Must learn talk better

I watched through my lens as an airplane appeared to be flying directly at me, and I realized, the pilot had misunderstood my request.

I would share the actual photos, but the article hasn’t run to print yet.

True, it was only an RC plane made of a plastic shell stretched on a balsa wood frame. The pilot was on the other side of the runway operating it from a little radio box, but I suspect it would still hurt to get hit. Luckily, it only looked as close as it did because of my telephoto lens.

It looks like it’s right in front of me!

“Sorry, I think I misspoke,” I told the pilot. “I was actually saying it would be cool to get a photo of the plane flying low between us so I could get a shot of the plane as it passes you.”

“Oh,” he laughed. “That makes a lot more sense.”

He made a few passes like that and I got a few shots that were pretty much exactly as I had imagined them. In spite of a brief hiccup, this was an almost ideal photo opportunity.

As I have said. Photography isn’t always so easy. Communication almost always makes things easier, but sometimes nobody can do anything to make the job easier on you. When you can make requests to an event organizer about layout, that is the most ideal opportunity to get things right. You might not know what “right” is until you’ve had a chance to shoot “wrong”.

A good example was last year. I took a photo of our local school’s full army of employees. All of them standing, lined up in a few rows in a cafeteria crowded with tables and chairs. Nobody had asked me ahead of time, but that’s okay.

To get the shot I had to stand on a table far enough away to fit most people in the frame, but not far enough that I would get the tables and chairs in the shot. I also had to borrow a tripod from the school tech guys. Using the tripod I was able to get a few photos and splice them into a panorama, but there were a few people standing in the margins who were visually maimed.

Because the photo was printed so small, nobody noticed this cyclops created by merging photos into a panorama. In the Harry Potter world I believe this is called splinching.

When the superintendent spoke to me about this year’s photo, I made a suggestion that the staff should sit in the gymnasium bleachers where I could back up to get the photo. They even supplied me a ladder since this year’s photo was more square than horizontally rectangular. I still had to shoot over a volleyball net, but the photo turned out, and nobody got splinched.

This year’s photo did have its draw backs, however. The Panorama had the advantage of being three large file size photos spliced together. These photos collectively are better quality than the one photo I took this year, however, you always run the risk of splinching someone when you do a panorama with people in it.

It’s always about communication, and if the communication is poor, or the photo subject is uncooperative, it can make an ideal photo nearly impossible. This miscommunication can also be a little embarrassing. Our annual sport photos are often an opportunity for me to feel embarrassed.

As a man my age I have to annually figure out ways to delicately tell girls from a high school volleyball team(traditionally in very short shorts) why the front row cannot sit with their legs crossed in your school’s athletic photo. There’s also a common group photo position where there are three or more rows. The first row is sitting or kneeling, the second row is leaning forward with hands just above knees, and the back row is standing straight. In the case of groups of girls in shirts that are somewhat baggy on top, this pose is also a problem (trust me, there were many senior class photos in my yearbooks with this pose). If you are lucky, you recognize these positions before you snap the picture and the teams disburse. You don’t have to call up the coach and explain why the previous photos were inappropriate.

There are also times when communication in itself can be inappropriate.  Take for example award ceremonies. There is an obligatory photo whenever someone is receiving an award plaque. Basically, just snap a shot of the hand shake or hand off of the plaque. Easy, right? Not always. It’s all about layout. If, for example, the plaque and handshake happen behind a table of honored guests, things can get difficult.

what a terrible photo of two clapping people, right? That’s because they stood up just as I was snapping a shot of the award presentation behind them.

Now, there were four plaques given to this same gentleman that night, and the same thing happened with every single plaque. I could have told these two to please not stand up into the photo frame, but that would entail yelling over the sound of a clapping crowd, or telling them in the front of the room during the speeches between presentations. I am rude for the sake of photos more often than I like to admit, but that would have been a little far.

What’s the solution? Well, that’s easy. A posed presentation shot after the speeches are all done. You just have to approach the parties involved and ask them to pose for a photo. This is basically foolproof…

Don’t hijack my photo please.

Or so you would think.

Code in the Newsroom

(Note: Where I do not have my own photos, I have decided to experiment with gifs and memes online. Please let me know if you prefer no images at all to cliches.)

It’s a regular occurrence in the newsroom that we reporters speak in code.

If you visit, you’ll hear things about slug lines, ledes, nut graphs and so on, but those are the easier code words to learn. They are basically constant. There are other phrases that just happen around the news reporter that are less constant, ever changing. And that is the jargon that happens in city council chambers.

I go to regular local government meetings, some for work, some for the fire department. The Backus City Council meets the first Monday of the month, the Jenkins council meets the second, I miss that one because of fire training. The second Tuesday of the month I sit in on the Pine River Council meeting and the third Monday is the Pine River-Backus School Board. The last monday of the month is always a business meeting for the Backus Fire Department.

In addition to these, I cover East Gull Lake, Emily, and Jenkins city councils using their minutes and draft minutes.

All of these councils have their very own issues, often very different. They share some of the same jargon, issues and abbreviations that would be nonsense to the uninitiated. TIFs, ERCs, Oxford Oaks, Artisan’s Corner, these phrases all come out at a city council meeting in rapid succession.

Slow Down!

