Archive for the ‘Things Neither Deep Nor Humourous’ Category

Summer is the busiest season on Washington Island, Wisconsin, located north of the tip of the Door Peninsula in Lake Michigan, and understandably so. The climate, the serenity, the adventurous access make for memorable and pleasant summer vacations. And as much as I enjoy being on the island during the warm season, visiting during winter is in some ways even more enjoyable.

Activity on the island in winter is substantially and noticeably less than during summer. But the folks who live here year-round keep themselves busy. Sign boards in front of the school and the performing arts center announce an array of activities and programs going on throughout the winter. Snowmobile tracks, ski trails and snowshoe prints can be found everywhere one goes on the island. People here are not shut-ins during the coldest time of year.

My favorite thing about coming to the island in winter is taking the ferry through the ice. The random geometrical shapes created as the boat breaks up huge chunks of ice are absolute art, and the enormous ice sheets forced by the boat to slide over and under one another are awe inspiring.

Ice Shapes
Ice Sheets

But the most amazing thing about crossing the lake through the ice is the beautiful music created as the ice cracks and pieces slide away from the boat. More often than not, the ice that has formed is rough and uneven, a result of the wind and waves. Sometimes wind will cause uplifting of the ice, creating curious sculptures.

Ice Sculpture

On rare occasion, the wind might even bring in ice from elsewhere that becomes so thick that the ferryboat needs to be rescued by the Coast Guard!

Once in a while, though, the wind will die down long enough and the waves will calm so that when the ice forms, the lake freezes flat and smooth and clear like a pane of glass. As the boat propels its way across the lake breaking up this window on top of the water, jagged shards are sent skittering across the ice. Above the roar made by the boat crunching its way through the ice, these shards produce the music of a dozen wooden xylophones. The song is unexpected and beautiful and calming.

The Sounds of a Dozen Xylophones

If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit Lake Michigan in winter and travel through the ice, I recommend making the trip at least once. You’ll witness a small part of the world in a way you haven’t seen before.

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New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday and favorite day of the year. The appeal of the new year is the apparent opportunity to start fresh. I’m always reminded of the final Calvin and Hobbes cartoon published December 31, 1995 in which Calvin and Hobbes venture out into the new-fallen snow ready to go sledding. I cut out that last strip from the newspaper, laminated it and put it on my refrigerator where it has remained since.

Calvin and Hobbes are walking through the new-fallen snow, Hobbes carrying their sled. Calvin says: “Wow, it really snowed last night! Isn’t it wonderful?”
Hobbes: “Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks brand-new!”
Calvin: “A new year…a fresh clean start!”
Hobbes: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!”
Calvin: “A day full of possibilities!”
They ready themselves on the sled, and Calvin says: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring!”
And they zip on down the hill, making a crisp trail through the deep snow.

Calvin and Hobbes Final Strip published December 31, 1995

Calvin and Hobbes Final Strip published December 31, 1995

Cliched though it may be, that’s how I feel about the new year. Certainly there is no discernable difference between January 1 of the new year and December 31 of the just-completed year. Yet that psychological break between the two is the equivalent of turning the page in a sketchbook. The new empty page offers the potential to come up with things new and exciting, to expand on and improve those which already exist, to bring to reality something that heretofore has been merely an idea or dream.

Polar Bear Plunge

Many cities sponsor a “Polar Bear Plunge,” in which brave people show off their mettle by jumping into very cold lakes/rivers/oceans in the middle of winter. Washington Island has had its own plunge for many years now. Even I ventured out into the water today, albeit for a different reason.

The local newspaper has featured the plunge in its paper for many years. The photos have typically been taken showing the participants running away from the camera towards the water. This year, the editor wanted to get photos of the participants as they ran towards the camera – meaning the photographer would take shots from the water. I thought about this for a while and decided to volunteer for the assignment. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to prepare such that my skin would remain dry. Stepping into cold water would be bearable as long as the cold water did not make contact with my skin.

The air temperature was about 19°F (-7°C) with a relatively light wind at noon when the plunge took place at Schoolhouse Beach. Stones near the water’s edge were coated with ice, making them quite treacherous, but the water itself was ice-free. All in all, conditions were about as good as they could be around here for a polar plunge.

I got a few good photos, though I was hoping for better. My camera is on the slow side, so it isn’t possible to take a rapid succession of pictures. This one is probably the best action shot:

Polar Bear Plunge 2013, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Al took pictures from the shore, including this group shot of participants coming out of the water (I’m the person with the red hood):

Polar Bear Plunge 2013, Washington Island, Wisconsin

Going in the water as well prepared as I was worked amazingly well. I’m quite certain I could never go in the water wearing just a swimming suit the way everyone else did for I’m sure I would experience cardiac arrest! Still, it was fun to “almost” take the plunge.

