Snowshoe Delight

After a winter spent diligently plying the ski trails, it was the perfect day to change our tune and head out on snowshoes.  With the Birkie behind us, all sense of urgency for training had dissipated.  The brilliant sunshine and the deep fresh new snow just begged for an afternoon of discovery.  My son, Erik, and I answered that siren’s call.

Living on the far edge of Duluth, the vast beauty of the North Shore beckoned, and we sought out the nearby Sucker River for our trek.  Starting from Old North Shore Road, we were a bit off-put by a large group of snowshoers that preceded us down the trail to the river, and even less thrilled by the snowmobile trampled path that led upstream where we’d intended to go.  So it was an easy decision to head the opposite direction, and we were well rewarded for our choice.

IMG_0463That section of the river was unspoiled by snowmobile tracks and had only vague signs of earlier snowshoe imprints before the last deep snowfall.  The snow was blindingly white as it reflected the bright sunlight, and we sank deeply into the thick fresh powder as we made our way downstream.  We saw only one set of skiers and a couple of hikers along the way.  The rest was virgin territory for us.  It was exactly what we’d come for.

IMG_0487The snow was soft and moist in the near-freezing air, perfect for a snowman.  Erik couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a friend along the way.  The warmth of the sun quickly dissipated in the shady areas, sending us a chill, but rewarmed us immediately upon returning to its toasty rays.

Reaching the shore of Lake Superior, we were treated to a beauty of a different nature.  The ice coating the lake near shore was thin and fragile, stacking itself into piles of delicate tiles that floated on the softly undulating water.  It made a tinkling sound as it bobbed up and down, and broke into glassy shards when it encountered a nearby rock.  It was mesmerizing to watch and listen to its gentle sounds.

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We traveled only 3.5 kilometers, down the river and back.  But it was a rich and satisfying hike that allowed us to unwind and enjoy nature’s beauty without constraint.  It’s what a sunny winter afternoon should be.  It was sheer delight.

Birkie Spoken Here

It is inevitable.  The hours and days following the American Birkebeiner are filled with conversation about nothing else.  The race is relived from every angle, tales told and retold, anecdotes recounted.  Websites are checked, photos are scrutinized and stats are calculated.

IMG_9591Four of us traveled to the Birkie together – me, my husband Rich, son Erik and our pastor Greg.  It was Erik and Greg’s first Birkie, so Rich and I felt like “old pros” with all of three Birkies under our belt beforehand.  The ride there was filled with anticipation, excitement and some anxiety.  The ride home was filled with talk.  There was no shortage of material.  With over 17 hours on the trail between us, we had plenty to relate, compare and analyze.

Waxes were deemed to be well chosen, although Erik and I regretted our final coat of blue which seemed slow at the beginning of the race.  The temperature was rated excellent for the race, and we were all happy with our chosen layers of clothing.  The deep new snow was a universal complaint.  And of course the hills, hills and more hills – enough said.  Erik literally ran out of fuel and lingered an embarrassingly long time at the final aid station to eat his way to renewed energy.  Greg regretted lugging his own water bottle, which he ceremoniously emptied near the end to lighten his load.  Molly lost a pole early in the race when a fellow skier stepped on it, and had to back up to retrieve it.  Rich captured the full DCIM100GOPROlength of the race with the “ski cam” on his back, snapping a photo every 30 seconds to accumulate 700 photos of the action behind him.  This one of the finish on Main Street reflects a sweet moment for all of us.

Of course, the conversation doesn’t stop there.  The inevitable question is, what about next year?  Erik is in.  He is already planning his training regimen.  He’s quite serious about this – he’s meeting with a personal trainer on Tuesday.  Greg says he’d have to have a moment of lunacy to sign up again.  But in the next breath he starts outlining his strategy.  Rich claims this Birkie was his last.  We’ve heard that before – how many marathons did he do after declaring his retirement?  I thought I wanted to take next year off and just enjoy skiing more.  But there’s something about the Birkie that draws one back.  And if I’m going to have to listen to them all talk about it, I might as well be able to enter the conversation.

