Author Archives: tylerbleeker

What I Learned from 23andMe

It all started innocently enough the last time I was with my sister. We were talking about how different we are, and I invoked the old teasing trope that my sister Allison was switched at birth (though there is anecdotal evidence, nothing has been scientifically proven at this point). As we were talking, it clicked in my mind that maybe we should take a DNA test to solve the matter. In recent years, at-home ancestry DNA test kits, like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have become quite popular and affordable. I proposed to Allison that we could find out definitively once and for all if indeed we were siblings or not; I would take a test if she would take a test. I have since gotten my test results back, but as of this writing, Allison still has not yet even sent her test in. I’m taking this as a sign that Allison knows the truth and is still trying to hide it…

Aside from settling the matter as to whether my sister and I are actually blood-related, I was mostly curious where the bulk of my DNA comes from. Growing up in America, especially in white populations, we often like to talk about where our ancestors migrated from, whether we definitively know where or not. White people will list off a smattering of European nations, proud of their heritage as a European mutt in this country we refer to as the American Melting Pot. I grew up, however, in a fairly homogenous town, the aptly named Holland, Michigan area where most everyone is to some extent Dutch. It’s no surprise, then, that I considered myself Dutch, and not much else. If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much! But aside from growing up in a town with windmills, wooden shoes, and an annual Tulip Festival, there wasn’t a lot of evidence to say how Dutch I actually was—or if I had any other surprises in my genes. Sure, I had a pair of Great-Grandparents who emigrated from the Netherlands, but other than that, my not-so-distant relatives were American-born. My family has a few historical records that show when a small number of distant ancestors migrated, but other than that, it was just generally assumed that my forebears came from the Netherlands. Or northern Germany, as they are geographical neighbors. But the Germans never really got more than a passing mention in my family’s lore.

Upon recommendation from a friend, I decided to go for the 23andMe test kit. The test kit breaks down recent ancestry into a multitude of regions and sub-regions, as well as giving genetic information on phenotypic traits and health risks with a provided scientific backing behind it all. Once I received the at-home test kit, I spit a copious amount into a tube and then mailed the sample away to a lab to await my results. I mostly wanted the results to show how ‘Dutch’ I actually am. Or, if in fact my DNA would have a surprising trace of genes from another ethnicity. Some Euro-American individuals, in an effort to bolster their feeling of diversity, may talk about how one of their distant ancestors was a Native American or an enslaved African-American. There was no such talk of this in my family though. Would the DNA test reveal otherwise?

After getting my results back, it turns out I am indeed very white—or more appropriately, of European genetic origin. 100%, in fact. All of my genes come from European heritage (it should be noted that 23andMe types DNA according to particular genetic sequences which are held in common by a reference population with known ancestry to a particular region. These results mean that I share particular DNA segments with people of a known regional European ancestry).

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Not surprisingly, as the story told by my living ancestors attests, the bulk of my DNA originates from the Netherlands. 73% match in fact for the category 23andMe titles ‘French and German.’ Within this grouping of countries, 23andMe does not break down ancestry by percentages; instead, ancestry DNA matching is listed by likelihood of a DNA match. Turns out, I’m a ‘highly likely’ match for the Netherlands. This is followed by a ‘likely’ match for Germany. All other countries in the region—Austria, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland—I did not have any likely DNA matches from. Looking at my results, I am mostly Dutch ancestry, as I believed, with the smattering of Germans that my family only slightly acknowledges.

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The biggest scandal of the DNA test, the big surprise that I had been waiting for, was that I am 25.5% Scandinavian ancestry. No one in my family had ever mentioned anything about Scandinavian ancestors! To think that my family has been hiding the fact that somewhere far back in the family tree are a few crazy Swedes or Norwegians! (Given this new information, it now all becomes clear why I fit in so well with the primarily Scandinavian ethnic population of northern Minnesota. Uff-da!)

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To round things out, the last remaining 1.5% of my DNA is defined as Broadly Northwestern European. These are genes that are common in Northwestern Europe, but not specific to a particular country. To sum it up, I suppose, I am of broadly Northwestern European ancestry. No big surprises in my genes, I’m afraid.

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Reflecting on what I learned, I can’t say that my life was changed too much by finding out my DNA ancestry. It pretty much confirmed what I had already known, or had at least suspected. Before any person takes the test, though, 23andMe does go through a fair number of disclaimers aimed at educating participants in how learning the results of one’s DNA makeup can be upsetting. I am not upset, though. If anything, getting my results makes me even more likely to pursue a long bicycle tour of Northwestern Europe. But I was planning on dong that someday anyway.

Aside from just learning the background of your ancestral DNA, 23andMe offers an outlook into certain genetic traits and health markers. Many of these of course are for disease risk and are quite serious to look at. But there is also the much lighter side of genetic traits, which range from the standard to the inconceivable.

Some of these traits seem intuitive that there is a strong genetic component. For example, 23andMe correctly predicted most of my phenotypic features—blue eyes, unattached earlobes, little to no back hair, an uncleft chin, and no dimples. In regards to hair loss, much to my relief, I have an 82% chance of not going bald before age 40 and an 87% chance of not having a bald spot.

And then the genetic results get more bizarre and interesting, as the trait report begins to list not just physical traits, but also behavioral traits and preferences. These more far-flung personal attributes do have certain genetic markers in common among populations with said trait, as per 23andMe’s research, though the company also acknowledges other physical and cultural factors are at play too. For example, I have about average odds of hating chewing sounds and I am about as likely to get bitten by mosquitoes as others. But, fortunately I’m less likely to be afraid of heights, and also less likely to be afraid of public speaking (I can attest to both). Apparently, according to 23andMe, my circadian rhythm should wake me up naturally at 8:16 AM. I also have less than two percent Neanderthal DNA.

Aside from that, 23andMe says that I’m more likely to detect a distinct odor in my urine after eating asparagus (that’s true…), but also that I’m more likely to think cilantro tastes like soap (I don’t). And apparently I don’t have a particular preference for either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. I’ll actually eat any ice cream. And on that note, I’ll say thank you to my Northern European ancestry which has blessed me with an incredibly high dairy tolerance.

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Northern Lights, Bettles, Alaska

Over the winter of 2020-2021, I worked at a remote lodge 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the small, isolated community of Bettles, Alaska. Located in the normally dry and clear interior of Alaska, Bettles is ideally situated under the typical arc of the Northern Lights, or, the Aurora Borealis. On any mostly clear to clear night, from late-August to early-April (when the skies get dark enough to see aurora), the vigilant observer will be treated to some degree of a show.

Though scientists who study the aurora can make forecasts and predictions about when and where auroral activity will occur, much remains unpredictable and mysterious for the aurora chaser. Each night puts on a different show. On some nights, thin distinct bands of aurora will linger in the sky for hours; on other nights, bursts of intense waves, greens and purples, will wriggle and twist their way across the sky in just a matter of minutes. Clouds or a full moon make the aurora appear vastly different than on a clear moonless night. Whatever the conditions, when the aurora do appear overhead, the viewer is guaranteed an excellent show unlike any other.

The following images and time-lapse videos I captured in and around Bettles, in the winter of 2020-2021.

An auroral forecast, along with an FAQ section about the science of the aurora, can be found at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute website.

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Intense aurora above Arctic Haven Cabins

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Brief aurora behind Bettles Signpost

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Making Peace with Introversion

This post is in honor of World Introvert Day, celebrated each year on January 2nd.

https://www.introvertday.org/

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I’m writing this in an isolated village north of the Arctic Circle. Bettles, Alaska. Year-round population 14. No permanent road access to the outside world. In winter. During the Coronavirus pandemic. This is perhaps to say that I have found ample time of late to explore and make peace with one important facet of my identity that is a powerful force in my being: introversion.

Years ago, in the course of rampant get-to-know-you questions featured as part of the dreaded ice-breakers common at new school years or group orientations, one question that would often arise was ‘what is something you would change about yourself?’ Immediate responses from most participants tended towards the superficial and the physical: ‘I would have straight hair,’ or ‘I would be taller.’ Trying to go deeper than that and thinking of myself as more clever, however, the response that I came up with, after mulling the question over for a few moments, was ‘I wish I would be more extroverted.’ You see, being in those new and unfamiliar social situations was anxiety-inducing for an introvert like me. And, growing up in a culture that places high esteem on extroverts and social butterflies, I too longed to be part of the extroverts, sociable and at ease with large groups of unfamiliar people. (Only years later, when I began to learn about the anatomy of introversion in greater detail, would I realize that my reaction to the question of ‘what is something you would change about yourself?’—to take a moment and deeply process the question itself—was a direct byproduct of being an introvert.)

