“Meander North” is here!

My memoir based on this blog has been printed and is on its way to the distributor. I haven’t received my copies yet, but soon…

Here’s the cover. The image was taken by the Nodin Press editor. I like how “Duluthy” it is, with the lift bridge, a person wearing flannel, and a ship coming into the harbor.

It’s available for preorder ($19.95) from Itasca Books in Minneapolis.

Here are the deets:

Bite-sized memories and adventures written on a weekly basis come together in “Meander North,” a blog-memoir by Minnesota author Marie Zhuikov. Collected over nine years on Zhuikov’s “Marie’s Meanderings” blog, the 51 quirky essays are arranged by season, and cover a wide range of outdoorsy and community-based reflections: from an insider’s view of Duluth’s Christmas City of the North Parade, to a spring cleaning trip to the local dump, and a description of a lawn-mower race. One piece depicts a gleeful summer morning paddleboard on a quiet lake. Another takes readers on a meditative fall walk on a woodland trail. The book finishes with specific topics including, “Brushes with Fame,” where Zhuikov describes close calls and meetings with famous (and not so famous) people, and “Bookish Adventures,” which detail her literary leanings and incidents that have added spice to book signings for her previous works.

Although the topics are diverse, all display Zhuikov’s love for her home state. “Meander North” is a celebration of Minnesota, its seasons and traditions.

Reviews:

Naturalist Marie Zhuikov’s sense of home bubbles up at the confluence of absurdity, loss, and transcendent beauty. Drawn from the annals of her long-standing blog “Marie’s Meanderings,” the short essays in “Meander North” shimmer like the northern lights in their illumination of the joy, folly, and hard-earned grit one develops living at the crossroads of Minnesota’s and Wisconsin’s north shores. From encounters with boat-towing loons to organizing a sea-lamprey tasting event, the stories within the collection are sometimes zany and always delightful, revealing a Midwestern outdoorswoman’s celebration of family, community, and the mysterious forces of the natural world. – Meg Muthupandiyan, author of “Forty Days in the Wilderness Wandering”

A walk with Marie through the seasons and terrains of her northland writer’s life, this interweaving of environmental science with a reverent appreciation for the Earth and its inhabitants is lovely and moving. In essays that evoke the fragility and toughness of this northern world of icy lake waters and rocky shores, rugged pines and graceful birches, this collection is timeless, a treasure to be read and reread. – Linda LeGarde Grover, author of “Gichigami Hearts”

With wit, reverence and unabashed honesty, Zhuikov offers us delightful insight into what it means to live with purpose in the North. – Sam Cook, “Duluth News Tribune” outdoors writer

Upcoming Events:

Zenith Books (318 North Central Ave., Duluth MN) will host a book launch on November 17 at 7 p.m.

Old School Holiday Market (9165 Hwy 53, Cotton MN), Nov. 19, 10 am – 3 pm

Get it Local art and gift fair, Peace Church (1111 N 11th Ave E., Duluth MN), Dec. 3, 10 am – 3 pm

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.

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!

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.

Trillions of Trilliums

Great white trilliums, Trillium grandiflorum

When Russ alerted me to the presence of trillium wildflowers as we cycled along the Munger Trail near Duluth, I leapt off my bike, dug my phone camera out of the seat pack, and haphazardly laid my bike on the shoulder as I scampered to get a closer look at the white beauties.

Russ was probably having a minor heart attack at my treatment of my bike, but the sight was worth a little equipment abuse. You see, trillium blooms only last for a short window of time each spring. Because I’ve missed seeing them the past few years, I didn’t want to miss the spectacle this year.

The flower’s three white petals make it easy to recognize. Sometimes they turn pink when stressed by cold or aging. They don’t have a scent, but for me they epitomize the North and the glories of living life here. They grow in maple or beech forests in eastern North America, as far west as Minnesota. It’s also the official symbol of Ontario Canada.

A pink trillium, which means that it’s stressed out.

This is one flower species best left alone in its natural habitat. If you want some for your garden, make sure you purchase cultivated trilliums, not wild ones that have been dug up. There’s some controversy over whether there are actual cultivated trilliums. If anyone knows a reputable source, let me know!

Trilliums sprout from bulbs and take seven to ten years to bloom in the wild. So, think twice or even three times before you go picking that pretty white flower. It’s really better just to take photos and enjoy them that way.

I took a few pictures of the flowers along the trail, then we continued our ride. Eventually, we turned around and took a bit of a different route back.

After being so excited to see a few trilliums, imagine how excited I was on our return trip to see whole hillsides covered with them! To get close enough for photos, I had to scale a ravine and fend off a million mosquitoes. But it was worth it because I saw a pink trillium close-up as well as trillions of trilliums on the hillside. Note: I did not step on any trilliums in the process.

