The wind is quiet, the stars twinkle in the heavens, and the night is calm. I sleep like a rock and do not wake up until 5:30 a.m. The sky is cloudy but the air feels invigorating. I am feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the tent packing task. This morning, I have twelve rocks to throw out of my sleeping abode before we even begin. The thought was that they would keep us from blowing away if necessary. It seems like a whole day’s work before breakfast.
Bananas with blueberries, French toast, and sausage is being served. Along with my hot chocolate, it hits the spot. By 9 a.m. and launching time, the sky has begun to clear. Everyone is in the big rafts today as there, apparently, are larger and more numerous rapids on this stretch of the river. It also seems warmer temperature wise with a cloudless sky allowing for sustained hot sunshine.
The guides start out rowing and every so many minutes, we navigate a new rapid. Dodging rocks is the main activity necessary in maneuvering through these low water rapids. Several times throughout the morning, we get hung up on a rock in the churning rolling water. This leaves Marla with the necessity of coming up with a strategy for getting off the hindrance. Marla is a 46-year-old high school English teacher during the school year. She is thin and of a slight build – not at all your body builder type. Soon instructions are issued to haul heavy objects to the opposite side of the boat and then more instructions for jumping up and down. Colin has been recruited for our raft as he is a big helper in getting us unstuck.
It is right before lunch when we beach our rafts along the shore just above the class III rapids known as Joe Hutch Canyon Rapids. The purpose of the stop is to allow Haden and Marla to scope out the rapids and develop a plan of approach. They confer for a few minutes and then we push off again. The dips and rolls are a thrill for me, and our raft makes it through the rapids with no issues. Marla is delighted when she looks back and realizes that Haden is stuck on a rock and not her. Haden is much more experienced and almost never gets hung up, so she feels accomplished.
Once we are through these rapids, it is time for lunch on another sandy beach. Some of the group jumps into the river to cool off. I opt to dump water on myself instead. The water is muddy, I can’t swim, and hearing aids don’t do well in water. I tell myself all these reasons but mostly, I just don’t want to be soaked all the way to my underwear. While everyone cools off in the water, Marla and Haden pull out a makeshift table and throw together a taco salad wrap. It is scrumptious. They are wonderful cooks.
Once our stomachs are full, our guides make a decision to lash our rafts together again and put the outboard motor back on. We stop at a very muddy beach for this task. Jumping off the boat lands one in a thick black mud that sucks off my sandals. Getting the motor back on seems to be a struggle and then it doesn’t want to start. Haden and then Alex pulls the start cord over and over before it finally sputters to life. Through calmer water, we motor along at a faster pace than rowing allows. A quick decoupling occurs at the head of a rapid before we tumble through it. From there on out, each guide rows his own raft until close to supper time. Marla is tired and slowing down from exhaustion. Two other groups are closing in leading to concern for getting a campsite. Therefore, a decision is made to have Haden motor on ahead and claim the next site. We will catch up later.
We roll into the campsite around 6:30 p.m. This evening the sun is shining, at least, but the wind has picked up. The site is located on a sandy hill and our choice for tent placements appears limited. I sigh as I consider the work ahead to erect our tents. Dawn and I drag our fifty-pound waterproof bags up a steep sandy hill. My breath comes in huge gasps and my feet slip back in the sand each time I take a step forward. There are little thistles growing sporadically and I manage to kick a couple during my trek. Ugh! Each time requires sitting down and pulling out the thorns. As we pull out my tent, the wind howls and it threatens to blow away into the great beyond. While Dawn hangs on for dear life, I collect ten rocks to weigh it down. Even that is not enough. Beads of sweat roll down my face and into my eyes. This is exhausting and frustrating. I am already dehydrated and becoming more so by the minute. Inside the tent, the temperature is like an oven. The sand which has collected the heat all day radiates it back to me like a floor with radiant heat. Finally, everything is situated, and I flop into a lawn chair to wait for supper. I am so glad this is the last night as I have had enough fun erecting tents.
With a little hydration, I recover enough to enjoy the tasty evening meal of mashed potatoes and steak. Then it is time for bed. The night starts out wild and noisy again as the wind picks up more shortly after flopping out on top of the sleeping bag. It whistles across the canyon and the tent rocks back and forth. Will I and my ten rocks hold it down. I hope so! Off in the distance, I hear the clattering sound of some of the kitchen equipment flying freely across the beach. I lay there awake for a couple of hours listening to the gale and the roaring water of the rapids close below. I finally decide I probably won’t blow away and drift off to sleep.
It is light when I awaken at 5 a.m. Dawn and I soon begin our last day task of taking down the tents and stashing our gear in the waterproof bags. We have become experts at creative stuffing. It goes much faster this morning, and I am soon ready to lug my bag down to the raft staging area. In my early morning wisdom, I decide to roll the heavy bag down the hill instead of carrying it. I aim for the open area between the tables and give it a push. But instead of rolling where I expect it to, it makes a left curve towards the liquids breakfast table. Oh no! I see horrified aghast looks on the faces of everyone on the beach as I make a running dive after the runaway bag. I catch it just as it touches the table leg.
“Good catch,” Alex comments, “That was the save of the day.”
Breakfast for me is the last of the hot chocolate, some grapes, and a bagel. Our guides are pushing to get moving this morning and soon have the boats loaded and ready to go. The sun has topped the canyon wall and it promises to be a sweltering day. The family of three starts out in the kayaks while Dawn and I each choose a raft. I decide to spend the day on Hayden’s raft for a change. Hayden is the lead guide on this trip and the one with the most experience. He is tall and thin and sports an unruly brown beard and matching hair. I learn Hayden is the son of a Mission Aviation Fellowship pilot having been born in Africa. He loves the outdoors and doing these trips. On Hayden’s raft, I actually have a backrest and spread out in the scorching sunshine. This is our last day and we have twelve miles to go.
Hayden and Marla methodically row through calm water intermingled with short rapids. The water today is extremely muddy indicating a stream entering from storm runoff in another canyon. We stop for lunch on a sandbar around 12:30. It consists of a tasty wrap of lettuce, tomatoes, and other goodies.
After lunch, Haden makes the decision to strap the two rafts together again and start the outboard motor. The kayaks are strapped to the sides, and everyone jumps aboard the extended boat. Soon we are tootling along at a nice clip. The sun beats mercilessly down on us. It is hot. I am guessing it is close to one hundred degrees and everyone is eager to make some time towards our takeout location. Pouring water over myself does help but it dries in as little as ten minutes. We cover five miles in record time. Then our guides break the rafts apart again for the last 2 ½ miles. Alex’s family resumes their trip in the kayaks.
“Look, some mountain sheep,” someone points out. Along the riverbank are a couple of ewes, a ram, and a couple of babies. We have been rewarded at the last minute with spotting one of the animals we have been looking for our entire trip. Then around a few more curves, through a long rapid, and there is the concrete ramp for our takeout. As we drift up to the shore, an elderly man with a PFD on is standing in the water.
“Sir,” Marla calls, “You need to move so we don’t hit you.”
The man takes a step and falls right over. He floats in the water. It is evident that he is unsteady and unable to get up by himself.
“Do you need help?” Marla inquires.
“No,” he responds, “I’ll just float over here to the dock.”
As I watch him, he struggles to get on his feet. He grabs a stick floating in the water and tries to stand up but can’t. I can just see him floating through the rapids just beyond the dock and drifting down the river.
“I think someone needs to help him before he floats away,” I implore Marla.
Is he not with anyone? Is the question. She finally goes looking for someone who might be family or friends. Eventually, two men do appear and haul him out of the river by his flotation device. Talk about leaving someone in a perilous situation.
A cool air-conditioned spot right now will feel really good. But nothing surpasses a few days in the vast wilderness God has created. It was a trip of solitude away from the chaos and craziness of the everyday world.
I am up by 6:30 a.m. because of a need to visit Grover. Grover is the portable toilet that gets placed in the great outdoors usually with a lovely view of the Green River. There is a 5-gallon bucket to balance upon for urine only and another little toilet shaped canister for number two. The instructions for disposing of human waste out here in this wilderness seems rather strange to me. The urine gets put in the river and the stool gets hauled back to headquarters. And yes, one is supposed to pee in the river in front of one’s companions during the day. Privacy is forgotten as someone of importance has decided that this helps the environment.
The next task is to take down our tents and stuff everything back in the big blue watertight bag for the day. Dawn and I each have separate tents, but we find that performing this task is much easier as a team. We drop and roll each tent and then do some creative stuffing. The tent goes in first with our personal duffle bag stuffed down beside it. On top is positioned the sleeping bag and any extra items. One person can hold the bag open while the other person reaches in and guides the items past each other. Lastly, we roll the top down three times and fasten the fasteners. This will keep everything snug and dry until we need it again tonight.
Breakfast is waiting by the time we are done our morning chores. Mine consists of an English muffin with fried egg, Canadian bacon, and cheese, along with hot chocolate. It takes our guides 1 ½ hours to get all the supplies and utensils stowed back in the rafts. I watch Haden for a while and realize he is pumping air into the rafts. Is that a bad omen?
“Is there a leak that you need to pump air into the raft,” I question.
“No,” he says, “The air expands during the day but at night when it cools off, the air contracts so we fill up each morning” Whew! That’s good to know.
