Monday, January 31, 2011

The easiest ski trail in Duluth

The good folks at Boulder Lake have done it again. They've added a new trail and a new parking lot to that wonderful network of trails just north of Duluth. And this time, they've created the Easiest Trail in Duluth.

Duluth doesn't have truly easy ski trails. The city is built on a steep rocky hillside that is riddled with creeks. What isn't steep here is deep. To build a soccer field, both dynamite and landfill are required. So a flat and easy ski trail is as rare as a palm tree here. 

Boulder Lake is far enough away from Lake Superior that it's all on relatively flat terrain. And the new trails off the new East Parking Lot take full advantage of that flatness.

The new parking area is right off of County Road 4 (Rice Lake Road). Take Highway 4 18 miles north of Duluth and cross Island Lake on the causeway. Just past the Island Lake Inn, turn left on Boulder Dam Road. Then, after just a few hundred yards, turn right on Boulder Lake Road. The new parking area is ahead on the left. 

The area's WIDEST ski trail runs from the parking lot to the north and west to connect with the existing trail system, right at the intersection of the Nine Pine loop and the Lonesome Grouse loop. They call it the Superhighway, and it's built wide enough for skate-skiers to go in both directions and pass without so much as touching a ski tip. There are even two classic ski tracks going in both directions.

The new campground loop runs through the Island Lake Campground, which was built by the folks who own the Island Lake Inn. The ski trail runs 1.5 completely flat kilometers through the campground. If you're looking for a ski adventure, this is not the place. But if you're looking to take a skittish adult on their first ski outing or a toddler for their second outing, this is the place. It's amazing how steep even the slightest downhill can look to a beginning skier; there is no such hill on this loop.

There is only one problem with this new campground loop. There is a short but steep climb up from the Superhighway to the loop. I imagine all the real beginners flailing on the hill, spread out on the snow like tacklers who missed their tackles on a kickoff return. With your beginner, just take off your skis and walk up this short challenge.

The one true easy ski trail in the Duluth area is the Red Trail in the Superior Municipal Forest. But that's in Wisconsin, and you'd have to wear your Green Bay Packers Lycra to ski there.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

North Shore dog ski...the Ultimate Outdoor Experience?

So you love the North Shore. And you love to ski. To top it all off, you love your dog. What if you could combine all of those into ...The...Ultimate...Outdoor...Experience?

Don't try strapping four tiny little skis onto your dog's paws, try skijoring instead. Or at least try taking the hound out with you when you ski.The dog will love it. You might like it too.

Suffice to say that with our psychotic, self-centered poodle, it's not about pulling forward to go fast. It's not a mini-version of a Beargrease sled dog team all focused and working together. With Chloe, it's all about her and whatever whim strikes her.
In the Duluth area, there are four ski trails that allow dogs on the groomed ski trails:

Lester Park golf course  
Separate from the well-known Lester Park ski trails, this is a 3 kilometer loop along the fairways of the golf course. Chloe is in her glory in the picture above. 

Boulder Lake
Sundays and Thursdays are dog days at Boulder. Chloe, floppy ears and all, actually looks pretty focused in the picture at top.

Snowflake Nordic
Most used by local ski teams and Olympians, this private trail system allows members to bring their dogs anytime. 

Biskey Ponds
A new ski trail system at Fish Lake north of Duluth, they allow dogs on Sunday afternoons and Mondays...on the trail called "Wolf Run Loop."

The options dwindle a bit as you head up the North Shore. But the scenery and wildness improve.

Summit View Trail, Sugarbush
Head up toward the summit of Carlton Peak on this designated dog trail. It starts from the Britton Peak trailhead off the Sawbill Trail.

