Category Archives: Journal

10,000 lakes; 1000 pictures

I’m sitting in a snack bar overlooking Lake Calhoun in the city of Minneapolis, and of course it has free wi-fi and power outlets wherever you might need them: the Twin Cities being one of those places that seems to regard wi-fi as a public good, very handy. It’s been a delightful and very full few days in the Twin Cities: but totally out of the rhythm Mac and I had developed over the last ten days or so, so I’m WAY behind on blogging. Suffice it to say that Mac paddled from Anoka to NE Minneapolis, a neighborhood I had never spent time in before now, which has a very cool new library in an old brewery; I paddled through the entire city of Minneapolis and to the border of St. Paul on Friday, which required me to go through THREE locks (I was very scared beforehand, but it was actually very cool and manageable, and the lock wardens or tenders or whatever they are called were very kind and friendly and didn’t seem to mind using all this huge technology just for me and my tiny kayak.)

Phillip and Preston, our incredibly generous and unflappable hosts for all these days at their very cool place, which has its own blog, took us on an amazing walk after my kayaking day to a new park in St. Paul that has been reclaimed from being a railway yard. It had previously been an encampment for the Ojibwe and there’s a magic cave there. And the walk continued up into a place called Swede Hollow, a sort of camp where immigrant workers in the nearby brewery lived up until the 50’s or something.

Friday night we all had dinner at Maura and Jeff’s, Saturday we said goodbye to Richard and welcomed Heather and Mary Kay as new fellow-travelers, and celebrated by going to the State Fair, oh my oh my oh my!!! this totally fascinating conflation of rural agricultural stuff right in the MIDDLE of the city of St. Paul, very very cool.

anyway, I could write for days about all these excellent adventures, but I think I’m just going to post some pictures and leave it at that for the moment. I’m pretty fried and today is a day of rest, right?!?

here are a few photos from friday, the day I paddled from NE Minneapolis to St. Paul

between Monticello and Anoka

instead of writing, I decided to do today’s post as a sort of voicemail from the river:

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SANY0044

blowing in the wind

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It was my kayaking day today, and I started out happily from right below Blanchard Dam. Mac and I looked for some cross rocks before I started out. My cousin Meg would have found a bunch — she’s an expert at finding Petosky stones on Lake Michigan — but Mac and I didn’t succeed in finding even one.

The river was rougher than it has been: it’s wide enough here that you get pretty serious swells, which my little red sportscar of a kayak handles just fine. But as the day went on, the wind got stronger and stronger, and it was completely, fiercely, against me (coming from the south), and this stretch of the river doesn’t meander much, so once the wind is against you, it stays against you. And then, because of the upcoming Sartell Dam, the current subsides to basically zero, and here I am on this damn lake of a river, with the wind so strong I am paddling against whitecaps, using all my strength basically to avoid being blown upstream again. And I’m passing houses of a size and grandeur that, I’m sorry, just seem ridiculous to me: what family could possibly need a summer house of 12,000 square feet or something?!? McMansion summer houses with six boats moored out front: jet skis, pontoon boats, etc. etc.

So there I am madly paddling away just to stay still, and this very cool little 70’s era powerboat pulls up, and the guy says, “You’re paddling in the wrong direction today!” I agreed, and he told me his house was about a mile and a half down on the left, and that the place I had planned to meet up with Mac and pull out was still another six miles beyond that, and that I was welcome to stop at his place for at least a bathroom break or something.

After he left, the river did do one meander, which was enough for me to stop and text Mac about why I was so late, but when the river turned again I was back in the brunt of this insane wind, so when I got to Gary and Debbie’s place, pictured above (check the flamingos!), and Gary came out to usher me in, I decided I really had had enough, and pulled in. I called Mac to come get me, and when he arrived, Gary and Debbie invited us to stay for dinner, which we gratefully accepted, and Debbie showed us her orchid collection of something like 200 plants (I see this in your future, Yvan!), and introduced us to their parrot, Etta (for Etta James), and fed us an excellent meal, and were altogether generous and lovely folks. They live up here full time, Gary works at the Sartell Mill, and Debbie is a serious runner, like 70-miles-a-week serious(!) and they have two grown kids who work in the Twin Cities, the girl as a zookeeper, how cool is that?! Gary built their house himself, (nowhere near 12K sqft) so we talked a bit about housebuilding, too. And they told us about the upcoming Minnesota State Fair, which we may have to go to. I’ve never actually been to a state fair, so maybe it’s part of my education.

