Back in the Saddle

I knew right where to find them. There in the hall closet my panniers lay carefully folded on a shelf, surrounded by camping and biking gear. As I pulled them out, memories came flooding back with them, swarming my senses with the sights, sounds, and emotions of bicycle touring. It all felt so long ago. Three years. A lifetime.

What started as a lark in the early days of our retirement, taking a week long trip around the western end of Lake Superior by bicycle, quickly turned into a passion. One that consumed our travel itineraries for the next eight years and over 10,000 miles. One week turned into two months, then became a month-long gig every year, sometimes twice a year. We pedaled coastlines, remote countryside, forests and prairies, followed rivers and snaked through mountain passes. We even ventured abroad, hauling our bikes over to Scotland and trying a self-guided tour in Norway. On a rare occasion we were joined by our son or a friend, but mostly it was just me and Rich. Over time, it defined us. It’s what we did, what we loved to do.

Trans-Superior Tour – our first adventure
Grand Gaspe Tour – our longest tour
Norway’s Lofoten Islands – our last tour

And then it wasn’t.

Enter Covid. Suddenly restaurants shut down, little motels struggled, using host homes was out of the question. While biking itself was a safe activity, the infrastructure for our travels collapsed, and we weren’t game for a 100% camping tour. We were grounded, limited to day rides and the isolation of the pandemic.

But that wasn’t the worst of it.

In October of 2020 Rich collapsed while out trail running near home. A genetically misshaped heart valve had deteriorated severely over time, leaving him with a leaky, enlarged and damaged heart. Two weeks later, he emerged from the hospital with a new valve, a zipper seam down the middle of his chest, and a pacemaker/defibrillator. His active lifestyle was the biggest factor in his ability to recover, but was also severely challenged by this new condition with the unfortunate name “heart failure.”

As Covid raged on, so did Rich. With patience and determination over two years, he fought his way back to cycling, trail running and cross-country skiing. All at a new pragmatic pace. Perhaps to quell my nagging, he bought an e-bike this summer and quickly learned that it wasn’t a cop-out, it was an enabler. It has reduce the anxiety and restored his joy in cycling.

But bike touring is still an unknown.

Enter Minnesota Trails Magazine. For years, each summer editor Jan Lasar and I have collaborated on a story about a ride on one of our state’s scenic byways or trails. He takes the photos and I write the story. Usually it’s a one-day affair, but this year we had targeted the contiguous combination of the Central Lakes, Lake Wobegon and Soo Line Trails, a combined mileage of 144 miles. We decided to break this into a 3-day ride, and I smelled a bike tour in the making.

Oh heavenly day!

Three days or two months, packing for a bike tour requires the same amount of clothing and paraphernalia. The only difference is how much hand washing in a motel room sink is required. My handy dandy cycle touring spreadsheet guided me through the process of gathering my gear and stashing it neatly in place.

It wasn’t easy, striking out on a tour without my partner. It wasn’t the same as setting off with Rich with vast expanses ahead of us, tackling it together. While he is grappling with his limitations and celebrating his advances, I still long to challenge my own limits and push myself. We’re both learning to manage through this new normal, which sometimes means letting each other loose.

Our tour started in Fergus Falls and stretched to Waite Park outside St. Cloud, plus another leg from Albany to the Mississippi River dam near Highway 10. We broke the ride with motel stays in Alexandria and Albany, and had shuttle help from Jan’s friend.

Normally when Rich and I bike tour, we avoid bike trails. Too often they are monotonous and skirt the towns which we enjoy exploring. But this combination of trails was an exception to that rule. Following old railroad beds, we rode through towns where old train depots once dispatched passengers. Now instead, we were greeted by tall grain elevators and could stop to investigate the local sights.

Throughout the ride, Jan photographed while I snapped iPhone shots and took mental notes. Nothing stopped Jan from getting a creative vantage point, and re-do’s were common, sometimes raising the eyebrows of curious onlookers.

In the evenings, I felt that familiar fatigue that comes of spending all day on a bike. The satisfying sense of accomplishment, the justification for a hearty dinner, the welcome of a soft bed. And the anticipation of doing it all again the next day.

All too soon, we pulled up to our destination and dismounted our bikes for the last time. We had endured 93-degree heat, a flat tire, a chilling headwind, a 66-mile day and saddle-sores. We enjoyed good pavement, the lack of cars, the rolling farmland, nice parks and caffeinating at a cozy coffee shop. All part of the package when bike touring.

It was a great tour, although it wasn’t the same. I missed Rich and couldn’t help but wish for future tours with him once more. But only time will tell that story. For now, it felt good to be back in the saddle.


Look for the Summer 2023 issue of Minnesota Trails Magazine to read the full story and see Jan’s amazing photographs of this tour. The magazine is published quarterly online as well as free print copies available in Minnestoa parks and outdoor shops.

