Coming Unplugged

We knew that cell phone coverage in Canada would be an issue. My phone plan flat out does not include Canada. Rich's phone is unique in that it uses wifi for its primary access, so he occasionally has connectivity. To rectify the situation, we intended to buy a cheap prepaid phone in Canada, but such plans to not include calls to the US. Not willing to spend an arm and a leg for service, we're just going to make do.

First, we're testing the limits of our equipment. Rich figured out he can still send and receive email on his phone when there is cell service. Texting seems to work as well, on the same basis. Sounds good, but we're traveling through remote areas of Ontario. We just have to hope for signals if we run into an emergency and need to notify family back home.

Naturally, wifi is a valid lifeline. When we can find it. We suffered mediocre breakfast food and barely passable coffee one morning for the glory of a fast internet connection. We rapidly connected, checked email, published blog posts and checked in with Facebook. We've learned to work offline ahead of time, using our scarce internet time to push content to the web and download sites to read later.

Sunset over the Ottawa River

Normally we would get our internet fix in the evenings. Even cheap motels offer free internet. But campsites don't provide the same luxury. We thought we had it made when we found a cute little restaurant attached to a motel for dinner last night. Sure enough they had wifi. Unfortunately, the waitress was more focused on food than technology, and we never did get that password. But there were other compensations. Instead of lingering over our tablets we got back to our campsite in time for a beautiful sunset.

With each passing day, the withdrawal symptoms have lessened. Checking email seems less urgent. Reading at night wins out over composing blog posts. Life will go on if we don't post our latest pictures on Facebook. We've trained hard for our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour, and this final journey to the start of that trip is preparing us in another way. The Canadian Maritimes are guaranteed to present even greater technology challenges. Fortunately, we've also learned a trick. What seems to be extinct in the US is still available in Canada. If we remember how to use it, we can still call home. Even when we're unplugged.

Canadian Phone Booth


Lake Superior Half Circle Tour

We've never done the Lake Superior Circle Tour, but in the last two days we nearly completed the northern half. We'd never been beyond Nipigon before, and were enchanted with the Canadian stretch of lakeshore on the other end of the lake. Beyond a doubt, it is unspoiled wilderness. The dense forest, deep rock cuts for the road, vast distances between small towns, and soaring views of Lake Superior make it truly unique. Even when the road ventured inland away from the Big Lake, we were continually wowed by views of deep blue pristine lakes.

We were surprised at how hilly the terrain is. Since we are on our way to the east coast to start our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour, we are keenly aware of hills and wind. It was clear that this stretch of the Circle Tour would be most challenging on bicycle. But it also lends beauty to the area. I'm not one who can normally sit in a car for hours on end without working on a project or reading. But the scenery kept me riveted for the last two days.

Rossport's harbor

Rossport's harbor

Aquasabon Falls

Aquasabon Falls

Since we had our bikes along, we took the opportunity to do some cycling near Wawa. Traveling inland on infrequently traveled roads was a delight.

Molly by Wawa Lake

Molly by Wawa Lake

Rich enjoying a picnic lunch in Wawa

Rich enjoying a picnic lunch in Wawa

We chose Pancake Bay Provincial Park to camp for the night. After pitching our humble pup tent in a nice site right next to the beach, I took a long stroll along the waterline, and we picnicked on the sand. As the sound of the waves lulled us to sleep there seemed no better place to be.

Beautiful view north of Pancake Bay

Beautiful view north of Pancake Bay

The beach at Pancake Bay

The beach at Pancake Bay

Now I wonder why we waited so long to visit this end of Lake Superior and take in its beauty. I guess we saved the best for last.


Gaspé Prelude

I’ve checked and double checked my detailed list.  My panniers are packed with my cycling clothes and gear.  My duffel bag is full of all the things I’ll need on the drive.  Food and picnic items are prepared for the journey.  Ancillary items are poised to go into the car.  Are we ready to go?

Today we start theDriving Route trip to the beginning of the trip – driving from Duluth out to New Hampshire for our Grand Gaspé Cycling Tour.  We have decided to drive north of Lake Superior and continue on through Canada.  We’ve never been past Nipigon at the top of the lake, and are looking forward to seeing the more remote Canadian side of Lake Superior. Having allowed extra time, we can linger and explore along the way and maybe even do a bike ride or two.

