Saturday, June 25th, 2022

Photo of my van parked near the shore of North Trout Lake, just north of Woodruff, WI

I spent last Friday and Saturday night at a state campground on North Trout Lake to do a little hiking, a little paddling, but mostly just to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet.

The campground seems to be really popular and I can see why. It’s right on the shore of the lake, which is so picturesque it ought to be on a postcard (it probably is). Several of the camp sites are right on the shore; you could launch your canoe from them or just wade out into the lake, which has a hard sandy bottom and is very shallow along much of the shore line. If I had been lucky enough to snag one of those sites I probably would have set up my camp chair facing the water or strung my hammock between two trees on the shore and done little else but gaze out on the lake all weekend, it was that pretty.

I unfortunately did not have a camp site on the shore. Mine was in fact about as far from the shore as it’s possible to get and was rather ugly, which is probably why I was able to reserve it for a weekend at short notice. It was ugly mostly because of all the trees which had been cut down and left in heaps around the site. On the plus side the site got lots of sunshine, was open to the breezes off the lake which kept the bugs at bay, and it was very easy for me to gather firewood, but there was no getting around the fact that heaps of dead branches do not make for a good-looking camp site. I didn’t care much. It served its purpose as far as I was concerned. I had a place to park, a nice big camp site, and a ring to build a fire in. All good.

I left the house at about three o’clock Friday afternoon and arrived at the lake a little past six-thirty in the evening, making pretty good time but feeling more than a little fatigued, not to mention stressed out, after spending three and a half hours on the interstate highway with the hundreds if not thousands of other people heading north for the weekend. When I headed back home Sunday morning I stuck to county and state roads all the way, and it was honestly worth every minute of the additional travel time. I had the road to myself practically all the way, so the drive was virtually stress-free. A+++ would definitely recommend.

At six-thirty in the evening around this time of year there are still at least two hours of daylight left, so almost as soon as I got there I unshipped the kayak from the roof of the van, trundled it down to the shore on a handy-dandy little trolley I have just for that purpose, and launched it into the lake for a short paddle up and down the shore along the edge of the campground. The wind was rather brisk that evening so the surface of the lake was the tiniest bit choppy but not enough to make me want to head back to shore. I paddled around for thirty or forty minutes before I decided I’d better get back to camp so I had enough daylight to gather firewood and set up for overnight camping.

I had already collected a few fallen branches which I broke up into tinder to start the fire. After I got that burning, I began to collect larger pieces of wood to keep the fire going – a rookie mistake; you’re supposed to get all your wood together before lighting it off. I knew better than that, but it had been a few years since I’d built a camp fire from scratch. After gathering enough larger pieces to keep a fire burning for at least an hour, I broke up more smaller branches into tinder and built up a pretty respectable fire from the coals that remained of my original effort, then built a teepee over it with the bigger pieces I’d gathered.

Now that I finally had a proper fire going, I could prepare something for dinner and settle into my camp chair next to the fire. And when I say “prepare dinner” I mean that I smeared some salmon cream cheese on some thick-sliced nutty bread and called that dinner.

After gobbling down some carbs next to a crackling camp fire, I slept like a baby.

Saturday morning I woke way too early, but I had to answer the call of nature so I tottered off to the nearest pit toilet, which was not really very near at all, another shortcoming of my particular camp site. My site was about as far from the toilet to the north as it was from the toilet to the south, smack dab in the middle. Not a problem most of the time, but for that first trip of the morning I had to lengthen my stride and move with a sense of purpose and urgency. That taken care of, I crawled back into bed and dozed pleasantly for another hour, wrapped tightly in many many blankets against the early morning chill.

When the sun was finally high enough to shine its warmth down on my camp site, I begrudgingly extracted myself from my bunk and gathered up enough fruit juice, fig bars, and nuts to make a decent light breakfast, which I noshed on in my camp chair that I gradually scooted across the camp site to keep up with a passing sunbeam. I passed the time reading two or three chapters of the very excellent book “Allow Me To Retort,” by author Elie Mystal, who examines the ins and outs of constitutional law from the perspective of a Black American. Wonderful book, would gladly recommend it to anyone.

