good-bye to the (downward facing) dog days of summer

when the haggard, disheveled mountain biker finally crossed the finish line on saturday, he dismounted, shuffled several yards with intent and resolve, and ordered an angry minnow rye ipa. it was over. he had made it through his second season of riding a bike as fast as he could with other riders who were much faster than him.

beer never tasted so good.

it’s only the fourth night of banding and already, i am welcoming the rain which has thrown a curtain over the north shore. it’s not that i don’t want the owls to come, it’s just that i want them to come on my schedule and so far i have been lucky.

any doubts i had about the patina of banding wearing off have not surfaced. every night i am anxious, fretful, wondering if “this is the night when all hell breaks loose.” there are several of those every year…i think last year i had 4 nights with greater than 50 owls. if i am alone, i have no time to think…which is probably when i am most capable of profound thoughts.

thoughts just get in the way of things.

so far, i’ve only trapped 6 owls but with those six, my sleep schedule has been realigned by the circadian chiropractor. all summer i worked hard to sleep long octogenarian-type hours and now, if i get 5 hours i consider it a good night sleep.

if i sleep.

even after a short stint at the nets, i am adrenalinized and rest seems to not want to have anything to do with me.

today at work i told the courthouse’s perpetual whistler to stop his obnoxious whistling…not because i wanted to be a prick but because…once the sleep turns from deprivation to depravity, i don’t filter things so well.

maybe that’s why my high school guidance counselor told me to hope for a promising career as a diesel mechanic…you know…just nuts and bolts and oil and fuel.

and maybe some nascar on the week-ends.

but no, i didn’t listen to him because i knew better and lo and behold, i am here void of any mechanical aptitude and my primary hobby seems to be banding owls in my back yard at night and bitching at awkward whistlers during the day.

it’s raining now, and that is good on a night rain and fog seem so fitting.

rest in peace, kelly rauzi.


the search for youth and hydration

several “episodes” ago, i told a meteorological story about the month of august. in it, i said that “soon will come a nasty hot stretch of warm, muggy weather which will ultimately release itself to the strong will of a massive cold front.”

i should have made it rhyme.

the warm and muggy are here. the cold front is coming.

as if to test the merits of warm and muggy, on sunday i embarked on a 38 mile mountain bike jaunt into the jaws of summer. i went inland and upland from the shore and once finally all the way “upland” regretted my decision. there was no breeze…not a whisper…the sun beat down upon me like a punitive birch rod on the naïve knuckles of life. worse though, i ran out of water half-way through the journey. by the time i made it home through the stifling heat and claustrophobic humidity, i was certain i knew exactly how the fiber optic camera feels during one of dr. terrill’s colonoscopies.

okay…i didn’t exactly make it home, i literally crawled up the last steep pitch that leads to my driveway. home never looked so good, though the smell was something a bit less than desirable.

one would think that, after all the experience one has accumulated, one would not make such a ramshackle decision to exercise when conditions are less-than conducive to survival, but that’s what i do. i ain’t gonna go out swaddled in depends, making fecal smears on the kitchen floor…i’m gonna go out in a blaze of glory.

i hope.

ultimately, the end of august means the challenge of the chaquemegon fat tire 40 is near-at-hand, which is like the largest mtb and beer bacchanalia in the history of the world. hosted by the towns of hayward and cable wisconsin, the fat 40 is an end of the year race that brings together all those eager to throw their mountain bike into the crawl space with the dead bodies and clown suits.

it brings closure, unless you get into “the iceman cometh”, a november race in traverse city, mi, featuring beer and at that point…nothing else matters.

sunday’s forecast calls for a low in the mid-40’s. the shins will be stirring. so will the broad-wings. it’s time to fill the feeders so the accipiters can cull the blue jay herd and more importantly, i can watch.

damn, i love what’s coming into view.


flight of the golden child

    the boy is gone now. sucked back to maine by a maternal vortex both powerful and familiar. 

    no one to bicker with. no one to clean the litter boxes. no one to cook for.

    only me and the irregular ring of urine he left on the bathroom floor.

     call me sentimental.

     truth be told, he almost didn’t make it back to maine. the golden child was booked for the 6 am flight from duluth to chicago, then to portland. his ever-diligent father set his alarm for 3 and was up at 2:30, knowing that it would take an act of thermodynamics to stir the boy from his teen-aged, prurient slumber.

     we got to the airport at 5:20…it’s duluth…it isn’t narita airport in tokyo. there was a line of people at the delta counter but no one in front of the united stand and in fact, no united representative. being a sage, i made my observations, chuckled to myself, acknwledged their global relevance, then moved to the kiosk. nikky handed me his passport causing me to suffer my first ever…“old man with new technology” hiccup. i tried the passport in every configuration and presentation and each time, the response was “unable to read your document.” i collected my composure, looked at the passport and realized the bar code was on his picture page. i flashed that to the benevolent, omniscient, machine and the response was immediate: “unable to process your flight, please see airline representative.”

    great…except there was no airline representative.

