everyone is an expert

I have been covering small government stories since I first started writing for a newspaper.

When I was on the BSU “Northern Student” newspaper I covered the student council. When I was just an intern at the Pine River Journal I covered Jenkins City Council meetings. Now, I cover the Backus and Pine River city councils first hand, the Pine River-Backus School Board first hand and the Emily, East Gull Lake, and Jenkins councils through reports from the clerks and administrators.

I know first hand how much time it can take to attend regular council meetings, and even then I wonder why nobody ever attends these meetings unless they are there to complain.

The scene at these council meetings is pretty much the same every week. I sit amongst city employees waiting to give their reports. There’s often the maintenance person, the engineer, the fire chief and a smattering of others. Pine River always has the city attorney, Police Chief and sewer district representative. The PR-B school board always has the business manager, often the food service manager. I am the only person in that meeting that is not associated with the board/council with only a few exceptions. Somehow, this fact does not change even now that there are many contested positions up for election on these boards/councils. Do you see something wrong with that?

Let me assure you, I have nothing against the people running for these positions. I know almost all of them personally. One is on the fire department with me, I used to work for another, I have interviewed most of them for stories, I used to buy my car tabs from another, and so on so on so on. Most of them own businesses (and hence, taxes are the big motivator here).

I won’t lie, knowing them personally only makes me feel more disappointed in them especially since most of them are running because they are angry about the way the current board/council has run itself (has issued taxes) over the last term… but how do they know?

At the Pine River Council meetings the mayoral candidate (who isn’t on the council) attends meetings often enough to have an idea how things go. The Backus Council mayoral candidate (not the incumbent) has, until this month, attended every meeting I have ever been to. Only liver cancer stopped him. I commend these two. At the Pine River-Backus School Board, the only unaffiliated person aside from me who comes to the council meetings is one of the local pastors… and she isn’t on the ballot! (I also commend her.)

How can you look at your local governing officials and say “They are ruining our town” or “they are overtaxing us” or virtually any other complaint IF YOU DON’T ATTEND MEETINGS!? You are judging someone based on what basically amounts to rumor or at the very least second hand information. There are limited sources of information outside the meetings.

• You can sometimes listen to a recording. This is the best alternative, though it takes just as much time. Really, you might as well attend the meeting.

• You can read the minutes. These are good, but you cannot get an idea of the true extent to which the council discusses an issue. It is always paraphrased. You are missing so much information.

• You can read your local newspaper. This suffers from the same problem as the minutes, except that the paper is even more constrained for space. We try to give you the most important details, but you can rarely form a full, valid judgement from these alone. Please keep reading them anyhow!

• You can talk to your friends at the coffee shop. This, I suspect is the main source of information regarding local government. Ole’s cousin Bjorn told Lena this, therefore we need someone on the council who will work for us.

If you hope to run for election in your town, please take this advice to heart. YOU HAVE NO REASON NOT TO ATTEND COUNCIL/BOARD MEETINGS! If you don’t, you don’t really know if your ire towards a specific board/council member is warranted. Ever had someone talk about you behind your back even though they don’t know you? That’s now you! Furthermore, you have no idea what the job you are applying to entails. Running uninformed is irresponsible and not fair to the people who would vote for you.

They might not like the incumbents, but if you find yourself elected and realize everything you would do to fix your local government is illegal, what happens then? What happens when Ole’s cousin’s friend’s boss was wrong and it turns out the candidates you hated so much really didn’t do what you always blamed them for? You may have replaced someone with experience. At the very least, attending meetings gives you an upper leg against the incoming candidates who don’t attend the meetings. There really is no reason for a candidate not to attend.

I know what most people feel. “I work for a living. I can’t make it to a meeting every month.” Repeat that again and again and again until you realize that people on the council/board HAVE TO ATTEND A MONTHLY MEETING in addition to trainings, committee meetings, local events and all sorts of other obligations. If you don’t have time to attend meetings, you don’t have time to be a council/board member. If you have ever used this excuse, it is my honest opinion you should drop out of the race.

