With the onset of fall, the days seem to shorten at an alarming speed. At this northern latitude, by the fall equinox we tip the balance to more darkness than light each day. By now we are already down to just 9 1/2 hours with the sun above the horizon.
I mourn the dim mornings which push out my morning workout routine. On cycling days, I wait impatiently until I have just barely enough light to see in front of my bicycle – typically about a half hour before sunrise.
Absent the sun, there is a definite chill in the air. I layer on warm clothes, pull booties over my cycling shoes and don my Happy Hat under my helmet. Ski lobster gloves and a buff complete the ensemble. I shiver as I coast downhill, absent the heat-generating pedaling I need to stay warm. But soon that all fades into the background.
By the time I reach Superior Street, I get my first glimpse. The sky begins to widen, and color radiates above the trees. I can’t wait to get to the shore to see the full effect, and I’m richly rewarded by the time I reach London Road. The sun is still low enough to generate rich colors that bounce off the clouds, paint their undersides and send reflections across Lake Superior.
My favorite stretch is from the Lakewalk tunnel through the newly completed path through Brighton Beach. Despite the cold, I have to stop, straddle my bike and pull off one glove to take pictures. I am compelled to record this majesty.
But the real impact is more personal. I can’t help but be thankful for the beauty of Nature. The sense of wonder fills me with gratitude. How lucky I am to be out here, fit enough to be cycling, able to witness God’s handiwork, healthy enough to do this day after day, and to live in close proximity to Lake Superior’s many moods. A day that starts like this just has to be good.
No two mornings are the same. As I flick through my photos, the words that come to mind are Fire and Ice. The brilliant red-orange mornings are balanced by more subtle blues and purples turning the lake a cold steely gray.
When the sun finally makes its fiery entrance, the show moves quickly. It doesn’t take long before its radiance overpowers the scene. Dawn has arrived, colors fade and light begins to bathe the world.
The warmth of those powerful rays eases my way up the shore, reviving my fingers and toes, glowing on my face. I’m not sure how long I can keep up this fall routine. But for now, each day I make it out for sunrise cycling is a gift.
It’s not easy being small. I can’t reach half the shelves in my kitchen, and even carrying my toddler grandchildren can prove a challenge. So the idea of hoisting a kayak overhead to perch in a rack on top of my car is a non-starter. Which is a problem.
In my old age I have decided I need more independence. Perhaps it’s COVID, prompting me to find ways to enjoy outdoor recreation on my own, without relying on anyone else to make it happen. My activity of choice is kayaking, which is fine if I’m at the cabin, content to drag our weighty boat down to the dock and plunk it in the lake. But what about further exploration? New lakes to discover, shorelines to cruise, rivers to reconnoiter. There has to be a way.
With a little searching, I learn that there are two options: an “origami” folding kayak and an inflatable kayak. The first offers lightweight, high performance vessels with a hefty price tag. Not my bag. The second has a wide range of choices, from an oversized floatie to tough white-water models. I focus my research on something in the middle and soon zero in on Advanced Elements kayaks. Offering high quality inflatable materials with a strong fabric covering is a good start, but they also feature built-in aluminum ribs in the bow and stern to provide tracking that rivals a hard-shell kayak. It doesn’t take long to narrow my selection down to the AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak. At 10’5″ in length and a mere 26 pounds that packs into a carrying case that is 30″ x 17″ x 8″ I know I’ve found my kayak. The next model up has a few more bells and whistles, but packs another 10 pounds. This time it pays to be small – the sport version is enough for me.
But what about set-up and take-down? Will I spend all day on the shore just getting the thing ready for my adventure? A few YouTube videos calm my fears – it looks to be pretty slick. I press Add to Cart, throw in a double-action hand pump and wait for it to arrive.
My timing is not ideal. Early November is not the best season in the far north to venture out in a kayak. Especially when the nearest body of water is the largest of our Great Lakes, and extremely cold. But the weather gods look upon me with favor.
