Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The last blog post (here anyway)

So I've done it...

This will allow me more flexibility in posting stuff, and eventually it will be nicer looking.

To quote Johnny Cash, "Look for me no more..."

Or was it Jacob Marley. Or Hamlet's father's ghost.

Anyway, check out my other blog now. Nothing to see here. Move along now...

Respectfully submitted, as usual,


Friday, January 01, 2010

The Ice Chisel

I have a friend named Bear. Actually, I have two friends named Bear. I imagine I am in a small population, having two outdoor-loving brothers with an ursine appellation.

One of my Bear friends lives up in Minneapolis, the other in the Ozarks. Both are paddlers. The Minneapolis Bear (M.B) likes winter trips to places like the Boundary Waters, where getting water in the winter is a matter of some work. You can take an auger but ice chisels are faster and unlikely to break. When given a choice, always take the simpler tool.

A few months ago M.B. asked me to make him an ice chisel. He didn't want a wimpy sort of store-bought ice chisel. The ice is thick in the BWCA, and a wimpy chisel just makes you tired and grumpy. He wanted a chisel with some heft. I agreed to make one, it was an experiment of sorts, but would be relatively easy. The trick was to find a cutting edge that would hold up.

I needed a piece of spring steel, so I stopped in at Madison Spring, a heavy-duty user of spring steel. They're the ones who put leaf springs in cement trucks. I was going to buy a piece of steel but I just asked them for a little piece so I could put an edge on an ice chisel. He didn't say anything, he just sauntered to the back of the office and went out into the shop. A few minutes later he returned with a piece of spring, tossed it onto the metal topped counter and said "Here ya go. Merry Christmas." Despite his holiday greeting, he never cracked a smile. Not even a slight lift of one corner of his mouth.

After cutting the spring steel to the proper width, I got out a big chunk of the mild stuff and started forging it into the proper dimensions (it was a little too wide and I wanted it to be a little bit thicker). It's fun to work with big stuff because it stays hot a long time, so your arm doesn't have a chance to rest. My hammer arm has weakened significantly, since I don't work big stuff as often these days. A 1000g hammer can give you a workout.

I had to grind two bevels in both the spring and the mild steel so the weld would sit down in the notch and really tie things together. The mild steel makes long sparks...the spring looks like's really pretty.

"Luke, I am your father."

I am not a skilled welder. I don't suck, and my welds hold things together, but I am not one of those people who make bike frames, their perfect little semi-circles mocking my ham-fisted attempts. This would be a fun one to weld--big things. I turned the welder up to 11.

I should have turned it up to 10.5. It was a little too hot, as you can see by the dishing at the end of the weld. No matter, another weld covers it. Then the grinding and forging begins. I really wanted a seamless transition between spring and mild steels, and I got pretty dang close.

Here's the semi-final product, before tempering, buffing, and rubbing down with paste wax.

The only problem is that M.B. has already left on his trip, and I am a dope for not finishing this last week. Then again, I work in retail. This is not our slowest time of year, so I have that excuse. I look forward to a report on how well it worked.

Respectfully submitted,


Sunday, December 27, 2009

Paddles and Hammers

My garage has a certain ungarageness to it. We haven't parked a car in it for over seven years. Half of the garage is a boathouse, the other half is a blacksmith's smithy.

I've been blacksmithing for about a decade now, and it is now as much a part of my life as paddling. I certainly can't be faulted for not getting my recommended daily allowance of iron. I've thought a lot about why I am drawn to elemental activities; combinations of air, fire, water, and earth. Water is easy to explain. Fire, air and earth all combine to create a rich experience when I light up the forge.

Needless to say, plastic never did that much for me.

Blacksmithing and canoeing have a lot of similarities. They are inherently simple activities with subtleties that can take years to master. With all the jigs and tools I use in forging, my hammers are my most valuable tools, with personalities and quirks all their own. The hammer is the most important tool in working with iron.

I own approximately two dozen canoe paddles. I just counted sixteen in the garage, physically verified by touching the top grip of each one as I moved down my rack. There are two hanging on the wall in my living room: functional paddles I choose not to use because of their historical or sentimental value. I'm sure that there are another half-dozen in my office, stashed behind the comfy chair in my office. Then there are few floating around out there...loaned to friends or temporarily forgotten in the back of the car.

