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Well, it seems like the weather in Milwaukee has been a tad chilly lately.

I’ve always been mildly interested in the occasional news item about “cryonics,” preserving people in a deep freeze.  But I wasn’t planning on participating, just yet, which I nearly did, digging my car out of the polar vortex.

But warmer weather is on the way, and I’ve been looking forward to one of the great pleasures of walking in the winter – – admiring the countless shapes and shades of ice.

 

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Some days, it’s as if an artistic glass-maker had set up an outdoor gallery.

 

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As the weather changes, the artworks change, too.

 

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Growing, adding layers, shrinking…and for the final act, dissolving.

 

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Imagine some museum curator, carefully mounting a show, only to find that the artworks, like leprechaun gold, had dissolved away in the morning light.

Or that the artists had crept back into the galleries, to recast and refashion their artworks, with some torchwork or extra crystals, adding brushstrokes, melting their statues, or erasing figures from their paintings.

 

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We’ve all seen artworks that change over time, of course, or disappear.

 

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For people in more temperate climates, their first experiences of transitory art probably involved sand, not ice.  Sand castles at the beach – a great way to learn how impermanent our creations are.  “And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and the tide came in, and the Frisbee players trod upon it, and beat upon that house; and it fell…”

 

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You can sometimes stop by the college library in Geneva, NY, and watch a Tibetan Lama and his class creating a sand mandala.  We’ve probably all done simple sand paintings and mosaics in school, but the mandala is huge and much more elaborate, and takes weeks to complete.  When the class was gone, you can examine it closely – and concentrate on not sneezing.

And when this colorful and complex creation is complete…it is liquidated.  The monk sweeps it into jars, and pours the sand into the lake.

 

 

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The ice and snow sculptures around northern cities, of course, aren’t permanent.  Milwaukee has signs posted, warning that in preparation for the 4th of July festivities, any un-melted snowmen will be cleared from public areas. Cavemen and woolly mammoths, relics from an ice age that must have seemed eternal to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, are emerging from the melting glaciers, and ancient microbes wake up and resume their decomposition chores, as if they’d just taken a winter’s nap.

Even metal statues aren’t really frozen in time.  Bronzed faces in the park turn green with verdigris, and white with pigeon droppings – that’s the pensioners on their bench, but it happens to statues, too.  Feet of clay are revealed, shiny reputations corrode, and the statues are disappeared.

 

 

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But the idea of an art gallery that evolves over time, could be kind of fun.

 

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Slender icicles grow into huge stalactites, and Giacometti statues turn Rubenesque.

 

 

 

 

 

The Mona Lisa is intrigued by a frozen-faced, enigmatic pair, and visits the frost-bitten folks in “American Gothic.”

 

This year, I want to learn a bit about editing and altering pictures in Photoshop and Lightroom.  I’ve only invested a few hours so far, and in my easily-distracted way,  have just played with the cheap-tricks-and-shiny-objects, like the funhouse reflections from a frozen window.  Did you notice?  the folks in Grant Wood’s painting are edited to be a bit less grim, less icy-looking, and Lisa is a bit sadder and thinner.  The ease with which you can edit and manipulate images sends a chill down your spine.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sometimes the ice, and digital editing, create fantastic shapes, or transmogrifies ordinary objects into something magical…and sometimes, it’s just ice, and meretricious trickery.  Lumps of gray, and grotesque distortions from freezing & thawing – – like the distorted clods of propaganda bombarding us online, or the swollen factoids and skewed images on the news, showing no visible seams, but plenty of bias.

 

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Some days I just want to go out with a camera, and see what shots I can get, straight out of the box, freeze-frame.  And some days, digital editing is fascinating, and fun, and might even be a useful job skill sometime.

But often, the constant refashioning, remodeling, fiddling of images gets on the nerves.  So many photos look too jazzed, and our ideal of human beauty becomes freeze-dried, as every portrait is botoxed & photoshopped into an icy, blank flawlessness.  So…I blow hot and cold on this, and I guess I’ll do both, just work on taking decent photos, maybe tackle RAW format, and think of Photoshop, etc. as a separate hobby.  Some of the shots on today’s post were taken with an agèd iPhone, and it’s interesting to see what you can get with a tiny lens.

 

 

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It’s not a winter scene, but I’m thinking about an exhibition I saw recently — seven versions of the same scene, by the same artist.  Monet stood on a balcony at the Savoy Hotel, peering through the smog day after day, until he’d painted “Waterloo Bridge” over forty times.

Looking at the paintings, almost immediately, you get past their familiarity (a false sense of bland prettiness, after years of seeing them on posters & greeting cards, umbrellas & iPad cases), you realize what amazing and complex works they are.

