Enjoying the Season

It’s that time of year again.  Not quite mud season.  Worse.  The piles of snow left on the ground have guaranteed this late winter phenomenon – thaw, puddle, refreeze, ice.  It wreaks havoc with sidewalks, creating skating rinks overnight.  It makes ski trails into luge runs in the morning, and slush in the afternoons.

This in-between season has forced me to modify my outdoor activities.  A creature of habit, I too often get in a rut, reluctant to vary my routine.  But Mother Nature is showing me that change has its rewards.

Lester River Trail

A hike on the Lester River Trail proved to be a viable option last week.  I found that rather than focusing on a workout on my skis, I could just meander and take in the snowy sights in the very same woods.  The trails were firmly packed by fat tire bikes and foot traffic, making travel easy.  It was an entirely different experience.  I was far more attuned to my surroundings.

At the Lester River overlooks, I wondered if I might have snowshoed up the riverbed.  But the sound of flowing water and open spots in the ice told me otherwise.  I was content to admire and follow my beaten path.  All was quiet on that weekday afternoon, making it a most peaceful venture.

One look at the puddles on the Lakewalk was enough to reroute my morning run.  Heading out before dawn, I have moved to the dry pavement of the Scenic Highway shoulders.  As a bonus, I have a perfect view of the sunrise over the lake.  One day a deep red line glows across the horizon.  The next a pale orange hue hangs above the low clouds.  The sun’s rays skitter across the lake.

By the time I turn around to head home, the low sun illuminates the snowy mounds that line the lakeshore.  Adjacent to the deep blue water, the face of the snowbanks reflects the sunlight. The backsides are bluey shadows.  It’s a color pattern that never grows old.  I watch it for miles.

Reaching via Brighton Beach, I find a new scene every day.  Over the weekend when the wind was calm, the water’s surface froze into a fine mirror.  Its thin veneer perfectly reflected the rocks, snow and ice.  The picture of calm.

Brighton Beach ice 1

I returned later in the day to see what sculptures the wind had made with the fragile ice.  Sure enough, ice shards lay stacked in random fashion on the shore, glinting in the sunlight.  As I walked the shore to take in Nature’s art work, I kept hearing an eerie whining sound.  I turned to see rocks skidding across the surface of the ice, as if they were miniature curling stones.  The resulting harmonics emanated from the rocks, changing pitch as they slowed and then stopped.  I wondered how the responsible adults figured out this musical phenomenon.

Brighton Beach ice 2

This morning brought an entirely different experience.  Once again traveling through Brighton Beach, I caught sight of Rich taking photographs.  Following the trajectory of his camera brought this image into view:

I don’t know what possessed these young men to ride their fat tire bikes off the ice bergs to plunge into Lake Superior, but it was enough to stop me mid-run to watch.  (To see Rich’s video, click here.)  I may have found new ways to enjoy the outdoors this season, but I will stop short of trying this one.


Oh Baby, Another Cycling Tour

Two Timing Texas Tour JerseyWe’ve on the cusp of another cycling tour, but first we have more important things to attend to.  Right now we’re on baby watch.  Our daughter, Karen, is due to have a baby boy on April 1, which given her past track record could mean any time now.  Gathering up our cycling gear, packing our panniers, and pouring over maps have taken a back seat.  Instead, I’ve been baking cookies, preparing freezer meals and wrapping kiddy presents in readiness for my upcoming Grammy duties.

Once the newly-expanded family gets back on its feet in its new 6-member configuration, Rich and I will head to Texas for a month of warm spring cycling.  In a nod to our previous swing through that state three years ago, we’re calling this one the Two Timing Texas Cycling Tour.  Just like last time, we will set off from my brother Bill’s house in Granbury.  And like before, we expect to enjoy plenty of warm weather while Duluth suffers through mud season.

Two Timing Texas map

Although we’ll revisit a couple of favorite spots like the Davey Crockett National Forest and the Hill Country (hoping to catch the bluebonnets in bloom again), for the most part we will explore new territory.  The route looks firm on paper but in fact is quite malleable.  In general, we expect to cover about 1,000 miles in the month of April.

It feels like a long time since we last bike toured, when in fact it was only last July.  I’m primed and ready to start pushing the pedals again.  Almost.  First I need a fix of that new baby smell.

A Family History Lesson

The newspaper headline jumped out at me, and the logo in the accompanying picture clinched it.  I had to go see the new visiting exhibit at The Depot about the Erie Mining Company, and my sister Susie had to accompany me.  No arguments there, we stood in front of the display the very next afternoon.

