Dec 6, 2012

Mad Scientists! Brain machine!

Jill is out of town for a couple days and she's barely out the door before we converted the breakfast nook into a soldering/glue gun project station.  I got the kit for the brain machine at the Maker Faire last year but hadn't put it together.  Lily has been bugging me to do it so tonight was the night. 
  She is getting quite good soldering and has wicked patience for waiting for the solder to "turn into molten metal" (her words).  Not only did the project involve soldering but also the glue gun, double plus good.  It's nice to be able to teach her the finer points of making stuff:
   Me:  "Will it hurt if we burn ourselves on the hot glue gun?"
   Lily:  "Yes?"
   Me:  "Actually the correct answer is 'it will hurt WHEN we burn ourselves on the hot glue gun.'". Glue guns are a no win situation but oh so much fun!

So we got the kit finished in pretty good time and Lily and Eli and I took turns trying the brain machine.  Trippy to say the least!  Lots of fun for all.  Bonus project danger: seizures!  (It's OK we're all fine.)

Yes, that's my daughter hooked up to a circuit board flashing lights in her eyes and dropping binaural beats in her ears.

Oct 15, 2012

What time is it? Spikenzie's Solder Time!

I tidied my shop recently just so I could get back into making things, and started with Spikenzie's Solder Time kit.  A couple hours of messy soldering, resoldering, trimming and following directions and voila!

It's massive.  It requires you to press the button to show the time (displays for five seconds and turns off) and it won't tell you if it's AM or PM.  Ideally opening a shade enough to see if it's dark or light out will give you enough of a hint on that point.  Here it is without a flash, so you can see the display:

It's hard to tell, but it actually works quite well.  It was a fun little exercise in soldering.  Eli was most impressed.  Until he heard it was a kit, then he scoffed.  And then he asked if I would build him one, too.  :)

Sep 20, 2012

The Hunter Games

Full archive of all photos available here.

A few years ago, Grandpa got a game camera for Christmas.  After much research we decided upon a camera that would be both robust and feature-packed.  At the time, I thought it would be a cool idea, but knowing how I do things, I figured it would be fun for a season of deer pictures and then maybe it would break, or it would get forgotten, etc.  Not so much!  Grandpa has been vigilant about putting it interesting locations up on "the land" (near Itasca, MN) and regularly changing the memory card and batteries.  I think he uses it to see what kind of animals are in the area to hunt.  Which would never have occurred to me-- you know, using a product for it's intended purpose.

The last weekend we were up there Grandpa pulled me over to the side to show me a few pictures from the camera.  He didn't want everybody to know about it and I soon found out why.  He had a photo of a cougar from just a few weeks earlier!  In looking at the images later, I discovered that the same cat had been captured weeks before that, so it might not be a cat passing through, but an actual resident.  Which could be scary to young children.  Not mine, of course, because when the found out they were more excited than scared.  Now I want to see a moose (fat chance), a wolf (slimmer, yet still husky chance) or a coyote ("plus sized" chance.)

So here are a few of the more interesting creatures captured by the game camera, set up near the salt lick:

Your standard deer shot

A baby deer!

Better yet, a mother and baby deer!

A young buck

An older buck

A bunny

A bunny AND a deer

A cocky crow


Black Bear


And there he is - the cougar!  The head, ears, and black tipped tail are the biggest clues.

And after further analysis, a cougar from three weeks before -- the same one?

Now it gets strange.  I think this next one is a tribble.  Or less excitingly, a furry mammal.

We think this might be a baby duck, which seems unlikely.  But there is a possibility it's a squirrel running away with a funky tail?  Also, there is something in the mid lower right that looks like it might be a bird too.

Scarier yet, an adolescent boy.  Note the temperature on that photo!

Seems there's a problem with peepers, as well.

Nevermind, it's just Grandpa.

Here's a rare winter snapshot of Grandma and Grandpa!

And finally, this is what happens when Grandpa tells everyone to stand in front of the camera for a few minutes.  No, we didn't trigger it by hand, this was pure patience...

Sep 15, 2012

Bear Lake, Sailboats, and the shadow of my father.

It's been a rough week followed by another weekend at Bear Lake.  I've figured out by now that there are a number of survival tools involved when going to Bear Lake with more than 2 kids.  The McNeighbors are up with us this weekend, sans Mrs. McNeighbor.  Awesome kids, but when the McKids get together with the Craig Kids it can get a little loud. Nothing earplugs can't handle.  Naps are a good thing, too.

There has been a lot of playing with the rats, which is awesome.  And then they sleep well at night.  Yes, I mean the rats and the kids.

The blowgun is a bit hit, as well.  Mostly just darts, but the kids are trying out the blowgun paintballs.  Hard to make them break, though.  I've been doing a ton of marksmanship -- .177 caliber CO2 powered pellet rifle.  Great for target practice, but with less deadliness.  It allows me to keep some of my Marine Corps shooting skills, and it's not an overly expensive hobby.  When the CO2 cartridge starts to wane you get some weird effects, however:

I don't know how the pellet managed to penetrate, remaiin intact, and end up backwards.
And a boat ride was nice.  After an "all hands on deck" ride around the lake, Sean and Eli went out on the Biscuit, but Eli wasn't really in the mood.  Sean, however, proved difficult to toss out of the wake.