Once the fruit juice was gone it was time to move on to more serious stuff: coffee. I neglected to bring the fixings for coffee on my previous trip up north, but not this time around. With a pourover cone carefully balanced on top of a big mug I slowly brewed the java, then settled back into my camp chair to read two more chapters.

The important stuff out of the way, I set out on my morning constitutional. My initial thought was to walk the complete circuit of the campground road, but when I got to the beach I decided to include a detour to the boat ramp about a hundred yards away. At the boat ramp I noticed a marker for a paved bicycling trail that disappeared into the trees by the road.

If I’d known there were paved cycling trails for miles and miles up here, I definitely would have brought my bike but, sad to say, I didn’t. But I just had to get a look at the trail, so I took a short stroll along it, only as far as the first intersection, the road to Cathedral Point. Along that particular short stretch of trail it rose and fell over a few very steep hills and ducked around maybe half a dozen sharp turns, but the asphalt pavement was in good condition. Cycling it would be a lot of fun even though the hills would present a bit of a challenge for me, a rider who generally prefers straight and level trails.


Having gone as far as the first intersection, I turned around and shambled back in the direction of camp. I have to admit with no small amount of embarrassment that I accidentally left my hiking shoes at home for this trip. The only footwear I had with me were a pair of sandals, not ideal for long hikes. Also, they leave my feet exposed to the elements 24/7. When I was young and indestructible I would walk barefoot all day in the summer, over smooth ground, gravel or hot asphalt – it didn’t matter. My feet were tough enough to walk on anything. Well, they’re not now. I’ll spare you the details, but after tramping around all day in sandals, I had to carefully clean and bandage my feet Saturday night before bed. Used up half a box of Band-Aids and many a generous dollop of Neosporin. Which was why I was taking it easy on this short hike along the bike trail, loafing along at a leisurely pace. Even so, I got back to camp around ten o’clock, still plenty early for a morning paddle on the lake.

North Trout Lake is a fairly big lake, but Trout Lake, to the south (natch), is even bigger, and they’re connected through a narrow strait. My aim on this Saturday morning paddle was to go as far as the strait, have a look around, then come back. Which turned out to be exactly what I did. I had to paddle against a light but continuous breeze out of the south on the way there, but after I crossed through the strait it was almost dead calm thanks to a couple of islands at the north end of Trout Lake screening me from the wind. I happily paddled around on the glassy water for a while, circling the islands and drifting along the shore.

I grounded the kayak at Cathedral Point, jumped out and had a little walkabout to take in the surroundings. The point had picnic tables, a water pump, toilets, and fire rings, but looked as though it hadn’t been visited in a while. One teeny tiny little sign caught my eye and curiosity compelled me to get close enough to ready it. “This sign is surrounded by poison ivy,” it warned, “don’t touch it.” So warned, I tiptoed back to my kayak and paddled away.

I returned to my camp site at about half past twelve and made a hearty lunch of thick-sliced summer sausage on slices of nutty bread, then sat in the sun with my book as I ate. The air was still cool and the breeze was pleasant. It wasn’t long before I began to drowse. Napping seemed like a good idea just then, so I stretched out in the van and got myself a few winks. Best thing I could has possibly done. There’s really nothing better you can do in the early afternoon, especially after you’ve been active, than get a restful nap. At least, nothing better for me. You can do what you like.

And after a restful nap, there’s nothing better than driving into town to spend a little time relaxing in the local beer garden. There’s a brewery called Rocky Reef in Woodruff, about a twenty-minute drive from the campground. I’d been there once before and enjoyed sitting in the sun with a cold, refreshing glass of hefeweizen. There weren’t any open seats on the patio last Saturday because they had some live entertainment which had attracted quite a large weekend crowd. I only wanted to pick up some beer anyway, but hung around for about ten minutes to sample a beer they didn’t have on tap the last time I visited.

