A R C H I V E S   O F
The Reluctant Blogger

© 2008 Henry Kisor

O C T O B E R,   2 0 0 7

[NOTE: Some of the links to newspaper stories may be broken, thanks to the sources archiving their articles under new links. Also, all comments from readers unfortunately have been lost.]

Oct. 31: Reflections on a journey

The Lady Friend and I have returned from our rail trip to Toronto, Jasper and Vancouver, and we have this mental baggage to unload:

1. Wild animals never seem to be around when you’re looking for them. Only when your mind is on something else do they suddenly pop up. (This is a corollary to the law of watched pots and boiling water.) On a drive south of Jasper we managed to encounter a few creatures.

Whitetails in Jasper

Whitetail deer? Big deal — they’re everywhere in North America. But these had the courtesy to hold still for a codger with a camera.

Elk south of Jasper

The Lady Friend snapped this photo of a bull elk from the car a few feet away. It was rutting season and bulls are dangerous and unpredictable.

2. Canadian service and tourism personnel seem to handle a deaf traveler with much more skill, patience and aplomb than do their American counterparts. Every such Canadian I spoke to responded to me directly, rather than over my shoulder to the Lady Friend as if I were a mute stick of furniture.

3. Jasper, Alta., is so expensive (especially the restaurants) that even Canadians remark about costs there. Conversely, Vancouver’s prices are quite reasonable, much like that of any midwestern American city. Of course this was the off-season in both places, but still . . . All the same, Jasper is a pleasant, interesting town with unbeatable scenery in all directions.

Rt. 93 south of Jasper, Alta.

Route 93 south of Jasper offers breathtaking vistas of the Canadian Rockies around every bend.

Athabasca Falls south of Jasper

We were particularly taken with Athabasca Falls on Route 93. This is just one of a dozen viewpoints of the cataract.

4. Vancouver has an extraordinarily well-thought-out transportation system, and it’s cheap to ride. For $8 you can get an all-day pass that allows you to ride the SkyTrain, the buses and the harbor ferries. It’s a honor system, too — no turnstiles to feed or agents at the gates. If you get caught cheating — there are spot checks from time to time — the fine is $175. In Chicago at least a $1,000 fine and the threat of jail or a waterboarding session would be needed to make a honor system work.

Vancouver Skytrain

Vancouver is building an extension of the Skytrain to the airport, hoping to finish it in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

False Creek Ferry

The False Creek Ferry and its little brother, the Aquabus, are the best way to get around the attractions of the southern part of Vancouver’s city center.

Seabus ferry

The big Seabus took us to and from North Vancouver. It was a pretty 12-minute ride past anchored tankers and cargo vessels.

5. If airline security irritates you, border crossings will appall you. We took the bus from Vancouver to Seattle, and at the U.S. border we had to get off the vehicle and take our bags into a cavernous building where scary guards (shades of Blackwater thugs!) clad in black paramilitary uniforms, black boots and large sidearms asked the usual questions and scanned our luggage under X-ray machines. It was like entering a Third World country. At least the guards were polite and efficient and we got through immigration fairly rapidly, unlike the long, long string of automobiles in the next lanes (electric signs warned auto drivers of a 40-minute wait, and this was 9 a.m. on a Sunday). Like airline security, it’s all for show — none of it is going to stop a determined terrorist. Welcome to the United States, land of the free and home of the fearful.

[Nov. 3: Speaking of airline security, the latest Ask the Pilot column on Salon.com tells about a truly, truly absurd encounter between a professional airline pilot and the Transport Security Administration.]

5. If you’re a rail buff, the Jasper station is a great place for all-day trainspotting as well as people-watching. So is Vancouver’s Pacific Station. Conversely, the most depressing inner-city railroad station in the world has to be Amtrak’s King Street Station in Seattle. Even though long-term rehab has been started, it’s still drab and dully lighted, without a separate lounge for sleeping-car passengers. There are no restaurants, just a solo vending machine inside. Homeless panhandlers abound outside, and it’s a three-block walk to a grimy strip of greasy-spoon grills and hot-sheet hotels. It’s sad that King Street has to be a terminus for two of Amtrak’s best long-distance trains, the Empire Builder and the Coast Starlight.

Station at Jasper, Alta.

The station at Jasper, Alta., is surprisingly busy for such a small depot when The Canadian or its little brother, The Skeena, are arriving and departing.