 

 

Streams, rivers, and bridges, of course, are symbols of change and transition.  And Monet was manipulating people’s visual systems, in his wonderful way, re-working and layering colors, over and over, while keeping an impression of spontaneity.  Some paintings change, as you continue to look at them.

 

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But as far as I know, Monet never ducked into a gallery, armed with a hairdryer, to shrink his canvases, or make the paint melt into something Dalí-esque.

 

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The Persistence of Memory. MOMA

Another painting that to me, refers to change – – iconic, unforgettable, and one of my favorites – – Dalí’s “Persistence of Memory,” with its melting clocks.  It reminds me of times when I return somewhere, and am told, nothing’s changed, nothing has been altered.  But the place is so different than in my memory, that the details seem to have melted and run.

 

 

 

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And we know, that even in the seemingly frozen world of an art museum, those UV-screened, climate-controlled sanctums, things are happening beneath the surface of the oil paintings.  Even when the temperature and humidity levels are almost constant, the fibers of the canvas expand and contract, sawing against each other.  No matter how much we try to freeze time, and preserve the paintings, there are proteins bonding, and chemical reactions continuing.

 

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Beneath the skin, all of us keep changing.  Stillness and lack of reaction, can be an active statement, indicating a lack of interest, or giving someone the Big Freeze, or just inner tranquility.  But when people sit there expressionless, a lot of the time, we know, or sense, there’s movement under the skin.   They could be unmoving, and appear unmoveable, and all the time, they’re silently and happily humming a tune in their head.

 

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Just like walking alongside an iced-over, snow-covered stream, in the depth of winter, and it’s a picture of stillness.  But there’s that subtle, wonderful musical sound from the stream flowing underneath, almost like underwater chimes.

 

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Walking over a frozen pond, it will look solid and static, but by early March, you usually hear grinding noises far beneath you.    I’ve stood next to someone, who’s still as a statue, and then become aware somehow of their inner tension and friction, and even noises under the frozen face, like ice breaking up.  (They might be grinding their teeth in frustration, or, as in my case, trying to do sums in their head.)

 

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We’re Americans, and therefore, we love Change.  Most of us love to travel, see new sights, try new foods, hear new bands, watch new movies.  But, if you love history, you also enjoy listening to music repeatedly,and re-watching movies, to discover nuances and feelings, that escaped you, the first time around.

And sometimes, you experience a warmth when revisiting places, and finding them unchanged.

 

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There’s the pleasure of the new (novelty, stimulation, sometimes the humor in the unexpected).  We enjoy going to see new works of art, and new shows, but  for me, there’s an equally keen pleasure in returning to a place, that I’ve been many times before, and seeing things I’ve seen many times before.  I walk down a familiar street, looking forward to seeing a beautiful old oak, a fountain, or a handsome building that’s survived the years.  Re-watching Bogart or Hepburn movies.  Or spending a day wandering through an art museum, especially when it’s twenty below outside, to look at paintings you’ve seen many times, without growing one bit bored.

 

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It’s one of the ways that you know it’s the good stuff – – you enjoy experiencing it over and over.   And, I think, there’s also the separate pleasure, and relief, of returning to see something you like, and finding it, like a friend, unchanged, not looking a day older.

 

 

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It’s not exactly exciting, but there’s a pleasant satisfaction in walking by the dioramas in old museums, often relegated to some dusty, dimly-lit back corridors.  During a visit home in December, I went to a couple of museums that I’ve visited since I was a kid. I enjoyed the new exhibitions, fresh is nice, but also enjoyed seeing the old stuff, still frozen in time.

 

 

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OK, we’re on thin ice, skating awfully close to a digression, so I’ll end it here, on a note of warm nostalgia!

 

 

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Historical Footnote

Sometimes, of course, ice isn’t fun, and is kind of treacherous.  Glittering snow crystals descend on us in a fantastical, dreamlike shower, too delicate to be real…and overnight, all that fairy stuff coalesces into ugly gray stumbling blocks, or a lethal concrete of black ice on the roadway, a slippery slope to the body shops and chiropractors.  The ice can destroy roads, and shatter rocks – –  I’ve read that many times, about ice cracking the hardest stone.

When I was in grade school, there was a great old history book, with pictures of Hannibal and a whole  army of elephants, trying get through the Alps, to attack Italy.  Babar-ians sacking Rome, I gathered.

I had no idea what it was all about, or how the Romans had ticked off the elephants.  I guessed it was a lack of peanuts at the Circus Maximus, or maybe something to do with the hippodromes.

 

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But the book mentioned the Carthaginian soldiers using vinegar, not ice, to split the giant boulders blocking a path through the mountains.

I didn’t understand that part, either.

I asked my father, who explained that, like so many things in the old days, vinegar was explosive back then.  The Colosseum is in ruins, because someone dropped a Caesar salad, and it went off.

