Free Halloween Story!

My creepy short story, “A Night in the Tower-Soudan Mine,” was published on the Twin Ports Terror website. You can access it for free by clicking on the linked text above. Eventually, it will be published in their printed book, which is distributed for free around the Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior.

The storyline was inspired by several trips I’ve taken into the mine, a half-mile underground on Minnesota’s Iron Range, since I was a youngster. My latest trip was just a few weeks ago, taken to refresh my memory. The sections about the mine tour are factual (other than the character getting knocked out thing), but the latter parts about the safety tunnel are figments of my imagination, informed by research.

Iron ore, which is used to make steel.

I began writing the story as part of a fiction workshop by the indomitable and inspirational Felicia Schneiderhan, where she challenged us to write two short stories that follow the same “rules” and feature the same random object in them.  If you read the story, I’d be interested in hearing what you think is the random object.

The second story I wrote for the workshop is part of a collection for which I’m currently trying to find an agent. So far, I’m striking out, but I just received some good tips, so we’ll see if they are helpful.

Enjoy and Happy Early Halloween!

Marie in the mine.

Canoeing “Old Blue” Down the Whiteface River

A story that began as a post on this very blog was recently published by “Northern Wilds” magazine. It details an adventure Russ and I had canoeing down the Whiteface River in northern Minnesota. As I began writing it, I quickly realized its magazine potential. So, I didn’t post it here.

The good news is, you can read it for free, just as if it were a blog post: https://northernwilds.com/canoeing-old-blue-down-the-whiteface-river/

Excerpt:

…I marveled that a trip that takes about five minutes by car could take three hours by canoe. But in a car, we would not have had the wonder of the white birds, a mermaid, and a lightning-blasted pine. Now, we have a mental map of the liquid emerald that flows beyond the screen of trees bordering the road.

Jeanette Lake Campground: Mini-Minnesota Vacation #4

Our water toys await launch into Jeanette Lake in the Superior National Forest.

If someone ever wanted to successfully torture me for information, all they would need to do is stick me in a dark room full of mosquitoes. Between the incessant buzzing and the blood-sucking, I would divulge anything anyone wanted to know. I’d even make up stuff if it would get me out of that hellhole faster.

I was reminded of effective torture methods during our inaugural night at Jeanette Lake Campground in northern Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. Russ and I arrive late on a Friday night with our Scamp trailer. The site we had reserved months before was the only one available in the government system for the dates we desired. It was situated in dense woods near a wetland along the lake. Mosquitoes love wetlands. They also love the dark. And, they apparently love my ankles.

We set up camp between mosquito slaps, amazed that so many bugs were still alive when our summer has been so dry. I’d expect swarms like this earlier in the season, not in mid-July, but I guess this year has been a good one for them.

Somebody (and I’m not naming names) left our camper door open too long. By the time we were ready to sleep, our trailer was filled with mosquitoes. We spent a good forty-five minutes trying to kill every last one before we went to bed.

But you know that ONE mosquito always survives. They will hunt you down during the night, buzzing insistently around your pillow as you try to sleep.

After a few belated kills, we were serenaded by the mosquitoes that had collected outside on our window screens. Such a lovely way to drift off into dream land!

In the morning, I was loath to leave the trailer. Still demoralized from the night, I envisioned cutting our weekend camping trip short due to the bugs. Russ was awake and out before me. I noticed he stayed outside for a long time. Wasn’t he getting eaten alive?

Thankfully, it turned out he wasn’t. As I took my first cautious steps outdoors, he sat, smiling, at the picnic table, coffee in hand. The mosquitoes were nowhere near as numerous as the night before. Maybe our camping trip wouldn’t be a bust, after all.

I first learned of Jeanette Lake over thirty years ago when I spent a summer as a photojournalist volunteer for the LaCroix Ranger District in the Superior National Forest. I’d driven past and through the campground a few times on my way to other places. With its islands and white pines, the glacier-carved lake looked like one that should be in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The thought of being able to drive to it and camp appealed to me, but I never had the chance until now.

