Sunday, May 22, 2016

Divots, divots everywhere

I decided it was time to get serious about attacking the Canadian thistles growing in the yard. So I dug out the Claw from the gardening shed.

I tend to think of the Claw as a miracle tool. It does an amazing job of ripping weeds out of the lawn. The downside, of course, is that it leaves a noticeable hole behind.  Now multiply that hole by a gazillion. I knew there were thistles in the yard. I didn't realize just how many there were, though, until I got serious about ripping them out. Big chunks of the yard are now looking like they were attacked by a really bad golfer.

I'm not actually sure why I do worry about ripping out the thistles. They're the only weed that doesn't make the cut for being ignored. We've never been the type of people who lust after a patch of grass that looks a lot like a putting green. When it comes to the lawn, such as it is, everything that's not a thistle -- creeping charlie, dog tooth violets, dandelions, you name it -- gets left alone under the rationale of "Who cares if some people think it's a weed, it's green so it's better than bare dirt." I even ignore the burdock that keeps wanting to pop up next to the front porch.

Then again, burdock and dandelions are edible. Thistles are just annoying. So I'll keep ripping them out. Although I am wondering just wondering how many cubic yards of fill dirt I'm going to need to patch those divots.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

One thing always leads to another

Now that the weather has warmed up and conditions are halfway decent outside, the S.O. has begun working on the Guppy. We'd noticed that when we had to rely on the fresh water tank in the Guppy that the water pump didn't seem to have much oomph. There'd be a quick burst of water and then things would slow to a trickle. It occurred to us that perhaps the pump was original equipment and was just plain wore out. The S.O. also raised the possibility that perhaps various screens and filters had become clogged with sand and other grit.

First step in testing that thesis was the easiest: unscrew the screen on the kitchen faucet. Sure enough. Lots and lots of crud. That helped a bit with that particular faucet, but not much in the larger scheme of things. So we took the bed apart. First we exposed the pump. Well, the date of manufacture is close to 20 years ago so, yep, maybe it is worn out and needs to be replaced. Still, the S.O. figured he should check the various filters and screens in the system, too. And then he exposed the water tank.

We're now kind of wishing he hadn't. The tank is translucent so we can clearly see the really nasty dark band going around the inside of it a couple inches from the top. Really makes a person wonder what caused that staining -- did a previous owner leave the same water sitting in the tank for so many years that it grew algae? Is it mold? Mud? Some other disgusting possibility I'd rather not imagine? Who knows. . . in any case, the S.O. removed the tank and is going to rinse it out thoroughly with a bleach solution. I'm not sure why. After all, we've been using water that's been run through that tank for the past two years and we're not dead yet. I guess it's psychological -- having seen the mystery scuzz, it'll be easier to live with that tank if we know it's been sterilized.

We have priced new water pumps. We're probably going to order one online. We checked replacement pumps at an RV dealer's recently and discovered that at this time of the year their prices are astronomical. No surprise there. It is the start of the U.P. camping season so it's understandable that merchants would want to get as much as the market can bear for various parts. I have no doubt that 10 or 15 years ago we'd have just sucked it up and paid the asking price. Not anymore.

I am hoping we get the Guppy put back together soon. We have a couple sort of local expeditions planned for this summer. We could probably manage just fine without running water in the Guppy, but I'd rather not. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Our amble home

After leaving Farmington earlier this month, we took our time getting home. The weather was decent so we took a slightly more circuitous route than usual: up into Illinois, then northwest to Iowa and southern Wisconsin. I wanted to visit Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa and do so some other touristy things in the general area of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

We had noticed before that all roads in Illinois seem to lead to Peoria (at least if you're on I-39 or I-55) and that's where we wound up for one night, Peoria. Or, more precisely,  Jubilee College State Park, which is spitting distance from Peoria. We were, in fact, so close to the city that we experienced something relatively unusual for Adventures with the Guppy: over-the-air television. We cranked the antenna up and discovered we had a choice of multiple channels. I know a person isn't supposed to be thinking about television when one is camping, but, hey, it was Wednesday and it was nice to be able to watch "Survivor" when it aired instead of having to stream it multiple days after the fact.

