Sunday, November 30, 2014

Twenty-seven Hours on the North Shore

 During a conversation (and food) filled Thanksgiving afternoon with family and friends, several generations of women and men from three or four strands of the family discussed film production, the Ferguson protests, the history of St. Louis suburbs, Guardians of the Galaxy, breeding fish for fun and profit, Infinite Jest, the allure (or not) of Lake Michigan, kitchen remodeling, Augie's Bar in downtown Minneapolis, and the relative size of Thayer's and herring gulls.

Hilary and I returned home with enormous quantities of leftover salmon mousse, one piece of mincemeat pie, two magnums of unopened wine, and a modest foil packet of turkey and dressing.

It had all been warm and grand. But now our attention turned to an adventure lying ahead. We'd arranged to spend the following night in Two Harbors, a town three hours north of the Twin Cities that we often breeze through on our way to the BWCA or to resorts further up the North Shore. Along the way we intended to spend some time at one or two places in Duluth that we typically bypass for the same reason—not enough time.

Our first stop was the trailhead to a stretch of the Superior Hiking Trail that crosses Skyline Drive on its way inland toward Peace Ridge, high above the city of Duluth. It was a pleasant walk through the snow-dusted woods, with downy and hairy woodpeckers tapping here and there amid the poplars, and the view was likely to improve the higher we went. But after three-quarters of a mile we decided to turn around. It was already noon and we had quite a few other stops in mind.

Continuing east on Skyline Drive, we made a brief stop at Enger Park, but chose to skip the climb up the tower, preferring to enjoy the expansive view from the pavilion perched on the edge of the cliff.

After a truly mediocre lunch from Taco Johns, consumed in a parking lot behind an insurance agency in a little neighborhood called Beacon Point on the shores of the big lake that's been cut off from downtown Duluth by the freeway, we continued east for twenty minutes along the scenic route to Knife River. 

We parked just west of the river, read a sign about the ten million board feet of lumber that had been shipped out of the harbor or down the railroad tracks from Knife River, then hiked through the woods upstream to an enclosed metal fish ladder that lies just east of the expressway. The smell of pines filled the air, and wood smoke wafted across the river from a cabin on the other bank. Little pools of new-fallen snow rested on top of the dead yarrow plants. Ah, winter!

We purchased a whole smoked herring at Russ Kendell's Smokehouse for five dollars. They're building a new smokehouse behind the shop to replace the one that burned down last spring. I noticed a few half-pint containers of salmon spread selling for $6.50 a piece in one of the display cases and suddenly realized that we had a gold mine in our refrigerator back home!

In Two Harbors we bypassed our motel—light was draining from the overcast sky, no time to check in—and parked at the head of Burlington Bay on the east end of town. From there a city trail runs through a grove of white pines planted to commemorate those who died in battle since WWI,  with side trails leading to rocky outcrops along the shore.

Eventually the trail reemerges on a city street and then heads down a hill past the water treatment plant to another foot trail leading to even broader stretches of rocky shelves along the lake, cut off from the old business district by a swath of trees. I'd never seen that stretch of coastline before.

After traversing the rocks, we cut back through the woods toward the harbor, passing just below the historic lighthouse. But a greater sight lay just around the corner—an ore boat at the loading dock, strewn with little white lights.

This remarkable sight reminded me only tangentially of Christmas. What does Christ have to do with ore boats? But it did reinforce the notion that twinkling lights in the darkness are more than attractive, they're positively enchanting.  

A small group of tourists was wandering back to shore along the narrow breakwater in the shadowy light. To judge from their accents I'd guess they were from somewhere in the Carolinas. Visiting family over the holidays, no doubt.

Two common mergansers drifted aimlessly in the harbor, their white breasts gleaming against the dark water; then they dove into the murk below.

We wandered into the VFW (too smoky) and the Castle Danger Brewpub (no food) before returning to our motel to check in, sit in the hot tub, and take another look at the thin, stiff, coppery herring we'd bought in Knife River. It was moist, fresh, good.

The next morning we headed downtown again, where we read the signs about the two impressive locomotives on display, paused in front of the house where a company called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing had been incorporated in 1902, and watched a fox prance across the road and disappear into someone's back yard through a wrought iron fence.