    “bastard airlines” i thought. or maybe i said it. regardless, the stress level for the clustered tangle of father and son was raised exponentially.

     the clock meanwhile, ticked steadily towards 6 o’clock. sensing doom and disaster, i politely asked (yes…i said politely) if i could butt in line for the delta agent and everyone, bathed in the glow of my panic and unsure if i was the next sociopath about to take matters into his own hands, let me pass.

    fools.

     the delta agent was a smug bastard. he didn’t even have to let me know i was fucked for me to make that conclusion. “you were supposed to be here 45 minutes before the flight.”

    excuse me pope francis. 

    “where is the agent?” 

    “she’s left for the boarding gate.”

     “how do i talk to her?” 

    “you can’t now…but i’ll give you the united toll free number.” 

    the decision facing the charming, complacent owlman was thus: do i curse, go ballistic and hurl feces at everyone or do i suck it up and say, “okay, i’d like that number,” thereby not ruining anyone else’s day. i chose that.

    something is wrong with the owlman.

    i called united and expressed my disbelief that they would have one agent at their counter. from there, i actually sensed the customer service person understood my frustration.

    being duluth, the next flight to chicago occurs in 2017, by which time nikky will have lived in the duluth airport for 3 years and 7 months.

     nikky and i hung out at a familiar cabin north of two harbors for 4 hours and then headed back to duluth for his 3:19 flight. the kid is already a world traveler so a delay, even if it means extra time with his pain-in-the-ass father, couldn’t have been too bad, right nikky?

    please don’t answer that.

     the new duluth terminal was evidently designed by a troop of baboons. it makes no sense. there are no conveniences and if you want something to eat, you have to order it through an intercom. the old catholic in me thought i was in a confessional, except father johnson wasn’t reaching for a bit o’ willy through the intercom. 

    there are 8 double chairs and two swinging tires in the upper lobby and i get a sense that the duluth airport authority is suggesting “welcome to duluth…please leave our airport.”

    the boy is home now. a fledgling 9th grader about to exercise his wit and insight on a gaggle of friends who think he may actually be funny. he has already told me he might not come to minnesota for christmas because “i’ll probably have a girlfriend.”

    gulp.

    i’ll miss nikolai…miss the $200 dollar grocery trips and watching him eat entire quarter flanks of beef in one setting. i’ll miss him spending an hour in the bathroom primping in front of the mirror. i’ll miss him telling me how lazy i am; how unmotivated i am.

    still, through the curtain of hormones and teen-aged uncertainty and feigned confidence he exhibited this summer, he’s a pretty good kid. and if i really miss the heck out of him, there’s always that ring of urine to remind me he is my son.


field of (parental) dreams

there comes that time in every parent’s life when you realize the light switch of awareness and maturity has been switched on in your child. you hope it is the result of years of firm and steady guidance and the unwavering wisdom you have imparted on your progeny. most likely though, it is because a surge of hormones has short-circuited the acetyl cholinesterase pathway and all the cerebral synapses are misfiring.

i think i had that moment this morning. the golden child is almost 16 and while he is subjected to a “mom in maine and dad in minnesota” frequent flier lifestyle, both his mother and father recognize that parental “spoilage” has left him in a very much altricial state. think: velcro shoe wraps because the lace-tying lessons didn’t take very well.

as his father, i am eager to watch the self-dependence and confidence of maturity override the rest of the chemical and emotional detours being flung his way. for the most part though, i have been sorely disappointed. i mean, i distinctly remember when i was his age being completely together; volunteering at soup kitchens, rubbing my parents’ feet when they returned from the coal mine, and generally, knowing what i wanted to do in life because 16 was when that “event” was supposed to happen.

okay…i’m still waiting.

truth be told, i am a highly immature adult male and accordingly, have set the bar very low for my son. i’m pretty sure he can hop over it without even bending his knees.

still, transposing my life onto his has been frustrating. i long to see glimmers of recognition; of self-motivation on those days i go to work and purposely don’t leave a “task list” with the hope he’ll just “figure it out.”

initiative. élan. zeal. ambition. wherewithal. mojo. inspiration. resolve.

all missing.

i have intended to teach my boy how to cook all summer, but his curiosity is not tweaked unless it is by a frozen tombstone pizza wrapper, or a “20 pack” of frozen taquitos. last sunday, i asked him to watch me make an omelet, with the expressed intent of him making one for his mother, once he returns to his north yarmouth gulag.

