Camping with Suzi

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Thoughts on national grasslands

I love national forests but I’m discovering national grasslands are special and unique unto them selves. May be it is because they are so open and vast and empty. They are cris-crossed by barb wire fences so cattle can safely graze on the tall rippling grass so may be they aren’t really so open. I think their vastness is related to how small we are in their landscape. And as to empty, grasslands are full of amazing plants, special animals, and dotted with isolated ranches and farms. So what make s them special? May be it’s imprint left by those who went before and those who continue to try taming the land.

I’ve always been a wander. As a youngster it was three years here, thirteen months there . Then, as an adult, I spent half dozen years here and a decade there but never felt rooted in one place. Fred, on the other hand, retains his connection to New England and Cape Cod. I called more places home in the firstfarm scene five years of my life then Fred has in his whole life!

In some ways, I envy Fred and those folks we meet that have that have a connection to one place. Especially when a place has the unique beauty of a grassland. You can see the love of the land and a way of life in the basswood carving done by a gentlemen who spent his life on a plot of land in Sheyenne National Grassland.

And then there is the couple how live overlooking the expanses of the Curlew National Grassland from their farmhouse and welcome strangers like us with open arms. They know every hillside, stream, and secret of this area. They told us about Colen H Sweeten Jr. who writes about his time on the Curlew. A favorite piece of theirs is “Field Thirteen” (fenced pastures are all given names so the permittee will know which is for his use). It reads like a mini-novel.

Here are few lines from “Field Thirteen”:
field thirteen
A blizzard comes up
With no warning at all
When you’re cuttin’ out cattle
Late in the fall.

The horse you are on
Turns from ornery to mean
There’s a pretty good chance
You are in Field Thirteen.

. . . .

Field thirteen can get pretty mean,
But, today I’m enjoying the ride.
The feeling won’t last, but ghosts of the past
Ride along in the dust at my side.

Want a forest experience?

That’s what we were asked by a Forest Service employee the other day. You see, we generally call about a week head to make our appointment with the District folks. Even though we have selected a campground to stay at, Fred or I will ask if there is a campground they would suggest. Generally, the answer is vague but this Forest Service person responding with, “Do you want a forest experience?”

Fred grinned and said, “That’s what we prefer.”

To which, she suggested not a Forest Service campground but a State Park near the District office!

Okay, that State Park is more convenient to the Forest’s district office but . . .

Well, the whole thing got me thinking about what exactly is a “forest experience”? Are trees required? Can you have a “forest experience” in a grassland or in a place with no tree? Are smelling vaults (pit toilets) required? Must you be in a tent or is it possible to have a “forest experience” in a motorhome? Is a “forest experience” only achieved in a wilderness area or can you have one in an urban forest setting with little or no privacy between campsites?

I think the answer to all these questions is yes, except for the smelling vault. In my opinion, smelling vaults are not a requirement thanks to the installations of SST (Sweet Smelling Toilets) and compositing vaults.

For me, a “forest experience” can be enjoyed in a tent in the backyard or in a motorhome far from everything. Electric power is not required but there should be a star-studded night sky, a natural quiet that comes from inside you as well as from all around, and pleasure in the simplest of things like a perfectly roasted marshmallow or a visit from a furry woodland critter.

Yep, IMHO you can have a “forest experience” in your backyard, in a city park, county park, state park, national park, maybe in a private campground (but none I can think of) and certainly in any National Forest. You don’t need any fancy equipment, multi-room tent, expensive cook stove, or special gourmet food. You just need to get out where things grow and critters walk, crawl, flutter, and fly. Your stay doesn’t have to be long. A two mile hike is a good introduction for a “forest experience.”

But be warned – it is a good thing that can be habit forming.

Do I want a “forest experience”? After fifteen years of researching, visiting , surveying, camping, and spending upwards of 180 days each year eating, sleeping, and thinking about national forests, that answer is a definite YES! The more important question is, “Do you want to join me in a forest experience?”

