Madeline Island by Sail

The lagoon at the Madeline Island Town Park.

When last we met, Russ, Captain Dave and I were on our way from Stockton Island in the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin on our way to Madeline Island. This particular island isn’t part of the national lakeshore because it is inhabited. But the island is near the Lakeshore and offers many opportunities for natural fun.

Our trip to Madeline Island was not as speedy as our trip to Stockton. The wind was slight, and we only made a top speed of 2 knots, far from the 9 knots we made on our way previously. We had to tack several times (zigzag) to reach our destination, but at least the sun was out.

We anchored in Big Bay, which is home to both a town park and a Wisconsin State Park. Many impressive homes lined the shoreline. Seeing how they had protected their shoreline against erosion was interesting. Lake Superior’s water levels have been at record highs the past few years, and the toll that’s taken is obvious along the island’s edges.

A few homeowners have cleared all the trees and vegetation down the water line on their properties, leaving just an expanse of green lawn. This does not seem like a very wise idea in terms of erosion control. For my work with Wisconsin Sea Grant, I write stories about this issue, so I know a bit of whereof I speak.

After we reached Big Bay in the afternoon, we clambered aboard Tinkerbell the dinghy and rowed ashore. The state park offers a boardwalk that parallels the beach and it morphs into the town park, which also sports a boardwalk to a lagoon. We hiked 3-1/2 miles along the shore, visited several times by a buck who also was taking an evening stroll.

A beach teepee on Big Bay, Madeline Island.

Some enterprising person or persons had built a structure out of driftwood on the beach. What are these things called – beach teepees? Enlighten me, please, if you will.

That night we were rocked to sleep on Lake Superior’s swells. It reminded me of slumbering in the cradle as a child. I kept thinking that someone should market a rocking bed for adults – there could be money to be made!

When we weighed anchor the next day, we saw a large vessel with strange implements sticking out of it coming our way. Later, we were able to discern with binoculars that it was the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Guardian research ship. They steamed into the bay, pushing a huge bow wave, and then stopped abruptly. We were too far away at this point to see what they were doing, but I would guess they were either checking some fishing nets that were in the bay or taking water samples for research.

I’ve written about the Lake Guardian for work several times, but this was the first time I’d seen it out on the water in action – an impressive sight!

Remember when I said (in the previous post) that Russ and I had forgotten much of our sailing skills during the pandemic? Russ has a background in sailing so remembered much more than I did. He usually handled the anchor and navigated while we were under sail. I was good at steering the Neverland when it was motoring. Capn Dave had been very patient with us the first two days of our trip, but not so much this third day.

I felt like we made up for it on our fourth (and last) day of the trip when we successfully navigated the Neverland into the Port Superior Marina without mishap. Capn Dave seemed rather pleased with that. Maybe he’ll invite us back sometime? At least we didn’t run the boat aground. He doesn’t invite those people back. 😊

There’s a saying that it pays to be “brave enough to totally suck at something new.” Sailing is like that for me. It takes a certain amount of hutzpah to try something for which you have no background. Once we docked the boat and Capn Dave took time to show me how to secure the line to a dock cleat, I felt a bit more worthy.

Once we returned home, I kept feeling like I was still on the boat, especially when I was in the shower (an enclosed space complete with the sound of water). I just learned today that the term for that is “landsickness” or “disembarkment syndrome.” It’s where you still feel the rocking of the boat even after you’ve been off it for several days. According to the Wiktionary, it most often afflicts women between the ages of 30 and 60 (which I fit). It’s the reverse of sea sickness, and is something that sailors and passengers experience when going ashore after a long voyage. I’ve felt the same thing since my 20s, so it must just be part of my makeup. Or maybe it means I’m supposed to be at sea most of the time.

Does a case of landsickness mean I’m a real sailor? I don’t think so. I don’t feel like a real sailor yet. I don’t think I could handle a sailboat all by myself. I still don’t know the names of all the lines and sails on the boat. But I’m getting there, slowly.

Let this trip be a lesson in not being afraid to try something relatively new. If there’s something you want to try, go for it! Life is too short to sit on shore, wishing you could be at sea.

Stockton Island by Sail

The “Neverland” anchored in Presque Isle Bay, Stockton Island.

Russ and I meandered east a few hours to the Bayfield Peninsula in Wisconsin last week. We met our sailing friend, Captain Dave, at the Port Superior Marina for a trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore on Lake Superior.

We hadn’t been sailing since before the pandemic. We were apprehensive because we were sure we’d forgotten what skills we had gained, but we were more than ready for an adventure. Our plan was to sail around Stockton Island and Madeline Island over the course of four days.

