A Tribute to My Grandparents’ Grandson

imageI love this old photo of my maternal grandparents surrounded by their ten grandchildren. It’s always made me smile. Lately though, it’s made me feel the pain of loss as well.

My grandpa is wearing some random hat just for kicks and my loving grandma looks much more serious than she ever really did when her grandchildren were around.

My oldest cousin is in back holding our youngest cousin, then just a baby. I’m kneeling front-right, with the buzz cut and my hand under my grandpa’s huge, strong hand.

This photo surely was taken on a summer Sunday afternoon because we are at our grandparents’ cottage on Lake Wisconsin where we spent every summer Sunday. My grandparents gathered weekly with their three children, their children’s spouses, their ten grandchildren, and assorted friends, neighbors, and other extended family members. It was a day of non-stop sports and play, swimming, water-skiing, and huge amounts of food.

This photo makes me sad now because not only are my grandparents gone – they died over a dozen years ago – but so is the first of those ten grandchildren around them. The very blond boy in the back-left, my cousin Bob, died suddenly last month.

Though Bob was the second oldest of this group, he had a special role among us, especially for me. He was an older brother to all of us, a teacher, coach, motivator. He was generous to a fault. And he never changed – his whole life was dedicated to helping others.

As a gifted high school and college hockey player, Bob became famous in the Madison area and throughout Wisconsin. In 1979, Bob tried out for and made the US Olympic hockey team and in 1980 won a gold medal. He was now famous nationally and internationally – Bob Suter – but he was always the same person within our family.

Bob dedicated the rest of his life to his family, his sons, his grandchildren, and to thousands of young hockey players whom he inspired with his high expectations and persistent care. He founded and coached teams, he was at the rink working hard every day.

In spite of all this fame, Bob for me was always the kid in the photo, the older brother/cousin – one of ten beloved grandchildren of my deeply loved and loving grandma and grandpa.

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Meeting the New Hills of Northerly Island

IMG_0985Chicago has been developing a nature preserve on Northerly Island, a human-made island with human-made hills just off the lakeshore near the museum campus and McCormick Place convention center. The former airport site, previously known as Miegs Field, is looking promising.IMG_0986

I took a walk there this morning and quickly realized that this is going to be my new favorite place in Chicago!

The views of both the lake and the city are spectacular. It has the feel of being far from everything.

The place is still under construction so it’s hard to access. But it’s going to be another Chicago lake side gem.

Mourning Commute?

barge on lake michigan

Is the pilot of this barge enjoying the beauty of his/her surroundings?

This watercraft, that looked like some kind of work-barge on its way to a job site, cruised past me one morning last week and my first thought was, Wow, what a wonderful morning commute that guy has!

Like a person on vacation, he’s out on the water, fresh breeze in his face, enjoying the sunrise – it’s perfect!

In reality though, this guy is not likely to be appreciating the beauty of the moment. He’s probably more focused on his work, what’s going wrong, the difficult contractor he has to meet today, that strange noise coming from the engine, the bad weather on the horizon, and the meeting with his son’s teacher later this afternoon.

Chicago morning skyline

The clouds and sun put on a show every morning over Chicago’s skyline.

On my daily commute, I’m privileged to witness a most awe-inspiring sight: a view to the east of the Chicago skyline at various stages of dawn. Everyday it is different, skyscrapers in various stages of lighting or silhouette, different cloud cover, different shadows and shadings.

I usually take a moment or two to enjoy it. But many days I don’t, as I’m thinking about family or work or the horrendous traffic.

It’s easy for me, on one beautiful morning along the lake, to tell a barge pilot to appreciate the spectacular views all around. It’s a little more challenging to do it for myself on a daily basis.

Upon further review, I’m giving that pilot the benefit of the doubt: he or she is definitely enjoying that sunrise.

Dam, This Driftwood Jam

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My youngest son guides his kayak down Salt Creek earlier this summer.