Anyway, I’m writing this the next day, and I’m STILL pretty fried. It’s a great lesson that even though I’m getting stronger and more experienced at this kayaking biz, it will still kick my ass when it feels like it!

We Expect Visitors

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Last night Mac and I decided to take today off from paddling for the first time since our daytrip to Hibbing on 9 August, which Mac wrote about here. We’ve been alternating paddling ever since Richard left for the Twin Cities, and we’re getting too fast for our own good! Not really, but since we’ve kind of fallen in love with Little Falls, despite the gaping lack of a proper internet cafe, it seemed like a cool thing to spend the day here, an actual day off.

Since it’s Sunday, I wanted to find a church for my weekly immersion in community life. After the not-really-Lutheran church the first week, I’ve been to a very friendly Methodist church in Deer River, and a (real) Lutheran church in Palisade, where they had a really touching baptism the Sunday I was there. I considered going for a Catholic mass this week, but the church had giant pro-life billboards out front, which seemed a bit much, and I do feel uncomfortable about the whole communion question in a Catholic church. I thought Lutheran might be interesting given this week’s decision about gay and lesbian clergy. But then we passed an Episcopal church that had a sign saying ”We Expect Visitors,” so we had to go there. I’m really glad for that: the parishioners take rightful pride in their beautiful windows and sanctuary, they had a real pipe organ and good music, and the priest and all the parishioners were very warm and down to earth. The gospel reading had that excellent moment where Jesus tells the apostles they can leave if they want, and Peter says, sort of plaintively to my ear, “Where would we go?” Like if he could think of something better than following this crazy guy around, he would do it in a heartbeat.

One stained-glass window depicted Bishop Whipple, who famously went to Washington to talk Lincoln out of killing 264 of the 303 Native people who were convicted of murder in the 1862 uprising. The window had a crest at the top that had a tomahawk and a peace pipe crossed underneath the Christian cross; our host thought that maybe that’s the crest for the Episcopal mission to the Native peoples.

Afterwards we headed to the grocery store where we found real Greek yogurt, yay! So we bought a bunch of berries to go with the yogurt and ran square into Tony, who had stopped us the first time on the steps of the library Friday afternoon to expostulate about how cool our kayak was and ask about our journey. (Tony is the third schoolteacher I’ve met so far on these travels, and I’ve decided schoolteachers are just the best ever. Perhaps it’s because they have to deal with meeting and engaging with a whole bunch of really idiosyncratic new people every year (I think kids are just more individual than grownups most of the time: they haven’t yet had their edges trimmed to fit…) Anyway, it was excellent to meet up with Tony again in the grocery store, shopping with his wife on a Sunday afternoon. (Can I admit I also like that? just the idea of having the sort of calm and orderly life where the husband and wife go to the grocery store together once a week to stock up. Imagine!)

Anyway, so we headed off to the park with the nun-tended virgin pines that I so enjoyed yesterday, and we arrive and the Baptists are having their annual picnic, but that’s cool, we can share, so we’ve been spending the afternoon hanging out reading and listening to music, and suddenly there’s Karen! This is the woman Mac met Friday morning on the steps of the library, and we met her again yesterday and she told us about these cross rocks at Blanchard Dam, and then here she is at the park! Okay, this is really small-town life, no?! Three times in three days!

Another nice thing about Little Falls is that people really work on their houses: there’s a True Value in basically every mall in town, and I can see how they all stay in business! The picture above is just an example, a house right across the street from the library.

Anyway, in the park I read some more Schoolcraft and here are a couple of favorite additional facts he relates about the Ojibwe language:

Verbs, in the Chippewa, must agree in number and tense with the noun. They must also agree in gender, that is, verbs animate must have nouns animate. They must also have animate pronouns and animate adjectives. Vitality, or the want of vitality, seems to be the distinction which the inventors of the language seized upon to set up the great rules of its syntax. [Ch XVII]

Doesn’t that make WAY more sense as the core category? Life/non-life is kind of a more important distinction than male/female, after all! Similarly, the third person singular, ween, is used for both he and she: maybe we should take it up in English to solve that dumb problem in our language once and for all!

