Sisu Initiation

What do nine women, including three sisters, three generations and a handful of close friends have in common?  Sisu!

Arriving at the National Forest Lodge near Isabella, I lugged my gear into the spacious log house that would be our home for three days.  As the newcomer to a group that has convened here annually for years, I wondered how I would fit in.  I needn’t have worried.  Gathering in the kitchen, one member had already laid out hand-made snowflake earrings (no two alike, of course) and lanyards emblazoned with “sisu,” its definition under our names: “Sisu begins where the perseverance and grit end.”  I knew it right then.  These were my soul-mates.  This was going to be a good weekend.

We made rapid work of choosing beds and dumping our bags.  The Flathorn-Gegoka cross-country ski trails awaited right outside the door.  As soon as we could strap on our skis, we set out to make the most of the remaining daylight.  Brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine offset the blustery wind, and soon we were sheltered by the deep forest.  With two-feet of newly fallen snow freshly groomed into narrow single classic tracks, we brushed shoulders with tall pines.  Branches laden with mounds of snowy fluff, sun peeping through, all sounds but the swish of our skis were muffled by the soft whiteness.Ready to ski at NFL

Morning brought sub-zero temperatures, but not a single Sisu sister hesitated.  Fueled by a healthy and hearty breakfast in the lodge, we donned all our layers and ventured forth on skis and snowshoes.  The pattern would repeat itself over the next two days.  Eat and ski.  Groups formed and reformed, venturing out until fingers and toes needed rejuvenating or the next meal beckoned.

Behind every Sisu sister, there is a lighter side.  Or a crazier one.  Some intrepid souls could not resist the lure of the sauna and polar plunge.  I readily admit to passing on this experience, but they didn’t hold it against me.
Snow Angels at NFL

Polar Plunge

There were no midnight sorties on the trail by headlamp.  Instead, fierce competitive streaks emerged.  Huddled around the dining table, we furiously shaped and reshaped crosswords playing Bananagrams, and drew artful clues for Pictionary.  This was serious business, perhaps enhanced by a sip or two of wine.

If sharing a passion for word games, skiing as many kilometers as daylight allows, nestling by the fire with a bit of wine, waking to the smell of brewing coffee and sneaking oatmeal cookies are any indication, I think I passed the Sisu initiation.  Thank you, sisters!

SISU Sisters 2019

On Location

Donning every possible layer of outdoor clothing I own, I pull on my mukluks, fling a camera around my neck and grab my notebook.  It’s time for the start of the Arrowhead 135!

At the 7am start, it’s -9 degrees with a touch of snow falling in International Falls MN.  Bikers, runners and skiers line up and head down the Arrowhead Trail as fireworks light up the inky sky.  The race takes its heritage seriously, ranked as one of 50 toughest races in the world.  The finish line is 135 miles away.Skier in Arrowhead 135

These intrepid athletes will endure up to three days on the trail, with temperatures predicted in the -22 degree range by morning.  My role is far easier.  And warmer.  I am here to cover the race for the Lake Country Journal, a beautiful glossy magazine that covers all things related to our northern lakes area.

Teaming up with Rich, we have created a new niche for ourselves – find fun events that interest us, sell the idea to a magazine, attend and experience them, then produce a story.  I write, he takes the photographs.

Today we leapfrog the trail, catching the racers at intervals along the way.  Rich looks for unique photo opps, I make mental notes of what I see – the steadfast determination in the racers’ eyes, the thick boots, the ice encrusted beards and fanciful antler hat.  We have time to warm up in the car.  The racers have only their energy to heat their bodies.

Biker in Arrowhead 135I would never be here if it weren’t for my writing.  Seeing folks pursue the impossible.  Following the Holiday Train.  Leaning the ins and outs of sled dog racing.  Attending a home grown radio show.  Then bring them to life for others.  New horizons, unique adventures, a break in my strict daily routine.  It’s a privilege to be able to write about topics of my own choosing.Runner in Arrowhead 135It wasn’t always this way.  Getting here has a been a seven year journey of my own.  I got my humble start in writing with Lake Superior Magazine, which accepted my first cold submission.  Editor Konnie went on to gently mentor me year after year, offering me more stories as my skills improved.  Just seeing my work come out in print was a big thrill.  And it remains one of my favorite magazines to write for.

As today’s racers doggedly push on toward the finish line I remain vigilant as we chase them down the trail, composing lines in my head, shaping the story to share with my readers.  It’s already been a memorable adventure, and we haven’t yet seen them press on through the dark of night.  But when they do, I’ll be there.  With my talented photographer husband at my side.  On Location.Molly and Rich at Arrowhead 135

The Rest of the Story

This time it was Sarah who granted me permission to use an image.  Following our amazing cyber connection forged by my photo of Crisp Point Lighthouse, her parish magazine is ready for distribution.

