At Your Service

The boys thought they were asking a big favor.  But in fact it was a privilege.

I’m not sure where they got this adventure gene.  But our sons both inherited it.  Five years ago Carl and Erik climbed my great-grandfather’s mountain, Mount Brewer – 150 years after William Henry Brewer’s first ascent.  Together they have backpacked in the Porcupine Mountains and the trail above Pictured Rocks.  Last year they winter camped in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  This year they upped the ante, planning a 40-mile trek following the border route in the BWCAW.  And they asked us to be their shuttle service.

Rich drove the boys up to Ely and beyond, to Moose Lake where he deposited them with all their gear.  After harnessing up their pulks, they set off across the frozen lake, Erik on backcountry skis and Carl on a new set of Altai Hok skis – a cross between a ski and a snowshoe.  Snowshoes were stowed within easy reach for portages and deep snow conditions.  The deep blue sky contrasted sharply with the pristine snow and pine woods border under the bright sunshine for a picturesque start.

Carl and Erik begin trek

They allowed themselves three days to make it to the end of the Gunflint Trail.  It would have been three days of waiting nervously to find out if they made it had it not been for Rich’s sleepless nights leading up to the trip.  To assuage his concerns, he diligently researched satellite tracking units, and ultimately insisted they carry one.  Or no deal on the shuttles.

Thanks to the generosity of a friend who lent them a Garmin inReach, they had the means of providing us with updates and more importantly, sending out a call for help if needed.  At the end of day 1, we received the following message at dusk, “Camp made on Knife [lake].  Great day.”  What followed was a link with their GPS coordinates.  With one click we could see exactly where they were.  Whew, peace of mind.

GPS location on the trek

While we drove up to a modern warm cabin on the Gunflint Trail overlooking Poplar Lake, the boys made their way along the border from lake to lake, slogging through snow drifts, skiing on hard windblown crust and plowing through waist deep snow on portages.  They trekked from sunup to sundown, made camp, ate and slept when darkness fell.  Although they saw plenty of open water, they were fortunate not to find slush between the layers of snow and ice.  Snowmobiles and dog sleds were allowed on some of the lakes, but alas, none created a packed path for them in the direction they were going.  They took turns breaking trail.

Carl trekking

Erik trekking

Of course, we knew none of this at the time.  We pondered the snow conditions, praised the good weather, hoped they were staying warm enough at night.  The daily updates were a godsend.

We were in position for pickup on the third day.  Mid-day we got word: “At Sag [Saganaga Lake] at American Point may finish late”  I settled in with a good book across from the cozy fire.  At 4pm we got the text we’d been awaiting.  “ETA 1 hourish on snowmobile trail.”  When we arrived at the designated boat launch, I couldn’t just stand there and wait.  Hiking out the narrow inlet, I searched the distant shore, footstep after footstep.  The two tiny figures that materialized on the horizon lifted my heart.

They arrived very sunburned and weather-beaten, but with the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen.  They had done it!  It was a lot harder and slower going than they had anticipated, due to the lack of packed snow, but they made it and were justifiably thrilled.  Carl summed it up, “This trip gets a big check on my To Do list.  I don’t need to do that again!”

Carl and Erik finish their trek

The accomplishment deserved celebrating with dinner at the iconic Trail Center Lodge.  Word leaked out about their adventure, and soon everyone around us wanted to know all the details.  The staff presented them with medals and even offered to be their food sponsor for the next adventure, with their locally made Camp Chow !  Nothing could top seeing the pure pleasure on the faces of my sons.

Celebration at Trail Center

I’m not likely to trek with a sled across frozen lakes through the Boundary Waters, go winter camping or even climb my great-grandfather’s mountain.  But I’m so glad to be a part of my sons’ lives watching them do it.  It fills my heart to know that they choose to pursue these dreams together.  Carl and Erik, I’ll be there, at your service, any time you plan another adventure.

Sisu Initiation

What do nine women, including three sisters, three generations and a handful of close friends have in common?  Sisu!

Arriving at the National Forest Lodge near Isabella, I lugged my gear into the spacious log house that would be our home for three days.  As the newcomer to a group that has convened here annually for years, I wondered how I would fit in.  I needn’t have worried.  Gathering in the kitchen, one member had already laid out hand-made snowflake earrings (no two alike, of course) and lanyards emblazoned with “sisu,” its definition under our names: “Sisu begins where the perseverance and grit end.”  I knew it right then.  These were my soul-mates.  This was going to be a good weekend.