George Washington Pines

Just north of Grand Marais on the Gunflint Trail, you and your dog will enjoy this 3.5 K loop through the woods, just like Bryan Hansel and friends did. Check out the video!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ski joke: Why ski trails are measured in kilometers

The world needs more ski jokes; here's my attempt to provide something new:

The top ten reasons ski trails are measured in meters and kilometers, not feet and miles

1. When the woods are lovely, dark and deep, skiers would rather not have miles to go before they sleep
2. Skiers’ feet are stinky
3. C’mon, would you rather ski 30 miles or 30K?
4. Three words: One World Government
5. “5 K” sounds way cooler than “3.2 M”
6. That’s how they measure distance in Finland and Norway...and all the rest of the industrialized world
7. Chicks dig “clicks”
8. Gives the Italian, Swedish and Norwegian skiers homefield advantage wherever they compete
9. “Short” and “long” were already taken
10. Since ski wax temperatures are in Celsius, it’s easier to make the conversion

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back to the Seventies on the Piedmont ski trail

Duluth's popular Piedmont ski trail is more than classic cross country skiing at its's a pun-ridden pop culture history lesson, firmly rooted in the 1970s. My teenage sons have no idea what they're missing, and I sound pretty lame as I try to explain.

So at a soft turn in the trail, there's the hand-lettered sign "Gentle Bend." Who remembers the tame black bear sitting in the bow of the airboat skimming through the Everglades? Sure "Gentle Ben" was broadcast in the late 1960s, but must have run as afternoon reruns in the 1970s. I can't pass that sign without the theme song popping in my head...or was that the Mayberry RFD theme?

At least two more early 70s TV shows pop up in puns on Piedmont. What do you feel like the first few times you go skiing each year? A little sore like Eva Gabor would after she climbed the telephone pole to make a call?
When the trail runs through an open marshy area and tall grasses creep up to the trail, go back to another 1970s TV show, "Kung Fu." How often have you done your best imitation of Master Po telling David Carradine, "When you can take this pebble from my hand, Grasshopper..."?
Two more signs are tributes to 1969, on the cusp of the 1970s. One is at the top of a wonderful long straight downhill that lets you glide through the forest like on the seat of a stars-and-striped motorcycle. Another is right at the bottom of another long hill, perfectly placed where most skiers come to rest after a long descent.

But my new favorite sign, perched right at the crest of a big dip in the trail, the one that got all these 1970s remembrances going this afternoon, took me right back to the era of Farrah hair, Lip Smackers and ski sweaters:
Just how many folks out there really remember Dippity Do

The 1970s were the years that nordic skiing really got going in Minnesota. Do you suppose all those Finns who built the trails were actually inspired by bad TV to get outside and do something righteous?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Whales exhale? On Lake Superior?

Out on the beach this morning, I found all sorts of new ice formations. Lake Superior had, once again, frozen over and then, once again, all the ice blew to shore.

There was a strange, and strangely familiar, sound coming from the edge where the open water met the ice mounds. It was a low, slow "pffft," like a massive creature exhaling.

In fact, it took me right back to the rugged coast of San Juan Island this summer, where we watched five pods of orcas swim by  within yards off shore, their breaths sounding as clear as if they were breathing on our cheeks. That was one of the most amazing experiences I've had in years.

Now it was just a few days ago that I wrote about Lake Superior "whale burps", but I'm pretty sure there aren't whales in this Great Lake. I can hope all I want, but large marine mammals haven't done well here.

But the "pffft" was coming from something volcanoes. Swells roll in off the open water.  The swells push under the ice shelf. Enough pressure is still in the swell that water...and air...pushes up through a narrow crack.

Here's a video someone shot of ice volcanoes:

You just never know what you might see...or hear...on the shores of Lake Superior.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Miss North Shore, please come home

What is the North Shore? What does it mean to live there? And...can saying you live here make it true?

The Lake County News Chronicle reported on a case of mistaken North Shore identity. The four contestents for the title of Miss North Shore listed their homes as Silver Bay, Two Harbors...and "Scenic Highway 61." The eventual winner, Caitlyn Thompson, was the person from the scenic highway. 