Even if you don’t plan on running, but you have complaints about how your local government is run, I have the same advice as above. Nobody ever attends council meetings unless they are upset about something. It is safe to assume, in these cases, they don’t even know what lead up to the action you don’t like. Do you think they are picking on your friend? Let me ask you a theoretical question.

You meet a friend one day and they are complaining about the police. You ask what happened, they say, “I got pulled over and ticketed and I wasn’t even doing anything!” Do you buy it or do you need more information? Is it possible they were speeding? That’s kind of what it is like to get angry at local government members if you don’t attend the meetings.

Do you think your civic responsibility is limited to voting? Think again. Honestly, there should be so many people attending council/board meetings that they need to be held in an auditorium. That will never be the case, but at the very least the people who are running for office should be at the meetings. The people who have bad things to say about their local government should at least attend occasionally. Unless they do, they are unreliable sources about what is wrong with the current council. Where do they get their info?

Now, for an anecdote. My oldest brother recently decided that he might like to run for his local city council. I told him in earnest, “If you want a leg up on your opponents, attend the meetings.” Without fail, he responded, “I don’t have time for meetings! I’m a working man!”

…Of course he would say that.

When an old man dies…

There is this phrase out there that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.

If you ever try to do my job for any length of time, you’ll find there are fewer words so true out there. Of course, I would replace “man” with simply “person”. Hey, I won’t even make this age exclusive. How many stories does even a small child have to tell? Lord knows they will try to tell you if you give them the chance.

I’m reminded of this adage by the past few weeks when I have been exposed to characters fit for so many novels. That’s just another fringe benefit of my position. Most people live lives where they meet people who come into their paths serendipitously. In my job, I direct my path toward these people. An average person may meet someone authentically interesting every now and again. I meet them constantly, and I actively peel back the layers of their years to uncover those things which sometimes even Hemingway and Twain would have been hard pressed to make up.

How many new people have you met this last year? How many of them did you find interesting? How many of them did you actively ask personal, sometimes painful questions? How often do you walk away feeling personally connected to them for having shared your conversation?

Newspaper writers are not supposed to get personal for the most part. It’s impossible to stay completely impersonal, but you would be surprised how difficult it is to even try. Can you really ask such deep questions one after another to a person without feeling some connection to them? I like to think empathy leads to better questions.

Last Memorial Day I ran into a friend while taking photos. She is always at the local memorial day with her mother and her grandfather, a World War II Veteran. She informed me then that her grandfather was turning 100 on Halloween of this year. I wrote it in my schedule and mostly forgot about it. Beginning this month (October) I found the note, and someone called us up to tell us about him all over again. Naturally, I scheduled an interview for our special section on senior living.

I met Ed one Friday afternoon in his assisted living building.

Ed was almost what you would expect from a 99 year and 11 month old man, except 100 year old people somehow are almost younger than their age. I’ve seen people in their 60′s and 70′s who act and look older than Ed.

Even so, Ed had a walker, one with hand breaks and a seat. He has just a little white hair left on top of his head, but most of it wraps around in a familiar pattern. He leans forward, as older folk tend to, and he smiles a smile you wouldn’t expect. Teenagers are 100 times more moody with less justification.

One of the attendants at the assisted living place helps Ed to sit down and we start talking.

This is not an easy interview.

Sometimes you speak to someone and you know exactly which direction to go with your questions. Sometimes it is more difficult. Ed’s claim to fame is his age. How many questions can you come up with for someone’s age?

I planned on feeling out the interview with standard questions on life accomplishments, proud times and awe inspiring moments, but Ed is not the type of person to let someone my age steer the conversation.

The conversation is honestly all over the place. We talk about his home town in Illinois, he jumps to the war, boy scouts, Civilian Conservation Corps, WWII, CCC, resort ownership and back to Illinois. Ed’s storytelling is admittedly erratic and unpredictable, but I don’t care.

He remembers dates more clearly than I ever have and he gets frustrated and blames his age when it takes him more than a few seconds to remember some obscure year 70+ years ago.

