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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Celebrating our Anniversary

Greetings to our readers on the Summer Solstice! This is the day that we chose long ago to be our anniversary... and we have been together for 30 years today! Please take a look at the blog linked below for lots of pictures, memories and stories, and help us celebrate!



Monday, June 18, 2012

Living In Cloud Cuckoo Land

It is the middle of June up on the Bluff and weird and wonderful things are happening. We sort of feel like we are living in Cloud Cuckoo Land... a mythical land in the clouds (invented by Aristophanes for his satire, "The Birds," predating the Alfred Hitchock film of the same name by 2400 years or so...) where everything is just perfect and nothing ever goes wrong... right? 

Well, not exactly...

The Birds.
No, not the Hitchcock movie, which so unfairly demonized our friends the crows and ravens! No, I mean the birds up here... specifically, two kinds of birds that have been grabbing our attention lately, one in a good way and the other one... well, not so much. 


Chapter 1. The Good
Starting in April or early May and lasting almost all summer, every day starts and ends at Cascade Bluff with the most amazing serenade. We are, as you all know, surrounded by forest up here, and the chorus of forest-dwelling birds is remarkable enough. But our favorite songster of the woods is one bird we have never, ever seen... but hear every day. An unobtrusive, hidden little bird with a gorgeous song... The state bird of Vermont, the Hermit Thrush.
Notice that he/she is perched on a mountain ash branch? (And we just planted 25 of them?)

Click on the button below to hear Catharus guttatus... 




  Isn't that just beautiful? Ethereal, liquid trills and notes... now imagine hearing five or six of those in "Wilderness Surround Sound" from all directions, every morning and evening, for months! Sweet... it is one of our favorite details about life on the Bluff, and we are delighted to share it with you all, courtesy of www.xeno-canto.org, "sharing bird songs from around the world," since we do not own state of the art recording equipment... yet...

Then there's that other bird. 

Chapter 2. The Bad.
Ever hear of a Hairy Woodpecker? Usually sort of shy, common little black and white woodpecker with a little red stripe on its head, doesn't bother anybody... even kind of cute...

Until now. We didn't have any idea just how obnoxious NESTING SEASON could be until a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers decided to drill a hole in a dead aspen and nest 
RIGHT NEXT DOOR!! 
If you look closely you can see the nest opening right below that mushroom cap...




The drilling wasn't so bad, as long as you don't have post traumatic stress disorder from visiting the dentist... Eggs were undoubtedly laid... hatchlings emerged, and then....
...Cuckoo Season Began!  
Starting early every morning and continuing until it is dark, and damn near drowning out the Hermit Thrushes, those x%*#%$#@*! nestlings and (we assume) their totally frazzled mother shriek continuously from that tiny little hole in the dead tree. A black and white and red head pops out of that hole, exactly like an old fashioned Bavarian cuckoo clock, and MADNESS ENSUES!! Let me make this clear. THE SHRIEKING NEVER STOPS!! Dad Woodpecker (we assume) flits about frantically, darting back and forth from one branch to the next, bringing stuff to the nest. We are quite certain that Momma Woodpecker is saying, "George, get back over here, quick! These kids are driving me nuts! They're about to eat the couch! They're starting in on the dining room table! If you don't get back here with something to eat soon I'm going to shoot myself!" or something like that. 


If you squint and use your imagination, you can see a bird head sticking out of the nest hole...
Of course as soon as I set up the tripod with the telephoto lens, she hid away and wouldn't show her little beak... I gave up after 15 minutes and way too many black fly bites...

We just keep asking ourselves, geez, doesn't she get tired of shouting?
You should all be VERY THANKFUL that I spared you a recording of a shrieking maniac bird. 



Our story started out this week in Cloud Cuckoo Land with tales of birds, it ends with...
Mammals. 

Chapter 3. The Ugly.

Actually, the story features something that really is kind of cute. With really sharp teeth. And a nasty disposition. Likely completely freaked out and very, very hungry. And with big poop.

It all began with a visit from friends who'd come from Chicago and wanted to see our place. We met them in town, had a nice dinner at local fave restaurant, The Angry Trout [http://www.angrytroutcafe.com/]. They followed us up to Cascade Bluff Road and parked their little Taurus. We brought them up to the Bluff in Dimples the big red Ford pickup, which in addition to that "check engine" light (we get a lot of those) that had come on a few days earlier, started making a weird squeaking noise... But that's another story, eventually revealing itself to be a shot universal joint... but until the U joint was fixed we decided it was time to use our Ruddy Explorer, Ursula, to take them back down to their non-high-clearance vehicle. 
Well, we had parked Ursula in the garage for a couple of days while we drove Dimples around to haul some big stuff... We tried to start 'er up and discovered that Ursula had a completely dead battery. (As a side discussion we again learned the value of having a fleet of cars and/or trucks... you never know when you will need a running vehicle...) Thankfully, Babe the Blue Jeep was running (well, if you ignore Babe's "check engine" light that we've been seeing intermittently since the tracks came off... My, we do seem to get a lot of "check engine" lights...) Hurray, we were able to bring our friends successfully to their car. All seemed well... until the next morning, when Val went to the garage to jump the Explorer's dead battery. Are you all still with me on this?
Now would be the time to cue the scary Hitchcock movie music... 
like those shrieking violins from "The Birds"...

