The North Shore...The desert Southwest...bound by the juniper.
I'm headed to the Southwest in a few days. We'll be in Phoenix for a week, then I'm road-tripping back home through SE Utah.
My mind is already making the leap to the desert country. Which is why I went to Minnesota Point yesterday evening. I was drawn to the dry sands and the shifting dunes. Along the way, I found the juniper bushes. Brush your leg against a Minnesota juniper on a sunny spring day and you smell Utah.
Our juniper is Juniperus communis, the common juniper. You find it in abundance on the sandy dunes of Duluth, and occasionally on rocky outcrops of the North Shore. In Utah, it's J. osteosperma, the Utah juniper. Both have the waxy cones that look like blueberries. Both thrive in dry, sunny areas.
I love the desert, the slickrock, the canyons, the sunshine. How cool is it that I can step out my door and get a whiff of it right here on the North Shore.
In the first week of March, the whole state of Minnesota was covered in 2-3 feet of snow. The North Shore trail groomers had their big rigs out and the trails were in great shape. Skiers were blogging about the amazing conditions. I had just completed a skijor circuit. I had pulled out the no-wax skis and was ready for a great last month on the trails.
Then the temperatures turned warm. Too warm. For three days and nights, it rained and rained and never got below freezing. The snowpack pulled out of the woods like a windowshade snapping up.
I was not ready for this. It's like my child left on a trip and I didn't get the chance to say goodbye. It's like you're just getting comfy in your seat in the movie theater and the projector blows up. It's like burning the brownies so badly even the dog won't eat them.
The North Shore waterfalls, normally fed by melting snow until early May, have already done their thing. Even big Lake Superior isn't delivering its load of ice to our shore: our beach is just sand and waves now.
It's sad. Really sad.
Carpe diem, they say. Did I ski enough in February? That is, did I ski every chance I had? No.
We live here in the North so we can take advantage of the seasons. We swim when the water is warm. We hike when the trails are dry. And we ski when there's snow on the ground. Of all those seasonal cycles, winter and cross country skiing are my favorites, and the most essential to my sense of well-being. To have that winter ski season yanked away so quickly and dramatically is leaving me wounded and scarred.
Sure, it will snow again. Sometime. And sure, we can start hiking soon. But I need to wallow in this a week or so longer. Get me into April, when skiing is a luxury never to be taken for granted. But a snowless, ski-less March? I feel a little like Luke Skywalker in Cloud City, clinging to a post with his one good hand, yelling at his new father Darth Vader, "That's not true. That's impossible!"
Last fall I did a program at the Larsmont Cottages about North Shore special places. For a trade-out, management gave me a certificate for "Dinner for Two." It had a March 21, 2010 expiration date. So when did we finally go cash in? March 21, 2010.
It was the sort of dinner we'd never buy for ourselves...salad, appetizer, main course, and dessert. We could order up to $80 of food...but no liquor. Apparently, some beer-swillin' trade-out hard-partying fools had made them change their policy about alcoholic beverages, because drinks were off limits.
The food was very good. I had a big hunk of salmon and Sally had pork tenderloins. There was not just one vegetable, but two, including big green stalks of asparagus. Not to mention the salad. This was dinner that never happens at our house: I couldn't make it this good, and even if I did, the boys wouldn't touch it.
My favorite part of the evening, however, was rolling our post-dessert bods down to check out the lakeshore. There's something so personal about each little stretch of Lake Superior shore. Sure, it's more rocks and more pebble beaches, but each one is different. If we hadn't just eaten there, I wouldn't have been comfortable walking down to "their" shore. But after a trade-out meal, I was practically like family.
Walking to someone's Lake Superior shore is like walking to their shrine. It is their special place.
As you drive up and down Highway 61, you see the fronts of cabins, resorts and large vacation homes. Just like at Larsmont, whenever I visit a landowner or even resort manager, I always want to see their shoreline...and generally they want to show it to me too. It's their own back yard. It's an intimate moment and a glimpse into people's lives. Their own favorite bit of Lake Superior shore is a deep connection for them. I know this from my own experience at my family's place in Little Marais.
As much as I try in my writing and blogging to help people find new special places to explore, the most special place is often the one you can most easily reach.
"If there's one thing I don't like...it's excessive walking."
Thus spake my own darling son, the Zen master of the North Shore, exalted in his Inertia. When we took off on the Falls Loop at Gooseberry Falls State Park this afternoon, he was reluctant to cross the bridge over the river because, after all, every step across that bridge he'd just have to turn around and walk back.
But that is why we love loop hikes. As in the Falls LOOP. No sooner have you headed OUT than you're coming BACK.
The falls were raging, spring melt-off underway. The trails were full of people on the sunny day. It was too noisy and there was not much room for the King of Inertia to work his ways.
The gorgeous views and the stream of smiling faces kept him off his guard until we were actually more than halfway around the loop. Then it was too late.
