Archives for category: Minimalist Running in Michoacan

Hwy 61 Revisited – Sarah pulling the infamous trailer


Isle Royale, Lake Superior


south of St. Cloud, Minnesota – running w/ the tricked out baby jogging stroller


Isle Royale, tiny orchids



June 2013, The St. Croix River

I shipped 6 pair of sandals to Eric Faust up in Minnesota: 1 pair each of 2 different styles for both him and his wife, a pair for their 3 year old daughter, Ailee, and a pair for his friend and work-mate, Charlie. I also sent my first pair of ‘sold’ running sandals to a guy in California. And I hope everyone likes them (most especially the paying runner guy in California ).

There is no way that my sandals equals Eric’s loan of his canoe but he did happen to admire the ones that Sarah and I were wearing so I promised to send him some for his family. They’re not going to get them until the 1st of August so they won’t have but a whole month maybe to wear them, but still.

If you ever get to Duluth, like maybe for the famous Grandma’s Marathon in June, make sure to stop into the Duluth Coffee Company and say hello to Eric and Charlie; both incredibly nice guys and they have truly great coffee as well.

It’s awfully quiet for a Saturday in Mexico; especially on the eve of a fiesta. None of the 3 cathedrals that flank my house blasted me out of bed with fireworks this morning. It used to scare the crap out of me especially when they launch from the Parroquia De Guadalupe; the cathedral just 2 blocks over to the northwest. Imagine 5:30 in the morning, white flashes of light register on the inside of your closed eyelids just before the sound as the first rockets explode a mere 100 feet out from your bed. My still unconscious mind would launch my body upwards in a Wiley E. Coyote like motion and I’d be a foot off the bed, positively horizontal just as I became instantly wide awake. But still, after a year of it and as hard to believe as it might sound, I am finally getting used to it. Not sleeping through it mind you but not involuntarily levitated either.

Thankfully the 3 churches typically rotate the fireworks depending on which fiesta is starting up although sometimes they all shoot off barrages, continually and for days on end. After a year of relentless assaults I have to wonder how they pay for all those rockets. It can’t be cheap because some of those things are packing a big payload. But somehow they get funded; fireworks are after all a national obsession.

Five months ago in a small state near Mexico City there was a major accident when a heaven bound rocket was redirected earthward after slamming off a power line, returning like a boomerang from where it had departed only 2 seconds before, touching off an entire huge truckload of ordinance. The resulting explosions killing something like 14 people.

It didn’t take that big of a lesson to make me gave up my love affair with fireworks and explosive devices at the age of 13. I was in the process of launching a handmade skyrocket only to have it prematurely explode in my left hand. The resulting fire melted my protective gear (a ski glove) and gave me a painful reminder to stay the hell away from fireworks in the future.

I certainly know that I am a lot closer to exploding stuff than I’d like to be but what to do? Depending on wind direction I occasionally find burnt paper and spent rocket remnants on my 3rd floor terrace. I once found a two foot long half burned up rocket that had crash landed on top of the laundry room. It didn’t look dangerous and there was something so whimsically ‘Lost in Space’ about how it looked all pathetically snow-plowed into the fiberglass shed roof that I just left it there.

The local mother of all festivals – the Santo Santiago – kicks off on the 17th of July and runs until August 4th. In the past week since I’ve been back I have been told at least a dozen times about what a wild fun exciting time it is. And I got to say, if the locals say it’s loud and crazy then I can’t even begin to imagine the size of the madness. I thankfully missed the fiesta last year by a week but I was here for Christmas and New Years fiestas. And I was also here for the month long one in March when they had another saint fiesta. Mexico does not merely observe a holiday; they celebrate it, loudly.

And the fiestas go on forever. Christmas lasts 2 months. I am not kidding. The Christmas season starts promptly at 6 am with fireworks and a parade on December 1st beginning the 12 Days of Christmas observance and lasts until February 6th when they finally take down the nativity scene in the plaza. Until that time there is a parade just about every single day or night. I say – or night – because some of the activities don’t even start until 11 pm. I am not kidding; there are night parades here. You might try to take some of the sting out that by euphemistically referring to them as processions but if there are musical instruments or even recorded loud music playing then as far as I am concerned they’re parades.

I am in bed by that time so I have no idea really what exactly is going on but I do know – from the noise – that on both New Year’s and Christmas Eves there are people, lots of people, out on the streets until dawn.

The Santo Santiago fiesta is 20 days of madness (or so I am told) where the people commemorate their town’s patron saint, Santiago. The peak of the festival is on the 25th when a huge parade of giant masked men winds through the city before ascending to the Parroquia De Guadalupe, the cathedral just above me. Hundreds if not thousands of people will be passing by as they follow the parade. I am told that people on my street sit out in chairs and some manage tables to pass out snacks and refreshments to those walking in the parade. The carpenter down the street tells me that it is customary for someone living on the street like myself to be passing out shots of tequila and beers to all those thirsty amigos; because parading in giant masks is obviously thirsty work.

In spite of all the noise I have to say that this is a great town. It is probably the noisiest place I’ve ever been which is a highly dubious achievement given how loud the rest of Mexico and Latin America can be.

