Enjoying the Season

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.

Lester River Trail

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.

Brighton Beach ice 1

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.

Brighton Beach ice 2

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 Alternative to Skiing

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.

Snowshoeing SHT

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.

Susan snowshoeing SHT

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.

Snowshoeing SHT 1

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.

Molly snowshoeing SHT

 

Following the Elephant Tracks

There used to be loads of blackberries on this trail. I remember a year when we picked two full ice cream buckets full. Today we each carry a bucket in hopeful anticipation, but it seems to be overkill. Where are the berries?

I’m at the cabin, with my sister Betsy and her husband Bill visiting from New York. Deciding to hike the nearby trails in Suomi Hills, I see a good opportunity to take stock of the berry status. Normally we pick blackberries over Labor Day weekend, but just in case we tote buckets on this foray.

The trail is overgrown with high grass and thick foliage. The well worn path in my memory has disappeared, but is still navigable. The side growth is equally dense, packed with tall bushes, ferns and vegetation that is not blackberry vines.

Betsy blackberry picking Long past the point where I once found the first blackberries, I spot some. Sparsely intermingled with the other plants, they are far from abundant. The vines we do find are anything but ripe. They range from green immaturity to pinkish red “getting there.” We call them vines with plenty of potential. Just now, they hold only one or two fully ripe blackberries ready to fall from the grasp of the vine. And we claim them. Oddly, others look past their prime. They have either lost their berries already or literally withered on the vine into hard brown dried up knobs. Our harvest is meager.

Bill blackberry pickingThe hike turns into a stroll. A search for the berries. Eyes scanning the undergrowth, we seek out our treasure. Farther along the path, the blackberry presence multiplies. More ripe berries per vine, more vines per square yard. Hope is renewed.  Venturing into the brush to reach the more succulent fruit, the persistent thorns tear at our clothing and skin. We are ill clad for this endeavor. Sweaters and fleece are prime targets, catching on the least of the prickers. Exposed skin below our shorts take the brunt of the sharp barbs, bearing scratches in all directions. But still we pursue those berries just beyond our reach.

Molly Betsy Bill w blackberriesIn the deep thickets, there is evidence of those who have preceded us. They leave behind large swaths of trampled vegetation in their efforts to reach the berries beyond reach from the trail. I call them elephant tracks. Making no effort to walk with care, these foragers leave destruction in their path. Unkindly, I am convinced the culprits are of the human variety. Berry pickers with no consideration for nature. I dismiss the possibility that it could be animals on the same hunt.

These blatant paths lead to more blackberries, I’m certain. And I make a mental note to pack my hiking pants and a windbreaker for my next trip to the cabin a week hence. Because I will be back. Hopefully my timing will coincide with the next round of ripening. And I will be fully equipped to reach the farthest berries. When I follow the elephant tracks.

Our sweet reward

When the Sun Shines

The wind whips through the newly sprouted leaves on the trees, their shadows a fluttering dappled pattern on the deck.  Beyond, the sky is that classic deep blue with small cottony puffs floating here and there.  The sun is warm on my face as I type, drinking it all in.  When the sun shines, I have to be out in it.  I’ll endure the dim laptop screen in preference to my superior computer setup inside.  The sunshine is too precious to waste.

One of the greatest benefits of retirement is the loss of distinction between the days.  No longer do we have to confine our activities to weekends.  Nor do we have to take our holidays when the calendar schedules them.  So we took our own Memorial Day Weekend early, based on the weather forecast.  We chose the days when the sun would be shining.

Our first priority was to do some cycling.  Between Rich’s back injury this winter and alternate travels by car and plane this spring, we had yet to cover any significant miles.  Finding that lodging was difficult, even midweek, we chose two 55 mile out-and-back day trips using the cabin as our base.

Mississippi RiverThe first followed the Great River Road from Jacobson to Palisade.  The Mississippi River meandered back and forth in that stretch, greeting us roadside every now and then.  We had the route to ourselves, and reveled in some wildlife sightings.   A deer crossed in front of us, followed by a wolf.  He paused to give Rich at Palisade Cafeus a glance but resumed his original pursuit.  A skunk stopped me abruptly, blocking my path down the shoulder.  I felt it was not worth risking his wrath to pass.  Rich followed a porcupine into the woods, as the critter spread his back quills in a showy display as he fled.

