Showtime at Summit Lake – Getting Back to Nature

Every summer I return to my roots and renew my soul at my little red family cabin rocking in the boughs of evergreen, deep in the woods on Summit Lake, Wisconsin.

his majesty the Loon swims by

his majesty the Loon swims by

At daybreak on the dock, I sipped coffee as the sun rose behind the tree line across the lake where loons danced in the morning mist. Six loons circled in a ballet of synchronized swimmers, one after another bobbing under, black hinds pointing skyward. One loon cried out, flapped his wings and scooted across the water 100 yards past the island toward the opposite point. Another loon followed. They swam one behind the other for 20 yards, then suddenly took flight soaring overhead looping around half of the lake then landing back where they started.

After breakfast, I biked the winding blacktops around the neighboring lakes, under the canopy of trees. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a deer standing so still by a sign post that I thought it was one of those Wisconsinite yard gnomes. I braked and turned to stare as the statue came to life. Timidly, with a flick of her white tail, the deer stepped onto the pavement. She stared at me and tilted her ears as if listening for predators.

Mama deer stares at me

Mama deer stares at me

After crossing to my side of the road, the doe posed, wide-eyed and hyper vigilant. I met her gaze equally alert, a prayer on my lips, hoping no car would rumble past breaking the spell. She nibbled on leaves, glancing back over her shoulder as if being tracked. Minutes later, she darted back across the road and a white-spotted baby deer bound out of the brush and to her side. The mother nuzzled Bambi forward onto the blacktop, turning to peer back over her shoulder. Suddenly a smaller newborn, leaped out of the woods. The babies, like frisky puppies, darted separate directions. Mama deer nervously corralled them  toward my side of the road, her eyes pleading, « Please don’t shoot. »

I appreciated her parental anxiety. I remember when my young brood wandered out of reach on busy Parisian boulevards. Finally safely across the street, a baby at each side, Mama deer locked her big brown eyes in mine, nodded her head, and then disappeared into the woods. I felt like the deer whisperer.

In the late afternoon as if on a private lake, I swam alone. No jet skis, no motorboats, no pontoons were out to break the silence. I heard ducks quacking and looked up to see Mama Mallard followed by five babies swimming single file in the reeds just in front of me.

swimming in the lake by the ol' log cabin

swimming in the lake by the ol’ log cabin

The show never ends in Northern Wisconsin. When the evening sun sets, mesmerized by the lake, a silver mirror of glass, I stare at my reflection. A family of lake otters startled me out of my reverie, breaking through the still water to dip and glide off shore.

I am living in a state of grace in perfect harmony with Mother Nature.

Family Reunions, Summer Traditions, Lake Fun

From Cleveland to St. Paul, from Chicago to Omaha, from Geneva (Switzerland) to Sterling, we trekked over 5,000 miles to be together for the annual family reunion where rituals help cement our souls through the distances that separate us.

Every August we gather under a canopy of trees at a red wood framed cabin, a priceless family heirloom passed down from my grandparents that peeks out from behind white birch and spruce. Here a lifetime of memories is stored in my summer cottage on a silvery lake that rocks in a crib of evergreen under powder blue skies.

a cabin in the woods

a cabin in the woods

Like all families we have endured our ups and downs, accidents and injuries, job losses and relocations. Together we weathered heart surgeries, cancerous tumors, and chronic illness, but every summer we put aside our individual aches and pains, angst and worries, and seize the day.

The kids, no longer kids, range from age 15 to 27, from Nathalie the pediatrician, to Marie a recreational therapist, to Nic a teacher in the making, to Hannah nurse-in-training, to Rachel gifted flutist, and lastly Mark, a walking Wikipedia, a modern day version of his dad, my brother Doug, the talking encyclopedia.

kids in the lake

kids in the lake

Once Grandpa’s big to do list is done – pick up brush from woods, stain the deck, paint window frames, scrape moss off the roof – we kick back for fun on the waterfront. Endless hours of boating, floating, skiing, swimming, kayaking, tubing, sailing, hiking, biking and being in the moment.

As if running a food pantry, we buy massive quantities of food and rustle up meals to fill the trough (kitchen counter). Hungry vultures swoop in at meal times to feast and fly.

