Following the Elephant Tracks

There used to be loads of blackberries on this trail. I remember a year when we picked two full ice cream buckets full. Today we each carry a bucket in hopeful anticipation, but it seems to be overkill. Where are the berries?

I’m at the cabin, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bill visiting from New York. Deciding to hike the nearby trails in Suomi Hills, I see a good opportunity to take stock of the berry status. Normally we pick blackberries over Labor Day weekend, but just in case we tote buckets on this foray.

The trail is overgrown with high grass and thick foliage. The well worn path in my memory has disappeared, but is still navigable. The side growth is equally dense, packed with tall bushes, ferns and vegetation that is not blackberry vines.

Betsy blackberry picking Long past the point where I once found the first blackberries, I spot some. Sparsely intermingled with the other plants, they are far from abundant. The vines we do find are anything but ripe. They range from green immaturity to pinkish red “getting there.” We call them vines with plenty of potential. Just now, they hold only one or two fully ripe blackberries ready to fall from the grasp of the vine. And we claim them. Oddly, others look past their prime. They have either lost their berries already or literally withered on the vine into hard brown dried up knobs. Our harvest is meager.

Bill blackberry pickingThe hike turns into a stroll. A search for the berries. Eyes scanning the undergrowth, we seek out our treasure. Farther along the path, the blackberry presence multiplies. More ripe berries per vine, more vines per square yard. Hope is renewed.  Venturing into the brush to reach the more succulent fruit, the persistent thorns tear at our clothing and skin. We are ill clad for this endeavor. Sweaters and fleece are prime targets, catching on the least of the prickers. Exposed skin below our shorts take the brunt of the sharp barbs, bearing scratches in all directions. But still we pursue those berries just beyond our reach.

Molly Betsy Bill w blackberriesIn the deep thickets, there is evidence of those who have preceded us. They leave behind large swaths of trampled vegetation in their efforts to reach the berries beyond reach from the trail. I call them elephant tracks. Making no effort to walk with care, these foragers leave destruction in their path. Unkindly, I am convinced the culprits are of the human variety. Berry pickers with no consideration for nature. I dismiss the possibility that it could be animals on the same hunt.

These blatant paths lead to more blackberries, I’m certain. And I make a mental note to pack my hiking pants and a windbreaker for my next trip to the cabin a week hence. Because I will be back. Hopefully my timing will coincide with the next round of ripening. And I will be fully equipped to reach the farthest berries. When I follow the elephant tracks.

Our sweet reward

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.

Three Generations of Awe

The scene: Our cabin. A modest 3-season cottage on North Star Lake, 25 miles north of Grand Rapids MN. In the heart of the Chippewa National Forest. At night.

The time: Labor Day Weekend. Affectionately known as Same Time Next Year for our annual tradition of spending summer’s final hurrah with family and friends. For 27 successive years.

The circumstances: A display of Northern Lights.

Northern Lights over Smith LakeThe set-up: Arriving a day ahead of time, well before the onslaught of kids, grandkids and long-term friends, Rich and I were at the cabin in time to see an amazing display of Northern Lights. Not only did we watch them from the dock even before the sunset was complete, but soon afterwards brilliant yellow-green arcs of light shot over the cabin, from east to west. It was clearly an exceptional display, and Rich was soon off in search of more scenic landscapes to photograph. While we have an excellent view from our dock, the foreground is not interesting enough for Rich’s photographic eye.

Day 2: Another good forecast for the Northern Lights. Pondering the lack of interest off our dock, Rich lures me to be his model. In exchange for a good back rub, I am to sit motionless in a kayak in the glow of the Northern Lights should they reappear. I admit, I am a cheap hire.

 3 Generations view the Northern LightsOur kids and grandkids are all expected to arrive some time that evening. Just as the final car pulls into the driveway, the Aurora also makes its appearance. No time for hellos, hugs or hauling stuff into the cabin. All are urgently summoned to the dock. There we all assemble and murmur our appreciation and marvel at once. It is the first time for many. Our son-in-law has his first view at the same time as his three kids. The evening is mild, the bugs are gone for the season, and it is a magical moment.

