Monday, May 30, 2011

The fog flowers of the North Shore

Tall Lungwort, Piedmont Ski Trail, Duluth
It's been a cold and foggy spring by the shores of Lake Superior. That's been tough on vegetable gardens and bike stores. But it's been great for at least one perfect North Shore wildflower. A flower that NEEDS the cold. It NEEDS the fog.

If you NEED some inspiration to get out and explore the foggy North Shore, look no farther than the tall lungwort, a.k.a. northern bluebells. 

Tall lungwort (Mertensia paniculata) is found all around the cool, moist shores of Lake Superior...and nowhere else in the eastern United States. The only other place it's found in the US is in the western states, on the cooler, wetter sides of the mountains there. 

Tall Lungwort, Tettegouche State Park
Ecologists call these North Shore flowers a "disjunct" population, separated from the main group. Lake Superior provides not only the cool air but also the moisture. If you're a fan of The West and mountains, here's a bit of the western Rocky Mountains right here for you.

It seems like every other wildflower on the North Shore is running at least a week late in the blooming calendar. Not this flower; it's right on time. 

Imagine those first little green growths of lungwort emerging from the damp North Shore soil, sensing cold and fog and saying, in its little plant voice, "PERFECT! Let's grow."

Inspired? Might as well make the best of this North Shore fog and cold, just like this flower does. Poke your head out the door and into the fog and just say, "PERFECT!"

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The 9 best hiking shoes for your North Shore treks

Finally the snow has melted, and a North Shore guy's or gal's eyes turn to hiking. And unless you're a masochist, every hiker needs comfortable boots. My fellow adventurers over at UpNorthica suggested swapping some guest blog postings. I wrote a piece about ski-in camping on the North Shore. And in exchange, they wrote this review on hiking shoes. Here's UpNorthica's take on the best day hike boots around. They love "best-of" lists so much, they made three of them!

THE 9 BEST HIKING SHOES, by Pam Wright, UpNorthica
Taking a day hike along the Kadunce River this summer? Want to scramble to the top of Carlton Peak? If you're planning to hike the north shore this year, chances are you'll run into wet, rocky, or hilly terrain. Here's our hot list of choices for light-hikers that should suit your needs for the coming season.  

Men's Light
NEW Kayland Crosser Mesh  
Why you'll dig 'em: Head deep into the jack pine with these light hikers. Lots of breathable mesh combined with a light insole keeps weight to a minimum.
Weight: 14.4 oz. Construction: 3D mesh microfiber with flat mesh lining. Molded EVA midsole with nylon anti-torsion shank and toe protection. MSRP: $99.95

Men's Waterproof
NEW Keen Alamosa WP 
Why you'll dig them: While the mist is coming down, keep your feet dry. Made of completely waterproof material that breathes, so you don't have hot spots at the end of the day.
Weight: 16.81 oz. Construction: KEEN.DRY(tm) Waterproof breathable membrane and nubuck leather upper with drop-in EVA insert. Multi-directional 4mm lugs for traction. MSRP:  $110.00

Men's Supportive
NEW Garmont Sticky Boulder

Why you'll dig 'em:
Bouldering anyone? Provide sturdy protection in between that rock and a hard place, thanks to durable traction and stability on uneven surfaces. Bootie-style construction safeguards against ankle rolls. Weight: 16.4 oz. Construction: Water repellent suede with Vibram Q811 Outsole. MSRP: $114.95

Women's Light
NEW Ahnu Sequoia

Why you'll dig 'em: You'll hardly notice these shoes as you hike for miles. Breathable mesh keeps the weight to a minimum.   Weight: 11.4 oz. Construction: Breathable mesh upper with dual-density EVA.  Ahnu's Numentum(tm) technology provides proper foot biomechanics. Avert bruising on rocky surfaces with the forefoot protection plate. MSRP: $100.00

Women's Waterproof
NEW Merrell Siren Sport
Why you'll dig 'em: Stay dry when the afternoon shower hits 2 miles from the trailhead.  Waterproof membrane keeps water out, but lets the air in. Outsole features 5 mm lugs to keep you stable while clambering over wet roots. Weight: 23 oz. Construction: Synthetic leather and mesh upper. Waterproof, breathable membrane. Lining is treated with Aegis(r) antimicrobial solution. Midsole cushioning styled for women's needs. 5 mm lugs provide grip. MSRP: $110.00