I am now making peace with introversion, however. Unlike the days where I would have wished for a more extroverted temperament, I have begun to see my introversion for what it really is. Instead of seeing introversion as a shortcoming, as a lack of something, as an inadequacy, I’ve begun now to view it as a strength of its own merit. I no longer see introversion and extroversion on a scale of bad/undesirable (i.e. introversion) to good/desirable (i.e. extroversion). Instead, I am realizing that there are many gifts and qualities I possess as an introvert that I have previously taken for granted because I failed to realize that they derive from my introverted nature.

Perhaps it is quite obvious to notice the gifts of introversion here in remote Alaska. I spend the majority of my days working independently and alone (in the company of many dogs, but not people), and nights I spend by myself in my own apartment. There is ever so much quality alone time that I have available to myself. Fortunately, I am never at a loss for things to do. I never find myself getting bored, and I tend to keep my own company quite well. As for socialization, I have ample imagined conversations with people I’ve known previously that are all contained within my mind. In fact, my time up here in the Alaskan bush has afforded me both the time and space for activities that I enjoy but don’t often make time for (e.g. reading, blogging), and for mental processing that commonly falls by the wayside in a busy, fast-paced world.

As I have gotten older, I’ve not only begun to make peace with my temperament, but I’ve also begun to understand it in a more nuanced light. My very basic understanding of introversion—and this is what led me to desire to be more extroverted when I was younger—was altogether too simplistic. I viewed extroversion as the ability to make friends and have ease in social interactions. Introversion was extroversion’s opposite. Introversion was shyness, a difficulty making friends. Social anxiety.

To be fair, introversion and shyness do often look similar, but they are not the same. Shyness is in fact a symptom of a greater social anxiety experienced by interacting with people, particularly unfamiliar people (see social anxiety disorder). The fact that introverts do spend a great deal of their time alone does not automatically mean they are shy. Though introverts often prefer their own company, they can be quite gregarious when they are in the right environment.

But for me, as that small child hiding behind his mother’s legs, shyness and introversion were conflated. They were one and the same. Yes, I was born an introvert. But yes, I was also shy growing up. Making friends was never quick or easy for me. I blamed introversion as the source of my woes.

I kept my rudimentary notions of the introversion/extroversion divide intact and unchallenged for many years. It wasn’t until college that I began to see these personal qualities differently. My freshman year in college, I took a career-matching test that included the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, or MBTI (take a free online version here). The MBTI rates each individual on a spectrum of four major temperament traits, one of them being introversion/extroversion. I, quite as expected, scored almost near the pole of introversion. I was, as I was unfortunately dreading, still ‘hindered’ by introversion after all these years. My career counselor, however, explained the result in a new light for me. Instead of seeing introversion and extroversion as a measure of shyness versus social affability, she said, see it as energy. Introversion and extroversion are more about where you get your energy from, how you recharge. Extroverts draw energy and recharge when hanging out with other people, she explained. Introverts, on the other hand, recharge energy by spending time by themselves. My career counselor’s words were food for a famished introvert’s soul. I gladly accepted her explanation. In fact, I took it very much to heart by almost immediately devouring David Keirsey’s book explaining the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types, Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence. No longer seeing introversion quite as a negative, I sought to read and understand as much as I could about my temperament (which was quite an introverted thing to do).

The results from my career match test made much more sense when introversion was understood as a particular method of gaining energy, rather than as an aversion to people. My top ten career matches found during that counseling session were all very social in nature. They included Elementary School Teacher, Minister, and Corporate Trainer as the first three matches. In fact, only one result in my top ten matches, Carpenter (#6) did not have the parenthetical ‘S’ denoting it was classified by the survey as a ‘social’ occupation.

My top ten career matches from a test taken my freshman year of college

It wouldn’t be until years later when I read another book that I would again have an epiphany about introversion. The book, fittingly titled Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is by self-identified introvert Susan Cain. Cain starts with a history of introversion and extroversion in American culture, explaining how those labels were not too relevant in a culture that judged people based primarily on their character and values up until the late nineteenth century. However, beginning in the early twentieth century, the culture of character became a ‘cult of personality,’ as increased economic competition from an industrializing nation forced people to become performers: either outperform each other or fall behind. Whereas in the nineteenth century a good leader was defined by values-driven words such as integrity, morals, duty, and citizenship (words that are not necessarily introverted or extroverted), in the twentieth century concepts that described a good leader shifted towards words like charming, fascinating, magnetic, and popular (traits of personality more befitting of extroverted individuals). The twentieth century saw the rise of the charismatic leader as the ideal. Individuals who were outgoing and loud talkers began to be seen as better leaders by virtue of their extroversion. Introversion, and introverts, began to be viewed as inferior to extroverts in their capabilities. The cultural bias against introversion in America had started. And it still continues today.

But beyond the fascinating social history of introversion in America, the most important part of Cain’s book for me, the content with which I resonated with the most, dealt with neuroscience. That introverts and extroverts are wired differently is, pardon my pun, a no-brainer. Cain relates how the biggest differences in introversion and extroversion are in information processing and the brain’s response to neurotransmitters. Extroverts have wide information channels. They take in lots of stimuli all at once, process it rather quickly, and move on to intake even more information. This can explain why extroverts can react so quickly to novel situations, think well on their feet, and often seek, perhaps even need to seek, high levels of stimulation to keep from getting bored. For extroverts, the neurotransmitter of import is dopamine, the chemical responsible for reward seeking in the brain. Dopamine is released in the brain when acquiring external rewards, like earning money, gaining notoriety, or attracting a mate. The extrovert brain is less sensitive to dopamine than an introvert’s, and thus needs more of the neurotransmitter to feel stimulated: more risk, more reward. The desire for more dopamine hits leads to extroverts seeking out risk, especially in social situations. Interestingly enough, the hormone adrenaline, the body’s fight-or-flight compound, increases the brain’s uptake of dopamine; this is also why extroverts trend towards high-risk, high-stimulation physical activities as well. With other people being some of the most stimulating things around, extroverts are drawn towards many interactions with many different people and feel intense reward from the rush of dopamine to the brain.

Introverts, on the other hand, have very narrow information processing channels. Though introverts process information slowly, they do so in a level of detail that is not seen in an extrovert’s rapid and cursory information processing. The neural information processing pathways of an introvert takes new stimuli past networks associated with long-term memory and future planning as well, which helps the introvert make connections with the past and help plan for the future. Though the narrow information processing channel of an introvert means novel stimuli are processed more slowly, it also lends the introvert unparalleled ability to focus on one thing at a time in great detail. In terms of neurotransmitters, introverts are highly sensitive to the dopamine encountered from risk-taking. Quiet activities like reading a book may provide an introvert enough dopamine to feel rewarded, while the amount of dopamine released at a large party may make the introvert feel over-stimulated and stressed by their surroundings. An additional neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, is particularly acute for introverts. Like dopamine, acetylcholine is also associated with reward systems in the brain; however, whereas dopamine comes from external reward stimuli, acetylcholine comes from internal reward stimuli. Acetylcholine provides the brain a pleasure sensation when an individual thinks deeply, reflects, and focuses attention for extended periods of time. Acetylcholine is also linked to the parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the ‘rest-and-digest’ side, responsible for calming the body down and withdrawing from the outside world. These neurological differences are all reasons why introverts quite often seek quiet places and time alone.

The way Susan Cain explained introversion in terms of mental processing made me see how my mind functioned as an introvert. My penchant to avoid loud and crowded parties and instead focus on only a few close friends or to seek alone time was directly tied to my capabilities to concentrate and think deeply. I was a holistic person, not someone marred by the unfortunate circumstance of being introverted and reserved. The gifts that I have that I cherish—my detailed observations, my keen memory, my mental acuity, my focus—are a byproduct of being wired as an introvert. I wouldn’t trade any of that for the chance to be more outgoing.

Once I began to see, in fact to feel, how being an introvert is quite a positive thing, I began to embark on an inner-journey of finding personal acceptance and flourishing as an introvert. There is no changing the way I am wired. I will never become an extrovert. There is only finding ways to use my introversion to its fullest.

