Wild Ricing

I will never tire of writing about how special Minnesota is. There is something about this state that checks all the boxes for me. Anybody who thinks I will eventually run out of new adventures, new places to explore, or new ways to enrich my life in this state will have to think again. Take this Labor Day weekend as proof.

We left Duluth on Saturday afternoon and drove west up Route 2 to Grand Rapids, then set out north on state highway 38 (Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway). From there we drove some gravel roads out to Cottonwood Lake Campground in the Bowstring State Forest. This gem of a campground was a place I had never even heard of after five years of researching campgrounds and places to explore in northeast Minnesota… Just the DNR website description alone made me want to go there: “This is a pretty remote area.” Cottonwood turned out to be one of the best Minnesota campgrounds I’ve stayed in yet.

We were invited to this specific campground by my friend John. The purpose of his stay at Cottonwood was to have a base camp for his wild ricing operation. For much of these two weeks, John and his friends are harvesting wild rice on the Mississippi River. And if it was hard for me before to imagine what ricing in Minnesota is about, I can now say that I’ve done it myself. My kids as well. It was amazing.

Before we ever got to the wild rice fields though, we had Saturday night together at the campground. We were eight people for dinner that night, and I grilled chicken on the open fire and cooked wild rice (store bought) in my new pressure cooker, given to me by my friend Sean. This amazing cooking tool was made at the Rashkobaba foundry in Afghanistan. I cooked us two cups of wild rice in 16 minutes right in the campfire. The Rashkobaba is truly a fabulous camp cooking tool. I haven’t even brought my gas stove on my last two camping trips. No need to when I bring my Dutch woodstove and now Afghani pressure cooker.

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The Rashkobaba steaming away.

Dinner came out fabulous, and the experience of cooking with such a hand-made Afghani pot in the Minnesota wilds made it even better.

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Dinner is about to be served. No electricity or gas needed…

We got up early on Sunday morning, and drove to Cohasset, MN for ricing. First I stopped in Deer River to buy my first-ever wild ricing permit. There are some interesting regulations to ricing. The season is August 15 to September 30, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Watercraft used in harvesting wild rice may not exceed 18 feet in length or 36 inches in maximum width. Push poles used to propel watercraft for harvesting wild rice must be forked at the end. The forks must be less than 12 inches in length. Flails used to harvest wild rice must be made of round, smooth wood no longer than 30 inches and weigh no more than one pound. Flails must be hand held and operated.

Basically, the wild rice harvest in Minnesota is completely non-mechanized, transporting you back to a time when you earned your food with hard work and sweat.

When we got to the downtown Cohasset boat launch on the Mississippi, we were greeted by huge fields of rice growing in every direction. There was an absolutely incredible bounty of rice there for harvesting. Rice was growing everywhere, up and down the river bank, for miles.

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John explaining to the girls how to use the flails to harvest wild rice.

We set out, and were in rice in minutes. We all got to take turns flailing, and it’s an incredible feeling to see the rice falling into the boat, kernel after kernel. The more your flail, the more rice you get. I also got to try poling, which is incredibly demanding. You don’t use oars or paddles or a motor to move the boat. Instead, to get any forward momentum, you need to push off bottom with a 25-ft wooden pole. It’s extremely tiring. There is an incredible underwater mass of rice plants and weeds that inhibit poling and create drag on the boat.

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Our friends Justin and Caleb ricing nearby.

After working an hour and a half, we were definitely ready for a lunch break. We got tangible results from our labor, and it was an incredible feeling to go back to the launch with rice in our boat.

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Our two boats starting to fill up with rice.

With so much rice to be had everywhere around you, it’s just a matter of keeping up the intensity to get as much rice as you want. With dedication, you could get a whole boat full in a day. The Natives we saw everywhere around us were getting their boats full in the allotted 6 hours.

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Hard work, but incredibly rewarding.

I was proud of Vanessa and Adriana. They gave their all at ricing that morning, and they clearly know how it’s harvested now. They’ve done it.

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Vanessa with our bounty.

For children, this is the ultimate way to see where their food comes from. And it comes from fresh water in Minnesota.

