Grounded below the Light

It never grows old. This was our eighth stint as keepers at Crisp Point Lighthouse, and the experience was as unique as the first.

The first indication that this year would be different were the cables and floating platforms halfway up the lighthouse. On closer inspection we could see the hundreds of bricks that had been replaced, the painstaking work taking place to restore this magnificent tower to its strength and beauty. Restoration professionals who specialize in historic structures were plying their skills, high up in the air.

Over the course of our stay we got to know Bob and Josh, who stayed in a trailer at the edge of the parking lot, sharing our retreat on the edge of Lake Superior. From them we learned about the care and upkeep necessary for a lighthouse built in 1904 and managed by a non-profit historical society. We, as members, are responsible for its good health, and watched as they hung from the tower to ensure it endured for future generations to visit.

While they worked on the tower, our duties continued as usual. We still tended the busy Visitor Center where we sold souvenirs, chatted with visitors and answered their questions. We kept the place clean and well stocked, and directed them to the beach to find agates, Yooperlites and pretty rocks, or just go for a long walk on the sandy beach.

We also had to deliver the bad news. “The tower is currently closed, due to the restoration work.” I’ve always been amazed that visiting this lighthouse is completely free (although the 18-mile rough dirt road to reach it might be considered the price of admission). And visitors are normally allowed to go up inside the tower and out onto the catwalk at the top unaccompanied. There they may linger as long as they like, enjoying the view, taking in the long beaches and huge expanse of Lake Superior. I worried that visitors might be angry, denied the pleasure after that long drive. But mostly we met with good humor. People were just happy to be there, to see the lighthouse, to spend time on the beach, to soak it all in.

It also meant that the lighthouse was off limits to us as keepers. No reading out on the catwalk in the early morning sunshine before visitors arrive. No fancy photos through the windows, across the lens. No feeling the wind in my face as it whipped around the curved structure. No need to sweep out the circular staircase to remove the collection of sand from all the feet either. But I know it will be all the sweeter next year when we can do it again.

The restoration didn’t prevent me from admiring the lighthouse from all angles, lifting my eyes to take in its full height. And at sunrise and sunset, it was as majestic as ever. Silhouetted against the red, orange and pink colors in the sky, the cables, platform and unpainted new bricks on its face faded.

During our evening campfires, the beacon still pulsed above our heads while intense stars filled the sky.

Some things don’t change from year to year. We still had our private campsite on the beach, slept on the sand in our pup-tent, listened to the waves crash, cooked out and scoured the shore for Yooperlites at night. Beth spoiled me with French press coffee each morning, and I took restorative beach walks after sunrise. Rich found birds to photograph and Jon delighted in blowing sand off the boardwalk.

Next year we will return to a gleaming whitewashed lighthouse, and dash up the stairs to admire the view from the catwalk. No longer grounded.

Promises Kept

Friendship doesn’t come easily. It takes work to continue the bonds, to nurture the relationships and overcome time and distance. Especially when 49 years and thousands of miles stretch between us. But we’ve done it, three times now.

The six of us entered Knox College in the fall of 1973, all living in the same antiquated dorm with even more ancient rules and traditions. We swapped roommates over our four years, and as our finale we all lived in the same “suite” with a few more senior girls. Bonding over our shared experiences.

Nine years ago, we instituted our first mini-reunion, which we now dub our Knox ReUn. We gathered for a weekend in the Twin Cities where three of us lived at the time, sharing the hosting duties. We followed that four years later, renting a condo in Chicago where two more members lived. It resembled dorm life, sharing bedrooms, communal cooking and assigned clean-up duties.

That left one locale – New York state, where Barb lives and better yet has a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains where she spent her summers since she was six years old. Promises were made, plans set in motion, airline tickets purchased and dozens of emails flew back and forth. Despite being delayed by Covid, five of us finally convened on Long Lake for the week.

It felt different this time. Sequestered in a beautiful setting, surrounded by water and mountains and myriad options for outdoor adventure was liberating. We found ourselves mixing and matching in little groups for kayaking, swimming, hiking or just lounging in a hammock. There was an air of leisure, a lack of schedule and a shared feeling of relaxation. An ability to take life as it came – a far cry from our self-imposed rigid study regimes of yore.

For the first time, all of us are retired, save one. No one felt any pressure to make the most of every minute. It was enough to just be there. Together. Conversation flowed easily. We no longer had a need to talk work, to air the stress and pressure we felt or bemoan the challenges we navigated. Instead, we could savor this freedom and the ability to enjoy our retirement from the careers we earned with that college degree.

