Forest Bathing: A Secret to Better Health

20190622_135935A recent New York Times article described results from a study that quantified how much exposure to nature people need to impact their health in a positive way.

The researchers found that people who spent about 120 minutes per week in nature (like a park or a forest) were less stressed and healthier than people who didn’t get outside at all. Spending less time (60-90 minutes) did not have as significant an effect. Even spending more time (5 hours) offered no additional benefits.

From this post’s title, perhaps you thought I was going to describe how to get nekkid and take a bath in the forest. Sorry, “forest bathing” just means immersing yourself in nature.

The study’s results made sense to me. As a species, we evolved in the outdoors. It’s what we’re made for. Spending time by water is also beneficial.

20190622_133733I am happy to report that I spend at least 140 minutes in nature per week. I am lucky to have a huge city park by my home where Buddy the Wonderdog and I walk every day.

I took some photos from my last walk through the park. At 640 acres, the park is large enough that you’d never know you were in the middle of a city while walking its trails. Signs of civilization are few, even from the rocky knob that features a view of Lake Superior.

My photo walk was longer than usual – over an hour. I returned home feeling serene, indeed. Have you had your dose of nature today?

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When Classical Music Goes Bad

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Image courtesy of Syracuse New Times.

Look what I found in the classical record collection that I inherited from my father.

During the two years since he died, I’ve been listening to my dad’s records whenever I exercise on my elliptical strider at home. It’s a way of getting healthier, figuring out which records I’d like to keep, and remembering him.

I’m about halfway through the stack and probably have another two years to go, unless I start exercising a whole lot more.

As a child, I used to hang out in my dad’s “radio room” when he played music after supper. I remember some of the albums vividly, others not so much.

I don’t recall this album (“Switched-on Bach” played on Moog synthesizers) and somehow don’t think it’s going to make my cut! Although all classical music is retro, this is just a little too retro-techno for me.

I wonder what possessed my father to purchase it? Maybe he thought it was cutting-edge at the time.

According to an article this spring in the Syracuse New Times, “Switched-on Bach” was released in 1968.  It “dropped like a bunker buster on the world of classical music, fostering incredulity and pushback from classical music purists, who considered such treatment to be blasphemous.”

Apparently, those objections were quickly quashed by enthusiasm from younger listeners who were otherwise not interested in classical music. The album vaulted to the top of the classical charts where it remained for 49 weeks. It was honored with three Grammies in 1970: Classical Album of the Year, Best Classical Performance by an Instrument Soloist, and Best Engineered Classical Album.

It even sold one million copies (!) – the first classical album to achieve that status.

*   *    *

Okay, I just listened to it. My judgement hereby is that the music does not stand the test of time despite all the awards it won.

Sorry dad, this one’s going in the rummage sale pile.

The Perfect Duluthy Fall Hike

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The panoramic view from the Brewer’s Park Loop on the Superior Hiking Trail.

I meandered onto a newish section of the Superior Hiking Trail in Duluth recently. My friends and I hiked the Brewer’s Park Loop, which was completed in 2016. The trail takes walkers through an oak/maple forest and offers unparalleled views of the western part of the city and the St. Louis River – making it a perfect hike for fall.

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Photo by Amanda Jo Dahl-Sales

Some web pages rate the hike as moderate, others as easy. I would say both are true. Some of the climbs are rather steep and would rate a “moderate” in my book, but the majority of the hike is on an unobstructed path that’s fairly level, which rates an “easy.”

It took us 1-1/2 hours to go about 3-1/2 miles, but we were gawking and talking most of the way so I’m sure other people could do it more quickly. Access to the trail off Haines Road (see map).

Bring some water and your dog. For a near-perfect Duluth experience, visit Bent Paddle Brewery afterward for a drink. Urban hiking doesn’t get much better than this!

Brewer Park loop trail

Duluth News Tribune map

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Image by Amanda Jo Dahl-Sales

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.

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 reached 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!

Yin Yoga in a Yurt

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Image credit: Hartley Nature Center

I seem to have a tendency to try different forms of yoga. Several years ago, I began regular yoga, then I tried hot yoga, then Thai yoga, and then aerial yoga.

Although I often practice regular yoga and hot yoga, in keeping with my yoga adventurousness, this week I tried yin yoga in a yurt.

The class was offered by Runa Yoga in Duluth. In addition to classes in their studio, they offer classes in different locations around town, including a Yoga + Beer class at a microbrewery.

We met at a city park inside a yurt owned by Hartley Nature Center. You may already know that a yurt is a round canvas tent with a wooden frame. This one was nestled in the woods, offering views of red pine tree trunks all around, and was large enough to fit 30 yogis.

The teacher said that yin yoga focuses more on stretching ligaments and joints than other forms of yoga. Our session featured live ambient music performed by two local musicians. I found it strange, however, that these musicians showed absolutely no emotion while performing. Even when the instructor introduced them, they remained stone-faced.

