That’s all that is left. Poor Fuzzball, he so wanted to be free. But it cost him his life.
Last evening there was a knock on the door. “Your owlet is on the ground, right near the trail.” Apparently Fuzzball just didn’t care for his chair nest anymore. He wanted out. Rich hurried over and sure enough Fuzzball was out exploring. He figured the safest thing to do was to find a protected area for Fuzzball to spend the night, and deposited him in a deep thicket.
At 5:15 this morning, Fuzzball was out and about once again. Rich found him near the trail, relieved to know he made it through the night but concerned for his safety. Returning just half an hour later, all he found was a ring of fuzz and feathers. Nature had taken its cruel course. Rich surmises that a fox found Fuzzball and after a brief struggle carted him off to his den to feed his own hungry family.
It was 11 days ago that Fuzzball first entered our lives. In that short time, he brought a lot of joy to the many people who followed his story – in Rich’s blog and mine, out in the woods, watching from the road, and hearing it from friends. Rich did all he could for the little fella, but just could not curb his natural tendencies. Fuzzball couldn’t fly yet, but he could scurry around on the ground. He wasn’t good at holding on to branches yet, but he could scratch and bite whenever Rich re-rescued him. He was a fighter, and we hoped he would make it. But it was clear Rich could no longer protect the impetuous owlet who longed to roam. Rich did all he could, and we agree that helping Fuzzball survive in his home habitat was the right thing to do. Rich would do it all over again, despite the hole in his heart right now.
It’s worth reading Rich’s final blog post about Fuzzball, as he included many photos and videos he was unwilling to share before in order to protect Fuzzball from too much human exposure.
This is one of my favorite photos from the whole journey. It was nice knowing you, Fuzzball. We will all remember you fondly.
It’s not easy being a foster parent. Especially to an owlet.
Fuzzball seems to have adapted to his new nest quite well. Rich calls it Lawn Chair Nest 2.0, and amazingly it has remained stable on its perch high in the tree. Fuzzball appears content to sleep on the seat by day and host Mom at night when she brings him treats to eat. Not much has changed since Fuzzball’s Rescue, but that is good news. The more time that passes, the closer Fuzzball comes to getting his flight feathers. We harbor hopes that one day he will be strong enough to fly up to his real nest. Until then, we wait and watch. Becoming complacent in our foster parenting.
This morning that changed when Rich returned from his visit with news. “When I got to Fuzzball’s nest, he wasn’t there!”
“The seat was empty. But I looked up, and there he was, standing on the back of the chair!”
It would appear that Fuzzball was ready to try branching. Lacking tree limbs to walk on, he found the next closest thing. This I had to see. Sure enough, there he was, back against the tree, stretched up to his full height. Suddenly he looked really BIG! Even though the sun was already climbing in the sky, he was wide awake and turned to watch me as I approached.
Fuzzball seemed quite proud of his accomplishment, and I have to admit I was impressed. Something like parental pride blossomed as I left him and headed out for my run.
When I returned, a third ladder had joined the collection down by our garage. There was only one explanation – Fuzzball. Rich wasn’t home, and curiosity ate away at my psyche. I had to check on him.
Approaching the nest, Fuzzball looked at me from the seat of chair nest. I silently congratulated him on safely making it back down to his resting spot. I moved around to get a better look. All looked well.
But that was not the whole story.
“I found Fuzzball on the ground again this morning,” Rich reported. Apparently he wasn’t so savvy about getting down from his perch after all. But it didn’t end there.
Rich filled me in. Fuzzball fell on his own the first time, but he plunged two more times – with help. Rich had decided Fuzzball needed an opportunity to try real branching. So he carried him up to a branch and carefully set him down on the limb.
Fuzzball was unable to hang on with his toenails, had bad balance, or just lacked Mom’s training in how to navigate in trees. He tilted, scrambled, spread his wings then plummeted to the ground. Rich tried again. Fuzzball suffered a similar fate.
Rich just happened to capture one of the falls on video. (Note, this is a private video that Rich will delete in a few days, to prevent it from going viral and exposing the owlet.) Click here to view the action. Apart from Fuzzball’s unfortunate tumbles, what I found most interesting and reassuring was seeing the growing feathers on Fuzzball’s wings.
Three strikes and out. Rich conceded the failed experiment and returned Fuzzball to chair nest, where I found him, unaware of his recent drama.
Fuzzball must have been relieved to be back on a stable platform. It was bad enough causing his own fall. Now he has to worry about saviors who can be a threat!
We foster parents don’t always get things right. But our hearts are in the right place. Hang in there, Fuzzball!