Anyway, Jubilee College State Park struck me as being a nice park that's suffering from Illinois's budget woes. It's been neglected and it shows. The campground loops were nicely designed but maintenance has been sparse. The campground host told us that for a couple seasons the park had only one employee, a maintenance technician, who had to try to do everything alone. Staff has apparently increased since then -- there's now a superintendent in addition to the maintenance guy -- but not enough to keep up with everything. We got a discount on the normal camping fee because the showerhouse was closed, probably indefinitely. One of the camping loops is also closed. On the plus side, the areas that are open were clean, as were the vault toilets. They may be short-staffed, but whoever is working is working hard.

Despite the drawbacks, the host told us the campground is quite popular and does fill on the weekends in the summer. It also gets a fair number of campers from outside Illinois almost any day of the week because it's easily accessible from I-80. People who are doing longer trips, like from the East Coast out to Yellowstone or farther, find it convenient for a one-night stop. Heck, that's what we were doing -- stopping for one night while on our way to someplace else. It is far enough from the Interstate that the campground is quiet but not so far that you feel like it's going to take you forever to get back to the highway in the morning.

The only quibble I'd actually have about staying at Jubilee College SP again is that it could be tricky finding a good spot to park a motorhome if the park is busy. We got lucky -- it was the middle of the week so there were only a handful of other campers there -- and were able to snag a site so level we didn't have to worry about jacks or other levelers. However, a fair number of sites had a definite slope and could have proved interesting. In addition, the majority of the sites were not graveled, i.e., they were just plain turf -- you get to guess where the "pad" is by the location of the electrical post and faint ruts in the grass -- and several were definitely muddy. The online description of the park says the sites are graveled, so maybe they all were at one time, but the gravel hasn't been renewed in  a long, lone time. The site we snagged did have real gravel on it so we had no fears of getting bogged down; that wasn't true of a number of others we looked at and rejected. If you're driving a leviathan or have a humongous fifth wheel trailer, it could be tricky getting your landing gear down without them sinking clear out of sight.
The closed showerhouse is visible in the distance. There's a large, open area near the playground. This has to be a great park for families -- lots of room for the little barracudas to run around, start spontaneous soccer or baseball games, and generally burn off pent up energy.

The State of Illinois park system does have an online reservation system for its campgrounds; it's through a private contractor (ReserveAmerica) and I was not impressed. It will show you a map of the campground, but individual site descriptions were basically nonexistent as were photos. Given that a number of states have really nice websites that include information like whether or not a site slopes, has any shade, and even have photographs of the specific sites, I'd say ReserveAmerica has a ways to go in bringing its database into the 21st century. We did not make a reservation; we decided that it was early enough in the camping season that we shouldn't have a problem finding a site. We were right.

Factoid: Jubilee College State Park is named after Jubilee College, a historic college founded in the 19th century. Jubilee College State Historic Site is adjacent to the park.

From Peoria we continued to amble west and north. Crossed the Mississippi at the Quad Cities, then took US-61 north to Dubuque, Iowa, where it crosses into Wisconsin. Eventually we found Wisconsin Highway 35 and followed the Great River Road to a few miles north of DeSoto to a Corps of Engineers site, Blackhawk Park, adjacent to the Mississippi. According to the online reviews, Blackhawk is popular. I believe it. It was early enough in the season that the reservation system hadn't kicked in yet -- all the sites were first come, first serve -- but I'd be willing to be that once it gets to be summer without a reservation you'd be out of luck on the weekends. There are a number of sites in the newer RV loop that are right next to the water so it's possible to beach your boat within a few feet of your trailer or motorhome. It doesn't get much better than that for people who like to fish. 