Unless you were there the very first time that they ever came up for your specific council, chances are you missed the first and last time they will ever be defined. Luckily for your council members, they have documents defining these phrases, but to save paper, they rarely print enough copies for the audience.

At the council meetings I am able to attend, I am pretty familiar with the goings on. When the Pine River council members start speaking in code and ask “How’s that Oxford Oaks thing coming along?” Pretty nonspecific right?

I understand entirely.

What seems like code is perfectly understandable to me. I understand that Oxford Oaks is an area with a cul-de-sac. One man has purchased property and wants to run city electric and water to his property here. One man owns the property along the route, meaning the other man required an easement, but the other man refused to respond to correspondence. So, instead of saying. “How’s that land dispute where the one guy refuses to tell the other guy if he can have sewer and electric through his property that he is trying to develop and add new buildings to?” they say, “How’s that Oxford Oaks thing going?”

To someone who does not regularly attend, it might seem like these city council members are being evasive and hiding some sinister plans behind code. Alas, more often than not they are talking about something pretty boring. However, I still need to investigate whenever this code appears in council minute drafts. Here’s an excerpt from a recent council draft minutes. “made the motion to direct the city attorney to execute civil enforcement in the Weber and Winter violations.” Sounds juicy doesn’t it? Well, it’s all about poo.

That’s right, that long complex issue is all to say “Asked the attorney to start the legal process to get two property owners to follow city ordinances pertaining to septic tanks.”  Yup. That’s it.

I can’t tell you how often it is that I research something ambiguous from a city council meeting only to find that it is something utterly boring, no matter how it sounded when they talk about it. Worse yet is how often it turns out to be about poo. Admittedly, all the really lively councils are covered by my fellow writers at the paper. I’m pretty spoiled.

The biggest issue is that these things take time to figure out. If you are present at the city council meeting, you can easily just wait around and say “Hey, what is that?” When it is from a copy of the minutes, that’s a different story. Sometimes the clerk is in, sometimes not. The last of these is the worst, because trying to write a story without knowing the code can be like diffusing a bomb made up of frustrated and disappointed city officials, residents and editors. And that’s never a pretty site.

I can be a story tease

It happens occasionally that you find a story in your local community which you consider very important. Others would likely agree. You get so excited as you prepare for interviews, photos, etc.

You post a teaser on facebook, something like “Just caught wind of a possible development in Pine River that could be pretty big. Watch next week’s @PAL_EchoJournal for details.” on twitter.

You get comments from people who want to know more. You are getting more and more excited to tell the story but then… something happens and the story is delayed, possibly weeks. Possibly months. It’s official. you are a story tease.

Recently that happened to me. We were tipped off to a story which sounded promising for our little town. After all, new business in Pine River is always big news. I called one source from our tipster and he immediately answered.

He gave me confirmation of the tip we received and then some. He gave me enough information to get very excited.

“We’re already speaking with (such and such business),” he says.

I could almost write a news brief from that alone, but I don’t dare. It’s not a complete story. So I set up an interview. My subject says he wants his partner-in-crime at the interview with him. I hang up the phone and try calling said PIC and get nothing but a voicemail message.

In the meantime I post the tweet I mentioned above. A local resident and Pine River Mayoral candidate asks “Something good?”

A friend who used to work with the paper follows up with “Any Clues?”

Of course, I could tell them everything I know if I wanted, but then why would they bother reading the article, and by the time the newspaper gets out, the story will already be old news. I refrain from giving any clues.

The next day I call my second source again. He answers and tells me that there is not yet enough information, they would like to wait on a news story. The man I scheduled an appointment with in about half an hour agrees. The interview is cancelled. I go, in shame to my facebook and twitter and inform my readers, “You will have to wait a few weeks, maybe more.”

This isn’t a first for me. I had this same thing happen more than a year ago, reporting on a group of Pine River-Backus students who decided to take a personal stand against synthetic marijuana. The thing is, they were all former users. Naturally, you want to be careful about exposing school students to mistreatment, especially for trying to do something good. When the story got delayed in order for my incredibly busy editor to read it over a few extra times, I had already put up a teaser on Facebook. The next week, discussion ensued with the school principal and superintendent who had some reasonable concerns about keeping the sources for the story private. It took us a couple more weeks to discuss whether we should use first letters of first names, only last names, or aliases. By the time we made a decision, the paper was overwhelmed with huge current events. The story ended up with delay after delay after delay. It lost some of its timeliness by the time it ran. But sometimes that is the name of the game.

So, why do we tease? I guess it is just an effort to improve our collaboration with electronic and social media. Twitter and Facebook are great sources for promotion, so of course we are going to use them. Do we sometimes jump the gun? Yup, absolutely, but I’m never going to run a story before its ready, I can promise that.

Why did nobody ask me??

(Disclaimer: Do not assume anything about my opinions on this subject based on anything you read below. I won’t be sharing my opinion on whether this is good or bad with anyone outside my immediate circle of friends and coworkers. If you attempt to read between the lines, you will almost certainly come to the wrong conclusions. This is merely an anecdote, it has nothing to do with my personal opinion, so leave it at that.)

BEWARE: Unending tangent to follow.

Yesterday I continued coverage of a topic with very mixed opinions locally. that is, the Sandpiper Oil Pipeline.

