Monday, November 30, 2009

Book review: The Snow Tourist

It's the end of November, and here in Duluth we're stuck in this netherworld of cold and brown, waiting for the first real snow of the season so the world can be cold and white as it should be. The dreaming has begun, of snowy places west and north. The North Shore may be the snowiest part of Minnesota overall, but it's snow-free so far this winter.

That puts us in the same place as Charlie English, author of The Snow Tourist: A search for the world's purest, deepest snowfall. English lives in London, where he yearns for snow pretty much year-round.

For snow fans like me, this book is dreamy. It features a 40-ish male narrator, wrestling with his adventurous past on the slopes and peaks in his domestic present of marriage and young children.

There's a lot of great information here, from the history of skiing to the art history of snow. Who knew that the woodblock prints of snow by the Japanese artists Hokusai and Hiroshige were a main inspiration for the birth of European Impressionism?

Or that Ull and Skrodi were the Norse gods of skiing?

I was disappointed, however, in the author's "search for the world's purest, deepest snowfall." That subtitle got me all fired up, but the author doesn't search all that hard. Let's just say he was not very methodical about it. In the detailed 24-page "Snow Almanac" at the end of the book, English lists "10 snowy places," from the Chugach Mountains of Alaska to Mount Hutt in New Zealand. Yet in two years of field research, he only visits two of these places.

Rather than head straight for the snowiest places, English goes to places associated with snow. Baffin Island, as he writes, gets about 80 inches of snow per year, similar to Duluth. He flies there in spring and goes out into the bush with an Inuit man named Billy to build and sleep in a traditional igloo. Afterward, English heads for Jericho, Vermont, to trace the history of Wilson Bentley, known for his microphotographs of snow crystals. Other snowy adventures include a failed ski crossing of the Alps and a weekend break in Vienna to view paintings of snow (like his favorite, Bruegel's The Hunters in the Snow).

When English does get to a snowy place, like Alaska's Chugach Mountains or Mount Rainier, he's there overnight and gets out on a snowboard or snowshoes for a brief adventure. When I was in the Chugach Mountains as a 19-year-old NOLS student, we climbed up to the icefields and dug our shelter into bottomless snow, where we waited out a five-day snowstorm. Now that was pure, deep snow.

While the search for pure, deep snow comes up far short of its destination, the journey is worth it for all the things English and the reader learn along the way, about snow, history, and himself.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What washes up

I fear Lake Superior. More so, I fear what it might bring me. We live right at the end of 350 miles of open Lake Superior water and anything could wash up here.

This morning, in one of Lake Superior's lighthearted moments, it was a beer can. From Istanbul. Efes Pilsener. Imagine the Turkish sailor out at anchor tossing his empty over the rails.

After a big blow in October, some local artist had a good time with the debris that washed up on the shore here, taking some fisherman's gloves and a smelter's boot and making installation art on the dune of old driftwood.

But the lake brings real gruesome things, not just foreign beer and art material.

Nine years ago this fall, Tomasz Wlodarcyk, a 34-year-old Polish sailor, disappeared from his ship in the Duluth harbor. The following April, the body washed up on this beach.

Back in July 1885, the body of Louis Foucalt, a French-Canadian who'd written his name on his arm, was found on this beach by a little girl playing in the sand.

Darn that historical research. I know too much.

When Douglas Winter disappeared from the North Shore in October and his sea kayak washed up at Twin Points, I feared that he, or actually his body, would wash up here on Park Point. After his lifejacket came to shore a few days after he disappeared, I was even more afraid.

For the last month, when I'd take the dog for a walk on the beach, I'd hesitantly look up the shoreline, half-sure I would see Winter's limp corpse. Fortunately for me, the gales of November never really hit this year. Big Lake Superior storms, with their raging east winds, bring all sorts of things to our beach.

Winter's body surfaced and came to shore maybe ten miles away from where he died. The body had headed this way, but only made it to Two Harbors. Winter, it turns out, had shot himself out on the lake, shortly after calling his girlfriend on his cellphone to report increasing waves.

He wanted to disappear. I feared he would un-disappear, right onto my beach.

I know too much. It's a big, beautiful lake. With just the occasional unpleasant surprise.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Smile! Crazy man on the SHT

Sometime in the next few months, you may be watching TV on a Thursday evening, and as you channel surf from "Survivor" to "Grey's Anatomy" you might catch a shot of me. In the woods. Muttering to myself.

Steve Ash from Duluth's public TV station, WDSE, called me up the other day with a proposition. Go hiking on your favorite local trail. And talk about why you like that trail. On camera. All for a 2-minute segment on Venture North. Being a total sucker for media attention, I immediately said yes.

I picked the "Peace Ridge" section of the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth. It runs east from Keene Creek up into the dramatic open ridgeline of Brewer Park. It's a favorite of mine because I helped to scout the trail and it's got a great view, not just from one point but all along about 200 yards of trail.