But the best part of the day was seeing the sailboat on the lake.  We don't know whose it is, but it's roughly the same size as the boat Dad used to sail on Bear Lake.

Bear Lake is primarily a fishing and fun lake.  Meaning most of the boats on the lake are fishing, and in the warm months of summer people go waterskiing, jetskiing, or pull their kids around the lake on an innertube.. But when my parents first purchased the cabin we had a serviceable 26 foot "Snipe" sailboat.  Actually we had it long before that.  Dad would go out for the day and just sail and sail and sail.

Before Bear Lake, when all of our friends had cabins or "up north" (it seemed) we would go camping.  Once a year, however, we would go to "the lake" -- a resort.  Initially it was a resort up on Deer Lake in Minnesota, but the resort that I always loved most was North Star.  They had a pool, a snack bar with video games, and a lodge with a jukebox, pool table, and so much more.  The early years at North Star involved the whole family, larger than life.  Aunt Mary and Brian would even come and one year they brought Brian's kids from Arizona.  They had little plastic pilot's wings from the flight up, and we all spent a lot of time coloring in posters with colored markers.

Anyway, we all had our roles at North Star.  Uncle Leo went fishing morning, noon and night.  He would catch hundreds of little fish and Aunt Jean and Grandma Craig would fry them up so their cabin was always smelling of fried fish.  My sister Mary would disappear to the horse corral, my other sister and I would spend most every daylight hour in the pool, and to be honest I don't remember what my brother did all those years.

But Dad would go out in the sailboat.  Midmorning as the wind came up he would go out, and spend most of the day out on the lake sailing.  He would make it back for happy hour at the end of the day -- a family mandatory fun time.  Mom would sit by the grill with the squirtgun to eqtinguish any rogue flames, the kids would drink Pop Shoppe Pop, Aunt Jean would take our pictures against our will, and Dad would play concertina while Uncle Jerry sang with him - folks songs, sea shanties, the usual. :)

You could go visit Dad on the boat by taking the motorboat out, or you could go out for the day with him.  But usually he was out there alone, sailing the days away.  I remember sun burn, for some reason.  On Bear Lake there were more than a few runs to just drive by and see if he was ok.  He always was.

I also remember the first summer we had the sailboat, sailing it on Long Lake by the boy scout camp with Dad and my brother.  I had just survived a horrible week at camp and he came up as he often did, for the weekend.  After a trip to town in which I bought my first western (The Tin Star) we spent the rest of the weekend sailing.  I would climb into the space undernear the forward deck and read while dad sailed.  It was fairly comfortable if not a little claustrophobic, but there was something nice about being all snug inside my book while we broke through the waves.  Every once in a while he would tack and I would change position, but mostly it was just the up and down motion of a little boat on big water.  Long Lake is truly a long lake, but it's also wide enough that in the right wind you can get good little whitecaps and some serious sailing.  We were out that weekend at one point with my brother, and the three of us would be heeling on the boat, leaning over to compensate for the wind in the sails.  At one large gust, however, the boat went a bit far -- not tipping over, but enough to surprise us all.  I remember telling the tale later as "I screamed, my brother turned white as a sheet, and my father dove for the sheet to bring the boat back upright."

I didn't sail much after the first summer with the boat, but enjoyed going over to Lake Nokomis with dad -- he would sail and I would bike around the lake over and over again.  Every time I came back to the landing I would look out to see where he was and decide whether or not I could make it around one more time before he got back.  I can still smell the landing today, and every time I come near a lake and smell the water mixed with weeds I am transported to those early days.

So to be out on the lake today and see a sail reminds me of the many days mt father spent on the lake, and how happy that must have made him.  The older I get the more I am turning into my father, and moments like these really remind me that to become him is such a gift.

Aug 26, 2012

Ax. Man. Rocks.

The boy and I went to Ax-Man to see what we needed today.  You don't go to Ax-Man to find something you're looking for but once in your life.  You go to Ax-man to find out what you need.

Sidetrack:  The only time Ax-Man was a destination to find something specific, I wanted a digital microscope, and just wasn't ready to pull the trigger.  So I thought maybe if I found a real microscope cheap, that would give me an idea if I really wanted one or not.  For some reason I thought "Oh Ax-Man will have one" and lo and behold they had this toy Tasco microscope.  Ok, to be honest in high school Ax Man supplied us with many a dumb terminal for (literally) hooking up the odd girlfriend with a way to get online for the old BBS community.  But that's a whole other story..

The only other time a surplus store came through predictably was one of my few times on leave from the Marines when all of the kids in my family were in town.  We all posed for a photo at Sears.  It's quite nice.  I had my brand new Dress Blues.  Except somehow I had forgotten the Eagle, Globe and Anchors for the collar.
Not a very good picture, and not the family portrait.
On the way to the studio my brother stopped at Crazy Louie's and of course, they had the emblems.  It doesn't seem so surprising that a military surplus store might have something in particular, but it actually was.  The emblems are very specific, and I don't even think I could have found them on the local reserve base.  Crazy Louie's also had an antique Bentley in the back room.