Ed occasionally garbles his speech, and when he does nothing he says is understandable. Leading up to those moments, however are newspaper gold.

He says some non politically correct things. That’s a little jarring, but who am I to change a 100 year old man.

He shares his nightmares with me, except they were real once, in some battlefield in Europe, or a strange corrupt street in Chicago. He tells me he has never had a boring day in his life and he’s prepared to prove it to me. I’m a believer at the end of the hour.

This old sage has lived a century. He has so much to complain about, but he barely does. Almost everything he had to tell me was said with the same tone as a brag or a witty joke. Exceptions, of course, being the passing of one of his children, and his wife.

We shy away from the painful facts. That’s another reason why this interview is not easy.

How do you talk to another person about their death, especially someone you only met an hour ago? Ed is counting down his days. You might never guess that he is 100, but then again you would never know by looking at him that many years of untreated acid reflux has given Ed esophageal cancer. He’s in stage 4. I can’t ask him about it. I have to stumble through those questions with his daughter on the phone later.

In Pine River, a smoldering fire is burning in a library named Ed, and there is nothing to be done about it. People talk about the Library at Alexandria, but in light of this, who cares. Real libraries are great, but this… is unexplainable.

I’ll be lucky if I have even a fraction of the stories Ed has at any point in my life. I consider myself a creative and maybe interesting person, but so many of the stories that will die with me will belong to people like Ed who I met through my job. I’m happy I can try to prolong them even for just a little bit.

It’s an incredible thing, to meet people like this. I have met so many of them. It’s humbling. I meet so many people with such incredible experiences. It could humble anybody.

Small towns are boring, but nobody told that to all the people having fun

Nothing ever happens in a small town. Am I right?

Take Friday night for example. All I could do Friday night was sit around the house and belly ache about how busy I was at work!

It all started with Tuesday and the moving of the Bank in Jenkins.

Wednesday I had company at home so there was no time to belly ache about how nothing was happening around the area.

Thursday there was an anniversary celebration in Pine River for the local hardware store. Followed by a tour of the PRB school forest.

Who needs a tour guide when it’s so fun to get lost in a forest with trees like this!

Followed by more running around.

My Friday morning started with a trip to the Pine River-Backus High School for Homecoming. I knew some of the candidates, but not that many so I satisfied myself by watching the choreographed skit that the PR-B Homecoming and Snow Daze events are virtually famous for. They had some pretty funny moves.

It is hard to serenade someone when they throw their shoe at you.

After they finished with the crowning I had little time to waste. I got a photo of the whole Homecoming Court, checked my watch, and made tracks out of there after only about 100-150 photos.

Sit down! Shut up! I got places to be! Just kidding.

I arrived in Hackensack, roughly 20 miles away, in time to witness the Lumberjack show at their annual Chainsaw festival. As an added note, I got there in time to see a special show for PR-B students.

Do those teachers have experience throwing double headed axes? No? Good, it’s more interesting that way, let me get out front for a photo.

Watching the event was great, but time was a wasting. I took about 50-100 photos of the lumberjack show alone, but I still needed to snap a few of the carving competition. I hunted down an escort and shot another 100-200 photos.

I’ve done stories on this carver in our paper before. Of course, that was true of a few of the other artists as well.

I checked my clock and all that was left of me in hackensack was a cloud of smoke shaped like me. Back to PR-B twenty miles away I went to catch some students in the act of learning to swing dance.

Um, queen, your hand is in his eyeball.

I will be the first to admit that half the fun of taking photos of people learning to swing dance is taking photos of them screwing up.

Someone’s trapped. I’m not sure which one, but one of them is.

Unfortunately, between little mess ups, slow shutter speeds, flash interrupting the dancers, and any other number of things, photos of swing dancing are surprisingly difficult! To get the right photos took a while and my day was moving along.

Cue the obligatory dance scene between the king and queen.

There were other places I needed to be, so I didn’t stick around another hour to get the younger kids learning to swing dance. One of our other writers stuck around for the homecoming volleyball game, and yet another one attended that night’s football game. After only 200 photos I went back to town where absolutely nothing was happening except, you know a bunch of events, celebrations and what have you. How boring.