The name originated when my husband, Rich, was in the hospital for open heart surgery. He was relegated to a hospital bed for nearly two weeks, and in that time numerous staff members came and went, attending to his needs. Rich was always polite, thanked them profusely and inevitably talked about owls. In particular “his owls.” Soon hospital folks would enter his room and say, “Oh, you’re the Owl Guy!”
For five years, Rich has been watching the same Great Horned Owl couple. Starting in February he stalks the snowy woods near our house in the dark, listening for their hoots, tracking them down until he finds their nest, which often moves from year to year. Once spotted, he haunts the site, watching and photographing the miracle of life. From eggs in the nest under Mama Owl to fully grown and forced out of the territory in the fall, he chronicles the lives of the owlets. From fuzzballs to independent owls. They have become “his owls.”
Rich’s owls first gained fame during the pandemic. Isolated by Covid, Rich spent more hours in the woods than ever, and the owls chose to nest in a spot with a perfect vantage point for photography. There were three owlets that year and Rich blogged about them almost daily, posting pictures of their development and progress. His readership boomed. Others, similarly isolated, followed the owlets – a cute and endearing diversion provided by nature during that period of seclusion. Over time, Rich created a children’s book with his best photographs of the beloved owlets and theirjourney to adulthood.
This year, there are two owlets. Due to the long, harsh winter Mama laid her eggs much later than usual, and the first fluffball did not appear until well into May, followed by a sibling a week later. Rich was elated, once again back on owlet watch. And then the unthinkable happened.
Fuzzball fell out of the nest.
Rich happened to be near the nest with two trusted photography buddies late one afternoon last week when one of them spotted Fuzzball huddled in a depression, 80 feet below the nest. Estimating the baby bird to be about four weeks old, Rich noted that it did not yet have any flight feathers. It had not even started “branching” yet (walking out on branches near the nest). With the nest at an unreachable height, the poor owlet had no means of survival. Rich donned his falcon gloves (he’s rescued owls before) and laid the frightened but seemingly unharmed bird in a towel-lined tub.
Rich contacted Wildwoods, the local animal rehabilitation center, but they were already closed for the day. As we had dinner with Fuzzball resting nearby, Rich’s brain was churning. Surely the bird would be better off near Mom and Dad than doomed to life in captivity? Was there a way he could create a new nest for Fuzzball, where he could be watched, protected and fed by his parents? Abandoning the unwashed dishes, Rich sprang into action.
I had no idea that a lawn chair could simulate a nest. But apparently Rich did. Covering it with a packing blanket for cushioning and to prevent the bird’s talons from catching in the mesh, he finished it off with bungee cords to hold it all in place. Next he hauled our longest ladder into the woods, and with the help of a family hiking past, he hauled the “nest” as high as he could and secured it with bungees stretching around the tree.
Getting the bird up into the nest was a tricky climb, but at last Fuzzball was installed in his new home.
We both heaved a sigh of relief with Fuzzball off the ground and in sight of his real nest. The question was whether Mom and Dad would find him and take care of him? Sleep was elusive that night.
Morning brought good news. Fuzzball was alert and active – he had survived the night! Rich talked to Wildwoods and convinced them that the owlet was better off in his new nest, and promptly secured the site with Caution tape and a warning sign to leave the little guy alone, and NOT post on social media. Humans were as much a threat to Fuzzball as his natural predators.
While pleased with the decision to leave Fuzzball in the woods, I also knew it would enhance our home life. Not only are they Rich’s owls, they are Rich’s owlets. My only role may have been iPhone photographer, but I couldn’t help but feel invested in these birds. Rich’s wellbeing and mine was secured as long as this experiment went well.
A few days later, Rich installed his trail-cam opposite Fuzzball. He was richly rewarded when he caught a nighttime feeding on video! Fuzzball sat upright, seemingly looking up in the direction of home. Soon Mom flew onto the chair seat alongside Fuzzball and immediately began tearing up bits of food which he rapidly devoured. It was working!
Rich still lives day by day, checking on Fuzzball morning, noon and evening, and spying on him with the webcam at night. I get detailed reports. Fuzzball’s rescue is our newest entertainment.
“There’s just so much to see!” Jon had been researching for weeks, and compiled a bountiful list of hikes and options for day excursions during our stay in Costa Rica. Little did I know we had invited a tour guide as well as friends on our trip. I was only too happy to indulge his wanderlust and inability to sit still. Something about that resonated with me! While Rich indulged his birding options, Jon, Beth and I explored the countryside.
Jon had his heart set on visiting a chocolate farm, so we detoured en route to La Carolina Lodge to find the Tree Chocolate Tour. We were met by Axel and joined by one family for a very personalized tour of the farm. He introduced us to far more than the cacao trees, the grafting process and nature of hand harvesting required at just the right time. Axel cut up a ripe coconut for us so we could drink the milk and sample the fresh flesh inside. We tasted peppercorns right off the vine (hot!) and learned about the tropical plants throughout the grounds.