Anyway, the boy and I went to Ax Man.  It was, as usual, awesome.  We found so many things we didn't realize we needed so badly.  The dice we had been missing from a game?  Replaced.  The word ball we love so much at Mom's nursing home?  Got a "mammal facts" version.  Light up tire valve covers for my scooter? Totally $3.

Eli was drawn to the "paintball slingshot" and we picked up one of those.  Lots of rules attached to that one. But he was as happy as a 12 year old boy with a slingshot that shoots paint.  There was also an item that I saw that I immediately grabbed and said "OH.  This is going to happen." much to the boy's disbelief.

Blowdart gun!  No, wait, not "Blowdart gun!" -- It's actually a (deep breath...)

.40 caliber Terminator Blowgun with Aluminum Teflon Based Extrusion barrel with Anti-Inhale Safety Mouthpiece, Foam Hand Grip, 12 Sharp Wire Darts and 16 Dart Quiver!  (Made In The USA)  Less than $10!

After we got home and briefly glanced at the vaguely coherent safety instructions we took it out for a spin.  Lily loved measuring just how deep we could embed the darts in a tree trunk, and the neighbor kid just kept saying "I can't believe our neighbor has a blowgun!"

The best part was, of course, the addition of alcohol to the experiments with a new weapon.  And the McNeighbor was there with his Hamm's.  Don't worry, we had him set it down first.  But I thought the dart might puncture the can (maybe) and make some of that liquid from the land of sky blue water cascade.  A little bit.

So when I managed not only to hit the can in the first shot, but the dart stuck in it, we were all pretty thrilled. But when we realized the dart went in and out it was like winning the lottery.  Did I mention we paid less than $9 for the whole set?  Careful!  Jealousy is an ugly, ugly thing.

Now you know why this is such a cool picture

I am now looking for miniature paint balls to shoot from my blowgun.  I am also realizing that if your entry level blowfun, er, blowgun, isn't enough for you, there are upgrade options.  You can spend twenty's of dollars on a new blowgun!  The miniature blowgun paintballs are pretty cheap though.

And I, too, am as happy as a 12 year old with a slingshot that shoots paint.  Only mine can maim, too!

Aug 23, 2012

Screen Scraping

I don't have anyone I can talk to about my work, so sometimes I have to talk to myself.  Like this.

I'm in the midst of a screen-scraping marathon.  It's nothing I can't handle, but I just got stuck on a site that was possibly the most annoying yet.  Although that doesn't sound right, because it caved in too easily.  Let me run through the little obstacles that I ran into:

  • AJAXy .Net site -- not the world's worst thing, but they're awfully noisy when you record them.  The nice thing about .Net is that it's really predictable and easy to pull the data out of.  If you get your viewstate right you can do just about anything easily.  But it's loud, large page sizes, and that viewstate can get huge.
  • Fake screenshots being passed back?  This one was weird.  They were running through the form and recreating the HTML behind the page by moving from element to element, and mashing that into a huge text chunk.  And then they had the gall to Base64 encode it before POSTing back on every single page - the image of the previous page.. Ok, so I had to do a little scripting to get that working, but who cares anymore, right?
  • The sheer size of the pages and all of the posted back crap made the proxy recorder in screen-scraper give up.  I'd never seen that before.  It still worked, but it just decided it had had enough and stopped telling me what was happening.  So I had to pull out tamper for Firefox (I know, right?) and record the session and then hand extract the http request/response sections.  What is this, the dark ages?
  • Did I mention it was a mainframe login?  Yeah, when you log into the site you jump through a couple hoops (in new windows, of course) which logs you into a mainframe or vax or something, and their site is just scraping that session.  So when I scrape the site I'm scraping scraped pages.   Scrape-itty  Scrape-itty  Scrape. 
  • Pay-Per-Minute.  Probably related to the mainframe.  But it makes that whole "and then we log off" part really important.  So my scrape doesn't rack up hundreds of dollars of charges.  Ended up being ok, as I can scrape through 64 pages (maximum size of a search result set) in less than a minute.  Pretty sure they're losing money on that one.  I don't know how long it would take me to page through 64 pages of that crud by hand with a browser.  And who would want to, anyway?
  • Another minor annoyance is split parameters.  Instead of asking for "widget ID number" they want the "Widget ID number" and the "Widget year number" and the "Widget size" all passed separately.  WIth no way to get at the Widget easily.  So have to script up a little bit of string splitting logic. It's no big deal, but it's just another grain of sand in the swimsuit of scraping.
  • Multiple types of paging.  This one is a new one.  So you search for something and it comes back in pages 1, 2, 3, etc.  Fine, I have stuff that does that nicely.  But beyond that there is another page on the inside (the detail) that has multiple sections with small slices of data that use paging.  You have to select (but not actually select -- just "kinda" select) an item in the small slice of data and then click on the "page down" link on the left hand side of the page.  Oh that's if there's more than a little bit of data for that section.  Could be 1 item, could be 7 items, could be 300 items (that's 100 mini-pages, if you weren't counting).  So sometimes that paging exists, and sometimes it doesn't.  Oh and you can always hit "page up" or "page down" like you would for your paging, but if you get it wrong, it's going to take you to either another page, another data page from the same item, or... back to your search results.  So don't get that one wrong, because then you lose all of your context for all the other paging you're doing.
  • You know that last point about multi-paging?  Yeah, there's a second section on the same page that has the same "maybe, maybe not" paging.  More scripts.
  • .. and there's another page you have to go to beyond that little nightmare page.  Guess what?  Yeah, you got it.  More paging.  Only this one starts on the LAST page of the data, and you can't page up and down with a button.  You have to figure out how many pages total there are, and then request them one by one.  Don't mess it up, either, or you'll end up on another page completely.  Scripty Scripty Scripty Script.
Sorry, I just needed to get that out.  :)