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All smiles about the ricing.

For me, our haul of rice was not the key. The important part was experiencing this tradition ourselves, and taking part in it.

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In the afternoon the girls and I went out in my canoe to explore the Mississippi some more and try fishing. The whole time, the girls begged me to take them back into the rice to touch it, feel it, and play with it.

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Adriana kept on exploring the rice in the afternoon.

The rest of the weekend was spent fishing, cooking, playing in camp, and bicycling.

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Adriana just got her first bicycle rack, and has started transporting things on her bike.

This was another fine trip that concluded an absolutely sensational summer of outdoors living. I am constantly aware how lucky we are to live here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best BWCA Trip Yet: Cherokee Lake Loop

I’ve been canoe camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness three times before this year. There was the family trip in May, 2016 to the Kawishiwi River Triangle. Then there was the May, 2017 family trip to Clearwater Lake and the Border Route Trail. And finally the May, 2018 family fishing trip to Wood Lake out of Ely. These trips fulfilled my dreams of taking the family camping in the BWCA. I have also done four winter camping trips in the Boundary Waters. Every one of these trips has left me hungry for more. Even hungrier than when I was just at the dreaming stage.

This summer I wanted to take my BWCA canoe tripping to the next level. But with Inna pregnant, it wasn’t going to be a family trip. I had previously been writing back and forth with my friend Kris Ekelund for half a year about a potential extreme trip together in Europe or Asia. Then I found out Inna was pregnant, and suddenly going to Mongolia or Mt. Elbrus didn’t look possible. I couldn’t leave my wife alone with the kids for long, and it doesn’t make sense to go halfway around the world for a few days… I proposed to Kris back in February that he come to Minnesota and we do an epic camping adventure in my own backyard – the BWCA. I was thrilled when he said yes to the Cherokee Lake Loop, a 32-mile route with 14 portages! This was always going to be a physically challenging, difficult route. Kris was game!

Kris arrived in Minneapolis from Stockholm on Friday, June 21 – the Summer Solstice. We drove back to Duluth together and had supper with the family, and then continued our way up to Two Harbors for the night to avoid the crush of Grandma’s Marathon traffic in Duluth on Saturday morning. We made it to our friends’ Cindy and Jeff’s cabin about 12:30 a.m. to spend the night, and were up the next morning at 6:30 to head north.

It’s an easy drive up Highway 61 from Two Harbors to Tofte, MN, and from there we took a left turn and headed up, up, up the Sawbill Trail from Lake Superior to some of the highest territory in Minnesota, gaining about 1,000 ft. in 10 miles. Our whole trip took place at an elevation of 1,700 to 1,900 ft., which is about as high as it gets in Minnesota. We were so high, in fact, that we crossed the Continental Divide twice: the point from which water either flows north to the Arctic Ocean, or south to Lake Superior and into the Atlantic Ocean.

We had the canoe packed and ready to go by 10:00 a.m., and set off on sunny and serene Sawbill Lake. What a feeling to be off on my biggest canoe camping expedition yet! It was awesome having Kris as my paddle partner, and we had no trouble cruising up Sawbill, taking a quick break at one campsite to tie on our fishing lures. We were getting back into old rhythms together, and it felt good.

We did some fishing in the northern half of Sawbill without catching anything, and eventually reached our first portage, which parallels rocky Ada Creek for 80 rods. A funny thing happened here – we met three young day-trippers at the end of the portage who had carried their canoe and paddles across the portage, then decided to go right back. They had essentially carried the portage for nothing. They didn’t have camping gear with them, but still… I suggested to them, “If you carried all the way here, you might as well go check out Ada Creek. You never know, there could be a moose around the first bend.” I couldn’t seem to get my logic across. Just go for a quick paddle if you’ve done all the work to get there! Kris and I set forwards, while the young threesome went back to Sawbill. We paddled for maybe five minutes, around the first bend, when Kris saw a small water snake on the water’s surface. It slithered under some rocks, but made us aware of the wildlife around us. We turned our heads back to the creek (quite wide in this spot), took a few strokes, and boom! There was a beautiful cow moose with two calves on the shore!