No summer memory can be complete without the usual cabin calamities.

« Yikes the toilet is plugged! »

« Help, water is leaking in the basement. »

« Hey, a mouse ate my chocolate? »

Inevitably the ol’ used motorboat will put-put putter and die, the French captain will « sail » overboard requiring an emergency rescue, and mysterious bug bites will send someone to ER. Naturally mishaps happen. The wheel will fall off the grill, a bike tire will be deflated, and a fishing pole will be cast into the lake. We will run out of milk, bread, and pickles, but never short on stories, laughter and hugs.

Every summer the kids learn something new marking each stage of development -how to drive a car on the back roads, how to ski behind the ol’boat, how to do crossword puzzles in the USA Today.

The four McKinzie kids raised on lake creeds learned early on to respect the land, appreciate family and give back to society…values we then passed on to our children, to one day pass on to their own offspring.

In a crazy fast-paced unpredictable world, every summer we recreate a sense of childhood security by repeating family rituals singing ‘round a camp fire, swimming to the island, watching meteor showers at midnight.

McKinzie family reunion 2012

McKinzie family reunion 2012

Summit Lake is a place for children to grow up and grown ups to grow old gracefully, where traditions help us ease through life’s difficult transitions, where family ties keep us grounded, where time stands still long enough to treasure each moment together.

Like my niece Marie wrote on Facebook when she posted photos of this year’s family reunion, « we laid down a lot of memories, like tattoos on this town. »

Salute to the Passing of Duwayne Dietz

Feb. 26, 1929-July 25, 2012

His name was synonymous with sports in Sterling. As a 1948 SHS grad, surely Sterling has never had a faster runner or a finer coach.

As an athlete, Dietz was a record-breaking runner on the track. Later as a teacher at SHS, he coached athletes to break records. Under his tutelage, the SHS track team won 26 conference titles. In addition to countless SHS Athletic Hall of Fame titles, he was also an Illinois State Track Coaches Inductee.

In high school, my dad, a defensive back playing for DeKalb, was assigned the task of guarding Sterling’s star running back.

a great athlete

a great athlete

“Our game plan was simple – tackle Dietz!” my dad recounted, “Only problem, we had to catch him first. We chased him up and down the field all night.”

My dad and Duwayne’s rivalry ended the day my dad started teaching at SHS in 1958. Every teacher who worked at SHS and every athlete who ever graduated from Sterling has his own favorite, “Dietzism,” engrained in his “thick skull.”

“For 25 years we shared the same office, so we told a lot of stories,” my dad said. “Duwayne became a colleague, a friend and a mentor.”

My dad learned the ropes of coaching freshman football as an assistant to Duwayne.

“At halftime of an away game we played so badly in the first half, Coach Dietz loaded the team back on the bus, and threatened to turn it around and drive them back home.”

Coach Dietz on SHS's track field (his home)

Coach Dietz on SHS’s track field (his home)

When Duwayne retired in 1989 after 34 years serving students and athletes, my dad roasted him royally; SHS fittingly named the track after him.

Colonel Dietz

Colonel Dietz

Coach Dietz served his community and his country. As a paratrooper during the Korean War, he made 57 jumps and remained in the Army reserves for 30 years. A decorated colonel – strong, tough, feared and respected – he dressed sharp, stood straight and remained fit. He barked orders in a gruff voice. He was a man of few words, not all of them nice. But underneath the rugged façade was a loving father, caring coach, and strong leader. Everyone at SHS wanted to do right by him.

“Good run, Patty,” he said after my 880-yard dash. “What was your time?”

After he stopped me in the hall to inquire, I worked my butt off in track because I knew the next time he asked my time better be faster.

Everyone at SHS feared and admired Coach Dietz. But his bark was louder than his bite. Like all athletes, I’d jump at his command, then he’d soften the blow with his trademark grin, so that I knew he was kidding (or was he?)

Wrapped within the sadness of his death was also a sense of celebration for a man who shaped so many lives with his hard drive and high standards. Because Coach Dietz demanded excellence, I sought it in myself.

Dwayne Dietz was a Hall of Fame Athlete and Coach who raised a Hall of Fame Family.

