The North Shore Gift

We made the reservation weeks ago. A mid-winter weekend at Naniboujou Lodge is a treat in itself, but Mother Nature threw us a curve ball that made it picture perfect. As cross-country ski enthusiasts and lovers of winter, we cringed when we saw the forecast for continuous days in the 40s. But as visitors to the North Shore, we reveled in constant blue skies and sunshine with real warmth.

We put skiing at the top of our agenda, knowing the snow conditions were likely to suffer through the weekend. A morning ski at Oberg Mountain gave us beautiful soft snow before it got too soft and sticky.Rich and Molly XC skiThe harbor in Grand Marais sparkled in the sunshine, and the sun melted enough of the ice and snow for me to make it most of the way out to the lighthouse. It was so warm at the Java Moose that customers took their coffee drinks outside to bask in the Adirondack chairs. Could this really be mid-February?Grand Marais lighthouseNaniboujou Lodge was a lovely oasis. The rock beach was exposed and waves crashed onto the shore. Its deliberate lack of wifi and cell service was a fine excuse to read and relax in the quiet sunroom. And because they offer only package deals in the winter, we feasted morning and evening on fine meals in the colorful dining room. What’s not to like about that?

Naniboujou LodgeA trip to the Pigeon River, right on the Canadian Border, necessitated a walk up to High Falls. The warm weather had released sections of ice over the waterfall, giving us a view of the rushing water. It was easy to stop and look around amid the din of the falls in the mild temperatures.High FallsThe Witch Tree was nearby, and Rich knew how to find it. So we made a trek through soft, wet snow to its sacred location. There were signs informing us of its significance to the Ojibwe people, and asking us to remain silent and refrain from smoking. But there was a good platform from which to view the tree from a respectful distance. I’d seen many photos of the tree before, but never actually laid eyes on it in person.Witch TreeThe afternoon sunshine lured me outside once more. Judge Magney State Park was just across the road, and I followed the hiking trail up the Brule River. It was pretty easy going for the most part, with well packed snow. But inclines were slick and the 175 steps down to the middle falls required careful balancing on the narrow exposed wood on the edge of each step. The water shot forcefully out from under the ice at the falls and disappeared again, leaving a fine mist in the air. Devil’s Kettle proved to still be ice covered. If only I’d known, I would have spared myself the hairy climb and slipping down the treacherous slope that led to it. But it was so nice out, I was happy to prolong the hike.Middle FallsRich preferred seeking photo spots for the beautiful sunrises over the lake and starlit nights.  He obviously does it well.Sunrise over Susie Islands
This weekend was a gift from our son Carl and his bride Chelsea.  We loved their selection of Naniboujou Lodge, and the unending blue skies that accompanied our visit made it even more memorable.  Thank you!

Artful Cycling

Two Harbors Art Bike Ride MapThe weather is definitely not what I envisioned.  Instead of clear blue skies and sunshine, the world is shrouded in fog with dense clouds.  But the radar map shows no storms, so I stay the course despite the conditions.  If I waited for good weather, I’d miss out on a lot of adventures.

My plan is to combine a favorite 50-mile cycle route with friendship, coffee and art.  The first leg of my journey is my inland route to Two Harbors.  With each turn of my pedals, the air gets wetter and my visibility shrinks.  My glasses further obscure my view by collecting mist and drips from my helmet.  I eventually abandon them, figuring a bit of blur is preferable to near blindness.  But it’s calm, not raining and the temperature is very comfortable for cycling.  And I love the quiet of an early morning ride.

My first destination is a new combination cyclery/coffee shop, SpokeNGear.  Joan is already there waiting for me and within moments, I am convinced that the advance publicity doesn’t do it justice.  The modern décor of the coffee shop is uncluttered and inviting, flanked by soaring windows overlooking the woodlands.  Anyplace with good scones is a winner in my book, and I can truly taste the lavender in my raspberry and lavender scone that accompanies my latte.  An hour passes quickly as we visit in the welcoming space.  Before leaving, a staff member from the bike shop graciously tightens some bolts on my bike that the Northland’s bumpy roads had worked loose.

Two Harbors Art FairCoffee and friendship established, it’s time to move on to art.  The Art Fair in Two Harbors is sandwiched between local businesses on the main street.  Numerous booths offer a wide variety of crafts and art, and it is always more fun to browse with a friend.   We complete our circuit with our wallets in tact, but enriched by the visual displays of talent and each other’s company.

