It was a Baptism unlike all others. Planned for Easter Sunday, our grandson was to be baptized with both Carl and Chelsea’s families in full attendance. But it was quickly derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. As the months went by, the likelihood of gathering continued to dwindle, and baby Crosby quickly outgrew the heirloom gown he was going to wear (handmade for my dad 106 years ago). With his first birthday rapidly advancing, new plans were laid. And then re-planned with the ever-changing landscape of COVID.
Careful precautionary measures were put in place. The ceremony would take place outdoors, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chelsea’s family would arrive a few days beforehand and celebrate the birthday and baptism together. Our family would stay afterwards, for a second round of festivities. We would only meet at the baptism, separated by distance and masks.
It all sounded as safe as possible, combined with staying in an AirBnB where we could retreat to our own space. But soon even those arrangements increased in risk. Rich’s recent open heart surgery put him in a new class of vulnerability. In his weakened condition, was it wise to drive to Milwaukee, where the COVID rates were far higher than home? Should we be gathering with family, even at a distance?
I didn’t want to face the decision. Forging ahead, I poured my heart into creating a new baptismal gown for Crosby. I chose sturdier (and warmer) wedding gown satin in place of Dad’s delicate fabric. Replicating the inset lace took some googling for instructions, but I relished recreating the slanted lace decoration on the skirt, then added it to the sleeves for good measure. Sewing fed my soul and was a welcome diversion from coronary woes.
As the date approached, so did apprehension, but holding it at bay in favor of family unity we made the journey. As if to smile with favor on the plans, God delivered a beautiful morning for the baptism – brisk November air with deep blue skies mirrored in Lake Michigan’s waters, sunshine radiating limited warmth and infinite light.
Well bundled to ward off the chill and masked against COVID, the baptism proceeded. No church would have been more sacred. No ceremony more holy. No congregation more thankful to be present. We all bore witness to God’s love and acceptance.
The ceremony complete, we moved to Carl and Chelsea’s front yard where the sun lingered and so did we. It lasted long enough to savor the morning and its significance among those we love.
Soon afterward, the weather turned windy, wet and stormy as if to close the chapter on the baptism. Rich and I retreated to the seclusion of our AirBnB, where he rested and remained segregated from the rest of the clan. But as the afternoon waned, I returned briefly for one more occasion – Crosby’s first birthday. Documented with pictures and a full report for Rich.
We have all been inspired to inventiveness throughout this year of COVID. It’s not over yet, and we will continue to be challenged to find ways to celebrate yet remain safe. Surely this was one for the family history books.
I almost didn’t answer my phone. It was a Duluth number, one I didn’t recognize. My rule of thumb is to ignore unknown calls. My finger advanced toward the Decline button, then hesitated. I pressed Answer.
“This is the emergency room at Essentia. We have your husband here.”
What? Isn’t he here, at home?
“Don’t worry. He fell while trail running. He’s okay.”
Hastily I tossed his warm sweater and wind pants in a bag and flew out the door, assuming I was going to bring him home. But the nurse and I were both wrong. He wasn’t okay, and I didn’t bring him home for another 13 days. I soon became a passenger on a trip I didn’t want to take.
Rich looked at me sheepishly when I walked into the room in the ER. “I blacked out while running, and came to nauseous and groveling on the ground.” Immediately, my mind went back three weeks, when he returned home after crashing his bike on the North Shore.
“My helmet is toast,” he said slowly. “I think I have a concussion.”
Naturally I linked the two events. So did Rich, and the medical staff in that little room nodded. Tests were ordered and they kept him overnight to confirm the results.
“I’m not buying that concussion story.” This was the new hospitalist the next morning. “That wouldn’t cause you to black out.”
More tests, this time focused on the heart, confirming her suspicions. Rich had known for years that he had mitro valve prolapse, a non-threatening deformity that never impacted his health – until now. It had deteriorated to the extent that there was significant backflow between the ventricles and his heart was greatly enlarged as a result of compensating for the problem for a long time. His heart output was diminished to half what it should be and he had irregular heartbeats.
