Nocturnal Wanderings

A brown Christmas seemed a certainty. As the days ticked by with narry a snowflake in the forecast, I resigned myself to the inevitable.

I admit to appreciating the clear dry surface of the Lakewalk for my morning runs. I felt grateful for the unseasonably balmy temps and shivered when they approached normal. I became accustomed to the ease of good driving conditions and not needing boots. I began to despair of losing my love of winter. And then it snowed.

It was entirely unexpected. We arrived home from a short trip to the Cities to find the trees blanked with snow. Our house lay nestled in the softness of white, our footsteps muffled by the residual snowfall since the walk had been shoveled. Outside our windows each branch bore a layer of fluffy frosting.

As darkness fell, I couldn’t resist the urge. I had to shuffle through the new snow, walk among the giant trees cloaked in white, traverse the silence surrounded by the muffled woods. Donning warm clothes, boots and headlamp I crossed the road and left civilization behind as I followed the footpaths.

My headlamp pierced the darkness, preceding my progress just fast enough. The rest was a hidden world of discovery.

Lester Amity trail at night

The moon shone softly through the trees, a heavenly presence on this wintry trek.

Moon and snow covered trees at Lester

The contributions of a nameless Christmas elf graced the evergreen branches.

Christmas decorations in the woods

I wasn’t gone for long. I didn’t travel very far. But it was enough to transport me into a renewed sense of well being. And a rekindling of the frosty spirit that comes with our coldest season.

Home beckoned as I approached. A warm sight after my nocturnal wanderings. Welcome winter.

Hoeg H'Arbor glowing in the night

Kayak To Go

It’s not easy being small. I can’t reach half the shelves in my kitchen, and even carrying my toddler grandchildren can prove a challenge. So the idea of hoisting a kayak overhead to perch in a rack on top of my car is a non-starter. Which is a problem.

In my old age I have decided I need more independence. Perhaps it’s COVID, prompting me to find ways to enjoy outdoor recreation on my own, without relying on anyone else to make it happen. My activity of choice is kayaking, which is fine if I’m at the cabin, content to drag our weighty boat down to the dock and plunk it in the lake. But what about further exploration? New lakes to discover, shorelines to cruise, rivers to reconnoiter. There has to be a way.

With a little searching, I learn that there are two options: an “origami” folding kayak and an inflatable kayak. The first offers lightweight, high performance vessels with a hefty price tag. Not my bag. The second has a wide range of choices, from an oversized floatie to tough white-water models. I focus my research on something in the middle and soon zero in on Advanced Elements kayaks. Offering high quality inflatable materials with a strong fabric covering is a good start, but they also feature built-in aluminum ribs in the bow and stern to provide tracking that rivals a hard-shell kayak. It doesn’t take long to narrow my selection down to the AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak. At 10’5″ in length and a mere 26 pounds that packs into a carrying case that is 30″ x 17″ x 8″ I know I’ve found my kayak. The next model up has a few more bells and whistles, but packs another 10 pounds. This time it pays to be small – the sport version is enough for me.

But what about set-up and take-down? Will I spend all day on the shore just getting the thing ready for my adventure? A few YouTube videos calm my fears – it looks to be pretty slick. I press Add to Cart, throw in a double-action hand pump and wait for it to arrive.

My timing is not ideal. Early November is not the best season in the far north to venture out in a kayak. Especially when the nearest body of water is the largest of our Great Lakes, and extremely cold. But the weather gods look upon me with favor.

As the sun begins its descent on a clear afternoon in the 60s, I take my new kayak up to McQuade Harbor for its maiden voyage. A short trial run. As advertised, the kayak unfolds easily and I make quick work of pumping it up. About two minutes to fill the main chamber, followed by another minute for the floor. Half a pump inflates each of the deck risers and I’m good to go! In total, less than 15 minutes from the back of my car to water readiness.

