Sea Caves from the Ice

No one will argue that this has been an unusually cold winter.  We have certainly had our share of days where the temperature never deigned to approach zero.  But it does have its compensations.  For the first time in five years the sea caves in the Apostle Islands are accessible by foot, thanks to the firm ice on Lake Superior.  When stunning photos of the ice formations began to circulate, we became entranced and pledged to go.

Of course, it took over a week for the weather to cooperate, but today’s forecast looked promising, so we made plans with friends to make the trip together.  As it turns out, we nailed the timing.  Sunshine, clear blue skies, warming temperatures and little wind made for a perfect day for our hike out to the caves and viewing the ice.

IMG_3480There was no need for snowshoes or ski poles, nor any possibility of getting lost, as the trail was well trampled by many before us. We followed the edge of the lake for about a mile, with the scenery improving with each step.  Layers of rock, topped with trees high above our heads became increasingly impressive, as did the spiky icicles that flowed down the exposed edges.


Fortunately, we chose to visit fairly early in the day, as even though it was mid-week, a large number of people were making their way out to the caves by the time we were on our return trip.  We were pleased to be there when there were still relatively few others there.

Caves abounded in the rocky coastline, ranging from small openings in the ice to huge caverns.  Inside, the ice formed fascinating patterns, hanging from the ceiling like frosty stalactite.


Rich crawled into several openings, and was rewarded with some great photos.  But the dripping, groaning and thumping of the ice was too spooky for my tastes, so after a few such sojourns I made do with searching out unique angles – outside.


IMG_3451 IMG_3452

It was a great day for lingering.  For gawking and feeling awed by the beauty of it all.  For feeling so fortunate to be able to see it for ourselves.  And for impeccable timing.  No sooner did we reach the car than the skies clouded over and the wind picked up.  The day was no longer so perfect.  But by then we were off in search of lunch.  Lucky us.


Following the dogs

Now that we are Duluthians, it seemed only right that we take in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.  With family in town, it was a natural to head over to the IMG_3276starting area ahead of time for Meet the Mushers.  In a parking lot filled with dog kennels, sleds, equipment and people, it took on the aura of a festival.  Dogs and mushers were easily accessible, and more than willing to be petted and talk about the race and their experiences.  We could feel the excitement build as we perused the starting chute, and it was hard to tear our granddaughter away from meeting the “puppies.”

Once the race was in progress, Rich and I headed out to more remote spots to try our hand at photographing the action.  Our first stop was at the top of Seven IMG_3285 croppedBridges Road.  While only the half-marathon teams took that route, we had great fun watching them navigate the downhill that ended in a hairpin curve.  Not all dogs understood that they needed to turn, which was comedic.  And I quite enjoyed this team’s lead dog, who seemed more intent on checking me out than leading the team!

Still early in the race, the mushers eagerly wavedIMG_3324 trimmed and appreciated our cheers as they passed by.  One in particular seemed to be having a great time – and it was a woman to boot!  What spirit she showed.

When the action slowed there, we moved to a post further out of town, which proved to be a beautiful viewing point.  Without warning, mushers came around the bend and traveled down a gently undulating and curving path heavily lined with thick and snowy pine trees.  There we had ample opportunity to let our cameras shoot continuously, catching them all the way down the trail.

IMG_3382 trimmedIt was there that we saw our first full-marathon teams, with up to 14 dogs pulling the sleds as opposed to only 8 for the shorter distance racers.  The teams seemed to stretch forever, and were amazing in their ability to coordinate their movements in a compressed space without getting hopelessly tangled.  And they proved to be a challenge to fit into the viewfinder of the camera!  We particularly enjoyed those with brilliantly colored booties – a necessity for the dogs’ feet out on the icy trail.

We quickly learned that photographing the race required more waiting than it did clicking the shutter.  We never knew how long it would be between teams, and keeping warm was a high priority.  Fortunately, we were decked out in our warmest gear, and found that talking to other spectators was entertaining and helped pass the time.  Once a lead dog appeared, then it was a scramble for the camera, getting it lined up properly and shooting either with clumsy mittens or frigid exposed fingers.  When using continuous mode, I felt like I was shooting blind, and came out with some headless mushers in the process.  And while the photos taken from far away were not great, I enjoyed replaying them later in rapid order, seeing the dogs advance down the trail in stilted stop-action form.

We were relieved to return to the car at the end of each stop, to feel its warmth and let the seat warmers work their magic on our chilled bodies.  The mushers weren’t nearly so lucky.  It was hard to imagine them continuing on mile after cold and windy mile, and on into the night through the dark.  They are heartier souls than we, still out there, following their dogs.




Six black muffins

I now know I can trust my instincts.  On our annual XC ski weekend, I like to go out before breakfast to either ski, snowshoe or take photographs.  This year was no exception.  Before leaving the cabin for an early morning walk, I popped a few muffins in the oven along with some pears to bake, leaving Susan in charge of them while she pursued her own morning passion – painting.

