Remembering The Nightcrawlers

I love bad weather. I love that it knocks us off our routine, makes us uncomfortable, and bring us Minnesotans/Wisconsinites together in a collective “What the hell is up with this?” kind of way. I have to include Wisconsin in my posse now that we’re living out on the river somewhere in no man’s land between the two dairy-loving, football-crazed, lake-loving, hardy-living states. Also, I love the cheeseheads.

Two days ago, on October 20, it snowed multiple inches all over the place. (That is exactly the sentence I would say if I was hired to be a weatherwoman.)

Today, I woke up to a gray yellow sky which is a color that makes no sense. It felt otherworldly.

My neighbor texted me to watch out for an alien invasion. Allegedly, there have been multiple encounters with former residents on this island, and today looked like the set for exactly that. My mind wandered and made up stories as the eery energy eminating from the sky and off the oddly calm waters infiltrated my system. I then heard a clunk clunk against the boathouse and jumped with the flashing thought of a landing spaceship. It was just a log brushing against the barrels, and it is a noise that happens here every 3.5 hours. My imagination got the best of me.

Shortly after my stint of imaginating aliens, Michael called me. He is rained out from work. Reason #5 that I can appreciate a little bad weather: we will now have the rare day off together.

I think I like bad weather in the same way I like the dark. It heightens my senses and allows me to feel fully present. You can bet that I am paying attention to every broken branch, every print, every sound, and every motion as I walk through the woods late at night. For those five minutes on my walk home, I don’t think about what my patients are going through, about Covid and about missing many of my favorite humans, about politics, about anything outside of my present experience in these woods. It’s enlivening and so necessary. Also, when I’m most alert, the neighorhood beaver slaps it’s tail at me and makes me pee my pants, so there’s that.


If you think back on the last year, I guarantee that some of your most vivid memories include inclement weather. They do for me.

I remember bringing Hutch home from the hospital during a winter flood. The icy water was up to our knees and I yelled to Michael, “as long as it doesn’t reach my stitches!”… uffda. We stayed at our neighbor’s house that night after discovering that our heat went out.

I remember the hip deep snow at the cabin- Hutch’s first time there. It was such a challenge just to move through, and it provoked plenty of fall-related laughter.

There were the hot days that I submerged Hutch in his bathtub while I lived in just my underwear.

There was the mid-summer tornado that skirted around us. It was mighty and dark as we tracked it’s path just south of us. I remember the warm air, the whipping wind that switched directions ten times a minute, and the maternal worry that pulsed through my body as I asked Michael, “Should I put Hutch in a life jacket?”

I remember the wet and humid days walking through the island. I felt transported to a rainforest- a wild place so green and isolated.


As I walked home in the dark on Monday, I thought, “Why do I love this so much? Why do I love this dark walk that also feels both cold and wet?” I dug into that wonder until I remembered gathering nightcrawlers with my dad as a very young kid. It felt just like this night. I might have done this thirty times or maybe just once, but my body remembered the thrill.

I would have never dug up this memory had I not tried. Our minds are cluttered with so much.

The brain begins to carry only what we exercise; this is science. I see it in practice as my stroke patients must repeat actions to strengthen a neural pathway that they lost. If they repeat a thought over and over or an action over and over, that pathway will regenerate and grow stronger and more accessible with repeated input.


If we exercise gratitude over worry, our minds will land their first. If we perseverate on the flaws of a person, our minds will execute that negative thinking the next time we consider them; the same goes for positive thinking. If we start to stereotype, those connections will only grow stronger with each practiced thought until every person we meet or every experience we have gets put into it’s prescribed box.

But, if we relive the nights with the nightcrawlers, if we remember the thrill of being wet and in the dark way past bedtime and this is learned to be fun and not scary or uncomfortable, we will start to carry those kinds of feelings in the forefront of our cluttered minds. If we take time to enjoy bad weather or humorously entertain stories of aliens or perseverate on what is so good in each person we meet, the neural pathways in our minds will grow stronger toward these inclinations. We will feel enlivened.

So today, when I catalog the gray yellow sky in my memory, I will remember Hutch crawling on me at 7am and the neighbor’s dog visiting and licking both of our faces into a smile. I will remember a day off with my family with nothing planned. I will think about aliens, ya know, just for fun.

 

The Real Deal Winter

As Minnesotans, we’re known for winter. We’re also known for Prince and “uffda” and lakes. That’s about where the list ends. I’ve come to believe that we’re on to something here: keeping our state low-key-cool. We don’t tell them about the perfect summer temperatures and the kickass small town festivals that go with it or the stuff heaven is made of in a Boundary Waters getaway. We don’t clue them in on the magic of the North Shore, that our cheese curds are better than Wisconsin’s, or that people are, like, super nice here. We’ll just let them (whomever “them” is?) go on believing that we’re all Grumpy Old Men with unbearable winters and sports teams that suck.