Down by the river we were dwarfed by trees hundreds of years old, their trunks the size of small cottages. Rain poured down on us and eventually penetrated the thick canopy, but we assured Axel we didn’t care. We were in the rainforest, after all. Getting wet when it’s 88-degrees and humid isn’t so bad.
Returning to the farm center, Axel’s enthusiasm and pride in the operation swelled as he led us through the steps to process the cacao into paste, powder and liquor, each piece of vintage machinery operated by hand. We left with ample purchases of hand-crafted dark chocolate and a greater appreciation for its origins.
Rio Celeste Waterfall was next on Jon’s itinerary. The touristy trailhead and rapidly filling parking lot at Tenorio Volcano National Park immediately alerted us to the popularity of this hike. It wasn’t going to be a secluded trek, but on the plus side the trail was easy to traverse and impossible to make a wrong turn. The density of the tropical trees and plants provided welcome shade and kept us constantly intrigued with the enormous leaves and colorful flowers.
Reaching the viewpoint for the falls requires a side-trail that zigzags down about 300 steps with a fake but sturdy Adirondack-style railing. We snaked our way down behind dozens of other sightseers, gradually drawing near the bottom platform where we too could take pictures with the tall stream plummeting into turquoise waters. The color was just as advertised, and the experience worth sharing with the masses of humanity.
Beyond the falls the trail involved more elevation and attention to rocks and roots underfoot, but it was well worth continuing on to see the burbling hot springs, blue lagoon, and the source of the river’s unique color. At the point where two rivers converge, the sources contribute just the right conditions for particles of a whitish mineral known as aluminosilicate in the water to be large enough to reflect the blue color in sunlight – an optical illusion, not a chemical one.
My Garmin recorded 4.2 miles for the round trip with 575 ft of elevation, which we drew out to a leisurely 3-hour hike.
At Heliconias Rainforest Lodge a 2-mile walk took us across three treetop suspension footbridges. Rich had preceded us there, in search of certain birds reported in the area, and he assured me the bridges would not challenge my queasiness with heights. He was right – the solid engineering behind them was apparent, and the high side rails with dense mesh fencing gave me plenty of confidence to cross with ease. My personal favorite was the bridge with a tree in the center.
We lingered to watch salamanders, a brilliant blue butterfly with a deceptive “eye” on the outside of its wing, and unusual flowers that trapped rainwater. We even looked for Rich’s elusive bird, without success.
For our finale, we hiked in search of yet another waterfall. This was in Rincón de la Vieja National Park, and was our most challenging venture. The round-trip hike to La Cangreja Waterfall registered about 7.5 miles with 1,300 ft in elevation. We started out under good shade, and were delighted to watch a group of energetic white-faced monkeys cavorting in the treetops above us. Well aware of our presence, they seemed to be performing for us – chasing one another, pushing trees to make them sway, even eating bananas directly overhead.
Super tall trees with viny roots and enormous root structures delighted us.
The closer we got to the waterfall, the more difficult the terrain. Looking for footholds among boulders as we progressed downhill was more challenging than clambering up them on ascents. The final rocky patch, however, delivered us to the pool at the foot of the waterfall – paydirt!
This one claimed to have aqua-blue water, but we glimpsed that only at the very foot of the falls. However, the bonus was having the site nearly to ourselves for a good period of time, and we were free to roam around the pool and sit on rocks to take in the scene.
When other hikers caught up to us, we decided it was time to move on. By then the sun had climbed high in the sky and the temperature soared. We had crossed open highlands on the way there, and on the return trip while traversing the shade-less dry land we baked in the relentless sunshine. Seeking out all shade-breaks to cool down and drink water, we made it back to the monkeys who restored our good spirits with their antics, in a nice shady spot.
We didn’t come close to exhausting Jon’s list, but relished the adventures we did have in Costa Rica. We will just have to go back for the rest of them.
Driving toward the northern border of Costa Rica, we left behind the clear skies and intense heat. The landscape transformed from dry to thick intense greenery. A brief mist smeared the windshield. We rose onto the eastern slopes of Volcano Tenorio, and bumped our way along windy roads to arrive at La Carolina Lodge. Our rainforest home for three days.
Ready to shed the outside world, Rich and I along with our friends Jon and Bethwere shown to our cabins, nestled in the tall leafy environs sprinkled with brilliant flowers, and bordering the fast-flowing river onsite. In keeping with the eco-lodge essence, they were simple but comfortable, with overhead ceiling fans, windows for good cross-ventilation, mosquito netting hanging over the beds, a few lights and electrical outlets, and a bathroom with shower. The best feature was the deck facing the river with wooden rocking chairs, a counter with stools and wood fireplace. Jon and Beth, situated in the “honeymoon cabin” next door, had a personal wood-fired hot tub (which the staff kept stoked) and a hammock as well. Those would become our favorite living areas.