Molly pumping her kayak

I’m delighted to find low docks in the safe harbor where I can slip my kayak into the water and ease myself into the cockpit. It takes only a few swift strokes with my paddle and I already know that it feels like a “real” kayak. Even when I venture outside the breakwaters into the Big Lake, the boat takes the mild waves well and tracks nicely along the shoreline. It feels good.

Molly's first time in the kayak
Molly kayaking McQuade Harbor

Deflating the kayak proves to be equally easy. And it folds into its case with room to spare. I’m impressed with any manufacturer that understands that at the end of my excursion I’m not interested in fighting with my kayak to wrangle it into a tight space.

Kayak folded in case

Two days hence, flat water and warm sunshine beckon. I won’t get another chance this year, so I tote my kayak down to the mouth of Lester River. No dock this time, only a rock beach so I gingerly float my kayak in the shallow water, wade out and climb in. I find I don’t need more than a few inches to clear the rocks and soon I’m skimming across the calm water.

I’ve been waiting years for this moment. I grew up in this fine city of Duluth, always admiring the houses on London Road with prime real estate on Lake Superior. Ten years ago we moved back here, and I’ve been dying to see what those houses look like from the water. Today I’m going to find out.

Molly kayaking Lake Superior

Houses are mirrored in the calm water as I cruise by. Even within a short distance, I find a huge variation in the backyard shoreline. Some homes boast lawns that slope gently down to an accessible pebble beach – definitely among the elite minority of landscapes. More often the yards meet a steep drop at the water’s edge. Some cliffs defy access, leaving homeowners with a splendid view but the inability to touch the water that laps or pummels their shore. In between are a myriad of inventive approaches. Ancient walls of stone, brand new cement retaining walls, enormous boulders holding back the lake’s fury – all in desperation to hang on to the land that the lake would like to claim. Where a bit of beach lies at the base of the cliff, homeowners exhibit great ingenuity with ladders, steps and guardrails to guide them down.

Kayaking shore by London Road

I’m fascinated by the rear view of the homes. Windows stretch across wide expanses, decks stretch across, stories climb high, all to take in the lake’s beauty. Old gazebos and small bath houses occasionally populate the shore, echoes of the golden days in which they were erected. And I paddle past the granddam of estates, Glensheen Mansion.

Kayaking by Glensheen Mansion

Homes give way to high-rises, as the senior care center and apartments loom above the waters. My arms begin to tire, I feel a twinge in my elbow and my legs tell me they have been static for too long. But still I press on. I pass the expanse of ledge rock I scrambled over this summer, pursuing my grandchildren who are far more nimble than I.

Highrises on the shore

The Aerial Lift Bridge taunts me from afar. In my dreams I would journey down to the stately structure and ply the waters between the piers to pass under the roadway. But I will leave that for another day. Turning my fine craft around, I retrace my route and examine the homes once again, from modest to grand standing shoulder to shoulder on this Big Lake.

Having dipped my paddle into the world of exploring new waters, I sense it is only the beginning. I beach my kayak knowing we will make a great combo. Me and my kayak to go.

My kayak at Lester River

Coming Half Circle

The infant days of COVID-19 seem so long long ago. Back in those early times, it all seemed so strange. So disruptive. So confining. And lonely. In lieu of a social life, I took to the outdoors. By mid-afternoon each day I needed to flee the house, and began walking Seven Bridges Road. What a boon it was to have the city extend the road closing, to have a safe place to walk just outside my door. To climb that hill time and time again, and venture over to Hawk Ridge to look down on Lakeside. Quiet, traffic-less, sheltered neighborhoods. Shuttered by the virus.

Seven Bridges Road April 2020

I watched the leaves come out, the grass come to life, the roadside don its cloak of spring green finery. And still I traveled through a foreign world. The road reopened, and I joined the cyclists grinding up those same hills. My wheels took me further afield, granting a longer and more vigorous escape. I retraced old routes, invented new ones and flew down newly surfaced roads that felt like butter under my spinning tires. It felt almost normal. But I couldn’t out pedal the grip of the virus.

