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.

A Wake-up Call

It’s not easy being the wife of a birder.

I am snug in bed thinking about getting up but not actually doing so quite yet.  From the other room, I hear my phone ring.  At 6am it can only be one person – either that or something terrible has happened.  Sure enough, it’s Rich.

“Get dressed right away!  You have to come over here and see this!  One of the owlets is on the ground!”  Even in my groggy state I know right where he is, and exactly what he is talking about.

For the past three months, Rich has been visiting “his owls.”  It took him a dozen wintry searches for the mating Great Horned Owls, triangulating their hooting, and looking for them in the trees.  But it all paid off when he found their nest.  It is in the woods less than 10 minutes by foot from our house.  In late winter he watched Mom Owl on the nest and Dad Owl hunting for food.  When they produced three baby owlets, you’d think Rich had new grandkids!  He visited them on a regular basis, reporting back their progress and how fast they were growing.When the coronavirus hit and we took to sheltering in place, Rich’s vigil escalated.  What else was there to do?  He began checking on them multiple times a day.  Whenever things got dull, he’d head out into the woods again.  Or any time he heard a crow attack – a sure sign they were pestering the owls – he returned to the scene to make sure his owlets were still okay.  I kidded him that he spent more time with them than with me.

Learning their nocturnal habits, Rich began refining his timing.  Early morning when the owlets were being fed before sleeping, or evenings when they were becoming active again were the best time to see them.  He even lured me over one evening, and I succumbed to the cuteness factor, staying to watch the three sets of owl eyes peer down at me from their branches high in the tree.  They really were hard to resist.  I went back a few nights later.

This morning the urgency in his voice propels me out the door.  “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity!” he claims.  I’m not a birder, but I know better than to disappoint one.  Trotting over to the nesting area, I spot Rich’s red jacket in the woods.  Creeping up next to him, he points out the owlet – just 40 yards away, perched on a broken tree branch just a couple feet off the ground.  It’s one thing seeing an owl up high in a tree.  It’s another to observe it at eye level.

“I found him on the path.  He was being hassled by the crows and was vulnerable in the open space, so I flushed him into the woods.  Mom and Dad are up in the trees trying to protect him.  I’m doing the same on the ground.”  We creep a little closer, all the while being watched by those gold rimmed eyes.

This owlet is not so little any more.  He’s over a foot tall, and has already mastered short flights between trees.  Silently I peer at this fluffy white wonder, little horns already forming atop his head, signature owl eyes staring back at me.  Even lacking any affinity for birding, I can’t help but be entranced.

The owlet clearly is not in any hurry to move.  He perches motionless except for his pivoting head and blinking eyes.  Rich hunkers down for the long haul, watching, protecting, his camera shutter pulsing rapidly.  But I eventually reach my limit and turn to go.  Alarmed, the owlet puffs up and flexes his wings, in defense against this blue jacketed stranger who suddenly feels threatening.  His display reveals brown and black feathers, and he lowers his head to glare at me.  As soon as he realizes I am retreating, he resumes his stationary pose.

I certainly didn’t expect to run out of the house at 6am this morning.  Nor would I have chosen to spend my first waking minutes “birding.”  But this is one of those times when it was worth heeding that wake-up call from my resident birder.  It was a hoot.

All photos by Rich Hoeg.  More photos, videos and details can be found on his blog, 365DaysOfBirds

Toddler Distancing

The plan was to meet up at Banning State Park for a social distancing hike.  I was already out of the car when the Kennedy clan – my daughter and her family – spilled out of their minivan. The older three children clustered near the back of the van, collecting hats and gloves for the hike.  They had been well versed in the rules.  Stay six feet apart.  No hugs.  Don’t touch.

But 2-year-old Michael looked up and saw me.  That’s all it took.  He put one foot in front of the other, then began to run – right to me.  Almost.  Two feet in front of me he stopped.  Looked up and waited with that big grin of his.  It took all my self-control not to scoop him up and give him a big squeeze and bury my face in his ticklish neck.  MichaelPoor Michael, he must have wondered what was up with his Grammy.  Poor Grammy, her heart ached.

Once on the trail, things improved.  The big kids ran ahead, fascinated by the old Quarry structures and the rock formations along the river.  There were plenty of side trails to explore, walking sticks to test, river banks to climb.  Little Michael kept up as fast as his little feet could carry him.  If I couldn’t get close to the kids, being able to watch them in the outdoors was nearly as good.Kennedys at Banning State Park
Ben and Mya Banning State park
Karen and Isabel Banning State ParkWe tried hard to keep our distance.  Dancing around one another on opposite sides of the trail, as kids ran back and forth.  I did my best to imagine it was just a normal family hike in the woods.  The roar of the water flowing over rapids, discovering a lingering frozen waterfall, the carpet of pine needles and the kids’ giggles helped me hold the illusion.  Breathing deeply, I took in the spring air, kicked up dead leaves and stood on big rocks.  Grounded by nature.Kennedy family Banning State ParkThese strange times call for creative solutions.  This was far better than our last in-person encounter, which consisted of waving through the window and leaving chocolate chip cookies on the doorstep.  And it was more successful than our attempt at 4-way virtual family charades when we had a lot of laughs but couldn’t get a word in edgewise.  We will keep trying, any way we can to be “with” family.

The truth is, I don’t really want to get good at this social distancing thing.  I totally believe in the value of doing it, the necessity of these awkward practices.  And I will do my part.  But the next time little Michael reaches up for a hug, I just might not be able to hold back.Molly and Rich Banning State Park

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.