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

 

The Fitness Geek

There is a fine line between passion and obsession.  Sometimes the only difference is who is describing the behavior.  My passion for exercise and fitness is hardly a secret.  A day without pushing my body makes me feel lazy and crabby.  Rich knows.  He calls it obsession.

Second only to the activity itself is my compulsion to track it all.  The notes on a small calendar have long since been replaced by a Garmin GPS watch and SportTracks on my PC.  Through the wonders of technology I can see at a glance just how many miles I have run and cycled and the kilometers I have skied over the days, week, and years.  It’s beautiful.  I thought I had it all.  Until my birthday.

Recognizing that I couldn’t track my lap swimming with my Garmin, Rich gave me a Moov Now device.  The little red button slips into a flexible rubbery band and is totally waterproof.  I failed to see how it could track my swimming, but gave it a try.  I downloaded the app on my phone,  paired it with my device and pressed “start” while still in the locker room.  Doubt lingered.  I barely felt the light band around my wrist as I swam back and forth, back and forth.  Ok, for 2 miles in the pool.

Moov Highlights

After showering, I retrieved my phone and clicked End.  When the data finished downloading from that red button, I took a gander.  Wow.  It knew everything.  It knew exactly when I started swimming, what stroke I was swimming, how many laps I’d done (2 more than I thought), how long it took me for each flip turn, how much time I was actually stroking, and when I finished.  It would have recorded rest time, if I’d had any.  Averages were calculated for stats I couldn’t even recognize.  

Moov Laps

It was almost creepy.  But not enough to stop me from studying the results.    From the lap by lap graph, I could see how my flip turns took longer near the end – documenting that slight pause I knew I was taking as I tired.  My Distance Per Stroke average was below the “ideal range” so it gave me two paragraphs of coaching advice for improving my efficiency.  At its most basic level, it kept me honest if I lost track of my laps.

I had no idea technology had advanced so far.  I’ve lived without all this data for years.  I don’t really need it all, but still…  It’s pretty cool.  How can a techno geek resist?  Now I wonder what it can do for my other activities…

But that wasn’t all.  Removing more gift wrap revealed a pair of spur clips for my running shoes, with LED lights.  I couldn’t even feel them when I ventured out in the dark on my next pre-dawn run.  But Rich said he could see me all the way down our pitch black road.  Hating my safety vest, I immediately took to these glowing wonders.  And I sure got noticed on the Lakewalk.Molly with shoe lights

I was impressed.  These were real winners.  So Rich confessed that he had help.    Entering something like “gifts for runners” in Amazon’s search box brought up a wealth of options for the fitness obsessed.  I guess I don’t really care what he calls it.  This fitness geek loves her new toys.

Gliding Again

Fickle winter.  It teases us with cold weather but fails to deliver on the snow.  It wreaks havoc with my motivation and my love of the outdoors.  My identity as a cross-country skier is in shambles.

For weeks I have been unable to get excited about skiing.  I can’t drag myself across the street to ski on trails that are barely covered, and I convince myself that I’d rather go running anyway.  Despite slipping and sliding on the icy or snow-clogged Lakewalk, I take refuge in the familiar.  I just can’t get over the hurdle to embrace skiing instead.

But the recent snowfall engineered a shift.  It actually looks and feels like winter.  Distant memories return.  Suddenly I feel the draw of the trails.  The pull of a new blanket of snow.  The sun filtering through the trees and glinting off the soft white powder.  The crisp air brushing my cheeks.  It is mine for the taking.  This time I can’t help but answer the call.

On mySkiing ungroomed Lester first foray into the woods I discover that I beat the groomer to the trails.  Instead of crisp firm corduroy, I find soft untouched snow with a packed base not far beneath.  All sounds are muffled by this new fallen splendor.  The hush quiets my mind as the powder slows my skis.  I am moving in slow motion, but it makes no difference.  For once it’s not about the pace, it is all about the experience.

Lester on groomed trails

Day two and I’m eager to return.  The groomer has worked its magic in my absence.  I am early enough to enjoy some virgin terrain, cutting my own diagonal slices through the sculpted surface.  The tall pines still wear their mantle of white and the forest floor is a series of soft undulating mounds pocked with occasional animal tracks.  Whether real or imagined, the air feels fresher than ever.

I knew there was a reason I loved winter, I’d just forgotten what it was.  I’m glad to be out gliding again.

Cycling, After the Rain

Sometimes it’s worth conceding to Mother Nature.  Life is a lot more pleasant if you work with her, rather than trying to bend her will to suit a preconceived plan.  Fortunately, I figured that out this week.