Her first ominous clue was this... some gnarled and chomped cardboard...

And then, this... No, those aren't mouse droppings... WAY bigger than that...

...Notice the shredded stuff under the Explorer?

Well, she soon found the source... The hood of the vehicle is lined with a padding of insulation, and ours was chewed and shredded! 

And right next to the battery, she found this... four wires chewed in half! 

The wires turned out to be from a ground circuit, with a bit of redundant loop on one side...


 Val called Kathy to come out and take a look, and while Kathy fished chunks of shredded felt insulation out of the engine, Val called Stan, our neighbor and all around great guy who regularly rescues us from Up North mayhem...


Stan came over and spliced the chewed wires back together... 
Beautiful job, Stan! Thanks a bunch...

 ...and after helping us make sure all the vehicles were momentarily drivable (until we could get them in for service), he explained his Experienced Northwoods Guy theory of what probably nabbed Ursula, her insulation and wires, and us... one of these little fellas...
 a pine marten. Kinda cute, huh?
We think he's right, we have lots of them, we see their tracks all the time. And they are handsome little creatures. But they are actually large-ish weasels, with bad tempers and curiosity equal to cats. We suspect one got trapped in our garage for a few days and then started in on everything in sight in desperation to get out. Here is some of the evidence of his teeth marks as he tried to chew his way out through the walls...
 Poor guy was likely screaming "let me outta here!" by now....

He or she may even have become confused and thought that the way out of the garage was through the engine! 
We feel kind of sorry for the little guy or girl, and since we did not find a pine marten, alive or otherwise, in the garage (just lots of tell tale paw prints in the grease on the splitter) we are glad he's gone and hope his PSTD therapy sessions are going well. 

The end of this ugly story is that after her revival from the dead battery (which actually had nothing to do with the chewed wires, but was probably from a dome light left on for 3 days... and that slowly dimming light may well have enticed the pine marten to burrow into the car...) Ursula the Explorer had one of those "urgent, fix now!!" messages come on the dash. The abbreviation on the message was "RSC" which was not listed in our owners manual. She drove fine, so we took her to our local mechanic (who is currently fixing the universal joint on the Ford pickup, the source of that nasty squeaky noise...) and he didn't have an answer either and suggested we either leave it for a few weeks or take it to the closest Ford dealer... in Two Harbors (a 2 hour drive away.) We opted for the long drive over the long wait. Unfortunately, message "RSC" came with a very annoying SHRIEKING alarm that came on 
every 5 minutes on the dot

Do you know how many times that alarm came on in 2 hours? 
25.

But all is well, the homemade splice passed inspection and the "Roll Stabilization Circuit" sensor happened to be the third random thing wrong with the Explorer... or maybe her computer brains got scrambled when the pine marten had his way with her... 

Then finally, one last mammal...

Epilogue. THE BLURRY.
That blurry dark brown smudge ahead on the road...

... was in fact, a moose, right in front of us on our access road! See it? Uh... Sort of see it? That dark smudge of a thing with legs? and no rack of antlers? Looking pissed off?

She stopped, turned around and stared at us for half a minute... long enough for an iPhone shot, but not good enough for real proof... but we saw a moose! Really, we did! Honest! Cross our hearts! 

And that's this week's news from Cascade Bluff/Cloud Cuckoo Land. But really, it is all good and beautiful, hardly any shrieking at all, nothing bad, nothing ugly... Really!

Friday, June 8, 2012

"Internet Special:" A Cautionary Tale

We learn a lot of interesting things up on Cascade Bluff. Things that some savvy, woods-wise folks probably learned long ago... But there you have it, we also know lots of really useful odds and ends (like chemotherapy doses, what sizes long acting morphine pills come in, how to calculate cardiac output and the names of all the latest angiotensin receptor inhibitors...) that seem practical to us... or did at one time... 
But we are very much enjoying our steep learning curve about life in the hinterlands of northern Minnesota. And we are happy to share! 

For instance: for those of you who've ridden with us in any one of our vehicles, perhaps you've pondered why we always carry a bow saw...and why we have four of them (3 for the cars/trucks, one for the property... We decided that Cloud Pine, the Prius, doesn't need one...)
Here's why! This tree limb hadn't actually blocked the road yet, but was about to... Val at work with bow saw #3, the one that lives in the back of Ursula the Ruddy Explorer... 

