Sunday, February 21, 2010

Swiftly and desperately

For all of my 0.1 daily readers, I'm back with a new entry.

There's a line from a children's book that has stuck with me for years. The book is "Rascal" by Sterling North. The author recounts how, as a boy, he adopted an orphaned, baby raccoon; they had great adventures for a while until the raccoon grew wild and unmanageable. Eventually, the boy had to take the raccoon in a canoe to a nearby forest, and let it go into the woods.

The last line of the book is this: "And I paddled swiftly and desperately away from the place where we had parted."

There are so many times that I've been in situations where that line is such an apt description. Not that I was "paddling" away... but replace that word with "moved," or "drove," and I've been there. And I was there again tonight.


I was heading home from work about midnight, going up Woodland Avenue. At a red light at Kent Street, I saw a dog in the southbound lanes. It ran to the snowbank, tried leaping up a few times, and finally scrabbled over. I was going to keep on driving up Woodland, but something stopped me. I needed to find out what was up with this dog. Probably I was unconsciously thinking about a past loose-dog incident that haunts me to this day.

So I veered over and made a left turn onto Kent / 8th Street, found the nearest parking spot and got out to look for the dog. I walked back toward Woodland, and spotted it trotting toward me down the sidewalk. It saw me, stopped, and cocked its head. I crouched down, put out my hand, and used my best puppy-enticing voice... and it came, cautiously. It was a sweet-natured dog - I'd guess a Rottweiler mix, maybe 9 months old. No signs of aggression - I petted it and got a hold of its collar. Two tags - a city license, and a rabies tag. No owner's phone number.

I kept hold of the collar and walked hunched-over, puppy in tow, to my car, where I had a leash for my dog (she was at home). I got the door open, grabbed the leash, and thought I attached it to the collar - but when I transferred my hand from collar to leash, the dog bolted loose. Into the path of an SUV on Eighth Street. I gasped. My mind flashed to the aforementioned past incident.

But the dog did a 180 about 5 feet from getting hit, and ran past me, uphill, into the night. The search was on.

I should mention that as all of this was going on, drunk or soon-to-be drunk UMD students were passing by, en route to nearby house parties. It just added to the scene.

So in the dark, I searched by sound, listening for the dog's tags jangling. I spotted it nearby, apparently trying to jump a fence, but lost it again before I could get close. I walked the streets and alleys for about five minutes, very conscious of the poorly shoveled walks, and thinking that it would be just my luck to slip, fall and break something while searching for some stranger's lost dog.

I had just about given up, and was heading back to my car, when I heard a guy yelling in the backyard of a house. Stuff like "Get out of here!" and "Shoo!" and "Go away!" I walked over. I saw him at his back door, and yelled, "Do you have a stray dog up there?" He said yes, it had been looking in the windows and bothering his dog. I think he was drunk. In any case, it was a fresh lead, and he pointed me in the direction it went. I walked back into the alley, listening for the tags jangling, and - finally - spotted the dog. I did the whole crouch-down, hand-out routine again, got a hold of the collar and - securely - fastened the leash.

Then I called 911. I said I was near Eighth and Kent, had a loose dog on leash, and that the dog had tags but no owner contact info. The dispatcher asked if it was a small, brown-and-black Rottweiler. I said yes, and he said it belonged to a nearby resident - someone had reported it missing. He put me on hold to get the owner's info. By this time the dog was kind of freaking out. It wasn't biting, but it was whimpering and putting up quite a fight to get off the leash.

The dispatcher said the dog belonged at XXX Woodland, and asked if I wanted the owner's phone number. I said no - I couldn't do much at that point because the dog was pulling so hard. So I headed down Woodland, looking for the address. No lights were on, and I couldn't make out house numbers, so I called 911 again. I asked the dispatcher to call the owners, tell them I was out on Woodland somewhere within a few houses, and have them come out to meet me.

Then I waited. And waited. College kids kept walking by. No porch lights went on. No one came out of any nearby house. Then finally, after more than five minutes, I heard some movement behind a house. Two people tentatively came out from the back and walked toward me down the driveway. "Is this your dog," I asked - while noticing that the dog was pulling AWAY from the apparent owners. It wanted to bolt. Badly. I had a sinking feeling that something wasn't right.

"Yes, thank you! Janice!" one of the people said. At least I think that's what she said, so apparently the dog's name was Janice. I led the dog up the driveway, made sure they had hold of the collar and unhooked my leash.

"She ran away when we let the other dog out," was the explanation I remember the woman saying. I don't remember the guy with her saying anything.

