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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Adriana kept on exploring the rice in the afternoon.

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


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.







Namekagon River Adventure

Canoe camping is a favorite adventure pursuit of mine. I love doing it with kids the most. Add a second family with kids, and the trip gets even better. Doing it on a fast-flowing river is the final piece of the puzzle. Luckily for us, our family friends the Valentines invited us to join them for an overnight adventure on the Namekagon River in northwest Wisconsin on my last day of school this year – June 7. It was the first-ever canoe camping trip for the girls and me on a river. And it was a great way to celebrate completing my first year of work in the public schools. I left the High School for the last time at noon on Friday, and we were out adventuring on the river that same afternoon.

There were several firsts on this trip. For one thing, we had two vehicles. We left my Toyota on Friday at our take-out spot (Fritz Landing), then drove back in my friend Tim’s truck to the County K Landing where his Toyota would spend the night. This left us 17.5 miles to travel by boat in between the two vehicles, which we planned to do in less than 24 hours. With all our gear and four kids in two boats, Tim and I had it made: there was bound to be adventure.

Another first was that our girls got to camp with Tim’s kids – Daley and Finley. It definitely made for a more entertaining trip for all the young ones! The time has come to invite other kiddos along on our family camping trips for maximum enjoyment. The kids went back and forth between the two boats, changing seats, and travel companions. There was more variety for them. They were totally psyched to be together and out exploring. They had great fun together at the campsite, and there was more action for them.


The kids were bursting with enthusiasm as we set off down river.

Another first was getting to watch Tim ply his raft. It’s quite an amazing boat. Very few people row these kinds of river rafts in Minnesota. I believe they’re more common out west.


Tim at the oars, Vanessa casting up front, and Finley trolling in back.

I had my usual canoe, and of course I love it precisely for family canoe camping trips. It can hold everything!

The wives stayed home for this one, and I’m guessing they were happy with that. In fact the trip turned out to be extremely hot (temperature was 93 F when we pulled up to the river at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and was 94 when we got off on Saturday). Our wives don’t do well at all in the heat. It worked out for the best.

The Namekagon is a very clean, shallow, pristine river. I had canoe camped it twice before with student groups from UWS. I had also been on it on two other occasions on field trips with my students from UWS. This trip was different though. This was family time.

The river is part of the National Park Service’s St. Croix National Scenic Riverway. The Namekagon feeds into the St. Croix (the border between Wisconsin and Minnesota) after flowing one hundred miles through rural northern Wisconsin.  For this trip, the Namekagon was high and fast after all the rain we got in May. Tim was happy about the high water levels, since his raft does best in faster current. We had some slight rapids to run, which were fun, but nothing dangerous.


Zero development on the banks of this nationally-protected treasure.

We had no trouble covering five miles of river on our first evening. It only took us an hour and a half to drift from County K Landing to our campsite at mile 26.2. With high water conditions, we barely had to paddle. It was more important to keep the boats from running into the frequent downed trees along the river banks. We had time to fish, and basically relax as we absorbed the river’s pace.

Namekagon trip

The yellow line is our first day ‘s drift (mile 31.2 to 26.2). The orange line is day 2 (26.2 to 13.7).

It was challenging to unload from our boats at the campsite, since the river was running at a high pace. Our campsite had the usual ticks and poison ivy that we knew were going to be there, but we also got to listen to the sound of the river coming down the rapids upriver right from our tents. Daley made a fire, and the girls and I set up the tents and the screen house that was an absolute essential item for this trip. The mosquitoes were out in force. With all the kids, the screen house saved us a lot of misery and complaining.

Supper came out fabulous on the grill, including brats, hot dogs, steak, and burgers. I had some of each. We didn’t stay up too late, and I slept so well that night. It’s been a long first school year for me in the Superior public schools, and it felt so good to be done, and to be back on the water, and to sleep outdoors. We had a beautiful whip-poor-will lullaby us to sleep. The bird was no less than 10 feet from the campsite and called much of the evening.

Saturday was another hot, sunny day. I hadn’t realized how much fun the kids could have swimming together in early June, but it turned out to be a perfect day for it! They loved it! We found three different sand bars as we meandered downriver, and the kids dove into the water at each spot.


