The Iron Range Original Music Associaton ROCKS Again...

Original Artwork by Shaun Chosa
Please enjoy (or don't...) the recent article that Virginia Minnesota's Hometown Focus newspaper was kind enough to publish on behalf of my musical friends and me.  It's my understanding that the author is a "middle aged man with a silly, hipster attitude":

Iron Range Original Music Association to Present 11 Band Multi Venue Fall Showcase

 On Friday September 23 the members of the Iron Range Original Music Association (IROMA) in their continued mission to promote and popularize the creation and performance of original live music will come  together to present a unique Multi Venue Fall Showcase featuring 11 local bands performing original compositions at 3 different locations in downtown Virginia.  Based loosely on the recent popular Duluth Homegrown Iron Range Invasions, this exciting evening of music will bring to the stage a variety of styles and sounds unique to the Iron Range.

Horse Fzce (Photo by Ron Kutsi)
The event kicks off at 7 p.m. at The 218 Taphouse with the much heralded debut performance of the acoustic duo “Selah and Josh” featuring Orr native Selah Reid and Aurora area favorite Josh Palmi.  Popular Virginia duo Horse Fzce, a collaboration between classically trained vocalist Heather Surla and guitarist Eric Krenz , goes on at 8.  Comprised of former members of 4 Horse Johnson and a few other special guests including guitarist Dan Boyer, Karl Sundquist’s new project Big Waves and Bonfire goes on at 9 to perform laid back acoustic music.  A three piece version of the Hibbing area’s most popular rock band Hobo Revival featuring Kim Grillo Nagler, Robert Klaysmat, and Joe Gibbon rounds off the Taphouse’s line up at 10.

Bands performing concurrently with minimal overlap at The Rainy Lake include loveable Virginia hooligans The Iron Range Outlaw Brigade made up of Kirk Kjenaas, John Peterson, Glen Mattson, and Fred Hanson.  They describe themselves as a northwoods dirty punk rock country band bitterer than a shot of Wild Turkey.  They’ll stomp the stage at 8:30 p.m. followed by Minnesota music icon and Eveleth legend Rich Mattson’s band The North Stars at 9:30.  This dreamy northern Minnesota folk-rock group features not only Rich of Ol' Yeller, Tisdales, Bitter Spills, and Sparta Sound fame but also talented singer / songwriter Germaine Gemberling.  The always entertaining and unexpected Lazer Bear driven by Glen Mattson, Fred Hanson and Jeff Alger follows at 10:30, and the very hard rocking indy / alternative band Average Mammals currently promoting the release of their 2nd CD “Petrichor” brings down the house at 11:30.

Strategically interspersed into the schedule, bands will also be playing at Paulie G’s on the other side of Chestnut St. with the duo of Christopher David Hanson from Babbitt and Brent Saari of Mt. Iron kicking things off at 9:15 p.m. and presenting the sounds of timeless rock and roll and original American roots music with hints of Motown, swing, and classic country.  Josh Palmi and The Strange Frequencies take the stage at 10:15.  A bluesy rock band featuring singer/songwriter Josh Palmi, Pike-Sandy harmonica ace Al "Trapper" Ranfranz, Craig Lasart on bass and Chris Hanson on drums, they released their debut CD earlier this year.  Ely area band Crazy Neighbors manned by Aaron Kaercher, Pat Hawkinson, Kyle Westrick, and Derek Rolando bring it on home at 11:15.

Formed in 2008 by a loose coalition of local musicians, the non-profit IROMA has worked for years to spotlight Iron Range bands and musicians writing original music, and this Multi Venue Fall Showcase represents a continued commitment to growing and celebrating our vibrant local music scene – it’s truly something of which we can all be very proud.  Performances at all three venues are free and open to the public, and merchandise from many of the artists will be available.  As always, amateur photographers are encouraged to attend, and information on IROMA and all the performers is readily available online.  IROMA would like to thank the members of our community for their continued support of original local live music on The Range.


Re: The Hometown Focus

Like so many of my “blogging buddies” from days gone by, social media has all but killed my blogging efforts.  The lack of creative writing on my behalf is truly a shame, but that being said, I feel far more “connected” now than I did even at the height of my “career” as a serious blogger.  Strange days…

One of my few remaining outlets for writing has been our local “alternative newspaper” The Hometown Focus.  It’s a wonderful publication full of local news that spotlights relevant economic issues, covers the arts and entertainment scene in the area, and gives voice to a wide variety of guest columnists….including ME.

Around the time that I graduated from high school in Virginia Minnesota, our school had an incredibly strong English department, and a significant number of the students who passed through that program are still writing today…many professionally.  One of my classmates has chiseled out a second career for herself as freelance writer focusing on topics related both to mental health and women in the outdoors, and she recently decided to make me the subject of one of her interviews over the course of which she focused on the different approaches that she and I take with regard to outdoor adventures.  Her ice fishing rig is pictured in the bottom half of the photo...below Lucy the Lab 'n me.  ;-)

 The complete article can be read HERE.