Vancouver Pacific Central station

Vancouver’s Pacific Central station looks imposing at night. Inside, the architecture is more ordinary, but still it’s a bustling place.

King Street Station, Seattle

Seattle’s King Street Station features a striking campanile, but the interior rehab has a long way to go to dispel the gray and drab ambience.

6. Maybe it was because we had been spoiled by the relative luxury of VIA Rail’s The Canadian, but we were a little disappointed by the service on the Empire Builder, a train we’ve long enjoyed. Where a VIA porter would have been courteous and professional, addressing us as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” our Amtrak sleeper attendant was familiar in the extreme, calling everybody “you guys” throughout the trip and distinguishing herself by her absence when we needed her. Both nights we got so tired of waiting for her to appear that we assembled our beds ourselves. Except for a steward with the demeanor of a sawed-off female drill sergeant, the dining-car staff was excellent. It’s a pity the meals they served seemed substandard (tough steak, stale bread, overcooked vegetables) on this run — the Empire Builder’s dining car heretofore has been very good. It’s one of the few on Amtrak where meals are still prepared, not reheated, on board.

7. It’s always easier to bitch about the little things than praise the big ones. All in all, it was a memorable trip, and despite our niggles we did enjoy the ride home on the Empire Builder.

8. Next Monday I’m bound for San Francisco (actually Emeryville on the eastern side of the bay) on my old favorite, Amtrak’s California Zephyr. It’ll be either the 21st or 22nd trip I’ve taken on that train. Of course there will be a full report, with photographs.

Oct. 27: Trip photos from The Canadian

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Following are some of the railroadier shots from our trip on VIA Rail’s The Canadian from Toronto to Jasper, Alta., and Jasper to Vancouver last week:

VIA 1 at Capreol, Ont.

VIA Rail names its boat-tailed observation cars after national parks. This one, the Waterton Park, was photographed during the Canadian’s refueling stop at Capreol, Ont. [Correction: The convention of naming Park observations began with the original owner of the cars, the Canadian Pacific Railway, back in the 1950s. Thanks to Vance Durgin of Santa Ana, Calif., for the information.]

Bullet lounge of the Waterton Park

On The Canadian, the place to be during the day is the “bullet lounge” of the “Park car,” with endless coffee and munchies.

Park car dome facing forward

The Park car is topped by a glass dome made famous on Canadian and American streamliners during the 1950s. This view faces forward.

Park car dome facing aft

The Park car dome, facing aft toward the “bullet lounge.” Competition for the dome seats is keen all day.

View forward from the dome

The view from the rear window of the Waterton Park was a mesmerizing one as the rails converged in the distance.

Dining car

“There’s nothing finer than dinner in the diner” . . . This was lunch the first day out from Toronto. (Actually, diner seatings are packed — this photo was taken just before the crowd for the second sitting rolled in.)

D and H in the diner

The Reluctant Blogger and his Lady Friend at lunch. Cuisine on The Canadian is not only first-rate but also is included in the price of a sleeper ticket.

Sleeper double compartment

The Lady Friend works on her black belt in sudoku in our sleeper compartment. A 17mm lens isn’t wide enough to show how spacious the room is, but the truth is we spent most of our waking hours in the Park car.

Bedtime in the sleeper

The Lady Friend’s sleeping-draught at bedtime was a page-turner. Just about every adult passenger we saw clutched a book in hand.

The Canadian at Jasper

The Canadian pulls into the station at Jasper, Alta. (Actually this was the one we took to Vancouver three days after our arrival.)

The Skeena departs

The Skeena, VIA’s train from Jasper to Prince George and Prince Rupert, B.C., departs Jasper. At this time of year it consists only of a locomotive, a coach and a Park car. Wouldn’t it be the perfect train for a small model railroad?

Skeena engineer

Male engineers tend to glower at camera-bedecked railfans. Not the females, however, including this one, who was taking The Skeena out of Jasper.

Spiderman F40s

The first two units pulling No. 2, the eastbound Canadian, up from Vancouver are “Spideys.” In 2004 VIA Rail painted six of its F40 locomotives in “Spiderman 2″ colors as a promotion. It reportedly enticed many Canadian children to take their first train trips — a good thing because, let’s face it, this is a decidedly inelegant way to paint a locomotive.

