Friday, December 31, 2010

In the wolf wilderness at Gooseberry

Sally and I went for a lovely ski this week up at Gooseberry Falls State Park. We skied nine kilometers of freshly-groomed ski trail through the park's backcountry. And had quite a thrill along the way, reconnecting us with wild places and wild creatures.

Gooseberry has three main areas of ski trails. On the lake side of Highway 61 is a long loop through the campground and by the river. On the inland side of Highway 61, there's a large and complex network of trails on the east side of the river. On the west side of the river, there is essentially one big loop. That last loop gave the two of us quite a wilderness thrill, despite being in the middle of one of the North Shore's most popular parks. 

We started at about 2:00 in the afternoon and worked our way up the eastern side of the trail system, to the high hill with its view off to the wild north. There's a trail shelter up top, surrounded by open meadow now filling in with big, full white spruce trees. It feels like the glades of the Rocky Mountains. 

By the time we crossed the Gooseberry River at the Fifth Falls bridge, it was after 3:00 and the sun was definitely headed for the horizon. As we headed slowly uphill around the big loop, the wolf signs began to show. Deer fur clung to the snow. Two leg bones stuck out of the groomed track. 

It's a long climb to the top, emerging into open country with a view of Lake Superior. We were headed into the wind. The only tracks on the groomed ski trail were wolf. We skied into a slight headwind.The brush around us could hide a deer or a wolf.

Sally was ahead, but she stopped. When I caught up with her, I found her visibly shaken. "I smell something," she said. "Stay with me." 

The brain knows that wolves don't attack people. The heart knows otherwise. 

We came to the big downhill part of the loop; I led the way.

As I picked up speed on the downhill, I realized that a very clever wolf could stick right on this treacherous bit of hill and, were it to like humans, wait for a skier who might fall here. Again, the brain says that's crazy. But as dusk approaches and signs of an active predator surround, the heart speaks louder. The wolf scat laid neatly into the ski track was no comfort.

We skied out to finish the loop, making noise as if we were in grizzly country out west.  Wolf scat, tracks and pee were everywhere. A deer carcass lay half-buried in the snow just off the trail. We made it to the car as the sun dropped below the trees. Relieved.

To travel off into the wilderness of wolves, to feel just that little bit as if we might be a predator's prey, reconnected us with nature and adventure like no simple ski outing could.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Back to Boulder Lake ski trails

The cross country ski trails at Boulder Lake Management Area are one of the most popular cross-country ski areas in the whole Duluth area, and for good reasons:
  • The wide trails rolling through beautiful forest
  • Great grooming and thoughtful maintenance
  • Free hot chocolate in a lakeside cabin
  • Opportunity to ski with leashed dogs every Thursday and Sunday
    Oh, and did I mention that it’s free? Boulder Lake is a reservoir and the land around it is managed as part of Minnesota Power’s regulatory requirements in managing its reservoir system for hydro power. 

    To reach the Boulder ski trails, head north from Duluth on Rice Lake Road, aka Highway 4. It's 18 miles north of Duluth, or about a half-hour drive. Just past the crossing of Island Lake, turn left on Boulder Dam Road. 

    The system has evolved over the years to meet the changing and growing demand of its loyal users. The trails started as double-tracked for two side-by-side classic skiers. They were widened to accommodate skating and now provide some of the smoothest and easiest skating in the region.

    The changes continues. This year there is a new “East” parking lot, right off Highway 4. This takes you into what used to be the most remote part of the system, the Nine Pine and Lonesome Grouse trails. There's also a new loop through a campground.

    The traditional narrow trails north of the warming shack are so traditional this year they’re not even going to be groomed by machine. This is a loss as far as I'm concerned...the Otter Run loop was one of my favorites.

    Finally, there are fancy new interpretive signs on the “Bear Paw” loop. They are carefully placed so you whiz by none of them. Stop and learn about sustainable forest management.

    For more information:
    Call the ski hotline for grooming updates: (218) 721-4903

    Buy new ski poles...for America!

    A little snippet on the radio this morning caught my attention. They were citing an article from the Wall Street Journal about sporting goods sales. Despite the ongoing economic doldrums, sales of outdoor gear are increasing. The analysis was that "soccer shorts for the kids and a fishing lure for dad remain essential purchases for many Americans."

    In our house, it isn't soccer shorts or fishing lures. It's cross country ski gear. My older son had a present all wrapped up under the Christmas tree. Underneath that wrapping paper made of an old AAA map of snowy Colorado was either a Nimbus 2000 (if you have to ask what that is, it doesn't really matter what it is) or a new pair of cross country ski poles. 

