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Magnetic North

Vicki with her angora rabbit, Peaches

Contributor(s): 
Vicki Biggs-Anderson
Vicki lives  on a 100-year-old homestead in Colvill that she and her late husband, Paul moved to from the Twin Cities 23 years ago.
She shares this special place with five cashmere and milk goats,  a dozen-plus laying hens, three talkative geese an assortment of wild and domestic ducks, six angora rabbits, a house cat , a yellow Lab and a rescue retriever/kangaroo and one very spoiled Bourbon Red turkey.
When not feeding, chasing or changing "sheets" for all of the above, Vicki writes, volunteers, knits, wanders the woods, balances rocks and, "when a fit of discipline strikes," dives into her decade of weekly columns for the old News-Herald in search of a book or screenplay or, more like, a sit-com.  Listen at your convenience by subscribing to a podcast.


Arts, cultural and history features on WTIP are made possible in part by funding from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. Check out other programs and features funded in part with support from the Heritage Fund.

  

 


What's On:
Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North - July 6, 2018

Magnetic North 7/1/18
Isle Royale Saga Part 2
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North and the follow-up to my sailing saga of forty years ago. As I said before, time spent tied up to the wall by the Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais was all too short. My husband, our daughter, Gretchen and our young medical intern and friend, Pam, were on a quest, not a looky-loo sightseeing excursion. We’d crossed Lake Superior from the Apostle Islands in a dense cloud of fog, motoring most of the way until we made land and slipped through the narrow slot into the town harbor. It was merely a pit stop - ice, grub, and shuteye - before the Big Push to Isle Royale’s Washington Harbor. And the July morning brought the clearest skies of the summer, a gift from a major high-pressure system tied in a bow with 30-plus mile per hour winds.

And that was just at 8 o’clock in the morning.

Landlubbers will look out at the big lake dancing to the music of winds like that and crow, “What a great day for a sail, eh?” 
But anyone who has ever hoisted a sail in such conditions might well differ. Sure, you wouldn’t have to touch the motor, but you also would have to seriously consider attaching your lifejacket to the rigging during the voyage. Sailboats keel to one side under much lesser wind power, and that day, we would be sailing parallel to the waves which were growing taller with every passing hour.

After a brief, too brief for this kid, conference with our sailing friends in a 33-footer, we opted to set out well before noon for the island, sticking as close together as possible. And so we did.

I am guessing that before we’d even passed Five Mile Rock, our friend, Pam, Gretchen and I had consumed the maximum dose of Dramamine, as much to settle our nerves as our stomachs.

That sideways wind was the kind we had that day going to Isle Royale; One side rail of the boat just about even with the water and stomach lurching drops from the top of wave thoughts to their bottoms... Up. Down. Up. Down. And never a letup in the wind.
Not that it was boring. Anything but.

At one point, I looked up at the cabin door to see Gretchen holding her knitting needles in one little hand -they were of course aimed at her eyeballs. Soon after that, I looked across at our sailing friends in their much bigger boat, only to see their mast disappear in the troughs of the waves separating our crafts.

I will say this. There were no biting flies that day.

Thanks to the ferocious wind, we made Isle Royale just a bit after noon, coming up alongside Rock of Ages Lighthouse, still in huge waves. I was instructed to keep my eye on the depth finder and report if we were about to see the wreck of the America closer than planned. 

“Ten feet,” I croaked as the famed lighthouse loomed off our bow. That’s ten feet from the tip of the keel, mind you.
“Eight feet....seven feet....five!” I squawked, “Will you for the love of Pete put he blasted sails DOWN?!” It was less a question than a command. I tend to get bossy when death nears.

“Well, cheated death again,” my husband cried over the roar of the motor, as we tied up to the dock. 

A gaggle of teenage campers stood ogling our two sailboats, oblivious to the conditions beyond the harbor mouth…“Wow, what a great day for a sail,” one yelled enthusiastically.  My reply was -mercifully - muffled by the shouts of my husband and our young physician friend who had just seen Gretchen and the pug fall off the bow into the lake.

Both dog and child wore life jackets. It was not the first - or last - time for such drama.

It was three more years before I refused to sail on Superior ever again and another 14 before I got my heart’s desire and moved to the North Shore, at long last, happily aground at the end of a gravel road. Aside from a few humbling experiences with goats and geese and assorted critters, I have not once since ended my days here with the phrase, “Well, cheated death again,”
As for the young woman who gamely made the trip with us to the Isle, her experience seemed to have forced her to question where her life was going, at least now that it was not ending on the rocks of Superior. Within months of returning to the cities, she quit medicine and became a Buddhist monk. I kid you not.

It is ironic that having endured forced marches into the BWCA and near death experiences on the big lake, I still felt drawn to this place. And over the years I’ve come to find enough to fill my cup in just being here. Not covering kilometers in the wilderness. Not circling the lake on the highway or crossing it on water. Just being in a place where I can look out the window and see a doe licking her newborn fawn clean, or ride a kicksled at midnight down my snowy driveway under Northern Lights, or know who is related to who and where to find help when a newcomer needs a plumber, electrician or even get a skunk out from under one’s porch.

It’s not high adventure - nothing Robert W. Service would have written poems about. But for me and for Paul, it was and is more, much, much, more than enough.

For WTIP this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 

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Magnetic North - June 20, 2018

Magnetic North 6/11/18
Barking dog navigation; Isle Royale Part 1
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where visitors now stream up the narrow highway from Duluth, braving detours and cavalcades of RVs, rubbernecking drivers, and excruciating miles in-between rest stops to get to Cook County. Once here, they crowd the restaurants and shops, take pictures of the Beaver House walleye and soak up the history and beauty of our little piece of heaven. 
 
