Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Virtual skiing stinks...

...but it's better than spreadsheets if you're stuck on your computer.

If you're dying to get up the shore and do some skiing, but you're stuck at your desk, check out this video from Greg Fangel and the Sugarbush Trail Association. This is the same trailhead I visited December 11.

The video lasts about five minutes and takes you around the Homestead loop. The downhill run down Bridge Run is the best skiing part, but a mid-trail chat with North Shore skiing legend Jan Horak of Cobblestone Cabins is just a hoot.

There's another video from Greg that shows skiing the Onion River Road. Not quite as fun, but it has a nice chat with Charlie Nelson, another local skiing legend.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Thank you UMD, thank you snowshoers

After a nice snowy December, the Duluth city ski trail groomer is broken. It's nice to know that there are other places to ski. One of the least known ski trails in Duluth is the 2.5 kilometer loop at Bagley Nature Area, right on the UMD campus.

There are actualy two loops, "East" and "West". The two loops come together in a big dumbbell. East Loop is flatter and a bit easier. West Loop climbs up around Rock Hill, an old downhill ski area, so it's one long climb followed by one long downhill run. Yesterday, with freezing drizzle, the downhill was downright scary. Both loops are rated Intermediate, but West Loop is overall more difficult than East.

Tim Bates of the UMD outdoor program runs the groomer, and he's been great about getting out there in the last week or so and packing the trail.

The Bagley trail is right next to the student apartments and has many houses bordering it. So the foot traffic can damage the trails fairly soon after a snowfall. That's despite signs like this:

But at least for now, people are staying out of the track. Note how the snowshoers very carefully have stayed outside the groomed ski track:

I love a groomed trail. Thank you so much Tim, UMD, and the campus neighbors!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A holiday gift from Lake Superior

We had a big storm over the weekend, including snow and wind nearly all the way through December 21, the winter solstice. The wind and cold drove the waves of Lake Superior, and those mighty forces gave us this beautiful ice arch, right out on the lake behind our house.

We love arches. We go to southern Utah almost every year to hike the slickrock desert country and find natural stone arches, both the famous and the remote. So what a treat to have an arch show up right at our home. Literally, we are the only family with a view right out through the window of the arch. I feel blessed.

Here it is this afternoon, Christmas Eve. In the background is the Roger Blough going out with a load of iron ore pellets:

So, thanks for the gift, Lake Superior. And to all those who happen to come across this blog, I'll pass this on as my gift to you. Happy Yule!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The importance of good grooming, revisited

Yes, it snowed a bunch...BUT ARE THE TRAILS GROOMED? We skiers, we want the snow, but then we also REALLY want the grooming machines to get out there and smash that snow down into neat lines and perfect tracks.

Yesterday being Sunday, I was pretty sure that the city groomers had not gone into work on their day off just to groom all this perfect snow. Still, I drove to the Lester Park ski trails, just inland from Lake Superior and Brighton Beach.

The lowest loop at Lester is the least used, but it has great access from from Occidental Boulevard just above Superior Street. This lowest loop also has by far the best pine trees and spruce trees. Plenty of snow, but the only tracks on the ski trail were from what appeared to be two skiers and their sled/pulks.

I'm so accustomed to skiing on groomed trails, it took me a moment or two to lay off my expectations and enjoy skiing as it always used to be for me: snowy, slow, with skis too narrow and waffling from side to side. But, wow, what a wonderful winter wonderland. And my adductor muscles were still sore from my first outing 2-3 days before.

So is it important that the trail was groomed? No, not at all. Did I have the ski experience I'd hoped for? No, but I had a better experience: snow, woods, pine trees, quiet, old memories not soured by newer experience.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Skiers, bookmark this site

Skinny Ski is the go-to website for the cross-country skiers I know. It's got nearly real-time reports from actual skiers out on the trails.

In Duluth, you get really fresh reports on city trails, especially Piedmont, Hartley and Lester. Also the private trails at Snowflake get frequent reports.

Reporting is a little spottier up the North Shore. The folks at Sugarbush report frequently, as do their skiers. Pincushion ski trails are updated about twice a week. And the folks up the Gunflint Trail provide detailed reports at least weekly.

For the North Shore state parks, sometimes the best info comes from their weekly reports, filed by the park managers every Thursday.

The skiing is pretty good everywhere right now...get out and enjoy!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow at last, and skiing

A few weeks back, desperate for snow, I ran screaming down one of the hills at Hartley Nature Center here in Duluth, pretending to be on my skis.

