Monday, January 29, 2018

Father’s journals recall camping a century ago

By David Horst,

DE PERE -- Author Martha Greene Phillips is extraordinarily attached to history.

Her father was 79 when she was born. She is just one generation removed from a man who was alive as the Civil War was ending and served in the Spanish-American War.
Martha Greene Phillips

There’s an even stronger connection -- eight leather-bound journals of canoe excursions her father took with a group of friends, his sons and his sons’ friends. She turned the journals into Border Country, the Northwoods Canoe Journals of Howard Greene, 1906-1916, University of Minnesota Press. The 408-page history includes 366 photos, plus maps and sketches, and fully reproduces six of Howard’s journals, with summaries of the other two.

She described the book and her father’s adventures in a presentation at the North East Wisconsin Paddlers annual meeting Saturday (Jan. 27) at Legends in De Pere. NEWP ( is a nonprofit dedicated to advancing paddle sport education and safety and the sponsor of kayaking instruction and an annual series of public paddles.

Howard Greene
Howard Greene, born in 1865, ran a wholesale drug company in Milwaukee. In his day, that meant dealing mostly with herbs and other botanicals. His release from the rigors of running a business was to take trips into nature. Three or four men and four to eight boys, paddling off into the wilderness for four weeks.

Howard – or Dad, as everyone in “The Gang” on the trips called him – shot photographs and took notes throughout the trips and produced leather-bound journals for each participant. The trips included:
  • Wisconsin River, Wis. (1906)
  • St. Croix River, Wis. (1907)
  • Presque Isle River, Mich. (1909)
  • Rainy Lake Region – Ely to Ranier, Minn. (1910)
  • Dawson Trail, Canada (1911)
  • Pigeon River, Duluth, Minn. (1914)
  • Tower to Ranier, Minn. (1915)
  • Chippewa River, Wis. (1916)
Martha Greene Phillips – Marti – lives in Portage. She is a retired mental health counselor. She acquired a full set of those journals, added forwards, footnotes and a lot of research, to create the book.

In Greene’s day, photographing nature was nothing like pointing a digital camera and making it work with Photoshop later. He processed 4-by-8-inch negatives, and even glass plates, out on the river banks.

Some of the boys participating in the trips were Phillips’ half-brothers. There’s no way girls would have been included, but when Marti read of their adventures, “I was so envious of the boys,” she said. Their experience was one of total freedom in nature.

She knew about the journals growing up. They were almost revered in the household.

“There was a lore in the family,” Marti said. “My dad wrote very well.”

Marti was 13 when her father died at age 93. He had been a very involved father, she said, so her five years of work with the journals only confirmed for her that he was the same man in his younger years, rather than revealing the man to her.

“I wasn’t looking for that,” she said.

The journals featured other characters she enjoyed getting to know.

There was Doc, a gynecologist who has an avid hunter and collected art. One of her half-brothers grew up to run for governor and another boy became a prominent Chicago lawyer. Carl, another of her half-brothers, went off to World War I, suffered what was then called “shell shock” and never fully recovered his sanity.

Marti makes the distinction that these were not the kind of trips when men of privilege took guides and servants into the woods and came back to the club to brag about bagging a moose. Howard’s gang did take a logging camp cook along, but their adventures were self-reliant.

They engaged farmers with teams and wagons at some of the portages. As educated men, the group knew about plant identification. They also recorded the species of birds and other animals they saw. In one four-week wilderness trip they encountered only one deer, but saw many moose.

A list prepared for a customs check for a trip into Canada details what their menu was like. Items on the list included three pounds of coffee, four pounds of tea, 10 pounds of navy beans, two boxes of chocolate, 30 pounds of bacon, a dozen cans of Underwood devilled tongue, 50 pounds of oleomargerine and 25 pounds of California prunes. They carried wool blankets for bed rolls. Sleeping bags were just starting to be available. Their canvas tents had no floors or mosquito netting. They carried shellac and white lead to patch their canvas canoes.

Marti did substantial research just to understand some of the terminology of the day. They spoke of eating dynamite. That turned out to be sort of a de-watered pea soup stuffed into sausage skins, giving them the appearance of a stick of dynamite. It was kind of the power bar of its day.

She praised the job the University of Minnesota press did in designing and laying out the $40 book, but also owes a debt to the Wisconsin Historical Society. One of her brothers had accumulated the photographic negatives and was making prints. A fire at his house destroyed almost all of the negatives. The Wisconsin Historical Society agreed to shoot all of the available prints to make them available for printing.