But there is another breed of visitor whose primary reasons for coming to the county, specifically the town of Grand Marais, revolve around three fairly mundane pursuits: finding ice, a laundromat, and groceries and pumping out the effluent they carry onboard. These seekers come - and go -by water. And having spent a fortune on their mode of travel are less interested in land than in riding the waves of the big lake and taking home tales of having “cheated death again,” to their friends and families. 
 
I know this because I was such a one in the late 1970’s. For seven years I sailed the waters of Superior and for most of those years only spied the town where I live now. When I crossed the big lake from the Apostle Islands off Bayfield, Wisconsin, the homeport of my sailboat, Amazing Grace.
 
Looking back I realize now that, just as I had longed to be on the shore instead of slogging through the BWCAW years earlier, I was just as hungry to stay ashore whenever I tied Grace up at Grand Marais. Not because I dislike sailing - although there are about a hundred things I’d rather do -but because my inner compass always pulled me to the land where I live now. And, like many who have sailed in the troughs of high waves on Superior, I have seen her teeth close-up and respect them and her enough to keep my distance.
 
It was July of1976, our bicentennial year, when first I crouched on the bow of our sailboat as my then-husband, Jack pointed her towards land; at least the map and compass said there was land off our bow. Fog completely shrouded the harbor of Grand Marais. Nothing, not a building or tree or light could be seen.
But we were in luck. Friends who made the harbor before the fog moved in were on the break wall with an air horn, providing audible navigation in lieu of the usual sighting of lights at the harbor entrance or the radio tower on the hill above town. Sailors call this “barking dog navigation.” As in, you know you are about to go aground if you can hear a dog bark. Although, usually it was hearing waves lapping on rocks.
 
That foggy day we couldn’t have been more than 20 yards off the breakwall, following the compass and the blaring of the air horn, when we could actually see the wall, then the town... As usual, but not always, fog meant no wind, so we entered the harbor “flying the Atomic four,” the name of our diesel engine, -then tied up alongside the Coast Guard building at the foot of Artist’s Point.
 
As with my previous visits to Grand Marais, two arduous backpacking trips to the BWCAW, I longed to explore the town, to just lallygag on the shore and stare out at the lake for no good reason. And who knows, maybe even find a cove where the water temperature didn’t make my bones ache before I’d even dived in all the way.
 
But again, this was not to be. This was a quest, just as the backpacking trips were forced marches. The object of our adventure was Isle Royale. Washington Harbor, to be exact; the famed graveyard of sailing vessels like the America off Rock of Ages lighthouse.  Sure, why not go there on vacation? 
 
We divvied up tasks with our friends - they got the blocks of ice for our perishable food lockers and we got the grub. We didn’t need a laundromat or pompous yet. 
 
Our crew numbered three and a half, not counting the dog. A young intern who worked with Jack was along for the ride. She was tall, strong, brilliant and keen to experience sailing. Good, I thought. More naps and fewer dishes to wash for me! Our daughter Gretchen, just seven years old, had our Pug, Spanky, to entertain her, plus she was learning to knit. Jack, of course, was captain and I was navigator/cook/and chief complainer.
 
I think we saw only one square block of the town. So different then, except for the Blue Water Cafe and Ben Franklin. Mostly, we stayed aboard our boats - our friends had a 33 footer and we had a Pearson 30. - cozy spots on a chilly July night in fog. I remember that we sat up comparing notes on the crossing from the Apostle Islands; coming way too close to an ore boat, and hearing their chugga-chugga engines as we prayed that they were watching their radar. 
 
Little did we know that the day ahead would be the real test of our mettle. That the sunny day’s wind would whip up twenty-foot troughs between waves and threaten to send one or both of our boats to rest beside the America at the hungry mouth of Washington Harbor.
But I’ll save that tale for next time.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 

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Magnetic North - June 6, 2018

Magnetic North 6/1/18

Love at First Sight
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the woods and lakes and portages draw folks of all ages and abilities, like me. Or, I should say, like me 48 years ago. 
 
Today, it would take Jaws of Life to get me out of a canoe and there isn’t money enough in this world to make me hike uphill in the dark, surrounded by a cloud of mosquitoes, to pee at 3 a.m.
 
But my attitude, and my body were far different in June of 1970. My husband at that time, Jack, and I had been white watering canoeing for a few years on the rivers of Ohio, where we lived before moving back to Minnesota. Jack loved canoeing and as much as he enjoyed rivers, he had his sights set on the Boundary Waters, and so insisted on getting a lake keel on our 18 foot Kevlar canoe.  Jack had been on a Boy Scout trip in the BW and remembered it in a dreamlike way, replete with aurora borealis, more stars than one had ever seen, glistening fresh water lakes and stunning forests. And, because he knew my weakness for animal life, he promised that if we went there I’d see eagles, moose and deer.
 
And thus we set off for the North Shore in June of ‘72, leaving baby Gretchen with my parents in the cities. All the way up to Duluth, Jack lectured me on the wonders ahead, never guessing that his wife was about to fall head over heels in love with.....a place she would one day live without him.
 
I remember still how my breath caught and stopped as our car rounded that curve above the Duluth harbor where first you spy Lake Superior. Not since leaving my home on the East Coast ten years before had I seen so much water. An inland sea. It was love at first sight. And so it went, all the way up the narrow highway to Grand Marais. I craned my neck to take in each glimpse of the lake as Jack lectured about the Precambrian shield on the high side of the road. So when we finally got to the Gunflint Trail and took that sharp left turn uphill, away from the lake, I protested. “Where are we going?”
 
“Round Lake,” he said. “That’s where we put in.” 
And we did, in a Biblical deluge, right behind a scout troop of about two dozen young boys, all with old aluminum canoes. I mention that only because the kids dropped the canoes so often, with the resounding clatter of a garbage can hitting a brick wall. Wet boy scouts, it seems, are tone deaf. 
 
