How to Find the Perfect Head Coach

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With the search for a new Vikings head coach now at full throttle, I thought it would be a good time to peer into the past and examine the careers of the team’s eight previous sideline generals. Considering they have never won a Super Bowl, it would be hard to see what these former coaches did right. But as fortune would have it, the coaching history of the Minnesota Vikings is overflowing with examples of what not to do. Let’s take an in-depth look at each former head coach and find their flaws that led them to ruin. When we are finished, we can then use the opposite of these flaws to create a perfect coach template that Vikings GM Rick Spielman can utilize to finally find a Super Bowl winning coach for our cursed franchise.

Here are the men who have captained the ship of purple fools throughout the years:

1. Norm Van Brocklin (1961-1966)- Being born in 1976, I never had the opportunity to watch a Van Brocklin-led Vikings squad lose a big playoff game. Fortunately, I didn’t miss out on any purple-tinged disappointment, as the Vikings never even made the playoffs once during Normie’s tenure. His teams stumbled their way to an awful .363 winning percentage over six years. Missing out on this period of putridity provides me with yet another reason to be grateful I’m not older than I am.

Fatal Flaw-What’s weird about Van Brocklin is that he sucked at managing the QB position despite being a former star NFL QB himself. As a player, Norm won two NFL titles, was named NFL MVP, set the record for most passing yards in a game (554, which still stands) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971, yet he had no idea how to use his rising star QB Fran Tarkenton. The QB and coach butted heads as Norm wanted Fran to be a pocket passer, but Fran wanted the freedom to scramble. In other words, Norm was ordering the QB who would go on to become the best scrambling QB in NFL history to stop scrambling. What a moron.

2. Bud Grant (1967-1983, 1985)-When Bud arrived in 1967, he took over a 4-9-1 team that had just traded away future Hall of Famer Tarkenton. After a rough first season, Bud would get the Vikings into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 1968 and then in 1969 he coached his squad to the Super Bowl. Grant would re-acquire Tarkenton in 1972 and the Vikings would go on to be one of the NFL’s best teams for the next decade.

Bud led the Vikings to the playoffs in 10 of his 17 years and got his team to four Super Bowls. Sadly, all the Super Bowls were losses, but Bud had established himself as one of the best coaches in league history. He would return for a one-off year in 1985 following the Les Steckel debacle before finally retiring for good.

Fatal Flaw-It’s hard to criticize a man who had so much success, but that’s what we less successful people do: criticize others. What Bud unintentionally did by creating a culture of winning was that he forged a mold of “never quite winning the big one” that to this day no Viking team has been able to break free from. Yes, at least he got his teams to the big dance, but it was also he who first indoctrinated Vikings fans to believe that greatness will always be just out of reach. This seemingly genetic pessimism that today pervades every cell of a Viking fans’ body can be traced directly to Bud.

3. Les Steckel (1984)-After their longtime leader Grant left, the Vikings promoted 37 year-old receivers coach Steckel to the top job. He went 3-13 to instantly become the worst coach in franchise history, a distinction he continues to carry today.

Fatal Flaw-The entire 1984 Minnesota Vikings season.

4. Jerry Burns (1986-1991)-Burns was the Vikings offensive coordinator for an astounding 17 years before he was given the top job in 1986. He got the Vikes to the playoffs three times in his six years, including the magical run of 1987 where Anthony Carter and Wade Wilson carried the team to the NFC Championship Game. Sadly, Darrin Nelson would drop a pass near the goal line that could have kept the Vikings alive in their quest for the Super Bowl. Burns finished with a respectable 52-43 record during his time at the helm, and actually was never fired from the Vikings; he simply chose to retire in 1991.

Fatal Flaw-Because I can’t really find one distinctive idiotic football moment or tendency to pin on Ol’ Burnsie, I’ll just find personality flaws. First of all, he had perennial “bed head”. His tussled gray locks were always unkempt during the game; it was as if he slumbered peacefully on a roll-away bed on the sideline during pregame warmups until an assistant coach would wake him up 5 minutes before kickoff. In addition to everyday being a bad hair day for Jerry, he also cursed like a sailor with Tourette’s. He let loose in front of the media on more than one occasion, and I imagine NFL Films simply stopped miking him up for games as three hours of taping Burns likely yielded only two minutes of airable, curse-free audio.

5. Dennis Green (1992-2001)-The Vikings next brought in Denny, who was then the head coach at Stanford, and immediately the team’s fortunes began to improve. Over the next ten years the Vikings would only have a losing record once (Denny’s final season), they would reach two NFC Championship Games, and Green would finish his Vikes tenure with an excellent career winning percentage of .610.

Fatal Flaw-Denny just couldn’t get it done in the playoffs. His career playoff record was a weak 4-8, and his two title game losses were a 41-0 blowout to the Giants and the to-this-day-heartwrenching overtime loss to an inferior Falcons team. The latter game featured the colossal  “take a knee” gaffe that came to define Denny’s Vikings career. To refresh your memory, the score was tied at 27 with 30 seconds left in the game, the Vikings had two timeouts left, and were facing a 3rd and 3 at their own 30 yard line. Instead of giving the greatest offense in NFL history a chance to drive the ball into game-winning field goal range, Denny had Randall Cunningham take a freaking knee to run out the clock and let the game go to overtime, which, as we all know, didn’t end well. What a moron.

No critique of Denny’s reverse genius would be complete without mentioning his autobiography: No Room for Crybabies. Not only did the book not win a Pulitzer, it also contained a passage where he threatened to sue Vikings’ ownership and take over part of the team. This may seem like no big deal, until you realize Denny wrote his book in 1997, while he was still coaching the team. Publicly threatening to sue your employer while you are still employed? What a moron.

6. Mike Tice (2001-2005)- After five years as Denny’s offensive line coach, Tice became the first former Vikings player to coach the team. (He played TE for the Vikes in the early 90′s.) Big Mike only got the team to the playoffs once in his four seasons and finished with a .492 winning percentage. Most players and fans seemed to like Tice as a coach, but he was swept out the door when the Wilfs bought the team.

Fatal Flaw-The “Love Boat” scandal. Although it’s hard to blame Tice for the over-the-top live sex party that several Vikings players took part in on a rented boat on Lake Minnetonka, it was a sign of the lawlessness he presided over and even participated in. To wit: Just three months before the boat bacchanal occurred, Tice himself had been heavily fined by the NFL for being the ringleader of a Super Bowl ticket scalping scheme. What a moron.

7. Brad Childress (2006-2010)-The Vikings thought they had the right man for the job when they snapped up the Eagles’ offensive coordinator right after firing Tice. Childress’ name had been floating around as a possible candidate for a head coaching position for a while as teams looked at Philadelphia’s offensive success and figured the guy running that machine must be a great coach. However, there was one big problem with such an assessment: Andy Reid called all the Eagles’ offensive plays, not Childress. This led skeptics to ask the question, “If an offensive coordinator isn’t even calling the plays for the offense he is supposed to be coordinating, then what the hell good is he?”

The skeptics were right. Chilly couldn’t develop his young QB (T-Jack), his playcalling was atrocious, and his offenses in general were all horse crap until the team finally signed Brett Favre. Chilly would finish his tenure with a .527 winning percentage and two playoff appearances.

Fatal Flaw-Being a control freak. Instead of letting a surefire Hall of Fame QB play how he knows best, Chilly tried to force his constipated offensive mind upon #4. Not only did every QB that played for Chilly comment on how he wouldn’t let them do what they were best at, he also cut Randy Moss without consulting his bosses. (A necessary move, for sure, but not one to be undertaken unilaterally.) It is no surprise that when the losing started in 2010, the team completely quit on Chilly; nobody liked him and his overcontrolling ways. What a moron.

8. Leslie Frazier(2011-2013)-Once Chilly had been run out of town, defensive coordinator Frazier filled in as interim coach for the rest of the season and was given the gig full-time during the offseason. After a Steckel-esque 3-13 inaugural campaign, the next year Frazier joined the rest of the Vikings and rode the back of Adrian Peterson to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance. Unfortunately for Leslie, the team spiraled right back down into the outhouse hole this season, leading to his firing. He finished with a career .409 winning percentage.

Fatal Flaw-Frazier was too loyal. Instead of giving superiorly talented players such as Cordarrelle Patterson, Audie Cole, Matt Cassel, and Xavier Rhodes more playing time, Frazier stuck with familiar players Erin Henderson, Jerome Simpson, and Christian Ponder far too long. With as many close games as the Vikings lost this season, an extra playmaker or two could have easily put the team in position to win the shoddy NFC North, something that would have saved Frazier’s job.

Also, it was hard at times to detect if Frazier had a pulse. Perhaps showing a little fire could have given his team an extra boost.

The Interview Questions-So, now that we have reviewed the career of each Viking coach and highlighted their fatal flaws, let’s compile a list of questions that GM Rick Spielman can ask potential candidates in order to screen out the losers and find a perfect head coach, one who will be so successful that he will make Vince Lombardi look like Les Steckel. The questions are as follows: (The coach associated with each question is in parentheses.)

1. Have you ever tried to force a Hall of Fame QB to stop doing what he does best? (Van Brocklin, Childress)

2. Can you win a Super Bowl? (Grant)

3. Can you at least reach a Super Bowl? (All Viking coaches other than Grant)

4. If hired, will you prove to be a terrible head coach? (Steckel, Childress)

5. Are you certifiably crazy? (Green, perhaps Childress)

6. Have you ever allowed your players to transport hookers across state lines and proceed to have an out-of-control sex party on a rented houseboat in front of teenage boat workers? (Tice)

7. Do you have a soul? (Childress)

8. Have you ever been the mastermind of a Super Bowl ticket-scalping cartel?  (Tice)

9. Have you ever had a facial expression? (Frazier)

10. Do you own a comb? (Burns)

There you have it. Any potential head coach that can pass through this gauntlet of inquisition without error is the man Spielman should hire. I emailed this list to Spielman and I’m sure he is using it in interviews, which makes me so confident that the next Vikings coach will take the team to the top that I’m already shopping for tickets to next year’s Super Bowl. Does anybody have Tice’s phone number?

 

 

Vikings Postseason Autopsy

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Now that the Vikings’ pitiful season is finally dead, let’s grab our analytical scalpel and slice through the layers of failure that obscure the reasons for the team’s return to crappiness. Only by examining each organ of the Vikes’ football system can we determine what the most critical factors were that sent our favorite team to an early grave during the 2013 NFL season.

Here are my top 5 reasons why the Vikings’ season is now “in a better place”, and I also offer my predictions/suggestions as to how the problem can be fixed going into next season.

5. Linebackers: Going into the season, the Vikings were bullish on their linebacking crew which figured to be Chad Greenway, Desmond Bishop, and Erin Henderson. Bishop was lost for the season due to injury about six seconds after he was finally healthy enough to take the field; Henderson was painfully mediocre all season until a thoroughly idiotic DUI charge sent him to the bench; even standout Greenway had a nauseating year, as he missed tackles and seemingly forgot how to make plays. The emergence of Audie Cole as an instinctive playmaker was the only thing that kept the collection of sad sacks known as the linebacking crew from being a total failure.

Going into next season, the Vikings can take heart that they have two good starters in Greenway and Cole. Greenway should return to his Pro Bowl self and Cole will have a chance to pick up where he left off before he was injured late in the season. The Vikings also did invest two picks last year for LB prospects Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges, so if one of those two can develop into a starter, then this unit will be markedly improved. Regardless, the team will need to address this position via free agency or the draft in order to build some depth or possibly land a high caliber starter.

4. Defensive secondary: First the good news. Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes appear to both be top notch young players who can anchor this secondary for the next decade. Now for the bad news. There is no one else on this team capable of starting for a top ten NFL defense.

Smith had already proven himself as a top safety before turf toe robbed him of his season, and once Rhodes got some experience under his belt, he was looking like an excellent cover corner that could compete with the league’s best receivers. Chris Cook was his usual horrible self, Jamarca Sanford continued to unimpress, and Josh Robinson was somehow always a few steps behind his receiver despite being the fastest player in the draft two years ago. At least Marcus Sherels was competitive, but he should be no higher than a dime back on this team.

Going in to next season, Smith and Rhodes will be anchors, Robinson will be given another shot because of his high end physical skills, and Sherels will make the team because of his special teams contributions and adequate coverage abilities. This means that the Vikings need to find upgrades at the other safety position and at the #2 and #3 cornerback spots. Fortunately, experts are saying this offseason will be deep with available cornerbacks, thus the Vikes are likely to use a sizeable chunk of their ample salary cap space to sign a top name or two. In addition, the team will also use at least one pick in the first three rounds to bolster the secondary. Help is on the way.

3. Quarterback: I can already hear the gasps from all of my highly intelligent readers as they wonder how this position isn’t the clear cut #1 on this list. To you astute, perspicacious beacons of reason, I offer the following justification.

The Vikings put up plenty of offense this season as a whole, as they were 8th in the NFC in yards, 9th in points scored, and 23rd in the league in passing yards. Are these numbers great? Hell no, but they could be good enough for a team who had a defense that didn’t totally suck. Don’t get me wrong, the QB position was a major problem, but it certainly wasn’t the biggest problem.