The Lure of the Loop

I am not a newcomer here. Despite a three year gap, I come laden with memories and expectations from two prior stays at the base of the Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Escaping a winter that just won’t quit, the constant sunshine and warmth were the natural draw. But to me, that is only the backdrop for my cycling plans. I already know, I will head straight to The Loop.

Tucson’s vast expanse of paved bike trails top the “washes” where flood waters are funneled during the rainy season. The Loop accounts for 131 miles of off-road trail, including a 55-mile long route that circles the city. I crossed that off my to-do list last time we were here, so instead I turn my focus to the three River Parks that radiate out from a central connecting point. Each has a distinct personality, which guides my selection each time I set out.

My biking routes over our 2-week stay

Our location in the Oro Valley is at the top of La Cañada del Oro River Park. Within a mile, I join the trail that I consider “my home trail.” I traverse this 12-mile trail down and back each time I seek out a route to cycle. Rich rolls his eyes, at my willingness to pedal 30-40 miles to explore each time I set out. But the terrain is flat, the pavement remarkably smooth, the cycling is easy and I’m just tickled to be out in the warm sunshine.

La Cañada del Oro heads southwest through suburban areas that exude prosperity. At the top, the rugged mountain peaks remain in close proximity, a tireless sight. Two golf courses flank the trail, spilling nice landscaping onto the sidelines and spawning narrow bridges to usher golf carts to the holes on the opposite side. An artsy park is a popular spot and a handy parking area for cyclists. And the path takes to the flats with a windy course flanked by desert shrubs, wildlife and birds. Before I know it, I’m alongside massive poles with netting to enclose Top Golf, with three decks of golf stations. That signals my approach to a decision point.

Turning to the right takes me to Santa Cruz River Park North. After enduring some industrial development, it leads to the flowing Santa Cruz River. Green lush trees and bushes line the banks of the river and the sound of flowing water is both a surprise and a treat. Cycling alongside this oasis I want it to continue forever, but the trail moves away and into local neighborhoods. I cycle behind houses for miles – most protected from view by stone walls – with desert scrub on the opposite side. More eye candy appears with the El Rio preserve and a seasonal lake. Another range of mountains looms close by. Like all my River Park routes, it’s an out-and-back proposition.

In the opposite direction, Santa Cruz River Park South is probably the most remote of the trails – at least for the portion I cycle. It starts with open pit digging of some kind, then takes off in a wilderness area where the trail quietly follows the wash down both sides. It passes Sweetwater Wetlands Park, popular for birding. But until it reaches the heart of the city, it remains quiet and unpopulated. I can cycle on autopilot through that section.

I’ve left my favorite for last, Rilitto River Park. This appears to be the most popular trail, with paths on both sides of the wash and there are plenty of walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying it at all times of the day. The south side is less populated, and has some fun artwork and landscaping along the way. The north side has numerous parks, playgrounds and ball fields that draw families. And the Ren Coffeehouse is a popular stopping spot for cyclists. Rilitto Park hosts a Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and I happened to be there on Bike to the Farmers Market Day. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to peruse the farm and ethnic foods on offer.

I took my last bike ride this morning, finishing with another pass on both sides of Rilitto. My new bicycle bell came in handy, dinging each time I passed a pedestrian or bike. It made me smile each time it rang, and garnered a wavy from those on the path. Tomorrow we leave to head back to the cold Northland. But I’m already looking forward to another visit, knowing I will be lured back to The Loop.

A Gap in our Streak

We all have Covid Stories. You know the litany – because of Covid I couldn’t do this, or travel there, or see so-and-so. Covid interrupted our lives, our routines and broke our winning streaks. But life went on.

In my case, the streak ended just shy of 30. Every year since 1993, my friend Susan and I have escaped our husbands, kids, work, stress and life to spend several days plying the ski trails by day, and sharing our woes, our dreams, our successes and failures in front of a fireplace by night. Until last year.

Those early years we felt so rebellious. The whole idea was born of a need for equal time, payback for the fishing weekend our husbands shared every fall. It was our turn to hand off the kids and venture off into the wilderness. Susan was pregnant with her second child, and I left three at home. It was ground-breaking, escaping before the days of cell phones, out of reach, out of touch on the shores of Lake Superior. And wonderful.

1993 at the Stone Hearth Inn B&B

How well I remember the middle years. We were both in management, working in IT balancing the technical aspects our of careers while getting mired in people management, motivation and leadership. Living in the Cities at the time, we had a long drive to our chosen ski lodgings up the North Shore, hours we used to shed our challenges, our anxieties, and especially our frustrations. Speeding through the darkness, we peeled away layers of pent-up emotions, leaving them on the floor of the car when we arrived. The same topics would resurface over our après-ski wine and cheese, but the tone softened with each passing evening. We were not alone.