Since this was our first backpacking venture into the BWCAW, we packed poorly and thus had to make two trips over each portage to get all of our gear to the next lake. But for that first day, just staying on our feet in the mud was the top priority. That, and beating the scouts to the choice camp site we wanted on the next lake. I still remember passing one poor boy, lying on his back off trail, pinned by his heavy pack, kicking his mud caked hiking boots in fury as he brayed for help.
 
The trip now is something of a blur in my mind. I don’t recall having seen any wildlife, perhaps a beaver swimming back and forth off Ellis lake, where we were camped for two days on a lovely little island. Not out of liking the location, but because Jack sprained his ankles trying to keep our canoe from blowing out into the lake. We never stayed that long anywhere else. It sticks in my mind as a “forced march,” indicative of the difference in temperaments between Jack and myself - a difference that would eventually pull us apart.
 
Each night, I would fold myself into the sleeping bag, listening to the drone of millions of mosquitoes, loon calls and the distant clanging of the boy scouts dropping or turning over their blasted aluminum canoes,  and replay that drive up the shore. The shore.  That is where my heart was, not in the woods. 
 
Still, upon our return, we immediately began planning our next trip in the “B-Dub” - this time smart packing, with a red hard sided pannier, ultra lite packs and tent, and a meticulously planned route with even more portages and lake and campsites than on our first outing. It would be in late August, a month with little rain, warmer lake water and, the gods willing, fewer scouts.
 
And so we returned in August of ’72 and this time we nailed it, at least on paper. The missing element, I now realize. was that we did not factor in the love of nature, only the conquering of it. Our success on the second trip was all about reaching goals, such as the number of portages and lakes tallied in ten days. Now that I think about it,  we were more like decathlon racers, than lovers of woods, trails, and waters. Smug hares zipping by the lumbering tortoises who had packed poorly, strapping toilet seats and other badges of shame to their bodies and packs. And the result was that our victory over nature did not bring us back to those trails and lakes. Ever again.
I say bring “us” back ever again because I did come back. This time with someone who, like me, relished being close to the big lake. So much so that Paul and I scoured the real estate ads for two years until we found a home we loved, loved probably as much as we loved each other. Our farm was homesteaded in 1913 by Scandinavian immigrants, probably much like both sets of Pauls grandparents. 
 
We had no plan, no goals to accomplish when we packed up and moved here. We just felt that it was where we belonged.
 
One of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis goes something like this - that when the most important things in our lives are happening, we often have no idea what is going on. I think that is so true of how I came to be here, spinning tales for you some 48 years after I fell in love at first sight with Lake Superior and with the little town pinned to its shores. I had no idea what was going on. None at all. 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 
 

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Maple Hill Church by Bryan Hansel

Magnetic North - May 23, 2018

Magnetic North 5/14/18
 
Cemetery Competition 
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where winter’s grip is but a memory, albeit one leaving a few bruises. Just when green grass and the melody of spring peeper frogs at dusk enters our world, so too does the annual search for the stuff we put away last fall - or did we throw it away or donate it? You know, the rakes, gardening tools, bug hats and so forth. 

Living for years with a fastidious man of Norwegian descent only made my seasonal treasure hunt more torturous… Mr. Take-and-Put was my nickname for Paul. He relished packing up gear to a fare thee well, with yards of duct tape encircling boxed items in the style of Egyptian mummies. The parcel would then be labeled with black magic marker in big uppercase letters. “GARDEN TOOLS: TROWEL, HAND RAKE, DANDELION ROOT GRABBER...” and so on. But then came the fatal flaw in his otherwise brilliant moves.

He stowed the boxes and promptly forgot where they were. The barn, the garage rafters, the back forty cabin, any one of five sheds? One year we replaced 75 feet of garden hose before finding the neatly coiled, taped and labeled sections in the old outhouse next to the chicken coop. Why there?  Why not there, he asked, adding that his Norwegian grandmother always said that “When you come to where a thing is, you find it.” Clearly, something had been lost in the translation.

And, even though it has been five years, this past week since Paul’s passing, I still have not “come to where” certain things he stowed away are on the farm. .So when I visited his grave last week, I hoped for some insight or clues as to where certain missing items might be tucked away. Paul’s and my parents' graves at Maple Hill Cemetery are in a lovely spot tucked under the sloping branches of a thirty-foot red pine and overlooking the picture postcard old white clapboard church.

Every big day, like birthdays, holidays and such, I visit and leave a box of DOTS candies, his favorites on the marker stone. The stone is nothing fancy. Flush with the ground, as is required for grass cutting, with Paul’s name and dates of birth and death and the inscription, “A life well loved”. It’s a place of peace and memories for me. And sometimes answers. Both large and small.

This year, as in years past, I wondered aloud about the location of such farm items as the fence tightening tool. But before I even got out of my car on the steep little hill running by the gravesite, I was struck by two things that irked me. First, the shepherds crook plant hanger was gone and second, Paul’s plot looked positively naked in comparison to the plots to the left and right of his. Both of these had been planted with daffodil bulbs, now in full bloom. All Paul’s and my parents’ monuments had for adornments were dead pinecones and a box of candy. And just like that, my sweet nostalgia morphed into the green-eyed monster of envy, accompanied by her faithful sidekick, resentment.

Bad enough that someone swiped the plant hanger, I stewed. But what really got my nanny were those oh-so-perky and delightful daffodils. It was all I could do to refocus on the reason I’d come to the place, even as I slurped down Paul’s favorite, strawberry malted began reciting Shakespeare’s sonnet, one hundred sixteen - now an annual ritual for birthday visits. You know, the one that begins, 
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove”

But not even the bard could restrain my thoughts from fastening on the stolen plant hanger. “What kind of person would rob a plant hangar from a grave?” I fumed mid-stanza. “The kind who had never heard of karma, obviously!” 