Happy swimmers!

There was also great fun to be had hunting for freshwater clams. They were everywhere! We had two good nets for the kids to play with, and they really enjoyed finding the clams.


Clam hunting – the perfect activity for kids.

The second sand bar we stopped at was the absolute perfect river beach. There was a ridge of soft, deep sand underwater, followed by a nice little drop off into the main current. We had lunch here, and it was a freshwater paradise.


Clam-digging paradise.

The kids would have been happy to spend all day digging in the soft sand.


Vanessa goes for the big ones.

There is no question that digging in the sand was the highlight of the trip for the kiddos. The freshwater clams were definitely a sign of clean water, and a source of endless happiness for the young ones.


Kids in heaven.

The highlight of the day for me was coming around a few more bends in the river. We spotted an object floating in the water. My first thought was that it was a dead beaver. It was white, and the color threw me off. Then it started moving! We had the perfect drift, taking us within feet of this creature as it swam across the river. It took just a second longer to realized it was a porcupine!


Man can they swim fast! I had no idea.

I could have reached out and touched it, we drifted so close, but definitely thought better of trying that! New respect and awe for porcupines! Incredible creatures.


So fortunate to witness this porcupine up close. A once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

We reached our final destination about 3:30 in the afternoon. What a day in the sun! A great first family overnight river trip, and a great experience camping with friends. Hope to repeat it many times over.








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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


 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!


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.

Bearskin-Duncan-Rose-Daniels-Bearskin Lake.jpg

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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Or piggy back-fishing.



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.


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.


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.



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.









The Ice Fishing Heats Up

The girls and I are finishing off a fine year of 2017 with plenty of good adventures. As the year comes to a close, I’m continually thankful for these awesome outings that have helped me get through a very long and difficult semester.

This Sunday we had several choices – downhill skiing at Chester Bowl, downhill skiing at Spirit Mountain, or ice fishing. This time I chose ice fishing, and looking back, it was definitely the right choice. It wasn’t too cold out, and there was no wind, and it was really a chance to spend a good chunk of time out on the ice.

We spent the morning cleaning the house, then I packed up our ice-fishing gear and we went to Twig, where our friend Joel has a house on Long Lake. This is not your average fishing spot. There’s no public access, and the lake gets practically no fishing pressure. Thankfully, I get to go the lake at least a half a dozen times a year, with almost invariable success.

We skied across the lake to my favorite fishing spot and drilled our first two holes to find 8 inches of ice below. Vanessa skied around the lake while I got our ice-fishing setup ready.


The snow was a perfect depth for cross-country skiing – about 4 inches.

I’ll admit that it was a little hard getting going on the fishing. There were no bites for about the first 45 minutes. Adriana got cold, and I sent the girls inside to Joel to warm up by his wood stove. While they were inside getting some ice cream, I went and drilled two more holes. It takes work to catch fish. There’s no way around it. Then I got my first one! A nice pike on a jigging spoon tipped with a minnow. What I’m most proud of at moments like this is that we don’t give up. We find ways to be flexible. I give the girls so much credit for having the patience to make our adventures work. We ended up spending 4 hours at the lake altogether.


Happy to be back out on the lake after a nice break indoors.

The girls were in a great frame of mind when they came back outside. They really wanted to play with the fish, so they used a cup to scoop water out of the hole in the ice and fill up our bucket. The fish barely fit in the bucket, but showed enough signs of life to keep the girls interested. Meanwhile, I kept jigging, and my next fish was a perch. I jigged some more, and caught a largemouth bass! A nice one too.


An unexpected largemouth bass – the third species of the day.

By this time I could sense a pattern, although I hadn’t been expecting to catch three different species from the same spot. I gave Vanessa the pole, and she had just started jigging when WHAM, another fish was on! Vanessa fought the fish valiantly, and together we managed to get it out of the hole and onto the ice. It was another nice northern pike!


Vanessa caught this nice pike all by herself, and was clearly pleased with her fine catch.

There was no need to move holes or change anything at this point. I gave the pole back to Vanessa, she kept jigging, and BAM, she had another one! She reeled it in, I helped pull it out of the hole, and low and behold – another pike!


