Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Presque Isle heads out...two boats in one!

The Presque Isle headed out onto Lake Superior this morning from the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge. It's eerie to watch these ships emerge from behind the ice dunes that still line the beach. 

Presque isle is French for "almost an island." The boat is really "almost a boat." It's a combination of a barge and a "push tug," both with the same name. The tugboat part fits very neatly into the stern of the barge part, and both add up to a single unit over 1000 feet long. There are pictures of the two parts at Boatnerd.

Presque Isle is also the name of a town in Maine and one of the main rivers at Porcupine Mountains State Park on the Michigan shore of Lake Superior. 

Just another interesting bit of Lake Superior shipping!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Skiing Silver Bay: The best first K on the shore

It took me all winter and part of the spring to get back there, but yesterday I skied on my absolute favorite first kilometer of ski trail on the North Shore. Every ski trail has its charms in how it starts, but no trails have a first kilometer that is more intimate, welcoming and scenic than this one.

It's at the Northwoods Ski Touring Trail outside of Silver Bay. Skiers looking for this charming ski trail have no choice in the matter; from the parking lot on Penn Boulevard, every skier heads up the first kilometer of trail before they can choose another trail. The single-track, classic-only trail leads right along the bank of the quiet East Branch of the Beaver River. You climb gently through dark hallways of balsam fir, pop out on a short sunny stretch, then return to the woods. The trail pulls you into the woods; the river alongside the trail anchors you to the place. 

The last time I was here, I was with Sally, another friend, and Duluth outdoor writer Sam Cook, and we were all excited about skiing through to Tettegouche. My ski yesterday felt like the end of the season. There is still plenty of snow in the hills around Silver Bay, but it's going fast. Each day the sun takes its toll, turning some open stretches to slush while leaving forested sections crusty and needle-ridden.

Trail designers cleverly put a trail register at the first real intersection, a full kilometer in, so you sort of have to prove yourself to be able to sign in. Since I first skied these trails back in 1996, trail managers have done a much better job keeping snowmobilers and walkers off the trail; maybe this new sign helped!

It was a great day in the woods...especially that first kilometer up the banks of the Beaver River!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Park Point ice ridges call out to climbers

If you build it, they will come. When Lake Superior builds up 15-foot high ice ridges on Park Point, adventurous people will climb those ridges. Our neighborhood here has become a minor tourist destination for the adrenaline addicts and photographers. 

As a father of boys, I was pretty nervous about the young men in the photo above. I just assumed they were young men. The wind was still howling off of the lake and these supposed dudes looked like they were at the edge of wild icy oblivion. 

I made it up to that crest this morning, and was relieved to see that it dropped down to more ice and some smaller ridges below. You'll have to accept the above highly-cropped photo as proof of my own dudeliness.
It felt totally safe up on top, except for the slope of ice crystals, both slippery and rough. The possibility of road rash from sliding down the very rough slope was sobering. 

Maybe it was to amp up the adrenaline factor, but somebody rode along the ridges on their mountain bike this morning. Dude.

Do it yourself, dude

Easiest way to reach these ridges is from the public access at Lake Avenue and 12th Street, aka "The S-Curve." It's about six blocks past Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge, on the left.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ice volcanoes on Park Point

Combine big waves rolling in off Lake Superior with the big wind and a big ridge of ice at water's edge, and you get BIG splashes. 

Focus those splashes through a ridge in the ice, and you get ice volcanoes. Murky, sediment-ridden water rises from the deep, shoots skyward and rolls over the brim like lava.

All those ingredients are lining up today, and the beach here on Park Point looks like the Rim of Fire. Little Mt. St. Helens are going off all up and down the shore from Canal Park to the end of Minnesota Point. 

The wind is crazy strong. I tried to take pictures out on the ice ridges but my lens would fog up or ice over in seconds. Here's the best picture I could get, someone else down there, walking their dog:

Crazy lovely day on the Lake Superior shore!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Winter is still here, with more on the way

There is plenty of snow up in the North Shore ridges. With a blizzard watch for tomorrow and a stretch of cold days coming after that, it looks like we've got a bonus week of real winter still ahead.
I love these snowdepth maps from the climatologists at the Minnesota DNR. Check out that raindrop-shaped smear of mauve along the North Shore. That's snow over two feet deep.  