On the Myers-Briggs survey, for example, one of the questions asks the taker to choose between the following scenarios: spending a little time with a lot of people, or, spending a lot of time with a few people. The introvert would, of course, tend towards spending time with a few close friends rather than many casual acquaintances. The beauty in this is that relationships, though relatively few, are much, much deeper. Perhaps I am shy and reserved because I am an introvert. But there are layers to me that will only get revealed when I am ready to share. It takes me time to grow close to people, and a great deal of effort before I can trust them with the privacy of my inner world. Anyone who does get to see my inner workings should feel special to have gained that level of trust.

But even though I have a small circle of very close friends, it doesn’t mean I interact with those friends all that often. Just by circumstance, my life choices have taken me away from my closest friends for months, even years at a time. We might only share a few remote interactions per year, but when we do see each other, the time is focused very intentionally on each other. I am proud that I have been able to maintain close friendships in my adult life. I am proud that I have close people to talk to about the big things in life. I am proud that there are people in my life who I can feel incredibly at ease with just being in their presence, not even having to fill the air with words. Indeed, many of the interactions I have with my closest friends occur in my own imagination. I can imagine holding a conversation with a particular friend about a specific subject, and I imagine what the dialogue would be. Hand-writing a letter is also a way of having a conversation with a friend without the need for talking. Though my closest friends are not the people I spend the most time with in my daily life, there is a great deal of connection between us that endures, in part to my introverted devotion to my close friend circle.

Now don’t get me wrong that I don’t enjoy going out with people to do things. It takes me time to come around to the idea of social engagements. The surest way to get me to say ‘no’ to something is to spring it on me last minute. Surprises make me ill at ease. Even if I say ‘no’ to a social engagement ahead of time, I’ll eventually come around to it, and will even look forward to it. I just need time to process and plan things well in advance. And don’t feel ashamed or like a bad host if I leave earlier than others; I don’t have as much social energy as other people and choose to leave before I feel drained and regret attending. It’s my way of getting the most joy out of the situation without exhausting myself.

When I do find myself overstimulated and socially exhausted, I need time and space away to recharge. I keep good company with myself—indeed, there’s rarely a dull moment. There is so much to see in the world, but I would rather focus on one thing at a time. I can spend hours alone in a woodshop fine-tuning details on the project I’m working on. I can readily lose myself in a good book. And spending time in nature—traveling or even just sitting still and observing—is restorative therapy. There is so much input to take in, and I want to spend all the time I can to take in each thing deeply.

I’ve heard it phrased quite often that introverts have quite rich inner lives. I’ve always thought: but doesn’t everyone? I’ve never thought of my inner life as anything other than rich. But maybe that’s one thing I take for granted. Maybe other people live most of their lives on the surface. There’s really no way to tell for certain. After all, we can never truly get into each other’s heads. But there’s a lot that goes on inside of me. It’s a world of unspoken conversations and imagined possibilities, conversations with plants and animals and things. It’s a world of thought experiments and logical arguments. It’s a world full of keen observations of anything I’ve ever taken in.

I’m finally accepting—no, wait—embracing my identity as an introvert. Introversion is not a social shortcoming—it is a valuable gift. In a society where personality has come to dominate our attention, it is harder for introverts to find their place. However, when given the right conditions to grow, it is the introverts who really have so much to offer the world.

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For Further Reading:

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Can a Collector Live in a Tiny House?

Schist

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I found a rock the other day. A shiny metallic piece of schist about the size of a travel bar of soap. It’s a beautiful specimen of its own accord, found as part of the mélange of rocks jumbled up in Alaska’s glacially-formed landscape. I decided to keep the rock as a small souvenir, a tactile memento of my first winter spent in interior Alaska. Amateur geologist that I am, I thought the schist would make an excellent addition to my rock and mineral collection.

You see, I am a collector. My rock collection is testament to this. Boxes and boxes of rocks I have picked up from places I have visited now sit begrudgingly in my parents’ basement. The finest specimens I keep on display in a little nook in their basement workroom, but without a permanent space yet to call my own, most of my treasures still wait in expectation for when they will once again see the light of day.

The rocks I collect are not only intrinsically beautiful, but they all have added meaning for where I was when I collected them. I am a collector—of things, yes, but also of experiences. Working as a dog musher north of the Arctic Circle is just the latest life experience I am collecting. Though I won’t need to hold the little piece of schist in my hand to remember my winter spent in Bettles, Alaska, it can serve as a conversation starter or as a token to trigger my memories of time spent here.

At the same time that I am adding to my ever-expanding rock collection, I am also living in a repurposed trailer that housed construction workers who built the trans-Alaskan pipeline. Some nights I theoretically sketch out in my head if I could imagine an entire home being placed in the 8’ by 14’ unit that makes up my apartment. Kitchen here, bathroom there, sleeping loft above. It’s an enthralling exercise, as I have a growing interest in tiny homes. Living in staff housing, as I typically do, I am accustomed to occupying smaller spaces, though none of them ever being a bona fide tiny home and none ever being a permanent residence either. Regardless, constantly moving into and out of staff housing for the past number of years has given me great practice in small living, as well as showing me how simple it can be to live out of a couple duffel bags in a small space for an extended period of time.

But sometimes I have to wonder to myself: can a collector of things live in a tiny house?

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Bettles, Alaska Tiny Cabin

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It seems like my desire for tiny house living might be at odds with my natural inclination as a collector. The tiny house philosophy, after all, is about living a life with fewer things in general. To live in a small space, you have to cut out what is non-essential. I’m afraid it may be that my rock collection, though exceedingly cherished, is fairly non-essential to my everyday life.

And yet though I contemplate tiny house living more and more, the older I get the more things I accumulate, and the more reluctant I am to dispose of the things which I have acquired. Though I believe myself to be in one of the lowest percentiles for possessions owned by a 30 year-old American, my various hobbies have resulted in quite a collection of things. In addition to my rock collection, I now own a wide assortment of backpacking and camping gear, snowshoes, cross-country skis, a canoe, and two bicycles. And that’s not to mention other things like the massive volumes of books that I have accumulated. If push came to shove, I believe, I could still fairly readily pack all my essentials into my hatchback with my canoe and bicycles strapped on the outside. As for now though, with ample storage space at my parents’ place, I don’t yet have to make the decision between being a collector and living in a tiny house.

But if I do at some point opt to try the tiny house lifestyle, it might come to the point where I must make the choice between having more things and living simply in a tiny home. As that potential day is still far down the road, I can only speculate what the outcome might be. Perhaps in ten years, my collection of rocks won’t seem as important to me as it does today. Perhaps I’ll somehow incorporate my rock collection into the build of my tiny house. Maybe I will still be a limited collector of things. Or maybe I’ll have to switch to just being a collector of life experiences instead.

Only time and future experience will tell if being a collector of things can be compatible with living in a tiny house. In the meantime, I’ll continue practicing the tiny house ethic of being mindfully intentional with the items I do decide to keep. Each item I decide to hold onto must serve some practical purpose or be imbued with some sort of special significance. With that in mind, I will be very intentional about the one souvenir rock I will ultimately bring home to my collection from Alaska.

Glamour Snoots: Koyukuk Kennel

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Welcome to the Koyukuk Kennel, the dogsledding division of Bettles Lodge! Meet the team of 17 adorable Alaskan Huskies who are working with me this winter giving dogsled tours in the Alaskan bush 35 miles north of the Arctic Circle. They were all ready for their snoot close-ups with the help of my fish-eye camera lens!

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And of course, an equal part of the kennel is our 8 new husky puppies born in early September 2020. Our pandemic-inspired litter of Corona, Curve, Demic, Fauci, Lysol, Kluster, Swab, and Zink!pace

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The Socially Distanced Cyclist: 16 Days, 1,170 Miles, and Minimal Human Contact Around the Coast of Lower Peninsula Michigan

From August 9 to 24, 2020, I took a solo, self-supported bicycle trip to explore the coastline of my home state, the great state of Michigan. Being the Great Lakes State and a water wonderland, Michigan offers 3,224 miles of freshwater coastline to explore as well as 124 lighthouses, both of which are the most of any state. The following is a summary the trip, encompassing 16 days, 1,170 miles, and following the coastline of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Approximate Route:

Michigan Bike Route

 

Day 1: Familiar Territory

Zeeland to Muskegon State Park: 67 Miles

It was a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon when I finally departed for my trip after a much longer than anticipated morning of final preparations. Bluebird skies and temps in the 80’s made it a day more fitting for a beach holiday than a long, sweaty bike ride. I would start the trip covering very familiar territory, a survey of the Lake Michigan beaches within just a short driving distance of where I grew up. I hopped on my overloaded bicycle and listened to the new squeaks and groans as the immense weight found its equilibrium on my old Cannondale, crossing my fingers that no spokes would snap (wanting to keep myself socially-distanced as possible, I chose to pack around 35 pounds of food so I wouldn’t need to re-provision the entire trip). My first leg would be the twelve mile distance to the white sand beaches of Holland State Park, with a ceremonial stop to see my beloved ‘Big Red’ Lighthouse, which would mark the first of many lighthouses I would stop to see on the trip.