The sun is coming over the top of the ridge by the time we push off. The rafts have been broken apart today and the motor stowed away. Haden will be rowing one raft while Marla rows the other. Dawn and I hop onto Marla’s raft. Alex, Colin (14 years old), and Casey (17 years old), the other members of our party, are trying out the inflatable kayaks. They will paddle between the rafts.
The sun is bright today as well with a smattering of clouds. As we start out this morning, the wind is gusty and in our face. Marla struggles to keep the raft moving downstream. At one particular bend in the river, the wind catches the 2000-pound raft and spins it into an eddy, or an area where she rows and rows and rows without making any progress. Finally, she is able to get us out of our predicament and continue the slow paddle.
Rapids are intermingled with areas of calmer water that require full body powering of the oars by Marla. A roar announces the arrive of a rapid and the water bubbles and churns over the rocks submerged beneath. These hidden rocks present a challenge with the entrance into each rapid. At one of these rapids, Marla enters in an area that looks to be obstacle free but as we bounce over the rolling swells, the raft scrapes over a huge rock and comes to a halt in the rushing torrent. Marla tries to bring the craft around, but we are stuck. Before I know what is happening, Colin has bumped into the back of the raft with the kayak and flipped. He is left clinging to the side of the raft. His water bottle and paddles have floated away downstream. Marla’s priority now becomes hauling Colin in by his PFD. Once everyone is safely on board, it is back to the work of freeing ourselves. Dawn, I, Colin, and Casey, who came on board earlier, are instructed to move to the front and jump up and down. Now jumping up and down on a rubber floor for two old ladies is a hazardous activity and isn’t about to happen unless one wants more people in the river. Dawn and I mostly bounce while grasping the side. Colin and Casey are left to do the jumping while Marla gets out in the rushing river and tries to pull the raft off the rock. Several versions of this procedure occur repeatedly throughout the day as we hang up on various rocks. As an alternative to jumping, I decide to grab both sides of the raft and rock back and forth. Amazingly, this actually has better results than the jumping.
Further down the river, a voice calls out, “Did you lose a paddle?’
“Yes, Colin did,” we shout back.
“The park ranger has it up ahead,” we are informed.
Thankfully, the Bureau of Land Management ranger has caught Colin’s missing oars and returns them to him as he rows by.
Just as yesterday, around 3 p.m., the sky darkens, and a downpour begins. Today we planned for this, so I have my rain jacket. And no ice balls clunk on our heads either. But the water still wets our heads and trickles down into my pants and underwear before ceasing twenty minutes later. The sun comes out and the canyon wall sparkles with the moisture. We soon pull over and proceed to hike to an old abandon homestead from the early 1900s. Swedish immigrants who were given free land in the new world made an attempt at farming in this hostile climate before abandoning the efforts after just a few years. There are the remains of a stone roofless house, a wooden shop with star gazing potential, and a small stone chicken house. The fences were constructed with pieces of tree branches positioned at various angles. Soon we are drying out and warmed up and we tromp back to the rafts to continue on to a camping site.
A couple more hours bring us to our overnight camping spot. The sky is again clouding up and the same mad scramble ensues to get the tents up in the wind before the next downpour. I am getting rather frustrated with this crazy weather every day. Casey has come up with a new name for Desolation Canyon. She calls it Bipolar Canyon.
Sunday, June 20 is Father’s Day. We stay snuggled in our sleeping bag until 8 a.m. We have no where to be. Because it is supposed to rain today, we left the car last evening out at the end of the ½ mile trail to the yurt. I was able to walk back in ten minutes – not bad. That should be a doable hike on Monday morning carrying the rest of our belongings.
The day breaks with the sun shining before slowly sliding into cloudiness. After a light breakfast, we decide to go for a slow meander along the prairie path and down another track that ends at a stagnant marsh. Budding spring flowers line our path and stopping to photograph them is required. Mosquitos swarm us every time we stop moving. A wet splop lands on my nose. What was that?
“I just felt a rain drop,” I report, “Time to start back.”
We spy some moose tracks in the beaten path close to the yurt. That is probably as close to a moose as we will get. One last visit to the lakeshore and we head indoors.
A steady pitter patter on the canvas roof and sides of our abode meets our ears not more than fifteen minutes after getting back from our journey.
“It’s chilly in here. Can you see if you can start a fire in the stove?” is my next proposal.
Soon the fire is slowly burning emanating a toasty warmth. It has become a day for me to write and to read and for Dave to play solitaire while the rain pounds a steady rhythm of song on the canvas roof.
The wind howls in waves throughout the night while the rain continues its steady drumming. Just after midnight, I am awakened by an “Oh, no!” by Dave. His portable CPAP machine which I have bought for trips like this has died. I had bought a lithium battery to power it here due to no electricity but really had no idea how long it would last. We tried to do some recharging using the car cigarette lighter during the day on Saturday when we were driving around but apparently, it was not enough. The whole concept has worked beautifully up until now. But now I spend the rest of the night dozing off and on listening to my hubby stop breathing and then wake himself up over and over gasping.
By 6 a.m. on Monday, we decide it is time to get up and get ourselves together since we aren’t sleeping anyway. The temperature on the thermometer on the pole outside is 42 degrees. Time to hustle if one does not want to freeze while dressing. As I pack up our stuff and put away the rest of the food in the cooler, I notice that the trail mix bag has a semi-circular cut out of it and the mix is scattered all over the metal cart top. I think we had a visitor during the night.
The sleeping bag is rolled up and tied with rope so Dave can sling it over his shoulders while also carrying a small leather bag and a medium sized duffel bag. I throw a small backpack on my back and hoist up the cooler. We are ready. The ground is soggy with puddles which require skirting. My hands are freezing so I call for a stop to roll down the sleeves on Dave’s quilted shirt which I am wearing. Fifteen minutes of strolling through the cool morning sunshine brings us to our car. We are soon headed homeward. That planning ahead managed to work out splendidly for us. We have survived one more daring trip into the wilderness.
As daylight filters into the globe of the yurt on Saturday morning, the sky is heavy with clouds. Snuggled into our sleeping bag against the 52-degree chill, anxious thoughts flit though my mind. Is it going to rain today? How are we going to get out of here if it does? What about our plans for today? With my stomach all in a tizzy, we finally roll out. We can’t sleep anymore anyway. A quick visit to the car at 7 a.m. allows for listening to the weather forecast. It is the only way we have of knowing what is being predicted.
“Cloudy today,” says the announcer, “with a high of 65 and 90% chance of steady rain tomorrow, Sunday, with a high in the fifties.”
Ugh! That means today is probably going to be OK but what are we going to do about tomorrow. Will we be able to get out of here after it rains for a full day? Hubby and I make a decision to rearrange all of our belongings so that we are keeping only the bare essentials. The rest we will load in the car this evening and leave it at the beginning of this bumpy, rut and rock filled path so when it rains, we are not stranded in mud. I think I could probably mud my way out but don’t really want to do that to my car. What is left of our belongings we will hike the .5 mile with on Monday morning. As we begin reallocation of our belongings, it begins to rain. But it’s not supposed to rain today!! So should we go on our BWCA daytrip or forget it?
The plan for today has been to go pick up a Kevlar canoe from the yurt proprietor and haul it to the Duncan Lake BWCA entry put in site. Our car does not have a canoe rack, but our original plan was to pay the outfitter to haul it for us to the site entrance. But she was very hesitant when we requested this.
“You will have to help me lift the canoe and tie it on my car,” she said, “I don’t have any help this summer and my husband recently had a stroke.”
Feeling sorry for this lady and her unfortunate set of circumstances, our objective is to figure out a way to haul the canoe ourselves rather than burden her with our need. We wrack our brains for ideas. We have front to back bars on my Subaru but no crossbars to take the weight of the canoe. How do we prevent damage to the sunroof? By Friday evening, we still had no real good answer. Then after arriving back at the yurt on Friday, I glanced at the front tire on the driver’s side of the car. The tire appeared low. We do not need a flat tire out here in the middle of nowhere. I wondered if we have any kind of a spare. To calm my apprehensions, I decided to check the trunk to see if we had an acceptable spare should that become necessary. As I pulled up the carpet board covering the “trunk” and spare tire, I discovered a treasure. The “trunk” is fitted with three pieces of molded foam. Wow! Just what is needed to place on each side of the canoe and support it. We had brought along ratchet straps, so we are all set. It struck me as amazing how one potential problem has led to the solution to another.
By 9:30 a.m. on this Saturday, it has stopped raining and we set out for the home of the outfitter to pick up our canoe. Our devised plan for canoe transport works like a charm and by 10:30 a.m., we have set our canoe in the water at the Duncan and Daniel’s Lake entry portage. I have also come up with a plan to wear sandals for launching the canoe and then change to tennis shoes and socks for hiking and portaging. That way, I can wade out into the water without worrying about getting my shoes and socks wet. Getting into the canoe without capsizing is always the first struggle for Dave and I as we age. Canoes are notoriously tippy anyway and we are stiff and not very nimble anymore. Dave struggles to get his feet up and over the side when entering the canoe and even more so when exiting.