The paddle, I believe, is as important to one's paddling experience as the canoe. Like a hammer to a blacksmith or a fly rod to an angler, it's your primary tool to connect. It doesn't matter how nice the canoe might be; if the paddle is garbage, your experience will reflect your choice. A bad hammer is worthless, except if you want to beat it into a really bad tomahawk for a neighbor kid. For the record, the kid told his mom and she was cool with it.

So when non-paddlers see my rack of paddles, they always ask the same question: "Why do you need so many paddles?" My response is always the same: "Why do you need so many shoes?" You wouldn't go hiking in ballet slippers, and you probably wouldn't run in hiking boots or dance in Bean boots. They all have their function, and so do my paddles.

I love my traditional paddles. They're mostly cherry, a Canadian bias: they use cherry up north, we Yankees lean towards ash. Not that I don't have ash traditionals, I have a few, plus a quilted maple, a birdseye maple, and a sassafras. They all are frequently used, and the ones I use the most are on their third of fourth coat of spar varnish. Their handles are polished smooth, not varnished but oiled, and my hand did the polishing over countless miles. When the water is deep, I lean toward traditionals.

I love my bent-shaft carbon paddles. At 13 ounces, they're almost too light (as if anything could be) and their stiffness transmits power to the water like a Porsche transmission. Their blades slice quietly into the water and emerge with barely a sound. My cadence is high and the canoe accelerates quickly. It's wonderful to race with a couple of light bent-shaft paddles.

I love my whitewater paddles. They're beefy, almost clumsy-looking, and when hung on the rack with the other paddles, they look like a bulldogs in a kennel of greyhounds. But like a bulldog, they're built for strength, not speed. Layers of fiberglass over thick wood blades inspire confidence, and you need not fear breaking one as you race down (or in this case, up) a Class II or III rapid. They sometimes seem to enjoy the carnage.

There's my Black Widow, which was the fruit of a collaboration between Rutabaga and Bending Branches. It's my favorite straight-shaft paddle you can buy off the shelf. It's perfect for an all-around paddle, even if I do say so myself (I designed the grip).

The list could go on, but there's no need.

Then there's the collection of paddles I've rescued from the edge of death, paddles that were destined for the dumpster. What a spokeshave, sandpaper, varnish and epoxy can do is almost miraculous. My kids' first paddles were such rescues. Starting with a big paddle with a split blade and work it down to the good wood will guarantee a fine kid's paddle that'll outlast two or three kids. I've passed along dozens of these rescues to friends and family, and it's fun to make something from what could have rotted in a landfill.

I'm sure some of you have your special paddles and feel a special connection to them. It might seem strange to folks who don't paddle, but if you have one (or twenty) special paddles, allow me to most emphatically validate your feelings of affection. It's a canoe thing. If you get it, there's no need to explain. If you don't, no amount of explanation is sufficient.

Respectfully submitted,


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Still alive...

....just nothing new to say.

So I ain't saying it.

More when I have more to say,


Sunday, December 13, 2009

The All-Seeing Eye

The U.W. Arboretum is a real treat for those of us living here. It's specially wonderful when we get a ton of snow. Or 18 inches. That's fine too.

Walking through the woods tends to slow me down, especially on 'shoes. Skis tend to keep me moving to0 fast to really notice things like the All-Seeing Eye on a beech tree.

The Masons have infiltrated even the trees. Coincidence? I think not.

Respectfully submitted,


Wednesday, December 09, 2009


This happened fifteen years ago. I wanted to capture it before I forgot. As I wrote it I remembered a lot of the detail that I had lost. - DB

"Excuse me, are you open?"

A woman looked up from her black and white TV, looked at us with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment. She didn't speak. I spoke again.

"You're open, right?"

She stood and smoothed her apron and managed to produce what could be considered a smile. "Yes, we're open." She indicated a table, and four of us sat down. The restaurant was empty.

She turned the TV down and walked over with four menus.

"Slow night tonight?"

"This is my last night here," she said without any hint of emotion, as if she were telling me my shoe was untied.

I was slow. "Where are you moving?"