But back to Shakespeare…
“O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.”
“Oh Yeah,” my resentful little mind butted in. “TAKEN is the word, alright. Maybe I should install one of those remote cameras.  On the red pine and catch the miscreant in the act.”
And then, back to the sonnet,
“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

And with that, I blew my nose, finished the strawberry malt and said my farewells. Three days later, though, I was back, with a lavish basket of shade tolerant indigo blue flowers that I know will bloom their little hearts out all summer long.
I chuckled as I place the basket on the headstone-the shepherd’s crook hanger is on order. “I’ll see your daffodils,” and raise you one cascading extra-large lobelia basket.”

Then, I watered the ridiculously lavish basket, just the kind Paul would have splurged on, and finished Shakespeare’s lines about what love is and is not. 

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.”

Driving out of the little cemetery this time, I was smiling with pleasure, even as I wondered aloud where my Mr. Take-and-Put stowed that fence tightener.  Ah, well, when I come to where the thing is, I’ll find it. Right?
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 

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Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North - April 25, 2018

Magnetic North 4/23/18
Of Mud and Memories
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where memories trickle, then rush through our minds like the thousand streams returning to Mother Superior.

While away last week, I planted flowers in my California daughter’s garden, even as I shivered knowing that soon I would be in for another month of frozen ground and maybe even a snowstorm before I could do the same at the farm back home. From six to twelve inches of snow fell hereabouts as I basked in sunny warm weather.

Imagine my surprise when I stepped out of the car at the end of my road and sank into, not snow, but a good five inches of wet clay. Worse than mud, clay fastens to our feet, as gravity weren’t enough to bind us to the earth. Ordinary shoes turn into clay platforms on which to teeter around on. Still, I was thrilled. This meant that the stream surrounding the meadow and running into the pond would soon be roaring under and then over the ice. The little spring under the tamarack tree on the driveway would open it’s arms to my remaining mallard ducks and drakes, with new ducklings sure to follow. Best of all, the fence I’ve been dreaming of all the long winter nights can now be staked out. After 27 years of suffering goats eating my roses and the small crops I plant in raised beds, I think I’ve got them licked.

Chuckling at my brilliance and the goat’s chagrin, this weekend, I stomped through the soggy grass around the house with lengths of orange baling twine - saved in my ‘string too short to be saved’ box  - tied end to end. And as I went, I found the usual assortment of flotsam, small hints of lives lived and lost, even as I sat inside by the fire, snug and unaware.
There was the expensive monogrammed dog collar for Jethro, worn only once after Christmas, then gone, forever I thought. But no, there it was just off the south deck, intact with tags, where his sister dog, Zoey must have gnawed it off his skinny neck. 
Nearby, the evidence of a less funny encounter. Tufts of deer tail, hunks really, with bits of hide, the edges ragged. As I paced off the fence line farther into the yard, more deer hair and hide. Enough to fill one pocket of my barn coat. Did the dogs bring these trophies in from the meadow and was the carcass still near  -  near enough to attract predators close enough to endanger the goats?

The irony of these thoughts wasn’t lost on me. Here I am fencing the goats out, while worry nagged at my mother’s gut imagining slavering wolves in the night feasting on goat meat after polishing off the poor deer they’d taken down. So far, twenty-seven years of having goats and not one lost to a predator. Still......
 
As I made my way around the corner of the deck, a bath towel sized shadow on the steps down to the basement entry caught my eye So that’s where that throw rug I hung out last November got to! Next to reappear. a carved bit of deck railing winked at me from beneath the spent hay by the woodshed. And so it went. Found objects and memories of other spring thaws showed themselves, one by one. 

The most unpleasant discovery this year is the sinkhole over an old dug well is caving in again, despite the load of rocks piled into it last summer. I know Paul would never allow such a hazard to exist and probably would build some structure over the depression before tackling anything so optional as a fence. He also would have replaced the fallen clothesline poles, big cedar jobs that surrendered to the pull of the clay beneath two years ago. And that old outhouse by the coop? Set originally on two cedar skids, it now lists crazily to one side, making for a precarious perch inside, to say the least. He would never have tolerated such a wanton waste of a good biffy. And then there are the shards of green rolled roofing that left the roof of the coop last month on a wild night of even wilder wind. Wasn’t the roof red when we bought the place? Paul and his friend Art put the green on in an afternoon. Or was it his friend, BJ?

By the time I’d rounded the house, tying the last length of twine between the coop and dog kennel, I was ready for a large mug of coffee and spring. The stream was, as hoped for, growling awake across the road, promising the pond breakup within the week and spring peepers serenade perhaps by month’s end. All in all, a Sunday very unlike my last, planting flowers in Los Angeles. Still, just as fine in its harvest of found objects and fond memories.
I found this little poem by one of my favorites, Edna St. Vincent Millay, that captures the essence of such a simple day in early spring. And while it’s too soon for butterflies and flowers here, the same vivid sense of what is coming and what is past shines in her words. Here ’tis.
 
Song of a Second April
April this year, not otherwise
Than April of a year ago,
Is full of whispers, full of sighs,
Of dazzling mud and dingy snow;
Hepaticas that pleased you so
Are here again, and butterflies.
There rings a hammering all day,
And shingles lie about the doors;
In orchards near and far away
The grey wood-pecker taps and bores;
The men are merry at their chores,
And children earnest at their play.
The larger streams run still and deep,
Noisy and swift the small brooks run
Among the mullein stalks the sheep
Go up the hillside in the sun,
Pensively,—only you are gone,
You that alone I cared to keep.