Although I’d been to both places many times, this would be the first time I’d be doing it by sail, and the first time in the off-season: appealing prospects.

We met in the evening at the marina. After loading our gear onto the “Neverland” (a 32-foot Westsail), we headed down the long pier dock to our car in the parking lot so we could go into Bayfield and find an open restaurant – not an easy task on a Sunday evening after tourist season is over.

Ominous clouds had filled the sky. They chose the “perfect” time to unload their watery burden once we were too far down the pier to seek shelter back on the Neverland. We did not have our rain gear on and got soaked before we reached the car. We were immersed in nature immediately, whether we wanted to be or not.

The Port of Superior Marina near Bayfield, WI.

The squall passed by the time we reached Bayfield. Our goal was to eat at the Pickled Herring. We heard they made an awesome whitefish liver appetizer. Captain Dave had eaten there and raved about it. Alas, they were closed, so we chose to eat at Greunke’s Restaurant instead. This would also be a new experience.

We were seated at a table that featured John F. Kennedy Junior memorabilia on the wall. I was not aware that he had visited Bayfield, much less dined at Greunke’s. The restaurant had saved his receipt; he spent $104 on his meal. I hope he didn’t eat all that food by himself!

We noticed that they also offered whitefish livers on the menu. We decided to order them so that Capn Dave could tell us if they measured up to the Pickled Herring’s dish. They come either fried or sautéed with green peppers and onions. We ordered the latter version.

I thought they were passable fare, but Dave said they weren’t as good as their competitor’s. He said the Pickled Herring put some sort of extra spice on theirs that made all the difference. The rest of our food was excellent. In keeping with the theme, I ordered broiled whitefish, which was prepared just right – not too dry/overdone.

Our whitefish liver appetizer. Yum!

We, on the other hand, were not quite dry by the time we returned to the marina. We changed out of our rain-soaked clothes and spent the night in the belly of Neverland, lulled asleep by the creak of dock lines. In the morning, we awoke to the xylophone of sail lines banging on masts in the stiff wind. It was gusting to 25 knots and the sky was overcast — an exciting day to sail!

It only took us a few hours to get to Stockton Island. The Neverland reached its top speed, which is a little over 9 knots. That isn’t as fast as most sailboats go – Capn Dave explained that Westsails are considered “Wet Snails” when it comes to speed, but they are a very safe, heavy boat.

Black bear tracks on Julian Bay Beach, Stockton Island.

We anchored in Presque Isle Bay on the island and rowed ashore in the dinghy, appropriately named “Tinkerbell.” We beached at the end of the park service campground. I was used to seeing people in the campground, so walking past the deserted sites was strange, a little unnerving. We continued onto Julian Bay where we hiked down the beach of the singing sands to the lagoon. We saw a long trail of black bear tracks on that beach as well as the one where we landed Tinkerbell. The island bears were probably roaming far and wide to find enough food to fatten up for winter. A bald eagle flew overhead. A partial rainbow seemed to end over the neighboring island across the lake.

The rainbow ends on Michigan Island.

Back on the Neverland that night, the sky was painfully clear and cold. The Milky Way was easy to see, split by the occasional falling star. Capn Dave fired up the small wood stove inside Neverland, which kept us cozy for an evening of gin rummy and reading.

Fortified in the morning by a breakfast of haggis and eggs, we rowed back ashore and hiked the Quarry Trail, which eventually leads to an old brownstone quarry (no longer in service). We stopped before the quarry and spent and pleasant time on a sandstone ledge, enjoying sun on the lakeshore. Hundreds of colorful mushrooms piqued our interest during the 6-1/2-mile stroll – purples, oranges, reds, yellows, browns. It’s a good fall for mushrooms around here.

A fly agaric mushroom, toxic but not lethal if ingested. Found along the Quarry Trail, Stockton Island.

After another chilly night, we left the following day for Madeline Island. More on that in my next post.

The Neverland anchored in Presque Isle Bay, Stockton Island.

A Perfect Duluth Evening

Boaters and landlubbers alike gather on the shores of Lake Superior for a “Concert on the Pier.” In the far background, you can see sailboats doing their Wednesday night races.

A historic mansion on the shores of Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota, offers free concerts on Wednesday evenings during summer. Local musicians play on a pier that juts out into the lake as hundreds of listeners lounge on blankets on the Glensheen Mansion grounds and the rocky shoreline. Boaters take advantage of the concerts as well, anchoring just off the pier. I should explain that all manner of watercraft people show up to listen: paddleboarders, kayakers, canoers, sailors, inner tubers.