"I'm not. I'm closing my restaurant."

I was slower still. "Why?"

"The rent is high...prices are...not too many customers..." Her voice trailed off, and I understood. I felt embarrassed, and should have kept my mouth shut.

"I give you a few minutes to look at the menu, okay?" She didn't wait for an answer and walked to the kitchen to busy herself with something so she wouldn't be around us.

I stared at my companions. They stared at me. No one said anything as we skimmed the menus, all of us distracted and a little stunned by the cold fact that we were going to be her last customers.

After a few minutes she came back. "Do you know what you want?"

"Give us a few more minutes, please."

I fidgeted for a minute. "I'm sorry, I can't just sit here. Be right back."

I didn't go to the rest room, I stuck my head in the kitchen. "I know what we want. We want you to cook for us. Whatever you want to cook. Whatever you have in the refrigerator. We want that."

She stared at me. "But what do you want?" The concept was a strange one to her, but I insisted. "Whatever you want to cook, you cook. Your favorite things."

"Okay," she said. "You like seafood?"

"Ma'am, I'll eat almost anything."

She smiled. "Okay."

I sat down with my friends. "She's cooking whatever she wants to, and we're going to eat it."

We sat there for a few more minutes. Small talk failed. You can't chat about trivial things at a funeral, and we were unintentional mourners.

I got up again. "Sorry, I can't sit here." Again.

I stuck my head in the kitchen. "Ma'am?"

She turned and looked at me, not exactly surprised, but certainly curious, her eyebrows arched and eyes fixed on me. I believe she thought I was crazy.

The words came out. "Can I cook with you?"


"Can I cook with you? I'm bored." What I didn't add was that I didn't want her to be alone in the kitchen while she cooked her last meal. This was to be a wake, not a funeral.

She sized me up. "You want to cook."

"Yes, please."

"You know how to cook? Thai men they don't cook."

"I know a little, but I'd like to learn how you cook."

She stared again. Then she decided and started ordering me around like a drill sergeant.

"Okay, you wash your hands. There's an apron behind the door."

I did as I was told.

"Hi, my name is Darren."

"My name is Sally."

"Thank you, Sally."

She shrugged. She was chopping cabbage and heating up a large, non-stick skillet. No wok. The kitchen was small and clean and cozy with two cooks, especially when one is twice the size of the other. Sally was short and the counters were low.

"You like seafood, right?"

"Yes, I do."

"Good, there is a bag of scallops in the fridge. Do you know what scallops look like?


"They are in a clear container. Bring them here."

She was already putting some curry paste of some sort in the big skillet. "Watch this. When a ring shows up around the outside of the paste, you add the scallops. Don't let it get too hot." She kept her steady chopping of vegetables: cabbage, eggplant, peppers, onions.

Sally warmed up as we cooked together. I learned her husband was from Ogden, Utah, and she had five children, most of them out of the house, that her husband was a machinist who worked the graveyard shift.

"Does your husband cook?"

Sally laughed for the first time. "Men do not cook in my family. In Thailand no men cook at all. Cooking is for women."

"No men cook?"

She smiled again. "Not in my family."

Sally tossed some garlic and onion into another skillet, added some vegetables and after a few seconds, asked me to pour the scallop mixture into that pan. She stirred the scallops and poured it onto a platter. "Take it out. You should eat some."

I took it out and dropped it at the table. My companions looked at me in my apron, and there were several lame jokes about being promoted, missing my true calling, getting in touch with my inner Thai. Sally yelled at me from the kitchen "Don't forget rice! In the cooker!" I dished up a big bowl of rice. It wasn't going to waste.

I popped a rice ball in my mouth, grabbed a spoonful of scallops and trotted back to the kitchen. "What's next?"

Sally smiled and almost laughed. "You go sit down and eat! They leave you nothing."

"It's okay, I'm having fun. What now?"

"Noodles." Sally was already working on the next dish I recognized as Pad Thai. I said so.

She laughed, and it was a beautiful laugh, almost a cackle. We were having fun now.

I don't remember what else we cooked, or what we talked about, but I do remember Sally becoming comfortable enough to tease me about my height, my cooking, my stupid jokes, my curiosity. I teased her about her height, her knife that was as big as she was, her inability to see over the counter that separated the kitchen from the dining room.