Our paper has been interested in this topic because it passes through our area. so when we heard about the proposed pipeline it was naturally newsworthy. Of course, with some of the biggest news topics comes some of the most frustrating difficulties. This time the problems were everywhere.

The first problem was getting interviews with relevant subjects with local connections. The very first thing that happened on our radar was a meeting on the Happy Dancing Turtle campus where Marty Cobenais spoke to the gathered crowd. This posed some difficulties.

Cobenais was the only individual with any level of authority which we could connect to the pipeline meeting, and to the area since he was leading the meeting here. There were other names I was given, but it was determined they were not local enough, and beside the fact, their pipeline stories were purely anecdotal, which isn’t necessarily bad, it can be viewed as suspect in a newspaper.

Cobenais is a smart individual, but we ran into a few issues when I submitted my story for the first time. My editor rightly pointed out that his quotes and numbers needed verification. Cobenais’ expertise came from voluntary membership in the Sierra club and a few other similar groups (mostly self made experts), as well as more anecdotal evidence. He didn’t have the authority for me to quote him in the newspaper without having other sources to back him up. The first step was to try to track down his sources… which wasn’t as easy as you might think. I came up empty except for sources that would receive the same scrutiny as Cobenais, which is to say, they were using the same source, which I didn’t have. I attempted to contact Cobenais, but didn’t get a reply.

On the off chance they would directly confirm or deny the details from Cobenais, I then called a representative from Enbridge. As can be predicted, on some of the questions I asked I ‘sort of’ got answers in that they were very circular. This is standard practice for any company in such a position. They did directly refute some of Cobenais’ information. However, as for me, I had a story that was already written, but needed to be scrapped and built again, but I couldn’t find the parts.

So, having few sources of information I would bet my job on. I had to take a different angle. The Sandpiper Project has a site with lots of information, which I had quoted to me when I called and asked for verification on Cobenais’ info. They also have maps, which proved very helpful.

When I went to Pine River-Backus High School they had a strange, but great cooperation with Pequot Lakes for a few years. My senior year I had one semester where first thing in the morning I got on a van and rode to Pequot Lakes for one class, rode back to PRB for my next class, had lunch, took another class and then for my final class I rode back to PL. My first class of the day was graphic design, which I have benefitted from ever since.

I downloaded the Sandpiper maps and scanned in pages from a platt book. Toying with transparencies I overlaid the Sandpiper maps with the Platt maps. I used the township lines, roadways, and rivers to make sure that these maps were aligned closely. On these maps there were places where two of these markers would intersect, and using multiple points, a person is capable of matching the scale of the maps very closely.

Notice the horizontal line, that is the pipeline and all around it are the names of the individuals along the route.

Using the end result, I was able to contact a handful of people living along the proposed route and get their opinions. I would link you to that article, but we have gone through so many changes on our site, I can’t find it. Anyhow, These property owners were basically in favor of the pipeline crossing their properties. They had already been spoken to by Enbridge, but they said there were no offers on the table yet.

I wrote my article with select quotes from Cobenais and select quotes from Enbridge officials, but I quoted the landowners extensively.

Later, there was a public meeting at the Pine River-Backus school with representatives from Enbridge and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The event was focused on discussing the route of the project. There was one individual there, a retired engineer, who presented a very detailed alternate route. That was pretty cool. Cobenais was present and made a few statements as well.

I was contacted by representatives from Enbridge later. They asked to meet and talk about the pipeline, so, I agreed. We met at a coffee shop in Pine River. No story came out of it because they didn’t tell me anything new. Any questions I had, I could have gotten the same PR answers to from their website.

Next came the passing of a few different legal steps in the route proposal process, none of which happened locally, or none of which we were informed of. The next event was a meeting of a group called “Honor the Earth” in Backus. They were riding horse near the proposed route and leaving from my hometown. The group was being lead by Michael Dahl and former vice president candidate Winona LaDuke. Naturally, LaDuke was an authority I could interview.

Before the protest, the Honor the Earth group performed a pretty cool ritual. Isn’t culture neat?

I got the impression that LaDuke might not be fond of the press. During a long speech catching the crowd up on the issue, she made little jabs at the press. Lots of them. I wrote them off as just friendly jokes. I stood in line to interview LaDuke on the group’s horse ride. I waited patiently (because any good reporter knows you need to be patient when there is a line of reporters) and got my turn. Or I almost did. As I was asking my question she turned to a man standing to my right and complimented him on his hat. Then a surprisingly long conversation ensued about his hat.

When the conversation ended, she turned to me. I asked my first question. She started answering it… and a woman with a tape recorder hijacked my question.

Never hijack a crazy man’s interview!

They had a nice, long conversation and left me waiting to continue my interview. When they finished talking, LaDuke started walking away! I began to wonder if those earlier jokes weren’t friendly jabs!

I reminded her that I had questions. She informed me I had literally one minute. At the completion of this statement, every question I had saved up during her speech just flew out of my mind and into the atmosphere, never to be gathered again (this exact thing happened to me years before when I interviewed Al Franken on a visit to Bemidji). It’s hard to focus when you feel so frustrated, haha. Luckily, I had the important ones written down. The interview went okay.

The next Sandpiper event was a meeting of the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association. My colleague Chelsey covered it, so I have no anecdote, however, she received some great maps and documented information from the event showing shallow water tables, sensitive aquatic wildlife, huge freshwater sources all centered around the area the Sandpiper was proposed to pass. This was the type of information that was directly relevant to our area. This guy knew his audience!

