumpeter swans. We arrived in Anchorage well satisfied with our journey.

Tomorrow, another rail ride: a four-hour journey aboard the Cruise Train from Ted Stevens Airport to Seward and the Holland-America liner Statendam.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Genuine Denali

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, ALASKA -- This place is real, as real as Fairbanks was an exercise in cheerful tourist deception.

An all-day "tundra tour" aboard a dusty school bus bouncing through the approaches to the Alaska Range in the 6.2-million-acre Denali National Park brings travelers remarkably up close and personal with the Alaskan wilderness, even though we're not allowed to get out of the bus except for pee stops.

These eight-hour journeys, part of Holland-America's Alaska cruise tours, are hit or miss.

Some of them result in no sightings of animals at all. Some of them slog through a steady rain and fog that obscure sight lines. It's catch as catch can in this part of the world; everything depends on fate and chance and the vagaries of weather.

As luck would have it, "I've hit a home run!" crowed Jason Blaylock, our driver, as we returned to the McKinley Chalet Resort, Holland-America's choice hostelry just outside the park on the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks. His passengers were just as delighted.

We'd seen a moose a few feet away from the bus, dozens of grizzlies munching in the tundra a safe hundred or more yards in the distance, as well as caribou, golden eagles, Dall sheep, ptarmigans, snowshoe hares, a red fox and ground squirrels -- an outdoor smorgasbord of wildlife.

And, glory of glories, the clouds briefly lifted so that we could behold 20,300-foot Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, through its attendant peaks in the distance. Only about 30 per cent of visitors to Denali ever see McKinley, so capricious is the weather.

Photographing wildlife from the bus is not easy. The windows get too dusty for sharp shots, and although they can be lowered, shooting through them requires some contortion, not easy for geezers. All the same, I managed to get some fairly good photos of grizzlies, and will post them on this blog in the next few days.

A word on the McKinley Chalet Resort: It's a big place, with dozens of large cabins scattered throughout the property. One gets about either on foot or by using free jitney buses. The amenities are as lovely as they are rustic. I just wish the cabins had wi-fi; only the main lodge has it in the lobby. But it's free, not an expensive add-on as in so many American hotels.

As is true all over Alaska, meals are not cheap, for most provender has to be shipped in from the Lower 48. We budgeted $100 a day to eat in the hotel and in the cafes across the highway, and that's tight.

But that's part of the glorious reality of Alaska.

In the next blogpost, we'll do some railroading.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mickey Mouse in Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- The first day of my Alaskan tour was a surprise. I hardly expected to enjoy it, but I did.

Holland-America, the operator of the tour, is famous in the travel industry for its slick and stagey day of exhibitions in Fairbanks. In the space of eight hours it ushers hundreds of tourists through a riverboat ride, a fake Indian village, a reconstructed coal dredging camp and a gold panning "experience."

Such Disneyfication would draw a sneer from sophisticated travelers looking for depth and authenticity, but Mr. and Mrs. Middle America (and Herr und Frau Mitteleuropeen, for that matter) just ate it up. So did I, for the most part.

That was largely because the players on the stages were so good at their jobs -- giving mass tourists a broad taste of colorful Alaskan history at a level easy to understand.

For instance, immediately after the "steamboat" set out along the Chena River outside Fairbanks, a bush pilot in a Super Cub took off and landed alongside in the river twice, gladdening the heart of this former private pilot who'd never before seen floatplane operations.

There was a brief stop in the river off the sled dog training camp established by the late Iditarod champion Susan Butcher, with a noisy and crowd-pleasing demonstration of a team mushing a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle around the place. The dogs had a good full-throated time of it, too, leaping about and barking happily.

We debarked to visit an Athabascan Indian "village" that turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing. Three Athabascan youths whose summer jobs are to lecture on and demonstrate their forebears' culture were remarkably poised and articulate for college students so young. One of them had grown up in a fish camp and expertly demonstrated how to fillet and smoke a salmon caught in a weir in the river.

Lunch at a coal dredging camp -- a real one, judging by the rust and ruin -- was mess-hall style, hundreds of tourists sitting hip to elbow on benches at long wooden tables. The miner's stew and cornbread was just OK, but it was a good way to feed a lot of people in a reasonable time.