We made rapid work of choosing beds and dumping our bags.  The Flathorn-Gegoka cross-country ski trails awaited right outside the door.  As soon as we could strap on our skis, we set out to make the most of the remaining daylight.  Brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine offset the blustery wind, and soon we were sheltered by the deep forest.  With two-feet of newly fallen snow freshly groomed into narrow single classic tracks, we brushed shoulders with tall pines.  Branches laden with mounds of snowy fluff, sun peeping through, all sounds but the swish of our skis were muffled by the soft whiteness.Ready to ski at NFL

Morning brought sub-zero temperatures, but not a single Sisu sister hesitated.  Fueled by a healthy and hearty breakfast in the lodge, we donned all our layers and ventured forth on skis and snowshoes.  The pattern would repeat itself over the next two days.  Eat and ski.  Groups formed and reformed, venturing out until fingers and toes needed rejuvenating or the next meal beckoned.

Behind every Sisu sister, there is a lighter side.  Or a crazier one.  Some intrepid souls could not resist the lure of the sauna and polar plunge.  I readily admit to passing on this experience, but they didn’t hold it against me.
Snow Angels at NFL

Polar Plunge

There were no midnight sorties on the trail by headlamp.  Instead, fierce competitive streaks emerged.  Huddled around the dining table, we furiously shaped and reshaped crosswords playing Bananagrams, and drew artful clues for Pictionary.  This was serious business, perhaps enhanced by a sip or two of wine.

If sharing a passion for word games, skiing as many kilometers as daylight allows, nestling by the fire with a bit of wine, waking to the smell of brewing coffee and sneaking oatmeal cookies are any indication, I think I passed the Sisu initiation.  Thank you, sisters!

SISU Sisters 2019

Winter Water

If I had any doubts about winter’s arrival, it only took a trip up the North Shore to the Canadian border and beyond to confirm it.  While patchy snow powdered Duluth, the more northern climes delivered deeply flocked pines and enough snow on the ground to make boots a necessity.  Not exactly typical waterfall weather, but that was the whole attraction.

It took two stops at Kakabeka Falls north of Thunder Bay to catch in it bathed in sunlight.  Afternoon delivered the warmth and light we sought, and transformed the view into a thunderous sparkling delight.

Kakabeca Falls in winter Rich at Kakabeca Falls

Pushing further north, we ventured in search of Silver Falls.  Following unplowed roads into the park of the same name, we stopped to hike at Dog Lake.  With only vague directions to the falls, we declined the remaining narrowing white road onward.  Silver Falls await a return visit.

Molly hiking at Dog Lake

Just at the border, High Falls in Grand Portage State Park graced us with sunshine once again.  The Pigeon River flowed with gusto, even as its borders froze into creamy icicles.  Especially intriguing was watching the water falling behind the thinner icy patches.

High Falls in winter High Falls closeup

While Rich stopped to investigate the water fowl in the bay at Grand Marais, I found yet another water feature in the crystal remnants of recent wave action.

Icy bushes Grand Marais

The best part of all?  We had every single one of these sights to ourselves.  Apparently, we were the only ones out in search of winter water.

On to Plan C

Sometimes life intervenes.  Our revised plans to camp in our tent on our trip out west started out well enough.  We scored a nice campsite on the river in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, and managed to squeeze in a short bike ride on the wilderness loop after arriving.  A bison spent the night on the banks of the river just below our spot, and in the morning he took a stroll right through our campsite!  We decided to let him have it.

Rich in Teddy Roosevelt Park Molly cycling Teddy Roosevelt Park

On good advice, we drove the Beartooth Highway to enter Yellowstone.  Getting an early start, we were well down the road and into the mountains just as the sun began hitting the peaks.  It only got better from there.  The 68 miles took us a full three hours to cover, slowly winding our way around hairpin curves, ogling the views over the edge and stopping frequently to take in the scenery.  We hadn’t even gotten to the park yet and we were already enamored with the locale.

Rich Beartooth highway Beartooth Highway 1 Beartooth Highway 2

Traveling at the end of the season, we assumed that the crowds in Yellowstone had thinned.  But that wasn’t the case.  Even the campsites were still in high demand, so rather than moving around the park we snapped up four nights in the Canyon Valley campground, hastily making reservations en route.  Tall pine trees towered over our humble tent, needles carpeted the ground and plenty of space insulated us from other campers.  All seemed well.  But we only lasted two nights.