Kayaker in the Northern LightsEver the photographer, Rich captures the multi-generational assembly. Then calls in his favors. I am launched in the kayak and given strict instructions to paddle here and hold still. Shift over there and stop. Don’t breathe. It takes numerous shots to get a single good one, but we all agree it’s stunning.

I look forward to the back rub. But even more I treasure that moment on the dock. From 14 months to 61 years of age, we all shared the same awe.

(Photos courtesy of Rich Hoeg, 365DaysOfBirds.com)

Feuding with a Loon

Disputed watersIt’s all out war. A territory dispute between me and a loon. The area in conflict is the patch of water between the reeds in front of our cabin. I claim it’s my swimming hole. The loon insists it’s his fishing ground, and perhaps his young family’s hangout. I have history on my side. Twenty six years of morning swims. He has fright tactics on his. And they are terrifyingly effective.

I’m not sure who was more surprised. Me or the loon. As I turned away from the reeds to swim another lap across the opening, the water suddenly exploded. To my immediate right the loon launched into his ritual warning dance. His eerie cries pierced the air and his displeasure was highly evident. The normally enthralling display took on a whole new perspective at close range. Far too close for comfort.

Molly chased by loonSeeking to quell the nascent fury I quietly turned away, breast stroking back toward the cabin. Attempting invisibility. Looking to put distance between me and the frantic bird. But he wasn’t so easily appeased. While his antics ceased his mission persisted, and he followed me in toward shore while continuing to holler. It wasn’t until I fully conceded defeat, nearly reaching the dock that he relented. Round one to the loon.

His behavior implied a baby loon in proximity. And I assumed my timing was particularly poor. So I thought little of taking a refreshing dip later in the hot afternoon. I will admit to scanning the waters for said loon or his family prior to immersing myself in the lake, but the coast was clear. The only loon in sight was well out in the middle of the lake. My laps proceeded and I regained my confidence only to have it shattered once again. Catching me on the opposite side of the channel, the loon repeated his performance. This time I knew I was a direct target, to have drawn him from such a distance. Forget the breast stroke, I made a hasty front crawl retreat with the loon in hot pursuit. Round two to the loon.

It’s quite a standoff. While I refuse to admit defeat, I confess to curtailing my swimming activities. No sauna for me last night, or swim under the prolific stars. I did boldly reclaim my ground for my morning swim, but only under the watchful eyes of a dock full of family members scanning for loons. As soon as one began motoring it’s way over from a distance, they sounded the alarm. I didn’t hesitate before returning to the safety of the dock. Round three, a draw.

It isn’t over yet. Swimming is my greatest love at the cabin. And I do so love the loons. Just not at the same time. My hope is that by our next visit the baby loons will have a greater range, and they will have moved on from my swimming hole.  I’m not particularly fond of feuding with a loon.

Loon Family

Loon family, taken by Rich Hoeg

(Click here to visit Rich’s blog for more photos of the loons.)

 

 

Trading one lake for another

It was ideal cabin weather. Our unprecedented long string of hot sunny days continued, spelling out ideal conditions for being at the cabin. Plans were laid. We’d leave mid-morning.

North ShoreWaking up to deep blue skies, a fresh breeze and less humidity than we’d seen in days, it was a fabulous day in Duluth. Heading out for my early morning run, I couldn’t help but absorb its perfection. Lake Superior was at its finest. Mostly calm with a royal blue hue, lined with rich green trees and brilliant blooms along the Lakewalk, it called to me. I realized that I have let the summer slip by without enough time spent on its shores. I craved time to sit on the rocks and stare into the water. A picnic by the lake. A close encounter with a ship passing through the canal. Anything to be by the Big Lake.

There were ample offerings to enjoy the weekend in Duluth, so why was I going to the cabin? It was my idea, and I’d spent the previous evening executing my usual over-scripted routine to round up plentiful food and other assorted necessities for the trip. I could have abandoned all that. One word and Rich would have been happy to stay home. But despite my internal conflict I remained silent.

I will admit that part of me rationalized staying home because I could also make further progress on my to-do list. That bottomless source of busy-ness is the bane of my retirement, keeping me constantly occupied and prone to turning down opportunities for pure pleasure activities. I allow it to squelch my flexibility and in return I reap mild reward from some warped sense of accomplishment. Perhaps this knowledge unconsciously propelled me to continue loading the car.

