Not Our Father’s Sons: A Meditation On Activity in Adulthood

Growing up, I had an excellent time playing in the forests of Brown Deer Park, and after softball games playing volleyball and horseshoes at Rollie & Carolines. This was Wisconsin, after all, the land of “Sure, let’s play athletics – but first figure out the beer.” My dad’s softball team was a part of a bar league and afterward we adjourned to the bar and the adults did more weeknight drinking and us kids played and played. We even had a set of Jarts I recall enjoying as a kid. 

Making new friends while bike camping with Phil in Northern Wisconsin

I never questioned that my dad played softball with his friends – it just was. He had the gang of guys who’d gone to high school together that comprised the team. They’d settled ino their various suburban homes and gathered throughout summer to play at baseball with a beer mug in-hand, manual pump keg between the bleachers. It was the arbitrarily selected home team’s turn to bring the barrel. 

In my 41st year I think about this now, my father and his friends’ understanding of leisure activities and my own exploits. Yesterday morning, I got up at 5am to go mountain biking before work. When I was a kid, mountain biking was some lofty activity held sacred by those Western mountain states. For me it offers a daily sense of adventure. I’m not opposed to softball, but it’s a whole lot of waiting around (and I loved baseball passionately up until the second season of the 94-95 strike). I can ride a bike pretty much anytime, whereas baseball requires a team. 

Kettle Moraine trails yesterday morning before work

I reference father’s sons because I happen to be a son. My mother never seemed to have a particularly athletic drive. She often references her clumsiness, though she’s always been tough. In elementary school a kid was once picking on her older brother. She got in the kid’s face, who announced he’d, “Never hit a girl with glasses.” My astigmatism-eyed mother removed her spectacles, replied, “What about now?” and knocked the wind out of the kid with a gut shot. At 67 today, mixed martial arts came along too late for my mother. 

Part of what makes my friends different from our fathers, I think, is that we regularly, throughout every season, with intention, spend time being active. Whether it’s road bikes or canoe camping in summertime, cross country skiing in winter, hiking or indoor climbing when the weather is uglier than for either of the former – we move around on a regular basis. 

About to leave on a trip, circa…2013?

An important detail is that we check in on one another’s activities. If anyone isn’t able to join for what seems like a protracted amount of time – we reach out to check if they’re ok. Often, we’re all just busy with work and family life. But even then, we still reach out and ask how things are going and if there’s anything we can do to help. Often, that little tap is enough of a reminder that we all need to keep an eye on our physical and mental health. 

Crash country skiing in Lapham Peak

This bears underscoring: We don’t do this because we are exceptional athletes. We do these activities because we like them and they make us feel good. We’re not racers nor have some delusion of athletic mastery. There are no rankings or track times or statistics to live up to. We’re doing stuff because it’s there to be done and it’s fun and we’re not dead yet. So we do.

My dad’s friends gradually filtered away from the softball team. A common thing was they’d pull a hamstring running to first and while limping back to the dugout swat at the air, saying, “I’m too old for this shit.” And that would be it for them, they’d amble off into the shrugging sunset. At 41, I might now be several years past when my dad played softball. And when I think of them “getting old” and quitting, my first thoughts are: 

  • You didn’t even stretch – of course you pulled a muscle!
  • You’re been standing there with a beer in your hand until your time to bat!
  • You haven’t been active all winter and now you expect this jersey to fit over your belly and your body to suddenly sprint? Come on, man! Go for a run from time to time! 

Inactivity leads to a self fulfilling prophecy of “being old.” 

My father was from a different time and without fail every generation thinks: 

  1. They invented sex.
  2. They are wiser than the generation before them. 
It’s really handy if one of your friends spent college working in a bike store

It may sound like I’m swinging heavily into that second option and that really isn’t my intention. My father’s generation concluded they would work hard and then retire to a life of leisure and that would lead to happy healthiness. This might have been a fine idea at the time, but it won’t likely ever fit my restless nature. I can’t speak to their lifestyles because my dad is long gone and I haven’t seen most of his friends since the funeral. But my mother keeps me abreast of the surgeries and heart attacks and diabetes the gout and obits. It sounds like their bodies have been collapsing slowly for a long time. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s lifestyle. I’d wager a combination of the two and leisure proves harder on a body than steady activity. 