Only the visit to a gold mining camp seemed excessively hokey. The tourist "train," drawn by what the engineer claimed was a steam locomotive but which emitted neither cinders nor smoke, was as lame an attempt at pretend railroading as I've ever encountered. So was the dormitory-style gold panning under an enormous roof. One never saw the Forty-Niners do that.

And why does the exit from every attraction have to pass through a gift shop?

On the whole, however, the day, ersatz as it may have been, was a satisfying experience for those at whom it was aimed.

The next day brought a real ride on a real luxury train to a real national park. About this, more later.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Eight Hours to Fairbanks

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- So I arrived in Fairbanks after 8 hours of flying from Chicago. As I get older I lose another half inch of sitzfleisch a year, and by the time the 737 landed in Fairbanks the well-worn seat cushion felt as if it were composed of coarse gravel.

But the flights on Alaska Airlines were good -- the cabin crews were actually friendly and efficient, and my reservation was marked as "Handicapped" so I could point at my ear, mouth "Deaf" and board with the babies, scoring scarce overhead bin space early. (United and American, however, caught on to the scam long ago and it doesn't work with them anymore.)

Fairbanks, as Alaska metropolises go, is a bit of a northern dump. It looks like a fast-food strip ten years after the disappearance of humans. The Westmark Hotel matches the ambience -- it's a spartan Motel 6 sort of place. But it is supposed to be one of the top hostelries in town, and it is quite adequate. It has to be; as I write, an Alaska Airlines flight crew is checking out at the front desk.)

The king size mattresses are really very comfortable. The cuisine is all right -- the elkburgers are tasty enough.

What am I doing in Fairbanks? Would you believe I am on a mission to Blomkvist the state's passenger railroads? No? Well, yes, it's a Holland-America tour, and it involves three rides on the Alaska Railroad (Fairbanks-Denali, Denali-Anchorage, Anchorage-Seward, and a round trip on the White Pass & Yukon). And six nights at sea.

Today the agenda is a riverboat, a little train, and panning for gold in what I have heard is a Potemkin village expressly designed for Holland-America tourists.

The real journey doesn't begin until tomorrow when we board the Alaska Railroad for Denali.

More later, if Lisbeth Salander doesn't hack into my netbook. (Yes, I'm reading Stieg Larsson's latest on the iPod Touch.)

Monday, June 14, 2010

Convert your old typewriter to USB

The first new technological idea for veteran (pre-Computer Age) writers to come down the pike in quite a while:

Click here.

Will it fly? Probably not, but I'm tempted to have my old boat-anchor Royal Upright (bought well used in 1962) converted to USB so's I can use it with an iPad, if I ever buy one.

It's either that or gild the typewriter and turn it into a table lamp that goes clickety-clack.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Roger Simon

When the pundit Roger Simon left our alma mater, the Chicago Sun-Times, and took his carpetbag of political wit to the Baltimore Sun, I sorely missed his column. There are very few political commentators I'd miss, but Roger is one. He never takes his profession and its subjects so seriously he can't laugh at them -- and himself. A skewering by Roger Simon always causes its victims to bleed out, usually without noticing.

Late last year Roger dropped off the Beltway radar. Turns out he had one leg and part of a foot amputated owing to a bout with blood poisoning. But he is now back at work at the Politico site, and his re-inaugural column is a doozy.

It's worth reading just for a great quotation he mined from Nathanael West. That not only demonstrates Roger's hard-nosed courage but also the breadth of his acerbic intellect.

What a guy. What a writer.

(Thanks to Alan Solomon for the heads-up.)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Gull at dinner

I admire gulls of all kinds, as I have said before on this blog and will say again and again. As an erstwhile small-plane pilot I love to watch them swing and soar, wheel and plummet, executing maneuvers only dreamed about at Top Gun. They are beautiful birds, too, with aerodynamic lines second to none.

Yesterday evening on the shore of western Lake Superior the water was calm and the air absolutely windless, enticing flocks of dragonflies out from the beach. The gulls went into a frenzy of feeding, swooping and rolling, flicking into split-S turns, sending me into a paroxysm of shooting with my Pentax and a long zoom lens.

One of the shots turned out to capture a gull in mid-snatch, slamming to a halt in the air as it deployed its speed brake and dropped its landing gear. Click on it for a better look at the dragonfly it nailed.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Tea Party

It was with a slight bit of trepidation that yesterday I attended the Tea Party rally in Ontonagon, Michigan, on the shore of Lake Superior. Even though I'm a liberal, "know thine enemy" wasn't on my mind; rather, as a writer I sought further insight into the people that provide the prototypes for the "Porkies" in my Porcupine County mystery novels.

