“Do You Know What You’re Doing?” (the tower tale)

So, Michael just bought a fire tower today…
That’s correct. For a whopping five dollars paid to the Wisconsin DNR, Michael purchased a 116 foot lookout fire tower- the kind that looms above the tree line to see as far as the birds. I woke up this morning to Michael shaking me awake and saying, “five minutes left (in the online auction) and the tower is ours!” I try to process this insane project with my mind still halfway in dreamland… I cannot. We watch as the minutes tick away (Michael excitedly, I with a sense of impending doom), and then suddenly we own a humongous fire tower somewhere in Wisconsin. Michael shares his thrill in a text thread where he starts recruiting his buddies for all weekends over the next 90 days (the time allowed to remove the tower before we get fined). Sam immediately responds, “Nope”; this is definitely a logical response. Calli volunteers Chris to which Chris readily agrees with the clause “just don’t kill me Mike!”. Neighbor Sam has been encouraging this idea all along and told me yesterday “if Michael buys that tower, I’m in”. The answers are varied, and I don’t know what to think.

I think back to cutting down the looming tree limb at the boathouse spot. The neighbor downstream asked Michael, “do you know what you’re doing?”. I know Michael well enough to know he said, “oh yeah, this will be no problem” or something that similarly instills a maybe false but certainly reassuring confidence. I hope I’m not revealing too many of my husband’s secrets here. I haven’t figured out if he truly believes he can do anything, or if he just wants us to buy in to what’s happening here. Either way, the b.s. he’s putting out has yet to fail us. I wouldn’t have half of these adventures without him.

You may be wondering what one does with a 116 foot lookout tower. From my understanding, one looks out from it and that’s pretty much the gist. I’m sure there will be stories to come on how this massive structure makes it’s way from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Two Harbors, Minnesota. I can’t quite wrap my head around the process but Michael claims he’s got it all figured out… typical.

As Michael’s off to the bank to get that five dollars where it needs to be, I’m here writing and reminiscing. I think about the question “do you know what you’re doing?” as so logically asked by our neighbor. I wonder now, do any of us really know what we’re doing? If we truly know what we’re doing each step of the way, are we doing it right? If there’s no challenge or uncertainty, are we doing enough? I can imagine that the ones who’ve made waves before us- ambitious souls like Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr., and Amelia Earhart- did not make waves without failure, uncertainty, and fear. One of my favorite quotes is this by Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I’m certain that Amelia Earhart got asked over and over again, “what are you doing?”; she certainly stepped outside of the box she was put in, and controversy and fear were no match for MLK’s tenacity. Now I know that I’m comparing MK (Michael Kahl) to greats like MLK here but just go with it. Apparently, I put my husband on a pretty high pedastal. Don’t worry, I kick him in the ego once in awhile too; I believe in a balanced life.
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I scribbled out the above on the day that Michael bought the tower: August 20, 2018. Since that date, the hourglass was flipped- the tower must be down in 90 days or we will be fined ten dollars per day; that is two large extra shot lattes per day or one week’s worth of laundry at the laundromat- both washed and dried. I began to wonder- will I have to budget out coffee or clean clothes if this thing doesn’t get down in time? I wouldn’t know which to choose. I still had no idea how Michael planned to remove this looming steel structure. It was tall, heavy, and seemingly permanent in it’s place. While the tower did cost $5, I soon realized that the extras would add right on up. First, gas money. It would be a 170 mile round trip at least once per week. Also, we were finding that on more days than not, one of our two trucks wasn’t running right for one reason or the next. The removal required an insurance policy (understandably so), so Michael called our buddy Paul who also happens to be an insurance guy; he was crazy or kind or both of those enough to insure it. The work also required multiple Menards trips and a trailer that would exist in Eau Claire for three months (thanks Neighbor Sam). A storage shed rental near the removal site was also necessary, oh and time.. lots of time.