Shades of Lionel Lines and American Flyer! This FP9u locomotive in VIA’s engine yard at Vancouver dates to the 1950s, when the Reluctant Blogger started making his first serious choo-choo noises. It is VIA’s last surviving engine of its kind.

In the days to come I’ll post a selection of more conventionally touristy photographs from Jasper and Vancouver.

Oct. 24: Letter from Jasper, Page 2

JASPER, Alta. — If one must be stuck in the rain for two days anywhere, this Rocky Mountain resort town isn’t a bad place, even during the off season when both humans and (seemingly) animals are scarce.

The Lady Friend and I rented a car at the railway station where we had debarked two days ago from The Canadian, the train from Toronto. Yesterday we drove northwest on Highway 16 through Jasper National Park about 35 kilometers to a place called Moose Lake on the Fraser River in British Columbia’s Yellowhead Pass. The Hertz lady had told us that morning she had spotted both moose and wolves at the lake on her way to work. But we saw nothing there or on the ride back to Jasper.

It didn’t matter overmuch — the drive through the pass was gorgeous, even under lowering cloud and drizzle. So was the journey that afternoon south of Jasper on Highway 93. We stopped at the intricate Athabasca Falls on the Athabasca River — as soon as we get back home next week I’ll post photos of that and other things. No animals to speak of, except for a herd of elk crossing the river at a considerable distance.

The rain was heavier on today’s trip 30 kilometers southeast to Maligne Lake, and the animals were even scarcer. All we saw were a few ground squirrels dashing across the road in a panic. The many road signs warning of caribou crossings started to seem phony-advisory just to keep traffic (of which there was none) at a safe speed. The misty vistas still were spectacular — we think they’re even better than those in the Montana and Colorado Rockies — and we just accepted our ill luck at spotting wildlife.

Until a few miles south of Jasper on the way back, when we rounded a bend to be greeted by a quartet of whitetail deer at roadside. We have plenty of those in Upper Michigan. But we were glad not to be entirely skunked.

Before going back into town we pulled southwest to the famous and very nobby Jasper Park Lodge, where we thought we might have lunch. Nope. The place is so ritzy lunch would have destroyed a $100 bill, even a Canadian one. We decided to seek out a sandwich shop in Jasper, and as luck would have it we were still driving out of the Jasper Park Lodge grounds when we happened upon a magnificent bull elk and his harem of three females just a few feet from the road.

The Jasperites had warned us repeatedly to be careful of elk, for October is rutting season and the bulls will attack any creature, human included, they think is competing with them for the females. We didn’t get out of the car, but the Lady Friend snapped half a dozen excellent photos, and you’ll see them here soon.

Two topics seemed to dominate conversations in Jasper. One was the failure of Canadian prices for American-made goods to drop along with the U.S. dollar.  Even though the American buck is now worth 97 Canadian cents, Canadians are still paying 10 to 15 per cent more than Americans do for the same things, and they want to know why.  Although economists talk learnedly about market forces and existing inventory, ordinary Canadians want their finance minister to jawbone retailers into at least equalizing prices as soon as possible. (Wal-Mart, of all retailers, seems to be doing so in a big way. It’s good PR for the much-maligned corporation.)

The other subject is the big oil and gas pipeline being built from the immensely rich tar sands of northern Alberta 1,200 miles southwest to Vancouver.  Even though the tar sands oil boom is fueling much of the hot Canadian economy, many Jasperites are upset, and not without reason — the pipeline is crossing a national park whose ecology is exceptionally sensitive. A leak or spill will mean hell to pay.

Right now, however, the hard hats are spending lots of off-season money in town, and at the laundromat this afternoon a pipeline worker’s wife told the Lady Friend that  all construction will stop when the white goats start their migration and stay that way until the animals get to wherever they’re going. Five gets you ten that was the doing of Parks Canada, not the pipeline corporation.

In the afternoon I went over to the station to watch the departure of VIA Rail’s The Skeena, which leaves Jasper at noon and in the evening arrives at Prince George, B.C., where the train — and its passengers — spend the night. At 8 the next morning it leaves for Prince Rupert on the ocean just south of Alaska and arrives 12 hours later. This train — today it consisted of just one locomotive, one coach and a Park dome-lounge-observation car — is said to follow the most beautiful valleys of the Canadian Rockies, and the Lady Friend and I made a pact to ride it some day soon.

