Monday, June 29, 2009

The North Shore starts here

The North Shore starts here. It's the rocks. And the kids.

The North Shore starts at the corner of the Duluth Lake Walk, at the gravel beach, by the old Endion station. This is the first place you can throw rocks in the water.

The beach has rocks. Rounded rocks, perfect for throwing. It has blue water to the clear horizon, as far as you could ever throw. It's the North Shore.

Sure, there's no soaring cliffs at the water's edge, full of squawking gulls. There's no rushing waterfalls, either. Canal Park does not have a decent place for the necessary North Shore pie. But there are kids throwing rocks into clear cold water. That makes it the North Shore.

We'd bring our older son at age 1 to the beach at Grand Marais or at Brighton Beach. We'd plop him down at the water's edge. Just like a Vikings fan in the easy chair saying "Time for the game," he would say, "T-whoa wocks in wally." Then he'd sit for ten minutes on the shoreline, totally serious and focused, and do just that. He's a North Shore natural.

The crowds from Canal Park find this beach naturally. Kids are drawn to it. Parking is free on weekends in the lot behind the Canal Park Lodge. Below is a map/photo from Google Maps. Look at all those rocks. And water.

Go, throw. Even you grown-ups. You're on the North Shore now.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Happy Pollinators Week!

The North Shore blueberry crop is looking good this year, thanks to the blackflies who got real busy back in early June during the bloom. No wonder I was swatting 'em away when I hiked the Bean and Bear loop this spring and took this picture. Blackflies and Berries go together like Bean and Bear lakes.

The lupine are starting to bloom along the North Shore's Highway 61. Those pretty colors attract tourists, but more importantly, they attract bumblebees, who nuzzle right into the globular petals, schmeering themselves with pollen and passing that gift along to the next patch of lupines down the highway.

Love the elegant shape of the columbine? So do the hummingbirds, whose schnozzes fit the tubes of a columbine just perfectly in their suspended search for the sweet stuff.

Black flies and bumblebees can eat you or sting you. But, as pollinators, they're critical to North Shore ecology, especially for the wildflowers we love.

It's National Pollinators Week! Go hug a hummingbird.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Stop thinking, start sighing.

In my last blog posting, I wrested with prepositions. By the lake? In the lake? On the lake?

It reminded me of first-year German: "aus, ausser, bei, mit, nach, seit, von, zu!" (Phonetically, that would be "Owss, ow-sir, bye, mitt, knock, zite, vaughn, tsoo", and they are the prepositions that are always followed by the dative article.)

I get way too deep into this stuff. Way too many grammar lessons framed by rigid language rules. Latin students get "Amo amas amat, amamus amatis amant" for "I love, you love, he loves, we love...."

The evening light last night was gorgeous. To get these grammar lessons out of my head, I headed out for a walk on the Park Point beach in the backyard. Big thunderheads were rolling by along the South Shore. Some Emerson Lake and Palmer popped into my head, from "Roundabout":

In and around the lake
Mountains come out of the sky
And they stand there.

And if those mountains coming out the sky weren't enough, the sun was putting on quite a show behind the Aerial Lift Bridge:

With an ELP Moog synthesizer riff rolling through my head, I could only sigh, with the cool warm water ticking my toes, "Um yum hmm aah."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"On" and "in" the's summer

We get to change our prepositions now. It's summer. We're not just "by" Lake Superior anymore. We're on it. For heaven's sake, we're IN it.

We're not "on the shore"; we're "on the lake." This Father's Day, my brother-in-law David took a boat full of three generations of the family out on his 30-foot speed boat. We went under the lift bridge, spun around in some big surf, then cruised the harbor.

Here's our son after sitting in the bow for a stiff headwind:

Today, the whole family hit the backyard beach en masse for the first time this year. It was a big day on the beach, as temps in the 80s inland drove the crowds across the lift bridge to our neighborhood. While the hundreds of others on the beach made it about ankle deep, we were in that lake. Under the water. Leaping after wayward Frisbees. Dunking and splashing and playing hard.

Lake Superior, you are no longer just big and scary. You are big, scary, and a lot of fun. It's summer.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Throw me in the water

I dove into the lake this weekend. Big old cold Lake Superior. Air temps had climbed into the 90s, suffocating the marathon runners. The lake water warmed up from unswimmable cold, maybe the 50 degree range, to tolerable, maybe 60 degrees. I didn't want to go at first, but with a flat-out dive I was in the water. Oh, and it felt good.