I ended the ride feeling replete with trilliums, and that’s a rare feeling indeed.

Trilliums as far as the eye can see makes for a happy Marie.

Pelican Spring

An American white pelican comes in for a landing on the St. Louis River, MN. The bump on its bill denotes that it’s a breeding bird. The bump falls off after the birds have mated and laid eggs.

Last week I took the long way home from work. My route took me past Chambers Grove Park, which is in the far western part of Duluth, along the St. Louis River. I had heard that the pelicans were back, resting there on a stopover during their migration north, and I wanted to see them.

I brought my camera in case the birds were close enough for me to photograph. Alas, the experience reinforced my thought that I really need to buy a more powerful telephoto lens! Also, the light was right in my face, harsh and white, fading out everything on the far side of the river where the pelicans rested.

Luckily, a few were flying around, and I was able to get at least one good shot.

According to the Duluth News Tribune, pelicans were “virtually unseen in Minnesota between the late 1800s and 1960s. Fishermen destroyed them out of the erroneous belief that they competed for game fish, and pesticides took a toll.” They mostly prefer nongame fish and do not compete with anglers.

No pelicans in this shot (but they are nearby). I just liked the cloud and water patterns. St. Louis River, MN.

Thanks to environmental reforms and protection, their numbers have recovered. Minnesota boasts one of the largest populations of nesting white pelicans in the world. I thought I’d share my photos from my sojourn with you.

If you’d like to see some better, close-up images of the birds, please visit Richard Hoeg’s blog, “365 Days of Birds” for some great shots.

Despite the snow we’ve been having lately, their presence is a sure sign that spring is coming.

Discovering the Minnesota Discovery Center

We’re in that awkward and dreary “shoulder season” when the snow conditions are too crappy for skiing but it’s still too cold to bicycle or do anything else outside. The trees are bare, what little grass is showing amid the snow piles is brown. It was time to explore somewhere new indoors. So, Russ and I meandered north to the largest museum complex outside of the Twin Cities.

It’s had several names since it opened in 1977 near Chisholm in northern Minnesota. First it was the Iron Range Interpretive Center, then Iron World USA, and now it’s the Minnesota Discovery Center.

Perched near a defunct open pit mine and atop underground mine shafts, the Minnesota Discovery Center tells the story of the Iron Range through exhibits, interpretation, programming, and research materials. It highlights the story of the immigrants who migrated to the Iron Range (or the Iron Ridge, as President George W. Bush once mistakenly said during a campaign speech in Duluth). The immigrants came at the turn of the 20th century to find work in the iron ore industry. Native Americans are also featured.

Apparently, everyone else was holed up in their homes because we had the place almost to ourselves on a Saturday afternoon. We were able to wander through the exhibits totally unimpeded. So unimpeded that when Russ saw a person standing in front of an exhibit, he mistook it for a mannequin until it moved!

The lower level of the center features exhibits about the immigrants’ journey to the United States, examples of what a schoolroom and a saloon were like, and information about conditions of the land farther back in time – geology and fossils.

The saloon

I must have been feeling lonely because my favorite exhibit was the replica saloon, complete with mannequins who were playing cards and standing at the bar. Back in the day in the nearby town of Hibbing, there were 6 dry goods stores, 12 general stores, and 45 saloons! People had their priorities and it wasn’t churches back then. Saloons were social centers where miners shared the news of the day, had a drink, and spent time with each other.

Both floors of the center offer views of the Glen Mine Pit, but I chose to look from the second floor. The open pit mine was closed in 1957 and trees have started to reclaim its banks. The second floor also features a movie theater. With the push of a button, Russ and I had our own private showing of the documentary, “Iron Range: Minnesota Building America.” This floor also provides access to a research center.

The Glen Mine Pit

The discovery center’s restaurant is closed for the season, but their gift shop is open. During summer, they offer trolley tours of the grounds, plus there’s a mountain bike park that opens in mid- to late-May and a mini-golf course. I’m sure it must be a busier place in summer.

As we left, the staff at the reception desk were marveling at the “crowds” that were visiting the center. One exclaimed, “There were four people in here already and we just got eight more!”

They were serious.

Russ and I just gave each other a look and chuckled.

If you’re still social distancing due to the pandemic, this is the place for you. But if you get too lonely, you can at least socialize with the saloon mannequins.

More saloon mannequins

“Meander North” is coming!

Nodin Press in Minneapolis is planning on publishing a book of the “best” posts from this very blog. The process received a boost yesterday when I learned I received a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Commission to pay for the book’s editing. I’ve received plenty of grants through my Sea Grant work before but this is my first personal arts grant, so I’m pretty psyched.

