Dinner is over.  The dishwasher is humming.  Cookies are baked.  The refrigerator is stocked.  Beds are ready.  And I eagerly await the arrival of our Minneapolis kids and grandkids – a total of seven offspring.  It’s all I can do to stop myself from scanning the driveway, even though I know it’s far to early to see headlights shining and car doors opening.  But it won’t be long!

The occasion – my birthday.  After last year’s grand 60th celebration this is back to normal, but it’s a thrill to know the troops are gathering none the less.  My daughter and son have promised to make my birthday dinner, so Rich is off the hook and I look forward to their culinary prowess.

New bunk bedsMy project since Christmas has been to replace the twin beds in the back bedroom with an arrangement that accommodates twice the numbers.  We didn’t have enough foresight in planning our retirement home to realize just how rapidly our family members would multiply.  To rectify the situation, we turned to our now retired home contractor.  With a little arm twisting, and a lot of measuring and planning, he built us a custom set of double bunk beds that perfectly fit the available space.  They are the sturdiest, most space efficient sleepers ever.  Outfitted with European-style duvets to minimize the pain of making up those upper bunks, they are ready for their first occupants.  Word has it, the two older grandkids (5 and almost-4) have dibsed the top bunks already.

I can’t wait to hug those little ones and to see my kids and their loved ones again.  The weather looks to be perfect for playing outdoors – skating, sledding, snowshoeing and skiing are all great possibilities for kids and adults alike.  Oh the anticipation…



Snow in Abundance

When snow declines to come to the cross-country skier, the only reasonable response is for the skier to go to the snow. It doesn’t take much research or experience to know where to find it. The Gunflint Trail consistently delivers on snow accumulation.

The drive up the North Shore is typical. Lake Superior’s warming influence reduces the snowfall near the shore. A leap of faith is required to believe one is indeed headed for significant snow. Turning inland from Grand Marais and slowly ascending the hillside the transformation is not yet apparent. But within a few miles, there it is. Snow. Lots of it.

An island along the Gunflint TrailThe road is snow covered, the only sound the scrunch of the tires as they turn over frigid squeaky snow. The sky couldn’t be bluer. And the star of the show is the forest. A heavy wet snowfall earlier in the winter has covered the trees with huge deposits of snow. This is not your standard Christmas tree flocking. It is deep snowballish accumulations on all available branches. And it is stunning. In case I’m still not convinced, one step outside the car to take a photo lands me in thigh-deep powder.

Unnavigable ski trailWe quickly learn from the locals that the snow is both a blessing and a curse. The blanket of wet snow brought destruction as well as beauty. Bending and breaking trees, miles of trail were blocked and closed. Despite massive efforts to clear the trails, the clean-up work exceeds the available resources in some areas. In particular, the Banadad Trail‘s 28k of ski trail are largely inaccessible, with clearing efforts able to open only seven kilometers on the western end.  Indeed, many fear for the state of portages in the BWCAW.

Our destination is Bearskin Lodge, home of the central Gunflint cross-country ski system with over 70 kilometers of trails and excellent grooming. Fortunately, Bearskin’s trails are nearly all open. Four days of unlimited skiing await us. And so does the cold. Arriving in the midst of a cold snap, we encounter overnight lows down to -19 and daytime highs in the single digits below zero. But the brilliant sunshine and blue skies are more than fair compensation. Donning layers of suitable apparel, we are easily able to enjoy the amazing beauty of the Northland as well as the skiing.

Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 1 Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 2 Stride after stride delivers more dazzling scenery.  I can’t help but think the tall narrow pines cloaked in snow are the spitting image of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical trees. Seuss-like trees on the Bearskin trailsAnd snowshoeing takes me even further into the depths of the magical woods.

Snowshoeing at Bearskin Lodge Yes, this skier is happy.  With abundant snow on the Gunflint Trail.

Ice at Dusk and Dawn

It’s been an unusual winter all the way around.  Here we are in our first real cold snap and the lake is still ice free, even along the shore.  Lake Superior was its quintessential blue as I drove up the shore yesterday morning.  And in sharp contrast I spied ice encrusted bushes at the water’s edge, glistening in the sunshine like giant crystals.  The below-zero temperatures had teamed up with a good wind off the lake to create the perfect formula for instant icicles.

Those marvels just begged for a photograph, so I returned at sunset.  Hastily crouching behind the ice sculptures, I tested various angles as long as the light and my cold fingers held out.North Shore sunset ice 1 North Shore sunset ice 2 A fun exercise, it left me wishing for more.  So with crisp and clear skies early the next morning I set out once again.  But I hadn’t bargained for the “sea smoke.”  Overhead the sky was clear, but a thick band of steam clouds clung to the surface and horizon of the lake.  At first I thought my sunrise had been foiled.  But in actuality, it made for some interesting effects.

North Shore sunrise ice 1 North Shore sunrise ice 2 North Shore sunrise ice 3 North Shore sunrise ice 4Never underestimate nature.  Nor our magnificent lake.  Lake Superior ice holds plenty of beauty and surprises at dusk and at dawn.

Outdoor Fitness Center

Most cross-country skiers heading to Tofte to ski the Sugarbush trail system are seeking the natural beauty of those lovely wooded trails.  With extensive kilometers of well groomed trails, it’s one of my favorite systems on the whole North Shore.

But this time I have other motives.  Faced with yet another snow drought year, I am seriously behind in my training for the Birkie and Mora Vasaloppet.  Each marathon race is over 50 kilometers, and normally by now I would be skiing longer and longer distances to prepare.  But it’s hard to get inspired without snow.  While I should have been out skiing, I was still pounding the pavement in my running shoes.  I was seriously lacked in seasonal motivation.

Ungroomed ski trail at Lester-AmityThe latest snowfall finally fueled my passion.  At long last I could walk across the street and head into the woods on my skis. It was only then, skiing on beautiful new snow surrounded by trees and forest, that I remembered why I love the sport so much.  It all came rushing back, even if my form and technique was lagging behind.  It rejuvenated my soul.

But alas, it was only a taste.  The warm weather and thick wet snow made skiing arduous at best, and foiled the groomers’ attempts to tame the messy snow.  Emergency measures were in order.  Hence the trip to Tofte.

Ignoring the allure of the scenic woodland trails, I don my skis and head up Onion River Road prepared for a good workout.  Unlike the woods, it is wide, has a firm flat surface, no bushes or branches sticking up through the snow, and grooms beautifully.  The air is chilly, so the freshly groomed surface has set up perfectly, delivering virgin corduroy.  I delight in being the first to ski on it.  My skis glide over its surface and I immediately fall into a good strong rhythm.

It is my best ski of the season to date.  It feels so good to push myself, to press through the uphill stretches and work on technique.  I can taste those races, and know I am getting stronger.  At last.

Skiing Onion River RoadThe further up the road I go, the more snow-laden the trees.  The pines tower overhead, a stark contrast against the blue sky.  It is intensely quiet, with only the sound of my skis against the snow and the squelch made by my pole plants.  The wind whips against my face, refreshing as I grow warm with the effort.

It is the idyllic workout.  Clearly this is no Saturday ski through the park.  I am there to train.  To further my endurance and to ready myself for the challenge.  And what a place to do it.  In the perfect outdoor fitness center.Forest Ranger cabin with a warm fire at the base of the trails