The Race that Wasn’t

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and we jumped at the chance to buy grandstand seats to watch the Cross-Country Ski World Cup Sprint Final races.  All winter long we looked forward to seeing these world class skiers on Minnesota snow.  It was a coup for Minneapolis and the Loppet Foundation, and a treat for those of us occupying the grandstand.

The mild winter and advancing spring posed threats to the snow and trail conditions.  Communications from the Loppet Foundation assured us they were prepared for the warmest spring ever.  Just in case.  They had surplus “whales” of snow – stockpiles that looked like their namesake.  Five PistenBully groomers stood by to move snow onto the trail.  And plan C?  Scrape up all remaining snow on the unneeded trails and move them to the race course.  They were ready.

But it wasn’t enough.  Nothing could compete with the advancing threat of the coronavirus.  First Norway pulled its skiers, a brutal blow.  Then the rapid advancement of travel restrictions and social distancing.  What spring couldn’t kill, disease could.  Among all the cancellation announcements, that was the one that hurt the most.  Not because of what I would miss, but because of the lost opportunity for Minnesota to host the first competition in two decades for the world’s finest skiers on American snow.

World Cup cowbells

In lieu of our trip to the Cities for the race, we went down for the weekend to visit family.  By Sunday, son Erik and his wife Katie – fellow disappointed ticket holders – and I decided to check out the wanna-be race course.  The mild and sunny temperature had lured numerous skiers to the venue, and despite all a sense of festivity lingered.

Erik Katie Finley at World Cup venue

Walking through the starting gate area, I couldn’t help but feel the excitement it generated. Skiers posed and shot out of the gates in private competitions.  They skated up and over the bridge past the chalet, and I wished for my own skis to join them in the warm sunshine.  We took our turns posing on the podium platform.  If we couldn’t be there to see world class skiers, we could pretend to be rubbing shoulders with them.

World Cup starting gates World Cup ski trail bridge Molly Erik Katie World Cup Podium

Gazing at the empty grandstands, I tried to imagine the event as it was meant to be.  Sandwiched into the bleacher seats, peering into the distance, watching for each skier who rounded the curve to cross the finish line.  I could feel the excitement.  Hear the roar of the crowds. Feel the home town pride of a place that could host this elite event.  Almost.

World Cup Grandstand

It felt selfish to wish for what couldn’t be.  To allow myself to feel the sense of loss.  To think about what might have been.

Instead, I soaked up the sun.  Took in the magnificence of the preparations.  Envied the skiers of all ages and abilities gliding across the warming snow.  And relished being among family.

Erik and Katie at World Cup

In a world full of uncertainty, fraught with fears, and the impossible task of navigating between hysteria and safe decisions, it felt good to just enjoy the outdoors.  Walk in the sunshine.  Smile at strangers.  Throw the ball for the dog.  Enjoy life as it is.  Even if for the moment.

Vacation Dreams

For months, the word claimed ownership to weeks on our calendar. It feels like a lifetime ago that Rich and I sat down and plunked “Vacation” on three separate chunks of winter and spring. I knew the drill – if we didn’t dedicate the time early on, we’d fill up the calendar and never get away. But this time it wasn’t being busy that posed a threat.

As Rich’s eyesight issues progressed through the fall, we put our lives on hold. Ordinary outings like going for a walk, having dinner at a restaurant, attending a party all assumed an onerous significance. Could Rich manage it? The future meant later today, maybe tomorrow. Beyond that we could not see. The words languished on the calendar.

As winter’s cold, dry climate and brilliant snow reflections wreaked havoc with Rich’s eyes, we began to ponder the unthinkable. Might we have to become snowbirds? Would Rich have to give up his love of the Northwoods, his hunt for winter owls, and his passion for cross-country skiing to hibernate in a warm and humid climate that was kinder to his eyes? If that’s what it took to regain his eyesight, so be it.

Fortunately, the magic of Rich’s botox treatments turned our world around. With each stride forward, Rich regained aspects of his life he feared were lost forever, and we tenderly ventured to believe we could make plans again. So it was that I deleted late January’s “Vacation” week and replaced it with “Florida.”

Through the generosity of our friends, Arlene and Steve, we spent a glorious sunny week with them in Fort Myers. Rich and I were both there, but had distinctly different experiences.

For me, it was a week of indulging in long walks with Arlene, biking with Arlene and our friend Myra, lapping up the friendships. The constantly sunny days in the 70s salved my winter body. Ventures to Sanibel and Captiva delivered my requisite doses of beach and waves.  Dinners in the company of good friends capped each day.