In talking about this with one of my friends, he suggested that they were probably tired from doing more manual labor types of work, and that may be true. In our current working culture we talk about work/life balance and all sorts of theoretical health benefits, but this much is definitely true: We sit in front of computers while our parents generation moved around a lot more at work. Work life, for many of us in this time in history, has become a lifelong extension of sitting in a desk in a classroom, we’ve just traded a computer for a textbook. And so for leisure we desperately raise our heart rates.

I’m not an ideal paragon of health. I’m from Wisconsin and I act like it. Cheese, sausage, beer, an extra half barrel of weight more or less evenly distributed throughout my body – those jabbing jokes exist for a reason.  But I plan on maintaining my general activity level long before and long after retirement (whatever that abstract means for an artist/writer/poet). And I’m fortunate to have friends who seem committed to a similar pursuit. And we move around often, usually stretching first, and most often waiting until afterward to revel in the beer.

And, who knows, maybe I just mountain bike because it’s a little dangerous I can’t find a decent set of lawn darts to throw around.

Great Blue Heron photographed at Riveredge

I’ve worked at Riveredge Nature Center for nearly three years and I got my first usable pictures of a Great Blue Heron today.

Unfortunate about the northern wildfire haze in the background, but I’m nonetheless glad to have pictured this gangly specimen.

These birds are native to the area and I’ve seen them plenty of times, but they always managed to spot me first and I’ve watched them fly away along the Milwaukee River.

In this instance I saw this one land at a nearby pond while I was eating lunch and hustled to grab the work camera while the salad waited. See more pictures here on the Riveredge Instagram account.

Film Pictures from the Wisconsin River

I brought a 35mm camera while canoe camping on the Wisconsin River so as to not be using water vulnerable electronics.

Morning coffee while watching the swallows.

I’m pretty happy with how some of these turned out. And kicking myself for those few shots when I forgot that pesky film advance function. Ah well.

Something fun to do while doing something fun. Oh, and if you’ve never…grab yourself or try out flinging a set of horse shoes. See a few more pictures here.

Photos from a recent prescribed burn at Riveredge Nature Center

To quote the Riveredge Instagram post I wrote…

Prescribed burning is a time tested practice for prairie and savanna rejuvenation that existed in the Americas centuries before European settlement. We embrace this practice across appropriate Riveredge habitats.

Prescribed burning spurs prairie seeds to sprout, consumes encroaching invasive species, and expends potential wildfire fuel in a safely controlled situation.

Thanks to our wonderful burn #volunteers for helping keep everyone (and everything) safe!

A perhaps unorthodox building portrait.
Lines of fire are strategically placed with a drip torch to collide and extinguish together.
Riveredge School students were able to learn and observe from a safe distance.
This shot is probably my favorite, the combination of high-leaping flames and indecisive sunrise.
For all the technology in the world, the best burn tools are still a flat piece of rubber to suffocate any flare-ups and a backpack full of water with a hose.
I was even able to participate in a burn later in the day (photo by my colleague Matt Smith). I should probably clarify…the fire is moving slowly, for this picture moment, I’m in a safer landscape than this may appear.

Golden Hour Sun Slips Down While Climbing the Trees

During an event at Riveredge I was taking pictures at one of our satellite locations to promote future installments. I walked back to the main building to pick up some sort of forgotten tool for the program and for all of about 10 minutes the light was still coming through the trees but had already darkened across the land. As the sun went retreated, the remaining light gradually crawled up the forest.

Exciting Conservation Easement News at Riveredge

At Riveredge Nature Center, we recently completed a conservation easement. This will ensure that 287 acres (75% of the total land) will forever be protected from development and permanently preserved for habitat conservation and education. I’m proud to have been on-staff while the long process was completed and to have collaborated on the unveiling. Visit this announcement for complete details.

