Sunday, October 08, 2006

notes from the north

Waking up in the Wisconsin northwoods, some 300 miles north of Madison. Last week-end the fall colors peaked here, they say. But this week-end has the weather sewn up tight.

It's early. We find a café with an espresso machine. Ed rolls his eyes. I munch contentedly on a cranberry scone. Sometimes an isolated nod toward the tourist is okay by me.

A few miles north we stop at the Bear Country gas-station-bait-shop-canoe-rental place.
Can’t drop you folks on the river now. Gotta mind the shop. Come back in the afternoon.

Excellent. It gives me an opportunity to plead my case for a morning at the Bayfield Apple Festival.
You can’t come all the way up north and not see Lake Superior.
Surely there is more to Lake Superior than Bayfield and the Apple Festival
. There will be crowds at the Festival. (Ed doesn’t much care for crowds.)
There’ll be apples. You love apples.

The sky is a gentle blue, the trees are pretty as can be, all this puts one in an agreeable mood. We head toward Bayfield.

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Indeed, a detour toward the shore of Lake Superior is a highpoint. The stretch of sand is empty. The waves play with a few drifting leaves. The water is clear and still not too cold.

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But the traffic into Bayfield is heavy. Cars are directed toward big parking lots at the periphery of the village. Not us! Ed is convinced we can find a free spot downtown, near someone’s house. Ed is right. There, he’ll enjoy hearing that.

There are way more than 651 (Bayfield’s pop.) at this fair, Ed notes glumly.
Of course! It’s the event of events! I’m thrilled.

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I am especially tickled because much of the attention at the Festival is on food and much of the food has to do with apples.

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I show great restraint. Apple brats draw crowds, but the biggest line is in front of the “Indian taco” stand.

Me, I’m in search of the grandstand (it’s a pretty small grandstand; you could pass by it and not know you've put yourself out of its reach). There’s to be an apple-peeling contest. I want to watch. 436 inches was the record length of an unbroken peel. Can anyone top that?

Not this peeler:

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Maybe this one:

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It’s a slow moving contest. The emcee notes it’s sort of like watching grass grow. Ed is fascinated. I nudge him to the car. We are creeping into the afternoon. The Bear Country gas-bait-boat-etc. guy is waiting for us.

Gotta be careful on the river, we’re told as we kick up dust in his truck, heading with the canoe to the White River. The first time I did it with my wife, we flipped. You get into the brush, lean too hard and over you go.
Oh great. This river will require work.
Lived here long? I ask.
For a while now. But I’m heading back to Montana soon. Better bear hunting there. (There’s bear hunting here?)

This is a hot week-end for hunting, isn't it? I see a lot of men in hunting attire milling about the villages.
Oh, it’s mostly grouse hunters.
But I've spotted deer in pick up trucks as well. And I hear the sound of gunfire as we begin our paddle down the river.

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Do you think we’ll get shot at? (I am rubbing a sore arm. I got stung by a wasp at theBear Country gas station and I'm hoping to be done with pain for the day.)
I think the chances are small, Nina.
Another sound of a rifle close by.
And when they hit someone by accident, they’re real sorry.

We paddle in silence, but the splash of the oars is enough to scare the river life. Herons and loons take flight as we come around each bend. A white tail stumbles through the river in a hurry to get away. Her partner scampers off on the other side.

Hey, you’re missing all the good photos!
I feel like I should help keep us away from the fallen timbers and sandbanks. The best I can do is this:

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We paddle on. The early evening is beautiful. The trees along the river are mostly bare now and still we appear to be moving through an Impressionists’ canvas.

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…With an occasional Norman Rockwell moment throw in: The woman is hanging the sheets to dry, the dog runs towards us on the river, the flag is up, the silos stand tall.

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It’s dusk by the time we drive back with the paddles to the Bear Country gas-bait-boat rental. You can’t see much of the forest now. Unless you pull over and stare deeply within.

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The moon is out again. Neither of us feels like driving much to get food. We go to the Black Bear Inn, a local place, just across the street from the Bear Country gas-bait-boat etc. store. Is there a theme here?

I'm guessing Black Bear is a place to go with your girlfriends while the guys are counting their deer, or with your spouses and pals after you’ve put away your grouse. It’s musty inside. It looks as it did however many decades back, when it first started cooking for the locals.

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The food is great. I appreciate seeing iceberg lettuce salad at the Black Bear. It fits well here. It’s not a retro act, it’s the real thing.

The whitefish from the lake is gently grilled, just enough so it remains moist, and the ubiquitous red paprika does not detract. It works with the generous squirt of lemon juice. I’m not quite sure where the chardonnay by the glass came from but for $2.50 a glass, I'm not complaining. Dare I say it's actually good. Not rose from the Languedoc good, but good.

A northwoods day. Beautiful up there, it really is.