Thursday, August 26, 2010

Harebells 'round the world

Go to any open rocky stretch of the North Shore right now, and you will likely find a familiar blue flower, bell-shaped, with leaves so skinny and round they almost look like grass. It's a North Shore flower all right, but it's found in dramatic landscapes all over the world. I took this photo last week in between cold-water swimming challenges with Chicago Max.

What we call harebell here is known as bluebell blueflower across the US, RundblÀttrige Glockenblume in the Alps, and liten blÄklocka in Sweden, where it has appeared on postage stamps.

One summer I saw it in bloom in rock cracks on the North Shore, then a week later in the North Dakota badlands, then a week later in the high alpine tundra of Montana. All of those places are nutrient-poor and can be quite dry.

Check out some great trivia here. This is a great flower, with lots of stories to tell. Keep your eyes out for the rare white-flowered version!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Tettegouche arch trivia

It's the biggest news from the North Shore since that incident at Glensheen. The arch at Tettegouche State Park fell last week. The story has been picked up by websites and newspapers across the Midwest.

Here's a few tidbits you can throw into your conversations at the water cooler or the espresso bar to show your North Shore knowledge:

*** The arch was never formally named. The only Minnesota North Shore arch with an official US Geological Society name is Hollow Rock, up in Grand Portage.

*** You could paddle a sea kayak under the arch:

*** There are still other similar arches on the North Shore, including at Hollow Rock and on private land in the Little Marais area. The most famous North Shore arch is the Sea Lion, up in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park.

The North Shore is full of natural wonders...enjoy what we've got while it's here!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Carlton Peak: A Slade family wild goose chase

It's a Slade family tradition to go off on wild goose chase hikes. It probably started with my grandfather, Norman Slade. To vaguely remember an old trail and get lost along the way. To change plans halfway in and hike with two preteens an extra six miles. Especially on a hot summer day with a gaggle of cousins in tow.

So when we took off for the summit of Carlton Peak last week, off some unmarked gravel road, on to unmarked trails, it was like Christmas Eve: I felt the weight of family tradition guiding my hand.

I needed a photo from the summit for our forthcoming book, Hiking the North Shore. Last time I was there, the summit was fogged in. No good pictures, so I had to go back. Oh, the hard work of book publishing!

My sister and her family were up the North Shore, plus another niece, so this would be a real Slade family hike. Who needs the well-marked and well-maintained Superior Hiking Trail? We were headed off the grid, where even **I** had never completely gone before.

I will not go into details here, but there is a way to climb Carlton Peak directly from its base, without the one- or three-mile approach hike on the SHT. The route involves gravel roads and a very dramatic rock quarry.

This would not be a complete wild goose chase. I did my research ahead of time, with a Google Earth print-out, a GPS unit, and notes from my last hike on the official route. Plus I brought enough water for everyone and some real food, not the traditional lemon drops.

We made it up the quarry roads and up against the very dramatic wall of one of the quarries, tucked in beneath what hikers know as the Ted Tofte overlook. If you look carefully in the lower right of the picture above, you can pick out my two sons and the poodle. From here, it took a little investigation to find the last chunk of road/trail to connect up with the SHT.

We made the summit, had our ample lunch, and I even got what I think will be the photo for Hiking the North Shore:

The North Shore. A hot day. Cousins. No marked trail. A father long on ambition. Though it had the old familiar feelings, there was not a single wild goose to be chased.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cold clash with Chicago Max

Here's a word from the wise (and the cold): do not challenge a thirteen-year-old boy to a Lake Superior North Shore swimming challenge. I did that yesterday, and nearly didn't live to tell the tale.

I took my boys up to Little Marais to visit my parents and my Chicago sister's family, who were all in residence at the family cabin. A friend of my nephews' was along, Max. On our Carlton Peak hike earlier in the day, Max had blithely told me he'd been swimming in the lake.

"Swimming?," I asked. (You must be crazy, I thought. North Shore water temps have plummeted in the last week with strong NW winds).

"Sure. We dunked and everything." Blithe indeed, like Chi-town punks have no respect for our clear, cold Lake Superior. Like they've never heard a Gordon Lightfoot song.

After the hike, we returned to the rocky shoreline. After a few weeks on Minnesota Point, I forget how clear North Shore water can be. Sure enough, Chicago Max heads into the water. He huffs and puffs with the cold, but he's out there. He's only in to his belly-button, however. I see an opening.

I step into the cobbly water. It is, in fact, cold. No thermometer, but I'm guessing low 50s. Too shallow to dive, so I back in and flop backward, pinch my nose and I, ***I***, am the first and only to go ALL THE WAY.

That lasts all of a minute. Within 60 seconds, Chicago Max is in the water and dunking. So is my nephew, age 10.

I can handle this. After warming up for a bit on the sun-kissed basalt, I'm back in the water. No easy dunk this time: I'm in belly first and I do the front crawl to the next point out, about 10 yards. I'm cooly checking out the big cobbles below but I feel a little panic kick in too. It is cold. Rocks are slippery. No one on shore is going to rescue me.

I climb carefully out on the far shore. I have made my point. I am the Lake Superior boss. Then...BIG MISTAKE...I gloat, "Take that, Chicago punks."

A few minutes later, Max returns to the water. He steps in. He gets horizontal. HE starts to swim. Only he's not swimming toward the nearby point, he's swimming out into the lake. Out to Wisconsin. Someone calls, he stops and looks back to shore. He gurgles something. He thrashes back to shore and emerges, victorious.

Do I go jump off the cliff into the deeps? Do I swim a lap around the point and back?

No, the clash of cold stops here. It's a Mexican standoff, or in this case a Max-ican standoff. This kid will go all the way, match me blow for blow. And the first to drown loses.

