Sunday, August 30, 2009

Blowdown? What blowdown?

It was ten years ago this summer that a wave of destruction passed over the BWCA and rolled across the North Shore and Lake Superior. I remember how the sky turned green in Little Marais and my weather-wise wife exclaimed, "Something's coming!"

Ten years later, it takes an experienced eye to see the impact. I hiked around Blackstone Lake east of Ely this weekend. I remember the trail well before the blowdown, as it was the main corridor for Outward Bound groups headed in for rockclimbing at Ennis Lake. And I hiked it five years ago, when you could still see trees all flattened in one direction.

Our son, on that trail this weekend, had been a one-year-old toddler exploring my parents' cabin the day of the blowdown. Both he and the trees have grown up. Where once we saw fields of dead and down trees, the new growth of aspens and hazel and balsam fir has closed off the sight lines and hidden the downed trees. Trees grow faster than boys, if you can believe it. It's a green tunnel now, and only the experienced eye really sees the blowdown anymore.

This trail, like most of the dayhiking trails affected by the storm, was on the edge of the blowdown. Destruction in 1999 was not complete here. It was far worse in the heart of the Wilderness, and the long-distance trails like the Kek are still recovering.

Many pine trees, nimbler than the old aspen, withstood the wind here. The pines remain high above the new growth. And in some places, like the north shore of Blackstone Lake, a forest of tall red and white pines remains:

If our kids can't see the impact of the windstorm now, how long will it be until it's just a memory for all of us? The trees will keep on growing even as my boys top out at 6 feet tall. I'll be one of the old-timers soon enough, talking about the Storm of '99 to folks not even born then. They'll politely nod and smile. Blowdown? What blowdown?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Where it all began

The North Shore as we know it today, from Duluth to Taconite Harbor, began in a little cleft in the side of a hill in Soudan. I saw that cleft today, and it sent chills up my spine.

It was from this spot in the late 19th century that the first load of iron ore was shipped to the bustling town of Agate Bay (now Two Harbors). Just about everything we know about the Minnesota North Shore today is related to that event. The ore docks in Duluth. The Aerial Lift Bridge. Two Harbors. Silver Bay. The width and speed of Highway 61. Tourism supported by IRRRB, IRR, and taconite taxes here and gone. Bob Dylan. Milepost 7 and the rise of modern environmentalism in Minnesota.

I stood at the loading chute and could see down through where millions of tons of Iron Range iron ore flowed into the chutes and into the waiting rail cars. I saw the train tracks headed south and east to the Lake. But the huge crusher and the conveyer belts were quiet, and the rail tracks ended, replaced by shrubs and aspens just around the corner.

Western Lake Superior was built on iron. It all started here. And now the area is moving on.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hey, Beth Gauper, that's my secret place!!

Beth Gauper is a renowned Minnesota travel writer and quite the adventurer. I highly recommend subscribing to her weekly e-mail newsletter, Midwest Weekends.

It turns out that we travel/nature writers are all about spoiling secrets. We find these cool places, sometimes even in the confidence of others, and we share them with the world.

Beth's latest issue, just out today, features Secret Spots of the North Shore. It's a good list. Some of my own faves on her list include Iona's Beach and Amity Creek. Beth gets you off the beaten path and away from the crowds. Of course, once these spots are published, they are no longer "secrets."

Want to know my secret places? Might have to wait for the next book, Hiking the North Shore. Or the next one after that. Go to Beth's places first...she's already spoiled the secret.

Monday, August 24, 2009

John Beargrease, rower

John Beargrease is famous as the North Shore mail carrier who would run by sled dog from Beaver Bay to Grand Portage. Come spring, however, he'd turn to his rowboat for the same journey.

If John Beargrease were delivering the mail on the North Shore, would he still do it in a rowboat? Would he enjoy it?

I spent this weekend at the North West International Rowing Association's annual championship regatta, held this year at Lake Elmo outside of St. Paul. There was a lot of rowing, no dogsledding, and the only cargo in the "rowboats" was an occasional water bottle.

Lake Elmo is no Lake Superior. Rowing needs a straight course of 2000 meters; the regatta race course barely fit onto Lake Elmo going the long way. But the water was almost as clear as Lake Superior, and the lake was over 100 feet deep in places.