2002 Celebrating 10 years at Old Shore Beach B&B

Our kids grew up, our careers shifted paths, and the busy-ness of our lives moderated, slightly. We grappled with thoughts of retirement, of life after work, of building new homes away from the Twin Cities. The life changes that awaited us were ample fodder for our time together, and we allowed ourselves to extend our outing to longer weekend trips. The guys’ fishing trip had long since met its demise, but we clung fiercely to our annual tradition. We continued to see one another through life. Listening and supporting.

2010 at Skara Brae B&B

Retirement has brought increased freedom, allowing us to move to week-day trips. We’re more willing to splurge on our lodgings these days, to grant ourselves some extra comforts. But little else has changed, and despite now living far apart the bond of friendship rekindles the minute we pull away with a car full of skis, food and gear. A comfortable companionship.

2017 at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

I’m not exactly sure how we chose cross-country skiing as the basis for these escapes, but it has remained a constant throughout our trips. Year after year we’d glide through the woods, losing ourselves in the silence of the sport. Our paces often didn’t always match up, but it didn’t matter. We’d drift apart, deep in thought, one of us waiting down the trail to regroup. For all the talking we did at night, we let our brains percolate on their own in the midst of the cold and snow. Most trips we racked up the kilometers all day long, returning to our digs pleasantly worn out, chilled and ready for the fire.

2009 Mukwonago Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails

From the very start, my ritual was to get up for an early morning ski before breakfast. Eager to push myself, I’d head out the door in all conditions. Susan joined me in the initial years, and on one memorable occasion we skied up to a ridge on the North Shore where we had a grand view of Lake Superior. We then plummeted back down to our B&B just in time for the sumptuous breakfast that awaited. We walked through the door, faces bordering on frostbite, eye lashes crusted with ice crystals and fingers that hardly moved. It wasn’t long after that when Susan elected to spend those early morning hours painting instead. But I persevered. I balanced the frequent brutal conditions with skiing as the sun rose, being the first out on freshly groomed trails and breathing in the tranquility.

2008 A foggy morning at Maplelag Resort
2003 Susan painting at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

Perhaps it was the gap that urged us to look back and take stock of our accumulation of shared experiences. Just as our lives have changed throughout the last 30 years, so have our outlooks. We still eagerly pack up our skis, and look forward to time spent in the woods. Skiing remains the focus of this annual excursion but we don’t feel the same pressure to pack it in as we did during our working years.

“I think I’m getting wimpy,” I confessed to Susan on the drive up the shore. “I just don’t relish going out in those cold, sub-zero temperatures anymore.” She nodded. “And I’m not keen on skiing crusty snow, or steep downhills on a twisty trail.” My confidence is waning. I now prefer soft new snow with good grip and staying in control. Susan put it differently. “I call it being selective. We’ve earned the right to make different choices.”

2022 Ready to ski the Sugarbush Trails

We embraced this new attitude over a cozy breakfast in our trail-side cabin at Bearskin Lodge the next morning, as we monitored the thermometer, waiting for it to cross zero. The following day we chose to start our day snowshoeing through the deep snow in the woods. The recent snowstorm and grooming delivered ski conditions to my exact specifications, and the sun shone down in a deep blue sky as if to endorse the perfection as we glided down the tracks each day. Being able to walk out the door to over 70 kilometers of trails afforded me plenty of opportunity to continue skiing, even when Susan had reached her fill and retreated to the Lodge. Proving we have acquired the wisdom to pursue our own passions.

2022 Morning snowshoe at Bearskin Lodge
2022 Molly skiing around Flour Lake
2022 The evening ritual by the fire

Next year will be our 30th trip, and there is no doubt we will go. We will still pack up our skis, dream of the solitude on the trails, communing with winter and pushing our bodies in the great outdoors. But we will also have the grace afforded by age, to give ourselves options. To make different choices, because we can. And it’s infinitely better than another gap in our streak.

Good Advice on Mt. Rainier

We left well before dawn, the hatch brimming with equipment, a cooler humming in the back seat and sipping Starbucks lattes. As we exited the city and ventured down narrower lanes, the sky brightened to a clear blue and Mt. Rainier rose majestically in the early morning light. Beckoning to us.

Arriving just as the gate opened, we reached the parking lot among the throng of outdoor adventurers eager to be the first ones up the mountain. In the warmth of the sunshine, skis, poles, boots, snowshoes, and backpacks littered the ground and cheerful chatter punctuated the air of excitement.