Today, there's snow and ski tracks on that same hill...

...and I got out for my first cross country ski trip of the season. Just three kilometers around the "Outer Loop" of Hartley, but what a gorgeous day! Heck, the temperature was nearly ten degrees!

I am so glad to have ski season upon us. I love skiing. Can you tell?

Skiing is the best exercise I get all year; in fact, I could really feel how out of shape I was today especially my upper body. Since I don't chop wood or even paddle boats much, my upper body workouts are mostly...well...non-existent.

Lake Effect Snow for the North Shore

This morning's announcement from the National Weather Service is like music to my ears. I especially like words such as "heaviest," "up to 8 inches" and "last through much of Friday."

Lake Effect Snow Watch
Carlton, Southern St. Louis (Minnesota)

443 AM CST THU DEC 18 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Walk Lake Walk

Everyone loves Duluth's Lakewalk. It's been such a joy as a resident of Duluth to see how both locals and tourists alike flock to the water's edge to enjoy parts or all of the three mile paved path along the lakeshore.

Unfortunately, it is treacherously icy right now. Before the blizzard really got going this weekend, it threw waves and freezing rain onto the shore. In fact, part of the Lakewalk near the Fitgers area has been closed due to damage from the storm.

If you want a little safer, less slippery Walk by the Lake, try the Sonju Trail in Two Harbors:

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Sugarbush Trails...almost ready!

The Sugarbush cross country ski trail system, outside of Tofte and Lutsen, has some of the best skiing on the North Shore, hands-down. For me, it's where I discovered the joy of well-groomed ski trails, after years of crashing through the woods on wilderness trails.

As of today, the trails are not yet officially open. Above is a picture taken today at the most popular trailhead, Britton Peak, just up the Sawbill Trail from "downtown" Tofte. If you look carefully, you'll see the gate up over the trail about 100 yards in. The trails were rolled earlier this week, which means the groomer rode the trails with a large rolling drum behind the groomer, packing the trail but not setting track. The major winter storm this weekend should provide all the snow they need to groom the trails and open them up.

If you're dying to know when the great Sugarbush trail system is ready for skiing, either check Skinnyski or visit the Sugarbush web site and subscribe to their timely e-mail notifications. Sarah Lynch at Sawtooth Outfitters says she's receiving many phone calls about the trail grooming. "It'll go online as soon as it's done," she told me.

Here's the view the other direction, what they call the Bluefin Trail. This is the connector trail down towards Lake Superior.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sun dogs barking at the break of day

What a beautiful morning on our backyard Lake Superior beach! As long as we live on a six mile long public beach, and as long as we have this psychotic poodle who must MUST go for a walk ALL THE TIME, it's not a bad option to have.

In cold winter days, the lake sets off its own steamy fog, what the old fishermen called "sea smoke." The combination of sea smoke, some miscellaneous clouds rolling in, and low morning light leads to some wonderful tricks of light.

Like the sundogs this morning:

They were showing a full range of color, like a rainbow, but only briefly and I just got a bit of it on film.

I just checked on the lyrics of that Paul Simon song, "Cool, Cool River", and I always thought he was singing about "sun dogs" barking at the break of dawn. It turns out it's actually "song dogs", not "sun dogs." Oh well. My dog was barking at the break of dawn, and there were sun dogs, and it was all pretty cool.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Art on the beach

The beach here on Minnesota Point is constantly changing. In the summer, the sand is carved by the waves, swept by the wind, and sculpted by the kids.

In the winter, Nature adds a few more tools and materials. Now the waves dapple the shore with drops and sprays of water that may turn to ice, or icicles. Now the snow drifts down the beach with the northwest breeze, filling holes, cresting into minor new dunes. Winter even practices the technique of negative space. Footprints from fresh after the snowfall, once depressions in the snow, are now all that's left as the snow that was there has blown away.

The evening light casts its alpenglow not on mountains but on distant waves and the lighthouse. Once blue, the waves are golden. Once white, the lighthouse is briefly yellow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Winter work on the Kek

I love the gentle persistence Martin Kubik brings to his volunteer work on northeastern Minnesota trails. This entry on SmugMug details his experience this weekend working on the Kekekabic Trail, clearing it in nearly zero degree temps all the way to Bingshick Lake.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Desperate times, positive outlook

Still no snow on the ground here in Duluth, but the long-range outlook is positive.