Octavio Paz in one of his famous essays from ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ called ‘The Day of  the Dead’ – the most famous of all the Mexican fiestas – says ‘Fiestas are our only luxury’…’During these days the silent Mexican whistles, shouts, sings, shoots off fireworks, discharges his pistol into the air’…’This is the night when friends who have not exchanged more than the prescribed courtesies for months get drunk together, trade confidences, weep over the same troubles, discover that they are brothers, and sometimes to prove it, kill each other’.

1. Take Less Stuff. Right after the problem of bad weather I’d rate our stuff as being our single biggest liability. The less stuff thing is kind of a no-brainer but in this mission we empirically put it to the test. Example: We finished 7 days of biking the Western Loop of Lake Superior with nothing more than one change of clothes each plus our bike shorts, rain jackets, and toiletries. That’s an entire week with nothing much more than the clothes on our back. We neither missed nor needed anything that was left behind. And ditching all our stuff freed us from pulling a bike trailer which changed the entire dynamic and let us ride fast and free like wild Indians.

2. You Don’t Need the Best (to do the best). This is contrary to what every last lifestyle magazine out there says but the truth is most things like bicycles are pretty simple things. I pedaled a heavy forty year old Schwinn Varsity 10 speed picked up used in bike store in St. Cloud, Minnesota for a hundred bucks and rode it for over two weeks without a problem. The ride was even better knowing that I was going to give it away at the end of our trip.

3. Plan, But Don’t Marry the Plan. We started our 30 day trip intending to run 1000 km. in a west, northwest direction but circumstances made that choice untenable so we traded in our tricked out baby jogging stroller for 2 used bikes and a trailer and headed east. The trailer broke down after a couple of hundred miles so we trimmed down to panniers and shed a bunch of stuff and kept going. We gave away the bikes after we acquired a canoe and paddled for 60 miles before we had to change plans again.

4. If Something Breaks, Improvise. Fix it. Replace it. Change, adjust, shift, and align with the new reality. But keep going.

5. Recycle – Give Back. Why not, right? My original plan was to buy used and then either donate or give it away. If you don’t like the economics of that then amortize the cost of the gear you need for a given mission across the projected life of your trip and do the math. You might find that leaving something behind wasn’t such a costly proposition after all and you get the feel-good feeling of giving it all away kicked into the deal for free. I did what I did because I am personally not interested in acquiring anymore stuff. Everything we used to self-power our way around Minnesota, N. Michigan, and N. Wisconsin got returned if it was borrowed or donated if acquired otherwise. We bought used where we could but every single thing used to carry out the mission ended up getting folded back into the local area in the end. The new camping gear, including 2 nice little summer weight sleeping bags ended up at a community relief organization at the end of our trip.

6. Do Local. Seek out what the region has offer. When we got the canoe I bought a fishing license and a cheap pole with an open face reel. I didn’t catch anything but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Do I fish in Mexico? No. Why? Because here in Mexico where I live it ain’t a local thing. Did I go to Minnesota planning to fish? No, I went there to eat fish but I am certainly not opposed to catching my own.

7. Free Your Mind (and your ass will follow). I need to always remind myself not to default to the most comfortable path while traveling. As uncomfortable as it might sound, sometimes a person just needs to get in touch with their dirty self. Why? Because it is so liberating. Partially it’s a scheduling thing that you just unbound yourself from when you decided you could skip some of the wash rituals. And partially the wear it another day mentality decouples you from worrying about keeping your clothes in the rather unnecessary presentation ready format. I mean you’re not going to a meeting, you’re biking or hiking for crying out loud so who cares anyway? But learning to live with being somewhat dirty while traveling is more an internal attitude kind of thing. It’s finding and reacquainting yourself with that long lost little kid like indifference to dirt and things like wiping your nose on your sleeve and not thinking twice about it. Example: I learned this lesson back in the early ‘90s from 2 guys half my age. I met a Brit by the name of Michael and Italian guy by the name of Simon where we were all traveling solo in Guatemala. We met on the boat while crossing Lake Atitlan and we ended up hanging out for the weekend, sharing a room because they both were tight on money. They saw me sluicing the dirt off in the courtyard fountain of the amenity-free $3/night cinderblock hotel we just checked into. They looked at each other, shook their heads and said, ‘He hasn’t learned yet’. I asked, ‘Learned what’? Michael replied, ‘That being dirty is liberating’. Oh, yeah, how true. And I’ll never forget either of those guys just because of that invaluable lesson.

8. Nothing Lasts Forever. Not pain, suffering, or even the good times for that matter. So in the worst part of your adventure learn to suck it up because somewhere not too far out in front of you are a couple of cold beers.

9. Try Something New. I am not a bicyclist. And heaven knows I am not a paddler either. But I did both. To keep the mission going you sometimes have to do things that weren’t part of the original plan.

10. Find Out What You’re Capable Of. This was our original mission, to find out what we were physically capable of. That and have a good time of course. The mission wasn’t running per se. Running was the original method through which we intended to test what we were physically capable of. When the plan shifted, we adapted. And when it shifted again, we adapted again. We never did hit that physical threshold like we intended but we did learn an awful lot about our adaptive abilities and in the doing also discovered that problem solving that came to be part of our day to day mission, when embraced, was very empowering.