"Good job, Max," I call, as tepid as a Little League benchwarmer in the postgame handshake line.

The moral? In any clash of wills on the North Shore, Lake Superior will always win.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When trees are not enough: Down with the Timber Twister

Who needs the Myers-Briggs personality test when you've got the new Spirit Mountain Timber Twister? I took three young men up to Spirit Mountain yesterday for our first runs down the new Duluth attraction. It was my two sons and their older cousin. Everyone, from the go-for-it emotional "Gonzo" to the laid-back, analytical "Dork," took it a little differently.

(Guess who was the Dork?)

The Twister is a triumph of German engineering; the cars run smoothly and quietly through the hardwood forest. It's a bit like the Superior Hiking Trail on steroids, as you wind through the trees and occasionally pop out on a dramatic open view of the terrain below. In fact, you actually follow the SHT for a few yards. A bit of engineering and some gravity turns the boring old maple forest into an adrenaline-pumping adventure.

My boys loved it. After forced marches this summer through the woods and down the beaches, they got to let loose, run fast, hoop and holler. I guess kids actually like being in the woods when there are high-octane experiences to be had.

As the analytical Dork, I thought the whole experience was a bit short for the investment of time, energy and money. It was a 20-minute drive for a 3-minute ride. A four-pack of tickets costs $28, and the first ride leaves almost everyone wanting another trip down to go faster.

It's great to see Spirit Mountain adding summer attractions. They can find ways to use their forests and their elevation change year-round. For active families, how about adding a great mini-golf course through the woods? I'd LOVE to see a zip-line.

For our next young male adventure, I think we're going for the direct assault on Carlton Peak.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Flood Bay: An appreciation

So you've made it through the stop-and-start traffic maze of Duluth and up the expressway to Two Harbors. Maybe you stopped for some smoked fish at Lou's or a Culvercinno at Culvers. Now, get your first real taste of the North Shore.

Just 1.5 miles past the last Two Harbors stoplight, turn right at Flood Bay State Wayside. There's a nice gravelly beach that reaches back toward Superior Shores resort, and you can walk the whole way. If you brought a sea kayak, you can launch it here.

If you like agates, you can find them here by the dozens: they are tiny but plentiful. There's a brand new interpretive plaque placed by the Minnesota Geological Society that explains our agates.

Flood Bay was named not for the water that crashes over the beach in a storm but for the Flood family that homesteaded here. Still, it's easy to imagine big November storms flooding over the beach and filling up the coastal wetlands behind the beach. Sit down at the water's edge; even on a calm day, there's enough wind and wave noise to drown out the sound of Highway 61.

This could be your own North Shore destination. Stay across the Highway at the mom-and-pop Flood Bay Motel; you'll appreciate the very affordable rates as well as the location.

When you've had your fill of this little bit of the North Shore, get back in your vehicle. No matter how far you have yet to go on the Shore, you have now arrived.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"I think they're having more fun here."

Beth Gauper, in the most recent of her always-informative Midwest Weekends e-mail newsletter, wrote that "Grand Marais is our No. 1 place to take children in Minnesota." She cites the rock-skipping and the donut shops, to start with.

I really love the quote from some teachers visiting from Australia: “We’ve been to the Mall of America and Disney World, places where (the kids are) excited to be, of course, but realistically, I think they’re having more fun here.’’

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Crime wave crashes over Artists Point

Summer in Grand Marais, and the hooligans have descended on Artists Point. Here are a few items from the Cook County law enforcement briefs, as published in the News-Herald of July 31, 2010:

Wednesday, July 21, 4:49 PM
A suspicious package found at the point was determined to contain marine batteries and rocks.

Thursday, July 22, 11:46 AM
Caller said a man was sitting in a vehicle parked at Point, watching people with binoculars and making notes in a little book. He was gone when a deputy arrived.

Saturday, July 24, 12:09 PM
Caller made a parking complaint at Point. She said she was blocked in when someone parked behind her, and there was already a car in front of her.

The juicy stuff continued: three drive-offs from gas stations, lost wallets, and a mysterious whistler on the Onion River (hiker "said she heard whistling on the other side of the hill, and said 'whistle if you need help,' and head whistling again.)

Just wait until Fishermen's Picnic this weekend...things will get even crazier!

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Seattle Style" canoeing: one trend to avoid

A couple of beginning canoe paddlers capsized off of Cove Point Lodge on the North Shore this week. They learned the hard way on Lake Superior. I just hope they weren't following the latest trend out of the Pacific Northwest.

While Duluth was under siege this last week by the Tall Ships, I was in the Pacific Northwest. We had a lovely few days in Seattle, then a great five days out in the San Juan Islands.

In Seattle, my friend Paul took us to a few out-of-the-way places along the shores of the city's beautiful lakes Union and Washington. We had our lunch of Vietnamese sandwiches by a public canoe dock. As seasoned canoe paddlers, we could barely watch as one paddler after another headed out from the dock without any clue how to maneuver their boats. Or how to sit in them: facing each other seemed most popular.

We soon came to call this "Seattle Style" canoeing:

Now, I know a lot of trends start in Seattle and work their way east. Grunge hardly made a dent in already-grungy Duluth. We did finally get a Starbucks here four or five years ago. And I can hardly wait for those tasty Vietnamese sandwiches to make it to Duluth.

But Seattle Style canoeing can stay right where it is. Canoe 64, with the boy and his mom, capsized out in the open water. Everyone was fine, and mom, child and the canoe got a free trip back to shore with the rescue boat.

Like we learned from the cautionary tale of Seattle's Kurt Cobain or a Microsoft stock crash, a trend out of Seattle can lead to disaster. Let's just hope that couple at Cove Point weren't blindly following the Seattle Style canoeing trend.