Crosstalk parish magazine with Crisp Point LighthouseThis weekend, Crosstalk – and Crisp Point Lighthouse – will be making its way into three Church of England parishes near Durham, England.  In addition to the usual church news, promotions for upcoming events, schedule of services and useful contact information, it carries a wealth of stories, trivia and well researched facts centered on the theme of “Light.”  This is more than your weekly church bulletin – it makes for great reading and even includes a recipe!  No wonder this publication has won awards.  As a writer for regional magazines, I am impressed and even more pleased to be a part of this issue.

Sarah and I continue to discover mutual connections – bell ringing, her brother-in-law who may in fact have been my Economics professor, cyclists in Scotland and bad memories of old fashioned “stockings.”

A return to Durham to meet Sarah just moved up my travel wish list.  I hope that will be part of the rest of this story.

Cyber Magic

Urging my laptop to life, there were no inklings of the magic it would soon dispense. No hint of the hidden connections that lay within. Nothing to reveal the memories it would unleash.

The usual plethora of overnight emails swarmed my inbox, parading up the screen as they entered. Sifting through the usual jungle of unwanted solicitations, the day’s local news headlines, and legitimate email exchanges lay an unassuming subject from a sender I didn’t recognize. “Using an Image” it said. Once I had dispensed with the known correspondences, I opened it. And smiled. Then smiled even more.

A five year old photo of mine had caught the attention of a stranger. It was part of a blog post from our first year as lighthouse keepers for Crisp Point Lighthouse, when each day brought new perspectives for photographing that magnificent structure. In this image the day’s lingering light illuminated the lighthouse against a gloomy background, behind it the arc of a rainbow stretched skyward. It was the light that attracted Sarah’s attention.

Crisp Point Lighthouse with rainbowI have no idea how she found the photo. I dug through blog posts from six stints of light keeping before I spotted the picture she described. I was tickled that she wanted to use it and immediately granted permission.

But the magic still lay within. Sarah’s email began, “Good morning from a rather gloomy north east England.” That was the first smile. She went on to describe her interest in the photograph, to use for a monthly parish magazine she produces called Crosstalk. The theme of the next issue was “Light,” and she felt it would make a fitting cover image. She described the magazine’s circulation as “around 300 copies across three parishes in and around the City of Durham.” That was the second, bigger smile.

I spent my junior year in college studying at the University of Durham. As one of only 40 Americans immersed in a university population of over 4,000, I relished the opportunity to live the life of a British student, embraced the unique college system and relished the beauty and culture of that historic city. The best feature of my dorm room was the prominent view of the majestic cathedral through its single window. I made lasting friendships and developed a love affair with Britain that I have sustained through frequent return visits, including another stint to do a master’s degree at the University of Bath. Fond memories came flooding back.Durham Cathedral

What are the chances? That Sarah would find my photo. That she would be from my favorite city in Britain. And that she could so easily reach out to me directly.

A rapid-fire email exchange ensued, in which we uncovered more connections and interests in common.  The warmth of the new bond filled my soul.

The internet often gets a bad wrap. But in this case it made my day. Through cyber magic.

Music to my ears

The sterile white tomb-like cavern awaits.  Enshrouded in voluminous hospital pants and gown I succumb to the platform, and allow myself to be strapped on my back in a motionless state.  One final question from the medical professional, “What kind of music do you like?”

Nagging hip pain has brought me here.  My running regime interrupted for months as I nurse the overuse injury, cross-training with cycling and swimming.  But with little improvement.  Seeking answers, I return to the clinic and this time the doctor orders an X-ray and then an MRI.  Now we’re getting somewhere, I think.  Even if I don’t like the outcome, anything is better than this uncertainty.

The MRI machine is very loud, the attendant informs me.  I will need the music in my headphones turned up high.  “Classical” is my response.  My bed travels into the cylinder and the noisy rat-a-tats begin.  So does the music.

It happens instantly.  Suddenly, I am transported back to an elegant living room and a Steinway concert grand piano.  I know that music intimately, my fingers can follow it up and down the keyboard.  I listen to hear if the top notes “sing” as Mrs. Blair insisted, if the melody comes through and the running passages glide evenly and gracefully underneath.  She would approve of the phrasing, I think.

The piece that follows is equally familiar.  And the next.  If I didn’t play them fellow students did.  I know them by heart from Mrs. Blair’s “musicales” when we performed for one another frequently over the six years that I studied with her.

Mrs. Blair accepted only select musicians.  I always wondered how I got in.  I remained in awe of my fellow pianists, who mastered sonatas and concertos and played them flawlessly.  A constant source of inspiration, I toiled to measure up.  But it was really Mrs. Blair that I sought to please.

She was of a different era.  Always beautifully dressed, in a perfectly appointed second floor apartment in an elegant old house, she carried herself regally despite her advancing age.  I never heard her play the piano, her fingers were too gnarled by then.  Instinctively I knew she was a master, her knowledge of music unbounded.  To me, she was an icon, firm but kind.  Loving.  I never wanted to let her down.