We ate our breakfasts and took a walking tour of the campground, which offers about a dozen sites. Two are walk-in. Backcountry sites are scattered around the lake and on the islands for those who want to work harder (by paddling or boating) for their camping experience.

A few of the non-reservable sites were empty, including a picturesque one right on the lakeshore. I noticed it had perfect access to the water for kayaks or paddleboards, both of which we brought with us. A nice breeze off the lake would keep mosquitoes at bay.

After we returned to our site and got talking, Russ said he had paid for our site at the pay station that morning while I was sleeping. My brain was beginning to work by that time, and I remembered that I had paid for our site when I made our reservation.

So, we had paid for two sites. Why not move to the better one? The Forest Service might frown upon such practices, but it seemed like a good idea to us, so we packed up and moved out of the wetlands and to the lakeshore. Later, we told several people who were looking for campsites about the free one they could have that was under our name, but nobody took us up on it. Gee, do you think that might have had something to do with MOSQUITOES?

Our non-mosquitoey campsite.

We spent our Saturday paddling the lake, resting on a tiny island covered in jack pines and blueberry bushes (the berries were ripe). We also hiked on the Astrid Lake Trail, which can be accessed from the campground near the walk-in sites. After the trail crosses the road (the Echo Trail), it wanders through a black spruce bog. If you look closely, you’ll see rare pitcher plants. Farther on, glacial erratic rocks — huge boulders dropped by glaciers as they retreated and melted 10,000 years ago — dot the sides of the trail in the forest.

We spent the evening around a campfire, admiring the red orb that served as a sunset in skies hazy from northern wildfires. As the sun disappeared, the mosquitoes reappeared, but in more manageable numbers.

Ferns growing on an ancient glacial erratic boulder along the Astrid Lake Trail.

Sunday morning, we mountain-biked on the Echo Trail, which is the gravel road that provides access to this part of the land. After a quick dip in the lake, it was time to pack up and head home. Along the way, we made a lunch stop at the Montana Café in Cook, Minnesota, the town where I was stationed during my volunteer stint. The café was another one of my old haunts and I was glad to see it was still in business. They have great malts and burgers.

Despite the best efforts of the mosquitoes, we were able to salvage this trip down memory lane. If you’re interested in a touch of wilderness with easy access, don’t be put off by all my whining about mosquitoes; put gorgeous Jeanette Lake on your list.

Two shed skins from a garter snake that lived near our site. We also had a camp chipmunk and cottontail rabbit.

SUP Yoga: Combining Two Great Pastimes

Doing a sitting spinal twist yoga pose in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. I’m on the left. Willowy younger person is on the right. (Image courtesy of North Shore SUP.)

You probably already know that I love doing yoga. I also love paddle boarding. Well, I finally had the chance to combine both these pastimes by taking a standup paddleboard yoga class the other day.

The opportunity was offered by North Shore SUP (also known as Duluth SUP even though they are located in Superior). Their business is run out of Barker’s Island in the Duluth-Superior Harbor. Owners Heather and Garrett are great – so enthusiastic about sharing their love of paddle boarding with everyone. I first learned how to paddleboard with their help eight years ago, when I began this blog.

My main fear was that I would fall off the board and make a fool of myself in front of the other students. Because keeping my fear to myself is boring and not blog-worthy, I broadcast it to everyone else by alerting my Facebook friends that I planned to do SUP yoga and then asked how many times they thought I would fall. They had much more faith in me than I had myself. They didn’t think I would fall, or that if I did, the water would be refreshing.

The evening was warm and fairly calm, with a haze of smoke in the air from the wildfires in Canada and northern Minnesota. Two younger women joined me in the class. After some conversation, I discovered it was their first time SUP yoga-ing, too, which made me feel better. The 1-1/2-hour class costs $30, which includes the board rental. I thought that was a good deal. It’s offered every Tuesday and Thursday evening, weather permitting.