We arrived in time for lunch, and made our way to the lodge for our first dining experience. Tables set for individual groups circled all four sides of the open air building, and we were shown to a table just opposite the kitchen prep area. We could see the wood-stove and oven off to one side, and a long table laden with a colorful array of fresh fruits and vegetables (which we noticed dwindled during our stay!). We faced the garden area outside, the epi-center of bird watching.
All meals were served family style, with Costa Rican dishes placed in the center to be shared. With three meals a day included, I wondered if I would feel over-fed but it wasn’t the case. A hearty dose of rice and beans with every meal accompanied by locally raised beef, pork or chicken and an array of fruits, vegetables and salads lefts us just satisfied, never hungry. Breakfast included farm fresh eggs and homemade cheese and bread. We were fascinated to learn that about 85% of all food served is raised on-site, the remainder coming from local farms.
Eager to explore our surroundings, we made fast work of settling in. Rich made his choice very clear. “I’m here for the birds.” He had already spent time that morning ensconced in the garden blind, capturing his first toucans while huddled under an umbrella in the rain – having “the time of his life!” That became his happy place.
Jon, Beth and I indulged our own interests each day by venturing off campus to hike to a turquoise blue waterfall, tour a chocolate farm, and cross suspension footbridges strung across the treetops.
During the heat of the afternoon, it was easy to while away the hours on the deck, reading and journaling to the sounds of the rushing river while Rich worked on his latest set of photos. Jon and Beth invited us over to enjoy their hot tub, and while it seemed incongruous in this tropical climate, it actually felt good!
Evenings were particularly magical. Before leaving for dinner, a young woman silently slipped onto our deck and lit the candles on the railing and started a fire in the wood fireplace. We learned this would be a nightly occurrence, and came to appreciate the glow of the fire well into each evening. At the same time, candles and lanterns were lit throughout the grounds, throwing glimmering light onto the paths, just enough to illuminate our way.
Although the lodge does not serve alcohol, guests are allowed to bring their own. Rich ensured we were well supplied with Chardonnay, and the four of us installed ourselves in the riverside chairs at the Lodge for happy hour. Accompanied only by the sounds of water and birdsong, we sipped past sunset toward dinner.
We wondered if we might be hot during the night. Throwing all the doors and windows open to catch the breeze, we were surprised to sleep comfortably even under the red wool blanket. Not once did we deploy the mosquito netting. Waking during the night, my eyes sought the windows where I saw only the blackest of blackness accompanied by the roar of the river, sweet white noise.
Mornings before breakfast were good times to explore. There were extensive farm fields, pastures and a hiking trail on the far side of the grounds. While Rich hunted birds, I made my way to the stables adjacent to the horse pen where I donned a small pair of rubber boots then continued up the path toward the pastures. One morning Jon and I followed the hiking path along the river, unsure how far it went, and stretching the limits on our meeting time for breakfast.
The next morning we took in the farm fields and pastures, marveling at the orchards of bananas and pineapples, and contented cows. I eventually worked up the courage to milk a cow for the first time ever!
The abundance of tropical flowers ignited my desire to do some sketching and painting. It was too hot to sit and draw in the sunlight, so I took photos and retreated to the deck to ply my nascent craft. When progress waned, the swimming hole was the perfect place to refresh my spirit. Another day Beth and I soaked in the streamside wood-fired hot tub.
Although I’d scoured the website beforehand and devoured the beautiful photos of this off-the-grid haven, none of it compared to the real thing. This was rainforest bliss.
Snow storage. It’s a term I learned in Valdez, Alaska. I visited in the summer, but I couldn’t miss the extra wide streets with large medians down the middle. Yards had extra space near driveways. There were massive open lots. All designed to pile up excess snow to make room for more when an average of 300″ fall each winter.
Now I get it. In Duluth, this is the winter that just won’t quit. The snow keeps coming, the banks climb higher and our plow service had to bring in a special machine to make room around our driveway to clear the snow yet to come. With over 125″ of snowfall, it’s already the 6th snowiest winter on record, just 10″ from the top.
Rich and I have done our best to find respite from this relentless winter. Two weeks in Hawaii, a trip to visit my son in Seattle, and a week in Tucson were all welcome breaks from the snow and cold. And yet winter still reigns.
Don’t get me wrong. I love winter. And I love it most when it is snowy and keeps refreshing the ski trails and piles up for snowshoeing. So I’m all for this snow. But April is beckoning.