We did the hike yesterday, another of these bizarrely warm and sunny November days. Steve, the camera operator, was joined by Karen Sunderman, the host of Venture North. At first it was "stand-ups," where they'd pick a scenic background and have me stand there and talk about the trail. Not to Karen, really...she was off-camera. Just talk off into the woods. Fine. I do that myself anyway.

Then they filmed me, well, walking through the woods, up stairs, along boardwalks.

I decided to combine the stand-ups and the walking. I was on a wireless mike, so when they filmed me walking, I started talking too, about finding and routing the trail, and about the volunteers that built it.

So they'll have all this footage of me, all alone, walking through the woods and talking to myself. They broadcast Venture North all across Minnesota and the Upper Midwest. And now it's on in Guam.

Hmm. Now there's proof. Crazy man in the woods. Great.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Go to the Lakewalk. This week.

The weather forecast for the next three days is sunny and warm. Warm at least for November in northern Minnesota. Get outside. On the North Shore, if possible.

And why not head for the trail that is:

1) the longest lakeshore trail on the North Shore


2) the easiest to get to?

That would be Duluth's Downtown Lakewalk. There are 2.5 miles of trail right on the shoreline. In the middle of deer season, it's a walk so safe you don't need to wear any blaze orange.

Take your time on a sunny day to get off the trail and hang out on the ledgerock shoreline that was scoured smooth by the glaciers. Visit the mouths of the creeks as they emerge from under the city to reach Lake Superior.

Parking in Canal Park is free now. Most of the tourists are gone. The afternoon light is gorgeous as the sun is headed for the horizon by 3:00. Get out for a hike, and afterward get an early start on your holiday shopping (I heartily recommend Northern Lights book store and Sivertson's Gallery).

See you out there! NOTE: The City of Duluth is about to start construction on another massive sewage overflow holding tank, right by the corner of the Lakewalk by Endion Station. Lakewalk foot and bike traffic will be detoured up through Lakeplace Park. That's a good thing: more people should check out the cool landscaping, the storm pavilion, and the groovy public art found up there.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The ascent of man, the start of ski season

It's a classic image, the progression of, well, MAN from lurching primate to a well-oiled and well-coiffed white guy.

I learned in Tettegouche the other day that there's two more steps in the evolution, from muscle man to hiker, and from hiker to cross country skier. Funny how they begin to get more crouched over, not less.

I think in the final step, the skier gets another ski pole.

Regardless, it's November and it's time to start skiing. That's the evolution of Andrew, if not Homo sapiens in general.

Deer season is two weeks of hiker exile from the woods of the North Shore. During deer season, the snow should start to fall and by Thanksgiving, I fully expect there to be snow.

I am ready for the Ascent of Andrew from hiker to the yet more evolved state of skier.

Monday, November 9, 2009

One last woodle walk

For the last of my 50 North Shore hikes, I almost left the dog at home.

Chloe, the psychotic standard poodle, had accompanied me on half of my hikes so far, and she loved every one of them. Since I generally hike in the off-season and in mid-week, I feel okay letting the dog off the leash. Chloe, of course, feels great about being off leash, romping and spinning around.

So for old time's sake and because, well, she insisted, she made this last trip.

We call Chloe a woodle, because when she gets out in the wild woods she is more wolf than poodle. Half wolf, half poodle = woodle.

Of course, for every mile I walk, Chloe probably does three miles, running ahead and sprinting back. Even the steep climb of the famous "Drainpipe" didn't deter her from scaling up and down a few times. Hiking the big backcountry loop through Tettegouche was 11 miles for me, so it would have been nearly the distance of a marathon for Chloe.

After ten miles of hiking and seeing no other person or dog, there was a scary moment. We were on our way back to the trailhead, making good time on the flat, wide ski trails. I cruised around a turn, and all of a sudden saw the waddling form of a porcupine. Going our direction. Taking his own sweet time right down the middle of the trail.

Fortunately, I saw it first. I was able to get Chloe back on the leash. A moment later, Chloe spotted the waddling thing. Time to play! It's moving, and it's moving away, so it must be time to play chase!

The dog had already Velcro-d up half the burrs and twigs in the park. The last thing she needed was a muzzle full of quills. But the porkie was right in the trail, headed our way. We would have to follow it until it finally got off the trail. This is dog torture, keeping the poodle away from its potential playmate. Chloe pulls at her collar until it squeezes her neck and she rasps and wheezes.

About 300 yards of waddling and wheezing down the trail, porcupine and dog separated and we were able to move along.

The last mile of the trail was as muddy as anything I'd seen all day, and Chloe was in her glory. Knowing that the hose at home had been put away, I stopped in Two Harbors at the "Lil Dog Car and Pet Wash." For two bucks in quarters, Chloe got a good rinsing and a vacuum.