We began by paddling our boards around the tip of Barker’s Island to a spot sheltered by trees from prying eyes. That also made me feel better because fewer people would see me fall. We anchored our boards in the shallows with a five-pound weight wrapped around the ankle leashes.

Katie, our instructor, started us off with some basic poses, including tips on techniques to maintain our balance. I would say the poses were Level One difficulty (which equals easy), but when you do them on a floating board, that automatically makes them Level Two. Combined with some boat wakes, the poses reach Level Two-Point-Five.

The other women were taller than I am, with long limbs that looked so elegant with each pose. Then there’s me, with short arms and legs. I looked like a yoga blob (see photo), but at least I didn’t fall!

Actually, I wouldn’t have minded falling. The air temps were hot and cooling off would have been nice. But big chunks of algae were floating in the water, along with dead bugs. It did not look appetizing for swimming. The water quality issues are only temporary, though, so don’t let that turn you off from trying SUP yoga.

My favorite part was the final resting pose, where you lay on your back, looking up to the sky. Although traffic noise from the nearby highway was audible, blissing out was still possible.

Class over, I asked the others what they thought. They all said they enjoyed it and would try it again. I agreed. It was wonderful!

The Greyhound Bus Museum: Quirky Americana

A display in the lobby of the Greyhound Bus Museum.

A former landlady of mine was the first to inform me that the Greyhound Busline had its start in northern Minnesota – Hibbing, to be exact. One of her relatives had a hand in beginning it. Our conversation was years ago. I’m not sure if the Greyhound Bus Museum had been built yet or even why the topic came up, but one thing was sure: she was proud of that heritage.

During one of our recent quests to bike different sections of the Mesabi Trail, Russ and I had the opportunity to visit the bus museum – it was located in the same parking lot as the trailhead for the section that runs between Hibbing and Chisholm.

The first thing we noticed was the air conditioning. After biking seventeen miles in eighty-five-degree heat, it was a godsend. The clerk noticed our biking gear and immediately informed us where we could refill our water bottles (unlimited!) at the drinking fountain.

Festooned with a red, white and blue beaded “tie” necklace in celebration of the fourth of July, the attendant explained how we could tour the museum and access the pushbutton audio and video presentations in the exhibits. Although we were the only visitors at the time, others must have come before us because the attendant bragged that her tie was the “talk of the bike trail” and that other cyclists had encouraged trail acquaintances to at least stop into the museum to see her festive tie. A shiver of patriotic privilege passed through us, or was that the air conditioning?

I would have been happy just spending time in the lobby, as it housed what ended up as my favorite artifact: a black velvet painting of a Greyhound Bus. How classy can you get? It also featured a recreated bus ticket office, complete with a mannequin attendant.

My favorite artifact.

After paying a modest $5 per person, the tour began with explanations of the people and machines that comprised the first bus line, which was developed for iron ore miners who lived a couple of miles away from their work in the small town of Alice, Minnesota (which no longer exists – it was incorporated into Hibbing later). From these humble beginnings in 1914, Greyhound became an international business that’s still running today, although not in northern Minnesota anymore.

While perusing the handmade exhibit panels, it soon became evident that grammar was not the museum founder’s strong suit. Some visitors had taken it upon themselves to correct mistakes on the signs in pen, which you don’t see every day.

A fake bus with seating provided a comfortable place to watch an extended video about the origins of the busline. Since we were tired from our ride, we sat through most of it. The video seemed to have been produced in the 1980s, because the timeline stopped after that point. It was fun to watch as an example of how videos used to be made, back in the day, but also for the history.

From there, we progressed to the attached bus garage, which houses different eras of busses. My favorite was an art deco bus from the 1950s. Its red and yellow streamlined shape was so appealing. A dozen creepy (and sometimes gender-bending) mannequins made up a diorama of how Greyhound aided the war effort in WWII.

The World War II mannequins.

If you look behind the bus that is the focus of the diorama, you’ll see the purgatory where museum managers must store misbehaving mannequins. A sailor mannequin was separated from his hands, and others were in pieces between the bus and the wall.

