A Child’s view of the Harbor

Molly and Ben and Vista StarWe all have too many things.  Kids especially do.  So for our grandson’s 6th birthday we chose to give him an experience instead.  Leaving his siblings behind, we took just Ben on the Vista Star tour of the lake and harbor.  For days, he looked forward to it.  And I have to admit, so did I.  There is something special about one-on-one time with a grandchild.

I’d done the tour before.  I’d heard most of the facts, figures and stories from the narrator before as well.  But I saw and heard it all through fresh eyes that day.  Everything becomes new when seen from a child’s point of view.

As always, the tour started with a jaunt out into Lake Superior.  Before we could sail under the bridge we had to wait for a 1000-footer to enter the harbor.  It felt like forever between the time we first saw the bow emerge until its stern finally passed by.  That was one long ore boat.

Molly and Ben on Vista StarBen loves the Aerial Bridge.  So we were mystified that he was anxious about going under it.  The hands firmly planted over his ears and the fear in his eyes soon told us why.  He knew exactly what was coming.  The boat’s loud horn and answering blast from the bridge were indeed ear numbing.  But once we cleared the bridge, Ben could relax and enjoy the ride.

There was plenty of shipping activity that morning, from a ship offloading wind turbine parts to tug boats awaiting a call for help and a classic ore boat taking on its cargo below the ore dock.  All of it of great interest.Tug boatsOre Boat LoadingThe Vista Star itself proved to be fascinating to Ben.  There were so many places to explore, from the top deck to the bow and the “restaurant” inside.  And the best part about grandparents is that they succumb to requests for treats.

Photo Jun 20, 10 49 28 AMBlatnik and Interstate BridgesOne never knows just what a little mind is taking in.  Some of it we gleaned from Ben’s parents later.  Apparently he regaled them with tales of his boat ride all the way home, proving that he did indeed listen to the narration and our explanations!  One highlight was going under the Blatnik Bridge because “it was so cool to look up at it underneath.”  I didn’t even think to look up.  But I may have yet another chance.  I hear that his little sister wants a turn next.

The good, the bad and the ugly

It’s easy to write about all the good stuff when we’re cycle touring.  The fabulous scenery, the interesting people we meet, the fun adventures we have.  But my friends always tell me that they most like hearing about “how it really is.”  So in the spirit of truth in reporting for our cycling tour of Scotland, here you go.

The Good

  • Coast near CullenAmazing scenery.  I just have to say it one more time.
  • We had outstanding weather.  Scotland is known for its changeable weather, as well as the cold and rain.  In 22 days, we had only one really rainy day, combined with horrific headwinds.  While the temperature never did reach 70, we had 8 days of sunshine, 3 of partial sun, 7 cloudy and 3 with a few showers.  Quite the record.
  • Scones and coffeeWhen cycle touring, it is impossible to consume as many calories as you expend.  So the sky is the limit on food consumption, and all manner of treats are allowed.  In the case of Scotland, my local favorites included McVities chocolate biscuits, scones (complete with jam and clotted cream) and cider on tap.  The Ice cream stopweather wasn’t always conducive to ice cream, but it’s a universal indulgence.
  • Despite the treats, one always loses weight when cycle touring.  Even better, inches come off and muscles are toned.  There’s nothing like coming home and finding those tight clothes fit so easily.
  • Salmon.  Lots of it.  It was on the menu everywhere.  What more can I say?
  • We always carry an abundance of inner tubes (8 between us) and one extra tire.  Normally we go through a good number of those tubes and the tire as well.  On this trip, Rich didn’t have a single flatRich fixing a flat – clearly a record for him!  I managed two flats, primarily due to rocky trails.  In the US, we have more trouble due to the retread tires on trucks.  The shoulders are littered with metal shards left behind when the tires blow.  We saw no such debris in Scotland.  (Of course, there were no shoulders either… see below).

The Bad

  • Loose Chippings signIn the US, the cyclist’s most dreaded road surface is one that has recently been “chip sealed.”  It’s the cheap way out.  Spreading the road with goo and throwing down crushed rock to prolong the life of the road surface.  Sure, if you’re in a car you just roll over it.  If you’re on a bicycle, it is a nightmare of uneven rocks that take at least a couple miles per hour off your speed.  We were dismayed to learn that Scotland has learned about chip seal.  They just call it by a different name.
  • When we scout out roads for cycling, we pay particular attention to the shoulders.  We look for paved Sheep near the roadshoulders that are wide enough for safe cycling outside the range of traffic.  Forget that in Scotland.  There is no such thing as a shoulder.  There are few markings on the road period.  Since many of them are only one lane wide, why bother?  Fortunately, traffic is often light, and sometimes confined to just the local sheep.
  • Finding cheap lodgings in Scotland was more of a challenge.  There is no such thing as a roadside motel.  The closest approximation was a guesthouse.  It was obvious that some we stayed in were more like boarding houses.  While the place was full, there was no one else at breakfast.  The cooking tended to be blasé, the carpet was worn, and heat only came on for limited periods in the evenings.  And just like cheap motels, electrical outlets were scarce.

