Cyclists Venturing Abroad

Scotland Tartan Tour LogoIt was only a matter of time.  Our love of travel abroad was bound to leak into the allure of cycle touring.  It only required matching up our cycling criteria – following water, avoiding population centers and seeking out countryside beauty – with a destination.  And thus the Scotland Tartan Cycling Tour was born.

While snow still blanked the ground and the bicycles were still in winter storage, Rich’s thoughts turned to spring.  Learning that May was the driest month in Scotland was the deal clincher.  What he neglected to mention was that it was far from the warmest.  If indeed, Scotland ever gets very warm.  While fully on board with this adventure yet a bit concerned, I began to lay in provisions.  Windproof gloves, protective booties and a thermal cycling jacket made their way to our door courtesy of Amazon Prime.  Subsequent test cycles up the North Shore into frigid NE winds have convinced me I’ll be fine.  And if I had to shed my new layers, so much the better.

We know enough about cultural differences to understand that the cheap roadside motels we frequently use don’t exist overseas.  So instead, we hope to substitute hostels for less expensive accommodations.  Unlike the youth hostels of our, well youth, these establishments often offer private rooms with shared bath.  That’s good enough for us.  Have sleeping bag will travel.

Scotland Tartan Tour Map v3What we haven’t done is plan a route.  Nor do we intend to.  Unlike all previous trips, we are going to wing it this time.  We expect to travel north.  We hope to follow the coast.  We will avoid extreme hills.  And make it up as we go along.  Even so, I did a little sleuthing, checked out the National Cycle Network routes, and concocted some idea of what we might do.  The only part that is for certain is that we will begin and end in Aberdeen.  And we will cycle for three weeks in between.

To my extreme surprise, Rich has ordered detailed paper maps for cycling in Scotland.  Although he has always successfully relied on downloading Google Maps in the past, the realities of cycling in remote areas must have prompted this shift in approach.  I heartily support this practical step!

Our trusty bicycles will travel with us.  Despite the risk and the expense, we prefer to ride our own bikes that have served us so well on all previous trips.  We just have to trust the airlines to treat them with care…

We are getting down to the final details.  It’s now a routine we know well.  Our custom jerseys are on order.  We’ve started to create small piles of gear.  I’m ticking things off my comprehensive list.  And soon we will be venturing abroad.  Aye, to bonnie Scotland.

Good Morning, Lakewalk

It’s early but all the regulars are out there.  My morning running ritual takes me down the Lakewalk day after day.   There I enter my world of the familiar.  I know I should vary my routine, and I do work in some hills or head up the shore periodically.  But my feet just naturally lead me to the Lakewalk.

The route is always the same, but the experience never is.  On the grim, cloudy and windy days, I nod to my fellow runners as we pass.  We exchange knowing glances, acknowledging the brutal headwind, the chill of the air.  We share the same rugged determination.  We are out there, no matter what.

Lakewalk Lief Erikson ParkWhen the sun shines and the lake sparkles, our faces reflect the joy of our surroundings.  Our “good morning” exchanges ring out merrily.  Those are the days when the Aerial Bridge beckons irresistibly, drawing me further down the Lakewalk to its terminus in Canal Park.  Ten miles turn into 13.  But it’s worth it.

My trusty companions on the Lakewalk punctuate the miles yet loosen my brain from focusing on the rigors of my run.  Cyclists pass on their way to work, warning me with the sound of their tires or a cheery ring of a bell.  Dog walkers are always good for a “hello” and seem to have only beautiful and well mannered pooches on the end of their leashes.  Fellow runners whiz by in both directions, but usually with a wave of encouragement.

And then there’s Arley.  A fixture on the Lakewalk, his presence brightens anyone’s journey.  I first see him walking, coffee cup in hand striding purposefully at an early hour.  Next, he passes me on his bike, destined for the end of Park Point and back.  White hair flying out from under his cap, always with a chipper greeting for me.  At times he accompanies me on his bike, spinning away the miles with conversation as I run.  When the snow flies, I can count on his having cleared the portion of the Lakewalk adjacent to his house.

Molly and ArleneIt was the Lakewalk that introduced me to a kindred spirit and running friend, Arlene.  Perched on opposite sides of an ice encrusted street, we traded encouragement as we approached.  Our steps slowed to a walk, one greeting led to another and soon we were trading phone numbers to meet up for our next run.  Where else might I meet another passionate running enthusiast and heart-felt friend?  Barely a day goes by that does not find one or the other or both of us treading the Lakewalk.

Admittedly not all Lakewalk encounters are friendly.  Passing through the wooded area just past East High recently, a dark form materialized just ahead.  A tall figure wedged between the fence and a tree turned out to be an upright bear, attempting to scale the fence with his hind claws.  I’m guessing it was the inhabitant of the 36th Avenue culvert, having wandered away from his den.  Passing in a hurry, a quick glace back led me to believe he was perched atop the fence.  I wished I had a camera with me, but perhaps it was better that I didn’t linger.

