Saturday, February 26, 2011

German Expressionism hits the North Woods

Seen on a well-used National Forest outhouse at a ski trailhead in Ely:

This well-weathered man reminded me of the woodblock prints of the German Expressionist, like this one from Max Kaus.

When we arrived in Ely for our winter break, the woods were full of snow, but it was a crusty, angular, and shall we say depressing snow. Like the angular cuts in those woodblocks. Actually, there was a lot of German expressionism during our week up in the Ely woods.

Like my older son, in his first year of German, teaching his younger brother how to insult someone in that great language ("No, no, no, it's 'dein-e' Mutter, not 'dein' Mutter!")

Or when the old German scholar himself whoops it up sledding down the steps of the snowy cabin. Ach du lieber! Was für einen Rutsch!

When my 75% deutschstämmig wife expresses herself, is that German Expressionism? 

What if she takes the express route right down a moody Boundary Waters lake? I think I've seen this scene in a Ernst Kirchner print.

Der viele, viele Schnee...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Chasing winter, you just might lose the race

The other day, my family ended up at a restaurant having arrived in two different cars. When it was time to head home, one son rode with me, the other with Sally. My co-pilot son, as soon as we were out of earshot, told me to get going and beat them home. Unfortunately, they had a way faster path out of the parking ramp and would be unbeatable.

Wouldn't you know it, when we arrived at the one possible optional turn on the way back, they were right in front of us at the stoplight. They went one way and we went another. "High risk, high reward," I told my son as we headed out. "If the stoplights work for us, we might just pass them."

Well, the stoplights were against us, and we lost the "race." (Is it a race when the other participant doesn't know it's a race?)

We are up in Ely for the week. Normally, especially this time of winter, you head north for the snow and the cold. But Ely had a stretch of warm days last week that turned the ample snowpack into crust. And as we were leaving Duluth, a major storm was dumping snow on the Twin Cities and even on the outskirts of Duluth.

We chased winter all the way up here, then winter went the other way. We skied at the Hidden Valley ski trails yesterday and it was okay, not great, with a dusting of poofy snow packed into crusty trails.'s not like we "lost" anything coming here.

It is still deep in the season here. The snow is two feet deep at least. I had the most amazing wolf-pack, wolf-howl experience ever, with a pack of wolves just a few hundred yards from our cabin howling away. The stars are bright and the birds at the feeder are wild creatures and Ely is, as always, Ely.

This winter still has a long way to go. Forecasts call for colder than normal temps through early March. I hope all those North Shore and winter fans in the Twin Cities are enjoying their next round of winter. I'm definitely enjoying mine.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tough times for Two Harbors' Jacques

Jacques the giant roadside voyageur stood for years next to the Voyageur Motel along the Two Harbors strip. Now he lies in pieces next to the Earthwood restaurant, just a few yards off the Highway 61 expressway west of town. 

Back in town, his boots had been literally frozen to the ground. His head wobbled as the new owners tried to move him, and Jacques was literally decapitated in order to save him.
When I drove by the other day, the head was still nowhere to be seen. But the new restaurant owners have big plans to put Jacques back together, better than ever. He might even talk again. It's just a little gruesome right now.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

After the thaw, ski season goes downhill

For North Shore nordic skiers, this has been a tough week. A big thaw settled in over the region and melted away probably half of the snow in the woods. Cross country ski trails will be hard-packed and icy until we get more snow.
Fortunately, there are places on the North Shore where there is still plenty of snow, and where they have big machines to grind up the crust and create soft, ski-able conditions. The ski season has gone downhill...literally.

And let's face it, downhill skiing is a blast. 

Lutsen Mountain should have very good ski conditions this week. The Big Wu is playing at Papa Charlies Saturday and Sunday. Lutsen says you can "let the Big Wu loosen the straps of your daily burden with real vibrations."

Spirit Mountain is also in fine shape, with four to five feet of snow on the slopes. If you can wait until March to get your fix, there's a great deal to be had: buy your first-time season pass for next year for cheap, and it's good all this spring too. One year, our family skied five or six times in March on this deal alone. 

North Shore downhill skiing doesn't have to be super-expensive. Spirit Mountain has family deal Monday through Thursday evenings, where a family of four can ski for $25. Check out Mont du Lac in far western Duluth (actually in Wisconsin). A family skis all day there for $39. For the ultimate bargain, check out Chester Bowl in the middle of Duluth, where day passes cost around $6. 