The Holland area boasts many wonderful non-motorized recreational paths, and I followed one of them along Lakeshore Drive, past many lakeshore mansions, nearly all the way to Grand Haven. Grand Haven State Park, another beautiful white sandy beach, was packed with beach revelers on such a gorgeous day. From Grand Haven, I crossed the drawbridge over the Grand River and proceeded northward to Muskegon. This first day of the trip was marked by getting through some of the bigger metropolitan areas on the lakeshore to the less developed lands of the northern counties. North of Muskegon lies Muskegon State Park, a much quieter and forested lakeshore dune park than both of the state parks I had visited earlier. It was at Muskegon State Park where I would first camp for the night, and, as an omen for a good trip to come, I found a $20 bill on the road leading to the park.

 

Day 2: Storm’s A-Brewing

Muskegon State Park to Ludington: 72 Miles

Day two started fairly leisurely on the sandy beaches of Muskegon State Park, followed by a stimulating up-and down ride through the tree-covered dunes to the Blockhouse, the highest point in the park which offers great views of the dune ecosystem. Continuing northward, I followed the aptly-named Scenic Drive paralleling the lakeshore until I reached White Lake and the twin villages of Whitehall and Montague. As recommended, I found the Hart-Montague Trail, which was Michigan’s first Linear State Park and one of the earliest instances of Rail-to-Trail conversions in Michigan (1991). The Hart-Montague Trail runs for 22 miles and connects several small country towns that offer ice creameries and small cafes. Being a former railway, the trail is undeniably flat and straight, with mostly shrubs and brush for scenery. A few miles shy of Hart, I got the itch to return to the lakeshore for more expansive scenery and some hills for interest. I turned west towards the lake and the sand-buggy enclave of Silver Lake. Though I yearned to make the short detour to the remarkable Little Sable Point Lighthouse in Silver Lake, dark ominous clouds had begun building to the west.

I followed roads along the lakeshore through the city of Pentwater and past the cottages of Bass Lake. A few miles south of Ludington, the road passes right by the Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, once the largest pumped storage plant in the world! During the night, when there is excess electricity generated, the plant will pump water from Lake Michigan up into a 1.3 square mile reservoir over 350 feet above the lake. Releasing this water during the day generates supplemental electricity during peak demand. I stopped to gawk at its massive industrial workings, until a security guard came and asked me to leave. The guard said they were shutting down the overlook due to impending weather and showed me the radar on her phone. Yikes! I made a mad bike dash down from the high dunes to the city of Ludington, where I fortunately was able to set up camp before the heaviest rains set it. It was an eventful night as lightning flashed and thunder cracked overhead, but this would prove to be the only rain encountered on the whole trip.

 

Day 3: This is Hilly Amazing!

Ludington to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 78 Miles

The storms had passed during the night leaving me with wet gear, but a warm sunny day proved to be in order once again. North of Ludington, Hamlin Lake and Nordhouse Dunes (Lower Michigan’s only federally-designated wilderness area) block road access to the lakeshore, so I took an inland route of country roads through the matrix of forest and small farms. Riding into Manistee took me back to the lakeshore, and proved to be stop with plenty of great parks to relax at along the lakefront. A few miles north of Manistee, while riding on Lakeshore Road, I got caught up in paying too much attention to a car behind me as I looked to turn left towards the beach access. My front wheel slipped off the paved roadway immediately bogging down in the soft beach sand and causing a slow-motion flip over the handlebars. Aside from a few superficial scratches on my hands, knees, and bike, I was shaken, but OK.

I continued on, albeit more wary of soft shoulders now, around Portage Lake and the small town of Onekama. Onekama is the southern terminus of Michigan Highway 22 (or M-22), that famed route whose highway sign is emblazoned on merchandise and bumper stickers all over Michigan. Reaching M-22 proved a dramatic change in riding conditions; here, the hills began. Whereas up until now things had been remarkably flat, M-22 began a series of long, winding, gradual 1-to-2 mile climbs up a sand dune, followed by a speedy descent on the other side. I maxed my downhill speed out at 39 MPH, which on a fully-loaded bicycle is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I broke up the hill climbs with stops at the little Victorian town of Arcadia’s city beach, and at the much more bustling tourist town of Frankfort. I then turned my route inland toward the town of Beulah, in search of cherry pie and wine. Riding from Frankfort along the sizable Crystal Lake proved no relief from the hills, and slower travel over the terrain caused me to miss out on the treats found in Beulah. Hungry and exhausted, I made my camp for the night just a few miles to the north in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

 

Day 4: I Bearly Got Anywhere Today

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore: 37 Miles

However exhausted I was from the hill climbs the day before, I woke up very excited for the route I would cover today. I would be traveling through the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, perhaps the most scenic stretch of land in the Lower Peninsula (indeed, Sleeping Bear was named ‘The Most Beautiful Place in America’ by ABC’s Good Morning America in 2011). My bike, however, seemed less up for the challenge. As I had feared, all the popping and groaning coming from my crank were signs that my bearings were going bad, and my crank assembly had been growing disconcertingly looser and looser since day two. I would need to make a pit-stop to have that taken care of before I found myself stranded with no pedals to pedal.

I followed the quiet stretch of M-22 into the tourist outpost of Empire, where I met up with the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. This trail winds through the woods through most of the park, providing most excellent riding scenery. The trail also goes over some very steep dune sections and around some very sharp curves which makes for a sendy route to keep riders on their toes. Highly recommended is the Pierce-Stocking Scenic Drive, which winds a course of seven miles over some of the biggest dunes in the park and past some of the best vistas of Lake Michigan on top of the 400-foot tall sand dunes. Unfortunately for me, and maybe fortunately for my bike, the Pierce-Stocking drive was closed in 2020 due to road construction. However, a short distance north is the epic ‘Dune Climb’, a large active dune blowout that guests are encouraged to climb. The vantages from the top are quite spectacular, and offer sweeping vistas of Lake Michigan, the dune systems, and the valleys inland. Sleeping Bear Dunes also offers opportunities for history hounds as well. Just north of the dune climb is Glen Haven, a former fishing company town that the National Park Service now maintains as a historic village. Tucked in pockets around the park are also the barns and farmhouses of homesteaders of yore. In the course of time, most homesteads folded in the region, and the main economic driver switched to tourism.

I finally stopped to have my bike repaired in Glen Arbor, and the mandatory afternoon of downtime was well spent enjoying a swim in the crystal blue waters of Lake Michigan, as well as doing some tourist shopping in Glen Arbor itself. Not a big day distance-wise, but one of the best places just to enjoy some time in the splendid destination.

 

Day 5: Up and Down on Leelenau

Leland to Traverse City: 84 Miles

Back in 2012, I had taken a short bike vacation with my parents to the Leelenau Peninsula, and this area offers so much for the bicycle tourist on shorter trips as well as longer ones. The bigger towns of Leland, Northport, and Suttons Bay all offer their own vibe and tourist amenities. I started my day by following M-22 into Leland, of which any stop requires a mandatory visit to the historic and artsy Fishtown. A pleasant and lightly-trafficked ride north on M-22 took me to the quiet town of Northport. About an 8 mile ride north of Northport, past many cherry orchards, I reached the very tip of the Leelenau Peninsula which is home to a state park and the impressive Grand Traverse Lighthouse. The lighthouse was open to tours, though the tower was closed due to COVID.

On my way south on M-22 towards Suttons Bay, just past Omena, I crossed over the 45th Parallel (I had actually crossed over it earlier in the day between Leland and Northport), which, being the geography nerd that I am, necessitated a reason to celebrate. The closer I got to Suttons Bay, the more traffic M-22 picked up, and the worse shape the road became. Though riding M-22 next to Grand Traverse Bay was scenic, I was happy to beat the traffic by picking up the TART Trail (Traverse Area Recreation and Transportation Trail) going into Traverse City. Being the ‘Cherry Capital of the World,’ I biked past many cherry and fruit orchards on my way into the city.

