Best Fishing Trip of All Time?

How many people have ever been whitefish netting? According to a Minnesota DNR press release, only 700 people a year participate in this tradition in Minnesota. Dying traditions have always grabbed my attention, and fishing traditions all the more so. Most importantly for me, I have a friend, John, who was willing to be my guide and show me the very exotic (and freezing-cold) world of netting whitefish through the ice in person. And so it happened that the day after Thanksgiving I picked John up in Duluth at 7:30 a.m., and drove the two of us up Highway 61 and the Gunflint Trail in my old Camry on a quest for one of those eternal adventures that come when fish, and your life, are at stake. We stopped to pick up our netting licenses on the way.

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First whitefish license I’ve ever owned.

John has probably been in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness hundreds of times (he worked as a guide for Camp Widjiwagan for dozens of years), and I have been adding my own BWCA experiences regularly over the last three years, but never had I been there on a camping trip in November. And for John, this was his first trip ever netting whitefish through the ice. Before that, he had netted many times in open water, from a canoe. This year has been cold enough to make early ice.

We started planning the trip about eight days before leaving, and it soon became clear this expedition would be an insane test of our will-power, problem-solving skills, and adaptability (as winter camping trips always are). When I made some reconnaissance calls two days before departure to various lodges located near our entry point, they reported that our entry point lake had frozen over just the day before. And nobody had been out to the lake we were targeting since ice-in. Basically, everything was unpredictable. Except for one thing: we knew we wouldn’t find any other people. Sure enough, we didn’t see another soul all three days we were out camping.

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The scene at our entry point. Before we got the rain, freezing rain, sleet, snow, heavy wind, and other November pleasantries.

One cool thing about this trip was that we had to combine all our winter camping equipment (wool and down clothing, shovels, augers, skis, and my new woodstove), with the most quintessential of summer gear – the canoe (but not my canoe – we knew we were going to abuse the boat something wicked, and John borrowed a canoe from a friend). We took the canoe as our lifeline. In case the 2 inches of ice holding us up on the first lake were to give gave way below us, we would quickly jump into the canoe. At least that was the plan…

As we left shore for our first lake crossing, the ice started cracking immediately. It was tantalizingly thin. There was also standing water in many spots on the ice. The fresh ice cover was extremely transparent, and you could see the cracks so near, it felt there was nothing holding us up. But there was no other way to get to our fishing grounds than by water. And there was no way to paddle the canoe on this ice shelf. So we went for it on foot, pulling and pushing the canoe.

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Life jacket on as a safety measure. The first time I’ve worn one in winter.

Miraculously, we crossed the first, big, lake, and we knew that everything would get easier from there (well, besides hauling the canoe and gear over a 200 rod portage full of snow, rocks, roots, downed trees, etc.). We double-portaged through the beautiful snow-covered woods to our second lake, where we found thicker ice. This was our final destination: a smaller lake, but with deep, cold water, nestled in the “mountains” (by Minnesota standards) within miles of Canada.

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Nobody said it was going to be easy, and we didn’t want it to be anyway.

We loaded the canoe with firewood (downed trees) that we gathered right on the side of the lake as we approached the site where we would make our base camp.

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Just keep adding to the pile.

The first thing I did upon arrival at camp was set up the tarp. And sure enough, within about 10 minutes of our arrival at our destination, it started to rain (temperature of about 34 degrees).

After getting just a little settled in at camp, we headed out to set our nets. The process was long, and wet, under a persistent rain. I drilled about 20 holes with my auger about 5 feet apart, and then John used his ice saw to cut a trench connecting all the holes. I helped him cut a parallel line all the way back down the line, thereby widening the trench to several inches. John  made some ice cairns to celebrate finishing the trench, and we found some rocks and put them in the bags tied to the net to keep it anchored in place when a big fish gets in it (ideally).

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The far left edge of our net trench, with cairns for anchoring the net.

Speaking of John’s nets, they are gill nets made by Christiansen Net Company out of Duluth, and here are the specifications:

  • 100′ Long x 3′ Deep
  • Top: 3/8″ Foamcore rope
  • Bottom: 30 lb Leadcore rope
  • Nets hung on 1/2 basis (200′ stretch netting to a 100′ net)
  • Tie intervals less than 12″
  • 1/8″ Solid braid nylon breastline on both ends

We each had a whitefish netting permit, and could have used two nets total, but the rain was coming down harder and harder, and we still hadn’t had supper, so we decided to head back to camp (a 25 minute walk though the pitch dark, on wet ice). But despite the tough conditions, we knew were already fishing, even while walking to our campsite. Never before had I experienced this kind of feeling on a fishing trip. Once the nets are set, all the work is done for you. Go home and relax!

When we got back, John fired up the new woodstove, and I made us hot soup for supper. It was warm enough out that I could even take off my boots and steamy socks, and just relax on the ground under the tarp with my bare feet by the fire.

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Winter camping will never be the same with this portable Dutch stove.

After sleeping VERY well on Friday night (listening to the pitter patter of the freezing rain on the tarp and tent fly put me right to sleep), I woke up at 9:30 a.m. to silence. This meant the rain had turned to snow. Sure enough, I emerged from my tent to a snowy white world. I made us coffee and oatmeal under the tarp, and then we set out to check our net.

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The rain turned to snow on Saturday morning.

We found a lot more standing water on the ice from all the rain overnight, but the ice pack still felt safe. I knew my feet were going to get soaked that day. I had my excellent waterproof backcountry ski boots with me on this trip, but nothing but rubber fishing boots could put up with sloshing through 3-inches of standing water all day long.

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John ready to go check our nets, with ice saw and auger and a pack full of survival gear.

The scene as we approached our net was kind of dismal, and I have to admit I didn’t have my hopes up too high. I didn’t have any premonitions about what we would find. Perhaps this was one of the best parts of the trip – I didn’t have a plan, or strategy, in my mind of how to catch the fish, and there would be no disappointment if we didn’t get any.

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Approaching our spot on Saturday morning.

I let John tend the net while I did some chores at our fishing grounds. Suddenly he called out in a soft, but direct voice – “we’ve got one.” I couldn’t believe it. I ran over and was astounded to see a fish in the net.

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John extracting our first whitefish.

I was even more shocked when I saw the size of the fish. It was huge! I thought whitefish were 12-14 inches in length. This one ran over 20, and was fat and hefty.

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North-country beauty.

John worked his way a little bit down the net, and we had another one. And then another one. Three fish on our first morning. I was dumbfounded. These fish were some of the most beautiful creatures I’ve ever seen come out of water.

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Thrilled, dumbfounded, and in awe of these fish and this fishing trip.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the lake and another portage trail. We thought about cutting a second net trench again, but the snow just kept coming down, and the temp was falling, and we knew it would be a lot of work to get two nets out of the water on our final morning, so we decided again not to put the second one in. We were excited to catch more fish on our second night, and we still had our first net in, and that would have to suffice. Interestingly, we checked the net again before we went back to camp on Saturday afternoon, but we hadn’t got any new fish during the course of the day. The fish come in at night to spawn, and that’s when you get them.