There are two camping loops for RVs and trailers as well as a plethora of basic sites for tent camping. I did notice about half a dozen tent campers; they were fairly widely dispersed. Of course, it was easy to avoid being right next to anyone else when the campground is really large and it's early in the season. As has been true of other Corps campgrounds we've patronized, the sites were large -- lots of space so you don't feel crowded -- and so close to level that we didn't bother worrying about the slight tilt to one side. If we had planned to be there for more than 2 nights, the S.O. would have gone through the hassle of putting planks under the wheels on the downhill side, but when the tilt was barely noticeable it wasn't worth the hassle. The RV sites all have electricity; the big difference between the newer loop and the older section is the older section has large shade trees. The new loop will have shade eventually, but the trees are still fairly small. 
About the only quibble I'd have about this particular campground was the fact the showers in the shower house required tokens. One token got you 5 minutes worth of water. Allow me to say that 5 minutes isn't very long if you're the first person into the shower house in the morning and it takes what seems like forever for the hot water to arrive. Maybe if it had been July an ice cold shower first thing in the morning would have been attractive, but not in early May. . . In any case, I had managed to talk the fee collectors into giving me a total of 4 tokens the night before -- 2 for me, 2 for the S.O. -- because we were going to be there for 2 nights. Each camper is allowed one token per day. I was glad I had more tokens with me than I theoretically needed -- the first 5 minutes ran out right about the same time that the water got hot enough for me to get the shampoo into the hair and the body wash on to the body. I would have been extremely unhappy to find myself covered with soap and token-less.

The campground is not on the main channel of the river. It's upstream of Lock & Dam No. 9 in a section where there are numerous islands. There are a couple of islands between the shipping channel and the section of campground where we were. The shipping channel is visible from the day use area, though, and it was kind of neat to see a tug pushing several barges go gliding by.

Factoid: Blackhawk Park gets its name from the fact it's near the site of the last battle of the Black Hawk Wars, the Bad Axe Massacre. I kind of wonder what the terrain was like back in 1832 because obviously there was a lot less land under water, but it still must have been a lousy choice as a place to fight a battle. The bluffs on either side of the river are practically vertical, and the land within the flood plain had to have been thoroughly laced with marshes and sloughs. In any case, the Native Americans lost, and lost spectacularly, hence the reference to a massacre.

We may find ourselves back at Blackhawk Park one of these years. We had planned on only 2 nights there and it turned out that wasn't enough time to do everything I would have liked to. We did get to Effigy Mounds, but never made it to Villa Louis, a Wisconsin State Historic Site, and some other places in that general area. I was really tempted to extend our stay, but for various reasons we had to get home. Oh well. Live and learn. I should know by now to always allow the double the time I think something is going to take. Doesn't matter if it's a do-it-yourself project or just playing tourist, everything always takes longer than you had planned for it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Addition to Your Tax Dollars at Work

The Younger Daughter has been promoted and is moving on from Missouri; hence, an addition to the Your Tax Dollars at Work list. In about a week she's heading off to Arizona to do whatever it is that archeologists do on the Coronado National Forest.

I'm kind of wondering just how much forest there can be when all the photos I've seen from that part of Arizona feature a lot of rock, bare dirt, and cholla cactus, but who knows? I have a vague recollection of there being trees up in the mountains when we lived in Tucson several decades ago. I guess I'll find out next fall when we head that way with the Guppy. We now have the perfect excuse to be snowbirds -- a relative who lives in Arizona. If the kid is smart, she'll make sure to find a place to live that does not include RV parking.