For a man who has pursued active sports almost daily and kept himself in good shape throughout his life, this was a blow. He went from a fit athlete to a hospital patient with a bad heart, right before my very eyes. But it got worse.
“The valve is in such bad shape, we are not sure it can be repaired. We will need to do open heart surgery in order to see its condition and change course to a replacement if need be.”
The very words Open Heart Surgery conjured terror in my own heart, and I wasn’t even the one facing it. I had plenty of bedside time to come to grips with the sudden change in Rich’s life – and therefore my life – while kept captive in the hospital over the weekend. Although they offered to let him go home to wait, it came with a stiff warning.
“If you have another incident like you did on the trail, your heart may not start again.”
It was enough to keep him under watchful eyes and a heart monitor in his hospital bed.
The days were long leading up to that big surgery. Rich didn’t feel all that bad, he just knew he was in bad shape. It was scary knowing just what they were about to do to him. The best times were when someone asked him about birding. Word spread quickly, all about his photography and “his owls.” Rich’s face would light up and his mood lifted when he recounted following the baby owlets throughout the spring and summer. It was like seeing the old Rich return for the moment.
The day of the big surgery came and I was allowed to come before visitor hours to be with him beforehand. Inevitably, it was delayed, leaving us hours to kill with that hanging over us, out of things to say to one another in the heavy waiting. Then suddenly, “It’s time.”
To this point we had discouraged our children from coming. Due to COVID, patients were allowed only one visitor a day, and that was me. We tried to tell them there was no need to come, but they knew better and Karen arrived in town before they wheeled Rich into surgery. We met up in the parking lot entryway, where she handed me a large steaming hot latte and a bag lunch. Despite a negative COVID test, she was masked and backed away to visit, console and support me from a social distance. Even when I retreated to the waiting room, just knowing she was there was a great comfort.
I received multiple updates throughout the surgery, learning that they had to replace the valve and best of all hearing it was going well. I passed them along to the kids, both to keep them informed and to occupy my time, to feel useful. The final report was in person from the surgeon, who delivered a glowing report – the surgery went without a hitch and Rich was doing really well. That news brought huge relief and joy, and I texted it out to the kids with a thankful heart. But in no way did it prepare me for what came next.
At 5:45pm I was informed that I could go see Rich in the ICU. I eagerly but nervously rode the elevator to the highly controlled floor where I had to be buzzed into his area then ushered into his room. There I found him encumbered with tubes, needles, IV lines, monitors, machines and collection bags. “Doing great” didn’t look great to me at all. It took all my fortitude to believe those words as I sidled up to his bed, hoping I wouldn’t bump something I shouldn’t. But the nurse’s quiet manner as she moved around checking, adjusting and explaining in a hushed voice reassured me. I spoke to Rich and slipped my hand into his, my squeeze answered by his in return. It spoke more than words.
We spent almost five days in the ICU, an eternity. I was amazed at how I could wile away the hours and days in a bedside chair. There was a constant parade of doctors, RNs, nurse practioners, aides, surgeons, chaplains who came to talk to us. I took on the role of notetaker, trying to capture every instruction, every warning, every bit of encouragement they had to offer, then try to understand it. Rich made it a point to get everyone’s name, and to thank them. He even thanked those who administered IVs, who poked him, who interrupted his rest yet again.
“I’m just glad to be here. Not to be undergoing all this, but to be here where you can take care of it all. Fix what’s wrong with me.”
On the home front, the kids had organized a rota, driving long distances to take turns being there for us. I would arrive home at the end of each long day to find a hot dinner waiting, and a willing ear when I poured out my day’s anguish. They made sure I got outside, running with me in the early mornings or taking dark headlamp walks at night.
Day by day Rich shed the tubes, his IVs and even got up to walk. But the monitors continued to beep and buzz, drawing scrutiny by everyone who came in the room. Soon we were hit by another unforeseen pronouncement.
“You’re going to need a pacemaker and defibrillator. Now.”