That plan was to cycle the Paul Bunyon Trail and do some hiking in the Walker area with my friend Myra.  But two solid days of rain in the forecast were enough to put us off.  We cancelled our motel reservation and instead took advantage of sunny days later in the week for some superb local cycling.

Our first outing took us across Duluth from end to end, traveling the full length of Skyline Parkway.  There was a definite chill in the air as we stretched our route by cycling inland to Pike Lake before heading to the far western end of the parkway.  We soon lost our fingers and toes to the frigid conditions, pressing into a brutal headwind.  But it still beat rain.  A warm-up with hot drinks at the Red Goose Coffee Shop restored feeling to our extremities and a change in direction eased the curse of the wind, boosting our spirits.

Myra on Skyline DriveFrom our perch high above the city, we had full view of the harbor below.  Despite the deep blue sky, the water was a distinct brown – no doubt the result of the runoff from the previous two days of heavy rain.  The nascent fall colors were far from peak, but isolated trees of brilliant hues punctuated the landscape.

At Skyline’s opposite end, we traveled along Hawk Ridge.  Flanked by birders peering through their binoculars, we took in the limitless view.  There Lake Superior shone in its full blue glory.  From our elevated perch it was a fast descent home down Seven Bridges Road, hardly requiring a single push on our pedals to complete our 50 mile ride.

Molly and Myra at Hawk's Ridge Myra cycling away from Hawk's RidgePausing for a gloomy day, we mounted our bikes again two days later.  This time we chose the Gitchi-Gami State Trail along the North Shore from Gooseberry Falls to Silver Bay.  Taking advantage of the longest stretch of completed trail, we cycled out and back to double the enjoyment of its pleasures.

It was quite a surprise to see water spouting out from the spring waterfall in the cliffs north of Gooseberry Falls.  Its unseasonal appearance was yet more evidence of the recent wet conditions.

I remembered the trail’s hilly dalliance through Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, as it wound down toward the water and back up again through the woods.  But I was surprised at just how much it undulated throughout the distance of our ride.  We actually preferred that to the flat sameness of the rails-to-trails cycle routes.

At Beaver Bay, we pioneered a brand new section of the Gitchi-Gumi trail.  Spying pristine new blacktop adjacent to road construction still in progress, we took our inaugural ride on a half mile of trail that veered up and inland away from the lake.  A half mile later we joined an existing portion of the trail which took us to Silver Bay.  We found that orphan bit of older trail rather mystifying, as it has been there for several years but apparently started in the middle of nowhere.  Now it serves as a useful connector, completing the three mile stretch between Beaver Bay and Silver Bay.

Myra cycling new trail Trail from Silver BaySince this day’s ride was a mere 32 miles, we chose to top it off with a hike to Gooseberry’s upper falls.  Once again the recent rains were in evidence, filling the river with turbulent rapids and rendering the trail muddy and slippery.  Progress was slow but enjoyable, even if we brought home much of the mud on our hiking shoes.If I wasn’t convinced before, our pleasant sunny bike rides contained ample evidence of the rainfall we avoided. For once, this ultra-planner is glad that she chose to abandon her plans and go with the flow.  Cycling after the rain.

Yellowhead Tour in Retrospect

We’ve seen in all before. It’s the same but different. With the ferry ride back from Haida Gwaii our Yellowhead Cycling Tour is officially complete. We have been reunited with our car and are retracing our route east toward home. As we unravel all the miles we just cycled, it inevitably conjures up reflections.

We actually began retracing our route while still on Haida Gwaii. At the top of the island stands a sign marking Mile 0 for the Yellowhead Highway. Completing the highway was a milestone but not the end. We doubled our pleasure on that stretch, returning to our starting point at the ferry landing.

Yellowhead Mile 0

This is the first time we have driven the exact same route that we cycled. It is an odd sensation, flying over the miles – one hour for each day we spent on our bikes. Our eyes are glued to the road, the sights, the eateries and the lodgings we knew so well at that slower pace. Memories flash by as rapidly as the miles.

In the car, we have far more options. We can chose any restaurant we like, even if it is not on our route. And yet, we find ourselves yearning to revisit our favorites. It is surprising to discover just how well we had chosen when limited to venues in close proximity.

