Boundary Waters Nostalgia

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Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of Minnesota.

Like Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area was author Sigurd Olson’s quintessential wilderness lake, Tuscarora Lake is mine. The only problem is, I hadn’t been there in over thirty years.

I wanted to get back to it while I still could, so this fall Russ and I headed out on what the guidebooks say is one of the most rugged routes in the boundary waters.

For those not familiar, the boundary waters is a place in northern Minnesota without roads or any conveniences other than pit toilets and fire grates. A land of interconnected lakes — the only way around is by canoe and by foot.

DSC04971I might write a magazine story about the trip, so I can’t describe it much here. Suffice it to say, the canoe portages were much harder than when I did them in college with six other people.

Tuscarora was much as I remembered and I thoroughly enjoyed spending more time there. The weather cooperated with the first part of the trip, the second part, not so much.

The experience was a good test of our relationship. I am happy to say that we survived both physically and emotionally. We worked together well under difficult circumstances and nobody got hurt.

I hope these photos give you a good feel for the place. If you ever want to match our adventurousness, enter at either at Entry Point #51 or #52 off the Gunflint Trail.

Happy fall everyone!

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Brandt Lake in the moonlight.

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Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response: A Morning TV Breakthough

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Molly Shannon image by David Shankbone.

I owe Molly Shannon (formerly of Saturday Night Live) a fathomless debt of gratitude.

I saw her on Good Morning America the other day. She was being interviewed about her new movie, “A Private Life.” In the beginning, she mentions how she loves being checked and patted down by airport security. It gives her a relaxed, spine-tingling feeling.

This captured my attention because of a blog post I wrote in 2015 about “A Scalp-Tingling Feeling” I get when someone writes on a chalkboard or I’m at a bookselling event and there’s the white noise of peaceful conversation in the background. It zones me out and is very pleasant.

I called it scalp-tingling contentment. Some of my readers called it “flow” or bliss, but thanks to Molly Shannon, I now know the syndrome is more properly defined as ASMR, which stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response.

It’s an actual thing! I’m not crazy! There’s even a Facebook group for it!

People started working in 2007 to define it and by 2010, an organization was founded called the ASMR Group to support people who experience this feeling and to investigate it further.

Wikipedia says that, “ASMR signifies the subjective experience of “low-grade euphoria” characterized by “a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin.” It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attention control.” (Whatever that is.)

It’s amazing what you can learn from morning TV sometimes.

“Virgil Wander” Debuts in Duluth

Leif Enger

Duluth scored a literary coup yesterday when award-winning, multimillion-copy bestselling author Leif Enger launched his new book, “Virgil Wander,” here.

One of the reasons we were able to get him here versus, say, Minneapolis or New York or San Francisco, is because, as of seven weeks ago, Enger and his wife Robin live in Duluth. What a boon for our (relatively) remote city on the shores of Lake Superior!

Most news stories will say it took the Minnesota-born Enger, who is best known for his debut novel “Peace Like a River,” ten years to write his new novel. During questioning after his reading at Zenith Books, he said it actually only took him four years to write “Virgil” and that he spent the previous years writing 400 pages of something else that didn’t work out – it didn’t have the vital combination of character, setting, and story.

Enger said another thing that delayed his writing was a “dark patch” due to the failing health of his and his wife’s parents. Plus he contracted meningitis, which I suspect is is a good excuse to delay just about anything.

The novel’s setting is the mythical town of “Greenstone, Minnesota,” which he said is an amalgam of Silver Bay, Beaver Bay and Grand Marais – small towns along Lake Superior’s North Shore. It’s the story of Virgil Wander, a movie house owner who survives a plunge in his car into Lake Superior. He loses his memory and language, awakening to an unfamiliar world. He pieces his life back together with the help of “affable and curious locals.”

The promotional blurb about the book on Goodreads says, “With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a master storyteller.”

During his reading, Enger said the owner of an Art Deco movie house in Florida inspired the main character of Virgil. The passion of the owner to restore the theater stuck with Enger and emerged when he was fishing his subconscious for ideas for his new novel.

20181002_200515A hike on a hill above Beaver Bay with one of his sons inspired Enger to set the novel on the North Shore, and then the story came to him.

When a member of the audience commented about his use of humor in the book, Enger said he wanted to write something he would enjoy because he’d be “spending a long time with it.”

Before and after the reading, audience members feasted upon snickerdoodle cookies and brownies made by Robin. I even took a photo of them. Why? Must be because I am so affable! No, really, I thought that was cute, supportive, and very Minnesotan.