Below, in the 3 seat (2nd in from the right) is my son Hans. He's awesome for a 13-year old rookie rower.

As I headed up the lake to row in heats or finals, I would sneak peeks at the shoreline and the development. Rowing is not a very good way to experience scenic landscapes. You go backward and are only looking backward, unless you screw your head around and even then the view "forward" is all jumbled and out of focus.

So once or twice in the middle of a race I'd think of John Beargrease, rowing his way backward up the North Shore to deliver the mail. If you're not pushing yourself to get 2000 meters faster than the other boats, maybe you could actually enjoy 200 kilometers of the wild North Shore. Even backward.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Boys just wanna have fun

Who-da thunk it? Roasting apples on a BWCA fire grate. A few minutes each side over the fire, and then apple pie yumminess.

My son Hans and his friend Albert found all sorts of ways to get their jollies in the wilderness during their inaugural BWCA trip last week.

What, no library? Tell your own stories.

No online games? Learn new poker games in the tent.

No dessert on night one? Roast some of the heavy apples before the big portage the next day.

And if there's no waterslide, find your own water park, a cliff around the corner on Ahsub Lake.

As a long-time YMCA Camp Widjiwagan wilderness guide, I felt liberated on our BWCA trip. I didn't have to worry about entertaining, about moral lessons or prayers before meals. The kids could paddle around the corner and out of sight to look for cliff jumping spots. Which they found.

At Widjiwagan, fun was a path to spiritual development. Now, fun is just fun. Perfect.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Berry Farm berries: Large and lascivious

I have a thing for blueberries. I love the piney rocky outcrops they grow on. I love the plink-plank-plonk as the first berries hit the bottom of the berry cup. I love pulling out a freezer bag of berries in mid-winter for a batch of pancakes, and smelling that rich berry flavor even in the deep-freeze.

I'm not the only one on the North Shore who likes blueberries. This weekend, I joined the crowds at "Blackbirds and Blueberries" outside Cloquet. The crowds were big, the berries were huge, and a good time was had by all. This farm used to be known as "Blueberry Bush's," but the previous owner sold the farm and, from what I understand, took off in a sailboat. How could he leave a bounty like this?

Instead of "plink-plank-plunk" of berries hitting a single bucket, the sound was spread all around, like the first heavy raindrops of a thunderstorm hitting the walls of a tent. Pickers near and far were dropping the big ones into ice cream pails, cardboard boxes, and, my favorite, one-quart yogurt tubs.

The berries were obscenely large and plentiful. I picked 5 quarts of berries in under an hour. At the rate I was picking berries in the BWCA last week, it would have taken days.

Pluses of berry-farm berries:
  • Size. They are huge.
  • Irrigation. Even in a dry year, there are plenty berries at Blackbirds and Blueberries, since they water the bushes.
  • Convenience. You go berry picking and bring home berries. You don't have to hunt back roads and hope for a good crop. You don't have to beat the bears to the crop.
Minuses of berry-farm berries:
  • They don't taste as good. Really.
  • They are huge. Part of the fun of wild berries is the slightly tough skin you chew up as you devour fresh berries.
  • The karma is not quite right. I didn't earn those berries through searching, crouching over, or enduring torn skin from nearby bushes. I paid cash for them.
If you go:

Blackbirds and Blueberries is at 3601 Crosby Road. It's nearest to Cloquet, so if you use Mapquest you'll get directions from Cloquet. After this weekend, they are "all picked out," but berries are still ripening and they should have picking later in August. Call 218-879-8193 for updating picking times. If you don't arrive at the recommended time of 8:00 AM, you'll park on the road and walk in. They charge $2.50 per pound.

Also, try Shary's Berries, which is up the Homestead Road from Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors. Their season runs a little later. The phone number there is 218-834-5221.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

At portage's end

It was a dark and stormy night...

No, wait.

It was a dark and muggy day. Three first-time wilderness trippers and one tired old guide were on their third day already, six portages past puddly bogs from Disappointment Lake to Ensign Lake. It had been wet, but more to the point it had not been dry. Just because it doesn't rain doesn't mean you stay dry. The sky hd been a deck of clouds for days. Humidity and canoe bottom bilgewater gets into everything. "Dry" clothes. Camera lenses. The "powdered" milk. No sun to dry them out.

