Wintery spring

Speaking of enjoying winter while it lasts (and lasts and lasts and lasts), I thought I’d showcase some of why I love the Midwest and its seasons.  One word: Weather.

Storm clouds in Marinette County, WI drop "virga" - rain that never hits the ground.  The large anvil-shaped clouds near the horizon indicate full-fledged storms to the west.

Storm clouds in Marinette County, WI drop “virga” – rain that never hits the ground. The large anvil-shaped clouds near the horizon indicate full-fledged storms to the west.

We all know that adage, “If you don’t like the weather in [insert location here], just wait five minutes and it will change.”  I’ve lived in a lot of places, and in almost every one that same statement is repeated, as though their town, or state, or region has the craziest weather on earth.  Well folks, I’m here to tell you that you are mostly wrong.  For example, in the San Francisco area, this is used to refer to the daily variability of the weather… BUT the weather is exactly the same from day to day!  Every morning is foggy, then it gets breezy around mid-day, the fog burns off and it is sunny and pleasant for a few hours, before getting slightly too warm, but then the shore breezes return and the chill of the evening sets in.  That’s from, say, April through August.  In October is is sunny and warm; in January it rains all the time.  You actually have to wait months for the weather to change!  It makes a lot of things really convenient – for example, camping farther up the coast, you can usually tell by mid-afternoon if you will get any fog/dew overnight, and decide what you’ll need for a tent based on that.

What makes the setting sun look like that?  Weather!  Also known as moisture in the atmosphere...

What makes the setting sun look like that? Weather! Also known as moisture in the atmosphere…

In Wisconsin, that is never an option.  Here is Wisconsin, we start to get nervous if the weather pattern has been constant for a few days (three if the weather is bad, six or seven if it’s good).  During spring and summer, it is shocking to have a whole day pass without a front coming in or a storm cell blowing through.  Year-round, the weather is a constant source of concern and conversation to those whose lives are in any way related to the natural world.  Will we have enough snow to fill the lakes and rivers… but not so much that our towns’ budgets are used up plowing, or too many snow days close the schools?  Will spring come early or late, wet or dry, and how will this affect the planting of fields, harvesting timber, maple syrup

Green pumpkins pulled in before a hard freeze.  Last year, we had two weeks between the first frost and this freeze, which left most of my squash to ripen.  Most of these eventually ripened indoors, and the results are still in my freezer this spring!

2013 saw warm temperatures and a wet summer, which put lots of pumpkins on the vines, despite a late spring.  I covered my pumpkins for the first frost, but harvested them two weeks later before the hard freeze.  Most of these eventually ripened indoors, and the results are still in my freezer this spring!

production, or early-season fishing?  Will the summer be so hot or humid as to be unbearable, or pleasantly warm; will we have enough rain to feed the crops and leave the rivers paddle-able, but not so much to flood or flatten the fields?  Will we have an early frost, leaving me out on a chilly night covering up plants laden with green tomatoes – or one so late that leaves obscure the woods for deer hunters?

A thunderstorm rages east of Florence, WI, which remains safe and dry.

A thunderstorm rages east of Florence, WI, which remains safe and dry.

This is, in a word, awesome.  I moved back here from the West Coast in large part because they don’t have thunderstorms there.  Here in the south-west part of the state, the hills are high, and the late spring weather pattern brings storms in from the West, through Iowa.  If you find yourself on a tall hill, or on the central Military Ridge, you can often see four or five storm cells at once, dropping rain and lightning on towns close and far.  You know the storm is over when steam begins to rise from the wooded hills, even if a little drizzle persists.

A storm moves in from west.  It wound up passing just to the south as we watched the town across the river get drenched from our perch in Sauk County, WI.

A storm moves in from west. It wound up passing just to the south as we watched the town across the river get drenched from our perch in Sauk County, WI.

