Thursday, December 13, 2007

Making snow

Night before last I got to play Mother Nature. At Chester Bowl, the tiny little in-town downhill ski area in Duluth, I volunteered for the first shift on the snow gun. It was 11 degrees, apparently great snowmaking weather.

As soon as the chairlift stopped and the last of the little snowboard dudes made it down the hill, we hiked up the hill and set it all up. Big serious power cord ran down the hill to one of the lift poles. Fire hose went across the hill to a water pipe. The pump started up, the water flowed, I threw the valve and voila, snow!

In one machine, in one set up of pipes and power, all those little miracles that add up to snowfall had been captured and focused. Instead of a warm air mass bringing Gulf of Mexico moisture, it was the a pipe and a pump pulling water from Chester Creek. Instead of ...well... some chemical-physical process in the upper atmosphere, it was the "moleculizer" in the snow gun.

On one of my hourly trips up the hill to check on the machine, I made a point of walking up into the snow, to feel it on the breeze and under my feet as I'd experienced so many real snowfalls before. It felt okay.

And for all that machinery, all that work, it was as much snow as a good lake-effect storm would bring. Only it was in a tiny area, half the size of our little backyard.

Which, to me, makes the power and breadth of a real storm that much more impressive. Instead of just a few hundred square feet. a good storm dumps over hundreds of square miles.

But it was pretty cool to be part of it, for a bit.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Dog on the trail

How badly should we hate the person who brings their dogs on groomed ski trails? How shady are those shades of gray?

I got out on the Magney ski trails here in Duluth on Saturday. Magney is Duluth's wilderness giant, way out on the west side of town in the thick of old growth maple forests. It was mid-late afternoon and only about a degree above zero, so I was just a little anxious to get through the ski soon. The idea did occur to me of wrapping myself around a tree on one of those downhills, breaking my neck and freezing to death. So I took one of the official short cuts, and rather than the glorious full 7K loop I ended up at about 5K.

Right before I got back on the main loop, a very fast skier came down the main loop on a great long downhill. And right behind him was his dog, some mid-size blue-ish dog, bounding along and keeping up with the speedy master.

The trails had been groomed a few days before and there was a light inch of snow on top of the grooming. So a mid-size dog wouldn't break through the crust. I'm not a trail Nazi. I don't snarl at people going the wrong way or even yell at folks two abreast on a double-tracked trail. If I'd had the chance to converse with this guy and his dog, I probably wouldn't have said anything.

Of course, speedy skier lapped me way too soon, along with his dog. It turns out that I know the guy. He's actually a famous Duluth skier and musician and entrepeneur. And he said, right off as he zoomed past "Hey, I'm a lawwbreaker." He explained that he got on the trails thinking they hadn't been groomed.

And the hound wasn't really affecting the trail, right?

But I wished I could have brought our dog along. She would have crashed through the snowcrust and ruined everything.

Dogs don't belong on groomed ski trails. But it was darn cute.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Ski program cancelled due to snow

It's 7:30 PM. I was supposed to be in Saint Paul right now, starting a program on Skiing the North Shore for the weekly meeting of the Rovers. But, based on the forecast last night for today, both in Duluth and the Twin Cities, I cancelled. I was excited about meeting the Rovers and finding out more about their club and activities.

Ironic, program cancelled due to snow. Normally it's been the other way around.

Ah, snow! Ah, Piedmont!

Just got out for my first ski of the year...ahhhh, nice. It snowed heavily on Saturday the 1st to kick off December in style. After shoveling out over the weekend and working all day Monday, this was my first chance to get out on the trails.

I went to Piedmont, one of those gems of a trail found here in Duluth. It's my regular backyard trail, except it's a ten-minute drive up there. And more snow was falling. So the drive was scary. But the skiing was fine.

When I first moved back to Duluth, I was a cynic about Piedmont. Too quaint. Too small. No Lycra to be seen. But over the years I've come to really love the trail. Jerry Nowak built it himself decades ago and eventually handed it over to the City of Duluth. Jerry still installs the goofy signs, though those weren't up yet.