I even got a smile out of him at the bottom of the loop. As generally happens, the endorphins had kicked in and he was all goofy.
How much walking is "excessive?" To my son, "excessive" is one step more than necessary. On a beautiful day at Gooseberry Falls, I felt like I could not get enough walking. In the end, we compromised at a one-mile loop and a picnic down on the Lake Superior shore.
If there's one thing I don't like, it's excessive whining.
Grand Portage National Monument just announced some great news for North Shore explorers. Entrance to the national monument is now free. It wasn't expensive before...$3 per person, $6 per family. Park Superintendent Tim Cochrane said in a news release, " In these tough economic times, it made little sense to charge fees that kept visitors from coming." That gets you into the reconstructed fort and into the cool new heritage center.
So plan this summer to head to the far end of the Minnesota North Shore and experience some history. Haul a pack of furs at the voyageur encampment. Try your hand (or bloody your fingers) at grinding corn. Hike the Grand Portage itself.
And then take the few bucks you would have spent on entry and drop them into the donation box. It's all for a good cause.
The best things in life sometimes really are free.
Above is the four-day forecast for Duluth. With nighttime lows above freezing and rain for three days straight, the North Shore snow cover is taking a huge hit right now. Around Duluth, major brown spots are showing through.
I will ski again this year. It may be on a frozen lake in Ely. It might be after a miracle March snowstorm. I'm not going gently.
This stanza from a Dylan Thomas poem was stenciled on the side of a car door that hung on the classroom wall in my seventh grade English class at St. Paul Academy. I summon it for the cause of this forsaken winter:
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It's March and the deer are all over Highway 61, making ravens and eagles happy and drivers nervous.
They say there are two kinds of North Shore drivers: those that have hit a deer, and those that haven't...yet. I still fall into the second category. But that's only a matter of my own dumb luck. My turn will come.
I'm tempting fate here, but here's what I've learned so far in my stellar no-deer stretch of luck:
If you keep it under 55 at night, you'll have much more reaction time should Bambi pop out from behind a birch tree.
Be especially observant at dawn and dusk . I see a lot more deer and they are moving more at those times. They call this behavior "crepuscular," which sounds like "creepy" and "muscular." Which is what deer are at night.
Watch for flashes. If an oncoming car flashes highbeams at you, it might be a warning that there are deer ahead. Check your own headlights and then keep your eyes out for deer in the next 10-15 seconds.
If you see a deer:
Where there's one, there may be more. In winter, deer are more likely to move in herds. If one has crossed the road safely, there's a decent chance that a second will follow.Don't let that SECOND one be your FIRST.
Honk your horn. Flash your highbeams for the oncoming traffic to warn them. No, gangsters won't track you down and kill you for a random gang initiation...that's urban myth.
Don't swerve. Stay in your lane. Brake firmly but not so hard you lose control. I've had plenty of close calls and stayed in my lane as I braked ("broke?"). By the way, experts suggest that you DO swerve if you're headed for a moose. I have never seen a moose on Highway 61, but it does happen. A 1600-pound moose wins the battle with your car much more often than a 200-pound deer.
If you hit a deer, hope you have your hunting knife. I'm not kidding: a friend of mine took this advice from her father and was able to gut out and keep a deer another car had just hit.
Okay, now I've done it. I've jinxed myself. See you at the body shop.
It's a sunny day in early March and I really should be out skiing right about now, as last night's crust softens in the sun. Instead, I'm inside working on Hiking the North Shore. Specifically, I'm working on the maps. The work takes me back to some mighty fine days on the trail, and I enjoy the process of turning my memories into the printed page.
Last fall, September 29 to be exact, I hiked the popular section of the Superior Hiking Trail known as Section 13, near Little Marais and Finland. It was a gorgeous fall day. A big windstorm the day before had dropped trees across the trail. I let the GPS unit record my journey, and it gave me 380 dots in a long and squiggly line. It was as if I'd dropped bread crumbs along the trail, and finally I'm picking them back up again.
I download all this GPS data in Garmin RoadTrip, an infuriating program that finally filled a massive Mac OS GIS gap. I went back through that hike nearly step by step, eliminating all but the most relevant of those little dots. There are 43 dots left.
This is part of the long slog of turning field research into a book. Hiking the trail is the funnest part. But I enjoy these hours on the GIS program too. They take me back to lovely days over the last two years.
There's where I doubled back for a photo opp.
Here's where the poodle and I stopped for lunch...and she learned to beg for PBJ sandwich bites.
THAT'S where I got on the wrong trail.
Going through this process of focus and clarification makes me all the more appreciative of my lovely wife and publishing partner, Sally. She does way more of the detailed, focused work than I do, AND she didn't get much of the fun part at all. Of the 50 hikes that will be in the book, she came along on 8 or 10 of the research trips.