Women's Supportive
Oboz Contour

Why you'll dig 'em: Tackle the harder topography with solid cushioning. The BFit Deluxe Insole is constructed of three densities of foam to protect feet.  The EVA footbed maintains shape overtime providing additional comfort with two smaller, softer pockets of EVA under heel and forefoot. The shaped heel cup keeps your feet from shifting. Weight: 12.2 oz. Construction: Nubuck leather and high abrasion textile fabric upper.  Dual-densities of EVA with BFit Deluxe Insole. Forefoot ESS sheet protects foot from bruising on uneven surfaces. MSRP: $110.00

Kid's Light
NEW Keen Alamosa

Why you'll dig them: Explore every bend along the river with these light weight hikers. Quick lace system reduces tripping hazards. Weight: 9 oz. Construction: Water resistant leather and mesh uppers. MSRP: $55.00

Kid's Waterproof
Timberland Hypertrail Oxford

Why you'll dig 'em: Kids inevitably seem to end up wet. Let them scurry over slippery rocks with this waterproof shoe. Gore-Tex waterproof membrane keeps toes dry. Engage in massive mud fights, thanks to a stain-resistant coating. Weight: 9 oz. Construction: Nubuck leather and suede upper with Gore-Tex(r) membrane for waterproofness. EVA footbead provides cushion. SplashBlaster(tm) coating resists stains. MSRP: $65.00
Kid's Supportive
Salomon Trax

Why you'll dig 'em: Slither down ravines or hike a dry creek bed. Padded heel, collar and tongue protects and provides comfort, alleviating pressure and abrasion. Weight: 12.5 oz. Construction: Suede leather with nylon mesh for breathability. EVA midsole absorbs shock and provides cushion. Toe caps protect tootsies from stubs. Quick lace system makes it easy for kids to slip shoes on and off quickly. MSRP: $60.00

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Book Review: Safe from the Sea, by Peter Geye

The North East Minnesota Books Award winners were announced last week, and the winner for fiction is....the North Shore and Lake Superior!! 

Actually, it was the debut novel of Peter Geye, Safe from the Sea. Ostensibly the story of reconciliation between father and son, the real star of the book is ominous Lake Superior and the colorful communities and people that cling to the lake's edges.

This is a short novel sprinkled with cultural references familiar to anyone who's spent some time in Duluth and on the North Shore. The names have been changed, but you can spend time at the Anchor Bar (transplanted to Canal Park), the Blue Water Cafe, Grand Marais itself (known here as "Gunflint", at the base of the "Brule Trail."), and the varied neighborhoods of Duluth's hillside.

The central story concerns Olaf, the aged survivor of a famous Lake Superior shipwreck, and his son Noah, who has moved to Boston and runs an antique map business. One of only three survivors, Olaf's life had been in decline ever since the wreck, threatening his family and his health. But he can't escape the pull of the lake, serving on the lakers for two more decades, never fully telling his story of the shipwreck. 

Noah meanwhile has not become fully a man himself. This generation gap between hard-working immigrant and class-conscious son has been plumbed to great depth by Garrison Keillor for comic effect, but this is the first time I've seen it done for northeastern Minnesota and with such serious intent. 

Author Peter Geye, 2/10/2010
The language is lovely, and some perfectly crafted and luminous sentences emerge from the page like a Lake Superior agate shows through cobblestones on the beach. The storyline is predictable; the book is even meant to be cataloged in libraries under "Prodigal Son (Parable)-Fiction." Yet the predictability makes it easier to follow the characters and their evolution.

The book could have been strengthened in two ways. One would have been to have a knowledgeable copy editor catch what were to me glaring factual mistakes. The doomed ship would not have been carrying "twelve tons" of taconite, as it often is stated, but twelve thousand. 

Second, it could have been an even better novella than a novel; there is a whole level of extraneous detail, from the press of a waitress' apron to a fascination with cinnamon rolls. Chop out the extra detail, focus on the main storyline, and this would be one tight novella.

Thanks to the folks at the North East Minnesota Book Awards for bringing attention to this book. It is obviously the product of love and admiration for Lake Superior, the North Shore, and the unique qualities of this region. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Marsh marigolds: An appreciation

The little creeks and the ditches of the North Shore are filling up with the big yellow burst of marsh marigolds. For most of us unable to hike deep into the woods, these are the first real noticeable blooms of spring. 