When I got back, I sat in the sun and read my book again, and in the evening I lit a fire and played with it because on the inside I’m still a twelve-year-old boy who does that kind of thing. There wasn’t much peace and quiet to enjoy Saturday night because all the other campers had returned from wherever they’d gone, and they all felt the need to yell at each other a lot and share their recorded music with each other. The popularity of state parks is the only thing I don’t like about them.

I packed up fairly early Sunday morning because I didn’t want to hurry getting home. I wanted to take the back roads and make a few stops along the way to get out, walk around and return home stress-free, and that’s pretty much exactly what I did.

North Trout Lake | 8:05 am CDT
Category: bicycling, camping, coffee, hobby, kayaking, play, travel, vacation, walking
Comments Off on North Trout Lake

Friday, April 15th, 2022

I spent my lunch break yesterday brushing polyurethane on these pieces, even though I shouldn’t have. The instructions on the can tell me I should wait until the temperature is at least sixty degrees but it was only fifty-two. I absolutely could not wait for it to warm up, though, because the forecast tells me it won’t get warmer than forty-five until next week. I’m so eager to make some progress on this project that I’m sure I’ll burst a vessel if I wait that long, so I cheated, cracked open the can of poly and brushed it on anyway. Checked it several times yesterday afternoon and evening and it looked fine, so I think I got away with it.

finished | 6:09 am CDT
Category: camping, carpentry, hobby, play | Tags:
Comments Off on finished

Monday, March 14th, 2022

After what seemed like an eternity of sub-freezing weather, we finally had a day of sunny skies and temps in the forties. The forecast says we’re supposed to get at least one more week of this, but I’m taking it one day at a time because I know this is false spring and we’re going to get at least one more fall of snow deep enough to shovel off the driveway before winter is REALLY over, and I don’t want it to break my heart.

I took two really long walks around the neighborhood today, one this morning and another this afternoon, and wow am I out of shape. I don’t mind walking in the snow but I really can’t abide going for a walk when it’s cold enough to make my nose and teeth hurt just because I’m breathing in and out (it actually seems to hurt more when I’m breathing out – how the hell does that make sense?), and as I mentioned already temps have been hovering around zero for weeks and weeks now, so I’ve been lazy. I’ll have to make myself get out there every day. Lucky for me that budding trees draw me like a moth to a flame.

In between my morning and afternoon walkies I worked on the camping thing some more. It felt so good to get outside and work on it for more than five minute without losing sensation in my hands. It’s not quite warm enough to brush some poly on the finished pieces, so instead I figured out how to set up the arch across the front of the van between the driver’s cabin and the rear compartment. The goal is not to wall off the back from the front, just to give me something to hang a curtain from. In the original design it’s a combination curtain rod and coat rack, festooned all over with coat hooks, and it even has overhead lights. I’ll definitely do the coat hooks. We’ll see about the lights.

I cut out the uprights from half-inch plywood about a week ago on a day of warmish temps (maybe in the low forties?) but didn’t get a chance to finish them until today when I screwed a piece of 3/4″ poplar to the back of each of the pieces that look like half a spade. The arch doesn’t have to support a lot of weight, unless you hang a lot of coats and backpacks from the hooks. The poplar’s there mostly to stiffen the back of the plywood and to make each upright a little prettier.

It took me a while to work out how to build a piece that would clamp the uprights to the grab handles on the B-pillar. I thought I had it figured out about a week ago, but after re-watching some video shot by the person who originated the design I tried a different, simpler way to do it. That got way better results.

With the uprights firmly anchored to the B-pillars I could lay a batten across the tops, attach a piece of cardboard roughly cut to fit the contour of the ceiling, and joggle-stick a template for the cross-piece. I’m pretty new to the idea of using a joggle stick to make a template for unusual shapes so I’m still getting the hang of it, but it so far it’s been working well for me. I joggled the shape of the uprights so they would follow the profile of the window and clear the door handle, and joggled the face of the overhead bin so it would fit against the sloping ceiling in the rear.