Have I said how much I love my husband? I really would do anything for the guy but this whole tower thing… it stretched my limits. One night, with the 90 day cutoff date looming and half the tower still remaining, we sat in Happy Hollow Tavern guzzling a beer and a hamburger after a cold and long day picking at the tower piece by piece. I was exhausted and thoughtlessly spilled out the sentence, “Michael, you bit off more than you can chew on this one.” He was quiet and thoughtful and said “If I could go back in time, I would have never bought it.” This sentence broke my heart. He said this in response to a fatigue and frustration that he knew I was feeling and that was inevitably rubbing off on him. He said this after a very long weekend in abnormally cold fall weather. He said this with a very hungry stomach. Michael had talked about deconstructing and reconstructing a fire tower for YEARS, multiple years. While I’m aware that this is a very odd and specific goal, it was one that never went away. Michael kept showing me towers on Craigslist, admiring towers on road trips, and dreaming about the day he would work on one. Believe it or not, I vetoed a handful of towers for sale before this one fell in our shopping cart. So when this one came along, one that was accessible by road and cost thousands of dollars less than the others, I decided to keep my mouth shut and let him live this one out, for better or worse. That is what I promised, right? “For better or worse, richer or poorer, fire tower debacle or not.” Now, here we were at Happy Hollow Tavern and Michael was confessing to the notion that this project might be over his head. I immediately wanted to backpedal, reverse my negativity, swallow that phrase “you bit off more than you can chew”, and encourage him, cheer him on, slap him on the butt and say “you got it slugger”.. or something like that.

After that brief exchange of guilt or regret or whatever, we did what all the great drunks of past and present do, we left those tortured emotions on the barstool and never looked back. Well, actually, a drunk would probably go back. Also, we’re not drunks… bad analogy. Anyway, we moved forward and moved forward fast- 90 days to remove a tower with no heavy equipment. The tower came down the old fashioned way- bolt by bolt, piece by piece, in both good and foul weather. It had too, or I was going to have to give up extra-shot lattes and clean laundry.

Our 90 day cutoff date was on the horizon when Michael got a phone call. A woman from the DNR office called to say, “We checked the site and it looks like you’re making a real honest effort”… she extended the deadline. Magically, we had three more months. With a ton of help from Neighbor Sam, I am happy to report that the tower did come down in it’s entirety. With climbing harnesses strapped on, ladders rigged with ropes, tool belts tied tight, a grounds crewman or crewwoman to detach and load up the beams, and Kwik Trip pizza for lunch always, the tower removal was a complete surprise.. I mean success. With the extended deadline by the grace of the Wisconsin DNR, the fire tower was removed in time and somehow, someway, without injury. I think back to the night when Michael said “I would have never bought it”… he had never said anything like that before that or after that. I know he never meant that for himself; he meant it only for my sake. He knew I wasn’t utterly jazzed up about the tower idea and the takedown took longer than planned. But Michael, he was never intimidated, never scared, never uninspired. Michael dug in to this project like he does everything else- tenaciously and without regret. While I outwardly hated (not to sugarcoat it or anything) this tower from the beginning, Michael loved everything about it- the challenge, the planning and forethought it required, the heights, the often inclement weather, and the physicality and guts required to reach, unbolt, tie, and maneuver while strung up high in the sky. I have to admit something here: the tower project was a lot of things but the most unavoidable of those things- it was a lot of fun.

At the time Michael purchased his, the Wisconsin DNR attempted to sell eight fire towers. They only sold one. That’s right. Only one human in Wisconsin and the surrounding states decided they would buy a fire tower; that human is my husband. So what do you say when someone asks, “do you know what you’re doing”? I think it’s less about what you say and more about what you do; you do it anyway- tenaciously and without pause, without regret, without internalizing the doubt that the world, and even your wife, might eagerly offer. You might only know what you’re doing when you find 10,000 ways to do it wrong, or you might get lucky- your big humongous looming steel tower might just come down without a hitch.