I used to try to charm my wife with a small bud vase of two or three marsh marigold blooms, if I could find enough of them in one place to pluck a few. But then I learned that some Native Americans used marsh marigold as a protection against love charms. Oops.

Marsh marigold is actually not a marigold, but a member of the buttercup family. Their natural habitat on the North Shore are the little unnamed creeks that dry up in the summer but run like clear music in the spring. They are common in roadside ditches along Highway 61, as long as it's moving water and not a stagnant pool. 

Here are some other names for marsh marigolds in England: May Blobs, Mollyblobs, Pollyblobs, Horse Blob, Water Blobs, Water Bubbles, Gollins and the Publican. And in North America, it can go by: Cowslip, Cowflock, Kingcup, Buttercup, Populage des Marais, Soucis d'Eau.

I just call them lovely. If not love charming.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Go soon to see the "flowers of the day"

Hepatica on the Superior Hiking Trail in western Duluth, 5/15/2011
The spring ephemerals are blooming in the woods of the North Shore. Ephemeral is a lovely word from the Greek words for "of the day." It means short-lived, and these flowers pack a lot of living into just a very few days. 

Along the Superior Hiking Trail, in the Bardon Peak area of western Duluth off Skyline Drive, there is a great two miles of trail leading through the heart of an old-growth northern hardwood forest. 

Bloodroot along the Superior Hiking Trail in western Duluth, 5/15/2011

There is a very brief window of opportunity for the flowers there: the ground must be thawed, and there must be plenty of sunshine. "Spring ephemerals" are a small group of flowers that carry out virtually their entire annual life cycle in those few weeks. In that group are bloodroot, hepatica, wood anemone, and spring beauty. 

Well, the ground is thawed, and thanks to our long winter there are very few leaves on the trees to block the sun. So this is the time to head to your favorite stretch of maple forest and check out the show.

Go see for yourself
This is Hike 3 in our new book Hiking the North Shore

To reach the Bardon Peak trail, take Skyline Drive west from I-35 past Spirit Mountain. It's 2.5 miles to the Magney Ski Trail parking area. The Superior Hiking Trail leads from the near corner of the parking lot. Take a right at the first junction and follow the signs for Bardon Peak. After a scenic run across a creek and through a pine forest, the trail crosses Skyline Drive and enters the old-growth maple forest. It's 1.3 miles total to the big viewpoints of Bardon Peak. You can either continue for a total of 3.3 miles to Elys Peak or turn around here.

Bloodroot and hepatic were blooming a few days ago, but very soon the lovely large-flowered trillium will be blooming too. Get out there and enjoy!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Climb Split Rock's Day Hill with me June 11

It's one of the North Shore's best viewpoints. It's just a short hike in along decent trails. And chances are, you've never been there. But you can join me on June 11th for a hike to the top.

Right in the heart of Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is Day Hill, named after the Duluthian Frank Day. It's a classic anorthosite knob, like Carlton Peak and Mount Trudee. The top is almost 250 feet above Lake Superior, so you're looking down on the entire park shoreline, including Split Rock Lighthouse, which looks tiny but dramatic about a mile away.

Day Hill is famous for its lone fireplace. Who built this stone masterpiece atop the tall hill? Was it Frank Day, trying to woo his bride? A good historical mystery to be teased out. Maybe I'll have an answer by June 11th!

To reach Day Hill, start at the park's trail center parking area. For this you will need to have a state park vehicle permit. From the trail center, follow the Hiking Club Trail signs along the beach of Little Two Harbors, through the cart-in campground, and up to the junction with the paved Gitchi Gami bike trail. From that junction, a signed spur trail leads up Day Hill. 

The trails are dry and ready for hiking. On Saturday, June 11, I'll meet all interested hikers at 10:00 at the Trail Center parking lot and we'll loop around Day Hill and then reach the summit. That afternoon, from 1:00 to 3:00, I'll be signing copies of Hiking the North Shore at the lighthouse gift shop.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What's your North Shore neighborhood?

It's spring on the North Shore, and we're headed outdoors for fun and relaxation, not just to shovel snow. After months of being closed up inside, we are exploring our neighborhoods again, and reconnecting with our neighbors...beyond the neighborly niceties of clearing sidewalks and starting cars.