After some consideration by authorities, however, it was decided that Ms. Thompson did not actually live on the North Shore. She lives in a Twin Cities suburb, Vadnais Heights.

View Larger Map

Ms. Thompson's family has a summer vacation home in Holyoke. Holyoke is a small settlement in the Nemadji River area south of Jay Cooke State Park. You reach it off Highway 23, the scenic back route shortcut between Duluth and Sandstone. Holyoke is within 30 miles of Lake Superior, as the crow flies. But it's not really the North Shore.

So the title of Miss North Shore, and the $1000 scholarship, passed on to first runner-up Kimberly Jacobson of Two Harbors. 

I say, "Welcome to the North Shore, Ms. Thompson." Keep saying you live here, and eventually you really will. Holyoke isn't quite as North Shore cool as, say, Finland or Maple Hill, but it's close. We need more talented, energetic young people moving here. When Ms. Thompson finishes her nursing studies at St. Thomas, I bet there's a job for her in Grand Marais or Duluth.

I remember when I was in my early 20s, a lifelong resident of the Twin Cities but also a Boundary Waters guide and frequent North Shore explorer. At one point, I started telling people I lived in northern Minnesota. It took a few more years of actually living in Ely to make that true, but it was so important...and felt so good!...just to say it.

The rules of the beauty pageant may have ruled her not a real "Miss North Shore." But saying you live on the Shore, even when you're stuck in the suburbs, is the first step to making it true. 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

First peak at new XC ski trail at Keenes Creek

How often do you get to ski a NEW trail? In the fringes of Duluth, new trails have been popping up every year. Yesterday I sought out and checked out one of the newest, Hermantown's Keenes Creek trail. With my handy GPS running, I scouted the trails.

New is good. And this trail will get better over time.

The trail is reached off the Morris Thomas Road, a half-mile west of Haines Road. You turn south on Okerstrom Road and park at the end of the road, near the ballfield.

Navigation onto the trails is tricky, especially since the trails hadn't been groomed in the last few days. The signs and maps need some serious work, too. The picture above seems to show the "TRAIL" headed off and away, yet I learned after skiing down this track this was not part of the official system nor was it on the map. 

It looks like the trail is more popular with dog walkers than skiers. After all, it is the "Keenes Creek Hiking & Ski Trails." Skiers will want to stay on the two western loops, each about one kilometer around. These loops climb and fall through mixed forest of younger maple and aspen. 

This is a fine new addition to Duluth's many ski trails, perfect for people living in Hermantown. Most folks won't go out of their way to ski here, since there is only about three kilometers of trails. Apparently you can ski here with your dog any day of the week.

Although there are obviously kinks to work out on this trail, such as confusing signage and potential pet encounters, it's great to see new trails opening up.  

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Skiers' night out this Friday at Ski Hut...with me!

Let's see, Friday night, 6;00 in Duluth, Minnesota. You could ski alone under the lights at Lester Park. Or you could come to Ski Hut for the XC Ski Weekend kickoff. 

Go for the Ski Hut. Join fellow skiers and hear about the latest gear from the Hut's nordic ski guru Mick Dodds, enjoy some beverages and snacks, and then listen to me talk about what's new for Duluth-area ski trails. Then enjoy some more beverages. 

Last year the door prizes were fabulous and plentiful, so the odds were great for taking home a new pair of skis or ski clothing. 

The weekend continues Saturday up at gorgeous Boulder Lake and should be a great day of lessons and demos. It's your chance to see what a really expensive ski or pole actually feels like to use. Click here for more information and a full schedule.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Lake Superior whale burps and mermaid tears

This press release from Minnesota Sea Grant deserves more circulation. You see these balls of stuff on the Park Point beach fairly often. If they were named "debris balls" instead of "whale burps" they wouldn't be nearly as cool. They can join the  "mermaids' tears" (beach glass" in the category of Cool Things from Mythical Creatures.