After I read this blog to Michael, he informed me that, “I don’t really like Thomas Edison though.” When I asked him why, he let me know that Edison didn’t actually invent the lightbulb… I’ll have to fact check that later. Michael went on to share a favorite quote of his that he finds more applicable to his experience, and I have to agree- it’s better than Edison’s. His preferred quote is this: “Good judgement comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgement” as stated by writer and activist Rita Mae Brown. So, allow me to revise my ending: You might only know what you’re doing when you find 10,000 ways to do it wrong, or you might get lucky- your big humongous looming steel tower might just come down with a bit of bad judgement, a lot of experience, and seemingly… without a hitch.

From Tree To Table

Maple Syrup. Nature’s sweet, sweet nectar. While looking to buy land, Michael and I looked for two things – water and woods (are you seeing a theme here?). Fortunately, we found both in The Northern Post, our 40 acre slice of heaven in Two Harbors, MN. In the spirit of syrup, let’s talk woods. Minnesota’s most northern woods is unique in that it is primarily coniferous (cone-bearing). The spruces, pines, and cedars maintain their green and hold mounds of snow through the winter; a welcome contrast to the deciduous (sheds it’s leaves annually) North American woods to the south of us. Nestled at the south stoop of the Superior National Forest, our Northern Post grows a blend of coniferous and deciduous trees leaving us wanting for nothing. While we honor the green conifers through the long winter, it is the maples that rule the spring. With sweet sap coursing through her veins as the frozen days thaw, Mother Maple is gracious in sharing her yield.

In late January, we began the tapping. With 30 inches of snow accumulated and no leaves on the trees to assist with identification, Michael and his younger brothers battled the elements to find what they believed to be 70 qualified maples. With the taps in, we looked forward to the spring thaw and really had no idea what to expect.

The thaw comes fast and unexpectedly and while I am home on the boat waiting for my sister to birth our first nephew, Michael was left to the land to conquer the sap of 70 trees all by his lonesome. At this point, since Michael, along with the help of his brothers, Christian and Cameron, did 96% of the work (my 4 percent comes from moral support and hauling in the over 70 pails that week before), I will transcribe his tale of tapping and sapping…

Preparation

First, Michael purchased 75 stainless steel taps online. Next, we needed a maple syrup evaporator. I’m sure these things are for sale somewhere but in true Michael fashion, he found his own way. He started where all dreamers start: Craigslist. This is where he came across a four drawer filing cabinet for $5. The next step in following a dream: find a friend that’s crazy enough to go there with you. In this venture, Michael found Sam. To begin the transformation, the drawers were removed from the cabinet and the cabinet was laid on its back. Catering pans were needed to fit the openings that once held the drawers. Sam and Michael took a road trip around the city to find these. They found that no place would sell them to you unless you owned a restaurant. No problem, they’ll just play the part of restaurant owners… they thought this seemed easy enough and to the restaurant supply store they went. After getting stopped at the front for a “restaurant ID”, they were caught in a pickle. They were booted out the door without the desired catering pans. While this would deter most, Sam and Michael quickly found an unlocked back door. Michael reports that this worked out great until he got to the cash register and was again asked for this “restaurant ID”. With the catering pans in tow, it was not the time to give up and go home. Michael explained to them that he was new to the restaurant business and did not yet have an ID; he added that he did not want to disappoint his boss and asked that they please let him make this purchase. They let him through on a guest account, and they escaped with the prize! At Home Depot, they uneventfully purchased the hinges for a door on one end and a chimney for the other end. After two hours of labor and a cup of sheet metal screws, they had created the Frankenstein evaporator.