 

You only get rainbows when it rains...  Grantsburg, WI

You only get rainbows when it rains… Grantsburg, WI

Wisconsin also seems varied weather patterns around the state.  Location of certain industries in certain regions, and the presence of several large rivers running north-to-south, means that the weather in one place has repercussions around the state.  Right now, for example, northern Wisconsin still has a foot or more of snow on the ground, and some lakes have up to 30″ of ice still on.  The rivers have mostly opened up, though, and are flowing well.  In the southern parts of the state, all water is open as of about a week ago, but overnight frosts and snow are continuing.  The Mississippi River is expected to crest above flood stage this weekend, and the Baraboo River will be flooding as well…but those northern lakes, including Lake Superior, might not be open until mid-May, based on latest predictions.  This has major effects not only on homes, farms, and recreation, but on shipping traffic as well.

The Mississippi above flood stage in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, June 2013

The Mississippi above flood stage in Wisconsin at Wyalusing State Park, June 2013

This road wash-out is a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in Grant County, WI, 2007

This road wash-out is a result of flooding caused by heavy rains in Grant County, WI, 2007

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you’re interested in learning more about our local weather, here are a couple of interesting links.

From the Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, info on Lake Superior ice

From the National Weather Service, flood and storm warnings

Fire Weather Planning Forecast

Mississippi River Levels

U.S. Geological Survey Stream Gauges - click on your favorite river for a real-time update!

University of Wisconsin Extension’s Climate of Wisconsin page and their Corn Silage Moisture page

On Weather Underground you can find historical weather information, as well as information from various private and public weather stations in your area, and cool weather photos from spotters and interested citizens.

 

Red sky at night, sailor's delight... an adage predicting clear weather in the morning, among the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior; Bayfield, WI

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight… an adage predicting clear weather in the morning, among the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior; Bayfield, WI

A thin ribbon of light at the horizon separates the overcast sky from a frozen Lake Superior... what you can't feel in this photo are chilly winds upwards of 20 mph blustering off the lake.

A thin ribbon of light at the horizon separates the overcast sky from a frozen Lake Superior… what you can’t feel in this photo are chilly winds upwards of 20 mph blustering off the lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So this spring, or endless winter, or whatever you are experiencing wherever you are – enjoy the weather!  Enjoy living in a place where the weather, natural conditions, matter.  Enjoy being able to understand how the weather will affect you, your neighbors, the produce you’ll eat this summer, the milk you’ll drink, the fish you’ll catch, the animals you’ll hunt.

 

Eben Ice Cave

Eben Ice Cave.  The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes.  This cold winter was great for ice formation!

Eben Ice Cave. The cave is formed as melting and seeping groundwater trickles over a rock overhang and freezes. This cold winter was great for ice formation!

This winter, everyone was talking about the Lake Superior ice caves up in Bayfield, Wisconsin.  I thought about going, even tentatively planned to go, and then it got so popular that they were seeing crowds of 10,000 or more on the weekends!  I visited the Apostle Islands last summer, and had had the opportunity to kayak out to those “sea caves” in a small group.  I thought that it would be pretty neat to see them frozen, but that the huge crowds might detract from my enjoyment of wild nature.  Of course, if this weather keeps up, the big lake will stay frozen all summer and I’ll get to go see them in July…  just kidding!

Instead of making the three-hour drive to Bayfield, I took a 1.5-hour trip to Eben, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, south of Munising.  There is a rock overhang there surrounded by seeps which turns into an “ice cave” of its own every winter.  On the day we visited (slightly warmer than average for this winter), there were maybe 150 other people there while we were, including the half-mile hike in and out.  It was quite windy and lightly snowing, which meant that this 3/4 mile through the woods was infinitely more pleasant that a half mile out on the open ice of Lake Superior would have been!  The cave itself included spectacular formations, and was well worth the visit!

From the inside, looking out

From the inside, looking out

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

These kids have obviously been exploring the Eben Ice Cave for quite a while!

 

 

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

I love these falls of ice seeping out from the wall under the overhang!

