Monday, April 27, 2009

First oil tanker arrives in Grand Marais

Thanks to the folks at Northern Wilds for capturing this image of the first oil tanker to arrive in the Grand Marais harbor. According to the normally straight-shooting Amber Pratt, the massive ship is owned by Norway Energy Resource Operations, whose only presence up to this was a flannel-wearing Erik Rashim. Erik was known only as a big tipper at the South of the Border Cafe. In this photo, the tanker just dwarfs the lighthouse.

Here's the harbor entry without the supertanker.

Personally, I think it's all a big April Fool's scam, made possible by judicious use of Photoshop. Everyone knows that Norwegians on the shore use little wooden rowboats for all of their transportation, not supertankers. Hard to rosemal a boat that big.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

North Shore campsites already full

This great sign was up for about a week last May just east of Tettegouche on Highway 61. It has a lesson well worth learning.

If you have a favorite Lake Superior North Shore campsite, in a favorite North Shore campground, you should be making plans NOW to ensure you get that campsite again this summer. With the state parks replacing a 90-day advance reservation with 365-day advance registration, people are already reserving well into the fall.

A quick browse of for weekend openings at North Shore state park campgrounds reveals that about 90% of the campsites that can be reserved are already reserved for weekends, all through August. Ouch.

Even the Superior National Forest campgrounds take reservations. Since our book Camping the North Shore came out a year ago, at least three of the campgrounds featured there are now taking reservations. Plan ahead if you're headed to Sawbill Lake, Crescent Lake, or Temperance River campgrounds.

If at all possible, make a reservation for your North Shore camping experience. It will let you slow down, as the sign suggest, but you are the one who "already took your campsite."

If you just can't shed that need to be spontaneous, try to be spontaneous on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, when there are the most vacancies in the campgrounds.

If you show up on the Shore on a Friday evening and still don't have a reservation, there are a few places you could try. No promises, but Ninemile Lake campground up the Cramer Road from Finland and Two Island Lake campground north and west from Grand Marais almost always have some sites open. Also, it seems like Lambs Resort in Schroeder nearly always has someplace they can fit another camper, especially if you're in a tent.

Plan your day and your vacation just enough, and you can fully enjoy your North Shore vacation.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Reflecting on the beach

I am not a photographer. I do not make photographs. I take pictures. Here is one I took from our backyard beach the other day. Waves had crashed up over smooth sand beach berm, forming pools. The pools would disappear within a few minutes as the water drained back down into the sand. Just enough water was left here to reflect the Aerial Lift Bridge.

I am still not a photographer, but this picture called out to be cropped. I summoned my meager Photoshop skills to do just that.

For real North Shore photographs, made or taken, check out Travis Novitsky or Rudi Hargesheimer or Jay Steinke.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Mud season on the Duluth SHT

If you like to get muddy when you hike, hit the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth now. According to Larry Sampson, the Duluth-area trail maintenance guru, the snow is basically gone from the trail here, except around Spirit Mountain, where man-made snow is still on the trail.

But lack of snow does not good hiking make. Yet.

Late last week, the SHT in Hartley Park, as seen above, was basically clear of snow. But the mud was just settling in. The dog and I turned around after five minutes, since I wasn't prepared for the goop factor.

Trail managers have mixed feelings about muddy trails. When I helped with the first edition of the Guide to the Superior Hiking Trail, I tried to describe which sections of the trail were muddy and which weren't. Tom Peterson, the lead trail builder and designer, told me, "When it rains, the whole trail is muddy." When the footbed is muddy, it's much more prone to erosion, and so some trail people would rather you stayed off the trail until it dries up a bit.

Good trail design looks for ways to optimize drainage, so that mud is less of a problem. But no one is advocating putting 6 inches of gravel down on the Superior Hiking Trail for better drainage.

The sun is out, the snow is going or gone, ephemeral ponds are filling with chorus frogs, the warblers are nearly back in town. It's mud season. Enjoy it or avoid it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The trails, the trails are calling

Is it the deep basso profundo of a North Shore waterfall over ancient basalt, tumbling and transforming winter's white snow into cataclysmic roaring white foam?

Is it the song sparrow's call, that high note repeated three times for your attention, followed by sweet improvisation?

Maybe it's the bark of the poodle, who knows it's time to let loose on a wild lakeshore trail, like she did last spring at Eighteen Lake, up by Isabella.

Danny boy, the trails, the trails are calling.

The snow is melting, the trails are muddy as all get out, but in days I'll be out there. I have about thirty North Shore trails to hike this spring and summer, in order to get our next book Hiking the North Shore out. "Hard work," they say, "but someone's got to do it."