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About 4 hours into the trip, and we already had our first moose sighting, on Ada Creek.

The cow spent a good ten minutes feeding on underwater vegetation at the water’s edge while Kris and I watched from the canoe. What a sight! The moose was not phased by us in the least. Her two calves were much more cautious, and hung out behind some trees the whole time. They never came down to the water’s edge. Clearly they were obeying mommy’s orders to stay back!

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Lunch time for the moose.

Kris and I were both stunned and thrilled to see our first three moose. Little did we know it was going to happen all over again a couple hours later.

We continued on our way once the moose and its calves walked up the bank and out of sight. We quickly came to the end of Ada Creek, and portaged the 80 rods into Ada Lake. I’ll admit, I was still taken aback by the moose, and it was hot out, and I somehow took us down the wrong arm of Ada Lake.  No matter though – it was a beautiful, scenic backwater, and we got back on our way again in 5 minutes. We immediately came to the muddy 90 rod portage to Skoop Lake. This is the one people were telling us to dread. Frankly, it really wasn’t that bad.

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When spirits are high, even the tough portages bring a smile.

Skoop Lake took just minutes to cross, and then we were on to the fourth portage of our day, the long one (180 rods) over the Continental Divide and into Cherokee Creek. I’ll admit, I was happy to be done with the portaging when we finally got to Cherokee Creek.

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Plenty of chances to admire the scenery when you have to walk each portage three times (Skoop Lake to Cherokee Creek).

Did I mention we had to double portage each carry? We had three packs, the canoe, fishing poles, a fishing net, and other items, so there was no way we could carry it all across the portage in just one carry. That’s why we had to walk back and get the second load of stuff on every portage, all 14 of them. We walked over five miles in 4 days just portaging.

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Kris was very intent on beating the bugs on all the portages. His Swedish spray did the job.

Cherokee Creek is incredibly beautiful. There were bright yellow lilies everywhere in the shallow water. There are steep wooded hillsides on both sides of the creek.

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Beautiful and relaxing Cherokee Creek.

We also carried the canoe over a beaver dam.

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Just a little obstacle to make us earn it.

Then we came around another bend, and…

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Look who’s up ahead!

There was another moose! When it spotted us, the big cow calmly left the water and started working its way up the side of the creek. Still, we got to admire it for a few minutes before it decided life would be better on the other side of the creek, where it could scamper up the hill easier and get away from us. It plunged into the creek and swam across, right in front of us! We were so lucky to witness this swimming moose.

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Yup, that’s a moose in the water ahead.

Cherokee Lake is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the BWCA, and when we finally made it there after 8 hours of paddling and portaging, we weren’t in much of a mood to go hunting for campsites. Fortunately, the owner of Sawbill Outfitters had told me earlier that morning that there’s a great campsite on the west shore very close to where the creek flows out of the lake. When we approached the site, there was an enormous golden eagle sitting on the rock ledge, right by the fire grate. A good omen, if ever there was one.

Sure enough, this was a campsite where you feel like a king just sitting in your chair. There’s a commanding view over the lake from the beautiful rock ledge, and there was a nice breeze blowing from the east to keep any mosquitoes away. It felt awesome to cook a huge supper of grilled lamb and wild rice, and just soak in all the good fortune we had this day.

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Kings’ campsite.

The first night of sleep was fantastic, and then we were off and ready for the next adventures on day 2. We packed up our whole camp and loaded the canoe before setting out to explore Cherokee Lake. It’s quite a large body of water, but canoeable in half a day. We explored campsites, checked out beaches, fished in the very deep north end, and even caught a burbot (also known as eelpout) – a rare catch.

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Our first night’s campsite in yellow, the spot of the burbot catch in green. Portage to Sitka Lake at southern end of Cherokee.

About the time we caught the fish, the sky turned a little darker, and we decided to head for our first portage of the day – the “rollercoaster” from Cherokee to Sitka Lake, over the Continental Divide again. The winds picked up and it started raining steadily while we were still on the north end of the lake, so we pushed hard for 20 minutes to reach our portage. We were soaked by the time we reached shore, and there was no sign the rain was going to let up.