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling

Arlene and Molly at Ding Darling Myra, Arlene and Molly bikers Molly and Rich on Captiva beach Cocktail hour at Arlene and Steves Molly Steve Rich dinner outside at the club

While I reveled in the pure Florida vacation, Rich still faced a series of trials. If Rich’s eye troubles have taught us anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted. What the blepharospasm took away from him will take months to regain. Things that used to be second nature, now require conquering anew. His confidence is badly shaken. Even the air travel proved stressful.

On this trip, bicycling posed a major hurdle. Battling fear of failure, Rich took Steve’s bike out for a spin in the safe environs of the development. Hesitant at first, belief dawning gradually, he covered eight miles on the quiet roads. His text to declare success contained four exclamation points, five smiley faces! Over the remainder of the week he expanded his distances, braving the real world, even biking to a birding spot. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to resume our bike touring. For now we celebrate one success at a time.

Ever the birder, Rich researched wildlife preserves and stalked local birds with great success. Perusing his photos each day, I reveled in the beauty – envious of his finds, but fully aware of my lack of patience to find and watch these rarities. Photos would do. Virtually guaranteeing success, Rich lured the three of us out early one morning in search of burrowing owls. Sure enough, we found eight tiny owls perched on their burrows in the vicinity of a ball field in Cape Coral. They weren’t hard to spot – the hovels of this threatened species were cordoned off by plastic piping, their holes marked by wooden crosses. Birding for dummies, perhaps, but they were gosh darn cute.

Burrowing OwlPainted Bunting

Florida may not become our winter home after all, providing the botox keeps up its work. But our sojourn south had many healing benefits.

Merely going on vacation – something so basic, so normal – felt like our re-entry to the world. Rich started to believe again. The future began to stretch out ahead of us once more. And we renamed another Vacation segment on the calendar. Costa Rica, here we come! We might as well dream big.

Ski Medicine

It might not have been what the doctor ordered, but it was the best medicine I could take.  I was still coughing and dragging from a bout with the flu when Erik called.  “Would it be all right if I came up tomorrow night to ski the North Shore on Monday?  You’d be welcome to join me.”  Of course it was more than all right!

I tossed and turned all night long.  Was I crazy to spend a whole day skiing when I could barely get off the couch just days before?  I’ve never been one to hold back, nor necessarily listen to reason, so in the dark wee hours of the morning I rose and piled on layers of ski clothes.

As we drove the shoreline the sun rose in a cloudless sky, lifting over Lake Superior and bisecting the radiant band of orange hovering over the cold blue water.  By the time we reached the Sugarbush Trailhead above Tofte, it hung low in the sky sending long sinewy shadows across the trail but doing little to raise the zero degree temperature.  Pristine corduroy lay before my skate skis, crisp deep tracks for Erik’s classic version.  We entered the deep silence of the trail.Molly Sugarbush trails Erik Sugarbush trails

Erik had some serious skiing to do.  His goal was to complete the Picnic Loop and any other bits of trail he could find to ski 40 kilometers.  As a serious contender in the upcoming Birkie Classic race, he relished this extensive training opportunity.  So I waved him off, content to plod along at my own pace.

The cold snow squealed under my skis, glide eluding my fresh wax job, but the extra effort warmed my stiff chilled body.  I didn’t meet another sole for at least an hour and a half, skimming the snow, lost in thought.  Imperceptibly the sun gained strength, my fingers and toes rejoiced, and my skis slipped ever so slightly farther.  Weaving through the woods, uphill and down I lost track of time and distance.  Forgot my recent malady.

Through sheer luck, we finished at nearly the same time.  Flush with excitement over the fantastic conditions, Erik confirmed his 41k distance – to my 20k in the same amount of time!  Over lunch at the Coho Café we traded superlatives about our morning – the deep glistening snow in the woods, the distant lake views, the challenging but fun hills, the joy of skiing.

Erik Molly Coho Cafe

The Northwoods Ski Trail in Silver Bay gave us a leisurely afternoon ski.  Narrow single classic tracks wound through the woods, with snow laden pines slipping past our shoulders and towering overhead.  We skied together over the soft snow, sharing the views and even spotting a marten that scampered up a tree to peer down at us.  A steep uphill got our hearts pumping, and rewarded us with a long smooth downhill.  This wasn’t a workout, it was an experience.

Northwoods Ski Trails Erik Molly Northwoods Trails Molly Northwoods Trails

A full day, sharing a mutual love of skiing, chatting in the car, just being together.  One-on-one time with one of my adult children is a precious gift.  This one also delivered a hearty dose of healing.  Goodbye flu, I think I skied it out of my system.  And Erik?  He opted for another 15k on the Lester Trails when we returned, topping off his mileage above 60k.  We both got the medicine we needed.