Blog postings coming way too soon:

Tales of the Tick
Lost in the Wild
Mud Wrestling for Fun and Profit

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Thinking North Shore summer

The mighty Lake Superior weather clouds just dropped 6-10 inches of snow around Grand Marais. Above is today's webcam from Golden Eagle Lodge, up the Gunflint Trail. Perfect time to think about summer camping, right?

You won't be the first to be thinking ahead. Now that you can reserve state park campsites a year in advance, a lot of the prime campsites are already reserved for the summer.

I'll be on WTIP, Grand Marais' fine public radio station, Friday evening around 5-6, talking about North Shore camping with host Ann Possis. Then Saturday I'll be down in the Twin Cities at the Midwest Mountaineering Outdoor Expo. My program on "5 best North Shore camping weekends" will be at 1:00 at the Expedition Stage (downstairs from the camping department). Listen in to WTIP (they're streaming via their website) or drop by the Expo!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The bard of the woodcut

If you're in Duluth today, the place to be is Sivertson Gallery in Canal Park, for the opening of Rick Allen's show, Very Nearly True Tales of the North. The reception runs from 1 to 4 today (Saturday the 18th) and features "festive comestibles, musical diversions and treasures to win!"

Plus you can hop on the Earth Day Gallery Hop trolley and visit all sorts of other galleries with other shows, just nothing as cool or biologically relevant as Rick's.

Rick is a poet with a press and a gentleman with giclee. See you there!

Friday, April 17, 2009

North Shore snow: It's waterfall season!

It's waterfall season up the shore. Sally Nankivell at Lutsen Tofte Tourism says, "Thundering waterfalls are rushing with the spring melt." I think she's mixing her metaphors a bit, but the fact is that there are still mounds of snow in the woods and it's melting quickly. The trails in to the falls might be knee-deep in mushy snow, but the sights, sounds and smells are spectacular.

There are waterfalls that are easier to reach without much snowy hiking:

Gooseberry: Middle and Lower Falls
Beaver River
Cross River (the ultimate drive-by waterfalls, right in Schroeder)
Cascade River
Pigeon River (a longer hike, but the trail should be clear)

Get up and go!

The voice of God on Park Point

God spoke to me yesterday.

A voice so loud it came audibly through our walls rang out "THE...PARK...POINT...BEACH...IS...UNDER...A...RIP...CURRENT...WARNING... THERE...ARE...DANGEROUS...SWIMMING...CONDITIONS..."

Then, after a moment:


And finally:


All this while the beach is locked in ice, as pictured above.

Sally said, "It sounds just like the boys' busy box!"

This would have been more mysterious if it weren't for the fact that that same booming voice of God had a few moments earlier announced that this was a test, only a test.

The city has just installed new alarms for tornadoes, nuclear missiles, etc. The three down here on Park Point have voice capacity, so they can do rip current warnings.

I'm hoping they can add a warning like "CANAL...PARK...IS...FULL...OF...TOURISTS. DO...NOT...LEAVE...YOUR...HOME"


Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Grassy Point Trail

Out in western Duluth with a few minutes to spare? Rather than stopping in at Beaners for a cup of coffee, head the other way on Central Avenue to the riverfront for a short walk on the Grassy Point Trail. It's spring on the river front, the ice is almost gone, and whole flocks of migratory birds are coming through. You might have the best 20 minutes of your day.

Head south on Central Avenue from the Interstate 35 exit, 0.3 miles to Waseca Industrial Road. Turn left on Waseca Industrial Road and wind around behind the paper plant for 0.5 miles. Turn left on Lesure Street (sic), and go just 0.1 miles to the end of Lesure St. by the Weiss Coal company. The road dead ends at a parking lot, with nice signage for the trail.

Unlike most North Shore-area trails right now, the Grassy Point Trail is snow-free and ready for walking. It's a short can reach the end and back in 5-10 minutes. Take your time, though, as the trail takes you into neat St. Louis River wetlands.

The trail starts with a long boardwalk through alder and balsam poplar woods. I took the poodle, who insisted she knew the way:

The boardwalk ends at two interconnected viewing platforms, with well-done interpretive signs about the St. Louis River and the restored wetlands.

Here's a map of the trail:

There is a long story about the restoration of this site on the web. Suffice to say, what you see in twenty minutes is the result of many years of hard work. Enjoy!

Monday, April 13, 2009

A deadly North Shore blow

74 years ago today, on April 14, 1935, three fishermen headed out onto Lake Superior from their North Shore settlements, in small boats, to check their herring nets. Only one made it back home, though he took the long way home. Two of the fishermen were never seen again.

John Hansen left Little Marais. Carl Huby and Christ Tuinglem headed out from Thomasville, a little settlement near the present day Satellite's Cafe in Schroeder. This was before weather radio or blogs. They didn't know that a northwest wind would kick in, clear and cold and hard.