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Okay, can I just say I am particularly loving Minnesota today?! Mac and I headed out this morning to Fletcher Creek landing and stopped on the way at Little Elk River, which the sign says had been inhabited by native people since at least 400 BC. The westernmost outpost of the French fur trade was located there in the 1750’s, and more recently, Chief Hole-in-the-Day (Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig) lived there, and a mission and townsite were there as well. It’s prairie now, and Mac and I had a bit of a walk as the fog dissipated. A beautiful spot, full of ghosts.

After Mac headed off in the kayak, I drove over to Belle Prairie County Park, where I am sitting completely alone in a pine grove that the DNR map tells me is tended by the Franciscan sisters who have a convent nearby. I waved at Mac as he passed in the kayak — the pine grove overlooks the river. And if all this weren’t enough, there is a power outlet in the shelter, so I am charging up my computer as I write. Gotta love it!

I think I’m going to have to learn some Ojibwe. I finished reading Michael McNally’s book last night, and the few little threads of Ojibwe language that he explains in the book make me understand that there is huge richness in this language I would like to know more about.

For example, the verb nagamo means both to sing and to pray; ”song and prayer being linguistically inseparable.“ [p. 119] The word gashkendam ”combines in one semantic field associations with lonesomeness, grief, affliction, dejection, homesickness, and melancholy.“ [p. 119] And ”Larry Cloud Morgan closely associated the drum (dewe-igan) with the heart (de-) and with truth (debwe-) and with sound (wewe-), a morpheme that itself connotes particular kinds of wavelike or circular, returning motion.“ [p. 187]

Mac and I have also been dipping into Henry Schoolcraft’s journal most evenings: he’s this totally entertaining combination of adventurer and nerd, and you can’t help but be tickled by him. Here are a few excerpts relating to language specifically:

from late 1822:

In going out to dinner at 3 o’clock, a sheet of paper containing conjugations of verbs, which had cost me much time and questioning, had fallen from my table. On returning in the evening, I found my dog, Ponty, a young pet, had torn my care-bought conjugations into small pieces. What was to be done? It was useless to whip the dog, and I scarcely had the courage to commence the labor anew. I consequently did neither; but gathering up the fragments, carefully soaked the gnawed and mutilated parts in warm water, and re-arranged and sealed them together. And before bedtime I had restored the manuscript so as to be intelligibly read. I imposed this task upon myself, but, had it been imposed by another, I would have been ready to pronounce him a madman.

*

Devoted the day to the Indian language. It scarcely seems possible that any two languages should be more unlike, or have fewer points of resemblance, than the English and Ojibwa. If an individual from one of the nomadic tribes of farther Asia were suddenly set down in London, he could hardly be more struck with the difference in buildings, dress, manners, and customs, than with the utter discrepance in the sounds of words, and the grammatical structure of sentences. The Ojibwa has this advantage, considered as the material of future improvement; it is entirely homogeneous, and admits of philosophical principles being carried out, with very few, if any, of those exceptions which so disfigure English grammar, and present such appalling obstacles to foreigners in learning the language.

1823

5th [Jan] Gitche ie nay gow ge ait che gah, “they have put the sand over him” is a common expression among the Indians to indicate that a man is dead and buried. Another mode, delicate and refined in its character, is to suffix the inflection for perfect past tense, bun, to a man’s name. Thus Washington e bun would indicate that Washington is no more.

*

The Chippewas are apt to connect all their ghost stories with fire. A lighted fire on the grave has a strong connection with this idea, as if they deemed some mysterious analogy to exist between spirituality and fire. Their name for ghost is Jeebi, a word rendered plural in ug.

I am hereby proposing that the early 20th century expression ”heebie-jeebies” is a rhyming expansion of the Ojibwe word for ghost. Richard, you’re the linguist, what do you say?!?!

go with the wind

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Today was a really fun day of paddling: partially because the wind was with me and the current is picking up more and more, so without any particular effort, I did my twenty miles in less than five hours. This whole area has a bunch of islands made from logs that got stuck on their way down the river, but there’s no navigation anxiety, you can basically take whatever channel you like: they all end up down the stream one way or another. Very fun!