In summer, lively voices accompanied my wanderings. Amity Creek was teeming with life as teens and families alike were drawn to its swimming holes and surrounding woods in greater numbers than usual. “Hammockers” inhabited the trees. Thrill seekers jumped from high cliffs. Kids played hide and seek in the bushes. Picnickers ate by the stream. All eager to forget. Not exactly social distancing. We all needed a way to cope.

Fall’s colors painted over my world, brightening my days with radiance. Every day brought a new landscape, each set of changing leaves outperforming the last. Enticing me out to walk my route before they faded. Those hikes were habit by then. Seeking beauty in a world inhabited by ugly germs.

Hawk Ridge fall view

The falling leaves now signal the waning warmth in our days. Days which have already grown too short for my taste, darkness closing in on both sides. Gone are the evenings we could sit on opposite ends of the deck with friends, to relish seeing them in person. To satisfy that craving for live company. In ways we are allowed in the midst of the virus.

I feel winter lurking at the door, ready to scale down my social opportunities. To limit my face to face contact to that contingent of friends that embraces snow, skis, snowshoes and bundled up walks. To challenge my creativity and strengthen my tolerance for Zoom. All in the name of staying safe.

I don’t know what I expected when the first shut-down order came. I wasn’t naive enough to think it was only a matter of weeks. But I didn’t fully grasp the long-term nature of this confinement. Yet here we are. My walks up Seven Bridges Road tell me we have come half circle. I now have no doubt we will complete this circuit, and then some. Until the virus releases its hold on our lives.

Seven Bridges Road October 2020

Seeking the Peak

Was it more of a gift for Karen, or for us?  For her birthday, our daughter was given a weekend away, to indulge in her own desires without the constant demands of four little ones while her husband Matt held down the fort.  As hosts, we were the happy recipients of this generosity.

Karen’s phone pinged with a notification early in the day of her departure.  “Northern half of Minnesota approaching peak fall color,” it said.  “Good timing!” she texted us.  The search for color was on.

Saturday morning arrived along with thick fog.  Undaunted, Karen and I set out for a walk up Seven Bridges Road and across Hawk Ridge to take in the view.  But there wasn’t one.  But that didn’t stop us from enjoying the close range colors bordering the road, and the mother/daughter walk and talk time.

Hawk Ridge colors in fog Hawk Ridge in fog Karen on foggy birding platform Extending our route to include Amity Coffee, we sipped our hot drinks on the final stretch to home.

Karen and Molly on color walk

Our next outing was an afternoon bike ride.  Ignoring the dark clouds and nascent raindrops as we loaded the bikes on the car, Karen and I doggedly held to our plan.  Rich’s recent fall from his bike prevented him from joining us, but his pitying look told us he didn’t envy our stubbornness.

By the time we started our ride on the Munger Trail in Carlton, the rain had stopped.  The trail conditions were wet but we rejoiced in our good fortune and set our wheels in motion.  Heading back toward Duluth, we whizzed along the long gradual descent, trying not to think about the uphills it meant on our return trip.

Munger Trail colorsMunger Trail colors 2 Karen cycling Munger Trail Molly Karen rainy Munger Trail

Just as we were about to turn onto highway 23 for a loop route, the rain resumed.  Rather than endure road spray from cars, we chose to turn around and cycle back through the same tunnel of color on the trail, splashed by raindrops.  The temperature was mild and it wasn’t enough to soak us through.  Not as nice as a sunny day, but a good adventure none the less.  So far, weather 0 colors 10.

Sunday promised clear skies, and I knew Karen had her heart set on seeing the North Shore colors – just as every other leaf peeper did.  But we were determined to beat them.  Rising early, the three of us set off before the traffic and headed to Tettegouche State Park.  Driving inland, we hiked into Tettegouche Camp on Micmac Lake from the back side of the park.  There we could take in the colors without crowds.

