The Empty House

They said the house had “good bones.”  In realtor speak that meant that despite the tired cosmetics and the updates that it needed, the house had an appealing structure and was basically sound.  Walking through the house after we’d emptied it of all the contents, I could finally see it.

Devoid of all Mom’s furniture and belongings, my footsteps echoed as I walked across the wooden floors.  Cupboards and doors creaked more loudly than usual as I peered inside to make sure nothing was left behind.  Rooms looked larger than before.  The character became more apparent.

It took on the look of a “new” house.  Rather than feeling nostalgic about the years Mom had spent there and the good family times we shared in that space, I felt like I was seeing it through the eyes of the buyer.  I understood how they could get excited about moving in.  I could see the potential it held, and the opportunities they had for transforming it into their own unique space.

It made me feel good about turning the house over to someone who will give it new life.  Transformations are fine with me, all the better if it renews the spirit of the house.

It’s time to move on.  My daughter texted me as I was leaving the house for the last time.  Pick a flower as you leave for a final memory, she said.  So I did.  I left the house empty, but brought a little bit of Mom home with me.   One final time.

Going Above and Beyond

An honest citizen and a creative, resourceful policeman just turned a stressful situation into a happy ending.  First, I admit that I brought all this on myself.  It was a beautiful afternoon, and I headed out on a 30-mile bike ride to enjoy the nice weather.  With the fall leaves beginning to peak, I brought along my small compact camera as well as my cell phone which I always take in case of an emergency.  But I forgot to zip the little bag on the back of my bike.  Can you see where this is going?  Sure enough, when I returned home the camera and phone were missing.  Somewhere in the 30 miles behind me they had fallen out onto the road.  The question was where?

Tired as I was, I immediately began to retrace my route by bike, since it began on a portion of road currently closed to cars.  I was sure I knew where they had fallen out, as I had bounced along a washboard-like section of dirt road.  But my search was fruitless.  Not a sign of my missing items.  I returned home to start Plan B – had I enabled “Find my iPhone?”  Who ever thinks they will really need it?  If not, I would try calling the phone.  I was in mid-action when my husband, Rich, got a phone call.  “Are you calling about my wife’s lost phone?”  I heard him say.  His voice didn’t give anything away, but my heart did a flip when he replied “Yes, Officer.”  Hallelujah!  It was news just too good to be true!  An honest citizen had turned in both my camera and my iPhone, but that was only half the story.

Just minutes later, less than an hour after I made my dismaying discovery, the police officer was at our door, camera and phone in hand.  But his tactics for getting them back to us were just short of amazing.  First, my iPhone is password protected, so it was locked and he was unable to use it to find my contact information.  So he checked the pictures on the camera.  He finally located a picture with a van in the background and a legible license plate number.  How resourceful!  But when he ran the number, it came up blank – our daughter and her husband have a new van, and it was too recent for the plates to be in the database yet.  Dead end.  On to more pictures – this time he found photos from our Trans-Superior Cycling Tour, with the title boldly emblazoned on our cycling jerseys.  A google search quickly located Rich’s blog entries about our trip, and revealed our names.  Bingo!  He ran our names through the 911 database, and found a call that Rich made in 2010, which gave him Rich’s cell phone number.  Only he doesn’t use that phone any more.  Fortunately, Rich did leave his new number on his voicemail message.

Even though we offered to come pick up the items, the office delivered them right to our home. Our anxiety melted away when we heard how he had tracked us down, and our faith in people was reaffirmed – both by the person who found the items, and the officer who returned them to us.  We weren’t able to meet the first, but we did entice the latter to sample our homemade apple pie bars.  It was a sweet ending for all of us.

And I checked.  I do have “Find my iPhone” enabled and it works.


Then and Now

The picture caught my eye right away.  Dad’s old photo album had a photo that he labeled “New Road to the Porcupine Mountains” dated 1936.  We traveled that same road this summer on our cycling trip.  What was just being built in Dad’s day is a mature road in mine.

Soon my eyes were scanning other photos as I worked my way through the albums, looking for familiar sights.  It didn’t take long.  Dad went to college in Houghton, so I easily found another common location on the Keweenah Peninsula, the Eagle Harbor lighthouse.  He took his picture from the water, I took mine from land.

We both visited Copper Harbor, although Dad must have gone up Brockway Mountain Drive to get to the overlook for a broad sweeping view.  Since we were on bicycles, we declined the additional climb.  But I think it would have been worth it.

Another album brought a trip to the Canadian Rockies.  We too traveled there this summer.  Who can resist Lake Louise and the pretty hike along the lake to look back at the big chateau?  Apparently neither my dad nor I could.