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Wet, but with our first catch of the trip.

The rest of the day was a slog through the rain on wet portages from Sitka to North Temperance Lake, and then another one to South Temperance Lake. We had been planning all along to camp on South Temperance, and we were fortunate to find an open site. The one we found was not the one we were originally looking for (some canoeists on Cherokee recommended the wide-open site they had left on South Temperance), but in the end it was just as well. The site we did find had plenty of places to rig up a tarp, and it continued to rain all evening, and well into the night.

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Rainy camp on South Temperance Lake.

Dinner our second night was an awesome clam sauce and pasta meal with olives, garlic, and fresh parsley. Cooking and eating under the tarp was cool in its own way. We knew by this point we were two tough guys. When you get through the wet, rainy days and you’re still having fun, you know you have what it takes to tackle wilderness tripping.

I slept our second night without a mattress pad, since mine had gotten soaked on the outside of my pack all day. The ground was hard. I learned my lesson.

Day 3 dawned misty and overcast, but not so rainy. Kris got up early and went fishing solo, but to our surprise the fish weren’t biting. We did fry up the previous day’s eelpout for breakfast, which was mighty tasty. We tried fishing some more together after we broke down camp, but not even a bite. The lack of fishing success was a little troublesome, but not really, because it felt so good just being together in nature. Who cares about fish when the world is yours? We pushed ahead, and explored the headwaters of the Temperance River (more beaver dams), then did a long portage (240 rods) to Weird Lake.

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Headwaters of the Temperance River with beaver dam.

The portage to Weird parallels the rocky river, although you only actually see the river in a few spots. From Weird we paddled into Jack Lake (both of these are just wider sections of the Temperance River), and then a light rain came back. We didn’t give up on the fishing, and while we were trying our luck on Jack, we got lucky in a different way – another moose was feeding in the water!

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Fishing with another moose.

The moose was alone, as far as we could tell, and very docile. It watched us fish and had its water vegetation dinner for about 10 minutes. Then it slowly walked into the woods.

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Up close.

One of the cool things about moose is that you get to study them for a while. They’re so calm. They bring a hushed effect on canoeists as well. You just feel at peace inside.

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Just taking its time.

Once the moose left, we caught two small northern pike, then did the last, short portage of the day into Kelly Lake. We were ready to set up camp by the time we got to the southern end of Kelly. There we had great luck finding a perfect campsite right as the sun started coming out for the first time in a day and half. It was 7:00 p.m. now, and we were dying to eat supper after paddling, portaging, and fishing all day. Despite the absolute barrage of mosquitoes, I was able to boil egg noodles on my camp stove and mix in a lot of butter and beef jerky for our dinner. Protein packed meal! Kris had plenty of Swedish chocolate and even cookies with him for our dessert. The bugs at this site just wouldn’t quit, and we were in bed by ten. As I lay in my sleeping bag (on my dry mattress this time), I got to hear wolves howling twice across Kelly Lake! It was my first wolf howl experience, and it was impressive! It sounded like five or six wolves, maybe 3 or 4 miles away.

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Our last night’s camp, Kelly Lake.

On our final, fourth day we felt like triumphant wilderness warriors. The rain was now gone, the bugs were gone too, and we had just three portages left to get back to Sawbill Lake.

We made the long carry to Burnt Lake, and prioritized that lake for our day’s fishing. And did that ever pay off! We found a hot spot and a hot lure, trolling a yellow and purple crankbait about 30 yard off two points on the north end of the lake. We caught three walleyes and a nice northern in less than an hour. Finally, we were catching ’em! We had plenty of fish for dinner back in Duluth that night.

We had to keep moving though, and when we made it to Smoke Lake, dark clouds were forming on the horizon. Kris caught one more pike as we trolled across Smoke. A stiff west wind picked up, and it was tough paddling across the lake. We had to paddle into shore to be able to land Kris’ fish. We had to really work for the final portion of our trip, but that’s what this trip was all about from the beginning!

