The Mud Hen was a great little steamboat — a one-of-a-kind, respectable, lake-worthy craft. When I was about eight years old, my uncle Verne, a carpenter and a lover of steam engines, built her out of wood and marine plywood with his own hands. She had a curved bow with wooden bench seats along her starboard and port sides. Under her smokestack was a small, open cabin where my uncle stood to steer her over rough waves and smooth waters alike. One of the most exciting parts of any Mud Hen voyage was when Verne would reach his hand up to pull on the lever overhead that opened a valve, resulting in the smoky, high-pitched whistle only a boat powered by steam can make. That distinctive sound alerted all on Lake Waubesa and its shores that the Mud Hen was out and about. As a child, chugging around the lake in a boat that closely resembled Humphrey Bogart’s in the 1951 movie The African Queen made me feel like I had joined the company of the world’s most esteemed explorers.
But as I got older, my adventure dreams got bigger. No longer satisfied with exploring small lakes on little boats, I wanted to see oceans and mountains and glaciers, the larger things that a flatlander from Wisconsin has to venture far from home to find.
The big picture
Almost all of the adventures we choose for ourselves are about bigness: big landscapes coupled with big themes. We want to see Antarctica, the Great White Continent, before climate change causes it to thaw forever; or we wish to visit the unending, windswept plains of Patagonia before we die. We desire to go to Africa’s Victoria Falls, the widest sheet of falling water in the world; or Greenland’s sheet of ice, the second largest ice body on the planet. Perhaps we think by experiencing big landscapes our lives will somehow become grander; expanding our minds and feelings and enhancing our worldliness.
But even if we limit our travels to our home country, there’s a definite fondness for bigness. About five million people visit the Grand Canyon per year, and thousands more make pilgrimages to see the World’s Largest Twine Ball Rolled by One Man — which resides in Darwin, Minnesota — or similar sights, such as the World’s Largest Jackalope in Douglas, Wyoming. At RoadsideAmerica.com, there’s a whole subculture built around seeing the largest of large things across the nation. I, myself, have fallen victim to the allure of bigness: Larry the Logroller, who I met in Wabeno, Wisconsin, is one darn big guy, and the biggest muskie in the world is permanently perched in my home state.
I know because I’ve gone to see and take pictures of them both.
But life travels in a circle, as we all know; and lately, I’ve returned to adventures that tip toward the smaller side of nature’s scale. Last week, I went to a nature sanctuary in Wisconsin’s Door County (the “thumb” of the state’s mitten-shaped outline) to learn how to tag monarch butterflies. Right now, just before fall, the monarchs are gathering at sanctuaries such as the one in Door County for their upcoming migration to their wintering grounds in Mexico. Next spring, they will mate, start flying back north, and stop in Texas or Oklahoma. There they will lay their eggs and die. Their offspring will hatch, grow, change into butterflies, and complete the migration back to Wisconsin. By attaching a small sticker, or “tag,” to a monarch’s wing now, it’s possible to learn something about its travels should the tag be retrieved later off the dead butterfly.
While most nature stories about monarchs mention how frail they are and how remarkable it is that such a small insect can take on such a monumental migration, the fact is that monarchs are honking, whistle-worthy-big in the butterfly world, well-crafted for the job they have to do and the adventures they undertake.
Just like a little steamboat I once knew, where dreams of big, grand adventures were also hatched.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,