Even if the forecasts for a big snow don't pan out, here are some great ski trails right in that mauve smear:

Flathorn-Gegoka, Isabella

Northwoods Ski Touring Trail, Silver Bay 
Sugarbush Trail, Tofte-Lutsen
Bally Creek Trails, Grand Marais

I've posted these with links to can watch for current trail conditions there.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Waterfall photography class with Paul Sundberg

Combine the North Shore's most famous landmark with one of the North Shore's most well-liked guys, and you've got a perfect North Shore event. Bring your digital camera, or borrow one from the park, for "Photograph the Falls!" at Gooseberry Falls State Park, on Saturday, March 26 from 11:00 AM to 12:30 PM. Retired Gooseberry Park manager Paul Sundberg brings his wry humor, photographic eye, and a lifetime of stories to share his method of photographing the park's signature waterfalls. 

Register in advance by calling (218) 834-3855.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sugarbush: Groomed or ungroomed, still the best North Shore skiing

Twenty years ago, my wife Sally and I rolled down Highway 1 from Ely to the North Shore with our cross country skis for a weekend with my parents. I had never skied on big wide groomed ski trails before, only on the winding skier-packed trails of the Superior National Forest. We skied on the Sugarbush Trails, just inland from Tofte. 

It was mind-blowing. I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. I still remember the thrill of gliding down the well-groomed hairpin turns of the Sixmile Crossing trail. The view of Leveaux Peak rising above the fields in the snow is still burned on my retina. It was the best cross country skiing I'd ever had.

The Sugarbush trails still are the North Shore's best. I get back there once or twice a year now, and every time it's the highlight of the ski season for me. The trails are typically very well groomed and very well maintained.

I returned to the Sugarbush trails this week with my friend Bunter. Our goal (well, really my New Year's resolution) was to ski the Picnic Loop, the 23-25 kilometer mega-loop through the heart of the Sugarbush system. We arrived at the Onion River Road parking lot in the midst of a perfect lake-effect snowfall, the woods and hills like they're in a snow globe freshly shaken. 

As excellent as the trail grooming is, there is no way they could keep up with five inches of freshly falling snow. Especially on a Monday, when the folks who live and work on the North Shore are recovering from another hard weekend serving the guests. So Bunter and I took off for the Picnic Loop breaking trail, following the faint indents of the last person through the previous day. 

So much for excellent grooming. The going was slow. According to my GPS, we were covering three kilometers an hour. That would get us around the Picnic Loop in about eight hours. At dark. 

We stopped for lunch up in the forest of huge maple and yellow birch trees atop the ridge of the Homestead Loop, light snow still falling. The GPS unit was not encouraging at all. The woods, like Robert Frost would say, "were lovely, dark and deep." And we had miles to go before we'd sleep.

All sounds were muffled. Even the fish scales of our no-wax skis were quiet. The snow was deep enough and light enough that the tips of my skis stayed under the surface of the snow. 

At the far end of the Homestead Loop, without even really discussing it, we made the turn away from the Picnic Loop and headed back to the car. 

Finally, the Sugarbush groomer caught up with us. Since the snow was so light and fluffy, the groomer was "rolling" the trail first. Tired of breaking trail, we were glad to hear the groomer's snowmobile coming toward us. But after that initial rolling, the trail was far more difficult to ski. The grooves were like cream cheese, and there was no way to keep our skis sliding forward without them sliding off one groove and into another. 

Fortunately, the groomer turned off at the next fork, and we had our non-groomed trail back for the last three or four kilometers to the trailhead. 

It was a great day of skiing. We skied hard for five hours, as long a time we'd hoped it would take to ski the whole Picnic Loop. And the irony was, as much as I love the well-groomed trails here, it was the ungroomed trails that made our day.

See it (or ski it) for yourself!

To ski these trails, we used the Onion River Road trailhead. From Highway 61 at mile marker 87.4, take Forest Road 336 (Onion River Road) 2.1 miles inland to the large parking lot. We skied the entire Homestead Loop, for a total of about 14 kilometers of skiing.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Celebrate urban skiing with Tour Du Luth

One of the coolest North Shore cross country ski events is taking place this weekend in Duluth. It's the seventh annual Tour Du Luth, a year-end celebration of this city's great skiing. It's not a race, but a chance to ski any or all of the city's 80-plus kilometers of ski trail.

Ski any of these trails, record your accomplishments on the sign-in sheet, then come to the year-end potluck at Hartley Nature Center. There are suggested start times for each trailhead, starting at 8:00 AM at Magney Snively and ending at 5:00 at Hartley Nature Center. It's all FREE.

Two years ago, Pete Lande skied all 85 kilometers. The year before that, a pack of crazy guys not only skied all the trails but rode their bikes between each trailhead. 

Duluth city groomers are out today getting the trails in shape. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Have an ice day on Park Point

There is a whole lot of ice along the Lake Superior shore here on Park Point. Every storm that blew in this winter brought another ridge or two of ice, and now those ridges stack up side-by-side about eight deep headed out to sea. 