We had more than travels in common.  Dad loved to ski, and I discovered that he skied the trails as well as the slopes as a young man.  I too took to the trails in the UP last winter.


Dad and Mom enjoyed canoeing.  I don’t think they ever went to the Boundary Waters, like I did with my son Carl.  I think they preferred more sedate day trips.  And fashion wear.

Some things are timeless.  It feels good to know that Dad and I chose the same places to visit.  We chose the same outdoor activities.  And we took the same pictures.  Lasting memories, then and now.

Immersed in Images

The hard work was done.  Or more accurately, the hard physical work was done.  Mom’s house was empty except for the stack of photo albums.  Compared to the rest of the contents of the house, the amount was small.  But it represented a lot of mental and emotional effort.  My oldest sister, Betsy, had planned a final trip back home to help me with the house, so I drafted her to tackle this mountain of memories.

We decided to start with family history.  We had a wealth of old photos we wanted to preserve and share with all members of the family.  To me the natural approach was to marry them to our family tree, lending context and time-frame to this collection of relatives.  Here we struck gold.  My father’s side of the family had been heavily researched in years past, and a cousin has worked in more recent years to update it and computerize the records.  Within a short time, we had access to that family tree dating back to the 1500s on  On my mother’s side, we began creating her tree from our own records.  Soon we were in business with side-by-side laptops, churning away at scanning, documenting and saving photos then creating tree limbs and connecting people to photos.  How rewarding it was to see gaps filled, put names to faces and see our past come to life.  There was a sense of satisfaction in handling the old photos and know they were being preserved.  And we found some amazing old images.

Debora Luckey Wiltsey born 1775Henrietta Bouchay Tweedie holding Henrietta MahonMabel Mason Brewer and Richard Brewer 1916Jeremiah and Irene Fellows Robinson

We also found a few gems.  Mom’s college scrapbook mainly held mementos of the events in her collegiate life, but also a few self-revealing pieces.  Our favorite was the collection of newspaper articles, publicity shots and her personal letters home when she won a popularity contest that culminated in a ski trip to Sun Valley in 1940.  Dad’s bound volume of photos and letters documenting a trip with a college professor in 1936 was amazing in its detail.

Molly at the Zoo 1957Modern photos presented more of a challenge.  Compared to the old pictures we had mountains of photos, all carefully mounted, labeled and dated (well, mostly…) in sequential albums.  Not only was the sheer volume a challenge, but we were so easily side tracked.  “Oh I remember that.”  “Who is this?”  “Look at this one!” and peals of laughter punctuated our work.  The piles grew as we hunted to select representative photos of our family life.  More scanning, documenting and saving, ultimately to distribute to family members.

Four solid days of work and we only got as far as the birth of our youngest sister.  And three Rubbermaid tubs full of albums still await me.  I think I know who to enlist for the final onslaught.

I just hope my brother has as much fun with all the slides.

Emptying Two Lifetimes

As long as Mom’s house was on the market, there was a semblance of continuity. It was still “her” house. While we wanted it to sell, until it did we had a reprieve. We didn’t have to deal with the contents. We didn’t have to face handling every single item in the house and determine its disposition.

Everyone knows about the stages of grief. This was about the stages of letting go. First there was the funeral. Formal, a fitting tribute, and surrounded by friends. It came so soon after death that a feeling of numbness was inevitable. Next came the task of dividing Mom’s treasures. Mom and Dad’s, really. Deciding who wanted what was congenial and healing and we knew they would be pleased that family heirlooms were staying in the family. And then the final task, clearing out the house. Sure, we had made decisions about the big pieces of furniture and major possessions but that left a lot of, well, stuff yet to be dealt with.

It was daunting. Mom and Dad were married for 51 years, and Mom lived another 17 years after Dad’s death. That’s a long time in which to accumulate things. Opening boxes, pulling out drawers, unearthing trunks, scanning shelves and peering in cupboards all revealed bits and pieces of the lives that Mom and Dad led.

It was a good reminder of who they were and what they did. It wasn’t about the later stages when heart disease and Alzheimers robbed them of their former vigor and wit. It was about the active and social lives they led. We found their classic old Schwann bicycles in the garage, which were brought to life when we unearthed a photo of them on the bikes at Canal Park. Seeing their wooden cross country skis brought back memories of family ski trips. By their later years they would ply the trails while we zoomed down the slopes. Mom’s golf clubs were a testament to all the years they spent on the golf course, and the many friendships they made in the process. The old canvas tent – I only remembers using it once. Camping wasn’t Mom’s thing. All the silver, china and crystal? A living memorial to the active and full social lives they led. Mom set a gracious table, and they entertained in style. Those pieces weren’t for show, they were used regularly. The bookshelves full of volumes of classics mixed in with modern fiction were evidence of Mom and Dad’s continuing pursuit of knowledge and active minds.