Last night, Aug. 20, I went to another Honor the Earth event featuring a potluck and live music with the intent of drawing in the public and informing them. Of course, there was also a speech by LaDuke and Dahl. The event was a nice and friendly environment. I was greeted by LaDuke, and I guess our first meeting must have been an off day for her, because she was very welcoming then.

I have heard all the information from this most recent meeting before. That is one danger of being a news reporter. The audience can change at each event, so there is tons of repetition. It’s a necessary quality.

As a former argument and exposition teacher (I’ve never been good at making my own arguments, just critiquing others’), there were some things during this event that could have been better executed. Foremost, the speeches at this meeting weren’t exactly planned with the audience in mind. There was plenty of mention of Native American wild rice harvest rights, and that is an important part of the Sandpiper discussion especially from a legal standpoint. Not everyone in the area harvests wild rice, this speech was designed for a crowd who does. These speeches should have been focused on the things which are directly and constantly relevant to the audience present.

Not everyone within our readership harvests wild rice, but everyone in our readership drinks the local water. Everyone in our readership likes the local water life (that’s why we live here). Given the recent WAPOA meeting and the maps presented there, the information presented by LaDuke and her entourage had available to them lots of immediately local and important information they could have presented to the audience just in case there were some people present who were still on the fence (I don’t think there were, but that’s not the point).

There were a few points made which I would have recommended against, but they aren’t really important, what is important is the tangent that got me to write this blog post.

You see, the only reason I wanted to talk about this in a blog post was that in both events where LaDuke spoke, she mentioned that they couldn’t get a map of the proposed route early on. I don’t understand this, because I never had a problem finding maps. I couldn’t help but think, “Why didn’t you ask me? I had maps.” The above map being the one I am referring to of course. So, you could say I just felt the urge to brag.

I guess it is possible they were looking for maps before I showed up on the scene, or that they were looking for a different map yet. But yeah, I just wanted to brag.


The road to now

I run into a lot of people out and about in Pine River while working. I think most people who see me, however, see me when I am wearing some sort of button up, a sweater, a suit jacket or a combination of those. We have a sort of dress code with the paper. Don’t get me wrong, I like looking nice, but dressing in a suit jacket doesn’t exactly represent all facets of my personality, and I wonder if some people read more into my suit jacket than is necessarily true.

Snorkeling is considered work right?

Our paper and our sister paper are currently working on a special section celebrating the various industries and employers that help keep our communities alive. Specifically, my contribution to the special section is focusing on the Cass County Economic Development Corportation ( and the businesses they have helped in the area. It is in doing the leg work for this story that I had a blast from the past. Hopefully it will help us get acquainted. It is good to know your reporters.

I started off with a trip to Scamp ( in Backus where I was kindly lead through the plant for photos. This was my first time in Scamp, but I am very familiar with various employees there.

If I had the facilities and tools of Scamp, I would be fiberglassing everything all day long.

Next, I met with Craig Anderson with Trussworthy Components ( in Pine River. Trussworthy is a very familiar place to me, you see, I didn’t always work a desk job. In fact, I worked at Trussworthy during its first two summers of production. It wasn’t my first, or my last manual labor job.

I started off at the Backus Corner Store, where I worked seven years, and made lots of friends, but after my first year of college, I needed something that payed a little better. This was the summer of 2005, when Trussworthy wasn’t quite in operation yet, and I didn’t live in Backus.

However, I was living between Nisswa and Pequot Lakes. At the time, there was a company called the Minnesota Truss Company in Pequot Lakes where a friend from high school had once worked. I applied to the job before the summer break, and got the job.

The job paid very well, but it was neither easy nor completely safe. The equipment there was considerably older than I was, and while truss construction in many plants was considerably automated, the Minnesota Truss Company did what it did with a serious amount of blood and sweat. We built trusses using giant hydraulic C-clamps that could crush a soda can to the thickness of cardboard. When we built a truss, we would lift it on our shoulders and actually carry it out of the building.

The job wasn’t hazardous as long as you didn’t become complacent, though there were occasional accidents. Once, long before I started working there, one of the workers had actually managed to chop a hand off with a saw (they sewed it back on, and he was still there when I started) and while I was there I witnessed one coworker knock another coworker unconcious with a 12 foot long 2×4, and I personally pinged my fingernail off of a sawblade that had kept spinning long after the saw was turned off (miraculously, I was not even a little injured). The job was hard work, if just a little outdated.

My second summer, I was staying in Backus, so the Pequot Lakes company was a few miles too many. I had, however, heard about Trussworthy Components. I applied, and got the job.

For once in my life, I was one of the most experienced people on staff! There were quite a few higher-ups who had worked for Manions, and their experience level far outweighed my own, but other than that, I had a slight upper leg. By the end of the summer, I was even in charge of the floor truss table (the only old piece of equipment in the building).

The floor truss table. This used to be my job.

Going from Minnesota Truss to Trussworthy was not exactly seamless. Minnesota Truss’s equipment was incredibly old and incredibly hands on. Trussworthy’s equipment was brand new and shiny. The C-claps had been replaced by what was essentially a giant steel rolling pin. I felt spoiled. I worked there the following summer as well, though I had lost my level of seniority by leaving for school the past fall.