Although the new valve was doing its work, the heart was damaged enough to need help. The pacemaker would ensure a regular heartbeat, and the defibrillator would come into play should his heart stop again. The logic was there, but it carried an emotional toll.
“My heart can’t do its work on its own any more,” Rich lamented.
This time they assured us it was a routine procedure – not even called a surgery. The device was implanted in his left chest and connected to his heart with two wires. I caught up with him in the hall as they wheeled him to his new room, and already he was conversing easily.
From there, Rich made rapid progress and was out the door in just two more days. The moment we arrived home was emotionally charged and Rich shed tears as he climbed the 27 steps up to our front door – returning to a home he wondered if he would ever see again. Being able to hear his owls hooting outside, watch his beloved birds at the feeders and sleep in his own bed again next to me.
His journey – our journey – is hardly over. Recovery is hard work, and the fatigue that comes with healing is unfamiliar to a normally healthy person. But we are all thankful that he’s here with us. Thankful that he fell where he could be helped to safety. Thankful that the medical team discovered the underlying problem. Thankful for each and every person who cared for him in the hospital. Thankful for the support of friends and family. And thankful for modern medicine and technology.
“I’m not as scared as I was before,” Rich says. “I know I still have heart problems, but now I have my own personal paramedic team in my chest.”
I can already see that I’m going to have one heck of a time holding him back from skiing before long. Watch out, Rich. I’m moving from the passenger side into the driver’s seat.
It’s not easy being small. I can’t reach half the shelves in my kitchen, and even carrying my toddler grandchildren can prove a challenge. So the idea of hoisting a kayak overhead to perch in a rack on top of my car is a non-starter. Which is a problem.
In my old age I have decided I need more independence. Perhaps it’s COVID, prompting me to find ways to enjoy outdoor recreation on my own, without relying on anyone else to make it happen. My activity of choice is kayaking, which is fine if I’m at the cabin, content to drag our weighty boat down to the dock and plunk it in the lake. But what about further exploration? New lakes to discover, shorelines to cruise, rivers to reconnoiter. There has to be a way.
With a little searching, I learn that there are two options: an “origami” folding kayak and an inflatable kayak. The first offers lightweight, high performance vessels with a hefty price tag. Not my bag. The second has a wide range of choices, from an oversized floatie to tough white-water models. I focus my research on something in the middle and soon zero in on Advanced Elements kayaks. Offering high quality inflatable materials with a strong fabric covering is a good start, but they also feature built-in aluminum ribs in the bow and stern to provide tracking that rivals a hard-shell kayak. It doesn’t take long to narrow my selection down to the AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak. At 10’5″ in length and a mere 26 pounds that packs into a carrying case that is 30″ x 17″ x 8″ I know I’ve found my kayak. The next model up has a few more bells and whistles, but packs another 10 pounds. This time it pays to be small – the sport version is enough for me.
But what about set-up and take-down? Will I spend all day on the shore just getting the thing ready for my adventure? A few YouTube videos calm my fears – it looks to be pretty slick. I press Add to Cart, throw in a double-action hand pump and wait for it to arrive.
My timing is not ideal. Early November is not the best season in the far north to venture out in a kayak. Especially when the nearest body of water is the largest of our Great Lakes, and extremely cold. But the weather gods look upon me with favor.
As the sun begins its descent on a clear afternoon in the 60s, I take my new kayak up to McQuade Harbor for its maiden voyage. A short trial run. As advertised, the kayak unfolds easily and I make quick work of pumping it up. About two minutes to fill the main chamber, followed by another minute for the floor. Half a pump inflates each of the deck risers and I’m good to go! In total, less than 15 minutes from the back of my car to water readiness.
I’m delighted to find low docks in the safe harbor where I can slip my kayak into the water and ease myself into the cockpit. It takes only a few swift strokes with my paddle and I already know that it feels like a “real” kayak. Even when I venture outside the breakwaters into the Big Lake, the boat takes the mild waves well and tracks nicely along the shoreline. It feels good.
Deflating the kayak proves to be equally easy. And it folds into its case with room to spare. I’m impressed with any manufacturer that understands that at the end of my excursion I’m not interested in fighting with my kayak to wrangle it into a tight space.