Re: The Boneheads at Groove City Guitars in St Paul Minnesota

In September of 2014 quite out of the blue, I received a Facebook “friends request” from a new Minnesota music store.  As a traveling musician at the time faced occasionally with long weekend afternoons to while away in The Twin Cities, I accepted the request and put their location on my mental list of places to stop next time I had a time to drive around fondling guitars and amps “down south.”

As a new business clearly trying hard to use social media to their advantage, I immediately noticed a steady stream of “for sale” items start to appear in my newsfeed, and that was cool with me.  I also noticed that they were presenting their business as somewhat of a “hippie guitar boutique” with high quality gear, funky rugs, and groovy furnishings.  On a morning in late September I was shocked and annoyed to see this advertisement posted by Groove city.  Disgusted by the idea of a cool music store “selling out” and turning their business into a ridiculous media circus powered by awful commercial radio, I said aloud at my desk, “Eeeewww!  Ska-REW that!”  I thought about leaving a negative comment but chose not to.  Less than 5 minutes later, another person “somewhere out there” took the words right out of my mouth by posting “KQ?  Epic Fail.  I will NEVER visit your store.”  A few minutes later, another outraged person did the same, and a predictable backlash by “pro awful commercialization” people ensued.  I could no longer resist, and I posted a comment something to the effect of “Way to go.  I would expect this sort of thing from Guitar Center (the Menard’s of Music).
Groove City responded by posting the following:

“We have never seen Eric or Tom in the shop, and none of the guys recognize them. Oh well, somehow they friended us, and everyone has a right to their own opinion! I'm sure if they ever come to see us they will feel embarrassed by those negative remarks about advertising with KQ. It's always best to have all the information, and see a business first hand before making generalized statements, positive, or negative.

I responded with:
“YOU sent ME a friends request like TWO weeks ago, and I live 200 miles away.  That is how long I've been aware of your shop, and you WERE on my list of stops on my upcoming Cities trip.  My annoyance stems from the fact that up until today, the image you presented of yourself here was ~very~ much NOT one of a music store that would choose to permanently stigmatize itself with such a sellout circus side show association with soulless big business radio.  Good luck.”

They deleted my response, so I posted it again…and then a third time.  Then, I was promptly “unfriended” by Groove City Guitars.  Seriously?  Looking back through their photos well composing this post, I’ve noticed that ALL the comments associated with that advertisement have been deleted.  Weird, huh?
I took two things away from this bizarre interaction.  The first one is that ANY business that would behave in such a manner isn’t worthy of my patronage.  Yes, I’m curious as heck about their collection of quality and vintage instruments, but they “8th grade girl-ed” incorrectly in a public forum and alienated me forever.
The second is that giant broadcasting companies are both destroying American radio AND dumbing down the county.  No single organization should be allowed to own and manage 460 stations the way the Cumulus Media does, and the sooner those large corporations are broken up, the better.  As far as I’m concerned, the list of advertisers on those stations serves as a personal “black list” of business to avoid.
Sorry, Groove City Guitars.  No sale... 


Four Horse Johnson Returns to Sparta Sound.

My wife and I used to have what was known as a “land line.”  That was a telephone wired directly into a worldwide network of cables.  We got rid of ours over 5 years ago, but it was through a communication over that system that I was asked to join up with a new local band as the lead guitarist.  My bass playing friend asked me to help out with a new project involving a drummer unknown to me and a mutual acquaintance who was a songwriter.  When I hung up the phone, my wife asked, “What was that all about?”

“Oh, you know…just another band looking for a hired gun,” I replied with a smirk. 

She rolled her eyes and said, “Right…” with no lack of sarcasm.

To this day I can still shrug my shoulders in the midst of a band conversation, say “Don’t ask me.  I’m just the hired man,” and effectively annoy the hell out of all them.

Anyway, that band eventually took the name Four Horse Johnson, and with the exception of a 2 year “hiatus,” we’ve been playing together in one form or another ever since.  It was in 2008 that we entered the recording studio at Sparta Sound (a deconsecrated church in Sparta Location between Eveleth and Gilbert Minnesota ) to record our first CD “Transmission,” and just last night we were back to begin work on our 2nd CD.  Between the 4 bands with which I’ve performed since 2007, this will be my 6th recording project.  Last night went surprisingly well, and I plan to post recording updates here from now until the completion of our CD tentatively named (according to me) “Carbon Monoxide Sea Shanties.”



"Are All These Your Guitars?"

Hey, Look.  STUPID Google Blogger is finally allowing me to post photos using Internet Explorer 11. 

