Looning

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 Evening's calm stilled the waters, and the waterskiers had been replaced by boats claiming their fishing spots.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.

 

When the Sun Shines

The wind whips through the newly sprouted leaves on the trees, their shadows a fluttering dappled pattern on the deck.  Beyond, the sky is that classic deep blue with small cottony puffs floating here and there.  The sun is warm on my face as I type, drinking it all in.  When the sun shines, I have to be out in it.  I’ll endure the dim laptop screen in preference to my superior computer setup inside.  The sunshine is too precious to waste.

One of the greatest benefits of retirement is the loss of distinction between the days.  No longer do we have to confine our activities to weekends.  Nor do we have to take our holidays when the calendar schedules them.  So we took our own Memorial Day Weekend early, based on the weather forecast.  We chose the days when the sun would be shining.

Our first priority was to do some cycling.  Between Rich’s back injury this winter and alternate travels by car and plane this spring, we had yet to cover any significant miles.  Finding that lodging was difficult, even midweek, we chose two 55 mile out-and-back day trips using the cabin as our base.

Mississippi RiverThe first followed the Great River Road from Jacobson to Palisade.  The Mississippi River meandered back and forth in that stretch, greeting us roadside every now and then.  We had the route to ourselves, and reveled in some wildlife sightings.   A deer crossed in front of us, followed by a wolf.  He paused to give Rich at Palisade Cafeus a glance but resumed his original pursuit.  A skunk stopped me abruptly, blocking my path down the shoulder.  I felt it was not worth risking his wrath to pass.  Rich followed a porcupine into the woods, as the critter spread his back quills in a showy display as he fled.

We found lunch at the Palisade Cafe.  Your typical small town cafe with ceramic roosters and memorabilia  adorning the shelves, the waitress knew the locals’ orders before they uttered a word.  Sampling the local offerings, we recharged our batteries for the return trip.

The next day took us far north.  Driving to Littlefork we cycled from there to Lake  Kabetogama on the border.  The sun shone gloriously all day and like the day before we benefited from good pavement and lack of traffic.  We made our way to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center.  Although it was not yet open for the season, it did give us access to the lake and a view of its blue expanse.   This time it was breakfast that we ate at the Rocky Ledge. The area was heavily populated with resorts, and the staff was bracing for the onslaught of the holiday weekend.  That morning, however, we were the sole customers.Molly overlooking Lake KabetogamaVisitor Center on Lake KabetogamaIt felt good to be back in the saddle and doing multi-day rides  Naturally I became anxious to get out touring again. It also told us we were not quite ready.  We were grateful for a tailwind to push us home that day as we began to tire, and our sore bottoms were evidence that we needed more time in the saddle.  But it was a start.

Molly feet in boatNestled back in the cabin, we stayed on for two more days, while the sun shone.  The lake was still quiet, with few cabins occupied yet in advance of the weekend.  We had the place to ourselves.  It reminded me why I love being there so much, particularly when the weather is nice.  By the time it began to cloud up on Saturday, we were packing up to go home.

We missed spending Memorial Day at the cabin.  But we also avoided the rainy days.  We made our own holiday weekend, when the sun was shining.

El Viejo Wetlands Day Trip

After a week of taking in all the outdoor activities, beauty, beach and ocean that Las Catalinas has to offer, it was time for a field trip. Rich took off his birding hat long enough to put on his travel planner persona, and came up with a destination that appealed to both of us – El Viejo Wetlands.

The preserve is owned by a successful sugar cane family that has set aside 5,000 acres of land as a wetlands refuge. Their boat trips offer views of not only birds but wildlife as well. Arriving plenty early for our 9:00am boat trip, we met Kevin our guide. As luck would have it, we had a boat and Kevin all to ourselves! The river was a fair distance from the main entrance and other facilities, and we had ample opportunity to learn how Kevin became a licensed guide and honed his English reading birding books available only in English. His expertise soon became very apparent to us.

Molly and Rich river boat

We boarded one of the smaller boats and Caesar piloted us up and down the river. With thunderstorms the last two evenings as well as more rain in the mountains, the river was swollen and the current swift. Kevin pointed out the high water point much higher on the bank. That's where the river will be when the rainy season kicks in soon.

It didn't take long to begin sighting birds and animals. Both Kevin and Caesar were good at spotting them, and Caesar would maneuver the boat over for a close look. They had an eager customer in Rich, and indulged his enthusiasm for photography and finding new species. I left the little birds and far away specimens to Rich, but tried my hand at capturing the larger birds and animals.

Bird
Black necked stick
Tricolor Heron

I sensed a bit of friendly competition between Rich and Kevin, vying to be the first to name each bird! Rich was a formidable opponent, but ultimately Kevin had the advantage, being more familiar with the local birds. As we drifted close to shore, Kevin challenged us to find the next specimen. He pointed out the tree, and it took a while before we could see them. I am proud to say I got it right – bats! Long nosed bats like the underside of trees he said, because they are so well camouflaged there. That's for sure!

