Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ski the North Shore...finally!


That was me today, swooping around the back of Rock Hill on Duluth's Bagley Nature Area ski trail. The hard snow was fast and unforgiving. The trail curved to the left but there wasn't enough room on the right to snowplow.

I knew I was going to crash.

Yet somehow I stayed up.

A fine brush with death. North Shore skiing has begun.

The Christmas Blizzard was, literally, a wash-out here right on the Lake Superior shores. But the maps and the numbers don't lie: just a few steps away from the lake, the snow piled up big-time.

Taking my clue from, I went to the place in Duluth that had gotten the best reports for ski trail conditions, the Bagley Nature Area ski trail. The snowfall had been bountiful, probably part of the map's big white teardrop coming NE out of Duluth. The snow must have fallen with the consistency of mashed potatoes...and then frozen overnight into near-cement.

Someone had been out there when it was softer and groomed it. Which is great, except the tracks were as firm as steel track and kept my skis in like the wheels of a roller coaster

The hard snow made the hard parts of Bagley harder. The short steep hills were unforgiving. The big swooping downhill around the back side of Rock Hill was treacherous.

The Bagley ski trail is owned and managed by the University of Minnesota Duluth, part of their stunning Bagley Nature Area. It has two loops, "East" and "West." I always start on the 1.7K "East" loop, with a lovely run through classic North Shore ridgeline sugar maple forest. Although this is supposed to be the easier side, it has a few nasty hills, made nastier by today's hard, fast snow. The "Caution: Steep Hill" sign is new this year; it looks like UMD has lawyered up on its trail.

The 1.2K "West" loop is climbs up and around Rock Hill. That's the loop where I nearly fell.

I have faced death and survived. The snow is deep enough, at least away from our lakeshore slush. After a break for the blizzard, the groomers, both the volunteers and the pros, are out there. The North Shore ski season has begun.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Dreck the Halls: Blizzard takes our snow away

Well, the great Blizzard of '09 rolled through Minnesota. Feet of snow were dumped across the region, and snowlovers across the North Star state awoke Christmas morning to a wintry dreamscape. Except for us, right here on the shores of Lake Superior. We woke up to Dreck.

Now Dreck is a German word, but it's an sounds like what it is: garbage.

The big snow system came, but the warmer open waters of the lake transformed what should have been 20 inches of snow into rain or quick-melting slush.

It rained all day, with a driving wind and huge waves off the lake.

We ended up with less snow than before the storm, thank you very much STUPID Lake Superior!

I walked down the windy beach naming what I saw, but in a language that made it feel so much better. Thank God for German, because just by naming the stuff I felt as relieved as if I were cussing.



I didn't even need real German profanity. Scheisse sounded too good for this.

Just a few blocks away from the lake, just uphill and away from STUPID Lake Superior less than a mile, the snow piled up. We'll be skiing Duluth ski trails this week.

But there was no joy in Mudville: Mighty Blizzard had struck out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The storm approaches

The wind off Lake Superior kicked up this morning. From the southwest, a thick layer of cumulus clouds slid over the lake, like a blanket drawn by a modern-day Nanabijou. The clouds covered the solstice sun as it rose far to the south above the Wisconsin shore.

Big storm coming. May be up to 20 inches of snow here and along the North Shore. The Slade and Rauschenfels home is ready to go. Snow, more snow, and then we ski.

Monday, December 21, 2009

John Dee, whoever you are, I love you

I'm easy, I guess. Promise me 12 inches of snow or more for Christmas morning, and you've got my heart's attention. Deliver on that promise, and I'm yours heart and soul. John Dee has a new website that handles big snow promises like this, and I am already his biggest fan. It's not love-love, like I love my wife and my sons. But snow like this triggers some deep emotions all the same.

Paul Huttner at Minnesota Public Radio says this is shaping up like the Halloween Blizzard of 1991. I really like how that map above sets the big purple area right on top of Duluth and the North Shore.

Solstice greetings from a nature dork

In my geeky, Nature Dork way, I want to wish you all Happy Yule!

Today is the winter solstice, known by my German and English ancestors as Yule. At 11:47 this morning Minnesota time, the North Pole will be tilted as far away from the sun as it could possibly get.