After cutting out the basic shape of the cross-piece, I had to use a belt sander with a loop of extra-gritty sandpaper to smooth out the irregularities of the jigsaw cut, which was a little easier to do than I was afraid it might be. I still have more sanding to do, but that comes after I figure out how to join the two halves in the middle. The bit of scrap wood holding them together in the photo is temporary. That part will get cut out anyway to make a little headroom in case I want to climb into the back from the driver’s seat. An overlapping piece up front and a shelf in the back where the lights go ought to do the trick.

summon arch | 10:05 am CDT
Category: camping, carpentry, play, travel | Tags:
Comments Off on summon arch

Saturday, March 5th, 2022

The dry fit of the overhead storage bins is complete. I had to take the right-hand bin apart four or five times, trimming off bits here and there each time, reassembling it to check the fit, marking places where it needed further trimming, then taking it to pieces again. It has to sit snugly in the window so it doesn’t get in the way of the lid for the rear storage space. Took me about an hour and a half, but I finally got there. The left-hand bin was easier because I already had a pretty good idea where to trim and how much. Only had to take it apart twice.

Now that the dry fit is done, I have to take both of them apart again, sand all the pieces smooth, reassemble them (this time with glue), and finally brush a couple coats of clear polyurethane sealer on them. I never thought about painting them because I like the look of wood grain, even when it’s plywood.

They don’t look like much from this angle, but each one of the bins is large enough to hold as much as those rolly bags you can carry on a commercial airliner. I could pack a week’s worth of shirts, socks, and undershorts in just one of them and still have plenty of room left for toiletries, a book or two, something to write with, and I don’t even know what else. That leaves all the room under the bed for food, utensils, and other essential camping gear.

dry fit | 2:22 pm CDT
Category: camping, carpentry, hobby | Tags:
Comments Off on dry fit

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2022

Little by little, bit by bit …

overhead | 7:53 pm CDT
Category: camping, carpentry, hobby | Tags:
Comments Off on overhead

Saturday, February 12th, 2022

We briefly enjoyed a day of what passes for warm weather here in Wisconsin. It got as warm as 42 degrees F (5.5 C) yesterday, which felt so warm after weeks of sub-freezing temps that I peeled down to my shirtsleeves while I worked in the garage yesterday afternoon. I was hoping it would remain at least above freezing today so I could work a little more but no, we can’t have nice weather on a weekend. This morning I woke up to temps in the single digits and forecast to remain that way. February sucks. It has always sucked. It will always suck.

Now that I got that out of my system: I clocked out from work at eleven o’clock yesterday morning because of reasons too convoluted to make interesting. I still worked forty hours last week, it’s just that I finished at eleven-thirty on Friday. The mechanism that allowed me to do that was awful. I wouldn’t voluntarily choose to do it but I got to putz around outside in that warm afternoon weather, so yay I guess.

The warm temps gave me an opportunity to finally tidy up the garage a little bit, which had become a repository for empty boxes and bags of bottles and cans headed for, but not quite getting to, the recycling bin. And there was a lot of sawdust on the floor. So I straightened things up, swept the floor, and filled the recycling bin, and while I was out there I banged on some lumber with a hammer. Very satisfying.

The lumber I banged on is starting to look like the camping thing I’m trying to imitate, if I squint and use a lot of imagination. In the short time I was able to work on it before the sun went down, temps began to plummet, and snow started to fall, I managed to install it in the van, attach four upright arms which will eventually support overhead storage lockers and lighting, and re-install the rear lid on a piano hinge. I deeply, sincerely hope that’s the last time I have to drill out the umpty-million holes for that hinge.

I got this far before the snow started to fall.

