Fishing for a Sunset

Fishing for a Sunset

At the risk of being a cliché of a retired person, I have taken up fishing. In the process of moving, I came across my old tackle box, which my grandfather gave me in 1968. I was not considering becoming an angler, though we now live on a lake, but my attitude changed after seeing the tackle box, lovingly painted and signed by my grandfather with this inscription: “Jimmy Skibo, from P. Kania, May 1968.”

I knew that I had to take up the sport again. Memories flooded back of fishing with my grandfather and his brother, my great Uncle Albert. My grandfather would fuss with the old motor for most of the time, and my uncle would pull in walleyes. Following my uncle’s suggestions, I too would catch the occasional   walleye, which is a large fish to land especially for an eight-year-old boy. No one was happier than my grandfather was when I caught one, causing him to pause the motor-fussing and help me land the fish. At about midday, we would pull out lunch, prepared by my grandmother. Bologna, cheese and mustard sandwiches and hot coffee. A few sips of the bitter brew made my head spin.

Fishing with my grandfather really was not only about catching fish, nor is it now. I know that this is not a new revelation, but it is still worth noting. I have now taken to going out with my kayak and pole about an hour before sunset. I actually was not even that interested in catching fish, which is not that hard in White Lake. People seem to get their limit of pan fish without too much effort. There is also largemouth bass, walleye and northern pike in the lake, so I got some larger lures for these fish so that I could avoid catching the rock bass, bluegill, and perch. The goal was really to just catch a sunset. The result was I really did not catch any fish at first, but the sunsets were memorable.

Anglers like to talk, and when I would see them they would ask if I caught anything, I told them I was “fishing for a sunset,” which got a laugh but did not answer their question. I then had to fess up and tell them I was going for bass—“the big ones.”  When they would tell me of their great bass-catching success or lift up three huge bass from their boat, I felt that my credibility was at stake. They also seemed concerned about my futility. “What are you using?” they would often ask. When I told them, they offered lure advice. “I’d try a popper and fish the lily pads on the west end.”  

During one of my frequent trip to Fleet Farm I wondered into the fishing section. Here I found five solid rows of lures. I saw some lure-friends from my youth, basic Rapalas, but the rest of it seemed overwhelming. There is a bass section so I bought a few bass lures including the “popper,” offered as the best lure by an anonymous angler.

I pushed out in my kayak, about an hour before sunset, with my new lures including the popper. I paddled over to the west side. The loon family squawked nearby and the blue herons were finding a place near the shore to spend the night as I casted my popper to the edge of the lily pads. After a few casts a bass hit the bait and bent my light action rod right to the surface of the water. As my kayak spun around, I hauled in a largemouth bass. I was shocked.

I tossed it back, but not before thanking it for the excitement.  Almost every night since I have been going out and now always catching a few fish. Although I am still most interested in catching a good sunset, I now have the angler cred to say that I have caught a couple big ones.

Moving to Trump Land

Moving to Trump Land

Our acquaintances have been curious about our early retirement. “You seem too young to retire!” That may be true but we had no intention to stop working, we were just ending our current careers and starting anew. There are a number of reasons for the dramatic change and move to northern Wisconsin; we wanted to be closer and more available to family, we wanted to live more sustainably, and I wanted to have more time to write, among other things. We had planned our escape for several years, as we had built a house in Wisconsin six years earlier, but had not picked a date. On November 6th, 2016 the plan became clear.

The first presidential election I can remember is Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater. The first president I voted for was Jimmy Carter in 1980. I have certainly not liked some of the policies of our presidents, like Ronald Reagan and especially George W. Bush, but I respected them and felt that they were public servants interested in the common good.

The day after Donald Trump was elected, we knew that he was going to be a different kind of president. I worked at a university at the time, and November 7th, 2016 was a day of mourning on our campus. I hugged people as one does at a wake. The day seemed especially overwhelming for women and people of color. We now had a leader who routinely made racist comments and talked about women in the most vulgar ways.