My dad, Dick Brewer, spent his whole career as a mining engineer at Pickands Mather.  Those were household words in our family, and they brought us from Michigan’s UP to Duluth when I was only two years old.  What I didn’t know was that Pickands Mather spawned Erie Mining to process taconite into pellets. That’s just one of the things I learned in the museum.

It took some searching to find the exhibit. No wonder, it merely consisted of a four-sided billboard, a railroad inspection car and a large logo.  Disappointing at first, once we took the time to read and absorb the material, it was actually quite informative.  Especially for two sisters who were only little girls during Dad’s tenure at P/M.

When we discovered that the Hoyt Lakes iron mine and processing plant along with the private railroad that connected it to Taconite Harbor were opened in 1957, a light bulb went on.  That’s the year Dad was transferred to Duluth, no doubt to support the new mine.  The fact that he spent two years working in Hoyt Lakes, commuting two hours from Duluth each way, suddenly fell into perspective.  Although the exhibit focused entirely on mine operations and the processing that turned the ore into taconite pellets, we finally had the bigger picture.  These were the benefactors of Dad’s mining engineering expertise.

I well remember ore boats bearing the P/M symbol passing under the Aerial Bridge.  I had a poster of ore boat smokestacks next to my childhood bed, and knew the one for Dad’s company.  The museum wasn’t focused on the shipping aspect of the business, so I turned to Wikipedia to help me out.  The Pickands Mather Company had the second largest shipping fleet on the Great Lakes around 1920, which was later spun off to become Interlake Steamship Company.  At that time, P/M was also the second largest iron mining company in the U.S.

I always had a sweet spot for Pickands Mather.  Not only did it support our family, but it paid my way through college by virtue of a generous scholarship program.  As a high school senior, I traveled to the corporate office in Cleveland and first learned the meaning of a “corner office” when I met the executives as a scholarship recipient.

Both of my grandfathers were superintendents of mines.  So it’s in the blood, although the legacy ended with my dad.  The afternoon was time well spent.  Thanks, Erie Mining, for the family history lesson.


Tucson on 2 Wheels

The good news is that Tucson has an extensive network of bike lanes.  They go everywhere, are well marked, and respected by cars.  The not so good news is that there is a lot of traffic.  Even out in on the fringes of town, in the Catalina Foothills, the roads are heavily traveled and cars whiz by constantly.  Hailing from Duluth, I am just not used to that level of population.

The Loop by Rillito Rivery

Enter The Loop.  The 55 mile loop that circles the city has just been completed, but it’s much more than that. It is a network with 131 miles of wide, paved, shared use trails that run across vast portions of the city.  Most legs run along “washes” – dry river beds that fill with runoff during the rainy season.  In fact, The Loop grew out of the 1983 flood disaster.  Realizing the need to reinforce the banks of the major washes, the county took the opportunity to create river parks and trails atop the new soil-cement banks.  It has become one of Pima County’s most popular recreational features.

It’s not often that bicycle trails are truly vehicle-free.  But great pains have been taken to shelter The Loop.  The trail dips under streets and bridges cross over side washes.  Many stretches are landscaped with gardens or simply feature desert environs.  Railings carefully guard users from the steep banks that dip into the wash.The Loop going under a bridge The Loop going through a bridge

The nearest entry point to The Loop is 4.5 miles from our condo.  It is worth navigating that stretch of bike lanes to reach carefree cycling.  So far, I have covered only about 50 miles of The Loop, but have returned to some sections multiple times.  Coordinating a ride with Rich one day allowed me to venture further afield, from our place all the way out to Catalina State Park – a good 30 mile stretch.

The Loop TrailThe Loop is open to any non-motorized use, and just in the last two days I have seen all types of transport gracefully coexist on its paths.  There were plenty of cyclists, runners and walkers of course.  I also passed strollers, scooters, recumbent tricycles and dog walkers.  The most unusual was a woman on a standing elliptical bike, doing her first 50-mile ride!  It is cycling at its easiest – level with good pavement and well signed.

Molly with bike at Sabino Canyon

Despite the appeal of The Loop, sometimes challenge beckons.  Then I return to Sabino Canyon to climb into its depths during cycling hours.  Or I find my way onto smaller local roads.  Inevitably they rise and fall.  We are in the foothills after all.

It was well worth the long drive to bring our bikes on this trip.  I’ve spent many hours in the saddle this week, exploring Tuscon on two wheels.