Rich Karen hiking Tettegouche

Karen Molly overlooking Micmac LakeTettegouche Camp with colorsThe only thing that remained was an overlook.  For that, Karen and I climbed Mt. Baldy.  We discovered that it provided not only a view of Micmac Lake, but also Nicado Lake on the opposite side.  Surrounded by endless views of blazing fall color.

Karen hiking to Mt Baldy Mt Baldy view of Micmac LakeMt Baldy view of Nicado Lake

We finished our hike in good time, beating the rush back to Duluth yet catching the best of the colors.  At their peak.

Karen returned to her little charges rejuvenated and fulfilled.  I finished the weekend on a high as well.  Thank you, Matt!

I Love this Ride

As I strained against my bicycle pedals while advancing up the hill, debate raged in my head.  Rounding the corner I asked myself, should I or shouldn’t I?  Nearing the turn I pondered anew – what to do?

In my well ordered world, I would continue on with my planned early morning bike ride/workout.  I would complete my 30 miles, finish my breakfast toast slathered with peanut butter en route to the coffee shop, then perch on the front porch with a medium skim latte and write for several hours.  It’s what I do.

But possibility lurked.  It was a mild clear morning with the sun just rising, and the brilliant leaves told me they were approaching prime.  Not quite there yet, but the weather forecast promised ugly conditions for the next week.  The leaves might not outlast the ugly.

I had yet to perform my annual ritual. At least once a year I take a ride across the city of Duluth, perched on the hilltop following Skyline Drive with the harbor and lake far below.  This would be the perfect day to do so.  But it wasn’t in my plan.  And I always follow my plan.  Or do I?

I turned left.  Never mind that I had only a half full water bottle for a 40+ mile ride.  So what if my usual granola bar stash was in my other bike bag?  Forget the fact that my map of this route was in the same place.  I had to go for it.

Whizzing along in the early morning sunlight, the air alternated between hot humid blasts that fogged my glasses and the more habitual chilly air.  I felt loose and free.  The writing will wait.  The story will still get done.  I was doing something for myself, and it  felt good.

I had a good 20 mile ride through the countryside just to get to the opposite side of town.  But even that blossomed with fall colors.  They were all around me.  It’s what I had come for.

Fall colors Lavaque Road

Reaching the Information Center at Thompson Hill marked the beginning of Skyline Drive.  From there, the scenic drive snaked across the crest of the hill, weaving back and forth in a rolling ride through forests of fall colors.  My pace took a nosedive as I continually stopped to snap pictures, to gawk, to appreciate.

Skyline Drive fall colors 1 Skyline Drive fall colors 2 Skyline Drive fall colors 3 Skyline Drive fall colors 4

Normally, the appeal of Skyline is the view.  The panoramic spread of the St. Louis River, the harbor and Lake Superior is visible from multiple overlooks and is a real-life geography lesson.  But not today.  Blue smoky haze from the western wildfires hovered over the scene.  Across the water, Wisconsin was a blur.  The horizon erased.  The flat water on this calm day stretched into nothingness.  All of it was eclipsed by the vivid scenery in my immediate vicinity.

With one exception.  The quintessential Duluth experience – a thousand-foot ore boat was inching its way out of the harbor and making its final turn to pass under the Aerial Bridge.  In my “why not?” state of mind, I had all the time in the world to wait for it. Even if it resembled the scene from a faded black and white movie.

Ore boat approaching the bridge

Skyline Drive dumps out unceremoniously at the gates of UMD, and I dutifully skirted the campus.  But even that had its rewards, as I passed the flaming maples of Bagley Nature Area abutting a student parking lot.

The final stretch took me across Hawk Ridge where I bumped along the dirt road amid a gaggle of bird watchers observing the migration.  Then I twirled down Seven Bridges Road through a tunnel of gold – home territory and the terminus of my own driveway.

How glad I am that I followed my yearnings.  That I heeded the siren call and threw my plans to the wind.  And relished this last gasp of warm colorful weather.  Throughout it all, the same chorus kept repeating in my head: Oh, how I love this ride!  

