Getting over my hangups

Can an old fart like me make the jump from tent to hammock camping?

At some point in their lives, most people give up on camping because they can’t take sleeping on the ground. I have to admit that, if it weren’t for self-inflating mattresses, I probably would have gotten out of the game long ago.

There is another way for campers to get off the ground — hammock camping.

Camping hammock. Trees sold separately.

Camping hammock. Trees sold separately.

Apparently this has caught on in a big way. Like other outdoor pursuits, technology has changed the game and you can find all sorts of fancy hammocks and accessories. Especially if you’ve got deep pockets.

Not that affordability should ever be an obstacle to following your passion. However, a major hurdle for me would be an experience I had in the late ’70s while trying to sleep in a hammock in the back of a box truck. I was driving trucks back then and had a 12-hour layover in Lorain, Ohio.

If this were a movie, you’d be seeing one of those swirly flashback transitions that would bring you to a post office loading dock. Words appearing on the screen would read: “Lorain, Ohio, 1978.” The words would fade and the swirly image would transition into the interior of the back of a 20-foot box truck. There you would see a younger dumber me, struggling to settle into a hammock strung from wooden planks along the walls of the truck bed.

You can probably imagine where this is going.

Hunkered into my zipped sleeping bag I rolled onto my side and experienced what would later become known as a Homer Simpson moment. The hammock rolled over and, unable to catch myself, I did a face-plant on the floor.

As this was happening, things went into slow motion as they tend to do in these situations. I guess that’s nature’s way of letting you savor what could be the last moments of your life. And nature’s way of letting you know you’re not as clever as you thought you were.

So, if I’m to take the leap of faith required to transition from tent to hammock camping, I’d have to get that image out of my head — that long descent from the hammock to the hard wooden floor of the truck and the feeling of my nose being compressed into my face.

Meanwhile, I’m researching hammock camping. On that note, I’d like to give a shout out to some of the folks from the Google+ Camping and Paddling and Camping communities. They’ve been extremely helpful. There’s no substitute for experience and their input helped me decide which ultralight camp chair to chose. (See previous post.)

I’ll keep you — and them — posted on whether I decide to get off the ground and join the world of sling sleepers. Who knows? Perhaps, by now, someone has come up with a football helmet comfortable enough to sleep in.

Skinny Dipping

Cruel taskmaster driving us to shed pounds

Putting her out to pasture – My 8# camp chair has given me a lot of comfort.

Putting her out to pasture. My eight-pound camp chair has given me a lot of comfort over the years.

Apparently it wasn’t enough to lose 15-20 pounds — the weight I’ve lost since retiring two years ago from a desk job. Now I have to lose more.

Steve gave us the ultimatum last week. For this summer’s Algonquin canoe trip, we’ll be making portages of a mile-and-a-half and three miles. A portage requires two trips, one with a canoe and small pack, another with a large pack. Which means the longest portage will involve six miles of lugging boats and gear over rough terrain and three miles returning for the second load.

Ken and I sweated off three pounds each just thinking about it.

Dumbfounded, we looked to Steve for answers. What could we do to pack lighter? What creature comforts would we be forced to do without for eight days in the wilderness?

“Your chair, for starters,” Steve said.

It was as if he’d driven a tent stake into my heart.

“It’s bulky,” Steve said. “And heavy.”

I was willing to admit it was bulky, but I never thought of it as heavy. When I got home after our planning session I defiantly weighed my chair, all the while snorting under my breath, “Heavy? Heavy, my ass.”

Eight pounds. OK. It’s bulky and heavy.

I immediately went online, looking up bushcraft videos on how to make your own chair. There were several — each one equally absurd — on fashioning a camp chair using sticks and a blanket. I concluded that the effort required to make one at each campsite would outweigh the demands of lugging my eight-pound chair over miles of rough terrain.

So, I’ve decided to resort to surgery. In fact, all three of us have. Steve, Ken and I will undergo cashectomies and spring for lightweight backpacking chairs.

Then I’ll put my eight-pound camp chair out to pasture — where I can sit in it, drink a beer, watch the sunset and wonder about why I just shelled out more than twice what I paid for my first car for a lousy backpacking chair.



River Reading for Crazy Bastards

What winter paddlers need to know

The floating slush is no problem now . It will be when it accumulates downstream.

The floating slush is no problem now . It will be when it accumulates downstream.