Silliness and fun was not only allowed but encouraged. Barb booked us on a Rail Biking adventure where we pedaled alongside the Hudson River. We floated in the water, buoyed by noodles. We slurped ice cream cones mid-afternoon. We roasted marshmallows and consumed s’mores by the campfire on the beach. We attempted stand-up paddle boarding, some with greater degrees of success than others! It was college antics all over again. Only better.

For me, the best part of the week was the true immersion. All that mattered was what was happening right around me. The rest of the world faded into the background, inconsequential for the moment. Responsibilities would wait, deadlines could be elastic, duties were avoided. Spending time with friends trumped all.

When I entered Knox and forged these friendships, I never foresaw the longevity of these ties. I never dreamed that 49 years later I would be sitting around a table sharing morning coffee, or piling into a speed boat together. It took a lot of dedication and persistence to make this happen. But we’re not done yet. We’ve already decided to reconvene in three years for a destination vacation. I can already see it happening. Because this group keeps its promises.

Arches, through Dad’s eyes

Dear Dad,

I felt you by my side these last few days as I was steeped in the geology of Utah, surrounded by stone edifices and in awe of rock formations. You spent your whole career immersed in the nature of minerals, focused on the engineering aspects of mining. I don’t think I ever absorbed much of that while growing up. Susie was always the rock hound, her pockets bulging with rocks every time we ventured outside. Every family picnic on The Rocks (now known as Brighton Beach) enticed her to return with abundant samples of the pebble beach.

But it all came to roost as I ventured into Arches National Park.

Like any tourist, I had come to see the natural stone arches that gave the park it’s name. Home to over 2,000 arches, it is one of the world’s greatest densities of natural arches. But the initial drive into the park soon revealed the larger scope of its majesty as I stared at massive red rock walls, towers that dwarfed the humans at their base, and rocks impossibly balanced atop delicate bases. With names like The Great Wall, Tower of Babel, and Courthouse Towers, I soon came to appreciate the fuller extent of nature’s creation.

Dad, I couldn’t help but be attracted to the layers of rock, easily evident in the faces of the formations, no doubt each telling a story of its era. I’m sure you could have explained it all to me, how the land evolved over time, and the unique composition of each layer. I had to be content with admiring nature’s sculpting skills.

My destination for the first day was The Windows. It is the most accessible site of the famous arches, and had the bonus of several examples clustered in a small area. With a mid-afternoon entry ticket (they now have timed entry, to solve the problem of the park’s immense popularity) I wanted to make the best use of our limited time to explore. Nabbing a prime parking spot, I cajoled Rich up to the North Window where we followed the parade of sightseers up into its opening.

I continued on to explore the South Window and opposite those, Turret Arch.

I imagine you were silently whispering in my ear, Dad, as I continued to discover that the arches were just one attraction in this whole outdoor museum. The La Sal Mountains made a great backdrop for some of the other other-worldly rocks. And I could easily make out the Elephant Parade.

I had my heart set on being in the park at sunrise, to witness the beauty of the arches against the backdrop of the pre-dawn redness, and the glow of the nascent sunlight painting the stone monuments. That might not have sounded very appealing to you, Dad, as I had to get up at 4:45am to be in position well before sunrise. Rich seconded your sensibility, so the next morning I ventured out in the darkness on my own.

Returning to The Windows, I was one of the first to perch under the arch of the North Window where I could see the sky gradually increasing in color. The wind whipped through the opening, intensifying the 48-degree temperature, and I was thankful for my Minnesota layers. I was gradually joined by swarms of other sunrise-seekers, and I soon realized that while they just wanted to watch the sunrise, I wanted a dramatic photo. That spot wasn’t it. But in my retreat, I did capture the scene.

As I walked away, the moon was just setting behind Turret Arch. To me, that was just as good as a sunrise.

I found the sunrise to be more dramatic amid the towers and slabs nearby.

Taking the primitive trail around the back of the windows yielded the golden hour glow I was after, and further distanced me from the throngs above. It was well worth the early wake-up call, Dad, for these special moments with the rocks.

Leveraging my early start, I ventured further into the park to find more of the arches. On a short side-trail, I headed over to see Pine Tree Arch which proved to be one of my favorites for the view through the center.

Beyond that, I reached Landscape Arch – the iconic view that graces the park’s brochure. You would have found the informational sign interesting, Dad, as it chronicled a section of the arch crumbling and falling in 1991, leaving it even thinner and more tenuous than before. A testament to the impermanence of all these rock structures – still changing with the forces of nature.