Winter winds whipping around Duluth and Lake Superior can produce more than snowdrifts. They can also produce "whale burps." Also known as surf balls, these oval or round bundles of fibrous material periodically show up on coastlines throughout the world.

Curious beachcomber Glenn Maxham of Duluth brought two of these unusual balls into the Minnesota Sea Grant office for identification after his son found them near the city's Lakewalk following a New Year's Eve storm. Grasses, twigs, and partially degraded polymer mesh were evidently tumbling together in the shallows of Lake Superior to form Maxham's plum-sized "whale burps."

Oregon Sea Grant writes that although no formal research has been done on these aquatic oddities, theory suggests that as lost monofilament (or in this case, strands of black plastic) rolls about in nearshore waves, it gradually collects seaweed, pine needles, dune grass, small feathers, shell fragments, and other debris, forming a tight bristly ball. Scientists have found surf balls made of fine vegetative strands on Egyptian beaches and surf balls twice the size of a large orange on Australian shores.

Despite the curio-cabinet intrigue of finding a surf ball, discarded and lost plastics damage aquatic environments and the creatures that live therein. In a 2008 article in Environmental Research, Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation reported over 260 marine species ingest or have been entangled in plastic debris. When these plastics break down, research has shown they can release the suspected carcinogen styrene monomer and bisphenol A (BPA), which has been proven to interfere with reproduction. In 2006 the United Nations Environment Program estimated that 46,000 pieces of plastic float in every square mile of ocean and, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted, much of this plastic swirls in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Sarah Erickson of the Great Lakes Aquarium reports that Minnesota volunteers picked thousands of plastic items from the Lake Superior watershed during the 2010 Beach Sweep. "About 33 percent of the items collected were plastics," said Erickson. "This does not include cigarette butts, which made up about 50 percent of all the material collected.

You don't have to wait for the 2011 Beach Sweep to find shoreline trash and treasures. Take advantage of the next wild, blustery day. Bundle up, grab a trash bag and as you are cleaning up shoreline litter, look for your own whale burp.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Learn to snowshoe, North Shore style

It’s the low-tech, low-stress way to explore winter. The best way to get out and really experience the snowy woods is by snowshoe. You can stop and look around and you don’t have to worry about slamming into a tree.

The snow lies deep along the North Shore. The purple and deep blue lines along the shore in the map below indicate snow that's two feet deep or more. It's time to get out and explore.

But what if you don’t have snowshoes? Lucky us! There are great North Shore snowshoe events, and the snowshoes are provided! It's all FREE.

Snowshoe events
January 15 and February, 2:00
Tettegouche State Park
Learn to snowshoe and join a group hike of about one mile. Reservations can be made by calling 218-226-6365 extension 234.

January 2, 1:00
This hike is led by the park naturalist and will include some fun facts and winter stories. Call ahead to reserve snowshoes (218) 384-4610.

Snowshoe rental
If you can't make these events, you can still rent snowshoes and use them on your own.

Rent snowshoes and use them right away at Jay Cooke, Split Rock and Tettegouche state parks, or at Hartley Nature Center

Private businesses also rent snowshoes. Check it out at Ski Hut in Duluth, Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, or the Lake Superior Trading Post in Grand Marais.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Skiing at Bagley Nature Area: Nearly free and always fun

Smack dab in the middle of eastern Duluth is the only ski trail that costs a quarter to ski...if you're really fast. Most people should bring three quarters. 75 cents buys you 60 minutes of parking at UMD's Bagley Nature Area. That's enough time to ski the 2.7 lovely kilometers of loops and hills twice. 