This is the third time I’ve installed that piano hinge because I don’t plan ahead. Instead, I tinker things together, then I see a better way to do it and start over. The top of the camping thing is a pair of lids that lift up from either end, hinged in the middle like a pair of butterfly wings. The first time I hinged them both to a single piece of lumber because that was the fastest and easiest way to do it and I wanted to get out and try it. The second time, just a few weeks ago, I re-installed the rear lid after cutting it to fit between the overhead lockers. Kinda crucial. And this last time, yesterday, I learned why the lids should be hinged to two separate pieces of lumber: because two forty-eight inch-wide pieces of three-quarter inch plywood are freaking heavy when I have to pick them up together. They’re a lot easier to pick up and install separately. So that’s what I did.

The guy I’m copying this design from presumably already figured out why it’s better to install the lids separately. I should have followed his example but I told my tinkerer’s self I could be improving on the design. It has quickly become apparent as I take this thing apart and put it back together repeatedly, as required by the need to fit parts together for which I have no measurements, that it’s better to have smaller, lighter parts to work with than bigger, heavier parts. We live, we learn.

This cold snap is especially frustrating because I’ve finally gotten to the point where I could be in the van with a joggle stick making a template for the overhead locker parts, then getting an early start on piecing them together, but drawing the templates is not work I could do while wearing gloves thick enough to keep my fingers from becoming painfully cold, and working without gloves in sub-freezing temps is obviously not an option. So now I have to wait until later this week for temps to return to a slightly more agreeable place.

cabin fever | 10:02 am CDT
Category: camping, weather, yet another rant | Tags:
Comments Off on cabin fever

Sunday, January 16th, 2022

The temp outside on this wintry January morning is just one degree (-17 C), which is relevant because it means I probably won’t be spending much time outside today. I went for a little ramble around Cherokee Marsh yesterday morning even though temps were in the teens, where the temps have been stuck for weeks now, and later that same morning and into the afternoon I spent about four hours in the garage working on rebuilding the bunk for the minivan. I dressed up in so many layers that I could stay warm, but only so long as I kept moving. Well, mostly warm. I have to accept the fact that there are no gloves on earth that will keep my hands warm when it’s that cold out.

I had been using the excuse that it was too cold out to avoid working on the bunk this winter but was inspired to action by my cousin Carrie and her husband Darren, who have recently gone into business renovating campers. They started doing this last summer but have kept working on their latest project even in sub-freezing temperatures. I figured I could give it a shot, too, and found that working in the garage isn’t so bad. I even try to kid myself that having to work so slowly and deliberately because I can’t take my gloves off is a benefit. But I believe I will not be taking advantage of that benefit today unless it warms up considerably.

Added later: Okay, so I went out to the garage to work on the camping thing a little more. I’ve been calling it a “camping thing” because I’m not sure what to call it. Among the people who refer to camping in a minivan as “van life,” my camping thing is usually referred to a “build” or a “build-out,” but that’s not terribly descriptive. I called it a “bunk” in the description above because it’s primarily something to sleep on, but if I can manage to finish it, it’ll be more than that; it’ll also have a table where I can set up a camp stove, overhead cabinets where I can stow my clothes, and wash basin where I can draw drinkable water. If you’re really interested, you can view the videos I get my inspiration from here: Bruce Parks Videos on YouTube

I don’t have the kind of woodworking skills Bruce has. Heck, I don’t even have the kind of persistence he has, but I do like cutting up lumber and seeing if I can knock together fun stuff like this. So that’s what I got up to in the garage for a couple hours. I didn’t mean to take so long. It was so cold that I mean to do just one thing, cut up some lumber to fit into place when it was warmer in the garage, but it didn’t take long to do that and I felt fine so I did one more thing, and that went so well that I did another thing, and about halfway through that thing I realized I couldn’t feel my fingertips any longer. That’s how I knew it was past time to go inside and get warm.

first degree | 9:16 am CDT
Category: camping, daily drivel, travel | Tags:
Comments Off on first degree