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Our Eastern swing: An eye-opener for this opinionated columnist

My wife Betsy, sister-in-law Joyce, daughter Lisa, granddaughter Nichela, and I just completed a two-week vacation swing through the Northeast. It was a lot of miles, but the time passed smoothly as we discussed what we saw. I'll not hold you in suspense about the Maine striped bass fishing with my brother-in-law Don. The angling was great, but I'll save the details for next week's column.

Considering we had no particular itinerary, we saw some awesome places that I wasn't aware of. I must also make a little confession. I have lived for years under the notion that we South Dakotans live in a place superior to the rest of the country. I thought most anyplace east of us was steeped in squalor, pollution, overpopulation and little opportunity. I was wrong! I saw places in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and even Massachusetts where I could be very content.

My first revelation came when we swung down Pennsylvania's Highway 6 and drove through the Allegheny Mountains along the Allegheny River. The reservoir behind the Kinzua Dam was a shock to my misguided system. An evening's stay in Wellsboro was a genuine pleasure, but what we experienced the following morning, The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, must be the East's best kept secret. It rivals the Arizona version while giving the word green a new meaning.

Now it was on to Boston. I've always pictured Boston as "big city." In reality, its population is only 600,000, and 300,000 of them are students. Boston offers some great schools in Boston College, MIT and Harvard. The Boston Navy Yard also harbors the highlight of my entire trip -- The U.S.S. Constitution, a ship named by George Washington and built in 1797. Nicknamed "Old Ironsides," this wooden warship ruled the waters in the War of 1812 and remained on active duty until 1881. The great ship is still manned by a crew of U.S. seamen.

Large cannons lined both sides of the open deck. Stairwells led down to a lower deck also lined with cannons on both port and starboard. The ceiling, perhaps 68 inches above the floor, would have made it difficult for this 6-foot-5 sailor to be a cannoneer aboard the Constitution. All cannons were mounted on wheeled platforms with elaborate rope-pulley systems used to absorb recoil. If one went to Boston only to visit this ship, the trip would be well worth the effort.

Just north of Bosto,n we visited the fishing port city of Gloucester, home of the reality TV program "Wicked Tuna" and also the setting for the movie "A Perfect Storm." While we went to the marina and looked over the "Wicked Tuna" boats that weren't out fishing, Gloucester reeked of history with its rugged coast, ancient lighthouses, and weathered but well maintained structures.

An impressive sculptured monument is dedicated to the 3,200-plus seamen who lost their lives while fishing the Gloucester area. The hallowed names are cast in bronze under the respective year of their demise. Their cottages still line the coast, and I could imagine grief-stricken women, children at their sides, watching from a second story window for a boat that would never materialize.

While touring the Gloucester area, we drove out onto a man-made peninsula called the Granite Pier. Anglers at pier's end fished crappie rigs baited with cut mackerel. They caught pollock one after another. I helped a young lady take fish off her hook as her boyfriend was too busy with his own fish. They also caught a few flounder.

Now it was on to Maine's Portland area where Don, Betsy and Joyce's brother, has lived with his wife Merryl for the past 39 years. At supper the first night, we feasted on fresh lobster -- an experience totally new to me. Though armed with a pick and special lobster cracker, my tremor made it a challenging experience, but not so challenging that I couldn't handle it at least once a week.

Don took me to an L.L. Bean store, a Maine business much like a Cabela's or a Bass Pro. I loved that store as the isles were spacious and the salespeople were especially well-versed in their field. A local flavor permeated the store. Though they carried a huge used gun inventory, most of the rifles were "brush" guns suitable for moose, deer and bear in the Maine woods. I was amazed with the number of venerable Remington Models 81 and 141 rifles on the floor. I asked if they had any Ruger No. 3 carbines. They had a .22 Hornet, .30-40 Craig, and a .45-70! Try finding one of these in a local shop.

After our great Maine visit, it was on to Montreal via New Hampshire and Vermont. In New Hampshire's great White Mountains we discovered "The Flume" along Interstate 93. The Flume, along with a great mountain cable car lift, rivaled Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon. Our last significant stop on the U.S. side of the border, other than Niagara Falls, was Burlington, Vt. Here we enjoyed a look at Lake Champlain, one of our nation's great sport fisheries. Burlington, home of Vermont Teddy Bears and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, isn't too far from the spot where our U.S.S. Constitution engaged the British during the War of 1812.

Probably because I had previously visited Montreal, I wasn't particularly impressed with the French-speaking city. It was a bad day to visit as the downtown area was crowded on Canada Day. I do know the ladies were very impressed with Montreal's world class arboretum.

The final leg of our journey took us to Niagara Falls via the great city of Toronto, Canada's largest. We viewed the falls from both the U.S. and Canada sides, and found both to be beyond our expectations. It was a fitting place to visit on the Fourth of July.

All in all, we drove about 3,700 miles. Only once, on the Indiana Toll Road, did we pay over $4 for a gallon of gas. Highway construction wasn't too bad, and the weather was agreeable during the entire trip.

It occurred to me that if some fishing buddies and I followed our route while pulling a modest boat, we'd have one fine time on Lake Erie, the Kinzua Reservoir, Portland's Casco Bay, and Lake Champlain.

Next week, you'll hear about our Maine striped bass fishing adventure with a very unusual twist.