Pictures from Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a rather unusual place. About 50 miles south of Chicago, it is something of an oasis for your spirit. Once a busy ammunition plant, supplying the fighting forces of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam with things that go bomb, the Forest Service has been tasked with the enormous task of returning the land to its original eco-system – a tallgrass prairie.

Fred and I had timed our visit to Midewin to coincide with a couple of tours. One looked at what remains of Joliet Army Ammunition Plant and the other was a Photography tour focused more on flora and topography. Fred got some great photo of the Plant but my interest was on the plants found in a tallgrass prairie. Here are some of the photographs I took in the area called “South Patrol Road Restoration.” To reach this area start at the Explosive Road trailhead and head south for about two-miles, then head west for another two-miles. That should get you to N41 20.905; W88 09.492.

An eye-level view at the “South Patrol Road Restoration”

The name is unknown for these precious tiny rosettes.

this shot required me to shoot skyward. Name unknown.

I know this one – New England Aster

I think this is a Beebalm

Part of restoring the tallgrass prairie is getting rid the plants that don’t belong. The Osage-Orange tree is one case in piont.

Broken seat belt in a small town

It has been a rough season for our equipment. We have had a wide variety of things break. From small annoyance such as a tail-light burning out and Fred’s electric toothbrush falling apart to more critical stuff like the kitchen faucet shearing off and, now, an inoperative seat-belt. (The steady drip/drip/drip from the shower stall suggests that will be our next challenge and let’s hope the occasional problem of the coach door not opening will wait until we are home before going critical.)

Unlike at home, problems with equipment while on the road seem to always require several hours in the car to reach a place where replacement or repair can be achieved. The broken seat-belt is a case in point.

Now, I love my little Suzuki Grand Vitari (a.k.a. Squirt). With 70,000-plus, it continues to run like a champ and to drive like a dream. I would never have thought a seat-belt could “break” and require so much effort to fix. It seems seat-belts are so reliable, no one in Wisconsin keeps them in stock. (To say nothing of the challenge of finding a Suzuki dealership.) A helpful Ford dealership in Eagle River, WI found a Suzuki dealership in Michigan who would order the part for us. Yipeee!

A week later, the replacement seat-belt was delivered to the Michigan dealership. The reason it took a week? It seems there is a tiny explosive in the belt’s locking device and that required special handling which delayed delivery. It also means this life-saving piece of equipment cost a pretty penny.

Because of the presence of an explosive, and the arrival of Saturday and Sunday, delivery of the seat-belt from the Michigan dealership to the Wisconsin dealership would not be accomplished for four or five more days. That would put us further behind schedule so Fred and I opted to drive the 100 miles to the Michigan dealership to get the part.

One hundred miles to, 100 miles back, piece of cake. Because we spent more than half those miles on County Routes, the trip took three hours each ways. Beautiful country, even in the rain, was enjoyed but my poor tussy. (Because it’s the passenger seat-belt that is in-operative, I must ride in the back-seat and want to convey my apologizes to all those people who have had to ride in my back-seat – I had no idea have solid that seat is.)

To get the seat-belt installed required a nearly two-hour drive from our campground (Bear Lake) near Laona back to Eagle River, WI. But now I can move back into the front seat.

My point is stuff happens when you are away from home. Flexibility and a willingness to see problems as adventures helps a good bit. And hope if you do have a problem, it occurs in or near a small town. We have found the people in small towns to be the most resourceful, talented, and helpful folks

Friends at The Pines

I love this job!!!! Especially when we get to meet interesting folks like the ladies at Ed and Mary’s “Pine Acres Pub and Restaurant”. Ed and Mary Adams are pretty nice, too.

“The Pines”The-Pines-owners, as the locals call Ed and Mary’s pub and restaurant, was a “happening place” for decades. Maybe 40 years ago, The Pines was a dance hall and a saloon but we know The Pines only as a bar and restaurant. Co-owner Ed’s dad tells stories about going to The Pines for dances and hanging out there when he was a young man. Another story is about Ed’s cousin and how, as a kid, he earned fifty cents cleaning up the place on Sundays. When The Pines went up for sale, Ed and Mary were ready for a change, and it seemed natural for them to buy the place where so many family memories were centered.