The next morning I was out and about yet again. This time I went to Crosslake Days in… you guessed it Crosslake. Though we were experiencing one of our last really really warm days, the air in town was saturated with a mist of Chili and people. On Every…

Jul Festival

Single…

Flea market

Corner…

Craft Fair

There were places to sell crafts and crap. Of course, since Crosslake is a lake town (sort of like Bemidji) the town is strung out along the shoreline, aka very long! The town is small according to occupants, but you still need a car to get places if you are trying to cover everything in a short period of time. As a result, my eye was always on the time because there was a chilli cook-off to look into.

Don’t you love the particulates on his tongue??

And a car show.

I am very fond of Mustangs.

And…And…And… other stuff. By the time I got done on Friday I went home and sat around doing nothing. I was so tired (presumably because I was so bored from there being nothing to do) that I just bummed around the house and waited for family to show up and hang out.

Sunday I went to church followed by harvesting potatoes left behind by the harvesters. How I managed to fit this in with all the other busy work is beyond me. What a boring place to live!

Once in a lifetime

There were many times during my time working at a restaurant, a truss company or various other places of employ where I missed the opportunity to see or do something that isn’t too common. That’s standard for a normal job, but not for mine.

Even in a city or town that is commonly considered boring (If you say your town is boring, you obviously don’t work for a newspaper), there are times where something is happening that is so rare, so interesting and so cool that everyone wants to see/do it. Now, if it happens that that “thing” in question happens between 9 and 5, most people are out of luck. One of the absolutely greatest parts of my job is that I am expected to go to these things.

Why? Well, that’s obvious. Everyone wants to see/do it, but everyone is working. It’s a vicious cycle, sort of. Not really vicious, especially not for me.

Get it? cat? Canary? You get it.

When everyone wants to go, but everyone is working it is my job as a news writer and photographer to roll up my sleeves, get dirty, and go so that when mom and pop sit down on a quiet thursday night to peruse the old newspaper, they can live through the content inside.

When there is a politician in town speaking to the local chamber of commerce, or school we are there.

Rick Nolan spoke to the Pequot Lakes school in my first year back to the paper.

When a huge building has been loaded onto a truck and is being moved 30 miles down the road, you bet we’re there.

The former Jenkins First National Bank of Walker building was wheeled down the road Sept. 23.

If someone in our town is teaching a really cool skill or craft that everyone wants to learn? Hey, I might even have special passes to that event.

Resilient Action Day in Pine River is just the most recent opportunity for me to learn some really cool stuff, and even to purchase a really cool cold frame like the one above.

Sometimes I have to clock out so I’m not enjoying myself on company time (only a little serious) but that’s a small price to pay to be able to constantly do awesome stuff.

When it comes down to it, all this awesome stuff isn’t for me. It’s for the readers. Without the paper, how would people experience the things they have no time for? It’s all to help the readers to live vicariously through us, because if we had jobs like everyone else, you’d just have to wonder what it looks like to haul a bank building down the road, hey, you might never even be aware it happened.

In the case of the First National Bank building, how often do you get to see something like that? In our neighborhood, not often. It’s one thing to see a big truck rolling down the road with a mobile home, something else entirely to see a commercial building with multiple floors that takes up the entire road WHEN ALREADY CUT IN HALF!

I’ve said before that I’m blessed with the job I have. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to forget that fact. There are constant reminders. So, when your job gets dull and you need to unwind. Feel free to check out your next issue of the PineandLakes Echo Journal. Live vicariously through us. Go ahead. We won’t mind.

Oh, and I almost forgot, when there’s an award ceremony dinner… We’ll probably be there.

You say we need to cover an award dinner and they’re serving prime rib? Twist my arm why don’t you?

 

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 (http://www.casscountyedc.com/) 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 (https://www.scamptrailers.com/) 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 (http://www.trussworthycomponents.com/) 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 (http://paulbunyanmushroomclub.areavoices.com/) 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.