Erik, Katie and I carried our snowshoes to the trail entrance where we strapped them on. We were hardly alone, joining the long column of people stretching out ahead of us, trekking up the trail – we dubbed it The Great Mt. Rainier Migration. All destined for Panorama Point or beyond, high above.

Snowshoeing in the mountains, I had envisioned thick powdery snow through narrow tree-lined paths. But here was a wide open expanse encompassing open fields, glaciers, rocky outcroppings and clusters of pines, all gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The snow was more than well packed, and I was thankful for the metal teeth and firm grip of my snowshoes.

I was most intrigued by those who were ski mountaineering. With thick skins on their skis, many were shuffling their skills uphill. Others chose to strap a ski on each side of their backpacks, forming a peak over their heads as they trudged with crampons on their boots. We seemed to be in the minority choosing snowshoes.

As we advanced, so did the steepness of the slope. When we got to the true climb, I gladly accepted the trekking poles Erik had brought along. I learned to punch with my toes then step up and repeat. The surface was as slippery as it was firm, and I was grateful when Erik positioned himself behind me – just in case. We commiserated with those around us, marveling at the icy slope and encouraging one another. By this time, the skiers had all removed their skis.

Step by step I moved upward. A slow and careful process, never looking down, only just at the spot in front of me where I might punch my next set of metal teeth. Up ahead Katie had already scrambled to the top, nimble in her youth and fitness. Never once did I allow myself to think about the return trip. About how I was going to navigate that sliding hill in reverse. I lived fully in the present, elated to be doing this, committed to making it.

And then we were there. Standing atop Panorama Point, buffeted by heavy wind threatening to blow me over, soaking in the warm sunshine and the view of peaks in every direction. Mt. Rainier in all its splendor.

We considered our options for going back down, but the alternate routes were sparsely populated and we took that as a sign. Better to be among the masses then off on our own. Still steeling myself from thinking about it, I followed Erik and Katie back over the edge. Back onto the slick slope. Inch by inch.

“Say, I’d wait if I were you.”

We turned to find an athletic young man fully outfitted with mountaineering equipment and skis.

“It’s still too icy to go down now. Wait for the sun to soften the snow first. It will be a lot safer then.”

The wisdom of his words took only seconds to absorb and we quickly retreated to the top, calling out our thanks. Surely, this was a scenic spot for our lunch. Scouting out a perch that might provide some protection from the wind we prepared to settle in.

Our friend soon returned.

“Oh, and when you go down – take off your snowshoes and punch your heels into the snow. That will work much better.”

We weren’t alone in dithering over which was the best way down, and we shared laughs with other snowshoers over the options and myriad pieces of advice. But time and sunshine proved our best friends, and the heel-punch method took us right down the softened slope. In fact, by following in the boot-steps of others it was almost like walking down stairs in the pocked snow.

With our climb completed, we still had an afternoon of exploring left. The wide open expanses gave us limitless options for meandering, and I relaxed into the aimless wandering and endless views. By that time, the ski mountaineers were descending the slopes, the best of them carving precise squiggles through virgin snow. A show in itself.

With the temperature soaring and the snow softening, the mountain became a playground. Families built snow forts, kids romped on snowshoes, the adventurous set up tents and boy scouts dug snow caves for spending the night. We found narrow unpopulated trails to explore and stretched our time until gate-closing loomed. The ideal capstone to our day.

We left with that good tired feeling, faces flushed with the sun and wind, the joy of spending time with family and reveling in God’s nature. And the luck of getting good advice.

It’s Been a While

“Would you like to bike to Lakes Park with me?” Rich asked.

On the surface it was a simple question. It’s a nice park about six miles from our AirBnB in Ft. Myers. The route is totally flat, with bike trail all the way. The afternoon was sunny and warm, inviting for an outdoor activity.

For eight years we bike toured at least once a year, usually for up to a month at a time, covering around 1,000 miles. Hopping on our bikes together was ingrained in our retirement lifestyle. When we weren’t touring, we were still out there training or just staying in shape. We took it for granted.

But yesterday’s question was not simple. It carried a depth of meaning that was not lost on me. Since Rich’s open-heart surgery over a year ago, he has been fighting his way back to health and persistently pushing to increase his endurance. He no longer takes anything for granted. Nor do I.

I couldn’t remember the last time we biked together. I looked it up in my sports tracking app. The answer – August 31, 2020. That was just over a month before his heart took him down on the trail. Back when there were signs that we missed, when workouts were harder for him but we had no idea why. When we blamed it on getting older. Yet he persevered, and we went on a nice ride in Grand Marais. I didn’t know it would be our last for so long.