The trip back to camp felt like a death march. I was exhausted from skiing through slush all day. One of my ski bindings malfunctioned at the end of the day, and my heavy load seemed impossible to carry any further in my soaking wet feet. I was literally drenched from the ankles down. I made it back to camp after dark, and thank God John had a pair of fabulous, dry, moosehide mukluks that I would wear the rest of the trip.

Saturday evening was another good time, cooking under the tarp, with snow falling down all around us. This time I fried sausages and pork chops, and they came out incredibly well on the woodstove. It was another great night for sleeping outside too, at about 25 degrees out at bedtime.

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Back at our net site, but this time everything is frozen solid.

The temperature continued to fall through the night, and when I woke up at 7:15 on Sunday morning, I was relieved to feel the colder air. Getting out of the BWCA depended on the slush freezing up on our lake, and for our second, larger lake crossing to have thicker ice on it.

Our dreams were answered – when we walked out onto our lake, all the slush had turned to ice overnight, and we had fast travels down the lake back to our net. It took us a while to chip away all the ice that had formed overnight in our trench, but when we did, we had another beautiful whitefish!

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Another huge whitefish.

It was a sensational feeling to tend our net and get another one. We had done it. We had overcome all the conditions: the thin ice, the snowy portage, the rain, the cold, and the wind. We had caught fish in a way I had never seen done before, in a way I couldn’t even have imagined. It was out of this world fishing.

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A scene like no other.

It took a long time to chop as much ice off the net as we could, then roll it up and get it back in its bag. The whole process of netting fish was incredibly hard work, and incredibly rewarding as well.

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Hope to do this again in the future.

We got the fish back to camp, took down the tent and other gear, and then rejoiced as our heavy load (200 lbs. at least) glided over the new ice like a feather.

We made extremely good time going back, making the trek from our base camp across the first lake to the portage in 20 minutes.

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Hauling the canoe and gear out on our last day wasn’t even work on the lakes. We put ski wax on the canoe hull and it glided like a feather.

Moving the canoe uphill on the snowy portage was a challenge, but fun as well on the fresh snow.

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Back in the woods.

Crossing the second, bigger lake was a cinch on Sunday compared to the first experience we had going in on thin ice on Friday.  Now the ice was thicker, more solid, and no longer transparent. We made it back to the entry point, and the car started right up, and away we went.

It was possibly the greatest fishing trip of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2018 – The Year The Gardens Took Off

Despite being away for six weeks in June/July this summer, this year will go down in the books as the time I grew a passion for gardening. It’s been an enjoyable process. All three key circumstances came together for me this summer:

  1. We now own our own home, facing due south, with ample land to work.
  2. I had the rest of the summer off from full-time work once I returned from the World Cup.
  3. July and August were hot and sunny in Duluth, and most everything grew well.

Another key was that my neighbor is a professional gardener, and often donates his unused plants to us. We’ve borrowed various tools and gotten good advice from him too.

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Our sunflower hedge was beautiful this summer.

I spent a lot of good times tending to our home gardens, as well our deck plants. Much of that time was spent erecting deer fences and then readjusting them as everything kept growing. The deer are a force to be reckoned with around here, and it takes serious effort to save the gardens from them. Thankfully, I was able to preserve most of our plants from the hungry critters.

My main goal for our small home gardens is to produce fruits, berries and vegetables for us to eat. We got a lot of raspberries this year, and the raspberry bushes have grown immensely. I also planted three new new black currant bushes, and I hope to make lots of juice from currants in the future. We have three apple trees growing now as well, thanks to our friends Cindy and Jeff. The apple trees are perhaps my most prized possession so far in the garden. Let’s see what we get in five or six years from now on our dwarf trees.

We grew garlic, lettuce, butternut squash, basil, carrots, plum tomatoes, dill, kale, spinach, marigolds, and lupines in our garden boxes this summer.  The harvest has been great so far, and I had time to replant new spinach, kale, and dill once the garlic and lettuce went by. The boxes are still going strong as of late September.

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Butternut squash growing well in the dry August heat.

Finally, we’ve planted flowers around much of the perimeter of the yard, including hydrangea (turns out deer love ’em), sunflowers (deer love ’em too), irises (supposedly an anti-deer plant – we’re learning), and lupines (also supposedly anti-deer). Here’s a deer resistance resource from Rutgers I found.

Lastly, besides gardening, we also do a lot of what I call “farming”, even though we don’t own a farm or do it at our house. By “farming”, I mean basically taking what other people (real farmers) have grown.

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Blueberry smoothies, to go with the blueberry eyes. Outfits to match!

I think we contribute in our own way though. We do some work picking, pressing, etc. I like to think we give our friends a social aspect that they may be missing out on the farm. And we bring them the joy of sharing their harvest, which I know they like to do. Whatever the case, I feel justified helping friends harvest their crops and sharing in the spoils. So here’s what we got this year:

  1. Blueberries – picked six times at Blackbirds and Blueberries farm this summer, and we were able to get all our berries for free by donating half of what we picked back to the farm to sell as pre-picked berries. Thirteen bags of frozen berries in our freezer for the winter ahead.
  2. Apple cider – got about eleven gallons out of our first pressing at Cindy and Jeff’s farm this Saturday. Picked all of our apples for free from the vacant lot next across from our house. Still more pressing to come in October.
  3. Applesauce – a dozen jars of our homemade sauce and counting.
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Took the young helpers to pick blueberries with me on several occasions.

Gardening fosters generosity, peace, and love for the land. It’s an awesome feeling to see your work produce results, even in small ways. You truly get back what you put into the process.

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Pressing cider at Clover Valley Farm this past Saturday.

I’m lucky and satisfied that this was a great gardening and farming year for us. Growing your own berries, fruits, and vegetables really is the gift that keeps on giving (at least until our freezer supplies run out). I’m happy to be getting the legacy going now, and hope we can benefit from it for years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An American at the World Cup in Russia

Unusually for an American, I have always been interested in Russia and European football. I grew up playing “soccer”, and I spent 14 years of my life living in St. Petersburg, Russia (2000-2014). Thus, there was no way I could let myself miss the opportunity to see the World Cup in person this summer. It took a lot of effort and luck to get there, and it was worth it ten-fold! Here’s a look at my experience.

Making it in Russia

I grew up in the state of Massachusetts, in “the boonies”. Then we hosted a Russian exchange student from Siberia for a year in 1997 when I was a senior in high school. I started studying Russian for the first time during my second year in college. Finally, I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, arriving in February 2000, at a semester-long immersion program at St. Petersburg State University. I attended classes, I lived in the Russian dormitory, I went to Russian parties, and I worked my butt off in the library. All of a sudden I started speaking, reading, and even writing some Russian.

Eventually, I earned a master’s degree in Russian Language and Literature from St. Petersburg State University, and the sky was the limit for me as a Russian-speaking foreigner in St. Petersburg. Of the many jobs I did in Russia, the best was working for local football club FC Zenit as their English website editor for four years.