My stint today took me past Camp Ripley Military Reservation, so the sound of heavy artillery was a very strange accompaniment to my peaceful paddle down the river. The target range was blessedly out of sight, but I did see various military vehicles and lots of DANGER signs on that side of the river. I took them seriously and mostly stayed on towards the east bank of the river, the non-military side.

And for the first time in days and days, I actually saw some people! I passed three boats of fishermen today: the first set were very pleased to hear I had started at Itasca and was aiming for NOLA; one guy said he sees at least one long-distance paddler every year and had been waiting for this year’s. The second boat was completely stuck in the reeds, their motor having inhaled the green, which I guess is not a good thing for a motor. One of them said he wished he were in my boat today, asked where the next boat launch was, and was not happy to hear eight miles downriver as the answer. I told him if he cut loose he’d probably float down without needing any engine, but he didn’t seem too eager to try it. Note to self: if powerboating on a river in low water, go UPSTREAM of your launch point, so you can float back down to your car if you run into trouble. (although WHY one would want to power through these waters is a bit of a mystery to me anyway…)

My man Mac found a campsite (with shower!) and scoped out a rather tony Carnegie Library here in Little Falls, and I could happily spend the rest of the day here, but I want to explore Little Falls a bit. There are A LOT of layers of history here, and I want to see what traces of it I can find…

cow cow boogie

this song showed up in my iPod rotation this morning, and I feel I should share it with you:

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Ella Fitzgerald: Cow Cow Boogie

Mac posted about cows here, which made me laugh til I cried…

and Richard is posting great stuff here, the beginnings of fruits from his research at the Minnesota Historical Society.

reading the river

I begin to learn the very basics of reading the river: learning to see the difference between ripples in the water caused by wind and those caused by branches or rocks just under the water. It’s a funny thing how the kayak wants to go right where the obstructions are, to join the faster water that’s created there. I am aware that I am a rank beginner at this river reading: it’s about equivalent to my Ojibwe recognition: a ”g“ at the end of a word makes the word plural, I know that much!

I’m actually quite good at being a beginner at things: perhaps it’s my only real expertise. I know 300 words and the conjugation of the present tense in as many as 10 languages, but I can’t really speak any but English. I can play simple music on virtually every instrument, but I’m not a skilled performer on any of them. I realize I am in certain ways a total dilettante, a ”generalist“ as my father described me to my chagrin as a teenager. I berate myself all the time for not mastering Greek or the piano, I put myself on disciplined schedules of study that invariably fall by the wayside because the next project requires me to learn the rudiments of the Persian radif and carpentry, kayaking and Ojibwe. After first spending some time with my music, my friend Susan pronounced me a bricoleur, without a trace of disdain, so I’ve decided finally to embrace my bricoleur self, make my peace with my own nature. I have the confidence that I can learn almost anything I need to know to do what I want to do, to make what I want to make. But sometimes I do get lonely for that sense of pure mastery of a single subject. I think of Mark Twain’s immortal description of the river pilot’s expertise in Life on the Mississippi, and I would like to have that mastery in something more, I don’t know, elevated than driving a car, using a Mac, editing audio, setting up a tent.

Although writing this, I’m suddenly realizing that the pleasure I take in dumb little rituals like organizing the car, setting up the tents elegantly and efficiently, keeping my databases and hard drives ridiculously tidy, and a million other tiny tasks, which I execute in a laughably OCD and control-freakish way, are a way of counterbalancing my openness to beginner status and serendipity (otherwise known as ignorance and luck) in the most important parts of my life.

And there is a moment sometimes when I’m writing a new piece when everything falls into place, and suddenly I do have that sense of mastery of the needs of that exact piece and no other, and I feel this oceanic sense of utter certainty: it didn’t exist at all, then the fragmentary thread of something shows up, and then all of a sudden, I know exactly how it goes, what it needs to be. It doesn’t feel like MY mastery at all, more like something visited upon me. But perhaps that’s my version of reading the river. I’ll take it; it’s enough for me, for sure…

cows and corn

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Today I paddled to the Aitkin Campground from about 18 river miles north of town. Aitkin County is mostly farmland, and it was interesting, to say the least, to hear cattle lowing for a good 45 minutes before I rounded a bend and saw a good-sized herd hanging out by the river. At another point, I saw corn growing right up to the edge of the river, replacing the cattails and reeds that have lined the banks up to now. The huge distance between agriculture and nature has never been clearer to me, and I understand in a new way how strange it must have been for the Ojibwe to have had their lands divided up into 160 acre parcels, which were then bestowed on them with the idea that each nuclear family group would become farmers.