Restaurant stop

As we move rapidly eastward, we are reminded of the day by day changes we witnessed in the topography and population density. Starting our cycling in Prince George, we endured the congestion, heavy trucks, well worn roads and crumbling shoulders that spill out of a good size city. It was a good two days before we shed that density of civilization. The further west across British Columbia we went, the fewer the people. The more dramatic the scenery. The more remote it became. The better the cycling. The Yellowhead transitioned from busy trans-Canada highway to a quiet link between small communities. It was all so very gradual on our bicycles.

Molly roadside
River and mountains

The more western section was clearly our favorite. It had all the top features we value on our cycling tours. Water – passing lakes, following rivers. Scenery – mountains and wilderness. Safety – little traffic, good shoulders and pavement. Our finale on Haida Gwaii elevated all that to greater heights. We loved it as much as everyone said we would. And despite the dire warnings of turbulent ferry crossings, we had calm waters in both directions – much to the relief of my sensitive system.

Morning ply and beach
Morning Loy on ferry

The most stark message that comes through is our extreme good fortune with the weather. In the 15 days of cycling, we had a total of 30 minutes with a rain shower. Each day we reveled in the sunshine and clear skies, knowing it was highly unusual and incredibly good weather luck. And that certainly was true. But it was only part of the story.

All the while we cycled, wildfires were blazing south of us in BC. Now, the smoke from those fires blankets the area. The blue sky and unlimited views that we enjoyed are no longer visible. The mountains are dim shadows in the distance, more an idea than a reality. Even the near hills are obscured as if in fog. The air is thick. The sky a uniform opaque white, despite the fact that it is still a “sunny” day.

Through a sheer happenstance in timing, we had idyllic conditions for the Yellowhead Tour. It could just as easily have gone the other way.

Before and after smoke
Mountains in smoke

In retrospect, we were blessed. We were able to see God’s creation in all it’s pure glory. The Yellowhead Tour is now history. Another one for the memory books.

Molly and Rich Yellowhead Tour

 

The Waters of Haida Gwaii

It didn't take long to get into the relaxed mode of life on Haida Gwaii. With four days and only 70 some miles of paved roads available, there was no reason to hurry. No need to push on to the next locale. Only time to savor the journey. The mood permeated our days. We stopped more and lingered longer. On the out-and-back trip we found different natural attractions in each direction. Not too surprisingly, water became the common theme.

For starters, we had miles of unbroken cycling along the eastern beaches. With the sun pouring down and the tidal pull of blue waters lapping the shore, it was all the scenery I needed. At first, we passed rough and rocky shoreline. Jaggedy dark rocks of medium size covered in calcified barnacles obliterated the sand. The shape of the beachfront changed constantly at the whim of the waves. It looked uninviting to my tender feet. But I admired it from a distance. Biding my time, the beach morphed once again. This time sandy shores beckoned and I called a time-out. The protected spot was quiet and calm. I shed my shoes and socks and the sun-warmed water lapped my feet as I wandered the beach.

Rich cycling Haida Gwaii
Rocky beach
Sandy beach
Molly walking beach

Near that same beach, the Crow's Nest in Tlell was an unexpected find. What showed up on the map was a Post Office. In reality, it had a bakery, light cafe, organic groceries and espresso drinks! Their still warm sausage rolls in flakey pastry hit the spot, especially as we had anticipated a long stretch before finding food. I lingered luxuriously while horses grazed contentedly in a pasture behind me.

Molly at Crows Nest

Coffee shops are a natural magnet when we are cycling. Not only do I get my latte, but frequently we strike up conversations with locals. It was while sipping my brew one day that I met a friendly couple who answered my question about the rocky and sandy beaches. “They are constantly changing,” they explained. The rocks were thrown up on shore by a large storm. Next week they could be swept away again. The swimming area they currently enjoy at high tide may be gone tomorrow.

Crossing the island, we reached the Masset Inlet, a long tidal opening reaching down from the northern coast. Overnighting in Port Clements on its shores, we had ample opportunity to meander its shores and dine overlooking its waters. One of the villagers explained to me how she came to be the third generation to relocate to Haida Gwaii. “Groceries are really expensive here because everything has to be brought in,” she admitted. “But there are no other demands on my pocketbook. There are no malls. I walk the beach for entertainment. And there is such strong community here.” She didn't mind being “cut off” from the rest of the world. Neither did we.

Rich at Yakoun River Pub
Masset Inlet
Port Clements boat

Reaching Masset on the north end, I was especially keen to get to the North Beach and camp there. I also had my heart set on hiking up Tow Hill for its amazing view. Both are iconic sights on Haida Gwaii. But it wasn't to be. The road out there turned to rough gravel for the final eight miles. It was not bicycle friendly for our touring bikes, so I had to let go of that vision. But I didn't give up entirely. Although most of the coast up to that point was privately owned, I stumbled on an opening. A tiny community park had a trail which I couldn't resist following.