Throughout his recovery, Rich insisted he had to fight his own battles. Overcome his demons on his own. He doggedly went out trail running and passed the spot where he went down, his recovering heart pounding as hard as it could as the haunting memory swept over him. He got back on his bike when the weather warmed, walking the hills when he didn’t have the stamina to pedal up them. “Slow and steady” was his mantra. Each time I offered to go with him, I got the same response. “I have to conquer this on my own.” Admittedly, sometimes I set out for my own ride on the same route a little later, just to reassure myself he was still upright, on his way home.

Rich was told that the mental game would be just as hard as the physical side of his recovery. Not knowing how much his body has left to give and the extent of his long-term prospects for active sports has been hard.

Facing all this has clouded my horizon as well. Rich’s uncertainties leave me feeling adrift. What does all this mean for our future? Our mutual love of outdoor active pursuits hangs in limbo. It used to be a no-brainer to dream up vacations that revolved around cross-country skiing, canoeing, kayaking, cycling and hiking. How much of that remains within our reach? It’s understandable that Rich’s interest may wane with his abilities. The gulf between our abilities has plunged us into uncharted territory.

And the big question still looms: Will we ever be able to resume bike touring? I still long for those days in the saddle, grappling with weather conditions, the incredible views from the seats of our bikes, the wonderful people we meet along the way, and the sense of empowerment from traveling under own own steam. I can’t accept that it’s the end just yet. Only time will tell.

Rich’s question really marked a milestone. For the first time, he was willing to share his ride. Which really meant sharing his new reality. Riding with him would allow me to personally witness his capabilities.

Cycling down the driveway, I settled into place behind him, allowing him to set the pace and curbing my urge to forge ahead – an issue even in normal times. The sense of familiarity and normalcy was overwhelming, yet I recognized it as a gift. I was also impressed. Rich kept up a good pace, better than I anticipated. Clearly his efforts were paying off.

When Google misled us on the distance to the park, and the round-trip turned out to be closer to 16 miles than 12, I could see Rich tiring on the way home. He doggedly pushed his pedals to complete the ride, and still carried his bike up the 16 steps to our 2nd floor abode. But not without a cost. I witnessed the weakness imposed by his heart. A good lesson, grounding me.

But the ride held more significance. It was a measure of just how far he’s come. More and more often, I hear Rich utter “I never could have done that a few months ago.” Which I take as a good omen for the future. For our future. He’s fighting a good fight and winning. I’m already looking forward to our next bike ride. This time I don’t expect it to be such a long while.

Sunrise Cycling

With the onset of fall, the days seem to shorten at an alarming speed. At this northern latitude, by the fall equinox we tip the balance to more darkness than light each day. By now we are already down to just 9 1/2 hours with the sun above the horizon.

I mourn the dim mornings which push out my morning workout routine. On cycling days, I wait impatiently until I have just barely enough light to see in front of my bicycle – typically about a half hour before sunrise.

Absent the sun, there is a definite chill in the air. I layer on warm clothes, pull booties over my cycling shoes and don my Happy Hat under my helmet. Ski lobster gloves and a buff complete the ensemble. I shiver as I coast downhill, absent the heat-generating pedaling I need to stay warm. But soon that all fades into the background.

By the time I reach Superior Street, I get my first glimpse. The sky begins to widen, and color radiates above the trees. I can’t wait to get to the shore to see the full effect, and I’m richly rewarded by the time I reach London Road. The sun is still low enough to generate rich colors that bounce off the clouds, paint their undersides and send reflections across Lake Superior.

My favorite stretch is from the Lakewalk tunnel through the newly completed path through Brighton Beach. Despite the cold, I have to stop, straddle my bike and pull off one glove to take pictures. I am compelled to record this majesty.

But the real impact is more personal. I can’t help but be thankful for the beauty of Nature. The sense of wonder fills me with gratitude. How lucky I am to be out here, fit enough to be cycling, able to witness God’s handiwork, healthy enough to do this day after day, and to live in close proximity to Lake Superior’s many moods. A day that starts like this just has to be good.

No two mornings are the same. As I flick through my photos, the words that come to mind are Fire and Ice. The brilliant red-orange mornings are balanced by more subtle blues and purples turning the lake a cold steely gray.

When the sun finally makes its fiery entrance, the show moves quickly. It doesn’t take long before its radiance overpowers the scene. Dawn has arrived, colors fade and light begins to bathe the world.

The warmth of those powerful rays eases my way up the shore, reviving my fingers and toes, glowing on my face. I’m not sure how long I can keep up this fall routine. But for now, each day I make it out for sunrise cycling is a gift.

Kayak To Go

It’s not easy being small. I can’t reach half the shelves in my kitchen, and even carrying my toddler grandchildren can prove a challenge. So the idea of hoisting a kayak overhead to perch in a rack on top of my car is a non-starter. Which is a problem.