Thirteen years ago we stopped at The Pines after surveying the Nicolet National Forestbrule-River-campground’s neighboring Brule River campground. (FYI: Brule River campground is, IMHO, one of the nicest campgrounds in the Nicolet National Forest and is its best kept secret). A tall cold one sounded good so we dropped in. Irene, the owner at that time, was behind the bar with a sprinkle of locals holding a heated conversation in front. Irene broke off talking and served us our beverages and then began regaling us about the beautiful bar her husband had built for her. It is a gorgeous piece and she had every right to be proud. Irene is gone but her bar still shines brightly in the afternoon sunlight.

Ed and Mary purchased The Pines three years ago and made a few changes to the bar area. The biggest change they made was re-opening the old dance hall as a restaurant. You can almost hear the music played by a local three-piece band and see the couples gliding across the nFriendarrow plank wood floor. However, today the area where you can dance is a little small. Ed has built in these enormous satin finished wood plank tables and benches into the outside walls. They are so big you can easily sit eight adults, set down all their plates, and still have room. This arrangement leaves enough room in the center of the room for the “Ladies of Iron River,” MI to have their weekly card game. They have been gathering every week for twenty-plus years! Imagine that! They play only one card game. One lady called it “Bitch Rummy” but I think the name should be more like “Friends Forever Rummy.”

What a good day when you can discover a great campground, a great historic establishment, and make new friends.

Wifi or Broadband?

Anyone who has sent us e-mailed during a camping season, waited for our next blog, or wondered when we were going to post an update to current postings will be familiar with: “Sorry for the delay in responding but we are currently researching the such–and-such and communication is limited.”

Frustrating? YES, for both you and us!

Fred tries to have the best devices and latest methods to insure our ability to communicate with the world but we are always slightly behind the curve. (He just purchased a “Signal Boost-Mobile Amplifier Kit” after being without reception for more than a week. Works well enough.) However, I think this year our problems with communicating reached a crossroads and we are hoping things will be easier from here on. We are using both broadband and wifi!

Ways to communicate electronically have changed greatly since we began our project in 1994. Acoustic couplers and phone booths have evolved to cell phones with broadband and laptops with Wifi. Broadband and wifi are a delight when compared to our phone booth days but do we need both? You may not but, in our case, Fred says the answer is yes. I think of it as insurance that we will have the greatest chance of success.

I don’t know about other cellophane companies but we use Verizon and it has good broadband coverage across the nation. We have found a few “dead” zones (most in the campgrounds of the Superior NF) but, in general, they have been few and far between. The downside of broadband is when we can use it. Our plan has “free minutes” from 9PM to 6AM – a bit late for me but good for Fred – and that’s when we can do an upload and the more time consuming internet work.

Fred’s latest “toy” is a Blackberry phone. We can get our email anytime and anywhere the Blackberry “sees” a broadband signal. (FYI: The broadband seems to work better than the phone part-go figure.) Any message that requires immediate action can be dealt with right then and there. Works well except it has a touch screen and I’m finding the learning curve to be frustrating.

I remember, back in the day, Fred and I would drive around an area, usually a residential area, with this search-and-identify wifi device in hand. I would point it at this or that building and activate the device and hope we receive a “good” signal. That was back when wifi in homes tended to be insecure. Not the case today, now most households and businesses have secured their wifi (a good thing). But, often small businesses (bakeries, café, taverns, etc.) have wifi. All you need to do is go in, buy something, seat down and boot up. Outstanding! And wifi is becoming more readily available in private campgrounds (yes, modems are going the way of the Model T) which is better for us then using an wifi hotspot provided by some business.