The stressful part was figuring out what needed to be done, and then (worse yet) figuring out how to do it.  There's no book, no google search, no co-worker to ask.  I described it to Eli as "trying to glue a statue together in the dark" -- but when the lights go on it has to be perfect or it falls apart again.  If you get something wrong all you get is a generic error or a blank page.  And one more footfall in the dark that might get heard by the wrong person and get you blocked from the site.

After I got it all finished, I knocked out a dozen scrapes of easy sites this evening just to cleanse my pallet. It was so nice to know what I was doing again.  Boring, but satisfying.

Love it.

Aug 19, 2012


After another night of sleeping like the dead, we awoke to steady rain.  We had had our setbacks on the trip, but when it's your last day of vacation, the only thing ahead of you is the long drive home, and it looks like breaking camp is going to happen in a constant rain, you really just want to go back to sleep.

So we did.

By the time we all got up the sun had come out and while everything was wet, it was certianly happier than it had been.  We made it out before noon and began our long drive.

Stopped in Bessemer to pick up some pasties just before we left Michigan.  Jill went in and apparently the woman selling them was so old she was afraid she wouldn't make it through the sale.  I'll bet she'll still be there and just as old in ten years.  Hurley, the town just across the border, has more bars per capita than any other town in Wisconsin.  It was incredible!  Felt like Wisconsin Dells for skid row bums.

We made our way to Mellen and decided to lunch on pasties there.  Finding a scenic overlook (only 86 steps up, pfft, that's nothing!) with a wonderful view, we devoured the pasties.  I don't know if it was hunger or the end of the vacation, but that was the most flavorful, tastiest pasty I'd ever had.

When my sister and I were in middle/high school we went with our parents on a camping trip to see Bayfield/Madeliene Island and Northern Wisconsin.  We camped in one of the many National Forest Campgrounds and had a great time.  At one point Dad said "this would be a perfect trip if it weren't for the kids" -- he meant the campsite near us with loud kids, but somehow my sister thought he meant us.  I think it was years later than we cleared that one up.  I also remember being concerned about bears, but was assured by Mom and Dad that there were none and even if there were, they were black bears and they don't attack and kill people like grizzlies do.

The next week I found a newspaper article about a fatal black bear attack in Mellon WI.  I kept that in my wallet for years.  A satisfying "told you so."

The last notable sight on our way home was a collection of "Elk Watch" signs.  Apparently they had a pilot program in which (I assume tagged) Elk were being tracked and if they were near the road, the crossing signs would flash a yellow light above.  We passed a number of them that were lit but saw no Elk.  Later we saw some that weren't lit and I had to wonder if we had missed seeing some Elk by "just that much."   It's also possible they jusr put flashing lights on some of the signs to make peiople slow down.  We certainly did.

A long time ago, when we travelled a lot with my Mom, Jill began reading in the car.  She would pick a book that the kids would like but that might be a bit much for them to dig into on their own.  It started with the Harry Potter series, but we've gone through some other books as well since then.  Mom used to love listening to Jill, I think it was her only chance to "read" and it felt like we were helping.  But Mom doesn't travel with us anymore, and Jill still reads.  We're currently reading the second Fablehaven book.  On Jill's turn driving Eli even took a couple chapters to read aloud.  He's quite good.

It's not the end of the vacation, or the end of the trip, but this is the end of the commentary.  We're in Wisconsin near our cabin, so all the roads are reruns.  None of the sights are new, and every passing minute feels like an hour.  We just want to get home.  And home we shall get.

Aug 18, 2012

No, Really!

I made a promise to myself that I would blog out every day's activities from now on.  On days that I didn't have anything to report I'd go do maintenance on another blog or work some photo albums and post them.  I made the promise at the beginning of our vacation and did a pretty good job over the first three days.

Honestly, I've still been blogging but haven't been able to post anything.  Between the rural mobile signals and bad campground WiFi connections (I know, right?) I haven't been able to post anything.  But I write it and save it and when I get back to civilization I will post entries.  And I won't even count it as a current day, but as a past day overdue.

Posting from a barely coherent signal in a campground, by a campfire,

Copper Island

Woke in the middle of the night to the sound of an approaching train.  Apparently he crossed a number of intersections, as he blew his horn at least half a dozen times.  Other than that, it was the sleep of a dead man.  No rain, not much wind and  chilly enough to make the sleeping bag feel like a warm savior.

