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

 

Taking the Plunge

Sometimes you just have to let loose and take advantage of what life sends your way.  With a free afternoon, and yet another day of blistering heat, when my friend Beth said she was going to a swimming hole I quickly volunteered to accompany her.  Although we live across from “The Deeps” (the infamous swimming hole favored by teens) and additional river pools abound in Amity Creek and Lester River, I had never gone swimming in one.

Beth took me to a spot in Lester River less than a mile from our house.  Clambering down the riverside, we dumped our stuff on the warm rocks and I followed Beth into the pool.  It was very shallow on one side and quickly dropped off to a deep hole on the other.  I had expected frigid river water, but to my surprise it was quite warm.  We immediately immersed ourselves in the water, which felt so good after the day’s heat.  Floating on our backs, looking up into the sky through the green branches of the pine trees was heavenly.  It was hard to believe we were really in a city.

Moving up river from the pool, there were some rapids with shallow pools.  We deposited ourselves there, waist deep in the flowing water.  The hot sun actually felt good as the water swirled around us while we talked and relaxed.  By the time we climbed back out of the gorge, I no longer felt hot and bothered.  The river had washed all that away.

Walking up the Sucker RiverDuring coffee hour at church this morning, I mentioned my adventure.  As it happens, one couple at our table lives Jacuzzi Falls on the Sucker River and told us about the “Jacuzzi Falls” where they like to go.  Before long, we had an invitation to join them and by early afternoon six of us were hiking up the river together. We followed the water upstream, sometimes walking the river bottom.  Soaking my feet in the river felt oh, so good.

Just as promised, we reached a series of small waterfalls, each with a pool below.  It was a popular spot today, but we found one that was unoccupied and soon claimed it for ourselves.  It too was fairly warm, making it comfortable to hang out in the water.  We took turns bracing ourselves under the waterfall, letting it flow over our heads until the force of the water eventually pushed us away toward the deep center of the pool.  It was the perfect respite from the day’s sweltering heat.

Sucker River swimming hole Rich and Molly at the base of the waterfallI never expected to spend two successive afternoons hanging out in a swimming hole.  And yet it’s the most fun I’ve had in ages.  Both were spontaneous decisions, and better than any planned activity could ever be.  It was enjoyment in the purest sense, entertained by Mother Nature, shared with good friends, and good healthy outdoor activity.  What could be better than that?  I’m so glad I took the plunge.

Love those Lupine

Bluebonnets of TexasNot being much of a gardener, I find wildflowers especially appealing.  They voluntarily spring up along the roadside, in the woods and wherever they find a hospitable habitat.  No cultivating required.  This spring we planned our whole bike tour around the bluebonnets of Texas, and reveled in the seas of blue we found populating the Hill Country.  The petite Molly in Bluebonnetsspiky plants were as irresistible as they were attractive.  We never grew tired of seeing them.

That was in early April.  At the time, northern Minnesota was steeped in mud season, not even close to spring yet.  But that was actually to our benefit, because we were able to experience spring all over again when we returned home in mid-May.

Lupine near the North ShoreWith the arrival of June came the return of one of our favorite wildflowers, the lupine.  These tall spiny flowers grace the North Shore, mainly in shades of purple with occasional pink and white blossoms sprinkled in between.  It’s no accident that they bear a strong resemblance to the bluebonnets – those Texas beauties are actually of the “genus Lupinus” so belong to the same plant family.  What I find especially humorous is that in this case the Minnesota version far bigger than that of Texas.  While bluebonnets grow to be 12-24 inches tall, our lupine reach 1-4 feet high.  Not everything is bigger and better in Texas!

Molly with lupine in our yardAlthough technically considered an invasive species, and therefore shunned by purists, we chose to introduce lupine to the natural (read “wild”)  Lupine in our yardlandscape of our yard.  Rich painstakingly harvested seeds last fall and sowed them among our grasses.  This spring they actually came up, and the initial blossoms are now gracing the view from our windows.  The hope is that they will increase and multiply, some day yielding our own personal field of purple rocket flowers.  Whether large or small, Texas or Minnesota, we love those lupine.

 

 

Recalculating…

What else would you want do for a 60th birthday but go on a 60 mile bike ride?  When my friend Myra proposed it, her birthday idea seemed totally reasonable.  Perfect, really.  Clearly we think alike.  It’s great having a friend as committed to fit activity and the outdoors as I am.

60th Birthday Cycling RouteIt was a great day for cycling.  Warm inland and as always, cooler by the lake.  We chose a route that started on Seven Bridges Road, going up, up, up to start and then leveling out once we were on top away from the lake.  The farther we went the less traffic we had on the roads, and we were able to cycle and talk as we usually do.  Puttering along was fine with us.

Once back down at the lake, we stopped for a bit of a break and refreshments at the Mocha Moose, always a favorite of mine.  Feeling good, we continued down the shore.  Until just past Knife River.  There we were stopped cold – Myra’s rear tire was flat.  She had no spare, and although I had one that would fit and the necessary tools, she was reluctant to even try to change it.  I couldn’t blame her, neither of us has done it on our own.  Surprisingly calm and unruffled by it all, Myra proposed the only solution.  I would bike the 13 miles home to get my car and return to rescue her.  Meanwhile, she’d continue walking her bike.