Thus, this World Cup was obviously the perfect storm for me – my city, my sport, my people. I wanted to see all my old friends in St. Petersburg, and I wanted to be at the stadium and be part of all the action in person. I wasn’t going to miss this for anything.

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Playing frisbee in my volunteer garb in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

The long and winding road

Originally, I was interested in working as a Team Liaison Manager, a job vacancy that FIFA posted in August of 2017. The problem was, I didn’t have a Russian work visa, and the Local Organizing Committee wasn’t ready to make one for me. Furthermore, I would have had to spend a large chunk of time in November, March, and May in Russia even before the World Cup started, and I wasn’t ready to leave my family for so long.

I went back to the drawing board. I wanted to find a way both to be present at the World Cup matches, and to contribute to the tournament from within. That’s when I decided to give volunteering a shot. According to the FIFA website, there would be 17,040 volunteers at the World Cup in Russia. A true Red Army. I knew I had a shot.

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I made a tradition of getting my photo taken on the team benches.

The application process was no easy affair. It took a lot of time to complete the electronic application, which I did back in December 2017. Fortunately, I had consulted with a friend from FC Zenit who was now working for FIFA, and he gave me some tips about how to increase my chances of being selected. One hard part was choosing which function I wanted to work in. The choices were Accreditation, Ticketing, Media Operations, Information Technology, Hospitality, Catering, Language Services, Marketing Operations, Doping Control, Arrivals and Departures, Protocol, and others… But choose the wrong one, and you could be volunteering to meet tired soccer fans arriving at the airport at 4:00 a.m. Or you could be stranded outside the stadium monitoring the parking areas. Either way, you’re not going to see any football!

I indicated Marketing Operations as my top choice, followed by Language Services and Media Operations. First, I had to wait about a month for any response to my application, then I had to wait another month to get interviewed from St. Petersburg by Skype. The interview was awful! All the questions were negative, I couldn’t portray myself in the best light, and I had to do it at 6:30 a.m. because of the 9-hour time difference between St. Petersburg and my current home of Duluth, Minnesota.

St. Petersburg, I’m on my way finally!

Finally, in late March, I found out I had been accepted to Marketing Operations! April was a glorious month, until I saw my staff shift schedule  — 23 shifts in 40 days. Shifts could be eight, nine, or ten hours long… With no pay. And it still wasn’t clear to me what I would actually be doing. Still, I was psyched just to have the opportunity to be going to my first World Cup. I spent a lot of time making my Russian visa in April and May (the visa was free, but I had to pay for my own plane tickets). Finally, on June 3rd, I got on the plane to St. Petersburg. I took my wife (she’s Russian!) and my kids (also born in Russia!) with me too, which meant I couldn’t take advantage of the dormitory that FIFA gave me a bed in. My roommates were from Ethiopia, Australia, and India. The beds were a half meter apart, and there was barely space for 2 people to walk past each other in the room. Of course I chose living with my family instead, and we rented an apartment in downtown St. Petersburg.

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USA/Russia jersey – the only one of its kind in the world, and its mine. Given to me by my artist-friend Francesco Attollini.

Jackpot and new friends

Once I started volunteering, I realized right away that I had hit the jackpot. The Marketing Operations office was right beside the “Team A” locker room (for the teams of Morocco, Russia, Brazil, Nigeria, Sweden, France, and Belgium in the seven matches I worked at). My accreditation gave me access to the Field of Play, Competition Area (locker rooms and player tunnel), Operation Area (FIFA offices), Media Area, Stadium Media Centre, and Hospitality Area. I could go almost anywhere, and trust me, security checked your accreditation every step of the way.

I hit the jackpot in other ways too. There were 23 volunteers altogether in Marketing Operations, and I can honestly say I enjoyed working and talking and spending time with every one of them. I was one of the older volunteers, but there were several others in their 30s like me. Many of the other volunteers had just graduated from university this spring. A few were still students. The people I worked with made the tournament special for me. Best of all, I got to speak Russian all day long, every day.

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It’s always about the people, no matter where you go in the world.

The daily grind — World Cup style

On days when there were no matches, we did things like check that all the signage in the stadium had the right appearance. We walked, and walked, and walked. St. Petersburg Stadium is huge. It took 25 minutes to circle the whole stadium once on the outside. Other days we had to stick numbers onto all of the temporary seats that FIFA built for the tournament. But it was a pleasure to converse and have fun together as a team, even when doing these mundane tasks.

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Hung up lots of signage in the temporary stands made just for the World Cup.

On match days, I had three tasks: 1. Assisting with stadium tours for sponsors and their guests, 2. Checking the commercial displays of our sponsors outside the stadium, and 3. Assisting our Youth Program (the children who escort the players onto the field in the pre-match ceremony).

On the stadium tours, we took guests into the team locker rooms, showed them the pitch, and took them to the press center. The guests took photos everywhere they went. I didn’t lead the tour – I was there to chat with the guests and make sure they had a good time. We also watched to make sure they didn’t run onto the field or cause any other trouble.

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Chaperoning happy guests of Visa. Middle couple was from Mauritius.

Checking the commercial displays was nothing more than hanging out with all the fans outside the stadium and making sure the sponsors’ stands were operating properly. We checked that no unlicensed products were being sold at the stadium.

Assisting the Youth Program was fun – we spent hours on end with the five-, six-, and seven-year-olds who were to escort the players onto the pitch before the game. The kids rehearsed their roles for the pre-match ceremony, using us as pretend players. Then we played with the kids and entertained them. Mainly I played soccer with the kids in our big Youth Program room.

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Pretending to be one of the World Cup players with my player escort.

All three tasks involved conversing with fans, meeting people, showing people a good time, and being right in the thick of the World Cup atmosphere. We even had a tour called the “Final Whistle Tour”, which meant taking sponsor guests to watch the last fifteen minutes of the match from the very side of the pitch. I got to work on this tour once, at the Argentina-Nigeria match, when Argentina scored in the 86th minute to win 2-1. It was incredible seeing the whole stadium go wild right from the field.

My truly terrific experience

But probably my greatest personal experience came on the day of the Russia — Egypt match. I was told the night before that I wouldn’t be working with my Marketing Operations colleagues for the match. Instead, I was the one person from our team assigned to carry out the flags at the pre-match ceremony. The day of the match, I was told I would be carrying the Russian flag! In St. Petersburg. At the World Cup. The flag was huge, and 40 of us carried it out together. I spent about five minutes on the pitch, holding the Russian flag during the national anthem, with the whole stadium singing together. It was an amazing feeling. I’m sure I’m the only American who’s ever had that experience in Russia.

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That’s me, in the yellow circle.

Overall, my impression of the World Cup from beginning to end was sensational. I had a tremendous personal experience, obviously, but I was even more happy for Russia, and for all the foreign fans, who got to see the real Russia, not the Russia the media shows us. It was an incredible feeling being surrounded by Colombians and Peruvians on Nevsky Prospekt. It was an incredible feeling watching the Moroccans and Iranians support their teams for 90 minutes straight in their opening match, keeping the energy and the noise going constantly. It was incredible seeing Russia, which I consider as much my home as the United States, hosting the whole world, and showing people from every country what an awesome place Russia is. I felt great pride everywhere I went – for myself, for my family, and for Russia. It was a truly terrific experience.