Two days hence, flat water and warm sunshine beckon. I won’t get another chance this year, so I tote my kayak down to the mouth of Lester River. No dock this time, only a rock beach so I gingerly float my kayak in the shallow water, wade out and climb in. I find I don’t need more than a few inches to clear the rocks and soon I’m skimming across the calm water.
I’ve been waiting years for this moment. I grew up in this fine city of Duluth, always admiring the houses on London Road with prime real estate on Lake Superior. Ten years ago we moved back here, and I’ve been dying to see what those houses look like from the water. Today I’m going to find out.
Houses are mirrored in the calm water as I cruise by. Even within a short distance, I find a huge variation in the backyard shoreline. Some homes boast lawns that slope gently down to an accessible pebble beach – definitely among the elite minority of landscapes. More often the yards meet a steep drop at the water’s edge. Some cliffs defy access, leaving homeowners with a splendid view but the inability to touch the water that laps or pummels their shore. In between are a myriad of inventive approaches. Ancient walls of stone, brand new cement retaining walls, enormous boulders holding back the lake’s fury – all in desperation to hang on to the land that the lake would like to claim. Where a bit of beach lies at the base of the cliff, homeowners exhibit great ingenuity with ladders, steps and guardrails to guide them down.
I’m fascinated by the rear view of the homes. Windows stretch across wide expanses, decks stretch across, stories climb high, all to take in the lake’s beauty. Old gazebos and small bath houses occasionally populate the shore, echoes of the golden days in which they were erected. And I paddle past the granddam of estates, Glensheen Mansion.
Homes give way to high-rises, as the senior care center and apartments loom above the waters. My arms begin to tire, I feel a twinge in my elbow and my legs tell me they have been static for too long. But still I press on. I pass the expanse of ledge rock I scrambled over this summer, pursuing my grandchildren who are far more nimble than I.
The Aerial Lift Bridge taunts me from afar. In my dreams I would journey down to the stately structure and ply the waters between the piers to pass under the roadway. But I will leave that for another day. Turning my fine craft around, I retrace my route and examine the homes once again, from modest to grand standing shoulder to shoulder on this Big Lake.
Having dipped my paddle into the world of exploring new waters, I sense it is only the beginning. I beach my kayak knowing we will make a great combo. Me and my kayak to go.
The infant days of COVID-19 seem so long long ago. Back in those early times, it all seemed so strange. So disruptive. So confining. And lonely. In lieu of a social life, I took to the outdoors. By mid-afternoon each day I needed to flee the house, and began walking Seven Bridges Road. What a boon it was to have the city extend the road closing, to have a safe place to walk just outside my door. To climb that hill time and time again, and venture over to Hawk Ridge to look down on Lakeside. Quiet, traffic-less, sheltered neighborhoods. Shuttered by the virus.
I watched the leaves come out, the grass come to life, the roadside don its cloak of spring green finery. And still I traveled through a foreign world. The road reopened, and I joined the cyclists grinding up those same hills. My wheels took me further afield, granting a longer and more vigorous escape. I retraced old routes, invented new ones and flew down newly surfaced roads that felt like butter under my spinning tires. It felt almost normal. But I couldn’t out pedal the grip of the virus.
In summer, lively voices accompanied my wanderings. Amity Creek was teeming with life as teens and families alike were drawn to its swimming holes and surrounding woods in greater numbers than usual. “Hammockers” inhabited the trees. Thrill seekers jumped from high cliffs. Kids played hide and seek in the bushes. Picnickers ate by the stream. All eager to forget. Not exactly social distancing. We all needed a way to cope.
Fall’s colors painted over myworld, brightening my days with radiance. Every day brought a new landscape, each set of changing leaves outperforming the last. Enticing me out to walk my route before they faded. Those hikes were habit by then. Seeking beauty in a world inhabited by ugly germs.
