Thursday, July 31, 2008

Putting me in my place

In my selfless quest to find all the North Shore has to offer, to find every view of that blue horizon, to experience those unique activities, and to share these experiences with the public, I bring you, my reader, the fourteenth green of Duluth's Northland Country Club and my finely-practiced putt.

(Get that title??..." MY place")

Okay, so this was my first time actually playing golf on a golf course in over 30 years. I've gone sliding on golf courses, skied on golf courses, picked blueberries right off of fariways, ate at some clubhouses, but never actually played. Until this summer, when I was talking with a friend about public golf courses around NE Minnesota and how they are these great open spaces that average Joes like me can't experience. This friend happens to be an active golfing member of Northland Country Club, which happens to be one of the best and most sought-after courses in Minnesota. And much to my surprise, he invited me to play. That's a bit like asking me to pinch hit at the World Series.

The photo was taken by my friend Duke Skorich, who is embarrassingly good. He finished the day three over. Check out his Northland Country Club blog.

As I explained to my kids, when they asked me how I did, "Well, par is 71. I finished at 75...over par." Actually I lost count on about the eighth stroke of the third hole.

The most memorable single stroke was the one I hit off the second tee, which zoomed down into a draw forty yards away, struck a rock, and bounced right back to the tee.

So for all of you not as quirkily lucky as me, I can tell you it was beautiful...and hot. And at the next hole, #15, where the view down the fairway is even better than the green of #14...I totally nailed my drive right down the middle. Many many thanks to Duke for sharing his course and his knowledge of the game.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What's old is new again

Grand Portage is one of the oldest settlements in Minnesota, with Ojibway people living there for at least 500 years and a fascinating blend of European and native cultures since the 1700s. Visitors this summer will enjoy some new and meaningful ways to experience this history.

The National Monument has totally reoriented their entrance. The old parking lot on the northeast side of the stockade is blocked off and is regrowing native vegetation. The new entrance is on the west side of the stockade, and goes through the new heritage center.

The new Heritage Center at Grand Portage appears to be a tremendous new interpretive resource. I say "appears to be," because after a brutal hike to Mt. Josephine, we lost our energy to explore the facility. But I could see into the exhibit area and it looked terrific. You do have to pay the Monument entry fee to take in the exhibits.

One super cool new option this summer is a guided tour of the Spirit Little Cedar Tree, or "Witch Tree." Access to this North Shore landmark has been tightly controlled by the band and the community. Now, every Saturday and Sunday, you can sign up for a free 3:00 tour. Sign up by 2:30 at the Heritage Center. I recommend doing it now, before the program gets changed.

Go next weekend (August 8-10) for the annual Rendezvous Days. This is a combination of Grand Portage's annual Pow Wow and a big fur trade encampment at the Monument grounds.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer's color ride

There's a famous expression about hurried group travel through Europe..."If it's Tuesday, this must be Paris." We get so busy in our lives we lose track of where we are. As summer 2008 flies by, I am surprised and grounded not by my itinerary but by the colors of summer. In a very rough version of botany, North Shore wildflower colors have their own itinerary, from the whites of the earliest spring ephemerals to the yellows of goldenrods in August.

So if it's the white and yellow of daisies, this must be somewhere just past mid-summer. These daisies are right on the shore of Grand Portage Bay. And if we really are rolling past mid-summer now, I get a little blue. Or a little blue-grey like the hazy fog of Grand Portage Bay. The weeks are going way too fast, the colors of summer are a blur.

What colors do I have to look forward to yet this summer? These Hat Point thimbleberries will turn from green to a delicious red within weeks. Fireweed is blooming hard in the ditches, the one great run of purple. There's that one last camping/hiking trip coming up, amidst the blue asters. There will be that delicious week at the cabin, with the rich yellow of goldenrod again ruling the meadows. Then of course there will be the color landmarks of fall in the North Shore woods.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The highest place ON the North Shore

We hiked to the top of Mount Josephine today, up at Grand Portage. It's a very steep climb on a poorly maintained trail, so the challenge of getting there almost overwhelmed Sally and me. Ten hours later now and I'm still woozy from the muggy heat.

The trail had been recommended in the Falcon Press "Hiking Minnesota" book as well as numerous fliers and the Grand Portage Lodge visitor guide. So I was surprised by how hard it was to find the trailhead. Also, the trail itself really hadn't been maintained this year or, it seems, for years before. Where trees had fallen across the trail, the path had simply been worn around. Plus it seemed like no single map or trail guide had accurate distance measurements. The sign above? It was actually about .75 miles to the summit.