That was a long blogging "hunger strike." 


Anyway...way back in the late 1980s as a teenager with a small pile of saved $ from my paper route and new summer job, I placed a call to the long since defunct Rainbow Music in Poughkeepsie, New York hoping to acquire an American Standard Fender Telecaster.  Oddly enough, though no fan of either one of them, I'd observed both Bruce Springsteen and Prince playing butterscotch colored Telecasters with great interest, and that's what I was after. 

The sales person said they were OUT of that particular model, BUT..."We have a couple of Esquire re-issues.  They're basically the same thing as a Telecaster, and we have one in Butterscotch."  Being young, inexperienced, and more than a little na├»ve, I took his word for it and "pulled the trigger" on what was to be one of only a handful of guitars ever shipped to me sight unseen, and when the UPS driver showed up with it a couple days later, I was NOT wild about this new instrument. 

An authentic re-creation of one of the world's first commercially successful electric guitars, my Esquire had simple electronics and only one pickup.  Also, Fender's colors "butterscotch" and "butterscotch blonde" couldn't be more different.  It was YELLOW!  To make a long story short, I made peace with the instrument after having a local guitar shop install a neck pickup and properly set it up for better playability.  It was with that guitar and a borrowed Marshall JCM 800 half stack that I made my debut as a legitimate lead guitarist in front of an auditorium filled with my school's 7th through 12th grades (well over 800 people) while ripping The Kink's "All Day and All of the Night" a "new one," and it was also through that instrument that I learned to LOVE the feel and tonal capabilities of a Telecaster-style guitar. 

In my early 20s, I experienced a bit of a "downturn in fortunes," and was forced to sell my modified Esquire, and I've been without a similar instrument ever since.  Thankfully, I recently arrived a point in my existence where finances and my music "career" came together to drop a new Telecaster into my hands. This new axe is a dream in every way, and I'm looking forward to fetching it along to the recording studio when my band starts work on our 2nd CD this week.

Twangy shredding will surely ensue...    


Low Rez Cell Phone Food Pics...and LOTS of 'em.

While flipping through my phone this week, I clicked into the pictures folder for the first time in several months, and I was surprised that the card held around 300 photos.  Because I own a 4 year old LG VX9100 that's barely half a step up from a "dumb phone" and features a lackluster 2 mp camera, I generally only take pictures with it for the purpose of taunting my friends or for reinforcing a point over the course of a text conversation.  That practice yielded a bizarre collection of images that when viewed out of context raised some troubling questions, and I noticed that, oddly enough, a number of them were of food in various states of consumption.  No, really.  I realize that "pictures of some idiot's boring lunch" have become a contemptible cliche across various social media sites, so...enjoy!  ;-)

Despite a tendency to make terrible choices where diet is concerned, I try to eat healthy foods.  This is a good example of a typical lunch on a work day.  I believe this photo was taken and sent to a friend after she informed me that her lunch was a can of Slim Fast.  I'm not a fan of that.