In my old age I have decided I need more independence. Perhaps it’s COVID, prompting me to find ways to enjoy outdoor recreation on my own, without relying on anyone else to make it happen. My activity of choice is kayaking, which is fine if I’m at the cabin, content to drag our weighty boat down to the dock and plunk it in the lake. But what about further exploration? New lakes to discover, shorelines to cruise, rivers to reconnoiter. There has to be a way.

With a little searching, I learn that there are two options: an “origami” folding kayak and an inflatable kayak. The first offers lightweight, high performance vessels with a hefty price tag. Not my bag. The second has a wide range of choices, from an oversized floatie to tough white-water models. I focus my research on something in the middle and soon zero in on Advanced Elements kayaks. Offering high quality inflatable materials with a strong fabric covering is a good start, but they also feature built-in aluminum ribs in the bow and stern to provide tracking that rivals a hard-shell kayak. It doesn’t take long to narrow my selection down to the AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak. At 10’5″ in length and a mere 26 pounds that packs into a carrying case that is 30″ x 17″ x 8″ I know I’ve found my kayak. The next model up has a few more bells and whistles, but packs another 10 pounds. This time it pays to be small – the sport version is enough for me.

But what about set-up and take-down? Will I spend all day on the shore just getting the thing ready for my adventure? A few YouTube videos calm my fears – it looks to be pretty slick. I press Add to Cart, throw in a double-action hand pump and wait for it to arrive.

My timing is not ideal. Early November is not the best season in the far north to venture out in a kayak. Especially when the nearest body of water is the largest of our Great Lakes, and extremely cold. But the weather gods look upon me with favor.

As the sun begins its descent on a clear afternoon in the 60s, I take my new kayak up to McQuade Harbor for its maiden voyage. A short trial run. As advertised, the kayak unfolds easily and I make quick work of pumping it up. About two minutes to fill the main chamber, followed by another minute for the floor. Half a pump inflates each of the deck risers and I’m good to go! In total, less than 15 minutes from the back of my car to water readiness.

Molly pumping her kayak

I’m delighted to find low docks in the safe harbor where I can slip my kayak into the water and ease myself into the cockpit. It takes only a few swift strokes with my paddle and I already know that it feels like a “real” kayak. Even when I venture outside the breakwaters into the Big Lake, the boat takes the mild waves well and tracks nicely along the shoreline. It feels good.

Molly's first time in the kayak
Molly kayaking McQuade Harbor

Deflating the kayak proves to be equally easy. And it folds into its case with room to spare. I’m impressed with any manufacturer that understands that at the end of my excursion I’m not interested in fighting with my kayak to wrangle it into a tight space.

Kayak folded in case

Two days hence, flat water and warm sunshine beckon. I won’t get another chance this year, so I tote my kayak down to the mouth of Lester River. No dock this time, only a rock beach so I gingerly float my kayak in the shallow water, wade out and climb in. I find I don’t need more than a few inches to clear the rocks and soon I’m skimming across the calm water.

I’ve been waiting years for this moment. I grew up in this fine city of Duluth, always admiring the houses on London Road with prime real estate on Lake Superior. Ten years ago we moved back here, and I’ve been dying to see what those houses look like from the water. Today I’m going to find out.

Molly kayaking Lake Superior

Houses are mirrored in the calm water as I cruise by. Even within a short distance, I find a huge variation in the backyard shoreline. Some homes boast lawns that slope gently down to an accessible pebble beach – definitely among the elite minority of landscapes. More often the yards meet a steep drop at the water’s edge. Some cliffs defy access, leaving homeowners with a splendid view but the inability to touch the water that laps or pummels their shore. In between are a myriad of inventive approaches. Ancient walls of stone, brand new cement retaining walls, enormous boulders holding back the lake’s fury – all in desperation to hang on to the land that the lake would like to claim. Where a bit of beach lies at the base of the cliff, homeowners exhibit great ingenuity with ladders, steps and guardrails to guide them down.

Kayaking shore by London Road

I’m fascinated by the rear view of the homes. Windows stretch across wide expanses, decks stretch across, stories climb high, all to take in the lake’s beauty. Old gazebos and small bath houses occasionally populate the shore, echoes of the golden days in which they were erected. And I paddle past the granddam of estates, Glensheen Mansion.

Kayaking by Glensheen Mansion

Homes give way to high-rises, as the senior care center and apartments loom above the waters. My arms begin to tire, I feel a twinge in my elbow and my legs tell me they have been static for too long. But still I press on. I pass the expanse of ledge rock I scrambled over this summer, pursuing my grandchildren who are far more nimble than I.

Highrises on the shore

The Aerial Lift Bridge taunts me from afar. In my dreams I would journey down to the stately structure and ply the waters between the piers to pass under the roadway. But I will leave that for another day. Turning my fine craft around, I retrace my route and examine the homes once again, from modest to grand standing shoulder to shoulder on this Big Lake.

