Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lookout Mountain, Star Trek style

Kirk: "Scotty! Damage report!"

Scotty: "Captain, the spruce trees are down! De look like de Klingons hit 'm with a photon torpedo."

Kirk: "Sulu, what's our course?"

Sulu: "I am sorry sir, but our map got blasted too. I cannot fix our orientation in space."

Kirk: "Attention, all crew. This is the bridge. I'm afraid the bridge is broken."

Kirk: "Let's just hope JJ Abrams changes this part of the plot line."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"This is stunning. I am stunned."

Sally and I hiked the Lookout Mountain trail at Cascade River State Park today. That's me with the poodle up the trail in the first picture. I had called ahead to ensure that the trail had been cleared after the big windstorm of September, but I had no idea how bad it had been.

Sally: "This is stunning. I am stunned."

The Lookout Mountain trail winds up through what had been old birch and spruce forest to the crest of the cuesta, the tip of the sawtooth formation that makes up one tooth of the Sawtooth Mountains. Note the past tense. Had been birch and spruce.

The birch? Mostly dead or dying along with most of the birch on the North Shore. The super-strong northwest winds of September 28th took care of the top halves of the dead ones, shattering birch branches across the now-airy forest floor.

The spruce? Flattened on September 28th, nearly all the old ones, one atop the other.

Signs were all askew, and you had to guess which way they originally pointed.

My favorite image: an old wooden bench, full of moss. It had obviously been in a dark damp forest for 20 or 30 years, getting rotten in the shade. Now it's in full sun and had just missed getting smooshed by a tall spruce into rotten splinters.

Thank goodness for trail crews, for strong people with chainsaws. The 2.8 mile loop had nary a stick across the treadway today, but you can see what a disaster zone it had been.

I have to admit, with the gray skies today and all these trees downed so violently, I felt like I was walking through a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph:

It's been a busy year for trail crews on the North Shore. First the ice storm in the spring broke and bent half the forest onto the trails. Then the winds this fall took down tens of thousands of big trees from Little Marais to Grand Portage.

A decade of death for the birch, followed by a day of disaster for the spruce. All leading to open skies on an autumn day...where a deep forest had recently been. Stunning.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Colors of the season

Fall colors are all but gone for the year, but the few spots of yellow in the trees really shine, like this tree in Jay Cooke State Park yesterday. While most of the color was on the forest floor, I found a few sugar maples hanging on to their leaves; that flame of color here and there was gorgeous.

I love the way a single yellow leaf, freshly fallen on the forest floor, pops out from its rusted comrades.

This morning, the sky and the lake were a very unusual color for this fall: blue. It's been a long stretch of gray and brown and whatever color rain is.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Split Rock River the book?

Not in my book.

The Split Rock River Loop trail is in Hiking Minnesota
It's in Hiking Minnesota II
It's in 50 Circuit Hikes: A Stride-by-stride Guide to Northeastern Minnesota
It's in Waterfalls of Minnesota's North Shore.

And, since it's part of the Superior Hiking Trail, it's in every SHT guidebook.

It is the most written-about trail on the North Shore.

Every weekend and summer day, the parking lot is full of cars.

Until yesterday, I was not going to write about the Split Rock River Loop trail.

Yesterday we hiked it. It was lovely. It's going in the book.

The red rock formations of the upper gorge are stunningly beautiful.

The views from the crest of the hill on the far side of the loop were stupendous.

Yes, it was still crowded. We saw at least eight other parties on the trail, and by the time we got back to the parking lot (five miles later), the lot was nearly full. And after many days of rain the trail was muddy and slippery. Just about everyone we saw had at least one muddy butt in their party after slipping and falling.

The trail needs work. Clay banks are creeping downhill and taking the trail with them. Boardwalks have been smoothed down by foot traffic and are hazardous when wet. Side trails are crumbing the rhyolite into shingle.

Here's what I agonized over: Would describing this trail in yet another book send even more people to an already over-used trail?