This is the opposite of the photo above.  It's Nachos Del Grande or something like that from Taco Bell with a tankard(?) of Mt. Dew.  I ate this on the way to a gig at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth MN.  It wasn't very good, but...neither was the food backstage at the show, so... 
I LOVE breakfast, and as a "creepy old guy," I love eggs with gravy...in...um...moderation.  My sons and I make it a point to visit Alden's Family Restaurant in Biwabik MN at least one Saturday or Sunday morning every month...usually more.  All of their food is consistently good, the staff is friendly and efficient, the atmosphere is warm - amazingly warm for a small town cafe, actually - the prices are low, and they make a very solid plate of biscuits and gravy.  Yum.
Unlike the delicious home-cooked meal made by Alden himself in the photo above, this Perkin's breakfast was simply awful.  Due to a series of unfortunate events, my family "settled" and wound up at Perkin's in Duluth after attending the ballet in December.  SOME of us were in the mood for "breakfast for dinner."  Perkins is truly the "wal-mart of food," and despite its somewhat appetizing appearance, this was one of the most tasteless, ill-prepared plates of garbage I ever attempted to eat.  PLEASE, people of the world, do NOT patronize "corporate food!"  The small, one-of-a-kind family-owned eateries ALWAYS provide a superior dining experience.
This is the "kitchen table" at my friend's hunting shack near the Canadian border.  There are olives for one to drop in one's beer, assorted condiments, 3 brands of admittedly bad beer, a bag of generic Doritos, a 500,000 candle power spot light, and a bag of dog food.  Perkin's could learn a LOT from atmosphere at "the shack." 
Here's another example of some interesting "gig-related fare."  Bub's in Winona MN ("It's pronounced BOOBS because it's German!" said the lovely and enthusiastic young waitress...) is one of my favorite places to eat in one of the greatest towns on earth.  Preoccupied by the BIG show that was less than two hours away and distracted by the fact that they had Surly Furious on tap AND it was happy hour, I opened the extensive menu and...really, for the first time in my life...resolved to blindly point at the menu and order the item on which my finger landed.  This grilled pastrami on rye was VERY good...like EVERY other item on the menu.  Matt Ray and two of Those Damn Horses left happy.
I snapped the photo above while my pre-show anxiety level hovered around a 6 out of 10, but this fantastic candid shot of Cheerios and fleece blankie time happened during an episode of calm relaxation.  Mmmmmm...cereal.
This is just plain embarrassing, but...dumpster level food porn happens.  I was in Babbitt MN for work and had a bit of a "freak out" and ate "food" from a gas station, so...there you go.  I washed down this horrific...yet delicious...mess of heart poison / stroke fuel with a can of icy cold Mt. Dew.  Got distracted driving?  Just kidding.  I was parked.   
I did mention that 90% of my lunches during the work week are fairly healthy, right?  If I'm not in a position to bring a container of my lovely Mrs' soup from home, Natural Harvest Food Co-op in Virginia MN has an amazing deli, and the friendly folks who staff the counter there serve up not only perfect soups but also GOOD humor.  Yes, that IS buffalo / wild rice / cranberry jerky, and NO you can't have my awesome red Swingline stapler
What is my current favorite breakfast?  My wife and I make it a point to do a "Duluth Day" at least once a month, and on those days we take off from work, drop the kids off at school at 7:30, and arrive in "The Zenith City" around 9 a.m.  We inevitably head to The Duluth Grill which is TRULY on the very short list of the best places to eat in all of Northern Minnesota.  Over the last 5 years, we've tried numerous items from the extensive and diverse menu, but lately I've been "stuck" on the Huevos Rancheros with Chorizo.  I'm NOT kidding or being dramatic here; if you're into food and live within 500 miles of this place, GO there and check it out.
My current favorite work day lunch is the Black Bean Burrito from La Cocina y Cantina in downtown Virginia MN.  Ordered "with no cheese inside and half the usual amount of cheese on top," it comes with a lovely salad on the side and contains sauteed scallions and peppers alongside the beans.  The atmosphere is perfect, and the staff is fast and friendly to the point that my Mrs. and I can be in and out in 30 minutes or so.
Ok, to be fair, my other current favorite breakfast is the country fried steak and eggs from the Woodbury Cafe in Woodbury MN.  We refer to it as "chicken fried" due to the history of the dish, but...Minnesota IS a "blue state," so...  Hehe.  Oh, and it's soooo good that more than half of it vanished before I snapped a taunting photo to send to my oldest son.
Here's another photo from this week that was sent to my wife and younger son who were at soccer while my older son and I enjoyed "Tuesday burger night" at The Wandering Pines in Gilbert MN.  A "buck fitty" for a burger and $2.50 happy hour pints of Summit?  Please.
So, there's a pile of crazy yet fascinating photos of food that misrepresent my normal eating habits.  Lucky YOU, dear reader.  ;-)  I'm exhausted from photo editing, so...it's time for a mediocre bloody mary and a snit of awful tap beer from a bad "logging industry-themed" establishment in Mt. Iron MN.  I would have ordered the "deluxe" bloody mary, but...it was $8, and it's lesser cousin was uneventful.  Thanks for reading.  :-)


Winter Camping in Northeastern Minnesota - 20 Years and Counting

On Presidents Day Weekend of 1993, two friends and I, very much on a whim that to this day defies explanation, decided to attempt a winter camping trip.  One member of our party had a bit of experience with "winter ops" from the National Guard (which apparently involved armored vehicles, heavy weapons, and numerous explosions), but my other friend and I were total "newbies" and had little idea what we were  up against.  We parked at the end of Breezy Point on Lake Vermilion and trudged out into knee-deep snow without the benefit of snowshoes or skis with the ambitious goal of reaching Wolf Lake via the stream that flows into Smart Bay.  In the midst of 45 minutes of crushing physical exertion during which one member of our party "refunded" his breakfast, I uttered for the first but certainly not the last time in relation to winter trips the phrase "Well, this was a stupid idea!" and we continued on...for a couple more hours.  This trip took place before my introduction to the Internet, and forced to rely solely on a USGS topographic map without the added benefit of aerial photos, we were unaware of the fact that Wolf Creek made a sharp and unexpected turn though a heavily-wooded choking point on the west side of the most open part of its flowage.  3.5 miles into an extremely difficult trudge with our collective judgement clouded by exhaustion, we took a wrong turn, lost our way, decided to call it "good enough," and made camp on the edge of a spruce bog marked by a red star on THIS map.  Faded by the passage of time, my memories of that weekend are sadly fragmented, but I remember spending the evening eating smoked Gouda and good Italian bread, drinking Windsor Canadian and cola, smoking cigarettes, and enjoying a high spirited and fairly late night around a campfire with our entire party exhilarated by the awareness that we were engaged in an esoteric and unconventional pursuit.  I also remember that my first experience spending nearly 10 hours sleeping comfortably in a down bag while the temperature outside dipped into the single digits above zero changed my life and marked me forever as a serious winter camping enthusiast.