So, which is the “must have” for anyone traveling? That’s a tough question. I’m no techie but if I had to give one up I’d probably drop the wifi and start going to bed at 7PM and getting up around 3AM to use our broadband. But if I were traveling in any other mode than an recreational vehicle, I would probably hold on to the wifi and dropping the broadband. Remember we need our laptops for work so. . . If there was no reason to bring the laptop, wifi and broadband would be left on home. I mean, would a carpenter bring her saw, hammer and nails on vacation?

Which is the best method to maintain communications with family and friend for business or pleasure? There are a bunch of techie questions that need to be answered along with the importance of your keeping in touch with whomever. Will a simple phone call from a pay phone be sufficient? If someone wants to get hold of you, does it have to be “right now”? Will you need to get hold of someone “right now”? What is your budget? So many questions. My suggestion is to follow the old “k.i.s.s” rule – keep it simple, stupid.

Stretching eases the stiffness

My hip replacement surgery has helped make this one of the best trips we have had in a long time. I’m still building up my endurance but it is such a pleasure to get back to the rig after a walk and not hurt.

There is, however, one lingering problem. My muscles seem to tighten up quicker now. This is especially true after a long drive in the motorhome. After sitting for a couple of hours everything hurts when I first start moving around. To combat this I’ve started stretching more often. If you share this problem with me, here are some stretches I do to help ease the stiffness.

- Sit someplace that gives you good support.* Have your feet flat on the ground and about 24 inches apart. Clasp your hands together and lean forward as far as you can, hopefully touching the ground with your knuckles, and hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat as desired.

- Sit someplace that gives you good support. Place your hands on the top of your head. Let your head fall forward with the weight of your hands giving a little pull. Hold 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat as desired. This is one I can do in the navigator’s seat and pulls the tension out of my upper back and shoulders.

- Sit on a bench or picnic table with your knees against the edge and hands on your thighs. Slowly rotate from the base of your spine to one side while reaching to place your hands on the bench. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on other side.

- Sit someplace that gives you good support.* Extend your legs out in front of you (knees can be bent slightly) and reach for your toes with out-stretched hands. Reach as far as you can without discomfort and hold 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat as desired.

- Lay on the floor in a doorway. Place one leg against the door-jam or wall, point to the ceiling with your heel, and have the other leg on the floor. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat on other side. You should “feel” this in the back of your raised leg. If you feel something pulling in the leg on the floor, flex the knee in the leg on the floor.

* I’ll prefer a picnic table’s seat but the bench seat in our motorhome’s kitchen works fairly well.

National Grassland Adventures

One of the most predictable things about our time on the road is it’s unpredictability. I thought, once we finished revisiting the Nicolet National Forest, we could just relax and get to spend some time with family and friend for the Labor Day holiday. However, an article in the Summer-Fall 2009 issue of Your National Forests changed those plans.

Guess what!!! Illinois has a tallgrass prairie called Midewin. Now the hunt is on to find information about this former site of the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant. My initial research makes Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie sound similar to Land Between the Lakes (LBL). What I mean by this statement is, although LBL has some fabulous developed campgrounds and Midewin appears to be void of any camping facilities, they both have a focus on opportunities for scientific, environmental, and land use education and research.

In addition, Midewin’s has objectives to: conserve, restore, and enhance the native populations and habitats of fish, wildlife, and plants; allow the continuation of existing agricultural uses of lands within Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie; and, offer recreational opportunities. Sounds like our kind of place and we hope to contribute to the development and growth of that “recreational opportunities” objectives.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++

I must say they are really serious about storms in the Dakotas. We actually pulled into an abandon gas station to wait out one downpour. We were told the town of Lemmon, SD received three-inches of rain in one hour around breakfast. Here are a couple of photographs of the Cedar River National Grassland as we head toward another downpour. Cedar River NG doesn’t have any developed campgrounds but some beautiful scenery.

North Dakota stormy sky

Heading into the storm.

Stormy sky

The storm is blowing by – fast!

