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.