 

Fishing in the Snow, Adriana’s Climbing Party, and Garden Box Weekend

Minnesota in April can be slightly crazy, as we’ve learned this year. This past week there was also some craziness in Wisconsin, as the Husky Energy Petroleum Refinery exploded and burst into flames not far from the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus on Thursday morning. We were in class at the time, but when I came out at lunch, I could see the huge plume of smoke rising high into the sky just like everyone else. It was a sad incident, and common consensus seems to be that we’re all lucky the explosion and resultant fire weren’t much worse.

Unbelievably, UWS cancelled classes for the second time in two weeks (and for the third time this semester already) on Friday, as all students were evacuated off campus and all buildings were shut down. That meant I had a surprise chance to go fishing for steelhead trout for the first time in my life with my lucky day off.

I took my unexpected fishing day to make a day-trip up the North Shore to the Sucker River (a 25-minute drive from our house). But I was in for Mother Nature’s crazy show. No sooner had I left Duluth, getting onto the Highway 61 Expressway, when a snow squall started. Thankfully, I didn’t have far to go up the Expressway, as driving got treacherous fast.

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April 27, 10:03 a.m., Knife River, MN.

I made it to my “secret” destination, put on my waders, grabbed my fishing tackle, and walked down to the stream in pelting snow. I realized I hadn’t taken the most important piece of gear – a ski mask.

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Extreme fishing.

Wading through a gushing river is not easy, but add the whipping, swirling snow, and it just all made my head spin. I took a hike up river, but never did get my line in the water at the first spot. It seemed impossible that any trout would want to leave Lake Superior to come spawn in this snowy, overflowing, murky river bed.

I was having a blast just being out there in the snow, exploring the river.

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Great way to spend a sudden day off from work.

Eventually though I decided to relocate to the mouth of the river, where I figured I’d have a better chance of catching a fish. To get to the mouth of the Sucker, I had to meander down a mud-choked path that was made even more slippery by the fresh snow. And I had to do in chest waders with fishing gear in my hands.

Still, I made it, and sure enough there were guys fishing down there.

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Two gents ahead of me at the prime pool.

Eventually, I actually started fishing. It wasn’t easy to do anything in the stiff wind coming off the lake, but I enjoyed the challenge. The whole scene felt supremely wild and untamed.

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Trying my luck for steelhead trout. Lake Superior in the background.

Eventually, after 3 hours in the snow, I got cold enough, and satisfied enough, to wrap things up and retreat to my car. It was still snowing…

I wasn’t done yet though. After a quick lunch in the car, I continued north to Two Harbors, and did some more fishing off the breakwater.

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“Relaxing” fishing on the breakwater.

Still no action from the fish, but that was OK. I had spent my unexpected day off just the way a day like this is meant to be spent – doing something outside my normal routine, in an otherworldly atmosphere. Fishing therapy was just what I needed at the end of another long semester.

Our big birthday party for Adriana came on Saturday. We had 13 kids present, plus a lot of adults, and the party was a huge success. I was pleased to see all the kiddos having so much fun together, especially on the climbing wall.

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Party time! Putting the wall to its intended use.

The pinata and ice cream were a hit, naturally, but the wall was what made it an event!

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Pinata AND climbing wall at the same time. Life couldn’t be better.

Sunday was another big day for us – garden box day. Building a garden box is becoming an end-of-April tradition for us. This new one isn’t done yet, but we got the four holes dug for the posts, and cemented the posts 22 inches deep into the ground on day one.

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Trying to think optimistic about growing vegetables this summer.

It’s a fun project, and the whole family participates. In fact, I can’t think of a better family activity on a late-April Sunday.

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Even the neighbor’s cat, Gabe, did his best to support us.

The girls added an extra step to the garden box process, painting their faces for good measure.

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I’m not sure if this was pre-Halloween practice or what, but it looked like fun.

Overall, we made big progress on our first day of the project, and perhaps we can finish it next Sunday.

We’re doing well with our limited yard, and we’re always finding new ways to enjoy it.

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Climbing was a theme of the weekend.

Now let’s see those vegetables would grow big and tall…

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sundays

With many people complaining about the “winter that just would not end” recently, April seemed to take offense, and decided to throw a crushing blow at us: an all-day snowstorm on April 15th. It was the perfect day for a snowstorm in my book – a lazy Sunday with no plans that involved driving. I had nowhere I had to go, and no big translating or proofreading jobs. And here was the proverbial spring storm, right on cue: heavy snow falling already at 8:00 in the morning when I woke up, and continuing all day long.

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Just a mid-April snowstorm in Duluth.

We enjoyed watching the snow coming down all morning, and I spent some free time fixing my bike and arranging my ice-fishing tackle, but after lunch I knew I had to get outside and enjoy being in the fresh powder. Finally, about 3:30, I went out, did some shoveling, and then took off on a backcountry ski tour – right down 18th Av. West. That’s always a good gauge for how much snow you’ve got – when you can ski right down the paved, unplowed streets. Then I went up the Superior Hiking Trail, crossing 3rd St., then 5th St., and eventually making it to the Duluth Traverse – an 85 mile-long mountain bike trail from one end of our city to the other that can be skied in winter.

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View of Enger Tower from the Duluth Traverse on April 15th.

I had a great ski. It’s satisfying to go on a ski tour right out your back door! I did some exploring of my neighborhood in a way that wouldn’t have been possible except during a heavy snowstorm. I felt alone in “my” woods, and it was a great feeling.

We had 8 inches of snow by the time I got back at 6:00 p.m. To top it all off, we found out Sunday evening that the girls’ school had been cancelled for the following day (7:00 p.m.), and that my work was cancelled as well  (9:00 p.m.). These two cancellations felt like a gift sent from God.

The week quickly warmed up, the snow melted, and by the following weekend I was out canoeing on Lake Superior! First with my friend Andrew on Saturday, then with Inna and the girls on Sunday. There was no wind, the water was perfectly calm, and temps were in the mid 60s all weekend!

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From 20° to 65° in five days. Winter skiing to summer paddling, in a flash.

The beauty of paddling this time was getting the chance to make a rare exploration: of Duluth icebergs! The lake was full of floating ice from the previous six months of winter. The ice floes were really surreal. It felt like being on the North Pole.

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Welcome to the North Pole!

The girls had a great time catching the floating ice in their fishing nets. And the scenery was just fantastic.

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Let’s go fishing – for ice!

As an added bonus, we got to explore the incredible ice shelves on the Park Point shoreline. It was like being in the Sea Caves in Bayfield, WI! There you can walk to the caves over the ice in winter, or approach them by boat in summer. But here in Duluth these “caves” are made of ice, and you can only get to them by canoe! They’re not actually caves, of course, but the effect is quite similar.

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Exploring the Duluth “Ice Caves” on Park Point.