I couldn’t help but remember how much of an improvement this equipment was when I visited Trussworthy for photos. I also couldn’t help but feel like the employees were now even more spoiled. When I worked there we had to do countless measurements while setting up each new truss with its webs and plates. Some time after I left the company, they got a laser guided jig system to help them lay out trusses. Even more recently, they got a new floor truss table that does all the heavy lifting for those building the trusses. It almost makes me want to return… but not quite. It’s pretty cool to look back.

I have friends and family who assume I look down on people who work manual labor. This couldn’t be less true. I grew up with a father who worked his body to shambles to give us a good life. My mother worked hard to put food on our table as well. My brother Brent went into construction like my father, and my brother Troy went into plumbing. Yeah, I went to college, and yeah I work a pretty soft job by comparison, but there are few people with as much respect for hard workers as me.

At different times during college I built trusses, I worked construction with Vredenberg Construction out of Akeley, I did landscaping with Field Landscaping, and all that time I helped my father, friends and family out with various other manual labor jobs, be they cement pours, logging, throwing hay bales. I did pretty well at these things. I remember how tired, sore and sweaty they can make you. I also recognize that so many people do these things for the sake of the people they care about. These people deserve a pat on the back every now and again, but it wasn’t my cup of tea.

I worked on the crew that did this landscaping, all the way down to those big rocks.

These jobs paid well and I did well in these positions. I’m still on very good terms with my former employers. Those jobs just weren’t for me. After work I was always ready to eat and go to bed. I never got much done, and I was a really miserable person to be around (my family and friends were about ready to kill me!). I kind of suspected I wanted to avoid manual labor in high school. That’s why I went to college. That’s why I am a reporter, but I’m still the same guy I was when I worked manual labor.

So, the next time you see me out and about, if you see my suit jacket, remember that’s not the whole picture. Keep your eyes open for me in the woods and the other sweaty places out there and you might see me dressed very differently, whether I’m doing one of my many hobbies, helping a friend dig a trench, or fighting a fire with the Backus Fire Department.

Do I look grumpy??


The fantastic forage year

This year has been such a fantastic foraging year. My freezer overfloweth with an abundance of fine fare from sylvan groves and moist marshlands.

So far my harvests have included a few firsts like basswood flowers, chanterelles, gooseberries and even some woodland lobsters.  Perhaps our most abundant harvest has been berries. Check out my column on the subject for more entertaining info.

This was one of the so-so patches. Some of the berries rival those grown commercially in size, but taste is way better.

Raspberries are huge, juicy, and firm this year. Even compared to blueberries. Don’t miss them, they won’t be here much longer.

In two forest trips we managed five one gallon baggies of blueberries. In two more trips we managed three one gallon baggies of raspberries. Sadly, I missed wild strawberries this year, and I don’t know a good juneberry tree, but there are still more berries to come. Next will be blackberries. Then highbush cranberries, grapes, nannyberries and so on so on so on. I’m most excited this year because I really want to harvest bog cranberries. I’ve never done it before, but I think I have found bogs. I decided to go to a place where the Paul Bunyan Mushroom Club ( hosted a mushroom foray. The location had one easily accessed cranberry bog which I wanted to check for flowers. I attended, and while I found tons of slippery jack mushrooms, I was more impressed by a few of the varieties bagged by some of the other folk, especially the old lobster. That’s right, I said lobster.

After work I decided to set off into the woods and find the cranberry bog I had found the year before. I also decided to bring a small pouch to haul mushrooms if I found them. I met some friendly people camping at the entrance to the woodland trails. We chatted a little about Chicken-of-the-woods after I told them I was looking for chanterelles and lobsters. I promised to show them what chanterelles looked like if I found any.

The golden Chanterelle is a favorite of mushroom hunters. Notice the gills, which are not normal gills, but what they call “primitive gills”. They look more like folds or wrinkles than gills.

I took off through the woods, following the trail waiting for my GPS to kick in. This was not a familiar area to me. As the GPS refused to lock onto satellite signals, I was being eaten alive by a literal cloud of mosquitoes (stupid me, I forgot bug spray). It was like I was standing on a beehive, but instead of bees, there were mosquitoes. They swarmed me that badly.

I went over hill after hill, waiting for the GPS, looking into the woods for colorful mushrooms and swatting frantically. I finally decided to give up after a good waltz. I turned around to start back, but had barely started before I saw a bright orange spot near the base of a tree. I walked to it and found my very first lobster…mushroom that is. I remembered reading that they grow in groups, and that they sometimes hide under leaf duff. I saw two mounds of leaves sticking up, brushed them back, and found two more of good size.  I bagged them and continued on my way back. On my way I found a tiny chanterelle and a tiny oyster mushroom. I bagged them too.

At the campground, I showed off my finds. They were very interested in the bright orange mushroom. I explained that the lobster mushroom is actually one of multiple species which has been infected by a parasite. It makes the skin hard, orange/yellow/red, and pimply. It also deforms the host mushroom and smells like seafood. Apparently the parasite can convert otherwise toxic mushrooms into very safe edibles and is basically unmistakable. (Edit: I have been informed that the russula mushrooms that becomes a lobster mushroom is not toxic. I still think this mushroom is cool.)