He coached one son, an outstanding track star, as well as his son-in-law, a SHS standout football player. He taught with still another son-in-law. He left behind his lovely wife, Ruth, and 5 children and 14 grandchildren. Respected by the community, loved by friends and family, his passing leaves a hole in the hearts of many.

I feel fortunate to have grown up listening to the legends on the breezeway of their old house. His third daughter has been my best friend since third grade. As kids on the block, we all knew Mr. Dietz had our back.

With his parting, my hometown lost a hero. Another part of my childhood slipped away.

Rest in Peace Coach Dietz

Yockway Peggy

Mont-Blanc, Mini Triathlons, Personal Bests

In my original game plan, I thought that when I retired from playing basketball in my fifties, I would ski mountains and run marathons into old age. Alas, an accident at the peak of my career at age 26 ended my basketball playing days. Illness filled my life with detours. Today a bad back, blown-out knees and chronic pain from fibromyalgia prevents me attaining the goals I once set.

The first part of my life as a first generation Title IXer, I fought to get off the sideline and into the game; the second half, I learned how to be a gracious cheerleader. That is why I am so proud of my daughter for incorporating fitness into her daily life as a doctor, to my friend Tina for winning a Gold Medal in basketball at the Senior Olympic games, for my little sister and her friends in their fifties for competing in their 2nd mini triathlon.

Karen sets a new personal best

Karen sets a new personal best

Karen and her friends, Ann Jackson and Jean Pupkes, joined 317 other participants on Saturday July 21st in the 9thAnnual River City Days Triathlon Sprint held in Chaska Minnesota.

fab' 50s finish sprint triathlon

fab’ 50s finish sprint triathlon

Training for the triathlon may be just as difficult as the actual event. Karen alternated training schedules prior to the meet. A strong swimmer she loved the first leg, a third mile lake swim, yet struggled with the final 3.1K run. This year my brother-in-law Dick, 2 months after undergoing a thyroidectomy to remove a cancerous tumor, decided to join her. An avid biker, Dick whizzed past people on the 16 mile ride, avoided sinking on the swim, and walked the first K, all uphill, of the run.

While my sister and bro defy age by challenging their bodies to remain fit, I am inspired to focus not on what I can’t do, but on what I can. Since my mid twenties, I have seen a team of doctors for a list of ailments. For the past 4 years, as a guinea pig in a clinical trial treatment for a multisystem inflammatory autoimmune illness, I have avoided light exposure.

my umbrella and me

my umbrella and me

But that doesn’t stop me! I hike in the Alps under an umbrella, walk to work covered in gloves and a hoody, and swim across the lake in my wet suit and scuba gear. In solidarity with my sister and brother in law, I participated in my own mini triathlon. Early Saturday morning, I biked 7 miles, walked a mile and then swam a half-mile. Afterwards, I couldn’t lift my arms to hold a book. I broke no records but as the sole competitor, solitary contestant, I won the event!

In a personal best, Karen had the best time in her age group for the swim and beat her overall time by 12 minutes. Dick, setting his own record, inspired anyone who has battled cancer.

My adult life is not as active as I had once hoped; yet I have accepted that I will never ski down Mont-Blanc, because I can still admire the mountaintops from my window. I will never again play the game I love, but I can impart my love of the game to the girls I coach. I will no longer knock down J’s (jump shots), but I can swim through summers on my beloved Summit Lake.

Life is good!

A Thousand Years of Sanctuary at the Hospice on the Grand St. Bernard Pass

At  2473 meters the Grand St. Bernard Pass, in a torturous part of the Alps in the no man’s land between the Swiss and Italian border, is not easily accessible. Especially since for the greater part of the year, it is closed due to snow. The pass only opened in mid June this summer, so when visitors arrived, we decided to take them to see the monastery and dogs symbolic with Switzerland.

the hospice viewed from the Italian side

the hospice viewed from the Italian side

From June to September the pass may be accessed by road or rail service, but during the rest of the year, it can only be reached by foot or on skis and snowshoes in the winter. Avalanche risks are usually high and the climb is challenging.

In 1050 Bernard Archdeacon of Aosta (Italy) founded the hospice on the Mount Joux pass.  For nearly the past one thousand years, travelers have been guided and offered sanctuary by the community of monks. During storms and inclement weather, the monks led by marroniers (guides) search for lost or distressed travelers and lead them to safety at the Hospice.