That's a fairly simple lesson that we've taken to heart: "Never travel without a saw." 
Here's a more modern cautionary lesson!

Ever come across something that looks pretty darned good when you peruse it online? Well we've recently been in the market for yet another noisy large toy for the Bluff: everyone's dream machine, a wood chipper. Now if you're like me, the words wood chipper instantly bring a certain dramatic scene to mind. (Alert! Coen Brothers' sensibility... Don't try to claim I didn't warn you!)
You remember that one, don't you? I had to find the right clip -- the one with Frances McDormand's fabulous line at the end referring to the object in question...

But I digress! We have been on the hunt for a new or used wood chipper of our own, to help make use of the very large piles of branches, shrubs, brush, leaves, etc that Cascade Bluff gives us when we do things like cut firewood, make trails, create a garden, walk twenty feet, you name it... All that brush really would be much more useful as chips for our walking and snowshoeing trails, as weed-blocking mulch for our attempts at landscaping and planting (yes, it's true) more trees in the forest, and for the garden... Not to mention helping make the place less of a tinderbox for fire season... 

So, we researched wood chippers. We won't tell you the sad story of a customer service nightmare at an unnamed local business...suffice it to say that in certain stores, the customer is not always right, or even remotely treated with respect... but I digress again... 
Unfortunately few places these days actually have a chipper assembled at the store. We found a couple, but not exactly what we wanted. So, we asked Dr. Google... and ended up on a Big Box Store's Online section... a few clicks later, and our "Internet Special" wood chipper was on its way to us!

It took everyone a while to figure out how to get the darned thing to Grand Marais... two shipping (not chipping) companies, a call to Chris, our intrepid contractor, nice folks at one of the 2 local lumber yards who let us have the chipper delivered to them for pick up...
They even loaded it with their forklift into Dimples (our dented red Ford pickup)... 

The fact that it was raining might have been prophetic...

...and how little clearance I had for this big box in our garage up top the bluff, after a long and bumpy ride up our hill... 

The next day, with help from our buddy Nick, we unpackaged our new Chipper and discovered....


... a nice big dent in the gas tank... complete with rust...

It was soon clear that this machine had been purchased once, tried out, failed to work, and was returned. Not usually a problem... unless the store then repackages it as new and ships it to someone else! 
Val and Nick found a number of things wrong with the machine: dented gas tank, leaking gas tank, non-functioning electric starter, and a full reservoir of oil (was supposed to be empty)... 
Many phone calls later and with a promise of a full refund, and on another rainy day, we learned the wisdom of saving shipping cartons! Thank goodness we didn't say yes to our friend Evan's request for a big cardboard box to build a fort!! 

The chipper reloaded in the back of the truck... this time with no forklift... Thank you, Nick! 

The news in person at the other end at the Unnamed Big Box Store in Duluth was intially discouraging. First we were told that the fine print on the "Internet Special" on this chipper said:
"No Returns."
Huh? What fine print? Never saw anything like that... Wait a sec, no returns?? Not even on a product with an obvious dent and a leaking gas tank? 
Well, humanity and common sense prevailed, and the Big Box Store's customer service angels came through for us. A very nice young woman firmly argued our case with the Online Department (quite clearly an entirely different division than the in-person store) and got us a full refund! Thank you, thank you!

The story's not quite over, as we still have no chipper... Anybody out there have a used chipper that they no longer need, that doesn't require a power take-off from a tractor (thanks for the idea, Matt, but just not practical for us...) and can be towed behind an ATV? Our research continues... and so will this cautionary tale! Check back later this summer for, we hope, photos of whatever new/used/rented chipper we end up with at our adventuresome New World at Cascade Bluff!









Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Card Games, Happy Campers and Everything Is Just Ducky

 Greetings from our New World at Cascade Bluff. Recently we had very special visitors at the Bluff! Here is a picture of our friends Evan, Kathy and Suzanne, who came all the way from Madison, Wisconsin for Memorial Day Weekend...


 The gang was planning to pick their own personal camping site and clean it up, set up the tent and enjoy a couple of nights in the wilderness with all our four-footed neighbors... We did do lots of hiking around the place and found some very promising spots... 
Unfortunately, the weather was awfully cloudy, threatening to rain... DID rain, multiple times... and so what started as a camping trip on our land, turned into... 

 ....an indoor game extravaganza!  
 Val and Suz did amazing things with the letters from the game "ZIP IT" -- but I am pretty sure they were inventing their own special rules... 
 ...rules that required looking up nine letter words...
 This round of Zip It was a record of our names! Nick and Zoe were also visiting at that moment, but we couldn't manage to fit "Nick" in there too... sorry, Nick!
 Kathy was soundly defeated by Evan at "Magic" about a hundred times...
 At least one jigsaw puzzle was finally completed...