ANorth Star Lakell it took was arriving in the cabin driveway. I could already feel life’s requirements falling away. The silence was broken only by the wind rustling the leaves and the flies buzzing. And the lake was beautiful. With only occasional boats cruising by, it was the picture of tranquility.

My to-do list is meaningless here. With no computer, internet or sewing machine I am powerless to tick anything off that list. And I’m so glad. With just the two of us here, there are no demands on my time. I am free to do nothing, or as close to it as I can manage. (I do have my limits.) I have already finished one book while sitting on the dock and started another. I’ve mulled over some writing ideas, which have previously been crowded out by tasky clutter. I can feel my creativity flourishing. It’s peaceful here in a way it never can be at home, precisely because it is not home. Although I generally prefer a more sociable setup at the cabin, sharing this small space with family and friends, there is a lot to be said for some quiet time.

At the cabin, anything feels possible. I am confident that I will find another time to linger by the Big Lake. For now I’m happy absorbing the solitude of North Star Lake. It turned out to be a good trade.

Dock Time

The old wooden dock I’ve waited 25 years for this. When we first bought the cabin, it came with an ordinary but serviceable dock. Hand made of wooden planks and supported by metal poles, it mimicked all the other docks on the lake at the time. With only two 8-foot sections extending out from shore and another 8-foot L across the end, calling it small was an understatement. After many years, Rich added another eight feet to its length, which seemed a major addition, but has since been taken for granted.

Despite its diminutive stature, our wooden platform has served us well. Many a boat ride has initiated from that dock, kayaks and canoes launched, sailboats docked and fishing lines cast. Of equal importance, it has been the focal point for swimmers with its L delineating the wading area for the youngest in the family. The opposite side became the shoving off point for those seeking deeper water. And of course, it has been the launching point for sauna lovers to throw themselves into the cool refreshing lake. It has also served as a viewing point for star gazing and Northern Lights displays.

For me, the dock is far more than the center of water activity. It’s a place. A feeling. An attitude. It is the epitome of cabin life. I haven’t been to the cabin unless I’ve had my Dock Time. Positioned in my beach chair at the end of the dock, coffee and hearty homemade toast at my side, a few select magazines handy – following an energetic run through the North woods and capped with a brisk swim, of course – I’m in my element. It’s my relaxing place. My need to accomplish and be productive falls away, as I lose myself creating dreams from the magazine stories and absorb the water and nature sounds around me. The afternoon equivalent is a similar perch with a good book and a cold drink under my chair. Sporting my swim suit, I’m ready for a dip when the urge strikes.

For all its qualities, I couldn’t help but aspire to an enhanced dock. The appearance of modern, sliverless docks sure turned my head. The idea of a surface devoid of nails that poked up each spring before I attacked them with a hammer was appealing. But what I most lusted after was having a true deck at the end of the runway. A spot where I could sit with a friend, and still allow others to pass by would be ideal. A place where wiggly grandkids could maneuver past my chair without threat of falling in the water would be heavenly. Room for family to gather and share my favorite spot was only a dream.The dock graveyard

The new dockUntil today. After all these years, the old dock was hoisted out of the water for the very last time. It was none too soon. As luck would have it, just this past weekend (with the dock already on order) the end section collapsed while unloading the boat. It was a sign. Its demise was near. In its place now stands a sleek new dock, of the slick roll-in variety with a light gridded top that allows water to drain off rapidly. There is even a ladder for swimmers, perhaps a nod to my declining agility in hoisting myself out onto the dock after I swim. I prefer to focus on how it will benefit the grandkids.

Apart from the practical nature of this upgrade, I finally got my wish. Although this dock is no longer than the previous version, it has one key feature. Despite Rich’s protests that it was too large, I stood my ground and insisted on the 8×12-foot deck. Everything is relative so in comparison to the old, this new space feels expansive and decadent. My little beach chair is swamped by its size, and I have the option of infinite positions for my sitting spot depending on whether I am seeking or avoiding the sun.

A happy Molly on the dockIt didn’t take me long to put the dock through its paces. Reading on the dock came first, followed by a kayak trip then the post-sauna jump and swim. It performed admirably. Despite its 25 year history, I lack any nostalgia for the old dock. I am already anticipating an enhanced Dock Time in the morning.