Piedmont is basically one loop of about 4K, with some short-cuts and a newer advanced loop that sweeps down off the hillside. First ski of the year I take it very easy, so 4K was perfect. I don't know if they're called abductors or adductors, but there are these muscles or tendons in my thighs that get amazingly sore two days after the first ski of the year.

The snow was already falling hard. By the time I finished the loop, my ski track was smoothed over with new snow. Now the snow is just dumping from the sky here down by the lake. Real lake-effect snow, right here on Park Point.


Friday, November 30, 2007

Snow, snow, snow!

Tomorrow is December 1. In some trained sense of right and wrong, as of tomorrow I will begin to feel like I should be skiing. If it's November, skiing is a rare privilege. We were living in Ely in 1991 with the big Halloween blizzard, and those 38" of snow kept the ground covered until spring. But that was freaky. In December, skiing feels like a right, not a privilege. I am a Minnesotan, and I deserve to ski in December.

As of today (November still), there is just a coating of snow, maybe an inch on the ground here by the lakeshore on Park Point. But tomorrow is December and I want to ski. Fortunately, the weather gurus are thinking along the same lines. Forecasts call for up to a foot of snow in the area.

Wow. Wouldn't it be nice. We've had a lot of years now when my birthright of December 1 skiing has been rudely denied by the forces of evil. So much so that I've grown used to the injustice. So a good blast tomorrow will somehow set the world, at least my world, right again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Amazing Lester Park trail

Just when I thought that the City of Duluth had rolled up the carpet and closed shop, their work crews pulled out a miracle.

The short loop up and down Amity Creek in Lester Park had always been incredibly scenic, with the mightiest white pines in town, a terrific waterfall, one and sometimes two footbridges crossing it. When my firstborn child was just a few days old I walked with him in the sling around the loop and, sort of like a North Woods christening, laid him out on the sling on a needle-covered boulder and stepped back just enough to take a picture.

But the trail was falling into the river. Wooden benches alongside the trail had tried in vain to stop solifluction, that insidious creep of soil downslope. Washouts from above broke out of inadequate culverts and made for impossible sidelong leaps.

When I was last there, in May or June, yellow caution tape was up and I felt sure that city attorneys were closing it off for good.

But, poodle in tow (or rather, in the tow of the poodle), I revisited the loop today, anxious about what I might find, prepared to bushwack into the forest.

And who would have guessed that the city (or someone!) had rescued the trail?! Brand new decking replaced washed out culverts. More impressively, the old wooden seating/retaining walls had been fully replaced with, get this, heavy metal, state park style footbridges on massive cement footings.

It's always hard to keep trails in river valleys. Erosion will win, over time. But this effort by the City of Duluth to retain access to this beautiful river gorge should be applauded regionwide.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

North Shore trails I wish were there

Sure, the North Shore has a lot of hiking trails. Just for kicks today I came up with a list of 50 good trails, and that only included my favorite sections of the Superior Hiking Trail.

But what about the trails that aren't there yet?

Pigeon Point is a 2-3 mile long peninsula that makes up the most easterly part of the state of Minnesota. It has Michigan on its south side and Ontario on its north side. It is rugged and wild and, as far as I can tell, inaccessible by land.

There is a nice new trail right across the bay on the Ontario side. It starts at the Ontario travel information centre just past the border crossing, skirts an interesting bay, then climbs up Finger Point to a great overlook with, of all things, a huge wooden cut-out of Lake Superior. But Pigeon Point has no trail.

I zoomed in with Google Earth: nothing like a cabin or trail or road. I check at the Duluth Public Library's great set of bound USGS topos. The USGS had to stretch out the quad for an extra mile or so to include the tip of the point, but there was only one sign of human habitation there, a little black square indicating a single building on a beach at "the narrows."

Now that would be a cool trail, connected up with Grand Portage State Park.

I'll be seeing Rick Novitsky of Grand Portage State Park tomorrow...maybe I'll bend his ear a bit.