Finally, we make it safely into the canoe and we are off and paddling across Bearskin Lake toward the Duncan Lake BWCA entry point. The wind is steady making slightly rolling waves that are at an angle to our direction of travel. This makes for a vessel that wants to rock back and forth. Maybe it is the operators and not the conditions. It has been a long time since we last paddled a canoe. It is still cloudy but not an unpleasant day. The personal flotation devices add just the right amount of warmth to a mildly chilly day. Before we know it, we have paddled across the lake and glided into a shallow smooth rock-covered-bottom portage. There are quite a few people backed up at the portage, so we move our canoe off to the side to rest and catch our breath. Because of neck and back issues for Dave, we agree that I will carry the canoe and Dave will bring the rest of our gear. After a few minutes, Dave helps me hoist the 17.5-foot Kevlar canoe to my shoulders and I am off. The trail begins with a steep upward climb before heading back down onto a more level area. I am puffing with the exertion, but the load is easy to handle. Watching my stumbling feet is the challenge with roots and rocks and gullies to traverse. Slow and steady I trod the 81 rods or about ¼ mile. The last portion of the trail heads steeply downhill again to Duncan Lake. It is not that far of a distance, but it seems like miles. I need a breather and a drink before putting into the water again. Our final destination is Staircase Portage that leads to Rose Lake. Along this portage is a spectacular fall, Staircase Falls, that we wish to see.
All of the portage landings today have been what I call “nice” landings. They all have a fairly shallow water level with a rock or hard sand base. There is no need to worry about disappearing into the mud or drowning if one falls in.
Paddling is a little tricky in Duncan Lake but once we adjust our direction to face the swells, the canoe is more stable. Methodically we make our way over the lake. Three or four canoes are ahead of us making it easy to spot the portage opening. As we glide into the small cove leading to the portage, two swans glide silently along just a few feet from us. Paddling behind the leading swan are two little signets. They seem unperturbed by our presence. I count four or five canoes stacked side by side at various locations around the portage opening. We plan to do the same thing as all these other people – leave our canoe and hike the portage only to see the falls.
We decide to first spread out the lunch we have brought along on a large rock. We will relax and eat until some of the people return to lessen the congestion in the area at the falls. Bread, a salmon spread, chips and trail mix make up our luncheon while we wait.
It is a fairly short trek to the falls once we get started. Staircase Falls tumbles and turns several times on its way to Rose Lake. We descend a set of fifty or so steps to the base of the main falls and then decide to explore the portage a little further. Soon we come to another set of steps that disappears into the foliage on its way down to the lake shore. It is time to turn back. I can see why one would not want to portage this particular crossing. It looks like the portage from hell especially carrying a canoe.
After spending fifteen minutes or so photographing this hidden beauty and enjoying its splendor of cascading water, it is time to head back. By now, it is around 2:30 in the afternoon and the sun has appeared to add its warmth to the day. We wonder aloud if this trek might be our last canoe adventure into the BWCAW. Our stiffness and waning balance have become a safety hazard. Not only that, rowing and portaging is physical torture for these aging bodies.
“It starts to get more fun,” declares Dave, “after I have forgotten all the pain.”
Friday morning, June 18, dawns with the sun shining brightly throwing rays of daylight through our clear dome on the yurt. Last evening in the light of the ½ moon, the dome threw out the impression of being a round bubble with domes extending down as well as up. We peer at it intently in the morning light. No, it only extends up. I wonder what gives it that illusion.
Our plan is to launch the canoe onto Hooker Lake this morning and tootle around. But I am extremely anxious and struggling with our plan. The lake is a dying lake; it is not very big, and it is shallow. One can see the algae and lake grass growing just below the surface across most of the lake.
“Don’t try to swim in it,” voiced our proprietor, “or you could get stuck in the mud.”
When asked about moose using this lake, she responded, “If a moose goes in there, he won’t come out.” To this she added, “But it’s fine to canoe in.”
By now, I am doubtful about the “fine to canoe in” part of that statement and I am totally freaked out about even trying to canoe. I can see us getting stuck in the mud and disappearing forever. One such experience occurred for us on a prior BWCA trip and probably has scarred me forever. It was a year in which the water was low, leaving many of the portages with receding landing areas. As we approached this one particular portage, the water had receded approximately 100 feet from it’s original, leaving an extremely muddy landing. Previous travelers had placed a series of tree trunks through the mud out to the water to hop out upon. We came in further to the right with the idea of getting our canoe as close as possible to shore and then dragging it over the rest of the wet muddy spot. This technique resulted in us becoming hopelessly mired in sucking mud. There was only one choice. Someone had to get out and make their way to dry land and that someone was me as I was in the front of the canoe. I took rope with me and jumped as far as I could. Of course, that was when I could still jump. Down into the mud I sank to a level above my knees. I knew I had to keep the momentum going or I was in real trouble. I pushed off with my right leg followed by the left, leaving my shoes in a miry grave. Fear of being sucked to China filled my soul and provided the energy for the onward plunge. Thirty seconds later, I was safely on dry land but covered in dark goo as high as my thighs.
An hour of exhausting pulling and slowly inching the canoe forward finally resulted in Kaitlyn being able to reach over the side of the stuck vessel and retrieve my shoes. Finally, the rest of my family was able to make their way safely to shore and we finished retrieving the canoe. Our daughter has never wanted to go BWCA canoeing again, and I now realize I have a permanent fear as a result.
Instead of canoeing this lake, we decide to go hiking. I have found a pamphlet titled, “Hiking On The Gunflint Trail Scenic Bypass.” There are twenty different hikes to choose from along the 56.6-mile Gunflint Trail from Grand Marias to the Canadian border. We decide to start on the Moose Viewing Trail. It is listed as “easy” in difficulty and is only a mile round trip. The path ascends at a thirty-degree angle. If this is easy, what is difficult? I guess it all depends on your perspective. Butterflies of various colors flitter around, and the way is bordered by little yellow flowers and white petaled ones backdropped by green leaves. A few stops are made for photographic opportunities and then we trudge onward. Soon we veer off onto a narrow trail that leads down to the viewing platform. The air is warm, but the wind is chilly here in the canopy of trees. One hundred yards through the pines is the perfect spot for moose to feed. A small pond is visible with cattails and lily pads scattered about. It is a tranquil scene, but no one has put out the moose today. Soon we make our way back to the car and plan for our next stop.
Daniel’s Lake looks like a good option for hiking as well. It is actually in the BWCAW and requires a permit. It is also listed as “easy” and is a 3.75-mile trip along an old railroad grade which was once used to acquire white pine lumber on Rose and Clearwater Lakes. This looks promising. We follow the directions without a problem down Clearwater Road to the West Bearskin Lake boat landing where the trail is supposed to begin. There is a self-permitting station to pick up a permit, but we can find no entrance or head to any trail. OK, this is frustrating. We drive several miles further on this road before we give up and turn around.
“How about Crab Lake Trail then?” mentions Dave, “It says it is ‘easy’ too. It’s eight miles to Crab Lake but we don’t have to go that far.”
It’s decided. We return to the Gunflint Trail and head north another eleven miles. “Turn right on the road to Loon Lake Lodge and drive .9 mile. The trail head is just past the lodge,” says the brochure. As we drive past the lodge, there is a small parking lot for “guests.” We assume that means lodge guests but no trailhead to be seen.
“Let’s go on just a little further,” Dave suggests.
Soon, I am creeping down a narrow rocky road. Still no trail head. We are having terrible luck today finding our targets.
“Water crossing ahead,” flashes the yellow sign on the side of the road. Ugh, I am not doing any water crossing. I think it is time to turn around. On this small one lane path, I do just that.
We decide to make one more attempt at finding another trail before throwing in the towel for today. Topper Lake Trail head is just four miles south from here on the Gunflint on our way back to the yurt. It is also listed as “easy” and only 1 ½ mile round trip to the lake and back. The directions actually lead us to a trailhead. Hurrah! Uphill we saunter for ten minutes until we are puffing mightily and then back down again. Finally, the lake comes into view. Ah, an actual BWCA lake. The sky has clouded over, and the wind causes one to shiver.
“We are going to get wet before we get back,” announces Dave.
“I hope not.”
I look around for a couple of rocks to sit upon and hoist a flat rock into place to spread our picnic lunch upon. Tuna salad is mixed for sandwiches and some chips and trail mix are thrown in for our dining by the lake. Soon it is time to head back before we do get wet. A stop at the store for some ice on the return trip is in order. Thankfully, it never does rain on us.
We build a roaring fire in the fire pit at the yurt on our arrival to our home away from home. The smoke chases away the swarming mosquitos and allows us to treasure a few smores while listening to the repeating songs of the various birds.
I arise at 6:30 a.m. to start the day. We are headed off today for a vacation of camping in a yurt by Hooker Lake in far northern Minnesota. The yurt is located right on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) so our hope is to also make a day trip by canoe into the BWCA. My hubby loves the solitude of the wilderness.
“Moo, moo” is the sound that reaches my ears as I exit the house. “Why, little one, are you standing in that pasture all by yourself?” I question the wayward bovine out loud. I sigh! I am in my pajamas, and this is how the day begins. I scan the fence line but do not see any wire on the ground – just a calf stuck on the wrong side. I shuffle out into the pasture, drop down the fence opening and shoo the wayward animal back to the others. I call to Claire, the dog, to get her to continue on with me to the barn to feed the cattle but she just sits on the sidewalk and gazes after me. Oh well, she will have to do her business at the kennel.
A ping and a plunk echoes through the air as we pull away from the garage, on time, no less. What was that? I step out to investigate. The tennis ball that dangles from a cord and descends when the garage door opens has caught on the bike rack on the back of the car. It has been catapulted across the garage as the cord popped with the tension. This is not the first time this has happened, but all is well otherwise and we are off.