Long nose bats

Crocodiles were abundant along the shores. Most of the time all we could see were the tops of their floating bodies and an eye peering out over the water. But one in particular gave us a great show. He'd found a cache of fish and opened his mouth to strain them in, showing us his gruesome teeth. Suddenly, he was thrashing and splashing, having caught a good size fish. It was clear that the river was not a safe place to swim!

Crocodile on shore
Crocodile teeth

The day was cloudy and humid, which kept the sun at bay. With a good breeze on the river and the movement of the canopied boat, it was very pleasant out there plying the water. We were sorry to see the boat tour come to and end, but still had a treat in store.

Molly and Rich in boat

Lunch awaited us in the beautifully restored Casona Hacienda El Viejo, a large wooden open air building. We enjoyed a typical Costa Rican meal, then spent time walking through the grounds. There were ample iguana present, including one that looked like a dinosaur and two fighting iguanas. They also liked to perch on the roof and supports for the building. We had to be careful where we walked!

Casona Hacienda
Iguana

My travel guide did well. It was well worth the journey, and we both enjoyed our day trip to the El Viejo Wetlands.

 

Santa Fe al fresco

Every tourist has his or her own motives for visiting places. While Santa Fe is rich in art, history and Native American culture, that's not what drew Rich and me to the area. It was the setting. The outdoors. The climate. And we were not disappointed.

Just before reaching Santa Fe, we stopped to see the Upper Rio Grande. We started off driving down the canyon on a small lane next to the river, when it suddenly occurred to us that we had bikes on the back of the car. A quick change in the campground and we were soon cycling instead of driving. Much better!

Rich cycling the Rio Grande
Rio Grande

From the start, we opted to stay on the outskirts of the city. We were attracted to a VRBO home which offered a peaceful and attractive rural setting. The unique aspect was sharing it with owner, Kevin. After years of staying in host homes while cycling, we welcomed the opportunity to meet new people and take advantage of their local expertise.

We immediately felt at home in Kevin's comfortable adobe house. Just being there was vacation enough for me. My favorite morning spot was on the sunny front porch with my coffee and breakfast. For writing, I retreated to the back patio. One of our best evenings was spent watching the ever changing colors of the sunset from the patio over a glass of wine with Kevin and Jen.

Our VRBO home

Saturday morning was Farmers' Market Day, and Santa Fe has one of the best. It prides itself on the requirement that all produce be locally grown and that those who do the growing are the same people selling it there. I indulged in one of my favorite ways to spend a morning, wandering among the tables with fresh coffee and scone in hand. Admiring the colorful produce and listening to local music was great home grown entertainment.

Santa Fe farmers market
Santa Fe farmers market produce
Santa Fe farmers market musicians

Rich's pick was the Randall Dave Audubon Center. We arrived before dawn for prime birding opportunities. I will admit to going for a run while Rich sought out new bird species, but I did join him to hike in the beautiful environs preserved by the Natures Conservancy.

Rich at Audubon Center
Audubon Center

In between cycling the local trails and countryside, we did make sure to get to the historic areas of Santa Fe near the Plaza. We especially enjoyed visiting San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the country. We also ate well, sampling New Mexican cuisine and local organic foods thanks to recommendations from Kevin.

San Miguel Chapel

We went for the outdoors, and Santa Fe treated us to a record warm spell. With unrelenting sunshine and temps in the 70s, it was the perfect escape from the cold Northland. Every moment spent al fresco was a delight.

 

Grand Canyon on Our Terms

We did two things right on this visit to Grand Canyon National Park. The combination of the two allowed us to avoid crowds and have easy access to all the best vantage points.

The first is coming in March. This is shoulder season in the park, with many of the amenities just opening up for the season and service just gearing up for the upcoming crowds. There are plenty of people here, and at times the parking lots have been full. Lines for the shuttle buses exist, but it appears most riders get on the first bus that arrives. Restaurants are busy, but it hasn't been hard to get in. All we can think is “What must it be like in the height of the summer?” We are die hard off-season travelers. It has certainly paid off this time.

Molly and Rich at Grand Canyon

The second is bringing our bicycles. There are greenways throughout the park, enabling us to walk or cycle just about anywhere we want. We haven't set foot on a shuttle bus, and don't have to worry about car traffic.

Our bikes and Grand Canyon

A few portions of the Rim Trail are open to bicycles. We made sure to ride those. In addition, the road from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest at the western end of the Rim Trail just closed to cars on March 1. Shuttle buses own the road, but bikes are allowed. We covered that over the course of a sunny, warm afternoon, with frequent stops for the views.

Cycling at Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon view

This is definitely our type of tourism. We get to see the Grand Canyon on our own terms.

 

Sandhill Crane Capital of the World

Kearney signIt’s a pretty audacious claim. But we were due to travel during the migration season and Kearney, Nebraska was not far from our route south. Rich the birder was naturally interested. And I was assured by others that even I would find it fascinating. How could we resist?

Over 80% of the world’s sandhill crane population funnels through Nebraska then fans out to the northern breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. They stop along the Platte River for several weeks to rest and build up their body fat before continuing their journey. At the Audubon Center in the Rowe Sanctuary, they report that the count for March exceeds 460,000 cranes to date.