Guidebook authors struggle with this question. For example, the publishers of Hiking Montana have dropped some of the state's most popular trails from their guidebooks.

For the first-time North Shore hiker, however, this is a great challenging experience. The crowds make it more comfortable and safe. The waterfalls are just hidden and discreet enough to be especially rewarding.

Yeah, it'll be in the book. Enjoy it and take care of it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Definitely NOT one of America's Best

Just in from the "Why Local News is Best" department, this stunning endorsement by Backpacker Magazine. In their search for the best 100 dayhikes in America, they looked at trails all around Minnesota and found...a road.

I picked up a copy of Backpacker at the public library, with a stunning cover photo of a narrow slot canyon and the big headline "America's Best Dayhikes." I had to know: of all the great dayhikes on the North Shore, which would the editors of this reputable publication pick? I've been hiking all over the North Shore this year, picking out 50 of the best trails. There had to be some agreement in this, right?

Paging through the article, I found trails I other states. The Hoh River Trail and the Olympic Coast, in Olympic National Park, are terrific. I've been to the top of Half Dome. I've done the Highline Trail in Glacier and hiked the Syncline Loop in Canyonlands.

And, with all these great trails, the only trail on the North Shore to make the a spur trail of the Superior Hiking Trail from Hartley to Hawk Ridge. Half of which is on roads.

I don't think anyone from the magazine actually came and hiked this trail. I think they read about it online. Their directions are inaccurate. They imagine hikers on this trail surrounded by migrating hawks, but on this route you'd see mostly only chickadees.

I live here, I hike a lot, and I've never hiked this trail myself. The actual trails up on top of Hawk Ridge are really cool, with great views and alternate migration viewing spots.

Yes, I'm doing just what Backpacker did. I'm passing judgment on a trail that I've never actually hiked. But I know there are way better hikes around here than this one. I helped to scout the route, and I know it's okay but not great.

Want good information about local trails? Hiking the North Shore will be out next spring...and it's based on real research by a real person on the real trails. Local news is best.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Hey, waxwings! Come and get me!

In what has otherwise been a rather pale fall color season, the North Shore has one bright red color stand-out: the huge mounds of berries from the mountain-ash trees. Pictured above is one clump of berries right outside the Grand Portage National Monument headquarters. Driving from Grand Marais to Duluth through the grey rain yesterday, I couldn't help but see succulent red clumps all the way down the shore. And I'm red-green colorblind! These berries are R-E-D.

Mountain-ash berries are an invitation to riot. The invitation is directed right at flocks of waxwings. 30 or 40 waxwings will descend out of nowhere onto a mountain-ash tree and mow through the hundreds of berries, denuding a tree within an hour. They swallow the berries whole. No time to chew. Then they move on. It really is one of nature's great spectacles.

Thanks to YouTube, I can share a video of Bohemian Waxwings doing their thing:

Hey, waxwing flocks: Get up here! If I could post to a "berry condition" hotline for birds, I'd be posting this one all over.

There are two types of waxwings, Cedar Waxwing and Bohemian Waxwing. Local birders suggest that the Cedar Waxwings are here in the summer and the Bohemian Waxwings are here in the winter. Either type of bird has a feast awaiting it on the North Shore.

Come and get it!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For vigorous growth, straight and tall

My trees have ED.

Every fall for about four years now, I've wandered the forest around our cabin in Ely and stapled small rectangles of newsprint around the tippy top of the smaller white pines. This tippy top is called the "apical meristem," and tucked inside those needles are the starting buds for next year's most critical growth: upward.

The problem is, the deer eat everything they can when winter rolls around, and those little buds are packed full of energy ready to spring out next year. Our property had hundreds of stilted little white pines, all about a foot tall and three feet wide, trying desperately to grow tall but beaten back every winter by deer browse.

