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 Temperance...no 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.