As the sun begins its descent on a clear afternoon in the 60s, I take my new kayak up to McQuade Harbor for its maiden voyage. A short trial run. As advertised, the kayak unfolds easily and I make quick work of pumping it up. About two minutes to fill the main chamber, followed by another minute for the floor. Half a pump inflates each of the deck risers and I’m good to go! In total, less than 15 minutes from the back of my car to water readiness.
I’m delighted to find low docks in the safe harbor where I can slip my kayak into the water and ease myself into the cockpit. It takes only a few swift strokes with my paddle and I already know that it feels like a “real” kayak. Even when I venture outside the breakwaters into the Big Lake, the boat takes the mild waves well and tracks nicely along the shoreline. It feels good.
Deflating the kayak proves to be equally easy. And it folds into its case with room to spare. I’m impressed with any manufacturer that understands that at the end of my excursion I’m not interested in fighting with my kayak to wrangle it into a tight space.
Two days hence, flat water and warm sunshine beckon. I won’t get another chance this year, so I tote my kayak down to the mouth of Lester River. No dock this time, only a rock beach so I gingerly float my kayak in the shallow water, wade out and climb in. I find I don’t need more than a few inches to clear the rocks and soon I’m skimming across the calm water.
I’ve been waiting years for this moment. I grew up in this fine city of Duluth, always admiring the houses on London Road with prime real estate on Lake Superior. Ten years ago we moved back here, and I’ve been dying to see what those houses look like from the water. Today I’m going to find out.
Houses are mirrored in the calm water as I cruise by. Even within a short distance, I find a huge variation in the backyard shoreline. Some homes boast lawns that slope gently down to an accessible pebble beach – definitely among the elite minority of landscapes. More often the yards meet a steep drop at the water’s edge. Some cliffs defy access, leaving homeowners with a splendid view but the inability to touch the water that laps or pummels their shore. In between are a myriad of inventive approaches. Ancient walls of stone, brand new cement retaining walls, enormous boulders holding back the lake’s fury – all in desperation to hang on to the land that the lake would like to claim. Where a bit of beach lies at the base of the cliff, homeowners exhibit great ingenuity with ladders, steps and guardrails to guide them down.
I’m fascinated by the rear view of the homes. Windows stretch across wide expanses, decks stretch across, stories climb high, all to take in the lake’s beauty. Old gazebos and small bath houses occasionally populate the shore, echoes of the golden days in which they were erected. And I paddle past the granddam of estates, Glensheen Mansion.
Homes give way to high-rises, as the senior care center and apartments loom above the waters. My arms begin to tire, I feel a twinge in my elbow and my legs tell me they have been static for too long. But still I press on. I pass the expanse of ledge rock I scrambled over this summer, pursuing my grandchildren who are far more nimble than I.
The Aerial Lift Bridge taunts me from afar. In my dreams I would journey down to the stately structure and ply the waters between the piers to pass under the roadway. But I will leave that for another day. Turning my fine craft around, I retrace my route and examine the homes once again, from modest to grand standing shoulder to shoulder on this Big Lake.
Having dipped my paddle into the world of exploring new waters, I sense it is only the beginning. I beach my kayak knowing we will make a great combo. Me and my kayak to go.
As a lighthouse keeper, it’s my favorite time of day. Up with the sun, I relish the quiet mornings before visitors arrive. Each day is different, entirely at the whim of the weather. This year was a perfect example, as my journal proves.
It wouldn’t be a Crisp Point morning without my perch on the beach, tower looming overhead, waves pulsing and wind stirring the damp air. With coffee thermos mug at hand and charred camp-stove toast slathered in peanut butter, I’m ready to put pen to paper.
Just being out here is an unexpected treat. With rain beating our tent all night and a dismal forecast this didn’t seem possible. But the downpour ceased with our sleep and the south wind brought warm breezes. I’m wearing three layers of clothes on this September morning feeling grateful.
Light wisps of clouds skitter by below the more stationery cloud cover. Cracks in that shield reveal patches of blue sky, more than I thought I’d see all day. Lake Superior makes her own weather. I drink in the scene and write. The old fashioned way.