I managed to take a photograph of the cows, but I didn’t get out my camera for the corn, and I’m sorry for that. It raises a funny issue that Richard and Mac and I have been talking about since almost the beginning of our travels. It’s very difficult to overcome the urge to take pictures only of picturesque or iconic sights: the growing corn doesn’t make a particularly compelling photograph, so I’m too lazy to take my iPhone out of its waterproof container. But since I am interested in trying to communicate the river as it is, not as I would like it to be, I feel like I am failing in an important way if I neglect to photograph the corn.

I keep thinking about Mary Ellen Carroll‘s artwork where she strapped a camera to her back and walked down Broadway from the top to the bottom of Manhattan, snapping a photograph at each intersection. Because she didn’t frame the photographs, choose any particular feature, but just clicked a remote, the photographs are a random sample of Broadway as it radically changes character on its journey through Manhattan. It’s a fascinating trove of images of the city at a particular time (mid-90’s if I remember properly), and the ”bad“ photographs are precisely what makes it such a compelling piece of work.

I started out doing audio recordings inspired by this idea of random samples, but I found it less interesting than I had imagined. As I think about it, though, perhaps I should be patient and try doing at least one recording each day and see what unfolds over the whole journey. It isn’t about emulating the elegance and beauty of Annea Lockwood’s sound maps of the Hudson River and the Danube: it’s perhaps a more Cage-ian idea, one that requires me to embrace the process and let go of the results, as they say…

I did take some other photographs, and you can see what I mean about capturing the picturesque and the iconic: a nice farmhouse with trees, and one I really like of a living tree and a dead tree intertwined. I think very often these days about how the natural world is half-living and half-dead all the time. One set of stuff is fallen and decayed and another set of stuff is growing out of that decay, and the living is completely dependent on the dead. The muddy, organic river intensifies that sense of death-in-life, I think. I don’t really like the river water, it’s murky and scary even here at the early part of the river; and while it’s of course a river of life, the rich and varied wildlife are proof of that, it also seems to carry a daunting amount of death in it.

And of course, we are in late high summer, the trees are fully deep green, no new life is left in them, they are at the fullest flower of their maturity.

touch beautiful places

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It rained pretty seriously last night, and I woke up before six and set up in the convenient shelter Palisade’s town park offers its users and read some more of this really curious and interesting book, Ojibwe Singers: Hymns, Grief, and a Native American Culture in Motion, by Michael D. McNally. I found it in the giftshop at Itasca State Park visitor center, next to all the tourist stuff – go figure! Anyway, the book is about what the Ojibwe people have made of the Protestant hymns taught them by Christian missionaries. The book’s claim is that a specifically Ojibwe method of singing these hymns — in unison, very slowly and solemnly, usually at wakes or funerals — came into being, and is quite separate from the ordinary hymn-singing that happened under the supervision of the missionaries on Sunday mornings in church.

Hymns were among the first texts that got translated from English into Ojibwe, starting sometime in the late 1820s, but because various concepts central to Christian theology (e.g. sin, salvation, grace) just simply aren’t directly translatable into Ojibwe, one can imagine that the Ojibwe texts are not terribly literal embodiments of Wesley and Watts.

Here, for example, is my favorite re-translation of the Ojibwe in the book. First, the original stanza, from Come, Holy Spirit, Heavenly Dove (Isaac Watts), #510 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, for those of you following along at home:

And shall we, Lord, for ever be
In this poor dying state?
Our love so faint, so cold to thee,
And thine to us so great?

And here is Larry Cloud Morgan’s re-translation of the 1910 Ojibwe version of the hymn.

As we are thinking,
As we sing,
Our prayers
Touch beautiful places in us.

The Ojibwe version may not have a whole lot to do with Isaac Watts, but it’s definitely taking me someplace I want to go!