A Snowy Farewell to the Grand Canyon

I was sure this Grand Canyon story was finished. We had covered the Rim Trail from end to end, had stunning sunrise and sunset views, and witnessed an awesome rainbow display. Surely we'd seen it all. Our plan was to exit early in the morning and move on to our next destination.

Mother Nature had other plans for us. Depositing an inch or two of wet snow overnight, she provided an entirely new view of the canyon. Could this really be the same place we were cycling in 70 degree temperatures just a couple days earlier?

Bikes on snowy car
Snowy bikes at Grand Canyon

We made slow progress out of the park, as we stopped at every pullout to check out the view. Although the snow lay in thick layers on the trees surrounding the canyon, there was none down below.

Rich photographing in snow
Grand Canyon with snow 1
Grand Canyon with snow 2

Eventually the sun came out and shadows played across the canyon.

Grand Canyon after snow 1
Grand Canyon after snow 2

We were in no hurry. As long as the canyon morphed and changed in front of us, we were happy to linger. It was a long, snowy farewell to the Grand Canyon.

 

Winter Resurgence

It seems a strange scene.  I stand in my bare feet and swim suit, peering out into the darkness at 6:15am.  The outside floodlights are on, and they illuminate a world blanketed in white.  I expected the snow.  In fact, it’s the reason for my one-piece lycra apparel.  Assuming it would be too deep for running, I had decided on an alternate workout this morning.  But I hadn’t counted on the landscape now in my field of vision.

Every branch is outlined in white.  The thin boughs are magnified by a fluffy coating of snow much thicker than their own sinewy skeletons.  The woods surrounding our house are no longer a transparent winter veil but a lacy wall enclosing our abode.  I can already picture the Lakewalk rimmed by more ghostly shapes.  It is much too good to miss.

March Snowfall 1Despite the dim predawn light, many have preceded me down the trail.  Footsteps are plentiful, crisscrossed by bicycle tracks and the wide treads of fat tire bikes.  The snow is not as deep as I feared, but the wet fluff lies over a layer of slush.  Messy but not slippery, it makes for slow and arduous progress but poses little danger of falling.March Snowfall 2

The world is silenced by the snowfall.  Footfalls and tire rotations are muted, but faces are glowing.  “Isn’t this beautiful?” seems to be on the lips of all I pass.

I don’t normally take the small bypass in front of the town homes at The Ledges.  But the chance to get closer to the lake draws me down the indistinct path.  My impulse is rewarded, seeing the dry stalks of fall flocked with snow silhouetted against the gray-blue of Lake Superior, and framing the iconic Aerial Bridge.

March Snowfall 3 March Snowfall 4While just yesterday the Lakewalk was perfectly clear for easy running, I have no complaints about this resurgence of winter.  It taught me to seize the moment, change my plans, stop and take pictures.  And best of all, enjoy my surroundings.

March Snowfall 5March Snowfall 6

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.

Super Silent Sports

I love the term “silent sports.”  It embodies what I treasure most about outdoor activities.  Human powered, surrounded by nature, testing one’s physical strength and endurance, going the distance.  My day isn’t complete without an hour or more spent engaged in this pursuit.

Lester new snow 2When the snow fell yesterday, I couldn’t wait to get out in it.  Six inches of fluffy new powder lay on the ground, and I knew the ski trails would not yet be groomed.  But for once I actually preferred it that way.  Admittedly, I had new waxless classic skis I wanted to try out, but I was also anxious to just get out in the deep new snow.

Lester new snow 1Cross-country skiing undoubtedly qualifies as a silent sport.  But skiing the untamed fresh snow brings it to the pinnacle of silent.  Normally my skis would swish over the groomed trail with a satisfying sound that testified to a long glide.  My poles would make squeaky complaints as they pierced the snow and angled against the crust until they were released for the next plant. Natural sounds, yes, but noisy in their own way.

The fresh layers of snow muffled all those sounds.  Those that had skied before me were long gone, leaving only a vague trace.  My skis slid quietly through the downy snow and although I made slow progress over the hidden tracks it was deeply satisfying.  There was no need to hurry, no urge to push to the max, no impulse to get in a good workout.  Just plowing through the snow was enough.  My poles too were muted as they stabbed the soft snow, gaining just enough purchase to help propel me forward.

The woods lining the trails were equally muffled.Snow shadow  The pine boughs were layered with snow and the ground under the trees was blanketed by the snowfall.  Any noise I managed to make was immediately absorbed by my surroundings, as if it had never existed.  It was a world shrouded in stillness.

All it took was six inches.  Half a foot of fresh white snow to transform a silent sport into a super silent one.  I relished every bit of it.

 

 

 

Backyard Skiing

My faith in winter has been restored.  After weeks – no months – of brown trails I found it hard to maintain my enthusiasm for cross-country skiing.  Sure, we could drive to find enough snow for skiable trails, but that wasn’t the point.  I was used to walking out the door with my skis, sauntering up and over the bridge and skiing off into the woods.  The lights for night skiing seemed to mock me each time I saw them shining through the trees in the evenings or early mornings.

Lester Amity Trails 1Lester Amity Trails 2All it took was a 5″ snowfall to set things right again.  It was enough for the city groomers to ply the trails for the first time all winter.  February 10 has to be a record.  Since then we’ve been graced with light snowfalls that have continued to renew the trails.

The first time I ventured out on the trail, I could feel it.  That sense of well being.  Of gliding over the snow in Lester Amity Trails 3our own woods.  Every turn was familiar and I took pleasure in passing my favorite spots along the way.  The steep hills were still a challenge, and the long downhill on the way back brought on its requisite chill.

