When the Sun Shines

The wind whips through the newly sprouted leaves on the trees, their shadows a fluttering dappled pattern on the deck.  Beyond, the sky is that classic deep blue with small cottony puffs floating here and there.  The sun is warm on my face as I type, drinking it all in.  When the sun shines, I have to be out in it.  I’ll endure the dim laptop screen in preference to my superior computer setup inside.  The sunshine is too precious to waste.

One of the greatest benefits of retirement is the loss of distinction between the days.  No longer do we have to confine our activities to weekends.  Nor do we have to take our holidays when the calendar schedules them.  So we took our own Memorial Day Weekend early, based on the weather forecast.  We chose the days when the sun would be shining.

Our first priority was to do some cycling.  Between Rich’s back injury this winter and alternate travels by car and plane this spring, we had yet to cover any significant miles.  Finding that lodging was difficult, even midweek, we chose two 55 mile out-and-back day trips using the cabin as our base.

Mississippi RiverThe first followed the Great River Road from Jacobson to Palisade.  The Mississippi River meandered back and forth in that stretch, greeting us roadside every now and then.  We had the route to ourselves, and reveled in some wildlife sightings.   A deer crossed in front of us, followed by a wolf.  He paused to give Rich at Palisade Cafeus a glance but resumed his original pursuit.  A skunk stopped me abruptly, blocking my path down the shoulder.  I felt it was not worth risking his wrath to pass.  Rich followed a porcupine into the woods, as the critter spread his back quills in a showy display as he fled.

We found lunch at the Palisade Cafe.  Your typical small town cafe with ceramic roosters and memorabilia  adorning the shelves, the waitress knew the locals’ orders before they uttered a word.  Sampling the local offerings, we recharged our batteries for the return trip.

The next day took us far north.  Driving to Littlefork we cycled from there to Lake  Kabetogama on the border.  The sun shone gloriously all day and like the day before we benefited from good pavement and lack of traffic.  We made our way to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center.  Although it was not yet open for the season, it did give us access to the lake and a view of its blue expanse.   This time it was breakfast that we ate at the Rocky Ledge. The area was heavily populated with resorts, and the staff was bracing for the onslaught of the holiday weekend.  That morning, however, we were the sole customers.Molly overlooking Lake KabetogamaVisitor Center on Lake KabetogamaIt felt good to be back in the saddle and doing multi-day rides  Naturally I became anxious to get out touring again. It also told us we were not quite ready.  We were grateful for a tailwind to push us home that day as we began to tire, and our sore bottoms were evidence that we needed more time in the saddle.  But it was a start.

Molly feet in boatNestled back in the cabin, we stayed on for two more days, while the sun shone.  The lake was still quiet, with few cabins occupied yet in advance of the weekend.  We had the place to ourselves.  It reminded me why I love being there so much, particularly when the weather is nice.  By the time it began to cloud up on Saturday, we were packing up to go home.

We missed spending Memorial Day at the cabin.  But we also avoided the rainy days.  We made our own holiday weekend, when the sun was shining.

The North Shore Gift

We made the reservation weeks ago. A mid-winter weekend at Naniboujou Lodge is a treat in itself, but Mother Nature threw us a curve ball that made it picture perfect. As cross-country ski enthusiasts and lovers of winter, we cringed when we saw the forecast for continuous days in the 40s. But as visitors to the North Shore, we reveled in constant blue skies and sunshine with real warmth.

We put skiing at the top of our agenda, knowing the snow conditions were likely to suffer through the weekend. A morning ski at Oberg Mountain gave us beautiful soft snow before it got too soft and sticky.Rich and Molly XC skiThe harbor in Grand Marais sparkled in the sunshine, and the sun melted enough of the ice and snow for me to make it most of the way out to the lighthouse. It was so warm at the Java Moose that customers took their coffee drinks outside to bask in the Adirondack chairs. Could this really be mid-February?Grand Marais lighthouseNaniboujou Lodge was a lovely oasis. The rock beach was exposed and waves crashed onto the shore. Its deliberate lack of wifi and cell service was a fine excuse to read and relax in the quiet sunroom. And because they offer only package deals in the winter, we feasted morning and evening on fine meals in the colorful dining room. What’s not to like about that?