Owning the Sabino Canyon

I’ve traded tall pines for stately saguaro cacti.   A frozen creek for dry riverbeds.  Cross-country skis for my bike.  Winter storm warnings and deep snow for sunshine that warms my bare limbs. A woodland park for a desert canyon.

Sabino Canyon 1

It’s this last trade-off that feels significant.  We bought our lot across from Amity Creek for its proximity to nature, the convenience of the trails, the white noise of the waterfalls at night.  Living next to Lester-Amity Park is a statement about who we are, and what we like to do.

Seeking a mid-winter warm-up, Rich and I chose a condo on the outskirts of Tucson, nestled in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains.  Within minutes of unloading the car, we set out exploring, and Sabino Canyon Recreation Area – just a mile away – quickly became our neighborhood park.

Sabino Canyon 2

The park has one 3.5 mile road that snakes up into the canyon. The road mostly winds uphill.  There are undulations to provide a bit of climbing relief, but the pitch is reasonable – at least until the last half mile.  It travels through dry mountainsides populated by the mighty saguaro, prickly pear, barrel and other abundant cacti.  Mountains rise in every direction, rocky angled faces dotted with small bits of vegetation.

Pedestrians walking Sabino CanyonFrom 9-5 daily, open air shuttles own the road, carting hikers to their trailheads or sightseers merely wanting an easy narrated tour.  Pedestrians are allowed on the road, but bicycles are restricted to the park hours before 9 or after 5.  It doesn’t take me long to discover that those are the prime hours anyway.  The golden hours.

Sabino Canyon sunrise

Early mornings are my favorite for cycling or running the road.  I have plenty of company, as a whole generation of gray haired hikers seems to be striding purposefully up and down each morning.  It’s brisk out there, with temperatures  registering in the 30s and the canyon still in the shade of the mountains until well into my workout.  The sun gradually finds its way onto the hillsides, illuminating select bits of the landscape as it works its way above the opposite mountain range.

Sabino Canyon morning

Numerous stone bridges mark my progress.  Having arrived in town following a 3-day rainy spell, the normally dry riverbed is still brimming with flowing water.  As designed, the current flows right over the bridge surfaces, and I follow the example of the hikers who plow right on through.  It’s a cold, wet sensation.  Even on my bike, it’s deep enough to splash my feet.

I save the afternoons for less strenuous pursuits.  A hike on one of the many trails or a slow shorter bike ride up the road still gives me access to the day’s fading light.

Hiking Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon sunset

Proximity is everything.  We’ve explored and enjoyed other parks and wilderness areas here, but this one easily keeps calling us back.  It’s our own park away from home.

Writing’s Unexpected Rewards

In a world dominated by rejections, victory is all the sweeter.  When the email arrived, informing me that my piece “Late Arrival” had been accepted for Northland College’s WritersRead event, my heart danced.  As a writer, I celebrate any success, no matter how small.  Even seeing my work linger longer than usual in the “In Process” status of a publication’s submission process constitutes a win in my book.

I’d heard that the event was “a hoot.”  A friend who has read several times described it as “the best party for writers and readers anywhere.”  I was excited for both the opportunity and the entertainment.  But I woefully underestimated the impact of being a participant.

Nineteen pieces were selected for reading at the late January event.  Eight of us were from Duluth.  Sheer distance precluded our attending the scheduled rehearsal, and we were encouraged to arrange our own.  Little did I suspect that would set the stage for reaping the true value of the event.

As a group, we descended on the Spoken Word Open Mic night at Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse.  It was packed, due to an earlier political rally, and it was a long time before any of our names were called.  But one by one, we made our way up to the small stage, took a deep breath and read our pieces to an audience.  Just knowing there were friendly faces among the crowd was a boost, and certainly having live listeners was good preparation for the real thing.  I admired the quality of the work in our group, and relished their comments afterwards.

Just for good measure, a smaller group of us gathered in the black box theater at UMD about a week later.  This time we were reading only for ourselves, with the benefit of immediate feedback, discussion and do-overs.  I was beginning to get a feel for the generosity of these seasoned writers, and the unending support they gave one another – including me, the neophyte.

The evening of the event, participants gathered beforehand in the stainless-steel kingdom of the college kitchen.  While being treated to fresh pizzas made on the spot and sipping wine, we mingled.  In the quirky informal space it was easy to feel the spontaneous camaraderie among this collection of writers.