Headed out in search of coffee, thinking that of course the college town(s) of Houghton/Hancock would have a million coffee shops.  Took us three more towns and a shot of sporadic Internet access to get enough bandwidth to search and find one.  All week I'd been plagued by bad signal on the Interwebs, both on T-Mobile and to a lesser extent Verizon.  The price one pays for being remote and scenic, I suppose.

When we stopped for coffee there was a liquor store that looked like set dressing for Northern Exposure.  And it had a Husky hanging his head out the second story window watching the people pass by.  Awesome.

We stopped at the Keewenaw tourist information center but they were closed.  On a Saturday in the height of tourist season.  Go figure.  Pamphlets in the lobby but not much help.

Our first real touristing of the day was at the Delaware mine.  A few gravels roads took us to a hilltop parking lot.  In the middle of the lot was a dirty three legged doc that didn't give a damn if we wanted to drive in there.   We went around him.  But it was clear he ran the place.  We got our first view of the forests from above and it was spectacular.

The office/gift shop had a couple skunks.  They were feeding them and they were as cute as rats!  Maybe even more so.  We geared up for the mine tour (45 degrees all year round) and after a short orientation video we headed down the 100 steps to the mine.  It really was just a couple hundred yard long mineshaft, but they had a section with modern lighting and a section with lesser lighting to simulate the 19th century technologies used at the time it was in operation.  It was so cool, so dark, and such a relief from the heat outside.  There were some more exhibits outside the mine, but nothing especially interesting.  Mostly ruins and old (unlabeled) mining equipment.

The roads to Copper Harbor were wonderful.  Twisting both up and down and sideways, smooth black pavement and trees arching over the road.  Like something out of a video game.  If it weren't for the motion sickness overcoming half the car.  The girls were both feeling a bit queasy, so we went slowly and opened the windows.  A little Dramamine and things got better on the return roads.

Copper Harbor struck me more like Grand Marais MN or any other artists community.  Lots of interesting shops (to some) and restaurants, but not a lot of family friendly fare.  We went on down the road to Fort Wilkins, a recreated/preserved fort from the time of the mines in the last 19th century.  It was your typical historic fort, but had no live interpreters (or dead ones, for that matter.)  The exhibits were very interactive and Lily spent quite a bit of time baking bread, setting and clearing tables, and serving us all in the dining hall. She loved it.

I was, of course, in heaven.  Nothing like an old fort and the promise of a good gift shop  to get my blood pumping.  Something really drew me to this fort, and I'm still not sure if it's because I was stationed there in a previous life, or maybe my Dad and I made it all the way up there on our Lake Superior Circle Tour when I was in high school.  (1500 miles in three days!)

A kayak glided by the parade ground on the lake shore.  I'm pretty sure it was homemade, maybe a Glen-L, but couldn't tell for sure and a stranger was riding in it, which obviously means I couldn't ask.  But it was pretty and Lily said that kind would be acceptable.  She's the one who's pushing me hardest to make my own.  Maybe I'll build a pair.

The gift shop did not disappoint.  I got a hand assembled/printed book called "Life aboard a Lake from 1964 to 1999" -- perfect!  I don't even care that it's on dead trees, it's such a treasure trove of information about Lakers, ore carriers and such.

While Jill shopped for dinner at the (no kidding) General Store in Copper Harbor, Lily and I checked out a gift shop or two.  We also stumbled upon a craft fair.  We didn't buy anything, but Lily handled it pretty well.  She's learning slowly that you don't have to buy to appreciate.  I was inspired by a few booths and a little disappointed in a few others.  I recognized some of the patterns from online sites and woodworking magazines, and really had to wonder if they could get the amount of money they were asking for their work.  If so, I really need to get into the craft show circuit.

Another booth had a collection of variations on a fish skeleton theme.  The head and tail as intact pieces joined by a single dowel, riblike dowels extending top and bottom from that "spine" -- they look really cool and I'll want to try and make one of those first.

My sister Lisa told us we had to go on the Brockway Mountain Road.  We weren't sure what that was, but it looked like it would have a good view or two.  And indeed it did!  It felt like you were at the top of the world.  After stopping at one pullout for pictures we went even higher than we knew we could go, and ended up at the clear top of a mountain.  There was a large sign describing the view, a lone gift shop and a 360 degree panorama.  The peninsula, Lake Superior, and more forest than you could shake a stick at surrounded you on top of the highest point for miles.  The guy at the gift shop was a bit of a rambler, but when I asked if he got any good storms up there he lit up.  Apparently you get to watch the storms come in from very far away and it gives you lots of time to get all amped up.  Would be fun to see.

In the middle of all of the tourists half a dozen ham radio operators were running equipment, tests, and doing signal checks.  From the looks of things they were hitting targets on the ground and in the sky.  I wanted to know more, but my own social anxiety paired with the likely social anxiety of the ham nerds was like opposing poles of a magnet.  No eye contact!

Driving along the south shore of Lake Superior in the late afternoon felt like being on the coast of California.  The waves weren't rolling in like they were the previous day, but it was still beautiful, breezy, and cool.  We looked long and hard for "the perfect beach" on which to have dinner and let the kids play in the waves again.  We were not disappointed.