Our drive to Grand Marias up Hwy 52, then I35, and State 61 goes without incident. We arrive around 3 p.m. We turn north on the Gunflint Trail and wind our way 28 miles until we arrive at Lime Grade Drive, a narrow gravel road through the forest. After a couple of miles, the GPS tells us to turn right on Little Ollie Drive. I thought we were already on it. After wandering onward for a few more miles down this shale path, we arrive at Little Ollie Bed & Breakfast tucked back in a pine and birch forest. It reminds me of the enchanted forest with trails coursing through the yard. We approach an enclosed porch that seems unoccupied, and our knock goes unanswered. Since silence is the only response we receive, the front door of the Bed & Breakfast seems like it might be a better choice. At least it has a doorbell. I push the button a couple of times before I hear a soft sound of footsteps.
A slightly bowed elderly lady pushes open the door, “If you had come around to the back it would have been so much easier,” she says.
There wasn’t any sign directing customers to the back and I would never have guessed that I was supposed to go down the hill and around the back of the house but OK. She leads us through the first level of the house and slowly down the basement stairs into the company office.
“I have no help this year,” she shares, “and I can’t afford to hire anyone with Covid shutting us down last year. We have no money, and my husband had a stroke recently. But you don’t need to know all that,” she finishes.
What a bummer! I am perplexed. Why is this elderly woman trying to run a Boundary Waters Canoe outfitting company in this situation especially when the internet advertising seems to indicate a host of services available? It just seems rather sad. It is a good thing we didn’t plan on hiring a guide to accompany us on our adventure into the Boundary Waters. Oh well! Our primary goal is to rent her yurt in the woods by Hooker Lake and we were hoping, maybe, to have her haul a canoe for us – not guide or supply us for a BWCA venture.
After we settle our bill, discuss weather, and plans, we climb back into our Subaru and head out to the yurt. A yurt is a round canvas structure much like a tent but large enough to stand up in and move around comfortably. It was often used as a primary residence by nomads in Mongolia, Russia, and Turkey.
“I don’t know if you can drive to the yurt,” she informs us. “It’s really rocky and muddy since we had lots of rain.”
Hmmm… I really don’t want to walk in and out a ½ mile every time we want to leave.
“I will take you and your things with the pickup, and you can see what you think,” she continues.
We follow the diminutive lady who can hardly see over the steering wheel in her pickup with our car as we turn down a beaten path. It doesn’t look so bad to me – a little rough, a few rocks to dodge – that’s all. Finally, she pulls over at a bend in the path.
“I think we should stop here and see what you think.” As she and I stroll along the barren wheel track path with foot high grass growing in the middle, she points out the mud puddles, the rocks and the rough terrain. It only looks like a normal farm field drive to me, but we agree to ride in with her to test it out. She seems so worried for us. The old battered pickup bounces over the obstacles and we are jerked this way and that. Soon through the trees, we spy a small wood shack that is identified as the sauna. Just a little farther in tucked into the birch and pines is the yurt. And to the southwest just visible in the distance is Hooker Lake.
Our guide gives Dave some instructions on firing the woodstove for heat, lighting the gas cooking stove, and the use of the water and then she roars away in her pickup that has seen better days. I am getting the very distinct feeling that she is not really prepared for us to be using the facilities.
“I’m going to walk out and get the car,” I holler to hubby. My walk provides a chance to survey the rocky route up close. I am pretty confident that I can traverse this with limited difficulty. My car has a smaller wheelbase than her truck allowing for sneaking between some of the rocks that she has been bouncing over. I think I maybe have some better springs and shocks as well as the road is not nearly as rough in my vehicle and soon, I am back at the yurt. That was a piece of cake!
Our temporary home has two sets of bunk beds and a futon with a bunk over it along one circular side. There is a table and chairs in the middle of the structure. The wood cast iron stove, the gas cook stove, and a stainless-steel cart for holding water containers and dishes lines the other ½ circular side. The center top sports a clear dome through which the sky is visible, and the lighting always seems to give the impression that the light is on.
Soon, it is time for supper. The menu is brats and mashed potatoes rehydrated from dry flakes. Neither one of us is into making a fire outside tonight so we decide to heat things on the stove. Dave turns on the gas to the burner marked RF and holds a match over the circle. Several matches burn themselves out or try to burn his fingers without the burner lighting. All of a sudden, there is a huge whoosh and a ball of flame shoots up. Both of us jump back startled.
“Are you OK? The back burner just lit,” I repeat several times to Dave.
“It couldn’t have,” he keeps reiterating.
Finally, he decides to test my theory and turns the handle marked RF but holds the match over the back burner. It lights instantly. He does the reverse with the RR and the front burner lights. Well, that’s a wee bit of a safety hazard.
The wind dies down to a perfect calm by 9 p.m. A loon’s call echoes in the distance. In the stillness, we read by the light of the lantern.
“What should we do tomorrow afternoon,” questioned my husband on a Saturday evening in mid-April.
“I think it is too early for bluebells to be blooming,” I answered thoughtfully, “but it might be fun to hike again at Carley State Park. We haven’t been there in a really long time.” Carley State Park is only about eight miles from where we live so it is a local activity.
The next day dawns cloudy and cool. The temperature barely touches the low 50s. Not willing to abandon our plans, I check the weather radar on my cell phone climate app. The forecast calls for a 15% chance of rain all day, but the radar shows that green morning splash that touches the screen as sliding off the display by two p.m. Maybe there is still hope for our plans.
Claire, our dog, barks as we both put on our jackets and then eagerly jumps into the back seat of the car. She knows something exhilarating is happening. Tiny splashes of water dash the windshield as we start towards town. Ugggh… It is still trying to rain. Well, we are going to plow ahead in spite of the windshield wipers flapping back and forth. I am hoping that we will have the trails and the park all to ourselves.
A gently curving route leads into the entry area. We follow the right road split to the vicinity where a little DNR cabin used to sit. The cabin is gone. All that remains is a small kiosk at which to register. Apparently, it has been a lot longer than I thought since we were last here. The small parking area which I remember as usually being empty is full of cars. That’s strange.Is there a special event today, I wonder? We wind our way down the forested gravel lane to the lower-level parking area. This parking lot is full as well. I don’t think there is anything special today. I guess people have nothing else they can do in the midst of the Covid pandemic. This state park used to be pretty much empty when we visited in prior years. Since the gate is closed to the camping area, I pull up to it and park in front of it. Afterall, there is no “NO Parking” sign. My hubby, the rule follower, doesn’t say a word. Claire is excitedly prancing around – ready for a new adventure.
We choose the path along the north branch of the Whitewater River which gurgles and loops slowly through the park. The sky still hangs heavy, but the misty rain has stopped. The trail has a dark brown firm mud underlay from the numerous footsteps that have traversed its length since the recent rain. The trees are just starting to shoot out their buds and the underfloor of the forest is covered with green. Carley SP is known for its bluebells in spring, but I think we are just a couple of weeks early. Many of the plants have purple buds peeking from their green but they have not fully opened. A few shoots display fine cone shaped white blossoms. The day is perfect for a walk such as this. Claire eagerly sniffs every new smell of this fresh unexplored place. She weaves to the right and then the left and then circles back for another snuffle. She soon puts it in 4-wheel drive and tries to drag me along.
We leisurely mosey along the narrow trail, sometimes stopping for Dave to take pictures, sometimes stopping off to the side for others to pass. Claire, of course, wants to bark at everyone but she soon settles down and waits quietly when I cling tightly to her harness handle. Soon we come to a double river crossing where it looks like one part is only water filled when the river is high. The river crossings at this park are not bridges but huge concrete steppingstones that have been placed parallel to each other but perpendicular to the flow of the water. One needs to jump from stone to stone to traverse the river while maintaining dry feet. The absence of recent maintenance also means the riverbanks have become eroded leaving the base along the bank muddy. This calls for some ginger stone stepping attempting to miss the mud. Claire is not sure what to do so she wades out into the water for a splash around before clawing her way onto the concrete steps.
Safely across, we continue our amble through the woods. Soon the trail turns and begins an ascent along the bluff. Hubby and I are panting with the effort. Claire decreases my effort needed as she attempts to drag me along. We climb upward for about ten minutes and then stroll along the ridge for another ¼ mile before the trail begins its decent to the river below again. This river crossing presents a much more challenging dilemma. The erosion along these banks are much more extensive on both sides of the river. Someone has dragged three separate sections of six-inch diameter trees to the riverbank and slid them into place side by side to make a slanted bridge to the first concrete step in the water. This could be hazardous for two sixty something-year-old persons. There is nothing to hang onto, the bridge is uneven, and neither of us have the balance of a younger individual. I wonder for just a moment if we should retrace our steps back the way we have come. But that is an overwhelming thought, so a different plan is needed. Claire is not in the least bit interested in stepping onto that rickety makeshift crossing either, so this also presents a problem. There is no way we can carry her.
I finally give Claire’s leash to Dave and step out onto the round trees. I quickly realize that I will be in the drink if I try to walk across these logs with nothing to grab onto when I lose my balance on the unsteady surface. There is a larger tree at the bottom of the dip just below the makeshift bridge. Maybe I can walk on that and use the trees for balance. I lower my butt to the threesome of trees and gingerly shuffle partway across the larger tree until I can take a flying leap to the concrete step. Once safely landed, I turn to help retrieve Claire. Dave has ended up sitting on the muddy riverbank and he pushes her towards me on the rounded trees. She quickly gets the idea and comes bounding across. That just leaves Dave to traverse the dangerous crossing. At least, I can extend my hand to him for balance. Like an old pro, Claire leaps from concrete step to concrete steps and scrambles up the muddy three-foot bank on the other side. That just leaves the old people to claw their way up on hands and knees. Well so much for being clean but we are safely across! And we didn’t even fall in the river.