I was hoping that perhaps the campaign and the vile rhetoric was just an act, and that once sworn in his behavior would become presidential. This did not come to be. As time went on it became clear that we had elected a morally devoid, greed driven, narcissist who seemed to be following the “how to be a fascist” playbook.

We decided it was time to quit our jobs and move north. The north woods not only seemed like a better place to ride out a totalitarian regime (worst case), but quitting our jobs would give us more time to be engaged politically. In our new county, where Trump won a sizable majority, there would be plenty of opportunities for engagement. At the university, it was possible that I did not interact with a single Trump voter during the day. In our new community, this would certainly not be the case. We (mostly Becky at first) thought of this as a real opportunity.

Now that we have been here for a season, we have a better idea of what Trump voters are really like. It is too easy and convenient to write them off as racists, as I might have been prone to do from the safe confines of our university community. There are certainly some racists, but there are racists everywhere. Here, they are simply unafraid to show their colors, sometimes quite literally with Confederate bumpers stickers. There is probably not too much progress that can be made with changing the beliefs of a hardcore racist, but there can certainly be a dialog with people who are simply uncomfortable with diversity. I think that the latter attitude best describes the people we come across each day. These are the same people who would stop to help a stranger change a tire, or loan you their vehicle, chain saw, or trailer without question. There is a man in town who owns wooded acreage, and he is often out there with his tractor and chain saw cutting firewood even though he does not own a wood burning stove or sell the firewood. He gives the wood to a couple of widows on his street who burn wood to heat their house. There are plenty more stories like this.

Everyone is this community grew up with the commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” imprinted in their values. Fear sometimes gets in the way of this type of love especially when reinforced by the hateful rhetoric of our leaders. Leaders, however, can also inspire us to turn to, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “the better angels of our nature.”

The most important issue to people in the north woods might be that they feel left out of the economic boom. They are right about this. Every weekend they see people put $50,000 boats on the lake while they are working two jobs and cannot seem to catch up. There are many jobs here, but most pay at best between $10 and $14 an hour. Despite the promises of politicians over the years, their situation does not seem to get better. Donald Trump convinced them that he would shake this up. He has indeed shaken things up but his concern for workers was just a clever con. One wonders why Bernie Sanders, who wants to raise the minimum wage to $20 per hour, did not get more traction up here.

What is it like living among Trump voters? It is wonderful. We all have a dark side that can be inflamed by fear, but we also have the desire to love our neighbors and to get in touch with the better angels of our nature. Becky’s license plate is “LUVWNS.” I think she might be right.

Little Red Barn

Little Red Barn

My mother asked me to paint the little red barn that sits on her property. She painted it 18 years ago, the summer after my father died. She painted one side per day, “for therapy,” she said. I could certainly understand the reasoning. Physical labor that accomplishes a task can be therapeutic and very satisfying. I had the same feeling still 24 years earlier, the first time it was painted.

I was 16 and had just gotten my driver’s license. My father was not one to sit me down and have a chat about life, but he certainly felt, in the summer of 1976, that I needed two lessons. The first was to learn something about the internal combustion engine. I wanted a pickup truck, like all 16-year-old boys in the north woods with a driver’s license. He thought that was a good idea too, so he bought me a 1956 Dodge flathead six pickup that leaked fluid, billowed smoke, and was prone to break failure. This was not exactly what I had in mind until I learned of his plan. “You are going to rebuild it,” he told me. He got me a 1956 repair manual and gave me instructions each day before he went to work. Soon our garage floor was carpeted with parts, which I had organized carefully so that I could put it back together. When the engine was finally put back together, I was thrilled and amazed to see it run.

With that project and lesson completed, we went for a ride into the nearby town of Crystal Falls. We stopped in front of an old house that had a smaller, cabin-size, building in the back. “The lady wants to get rid of the shack. Why don’t you tear it down, save the lumber, and then build something.” This was start of the second lesson of the summer.