Miraculously, by then the gloomy morning has been transformed into the sunny day I visualized. With the sun warming the slight wind off the lake, I fly down the Scenic Highway.  The scenery is classic North Shore with the deep blue lake contrasting against the greenery of the trees and the rugged rocky shoreline.  I can’t help but feel the good fortune of living where we are surrounded by such beauty.

Brighton Beach Art FestivalJust a mile from home and with my odometer already registering 51 miles, I reach Brighton Beach and the Art Festival.  There I find booths spread out along the shoreline, featuring 40 selected artists.  Having the Big Lake as the backdrop enhances the appeal of the art.  It invites lingering, considering, and in my case, yes, buying.

It’s a good thing I didn’t cave in to the whims of the weather gods.  It’s the sunny part of the day that will stick in my mind.  Along with the coffee, the friendship and the beauty of the shore.  Art is in the eye of the beholder, and in this case it was picture perfect cycling.

Northland Mud Season

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

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

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

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

Spring Fling

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Snow in Abundance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice at Dusk and Dawn

It’s been an unusual winter all the way around.  Here we are in our first real cold snap and the lake is still ice free, even along the shore.  Lake Superior was its quintessential blue as I drove up the shore yesterday morning.  And in sharp contrast I spied ice encrusted bushes at the water’s edge, glistening in the sunshine like giant crystals.  The below-zero temperatures had teamed up with a good wind off the lake to create the perfect formula for instant icicles.

Those marvels just begged for a photograph, so I returned at sunset.  Hastily crouching behind the ice sculptures, I tested various angles as long as the light and my cold fingers held out.North Shore sunset ice 1 North Shore sunset ice 2 A fun exercise, it left me wishing for more.  So with crisp and clear skies early the next morning I set out once again.  But I hadn’t bargained for the “sea smoke.”  Overhead the sky was clear, but a thick band of steam clouds clung to the surface and horizon of the lake.  At first I thought my sunrise had been foiled.  But in actuality, it made for some interesting effects.

North Shore sunrise ice 1 North Shore sunrise ice 2 North Shore sunrise ice 3 North Shore sunrise ice 4Never underestimate nature.  Nor our magnificent lake.  Lake Superior ice holds plenty of beauty and surprises at dusk and at dawn.

Outdoor Fitness Center

Most cross-country skiers heading to Tofte to ski the Sugarbush trail system are seeking the natural beauty of those lovely wooded trails.  With extensive kilometers of well groomed trails, it’s one of my favorite systems on the whole North Shore.

But this time I have other motives.  Faced with yet another snow drought year, I am seriously behind in my training for the Birkie and Mora Vasaloppet.  Each marathon race is over 50 kilometers, and normally by now I would be skiing longer and longer distances to prepare.  But it’s hard to get inspired without snow.  While I should have been out skiing, I was still pounding the pavement in my running shoes.  I was seriously lacked in seasonal motivation.

Ungroomed ski trail at Lester-AmityThe latest snowfall finally fueled my passion.  At long last I could walk across the street and head into the woods on my skis. It was only then, skiing on beautiful new snow surrounded by trees and forest, that I remembered why I love the sport so much.  It all came rushing back, even if my form and technique was lagging behind.  It rejuvenated my soul.

But alas, it was only a taste.  The warm weather and thick wet snow made skiing arduous at best, and foiled the groomers’ attempts to tame the messy snow.  Emergency measures were in order.  Hence the trip to Tofte.

Ignoring the allure of the scenic woodland trails, I don my skis and head up Onion River Road prepared for a good workout.  Unlike the woods, it is wide, has a firm flat surface, no bushes or branches sticking up through the snow, and grooms beautifully.  The air is chilly, so the freshly groomed surface has set up perfectly, delivering virgin corduroy.  I delight in being the first to ski on it.  My skis glide over its surface and I immediately fall into a good strong rhythm.

It is my best ski of the season to date.  It feels so good to push myself, to press through the uphill stretches and work on technique.  I can taste those races, and know I am getting stronger.  At last.

Skiing Onion River RoadThe further up the road I go, the more snow-laden the trees.  The pines tower overhead, a stark contrast against the blue sky.  It is intensely quiet, with only the sound of my skis against the snow and the squelch made by my pole plants.  The wind whips against my face, refreshing as I grow warm with the effort.

It is the idyllic workout.  Clearly this is no Saturday ski through the park.  I am there to train.  To further my endurance and to ready myself for the challenge.  And what a place to do it.  In the perfect outdoor fitness center.Forest Ranger cabin with a warm fire at the base of the trails