Reeling them in one after another and feeling great!

When Vanessa took a little break, I took over, and before long we had another fighter on.


More pike action!

To round out the evening, we caught another perch, bringing the grand tally to 4 northern pike, 2 perch, and 1 largemouth bass. Enough fish for three meals! We took six fish home (over 5 lbs of fish), and I spent an hour filleting them in the snow, slicing my freezing hand twice in the process. Inna whipped up an incredible meal of fresh fish cakes in the late evening. Nothing ever tastes so good as the meals we eat from the fish we catch ourselves. I had the leftovers for lunch both Monday and Tuesday, and they have been delicious. Too bad they’re all gone now…

One other funny thing happened before we left the lake on Sunday afternoon. Right at sunset, we were joined on the lake by a pig. Really!


  Now you don’t see that every day on the lake!

As the year winds to a close, and I finish giving my students their final exams, I am looking forward to my upcoming vacation, with two weeks of new adventures and new places, including Grand Marais, the Boundary Waters, and North Carolina!





It’s All About the Play

Bringing my kids up in the outdoors has been more or less the meaning of my life for the last 3 years, since moving to Duluth. I have had plenty of opportunities to observe how my children and other children play outdoors and enjoy being outside. That said, the playfulness my children are showing as we start this winter on skis has really been overpowering. I can’t say if this playfulness has come from the fresh air, or just by coincidence, or what, these days. Maybe I myself see the kids differently when I’m on skis. Whatever the case, our first two times out on the “mountains”, first at Lutsen on November 24, and now again yesterday at Spirit Mountain, have come as a very powerful reminder of how well being outside fosters playfulness in children. I’m starting to realize that skiing, in particular, has a magical effect on children. It’s something to do with snow, and speed, and going up and down the mountain time and again. It’s something about the ease of the chairlift ride up, and the relaxed, free-spirited movement going back down. Or maybe there are other ingredients I haven’t caught on to yet as well. You can just see the happiness and playfulness in kids’ faces when they’re on their skis. I will continue to work on pinpointing the causes of this playfulness, but for now I’m thankful to get the opportunity to see it and feel it in my own kids.


These girls are pumped to be skiing again.

I take my skiing fairly seriously. I want it to be fun and playful, but also athletic and graceful and in some way artistic and spiritual. But these girls were so in the mood to have fun on the slopes these past two times, they really didn’t have a single care in the world. No goals, no worries. It was bliss for them. They were just flying through the sky. As if they had wings, not skis.


Pretty darn happy to have their first-ever season passes at Spirit Mountain.

They were both full of excitement to get their own season passes for the first time at Spirit Mountain, and I can’t blame them for that. This hill is a lot bigger than Chester Bowl. It’s the next level for us as skiers, and for us as a family. It took us three years to graduate from Chester Bowl to something bigger, and we’ve finally made it now. Buying the season passes was like buying a new home for us. We’ll still keep the old home at Chester, but it’s a very cool feeling to be starting a new life at Spirit Mountain too.


One of those nights when even running straight into the sign on the flats at the top of the hill was cause for great laughter and enjoyment!

We are obviously hoping to go to Spirit Mountain regularly, and I’m sure we’ll be having many more fun days and nights, although I don’t see how they could possibly be more enjoyable than this one was. The temperature was 37 degrees, no wind, no lines to get on the lift, and plenty of terrain for us, coming from Chester’s one run hill. To top it off, Adriana met her old pre-school classmate Teagan on the hill, and the three girls had a fabulous time riding the lift together and chasing each other down the hill on skis. They had a great time socializing, and it was very interesting to observe them. They were almost like adults. It was one of the first times I could see that my kids had no need for me at all. I could feel them growing up as they skied the evening away with their friend. They looked more like adults than kids to me, even with all their playfulness. They were proud and fearless and just on top of their game, which for kids just means being themselves, I guess. It was an awe-inspiring sight to behold.


It was just that kind of a night. Fun, but not foolish. Exciting, but not scary. Relaxed and smooth.

Furthermore, I never had a chance to post about our trip to Lutsen the day after Thanksgiving. Although it wasn’t out best ski trip ever, it was still a good time, and it was also free. We can’t complain about being on skis in November, at Minnesota’s top “western-style ski resort.” There will be bigger and better things to come, but this was a start.