    It was the ski poles. And they were an "essential purchase." My sons keep growing, and this one in particular is big enough that he's using my gear (including my poles). And, as anyone who knows me knows, cross country skiing is essential.

    The Wall Street Journal article goes on to say, "American families have traditionally shown a tendency to spend on sports apparel for their children...even during times of economic stress." Granted, these poles are the cheap and heavy kind (my son swooshed them back and forth and commented, "they feel like they've got lead weight on the bottom.") and not the $200 racing poles. Those poles would have really stimulated the economy...someone else's economy. 

    Now that we all have ski poles again AND helped the economic recovery, it's off to the Lester Park ski trails!

    Wednesday, December 22, 2010

    Ski wax, Adobe Illustrator, and Christmas frosting

    It's like art class in preschool. Smearing, dotting, drawing lines.

    This winter I'm learning how to hot wax cross country skis. I fought this for years, but with a son (whom I don't yet trust with a hot iron) on the nordic ski team, I've had to learn. For ski waxing, you drip hot wax in a line or dots onto the bottom of the ski and smear it around.

    But you can't eat ski wax...

    This month, I'm learning how to use Adobe Illustrator, making a bunch of maps for our forthcoming book, Hiking the North Shore.  Thank God for the multiple layers of undo functions in computer software. But basically it's smearing, dotting and drawing lines. Above is the map for a hike in Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. 

    But you can't eat a map...

    Finally, it's been Christmas cookie time. This last week, I pulled out the frosting applicator and learned to use that. At first it felt like ski waxing. Then it felt like using Illustrator. A few dots, a few lines, and some red hots.


    Monday, December 20, 2010

    Spirit Mountain: Tracks too far to the right

    How fleeting is perfection! Like the perfect snowman, like the lovely bloom of the thimbleberry, great ski trails can become just mediocre in a hurry. A rainstorm in February can ruin trails across the region. Or, in the case of Spirit Mountain's nordic trails, a re-engineering of the track setter on the groomer. The sign above is on their Charlie Banks 3K and refers to some  on-ski incident with long-time groomer Denis Sauve. The "demise" I saw yesterday was in the grooming. With any luck it will be a short-term problem.

    It reads like the latest political news: the groomer has gone too far to the right. Here's  what happens when the groomed track is too far to either side:

    • Branches in the eyes. Limber branches of alder and hazel lean out over the trail. You can lean around them when you're going slow, but they whip you when you're going fast like you're a Finn in a sauna. Sisu!

    • Whole trees in the trail. The old-growth maple trees at Spirit learned a century ago to lean into the open sunlight. They're still leaning, and occasionally the ski trail passes right by them. Can you lean out while you're skiing? If not, it's more than a snap in the eyes, it's a shoulder-dislocating body blow. 

    • Wipe-outs. There is no room outside the track to step out and make a tiny snowplow move. If you're going down a hill and the track turns left, you're out of luck. You didn't need the CSI crew to reenact this one: on almost every downhill there were holes in the snow  where bodies careened off the track. 

    • Plunging poles. When the track is all the way to the right, your left pole always hits a firm plant on packed snow. Your right pole could go all the way through to the dirt in fluffy snow.  Ouch!

    Volunteers can help prune back those pesky branches. But only the person running the big grooming machine can move the tracksetter. Anyone know anyone at Spirit?

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    Etienne Brule, Superior's wild man

    For a quick and dirty biography of the guy who "discovered" Lake Superior, check out this link from a Canadian historian. We mostly know Etienne Brule from the lovely rivers named after him: the Brule River in Judge Magney State Park (which disappears into the Devil's Kettle), and the Brule River east of Superior, where there is great canoeing and trout fishing.

     Brule's journey to Lake Superior led all over the eastern seaboard, including the Ohio and Potomac rivers. Brule went totally wild, adopting the dress and language of the Hurons. He could not be kept under the control of Champlain. It turns out Brule was a renegade, and, eventually, the victim of cannibals.

    Enjoy the quick read.

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Wandering over the fog with Casper David Friedrich

    My morning walk along Lake Superior with the dog is normally pretty lonely and quiet. This morning, the sea smoke was roiling out of the open waters, rising higher in the crisp cold air than normal and hiding a saltie out at anchor. A tugboat slipped out of the ship canal and headed out toward the saltie. The tug boat sound its horn, an unusual sound for winter.