But why would this dog want to bolt - not only initially, but even when it was reunited with its owners? They apparently did give it vet care, it had its city license, it was sweet-natured and certainly not malnourished... but something didn't feel right about the situation. I had - I have - this feeling that something bad is going to befall this dog. It's going to run away again, and get hit by a car. Or it's going to shed its collar and wind up in the pound. Or some other bad ending.

I had bonded with the puppy during our brief time together. I wanted to run back up the driveway and take it back, take it somewhere safe. But I didn't. With a lump in my throat, biting my lip, I walked swiftly and desperately away from the place where we had parted.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Happy Canada Day

Today - July 1 - is Canada Day. I realized that exactly five years ago, I was on a trip up into the Yukon Territory, and happened to be in a little town called Faro on the big day.

Faro was built in the wilderness around 1970s to serve a massive lead-zinc mine. Its population peaked at more than 2,000 in the early 1980s - but then the mine closed. It has reopened and reclosed a few times since (I think it was open on a limited basis when I was there in 2004), but the town never recovered. A few hundred people live there now; there is an effort to bring in wilderness tourism.

So, the town is a shell of its former self. When I was there, you could drive past dozens upon dozens of vacant, slowly deteriorating townhouses, apartment buildings and single-family homes, and boarded-up public buildings and stores. It was a little bit like Hoyt Lakes on the Minnesota Iron Range - but a whole lot more extreme.

Still, there were signs of civic pride. The town still maintained a golf course that wove among the homes all through town, and on an overlook near town was a park with a nicely tended sign that read "Faro Arboretum," and some displays on local plants.

I found out that there was going to a Canada Day celebration and stuck around town. I'm glad I did - it was a nice little slice of small-town Canada. First the local kids assembled to sing O Canada outside the school, and a crowd of 40 or 50 people assembled to sing along. Then they assembled for the parade on the road that looped all through town. The parade was short and sweet - the local RCMP truck, two fire trucks, an ambulance, another emergency truck, a decorated Gator, two decorated cars and eight to 10 kids on decorated bikes (see photo above).

The parade went on past scattered groups of spectators, then headed back the the school / shopping center area for a post-parade gathering. I'm pretty sure they handed out some prizes. A tent was set up, and I think there were more events planned, but I had to hit the road.

All in all, a nice first Canada Day for me - and one more reason for me to be a big fan of our neighbor (neighbour?) to the north.

More photos of Faro here.

Wishing I'd have been a better bystander

I've mentioned before the troubles I have with cell phone reception at my home. So, while on my way home last night I pulled into the parking lot of the Kenwood Super One shopping center - one of the last, best places to get a clear signal - to place a few calls.

I pulled into a parking space all by myself at the far end of the parking lot, near Arrowhead Road. On my third call, I was leaving a voice mail message when I looked up and saw a motorcycle - a super sports bike, a substantial, pretty nice one - driving in the lot toward Arrowhead, going very slow but weaving all over. And I saw a blue car in a designated driving lane coming generally in my direction - perpendicular to the motorcycle. Again, going very slow.

They got closer and closer - again, going like 5 mph - the cycle weaved sharply a couple times, and the rider - a college-aged guy with no helmet - laid it down and crashed into the front driver's side wheel of the passing car, maybe 30 feet from me. "Laid it down" is too strong a word - "fell over" might be a more apt description. Then the motorcycle rider got up and glared at the car. I thought to myself right away how that was just totally the motorcycle rider's fault.

So at this point I was still leaving my message. It was for a family friend I haven't talked to in a long time, whose mom is sick, and I was trying hard to maintain my composure and stay on-message as the surreal scene unfolded.

I was kind of bewildered and wrapped up the call as over maybe the next 10-15 seconds, the motorcycle rider went around to the passenger side of the car, opened the door and started saying / yelling something at the male passenger and female driver. My initial thought was that the two parties knew each other. In a momentary burst of extreme naivete, I actually thought, "well, that's not something a total stranger would do."

So I sat there, staring, jaw dropped. Then the motorcycle rider went back around, picked up his bike, wobbled on and started heading toward Kenwood Avenue. I snapped back into reality, got out and jogged to the still-stationary car. The driver got out. "Did you get his license plate?," she asked. Shoot! I could have, but I didn't. Now, in retrospect I don't totally regret not running out right away after the collision and getting it. The guy had just flung open that car door... had I run out and got his plate, he very well may have decked me. And I didn't know he was going to run until he was back up on his bike. But still, the whole thing happened so slow that I could have gotten it, and that bugged me.