Just stapling the bit of paper over the bud, however, seems to deter the deer. Each year now, these poor pines on our property have gotten taller. It fills me with pride to be able now to actually leave some trees uncapped, since they've grown so tall.

Given all this positive energy for growing things straight and tall, I had to giggle when I found this photo as I prepared for this blog post. Note the ad in the upper left. Speaking of growing things...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I can see for yards and yards

After a gorgeous scenic hike a week or two ago, where I ran into Pete Townsend of The Who and we sang "I can see for miles' (and miles and miles, oh yeah), I took the hound for a hike on another section of the Superior Hiking Trail, a new stretch between Duluth and Two Harbors.

I hiked almost four miles in, going east from Rossini Road. The trailhead is about a twenty minute drive north of Highway 61. Excellent driving directions are on the SHTA website.

I'm trying to put this nicely. It's a lovely trail, very well built with the type of silky-smooth treadway that's only possible in older deciduous forests. The fall colors were just at their peak, maybe just a bit past. It was about 45 degrees, with sunshine. It wasn't freezing rain, at the time.

And the views? Well...they were...nonexistent.

But, hey, since when do we hike just for the views? North Shore hikers have been spoiled by the Superior Hiking Trail, which was designed to connect every possible highpoint in a zig-zagging run through the woods.

On this trail, you focus on the things right in front of you. A gnarly spruce, with branches right down to the ground. The smell and sound of dry maple leaves underfoot. There are no difficult climbs, because there are no highpoints to climb to. It's just...walking. The trail includes an enchanting full mile through gorgeous maple woods, aglow with fall color.

One up-close highlight for me was this Old Man of the Woods, a perfect knot in an older maple tree:

Hiking just for the views is like having dinner just so you can eat dessert, or paddling the BWCA just so you can catch fish. Enjoy the journey!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The warbler on my grocery cart

Image from Alan Wilson,

Yellow-rumped warblers have been all over the North Shore this fall. My mother and her friends keyed out the birds that were all over their bird feeder, even cross-checking three different field guides to puzzle out the winter plumage. I've seen these birds skittering through gravel parking lots in Grand Marais and mobbing fields of tansy in Hartley Nature Center, far from their nesting habitat of spruce trees. And yesterday there was even one on my grocery cart.

I saw it first in the quiet, rather neglected natural foods section of the Super One here in Duluth, just a block from the spruce-y sanctuary of Leif Erikson Park. The bird was calm, roosting up high. Young cashiers and baggers came in with a broom and a milk crate to try to trap it, but could not. It didn't flitter and panic like other birds might. Just stayed still up on the top of the shelves.

Next I saw it was in the dairy section. I called out its name, "Yellow-rumped," maybe just to impress the young store workers, but right then the bird came and landed right on the shiny plastic handle of my cart, next to the bananas. I felt honored.

Yellow-rumped Warbler, you have seen it all. You have been "lumped" by the ecologists from two species into one. You have been studied by the late great Robert MacArthur, who found just which part of the spruce tree you fed on, leaving other parts for other warbler species. They say you are "one of the most generalized and opportunistic of all our insectivorous birds."

But you hadn't seen the inside of a store. I hope you found your way out, back on your way to Tennessee or Florida, so you can come back next spring in full regalia.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

4 really good reasons to hike the Grand Portage trail

It's a really well-maintained trail through lovely boreal and subboreal forest.

It's part of the National Park Service, and after watching 10 hours of the Ken Burns documentary, you gotta get to a park now.

You have a daughter named Charlotte, and she says you gotta hike to her own Fort, 17 miles notwithstanding.

You can not pass up the chance to see a 3D map of the route AND look like Roy Orbison at the same time.

Seriously, it's a nice trail and will only get nicer this fall as the leaves come off the trees and the views open up of the surrounding terrain. The new Heritage Center is really cool and very informative.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Trees down all over the SHT

As if last spring's ice storm, which coated the middle part of the Superior Hiking Trail is an inch of ice and broke down thousands of trees, wasn't enough...