It's super fun and a bit scary to explore out on these ice mounds. Everything is built out of shards of ice that have been piled up and frozen back together. Sometimes it's just a field of shards, sometimes the shards build up to a ridge that drops precipitously down toward the lake side, where storm waves had tossed ice chunks up and over. 

To reach the ice beach, cross Duluth's Aerial Lift Bridge from Canal Park and travel five blocks to the "S-curve." and Franklin Square. You can park in the lot on the left, on the lakeside and then just walk right out to the beach. 

Some people use strap-on treads, like Yak-Trax. I just use common sense. Ice is slippery, but the real heart-stopping moments come when you break through a sheen of ice, sure you're going to plunge through to frigid Lake Superior, but land just a few inches lower on the next deeper layer of ice or snow. 

Toward evening, look for little chunks of ice that catch the light. This one looks like the ghost of an agate, with the lines of beach ice turning into bands of color.

Enjoy! With easterly and northeasterly winds in the forecast for the next few days, the ice will probably stack up more and stay around for at least another month.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Spring thaw on the Gunflint Trail

There is a lovely post on the Gunflint Trail blog about "subtle changes" in the woods and on the lakes this time of year. The chickadees are singing "fee-bee" and the lakes are crusty enough to walk on.

The meteorologists say that it's spring. All the snow in the woods and below-zero temps at night say it's winter. You can pick how you want to experience it, but it's definitely a time of gradual transition in the woods. 

Each day starts cold and warms up. Each day feels like the transition from winter to spring is happening anew.This is a great time to strap on your no-wax skis or your mukluks and get out into the woods.  When the sun comes out on a March day on the North Shore or the Gunflint Trail, you can ski or hike outside all day and never feel a chill. The sun sets around 6:00, so you can have a full afternoon on the trail. Then it's back to a warm cabin and the cycle starts over again the next day.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Erkki Harju says "Ski" in Two Harbors

In twenty years of skiing on the North Shore's groomed trails, I've seen a lot of signs with basically the same message: Please don't walk on the groomed ski trail. I even remember the Nordic ski coach back in high school pleading with students in a school assembly to stay off the ski tracks around the athletic fields. But this sign, which I found yesterday at the Erkki Harju ski trail in Two Harbors, is by far the goofiest and maybe the most effective I've seen. 

No, that is not Erkki Harju himself with the shovels and the drawl. According to my son, that's Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons, a vaguely Scottish lip-reader. 

Of course, as a former poodle-walker myself, I found the message a little personal. 

Here's the whole sign: 

I really hope that last apostrophe is a typo and that they have more than one volunteer. These are lovely trails and there has to be a good group in town taking care of them. Although they wind through and around a golf course, the trails are mostly in the woods, so it was more like skiing through a forested glade than along a fairway.

To check it out for yourself, turn off Highway 61 onto County Road 2 at the eastern edge of Two Harbors, and drive just 0.7 miles north to the parking lot on the right. Just be sure ya ski and not walk on the trails. Especially if ya got a poodle.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

No-wax skis: The cure for the Woodland Goodies faceplant

It's spring! Time to break out your fish scales. No, not the device to weigh your catch of walleye. I mean the skis you have with the grippy surface underfoot. 

It's March 1, the start of meteorological spring, and there is still a whole lot of snow on the North Shore. The ski season could go on for at least another month. But it's time to swap speed for sanity...and safety.

The main reason people use no-wax skis is convenience. You just put them on and go. You don't have to worry about what kick wax to use. You do sacrifice speed, as the grippy fish scales slow down your glide.

Another reason to use no-wax skis is that it's maddeningly difficult to wax properly when the temperature is above freezing. That involves using klister, a goopy syrup that reminds me of modeling glue. 

Lately, however, I've come to appreciate my no-wax skis for a third factor: woodland goodies. In spring, with the warm winds and drying forest, the trails get littered with needles, leaves and bark from the trees. Since trail grooming slows down in March, this natural debris stacks up. Ski through  a needle-ridden, leafy ski track with sticky kick wax and so much vegetative matter will cling to the bottom of your skis that you may as well have fish scales on your skis instead. Except a piece of bark will catch your skis from going forward at all and you may end up doing a faceplant.

With no-wax skis, you just glide over the needles and ski on.  

I spent most of March in 1996 skiing North Shore trails with no-wax skis, as Sally and I researched our first North Shore ski book. I have fond memories of sunny days in open glades discovering new trails from Tofte to Grand Portage. Whatever speed I lost on those no-wax skis was more than compensated for by the fun and ease. And I don't think I had a single faceplant.