Tomorrow we reboard The Canadian for the overnight jaunt to Vancouver, where we’ll spend two days rubbernecking before our return home on Amtrak’s flagship train, the Empire Builder.

Oct. 23: Letter from Jasper

JASPER, Alta. — You could call it the Geezer Express. In October the passengers who ride The Canadian, VIA Rail’s vaunted transcontinental train, are nearly all well into their retirement years. Their average age must be about 75.

But what geezers! They come to ride the train from all over the Americas, Europe, Australia and China.

At one extreme was a fellow writer, a retired professor of economics at Rutgers who has written several books on Russia. We had a high old time in the dining car talking about publishing as well as the Russian economy.

At another was a retired policeman and his wife from Hertfordshire in England, full of fond opinions on Queen Elizabeth and arch ones about Prince Charles. He was a reader, too, having just finished a new biography of Darwin.

Two of our best tablemates were a VIA Rail locomotive engineer and his wife, who were returning — by train, of course — from a vacation in Halifax and were full of tips about what to see and do (and when) in Nova Scotia. When we arrived in Edmonton the following morning, he kissed his wife good-bye and strode up to the locomotives to engineer the train to Jasper.

Most of the rest of the passengers were lively, well-informed salt-of-the-earthers who spend their savings traveling the world. We enjoyed them all.

Of course the best hours on the train the Lady Friend and I spent came in the dining car talking to these people while simultaneously partaking of some of the best meals we have ever had. Only one couple, pinch-faced Americans from what must have been a dry and irritable red state, was disagreeable; as they picked at their food they complained incessantly about their accommodations and the service, which — they said — wasn’t what they had expected from the brochures.

The Lady Friend and I beg to disagree. Though they do show a bit of minor wear and tear around the edges, the half-century-old, well-overhauled stainless steel cars of The Canadian are in remarkably fine shape, like a stout dowager who has spent a fortune at the plastic surgeon’s. The sleeper compartments are roomy, the mattresses wide and thick, and I slept nine solid hours both nights.

Moreover, the “Park car” — the boat-tailed lounge-observation at the rear of the train — was busy and bustling, with an endless supply of fresh fruit, coffee and conversation all day. If we tired of chitchat, we could mount the stairs to the glass dome above and watch the scenery pass by between naps. (Competition for the dome seats was brisk but polite.)

As for the service, we found it friendly, attentive and highly professional. Victor, our porter — VIA still calls its sleeper personnel “porters” instead of “attendants” — kept our ice bucket well supplied to cool my aching back, and when it acted up one evening, cheerfully served dinner en suite on a portable table swathed with napery. A couple of the dining-car waiters seemed a tad less efficient than the rest, but none of them barked back as Amtrak diner personnel have been known to do.

Our only complaint was with the weather, which I am sure that unhappy couple would have blamed on VIA Rail. Lowering gray clouds followed us through the boreal forest of eastern Ontario the first day and across the muskeg woods of the western part of the province the second, and an overcast accompanied us across Manitoba and Saskatchewan the third, lifting ever so briefly only at the Alberta Rockies. This was not helpful for photography, but that was all.

We debarked right on the advertised in Jasper in the middle of Jasper National Park. Summer is gone and the ski lifts have not yet started running, for snow has not yet fallen. The rump season is an ideal time (although a chilly one) to experience the park without crowds. Be advised, however, that some of the attractions close down at this time of year.

Our hotel, the Whistler Inn, is right across the street from the station, and our room faces on both the mountains and the rail yard. It’s a trainspotter’s sort of place. The car rentals are at the station, too, and scores of interesting restaurants are scattered about the town center. I could spend all day with a camera and long lens by the station photographing the scores of trains that pass by, for Jasper is spang on the Canadian National Railway’s main line from Vancouver to the eastern provinces.

But today the Lady Friend wants to drive south in a rental car on the Icefields Parkway toward Banff to see the sights and the wildlife. (Our waitress at breakfast, by the way, warned us to beware of the elk. It’s rutting season. They amble into town all over and will knock you down if you get too close.)

More, with photos, in the days to come.

Oct. 18: This woman is my hero

Washington Post

. . . and here’s why.

(Another fine, funny piece by Neely Tucker of the Washington Post.)

Oct. 15: Has Lake Superior hit bottom?

According to the Army Corps of Engineers’ preliminary readings, thanks to several days of heavy rains in the western reaches of Lake Superior during the first week of October, the lake level seems to have stopped falling, at least for the nonce. Its running mean above sea level rose from 600.6 feet on October 1 to 600.9 feet on October 14. (The last six days it’s been at 601.0 feet).