Naniboujou LodgeA trip to the Pigeon River, right on the Canadian Border, necessitated a walk up to High Falls. The warm weather had released sections of ice over the waterfall, giving us a view of the rushing water. It was easy to stop and look around amid the din of the falls in the mild temperatures.High FallsThe Witch Tree was nearby, and Rich knew how to find it. So we made a trek through soft, wet snow to its sacred location. There were signs informing us of its significance to the Ojibwe people, and asking us to remain silent and refrain from smoking. But there was a good platform from which to view the tree from a respectful distance. I’d seen many photos of the tree before, but never actually laid eyes on it in person.Witch TreeThe afternoon sunshine lured me outside once more. Judge Magney State Park was just across the road, and I followed the hiking trail up the Brule River. It was pretty easy going for the most part, with well packed snow. But inclines were slick and the 175 steps down to the middle falls required careful balancing on the narrow exposed wood on the edge of each step. The water shot forcefully out from under the ice at the falls and disappeared again, leaving a fine mist in the air. Devil’s Kettle proved to still be ice covered. If only I’d known, I would have spared myself the hairy climb and slipping down the treacherous slope that led to it. But it was so nice out, I was happy to prolong the hike.Middle FallsRich preferred seeking photo spots for the beautiful sunrises over the lake and starlit nights.  He obviously does it well.Sunrise over Susie Islands
This weekend was a gift from our son Carl and his bride Chelsea.  We loved their selection of Naniboujou Lodge, and the unending blue skies that accompanied our visit made it even more memorable.  Thank you!

Three Generations of Awe

The scene: Our cabin. A modest 3-season cottage on North Star Lake, 25 miles north of Grand Rapids MN. In the heart of the Chippewa National Forest. At night.

The time: Labor Day Weekend. Affectionately known as Same Time Next Year for our annual tradition of spending summer’s final hurrah with family and friends. For 27 successive years.

The circumstances: A display of Northern Lights.

Northern Lights over Smith LakeThe set-up: Arriving a day ahead of time, well before the onslaught of kids, grandkids and long-term friends, Rich and I were at the cabin in time to see an amazing display of Northern Lights. Not only did we watch them from the dock even before the sunset was complete, but soon afterwards brilliant yellow-green arcs of light shot over the cabin, from east to west. It was clearly an exceptional display, and Rich was soon off in search of more scenic landscapes to photograph. While we have an excellent view from our dock, the foreground is not interesting enough for Rich’s photographic eye.

Day 2: Another good forecast for the Northern Lights. Pondering the lack of interest off our dock, Rich lures me to be his model. In exchange for a good back rub, I am to sit motionless in a kayak in the glow of the Northern Lights should they reappear. I admit, I am a cheap hire.

 3 Generations view the Northern LightsOur kids and grandkids are all expected to arrive some time that evening. Just as the final car pulls into the driveway, the Aurora also makes its appearance. No time for hellos, hugs or hauling stuff into the cabin. All are urgently summoned to the dock. There we all assemble and murmur our appreciation and marvel at once. It is the first time for many. Our son-in-law has his first view at the same time as his three kids. The evening is mild, the bugs are gone for the season, and it is a magical moment.

Kayaker in the Northern LightsEver the photographer, Rich captures the multi-generational assembly. Then calls in his favors. I am launched in the kayak and given strict instructions to paddle here and hold still. Shift over there and stop. Don’t breathe. It takes numerous shots to get a single good one, but we all agree it’s stunning.

I look forward to the back rub. But even more I treasure that moment on the dock. From 14 months to 61 years of age, we all shared the same awe.

(Photos courtesy of Rich Hoeg, 365DaysOfBirds.com)

Farewell Towering Pine

It's been almost four weeks since the storm raged through Duluth. Waking in the early morning hours to blinding lightning, constant thunder and howling winds did little to prepare us for the devastation that we would find when dawn came. And even then, we couldn't even imagine the true extent of the damage.

Trees down across driveway

We were among the fortunate. With just three moderate sized trees down in our yard, only our driveway was temporarily blocked. But heartbreak was only a short distance away. Our neighbors lost several venerable old trees, including our very favorite pine tree that dominated the skyline and was perfectly framed in our window. In its place we saw only jagged shards where the trunk had snapped, sending the majestic tree down into the woods below.