I started the next morning, armed only with a hammer and a crowbar. His advice, “Just start with the roof and work your way down.”

What 16 year old does not like to tear shit down? I loved this job. My dad stopped in each day and the old lady who owned the place often sat in a chair, watched, and told me stories of England. “I was born on the banks of the Irish Sea,” she told me in a thick English accent. She made me hot tea, despite the hot temperatures, and added a generous helping of milk to my cup without asking.

I took a trip to the dump at least once a day to discard what we could not save, like roofing, electrical wires, plumbing and fixtures. I saved what I could, some two-by-fours, and lots of one-inch lap-jointed lumber that was on the walls.

I was done in about two weeks, and after my father saw the impressive pile of lumber he said, “Your mother thinks that you should build a little storage shed. I think that there is enough lumber to do it. You should build it with a barn roof, like you see on the big barns. We will start tomorrow.”

He could sense I was a little apprehensive.  Tearing down a building does not take a lot of skill but I had no idea how to build anything. He said simply, “You start from the floor and build up.”

The next morning, armed with a hammer, handsaw and bag of nails, I met my dad by the garden where we would build the barn. He helped me cut the four sides of the floor and then instructed me to cut the joists and put them in every 16 inches. It took me all day to build the floor, a job that a carpenter could do in an hour. But by the time he got home from work it was done and had his approval.

We repeated this each day. He helped me speed things up by teaching me how to use the electric circular saw, instead of cutting each board by hand. When it came to the trusses, which are the signature of the Dutch roof barn styles, we visited my grandfather’s barn and stared up at the enormous roof as the barn swallows flitted about. We did not take any measurements. He just said, “See how the upper slope is at a shallow angle and the bottom slope is at a steep angle? That is what we want.”

We spent an hour or so fiddling with boards and angles until we had it right. “Now make six more just like these.”

We built the doors together, which are far more complicated than one would think, and then I painted it red, with white trim. There it sat for 24 years fading in the sun before my mother gave it a new coat of red, for therapy.

Eighteen years later, I looked at the barn, armed with a gallon of red paint and brush. Some of the nails, which I awkwardly pounded in 42 years early, were sticking out. I tapped them back in. I ran my fingers across the wood and recalled one of my mistakes. I put in a few wallboards at a slight angle. When my father came home and inspected it, he said, “A man can’t have crooked walls.” He helped me pull out all the boards and showed me how to build it straight.

I replaced two trim boards that had rotted away, but otherwise the little barn was sound. After the fresh coat and my mother’s approval, I walked over to the pole-barn that housed my 1956 pickup. My dad and I parked it there in 1984 and it had not moved since. A project for another day.

Kill Permit

Kill Permit

We live on a wooded plot and we had to cut down a couple dozen trees and lots of brush to make room for our home. Becky and I felt like pioneers clearing the land as we spent much of one summer cutting and hauling brush and trees. The hardwood, maple, oak, elm, and ash, we made into firewood, the brush we either burned or hauled to the town’s brush pile, which becomes the school’s homecoming bonfire in October. Our goal was to cut down as few trees as possible and keep the native landscape. We planted native grasses and tried to become one with the natural environment to the point that the locals probably thought some real granola eaters were moving in. Despite our best efforts, we could not help disturbing many human and nonhuman activities while moving to our little piece of heaven.

One of the problems with overtaking land like this is that animals already lived there, not to mention the people who also long before us used the property as their own. One cannot help feel a little like colonial intruders hacking their way across North America leaving displaced people, animals and plants in their wake.