As I brought dish after dish, my companions craned their necks to see what was going on in the kitchen. We were laughing and chatting; they were eating, graciously saving me a little bit of each dish.

As we wound up the cooking lesson, Sally shooed me out of the kitchen. Apparently cleaning up was a one-person job. I ate my meal as Sally washed dishes. "How is the food?"

"Really good, Sally."

"If it taste bad it's your fault," she teased in a sing-song voice from behind the counter. I could see the top of her head and her eyes. They were smiling.

She finally came out and wiped her hands on her apron and sat in front of the TV again, watching some inane show, maintaining her distance as we finished our meal. Then she brought us the bill, and silently walked back to the kitchen.

The bill was for $48.00. For four people, including drinks and at least five large dishes that would have been double that had we been downtown. No one spoke as the twenties were slipped quietly out of wallets. $100 on the table, next to the bill. No one wanted change, least of all me.

As we shuffled in our seats to slide out and put on coats, she rose to take the bill and stopped at the sight of the little pile of twenties. "I get you change."

"No, that's your tip."

"No, that too much!"

"No, it's not. $50 for food, $10 for tip, and $40 for the cooking lesson."

Sally took the bill and quickly turned away toward the cash register. We fussed with our jackets and she went back to the TV, her distraction from the pain that in an hour, she would close and lock the doors forever.

I walked over to Sally, reached down and took one of her hands, and she looked up at me. Her face was beautiful.

"Thank you, Sally. I had a lot of fun tonight, and I think I learned something."

She smiled at me, patted my hand with her other and I suppressed the urge to pull her to her feet and embrace her, my new friend. Instead, I dropped her hand and walked back toward the door to join my companions. She called out to me as I stepped over the threshhold.

"You be sure to try Thai cooking at home, okay?"

The grand opening of a restaurant is a noisy affair, accompanied by fanfare, advertising, and snooty food critics noticing something bad about at least one thing so as to maintain their status as critics. The tablecloths are white and the d├ęcor is fresh, the menus crisp in their folders. It’s festive, like a baby shower.

The closing of a restaurant is nothing like that. It just…closes. No fanfare, no “going out of business” signs. Who would want to eat at a restaurant that is advertising its failure to feed people? A closing restaurant is like a geriatric patient dying alone in a nursing home. No fanfare, just an ending.

Still, I wouldn't trade my experience with Sally for a hundred grand openings.

I never saw Sally again.

Respectfully submitted,


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Snowy Shack

I love my Shack.

But I love my Shack even more when it is covered with snow, the stovepipe belching smoke, the heat of the wood stove penetrating my spine as I sit with my back to the fire, the webbing in my snowshoe rocker letting heat pass through without so much as a by your leave.

I also love run-on sentences.

My old Coleman lamp hisses and gives off a faint tangy odor that, while evocative of youthful camping trips, still says "Don't get too used to this smell." With a window cracked and a door left slightly ajar, I'm more concerned about falling asleep from the peaceful meditative state exacerbated by the smell of pine car siding than I am from carbon monoxide.

Hanging Christmas lights on my Shack (and the Japanese Maple in front of it) started a few years ago, when I realized that I can actually look out my kitchen picture window and see my Shack in all her holiday glory. My house is decorated too, but that is for the neighbors across the street...I can't see them, except for the colors reflected onto the thick quilt of snow tucking the grass in for the winter.

Respectfully submitted,


Monday, December 07, 2009


I spoke too soon...Spring Valley Lodges is not out of business.

They changed ownership, and some nasty domain squatter grabbed their URL. Squatters. And if we kill them we go to jail. And they call this justice?

Anyway, the tipi looks pretty with snow on it, all buttoned down.

Respectfully submitted,*


*If you're a domain squatter, omit the respectfully. You're a parasite on virtual society, making money on someone else's misfortune. Piss off, lampreys.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Putting Up The Tipi

So a few years ago Ken, then our Events Director, approached me about purchasing a tipi. He explained that it would be cool to use at events.

"Okay," said I. "How exactly would we use it?"

"Well, it would be a good attraction..."