Snowbound

We’re still waiting.  Two days ago at this time snow was falling in earnest.  Actually, it didn’t really fall, the wind swirled it in mad circles.  Whisking horizontally past the windows.  Sticking to the sides of the house.  Clinging to the trees.  It’s been a long time since the weather service used the word Blizzard.  This time it was accurate.  Snug inside, I enjoyed watching it rage.

Storming through the night, it finally tapered into delicate flakes as morning dawned.  Rich layered up and began the process of digging out.  Grabbing the yardstick from my sewing supplies, he took it down to the driveway.  Lest he be accused of exaggeration he had proof – 19″.  The accumulation took the life of his snowblower and required rigorous sessions of shovel, rest, repeat.  All day long.

Blizzard our houseThe news was filled with cancellations, including church services.  But no matter, we could travel no farther than the end of our cleared driveway.  Living on a remote road, we’re used to being last on the priority list for plowing.  So I donned my heavy boots and a backpack for a trip to the grocery store, grateful that it was so close.  Preparations for hunkering down.

Having covered the basics, I could hold back no longer.  This kind of snow just shouted Snowshoes!  And I answered the call.  That unplowed road was all that lay between me and forest land, crisscrossed by multi-use trails.  Not a sole trod before me, leaving deep pristine snow to explore.  Trees hung low, burdened with heavy blankets of snow, blocking my path.  Too pretty to disturb, I tried to skirt around them carefully.  The slightest bump released a mini-blizzard and sent branches flinging upwards.Blizzard snowshoeing 1Blizzard snowshoeing 2Silence reigned.  Only the plop of my snowshoes and the swish of trying to extricate them from the snowy abyss penetrated the quiet.  The sun began its gradual reappearance, signaling the real end of the storm.  Solitude worked its magic.Blizzard snowshoeing 3Day two dawned clear and cold.  The sunlight was as welcome as a rainbow after a thunderstorm.  Glistening snow.  Endless blue sky.  Warming rays of the sun.  Still the road remained clogged with snow.  There was only one sensible response.  Ski it!Blizzard XC skiing 1

Blizzard XC skiing 27 Bridges Road was rife with snowmobile tracks, boot prints and the occasional ski track.  It made for a firm if bumpy surface which beckoned me upwards, crossing bridge after bridge.  But the real payoff was at the top.  Branching off onto Hawk Ridge the walkers disappeared.  Snowmobiles had pummeled the surface into a reliable ski surface.  Lake Superior spread out to the horizon, the city of Duluth lay in grids below.  The snowbound confines of the house dropped away as civilization lay at my feet.Blizzard XC skiing 3Returning downhill, I wondered if the snowplow had come.  If I would have to find a new way home.  I’m not sure if I was relieved or disappointed to be able to ski all the way to the driveway.  Still snowbound.  Still waiting.  Time to plan tomorrow’s snowy adventure.Blizzard XC skiing 4

Yooperlites

“There’s one!”

“Oh, that’s a really good one.”

“Here, your turn.”

“Wait, shine that light back over here.”

“Yes! Look at it glow!”

“Yea! Yippee! We found one!”

It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun in the dark. Giddy with our success, Rich and I press on, sweeping the flashlight over the rocks on the beach.

“Oh, another one!”

We would still be huddled by our evening campfire had it not been for a series of fortuitous coincidences.

Checking in with our contact for Crisp Point Lighthouse prior to our stint as Keepers, she alerted us to the fact that there had been frequent late night visitors this year. “They’re looking for Yooperlites,” she told us. It went right over our heads. We had no idea what she was talking about, but appreciated the heads-up.

Crisp Point map

Crisp Point Lighthouse 2019

Arriving for duty, I scanned the updated layout of merchandise in the Visitor Center taking in the new inventory. Passing the table of scrapbooks and resource books, the words jumped out at me. Yooperlites were featured on the front of the Mineral News newsletter. And my education began.

Just last year a gentleman began selling unique rocks he collected from Lake Superior’s shore in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Looking perfectly ordinary in daylight, in the dark these stones emit a brilliant orange glow under UV light. He marketed them using the name Yooperlites, based on the slang for UP residents (Yoopers).

That explained the nocturnal visitors. And why it was a new phenomenon.

According to the Mineral News, these are examples of concretions – sedimentary rock with minerals embedded in them. In this case, the mineral is believed to be fluorescent sodalite.

Interesting enough. Until a late afternoon delivery of supplies for the lighthouse that also yielded a key disclosure. There was a UV flashlight and samples of Yooperlite in the Visitor Center. Suddenly, we had the means to make our own discoveries.