Birkie Finishes 1-2-3

Who would you bet on to cross the American Birkebeiner finish line first?

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  • Started first – 35 minute lead over Molly
  • Skiing 54k Classic Race, Wave 3 – 4k more than the others
  • 4th Birkie
  • Classic skier since jr high school days
  • Spent a week ago Wednesday in the Emergency Room, scheduled for surgery next week


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  • Started second – 40 minute lead over Erik
  • Skiing 50k Skate Race, Wave 5
  • 4th Birkie
  • Learned skate skiing 6 years ago, first ski race 5 years ago
  • Retired, able to train 7 days/week


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  • Started last – in the final wave
  • Skiing 50k Skate Race, Wave 9
  • 1st Birkie
  • Led his high school Nordic Ski Team in his Sectional meet
  • 4-year hiatus from skiing while attending college in a no-snow zone


.We peeled off from the lodge one-by-one, each heading out to ski our own race.  But for me, at least, I knew the others were out there.  I spent the race trying to catch Rich, and hoping to stay ahead of Erik.  Would I succeed?

First there was all the new snow to overcome.  I was in the middle of the pack, but it was already churned up enough to require a lot of extra work to maintain forward momentum.  Uphills are always deep with snow in the Birkie, but this was heavy soft snow which bogged down skiers on every incline.  Hills are my forte, but I never got to ski one at “my” pace.  I was fine with the slower speed on the downhills, however, even if it meant less of a head start on the inevitable uphill that followed.

Aid stations were welcome oases and blessedly frequent.  I anxiously sought out the volunteers offering cups of “Energy,” hoping the drink would deliver just that.  Fortunately, it usually did and I appreciated the extra boost, brief as it was.

As the kilometers passed, I kept a keen eye on the bib numbers around me.  When the classic and skate trails merged at 27k, I found myself in the midst of Wave 3 classic skiers – Rich’s wave.  About the same time, I saw the first Wave 9 bib pass me – Erik’s wave.  I could be in the vicinity of both family members!  It was a welcome diversion to watch for familiar figures.

So, how did it all end?  With success for everyone!  I crossed the finish line first, and was able to cheer on Rich and Erik finishing in that order.  I had my best Birkie ever – not in terms of time, but ranking much higher in my age and gender than ever before.  Rich overcame his medical condition, skied a more controlled race than usual and felt good afterwards – a first for him.  Erik completed his first Birkie, with a much faster time than Rich and me, and is already planning his training for next year.

We all finished.  The order is insignificant.

Countdown to the Birkie

With three family members skiing the American Birkebeiner 50k cross-country ski race this year, there was great potential for raising the level of anxiety and pre-race drama to a fever pitch.  But instead, we were focusing on Rich’s medical problems – a guaranteed way to put life in perspective.  An enlarged prostate that landed him in the emergency room last week didn’t stop him from planning to ski the Birkie.  He continued his training with a catheter, and pressed his already-tired body to stride around the trails.  Going ahead with Skiing Book Across the Bay as planned was an important psychological and emotional achievement, and his doctor and nurse were very impressed!

SCM-2Good news came yesterday – while surgery is required, it is a week away and Rich has the all-clear to ski the Birkie.  The race is still on!  Better yet, he will ski catheter-free.  Look out, ski cam man will return in his signature knickers.

So today we entered the pre-Birkie phase with a vengeance.  We’ve checked the weather forecast for Hayward numerous times.  It doesn’t change much, but somehow it satisfies a need to be informed.  And then there were the discussions over glide wax.  A friend skiing with us offered his fancy waxes, but I don’t know what to do with wax whose name I can’t pronounce.  Red and Blue are my standbys.  After much consternation, emailing with Erik our son, and checking temperature ratings, I finally decided on three coats of red and a final layer of blue.  Will I really know the difference?

We will be driving to Hayward for the day, rather than spending big bucks on underwhelming hotel rooms.  The departure schedule has been set and revised a few times.  With snow in the forecast, we’re allowing extra travel time.  And we hope not to repeat the wrong turn we took last year on the way…

Packing for the event is my forte.  My penchant for making lists does come in handy once in a while.  And yes, of course I have my list from last year’s Birkie.  I have no excuse for forgetting anything vital.