Waves crash against the shore just as they have done all night long. The white pulses against the sand regenerate, again and again, changing the shoreline moment by moment. The sandy beach I walked yesterday has been reclaimed by the water, reaching high on shore. Lake Superior has claimed all but 3 of the 15 acres that surrounded the lighthouse 115 years ago. And still it seeks to alter the landscape, to sculpt its border. I turn my footsteps in the opposite direction for this morning’s outing.
On my return, I climb the tower, seeking shelter from the wind. I know a tall stool stands inside the windows at the top, nestled against the modern LED lamp. The air is damp, the view obscured by fog. Unlatching the doors to the catwalk, I press them open. Fresh breezes and the drumming of the waves sneak inside, gradually clearing the view and my thoughts.
“Is there any sunlight?”
“I doubt it, the skies were cloudy at 5:15am. Wait! There’s a break in the clouds and a ribbon of light. We might get a sunrise after all!”
That’s all it takes to jettison us from our tent into the predawn hour. Already orange hues stripe the horizon and the clouds’ underbellies blush in pink. I rush for my camera – teeth unbrushed, haystack hair, my eyes thick with morning gunk. There is not a moment to lose. Rich, of course, is out well ahead of me, already poised behind his tripod.
Crisp Point is picturesque in all conditions, but sunrise and sunset are when it truly shines. So far we have been denied these sublime moments by persistent clouds and fully anticipated being skunked this year. But maybe not!
Single minded and on a mission, Rich doggedly pursues angles, hones his focus, searches – and finds – exquisite vantage points. In contrast, I point and shoot. Change a setting here, try an artsy shot there. But really, I’m out there for the display. To see it with my eyes, not a lens.
The vivid colors are certainly a draw, and evade my amateur shots. It’s the flip side of the show I find more captivating. It’s not the sun that’s the star, it’s the light it paints.
The dim shadow of the tower comes to life as a warm glow travels up its majestic height. Bathed in morning gold, it emits a warmth unmatched by its small beacon. The ephemeral effect is all the more alluring for the shortness of its life. I drink in the moment.
It is a final gift. A fond farewell on our last Crisp Point morning. Until next year.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun in the dark. Giddy with our success, Rich and I press on, sweeping the flashlight over the rocks on the beach.
“Oh, another one!”
We would still be huddled by our evening campfire had it not been for a series of fortuitous coincidences.
Checking in with our contact for Crisp Point Lighthouse prior to our stint as Keepers, she alerted us to the fact that there had been frequent late night visitors this year. “They’re looking for Yooperlites,” she told us. It went right over our heads. We had no idea what she was talking about, but appreciated the heads-up.
Arriving for duty, I scanned the updated layout of merchandise in the Visitor Center taking in the new inventory. Passing the table of scrapbooks and resource books, the words jumped out at me. Yooperlites were featured on the front of the Mineral News newsletter. And my education began.
Just last year a gentleman began selling unique rocks he collected from Lake Superior’s shore in the upper peninsula of Michigan. Looking perfectly ordinary in daylight, in the dark these stones emit a brilliant orange glow under UV light. He marketed them using the name Yooperlites, based on the slang for UP residents (Yoopers).
That explained the nocturnal visitors. And why it was a new phenomenon.
According to the Mineral News, these are examples of concretions – sedimentary rock with minerals embedded in them. In this case, the mineral is believed to be fluorescent sodalite.
Interesting enough. Until a late afternoon delivery of supplies for the lighthouse that also yielded a key disclosure. There was a UV flashlight and samples of Yooperlite in the Visitor Center. Suddenly, we had the means to make our own discoveries.
With the last light fading from the sky we scour the rock strewn beach. It is surprising how many pinpoints of yellow or blue light shine back at us from the rocks, and how white rocks reflect that light. (Not to mention Rich’s white socks and my neon yellow shoe laces, which are blinding.)
But we seek the real gems. The rocks permeated with an orange glow. The more pocked with light the better. And they are there. As soon as the UV rays passes over those rocks, they light up. Not just colorful, they radiate from within. There is no mistaking them, and with each discovery we cheer and laugh, triumphant.