Lobster mushrooms are aptly named, and a nice size. The host mushroom didn’t look anything like this before being infected with a parasite. Nature is crazy awesome.

I returned home without ever having located my cranberry bog, but I had a small haul of mushrooms.

Top left are chanterelles and a single tiny oyster mushroom. To the right are lobsters and the bottom left I thought might be wine caps… but a quick look in a book proved they weren’t, so I tossed them. Never eat any wild food you can’t identify absolutely

I returned home and cleaned my mushrooms. I found internet advice to be true, the lobsters are very tough. Normally you are never supposed to scrub mushrooms with water, but you could have used a power toothbrush on these without effect. Very nice. I tossed the little red capped ‘shrooms as they weren’t what I thought they might be. I chopped the lobsters up and sauteed them in olive oil and butter before spreading them on a pan and freezing them. When frozen, I put them in a baggie in the freezer next to a bag of slippery jacks.

Notice the orange/yellow color of the butter frozen at the bottom of this pan. Lobsters will impart a little of their color to whatever you cook with them, making them good for coloration sort of like saffron. I am thinking about canning some of these chopped up in lobster stock from the store so I can use it in a mock lobster bisque recipe, possibly with rusty crayfish if I ever get out to harvest some.

This method of preservation is good for many many mushroom varieties.

Last fall I found this abundance of button sized puffball mushrooms growing next to a wood pile. Here I sautéed them in ample butter and froze them. I would throw a handful of them into dishes as I cooked them, mostly breakfast potatoes. Puffballs don’t have much of a flavor of their own, they absorb what they cook in, kind of like tofu.

In addition to these great foods, I harvested cattail shoots, cattail on the cob, anise hyssop and a few other mints. There are still many plants/mushrooms to harvest. Drop me a line if you are in the Pine River area and would like to join.

Photography and a craft project

I take a lot of photos at events. It is all part of small town news writing. I once realized being a photographer has some of the same benefits of being a super hero. Some of the same complexities too.

being a news photographer gets me access to places that I sometimes would be forbidden. This can come in the form of an automatic free access pass, or people who see the camera, recognize me, and wave me to wherever I want to go.

People also often get excited when they know a news photographer is around, and some things I do (such as take photos of complete strangers) are very awkward, but everyone acts like it’s normal, even though a random stranger on the street wouldn’t get such a warm welcome.

At the same time, there are those who distrust, and think there must be some agenda behind my photos. Either that or they just do not like photos. Then there are the archenemies…

Honestly, I just wanted to use an analogy for my job, and super hero was the first thing that came to mind. But in reality, being a photographer makes you think differently about events.

When you are trying to get a specific photo, you can’t help but notice that when the graduates at the front of the room are shaking hands with the superintendent, their faces are hidden by their shoulder, or that while the person standing in front of you in a concert is enjoying themselves, they keep blocking your shots when they raise their arms above their heads in cheer, or any number of things that might not be noticed by someone just enjoying themselves at an event.

Nobody plans an event to make it easier on the photographer, unless they spent a lot of money on the photographer, and things that are exciting to a bystandard, like a light show, are a nuisance or an opportunity to someone trying to get the perfect shot.

Sometimes, a really exceptional photo is just beyond a person’s opportunity or ability, and in those times, the photos that end up in the paper end up plain and familiar.

On the other hand, sometimes the stars align, and put the photographer in exactly the right place for a shot they really enjoy personally, and those times make it all worthwhile.

Jesse Triplet, Collective Soul guitarist gets up close and personal for a solo. Photo by Travis Grimler

Did I mention I love my job?

For more great Moondance Jam Photos, visit


Now, as bonus content, I have a treat for all you concert goers out there. Have you ever looked at your concert wristband after the show and felt sad that it wasn’t reusable for something?

Now at the completion of this year’s Moondance Jam in Northern Minnesota, I thought it would be a great time to show my readers how to turn their EXPIRED festival wrist band into jewelry that can be taken on and off at will. For those ne’er-do-wells out there that sought this tutorial as a way to cheat the venue, no, the bracelet will not pass inspection by the people at the gate so don’t be a jerk.

For starters, you need this kind of wristband.

Not this kind.

And what are called snap fasteners. You can find them in almost any craft store. There are a variety of types, but you should get what are called “prong snap fasteners”. They have a very small nub that on one side that fits into a hole in the other. You could get a fastener that looks like those found on jeans, but then you would have a one size bracelet. Using the smaller ones means you can make the wristband wider or narrower to fit different wrists. Enough of my rambling, here they are.

They should cost about $5 or less in most places.

The first step is to remove the bracelet without damaging the key components. This is very important. DO NOT RIP THE PLASTIC!!

Don’t do this!

Doing so will either ruin the bracelet, or shorten it so much you will never be able to wear it (which might not be a big deal if you are giving it to someone with small wrists as a gift). You must find some way of removing the bracelet without shortening it. Breaking the button is perhaps the best way. I use a pair of pliers with a wire cutter.

You note how the pliers have a wire cutting notch. The button fits nicely in this notch, just be sure not to catch any of the plastic. Once you are sure you have the button and only the button, squeeze the pliers slowly but firmly, watching to make sure the button breaks without tearing the bracelet.

Broken button with plastic intact.