Our favorite pine tree

A bike ride around the neighborhood revealed further ruins. Everywhere I looked there were downed trees – in yards, on houses, clobbering fences, blocking streets, dragging down power lines. The strangest site was a tree that had been launched 50 feet across a yard to pierce the roof of the house and exit through the end wall. And yet, the apples on the tree below had its produce blown to the ground in the opposite direction.

That tour was early in the morning, and already people were out working. Neighbors helping neighbors, city crews acting quickly to reopen roads, strangers swapping stories. The camaraderie would continue throughout the lengthy power outage that ensued, as we all learned to cope with being off the grid and generous offers of help came from friends outside the “war zone.”

By now, many of us have returned to life as usual. But the landscape is forever changed, and the massive clean-up effort continues. Sometimes that comes in unusual forms. And I shouldn't have been surprised when our neighbors topped that list. Enterprising, outdoorsy, optimists and just plain good folk, they turned their misfortune into opportunity. She calls it “making lemonade.” He calls it building a sauna.

The big red portable lumber mill appeared on the lawn early in the morning. And so did a couple of operators. Soon the trunk that was once that big old pine tree made it onto the bed of the mill, and the cab passed back and forth turning it into planks and posts. It made for marvelous entertainment as I sipped my morning coffee on our deck.

Next door lumber mill

One of these days, when the sauna heats up and steam releases the pine smell, that giant of a tree will be immortalized. It seems very fitting. For in the process of cutting it into logs, they managed to count its rings. 240. It started growing the very year our country began. I am in awe.

I always knew it was a special tree. I just didn't realize how special. It took a mighty storm with winds over 100 mph to bring it down. I will miss its dominating presence in our window. But I'm glad to live next door to folk who are engineering a way for it to live on. Farewell old towering pine.

 

Feuding with a Loon

Disputed watersIt’s all out war. A territory dispute between me and a loon. The area in conflict is the patch of water between the reeds in front of our cabin. I claim it’s my swimming hole. The loon insists it’s his fishing ground, and perhaps his young family’s hangout. I have history on my side. Twenty six years of morning swims. He has fright tactics on his. And they are terrifyingly effective.

I’m not sure who was more surprised. Me or the loon. As I turned away from the reeds to swim another lap across the opening, the water suddenly exploded. To my immediate right the loon launched into his ritual warning dance. His eerie cries pierced the air and his displeasure was highly evident. The normally enthralling display took on a whole new perspective at close range. Far too close for comfort.

Molly chased by loonSeeking to quell the nascent fury I quietly turned away, breast stroking back toward the cabin. Attempting invisibility. Looking to put distance between me and the frantic bird. But he wasn’t so easily appeased. While his antics ceased his mission persisted, and he followed me in toward shore while continuing to holler. It wasn’t until I fully conceded defeat, nearly reaching the dock that he relented. Round one to the loon.

His behavior implied a baby loon in proximity. And I assumed my timing was particularly poor. So I thought little of taking a refreshing dip later in the hot afternoon. I will admit to scanning the waters for said loon or his family prior to immersing myself in the lake, but the coast was clear. The only loon in sight was well out in the middle of the lake. My laps proceeded and I regained my confidence only to have it shattered once again. Catching me on the opposite side of the channel, the loon repeated his performance. This time I knew I was a direct target, to have drawn him from such a distance. Forget the breast stroke, I made a hasty front crawl retreat with the loon in hot pursuit. Round two to the loon.

It’s quite a standoff. While I refuse to admit defeat, I confess to curtailing my swimming activities. No sauna for me last night, or swim under the prolific stars. I did boldly reclaim my ground for my morning swim, but only under the watchful eyes of a dock full of family members scanning for loons. As soon as one began motoring it’s way over from a distance, they sounded the alarm. I didn’t hesitate before returning to the safety of the dock. Round three, a draw.

It isn’t over yet. Swimming is my greatest love at the cabin. And I do so love the loons. Just not at the same time. My hope is that by our next visit the baby loons will have a greater range, and they will have moved on from my swimming hole.  I’m not particularly fond of feuding with a loon.

Loon Family

Loon family, taken by Rich Hoeg

(Click here to visit Rich’s blog for more photos of the loons.)