It is a heck of a lot more fun than hunting for agates. And a lot more successful. With each new Yooperlite we find, we are spurred on to uncover another one. And another. Selecting only the five best to keep. Sure enough, in the daylight their hidden glow is locked deep inside.
I can’t wait to do it again tomorrow night. Oh, and did you know? I was born a Yooper.
If I had any doubts about winter’s arrival, it only took a trip up the North Shore to the Canadian border and beyond to confirm it. While patchy snow powdered Duluth, the more northern climes delivered deeply flocked pines and enough snow on the ground to make boots a necessity. Not exactly typical waterfall weather, but that was the whole attraction.
It took two stops at Kakabeka Falls north of Thunder Bay to catch in it bathed in sunlight. Afternoon delivered the warmth and light we sought, and transformed the view into a thunderous sparkling delight.
Pushing further north, we ventured in search of Silver Falls. Following unplowed roads into the park of the same name, we stopped to hike at Dog Lake. With only vague directions to the falls, we declined the remaining narrowing white road onward. Silver Falls await a return visit.
Just at the border, High Falls in Grand Portage State Park graced us with sunshine once again. The Pigeon River flowed with gusto, even as its borders froze into creamy icicles. Especially intriguing was watching the water falling behind the thinner icy patches.
While Rich stopped to investigate the water fowl in the bay at Grand Marais, I found yet another water feature in the crystal remnants of recent wave action.
The best part of all? We had every single one of these sights to ourselves. Apparently, we were the only ones out in search of winter water.
It’s that time of year again. Not quite mud season. Worse. The piles of snow left on the ground have guaranteed this late winter phenomenon – thaw, puddle, refreeze, ice. It wreaks havoc with sidewalks, creating skating rinks overnight. It makes ski trails into luge runs in the morning, and slush in the afternoons.
This in-between season has forced me to modify my outdoor activities. A creature of habit, I too often get in a rut, reluctant to vary my routine. But Mother Nature is showing me that change has its rewards.
A hike on the Lester River Trail proved to be a viable option last week. I found that rather than focusing on a workout on my skis, I could just meander and take in the snowy sights in the very same woods. The trails were firmly packed by fat tire bikes and foot traffic, making travel easy. It was an entirely different experience. I was far more attuned to my surroundings.
At the Lester River overlooks, I wondered if I might have snowshoed up the riverbed. But the sound of flowing water and open spots in the ice told me otherwise. I was content to admire and follow my beaten path. All was quiet on that weekday afternoon, making it a most peaceful venture.
One look at the puddles on the Lakewalk was enough to reroute my morning run. Heading out before dawn, I have moved to the dry pavement of the Scenic Highway shoulders. As a bonus, I have a perfect view of the sunrise over the lake. One day a deep red line glows across the horizon. The next a pale orange hue hangs above the low clouds. The sun’s rays skitter across the lake.
By the time I turn around to head home, the low sun illuminates the snowy mounds that line the lakeshore. Adjacent to the deep blue water, the face of the snowbanks reflects the sunlight. The backsides are bluey shadows. It’s a color pattern that never grows old. I watch it for miles.
Reaching via Brighton Beach, I find a new scene every day. Over the weekend when the wind was calm, the water’s surface froze into a fine mirror. Its thin veneer perfectly reflected the rocks, snow and ice. The picture of calm.
I returned later in the day to see what sculptures the wind had made with the fragile ice. Sure enough, ice shards lay stacked in random fashion on the shore, glinting in the sunlight. As I walked the shore to take in Nature’s art work, I kept hearing an eerie whining sound. I turned to see rocks skidding across the surface of the ice, as if they were miniature curling stones. The resulting harmonics emanated from the rocks, changing pitch as they slowed and then stopped. I wondered how the responsible adults figured out this musical phenomenon.
This morning brought an entirely different experience. Once again traveling through Brighton Beach, I caught sight of Rich taking photographs. Following the trajectory of his camera brought this image into view:
I don’t know what possessed these young men to ride their fat tire bikes off the ice bergs to plunge into Lake Superior, but it was enough to stop me mid-run to watch. (To see Rich’s video, click here.) I may have found new ways to enjoy the outdoors this season, but I will stop short of trying this one.