“i know how to cook”.

“show me.”

“how do you crack an egg?”

dad smugly thinks to himself “game. set. match.”

there is no hope. not a glimmer of gloaming light.

but then this morning, it wasn’t the imploring father trying to teach culinary 101, it was the son recognizing how, in the challenges of life he will surely face, he was not yet capable of getting off the shore bus.

“dad, will you teach me how to make toast?”

now as an aside, i am currently reading “the iowa baseball confedracy” the story by w.p. kinsella which served as a crime scene sketch for the kevin costner movie “field of dreams.” of course, i am “reading book” but “thinking movie” the whole time and that one scene where, in the middle of the manicured field, kevin costner asks his paternal apparition “hey dad, wanna have a catch?” still makes me cry and i am a goddamn hunky, burly kind of man.

so okay, back to breakfast…i pull apart a whole grain english muffin and stick both halves into their respective toaster slots. nikky is paying close attention.

“then, you push down this lever until it stays down…feel the heat?” i ask as i wave my palm over the toaster.

“yeah.”

“the toaster is on.”

we wait. i get the butter and jam, then pop the lever. the muffins are golden brown.

“make sure you don’t stick a fork or anything in here because you’ll get a shock. instead, just pry up the lever, grab a muffin, apply butter and jam, and you have a breakfast.”

okay, a shitty, hurry-up breakfast but when your sole purpose in life is to feed the hollow abyss that is your son’s stomach, it’s a start.

i called his mother and told him about our latest family “event” and she laughed because it is so laughable…but also so innocent and sweet and encouraging and it makes you want to watch the disney channel with a mug of hot chocolate while wearing pajamas with feet.

and that made me think that when nikolai has his “build it and they will come” moment. i will appear out of the head-high field of corn (feeder lot corn, not sweet corn) and run up towards an energy-efficient kitchen. at first he won’t recognize me because since i died, i’ve been working out really hard and lost a lot of weight because the saunas where i ended up are fucking awesome.

but when he recognizes me, all his past will come roiling towards his present and he will recognize the lessons taught and those he avoided and that most of all: all those times when he should have listened and learned.

he’ll wipe a tear from his eye and ask, “hey dad, wanna have a toast?”

it’ll be the best toast ever.


48, okay…51 miles of the ore to shore mountain bike race

i arrive late, without an entourage. i don’t have my trainer set up in the front rows and am not the recipient of a pre-race massage. my lycra shorts have a hole in them and my jersey doesn’t fit as well as it did even…last year. i spin up a couple of hills and about 5 minutes before the glorious send-off in negaunee, i slip into the back of the throng. there is light banter and outside one of the main street bars, some already-engaged patrons are pausing from their early morning liver disruptions to smoke a cigarette. compared to them, i am the epitome of health and vigor. 

i am touching the surly bonds of 60 and will be there in another year. yet, i love to compete and with my dalliance in the ore to shore last year, found a race that is both challenging and rewarding. never mind that “1,000 feet above lake superior” ore to shore race slant though. compared to the north shore of lake superior where 1,000 feet descents mean 15 minutes of warp speed, the 1,000 feet elevation drop in the ore to shore is cryptic and deceiving. 

the nice thing about starting at the back is knowing i won’t be passed by many. that is important to my psyche. once upon a time, i raced road bikes but that was 45 pounds ago and so to me, the ore to shore represents an affirming 48 mile time trial through sand and mud and cobble and hills and always…through the fine red dust of michigan’s iron soils. 

the race begins and if i started in 850th place, i am in 750th by the time we leave the pavement and security of constrained racing. the luge hill is no problem and i take that as a positive sign given that last year, someone fell and everything came to a grinding halt in what was to become the first of many “hike a bikes”. 

the throng spreads out through ishpiming and from my perspective at the back, i can see there is no effort to organize. yet, whenever i see a line of riders, i do my best to latch onto the rear wheel of the unsuspecting and for a while at least, conserve 20% of my energy.

 i make a point of stretching and getting out of the saddle often because well, 48 miles is a long haul and my neck tends to leave me with the flexibility of r2d2 after most races. age has its virtues; suppleness is not one of them.

