Friday, February 27, 2009

Why I love the North Shore, in full color

A picture is worth a thousand words. And even if I could write poetry, which I can't, a thousand words of love-poem verse wouldn't be enough to capture just how much I love LOVE LOVE having all this snow on the North Shore. All that dark blue and purple on these maps from Minnesota Climatogy Working Group practically make me salivate with lust for snow and ski trails.

If you're reading this in the orange or red or brown Twin Cities, please accept my condolences...and please start planning your last trip north for the ski season.

Even if you're stuck in Duluth, like I often am, don't let those green and blues get you down. There's plenty of snow here, especially after yesterday's storm. And a trip up Highway 61 gets you even more snow. Those blues get pretty dark starting around Two Harbors. Take a turn left up into the hills starting around Silver Bay and you are in blessed purple country. That's purple for snow depth of over two feet, not for the sticky late-season ski wax.

Enough talk of love...tomorrow I'm going skiing at Lutsen.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Blessed by wolf tracks

I love the stories you can find, and imagine, in the winter woods. Tracks of animals are so real and definite: this animal put this foot HERE, then this other foot HERE. The biggest thrill for me is finding fresh wolf tracks, like here on a ski trail outside Ely.

The tracks led off the groomed ski trail and into the woods. I could easily picture the one wolf loping off through the trees, followed by a few pack members along the same path.

To me, a wolf blesses a place. I've never actually seen a wolf when I'm on foot in the woods. To know that a wolf was here, just walking by, makes a place far more wild and more special. Sure wolf are running across the highway or in a cage at the Wolf Center. Here they are at home, at leisure, walking through the woods.

It is this appreciation of wildness that I've hoped to bring to my family.

Seeing wolf tracks reminds me of the German word for wolf track. "Wolf" is the same in both languages, but then you add a grammatic koan, an abbreviation of the past participle of the word "to go." It's pronounced almost like "gong". You end up with a familiar name, the first name of the composer Mozart.

Wolfgang. I actually proposed this as the name for our first-born. Sort of in honor of music and our German heritage, but mostly as a reminder of wild places.

Instead we have Hans, and he is way more of a Hans than a Wolfgang, and I couldn't imagine him with any other name.

Plus which, Hans still likes to make his own paths through the snow:

Blessed by wolf tracks, blessed by the wild.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More pines, more poodles

A week in the woods on the edge of the Boundary Waters, poodles and part poodles everywhere. Chloe the standard poodle was the trail boss, at first. I took her for a short walk in on the Bass Lake Trail toward Dry Falls. This photo makes me laugh, because it's the same pose and attitude as Jim Brandenburg's pictures of wolves Only wolves don't have collars or puffy white curls.

Princess Chloe would be eaten alive by wolves.

Later in the week we were joined by Chloe's "cousin", Zoe (yes, the names rhyme). The Zoe-ster is a golden doodle, with all the friendly loving golden retriever genes that poodles lack. Here's the whole clan on Fenske Lake, off the Echo Trail north of Ely:

Zoe is the dog on the right. See that friendly look, the one that says "When you're done with that, can we play?" Chloe's look, on the left, says "Is that a dog treat in your hand? For me?"

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The boat show, Lake Superior adventure style

Ah, February, when we are supposed to be overcome with cabin fever and to achieve nothing more than dreams of summer. Seed catalogs for the gardeners, and boat shows for the waterborne.

While the big annual boat/camping/travel show goes on this week at the DECC in Duluth, I've enjoyed my own little neighborhood boat show. My neighborhood happens to include a few of Duluth's biggest boat storage areas. Both a lot of boats and some of the biggest boats lay up at Lakehead Boat Basin and Harbor Cove Marina just a block or two from here.

Under the blue shrink-wrap rest dozens, hundreds, of water craft--powerboats, sailboats, cabin cruisers-- that will bring another season of Lake Superior adventure to their owners and guests.

Here's the Voyaguer II, the friend of Isle Royale hikers who board it in Grand Portage and circle The Island for their favorite beach campsite or trailhead. It looks small in its winter berth, but it's bursting with memories for many outdoor folks. It sits next to the Vista Queen, the harbor party boat that scarcely even ever clears the Aerial Lift Bridge. Do they get along?

Peak down the port side of the Voyageur II and you can see the Blue Heron frozen dockside. This is the UMD/Large Lakes Observatory research vessel, the one that's been discovering all sorts of cool new things about Lake Superior, including new data about how deep the lake actually is (less than we thought, by a few yards).

Walk around a bit more you'll find a shipwreck dive boat and the three-masted schooner Zeeto that cruises the Apostle Islands out of Bayfield. Beautiful island sunsets from the deck of the schooner, sails there's a dream for a boat show.