NOAA's latest long-range prediction bodes well for northern Minnesota. If we could have an "average" winter of temperature and snowfall, that would be just fine for me. On the temperature prediction map above, that's what they're saying for the northern third of Minnesota, "equal chances" of temperatures below or above average. That's good.

The map below says the same thing for precipitation. There's a wet area down Oklahoma, but if we can just be average here and not below average, that should be good.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Desperate times... Part II

No snow in December? But there's still cold days, right? So why not ride your bike on the beach?

Inspired by a few folks doing exactly that, folks about half my age, I rode the frozen sands of Park Point this afternoon. Not far, just enough to get a feel for it.

There's a about five bands of sand to choose from, only two of which were good riding. Right at the water's edge was a firm line of wet but unfrozen sand that was good riding, though I felt the constant danger of getting dumped into the cold cold water. I've been reading up on hypothermia lately, and I want no part of that.

There's a band about three feet wide of soft sand, not frozen. Bad bad riding there. It caught my front tire a few times while I was trying to ride the water's edge band and nearly spilled me.

Then there's the band 10-15 feet wide where waves have lapped up and left a sheen of ice mixed with snow and driftwood. It's about 95% safe for riding, since the sand and grit give enough texture for tires to grab. But the 5% of it that's really slippy was enough to dump Hans.

The prime spot is just above that icy band, where the sand was smooth, hard, but not ice-covered. That was sweet riding, and I felt I could have taken in five miles to the end of Park Point.

Just above that prime spot the sand got loose again, probably too dry from summer sun and winds to freeze solid.

My 12-year old son Hans joined me:

After a nice ride toward downtown and back, he found that slippery band. Notice the skid marks in the ice. Nice! He was fine.

Thanks to son Noah for the great photographs, including this self-portrait on a fun winter's day.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Desperate times...

...require desperate measures.

Like, when there's no snow to ski, running down one of Hartley ski trail's two big hills, pretending I'm on skis.

Watch for the poodle...when I run her instinct is to chase, bite and tackle, so it's amazing I made it all they way to the bottom

Monday, November 24, 2008

We are so ready.

I walked the ski trails at Hartley Park today, entering off Hartley Road, off of Arrowhead Road, and this sight of maple leaves frozen into the ground and dusted with snow caught my eye.

We are so ready for winter. The ground is so ready. I am so ready. The light snow falling today says the weather is ready.

Walking a ski trail without the snow, especially one as familiar to me as Hartley, is bizarre and fun. The hills aren't as steep, the trail harder to follow. Everything is slower. The inner loop at Hartley takes me 15 minutes to ski, but 30 minutes to walk. I want the fast version.

The faded cross country ski sign still sticks out from the gray and brown forest. It is so ready.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Whose woods these were

The second most famous line in one of the most famous English language poems, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, runs:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow

These lines came to my mind as I hiked around Scarp Lake on the Hogback Lake trail a week or two ago (on Election Day, actually).

As far as I could tell, it was an old surveyor's post, marking a section or township corner perhaps. An odd feeling hit me, when I saw that it might be a property line. Whose woods these are? Whose woods these were? Well, they're Superior National Forest now, but back then maybe it was a timber company, marking the edge of its property before clearing it, leaving the white pine stumps I'd seen all around. Maybe a homesteader paced off his 40 acres from this post, dreaming of a potato harvest next year.

I've hiked through a lot of forest, on public and private land, but had never seen a post like this.

Here is the post a bit closer up:

I am so glad for open wild places, where property lines disappear in the magnitude of forest, where I can imagine rolling on across esker and swamp near forever.

Frost's poem goes on a bit about horses and farmhouses, then ends with the poem's most famous lines:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Can't wrap it up any better than that!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The dog says go. Now.

It's reached a new low. Chloe the psycho poodle will now march into our home office and grab the sleeve of my jacket. Right when I'm trying to use the mouse for something very important, like a database or a file format change. Then she barks and stares. It's time to go. You will take me for a walk now. That piddly stroll to the bus stop was not enough. Go. Now.

Chloe does not respond to reason. She does not understand it when I say, "Give me five minutes." It is now or never; there is no "later" or "soon". Bark. Stare. Jacket grab. Time to go.

So we went. Sure, I thought, I should go to the store anyway, I'll combine the errands. My poodle is really not bossing me, I'm the boss of her.

Check out the expression. Doesn't that just say, "Got what I wanted!"