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The cave is on public land, but within a federally-designated wilderness area, which means no motorized use is allowed. The access is on private land, thanks to a generous landowner.  From the tiny town of Eben, small signs point the way to the parking lot.  Someone, perhaps the landowner or perhaps the Forest Service, had set up portable toilets for the crowds to use, and a donation box for them, and there was a small private concession stand in the parking area as well.  The first part of the walk parallels the snowmobile trail across an open farm field, and after that it enters the Hiawatha National Forest, Rock River Wilderness.

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

The ice at the very top of these interior seeps was clear enough to see through like glass

More ice forming...

More ice forming…

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

These stalactites of frost grew off the ceiling of the cave

National Forest Wilderness Areas are intended to be managed free of human input, so no vegetation management (eg: timber harvest, trail clearing) is allowed, and there are no facilities for those recreating in the area.  For me, this makes for an ideal adventure.  There were plenty of down trees for my dog to jump over and under, side trails to explore (if the snow weren’t so deep…), steep ravines, and old-growth trees.  It is a beautiful hike, but will take some effort!  Snowshoes are likely to be unnecessary, since the trail is so well-packed, especially on weekends.  Ice cleats (or commercial ice-walking grips) are highly recommended… but we didn’t have them and didn’t feel that we needed them, either.  [Note to readers: three weeks ago I slipped on ice and broke my leg, so I advise that you do as I say, not as I do!]

Check out that slippery floor!  It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

Check out that slippery floor! It was awesome to get to walk around among these formations!

Spring?? Who needs spring!

Usually at this time of year I would be blogging about the spring of the year, posting photos of the first shoots of grass, buds on trees, and the earliest wildflowers.  This year, though, I am injured and confined indoors, and another winter storm is set to slam us tonight, with some parts of our fair state slated to get another foot of April snow!  I thought I would take the opportunity to showcase some of my later winter adventures.  After all, if you can’t beat the cold, you might as well enjoy it!

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Cassell Bluff in a snowstorm, Sauk County, Wisconsin

Something New and Different in Central Wisconsin… Really?

Every time I drive through central Wisconsin, I try to take a different route. This is because the vast middle of our otherwise fair state is a flat, windy wasteland.  On one such trip I discovered Pittsville. Ever since then, I have tried to cover up the fact that it is the (self-proclaimed) “Geographical Center of the State.”  The town seems to live up to its name, based on my stop at its gas station/social center. I feel that its existence in such a representative location could color outsiders’ opinions of Wisconsin. Luckily, unless you are able to teleport, or for some reason fly into Wausau, you can only get to central WI from the north, south, east, or west – all of which are much more appealing.

However, on a recent trip from southwest to northeast, I found a place that I actually want to go back to. Abbottsford, WI reminds me entirely of Postville, IA – another surprisingly distinctive town on the flatlands, that goes by the moniker “Hometown to the World.”  Eerily, I had thought of Postville earlier the same day, for the first time in years.

You have to get off the highway (WI 29) to see the historic downtown of Abbotsford. I did this because I needed to de-fuel at a pit stop, and while there I thought I’d check the online reviews of local restaurants. Cafe Mexico had several raves, so I drove over to find it… And found myself in a one-block Little Mexico! The restaurant, a Mercado down the street, a shop for quinceanera dresses, a Spanish-

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language tax preparation office… Everything from the size of the
street to the architecture seemed to have Latin influences.  Folks, we are in central Wisconsin here.  For all that I love about my state, it is incredibly white, and not very friendly to diverse groups. Even in the agricultural communities where many Spanish-speaking residents live, they are typically not welcome at local establishments, and only show their faces at the nearest Walmart. It’s sad, I know, and something that has bothered me for a while. It is one more reason that Abbotsford was so pleasantly surprising!

I suspect that Abbottsford’s diversity has the same source as Postville’s – a huge meat processing plant outside of town. Unfortunately, the restaurant was closing up just as I arrived. However, the mystery of the town’s history combined with the promise of an authentic dinner will bring me back. And it may be the first time that I will expect to enjoy my trip through central WI!