It is just a short walk along this side of the stream back to the parking area where our chariot waits to ferry us home. But first, we must cap off the day with a Dairy Queen treat.
“What should we do to celebrate our wedding anniversary?” questions my husband.
“We can’t go to a movie, eat out, or visit any museums with all the restrictions from Covid,” I reply.
“How about if we go to a different State Park that we haven’t been to before in the southeastern part of the state?
That sounds good to me so the evening before our planned adventure, Gordon researches the various state parks in Southeastern Minnesota and decides upon Beaver Creek Valley State Park close to Caledonia. Neither one has ever heard of it before and we definitely have not visited it before. He prints off some Google directions to help with our navigating.
We decide to take Claire, our puppy, with us for the day. I am beginning to think that we should have a diaper bag ready to take along just like for a baby. We need a water bottle, bowl to drink from, harness, leash, a towel to clean feet, and last but not least, doggie poop bags. By 8 a.m., we have all our supplies gathered and are ready for our conquest.
Deviating from our printed Google directions, we drive to Plainview for our usual Kwik Trip breakfast. Travel continues down Hwy 42 to Kellogg, then south on Hwy 61. We make a stop on Garvin Heights in Winona to give Claire a break. Of course, she instantly leaves her calling card after getting out of the car. Time to use those extra plastic grocery bags.
Not really knowing where we are going, we finally plug the address for Beaver Creek Valley State Park into the GPS. Oh no! Its first command directs us to Interstate 90 and insists that we get on it. No ma’am. We do not want to travel the interstate. We want to take back country roads, so we just keep driving on right over the interstate. The sign says this is County 19. The road travels along I90 for a while then turns south. Soon we find ourselves on a back-country gravel road. The landscape is rolling. Steep bluffs are contrasted with farms nestled in the valley. The trees are just starting to turn color. We wind around the sides of hills, through valleys, and along meadows with herds of beef cattle. Surprisingly, the direction goddess is silent. Now this is more like it. This twisting trailing path we are on takes us almost exactly to the state park after a sidetrack down what looks like a minimally maintained road.
It has been a densely foggy morning. A damp coolness still hangs in the air as we start our stroll across a well-crafted five-foot-wide wooden bridge. The creek gurgles lazily beneath our feet. The blacktop path transitions into a well-worn dirt track. It has rained recently so there are widely spaced mud puddles. Claire is excited and she leans into the body harness dragging me after her. It is all I can do to hold back her thirty pounds powered by four-wheel drive. Us old people behind the dog are much slower. Gordon has been struggling with plantar fasciitis making for a painful hobble at times. Still he is determined to hike and take photos today.
We soon arrive at the first creek crossing. A free-standing bridge is balanced over the water. There are no handrails, just a few wooden slats securely fastened together. Clair eagerly tugs on the leash in her hurry to investigate the flowing water. She has never been near open water before and as part Golden Retriever, Gordon and I suspect she might like water. Soon she wades into the green lilies along the shoreline. What reappears is a dog with four very muddy feet and legs. Ah! This is fun! She must be thinking. Before I can stop her, she rolls upside down in the shallow mud. No…o…o…! Now our cream-colored dog is brown on her back and top of her head. Well there is not much I can do about it right now. Maybe, I will throw her all the way in later. She pads around in the shallower areas of the flowing water until it is time to move on.
The hiking trail runs parallel to the river. Gordon and I stroll slowly along taking in the beauty of the day. Some of the trees are starting to change color. Gordon stops occasionally to take photos. Claire pulls me along with enthusiasm. I am not moving fast enough for her. She finds every small trail that divvies off to the river and turns to try make her way there. After several turns like this, she looks a sight. There are green and brown seed pods clinging to her face, her legs, and her body. What a distressing mess! Claire’s hair is wavy and about two inches long and these, what I call, prickers seem to become well enmeshed deep into the soft, thick layers.
The path we have chosen to walk is about a three-mile round trip. There are two separate loops within the greater circle. We decide to trace both loops. The day warms as the sun burns away the fog and climbs higher. Off comes my coat and then, the sweater. Gordon begins to have pain between his shoulder blades which is not uncommon, so I offer to carry the camera bag and the tripod. Both of us are starting to feel our weariness as we reach the furthest most point in our trek and turn back towards the beginning.
Claire barks robustly and loudly at every person we meet. This is unacceptable. We seem to be able to mitigate this by stopping to sit and be quiet when humans come by. It is harder to bark and lunge while seated on one’s butt. Our stops become more frequent as the number of hikers increases with the passing of the day. She also wades into the gushing water with every creek crossing of which there are many. Finally, there is a splash as she gets brave enough to jump in from one of the bridge crossings. She has lost none of her energy and continues to pull actively, trying to drag me along. The same cannot be said for us. We are moving slower and slower.
As we make our way back to the parking lot, I mark off in my head each segment of the trail as we come to a signpost. We are almost there. Finally, we come to a river crossing that does not seem to have a bridge across it.
“I don’t remember ever crossing open water,” Gordon comments.
“I don’t either,” I agree, “This must not be the right place.”
As we continue along the path, I step on a protruding rock in the path. Without warning, my left ankle turns over and I pitch forward. Claire, who I have been leaning back on trying to slow her forward motion, continues her dive forward. I have no way to stop the forward pitch. I slam into the ground with my right knee first followed by my right arm. The leash handle clatters along the ground before Claire stops and looks questioningly back at me. I lay there stunned. I want to cry. My knee hurts. My arm hurts. The camera bag and the tripod have clobbered me from behind. Gordon rescues me from the extra load. We can hear people coming so I stumble to my feet. I am glad no one saw my ridiculous spill onto the ground. Everything seems intact so we start out on our hike again. We haven’t gone more than a few hundred feet until we meet a lone older gentleman who throws a question our way, “Are you going around again?”
“No,” I reply, “Just trying to get back to the parking lot.”
The man does not say any more but as he moves on, Gordon and I look at each other.
“That’s a strange question. Are we going the wrong way? Did we miss the turn back to the parking lot?”
Now we are totally confused. “I don’t know if we are going the right way.”
“Well, let’s go back to that last crossing again and see if we missed something.”
Disheartened, we turn and trudge back the other direction. Within a few hundred feet, we arrive again at the crossing we had discussed earlier. The bridge we could not see coming from the other direction is now clearly visible off to the right.
“This must be the path back to the car.”
A few hundred more feet and it is evident that we are now going the right way. If we hadn’t met that man who asked a strange question, we would have walked another mile before realizing that we were totally turned around. It reminds me a little of life’s journey. There are others along our walk of life who try to point us in the right way. Sometimes, we don’t pay any attention to the wisdom they are offering us and end up way off course – a difficulty we could have avoided if we had been tuned in.
By now, it is pushing three o’clock in the afternoon and we are thirsty and hungry. Claire has had all the water needed from the river, but we did not remember a water bottle for ourselves.
“Where should we eat?” is the next question of the day.
I grab the local Minnesota county map book that I keep under the car seat. I quickly peruse it. “If we keep going just a few miles south on this road, we should arrive in Caledonia,” I announce, “Let’s see if we can find some fast food there.”
Caledonia turns out to be a good size town with many businesses and several franchise eating joints. We grab some Subway sandwiches and cool refreshing pop and take our treasures back to a city park that I had spied on our way into town. There we have a quiet lunch in the shade of a few trees. It is time to head for home. Our last stop at Dairy Queen in Chatfield is the “icing on the cake” as the saying goes. Time to begin year thirty in our married walk of life.
Friday, August 28, 2020, I awaken to the rumble of thunder. The bedroom is still cloaked in darkness. The digital clock blinks out 6:20 a.m. I still have ten minutes until the alarm goes off but maybe if I get up now, I can get the dog pottied and the steers fed before it rains. The weather report last evening was for heavy rain this morning. As I swing my feet over the edge of the bed, the first pitter patter of raindrops sounds on the steel roof. I am too late to stay dry.
I grab the umbrella on the way out the door in my pajamas. Water is now pouring from the sky. Claire, our puppy, shakes her head at the deluge. She finally manages to squat to pee. Forget waiting for #2. We flee to the barn. I haven’t figured out how to carry two pails of feed and hold the umbrella at the same time, so I tuck my head and make a dash for the feed box. No animals are in sight to greet me as is their usual routine. Their food is going to be mash mixed with all the water collecting in the trough if they don’t come soon. Even with the umbrella, my t-shirt top and my hair is soaked as Claire and I make the dash back to the house. I scan the pasture for cattle but see none.
This is how the morning begins of our weekend camping getaway to Grand Marias, Minnesota. The cattle still have not come to eat by the time we head down the drive. The car is put in reverse. We can’t leave if the cattle are missing. That is an ingrained farmer thing. I walk out along the pasture fence looking for those familiar black blobs. There is just a little rise in the landscape so sometimes it is hard to see over it. “Come bossie,” I call, “Come bossie.” Finally, I hear an answering, “Baa!” and as I squint into the morning gloom, a few dark specks emerge from the tree line. Soon, four black creatures are thundering my way. Now we can go. The steers are fine.