Is robotic-like behavior a prerequisite for ambient music performers? I have no idea. They DID smile after the class was all over, though.

It’s a mystery.

Their music was so ambient and so relaxing that at the end of class, when we were all in our final resting poses, I swear the guy in front of me started SNORING. Thankfully, he awoke once it was time to go, saving himself from further embarrassment. I wonder if anyone would have woken him at the end if he had just kept sleeping?

Yet another mystery.

Despite all the mysteries, or perhaps because of them, yin yoga in a yurt was cool. If you’re looking to switch up your routine, I recommend it. Just bring a friend along to wake you up in case it gets a little too relaxing.

Biking in the Rain on the Alex Leveau Trail

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A view from the Alex Leveau Trail in Carlton.

We heard through the bicycling grapevine that the Willard Munger Bike Trail was all repaired (from the storm damage a few years ago) and open now in its entirety. So my friend Russ and I headed to Carlton, Minnesota, to catch the trail there and bike to our hearts’ content.

The only problem was, the bicycling grapevine was WRONG. When we got to the Munger Trail parking lot in Carlton and started biking toward the trailhead, we found a large sign that said the trail was closed!

Another trail is accessible from the same area, named the Alex Leveau Memorial Trail if you head southeast across the railroad tracks. I had biked it a few years ago, and remembered it was there.

Somewhat disconsolate, we biked that instead. But our mood soon lifted because the trail is just so gosh darn nice. It features views of wetlands and farmlands, barns and raspberries. Without huge hills, it’s an easy ride, and would be a good trail for children to try. But it’s not too monotonous either.

20180730_125246The segment we travelled is 6.5 miles long. Most of it is a paved trail, but when you get near Wrenshall, you have to follow the highway for a while. At the 6.5-mile milepost, the trail seems to dead end at a highway. We weren’t sure where to go from there, so we just turned around and went back to Carlton, although I think there might be other parts of it farther on.

The trail was named in memory of a former county commissioner and dairy farmer who was an advocate for using abandoned railways as public trails.

As we biked back to the parking lot, a series of “pop-up” rainstorms popped up. We thought they would miss us until the wind changed and one caught us. The rain spatters were cold, but we kept warm by biking.

If this had been a romance novel, getting caught in the rain could have led to a passionate embrace in rain-slicked bike clothes. But it’s kind of hard to kiss when you’re both wearing bike helmets and you’re trying to go fast enough to ward off the chill.

So we opted for just being thankful to arrive back to our vehicle wet, but no worse for wear – no road rash from slippery pavement, no lightning strikes nearby. Sometimes, in your elder years, that’s as good as it gets.

Release Your Inner Bird with Aerial Yoga

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Marie doing a diaper wrap straddle back.

One of my favorite local newspaper columnists recently wrote an article that poked a bit of fun at the many alternative forms of yoga that seem to abound. He cited Laughter Yoga as a rather humorous practice, and made up his own Minnesota-inspired yoga names like Labrador Retriever Yoga or Walleye-Jigging Yoga, and Removing Built-Up Ice From Under Your Fenders Yoga. Another recent article appeared in the paper describing Adaptive Yoga for disabled people.

BUT what they’re all missing is Aerial Yoga.

A friend and I had a chance to try it last weekend at The Aviary  in the basement of an historic brick building in Minneapolis. One disclaimer: They don’t only teach Aerial Yoga. They also teach aerial fitness moves.aviary-trip-009

The room was festooned with blue silk sheaths, hung from the ceiling on rotating hooks. The introductory class we attended (you have to take an intro class before you can do a “regular” class) attracted about a dozen people of all shapes, sizes, and genders.

Jane, our instructor and member of the “flight crew,” was ebullient, strong, and fit – but not so unattainably fit as to cause immediate depression upon first glance. She was patient with her instructions, going through each move several times to ensure we all understood.

She first taught us how to sit in the silks, and by doing so, trust that they would hold us. I believe she said they could hold up to 250 pounds. Then she taught us how to do a backbend and grab our feet. I am not quite that flexible, but I did do the backbend part.

Another disclaimer: This class is not for people who cannot tolerate being upside down. And, as my friend discovered, it is not a good idea to eat raw fish and half a bottle of water beforehand. She felt nauseous the whole time after that first backbend.

Jane then led us through a series of other moves, stretches and some strength training. I was reminded how much work it can be just to lift the weight of your own body.

You may recall that I enjoy Hot Yoga. The moves I learned through that were helpful in feeling comfortable with this class, but with all the inversions and wrappings, Aerial Yoga is different – more like flying.

My favorite pose was the diaper wrap straddle back, where you lay back in the silks, and invert by lifting your legs, doing the splits, and then wrapping your legs around the silks for stability (pictured).

We ended class in a bat pose, which found us all hanging upside down like the poses’ namesake.