More trails I wish were there? I'll keep thinking about it.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Let the wild rumpus begin

Strong northwest winds are blowing across Lake Superior today. They're cold enough that they're going to create lake-effect snow on the South Shore. Ironwood, Michigan is under a winter storm warning already.

So, fellow skiers...are you ready to rock and roll? Ready for five months of anticipation, of reading long-term forecasts, of planning your weekend around snowfall totals? Do you have on your short list of bookmarks?

I won't be headed for the UP this weekend; my skis aren't even out of the attic yet. But we are fully past the turn of the seasons from summer to winter. The leaves are off the trees, the ground is hardening up. It's time to start planning for snow.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Making a Great Lake Superior

Just spent two days at the Making a Great Lake Superior conference here in Duluth, with a few hundred scientists, educators, government folks and some just plain folks. The single-most discussed topic was climate change in the Lake Superior region. As pie-in-the-sky optimistic as I can be, there wasn't much good news, at least in terms of winter outdoor recreation. The models agree that it will get drier and warmer on the North Shore over the next 50 years.

Now would be a great time to open a business offering guided canyoneering trips along the North Shore rivers.

Friday, October 26, 2007

North Shore rivers running wild

And I do mean wild. I wish I'd been on the North Shore this weekend, because things were just rocking. Roads washing out. The rivers practically busting out of their banks. There were some great photos in the Lake County News-Chronicle, also available online. Stunning. Makes you realize why the river banks are so wide, exposing so much bare rock most of the time.

Lake Superior water levels should take a small step up after this. It came too late for the trees, but it's perfect for the lake. Instead of soaking into the soil for plants to take up, it's rushing straight down to the big lake.

Go rain!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Snow buntings

Snow buntings are cool. There are a very few birds that seem to come through at the hinge of the seasons, when one time of year fizzles out and another starts to flame. Snow buntings are one of those. I suppose if their name was "lily buntings," I wouldn't feel the same way. But they skitter across the roads and fields like the first flakes of snow, whirl in their little flocks like a bit of a blizzard.

I've been seeing them for about a week. Summer was so dry here, and the fall so far so wet, things are weird phenologically. But it feels like about the right time for the snow buntings.

Snow buntings are notorious unsavvy in terms of cars and people. In fact, I think I killed one a few days back as a little flock rose from Highway 61 as I was driving into Two Harbors. I don't ever like killing a bird like that, but it's a testimony to their wildness. They must breed somewhere north and wild...apparently they are tundra birds, which makes sense because they seem to prefer open fields and...unfortunately...roads.

So, as the tamaracks burn out summer with their autumn gold, the snow buntings flutter down in with the first flakes of winter.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Tamaracks, the last gasp of summer

Went to Ely over the long MEA weekend.

Why do we still call it MEA weekend ten years after MEA merged with MFT and became Education Minnesota. Maybe because "EM weekend" sounds like a new-age meditation retreat. "MEA weekend" resonates with us Minnesotans as the last great glimpse of summer's freedoms.

Living in this tourist economy, it's striking how the fall color season has really stretched out tourism in this area. The Tuesday after Labor Day used to mean things just died on the North Shore, with a few busy weekend days later in the month. Now it's go-go-go all the way through...MEA weekend.

Maybe one reason that fall color tourism stretches out is the tamaracks. They are the last gasp of summer's ecological vibrancy, or productivity. And, in color, they're gorgeous. The only other leaf color remaining was a few yellow aspen, sometimes just two leafs clinging to a single slender sapling.

Tamaracks are the favorite tree of naturalists teaching tree identification. It's the "exception that proves the rule." A deciduous conifer, dropping its leaves just like a maple tree. Only later. And, at least this year, with more dramatic color. They also help define bogs (a closed, acidic wetland) versus marshes (an open, non-acid wetland versus swamps (a wetland with standing trees): tamaracks are often in bog swamps, if that makes sense.