The reason we currently have these enormous ice shelves is that the giant waves on Lake Superior had been crashing against the ice on shore for months, and the spray just kept freezing into taller and taller mountains of ice on shore. I would estimate the ice shelves to be 15 feet high and 200 feet wide now.  Looks like they’ll be on shore till July at least.

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Plenty to see in Duluth, especially when winter turns to spring.

Basically, you can never get tired of watching Lake Superior and all the changes it goes through. Add canoeing through icebergs to our list of experiences on the lake.

 

Spring Break 2018: Ultimate Camping Experiment

This Spring Break was my third as an instructor at UWS, and every year at this time I harken back to my original spring break winter camping experience, at Tettegouche State Park in northern Minnesota, when I was a student at Macalester College. That set the tone for my life-long interest in winter camping/exploring. Naturally, I wanted to get another Spring Break camping experience under my belt this year (last year we bought a house and moved over break, and the two years before that we went to Thunder Bay, Canada). But then I got to thinking about taking a trip to Florida to visit relatives, and it occurred to me that with a whole week off, I could conduct a grand experiment: four days of summer camping in Florida, followed by three days of winter camping in the Boundary Waters, all during one Spring Break. And then gauge the benefits and weaknesses of both.

We drove to Minneapolis on the 17th of March, stayed overnight with friends, and took off the next morning for sunny Florida. The flights went fine and by 3:00 p.m. we were at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, setting up our tent!

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These ladies know what they’re doing with a tent!

It’s very rare that we go on camping trips by plane. I think this was our first ever camping trip done as a family of four by plane. But we managed to get our tent, four sleeping pads, two blankets, one sleeping bag, and camp stove and fuel canister in the the one suitcase we brought (it’s a big suitcase!). This was anything but wilderness camping, but that was kind of the beauty of it – no need to cook, no need to build fires, no need to do anything at the campsite, really. We only came there to sleep. But we slept so well! Maybe it was because we got up at 3:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, but I slept for 10 hours straight the first night. My alarm didn’t go off Monday morning (I set it for 7:30 p.m. instead of a.m. the night before because I was so tired), and we slept in till 8:30! Waking up to a warm morning with birds singing all around was a transcendental experience. It was like being in a new world. It felt wonderful.

We spent the next three days going to Grandma’s house, visiting Uncle David and Auntie Anne and Aunt Diane, and hanging out on the beach. It was fabulous to be outdoors in bathing suits and shorts. We got perfect beach weather all three days.

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Vanessa playing in the Atlantic Ocean. She loves going under!

The sandy beach felt soothing on our long-frozen feet, and Inna was thrilled to go on long walks. Adriana loved playing in the inflatable raft.

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Scared of the approaching Vanessa monster!

It was a really happy vacation for us, maybe in part because we got to enjoy so many good meals, and just lounging around at Grandma’s house, which was definitely the perfect setting for some idyllic photos.

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Flower girl.

We even took our time to relax a little. The girls loved using the outdoor shower as well as playing on the little patio in the yard.

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Chilling out in the hot sun.

We got back to the beach on Tuesday morning, and the waves had picked up considerably. More great fun for the girls.

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Somebody seems happy!

Finally, Wednesday morning, we took our final walk on the beach. Every morning we started out by heading south, going under the Lake Worth Pier, then coming back to our main beach location. It was hard to accept that this would be our last walk, but I had Minnesota winter camping in the back of my mind, and was excited for a new test.

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Kind of sad to be heading home. Had an excellent beach vacation though.

We got home to Minnesota without any trouble, I took one day at home to catch up on things, then Friday morning picked up my friend Jim and headed north to the BWCA.

The turnaround from summer to winter camping proved to be a little too quick, and a bit stressful – it was hard packing all over again, but for different conditions. There is so much more packing involved for winter camping. This time we had to bring all our own food and do our own cooking too. Still, we got off by 8:30 a.m. from Jim’s house on Park Point. I offered to take my car, and would soon come to regret it.

My car is old. Very old. It’s still working, but it’s been gradually developing little problems. This time a little problem (the rubber gasket under the hood had come loose, and was flopping around on the hood in the wind), became a big problem. Specifically, I stopped at the Tettegouche parking lot, 58 miles up Highway 61, to open the hood and rip off the flapping rubber. Problem though – when I shut the hood, and we both checked it twice to make sure it was closed – the rusty, corroded latch mechanism hadn’t actually caught. It felt tight to the touch. But when we drove up the highway, the hood all of a sudden came flying off, ripped right off the hinges, and smashed right into us. Terrifying moment. What saved us was the handmade roof rack. Instead of smashing the windshield to bits, the hood made first impact with the rack instead. The wooden cross bar took the brunt of the blow, and thanks to that, I still have a windshield. There was nothing we could do with the broken, bent hood, so we stashed it in the woods at mile 59, and continued on our trip. It was a Third World sort of experience driving the rest of the way without a hood, but that’s what you do when you really want to go camping.

The three days up north were fantastic. I got to take a sauna, sleep outside in my tent (two more excellent nights of sleep), and do a ton of skiing and ice-fishing. It was all about peace and exploration. There were three feet of snow in the woods, and 30 inches of ice on the lakes. Perfect conditions!

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 I banked my tent below the snow line and used the snow to insulate and protect. 

Our ski trips with Jim were fabulous. We were staying on West Bearskin Lake, and we went to Daniels Lake and back the first day. We met a group winter camping on Daniels with four fathers and four daughters. They have an annual winter camping tradition, dating back 10 years already. They started winter camping when the girls were just 8 years old. Now the four girls are 18 and still going out to Daniels Lake each March. The fathers ice-fish and the girls hang out together. The fathers told us that going with friends is what makes it so fun for the girls. Inspiring!

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Entry point #61 to the BWCA (portage from West Bearskin Lake to Daniels Lake).

Our one full day (Saturday, the 24th), we made an eight-hour long loop West Bearskin Lake-Duncan Lake-Rose Lake-Border Route Trail-Daniels Lake-West Bearskin Lake. This ski trip brought us right to Canada and back. It was an incredible grand finale to the winter ski season for me.

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Map of our ski expedition route, skiing west to Duncan, then along the Canadian border, and back through Daniels to West Bearskin. The yellow dot is where we stopped for our lunch, which I cooked on my camp stove. We skied 8 hours altogether.  

I had no luck on my ice-fishing in the Boundary Waters, same as last year. But hey, it’s not every day you get to ice-fish on the border with Canada.

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Still cold and windy in late March. The cliffs behind me are in Canada.

Thankfully, the car still worked on Sunday morning, and as I drove us home, all I could think about was what an incredible, long winter I’ve had. (Six to eight inches of snow are forecast for tonight (March 30-31) in Duluth as I write this, so maybe I’m jumping the gun – there could still plenty of winter left to go.)

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An unfortunate coincidence, but even so the car got us to the BWCA and back.

We stopped on the way home at the Onion River for yet another great (short) ski on groomed trails, and with that my amazing Spring Break of 2018 was complete.

Overall I confirmed that I like summer camping and winter camping equally well. They each have their particularities. We had cockroaches one evening in our tent in Florida, and ants another night. I had the usual frosted condensation from my breath inside the tent up north. But I slept great in both places. And I enjoyed my usual sense of freedom and feeling of being part of nature in both places. There’s no winner – camping is great any time of year for me.