A week later, we're still pulling seeds from her fur, but at least we're not pulling quills through her cheeks.

So, okay, I'll admit it. I like my dog. A bit. She's alright. I appreciate the company. She hasn't destroyed anything of mine for months.

I've been asked if I'll dedicate the book to Chloe. Absolutely not. But she's a big part of the book, for sure.

Friday, November 6, 2009

My life passed before my eyes

Boy, was I surprised. I hiked up the spine of Papasay Ridge in Tettegouche State Park, and what I saw was not at all what I'd expected. The spur trail to the view went away from the lake and toward...what? Instead of one more view of one of Tettegouche's many inland lakes, I saw a ridge stretching out for ten miles.

This was in the last few miles of #50 of the 50 hikes I've done for the new book, Hiking the North Shore. I was already feeling nostalgic, proud and tired.

Then I figured out what I was seeing. Along this ridgeline were summits and ridgelines I had hiked over the last two years. There was the wind turbine of Wolf Ridge. Behind it and to the right was the crest of "Fantasia." Off to the left were the cliffs of Sawmill Dome and from my hike to Section 13.

Way off to the left, tucked inside the rolling terrain, was the Humpback Trail at Crosby Manitou State Park.

No, I wasn't dying. I'd been living...a lot. All in a rush, some of the best of the 50 hikes I've just completed played themselves back like a GPS-enabled videotape on fast forward.

I can hardly wait to package up all these hiking experiences into a book. It will feel like a big chunk of my life has wrapped itself up neatly. The North Shore has so many great adventures, and I've been so fortunate to have the time and resources to get out there and experience at least 50 of them.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Staring down a midlife crisis at Tettegouche

The poodle and I went for a lovely and challenging hike this week at Tettegouche State Park, up the North Shore. Somewhere along the 11-mile hike, I stared down a midlife crisis.

At the start of the hike, I felt young and fresh. I knew I could either hike on the ski trail or on the Superior Hiking Trail. And I knew the Superior Hiking Trail would be 1) much more difficult and 2) much more scenic. With great challenges come great rewards, right?

So instead of hiking on the flat, smooth ski trail, I took it right to the steep and rocky SHT, and right up a famous feature known as "The Drainpipe." Dude.

Which got me to a great viewpoint looking back out at Lake Superior.

Yeah, baby. I was hiking now.

Five long slogging miles later, tired, skies greyer now, I faced another, similar decision. Hike around Nicado Lake on the trail the park ranger warned me about? Or take the easy way down another wide ski trail?

Hmmm...challenge and reward. Snow was starting to fall. There was a good chance I might lose the trail. Or twist an ankle on a dead fall. The poodle was not going to carry me out of the woods, and there's no cellphone coverage down in the gulch. Daylight Savings Time was done, and it would be dark in three hours.

So, gonzo guy, what you gonna do? Guts? Glory? Or just mediocrity?

I turned right around at that Minimum Maintenance sign and headed down the wide ski trail. The next few miles were, according to my notes, "Monotonous." But I was safe. I could return to my family and my warm bed that night.

I guess my idea of a midlife crisis is pretty lame. Maybe instead of the red BMW, I might buy some new green arch supports for my hiking shoes.

Next post in the Tettegouche series: When my life passed before my eyes

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tettegouche: The funny bits

I went for a lovely and very challenging hike yesterday at Tettegouche State Park. I took lots of pictures and will have some interesting, reflective posts here on the blog.

However, I just had to put up pictures of these two signs. The first one, for the Cedar Lake Overlook, is missing just the right letters to have it turn into a Polynesian blessing: "E-dar A-ke O Er Ook." There is a scene in Finding Nemo, where the other fish in the fish tank at the dentist's office initiate Nemo into their tropical brotherhood. Their chant is just like this. Edar Ake O Er Ook.

So I continued my trek, getting tired but hitting every overlook spur trail like a good guidebook author. But now I was powered by the Finding Nemo chant. E-dar A-Ke O Er Ook!!

As far as I knew, however, it was just random entropy that took those letters off. Sh** happens.

Then I saw the second sign, at the start of the climb to Mt. Baldy. I'd hiked six miles, my legs were sore, and I'd already climbed to four or five other overlooks:

Now I knew. This one convinced me it is not just random entropy on these signs. It's not just nature taking its course. Those particular letters didn't just fall off. Some hiker, maybe tired as I was, peeled them off in some reverse Wheel of Fortune humor.

I got around the rest of the hike pondering the potential for this sort of reverse graffiti on other signs.

Andrew Slade? Turns into "drew ad"

Barack Obama? "Bar bam"

Lake Superior? "La Supe"

Minnesota Vikings? "In so iki"