There's a band of low country that runs between the North Shore and the range. This low country is known for its bogs and wetlands. Owl watchers know the Sax-Zim bog west of Highway 53. We drove up "the secret back way" from Duluth to Ely, along Rice Lake Road, which turns into Highway 4, just misses Biwabik, turns into 135, just misses Aurora, breezes through Embarrass, turns on 21, just misses Babbitt. The tamaracks were golden everywhere. And there were more cars on this "secret" way than we'd ever seen.

Just outside Aurora, the road crests over the biggest single hill along the route. This hill is the granite stub of the ancient Giants Ridge range of mountains. North of the hill, there were far fewer tamaracks.

We took Highway 53 back home on Sunday. 53 cuts through the same belt of lowland tamarack swamp in the area around Canyon and Cotton. The tamaracks were still glowing.

Some day soon, before the end of October, all those colors will be gone. The tamaracks will drop their golden needles into a blanket on the hummocky swamp floor. The last yellow aspen leaves will be blown off the slender twigs. And for a few weeks, the roads will be empty. After deer season, and before ski season, the one great quiet time of the year will come.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

If only it were winter

If only it were 20 degrees colder, we'd be hunkering in for a good blizzard right now. The weather has built up over the last 48 hours. Down here by the lake, it's "blowing like stink" as Sally says, and the forecasters say we're just getting going. But it's 45 degrees instead of 25 degrees, so the coming deluge will be rain, not snow.

If you haven't ever walked on the Park Point beach in a storm, you should. This is a good time, because it's actually not that cold. The lake is still 55 degrees or so, so the wind blasting in off the lake is tepid compared to a blow like this in January. But the waves are gi-normous and they slosh all the way up to the beach grass line and the only people out besides you are kiteboarders and they're crazy.

The waves starting crashing about five waves out, so it's a wide white field, and all that white surf is also crashing. You get a deep bass feel in your ears just from the wind pressure, then you add in the roar of the surf and it's multi-dimensionally loud. The pines are full of wind, too, but they're not whispering like in some Sigurd Olson essay, they're roaring.

Hmmm...Roaring Pines Lodge...that could be our B&B down here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The dark, the grey...

One of the cooler things about living on the shores of Lake Superior is the view you get of the sky and the distant horizon. Depending on where you are on the Lake, you can get more than a 180-degree view of the true horizon. Among other things, that can mean that you have the first glimpse of a weather system coming in.

Yesterday I was at Sugarloaf Cove and then at a friend's house in Schroeder. It was a beautiful afternoon; the morning clouds had cleared and the sky was clear blue...except for a big mass of dark grey clouds on the south-west horizon. Yes, I'd read the weather forecast, so I knew intellectually that it was going to cloud over and rain for the next five days. But from that shoreline in Schroeder I could see it: beautiful, windy, sunny big wave day here, grey and cloudy there. And soon grey and cloudy in Schroeder, too.

On the way down Highway 61, I drove under the clouds right near Gooseberry. Now, home on Park Point, I am already sick of the grey, the wind, the rain.

I hate to say I told me so, but....I told me so.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

North Shore fall colors...the end is near

Drove up to Grand Marais and back on Friday, from Duluth. In classic North Shore style, the maples on the ridges have all turned and gone, but right along the shoreline there were a lot of gorgeous aspens. Since aspens grow in large clones, you could really see how one group of trees (one clone) turned colors and dropped leaves ahead of or after another. Smeared right up on the west side of Palisade Head, for example, was one thick patch of glimmering yellow aspen leaves, surrounded by a forest of bare trees.

The Cascade River was rocking, with water sloshing up over its banks. At the river mouth, you could see the current shooting out into the lake. The rivers were carrying a lot of foam; by Temperance, the foam was rolling along the shoreline east of the river mouth. The bar at the mouth, but a lot of beer foam. Actually, there has been a bar at the mouth of the Temperance for the last few years, but maybe these last few gully-washers washed it away...

SKIING THE NORTH SHORE is in almost every Holiday Station Store along Hwy 61...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

There and back...and why not?

A good trail guide is like a spiritual advisor. It points the way to a great experience; if you do what it suggests, you'll have an experience you couldn't have had otherwise.

We at There and Back Books intend to point the way to great experiences.