Combined, the Vikes’ QBs had 18 TDs and 18 interceptions, which is the very definition of crappy. Ponder and Cassel were usually able to move the ball, but they would intersperse their successes with horrible passes that were picked off and sometimes returned for touchdowns. Ponder put the final nail in his Vikings career coffin while Cassel did just enough to warrant being brought back next year. And Josh Freeman isn’t worth the eighteen words of this sentence telling you he was a total disaster.

Going into next season, I am fine with the Vikings bringing Cassel back as either a temporary starter or backup. Cassel has an option on his contract, so he may not come back, but I saw enough that tells me he can at least be competent if he is given the job. But the Vikings absolutely need to draft a QB. Whether they can get a top guy at the #8 pick they currently have, trade up to get a higher pick, or else draft defense first and then grab a QB in rounds 2-4 and develop him, something must be done.

Good QB are available almost every year in rounds 2-4 (sometimes even in rounds 5-6), and if the purple can’t get a top guy early, they simply can’t reach again like they did for Ponder. Take the best player available at #8, and then get a QB later and hope he will be another Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, or Tom Brady, all players drafted after round one. Let Cassel run the team until the young guy is ready to take over, whether that be Week 8 of next season or Week 1 of 2015.

QB may not have been the #1 reason the Vikings blew goats this season, but it is absolutely the #1 position that needs to get moving in the right direction during the offseason.

2. Coaching and or GM decisions: Much of this one depends on who you believe made the decisions as to which players saw the field the most this season. Was it Leslie Frazier that kept running Ponder out there every week when Cassel was clearly a better option, or did GM Rick Spielman send orders down that his former #1 draft pick needed to be given chance-after-excruciating chance? Given Frazier’s high level of loyalty and consistently conservative actions, I tend to give him more of the blame.

Either way, it was Frazier that failed to make sure guys like Cordarrelle Patterson and Audie Cole were on the field more often, as his perplexing loyalty to Erin Henderson and inexplicably conservative approach to using Patterson on offense cost this team. It was Frazier that hired the unimaginative Bill Musgrave for offensive coordinator along with the overmatched and publicly-called-out-by-his-players Alan Williams at defensive coordinator. And it was also Frazier that insisted on continuing to use the outdated Tampa 2 scheme despite opposing teams knowing exactly how to dissect it with ease.

Going into next season, the Vikings need to find a coach that will make moves that are best for the team even if it means said moves will anger players and/or coaches. Top NFL coaches such as Jim Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, and Bill Belichick have all shown that they will bench solid veterans in favor of youngsters that clearly have a higher ceiling. These bold moves do cause friction in locker rooms at first, but when the results show, teams only respect these coaches more.

Don’t feel bad for Frazier, he had his chance, and he will get paid next season even if he doesn’t take another job. He will always be in demand as a defensive coordinator and perhaps some other team will give him a shot in the future. It’s time for the Vikings to move on and find an upgrade at the coaching position.

1. Defensive line: So here it is, the number one reason the Vikes’ season died a slow, painful death. Jared Allen had an average season at best; certainly not anywhere within light years of the $17 million dollars the team paid him. That kind of money calls for him to be dominant. Brian Robison had the best year of his career, getting a solid number of sacks while also batting down a ton of passes and being stout against the run. Everson Griffen was essentially non-existent. Kevin Williams was barely mediocre at defensive tackle, and also came nowhere close to earning the $5 million he was paid.

Despite most of these players having subpar seasons, the biggest reason the Vikings’ defense sucked like an 80 lb. lamprey was the complete, total, and utter lack of anything positive from their nose tackles. Letroy Guion and Fred Evans are towering monuments to ineptitude. These two tubby buffet masters combined for a paltry one sack, one fumble recovery, and four passes defensed. Instead of stuffing the run and providing pressure up the gut to force opposing QBs into the hands of Allen and Robison, Guion and Evans were being pushed around with ease and committing penalties at an alarming rate. These two are terrible and the $5 million used to pay them can be put to infinitely better use next season.

Going into next season, the Vikings have a chance to upgrade this group in a hurry. I don’t see any way the Vikings keep Allen unless they franchise him, which would really piss him off and may cause his performance to sink further. But, the Vikes will bring back Robison and I believe they will also re-sign Griffen, who I believe can be a good player if he is given a chance to play every down. He is athletic as hell and has shown flashes, so give him the job and let him run with it.

In the interior of the line, the Vikes have Sharrif Floyd, a 1st rounder last year that really started to show some promise towards the end of the season. I have no reservations installing him at defensive tackle next year and predict he will flourish. This leaves us with nose tackle. Fortunately, the answer has been wearing purple for over a decade: Kevin Williams. When he was forced to play NT vs Cleveland, Williams had a monster game and looked like his old dominating self. If the Vikings can convince Williams to play NT at a reasonable price, that will go a long way in improving the defense as a whole.

So, I would love to see a d-line next season consisting of Robison, Floyd, Williams, and Griffen. And through the draft and free agency, the team can also pick up another DE and NT as insurance against Griffen not getting it and to rotate with the elder Williams, respectively. This group can be solid next season without making too many changes.

As you can see, defense is a recurring theme on the Vikings’ pathology report. They came four points away from setting a new team record for most points surrendered during a season, finished 31st in the league in pass yards given up, and had major issues holding on to leads in the last two minutes of games.

How will they resuscitate this lifeless defense? I think the Vikes will draft a LB, S, DT, and will use their cap space to sign two established CBs. (On offense I think they will draft a QB and a G.) They will also have money to add another mid-level defensive player or two to add depth where needed. Spielman has his work cut out for him.

There you have it, the dissected corpse of this failed season all laid out on the cold stainless steel table of an NFL morgue with all of the fatal shortcomings clearly visible. This Vikings season may have died, but fortunately for us fans, hope never does.

See Pat Run

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Cordarelle Patterson (a.k.a C-Pat) had his big breakout game yesterday. In a contest that featured blizzard conditions, a possible major injury to Adrian Peterson, some of the worst officiating imaginable, and the craziest last two minutes of a game in recent memory, C-Pat’s coming out party is what Viking fans will be chatting about the most when circled around the water cooler this morning.

Although he had already flashed his ridiculous athleticism returning kicks this year, C-Pat finally got the chance to show what he can be: a top NFL receiver. Only 22 years old, he stands 6’2″ and checks in at a rock-solid 220 lbs. The Vikings have themselves a beast in the making; a player with a physique reminiscent of Terrell Owens but with an attitude that resembles that of team-first poster boy Peterson.

And C-Pat is showing that he may be every bit as good as another uber-talented malcontent that recently wore purple: Percy Harvin. Not only does Patterson appear to be nearly as elusive in space as Pouting Percy, #84 also brings size, something that limits Harvin’s durability and therefore reliability. After years of loving the talent yet hating the personalities of game-changers Moss and Harvin, perhaps Viking fans can finally have their cake and eat it too with C-Pat. Just imagine if the Vikings had a QB that could consistently deliver the ball to him.

The fact that it took until the 13th game of the season for C-Pat to break out is yet another indictment on the current coaching staff. As soon as Frazier and Co. saw what Patterson could do on kick returns they should have been doing everything possible to get the ball in his hands. Yet what did we get? A paltry 21 catches over the first ten games while barely seeing the field as the coaching staff put forth lame excuses about C-Pat being “too raw”.  The offense was, as Charles Barkley would say, “turrible, just turrible”, yet there sat C-Pat on the sidelines, confined to special teams. Complete insanity, I tell you.

Fittingly, there will be a new coach next year along with a new QB. Whoever takes these jobs will salivate as they watch C-Pat’s highlight reel, as well as knowing Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph, and Peterson make up the rest of the offensive weaponry. With a decent QB and a free agent signing at right guard to replace the open screen door that is Brandon Fusco, the Vikes will have all the makings of a potent, potent offense.

With the defense finally showing some solid improvement (it wasn’t their fault the refs were extra blind and Jacoby Jones was kicked to late in the game), there is some hope that the team can make strides next season. Xavier Rhodes has been fantastic the last few weeks, Sharrif Floyd has been coming on, Audie Cole continues to impress, and Chad Greenway, Harrison Smith, and Brian Robison will also be major parts of the defensive core next season. Toss in a free agent or two and another good draft, and this defense can be at least decent by next year.

Questions do remain about the coach, the QB, and the defense, but any questions about C-Pat should be put to rest. He has arrived Viking fans, and once again you may find yourself spontaneously rising to your feet every time the ball heads the way of a purple jersey with the number 84 on it.

This is gonna be fun.

 

Too Many Cooks

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It is often said that “too many cooks spoil the broth”, but no one ever tells you just how many is too many. In the case of the Minnesota Vikings, the answer is obvious: just one Cook is far too many. Chris Cook, who the Vikings drafted in the second round back in 2010, is the worst defensive back to ever put on the purple and gold. Due to a complete lack of career highlights, I am left with only a long list of lowlights through which to drag you.

First off, Cook can’t stay on the field. In his four seasons in the NFL, he has played in only 30 of a possible 64 regular season games. Here is a guy that–for legal and/or health reasons–finds himself on the sideline and/or witness stand far too much. You just can’t count on him to be there and build any chemistry with his fellow defensive backs. He only makes it on to the field about 46% of the time, but I imagine he somehow manages to cash his paycheck a full 100% of the time. There’s something seriously wrong with that ratio.

Although, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that he has missed so much time, for when Cook has made a rare appearance on the field he has been as unproductive as a starting NFL player could possibly be. In 30 career games, Mr. Invisible has zero interceptions. Zero. How is that possible? At least twice per season every starting CB in the league has a tipped ball fall right into his hands. Not only is Cook unable to ever jump even a single route or close in quickly enough to step in front of a bad pass, he can’t even stay close enough to his receiver to be in position to grab a popped up ball.

As for his other career stats, Cook has been equally impotent. He has zero forced fumbles, zero fumble recoveries, zero touchdowns, one sack, and a paltry 13 passes defensed. Bottom line, this guy is an empty uniform. You never see him make a big hit to jar a ball loose, stuff a RB at the line of scrimmage, or slice through the line for a sack in a critical moment. The fact that Cook continues to be run out on the field by Leslie Frazier is a further indictment on just how awful the defensive secondary has been for the Vikings the past few years.

Thankfully, Cook’s getting torched by Alshon Jeffrey (again) followed by him getting tossed for pushing the ref should be final confirmation that the 4 year nightmare will be over after this season. Cook’s contract is up, and I can’t envision any scenario where the Vikings decide to keep paying this breathing mannequin.

The Vikings have two good young DBs in Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes. They will also have money to spend this offseason, and experts are predicting the crop of free agent DBs will be deep. If the Vikes can add an capable veteran and also draft someone that doesn’t totally suck, then they will have a corps that might actually be able to slow Rodgers, Stafford, and Cutler.

The second TD catch by Jeffery was just a microcosm of Cook’s entire career. Unable to use his size against a tall receiver, not turning around or putting his hands up when the ball arrives, and losing his cool with an official are representative of the gross underachievement and total lack of behavioral control he has shown during his time in the league. All that was missing from that play was Cook sustaining a season ending injury.

For the Vikings to develop a culture of winning, they must stop allowing useless players to take the field and begin demanding weekly productivity. Is that too much to ask?

“Natural” Park Primer: Lake Tahoe

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Lake Tahoe almost became a national park. Almost. Conservation pioneer John Muir and many others tried to preserve the 1,645 foot-deep alpine gem, but commercial interests and public distrust of government deals with railroads prevented Tahoe from joining America’s collection of national park treasures. Even though Muir lost the battle to save Tahoe, he was pleased that much of the surrounding land was preserved and noted that, official designation or not, Lake Tahoe was a “natural park”.

Despite Tahoe never receiving national park status, it offers so much scenic and recreational enthrallment that an adventure there can be as equally satisfying as one in any of the “real” parks. Let’s have a look at just how outstanding a summertime Tahoe trip can be.

“Natural” Park: Lake Tahoe

Where to stay: There is no shortage of hotel, motel, and resort rooms all around the lake, but, as usual, I would recommend hitting one of the many campgrounds in the area. A simple Google search reveals a nearly endless list of places to pitch your tent or park your camper. I stayed at the KOA near South Lake Tahoe, and I was entirely pleased with my stay.

What to do: My first recommendation would be to hit the beach. Tahoe has miles of sandy beaches, all complete with some of the most splendid scenery found on Earth, scenery that moved Mark Twain to remark that the lake presents “the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Sunbathers, swimmers, and paddlers all revel in the constant sun and mountain beauty at one of Tahoe’s many beaches.

If you want to leave the beach and get out on the water, you can rent boats, canoes, or kayaks. If you feel like catching your dinner, you can hire a fishing guide to show you how to hook into one of Tahoe’s delicious lake trout or Kokanee Salmon. Or if you are looking for a truly unique experience, hop on the Tahoe Queen and tour the lake on an old-timey Mississippi paddlewheeler. No matter how you choose to float, the majestic mountains that ring the lake will provide you with plenty of peaceful gazing.

Another great way to get to know Tahoe is by driving around the lake. The drive is 72 miles long and there are countless views, beaches, and other interesting places to stop. One not to miss is Emerald Bay, a gorgeous inlet that holds Tahoe’s only island.

