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,

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.

Cyclists Hosting Cyclists

We start out as strangers.  When we request lodging from a Warm Showers host while on our cycling tours, we know only what a brief profile and some feedback provide about our potential hosts.  And yet, more often than not we part the next morning as friends.  The common interest in cycle touring and shared experiences quickly breaks the ice and opens the door (quite literally!) to a warm welcome and lasting memories.

Marthe and Charles with Rich at the ParkWe hit it off immediately with Charles and Marthe on our first long cycling tour in the Canadian Maritimes.  They knew just how to make us feel comfortable in their beautiful home, giving us plenty of space, showing us to the washer and dryer and even outfitting us with Charles rode with us when we departedcushy robes so we could wash absolutely all our clothes.  We had fabulous meals, as they understood better than we did how much food we really needed.  And they took us to nearby Kouchibouguac National park which we would have missed on our bicycles.

But it was their manner that was so engaging.  We easily moved on from cycling stories to share tales of our lives, our families and our interests.  There was no shortage of conversation and we felt a close bond.  Charles and Marthe disclosed their dream of retiring soon and cycling the four borders of the US.  Apparently seeing us newly retired and touring was proof it could be done.  We fervently wished them well on their goal and left with a sincere invitation to return the hosting favor.

Two years later, when the email arrived we immediately recognized the names.  Charles and Marthe were setting off from Vancouver to cycle across Canada to their home in New Brunswick.  We instantly replied with entreaties to dip down into the US in order to pass through Minnesota.  Knowing the Trans-Canada highway stretch over Lake Superior was treacherous for cycling, we strengthened our argument by offering a safer route below the lake.  It worked.

Charles and Marthe with us at the cabinCharles and Marthe cyclingBefore long we found ourselves cycling out from our cabin in Northern Minnesota to meet them.  Sharing an ice cream together on the return trip brought back so many memories – touring, seeing new places, local folk astounded over the distances traveled, and how sweet that treat tastes after pedaling so many miles.

This time it was our turn to introduce these friends to our world.  We celebrated the 4th of July cabin-style and they happily jumped off the boat for a refreshing dip in the lake.  We easily picked up where we left off, as if no time had passed in between.  And as they set off once more, we promised to meet again.

Okay, so that wasn’t too far fetched as we returned to Duluth just in time to host them again a day later!  We celebrated Marthe’s birthday with dinner overlooking Lake Superior and strolled the Lakewalk to get ice cream cones as it drew dark.

It was harder saying our farewells the next morning.  But I have no doubt these cyclists will host one another yet again.  We are no longer strangers.

The Rainy Lake Experience

When friends invited us to visit their cabin on Rainy Lake, we jumped at the chance to see their place and the famed lake on the border of Minnesota and Canada.  Like us, they have a “true cabin,” with just the basic amenities and lots of character.  But the similarities end at the shoreline.

As soon as we arrived, we were recruited to outfit the boat for an afternoon on the lake.  With respectable waves and the sheer size of the lake, a good sized boat and motor are a necessity.  Theirs is an old workhorse of a boat, but stable and large enough to take us across the expansive open waters.  And hold all the fixings for our adventure.  We soon began to learn what Rainy Lake was all about.

Rainy Lake Map 2Lesson number 1.  A boat ride on Rainy Lake can take all afternoon and still cover only a tiny fraction of the lake.  With 360 square miles of water, almost 1,000 miles of shoreline and about 2,500 islands, there are endless areas to explore.  Our friends took us to their favorite spots, starting with the dam and waterfall.  There we clambered down to the base of the falls to see the thundering rush of the water from the recent flooding.


IMG_1100Lesson number 2.  It’s like being in the Boundary Waters.  The tall pines, rocky outcroppings and lack of population all reminded me of the solitary feeling one gets in the Boundary Waters.  In all of our wanderings we spotted only two other boats.  We saw plenty of scenery, fascinating birds and natural beauty instead.  And there was always something new around the next bend.

IMG_1098 trimmed

Lesson number 3.  Shore lunch doesn’t necessarily mean fish.  The first step was selecting an appealing island.  We then built a rock fire scar (that was a new term to me), hunted down dry wood and started up a fire to cook our lunch – brats.  They were mighty tasty cooked in the open air with a beautiful view of the lake from our perch on a huge rock.