(Y)Ahn

There was one more experience from the Torino Olympics that I wanted to share – the time that I saw Apolo Anton Ohno skate to a gold medal, complete with one of those weird moments of drama that seem to only happen in the Olympic Games.  However, life inserted a pause in my blogging, and in the meantime I came across a few references to some of the less traditional athletes in the Sochi Winter Olympic Games.  These are the ones who are competing for a country that they have only a tenuous relationship to, whether due to a relative’s birth status, timely marriage, or financial incentive.  The BBC did a fun job of summing them up for us here (along with a couple athletes who are competing with genuine passion for their home countries that also happen to lack facilities (i.e. snow) for winter sport training).

Among these, perhaps the weirdest is the Dominican cross-country ski team.  I say “perhaps” because a new strange fact could easily emerge about any of the others, but this couple seems to be winning so far… though they didn’t come anywhere near a podium, we are all still talking about them – and who here can name the actual gold medalist in that event (what event, even?)?

Gary di Silvestri and Angela Morone are US residents who skied for the small island nation nation of Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) in Sochi.  When I say “skied” I mean “signed up to ski” – neither of them finished their races (only one even started).  Deadspin has a long and involved analysis of their citizenship, past exploits, and athletic prowess here.  Is this tale of scamming the system true?  I can’t know, but even if only the most basic details, available to every one of us, is factual, this husband and wife clearly don’t get what the Olympics is really about.

What are the Games about?  This afternoon I finally got around to listening to a podcast from the crew at Pop Culture Happy Hour wherein these critics had a go at the whole concept of watching sports.  They made some good observations, but I would say that they missed some of the most important points in the function of the Olympics.  Is the system corrupt, the event over-commercialized?  Do we spend too much time talking about the back story on the athletes versus showing the competition?  Yes, yes, and yes.  However, this is also the only time, every four years, that these high-level athletes get to show off their skills, and we get to watch this extreme athleticism.

Everyone wants to know the star of the football team, has opinions on their MLB team’s manager, lists their favorite basketball stars.  How many of you could have named a skier, luger, or skater one month ago?  These athletes work and train hard their entire lives.  They go through a rigorous competition season of local, regional, and international races, culminating in a World Cup circuit of some sort.  Every four years, they get a chance to compete in events that the whole world is watching, a place where one run, race, or performance will determine whether they get a big chunk of metal to hang around their necks.  They get to skate under the flag of their country, alongside their teammates who may have been rivals just weeks before.  In some ways, it may make no difference in their overall standings in their World Cup or equivalent – it is a huge celebration of athletics and sportsmanship that is a break from their usual routine.  On the other hand, they may have only one shot at the Olympic Games, and their performances there could make a huge difference in sponsorships and other income, which could in turn determine whether they are able to continue their athletic careers.  When folks make up an athletic past, buy a place on an Olympic team, and then fail to even try to complete a race, they not only mock those individuals who have worked incredibly hard to get there, but they take the spotlight away from them as well, perhaps at what could have been fifteen minutes of well-deserved fame.

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Ahn Hyun-Soo, dejected, stands next to Apolo Anton Ohno after his gold medal win in Torino, Italy

Of course, some of the athletes are competing under flags other than their native ones, for completely different reasons.  One that was left out of the BBC’s list above, presumably because it has been so high-profile, is the case of Viktor Ahn, formerly known as Ahn Hyun-Soo.  This guy was the top medalist in both Torino and Vancouver, for South Korea. However, he was injured last season, and was unable to compete in events which served as qualifiers for the Korean Olympic team.  So, he decided to move to Russia, gain citizenship there, and compete as a Russian.  This is also known as defecting.  Some fans lowered their opinion of Ahn as a result, but that didn’t stop him from medaling in Sochi, too.  Personally, I got a little tired of hearing his story over and over.