We absorbed as much as we could into our own homes. For the rest, we tried our best to find good homes for the many possessions. We preferred to gift them than sell. It just felt right.

It was a lot of work, but once we committed to the task we surprised ourselves by how quickly we finished. It felt odd, seeing the house empty, no longer filled with familiar things. No longer Mom and Dad’s home. The dining room table where we gathered so often was missing. The books on the shelves we’d peruse and borrow were gone. The bed we surrounded when Mom was slipping away from us was absent. It was just empty rooms.

We’d emptied the house of two lifetimes. Two beloved parents. Two people devoted to each other. They will live on in our memories. We don’t need a house full of possessions to preserve that love.

Canoe Route – By the Stats

Having waxed eloquent on my last two posts about this Boundary Waters canoe trip, I think it’s time to delve more into the raw details of the trip. For those of you interested in routes, logistics and statistics, this post is right up your alley.

48.5 Total Miles
28 Portages
2,201 Rods of Portaging (6.88 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +313 ft

This was a four-day trip, starting with an overnight stay in a bunkhouse at Tuscarora Lodge.  After a hearty breakfast there, we took advantage of their tow to American Point on Saganaga Lake. It gave us a good head start on a huge lake, and allowed us to venture further afield.  The route took us in a circle that followed the Canadian border, then dipped south to travel through smaller lakes and head back east again to finish on Round Lake at the lodge.

Day 1:
18.1 Total Miles
4 Portages
95 Rods of Portaging (0.28 Miles)
Net Elevation Change -49 ft
Major lakes – Saganaga, Ottertrack, and Knife

This was our longest day of paddling and fewest portages. We were fortunate to have calm waters, which made for rapid progress and easy navigation through big lakes. We were on the popular border route, with Canadian shores on our right, and US soil on the left. Other canoes were common, but it was far from crowded, and there was no danger of coming up short when it came to finding an available campsite. Much of the area we traveled through was “burn zone” from earlier forest fires. Regrowth was evident and healthy, but the tall barren trunks of charred trees still towered over the new greenery. While not exactly attractive, particularly in contrast with untouched forest, it was a measure of reality and the natural forces of nature. It was fascinating to see the stark boundaries of the burn zone, leaving the mystery of why some areas burned and adjacent trees did not.

We camped on Knife Lake and set up camp just in time to see and hear thunderstorms rolling in all around us. We watched the skies, waiting and wondering if it was going to come our way. To our North, the sky turned yellow below the clouds. A dark form developed and rose into the sky, looking unmistakably like smoke. Our suspicions were confirmed at the conclusion of our trip when we learned that the storms had ignited forest fires on the Canadian side. Rain did come our way, but later gave way to a clear and calm evening with a deep red sunset. Our final reward of the day was a green display of Northern Lights that mimicked the shape of the island opposite us, moving and undulating along that wavy line.

Day 2:
7.6 Total Miles
9 Portages
393 Rods of Portaging (1.23 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +148 ft
Major lakes – Knife, Kekekabic, and Fraser

We awoke to a strong wind, which remained with us throughout our paddling this day. We were mostly on smaller lakes, however, which helped reduce the impact of the wind.  The exception was Kekekabic Lake, which challenged us with stiff resistance and big waves.  We had more portages, but they were still fairly short. It was gradual training for what was to come in later days. We had hoped to canoe out of the burn zone, but it persisted on at least some shores all day. In selecting our campsite on Fraser Lake, we made sure that it was not within our view. We had left the border route, but we were still within close enough range that canoes were still a fairly common sight.

This was our shortest day of canoeing, both in distance and time. We reached our campsite by 12:30, leaving us a lazy afternoon in which to hunker down alongside the lake with a good book. All intentions to go for a swim waned as the day cooled off. So instead, we roused ourselves for a short paddle across the lake to have our dinner and watch the sunset from a large rock outcropping high above the lake. We did find one advantage to being in the proximity of the burn zone – firewood was plentiful and dry. Our campfires ignited instantly and never lacked for fuel.

