The Same but Different

Having reached Inverness, the most sensible return route to Aberdeen was back the way we came. While I would have preferred to find new ground to cover, things do look different coming the other way and we found plenty of ways to mix it up a bit.

For starters, this time we stopped overnight in Inverness. Arriving late, we hurried out to find a place for dinner and stumbled onto Hootananny, which is a Ceilidh bar with live music. Since a large round table was the only one available, we were soon joined by three young people from London. We hadn't expected to be there long enough for the music to start, but between a delay in getting our food and great conversation with our table mates we did in fact hear some of the music. By that time, the place was packed. We certainly found local color.

Hootanannys

On our first trip across the northern coast, the weather was cool with a mix of sun and clouds, and windy. This time it was uncharacteristically warm and sunny with light winds. Our tights and heavy jackets were stashed deep in our panniers, and I even nixed the wool socks. While the daffodils and tulips were finished, the gorse bushes were still brilliant yellow, and lilacs were now blooming as well.

Molly and lilacs

Retracing our route gave us a chance for some re-dos. Findhorn was recommended to us en route, and I almost suggested a spontaneous detour. But I didn't, and rather regretted it. We fixed that this time with a stopover in the little town on a bay. The warm weekend day brought everyone out to the water where there were sailboats racing, folks rowing a wide skiff, and even a water skier. Quality time spent on a park bench was a must.
Findhorn
Repeating means getting to do favorite bits again. The path on top of the cliffs was a standout for me, particularly the last 6 miles approaching Cullen. And crossing atop the old via duct to reach the town was a classic. This time it was the perfect day to avail ourselves of the fabled Cullen Ice Cream Shop. We knew we had the right place. There was a long line out the door.
Rich was eager to have another pub meal at the King's Arms. I was concerned it would not live up to our first warm and jovial experience there, but I need not have worried. The sequel was every bit as good.
Approaching Cullen 1
Approaching Cullen 2
Cullen 1
Cullen 2

Nearly three weeks have passed since we first covered this ground. It seems inconceivable that we saw some of this on only our second day of touring Scotland. We have so much more behind us by this point. No wonder it's the same but looks so different to us now.

 

Northland Mud Season

Few would claim that the Northland is at its best in the spring.  While temperatures are nearing the comfort zone in the Twin Cities, we are still hovering around freezing.  Although spring flowers may be poking up in warmer climes, here the vegetation is still brown.  The ground is muddy and still icy in spots.  In short, it’s pretty bleak.

And yet, when the sun comes out it is hard to resist heading outdoors.  Never mind that cold wind off the lake, spring calls.  That’s exactly how I found myself in Gooseberry Falls State Park this morning.

Muddy path at Gooseberry FallsThe woman in the Visitor Center warned that the trails were wet and slippery.  But the draw was irresistible.  I hadn’t come to the park to walk on the road.  From the abundance of muddy footprints I followed, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.  Others too were enjoying the squish and slide of mud season.  There is something innately satisfying about setting foot squarely in the midst of that soft wet earth and the squidgy suctiony noise that accompanies its exit from the quagmire.  Big kids that we are.

If the lack of vegetation deprives us of color, it also grants vistas.  En route to the lake shore, I was able to take in the falls from a distance, and enjoy the twisty, windy path of the river.  It’s fascinating how it transitions from roaring falls to lazy stream in just a short distance.  The dogwoods added a welcome touch of red to the scene.Long distance view of Gooseberry Falls Gooseberry RiverNot all scenic views were a product of nature.  I particularly enjoyed the symmetry and design of the steps that took me high above the river to the cliffs above.  Workers more recent than the original CCC crews that created the park’s magnificent log and stone buildings back in the 1930s were responsible for this ascending sculpture.Modern steps in the parkHiking between the shoreline and the falls, I decided it was a dual sound track park.  Next to Lake Superior, the rush of the wind and the pounding of the waves filled my ears.  It was a familiar noise I could feel as well as hear.  Both sensations retreated as I moved away from the lake, soon to be replaced by the roar of the falls.  The thunderous din grew as I drew closer to the source, and witnessed the power of the water as it crashed over the rocks.  Still swollen by the spring run-off.Gooseberry Falls in springMy circuit complete, I tracked globs of mud back to the car on my boots, fresh air tingling on my face, and fingers feeling a slight chill despite my warm gloves.  All so very satisfying.  Spring in the Northland, mud season at its very best.