But we were out on the road early, heading east to another section of the Superior Hiking Trail near Crow Creek. A faint wisp of sleet was falling—enough to send me skidding past the turnoff to County Road 106.

A mile or so up the road, we found the parking lot. The trail climbs steeply up a rocky bluff, delivering a payoff within fifteen minutes. It offers a succession of views across the valley of Crow Creek toward the distant lake and the long rocky ridge through which the Silver Creek Tunnel passes. 

Almost as remarkable as the view was the sight of a man running toward us at breakneck speed down the rocky, snow-covered trail, carrying a water bottle in one hand and listening to some electronic "music" that consisted of little more than an urgent, metallic beat. As he went careering down the snowy rock steps we'd just laboriously climbed up and disappeared into the forest below, I was reminded of a herd of elk we came upon once in Yellowstone. Also descending.

The key, I guess, is not to alight firmly anywhere, but simply keep moving ahead.

For the most part, the guide we'd been using, Fifty Day Hikes on the North Shore by Andrew Slade, was more than useful—it was indispensable; but the "spur" the author recommended to reach the highest ground and most spectacular views on the Crow Creek Trail didn't look too promising to me. 

Running along the edge of a cliff and difficult to discern under an inch or two of snow, it looked less like a trail than a one-way ticket to the emergency room.

So we returned to the car and continued east to Gooseberry Park, where we hiked the Gitchi-gummi Trail on the east side of the river. Along the way I spotted a muskrat on the foamy ice covering Second Falls, searching (in vain) for a safe way to climb down to the river; and a little vole bounding through the weeds, he resurfaced twice. At another point a ruffed grouse crossed the path just a few feet in front of us, then hid out in the crux of a bush until we lost interest.

The dead grasses all around were a rich golden brown and the big lake was a steely green-gray. It wasn't that cold, we were both well-dressed, but I didn't much feel like pondering the immensity of the expanse. For some reason, things closer at hand were attracting my attention.

A single fox had been bounding along the trail in front of us for most of the way. We didn't see it, but we saw the tracks. Otherwise, the only signs we saw, aside from weasel and mouse tracks in the snow, were those of a large rabbit, bunched close together but spaced about five feet apart. It seems he was on the run from something. (But maybe he just felt like running.)

Back in Duluth, we took our final hike of the day—out through a small pine barren beyond the airport at the end of Park Point. The pines themselves date back to 1798 at least, according to the sign.

The sun had finally come out and the sky was a soft blue covered with long stripes of diaphanous pillow-like clouds. The tan beaches were rimmed with miniature drifts of snow, there were broad planes of ice under the snow cover where the waves had lapped up across the sand and then frozen. (I wouldn't have known that, but you could see the tracks of those who had ventured out toward the lake, slipped, and fallen.) The grasses on the dunes looked healthy. Off in the distance to the east I could see the lighthouse on the pier at Wisconsin Point, on the other side of the sandbar, very close but separated from us by ninety minutes of drive-time.  

We passed a bunch of people for the first time along the sandy trail through the woods—well, we were practically in downtown Duluth. It was a family group, they'd been attempting to cross-country ski, though the dearth of snow made it impossible. We came upon their skis, leaned up against a tree, before we saw them wandering in our direction down the sandy path in the shadow of the woods.

Four or five seaplanes were parked in a snow-covered lot beyond the cyclone fence protecting the airport. Eventually we crossed a stretch of private property that housed the high voltage fixtures for the airport lights, and I saw an evening grosbeak sitting on the metal fence enclosing the electrical boxes. That was a treat.

Evening grosbeaks usually travel in flocks, I said to myself. But as the bird flew off he was joined in flight by another, similar-looking bird, and I was reassured.

That was the last thing of interest that happened on our little 24-hour North Shore trip. Unless you count the fishermen heading out to their ice houses in the harbor, with the ocean-going ships and grain elevators beyond them in the distance.

But it occurs to me now that we didn't actually finish most of the hikes we started. We didn't really take the spur, or get to the opening between Minnesota and Wisconsin Points, or climb Enger Tower, or reach the open country up on Peace Ridge.

To which I say, So what? We did more than we had done. And next time we'll do more still. And we'll stop in at the brew pub, and the walleye cakes at the Rustic Inn will be better, and the fox will appear. 

And so on, all down the line. 

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