It’s a silly thing to drive to the North Shore and back in a day. And it’s sillier when it’s snowing. But Ryan was in town for the first time since January and had not seen the big lake in too long. So we pledged ourselves to coffee, music and conversation and drove on up the road.
We turned off the road some miles past Duluth and then drove up to a Superior Hiking Trail trailhead Ryan was familiar with. The parking area, next to some sort of wastewater holding tanks, not far from giant taconite tailings basins, was not exactly the idealized version of the scenic North Shore, but we just needed a little patch of woods to wander in.
We left the trail not long after setting out. We dropped down to the river and made a small fire in a stand of cedars on its banks, only burning enough wood to make a cup of tea. The snow was falling ever silently, the river was half-frozen.
After the tea, we hiked a mile or two down the river to a series of falls that crashed through cataracts in the rock. Our timing was good and we hiked back out in the dwindling daylight and got back to the car as the world disappeared into swirling snow and early wintertime darkness.
The drive to Duluth and another 30 miles past was slow-going. The snow was at times heavy; we were driving Ryan’s capable four-wheel drive and he knew our best bet was to keep our speed down. We stopped for refreshments at Fitger’s in Duluth. When we arrived back at my car at his parents’ house hours later, all was windy and frozen.
What can I say, it was all smiles at William O’Brien State Park on Saturday afternoon and some of the best skiing I can remember. I skied the perimeter of the park, sticking to the trails that circumnavigated the outer edge of the 2,200 acres of woods and wetlands. In some places, I think I was the first classic skier to go down certain segments. There was just an eighth inch or so of powder in the tracks, which made the skiing soft and silent. Some of the snow was hoarfrost which was melting and blowing down off the trees.
I wish I could say more. The below camera-phone photos will have to suffice:
I have spent today working from home in front of a window looking out over our backyard and our neighbor’s. It has been snowing steadily all morning and I ought to go shovel but am reluctant to do so while it is still coming down.
All is silent outside, in here I have my usual mix of rock and roll playing. The dog is sleeping right behind me and groans contentedly every so often. I have slowly finished off a pot of coffee and will move on to tea after I eat lunch.
On a day like this, when the roads are messy, one could feel trapped inside the house, a prison made of fluffy snow. A trip out for lunch or to go skiing is discouraged by the trouble it would involve. But days like this are made for staying in, and the best journeys are often made without taking a single step.
The squirrels don’t mind
They dash from tree to tree—
Falling snow is no threat
Through the window I see
Little birds in the bushes
—Heartbeats like drum rolls
Known now and oft remembered
Break it with music
I went to a city an hour-and-a-half from home yesterday evening for work. I fulfilled my duty and was on my way back by about 9 p.m. It wasn’t long before I was on the Interstate, cutting east across a big flat part of Minnesota, listening to Retribution Gospel Choir loud and driving a comfortable speed in the right lane.
It is the darkness outside my headlights that I usually think of when I think of driving down a highway at night. I like doing that. I like the narrow cone of light in front of me and the vast blackness outside of it. Last night though, I had been driving along for a while when I noticed that it was not black outside the light of my headlights.
The moon will be full on Saturday night, but it was already big and bright in the sky. And it was a cold night, maybe -3 or -4°F, and the air was extremely dry and clear. So the big flat expanses outside my headlights were illuminated in this moonlight. Trees cast shadows on gentle hills a quarter-mile away, the snow was blue.
I thought to myself then that maybe this is a benefit of winter. I believe that to make it through winter you must find things you enjoy that you cannot do during the other parts of the year. Cross-country skiing is one example. And now I thought maybe such moonlit nights were another thing to look forward to. But then I remembered similar experiences on bright summer nights when a full moon throws its light on the lush landscape and you are on your way to and from swimming in the river. Alas.
When I got home, I just caught Katie before she retired to bed. I asked her if she wanted to go walk on the lake in the moonlight with me and Lola and no, she would not, but she told me she did it last night when I wasn’t home and it was wonderful and I should be safe.
I put long underwear on and a hooded sweatshirt and then boots and hat and gloves and my warm jacket. Lola was surprised when I asked her if she was interested in a walk. She is a creature dependent on habit and walks at 10:30 at night are not her habit. But she quickly got on board with the idea.
We walked down to the lake and then I slid on my butt down a path to the water. It has been cold lately and everything is very frozen. Out on the lake, the wind and sun have conspired to wipe the snow clean off big patches of ice, leaving a surface so hard and slick that you really can’t walk on it. Lola neither. So we picked our way along paths on the snow-covered patches, where the walking was really quite good, with just enough snow to give firm purchase.
It was beautiful out there. The moon was almost directly overhead, with Mars right next to it. I could see the whole lake and I could see Lola running to and fro in front of me, scouting our path through the ice, occasionally coming back to me when she went down a dead end.
I felt very good. I was enjoying winter. And I was doing something that I couldn’t do during the rest of the year. It was very cold, but it was also very still, and with no wind, a few degrees below zero is really nothing. I saw the landscape with eyes that seemed anew, and I felt deeply appreciative for the experience.
It is something else to walk across a frozen lake under a full moon. But you grow up in Minnesota and you maybe take it for granted. It was just another frigid night to many folks, and such nights have been nothing more than that to me, too. But tonight, I was warm and safe in my choices of clothing and just walking across a city lake felt like an adventure.
It occurred to me that to survive a Minnesota winter, it is necessary to maintain a childish sense of adventure. You must enjoy the very act of survival. You must want to prove your worth against harsh elements. And you must never tire of remarking on a cold night to anybody: gas station attendant, waitress, friend, family, coworker.
There’s no denying, though, as the frozen days stretch into weeks and months, that maintaining that youthful perspective can be pretty hard to do. But one should just think of a childhood hero like Will Steger, spending months crossing Antarctica by dogsled, just the gear in his sleds and thousands of miles of ice and snow, uncertain outcomes, a historic journey, and remember what it was like to dream those kinds of dreams.
Temperatures climbed out of the single digits today from where they have been stuck since Christmas, into the 15-20 degree range. A Sunday blessing. We celebrated this afternoon with a snowshoe hike at some DNR land up by Forest Lake. We all had some pent up energy from a couple weeks of weather that does not encourage outdoor recreation, though I think Lola most of all.
As we hiked away from the car, we could feel a breeze at our back and Katie remarked it would be in our faces on the way back. Our hike took us along the edge of a woods of mixed hardwoods with rolling corn fields to our left. As we trekked along, the sun came out and we reveled in the feeling of it on our faces. The woods narrowed and then jutted out like a peninsula into a large wetland. When the woods terminated, we set out across the marsh, aiming for more woods on the other side.
We didn’t make it that far. About halfway across it suddenly became apparent that the dog was flagging. While she had a lot of energy from not getting much exercise, apparently she was also out of shape. She was no longer bounding through the snow and when I called her back she struggled along slowly, pushing through the chest-high snow. Since she’s not smart enough to just slow down, we turned back.
The breeze was on our faces like Katie predicted, but the sun and blue sky was out too, and that more than made up for it.