With the last light fading from the sky we scour the rock strewn beach. It is surprising how many pinpoints of yellow or blue light shine back at us from the rocks, and how white rocks reflect that light. (Not to mention Rich’s white socks and my neon yellow shoe laces, which are blinding.)

But we seek the real gems. The rocks permeated with an orange glow. The more pocked with light the better. And they are there. As soon as the UV rays passes over those rocks, they light up. Not just colorful, they radiate from within. There is no mistaking them, and with each discovery we cheer and laugh, triumphant.

Yooperlites glowing

It is a heck of a lot more fun than hunting for agates. And a lot more successful. With each new Yooperlite we find, we are spurred on to uncover another one. And another. Selecting only the five best to keep.  Sure enough, in the daylight their hidden glow is locked deep inside.

Yooperlites daylight

I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow night. Oh, and did you know? I was born a Yooper.

Yooperlite w Crisp Point Lighthouse

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!

Arctic Adventures

My heart sank as the man uttered the words I feared I might hear. “It’s out in the open sea. The boat has no stabilizers, so it is likely to be rough.” He was talking about the Birding Safari that Rich had signed up for near the North Cape. I wasn’t interested in birding, but the prospect of seeing puffins, sea lions and maybe even whales was alluring. Just not under those conditions. The judge had ruled against me. I would have to pass.

We were above the tree line now, as a member of the Expedition Team explained to the gathering out on deck. The only vegetation on the rocky slopes were low tundra grasses, mosses and lichens. Many faces were shear rock. These mountain ranges were lower, smoother, devoid of the sharp peaks and pockets of snow I was used to seeing. But impressive in their own way.

The harbor in the tiny town of Honningsvåg was surrounded by colorful houses and a dramatic backdrop of mountains. As Rich eagerly rushed to his tour, I headed straight to the Tourist Info office. Soon afterwards, I emerged. Map in hand, with a plan.

So far, our weather on the ship had been far from stellar. Low clouds and dreary skies dampened the impact of the passing scenery. But as I made a circuit around the harbor filled with fishing boats, the sun staged a comeback. Reaching the far side, I consulted my map and headed uphill.

The Info lady had recommended two hiking trails. They started together then one branched off to an overlook. Indeed, it provided a bird’s eye view of the harbor, and even our Hurtigruten ferry shrank down to toy size. A nearby trail map showed where I was, as well as the trail she suggested I take. It followed a mountain pass and continued on to a lake. In theory that sounded good, but I found the wide gravel path unappealing.

In contrast, a narrow wiggly foot-worn path continued up the mountainside. In groups of two or three and representing all ages and abilities, walkers passed by and headed up the trail. None hesitated as they passed the sign. They just marched forward, conquering that hill. Soon a whole line of colorful dots squiggled up the mountainside, illustrating exactly where the path led.

I tried to want to hike to the lake. It was the sensible thing to do. But that little trail called to me. I checked the map again. Even on there, it was all switchbacks. But the other way way so ugly. “I’ll just go a little higher,” I rationalized.

The going was easier than I expected. The rise was steep, but I navigated the dirt and rocks despite my woeful footwear. Having packed for a bike tour, I brought only my Keene sandals. They served me well post bike ride each day, but were hardly ideal for the cold weather and hiking on this segment of our trip. I wasn’t about to let my lack of foresight prevent me from this adventure. One foot in front of the other, I continued.

Getting a grip going up was one thing. It was going back down that had me concerned. So far I hadn’t seen a soul come back this way. But I kept going. By then I was committed.

Nearly to the ridge line I was feeling triumphant. Scrambling up the final bit, the harbor on the opposite side came into view. That was my definition of success, even though I discovered another ridge just beyond. With the departure time for the ship weighing on my mind, I called it a summit. And celebrated with selfies.

The journey down started with crab crawling, using three and four point contact to stay on the hillside. I took pains not to look down, but when I jiggled a rock free I noted how far it tumbled before stopping. I took heart in knowing that the trail would get easier as I went.

In truth, the hike was barely three kilometers. But the path to the lake looked just as ugly on the way back down. Surely a mountaintop view was a superior choice. And I finished in plenty of time to seek out ice cream and consume it in a sunny sheltered spot by the harbor.

Rich returned triumphant. He glowingly expounded on the hundreds of puffins, the sea eagles and reindeer that he saw. I was envious. Almost. “It was really wavy out there,” he reported. “At times I couldn’t even stand up.” Just like me up there on that mountain. Only I didn’t risk getting seasick.