For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 

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Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North - April 4, 2018

Magnetic North April 4, 2018
Liftoff and Reentry

Welcome back to Spring in Magnetic North, where folks are still swaddled in parkas and mukluks. However, even with April, aka Mud Month, and downright balmy daytime temps of almost 40 degrees, no-one with a grain of sense would jinx the good weather by boxing up winter gear. Do that and a blizzard is all but guaranteed.
 
This is also the month when many snowbirds return from their winter sun spots, or for folks like me, leave for a week or so, just to keep the wheels from coming off after putting up with winter for five months. Both of us have the same challenges when traveling, lift-off and reentry, each with its own perils. Here are mine:
 
First off, due to my own lack of impulse control, I have what amounts to a small zoo to maintain. In all, there are twenty laying hens, five laying ducks, seven bantam hens and roosters, two big geese, five goats, two bunnies, two big dogs and two cats. No turtle doves or partridges in pear trees.  But a turkey and some guinea hens might be in my future.
 
I do the daily watering, feeding, and such, practically in a trance. It’s automatic, so writing out chore instructions for a critter and house sitter is tough. Just out of college I edited computer software manuals and my boss told me the trick to vetting the writing was to imagine I was writing directions for tying my shoelaces. The chore instructions are like that, miss one thing and, well ....there can be complications.
 
So my chore instructions are lengthy, often illustrated with names of friends to call for help and numbers for power outages, plus my recipe for washing skunk stink off any of the above four-legged animals.  The goal is to arm them for any eventuality but not scare them.
 
That said, some sitters have obviously never looked at my instructions. Back in the 90’s, one such allowed our dear departed twin Labs to run far and wide, prompting calls from friends reporting the dogs were harassing picnickers at Magney State Park, a good four miles from our farm. She was, to be fair, focused on more interesting matters. Upon returning home, Paul and I found every candle and oil lamp we owned arrayed in our bedroom, along with the pungent aroma of Aramis cologne. 
 
Another sitter called us while we were in Norway to say that the well pump had quit, but not to fret because he had called “someone.” When we got home, the sitter had left hours earlier and the guts of our well were spread out over our back deck and yard. 
 
Memories like this are why I call coming home from a trip Reentry, as in the return of a rocket ship from outer space. For me, it carries the twin emotions of relief to be coming home and dread over what might greet me when I walk in the door.
 
The good news is that Paul and chose to live in a place where we are surrounded by caring neighbors and friends who seem sometimes to be waiting by the phone for our call for help.
For example, one time we got home on July 4 one year and found a note: from the sitter,  “Had a great time here, but dropped a screwdriver down the upstairs toilet and now it won’t flush.” Why a screwdriver would be employed whilst using the facilities is a mystery, but the point is that within the HOUR a kindly (and strong) neighbor was merrily shaking our toilet bowl over the back deck, dislodging the tool, after which he reinstalled the throne. 
 
And just last week I got home to find everything in tip-top shape, but, no fault of the sitter, the electric heat meter was broken, leaving me with no hot water and a slowly frigid home.   Naturally, it was Sunday night and cold. But after three calls I had an electrician at my door at 9 pm. My heat and joy over being home were restored immediately.
 
“Only in Cook County” is a line oft said when commenting on some of our negative or bat-crazy quirks, but I also say it when speaking of the generosity of time and caring we extend to each other. Even on holidays and wintery weekend nights.
 
As for the flip side of leaving home, “Liftoff,” it’s all about logistics. We are 110 miles from one US airport in Duluth and 160 miles to another in Minneapolis. Plus we have the added factors of snow and ice in winter and roadwork detours in summer. No question, living far from the madding crowd has its challenges, too many for most city dwellers, even those besotted with the North Shore and woods.
 
Lucky for me, I find that the biggest challenge of trips away is not liftoff or reentry, but the very act of leaving this place I love and that loves me back. So yes, leaving a place some call Paradise is a hassle, but I like the proverb “Take what you want and be willing to pay for it,” Sort of like signing a blank check. Only something someone in love would do.
 
 For WTIP, the is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 

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Vicki Biggs-Anderson

Magnetic North - March 7, 2018

Magnetic North 2/18/18
Snow Follies and Pratfalls

 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where we who refuse to fly away in winter have many a tale to tell of how we dealt with, or were laid low by, the recent snowfall. Some say as much as two feet. Others three. There may have been those who had more, but methinks they are still tunneling out and may not be heard from for a while. If ever.
 
I shovel by hand to the coop and back yard where I throw hay for the goats. Snowplowing is not for this girl, so my big bully boy blower sits in the woodshed and my lightweight girlie girl worthless rig adorns the front deck. I hate them both. The firs one t because it is as hard to push through snow as a dead buffalo, and the second one because it makes a path barely big enough for a garter snake to wiggle through. 
 
Thankfully, not all paths need to be made by me on the farm. After the big snow last week the little herd of five goats had quite a time pushing their way through the several feet of new snow covering the 300-foot path between their barn hay feeding area.. I used to take the hay to them. Then I got hurt doing that and got smart. Goats can make paths as well or better than I can. And they don’t snap tendons in their ankles doing it either.
 
After about 20 minutes of standing about like statues, goat by goat, they came. First, Brownie pushed a few feet, then stopped. Then Poppy edged around her and took up the lead, adding a few more feet to the effort. My big strong wether, Bosco, much to his shame, hung back and was the fourth one to do the heavy pushing and plodding, but eventually all five were snarfing down sweet hay, having left a serpentine path behind them that no snowblower could match.
 