We’ve done our final easy ski, our pasta dinner is in the works, and an early bedtime is planned.  The countdown ends tomorrow.  We’re ready to ski the Birkie!

Skiing Lake Superior by Candlelight

How could anyone find skiing or snowshoeing across the frozen ice of Lake Superior at night to be enticing?  Apparently, a lot of people do!

Imagine yourself at the start line.  You are surrounded by throngs of people on skis and snowshoes, some in silly costumes.  You see people of all ages, many of them families with youngsters.  Clearly this is not a highly competitive ski race, although those at the front might think otherwise.  The sun has set, darkness is descending as well as the temperature, and there is a palpable energy in the crowd.  Following the national anthem, and an energetic “Go!” you set off.

Book Across the Bay routeWhere are you?  It’s Book Across the Bay, an annual cross-country ski and snowshoe race on a 10k trail groomed across Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior.   What started as just a crazy idea in 1996 with 350 participants has grown into an annual event that drew nearly 4,000 people this year.  The hallmark of this race is that it is lit by about 1,000 ice luminaries, with bonfires every kilometer.

BATB 1We were part of the excitement last Saturday night for our third year in a row.  We started off by skiing to the starting line, as the sun was setting.  Preparations were in full swing, with luminaries being lit, wood for the bonfires in piles, and pine trees marking the 1k intervals.  Hearty volunteers were cheerfully setting up tents and doing some last minute snow shoveling out on the ice.

BATB 4We arrived at the starting point in Ashland just 10 minutes before the start of the race – perfect timing, as the temperature was dipping into the single digits under a clear sky.  Dusk quickly transformed into darkness as we set off with all the other skiers.  Once the crowds thinned out, silence reigned with only the swish of our skis or the flop of snowshoes to alert us of other people nearby.  Skiing under brilliant stars with the string of candlelight stretching across the bay was intoxicating.  The snow cover was excellent and the groomers had done a marvelous job of preparing the trail.  Still, in the dim light one had to take the surface on faith and navigate carefully over the few inevitable rough icy spots along the way.

We could see each kilometer mark off in the distance, lit by a blazing bonfire.  Some sponsors created a theme, including trees with Christmas lights.  My favorite is always the one by the huge offshore rock at 8k, lit with flaming tiki lamps alongside the cliffs at the shoreline.  This year there was an added feature – a fire-breathing dragon carved out of snow, belching real fireballs!

08-Canon-FireworksThe finale in Washburn includes fireworks, and this year they began before we reached the finish line.  What a festive atmosphere, to ski the final kilometer punctuated by brilliant bursts of light and color high in the sky!  From there it was a quick jaunt up the landing to shed our skis and warm ourselves by the enormous bonfire on shore.  A huge warm tent awaited us with bowls of hot chili and a band providing music for the after-party.10-Canon-Bonfire



Who could resist such ambiance?  Not us – we can’t wait to do it again next year.


Many thanks to my husband, Rich (aka the NorthStar Nerd), for the photos.

Are you prepared?

Nothing can prepare you for a phone call from the Emergency Room.

I’d had a lovely morning making cookies and decorating Valentines with my grandson, completely oblivious to the trauma that was going on in my husband’s life.  We were just finishing up our lunch when I got the call.  Rich was in the Emergency Room at the hospital, and managed to relay that he’d been sent there by ambulance from Now Care – but he was “okay.”  Really, okay?  He’d been pumped full of morphine and other drugs, so the conversation wasn’t 100% lucid, but he had a burning question for me – what was the name of his primary doctor?  The hospital wanted to access his health history, but he just couldn’t recall the doctor’s name.  Not surprising under the circumstances.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t a clue.  I did recall the general location of the clinic where I’d taken him for his colonoscopy, and Rich managed to put a name to it.  Contacting them, I was able to find out he’d been a patient there, but his doctor had retired.  All other information was locked behind the health information access laws.  But at least I had a number that Rich could call to request the information himself.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was a start.