The trail is right next to the UMD campus and dormitories. The school has done a great job grooming the trails and keeping walkers off them. Check out the latest reports on

The East Loop is supposed to be "easy", though there is a brutally steep dip down into the creek valley followed by the steepest possible climb back up. Many skiers side-step up the hill.
The West Loop is rated more difficult, and has a very long climb up the back side of "Rock Hill." That may be the longest climb for any ski trail in Duluth. Step a few meters off the trail at the top and enjoy one of the best views of Lake Superior around (note the ore boat in the iced-over lake, 500 feet lower and miles away).
The trail runs through mature sugar maple forest. Although you're surrounded by the campus and busy roads, the trail feels pretty wild and remote. Hard to believe you plugged a parking meter to ski here!

How to get there:
From I-35, head up from the 21st Ave. E. exit to Woodland Avenue. Turn right on Woodland. Take St. Marie Street from Woodland Avenue in eastern Duluth to the Bagley Nature Center parking lot near the Oakland Apartments. The right lot is labeled "Lot T2".

Monday, January 3, 2011

Hard-to-get North Shore photography book

One of the better North Shore photography books I've seen in a long time is also very hard to get. Maybe that's the marketing strategy: demand is driven by scarcity. 

Layne Kennedy's 2009 book, 47° North: Grand Marais and Beyond, features photographs of the Grand Marais area. Unlike most North Shore photography books, this one features more people than scenery. And Grand Marais has some wonderfully scenic events. Like the dragon boat festival and the summer solstice celebration, both captured lovingly here.

North Shore residents can be quirky, and this book captures that. Where else would a woman have a photo of her and her fish catch on her tombstone? Or would teenagers line up to jump into bone-chilling Lake Superior on the breakwall?

I'm not a photographer or a photo critic. But I can say that the photos do a great job capturing the spirit and beauty of the wild northern half of the Minnesota North Shore. Occasional quotes from real photographers and critics broaden Kennedy's message.

Here's the kicker: this book is not available in the stores, as far as I've ever seen. I picked up my copy at the Duluth Public Library (Call number 917.763 K384f). It is also available through . So if you want this book, you need to work a bit to get it.

I have one small bone to pick. 47° North is supposed to refer to the latitude of Grand Marais. Turns out 47 degrees north latitude is just about exactly Two Harbors. But who would title a book 47° 45' North ? I'm just hoping Mr. Kennedy comes out with a sequel featuring equally scenic, almost-as-funky Two Harbors.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Resolve to explore the shore

Need a fun resolution for the New Year? How about resolving to take a new North Shore adventure? Resolve to hike or ski or paddle somewhere you haven't been.

There are so many great trails on the North Shore, for hiking, skiing, even for paddling. After twenty-five years of exploring the North Shore, I still haven't done it all.  Here are a few things I RESOLVE to do in 2011.

I resolve to ski the whole Picnic Loop in one outing. The Picnic Loop runs through the heart of the amazinging terrific Sugarbush trail system, and is either 23 or 25 kilometers long depending on where you start. Back before skate skiing and machine trail grooming, it would take the average skier half a day to do the loop, requiring a picnic lunch. 

The map above is from our fine book, Skiing the North Shore. Nowadays skate skiers do the 24 kilometer loop in under two hours, putting the whole "picnic" concept aside. But as a pokey classic skier, I'll need at least four hours to do the loop, complete with the "classic" lunch break.

This summer, I resolve to paddle my sea kayak on the North Shore three times. I've kayaked the Apostle Islands, Pukaskwa National Park, and Nipigon Bay, but for the last eight years my sea kayak has sat in the back yard gathering spiders and sand. I need to take it out again. It's too late to paddle through the sea arch at Tettegouche, but that rugged shoreline will be one of my day trips, for sure. 

The Lake Superior Water Trail runs from Duluth to Grand Marais and beyond, using a combination of public access points and designated campsites. The Minnesota DNR is the best source of information about paddling on the North Shore; be sure to check out their excellent maps

What are your North Shore resolutions??

Thanks to the bloggers at the Salt Lake Tribune for this idea...and good luck to them!