A peek through the pines above Emerald Bay shows the usual parade of boats motoring in from the hazy expanse of Tahoe.

On my Tahoe excursion, by far my favorite adventure was backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness Area, located a few miles southwest of Tahoe. Myself, my dog Ursa, and my friend Ryan—who lives in Tahoe—loaded up our packs for a three-night stay along the shores of Lake Aloha. As we were packing, Ryan suggested that to save weight I could leave behind the rain fly for my tent. As an avid tentophile who has ridden out some heavy Minnesota storms from within the confines of my nylon fortress, the prospect of going in without rain protection was terrifying. When I related my misgivings to Ryan about such a risk, he looked me square in the eye and with a steel confidence declared,

“Dude, it isn’t going to rain.”

I decided to trust my Tahoe-dwelling friend and didn’t pack my rain fly nor my rain gear. My apprehension was attenuated by the happy knowledge that doing so would lighten my pack, a welcome reduction given my less-than optimal level of fitness at the time.

Although our hiking party was composed of only two humans, three backpacks were loaded up. Ursa was going to have to carry her share. Within her little doggie pack she had her own food, her collapsible dish, our first aid kit, and our water filter. Once on the trail, Ursa moved with purpose and joy, pleased to be given a job to do.

Ursa all loaded up and ready for our taxing uphill trail assault. She carried her cargo with ease and enthusiasm, unlike myself.

After five miles of criss-crossing granite trails and dipping in and out of thick stretches of evergreen forests still holding snowbanks in the shadowy spots, we emerged from the trees and faced the arresting panorama of Lake Aloha.

Lake Aloha’ stunning beauty temporarily suspends the part of your brain responsible for creating speech. All you can do is gaze as the stark granite, stunted trees, and shimmering water work in concert to calm your nerves and awaken your spirit.

At just over 8,000 feet in elevation, Lake Aloha lies near the tree line, leaving scattered scrubby pine trees as the only source of precious shade from the unrelenting Tahoe summer sun. Do not forget your sunscreen should you venture into Desolation.

Lake Aloha is a man-made lake. By damming run off streams from the Crystal Mountain Range, the basin filled up, creating an archipelago with shallow waters in between the countless islands. The shallow water combined with the short distances between islands means that nearly the entire lake can be explored by swimming and walking. From one spot of dry land you can walk out in the water a long distance, and then have to swim only briefly over a deeper spot to reach shallow water again. The light grey granite lake bottom reflects the blasting sunshine back upwards, warming the shallower areas to near bathwater temperatures. This island-hopping form of exploration is one of the most enchanting and satisfying outdoor experiences I’ve ever had.

Ursa, who swims like a fish, couldn’t get enough of the shallow water wonders Lake Aloha provides. I’m certain she had more fun than I did.

As evening set in each night, our exhausted bodies cried for the soft embrace of our sleeping bags. But winning the battle to stay awake rewarded us with a vibrant alpenglow show just above the horizon; a visual lullaby that made sleep that much easier to give in to.

Evening stillness, within and without.

Lake Tahoe truly is one of the most beautiful places in America, if not the entire world. Whether you prefer immersing yourself in remote nature or relaxing amongst fellow campers, there is a level of solitude to suit your tastes. This alpine paradise may best be known for its world-class downhill skiing and snowboarding, but a summer visit will offer every bit as much (perhaps more) wonder and enjoyment.

John Muir may not have been able to get the words “national park” attached to the end of Lake Tahoe’s name, but anyone that visits this singular gem soon realizes that his “natural park” description couldn’t be more apt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adrian’s Wall

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As excited as I am that Adrian Peterson is about to destroy opposing defenses for the seventh straight season, I can’t help but cringe that he is in his seventh season. AP turned 28 in March, which now leaves him just under two years shy of “The Wall” for NFL running backs, also known as a 30th birthday.

Conventional wisdom—and overwhelming statistical evidence—says that top NFL running backs have about eight seasons of high level production in them, and this eighth season usually coincides with the player turning 30. The pounding these guys take over the years as their team’s top ball carrier accumulates, ultimately resulting in legs that no longer have the vibrancy they once had. These former stars usually hang on for another year or two, where they move to a different team and then struggle as their yards per carry dwindle until they are forced to the sidelines for good.

Over the years as a rabid NFL fan, I have watched this scenario play out over and over again. Players such as Eddie George, LaDainian Tomlinson, Jerome Bettis, and Shaun Alexander all put up a dominating 7-9 years before their production falls off a cliff right around age 30. It is strange to watch a player who once showed unearthly power and explosion suddenly transform into a plodding statue unable to run by defensive ends or make mediocre middle linebackers miss. I know these guys have made millions of dollars and will always be celebrities, but it is hard not to have sympathy for them as they must unwillingly come to terms with their deflated abilities.

So where does this leave us Viking fans with AP? Yes, we’ve all heard football experts say things like “Adrian’s different” or “Peterson at 75% is still a force to be reckoned with.” I want to believe these optimistic assessments as much as any Viking fan, but I heard the same things said about George, Tomlinson, and Alexander while in their 20′s.

Especially Eddie George, an iron man who never missed an NFL game due to injury his entire career. He was a mountain of a human at 6′ 3″, 240 lbs, and he plowed through defenses for 8 seasons before suddenly “losing his legs”. Yes, George was overworked by the Titans, but the only reason Peterson hasn’t kept pace with George’s number of attempts is because AP had his awful knee injury and has only played a full 16 games 3 of his 6 years in the league. These are not compelling reasons to believe his career will exceed that of George’s.

So what is the silver lining to this gloomy cloud of imminent decline? In all likelihood we fans will be privileged to witness a minimum of two more years of AP at his apex. Two (hopefully) full seasons of our guy running over cornerbacks, juking linebackers out of their jocks, and sprinting past safeties as though they were trees planted in the turf. It will be two tremendous seasons of the Vikings’ improving offensive line providing yawning holes, making it easy for Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton to zero in on his blocking target and pancake him as AP turns on the jets into daylight. Provided good health, All Day will have us high-fiving and jig-dancing repeatedly the next two campaigns. He will cement his place as the greatest running back in the history of the NFL.

That’s why now is the time for the Vikings to make another deep playoff run and be contenders. They were on the edge of greatness in 2009, descended into the deepest depths of loserness in 2011, and are once again on the rise. We all know a running back by himself cannot carry a team to a Super Bowl, but he sure can make up for deficiencies in other areas. If AP performs such as he did last season, the Vikes only need the defense to be a bit better and the QB to be somewhat more consistent than last season. If we see that out of the purple this year, then a Super Bowl is a realistic goal.

Could Adrian Peterson truly be different and run right through the RB “wall”? Could he put up his crazy stats until he is 32 or 33? Sure, it’s possible; he is a singular talent. But history tells us that the chances are slim, so the time is now for the Vikings if the NFL’s best running back is to ever hoist the Lombardi Trophy over his head.

 

National Park Primer: Mount Rainier

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The Cascade Volcanoes run along the west coast of North America from southwestern British Columbia to northern California, forming a chain of glacier-wielding, sky-scraping peaks with the power to both inspire awe and destroy entire cities. The undisputed king of these stark monoliths is Mount Rainier, the largest, iciest, and most potentially deadly of all the Cascade fire mountains. Fortunately Rainier lies relatively dormant, and a trip to the national park that encloses it is an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Let’s have a look.

Park: Mount Rainier

How to get there: Fly into Seattle and drive the 54 miles to the park. While Rainier provides a lifetime of recreation itself, a trip to this park can be combined with visits to other nearby parks such as Olympic, North Cascades, and Mt. St. Helens, making for an extended journey through some of the most spectacular natural beauty in the world.

Where to stay: Finding a lodge or hotel close to the park is easy, but I strongly urge you to stay in one of the park’s four campgrounds, as immersing yourself in the magic of Rainier will touch your spirit to an even greater depth.

Highlights: If there is a connecting thread on a Rainier expedition, it is water. The mountain holds an astounding 25 glaciers, therefore, when summer arrives, Rainier seems to turn into one big fountain, springing leaks all around its flanks. Streams and waterfalls tumble earthward everywhere you turn, combining themselves into rushing rivers as they descend. Park roads will take you by every kind of watery wonder imaginable. Just drive along and enjoy the show.

The Ohanapecosh River is a fetching emerald ribbon running through the nearly impenetrable dense forests of Rainier. Although it may look like a great place for a refreshing dip, the river in most places is far too fast and chilly to swim in.

The insane amount of precipitation that falls upon Rainier fuels the growth of enormous trees and impossibly thick vegetation. Below 3,000 feet, Western hemlock, western red cedar, and Douglas fir trees shoot upwards of 200 feet into the air. Their massive trunks look like something out of a fairy tale; some of these behemoths have been around for over 1,000 years. The thick canopy mutes the summer sun, leaving you to stroll along in the brisk shade as the soothing fragrance of piney purity calms your nerves. Aromatherapy indeed.

Ursa, a 100 lb. Rottweiler,  provides some perspective to a giant slice of Douglas fir at a park exhibit. This particular tree first sprouted in 1293, 200 years before Columbus made his voyage. Nature does nothing half-assed on Mt. Rainier.

The extensive glaciers and great height of Rainier also make the peak a mecca for mountain climbers. Given the extreme altitude, weather, and remoteness of Denali and other Alaskan peaks, I was shocked to discover that the deadliest mountaineering accident in American history occurred on Mount Rainier. In the early morning light of June 21st, 1981, a group of twenty five climbers and their guides were ascending the Ingraham Glacier, three thousand feet below the summit. To ensure the upcoming snowfield was safe for their clients to cross, three of the guides climbed ahead to inspect, leaving the others to wait for their return. When the advance party first heard and then saw the massive hunk of glacial ice eight hundred feet above break free, it was too late to warn the others down below. The ice shelf plummeted and hit a flat area, shattering into countless pieces–some the size of Buicks–and thundered towards the unsuspecting climbers.

Having only seconds to react, the group was overtaken by the wave of ice. Eleven people, including one of the guides, were buried by the icefall, with some of them thrown to the bottom of a seventy foot crevasse. They had no chance of being rescued.  Even the effort of recovering the bodies was cancelled after only two days; the area was just too dangerous and unstable for humans to be poking around in it. A few weeks later, rangers responded to a report of a red backpack in a crevasse. Upon inspection, they discovered body parts protruding out from the glacier, while the rest of the bodies were still entombed in ice, like grapes suspended in Jell-O.

What is strange is that these victims and some of the other three hundred plus people who have died on Mount Rainier since its inception as a national park in 1899 may one day come back. Not from the dead, mind you, but rather by emerging from the ice at the snout of the glacier. As the frozen river steadily inches its way down the mountain, the bodies are carried along for the ride. Glaciologists, (what is a slow day at the office like for them?) in order to predict when objects in the glacier will resurface at the snout, use mathematical formulas to get a rough estimate. And at an average rate of ten inches per day, it will take about a hundred years for the bodies from the 1981 tragedy to reach the end of the six mile-long Ingraham Glacier.

While the vast majority of climbers summit Rainier safely, some do not. It is not a challenge to be taken lightly.

While peacefully holding vast glaciers and frigid snowfields, it is strange to think that inside Mount Rainier is an unimaginable amount of deadly heat and explosiveness. This snoozing behemoth is considered to be the most dangerous volcano in the United States; a potential cataclysm that volcanologists speak in terms of “when” and not “if”. Indeed, while Rainier appears to be in a state of dormancy, it is still releasing enough heat to keep the rims of its craters snow free, despite the mind-boggling amounts of snow that fall upon them.

There are multiple factors that contribute to Rainier’s reputation. First is the unsurpassed volume of ice on its slopes, for Rainier has more glacial ice than all of the other Cascade peaks combined. The next ingredient for eruptive Armageddon is the extreme steepness of the slopes falling away from the mountain’s 14,441 foot summit. Thus, when Rainier decides to blow, the superheated gases and rock spewing out will find it easy to speed down the mountainside at over 250 mph, melting the glaciers in the process. This rapid melting of ice will combine with the heated rock and ash and form a lahar, which is essentially a river with the consistency of wet concrete. The churning lahar will race down whatever river valley happens to be most convenient, completely annihilating and engulfing everything in its way, where it will finally encounter the real reason for its deadliness: people—lots and lots of them. Parts of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area are in the likely paths of such a massive mudflow, and 150,000 people currently live on top of areas lahars have streamrolled in the past. The tranquil beauty of Rainier belies the potential destruction contained in its heart, a sobering reality that author Stephen Harris encompasses perfectly:

“Because they erupt less often than many volcanoes in Indonesia, Japan, Alaska, Central America, or other Pacific Ring of Fire areas, our western volcanoes tend to impart a false sense of security, fostering the mistaken impression that they are no more than a scenic backdrop to people’s daily lives.”

How easy it is to forget that a catastrophic disaster could be just around the corner.