That was a wake-up call.  What if Rich had been unconscious, and unable to speak for himself?  What other information would I need, that is locked in his head, his phone contacts or his computer?  We’ve done pretty well at sharing financial data and logins with each other, but we never gave health information a thought.  It’s clearly time to get our information sharing in order.

For now, I’ll start with the names and phone numbers of our doctors and attorney.  Then we need to move on to any health information access forms we can sign to authorize each other to manage that data.  We recently learned that should something happen to our 20-something, unattached sons, we would have no say in their treatment unless they had a Health Care Directive giving us those rights.  Who would have thought about that for young people?  That just moved up our To-Do list.

From there, we need to move on to other information.  In this age of digital data, that takes on a whole new meaning, especially as Rich and I are very technology-centric.  I used to work with a trust and estate attorney who specializes in managing one’s digital assets.  His Digital Passing blog immediately came to mind, and there I found a wealth of information.

By the way, the scare is over, if the health ordeal isn’t.  What they originally thought was a kidney stone turned out to be an enlarged prostate.  I brought Rich home that afternoon, and he’s in the midst of additional tests to determine his treatment.  It doesn’t appear to be cancer at this point, which is a relief.  And despite his “extra plumbing” Rich is determined to remain active, which his doctor encouraged.  Yesterday he went cross-country skiing, and he hasn’t yet ruled out doing the Birkie!  He’s also facing this head-on, blogging about the physical and emotional side of his journey.

Nobody ever wants a call like the one I received this week.  But I hope to pass along what I learn about managing our health and personal information for just such an emergency.  So others can be prepared.

Skis, Snow and Wind in Mora

As the Mora Vasaloppet cross-country ski race approached, and snow did not, we carefully monitored the race news.  The lack of snow forced race officials to move the course to Knife Lake, which meant shortening the races and looping around the lake’s perimeter on a trail created on top of the ice, rather than skiing through the woods.  Fortunately, there was just enough snow to cover the last 13k from the lake to Mora,  allowing the race to finish on Main Street.  And compared to last year, when it had to be cancelled completely due to lack of snow, we were grateful that the race was on!

In stark contrast, the weather report for race day included a Winter Storm Warning which predicted 8-12″ of snow and increasing winds throughout the day.  Would it really materialize?  Or would it fizzle, as so many snow forecasts seem to do these days?  Only time would tell.

Rich Mora Classic Race

photo courtesy of

We were relived to find that the snowfall had not yet started when we made our way to Mora in the early morning hours before the race.  But the threat was still there.  Rich was the first to make his way to the starting line, as his classic race started an hour before the skate race that Erik and I had entered.  As his race was only 26k and included just one loop around the lake, Rich was within 5k of the finish line before the snow started.

Erik and I did not fair as well.  One of Mora’s signature features is the line of huge bonfires near the start, to keep skiers warm while waiting for the race to begin.  Standing there next to the lake, we could feel the fury of the wind as it whipped across the lake.  Indeed, the announcer confirmed our suspicions informing racers that the first 7k around the lake would be directly into the wind.  Oh boy…


photo courtesy of

By the time we started, so had the snow.  Big fat flakes came down that looked pretty in the distance, but in reality whipped into our faces like pin pricks and stung our eyes.  Skiing into the wind was like pushing against an immovable force.  That was compounded by the powdery, sugary snow we plowed through on the trail they had created.  The depth and consistency changed frequently, with ice showing through at times, making forward progress inconsistent.  Add to that being blinded by the snow, and it was like skiing into the unknown!

Relief came when we turned toward the opposite shore and rode the wind back to the beginning of the circle.  Minutes lost earlier were made up sailing in front of the blast, and we had some relief from the snow in our eyes.  It was even enjoyable.  But our euphoria didn’t last.  We’d signed up for the longest race, which although shortened to 40k meant two laps around the lake.  Soon we were battling the gale once again, convinced it was stronger and snowier than the first time around.  A skier next to me asked “When will this hill ever end?”  Despite the flat terrain of the lake, I knew just what he meant!  The lake was obliterated by the snow, and the tracks swept by the wind.  With the skiers spreading out, I found myself on my own hoping I was still following the right course.