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Riders on the storm.

We made the last carry into Sawbill, and made a mad dash in the canoe straight south down the lake with the wind perpendicular to us now. The wind was blowing the storm straight at us, and there were lightning bolts flashing in the distance. We were determined to make it back though, and we reached Sawbill landing just as the brunt of the storm passed south of us. As soon as we got the canoe out of the water, it started raining.

What can I say about this Cherokee Lake loop trip with Kris? It was one of the defining moments of my life. We were a great team, and we worked our butts off. We covered 32 miles in 4 days, walking 14 portage trails 3 times each. We brought a lot of gear, but I didn’t have many regrets. We were able to enjoy awesome food, great wildlife sightings, and fabulous fishing our last day together. This was the real thing, and the pride I felt inside was as electric as the lightning bolts we saw crashing down as we pulled into shore to wrap up our epic trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Admiring Ice

When a long winter in Duluth, Minnesota just doesn’t want to give up (we’re still getting snow in May), you take the extreme elements and go with them. Sure, all that snow and ice gets old, but there are advantages, too. One of my favorite events is the spring ice breakup on Lake Superior. It’s incredible. All of a sudden the world’s biggest lake is transformed into an endless sea of small (and not so small) icebergs. These chunks of ice can float any which way, depending on the wind direction. This year, just like last year, the winds were just right to keep the ice in the Duluth area. And even when the ice got blown out a couple times, the wind changed a few days layer, and blew it all back in. Some of these ice chunks traveled 200 miles across Lake Superior from Canada to end up right here in Duluth. As a result, we got awesome iceberg paddling for the second year in a row. Jump in the canoe and go check it out!

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Good times, Duluth style – netting icebergs from the canoe.

This spring I got out three times for ice explorations on the “Big Lake.” The first trip came on Sunday, April 14th, with my friend John. It was a good first test. Conditions were looking prime for ice paddling. The second trip came on Good Friday, April 19th, with Adriana and John again. We took advantage of some perfect weather to go net some ice while Vanessa was at ballet class. Lastly, I went the next morning with my friend Andrew. Each day the ice conditions were different. There was actually more ice later in the week than on my first trip. That’s the way the icebergs roll here.

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Try paddling through this! It looks hard, but picking your route through the endless ice obstacles is the whole fun of it.

Duluth is a good-looking city, in my opinion, but there’s no question that the best views are from the water. Get out in your boat of choice and enjoy it! One thing though – small, maneuverable boats work best for navigating through the ice. You don’t see any motor boats out there when the icebergs are in.

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Ice is a really fun material for kids to play with. Jab the icebergs with your paddles. Give ’em a push. Or just float alongside and study the crystals. Plus, I can say is it’s a lot easier to catch ice than to catch fish. “Fishing” for ice is the perfect game for kids.

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Easy catch!

Paddling through the shipping canal is always a good time, and you are guaranteed to get lots of tourists taking your picture. I’m guessing they’re saying something like “Look at what the crazy locals do for fun!”

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Heading out with Andrew, exiting the shipping canal.

Once you get out among the bergs, the options are endless. Go around them in any direction, or try smashing right through them. But don’t plan on keeping a specific route. Let the ice dictate which direction you go.

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A lot of the ice chunks look like round donuts. Not sure why.

The cool thing about the ice is every piece is different. Some chunks are crystal clear, some are dark and rough. Some are disintegrating before your eyes, some are hard as rock. You want to go test every one, to find each piece’s true properties. And then you see the weirdest things – spiders, other bugs, etc. All crawling in the ice!

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Plenty of big ones out there.

Best of all is the feeling of just lounging in the boat. No need to paddle hard – you can’t get anywhere. You’re blocked in. No point having a destination, or a goal. Just float around and see where the ice takes you.

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Andrew feeling relaxed.

It’s good to embrace the lake. Admire the ice. Feel spring coming on, but celebrate the beauty of ice and the winter that brings it at the same time. That’s what we do here. Happy to be part of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Camping At Its Peak (Part 2)

I love winter camping for the challenge. Each trip makes its own demands. Cold and snow are always part of the equation. Add a lack of time, and a burning desire to go as far as possible in 24 hours, and you get the trip my friend John and I did to Found Lake on February 16 and 17, 2019.