Weaving through dark old growth forest, it emerged onto the dunes and beyond lay the beach! The scene before me was entirely different from the east coast. Here was a raging sea. The wind was fierce and waves crashed on a beach strewn with seaweed, shells, rocks and driftwood. I didn't linger long by the water, choosing to retreat to a sheltered spot on the dune where I could observe nature's fury. Although I had blue skies overhead, a low line of fog and clouds rested on the water. Looking to the far end of the beach, it disappeared into the same fog bank. Tow Hill was nowhere to be seen, cloaked in mist. Perhaps it wasn't the best day for camping after all. That salved my disappointment, slightly.

North Beach
Molly at North Beach

The most refreshing water I found was not salty at all. Pure Lake was just a short hike from the road and offered a small stunningly blue lake. My coffee shop friends had mentioned it was warm and good for swimming. Wading through its clear shallow waters was not enough. I just had to take the plunge!

Pure Lake
Molly wading Pure Lake
Molly swim Pure Lake
For our final aquatic encounter we sought out Balance Rock. Precariously perched on a logistically minute corner, it hovers over a flat rock bed that reminded me of Lake Superior's North Shore. The last glacial retreat is credited with leaving this van-sized boulder here.
Balance Rock

Haida Gwaii offers endless opportunities for outdoor pursuits. Fishing, hiking, kayaking, surfing, crabbing and back country camping attract enthusiasts of all kinds, although its remote location ensures that it is never crowded. Our four days and bicycle transport limited us from partaking in these other alluring activities, but I think we did justice to the waters of Haida Gwaii.

 

Intro to Haida Gwaii

“You're going to love Haida Gwaii.” We heard it over and over again as we cycled through British Columbia. Everyone sang its praises, heightening our anticipation for the finale stretch of our Yellowhead Cycling Tour.

Two months ago I'd never heard of the place. While studying our planned route on Google maps, I zoomed in on Prince Rupert and the ferry landing. I thought that was the end of the road for us. But oddly enough, the Yellowhead Highway continued into the water. Seriously? So I followed the dotted line. Out, out, out into the ocean it went, and ended on a group of Islands called Haida Gwaii. There the highway continued another 70 miles to its end. Or beginning. Kilometer zero is at the top of the northernmost island. One quick Google search was all it took to convince me. We had to go there.

Haida Gwaii is about 60 miles off the coast of mainland British Columbia and is made up of two large islands and over 400 additional islands. Graham Island to the north hosts six communities and the final stretch of the Yellowhead Highway. Moresby Island to its south has one community on its north edge. The remainder of the archipelago is wilderness. 4,500 people live on Haida Gwaii, and about half of those are native Haida people. Theirs is a long and difficult history during which their culture and language were nearly wiped out.

Fortunately they have succeeded in reclaiming their heritage which now thrives on these islands. Long known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, in an official Giving Back the Name Ceremony in 2010 the Haida Nation literally returned that name to the Crown to become Haida Gwaii. It means Islands of the People.

Logging, fishing and tourism are the primary means of earning a living. And there is a thriving arts community, creating and selling both traditional and modern art based on native designs.

This land of wilderness surrounded by water with a passionate native culture and community peaked my interest.

My first views of the island were from the ferry then cycling the few miles to the village of Queen Charlotte. It was a small quiet road that meandered along the calm inlet between the two large islands. The first words that came to mind were lush, green, peaceful and natural. I already sensed the slower pace of life. The focus on the outdoors. And the lack of commercialism. I couldn't wait to explore this intriguing land.

We settled into our lodgings which hid behind a veil of flowers. Dinner was on the deck of a small restaurant overlooking the harbor. Boats bobbed in the quiet waters as the sun dipped low. There were no gates to bar us from the docks, so we meandered among the motley collection of fishing and pleasure craft. Moresby beckoned across the water.

Queen Charlotte Harbor sunset 1
Queen Charlotte harbor sunset 2

Morning brought more calm views from our balcony. I should have lingered to soak it up, but I was too anxious to get on my bike to explore the island.

Queen Charlotte lodgings
Balcony view

Cycling on Haida Gwaii would take us from the southern end of Graham Island to the north and back again. We had four days of discovery ahead of us. I'd had enough of an introduction. I was ready to experience the real thing.

Molly cycling Haida Gwaii