I counted 100 of them as the rally opened, about 125 when I left half an hour later. Most were over 60; all were white. That's not really significant, because the median age in Ontonagon County (46 years) is the highest in all Michigan, and nonwhites make up less than 1 per cent of the population. Liberal Democratic rallies would be just as white, although considerably younger.

The Tea Partiers' political sentiments, echoed in patriotic speeches by several candidates for state office and Congress, seemed unremarkable, too. Familiar ultraconservative beliefs were broadcast over the loudspeakers: trust in God, small government, family values, term limits, property rights, low taxes. There was also a good deal of anti-incumbent, anti-abortion, anti-liberal, anti-Obamacare and pro-military rhetoric.

But it was delivered in mostly soft tones, and received the same way. The applause was polite, even subdued.

People were friendly to the stranger with the big camera. There was no hostility at all.

My sense is that whatever one might say about their politics, these are good folks, unworthy of being demonized by their political opposites.

But would these Tea Partiers extend the same forbearance to their brethren who hold different views? That is the question.

The press was there, doing its job.

I once rode a vintage Indian motorcycle like this one.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


The first brood of Canada goslings of the season -- at least that we've seen.

Back in the Chicago area, Canada geese are considered pests. They're everywhere and befoul everything. They're aggressive and annoying.

But up here in the wilderness of Lake Superior, we look at them in a different way: they're wild and majestic, because they belong here.

My friend, neighbor and fellow writer Tom Warren said it best in his new book Discovering Lake Superior . . . and the Western Upper Peninsula of Michigan (Amphitryon Publishing): "They are splendid creatures, who in a few months grow from an egg to a ten-pounder capable of flying great distances in a social formation," and "they thrill me when I see them naturally in the UP. There I consider geese pretty good hosts who welcome us. That is, most of the time they don't move away, they don't attack us, and they don't poop in our space. If any of these things occur, I proclaim in a know-it-all tone, it's because of us, not them."

Observing these birds out our front window gives us extraordinary pleasure. Last year we watched as Mama and Papa Goose escorted clutches of fuzzballs from the nearby creek out into the lake past our cabin, and we reacted with dismay as the number of tiny goslings diminished each week, no doubt victims of predators such as owls, eagles and snapping turtles.

Last evening we saw the first broods of the season, and were surprised at how large the goslings had grown before their parents brought them out of hiding. Maybe they were the same parents who had lost their families last year, and this year had wised up enough to wait until the youngsters were bigger before introducing them to the open water.

Whether geese are actually capable of learning in this way, I don't know. But I like to think they are.

They may not be as wild as one might assume. The other day, as an experiment, I threw slices of old stale bread into the water as a flotilla of geese steamed past some 50 yards offshore. Every one of them did a 90-degree turn and stormed the beach, hissing and cackling, fighting for the bread, ignoring me a few steps away. Maybe they had lost their fear of humans while wintering somewhere to the south on a lush suburban golf course.

This reminds me of another passage in Tom's book. When he is out on the lake in his canoe, "I notice how tiny our spot of land is and how the whole scene is not nearly as pristine and natural as I convince myself when I am on land or closer to shore. It's another example of how I con myself into thinking the North Woods is still unspoiled and then I am reminded of the truth: This place is fragile, and occupied."

Wise fellow.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Can't blame this on BP

The Yellow Tide has rolled in on Lake Superior again and is scaring the bejeezus out of the city slickers from Illinois. What is that icky-looking stuff? Some kind of cancer-creating pollution?

No, just a seasonal slick of pollen, mostly from pine trees, and it is utterly harmless except to uninformed urban senses of riparian beauty. During the early spring the pollen rolls into the lake from rivers and through the air, and is normally unseen except during deep calms like this one. You can't taste it or smell it, and since it's trapped in water it won't stir up your allergies. It just looks terrible. It'll be gone soon.

Now you know.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Great White-tailed Squirrel

This is a rare photograph of the elusive Great White-tailed Squirrel, much rumored but almost never seen in the deep wilderness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I captured it this morning in the back yard of the Writer's Lair. Click the photo for a good look.