Autumn along the Milwaukee River at Riveredge Nature Center

Autumn Kaleidoscope and Howling Wolves: A first Chequamegon Bikepacking Experience on a Fat Bike

Alright, let’s just get this out of the way because being from the Midwest it would be rude to not first talk about the weather. We lucked out. The October colors were at peak floristic phenomenon, one of the days approached summertime temperatures, and it didn’t rain the entire time we were out on the trail. All that considered, bikepacking the Chequamegon is a marvelous slog, which becomes near graceful the more days one is seated (and standing) in the saddle. 

Autumn splendor

For me, this trip started in springtime with covid restlessness. Dave Schlabowske, Bike Czar now retired from working with the Wisconsin Bike Fed, had documented this trip in generous detail for any other swashbuckling wanderers to follow in his pedal strokes. I was intrigued and started planning, even bought gravel tires for my regular road bike, which I ended up not using anyway. A last minute choice led to riding trail bikes instead of retrofitted road bikes, which proved favorable. 

I picked up this Farley Trek fat bike because I want to ride off-road in every season and refuse to store and maintain more than two bicycles. I’m not a huge fan of obsessing about gear and weight and overthinking packing strategies, but sometimes it has to be done to get where you want to be. This bike ticks all of those mountain biking boxes and handles more. It’s a remarkable general practitioner of sorts, which I admire in anyone and anything. 

Our chosen rigs taking a rest. Us too.

My friend Philip Salamone agreed to join on the trip, this being his first experience with any kind of bike touring. This detail didn’t concern me as he’s the kind of guy will nonchalantly observe, “Yeah this weekend was great. Did like 30 miles of single track on Saturday.” Phil is a fantastic artist and teacher and chill, engaging company. Phil brought his mountain bike, a hardtail with 29” tires.

Before embarking, we stopped for breakfast at The Brick House for breakfast and coffee. I struck up conversation with a couple of guys who looked like riders and were walking a dog. One of the guys was of the lanky and sleek cyclist variety and the other made me think of who you’d expect to see on a 1970’s baseball card listed in the position of Pitcher. He sported a generous bushy mustache and a quietly unflappable manner while wearing shorts and a t-shirt as we all sat breakfasting at windy 52 degree picnic tables. “I wonder what they’re doing here, dog and all,” I thought. “Maybe they’re locals.” Turned out they were from Madison and had the same plan as us.

The morning after camping at Moose Lake.

We began outfitting our bikes with bags and I noticed and one of their rides was of the European porteur-style featuring a massive rack and 20-inch front wheel. It became clear the dog was a part of the crew and sat shotgun. “Huh. That guy is screwed,” I thought to myself. 

Finally, we locked up the truck and made our way out onto the first of many, many gravel roads. Up the first steep incline we witnessed the snaking slides of skinnier-tire equipped gravel or road oriented rides, and we immediately knew we’d made the right choice in bikes. Well…I should say Phil started talking about that, I inhaled and exhaled with purpose and every once in awhile saved up the additional breath to respond, “Uh huh.”

The winding wilds of Wisconsin. This is the easy going terrain.

Moving Southeast from Cable, within the first hour we encountered a handful of singletrack and ATV trails laden with deeply exposed roots and basketball-sized rocks like the throat gullet to bouncing hell if everything on your bike isn’t tightly affixed and tightened to a gentle creak. We stopped for lunch about a dozen miles in alongside the winding road, our bikes leaning against the incline of a roadside moraine. Realizing we were only one-third of our way to the campsite, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. 

That said, my bike handled everything quite well. I ran with 19psi in the rear tire and 17psi up front. It was faster on the smooth gravel while still somewhat forgiving. When not on rough single track portions I had my fork locked out for less bounce=greater climbing efficiency.

We encountered a recently retired gravel bike rider who had years ago bought a cabin in the area for a love of the Birkebeiner Ski Race. He said there are two types of people who ski in the race: Those who participate once and decide that’s enough, or those who become hooked and want more. He was smilingly of the latter. 

A breath with a tapestry of Tamaracks.

The road gradually relented to often being an actual gravel road versus a collection of potholes and granite bowling balls to dodge, but still with remarkable ascents and descents. I realized that on the ascents, I finally knew the reason it was so hard to find pants that fit my bubble butt in high school. It was to propel saddlebags bouncing on 3.8” tires up rocky inclines. Finally, halfway through life, this big ass has purpose other than shredding jean crotches when squatting. 