With a tailwind and mostly flat terrain I fairly flew down the Scenic highway.  The scenery barely registered in my brain as I zoomed along, and at one point I happened to notice was was going 18 miles an hour.  After all, I was on a mission.  As I approached the intersection with the expressway, with just a mile to go, there was Myra – cycling toward me!  Huh?  Someone had come along and offered to transport her home with her bike, and rather than stopping to inform me as they passed on the road, she told them, “Oh no, I want to freak her out!”  She certainly did.

Myra - on her second bikeIt never occurred to either of us to abandon our ride, in light of the circumstances.  Myra has a fleet of bikes, so she had just hopped on another one and we were good to go.  We headed back up the shore nearly to the scene of the flat and back again, to perfectly complete the 60 mile ride – for Myra anyway.  I logged a total of 71.

It wasn’t quite what we’d planned, but there was little harm in the outcome.  In fact, it delayed us less than an hour and solved the problem of where to cycle for our final 13 miles.  It just took a bit of recalculating.

Happy cyclists

Sunrise Celebration

No one would accuse Rich and me of being too conventional. Traditional, maybe, but for a couple who has spent months together on bicycles, think skiing a 50k race is fun and get excited about finding a yurt available for the night, doing things outside the norm is par for the course. So celebrating our 32nd wedding anniversary shortly after sunrise was a good fit.

The weather was perfect. It was one of those cool spring mornings with a clear blue sky and the promise of a quick warm-up as the sun gained height. Our destination was the lakefront in Two Harbors, starting with the lake side trail north of the lighthouse. The easy path followed the shoreline, which proved to be surprisingly varied. Unlike the smooth rocks on the edge of Duluth, this area looked more like the lava remains of a volcano. Dark bumpy rocks formed an otherworldly surface, pocked with puddles reflecting the deep blues the sky. The lake was uncharacteristically quiet, resulting in a peaceful ambiance. I knew we were right on the edge of town, but it felt like we were in the middle of the wilderness.

Two Harbors shoreline
Rounding the corner the harbor came into view.  Inland was the lighthouse that now hosts B&B guests.  What I hadn’t noticed before was the pilot house also on the grounds.  Two Harbors lighthouse B&BThe Two Harbors waterfront has the advantage of being a very compact package.  All within a short walk, we could enjoy the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater, two boats loading at the ore docks and the Edna G historic tugboat.  Each view was especially appealing in the morning sunlight.  And I couldn’t help but think what a great place it would be to bring the grandkids to explore.
Two Harbors lighthouse Rich and Two Harbors ore docksMolly and Edna G tugboatWhen we’d exhausted our fascination with the waterfront and found a few birds for Rich, we headed to the Vanilla Bean Restaurant for our finale.  It’s a spot we’ve come to enjoy since moving back to Duluth, and we deemed the changes made by the new owners to be good improvements.  I heartily enjoyed the French Toast made with cranberry wild rice bread.  We weren’t the only ones to give it a stamp of approval, as the place was packed on a weekday morning.

It was a full and pleasant morning and we were home by 10 am.  Who says an anniversary has to involve going out for dinner?  We much preferred our sunrise celebration.

Instant Spring

At first it was hard to believe the thermometer.  And to overcome the months-long habit of layering on the outdoor clothes.  After two days of sweltering through my run with too many too heavy clothes, however, it was finally sinking in.  It really was warm out!

With temperatures well below zero just days ago, and beautiful cross-country ski conditions still a vivid memory, we can be forgiven our inability to grasp the sudden change in season.  But it didn’t take long for all of Duluth to head outdoors to enjoy the transformation.  And I love watching the parade.

The Lakewalk is virtually a highway of pedestrians.  Dog walkers, high school track teams, runners and baby strollers are in abundance in colorful garb.  Nobody seems to mind sloshing through the inevitable puddles or crossing the streams that flow over the pavement.  The faces I pass are all smiles.

Brighton Beach is populated with folks of all ages, taking in the rapidly shrinking ice formations on the lake.  Close to shore there are still remainders of the ice shards that were once piled so high, now surrounded by watery pools on top of the rapidly melting ice.  Further out, the ice is turning darker as it thins.  Plenty of ice houses attest to the fishermen’s belief that it is still viable.  But you’ll never find me venturing out there.

Brighton Beach melting iceOpen water is rapidly advancing toward Duluth.  While Lake Superior reached over 90% ice coverage just a few weeks ago, it opened up quickly with the wind and sun.  The edge of the ice field has now retreated all the way down to Brighton Beach.

Last week the thought of the Coast Guard ice breaker beginning its duty on Monday seemed outlandish.  By the time we saw her out plowing through the ice, it seemed perfectly natural.  One could already imagine spotting boats out on the horizon heading for the Aerial Bridge.

At 57 degrees this afternoon, I just North Shore ice melthad to hop on my bike and head up the North Shore.  I was hardly alone.  Cyclists were whizzing up and down the Scenic Highway, exchanging friendly waves and nodding.  Sure the shoulders were still full of gravel, but it was a small price to pay for the vast pleasure.  Like the rest of them, I too was grinning and loving it.

Of course, everyone knows this is Duluth.  Winter isn’t over until it’s over.  But I did happen to stop in a ski shop this afternoon, and was startled to find the wall of cross country skis barren and empty.  All put away to make room for bicycles and other summer gear.  It was instant spring in there too.