She said publishing her father’s collection verified her feeling that the journals were important and historically influential. Her father summed it up this way:

“Experience in fields, camps, and sundry places has taught me that the best form of recuperation for a tired mind and body is to break loose from the usual manner of life and to go away with men who live outdoors in the great open places where the postman does not come. … I admit that in the years since our last camps on Lake Superior, I had grown weary, I wanted to go to places not clearly marked between night rests, the distance and a day’s travel by horse and pack train.” 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

October paddle extends the season

By David Horst

A day in mid-October with a forecast of sun and temperatures in the low 70s. Not something you pass up. It needed to be a paddle weekend.

I emailed paddle buddy Jeff Mazanec and made plans for a short trip.
We settled on the Waupaca River from Weyauwega to Decker Park.

Coincidentally, this is one of our routes for the 2018 North East Wisconsin Paddlers public paddles. We needed a location, so why not pick one that we could scout for the group. Jeff, of Grand Chute, has an even stronger sense of responsibility (and so does the third main planner of this series, Tom Young of Fox Crossing) than I do, so he was fine with that.

The launch area is just below the dam that forms Lake Weyauwega. It’s on the north side of the river, at the foot of the grain tower that is painted with symbols of the area’s history.

A narrow path, maybe five yards long, leads down to a small pier about the right height for launching a canoe, but on the treacherous side for dropping down into a kayak. The flow is swift and the rocks slippery, but we managed to launch without contributing to the blooper reel.

Paddling the Waupaca
The route out of town takes you past the bread and butter of Weyauwega – Agropur cheese and Presto Products. Also Weyauwega-Fremont High School. Then on to rural beauty.

The first section of river has some ripples. They’d have to grow up quite a bit to be rapids, but they do signal underwater rocks best avoided. Other sections turn suddenly shallow with mucky sand slippery enough to glide through, until you push it too far and have to step out into the quicksand. We didn’t push it that far, but almost.

Jeff always takes sweep on our group paddles. He’s the last guy, making sure no one gets left behind and offering a tow to anyone who is struggling.

Today, he alternates between lead and sweep. There are only the two of us.
As fun as it is to fill a river with paddlers, sharing a river with just us is a refreshing change. We have time to talk – not just about who needs help or a paddler slipping off his PFD in violation of our rules. Today our conversation is about our families, our memories, our aspirations. 
I didn’t even bring a camera.

Jeff observes the river is wide enough that we aren’t likely to have downed trees block our way. The thought has hardly slipped off of his tongue when we swing around a bend to see tree trunk stretching across the channel.

Far river right there is a passage about twice the width of a kayak.

Time and time again we would encounter a tree and see the passage reveal itself.

Even with fall getting ready to entrench itself, signs of wildlife were everywhere. Pointy beaver sticks littered the shoreline. Patches of mud were scribed with a mosaic of footprints from beavers, muskrats and deer.

Great blue herons took the point for the first half our trip. I can confidently say herons, plural, but could not venture what part of the count should be credited to great blues who flew ahead and emerged again.

We never saw the bald eagle that usually graces our group trips. Instead, an osprey cruises the wind currents.

“An osprey is worth two eagles,” Jeff pronounces. Definitely in a bar fight, I was thinking. This osprey is pushing the migration window. Most would have headed toward Mexico and points further south by now, but a few linger through October.

We twist and turn through the final length of the Waupaca before it anonymously slips into the Wolf River.

The first inlet is populated with campers. Around a peninsula stands Gill’s Landing, a bar and restaurant. We land there. Many of the patrons have taken to the deck to soak in this extra summer day in October.

We join them to toast a day that cheated the end of paddle season.


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Water, water everywhere

By David Horst

We set out knowing we would be rained on.

One of the glories of kayaking is it doesn't matter if it rains. Your boat and your sprayskirt cover the bottom half of you and your raincoat and hat shelter the rest.

We were paddling the Caldron Falls pool of the Peshtigo Flowage -- one of eight days of paddling organized by North East Wisconsin Paddlers this season.

Camping at Gov. Thompson State Park, we are paddling an 8-mile out-and-back route Saturday and the High Falls pool on Sunday. Today's route is landing #13 to landing #12 and back.

The clouds were gathering and the forecast has made thunderstorms a certainty. But, remember, I no longer trust weather forecasters.

On the way back the rain started. It got harder. An

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Consty's story ends

By David Horst 

An experience can be difficult, end badly and still be worth it. So it is with the last chapter of Consty’s story.

Constellatione has been with us for 17 years. Toward the end of last year, he started having difficulty walking. His feet would go every which way when he took a step. In early March, he went down and was unable to get himself back up.

After desperate day of him being outside in high winds, we were able to help him walk into the barn with the assistance of our vet and a young intern. 

At first, the diagnosis was that Consty had a parasite that attacks the spine. Later, it was determined that a cancerous tumor was pressing on his spine. Either way, he couldn’t stand.