 

 

Going South

We love Duluth.  We even love winter in Duluth.  But spring – or more accurately the lack of it – can be ever so trying.  Rich has been bemoaning the cloudy skies, which are poor for photography.  I have been cursing the brutal winds, feeling battered and blown about on my morning runs.  Day after day we wake up to the same chill, the same brown earth.  One can handle it only so long.  So we defected, and sought refuge.  We went south.

It was like a feast for the eyes.  Green never looked so inviting, so alive.  Trees actually had leaves and bushes were, yes bushy.  Thick grass sported fresh tracks from a recent lawn mower, and the smell of freshly mown grass filled our nostrils.

Flowering treesBetter yet were the blossoms.  Whole trees were blooming in pinks and whites.  The heady perfume wafted through the air.  Gardens were alive with bright tulips, and wildflowers lined the trails.

How novel to be able to go for a bike ride in shorts and short sleeves.  The warm air caressed my skin.  My face turned pink from the heat of the sun.  I was grinning from ear to ear with the pure pleasure of the experience.

Molly on bike rideMolly's bike on the trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a short but sweet escape full of sun-filled delights.  Picking dandelions with my grandkids.  Meeting friends for happy hour on an outdoor restaurant patio. Seeing kids out playing, families out walking.  True spring everywhere I looked.

Yes, it was worth going south.  All the way to the Twin Cities.  It sure felt like Florida to me.

Living by the Numbers

Two huge numerical digits came to inhabit our backyard yesterday.  I planted them there, surreptitiously.  And when night fell, the timer clicked on and they proclaimed in giant illumination my husband’s new age.  60.  The big 6-0.  A turning point I have already passed.60-Birthday-Bash-Molly-RichWrangling those numbers into place drove home the numerical realities of life.  Of growing older (I refuse to say old).  Of how I have come to measure life by different standards.  Of the milestones I have reached.  Of the impact on my active lifestyle.  Admitting to my mathematical background, I can’t help but ponder my new life status from a numerical perspective.

My passion for endurance sports has not waned with my age.  But its key indicators are clearly suffering.  I’m embarrassed to find I am pleased to complete a long run squeaking in just under 10 minute miles.  Admittedly 7s are ancient history, but whatever happened to 8 or 9?  I’m learning to let go of the single digits when it comes to pace, as long as I can still rack up the mileage numbers. Thankfully marathons are still within my reach, they just take longer.  PRs have fallen by the wayside.  And forget finishing under 4 hours.  Just crossing the finish line is rewarding enough.

If I’m getting slower, so is my competition.  And here’s a case where the numbers are declining.  As I move up the age categories, the field keeps narrowing.  Moving into a new classification is exciting, as it signals yet another drop in participation.  I actually placed 3rd in my age group in a marathon ski race this winter, and won a coveted Dala horse prize.  I just choose to ignore the fact that I was 3rd out of 3.

Having taken up distance cycling just 4 years ago, I don’t have the same competitive baggage.  And rather than focus on speed and racing, Rich and I have taken up cycle touring.  Our mantra is “You see a lot more of the world when traveling at only 12 miles an hour.”  Here it’s more about the distance figures.  Our annual tours have typically taken us over 1,400 miles.  And to date our longest trip has covered 2,350 miles.  It took us nearly two months to get there, yet by the end we still wanted to keep going.  That’s a measure of success.  I’d still love to top that number.

Not all cycle rides have to be that long.  100 has a nice ring to it.  A friend talked me into a Century Ride a few years ago, and it has now become an annual tradition.  Time is not a consideration, as long as we finish cycling before dark.  Thanks to the long summer days here Up North, we have yet to fail.  We may just need to start earlier each year.

Anniversaries are another good life measure.  For 24 straight years I have shared a cross-country ski weekend with a fellow mom/career woman/friend.  We do a lot of skiing and yes, I track the kilometers.  Our range may have narrowed over the years, but our support for one another and ability to come home recharged have been a constant.  All the more reason to look forward to our 25th trip. And to hope that number will continue to grow.

No matter how I look at it, I count myself very fortunate.  A little slippage here, a bit of stagnation there isn’t bad.  I’m still out there plying the pavement, spinning my wheels and gliding over the snow.  Good health and energy are gifts whose value can’t be calculated.  Not even for those of us who live by the numbers.