Day 3:
10.9 Total Miles
11 Portages
925 Rods of Portaging (2.89 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +64 ft
Major lakes – Fraser, Sagus, Makwa, Elton, and Little Saganaga

The morning was clear, chilly and calm with mist rising off the lake and the sun’s golden glow on the opposite shore.  It was beautiful to be out on the water in the early morning hours.  Today’s route included numerous small lakes linked by frequent portages, and growing in length.  By this time, we’d left all other canoeists behind and enjoyed the solitude of tree-ringed lakes, alternating pine and deciduous forests.  Portages bore the mark of infrequent use, overgrown with bushes and branches that challenged the height of the overturned canoe as it navigated the path.  Fall began to manifest itself, with golden leaves carpeting the surface of one trail.  To us, the added impediments were worth it for the isolation.

Our lesser traveled route also presented other challenges.  What appeared to be the long arm of a lake on the map felt more like a marshland.  But it was navigable.  What looked like it should be a clear blue lake was shallow and filled with lily pads.  We canoed over them.  What should have been a portage wasn’t.  It was a swamp.  So we canoed through it, dodging dead trees.  We ultimately found a path to the next lake, but not where it was marked on the map.

We finished up on Little Saganaga Lake.  It was a beautiful lake filled with enough islands to make it especially attractive but confusing to navigate.  Paddling around islands and peninsulas we located a beautiful campsite that afforded us expansive views.  At sunset, we had colorful displays in multiple directions.  We were also serenaded by a lone wolf, who howled continuously and was answered only by the loons on the lake.  He repeated his performance in the middle of the night.

Day 4:
11.9 Total Miles
7 Portages
793 Rods of Portaging (2.48 Miles)
Net Elevation Change +150 ft
Major lakes – Little Saganaga, Mora, Crooked, Tuscarora, and Round

Our final day provided a wide range of weather.  While the morning was calm and misty, the wind came up by the time we launched our canoe, and clouds filled the sky.  We pushed our way across the open waters of Little Saganaga, and moved on into smaller lakes.  We traveled along Carl’s favorite portage, from Little Saganaga to Mora Lake.  Covered in pines and following alongside a briskly flowing river that tumbled over rocks, it was definitely the most scenic of our trip.  The further we went that day, the more we re-encountered burn zone and reached more populated lakes.  It wasn’t the kind of day that encourage lingering, so we paddled on in quiet appreciation of our surroundings.

Reaching Tuscarora Lake, we hit a double-whammy.  The rain began in earnest, and the wind whipped across the wide expanse of water.  Fortunately the shower was short in duration, although it provided a good drenching – the first of our trip, so we couldn’t complain. By hiding behind islands, we avoided as much wind as possible.  And our reward?  The Tuscarora portage.  The Big One.  Approximately 428 rods in length with uphill to start and mud in the middle.  Its length defines its difficulty.  But it’s also a badge of honor to complete.  We encountered a veritable traffic jam at its start, with a solo canoeist following in our footsteps (he was glad to talk to us after 10 days on his own), and four heavily laden guys completing the portage from the other direction.  We were back in civilized territory.

We conquered the portage, which left us just two lakes and a lesser portage to our final destination.  It was bittersweet to paddle that section – a feeling of completion and satisfaction over the success of our trip mixed with the sad reality that it was coming to an end.  We had a shower, dry clothes and a good meal to look forward to.  But we both would have traded it all for another four days of canoeing in our grubby gear.

Making Memories in the BWCA

This canoe trip was a gift from the three men in my life.  My husband, Rich, graciously supported me in venturing off with our son for four days in the BWCA – a place he also adores and would much rather have been than staying home and putting in long, grueling days on a big project approaching its go-live at work.  I’m not sure I could have buried my envy as well as he did.  Our youngest son, Erik, generously offered up his new hiking equipment, the latest in backpacking technology.  I clearly benefited from his warm yet compact down sleeping bag and sleep mat, and we relished the way his lightweight tent practically assembled itself each night.  And finally, our oldest son Carl, who shared four days with me in his favorite wilderness and made the whole trip possible.

Despite the fact that I am passionate about exercise and religiously run, cycle, swim or ski significant distances nearly every day, my fitness level does not necessarily translate to physical strength.  And size has to figure into this as well – at 5’1″ I was no match for Carl’s over 6′ frame.  So when it came time to divide up our carefully selected gear, Carl stacked the deck by strategically placing all the heavier equipment and food in his large “Duluth Pack,” leaving me the clothing and lighter weight fill for my backpack.  Add to that the fact that he portaged the canoe as well, he really carried a load – nearly 100 lb. he figures, which probably compares to about 25 lb. for me.  It amazed me how he could swing that canoe overhead in a single motion to rest on his shoulders which already bore the weight of his pack.  Ah, youth!  Down the portage trail he would hike, at a rigorous pace which left me following at a much slower and deliberate speed.