I had never been to one of these concerts before. It was the last of the season, the weather was warm and calm, and some of my favorite musicians were playing – Jacob Mahon and Teague Alexy – in Teague’s “Common Thread” band. So, Russ and I grabbed our folding chairs and headed to the shore.

Since these events are so well-attended, parking space is at a premium. We parked in a neighborhood about a quarter mile away and walked onto the mansion grounds. We got there about an hour early so we would have a chance to sit in a good location.

The view from our concert spot on the beach. That’s the moon rising.

The best spots with direct views of the pier were already filled with picnickers. We noticed a small rocky hill on the beach behind the pier and decided to head there. We soon discovered that getting to the hill required fording the end of a creek (Tischer Creek) that runs through the property into the lake. Luckily, water levels were low enough that this was a simple task, requiring only a few steps on some well-placed rocks.

We planted our chairs to stake our claim and then headed out to investigate the food trucks, ice cream stand, and adult beverage purveyors on the grounds. We had just enough time to obtain some treats and return when the music began.

Teague’s songs have been described as “an inviting style of laid-back roots music” with a few Irish ditties sprinkled here and there. It was perfect for listening as the sun set in pinks and periwinkle blues over the lake.

More boats arrived until a minor flotilla floated in front of the pier. The boaters had the best seats!

Neighbors greeted neighbors. Former soccer moms reunited. Children continued their never-ending, generations-long quest to fill up Lake Superior with rocks.

A moonlit path on Lake Superior

Soon, an almost-Harvest-Moon rose, its light trailing a glowing path on the water. The disappearing sun had taken its warmth along with it. Although we wore jackets, a chill from the lake began seeping through. We stayed until we became too uncomfortable, leaving a few songs before the concert’s end.

As we walked back to our car serenaded by the band, the Lake Superior cold in our limbs was offset by warmth toward our community for providing this perfect way to spend a Duluth evening. Glensheen’s Concerts on the Pier are a unique experience. So glad we got our butts down to the shore to enjoy one.

Checking-in

I haven’t been meandering much lately. I’ve been too busy with final edits to my “Meander North” manuscript — a book coming out this fall composed of the best of my blog entries. Choosing the stories was easy. Figuring out how to edit them was difficult because they occur during different timeframes during the first nine years of my blog. Plus, there are fifty-one of them!

But I think my editors and have I figured it out. If all goes well, the book should be available in late October. I’m planning a launch event in Duluth for early November. I will post details here once I know them, and I’ll be doing a cover reveal!

In other news, I’ve been continuing my kickboxing workouts. I love them. I am proud to say I can now jump rope 70 times in a row. That’s quite a change from a couple of months ago when my count was like, uh, nothing. Everytime I go to the gym, I feel like Rocky Balboa. 🙂

Russ and I have had many gatherings of friends and family lately. We’re looking forward to setting sail on Lake Superior soon.

Until then, meander well, my friends.

Canoeing the Whiteface, Take Two

The Whiteface River under a sky that portends some weather.

After my story was published in “Northern Wilds” magazine about our first canoe adventure down the Whiteface River in northern Minnesota, someone contacted me by Facebook Messenger.

This secret nature informant let me know about an easier route on the river than the one that Russ and I took a couple of years ago. They said we could canoe for an hour without running into any pesky rapids. In fifteen years, they only ran into another person once. Because they wanted to keep the route unpopulated and “secret,” they asked me not to let anyone else know about it.

I am honoring their wish – mostly – by writing this post and not letting you know the specific location.

With canoe in hand (on truck) Russ and I left our cabin one grey day a couple of weeks ago. In keeping with our newfound desire not to let the threat of a little rain stop us from being outdoors, we continued onward to the Whiteface.

During our adventure, we discovered that my secret nature informant was correct, the river was placid and rock-free for about an hour’s paddle one way. Blooming white and yellow water lilies filled its sheltered bays. Old beaver houses lined the banks, and animal trails led from the water to the inland wilderness.

A white water lily on the Whiteface River.

Unlike the previous stretch we had canoed, this part of the river was wilder. No homes lined its banks. No cars could be heard from a nearby road. If a person got in trouble, they’d have to fend for themselves.

A light rain began to fall, but we just donned our raincoats and kept paddling. The drizzle stopped and started, but we barely registered it as we marveled at the bounty of nature before us.

I hope to return to this stretch of river with my paddleboard one day. It would also be a great place to bring our grandchildren for a placid canoe ride.

If we visit often enough, perhaps one day we’ll meet my secret nature informant.

No doubt, they’ll be dismayed that we’re there!