Having dipped my paddle into the world of exploring new waters, I sense it is only the beginning. I beach my kayak knowing we will make a great combo. Me and my kayak to go.

My kayak at Lester River

Hello Strava

My daughter talked me into it. “You should be on Strava, Mom.” That’s all I need. Another app to check on my phone. More posts to read. One more place where I feel compelled to keep up with others. I’ve already pulled back from FaceBook, only perusing my feed now and then.

“You can see our workouts,” she said. “Complete with maps and pictures.” All my kids are on Strava. Karen’s strength and cardio classes. Carl running with the stroller to day care every morning. Erik’s uber rollerski and hill bounding training for the Birkie. “And you can follow Uncle Will as he roams the countryside to find outrageous mountain bike trails.” Now that would be entertaining.

I have to admit, I fit the profile. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t run, bike, swim or ski. Each athletic activity diligently tracked by the Garmin GPS watch on my wrist, uploaded the moment I get home so I can view, analyze and relish my progress. I begin to weaken.

Creating a free account, I link my Garmin and that’s all it takes. Suddenly, every move I make finds its way to Strava. Instantly. I find my kids and follow them. They find me and give me kudos. And there’s Will – way up in Copper Harbor! I see their routes, their speed, pictures and the descriptions they add. Kind of fun, actually.

It’s the pictures that draw me in. It’s no longer enough to lace up my shoes or fling my leg over my bike. I want to capture the moment with my buddies. Like that walk I took with my sister, Susie.

Molly Susie Lakewalk

Cycling up the shore, I always enjoy the scenery but now I am hyper vigilant. I’m eager to catch that brilliant sunrise, the red sky, the sun’s glow across the water.

Brighton Beach sunrise 1
Brighton Beach sunrise 2

I watch as the early morning sun illuminates the fall colors, intensifying their golden hues.

Morning fall colors on the shore

I search for good views, the right angles, the best timing.

Skyline cycling
Hawk Ridge hiking

Yes, it interrupts the flow of my cycling but I ask myself, what’s the hurry? I find new joy in the scenery that flies by, even if I’ve seen it dozens of times.

I know Strava was meant to inspire my workouts, drive some competition with others, give me ideas for new routes. And it perhaps it will. But for now it’s opening my eyes to the world around me as I run, walk, hike and cycle. Adding dimension to my exercise regimen. Broadening my view. It may even get me to slip my good camera around my neck or into my bike bag.

Hello Strava. Glad to be here.

Strava screen

I Love this Ride

As I strained against my bicycle pedals while advancing up the hill, debate raged in my head.  Rounding the corner I asked myself, should I or shouldn’t I?  Nearing the turn I pondered anew – what to do?

In my well ordered world, I would continue on with my planned early morning bike ride/workout.  I would complete my 30 miles, finish my breakfast toast slathered with peanut butter en route to the coffee shop, then perch on the front porch with a medium skim latte and write for several hours.  It’s what I do.

But possibility lurked.  It was a mild clear morning with the sun just rising, and the brilliant leaves told me they were approaching prime.  Not quite there yet, but the weather forecast promised ugly conditions for the next week.  The leaves might not outlast the ugly.

I had yet to perform my annual ritual. At least once a year I take a ride across the city of Duluth, perched on the hilltop following Skyline Drive with the harbor and lake far below.  This would be the perfect day to do so.  But it wasn’t in my plan.  And I always follow my plan.  Or do I?

I turned left.  Never mind that I had only a half full water bottle for a 40+ mile ride.  So what if my usual granola bar stash was in my other bike bag?  Forget the fact that my map of this route was in the same place.  I had to go for it.

Whizzing along in the early morning sunlight, the air alternated between hot humid blasts that fogged my glasses and the more habitual chilly air.  I felt loose and free.  The writing will wait.  The story will still get done.  I was doing something for myself, and it  felt good.

I had a good 20 mile ride through the countryside just to get to the opposite side of town.  But even that blossomed with fall colors.  They were all around me.  It’s what I had come for.

Fall colors Lavaque Road

Reaching the Information Center at Thompson Hill marked the beginning of Skyline Drive.  From there, the scenic drive snaked across the crest of the hill, weaving back and forth in a rolling ride through forests of fall colors.  My pace took a nosedive as I continually stopped to snap pictures, to gawk, to appreciate.

Skyline Drive fall colors 1 Skyline Drive fall colors 2 Skyline Drive fall colors 3 Skyline Drive fall colors 4

Normally, the appeal of Skyline is the view.  The panoramic spread of the St. Louis River, the harbor and Lake Superior is visible from multiple overlooks and is a real-life geography lesson.  But not today.  Blue smoky haze from the western wildfires hovered over the scene.  Across the water, Wisconsin was a blur.  The horizon erased.  The flat water on this calm day stretched into nothingness.  All of it was eclipsed by the vivid scenery in my immediate vicinity.