On Presidents Day Weekend the following year, I convinced another friend and fellow outdoorsman to join me for a 3 day and 2 night trip that coincided with a near record level of snow on the ground.  We hiked in on our newly acquired snowshoes and pulled heavily loaded sleds, and after reaching our chosen spot a modest 1.75 miles into a local stand of State Forest, we floundered in waist-deep snow for nearly an hour while we "dug out a campsite."  It was on this early trip that we perfected our methods for "cold camping" and experimented with making snow caves, gathering wood on snowshoes, maintaining a reliable campfire in the snow, and cooking meals in temperatures below freezing.  From those early experiences grew a tradition of regular winter excursions including "big" treks every Presidents Day, and whether the occasion resulted in a multi-day trip with a large crew or a quick solo overnight outing, I made it a point to embark on a winter camping trip on that holiday weekend every year.  My most recent adventure in February of 2013 marked my 20th consecutive President's Day winter camping trip.

Following the unfortunate but accepted winter trip planning pattern where my friends are concerned, what began as a 3 day expedition involving a good sized group of campers and a number of dogs slowly unraveled, and through a disappointing series of text messages only days before the event, I was informed that "our" 20th annual outing was going to be a solo affair.  No longer concerned  about anyones' physical limitations but my own, I quickly selected a more challenging destination, printed out new maps, and revised my strategy.  Despite the knowledge that snow conditions were difficult and many area lakes were covered with slush, I decided to head to Fall Lake near Ely MN and travel up through Newton Lake to eventually camp and fish on Basswood with the understanding that I would likely run into trouble along the way.  In the winter of 2008 aided by ideal conditions, I chose the same route and made it all the way to New York Island on Basswood where I spent two nights and enjoyed really good fishing.  A strong desire to return quietly gnawed at me ever since.

On the morning of Saturday February 16 after some sloppy last minute packing borne of procrastination, Lucy the Lab and I set out from home and headed north to Ely.  We stopped for bait and a few last minute provisions at a gas station and, in observance of another unusual tradition, we hit the drive-thru at the local Dairy Queen.  For me, no BWCA adventure would be complete without a mushroom and swiss and an order of deep fried cheese curds.  Arriving at the busy landing on Fall Lake, I was instantly reminded of why most of my trips start at 3:00 a.m. rather than noon, and after making quick work of converting numerous loose bags and bins into a secured load on a sled, Lucy and I stepped out onto the lake.  The soft and disagreeable snow measured between 12 to 18 inches deep, and no trails headed off in our direction.  Perfect.  By the time we reached the tip of Mile Island, we were both slightly winded, and when the snowshoe trail that we mercifully picked up ran out less than half way to the portage to Newton Lake leaving us to fend for ourselves in soft and heavily drifted snow, I shrugged my shoulders and adjusted my goals for the trip.  Had there been 2 or 3 more guys along for the ride, we could have taken turns breaking trail and likely extended our range, but Lucy and I, despite being in decent shape, were somewhat hindered by our heavy loads and deep snow.  We pushed on while taking turns out front, and the grey mist and occasional flurries of a warm and foggy winter day quickly obscured all that lay behind us.  The stunning landscapes created by Winter in Minnesota never fail to stir my heart.

On the portage from Fall Lake to Newton Lake, we found evidence of heavy use by wildlife including wolves, deer, and a moose, and in the interest of giving my Lucy a much needed break, I snapped the tow bars onto her sled, clipped the waist belt into my pack, and made the quick overland jaunt bearing the full weigh of our equipment.  According to the MN DNR lake information report, "Newton Lake is very riverine in character with the Kawishiwi River flowing through a narrow, serpentine lake basin," and on that particular day in February, the lake was covered with slush and sported numerous ice free areas.  We proceeded with caution and hugged the shoreline as we pushed on further north, and after rounding a bend, I gasped at the sight of a large area of open water in the narrow channel that I skied right down the middle of on my previous winter trek through the the lake.  Barely 5 minutes after that, we ran into the southern end of a vast field of heavy slush that covered most of the lake, and the only way to avoid it was to keep within 10 feet of shore...where the snow was most heavily drifted.  Following the shoreline all the way down Newton Lake as opposed to taking a more direct course would have added a whopping 2.5 miles to the trip.  After trudging just slightly over 4 miles that afternoon, I spotted an area of light tree and brush cover adjacent to a likely fishing spot right next to a stand of Maple trees with a lot of wood on the ground.  Honestly, all that was missing was a "Camp Here!" sign with a big red arrow.  I made for shore, dropped my pack, freed Lucy from her load, and pulled a collapsible snow shovel from the sled.