I’d learned by the age of six to ignore my father.  Thinking about it, I guessed that they’d poured liquid into the cracks, and waited for it to freeze, using ice to split the rocks.  But I looked it up, and apparently, ancient people used heat up the biggest boulders with wood fires, and then pour vinegar into the cracks, to make it shatter.  I’m still not clear on why it has to be vinegar, and not, say, elephant pee, since you had all those elephants, but I’m no engineer.

 

I’m very sorry not to have an attribution for this painting, which I really like. Pretty sure it’s Amsterdam mid-1600’s, when the “Little Ice Age” kicked in again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finger Lakes, FLX, Frostbite, hiking, Nature, snow, Sweaters, Things to Do When Your Water Crystallizes on You, Uncategorized, Upstate New York, Winter

Walks Around The Finger Lakes. Watkins Glen, December.

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1 Looking down at a stone bridge in Watkins Glen, NY.

 

Well, ’tis the season for ancient airs and dances.

I was breathing the air of a forest, full of hemlock, cedar, and oak, and listening to alternative/indie bands from long, long-ago.  The 1980’s – -90’s, mostly British and American.  Especially Cocteau Twins, Mazzy Star, My Bloody Valentine, Jesus and Mary Chain, Lush, Yo La Tengo.

When I tried to read about the bands, I kept finding that back in the day, critics often lumped them together as “shoegaze.”

We all like shortcuts and labels – – humans seem to be programmed to sort & categorize.  But I really don’t get the usefulness of this “shoegazing” label, because the music is so varied – – sometimes dreamy electronica, or neo-psychedelic, sometimes kind of punk or metal-sounding.   Maybe “shoegaze” was about critics concerned with clever-sounding snarkiness, instead of any real appreciation or insight.  Apparently bands got tagged this way, because they’d perform standing still, and literally looking down at their feet.  From the feel of the music, and videos, some of the musicians I guess were maybe introspective, lost in a groove, and concentrating on their sound.  (I also read that they were using a lot of foot-operated effects pedals, to create a distorted sound.)

Anyway, the bands achieved some very cool music.

 

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So…so what?  what brought this to mind?  you ask, perhaps in a puzzled, somewhat irritated manner.

These photos today are shoegazing shots.  They were all taken looking downward.

(Do you still hear the expression “I’m down with that,” where you live?   I looked it up, thinking it had a ’60’s or ’70’s vibe, but found it goes all the way back to the 1930’s!?)

 

So the album is downcast, but not depressing – – Watkins Glen, a park in the Finger Lakes, is beautiful in the fall and winter.  Once cold weather begins, the stone pathway and stairs in the Glen are closed, so you can only walk around the top perimeter, looking down into the little gorge and the stream, and even then, you need to watch your step, the trails are often pretty icy.

You’ll find tons of great photos online – – during the summer, it’s probably photographed millions of times.  I’ve walked through there many times during the summer, but always with out-of-town visitors, and haven’t ever tried to photograph the twenty-or-so falls in “good” weather!

But during the park’s “downtime,” it’s pretty interesting, in it’s own way.

 

 

 

 

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Watkins Glen is a small village at the southern end of Seneca Lake.

NASCAR & Trans-Am, etc. fans recognize the name, because they’ve been racing cars there since 1948.   The races used local streets and roads at first, until they ran over a kid, and then built a track.  There’s also boat races on the lake.

 

Ok, you have to look up once in a while. This was a cellphone snap during the summer, and I like the way the overexposed water looks like a streak of light.

 

 

Glen Creek runs down from the hills into the village, dropping about four hundred feet over a two mile distance.  The original settlers, in the 1790’s, just saw that as water power, for grist and sawmills, etc.  But on the 4th of July 1863, the day after the Battle of Gettysburg, the Glen was opened as a tourist attraction, and it’s been an attraction every since.  Now a state park.

 

I’ve never visited the racetrack, but I’ve walked in the park many times, and never get tired of it, in any season.  If you visit, definitely bring some headphones.  “Water Music” to me means Handel, maybe Debussy, Ravel, but Cocteau Twins would also be a perfect soundtrack.

 

 

 

Autumn, Finger Lakes, FLX, Nature, NY, Things to Do When Your Water Crystallizes on You, United States, Upstate New York, Winter

Walks Around The Finger Lakes. Watkins Glen. November, mostly.

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In autumn, a single maple tree can carpet an acre. So then you can cut a rug, and dance in the leaves.

 

 

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4.  A lot of different hues in the bricked-up window of an old mill.