As promised, the event attracted a good crowd.  I marveled at the enthusiastic support for writers in the small northern communities along Lake Superior.  They were a lively and receptive audience as we each got up and read our piece.  Being second on the program quickly dispelled my nerves and I could settle in and enjoy the remainder of the readings.  The genres covered nonfiction, sudden fiction, micro-fiction, twitterature and poetry.  Each reader brought something unique to the event’s theme, “Gut Instinct,” rendered through humor, wit, poignancy and suspense.  I felt honored to be among the talent represented there.

The Duluth contingent heartily congratulated each reader from its numbers.  At the conclusion of the deliveries, we naturally clustered together.  Relishing the experience, snapping group photos, recalling snippets of the stories to savor, we ended the evening on a high note.

Duluthians at WritersRead

By pure happenstance, I met up with the bulk of the Duluth writers at breakfast the next morning at Café Coco in Washburn.  We swarmed a long table and spent the next two hours talking writing.  The spontaneous and genuine conversation was encouraging, supportive and friendly.  Despite my novice status, I felt a sense of belonging.  These people were here for me, as I was for them.  We all had something to share.  We all had something to give one another.

Duluth writers at Cafe Coco

I drove home filled with inspiration, ambition and gratitude.  Being selected to read, what I considered my “win” was only the beginning.  I felt like a writer.  I felt like I belonged.  I had a new source of support for the lonely act of writing.  I couldn’t wait to write more, work harder and submit more.  Even if it meant more rejections.

Note: Wisconsin Public Radio recorded the WritersRead event, and aired it in two installments.  Click here to listen online or download the recording for the first hour.
(Shameless plug – my reading is 8:48 into this recording)  Click here for the second hour of readings.

The Alternative to Skiing

The shuttle deposited us in a sea of deep white snow.  Just me, Susan and our snowshoes, and a big sign marking the entrance to the Superior Hiking Trail adjacent to Sugarloaf Road.  “It’s well marked,” the driver told us.  But once in the woods, the trail was just a vague indentation in the snow.

She promised us we’d need our snowshoes, as opposed to the other trails near the highway.  “Those are so well used, you can walk them in your boots.”  We went for virgin territory, and we got it.

Snowshoeing SHT

Ahead, tall tree trunks cast long shadows, crisscrossing the soft white snow.  Baby pines, the next generation of towering trees, added green décor complimenting the deep blue of the sky beyond.  The enticing scene beckoned.

This was a cross-country ski trip, but we had abandoned our skis for the day.  The day before, the cold temperatures and chilling wind tested our mettle skiing the frosty trails, speed whipping away our meager warmth faster than we could generate it.  So we decided on a day tromping through the woods instead.

We didn’t have to go far before we had tracks to follow.  Animal tracks.  Plenty of deer scampered around.  Rabbits left their signature imprint.  Some tiny critter stamped out a precise symmetrical trail, a perfect wintry zipper.  But it was the wolf imprints that held our gaze.  Impossibly large, they forged ahead on the trail.  Other padded feet came and went, but these tracks stayed with us for the duration of our hike.  I hoped our canine companion knew how to read the blue blazes to keep us on the right trail.

High in the sky, the bright sun delivered warmth whenever it reached us.  In the dark shadows of the trees, the temperature plummeted.  The deep silence of the woods was broken only by the plunge and shuffle of our snowshoes.  Gasps of delight, and “oh this is so beautiful” escaped our lips, confirming the choice we’d made for the day’s activity.

Susan snowshoeing SHT

Reaching the ridgeline, the trees thinned and we had the promised expansive views of the lake.  Traveling high above the shoreline we could see for miles, a full 180° or more.  Each creek we crossed had some form of a wooden bridge – a reassuring sign we were still on the trail.  Crossing Crystal Creek was the most challenging, scrambling down a deep ravine to reach the covered bridge at the bottom.  Climbing back up the other side proved to be easier.

Snowshoeing SHT 1

The sudden appearance of numerous snowshoe tracks marked our approach to the Caribou River.  The spur route down to the parking lot was impossible to miss.  Already missing our wilderness route, we followed the river and admired its icy formations as we returned to our car.

I’ve hiked bits and pieces of the Superior Hiking Trail through the years.  It’s a treasure that’s easily taken for granted.  This winter excursion reminded me how the seclusion of the trail works its magic.   During that trek the rest of the world fell away. My mind rambled as I paced.  I reveled in the nature surrounding me.  And I never regretted skipping skiing that day.

Molly snowshoeing SHT