This means that the lake level for October may not fall below the all-time 600.7 foot record, set in 1926, as that for September — 600.5 feet — fell below the official 600.8 foot mark, also set in 1926. Just possibly the lake has turned the corner and may recover most or all of the water it has lost in the last two years. Let’s hope so.

But it will take a very cold and snowy winter, in which the lake freezes over, for that to happen — and the long-range forecast is for more dry and warm months to come. I am not optimistic.

Oct. 12: The photo detective

Copyright Wall Street Journal

Photo detective Maureen Taylor deduced that this man in an 1860s-era tintype was not portrayed as a Union soldier, as his family had thought. (Slightly larger version here.) Wall Street Journal

The last few weeks I have been sifting through old family photographs, some of which I had myself taken, trying to pinpoint the year in which they had been captured. Unfortunately nobody (including me) wrote the dates on the backs of the pictures, and so Lady Friend and I have been trying to figure that out by guessing the ages of the children in them — without much luck. A ten-year-old doesn’t look much different from a nine-year-old.

This morning the Wall Street Journal published a feature article by Alexandra Alter (with an accompanying video) that has given me fresh inspiration.

It’s all about Maureen Taylor, a Westwood, Mass., “photo detective” who (for $60 an hour) analyzes old family pictures to date them and identify what’s in them. To do so she employs genealogy, art history, costume history and cultural anthropology.

For instance, she pointed out that a daguerreotype of an apparently sleeping child in a baby carriage was probably a death photo, for it was common in the 1860s for people to have their dead children photographed in such poses as keepsakes.

This reminds me of Michael Lesy’s horrifying Wisconsin Death Trip, a historical analysis of photos taken in Black River Falls, Wis., a place often visited by the Grim Reaper in the 19th century. It was published in 1973 and was one of the first books I reviewed as the fledgling book editor of the old Chicago Daily News that year.

Alter’s piece is meaty and fascinating, worthy of the Journal’s long tradition of first-rate feature writing.

Oct. 11: Shopping while deaf

Sometimes I think I’m living on borrowed time.

I’ve been totally deaf for 64 of my 67 years, but never have been attacked as a fellow in Fort Worth, Texas, was last week for failing to respond to someone speaking to him. He suffered a crowbar across the skull from an ill-tempered convenience store clerk.

It would be easy to be paranoid about these things, but the truth is that such unfortunate encounters happen so rarely that when they do, they make the papers.

A few far less dramatic situations have cropped up in which I didn’t respond when people spoke to me unseen.

Just last summer, for instance, a supermarket checker in Ontonagon, Michigan, told my lady friend that she had thought I was a “grump” because I didn’t respond to her small talk when unloading my shopping cart. Only when she attended a book talk I gave did she learn I was deaf. (I could say I’m glad she wasn’t armed, but the truth is she’s a very pleasant person.)

Another time I was boarding an elevated train when a sweating, red-faced man, his arms full of packages, shot an elbow in front of me, then turned and shouted something I didn’t catch. He sat down across from me and glared over his newspaper almost all the way to the Loop.

I was puzzled, but didn’t ask what was wrong, because a noisy, bucketing L train is not the best place for me to try to make myself understood. Only later did I realize that the man must have come up the platform stairs behind me unseen, only to be blocked by my own open newspaper, and said “Excuse me.” He must have mistaken my silence for rude contempt.

I’d seen him on the platform a number of times, and I resolved to explain the situation and apologize next time I saw him. But he never appeared. Pity. That still feels like unfinished business.

The cops did get involved in one such situation. A gas station clerk handed me back my change and with a smile said something I didn’t quite understand, but I figured that it must have been “Have a nice day.” What else gets said on such occasions?

Actually it was “I accidentally gave you five dollars too much change. May I have it back?”

I said “Thank you,” swept out the door and drove off.

An hour or so later a detective showed up on my doorstep.

“Did you buy gas today?” he asked.

“Yes, why?” I replied.

He explained.

I sighed.

Just before we got into his unmarked prowl car for the trip to the gas station, he said, “You understand you’re not under arrest?”

Ten minutes later the clerk had her five dollars back. “Sorry about this,” she said, “but there have been so many drive-offs that . . .”