    There was one other person on the beach this morning. I think it was Steve, a photographer and reporter for the Duluth paper. There we were, two writer/photographers looking through the fog for a story. Steve was walking over the mounds of ice by the water's edge. You couldn't see any open water, just a sea of fog.

    Earlier this year I found an Edward Hopper painting, Rooms by the Sea,  while I was picnicking up at the McQuade Harbor. Today, I found a classic painting of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Der Wanderer Über dem Nebelmeer (The Hiker over the Fog Sea). "Fog Sea" was an apt description for Lake Superior this morning, and Steve was the perfect model.

    Tuesday, December 14, 2010

    Watching for the greatest gift of all

    All this talk about Christmas and gifts! The best things in life are free, right? 

    Send me out to the Lake Superior shore to watch for the greatest gift of all: the return of the sun. 

    I live where I can see the sun rise from the lake's edge almost every morning. The beach of Park Point is my Stonehenge, against which I can measure the change of the seasons.

    For the last six months, the spot where the sun rises has been moving from "left" to "right" along the blue horizon. 

    In summer, I'm up early for rowing and I know the sun rises far to the north of east, straight out from the beach. 

    Nearly every winter morning I walk the poodle on the beach. Lately, I have to bring sunglasses for the morning walk because, on the way back to the house, the rising sun is nearly in my eyes. 

    Now, as we pass the solstice, the sun will stop it's journey to the "right" (or south) and begin to come back to the "left" (or north). 

    This is all really hard to explain with just text. I was talking live on KUMD this morning with Lisa Johnson and I just couldn't explain it on the air. I need a chalkboard and a PowerPoint presentation. 

    Here are a few links I've found that provide those graphics:

    The winter solstice according to Crystalinks.

    Wikipedia's take on the solstice.

    Best of all, watch out for it yourself. You might not have Park Point or the straight edge of a Lake Superior shoreline to meaure against, but you should have some other marker: a field, a tree, a spot in your backyard.

    The return of the sun: the greatest gift of all.

    Monday, December 13, 2010

    Taking one for the team

    All of you snow lovers to the south of Duluth enjoying your winter bonanza, let me just say on behalf of all of us in frigid, low-snow Duluth: "You're welcome." See, it takes two ingredients to make a good snowfall, and we provided one of them. Without our help, it would have been a rainy day in Minneapolis, not the blizzard of the decade.

    Snowfall takes two things: moisture and cold. The moisture comes courtesy of the Gulf of Mexico, or if you're in the South Shore lake effect zone courtesy of Lake Superior. The cold comes from the Arctic. Somewhere on the map there will be a line where the moisture meets the cold and...Shazam!'s snowing. South of that line: snow. North of that line: cold. 

    It's plenty cold here now. The sea smoke is roiling. The first and second days after a winter storm blows through, cold air from the Arctic continues to move in across the land, like a ghost of the mighty glaciers that once ruled this land.

    Enjoy the fresh stuff, Twin Cities! This one's on us.

    Thursday, December 9, 2010

    Bentleyville: Get outdoors tonight

    Don't let the dark and cold of winter trap you in your light and warm house. If you're uncomfortable snowshoeing by moonlight or skiing by headlamp, you can still head to Duluth's Bentleyville and have a great winter experience.

    It's in Bayfront Park, just west of the DECC and Great Lakes Aquarium. We went on Thanksgiving Day, after supper. It's open every night through December 26, until 9:00 Sunday through Thursday and 10:00 Fridays and Saturdays. It's free, but you're encouraged to bring canned goods for the food shelf.

    If I were writing up Bentleyville like a hiking trail, I'd explain that it's a lollipop loop. You enter along a track of lights and lit-up sculptures, then take a loop around Bayfront Park. There is something new going on around every corner. By the time you've completed the loop, you can sip hot chocolate, roast marshmallows on an open fire, visit with Santa Claus, and get a candy cane from Mrs. Claus. 
    It reminds me of the Christmas markets in Germany, with all the lights and all the good spirits and people moving about. New this year is the tall lighted "tree" that does a stunning performance of lights synchronized to the Christmas music. 

    To get  the most out of your experience, start with dinner in Canal Park or downtown Duluth. After your meal, hop on the Jingle Bus, the free shuttle down to Bayfront Park. Crowding into the bus with your fellow overinsulated merry makers is as true-blue Minnesotan as cramming through the gates of the State Fair. 