It wasn’t the thunder-snow that we heard rumbling and falling icily on our tent the first morning that drove us out.  In fact, we luxuriated in the excuse to hunker down reading in our cozy sleeping bags until it ceased.  It wasn’t the 25 degree temps the following morning.  It wasn’t even the meager camp meals that we concocted over our ancient sputtering cook-stove.

Yellowstone snowy campsiteYellowstone reading in tentYellowstone Molly in mummy bagYellowstone Molly cooking dinner

It was the bugs.  No, not the buzzing, biting, flying irritants that usually annoy campers.  Pink-eye and flu bugs.  Lingering gifts from a recent visit with our grandchildren took Rich down hard.  And each successive day he worsened.  No matter how cushy the air mattresses (and ours aren’t), there’s no pretending that we get a good night’s sleep on the ground.

Just as in bicycle touring, we instituted our trusty rule.  When someone gets sick, no more camping.  It’s the only way to get better.  But scuttling Plan B was not that easy.  Those late season crowds?  They filled the lodgings too.  After many phone calls, we scored a room in Grant Village that had just been released.  Wincing at the cost but celebrating our luck, we repeated the search in the Grand Tetons.

So much for our free-wheeling campervan plan.  Goodbye outdoorsy tent camping.  Hello Plan C – warm, inviting park lodgings with electricity and soft beds, secured with advance reservations.  I’m entirely certain that the park sights will still be stunning.

Molly Yellowstone sign

Farewell my lighthouse

The last sunrise. A final morning walk on the beach. A concluding entry in my journal. It is the last of five days that I will repeat this early routine. I will miss this place.

As if to mark the occasion, sunrise is the most colorful of the week. I scamper to my favorite views to try and capture the image. Clouds light up from below as the sun advances up from the horizon.Crisp Point sunrise

My walk takes the pace of a stroll across nature’s canvas. Tottering over mounds of Lake Superior rocks, I leave no trace. When the charcoal, gray, pink and white mosaic gives way to sandy beach I smile. Here I can walk more steadily, stop concentrating on where I place my feet and look around. I could pick up my pace, but there is too much to see.

Molly walking beach at CPL

My footsteps from yesterday are still visible in places – a surprise on this windblown expanse. The afternoon’s visitors have also left their mark – bare feet, dog paws, a rock message composed on the sand. I wonder about the huge paw prints that walk alone, appear very recent. They could belong to a bear.

It’s nature’s traces that are the real attraction. My favorite are the fine lines that curve and intersect on the firm sand. They mark the perimeter of the waves’ advances. they tell the story of the water’s movement. A few days ago big waves drove high up the beach. Today they merely lap the edge. Black sand stretches add to the design, mingling colors.

Bird and critter tracks wind hither and yon though the sand. Drunken wanderings leave a fanciful path. Tiny feet press distinct prints. Animal friends join and leave. Explosions occasionally occur in the intersections of a crowd.

The wind too participates in this artwork. Symmetrical ripples linger across the sand. A lazy stream creates similar patterns under water, on its journey to the lake. It is all there for the visual taking.

The lake is quiet as my coffee and I settle down on my “writer’s log” on the beach. A light wind blows. Weak sunlight flows over my shoulders, tempered by broken clouds and remnants of wildfire smoke. The beach exudes calm.

My writing log

I don’t mind that it is not a sparkling blue day. This feels more relaxed. The air is that temperature that I don’t feel – it’s just there, comfortable. The day does not demand attention. It just is.

Soon the first visitors will arrive and I will resume my station in the Visitor Center for Crisp Point Lighthouse. During lulls in the day we will pack up our gear. Roll up the sleeping bags. Take down the tent. We will prepare to say our goodbyes to Crisp Point. For one more year.

Lighthouse Life

Living in the moment. It’s what I crave most as we approach our stint as lighthouse keepers at Crisp Point Lighthouse. For five days, my daily life will revolved around my duties tending the lighthouse and its visitors. The rest of the world will live at a distance.

The process begins as we drive down the rough 18 miles of dirt road. I leave civilization behind. The woods close in around the car. My cell signal dies out. I shut down my electronic devices for good. I abandon my to do lists, my deadlines, my schedules. Anything I don’t have in the car, I don’t need. Tent, sleeping bag, a duffle of clothes, cook stove, food supplies and water comprise my worldly goods.