We arrived to Moose Lake, our first night campsite, and I was totally wrecked, delirious with exhaustion. My sentences trailed off into the beginnings of the next sentence while I wobbled around the campsite. We each prepared one of those just-add-boiling-water backpacking meals and I ate the whole two servings of Chicken Risotto, then began to again feel human.

Check out that hill as modeled by Luke and Beulah.

As we sat on the provided picnic table, one of our new Madison acquaintances pedaled on by. We shouted greetings and took them up on the invitation to join at their campfire. It turned out the bikes, the dog, the moustache – all arrived in a fine jumbled order. They’d left sooner than us and arrived in about as much time as we had. I decided that our new friend and hound Beulah were the combined patron saint of the Chequamegon Trail spirit. Do you have a bike? Are the tires wider than skinny? Do you want to smell lush pines and the humid sweet rot of autumn leaves? Then go north and embrace your unbuttoned collar flapping in the downhill Kettle Moraine wilderness!

The next morning was in the low 40’s as we headed out; I find temperatures in the 40’s-60’s are generally preferable to the mid-70’s of the day prior. Keeps the muscles fresher, less sweat, or maybe it just wicks off of you. Anyway, I find the third day of any ride is when you really start to get into the groove. The second day you’re still getting there, and I was still getting there. 

We were stunned by the golden beauty of this forest – my phone pictures really don’t do it justice.
The sole “mechanical” of the trip.
Tightening this bolt.
I wasn’t kidding when I said
we lucked out.

We delighted in the golden tapestry of wetland habitats unfamiliar to me in Southeastern Wisconsin, surrounded by gatekeeping Tamaracks whose needles turn bright before dropping. In the sun they twinkle giving the golden Maples a run for their majesty. 

We pulled into Clam Lake to camp at around 4:30pm looking forward to the deep dish pizza we’d heard so much about from The Chippewa. We sat on picnic tables devouring slices and drinking beer, laughing giddily about our fortune to find such wonderful pizza pie in what might seem an unlikely home while drinking New Glarus gas station beer. Felt so good it was like we were cheating. 

Retrieving our deep dish pizzas from The Chippewa.

Overnight, back at our campsites at Day Lake (which – sidebar – if you run a campsite that caters to bicycle travelers it’s really handy for guests to be aware if the water pump is partially dismantled) we heard a massive howl of wolves and coyotes. We’d neglected to hang our food as it didn’t seem distant enough to attract bears – but I rose in the middle of the night to affix the saddlebag to my bike just in case. 

Summer and autumn colors commingling at Clam Lake.

Our third day started a little slow in a fog of pizza and beer, but we felt strong and replenished, rewarded with some of the most vibrant forests we’d seen the entire trip. About half of the roads were paved as we made our way back to Cable, which by comparison felt like a luxurious auburn-tinged carpet laid just for us. Streets wound through forested vacation estates with tumbling kettles and dramatic moraines. During lunch a guy whizzed by on a golf cart and asked if we were ok. We gave the thumbs up and, having seen so many mud-splashed ATVs and orange vested pickup driving hunters with bed-caged bellering hounds all looked at one another, “…a golf cart?” Turns out a golf course is nestled within all of that forest. 

Roadside lunch, Phil sketching as painters are known to.

We arrived to a ghostly empty town of Cable as the temperature dropped with winds that started mid-afternoon. The town was so empty we saw deer strolling casually down the middle of the streets. We counted our luckies that could no longer be seen twinkling through the grey and opted for a long drive rather than a wet tent in the morning. In saying goodbyes to our new friends, Sean and Luke, while I was closing the car door, Luke added the Wisconsin adage for universally sweet concern, “Watch for deer.” 

Phil and I filled up on Chinese food in Hayward, pounded gas station coffee, and each made it to Madison and Milwaukee respectively by 2am. I brought the bike inside, took a shower for the first time since Thursday morning, and lay awake for about about 30 seconds wondering when I’d do it again. Maybe next time for a week rather than a weekend?