 every crossing is announced with cowbells and support from the “yoopers”. the ore to shore is a multi-community event and it is nice to be offered encouragement and anonymous, yet well-received “good jobs.” 

somewhere outside of ishpiming, a train whistle blows multiple times. as a former railroad brat, all i could think was how nice it was that the railroad was celebrating the bike race. nope, they are switching cars…right in the middle of the ore to shore…thereby emphasizing that in all the world and thoughout all of history, there is nothing more important than a train being on time. as a result, there is a massive backlog of riders at the crossing. 

several intrepid (i.e., foolish) bikers start to scramble over the cars, while everyone else moves like cattle to the east. half-way down the line of cars though, the train starts to move and those at the front of the line are now at the back of the line and the 50 places i gained have been lost. the engines depart and as is the wont of an adrenalin-charged crowd of competitors, there is a mad rush to get onto one of the two tire tracks that mark the path towards marquette. except: those tracks are slippery organic muck and as soon as several riders go down, you may as well be waiting for a train. 

and just when you start feeling like there’s a flow to the race and that the ups and downs are entirely manageable, misery hill looms like a bruised thumb above the horizon. even from a quarter-mile away, you can see the procession of hike-a-bikers moving up the unconsolidated sand and cobble. once there, conversation turns light because even as eager competitors, we know we are going only as fast as the person in front of us. 

at the top, the downhills are thick with sand and a bad line means you are likely to tickle the raspberry in the best case…or ledge rock in a worst case scenario. 

in my accumulated wisdom and poundage, i have become a relatively fearless downhiller. at this moment in the race, that strategy pans out perfectly until the one descent where a rider in front of me is struggling. i emphasize “rider on the right”, which is exactly the direction he moves. i swerve to avoid but fall like a stone in front of a collection of para-medics and onlookers. collecting myself, i feel no pain and am minimally bloodied, i get back on the bike and ask the crowd “you didn’t see that, did you?” 

“nope.” 

“perfect.” 

after misery hill, the miles erode steadily and the race doesn’t seem as daunting as it was when excitement overrode pragmatic bike riding. there are several spurts of group riding but the sand means the line of the rider in front of you may not be the best line to the beer trailer, which for every race i ride now, is where i am guaranteed a podium finish. 

kirby’s hill is the last nasty little pitch and as hard as i try, i have to disengage from my bike ¾ of the way up. before the race, i challenged myself to ride it this year and so coming off, was a disappointment. but if nothing else, i am mentally malleable and from  there, the course becomes an undulating mix of road and trails and finally, the terrain evens out and you know you are “home.” 

this year, i cross the finish line with my arms raised, feeling good for a corpulent old fart. my time is a bit off from 2012 but i blame that on the train. 

yes. that’s it. the train. 

the times of those preceding me, especially those who were in the first rows in negaunee, are mind-boggling. there are many fast riders in the ore to shore. sick fast. 

i disengage from my bike and pull some sweat-soaked currency from my jersey. fighting off the first hint of a cramp, i move easily towards the beer trailer and decide the ipa is my reward. 

“first place,” i say as i raise my cup to a fellow finisher. 

i’m already thinking first place next year as well.


the blog also rises

i guess my self-imposed exile has come to an end. i mean, it’s been a year of avoidance and disdain and aerobic thresholds and shame and the opposite of shame: less shame. no more crazy women unless you are a crazy woman, no more whimsical journeys to the fountain of youth, no more midnight saunters along the cobbled path of life to seek happiness that can’t be ordered…unless it’s from amazon.com and includes free shipping. 

i am free. free dammit. 

okay, so the owls have kind of unraveled and reraveled and i am getting older and purportedly wiser, but manifestation of the same has yet to appear to celebrate this, my “blogging out” party. 

the golden child has been here all summer and found gainful employment at the alpine slide where he is exercising his pick-up lines on unsuspecting teen-aged girls and getting one hell of a farmer tan. 