Oh, I've got boat lust. No, not really to own one, thank you. But to ride one of these beauties in our backyard to some quiet cove for a hike, a paddle, a great Lake Superior experience. Dream on!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Screamer, literally

What sane person sees a sign that reads, in essence, "Go This Way to Die," and chooses then to follow it? Well, besides fans of Russian roulette, cross country skiers follow some dangerous indicators of doom. In Ely, MN, you can follow just such a sign, except it is labeled "Screamer."

Ely is the Grand Marais of the Iron Range. Instead of Norwegian fishermen, Ely has equally charismatic Finnish miners. There's a Sven and Ole's, "Sir G's," only without those cheesy bumperstickers or TV ads. And just as Grand Marais has Pincushion Mountain, Ely has a mighty fine nordic ski system just on the edge of town.

The Hidden Valley trails are a terrific outpost of well-maintained ski trails in a lovely near-wilderness setting. Hans and I took off on some of the challenging inner loops this week.

At first the endorphins kicked in and he was pretty happy:

Then we began the climb to the top of the Screamer. Though I kept saying, "What goes down must go up," Hans' attitude worsened faster than a typical teenager. Here he is at the top:

Note the yellow and black caution sign. That is the top of the Screamer itself, a drop straight across the contour lines, all set for maximum acceleration.

I skied first, I yelled a bit, especially at this point where the steep downhill turns steeper and my stomach rose to my throat with a gurgly "a-HMP."

You'll have to ask Hans how he made it down. How he lived to tell the tale. Unfortunately, he erased the images from the camera.

"Screamer" is an apt name for this trail. Which got me thinking about other trails and their bodily results. How about a trail that's named "Bruiser"? Or "Broken Collarbone"? Hey, I'm a skier, sign me up!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I love you Sally

Sometime very soon after we met, I fell in love with you. It might have been that invitation for a moonlit walk on Park Point. Or it may have been the sunburn and the smile on your face after you crossed the Quetico in March. Just maybe it was breakfast at the cowboy cafe in Livingston, Montana.

My love for you feels like a clear path headed toward the future. The trail is tracked and wide enough for both of us, but us only. I will follow you or ski with you or walk with you to the far end of the trail, and beyond.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Park Point Pines 'n Poodles

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. When nature melts your snow, go hiking. Preferably with a dog. Even if it wasn't your choice, but a command from an evil-smart psycho-poodle.

Chloe the standard poodle was demanding to hike this morning. The one-block walk with Noah to the corner bus stop this morning just was not enough for her. She had actually tried to swallow an entire bottle of painkillers, she was so distraught. It might have just been the way the bottle crunched and rattled, but after I took it away from her once, she jumped up on the table to get it again.

Besides toothmarks in Advil bottles, here's my main clue that it's time to go: She comes right up to me at my desk. Looks straight into my eyes, not deeply but observantly. Barks one loud bark. Dog breath wafts over me. Dog breath means it's time to go. I have been well trained by my dog.

Chloe always gets excited when I say "bye-bye car," and will jump right into the car. When it's just a trip to the grocery store and all she does is sit in the back, she's probably disappointed. Every once in a while, however, "bye-bye car" is the invitation to adventure. Like today.

Minnesota Point, out past the airport, is a wonderland for dogs. First, the dunes are great for wide-open romping. Then the trail through the tall pines makes for terrific back-and-forth running. The view through the pines to blue and icy Lake Superior is gorgeous.

So we "bye-bye car"-ed all the way down Minnesota Avenue to the airport.

Got out of the car.

And ran.

No, I did not run. Psycho-poodle ran plenty for both of us. The snow in the pine forest was hard-packed after the rain and refreezing. There is a leash law, but we were all alone out there, so I ignored it. Who's going to stop all this fun?

Now that my training is complete, I anticipate a lot more dog breath in the mucky spring days ahead.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Change your life at Split Rock

You heard it here first. Or maybe second. Big changes are planned for Highway 61, the North Shore's main corridor, in the Split Rock area. For fans of hiking, biking or just scenic viewing, the changes are welcome and overdue. Construction is planned for Spring 2010.

Above is the plan for reconstructing the facilities at the mouth of the Split Rock River. The parking lot on the west side of the river is one of the most popular trailheads for the Superior Hiking Trail. It's the start of the highly-used Split Rock River loop. On a busy summer or fall colors weekend, the lot fills to overflowing with cars and hikers are forced out onto Highway 61.

In the last few years, the parking lot is also being used for bikers on the Gitchi-Gami bike trail, across the highway. A beautiful new bike bridge crosses the river down below Highway 61.

To help you get your bearings, here's a photo from last summer of hikers headed west toward the new bike bridge:

Look closely at the plan, especially that thick gray line that wraps around the yellow parking lot. That's a bike/walk path that leads UNDER Highway 61 to join the bike trail down below. How cool is that? What better way to make crossing the highway safe again?