Logistically, I think we’re ready.  We’ve done enough cycling trips to know what we need to bring.  We’re physically fit and have plenty of cycling miles behind us.  Our bikes have been in for maintenance, and have an assortment of fresh new parts.  We’ve increased our stock of spare tires and repair tools.  And we have quality gear.  Yes, we’re in good shape there.

Mentally, are we ready?  This summer has been so busy that we really haven’t had time to focus on the reality of this cycling trip until now.  Sure, we planned the route, digested the magnitude of the distance, took a deep breath and enthusiastically exclaimed “Yes, let’s do it!”  But I don’t think the reality of spending two months or more on our bicycles has really sunk in.  Spending all that time traveling, just the two of us.  Pedaling through good weather and bad, uphill and down, with the wind and against it.  Deciding day by day where we will go next.  How far and where we will stay.  For all that time.  Two months or more.

The novelty of the plan has carried us this far.  It’s been great fun to talk about the trip, visualize ourselves out there on the edge of the continent, and tackling an unfathomable distance on two wheels. Perhaps that’s enough. It’s better to go into it feeling the thrill of the challenge, rather than worrying the details.

We’ll have plenty of time to think about it in the car.  But I’d rather concentrate on the sights along the way.  After all, it’s a trip in its own right, the prelude to Gaspé.  And I’m ready to go!

Chasing the Tall Ships

History does not always repeat itself.  Last time the Tall Ships came to Duluth, they mustered out along the North ShoreSunrise straightened then sailed down toward the canal for the Parade of Ships.  It seemed reasonable enough to us that they would follow the same pattern this year.  We were so convinced, in fact, that we got up at 5am to see if we could catch them against the shore in the early morning glow of the sunrise.  Well, we saw a nice sunrise at any rate.  Just no ships.

Undeterred, we mounted our bicycles and headed up the shore once again around mid-day.  This time we stopped at McQuade Harbor to wait for the ships to appear.  We could see two of them in the distance – indistinct forms but unmistakably sailing ships.  It was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind hanging around waiting for the others to appear.  Only they didn’t.  A quick phone call to our daughter, who was down at Canal Park with her family, revealed that the remaining seven ships were plying the waters in front of them, awaiting their grand entrance.  Missed again!

We hustled down to Canal Park as fast as we could pedal, thankful that we were on two wheels not four as we slid past the heavy traffic.  We still arrived in plenty of time for the show.  In fact, we beat the two ships we’d been monitoring out on the lake.  The area was crowded with people, creating an air of festivity and the excitement was building as the time approached for the ships to sail through the canal.

The pier on the far side of the bridge proved to be the best spot for taking pictures – both for the position of the sun and for the smaller crowds lending easier access to the edge of the canal.  It was the perfect day to be outside and no one minded waiting between the waves of ships that passed under the bridge.  Conversation flowed easily between groups of strangers, brought together for the fun of watching big sailing ships.  We finally settled in to watch the Parade of Ships and photograph the beautiful vessels.  This time we were not disappointed.  And our chase was over. IMG_1594 IMG_1601IMG_1619 IMG_1622

And the other gold

Make new friends, but keep the old,
One is silver and the other gold.

It was years ago that we learned that little song, which we sang as a round in Girl Scouts. But it’s never been more true. And in this summer filled with reunions with family and friends, I have had ample opportunity to appreciate its message.

It was over a year ago that I contacted Zohreh about our reunion. She was the AFS student from Iran during my senior year in high school, and when presented with the idea of coming for our reunion, she jumped right on board. And having committed, even way back then, I knew she’d come. Even after 40 years.

Over that time we had not only kept in touch but we visited Zohreh and her family in Paris, where she now makes her home. And she welcomed our son during his backpacking tour of Europe so that he could see the Tour de France finish on the Champs-Élysées. In between were the annual Christmas letters and occasional emails. But as soon as she stepped into our house in Duluth, it was as if we’d been together yesterday.

We had a magical three days, revisiting the places she’d known so well during her AFS year here and sharing her memories and experiences with her family. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and I loved reliving it all through her eyes. Duluth provided beautiful weather, showing off the renewed lakefront and sparkling off the ubiquitous Lake Superior.