The pinnacle of our years of study was to present a senior recital at the end of high school.  It took place in her living room, with fresh flowers adorning the gleaming length of that Steinway, a corsage and formal gown.  Folding chairs formed neat rows between the upholstered furniture, and fancy finger foods awaited in the dining room.  I played for an hour in front of my parents and our closest friends.  It would be the peak of my musical prowess.

Molly at the pianoFor forty minutes I am steeped in these fondest of memories.  Not even the machine’s thumping can suppress the music and magic.  I am sorry when the tests are complete and I scoot back out in to the real world.

I asked for classical music.  I got piano masterpieces.  It was divine intervention.  And music to my ears.

 

Winter Water

If I had any doubts about winter’s arrival, it only took a trip up the North Shore to the Canadian border and beyond to confirm it.  While patchy snow powdered Duluth, the more northern climes delivered deeply flocked pines and enough snow on the ground to make boots a necessity.  Not exactly typical waterfall weather, but that was the whole attraction.

It took two stops at Kakabeka Falls north of Thunder Bay to catch in it bathed in sunlight.  Afternoon delivered the warmth and light we sought, and transformed the view into a thunderous sparkling delight.

Kakabeca Falls in winter Rich at Kakabeca Falls

Pushing further north, we ventured in search of Silver Falls.  Following unplowed roads into the park of the same name, we stopped to hike at Dog Lake.  With only vague directions to the falls, we declined the remaining narrowing white road onward.  Silver Falls await a return visit.

Molly hiking at Dog Lake

Just at the border, High Falls in Grand Portage State Park graced us with sunshine once again.  The Pigeon River flowed with gusto, even as its borders froze into creamy icicles.  Especially intriguing was watching the water falling behind the thinner icy patches.

High Falls in winter High Falls closeup

While Rich stopped to investigate the water fowl in the bay at Grand Marais, I found yet another water feature in the crystal remnants of recent wave action.

Icy bushes Grand Marais

The best part of all?  We had every single one of these sights to ourselves.  Apparently, we were the only ones out in search of winter water.

Bonfire Magic

“We have a bonfire every night,” Bob the proprietor of the Grizzly Lodge told us.  “People make friends for life there.”  I wasn’t sure sure about the “for life part” but I’m not one to miss a good blazing fire.

Rich and I were within yards of reaching the entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The plan was to find a campsite in the park for the night, but when Rich saw the Vacancy sign on the lodge, he immediately turned into the drive.  His deteriorating health dictated better rest than sleeping outdoors on a thin inflatable pad.  Late in the season, we scored a tiny cabin right on the riverbank.

Rich barbecued out near the fire pit while I prepared the remainder of our camp meal in the cabin.  Already the bonfire was ablaze.  When Rich crashed and crawled under the colorful patchwork quilt on the soft double bed, I slipped outside.

Approaching the fire pit, I could just make out three couples and a young man seated on the quadrangle of logs.  I settled next to the couple on the nearest side.  Like me, they appeared to be in their 60s.  The man was tuning a guitar, clearly a borrowed instrument, muttering about its quality.  But when his fingers caressed the strings music unfurled.  His picking held the promise of a folk melody as the vibrating notes sang out over the flames.  Soon his gravelly voice took up the tune, with an oddly lyrical mix of breathy tones and vibrato.  His wife joined in, singing a quiet and alluring harmony, almost a haunting combination.  The language was foreign, adding to the mystique.  The impromptu performance continued, mostly his guitar and solo voice, always in his native tongue.  It was a magical moment.  I wanted it to go on forever.

Simon Chudnovski and Valentina Kharenko are originally from the Ukraine, and have lived in New York City for 20 years.  Both are accomplished musicians, and Simon had been invited to perform in Seattle.  Valentina, a pianist, would play as well.  They were taking their first long car trip in the US with their son, David.  Fulfilling one of David’s dreams, they were visiting as many western national parks as possible in three weeks.  Normally they camped and hiked each day, but that night they had allowed themselves a cabin and real beds.

David eagerly filled us in on their travels, their music and their lives.  The couple on the next log was from the Pennsylvania Dutch area, dressed in their traditional garb.  They asked Valentina if she spoke German, and the conversation continued in that language.  The Ukrainians took as much interest in each of us as we did in them, as we lingered by the fire.

I so wished Rich could be there.  I knew he would be as enchanted by the music as I was, as charmed by the experience.  I chatted with David as we wandered back to our cabins, and told him as much.  He insisted on stopping at his car so he could give me a CD of his father’s music.  And he gave me the name of Simon’s channel on YouTube.

I invite you to listen to his music.  You will have to imagine the heat of the fire, the glow on the faces surrounding the blaze, the crackle of the dry wood.  That music floating over the scene.  Bob joined us for a spell out there.  Said he’d never before experienced a bonfire like that one.  When magic happened.