Tapping

With the taps purchased and the Frankenstein evaporator ready for its debut, it was time to tap the trees. Michael reports that it is a simple process provided you have identified your trees whilst the leaves are on. This is something that slipped through the cracks of his early fall to do list. After a couple hours of hiking through waist deep snow with a “Trees of Minnesota” book and a pdf download of “making maple syrup”, Michael felt he had done enough research. He ditched the books and got out the drill. To tap the tree, he drilled a two inch hole at an upward angle to allow the sap to flow down and out and gently tapped in the “spile” (another name for the tap if you really want to sound cool). You then fit a tube around the spile and put down a bucket with a secure cover that has a hole drilled in it for the tube to run through. We used five gallon buckets; another Craigslist purchase for 80 cents a bucket.

Waiting

Now, we wait for Mother Nature to do her thing. The sap starts to flow when day temperatures are above freezing but night temps stay below. While we initially knew nothing about what trees to tap, we found out that you can tap any maple (although it is the sugar maple that has the highest sugar content) that is at least 10 inches in diameter three feet above the ground.

Collection

While everything we read about sap collection advised to collect sap daily or as frequently as possible, we could only collect weekly at times and found no change in taste with this timeframe. With 70 trees to gather from, the best advice we can give is to bring a friend.

Evaporate     

Something you may not know is that the sap to syrup ratio is 40:1; for 40 gallons of sap, we get one gallon of syrup. This translates to the ultimate test of patience, and evaporating is where it all goes down (or up if I’m being literal). The evaporation phase is when Frankenstein gets to really show his stuff. Make sure you have stacks of dry wood; you’re going to need it.

The ceremonial evaporation begins with the lighting… maybe a cup of lighter fluid on some small branches; whatever feels right. It’s nice to have a long evaporator like ours because we spent little time cutting our wood to length.

Once the fire gets rolling, on go those pans that Michael and Sam almost became criminal over. Fill the pans with about 4 inches of sap to start and monitor closely to prevent a boil over. You can control the temp by adding cold sap or by opening and closing the end door to control the oxygen flow.

On average, we were able to boil down three gallons of sap per hour. Our longest evaporation of 110 gallons took just over 30 hours. And yes, this means taking shifts through the night to go out and stoke the fire. Unless you saw a very scary looking wolf on your trail cam the night before, then it’s logical to insist on “maybe we should just do it together”… that was Michael as much as me by the way.

When the sap gets close to that 40:1 ratio and appears brown in color, it has been over a full of day of feeding the Frankenstein. At this point, we combine the pans and finish the cook on our propane camp stove; it’s a bit more controlled this way. As it cooks on the proprane, we keep checking it to see how much it has thickened until the desired viscosity is reached. I’m sure the real deal syrup makers would tell you to check its sugar content, or “Brix” (unit for measuring sugar density). They say that a Brix of 66° is ideal. With my Norwegian heritage carrying down a strong gene for sweets, I like to think my taste test for Brix is on point. So as soon as it looks delicious, I take the liberties and consume a spoonful. If it makes me want to whip up some pancakes now, then 66° Brix it must be. I hold off on making pancakes because I know we must pour the steaming sap through a fine weave strainer and this takes optimal concentration. Our fine weave strainer of choice is a clean t-shirt.

After the strain, we want to cool the syrup as quickly as possible. Michael’s preferred cooling method is placing the hot pan in a shallow part of our 30 degree stream as the thermal conductivity of water is 30 times than that of air. I’m on edge the whole time as I imagine the hard earned, finished syrup getting washed away with the waters and finding its way to Gooseberry Falls by late afternoon. Michael assures me that it’s secure and I don’t have to sit at the shore and stare for 30 minutes.

After the syrup is cool and safely out of the stream, it’s time to hit the bottle.

Enjoy

This is the best part. Enjoy! Some of my favorite uses so far: slathered over homemade buckwheat pancakes, used to caramelize cashews, and added to plain yogurt or kefir. We have ambitions to make a batch of kombucha with it, so stay tuned. But the most enjoyable part is spreading the love! Everything is sweetest when shared… ain’t that the truth.