I couldn’t leave without seeing Delicate Arch. Since I was alone, I shied away from the hike right up to the arch which was described as “difficult with exposure to heights.” I think you would have seconded that, Dad. Instead I made my way to the upper viewpoint, and kept going out onto the rocky slabs to the rim of a canyon where Delicate Arch stood on the opposite side. By then the day had warmed nicely, and it seemed a fitting finale to my visit.

I don’t think you ever went to Arches, Dad. But I’m certain you would have loved it. I certainly did, especially seeing it through your eyes.

Love, Molly

It was Fate

The thought occurred to me in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those strange, inexplicable revelations that changed the course of our plans.

We had left Tucson that morning, heading for Moab. Deciding that the journey was too long for one day, Rich surveyed the thin options on our remote route and booked us a room at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle AZ. It is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation, and is situated on their land. It seemed more interesting than the standard motel fare in town.

Driving through the red rock formations of northern Arizona, it may have been the out-of-this-world environs that tickled my brain.

“Rich, do you remember someone told us about that ‘mini Grand Canyon?’ Do you think we will be near there?”

I got only a non-committal reply as he concentrated on the driving. But the idea had hijacked my brain.

I’m a list maker extraordinaire. I have an extensive packing list for traveling, carefully honed with each trip. En route, I document each day’s travels, where we stay, how far we drive, the restaurants we choose and our activities. Quickly mining the Notes app on my iPhone, I had my answer.

“Yes! It was the man who cleaned our room at Yavapai Lodge at the Grand Canyon.” That was back in 2017, five years ago.

“We chatted with him, and he told us about the Canyon de Chelly – how it rivaled the grandeur of the Grand Canyon but on a more intimate scale. It was in his home town of Chinle AZ.”

I was on fire now. “That’s it! That’s where we’re going!” In fact, the Thunderbird Lodge was at the entrance to the Canyon. The Rim Roads spun out from our very lodgings. We had time to spare the following day, and I just filled it.

Up at first light, we threw on our clothes and headed out the door. The North Rim was said to be best in the mornings so we headed to the first overlook – Antelope House, just 8 miles away. We arrived to find a deserted parking lot and a rough sign pointing toward a scruffy area stating “Overlook 1/4 mile.” Setting out, we crossed the solid rock expanse dotted with scrub bushes. It felt like senseless wandering, until I noticed the sequence of rocks defining a path, showing us the way. I was further encouraged by a few man-made stone steps, and an arrow painted on a rock.

Then suddenly, we were there, perched on the edge. The world dropped away in front of me, the depths of the canyon yawning in the open expanse. The sun’s rays were just working their way down the walls of the canyon, illuminating the colors, glowing as only early morning sun can do. Sharp shadows in stark contrast.

True to that man’s words, it was majestic and grand. A beauty to behold, extensive and captivating in every direction. But that was not its magic.

It was the solitude. We competed with no one for the view. Silence reigned as we gazed out over the canyon. We had complete freedom to wander the terrain, to take in the depths from our choice of vantage point, to make the experience uniquely our own. To spend as long as we liked looking, thinking, pausing, appreciating.

There was not a barrier in sight, save one promontory protected by short brick walls. No one to collect tickets, no lines waiting to enter.

I felt entirely unrushed as I cruised over the thick slabs of rock. Playful but careful. I watched as the canyon came to life, changing colors before my eyes. Peering down over the edge, finding caves and imagining the rocks forming gates down below. Rich took his fill of photos, relishing the lack of interference from other onlookers.

We eventually moved on to two more overlooks further down the rim. The views continued to impress, especially when we spied the remnants of early cliff dwellers across the way, looking like doll houses in the distance. And still we were solo visitors.

What will remain with me from that morning was the memory of that first overlook, feeling that we owned the canyon, had our own private showing. The freedom to wander unencumbered by fences or warning signs. The sense of awe we were allowed to absorb. I

t’s an experience that can’t be bought. Or planned. Clearly it was fate that brought it to us.

The Lure of the Loop

I am not a newcomer here. Despite a three year gap, I come laden with memories and expectations from two prior stays at the base of the Catalina Mountains on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona. Escaping a winter that just won’t quit, the constant sunshine and warmth were the natural draw. But to me, that is only the backdrop for my cycling plans. I already know, I will head straight to The Loop.