Winter Resurgence

It seems a strange scene.  I stand in my bare feet and swim suit, peering out into the darkness at 6:15am.  The outside floodlights are on, and they illuminate a world blanketed in white.  I expected the snow.  In fact, it’s the reason for my one-piece lycra apparel.  Assuming it would be too deep for running, I had decided on an alternate workout this morning.  But I hadn’t counted on the landscape now in my field of vision.

Every branch is outlined in white.  The thin boughs are magnified by a fluffy coating of snow much thicker than their own sinewy skeletons.  The woods surrounding our house are no longer a transparent winter veil but a lacy wall enclosing our abode.  I can already picture the Lakewalk rimmed by more ghostly shapes.  It is much too good to miss.

March Snowfall 1Despite the dim predawn light, many have preceded me down the trail.  Footsteps are plentiful, crisscrossed by bicycle tracks and the wide treads of fat tire bikes.  The snow is not as deep as I feared, but the wet fluff lies over a layer of slush.  Messy but not slippery, it makes for slow and arduous progress but poses little danger of falling.March Snowfall 2

The world is silenced by the snowfall.  Footfalls and tire rotations are muted, but faces are glowing.  “Isn’t this beautiful?” seems to be on the lips of all I pass.

I don’t normally take the small bypass in front of the town homes at The Ledges.  But the chance to get closer to the lake draws me down the indistinct path.  My impulse is rewarded, seeing the dry stalks of fall flocked with snow silhouetted against the gray-blue of Lake Superior, and framing the iconic Aerial Bridge.

March Snowfall 3 March Snowfall 4While just yesterday the Lakewalk was perfectly clear for easy running, I have no complaints about this resurgence of winter.  It taught me to seize the moment, change my plans, stop and take pictures.  And best of all, enjoy my surroundings.

March Snowfall 5March Snowfall 6

Spring Fling

I seriously doubt anyone stayed at home today.  How could they, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the 60s even right next to Lake Superior?  I certainly didn’t.

My day started out on the Lakewalk with good running friends.  We were a pack of four, but we met much larger groups of runners thundering down the path.  It was as if anyone who owned a pair of running shoes was out there.  For good reason.  Skirting the harbor, the view was unsurpassed.  Little iceberglets floated in the calm water, and the bridge reflected perfectly on the glassy surface.  The water’s blue was even deeper than that of the sky.  The gray days of winter faded from our memories as we embraced this sudden spring moment.

Exchanging my running clothes for cycling gear, Rich and I headed up the shore for an afternoon bike ride.  Our starting point was Gooseberry Falls – along with the rest of the world.  We were lucky to find a parking place, and had to pick our way through the crowds to get to the falls.  There we found water rushing over and through the ice that still covered much of the river.  Quite a unique sight.Molly and Rich at Gooseberry FallsGooseberry FallsRiding along the shore, water was flowing everywhere.  The rocky cliffs that line the road were oozing with water, dripping over the edges and down the craggy formations.  Rivulets ran at the base of the rocks and through the brush.  There was one waterfall in particular that we hoped to see, and were not disappointed.  Only in the spring, does water shoot out from the rocks into Lake Superior like this.

Spring WaterfallTree out over Lake SuperiorAt Beaver Bay the Beaver River came shooting out of its own icy formations.  Clearly the rivers were unprepared for this sudden spring.

Beaver River flowing through iceI was unprepared as well.  Expecting it to be “cooler by the lake” I had overdressed, and sweltered in the sunny 60-degree heat of the day.  But I wasn’t about to complain.  The only misfortune was the fact that the ice cream shop in Beaver Bay was not open.  We had both independently secreted cash in our pockets, intent on stopping to indulge.

I know it’s only March 12.  And that even the calendar shows it isn’t spring yet.  I’m too well versed in the ways of the Northland to think that this will last.  One look at the weather forecast tells me tomorrow will be very different.  All the more reason I so enjoyed today’s Spring Fling.

 

Not all Auroras are Equal

We are fortunate to live in northern Minnesota where we can see the Northern Lights when the conditions are right. Over the years, I’ve seen my share of Auroras. The very best was up at our cabin. Late at night, sitting around the campfire, someone looked up and noticed the green glow. We all trooped down to the dock where we had a view of the whole sky. There were rays shooting up from all directions, reaching the apex and waving.  Lying on our backs to watch the performance was awesome.