The tired old guide had slept in his swimsuit the night before, ironically the only thing that was dry. The passion for cliff jumping among 13-year-old boys took the the Tired Old Guide---and his once-dry underwear---by surprise. Did those boys actually take a canoe out on their own to scout jumping locations from our campsite on Ahsub Lake? Still, the Tired Old Guide was NOT going to borrow dry undies from his son.

The day was in August, the bugs were supposed to be gone. And there the bugs were, along every portage trail, ready to swarm. Yet the three first-timers made it through. It took them headnets. And an ample dousing in Off at the start of each carry.

Seeing the smile on his son's face at portage's end, despite the heavy food barrel on his back, the Tired Old Guide realized that while the camera was fogged over, his underwear were, finally, dry. Life in the wilderness could go on.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Corporate takeover of the North Shore

Is this shameless self-promotion? Has corporate sponsorship really hit the Superior Hiking Trail? Did There and Back Books (our fine North Shore trail guide publishing venture) really get our name on a SHT sign?

Not really. But here are some possible sponsorship opportunities on the North Shore:

Shovel Point, brought to you by Stanley Tools.

Split Rock Lighthouse, brought to you by Split Rock Grille, Bloomington.

Blueberries, supported by Blackberry.

Baptism River, made possible by American Baptist Churches.

Cascade Detergent State Park?

Caribou Coffee River?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dive in!

We're headed for the best week of summer on the North Shore, with hot sunny days in the forecast and the cool clear waters of Lake Superior awaiting our plunge.

So it's good to know that the Minnesota North Shore has the cleanest beaches of the Great Lakes. The North Shore has little urban development and a lot of cold water, two factors that work together to keep the lake clean here.

Whether you can actually swim is another story. As a kid on the North Shore, I found August the one and only time we could splash around in the water. It wasn't really swimming, but we'd get mostly all wet. My favorite thing to do was to find a ledge of rock with secure seating but still exposed to the waves. We'd let two-foot waves roll in and wash over us as we clung to cracks in the rocks.

Now, as a resident of Duluth with a sandy backyard, I'm glad to know that my kids can swim and not get rashes or diarrhea from the water.

For some snarky comments from smug Twin Citians about this, check out the discussion from the Star Tribune.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

In my father's footsteps

My father and I hiked from the Caribou Trail to Lutsen on the Superior Hiking Trail on Sunday. Dick has hiked nearly every section of the SHT, so I've asked him about his favorites as I plan what hikes to include in Hiking the North Shore. This was one of his recommendations.

It's a great hike and I'm sure it will be in the book. There's no grind up to the ridgeline like on many other sections; the trail starts high, at about 1300', and ends just a bit lower.

Dick also was quite clear about which direction to hike: east to west. Well alright then. Dick is sort of the Ur-Hiker. He marched us kids along on expeditions down sketchy trails along the Manitou River, seven miles with only a few lemon drops to keep us going.

Back in the 1970s he took my sister and I to the top of Eagle Mountain the easy way, then hiked us out to Brule Lake along the rough wilderness trail. He's crossed all of Britain, part of New Zealand, and half of Italy by trail. From his father he inherited a tendency to snap off branches over the trail, a trait learned back when wilderness trails weren't maintained like they are today.

The trail follows a high ridge overlooking the Poplar River. Above is Dick's picture of me at our lunch break stop.

Dick is 78. He hikes with a walking stick now, straight down at his side like the third leg of a stool. It was a perfect pace for me as I stopped to take notes and snap pictures.

My favorite parts of the route were near the beginning: the view of Caribou Lake from White Sky Rock, this cool section where the trail winds around talus and cedar and climbs a whole log with steps cut in, and scenic wild Lake Agnes. Here's the view of Agnes from the trail register at Hunters Overlook:

Past Lake Agnes, the trail follows the maple-rich ridgeline over the Poplar River, which winds very scenically down below. The trail drops down into the valley and goes through spruce, fir and birch for a mile or so before coming out on the banks of the Poplar. Then you go past two SHT campsites and up and over one last hump before the last descent into Lutsen Mountains chalet area.