IMG_3221The morning was gray and uninspiring, but it was pleasant wandering through the fresh snow that had fallen during the night on the small roadway right next to Lake Superior’s shore.  Mine were the only tracks in the snow, and the rest of the world seemed asleep.  The area was an eclectic collection of tiny cottages, large homes with sweeping views and tumble down sheds.  I wasn’t adventurous enough to trudge through the deep snow to get to the water’s edge, so I had to confine my photography to what I could see from the road.

As I walked, my thoughts kept wandering back to the oven.  Did I tell Susan when the muffins would be done?  Did I set it to the right temperature?  Despite my best efforts to dismiss that responsibility, something nagged at me.  But I walked on – intent to let go and savor the freshness of the morning.

Opening the door to the cabin, my senses were assaulted by the harsh burning smell.  And it wasn’t the blaze in the fireplace.  Susan looked at me sheepishly saying “I failed…”  Suddenly the six black rocks outside on the deck railing took on significance as I recognized them DSCN0055for what they were.  And the charred pears that melded themselves into the baking dishes were equally appalling.  I knew it!  I shouldn’t have left my baking in the hands of an artist absorbed in her work.

But in fact, I was wrong.  And Susan’s self-blame was misplaced.  Instead of activating the lower heat element, the oven malfunctioned and turned on the broiler, charring our breakfast to death.  No amount of care or attention could have stemmed the tide on that disaster waiting to happen.  All we could do was laugh.  And poke fun at ourselves and the situation.  And our six black muffins.  Sitting in a row.

My instincts were right – something was bound to go amiss.  I just didn’t know what.  And Susan’s painting?  It turned out quite nicely.  A lot better than the muffins.

2014 North Shore at Anderson's Resort day 1


Deep snow, silent woods

Many times Susan and I have been snow challenged on our annual XC ski trip. Not this year. Snow was in abundance after about a foot of new snow fell on the North Shore the day before our trip. And more snow continued to fall and accumulate while we were there. Instead of navigating sparsely covered trails, we plowed through new snow still awaiting the arrival of the groomer. Or skied the latest powder into the previous set of tracks.  While it was slow going, and we didn’t cover anywhere near our usual number of kilometers, we put out plenty of effort blazing the trail. And it was so worth it.

DSCN0041There’s nothing like the silence of new snow. It slid soundlessly under our skis as we plodded along. It glistened in the sunshine, sparkling like closely packed constellations. And it muffled everything around us. Whenever I stopped, there was a total absence of sound. I could tell when a large bird flew overhead, announced by the whoosh of the air as it flapped its wings.

The trees were cloaked in heavy layers of snow. Skiing through deep pine woods was like traveling through a tunnel, with walls of snowy pine boughs. So beautiful. So peaceful.

DSCN0053The sky overhead was that deep blue that only comes with cold dry air. It made for a striking background in contrast to the snowy pines and tall willowy deciduous tree limbs.

The sunshine had a palpable warmth that was as noticeable in its absence in the cool shade as it was radiating on our faces when we stopped to soak it up. Late afternoon brought fiery sunsets with a brilliant red glow in the sky.

Yes, it was a good year for snow. And a great year for striding through the woods.



Changing Perspectives

Tonight my good friend Susan arrives in Duluth for the start of our 22nd annual XC Ski weekend together.  This is the first time we haven’t driven up from the Cities together, talking our way through the dark to our first stop in Duluth.  I remember those days well, rushing out of work, decompressing on the drive and looking forward to some time to ourselves.  It was a release from kids, husbands, work and routine.

How things have changed, for me anyway.  Retirement has not only brought me back to Duluth, but I’ve left behind the stresses of work for good, not just for a long weekend.  The kids have all grown, and having the little ones in the house is now something special rather than a daily responsibility.

I no longer feel I need the “break.”  But I still look forward to our ski trip.  There is no substitute for time spent with a long-term friend, one who knows me well.  Nothing else compares to getting in some women time.  We can talk feelings, art, culture, crafts, family, life, religion and anything else that occurs to us.  Running out of things to talk about is never an issue.  And it is oh, so rewarding.

Of course we’ll ski.  We’ll put in asIMG_7501 many kilometers as we can squeeze in each day.  It will be invigorating and being out in the snowy woods will feed our souls.  We’ll revel in the views of Lake Superior and appreciate the beauty of the North Shore.  And each night we’ll collapse in front of the fireplace to enjoy some wine and cheese – and chocolates – and talk.

Yes, some things about this get-away weekend have changed.  But my real reasons for treasuring it stand firm.  It’s all just a matter of perspective.





Icy Expectations

I heard about the Ice Bar last year.  It caught my attention, and I put it on my mental “I’d like to do this” list.  But it didn’t happen.

Last week I saw the article in the local paper about it’s annual reincarnation, with a Winter Olympics theme.  With the extreme cold we’ve had, I figured it had to be holding up well, and put it back on my list.  This time we found willing friends and made the trip together up to Grand Superior Lodge to take in the Blu Ice Bar.