Isle Royale on Fire

Hidden Lake with a low fog, Isle Royale National Park.

When we last checked in, Russ and I were on Isle Royale, a wilderness national park in Lake Superior. It was our final day. Before we had to catch our boat back to the mainland in the afternoon, we had plans to canoe across Tobin Harbor to a rugged trail that leads to Hidden Lake, Monument Rock, and an overlook high on the backbone of the island with the prosaic name of Lookout Louise.

A boardwalk over a wetlands near Hidden Lake.

The weather had other ideas for us, however. A gray sky and drizzle greeted us as we carried our friends’ canoe down to the harbor. To me, it didn’t feel like we were in for a downpour, just a steady drip, so we decided not to let a little rain keep us from my old haunt and one of the most spectacular overlooks on the island. On a clear day, a person can see the other side of the island and all the way to Canada.

After about a half-hour paddle from the sea plane dock on the crystal-clear waters of Tobin Harbor, we reached the Hidden Lake dock. We hauled our canoe ashore and began the mile-long hike to the lookout. While the beginning part of the trail at Hidden Lake is flat, the grade gradually rises until it reaches a steep pitch on the way to Monument Rock and the lookout. Because of this, the difficulty is considered moderate to difficult.

Fog shrouded part of Hidden Lake, adding to its mystery. We found a pile of super-fresh wolf scat next to the trail along with lady slipper orchids.

For entertainment one evening earlier on our trip, we attended a park ranger talk at Rock Harbor. The topic was the fire that occurred on this part of the island last year (2021). Named the Horne Fire, it began as a lightning strike and ended up burning 335 acres and threatening cabins on Tobin Harbor. People were evacuated, tourism was disrupted, and a fire crew was brought in to fight the blaze.

Russ by Monument Rock, which was in the path of the Horne Fire in 2021.

From attending the talk, we knew that the Lookout Louise Trail would take us right through the burned area, so we were ready for the black chaos when we found it. Huge trees were uprooted, soil was blackened. Dead trees, denuded of branches, reached toward the gray sky like iron spikes. But some greenery was returning in scattered patches.

One unexpected benefit of the Horne Fire was that the view of Monument Rock – a large sea stack that sticks up from the hillside – was easily visible. Usually, it’s shrouded by trees. Reaching the landmark means you’re over halfway to the lookout. Once past the rock, the trail becomes a bit less steep.

We didn’t have much time to enjoy the view at the lookout for fear we would miss our boat home, but our gazes drank in what they could of Duncan Bay and Lake Superior. On a clear day, Pie Island, the Sibley Peninsula and Edward Island in Canada are visible.

I heard two days ago that Isle Royale is on fire again. Visitors were evacuated from Three Mile and Lane Cove campgrounds. Those campgrounds are currently closed as are some trails in that area. For more details, please see news article(s) about the fire. Of course, fires are natural on the island, but it is distressing to see the destruction they leave behind and how they impact the lives of the people who live and work on the island in summer.

The view from Lookout Louise.

According to the park service, the lookout was named for Louise Savage of St. Paul, Minnesota. Her family owned one of the cabins on Tobin Harbor before the area became a park.

As we hiked back to the dock, the drizzle grew into a light shower. But we didn’t mind. We had accomplished our goal and were feeling good. The fresh rain seeped into our jeans and into our bones, a reminder of our closeness to nature. We were able to return to Rock Harbor in plenty of time to catch our ride home.

Hidden Lake, Isle Royale. You can see evidence of the Horne Fire on the hillside in the upper right.

I left the island feeling peaceful. I was glad to see that lodge employees still gather on the sea plane dock to watch the sun set every evening like I used to back when I worked there decades ago. It’s obvious that the island still works its magic on employees and visitors alike.

I was taking sunset pictures on the dock during the final island evening of our trip. As oranges and pinks filled the sky, we could hear the rattling trumpet calls of distant sandhills cranes. These birds were not on the island when I worked there in the 1980s, but I guess they are more common now.

Then, right when the sun dipped behind the island’s Greenstone Ridge, a lone wolf howled somewhere near Lookout Louise (was it his/her scat we found the next day?) The small group gathered on the dock all looked at each other in wonderment, as if asking, was that a wolf we just heard? The wolf’s mournful, long howl was followed by a second. No other wolves replied.

As I stepped off the dock onto the land with my camera gear, a man sitting on a bench said, “I’ve been coming here for thirty years and that’s the first wolf I heard. That’s pretty special.”

Darn right it is! I told him the howls were also a first for me. That’s one of those mystical Isle Royale moments I won’t forget.

Isle Royale visitors take time to watch the sunset on the sea plane dock in Tobin Harbor.