Dick plugged along for the whole hike. We talked about the SHT and hiking and Minnesota land conservation issues.

My father showed me how to hike way back when. Our adventures on buggy endless mystery trails set an early standard for me, how to plug away on a backcountry trail and make it through to the end. I learned stoicism and resolve.

Though he showed me how to hike, I learned to love to hike all my own.

As I drag my own sons through the woods down buggy endless mystery trails, that's the best I can hope for. Get them out there, get through the woods alive. Hans now enjoys the challenge of hiking; Noah probably hates to hike. Later they may come to enjoy hiking and seek it out.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tales of the plump and poisonous

Caution: Sassy, deadly berries ahead

The North Shore is awash in berries right now. The raspberries are ripe, but they hide discreetly under leaves. The blueberries are coming along and should be ready in a week or two.

But watch out for the poisonous ones! They're out now, they look terrific, but they'll ruin your day.

I hiked from the Caribou Trail to Lutsen yesterday on the Superior Hiking Trail. The woods were awash with these brash and brightly colored berries that demand attention. They were "in my face."

The fruits are almost pornographically plump. The colors are nearly artificial against the woodland groundcover. It's like they're genetically programmed to say, "Eat Me."

Above is the red baneberry, Actaea rubra. In my copy of A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, this one gets a skull and crossbones next to it. The book says, "A few berries can cause severe dizziness and vomiting."

The red baneberry's sister plant is the white baneberry, Actaea pachypoda:

It was in fruit along the SHT as well. The white baneberry is also known as "Doll's eyes." The white waxy berries have little black dots like eyeballs. Peterson gives this one a skull and crossbones too.

Yeah, these plants are saying, "Eat me." You probably won't die. But you will be tossing your cookies real soon.

In fact, that is just what the plant wants: you're spreading the seeds tucked inside those berries.

As a blueberry picker, I'm most tuned into the bluebead lily, Clintonia borealis:

I get that "search image" of a small round blue fruit. As I bend over to find and pick the real blueberries from their low-growing shrubs, I'll often find these puppies sticking way out above the real blueberries. Man, do they scream, "Eat Me!" Peterson doesn't give the bluebead lily the skull and crossbones, so they might not kill you. They get just a short description as "Inedible." Maybe the idea is you try to eat one, it's awful, and you spit it out a few yards away. That's seed dispersal too.

If nature is all about the survival of the fittest, these plants are survival of the plumpest.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Detour in Duluth

Hey, I got a great new trail for you. If you're walking around Duluth, this one might just save your day.

To connect Duluth's crowded Canal Park tourist area with the wide open spaces of the DECC, Great Lakes Aquarium and Bayfront Park, the creaky Minnesota Slip bridge crosses, well, Minnesota Slip. This is actually the route of the Superior Hiking Trail through Duluth, which means there could even be a North Country Trail through-hiker on the bridge.

Minnesota Slip is home to the William Irvin tourist attraction and a long line of sailboats. When the bridge is working, tourists pour across it:

But when the bridge is up to let out a charter boat or the Vista Star, it can be a long and even rainy wait for the old clunker to come back down again. And there's a great chance it might break again.

So you might have to take the long way around Minnesota Slip. That used to mean a long hot detour through Canal Park proper. One of the problems was there wasn't room by the sailboats and the water's edge to run the path. The sprawling Meierhoff Building pushes right up to the water's edge.

City planners and architects worked with the owner of the building and ran the "trail" right through the ground level. Duluth's famed Lakewalk has a new spur trail, the "Baywalk":

This cuts a few hundred yards off the long detour, plus there's some shelter and shade. It's a bit bizarre cutting through the buiding; at one point, you look right into the back of the indoor amusement park Thrillz. The view of the docked sailboats through the windows can be marred by graffiti:

The Baywalk pops you out in a parking lot behind Red Lobster, and you can pick your way from there to wherever you're going in the DECC area.

This fine little urban tunnel detour hiking trail will never have the crowds of the Lakewalk proper. But it's a great addition to Duluth's urban pathways.