Open everyday, the Hospice is reserved for those travelers on foot or bicycle or people seeking a spiritual retreat. The Brothers live according to the rule of St. Augustine, who preached the Gospel of the 4th century, yet welcome voyagers of any faith.

Other than a gift store, a café and a museum, the monastery stands alone looking forlorn against a rugged landscape. Austere and isolated, it was hard to imagine anyone crossing by foot and even more incredible that an average of 600 travelers a day were fed and housed in the 1800s. We walked along a trail winding along

Italian border behind the frozen lake

Italian border behind the frozen lake

edges of precipices, above a lake surrounded by wind swept, desolate view of craggy mountaintops.  About a half-mile down the road, we saw the Italian border and a spindly, grey edifice that serves at a hotel and customs crossing.

Hotel and dog's kennel's sign

Hotel and dog’s kennel’s sign

A visit to the museum reveals time period artifacts, geological information, and historical pieces.  One of the most amazing historical facts was trying to fathom how Napoleon’s Army,  managed to climb up through the pass. Even more amazing was the adventure of Hannibal, in 218 b.c., crossing the pass with it’s elephants to attack Rome ! Art works and writings depicted countless stories of miraculous rescues by the St. Bernard dogs and monks.

In a spirit of humility and sharing, the legacy of St. Bernard at the Hospice, which continues, offers guidance on life’s journey.

However, far less spectacular than other parts of Switzerland, tourists may feel a bit disappointed in the view of a few grey buildings and desolate landscape. The frolicking, happy go lucky guide dogs are biggest drawing card.

Next week meet Barry the St. Bernard, symbol of Switzerland.

Atop the World in the Swiss Alps

Almost on top of the world, at an elevation of 1,640 meters (5,413) feet, Mürren clings to the edge of precipice in the upper reaches of Lauterbrunnen Valley. On a clear day, this typical village in Bernese Oberland offers an indescribable view of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

Eiger, Mönch and tip of Jungfrau

Eiger, Mönch and tip of Jungfrau

It is inaccessible by car, yet tourists still find it. A popular destination, Mürren, though only having 450 inhabitants, offers 2,000 hotel beds.  Originally a farming community, tourism in the summer and skiing in winter provides the steadiest livelihood for the locals. Reaching the village is part of the fun. Visitors must take the panoramic funicular and then a short train ride up from Lauterbrunnen, which offer stunning views of the valley.

Main Street is dotted with an eclectic mix of restored wooden chalets and hotels from the early part of the last century. Giant cowbells hang from the awnings; flowers line window boxes of balconies and dainty lace curtains cover the pane glass windows with red shutters.

Mürren with Eiger in the background

Walking paths zigzag up and down the mountainside winding through the meadows where hardy wild flowers in yellow, lilac, and white, orange, blue burst into color on a verdant palate.  Cowbells clang like old silver milk cans in horse drawn wagons. Insects buzz and birds’ twitter in harmony with the soft swoosh of the wind that whips through valley.

mowing the yard, Mürren's way

mowing the yard, Mürren’s way

One man mows his yard at precipitous angle, while another splits wood then lines each log in a perfect, uniform stacks so typically Swiss. The locals speak the thick, guttural Swiss German language. They are easily identified, by their ruddy, wind burned completion and strong calves and thighs for every step outside one’s door requires movement on incline.

Hikers of every age dot the meadows bearing backpacks and walking sticks.

The three Kings, Mönch, Eiger, Jungfrau appear deceptively close, as if you could reach out and touch them giving one a surreal other worldly feeling.

On a summer day in Mürren, the light, color and mountains topography, are so perfectly intertwined that it is hard to deny God’s existence.

Villages across the valley below look like match boxcars and miniature towns. In the distance one can imagine seeing Heidi skipping off from Grandpa’s hut to herd the sheep grazing in a the verdant valley over yonder.

It is as if time stood still. Invigorated, renewed, exalted, I want to burst into song. Indeed, the hills are alive with the sound of music.

mountain chalets in the meadows

mountain chalets in the meadows

Truly in Mürren, God perfected nature’s symphony.