The cranes spend the day feeding in farm fields throughout the flat countryside. It is at dawn and dusk that they fly between the fields and the river, filling the sky with clouds of birds grouping and regrouping in ever changing clusters and V-formations. It is a noisy process, as their cries fill the air in a roughly melodious symphony. Seeing the birds without hearing them is only half the experience.

Our first attempt to witness this aerial display is at dusk. I pile on my vest over more fleece, top it with a down jacket and add Gore cycling gloves, wool socks and hiking boots. Walking out to an old railroad bridge over the Platte River we find it already populated with other heavily clad birders sporting binoculars and cameras with lenses of unbelievable proportion. I stop between the metal side walls that shield me from the bitter wind while Rich goes out to claim a prime photography spot in the wide open span of the bridge.

The sun is low in the sky, lending a pink and red glow to the low hanging clouds. We wait for the birds to fly in front of the sunset and come in for a landing on the river. But they don’t. Clusters of cranes fly overhead, and there are undulating swarms in the distance. All heading to a more attractive spot downstream.  A lot of good-natured bantering goes on among those of us huddled on the bridge, taking the lack of luck in stride as the birds pass us by. Then one by one the birders peal off. Tomorrow will be another opportunity.

Believe it or not, I am the one who insists we try again at sunrise. Rich is disheartened by the dreary sky, but what is the point of being here without seeing the sandhill cranes I argue. By the time we work our way toward the river, we can see huge numbers of cranes already in flight. Situated on a dirt road adjacent to farm fields with brown remnants of crops, the birds come to us. They fly in from all directions, swooping and swirling. Sometimes they settle in the field momentarily then rise again in great volumes. Flocks of birds crisscross in the sky traveling in opposite directions, only to have one group do an about face and follow the others. The crowded acrobatics over our heads are all the more amazing for the lack of collisions that would seem inevitable; the cranes have their ballet down to perfection. And of course, it is all accompanied by honking overhead.

I leave the bird photography to Rich’s superior skills. His video best captures the experience.

Meanwhile my lens is trained on the photographer to lend the personal view.

Rich photographing sandhill cranes Rich watching sandhill crane migration

By the time the action dies down we can say we’ve seen the sandhill crane phenomenon. This time it truly lends credibility to the world capital claim.

Click here for additional videos on Rich’s blog.

The North Shore Gift

We made the reservation weeks ago. A mid-winter weekend at Naniboujou Lodge is a treat in itself, but Mother Nature threw us a curve ball that made it picture perfect. As cross-country ski enthusiasts and lovers of winter, we cringed when we saw the forecast for continuous days in the 40s. But as visitors to the North Shore, we reveled in constant blue skies and sunshine with real warmth.

We put skiing at the top of our agenda, knowing the snow conditions were likely to suffer through the weekend. A morning ski at Oberg Mountain gave us beautiful soft snow before it got too soft and sticky.Rich and Molly XC skiThe harbor in Grand Marais sparkled in the sunshine, and the sun melted enough of the ice and snow for me to make it most of the way out to the lighthouse. It was so warm at the Java Moose that customers took their coffee drinks outside to bask in the Adirondack chairs. Could this really be mid-February?Grand Marais lighthouseNaniboujou Lodge was a lovely oasis. The rock beach was exposed and waves crashed onto the shore. Its deliberate lack of wifi and cell service was a fine excuse to read and relax in the quiet sunroom. And because they offer only package deals in the winter, we feasted morning and evening on fine meals in the colorful dining room. What’s not to like about that?

Naniboujou LodgeA trip to the Pigeon River, right on the Canadian Border, necessitated a walk up to High Falls. The warm weather had released sections of ice over the waterfall, giving us a view of the rushing water. It was easy to stop and look around amid the din of the falls in the mild temperatures.High FallsThe Witch Tree was nearby, and Rich knew how to find it. So we made a trek through soft, wet snow to its sacred location. There were signs informing us of its significance to the Ojibwe people, and asking us to remain silent and refrain from smoking. But there was a good platform from which to view the tree from a respectful distance. I’d seen many photos of the tree before, but never actually laid eyes on it in person.Witch TreeThe afternoon sunshine lured me outside once more. Judge Magney State Park was just across the road, and I followed the hiking trail up the Brule River. It was pretty easy going for the most part, with well packed snow. But inclines were slick and the 175 steps down to the middle falls required careful balancing on the narrow exposed wood on the edge of each step. The water shot forcefully out from under the ice at the falls and disappeared again, leaving a fine mist in the air. Devil’s Kettle proved to still be ice covered. If only I’d known, I would have spared myself the hairy climb and slipping down the treacherous slope that led to it. But it was so nice out, I was happy to prolong the hike.Middle FallsRich preferred seeking photo spots for the beautiful sunrises over the lake and starlit nights.  He obviously does it well.Sunrise over Susie Islands
This weekend was a gift from our son Carl and his bride Chelsea.  We loved their selection of Naniboujou Lodge, and the unending blue skies that accompanied our visit made it even more memorable.  Thank you!