The shuttle deposited us in a sea of deep white snow. Just me, Susan and our snowshoes, and a big sign marking the entrance to the Superior Hiking Trail adjacent to Sugarloaf Road. “It’s well marked,” the driver told us. But once in the woods, the trail was just a vague indentation in the snow.
She promised us we’d need our snowshoes, as opposed to the other trails near the highway. “Those are so well used, you can walk them in your boots.” We went for virgin territory, and we got it.
Ahead, tall tree trunks cast long shadows, crisscrossing the soft white snow. Baby pines, the next generation of towering trees, added green décor complimenting the deep blue of the sky beyond. The enticing scene beckoned.
This was a cross-country ski trip, but we had abandoned our skis for the day. The day before, the cold temperatures and chilling wind tested our mettle skiing the frosty trails, speed whipping away our meager warmth faster than we could generate it. So we decided on a day tromping through the woods instead.
We didn’t have to go far before we had tracks to follow. Animal tracks. Plenty of deer scampered around. Rabbits left their signature imprint. Some tiny critter stamped out a precise symmetrical trail, a perfect wintry zipper. But it was the wolf imprints that held our gaze. Impossibly large, they forged ahead on the trail. Other padded feet came and went, but these tracks stayed with us for the duration of our hike. I hoped our canine companion knew how to read the blue blazes to keep us on the right trail.
High in the sky, the bright sun delivered warmth whenever it reached us. In the dark shadows of the trees, the temperature plummeted. The deep silence of the woods was broken only by the plunge and shuffle of our snowshoes. Gasps of delight, and “oh this is so beautiful” escaped our lips, confirming the choice we’d made for the day’s activity.
Reaching the ridgeline, the trees thinned and we had the promised expansive views of the lake. Traveling high above the shoreline we could see for miles, a full 180° or more. Each creek we crossed had some form of a wooden bridge – a reassuring sign we were still on the trail. Crossing Crystal Creek was the most challenging, scrambling down a deep ravine to reach the covered bridge at the bottom. Climbing back up the other side proved to be easier.
The sudden appearance of numerous snowshoe tracks marked our approach to the Caribou River. The spur route down to the parking lot was impossible to miss. Already missing our wilderness route, we followed the river and admired its icy formations as we returned to our car.
I’ve hiked bits and pieces of the Superior Hiking Trail through the years. It’s a treasure that’s easily taken for granted. This winter excursion reminded me how the seclusion of the trail works its magic. During that trek the rest of the world fell away. My mind rambled as I paced. I reveled in the nature surrounding me. And I never regretted skipping skiing that day.
What a difference a year makes. Last October we occupied this same spot, performed the same lightkeeping duties and camped in the same tent. But the similarities end there.
Last year five days of mostly cloudy skies, a fair amount of rain and temperatures in the 40s left us shivering despite our winter jackets and long underwear. Our down sleeping bags were our saviors at night. Dark skies challenged the solar power system, which drained away from lack of sun and struggled to regain any power from dim bursts of sun. The challenges did not diminish our love for this gig, nor did it deter us from signing on for another year. But we felt rather foolish for choosing another stint in October.
Fortunately, history did not repeat itself. Far from it. We have enjoyed five days of sunshine, moderate temperatures on the 50s-60s and Lake Superior in her finest blue. I happily resumed my early morning writing sessions on the beach.Our visitor count is up considerably over last year. We welcomed over 200 guests. All who come lend a new perspective. They hail from as far away as Wyoming and Beijing. Others have local ties and have been coming since before any restoration began in 1998. They know more of the lighthouse’s history than we do, and we love hearing their first-hand experiences. They especially appreciate all the work that the Crisp Point Light Historical Society has put into preserving and enhancing this site. Newcomers never fail to be impressed. We marvel at the folks who come merely at the suggestion of a lighthouse on a new highway sign. Little do they know the conditions of the dirt road approach, but all agree it was worth the journey. They buy our best selling sticker, “I survived the drive to Crisp Point Lighthouse.”