The best part of all was reconnecting with our close group of friends from high school. A small brunch turned into a half-day affair when we all gathered to talk and share our past and the intervening years. Laughing over year book pictures, recalling stories of adventures in high school, and updating one another on our own families easily filled the hours. The luxury of talking in small groups, and having one-on-one conversations kept everyone riveted and ultimately spilled over into a lengthy breakfast together again the following day.

IMG_9707 trimmedRecapturing those friendships became the heart of the reunion weekend. It’s what made it worth coming together, to renew the connections we made so long ago and still value. It will be the core of my memories of that 40th high school reunion. Spending time with golden friends.

Springtime Revisited

It wasn’t intentional, but it has been very enjoyable.  We have managed to experience spring flowers several times over this year!  Clearly our recent passion for photography has peaked our interest in wildflowers, and our antennae go up each time we spot color on the roadside.

Our first taste was on our Upper Mississippi River Cycling Tour.  Snow had barely receded from the roadsides in Duluth when Driveway flowerswe set off for our trip in mid-May.  Cycling south along the Mississippi River, we jumped into spring weather that we only dreamed of up north.  Sprays of wildflowers grew up along the train tracks that bordered the river.  The Root River bicycle trail provided a tunnel of blooming apple trees. Colorful carpets of lavender flowers carpeted the banks of a driveway, and we glimpsed our first lilacs in bloom.

picstitchFourth of July week was spent at the cabin.  By then spring had advanced to northern Minnesota, and the warm sunny days brought out new blossoms every day.  I had just learned “macro photography” in my photography class, so I practiced taking close-ups of wildflowers on our bike rides.  They made for rewarding subjects, with their bright colors and intricate patterns.  As long as the wind wasn’t blowing.

Pink flowers


Lake Superior exerted her usual chilling influence on the North Shore.  This week the same flowers we saw at the cabin finally repeated themselves along the shoreline, as well as some new varieties.  And the lilacs bloomed on our street, with their intoxicating scent.  It’s mid-July and spring has finally made its way to Duluth.  Round three and we’re still enjoying it.

Of Bug Bites and Army Worms

We all returned home from the cabin with tangible reminders of our stay in the North Woods. The itchy red welts dotting our arms, legs and faces are testimony to the many hours we spent outdoors. Or the nights we spent fending off the persistent buzzing mosquitoes that found their way inside. It wouldn’t be the cabin if it were a pristine environment. And we wouldn’t keep going if we didn’t love it there.

The notoriously late spring and summer this year brought a new attraction at the end of our dock. Odd round divots appeared on the murky bottom, each continuously guarded by a small fish. They only abandoned their posts when a huge Leopard Muskie came into the shallows to lurk. It would appear we had spawning grounds still active in July! When I stood too close to their territory, the fish aggressively bumped my ankles. It seemed a small price to pay to watch nature at work.

The Army Worms that infested the area on our last visit were still strongly in evidence. They continued to crawl up the outside logs of the cabin, swarm the branches of the birch trees and defoliate the impatiens I so carefully planted in pots. We learned to carefully inspect the towels hung out on the line to dry. The record population was 14. But by week’s end, they had finally started cocooning which reduced the population of wiggly caterpillars. Fortunately, not even the grandkids were squeamish about picking them off their clothes and toys, and took it right in stride.

We’ve never had a nice lake bottom for swimming. It’s a combination of squishy dirt, clay that pulverizes when stepped on, and pesky weeds. But the water is super clear and always “refreshing” due to being spring-fed. Three year old Ben came prepared with water shoes to shield his tender feet (or sensitivities) from the yucky bottom. But they mostly went unused. It’s a lake after all. We just deal with it. And in Ben’s words, “I love the lake.”

Every so often, a bat makes its way inside the cabin. We’ve found them hanging up-side-down on the fireplace screen. And we’ve chased them around the cabin in the wee hours of the morning with a butterfly net. Some family members are not at all pleased with these guests. But so far their infrequent appearances have only left us with some funny stories.

I could go on and include the baby mice that popped up through the burners of the stove one winter. The kids took great pride in capturing them under a glass. But perhaps that would be overdoing it. After all, it’s really a very cozy cabin. Complete with creature comforts. And we love it there.

The Hardest Decision

We’ve seen it happening over the last year. The decline in Spot’s health has been evident to all of us – losing weight, whining at night from pain, weakness in her back legs and the lackluster fur that used to shine. Through it all, she keeps on going and continues to look at us with those big dark eyes. She still tolerates the overzealous advances of our young grandchildren. And she remains totally loyal to my husband, Rich.