Another project a mile or so east will straighten out one of the last real curves on Highway 61 and make the historic wayside view point more special. The plan is hard to read like this, but note the thick curving gray line (that's the highway as it is now...the one place you really have to slow down to stay on the road now), and note the straight yellow line with two pieces dropping south. You'll leave the main road for a short stretch to get to the historic wayside, with its old stone wall and great view of the lighthouse. Now you will be able to enjoy the view without being concerned about the Monson trucks at your back.

No word yet if they will restore the historic baby bear cage.

There's a meeting tomorrow (February 12) in Beaver Bay at the community center to discuss the plan. Information is also online from MnDOT, including the maps I butchered.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


If it's not the rip currents or the City of Duluth laying off lifeguards to make swimming on Park Point unsafe, there's always the 200 yards of ice.

As my pre-teen son would say to this sign at the Park Point Beachhouse, "No duh!"

Monday, February 9, 2009

The best intermediate loop in Duluth

I'm going out on a limb here. Or out on a peak. The Bardon Peak trail is the best intermediate cross country ski loop in Duluth. There are some close seconds, including the 5K at Spirit Mountain and the 5K at Snowflake. But this one is the best. It's got the rolling terrain, the occasional scary downhill, and the grandest view of any trail around. Best of all...and this is has wolf poop.

The Bardon Peak trail is part of the great wilderness Magney Ski Trail, the westernmost of Duluth's five city ski trails. It's on Skyline Drive off of I-35, past Spirit Mountain For a lot more details about how to get there and what to expect, check out pages 35-37 of Skiing the North Shore. The trail has 13 km of rolling and challenging terrain.

You enter the Magney system on a feeder trail that climbs from the parking lot on Skyline Drive. It's a half kilometer climb that will make for a great downhill run at the end of your ski.

One more short climb up the main trail gets you to the start of the Bardon Peak trail. For those eagle-eye proofreaders out there, yes the sign reads "Bardons" with an S, but the actual peak is known as Bardon Peak (no S).

What I really like about this 3.1K loop is that while it rolls up and down, it's actually on a level plateau. It's not climb-climb-climb followed by a long downhill. Conservative sign makers have labeled the bulk of this loop "most difficult." The signs are wrong. One bomber downhill midway through does not a black diamond make.

Sally and I skied this loop over the weekend. We used our no-wax skis, since the temperature was hovering around the freezing mark. It was great to be out, even in the marginal conditions.

One special part of this loop is that it's the same great old-growth forest that the Superior Hiking Trail passes through on its way from Spirit Mountain to Elys Peak. The SHT crosses the ski trail twice, and we could tell the SHT has been well-used by snowshoers this winter. The forest is part of Duluth's first city natural area, set aside from development to preserve its ecological integrity.

The local wildlife seems to have picked up this wildness:

Thanks to the anonymous naturalist who found and labeled this wolf scat and tracks right next to the ski trail. Look carefully in the snow to the right of the scat for the "label."

If you liked the loop the first time around, do it again. Once, I did the loop three times, it was so enjoyable.

Then, after going around in circles all day, you ski back down the entrance trail to the trailhead.

Sure, the Snowflake 5K is immaculately groomed. Yes the Spirit Mountain 5k is wide enough for skaters and striders to share. But this intermediate loop has style, misspellings and wolf scat. What else could you want?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Volks Ski Fest, Part III: Family dynamics on the Gunflint Trail

When my father turned sixty, the whole Slade family met at a Colorado ski town for a luxury weekend of skiing and gourmet meals (ever paid $25 for a drop of grappa?): two sons, one with a wife and me with a serious partner (Sally was the only one to enjoy the outdoor hot tub, a fact she reminds me of to this day); and two daughters, in from urban grungy Seattle. It was fast and furious, and the dynamics of the Slade family, for good and for ill, made the rest of the experience -- of mountains, snow, outdoor fun -- really just scenic background, nearly irrelevant to the family drama that had been playing out for decades.

This weekend, as part of Volks Ski Fest, I stepped right into the middle of another family's Dad-is-60 celebration. Instead of luxurious Snowmass, this was the luxurious Bearskin Lodge. But it was the same phenomenon.

Conditions were excellent, as the map showed. Bob, the Bearskin owner, knew we were coming and had groomed the Oxcart Trail for us just that morning.

For my guided trip, the participants were seven members of a very nice Twin Cities family. The birthday Dad was a corporate executive, and happy to talk about his childhood in Duluth and his work making envelopes. His wife was really fast on the trail, partially because she wanted to get back in time for her 12:00 dogsledding appointment. The boys were goofy and had a lot of fun together, racing, showing off their moves. One daughter (in-law?) was pregnant and dressed for downhill skiing, complete with a matching white outfit and a fur ruff around the hood.