The Ugly

  • It’s one of cycling’s facts of life.  I don’t know why, but hour after hour, day after day of cycling means a constantly drippy nose.  Perhaps it’s the wind.  Maybe it’s the exercise.  For whatever reason, a runny nose is a signature symptom of spending days in the saddle.  That’s life, live with it.
  • Some of us have more sanitary ways of handing this nose issue.  Mine is a kleenex, Rich cycling in Scotlandtucked into my handlebar bag.  But not Rich.  He has perfected the art of expressing his snot into the air as he rides.  All well and good for him.  Not so great for the cyclist behind him.  Believe me, riding in the Snot Stream is no picnic.  Especially when there is a head wind.  If he’s feeling extremely magnanimous, he might invite me to ride in the “snot-free zone.”  In that case, it doesn’t take more than 2 seconds for me to increase my cadence and fly past him to cycle in front.
  • Traveling light is of utmost importance when cycle touring.  That means the “wear one, wash one” concept of clothing is followed.  When we cycle in hot climates, we constantly hand wash our cycling clothes every other night.  With the cold weather in Scotland, we could easily convince ourselves that we didn’t sweat as much and could wear our cycling duds more days between washings.  It sure made life easier.  I’m not sure if those around us would agree.
  • For the most part, we manage to work together to plan our itinerary.  But there are those moments when we don’t see eye-to-eye.  Take our final trip to see Fraser Castle when we got mired in traffic.  I’m of the “never give up” camp.  Rich is in the “let’s be practical” corner.  We attempted to settle our differences on an isolated patch of roadside pavement.  Let’s just say it was a good thing the traffic was zooming by.  It wasn’t a quiet conversation.

Just like blog posts, the bad and ugly bits easily fade into the background in our cycling trip memories.  It’s the good that stays with us, and spurs us on to the next trip.  No doubt that will be the case with this one.  Stay tuned for our next adventure.Molly and Rich on Scotland Tartan Tour

We Interrupt this Program

You won’t find this training program in any marathon guides.  In fact, I don’t recommend it.  But for the second year in a row I am destined to follow it as I prepare for Grandma’s Marathon.

It goes something like this:

Snowy LakewalkFinish skiing the Birkie at the end of February, and trade cross-country skis for running shoes.  Brave the remainder of winter in Duluth, training hard and working in several 20-milers.  Feel good about increasing my pace and gaining distance endurance.


Halt!  Stop running for an entire month.  Pack up the bikes and fly Cycling in Scotlandover to Scotland with my husband, Rich, and cycle around the countryside for three weeks.  Plenty of hill work as we pedal through the Highlands.  Loads of endurance training as well chalk up several 50 mile days in a row.  Endless carbo loading as we endeavor to replace calories burned.  But not a single mile on my feet.

Running shoesRe-enter the Northland with exactly 2 weeks to go until race day.  Order new running shoes and cram in the miles.  Start with 8, work up to 13 and then 18 in just over a week.  Ignore the burning thighs.  With 5 days left before the marathon, begin the taper.  Whew, almost there!

It’s not like I didn’t plan for this race.  My son, Erik, and I hit the Grandma’s Marathon site the day registration opened and signed up.  We proudly wear our 40th Anniversary marathon jackets.  I was sure I could train for a good race this year.

Enter my creative husband, who dreams up cycling tours.  Marathons notwithstanding.  Who was I to turn down cycling through the Scottish countryside?  Life is full of interruptions.  This one was entirely worth it.  I’m back on the program now.  Bring on the marathon!



I’ll have tea, please

There is no point in going to a foreign country if you can't adapt to local ways. Sure, it may mean doing without some of favorite foods, the comforts of home and familiar customs. But the fun is in learning about other cultures, trying new things and living life differently. Bike tours included.

Many will recall last year's tour in which several days were spent “in search of Chardonnay.” In fact, it has since defined Rich's wine preference. However, since setting foot in Scotland we have exchanged our wine glasses for pints of cider. On tap is preferred. Bottled works. Nothing tastes better after a long day of cycling. Not even Chardonnay.

Rich enjoying a cider

Little roadside motels and campgrounds have been our staple for accommodations in the US and Canada. In Scotland we have substituted guesthouses and hostels. Just like motels, guesthouses range widely in quality. For each tired guesthouse with well worn plaid carpeting, I can think of a cramped motel room to match. It's what you get when seeking cheap lodging. The hostels, however, have been a great find. Like camping, they have been some of our favorite locations. It has been well worth the more spartan and shared arrangements.

Rich in hostel

There is no arguing the fact that cycle touring burns a lot of calories. And eventually our bodies crave energy-rich foods. Rich loves to tattle on my habit of buying KitKat bars on our first long tour. While such exist in Scotland, I have switched my allegiance to my favorite biscuit. McVities Dark Chocolate Digestives. I'm on my third package already.