    The part that captured me most of all, that touched some deep part of my Yuletide spirit, was the artificial pine trees, the needles illuminated from within. I would really never have expected that, and it was lovely.

    Enjoy winter at Bentleyville!

    Tuesday, December 7, 2010

    Warmer by the lake, snowier away

    It's warmer by the lake. And it has been for a while. 
    Most of the snowy storms that have rolled through this fall and winter ended up as rain down by Lake Superior and snow up in the "higher elevations." The beach on Minnesota Point has a thin blanket of snow and a wide band of ice and sand at the water's edge. This morning, Chloe had to do an awkward dance to get off the slick shoreline.

    In the hills, there is fair amount of snow. We've been skiing at Duluth's Piedmont and Hartley trails about every other day. It's the same pattern all the way up the shore.

    Yesterday I had a meeting at Lutsen Mountain. I drove up Highway 61 from Duluth in the morning. Right by Lake Superior, there is maybe one inch of snow, no more than three inches. There's a bit more snow around Silver Bay and Little Marais. 

    I was indoors all day  at Caribou Highlands in a room with no windows. I didn't even bring any skis. That was really hard, to drive all that way and get into all that gorgeous terrain and not even hear the crunch of snow under foot. 

    If you are headed up the shore this weekend, take one of those great left turns into the snowy winter country above. Drive the big loop up County Road 2 to Isabella and back down Highway 1 to Finland. Take the Onion River Road up to where the plows have stopped and the skiing begins. Head up the Gunflint Trail into deep real winter.

    Friday, December 3, 2010

    Holiday shopping, North Shore style

    If you're up the North Shore this weekend, take some time for unique holiday shopping. Craft fairs will tempt you with local artists and local art this Saturday. In the Grand Marais area, you could spend the whole day visiting artists in their homes and studios. 

    In Duluth, check out the Get it Local gift fair at the Peace Church in the East Hillside neighborhood, at 1111 N. 11th Ave. E. There will be over 25 local artists.  The fair will be open from 10am-3pm The organizer says, “From wreaths to jewelry to home decor to dog treats you will find plenty of great things to pick up — all in one setting in one day.” Find Peace Church by looking for their distinctive bell tower.

    A group of Grand Marais crafters, calling themselves Artisans of the Tombolo, are having a show Saturday, from 8am-4pm in the Lohn’s home at 221 W. First St. in Grand Marais. A tombolo is a geological formation where a rocky island is connected to the mainland by beaches of gravel, like the Grand Marais harbor.
    Shop for hand-woven scarves, wooden puzzles and toys, fused glass jewelry, and stained glass, all handcrafted on the North Shore.

    Joan Farnham describes this and a bizillion other holiday art happenings in Grand Marais in Northern Wilds. Head to Cook County for a great holiday shopping expedition this Saturday!

    Thursday, December 2, 2010

    Sex and skiing together

    This is not the post you think it is. "Sex and skiing together" may look like a feeble attempt to generate search engine traffic to this blog. Actually, it's something Sally and I talk about all the time. But not "sex," really. More like "gender." As in how different it is for her to ski with other women as opposed to skiing with men. But "Gender and skiing together" sounds like the title of a talk at a conference.

    Simply put, men on skis are competitive fighters, women on skis are cooperative talkers. 

    I've skied on Duluth's fine Piedmont trails twice in the last few days. Piedmont is "double-tracked," which means it has two classic ski trails groomed side by side. It's perfect for skiing with another person...friend or foe. 

    Today, a fresh inch of fluffy snow covered the tracks and the branches and it was lovely. As I passed the great overlook of the city and stopped to take some photos, two women skied past me. The two women were taking their time on the trail and chatting away. They were talking about how pretty the snow was and how the sunlight was lighting up the forest. 

    I skied past the same overlook on Saturday with my older son. We were actually talking, although it was about ski technique and waxing, not how lovely the forest was.

    Just past the overlook, the trail heads down a long gradual hill. Of course, the son and I stopped all conversation and got into a race down the hill, side by side. At first I just wanted to compare the glide of my skis with least that's what I said. 

    His glide was better. I started pushing with my poles. He did too. 

    I made some comment like, "What a great ab workout!" And then I did a massive face plant. I totally lost that race.

    The ladies today did no face plants. They chose to stay side by side, all the better to talk and share the experience.  

    Guys, at least this one father and his son, are almost always showing off. If you could wax your skis with testosterone, guys would always be the fastest around.

    Girls just wanna have fun.