Something about going out against my will, something about how it all turned out all right, brought me back to a bittersweet memory of summer camp. Summer camps are notorious for their traditions, for good and for evil. I could spend weeks on this blog analyzing my summer camp experiences and how they made me what I am today. That would get really boring. So I'll just do this once.

I spent most of my summers at Camp Koochiching, on Rainy Lake up by International Falls. Unbelievably, I'd go away for 5 or 8 weeks at the age my sons are now. The camp sessions were half in camp, on Deer Island, doing traditional camp things like sailing or riflery or woodcraft, and half on trail going to some deep wilderness lakes and rivers in the Quetico and in the crownlands north of there.

One goofy tradition at Koochiching was randomly throwing people in the lake. A mob would gather around some popular boy or some irritating boy, grab him fully clothed, then march him squirming spread-eagle down to the dock, chanting "IN THE LAKE! IN THE LAKE!" And in they'd go, with a huge splash and cascades of laughter from the throwers and the one who got tossed.

Here's the dock at the camp area for 11-12 year olds:

I was so afraid of being the next victim that I dug into my own emotional trench. I would not be that popular boy whose charisma demanded being taken down a few notches with a good wetting. I would not be that nerdy boy who would make a good victim with squeeling and cries of injustice. Six summers at Koochiching, and I never got the toss. I perfected the art of the middle path, to neither boast nor to irritate.

But since when was going into the lake such an awful thing? Sure, you'd get wet, along with your clothes. Clothes dry in an hour, kids even more quickly. Tossing the nerdy kid just because he'd squeel was cruel, I'll admit. And when the mob tossed your mattress in, too, that was taking it way too far.

Maybe it's nostalgia for youth and the path not taken, but I'm wishing now I'd been tossed a few times. I want to be "out there." I want people to respond to me, to react to me. Sure I'd put up a little fight, but I'd let you win. Get a good swing going as you send me over the dock edge, okay? And if you toss my mattress in, too, I'll get you back.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Canyoneering the North Shore

Thank you, Bryan Hansel, for seizing the day and capturing it on video. This vid show Bryan and a friend descending the Kadunce River up past Grand Marais, with ropes and safety equipment.

Kadunce Canyoneering from Bryan Hansel on Vimeo.

The streams and canyons of the North Shore are calling out for creative thinking outdoor professionals. If you're looking for a new North Shore adventure experience, get in touch with Bryan through his website.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Finger Point trail

Grandma's Marathon has plugged up Canal Park tighter than a North Shore log drive, I'm stuck here on Park Point for the weekend. That's not so bad, since it's an incredibly gorgeous day, temps surprising us in the 90s. Unfortunately the Lake Superior water is too cold for a good swim.

I'm stuck at the far west end of the North Shore, but I'm thinking about the far east end and a great hike I had there four or five years ago, on the "Finger Point Trail." It's a a really cool hike literally just past the Canadian border, right across Pigeon River.

I found this link, the only reference online to this terrific little trail. Get your passport out and go!

UPDATE 6/28/09: Just found this page, thanks to Grand Portage photographer and explorer Travis Novitsky.

The big, bare rock of Sugarloaf

I spent six years as the Executive Director of Sugarloaf Interpretive Center Association, which manages Sugarloaf Cove up in Schroeder. I fielded a lot of questions there about the name, "Sugarloaf." There's a big bare rock out on the point that makes up the Cove. That is the Sugarloaf. Turns out, other people have claimed that name for their own big, bare rock.

Down in Winona a few weeks back, I took in Minnesota' other Sugarloaf. Not the motel, the big bare rock up on the hill.

Then there's this famous Sugarloaf, the big bare rock in Rio:

And who can ever forget this Sugarloaf? It's rock, big and bare. Come on, remember "Green-eyed Lady"?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

"See, I told ya you get ice cream."

Minnesota DNR teams with Dairy Queen to reward safe young boaters

Minnesota kids wearing life jackets while boating this summer will not only be staying safe, but also could be rewarded with an ice cream treat.

The DNR has partnered with Dairy Queen to provide a PFD Panda Award certificate to youngsters who are observed by conservation officers wearing a life jacket while boating. The certificate includes a tear-off coupon that entitles the child to a free cone or cheeseburger from participating Dairy Queen restaurants.

“We at International Dairy Queen are excited with the idea,” said Ryan Hassebroek, regional marketing manager for the Minnesota-based company. “We thought this was a great way to encourage children to wear their life jackets and we hope that safe boating behavior continues right through adulthood.”