I saw Ahn compete in Torino, saw him come in second to Apolo

On the starting line in Torino '06

On the starting line in Torino ’06

Anton Ohno in the men’s 500 meter, and lead South Korea’s relay team to gold.  There were 7 initial heats in the competition, followed by 4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, and 2 final runs (one for 1st through 5th place, and one for 6th and 7th).  The semifinals and finals took place the day I was there.  In addition, the Men’s 5000 meter relay was also competed that day.  The relay looks pretty confusing on television, or even at some points in person.  However, once you get a handle on what you’re looking at, it is a beautiful sight, and remarkable that more skaters don’t get injured!  What a great experience to see these races in person.  I keep meaning to go to one of our local Midwestern tracks (such as the Petit Center in Milwaukee) to watch some short-track speed skating.

Skaters give each other a push...

Skaters give each other a push…

... during the men's 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

… during the men’s 5000m relay in the Torino Olympics

The Koreans were great, but the personality and athleticism of Ohno won the day for me.  Seeing his passion when he won the finals of the 500 m was amazing, and witnessing his emotion during the medal ceremony was something I will never forget.  I am not usually a particularly patriotic person, but I even got a little choked up as I watched our flag rise to the strains of the Star-Spangled Banner, in that packed stadium.

Drama... this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium... but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

Drama… this guy thought he deserved to parade his South Korean flag around the stadium… but it turned out that he had been disqualified, so Ohno carried the US flag around, instead!

 

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men's 500 m, Torino 2006

Apolo Anton Ohno after skating to victory in the Men’s 500 m, Torino 2006

Medal ceremony of the Men's 500 m short track event, Torino '06 Olympic Games

Medal ceremony of the Men’s 500 m short track event, Torino ’06 Olympic Games

 

 

Closing Ceremony

I am sitting here watching the Closing Ceremony of the 2014 Olympic Games, and can’t help reflecting on the ceremony I got to witness in Torino, Italy in 2006 (during the commercial break, of course).

The view from my seats at the Torino closing ceremony in 2006.  It was totally awesome to have the rings in my sight the whole time... but the support pillars blocked the view of the projection screens, so I couldn't see what was going on in the actual program.

The view from my seats at the Torino closing ceremony in 2006. It was totally awesome to have the rings in my sight the whole time… but the support pillars blocked the view of the projection screens, so I couldn’t see what was going on in the actual program.

The view from the seats I purchased for almost $400, direct from the official Torino Olympics nearly a year in advance.  I spent over an hour complaining to the ushers, who were all volunteers and local Italians.  They sympathized, saying, "What do you expect for a stadium built by Mussolini?"

The view from the seats I purchased for almost $400, direct from the official Torino Olympics nearly a year in advance. I spent over an hour complaining to the ushers, who were all volunteers and local Italians. They sympathized, saying, “What do you expect for a stadium built by Mussolini?”

The thing that has struck me the most about the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Sochi is the way the producers considered the in-house audience in their design.  They did an excellent job of showcasing Russian culture and history, especially in terms of their excellence in performing and visual arts.  The coolest part of their set-pieces-hanging-from-the-ceiling, though, is that they were equally visible to the entire audience in that stadium.  The nose-bleed seats may have even gotten a better look at some of those details!  Of course, they added some little details, especially in the ballet sequences, that were meant for the front-row seats.  However, much of the production was available in equal measure to “the masses” there.  In fact, I wish that they would have given us at-home viewers more broad views rather than close-ups.

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I was eventually moved to these seats, after being advised by the ushers that their previous occupants had complained and been relocated, themselves! I much preferring the view of the back of the rings to the bottom of the balcony!

In Torino, by contrast, there were several portions of the show that were focused on one location on the floor.  In addition, there were some seats (notably mine!) that clearly had an obstructed view… which didn’t stop anyone from charging hundreds of dollars for the ticket.  There were some really cool things about being at the Closing Ceremony in 2006, but the actual production wasn’t part of it.  My Italian host kept texting me during the ceremony, telling me how awesome things looked (on TV where they were watching at home), and jealous that she couldn’t be there… I was so close to just leaving and going to watch it on TV!  But then… I got to see the athletes walk in right below me, and hear the cheers of the crowd.  When I returned to the States the  next day, my friends kept telling me their favorite parts of that ceremony – and I had to explain that I couldn’t see the floor, or any of the four TV screens in the stadium!  However, I had been part of the crowd that was dressed identically, that waved flags at prescribed times, and that generally celebrated International athleticism as one group of anonymous fans.