As for the chickens and ducks and geese, most are either in a chicken coop or in a part of the garage where I store hay bales. Two banty hens are in the house with the angora rabbits - don’t judge! - I have good, solid reasons for this outwardly bat crazy move, beyond the obvious one which is I can feed and tend to them without hoisting a shovel.
 
But that last snow was more than I could manage when it came to shoveling a path from the driveway to the coop. The sheer depth of the drifted snow brought back memories of Paul’s and my first winter with chickens, I tried snowshoeing to the coop, assuring him that he needn’t both with making a path because I would do it “the old fashion” way. 
 
The first time I fell --the snow was over two feet deep - was the dogs; fault, Our twin Labs, Ollie and Jubilee, were excited to see mom wearing what looked to them like big dog toys on her feet and so naturally enough bounded up behinds me and jumped on the tails of my snowshoes. After spitting out at least a cup of snow, I began the near impossible task of righting myself and finally took off both gloves and one snowshoe to do it. My shrieks and screams alerted Paul to take the dogs inside and I stamped on to the coop, triumphant in my swift progress. This is when I realized the value of thinking a plan through. I got in the ante room door alright, but upon sticking one snowshoe into the coop, all hell broke loose.
 
Chickens do not like surprises, and the sight of the webbed wooden monster on my foot sent them into a panic of flying and squawking, which was only heightened by the appearance of my other snowshoe. After a few minutes of standing still and removing feathers from my face and mouth, I figured it was safe to move again. I could not. My snowshoes were simply too big to allow me to turn around. So much for the old fashion way. Bless Paul’s heart, he never said a word when I asked him to snowblow the path later that day

Nowadays, when I have a treacherous or physically taxing task staring at me, I apply a simple test, something akin to thinking it through. This test applies to getting on ladders, making extra trips up and down the stairs, etc.
In the case of the path to the coop, I simply asked myself, should I shovel and risk injury thus spending months in physical therapy? or should I call for help, even if I have to pay for it?
In winter, or anytime really, erring on the side of caution is of more use than the finest parka, mukluk or machine. If I hurt myself, my critters will be in worse shape than if they have to wait a while for grub. And I will be out more than a few bucks.
 
That said, I still manage to burn a few calories on chores, especially when things go wrong. Frozen shut doors require salt and a crowbar. Doors that open, but not all the way because frozen goose poop is blocking it, call for the half-moon hoe judiciously and furiously applied. And a few words to the thoughtless goose as I swing the tool. Wood needs splitting, feed bags need hauling and buckets of frozen water need schlepping inside to thaw. 
 
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. These are the things I choose to do in winter, rather than sit on a beach or in an RV park in a warm place. As for why I would make such a choice,, one might just as well ask why I have chicken s and rabbits in my old furnace room. So I’ll just trot out the favorite spousal reply that has driven, mostly husbands, mad since time began, “If you have to ask, you simply wouldn’t understand.”
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 

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Timber Wolf.jpg

Magnetic North - February 14, 2018

Magnetic North 2/13/18

There Be Wolves in My World
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where today I dare to speak of one of the three things I have learned never to bring up in polite conversation lest I offend. Not politics. Not religion. But the thorniest of the big three, at least in these parts - wolves.  Fact is, there are as many opinions about wolves as there are people in the northland. So I come not to praise or convict the beasts, just to share my limited experiences with them with you.
 
That said, my farm critters and I share a world with wolves. Any and all of my critters, from the tiniest bantam chicken to the bulliest billy goat would make a lovely meal for the fabled predator. And some have. As for me, when I moved here from the city many years ago, all I knew of the wolf was that one ate Red Riding Hood’s gramma, and others hang out with vampires. I knew that they would as soon gobble up my pet dog as take a moose calf. And I was properly freaked out by that prospect, even as I left the city and headed 300 miles north into wolf wonderland, the North Shore and forests beyond.
 
And so, it was no surprise to me that when Paul and I settled here 27 years ago, we found ourselves and our wolf fears tested on the very first night in our new home. Our bedroom faces on our  long winding driveway, and we had the windows open to enjoy the August breeze, so the distant sound of what sounded like a whole lot of dogs yipping, woke us up around about midnight. “Hear that?” Paul whispered, obviously thrilled with the nearness of coyotes or brush wolves. But his thrills turned to chills as the yipping got close and closer to our house, then seems to be, and in fact was, heading straight for our open windows.  By the time the pack veered off into the forest, probably after some poor prey animal, Paul and I were sitting bolt upright in bed, bug-eyed and scared silly.
 
“Close the bleeping windows,” was all Paul said after the sounds died out.  Thankfully, that was a one-time experience. Maybe even a welcome to the hood, thing.
 
It was Paul alone who had the first up-close-and-personal encounter with a timber wolf on our acreage. He went for a walk in our woods to scope out a potential trail to the back forty and Little Brule River. Paul was notorious for disappearing for hours on end in the woods, but that day he reappeared in less than half an hour.
 
“Somebody on this road has a gigantic German Shepherd,” he said with a nervous laugh. “I mean, the thing was coming right at me on the trail, then stopped when it saw me and loped off into the brush...sort of like a wolf.  Ha, ha, ahem, I mean, it might even have BEEN a wolf,...” he dithered on, now rummaging around in our unpacked moving boxes.
 
When I ask him what he was looking for and what the heck did he mean by “it might have been a wolf, he just kept on mumbling about it probably was a dog, but no, it must have been a wolf, until he found his trusty rifle.
 
“Whatever it was, I’m not going out there without this,” he said, adding, “I wouldn’t worry, wolves are more afraid of us than we are of them.
 
Well, he could have fooled me on that one. The color still hadn’t returned to his face by dinnertime.
In the years to follow, Paul and I repeated the experience of seeing a wolf, or wolves and having our brains instantly imagining that they were really dogs. It must be some kind of primitive denial thing, but it always gives way to, “By golly, that IS a wolf!”
 
