Long-time readers of my blog may recall that I identify with my Scottish heritage. I had a chance to celebrate that recently by attending Robert Burns Night, which was organized by the Duluth Scottish Heritage Association (DSHA).
Robert Burns is a well-know historic Scottish poet. If you’ve ever sung Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve, you have him to thank. His birthday is recognized on January 25 by Scots, rather in the tradition of Christ’s birth on December 25 by parts of the world, if you’ll permit me a bit of sacrilege.
The celebration was held at a historic club downtown. This was not my first Robert Burns Night. My mother took me to one held at the university many years ago. Then last year, Russ and I ordered a takeout Robert Burns dinner from the club since there was no gathering due to the pandemic. That “dinner” fed us for four days! It featured neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes), haggis (more about that later), black pudding (blood sausage), Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage meat, breaded and fried), and trifle for dessert (a decadent concoction of cake cubes layered between berries, pears, and vanilla pudding mixed with whipped cream).
Attendance was larger than usual for Burns Night this year because it was the first time in three years it had been held in person. One-hundred-and-sixty of us gathered in kilts and clan scarves to listen to bagpipes and watch Scottish dancers.
After that came the formal part of the program, which included 4 toasts of scotch: One to “the immortal memory of Robert Burns,” one to the president, one to the king, and one in Gaelic.
Then came the star of the show, the Haggis. This traditional dish takes minced sheep heart, liver, and lungs, and mixes it with oatmeal, suet and spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander, plus salt, pepper and stock. The mixture is boiled in a bag, usually made from a sheep’s stomach. We love it. I’d say it tastes like a chunky beef barley stew.
The Haggis is paraded into the hall by the chef and a whisky bearer, led by a piper in formality that would border on the absurd if it weren’t Robert Burns Night. Once the Haggis was settled up front, one of the DSHA members recited Burns’s “Address to the Haggis,” which involved stabbing it with a large knife and inhaling its pungent vapors.
After that, a local reverend offered grace and a piper in the rafters played “Amazing Grace.” Then we dispersed to seven clan rooms. Each featured different foods to sample and memorabilia specific to each clan. One room featured scotch. I was disappointed at the lack of trifle this year, but our enterprising friends found dessert bars on a different floor.
After much eating and conversation, a ceilidh dance was held in a large lounge room. Even though I’ve been to a ceilidh before, it wasn’t until that night that I learned (from overhearing a conversation) that ceilidh means “party” or “social visit.” We danced and listened to Scottish music performed by a live band.
We were sated and pleasantly tired from dancing once the evening ended. We felt like we’d been on a trip to Scotland without leaving the comfort of our own city. If you ever have the chance to attend Robert Burns Night, I’d encourage you to do so. It’s a spectacle, indeed.
A morning fog descended upon our cabin deep in the north woods, outlining the barren trees with frost. The birds stilled. The sun pushed through, a white disc more like the moon. I walked the wide road, a witness.
My and your favorite posts from the first nine years of this blog have been published in my book, “Meander North.” My 101-year-old aunt just read it and approves! She’s read a lot of books in her life, so her opinion counts. 🙂
You can purchase the book from Itasca Books. Just click on this link.
One of my writer friends wrote a thoughtful review of the book, in case my aunt isn’t enough to convince you.
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.
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
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.