The line to get in to the venue took about an hour, and wound around the building.  We got a sneak preview of some of the set pieces!

The line to get in to the venue took about an hour, and wound around the building. We got a sneak preview of some of the set pieces!

 

The Olympic flame was located outside of the stadium, a couple of blocks away, but positioned such that those entering the stadium saw it in a central location

The Olympic flame was located outside of the stadium, a couple of blocks away, but positioned such that those entering the stadium saw it in a central location

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching the flags of the 2006 Olympics march in...

Watching the flags of the 2006 Olympics march in…

 

U-S-A!  Watching our athletes march in under the rings in Torino

U-S-A! Watching our athletes march in under the rings in Torino

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yet despite the

Every attendee at the ceremony got a "goodie bag" and we all donned matching white ponchos and paper headdresses/masks, and waved our Italian flags on cue.  This guy next to me had true Italian spirit!

Every attendee at the ceremony got a “goodie bag” and we all donned matching white ponchos and paper headdresses/masks, and waved our Italian flags on cue. This guy next to me had true Italian spirit!

drawbacks of that ceremony, I can’t explain the powerful feelings of actually being present there.  The joy and enthusiasm of the athletes, the bittersweet celebration of the fortnight of competition, the sounds and (obstructed-view) sights of a world-class extravaganza were all amazing to witness.  I can’t even begin to imagine what the athletes were feeling during those moments.  We were all able to see the smiles and tears of the Sochi Olympians just a short while ago, simultaneously releasing the stress they’ve experienced and celebrating their victories and newfound friends.  Wonderful!

Italian Alps

After that acclamation that I gave Julia Mancuso in my previous post, you would expect this to be about my experience seeing her race in the 2006 Olympics in Torino (or Turin), Italy.  It’s disappointing, but I didn’t actually get to see her ski.  I indeed had tickets to the Women’s Giant Slalom, but… on the day of the race, I took the train up to Sestriere from the city of Turin – and realized that I had left the ticket behind!  It was a foggy/snowy day, so I couldn’t see the course from outside the barriers.  [The photos here were taken during the men's GS, on another day.]

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Concessions in the ski village at Sestriere, with the mountains and Olympic course in the background.  I didn't get in to watch the races close up, but I had some tasty chocolate-and-red-wine that is a signature of the Italian Alps, and some polenta stirred in a big vat by authentic Piedmontese.

Concessions in the ski village at Sestriere, with the mountains and Olympic course in the background. I didn’t get in to watch the races close up, but I had some tasty chocolate-and-red-wine that is a signature of the Italian Alps, and some polenta stirred in a big vat by authentic Piedmontese.

I didn’t want to waste my train trip up there, though, so I bought a lift pass at a local resort, rented some gear, and spent the day skiing in the Alps!  It was pretty amazing – at the bottom of one run, I found myself on the border of France and Italy.  I didn’t really understand the whole lift system, though, and in the ever-thickening fog and sleet I took a wrong turn on one of my last runs of the day.  I wound up at the bottom of a lift that had closed for the evening, with no idea how to get back where I belonged!  A few minutes later, a couple of ski patrollers came along, looking for stragglers (i.e., me).  They could tell that I was a “dumb American,” and told me in English, “This lift is closed.”  Well, gee, thanks for pointing that out!  I asked them, in Italian, if they could suggest how I might get out of there.  They barely refrained from rolling their eyes as they glanced at each other, then asked, “Can you ski?”  “Yes,” I said, and they motioned for me to follow them down the hill.  They took me down an un-groomed trail through trees and steep drops, not-so-patiently waiting every few hundred yards for me to catch up.  When we got close to the end, they pointed the way for me to get back to the lodge to return my rental equipment,