It's still snowy winter, despite the thaw. Make the most of it!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On the ski trail with Sigurd Olson

Everywhere I go in northeastern Minnesota, the great naturalist, writer and activist Sigurd Olson was there before me. I skied along the top of an esker the other day with my son, lovingly pointing out to him how the trail ran down the top of the winding ridge. Eskers are basically fossils of the rivers that ran underneath the great continental glaciers

In search of a skiing quote later that day, I found this from Sigurd Olson (in Spirit Of The North: The Quotable Sigurd F. Olson)

An owl is hooting in the darkening timber, and over the trees hands a thin sliver of a moon. It is time to go, and we drift easily down the old river bed. On the last long slope we gather speed and know the thrill all skiers have at night of seeming airborne, of floating down into the darkness of a bowl. For a fleeting instant we are part of that glacial river churning through its tunnel of ice, part of the milky-white water speeding toward the boulder-strewn outwash below.

Here's me skiing down the steep end of the esker, into a gravel pit:

While Sigurd Olson probably never skied this trail (the Ridge Runner trail at Boulder Lake), he captured the spirit of the place and the skiing. He understood and explained the land of NE Minnesota like no one has since.

Sigurd Olson was a backcountry, break-your-own-trail skier. He wrote in his journal back in 1930 about his temporary ski trails, "How few men have a road all of their own that they alone travel and enjoy and how few can afford, once they have so expensive a treasure, to abandon it as I can. I am a millionaire of the spirit." (I love that last line!)

Get out today on your skis and find your own millions, thanks to the great Sigurd Olson.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Boot walking: Hike on the snow

Here's a great way to get out and explore the winter woods. It might only be good for this weekend, so get ready and go!

The snow lies deep on the North Shore. But there hasn't been fresh snow for a week or so. With the cold we've had the last few days, now's the perfect time to head out on the snowshoe trails...without snowshoes. The trails have been packed by snowshoers, and the cold has hardened up that packed snow. Walking on top of the snow is just like walking on packed dirt. Stepping just off the trail sends you down deep in the unpacked snow.

Granted, I wear size 13 or 14 shoes, so I have a natural advantage. 
I heard a North Shore state park manager call this "boot walking" last week, and the term has stuck with me. I was in Jay Cooke State Park yesterday with my snowshoes and a plan to hike the Grand Portage Trail there. The trail was packed hard and wide, and I just carried my snowshoes the whole way. 

I wore mukluks and those were just a bit slippy. The best footwear would have been heavy hiking boots with a deep tread. 

Any trail that normally has snowshoers on it should be fine for walking, at least until Sunday's thaw.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Skiing Duluth: From cow moose to cowbell

One of the great things about skiing on the North Shore is all the variety of trails we have. In the course of 60 minutes this week, I was on two different ski trails, a few miles apart, but they were as different as could be.

I started on the Canosia Wildlife Management Area trail (above). This is just north of Duluth, 2.5 miles north of the Martin Road on Ugstad Road. For years a local volunteer would groom the 4.5 kilometers of trail that wind through different habitats. Apparently, that volunteer isn't grooming this year, so the trail is left to skiers and animals to track for themselves. The trail was quiet and peaceful. A few chickadees were singing their spring "fee bee bee" territorial song. I've seen more wildlife from this trail, including a large and peaceful moose, than any other ski trail in the Duluth area.

30 minutes later, I was at Snowflake Nordic Center, cheering for my son in a ski meet. The "trail" was groomed wide and smooth. The "wildlife" was just the wild colors of the teams' Lycra jerseys. This was not quiet and peaceful like Canosia; let's just say, thanks to cheering parents and coaches, there truly was "More Cowbell!" And a few vuvuzelas, though they're plastic and don't work as well in the cold. 

There's something for everyone. More cow moose...and more cowbell!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Do it all by candelight at Gooseberry Falls

For an adventurous and easy-to-reach North Shore experience, head for Gooseberry Falls State Park. It's just 45 minutes driving from Duluth, making it a comfortable day trip for many. Gooseberry is a lovely park, full of raging waterfalls, rocky shoreline and rugged trails.

To find the park, take the Visitor Center/Wayside Rest exit of Highway 61, twelve miles northeast of Two Harbors. You'll want to start your park experience at the Visitor Center parking lot.

In winter, you can SKI, SNOWSHOE and HIKE at Gooseberry. 

