Enjoying the Season

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

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

Lester River Trail

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

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

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

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

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

Brighton Beach ice 1

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

Brighton Beach ice 2

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

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


Tucson on 2 Wheels

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

The Loop by Rillito Rivery

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

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

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

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

Molly with bike at Sabino Canyon

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

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

Owning the Sabino Canyon

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

Sabino Canyon 1

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

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

Sabino Canyon 2

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

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

Sabino Canyon sunrise

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

Sabino Canyon morning

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

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

Hiking Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon sunset

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

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


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.

Following the Elephant Tracks

There used to be loads of blackberries on this trail. I remember a year when we picked two full ice cream buckets full. Today we each carry a bucket in hopeful anticipation, but it seems to be overkill. Where are the berries?

I’m at the cabin, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bill visiting from New York. Deciding to hike the nearby trails in Suomi Hills, I see a good opportunity to take stock of the berry status. Normally we pick blackberries over Labor Day weekend, but just in case we tote buckets on this foray.

The trail is overgrown with high grass and thick foliage. The well worn path in my memory has disappeared, but is still navigable. The side growth is equally dense, packed with tall bushes, ferns and vegetation that is not blackberry vines.

Betsy blackberry picking Long past the point where I once found the first blackberries, I spot some. Sparsely intermingled with the other plants, they are far from abundant. The vines we do find are anything but ripe. They range from green immaturity to pinkish red “getting there.” We call them vines with plenty of potential. Just now, they hold only one or two fully ripe blackberries ready to fall from the grasp of the vine. And we claim them. Oddly, others look past their prime. They have either lost their berries already or literally withered on the vine into hard brown dried up knobs. Our harvest is meager.

Bill blackberry pickingThe hike turns into a stroll. A search for the berries. Eyes scanning the undergrowth, we seek out our treasure. Farther along the path, the blackberry presence multiplies. More ripe berries per vine, more vines per square yard. Hope is renewed.  Venturing into the brush to reach the more succulent fruit, the persistent thorns tear at our clothing and skin. We are ill clad for this endeavor. Sweaters and fleece are prime targets, catching on the least of the prickers. Exposed skin below our shorts take the brunt of the sharp barbs, bearing scratches in all directions. But still we pursue those berries just beyond our reach.

Molly Betsy Bill w blackberriesIn the deep thickets, there is evidence of those who have preceded us. They leave behind large swaths of trampled vegetation in their efforts to reach the berries beyond reach from the trail. I call them elephant tracks. Making no effort to walk with care, these foragers leave destruction in their path. Unkindly, I am convinced the culprits are of the human variety. Berry pickers with no consideration for nature. I dismiss the possibility that it could be animals on the same hunt.

These blatant paths lead to more blackberries, I’m certain. And I make a mental note to pack my hiking pants and a windbreaker for my next trip to the cabin a week hence. Because I will be back. Hopefully my timing will coincide with the next round of ripening. And I will be fully equipped to reach the farthest berries. When I follow the elephant tracks.

Our sweet reward


I'll be the first to admit, birding is not my thing. I have tremendous admiration and respect for Rich's dedication and boundless patience in pursuing his birds, and the amazing photographs that he captures. But he no longer asks if I would like to come along. He knows better. Loons, however, are a whole different matter.

I spent several hours in the kayak today, cruising the calm water of the lake in the afternoon sun. On my travels I spotted several loons with baby chicks. The fluffy little fledglings paddled behind mama, an entrancing sight.

Rich was thrilled with my reconnaissance efforts, and was eager to photograph the young loons. Immedately following dinner he announced he was heading out in the boat to look for the loons. This time he asked, would I like to come? The answer came without hesitation. Yes!

The sun dipping low in the sky lent a beautiful golden hour light to the scene. Evening's calm stilled the waters, and the waterskiers had been replaced by boats claiming their fishing spots. All was quiet on the lake.

We found mama loon and her twins in the same bay where I'd seen them. At first, they were hidden in the reeds, but they soon obliged by swimming out into the open where they didn't seem to mind us watching. We could hear soft sounds made by mama to her chicks – something entirely new to me. Never before had I been close enough to hear their nurturing murmurs.

Loons 1

Papa soon materialized and proceeded to hunt for dinner. He repeatedly returned with food to feed the chicks. We could tell when he was coming as he would swim under water but near the surface, creating a v-shaped wake above him. By this time the chicks were nestled on mama's back, well situated for papa to bring them tasty treats.

Loons 2
Loons 3

As we watched, a chorus of frogs suddenly broke into song, croaking mightily around the bay. It was magical witnessing nature in the warmth of the setting sun.

Loons 4

There is something deeply compelling about loons. From their haunting cries to their mottled black and white coats, they are are undeniably special. It is an honor to share our lake with them. I never tire of their majestic presence. I may not be a birder, but I'm always game to go looning.