Perhaps this is my payback for checking out of winter this year. The weather gods were giving me a chance to catch up on what I missed. So who was I to argue? It was time I embraced it, even if it felt like the wrong season.
Thirteen inches of new snow just begged for snowshoeing. I’ve learned that I need to get out early in order to plunder untrampled trails, to sink into virgin powder and share the forest with only the birds and animal tracks. Snow still blanketed the trees and even though I ducked low beneath the branches overhanging the trail, snow still slithered down my neck now and then. But in the late season’s mild temperature, I didn’t care.
I got antsy to ski. I knew the groomer had not yet worked its magic, so I grabbed my classic skis and prepared to trudge. I was relieved to find that one or two intrepid skiers had already broken trail, and I slipped my skis into their tracks. It required more push than glide, but that wasn’t the point. The brilliant sunshine, peaceful shush of my skis and the smooth undulation of the snow filled my senses. Winter at its best, no matter what the calendar said.
By the next snowfall, I had succumbed to the draw of upscale snowshoes. Tired of trying to work resistant buckles with stiff frozen fingers, I salivated over some Tubbs with easy in-and-out bindings and extra features like heel lifts. I pressed Add to Cart and they came in time for the next six inch snowfall.
Since I wasn’t as quick to get out, the local trails were already groomed for fat tire bikes. I took to the banks as often as I could, finding soft snow atop an older crusty layer. The spikes gripped like a dream and I floated over the snow. Even on the packed trail, I had all the traction I needed. That short trial run only whetted my appetite for more.
Skiing in warmer conditions also has its own unique guidelines. I’m a morning person, but in the season of melt and refreeze I have to exercise my limited patience and wait until afternoon when the snow will begin to soften. Sure enough, the skate deck that was rock hard the day before was melting in the sun and had just enough give to provide my skis with the edge I needed. It was a delight to ski in minimal layers as I made my way around the Lester-Amity trail system.
I’ve only been home for two weeks, yet it feels like a winter’s quota of outdoor splendor. I think I have caught up on winter.
I have a habit of flying into snowstorms. Three times in recent history my return trip from a winter excursion has been delayed a day or more due to blustery Minnesota weather. I’ve become an expert at rebooking my flights. The most recent was my return from Seattle, leaving me just 27 hours at home before departing again for the next trip. Out with the ski clothes, in with the shorts and sandals.
This time the destination was Tucson. Soldiering on at home while I skied up mountains with Erik, Katie and her mom Betsy, Rich was in need of a break. He craved respite from this winter’s relentless snowfalls and wistfully reminisced about the sunny warm days we often spent in Arizona. Despite the clench in my stomach induced by the thought of crowding in another trip, I agreed. I’d had my fun, he should too. And who was I to argue with visions of that blissful warmth? Some hardship.
I decided I would treat it as a retreat. We’d been there enough times to cover all the best sights and I felt no compunction to be touristy. I had no must-do activities in mind. Instead, I would use the time to soak up the outdoors by running, biking and hiking, enjoy eating out, and most importantly rejuvenate my inner creativity. I was sorely in need of jumpstarting my writing, drawing and painting. That was something to look forward to.
We have a favorite “casita” in Oro Valley, cradled between the mountains with a back patio facing east where we dined each evening as the sunset painted the mountains red. It was already booked on such short notice, but Rich found one nearby with the same stunning view in addition to a beautiful yard and pool we would share with the homeowners. Our late afternoon arrival soon confirmed the perfection of his choice.
Normally, we do this trip in April, and although I knew it would be cooler this time, I feared I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes when the first few days started in the 30s and only reached the mid-50s. Still, I reminded myself that it was a lot colder at home. But that argument wore thin on day 2 when we woke up to 2+ inches of thick snow! While it was shocking, it was also beautiful and unique. Our host told us they had seen this happen only twice before in 20 years, and Rich eagerly grabbed his camera to capture the desert under snow.
I did my usual – headed out for a run, using that as my opportunity to see the area blanketed in white and stop frequently for photos. I wasn’t the only one, cars hastily parked on the roadside everywhere, doing the same. Unlike Duluth, the walkways were clear and once the sun crept out from the clouds the melting began. By mid-morning it was all fading into a wet memory.
As the week wore on, the temperatures steadily climbed. Tucson has wonderful bike trails, and I recreated my long rides from past visits. My favorite outing was timed to coincide with the Rillito River Heirloom Farmers Market. I was chilled to the bone by the time I’d logged the 22 miles to get there (all on bike trail!), and I eagerly sipped hot coffee and relished a fresh scone as I perused the bountiful farm offerings, artisan crafts and food booths accompanied by local musicians. By the time I left, I was able to shed all my warm layers and return in shorts and jersey – a long awaited treat.