DNR COs report that children have called them over to their family’s boat so they can earn the life jacket award. One child said to his friend who had come along, “See, I told ya you get ice cream for wearing your life jacket.”

(Released June 15, 2009)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Go go Mount Jo

The North Shore is a rugged, scenic place. But along the Minnesota shore, the most rugged and the most scenic part is in Grand Portage and beyond to the Pigeon River. It's the far end of the North Shore, and it's worth the extra hour drive past Grand Marais.

The land and the terrain are stupendous. Even the wayside rests are spectacular. The wayside rest with the best view on the North Shore or even in Minnesota is Mt. Josephine wayside just east of Grand Portage and just west of the Pigeon River. Highway 61 cuts through the massive diabase dike of Mt. Jo and then this amazing view pops out.

To the east (above), there are great views from a pretty good height out over Wauswagoning Bay and the Susie Islands.

To the south (below) are the rugged cliffs of Mt. Josephine itself:

The facilities there are only an outhouse and a Dumpster, which has some sage advice and proscriptions:

Visitor facilities in the Grand Portage/Pigeon River area will be changing over the next few years, as the new visitor center opens at the State Park. I hope this wayside rest will stay open, if only for the views.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Roughing it on the Border Route Trail

Is the Superior Hiking Trail too cushy for you? Too many bridges over streams? Too many handrails on those steps? Just can't stand seeing other PEOPLE every 20 minutes?

Man up. Get out on the Border Route Trail. It's rough out there!

I've been looking for trails to include in the forthcoming Hiking the North Shore. For me to include a trail in a book, the trail needs to be fairly easy to find and not too difficult to follow. The BRT can be hard to find and hard to follow.

If you're accustomed to the Superior Hiking Trail, you'll find the BRT less maintained and less accessible. You'll also find it equally dramatic in its scenery and far more wild and uncrowded.

The BRT is 65 miles long and connects the Superior Hiking Trail with the Kekekabic Trail, cutting across the BWCA Wilderness. It's accessed off the Arrowhead Trail and the Gunflint Trail.

The BRT is known for its dramatic scenery. The border lakes area in the tip of the Arrowhead has a geologic story unique to Minnesota, the result of which are long narrow lakes edged by steep cliffs. The picture above is from the BRT looking east across South Fowl Lake past the Pigeon Cliffs area.

But, ooh, it's rough out there.

Just for example, the main indicator of the trail is blue flagging, like this:

The trail doesn't get enough foot traffic to grind in a treadway (the bare dirt place where your boots hit), nor do the trail builders create a treadway as they do on the Superior Hiking Trail.

The BRT was built by volunteers and the Superior National Forest back in the 1970s. It predates the SHT by a decade. Yet it still feels fresh and wild and under construction, like the first draft of a trail.

Did I find a trail to include in the book? I think so. The access off the Arrowhead Road up by Macfarland Lake is easy to find, and the trail east of there is fairly easy to follow. And the views are gorgeous.

Is it rough? It's rough AND tough. But if you're accustomed to the Superior Hiking Trail, with its wide and frequent clearing and consistent signage, be careful. Get a map at the Lake Superior Trading Post and bring a compass.

Yeah, baby.

Friday, June 12, 2009

My son loves to swear

I don't let him, much. The smarty-pants has found clever ways to swear without getting in trouble.

At the far end of the South Pier of the Duluth Ship Canal, on the wall of the lighthouse facing toward the lake (just a short bike ride from our house), is a wall laden with profanity. It's mostly from local kids out having a good time...a really good time from the looks of it. And Noah simply reads the lewd graffiti out loud, as if he's five years old again sounding out the words to Goodnight Moon.

"Mike & Candace 4Ever," pictured above, is the sweetest thing up there, and happens to be in the same frame as our house (one of the three little white bumps above the beach). The rest of the stuff on the wall is pretty graphic. So there's my sweet Noah, curious and innocent, sounding like a porn film.

Ask Noah or me sometime about the "free swear" on the Jay Cooke State Park hiking trails. You should have heard this child.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The pride of "Up North"

I attended the Northeast Minnesota Books Awards ceremony last month in Duluth. I didn't expect to leave with this new booming pride in our fine state and the terrific North Shore region.

Our book Camping the North Shore had been nominated in the general nonfiction category. Last year, Skiing the North Shore won the honorable mention in the same category. We didn't win this year, though the pies from the Rustic Inn were pretty great.

Here are the nominated authors, on the steps at UMD's Marshall Performing Arts Center. Check out my green shirt in the front row. I think that's a ballet pose I've got going on.