Sarah and I went down and had breakfast together on our last day in Minneapolis before catching the complementary shuttle ride to the airport at 9:30 am. We got my bag checked and we were both through security by 10 am. I hung out with her in the G concourse until she boarded her flight at 11 am. I gave her a hug goodbye before beginning my long sad walk to the E concourse. I always miss her tremendously especially after those times when we just spent so much time together.

My flight didn’t leave until 1:50 pm so I had a couple of hours to kill which I filled the best I could by wandering around and looking through the books and magazine shops.

I intended to buy a magazine or two and as such I had packed both books that I bought at Magers & Quinn. I didn’t want to waste either ‘The Labyrinth of Solitude’ by Octavio Paz or ‘What Technology Wants’ by Kevin Kelly on the airplane; that’s more what mindless magazines are for. Nobody carried the British Men’s GQ and I couldn’t settle on anything else so I perused the books until I found ‘Deep Survival’ by Lawrence Gonzales. It is a book that examines mostly wilderness accidents – mountain climbing, hiking, being lost at sea – and the subtitle, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why’ pretty much describes the book’s premise.

I opened the book before takeoff and didn’t close it until we touched down in Houston. The same thing for my second flight; I couldn’t put the book down, probably because some of the points he was making hit pretty close to home.

Gonzales says, ‘It may seem that we live and die by dumb luck, but it is more subtle and complex than that’. And ‘Deep Survival’ is a damn good book and is a must read for anyone who so much as day hikes in the mountains or takes a once a year vacation to a supposedly benign place like Hawaii. He spends some time talking about working memory, perceptions – what you see and don’t see – and how it’s ‘nothing personal when the brain plays tricks’…or ‘nothing personal when you die’.

He makes a well delivered point with ‘Our failures are so common that it’s easy to write them off as inexperience, stupidity, or inattention. Most people operate in an environment of such low risk that action, inaction, or the vicissitudes of brains have few consequences. The energy levels, the object risks are low’. Then he goes on using a couple of case studies to show how every thing changes when the environment changes and the corresponding risks change and how inexperience and poor judgment can quickly turn a bad situation worse. Yeah, I know, deep down inside you already knew that but I can guarantee you that you don’t know what you don’t know until you read this book.

His father, a pilot, drilled into him, ‘Plan the flight and fly the plan. But don’t fall in love with the plan. Be open to a changing world and let go of the plan when necessary to make a new plan’.

He says, ‘One of the things that kills us in the wilderness, in nature, is that we just don’t understand the forces that we engage. We don’t understand the energy because we don’t have to live with it’. Gonzalez had several case studies about river accidents that struck pretty close to home given our recent 60 mile paddle on the St. Croix. Sitting on the plane reading some of those stories reminded me again that I am God’s own special fool. The St. Croix might be a gentle river but in all honesty I didn’t give it near as much respect as it deserved.

One of the single most powerful stories that he related involved himself on the island of Kauai. He told how a single question in a chance encounter saved his life from drowning. He happened to have been passing a life guard station where, making conversation he asked how the swimming was. The water was warm and a beautiful shade of blue and there were gentle looking waves breaking a couple of dozen yards offshore that he intended to bodysurf. The lifeguard studied the water for a minute and then told him, ‘See that flat water over there? I’d say you can go in there and be okay. But if you get more than 10 yards offshore the rip will carry you out’. He point beyond and said, ‘It’ll carry you over there and beat you to death against those rocks’. He goes into some more matter of fact detail about the encounter but said that the guy saved his life. Gonzalez ends with a 12 point guide for both keeping yourself out of harms way and then what to do if you find yourself in harms way. One of those points was ‘Get information’. I was ambivalent to most of the list, which was mostly common sense stuff, but I liked that one. It was good to see someone rubber stamp one of my basic travel tenants: ‘Ask questions. Arm yourself with knowledge’. Excellent book, excellent stories, excellent analysis and just some plain good old information.

We landed in Guadalajara on time at 8 pm. I was a bit skittish after reading all those personal disaster stories and more than a little nervous over getting my 6 month tourist visa renewed but the Immigration lady stamped it and waved me on my way. The young lady in customs asked me what I was doing in Mexico and I told her in my most execrable Spanish that I was studying Spanish. She beamed at me like I had just told her that I had come to single-handedly eradicate the cartels, she was so pleased. Her welcoming smile made me smile and I walked the rest of way through the nice little airport feeling like I was home. Any doubts I might have had returning to Mexico for my third 6-month stay evaporated with that smile.

I started to really like Minneapolis for the first time in the 25 years that I’d been coming here. I was so glad when we discovered the midtown area to find that there was more to the city than just the Mall of America kind of stuff which included all the boringly same outlying suburbs that were crafted in the same image; not for any particular design advantage but only for the comfort and the conveyance that the sameness brought to its citizens. I was enjoying our walk down Lake St. but still something was nagging at me in an uneasy way. So after a couple of hours of walking through the splendid midtown and uptown districts I had to answer thoughtfully when Sarah asked me if I could live here for a year or two; a question we periodically ping each other with when we are traveling together. After some moments my answer was ‘no’; as the uneasy feeling coalesced into a more solid reason of why not. And the reason why I couldn’t was because the all too inbred gentrified environs were beginning to feel like just another sad tale of a neighborhood fooling itself into thinking that all their pretty little alternatives to the big-box stores had escaped the gravity of consumerism and somehow magically rose to help those privileged few individuals find their way to bootstrap more comfortable and expensive lifestyles. Certainly not much of a stretch for those whose mental models of the world render only those realities that best exclude all those big scary existential challenges.  