Rich avidly pursued his birding and photography, scoring a number of rare finds as well as locating his favorite prey – owls. That inspired me to keep my promise to pursue my own crafts. Whenever possible, I requisitioned the little table outside our casita to do my writing, crafting several posts for my long neglected blog. It felt like priming the pump, doing something rusty yet familiar, in preparation for other works I want to tackle.
I used my bike rides to scout out ideas for my nascent discovery of journal sketching and watercolors. Keeping my eyes peeled for interesting cacti and plants, and knowing I couldn’t crouch on street medians or private front yards, I snapped photos in order to recreate the scenes later. That was a no-no in the class I took last year, but sometimes you just have to make do. After spending more time at that little table on the patio, I finally rendered one finished piece.
Our final day delivered the picture-perfect Tucson weather I had learned to love – cool in the morning, but clear sunny skies and reaching the mid-70s. I set my sights on re-exploring the third of the lengthy Loop trails, and headed down to the southern portion of the Santa Cruz River Park. The miles quickly slipped beneath my rental bike tires as I plied the flat trail, out on one side of the wash, back on the other. Cyclists from racing teams to slow putterers and e-bikes went by, all out to enjoy the beautiful weather. By the time I returned, I had logged 50 miles. A suitable finale, I felt.
And yet, I was reluctant to let the day slip away and craved at least a short hike before surrendering this locale. After dithering over my options with unnecessary anxiety, I finally settled on a local park for a walk. Donning my running shoes and grabbing some water, I headed out to the car. But I never got in. What was I doing? What was I trying to prove? Hadn’t I just been bemoaning the fact that it hadn’t been warm enough to sit out on the patio to enjoy the view? It was enough to turn me around. Grabbing the Mother/Daughter journal that Karen and I share, I made my way over to the remaining sunny spot by the pool. I settled in with pen and paper, first immersing myself in Karen’s latest entry, then contemplating my response. Soon I was lost in thought, penning my entry, composing as I went with no option to hit delete or rewrite. This had to come straight from the heart. And it did.
Sometimes I need a push to get out of my comfort zone, to abandon my carefully laid plans and tendency to want total control over my life. This trip was good for me, and Rich got his much-needed escape. We spent unhurried time together in addition to pursuing our own desires. It was just the sunny retreat I needed. Even though another Minnesota snowstorm was on the way…
We met at the same time our kids did. Erik and Katie were on their high school Nordic ski team, Betsy and I were team moms – baking brownies, holding out warming capes for the kids in their spandex racing suits, riding the team bus and cheering at the meets. As the spark grew between our young skiers, so did the friendship between the two parent couples. Sharing a wedding ceremony between our children cemented the bonds for all of us.
When Amazon lured Erik and Katie out to Seattle two years ago, I wondered how they would feel about living in a temperate climate, leaving behind Minnesota winters and skiing. Little did I know that it would only be the beginning of mountain adventures for them, including skiing, snowshoeing, ski mountaineering and (gulp!) avalanche training. Enticed by the stunning snowy mountain photos, I spent a week with them last winter including a picture-perfect day snowshoeing on Mt. Rainier. I was hooked – I had to do it again. And I knew the perfect companion.
“Say Betsy, how about Moms trip to Seattle?” That’s all it took.
The plan was to hike or snowshoe together during the week while Erik and Katie worked. For the weekend, the kids had something special arranged – three days skiing in The Methow, the largest cross-country ski trail system in North America, in the Cascade Mountains. Not only that, but they had snagged a cancellation for one of the highly sought-after ski-in huts for our first night.
We left in the dark, bleary-eyed but excited at 5am. By 10am we were at the trailhead, and loaded our overnight gear in a sled for the snowmobile tow service. Mountains of sleeping bags, food, water and clothing zoomed off as we – accompanied by pooch Finley – skied up the trail. I looked up at the surrounding peaks, snow laden and glistening in the sun as my skis slid over the snow. It just didn’t feel real!
That first day was magical. The grooming was impeccable and we skied companionably in a group taking it all in. Our hut was at the top end of our portion of the trail system, dictating we climb most of the way to get there. Our original plan had been to ski up to the hut, relax over some lunch then venture out again. But it was far too enticing to just continue skiing and cover more of the trails. We didn’t have a morsel of food with us, but our hunger for the trails was stronger. Onward we went.
There are five ski-in huts in all and we made it a point to stop and explore the locale of several others. The clear favorite was Rendezvous hut, with spectacular views. It speaks for itself.
The trails are groomed for both classic and skate skiing. The others classic skied, and Betsy skijored with Finley. I chose to skate ski, vainly hoping it would help me keep up. But speed was not of the essence on this trip. It was all about the experience.