Isle Royale, Revisited

Sunset on Tobin Harbor, Isle Royale National Park

This meander was two summers in the making. I tried to reserve a house keeping cabin at Rock Harbor Lodge on Isle Royale in early 2021, but they were booked already!

I longed to return to this national park in Lake Superior because I worked there as a waitress at the lodge for two summers in the 1980s. I hadn’t been back in over 25 years and decided it was time. I needed my Isle Royale wilderness fix.

I didn’t want to primitive camp, however. Been there, done that. During my college waitress days, I had dreamed of someday staying in one of the quaint cabins that line a protected harbor on the island – sleeping in a real bed, bringing my own food, and cooking in a kitchen complete with stovetop and mini-fridge. (Beats a camp stove and no fridge, any time.)

Now was that time. But the only openings were in the summer of 2022. I sighed and made the reservation for this distant date. I was also able to talk Russ and a couple of my friends into accompanying me.

I consider Isle Royale my spiritual home. I’ve had some of my most meaningful experiences there and it’s where I’ve met lifelong friends. My two novels are set on the island. I wasn’t sure how so much time passed off-island, but it probably had something to do with life, responsibilities, and distractions.

Lake Superior is cold this summer! Image courtesy of KBJR-TV, Duluth, MN.

My heart sank as I looked at the weather forecast for the four days we’d be spending in the park. The water temperature for Lake Superior has been at record lows this summer – its coldest in 25 years!  (Lower-to-middle-40s.) It has to do with prevailing westerly winds, which caused colder waters to upwell from the depths.

As such, we were resigned to the yucky weather forecast for our stay, which predicted highs in the 60s and overcast skies. This magical and mercurial island had other things in mind for us, however; treating us to highs in the mid-70s, sunny skies, and sporadic fog.

One of my fellow travelers was prone to seasickness, so we took the shortest boat route possible, aboard the Queen from Copper Harbor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The passage couldn’t have been better, and we spent our 3.75-hour unusually calm ride in pleasant conversation and card games.

Our house keeping cabin.

After we arrived at Rock Harbor, we had a few hours before our cabins were ready. We spent the time getting reacquainted with my old haunts: the snack bar (now named the Greenstone Grill after semi-precious stones only found on the island) and the America Dock – named after a ship that used to service the island but sunk. I was distressed to see the dock in ruins from ice damage. The employee dorm looked much the same, as did Tobin Harbor and the sea plane dock, next to where our lodgings would be.

The lodge is run by Kim Bob Alexander, who worked on the island when I did. He was a charter captain then and has been managing the lodge concession for many years. It was good to see a familiar face since all the rest are gone. He seemed to remember me, and we discovered that his daughter Marina would be our charter captain the next day for our lake trout fishing trip onto Lake Superior.

I was worried about how the loon population was doing on the island. I fondly remembered falling asleep to the mournful sound of their calls at night and hoped that hadn’t changed. I needn’t have worried. The moment Russ and I checked into our cabin, a pair of loons called from Tobin Harbor, as if in welcome.

The next morning, we rose early and headed to the docks for our charter fishing excursion. Marina and her co-captain Cole greeted us, giving us the rundown of where we would travel and how things would work. I had never been charter fishing before, so I was especially intrigued. (This was yet another former-Isle-Royale waitress’s dream experience.)

We headed out in the fog along the eastern side of the island toward Passage Island, which lies about three miles off its tip. We fished for a couple of hours, unsuccessfully. Or, I should say that Marina fished for us and we just lollygagged around, trying to stay out of her way.

Our lake trout catch.

As the fog began to lift, we hoped our luck would change. To hedge our bets, we decided to offer a little sacrifice to Lake Superior. My friend Sharon poured a little bit of leftover coffee into the lake, saying a few words.

Soon after, she was reeling in her line according to Marina’s instructions, with a four-pound lake trout on the end of it. Not long after, I caught a five-pounder. I was especially impressed by how cold my fish was when I held it, pulled from Lake Superior’s icy depths.

There was another lull during which Russ lost a fish or two. We decided it was time to offer another sacrifice. Sharon and I eyed our men, as if deciding which one to throw overboard, but then opted for a pinch of tobacco that one of them carried.

It worked again! Sharon’s partner Mike caught a trout and Russ finally did, too.

That night we dined on our trout, pan-seared by the lodge chef, along with all the fixings. We felt truly fortunate to eat these fresh gifts from the lake, much to the envy of our fellow diners, who also wanted fish, but it was not on the grill’s menu.

Our lake trout dinner.
Passage Island Lighthouse.