I wanted to share a few quotes from the keynote speaker. Annette Atkins. Dr. Atkins is a professor of history at the College of St. Benedict and the author of the recent book Creating Minnesota: A History from the Inside Out, from Minnesota Historical Society Press.

In introducing herself, she talked about how much she enjoys coming "up north." Minnesota, she reminded us, has a lot of prairie in the south and a lot of lakes in the north.

Atkins said, "It's up north that makes Minnesota not Iowa." I love this. Nothing against Iowa, but I like my pines and waters, and I think it's great to be in a state where there are major changes from one end to the other.

She went on to say that Minnesota has "been able to convince an entire state of farmers that we are a state of lakes."

Minnesota: Land of 10,000 Lakes and a few farmers too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Do the Tofte Trek!

Now this sounds like fun. If you're going to be up on the North Shore over Fourth of July, think about participating in the Tofte Trek. It's a 10K run AND/OR walk through the woods around Tofte, on snowmobile trails, ski trails and the Superior Hiking Trail. People finish the experience really dirty and really smiley.

Me, I'd be a walker. Fast walker, serious walker, but not a runner.

Jan Horak started this race, well, 30 years ago. Jan is a legend in his own time, and should still be hanging around on Trek day. maybe the most smiley of all.

The timing works out so you can also take part in the Tofte Fourth of July Parade, so you can really take in the whole experience.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

I am a nature geek

I found this little bouquet of leaves and flowers last month along the Superior Hiking Trail where the trail approaches Bean and Bear lakes from the west. It was on a rocky, south-facing slope. I'm no superbotanist, but the plant stuck out to me right away. It was different from the other, more luscious spring flowers. And it was in an unusual habitat, the superheated accelerated blooming environment of exposed rock. The circle of broad leaves right at the ground (the "basal rosette") is typical of arctic disjuncts and other flowers adapted to dry conditions.

When I got back home, I looked it up in my trusty Peterson's Field Guide to Wildflowers. It was a Saxifraga virginiensis, or Early Saxifrage. It turned out that I had seen it before...twenty years ago along the Canadian shore of Lake Superior. I write in the margin of the field guide the first time I see a flower, and right there were my notes from June 1989.

I added the findings from this year.

Oh, and just for fun I got on the PLANTS database. Here's the distribution of this fine flower in Minnesota:

Besides the great views of Bean and Bear Lakes, making that little nature connection was the highlight of the hike. I am a total nature geek.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Trail's End Camping: Dine and Dash

One of the hardest parts of the day when you're camping on the North Shore can be dinner time. I love company at meals, but I don't relish being the meal. Whether it's mosquitoes or blackflies, the bloodsuckers come out right about the time you want to be calmly preparing your campfire delicacies.

So I've come to really appreciate a nice campground restaurant. You can dine at your leisure, even into the evening hours when just the hum of mosquitoes gets unbearable. Then you can dash back to your tent. Dine and dash, except in this case you pay the bill before you go.

"What?," I hear you ask. "Campground restaurant? What is this, a KOA?" No, it's some mighty fine and wild North Shore-area campgrounds.

The lovely and wild Trail's End Campground sits at the very end of the Gunflint Trail, almost 60 miles from Grand Marais. It's in the middle of the big Ham Lake Fire:

It's right on the river connecting Seagull Lake and Saganaga Lake. There's even a portage running right through the campground:

But wonder of wonders, there is a cafe right next to the campground. The Trail's End Cafe is run by Way of the Wilderness Outfitters and has a funky groove. The food is very basic and tasty. Mark Darling's burgers are just fine. According to their website, they serve "what some people say 'The best burgers in Minnesota.'" That has to do as much with the setting and the work it took to get there as with the quality of the food. Perfect food, perfect location...what else do you really need?

Oh, and the beer is cold. Best Coors I ever had. Really.

If the far end of the Gunflint Trail is too far for you, you can "dine and dash" at Cascade River State Park (eat at Cascade Lodge), Lambs Resort (eat at Schroeder Baking Company), and of course Grand Marais Municipal Campground (eat anywhere in town).

Eat, and do not be eaten.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The melt is over, the drought is coming

It was a great spring for North Shore waterfalls. The snow depth in April was astounding. I had some great hikes and visits to falls on the Cascade, Brule, Devil Track and Pigeon rivers. Rivers were nearly busting out of their banks and the creekboaters had a great month of doing their crazy creek kayak thing.