 

Day 6: On a Mission

Old Mission Peninsula to Charlevoix: 78 Miles

The start of the day would take me onto the Old Mission Peninsula, the very long and narrow stretch of land that neatly divides Grand Traverse Bay in two. I peddled up the Peninsula on the west side’s Peninsula Drive, which offers a very quick and flat route to the tip, going past miles of miles of really fancy waterfront properties along the way. At the tip of the Old Mission Peninsula lies the Mission Point Lighthouse and a nice beach with crystal clear waters. The route back to Traverse City, along the main highway M-37, offered quite a contrast to the solitude and ease of Peninsula Drive. M-37 goes through the middle of the Peninsula, meaning the road goes up and down many hills as it winds its way mostly through vineyards. Though the hills were challenging, they did provide some incredible vistas of vineyards and Grand Traverse Bay. Had it not been before 10AM, I would have stopped for a tasting.

Once back into Traverse City, I caught the TART Trail to its eastern terminus in Acme, a few miles away. I was glad to avoid the heavy development and tourist traffic along that stretch of US-31. Once the path ended, I followed the signed bike route through some bucolic country acres until I ended up at US-31 again. During route planning, I had wanted to bike that stretch of US-31 as it passes on a narrow strip of land between Lake Michigan and both Elk Lake and Torch Lakes. In hindsight, this was the only section of my route that I wish I had changed. US-31 along that stretch has only a narrow, crumbling shoulder, and the summer tourist car traffic is constant. Even worse, the route has absolutely no views of any lake along the way. As a plus side, though, the heavy tourist traffic does bring with it an abundance of roadside food, fruit, and sweet stands, and Elk Rapids makes a nice town to stop at. Given that it was an exasperatingly hot and sunny day, I made my fill of stops along the way to replenish my belly and refill my electrolytes with some pasties, pastries, and apple cider.

 

Day 7: Through the Tunnel of Trees

Charlevoix to Cross Village: 81 Miles

Whereas the previous two days were spent biking around the Grand Traverse Bay, today I would bike around the Little Traverse Bay. First stop of the day was in the harbor town of Charlevoix, outside of which I picked up the Little Traverse Wheelway bike path. With the underlying bedrock of the region being limestone here, I made several lengthy stops along the lakeshore to try my hand at fossil hunting. Being so close to Petoskey, I was really hoping to find a stellar specimen of the city’s namesake and Michigan’s state rock (even though Petoskey stones are indeed a fossil, they are not Michigan’s state fossil). Alas, good specimens of Hexagonaria coral (AKA Petoskey stones) were difficult to find, but it doesn’t take an expert paleontologist to soon pick out many other fossils in the mix; fossilized horn corals, bivalves, brachiopods, and crinoids all make the lakeshore a Devonian paleontologist’s playground. Following the nicely-paved Wheelway around Little Traverse Bay will take you to the towns of Petoskey and Harbor Springs, both of which offer plenty of dining and shopping amenities. Petoskey offers a large historic downtown area built into a hillside, whereas Harbor Springs caters to the yacht club upper-crust.

Past Harbor Springs, following Michigan Highway 119 (M-119) is both the motorist and cyclist eye-candy route known as the ‘Tunnel of Trees’. The Tunnel of Trees is a splendid, curvy, 1 1/2 lane highway that encourages you to slow down and enjoy being immersed in the trees as the highway meanders along a sand dune bluff for nearly 20 miles. Traveling, as I was, on a mostly cloudy evening, I encountered very little auto traffic (I let my eyes wander once again, forgetting entirely my days-earlier episode of crashing my bike). At the northern end of the Tunnel of Trees is the tiny settlement of Cross Village, most notably known for its iconic roadhouse, the Legs Inn. In the 1930’s Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak, along with the help of local Odawa craftsmen, began to build the fantastical building using local stone and driftwood. It is highly recommended as a place to eat, or at least walk in and feast your eyes on the décor. Wait times often exceed one hour. Though a hot meal and a beer sounded nice after such a long day, I was burning daylight and had to get to my campsite near Wilderness State Park.

 

Day 8: In the Straits, not in dire straits

Wilderness State Park to Mackinac Island: 45 Miles

Wilderness State Park is a fantastic, remote expanse of land on the northwest tip of lower Michigan. It offers wide swathes of pine forest and vast expanses of sand dunes, and is highly recommended to spend a full day there. My time in Wilderness State Park would prove eventful. I had just started biking for the day when I came around a corner and saw two young men frantically waving for me. I caught glimpse of a motorcycle stuck under a truck, which is what they were making a big fuss about. I stopped to help the two guys, both named Tyler, incidentally, to get the motorcycle out from under the truck. By that time, I had already pieced together the narrative that the man with the fresh patches of road rash had lost control of his motorcycle going around the curve, and had slid under the parked truck. Fortunately everyone was OK, and I helped Tyler clean up his road rash a bit. Of the three of us there, only my flip phone had cell service, and I stayed with them until they arranged a tow. Flip phone for the win!

Since I no longer had time to explore the vastness of Wilderness State Park, I picked my way along rough rural roads in Emmet County towards the very tip of the Mitt at Mackinaw City. Along the way, however, I couldn’t resist stopping when I saw a sign for the McGulpin Point Lighthouse (which, by the way, you could actually climb the tower). From the McGulpin Point light tower, I could get a great view of the Mackinac Bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinaw. I was at the tip of the peninsula, but the Mackinac was a bridge I would not cross (at least not on this trip). Nearby the lighthouse is the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, and the region is perfect for stargazing on a clear night.

Now that I was halfway through my ride and at the tip of the Peninsula, my crowning stop would be an afternoon spent on Mackinac Island, Michigan’s iconic and premier island destination. A former British fort and a tourist destination since the mid-1800’s, Mackinac Island was once even briefly a federal National Park (1875-1895). Today, the island is known for its bikes and horse-drawn carriages, its Victorian architecture, its fudge and tourist shops, and for being carless. It is a half-hour ferry ride to the island from Mackinaw City, and to get to the ferry terminal you have to pass through all the shops of downtown Mackinaw City that are hawking fudge and T-shirts. Once you land on Mackinac Island itself, you’ll be in downtown and will walk past all the shops hawking the same fudge and T-shirts as the mainland. But when you’re on the island, it’s special, and I did the touristy thing of buying fudge, popcorn, and postcards. The island is also great for history buffs, given Fort Michilimackinac and other historic buildings to tour, but I was there for the bike riding. A right of passage on the island is to bike the 8 mile loop on M-185 that rings the island. I had biked around the island once before on a family trip when I was in fifth grade, but biking on my own as an adult was so much better. Of course I had to make a stop at some of the iconic geological formations such as Arch Rock and Skull Cave. And there was no better way to cap off the day than by getting ice cream from the shop below the Grand Hotel’s world-record 660′ long front porch.

 

Day 9: Lonesome Limestone Highway

Mackinaw City to Thompson’s Harbor State Park: 74 Miles

United States Highway 23 offers a dramatic contrast to the commercialism of Mackinaw City. Never before had I been to northeast Lower Michigan. It is an region of small towns separated by large distances all built on the extractive industries. From Mackinaw City to Cheboygan, the North Central State Trail follows an old railroad grade paralleling Highway 23. Though the crushed gravel of the state trail was nice, I found I preferred the feel of pavement and the glimpses of Lake Huron that riding on the road afforded me. Traffic was light and the shoulders were wide, which meant great riding conditions.

The surrounding waters of Lake Huron are extremely treacherous, and have claimed hundreds of ships and lives over the centuries. These shipwrecks are all protected within the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Forty miles from the Straits of Mackinac is the Forty Mile Point Lighthouse. Several shipwrecks lie in shallow water just offshore, but the remains of the 1905 wreck of the J.S. Fay lie on the beach near the lighthouse. Snorkeling, SCUBA diving, kayaking, or glass bottomed boat tours are all the best ways to see the wrecks.

From Forty Mile Point, one can get on the paved Huron-Sunrise Trail, which leads to Rogers City. Though Rogers City is small, its status as the only town of 1,000 or more people for 30 miles in either direction means that it has all the amenities a person would need. Rogers City is built on mining—mining the fossil-rich limestone bedrock that dominates the region. The limestone is crushed and used as an ingredient in cement, and Lake Huron provides easy access for shipping to distant markets. Outside the city is a special overlook that peers into the massive strip mine that gives Roger’s City its lifeblood. The Calcite Quarry, at over 1,800 acres, ships out 7 to 10 million tons of limestone each year.