Happy 2013

Happy new year to you! I hope the new year presents you with exciting new experiences!

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I never expected to visit Rock Island in the winter, but today Al and I did just that. The state park, northeast of Washington Island, is open to the public year-round, but for all practical purposes is accessible only from May through October. Those are the months when the ferryboat operates, transporting day-trippers and serious campers alike between Jackson Harbor on Washington Island and Chester Thordarson’s magnificent boathouse on Rock Island.

Washington Island-Rock Island-Detroit Island-Plum Island

This fall, however, Rock Island has become accessible by foot thanks to a land bridge that has emerged between Washington Island and Rock Island as a result of ever falling levels of Lake Michigan.

Land Bridge Connecting Washington Island and Rock Island

A month or two ago, it was possible to walk this bridge without getting one’s feet wet. Today, it is wide enough to drive a couple of pick-up trucks across without fear of them colliding.

Land Bridge to Rock Island

Land Bridge to Rock Island

The path is sandy in spots, rocky in others, and consists of nothing but tiny seashells in still others that, when trod upon, sound like grinding glass. A good amount of ice makes the walk a bit treacherous at times, although one is treated to musical trickling and gurgling sounds that can be heard underneath the ice as lake water moves between stones. Being out in the open water, there is no protection from the wind, which was very cold and relentless both going and coming back. A one-way crossing probably takes 20 to 30 minutes; a precise time is impossible to state since there is no obvious edge of either island.

It was apparent from the numerous boot prints in the snow that a number of people have taken this unusual opportunity to visit Rock Island off season. When Al and I were at the boathouse, it appeared that we were the only ones on the island. On the way back, we passed a lone traveler on his way to Rock Island. His camera had frozen up due to the cold and persistent wind (I kept my camera inside my coat to prevent that from happening), but he wasn’t too bothered by that; he seemed to be enjoying the rare chance to walk to the island.

Chester Thordarson's Boat House, Rock Island (Wisc.)

Loading dock where visitors to Rock Island board ferry to return to Washington Island (seen in the distance)

Loading dock where visitors to Rock Island board ferry to return to Washington Island (seen in the distance)

Looking south from the southwest point of Rock Island (near beginning of land bridge connecting to Washington Island)

Looking south from the southwest point of Rock Island (near beginning of land bridge connecting to Washington Island)

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I may have found another photo of the mystery man.

Visit to La Crosse

On Tuesday, I made a field trip to La Crosse to take photos of the site where the Gund brewery was located (more on that in a later blog) and to visit the Murphy Library at UW-La Crosse. The Area Research Center of the Murphy Library has collections of old photographs and maps, among other archival material. I asked to look at any photos they might have of the Gund brewery and also to look at Sanborn fire insurance maps of La Crosse for the years that I haven’t already seen (1894, 1898, 1921 and 1940), if the library’s collection contained any.

I had expected to spend most of my time examining the maps, but as it turned out, I never even got that far. The librarian brought out a box with brewery-related photos. My eyes about popped out of my head when I learned that inside that box were ten large envelopes labeled as John Gund Brewery photos, plus a couple of other large photos that were too large to fit inside the envelopes. The Gund brewery was clearly a significant business concern in its day.

The first few envelopes were labeled as exterior views of the brewery. To my amazement and delight, I saw photos of the brewery pre-fire, of the burned-out brewery immediately after the fire, and of the rebuilt brewery. I was floored by the number and variety of photographs. Unfortunately, most of the photos do not identify dates (aside from the ubiquitous ‘circa’) or names of people. Still, they offer a great deal more visual information than I previously had.

The next few envelopes were labeled as interior views of the brewery. This was brand new territory for me as I’d only seen to this point drawings and photos of the outsides of buildings. I briefly wondered whether the interior views would show and identify people. I repeatedly said to myself, “Wow!” at each new photo, drinking in and savoring every one of them.

The last two envelopes were labeled as people at the brewery. The excitement built as I slowly looked through the photos in the first envelope and then in the second. I took my time, examining and appreciating the details – clothing, hairstyles, equipment, surroundings – marveling at the reality of these people’s lives: ordinary workers making their way through life, trying to survive just like us today – and now long-since deceased and forgotten.

Another Photo

The very last photo in the first envelope left me transfixed. It was a photo I had not previously seen, yet I recognized immediately one of the men from the mystery man photo. Then I recognized another. Then another. I thought, “These are the same guys!” In all, I recognized ten faces that were common to the mystery man photo. I also recognized a man who, while not in the mystery man photo, appears in another photo of Gund brewery workers reportedly taken in 1899. He was the first clear link between the mystery man photo, dated circa 1890 and most likely taken pre-fire, and the 1899 photo taken in front of the rebuilt brewery.