It didn’t take us long to learn that a winter paddle can turn into a winter hike in a hurry. Some friends of mine hadn’t been into winter canoe camping long before they found themselves iced in one day. They had to hike out, lugging their canoes and camping gear through the snow to the nearest road and calling for someone to pick them up.

I wasn’t with them on that trip. But I was on a winter trip with them when we popped a rivet out of an aluminum canoe pulling it out of the ice. We plugged the hole with a stick, which expanded and kept the canoe from leaking for the rest of the trip.

On my first solo winter canoe trip, I found something even more dangerous than ice — slush. The slush absorbed the force of each paddle stroke and shoved the canoe backward. After I realized that trying to move forward was futile, I worked the canoe to the bank with a combination of draw strokes and by rocking it up on top of the slush. It took the better part of an hour to move the boat less than 100 feet. The quarter-mile drag through deep snow to the road seemed like a day at the beach by comparison.

The fun part of winter canoe camping is facing challenges and learning to adapt. And survive. Unless you adapt quickly, survival can become an issue.

By observing the river — looking at the slush and the ice and seeing how they interact — I quickly learned what conditions produce water that is impassible. The key is learning to understand slush and ice crystals. Anytime you see slush floating by, it’s time to get the hell out of there. The slush congregates, building into bigger and bigger floes until it will bog your boat down. Getting through it is like paddling through oatmeal. As for ice crystals, I watch for them to start getting bigger and bigger. (They kind of look like snowflakes suspended in the water.) If you see them reaching the size of a nickel or clustering together, it might not be long until the river freezes all the way across — possibly overnight.

As a friend of mine once said, “This is a skill set most people wouldn’t find useful.”

But then, that’s the beauty of winter canoe camping; you have the world to yourself out there.






Suicidal Thoughts

The Thin Flatline

The other day, I was headed into town and found traffic backed up at the entrance to Mount Jeez. Ahead I saw the red glow of road flares on the pavement and a line of sheriff’s cruisers. I turned my car around in a driveway and took the long way into town.

From years of working as reporter at a daily paper, I knew what had happened. Marked sheriff’s cruisers, no detectives milling around, no state troopers, no skid marks or wreckage. It was a suicide.

The Mansfield News Journal confirmed my suspicion. The next day, there was a short article in which the county coroner identified the suicide victim only as “an older gentleman.” That was all the information I needed.

The paper I worked for had a good policy for reporting suicides. We reported them only if they occurred in public spaces or by means that brought a highly visible response from safety forces. In other words, if someone committed suicide at home without killing anyone else, we didn’t report it.

Someone later asked me whether I returned to the scene at Mount Jeez to see if there was any blood. I had no interest in doing that. I’ve seen plenty of that in my lifetime — in 16 years as newspaper reporter and while living in Cleveland.

Alex “Shondor” Birns mugshot

Alex “Shondor” Birns – He even looked dignified in his mugshot.

For some reason, that reminded me of the time in 1975 when I went to the scene of Alex “Shondor” Birns’ murder. For those unfamiliar with Cleveland history, Birns was a prominent businessman. To some, he was less-charitably known as a racketeer. (The words are interchangeable, the difference being that prominent businessmen have politicians in their pockets before they’re elected. That way they can have the laws written so their operations are legitimate.)

I didn’t go to the Birns murder scene out of morbid curiosity; I was working for a restaurant supply company at the time and went to a competitor’s store to pick up a few cases of glassware. It was common practice back then to help each other out if we were short of merchandise. The tittie bar where Birns was last seen alive was on the same block as our competitor’s store. He went out back to start his car and unwittingly ended his life. (According to one report, the explosives were placed under his car and detonated remotely.) I was there the day after it happened and small shreds of flesh were still dangling from a fire escape on the back of the building.

At 68, I suppose he fit the description of an “older gentleman” as described in the recent News Journal article. In a sense, Birns also committed suicide. He did that when he chose his profession. As we used to say about the mob: They pay well, but the retirement plan sucks.

Not that mobsters have cornered the market on suicidal life choices. Journalism is another profession that comes to mind. Especially journalists who canoe in the winter. In other words, I don’t have much room to talk.

Frankly, I hadn’t planned to live past 40. In my 20s and early 30s, I lived what some might call a decadent lifestyle. At the time, someone pointed out that my life could best summed up in the lyrics of “Serious,” an Alice Cooper song:

All of my life was a laugh and a joke
And a drink and a smoke
And then I passed out on the floor
Again and again and again and again and again

Not quite the formula for a long healthy life. However, after a friend died from what amounted to overindulgence, I cleaned up my act. When some people do that, they find Jesus. Or some other route to a more reflective and less nihilistic lifestyle. I found canoeing.