 

 

5.  A marshy area was saturated with leaves.

 

 

6.  Oak leaves swirl around, hundreds of feet in the air, almost like they’re trying to follow that hawk.

 

 

7.  The holes in this oak leaf are pretty small, apparently the bugs only took a few bites before buzzing off.  The high tannin content in oaks, redwoods, etc. provides some level of protection, from bugs, bacteria, and fungi, but of course, we happily ingest small amounts of tannin every day, in coffee, tea, chocolate, berries, etc.  And I prefer to use witch hazel solution, another source of tannin,  instead of aftershave.  I read recently, that scientists have created some high-tannin tree hybrids, to discourage beavers from chomping them down.

 

 

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9.   Skeleton of an 1840 “pony truss” bridge, which once led to a now-vanished hamlet

 

 

10.  The bridge now serves as a trellis for wild grapes.

 

 

11.  The bridge during summertime

 

 

12.  Tentative identification: Black Rat Snake. Kind of a terrible name, I think it’s actually pretty handsome. My only complaint, is that it can climb trees, and that sort of behavior by snakes should be discouraged.

 

 

 

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14   Remnants of an old lock and dam

 

Keuka Lake just doesn’t fit in with the other Finger Lakes.

It’s absolutely lovely, but it only resembles a finger, if you got careless using a table saw.  It’s really shaped more like a crude letter “Y,”  if you drew it in the dirt, with a stick, blindfolded, liquored up & left-handed.   Go ahead try it, we’ll wait.

map is courtesy of the NYS DEC

 

Anyway, to me it looks more like a forked branch, and in fact, the hamlet on the northwest branch, is called Branchport.

At the top of the other, northeast branch, there is a creek which flows from the lake, through the village of Penn Yan, heads east, and eventually drains into Seneca Lake.

The village has a fascinating history, and was once home to a Quaker sect called the “Society of Universal Friends”.  Maybe a topic for another article some time.

Today I’ll just mention two things –  where the odd name originated, and a bit of local history.

One – Penn Yan is a contraction of “Pennsylvanians & Yankees,” after the original settlers.

Two – The village kind of relocated, without moving – – in a manner of speaking, it was once in Massachusetts, even though that state is 230 miles away.

It’s located  just west of the 1786 “Preemption Line,” a north-south line bisecting New York, from the Pennsylvania line, to Lake Ontario.  You’ll cross a marker for the line, walking on the trail. 

Land west of the line was claimed by Massachusetts, based on a grant from King Charles I.  After the Revolution, the two states went to court, and it was decided:

  • the land was part of New York
  • but was owned by the Iroquois, and was therefore part of their sovereign territory
  • but Massachusetts possessed a preemptive right of purchase from the Iroquois
  • but Massachusetts sold their interest to private speculators
  • but the speculators went broke
  • but they sold their interest to Robert Morris, one of the Founding Fathers
  • but he sold most of it to a British syndicate
  • but non-citizens couldn’t own land
  • but they found a Scot who became a naturalized citizen, to front for them
  • but then the non-citizen rule was revoked, so a Dutch syndicate could buy land
  • etc.

Meanwhile, while all this was going on…the natives were dispossessed, settlers moved in, Rochester and Buffalo were founded, and eventually, in 1960, the Bills joined the AFL.  That’s as brief as I can make it.

Is that all clear?  Welcome to New York, the State of Confusion!

Anyway, at Keuka Lake, there were settlers from Pennsylvania and New England = Penn Yan.

In an area replete with interesting place names – drawn from Europe, classical Greek and Roman history, Native American sites, and land speculators – this creek we’re going to walk along, was somehow left with the utilitarian and totally un-poetic name of Keuka Lake Outlet.  “Outlet” means a discount factory store, or a place to plug in a lamp, or a method of venting.  This is a waterway desperately in need of a good PR firm.  Brook, stream, bourne, creek (prounounced “crick” by the older folks here) – – any of these are better.  Heck, I’ll take “runnel” over “outlet” any day.

In the 1830’s, the state government constructed the Crooked Lake Canal alongside the creek.   “Crooked Lake” is another name for Keuka, and is not a reference to state officials.  The canal had the distinction of losing money for each & every one of its forty-four years of existence.  It was replaced by the Fall Brook Railroad in the 1870’s, which was in turn washed away by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

 

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A local group restored six miles of the towpath/railroad bed, and created a walking trail, from Penn Yan, on Keuka Lake,  to Dresden, a hamlet on Seneca Lake.

The creek drops 270 feet, from Keuka to Seneca, and in the old days, it powered three dozen mills and little factories, starting in 1790.  Buckwheat, paint, plaster, paper, tanneries, etc. and in more recent times, insecticide.  So, depending on where you were standing, it must have smelled like breakfast cereal, or like paint, or just plain horrible.  Until well into the 20th century, a key component in tanning leather was dog manure.  Where they got it, how it was transported, and what price it fetched on the open air market, we’ll reluctantly leave for another day.