The chances of Rainier erupting while you are visiting the park are exceedingly slim, so I wouldn’t worry about it any more than I would worry about what to do with your future Powerball winnings. Enjoy day hikes, backcountry overnight excursions, and sedate park road cruises with the knowledge that someday this park will look nothing like it does now. (see: Mt. St. Helens). Or if you are lucky and the clouds that usually obscure the mountain take a day off, then just sit back and gaze at Rainier’s singular beauty. It doesn’t get old.

National Park Primer: Yosemite

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If you only get to visit one national park in your life, make it Yosemite. I have visited over 20 national parks, and while they all are jewels of beauty and inspiration, Yosemite is the most magnificent of them all. Once there, it will be immediately obvious to you why John Muir was moved to write so many breathless wordgasms about this place. I made my first pilgrimage there three years ago and I am certain I will go back at least once more. Let’s take a look at some of the park’s highlights and also some logistics that can help you plan your own Yosemite adventure.

Park: Yosemite

Accommodations: Staying at or near Yosemite can be tricky. Considering it is located in densely populated California, it is no surprise that Yosemite’s trails and campgrounds become choked with hikers and gawkers during the high season, and these hordes need places to stay. Your best bets are to visit during the offseason (which means less people but some of the higher elevation roads and trails may still be under several feet of snow), or else make your campsite/hotel reservations nearly a year in advance.

I did not make a campsite reservation in time, so I was forced to stay in a hotel in nearby Oakhurst, CA. Usually I would have preferred the solitude of my tent, but given the sea of tourists in Yosemite, I didn’t mind staying outside the park. Next time, however, I will be camped within the park’s boundaries somewhere.

If you have money to burn, stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel in the park, it is outrageously gorgeous. But if you’re not Bill Gates, reserve a campsite. There are also other lodges in the park and plenty of hotels in the nearby communities, so you will find something, just don’t wait too long to procure your own space.

Can’t miss sights: You could spend lifetimes soaking in all of the scenic offerings in Yosemite, but the following are my favorites:

To see trees that will cause your head to explode, visit the Mariposa Grove. If you’ve never seen a giant sequoia in person before, be sure you do it before you die; they are incredible. While some moronic scientists claim that a stand of aspen trees in Utah is the largest organism on Earth due to their shared root system, that is a bunch of crap. Giant sequoias are the largest living individuals on the planet, and some of the oldest ones have been around for over 2,000 years.

Well-maintained walking paths wind along through the grove, ushering you past icons of arboreal immensity such as the Grizzly Giant, a sequoia whose largest branch has a diameter larger than that of the trunk of any non-sequoia tree in the area. Uh, yeah, these trees are insane.

Although it may appear that my Dad is suffering from a severe case of dwarfism, it is the impossibly enormous sequoia trees behind him that do the dwarfing.

Once you have untwisted your brain from attempting to comprehend a sequoia’s dimensions, either drive yourself or take a shuttle bus up a narrow noodle of asphalt to get to Glacier Point, a high elevation overlook that towers 3,200 feet over the Yosemite Valley. You can sit for hours staring at the stark gray Sierra Nevada granite formations, the tumbling silver strings that are Vernal, Nevada, and Yosemite Falls, and the evergreen-carpeted wedge of Yosemite Valley. It never gets old.

The view from Glacier Point is extraordinary. Half Dome and the High Sierra dominate the scenery, and if you have the nerve to look over the cliff you can view the Yosemite Valley below, as in the next photo.

Long. Way. Down.

If the Tioga Road is clear of snow (it goes up to 10,000 feet), head up to even higher elevations to see Tuolumne Meadows. Here, the gin-clear Tuolumne River curls and loops through an open sub-alpine meadow as granite promontories peek up over the surrounding treetops. Inhale the crisp mountain air deeply as you take a relaxing hike along the gravel paths, or bring your fly fishing gear and find out if any of the wild brown or rainbow trout are in a gullible mood.

Be sure to stay on the walking paths to avoid damaging the fragile meadow plant life, for it can take a long time for it to regenerate; the growing season is exceedingly short at this elevation.

Now that you have sampled some of Yosemite’s appetizers, it is time for the main course: the Yosemite Valley. Yes, there will be armies of shot glass-buying tourists and limited parking spots, but trust me, no matter what you have to endure, it will be well worth it.

On your way down to the valley, be sure to stop at Tunnel View, from where the most well-known and awe-inspiring image of Yosemite is taken. El Capitan hulks over the valley off to the left, Half Dome sticks it bald head up in the center distance, and Bridalveil Fall arches over a cliff in the right foreground, all of which create an arresting frame for the soft green swath of pines crowding the valley floor below. You will not be the same after seeing this in person.

If there is a creator, this is his or her’s finest work.

Now you can head down to the valley floor. There is a four lane road that provides breathing room for the buzzing traffic and you can pull off almost anywhere to marvel at any one of the countless marvels. There is 3,000 foot high El Capitan with its sheer bare granite walls. Water falls such as Bridalveil, Nevada, Vernal, and Yosemite (upper and lower) plummet from skyward ledges, sending rainbow mists sheeting through the treetops.

Bridalveil Fall follows the path of least resistance to meet up and become one with the Merced River.

El Capitan knows how to “rock”.

Take your time absorbing these scenic singularities, and as you move from place to place there will be new views of them to refresh your amazement. Listen to the Merced River slosh along, or dip a foot in to cool your blood and hence your entire body. Stroll by one of the many fragrant meadows to spot wildflowers or just enjoy the open view of the valley walls. Grab some grub from one of the numerous vendors and have a seat at a picnic table for an unforgettable dining experience. Linger, loiter, imprint the memories so thoroughly in your brain that any pictures you take become needlessly redundant to you.

The next time I go, I plan on exploring the backcountry with backpack and hiking boot as my home and mode of transportation, respectively. There are endless trails and hidden gems of comeliness within Yosemite’s wilds, and once you’ve seen the major mindblowing sights by car, going in on foot (if you can) is the next logical step. In the backcountry there is fast fishing for the ichthyologically inclined, infinite vistas for the shutterbuggish, and rock climbing for the clinically insane. (Just kidding climbers; I don’t have the guts to do what you do.) If you get bored in Yosemite you are beyond hope.

Summary: In my estimation, Yosemite National Park is the finest in America, if not the world. With some thoughtful planning and research you can create a low-stress, high-astonishment vacation that will always be remembered as one of your greatest. One visit to the soul-lightening loveliness of Yosemite will have you too wondering what the hell Yosemite Sam was so angry about. To be in Yosemite is to have a smile on your face—and in your heart.

 

National Park Primer: Rocky Mountain

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While not as celebrated as some of the other iconic mountain national parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park is nevertheless a must-see. I spent five days there a few summers ago, so in today’s post I will share some of my adventures and experiences that may help in planning your own high-altitude excursion.

Park: Rocky Mountain

How to get there: In short, head towards Denver. The park is approximately 65 miles northwest from the Mile High City, and the charming town of Estes Park is nestled right up against the park’s eastern boundary. If coming from the north, you can head west to the park from Fort Collins by getting on to U.S. Route 34, a twisting road that descends into the Big Thompson Canyon where it follows the undulations of the Big Thompson River. The bare rock canyon walls rise on either side of you, blocking out the sun as you gain in elevation before you finally emerge back into the light as the road nears Estes Park. This drive is splendid and I highly recommend it.

Where to stay: While there, I camped two nights at Moraine Park campground within the park itself but was forced to stay the other nights at the KOA in Estes Park. Initially disappointed by my lack of foresight in reserving a park spot for each night, the KOA stay turned out to be a blessing, as the available showers were a godsend after the long, sweaty days on the hiking trails. I wholeheartedly recommend camping within the park for a night or two, but staying at the KOA or one of the other hotels or campgrounds near Estes Park is also an excellent option.

Highlights: Although hiking is my primary recommendation for recreation at RMNP, a fantastic way to acclimate yourself to the elevation and take in wondrous alpine scenery is to drive the Trail Ridge Road through the park. Reaching an elevation of 12,000 feet, this road is the highest continuously paved road in the U.S., and as you roll along it presents you with view after outstanding view of the alpine tundra, complete with herds of browsing elk.

Just one of the infinite number of tremendous alpine vistas available along the Trail Ridge Road.

Along the way, you can stop at the Alpine Visitor Center to see interpretive exhibits and grab a quick lunch, all at 11,800 feet. Numerous scenic overlooks are dotted along the roadside, providing plenty of opportunities to stare at the treeless expanse that stretches out in all directions. Unless you have acclimated yourself, even walking the short distance from a turnoff to an overlook point will have you short of breath, a tangible effect of the thin mountain air. Take your time and breathe deeply.

Now let’s get to hiking, my main reason for visiting RMNP. My brother Tim joined me for this adventure and we undertook two unforgettable hikes, one to Mills Lake and the other to the Andrews Glacier. To find out which of the hundreds of hikes would be best for you, just stroll into any ranger station and pick the expert brain of one of the numerous backcountry hiking volunteers. These friendly folks can assess your abilities and suggest a route that will maximize both your enjoyment and your safety.

My and Tim’s ultimate goal was to walk on a glacier, so after our initial acclimation on the Trail Ridge Road, the next step in preparing our hemoglobin-challenged bloodstreams for a glacial assault was a modest three-mile hike to Mills Lake the following day.

Per the suggestion of a trail-seasoned park ranger, we drove to the trailhead at 6 am in order to finish our six-mile round-trip hike before the daily thunderstorms began to zap the mountainsides with lightning. Arriving early for your hike also ensures a parking spot and plenty of solitude once on the trail. (Later in the day you can take a shuttle to avoid traffic issues.) The trail was wide and impeccably maintained, so we had a relatively easy time putting the miles behind us. The chilled mountain morning air was clean and fresh and evaporated any sweat instantly, and before we knew it, we had arrived at our destination.

Mills Lake was dazzling.

Mills Lake is well worth the effort it takes to get there.

 

You can find your own spot on the shore away from other hikers to take in the lake’s splendor in peace. Just follow the rocky shoreline until the voices fade and the silence grows.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This little guy sat on a rock next to us and devoured his fruity snack in seconds. And before you chastise me for feeding a wild animal, I must note that it wasn’t us that gave it to him.

 

Although they may be irresistibly cute, please do not feed the squirrels that patrol tourist hotspots, for it only makes them bolder and a nuisance. As for larger mammals such as elk or bighorn sheep, keep your distance because they can run very fast and they don’t take kindly to humans violating their personal space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, the water was cold, but if you’re from Minnesota or North Dakota it is your duty to show tourists from other parts of the country that we northerners are a hardy breed, even if that means flirting with hypothermia.

 

If you’re so inclined, take a quick dip into one of the mountain lakes. Mills Lake cooled Tim and I to the core after just a few minutes of soaking in its chilly purity. If scratching glass with your nipples isn’t your thing, bring a fishing rod and try catching some of the colorful trout that glide through the crystal clear water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

With this first “training” hike completed, we returned to camp and were now confident in our ability to reach the Andrews Glacier the following day. Our lavishly bearded ranger had suggested the Andrews route for its relative ease of access (i.e. no technical climbing involved). For this longer hike we awoke even earlier and were stomping our way up the empty trails not long after 5 am. Halfway to our destination we paused at a lake known as The Loch to rest our legs and devour fistfuls of M & M-heavy trail mix, all in anticipation of the strenuous ascent still ahead of us. Instead of me attempting to describe The Loch’s beauty, I will let this picture produce its own thousand words.

Yet another reason to arrive early: the mirror effect caused by the lake’s morning stillness.

Recharged, we got back on the trail and continued to rise in elevation, leaving the 10,000-foot mark in our wake as we approached 11,000. The trees ended and the boulder field began—and that’s when the real work started. Fortunately, kind souls have marked the hard-to-follow trail by stacking small stones on top of larger boulders. Tread carefully through this section, for although it isn’t as steep, a misstep among the rounded rocks could easily lead to a sprained ankle. Soon we saw a stream tumbling down its rocky chute; the first physical evidence that our glacier wasn’t far away. At the upper edge of the boulder field, the trail ascended at a very steep angle, and because we were now at 11,300 feet, we were taking three breaths to every one step. Because of this extreme incline, Andrews Glacier is not visible until you step up over the ledge at the top of the trail’s final climb, but once your head peeks over, you instantly quit thinking about your aching leg muscles.

The Andrews Glacier holds fast to its mountainside resting place, sending its meltwater down into the Andrews Tarn where it eventually spills over and descends as a gurgling stream. (Note the tiny human figure near the bottom of the glacier.)

As inviting as its brilliant turquoise waters looked, there would be no swimming in the Andrews Tarn. The water in this pond-sized glacial pool is as close the the solid-to-liquid phase transition as H2O gets: dangerous for swimming, but perfect for drinking (after filtering, of course). We rested, snacked, and stared at the ancient icy behemoth before us. We couldn’t stay too long, as noon was approaching and an exposed mountaintop is not where you want to be when the electrifying afternoon storms roll in. But just as we were preparing to leave, another hiker popped up over the trail ledge behind us. Outfitted with high-tech clothing and gear this obviously fit adventurer waved as he passed us and just kept on going, right up the side of the glacier, heading for the top, which is part of the Continental Divide. It was at this point that Tim and I realized it was safe to walk on the glacier itself, and we wasted no time in taking advantage.