This is not new territory. Rich and I are in our fifth year as keepers, so we know the drill. Our duties revolve around hosting the visitors who come, eager to see the lighthouse. We have already established camp in our keeper’s site before the first arrive.

Our tent under Crisp Point Lighthouse

This is the first time we have been keepers in the peak of the summer season. Warm weather is a welcome change from our chilly October visits, and visitor numbers swell accordingly. We see close to 100 people a day, keeping us busy greeting, informing, helping and chatting with these visitors. I love seeing the eager faces, thrilled to know they can climb the tower, go out on the catwalk. From my post in the Visitor Center I meet people who have been coming here for years, decades some of them. They know more about the early days than I do, recount first hand stories of the decay followed by brilliant restoration. Despite being busy, it is restorative work. I have no need to plan my day. It develops with each person who arrives to see the lighthouse. It feels good. Serving others.

There are always cleaning and maintenance jobs to be done and we fill in with those around our visitor duties. Rick Brockway, president of the Crisp Point Light Historical Society, comes daily and pitches in non-stop on chores.  His tireless efforts make this lighthouse site worth the long arduous drive.  Rich helps out with replacing a segment of the boardwalk.  I sort, fold and put away the new shipment of t-shirts that Rick brought.  Our efforts pale in comparison to Rick’s dedication.

Rick and Rich building boardwalkMolly putting away CPL tshirts

It’s the edges of the day that I relish. Fringes of time to drink in the surroundings, revel in owning that remote space for a brief stint. Nestled against the shore of Lake Superior, camping on the soft sand, hearing the repetitive lap or roar of the waves against the shore. Sunrise and sunset, that red orb rising and falling into the lake. The wood crackling as the campfire battles against the wind that whips away its flames as well as its heat.

Molly and CPL sunset

Post sunrise the sun paints the lighthouse with its magical morning glow. inching up the tower. The structure is illuminated rather than being the illuminator.Crisp Point at sunrise

Five days, living under the shadow of this lighthouse.  It’s quite the life.

Is this still Texas?

Two jackets, a quarter zip thermal shirt, long sleeve t-shirt, short sleeve Cuddle Dud, arm warmers, biking shorts, tights, wool socks, gloves, toe warmers and a hat. It was just barely enough to stay warm cycling all day. We didn’t pack our heavy Minnesota gear for cycling in Texas, so instead I wore everything I had in my panniers. Yesterday it was 87 degrees. Today never got above 40.

We were warned. Whenever we told folks we were melting in the heat because we were from Minnesota, they responded, “Just wait until tomorrow. You’ll feel right at home.”

Not only was it 36 and windy as we cycled away from our motel, but a fine mist soon coated our glasses and dampened our outermost layers. It might have dampened our spirits as well except for one huge bonus. The 21 mph wind was directly behind us. After battling a headwind for two days, this was a wind we could welcome. Even if it delivered frigid air.

Rich at motel

The best way to stay warm was to keep cycling. So I was surprised when Rich randomly stopped halfway down a hill. I was even more surprised to see him wandering into the roadside grasses until I realized he was taking photos. In that weather, I knew it could not be a bird. Instead he was documenting the increasing population of bluebonnets and other wild flowers. There were frequent bunches lining the road and we could tell that some fields were filled with bluebonnets, but in the misty distance they appeared as a dim blue fuzz.

Texas wildflowers

I finally got my latte when we stopped at Oliver and Company coffeehouse in San Sabo for breakfast. In fact, I had two. I’ve never done that before. But they were small, and I still wasn’t warm after one.

Molly at coffeehouse

Molly feeling cold
Whether it was the double lattes, warm food, extra calories or just spending some time indoors, it felt marginally warmer when we returned to our bikes. Or perhaps it was the absence of mist in the air. But it made the difference between being chilled and feeling comfortable. And it certainly improved our ability to see and appreciate the lush green rolling countryside studded with leafy trees and the occasional longhorn cattle.

Today’s ride was completed in record time. We fairly flew down the road. Uphills were effortless with the wind’s turbo boost. On the flats we easily clocked 20 mph. Our average speed jumped from 9.5 yesterday to 13 mph for today – a gain of over 35%!

Texas is full of surprises. We shall see what the Lone Star State delivers tomorrow.