If you're out and about today, you can see exactly what's happening. In fact, this is the easiest and cheapest holiday ritual you'll ever have. On your lunch break, step outside and look for the sun. It will be as low to the horizon as it ever gets, even at "high noon." Not much warmth coming off that star today!

When the sun finishes its low-down journey through the sky today, check out the sunset. As you look to the west, you'll see that the sun sets as far to the "south", or left, as it ever does. From your kitchen window or your front door, remember that spot...a chimney, or the neighbor's garage door. On the North Shore, maybe it's a ridgeline or a tall white pine. From the beaches just east of Grand Marais, you might see the sun go down straight down the shoreline. Wherever the sun goes down today, that's a landmark for your life. Your own personal Stonehenge.

In other parts of the globe, unique things happen today too. Ever heard of the Arctic Circle? Today's the one day that the sun does not rise anywhere north of the Arctic Circle. That's how the Arctic Circle is defined. It's dark all across that circle today.

And if you know anyone who lives along the Tropic of Capricorn, in South Africa, Australia or Brazil, for them the sun at midday will be directly overhead.

Of course, this is December on the North Shore. We might not see the sun at all today. But we know, from a few thousand years experience, that the sun will come back. Days will very slowly start getting longer again. The sun will be higher in the sky.

Almost makes you want to have a little party, huh? To welcome back the sun? To wake up the gods? Maybe, just to be sure the sun does come back, you could have a bonfire. Sacrifice a horse or a pig. Burn one big log all night long. Call it a Yule log. You pagan, you!

Make it a great day. Happy Yule!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Light up the Igloo, Nanook!

Andy at UpNorthica had a post and link today with photos of cool igloos. I just thought I'd toss in a recent igloo shot of my own, from Duluth's Bentleyville.

Polar bears are messing with penguins in a antipodal mash-up. Note the Leaning Tower of Enger to the back left, complete with the green light on top.

If you're anywhere near Duluth in the evening, take an hour or so to tour the Bentleyville light display. The lights are cool, and I enjoyed being part of a festive Christmas crowd...took me back to Kristkindlmarkts in Germany.

They did a great job with the ship and Lift Bridge, though I like the actual Lift Bridge better.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pattison Park: Skiing the snowbelt

In my last posting, I got a little carried away with the spiritual revelation I experienced skiing at Pattison State Park. In fairness to my readers and my mission of getting them out into the woods, I'm following up with the nitty-gritty details.

Pattison State Park is twelve miles south of Superior on Highway 35, a.k.a Tower Avenue. You go through Superior's mall strip and through the town of South Superior, then past three or four Packers bars. The park entrance in on the left, just after you climb up a distinct ridge.

You need to have a park vehicle permit to ski in the park. There is no other ski license required. The permits are available at the park office. The office is closed most days, so you will have to use the self-registration station. Bring exact change in bills: $3 for an hour, $7 for the day. Or bring a checkbook and a pen.

There are three loops. All skiers start on the 2.4 km Red Loop, which is a nice level run through hardwood forests, past a scenic view down into the Black River valley. The Orange Loop peels off the Red Loop and runs near the river. It's now rated as Most Difficult. The Blue Loop is a scenic 3.5 km journey, rated Intermediate, along the Black River, through big white pines and past large basswood trees.

The trail system has been updated and re-aligned since our book Skiing the North Shore was printed. The directional signage has had a major work-over, with colored arrows pointing the way for each loop. The idea is that you can follow the Orange arrows, for example, and do the entire system. The Blue arrows take you to the Red Loop and the Blue Loop. And the Red arrows just do the Red Loop.

This is the only place I've ever seen this system; I didn't understand it until just now as I'm writing this.

Maybe because of this change, the Blue Loop has gone from clockwise to counterclockwise. This was a bit of a mistake, since it turned what was a uphill climb with some tight turns to a treacherous downhill run. I was not the first to side-step down that section.

Regardless of the change in signage, the trails are lovely and there's plenty of snow. Get out and enjoy!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Getting religion...and SNOW! Pattison

Behold mighty Lake Superior! Blessed be the cold north winds that turn open water into deep snow.

In Duluth and Superior, there is about an inch of snow. I'd gotten anxious and fearful about the winter coming on.