Eventually we made it off the lake for the final 13k to Mora.  That final section was on the local ski trails, and we had to retrain our legs to go up and down real hills.  The woods were a welcome wind break, although the snow continued to find us, adhering to our bodies, hair and eyelashes.

Mora Finish LineThe end of the Mora Vasaloppet is always a thrill, and despite the conditions, this year did not disappoint.  One final hill takes skiers up to an old schoolhouse, and then it’s a short ski down Main Street to the finish line.  There women in traditional IMG_9551Swedish costumes hand out medals, and locals dish up their famous blueberry soup.  There’s nothing like it – hot and sweet!  I looked like an icicle by that point, but no matter – I finished.



Thank you to for the above two photos.

Chasing the groomer

With multiple recent snowfalls of 3″ or more, skiing – and grooming – the local trails has been a challenge.  The groomers just finished covering all 65 kilometers on five IMG_9511ski trails in Duluth on Wednesday when they were buried again the next day with fresh snow.  The deep soft snow makes skiing slow and tiring but incredibly beautiful.  And after one and a half winters of meager snowfall, we cross-country skiers are thrilled with this turnabout.

I headed over to the ski trails early this morning.  I was eager for a morning ski, the quietest part of the day with few other skiers making the rounds.  Having just been groomed two days ago, I figured the likelihood of another pass by the groomers was low, and I’d just deal with the deep snow.  And I was right.  Mostly.  As I completed my first loop around the system, I saw the Pisten-Bully heading my way, coming up from the very bottom of the trail.  I waited for the massive machine to pass then skied the opposite way to give him a head start, hoping he’d stay ahead of me clearing the trails for my second lap.

With all the loops, side trails and connectors, grooming the system has to be something like a mathematical equation, figuring out the most efficient route to hit each section once and only once – or twice in the areas where it is double-tracked for classic.  My math background liked thinking about that optimization problem.

I was pleased and impressed that the trails were being groomed again so soon, and decided to investigate Duluth’s trail grooming.  Who is behind this task, and how do they get it all done?  I learned that it was no accident that we were seeing increased activity on trail maintenance.  The City of Duluth has a team of people for grooming, and for the first time in years they now employ three people for the task.  In addition, they have added two new pieces of equipment – a snowmobile and a Ginzu Groomer owned by the Duluth XC Ski Club (DXC).  The result is that they can send out two separate teams of groomers to tend two locations at once.  The new equipment also enables them to maintain ski trails when there is no new snowfall by regrooming the existing base of snow.

The future looks even brighter, thanks to the Park Fund that was approved by Duluth’s voters in 2011.  The city plans to purchase another Piston-Bully and another track-setter in two years.  Those are our tax dollars at work – I heartily approve.

Let’s hear it for our groomers!  And let’s hope the snowfall continues to keep them busy.

3-2-1 Lego!

Lego League has been a part of our lives since our son, Erik, begged his dad to let him buy a Lego Mindstorms kit with his own money. We were only too happy to encourage a “toy” that involved Legos and a programmable controller for robotics. From there it was an easy leap to joining Lego League.

Before Erik was involved, we went to see a tournament. They call it “A Sporting Event for the Mind” and that’s exactly what it is. We stepped into a gym to hear blaring music, the professional voice on an emcee and kids competing against each other with robots on 4′ x 8′ fields. It was every bit as exciting as any sport your could imagine.

We were so sold that Rich soon signed on as the team’s coach – never having worked with kids before in his life. A year later, I was drafted to help with the research project and skit for competition. We were all in. Erik stayed with it all through high school, and it propelled him into a top rated engineering school where he earned a degree as an Electrical Engineer. He’s quite a poster child for Lego League.