Breaking Routine

We own a wonderful cabin nestled in the north woods facing a pristine lake.  A pontoon boat awaits, as do multiple kayaks, a fire ring and a sauna.  Inside a stone fireplace begs for a blazing fire.  So what are we doing renting a lake home?

Having put all our bike touring, lighthouse keeping and travel on hold for the foreseeable future, Rich and I decided we deserved a vacation.  A real getaway, on a different lake, in a dwelling with more space and amenities (including heat that doesn’t involve stoking a wood stove in the middle of the night), and new territory to explore.

New is the key word here.  A place with no expectations.  No chores.  No established routines.  Only possibilities.  Wonderful options.  The outdoors awaits, and I just know the indoors will delight.

Lakehome at Gunflint Pines

I pack all my notes for the pile of magazine stories I’ve promised to write.  But before the first night falls I set them aside, out of sight.  My head hits the pillow without setting an alarm.  I’ve already dismissed the idea of an early morning run or bike ride, kiboshing my daily ritual.  I’m off to a good start.

Our home for the week is on the edge of Gunflint Lake.  We came loaded with bikes, kayak, and hiking shoes.  I set about putting them all to good use.

Mornings on the large lake are my favorite.  Launching the kayak into the tranquil water I cling to the shore, exploring the deep rocky lake, peering into the woods to catch glimpses of cabins and lake homes.  Smoke from the forest fires out west reach us early in the week and creates eerie reflections, but can’t spoil my reverie.

Smokey sunrise by kayak

Strong winds keep me off the lake for a day, but in their wake the deep blue of the sky returns.  The air borders on freezing and the lake gives up her warmth.

Kayaking with lake mist Kayaking Gunflint Lake

The hills behind us are criss-crossed with hiking trails and I set out to conquer them all.  In the resort office I pick up a hand-drawn map, and get pointers on where the best overlooks are.  I can’t resist labels like Lost Cliff and High Cliff, which live up to their names.High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 1High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 2
High Cliff over Gunflint Lake 3

Rich and I set out to hike to Magnetic Rock.  It’s not a long walk, and I don’t know much more than that this rock has magnetic qualities.  I was not prepared for its sheer size.
Molly at Magnetic Rock

Fall colors grow more vivid by the day.  Yellows punctuated by brilliant gems of red illuminate the trail.

Rich hiking Magnetic Rock Trail Magnetic Rock Trail 1

I’m so busy watching where I step – over tree roots and around rocks – that my eye is easily drawn to nature’s minutia beside my feet.
Magnetic Rock Trail 2 Magnetic Rock Trail 3

Traffic on the Gunflint Trail tapers off beyond Gunflint Lake.  So I set out on my bike for the end of the trail – literally.Molly end of Gunflint Trail

Nightfall lures me back to the lake where I can hear the waves gently lapping while warming myself by a crackling fire.  Rich joins me and we sit, mesmerized by the dancing flames. 
Gunflint Lake Campsite

Five days of finding new things to do, seeing new sights, lingering over views, staring into fires.  None of it resembles my daily routine.

Dip Dip and Swing

Our paddles keen and bright,
Flashing like silver;
Swift as the wild goose flight,
Dip, dip, and swing.

That old Girl Scout song infiltrates my brain, repeats over and over again, accompanying the strokes that propel our canoe.  I’ve been yearning for this.  There is no escape quite like launching a canoe and becoming one with the water.  Losing myself in the pristine wilderness, the tree-ringed lakes, and the silence broken only by loon calls and the swish of our paddles.

Molly Rich canoe Sawbill Lake

I’ve been lobbying for a trip to the Boundary Waters.  To camp and sit by the fire.  To look beyond at the brilliant stars.  To hope for an Aurora. To crawl out of the tent in the morning and drink my coffee while looking out at the calm water.  To set out and paddle the whole day long.  But it wasn’t in the cards.

While in Grand Marais with our son Erik and his wife, Katie, we went up the Sawbill Trail and rented two canoes for the day.  Rich and I paddled one, they shared one with their dog, Finley who rode complacently in the duffer spot.