And I was conscious of the irony that uptown Minneapolis like so many other progressive urban areas was simply just another derivative of more authentic places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, or Miami. And not necessarily being mindful of that fact in the way that Tommy Hilfiger steals shamelessly from Calvin Kline who in turn steals shamelessly from the British and the Italians (all the meanwhile pretending to be real brands) is not a very useful excuse. The same goes for trends like the celebrity chef restaurant scene, driven from the popular television generated food culture, which has mindlessly replicated itself across the US to no one’s particular advantage. That same arc to deliver new and authentic food experiences has in reality only helped to remind some of us just how boringly the same everything remains in the US.

Everyone out there from McDonalds on up has supposed new stuff on their menu but it’s not really new because the reality is that everyone is still using the same Cisco Food delivered cheap foodstuffs (ever see that truck parked in front of your favorite restaurant?) that they always have; so its mostly just marketing hype and maybe a couple of new spices used to create the illusion that they are plating something differently authentic. On Isle Royale Sarah’s forest mushrooms turned out to be just plain old button mushrooms. Looking one layer deeper and slightly further up the restaurant food chain to the celebrity chef kind of places and one can see how everything further breaks down when flavor fusion and presentation overtake the intrinsic qualities of the food itself. A very easy example of this might be that you can’t make a farm raised fish taste like fresh wild caught Alaskan salmon no matter who is cooking or how they dress it up. And the Japanese buy the best 80% of the Alaskan salmon harvest so you best take another look at the menu next time before you order the fresh wild salmon. Authenticity applies the same way for places too, as originality stemming from real experiences is neither exportable nor replicable.

No, if I had to live in the US then give me a real American city like Detroit – a true place where a makeover couldn’t possibly get any traction; a place so far gone that the only thing left and still stubbornly hanging on is the gravitas of its once glorious past. I would think Detroit is the kind of place to live if one was an artist or writer. Collapse and decay fire the imagination better than the bleatingly self-congratulatory bloated excesses that comes from model loft apartment living outfitted as they are with matching granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances fit amongst purposely quirky shops that all have the same polished wood floors and faux vintage lighting. The poet Rumi once asked ‘How can one be satisfied with so little’? Meaning what it is to sacrifice one’s life for living in comfort and ease.

There has never been a revolution led by fat men so stop and ask yourself; how an artist can lead the way, working with any originality, if that artist is constantly inundated with the cultural noise that both radiates from as well as permeates abundant societies? Cultural noise effectively cancels all other frequencies like those involving creativity and true self-awareness.

But then again, who am I? Back in 1967 my grandfather looked my scrawny 12 year old self up and down after hearing me criticize the country music star Porter Wagner for his bouffant platinum hairdo and sparkly costumed clothes and with great scorn and contempt said, ‘He’s loved by millions. Who are you, you miserable little piss ant’?  

So even now it’s maybe fair to say that because I live so far out in the proverbial cultural wilderness that my opinions should be better kept to myself. But I can’t.

Witnessing contemporary American culture hurts to the point where I sometimes get a head ache; implying I must be overly sensitive and possibly allergic to certain things. For instance I see things like tattoos as a cry for help: ‘Please rescue me. I want to be a self-empowered individual but I don’t know how’. And conversely tattoos on fat people just make me want to laugh. I think, ‘Just lose some weight already. Nothing, not even that screaming flame skull head tattoo of yours could even remotely begin to make you look cool’. Sorry but I am of the mind that people need to get themselves out of any lifestyle that necessitates consuming large quantities of calories.

Unfortunately for me I have rather strong and sometimes mean spirited opinions on other things too. I finally had to flee the US before I either tried to dampen my over-wound cultural sensitivities with multiple self-inflicted icepick wounds to the head or become just another one of those raving lunatics who stand around in a suburban parking lot somewhere screaming at people.

Mexico is a much safer proposition. My friend Pancho says, ‘In Mexico you are free’. And with that freedom comes unasked for responsibilities to oneself and others and of course the obvious correspondingly bad behavior that goes hand in hand with maintaining the activities of large criminal enterprises. As you’ve might have read or seen in the news, bad guys are not mythical; they are real here. And evil exists. (Oh, yes) But thankfully so does good. And good exists in such huge heaping portions that not just does it triumph over evil but it has enough left over to bless the people with an overabundance of kind hearts and smiling faces. In the immortal words of Hegel ‘what is undifferentiated is lifeless’. And the American landscape has become too barren in all its sameness to suit me. Stepping off that soapbox now…

We dropped the canoe, paddles, and large river portage bag off at Eric’s brother’s home Sunday morning at 10 am.; returning also the unused French coffee press that Eric gave us. He wasn’t home so Eric asked us to put it in the backyard which we did. Devon then dropped us and our stuff of at the Springhill Suites in Bloomington where the very nice lady who checked us remembered us from our stay from a month earlier and kindly got us some food from the torn down breakfast bar to snack on while we waited for our room to be cleaned. At 12:30 we threw our stuff into what turned out to be a pretty nice room (#210) with a great view and walked the 2 blocks over to the 28th Ave. lightrail stop, paid the 6 bucks each for day tickets and rode it to the Lake Street/Midtown stop. We walked west on Lake St. in the direction of mid-town. We had carried the tent and sleeping bags along which we donated to the first place we found which turned out to be a community help program. We were both very pleased to have been able to do this as we could think of nothing better that a homeless person might need than a great lightweight sleeping bag that had an integral compression sack.