Tucson’s vast expanse of paved bike trails top the “washes” where flood waters are funneled during the rainy season. The Loop accounts for 131 miles of off-road trail, including a 55-mile long route that circles the city. I crossed that off my to-do list last time we were here, so instead I turn my focus to the three River Parks that radiate out from a central connecting point. Each has a distinct personality, which guides my selection each time I set out.

My biking routes over our 2-week stay

Our location in the Oro Valley is at the top of La Cañada del Oro River Park. Within a mile, I join the trail that I consider “my home trail.” I traverse this 12-mile trail down and back each time I seek out a route to cycle. Rich rolls his eyes, at my willingness to pedal 30-40 miles to explore each time I set out. But the terrain is flat, the pavement remarkably smooth, the cycling is easy and I’m just tickled to be out in the warm sunshine.

La Cañada del Oro heads southwest through suburban areas that exude prosperity. At the top, the rugged mountain peaks remain in close proximity, a tireless sight. Two golf courses flank the trail, spilling nice landscaping onto the sidelines and spawning narrow bridges to usher golf carts to the holes on the opposite side. An artsy park is a popular spot and a handy parking area for cyclists. And the path takes to the flats with a windy course flanked by desert shrubs, wildlife and birds. Before I know it, I’m alongside massive poles with netting to enclose Top Golf, with three decks of golf stations. That signals my approach to a decision point.

Turning to the right takes me to Santa Cruz River Park North. After enduring some industrial development, it leads to the flowing Santa Cruz River. Green lush trees and bushes line the banks of the river and the sound of flowing water is both a surprise and a treat. Cycling alongside this oasis I want it to continue forever, but the trail moves away and into local neighborhoods. I cycle behind houses for miles – most protected from view by stone walls – with desert scrub on the opposite side. More eye candy appears with the El Rio preserve and a seasonal lake. Another range of mountains looms close by. Like all my River Park routes, it’s an out-and-back proposition.

In the opposite direction, Santa Cruz River Park South is probably the most remote of the trails – at least for the portion I cycle. It starts with open pit digging of some kind, then takes off in a wilderness area where the trail quietly follows the wash down both sides. It passes Sweetwater Wetlands Park, popular for birding. But until it reaches the heart of the city, it remains quiet and unpopulated. I can cycle on autopilot through that section.

I’ve left my favorite for last, Rilitto River Park. This appears to be the most popular trail, with paths on both sides of the wash and there are plenty of walkers, runners and cyclists enjoying it at all times of the day. The south side is less populated, and has some fun artwork and landscaping along the way. The north side has numerous parks, playgrounds and ball fields that draw families. And the Ren Coffeehouse is a popular stopping spot for cyclists. Rilitto Park hosts a Farmers’ Market on Sundays, and I happened to be there on Bike to the Farmers Market Day. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to peruse the farm and ethnic foods on offer.

I took my last bike ride this morning, finishing with another pass on both sides of Rilitto. My new bicycle bell came in handy, dinging each time I passed a pedestrian or bike. It made me smile each time it rang, and garnered a wavy from those on the path. Tomorrow we leave to head back to the cold Northland. But I’m already looking forward to another visit, knowing I will be lured back to The Loop.

A Gap in our Streak

We all have Covid Stories. You know the litany – because of Covid I couldn’t do this, or travel there, or see so-and-so. Covid interrupted our lives, our routines and broke our winning streaks. But life went on.

In my case, the streak ended just shy of 30. Every year since 1993, my friend Susan and I have escaped our husbands, kids, work, stress and life to spend several days plying the ski trails by day, and sharing our woes, our dreams, our successes and failures in front of a fireplace by night. Until last year.

Those early years we felt so rebellious. The whole idea was born of a need for equal time, payback for the fishing weekend our husbands shared every fall. It was our turn to hand off the kids and venture off into the wilderness. Susan was pregnant with her second child, and I left three at home. It was ground-breaking, escaping before the days of cell phones, out of reach, out of touch on the shores of Lake Superior. And wonderful.

1993 at the Stone Hearth Inn B&B

How well I remember the middle years. We were both in management, working in IT balancing the technical aspects our of careers while getting mired in people management, motivation and leadership. Living in the Cities at the time, we had a long drive to our chosen ski lodgings up the North Shore, hours we used to shed our challenges, our anxieties, and especially our frustrations. Speeding through the darkness, we peeled away layers of pent-up emotions, leaving them on the floor of the car when we arrived. The same topics would resurface over our après-ski wine and cheese, but the tone softened with each passing evening. We were not alone.