Ice-Fishing Out the Season

It’s been a long winter, and anyone and everyone who lives in northern Minnesota would say the same. But that’s not a bad thing. As spring gradually seeps in, and the days get longer and warmer, there’s still good ice and snow out there. This combination of the old and the new means March has the perfect conditions for winter pursuits in comfort. It’s just the right time for me to take the whole family out exploring without feeling like I’m torturing anyone… Thus, recently we’ve had some of our best ice-fishing trips of the whole season. Here’s a short review.

I took my friends Jim and Andrew on a great trip out to my favorite little trout stream right in Duluth on Sunday, March 4th. It’s a big source of pride for me that we can catch native brook trout less than a mile from our house. It was also a great source of pride to be a fishing guide for my friends on this trip.

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Andrew with a sweet brook trout.

We caught five fish altogether following a slow start. Thankfully, when you’re in good company, it’s easier to stay out longer, and eventually, the bite got hot. Andrew lost one fish that he actually got out onto the ice, only for the fish to jump off the hook and slither back down the hole. I had another fish break my line… Must have been a big trout! The ones that get away are always the biggest fish.

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Some happy anglers with their native Duluth trophies.

We brought the trout home and fried them in a little flour, salt, and pepper for a fabulous lunch. I enjoyed cleaning them on the homemade cutting board that Andrew gave me for Christmas.

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Great gift from Andrew, put to its proper use.

The three of us went out again the following weekend, but this time we took the girls along too. We went out on Saturday afternoon, following the girls’ ballet lesson, and conditions were sunny and beautiful. We did a little sledding and skiing on our way down to the water.

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Heading out for some fishing.  Daddy towing the precious cargo.

I can’t say we had a lot of action this time around with the fishing, catching only one nice trout. But we more than made up for it with great camaraderie. Jim and Andrew brought all kinds of goodies, and we made a little spring party on the ice.

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Hot drinks and good snacks keep everyone happy on the ice.

And even when the fish aren’t biting, there are other ways to have fun on the water. Like just lounging on the ice.

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Literally.

Or piggy back-fishing.

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Literally.

Finally came the grand finale for our family ice-fishing exploits, this time on March 11th right on Lake Superior in downtown Duluth. Wind and temperature conditions worked together to provide six inches of stable ice right off of 17th Av. East. It was the perfect time and place for us: we all had a day off, it’s only a 5 minute drive from our house, and we used the Lakewalk to access this spot, which meant Inna could go for a long walk, as she likes to do, while the kids and I got to play on the ice, as we like to do.

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Urban fishing.

We joined out friends, who also have two kids, and the play was on (the fishing was not productive on this day). The ice screws I brought definitely made for some fun on the ice.

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Playing with ice screws on the beautiful clear Superior ice.

Inna got in her long walk in good company while we ice-fished, and then I made hot drinks on my little samovar to get the ladies warm. Adriana even found a Minnesota-shaped piece of ice for Inna.

 

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Minnesota-esque piece of ice!

It’s a cool feeling to go out and enjoy your city from the ice. It gives you a unique and different perspective of where you live and why you live there. This trip made me proud of us and our home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good Things (Snowstorms) Come in Threes

This past week in Duluth was a kind of peak, a culmination of our first four winters living in Duluth. That’s because the snow came once, it came twice, and it came three times! And by the time it was all done, there were 22 inches of fresh powder lying on top of what we already had. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is what I was dreaming about when we decided to move to Duluth, MN. This is the stuff that winter fantasies are made of.

It all started on Sunday afternoon, the 18th of March. We went skiing as a family at Mont Du Lac that morning, where we met up with two other families we know with kids. It was a good time, and the skies were ominously grey… Sure enough, on our way home, it started snowing. The wind picked up, and we got several inches during the evening.

The real storm came on Monday – President’s Day. I did my first shovel of the day in the morning right after I woke up. I like taking my coffee outside and shoveling the driveway at sunup. Little did I know what was in store for the shoveling muscles this week…

I had already arranged to take the girls with me to work for the day, since their school was on vacation for the week. The girls always love coming to my workplace, but this time was extra special – it snowed all day.  Since I have a beautiful classroom full of tall windows, I got to observe the snow falling the whole day as I taught. It’s one my favorite things about my classroom. The girls were also extremely fortunate to be given two Korean national dresses as a gift from my South Korean student!

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Perfect timing on my student’s part – she gave the girls these Korean dresses right during the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

The wind was whipping out of the north all day, creating lake effect snow over Superior. When we got home from work, I shoveled our driveway again – we had a good four inches. Then I went skiing at Spirit Mountain. The girls stayed home that evening, but it was the right choice – the snow was still coming down hard, and the wind was still pumping. I had a great ski in the powder at Spirit. Then I shoveled again late that night – good things come in threes.

Tuesday we woke up to two big surprises: 1. I felt very sick, and 2. I found out about 8 a.m. that school had been cancelled for the day. It was my first ever snow day while teaching at UWS.  The timing was excellent – all I could do was lay in bed all day with the flu. I slept from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and again from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. I was really sick, and felt like I would throw up. I definitely needed to rest.

Wednesday, I went back to work, somehow, and by Thursday I was ready to get back on skis. This time I skied 1 hr and 48 minutes on my cross-country skis at the Superior Municipal Forest. It was 20 km at least. I felt great. And then the snow came again! The second big storm of the week came overnight into Friday. This time school wasn’t cancelled, but we got even more snow than the first storm. I started the day with more shoveling, and I quickly decided not to try driving the girls to Key Zone for the day. Our road wasn’t plowed, and I wasn’t interested in taking the risk. Instead I took them with me to work again – for the second time of the week! We took the bus in the storm. I have to say, taking the public transportation during a snowstorm is one of the best feelings I know. A feeling of calm and peace – let the driver do the work he or she is paid to do. We met one of my students in the bus on our way to class, and it was fun sharing my ski goggles with him. Coming from Cameroon, he had never worn a ski mask before.

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Walking from the bus stop to the university with my Cameroonian student. 

Friday was a great day at the university – huge snowball fight with the students during lunch break, and the girls took part as well.

Friday evening would have been my shift to work the chairlift at Chester Bowl, but because the public schools had the week off, Chester was open during daytime hours, and closed in the evening. I took advantage of this night off by taking the girls to ski at Spirit Mountain in the fresh powder. The girls loved skiing through the woods. The snow was deep enough to make all the woods runs possible. Lots of fun jumps and obstacles in the woods. We skied right up until they closed at 8:30, and it was one of our best family ski trips of the year, even if Inna chose to stay home and relax without us.

Saturday was another busy day, volunteering at the Chester Bowl winter carnival. The kids had a great time, including driving the snowmobile!

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Adriana whipping around the snowmobile course.

Saturday night was another night off for me – incredibly, my shift at the DECC was cancelled because the Minnesota state hockey tournament I was supposed to work at was postponed due to snow. A big storm – our third of the week – was forecast for the evening.