IMG_9527 trimmedToday, the three of us are volunteer judges for tournaments. Saturdays in late fall and winter will see us spending all day in a school, talking to team after team about their robot, their programming and their research project. It’s a highly satisfying job, and so rewarding to see kids get so excited about working with math, science and technology. It takes a lot of judges to run a tournament, and we meet fascinating people each time we sign on for a tournament. As they say, when you give of your time, you get so much more in return.

IMG_9534Of course, the most exciting part for the kids are the Competition Rounds. There, they run their robot against the clock, seeing how many missions they can accomplish in their allotted two minutes. They can only touch their robot when it is in base – the rest has to be done through programming, sensors and a solid mechanical design. It is great fun to see the IMG_9530creative ways the kids dream up to achieve their missions, and often it is the younger, uninhibited teams who come up with the most unique solutions.

Recently we judged at the State Tournament. There it was the cream of the crop – the teams who had won their regional competitions and earned a spot in this final round. It was there that we learned a fascinating fact. We knew that Minnesota was one of the leading states in generating Lego League teams – in fact, there are more Lego League teams per capita in Minnesota than in any other state. And in many schools it has become a varsity sport. But the curious fact that drove it home dramatically was this – there are more varsity Lego League teams in the state of Minnesota than there are boys’ varsity hockey teams! I love it – the mind game has won out over slapshots and forechecking. Way to go Lego robotics teams!

Let the race season begin!

It’s February, and that means race month on our calendar. Each weekend we have a race or ski event scheduled, all leading up to the biggie… the American Birkebeiner. This year our son, Erik, is also joining us. After a 4 year hiatus following his high school Nordic ski team days while attending a college in non-snow territory, he has eagerly returned to the ski trails.

Today we successfully kicked off the race season. The City of Lakes Loppet in Minneapolis was the venue, and the recent cold snap and fresh snowfall made it possible at the last minute to run the races on the full course – hallelujah! The day dawned sunny and cold, just barely above zero, with moderate winds – all in all, a great day for a race.

Rich is a die-hard classic skier, and for this race Erik chose to go head-to-head with Rich in the 25k Classic race. Their race started earlier than mine, so they were off and skiing before I even got to the race venue for my skate race. Which would it be – age and experience, or youth and brawn?

I’m still pretty new to racing. I took up skate skiing about 5 years ago, and I’ve chosen that ski style for racing. I’m not as hard core as the guys, but my own sense of competitiveness comes out even I’m just racing against myself.

Betsy, Katie and Molly before the start

Heading out to the start line, it felt great to be out in the crisp air and the bright sunshine lent a sense of warmth. Suddenly, I was surrounded by Erik’s girlfriend Katie and her mom – they had stayed on after the classic race to see me off! What a thrill, to have my own support team – my spirits were boosted immediately.

Despite the lack of snow this winter, the race organizers did a phenomenal job of preparing a great racecourse. The trails were well covered and I would never have predicted we would have such good conditions – the snow was firm and not at all crusty. It was a slow snow due to the cold temperatures, but I was willing to trade some glide for a nice racecourse.

The start of the skate race

The race starts out on a golf course, and in the open areas we could see the trail looping head of us, lined with skiers trekking up and zooming down the hills. It wasn’t always comforting looking ahead to see the hills in store. Similar steep grades awaited us in the woods of the nature area, but the beauty of the trees helped distract us from the extra effort required. Once we reached the lakes – for which the City of Lakes in known – it was all flat. Soon we were whizzing around the perimeters near the shore making great time.

Molly and Erik at the finish

This year the finish line moved to a new location, and brought a whole new dimension to the race. We had always skied down a boulevard to the finish line, but this time it was moved to a city street – we skied one whole kilometer down the street then turned onto Hennepin Avenue in the midst a popular section of town. Just before the turn, my fan club reappeared! Katie, her mom and now Erik were there cheering me on with great enthusiasm and volume, carrying me through to the finish. They had stuck around in the cold just waiting for me to finally make my appearance. What a heartwarming ending!

And the results of the races? Youth triumphed as Erik rapidly outpaced Rich in the classic race. And I beat myself, bettering my previous time by 8 minutes.

We’re all psyched for the next race!