The falling leaves now signal the waning warmth in our days. Days which have already grown too short for my taste, darkness closing in on both sides. Gone are the evenings we could sit on opposite ends of the deck with friends, to relish seeing them in person. To satisfy that craving for live company. In ways we are allowed in the midst of the virus.
I feel winter lurking at the door, ready to scale down my social opportunities. To limit my face to face contact to that contingent of friends that embraces snow, skis, snowshoes and bundled up walks. To challenge my creativity and strengthen my tolerance for Zoom. All in the name of staying safe.
I don’t know what I expected when the first shut-down order came. I wasn’t naive enough to think it was only a matter of weeks. But I didn’t fully grasp the long-term nature of this confinement. Yet here we are. My walks up Seven Bridges Road tell me we have come half circle. I now have no doubt we will complete this circuit, and then some. Until the virus releases its hold on our lives.
My daughter talked me into it. “You should be on Strava, Mom.” That’s all I need. Another app to check on my phone. More posts to read. One more place where I feel compelled to keep up with others. I’ve already pulled back from FaceBook, only perusing my feed now and then.
“You can see our workouts,” she said. “Complete with maps and pictures.” All my kids are on Strava. Karen’s strength and cardio classes. Carl running with the stroller to day care every morning. Erik’s uber rollerski and hill bounding training for the Birkie. “And you can follow Uncle Will as he roams the countryside to find outrageous mountain bike trails.” Now that would be entertaining.
I have to admit, I fit the profile. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t run, bike, swim or ski. Each athletic activity diligently tracked by the Garmin GPS watch on my wrist, uploaded the moment I get home so I can view, analyze and relish my progress. I begin to weaken.
Creating a free account, I link my Garmin and that’s all it takes. Suddenly, every move I make finds its way to Strava. Instantly. I find my kids and follow them. They find me and give me kudos. And there’s Will – way up in Copper Harbor! I see their routes, their speed, pictures and the descriptions they add. Kind of fun, actually.
It’s the pictures that draw me in. It’s no longer enough to lace up my shoes or fling my leg over my bike. I want to capture the moment with my buddies. Like that walk I took with my sister, Susie.
Cycling up the shore, I always enjoy the scenery but now I am hyper vigilant. I’m eager to catch that brilliant sunrise, the red sky, the sun’s glow across the water.
I watch as the early morning sun illuminates the fall colors, intensifying their golden hues.
I search for good views, the right angles, the best timing.
Yes, it interrupts the flow of my cycling but I ask myself, what’s the hurry? I find new joy in the scenery that flies by, even if I’ve seen it dozens of times.
I know Strava was meant to inspire my workouts, drive some competition with others, give me ideas for new routes. And it perhaps it will. But for now it’s opening my eyes to the world around me as I run, walk, hike and cycle. Adding dimension to my exercise regimen. Broadening my view. It may even get me to slip my good camera around my neck or into my bike bag.
Was it more of a gift for Karen, or for us? For her birthday, our daughter was given a weekend away, to indulge in her own desires without the constant demands of four little ones while her husband Matt held down the fort. As hosts, we were the happy recipients of this generosity.
Karen’s phone pinged with a notification early in the day of her departure. “Northern half of Minnesota approaching peak fall color,” it said. “Good timing!” she texted us. The search for color was on.
Saturday morning arrived along with thick fog. Undaunted, Karen and I set out for a walk up Seven Bridges Road and across Hawk Ridge to take in the view. But there wasn’t one. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the close range colors bordering the road, and the mother/daughter walk and talk time.
Extending our route to include Amity Coffee, we sipped our hot drinks on the final stretch to home.
Our next outing was an afternoon bike ride. Ignoring the dark clouds and nascent raindrops as we loaded the bikes on the car, Karen and I doggedly held to our plan. Rich’s recent fall from his bike prevented him from joining us, but his pitying look told us he didn’t envy our stubbornness.
By the time we started our ride on the Munger Trail in Carlton, the rain had stopped. The trail conditions were wet but we rejoiced in our good fortune and set our wheels in motion. Heading back toward Duluth, we whizzed along the long gradual descent, trying not to think about the uphills it meant on our return trip.