“no really nikky,” the father said to the boy, “tans just go away, like so many things in life.”

take that obi wan… 

the boy is taller than his dad but years away from being smarter. i remember my dad telling me things; snippets of advice and all i could think was “my dad is full of shit”. but you know what? he was right, except for all the things that time has proven him wrong, like i don’t know…”the future is plastics and someday, curling will be more popular than horse racing.” 

so nikky is taller, but most of that isn’t because he is growing but because i am shrinking. it sucks, but at least i don’t have to bend over so far to pull up my knee-high socks. 

and now for the rest of the story: 

and then, one night in the spring of 2012, during the drudgeries of yet another 3-min owl(less) “stop”, i realized the thrill was gone. nights and nights and miles and miles without boreal owls and all that back pain and mental meandering and apathy and humorous asides that were funny only to me because i was the only one privy to them and the bliss of frostbite and indifference and you know what i said? i said “fuck it.” i took my data sheet and started my car and headed towards the big puddle and knew i would never perform a standardized owl survey again as long as i lived. 

ahhh, the good life.

then the next spring (2013) came and i kind of floundered because each night of clear skies and calm winds, i felt like i should be doing something i had done for each of the previous 25 years: listen and chase owls. gradually, i eased the anxiety with ocd skiing and mountain biking and other distractions that make sense only to me because well, there is only one owlman and once upon a time, i was he. 

okay, truth be told, i did go out in 2013, but just because i wanted to and just because i am trying to make sense of all the things that i experienced in those 25 years and was subjected to and that now, are irreversibly gone. 

i didn’t hear a fucking thing. 

okay…one lowly barred owl and a saw-whet, but the saw-whet was in my back yard and i just wanted him to shut up because all night it was “toot toot toot”, and i’d hear that and felt like i needed to go observe his reproductive behavior but mostly, i just wanted him to shut up because now at the ripened age of 58, i have finally figured out that crapping and sleeping are what i do best. 

 and now the days are growing shorter and my tomato crop sucks and it is likely i will not be canning 20 quarts of salsa this year and you know what? the saw-whet migration is only a month away and i am kind of excited about that. unlike surveys, i can band from the convenience of my home. i don’t have to swill a pot of coffee and drive for 45 minutes to get to the owls; instead, those little bastards come to me. 

last year, i banded 629 saw-whets and slept in my bed each evening and went to work and the next night did it all over again…for 6 weeks. in 10 years, i have banded and released over 5,000 saw-whets.

still not bored. 

my fingers have been pricked by many talons and sometimes i grow weary but not once do i look at an owl and go…”oh…this is boring…i wonder what’s on the travel channel?” my big night last year was 80 and it was steady and stressful and at the same time: blissful. it was just me and my two nets and a whole lot of owl mojo.

it’s what i do, peoples. 

soon will come an uncomfortable stretch of warm weather, which will give way to a chest-thumping canadian cold front and the firewood will be split and stacked and the leaves will drop and windows will be shut and all the northern latitudes will go: 

“wow…winter’s coming.”  

i can’t wait.


when worlds collide (again)

here at the start of the owling season, my focus becomes a bit confused.  i think owls at night and sleep during those times when i am not owling.  sometimes though, i have to take on the shape of a round peg in the round hole that is tofte’s social life.

like today, for instance.

a wedding reception with food and beer and conversation and food and beer.  and that is to happen before i go out and listen for bastard owls. 

i asked the hostess of the gala what i should wear and she said “nice casual.”

i have no idea what that means.  a crease in my carharts?  extra gel in my hair?  i do smelly fleece and relish my week-ends during the spring because then, i am allowed to relive the glory and the stink from my springs of yore.

nice casual.  hmmmm.  fortunately, i have a soothing, social voice that will accompany me to this function and from her, i will derive common sense and balance and all of her accrued distaff wisdom.

did i mention there will be food and beer?

last night’s owling started with a (saw-whet) bang and ended with a spineless, nocturnal whisper.  two swets right off the start…one a half-hour later and thereafter…nothing.  as it did the other night, an aurora made an appearance, then slinked away to a paltry, emasculated display in canada.  everything that happened provided the perfect intellectual backdrop for what has now become an ongoing internal debate….what’s the point?

boreals are gone…they won’t magically repopulate a landscape that has turned younger and less supportive.  moose are gone.  i see bud light empties and “lil’ scamp” pop-up trailers in the middle of nowhere…two surefire signs of the pending apocalypse.

last night’s debate was accompanied by the painful realization that the magical, strigidaen nights 0f the 80’s and 90’s will not be rekindled, despite my fervent hope they do just that.  seventeen years ago tonight, i heard 18 boreal and 5 great gray owls in a single evening.  over the past 10 years, i have heard a total of 11 boreals.   

still, i am torn by the biologic concept that if one wants discovery, one needs to be in a place where discovery can occur. 

i have long held the desire to finish up when i achieve 30 years of owl indulgence.   i am 3 years away from that, but only if i finish my 26th year which, at this point, may be tough to accomplish.

fucking owls.