There is another secret tucked in to the upper Mississippi River valleys; one that even the locals haven’t heard of. No, it’s not the ancient paddlefish (as I’m sure you all were thinking). It’s the little pockets of liveaboards who dot the river’s shores. There’s not a lot of us but bye golly good gosh molly, we’re here alright- rain or shine, snowy or fine… (that sentence got weird). Anyway, the cat’s out of the bag: Minnesota has humans that live on boats all year; yes, winter included.

If there is ever a winter to look back on and think “man, that was the real deal”, it was this one. Winter of 2018-2019 was a beast. It had it all: the week-long negative 40 degree stretch and the record setting snowfall in the month of February. Then, out of nowhere, right before the spring equinox… boom, the melt! FYI: record setting snow one month and a fast melt the next = major flooding. More on that next time.

As far as weather goes, it takes a lot to shock a Minnesotan. We’re a hardy bunch that have bonfires in the winter, sit on buckets on frozen ponds with a pole in hand for fun, and shovel the driveway in shorts as soon as 30 degrees hits. In December, Michael observed a group of five die-hards surfing along the icy shores of Lake Superior…that’s some next level hardiness.

However, somehow, I never fail to surprise a fellow Land of 10,000 Laker when I tell them, “I live on a boat.” There’s always a strange pause like they’re trying to gauge if I just made a weird joke. The most common follow-up question during this winter season: “but you can’t live there now?” In an almost scripted way, I rattle off a cliff notes version of answers to all the questions I know will be asked next. Those include: is it actually in the water, does it freeze, how do you stay warm, is it warm enough, do you have water, do you have electricity, do you have a bathroom, and always, always, always, at the very end of the conversation: “huh, I didn’t know you could do that.”

Yesterday, I frantically helped my neighbor disassemble his ice rink and warming huts when he told me “The city got a barge to come break up all this ice; they’re coming within the hour.” They came in twenty minutes.

As we watched this barge demolish two-foot-thick ice, a woman named Linda came by. She wore a canvas vest like mine and was about thirty years my senior. I liked her instantly as she was curious and candid with an obvious wealth of river knowledge. She did puff hard on a cigarette as we spoke, but hey, no one’s perfect. As we talked, I found out that she lived aboard her boat year round in this marina for ten years. She still comes by to walk her dog and see how things have changed, or haven’t. We talk about the change of seasons, and we exchange the same ideas about the peace and calm of winter and the slightly overwhelming feeling that takes over as the boats get slipped back in for the summer. I laugh when she says, “You have to allow an hour for the five minutes it should to take you to walk to your car.” I had said that exact sentiment to a friend of mine that morning. I had explained to her that “yeah, summer is great with all the people back and all the energy, but as each boat drops in, a bit of our winter serenity leaves with it. In the summer, you have at least half a dozen people to talk to between you and your vehicle; you need to allow an extra forty minutes to walk down the dock.” Summer is a blast, but in the winter, the vibrant human energy leaves for land, and the marina belongs to the wild of Mother Nature again. Linda gets it.  

So, this winter had it’s usuals: the motley crew of ten boats that house thirteen people, three dogs, and one cat. We saw each other only rarely as we scuttled from boat to car to bathroom to boat to grocery store to boat to work to boat. We mustered the occasional outing: a bonfire on New Year’s Eve or a walk in the woods. Neighbor Eric was the star of getting out in the elements with his pond hockey team lighting up the far side of the marina on even the coldest nights. The winter wildlife sightings also included the usuals: beavers playing above and below the ice shelves, a coyote’s deer kill in the middle of the river’s frozen main channel, and bald eagles perched in the cottonwoods. There was also this big debate: was that a coyote or a wolf that Brody (Neighbor Mike’s German Shepherd) was playing with in the woods? As we eat chicken pork seafood gumbo on Ben and Pam’s boat after an icy sunset kayak session, a consensus is made. It was either a robust coyote well fed from easy dumpster food or a young wolf lost in the big city. So, the consensus was that there was no consensus.

This winter also had many unusuals. The unusuals included a morning so icy that Neighbor Sam couldn’t get his truck up the hill to get out of the marina. He had to walk up the hill and Uber to work. Then there was January’s polar vortex deal that handed us wind chill temperatures down to 60 below. February brought us the snowiest February to date with 39 inches falling on Saint Paul. It was the fourth snowiest month of all months in recorded history here.

So, how does boat life fare in these conditions?… perfectly alright. A small place has small needs. We have two electric heaters and one propane heater aboard. We used all three once on the very coldest night, but one or two of those usually did the trick. Eight of the twelve windows were covered with Reflectix, a double bubble reflective foil that works to keep the heat where it belongs. The other four single pane windows were left as is so we didn’t feel like cavemen. Mental health matters when you exist within ten feet of your spouse for four good months.