It could have been worse. She could have been armed, as so many store clerks are these days, perhaps with a crowbar.

Life with deafness is never boring. That much can be said for it.

Oct. 10: High-chair wars

“It’s broccoli, dear,” says Mother.

“I say it’s spinach,” replies the little girl, “and I say the hell with it.”

Every literate parent and grandparent recognizes that famous New Yorker cartoon, and if they don’t, they still know the rebellious and universal sentiment behind it. Breathes there a little Bolshevik who hasn’t refused to taste what’s put in front of him?

Something wrong with the kid? Something wrong with the parent? Are families doomed to lifetimes of chicken nuggets and mac ‘n cheese? Where does food aversion come from — nature or nurture?

Take a deep breath, pal. It’s your fault. Or, rather, that of the genes you’ve passed to your kid.

So says a new scientific study (they’re all scientific, aren’t they?) quoted in today’s New York Times, in an article in (of all places) the Dining & Wine section. Childhood neophobia — that’s fear of new foods — is 78 percent genetic and 22 percent environmental, say the white coats at University College London.

Be strong, the quoted experts say. Do not despair. We shall overcome. Sooner or later your kid will eat something green. The urchin raised on pasta will graduate to Cordon Bleu, maybe after he’s married to a Frenchwoman.

The best part of the article is the comments from readers, many of whom sound like Nurse Ratcheds of the dining table: “Eat it or go hungry!” So what if takes kung fu to get that kid to eat his tofu? They don’t put up with that crap in their houses. Hoo boy.

Oct. 8: Loonies rule!

Obverse side of the Canadian dollar coin

Last week the value of the U.S. dollar dropped below that of the loonie, or Canadian dollar, for the first time since 1976. At this moment US$1 is worth CAN$0.983.

This is not earthshaking news to anybody except a Yank planning to travel in Canada or a Canuck planning to buy stuff in the States. It so happens that the Lady Friend and I plan to spend almost two weeks in Canada later this month, and we’ll pay more for hotels and meals than I’d expected when I booked the trip last February.

It’s a good thing I paid at that time for our tickets on VIA Rail’s The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. The exchange rate heavily favored the U.S dollar (the tix cost CAN$2,338.36, at that time worth US$2,014.61).

(The loonie, named for the bird on the obverse side of the Canadian dollar coin, is not a pejorative term at all — the Canadian Mint has secured the rights to the name. The French Canadian equivalent is huard.)

Pity I didn’t huard loonies when I could have, but who knew?

Oct. 7: Squirrel wars

It is written that last year in Britain’s House of Lords, the 21st Lady Saltoun of Abernethy rose gravely to speak on a matter troubling to many in the land: Imported gray squirrels from America are fast overwhelming the native red squirrel, threatening its existence in the United Kingdom. And this is terrible, for Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, a cute red, has largely replaced the British lion in patriotic Limey breasts.Sciurus vulgaris (the British red)

“Red squirrels,” Lady Saltoun intoned, “are rather like quiet, well-behaved people who do not make a nuisance or an exhibition of themselves or commit crimes and so do not get themselves into the papers in the vulgar way gray squirrels do.” She continued: “Red squirrels do not strip bark from trees; damage arable crops, market gardens and garden plants; dig up bulb and corms from recently sown seed; eat birds’ eggs; or eat telephone wires and electricity cables, as gray squirrels do.”

Lady Saltoun asked whether gray squirrels tasted good. “I have a nasty feeling that . . . children in particular would say, ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly eat that,’ just as they say they cannot eat dear little bunny rabbits. But this is worth having a look at.”

What is worth having a look at, according to an amusing and engrossing article in today’s New York Times Magazine by D.T. Max (source of the foregoing intelligence about Lady Saltoun), is a largely aristocratic plan to trap and kill as many grays as possible to preserve the reds in their last redoubt, the fortress hills of Scotland.

All this gave me pause, as anything about red squirrels usually does.

Tamiascurus hudsonicus (the American red)In Upper Michigan red squirrels, territorial to a fault, are tougher than the big grays. Reds are like Jimmy Cagney on speed, often breaking into vacant (and sometimes occupied) summer cabins with little squirrel tommy guns and thoroughly trashing the place with sprays of little squirrel lead. It has happened to us, and there is only one way to deal with the matter. But since children may be reading this blog, I shall not go into it.