Erik Katie paddling Sawbill Lake

It all came flooding back.  That Boundary Waters feeling, the seclusion, the lack of technology and urgency which pervades our lives.  Just us and the water.  Dip dip and swing.

We traveled the length of Sawbill Lake, surfing the rollers stirred up by a strong south wind.  All the while knowing we would have to paddle back again into that same wind.  But we forged onward regardless.  An 80 rod portage took us into Ada Creek where we found quiet backwaters to have a floating lunch.  Finley wondered why we didn’t portage more often so he could run.  It was all good.Erik Rich portaging canoes

Yes, it was a brutal return battling into the wind.  But it did the trick.  I didn’t think about COVID all day.  I didn’t worry about wearing a mask, washing my hands for 20 seconds or who was in my circle.  All I had to do was paddle.  Dip, dip and swing.

This morning Rich and I launched a canoe once again.  We are staying in a secluded lake home at Gunflint Pines Resort, which comes complete with private lakefront, a canoe, and our own fire ring on the shore.  Gunflint Lake is not quite in the Boundary Waters, but close enough.  The fog was just lifting from our end of the lake when we pushed off.

Our dock at Gunflint Pines

It was calm as we crossed the large lake in the early morning.  Our destination was Magnetic Lake, but we accidentally sidetracked into a quiet inlet instead.  I didn’t  care.  Nascent fall colors accented the forest reflected in the calm waters.  We pondered the international border that ran along our route, the US to our left, Canada on our right.  The rest of the world didn’t exist.  Dip, dip and swing.

Canoeing Gunflint LakeMolly canoeing Gunflint Lake

We couldn’t help but be attracted to the ornate golden estate that populated the opposite shore on Magnetic Lake.  It turned out to be on the island we were encouraged to encircle, and I insisted we do so.  I was intrigued with the intricate carvings on the perfectly maintained structures and flower boxes with red blooms.

Magnetic Lake

The wind came up and challenged us on our return.  It wouldn’t be a canoe trip without requiring a bit of extra effort.  The far shoreline advanced ever so slowly as we beat our way into the waves, back across the endless expanse of water.  We poured all we had into the task.  It’s all that mattered.  Just as I wanted.  Dip, dip and swing.

Time out for Waterfalls

With my manuscript ready for the Post Office, I am free.  There is no point in laboring over minutia, tweaking the words, or re-crafting my dialog.  While my writing coach spends the next month pouring over my draft and developing a plan to guide my next steps, I am absolved from working on it.

I promised myself this respite.  After hunkering down and writing all spring and summer, limiting my excursions to the cabin and family visits, it’s time to venture further afield.  Rich and I have decided that the safe way to do that is to stay self-contained, driving and renting AirBnBs that have kitchen facilities.  Sheltering in another place.

Our first foray is up to Grand Marais, returning to a gem of a rental, Tre Søstre in the heart of town.  These three mini-tower dwellings bear the Scandinavian sleek design of architect David Salmela.  With huge windows overlooking the harbor, a deck on each floor and within walking distance from everything in town, it’s an upscale haven.  Since we are in the middle unit this time with two bedrooms, we invited our son Erik and his wife Katie – as well as pooch Finley – along.

Three Sisters Horizon Three Sisters Horizon inside
View from the Horizon in Grand Marais

We dedicated a whole day to journeying up the shore, hiking in state parks along the way.  The common theme was waterfalls.  It didn’t require rigorous effort, as each site was a mile and a half or less from the car.  Half the fun was just lingering, not caring how long it took, and drinking up the sunshine.  Escapism at its best.

Our first stop was at Tettegouche, where we hiked up to High Falls.  Katie braved the rocks and water to throw sticks for Finley who boldly swam below the falls, while the rest of us perched on rocks.