Inspite of my scathing denunciation of trendy American urban neighborhoods I confess that midtown/uptown did serve to offer up some novel experiences. Part of Lake St. was blocked off where a large party of Somalis were celebrating their country’s independence. They had a small petting zoo that included a small camel (dromedary?) and lots of booths staffed with representatives offering everything from cell phone services to free legal advice. I was puzzled why they didn’t set up until mid-day on a Sunday and why there wasn’t any food. I could understand no booze, they were Muslims afterall, but no food? Luckily the food truck faire (yup) a few blocks further west on Hennepin Ave. fixed that, offering up tons of stuff including some of the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten as well as some superb local craft beer. Last but not least, my hat’s off to the excellent bookstore, Magers & Quinn Booksellers, also on Hennepin Ave. If you in any way felt included in my less than kind treatment of neighborhoods, please disregard and accept my sincere apologies; the world needs more bookstores like yours. 

I am getting too damn old not to have a proper toilet close by when I’ve got to get up in the middle of the night to pee. Last night I cursed silently when I saw that it was only 4 am; knowing I could not wait the extra hour for daylight. There had been three sounds in the night: the drone of mosquitoes, the almost constant splatter of rain, and the repeated short groan sounding call of something in the distance. I unzipped my sleeping bag and pulled on a t-shirt and fumbled with the zipper on the tent. I slipped in the mud and almost fell on my arse as I tried to rezip the closure. The inevitable cloud of mosquitoes descended upon me before I even had the chance to get a hold of myself. I reluctantly resigned myself to being eaten alive. An old man with bum prostate can only empty his bladder so fast. I swore then and there that this would be the last time I do anything as stupid as this.

The first day on the St. Croix began relatively benignly with the canoe launch under a small highway bridge. Eric gave me a 2 minute tutorial on canoe handling before turning it over to us. I should have been suspicious after he ended the lesson with a quiet, ‘you’ll learn’; which implied either a too wise Yoda view of the universe or an over assessment my non-existent boat handling skills. But either way, learn we did.

The river, or so I thought, started out a respectable 30 feet wide which seemed appropriate for what was the headwaters kind of area, or so I thought, of a river. After an hour of paddling the river expanded into something like a half mile wide and I thought, ‘that was quick’. We didn’t have a guidebook of the river (is there one?) nor did we have a proper published map. The only thing that we had was contained in the two pdf files that Sarah downloaded from the National Park Service website which showed general information with mile markers like landings, camp sites, portage points, and rapids. So we didn’t know until we got to the Gordon Dam that for the last 2 or 3 hours that we had been paddling across the rather immense St. Croix Flowage. We did a portage around the dam then quickly hit a set of rapids and we both did a collective, ‘oh shit’ as we realized that I should have asked Eric that very critical question of how do you keep the ass end of the boat straight while dodging rocks in a rapids. We got through that one by the skin of our teeth only to face yet another rapids, then another, then another. The boat handling skills weren’t happening very quickly for either one of us but thankfully Sarah eventually caught on.

We knew the river was running very high due to the rains; the National Park Service website said so. We also knew from the website that the NPS had recently closed a bunch of landings because of the high waters. Landings? – what were they; specifically what kind of infrastructure did they have? And what did closed mean; like as in how long? And my naivety assumed that high water was good because the boat would float over rocks and boulders and that high water meant that the resulting current would hasten our journey. (It turns out that I was wrong on both counts.) We were both a bit shocked at the frequency of the rapids. Our nascent boat handling skills were exacerbated by the misleading words from a guy at Marine General back in Duluth that the St. Croix was ‘a big gentle kitty’ with only a couple of easy portages and no rapids.

The ass end of our boat started to seriously come around on the second or third set of rapids, we banged up against a boulder that was until that very moment hidden and before I knew it I was tipped out of the boat and upside down in the water. I heard Sarah shout ‘grab the bag’! I blinked the water out of my eyes just in time to see the bag full of our electronics go floating by. My heart did a flip flop as I watched the bag with our phones, my netbook, backup hard drives, and other stuff drift 10 feet out in front of me. My data! I finally caught up to it and grabbed it and then I snagged the paddle drifting next to it. Sarah managed to grab the boat and together we swam the 30 yards to the Minnesota side of the river.

It was most fortuitous that the actual land where we drug up was at the first campsite (as shown on the NPS map) and in as much was elevated, manicured and included a gentle bank and wasn’t part of the greater wetland bog that made up most of the landscape. Moreover it was also most fortuitous that Sarah had properly tied off the garbage bag that held our electronics so that no water got in. As it turns out these were only the first of God’s many small miracles that were bestowed upon us as we made our way down the river.