More commonly, the lights have been a green glow in the North. Sometimes they create spikes that stretch up into the sky.  Others form curtains that hang above the landscape like the display I saw in the Boundary Waters with my son Carl. Each is mesmerizing and special.

With that as my frame of reference, I was unprepared for the Northern Lights in Norway. Sure, I’d seen photographs and tourism posters, but those are unabashedly sensationalized.  I knew the chance of seeing the lights was better there. Pure geography means even weaker displays are visible.  I just hadn’t realized how different they would be.

Our first night we got really lucky.  In the vernacular of the serious Aurora Hunters, there was a “G2 storm” – which means an extraordinary amount of solar magnetic activity.  That translates to a high likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights.

Not only did the lights blanket the sky, but they were exceptionally brilliant and intense.  We didn’t have to look for a green glow.  The whole sky was glowing.  Against that backdrop bright rays shot across the sky, arcing over our heads and extending from horizon to horizon.  It was as if we were witnessing huge electric currents, pulsating and giving off waves of color.  Everything was perfectly aligned to bring us this fine display – location, clear skies, no moon and solar power in the atmosphere.  And boy, was that obvious.Mountain Pass AuroraThe following night, we knew that the solar activity was weaker, so we adjusted our expectations accordingly.  I think we were still harboring a Minnesota frame of reference, because once again we were amazed at what we saw.  This time the lights may not have been as intense, but the sharp streaks were replaced by patterns and movement and the performance lasted much longer.  For about an hour and a half we watched as the lights danced overhead.  They were constantly in motion, creating shapes then morphing into something else.  First active on one side of the ski, then picking up momentum on the other.  My favorite was the circular curtain of lights, waving its folds and draping its colors as it curved.  It was hard to know which way to look, because to view in one direction meant missing something behind me.Mountain Fjord Aurora 1Mountain Fjord Aurora 2Mountain Fjord Aurora 3I have Rich to thank for the photographs of these displays, as that is his specialty.  Often times I feel that the camera overstates what I was able to see with my own eyes.  But on this occasion, I think that the opposite is true.  His photos are quite true to what we saw, yet cannot do justice to the whole experience.  Not even his wide angle lens could capture the full image of what was happening up in the sky.  You had to be there to see it.  I can now fully appreciate the vast beauty of just what the Northern Lights can do.  And it is abundantly clear that not all Auroras are equal.  I’m convinced that we saw some of the best.

Arctic Aurora Brilliance

When chasing the Northern Lights, there are no guarantees. Conditions can change in an instant. A promising forecast can evaporate. The atmosphere can refuse to cooperate. And even when there is a fantastic display, clouds can completely scuttle the view. How well we know this.

After four nights on our cruise along the coast of Norway dedicated to this pursuit, we have seen only a faint glow. While the trip's daytime scenery has been stunning, the unspoken disappointment over the lack of a nighttime performance is a minor undercurrent. But we still have three more nights on shore in Tromso to score an Aurora.

When I enter the visitor center, it is packed with people all anxious to see the Northern Lights. The number of tour operators promising to mine their expertise, drive to different locations all night long, and deliver a memorable experience is astounding. These visitors are prepared to fork over a small fortune, and they anxiously deliberate the selection of a tour operator and the night they will take their chance. I, on the other hand, am here merely to purchase a parking pass. My tour guide is en route with a rental car, already armed with weather forecasts, Aurora apps, alerts, Kp index and solar activity ratings. Rich may be as qualified as any expert out there.

With Tromso still socked in with clouds, we layer ourselves in warm clothes, collect cameras and tripods and begin our chase after dinner. Rich is buoyed by the recent reports, revealing that “the numbers” are suddenly escalating. The key will be to find open skies. Rich's research convinces him we should drive away from the coast, and he has selected an area 73 kilometers to the southeast for this target. Distance is of little concern in this pursuit.

Traveling down the fjord, I keep my eyes trained on the sky. It's hard to see with the reflections of the dash and outdoor lights on the windows. Peering into the darkness, I suddenly find stars. First just in one spot, soon all over the sky! We are still too near the lights of civilization, but we are on target. Constantly searching, I detect faint green rays in the sky over the water. Surely I am not just willing them into existence. They are there from every angle I try. Wispy and ephemeral they fade, but I'm certain I saw them.