Rainy Lake Pelicans

Lesson number 4.  Bring along a photographer husband to catch the magical moments.  Rich was in his element with birds in abundance, and we all got a kick out of “bird island” with its population of pelicans.  The best part was watching their comical take-off as we approached.

Lesson number 5.  The lake is best appreciated when seen through the eyes of those who love it.  Our friends have gotten to know Rainy Lake through four generations of cabin life.  Our tour narrative was rich in stories woven with family history.

The only fitting end to this day on an amazing lake was a sauna.  In this case, a wood-fired sauna which proved to be blistering hot.  That was enough to get me into the lake.  Jumping off the dock into chilling water over my head was both a shock and relief.  All part of the Rainy Lake experience.

Tri Training – Open Water Swim

It’s been hanging over my head all week. Ever since getting to the cabin I’ve been peering out at the lake knowing I was going to have to tackle it. I needed to do an open water swim. But I was also nervous. It didn’t help that my son, Erik, and his girlfriend, Katie, who I consider to be hardy youth, reported that the lake was “really cold” and declined to swim.

wpid-Photo-20140706181238.jpgFirst the wind and the waves provided an excuse. Too wavy to swim. Too cold. Too cloudy. (Too scared, really.) But then came a relatively calm and sunny afternoon. I knew my options were dwindling, screwed up my courage and recruited Rich to come out in the kayak as my safety boat. Too late to back out now – I had to do it.wpid-Photo-20140706181239.jpg

Surprisingly, the water was quite swimmable. It was brisk to be sure, but I’ve suffered worse in that lake. It felt strange to be wearing a swim cap and goggles – something I never do in the lake – and I tried to ignore the now-visible weeds as I passed over them. It’s really better not knowing.

At first it seemed like the distance was insurmountable. I needed to do .93 miles to mimic the triathlon distance. I had thought that swimming to the campground beach and back would be enough, but it turned out I needed to swim even beyond that. Not a good feeling. But as I fell into the rhythm of my strokes and relied on my long distance lap swimming, I felt as though I could manage it.

161-D5-TriAtheleteStaying on course was tricky, and I had to figure out how to lift my head to peer out and spot my destination up ahead. It definitely was a disruption to the cadences of my swimming. I’m sure there are tricks to doing it more efficiently. In addition, I already knew that I had a tendency to drift left when I swim. Rich tried to counter that by yelling “Point!” to try and curb my corkscrew curves. I do so hope they have some bright bouys in the race to help keep me in line.

The waves proved to be a challenge, as I expected. I was swimming into a mild quartering headwind on the way out, with the waves hitting my breathing side. I know I should be able to breath equally well on both sides, but I’ve never pursued that. Now I get why it’s important. But I survived. And turning around to swim with the waves was sweet!

My biggest fear was succumbing to the cold of the water, getting too chilled to swim effectively. But even with my skinny body, I was able to retain enough body heat to swim comfortably. The whole way. Yea! If I could handle North Star Lake’s cold, I should have no problem in Lake Nokomis.

Completing that swim was a huge boost to my confidence. I now know I can do it. I was even more pleased to learn that it was only 5 minutes over my pace in the pool – not bad for all the extra obstacles I figure. Of course, I was all alone out there. No other swimming bodies to dodge or churning water to navigate. I will leave that for race day. At least I’ve conquered the open water.

A Visiting Loon

It's one of my favorite things at the cabin – seeing loons and hearing their plaintive cry. Sometimes I can get fairly close to them when out in the kayak. But ultimately they always dive and swim away, surfacing far off in any direction. So imagine my surprise this morning when we saw a loon paddling languidly at the end of our dock.

Knowing how skittish they are, I set up my camera and monopod on the deck of the cabin. I was afraid that getting any closer was likely to drive him away. But after snapping a multitude of photos, I ventured halfway down to the lake, and eventually right onto the dock. Still Mr. Loon lingered. Swimming slowly back and forth, he seemed to accept our presence, even when Katie and Erik joined me. He wasn't fazed by us in the slightest.

Eventually the loon swam away. But he left us knowing we'd seen something special. Thanks for the visit, Mr. Loon!


Six black muffins

I now know I can trust my instincts.  On our annual XC ski weekend, I like to go out before breakfast to either ski, snowshoe or take photographs.  This year was no exception.  Before leaving the cabin for an early morning walk, I popped a few muffins in the oven along with some pears to bake, leaving Susan in charge of them while she pursued her own morning passion – painting.