Kind of charged with adrenaline and always ready for an exciting adventure, I said, "I'm going to go after him. I'll come back. Wait here." And I took off in my car toward Kenwood. The guy had a big head start, but I thought he might have pulled into a lot somewhere nearby to check his bike. No luck. I circled down Kenwood to Central Entrance, down Ninth/Eighth streets, around to College Avenue, through the UMD campus and back to the shopping center via Arrowhead - nothing. A few times I saw sports bikes parked in driveways, and circled back to get a better look, but they were not the one.

Back in the parking lot I left my name and number with the driver, and said I'd be willing to give a statement. We walked around to where the crash occurred, and I spotted a really nice, expensive Citizen watch on the ground - watch separated from wrist band, but still working - it had to be the bike rider's. I looked it over, thinking how awesome it would be if it were engraved, but it wasn't.

I left the watch with the car driver, then went off again for one more search. "Where would a college-age kid on a sports bike go after a hit-and-run accident?," I thought. For some reason, my mind returned an answer of: "Taco John's." So that's where I headed, to the strip of fast-food joints on London Road. I circled through there, back through the UMD campus and a few college neighborhoods - again, nothing. I went back home.

Later in the evening, I got a call from the police and gave a witness statement. I described what I saw, apologized for not being a better witness and closed by emphasizing again that this was totally the motorcycle's fault, and that the driver of the car was totally in the right. So I guess I was of some use. But I'm still wondering what might have been had I been a better bystander.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


I've been kind of swamped the past few weeks, so I've had to streamline my online efforts. So, I've shared a story at Perfect Duluth Day, and rather than duplicate it I'll just post the link here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Making a phone call: A travelogue

Phone calls can be a bit of an adventure at my house.

I have no land line - just my Verizon cell phone. Verizon's service was fine for the first two years I had it, so in September 2007 I signed up for another two-year contract. In December 2007 I moved into my new house. Problem.

Apparently I'm on the very fringe of Verizon's service area, and reception varies from day to day, or even minute to minute. Over time, I've established a progression of where I can go to get a signal.

Tonight, though, topped all previous calls in that it took seven tries (I think it was seven) to complete the conversation with a friend.

As with all calls, I started here:

Standing by the kitchen sink (sorry for the blurry photo). The old standby. For some reason - my guess is that topography allows a kind-of-clear shot from my kitchen sink a few miles to a distant cell tower - this one spot works about 75 percent of the time. Movement must be kept to a minimum, to avoid angering the cell phone reception gods into dropping the call. Step a few feet, and you're done for.

But the kitchen sink spot didn't work tonight, so I took the phone upstairs into the soon-to-be-finished bedroom:

It's high up in the air, and lags behind the kitchen sink only slightly in cell phone reception. It lagged again tonight, as the second attempt got dropped.

So, to the back door:

The third stop is to step out the back door. Get out of the confining walls of the house, and let the cell phone wave particles roam free, or do whatever it is they do. But tonight, another no-go. Third strike.

I closed the dog in the downstairs bedroom to keep her from getting into the kitchen garbage, and headed out to the big basswood tree in the middle of the yard:

This is another usually reliable spot, but gets bumped down the list for being outdoors and a good 50 feet from the house. Last summer I leapfrogged the first three spots and headed out to this tree when I got chased by a pit bull and called the sheriff to report it. I didn't want to get cut off while on the phone with 911 operators. But tonight? No-go.

Next stop: the kind-of-dying walnut tree:

This big tree stands at just about the highest point in the yard - by yard, I mean the grassy area of my property; getting to this tree doesn't require going "in the woods." This walnut is way out of its natural range; it was planted by the previous owners about 50 years ago. It's having some troubles now, maybe due to some drought conditions the past few years. In any case, it's another good place to try making a call. Before tonight, this was as far as I ever had to go to complete a call. Before tonight. The fifth try failed.

On to the back driveway:

The back driveway is kind of self-explanatory. It leads from the yard to the little town road at the back of the property. It's at about the same elevation as the walnut tree, and it provides easy walking to try to find a signal. I broke new ground in having to go there tonight for my sixth try. No good: I could never get a call to go through.

I was kind of running out of property at this point, and was in uncharted territory for finding a signal to tie up the loose ends of this call. I headed down the back driveway, turned left into the woods, went about 25 feet and walked up a short rise to this:

A fallen tree, suspended about three feet in the air. I grabbed some neighboring, still-alive trees to balance myself, and climbed up. It sort of wobbled a bit, but I dialed again and... success! The best signal yet. The conversation was completed, and I jumped back down and headed back to the house.

I'm thinking of switching to another carrier when my Verizon contract expires later this year.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The slaw dog

My favorite dish at a restaurant in the Northland is the slaw dog from My Sister's Place in Grand Marais. A few months ago I wrote an ode to the slaw dog for the News Tribune - and here it is. 