We drug up the canoe just as the heavens opened up and it began to pour. I propped up the canoe off a stack of cut logs and we took shelter under it. Thunder and lightning rattled the skies as we crouched freezing cold and wet under the canoe. The storm finally abated after 40 minutes and we took the moment to erect the tent and put our stuff in before the next storm cell erupted more rain upon us. Needless to say that my confidence, boat handling and wilderness skills were at an all time low and I thought, ‘You just don’t look at a state map, see a river on it, then decide to canoe it.’ But that is exactly what I had done. Unfortunately my naïve enthusiasm had served to bind other innocent and gentle parties into what was starting out to be a survival scene straight out of ‘Deliverance’.

We waited in the tent for an hour watching the weather, watching the black sky turn gray before breaking up into individual clouds with a peek of blue before deciding to chance it and go on. It was 2:45 pm and it had been just an hour and 45 minutes since our mishap.

We paddled for two and a half more hours before calling it a day but not before when finally exhausted we blasted through a demonical white-capped rapids that twisted and turned and seemed to stretch out for city blocks; while blinded in a pouring rain before we could battle the canoe into another primitive camp. And thus ending Day One on the river.

It is both fair and necessary to say at this point that our journey by river wasn’t all scrabbling about trying to keep our craft afloat and pointed straight down the river. The river was beautiful. Trees came down to the water’s edge and there was numerous species of birds that were engaging to watch. We saw 3 bald eagles aloft on the St. Croix Flowage. There were kingfishers, swallows, great blue herons, and flycatchers to watch as we made our way down river. The most breathtaking event was shortly after leaving the Flowage there was an osprey who wheeled low to the water off our port bow a mere hundred feet away with a fish in its talons; meanwhile pursued by 2 much smaller birds as in the typical fate of other predatory birds.

Before Day Two was out we knew that we, or rather I, had bitten off way more than we could chew. We were making on average only 2-3 additional knots on a 1 knot current and both the landmark mile markers as well as the NPS map bore witness to the simple fact that Stillwater/Minneapolis were just too far away even if we had 5 or 6 more days to paddle and not 3. So the plan was to terminate at the St. CroixState Park on the morning of Day 4 and pull the canoe out of the water and by hook, nook or crook find our way the remaining miles overland to Stillwater/Minneapolis to return the canoe to Eric’s family.

Day 3 was a short 12 miles unlike the 25 miles we pulled on Day 2. We holed up at the last primitive campsite at mile marker 109 just a mile upstream from the St. Croix State Park. The wind was blowing fiercely from the north which made casting from the shore between two trees problematic. I had already managed to lose 2 lures on the previous day casting in similar circumstances. Fishing from the canoe hadn’t really been an option as I was too busy pulling an oar and keeping my eye on the horizon watching the weather to bother. I was casting a nice little Rapela swimming lure that I was only able to spot in the water when it began to breach as I reeled it in close. It seemed the water was either too black or too turbulent for the fish to bother with it. This was too bad as the river was reputed to hold some fine fish like everywhere from large northern pike down to smallmouth bass and the tasty little panfish called bluegills and sunfish; both of which were part of my earliest fishing memories which I remembered catching and having my grandmother fry up when I was a little boy.

I built a fire while Sarah prepped our only hot meal of the day. We managed to get the tinfoil wrapped package of sliced up yams, onions, beets, and onions on to the coals just seconds before the skies opened up and we had to take to the tent to wait out the rain. The rain was a brief furious lashing before subsiding a mere 15 minutes later. With it the wind dropped and the mosquitoes came out in such dense cloud that kept us in the tent except to snatch the package of food off the coals and then only once later to duck out long enough to pee.

We drank McAdams Canadian Whiskey mixed with river water that had been purified with germicidal tablets. Somehow the cheap whiskey worked well with the iodine flavor.

It rained all night but had subsided around 4 am when I went out to pee for the second time and expectedly the mosquitoes descended like a plague. Before loading the boat we both completely covered up the best we could including putting on the face nets for the first time that I bought earlier. We paddled the remaining mile to the St. Croix State Park only to find the same cloud of mosquitoes waiting for us when we landed. Thus began Day Four.

We pulled up the boat and seeing nothing but an asphalt road that wandered uphill we left the boat and scouted ahead to find the ranger station. The boat landing at the state park turned out to be a couple of hundred yards from the main lodge. We humped all our gear up in two loads before returning to carry up the canoe. We were grateful for the shelter of the lodge where we could finally get some relief from the mosquitoes.

It was 7:30 am and the park was just beginning to wake up. We took the first few minutes of our arrival to wash up a bit and brush our teeth. We sat at a table across from one another with the map out and began to assess our situation; we had literally a boat load of stuff, not to mention the boat itself and I had to find a way to get it and us the 70 or 80 remaining miles down to Minneapolis. Improvisation 101.

Without going into all of the unnecessary details, two and a half hours later I finally found a man with a pick-up truck who was willing to drive us and the stuff there for the very reasonable price of $200. A very kind mention here to the affable Devon who did us a great service, played classic rock the entire way and shouted ‘Hell Yes’! every few sentences to punctuate his point.

Another kind mention to the beautiful and radiant Willow Shields, the DNR person we chatted with while waiting for Devon to show up. Possessing a warm smile and boundless cheerful enthusiasm she was totally not the image you get when you first think of the DNR. The product of hippie parents she grew up in a DIY environment and was a food canner, deer hunter, and forager of the first order. Her father was an amateur archeologist so she possessed those skills as well in addition to a fine collection of local artifacts some dating back 3000 years to the copper age. You are an amazing woman Willow and I hope everyone loves and appreciates you as much as you deserve.