We drop Claire off at “doggy daycare” before heading north. We make our usual traveling breakfast stop at Kwik Trip. I select yogurt, a donut, and a “baby” milk while Dave gathers his breakfast choices. We approach the checkout and pay together while the clerk places the purchases in a plastic shopping bag.
As we are eating while we drive, Dave says, “Where’s my diet Dr. Pepper?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see any Dr. Pepper,” I respond.
“I am sure I put some on the counter at the checkout,” He insists.
“I don’t think so,” I reiterate.
“I must have left it when I picked up my food,” He concludes.
“We can stop at the next Kwik Trip and buy one,” I reassure him.
After a few minutes of thoughtful silence, he says, “Check the sales slip. See if she charged for a Dr. Pepper?”
We are about to take the next Kwik Trip exit as I pull out the receipt and read, “Long John, hash browns, sausage/egg croissant, M&M Peanut butter, skim milk, parfait, and … Dr. Pepper.” There it is. Maybe I should look in the bag at my feet again. I reach in and … sheepishly hold up a bottle of … Dr. Pepper!
“I thought I was becoming senile,” Dave intones.
Oh dear, apparently one of us is losing it but it’s not Dave.
We continue our journey traveling north on Hwy 52. I haven’t set up the GPS as I don’t want it talking to us the whole way. But I have printed out a Google direction sheet just in case. I don’t think we need much help with this part of the trip. We just need to hop onto I35E North until we reach Hwy 61 in Duluth which will take us to Grand Marias, Minnesota. At the last moment, I decide to consult the printed directions to see how to make the connection with 35E. The paper says, “Take the exit on the left to I94 east. Go .7 miles and exit onto 35.” As I look at the road signs coming up, I am confused. The road sign indicates that to catch I35, one needs to go west on I94. This is the right exit, not the left. Should I follow my intuition or the directions in front of me? I foolishly choose to ignore my sixth sense and instruct Hubby to take I94 going east. As soon as we make this turn, I instinctively know we are going the wrong way. I dig through the glove compartment for a real road map while proclaiming, “We are going the wrong way. We need to turn around.” We are old enough to still use those old-fashioned things called roadmaps.
Dave looks at me incredulously, “You know it’s not that easy.”
“I know. But according to the map, I35E is west of where we came into 94 so we NEED to turn around.”
After making a speedy exit and flipping around to the west lanes, we travel just a few miles and there is our correct exit. This experience leads me to one of the strong convictions I hold in life: if you find you are going the wrong way in life, never be afraid to turn around and go the other way.
We make a couple of stops along the way to Grand Marias. Our plan is to first stop in Duluth at the lift bridge and maybe have a picnic lunch in Canal Park around noon. As we drive around the lakeside, the roads and sidewalks are crowded with people milling about and there does not seem to be anywhere to park let alone have a quiet lunch. We might as well move on. As we are leaving the harbor area and stopped at a stop light, we notice that the road ahead is blocked off so that only the right lane is usable. Besides that, we need to turn right to get back onto the I35 entrance ramp.
“Put the turbo on and just pull ahead of the pickup in the right lane when the light turns,” I urge my husband who has it ingrained in himself to yield to others no matter how much of an inconvenience our predicament might leave us in. Surprisingly, today though, he stomps on the accelerator and we have no problem pulling ahead of the truck and getting ourselves into the lane we need to be in. But the pickup truck driver sees our actions as a personal affront. “Beep, Beep, Beep!” he lays on the horn over and over again. He rides our bumper for several miles and then exits off the interstate and up a ramp. As we pull away, I see his left arm extended out the driver’s window and his middle finger pointed skyward. I am not sure why driver’s these days are so ready to kill each other for the smallest infractions or actions of others. Oh well, we need to take a deep breath and move on. We stop instead for a quiet picnic lunch at a secluded rest area just off of Hwy 61 north of Duluth.
We are ready for another leg stretch stop by the time we arrive in Silver Bay. There is a sign for an overlook. We wind uphill and around and around until we arrive at the top of a cliff. After parking, we wind our way around a shady trail through a wooded area. It is a cool, cloudy day and no one else is around. This is how we like it. The trail leads to three separate overlooks. The first one grants a view of Lake Superior and a large iron ore mining company on the shore below. The second overlook provides a view of the layout of Silver Bay. The third overlook gives a different vantage point from the other two. The views are breathtaking in their magnitude.
I decide it is time to plug the address of Hungry Hippie Hostel into the GPS. They are located on a township road about eight miles east of Grand Marias. It has been advertised on the internet as having great views of Lake Superior. As we drive up the road towards the establishment, we seem to get further and further away from the lake. We are somewhat disappointed as we pull into the driveway around 4:30 p.m. as all we can see is trees.
“There is no way we can see the lake from here,” declares Dave.
The owners are expecting us and direct us to drive around to the back parking lot and haul our stuff with a little wagon to the first “glamping” tent that we come to. I have no idea what “glamping” means so I look it up on the internet. According to Wikipedia, “glamping is a hybrid of ‘glamorous’ and ‘camping’, and describes a style of camping with amenities and, in some cases, resort-style services not usually associated with ‘traditional’ camping.” Our “glamping” tent here is an open front canvas shelter erected on a raised wooden platform. Inside is a mattress and box spring ready for sleeping. When I registered, I thought this would be unique but still be tent camping without the sleeping on the ground. My expectations on this, though, don’t begin to meet the standards of a similar style abode we stayed in in Africa in 2013. That one was a full-scale bedroom with all around mosquito netting. It also had a full bathroom and shower, all inside a large canvas tent. That’s what I call glamorous.
Back here in the real camping world of Minnesota, there are three glamping tents and they are quite close together and out in the open. Inside, there is a mosquito screen and a privacy sheet covering the area where the bed is located. The problem is, they have left no room to stand to dress, undress, or even get into bed in the “bedroom.” How are we supposed to undress and get ready for bed in a 3-sided open room with wide open views of the outdoors? Dave does some moving around of hanging clips and designs a small “dressing room” with the privacy curtain.
As we look out our south tent opening to the horizon way off in the distance, surprise of surprises, is a spectacular view of Lake Superior. This view is tempered by the huge freshly dug unfinished mound septic system in the foreground just 100 feet from the opening of our tent. Seriously?! To say I am disappointed is putting it mildly. I can’t say it makes for photographic delights either, but here we are. We might as well enjoy it the best that we can.
We drive back to Grand Marias in search of supper. What shall we eat in this time of Covid-19? There are few indoor dining places. Most dining out is done by ordering on-line, by phone, or in-person for pickup. We finally decide on tacos from Hungry Hippies Taco, an establishment owned by the same people who own the tenting grounds. We don our masks to order and then enjoy our much too spicy food at a small table out front.
Then it is time to head back to our home-away-from-home. The day has been cloudy and cool throughout. We sit on the wooden steps outside our tent and watch the sky. There are two plastic chairs to use but mine already has a crack and Dave’s weight adds a crack to the other one. Now we are afraid to sit on either of them. As we talk by the light of one solar powered Ball Jar light, rain drops begin to splatter on our heads.
“Let’s make one last trip to the bathroom before it starts pouring,” I suggest.
The rain has picked up as we exit the bathroom. It is a good 400 feet back to our tent.
“I am going to run,” I inform Dave who is slowly limping his way back. My running in the dark over rough ground is more like a slow stumble. I can never be quite sure when the ground might come up to meet me. By the time I hit the wooden steps of our strange home, it has started to pour. We might as well get ready for bed and climb in. At least it will be warm and dry there . . . I hope. This tent leaves much to be desired especially in a rainstorm. There is no flap to let down in front, so water is splashing in. I move the suitcase, our coolers, and clothes as far back in as possible. We hurriedly get ready for bed and tumble our 60 something bodies onto the mattress and skootch down into the sleeping bag. As we lay there in the dark and listen to the continuing of the pouring rain, mist droplets splash on our faces from above. Uh oh! I hope this tent repels water. Oh well, there is not much we can do about it if it doesn’t. Maybe it will stop raining soon. When I get up to traipse to the bathroom at 3 a.m., the sky is sprinkled with a million twinkling stars. We are still relatively dry, and the mattress is actually a pretty comfy bed.
Breakfast is at 7:30 a.m. I have brought along most of our food which was a good decision. The menu consists of hard-boiled eggs and gluten-free coffee cake. We are ready to start our adventures by 8:15 a.m. Judge C.R. Magney State Park is just a few miles east of where we are staying. Our goal at the state park is to hike to the Devil’s Kettle. The Devil’s Kettle contains two waterfalls. One cascades into a deep pothole with what seems like no outlet. The other side splashes fifty feet into a pool before continuing down the Brule River to Lake Superior. The park map shows the Kettle and the falls to be a mile hike. Even though it is still cloudy, the temperature is in the 50s. It is a beautiful morning and perfect for trekking. Most of the path angles upwards with some steep steps along the way. At least it will be all downhill on the way out. Not many people are around yet, so we pretty much have the viewing platforms for drinking in the beauty of the falls to ourselves. It takes us about two hours to make the round trip back to the car.
From there, we follow Hwy 61 further northeast to Grand Portage State Park. Grand Portage State Park straddles the US/Canadian border. I would have liked to go further north into Canada to Thunder Bay where there is another glorious waterfall, but no one is being allowed to cross the border due to the Covid-19 epidemic. The falls here at Grand Portage is only a ½ mile hike. Most of the path is made of blacktop or is a boardwalk so is much easier to traverse. Dave’s left knee and his feet are hurting him, so our hike is rather slow. The viewing platforms here are much more crowded. The waterfall is glorious in all its splendor, but we do not stay long due to the number of people waiting. The sun has begun to peak through the clouds asking me to take off my sweater. It is still quite cool and windy.