Thinking that the week could not be more ideal, we are treated to a grand finale. We witness a deep pink sunset from the beach. We have the biggest blazing bonfire yet. Two classic ore boats parade by, illuminated stem to stern with white lights. We watch a glowing sunrise from the lighthouse tower. And the day is balmy and warm. Suddenly October doesn’t feel like such a crazy choice. But just for kicks we signed up for August next year.
Perched high above the shoreline I own the landscape. Lake Superior relinquished her pounding waves overnight leaving mere ripples on the surface and gentle pulses kissing the sand. Long shadows cross the beach and the neighboring trees are bathed in the glow of the low sun. The water’s sound competes only with the wind as it whistles through the open doors to the catwalk. Morning’s cool fresh air contrasts with the warmth of the sun on my back. It is a rare privilege to claim a lighthouse for one’s own, even if only for five days. From 10am – 6pm we share this beauty with others seeking to explore her, acting as light keepers and welcoming visitors. But the early morning hours and evenings are ours.
My morning began while the stars still dominated the sky. Emerging from our tent, wet with an overnight ground fog, the intermittent beam from the lighthouse was the only source of illumination. I could barely make out the rocks on the beach as I picked my way down the waterfront while the eastern skies took on their first rosy glow. On my return the orange hues crept up around the lighthouse to meet the velvety dark blue above. Walking the opposite side, I took in the handiwork of the lake, reconfiguring the shoreline even since last year. The high water level has eaten its way up into the dunes, carving off the front slope to reveal multi-colored sand strata in its new vertical edge.
Once more my return yielded new views of the lighthouse. The sun embraced its red cap and glass face, walking gently down its elongated white body. Soon only the shadows of the nearest trees remained and stubbornly lingered. The morning’s light show complete, it is time for my final retreat. Ditching my usual spot on a driftwood seat on the beach, I climb the lighthouse, coffee mug in hand, writing tools at the ready. Here I sit, sheltered from the wind with the world at my feet. The moments are precious. I do not take my keeper’s privileges for granted. Soon I will relinquish my private haven – the public awaits.
The road is a test. On a good day its 18 miles of dirt merely dissuade the meek. The bumps and sand require patience and slow travel. No one reaches Crisp Point Lighthouse by happenstance. You have to really want to come here.
On this day the road challenges have been multiplied. Two days of heavy rain have transformed the sandy surface into mud and littered its length with water hazards. To call them puddles would be an injustice. Approaching each of these seas raises the same question, “How deep is it?” A certain technique evolves, starting with a prayer of thanks for all-wheel drive followed by a confident burst of speed through the most promising spot. With splashes and waves in our wake, another satisfied sigh, “Oh, pretty deep.”
It is our fourth time returning to Crisp Point Lighthouse on the far western end of Lake Superior as volunteer lighthouse keepers. Arriving early in the morning for our five days of duty, the lighthouse greets us bathed in early morning sunlight. It is like seeing an old friend. Rapidly, before visitor hours begin, we reacquaint ourselves with every inch of the site.Lake Superior churns against the sandy pebbly shore. Remnants of the recent winds, the waves curl in white foamy regularity, its thunderous noise filling my ears. Fall colors are peaking; yellows and reds pierce the more prevalent pine landscape against the shore. The sun lends a welcome warmth to the near freezing air.Over it all towers the lighthouse. Freshly painted it stands determined against the shore, daring the waves that now crash at its base. Those waves have already eaten away 12 of the original 15 acres that once surrounded this light and buffered it from the greedy lake. A new layer of boulders has been added to the line of defense, a constant battle waged by the dedicated volunteers of the Crisp Point Light Historical Society.Our campsite awaits, a single spot reserved for the keepers. Our home away from home with all the amenities – sandy soft tent site, fire ring, barbecue grill, picnic table and Lake Superior views.Only the mud-caked car reminds us of our journey to get here. We aced that test and this is our reward.