Now I remember why I like cross-country skiing.  Getting outside on the snow.  Relishing the silence of the woods.  Pushing hard to go up and riding back down.  Feeling the skis glide across the snow.  Being the first one out on fresh corduroy.  The brisk air on my face.  The toe warmers glowing in my boots to ward off the cold.  And if I’m lucky, feeling the warmth of the sun shining down.

Granted, conditions aren’t always perfect.  There are those days so cold that my skis forget how to glide.  And my fingers freeze soon after I begin skiing.  At times the trail gets worn down from all the skiers, turning hard and crusty, begging to be regroomed.

Yet desLester Amity Ski Trail signpite any drawbacks, it’s still “our” ski trail.  And I’ll keep going back to ski.  After all, it’s right in our backyard.

Happy Dogs

The afternoon was gray and gloomy.  What little snow we had in the yard looked crusty and tired.  I’d been out all morning.  So the idea of going out to watch and photograph the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race was beginning to lose its appeal.  Fortunately, I didn’t let the excuses keep me away.

With the race starting north of Two Harbors due to lack of snow this year, we had to scout a new viewing spot.  Yet once we arrived, it reminded me of last year’s John Beargrease 2015 aoutpost.  We were at a point where the race course crossed a road and were able to peer down the tree lined trail.  Our timing was good, as the half-marathon mushers were just starting to pass by as we arrived.  There was a steady stream of sleds with reasonable gaps in between – the beauty of being a short distance from the beginning of the race.

John Beargrease 2015 cOne of the race officials must have been in contact with someone just up the course as he’d yell “dogs on the trail,” and sure enough a team would soon turn the corner and enter our field of view.  Sometimes we’d get a double – one team just behind another bearing down the trail.  It always seemed to take them a while to come into my viewfinder, and then suddenly they were past and we were hooting and hollering for the mushers.  What I managed to catch in my photos each time was a matter of pure luck.

With all the teams still fresh, theJohn Beargrease 2015 d temperatures mild and the trail conditions good, there was an aura of positive excitement among the teams.  The dogs in particular seemed to be having a good time.  In fact, they were decidedly a happy bunch.  Especially after viewing all my photos, I couldn’t help but have a bit of fun with that idea.  I nominated this group for happiest dog team.

There was no question about which was the happiest dog.  This had to be the most delighted canine out there on the trail.  Have you ever seen a bigger dog smile?

John Beargrease 2015 eWhen it came to mushers, this woman’s smile was infectious.

John Beargrease 2015 fWe stayed until the last full marathon team sailed through.  By then the day was darkening, my fingers and toes were chilling, and it was easy to head home.  But I was glad I’d gone out to watch the race.  I was a happy spectator.

Skiing with Nature

Driving up the Gunflint Trail was like entering a new world. Moving further inland with each passing mile and leaving behind the warming effect of Lake Superior transformed the landscape into a snowy winter scene.  I could forgive the trickiness of driving on a slick icy road for the benefit of the snow accumulations blanketing the woods.

Susan and I were extremely grateful for having chosen to spend our annual XC Ski Weekend together staying at Poplar Creek Guesthouse on the central Gunflint ski trails.  It was the perfect destination for a winter marred by lack of snow.  For three full days we could leave behind the frustrations of barren brown ski trails and revel in the deep soft whiteness of beautifully groomed trails through the woods.

Susan on the Bearskin trailsI might have expected that the lure of good snow would draw crowds from the Cities to ski these trails over the weekend, but it certainly didn’t seem to be the case.  Perhaps because the trail system is so extensive, we rarely saw another skier.  In fact, evidence of wildlife was in far greater abundance.

My favorite time out on the trails was early in the morning.  Getting in at least 10k of fresh air and exercise makes the sumptuous and generous B&B breakfast all the more delicious.  So I ventured out before light to ski through the pre-dawn stillness.  Each morning I was greeted by nearly an inch of new powder on Skis and animal tracksthe well groomed trails.  It was the perfect carpet to record the previous night’s animal activity.  I spotted plenty of bunny prints, watched a fox’s paws follow the ski tracks and wondered about the origins of other divots in the snow.  But the best part was the musical accompaniment.  Hearing something in the distance, I stopped skiing to silence the swish-swish of my skis.  And there it was again.  Howling.  Bark-bark-bark-Oooooooh-bark-bark.  Sometimes multiple Ooooooooohs in the middle.  Over and over again.  The song of the wolf was haunting and beautiful.  And far enough away not to be a threat.

We chose the Banadad Trail for one afternoThe Banadad Trailon’s ski outing.  Having done it before, we knew just what to expect – endless kilometers of narrow, single classic tracks through densely wooded forest with pine branches bending low under their burdens of snowy cover.  Since it is largely flat with few turns and no intersections, it is the perfect opportunity to ski on autopilot and let one’s brain loose while drinking in the peaceful surroundings.  We dubbed it a “contemplative ski.”  It might have been completely serene had it not been for the moose tracks.  Most were made prior to the overnight snowfall, so although they trampled the ski tail, we felt reassured by the fact that the moose were long gone.  Then we found the fresh tracks.  Multiple moose chose to cross and follow the ski trail for a bit before wandering back into the woods.  For all we knew, there were still there staring at us.  But we never saw them.  Susan was greatly relieved, by my camera-toting self was a wee bit disappointed.

Molly on the Banadad TrailLest all this sound too serious, we did have our moments of levity as well.  Remembering our last ski on the Banadad when Susan missed the final turn to reach the Guesthouse, I stood sentinel to make sure it didn’t happen again.  No point in delaying our evening wine and cheese, after all.

 

It was three glorious days of cross-country skiing at its best – soft snow, endless views of an undisturbed natural environment and evidence of furry friends playing on the trails.  There’s nothing better than skiing with Mother Nature.