I asked to get a digital scan of the photo, as large as possible, so that I could compare the faces of the men with the mystery man photo. On Wednesday, I began examining my digital copy of the photo. In addition to the ten men who are also clearly in the mystery man photo, I concluded there might be as many as six others who also appear in both photos – including the mystery man himself! I believe this gentleman is the mystery man:

Mystery Man?

His case is a little trickier to deduce than many of the other men because the mystery man in the first photo wears a cap Mystery Man while the man is hatless in this photo. Yet there is a resemblance in the facial features, including to a degree the wonderful moustache. Moreover, consider some other details: both men are seated prominently in the front row; both men wear very similar (identical?) black boots; both men wear a similar type of shirt that, while not the same, curiously isn’t apparent on any of the other men in either photo; the overall shape of the face, including the ears, on each man is similar; and the shape of the nose on each man seems to be identical. And did you notice that the man is holding a cap? Holding a Cap Wouldn’t that be something if it was the very cap worn by the man in the other photo!

Which Photo Came First?

Photo #1 - John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Photo #1 – John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Photo #2 - John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Photo #2 – John Gund Brewery Workers circa 1890

Given that so many of the men present in both photos appear the same in their faces, I surmise the photos were taken close together, timewise. Two questions that I’d like to answer are (1) how much time elapsed between the two photos and (2) which was taken first?

It is exceedingly difficult to discern signs of aging in the men’s faces. That suggests that only a small amount of time separates the two photos. The man in the mystery man photo (to which I’ll now refer to as photo #1), third row from front, far right, is pictured in the other photo (to which I’ll now refer to as photo #2) in the third row from front, fourth from left. To me, that man looks younger (more kid-like, almost) in photo #2. By contrast, the man in photo #1, front row, second from left, who is in the very same location in photo #2, looks younger to me in photo #1.

I’ll offer two observations about the photos that, while I’m unable to prove conclusively, lead me to believe that photo #2 is the earlier of the two photos and that the photos were taken perhaps six months to one year apart:

1) A detail that I notice about both photos are the wonderful moustaches. Of the sixteen men who either certainly are present or are likely present in both photos, twelve sport moustaches in both photos. To a man, the moustaches of those twelve, if not the same in each photo, are larger, wider, fuller and in three cases, more horizontal, in photo #1 than in photo #2. This leads me to speculate that the fashion trend of the day had changed between the time that the two photos were taken. I’m guessing the trend was toward larger, more prominent moustaches as the ’90s progressed, which, if true, suggests that photo #2 was taken first.

2) One cannot grow a moustache overnight. Therefore, any changes to the moustache size of any of the men had to have taken some time. Further, the clothing the men are wearing in photo #1 appears to be slightly seasonally different than the clothing in photo #2. A number of the men in photo #1 seem to be wearing some type of sweater or are otherwise more layered than the men in photo #2. Though the season during which each photo was taken isn’t apparent, the somewhat seasonally different clothing suggests several months may have elapsed between the two photos. Both of these points lead me to guess that perhaps six months to maybe not quite a year separate the two photos.

To be continued…

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On Friday, I saw a sight in Madison that one never sees – a passenger train traveling through town.

The closest that Amtrak’s Empire Builder route comes to Madison is 25 miles to the northeast, stopping at a quaint old train station in Columbus. It’s a lovely vintage station, built shortly after the turn of the 20th century. As there is no public transportation between Madison and Columbus, for those who live in Madison, the train is an option for cross-country travel only to those with access to a car.

Two years ago, the state government had plans to construct a high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison, the long-term plan being to connect Chicago with Minneapolis via the two Wisconsin cities. The federal government was poised to cover the estimated $810 million in construction costs. The state’s burden would be to pay the estimated $7.5 million in annual operating costs. It was those operating costs that the state’s then recently-elected-but-not-yet-in-office governor cited as the reason for rejecting the funding from the federal government to pursue this transportation option. At the time, the governor-elect frequently and repeatedly claimed that the state was broke. (Meanwhile, during the two years that said governor has been in office, the state has spent millions upon millions of dollars on road, highway and bridge construction.) The state has now spent far more than $7.5 million as a result of the decision to scrap the high-speed rail plans. Further, the state now faces a lawsuit for failing to pay a company with which the state had contracted to build train cars for Amtrak’s Hiawatha line connecting Milwaukee and Chicago.)