Erik Katie Tettagouche High Falls Katie Finley High Falls Tettagouche

On the way back down, we took a side trail to see Two Step Falls – requiring 200 steps down.  And back up again.Katie Erik Molly Two Step Falls
Rich Two Step Falls Tettagouche Erik Katie Finley Two Step Falls Tettagouche

Temperance River has always been a favorite of mine, with its deep gorge, rushing water and potholes scoured out by swirling water, sand and gravel.  Despite the almost-fall season, there was still plenty of waterflow accompanied by lots of oohs and aahs.

Temperance River 1 Temperance River 2Temperance River 3

We followed the trail up to Upper Falls.  This view took a bit of maneuvering down a steep rocky unmarked path that we missed the first time we passed by.  But it was worth the climb down.Erik Temperance RiverHappy Hour on the deck while Erik and Katie prepared shrimp scampi was pretty sweet.  I’m starting to get into this time out.  Molly Grand Marais

Loon Swimming Companions

For three years running I had a feud with the loons. We battled one another for my swimming space in front of the cabin, and invariably the loons won. With their fancy dances and alarmist yodeling, they drove me away. Away from swimming my laps. Away from their young chicks. Unseen but undoubtedly nearby in their nest.

I never did figure out where that nest was. But in loon logic it was too close for comfort. Too close to let a swimming human any closer.

By now I have been well trained. Starting each July, I scan the water for loons before pushing off from the dock. I double check the area as I near the widening in the reeds. The loon parents have radar and will speed in from the middle of the lake to fend off my advances. But not this year.

So far I have yet to encounter a single loon while swimming. Sadly, I know it means they have no chicks. Or perhaps they have moved their nest further afield. I hope it is the latter.

This morning a loon pair float into my space as I begin my swim. Hesitantly I breaststroke, keeping my head above water, my eyes trained on the loons. They remain calm. Floating, dipping their heads in the water, looking for fish. I try shouting to drive them away, but they ignore my silly cries, only giving a mild yodel to acknowledge my presence. So I swim on.Molly swimming with loons 1Molly swimming with loons 2

This is nothing like the protective threats of yore, which instilled a healthy fear and retreat. I know not to cross that line. But this feels different. I engage full lap swimming mode, crossing from one side of the reeds to the other and back again in a strong front crawl. Without the line in the bottom of a swimming pool, my laps tend to stray off course, so I steal looks now and again to make sure I am not veering closer to the loons. Still they float nonchalantly, willing to share the space.Molly swimming with loons 3

Underneath my minor victory lies a good dose of discomfort. They are still wild birds, after all, and unpredictable. I head for shore while I’m still ahead on this round. I send my loon friends a silent thanks for their company and forbearance. For letting me swim with them.

Next year the feud may resume.  I do want their chicks to survive. Just not near my swimming spot.  I would miss my loon swimming companions.Molly swimming with loons 4

All photos by Rich Hoeg, 365DaysOfBirds.com

Note: The telephoto lens makes the loons appear closer to me than they really were – they were about 5 yards away.

Reliving History

The year was 1985. It was our first year back in Minnesota, and with one child in tow we eagerly headed Up North for our first family vacation on Lake Wabana. We rented the same little cabin Rich had frequented as a little boy, and I instantly fell in love with it as well. It became our summer getaway for the next five years.

The cabin came with a small rowboat, and we brought our prized motor to power it – a full 1.5 hp, with a rope on top that Rich would wind around and around then pull to start the motor. It was our locomotion for the week.

That year we took our first long boat excursion. Wabana is part of a chain of lakes, and our goal was to reach the Joyce Estate on Trout Lake, two lakes and two streams away. It required starting early in the morning on a day with little wind and no chance of rain. At our speed, it was an all-day adventure.

We pulled off the trip successfully, and it became an annual pilgrimage. Even when we bought our own cabin where we had a much bigger boat and motor and a family of five, we would trailer our boat over to Wabana and repeat the trip. Still a favorite cabin activity.