Chocolate digestives

The meager contents of our panniers are different for this trip. We left behind our after-cycling shorts and t-shirts in favor of pants and long sleeves. This one was less of a cultural difference than a practical one. It just doesn't get that hot here. Not even in the beginning of June.

Rich and Molly in Blackhouse hostel

Finding dinner is often a matter of locating the nearest pub. Although “pub grub” is heavier fare than I'm used to on cycling tours, it fills and warms at the same time. Somehow, it always goes down easily. The same with the hearty breakfasts and ubiquitous eggs. And where else can I get smoked salmon on scrambled eggs on a regular basis?

Kings Arms pub

Since food seems to be a central theme here, I can't leave out another local favorite – scones. With breakfast already behind us, we've been seeking out coffee shops or cafes for our breaks. I immediately case the front counter for scones. My cycling appetite often allows for jam and clotted cream as well. Might as well do it right.

Rich at the Coffee Pot on Mull

Rich and I are both wedded to our own particular source of caffeine. Coffee for me, and Diet Coke for him. But mornings in a B&B have us both singing out of the same hymnal. The British know how to do tea right. I'd rather have good tea than mediocre coffee. For Rich, the chilly weather warrants a hot drink instead of cold. For both of us, here in Scotland the refrain is the same. “I'll have tea, please.”


A Fraser Finish

Final Totals: 22 days, 830 miles

I don't know if I ever saw Rich's Grandpa Fraser in his kilt. But I certainly saw pictures, and knew how proud he was of his heritage. And after all, we were wearing a patch of Fraser plaid on our Tartan Tour jerseys. So it seemed a serious omission to bypass Fraserburgh on our first circuit along the north coast. Now it was time to rectify that.

Scotland is famous for its changeable weather. As we headed for Fraserburgh the warm sun of recent days was just a memory as we entered a world of fog. The vistas were gone, but in exchange we had peaceful rural scenery.

Sheep near Fraserburgh
Cow near Fraserburgh

Leaving the cycle route to continue east along the coast, we hadn't thought to check out the terrain. When the headlands reached into the clouds, we began to worry. Sure enough, more leg work was in store! Even I didn't think I could manage the steep grade, but it was mercifully short. With a heavy dose of determination along with ample huffing and puffing I reached the top.

Steep hills going to Fraserburgh
With some slack in our itinerary and to give our bodies their first rest day, we decided to spend an extra day in Fraserburgh. I'll be honest and admit it wasn't the most picturesque or vibrant place in my book. But sitting out a day of strong winds, mist and damp weather did have its advantages.
The best feature in Fraserburgh is the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses. We easily managed to spend three hours there, and learned a lot about the hard life of the keepers on the remote islands and rock lighthouses. Our admission included a tour of the adjacent Kinnaird Head Lighthouse with an extremely knowledgeable guide. It was the first lighthouse built on Scotland's mainland, erected right on top of the castle built by none other than the Frasers. A later renovation included a full lighthouse tower that rose up through the castle's great hall. Because the lighthouse was ultimately replaced by a new fully automated lighthouse, the works for the original light were left entirely in tact. We got to see it in operation, and appreciate the precision timing required for the light's unique signal.
Kinnaird Head Lighthouse
Fraserburgh does have a fantastic beach, and is a a favorite for surfers. It didn't show off particularly well on a cloudy day, but I enjoyed watching a couple of hearty surfers attempt the waves. The harbor was full of fascinating and colorful boats. Unfortunately the commercial nature of the area prevented me from getting much more than a glimpse of these craft.
Fraserburgh harbor
After a day of sluffing, I was more than ready to return to my bike. The continuing North wind finally benefitted us, blowing us across the flatter farmland to bring us back to Aberdeen. My favorite part of the journey was seeing the wind blow across the long grasses, creating moving shapes in waves across the field. They were bittersweet miles for me, knowing our tour was coming to an end.
The capstone of our Fraser tribute was to be a day trip to Fraser Castle. At only 15 miles away and sans gear, it should have been a breeze. Instead, it was an exercise in futility. While the fierce winds were aggravating, it was the heavy traffic, construction and dangerous roads that ultimately caused us to turn back. Despite a bit of friction over the decision, we managed to make peace and agree to spend the day exploring Aberdeen instead. And I finally got to use a bus shelter for its intended purpose!
Molly waiting for a but to Aberdeen
We were unimpressed with Aberdeen's busy City Center, but thankfully the information center equipped us with a walking tour of Old Aberdeen. There we found peaceful streets, wonderful old buildings, thriving university life and a great campus hangout called Grub for a snack and warm-up.
Rich in Old Aberdeen
Rich at Kings College Aberdeen
Powis Gates Old Aberdeen

Oh, and those crescents on top of these Turkish style gates at Powis House? Turns out they are the emblem of the Fraser family, who owned this estate before the gates were built. I guess it was a Fraser finish after all.