Just as we were about to turn onto highway 23 for a loop route, the rain resumed. Rather than endure road spray from cars, we chose to turn around and cycle back through the same tunnel of color on the trail, splashed by raindrops. The temperature was mild and it wasn’t enough to soak us through. Not as nice as a sunny day, but a good adventure none the less. So far, weather 0 colors 10.
Sunday promised clear skies, and I knew Karen had her heart set on seeing the North Shore colors – just as every other leaf peeper did. But we were determined to beat them. Rising early, the three of us set off before the traffic and headed to Tettegouche State Park. Driving inland, we hiked into Tettegouche Camp on Micmac Lake from the back side of the park. There we could take in the colors without crowds.
The only thing that remained was an overlook. For that, Karen and I climbed Mt. Baldy. We discovered that it provided not only a view of Micmac Lake, but also Nicado Lake on the opposite side. Surrounded by endless views of blazing fall color.
We finished our hike in good time, beating the rush back to Duluth yet catching the best of the colors. At their peak.
Karen returned to her little charges rejuvenated and fulfilled. I finished the weekend on a high as well. Thank you, Matt!
As I strained against my bicycle pedals while advancing up the hill, debate raged in my head. Rounding the corner I asked myself, should I or shouldn’t I? Nearing the turn I pondered anew – what to do?
In my well ordered world, I would continue on with my planned early morning bike ride/workout. I would complete my 30 miles, finish my breakfast toast slathered with peanut butter en route to the coffee shop, then perch on the front porch with a medium skim latte and write for several hours. It’s what I do.
But possibility lurked. It was a mild clear morning with the sun just rising, and the brilliant leaves told me they were approaching prime. Not quite there yet, but the weather forecast promised ugly conditions for the next week. The leaves might not outlast the ugly.
I had yet to perform my annual ritual. At least once a year I take a ride across the city of Duluth, perched on the hilltop following Skyline Drive with the harbor and lake far below. This would be the perfect day to do so. But it wasn’t in my plan. And I always follow my plan. Or do I?
I turned left. Never mind that I had only a half full water bottle for a 40+ mile ride. So what if my usual granola bar stash was in my other bike bag? Forget the fact that my map of this route was in the same place. I had to go for it.
Whizzing along in the early morning sunlight, the air alternated between hot humid blasts that fogged my glasses and the more habitual chilly air. I felt loose and free. The writing will wait. The story will still get done. I was doing something for myself, and it felt good.
I had a good 20 mile ride through the countryside just to get to the opposite side of town. But even that blossomed with fall colors. They were all around me. It’s what I had come for.
Reaching the Information Center at Thompson Hill marked the beginning of Skyline Drive. From there, the scenic drive snaked across the crest of the hill, weaving back and forth in a rolling ride through forests of fall colors. My pace took a nosedive as I continually stopped to snap pictures, to gawk, to appreciate.
Normally, the appeal of Skyline is the view. The panoramic spread of the St. Louis River, the harbor and Lake Superior is visible from multiple overlooks and is a real-life geography lesson. But not today. Blue smoky haze from the western wildfires hovered over the scene. Across the water, Wisconsin was a blur. The horizon erased. The flat water on this calm day stretched into nothingness. All of it was eclipsed by the vivid scenery in my immediate vicinity.
With one exception. The quintessential Duluth experience – a thousand-foot ore boat was inching its way out of the harbor and making its final turn to pass under the Aerial Bridge. In my “why not?” state of mind, I had all the time in the world to wait for it. Even if it resembled the scene from a faded black and white movie.
Skyline Drive dumps out unceremoniously at the gates of UMD, and I dutifully skirted the campus. But even that had its rewards, as I passed the flaming maples of Bagley Nature Area abutting a student parking lot.
The final stretch took me across Hawk Ridge where I bumped along the dirt road amid a gaggle of bird watchers observing the migration. Then I twirled down Seven Bridges Road through a tunnel of gold – home territory and the terminus of my own driveway.