One of the joys of canoeing and kayaking – especially the latter – is the very real possibility that your tippy boat is going to capsize and you will get an unexpected opportunity to swim. In spite of that though, I’ve had very little experience of this actually happening, except when goofing around and deliberately flipping boats on hot summer afternoons. In fact, I don’t remember ever getting myself or my stuff wet in all my years of paddling.

Until this summer.

In August I was canoeing and kayaking with a group of family members on the Namekagon River in northern Wisconsin, one of the best paddling experiences in the upper Midwest. The Namekagon is clean and clear with a good current and flows through the best of the beautiful Northwoods, far from any development.

That particular day was memorable not only because of the gorgeous setting and perfect paddling conditions but also because one of our boats tipped halfway through the trip! In addition to people getting wet (not the end of the world) one family member lost an expensive camera in the process. It was a good lesson for us all on taking care of gear on the water – or so one would think.

Fast forward to last Saturday and to Salt Creek near my home in the west suburbs of Chicago, a stream I’ve mentioned before in this blog. The creek is about 40 miles long, originating in northwest Cook County, meandering through DuPage County and then re-entering Cook before flowing into the Des Plaines River at Riverside, Illinois.

Salt Creek at its average flow of water is borderline for paddling (a bit shallow in many places), although it fluctuates greatly with rain because its watershed is so large and there’s a lot of development around the upper half of the creek. The lower half (near my house) is surrounded by forest preserves, giving it a place to flood when the extra water comes. The bottom-line is that a light to moderate rain leads to good paddling on Salt Creek, while a heavy rain means excellent paddling in two to three days, after the floods have receded.

Last week, a local conservation group had emailed and asked me to write an article for their website on canoeing/kayaking the creek. I had already been on it 3-4 times this season but we had some good rain last week so I went out solo again early Saturday morning with my camera, my iPhone, and (unknown to me until later) my iPad mini in a pocket of my camera case. Perfect gear for a kayak. Right.

The creek was running high but not dangerously so and I was cruising along. Eventually though I started seeing more and more driftwood clogging up the “strainers” (downed trees) on the sides of the stream. It was getting worse and worse until I finally encountered the granddaddy of all logjams that completely clogged the creek with multiple layers of driftwood, trash, etc. (see photo).

kayak and logjam

My kayak safely on shore with the mega-logjam in the background.

Unfortunately the banks of the creek there were high and very muddy – not conducive to portaging – but I did find a nice log to ascend on the left side of the stream. So with the Namekagon experience fresh in my mind, I carefully placed all my valuables safely up on the bank first, before attempting any de-boating maneuvers. I then climbed up the log, pulled the kayak out, portaged the logjam, and put the kayak back in the water.

Getting myself back in though I didn’t have a nice log to climb on. I also was on a bank about twice the height of the kayak. At this point, for no apparent reason, I felt a strange rush of confidence and competence (and laziness?) and decided to just keep all my valuables in the camera case, which I strapped across my back and shoulders. Why not?

As you might expect (or else I wouldn’t be writing all this), I did a Charlie Chaplin-esque entry attempt from the high bank into the kayak, wobbled back and forth a few times for full comic effect, and then plunged into the water. I did manage to fall on the side of the kayak closer to shore so I was able to lunge toward the bank in the process, grasping at roots and plants and pulling myself out of the water.

As I glanced back at the creek, I saw the kayak and paddle starting to float downstream. So with surprising calm, I slid the camera bag over my head and onto shore, pulled my phone out of my pocket and threw it into the grass, and swam down stream to retrieve  the boat and paddle.

After collecting myself and catching my breath, I took the battery out of my camera, stowed everything in the dry bin of the kayak, and took some time to get most of the muddy water out of my boat. I accomplished all this while standing in muck in a waist-high current of water.

Long story short: none of the electronics were damaged, it was a beautiful day so the wet clothes were not an issue, and I learned several valuable lessons about kayaking with no permanent negative consequences:

  • Don’t take an iPad mini in a kayak
  • Buy a dry bag for stowing electronics
  • Stick with the cautious approach or just plan on getting wet
  • Enjoy the water!