“Virgil Wander” is now in my pile of books on my bedside table. Can’t wait to read it!

Walt Whitman Lives!

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Patrick Scully as Walt Whitman

A literary figure came to life in downtown Duluth a few days ago. Walt Whitman made an appearance at the Zeitgeist Teatro Zuccone on September 12 in the form of a one-man show by Patrick Scully.

Whitman, of course, is known for his poetic work, “Leaves of Grass” (1855). The book received praise from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau but was also controversial for its overt sexuality.

In Scully’s show, “Leaves of Grass – Illuminated,” Scully embodies Whitman in his “multitudes,” exploring his inclusiveness and embrace of all humankind – things everyone needs reminders of, especially now.

The show premiered in New York City and Minneapolis. If you missed it in Duluth, you’ll have a chance to see it at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on July 12-14, 2019, shortly after the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth.

Scully performs a couple different versions of his show. The one we saw was the full-meal deal, featuring videos of male dancers dressed in appropriate period garb (and also lack thereof). The videos played behind Scully, who stood at a podium near the audience.

20180916_175923Whitman has been a long-time favorite of mine, ever since I read a first-edition version of “Leaves of Grass” (pictured, copyright 1959) that I think my parents gave me off their bookshelf. It kept me company during a summer on Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior. No libraries there! So I lugged a duffle bag full of books along with me when I worked as a waitress at the resort on the island during college.

Some of my favorite lines come from, “I Sing the Body Electric.” In looking through my old book, this one still strikes me:

I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them . . to touch any one . . . . to rest my arm ever so lightly around his or her neck for a moment . . . . what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight . . . . I swim in it as in a sea.

Like Whitman’s poetry, Scully’s show pleased my soul well.

Thanks go to Lake Superior Writers and the Minnesota State Arts Board for hosting and sponsoring the evening.

Lean Into Your Fear: Whitewater Rafting on the St. Louis River

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Me (on the left in the red helmet) leaning into my fear on the St. Louis River.

When I write a travel post, because my blog’s name has the word “meander” in it, I usually open by saying I “meandered” here and there.

Well, I can’t use that term this time. It’s more accurate to say that I reluctantly agreed to go on a whitewater rafting trip down the St. Louis River this past weekend, and promised to scream all the way!

It all started when my friend Russ, who is an experienced kayaker, won a silent auction item at a fundraiser for the St. Louis River Alliance a few months ago. He won two tickets for whitewater rafting through Minnesota Whitewater Rafting, a local company that operates out of Scanlon, Minnesota.

Upon my insistence, we agreed to wait for the trip until the water was warm, to make it a more comfortable experience. Now it was August, month of warm weather and water, and I was out of excuses not to go. We gathered everything the company’s information sheet instructed rafters to bring: a dry change of clothes, snug-fitting footwear, windbreaker, towel, etc. And off we went.

Once we arrived, I was surprised by the number of other people who wanted to fling themselves into an inflatable raft at the mercy of the river – twenty-eight of us, to be exact, of all ages and fitness levels.

We started our three-hour journey by choosing one of the seven blue and yellow rafts lined up on the shore. Russ and I ended up paired with a young couple from St. Paul. A guide was assigned to each raft. Ours was named Logan.

To us oldsters, all of the guides looked like they were about twelve, but we hoped they knew what they were doing or they wouldn’t have been hired. Thankfully, this proved true!

The ensuing safety talk by the operations guy, named Blu, included instruction to ignore your instincts and “lean into” whatever fearful obstacle the raft encounters. He explained that if you lean away from the rock or high wave, you are more likely to lose your seat and fall out of the raft. Not that falling out of the raft is the worst thing that can happen, but most people like to stay with their group.

The other useful instruction was to keep your feet up if you fall overboard. This is helpful in avoiding sharp rocks and logs, etc., that are on the bottom. Plus, most people aren’t strong enough to withstand the current standing up, so you might as well just go with the flow until one of the kayak patrollers (who go with every trip) retrieve you.

Blu said that in a group our size, it’s common for at least one person to fall overboard. I sure hoped it wouldn’t be me.

I thought the “lean into” rule was particularly deep. Psychologically speaking, sometimes facing your fears is the best way to overcome them. Also, it reminded me of the book “People of the Lie” by M. Scott Peck, who says that most people’s psychological problems arise from trying to avoid emotional pain instead of addressing (leaning into) it.

