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It’s unnerving and a little touching when a younger friend of many years seems overly concerned with your safety and comfort, but truth is, he was pushing me into this, and it started last night.

We lowered his dusty sea kayak from the rafters of his garage, and he drove off to bring his kids to their summer day camp, leaving me with a rag and a hose and a not too subtle joke about spiders in the cockpit. Was this a ploy to have me wash his kayak?

We were different people years ago. I was a young professor, and I had the honor of escorting him across the stage in the Kohl Center when the faculty conferred on him his Ph.D. Now, he is a collaborator and friend (if a bit fussy) and a well-loved professor at Northland College.

We had a meeting in the afternoon, and he wanted to take me out to paddle on Lake Superior to see the Washburn-area sea caves.

We had gotten back late the previous evening because he was rescuing Franklin’s ground squirrels and releasing them into the restored savannas of an enthusiastic landowner. Franklin’s ground squirrels are quirky little mammals that hibernate from August to April – an echo of harsher climates when glaciers covered this region and winters were longer. Imagine hibernating for more than half of the year. They’re a “species of concern” in much of the Midwest – a term we use for animals when there’s not much known, but population trends seem ominous.

I watched from the periphery as he talked his three undergrad students gently through the squirrel processing in a low whisper so as not to stress the squirrels (or the students). Weights recorded, a few measurements, a PIT tag under the skin. A teacher’s patient heart. Some things cannot be taught. I stood on the periphery and absorbed the good karma.

Turtles were digging their nests in the blow sand along the trail. The landowner had placed a cage over the nests to exclude the predators. Pellucid attention. A landowner who knows all his trees and shrubs, who knows the savanna forbs that returned after the burn. He was eager to tell me about them.

That night, we got back late, shared a dram around the kitchen table, caught up with each other’s joys and frustrations. I slept like a dead man.

He is a stand-up-paddler, a SUPer in the parlance. He asked me if I was comfortable in a kayak in the waves (which annoyed me a bit). He knows that I have done my share of paddling. He had me use and carry all the safety gear even though we were only going to be gone for an hour or two – out and back.

At the put in, I pushed out and I was a little surprised by the movement. When I recovered my sea legs (sea butt, really) I mentally gave myself the pep-talk on the difference between primary and secondary stability and I found an old rhythm in the rotation of the offset paddle. God bless the sensual movement of a small boat.

He made me paddle into a sea cave. Something emerged, buried beneath training and experience and the seductive pull of feigned expertise. The living earthy smell of perpetually wet sandstones. A smell from an ancient ocean. The gurgle and pop of small waves bouncing in the hollows created by those same waves washing in for millennia. Ferns growing on the ceiling, photosynthesizing with reflected and refracted water-light.

One can spend a lifetime studying and thinking and still be surprised and enchanted by biological life and its creative persistence.

Sometimes though, you need a push.

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


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