This trip was sandwiched in between my other duties for the weekend. Friday evening I had my regular shift at Chester Bowl until 9:00 p.m. Saturday morning we attended Adriana’s parent observation ballet class from 9:00 to 10:00 a.m. On Sunday I knew I had to do homework for professional development as well as translating. That doesn’t leave much time for winter camping… But the desire to get back to the Boundary Waters overpowers any time constraints in many cases.

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Saturday morning started out with parent observation day at Adriana’s ballet class. She’s in the middle of the photo with her hands in the air.

John wrote to me at 9:30 on Saturday morning about what my plans were the weekend, and I invited him to come with me spur of the moment, and soon I had a partner for the trip to Ely and up the Fernberg Trail to Moose Lake. I had to do all my packing and grocery shopping in an hour,  which is never a good thing, but we still managed to leave Duluth by 12:30 in the afternoon.

The drive through the snow-filled tunnels that cut through the north woods in February was fabulous. We stopped at Snowshoe Country Lodge to meet the owner and log-cabin builder Brodigan. John and I enjoyed talking to him about wood-building craftsmanship. This guy is a Minnesota legend. But we still had to get deep into the Boundary Waters before sundown, so we hit the road, and got to Moose Lake at 4:00 p.m.  Then we began the long ski in. I was pulling my heavy pulk complete with woodstove and firewood, and John also had a saucer sled in tow. We skied up Moose, to Newfound Lake, and then across a short portage to Found.

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Our route in on day 1 (red line). Approximately a 4-mile long ski. We entered at Entry Point 25 on Moose Lake, which is the boundary of the BWCA.

When we got to camp, we met my friend Jeff and five of his friends. We were eight altogether! Hanging out with a bunch of like-minded fishermen and winter adventurers was a cool thing. This was also the third winter in a row that I’ve been winter camping with Jeff. It all started with him!

We were served fresh brook trout right off the bat upon arrival, and I made an awesome bean soup with lime and cilantro for dinner while John dug out a large area in the deep snow for our tent. No canvas wall tent on this trip, but my mountaineering tent was plenty adequate. There’s no heat source in my tent, and temps were right about zero at night, but we slept just fine.

Next morning a dogsled team came racing by our camp early in the morning. It was my first time seeing a dogsled team in the BWCA. I watched the team run across Found Lake, and also noticed they left the lake at a spot where no portage trail was indicated on our map. Hmmm…

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Dog-sledders making their way through the deep snow on Found Lake.

Little did I know that there are certain dogsled routes that aren’t marked on any maps because they’re not maintained by the US Forest Service for summer use. I’m guessing these routes go through a lot of marshy, boggy territory that can’t be easily portaged in summer. But once everything freezes up in winter, conditions for dog-sledding are ideal.

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Follow those sled dogs to Canada!

We went ice-fishing for brook trout on Found Lake after breakfast. Brook trout are my favorite species of fish, and I dream about catching them through the ice. At the same time, I also love to ski, and I realized after watching the sled dog team pass in the morning that they had made the perfect track for us to ski to Basswood Lake, a huge body of water on the border with Canada. After fishing for about an hour and a half without any fish, I suggested to John and a new friend, Dan, that we go for a ski. I didn’t regret it.

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Our ice-fishing operation seen from above.

Our ski expedition took us out Found through a beautiful young birch forest and into a series of beaver ponds on a stream. The boggy environment had lots of open nooks and crannies to ski through. We saw beaver tracks and beaver lodges. The stream we followed entered Manomin Lake, which we skied across, and continued down to Basswood. The scenery everywhere was breathtaking. This is true wilderness, and it was a pleasure to be out exploring a trail that’s not even marked on the map.

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Skiing across Manomin Lake with friends.

The route we took was like entering a different world. I was really learning a whole new part of the BWCA, and it felt great.

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Our afternoon route on Sunday from Found Lake to Basswood and back. About a 3-hr round-trip ski with a couple breaks. 