Leaving Rogers City early in the evening, the sun was beginning to shine lower and lower on the horizon, while the blue open skies made the late sunshine feel quite tangible. I took a detour off of US-23 at Thompson’s Harbor State Park to search for the Presque Isle Lighthouses. Without directions or a detailed map, I followed an unnamed dirt road hoping it would take me to the lighthouses. The road dead ended at the outlet where water from Grand Lake flows into Lake Huron. The low gleaming sun, the slight warmth in the gentle breeze, the sound of the rocks rolling in the surf—it aligned all too perfectly. I had to stop right there for the day—I had to sit down and just bask in the beauty of the experience. If anything, that evening spent on the beach of Thompson’s Harbor was the defining spiritual experience of the trip. The video encapsulating my experience is included above.

 

Day 10: Here On Huron

Thompson’s Harbor State Park to Oscoda: 76 Miles

After my euphoric evening at Thompson’s Harbor State Park, I had to follow up with nothing short of a pre-breakfast swim in Lake Huron. My morning route would continue around Grand Lake to the small sleepy enclave of Presque Isle. I would find both the old and the new Presque Isle Lighthouses on a peninsula, and, not unexpectedly, both were closed for the summer. Nevertheless, taking the detour around Grand Lake to those small communities and idyllic harbors was well worth it. After passing another large limestone quarry, I reconnected to US-23 and had a short ride into the city of Alpena.

Alpena hails itself as the ‘Sanctuary of the Great Lakes’ owing to its location at the center of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It is a large city, as far as cities in northeastern Michigan go, and along with the extractive industries of fishing, lumbering, and limestone quarrying, Alpena boats a modest maritime tourist economy as well. Unfortunately the highly acclaimed NOAA Museum and adjoining glass-bottom boat tours were closed due to COVID. At this point in the trip, I had grown terribly tired of the food I had packed from home, so I stopped in downtown Alpena to get the greasiest cheeseburger Alpena could offer. While seated at the restaurant, a middle-aged couple started up a conversation by saying that they had seen me yesterday riding from Mackinaw City. We chatted a while about our Michigan travels, and they seemed thoroughly impressed by my stamina. They also paid for my meal.

I left Alpena headed south on US-23 on the mostly empty road past the endless forest. A peculiar place to stop would be Ossineke, where giant sculptures of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox great travelers on the highway. Nearby, a gigantic Jesus holding the earth aloft in one hand beckons visitors to come visit the Dinosaur Gardens Prehistoric Zoo, an eclectic and anachronistic mix of cavemen, dinosaurs, and Christianity. By the time I was ready for a break, I was passing by the small town of Harrisville, and I saw a sign for an outdoor concert at the lakefront pavilion. It was some good foot-tapping folk music being played, and after a few songs an announcement was made that it was the organizer of the concert series birthday today. A homemade carrot cake was cut up to celebrate. I was invited by a women to grab a slice. What great small-town hospitality! South of Harrisville, US-23 travels right next to Lake Huron, on what is called the ‘Sunrise Coast’. In a long stretch from Harrisville to Oscoda, the lake is lined with second homes and vacation rentals. I think I finally found where most of the east-siders go on their summer vacations.

 

Day 11: To the Thumb Pit

Oscoda to Standish: 71 Miles

The twin villages of Au Sable and Oscoda mark the finish line of one of Michigan’s most epic races: The Au Sable Canoe Marathon. In the race, competitors start 120 miles upstream in Grayling, paddling through the night to reach the finish line near Lake Huron. The race was cancelled in 2020, but seeing so many fine rivers as I biked along the coast made me itch to get out and paddle again.

A short distance later, I would be coming upon the start of the ‘Thumb Pit,’ better known as Saginaw Bay. The Tawas Point Lighthouse marks the start of the bay on the northern end, and Tawas City is a small tourist enclave. Continuing south on US-23, the highway is flat and runs right along the lakeshore. The tourist resorts and second homes disappear, and the landscape consists of forest and utilitarian buildings. Maybe it was something about this road, or maybe it was because I just started to put my head down and ride, but I began to notice an abundance of quarters, nickels, and dimes scattered on the shoulder. Another roadside find was a ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ flag, which was evocative of the region’s independent and libertarian leanings.

 

Day 12: Thumbs Up

Standish to Port Austin: 77 Miles

Today I would round Saginaw Bay and enter Michigan’s Thumb. Pure geographical curiosity had me wondering what it would be like to visit, though I have heard that the Thumb is very flat, rural, and agricultural. The rumors proved true: the Thumb is incredibly flat, rural, and agricultural. Very small farm towns dot the landscape. Biking south on M-13 going into Bay City, I passed through Pinconning, Michigan’s Cheese Capital. On the Thumb, the town of Sebewaing has a large sugar beet processing plant. It was not until the very tip of the thumb, in the towns of Caseville and Port Austin, where vacation homes and tourist attractions began to sprout up along M-25 by the lakeshore. The thumb-tip also offers a couple of nice state parks with sandy swimming beaches.

 

Day 13: Last Day Along the Lake

Port Austin to Lakeport: 84 Miles

Starting from the tip of the Thumb, today would be my last day biking along the lakeshore as I made my way south on M-25 towards Port Huron. M-25 runs right along Lake Huron, passing many small towns along the way. Even though the route is right next to a Great Lake, it remains agricultural and undeveloped. I biked past the historical company town of Huron City and then past the Point Aux Barques Lighthouse and former U.S. Life Saving Service Station. I continued biking past many sleepy towns enjoyed by the R.V. crowd, until I passed through more touristy enclaves like Lexington and Lakeport as I neared Port Huron.

 

Day 14: Eastward

Lakeport to Flint: 96 Miles

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I was about to wrap up my travels along the Great Lakes and start the long trek eastward back to my starting point in Zeeland. I couldn’t help but say goodbye to Lake Huron with one final swim at Lakeport State Park. From Lakeport I would pedal eastward through the farm country in the heart of the state. I passed through small towns named Yale, Lynn, Capac, and Dryden. The roads were rough and had limited shoulder, and I bet that road bikers are a rare occurrence there. However, even with the unseemingly busy roads and all the trucks trying to get past me, every driver was courteous. By the time I biked to Metamora and Hadley, the farmland had turned to hills and forest. I would end the evening on the outskirts of Flint, after a very long, hot and sunny day.

 

Days 15 & 16: Wrapping Up

Flint to Middleville to Zeeland: 115 & 35 Miles

One final, scorching hot day was ahead of me as I aimed to make it to my friends Robert and Becky’s house in Middleville for the evening. From the outskirts of Flint, I was immediately back into farm country. I would pass through Durand, home of the Michigan Railroad Historical Museum. I would also pass through Laingsburg, where I began running into fleets of spandexed cyclists out for a Sunday morning ride. Out of Laingsburg, I would follow country roads that ran along the crisp and cool Looking Glass River, being thankful for the trees lining the road that provided some measure of relief from the sun. Once past the outskirts of Lansing, it was all sun-beaten farmland until Middleville. Wanting to avoid traffic, I wandered down country roads, meandering generally East and South towards my destination. While I succeeded in avoiding traffic, I also never ran into the gas station that I had optimistically been counting on to replenish my desperately low electrolytes. By the time I arrived at Robert and Becky’s house, it was well past sunset. An incredibly long day, but one the prospect of seeing old friends again had motivated me on towards.

From Middleville, it was a chip shot of a day to finish the remainder of the trip back to Zeeland. More meandering and country roads, and the unanticipated stretch of country gravel, but 35 miles later I had made the trip complete.

 

Quarantine Woodworking

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Laminated Hardwood Alaska Cutting Board. This post will go over the steps I took in making it.

During the various lockdowns and quarantines imposed since the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, many people have turned to various hobbies to occupy their newfound free time. I myself turned to an old passion of mine—woodworking—a past-time that I once feverishly pursued during high school, but which more recently had gone dormant. The desire to use my hands to create tangible works that are not only practical but beautiful as well has never left me though. And, since I spent the first five months of the pandemic quarantining where I grew up, the ready access to my grandfather’s woodshop proved irresistible. Using his tools and making some sawdust felt like a great tribute to my late Grandpa Bleeker, whose deep passion in life was woodworking. Grandpa Bleeker left behind many scraps of beautiful hardwoods that had spent years in the basement just pining to be turned into something beautiful.