We found lunch at the Palisade Cafe.  Your typical small town cafe with ceramic roosters and memorabilia  adorning the shelves, the waitress knew the locals’ orders before they uttered a word.  Sampling the local offerings, we recharged our batteries for the return trip.

The next day took us far north.  Driving to Littlefork we cycled from there to Lake  Kabetogama on the border.  The sun shone gloriously all day and like the day before we benefited from good pavement and lack of traffic.  We made our way to the Voyageurs National Park Visitor Center.  Although it was not yet open for the season, it did give us access to the lake and a view of its blue expanse.   This time it was breakfast that we ate at the Rocky Ledge. The area was heavily populated with resorts, and the staff was bracing for the onslaught of the holiday weekend.  That morning, however, we were the sole customers.Molly overlooking Lake KabetogamaVisitor Center on Lake KabetogamaIt felt good to be back in the saddle and doing multi-day rides  Naturally I became anxious to get out touring again. It also told us we were not quite ready.  We were grateful for a tailwind to push us home that day as we began to tire, and our sore bottoms were evidence that we needed more time in the saddle.  But it was a start.

Molly feet in boatNestled back in the cabin, we stayed on for two more days, while the sun shone.  The lake was still quiet, with few cabins occupied yet in advance of the weekend.  We had the place to ourselves.  It reminded me why I love being there so much, particularly when the weather is nice.  By the time it began to cloud up on Saturday, we were packing up to go home.

We missed spending Memorial Day at the cabin.  But we also avoided the rainy days.  We made our own holiday weekend, when the sun was shining.

El Viejo Wetlands Day Trip

After a week of taking in all the outdoor activities, beauty, beach and ocean that Las Catalinas has to offer, it was time for a field trip. Rich took off his birding hat long enough to put on his travel planner persona, and came up with a destination that appealed to both of us – El Viejo Wetlands.

The preserve is owned by a successful sugar cane family that has set aside 5,000 acres of land as a wetlands refuge. Their boat trips offer views of not only birds but wildlife as well. Arriving plenty early for our 9:00am boat trip, we met Kevin our guide. As luck would have it, we had a boat and Kevin all to ourselves! The river was a fair distance from the main entrance and other facilities, and we had ample opportunity to learn how Kevin became a licensed guide and honed his English reading birding books available only in English. His expertise soon became very apparent to us.

Molly and Rich river boat

We boarded one of the smaller boats and Caesar piloted us up and down the river. With thunderstorms the last two evenings as well as more rain in the mountains, the river was swollen and the current swift. Kevin pointed out the high water point much higher on the bank. That's where the river will be when the rainy season kicks in soon.

It didn't take long to begin sighting birds and animals. Both Kevin and Caesar were good at spotting them, and Caesar would maneuver the boat over for a close look. They had an eager customer in Rich, and indulged his enthusiasm for photography and finding new species. I left the little birds and far away specimens to Rich, but tried my hand at capturing the larger birds and animals.

Bird
Black necked stick
Tricolor Heron

I sensed a bit of friendly competition between Rich and Kevin, vying to be the first to name each bird! Rich was a formidable opponent, but ultimately Kevin had the advantage, being more familiar with the local birds. As we drifted close to shore, Kevin challenged us to find the next specimen. He pointed out the tree, and it took a while before we could see them. I am proud to say I got it right – bats! Long nosed bats like the underside of trees he said, because they are so well camouflaged there. That's for sure!

Long nose bats

Crocodiles were abundant along the shores. Most of the time all we could see were the tops of their floating bodies and an eye peering out over the water. But one in particular gave us a great show. He'd found a cache of fish and opened his mouth to strain them in, showing us his gruesome teeth. Suddenly, he was thrashing and splashing, having caught a good size fish. It was clear that the river was not a safe place to swim!

Crocodile on shore
Crocodile teeth

The day was cloudy and humid, which kept the sun at bay. With a good breeze on the river and the movement of the canopied boat, it was very pleasant out there plying the water. We were sorry to see the boat tour come to and end, but still had a treat in store.

Molly and Rich in boat

Lunch awaited us in the beautifully restored Casona Hacienda El Viejo, a large wooden open air building. We enjoyed a typical Costa Rican meal, then spent time walking through the grounds. There were ample iguana present, including one that looked like a dinosaur and two fighting iguanas. They also liked to perch on the roof and supports for the building. We had to be careful where we walked!