British Squirrel Nutkins are wimps by comparison, innocuous little creatures to be fawned over, not targeted with steel rat traps, powerful air rifles and .22s loaded with dumdum bullets. Of course the Yank and the Brit varieties are completely different species. It’s Tamiascurus hudsonicus (lower right) that torments me so; it’s Sciurus vulgaris (upper left) that’s threatened in Britain. Tamiascurus is smaller and meaner than Sciurus and has smooth ears while Sciurus’ are often tufted. The two species are never seen in the same range; they’re separated by an ocean.

And that is all the squirrel lore I can stand today.

Oct. 6: The plot to dewater Lake Superior

“Its code name is Excelsior, and the preliminary plan alone fills a portfolio the size of a breadbox. If all goes according to plan . . . the Governor of Minnesota will stand on a platform in Duluth and pull a golden lanyard, opening the gates of the Superior Diversion Canal, a concrete waterway the size of the Suez. Water from Lake Superior will flood into the canal at a rate of 50 billion gal. per hour and go south.

“It will flow into the St. Croix River, to the Mississippi, south to an aqueduct at Keokuk, Iowa, and from there west to the Colorado River and into the Grand Canyon and many other southwestern canyons, filling them up to the rims — enough water to supply the parched Southwest from Los Angeles to Santa Fe for more than 50 years.”

This is from Time magazine, away back in 1995. And the courageous writer who blew the whistle on the scheme was the definitely-above-average Garrison Keillor.

Maybe this shocking story is the primary source for backwoods wingnuts’ belief that secret government interests are sucking the soul out of the lake and selling it to Arizona.

Oct. 5: More news you can use

1. Not prescription, not over-the-counter, but behind-the-counter: The Los Angeles Times reports on a new proposal for pharmaceutical drug delivery.

2. Still another reason to take the train: Salon.com’s The Pilot sees no quick (or even reasonably speedy) fix for airline delays.

3. How you fight with your spouse can affect your health, says the New York Times.

4. The Chicago Tribune tells why Chicago has no street or school named after the Nobel Prize-winning Saul Bellow.

5. BBC News reports on the 2007 Ig Nobel Prizes, including one to an Argentinian research team for its discovery that sexual potency drugs help hamsters recover from jet lag.

6. Twisted but not stale

Oct. 4: Blurbsmanship

One of the most important — and most controversial — aspects of publishing a book is soliciting favorable comments, or “blurbs,” from fellow writers to banner on one’s book jackets.

This is a form of literary backscratching, cynical critics say: You blurb my book and I’ll blurb yours. What’s more, they add, blurbing is also a cheap and easy way for writers to keep their names before the public — hence you need to take what they say with a grain of salt, maybe a handful.

In many cases all this may be true, but I’d also argue that in most instances, writers blurb for a good reason: They like what they read and they mean what they say. They see nothing wrong with giving a leg up to a fellow writer they admire. And neither do I.

Blurbs are important to publishers because a good one might catch the eye of a bored bookstore browser and spur him to buy the book. Every little bit helps in sales.

Up to my retirement as book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, I couldn’t blurb books — it would have been unethical to do so, because such a book might end up on my desk for a review, raising a clear conflict of interest. But would I blurb a book now? Of course . . . if I like it and think it deserves a round of applause.

All this is in service of introducing you to a bunch of blurbs that have come in for my upcoming Cache of Corpses. Which of them will actually appear on the jacket, I don’t know. Make of them what you will. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that many authors to whom advance copies of Cache were sent for blurbing never responded. Whether they didn’t have time to read the book or just didn’t like it, I don’t know.)

“Add Henry Kisor’s deputy sheriff Steve Martinez to the list with Lew Archer and Travis McGee. A Lakota Indian, Martinez is a hard-working lawman who knows Michigan’s Upper Peninsula like the back of his hand. But he’s never seen anything remotely like the macabre conspiracy that leaves a trail of corpses, most of them embalmed, in remote corners of his jurisdiction. Kisor’s riveting plot weaves together computer gamesmanship, gruesome forensics, local politics, wary romance and inherited Indian instincts into a terrifically readable thriller . . . Couldn’t put it down.” – Roger Ebert, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic and author of Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert

Cache of Corpses is a master juggling act. Henry Kisor’s ability to keep humor, heartwarming moments, and headless corpses spinning effortlessly before the reader’s eye is nothing short of amazing. Fine prose and a perfect evocation of Michigan’s marvelous Upper Peninsula add tremendously to the entertainment. Read this gem of a book. I guarantee Kisor’s magic as a storyteller will hold you spellbound.” — William Kent Krueger, author of the new Thunder Bay and other Cork O’Connor mysteries

“Complex and compelling, this tale is held together by Deputy Stephen Martinez, who comes to life on every page. Kisor has a fine-tuned ear for dialogue and a perfect feel for the Michigan Upper Peninsula, which is remote, beautiful and filled with secrets. If you want a protagonist you can cheer for, you’ve come to the right place.” — Stuart Kaminsky, author of the Toby Peters and Porfiry Rostnikov mysteries, and the new The Dead Don’t Lie: An Abe Lieberman Mystery

“I can’t think of another cop in all of fiction that I enjoy rooting for more than Steve Martinez.” — Kevin Guilfoile, author of Cast of Shadows

“I like Henry Kisor’s eye for detail. It’s refreshing to see a writer of uncommon skill create thrills by drawing pictures with words. In addition, Cache of Corpses avoids the literary cliche of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as a frozen wasteland to present it in all its wild beauty.”– Loren Estleman, best-selling author of Gas City

“An exotic murder method, plenty of surprises to keep you flipping the pages, and a villain who is profoundly villainous. And most of all a believable hero you genuinely give a damn about. This is the book that should bring Henry Kisor the big audience he deserves.” — Ed Gorman, author of the new Fools Rush In: A Sam McCain Mystery

Oct. 2: The first advance notices . . .

for my Cache of Corpses (out Nov. 27) are not half bad. I think I’ll have a second glass of merlot tonight. Maybe there’s hope for this enterprise.

From Publishers Weekly, Oct. 1:

Deputy Sheriff Steve Two Crow Martinez encounters a bizarre killer in his exciting third Porcupine County, Mich., adventure (after 2006’s A Venture into Murder). The discovery of a headless and handless embalmed corpse in an abandoned building leads to a demented geocaching game—using GPS receivers to find hidden trinkets or, in this case, bodies—conducted via an anonymous chat room. The gamers are led by a sociopath who resorts to murder when he can’t buy cadavers to stock his caches. Martinez must solve this creepy puzzler while waging a heated campaign for sheriff, a position his elderly boss, Eli Garrow, is reluctant to relinquish. He also faces new responsibilities as he cares for his girlfriend’s Ojibwe Indian foster son, Tommy Standing Bear, while she’s out of town. When Tommy gets lost in the woods, Steve must rely on old-fashioned methods to find him—and again to catch the killer. Kisor delivers an educational chiller that also serves as a cautionary reminder about overreliance on fallible technology. (Dec.)

From Kirkus Reviews, Oct. 1:

Who’s salting Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with dead bodies?

Porcupine City Deputy Steve Martinez is called to a remote farm where a pair of randy teenagers have just had their coitus interrupted by the discovery of a headless, handless corpse. The otherwise well-preserved body looks to have been stolen from a funeral parlor. Steve views the matter more as a curiosity than a crime. After all, he has a lot on his plate. Facing a tough election for county sheriff against arrogant incumbent Eli Garrow, he’s struggling to befriend Tommy Standing Bear, the newly adopted son of his longtime love Ginny. Steve and Tommy’s common Indian heritage—Steve’s a Lakota and Tommy an Ojibwe—doesn’t break the ice, but a new puppy helps. More bodies popping up in unusual places lead Steve to a shrewd hunch, which Tommy’s input helps confirm: Someone is engaged in “geocaching”—hiding items in obscure places for others to find using their wits and their GPS. Come election day, Steve narrowly defeats Garrow, who eschews a concession speech, instead bitterly declaring, “It’s not over.” When one of the obscurely cached bodies appears unprofessionally treated, Steve, suspecting murder along with mayhem, steps up his investigation.

The subplots in Steve’s third case (A Venture into Murder, 2005, etc.) are forgettable, but the central mystery is inspired, and Kisor’s prose remains at a high level.

Oct. 1: New low-water mark for Lake Superior

It’s all but official: Lake Superior has reached its lowest level for September ever — a mean of 600.5 feet. That’s three-tenths of a foot, or about four inches, below the old record of 600.8 feet, set in 1926, according to Things that caught my eye while surfing the news sites this morning:the Army Corps of Engineers’ lake-levels web page.