My plan was to eat our lunch here at the state park, but we decide instead to seek out a quieter place. We drive just a couple of miles back down Hwy 61 to the Grand Portage overlook. There are several empty picnic tables here. The wind calls for holding down the plates and food with one hand while eating with the other. We enjoy sandwiches and chips for sustenance. The view of Lake Superior from here is fantastic. One can see for miles.
Dave would really like to do some beach combing so I keep my eyes open for a stopping spot that might offer that activity along the shore of Lake Superior. I finally spy the Kadunce River Wayside Rest which seems to offer a pebble covered northern Minnesota kind of beach. There is even still a parking place for us. A fair number of people linger along the shoreline. As Dave does his exploring for unique colored rocks, I find a spot to sprawl out and rest.
Around 3 p.m., we decide to head for Grand Marias to finish our day there. As we walk to the car, Dave pats his shirt pocket and then stops, “I am missing my phone.” A panicked tone takes over his voice, “Where did I lose my phone? All my numbers are in there.”
At this point, I am sure all is not lost. I am sure it can be found. It must be in the car or back at the tent. My confidence is not contagious though as Dave is disturbed and agitated over this loss. The joy of the day is gone for him. But there is nothing we can do about it right now so we might as well continue with our plans.
I do a thorough search of the car when we arrive in Grand Marias but there is no sight of the missing phone. Our plan is to walk out to Artist’s Point and then to the lighthouse on the pier. It is not just a simple walk to either of these places. The path to Artist’s Point switches back and forth from tree-root tripping to rock jumping and traverses in all directions depending on how the multitude of prior travelers wished to go. We eventually come out on the big flat rock that overlooks the lake. Sailboats and smaller watercraft dot the sparkling lake. We retrace our steps over the treelined path and head west to the lighthouse. This is not really a path, but a deteriorating seawall built to protect the Grand Marias harbor. Walking on top of it is how we navigate our way to the lighthouse. We turn away as we pass others going back towards the town. Afterall, we don’t want to breathe on anyone.
Dave’s heart is no longer in exploring as he is too distracted by his phone loss, so we soon head back to the campground. We pick up Subway sandwiches to take back to the tent to eat. My first order of business is to search high and low through the tent and along the path to it but there is no phone to be found. We might as well kiss it good-bye. Dave surmises that it got pushed out of his shirt pocket while accessing his camera bag sometime during our day. It could be just about anywhere. And of course, it is an older flip-phone style and it is turned off so even if someone finds it, they won’t have a clue how to go about contacting us.
The sun has finally chased all the clouds away and a clear sky soon exhibits a climbing moon that is almost full. As dusk deepens, the moon casts long bright shadows on the surface of Lake Superior. Dave sets up his camera and takes some shots. The evening is windless, quiet and peaceful. I sit and read my Kindle while Dave peruses some magazines. The temperature has dropped into the shivering zone. We both begin to put on more clothing – first a sweater, then a coat but we are still cold. We might as well go to bed. Dave climbs in fully clothed. I have added a long-sleeved turtleneck to my winter pajamas. Our night remains restless. Dave is not sleeping well anyway due to not being able to use his CPAP. There is no electricity here and I listen to him wake himself up every few minutes due to obstructing. I continue to be cold and my left hip causes pain all the way to my ankle when I lie on my side. Who ever thought old people should go tent camping? So much for glamorous!
I think I do get in a few hours of sleep because before I know it, it is 6:30 a.m. We might as well get up and get moving. Dave wants to go back to Judge C.R. Magney State Park to see if maybe someone has found his phone. I don’t think the park is staffed and therefore, I think it is a lost cause but since we are here, there is nothing to be lost by checking before leaving.
The dew is heavy this morning and because we have no flap on the front of the tent, everything is wet. I tried to move the coolers as far inside as possible last evening and then laid my phone, hearing aide, and clothes on a towel. Dave also threw a towel over his camera. I thought our possessions would be fine. But everything is completely wet. I am dismayed. I can only hope the electronics still work. I shiver while I get into my damp wet clothes. Amazingly, my phone and the camera work after some drying off but my hearing aid only emits a long continuous screeching. Guess that won’t be of any help. I can only hope that it will dry out and then work. I guess I will be deaf if that is not successful.
We have a short breakfast of the remaining hard-boiled egg, banana, and coffee cake and then hurriedly throw everything in the car. No one is around at the office to Judge Magney SP and we can’t find anyone at the maintenance building. This is an exercise in futility. We might as well go home. At least, my hearing aid has started to work again.
Traveling west and south on Hwy 61, we stop at Temperance State Park. I don’t think we have ever been to this park. A short walk brings us to Hidden Falls. It is a waterfall tucked back into a crevice between two large rock walls. One can hardly see it. The map shows another falls a mile upriver. I don’t think either one of us is up to a two mile walk today so we opt to drive north on Temperance Road and enter the trail closer to the falls. We are alone on the trail which calls for stepping over tree roots, climbing up and down rocks, and balancing over water holes. We question several times if we are going the wrong way but eventually, we actually do find two separate small waterfalls. It is approaching 10 a.m. and time to get moving on our way home. At least we are warmed up now from the activity.
Our chosen route home takes us into Wisconsin at Duluth. We find a park by Superior Bay to eat our lunch then head down Wisconsin Hwy 53. This allows us to avoid the very busy traffic of the twin cities. I take over the driving as Dave is falling asleep from his lack of sleep these last two nights. We end our journey with a Dairy Queen treat in Wabasha, MN. And tomorrow, I need to shop for a new cell phone for Dave.
Monday, I begin my day by visiting the Verizon store in Rochester. I am hoping I can pick up a phone similar to what Dave had. I have picked one out on-line that looks to be of slightly better quality.
“Can I help you?” questions the young man behind the desk without even looking at me.
I explain to him our situation. “Do you have one of these phones?” I point to the one I have on my printed paper.
“No, we don’t carry it here. They might have one at one of the other stores in Rochester.”
He makes no attempt to check if any of the other stores carries this style of cell phone. “Could you call them and see?” I plead.
He shrugs, “I can’t. They don’t have any phones.”
I look at him dumbfounded. Verizon cell phone stores that have no phones to call each other!Such a helpful salesperson. I am becoming more and more frustrated. I am not about to run all over town. I will just go home and order it over the internet.
The new phone arrives in two days. I am able to activate it without a problem and low and behold, it automatically downloads all of Dave’s prior contacts. One couldn’t ask for a better outcome.
Five weeks later, Dave is sorting through his camera bag looking for some accessories that he would like to use in a photography project. He pulls out a small black object.
“Well, I found my cell phone,” he calls up the stairs. “I remember now what happened. I put the phone in my camera bag one evening so it wouldn’t get wet or lost when we were in Grand Marias. I feel so stupid. I never thought of it once until now.”
Seriously?? All that and the phone has been riding in his camera bag the whole time. Oh well, I have done the same thing before as well – put something away securely so it would be safe and then can’t remember where that might be. He likes his new phone better anyway.
July 8, 2020 marks my hubby’s 65th birthday. In the midst of a year of the Covid 19 corona virus pandemic, the challenge has become what can we do to honor and celebrate this unique milestone. Many institutions are closed and those that aren’t have limits on occupancy – even the state parks and outdoor recreational areas. I have come up with a set of four waterfalls within driving distance that we can visit in one day.
We leave at 7:15 a.m. on a hot muggy morning. The weatherman is predicting temperatures hitting ninety degrees today with heat indices near 100 degrees. We drop Claire, the golden doodle, off at the doggy daycare in Elgin, MN and then head northwest on Hwy 42 towards Wabasha. We have skipped breakfast at home and hope to find the little café, The Eagle, open for dine-in eating. One never knows these days as many restaurants are still not fully open due to the Covid 19 pandemic. We have brought face masks along in case we are required to wear them as is mandated in many bigger cities. But this is Wabasha, MN and not only is The Eagle Café open but no one is wearing a mask – not even the wait staff. One table is taped off to comply with the six-foot distancing requirement of the health department. We choose a table in the far corner all by ourselves. There are only two other gentlemen patrons and they are seated at what I would call “the bar.” We enjoy a country breakfast of hash browns, sausages for Gordon, and an omelet for me. This is the first we have eaten out at a dine-in eatery in over three months. Our appetite is satisfied, and we are ready to start our journey.
Crossing the bridge over the Mississippi River places us in Wisconsin. We turn north and follow Hwy 35 toward Hudson. A few miles into our scenic trek, I plug the address for Willow River State Park into the GPS. I expect that it will lead us north on Hwy 35 for most of the trip and then guide us to the state park when we get closer. Therefore, it surprises us when the mechanical lady tells us to turn right on County D. We make several turns and maneuvers before we finally come out again at – you guessed it – Hwy 35. Now what was the purpose of that jaunt?
We do arrive at the state park around 10:30 a.m. Prior to arrival, we drove under a very dark cloud that looked like it might dump buckets of precipitation on us. Instead it produced only a brief shower. The temperature is just a hair over 80 degrees and with the lingering clouds, the atmosphere, though muggy, is actually quite tolerable. We head towards the path that the few others that are here are headed for. We expected an overpacked parking lot but surprisingly, there are still empty patches of ground not being utilized for parking.