2002 Celebrating 10 years at Old Shore Beach B&B

Our kids grew up, our careers shifted paths, and the busy-ness of our lives moderated, slightly. We grappled with thoughts of retirement, of life after work, of building new homes away from the Twin Cities. The life changes that awaited us were ample fodder for our time together, and we allowed ourselves to extend our outing to longer weekend trips. The guys’ fishing trip had long since met its demise, but we clung fiercely to our annual tradition. We continued to see one another through life. Listening and supporting.

2010 at Skara Brae B&B

Retirement has brought increased freedom, allowing us to move to week-day trips. We’re more willing to splurge on our lodgings these days, to grant ourselves some extra comforts. But little else has changed, and despite now living far apart the bond of friendship rekindles the minute we pull away with a car full of skis, food and gear. A comfortable companionship.

2017 at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

I’m not exactly sure how we chose cross-country skiing as the basis for these escapes, but it has remained a constant throughout our trips. Year after year we’d glide through the woods, losing ourselves in the silence of the sport. Our paces often didn’t always match up, but it didn’t matter. We’d drift apart, deep in thought, one of us waiting down the trail to regroup. For all the talking we did at night, we let our brains percolate on their own in the midst of the cold and snow. Most trips we racked up the kilometers all day long, returning to our digs pleasantly worn out, chilled and ready for the fire.

2009 Mukwonago Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails
2014 Sugarbush Trails

From the very start, my ritual was to get up for an early morning ski before breakfast. Eager to push myself, I’d head out the door in all conditions. Susan joined me in the initial years, and on one memorable occasion we skied up to a ridge on the North Shore where we had a grand view of Lake Superior. We then plummeted back down to our B&B just in time for the sumptuous breakfast that awaited. We walked through the door, faces bordering on frostbite, eye lashes crusted with ice crystals and fingers that hardly moved. It wasn’t long after that when Susan elected to spend those early morning hours painting instead. But I persevered. I balanced the frequent brutal conditions with skiing as the sun rose, being the first out on freshly groomed trails and breathing in the tranquility.

2008 A foggy morning at Maplelag Resort
2003 Susan painting at Poplar Creek Guesthouse

Perhaps it was the gap that urged us to look back and take stock of our accumulation of shared experiences. Just as our lives have changed throughout the last 30 years, so have our outlooks. We still eagerly pack up our skis, and look forward to time spent in the woods. Skiing remains the focus of this annual excursion but we don’t feel the same pressure to pack it in as we did during our working years.

“I think I’m getting wimpy,” I confessed to Susan on the drive up the shore. “I just don’t relish going out in those cold, sub-zero temperatures anymore.” She nodded. “And I’m not keen on skiing crusty snow, or steep downhills on a twisty trail.” My confidence is waning. I now prefer soft new snow with good grip and staying in control. Susan put it differently. “I call it being selective. We’ve earned the right to make different choices.”

2022 Ready to ski the Sugarbush Trails

We embraced this new attitude over a cozy breakfast in our trail-side cabin at Bearskin Lodge the next morning, as we monitored the thermometer, waiting for it to cross zero. The following day we chose to start our day snowshoeing through the deep snow in the woods. The recent snowstorm and grooming delivered ski conditions to my exact specifications, and the sun shone down in a deep blue sky as if to endorse the perfection as we glided down the tracks each day. Being able to walk out the door to over 70 kilometers of trails afforded me plenty of opportunity to continue skiing, even when Susan had reached her fill and retreated to the Lodge. Proving we have acquired the wisdom to pursue our own passions.

2022 Morning snowshoe at Bearskin Lodge
2022 Molly skiing around Flour Lake
2022 The evening ritual by the fire

Next year will be our 30th trip, and there is no doubt we will go. We will still pack up our skis, dream of the solitude on the trails, communing with winter and pushing our bodies in the great outdoors. But we will also have the grace afforded by age, to give ourselves options. To make different choices, because we can. And it’s infinitely better than another gap in our streak.

Good Advice on Mt. Rainier

We left well before dawn, the hatch brimming with equipment, a cooler humming in the back seat and sipping Starbucks lattes. As we exited the city and ventured down narrower lanes, the sky brightened to a clear blue and Mt. Rainier rose majestically in the early morning light. Beckoning to us.

Arriving just as the gate opened, we reached the parking lot among the throng of outdoor adventurers eager to be the first ones up the mountain. In the warmth of the sunshine, skis, poles, boots, snowshoes, and backpacks littered the ground and cheerful chatter punctuated the air of excitement.