Hickory Canyons Natural Area

One of the cooler things about the state of Missouri is (are?) the various Natural Areas managed by the Department of Conservation. I've already described one popular area near Farmington, Pickle Spring. On our last Sunday in Farmington, the Younger Daughter and I decided to go for a hike at another area, Hickory Canyons, that is also near Farmington but not quite as popular. Its parking area is a lot smaller and it lacks the one amenity (a single picnic table) Pickle Spring has. When we arrived, there were two other cars there. One was occupied by a family that was just leaving; we never did see the occupants of the other vehicle.
The usual rock with a plaque honoring whoever donated the land for a conservation area
Hickory Canyons has two hiking trails, one on either side of the road. One is fairly short and leads to a waterfall. The other does a loop approximately a mile long. It descends down through one short canyon, parallels a stream for a ways, and then ascends back up to the trailhead through another canyon.
 It was a nice walk. There's a fair amount of variety in what you see -- vegetation, rock formations, whatever -- and in the trail itself that it's not boring. I'd describe the level of difficulty as moderate: there are sections where you're dealing with tree roots, steep slopes, loose rock, etc. There are also a couple of water crossings. Nothing too tricky or hard, but definitely still terrain where you have to pay attention to where you're putting your feet. I was glad I had a hiking staff along to help compensate for the fact my depth perception tends to be erratic.
The website for Hickory Canyons describes it as having an unusually high variety of ferns and mosses packed into a fairly small geographic area. I wouldn't know. I did notice ferns popping up here and there, but to me one fern looks pretty much like another. I'm more inclined to notice wild flowers, shrubs, and trees.
Like in the photo above.The shelf above the cave opening definitely had ferns on it. What variety were they? I have no clue. I can say with some certainty, however, that the pink stuff is a wild azalea bush in bloom.
As usual for any park anywhere, people had ignored the warning signs and wandered off trail. There were several spots where social trails had developed from people deciding they'd rather short cut straight down (or up) a hill instead of sticking to the switchbacks. I've never been able to figure that one out. If you've decided you're going to hike a trail that you know up front is a one-mile loop, why try to make it shorter? What's the point? More proof, I guess, that way too many people are idiots.
Besides the azaleas (and there were a lot of them), the other thing I noticed a fair number of were the jack-in-the-pulpits. I had trouble getting down to their level, though. Once it gets to be Spring in Missouri, I'm not real inclined to lie on the ground with the ticks and chiggers just to ensure having a better angle for photographing wild flowers.
It may not be as busy as Pickle Spring, but the trail is well worn enough that you can tell the area is popular.
 I am kind of wishing we had discovered that some Missouri Department of Conservation Natural Areas had hiking trails a little sooner in our journeys to the state. I'm sure there were others relatively close to where we were that we would have enjoyed, too. If we end up campground hosting anywhere in Missouri again, I'll have to do some research to see what might be available in whatever region we happen to be in.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Yard art

Every time we drove past this particular house in Farmington, Missouri, I'd mutter "We need to take a picture." Well, our most recent visit to Farmington was probably also our last trip to Farmington -- the Younger Daughter has been promoted and is transferring to a national forest in a different state -- so I decided it was time to stop talking about it and actually got the camera out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Another bad idea

Pastel colored hand guns. I'm told they're supposed to appeal to the ladies. How fracking stupid do the gun companies think women are? If you're interested in a hand gun for whatever reason (personal protection, penis envy, Midol makes you crazy, who knows?), why on earth would any woman with two brain cells to rub together want a weapon that looks like it's an accessory for a Barbie playhouse?

The S.O. and I stopped into the Cabela's store in Prairie du Chien recently. We were camping at a nearby Corps of Engineers campground (Blackhawk Park, located a few miles north of Lock & Dam No. 9 on the Mississippi) for a couple nights, noticed the Cabela's enroute to the campground, and decided to check out the camping and RV-ing stuff the store carried. The first thing I noticed (as I usually do when stepping into a Cabela's) was, holy wah, their prices are high compared to some other vendors. The next thing were the clamps on the stuffed moose's ears -- that was bizarre. I really should have taken a photo. But I digress.