The sun came out at the very end of our afternoon of free skiing at Lutsen, right when the hill  closed down for the day. The fact that Lutsen closes at 4:00 p.m. is rather absurd.

It was pouring rain when we left Duluth at 11:30, and I know it rained in Lutsen in the morning too, so it worked out for the best to come in the early afternoon. We only had a couple hours to ski, but we did get in our first alpine runs of the year, and it was cool being high up over Lake Superior.


Inna and the girls in the distance, skiing down towards Lake Superior.

The big lake was grey and stubborn below us, but the skiing was relatively carefree, the way alpine skiing should be.


Lake Superior waiting for these three to turn around and say “Wow.”

Although there is no way this year’s trip compared to the fairy tale we found in Lutsen last November, we still had our usual fun. The girls are really released when they get out on skis, and it makes for great family times.


Fun and games in the gondola.

Playfulness has been the name of the game so far this season.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Fresh light.

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


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.





Winter Camping Season Opener

I learned the hard way in past years that winter can be slow to get started here in Duluth. This year has been different. Or maybe I’m being different. I’ve gotten the winter season off to a great start this year. After opening skiing season with the girls on November 12th, we had fabulous luck to come upon more snow this weekend in Grand Marais – just right for some winter camping with Vanessa.


We found snow! 

I had planned a trip for the whole family to see the “Winterer’s Gathering” up north, yet it was grey and brown with no snow on the ground in Duluth on Saturday morning as I packed up for the weekend. Right when I was about to finish loading up the car, I got a message from my friend Jim up north, letting me know that they had gotten 4 inches of sparkly, dry snow up at his cabin the previous evening. Talk about hitting the jackpot! I quickly added our skis and boots and poles to the rest of our gear, and 2 hours later we were in our glory.



The route in (by sled) from Pike Lake Road. We weren’t going to risk getting the car stuck in the snow with such a great weekend ahead of us.

The first day in Grand Marais we attended some events at the Winterer’s Gathering at North House Folk School, then made sure to set up the tent while it was still light out. Of course, winter “camping” outside your friend’s cabin is a lot easier than winter camping in the Boundary Waters. But this was the perfect opportunity to get Vanessa in the game. And she was more than happy to sleep outside in her favorite warm sleeping bag.


We arrived.

Setting up a tent in the snow is my idea of a fun time, and doing it with your kids is even better. Then we got a fire going in the cabin. The tent was to be only our sleep home, otherwise we cooked and ate and hung out with Jim and his son Andrew in the cabin. Inna and Adriana also slept in the cabin.


My teammates for getting the tent set up. 

The tent is designed to repel snow and resist heavy winds. We got neither during the night. Still, sleeping outside when it’s +18 Fahrenheit takes some courage. You feel the soft snow under you, you feel the cold air coming in your lungs as you’re falling sleep, and you realize it could be a long night if you’re not warm enough. Vanessa and I wore some extra clothes to bed, we both have warm sleeping bags, and we threw a hot water bottle in Vanessa’s bag to warm it up when we went to sleep.



The weekend was not only about sleeping outside in the cold though. It was about meeting new people and discovering new things at the gathering. We certainly met cool people, and we had a great time with our friends. On Saturday night we all got to see the main speaker – Jon Turk. There was a lot of camaraderie at the Folk School, and we had a fabulous dinner there as well.


At the Folk School.

On Sunday morning the sun was out, and Vanessa and I woke up with a good night’s sleep behind us. We had a massive breakfast of oatmeal and coffee and toast in Jim’s cabin to celebrate. The country life had soaked into us a little at this point.


Running back inside from the outhouse.

Then we had perhaps the crown jewel of the weekend – another ski tour. Our second in as many Sundays. The girls had a great time once again, and I felt lucky that we had come north, and taken on another adventure, and succeeded. The skiing was perfect – not too cold out, sunshine all around, and perfect snow conditions. We had it all.


Another Sunday on skis.

We’ve been fortunate two weekends in a row now. It’s been an unexpectedly great start to the ski season and winter camping season. And now I have five days off from work. Finally, a chance to rest a little, and of course try some new adventures.