Around 3:40 in the afternoon on Friday, I was walking along University Avenue on my way to Union South. I could hear the long and frequent train whistles from the tracks that run near Johnson Street and could tell the train was getting closer. After rounding the corner at the section of Orchard Street that connects University and Johnson, the train came into view. Rather than seeing a freight train as expected, I saw going by a string of shiny silver, single-level train cars that looked unmistakably like passenger rail cars, complete with white curtains hanging on either side of the windows. As I continued to approach Johnson Street, I heard someone behind me confirm what I was seeing when he declared, “That’s a passenger train!”

Indeed, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional train was rolling by. That route runs between Virginia and Massachusetts,

Map of Amtrak's Northeast Regional Route

Map of Amtrak’s Northeast Regional Route

so one wonders how this particular train got so lost and found itself traveling through south central Wisconsin, headed west even further away from the East Coast. The rail line it was on roughly follows U.S. Highway 14 through Middleton, Cross Plains, Black Earth, Mazomanie, Arena, Spring Green and Lone Rock, at which point Highway 14 turns north and the rail line continues west through Avoca, Muscoda, Blue River, Boscobel and Wauzeka, eventually ending up in Prairie du Chien.

The train was a welcome and beautiful sight to see. It causes me wonder if plans to bring passenger rail to Madison are still in the works. What a tremendous benefit that would be!
Amtrak Northeast Regional

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I’ve never worn a hat as part of my daily wardrobe. There are a number of reasons why, but this summer I set aside those reasons and went in search of a hat. In July, I visited Sacred Feather on State Street and looked around to see what they had. I sampled many different hats and, frankly, hated how they looked on me. Some made my head look like a mushroom. Others exaggerated my extreme verticality. I was about to leave disappointed when I spotted a shelf with a style of hat that appealed to me. I selected one to try on, and although the size was much too large, I liked the look of the hat and how it looked on me. I inquired at the desk about other sizes of that particular hat, but they had no more in stock. They would be ordering more around Halloween.

Patiently have I waited for fall to come so that I could purchase an Aegean fisherman’s cap. Aegean Fisherman's Cap On Friday, the store called to tell me the caps had arrived, so I stopped by after work. The first one I tried on was too large, but they had one about two sizes smaller that seemed to fit about right. So I bought it and wore it on the way home.

As I passed by the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum on the capitol square, I noticed their window display for the current exhibit called “Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin’s Historic Bars and Breweries.” Wisconsin Historical Society Exhibit

The seated gentleman in the lower left sporting a great moustache, holding a mug in his right hand, and wearing a cap, caught my attention: Close-up of gentleman in exhibit photograph

I wonder if the man in the cap was an immigrant and what his life was about. Most of the other men in the photo are hatless, so why did he choose to wear that particular cap?

Wearing a hat after not having regularly worn a hat for 44 years takes some getting used to. Wearing my new hat But all in all, I’m quite pleased with how it looks. The cap is gray and made of wool. When I’m wearing the cap, I almost feel like I should be carrying around a fishing net or pole. There is no danger of the cap transforming me into a seafarer, though.

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This week’s NPR Weekend Edition Sunday puzzle challenge went like this:

“Draw a regular hexagon, and connect every pair of vertices except one. The pair you don’t connect are not on opposite sides of the hexagon, but along a shorter diagonal. How many triangles of any size are in this figure?”

I suspect a mathematical formula exists to determine the answer. But as I don’t know of such a formula, nor do I know how to find one, I resorted to the manual method of counting.

This turned out to be not as simple as it sounds. I spent the better part of the week counting and re-counting and counting again, coming up with many different answers. Of course, there is only one answer, hence my determination to keep counting until I found it!

I began by drawing a hexagon and randomly connecting vertices, leaving just one pair unconnected (depicted here circled in red):

Then I began to look for triangles of any size. The first time I counted, I found 50. Figuring there could easily be some that I missed, I counted again more carefully and found 76. The third count yielded 84.

I then took a more careful and systematic approach to counting. It occurred to me that there is a symmetry in the figure that can be readily seen if the hexagon is rotated slightly:

Notice now that the left and right halves are mirror images. Knowing this made counting easier because if I found a triangle on one half of the image, that meant a corresponding triangle was on the opposite half of the image, making it less likely that I’d miss counting a triangle.

Starting with triangles comprised of once piece, I carefully labeled those triangles with a ‘1’. Next, I looked for triangles composed of two pieces and labeled those triangles with a ‘2’. I continued this method up to ‘10’, which is the greatest number of pieces I could find that formed a triangle. Adding up the subtotals for each number of pieces came to 80 triangles.

I went over all of the labeled images again and found some that I had mislabeled and some that I had missed. This time, adding the subtotals yielded 82 triangles. After double- and triple-checking my labels and arithmetic, I settled on 82 as my final answer:

[click image to enlarge]

On tomorrow’s Weekend Edition Sunday program, I’ll find out whether I counted correctly!

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