SKI the 20 kilometers of groomed trails that climb the hills above the Gooseberry River and pass through open snowy woods. The trails in the park are groomed for classical skiing. Beginners will want to stay on the lakeside trail (Campground Loop), while advanced beginner and intermediate skiers will find a fabulous assortment of trails on the upper side of Highway 61. You'll reach these trails via an access trail from the Visitor Center that travels uphill and under the main highway bridge on the west side of the Gooseberry River (and you'll briefly share this access trail with other walkers, snowshoers, and possibly snowmobilers). To use any of the XC ski trails in this park, you'll need a Great Minnesota Ski Pass, available in the Visitor Center.

SNOWSHOE right up the banks of the river. If you've never used snowshoes before and want to learn, mark your calendar for Saturday, February 19, from 1:00 to 2:30pm, when Gooseberry Falls State Park will have a Learning to Snowshoe event. Pre-registration is required; use the park's snowshoes or bring your own. To find out more or to register, call 218-834-3855.

And you can HIKE down to the waterfalls, which are now beautiful tall columns of ice that gurgle. You'll reach the assortment of trails to waterfalls right from the Visitor Center.

Gooseberry's annual candlelight experience

On Saturday, February 19th, from 6:00 to 8:30pm, you can ski, snowshoe and candlelight! The annual Candlelight Ski, Snowhoe and Walk is the event on the North Shore for winter enthusiasts. Thanks to dozens of volunteers, ice luminaria illuminate the trails. The park visitor center fills with music and camaraderie.You won't want to miss this free opportunity to experience the magic of winter in this favorite North Shore state park.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Snowshoeing: Back to the Future

The best way to truly experience the North Shore in all its wild winter glory is by snowshoe. Strap on a pair of snowshoes and head into the hills. It's slower than skiing, and it's truly a silent sport.

Before I discovered the glories of North Shore cross country ski trails, I spent my winter days exploring the area on snowshoes. I'd take a compass bearing to a distant ridgeline and tramp through the deep snow and brush to reach that landmark and feel like I was the first person there in a century. Now the Superior Hiking Trail runs to many of those ridgelines. 

Once I went along with my neighbor, who had been laid off by Reserve Mining, and helped him check his trap lines, which were helping him feed his family through times. 

The snow lies deep on the North Shore this winter, and on Friday more snow was falling. I drove into the campground at Cascade River State Park and headed up the trail to Lookout Mountain. The trail lead right by this old wooden bench that I remembered from my hike there a year ago. It's falling apart even more now than it was in 2009. 

From atop Lookout Mountain, the view stretches north up the Cascade River valley. Except when it's obscured by falling snow. 

I loved getting back on snowshoes. Snowshoeing is taking off in popularity in the last few years. The new park manager at Cascade, Kate Flitsch, told me that she's seeing more snowshoers now than skiers. Until this week, I'd forgotten the magic of traipsing at my own speed through the snowy woods. I could stop whenever I wanted to listen and look around. I saw more wildlife than I ever do skiing. 

So watch for some more posts about snowshoeing on the shore. I'll write about snowshoe adventures at Judge Magney State Park and at Sugarloaf Cove. Maybe I'll see you out on the slow and silent trail!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chloe poodle, RIP

Our hike-lovin', ski-crazy, car-chasin' poodle moved on to doggie heaven yesterday. One moment she was running and dancing with us on the beach, the next moment she was gone over the dunes, and the moment after that she was gone, hit by a car on Lake Ave. 

As weird as she was, Chloe was a huge part of our lives. It's sad to realize that our book Hiking the North Shore got to the printers on the same day she died: she is the star of the book, in at least a dozen photos as my only hiking companion.

She loved to run through the woods, sniffing up the world, pooping wherever she wanted, filling her coat with burs. She ran circles around me for miles on the Superior Hiking Trail and to the summit of Eagle Mountain. Here at home, she got us down to the beach every morning, whether it was 20 below or 10-foot swells after a November gale.

Chloe will be missed by her "grandpa boyfriends": Ranger (Ely), Ben and Brisby (Duluth) and Hammo (Little Marais).

Chloe was featured in 36 blog posts here. Check 'em out, if you can stand it. I couldn't stand it—we've been blubbering fools here for the last 24 hours. She drove me crazy, but she was totally family.

If there's a swamp hole in heaven, look for Chloe leg deep in it. If there's a UPS truck in heaven, watch out, Chloe is headed that way.

Good girl, Chloe.