We leave at 7 am for the St. Croix and we are positively thrilled to have the opportunity to canoe this river. There were so many potential last minute obstacles that frankly I am quite surprised that it is going to happen after all. A big thanks to Eric Faust of the Duluth Coffee Company who is singularly responsible for making this happen. Eric not just loaned us his canoe but also volunteered to drive us to the launch point which lies somewhere over in Wisconsin. And it will also be someone in his family who will connect up with us down in Stillwater so that we can return the canoe.

Sarah and I are really digging Duluth. Impossible as it may seem the last 15 miles on Highway 2 west into Duluth was all pretty much on a downhill grade and riding in the sunshine was a pleasure that we haven’t experienced much since we got here. The last couple of miles included the biking thrill of crossing the Interstate 635 bridge over the ship canal between Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota. I still have no idea if what we did was legal or not but it was a plenty exciting long, high ride where we got to get a birds-eye view of some docked freighters. A couple of seamen on one ship waved and shouted ‘What’s happening man’? And we waved and shouted back.

Sarah skyped with one her friends so I went down to Fitgers by myself to drink a couple of pints. I really enjoyed their Starfire IPA (9/10) but not their Witch ESB (7/10) so much. They make a lager called Wildfire Lager which is infused with hot chilies that is truly one of the most exceptional brews I have ever tasted. It tastes like fresh Serrano’s and has that same Serrano spiciness too and in the spirit of Spinal Tap I give it a well deserved 11/10.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention our pie and coffee stop along the way at Mother’s Kitchen in tiny little Poplar, Wisconsin. Normally Banana Crème pie doesn’t do a thing for me because the couple of times that I’ve tried it there was mostly a weird banana flavored custard thing going on. Not so at Mother’s Kitchen. This pie had no discernable custard and was mostly chunky creamy pieces of banana; served up with a large scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cup of hot coffee it was truly an almost religious experience.

We stopped in yesterday morning at Duluth Coffee and we got the house brew of Guatemalan beans done in a medium roast and ordered our breakfast next door at the inappropriately named Coney Island. The coffee was excellent and served in big cups which we sipped on until our food arrived from next door. I like that gentlemen’s kind of reciprocity where one business supports the other and it seems like Eric has other kinds of similar things going on around the region. A waiter brought over 2 identical plates of eggs over medium, whole wheat toast, and hash browns. The eggs were cooked to perfection, the hash browns were neither greasy nor burned, and the coffee was the best in town.

We spent the afternoon hunting and gathering after our trip to Marine General on London Road. I bought a fishing rod, a Minnesota fishing license, and a big fat handful of artificial baits so I am more than ready for anything in size from the monster pike we might encounter right down to small mouth bass.

We stopped by the Whole Foods Co-Op up on 4th St. and 6th Ave. and picked up what I hope is 5 days worth of food. We got half a dozen big yams, the same number of big rutabagas and onions, a big bag of carrots, some potatoes, chili powder, olive oil, salt, peanut butter, 2 boxes of crackers, apples, aluminum foil, some paper platters, 2 rolls of paper towels, paper bowls, and a bunch of other stuff. We’d be packing different if we were backpacking but canoes were designed to haul weight.

Sarah downloaded the maps of the river from the National Parks Service so it appears that we’ll be wilderness camping the whole way. The NPS has designated the river a scenic waterway so we are very much looking forward to this little adventure. We bought head nets for the bugs and we are packing some serious deet spray which might be good for the mosquitoes although the locals joke that the dreaded blackfly is said to almost be impervious to it. I am hoping we’ll be alright although I am mindful that ‘hope is not a strategy’ as Sarah once pointed out earlier this trip.

The river is 170 miles total in length and we are doing 130 miles of it. If we make just 30 miles a day then we are looking at being out of the water as early as Saturday. The oldtimers thought nothing of doing 60-70 miles per day in the birch bark canoes that the natives taught them how to build even loaded up as they were with bundles of furs so I think that our expectations are reasonable. We will be traveling relatively light and fast in our borrowed Kevlar canoe which shares the distinction of also having been built in the region. Thanks again Eric. This wouldn’t have been possible without you.

‘Hope is not a strategy’. I am quoting my daughter here as she informed a couple of weeks ago after I said for the umpteenth time that I hoped that the tiny town coming up would have a motel, or food, or a place to get in out of the weather, or something. That sounds kind of mean and bitter doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t as Sarah is living proof that even the best and toughest of us can lose patience with the kind of seat of the pants operations that I am prone to run. She could have said ‘you should have planned better’ but not really because a) she was implicitly involved in the non-planning of this little adventure from the beginning and b) who would have know that we were going to switch from running our 1000 km. Minnesota – Dakotas loop to bicycling the Western Loop of Lake Superior?