After about an hour of shoveling, unpacking, and arranging, a tidy winter camp (officially declared "Newton Lake Camp!") sprung from the snow, and I set about the task of gathering firewood.  Depending on the location, weather, snow cover, etc., finding a suitable supply of wood in the winter can be a tall order, but due to my ideal location, I collected a solid 2 day pile of lovely dry maple in under an hour.  That never happens, and I celebrated with a beer and a tug off my 1L nalgene bottle of vodka and cranberry juice.  Perched happily atop a 5 gallon bait bucket, I looked out over the slush-covered lake and formulated a fishing strategy.  Winter angling when there is 4 inches of water on top of the ice requires a number of adaptations of both gear and technique.  Tired from the long hike and following her usual pattern from numerous prior expeditions, Lucy fell asleep atop her blanket in the tent, and I pulled my reloaded sled out onto the lake towards the down current end of the open water in the channel.  Area lakes at the time were covered with 36 or more inches of ice, yet I found barely 10 at the spot I chose to fish, and not long after my second line was set, Lucy left her warm digs in the tent and sauntered out to join me.  We enjoyed snacks and a decidedly one sided conversation as I fished without success for nearly two hours, and then in the creeping gloam a disturbance in the solid lines on my graph revealed that a fish finally found my bait.  With a bit of careful jigging, I hooked and landed a very large...Rock Bass.  It was a big, healthy example of its species but...yuck, and I chuckled, snapped a photo, and sent her back into the stained water.  I've been an avid fisherman since the age of 4, and in those nearly 40 years I've experienced every conceivable fishing outcome ranging from "lost count at 150 walleyes" to "skunked and stung by bees," and knowing that there will be many other fishing trips in the future, my expectations for any outing are quite relaxed and very low.  I chose to classify my first ever Rock Bass through the ice as minor victory in the "oddities" department, and after fishing until almost dark, Lucy and I headed back to camp for a warm fire and a hot meal.

Beside a perfect crackling hardwood fire, Lucy curled up on the piece of canvas used to cover the sled, and I dug into my soft sided cooler only to find that the two giant vacuum packed pieces of my lovely Mrs' world class lasagna were safe at home forgotten in the freezer.  Aside from my journey being impeded by slush, that was the only other problem experienced that weekend, and I rummaged around my pack for a "plan B" which appeared in the form of Mountain House Beef Stroganoff with Noodles.  Certainly that freeze dried entree contains enough sodium to preserve a side of beef, but I've found that when a person is cold, tired, and exhausted out of doors, it makes for an amazingly delicious and satisfying meal.  I supplemented that with the traditional winter camping side dishes of Italian bread and Pringles, and after making quick work of doing dishes, I tuned my small radio to WELY and set about firing off a couple of taunting text messages to my absentee camping partners.  After a couple hours and a couple beers beside the fire, I headed for the tent and nearly 9 hours of incredibly deep and restful sleep.

The next morning with a filling breakfast of percolated coffee, oatmeal, and a Cliff bar under my belt, I sloshed out onto the lake to set a couple of tip-ups and got down to the business of breaking camp.  It was another fairly warm, overcast day, and I though I really wanted to stay out another night and try hard to catch some respectable fish, a dramatic change in the weather was forecast with a low of minus 20 over night and a high in the single digits the following day with dangerous wind chills.  I love outdoor activities in the winter, and though well equipped to handle extreme conditions, my concern for poor Lucy pulling a sled across a big lake in a dangerous wind caused me to reconsider.  As is the case with so many winter camping adventures, the trip home was slightly easier due to our ability to hike back on our existing trail, and after setting to wing some of he numerous Goldeneyes and Mergansers that inhabit the open waters below the rapids on the Kawishiwi River and chain of lakes, we found evidence of additional wolf activity from the previous night on the portage.  The return trek across Fall Lake involved several breaks, and after arriving at the landing just before a couple dog teams heading west off the 4 Mile Portage, I hurriedly tossed all our gear into the back of the truck and hit the road for home.  Short but very sweet, it was a good trip.

Be it a 4 day and 3 night trip with 8 guys, a short overnight solo outing, a great fishing expedition in lovely weather, or a barely survivable ordeal in sub zero temperatures, every winter camping trip provides the the adventure seeker with life-long memories, and the successful completion of each trip leaves one with a lasting sense of accomplishment, a deep appreciation of the natural world, and a true zest for life.  Though not an activity to be attempted without careful preparation, appropriate gear, and a bit of education, due to the required mastery of multiple skills, winter camping truely rates among the greatest of all outdoor pursuits.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more.  ;-)



Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses...again...