I find I have the greatest joy in woodworking when I am building a project specifically for someone. The hours spent communing with the wood are like hours spent focusing on that friend. With that in mind, every creation I make is unique, tailored to whoever will be the recipient. Every project has to start with an idea, and oftentimes it is the pieces of wood that tell me what they want to become, or the final project will have some symbolic significance for the recipient. The project example used in this blog post was made for a couple of friends who have worked in Alaska. It is a laminated wood cutting board that also denotes the fondness for charcuterie boards we had whilst we we coworkers.

I started this project by printing out a template to follow. I wanted to make a broad enough cutting surface to make the board actually practical, and the bulk of mainland Alaska provided a cutting surface of about 8″ by 10″. Due to the state’s geography, however, the Southeast Alaskan Panhandle and the Alaska Peninsula made this one of my largest and most complicated cutting board projects yet.

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Cutting Board Template

The first step is to lay out all the strips of wood to be laminated together over the template. With a challenging shape like Alaska, it took some maneuvering to figure out how to make the board look good while also keeping it structurally sound. Since I wanted a varied look for visual interest instead of uniformity or pattern, I kept the widths of my wood strips at whatever size they happened to be; since my end goal was to have the cutting board be about 1″ thick, all the wood strips used started around 1 1/8″ to 1 1/4″ in thickness. A laminated cutting board is a great way to use up long, skinny scraps of hardwood, and cutting pieces to the size of the template helps further reduce wood waste. This cutting board is composed primarily of Oak, Walnut, Cherry, and Maple, laid out mindfully to highlight the contrasts in color and grain of each wood species.

Some of the hardwood stock used to make the board

Some of the hardwood stock used to make the cutting board

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All the wood strips laid out and ready for glue!

With all the wood strips laid out over the template, it is time to start gluing them together! I used a high-strength version of Elmer’s Wood Glue, just because the finished cutting board may get wet during washing. With so many different sized pieces, and with such an awkward shape to clamp, I segmented Alaska into five different sections to make square-ish shapes to promote more secure clamping. Another reason to glue in sections was that my planer had a six-inch width, which is very important in the next step. If I was using my high school woodshop, I wouldn’t have had that problem, and could have glued the entire board together initially as a unit.

The five sections, glued, clamped, and curing

The five sections, glued, clamped, and curing

Once the glue has dried, I simply ran the larger three sections through the planer until they were all approximately the same thickness. Planing works like quick magic in taking the uneven glue-slopped board sections and making them look more like a finished product. The two sections that composed the Alaska Peninsula were too small to fit through the planer, so I smoothed them out using a belt sander. Once the five sections were about the same thickness, I glued them together to complete the state of Alaska.

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The five sections, glued, but before planingDSCN2487The five sections, planed and ready to be glued

The next step is a lot of work on the belt sander. While planing quickly gets wood down to the desired thickness, it leaves the wood pretty rough. The belt sander makes the surface nice and smooth, ready for an array of cheese and crackers.

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Smooth results after the belt sander

Now for the fun part, one of the quickest transformations of the whole process! It’s time to lay the template back on the sanded board, and use a bandsaw to cut along the black line. And voila, the real Alaska emerges!

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The big reveal!

With just some detailed sanding to smooth out the edges from the bandsaw cuts, the cutting board is just about finished. The last step is to protect the wood with a nice finish of food-safe oil. I hand rubbed in three coats of olive oil. Nothing like a good coat of oil to make the vibrancy of the wood really come to life!

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The finished product

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To see more of my woodworking projects, follow the link to my website.

Coronavirus Can Collecting

Can Litter

Typical Roadside Litter

 

A pastime that I share with my father we both affectionately call ‘canning.’ Essentially, the process of canning means either taking a walk or cruising country roads by bicycle looking to collect returnable bottles and cans strewn along a roadside. The benefits of canning are two-fold in that it provides an incentive for outdoors exercise while it simultaneously cleans up the streets of litter. And, thanks to Michigan’s bottle bill, there is a financial incentive to canning as well, which puts a refundable 10-cent deposit on all beer and soda cans and bottles. Though ten cents for a single can may not seem like very much, over the course of an outing it does add up.

With concerns over transmission of the Coronavirus, Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered all bottle redemption centers closed starting March 24. Automatic bottle returns were not mandated to reopen until June 15, after it was determined that recycling is not a primary driver of disease transmission (in fact, the most dangerous thing you can take into a grocery store during a pandemic is yourself). In the 82 days that Michigan bottle returns were closed, it was estimated that Michiganders collected over $80,000,000 in unredeemed bottle deposits, as the number of unredeemed containers grew by an estimated $7,000,000 each week. At ten cents a pop for a can, that means at one point Michiganders’ had over 800 million cans sitting in their basements and garages! The sheer number of containers alone is staggering, but as a grocery store employee it comes as no surprise as daily I see the overwhelming capacity of beer and soft drinks that are bought and continuously restocked.

Anticipating the impending closure of the bottle returns, I deposited my final pre-closure collection of cans on March 23, just in time for the shutdown. I redeemed a modest sum, a little over $20, which is typical for just a couple weeks of collecting. This meant that during the Coronavirus shutdown, my dad and I would have a fresh start for can collecting so we could visually see just how many cans would pile up on our collection outings during the closure. Even though most grocery store bottle returns had reopened by June 15, the vast number of unredeemed containers created a nightmarish bottle-return backlog. It was not until much later that I finally redeemed all the cans we had collected during the shutdown, mostly due to waiting out the Black Friday-esque rush to redeem cans in the weeks following reopening, coupled with a $25 daily limit on redemption slips. Not to mention that the sheer number of cans I collected would not have even fit in my car (unfortunately, I neglected to take even a single picture of the epic bounty!).

 

Bag of Cans
Not my cans in particular, but you get the idea

 

It was not until July 8 that I had finally finished returning my three-ish huge garbage bags full of cans. That totals 107 days of collecting. Total value of redemption: $156.20. That equates to 1,562 cans and bottles total! (not to mention all the cans and bottles not redeemed for cash because they were either not acceptable brands or they were too mangled to be accepted by the machine. So this estimate will ultimately be on the low end!).

If we analyze this on a per day basis, this number comes out to nearly 15 cans per day! (14.6 cans to be precise).

Of course, my household did generate some of the cans in our collection. If we subtract our portion of the cans, with a simple estimate of 2 cans per household member per week (we don’t drink a lot of beer or pop), we end up with (15 weeks x 3 people x 2 cans/week/person) = 90 cans, or $9. Not a significant percentage of the bounty (6 percent).

So, excluding my household’s cans leaves 1,472 bottles and cans that were scattered by the roadside, strewn across parking lots, or generally improperly disposed of. In terms of the environment, this is 1,472 pieces of easily recyclable material that instead ended up as unwanted litter!

Michigan’s bottle bill, passed in 1976, put a ten-cent deposit on non-reusable beverage containers. Similar to other environmental legislation of the 1970’s, Michigan’s bottle bill was aimed at reducing trash pollution, conserving natural resources, and increasing the rate of recycling. Among the ten states that currently have bottle bills, Michigan has long had the highest deposit price (being joined only in 2018 after Oregon increased their deposit to ten cents as well). With that higher deposit comes the highest rate of container recapturing: prior to 2018, each year the bottle bill was implemented saw over 90% of beverage containers redeemed. It could be argued that the current trend of falling redemption rates is due to inflation decreasing the value of beverage container refunds; in 2020 dollars, the ten cents paid in 1976, the year the bill was enacted, would be worth about 45 cents today. Perhaps it is time to raise the required deposit to keep up with inflation.

 

Vintage can litter
Scenes like these from the 1970’s inspired Michigan’s 1976 bottle bill

 

Though Michigan’s recycling rate has fallen slightly as of late, we still lead the nation in terms of container recycling. Unfortunately our national recycling rate is at a disappointing 34.5%, which lags behind many other developed countries. Other states have had trouble passing bottle bills of their own, even though they face substantial litter problems. Tennessee, for example, had bottle bills die in legislation in both 2009 and 2010, even though recycling rates in the state are an abysmal 10 percent and discarded bottles and cans make up the majority of roadside litter. Indeed, the Container Recycling Institute says that beverage containers account for between 40-60% of litter. More states might enact bottle return bills if it wasn’t for the powerful lobbying interests of the can and beverage manufacturers who spend hefty sums to fight such legislation.