The next day, fog scuttled Russ’s and my plans to canoe in Tobin Harbor, so we opted to hike to Scoville Point instead. The point is about a four-mile round-trip from Rock Harbor. Along the way, we saw a snowshoe hare, which I had never seen before on the island, and an eagle’s nest, complete with eaglets. A mother merganser carried several of her brood on her back along the shore, followed by at least half a dozen other babies.

Our final full day on the island, Russ and I took a half-day trip aboard the lodge’s tour boat, the M.V. Sandy, to Passage Island. The weather cooperated. The park ranger who was supposed to interpret the rugged hike to the island’s lighthouse contracted COVID, so I ended up acting as an impromptu guide for part of the trip, pointing out plants not found on the main island (due to moose browsing) like the devil’s club and huge yew shrubs. We were also treated to views of peregrine falcons flying from their cliff face nest. The lighthouse has aged and decayed since I last saw it, but it still stood as a stalwart presence on the end of the island.

Our final morning dawned foggy and drizzly. Russ and I spent our time canoeing and hiking to Monument Rock and Lookout Louise. More on that in my next post…..

Mystical Scoville Point, Isle Royale National Park.

Held Hostage by Wild Animals

It seems lately as if several species of wild animals have been stopping Russ and I from our normal activities. These include a song sparrow, mallards, and wasps.

It all began on Fourth of July weekend when, in preparation for mowing, I was cleaning up sticks that had fallen from the many birches that abound in our cabin yard. Every time I approached our fire ring to drop off a load of sticks, a small brown bird would fly away.

I thought the bird was coming from inside the fire ring. I looked around for evidence of a possible nest there but could not find any. So, I mowed the yard.

Song sparrow eggs. Image credit: Rich Mooney

I mentioned the mysterious bird to Russ, saying I thought maybe it had a nest nearby. It was later in the day when Russ was moving a pile of sticks we had a few feet away from the fire ring into the ring so we could have a major 4th of July blaze that he called me over. “Look!” he said, pointing to something at the base of the brush pile. Sure enough, it was a nest with a clutch of four to five eggs inside. The eggs were bluish-brown and spotted. The mother bird was nowhere to be seen. I must have traumatized her with my mowing.

We quickly added some sticks back atop the nest in a poor approximation of the shelter the pile had offered before. Then we hightailed it away from the fire ring. We didn’t want to encourage the mother to stay off her nest any longer than we already (unintentionally) had.

The day was warm, so I hoped the eggs had not suffered greatly from the mother’s absence while I had mowed. Still, we worried we may have scared her away forever.

A few hours later, I couldn’t help but check to see if she had returned to the nest. I carefully approached and peered through the grass and brush. The bird was back! I slowly retreated to leave her in peace.

Our plans for a fun campfire with friends and relatives over the 4th of July holiday evaporated. If we had a fire, we’d be baking some poor baby birds in their eggs. We didn’t want that on our conscience. When our cabin guests arrived, we let them know why we wouldn’t be having any fires that weekend. They were good sports about it.

Then, the evening before we were to return home, I was about to go out to our dock and retrieve my paddleboard, which was attached to a dock pole with its leg strap. Storms were supposed to roll in by morning and I wanted my board safe inside the boat house.

As I looked out the cabin window at my paddleboard on the lake in the evening gloom, I noticed an unusual dark shape on our dock. It looked like a duck was sitting there, right above where my paddleboard was wedged in the water between two of the dock supports.

A mother mallard and her ducklings. Image credit: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

I mentioned to Russ that we had a duck on our dock, and when he looked at the scene, he discerned a bunch of smaller shapes on my paddleboard. We’d seen a mother mallard and her four ducklings swimming around our dock earlier in the day. Could they have decided to stay the night?

I took a closer look, and sure enough, the mother mallard was guarding her brood, who were nestled all cozy and cute against the life jacket I had strapped to my paddleboard.

What kind of heartless human could disturb them? Not me. I decided that stowing my board could wait until morning.

Of course, in the morning when I checked, baby duck poop covered my board. The ducklings must have spent the entire night on it. But that was easy enough to clean. I just turned the board over so that the top of it soaked in the lake for a while.

The next weekend we did not return to our cabin since we were on a trip to Isle Royale National Park (which I will describe in a later post). When we returned home from that excursion, Russ got stung several times while he walked up our back steps.

Wasps had built a hive in our absence under the top step. They were coming and going from a small crack between two boards. We couldn’t easily see the nest from underneath due to the cover provided by our day lilies.

What the heck, were the animals taking over? I mean, I’m an animal lover, but I was beginning to feel nervous.