As planned at this point, my “Meander North” book will be arranged by season and will celebrate all things northern Minnesotan. Plus, bonus chapters will relate to bookish adventures and brushes with fame. There will also be some content you haven’t seen before. When asked what genre it is, I answer that it will be a blogmoir (blog memoir).

Thank you, Arrowhead Regional Arts Commission, for the grant and for all the work you do to support artists and writers in this neck of the woods!

Biskey Beauty

Russ and I meandered north to the Biskey Ponds Nordic Ski Trails on Fish Lake last weekend for the first time.

All I can say is that these cross-country ski trails are terrible. They were noisy and crowded. The other skiers scowled at us and muttered oaths most foul. The snow was coated with soot, the scenery filled with skyscrapers. The forest was mangled and misshapen. The grooming was awful – tracks all over the place. And the air held a lingering stench, reminiscent of dried pickles.

If you enjoy the Korkki Nordic Ski Trails near Duluth, you’ll intensely dislike these ski trails because they are like Korkki but with frozen ponds everywhere.

By all means, you should never ever go on these classic-only ski trails. Really, don’t go.

We want them all to ourselves.

Biskey Ponds Ski Trails

A Visit to the Judy Garland Museum

Judy Garland. Image courtesy of the Judy Garland Museum

When I was a child, I used to run around the neighborhood on certain summer evenings, letting my friends know that “The Wizard of Oz” movie was going to be on television that night. I’d hear a promo for the show during the network news or something, and out the door I’d go. I enjoyed the movie so much, I wanted to make sure my friends didn’t miss it.

Our television was black and white until I was almost a teenager, when we got a color set. Imagine my surprise when I watched the Wizard movie and saw everything change to color once Dorothy reached the land of Oz! Nobody had ever told me that happened until I experienced it myself.

Although the Judy Garland Museum opened in 1975, I didn’t know it existed until about a decade ago. I made a mental note to visit one day, and that one day came a few weeks ago when Russ and I meandered north. The museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, is composed of a 13,000-square-feet building that’s attached to Judy Garland’s childhood home. Her house has been moved twice, so although the building is original, its location is not. It currently has a scenic view of an Applebee’s Grill and a Home Depot store.

Judy Garland’s Grand Rapids Home

Visitors enter the museum building first to pay and look at the exhibits, and then can access Judy’s home from a covered ramp inside.

We enjoyed seeing the Lincoln Carriage – the carriage that Dorothy and her friends take into the Emerald City. Of course, there’s also the ruby slippers. You may have heard that the slippers, one of at least four pairs, were stolen from the museum in 2005 and then found recently by the FBI. Although they were recovered, they haven’t been returned to the museum and the perpetrators have not been brought to justice.

There are ruby slippers on display at the museum, but they are obvious replicas, not the originals. (Although, the podium is the original podium the stolen slippers rested upon, according to a somewhat amusing sign.)

The infamous ruby slippers.

One thing I found strange was that the COVID arrows in the museum direct visitors on a path through Judy’s life backwards. You first see all the memorabilia from her death and when she was famous, and the displays end with her beginnings in Grand Rapids. I’m not sure if that route was due to COVID requirements or if that’s the way the displays were planned.

The chance to look inside Judy’s home was fascinating. The structure was originally built in 1892 by a steamboat captain and his wife. Judy’s parents Frank and Ethel Gumm purchased it was their first family home in 1919. They moved out in 1926 to California. The house was first transplanted in 1938 to make way for a hotel, which was never built. It was brought to its current site in 1994.

While touring the house, visitors are treated to piped-in Judy Garland music. I found that was what I was missing in the museum. Judy’s voice was her claim to fame and it felt weird up to that point not to hear it.

“Judy’s crib” in her parents’ bedroom.

Some pieces of the house are original and some contain carefully curated replicas. One thing you might not know is that Judy didn’t have her own bedroom. She slept in a crib in her parents’ room and her two older sisters shared the bedroom next door. Although the bedrooms were much smaller than we’re used to today, the lower level of the house seemed spacious and similar to present-day homes.

On our way out of the museum, we passed the Children’s Discovery Center, where a raucous birthday party was in the works. There’s also a gift shop that I’m sure will meet all your Judy Garland memorabilia needs.

I appreciated the humor in this particular museum display.

I left the museum feeling a bit weirded out and sad for Judy. Imagine having your personal items all out for display to the public! You also get the feeling that she was all too used to having her talent used to make other people money. But I was glad I visited, and feel the museum is a good tribute to this outstanding Minnesota girl.