We ended up at Sand Bay Beach, a huge expanse of sandy beach wide open to the waves.  Ample parking across the road along with picnic tables and a bathroom made it the perfect dinner spot.  Jill set up the grill while I hung with the kids on the beach, then we swapped and I finished up cooking the dinner as they played.  By the time they came back wet and exhausted I had a pretty little picnic table set with paper towel napkins, plastic silverware and everything.  We had baby back ribs and fresh corn.  It was perfect.  Sun dropping in the sky at the end of a long day made going back to the campsite an easy affair.  The drive back took us through more country that reminded me of Big Sur in California.  Deep forests breaking open to views of the shore, with the occasional shop or house sprinkled in for good measure.

We stopped at a shop on the way back for necessaries (liquor and milk) and I got one of the best souvenirs of the trip - Lava soap!  Do you know how hard that is to find back home?

We got back too late to do any grilling of pies, but we did have a nice little fire.  I did as much typing up of trip memories as I could, but it was difficult not having a reliable Internet connection.  Yes, I know, we were camping.  But all I wanted to use it for was posting these memories.  It's so hard when you get home to recall the spirit of the trip and the calm with which you would normally tell the story.  I'm actually finishing these up in the car on the way home as Jill takes a turn driving.  Oddly enough once we got into Wisconsin the signals started happening with more predictability.

We're all getting tired at this point and are torn between wanting vacation to last forever, and wanting to get home.  Stability can be welcoming.

Aug 17, 2012

Treacherous And Deadly

It was a dark and stormy night.  In the distance, a dog barked.  And then a really loud pickup truck drove through the campground.  No, a really loud truck.  One of those huge "I have to prove something" trucks.  Just before we set up the tent the night before, the ranger stopped by to tell us the weather service issued a high wind warning.  Just to let us know.

I slept through most of it, but there was little or no rain.  Jill felt the tent rise up from the bottom once but we had used every stake we had and it held quite nicely.  I've decided I like our tent.  No rain leaks, held up to the wind, and now that we know what we're doing, it's a pretty quick set-up.

When morning came it was drizzling.  And I really didn't want to get up into the cold morning air, pack up a wet tent and all of our gear, and get moving.  I just wanted to stay curled up in my sleeping bag for a few days.  We all overcame our issues (the kids take to bribery quite well, BTW, and I will move for a cup of coffee) and we ended up getting out of there at a decent hour.

The whole time we were at the campground these kids were riding their bikes in circles, seemingly everywhere.  If you wanted to go to the bathroom, you had to weave through the circuit.  Which would have been ok (never) if they didn't have a sign up that said "no bicycles" right there.  Also, the kid picking his zits in the bathroom mirror.  Grumpy me.

On our way out of the campground the kids were on their bikes in the road.  And by kids I mean the range is from age 3 to age 7.  Little kids.   I had to stop and wait for them to get out of the road.  And they didn't.  They kinda sat there like "what?" while I had to wave to get them to move.  I finally went around them.  I wanted to run them over but Jill told me that wasn't the right thing to do.  Their lucky day.

Our next stop was the falls.  Taquamenon falls, upper and lower.   Leading us into the parking lot was a Mercedes SUV.  I went through the list of reasons one would have for getting a Mercedes SUV and came up with nobody I would want to hang out with.  Plus, they were driving like mad folk.  As we wheeled into the lot in our Obnoxious Chevy SUV I saw two guys get out of the Mercedes.  Odd.  Then I saw the bumped sticks.  I was immediately aware of the fact that I was a middle aged, wide middled guy with two crazy kids and a wife.  I was wearing a pith helmet and plaid shorts.  I was the anti-cool.  And I was totally fine with it until the gay guys showed up and I remembered that there was a world out there that didn't consist of old RV driving couples, Italian (or Illinois) tourists and college kids working summer jobs.  I was the cliche that they laugh about later in the comfort of their hotel rooms while I'm arguing with a 9 year old girl about why exactly she can't get that t-shirt at a gift shop.  It's a personal problem, I'll get over it.  But it made me self conscious for the rest of the day.

The falls were pretty cool.  There were multiple falls and an island in the middle.  You could walk around the whole deal on a path and look at everything from the shore, or you could rent a rowboat and row to the island.  There's a sign before the waterfalls that tells you not to row over them.  So for $15 or so you can put your family in a boat just above a waterfall and row them across a river to an island.  Apparently this goes much smoother than I would assume, as they're still in business.  Remember the list of tourist-types from the last paragraph?  I can't imaging any of them (including some in my class) making it across a river in a rowboat.  But row they did, and all is well.  I was elected the rower, which surprised me since I assumed Lily would want to try and row us over the falls, but whatever.  I felt a bit like Charon on the river styx.  Eli goggled that I knew something about mythology, but I told him if it has to do with hell or death, I was all over it.  That boat was made out of steel, the oars welded and screwed and tied into place.  There was no way the oars were coming loose, and I think if the boat went over the falls it might have just stuck to the upper lip and sat there.