I decided then and there to change my attitude about the trip – to stop seeing it as something fearful, and instead see it as something to relish, and an opportunity to know the river better. I mean, I’ve lived by it most of my life. I’ve canoed on it, paddleboarded it, boated on it, but I’d never immersed myself in it.

As the company’s website and instruction sheet promised, you will “see the river, feel the river, ride the river,” and you will get wet! On this sunny warm day, I was up for that.

Blu explained we’d encounter six sets of rapids ranging from Class I to III, and two sets of riffles. Each set of rapids would get more challenging along the four-plus-mile stretch until we reach the quiet-water reservoir formed by the Thompson Dam.

Safety talk over, we set out upon the water. Our first task was to run through a ‘slalom’ course between the pylons of the freeway bridge that goes across the river. This let us practice paddling different directions and experience what it feels like when the raft bumps into things.

Then we paddled through a set of riffles called “Warm-Up Rapids.” Everyone came through unscathed and, after stopping for an orientation, we continued to a set of surfing waves at “First Hole” rapids.

Have you ever seen standing waves that form behind an underwater rock in a river? That’s what we surfed on – if your idea of surfing involves your raft filling with water, which ours did. We surfed several times, bailing out between sessions with the handy bailers provided in each raft.

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Surfing the hole and having fun!

After another group orientation session, we were onto “Two Hole” rapids. I think it was this one that had a big rock in the middle of it. Logan, our guide, thought it would be a good and fun idea to smash our raft into the rock.

On purpose.

Why he thought this was a good idea, I’ll never know! I always thought the whole idea of river rafting was to avoid the rocks. I guess I’ve been wrong all this time.

Granted, he did give us a choice, so we were complicit in the decision. I blame it on the adrenaline rush.

Paddling as hard as we could, our raft went up and over the rock, then started sliding sideways. I was on the outside side – the tippiest side – and remembered to lean into the rock to avoid falling out of the raft. I almost floated out, but managed to stay in by the skin of my teeth. Rather like dental surgery, it felt so good once it was over!

Our next stop was a canyon that featured a couple of small beaches in a slow section of the river. We grounded our rafts and had the chance to swim for a while, clothes, lifejackets and all.

Russ went all the way in. I was fine going waist deep, not because I was worried about polluted water or anything, but because the water was rather chilly to me even for a warm day.

At this point I realized I had never been this far into the river before; me—who had even worked for the St. Louis River Alliance whose sole purpose is to protect the river. I marveled at the brown water – tea stained from the many wetland plants steeping at its headwaters and along the way. The white pines and bare rock faces along the shore looked primeval, like we could have been miles into a wilderness. The beauty filled me  and gave me a new sense of appreciation for the river.

Our rest stop over, it was time for the big guns in terms of rapids. We made it through “Hidden Hole” just fine, then it was onto “Electric Ledge,” which is a Class III rapids that consists of a four-to-six-foot drop.

I had heard the name of this rapids whispered in awe among my kayaker friends for years. Now we were about to go over it! And we were about to go over it before any of the others. Logan explained that our raft had the first aid kit in it, and we needed to go first in case the other rafts needed assistance once they ran the ledge.

Not only were we in the first raft, but Russ and I were sitting in the FRONT of the first raft. Oh, lucky us.

We didn’t have much time to wonder at our luck as the ledge was approaching. I repeated all the rules: lean into your fear, keep your feet up. Then we slid over it, sideways and steep. Russ grabbed onto my arm for support.

Luckily, that steadied him and we both stayed in the boat. So did the rest of our crew, but I can’t say that for one of the other rafts, which did indeed lose one person over the ledge. The person remembered the rules, however, and they were uneventfully picked up not far downriver.

The final set of rapids, “Little Kahuna,” is more technical than terrifying. After some twists and turns, we made it through just fine. From there, a somewhat longish paddle across peaceful water (known as the Boundary Waters to the staff) took us to the end of our journey and a bus that was waiting to drive us back to our starting point.

So, in summary, I did scream as initially promised, but it was from fun, not out of fear. I think this was due to the great job the staff did at letting us know what to expect from each set of rapids. I hadn’t had that on other rafting trips.

I would totally do it again on some warm day (although they do provide wet suits if it’s cold and you want one). And I would totally bring family members on such an adventure. Don’t let a little fear stop you if you have a hankering for some whitewater!

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Yee haw!

 

Communing with Duckies

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Last weekend I meandered up the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota near the Canadian border. I was able to spend time on Gunflint Lake with friends, old and new. I also made friends with this trio of ducks who were out for a peaceful evening swim.