Here the newspapers pick up the account:

"Two Thomasville, MN fishermen today were believed to have drowned in frosty and windswept Lake Superior after a coastguard cutter last night halted a fruitless search along the south shore for the men cast adrift in their small boat two days ago.

"Carl Huby and Christ Tuinglem were the two who were carried out into the open water in their small craft as a swift northwest gale blew up while they were tending their nets.

"The cutter Crawford (similar boat pictured below) anchored off Rocky Island after picking up John Hansen of Little Marais, who was swept out into the lake while fishing.

"Coastguardsmen of the Crawford who were hampered in their search by the cold temperatures that coated the cutter with ice said they believed it impossible for the boat carrying Huby and Tuinglem to endure the pounding of the raging waters."

Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, April 16, 1935

Sad story! Imagine blowing out to sea, the horizon of the North Shore getting slimmer and slimmer, the waves getting larger and larger, and your boat getting heavier and heavier with ice. The math just doesn't work. Hansen got lucky: he made it across to the South Shore, where men in a way bigger boat were looking for him. The newspaper doesn't say so, but he probably got a ride back to Little Marais on the highway. The final fate of Huby and Tuinglem can't be known for sure, but neither hypothermia in a raging sea or drowning sounds to me like a pleasant way to go.

Trails Hiking?

My good friends at Minnesota Power have a tendency to over-sign their trails. Maybe it's a fear of liability. When the Boulder Lake ski trails north of Duluth first opened, there were "caution" signs on every curve and dip. But this sign, at their great new trail to Kawishiwi Falls in Ely, is something new.

Birds Watching?

Lunch having?

Perhaps the sign Yoda wrote.

Here the falls are:

Enjoy them you should.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Feels like the last time

Nothing like pop music of the 70s or 80s to get me through a crisis. Between Foreigner and Melissa Manchester, I've made the transition from winter to spring.

Thanks to some late-season snow and the persistent grooming of Ely's great Nordic club, I enjoyed one more day on the Hidden Valley ski trails last week. It was classic spring skiing...mashed potato snow in the sun and crispy icy tracks in the shade.

The best part was one more blessing by wolf tracks:

Looking back, I have to wonder why I thrashed around so with the end of this ski season. It ended way too quickly, for one thing. To go from the heart of the ski season, with deep snows and weeks of potential skiing ahead right into mush and crust, was brutal. I didn't know the peak had passed.

If you ever only knew that this time was the last time, it might help put it all to rest. Knowing it's the last time out, would I experience it more fully? Would I be melancholy?

Would I lose focus and crash?

Ski patrollers know that one of the most dangerous runs skiers take is when they know it's the last run of the day. The Duluth paper today had a story about a local high schooler on his last run of the ski season at Spirit Mountain last year; he fell badly and is paralyzed from the chest down.

Music has really had a hard time with this one last time feeling. Why did Foreigner sing "Feels like the first time" so rapturously, and not "Feels like the last time"?

Instead, we a need moody singer-songwriter. Leave it to Melissa Manchester, "One more time for all the old times."

One last time.

Melissa? "And I think we can make it."

Just keep your eye on the ski trail until your skis are off.

Women who run with the wolves

It was March 1992. I could hear the wildness in her voice. My lovely wild wife, on the phone. She had been out on the ski trails outside Ely and was calling me at work. Deer hair on the ski trail. Spine tingles. Wolf scat. Fresh steaming deer carcass in the middle of the trail. Invisible eyes in the forest trained on her.

The women in my life run with the wolves. Sally runs with the wolves. And now, so does our poodle Chloe.

Now here we are in April 2009. How lovely it is to ski across a frozen lake in early spring! The snow is flatter and smoother than any groomed ski trail, and the great spaces call to you to explore. For a human or a dog, it is temptation revealed...and easily fulfilled.

We left the boys in the cabin and took our skis to Fenske Lake, a lovely lake off the Echo Trail that has only a few summer cabins on it. We spun around the shore, tucking into bays, marveling at the lateness of the winter and the hold it had on the land. Chloe was in doggie heaven, spinning circles around us, dashing this way and that, unfettered.

Nearing the narrows, we saw a bald eagle sweep down out of a white pine and disappear across the lake.

As the time approached mid-day, the ice began to groan and pop with expansion, the first hints of breakup only three weeks away. The deep sounds gave me just enough anxiety to spice the day and make it wild.

We had made it two-thirds of the way around the lake, past the portage into Little Sletten Lake and nearing the same narrows where the eagle had been. Chloe stopped her spinning and circling on the ice. For the first time that day, she dashed up off the lake and into the woods. She reemerged on the ice just as Sally and I rounded a point to see an instantly familiar shape on the ice 50 yards ahead. Brown and red, a leg sprawled this way or that, and, importantly, a few bare ribs up in the air. The freshest wolf kill I'd seen in years.