In 20 minutes yesterday morning, my world was transformed. I drove fifteen miles due south from Superior to Pattison State Park. Just up on top of a ridge the lake-effect snow had piled up and piled up and there was at least a foot of white glory. More than enough to ski on.

So I skied.

It was glorious. It was a miracle. After weeks of worrying about winter, I had my snow and my skiing, all at once. If I needed to be convinced to believe in an all-powerful God, let Lake Superior be that God and I'm all aboard the glory train.

It was as if that Christmas angel in the Bible was speaking to me, and not to the shepherds in the field, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy."

Pattison State Park has 7 kilometers of classical skiing trail, with an easy first loop and more difficult outer loops. My favorite part of the trail runs along the Black River on the Blue Loop, through some big pines. The snow was everywhere and the trail was groomed just right.

To ski at Pattison, you just have to buy a vehicle permit at the ranger station. You can get season passes, day passes for $7-$10, and even a one-hour pass for $3.00. I did the one-hour pass, and it was just enough time to get around two of the three loops. A Christmas miracle!

HINT: Bring exact bills for your permit, or a pen for your checkbook; it's self-registration, and you don't want to do what I did, writing a check in pencil.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A crystal walk

There's no real snow in Duluth yet, but winter still has us in her grasp. It's amazing what simple cold can do to transform the landscape. I walked from our house to the Aerial Lift Bridge yesterday and took my camera along to see what I could find. It was five below zero. The lake was billowing its sea smoke.

The moisture coming off Lake Superior dusted everything it touched with crystals. Even a bit of driftwood on the sandy beach attracted a set of crystals so elaborate my son Noah asked casually, "I wonder what all those gull feathers are sticking to?" The most improbable set of ice stalagmites rose out of a frozen dune.

Rolling swells, left from the big snowstorm that went just south of us, built up smooth ice on rocks and walls. In the ship canal. thick drifts of fog ran out to sea side by side, jostling with each other. It looked like the running of the bulls, if only the bulls, racing out to sea, were made of steam and silence. A still picture doesn't do it justice.

I'd prefer snow, of course, but in the deep cold, nature graces us with all sorts of beautiful white stuff.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Goofing around at Onion River

Still no real snow on the North Shore, but you can flash back to the snowy parts of last winter on this video from Explore Minnesota, featuring Grand Marais' own Bryan Hansel and Micah Mellang skiing the Onion River Road.

There's some goofy jokes about beaver poop and some Marx Brothers action. Then, in a HUGE waste of bandwidth, they try to make it look like there is good cross country skiing in other parts of Minnesota. As if.

Watching skiing videos is better than not skiing at all. Especially when they're on the North Shore.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Keeping it real

In an article for the Pittsburgh Tribune Review last week, Paul g. Wiegman reviewed some regional trail and field guides for western Pennsylvania. Despite UpNorthica's recent fun and inspiring foray into the same area, I don't plan any trips there in the near future.

One section of the review jumped off the page for me. Wiegman points out exactly what we strive for in our North Shore guidebooks.

That last point of having lots of real field experience is important to consider when you are looking at any field or hiking guide.

There are guides written by authors who gather data from the Internet and other sources without doing much observing or hiking on the ground. The results are often misleading and downright wrong. As a precaution, when you are looking at a state or regionally specific guide, check the "About the Author" section to see where they are from and how much experience they have in that place. The more local the author, the more likely the book will have accurate information.

I've made some embarrassing errors in guidebooks when I've relied on second-hand information. When I absolutely have to use a map or another guidebook to describe some out-of-the-way ski trail I didn't actually ski myself, I lean on ambiguous, conservative language to get through. Here's a blog entry about this problem from early this year.

But I do live here, right on the Minnesota shore of Lake Superior. When I write about a trail or a campground or pie shop, 98.9% of the time I've been there. Recently. All geeked out with my Rite-in-the-Rain notebook, my GPS unit, etc.

Thanks, Mr. Wiegman, for pointing out what makes a great trail guide. Come to the lovely North Shore sometime and see what we've got. In person.

Skiers for climate protection

As politicians gather in Copenhagen to negotiate a treaty to address critical issues in global climate change, we're dealing here with the local reality: another late-starting winter.