Casona Hacienda
Iguana

My travel guide did well. It was well worth the journey, and we both enjoyed our day trip to the El Viejo Wetlands.

 

The Cowardly Cyclist

If fear burns calories, then I've just had a great workout. My heart was certainly racing. It was my first time mountain biking. I've logged plenty of road miles, but never turned a pedal on a dirt trail before. But here we are in Costa Rica, with trails right outside our door and amazing views out over the Pacifist Ocean. Despite a sliver of trepidation, I was up for the challenge.

Molly starting the mountain bike trail

At first the rocks and uneven terrain were unnerving. And the rapid shift between sudden ups and downs took getting used to. But I finally got the hang of grinding uphill in my granny gear and rounding sharp turns – carefully. I even managed to hold my fear of heights at bay while traversing narrow trails carved into the hillside. As long as it was gently rolling or uphill, I was able to hang in there. I took a couple of spills and drew blood, but it wasn't even doing anything difficult. I just slipped in soft dirt. I really thought I was conquering this thing.

Then we reached the ridge line and headed downhill. Even when I'm road biking, I dislike gathering speed and tend to ride my brakes on the way down. I should have foreseen the consequences. All the challenges of the dirt trail suddenly intensified as the pitch grew steeper. Braking wasn't such a great idea, and I knew I should just let the bike roll. But I was terrified. Not knowing what was around the next corner only intensified my fear. That bit didn't go so well.

Rich mountain biking
Molly mountain biking

Don't let the smile fool you. I was just glad to stand still for a spell. I also took the opportunity to enjoy the view, as I certainly couldn't take my eyes off the trail for long enough to take in the vista.

Actually, the final piece of the trail leveled out and I could honestly say I enjoyed that bit. I'm just not cut out for risky, speed induced drama. All the elements that attract thrill seeking mountain bikers are the same things that put me off. I like the milder terrain that is more like, well, road biking.

I admit it. I'm a conservative kind of gal. Even a bit cowardly.

 

Santa Fe al fresco

Every tourist has his or her own motives for visiting places. While Santa Fe is rich in art, history and Native American culture, that's not what drew Rich and me to the area. It was the setting. The outdoors. The climate. And we were not disappointed.

Just before reaching Santa Fe, we stopped to see the Upper Rio Grande. We started off driving down the canyon on a small lane next to the river, when it suddenly occurred to us that we had bikes on the back of the car. A quick change in the campground and we were soon cycling instead of driving. Much better!

Rich cycling the Rio Grande
Rio Grande

From the start, we opted to stay on the outskirts of the city. We were attracted to a VRBO home which offered a peaceful and attractive rural setting. The unique aspect was sharing it with owner, Kevin. After years of staying in host homes while cycling, we welcomed the opportunity to meet new people and take advantage of their local expertise.

We immediately felt at home in Kevin's comfortable adobe house. Just being there was vacation enough for me. My favorite morning spot was on the sunny front porch with my coffee and breakfast. For writing, I retreated to the back patio. One of our best evenings was spent watching the ever changing colors of the sunset from the patio over a glass of wine with Kevin and Jen.

Our VRBO home

Saturday morning was Farmers' Market Day, and Santa Fe has one of the best. It prides itself on the requirement that all produce be locally grown and that those who do the growing are the same people selling it there. I indulged in one of my favorite ways to spend a morning, wandering among the tables with fresh coffee and scone in hand. Admiring the colorful produce and listening to local music was great home grown entertainment.

Santa Fe farmers market
Santa Fe farmers market produce
Santa Fe farmers market musicians

Rich's pick was the Randall Dave Audubon Center. We arrived before dawn for prime birding opportunities. I will admit to going for a run while Rich sought out new bird species, but I did join him to hike in the beautiful environs preserved by the Natures Conservancy.

Rich at Audubon Center
Audubon Center

In between cycling the local trails and countryside, we did make sure to get to the historic areas of Santa Fe near the Plaza. We especially enjoyed visiting San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the country. We also ate well, sampling New Mexican cuisine and local organic foods thanks to recommendations from Kevin.

San Miguel Chapel

We went for the outdoors, and Santa Fe treated us to a record warm spell. With unrelenting sunshine and temps in the 70s, it was the perfect escape from the cold Northland. Every moment spent al fresco was a delight.