And yes, I have lost critters to both brush and timber wolves. To date, two turkeys, ten guinea hens and three geese disappeared, leaving enough forensic evidence to indict wolves, rather than other uninvited dinner guests. We learned to identify who did the killing by the scene and sometimes, the state of a carcass left behind. Wolves don’t leave anything but feathers strewn out all over the place. Raptors and owls leave a neat pile and, if there’s snow on the ground, wing impressions on either side of the pile. And weasels, such as martens, leave a Steven King horror show which I refuse to describe and wish I could completely forget myself.
 
So far, no goats, even though my little flock of five free range over the meadow and sleep in a barn whose door is wide open. Oh, I’ve seen wolves on the meadow. A pack of nine sauntered from west to east one sunny morn in late fall, paying zero attention to the fat, juicy goats in the corral as they passed. For their part, the goats were just as disinterested in the wolves. But Paul and I were pretty revved up. We got a picture of the pack as it passed the lone white pine on the east meadow and Paul urged me to “howl or something so maybe they’ll turn around.” He wanted a better picture. I howled....howled my very best, but for all that the wolves merely stopped for a few seconds, seemed to look at each other - maybe exchanged a few snide remarks about “people” and vanished.
 
The only other wolf seen on the meadow was a lame one, limping from the woods to our pond. This time, I was in a combative mood and took after him with a broom. Perhaps the chickens and ducks were out. But he simply kept on going, stopping only to relieve himself, a clear sign of his opinion of me and my antics.
 
As cutesy as these stories are, I am acutely aware of the heartache suffered by a number of my neighbors and friends who have lost beloved dogs to wolves, often cruelly hearing the last cries of their pets and unable to save them. For this reason, I do take precautions. My dogs run loose on my meadow by day when they need to go out. But by night, they go out only on leash, even if it is in the wee small hours and double digit below zero weather. This practice does not eliminate the risk, but it does cut it down.
 
This winter, I’ve seen no wolves and heard them only on my computer, which I fire up almost every night for my bigger retriever, Jethro. He likes to howl, but produces mostly strangled squawks, so I play YouTube videos as tutorials for him at night at bedtime. Lately, Jethro seems to have found his voice, pursing his muzzle, angling his silky black neck upward, as he shuts his eyes and let’s a low, mournful note flow from his throat. I clap and tell him he’s ready for America’s Got Talent, then I let him jump up into bed next to me. And my “secret wolf” and I sleep in blissful ignorance of what goes on in the night forest that surrounds us.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.
 
 

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Cashmere Goat.jpg

Magnetic North - February 7, 2018

Magnetic North 2/6/18
Combing Out
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North where the first real proof of winter’s coming demise showed itself this week on the tips of my big cashmere goat’s horns. Bosco, a striking cafe latte colored charmer, sported long wisps of cashmere fleece on both of his horns, proof that he and his three lady friends have begun to shed their winter coats. And, like any creature with excess hair, goats itch and scratch that itch with their horns. 
 
I feel bad for dehorned goats. Most dairy goats are, soon after birth, and so have to find a tree or fence post to scratch on.  So why do people dehorned them? Well, some say it is to protect them from each other, or protect us from them. The argument against is that, first off, it hurts to have a red hot iron held to the top of your head.  Duh! And if that isn’t enough for you, goats the blood vessels in goats horns help regulate body temperature in hot weather. And then there is the backscratching thing.
 
That said, one might assume that getting all that extra itching fuzz combed off would be something a goat would love. One would be wrong. None of my current flock, except for Bosco, enjoys being combed out, but I love to do it, and over time I’ve learned a thing or two about getting the job done with minimal stress to the goat and maximum fun for me.
 
First off, I have to catch them. Time was, I spent hours chasing the identified victim around the barn and corral, often sending a volley of invectives into the winter night as I careened around feed pans or trees. Once I got so fed up with a big male named Bubba, who continually escaped the barn into the frigid night, I yelled at him at the top of my lungs, ”Get in there you old “blanket-y-blank” or I’ll shoot you!” Only to have a neighbor call Paul on the phone to ask if he was “alright.” 
 
Since then I have learned that a bribe will get me whatever I desire. Turns out that goats dream of cracked corn, raisins and a bucket of warm water laced with molasses. The only trouble here is that appearing with such a treat bonanza puts me smack in the middle of a goat vortex. So I’ve learned to first rope one at a time, leading all who are not to be combed that day into the garage to wait their turn.
 
When at last only one goat is left outside, I tether him or her to the sturdy corner post of my woodshed and arrange myself on a chair, blocking the critter with the shed on one side and me on the other. Depending on the goat’s mood, the wiggling and bucking finally quits and I can pull my metal comb through her fleece without a fuss. First on the chest, where the softest fiber grows. Then around the neck and over the back and sides. This can take a while, sometimes hours, but time flies by as I see the buildup of  finely crimped cashmere on the comb and my shopping bag filling with clouds of fluff.
 
When each goat has had its spa day, combing and hoof trimming as well as a yearly tetanus shot, I’ll have at least six grocery bags full of cashmere, which I send off to a mill in Wisconsin to be washed and combed into balls about the size of a cantaloupe. If I liked to spin, which I have no patience for, I would feed strands of this ball into a wheel to make yarn. Or I could use it to do needle felting. But I am a knitter and love to use my fiber, from both the goats and my angora rabbits, to make ridiculously warm mittens. I learned a technique called thrumming a few years ago. It‘s a New England invention where you pull off a length of raw fiber, roll it between your palms, then knit the fat little roll into your mitten The result is that the inside of the mitten is packed with loose fiber, soft and warm and virtually water proof. For any of us who have to spend time behind a snow blower, that means a lot.
 