Once the button is removed you should have something that looks like this. I like to go for something neutral like silver or black buttons, but you can get “prettier” colors to suit someone as a gift, or to match your wrist band.

Note that there are various holes up and down the length of the bracelet ranging from the thickness of a baseball bat down to small enough to fit a baby, and one in the business end. The one on the business end isn’t too important.

Now, take the business end. The “female” side of our snap will go on the small flap, the “male” will go on the opposite side. This makes it easier to put on later.. Take the male end of the snap, and the back of the snap (make sure the male end is pointing the right direction.) Line up the prongs so the hole is centered.

I would actually suggest pushing the prongs through the plastic just a bit by hand, possibly into some card board or plastic. This guarantees it is started.

Now, use a pair of pliers “or a snap fastener tool” to push the two pieces together and to bend the prongs enough to keep everything together. If using pliers, work your way around the outside or you might crush the “nub”.

If you got it right, now the only trick is doing the same thing to the other side. (Beware, if you use pliers and snap fasteners with plastic “jewels”, you might crack the jewel.) Your end product should look something like this.

You can tighten or loosen the wrist band as much as you like and you can take it on or off as often as you like with no ripping.

An example why you shouldn’t rip the wrist band off. Look how tight it can be.

When you aren’t wearing it, this product is also a great book mark.

If you wear it while reading, you won’t lose it.

The snap keeps the marker from sliding out of the book.


If you are very fancy, you might not like the rough cut edges on your wrist bands. You can round them out with a simple rounded corner punch which can be found in many office shops.

Just start with a straight cut (remember not to shorten it more than you absolutely have to). Then punch the corners so they round out.

Some bracelets are actually made of a couple layers of plastic laminated together around the edges.

Cutting them results in an open space between the two layers. If this bugs you, you can also fix this if you are careful. You need to use either adhesive or heat to seal the ends. Superglue is a good option for adhesive, but it can be messy. Alternately, you can use a soldering iron or a clothing iron to seal the plastic together with heat. However, if you screw this up, you might ruin the bracelet entirely. Luckily, these types of bracelets are less common. Unfortunately, the old style was likely more resilient

þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes in your local newspaper. Your writers have stories you might never know, and that can make it easy to see that person in a less human way when they write about something you don’t agree with. In spite of that, it’s important to remember that we are every bit as human as our readers. It would be foolhardy to assume we are so different from anyone else. Take this post as an example.

The above title is taken from an Old English poem called “The Lament of Deor,” which I had to translate for a class during my Master’s education. It translates roughly, “That has passed, so shall this.” It’s become a sort of power phrase for me.

It has been a rough year for a lot of people I know. I’ve taken more vacation time for funerals this year than I care to add up, and it seems like a lot of people I know can easily make the same boast.

I’m a news writer. That job comes with certain expectations. The most important, most difficult and least natural of these expectations is the expectation that our writing should be filtered and maybe dehumanized just a bit, so that we do not include ourselves, particularly our biases, in our writing. I’m not always good at that, but my editor and fellow writers keep an eye out. Some stories are easier to clean up, some harder. For example, how do you do that when you write a memorial for a friend?

Meet Michael. I knew Mike since I was in about grade 9 at Pine River-Backus High School. I spent a lot of my time then at his next door neighbor’s house, and have since become sort of an adopted grandson there. Mike always got along with his neighbor, so I would fairly regularly chat with him about this or that. He was always brimming with story ideas for the paper, sometimes out of our coverage area. Mike was a good man.

Maybe a month ago now Mike went to the hospital for scheduled surgery on his heart. I talked to him just before he went. He actually seemed somewhat excited, because it might help him feel less winded when he was walking around and doing things in his yard (you won’t find this in the paper). I wished him the best, and we went our separate ways. While he was in recovery in the hospital I messaged him to tell him while I mowed his neighbor’s yard, I saw that a dead tree in his yard was sprouting oyster mushrooms again. I asked if he would like me to pick some and save them for him (I didn’t get around to picking them because they grew too high up). I didn’t hear back from him until he had returned, and then it was just a message in Facebook that read “I’m home!” (You won’t find that in the paper either).

As is common among pretty much everyone I know, this summer was pretty busy, so I didn’t get around to stopping in to visit. Chatting with his neighbor, she said Mike had developed a fever and returned to the hospital. A few days later, Mike had passed away.

Now, Mike was not some unknown individual in our area. Mike was very well known, especially during wintertime. He looked the part of St. Nick all 365 days of the year, but when December rolled around, he had a red suit to put the icing on the cake. He was also an avid volunteer for the Backus Cornfest (our city’s summer festival), a nearby food shelf and for various pet projects ( Mike’s passing will undoubtedly leave a big gap. Considering that, I wrote a memorial for our paper (

I’ve done a few memorial stories in the past. This was maybe the hardest. It always feels awkward asking people questions for a memorial story. I can’t help but feel in some tiny way, I’m torturing them so soon after someone they cared about has passed away, but I do it because these people should not fade away unnoticed. This time was worse, because I know many of the people Mike knew. I interviewed these people before. How do you keep it together when you know the deceased person, and the person you are interviewing, and they break down? It’s not easy, but I guess that is part of the curse behind working at a small town newspaper.