How glad I am that I followed my yearnings. That I heeded the siren call and threw my plans to the wind. And relished this last gasp of warm colorful weather. Throughout it all, the same chorus kept repeating in my head: Oh, how I love this ride!
We own a wonderful cabin nestled in the north woods facing a pristine lake. A pontoon boat awaits, as do multiple kayaks, a fire ring and a sauna. Inside a stone fireplace begs for a blazing fire. So what are we doing renting a lake home?
Having put all our bike touring, lighthouse keeping and travel on hold for the foreseeable future, Rich and I decided we deserved a vacation. A real getaway, on a different lake, in a dwelling with more space and amenities (including heat that doesn’t involve stoking a wood stove in the middle of the night), and new territory to explore.
New is the key word here. A place with no expectations. No chores. No established routines. Only possibilities. Wonderful options. The outdoors awaits, and I just know the indoors will delight.
I pack all my notes for the pile of magazine stories I’ve promised to write. But before the first night falls I set them aside, out of sight. My head hits the pillow without setting an alarm. I’ve already dismissed the idea of an early morning run or bike ride, kiboshing my daily ritual. I’m off to a good start.
Our home for the week is on the edge of Gunflint Lake. We came loaded with bikes, kayak, and hiking shoes. I set about putting them all to good use.
Mornings on the large lake are my favorite. Launching the kayak into the tranquil water I cling to the shore, exploring the deep rocky lake, peering into the woods to catch glimpses of cabins and lake homes. Smoke from the forest fires out west reach us early in the week and creates eerie reflections, but can’t spoil my reverie.
Strong winds keep me off the lake for a day, but in their wake the deep blue of the sky returns. The air borders on freezing and the lake gives up her warmth.
The hills behind us are criss-crossed with hiking trails and I set out to conquer them all. In the resort office I pick up a hand-drawn map, and get pointers on where the best overlooks are. I can’t resist labels like Lost Cliff and High Cliff, which live up to their names.
Rich and I set out to hike to Magnetic Rock. It’s not a long walk, and I don’t know much more than that this rock has magnetic qualities. I was not prepared for its sheer size.
Fall colors grow more vivid by the day. Yellows punctuated by brilliant gems of red illuminate the trail.
I’m so busy watching where I step – over tree roots and around rocks – that my eye is easily drawn to nature’s minutia beside my feet.
Traffic on the Gunflint Trail tapers off beyond Gunflint Lake. So I set out on my bike for the end of the trail – literally.
Nightfall lures me back to the lake where I can hear the waves gently lapping while warming myself by a crackling fire. Rich joins me and we sit, mesmerized by the dancing flames.
Five days of finding new things to do, seeing new sights, lingering over views, staring into fires. None of it resembles my daily routine.
Our paddles keen and bright,
Flashing like silver;
Swift as the wild goose flight,
Dip, dip, and swing.
That old Girl Scout song infiltrates my brain, repeats over and over again, accompanying the strokes that propel our canoe. I’ve been yearning for this. There is no escape quite like launching a canoe and becoming one with the water. Losing myself in the pristine wilderness, the tree-ringed lakes, and the silence broken only by loon calls and the swish of our paddles.
I’ve been lobbying for a trip to the Boundary Waters. To camp and sit by the fire. To look beyond at the brilliant stars. To hope for an Aurora. To crawl out of the tent in the morning and drink my coffee while looking out at the calm water. To set out and paddle the whole day long. But it wasn’t in the cards.
While in Grand Marais with our son Erik and his wife, Katie, we went up the Sawbill Trail and rented two canoes for the day. Rich and I paddled one, they shared one with their dog, Finley who rode complacently in the duffer spot.
It all came flooding back. That Boundary Waters feeling, the seclusion, the lack of technology and urgency which pervades our lives. Just us and the water. Dip dip and swing.
We traveled the length of Sawbill Lake, surfing the rollers stirred up by a strong south wind. All the while knowing we would have to paddle back again into that same wind. But we forged onward regardless. An 80 rod portage took us into Ada Creek where we found quiet backwaters to have a floating lunch. Finley wondered why we didn’t portage more often so he could run. It was all good.