Upon arrival on the island I was feeling a bit spent.  I was looking for a water fountain but really wanted a gatorade fountain.  We were greeted by this sign:

I wish this sign had been on the other side of the river.  But that would have affected row boat rental income.  I particularly enjoy a sign that uses the phrase "treacherous and deadly" and it became my catchphrase for the day.  I liked saying it in a "Richard Nixon as a Pirate" voice.  Eli liked it too.  He was still trying for an English accent but missing it by an Australia or so.  Ironically, this was the week we could have sent him to acting camp with a focus on accents.  Go figure.

The island had a nice path running around the perimeter, with a good view of the falls on either side.  There were railings, as well.  Signs every few feet said to stay on the path, as they were trying to repair the damage done by countless humans traipsing around in the underbrush.  (My phrasing)

So we round the corner and find the iPad family.  Mom was helping the two boys through the fence, dad in the background taking a picture with his iPad.  So much for staying on the path.  And who takes pictures with an iPad?

After a brisk rowing back to shore from the island we headed up to the gift shop.  Eli needed a sweatshirt, as his only sweatshirt had been soaked the night before.  And it was a gift shop.  I didn't get anything, but got a few ideas of things I could make at home out of wood.  Eli found an awesome wooden sword in a wooden sheath.  Very nice work for $6.

The second stop of the morning was at the Upper falls.  Now THESE were waterfalls.  Large, wide, and well paved.  The path, that is.  It reminded me of the headwaters of the Mississippi.  Lily was exhausted, so we parked ourselves on a bench and had a lovely father daughter chat about nothing and everything.  She was so tired she felt like a sleeping baby, completely limp.  I convinced her to make the final stretch to the car and everything was okay from there on out.

Let me just say something about waterfalls.  They are imperfections in a perfectly good river.  The bigger, wider the waterfall, the more obvious the imperfection.  I don't think anybody shares my view here.  But I found it interesting once I came up with that perspective.

From the last falls we were on Moose Watch.  I've never seen a moose in the wild before, and the campground actually had a FAQ on the bulletin board by the bathroom.  One of the questions was "where can I see a moose?" -- it actually gave a location where you can occasionally spot one.  I'm not sure if that was a valid answer just to shut people up, or you could actually see one there.  We didn't.  Nor did we see one for the rest of the Upper Peninsula.  Ok, there are 150-200 moose in the whole state, and the odds of seeing one are pretty slim.  But I really wanted to see one.  I've had a longstanding bounty of $100 for a moose sighting.  Lots of rules, of course, given my kids:
  • I can't have seen it first
  • I must see it once it's pointed out
  • Must be live
  • Must be wild
  • Must be real
  • Pictures aren't required but desired
  • False positives cost $10 each instance
I have the same rules for a Capybara in MN/WI, but that's worth $1000.  It could happen.  The idea behind the bounty is twofold.  First, it gets the kids looking out the car windows.  It's hard to pull them from their glowing screens sometimes.   Second, it employs more eyes to look for my elusive moose.

Long drive later, no moose, we end up in Munising at a Hardees.  I liked my Mushroom Cheeseburger but was burping that smell for two days.  A short drive found us at the Pictured Rocks.  We chose one of the many viewing areas and headed up the paved path to a platform overlooking one of the most amazing views of Superior I've ever had.  It wasn't the rocks so much as the weather.  The wind was up quite a bit and the lake was a cobalt blue with many whitecaps.  It looked like the ocean.  It even sounded like the ocean.  The waves were crashing on the rocks and blowing spray up the rocks.  Tremendous!

We went to a less obvious platform and got to see the rocks from a different angle.  Again, pretty rocks, but cooler lake.  If you looked down at a certain spot of the shore and waited for the right size wave to crash in, you could see a rainbow appear in the mist.  Beautiful.

In tyhe parking lot we saw a real jeep.  Dirty, muddy, not jacked up.  Like an army jeep almost.   And it had a similarly grungy trailer.  It looked like it had been to war and back.  Two little boys and their father sat by it.  The dad was smoking.  I think he was the Marlboro man.  We don't approve, of course, but I'll bet those kids and that dad had some stories to tell.

A short drive took us down below those rocks to the beach.  It was a lovely, wide, sandy beach.  The waves crashed on the shore like real oceanic waves.  They even had that sudden silence every few minutes.  The kids wanted to put their feet in the water -- just like Jill always done.  Jill did, but the kids had their own version.  Lily ran up and down trying to catch up to and then run away from the waves.  It was pretty cute.  Eli, on the other hand, went to war.  He stood in water to his knees and when a wave approached he would swing both hands together smashing into the wave.  He would do that for hours if allowed.

The day was getting long, so our next stretch took us to Baraga, where our campsite for the next two days waited for us.  Driving into the campground it looked for a moment like it was a KOA style open lawn with as many campers crammed into one space as possible.  Happily, it was a bit more spread out.  Our site was wide and open with enough trees to make you feel like you weren't on top of one another.  We were thrilled.  And it was clear weather.  It was so nice there were a few bugs here and there.  But we welcomed them with open, dry arms.

We made pizza pies with our campfire sandwich cookers, and the kids set up the tent all by themselves.  I think they were going for shock and awe, so it's not something I'm expecting every time we camp.  But you never know.

Sleep came early, but not before Jill and I spent some time by the fire reading and writing after the kids had gone to bed.  We looked up and saw so many stars, the Milky Way galaxy, a floating satelllite or two and a single falling star.  Awesome.  A chilly but dry bedtime ended a long but fruitful day.