Now that I’ve survived to retirement age, my goal in life is to keep on canoeing for at least another 25 years.

Although I had put myself in a position to die at an early age, I never harbored suicidal thoughts. My take on that would be, “What, and miss a canoe trip?”

However, I have a certain respect for those who are inclined to go that route. Back when I worked at the newspaper, we often resorted to gallows humor to insulate ourselves emotionally from the gore and tragedy we covered on a regular basis. That backfired on me one day when a co-worker admitted to attempting suicide. That person — who I won’t identify — described an overwhelming feeling of reaching a point of no return, a voice inside saying “do it, do it.”

I don’t joke about suicide anymore.




Meltdown in Loudonville

Despite a week of temperatures in the teens and single digits, the sun worked its artistry on ice sculptures in the aftermath of Winterfest.


I believe this was a golf ball, which I shot from behind. The pattern was created by the reflection from a plastic grid beneath the ice sculpture. When I came back the next morning, it had been dumped onto the sidewalk and broken into pieces. The detail below is a chunk of the original piece.

shattered 2

The next image is a bear in front of Buzzard’s Family Shoe Store (which is a fine establishment run by a great family and, if you’re as particular about footwear as I am, you might want to check them out).

pavlov's bear

In the photo below, the sculptor incorporated a brick pattern for its base — not unlike the wall behind it.


The wolf at the door. I love what the afternoon sun was doing with this piece, in front of Amish Oak Furniture.


Below are three detail shots showing Main Street in a different light.



eye of the storm

Meanwhile, Duckzilla is about to wreak havoc on North Water Street.


And, in Central Park, an ice sculpture depicting an Indian chief slowly melts, its features softening.


Come back next week when I present a photographic study of puddles on Loudonville’s Main Street.

Will dollar stores nickel and dime them to death?

Chain stores killed urban ma & pa stores. Will their country cousins meet with a similar fate?

Hitchman's last ever promotional calendar

Hitchman’s last ever promotional calendar

In the previous post, I lamented the demise of inner-city ma and pa stores. On the other hand, small family-owned stores in rural areas have managed to survive. For now.

Logistics have been their salvation. A lot of rural towns have fewer residents than most of us have living relatives. So it’s not worthwhile for supermarket chains to locate in rural areas. That said, there has been a proliferation of dollar stores and that worries me. One in nearby Butler replaced Hitchman’s Market after it died a slow painful death three years ago. Hitchman’s had been in business for more than 50 years. Other dollar stores have been built recently — one next door to Dale’s Cardinal Food Store in Danville and one just down the road from Shopwise in Warsaw.

Over the years, I’ve come to know and love rural ma and pa stores. I’ve gotten in the habit of visiting them when I pass through town to set up canoe trip shuttles. I can thank my ill-prepared canoeing buddies for that. They’d inevitably forget to pack certain food items or underestimate the amount of beer they’d need for a three-day river trip.

When packing for canoe trips on the lower Mohican River, I make it a point to forget donuts just so I can stop at Dale’s. You’d be hard-pressed to find better donuts anywhere.

For paddling excursions on Black Fork of the Mohican River, you can’t beat Stake’s IGA in Loudonville. Originally Gribble’s IGA, they have two things a lot of rural ma and pa markets lack — a decent selection of beers and a liquor store in the back room. The latter is opened during regular hours, but you have to flag down an employee to access it.

Shopwise location in Warsaw. Note that Dollar General has set up shop nearby.

Shopwise location in Warsaw. Note that Dollar General has set up shop just down the road.

For canoe trips on the Walhonding and Muskingum rivers, I like to stop by Shopwise Market. This place reminds me of the tiny clown cars you see in the circus — the ones that cruise around the ring, come to a stop and six or seven clowns pile out. Shopwise looks tiny from the front. However, once you get inside, it seems to magically grow. Shopwise has everything you could possibly need, although the beer selection is somewhat limited.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention a few other ma and pa stores on my list: Big Fish General & Bait Store near Perrysville and Wills Creek General Store near Coshocton. The latter has a small campground out back and canoe access to Wills Creek.