Someone wisely once said that ‘Life is what happens when you are busy planning something else’. True enough I suppose but tangentially a physicist by the name of Wheeler said something to the effect that ‘Reality can best be understood by the questions we put to it’. Now granted Mr. Wheeler was talking about quantum mechanics but isn’t there perhaps just a tiny bit of applicability to day to day living? (or maybe not)

I am going to devote a separate post to the 10 Things We Learned From This Trip but for now I will say that one of the big learning take-aways for me this trip is that of constant improvisation and problem solving. Unlike Marshall Ulrich who had a large mobilized support staff including a massage therapist when he did his 53 day record breaking run across the United States as reported in his best selling book ‘Running on Empty’ we started out with just a tricked out baby jogging stroller, a state map of Minnesota, and a netbook.

Naïve you say. Perhaps. But sometimes, if you’re a bit like us anyway, you need to strip away all the stuff and find out what you truly capable of and discover what it is exactly that you truly need. And we wanted to see what we could do operating under mostly our own power. And this kind of thinking goes back to when we were living in downtown Washington, DC when I sometimes speculated on what we’d do should a local catastrophe happen and we were left to ‘shelter in place’; the rather tongue in cheek euphemism the US government would use rather than to just say that you were on your own. So if aliens invaded and did something like blow up the capital building then what we as DC residents could expect from our government would be nothing more  than to expect the rather unnourishing words of ‘shelter in place’.

So here we are, back in Duluth after completing the beautifully wonderful 500 mile bike ride around the western shores of Lake Superior only to discover that we are once again at the mercy of our own unplanning. We had conjured up the idea of canoeing the St. Croix back to Minneapolis around the time that we were just beginning to realize that completing the bike loop was in fact doable. We were looking at the map and saw that there was a river whose headwaters were a scant 50 miles or so from Duluth and extended down past Minneapolis where it merged into the mighty Mississippi and we thought, ‘Why not? Why don’t we donate the bikes in Duluth; beg, borrow or steal a canoe and paddle the remaining 150 miles’? Brilliant. (or not)

We now have a day remaining to pull the details together and forge a plan because we must be dipping our paddles no later than tomorrow if we are to complete our trip back to Minneapolis to make our flights home on July 1. Doable? Maybe. But ironically if there is a true deal killer it won’t be logistical or planning related; lessing of course we can do all that paddling in a scant 5 days. Nope, the deal killer will probably be something like black flies; a tiny vicious insect that emerges during tourist season (aka summer) and is reputed to be highly attracted to insect repellant. We have the canoe. We have a ride to the headwaters. We have a tent and sleeping bags. But what we lack is information.

We’ve read from the National Park Service website that the water on the St. Croix is very high, due to the recent storms, but ‘floatable’, and that several of the most northern ‘landings’ are closed; also due to the recent storms. We are making a trip this morning to the marine provisioning shop of Marine General to see if they have the answers to any of our questions. Because we can’t make a decision until we learn exactly what a landing is or what floatable exactly means or what the black fly situation can be expected to be like.

The weather forced us to spend another night in Iron River. It was too bad that it was on a Sunday when half or more of the food related businesses were closed further narrowing the choices in this small Wisconsin village. We got coffee at 6 am at the convenience store and were on our way to the only known restaurant on the far side of town when the sky began to rumble ominously. We turned back to discover that the grocery store wouldn’t open for another two hours but surprisingly found a small café in the doing. Sarah had the two and two special; two eggs and two pancakes and I ordered the breakfast pasty. For you non-aficionados, pasties are a pocket meal consisting of lots of leftover stuff but mainly things like rutabaga, potatoes and meat that have been minced then wrapped in a pastry like blanket then baked and are the cultural legacy of the early Cornish miners who came to work in the ore mines of this area. Although I hadn’t had one in years I knew that this one was exceptional in a homemade kind of way because the pastry part was both flaky and chewy.

Food is an important part of any trip and not getting good and tasty things to eat is a problem for a good many of us. I’ve been a local resourcer (or whatever you want to call it) kind of guy my entire life. For example, when I am in Mexico where I live now it is all about the tacos, carnitas, and local fruits and vegetables. When I lived in Texas on the gulf coast it was all about the shrimp, oysters, and fish; and I harvested my own whenever I could. Now that I am back in the Great Lakes region I want to eat the same regional specialties that I grew up on as a kid and eat just those things that you can’t get anywhere else. And I will eat corn on the cob, fresh baked pie, rhubarb, pasties, whitefish and walleye, perch, and pike, and their smoked versions until they are coming out of my ears because somewhere down deep my subconscious knows that the ship is going to sail all to soon so I’d better get it while I can.

The locally sourced foods on this particular trip at times have been on the thin side. We landed in Minneapolis 23 days ago and the first walleye meal didn’t surface until day 4 or 5 when circumstances found us looking to the local Eagles Club for an evening meal.

We found the best pie in the version of Forest Berry (mixed fruit) in the little town of Cosby, Minnesota which we both ordered up with a scoop of ice cream and a cup of coffee. We found that St. Cloud had no real local food choices but the beer choices got better there with lots of regional tap options. In Duluth we found good coffee and great beer but unexceptional food except for the local co-op up on 4th Ave.

When we got up on the North Shore (of Lake Superior) we began to find smoked fish. It was in Tofte where we first found some excellent smoked whitefish which we had with thinly sliced onion and bread. We found that there were lots of good regional beers to drink and lots of whitefish, smoked and otherwise, to be had in the rest of our circumnavigation of the western part of Lake Superior. As we get ready to ride back into Duluth today completing the circle; we are both very pleased and privileged to have done this 500 mile loop on bicycles.