Another creepy thing is that the museum is located next to a graveyard. The garage area is supposedly haunted, with reports of bus windows and doors opening and closing by themselves, as well as sightings of apparitions, including a young girl. Did she get left on a bus? Or is she visiting from the cemetery, looking for an eternal ride? Although we did not experience any ghostly activity, I sure did get strange vibes from those mannequins!

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the museum. It’s a local labor of love that must have taken a lot of time and effort to create. If you’re ever near Hibbing, it’s a must-see.

Biking the Mesabi Trail from Hibbing to Chisholm

In our continuing quest to familiarize ourselves with the Mesabi Trail in northern Minnesota, Russ and I recently biked an 8.5-mile section right in the middle between the towns of Hibbing and Chisholm. This section runs by iron ore mine pits and a spur that leads to the Discovery Center, a cultural museum about the Iron Range.

The trail offers a good mix of ups and downs, shade and sun. In Hibbing, the trailhead parking lot is the same one that serves the Greyhound Bus Museum. We had time to visit the museum, which I’ll feature in my next post.

We rode out and back for a total of 17 miles. Not every bike trail offers sights like the Bruce Mine Headframe (pictured). A nearby sign said this structure was originally underground and it hoisted low-grade iron ore 300 feet to the surface. It’s the last standing headframe on the Mesabi Range.

The Bruce Mine Headframe — one of the sights along the Mesabi Trail between Hibbing and Chisholm.

The sign also goes onto to relate an incident that happened in the Bruce Mine. “In July 1927, Nick Bosanich was reported to have died in a rockslide in the mine. Forty-six hours later, he was found alive in a 10-foot-square room. His first request was for a cigarette.”

Ironic that upon his “resurrection” he probably shortened his life by resuming smoking!

On the way into Chisholm, the trail follows a city park along a lake. At our turnaround point, we could view downtown one way and in the other direction, the “Bridge of Peace” causeway across the lake. The bridge showcases flags from all 50 states as well as flags from around the world, which gives this small town a touch of the cosmopolitan.

Ever watch “Field of Dreams?” (One of my faves.) Chisholm’s other claim to fame is as the home of the legendary baseball player, Doc “Moonlight” Graham, who is featured in the movie.

So, this section of the trail offers mines, museums, and movie heroes. If you want a good introduction to the Iron Range, this is the right section of trail for you!

Post-Vaccination Reunions: Why I Expect my Grandchild to Run Away From me

The adorable, incomparable Francine in 2020. Image credit: Amanda Jo Dahl-Sales

Videos that show happy reunions between grandparents and grandchildren keep popping up on my social media feeds and in newscasts. With the Center for Disease Control’s blessing, once grandparents wait until their immune systems are fully protected by their vaccinations, they have the green light to hug their children and grandchildren.

Many of these reunions happen outdoors. The grandparents surprise their grandchildren at a bus stop or on a sidewalk. The children pause a moment to realize what’s happening and then run with squeals of joy into their grandparent’s open arms. I always tear up at these.

I am looking forward to such a reunion myself. My target date is April 15, two weeks after my second vaccination. But I have no illusions that my grandchild will even recognize me. I expect she may even scream and run away!

Francine was less than a year old once COVID hit and we all retreated to our individual lairs. Since then, we’ve visited a couple of times outdoors with masks on. We’ve computer Zoomed with Francine and her parents at least monthly, sometimes more. But it’s not the same as spending in-person time with a young grandchild.

Most of the grandchildren in the happy reunion videos are older. They had time to bond with their grandparents before the pandemic. Poor Francine was too young for that, and I expect there’s at least half a generation of other grandbabies who have had their grandparent-bonding interrupted.

We saw videos of Francine’s milestones – learning to walk and talk, but it’s not the same as being there. It sucks and it’s been so hard. And I don’t know about you, but I have a bad case of Zoom fatigue these days. For work and play, I’ve had at least two Zoom meetings every weekday for the past three weeks. Today, I didn’t have any, so that’s why I think I have energy to write this post.