Each of my favorite rural ma and pa stores boasts unique qualities, but they all have one thing in common — a personal touch. The owners and employees are inevitably warm and friendly. I find that comforting partly because, on canoe trips, a ma and pa store might be your last brush with civilization for days on end.

I just hope that, unlike their urban counterparts, they survive the onslaught of chain stores.




Who killed ma and pa?

People waxing nostalgic for Lawson’s? Really?

Approximate location of our neighborhood ma and pa stores. After Interstate 90 came through, there wasn't much left of the neighborhood.

Approximate location of our neighborhood ma and pa stores. After Interstate 90 came through, there wasn’t much left of the neighborhood.

For the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone would post items about Lawson’s on Facebook and gush over how wonderful these ubiquitous chain stores were. After all, they killed the ma and pa stores.

It you want to wax nostalgic, wax nostalgic for something worthwhile; lament the loss of your neighborhood ma and pa stores.

Before Lawson’s came along in the ’60s and plopped down cookie-cutter stores in every neighborhood, peoples’ needs were met by the neighborhood meat market, green grocer or delicatessen. These were a throwback to pre-supermarket days. Some ma and pa stores survived the advent of supermarkets, filling a need at a time when many of us still walked everywhere. Not every household had a car, let alone two. Especially those in inner-city Cleveland.

In our neighborhood, there were two stores side by side on West 41st Street: Huth’s and Hattie’s. Huth’s was a butcher shop (which are also becoming obsolete). I believe Hattie’s had been a green grocer. We were more familiar with the Huth family because they lived a few doors down from us on West 40th Street. All I remember about Hattie’s is that it was run by an elderly woman who wasn’t particularly kind to children and not very sociable in general. Perhaps she had been more personable in her younger years.

We stopped going there altogether after a neighbor boy fell on a broken milk bottle in front of her store. He was bleeding profusely from a large wound on his torso. Her response was to shoo him away and tell him to go home. Fortunately he made it home alive, leaving a trail of blood and a legacy of resentment. In fairness to the old shopkeeper, she might well have been teetering on the brink of senility at that point of her life.

Huth’s had what it took to keep the neighborhood kids coming in — a front window well-stocked with candy bars and penny candy.

Across the bridge spanning the Rapid Transit and Nickel Plate Railroad tracks were two more stores. I’m not sure of the names, but I think one was called Young’s and the other Bogart’s. They were located catty-corner from one another at West 41st Street and Bailey Avenue. Which meant they had a captive clientele of school children from Orchard Elementary, my alma mater. One was rumored to be running a bookie operation out of the back room.

There goes the neighborhood – another Lawson's store.

There goes the neighborhood – another Lawson’s store.

Even if those rumors were true, no one cared. Back then, the phrase “mind your own business” meant something. Besides, it was all the better if a few extracurricular enterprises kept some of the ma and pa stores in business after Lawson’s and similar operations came in.

Here’s another reason to dislike Lawson’s. In the ’70s, I knew people who worked at one of the stores in the suburb of Parma. They were paid less than minimum wage. Apparently management circumvented the law by classifying the store as a restaurant — because employees made sandwiches for customers.

For these and other reasons, you won’t find me waxing nostalgic for Lawson’s. Waxing nauseous maybe.


Cubicle Journalism

Why newspapers diedcublcles

The American newspaper died during my watch. Cause of death: “Cubicle-osis,” the practice of covering the news while sitting on your ass.

In 16 years of working for a small-town daily, I watched  young reporters increasingly rely on telephones and computers to gather the news.

It wasn’t entirely their fault. In order to compete with electronic media — and later social media — newspapers were forced to become more efficient. That meant making phone calls or going online in lieu of walking or driving to city hall to see what was really going on.

Efficiency is fine if you’re cranking out widgets on an assembly line, not so much when you’re gathering news. A phone call is a poor substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face interview. Email and text message exchanges are even less effective.

For one thing, it’s harder for the interviewee to buffalo you when you’re looking him or her in the eye.

Secondly, I’ve spun off many a feature story by making the rounds in person. On more than one occasion, interesting articles were spawned by asides that came up during interviews or objects I observed on public officials’ desks or walls.

Cubicle journalism ties reporters to their desks — and to schedules, as mentioned in a previous post. Neither is conducive to good reporting. Spontaneity makes for better journalism. As a city government reporter, I often made the rounds of city hall unannounced. No appointments, no interviews. I just stuck my head inside the door and, if someone was there, I struck up a conversation.