IMG_3219 trimmedArmed with heavy jackets, long johns and boots we were prepared to settle in for a chilly but unique drink at the outdoor bar.  Although I realized the structure itself was a tent and not made of ice, from the description I did envision table and chairs made of ice.  Instead, we found a large open area, with ice sculptures decorating the perimeter, and a round icy table in the center for stand-up socializing. There was a good crowd inside, many sporting snowmobile suits or downhill ski garb.

IMG_3220 trimmedThe bar itself was quite impressive, and completely made of ice.  And I couldn’t help but applaud their choice of cross-country skiing for the sport that adorned the front.  In fact, all the ice sculptures were attractive and well done, particularly when back-lit with colored lights.  We availed ourselves of the unique drink offerings, choosing the hot chocolate spiked with Bailey’s and Peppermint Schnapps over the Blutini.  After taking a few turns at the icy miniature curling table and admiring our surroundings, we ran out of reasons to stay.

As long as we were there, we decided to head indoors to see just what the lodge was like.  The bar area was crowded and warm – no need for our heavy layers there.  Before we had time to decide to retreat, the wave of a friendly hand revealed friends in the mob, and soon the six of us were crammed around their precious table.  Combining old friends with new, we spent a pleasant evening trading stories.

So did the Ice Bar live up to my expectations?  Not really.  But the evening did.  And I have to admit that the concept is still pretty cool, and I’m glad I saw the icy artwork.  I just don’t need to go again.  I’ve already crossed it off my list.



Despite the bravado of the last post, depicting my defiance of the cold weather and continuing to enjoy winter activities regardless, I have my limits.  And I reached them these past few days.  With temperatures reaching -25 at night with highs of only -7 IMG_3215degrees and dangerously low wind chill factors, I did the only sensible thing and retreated.  Trading my skis for trips to the swimming pool and limiting my outdoor exposure to hurrying between the front door and the car, I resolved to stay warm.

The one advantage to cold IMG_3216temperatures here in northern Minnesota is that they are nearly always accompanied by clear blue skies.  If I couldn’t be outdoors, at least the sun could cheer me up.  The hard part was that it looked so inviting.  But I knew better.  Peering out the windows, taking it in from the warmth of our cozy house was close enough for the time being.

I almost went out yesterday.  Rich, being the more macho Minnesotan, went for a short ski.  But one look at his frosty garb upon his return convinced me I was wise to hold out for another day.

So today was the day.  I watched the temperatures soar through the morning, from -16 when I first got up to +3.5 by 1:00pm.  Yes!  It was well over my threshold of reasonableness, and soon I was bound for the ski trails. Sweet release!  Never mind that the snow was still cold and slow, I was back in the elements and feeling good.  I didn’t have much company on the trails, which was no big surprise.  My poles squeaked in the frozen snow and my skis made noisy complaints traversing the skate deck, refusing to glide.  But I was out there.  And it was good.  Let the winter continue!DSCN0031DSCN0034



Why do we do this?

Toe and hand warmers have become my best friends.  That little warm glow next to my sensitive digits is so comforting as once again I head out into the COLD.

The thermometer is hovering justDSCN0030 below zero – a veritable heat wave in this cold snap.  I pull on my long underwear, add several thermal layers, don my head wrap and head out the door with my skis.  For my first circuit around the trails I take in the sun’s golden glow on the trees and long shadows across the snow.  Despite its lack of warmth, I enjoy the ambiance and even the crisp air.  It makes me glad I made the effort to get out and ski.  During my second lap, the cold begins to infringe on my body.  First the thumbs go, followed by my fingers.  By the time I’m gliding rapidly down the final hills, my knees complain of the chill, and I have no desire to go for a third lap.  I can’t wait to reach the warmth of the house.

The Northern Lights indicators are all pointing to a high likelihood of activity.  My husband’s phone buzzes with multiple alerts informing him of the fact.  He’s intent on going out to see and photograph the display late at night, and I hesitate but decide to join him.  The temperature is already -11 and heading out of town and away from Lake Superior it continues to plummet.  Fortunately, Rich has been busy scoping out viewing points that allow us to stay in the car and watch for the northern glow.  We are happy to occupy our seats with their “bun warmers” and wait.  And wait.  Scuttled again with a lack of aurora, we decide to salvage the trip with some photo shots of stars.  It’s clear and cold, and Rich IMG_3190 trimmedcatches me doing a “warming dance” alongside my camera as it takes its long exposure on the tripod.  My photos weren’t very good, but we do get in some valuable practice, and a few good laughs, mostly at ourselves.  And I get a decent shot of the dashboard…

The temperature has finally risen into the teens, but snow is falling and the wind is fierce.  We watch the snow swirl outside our windows, note how blustery it is and think how cozy we are inside.  But we don’t stay there.  Instead, we pile into our down jackets and jump into a 4-wheel drive truck with friends to go to a UMD hockey game.  Hockey?  Me?  Okay, so I’m not really a hockey (or spectator sports) fan, but hey – it’s a social outing.  And after all, it’s indoors.

We’re Minnesotans – better yet, Duluthians.  And proud of it.  Life doesn’t stop just because it’s cold outside.  That’s why we keep the warm clothing industry in business and continue to pursue our outdoor activities.  Otherwise it would be a long, dull winter.