At first, Chloe ran right to it. Then she stopped, five yards out, just like she does with a stranger on the beach. Did the deer carcass still smell alive? Or did Chloe smell the invisible wolves in the forest, just as Sally had sensed it? Chloe is so fuzzy and matted, her fur might have been standing up straight along her spine and we'd never know it. But she was definitely spooked. Submissive, as if trying to keep her butt in another time zone, she slunk another foot or two closer to the carcass.

I came closer. Signs of its freshness were everywhere. The stomach and intestines lay on the ice a few feet away, intact. The rib cage had been broken, but the deer's eyes were still dark and clear.

Our instinct? Get away. Partially because we felt the wildness and the power of death and knew it should be given its space. But also because we worried that Chloe would get brave and try to feed. Even though she is a citified poodle, she is genetically still a wolf with a spiritual taste for raw flesh.

These woods of northeastern Minnesota are wild because they have wolves. Visitors, human or canine, can taste that wild. Like any bracing tonic, it might make your hair stand on end. So much the wilder!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Last Temptation of Winter

Stand on a Boundary Waters lake in early spring and experience temptation. The surface of the wilderness lake is flat and smooth with well-hardened snow. You could go anywhere, especially on skate skis that would fly across the wilderness. Before the day warms up, the snow pack in the woods is crusty hard. You could walk anywhere. Cliffs rise around the shore, with just enough snow on them for easy access. You could climb anywhere.

With all this temptation, what is a guy to do? Ski, walk or climb...or all of the above?

The Slade and Rauschenfels clan chose "all of the above" on a visit to Slim Lake yesterday.

Slim Lake is in the BWCA, in the Crab Lake portion of the Wilderness. It's right off of the North Arm Road, off the Echo Trail north of Ely. In summer you can drive a quarter mile up a narrow road to a trailhead, but in the winter you park on the North Arm Road, right by a public access for the North Arm of Burntside Lake.

The creek connecting Slim Lake with Burntside Lake was mostly open and rollicking with spring melt-off. It was the most spring-like part of the whole day, since the woods were still full of snow and the bright blue sky spoke far more of winter's cold than summer's heat. That taste of spring and aliveness felt terrific. The portage crosses the creek twice, and both times we lingered at the open flowing water.

Slim Lake is ringed by cliffs, a classic bulldozer job by the glaciers. Hans and I scampered up over crusty snowpack, bare cliff, lichen and white pine to the top of a knob.

And what goes up, must come down:

We were on foot, not on skis. But oh man was the skiing tempting. Wide open lake, flat just softening was calling out for skis, especially skate skis.

The last temptation of winter would be given another day.

Coming soon: Women who skate with the wolves

Friday, April 3, 2009

I declare ski season over

Today the Sugarbush Trail folks announced that they have 16 inches of fresh snow and groomed trails up the Onion River Road, near Lutsen. Today Snowflake Nordic here in Duluth announced they are open with trails in good shape. Congrats to them.

Today I have declared the ski season over. Last time I tried to do that, I didn't take the ski rack off the car. Instead, I drove to Grand Marais the next day for a sloppy ski at Pincushion Mountain.

Today, for me, it really, truly is over. The ski rack is off the car.

Time for bikes and hikes.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Hubris: Let the shipping season begin

In many springs, ice piles up at the western tip of Lake Superior, as the big ice pack breaks up and easterly storm winds smash it in. I don't know why, but I get a kick out of watching lake boats get stuck in that ice.

Yesterday was a classic display of shipping hubris. I define hubris as "pride before the fall." Or another definition: "guys about to do dumb things." Like George Bush right before the Iraq war. The captain of the Lee Tregurtha headed out yesterday morning. We can hear the horns of the ships and the bridge as the boats pass under the Lift Bridge. Sure enough, in a few minutes the boat came into view off our back yard. And then it stopped.

Ice is just water, right? We can stir the ice cubes in our water glass, why can't our huge ship move the ice chunks in the lake? Because the lake is the boss. Because you can't mess with months of cold weather turned to ice, and the shoving power of Lake Superior winds.

So the Coast Guard boat Alder comes out and tries to free the Tregurtha. For hours.

Then comes my favorite part: the Alpena comes out, a bit to the right of the Tregurtha, rams the ice, and gets stuck too.

It reminds me of guys trying to push a car out that is hopelessly stuck in a snowbank. Or guys trying to crush beer cans on their foreheads, just because other guys are doing it. It's like every comedy routine Chris Farley ever did. If one guy can't do it, let another dude try. And fail.

There are way better photos of the whole thing from the Duluth News-Tribune. It helped them to have an airplane.

Was it the Alder's mighty diesel engines that finally set them free? No, it was the wind, which shifted to the west and spread the ice floes back out. What nature has wrought, nature will undo.

Guys do dumb things all the time. In this case, no one got hurt, and we got to watch it all unfold. I like that.