IMG_3221The morning was gray and uninspiring, but it was pleasant wandering through the fresh snow that had fallen during the night on the small roadway right next to Lake Superior’s shore.  Mine were the only tracks in the snow, and the rest of the world seemed asleep.  The area was an eclectic collection of tiny cottages, large homes with sweeping views and tumble down sheds.  I wasn’t adventurous enough to trudge through the deep snow to get to the water’s edge, so I had to confine my photography to what I could see from the road.

As I walked, my thoughts kept wandering back to the oven.  Did I tell Susan when the muffins would be done?  Did I set it to the right temperature?  Despite my best efforts to dismiss that responsibility, something nagged at me.  But I walked on – intent to let go and savor the freshness of the morning.

Opening the door to the cabin, my senses were assaulted by the harsh burning smell.  And it wasn’t the blaze in the fireplace.  Susan looked at me sheepishly saying “I failed…”  Suddenly the six black rocks outside on the deck railing took on significance as I recognized them DSCN0055for what they were.  And the charred pears that melded themselves into the baking dishes were equally appalling.  I knew it!  I shouldn’t have left my baking in the hands of an artist absorbed in her work.

But in fact, I was wrong.  And Susan’s self-blame was misplaced.  Instead of activating the lower heat element, the oven malfunctioned and turned on the broiler, charring our breakfast to death.  No amount of care or attention could have stemmed the tide on that disaster waiting to happen.  All we could do was laugh.  And poke fun at ourselves and the situation.  And our six black muffins.  Sitting in a row.

My instincts were right – something was bound to go amiss.  I just didn’t know what.  And Susan’s painting?  It turned out quite nicely.  A lot better than the muffins.

2014 North Shore at Anderson's Resort day 1


Cabin Seasons

It’s the end of cabin season. That’s how most folks look at it. True, we needed to shut down the water system, defrost the refrigerator and clear the perishables out of the cupboards. But to us, those are just fall chores.  We’re not closing down the cabin.  We consider it preparing for winter.

And so we headed off to the cabin for a brisk fall stay. With the string of cold days the weather has delivered lately, the cabin had taken on a definite chill. In fact, it was colder inside than out. Before we could fire up the wood stove to begin the warming process, Rich needed to complete his first maintenance and safety task. Donning his chimney sweep persona, he climbed up on the roof with what looked like oversized bottle brushes. Once the chimneys were clean and the fire was crackling, we headed outside to stack firewood.  First rule of cabin visits in cold weather – stay active keep warm while the cabin heats up. With a new delivery of wood piled in the yard, we generated plenty of energy and warmth stowing it in the woodshed.

With our initial burst of chores completed, we settled inside to read. Each season of cabin life has its own personality, and fall is perfectly suited for snuggling up with a good book, hunkering down on the couch, and sitting by the warmth of the fire. It’s a more relaxed season than summer. The lake no longer calls to us. The boat is not beckoning. The fish are not waiting to be caught. There are fewer options and more relaxation time.

The short days of fall invite plenty ofPhoto Oct 25, 6 31 47 AM good sleep. The nights are so dark and silent, it’s easy to hit they hay early and sleep in the next morning. We did just that, and still had plenty of time to get outside by the first signs of sunrise. The early colors were vivid and soon delivered on the promise of a spectacular show. Each moment brought a new configuration of pinks and then reds, with the hues shifting Photo Oct 25, 6 42 09 AMand reflecting off the clouds above the horizon. Armed with our cameras and tripods, we each sought the ideal vantage point  Photo Oct 25, 6 45 32 AM to catch the best view, staying out until our fingers were numb and the colors faded back to pastels. Retreating to the cabin I felt I’d earned my breakfast.  Hot coffee and crispy toast never tasted so good.

Weaving our tasks in between cabin time, we were able to strike a nice balance between work and relaxation. The longer we stayed, the more it felt right to “do nothing.”

Soon winter will be upon us, and the cabin is now ready. Shovels are placed outside the door, firewood and kindling are in abundant supply, the ice auger has been retrieved from storage, the outhouse and sauna are accessible, extra blankets await. Winter is a wonderful season at the cabin. Let the snow fly – we’re looking forward to it!IMG_2853