With one exception.  The quintessential Duluth experience – a thousand-foot ore boat was inching its way out of the harbor and making its final turn to pass under the Aerial Bridge.  In my “why not?” state of mind, I had all the time in the world to wait for it. Even if it resembled the scene from a faded black and white movie.

Ore boat approaching the bridge

Skyline Drive dumps out unceremoniously at the gates of UMD, and I dutifully skirted the campus.  But even that had its rewards, as I passed the flaming maples of Bagley Nature Area abutting a student parking lot.

The final stretch took me across Hawk Ridge where I bumped along the dirt road amid a gaggle of bird watchers observing the migration.  Then I twirled down Seven Bridges Road through a tunnel of gold – home territory and the terminus of my own driveway.

How glad I am that I followed my yearnings.  That I heeded the siren call and threw my plans to the wind.  And relished this last gasp of warm colorful weather.  Throughout it all, the same chorus kept repeating in my head: Oh, how I love this ride!  

Farvel Norge

It was an alien feeling. Walking down the jetway in Copenhagen in 81 degrees of sunshine felt like a blast furnace. Just the day before it was 42 degrees when we awoke in the Norwegian Arctic.

Clearly my head was on bike touring when I made my packing list. I brought every layer of warm bike clothes I owned. I didn’t think very clearly about our post-bike adventures in the far north. I looked on with envy at the passengers on Hurtigruten, snug in their quilted jackets, hats and gloves. Thankfully, hunkering down in my layers of cycling clothes was nearly as good. I admit to feeling silly in my sandals. In fact, in four weeks in Norway, where sturdy hiking shoes are the norm, I only saw one other person in sandals besides the two of us. And he was wearing socks. Okay, so I resorted to the same measure of desperation.

Norway and especially its islands are reputed to be wet. After 16 days of cycling in near perfect sunshine and moderate temperatures, I could hardly argue with cloudy skies and a few showers once we were off the bicycles. Our timing was impeccable. I could easily deal with cold and damp from the protected environs of the ship. And after all, it wasn’t too far removed from a typical Duluth summer.

The remoteness and low population density of Norway also reminded me of Northern Minnesota. With one big exception – the mountains. They were everywhere, a constant backdrop to the coastal views, the picturesque fishing villages, the harbor scenes and even sandy beaches. Ranging from towering rocky peaks to softer tundra mounds and sheer cliffs, I never grew tired of them.

We just missed the last day of the midnight sun. But we still had 18 hours of sunlight each day accompanied by near light on each end. Sunsets lingered forever, as the sun reluctantly retreated toward the horizon. On the flip side, the length and quality of my sleep depended on the effectiveness of that night’s blackout curtains.

Breakfast was always included in our lodgings, and consistently meant a breakfast buffet that rarely varied in its offerings. Skipping over the cold fish, meats, cheeses and relishes that are Norwegian staples I’d head straight for the fresh loaves of hearty warm bread, wrapped in a cotton cloth just waiting for me to cut a thick slice or two. A bowl of muesli – not to be confused with granola – soaked with milk and topped with raisins and almonds would hold me long into the afternoon. Sweet options were noticeably absent.

At dinner time I was in my element. As a fish lover married to a solid meat eater, I relished the opportunity to indulge my tastes. I made it a point to order fish every evening, which wasn’t hard given the ubiquitous coastline and fishing industry of Norway. I’m rather proud of my record, eating meat only 4 times for dinner. And three of those were evenings when we had set menus.

If there’s anything I’m looking forward to eating at home, it’s fresh fruits and vegetables. We rarely had them beyond a few offerings at breakfast, and leafy salads as we know them did not exist. Beyond that, I admit to having a hankering for a thick chewy chocolate chip cookie.

Our travels often reveal a favorite drink of the day. This trip we discovered pear cider. Already fans of hard cider, we quickly adapted to this local variation. The cold slightly fizzy brew went down easily after a long day of cycling.  Or just sightseeing.

We certainly never had to worry about being connected. No matter how remote the town or how modest our lodgings, we nearly always had free WiFi. Even on board the ship, it came with our passage.  You won’t find that on any cruise ship!

Norwegians do love their bicycles. City centers were full of them. Kids all ride them to school, just as their parents cycle to work. Bike trails are the norm, both in town where they are shared with pedestrians, and out in the countryside. And colorful bikes posing as flower pots adorn many front yards.

Three flights down and two to go before we reach home. Flicking through my photos I’m already feeling nostalgic. Savoring the memories.  Here’s a favorite.

Farewell Norway!