The trail uses long switchbacks to climb to a saddle, then crashes up the rocky outcrops to the summit. The actual peak of this trail was an ancient stone foundation, probably a firetower, with no real view. But a few steps off the trail, the view was gorgeous. Straight out across Wauswoganing Bay to Pigeon Point, the Susie Islands, even a hazy blur of Isle Royale.

I felt as if I could throw a rock off the summit all the way to Lake Superior. There are a number of peaks equally high (around 1300 feet above sea level) along the North Shore, but none that are this close. In fact, I did a little work on Google Earth and figured it was a 700 feet rise from the lake over only 1300 feet distance. No, I couldn't have thrown a rock that far, but compared to Carlton Peak or Oberg Mountain, this was right there ON the shore. A well-built paper airplane could have made it easily.

It was a tough hike and I really would hesitate to recommend it over Carlton or Oberg because of the overall difficulty, but if you find yourself in Grand Portage, maybe for Rendezvous Days in August, check it out! The total trail is 1.2 miles to the summit, for 2.4 miles total, taking 1.5-2 hours.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The lake is back

I've been up and down the North Shore this summer, including a beautiful day (above) on top of Corundum Point at Split Rock SP. But it wasn't until yesterday when walked out on our backyard Park Point Lake Superior beach and realized: the lake is up!

This big lake, always changing, but always the same. It's like an old friend, and how Simon and Garfunkel sang, "After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same." Sure, go off and try a new look, a new attitude, a new water level, but I know you'll be back, basically the same dynamic person...or lake... I've come to know and love.

In just one year, the Lake Superior water level has returned almost to normal. Lake level is 15 inches higher than July 2007. Of course it's been a gradual rise, but something about the lake yesterday made the change really hit me.

If you're into numbers and climate stuff, check out the Minnesota Climatology Working Group and their monthly newsletter. They go into all the detail statewide of increased precipitation, etc.

But for me, it's just a relief to see the water up where it should be. It was discomforting to have the North Shore shoreline so changed, so exposed. My rowing friends were sick of dodging logs and sandbars in the Duluth harbor. We need all the wake-up calls we can get about climate change and the warmer, drier North Shore that awaits us. But it's also comforting to have some constants in my life, for now. Old friends...they always come back.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thrills up high, thrills down low

Which was the bigger thrill today? Fast loud and airborne, or slow quiet and earthbound?

Was it going to the Duluth air show, with jets screaming by at the, amazing acrobatics, trails of smoke, huge crowds, lines for the funnel cakes, then getting rained out just after the Blue Angels?

Or was it heading to the Park Point beach, just my wife and my nephew, after the rain stopped and the skies had begun to clear, and seeing...what is that?...a snapping turtle on the beach??!! Big one, at least two feet from tip to tail, wallowing in and out of the surf, completely out of its habitat.

I didn't go to the air show (my son took the picture), but I did see the turtle.

Maybe the biggest thrill of all was had by this guy:

When up high and down low all come together and he caught that perfect wave.

The turtle couldn't fly, and it was a lousy surfer. It was heartwrenching for me to see it flounder in the waves, so out of place in the big lake. But I wasn't about to carry it myself, fearing for my fingers. Did it flush down a South Shore river, maybe the Amnicon? When the waves settle down, will it wander across Park Point and reach the safety of the harbor?

Friday, July 18, 2008

New North Shore nook

McQuade Harbor, about halfway between Duluth and Two Harbors along Old Highway 61, celebrated its grand opening today. After decades of planning for North Shore harbors, and after some intense civic disputes in the last ten years, the finished product is there, very solid, large and real.

I walked away from the big white tent with all the muckity-mucks and the speechifying to tour the site. There is serious engineering at McQuade... not only does the boat ramp go under Old 61, there's also a pedestrian tunnel under the road. The parking lot is huge and was nearly full today with cars for the big event. The bathrooms even have running water.

I'm not a boater. I opposed this project in print when I used to do a monthly environmental column. But now that it's here, how can a non-motorboater make the most of it?

Two guys I knew were already out in sea kayaks...those are my people. Dudley said the kayak launch was a little rough and he was glad they had plastic boats. But there was a ramp just for walk-down launches like kayaks. I recall that the kayaking along this stretch is rather unspectacular, with mostly low beaches and mini-cliffs. For me, it's a nice stretch to paddle close to shore.

A walkway rings the eastern half of the harbor, out past some docks and then out into the breakwall. Not a hike, but not a bad place to get out of the car before hitting Lakeview Castle, Nokomis or the Scenic Cafe for dinner.