How do you decide when a pet’s life is no longer worth living? We’ve been over this ground so many times, hoping to delay the inevitable. It’s too easy to look past her failings and focus on her loving personality, wanting things to be all right. It’s hard to separate our desire to hang on to a beloved member of the family from the facts of her discomfort and failing body. Finding the balance is nearly impossible. Facing the hard reality of the situation is even tougher.

Photo Jul 03, 8 58 59 AMHow do you explain to two toddlers that their favorite dog is going away forever? Once resigned to the decision, we consoled ourselves with one final family week at the cabin with Spot. It’s a place she used to love to roam, enjoying her freedom from the leash, and her choice of critters to chase. Watching the grandkids petting Spot for the last time without really understanding was heartbreaking. Tears flowed freely as our daughter knowingly bid Spot farewell. Tonight our sons will have their opportunity, one via Skype from Washington DC.

How do you console a husband, who is losing his faithful friend? She may be a family pet, but when we rescued her as a stray and brought her home with us, she immediately attached herself to Rich. For twelve years he has taken her for the lion’s share of her walks. She has slept by his bedside every night. And she is the only dog he’s ever had.

Tomorrow is Spot’s final day. She’s had a good life, and greatly enriched ours. She will leave a big gap in our lives, which we will endeavor to fill with many great memories. But it’s still a hard decision. Very hard.

IMG_1999 cropped

Spot in her younger days, patiently tolerating a new kitten

Cabin Imagery

We have had an unbelievable string of perfect cabin days. And it’s the 4th of July week to boot, so untold numbers of cabin owners and renters are sure to be benefitting from this gift of beautiful weather. Warm days, bordering on hot, with constant sunshine and just enough breeze to discourage the mosquitos and flies (well, mostly). Nights that cool down for good sleeping. It’s the way we like to remember being at the cabin, despite being a rare phenomenon.

It’s been a week filled with favorite things. Sometimes pictures say it better than words.

Cabin images

Capturing the Northern Lights

When it comes to night time photography, I will readily admit that my husband, Rich, is far more invested in it than I am. He constantly tracks the solar activity with his tablet apps, reads what the local experts are saying, and gets alerts to tell him the likelihood of Northern Lights appearing. Most nights I let him get up while I roll over for more sleep.

Last night I agreed to doing some “star tracks” – photographing the stars with a long exposure to show their movement through the sky. It meant getting up at midnight and setting up our cameras for a 30 minute exposure. The benefit of being at the cabin was the short distance from our beds to the tripods down on the shore. We could easily retreat from the bugs and hang out in comfort while waiting for our photo shoot to finish. That worked for me.

Northern Lights over North Star Lake

Upon our return to the dock, the faint green glow we'd noticed earlier above the lake had intensified to a level of bona fide Northern Lights. We quickly turned our cameras toward the light activity, readjusted our settings and set out to capture the display. I found it to be a lot more rewarding than star tracks. With only 60 second exposures, we had rapid feedback for each photo, and plenty of time to shoot and reshoot. Good thing, as I still fumbled through the settings and made plenty of blunders along the way. But no matter, the lights obliged with changing shapes and degrees of brightness, providing plenty of material for practicing.

Northern Light with the Big Dipper

To be honest, it wasn't the most spectacular display of Northern Lights I've ever seen. But their reflection in the calm lake was a bonus. And seeing the results on my little camera screen was even more rewarding. In fact, they looked better there than in reality. I know I shouldn't admit that. Sometimes the camera can enhance nature, and it may be best to keep mum. But I'm still learning on all fronts.

In time I was able to tear my focus away from just the Northern Lights and consider other elements in my view. I was especially pleased with my attempt to get both the Lights and the Big Dipper in one photo.

Northern Lights through the trees

We were out on the dock for hours. It was past 3:00 am by the time we were ready to fold up our tripods and turn off the cameras. But I was no longer tired, and had learned to endure the biting mosquitos without flinching and jeopardizing my photos.

Our star track photos turned out to be duds, and we deleted them without hesitation. But they were well worth it for leading us to the Northern Lights display. Next time Rich's alerts go off, I think I'll crawl out of bed with him. I'd like to capture them again.