By the time we reached Heifer Hut, we had skied 27 kilometers and were ready to settle into our rustic quarters. It was perched on the mountainside surrounded by stately pines. Leaning our skis against the wood exterior, we eagerly went inside to explore. A woodstove, bench and double bunks lined one side, and on the other was a kitchen area with a propane stove and a table with benches. A ladder led to the loft where three more double mattresses awaited. The propane lights reminded me of Coleman lanterns, and were supplemented with solar lights fueled by a tiny solar panel. With the woodshed and outhouse across the way it had everything we needed,
Getting the fire started was our first order of business, along with fixing some food. Hot tea and snacks refueled us enough to unpack, claim bunks and stash our gear. Soon it was cozy inside, and we traded our ski wear for comfy cabin clothes. The remainder of the afternoon and evening passed quickly, with hot wild rice soup and fixings followed by lively rounds of Hearts played around the table.
Erik and I were the first ones up in the morning, and donned snowshoes to explore the terrain behind the cabin with Finley. We meandered in deep powder, sunshine and silence, the perfect start to the morning. Katie and Betsy joined us, and Erik headed inside to prepare breakfast. I think those were the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten!
If reaching the cabin was all uphill, it meant our second day was the opposite! Erik and Finley took off down the black diamond trail back to meet the snowmobile at the car while Katie, Betsy and I skied to a distant trailhead where we would meet them. Erik managed to ski up to us en route, and we sent him off to get in some good fast kilometers (in prep for the Birkie), and he still caught us again just before we finished. We completed the day with a low key snowshoe on Patterson Lake before heading off to our hotel in Winthrop.
For our final day, we chose the opposite end of the trail system near Mazama. There we skied in the valley, on trails that more closely resembled Minnesota. The gentler trails passed through woods and open fields, where we were reminded of our locale with mountain views once again. While we had encountered few skiers the prior two days, the easy access and terrain of this area invited many more skiers including families. We skied a number of different loops before our departure time drew near.
While we were sad to see the skiing and weekend come to an end, talk quickly turned to next year. Betsy and I were hooked. Clearly we have more shared adventures already looming in the future.
We heard this refrain from multiple people before flying home from Hawaii. After basking in the sunshine and tropical near 80° temperatures for two weeks, we were returning to a severe Minnesota cold snap. Double digits below zero at night, with days barely creeping above zero dominated that first week at home.
I used to think nothing of going out in that weather to cross-country ski or plunder the snow in some fashion, but age has weakened my tolerance. I have set new limits for my outdoor excursions, willing to brave the cold but not the frigid. The huge climate swing between Hawaii and Duluth heightened my aversion.
That first week back, just traveling from front door to garage was enough to strengthen my resolve. I knew the blue sky and strong sunshine were false signals, enough to lift my spirits but not the temperature. I sought refuge in the Y swimming pool, choosing laps over the ski trails.
I might have remained in my cocoon had it not been for my son, Carl. “Mom, I’m in dire need of a winter adventure. I’m thinking of taking our two oldest kids to the cabin for a weekend. Are you interested?”
“I’m in!” came my speedy reply. Rich was intrigued and the plan morphed into renting a cabin on Thousand Island Lake in the UP for a long weekend.
With over 30” of snow on the ground, it was the perfect winter playground, but -15° when we rose the first morning. The kids begged and pleaded to go outside but Carl held firm until it the temp inched closer to zero. By 10am even I was eager to get out there. We all donned our heaviest jackets, snowpants and boots and bolted out the door. For the next hour we went sledding, tromped on the frozen lake and unearthed the playground equipment from the heavy snow. Exhilarating.
By early afternoon I was ready to tackle the local ski trails. The Sylvania Outfitter trails in Watersmeet featured narrow classic tracks that wound through the woods. I found myself enjoying the sun’s rays alternating with shadows across the trail and the ground undulating beneath my skis. I had to smile when the double tracked bits split, leaving a patch of trees in the middle. It wasn’t a system for speed, and I puttered along without haste. Somehow the 6° temperature was immaterial.
Carl was eager to explore the Sylvania Wilderness Area which is like a mini-Boundary Waters. After he took a long circle route through the frozen lakes and portages, I donned snowshoes for my turn. With only a snapshot of an online map, I decided it was easier to follow his tracks than try to navigate on my own. Once I left the popular ice fishing bay behind, I tromped out onto a sea of white, broken only by Carl’s backcountry HOK skis, flanked by forest. I didn’t have to think, I could let my mind wander along with my feet. My body warmed with the effort, and as my confidence grew I ventured from Carl’s path and managed to find the portage into a small untouched lake. Winter wonderland indeed.