Inconvenience by birds is one thing. Wasps are something different. I’m all for leaving wildlife in peace, but not when it comes to them controlling ingress and egress from my house.

We were too busy to deal with the hive for a few days, so we used the front door of our house instead. It was inconvenient, but better than risking stings.

One evening, when we hoped the wasps were drowsy, we donned our head nets and gloves. We used a broom handle to lay down the lilies along the side of the porch to see if we could pinpoint the hive’s location to spray it with some deadly wasp and yellowjacket foam.

I could not see where the hive was and I really didn’t want to stick my head any farther under the porch in this attempt, so Russ and I decided to spray the foam through the crack the bees were using to enter their hive.

This seemed mostly successful, although a wasp or two were still flying around the next day, so I put on my brave lady pants and stuck my head under the porch far enough to get a good shot at the nest with the spray this time. The nest wasn’t that large, and no insects emerged from the porch crack when I sprayed it, so maybe they were all gone by then. For good measure, we sprayed the crack one more time.

I think we successfully reclaimed our porch.

The next time we visited our cabin, we checked the nest by the fire ring and it was empty. It had been two weeks since we last saw it. I wondered, could the nestlings fledge that quickly? I hoped they could, and that the emptiness wasn’t because the mother had abandoned the nest.

A song sparrow. Image credit: Steven Mlodinow

As we sat around the fire ring that night enjoying a crackling fire, a song sparrow sang from the woods nearby. With its trilling notes, it almost sounded as if this bird were thanking us for allowing her to nest in peace. Could it have been a song sparrow that had been holding our fire ring hostage previously?

I looked up the bird’s appearance and what its eggs looked like on the internet. Yes, I think it must have indeed been a song sparrow. The site I visited said that song sparrow young can fledge in 10-12 days, so it’s possible that the empty nest could have signaled a successful brood – they would have had enough time to fledge while we were gone.

The other thing the site said was that song sparrows can have up to seven broods in a season and that they often use the same nesting site.

The next day when I mowed the lawn, I made sure to aim for that nest.

Niagara Cave

Our tour guide points out some fossils inside the wedding chapel in Niagara Cave.

I have been neglecting this beloved blog – been meandering around too much. But that means I have plenty to write about when time allows.

When last we met, Russ and I were “Lingering in Lanesboro,” a picturesque town in southern Minnesota. As you may recall, our camping trip was HOT with temps in the 90s. On one of these sweltering days, we opted for the natural air conditioning provided by a cave.

Niagara Cave is in Harmony, Minnesota, about 15 miles south of Lanesboro. I’d been there before but this was a first for Russ. The limestone cavern is a cool 48 degrees and it offers a half-mile of passageways sculpted by water. The one-hour group tour goes out and back, so visitors hike a full mile, 120 feet below the surface. There are a lot of stairs (550 total) to ascend and descend, so if you have trouble with those, you might want to take that into consideration.

The underground stream that carved the cave is (thankfully) only running through part of the cave these days. It forms a subterranean waterfall that drops an impressive 60 feet; kind of like the Niagara Falls of caves – thus the cave’s name. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s even a tiny wedding chapel where you could tie the knot, if so inclined.

Fossils from prehistoric plants and animals dot the walls and geologic features like stalactites, stalagmites, and flow stone are on view.

The waterfall is my favorite feature. I’d never seen a cave with one before I came here, although there are other caves with waterfalls in the U.S.

The falls in Niagara Cave.

Lingering in Lanesboro

The town of Lanesboro, MN, as viewed from the hill in town.

Russ and I meandered with our Scamp trailer to Lanesboro, Minnesota, a small town not far from the Iowa border. I almost lived in Lanesboro, once, back when I was working for Mayo Clinic, which is a bit north of it. (But then Duluth and the call of Lake Superior won out and my family stayed in Duluth.)

Lanesboro is set in a limestone valley cut by the Root River. It hosts live theater, art galleries, and museums — as if all the creative people from the surrounding flat farmland tumbled into the valley and decided to stay. Had I lived there, I’m sure I would have felt at home. As it is, at least I get to visit it occasionally.

What attracted us weren’t the numerous bed and breakfast inns (Lanesboro is known as Minnesota’s Bed and Breakfast Capitol) or the rhubarb (also known as Minnesota’s Rhubarb Capitol), but Lanesboro’s bike trail.

The Root River Bike Trail runs right through the community. The forty-two-mile-long trail saved this little town from becoming a ghost of itself over thirty years ago when the trail was built by the state on an abandoned railroad bed.