The most popular questions regarding winter life aboard revolve around intake and output: do we have access to water and how do we expel that intake. In other words: how are we drinking and where do we shit. Before the freeze hits, all water sources are turned off except for one hose or series of hoses that lies deep below the water’s surface where it won’t freeze and runs across the whole of the marina to reach us. It would be about three hundred feet of hose.  The hose runs up to the middle of the dock to meet the needs of all thirteen humans, three dogs, and one cat. The hose must be left on to trickle just enough water through to prevent the hose from freezing to a stop. There are two things that can and have gone wrong with this one and only hose, the hose we all depend on for our sole life-giving water source. The first of these happened last winter when someone turned the water completely off after use and left the hose to freeze shut. Just like that, the whole community was waterless until the spring’s thaw. The second thing that can go wrong with our precious well is that someone can simply drop the hose in to the dark abyss of the Mississippi waters never to be recovered. We had a close call like this in November when I came home to four of my neighbors gathered around a dock finger fishing around with boat hooks. I walked in to a tense situation in which someone had dropped the hose in. The group knew approximately where the drop occurred and had been fishing around for some time. One neighbor asked why it was moved in the first place when it was originally secured tight elsewhere. Others were in quiet desperation, hoping this wouldn’t end our water supply already when winter had hardly even started. In a moment of good fortune, the hose was recovered and tied tight again with a pact amongst us all not to move it. The boat owner’s own hose must be brought to the anchored hose and connected there rather than detaching the precious anchored hose which would risk another drop-in and result in a community-wide water famine.

So, having a working water source, that is step one. We have a twenty gallon holding tank under our bow that we fill with this water. A water pump transports that water to the five gallon water heater and to our sinks. To get the water from the holding tank to our mouths or dishes or wherever also has it’s problems. If it’s less than ten degrees outside, the water pump does nothing. If it’s above ten degrees but below freezing, the pipes might be frozen as the water pump tries to push water through. We’ve had a pipe bursting incident twice this way. If we do get water from the sink but the ice or snow is frozen around the through hull were the sink water exits, our sink fills with water until we break the ice and unfreeze the water sitting in the exit pipe. Basically, we have a fully operating water system for about 35 percent of the winter months.

Alright, next question. “How do ya shit?” It’s a common liveaboard practice to avoid poops aboard altogether. It’s ideal to have a system that can handle all butts and everything that comes out of them, but even if you do, it lands in a contained system that requires a pump out. If you have a moving boat, pump outs are a breeze. You go to the gas dock, buy a touch of gas so you’re pump out is free, and get the pump hooked up to your holding tank’s deck fitting to suck out all the good stuff. In the winter, it’s not as accomodating. Our marina offers pump outs that come to you every few weeks but that pumpout date might not land on or near the date that your holding tank is full and starts to smell, and it costs two hundred dollars for the season.

Our holding tank recently had a particularly stinky issue with a malfunctioning venting system. Basically, our toilet burped up every smell that went into it. So, Michael and I made the decision to avoid boat poops altogether, and instead, hike our butts to the port-a-potty or to the marina’s shop to take care of business. Basically, our daily deliverance require much more forethought these days. After a stint of peeing into a pickle jar (I don’t want to talk about it), we changed our output system altogether. We didn’t want to rely any longer on the bi- or tri-weekly pumpout, and we were not loving the poorly ventilated system that burped back at us. We decided on a more primitive but less dependent situation. We got a five gallon portable toilet with a flush feature for seventy bucks. When the waste compartment is full, it’s emptied in to the port-a-potty up the dock: easy peasy, cheap, and no stink. Perhaps it’s the pickle jar experience talking, but to me, this is luxury.

Well, now that we got the intake and output talk out of the way, where do we go next? I mentioned Neighbor Eric’s killer ice rink within the marina. I’ve never been a hockey player nor can I really skate but his pond hockey situation makes me think that I’m missing something. He’s got lights that surround the rink and a warming hut that has beer and the ambiance of a cozy Irish bar. He skates from boat to rink every night. Sometimes, I fall asleep to the sound of hockey which I love. Other nights, I fall asleep to the sound of someone chipping ice around their boat. Fiberglass boats can’t freeze in or their hull would be done for, so winter requires a bubbler that keeps the water moving and an ice chipping tool (a 2×4 with a rope tied to it is a popular one around here) to augment the process. We are fortunate to have a steel hull on our boat which means we freeze right in; no problem.

So, here’s the conclusion. Winters in Minnesota suck and are also awesome. They make us hardy. They make us grateful. Minnesotans can surf Lake Superior in the winter, and, if we so desire, we can live on a boat in the winter. We can live in a house too, with a driveway that we shovel while wearing a pair of shorts. We can cheer on sports teams that suck and have a good time doing it. We can be nice but sometimes grumpy. We can say “uffda” or whatever word we want in whatever language we want when we wake up to a foot of snow on our car. We can always find a river or lake, but sometimes, it will be frozen. We’ll fish on it anyway. We might have a real deal winter like this one that brings days where we sleep with a scarf on or pee in a pickle jar… am I losing you now? Anyway, let the world believe we’re Grumpy Old Men with shitty sports teams. I like it that way.

Stay low-key-cool Minnesota.

Love Always, Your Neighbors Aboard

“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.