It's approaching mid-December with very little snow on the ground, and we drive 15 miles to the Christmas tree farm to cut-r-own.

Where the economy says we need snow, we make it. While the real world of forests and cross country trails waits for real snow, up at Spirit Mountain they're making their own. This weekend, the snowguns were out all over the hill throwing up huge mounds of the stuff. For skiers and for the big Snocross snowmobile event.

It's a huge global summit in Copenhagen...and it needs to be huge. There's only so much we can do locally

Concern over climate change used to paralyze me. Our 15 mile drive to the tree farm adds more CO2, and I feel a bit guilty. The snow guns at Spirit Mountain are a huge energy draw, burning more coal. Those snowmobiles for which we made the snow burn more fossil fuels, and those 10,000 spectators are driving long ways to watch the event. I should despise that.

I live in the north because I love snow and winter. If I lived in the Twin Cities, where snow is much less frequent and the ski trails far less wild, I would die each winter as the snowpack melts away. Here in Duluth, to reach a great ski trail from mid-December to early March, it's a ten-minute drive to three different city parks. But that's still a drive. I'm still the cause.

The climate change summit in Copenhagen has huge implications for our planet and also for ourselves. Cross country skiers and other winter enthusiasts should be all over the summit advocating for our snow and our cold. Yes, we should do all we can to reduce our own carbon footprint. Live near your trails, I say. But I can't keep the developing world from burning through their coal. I can't reverse America's century-long carbon binge. Only concerted global action will do that.

Go politicians! Be brave, and save our snow!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Visualizing snow: A winter poem from Gary Snyder

"Pine Tree Tops"

in the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
the creak of boots
rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.

Gary Snyder, from Turtle Island, 1974, New Directions

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Try this at home: sand skiing

I love to ski. I live on the sand beach here in Duluth. Why did it take a Brazilian speaking in English with Norwegian subtitles to get me to think of combining sand and skiing?

Check this video out. It shows "Den brasilianske langrennsløperen" Jacqueline Mourao cross-country skiing on beach dunes.

The one word I could decipher in the Norwegian narration was a certain city in British Columbia. Apparently the Norwegian term for Vancouver, site of the upcoming Winter Games, is "Vancouver." Plus you get to translate ads for broadband internet from Norwegian.

Yes, it's true. While we're waiting for the snow to fall, I have nearly nothing better to do that trawl the internet looking for faux skiing experiences. If you don't already subscribe to Bruce Adelsman's MiniSkinny e-mail newsletter, do so now. It's got all sorts of stuff like this.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A racy XC ski joke

While we wait for snow, I'm going to keep on quoting skiers and, today, retelling ski jokes. This one got the biggest laugh of the three ski jokes I told at the Midwest Mountaineering Expo a few weeks ago.

Welcome home, Paavo

Paavo was a veteran of the Russo-Finnish war and had been a member of Finland's elite ski troops, who skied silently through the woods and ambushed the Red Army. (This part of it is historically true.)

On the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, a reporter came to interview Paavo about his memories. He got a good account of all the skirmishes and close calls that Paavo had experienced. The last question was, "What was the first thing you did when you finally got home?"

Paavo blushed and said, "Well, you know, I'd been living away from my wife for an awfully long time. You'd better ask about the second thing I did."

The reporter smiled and nodded understandingly. "All right," he said. "What was the second thing you did?"

"I took off my skis."

From Democratic Underground

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fridtjof Nansen on the beauty of skiing

Take it from Fridtjof Nansen, one of the great polar explorers of all time and a huge advocate for cross-country skiing:

"There is no form of sport which so evenly develops the muscles, which renders the body so strong and elastic, which teaches so well the qualities of dexterity and resources, which in an equal degree calls for decision and resolution, and which gives the same vigor to mind and body alike.

"Where can one find a healthier and purer delight than when on a brilliant winter day one binds one's skis to one's feet and takes one's way out into the forest? Can there be anything more beautiful than the northern winter landscape, when the snow lies foot-deep, spread as a soft white mantel over field and wood and hill?"

From The First Crossing of Greenland, quoted in The Snow Tourist: A search for the world's purest, deepest snowfall, by Charlie English, p. 107.

Let's get some snow on the ground and "give some vigor to mind and body alike."