One cool discoveries was a quartzite marker which delineates the boundary between North and South Dakota. There are a total of 720 of these 800-pound markers stretching from Minnesota to Montana. Each marker has “N.D.” chiseled on the north face and “S.D.” on the south face. The markers also have mileage from “Initial Marker” located close to the MinnesND-SD border markerota border.

Sorry the chiseled SD and miles can’t be seen but it is there

What a bargain!!!!

After the hoards of people in and around Yellowstone National Park, Fred, the Kids, and I are enjoyed the lack of humans in the Little Missouri National Grasslands. Granted, none of the campgrounds have hook-ups, most don’t have shade, and their potable water is definitely an “acquired taste” but the scenery is breath-taking, the campsite spacious, nearly empty, and the fees are dirt cheap. Plus there is a ton of things to do. Who knew?

One highlight of our time in the Little Mo NG was a concert in the former Arnegard Schoolhouse, now a B&B, by a group called the Radio Stars – fabulous.

Buffalo Gap campground
I’m not a shopper but I do love a bargain and we found one in the Little Missouri National Grasslands – Buffalo Gap campground. It is located at Exit 10 on I-94 between Beach and Medora, North Dakota. It has several features unique to the other Little Missouri NG’s campgrounds namely flush toilets, hot showers, paved interior road, paved parking aprons, lots of shade, an on-site volunteer campground host, a Nature Trail and a connector trail to the Maah Daah Hey Trail. It is a short drive to the Buffalo Gap Guest Ranch for a meal or to enjoy one of the activities they offer and only a little farther to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park – South Unit and all the fun stuff in Medora. One thing Buffalo Gap campground has in common all the others in the Little Missouri is the fee – a mere $6.00. That’s right, it’s $6.00 per night to camp at this little gem!

There aren’t a lot of people in North Dakota and there might be even less tourists. In the three days we camped at Buffalo Gap, the campground was never more than a quarter full. So if you ever get up that way, take advantage of what has to be one best buys in the state.

Home Remedies for Campers

Here are some home remedies I have used when far from home, on the road, or deep in the woods.

Aching Back – Fill a plastic zipper bag of crushed ice and apply to the sore area two or three time a day for no longer than 20 minutes. Alternate ice pack with a warm, moist heat such as a hot wash rag and do some gentle stretching.

Blisters – Wash the blister well with soap and water. Using either a sterile lancet (available at drug stores) or a sterilized sewing needle make a pinpoint at the base and edge of the blister. Allow the fluid to drain onto a gauze, apply anti-bacterial ointment, and cover the flattened blister with a clean bandage. NEVER, Never, never remove the outer bubble of skin.

Dry Skin – Limit showers to warm, not hot, 3-minutes and use a mild soap. Apply a moisturizer with little or no alcohol in its ingredient listing immediately after showers, while skin is still moist. (I’ve been known to use olive oil in a pinch.)

Sore Feet – Roll one of those little water bottles filled with cold water underfoot. If a particularly long day on your feet is planned, stick the bottles in the freezer. The ice acts as an anti-inflammatory. Follow with a soothing foot massage and your foot will be very happy.

Stomachaches – Try a small handful of dried blueberries and a sip of water. The blueberries contain an antibacterial compound and sticky substance that soothes the tummy.

Urinary Tract Infections – Drink a tonic of half a teaspoon of baking soda in 8-ounces of water to relieve the burning caused by high acid level in urine until you can get to a doctor. Be sure to increase your water intake also. (Note: not suggested for sodium restricted diets.)

Tension headaches – Massage a couple of drops of lavender oil on your temples to relax the muscles in your head and neck area. Continue the massage behind the ears and than up and down the neck. The circular motion of the massage and the scent of lavender do help. For additional assistance try a cool compress of lavender-scented water.

Tooth Plaque – Have a cup of tea after dinner. The natural tannis in tea helps prevent plaque from hardening into tartar.

Skin rash – Add Chamomile to bathwater or use in a soothing compress, this herb’s azulene does quiet skin irritated by too much sun, wind, poison ivy, or dry skin.

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