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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Extreme fishing.

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

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

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Great way to spend a sudden day off from work.

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

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

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Two gents ahead of me at the prime pool.

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

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

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

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

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“Relaxing” fishing on the breakwater.

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

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

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Party time! Putting the wall to its intended use.

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

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

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

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Trying to think optimistic about growing vegetables this summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Climbing was a theme of the weekend.

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

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Sundays

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

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Just a mid-April snowstorm in Duluth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome to the North Pole!

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

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Let’s go fishing – for ice!

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

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Exploring the Duluth “Ice Caves” on Park Point.

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

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

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

 

Going the Distance on Lake Superior

Late October was never a time I thought would be conducive to paddling on Lake Superior. Come to find out, life is full of surprises, and the lake too can be unpredictable in opportunistic ways, not just threatening ones. Fall isn’t all just storms and high seas. It can be a time of peace and calm, despite my associations with the contrary when it comes to the world’s biggest lake. Since it’s been my recurring dream since moving to Duluth to do the impossible and “harness” the Big Lake by canoe, I proposed embracing the lake’s welcoming demeanor this past Thursday afternoon with family and friends. We took a beautiful 3-hour paddle from Park Point on the south shore across the lake to Glensheen Mansion on the north shore. A trip that didn’t end until after dark, and which will go down in my memory as a symbol of how far we’ve come at adapting to our lake habitat.

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Paddling past the Lift Bridge and shipping canal in the dark – a surreal feeling.

Earlier this summer we got out on Lake Superior in our canoe to explore the Sea Caves of Cornucopia, WI. That trip also left an indelible impression on me of the lake giving us a huge gift – an hour of calm waters crowned by the smoothest orange sunset imaginable for us to paddle out to the caves in our canoe. The naysayers were  proven wrong – a family could easily paddle to the caves without capsizing or being thrown against the rocks by massive surf.

The pattern continued last week. I brought the girls to our friend Jim’s house on the beach, and we launched at 4:00 p.m. onto the endless expanse of blue. Our little boat, propelled by just two small pieces of wood, would go on to make Lake Superior seem like the friendliest body of water on earth.

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The traditional “heading out” shot, facing the north shore of Lake Superior and downtown.

I hadn’t planned a specific route for this paddle, other than to just pass the shipping canal and reach the north shore. But once we understood what was possible for two good paddlers in an excellent canoe on this day, we decided to head far up the coast. We paddled 33 blocks up the shore, hovering a few hundred feet off the coast for the most part, but occasionally zig-zagging in closer to try new depths for fishing. The fishing was unproductive, but as I always say on these kinds of trips, the fish really aren’t important when you’re expanding your perception of what life has to offer.

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Nothing biting, and so what.

The endless water in front of us was just telling us to relax, to embrace infinity, to let go of all cares. We only saw one more boat on the water the whole afternoon. The whole huge lake was ours.

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Infinity.

We got to the old pier at Glensheen by 5:00 p.m., incredibly only a one-hour paddle. We relaxed in the sun on the pier with all the tourists, and who knows what they were thinking when they saw us pull onto shore at this tourist trap in a canoe. They had all paid $15 a piece to get on the mansion grounds, while we had taken the mansion like pirates – by sea.

At a certain moment we realized we were losing sunlight fast, and decided it was time to head back to Park Point. The ensuing paddle was wrapped in violet, pink, and orange skies. It was at this time of dusk that we completely lost any sense of connection to the everyday pressures of life, and disappeared into a timeless, watery universe.

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Quite a long paddle back home.

I let Jim take the stern for the trip back, while I focused on fishing in the bow. It was an unusual feeling to be in the bow of our canoe. It might have been the first time I’ve ever sat in the bow of the canoe that has taken our family so many places. It just added to the relaxation, as I let Jim paddle us for the first half of the trip back.

Finally, the sun went behind the ridge overlooking Duluth. The sky went from pink to black in just 15 minutes – not one of those long Minnesota sunsets we got used to over the course of the summer.

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Duluth’s October skyline – 6:45 p.m.

I joined Jim in paddling us home once the sun went down, and it was a final surreal ending to a beautiful day. The lighthouses on the shipping canal flashed at us, the city lights all came on, and the Lift Bridge took on a golden hue against the dark sky. Sure enough, just as we were approaching the canal, the Lift Bridge warning sirens came on, announcing a “ship” coming through the canal. There was a sudden moment of worry, as we were just about to pass in front of the canal, where a 700-ft tanker could be coming through… But our worry was short lived, as we saw a little commercial fishing boat pass under the bridge. It was funny to us that the bridge was raised 80 feet up in the air for just a 20 foot-tall trawler to pass under. Our laughter reverberated through the night on a lonely and enchanting Lake Superior.

 

Four Days of Fairy Tales for the Fourth

Taking the family canoeing on Lake Superior to check out the Apostle Islands Sea Caves. Camping 10 feet from the biggest lake in the world. Following friends to hidden waterfalls in the Wisconsin woods. Soaking up four days of hot sun. It was the full deal.

That’s how I would sum up our 4th of July mini vacation in Wisconsin, yet another one of our 2017 Upper Midwest family camping trips. I’m running out of superlatives. We have been on a roll since May, and every trip has been so satisfying. I’ve now slept in a tent 15 out of the last 72 nights, in such diverse places as the Superior Hiking Trail, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Grand Marais (twice), Bear Head Lake State Park, and now the South Shore of Lake Superior. We’ve really made it happen this spring, and this felt like a sort of grand finale.