When we got back to Found, I spotted a pine marten checking out our camp. I wonder if he was as starving as we were? We were already running behind schedule, but I got my woodstove cranking, and cooked wild rice and chorizo sausage for an awesome lunch. There was no way we could ski out of the BWCA without a big meal first. We broke camp, and started the 4-mile ski back to our car.

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Another great weekend of winter camping comes to an end.

The final ski out was a lot harder, now that we were pulling our heavy loads again. Plus we were exhausted from having spent the whole weekend skiing in deep snow. We were totally gassed by the time we got back to the entry point. My whole body was sore from pulling the pulk. It was all worth it though. I added another fine Boundary Waters experience to my quiver! The BWCA can only be called paradise in winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Winter Camping At Its Peak (Part 1)

Taking a winter camping trip is about constant physical exertion. No matter what you do, it’s work. Every step you take, every movement, takes effort. You have to haul. You have to drill. You have to climb. You have to dig. There’s nothing you can do without coming into contact with snow and ice. They carry you. But they demand your constant effort.

Snow and ice have two qualities that make you work – snow is heavy, ice is hard. Multiply this by 4 feet of snow and 21 inches of ice, and you have the peak winter camping conditions my friends and I faced in northern Minnesota on back-to-back winter camping trips the second and third weekends of February, 2019.

I took my first of the deep winter trips with my friend Ruurd. We left Duluth on a sunny Friday afternoon thanks to my day off at the school district. It felt good to get an early start on the weekend, which doesn’t happen very often for me, since I typically work Chester Bowl on Friday evenings.

What we found on our route north was nothing short of magical: huge snowbanks straddled the Cramer Rd. heading north from Finland, MN. Then, when we turned west onto the practically one-lane Wanless Rd, the whole roadbed became a snowy tunnel into the deep woods. We left Ruurd’s car behind and set out for Scarp Lake through the deep, viscous powder on skis and snowshoes. We were smart to plan a short entry route, because it was already 4:15 when we left the car, and we had heavy loads to pull and a large tent to set up before dark.

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Guess we won’t be using this picnic table.

There was certainly no competition for a campsite… In fact, we didn’t see a soul the whole weekend. Who else would want to be out there? There was no point trying to set up camp in the woods: the snow there was even deeper than on the windswept lake. Did I mention the wind was howling the first night? Thankfully, you can camp anywhere you want on the frozen lake, and that’s what we did.

We used Ruurd’s deluxe Snowtrekker tent as our palace. This canvas-walled tent holds heat, and we had two wood stoves along on the trip. I also brought a whole bag full of dry wood from home to get us through our first night. We had a good meal, and went to sleep about 11:00. Ruurd woke up three times in the night to stoke the fire. The heat from the stove disappears within an hour…

We woke up Saturday to temps of -32 C (-25 F). Good thing we had the Snowtrekker.

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This wall tent basically saved our lives.

Saturday was just the ultimate peak winter backcountry ski day. We headed out skiing right after breakfast, and our route along the narrow hogback ridge offered incredible vistas of the surrounding jewels. The “hogbacks” are glacially-formed, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel. We skied all the way to Steer Lake in the morning. It doesn’t look far on the map, but breaking trail on skis through four feet of powder to get there is a totally different proposition. We made it.

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Our route in from Hogback Lake the first day is in blue. Our ski along the esker to Steer Lake the second day (which I did there and back twice) in orange.

I really enjoyed the challenge of skiing to Steer, and wanted to go back again so much with my ice-fishing gear that I did the whole trip all over again in the afternoon, alone.

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Our home on Scarp Lake.

First we came home for lunch, which was excellent. You just can’t stop eating when you’re winter camping. I drilled us two holes for an attempt at ice-fishing after lunch, but after 30 minutes of fruitless, frozen fishing, we gave up. That’s when I put my skis back on to go to Steer.

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Getting my soup going on the wood stove before heading out for more ice-fishing on Steer Lake.