Admittedly, there have been a few comb outs that were, let’s say, less idyllic than they were near death experiences. Once, when I inadvertently cornered a very nervous goat named Nimbus in the barn after combing out another goat, I dropped something and bent over at the waist to pick up the fallen object. I was facing Nimbus, so I guess he thought I was about to make a move on him and he made a break for it, right through my legs! One second I was standing in straw and the next I was astride a terrified goat, riding him backwards through the barn and out into the snowy night of the corral. Neither of us was hurt, but the whole thing did nothing for our future relationship. Some years later though, Nimbus came right up to me as I was doling out feed for his stable mates. It was the first and only time he let me pet him. I figure it was his way of saying no hard feelings and goodbye, because the next morning I found him snuggled down in the hay, at peace at last.
 
For all the work, some heartache, and countless offenses such as debarking three apple trees, consuming rose bushes and any other edible plant they like, in the main, my experiences with goats has been worth every minute. And it is not just about the cashmere. My devotion to my goats is something that I often struggling to explain. When someone asks questions like, “how much fleece do you get?” or “exactly how long does it take you to comb them out?” or “does the fiber pay for their feed?” I am close to being struck dumb. It’s not about numbers, hours, pounds or dollars, so I usually just say, “I don’t really know, I just like goats.”
 
People either get this answer or they don’t. And if they don’t, I have only this to say to them.
Too darned Baaaaaaahed!
 
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.

   

 
 

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Magnetic North - January 24

Magnetic North 1/23/18
Commuting by Memory
 
Welcome back to Magnetic North, where warmer weather had folks walking about outside in shirtsleeves until it plunged back down near zero, The change in temperature is nowhere more visible than when driving Hwy 61 along the lake, which, just a week ago looked more like a huge steaming cauldron than a body of water.
 
Sub-zero air teased clouds of mist off the big lake, sending droplets of water that may have been there for hundreds of years on a new journey over the land. It was gorgeous to watch, as the last of the great lakers sailed close to shore, bound for port Duluth. Imagining what life must be like out there on those icy decks makes me shiver. I hear the crews eats like royalty, but still....
 
There are many familiar markers and memories along that 15 mile stretch of highway between home and town. For example, there’s one scraggly alder bush that continues to amaze me with every passing winter. She is remarkable enough to have kept her footing on the shallow soil, rooted as she is within a scant ten feet of the water’s edge. But this time of year she stands encased in ice, buffeted by waves and wind. The weight of all that ice would seem a crushing burden, but year after year she bears it. Thawing and leafing out when spring comes again. So many times I promise myself to take a picture of her in her ice cloak. But I needn’t really. 
 
As I pass one place after another on my drive, I recall past scenes more clearly than any camera could capture.
 
There is the beach across from the Outpost Motel, where once I chased an injured snow goose for close to an hour in a vain attempt to rescue her. A friend helped, but each time we got close to the creature she would flap her great buff grey wings, and hobble into a large drainage pipe that ran under the road onto the beach. Finally, I gave up. I told myself that this was “her time,” and all that rot. But each time I pass that beach, the scene plays out again. And so do my regrets.
 
Then there is the seasonal waterfall near to Five Mile Rock, where, on a bright Sunday morning on my way to church, a deer ran in front of my car with a wolf hot on its tail. Again, I was in rescue mode, pulling my car over and hitting the horn. The wolf, stopped for a bit, just long enough for the deer to bound away uphill. And another few blasts of my horn sent the predator loping off in the opposite direction from his prey.  Again, as I pass that spot, I often play out the scenario, this time with a satisfied feeling. 
 
Then there is the ditch alongside the highway in Tofte that conjures up a particularly vivid memory. Paul and I were headed for Duluth one day when we spied a deer carcass on the lake side of the road. We saw also that there were a fair number of happy critters dining on it., lined up along it’s body like a family at a picnic table. There were four of them, three bright black ravens and one furry red fox, all chewing and pecking away at their treasure, the very picture of a peaceable kingdom. Now THAT would have been a photo I would have paid good money to get.
 
Five Mile Rock is my favorite memory spot on the commute. It is the place where my late friend, John Anderson, wished to have his ashes aimed. That’s right, aimed. You see, John’s friend, Chuck owns a small canon, which he hauls out and shoots off on special occasions. Doesn’t everybody? Anyway, when John saw his end approaching, he asked Chuck to load his cremates into the canon and shoot them in the direction of Five Mile Rock on July 4th.
 
It wasn’t just the spectacle, John was an avid fisherman, so to be shot into a body of water he had often plied for fish was a brilliant wish. Many of John’s friends gathered that July 4th at a home on the bluff just above Five Mile Rock. Chuck had alerted law enforcement of his plans, and a good thing too. For just as he aimed the canon full of ashes at the rock, a small fishing craft motored abreast of the target area. Well, we all knew there was no cannonball in the thing. And we knew that Chuck was not a man to dilly dally around until the fishermen decided to quit the rock. But the fellows in the boat were missing some of this vital information.
 
When the blast from the canon came, we all cheered. Then we howled with laughter as the little boat stood practically on end motoring full speed away. Rumor had it that they called the law and I would have given anything to have heard that conversation. “What do you mean he had permission?”  As the saying goes, “Welcome to Cook County!”
 
All in all, it was perfect sendoff for John, a man who loved a good laugh as much as anyone I ever knew.
 
There are more places, more memories along those miles I drive so often: a runaway pot belly pig, a sudden ditching on black ice, the eagles, my spirit animal, flying overhead every single time I went to get chemotherapy in Duluth. So many odd, funny, mystical scenes playing out over and over. And, like a favorite movie or tune, they never, ever get old.
 
For WTIP, this is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North
 
 

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