Our house is on a stream at the edge of a small town, and locals had been using our land like village common ground. Hikers and snowmobile and ATV riders had been cutting across the land for generations.  Kids played on the property, built forts, and climbed trees. Almost every adult male in town had a story about killing suckers (carp) with a baseball bat during their spring spawning run up the creek. We did not feel too bad about causing the end to some of these activities, but watching a snapping turtle trying to dig a hole in our newly bricked patio to lay her eggs did make us feel like intruders (picture). Probably since the lake formed after the retreat of the ice during the Wisconsin Glaciation, generations of turtles had been laying their eggs on what is now our patio. The turtles eventually gave up and found a new place for their eggs but other animals were ready to fight back.

This spring as I started clearing the spot for what would become a workshop and office, I saw the telltale sign of a badger—a volleyball size hole in the ground, a large back-dirt pile, and a pungent smell. Wisconsin badgers are a bit like honey badgers of YouTube fame (look it up), they just don’t give a shit. They are not like the docile snapping turtles who resign themselves to a change in their pattern to accommodate their new neighbors. The north woods badger fears no one. They are the mixed martial arts fighters of the animal kingdom. Becky and I agreed we could not have a badger colony next to the house. We knew it was just a matter of time before our aged golden retriever would tangle with the badger.

I grew up in a rural area and this was not my first encounter with a badger. In previous cases, however, I was only an accomplice to the man known as the “Section 6 Assassin,” my father. My father, now deceased, was like everyone who grew up on a farm during his generation; in constant battle with predators trying to make a meal of livestock. Every farmer kept a loaded gun next to the door to be on the ready for a fox in the chicken coup or a coyote trying to take out a sheep in the pen.

Long after my father’s farming days, however, he was well known for his animal control skills and was frequently called upon by neighbors in section 6 to get rid of “nuisance animals.” I knew how he would take care of my current situation. I was suddenly sympathetic with the young boys who grew up in the mob and tried to break away from the family way of “taking care of problems.”

I went to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources web site and was able to find a link for “nuisance animals.” I called the number and found a very understanding DNR biologist, who said that they get many calls about badgers from our area, which has sandy soil preferred for making dens. She explained that the first step was to try to get the animal to vacate its den. Yes, I thought, the courteous thing to do is to encourage it to leave. Why do we need to create a kill zone perimeter around our property?

Her voice then became grim. Badgers usually do not leave, she informed me. “If it is a male, you might be successful, but if it is a female with a litter, they will probably not leave.” She instructed me to get a game camera to monitor the badgers activity and shove ammonia-soaked rags down the hole.

“What if that does not chase them away? I asked.

“Then I will issue a ‘Kill Permit.’ I would like you to try chasing them away for about a week. But because I am leaving tomorrow for a two-week vacation, I am going to issue the Kill Permit now as long as you make an effort to chase them out. It is, after all, the Wisconsin State animal.”

We had some ammonia. Why I do not know. I soaked several rags and was about to start Phase I.

“Take your gun,” my wife suggested and I was thinking the same thing. I have a 12-gauge shotgun and my wife does not like to think about it or have it in the house so her comment surprised me.

“Take your gun,” she said again, “but I still hate that you have it.”

Life in the woods can change one’s perspective. I am happy to report that the Kill Permit is still unused. The badger did vacate the den, at least for now. But as you know, we do have sandy soil.


Halfway North


From where you are sitting or standing, do you know which way is north? Some people can point to it immediately; others will think about where the sun sets and rises and eventually get it right, while still others will have no idea. I am in the category of people who always knows where north is. I even take that a bit further—I need to know where north is. You can ask me at any time or place and I will know immediately. If someone wakes me up from a dead sleep, I could point north. In fact, I think I sleep better if my bed is oriented north-south. I can compromise if necessary and put it east-west, but for my peace of mind the principle of cardinality must be maintained. If you think I am a bit whacky, I can assure you that I am in good company. I grew up in the Midwest where town designers had the good sense to follow the Township and Range System, enacted in 1785 after Congress passed the Land Ordinance Act, so that nearly every street in every town and all the buildings are in line with the cardinal directions. A railroad track, lake or river occasionally throws off the beautiful symmetry, but it usually takes just a few streets to pull it back on grid.