Balance has never been a strong point for me, and at first the added weight distribution of the backpack left me teetering over rocks and clumsily choosing my footing among the frequent roots crossing the trail.  But Carl showed infinite patience, waiting for me at the next lake with a cheery greeting for my efforts.  But it didn’t end there.  He loaded and unloaded my pack from the canoe at each juncture, and held it out for me to slip into, just like he was helping me into a mink coat.  And he always positioned the canoe so I had the best vantage point for getting in and out without slipping.  While I longed for the days when that was not necessary, I chose to relish being pampered and so well looked after.

We canoed long miles and tackled numerous portages, one as long as 425 rods.  I was amazed to learn after the fact that we paddled 18 miles on our first day out!  It helped that we had calm waters and traveled through large lakes with few portages to interrupt our progress.  Another day was the opposite – it felt like hiking with a bit of canoeing to tie the bits of land together.  But we were both eager to go the distance.  To explore.  To see new lakes and forests.  To just be in the Boundary Waters.  Energy and endurance were never an issue.  We always had capacity to do more.  Even if I knew Carl’s paddling strokes were doing more to carry us forward than mine, I was still eager to do my part and earn my keep in the canoe.

Camp time was equally important as that spent on the water.  Carl displayed his prowess in building fires, creative cooking over the camp stove, and carving out time to relax and read in beautiful surroundings with views of the water.  Mornings, while I packed our gear in the tent, Carl would start a fire and announce “Hot water is ready for coffee.”  What great service!  One afternoon he proposed a “remote dinner” which took us across the lake to an enormous rock rising out of the lake.  We scaled up the back to perch on the edge towering over the water – a glorious site for our dinner and nightly sunset.

And speaking of sunsets, they were both prolific and memorable.  Each night was different.  Each night was special.  And we never grew tired of watching the sun paint colors in the sky that reflected in the pure waters below.  The brilliance of the sun was matched only by the campfires that followed.  We spent hours staring into the coals, watching them glow, flicker and spark.  I think evenings were our favorite part of the day.

When I thought about it, Carl probably carried as much and worked as hard as he would on one of his solo canoe trips.  So perhaps from that perspective it was like doing a solo trip with a companion.  But the shared experiences and resulting memories can’t be measured.  The mutual enthusiasm over the trip, the wonder in admiring our surroundings, the camaraderie when faced with challenges, the unspoken agreement over the division of chores, the prevailing positive attitudes, the companionable silences, the good company – they will remain with me forever.

Boundary Waters Basics

Trees, rocks, water and sky.  And a canoe in which to explore it all.  That’s all it takes, and it’s all one needs.  Okay, a few extras like a tent, camp stove and freeze dried food come in handy.  But completing our fourth day in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area today really drove home how it’s all about simplicity and back to the basics.

I loved how we were able to reduce our lives to only the essentials that we needed and could carry on a single portage.  (No double portaging for this duo!)  Getting up in the morning consisted of wriggling back into the same clothes in the warmth of a sleeping bag.  A quick brush of my teeth and running a damp wash cloth over my face constituted my daily makeup routine.  Question: If my hair looks a mess in the Boundary Waters and there is only my son to see it, is it still messy?  Answer: It doesn’t matter!

Life’s biggest concern was weather.  Is it calm or windy?  Is it sunny or raining?  Is it warm or cold?  We had some of each every day.  And we enjoyed it all.  Our greatest decisions were selecting a campsite.  Requirements were 1) a good view, 2) nice environs, 3) a fire ring with ample sitting benches,  4) open to the breeze to keep the few bugs away, 5) a good sunning rock.  We canoed further if necessary in search of one that met our criteria.  Meals were easy –  which flavor bagel to have, or what dinner packet to open.  It all tasted fantastic.

Long periods would go by in silence.  That is the beauty of it all.  Conversation is not necessary.  It is enough to be lost in one’s own thoughts.  And there is plenty of time for thought when spending all day in the outdoors.  Silence also invited in nature’s sounds – the flapping of a hundred geese’s wings flying overhead in impeccable V-formation, the lapping of the water against the shore, the melodic cry of the loons, and even the howling of a lone wolf at dusk.

Sunsets were the highlight of our days, and the evening’s entertainment.  If our campsite didn’t afford a good view, we canoed to a spot that did.  Campfires were our bedtime stories.  Filled with movement, color, heat and a mesmerizing glow, they lulled us into sleepiness.  The only things that could draw us away were splendid showings of Northern Lights or skies filled with brilliant stars.  And we saw both.

The longer we were there the better it got.  Everything else melted away and assumed a status of insignificance.  The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a national treasure.  But more important is the personal treasure it gives in return.  Trees, rocks, water and sky.  And a return to basics.