Erik, Katie and I carried our snowshoes to the trail entrance where we strapped them on. We were hardly alone, joining the long column of people stretching out ahead of us, trekking up the trail – we dubbed it The Great Mt. Rainier Migration. All destined for Panorama Point or beyond, high above.

Snowshoeing in the mountains, I had envisioned thick powdery snow through narrow tree-lined paths. But here was a wide open expanse encompassing open fields, glaciers, rocky outcroppings and clusters of pines, all gleaming in the brilliant sunshine. The snow was more than well packed, and I was thankful for the metal teeth and firm grip of my snowshoes.

I was most intrigued by those who were ski mountaineering. With thick skins on their skis, many were shuffling their skills uphill. Others chose to strap a ski on each side of their backpacks, forming a peak over their heads as they trudged with crampons on their boots. We seemed to be in the minority choosing snowshoes.

As we advanced, so did the steepness of the slope. When we got to the true climb, I gladly accepted the trekking poles Erik had brought along. I learned to punch with my toes then step up and repeat. The surface was as slippery as it was firm, and I was grateful when Erik positioned himself behind me – just in case. We commiserated with those around us, marveling at the icy slope and encouraging one another. By this time, the skiers had all removed their skis.

Step by step I moved upward. A slow and careful process, never looking down, only just at the spot in front of me where I might punch my next set of metal teeth. Up ahead Katie had already scrambled to the top, nimble in her youth and fitness. Never once did I allow myself to think about the return trip. About how I was going to navigate that sliding hill in reverse. I lived fully in the present, elated to be doing this, committed to making it.

And then we were there. Standing atop Panorama Point, buffeted by heavy wind threatening to blow me over, soaking in the warm sunshine and the view of peaks in every direction. Mt. Rainier in all its splendor.

We considered our options for going back down, but the alternate routes were sparsely populated and we took that as a sign. Better to be among the masses then off on our own. Still steeling myself from thinking about it, I followed Erik and Katie back over the edge. Back onto the slick slope. Inch by inch.

“Say, I’d wait if I were you.”

We turned to find an athletic young man fully outfitted with mountaineering equipment and skis.

“It’s still too icy to go down now. Wait for the sun to soften the snow first. It will be a lot safer then.”

The wisdom of his words took only seconds to absorb and we quickly retreated to the top, calling out our thanks. Surely, this was a scenic spot for our lunch. Scouting out a perch that might provide some protection from the wind we prepared to settle in.

Our friend soon returned.

“Oh, and when you go down – take off your snowshoes and punch your heels into the snow. That will work much better.”

We weren’t alone in dithering over which was the best way down, and we shared laughs with other snowshoers over the options and myriad pieces of advice. But time and sunshine proved our best friends, and the heel-punch method took us right down the softened slope. In fact, by following in the boot-steps of others it was almost like walking down stairs in the pocked snow.

With our climb completed, we still had an afternoon of exploring left. The wide open expanses gave us limitless options for meandering, and I relaxed into the aimless wandering and endless views. By that time, the ski mountaineers were descending the slopes, the best of them carving precise squiggles through virgin snow. A show in itself.

With the temperature soaring and the snow softening, the mountain became a playground. Families built snow forts, kids romped on snowshoes, the adventurous set up tents and boy scouts dug snow caves for spending the night. We found narrow unpopulated trails to explore and stretched our time until gate-closing loomed. The ideal capstone to our day.

We left with that good tired feeling, faces flushed with the sun and wind, the joy of spending time with family and reveling in God’s nature. And the luck of getting good advice.

A Stroke of Luck

One more day.  Our time was up at the AirBnB in Ft. Myers but we had one too many days for our travel home.

“How about we splurge and stay right on the beach?”  I saw no point in leaving the beautiful weather any sooner than necessary. 

Rich feigned deafness.  He was bent over his tablet, intently searching, reading, expanding the map, searching again.  I knew it, my fate rested in his hands.

“Here, take a look at this,” he said, handing over his tablet.

The charming cottage appealed to me, but it was the location that clinched it.  The small peninsula on the Gulf Coast was dominated by Bald Point State Park.  It had miles of beach, wetlands for Rich’s birding, trails for hiking and options for cycling.  My eyes traced 5-mile long Alligator Point, already planning my bike ride.  The cottage was wedged into this outdoor haven, surrounded by park land.

“Let’s book it!”