Quoting SHTA executive director Gayle Coyer on the SHTA's FaceBook page:

"There was a major wind storm on the trail from Finland to the end of the trail (the entire north end of the trail, about 100 miles) on Monday, September 28th with winds up to 60 mph. Hundreds of large trees came down and now litter the trail. The hiking in this area will be difficult and will require climbing over large trees. Be particularly mindful of broken branches still in trees or trees continuing to fall to the ground.

"The wind damage from Finland to the north end of the trail is very severe. There are hundreds and hundreds of large trees down. It took one hiker 2-1/2 hours to hike one mile north of Grand Marais. There can be up to 25 large trees per 0.5 mile section. The SHT is not closed but expect difficult hiking conditions and be prepared. Also watch for branches and trees still falling. There were severe winds in Lake County (Two Harbors to Little Marais) for the past 24 hours but as of yet we've had no reports. We'll keep you posted!

(From Section 13, September 29, 2009)

"If you hike in this area, we would appreciate any reports of safety concerns and we will take care of those right away. Otherwise we will start clearing the trail in the order of the most popularly hiked sections. We will also be activating our certified chainsawer list to see if anyone can help clear trail."

No rest for the weary.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

March them up the hill and march them down again

I am the Grand Old Duke of York of family fun.

For family hikes, it used to be that we could throw the one kid in the backpack and go.

When there were two boys and they started to get smart, we didn't even call them hikes, because no one believed that, not even me. We called them "adventures," usually under a mile on a wide park trail with interspersed M&M breaks.

Then, as the dudes get a mind of their own, the bargaining began: if we finish this hike we will get an ice cream cone.

Now, it's Grand Old Duke Dad and Grand Old Duke Mom. We simply announce we're going. We march them up the hill and march them down again.

We announced the hike at Hartley Nature Center at 11:00 this morning, packed up the car and left.

Marched them up the Superior Hiking Trail, across the dam that makes Hartley Pond:

Marched them through the woods, the birch, oaks and maples lovely with the translucence of fall. Except the older one is outmarching us and would leave us in the dust.

Marched them up Hartley Knob, with its 360-degree views of wild Duluth, and down again.

I like it better this way. The older son likes it too, he's smiling. I think the poodle is smiling too.

Next up: Operation House Cleaning.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

I can see for miles and miles and miles

I hiked earlier this week along the Superior Hiking Trail to a place called "Section 13," which is this rugged area about two miles inland from Lake Superior. This was once a secret rock climbing location, secret sort of like Area 51. Now that it's the official Superior Hiking Trail, it's not a secret anymore. In fact, I could swear I saw Pete Townsend of The Who up there. There was this old guy claiming to be from Duluth. I heard someone singing "I can see for miles and miles. I can see for miles and miles. I can see for miles and miles and miles and miles...Oh Yeah."

It's a rough hike that just gets rougher as you head further in, with great views of the inland ridges, ponds and rivers. At the crest of this trail, at over 1600 feet, a huge distant view opens up through a valley back out to the lake.

There's no way this picture will show the real details I could see, but that finger of color coming in from the left above the lake's horizon is the curving North Shore headed way out to Grand Marais. I love that view. The North Shore is not just one straight shoreline; it has this broad beautiful swooping curve to it.

I could swear I could pick out one distant summit. Here's the best job I can do zooming in on it:

I took a compass bearing on it, and it was at 61 degrees. Sort of East-Northeast.

At home later that day, I pulled out a big Lake Superior map and traced 61 degrees from that point I was standing. It went right to a feature well east of Grand Marais called Farquhar Peak.

How far to Farquhar? 60 miles.

Is that cool or what? I had to have the height to see that far, there had to have the clarity of the air to see that far. And there had to be the open gorgeous curves of the North Shore to pick out details that far.

And if that really was Pete Townsend up there, well it was nice to share the hike with you.

I can see for miles and miles and mile and miles....Oh yeah.