We took advantage of my night off to drive north to Giants Ridge. It’s an annual trip for us. The drive is an hour due north to Biwabik. Giants Ridge is a cool place, and Inna joined us for this trip. The girls had a great time skiing through the woods again.

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The traditional family portrait at Giants Ridge – 2018 version.

The adventure was only beginning though – just as we finished skiing at 7:30 p.m., the third snowstorm of the week came racing at us. It was coming from the south, and we drove right into it – for 80 miles straight. It was blizzard conditions the whole way back to Duluth. The wind was blowing snow sideways across the road, and visibility was no more than a hundred feet. We only saw one plow the whole way home – in the ditch. Thankfully, we made it, thanks to Inna’s RAV4. That car has been gold this winter.

We woke up Sunday morning to another 8 inches of snow. I happened to have another day off, and of course it started with shoveling… It took over an hour to shovel my car out and shovel 18th Av. all the way up to 3rd St. so I could get out and drive to another day of skiing – this time backcountry skiing in Lutsen. I finally drove off at noon, and when I got to Lutsen, I found an absolute powder paradise.

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Making tracks through two feet of fresh powder is hard work.

To finish it all off, my boss and I drove eight of our students to Spirit Mountain on Tuesday evening for a night on the slopes. None of the eight students had ever skied before, all coming from China and Vietnam. It was a lot of physical work to get eight students up and running on skis, but I could see they had the time of their lives.

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I got great help from my two little ski instructor assistants.

One of my students told me he can’t event study at night now – he just thinks about skiing all the time. Don’t I know the feeling.

 

 

Getting Paid to Fish (Sort of)

This winter has been full of skiing and ice-fishing and other explorations for us, and I can’t complain. Still, I have ideas for so many other adventures left in my mind. There are so many places left to explore in northern Minnesota. So many trails to ski. So many fish to catch. Thankfully, this Sunday we took a trip that I’d been thinking about doing for a long time. And we got paid to fish – sort of.

My wife drives to Ely, MN once a week for half a day’s work at the local long-term care center (nursing home), and I feel bad about all the driving she does (it’s 113 miles each way). She’s alone in her car for four hours on these days. Considering how much I want to get north to places like Ely, and how lonely it must be for her to do all that driving, it’s been a dream of mine for a while to turn her trip for work into a FAMILY trip. I could do the driving, my wife would get plenty of company from me and the girls, and then, while she’s working, the girls and I could fish, or ski, or just hang out in Ely. God knows there are a million places I want to check out up that way.

This Sunday we made it happen. I drove us, and as we traveled due north, I got to see some stretches of Minnesota’s Iron Range that I had never passed through before. I was able to follow on the map as we drove past lots of signs for “Public Access” to lakes and rivers, so well marked in Minnesota. I made mental notes of all the possible routes to new fishing spots.

Then, when we had gotten almost to Ely, we turned into Bear Head Lake State Park, and enjoyed a return visit to Norberg Lake, a 6-acre trout lake that we had fished with wild success last June. That time, we caught seven trout in 45 minutes from our canoe. This time we were fishing through the ice, and once again this little body of water came through.

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Beautiful rainbow trout fora  breakfast tomorrow morning.

Inna dropped us off at the parking lot, and continued on to work. The girls and I headed out by foot with our sled full of ice-fishing gear. I towed the sled behind my waist, and the girls and I did the short hike, first up a steep hill, then straight down, to get to beautiful Norberg, which is nestled in an alpine setting, at least by Minnesota standards.

I got a strong hit on my jig just five minutes in, and I hooked the fish, but the trout went berserk and managed to spit the hook out as I was getting him into the hole. It was disappointing to lose the fish, but on the other hand, it was definitely a good sign that the fish were there, and active. It took about 30 minutes to get the next strike. I felt the hit, but missed the hook set. I waited patiently though, and sure enough, about a minute later, my rod tip went down hard and fast, and this time I made no mistake about it, and got the fish out onto the ice. It was a beautiful rainbow trout.

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Sunday afternoon success.

This fish would end up being the only one we got for the day. But we had a lot of fun playing on the ice, as usual. Adriana took the initiative to build an igloo “for a fox”, using ice blocks made from holes being drilled in the lake. The construction work was just what she needed to keep warm on yet another cold winter day. The temperature was actually above zero this time (quite a rare occurrence the last two weeks), but the stiff north-west wind was cold as usual.


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Housing “for a fox”. Made by Adriana, with a little help from Vanessa and me.

We also had a great time sledding down the very steep hillside, right onto the lake. The sled we use to transport our gear can still hold both the girls for some very fast sled runs. The girls climbed trees and rocks, and we found snow drifts several feet deep where the wind had piled the snow against the shore.

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Nothing better than jumping into deep snow.

We stayed out in the wind and cold on the lake for over two hours, then did some hiking in the woods.

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The gold at the end of the “rainbow”.

All this time Inna was treating patients and writing notes, catching up at the care center. When she finished, she gave us a call, and came and picked us up back at the State Park. She gets paid for her two hours at work, and for her four hours of driving. In my fantasy, I consider this trip to be the first time we’ve ever gotten paid to go fishing. Sure, Inna did the work, but we there supporting her, and some fishing just had to be done while we waited…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beginning 2018 in the Boundary Waters

There’s a Russian superstition that the way you greet the New Year foretells how your year as a whole will go. I can be superstitious myself, and so, after three months of planning, I hit the road heading north to my friend Jeff’s house on New Year’s morning. I was starting the year off by fulfilling my ever-present dream of exploring the Boundary Waters. Taking these winter camping trips by ski, pulling a sled full of survival gear, sleeping outside in the coldest depths of winter – this is the way I wanted to start my year. I count this particular trip as a sign of good things to come in 2018.

We drove up Highway 61 on a sparkling cold afternoon to the North Shore town of Tofte, then took the beautiful and secluded Sawbill Trail to the edge of the Boundary Waters. When we reached the end of the trail, we happened to meet Clare Shirley in the parking lot. She had been kind enough to correspond with me from Sawbill Outfitters when I was still in the trip planning stages. I was nervous about leaving my old Toyota Camry in the parking lot for four days in such cold weather, but Clare said right away that they do a lot of jump starts in the winter time. I took our meeting as a good sign before we left BWCA entry point #38 for our four-day non-motorized trek.

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The old Camry still had the juice to get us up to the Boundary Waters and back in mid-winter.

We packed up our sleds and took off down Sawbill Lake at about 3:30 in the afternoon. We skied north, and I took the map out several times to check our route before still getting us slightly lost. We quickly realized our mistake though, losing only 10 minutes on our way into the bay that leads to Alton Lake.

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Our route on skis the first day. The orange line shows our path. We skied about 1.5 miles.

The sun was already going down when we reached the 30 yard portage to Alton. What a feeling to ski through that narrow tunnel of snow-laden trees, heading into the unknown, chasing the setting sun. At these moments I feel at the peak of my senses. I love the feeling of heading out into the wide open expanse of nature. Nothing is predictable, nothing is guaranteed, except adventures.