And Evan had so much fun he ended up blow-hole-down on the chair! Hey, wake up Ev, the fun is only just getting started! 

Our friends gave us a very special housewarming present... Here they are, the most recent members of our Duck Brigade! On the left is a cute old fellow in leiderhosen... Somebody who appears to be in perpetual celebration of St. Patrick's Day... A Space Alien... and an Astronaut! 
Much fun was had by everyone, and Suz has promised to give us a rematch of "Apples To Apples" at our next meeting, 'cause we're so embarrassed at how badly she walloped us all! 

Speaking of Duckies, we are getting quite a crowd of small rubber buddies up there. Periodically I feel the need to show off some of the newbies... Here are the usual suspects in a line up...

...and a recent 'circle of trust' gathered around a special new stranger who had traveled from across the entire planet to join us...
Here is Tea Duckie, a little guy who's an Aussie! 

Tea Duckie has a real job, too, not like all those other lazy bums who just sit around on the windowsill and stare into space... Tea Duckie has a strainer that can be filled with tea leaves...

Here he is floating along, in hot water, no less... When he is done with his job for the morning, he rests in his own little wavy blue Duck Stand.

 Tea Duckie was brought to us by our dear friend Janet, who came all the way from Australia and stayed with us for a day or so earlier this year. Here is Janet explaining the idea of "north" to Duckie (that's a compass in her hand..." 
I don't think Duckie has figured out what hit him yet...
But we are glad to welcome him to our gang and want to thank Janet very very much. Hope you will soon be able to visit Cascade Bluff yourself, dear friend! 
 ..and last but not least, sometimes, when no one is looking, our duckies spontaneously arrange themselves into letters and write secret messages like this one! I think they are saying, "Hi there, Zoe!" 

We'll be up at the Bluff again soon and hope to have lots to show about the garden, the new trees and those awesome views! 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Green Requires Grey

We have been suffering from a drought in the northern part of Minnesota for several years, and as many of you recall, last year the nearby wilderness area, the BWCA, was devastated by a large and fast moving fire, the Pagami Creek Fire, near the town of Ely. We were pretty frightened by that one. The fire came within 25 miles of us, not so close but close enough when you consider that in one very windy day last September the Pagami Creek fire spread over 16 miles, heading right for us! Yikes! So you can imagine that we were not amused at all when another wild fire hit near the city limits of Ely this year -- already, in MAY not at the end of a dry hot summer like last year! Fortunately that fire was pretty small (only about 200 acres instead of square miles) and was contained quickly.

But it was dry, nonetheless. Really dry. Scary dry. Way too dry for spring up here, which is usually sloggy with mud and wet and cool. So we are VERY happy to report a dramatic change in all that! About 5 to 7 total inches later, and things are looking up in the green and moisture situation! And for there to be green, you must first have GREY!

This was one morning during the week of May 20th, when we had numerous days of clouds, thunderstorms and lots of blessed rain.

Hmm...Where did the view go?

The sky was really interesting. Imagine these clouds scuttling by at 25 mpr...
 Every few minutes the light would change...
 On a slightly less damp morning, the misty mysterious view from our lookout...
 ...and Cascade Mountain partly hiding in the mist...
 ...bands of steel...
...a far, green country...'
 ...and the ghosts of some trees...
 Cascade River running with a very full flow... thankfully...
 Then things started to break up...

 ...and soon enough, the puffballs and blue skies were back! 
A carpet of woodland anemone...
 Cascade River again, sparkling and as loud as we've ever heard it...
 For the full experience... Click on the video... Don't fall in! Lots of whitewater and really steep waterfalls downstream between us and Lake Superior...
video


 Not sure, but I think this is a nannyberry, growing wild... and we just planted some! 
 Horsetail ferns, the ancient residents of the deep woods...
 Well, our gardens are sure loving the rain! I put in these yellow and red onions at the end of March (crossed my fingers and they survived some cold nights) and look how tall they are already! 

Here are both of our raised beds...
 We picked up some plants at the local grade school's plant sale... tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower... and of course, also put in beets, squash, beans, peas, lettuce, radishes... what did I forget?...
 And the sun came out! Wow, it is so much greener than just ten days ago!
 In walking about the property I discovered that there are wild roses growing right by our well! Mr. Ojard, did you put these here? Or did Mama Nature just drop 'em in? Either way, I intend to help 'em out and try to get them to bloom. Wonder what color they are? 
 Remember that view of the far misty green country? Looks different in the sunlight...
 ...and so does the Mountain...

 In case you were wondering whether anything ever blooms in a color other than white up here... don't know what this is, but the monarch butterflies love it...
 ... and one final shot of a diminutive yellow violet. 
Stay tuned for another couple of quick updates, coming soon: a cautionary tale, and a visit from a friendly bunch of explorers over Memorial Day weekend!