So we’ve seen that the ten-cent container deposit in Michigan really does boost recycling rates. But what happens to the deposits on the containers that are never returned? Remember, Michiganders place deposits on approximately 70 million cans each week. Where do the deposits from the 10 percent of containers that are never returned go?

Unredeemed funds from bottle deposits are called escheat funds, and these monies revert to the state. Twenty-five percent of escheat funds go towards retailers to defray the costs of operating bottle redemption sites. The remaining 75 percent of escheat funds goes towards environmental protection measures, which include site-specific environmental clean-up (80%), educational programming on pollution prevention (10%), and deposits into the Cleanup and Redevelopment Trust Fund (10%). The Michigan bottle bill generates around six million dollars each year in escheat funds for the environment.

So every time that you purchase a bottle of beer in Michigan, maybe you should stop and appreciate that the ten cents tacked on to your receipt is helping Michigan’s environment. Not only has the bottle bill increased recycling and decreased litter, it also generates funding for environmental cleanup that is paid for (in large part) by people who litter. Though, as evidenced from the falling rate of container redemption in Michigan, and from my recent collection of 1,472 littered cans, there is still a lot of improvement to do. Michigan could further incentivize recycling by increasing the amount of the required bottle deposit. To combat the abundance of single-use plastic water bottles thrown away, Michigan could consider joining states like Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, New York, and Oregon that require a deposit on bottled water containers. And another common roadside polluter is liquor bottles; liquor is not included in Michigan’s bottle bill, but liquor containers have a 15-cent deposit in the states of Maine and Vermont. Until society reaches a point where there is no more litter and we recycle purely because it is the right thing to do, my dad and I will continue to enjoy the 10-cent per bottle perk every time we go pick up litter off the roadside.

 

freshavacado

The Man Behind the Dairy Doors

Dairy Cooler Doors

 

I see you as you grocery shop.

I hear your conversations as you open the doors to my lair.

You may have seen a vague shadow lurking behind the milk before.

You may have even wondered what’s causing all of the creamer to suddenly slide forward on the shelf.

Maybe you’ve never thought much of those things. Maybe you’ve really never wondered what’s further past the meticulously displayed products behind those mysterious clear glass doors.

But sometimes there is a moment when all is revealed. Those rare, fleeting moments when, in the gap where the organic soy milk normally goes (but which is somehow inexplicably always out of stock), we make eye contact.

Yes, I am the man behind the doors. I am the one stocking the dairy cooler.

I will spend my whole shift in the quiet confines of this cold concrete bunker. Chilled to 40ºF, the pallets of milk, orange juice, and yogurt provide my company.

Each day in the dairy cooler is an intense game of whack-a-mole: stock the specialty milk products and non-dairy substitutes before any of the popular milk gallons or egg cartons run out. The work never ends. By the time I finish re-stocking the fat-free milk, I can look back at the whole milk and see just how many gallons have found their way into a customer’s hands already. Indeed, I can judge how busy foot traffic is on the sales floor based on how fast the milk disappears. A busy day, and I’ll have to restock the milk gallons twice in a shift. I can go through more than two pallets of a single variety in a day—and that’s 288 gallons per pallet.

I can tell when the store opens based on when the slams of the dairy doors begin. Like an impending thunderstorm, it starts with a few sporadic slams before the deluge of banging doors betrays the intensity of early morning shopper traffic.

In between door slams, I hear snippets of cell phone conversations, commentary about our current stock, and intense deliberation on which product to buy. I listen silently as I work to replace what is running low. Most of the chatter is not intended for me, though I hear more than you are aware of. Most of you don’t know I’m back here working—or that I’m quite amenable to help you with your dairy.

But some of you know the secret. There are the bold few who pop their heads in through the door, eye me through the gaps in the dairy, and ask me to find a product. Milk, I’m an expert in. Cheese and yogurt I know a bit about too. But please don’t ask me about dry goods. I am happy here in my dairy cave. I feel a bit like a hermit crab out of his shell when forced out onto the sales floor.

My job is to keep you happy and to give you dairy. You may never see me, but if the milk is well stocked then you know I’m there, always eavesdropping and spying on you behind the dairy doors.

Seeking Spring Ephemerals

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Exploring Van Raalte Farm, a local Holland, Michigan Park

 

In early spring, well before the trees and shrubs send forth their leaves into the skies above, a fleeting class of plants emerges from the ground to live their brief, wonderous time in the unhindered spring sunlight. These flowers speckle the forest floor with patches of bright whites, yellows, purples, and reds, atop their brilliant fresh green foliage, in a welcome contrast to the subdued hues of winter. The ephemeral show lasts for a few short weeks before the flowers fade away and the lush greens of the plant wither away to wait the remainder of the year hidden secretly underground. In May 2020, I went off as a flower-hunter, spending time scouring a few local parks and preserves in the greater Holland, Michigan area, looking for native wildflowers. I found some ephemerals in bloom, was too late on others, but everywhere saw a diversity of early-blooming wildflowers. I encountered a much greater floral diversity than I could reasonably post here—so get out to your local parks and go seek your own wildflowers!

 

A sure sign of spring in the forest are the large brilliant blooms of the Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) Melantiaceae. Single stalks with leaves of three and flowers with petals of three (it is the TRI-llium, after all). The showy white flowers gradually turn to pink.

 

A personal favorite of mine is the swaths of Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum) Liliaceae that blanket the forest floor. Bright yellow lily-like flowers nod from a stalk that emerges above their one or two leaves. Brown mottling on the leaves is said to resemble the skin of trout, giving rise to the plant’s common name. Their peak bloom in West Michigan is in April, but I was fortunate to catch a few late flowers in May.

 

Forming dense clusters of large, deeply-cleft umbrella-like leaves is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) Berberidaceae. The fleshy stalks emerge in April, and a single white flower blooms in May. The ‘apple’ that gives the plant its common name (also called a ‘forest lemon’) does not ripen until June, and all green parts of the plant, including the unripe fruit, are poisonous.

 

Found abundantly in wet, marshy areas is the aptly-named Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) Ranunculaceae. This bright-yellow flowered plant grows in colonies and steadily blooms from April to August.

 

Another bright yellow flower, although this one with only a single bloom and being found in more upland the woods is the Hispid Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus) Ranunculaceae. The word ‘hispid’ means covered with stiff hairs or bristles, and references the flowering stalk of the plant.

 

Dense colonies of 5-sepaled flowers growing up to one foot high in woodlands is an indicator of the False Meadow Rue (Isopyrum biternatum) Ranunculaceae. A true spring ephemeral, False Meadow Rue blooms for only a few weeks in May, then completely withers away to its roots.

 

Another flowering plant of moist woodlands, this one purple in color, is the Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum) Geraniaceae. The geranium is popular with gardeners, and several domesticated varieties can be found in cultivation.

 

An incredibly brilliant and uniquely-shaped flower is found on the Wild Columbine (Aquilegea canadensis) Ranunculaceae. Several flowers, with five red-spurred petals and protruding yellow stamens, hang from the plant above its deeply lobed leaves. Nectar is stored in the flower’s spurs, providing food for pollinating hummingbirds.

 

Multiple globe-shaped clusters of tiny white flowers emerging from a single stem on the forest floor indicate Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) Araliaceae. Not far from the flowering stem are the leaves of plant, deeply divided into typically 5 leaflets. Young Wild Sarsaparilla with three leaflets and a glossy purple hue can sometimes uncannily resemble poison ivy. The roots can be used as a substitute for real Sarsaparilla flavoring, though the plant is not closely related to the True Sarsaparilla (Smilax sp.) of tropical climates.

 

A single palm leaf-like plant with a spiked cluster of small white flowers is the False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa) Asparagaceae. It grows in the same habitat as the true Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum sp.), which will have several bell-shaped flowers hanging under the stem. The origin of the common name ‘Solomon’s Seal’ is unclear, though it was perhaps named in reference to the plant roots resembling a signet ring or Hebrew characters.

 

Not only were the wildflowers blooming, but some trees were in bloom too. I came across this small native understory tree, the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) Fabaceae. The Redbud blooms profligately with bunches of pink flowers, making it no wonder it is popular as a landscape tree as well.

 

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Showing promise of fruity treasure to come in June is this diminutive white flower, Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) Rosaceae. Wild strawberry plants sprawl across sunny open patches by spreading with runners. The thimble-sized strawberries are juicy and flavorful, and are quite popular with this flower-hunter.

 

The field guide I used in identifying these plants was Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide © 1977 by Little, Brown and Co.

 

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