(Disclaimer: Normally I frown upon copying entire articles. But in this case, I'm the author, and I wrote the piece entirely on my own time and at my own expense, so I see no problem in including the story in its entirety below):

The slaw dog at My Sister's Place in Grand Marais.

Ode to the slaw dog



At a rocky, sun-baked opening along Isle Royale's Greenstone Ridge Trail on a hot, muggy summer day in 2006, my hiking party was hobbled.

My sister was sick - she could barely walk, let alone carry her pack. My dad was feeling fine, but he had a bad shoulder and couldn't take more weight. That left big brother - me - to carry double packs.

We set our sights for Moskey Basin, then descended out of the opening into the deep woods. We slogged along, brushing past dewy thimbleberry leaves; I lagged back, staggering every now and then under the added, awkward weight.

As our fun hiking trip devolved, for the time being, into a forced march, my mind wandered, searching for motivation to keep my legs moving. A vision filled my thoughts - a creamy, sweet, spicy, meaty, doughy vision that, like spinach to Popeye, gave me a shot of energy that helped carry me through.

The slaw dog.


A few days earlier, en route to the ferry dock in Grand Portage, we found ourselves in Grand Marais at dinnertime and randomly chose My Sister's Place restaurant. From their extensive menu of burgers, sandwiches and hot dogs, I chose the slaw dog.

I was intrigued by the combination of three of my favorite foods - hot dogs, coleslaw and barbecue sauce. My expectations were more than matched.

The homemade coleslaw is thick and creamy - it certainly doesn't drip off your fork. The barbecue sauce is tucked away underneath - and subtly evident when you take a bite. The hot dog is substantial - I didn't weigh it, but the menu says all the hot dogs are 1/3 pound.

The one shortcoming is that the bun, while good, just isn't big enough to fully contain all that filling - and it's hard to take a bite that encompasses all the flavors. More often than not when first digging in, you get coleslaw and bun, or just coleslaw. Tackling it with a fork and knife might be the best way to go.

But that's a minor quibble. Pair the slaw dog with french fries, and you've got a whole lot of good stuff on one plate.


We made it safely to Moskey Basin and, though my sister rebounded quite well, we cut our trip short by a few days to be safe.

As anxious as I was to dig in to another slaw dog, a return trip to My Sister's Place wasn't in the cards on our way back home. My longing had to go on for months, visions of slaw dogs popping into my thoughts every so often, until I finally got back up the North Shore.

Now, if I'm on a trip to, through or anywhere near Grand Marais, I stop in for a slaw dog. Not mealtime? Not a problem. The slaw dog is as good at 3 p.m. as it would be at noon or 6.

Sometimes, I pass through while on a camping trip - and the slaw dog is the perfect last meal before heading out into the woods.

If you get caught in a rainstorm and your tent leaks, or you didn't break in your hiking boots enough, or you find your only nourishment is undercooked ramen noodles ... just think of slaw dogs. They'll pull you through every time.

Cost: $7.50 (includes fries, soup or coleslaw)
Where: My Sister's Place restaurant, 401 E. Hwy. 61, Grand Marais (if you're coming from Duluth, it's on the far side of town)
Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday; closed Sunday
Phone: (218) 387-1915

Monday, April 13, 2009

Historians = bad money managers

Between taxes and other life events, I've had occasion to sit down and really assess my finances the past few weeks.

One part of my "portfolio" is U.S. Savings Bonds, which were my grandparents' financial gift of choice. When I was growing up, every birthday and holiday brought a $25 or $50 savings bond, with occasional larger denominations. My grandmother could buy a bond for half its face value, and if you let is sit long enough (I think 10 years or so), it would earn enough interest to surpass the face value - a nice return, though taxes ate a big chunk out of it.

The bonds helped pay portions (far from all, but some) of my college tuition, my first used car, my first new car, my computer and my house down payment.

Each purchase required assessing which bonds to use out of the ones I had left. There were two that I never wanted to touch, for history's sake - they were the oldest of the bunch, issued on the day I was born; my late great-grandfather's name was on them; and the issuing bank had changed names twice - the "Marine Bank" stamp made me nostalgic.

So now, after all these years, they are two of the last three bonds I have left (the other was issued a month after I was born, and was kept for some of the same reasons).

When I checked on their value today, I learned that they have matured and are no longer earning interest; the cutoff was 30 years. So now I'm left to wonder why I didn't cash them sooner, and instead keep some newer bonds that would have kept earning 3-4% interest for a few more years. I guess a love of history and proper money management might not go together all that well.

But what's done is done, and given that earning nothing is better than most investments these days, I'm going to salt them away for later. Some day, I'll pull them out, look at that day-I-was-born, old-bank-name stamp one more time, and sign them away.