This year so far, I’ve said goodbye to “Cousin” George, a friend from college named Kasandra, and now Mike. To top things off, the night before George’s funeral one of our dogs also died. As I said, this seems to be par for course this year for so many people I know, so maybe I might be able to offer just a tiny bit of comfort.

When hard times come one after another, it can be hard to remember that there are good times. You almost forget what it was like just a little while ago when your brother/sister/niece/best friend had a baby/got married, and everything was so happy. It almost feels like you should keep an eye out for the next big tragedy, because surely at this rate things are only going to keep getting worse, right? But you can’t look at it that way.

Old English Poet Deor wrote his lament which recounts historic and legendary tragedies visited upon famous heroes of his time. and after each tragedy, he reminds the reader “þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg”, this is similar to the Isreali folktale often ascribed to Solomon (often erroneously to the Bible) about the ring that has the power to make the wearer humble in good times and comforted in hard times. It read ”Gam zeh ya’avor” or This Too Shall Pass.

The point is, all pains dull with time. Good times will pass, but so too will the bad times. Though we don’t want to think of it this way, we will eventually be relieved, at least in part, of our mourning. While the mourning lasts we must do what we can to keep moving on (such as writing a memorial) and keep reminding ourselves that good things are coming. Even when it doesn’t seem evident.

In the case of Mike, it helps to remember what he seemed to enjoy doing best. He was Santa, he was the go to guy for the Cornfest, he helped bring food to those who needed it in Hackensack, and he brought a big, fluffy and affectionate dog to people who in all likelihood probably needed to see him the most. He did it all because he liked it when people felt good and felt happy. It is normal to feel sad and to mourn, but there is no doubt, Mike wants that sadness to fade. He would never be so selfish as to expect anyone to hold on to grieving in his memory. The same was true of George and Kasandra.

So, in closing, don’t feel ashamed to mourn for as long as you need, but don’t forget that the person you mourn likely would expect you to feel better eventually. They would want you to always remember, that this too shall pass.

Into the great unknown

Sometimes it takes a lot of work behind the scenes to get a story together, sometimes a story just falls into your lap, but even then that doesn’t mean you have it easy.

I was visiting a local business to cover the change in ownership there. I had completed my interview and taken photos of the new owners doing the obligatory “passing of the torch” handshake. As I was preparing to go, a man stopped me to tell me how much he appreciated some coverage we did in his township a few months back.

If you have ever been a news reporter, you quickly learn that you will never remember every person you have ever interviewed. You meet new people weekly, sometimes daily, and then they disappear and you don’t see them again for a long time. Well, I had interviewed the man who stopped me once, and it took me a while to recognize him. Needless to say, this is awkward, though I have learned how to speak to people in a way that is appropriate for strangers or former interviews just for this purpose.

Well, this man said that recent rains in our area were doing a number on roads in his township. He asked if we were interested in doing a story. I gave him a noncommittal answer, but hopeful (because it could be a good story). We arranged to meet at his town hall later in the day when he went to work on a “road closed” sign in the boonies.

When the appointed time was looming, I used my phone’s GPS to chart a course to the town hall. I set out on the shortest path, and it was going well most of the way. Eventually, however, I found myself crossing large mud holes that would have stopped lesser cars (I have a Subaru) and while still on the path laid out for me, I found myself looking down a “road” that looked like a very narrow, very long grassy pasture leading through the woods. There weren’t even tire tracks going through the two foot tall grass. I backtracked and found an alternative route with more muddy ruts and eventually found my way to the township hall where my interview was waiting.

He informed me we were going down a minimum maintenance road and should leave my car behind. I hopped in his truck (more afraid of my GPS leading me astray than of getting my car stuck) and rode along with him to photograph a couple roads that had been almost destroyed by recent rains and flooding. At the second road the adjacent lake had overtopped the road and converted a cow pasture into a lily pad pond on the other side. The water covered the road for quite a distance, and the center was as black as a lake dropoff. I was told it was deeper than two feet there.

Now, I got photos of him doing some work on the road closed sign and we started back to the township hall. I thanked him, and I set off. Having still not learned from my earlier mistake, after leaving the hall and going the direction that would take me back to Pine River without travelling the roads I used to get there, I set my GPS.

The GPS lead me down one road, then another and onto yet another minimum maintenance road. After some distance I found myself again facing a road that was completely overgrown with pasture grass, but this one had some signs of having been used as a road at one point. Frustrated, I followed the road, and when I came to a section that turned to gravel again, instead of lawn, I felt very satisfied… until I realized my GPS had lead me in a loop that was bringing me back to the road where the township hall was located. It apparently thought I should have taken a right out of the hall parking lot instead of a left and didn’t know how to tell me to turn around in a driveway. I knew where I was, but I also knew that between me and the township hall road was one of the washed out roads we had looked at earlier in the day. This one did not have water in it, it just had many places where the class five had been washed away and it looked like sugar sand on the road.

Thanking my car for being a little bit more rugged than my old Toyota Tercel, we powered through and found our way back with little more inconvenience.

This isn’t the first time my GPS has lead me astray. As a matter of fact, it does this regularly, and I, being impatient and stubborn, never dig out the map or platt book I have to chart a real course. I can only guess that some day my GPS is going to make me take a wrong turn in Albuquerque and I’ll have crazy adventures in the middle east or the arctic circle with my duck friend and some crazy abominable snowman. Hey, it could be worse.