It was very thoughtful of the City to extend the Lakewalk to our neighborhood just as we moved in.  And the subsequent addition of the tunnel under the highway was equally welcome.  Every morning is a good morning on the Lakewalk.

Northland Mud Season

Few would claim that the Northland is at its best in the spring.  While temperatures are nearing the comfort zone in the Twin Cities, we are still hovering around freezing.  Although spring flowers may be poking up in warmer climes, here the vegetation is still brown.  The ground is muddy and still icy in spots.  In short, it’s pretty bleak.

And yet, when the sun comes out it is hard to resist heading outdoors.  Never mind that cold wind off the lake, spring calls.  That’s exactly how I found myself in Gooseberry Falls State Park this morning.

Muddy path at Gooseberry FallsThe woman in the Visitor Center warned that the trails were wet and slippery.  But the draw was irresistible.  I hadn’t come to the park to walk on the road.  From the abundance of muddy footprints I followed, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.  Others too were enjoying the squish and slide of mud season.  There is something innately satisfying about setting foot squarely in the midst of that soft wet earth and the squidgy suctiony noise that accompanies its exit from the quagmire.  Big kids that we are.

If the lack of vegetation deprives us of color, it also grants vistas.  En route to the lake shore, I was able to take in the falls from a distance, and enjoy the twisty, windy path of the river.  It’s fascinating how it transitions from roaring falls to lazy stream in just a short distance.  The dogwoods added a welcome touch of red to the scene.Long distance view of Gooseberry Falls Gooseberry RiverNot all scenic views were a product of nature.  I particularly enjoyed the symmetry and design of the steps that took me high above the river to the cliffs above.  Workers more recent than the original CCC crews that created the park’s magnificent log and stone buildings back in the 1930s were responsible for this ascending sculpture.Modern steps in the parkHiking between the shoreline and the falls, I decided it was a dual sound track park.  Next to Lake Superior, the rush of the wind and the pounding of the waves filled my ears.  It was a familiar noise I could feel as well as hear.  Both sensations retreated as I moved away from the lake, soon to be replaced by the roar of the falls.  The thunderous din grew as I drew closer to the source, and witnessed the power of the water as it crashed over the rocks.  Still swollen by the spring run-off.Gooseberry Falls in springMy circuit complete, I tracked globs of mud back to the car on my boots, fresh air tingling on my face, and fingers feeling a slight chill despite my warm gloves.  All so very satisfying.  Spring in the Northland, mud season at its very best.

Living by the Numbers

Two huge numerical digits came to inhabit our backyard yesterday.  I planted them there, surreptitiously.  And when night fell, the timer clicked on and they proclaimed in giant illumination my husband’s new age.  60.  The big 6-0.  A turning point I have already passed.60-Birthday-Bash-Molly-RichWrangling those numbers into place drove home the numerical realities of life.  Of growing older (I refuse to say old).  Of how I have come to measure life by different standards.  Of the milestones I have reached.  Of the impact on my active lifestyle.  Admitting to my mathematical background, I can’t help but ponder my new life status from a numerical perspective.

My passion for endurance sports has not waned with my age.  But its key indicators are clearly suffering.  I’m embarrassed to find I am pleased to complete a long run squeaking in just under 10 minute miles.  Admittedly 7s are ancient history, but whatever happened to 8 or 9?  I’m learning to let go of the single digits when it comes to pace, as long as I can still rack up the mileage numbers. Thankfully marathons are still within my reach, they just take longer.  PRs have fallen by the wayside.  And forget finishing under 4 hours.  Just crossing the finish line is rewarding enough.

If I’m getting slower, so is my competition.  And here’s a case where the numbers are declining.  As I move up the age categories, the field keeps narrowing.  Moving into a new classification is exciting, as it signals yet another drop in participation.  I actually placed 3rd in my age group in a marathon ski race this winter, and won a coveted Dala horse prize.  I just choose to ignore the fact that I was 3rd out of 3.

Having taken up distance cycling just 4 years ago, I don’t have the same competitive baggage.  And rather than focus on speed and racing, Rich and I have taken up cycle touring.  Our mantra is “You see a lot more of the world when traveling at only 12 miles an hour.”  Here it’s more about the distance figures.  Our annual tours have typically taken us over 1,400 miles.  And to date our longest trip has covered 2,350 miles.  It took us nearly two months to get there, yet by the end we still wanted to keep going.  That’s a measure of success.  I’d still love to top that number.