And isn't it nice to live in Duluth, the urban wilderness, where there are trails and creeks and waterfalls with bridges over them? We did the first loop at Chester Creek, from Fourth Street by 14th Ave. E. There are foot bridges over the creek just above Fourth Street, and another about 6 "blocks" up, past the big arching Eighth/Ninth Street bridge. So we went up one side and came back the other.

Guess who was pulling whom the whole way? Bark. Stare. Grab. Time to go. Now.

First snow

A week or so ago, we had the first snow of the season. Hans took to our backyard and found a treasure trove of snow on the trampoline. Little brother Noah was his first target, of course.

As an adult, my standards are a bit higher. And I'm getting just a bit itchy.

Bring it on! More snow, now! This little coating is pretty and makes decent snowballs, but I want inches. Many inches. A foot or two, especially on the ski trails.

I've gotten the skis out of the attic, we've gone to the ski swap, we're almost fully outfitted. It's nearly Thanksgiving, and I want to be thankful for all the snow we've received by then.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Seeking the light

We are all seeking beauty, and many of us seek to capture beauty in a photo's frame, to understand, to remember. Our photos become our memories. And when there are no photos to be our memories, we may make do with symbols.

It was a busy day at Split Rock Lighthouse last week for the annual Fitzgerald memorial ceremony. I attended the somber gathering at the lighthouse itself. Hearing the bells and the names brought that tragedy home.

Right after the ceremony, I booked down the hill not only to try my own camera out on this, but also to see the scene.

Perhaps 100 photographers lined the shoreline west of the lighthouse, ready for their once-a-year chance to shoot the North Shore landmark with its lights on. This year had a little extra challenge for the lenses and f-stops: a waxing, near full moon up above the lighthouse.

In the low light, a tripod was critical. I didn't have a tripod. But I got a shot or two by resting the camera on a beach rock. As the Fresnel lens spun slowly around and the light turned toward me, I gently pressed the shutter release and held my breath for an exposure of at least a second.

In these beautiful places, I leave the beautiful photography to those people who know what they're doing (like they bring tripods, for example). These people with tripods are honoring the mariners of the Fitz too, just like the people at the bell-ringing ceremony. The lighthouse represents the hope for the sailors. Photographers and sailors' souls are all seeking the light.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The light at Split Rock

It was a beautiful evening at Split Rock Lighthouse this Monday. The lake was calm, glowing and smooth. The moon rose stealthfully in the eastern sky. People were smiling, telling stories, faces lit. The fact that it had been 33 years to the day since the Edmund Fitzgerald had passed by a dark Split Rock Light on its way to its destiny seemed novel, out of place.

A ship passed by in the distant shipping lane, under the waxing moon.

Then they began to read the names and toll the bell. 29 times. Plus one with no name, for all the other mariners who have perished on Lake Superior.

Lake Superior has claimed her dead and tucked them into dark places for eternity. Tonight, however, we were alight and alive.

Wow...The Kek by The Man

Martin Kubik founder of the Kekekabic Trail Club, hikes the 41 mile wilderness trail in three days.

Check it out. He's got great photos and a great story.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hogback, Hump Back, Ba-Rack

A good day in the woods, a great day for the country.

My weeks on injured reserve are done, and my apparently mild case of plantar fasciitis has healed. Plus I just couldn't stand to hang out in town all day waiting for election results. So in this very narrow window before deer season and the first snows, I got out on two trails I'd been meaning to hike all fall.

Both trails were up the Cramer Road out of Finland. It had been so foggy next to Lake Superior I wanted to get away from the big cold water and into the clear.

First up was the trail at Hogback Lake.

This is a Superior National Forest trail system about 25 miles inland from Finland. Total drive time from Highway 61 is about 45 minutes.

It's a sweet hike, though it was shorter than I expected. It's called the Hogback Lake trail, though it only starts at that lake; most of the trail is a loop around Scarp Lake. There's an extra loop to Lupus Lake I did not take. Grand total distance for the loop around Scarp Lake was 2.8 miles.

The dog and I took a break in the sun at Scarp Lake. Scarp has a big escarpment on its south side, probably the source of the name.

Next it was back down the Cramer Road (aka Lake County Road 7) back toward Finland but turning off to Crosby-Manitou State Park.

Crosby-Manitou has a well-deserved reputation as a remote hikers' park. They take their hiking seriously.

Whoever took the time to peck out that bottom sign must have issues with hikers taking the wrong trail.

The Hiking Club Trail makes a loop out of three park trails, the Hump Back Trail, part of the River Trail, and the Middle Trail. The River Trail is etched into my childhood memories as the location for repeated family machismo hiking the length of the Manitou on unofficial trails from the Cramer Road through to Highway 61. It was a rough trail back when I was 9 and 10 and 12, and it's even rougher now.