My family is lucky enough to have a Duluth city park and Lake Superior in our backyard. We have neighbors we really only know from seeing them on the lake shore, walking on the beach. With the first decent days of beach walking, we are excited to see each other and catch up on a winter's full of stories as we stroll. 
On a lovely evening this weekend, Sally and I ran into our neighbors Jan and Warren on the beach. We swapped travel tales of Arizona and Paris and talked baseball and birds.

Where is your North Shore neighborhood? Where do you meet and visit with your Lake Superior friends? Is it a scenic state park campground? Is it strolling on the Gitchi Gami bike trail? Or is it maybe a favorite local restaurant, where it's still mostly "locals" now before the waves of summer visitors?

Lake Superior draws us out of the house and pulls us together. Not bad work for a bunch of water!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sparky's "Daffy Ducks"

Leave it to Mark "Sparky" Stensaas to find great footage and fine stories about North Shore natural history. And thank goodness for telescopic lenses. 

Sparky caught some great action this spring. Diving ducks have goofy, elaborate courtship rituals, but the shows are for the females, not the birdwatcher. Generally the show is so far away from shore, the average person never sees them. 

The video shows hooded mergansers doing a bizarre head pump, common goldeneyes doing a ballerina-like neck stretch, and three frenetic male common mergansers trying to out-goofy each other in the presence of one disinterested female.

Thanks for catching the show, Sparky!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Get thee to the Gunflint

This weekend is the Gunflint Green-Up. Head on up into the canoe country from Grand Marais and help this scenic and wild area recover from the Ham Lake fire of May, 2007. 

The Gunflint Green-up started as a large-scale tree planting program after the wildfire, but has turned into a full-scale celebration of spring and renewal on the Gunflint Trail.

Events this year include an interpretive walk, a presentation on the history of the PADW railroad and the Paulson Mine, music and dancing under the Big Top, and of course tree planting.

Preregistration is requested. While tree planting is free, you'll want to join the food and festivities and even get a t-shirt for the full package cost of $35. The wonderful lodges and resorts on the Gunflint Trail have great overnight packages as well. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A bit more about the Western Waterfront Trail

In my post yesterday, I neglected to mention Indian Point campground (or "campgrounds," as the sign at the entrance reads). The Western Waterfront Trail curves around Indian Point, and the campground is very visible.Indian Point has a lot of Duluth history to it.  It was the equivalent of today's Bayfront Park, with picnics and musical performances. 

However, this one historical reference made my skin crawl a bit:

"A distinctive feature of this camp site is its bathing beach on upper St. Louis bay where autoists, dusty from the day's travel, may indulge in a refreshing dip."
(Duluth News-Tribune, May 22, 1921)

Since the 1920s, the waters of the St. Louis have turned a bit less refreshing. Fortunately, drivers don't get quite as dusty, either, what with roofs on cars now.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Searching for Spring in West Duluth

If you really need a spring walk and you'd like to see some real spring birds, maybe some real spring flowers, and open water, head for Duluth's Western Waterfront Trail. It's one of my favorite spring walks, even when it's 40 degrees and snowing in May like it was yesterday.

The Western Waterfront Trail runs for over three miles along the shore of the St. Louis River, connecting the neighborhoods of West Duluth and Riverside. It's a wide trail, built strong enough for biking on its hard gravel surface. 

Bring your good binoculars. The St. Louis River here is a web of channels and backwaters, all attracting different waterfowl and migrating mystery birds. Yesterday I saw lesser scaup, hooded mergansers, and ringneck ducks.

I like to start the trail at its eastern end, off 63rd Avenue West. Depending on your freeway exit, you can get to 63rd Avenue West off of Grand Ave. or off of Central Avenue and Raleigh St. From 63rd and Raleigh, it's another 0.5 miles to, basically, the end of the road. Look for the trail as it crosses the Avenue, and park near the trail. For more detailed directions and a trail map, pick up a copy of my new book, Hiking the North Shore (see blog sidebar to order).

Not much spring to report, however, besides the birds on the river. 
The wild leeks had their onion-smelly leaves up, and the buds were swelling on the willow trees. Kingsbury Creek was running high under the metal bridge. The trail is drier than most woodland trails are now and would make for a great hike for a family or sweeties holding hands.