The tunnel under Old 61 reminds me of the underpass in the Harry Potter movie "Order of the Phoenix" where the dementors came after Harry and Dudley. Just needed some flickering lights, and a good cold depressing fog off the lake.

So it's a nice spot for a stop on your way up the shore. There are cool cement benches along the outside of breakwall for shorecasting that could be spectacular (and very wet) in a good northeast blow. But it's worth a stop on a sunny or stormy day to see the lake from another perspective. Check it out!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reading the Rapids

If you can't go on an adventure, the next best thing might be reading about the adventure. So on rainy city days in Duluth I'm reading about rainy river days in Italy, thanks to Tim Parks' 2005 novel Rapids.

A group of English river kayakers heads for the Italian Alps for a week of whitewater training on the Aurino River, with an idealistic British instructor Clive and his Italian friend Michela. Themes of global warming and Third World debt run through the story (believe it or not).

What captured me wasn't the romance or the politics, but the whitewater and how Vince (one of the main characters) grows in response to the challenge of the river, the paddle, and the boat. Here's a quick excerpt from the page I'm on now:

"Then there was the downward rush of the stream. With extraordinary vividness, Vince was in it again. He was shooting down into the rapid. He felt the acceleration of the plunge. I want to do it again, he realised. If I could. That rapid, those impossible manoeuvres. The speed and wrenching when he dug in his paddle, the icy foam and the slam of the rock on his helmet and the wild slewing and turning to the limit of control and beyond. I want to do that again. I want to do that again!"

Here's a guy my age or a bit older being overcome by a new physical challenge...and thriving. I've had just enough whitewater experience myself to know a bit of the feeling, but I've never gotten much past the scared silly part.

I got the book through Interlibrary Loan since the Duluth Public Library doesn't have it. You can also get it supercheap used through Amazon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The importance of good grooming

This photo shows the Summit Ledges Trail at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, this morning. Tall grasses and wildflowers have reached their summer peak of growth. It's time to groom. I love trails. I think the act of building a hiking trail for public use is one of the most noble things you can do. Unfortunately, hiking trails need more than just one construction season. They need regular brushing and maintenance.

In the winter, I follow the work of ski trail groomers as closely as I follow the chocolate chip supply in our cupboard at home. It's really important to me that the trails are groomed within a day or two after snowfalls. Summer hiking trail maintenance isn't nearly as frequent; one brushing may be all they need. But when they don't get it by mid-July, it's rough hiking for the next three months in those scenic open ridges until the grass dies back on its own. At Hawk Ridge, the trails today were hard to follow and easy to lose, especially at intersections.

Fortunately, a Duluth parks trail crew, led by the super-able Judy Gibbs, was out on the trails at Hawk Ridge already that day. A freshly brushed hiking trail is almost as attractive as a freshly-groomed ski trail. If the trail builders are nobililty, the trail brushers are gods.

Trail grooming concerns aside, here's what I really like about the Hawk Ridge trails. Open bedrock, a clear paint arrow pointing the way, dramatic lake views. When the hawks are rolling through in the fall, these trails are abuzz with people and kettles of birds. Today it was me and the rock and the overgrown grass.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Okay, I get the message

I hiked the Superior Hiking Trail from the Stewart Creek area to the Castle Danger area today. For those like me who navigate the North Shore by pie shops, that's basically from Betty's Pies to the Rustic Inn.

It's a five to six mile hike through some nice rugged country, but virtually the entire hike has these signs along the way that say, in essence, "Stay on the trail, loser."

Some are official. Signed by the Encampment caretaker, this one made me know I should STAY ON THE TRAIL.

Some are specific. No camping, no fires...but how about a polka party...ON THE TRAIL?

And some appeal to your better nature. I couldn't quite figure out what the sensitive area the sign referred to as I walked carefully ON THE TRAIL.

There's about a full mile of the trail with no trespassing signs on both sides of the trail; the trail exactly follows a property line around the edge of the Encampment Forest Association. It's beautiful but a little creepy, hiking the gauntlet of these signs. When I finally got to a section without these signs, I stepped off the trail to sit on a nice rock with a view of the valley below. Then I lit a fire, put up my tent, and got all insensitive. No, no...I got back ON THE TRAIL.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

To go where you've never gone

Ever heard of Artists Point in Grand Marais? I had. I knew where it was. I knew how to get there. I knew people liked it. Heck, I could even tell you its geological origins and its obscure land ownership. But had I really been there? No.