The Fourth of July weekend was our big chance to get out of town and do something unusual. Both Inna and I had four whole days off. It felt like forever compared to our usual 2-day weekend trips. We had four nights of camping instead of two, giving us time to really relax, soak up the atmosphere, and do new things. And instead of going some place far away with lots of driving, we made the wise decision to go check out our own backyard, just 1 hour away from home, in the totally different world of Herbster, Wisconsin. So close to Duluth, yet so completely different.

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Welcome to one of the best campsites we’ve ever had, ten feet from Lake Superior.

To begin with, the campground was a dream. We stayed all four nights at the same site in the municipal campground of tiny Herbster. This campground had it all, including beautiful tent-only campsites on a grassy bank right on the shore of Lake Superior. Moreover, it was a short walk to extremely well-working amenities such as an outdoor dish-washing station with hot water, beautiful bathroom, and hot showers. All of these were maintained daily by excellent campground hosts. Finally, our site had a big wooden bench for four people overlooking the fire pit and the lake. For just $17 per night.

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This campsite goes down as one of my favorites of all time.

It was especially impressive to me that this campground doesn’t take reservations, and all the best sites by the Lake are for tents only. We made a mad dash from Duluth out to the campground after work on Friday, and voila, one of the best sites was still available. We made it! My kind of camping – using good planning to research this campground ahead of time, and having good fortune to get one of the last remaining sites.

Having the beach right below the site meant we got to listen to the sound of the waves lapping the shore as we fell asleep each night. A beautiful sound. Then on our first full day we took our new car and went exploring. Even took some back country roads, just to see what we’d find. Why not? We were on vacation. Having the new car was a real treat. It performed its role beautifully.

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No question about it – this is an awesome car for everything we do, including camping.

Our main destinations on Saturday were Cornucopia and Iron River. Cornucopia, like Herbster, has this incredibly relaxed, slow, otherworldly feel to it. Life just seemed to stand still there.

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Calm and quiet Cornucopia, WI.

There were two key stores in Cornucopia that we kept coming back to – Ehler’s General Store, and Halvorson’s Fish Market. These two places had all the food supplies we needed for four days. The fresh lake trout and whitefish from Halvorson’s, caught the same morning in Lake Superior, as well as smoked lake trout and whitefish, were on our menu every day of the trip.

Our Saturday drive took us inland to Iron River, past some beautiful farms.

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Canola in bloom.

We happened to drive by the Iron River National Fish Hatchery, which we stopped at for a look. It was enormous! The biggest fish hatchery I’ve ever seen by far. It was a monumental structure. It made me question how long the US government will keep funding trout stocking…

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Where the lake trout and brook trout come from.

Iron River brought a surprise too. A farmer and his wife came up to us at a handicraft market and said that they had heard of us from friends in Duluth. A few days later, we went to visit them at their amazing farm just a mile up the road from our campground. It was truly spontaneous, just the kind of thing that happens only on vacation, when routines don’t rule the day. Jack and Robyn were friendly, inviting, and full of local knowledge. The girls were thrilled to see all their animals, including ducks, chickens, dogs and horses.

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Needless to say, the girls were thrilled to ride a horse at our new friends’ farm.

Keeping the good times rolling, our friends Cindy, Jeff and May also stayed at the campground with us for two nights. We had a great time together, including going on a six hour canoeing expedition on Sunday, paddling through Bark Bay Slough to the beach on Bark Bay – one of the sandiest, warmest beaches on Lake Superior. The girls swam for what seemed like 4 hours straight. It was an idyllic beach, and I never thought anything like it existed on Lake Superior. The rocky North Shore of Lake Superior is totally different.

Cindy and Jeff also took us on a hike to the hidden gem of Lost Creek Falls outside Cornucopia on Monday. The hike was very nice, and we took some great pictures by the falls. This was definitely a place we never would have found on our own, and we felt lucky to have some local guides.

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But the real big event of the trip, at least for me, came on Monday night. We had already been packing it in, seeing the sites, bicycling, canoeing, swimming, hiking, and shopping for three days. Still, there was one more adventure I wanted for us. This was one that many people told me shouldn’t be done, or couldn’t be done. But my instinct told me we could do it, and I chose to follow my gut. We launched our canoe on Lake Superior to paddle to the Sea Caves of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

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Heading out to the Sea Caves.

We were told it couldn’t be done because Lake Superior is just too rough, too dangerous, too risky. But I know that there are times when the lake is calm enough to canoe it. We just needed the right conditions. I didn’t force it. I let the day take its course. We waited until sunset, then pounced on our chance. We left Myers Beach at 8:15, and had the whole lake to ourselves. It was a fairy tale. The last of many this weekend.

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Exploring the caves.

We had been to the Sea Caves once before, in wintertime, to see the ice formations there. That time we walked over the frozen lake to get there. But canoeing to them was also magical, especially since we were the only ones there.

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Sunset on the caves.

Finally, having explored the caves, we made the easy paddle back to shore. The whole round-trip had not even a hint of danger. We had done what some people said was impossible – exploring the “Big Lake” by canoe.

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July, 2017

And it was much easier to explore the caves on a 70 degree July evening than it was in February..

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The same spot, February, 2015.

Our 4th of July vacation was the real deal. We got to explore a very cool part of our local world, and we did it in style, with a new car, with new and old friends, and lots of sun and sand. The way summer was meant to be.

Thanksgiving

Maybe it’s just coincidence that I made this site on Thanksgiving weekend. Or not? I want the site to be a way for me to say thanks. To say thanks for the opportunities I have to explore nature with my family in northern Minnesota. To say thanks to people who read about these adventures and can relate to them. And to thank the people who inspire me to keep pushing into the woods, finding all the holes in the map, all the places that aren’t what you think they are. To say thanks for life.

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Thanks for these girls, too.

Being “Duluthed” has bad connotations and good ones. This Thanksgiving I say thanks for the good ones.