Although not nearly as skilled nor as physically fit as the climber above me to the left, I managed to walk across the soft, greasy snow of the Andrews Glacier without sliding into the frigid waters and unforgiving boulders below.

While walking on the base of the glacier is relatively safe, do not attempt to climb the entire thing if you do not have the proper equipment and experience, for the Andrews Glacier has claimed lives. We snapped our photos, cruised back down the trail to the parking lot, and ate like bulimic rhinos at The Grumpy Gringo in Estes Park. (The chicken enchiladas are first-rate.) Although Tim and I had planned to sip vanilla porters around a campfire that evening, we were both sawing logs well before dusk surrendered to darkness. A better night’s sleep I cannot recall.

Summary: Whether you choose to experience Rocky Mountain National Park from the comfort of your vehicle or the comfort of a hiking trail (or both), you will have an adventure to remember. As long as we continue to be trapped in our extended winter, you might as well use this time do a little extra planning and reading about the park to ensure you maximize your time there. If you’ve already been and have a story of your own or if you are planning to go and have questions, feel free to leave a comment or question.

 

 

 

National Park Primer: Olympic

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Today we travel as far northwest in the continental U.S. as possible to take a tour of Olympic National Park. With creeping glaciers, silent rainforests, and vast beaches all within its boundaries, there is no shortage of awe to be had.

Park: Olympic

How to get there: Head to Seattle, then either take a ferry across Puget Sound or drive south to Tacoma and head back north once you reach the Olympic Peninsula. A trip to Olympic can be easily rolled into a national park trifecta, as Mount Rainier National Park is a short drive to the southeast and Pacific Rim National Park is a quick ferry ride north to Vancouver Island. The park itself is a kind of rounded-off square shape, and although no roads cross the park fully, numerous spur roads—intermittently sprouting off of the main highway that circumnavigates the park—take you in far enough to reach some of Olympic’s finest gems.

Where to stay: While hotels, motels, and lodges are dotted around the park and in the nearby communities, I strongly suggest making your temporary home in one of the park’s 16 campgrounds. Not only will camping in the park save you time and money, being immersed in such wild grandeur also turns ordinary loafing around your campsite into a scenic adventure. If you choose to stay in a tent, make sure it is 100% waterproof, for much of Olympic is a rainforest and its incessant rains will find and exploit any weakness in your tent’s fabric. And if you’ve ever had the misfortune to spend a night in a wet sleeping bag, you know how utterly miserable it can be.

Highlights: Let’s start with the Olympic Mountains. Although they are relatively short, the peaks of the Olympic Mountains are host to 60 glaciers. The western slopes of the ranges receive skyloads of precipitation each year (Mt. Olympus itself gets 34 feet!), providing the necessary beverages for the crowds of western hemlock and Douglas fir that populate their flanks. As your eyes scan up the mountainsides, this deep green of treeness immediately gives way to the bright white snows, creating an arresting contrast that you can stare at for hours. The best vantage point for viewing the range is at Hurricane Ridge. With a visitor center and picnic tables, it is a great spot to sit and eat while gazing at the Olympic peaks—unless the occasional 75 mph winds are whipping up that day (usually in winter only). Fortunately when I visited the wind breezed by gently, allowing me to soak in the view for over an hour.

Despite being less than 8,000 feet in elevation, the near constant precipitation that drops on the Olympic Mountain range has created some big–ass glaciers.

As we descend from the mountains, we hit the most enchanting part of the park: the rainforests. The Hoh Rainforest, located on the west side of the park, isn’t just a living cathedral of verdant beauty, it is also one of the quietest places in the U.S. Take a hike on the Hall of Mosses Trail or one of the other nearby trails and sink yourself into a silence you just can’t find anywhere else. In the Hoh, peace is as abundant as the plant life.

Plant life thrives on every inch of viable space in the Hoh rainforest.

 

 

In the rainforest, the trees grow shaggy green beards as epiphytes find the limbs a perfect place to call home. These club mosses and licorice ferns are in no need of soil; all the nutrients they require are delivered right to them courtesy of the mineral-carrying Pacific breezes blowing inland.

 

 

 

 

This enormous Sitka spruce is just one of the countless gigantic trees found in Olympic.

 

The trees in Olympic will make your eyes bug. Huge red cedars, Douglas firs, and Sitka spruces grow to ridiculous heights and girths. With so much rain to feed their expansion over the centuries, Olympic’s rainforest trees are a dendrochronologist’s dream. These woody veterans were here long before you and I and will remain long after we are gone, so a nod of respect is due them. Grow on, my friends.

 

 

 

While in the Hoh Rainforest, stay at the campground there and enjoy some time listening to the rushing ribbon of sapphire known as the Hoh River. It is a brilliant blue with a hint of milkiness, indicative of its glacial origins in the Olympic peaks beyond. If you are lucky, as I was, you can snare one of the campsites right next to the river and be cradled off to sleep each night by the river’s natural lullaby.

Now they say cold water can take your breath away, but the frigid waters of the Hoh River also managed to take away my gender. Enter at your own risk.

If you are looking to take a dip and glacially cold water isn’t your favorite, head over to Lake Crescent and hit the public swimming beach. Feel your stress dissolve as you float in the cool purity while studying the surrounding mountains that tower overhead. There are also plenty of rainbow and cutthroat trout patrolling the lake’s depths (which is over 1,000 feet), so the fisherperson will also find rewarding recreation.

The sand is soft and the water is warm, relatively speaking, so when you throw in the stunning vista, Lake Crescent really does have it all.

Olympic is also home to a varied and sometimes exclusive collection of wildlife. Roosevelt Elk, named after national park hero Theodore Roosevelt, are the largest subspecies of elk in the U.S. These regal ruminants are unmanaged and roam free, often finding places such as the Hoh Rainforest perfect for going about their daily elk business. They are fetching but they are also huge and territorial, so keep your distance.

A Roosevelt Elk bull is a magnificent beast.

While there are elk, black bear, and cougars in Olympic’s wilderness, strangely enough none of these animals are responsible for the only recorded death by animal attack in the park’s history. The mountain goat that gored an unfortunate victim three years ago is part of a herd that isn’t even native to the park; well–meaning morons transplanted them to Olympic back in the 1920′s. And it turns out that these goats have a history of being dicks, as they have also been guilty of mowing down fragile meadows and of harassing other park visitors. These transgressions have forced the park service to “manage” the herd (i.e. shoot them), so maybe the goats’ recent anger is justified.

The final part of Olympic that warrants your appreciation is the coast. With over 60 miles of shoreline within the park boundaries, finding your own tranquil stretch of sand isn’t too difficult. Be mindful of the tide, however, as when it comes in, the previously motionless drift logs scattered about the beach are animated into rolling death traps by the powerful ocean waves. As you stroll along, keep your eyes open for breaching gray whales or frolicking harbor seals.

Finding space to lay out your beach blanket is not a problem in Olympic, but the chilly sea breeze makes sunbathing a challenge.

Summary: Olympic National Park has something for everyone. Whether you prefer beaches, forests, or mountains, this park provides breathtaking examples of them all. The only unpleasant thing about a trip to this living jewel is having to say goodbye.

National Park Primer: Crater Lake

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Where a towering volcano once lorded over the land almost 8,000 years ago, today all that remains is a massive hole. Fortunately for lovers of scenic splendor, that hole filled with centuries’ worth of rain and melted snow, forming the incomparable Crater Lake. This jewel was one of the earliest national parks, and since 1902 parkophiles have been dumbstruck by its singular beauty. Let’s have a vicarious look for ourselves.

Park: Crater Lake

How to get there: Head to either Eugene or Medford, Oregon. The park is in the southwest corner of the state and the ninety minute drive from Roseburg (on Interstate 5) is outstanding. There are plenty of other scenic stops nearby, including Mt. Shasta which is less than three hours away, so your Crater Lake excursion can easily be part of a greater West Coast journey.

Where to stay: If you have the means, stay at Crater Lake Lodge. Not only is it outrageously handsome, but it also has an open stone porch where you can sit in comfy chairs and sip a hot beverage while soaking in an unparalleled panorama from 1,000 feet above the lake. Even if you decide not to sell a semi-important internal organ to be able to afford to stay there, it is still worth a walk through just to see it.

Being a national park, Crater Lake does have two campgrounds, but beware. When I visited (late June), there was still ample snow in the Mazama campground and many of the sites were unusable due to standing water. As I waited in line outside the ranger station to secure a site, I heard a faint hum that grew louder. Soon I felt an irritating prick on my neck, and then on my arm, and within seconds I was wearing a bathrobe of mosquitoes. I was shocked by the hefty swarms of winged bloodsuckers—and I’m a Minnesotan. Even if there had been a site available at Mazama, it would have been suicide to spend more than thirty seconds outside the safety of my tent. Sadly, I was forced to seek accommodations elsewhere.

Gloriously, just twenty minutes south of the park in Fort Klamath, I found Jo’s Motel. Jo’s has recently remodeled rooms, cabins, and campsites for both tents and RVs, all at insanely low rates. But the best part about Jo’s was what it didn’t have: mosquitoes. I got a great tent site for $6 per night, had access to free hot showers, and was able to sit around the campsite without being sucked dry one milliliter at a time. I cannot recommend Jo’s highly enough.

Highlights: Uh, the lake. While geologists have their own “story” as to how Crater Lake came to be, it is filled with tedious scientific jargon and boring facts. I much prefer the version told by the local Klamath Indians, even if it doesn’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. Here’s how it goes, to the best of my recollection :

There once was a god named Llao that lived in a lodge beneath the ancient volcano. One day, Llao got the hots for the local chief’s daughter, and using perhaps the greatest pickup line in history, Llao told the beautiful girl that if she would come back to his lodge with him, he would give her eternal life. Apparently, living forever wasn’t enough for the spoiled little princess, so she rebuffed him. Not surprisingly, Llao, like most omnipotent beings, didn’t handle rejection well, so he got really pissed off and rained fire down on her tribe as punishment. But just when Llao was about to have the last laugh, on to the scene stepped Skell, another powerful god who lived on Mount Shasta in Northern California. From 125 miles away, Skell and Llao waged war–but it seems Skell only gave a half-hearted effort, because not until two priests sacrificed themselves by jumping into the erupting volcano was Skell finally sufficiently motivated enough to finish the job. He pushed Llao’s sexually frustrated ass back into the mountain, where it collapsed in on him, trapping him forever.

Now that’s a freakin’ story.

Moving on, the most striking feature on the lake’s surface is Wizard Island, an 800 foot high cinder cone with its own 100 foot deep crater.

Wizard Island is a small volcano within the caldera of a former, much larger volcano, kind of like those Russian nesting dolls, but only if those dolls were capable of releasing a cataclysmic paroxysm large enough to block out the sun. Given this, perhaps the dolls analogy isn’t so apt.

A water taxi service is offered which will take you across the lake and drop you off on the island for a reasonable fee ($42.00). Once on the island you can hike to the top for a rare 360 degree view of the lake and its sheer rock walls. Be sure you take an early morning boat though, as the later boats do not allow you to get off on the island. There is no camping on the island either, so you can stay all day but you must get back on one of the returning boats.

Another great view from an overlook.

Stay glassy, Crater Lake.

Rim Drive, a 33 mile long road that circumnavigates the lake, provides an opportunity to see it from every direction. No matter where you view it from, you will be struck by the inky indigo of its bottomless waters. Crater Lake, which reaches depths of almost 2,000 feet, is the deepest lake in the U.S. and 10th deepest lake in the world. This extreme depth combined with the purity of its water sources creates a brilliant blue that is as soothing to the eyes as it is to the spirit.

Pictures take themselves at Crater Lake.

What isn’t soothing are all the damn mosquitoes. I had planned to drive around the lake and stop at the various turnouts to get as many stunning photographs as I could, but the hordes of tiny vampires made it nearly impossible. Within seconds of exiting my car, billions of them were assaulting my integument; I had time to take only one or two pictures before having to retreat to the safety of my car. Frustrated but undaunted, I devised a system wherein I would pull up to a spot, jump out and run to the rim, snap my photo, and then dive back into the running car before the message could be passed along amongst the mosquito clans that there was a blood buffet open for business. It was awkward and I looked like a complete idiot, but dammit, it worked.

Despite the involuntary blood donations, Crater Lake is the very definition of majesty. I would suggest visiting later in the summer after the ground has dried a bit, however. The crowds will be larger but at least it will be humans annoying you instead of disease-carrying skeeters. Get there if you can, for photographs just do not do it justice.

A tree stump near the rim looks like a seal arching upward to clap his fins together. Just to the left of the tree you can see a faint white mountain in the background, which is Mt. Shasta, located 125 miles away.

 

 

Purple Floyd

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Today let’s take a look at Sharrif Floyd, the defensive tackle the Vikings drafted with the 23rd pick that many football experts considered to be a steal. Instead of just going through a mind-numbing list of his attributes and history, I’ve matched facts about “Purple Floyd” to different Pink Floyd songs to give an accurate description of this future star.

“Time”: As in Floyd’s 40 yard dash time. For a man who weighs 297 pounds, Floyd ran it in an outstanding 4.92 seconds. 300-pound humans just aren’t supposed to be this fast. And his foot speed and ability to change direction have been described as “jaw dropping”. It’s safe to say speed will not be an issue for the young man.