That went beyond city hall. I developed a reputation for dropping by most anywhere — the fire station, cop shop, parks department maintenance shed, street department garage. There’s no better way to feel the pulse of the city than hanging out with the folks in the trenches.

Fortunately, local governments — particularly in small markets — are accessible to reporters. They should take advantage of that while they can.

It’s too late at the state level. Public officials there are beholden to their power base — the big money that got them there. They are obligated to stay on message, so reporters don’t get to talk to them (at least not in any meaningful way). Information is filtered through their PIOs. Supposedly that’s an acronym for Public Information Officers. In reality, it stands for Pissants In charge of Obfuscation.

But that’s another rant for another post.

Books? Curl up with a good map instead.

I love maps. And globes. Always have.globe2

From the time I was a little kid, I was intrigued with these tokens of my physical world and the endless possibilities for exploration and discovery.

When I was very young, I had a small metal globe with a coin slot in the top. I experienced my first epiphany when my parents explained that it was a model of our world. To me, the world was a very small place then. I had only been downtown, to the park and to relatives houses on the West Side of Cleveland, so I thought that was pretty much it.

I reasoned that a small dent on my globe bank must be that big hole in the sidewalk near my cousins’ house on Guthrie Avenue. Of course, I’m much wiser now and realize that wasn’t the case. Actually, that dent represented the pothole on West 117th Street that snapped a tie rod on my ’64 Chevelle.

At Orchard Elementary School we had the kind of maps that rolled down like window shades. Like our textbooks and everything else, including my kindergarten teacher, they were outdated. U.S.S.R. was still labeled Russia. Which just goes to show you that, if you hold on to anything long enough, it will come back into style. 

In looking at the “window shade maps” at Orchard Elementary School, I was obsessed with bodies of water. (Perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come.) As we learned about cities and the existence of different cultures it struck me as unthinkable that people would establish settlements anywhere but right next to a large body of water. It still does.

When I got older I’d pore over road maps the same way the smarter kids in class immersed themselves in books. Maps captured my imagination far more than any book ever could, perhaps because I could write my own plot.

To this day, I can honestly say I’ve read more maps than books. 



Tidying up after Hurricane Kiley

Random notes in the aftermath of my granddaughter’s visit

Playing hide and seek in the pasture

Playing hide and seek in the pasture

§ Ringing in the New Year with a 4-year-old is a lot more fun than you might think. While the rest of the world was watching the ball fall — or the big walleye if you happened to be at Put-In-Bay — little Kiley and I were watching a vintage Disney cartoon. It was in black and white, which means it was even older than her grandpa.

Not much is. Especially in her world.

Kiley would much rather have been watching what she calls “princess” cartoons, a genre that would be foreign to me if it weren’t for her. Prior to New Year’s Eve, I had relented, allowing her to watch what I  call “snarky fluff chick cartoons.”

OK, I get it. They send messages about the values of working together and good triumphing over evil. However, at the risk of sounding prudish, these cartoons inevitably seem to drag our daughters and granddaughters through oceans of mud and sleaze to get there. The folks who produce them — Disney and (pre-dildo) Hasbro to name a few — argue that the ends justify the means.

I disagree. Kiley is pretty sharp, but I’d imagine the bitchy attitudes and the emphasis on being sexy, skinny and popular resonate just as strongly as the positive themes. Maybe more so.

On New Year’s Eve, we struck a compromise, watching “Brave Little Toaster” and classic Disney cartoons.

§ Kiley remained awake until 12:30 a.m. New Year’s Day. She probably would have fallen asleep before midnight had she not taken ill Tuesday. The ordeal threw her natural clock out of whack.

As I’d mentioned in previous posts, we had a great time during her five-day visit — feeding the birds, playing hide and seek in the pasture, camping in a tent in the basement and just being silly. However, on the day before New Year’s Eve, she grew listless and developed a high temperature. By early evening, she was down for the count, unable to sleep but unable to move — except to sit up and drink water.

I kept her mother posted via text messages, although I wasn’t overly concerned. I’d been through it before, with Kiley’s mother, my son and even my kid brother, who had bouts with pneumonia.

By New Year’s Day, Kiley was up and bouncing off the walls once again.

The resilience of children never ceases to amaze me.

I suppose she’ll also recover from the negative influences of her “snarky fluff chick cartoons.” I’m not sure I will.