Yes, it was a brutal return battling into the wind. But it did the trick. I didn’t think about COVID all day. I didn’t worry about wearing a mask, washing my hands for 20 seconds or who was in my circle. All I had to do was paddle. Dip, dip and swing.
This morning Rich and I launched a canoe once again. We are staying in a secluded lake home at Gunflint Pines Resort, which comes complete with private lakefront, a canoe, and our own fire ring on the shore. Gunflint Lake is not quite in the Boundary Waters, but close enough. The fog was just lifting from our end of the lake when we pushed off.
It was calm as we crossed the large lake in the early morning. Our destination was Magnetic Lake, but we accidentally sidetracked into a quiet inlet instead. I didn’t care. Nascent fall colors accented the forest reflected in the calm waters. We pondered the international border that ran along our route, the US to our left, Canada on our right. The rest of the world didn’t exist. Dip, dip and swing.
We couldn’t help but be attracted to the ornate golden estate that populated the opposite shore on Magnetic Lake. It turned out to be on the island we were encouraged to encircle, and I insisted we do so. I was intrigued with the intricate carvings on the perfectly maintained structures and flower boxes with red blooms.
The wind came up and challenged us on our return. It wouldn’t be a canoe trip without requiring a bit of extra effort. The far shoreline advanced ever so slowly as we beat our way into the waves, back across the endless expanse of water. We poured all we had into the task. It’s all that mattered. Just as I wanted. Dip, dip and swing.
“This is not the year to try to make things normal.”
That was in response to the unpleasant task of uninviting our friends to our annual Labor Day gathering at the cabin. Todd and Susan and family have never missed in 30 years, but the Same Time Next Year event was not meant to be this year. The feeling was mutual. Mingling two family circles was not wise.
These COVID times have certainly limited our connection with such friends. The ability to travel together, invite friends over for dinner and host them at our cabin suddenly evaporated. Fortunately, in its wake we still have family – the silver lining. Having extended our circle to include all our children and grandchildren back in late May, our greatest opportunities for socializing have centered around spending time with these loved ones.
Minus our friends, Labor Day weekend became a full family gathering. We still numbered eight adults and six children ranging in age from 9 months to 10 years. Thankfully, the weather allowed us to spend most of our time outdoors, sparing us from a juggling act in the cramped space of our modest cabin.
I love nothing more than being surrounded by all my children and their kids. I’m so grateful for the closeness of our bonds, and the fact that they all still enjoy one another and choose to spend time together. And yet, I’m conflicted. So many people and so little time to talk. I want quality visiting time with the adults, yet easily cave to the insistent pleas to join the little ones in their play, or read to them.
In the end, what lingers are memories of precious moments. Spontaneous snippets of time that fill my heart.
Little Michael’s infatuation with riding a tiny trike. Despite his limited vocabulary he easily cajoles several of us to join him. Time and time again down the little hill. He insists. Points to illustrate his instructions. I laugh so hard my stomach hurts.
Ben’s excitement and determination to master the art of rowing – a prerequisite to learning to pilot the little fishing boat and motor. Taught by none other than Dartmouth oarsman, Grandpa. The grin on his face when he succeeds. The invitation to be his passenger on his training runs.
Happy hour sprawled across the deck and beyond. Little fingers picking out only the green veggie straws. Adults with their favorite beverages. Two Elsa princesses in attendance. The cacophony of conversation swirling around me.
Pontoon rides. Wondering if we are over our weight limit. Redistributing passengers to keep the front afloat. Admonishing Grandpa when he exceeds cruising speed. Ogling cabins on the shore.
Carrying on the home-made ice cream tradition. Will it freeze this year? Yes! Best Oreo Mint ice cream ever.
The list goes on. Introducing young ones to the sauna, the “warm room.” 3-year-old Maren swimming in the lake with me, immune to the cold water. Baby Crosby army crawling across the lawn. Watching my kids parenting their kids, aunts and uncles spoiling them.
We certainly missed our friends. But I am thankful that to date COVID has allowed us to still come together as a family. Even more than normal.