“Another Brick in the Wall”: For at least this season, Floyd will play on a defensive line with All-Pros Kevin Williams and Jared Allen, along with solid players such as Everson Griffen and Brian Robison. If the Vikings can keep a few of these guys around for another year or two (all are free agents after the season), then the Vikes will be well on their way to forming a “Wall” of their own. But instead of an emotional wall designed to keep anyone from getting close to the real Roger Waters, this wall will be designed to stop Matt Forte in his tracks, flatten Reggie Bush in the backfield, and sack Aaron Rodgers into oblivion. Man I hope this happens.

“Money”: Because Floyd was a first round draft choice, that means he will be forced to sign a five year contract, locking him up well into his prime. And because he was picked later in the round, that means his contract will be very team-friendly. Getting a potential star for five years at a reasonable price? Yeah, that’s how great teams are built. I love it.

“High Hopes”: Some draft experts not only had Floyd as the top defensive lineman, they had him as a top 5, top 3, and even a top 2 player overall. Such highly rated lineman usually do well in the NFL and there is every reason to believe Floyd will live up to the hype. There are idiotic stories of him having “short arms” but the real reason he fell in the draft was the combination of an early run on offensive lineman and teams ahead of the Vikings just not having a great need for a defensive tackle. The sky is the limit for Purple Floyd.

“Is There Anybody Out There?”: As in, who the hell will Floyd play with next year? Almost every current Viking d-lineman is a free agent after the season, and given the advanced age of Kevin Williams (33) and the insane salary of Jared Allen ($17 million), the chances of either of them retuning, much less both of them, seems slim. I for one would love to see Jared Allen get another 3 or 4 year deal, provided the money is right, which could prove to be a pipe dream. And as much as I would love to have Kevin Williams for another two seasons, Floyd is projected to play the same position as Williams, so unless one of them moves to nose tackle permanently, this is also unlikely to happen. But if the Vikings are in the playoff mix this season, both of these veteran lineman may decide that playing for a contender is worth taking less money. Let’s hope so.

“Run Like Hell”: This one is for Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, and Aaron Rodgers. Get ready losers, Sharrif Floyd will be blasting through the weak interior of your offensive lines and will become a constant scene in the window of your face mask. At least that’s what we Vikes fans have to believe at this point. And if Floyd does get into the backfield on a consistent basis, he will become a stud IDP for all you fantasy football fanatics out there. Did I mention that I hope this all happens?

“Have a Cigar”: To Vikings’ GM Rick Spielman, who selected an outstanding draft class last season and appears to have done it again this year. Of course the proof will be in the purple pudding (gross), but as of now all indications are that the team added three immediate starters that all have high ceilings. Hopefully the later picks which came in the form of a left-footed punter and linebackers will also prove to be astute. Keep it up Rick. I dig your spiel, man.

Just like Pink Floyd, Purple Floyd will cause sold-out stadiums of fans to scream and cheer, but unlike Pink Floyd, Purple Floyd’s best hits are yet to come.

 

National Park Primer: Redwood

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Let’s head on out to the misty coasts of Northern California to gaze up at the tallest living organisms on the planet.

Park: Redwood

How to get there: Fly into Redding, CA, or Medford, OR and then head to the coast. Or drive on out and create an unforgettable road trip by adding in nearby parks such as Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic, along with the immense volcano Mount Shasta.

Where to stay: There are campsites within the park, but they are expensive and usually a challenge to obtain without reservations. I ended up staying at the KOA in Crescent City. It was cheaper, had more amenities, and also had an enclosed dog park, a priceless feature if you are bringing your furry buddy along.

Highlights: As the park’s name suggests, it’s the trees who are the stars in this park. Sequoia sempervirens, known commonly as the California redwood, aren’t as massive as their cousins the Sequoia, but they reach greater heights. The moisture blowing in from the ocean bathes these trees in a near constant watery mist, providing the necessary water for their otherworldly expansion. They can live for 2,000 years, stretch skyward up to 380 feet, and have bark over a foot thick; there is nothing ordinary about redwoods.

Considering redwoods are the tallest living things on earth, there’s nothing they can’t dwarf.

The park itself is a jurisdictional jambalaya of state and federal lands. Instead of one continuous polygon of parkland, the different sections are scattered, allowing you to hop from grove to grove as you head up and down the coast. Be sure to take a stroll through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, dedicated by the former first lady. A gentle hiking trail takes you in amongst the arboreal giants, and the fresh fragrance of cool coastal air adds to the sense of purity. Songbirds chirp and dance above you, providing a natural soundtrack for your amble. There are plenty of other groves, so redwood wonder is not in short supply.

As you move through the park, keep alert for Roosevelt Elk, the largest subspecies of elk in the U.S. They can be found in meadows browsing at the edges or even hiding in the tall grass, so be careful where you walk, for you do not want to get too close to these hulking ruminants, especially when their calves are nearby.

The tall meadow grasses provide the perfect place for elk to hide and nap the afternoon away.

What at first looked like one bull elk laying in the weeds soon turned out to be much more.

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently there was a whole herd hidden in the meadows grassy depths.

One by one, cows, calves, and other bulls popped up from their beds and moved to the meadow’s edge to munch on the tasty brush.

 

 

 

 

Finally, head to the ocean for scenic views and historical landmarks. There are long stretches of open beach to explore and comb. Keep a look out for seals, whales, and sea birds as you take in the ocean’s grandeur.

At first concerned about the lack of tennis balls on the beach, Ursa soon realized there were enough driftwood sticks for an eternity of chewing. Dogs and beaches go well together.

I love a sunny day as much as anyone, but the misty fog is the perfect garment for Northern California’s coast.

Hidden within all of the natural beauty of the Redwood area is an historical gem. By driving a narrow dirt road that hugs the coastal bluffs, you come to a small collection of wooden farm buildings. From a distance they appear to be nothing more than relics from the region’s pastoral history, but as you walk closer, something is amiss.

This doesn’t look right.

The wooden siding and roofs of the buildings are revealed to be nothing more than a thin shell for the cinderblock structures underneath. For the Army during WWII, this was camouflage.

 

 

 

As long as these buildings fooled Japanese subs patrolling the coast, they were doing their job.

This fake farmstead was in reality the Klamath River Radar Station B-71, built as an early warning radar system. Instead of cows and chickens, these farm buildings housed radar, a power station, and anti-aircraft guns. If a Japanese sub or planes were detected, this station could send a signal and planes could be dispatched from the San Francisco Bay area. This neat bit of history is worth a stop if you have the time.

Overall: Redwood National Park isn’t just big trees, but they are the reason to visit and the reason to linger. If the climate continues to change, these trees may not survive, so go see them while you can. They’ve been waiting 2,000 years for you to pay a visit.

BWCA Fishing Secrets: Secret Lake

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While I like to openly share most of my BWCA fishing “hotspots” in the interest of helping others to experience the same excitement I’ve enjoyed (see here, here, and here), there are a couple of gems I must keep to myself. I protect these handful of honey holes not just for my enjoyment, but also because my fishing buddies have threatened that any divulgence of said locations would result in me “sleeping with the fishes”. These two factors are more than enough to shut my big mouth up.

What I can tell you is that the secret lake we last visited was in Northeastern Minnesota, lies on the edge of the BWCA, and has lake trout patrolling its depths. That’s all I can say without fearing that I will wake up in cement shoes at the bottom of the lake. However, I can share with you the how and the what that contributed to our successful outing.

Lake: Unknown

How to get there: Top Secret

Lake Map: Need to know basis only

We hit the water two weeks after ice out–which this year was two weeks after fishing opener–thus the lake trout could be found in shallower water. I am not one to use downriggers or other devices to reach the deep water that lake trout descend to as the summer heats up, so that’s why I always concentrate my early season efforts towards Salvelinus namaycush. As soon as we reached the landing, the excitement was palpable.

My dog Joe, AKA “The Squirrel Assassin”, wasted no time in jumping into the icy water and swimming out to a rock to get a better lookout for any possible bushy-tailed prey skittering along the shoreline.

Because the trout could be found in shallower waters, we began to troll about thirty yards off shore, trying to keep our lures in the 15-25 foot depth range. We tied on Little Cleo spoons, clamped on two large split shot sinkers about four feet above the lures, and trolled at a slow speed, just enough to get the spoons to flutter. After an hour of nothing, and as our spirits began to dip, Tim’s rod began to bend violently. There was no doubt it was a laker, as it flexed its incredible strength and dove deep over and over, whizzing line out of Tim’s reel as the drag put up useless resistance. As the fish finally began to fatigue, I positioned myself at the boat’s edge with the net in hand, ready to scoop up our first trout of the year. When the beast surfaced, I expressed my surprise as I realized what it was.

“It’s not a trout, it’s a @*$!ing enormous bass!”

Although we wanted lake trout, landing a 21-inch smallmouth bass is never a disappointment.

After releasing the monster bass, we continued our slow troll. We crawled along over a steep sandy drop off that plummeted from 10 to 35 feet, a structure experts extoll as a great place to find lakers. After reaching the edge of the drop off we made a wide U-turn with the boat to pass over it again. As the boat finished it’s turnabout, I felt a tug. Fish on. My rod tip curled over and the drag buzzed; it was obvious this fish was large. We did the fish fight tango, as I reeled in, then the fish took off, I reeled in again, followed by the lunker fleeing again. This went on for five minutes or so before the fish, which I was certain was a trout, came close to the boat. John had the net in hand, ready to dip it in and come up with a lunker, but the fish made one last run–and the line snapped.

In the past, when my line would snap so would I, releasing a torrent of expletives and frustrated gesticlulations, but the longer I live the more I have realized that these tantrums weren’t helping anything and only made my buddies suggest I seek counseling. Therefore I let out only a couple mild profanities and tied on a new spoon, trying my best to accept reality.

The wind picked up, so we decided to drift along the drop off and cast our spoons in all directions. This strategy immediately paid off, as I felt another strong tug on my line and was once again battling a heavy fish, which I prayed was a trout.

It was. The line held this time and as John scooped the net underneath the laker we could see its broad muscular back and golden color.

This chubby laker made my day. A great fight and beautifully colored. I released the fish before Joe could take a chomp out it.

The fish measured 23 inches long and had a nice beer gut; this trout was well-fed. Knowing this big fish was surely sexually mature and therefore contributing to the lake’s trout population, I released it so that it could not only be caught by someone else, but also so that it would hopefully do its part to create many more of its kind.

Our boat was atwitter after this landing, as we now knew there were nice trout to be had and they appeared to be in a Little Cleo mood. Another drifting pass over the drop off only produced a medium-sized smallie and the next pass produced nothing. Our spirits began to flag.

Just as the conversation as to when a lunch break would be appropriate began, Tom hooked into something. It was another big fish. His rod tip dove towards the water and his drag relented to the powerful pull coming from the depths. After another ten minutes of give-and-take, the fish surfaced, and John manned the net and brought out another chunky lake trout.

Joe was as interested in Tom’s fish as we were as John hauled it from the water.

Just as I thought Tom was about to win the biggest fish of the day bet, the fish checked in at 23 inches, thus we had a tie.

Although I conceded Tom’s laker was heavier than mine, the fishing contest set length as the deciding criteria, so I kept my own $10 and split the pot from the others. I’ve never been so satisfied with a tie.

High fives went around the boat and we got right back to work, excited that six pound lakers seemed to be the norm in our secret lake. Despite spending another three hours enduring the windy chill of the lake, we only raised one more decent smallie and a 9-inch laker, neither of which moved our excitement needles much after the two 23-inch behemoths.

Our day on the secret lake had been a success. It was a quality-over-quantity experience, which suited us just fine. Getting back to the cabin for the warmth of the campfire and the ribeyes we cooked over its coals completed a great day in the wilderness.

Having a secret spot or secret lake is nothing novel; many anglers possess their own stable of sweetspots. As much as I would like to share everything, there are some places worth protecting, and given that I occasionally see other boats or canoes working these same locations, I imagine my secrets are far from exclusive.

Nevertheless, I’ve said too much. But feel free to share any of your hot spots with me. I promise my fishing buddies and I won’t immediately pack up and head to the exact spot and fish the crap out of it. Just make sure to include GPS coordinates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Park Primer: Theodore Roosevelt

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park is the only national park named after a president, and this singular honor could not have gone to a more deserving figure. When Roosevelt left the White House in 1909, in his wake he left a mind-boggling list of new federally-protected areas: 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, 5 national parks, and 4 national game preserves. Five of his national monuments, Petrified Forest, Lassen Peak, Cinder Cone, Grand Canyon, and Mount Olympus, and one federal bird reservation, Dry Tortugas, would go on to become either national parks themselves or part of one.

All together, Theodore Roosevelt would preserve 234 million acres of wilderness, and due to expansions at some of the sites since then, that total today stands at an amazing 300 million acres. Yeah, lovers of American wilderness owe him a huge thanks. (For a fascinating account of his conservation efforts, read Douglas Brinkley’s The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.)