Yeah, it's a good attraction. Tipis are lovely pieces of architecture. I love tipis. I had, many years ago, a little 12' tipi that lived in my backyard as an office of sorts. I loved the tipi. I loved building fires in it. I loved sleeping in it. We humans like round things.

After a few years thought about this, I think Ken just wanted a really cool tipi. Irrespective of the validity of that sentiment, I'm glad we bought it. We put it up at the Door County Sea Kayak Symposium. We have put it up at Canoecopia. But frankly, it has spent more time in a Rubbermaid bin than is proper.

So we decided to put it up on the back lot. Now the door is on, the liner is in (my battery died), and it looks beautiful.

For reference, an 18' tipi is a pretty big tipi. Remember the whole area of a circle thing? Given a radius of 9', we're talking about 250 square feet. Our first apartment wasn't that big, I don't think. It's a cozy, organic structure and I miss my little one.

Sadly, Spring Valley Lodges appears to be out of business. I may have to go elsewhere for my tipi needs.

Respectfully submitted,


Sunday, November 29, 2009


"That's not a knife...this is a knife." - Crocodile Dundee

Today was a Baja Mermaids reunion at the homestead...Stephanie had her friends from the great Baja Mermaids trip of October over for food, drink, and knitting. The house being awash in estrogen, I retired to the Man Cave, the garage. Don't get me wrong, I love these women -- they're amazing -- I just didn't want to rain on their parade.

I made something for Lissa (Chief Mermaid) to hold her collection of opercula, a talisman particularly meaningful to her. Between heats for her little bowl, I torch cut a piece of spring steel, liberated from a dumpster behind a truck stop years ago. I made a little knife blank, and started the heating, pounding, grinding and filing process. I was astounded at the rapidity with which this one came together. Something clicked and the blade was rough-shaped and filed down within an hour.

I had tempered the blade so it was ready for sharpening. I optimistically took a few passes over the edge with a ceramic sharpener. Ten strokes later, it shaved my forearm as neatly as a Bic razor.

There's a certain magic to taking something from a dumpster and making it into something useful. Scientists from the Dark Ages would call it alchemy, the transformation of one element to another. It's all spring steel; now it's just useful, or at least it will be once it has a handle on it.

Now to find a home for it. I need another knife like I need, sharp cutting implement.*

Respectfully submitted,


*I was going to say canoe, but I want to keep my options open, y'know.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Wisdom of Youth

It's the day after the day of giving thanks, and I slept in, went to the gym with my daughter and burned a few hundred calories, thereby reducing my deficit but not eliminating it. But it was good, since the bikes have TV so I got to watch Bully Beatdown on MTV2. Since I don't have TV at home, it's a guilty pleasure.

But it's cold and bright and sunny, and we're going to cut a tree today. I highly recommend Cedar Creek Farm, an organic (!) tree farm. No herbicides, and Bruce and Lisa are sweet people.

Once that's done, I am going to migrate to the garage for some metal work.

A few weeks ago I had visitors. Misa and John-Pio, offspring of my friend / brotha from anotha motha Brad. The kids are both a very nice combination of smart and sweet-natured, and Misa nailed it from the second she saw a glowing red chunk of A36 steel heated up to 1500 degrees F.

"It looks like a Lava Glo-Stick."

And so it does, Misa.

Today I think I'll make some more lava glow sticks. I have an idea I want to try -- braiding six strands of 1/4" round stock. If it works I'll be a genius. If it doesn't work, I'll have a few pounds of scrap.

Respectfully submitted,


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bingo has left the building...

Bingo and Gussie, as pups.

After two weeks of rat hospice, Bingo, a.k.a. Rat 3.0, has passed on to the Great Exercise Wheel in the Sky. Ian hand-fed him for two weeks, and I'm sure that had something to do with Bingo refusing to give in...he just kept on living. We were all stunned.

We dug a very nice grave in the backyard, right next to a Silver Maple Tree. We didn't so much dig as chop through roots the size of my forearm. Anyway, Bingo was laid to rest wrapped in a Rutabaga t-shirt with a nice bricked up tomb to keep the critters away.

We all wish Bingo unlimited sunflower seeds, apple pieces, and chocolate chips.

Rest in peace, my little friend.