Quickly segueing to hair of the dog, there was also a distillery somewhere along here, which, with our forebears’ customary frugality, included a hog pen.  The hogs consumed the leftover mash from making alcohol, and no doubt contributed to the general eye-stinging atmosphere of the place.

In summary, the 19th century along the stream was a bucolic tiptoe through the daisies.

If you begin your walk in the village of Penn Yan, you’ll pass Birkett Mills, founded in 1796 and still grinding up buckwheat.  If you’ve ever felt nostalgic for the days of Tsarist pogroms and serfdom, and really enjoy chewing for extended periods, the mill is supposed to be the world’s largest supplier of “kasha” (buckwheat groats.)

Most remnants of the 19th c. industries have fallen down, crumbled, and been washed away over the years, but as you walk along the water, through what is now a wooded ravine, you’ll pass a few traces.  Circular stone and brick pits, nearly filled-in with dirt and leaf mold.  A towering brick smokestack, rusted remnants of water turbines, some foundations made of huge stone blocks, and a couple of crumbling concrete buildings from the 20th century.  A triangular chunk of millstone, embedded in a tree’s roots.  The shattered remains of a steam boiler, and a massive iron fly-wheel, were removed a few years ago, and taken to a local steam engine museum.

 

16. A wall from an 1884 mill, that converted straw into paper and cardboard.  During WWII, it was running full-time, making paper to wrap munitions..  Some of the stones may have been re-purposed from the canal locks. This was taken four years ago, and I believe most of this wall is now in the creek. Generally I’m a big advocate for historical conservation and preservation, but somehow in this little valley, it seems just as positive and proper to watch this creek return to its natural state.

 

Even as the industrial relics vanish, there’s sometimes still an old-fashioned feel to the little valley.  Many of the nearby farms are Amish or Old Order Mennonite, and young couples from the farms come to the falls to picnic and court, arriving in horse-drawn buggies.

One of the families, the Hoovers, has a welding/blacksmithing shop, and I’m guessing it was one of their sons, who showed up one day with an all-metal buckboard.  Gleaming steel diamond plate, like they use for factory floors or pickup tool boxes.  Must have weighed a ton, but dazzling, quite a sight.

I’m guessing the church elders found it to be an act of vanity, and made him get rid of it, or perhaps his horse died, dragging it back up the hill, but I never saw it again.

 

Autumn, Finger Lakes, FLX, hiking, History, Nature, NY, Upstate New York

Walks Around the Finger Lakes. Keuka Outlet Trail.

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Chile, Frostbite, hiking, Pucón, South America, Sudamerica, Uncategorized

A hike of new expectations. Pucón, Chile.

As it gets colder, I’ve been thinking about a winter I spent in South America.  I was living in Pucón, Chile, teaching conversational English to school kids.

You’re thinking, having me teach “Conversation” is like having Long John Silver demonstrate “Ballet.”

 Actually, we had a good time together, and often talked about music, movies, pop stars, and everyday life in the USA.  The kids were pretty great, as were the teachers and the townspeople – honest, straightforward, and friendly.

But my entire stay in Pucón, every day, I would look up at a mountain looming over my small wooden village.

The “Volcán Villarrica” is the country’s most active volcano, over nine thousand feet tall, erupting as recently as 2015, and forcing an evacuation.  Poisonous gases from the ’74 eruption killed a dozen people in the village.

It’s been carrying on like this for centuries, and the conquistadores recorded events back in the 1500’s.  After I returned home, I read that the indigenous Mapuche called it “The Devil’s House,” but I never heard that while I was there.

 

Every day it exhaled smoke, and some days, eating lunch in the teachers’ lounge, I’d look up to see it bellowing out.  At night, I walked under a sky of unfamiliar stars (different from those on my side of the equator), feeling disoriented, and I’d see it, snow-capped year-round, a mass of blueish white against a backdrop of deep black.

I strolled through Pucón’s streets, and down to the lake, down an unlit lane that gave me the creeps, between the baying stray dogs and the croaks of death-bird ibises, and from that pitch-black area, I’d look up to see there was a dim reddish glow above the summit. It looked almost fake, like a movie set, maybe the Paramount Studio’s mountain. But this was real, and that glow was from the lava lake, thousands of feet above the town.

 

 

Every day, I would look up to see this menacing-looking mountain.  I often wondered when it would next erupt, but figured the smoking was good, it was letting off some steam, so to speak.

Over coffee, my friend Paul suggested that instead of watching the volcano every day, we might as well climb it.