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Skiing the tunnel through the woods to Alton Lake.

A beautiful peach sunset was playing over Alton when we got to the end of the portage. I took a few precious moments to admire the windswept landscape before I pushed on to reach the site we wanted to use as our base camp for the night.

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Peach sunset inviting us to camp on Alton Lake on a below zero evening.

We set up camp in the dark, with the almost full moon rising in the sky as fast it could to light up our lakeshore camp. It takes a good half hour to get the tent set up in a foot of snow. You don’t know what’s under the snow, so you just guess about what might be a good spot, and hope you don’t hit rocks or roots. You stamp out a level platform about the size of the tent, then you put all the freezing metal tent poles together with your bare fingers. You trudge back and forth around the tent a hundred times through the deep powder to get the poles installed correctly and erect the pathetic structure that still won’t keep you warm.

After this pleasurely torture, we switched to the task of making a hot dinner. For anyone who’s never tried winter camping before, cooking outside in below zero temps can take hours. My camp stove refused to work in the freezing weather for the second year in a row, so I built a campfire to grill sausages – probably the easiest hot meal you can make when winter camping. Easier than boiling water over an open fire for sure. It’s a chore to make a fire hot enough and large enough to boil water for long in such cold temps. When the sausages were finally done, it felt like a major accomplishment. I spent the rest of the evening admiring the huge moon.

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Moon rise on our first night in the wilderness.

I slept reasonably well the first night, despite the deep cold. I woke up as the sky was brightening, about 7:30 a.m., and used my camp kettle to make hot water for instant coffee. I can’t cook over my kettle, but I can at least boil water with it. The kettle burns bark, pine cones, and little sticks. I planned ahead and brought a whole bag of little dry combustibles that the girls and I had gathered in the fall for this purpose. Of course, to get water to drink, you first have to drill through 18 inches of ice with your hand auger. Try drilling the hole first thing when you’ve just gotten out of your sleeping bag on a freezing cold morning… I persevered, and eventually drank two hot cups of coffee.

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Our camp on our first morning on Alton Lake.

We dedicated our first morning to collecting firewood, which involves dragging your sled around the shoreline, looking for downed wood, and eventually sawing and chopping it all up back at camp. Another tough chore in deep snow. There was two feet in the woods. Jeff and I both got a whole sled full of brush and fallen tree trunks, and saw a little bit of the bay behind our camp in the process. We dedicated the late morning and afternoon to fishing. I fished three hours straight without a bite, which could have been frustrating in some circumstances, but not for me in the wilderness. I had no regrets about the time I spent on the lake. It was beautiful, despite the grayness of the falling snow.

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Snow falling down steadily out of the west on our first afternoon on Alton.

The winter weather is what makes winter camping so incredible, and fresh snow was surely welcomed by both Jeff and me. It adds to the experience, it gives you one more variable to think about. Winter camping is all about problem-solving. Always bring a ski mask if you’re going to be out on the lake when the snow is blowing!

The tents were covered in snow when I got back to camp from a long day on the lake.

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I’m not sure why, but seeing the tent enveloped in white is a very satisfying feeling.

The snow continued to fall as we did our best to cook supper (I ate wild rice soup that never did come to a boil over the fire). Just as we finished eating at about 8:00, the skies suddenly cleared, and I was left with a free evening ahead of me to ski under the full moon! It was sensational skiing in the mysterious wilderness under such a big moon.

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The January 2nd full moon peering through the cedar trees outside our campsite.

Following the moonlit ski around Alton Lake, I was ready to fall right to sleep, and slept well enough a second night in a row despite the bone-chilling cold.

Our third day dawned bright and clear, and I was able to catch the last vestiges of the full moon setting in the west when I went to drill my morning hole to get drinking water.

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This was our setting for breakfast on Wednesday morning.

Clear skies meant increased cold, and the wind really picked up as well as the morning progressed. It was an ice-cold gale blowing from the north right down to the long lake to our campsite. Our tents were set up just 50 feet from shore, and the wicked wind came whipping through camp. We understood, after spending the first two hours of the day trying to warm up with no success, that we had to take action. Fortunately, there was a second, south-facing campsite on the other side of the small point we were camping on. We moved all our gear there, and it was truly a life-saving move. We would have frozen solid otherwise. The wind chill must have 30 below.

The new campsite was more protected from the wind, and the sun was strong enough by noon to thaw our frozen bodies out enough for me to go skiing. Jeff and his dog Lucky stayed back at camp. What I had in store for me was something I’ve dreamed about my whole life, without ever thinking it could actually happen to me.

Imagine you’re skiing all alone on a lake in the wilderness. You’ve got only your skis, your poles, and a snack in your pocket. You’re tired and just pushing one foot in front of the other. You pick your head up for a moment as you take a break. And there, gliding across the lake silently, are seven wolves. Pushing single file through the snow, the pack is passing by about 300 yards away from you. You stand motionless for 5 minutes watching them, in awe, praying that they don’t suddenly start heading at you, while thanking God at the same time for the chance to admire these beloved animals. This happened to me in the Boundary Waters.

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Just like that – a wolf pack trotting in front of me on the lake.

It was a stunning moment. I was completely taken aback, but kept my composure. There was no point in panicking. There was nowhere to go. I was on a big open lake. It was at least a 30 minute ski through deep snow to get back to camp. There were no trees nearby to climb, and I would have had to take off my skis to climb anything anyway – a procedure that takes several minutes, when you’re not panicking. I realized there was only one thing to do – just savor the moment. Just enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience. And that’s what I did.

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I counted seven wolves in all. They stopped to look at me, then kept moving along in silence.

It was an experience that gets ingrained in every fiber of your being, becoming a part of you forever. I’m sure anyone in my ski boots would have agreed.

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My route from the campsite in orange, with stopping point at the orange dot. The wolves came across the portage from Beth Lake, and I watched them follow the route highlighted in green.

Nothing could top this experience, and I feel it happened to me thanks to all the effort I put in to be in the wilderness, at that very spot, at that very time, despite all the challenges and difficulties that the height of winter threw at us. This was the ultimate result of all our problem-solving. The trip was complete. I earned a moment that will last a lifetime. The feeling of vulnerability I had while observing that wolf pack was the ultimate reward.

The next morning I skied back to the spot, then continued on my skis to the Beth Lake portage. I then got to experience the incredible feeling of using wolf tracks as my guide over the portage. The trail had been tracked by the wolves I saw the day before.

I had no water with me on my ski the last morning. Everything was frozen solid. I calculated how far I could ski and still make it it back to camp without water. When I returned, I used my last remaining strength to drill the water hole open one last time. I drank water right out of the lake in gulps. My camp stove still didn’t work in the extreme cold. I didn’t have the strength to make a fire. I drank that water and said thanks for the incredible purity it held. It gave me the strength to ski home.

We broke camp, packed our sleds, and skied out to civilization, heavy sleds in tow. I was tired, rundown, exhausted. And satisfied in every way.

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Sunburnt and exhausted.

This trip was yet another rewarding experience for me in the wilderness. Those wolves will be with me forever.