The path leads steeply downhill after a short stretch of level terrain. Ten minutes into this downhill coast, we look at each other. We are both thinking the same thing. “Are we going to make it back up this mountain?” After about twenty minutes of moving sharply downhill, the path levels into a more gradual descent.
“I hear the roar of water,” announces Gordon. There is hope then. We traverse the last few steps and there it is. The water thunders over a series of three or four drops as it cascades towards the lower river. Overall, the total drop of the various falls is about forty-five feet. The river is about one hundred feet wide as it flows through the gorge of rock and trees that border both sides. Various people in swimsuits attempt to wade in the rushing water. One young man tiptoes his way across the tumbling whitewater over and over. There always has to be one with a death wish.
At this fall, there is a special little platform on the bridge upon which to place your cell phone and take that unique photo of you and the falls together. I have never been much into selfies, but what the heck, I am open to trying something at least once. First, I have to figure out how to set up the phone camera on the timer. I notice some young amused teenagers eyeing us intently while we oldies fumble about on this fan-dangled device. We do finally get it set up and manage to snap two shots of ourselves with the falls in the background. Gordon spends a fair amount of time shooting scenes with a real camera before it is time to go.
Neither of us look forward to the return trek to the parking lot. At least it is not as hot as the weatherman predicted and the trail is shadowed by a canopy of trees. With regular rest breaks on the climb back up, it does not seem as far as feared and we soon emerge from the woods into the brilliant hot sunshine.
Our next stop is to be St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis, MN. I type the address into our “trusty” GPS. Soon we are sailing westward on I94. The device somehow knows that there is road work being done and a detour. It recalculates a different route but then seems confused by its recalculations. We are instructed to exit at Exit 234B. It then instructs us to turn right at the first intersection onto Hiawatha Drive. But the first intersection is Snelling Ave, not Hiawatha Drive.
“Keep going,” I instruct Gordon, “There, the next intersection is Hiawatha.” We cruise just a couple of blocks and I see a sign for Mill Ruins Park.
“It has to be around here somewhere. There’s a parking lot.” I direct him to a lot with several openings. Here in the cities, they seem to have automated parking fees machines. We struggle to figure out the directions for using this one. Our fumbling around ends up with us paying twice for what we planned as a two-hour time allotment. Well, now we have four hours to wander around.
How are we going to find a waterfall in this inner-city bustle? Is the question. We are beside the Mississippi, so it has to be here somewhere. We begin our stroll alongside an enormous curving stone arch bridge that winds gently southward and across the river. Its surface has been converted into a bike path in the middle flanked by walking paths on each outer edge.
“Let’s go down the steps and under the bridge. Maybe we can find the falls by walking along the river.”
The sun beats down on us as we stroll along but there is a stiff breeze that reduces the blistering heat to a tolerable level. Off to our right is an ancient stone opening to the old flour mill ruins. The water in the aqueduct is green with thick algae. Ducks with goslings paddle lazily around the pool while a putrid odor wafts up at us from the dead animal floating on its surface. As we move on downriver, we pass the lock and dam operated by the Army Corp of Engineers. Tours of the facility are canceled, and the gates are locked tight due to the pandemic. Along with all these closures goes the access to any bathroom facilities. There are no boats going through the locks either- all is quiet. Once we get past the lock and dam and turn to look upriver, I spot the waterfall. Actually, there are several smaller falls to the sides of the river and a larger one situated across the full length of the river. It almost looks manmade but according to the literature and posted signage, it is a natural occurring phenomenon. Our view from this angle is partially blocked by the lock and dam.
“I bet if we go up on top of the stone arch bridge and walk out over the river, we will have an unobstructed view,” suggests my hubby.
We retrace our steps under the arch and up the stairs.
“Why don’t we eat something before we go for our walk?” I suggest. There is a food truck (Green plus the Grain says the sign on its side) parked along the edge of the parking lot. It seems like an easy and healthy way to fill our bellies without a lot of driving around. They are offering various salads and wraps and drinks and frozen yogurt. That frozen yogurt looks really tantalizing on this hot day and I order one with strawberries. I also order a Classic Caesar salad with ranch dressing while Gordon orders a Cowboy Salad with jalapeno dressing. It all seems relatively benign as menu choices go.
“I bet getting that salad dressing was a mistake,” mentions Gordon as we walk away to the only picnic table which is situated in the sun.
“You can eat mine if you don’t like yours. I have way too much,” I offer.
One bite of his salad and he is finished. I reach out and take a forkful to taste. Whoa! That is hot in a way different from the sunshine that blazes down on us. Guess neither one of us is eating that. There goes eleven dollars into the garbage. My lips and tongue burn even with frozen yogurt to cool the flame. My Caesar salad is edible but even that is spicier than we would normally consume. We eat it together. It is part of our adventure.
We finish our visit to St. Anthony with a slow trolling meander along the top of the stone arch bridge. Midway along, the angle allows for photographing the full length and beauty of St. Anthony Fall. It is now close to two in the afternoon and time to move on to the next falls on our list, Minnehaha, just a few miles away. The GPS makes the same mistake on the way out as it did on the way in but this time we are prepared. Don’t turn where it says – just keep driving.
After a short drive, we arrive at the 170-acre Minnehaha Park located in the midst of the city of Minneapolis. We are in need of a bathroom. We are so hoping that the park restrooms will be open. But there are those familiar signs on the door, “Restrooms closed.” Ugh! Now what do we do? Off in the distance we notice a line of porta-potties. I guess that works. But I’m confused by this system. How is having to use a porta-potty more sanitary and less likely to spread the corona virus than just cleaning a regular bathroom properly? I just don’t get it.
Next, we wander back across the park wondering which way to go to find the fall. People seem to be going through an opening in the shrubs. We follow them. Concrete steps lead downward and make a few turns. At least it is semi-shaded as rivers of perspiration have begun to pour off of us with even the smallest activity. We can hear the rushing water and soon the falls comes into view. Minnehaha Fall spills fifty three feet over a ledge and under a stone bridge to the river below. It is flanked by green foliage on all sides. The beauty of this place is striking – a hidden gem in the middle of a major metropolis. The water of the Minnehaha River eventually spills into the Mississippi. We make our climb out of the gouge up some steps on the opposing side. A short walk through the opposite side of the park brings us back to the car. We are hit by a blast of oven air as we open the car door.
“I want a milkshake,” I declare.
“I don’t know where to find a Dairy Queen,” responds my driver.
“Not a problem,” I say as we start out towards our next destination. Right around the round-about at the end of Minnehaha Drive is a Dairy Queen. Gordon waits in the car while I go in to purchase the ice cream as only five people are allowed in at a time and everyone has to stay six feet apart. Here our masks are needed too. When I finally come back out fifteen minutes later, Gordon points to the thermometer on the car dashboard – one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It’s time for a cool ride to our last waterfall in Nerstrand, Minnesota.
We are soon headed south on Hwy 55. I think this part of our trip should be a cinch as this is a familiar route for us. I have again plugged the address for Hidden Falls State Park into the GPS and faithfully follow its directions. We do fine until we need to exit the expressway. The “lady” tells us to go right at the end of the exit ramp, so we make a right turn. As we travel west, the device tells us to turn right and then right again. This makes no sense. We have just gone around in a circle. We pause at the stop sign. We are both confused.
“Just turn right and keep going on this road that we were on,” I instruct overriding the machine. As we travel a few more miles west, the GPS again instructs us to turn right. “Alright, just do what is says once and see what happens.” Two turns later, we emerge onto the expressway again north of the exit we got off at.
“OK. Let’s try this again,” I exclaim, “I think we need to follow Hwy 56 and we weren’t doing that.”
As we approach the end of the exit ramp this time, the machine again tells us to go right.
“No. Hwy 56 is straight ahead. Go straight,” I instruct. A few hundred feet later, we realize that now we need to veer off to the right. Now it makes sense what the GPS has been trying to tell us. It just forgot to instruct us with what to do at the stop sign. I don’t think we have had this many blunders from the artificial intelligence before. No wonder people end up driving down railroad tracks and doing stupid things while following its instructions.
We arrive at Hidden Falls State Park around 4:45 p.m. We need to head for home no later than six so that leaves us just an hour to find the falls. The sauna like atmosphere hits us as we step out of the car. I am glad it was not like this all day. Here there is a bathroom that is actually open. Such joy over small things. After a stop at the restroom, we start our slow trek down the angled trail. This path is not as steep as the one at Hudson, Wisconsin but losing altitude none-the-less. After all, I guess one does need to go down if he is going to come out at the bottom of a waterfall. I keep glancing at my watch, thinking that this might be a mistake in this heat. Thirty minutes later, the trail finally ends with a boardwalk and some wooden steps designed to protect a sensitive area where the endangered Minnesota dwarf trout lily grows. And there is the falls. It is not especially dramatic as it is only twenty foot tall but is still gorgeous. The water slowly trickles over the edge like water running off a table displaying a sparkling reflection in the afternoon sun. Several people frolic in the water below the falls. A father and young son stand beneath the falls holding out their arms and allowing the water to tumble over them. This calls for a few photographs before it is time to head back. A sign along the path indicates it is about a half mile back to the parking lot. That is not so bad if we could ignore the fact that it is all uphill and heatstroke weather. Gordon and I pace ourselves and step off to the side for frequent rests. Rivulets of sweat run down our brows and into our eyes. One step at a time. Ah we are back to the parking lot. It is time to head home. Happy 65th Birthday to my Hubby.