This odd and usually harmless obsession with north has been with me as long as I can remember. I was ten years old when I visited, completely by accident, a monument entitled, “Half Way North.” The monument marks the 45th parallel halfway between the equator and the North Pole. My fascination with north and directionality may not have started when I first saw the monument, on a turnout on Highway 41 between Crivitz and Beaver, Wisconsin, but the visit locked it in place. Up until that point, in the pre-internet days, I felt alone with the obsession that I learned I shared with Frank E. Noyes, who erected the monument in 1938. I now know that there are many monuments to commemorate the 45th parallel, but for some reason Mr. Noyes established three such sites near my boyhood home.

I came across the monument on Highway 41 as my dad and I were on the way to a Green Bay to attend the first Packer game of the 1970 season, which was a tradition and the highlight of my year. I screamed for him to stop the car. The combination of rolling hills, runny eggs for breakfast, and the excitement of the day, turned me green. I got out of the car, ran behind the six-foot high rock monument, fell to my knees and barfed. Once the heaving was over, I looked up at the monument, which is an official looking bronze plaque set in a large triangle-shaped rock. At the top of the plaque is a partial globe marked with lines of latitude and longitude. The sign reads:

Half Way North

Latitude 45 degrees 8’ 45.7”

North Pole

3107.47 Miles


3107.47 Miles

Erected by Frank E. Noyes (1938)

We had driven past the monument many times but never noticed it. It is easy to miss, nestled against some trees in front of a simple gravel turnout. A recent visit to the site finds it virtually unchanged. I do not know how many people actually stop at the site, but it nonetheless sits there proudly (and oddly) marking this geographical locale.

Frank E Noyes was the President and Editor of the Daily Eagle, a prominent newspaper at the time for northern Wisconsin centered in the city of Marinette. He was born in April 1856 and died on November 28, 1941. His father, a Civil War veteran, started the newspaper but Frank turned it into a daily and made it more successful. He was 78 years old when he erected three such monuments on prominent north-south roads that passed near Marinette. The first is near the town of Peshtigo and is labeled, “Theoretical Halfway Point,” as it is located exactly on the 45th parallel. Frank obviously realized that the earth is not a perfect sphere, and to mark the exact halfway point between the equator and North Pole he would have to tweak the location a bit as the 45th parallel is not exactly halfway between the North Pole and the equator. For some reason Frank found it more satisfying to mark the location of the exact halfway point rather than the 45th  parallel as the next two monuments make the correction, 45° 8’ 45.7”.

Why was Frank Noyes so obsessed with the halfway point and the 45th parallel to move him to erect three monuments at great personal expense? He was well known locally for his leadership of the local Masonic Chapter and his affiliation with the Scottish Rite, for which he reached the 32nd degree, with the 33rd degree being the highest. These groups seemed a little obsessed with the 33rd degree and the 33rd parallel, so perhaps Frank’s monuments are somehow the result of this affiliation. The fact that he put the first monument on the 45th parallel and then the next two on the exact halfway point between the equator and the North Pole suggest to me that Frank’s monuments were erected for another reason. He was obsessed with his own placement on our globe.

When I barfed on the halfway point and literally knelt before this monument, I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Frank E. Noyes. Although he died nearly two decades before I was born, I was relieved to know that there was someone else in this world a bit obsessed with the cardinal directions and, in particular, north.

It always surprises me, and I suspect surprised Frank too, to learn that some people have little sense or concern for the cardinal directions. I have been with family or friends on many occasions and we look at a map to find a store or some destination and someone says, “Which way is north?” It startles me every time that people can live perfectly happy lives but exist in this state of disorientation.