Here is a bit of "Christmas Cheer" for the blogging world:  it's the first two songs of the set performed by my band Matt Ray and Those Damn Horses live at The Cabooze in Minneapolis MN when we opened for White Iron Band at their CD release show on 12/21/12.  (music starts at 1:09 / be sure to double click for full screen...)

Also, our friend Tommy the Beard posted his recordings of the ENTIRE set on Archive.org.  You can check that out HERE.  ;-)  Happy Holidays!


Chasing Ducks in Northern Minnesota in Oct. 2012 Part 2

Disclaimer - Over the 4 year run of my previous blog "The Ethereal Garage," I received some negative comments criticizing both my use of specific place names and  my overly detailed posts.  Here's the bottom line: duck hunting in the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota is NOT great, and despite the countless pages of glossy propaganda printed by a variety of conservation organizations AND the MN D.N.R. stating otherwise, it seems to be declining steadily.  There are no locations described in these posts that aren't commonly known, and if you want to drive north from the Twin Cities or Chicago, beat me to the landing on Big Rice lake, get to the blind before me, and freeze your a$$ off for 6 hours without seeing a single duck, have at it. 

Excluding the border waters, Pelican Lake near the City of Orr MN is the 11th largest lake in Minnesota with a surface area of nearly 11 thousand acres.  Its wide, shallow bays are filled with navigational hazards, and only a light steady breeze will produce dangerously large waves.  Though slightly more tarnished every year due changes in migration patterns resulting from unusual weather trends, the lake's long-standing reputation as a premier waterfowling destination attracts numerous duck hunters every fall...including me.  Though I have yet to enjoy a notably successful day there, the lure of big water and the potential to see a lot of ducks keeps me coming back.  Empty game bag or not, it's hard to return home from Pelican Lake feeling like the trip had been a waste of time.

By the morning of October 5th a nasty weather system that crossed North Dakota entered Minnesota and produced 10 or more inches of snow and school closures in the western part of the state, yet there was only a dusting in the Arrowhead - and winds gusting to 35 mph - when Lucy and I motored out of our driveway at 3:30 a.m.  Keenly interested in the progression of the storm, I checked the weather nearly twice an hour on Friday night, but between my 11:00 p.m. bedtime and 4:00 a.m. arrival at the landing, the N.W.S. changed the forecast, and the wind was blowing a full 90 degrees off from the expected direction - the calm and sheltered landing that I'd based the whole trip upon on was being pummeled by large waves.  After sorting through my reservations and setting aside some doubt, I decided that driving 60 miles back to a safer "Plan B lake" would be nothing short of lame, and I set about the work of carefully loading my canoe to handle a bit of chop.  Pushing off into the waves, I smirked at my loyal dog and said, "Rig for dive, Lucy!"  It was funny to me.

After what turned out to be an enjoyable 30 minute paddle in rolling waves with a light snow driven by an 18 mph wind (gusting occasionally to 30) at my back, a change in the silloutte of the treeline against the night sky signaled that my destination was near.  I quickly recalculated the position of the blind and orientation of the decoy spread to adjust for the wind, and as I set about dropping fake plastic ducks in place, the air temperature dropped slightly.  By the time the light of day slipped over the lake, it was a balmy 25 degrees...and then it really started to snow.  Unexpected outbreaks of bad weather often tend to push large numbers of ducks around, but unfortunately that wasn't the case on this particular outing.  There were some birds moving, but no more than on any other trip to Pelican Lake given the time of year, and I heard a tellingly limited amount of shooting from the other 5 or 6 parties within earshot on the bay.  My efforts to put some birds in the bag were further complicated by my nemesis the Mergansers who were flying around in great numbers and effectively running interference for the Scaup and Ringbills in the environment of limited visibility created by the snow and fog.  More than a couple ducks went safely on their way after being misidentified as Mergansers - my eyesight isn't what it used to be.

Around 8:00 a.m. the snow became heavy to the point that it started to pile up on the decoys, but the few ducks and mergansers flying around didn't seem to mind.  A couple minutes later, I had an interesting encounter with 10 or more Pie Billed Grebes, and later on a really nice walleye swam in within a couple feet of the rock on which I was sitting.  After a morning of sitting and chatting and sharing sandwiches with Lucy, a full hour without seeing a single duck passed, and my foot started to tap.  It wasn't long until I decided to "pull the plug" and pack it up.  Whereas the the trip to the blind with the wind at my back was fairly easy, the trip back to the landing - struggling into a fairly stiff breeze with good sized waves and difficult gusts - was challenging and a bit harrowing at times.  I had one large wave slosh some water over the side of the boat and another break slightly over the bow, but I made it back to dry land no worse for the wear.  With two ducks in the bag and a lot of good exercise under my belt, I was safe at home by 1 p.m. and already planning my next adventure...for that very afternoon.