Turning off the Interstate toward Florida’s Panhandle on smaller roads, we lost traffic with each passing mile, and my muscles gradually unclenched after the tight game of leapfrog with the endless stream of semis.  By the time we turned onto the peninsula we had the road to ourselves.  After passing elaborate beach houses floating above impossibly tall stilts, we pulled into the grassy lot to find a humble cottage nestled among the wild Florida greenery.

This was a true cabin, Florida style.  The floor was tiled in a colorful pattern, heat rose through metal grates in the floor, there was a hand-sewn quilt on the bed and the quaint, comfy furnishings invited lingering.  The well supplied kitchen and modern conveniences ensured a comfortable stay.  It didn’t take us long to unload and venture out to explore.

We both set out on our bikes, but in opposite directions.  Rich headed into the park to check out the beach and marsh trails for birding options.  I had Alligator Point in my sights, eager to explore.  The road meandered down the narrow peninsula, first giving me views of the Gulf, threading down the middle, then following the bay sideThis was an old-time beach community.  Small ground level houses mixed with newer stilted monstrosities.  A community center, waterworks and marina were among the few commercial properties.  It was impossible to hurry despite the lack of traffic.  My head swiveled to take in the ambiance and culture of this local culture.

It didn’t take me long to determine that this was a different Florida.  Having traveled significantly north, the temperature had dropped significantly, especially when combined with the chilly wind off the Gulf.  The highs were in the 50s not the 80s.  Being from Northern Minnesota it still felt balmy to us, but was not yet inviting to other tourists.  As a result, there were very few people around.  It was quiet.  For years we have tried to “think un” when we planned vacations.  This time we nailed it.

I woke early the next morning, intent on walking the beach at sunrise.  Noting the 38-degree temp I donned my winter jacket, hat and mittens and covered the short distance to the sand that stretched as far as I could see.  Already the horizon was ablaze, the cloudless sky waking fiercely with the sun’s impending rays. The tide was well on its way out, leaving behind ripple patterns, tidal pools and sand islands that reflected the orange glow and blue hues of the water.  It wasn’t the barefoot saunter I might have envisioned, occasionally splashing through the retreating waves.  Instead, I headed downwind, braced myself against the chill and found my warmth in movement.  Perhaps all the better in its uniqueness.

Over a mile down the beach, the sun finally peeped above the horizon, a yellow orb that rose quickly.  And with it the beach glowed in its initial pastels.  Transformed.

Lingering over my breakfast in the cottage as the sun streamed in, I perused the park maps and settled on a hike.  The closest trail was the loop around Tucker and Little Tucker Lakes, and I liked the idea of seeing water along the way.  I must have been in a Minnesota mindset, picturing narrow paths lined with trees and easy views of the lakes.  But this was Florida.

I set off down a swath wide enough for a highway, looking more like a dirt road than a path.  It became grassier at times but never lost its width.  The tall pines that populated these woods seemed to emulate palm trees, with impossibly tall barren trunks that branched out into a rounded canopy of needles and huge pinecones.  I admired those tall soldiers in a huge battalion.  At their base swarms of palm bushes blanketed the ground, high enough to obscure my view of the lakes.  But the sun beat down, I shed several layers and pushed onward – never seeing another soul on the trail.

A final short bike ride included a visit to the main entrance of the park.  I pushed my bike out one of the beach entrances, where I could see the beach wrapping around the end of the peninsula.  Boardwalks traversed the marsh, and a long wooden pier extended into the water.  So much more to explore. Someday.

Sometimes the best experiences can’t be planned.  What started as a solution to a problem turned into an unexpected pleasure.  A peaceful coda on the end of a melodic symphony.  A chance to unwind, to engage with nature and retreat from the more populated world.  A stroke of luck.

Sunrise, Sunset

Being a volunteer lighthouse keeper has its perks, particularly in the off-duty hours. Fortunately, no matter what month I am at Crisp Point Lighthouse, sunrise and sunset fall squarely within my free time. And I make sure I am at the ready to witness and photograph both. Highlights of each day.

Being keepers in September this year means a more sociable hour for sunrise. Scrambling out of the tent by 6:45am still nets me a front row seat to an inspiring light show. I start on the west side of the lighthouse, watching the oranges infiltrate the clouds and silhouette the tower.

Making my way past the lighthouse to the opposite side, I turn back to watch the sun crawl its way down the lighthouse, illuminating it with the glow of the low morning sun and reflect on the water.