I was surprised that I hadn’t come up with that idea; I guess I didn’t think it was feasible. I’m not a mountain climber.  I grew up in a town a few hundred feet above sea level, and liked it there.  Pucón was only a couple hundred feet higher.  Perfectly fascinated by looking up at the volcano, it had never occurred to me to climb it, and thus look down from it. I was surprised not only that I had agreed to the climb, but also that despite my fascination, it never even crossed my mind to do so.  I think of myself as being fairly responsible and not at all daring, and yet, without a moment’s hesitation, I agreed to climb an active and smoking volcano. Not surprising, was that my planning and preparation were entirely non-existent. I suppose, had I planned or had any expectation of what it might entail, I wouldn’t have agreed to do it.

 

So we set out to find which one of the local eco-tourist outfits offered the best deal on volcano hikes.  Then, we set out to climb the beast.

It was an early morning, and as the realization dawned, of what I was about to undertake, I was a bit worried. We were given an obscene amount of gear, all of it strapped to our backpacks and belts that were loaned to us for the hike. We drove up to the basecamp, and from there we were to hike up with a guide. There’s a chairlift that gets you as far as the snow zone, but our group didn’t take it, adding an extra hour to the hike. It was not as easy as I had expected. Foolishly, I figured it would be solid rock, a bit steep in parts but no biggie. It wasn’t. It was like walking on a beach, except uphill, and over bits that would sink deep below our feet or sheer off. Volcanic tufa on top of hard rock. Slowly we zigzagged across the mountain until we reached the ice. That was when we were instructed, to put on the heavy winter coats we were carrying. And then the winds picked up.

 

 

As we hiked it became evident that we had a long way to go. Our guide was very nice, but kept us moving, telling us several times we couldn’t stop or we would die when the wind changed, something that had happened to a French family who went without a guide a year or so ago. As we walked, eventually with crampons strapped onto our feet to get a grip on the icy surface of the volcano, I became a bit uneasy.  There was 25% less oxygen than I was used to, and I was getting short of breath. Our pace was at a decent clip; we had to reach the summit in a certain amount of time, for some sort of safety and weather protocol. When we had breaks, we would sit down on the cold surface and feel how our muscles ached all over. Everyone was tired, thirsty, and no one looked like they were enjoying themselves.

There were some pretty spectacular views, but as I looked up, to my dismay, it looked like we had at least another half a mountain to climb, it was hard to gauge until we got higher up. There was a large lip of ice hanging off of the volcano about 3/4 of the way to the top, and from the basecamp it appeared to be the summit. I was less certain I could make it and increasingly unsure I would be able to breathe at the full altitude of 9400 feet. I was already struggling and feeling light-headed and began to imagine passing out and rolling off the mountain to my death.  No one but Paul knew me; my family did not know where I had gone.  The distance between us and the other groups grew wider and wider and soon even our guide was ahead of us a bit, though at last he stopped for us to catch up.

I recall sitting under an icy ledge as the wind picked up. I don’t know how fast it was but everyone was straining against it, and we felt cold through our bodies. As we lay against the ice, on mats that weren’t quite big enough, I began to really panic. What if I didn’t make it all the way up? How was I to get back down? I couldn’t quit. One of the guides was going up the mountain, UPHILL, the entire way, on downhill skis. The amount of strength and stamina humbled me and shamed me into walking more.

Paul, a fellow English teacher from Dublin, was the one who got me through. Just as running is best with someone to help you go farther, so is hiking. I do not think I could have made it had I just gone myself. But Paul encouraged me step after painful step, and got me psyched up enough to continue. It was painful, with my sides cramped up and legs like lead and my head heavy, but we made it to the top. He got me into this mess, but he got me through it.

 

 

The view was stunning. Pucón was tiny, as was Villaricca and all the many other villages in the distance. We could see to Argentina, the mountains and volcanoes on the border of the two nations were an incredible sight.

 

 

The crater itself was releasing gas and despite the gas mask my eyes were burning and I kept coughing. I wasn’t able to spend more than four minutes looking, as I felt myself feeling more and more sick. So much for that, I thought. Despite the spectacular views, I was underwhelmed, I’d expected reaching the summit to be more rewarding, somehow.

 

 

The highlight turned out to be the way down. We used the small round disks we had lugged up there, like heavy-duty versions of the “flying saucers,” when we were sledding as kids.  We strapped it on, and rode down the slope, using our ice picks to slow our descent so we didn’t die, careening along the mountain. My pick was ripped from my hand, so I had to claw my way back up the mountain to retrieve it. Paul couldn’t control his and crashed, banging himself up pretty badly. It was the most painful sledding I had ever experienced, but the ride was exhilarating. We descended about 2000 feet starting at the 8000 foot mark, so the world was literally racing by us and it was quite the thrill. Also the fact that it seemed we could be severely injured, or actually die at any moment, made it more thrilling, even if terrifying.

At that speed, all of my remaining energy was focused on making it down in one piece. It was only after I had made it to the bottom, crampons removed, ice pick stowed away so I’d never have to look at it again, that I began to realize what I had done.