There are also extremes. Some people admit that they have “no sense of direction.” You probably know people like this. I had a dear friend, now deceased, who was very successful in life but suffered from severe directional disorientation. I spent some time with him in Manila in the Philippines. We would often have breakfast at the same place and each day when we exited onto the street he would look both ways and ask, “Which way back to the hotel?” The thought of this level of disorientation terrified me. When I would ask him about it he would simply say, “I always find my way back, and many times get to see different parts of town.” Certainly, he and I are at extremes regarding our concern with directionality. Since he always got to where he wanted to go, and often stumbled upon new sites because of his wandering, clearly there is not a right or wrong attitude towards direction awareness.

There are negative sides, however, to both extremes. Without any sense of direction, it is easy to get disoriented, especially without a compass or GPS, which many of us carry with us all the time today. My friend and I are both archaeologists, and we often find ourselves in remote locations or unfamiliar territories—no innate sense of direction is a handicap in these situations.

The problem with my obsession is that it bothers me to become even mildly disoriented. This is easy to do especially when traveling to a new place. I find it easy to maintain my internal compass when driving, but flying into a new city provides different challenges. Not long after we were married, Becky and I flew into San Francisco for a short holiday. The city has many charms but the individuals who designed it did not understand that roads should travel in the cardinal directions as God intended. Air travel followed by circuitous streets of the Golden Gate City left my sense of cardinal directions completely inverted. When I woke up on the first morning and saw what appeared to be the sun rising in the west, I felt like I had gone down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.  My attempt to try and explain this profound discomfort to Becky was met with a look of concern. Since that time I have tried to keep this issue to myself (until now) and to do a little homework before flying into a new city.

Days before I take off I will study maps of my destination, the direction of the runways, the  roads leading out of the airport to the hotel and other relevant clues so that I can maintain my directionality in the unfamiliar city. When I get to a hotel in a new city, I pay attention as I go into the elevator, exit on my floor, and then enter my room, careful to keep track of which way is north. I had to fly to Paris a few years ago, and when I first looked at the map of the city, which does not seem to have any streets that run in the cardinal directions, blood drained from my head. I was relieved to know that my hotel’s front faced roughly west. Upon arrival, I distracted myself from directionality discomfort by speaking to the cab driver for the long drive from Charles De Gaulle Airport to the front of my hotel, where I found, thankfully, that the sun was setting in the right spot.

There are, of course, some real advantages to my obsession. As an archaeologist, maintaining spatial orientation when doing fieldwork is critical. I find it wonderfully satisfying that archaeological methods require a grid over all of our excavations with orientations north-south, east-west. When I travel with family or friends to new places and we need to get back to the hotel, I can always be counted on to find our way back. In the unlikely event of a zombie attack the need to flee, I would like to think that I could lead the way without walking in circles. Most of the time, however, my cardinality obsession is expressed in much more subtle ways.

When we cleared the spot for our new house, our builder came out with the handful of stakes and a tape to create the layout. The usual way to orient a house on a lake is in alignment with the shoreline. The builder grabbed one end of the tape and I grabbed the other. He pulled the tape so that it aligned with the shoreline. Something seemed off so I pulled out my trusty Silva Ranger compass. The tape was oriented at 330 degrees, a full 30 degrees off true north. I adjusted my end of the tape so that it was at 360 degrees. He gave me a strange look. Even I could see that a 360-degree alignment would invite scrutiny from others. This would be the only house on a lake that was not aligned with the shore. I compromised and pulled the tape slowly to the west to 347 degrees. The house is far enough back from the lake so the slightly skewed orientation is not noticeable on the ground, but from the air one can see that it does not directly face the lake. It was a compromise made for aesthetics, and our house is generally oriented in the cardinal directions so it does not bother me too much. Besides, my La-Z-Boy chair makes the correction so that I can put my feet up and relax knowing that I am pointed true north.


This is an excerpt from my (in progress) book that focuses on other people and places where True North is important. This includes discussions of early mariners, mapmakers, and those fixated on north for religious reasons, like the people of the late prehistoric period of the American Southwest.  I will even have a section on ethics and morality (moral compass). I invite you, in the comment section, to include your own take on north or directionality.