Cruising frigid waters

Going on a mid-winter cruise.  Those words conjure up images of palm trees, turquoise waters begging for a snorkel, and brilliant warm sunshine.  It conveys a feeling of escape from all that is cold, frosty and covered in ice and snow.  Such would be the case for any ordinary travelers.  But few have ventured to call us typical.

Our packing list includes heavy down jackets, Steger mukluks (the warmest of boots), mittens, hats and scarves.  We’re also bringing our cross-country skis, boots and poles for when we disembark from the ship.  Clearly, this is no tropical cruise.

We already live in the far north, only 90 miles from Canada.  But this cruise starts well above that and travels North.  Our vessel is classified as an “ice class 1X ship” suited for expedition voyages.  It will ply the waters along a rugged coast and deposit us above the Arctic Circle.  Now doesn’t that sound like great winter fun?

Well, if you are an avid outdoor enthusiast, with a passion for the Northern Lights and night time photography, it is a perfect fit.  This voyage of the MS Midnatsol along the coast of Norway is titled “In Search of the Northern Lights,” and is Rich’s pick for his 60th birthday present.  By virtue of marriage, I get to go along.

Midnatsol outside TromsoThis ship is in perfect keeping with our unconventional travel theme.  It is part of the Hurtigruten fleet and is a working vessel, which provides the ferry service for cars and passengers up and down the coast.  It also delivers cargo and mail to coastal villages.  And it takes some cruising passengers.  With a capacity of 500 people, we won’t be among the cast of thousands that typify large cruise ships.  In place of glitzy shows, we might learn to fillet halibut out on deck.  While many cruises boast an everlasting feast, we will partake of typical Norwegian fare.  Dinner is what they serve, no menu choices.  Fish are frequently featured.  There is no casino on board, instead we will cash in on the gorgeous scenery passing by.  It sounds perfect to me.

Midnatsol map 2Daylight hours will be about what we experience at Christmas time in Duluth – sunrise about 8:00am, sunset at 4:00pm. That still leaves plenty of illuminated hours in which to take in the fjords and ports along the way.  But it’s actually the darkness that attracted Rich to this voyage.  He took great care to book this trip during a new moon, to ensure the darkest skies possible. Scoring clear skies and solar activity to activate the Northern Lights is out of his control, but just being that far north will enhance our likelihood of witnessing a display.

Sleep will not be a priority on this adventure – if there is any chance of an aurora, Rich will be out on deck.  And I will be there right beside him.  After all, that’s the whole point of the trip, to see and photograph the Northern Lights.  As we cruise the frigid waters.

A Tale of Two Ski Races

What a difference a week makes.  In the span of a short seven days, the weather did a full 180, rendering my two cross-country ski races completely different affairs.

As the Mora Vasaloppet approached, the weather forecasters had dire predictions for severely cold weather.  I held out hope that in time the atmospheric patterns would change and deliver us from the promised deep freeze.  But it wasn’t to be.  The night before the race, temperatures dipped to -15.  Packing for our early departure to drive to Mora included every warm layer I owned for skiing.  And I mustered my courage for a frigid race.

Molly and Rich before Mora VasaloppetGathering in the Mora high school auditorium, we were surrounded by racers donning all manner of protection.  The best were the moleskin patches custom made for faces, sporting brilliant patterns.  I never knew such existed!  Rich and I carefully scrutinized and selected our layers, then headed for the start line.

The start of the Mora VasaloppetIf it had to be cold, the sunshine rescued the day.  Its brilliant rays shone in a deep blue sky throughout the race.  Combined with the right clothing and plenty of hard skiing, I felt impervious to the cold throughout my 48 kilometer race.

Because of the low snow conditions, the usual point-to-point route was reduced to 12k laps.  The race crew did a phenomenal job grooming what little snow they had, and the cold temps reduced it to a squeaky cold and fast crust.  Looping four times around the course delivered an entirely different feel to the race.  While the fastest skiers are normally long out of site from my middle of the pack position, in this case they were soon lapping me – the fastest doing 2 loops to every one of mine!  As soon as I’d hear the rapid squelch of approaching poles, I knew enough to move to the side to let them fly past.  It proved rather unnerving, at times.  But on the other hand, there was almost a carnival atmosphere, seeing skiers passing in various directions as the course curved and turned back upon itself.

Following a successful finish, I had only a week before the American Birkebeiner.  In that time the temperatures soared, rain soaked the area for most of the day before the race, and it never got below freezing that night.  Could this be the same climate?

This time my concern was how few Birkebeiner starting linelayers to wear.  How little could I put on and still be warm when I begin to tire near the end of my 52k skate race?  Despite the 37 degree temp, the wind felt cold and I decided to err on the slightly warm side.

In typical Birkie style, the chute was crowded as I took my place among the 13,000 skiers that day.  And I never lacked for company out on the trail.  Even though we weren’t looping this time, I was still being continually passed.  Perhaps there is something to this age thing after all.

Molly after finishing the BirkieOnce again the groomers had worked miracles with quirky conditions, but this time the result was slow wet snow.  Ranging from soft to mushy, it made me work for every ounce of glide I achieved.  Downhills were unpredictable, as my speed varied with the ever changing composition of the snow.  But I persevered.  Even through the puddles that had formed on Lake Hayward – a final surprise with only 3k left to go.