I tried, tried to keep them all together so they could be part of my naturalist interpretation. Lake-effect snow? Whitetail deer ecology? What's not to love about that?

But they were on their own schedule, and split up along the trail according to their abilities and speed. One brother coaxed his partner down the fun and curvy hills of the Oxcart Trail.

So I gave up on nature stuff and worried instead about safety. The pregnant daughter (in law?) and her husband were slower, the wife and one son (there's some step- action in there somewhere) were fast and gone. I asked the mid-speed folks if I should worry or wait. They said, "Nah." I tried not to worry, but I still did.

Everyone made it back fine...I think. Each one scattered to their next activity as soon as they got back to the Lodge. It turns out that the fastest of the sons, the one without a partner, skied the loop twice and caught up with the slow, pregnant couple. I got a nice fist-bump thank you from one of the sons. And then they were all gone, off to dogsledding or nap time or whatever.

Family is great. I love being out with my boys. But the more it's about family and family dynamics, the less it is about the place you are, or the activity you are doing.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Volks Ski Fest, Part II: Discretion and valor at Cascade

It was another beautiful day for skiing on the North Shore. It's Volks Ski Fest, and a small group gathered at Cascade Lodge on Saturday for an interpretive outing on the extensive Cascade system. Though I was the naturalist guide, I needed an English major bad. Or, um, "badly."

In my one-person attempt to reinstill pithy quotes into outdoor experiences, I often pull out the following: "Discretion is the better part of valor," from some unknown dead white guy. Yesterday I turned to my International Thesaurus of Quotations to find not only is my quote wrong, but the author is a rather well-known dead white guy.

Eduard von Grützner: Falstaff mit großer Weinkanne und Becher, 1896 Oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm

"The better part of valour is discretion,"says Falstaff in the final act of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, in his best Falstaffian iambic pentameter (the way I remembered it doesn't scan). Apparently he is excusing himself for playing dead so some Scotsmen don't actually kill him.

What did some Volk do at my Volks Ski Fest guided ski trip at Cascade Lodge last Saturday? Who is Falstaff in this picture? On the left is my younger son, age 11, deciding what to do on a "More Difficult" downhill. On the right is Dave C. of Little Marais, who has already made his decision to walk down the hill.

Dave, the wise old man, decides on discretion. The younger son, the eager young man, considers valor. Then he too chooses discretion and walks the hill.

Is walking down a ski hill the same as playing dead? Or is it trying to not be dead?

Did I mention that Henry IV Part One is full of father-son dynamics? Did I mention that my father was on this ski trip too? Or that iambic pentameter is a perfect meter for cross country skiing:

Turn here or else you all will crash or worse.

Me? I bombed the hill. Call me Hotspur, the character in the play known for his fierceness in battle and hastiness of action.

Geez, the whole darn ski outing could have been deconstructed by an English major with the right training.

Coming next: More family dynamics on the Gunflint Trail

Monday, February 2, 2009

Volks Ski Fest, Part I: Ah, go to "L"

Volks Ski Fest kicked off this weekend up in Cook County, the gravitational center of North Shore skiing. While some folks were snowshoeing up the Kadunce River or adding up the K in their special passbooks, a small group of us did an interpretive ski trip on the Sugarbush trail system. And I'll tell you, we went to 'Ell and back!

Actually, it was a very nice group of intermediate skiers, including a Greek/German book publisher from Minneapolis and a medical couple (doctor and nurse) from Winona. It's amazing how slow you can go on a speedy ski trail, when you're enjoying the conversation and looking for patterns in the woods. But the real adventure started on the little cross trail at the top of the 3K loop.

If you ski up the Onion River Road, which is relatively flat as most roads are, then connect back on a little part of the famed Picnic Loop, your whole route is marked in green ink or with a comforting "easy" green circle. The trail designers that put in this hill and junction at the top of the loop had other ideas, possibly nefarious.

The downhill runs pretty easy for a few hundred meters, then BANG! At the same time, the trail gets way steeper and hits a "T" junction...the wrong way. Fortunately, our group knew about the danger zone. Above is Carin, the guide from Lutsen Resort, showing her best snowplow and racing technique.

Everyone made it down the hill and past the junction, though the book publisher took her time and took her skis off. It wasn't the only time that day I would recall the saying, "Discretion is the better part of valor."

Not all skiers that day were forewarned, and even in the day's fresh snow you could see tracks of people who missed the turn and headed into the woods.

But the trail designers weren't done yet. Having made it down the hill, a simple blue diamond tells you off:

What is this, the Bronx?

Coming soon: Discretion and valor at Cascade