30k short of our destination, the stars disappear. Rich chooses to turn around, hoping to return to the earlier opening. We are amazed at the constant lights along the road – who knew there were so many people living this far north?

Still panning the sky, I spy an unmistakable brilliant green pattern right above us! This time it is the real thing. It moves and changes shape before my very eyes. We have ourselves an Aurora.

We are on the top of a mountain pass between two fjords, and amazingly a pull-out appears next to the road. We park and are out of the car in a flash. Despite the lights in the house across the road and the glare of the passing automobiles, the display is so bright that nothing seems to dim its radiance.

Ribbons of green cross the sky. Stretching from one side to the other, we can't even tell which way is North. They twist and twirl overhead. They form and reform then subside. New shapes appear, like curtains with folds that wave in the breeze. Moving and dancing with varying hues of intensity, sometimes with a tinge of gold. The sky is aglow. Its green illuminates the big grins on our faces.

Rich is in his element, repositioning his camera every few minutes. So much is happening overhead and in every direction, there are endless opportunities to photograph the show. I abandoned all thoughts of trying my hand at photography the moment I exited the car. Riveted by the action in the sky, I prefer to see it all live than to risk frustration trying to capture it. My neck hurts from continually looking straight up – a sweet pain I happily endure. Even Rich shoots fewer pictures than usual as the display is so enthralling.

As quickly as it began, the performance fades. The striking shapes ebb into vagueness then dim into obscurity. The clouds have caught up with us.

In all, the glory lasted 45 minutes. But we continue to glow in its wake for the duration of the drive back to Tromso. It is a night for the memory books. My personal Aurora Hunter nailed it. He found a sliver of open sky during one of the brightest of Auroras. Both Rich and the Aurora performed brillliantly.

 

Snow in Abundance

When snow declines to come to the cross-country skier, the only reasonable response is for the skier to go to the snow. It doesn’t take much research or experience to know where to find it. The Gunflint Trail consistently delivers on snow accumulation.

The drive up the North Shore is typical. Lake Superior’s warming influence reduces the snowfall near the shore. A leap of faith is required to believe one is indeed headed for significant snow. Turning inland from Grand Marais and slowly ascending the hillside the transformation is not yet apparent. But within a few miles, there it is. Snow. Lots of it.

An island along the Gunflint TrailThe road is snow covered, the only sound the scrunch of the tires as they turn over frigid squeaky snow. The sky couldn’t be bluer. And the star of the show is the forest. A heavy wet snowfall earlier in the winter has covered the trees with huge deposits of snow. This is not your standard Christmas tree flocking. It is deep snowballish accumulations on all available branches. And it is stunning. In case I’m still not convinced, one step outside the car to take a photo lands me in thigh-deep powder.

Unnavigable ski trailWe quickly learn from the locals that the snow is both a blessing and a curse. The blanket of wet snow brought destruction as well as beauty. Bending and breaking trees, miles of trail were blocked and closed. Despite massive efforts to clear the trails, the clean-up work exceeds the available resources in some areas. In particular, the Banadad Trail‘s 28k of ski trail are largely inaccessible, with clearing efforts able to open only seven kilometers on the western end.  Indeed, many fear for the state of portages in the BWCAW.

Our destination is Bearskin Lodge, home of the central Gunflint cross-country ski system with over 70 kilometers of trails and excellent grooming. Fortunately, Bearskin’s trails are nearly all open. Four days of unlimited skiing await us. And so does the cold. Arriving in the midst of a cold snap, we encounter overnight lows down to -19 and daytime highs in the single digits below zero. But the brilliant sunshine and blue skies are more than fair compensation. Donning layers of suitable apparel, we are easily able to enjoy the amazing beauty of the Northland as well as the skiing.

Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 1 Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 2 Stride after stride delivers more dazzling scenery.  I can’t help but think the tall narrow pines cloaked in snow are the spitting image of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical trees. Seuss-like trees on the Bearskin trailsAnd snowshoeing takes me even further into the depths of the magical woods.

Snowshoeing at Bearskin Lodge Yes, this skier is happy.  With abundant snow on the Gunflint Trail.