The great torrent is over, or nearly so. Check out the graph above from the US Geological Survey, showing the gage height of the Pigeon River, by Middle Falls. The river's height, and therefore its flow, peaked about May 1 and now is back down to its early April levels.

A chart for Amity Creek in Duluth, from, shows the same drop-off pattern as seen at the Pigeon River, only even more drought-like:

A drought is creeping across Minnesota and will hit the North Shore soon, unless we get some rain. North Shore rivers seem to have dropped off more in the western part of the shore than in the east. I noticed that the Caribou River, about midway between Duluth and Grand Portage, is down to just pools and streamlets now, not the bank-to-bank torrent it was in early May.

With the wind howling off the lake today and the woods full of fresh green, it sure doesn't feel like drought on the North Shore. But the rivers are warning us.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Who needs a visitor center? Get hiking!

Grand Portage State Park is a lovely little park, with all the waterfalls, walks and wildflowers a North Shore state park should have, but without the huge crowds. And for this summer, the park doesn't even have a building.

Until this spring, the one building at the park was an older family home converted into office and visitor space. Now that home/office is being torn down. By next year, there will be a super-cool new facility, a combination of park office, wayside rest, and Ojibway history interpretive exhibit.

The walk to High Falls is great for all ages, following a wide paved trail with some really nice interpretive signs. The hike to Middle Falls is challenging and leads to great overlooks. So there's plenty to do this year without the visitor center. But next year, this park will take a great leap forward and should be on everyone's North Shore adventure list.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

wow Wow WOW!

In my three days of hiking and camping up the North Shore last week, the best hike I took was the Middle Falls Trail at Grand Portage State Park. The hike kept getting better and better, and at one point I heard myself out loud saying, "Wow WOW WOW!"

The route starts on the wide, paved half-mile trail to the High Falls. The streams are still running high in the Tip of the Arrowhead, and High Falls was rocking and rolling. This the highest waterfall in Minnesota, and we've been nice enough to share with Ontario, where it is just one of many spectacular water falls (Think Kakabeka Falls or, say, Niagara Falls).

There's enough mist coming off the falls to make a rainbow, which gave the whole scene that extra mythical proportion.

After the High Falls, the Middle Falls trail turns into a standard hiking trail, about the same quality as the Superior Hiking Trail. I had the trail to myself, which I always appreciate being so "geeked out" with camera, GPS, note pad, etc. Taking self-timer pictures of myself with all the gear feels pretty self-indulgent.

The trail climbs up along the side of a long ridge. At the top of the ridge, a small paper sign nearly hidden in the dirt points to a side trail that leads to a scenic overlook. You must take this side trail. It leads to the scenic highlight of the trip, and without it, the hike is not quite worth it.

It was at the top of this scenic overlook side trail that I first found a view to the south (America), then crossed over the ridgetop to a view to the north (Canada). That's when I said "Wow" three times in a row. The view to the north was so spectacular and so unexpected I was just thrilled.

The pic below is just one of the shots I took of the 180-degree panorama. In the distance you see Pigeon Point and Finger Point, then the Pigeon River runs through the valley below.

It's another mile of hiking trail after the overlook to the end of the trail, a loop that takes you by Middle Falls. Middle Falls is a very nice North Shore waterfall, and last week it was wide with 3 or 4 major chutes of water raging. It's not nearly as spectacular as High Falls. The experience is marred just a bit by the sight of a highway on the Ontario side. You may have heard that in Canada the mosquitoes carry clubs and all the portages are rocky. In a rare turn of circumstances, at Middle Falls the Canadians have the quick and painless way to see the sights, and the Americans have to work hard.

The Grand Portage fire crew had just been through with their chain saws to clear winter deadfalls. The violets were blooming. I had the entire tip of the Arrowhead to myself. It was all fresh and gorgeous. Wow, indeed.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Little brown beach runner

I was out for a walk on the beach this morning, and this shorebird jogs by going the other direction, headed basically northward. I step out of the way, since this bird means business.

It's a dunlin, Calidris alpina. Dunlins nest in the way far north Arctic and this one was just passing through. In a hurry. Maybe it was tired of flying and was walking to the arctic tundra.

Unlike the violets I wrote about yesterday, where the color was named after the critter, here the critter was named after the color, "dun" being a 14th century word for greyish brown. As it turns out, dunlins are found all around the Arctic regions not only of North America but also of Scandinavia and Russia. Their name in German is Alpenstrandläufer, or "Mountain Beach Runner."

Run, little beach runner, run!