Fourth of July was family tourist day in Grand Marais, for us and for another 500 families at least. We had just escaped the horrid blackflies of Sawbill. After a nice stop at the Cutface Creek wayside rest southwest of town, we headed for the East Bay beach for a picnic lunch. Then, on a whim, I took my bug-wary family the 200 yards out to Artists Point.

First sign of something cool are the porta-potties, perched right above the gravel beach of the East Bay, these are among the most scenic porta-potties I've ever seen. Already, you can "go" where you've never "gone" before. But it gets way better.

After the scenic outhouses, you get out on the point itself. What a cool spot! I love open ledgerock shoreline, it reminds me of slickrock in Utah. But what makes Artists Point super cool is the breakwall itself, that starts as low bits of concrete wall stitched into the bedrock and winding past splash pools. I love natural landscapes, but I find a bit of human artifact...a trail, a lighthouse, a kayak...can make the whole thing more beautiful.

Anyway, those places you've never been but go by often? a tourist in your own backyard, or right off of your own commute. Go where you've never gone before.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Thimbleberries in bloom

Thimbleberries. It sounds like the friendly neighbor family in some British kid novel "Say there, Rufous, go and see if the Thimbleberries would like to come for tea."

But here by Lake Superior, thimbleberries are one of the secret pleasures of a North Shore summer, along with skinny dipping in August, the cry of glorious herring gulls (not the dorky ring-billed) and the smell of wet lichen on the ledgerock.

The thimbleberry flower is this huge fragile white bloom, like tissue paper cut carefully out in perfect patterns by a woodland fairy, then laid out just so onto the wide maple-shaped leaves. The blooms only last until the next wind or rain storm. I don't know what bird or insect does the pollination, but they have to act quickly.

The photo above is from my parents' driveway in Little Marais. The thimbleberry is found all around the shores of Lake Superior...and basically nowhere else in the eastern US. Like its blooming buddy tall lungwort, it's a disjunct. How cool is that? A plant that needs Lake Superior, for cool, for moist air. The only other place as moist and cool are the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The End of the World, the beginning of the World Wide Web

Just a quick news note here: Minnesota's own Itasca State Park is adding Wi-Fi service.

After our bug-ridden debacle at Sawbill Lake campground, I actually piqued Noah's interest in more camping by mentioning that the Grand Marais RV Park and Campground has Wi-Fi (plus a swimming pool) so we could camp there for some of our last Hiking Club trails...

ARGH! Camping in the bugs

I always forget, and then I always remember, how bad it can be to camp in June or July in northern Minnesota. The bugs can be truly devastating, especially if there are kids along for the trip.

In a fit of camping frenzy, I packed up my two boys, Hans and Noah, along with my nephew Cormac, for what was to be a two-night camping trip on the edge of, and into, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. But this is last week. July 1. Being a total camping smarty pants, I planned to arrive early/mid-week, to ensure getting a good campsite.

We headed up the Sawbill Trail to Sawbill Lake and the very nice campground there. The Sawbill campground is a Superior National Forest campground with 50-plus sites. It was an easy pick to list as a top 23 North Shore campground in our book Camping the North Shore. It's beautiful and piney, with ten really primo sites on a bluff about Sawbill Lake itself and most of the rest in beautiful white and red pines. Sawbill Outfitters is right next door, with camping equipment, a small store, even canoes to rent.

Much to my surprise, Sawbill now takes reservations on about half the sites, through So all of the lakeshore sites, with their potential bug-blowing breezes, were either occupied (no surprise) or reserved (big surprise). We drove the loop and picked the nicest remaining available campsite, number 45, with tall pines and the coolest climbing rock in the campground.

It only took a few minutes after arrival for the insects to find us. And to focus on us.

The boys were troopers, standing for the bug repellent spray, helping get the tent up, but as soon as the tent was up they were in it. Wondering what that sound of rain on the tent roof is? Black flies inside the tent or between the tent body and rain fly.

The day was saved briefly by a trip to the lakeshore to get into the westerly breeze and swim. But eventually it was back to the campsite for a buggy dinner, a first try of a mosquito rigging for 2-3 kids, then a second retreat to the tent.

Black flies during the heat and humidity of the day, mosquitoes by the dusk of evening. Oh, and a great rumbling thunderstorm in the night.

After a visit the next day from Cormac's parents (my sister Helen and her husband Joe), I staged a strategic retreat. Instead of Night #2 in the awful bug-ness, we headed down to the North Shore itself, where we would find fewer bugs.

THDUNK! That's my palm hitting my forehead. Geez, why didn't I think of how bad the bugs can be in July?