Having Roosevelt’s name on this park isn’t just fitting for his role in the expansion of national parks, but also because he once called the North Dakota Badlands his home away from home. Prior to his rough-riding, trust-busting, Panama Canal-building days, Roosevelt made an ultimately unsuccessful foray into the cattle ranching business in this area, spending long stretches of time hunting and relaxing at his Elkhorn Ranch. He fell in love with the region’s unforgiving harshness and austerity, qualities which further cultivated his legendary toughness and bravery, to the point of later admitting, “I never would have been president if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota”.

It’s easy to see why Roosevelt was so smitten with this landscape.

Roosevelt’s ranch may have failed, but the nearby national park is a wild success. Let’s take a look.

Park: Theodore Roosevelt

How to get there: Go West, young man—unless you are coming from the west. Or are a woman. Or are no longer young. Regardless of your age or sex, Theodore Roosevelt can be reached via Interstate 94, about 30 miles east of the North Dakota/Montana border. The park is divided into a north and south unit, with the south unit adjacent to I-94 and the north unit about 80 miles further north. In between the two units is the Elkhorn Ranch historic site, which was Roosevelt’s living quarters during his time as a cattleman.

Where to stay: Go for one of the park’s campgrounds. You could stay in nearby Medora, which offers plenty of entertainment itself, but to get a richer taste of the North Dakota Badlands that enchanted Roosevelt so deeply, pitch a tent or park a camper at the Juniper campground in the north or Cottonwood in the south. You can also camp in the backcountry if full wilderness immersion is your thing.

For me, camping at Juniper was an adventure in itself. As I lay in my tent one night, eyelids heavy with road trip fatigue, a bison ambled by at an uncomfortably close range. I heard the rhythmic whooshing of its cavernous nostrils and could feel the vibrations of its footfalls as it clomped through the brush, not more than ten feet from where my easy-to-squish-with-one-step head was located. My heart began to pound even harder as I realized there was only a thin layer of nylon separating me from a living steamroller, and that one bark from my dog Ursa could attract unwanted attention from a protective mother bison, but thankfully Ursa was snoring lightly and essentially dead to the world. (So much for her being my guard dog.) The breathing faded into the distance and my heart settled back into my body. Unforgettable.

Highlights: I only visited the north unit, as according to my guidebook, it contained the attractive combination of more bison and less people, and I was hoping to photograph the former while avoiding the latter. It took a whole five minutes of driving on the main park road before seeing my first bison.

Like employees around the water cooler, the bison of Theodore Roosevelt National Park gather in the middle of the road to share the latest park gossip. I wanted to be angry at them, but I have a soft spot for beautiful icons of American wilderness.

Along with plenty of bison, TRNP is also home to elk, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, coyotes, prairie dogs, and most wondrously, wild horses. Counter-intuitively, wildlife thrives in the merciless Badlands.

As you continue along the park road, vista after vista of geologic art presents itself. The Little Missouri River has been hard at work sculpting this land for millennia; Michelangelo could have learned a thing or two from this talented river. Just gorgeous.

TRNP is easy on the eyes.

Because I had Ursa with me, I was unable to go into the backcountry, but two days of scenic splendor and ubiquitous bison gave me all the untamed thrills one could want.

After a long day of walking the park roads and observing bison from the safety of the car, Ursa settled in for some much needed campsite repose.

TRNP is a jewel itself and is also a handy stopping point for other westward journeys, especially Yellowstone trips. If you can get into the backcountry, by all means do so and perhaps a herd of wild horses or bighorn sheep will greet you. Even if you stick to the park roads, bison will be hanging around, mugging for the camera and altering your travel timetable. Fortunately, this delay will give you even more time to soak in the scenery; you will never have a more enjoyable wait.

Theodore Roosevelt knew a good thing when he saw it, and the park named after him in North Dakota’s Badlands will capture your heart just as it did his. Get there.

Me so itchy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

National Park Primer: Lassen Volcanic

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Long before Mt. St. Helens had her cataclysmic tantrum and the lava-spewing volcanoes of Hawaii and Alaska became part of our country’s geothermal heritage, Lassen Peak was the American volcano. The national park named after this formerly restless mountain may not be at the top of most adventurers’ bucket list, but within this lesser known park lie the most extensive collection of visible geothermal features outside of Yellowstone. It is absolutely worth a visit.

Park: Lassen

How to get there: Fly into Redding, CA, and then enjoy the pleasant 50 mile ascent into the mountains via Highway 44. Or if you are in the Reno/Tahoe neighborhood, just drive 2.5 hours north to reach the park. With Lake Tahoe as your base camp, you can easily visit Lassen and Yosemite (3 hours south), thereby taking in three of America’s most fantastic places in one trip. If you’ve never been to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, fully prepare yourself to fall in love; they are exquisite.

Where to stay: Make reservations and stay at one of the park’s eight campgrounds, which range from primitive to fully developed. I camped at Manzanita Lake and recommend it highly. You will be a short drive from the main road that transects the park and your campsite time will be enhanced by Lassen Peak serving as a scenic backdrop.

Relaxing at your campsite is made even easier when you have stunning scenery to gaze upon.

Park highlights: The story of the eruption and its aftermath are the main theme, and are worth exploring in detail.

Lassen first stirred in the spring of 1914 and grew progressively more restless. The initial rumblings were mostly smaller steam explosions and minor releases of ash, not nearly cataclysmic, but enough of a spectacle to draw in reporters. Then on June 14th, 1914, huge billowing clouds of hot ash blasted into the sky. Six miles away, at Manzanita Lake, very near where I camped, an amateur photographer named Robert Loomis captured the ferocity and grandeur of the eruption in a series of spectacular images. Wall-sized enlargements of these pictures now dominate the main room in the Loomis Museum visitor center, showing the rise and fall of the exploding ash cloud. Lassen had trumpeted its arrival.

For the next eleven months, the mountain continued to have outbursts, growing increasingly violent as the days passed. Through the winter, cloudy weather prevented an accurate count of the number of eruptions, while an astounding thirty–three feet of snow fell on the northeast side of the peak, a record-breaking amount that laid the foundation for the immense destruction to come.

The first major eruption occurred on May 19th, 1915. As Stephen Harris recounts in Fire Mountains of the West, Lassen spewed hot rocks and lava, which melted the deep snow on the northeast face, creating a flood. This torrent of water and debris rushed down into the Hat Creek valley, straight for the homes and ranches of settlers. But thanks to an unlikely group of heroes no one died that day. These are heroes that many of you know well, a group distinguished by their bravery, selflessness, and desire to hump your leg: dogs. Warning their owners by barking, yelping, and generally going crazy enough to make it obvious that something was very, very wrong, the perceptive pooches woke their sleeping owners. This early warning allowed the settlers to scramble to the safety of higher ground just in time to see a wall of water sweep away their homes. I sure hope those real-life Lassies got a few extra steak bones and belly rubs for their life-saving efforts. I know I felt safer after learning of this, because along with keeping predators and morons away from the campsite, my dog Ursa was also now on lahar patrol.

After over a year of spewing appetizers, Lassen Peak finally served the main course on May 22, 1915. In an arresting image taken forty-five miles away in Red Bluff, CA, Lassen Peak’s towering ash column looks eerily like a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb. Robert Loomis and other witnesses reported automobile–sized rocks displaced by the lahar that were hot to the touch and sizzled the surrounding ground water for days after the blast. Finally, in 1921, after six years of relatively tame activity, Lassen Peak fell silent.

Here is one of the giant rocks that Lassen tossed into the air like a pebble. This rock was hot to the touch for several days after its rude displacement.

What this episode has left for park visitors is a collection of mind-bending views and features that challenge even the brightest among us to put in perspective. To wit, a visit to the Devastated Area will leave your jaw hanging as you attempt to comprehend the power and violence of the eruption. When I first arrived at the Devastated Area, I expected to find a bunch of recently-dumped teenagers and Minnesota Vikings fans moping about, but was pleasantly surprised to discover that this place was where Lassen’s detached mountainside came to rest.

The ground at the Devastated Area is a flat, hard plain made up of material that used to be part of Lassen Peak.

Although trees have grown in the 100 years since the eruption, the ground is like a paved parking lot. Everything in the path of the 1915 lahar was completely plowed over. Devastating really is the only word to describe what happened.

 

 

 

View of the collapsed mountainside from the Devastated Area.

 

As you walk the short interpretive trail, boulders ranging from the size of basketballs to minivans are scattered about, looking out of place, their colors varying widely: jet black, stark white, muted oranges, and dull-to-intense reds. The random uniformity developed by eons of moving water or glaciers is not found here; the forces of nature did not labor for millennia to create this. Instead of using a dainty rubber mallet and a fine–edged chisel to steadily chip out the landscape, a giant stochastic sledgehammer smashed this place flat.

I visited in early July, and due to the record snows the winter before the main park road was still impassable beyond the Devastated Area. This kept me from visiting some of the enchanting thermal oddities found in the west side of the park. Place with splendid names like Devil’s Kitchen, Sulphur Works, and Cold Boiling Lake. I had visited Yellowstone a few weeks earlier, so I wasn’t overly crestfallen to miss out on the bubbling mud pots, spewing fumaroles, and stinky hot springs.

But I was disappointed that I could not visit Bumpass Hell. Not because of its sixteen acres of magma-heated features, but because of how it received its name. In 1864, a cowboy named Kendall VanHook Bumpass stumbled upon the area. While he was walking through his newfound volcanic playground taking a closer look at one of the mud pots, he broke through the thin crust, plunging his leg into scalding mud that left him with some nasty burns. In excruciating pain but nevertheless excited by his find, Bumpass told the local townsfolk about his discovery and word soon spread. The story reached a nearby newspaper editor who thought it would make good copy, so he hired Bumpass to take him on a tour of the steaming oddities. But it seems as though our friend Bumpass wasn’t a real fast learner, and as he was showing the editor around the area he once again broke through and his leg once again sank into the boiling mud. This time his burns were much more severe and ultimately Bumpass’ leg had to be amputated. So while later recounting his bad luck (see: idiocy), Bumpass declared, “The descent to hell is easy.”

After you’ve taken in all the hydrothermal highlights, spend some time on the shores of fetching Manzanita Lake. Or hop in a float tube and fly fish for some of the lunker rainbow and brown trout lurking beneath the surface. Lassen also offers plenty of hiking trails of all lengths to please mountain pedestrians. Because I was with Ursa, I wasn’t able to hit the trails, so I settled for an equally satisfying outdoor activity: lounging at the campsite.

Ursa hamming it up around the campsite.

If you do bring your dog, you can still hike along the park roads and other paved surfaces as long as you have a six-foot leash. Your pooch won’t know the difference between these civilized trails and those found in the backcountry, so they will revel in the endless interesting smells while getting their daily exercise.

The shade of a huge Ponderosa pine is the perfect place to chill after several miles of hiking Lassen’s park roads.

 

Lassen Volcanic National Park will not disappoint. With scenery, activities, and natural curiosities abound, several days can be filled up with ease. Lassen is an underrated gem in our stable of national parks and well worth discovering for yourself.

MN Sports Round Up: Fireman Edition

Perhaps the players on our favorite Minnesota sports teams should consider another profession: firefighting. Despite seasons awash in mediocrity, the Vikings, Wild, and Wolves have all been putting out major fires as of late. The burning objects were not houses or forests; they were the hottest teams in their respective sports. Let’s run a fine tooth analytical comb through each over-achievement to see just what happened.

Vikings vs Eagles

Philadelphia strutted into the Metrodome having won their last five games, catapulting themselves to a solid NFC East division lead, becoming media darlings in the process. The NFL’s talking (meat)heads raved about Chip Kelly’s rapid-fire innovative offensive approach, they fawned over Nick Foles’ incredible 20:1 TD to INT ratio, and they swooned over the fact that the Eagles had not allowed more than 21 points in any of their last nine games. The strong defense and high-flying offense prompted Vegas to tab Philly as a five point road favorite, essentially saying they thought the Eagles would win by more than a touchdown. (Home teams are usually spotted three points before the line is even released.)

Not that anyone living outside the walls of a mental institution disagreed with this prediction. The Vikings were without Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Kyle Rudolph, Xavier Rhodes, and a few other starters. So a hamstrung Vikings team was ready to be brought to the slaughter in front of the home fans and would further cement their place in the top five in next year’s draft once the day’s beating was complete.

But the Vikings had other ideas. The purple piled up 48 points, the most since the magical 1998 season, as Matt Cassel dismantled the Philly pass defense for 382 yards and three touchdowns. In the process of this upset, Cassel turned himself into the undisputed favorite to lead the Vikings next season and some are even now wondering if Leslie Frazier’s ability to keep his team playing hard during a lost season will buy him another year at the helm.

It was a thoroughly unexpected, thoroughly enjoyable dousing of a team on fire.

Wild vs Vancouver

Going into Tuesday night’s game, the Canucks were the hottest team in the NHL, having won seven in a row. They were climbing the standings and Roberto Luongo had Vancouver fans thinking they once again had the top goalie in the league. Fortunately for the Wild, the actual best goalie in the league happens to wear a Wild jersey. Josh Harding was his usual brick wall self, stopping 29 of 31 shots and stoning the ‘Nucks on all three of their shootout attempts.