Two races.  Two vastly different conditions.  But a single outcome.  Reaching the finish line.  A great sense of accomplishment.  And having a good time.

Caffeinated Throwbacks

Funny how these things go.  In the space of two weeks, twice I have been transported back in time, merely by the sight of a coffeemaker.  Never mind that coffee is a highlight of my day, sipping its sharp brew through frothy milk with a touch of vanilla sugar on top.  That addiction came long after the memories these incidents evoked.

Molly serving coffee from the percolatorThe scene is a small cabin in the middle of the Gunflint Trail.  My friend Susan and I are preparing breakfast on the first morning of our annual XC ski trip.  We’ve already spent time outdoors, and are looking forward to our morning feast, naturally accompanied by coffee.  I’ve even brought my own deep mug and milk frother to create the perfect morning combination.  Search as we might, we fail to come up with the standard drip coffeemaker.  In fact, the cabin’s accouterments seem a bit slim (what, no wine glasses? the previous night’s discovery).  So it brought a chuckle when we unearthed a percolator.  Who uses those any more?  Will it work with ground drip coffee?  It would have to do.  And given the circumstances, it tasted divine.  Almost anything does after healthy exercise and fresh air, on vacation in a homey cabin.

An old fashioned vacuum coffeemakerMy parents had a percolator later on in life.  I remember its sleek design and shiny surface.  But it was the vacuum coffeemaker from my youth that I identify with their morning coffee ritual.  It was quite the contraption.  Two bulbous silver orbs, one mounted above the other with a “glass rod” that sat in the slim tube that connected the two.  Water in the bottom, coffee grounds in the top.  As the water heated, it rose up past the glass rod into the top sphere to mingle with the coffee grounds.  Once it cooled, science and gravity would flush it back down again with an audible “whoosh,” leaving behind the soggy grounds.  The coffee was done.

New Siphon-BrewSo imagine my surprise.  I sit at the counter with my laptop at my favorite local coffee shop, Amity Coffee.  There in front of me is what looks like a science experiment.  A bunsen burner sits under a round glass flask connected by a narrow tube to a cylindrical container up top.  Sure enough, water in the bottom, coffee grounds on top.  Today’s modern version of that relic in my childhood home.  It even has a trendy new name – a siphon brew – and a fancy price tag to go with it, running from $60 to $200.  I doubt those who order this specialty have any idea that they are drinking coffee from an old-fashioned contraption.  Nor does it matter.  I’m the one who has gained more than just ambiance from my morning perch.

Who knew that a morning spent with a latté would yield such caffeinated throwbacks?

Skiing – and so much more

For twenty four years in a row we have maintained our tradition.  Without fail.  There have been years of sickness, but we overcame it.  We had small children at home – five between us – but still we escaped.  Snow failed to materialize, but we went anyway.  Jobs were stressful and demanding, but we left them behind.  A lot has changed over the years, but Susan and I still get away for our annual cross-country ski weekend every year.

This year’s venue was Golden Eagle Lodge, on the north side of Bearskin Lake on the wonderful Central Gunflint Trail Ski System.  We stayed in a lovely cabin aptly named “Trailside” and took full advantage of our proximity to the 70k of XC ski trails at our door.

It wasn’t long before the weekend’s unique qualities began to reveal themselves.  And as each new challenge presented itself, we coined a new term.  It seemed better than complaining, and far more fun.

IMG_2363Adaptability  It’s the characteristic needed when things don’t turn out as expected. Like the gas fireplace that ceases blazing after the office closes at night.  And your figure out it’s the only source of heat in the cabin.  Or when the enormous clumps of snow that once graced the tops of the pine trees melt enough to fall, creating tree avalanches that obliterate the ski trail with icy mounds.  Or topple weakened trees across the trail.  It’s the turn-on-a-dime trait that comes in handy for revising ski plans to take advantage of trails that have been groomed in favor of those still coated in refrozen snow.  It’s figuring out how to use a percolator when you’ve only ever made drip coffee.

IMG_2365Lurch  This is what happens when the snow gets warm and wet, and ices up the bottom of your skis.  It creates a huge snowball underneath your foot, which effectively stops all forward progress.  Your body lurches forward with the momentum of your former glide, while your ski remains firmly planted in the ski track.  And an inane sound escapes your lips as you try to regain some sense of balance (and lose all hope of retaining any dignity).

IMG_2360Perseverance  It keeps you going when you realize you have chosen an overly ambitious distance to ski given the sticky snow conditions.  It makes you move when you fear you will be finishing your ski in the dark, and your headlamp is still back at the cabin.  It becomes your strength when you are dead tired after dragging your snow-bound skis across the snow (and lurching).  Its mantra sounds something like “think of crisp, chilled Chardonnay waiting for you.”


Yet for each challenge the rewards were many.  Skiing at sunrise, watching it paint the sky with orange stripes.  Baking in the heat of the sauna, letting our aches drip away.  Sunny days, warm temperatures.  Talking, sharing, laughing caring.  Sipping that Chardonnay.


It’s a rare friendship that endures this long.  Perhaps it’s even more rare to keep up a tradition this long.  But we’re unlikely to miss next year’s milestone – 25 years of skiing together.  And so much more.IMG_2381