Aug 16, 2012

Wet and Wild at Whitefish Bay

Waking on the island for the last time, perhaps for a year, I ran through all of my options.  Coming up with no reasonable way to just stay there forever, I got up.  After ferryinig back to Mackinaw City, we headed to Mill Creek for their Adventure Tour.  Along with the real working sawmill they have an :adrenaline course” that includes a climbing tower, rope bridge, and most importantly a zipline.   The last time we were there Lily was just a smidge too little to do it, so for the last two years it’s all she could talk about.  The weather wasn’t exactly cooperating, so they did the course backwards in order to get the zipline in case it rained.  It did, but not much.  Lisa and I waited on deck to wait for the folks to come down the zipline and had a nice little brother and sister chat.  I caught video and pictures, love my phone!

At one point Lisa thought she heard the kids on the climbing tower, and we were worried we were going to miss them.  So I did “the call” and a few moments later got the return call from the other direction -- over by the zip line.  We both laughed, and I said that was the most effective and practical use of “the call” we’ve ever experienced.

What’s the call?  I don’t exactly remember how it started.  We think it began when the new neighbors moved in with two kids just about the same ages as ours.  There is a creature in Episode I of Star Wars (Boga) that makes this whoooop whooooooop screeching noise.  So Eli’s imitation of that noise has become the family “call.”  When he or the neighbor kids want to play they just go outside and whoop.  Sometimes when we’re in a crowd and I need to get their attention, I whoop.  It’s one of the best ideas our family has had.  Every family should have a call -- just make sure it’s not ours or we’ll get confused.

After a successful Adventure Tour we got to watch the sawmill demonstration.  I’ve seen it before but it’s aways cool.  So much wood and water working hard and making so much noise and action -- and then more wood.  I said something about maybe building a miniature version of a sawmill at home and when Jill said it was a good idea I mentioned I meant a life sized one and thank you very much for the permission.  I was kidding of course, but now Lily wants me to do it.  Jill talked us down to simply a zipline in the backyard.  I’ll help, but that’s all her problem.  I mean idea.

I checked out the gift shop and once again found nothing of interest.  Sometimes I find something cool though, so I keep looking.  I really enjoy gift shops and most of the time I don’t even buy anything.  Some of the requirements of a cool item are:

  • Unique to that location
  • Not something I can get online (have to waive that rule a lot, as most things are)
  • Not too expensive
  • Must cause someone else to go “oh that’s cool!”
  • Must be something I can live with.

For the most part I fail at gift shops, but sometimes I win.  Like the time I got a flint and steel kit.  That was (and still is) awesome.  I even started this evening’s fire with it.  Ok, I used a few lighters also, but it began the embers quite nicely.  Another great gift shop purchase was the sunglasses holder that didn’t end up working on my glasses, so Eli got to use it.  It’s a simple strap but it has a huge fishing bobber in the middle, so it looks like you’re walking around with a bobber on your back.  I guess you have to see it to really understand.

As we’re making our purchases Jill throws something on the counter and tells me I can’t look.  So I’m not sure what she’s getting -- there was nothing cool.  I checked!  When we get out to the car she says “Happy late father’s day!” and gives me a twelve page set of instructions for building your own saw mill.  Seriously!  So now all I have to do is translate feet to inches and build me a mill!  She rocks.

Lunch in Mackinaw City at Darrow’s with the cousins before a sad farewell was successful.  Super good Mushroom burger.  Hit the road and made it to Whitefish Bay by late afternoon.

The shipwreck museum was great.  I was holding my expectations down, and it was better than I could have guessed.  We got to climb the lighthouse, I saw the rescue exhibit in the boathouse, and we saw a little film about the Edmund Fitzgerald.  The gift shop had me all aflutter, but I think they figured out that boat nerds tend to be old men with lots of money, as the prices of some of the prints (come on, they’re posters!) were astronomical.  But I got a “make your own Fitz” kit and a map of the great lakes and a book about crime on the lakes.  You can’t pass up a book that has “booze” and “broads” in the subtitle.  I’ll let you know how that turns out.

The rain started on the way up to Whitefish bay and really never stopped until dinnertime.  Setting up camp in the aftermath of drizzle was fun.  When you hear the wind come up, hide under something, as the trees are about to dump water on you.  But the sun came out a bit and we had a lovely evening.  The park ranger came by to tell us the weather service was warning of high winds and rain later.  We just decided to use all the tent stakes and hope for the best.

Dinner was Dinty Moore stew and buttery biscuits.  The kids mostly ate biscuits, but Jill and I made obscene noises while eating ours.  They were that good.  Being out of the rain, tent set up and some beverages with Jameson in them might have had something to do with that.  But they were indeed good.  I chose it as one of our meals as it was my Dad’s secondary meal.  His primary of course being beans and weenies.  I think we did him proud.

So here I sit blogging by the fire as Lily roasts mashmallows and Eli reads.  Jill’s puttering around and all is well.  If this is the last blog entry, it likely that storm came in stronger than we thought.  Or we didn’t cook the biscuits long enough.   Hopefully we’ll let you know.