The floundering Wild came away with a huge 3-2 SO victory to keep pace with Vancouver in the standings.

For the second time in three days a Minnesota team had cooled off a flaming juggernaut.

Wolves vs Trailblazers

At 22-4, the Portland Trailblazers were, well, blazing. NBA experts were starting to turn their noses up at the Miami’s and Indiana’s of the league and were now cozying up to the newest latest and greatest team. Local hospitals reported a spike in emergency room visits due to injuries sustained by so many people trying to hop on to the Blazers’ speeding bandwagon. In short, everyone loved Portland and a steamrolling of the scuffling T-pups was a foregone conclusion.

A Wolves team that had just been embarrassed by an awful Boston team pulled a Jekyll and Hyde and came out firing, taking a 26 point halftime lead. Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic were unstoppable, combining for 59 points and 24 rebounds, and Love finished one assist short of a triple-double. The Blazers made a late push, but Ricky Rubio and Kevin Martin sank their free throws to seal the 120-109 victory.

Yet another team had arrived in Minnesota as a towering inferno and left as a humbled smoking stump.

Despite these inspiring victories, we MN fans are still left with uncertain sports futures to contemplate.

  • The Vikings have played well as of late, but who the QB and coach will be next season are still up in the air, and a heavy roster turnover looms with players like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams coming to the end of their contracts. It’s anybody’s guess how good or how bad this team will be next year.
  • The Wild have been as bad offensively as they have been good defensively, creating a maddening mix that has them stuck at the low end of potential playoff teams. (A 5-2 crushing at the hands of an injury-depleted Pittsburgh team last night didn’t help.) Unless their young guys start putting the puck in the net, another one and done playoff disappointment is on the menu. They will have some cap space in the offseason, so perhaps the missing ingredient can be brought in should their own prospects fail to emerge.
  • The T-wolves still have a terrible bench and Ricky Rubio continues to display a troubling inability to hit open shots. With so little depth and a top player that opposing teams don’t need to guard beyond ten feet from the basket, the Wolves, if they do make the playoffs, will have no shot in a seven game series against Western Conference Goliaths Portland, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. This team needs some scoring off the bench (J.J. Barea doesn’t count), and I don’t see the currently healing Chase Budinger and Ronny Turiaf providing that when they return.

It is hard to have faith that our teams will find the promised land anytime soon, but given their recent streak of ending other teams’ streaks, there is reason to have at least a microscopic sliver of hope. If these teams can sustain these types of efforts (next season for the Vikes), then noise can be made in the playoffs, and we all know that when team chemistry is peaking and Uncle Mo is on your side, then catching fire is a real possibility.

Let’s just hope there is no one there to put it out.

 

Not So Great Expectations

Will the Vikings beat the Bears on Sunday? I don’t think so, most Vikings fans don’t think so, and apparently Vegas doesn’t think so (according to the betting odds on this weekend’s games). Then again, maybe some of you out there do think the Vikings will win. Either way, I wouldn’t spend too much time taxing your brain over this question, because it is the wrong question. The real question every Vikings fan should be pondering (pun intended), is: “Should the Vikings win this weekend?”

The answer to that question is an unequivocal, doubt-free, rock-solid no. The Vikings should not win this Sunday, nor should they win any game the rest of this lost, bison feces-scented season. In order for the purple to get the highest draft pick possible next May, they will need to rack up losses like Packer fans rack up DUIs.

Now I know NFL teams don’t tank. Many of the Vikings’ players will be playing for jobs, if not here then for some other NFL team, thus they have the highest level of motivation to do well. Don’t expect any game-throwing from the coaching staff either; those clowns are already updating their resumes and know that they will need all the wins they can muster so that their offseason interviews will be held in an NFL GM’s office and not in a Dairy Queen.

None of the Vikings QB’s are the answer for this team. Matt Cassell is a career-backup, Christian Ponder is maddeningly inconsistent, and Josh Freeman apparently isn’t good and/or sane enough to beat out either of them. Given that success in the NFL depends upon having a top 10 QB, the Vikings need to upgrade their QB position by about 21 or 22 spots. And the draft is the way to do this.

Is it a guarantee that whoever the Vikes draft early next season will grow into the next Luck, Brees, Manning, Brady, etc.? No, but it’s still the best way to get that franchise guy. If the Vikings draft a Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, or some other highly rated rookie gunslinger and said gunslinger turns out to be crap, then they will just have to draft the next top rated QB again and again until they get it right.

But I get ahead of myself. The draft is 6 months away and the Vikings still have 5 more games to slog through before this season can finally be taken out behind the barn and put out of its misery. At least the five teams left on the schedule (Chicago, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Detroit) are all good to very good teams, so the Vikings’ weak tackling, poor blocking, and nonexistent pass coverage should pave the way for a top draft pick.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Vikings, and pulling for them to lose does cause me significant cognitive dissonance. To wit: Before the game, I want them to lose as I fantasize about landing a franchise QB. But during the game, I find myself cheering and swearing with every Peterson steamroll of a defensive back and Ponder pick-six, respectively. Then after the game, I am once again pleased that my favorite team is a league embarrassment. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s all I got.

So other than a potentially high draft pick being used to draft a potentially franchise-elevating QB, what do we as Vikings fans have left to root for this season? I have a few things that come to mind:

1. The improvement/emergence of future stars. Xavier Rhodes, Audie Cole, Cordarrelle Patterson, Sharrif Floyd, and Matt Kalil have all shown or are showing they can be excellent NFL players. Add in youngsters Harrison Smith and Kyle Rudolph along with veterans like Peterson, John Sullivan, Chad Greenway, Brian Robison, and Greg Jennings, and there is a base of talent at Winter Park.

2. Knowing the fat will be trimmed from the roster. With the stratospheric salary of Jared Allen ($17,000,000!), the aging-yet-still-highly paid Kevin Williams, and a few other assorted underachievers very likely coming off the books this year, the Vikings will have plenty of cash to spend on an impact free agent or two. The great thing about the NFL is that teams can go from total crap to playoffs in just a year, so if the Vikes add a couple established top end players to their mix of veteran and young talent, they can be on the rise in short order. (As long as they get that QB!!!)

3. Watching to see what coaches will be available. Will Bill Cowher or John Gruden decide to come back to the NFL? Could the Wilfs throw enough money at either of them to convince them to come to MN to draft their own franchise QB and be a yearly contender in a shiny new stadium? Can Rick Spielman (or whoever is the Vikings’ GM) spot the next great coach from the assistant/college ranks? There is already a pink slip with Leslie Frazier’s name on it sitting in Zygi Wilf’s outbox, so the Vikings are once again presented with an opportunity to find the next football genius this coming offseason. Brad Childress was awful, Frazier a little less awful, so hopefully the next pick will be the one that knows how and when to throw the challenge flag.

4. Watching the Packers suck like a nuclear-powered vacuum. Without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have been exposed to be every bit as vomit-flavored as the Vikings. Given the Packers are out of the playoff picture, the team may sit their super QB the rest of the year, thereby providing us Vikings fans with hours of entertainment as they get outgained in yards 560-100 to mediocre teams. Yes, Rodgers will be back next season to continue his wizardry, but until then we can giggle like schoolchildren while watching Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn stumble over each other in hot pursuit of the “League’s worst QB” title.

Sadly, a return to the playoffs this season didn’t even come close to materializing, leaving Vikings fans pulling their hair out as the QB du jour overthrew open receivers every other snap. But through this darkness shines the dim light of hope, the hope that comes with a new QB,a new coaching staff, and a new stadium just over the horizon. So when Bears’ QB Josh McCown once again beats your precious Vikings this week, face not the stinking pile of loserness that lies behind you, and keep your nose pointed forward, where the sweet scent of hope is carried upon the headwinds.

 

How to Win at Fantasy Football: Three Things to Avoid

If you are new to the world of fantasy football, then today’s post is for you. Conversely, if you’ve been playing fantasy football for decades and are so into it that you can recite every player’s entire DNA sequence from memory, then this post is also for you. In sum, I will try to cover all the salient aspects of this great game so that you can dominate your league, regardless of your level of experience.

First off, my qualifications:

  • I have been playing fantasy football for 23 years, winning a solid number of titles along the way and making the playoffs nearly every season in highly competitive leagues.
  • I have played using dozens of different scoring formats, drafting styles, league types, and rules of play.
  • I have played in leagues with all types of people, from family members to co-workers to best friends to complete strangers.

Now that you can unquestionably trust my opinion on these matters, just relax and allow my accumulated wisdom to seize control over your brain and lead you to fantasy football success heretofore undreamed of.

In today’s installment we will go over some things to avoid when joining a new league or when your current league is considering making changes.

TD-only leagues

These leagues are to fantasy football what non-alcoholic beer is to real beer (i.e., a poor substitute that is missing the most important part of what makes the real thing enjoyable). In plain English, they suck. Because points are only given for scoring touchdowns and not for yards rushing, receiving, and passing, you inevitably come across laughably idiotic scenarios on a weekly basis. Here’s a quick example:

Tom Brady: 450 yds passing, 35 yds rushing, 0 int, 0 TD

Adrian Peterson: 200 yds rushing, 100 yds receiving, 0 TD

Hugh Jaloozer: 1 yd rushing, 0 yds receiving, 4 fumbles, 1 TD

Any primate capable of simple math can see that Brady and Peterson had huge games which likely led their teams to victory while Jaloozer’s 1 yard forward fall over the goal line was easily canceled out by his four fumbles. Despite this obvious discrepancy in performance, in the moronic world of TD-only fantasy leagues Jaloozer would have outscored the other two superstars 6-0. Even Packer fans can see that this makes no sense.

What’s worse, most TD-only leagues still award 3 points for field goals, thus many weeks the kicker is the highest scoring player on each team. The freaking kicker! Need I say more about these dunderheaded leagues? I have been vigorously lobbying my congressman to outlaw TD-only leagues, but his total lack of interest on the topic combined with his subsequent restraining order against me have slowed this process. Therefore, until the day arrives that joining a TD-only league guarantees a one-way walk to the electric chair, you must assume responsibility for protecting yourself from these devil-spawned black holes of common football sense.

Individual Defensive Player (IDP) Leagues

The vast majority of leagues give points for yards and scores by quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, kickers, and team defense/special teams. So say you have the Vikings’ defense/special teams, that means you get points for interceptions, sacks, fumble recoveries, safeties, defensive touchdowns, and touchdowns on special teams no matter which Viking player scores said points. It’s a great system and easy to use.

In an IDP league, however, you draft defensive lineman, linebackers, and defensive backs from different teams and only get points when your specific player makes a fantasy scoring play (sack, interception, tackle, etc.). This sounds good in theory, as you are simply doing with defensive players what you are already doing with offensive players in other leagues. But consider this: most people in normal leagues struggle to find the time to do the minimum research and tracking of performance which allows them to field a competitive team. Now take that minimum amount of effort and double it. That’s what is required for IDP leagues.

Regular people have these things they call “lives” that get in the way of putting that much time into a fantasy league. Responsibilities such as careers, kids, spouses, and personal hygiene, nagging as they can be, do need to be tended to at some point. Just remember that if you ever find yourself obsessing over Erin Henderson needing one more tackle in an overtime loss to the Lions so that your fantasy team can win, chances are at that point you are unemployed, without custody of your children, single, and very, very stinky. This depressing scenario can be avoided by simply steering clear of IDP leagues and sticking with traditional leagues designed for functional citizens.

Free Leagues

If someone invites you to join a league and they say it’s “just for fun”, be warned that these leagues are anything but fun. With nothing on the line, people just don’t care about their teams, not to mention that anyone who would join a free league probably doesn’t care that much in the first place.

The plain truth is that an entry fee and cash prizes are needed to make everyone feel invested and spur their active interest. In order to have a truly fun and competitive league, all members must be paying attention and trying their best to win each week. This necessary level of effort is located somewhere in the vast gray area between criminal obsession and complete dereliction of duty, so there is a wide range of work that one can put in and still be a contributing league member. But as long as the minimum is being met the league’s competitiveness should be adequate.

In free leagues you will invariably see Peyton Manning in someone’s lineup even though he is on a bye that week, a team that goes nine weeks without making a single transaction or change, and some dolt dropping Adrian Peterson because he misses one game with a mild ankle sprain. In essence, a general malaise overcomes the league which stifles any excitement or genuine interest. Nothing about this is fun and winning a title in one of these bland leagues is slightly less gratifying than beating your dog in Trivial Pursuit.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to have $500 riding on your team to make it interesting. In fact, too much money can drive people a little nutty, destroying friendships  in the process. I have found that $25 is the minimum amount to maintain someone’s interest and effort. In a ten team league, the champion’s payout from this entry fee would be around $150-$175, more than enough to get league members to put their time in to keep their teams competitive. Dangling this type of cash carrot right after the spendfest that is the Christmas season is a powerful motivator. In short, your entry fee should be high enough to keep all league members active participants, but not so high that they start hiring hitmen to whack each other. A little trial and error will reveal what amount is right for your league.

Now you know what to avoid in the world of fantasy football. Stay tuned, for in our next installment we will go over some types of leagues and rules that will optimize your fun and excitement.