We Scamped just outside of town at the Eagle Cliff Campground. As we drove to the campground in the evening, fireflies were out in full force, lighting up the roadside ditches and the forest edges. When we arrived, the campground hosts moved us to an upgraded site (pull-through with full hook-ups to water/electric/sewer) at no extra cost because a family reunion was going on in the site next to the one we originally signed up for. With that, we could already tell it was a well-run facility and the rest of our trip confirmed that good first impression.

That first night, we ate a quick and simple meal of scrambled eggs and Spam. In case you’re not aware, the home of Spam (a ground pork canned meat product) is not far away from Lanesboro, in Austin, Minnesota. We like to use it when camping because it’s tasty and easy. Since we were so close to its birthplace, we had to make sure we brought it along on this particular trip. Someday, I’d love to go to the Spam Museum, but we didn’t have time on this trip.

We stayed at the campground for four nights. Our first day, we bicycled from the town of Whalen to Peterson. Access to the Root River trail in Whalen was available via a short bike ride through the campground and down the quiet local highway. It was twenty miles from the campground to Peterson and back.

The Root River Bike Trail

One thing I love about the Root River Trail is that it’s well shaded. Trees line most of it, providing welcome relief, especially when temps were in the 80s like they were for us. The trail is also in good shape. Hardly any potholes or tree root bumps were to be found. The trail follows the river and is relatively flat. Quaint farms and cornfields line the parts that aren’t forested. Yet another thing I like is that the trail is free to use, unlike some of the trails Russ and I bike up north.

A variety of birds flitted across in front of us or called from the trees. We saw orioles and cardinals, heard catbirds, cowbirds and house wrens. At our campground, a pair of eagles were nesting nearby, and we watched black vultures circle around the bluffs that surround the valley. We also heard a rooster or two as we biked past farmsteads.

The area must have had a good amount of rain this season – everything was green and smelled verdant – like a newly mowed lawn.

A barn seen along the trail.

A note of caution: wild parsnip plants line the trail – you don’t want to come in contact with those. I also found out the hard way that stinging nettles can be found along the trail. My legs got a brief dose while I was taking the photo of the barn found in this post. Dedicated photographer that I am, I stood in them just long enough to get the photo. My legs stung, but not for long. The movement of biking and the fact that I wasn’t in the nettles long helped, I think. I just gritted my teeth and ignored the pain!

When we reached Peterson, we rested at a picnic table set up for bikers in town. We took the requisite tourist photos next to the town’s large welcome sign gnome. As we rehydrated, we were treated to the sight of a man driving a motorcycle with his German shepherd in the sidecar. They drove past us twice before we decided it was time to bike back to our campground.

Tubers on the Root River

The temperatures climbed into the 90s the next two days, so we opted for cooler forms of entertainment. One day, we visited Niagara Cave in Harmony, Minnesota, about fifteen miles south of Lanesboro. I’ll write more about that in a separate post. The next day we went tubing down the river. The campground offered a shuttle service and tubes at a reasonable cost. They drove us to a drop-off spot, and it took us about two hours to tube back to the campground. We just hopped out of the river at the campground landing and brought our tubes back to the office. It worked out pretty slick. The only thing that gave me pause is the lack of instruction by the shuttle driver. He just made some joke about hoping we all had our wills updated and then dropped us off. (!!)

There’s really not much to tubing other than avoiding strainers (trees that lean into the river – you can get stuck in them) and to wear sunscreen. I was so hot and sweaty when I applied my sunscreen, it must not have worked. I looked like a lobster the next day and am in the delightful peeling process now.

The river was murky but cool and refreshing. I enjoyed getting to know the river better. I saw three fish jump, lots of red-winged blackbirds and vultures, and we passed a Canada goose nesting area complete with goose families.

The final morning of our trip, the temps dropped into the 80s again, so we hit the bike trail. We drove into Lanesboro and began from the trailhead near the bass pond. We pedaled west toward the town of Fountain, turning back at the trail junction (where it joins the Harmony-Preston Trail). On our return, we stopped at the Old Barn Resort for lunch – an interesting historical site connected to the Allis Chalmers Machinery Company. Lots of cliff swallows nest under the barn’s eves.

The shrimp mango rice bowl from Pedal Pushers Cafe in Lanesboro.

Another great place to eat is Pedal Pushers Café in Lanesboro. We stopped there on one of the hot days after hitting the gift shops and walking around the town. The food at the café is locally sourced and very good!

If you’re ever looking for a quaint Minnesota getaway, put the Lanesboro area on your list. You’ll be glad you did. We came home refreshed and sunburnt, but happy.

A bridge on the trail between Lanesboro and Fountain.