In many ways, the hike was a bust. I was in pain and exhausted. But the experience taught me humility. I think part of that stems from being let down. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I experienced. In fact, I think back, three years later, but my expectations remain unknown even now. The following morning, bruised, stiff, sunburned (the sun is a lot more intense when you’re a mile up a mountain), I looked at the volcano again. This time, my slowly functioning brain registered awe. Before, it seemed unreal. After the hike, it became almost too real. This was a monstrosity of nature, bent on breaking our will, and difficult to climb. I felt less like a champion who bested the mountain, and more a sense of awe. I survived without any preparation and zero thought given towards this venture. I was so confident when I began and then so thoroughly humbled by a natural force much greater than myself. Hardly a stroll in the park.  I also learned that I could test my strength and overcome my previous limits,  and it was all thanks to a combination of the urge to survive mixed with an encouraging friendship.

 

head in the clouds

I will probably never climb a volcano again, which should not be an issue living in New York or Wisconsin.  But still. It was a heck of a trip and won’t soon be forgotten. Occasionally, when tasked with a “mountain” of work, I return to this moment. Not to feel too cocky, but to be realistic with my expectations of what can be accomplished and how to get the job done.

 

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There is a Presque Isle on the northern border of Wisconsin, and another in Maine.

The pictures here are of a third place with the same name, and the only one I’ve visited – – in Lake Erie, west of Erie, Pennsylvania.

The name was popular with French explorers, because Presqu’île means “Almost an Island” – – this is actually a long, sandbar peninsula.

Kind of like the character called Nearly Headless Nick, in the Harry Potter stories. (More formally, Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington, played by John Cleese in the movies.)

Both Presque and Nick kind of drift along – Nick, because he’s a ghost, who died after a botched beheading, hence the “nearly,” and the peninsula, slowly moving eastward, as the sand is redistributed by the lake.

Autumn, Pennsylvania, Uncategorized

Pictures of Presque Isle ~ ~ ~ Erie, Pennsylvania. October.

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Halloween, Uncategorized

Wayward Sisters’ Apothecary

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An old iron bridge, closed to cars for many years, takes hikers over the Seneca River, to Howland Island, a few miles north of Port Byron, NY.  About halfway between Rochester and Syracuse.

 

 

The island is a state “wildlife management” area, 3,500 acres, near the better-known Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, 10,000 acres, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Like so many words connected with the federal government, “refuge” is used ironically, since they allow hunting and trapping.

“Wildlife management” seems more honest, with its suggestion of headhunters, cutthroat competition, and getting the ax.  Or maybe, like, letting the animals run things, which seems to be the current political trend.  Howland is hunting land, and not a park, but most of the year, it’s a great place to just walk and bird watch.  The rifle & shotgun “downsizing” season for deer would be the exception, and in late November/early December, you don’t wanna go near the hunting areas.

Waterfowl season, it’s pretty safe, just stay away from the ponds, wear orange, and I always remove the plumes from my Tyrolean hat.

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium)  Which despite its name, turns reddish or coppery in the fall.  Now that I no longer have to mow a lawn, I’ve grown enthusiastic about grasses.

Howland is just barely an island, almost a peninsula most of the year.  The channel on the longest, northwest side is narrow in some places, hardly more than a big ditch, except during the spring floods.  But the river along the south shore is pretty broad and impressive.

 

 

The Seneca River begins in Geneva, as the overflow from Seneca Lake, and then wanders more-or-less northeast, picking up water from a number of creeks, and most of the Finger Lakes.  North of Syracuse, it helps to form the Oswego River, which empties into Lake Ontario.  It was a trading route for the Iroquois, and then for the colonial fur trade, and for almost two hundred years, sections have been dredged and “canalized” as part of the Erie Canal system.

So today, you can cast off your boat from, say, Watkins Glen, on the southern end of Seneca Lake (42° N), only thirty miles north of the Pennsylvania line, and sail, by way of canals, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, all the way to the North Atlantic, at Nova Scotia or Newfoundland (49° N).

(Or you could reach the Atlantic by way of the Mohawk River, and then south on the Hudson River to New York City.)

(Or, if it’s a really small, inflatable boat, you could put it in a duffle bag, go to the Trailways station in Elmira, take a bus to Patchogue, then take the ferry out to Fire Island, and row into the Atlantic from the beach.)

(And the buses do have WiFi now, and I’m guessing the St. Lawrence River doesn’t, unless you’re really close to Montréal.)

(If you do choose that St. Lawrence route, remember, when asking for the WiFi password as you float past Montréal or Québec, they pronounce it “le wee fee.”)

(I’m not trying to tell you which is the best route, you know, but if you did take the bus to Patchogue, you could stop by Flo’s Luncheonette, and have waffles, before you get back in the boat.)

