Bill collectors calling? Must be outdoor recreation time …

Blue skies over Green Circle Trail

We are in the thick of “Throwing Money into the Recreation Industry” season, and I am pleased, shocked and regretful to report that my family is doing its part to indenture its parents into several more decades of servitude to fund its outdoor activity.

It all starts with children who outgrow their toys (primarily Dad), but continues with more basic needs, such as food and fashion.

The spies in our microwave oven – if you’ve forgotten about these, just ask the president’s minions – were highly effective in detecting my susceptibility to outdoor-related purchases in July. A couple of tactical e-mails later from said spies and I committed to two purchases, demonstrating just how mindless and thoroughly patriotic I have become in support of my outdoor habit.

But that’s getting ahead of the point of this column, or perhaps just distracted from it.  Or maybe there’s no point whatsoever.  Who can tell?

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In any event, this week is about last week’s first-ever, single-day circumnavigation of the Green Circle Trail by yours truly.  It’s also about bears, books, bike shops, burgers and by-gosh any other thing worth bandying about while planning where to go next.

Unusual ursine bars boardwalk

My friend and across-the-street neighbor Mike Richards sent me a link to video he shot recently of an interesting visitor to Schmeeckle Reserve – a black bear that seemed relatively unconcerned about the presence of two adult humans and a fairly good-sized Labrador.

What Mike found particularly interesting about the bear, who appeared to be a yearling, was that it did not seem to be at all afraid of Dazy the dog.  Usually black bears are less aggressive and more likely to run off when confronted with anything that looks like a threat to them, he noted, whereas brown bears – especially grizzlies – are the opposite.

As Wisconsin has no more grizzlies, we don’t have to be concerned about those (they haven’t been present since the post-glacial period in our state).  But during this time of year, young bears are forced to establish new homes and are on the move, as colleague Ken Blomberg pointed out in his column on bears last week.

Ken had several good pointers on bears last week, but it’s always worth repeating that we should stay away from them and be especially cognizant of the fact that feeding them – even small ones – is a bad idea, as it encourages them to be less afraid of humans, which can lead to increased contact and therefore risk.

The Wisconsin bear population has tripled in the last three decades, which is generally good, as it was down around 9,000 in 1989, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Obviously, though, bears get big enough to be potentially dangerous.

Incidentally, as part of my summer reading list, I’ve now got Ken’s first book after stopping by his signing event at Book World in downtown Point on July 8. Named Up The Creek after his Gazette column, it’s one I’ve been looking forward to for a while and the first I’ve actually purchased for my “vacation” reading season.

“Vacation” goes in quotes because it’s hard work to shuttle kids to daily activities, even if I’m ostensibly unemployed during the summer, when most University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point faculty like myself are not on contract (and thus unpaid).

There’s generally nine months’ worth of unfinished house projects to catch up on, among other stuff – and all those house-spouses, professors, and assorted others will attest to the fact that time “off” requires a lot of being on.

Planning vacations is also pretty hard work.  Finding places to visit, stay, and eat, as well as coordinating with friends and family who might be along our travel paths, can be stressful .

For readers, even deciding which books to buy on a budget can bring as much pain as joy. Ken’s book was a must-get, but following a couple of major outdoor expenses last week, I’ve got to be more picky.  After all, it’s not just the spooks in our kitchen appliances watching my expenditures.

Hi, honey!

Green Circle a fine test for new bike

For those who care about the environment, consumer decisions get complicated.  In recent years, I’ve tried to buy more used items to avoid the cycle of production, consumption and disposal.

That can be tough with things like our defunct screen shelter. Heavy rains and poor setup while camping last year allowed overnight pooling of water on a portion of the shelter’s roof, causing a support pole to buckle.

The shelter served us well for 16 years, but its manufacturer has no replacement poles and we’d probably spend an inordinate amount of time and money on a solution. We’ll recycle parts for backyard use, and an easier and vastly superior-appearing shelter was on my radar, but it seemed exorbitant (almost $500).

When I got unsolicited e-mail telling me it was on clearance for $300, I ordered it. Seeing pictures of the shelter crushed by a fallen tree was the clincher, as a reviewer noted that once he got the trunk removed, the shelter popped right back into place.

My wife is the family miser. She’s also primary cook even while camping, so she values a good screen shelter in Wisconsin, and she approved. We’ll review this soon.

After a couple of wet hikes earlier this year, I also ordered a good rain jacket I’d been eyeing online. I didn’t ask for that notification either, and it’s scary to understand how computers become like minders (“Sir, you must now purchase the jacket or your loyalty to the cause will be questioned”).

My final purchase was a new bike to replace the one my son is buying from me.  A new one for him was option 1, but as he’ be on the hook for half, he took the cheaper, wiser approach.

I had found mine used through Craigslist. It’s been a fine bike, but I was happy to pass it on to a pleased Sam.

More importantly, design advances made me realize a bike’s comfort is becoming as important to me as durability and light weight; I didn’t even know “comfort bike” was a category until recently, but I’m now the proud owner of one with adjustable handlebars to provide a more upright, leisurely ride or a more forward-leaning, speed-centric approach.

We’re lucky to have several good local bike shops – I went to three and also considered Shifting Gears, a community-based bike refurbisher.  After picking up my new one Friday, I put it to work Saturday by riding the entire Green Circle (minus its western bifurcation) with the family and some kid friends.

We set out at 9:15 a.m. from our Clark Street home. Not 20 minutes later, after exiting Bukolt Park and heading north on Old Wausau Road, Sam and his buddy Pax were already out of sight.  Meanwhile, Yami and I dawdled with Lorena and her friend Sydney.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable and uneventful trip.  No bears.  There were plenty of flying pests who limited our water breaks in the woods, but we had a pleasant stop at the Moses Creek wildlife observation platform in Schmeeckle, where direct sun kept pests at bay.

The day was bright, lovely and cool – perfect Wisconsin weather, probably what biking in heaven offers.

We told the boys that if we got separated, we’d meet them at a restaurant which will remain nameless because one must be careful not to favor one local business over another (hi, editor!).

Let us say simply that the establishment, conveniently located almost on the Green Circle Trail, was easily reached by noon, slightly more than 15 miles into our trip.  Even though it’s one of our local favorites for its burgers, prime rib, fish fry and other delights, I wouldn’t write its name here if threatened with having a bus crash through my wall.

After lunch, offered the choice of continuing or riding home, the two 9-year-olds decided they wanted to go play a bit.  So the females departed for the house while us fellas set out for our final 13 miles on the southern half of the trail.

Sam again shot forward, leaving Pax and me to take the relaxed approach. We eventually regathered for the Paper Mill and River Pines trail sections, which, along with the Plover River segment for cross-country skiing, remain my favorites because of fine river views and cool, quiet forest paths.

We were struck both by the damage wrought by recent storms and the quick clearing of downed trees by trail caretakers.  The trip was yet another reminder of the awesome power of nature and the even more awesome efforts of local government, volunteers, and supporters of recreation.

That includes all our local businesses, who I am happy to continue patronizing.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I hear the chief bill collector calling.

Author’s note: This column originally appeared in the July 14 edition of the Portage County Gazette.

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