Ski Season Grand Opening 2017-2018

There are many moments that qualify for everyone as “landmarks” in the 4-season cycle of existence we have here in the northern United States. One that everyone recognizes is “first snow.” Taking this concept to the logical next step for our family is “first day on skis.” This year we had our first snow on Friday, November 3, and got some more on the 8th, and again on the 10th. By this weekend, it was time to get out there and enjoy it!


Getting out there on snow for the first time – a deeply subconscious need for some. Play and happiness for others.

There was two inches of snow remaining on the ground when we got up this Sunday – perfect for skiing and sledding on the golf course. Not that I am a fan of golf courses, but hey, if it’s there, turn it into an opportunity and go take advantage of it. We live less than a mile from the Enger Golf Course, and with great views of Enger Tower and Spirit Mountain to the south from the course, this artificial natural environment offers two benefits: open views and no obstructions for skiing and sledding.


The view from the highest point on the course with Spirit Mountain in the background.

Of course, it will never be as magical as skiing through an enchanted forest in full snow cover, but there was no question that we all had a glorious time getting the gears rolling, testing our sled and our skis, getting back into a winter frame of mind. The wide open landscape was perfect for getting old rhythms back, and just opening our minds.


If felt like we had the whole city below us.

Skiing for five and seven year-olds is all about having fun, and I can say we accomplished this too.


We haven’t had this sensation since last April.

The little skiers made it all the way down the course and back, coming uphill the whole way back. They haven’t missed a beat since last winter.


Getting those ski rhythms back.

Now that our first ski of the season is in the books, we can start dreaming about bigger snowfalls, groomed tracks, and wild encounters with nature far outside of Duluth. For now, optimism is running high.


Day Tripping to Giants Ridge

One of our many Chester Bowl season pass holder perks is a free day of skiing at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, MN. This ski area is located on the Iron Range, about 70 miles north of Duluth, and provides a totally different feel than skiing alongside Lake Superior. The mountain, and the locals, just feel a little more rugged than your typical north shore clientele. Not that I can tell who is a miner and who isn’t, but there is definitely a different feeling up on the Range, wherever or whatever it comes from.

The point is, taking a day trip to Giants Ridge is like going to a different planet (on a Minnesota scale), and it feels refreshing and unique. Furthermore, we got the perfect day for it. Sunny and beautiful, with even a couple of inches of fresh snow to ski on.

It took us a while to get started in the morning, since I was coming off a 13-hour workday (on a Saturday), and there was fresh snow to be shoveled in the morning.


Vanessa likes to accompany me outside when I shovel.

Finally, we got on the road, and it was a beautiful drive up Route 4, the Vermillion Trail, past Island Lake and Boulder Lake, and straight north to Biwabik. The whole route goes through big forests, with hardly any houses on the way.

When we got to Giants Ridge we had no problem parking, getting our free lift tickets, and then finding a table in the beautiful, brand new chalet for a picnic lunch. It felt like luck was on our side. Then we went out to test the fresh snow.


Inna and Vanessa riding the Sarajevo Chairlift with the beautiful new chalet in the background.

It was a bluebird day for skiing, cold enough to feel like winter, but sunny enough to feel like spring. We spent a good three hours on the slopes.


Bluebird day.

The skiing was slow in the fresh, ungroomed snow, but we tried many different runs, and eventually found a favorite run, called Placid. We skied hard! I was impressed, as always, with the girls’ stamina. They kept right on skiing all afternoon.


Happy skier.

It was fun and easy to come back into the chalet for a snack (more of Inna’s homemade hummus) when we needed one. And then we went right back out for a little more skiing.


Some photo art.

Finally we wrapped it up, but not because we had to leave… Rather, so that we could trade our downhill skis for our cross-country ones.


Getting ready for our last run down the mountain.

We didn’t ski for long on our skinny skies, as it got dark, and we were all tired, but the potential is great for more family cross-country skiing when we’re not wiped out from all the downhill fun.

Just taking a day like this is so good for the soul. Mini-vacations can provide lots of new experiences without the stress of travel. I want to keep going and going, exploring everything we can within a day’s drive of Duluth. There’s still plenty more out there to see and do.