Not all cycle rides have to be that long.  100 has a nice ring to it.  A friend talked me into a Century Ride a few years ago, and it has now become an annual tradition.  Time is not a consideration, as long as we finish cycling before dark.  Thanks to the long summer days here Up North, we have yet to fail.  We may just need to start earlier each year.

Anniversaries are another good life measure.  For 24 straight years I have shared a cross-country ski weekend with a fellow mom/career woman/friend.  We do a lot of skiing and yes, I track the kilometers.  Our range may have narrowed over the years, but our support for one another and ability to come home recharged have been a constant.  All the more reason to look forward to our 25th trip. And to hope that number will continue to grow.

No matter how I look at it, I count myself very fortunate.  A little slippage here, a bit of stagnation there isn’t bad.  I’m still out there plying the pavement, spinning my wheels and gliding over the snow.  Good health and energy are gifts whose value can’t be calculated.  Not even for those of us who live by the numbers.

Winter Resurgence

It seems a strange scene.  I stand in my bare feet and swim suit, peering out into the darkness at 6:15am.  The outside floodlights are on, and they illuminate a world blanketed in white.  I expected the snow.  In fact, it’s the reason for my one-piece lycra apparel.  Assuming it would be too deep for running, I had decided on an alternate workout this morning.  But I hadn’t counted on the landscape now in my field of vision.

Every branch is outlined in white.  The thin boughs are magnified by a fluffy coating of snow much thicker than their own sinewy skeletons.  The woods surrounding our house are no longer a transparent winter veil but a lacy wall enclosing our abode.  I can already picture the Lakewalk rimmed by more ghostly shapes.  It is much too good to miss.

March Snowfall 1Despite the dim predawn light, many have preceded me down the trail.  Footsteps are plentiful, crisscrossed by bicycle tracks and the wide treads of fat tire bikes.  The snow is not as deep as I feared, but the wet fluff lies over a layer of slush.  Messy but not slippery, it makes for slow and arduous progress but poses little danger of falling.March Snowfall 2

The world is silenced by the snowfall.  Footfalls and tire rotations are muted, but faces are glowing.  “Isn’t this beautiful?” seems to be on the lips of all I pass.

I don’t normally take the small bypass in front of the town homes at The Ledges.  But the chance to get closer to the lake draws me down the indistinct path.  My impulse is rewarded, seeing the dry stalks of fall flocked with snow silhouetted against the gray-blue of Lake Superior, and framing the iconic Aerial Bridge.

March Snowfall 3 March Snowfall 4While just yesterday the Lakewalk was perfectly clear for easy running, I have no complaints about this resurgence of winter.  It taught me to seize the moment, change my plans, stop and take pictures.  And best of all, enjoy my surroundings.

March Snowfall 5March Snowfall 6

Spring Fling

I seriously doubt anyone stayed at home today.  How could they, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the 60s even right next to Lake Superior?  I certainly didn’t.

My day started out on the Lakewalk with good running friends.  We were a pack of four, but we met much larger groups of runners thundering down the path.  It was as if anyone who owned a pair of running shoes was out there.  For good reason.  Skirting the harbor, the view was unsurpassed.  Little iceberglets floated in the calm water, and the bridge reflected perfectly on the glassy surface.  The water’s blue was even deeper than that of the sky.  The gray days of winter faded from our memories as we embraced this sudden spring moment.

Exchanging my running clothes for cycling gear, Rich and I headed up the shore for an afternoon bike ride.  Our starting point was Gooseberry Falls – along with the rest of the world.  We were lucky to find a parking place, and had to pick our way through the crowds to get to the falls.  There we found water rushing over and through the ice that still covered much of the river.  Quite a unique sight.Molly and Rich at Gooseberry FallsGooseberry FallsRiding along the shore, water was flowing everywhere.  The rocky cliffs that line the road were oozing with water, dripping over the edges and down the craggy formations.  Rivulets ran at the base of the rocks and through the brush.  There was one waterfall in particular that we hoped to see, and were not disappointed.  Only in the spring, does water shoot out from the rocks into Lake Superior like this.

Spring WaterfallTree out over Lake SuperiorAt Beaver Bay the Beaver River came shooting out of its own icy formations.  Clearly the rivers were unprepared for this sudden spring.

Beaver River flowing through iceI was unprepared as well.  Expecting it to be “cooler by the lake” I had overdressed, and sweltered in the sunny 60-degree heat of the day.  But I wasn’t about to complain.  The only misfortune was the fact that the ice cream shop in Beaver Bay was not open.  We had both independently secreted cash in our pockets, intent on stopping to indulge.

I know it’s only March 12.  And that even the calendar shows it isn’t spring yet.  I’m too well versed in the ways of the Northland to think that this will last.  One look at the weather forecast tells me tomorrow will be very different.  All the more reason I so enjoyed today’s Spring Fling.

 

Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.