The ice-fishing on Steer didn’t produce any fish either, but I was proud I did it. I am quite confident I am the only person who is going to ice fish Steer Lake this whole winter. It felt good to tap such a pristine resource.

When I finally got home in the dark at 6:30, I was beat. Time for six bowls of soup! Ruurd and I ate the whole big pot in one evening. The wood stove was the key to our pleasure and our success. It was heaven on earth to eat a good meal in a warm tent.

Sunday morning we tried a little bit more jigging, but it was just too cold to catch anything. No matter, we will be back again in summer in the pursuit of trout.

We packed up our gear and headed back to the Hogback Lake parking lot. The usual end-of-trip exhaustion was setting in when we got to the car. Thankfully, the car started, and I treated us to coffee and donuts on the way home. Another fabulous winter trip in the books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unforgettable Thanksgiving Halo and Sunset

I have a lot to be thankful for, and I could make a long list of these things. People would be top on that list. I could name so many people who have made my life what it is. I’m thankful to everyone on that list.

But this year’s Thanksgiving was not only about being thankful for what we have. It was also a day that brought me and my kids a specific experience that I’m very thankful for.

Thursday was a beautiful sunny day in Duluth, as this picture taken on our afternoon hike can attest to.

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We climbed straight up the hill from our front door, met some friends, and enjoyed a sunny hike on Thanksgiving afternoon.

We got back from the hike about 2:00, and the turkey was still roasting in the oven, and the weather was beautiful, so I decided to take the girls ice-fishing on Rice Lake. I knew it would mean having a very active afternoon, but I really wanted to get the girls out on the ice. I had already been out on Rice Lake the day before, and I knew it was iced over real well.

As we drove to the lake, clouds suddenly rolled in. I didn’t mind, because I was mainly interested in the fishing, which can be even better in overcast weather. But as daylight was winding down on the ice, suddenly the sun came roaring back from under the clouds on the horizon. And the next fifteen minutes was something I’ll never forget. It’s best described in photos.

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As we came on to the lake at 3:30, the sun was just barely visible on the horizon.

We got out to our spot, and started fishing (we caught no fish in the hour we were on the ice). The sun was starting to poke out more from under the clouds.

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Jigging on the ice.

The girls fished a while, and that went on to their usual play. They were having fun, and meanwhile the sunset was starting to get interesting.

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The light suddenly broke through really strong under the the clouds as the sun sank even lower. The sudden change in light was striking. This photo does it some justice.

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Fresh light.

Then the sun started to go wild. The whole sky was turning orange.

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It’s coming.

The sky took on an incredible glow. It was alive. I don’t what other words to use. It was just otherworldly.

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Sunset coming on hard.

The clouds just got brighter and brighter as the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. I know that’s what happens when the sun sets, but this time it was extraordinary.

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Then, as I was admiring Adriana playing in the incredible color, I turned around to check on Vanessa. Low and behold there was a rainbow taking shape right behind her!

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What is going on here?!

There were four distinctive colors to be seen, particularly the pinkish red color. It got brighter and intensified in the following minutes. It was 180 degrees across the sky from the sunset.

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Where did that come from?!

Meanwhile, to the south-west, the sun was just blazing. It was a very powerful experience, as we could now observe a sunset and a rainbow going on at the same time, over a frozen lake. I just kept turning back and forth, taking new photos every 10 seconds.

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Ice on fire.

The girls kept playing throughout, and they definitely added to the power of the experience with their play. But eventually even they needed to stop and just look in awe.

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Incredible moment.

The girls got back to their play, and suddenly we spotted the other tip of the rainbow. It was further west, maybe 120 degrees from the sunset. It was fading now as the sun sank completely behind the horizon.

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Second tip of the rainbow.

The word “rainbow” might be totally incorrect to describe what we saw. I don’t know. According to a Russian friend of mine, the optical phenomenon we saw was a halo, a rainbow circle around the sun, common in high latitude regions in winter. I am inclined to believe him, since I have no other way to explain how we could see two tips of a rainbow on a perfectly dry day in November at sunset. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like it before. It was remarkable. What we witnessed was a miracle that multiplied the power of Thanksgiving for me.