Shortly after we stepped into the store, a Cabela's minion thrust a stack of advertising material at me while doing a sales pitch for their credit card. Considering that we get to a Cabela's about once every 3 years (I'm much more of an REI type when it comes to outdoor gear), there was no way I'd fall for the credit card pitch but I did take the flyers and then found a convenient place to sit and read through them while test driving a folding recliner in the camping area (conclusion: overpriced and uncomfortable). Lo and behold, tucked into the Mother's Day specials was a pitch for a 9 mm Ruger offered in multiple colors, including purple.

Yep, you read that right. Purple. Sort of. The official name of the color is "Lady Lilac." It appears that in their never-ending quest to make firearms attractive to persons of all ages the manufacturers are resorting to making weapons look more and more like toys. You know, if you're wondering why toddlers are killing more Americans than terrorists do perhaps the answer can be traced back to the morons at various companies who decided women would prefer to purchase handguns that strongly resemble toys. You know, if it looks like a toy to me, just what does it look like to the kids in the households where women are dumb enough to own them? If you want to own a gun, ladies, at least invest in a weapon that looks lethal, not cute.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Another mystery solved

During the month we spent at Johnson's Shut-Ins we found ourselves wondering why a fair number of campers never bothered going to the check station to register even when the station was open. People would come in, set up on the site they had reserved, spend a couple days camping, and never bother to check in. We  had a couple campers tell us they thought we'd come to them when we reminded them to go to the check station because that's where the computer was. It made no sense at the time, but then when I was going through some random photos I'd taken at the park I noticed the sign to the right. It's at the entrance to the campground and as of a week ago still had an "off" season message up on it. That line saying "Your Site to Attendant" is removable; it should have come off on April 1 to indicate you're supposed to register at the check station. (It's also a contradiction of what's on the Vacant tags that get placed on available sites, but that's a different issue.)

Oh well. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Just a general feeling of relief that we're never going back to that particular park, or maybe any park in Missouri. I'm still interested in trying other places, but the S.O. says he's not sure he's up to being actively shunned again. But then he's more of an extrovert than I am. Being treated like Invisible People bothered him a lot more than it did me. Although I will concede that it was pretty weird that when one of the maintenance guys dropped off a shovel and bucket he basically just dropped the items and ran. He didn't exactly just do a rolling stop and toss them, but he came pretty close.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Playing tourist in St. Louis

The weather was supposed to be decent Friday so we planned a trip to the St. Louis Zoo. I'm definitely getting old. The next morning I woke up feeling like I literally walked my feet off. I'm not sure just how many miles we may have walked, but we did a lot of going in circles to make sure we saw everything we really wanted to see, like the new polar bear exhibit. We did enough walking that I was beginning to envy the people who had rented "electric convenience vehicles," i.e., scooters like the ones you see at supermarkets but with a much smaller basket on the front.
The polar bear exhibit is nice, although as usual I felt sorry for the bear. The habitat is a lot larger than what zoos used to do, but even so. . . that poor bear is going to get to experience Missouri summers. The beast does not get to live in a refrigerated building like the penguins do. The penguins and puffins exhibit is probably going to be the most popular place to be at the zoo once July gets here. Friday wasn't particularly warm, probably in the mid-60s, but stepping into the penguin building still bore a strong resemblance to stepping into a giant walk-in refrigerator. We felt the cold immediately.

We had figured that by going to the zoo on a Friday, there'd be fewer people and better parking than if we waited for the weekend. Pshaw. It's Spring. It's almost the end of the school year. It's Field Trip Time! There might not have been as many total vehicles in the parking lots, but when quite a few of the vehicles that are there are bright yellow and 40 feet long? The school buses ate up more of the parking than buses normally would, but fortunately we did get there early enough to snag one of the few spots left for cars. For the first two or three hours we were at the zoo, there were large herds of short people in matching tee-shirts running the legs off their teachers and chaperones.
Takin, a beast from the Himalayas that is surprisingly agile for its size
 It made things a bit crowded, but when it was mostly packs of kindergartners and first graders, they didn't block the views of anything. School kids aren't nearly as annoying as the yuppie moms with the over-sized Cadillac strollers who insist on parking their infant, a child still so freshly decanted that its eyes are barely open, in front of the viewing window and then baby-talking imploring the grub to wake up and see an animal that the mom is busy misidentifying. You know, telling little Chauncey to open his eyes and see the big monkey when the beast on the other side of the glass is an orangutan or gorilla. Way too many people are old enough to breed but still not able to read the signs telling you what it is you're looking at.