In between all that fresh air and activity we had plenty of time to enjoy cabin life with the kids. It didn’t take long before cars and trucks competed for floor space with wild animals, and stuffed animal friends lay strewn everywhere. We read books, snuggled on the couch by the too-warm fire, and worked Maren’s first jigsaw puzzle together. Make-your-own pizza night was a hit with everyone. Carl and I sweated in the steamy sauna each night.
A flashlight walk revealed how different everything looks in the dark! And Carl caught the first rays of sunshine skiing on the lake in the early mornings.
It took the right incentive to get me outside, beyond my boundaries and back into winter mode. The enthusiasm of Carl and the kids forced me back out of my comfort zone and reminded me how much I do love winter. Cold or not. I know now, it’s only a matter of degrees.
The gift was from my son Erik and his wife Katie. They had just been to the Big Island of Hawaii and knew that I was enamored with all the fun outdoor activities they did on their trip. “This check is for you to pick your own special adventure,” they explained.
I spent hours researching snorkeling tours, kayak trips, sunset cocktail cruises and other ideas, eager to pick just the right one. Finally I settled on a kayak trip to explore sea caves. I was excited about the idea, knowing it was something I couldn’t do on my own and would be unique to this locale. Yet I just couldn’t make myself book the tour.
It was the High Surf warnings that haunted me. Easily prone to seasickness, I despaired that being tossed around in the high seas would unsettle me, and leave me heaving over the side of my kayak. The tour guidelines included children down to age five, and I tried to reason with myself. If a five year old can do this, surely I can? But those waves…
As our remaining days on the island dwindled, it became a now or never deal. I poured way too much nervous energy into my deliberations until Rich, tired of this game, gave me a giant shove. “Just book it, Molly. You’ll be fine.” So I did.
The day dawned sunny and I tried to convince myself the ocean was a bit calmer. Rich delivered me to the dock to meet my tour at 9:00am, and I took heart in the variety of fitness levels of the eight other participants. If they can do it, I can, I repeated. Our guide Jasmine oozed confidence and experience along with her associate Lila, as they gave us instructions for getting in the water and launching our kayaks. It was a stroke of luck that I was the odd person out, and given a single kayak to pilot – much to my glee.
We started out in the narrow calm bay forming a flotilla while Jasmine briefed us on the safety protocols and plans for our outing. Kim announced that she had her cell phone and would happily take photos. Having left mine behind (no more floating treasures for me, thank you) I happily added my phone number to her list to text the pictures. With that, we launched.
As we left the bay, the water became wavier and more turbulent, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The paddling and excitement was enough to keep my stomach calm, and I eagerly glided along the coast with the group. Reaching an inlet, Jessica waited for the kayaks to regroup, and we floated gently on the lightly rolling seas. Before we had time to proceed, movement in the water caught her attention.
“It’s a humpback whale!” she shouted. “We’re going to follow it!”
Sure enough, we could see spouting water and whale backs surfacing as they swam, close enough to easily recognize, but still in the distance. Before long, Jessica spun her head around and we did the same. “Over there! More whales!” And off we went in that direction.
When the action quieted, Jessica addressed the group. “This is amazing! Do you mind if we totally change our tour, and chase whales instead of going to see the sea caves?”
“No! Let’s do it!” came the resounding response.
As if to validate our choice, three whales swam right in front of us, alternately surfacing and blowing in a line, then flipping their flukes. We could hear the expelling air and they felt almost close enough to touch. Suddenly, Jessica jumped in the water with her face mask. “They swam right underneath us!” she exclaimed. Just the thought of those giant creatures below was thrilling.
The trio of whales stayed close by, swimming in the area. From a little further away, they waved their fins, expressing joy we were told. Jessica jumped in again and reported that she could hear them singing under water! That was enough to get me in the water, and I did hear their faint sounds. Was this really happening?
We continued to see whales throughout the three hours we spent out on the water. Away from the shore it was nearly calm, and we could easily spot them when they broke the surface. One whale even poked his head out of the water, which Jessica told us was called spyhopping.
Throughout all this activity, Kim doggedly snapped photos. This one – her best whale shot – epitomizes the experience!
Gradually the whales moved off and although they never got that close again, just experiencing the activity from a kayak was enough for me.
As we made our way back to shore, the wave action increased again and pummeled the shoreline with its breaking surf. We all had to dig deep to push through the water, sometimes riding the waves sometimes battling.
Once back in the calm bay, I could see Rich at a distance shooting photos as we returned triumphant.
I have Erik and Katie to thank for this grand experience. Without their gift, I am certain I would have given in to my fears and successfully talked my way out of that tour. But I couldn’t let them down. I had to use it for its intended purpose. And boy did I get their money’s worth. It wasn’t just a Hawaiian adventure, it was the adventure of a lifetime!