Another morning delivers fiery red hues that mutate into pink cotton candy in the clouds overhead, just 13 minutes later. I never tire of this scene. It’s worth the brisk morning chill, the sleep still in my eyes and the fact that I haven’t had a chance to brush my teeth yet.

At the other end of the day, sunsets provide lingering entertainment that only starts with the sun dipping below the clouds.

The real show begins five minutes later when the sun drops below the horizon and shoots its brilliance into the clouds above, and intensifies with the accompaniment of crashing waves.

The variety is never ending. Some mornings and evenings are duds, scuttled by clouds blanketing the horizon. Others lack clouds completely, robbing the sun of targets to reflect its brilliant rays. But when the conditions are right, it’s downright magic and never the same twice. God’s majesty at work.

Photographing these scenes is half the fun, the game of seeing if I can replicate the image. In the past, I’d point my Canon Powershot SX40 camera at these displays, struggling to get the settings right, focus carefully, keep the camera still and hope for a good photo. Usually with mixed results. This time the camera stays in the car. Instead, I whip out my iPhone 12 Pro Max and hold it up for the shot. Click, I got it. Click, another for good measure. Click, catch the changing light. It certainly lowers my stress level, enhancing my appreciation for these solar events. And I have to say, that phone does a credible job and is always at the ready in my pocket. It’s my new standard to ensure I capture those sunrise, sunset moments.

Sharing the Light

The incessant wind drives tumbling waves onto the shore, cresting in white foaminess that contrasts the water’s deep blue. The morning chill on the beach is mitigated by the warm sun on my back. In my peripheral vision the tall tower stands guard over this sacred spot. Good morning, Lake Superior. Hello, Crisp Point Lighthouse. I’m back!

It’s been two years since I was last here. Our streak of 7 annual stints as lighthouse keepers was interrupted by Covid, like so many aspects of our lives. Even this year’s trip was a leap of faith as the virus continues to rage. But armed with vaccines, masking and distancing protocols in place, we felt willing to answer the call.

With the long slow drive down the infamous 18 miles of rough dirt road, the world began to recede. Shaded by towering pines and leaves rimmed with a touch of color, weaving through forest regrowth, I anxiously awaited that first sight of the lighthouse. The early morning calm and solitude of the site reminded me how much I love this place.

And yet it’s different this year. With extra duties imposed by Covid, we invited our friends Jon and Beth to join us. They were willing and eager participants, even knowing the rustic camping conditions – or perhaps even because of them. We erected our tents in unison before the onslaught of visitors – ours on the sand, theirs on the bed of their truck. A quick climb up the lighthouse clenched the sale as we gazed out over the miles of sand and rock beach stretching to the horizon in both directions, and took in the endless blue expanse of Lake Superior. Welcome, Jon and Beth, to our little slice of heaven.

The “Keeper’s Residence” below the lighthouse
View from the catwalk

The arrival of visitors plunged us into our duties, manning the Visitor Center, dispensing information about the lighthouse, selling souvenirs and cleaning jobs. Jon and Beth quickly became ambassadors, greeting folks, learning where they were from and how they found the lighthouse. It was a novel experience to be able to trade off and spell one another for bursts of freedom to walk the beach, climb the tower or read on a bench overlooking the beach. And the constant companionship was especially welcome in the evenings when we’d share dinner and linger by the bonfire. I knew the invitation had been a success when Jon and I manned the campstove cooking breakfast under an awning in the rain, and Jon leaned over to say, “Even this is fun!”

Jon restocking the bathrooms
Molly and Rich tending the shop
Ladies walking the beach
Dinner together
Campfire time

I admit it took a bit of adjusting. I had always equated our off-hours at the lighthouse with solitude. Morning walks and reflection, followed by time spent writing by the water. Evenings mesmerized by the flickering flames and glowing coals after Rich retreated to the tent. Reading while crunched down in the catwalk high above the lapping waves. Rare quite time I intentionally allowed myself in this retreat.

But after over a year of forced seclusion, having company was a treat. We ribbed Jon over his raging battle against the sand on the boardwalks and lighthouse steps. I relished Beth’s company on my morning beach walk, opening our hearts and sharing common woes. They taught me how to be an engaging host. We lent them our LED black light to find Yooperlites (which they did), and Rich gave them tips on seeing the Northern Lights (which failed to show). Laughter reigned. It felt so good.

I meant to consult Rich, but forged ahead without it. “Do you want to come again next year?” The answer came out in unison, “Yes!” It’s settled. We’ll be back next year, sharing the light with good company.