I’m not the only Minnesotan with Zoom fatigue. I just read a story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that proves it. By tracking geotagged tweets, researchers found that Minnesotan tweets led the nation in phrases like, “I hate virtual meetings” and “I hate Zoom meetings.” Some of the reasons posited are that the Zoom communication style goes against Minnesota culture. More eye contact is required, plus, watching yourself on camera can be “cognitively tiring and anxiety provoking.” Then there are those awkward pauses so difficult to negotiate. Minnesotans prefer a more indirect communication style that simply doesn’t work well in a virtual world.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we at least had Zoom to work with. I don’t know what we would have done without it. We won’t ever get this year back. I am fully prepared for Francine to take time to warm up to me. But I’m sure going to enjoy making up for lost time.

A “River of Poems” spans the world

We expected only a few local poets would be interested. We thought they’d offer poems about the St. Louis River on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border.

That was our mindset when the River Talk planning team at my workplace first developed the theme for the public poetry reading to be held in conjunction with the St. Louis River Summit as an evening program in March 2021. We were mistaken, but in the best possible way.

In reality, our call for river poems through the literary submission management platform Submittable garnered interest from 76 poets from across the U.S. and around the world. They submitted 148 poems for consideration.

“As it turns out, a lot of people like to write about rivers. That’s because they are really important in our communities and in our lives,” said Deanna Erickson, director of the National Lake Superior Estuarine Research Reserve, which co-sponsors the River Talk series with Wisconsin Sea Grant.

An overlook above the St. Louis River in Duluth, Minn.

We quickly realized we were going to need more judges. In the end, we gathered six who represented a good cross-section of the audience we expected to attend the summit.

The judging was “blind,” which means the poets’ names were not associated with their poems. After two rounds, the judges narrowed the number of poems down to a dozen, with a few for backup in case any of the chosen poets could not be reached.

Although communication was sometimes a challenge, all 12 poets were enthusiastic about participating in the reading. They represented a wide diversity of ages and ethnicities.

The River Talk was a couple of weeks ago, but the warm fuzzy feelings it engendered remain with me. I could use many adjectives to describe it: powerful, beautiful, stark, raw, funny — but it’s really best if you listen to the poems and feel all the feels for yourselves. The reading drew 85 Zoomers, a record attendance.

The Lake Superior Reserve, our partner in the talks, recorded the reading and it’s available on their YouTube channel. Here’s a list of the poets (in the order they read) and the names of their poems:

Tyler Dettloff (Michigan) “My Stars”
Heather Dobbins (Arkansas) “I Held us on for 36 Hours after the Levee Broke to hell”
Ben Green (New Mexico) “Immersion: A Prayer of Intent”
Lorraine Lamey (Michigan) “Catching Your Drift”
Joan Macintosh (Newfoundland) “The Current Feels”
Kate Meyer-Currey (England) “Timberscombe”
Rebecca Nelson (California) “Of the St. Louis River”
Stephanie Niu (New York) “To the Beaver’s Eyes”
Diana Randolph (Wisconsin) “Knowing the Way”
Ron Riekki (Florida) “It Took a Long Time to Discover”
Derold Sligh (South Korea) “Rouge River”
Lucy Tyrrell (Wisconsin) “Talking Water”

Ironically, the one poem specifically about the St. Louis River was written by someone who had never visited it. Rebecca Nelson said her poem, “Of the St. Louis River” was inspired by the spiritual experiences she’s had while watching water. She grew up in the Midwest and said she wrote the poem thinking of the rivers she knew from childhood. “I would love to visit sometime after the pandemic!” Nelson said.

Barb Huberty, St. Louis River Area of Concern coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, offered this comment in the Zoom chat, “I never knew that poetry could unite people across the globe.”

Sharon Moen, Eat Wisconsin Fish outreach specialist for Wisconsin Sea Grant, offered, “Thank you to all the poets and organizers! I am inspired by the depth of your thoughts and stories.”

Remaining River Talks will be held on April 14 and May 12. For more information, visit the River Talks page: go.wisc.edu/4uz720.