(But for heaven’s sake, wait half an hour, after the waffles, before you go onto the ocean.)

 

a calm backwater along the eastern border of the island

 

Waffles, yeah.  I have not had waffles since I moved to Milwaukee.  It is getting cold, and time for waffle long johns, and for waffles.  Where was I?

 

cellphone snap of a heron enjoying lunch

I’ve walked around the island many times, and am often struck by the relative scarcity of game.  I’ve don’t recall ever seeing any grouse, pheasants, or rabbits, or even their tracks.  Despite the hickory trees, even squirrels make themselves scarce.  A few whitetails, groundhogs, and ducks, but there are way more deer, geese, and turkeys in the surrounding farms, than that woods and ponds here.  So maybe word gets around, and the animals actually avoid a designated hunting zone?

 

A young painted turtle was flipped over, next to a culvert, and looked pretty disgruntled, but it cheered right up once we got it right-side up, and set it on a nice patch of mud

 

Some acreage is leased for growing soybeans, but no one lives on the island anymore.   Woods, fields, sandy hillocks, ponds and marshes.  Settlers in the early 1800’s spent a lot of time draining the swampy areas, and then in the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corp reversed course, and spent a lot of time creating ponds and marshes, for waterfowl.  The CCC barracks later housed POWs from Rommel’s Afrika Korps, who worked as farm labor ($.80/day), and in a nearby Procini & Rossi pasta factory.  (Apparently, things worked out peaceably – I’ve never read of any escapes, or trouble of any kind.  Although, being German, they insisted on straightening the elbow macaroni.)

 

 

On a walk in October, it seemed surprising to find dozens of orange butterflies, fluttering around with the falling leaves, almost like they were trying to blend in.  ¿I think they were Question Mark Butterflies?  (which seem to have a varied appearance, depending on which book or website you’re looking at), but please let me know if that guess is wrong.

 

 

The very green frog, is named appropriately – Northern Green Frog.  He blew a lot of money on that camouflage outfit, feeling pretty fly, as frogs said back in the ’90’s, but now he finds he’s no longer blending in, as the leaves and ferns turn brown.  You know the song sung by Kermit on the Muppets, right?  I had to look up the writer, Joe Raposo, and I had no idea it was covered by Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Van Morrison, Shirley Horn, Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Della Reese, Ray Charles, etc.

It’s not that easy bein’ green

Having to spend each day

The color of the leaves

When I think it could be nicer

Bein’ red or yellow or gold…

There is absolutely nothing spectacular about Howland Island. It’s just a pleasant place to stretch your legs. There are generally a couple of people fishing in the river, and on a typical day, when it’s not hunting season, you’ll probably have the place pretty much to yourself.

Looking at that frog reminds me.  Did you know our military now has at least ten types of camouflage, for different situations?  The Navy has a uniform for the desert, which is a bit mystifying, unless your ship was going really, really fast when it hit land.  Or maybe, once in a while, the sailors just like to get as far away from water as they can?  And according to the Washington Post, the Navy wanted to distinguish their uniforms from the Marines’, so their desert pattern is green.

Maybe “sand” was too obvious?  I guess if the Navy guys are green, and sticking out like a sore thumb, they could hunker down, and pretend they’re frogs?  Just abnormally large, Northern Green Frogs, who tragically, have become lost in the desert.  Technically, that kind of camo’s called “mimesis,” trying to look like something else, rather than “crypsis,” avoiding detection.

 

A discarded snakeskin almost made me jump out of my skin

Well, I had been feeling kinda good about this post, actually staying focused & on track, but now somehow we’ve wandered into a discussion of Muppets and camouflage?  I suddenly thought, wasn’t the inventor of waffle irons named Howland?  That would be a nice coincidence and a good wrap-up.  But I was thinking of Elias Howe, and it was a sewing machine.  But I’m sure some people are aware of another Howland Island, a tiny coral lump somewhere in the Pacific, where Amelia Earhart was headed, when she disappeared, kind of like the thread of this story.  The airstrip there was another New Deal project, done about the same time they were constructing the ponds on our local island.

The Pacific’s Howland Island, now managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is one of only ten remaining territories still claimed by our country, under the Guano Islands Act of 1856.  That law is still on the books, allowing us, the citizens of the U.S.A., to take possession of any unclaimed islands, as long as they (the islands) have a really big pile of bird excrement.  No kidding.  And on that note, I’m gonna go get some waffles.

 

Washington Post May 8, 2013  “U.S. Military has 10 Kinds of Camouflage”

[http://wapo.st/18u4O50?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.8147b05254f2]

Finger Lakes, FLX, Nature, NY, Uncategorized, Upstate New York

Walks Around the Finger Lakes. October. Howland Island.

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