Granted, there are some critters in every zoo that have visitors scratching their heads and mumbling "what the hell is that thing?"  I know that was my reaction the first time I saw a takin, a beast from the mountains of Asia that looks like a cross between a musk ox and a goat. Some of the wild pigs looked pretty strange, too, especially when the sign on the enclosure said it contained bat-eared foxes. If those critters above this paragraph are foxes, they're the oddest ones I've ever seen. The label being wrong was unusual for the zoo -- usually everything is described accurately, right down to exactly where the beasts are from and how endangered (or not) they are. The St. Louis Zoo is involved in numerous conservation efforts and participates in breeding programs for a variety of animals.
One of the things I thoroughly enjoy about the St. Louis Zoo is the architecture. The zoo has been in the same location for over 100 years. The older buildings have really nifty details, touches like the capitals on the columns in the reptile house (if you look close, you realize the intricate details are snakes and lizards), or the elephant bas relief shown at the top of the post. I thought the 1904 World's Fair enclosed flight structure was cool, too. It now encloses a cypress swamp (slough? bayou?) inhabited by various water fowl (hooded mergansers, roseate spoonbills, egrets, etc.). The thing feels huge, and, based on some hints I saw online, may have served as the nucleus for what is now the St. Louis Zoo after the World's Fair ended.

The zoo has also done a really nice job on its landscaping. The winding paths and various plantings manage to mitigate the fact the zoo is popular and there are hordes of people almost everywhere. It's like the lines at Disneyland, cleverly designed so you don't realize there are several thousand people ahead of you waiting to get on to the most popular rides.
In the photo above, the S.O. and Tammi have stopped to read a sign. Going by it, you'd think there was almost no one else at the zoo that day. Definitely not true. There was a large group following close behind us, and there was an equally large group of people just ahead of us, but the curving paths and various plantings meant it was easy to ignore them.
I always have mixed feelings about zoos. Part of me says it's just not right to take animals away from their native habitats and stick them in cages for people to stare at. It has to suck to be an animal like a jaguar or a hyena that would roam territories possibly covering hundreds of square miles out in the wild and be stuck in a habitat that's about the size of a suburban back yard. On the other hand, if we didn't have zoos where people get to see actual gorillas or painted dogs or even something as commonplace as flamingos, how many people would ever care about habitat destruction on the other side of the world?
Goofiest looking ducks I've ever seen

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Have we considered a bluegill instead?



The Younger Daughter, the S.O., and I were chatting about the Guppy yesterday. She had forgotten why we call it the Guppy -- it goes back to the S.O.'s brother arriving in the U.P. one summer driving a humongous Class A motorhome, a monstrously large RV that we instantly dubbed the Leviathan. Fast forward a decade or so and our purchase of a Class C camper. It's pretty obviously not a Leviathan, doesn't come close. So it's a Guppy.

Since then we've had to acknowledge that in the ocean of motorhomes, the Guppy really isn't a guppy. Maybe conversion vans are. We qualify more in the pan fish category. Like a bluegill. Or a crappie. So the kid urged us to consider a rechristening. She figures the upside of changing the designation is that it's probably a lot easier to find a peel-and-stick bluegill decal than it is to find a guppy. The downside? Someone mistaking the bluegill for a crappie -- and I don't think the Guppy deserves that type of of mistaken identification, at least not yet.