Stay tuned! 



Chasing Ducks in Northern Minnesota in Oct. 2012 Part 1

From low earth orbit as viewed by a hopeful adventurer over the internet, Hilda Creek appears to be a fairly powerful stream as it flows north out of Oriniack Lake in Minnesota's BWCA wilderness and then swings westward towards its confluence with the Vermilion River. At 5 a.m. at the end of a 90 mile drive on Thursday October 4th, however, I found the creek to be a mere trickle quietly percolating through a vast filed of rocks. The 10 foot diameter culvert and high water marks on a nearby outcropping of ledge rock confirmed that at a different time of year or in an autumn with normal rainfall, my elaborate plans (the result of several hours worth of research and careful packing) would have resulted in a successful trip, but on this particular morning, my lovely Lucy and I turned back north up Forest Road 200 and put "Plan B" into action. The ducks inhabiting the expansive treeless flowage to the south of Gustafson Lake where Hilda, Gustafson, Color, and Norway Creeks come together would be safe...for now.

We headed east on the Echo Trail towards the landing on the Little Indian Sioux River to put in and travel south towards the northern limit of the BWCA's Southwest Region. True or not, I've been led to believe that renowned naturalist Sigurd Olson also used to hunt waterfowl on this stretch of river, and the strong feeling of being in a "vast and very wild place" that I've always experienced on that stretch of river makes that idea somehow more plausible. Scrawled jaggedly across endless sheets of moss, the tamarack and spruce trees that populate the bogs lining the channel appear unusually stunted given the latitude, and the total lack of development and abundance of wildlife provide the canoeist with a tangible air of remoteness very early into the trip. I made quick work of hauling my boat and gear down the steep bank, loaded Lucy, and pushed off upstream. Due to a "problem with the alarm clock," we were running 30 minutes behind schedule, and the 20 mile diversion to Hilda Creek set our schedule back further still.  Even at close to top speed we were a 30 minute paddle away from my favorite bend in the river, and time was not on our side.  As the first glimmer of daylight painted the eastern sky, I declared "Good 'nuff, Lucy!" and slipped up on the bog at a likely looking spot to unload gear and make my companion comfortable atop the bag of camo netting. As I've stated earlier, I use my dog to mark the blind as the reflection of her eyes from a headlamp is visible from a great distance and comes very much in handy when placing the decoys. As the last couple blocks were dropped into formation, a small flock of Ringbills passed overhead, and just as I took my place atop my bucket around 6:40 a.m.(a mere 5 minutes before legal shooting hours), half a dozen Mallards flew the same course. In what I've found to be a frustratingly common pattern, those few pre-dawn birds represented the bulk of the ducks that I observed that day.
Boat Sandwiches
Around 7 a.m. a small flock of Canada Geese passed by about a quarter mile to the south and made their way to what I gathered was a large beaver pond. I heard other geese greet them as they went down over the tree line. 2 hours later my fairly impressive spread of nearly 5 dozen decoys fooled a lone Ringbill, and Lucy made a nice retrieve to the shallow water on the other side of the river and back. On a slow day in the duck blind, the moment that the first duck goes into the game bag not only provides the satisfying affirmation that all the time and energy put into planning and executing the trip was worthwhile, but it also instills a feeling of hope that despite the mostly empty skies, there may be more ducks on the way. I enjoyed a "boat sandwich"..and then another...and within the hour that hope began to wane as it so often does. Lucy, who'd shared the last bite of each of my sandwiches, continued to scan the skies, and feeling the need for a bit of a stretch, we took a walk over to the clearing on the river bend near where we were sitting. We discovered the remains of a very old campsite, a moss covered fire ring, and - of course - some cracked bottles and rusted cans from an era long passed. After a couple more hours of sitting, boredom set in and paranoia got the better of me, and mildly concerned about the frequent vandalism of unattended vehicles parked along The Echo Trail and fear for the safety of the backpack and tote of unneeded gear left in plain view in the rear seat of my truck, I packed up and dug in with the paddle. Just before the bridge we met a canoe carrying two hunters and a black lab traveling back upstream to the area Lucy and I just left, and after a quick exchange of pleasantries, the sharing of my somewhat dismal report, a couple more paddle strokes, some scrambling up the hill, and a quick loading job, Lucy and I were on the road towards home. Just as we made the turn by Kabustasa Lake, it started to rain, and the nasty system of bad (very duck friendly) weather that was to menace our region for the next two days made itself known. Knowing that I had 4 more days of duck stuff in front of me AND an early October snow event in which to do it filled me with excitement, and I had BIG plans for Friday. 

More to come...