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

Sunset Cycling

After two months sitting dormant in the garage, my bicycle is back out on the road again.  These oddly warm days of November have enticed me back onto the seat, and it sure feels good.  How could I forget how wonderful it is to fly along Scenic 61?  My feet going in circles, the wind whistling through my helmet, the whir of my gears and the lake my constant companion.  Never mind that it’s chilly, I’m wrapped in layers of clothes and my toes grow colder with each mile.

Sunlight on the birch treesThe shorter days catch me by surprise.  I’m enjoying the golden glow of the sun behind me as I ride up the shore.  Its low light reflects off the white of the birches and bathes the shoreline in amber as it slips down in the sky.  I pedal on, in search of a good vantage point for a photograph, oblivious of my narrowing window to return.North Shore sunset

At last a gap in the trees provides me with a view.  Turning around, I find a stunning sunset.  The sun is making its final descent to the hillside of Duluth, and in its final moments the brilliant yellow flare is almost blinding.  The rest of the sky is just beginning to take on a fiery orange cast, each cloud becoming the perfect reflector for the sun’s rays.  I snap photo after photo, trying different viewpoints and settings, hoping to capture the magic before my eyes.

Returning to my bike, the road is visibly darker.  Daylight is fading fast with the sun’s disappearance.  I have a good 40 minute ride to get home, and it quickly becomes a race with the diminishing light.  Thankfully the flashers on my bike have retained enough battery power to make me visible to cars.  But they do nothing for my own night sight.  What might be a dire situation is actually a thrill.  With each passing mile, the sky intensifies to an even deeper red, reaching high overhead.  The trees have become flat black silhouettes, outlined in sharp contrast with the crimson backdrop.  Looking higher, I discover an ultra-thin crescent moon perched in the darkening sky above.  My legs pump and I spin toward this magnificent scene.  I drink it all in with my eyes, knowing I can’t afford any more stops on this trip.  Perhaps it’s all the more beautiful for its ephemeral nature.

Night sky at homeMy own neighborhood is darkest of all.  The last few blocks lack a streetlight and I am pitched into near total darkness on our rural road.  There the moon hangs over the neighborhood homes, and I am thankful to return safely.  Yet all the richer for my sunset cycling.

Staying after Class

Writing Class

Class was dismissed, time to head home. Or so I thought. It was the end of a wonderful 4-day stint in Grand Marais, rubbing elbows with real authors and nascent writers at the inaugural North Shore Readers and Writers Festival put on by the Grand Marais Art Colony. My time there was jam packed with workshops, craft seminars, entertaining speakers, readings by authors and book related special events. I left with a head full of inspiration, myriad ways to improve my writing, and great role models among both presenters and attendees to fuel my ambition.

The noonday sun shone brillliantly in the deep blue sky. I shuffled through the fall leaves while breathing in the brisk air, listening to the waves crashing against Lake Superior's shore as I walked back to the motel. After days indoors perched on chairs, listening intently, thinking and practicing writing, the outdoors felt envigorating. So when Rich proposed staying on for another day, it didn't take me long to overcome my natural inclination to stick to the original plan and agree to the extension.

Northern Lights Lake Trail

In short order we headed up the Gunflint Trail. With hunting season just opened our hiking options were limited, but Rich assured me no sane hunter (or deer) would choose the steep trail up alongside Northern Lights Lake. The trail rose steeply rewarding us with nice views of the lake through the trees. Navigating the path required careful attention to where I was going. Avoiding slippery rocks, wet mud and tree roots kept my eyes riveted on the trail. Perhaps that's what brought the forest floor into such sharp focus, with all its intricate detail. There the lichen spread its delicately patterned fronds over the green mossy ground cover. From a distance, it resembled a field of cauliflower. Up close it was like fine lace.

Lichen along the trail

Similar looking decor proved to be something else entirely…snow! Just a gentle reminder that winter is not far away.

Snow along the trail

The silence of the trail was a calming influence. With only the wind rippling through the trees as accompaniment to our falling footsteps, it made for a relaxing retreat. My only regret was that the trail wasn't longer, to prolong our foray into the woods.

With the fall days rapidly growing shorter, by mid-afternoon the shadows were lengthening and dusk was already beginning its advance. We chose to spend the remaining hours of golden sunlight at the harbor, watching the waves crash on the rocky breakwater. By then, I was grateful for bringing a warm jacket, gloves and hat. On the North Shore, one can never be over-prepared for the weather.

Grand Marais harbor

As the sun set behind the lighthouse, casting its fiery glow, I knew we'd made the right decision. It was worth staying after class.

Grand Marais sunset