Today Rich and I rise with the sun and set out to relive history. The big boat has been replaced by a grandchild friendly pontoon boat, so we hitch up our little 12’ boat and a 3 hp motor. Arriving at the boat launch on Wabana, I strain to find the lake. The lingering overnight chill is robbing the lake of its warmth, and a thick fog lies over the still water. I am bundled in three layers and a jacket and I pull up my hood to ward off the light wind. This is not how I remember setting out.

As we motor away from the landing, a tall figure materializes in the mist. A lone paddle boarder is plying the waters, ghost-like as he crosses the bay then silently disappears. We struggle to find the opening to the first stream. Not daring to lose sight of the shoreline, we cling to the water’s edge until a bright sign jumps out at us. “Slow No Wake” it warns. That wasn’t there before, but we are thankful for the gaudy entry post.

Heading for Trout Lake

Motoring up the narrow stream is easy with our tiny boat and motor. A merganser mom approaches with her brood of five chicks. Rich, ever the bird photographer pulls over and stops. Only when she is opposite us does mom see us, and she quickly prods her family into a frenzied sprint to get by. We laugh as we watch their heads wobble with the rhythm of their rapid strokes. No time to get that photo. The mental image was enough.

In the stream to Little Trout LakeLittle Trout Lake is shrouded in fog. Despite its small size, we cannot see across. But we’re not looking there yet – a mama loon with her well grown chick distract us and we follow. Just beyond, a splash reveals three otters. That mama hisses as us and leads her two young away. They dunk and reappear trying to get away. The little ones imitate mom with baby hisses. Always looking behind, swimming to safety.

Despite grousing about the fog, and how we could have had a nice sunny day if we’d waited a few hours before setting out, I had to admit these were special moments we would have missed.

Another No Wake sign leads us to the next stream and on into Trout Lake. The fog refuses to lift, and the Joyce Estate lies on the far shore – somewhere out there. Relying on distant memories and dead reckoning, Rich leaves the comfort of the barely visible coastline and strikes out across the lake. One small boat plowing through deep mist. When a small point with tall pines gradually emerges from the fog Rich exclaims, “That’s it! It’s the peninsula with the sauna!” Sure enough, it’s where we were meant to be. Finding the beach where we used to swim with the kids, we secure the boat and start down the trail. Hiking back in time.

Back in 1915 David Gage Joyce gained ownership of 4,500 acres of land, almost completely surrounding Trout Lake. He began construction of the Joyce Estate on this spot two years later – a large private family resort with an expansive lodge, a number of guest cabins, butler and maid cabins, a two-story sauna, a 9-hole golf course, seaplane hangar, boat house and other amenities surrounded by beautiful gardens. In 1973, at the end of an era, the Joyce Estate was acquired by the Nature Conservancy and transferred to the U.S. Forest Service a year later.

On our first visit in 1985, nearly all the original buildings were still standing. Some were in disrepair, others still in quite good condition. The grounds were covered in brush and raspberry bushes, and we had to bushwhack our way into the old cabins to peer inside. It felt like a secret find, our own private fantasyland to explore.

Today, the Forest Service has torn down the crumbling buildings, stabilized the lodge, one guest cabin and the sauna, cleared out all the brush and mowed the grounds. It is preserved for visitors, accessibly only by hiking trail or boat, and includes a rustic campsite.

Joyce Estate Lodge Joyce Estate Guest Cabin
Joyce Estate sauna railing

Once again, we peer into the buildings, walk gingerly inside where it looks safe and try to imagine the lifestyle of those who spent their summers here. I also see my children poking around, exclaiming over their finds, eager for a picnic on the beach. Waves of memories.

By the time we make our rounds and launch the little boat, the fog has finally lifted. As we reach the opposite shore, the clouds see fit to part and the sun comes out. It has turned into the warm sunny day that was promised. The return trip reveals all the sights we missed on the way over, and we putter along digging up visions of how it used to be 35 years ago.

Leaving Trout Lake Narrow stream to Little Trout Lake

Today, we’re back to just the two of us. And we have twice the horsepower. Times have changed. But not that much. We’re already planning to do this again next year.