I would love to try another class. Even my nauseous friend wants to. But our hometown 150 miles away does not offer an Aerial Fitness facility. (Come on, Duluth – get one!) Next time I’m in Minneapolis, I will have to make a point to allow time for it.

I encourage you to try Aerial Yoga if you ever get the chance. Release your inner bird!

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Skiing (and Waxing) Nostalgic

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Marie at the start of her first cross-country ski race, waiting for Charlie Banks to signal the start.

Last weekend, a friend and I revisited the Korkki Nordic Ski Trail, where I competed in my first cross-country ski race forty years ago. The year was 1977 and I was in eighth grade, part of my junior high school’s ski team. My equipment included wooden skis and bamboo poles with black rubber baskets. Clad in bell-bottom jeans and a ‘fashionable’ down vest, my head protected from the cold by a knit hat with a huge ball atop it, I ended up winning the race and the city championship for my grade.

Winning the first race I ever entered – you would think it would be a good experience and I’d return to the same trail dozens of times to relive the glory. But I didn’t. Why did it take me four decades?

20170116_145524That’s what I was trying to figure out as I shooshed down the trail on my fiberglass skinny skis (waxable ones) last weekend.

Now, the thing you need to understand is that Korkki Nordic is Old School. Only one track winds its way through pines on land tucked in the highlands along Lake Superior’s North Shore. And the trees are close enough to lean over and kiss as you go by – not ten feet away on either side like most ski trails. Classic skiing only; none of that fancy-schmancy skate-skiing.

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My friend, on the trail.

The trail system is maintained by a nonprofit organization and was started by the very man who kept time during my first ski race. Charlie Banks is no longer with us, but his legacy lives on.

The trail is sort of out of the way. With so many good ones in Duluth, that could be one reason why I didn’t come out here. It wasn’t a place my parents usually skied, and they were the ones driving the car when I was young. But still, why didn’t I come here when I was older?

As my friend and I started skiing, I noticed the timekeeping house was still near the trailhead. After we traveled down the trail a ways, I recalled how clueless I was during my race. Our “coach” didn’t even ski himself, and he did little to prepare us. I only knew that racing meant going as fast as you could until you reached the finish line, so that was my strategy after the staggered start. This led to overtaxed lungs and leaden arms and legs. But I kept going, although I was alone and scared by this new experience and unfamiliar trail. Finally overcome, I paused a time or two to catch my breath on the uphills, terrified that another skier would pass me, but I never saw anyone.

My friend and I continued skiing and I recognized the feel of the trail – lots of small hills, nothing too scary — especially if you take the easy route options, which I did, having nothing left to prove. We skied four kilometers, which I suspect was the same distance as the race. The finish line banner we crossed under looked suspiciously like the exact same one from my stressful race.

Was that it? Even though I won the race, was the stress of it so unpleasant that I had no desire to return to the scene until forty years later? Could be. I recall that in subsequent ski races, somehow I learned more about pacing and didn’t get as burned out.

As I crossed under the banner last weekend, I realized that whatever kept me away for so long, I’m finally over it!

I’m gonna return soon to this little woodland ski trail gem.

Two other local writers have written about their memories of Korkki Nordic, read here for Eric’s and here for Eddy’s.

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Stalking the Wild Ceili

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I had heard the myth of the ceili dance for years. At the contra and barn dances I’d gone to, the ceili was spoken of in hushed tones. Held locally only once a year on St. Patrick’s Day, ceilis were said to be wild and more vigorous – full of revelry, sweat and shouts. Although intrigued and a bit daunted, the timing had never been right for me to join a ceili . . . until this St. Patrick’s Day.

That evening, more than fifty of us gathered in a large church basement on the hillside of the city. The event was a fundraiser for Loaves and Fishes, an organization that helps homeless people. I arrived early enough to hear instruction by the dance caller on the specialized (yet easy) dance steps, some of which are done in groups of sevens or threes. The first dance was a round dance (done in a large circle), the next was a long line dance.

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This chap won my unofficial vote for best ceili clothing.

Then things started blurring together, but I recall one dance that involved couples dipping up and under each other in waves. Yes, the dances had faster steps and more vigorous movements than the other dances I’d been to, but any reasonably coordinated person could handle them – no need to fear!

I lasted about an hour-and-a-half until my little toes started to scream with blisters. I left before any shouting started, but I can attest that some clapping was involved.

If you ever go to a ceili, don’t dress too heavily, because you will sweat. For women, I recommend a skirt because they are easier to move in and cooler than jeans/pants. Bring a water bottle. Wear comfortable shoes. Most important, bring your smile. You will want it handy for frequent use. 🙂

At a big social dance like this, no partner is necessary. Either someone will invite you to dance or you’ll get a partner accidentally through the formations of the lines or circles. It’s also common for women to dance with women and men with men. No big gender deal. All you need to want to do is dance.

If you’ve never gone to one, I recommend stalking a wild ceili near you.