Sunday, May 24, 2015

Paddle starts with Portage

By David Horst

I loaded up my kayak and pointed the truck south toward the headwaters of the Fox River.

That’s the way it is with the Fox. You have to go south to get to the Upper Fox and north for the Lower Fox. Counter­intuitive but driven by gravity, which we know is the law.

The launch point was the Indian Agency House, one of several impressive historic sites in Portage. This is where government Indian agents meted out federal policy. Native Americans might see it more as the scene of the crime.

It is not the very beginning of the Fox, which is off beyond Pardeeville.

About 30 kayaks and a few canoes took part in this second of the North East Wisconsin Paddlers series for this year, this one in partnership with the Fox­Wisconsin Heritage Parkway. The first drew 79 boats for a current­aided sprint down the Wolf River from New London to Hortonville.

We dropped our gear at the Agency House and shuttled the vehicles up County F to the landing at the County O bridge. The route passes the site of John Muir’s boyhood homestead, now a county park.
Driving by I marveled again that the guy who caused the creation of so many of our national parks probably laid down in the grass and looked up at the clouds, right over there.

We dropped vehicles at the landing and hauled the drivers back to the put­-in. Paddle veterans steadied boats and assisted the less experienced, or no longer so flexible, into their boats.

The forecast told us we would see rain, and maybe even thunderstorms. But, as has been the history of nearly all of these paddles, we felt not a drop. This narrow channel of slowly moving water hardly resembles the factory­-lined banks and roaring dam races of the Fox in the Fox Cities.

Slow­-moving marshes, unambitious farm fields or fishing getaways line the channel down (or up) here. Our most numerous companions along the route were not fishermen, but rather turtles. Painted turtles and a few Blanding’s balanced on the ends of sundrenched sticks poking up from the current.

Turtles normally plop into the water as a kayak passes, no matter how unobtrusive you try to be. These amphibian tough guys just stared us down.

Cardinals, orioles and king birds flew in and out of treetop hiding spots along the banks. Two turkey vultures soared overhead, checking out the stragglers at about mile 7.

We ended with the same number of paddlers that launched, no carrion left behind.

One by one, the kayaks of plastic, Fiberglas or wood glided under the wooden substructure of the bridge at County O and turned hard left to the sand and muck landing.

Gear stowed and boats back on car tops, it was time to check out the local preferences for soothing a thirst and restoring spent calories. And to revel in a day on the water.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Counting on a good morning

By David Horst

HORTONVILLE -- Thirty-two was the number I entered on the form under "Total number of sandhill cranes observed or heard."

It is the biggest number I've recorded in some years for the International Crane Foundation's annual Midwest Crane Count, which took place Saturday. But the most I saw on the ground at any given time was two.

My statistics were built on cranes flying in, flying out or flying over. I heard them congregating, but they chose to settle in a depression behind a few rows of last year's corn stalks, just out of my view.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Remembering Ellen Kort

This column first ran in May of 2010 in a week like this one, following the annual Midwest Crane Count. Ellen Kort died this morning. I hope she gets her wish.

Sandhill cranes lift poet to flights of fancy

How about starting your workday by getting a call from Wisconsin's first poet laureate? 

She says she enjoyed reading about the Midwest Crane Count and has something she wants me to hear. It's a poem about sandhills. It's a poem about how, when she dies, she wants to come back as a sandhill crane.

My computer is still booting up. My brain is trailing even further behind. Then I am graced by lovely words from the trusted, calming voice of Ellen Kort.

"If there is faith at the appointed hour / if light breaks open and this time I get to choose / I will come back as a sandhill crane," she begins.

The poem is unpublished, so I will respect her right to choose when and how it sees print in its entirety.

While I have been writing most of my life, I am an unwashed cretin when it comes to poetry. I appreciate its imagery and its rhythm, but I know nothing about what it is supposed to do - other than to touch the soul.

That's what Ellen's morning call did. That's what the silent morning flight of the large cranes does.

Ellen is more than the former poet laureate to me. She is the mom of a former co-worker, the grandmother of a former student of my wife's and, I am quite tickled to say, a reader of my column. 

And she is a fellow admirer of the crane.

"I want to be the one who opens the morning sky," she tells me.

She simmers and bastes the language, reducing it to its flavorful essence.

She says that when we hear the crane chorus, we'll know she is near: "For you, I will fly low enough to lay my shadow on the ground."

My leathered journalist's spine tingles at the picture she paints.

I had the full poem by the end of the morning, complete with Ellen's signature. It has a spot waiting in my office, next to another of her crane poems, a wonderful birthday present from my wife.

-- David Horst

Friday, April 17, 2015

Sandhill cranes are my resource, too

By David Horst

For many years, I listened to the moans of my newspaper colleagues as they went off to what they described as an endless evening covering one of the spring Conservation Congress hearings held in each of Wisconsin's 72 counties.

Sandhill cranes call in the hayfield
of Sandhill Llama Farm
Last Monday finally found me at the Outagamie County conservation hearing at Appleton North High School. I was there for the birds.

While the hearing did grind on like a tortured old winch motor, it only lasted about an hour and a half. No one shouted. No one booed. In fact, not many people even spoke. Even so, I felt like staying through the whole hearing should have earned me a cap or something.

DNR conservation warden Thomas Sturdivant dutifully read through the often minute changes in regulations for fishing in this location or trapping at that hour of the day. Then he came to proposal No. 25 on the green ballot. It was to create a hunt for sandhill cranes.

Check my email address, check the name of our farm, check my license plate and you will see I am a fan of cranes. I raised my hand and made my way to the microphone to state my case for a vote against crane hunting to a crowd I knew was not in my camp.