I stopped at the Cascades and remembered my last time there, in the winter with my father on his 60th birthday in January, on skis and breaking trail all the way down the river.

Yard-for-yard, this was the hardest Hiking Club trail on the North Shore. Only 2.3 miles, it was a lot of up and down and rough trails.

The drive back to Duluth was a long one, but it was so cleansing. I had shed my heel problems, kept the car stereo OFF of news radio, and made it back home in one piece. I was tired, the dog was exhausted, but I stayed up to watch the election returns. A nice day hiking for me, and I emerged from the woods into a great day for Barack Obama and our country.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Prewinter Piedmont Poodle

Now is the time to get out on those favorite ski trails...for a hike. I hit our local neighborhood Piedmont ski trails yesterday with Chloe, our psychotic standard poodle. It was great to be out on a familiar trail. But things are a bit different when there's no snow on the ground. Or when you have a dog along.

Yes I let the dog off the leash. She loves running off leash, but right away she's breaking the rules, going the wrong way on a one-way trail!

Turns out the benches are a lot higher when there's no snow on the ground:

And when you get to the end of the trail, it's really hard to take off your boots:

It's hard to believe that in a month, we might be skiing on this trail. But it will be so very nice to have it back the way I'm used to it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Funny from Texas

Check out this funny essay from a Texas columnist about his recent trip to Two Harbors and the rabid late-season mosquitoes. Based on his dateline, this must have been just two weeks ago that he had so many skeeters.

This was totally the summer of bugs for us, like the woods were full of frustrated larvae that had waited out two or three dry summers and then just cranked out the generations like mad to catch up.

I don't know how this writer's bug experience really was. I'm pretty accustomed to onslaughts of insects. But the fact that this was mid-October is pretty weird.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hiking Trail Defense Detour

For the next few days, the Superior Hiking Trail has a small detour.

Does the name "Superior Hiking Trail" evoke images of wooded ridgelines and deep blue views of Lake Superior? Do you feel the quiet of the trail, the peace of the forest? You probably don't think about throbbing engines, the sound of reveille, or a modular weapons system.

Trails get detoured for all kinds of reasons. Beavers flood the trail with a dam. A windstorm knocks down a few acres of trees. A private property dispute arises or the land is resurveyed.

For the first time that I'm aware of, the US Department of Defense has mandated a detour. Hardcore SHT hikers and a few residents of Duluth may know that the SHT runs right along the waterfront in front of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center. That waterfront space is now home to the Freedom, a brand new Navy ship built in Wisconsin and about to be commissioned in Milwaukee.

The detour is just in place through this Thursday, when the Freedom will leave for Milwaukee. But it's a serious detour; you can't just skip over the downfall or shortcut across property lines. Armed guards and a tall temporary fence make it pretty much mandatory that you take the detour.

The ship has attracted a small crowd of the curious and the patriotic. The humming and the geometry remind me of one of those opening scenes in Star Wars, as the giant Star Destroyer passes overhead humming (despite that inconvenient fact that there is no sound in space).

It really is quite a sight. Enjoy this detour while you can!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Just here for the baked goods

Who's that guy at the press conference in Duluth, plugging the "Vote Yes!" campaign for dedicated natural resource funding?

Oh, it's me! Funny thing, I didn't think I'd be speaking at the event. I'd been at a meeting to organize it, but the decision had been to find someone who actually worked somewhere, like The Nature Conservancy. Me? I just came for the donuts.

And darn it all if those donuts didn't hit the road with the crew from the Cities on their way to their next event in Grand Rapids. I thought briefly about stopping them on their way out of the Marine Museum. They had one of those big white cardboard boxes, and some of them even had chocolate icing...I've been thinking about those baked goods all day.

Vote Yes! Protect the Minnesota you love!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Jay Cooke thanks you

Just spent a fun few hours at the studio of KUMD, helping with their fall membership drive and pitching Skiing the North Shore. Northland Morning host-with-the-most Lisa Johnson said she has never been to Jay Cooke State Park.

To all four of my regular readers, MOST of whom have been to this fabulous, nearby state park, full of hiking trails and ski trails and an incredible river, THANK YOU for being a good citizen and visiting Jay Cooke. Lisa...haul your trailer (sorry, must be logged into Google-world to see these photos) there for a fall weekend and enjoy this gem.