Seeing Rabbits

Last winter, a rabbit lived in our backyard, sheltering under our neighbor’s shed. We’d awaken in the morning, shuffle downstairs and take a look out our window on the landing where we could see the back yard. More often than not, there she crouched, a brown cottontail, nibbling what grass wasn’t already covered by snow.

Since both of our dogs died, we’ve been petless. We saw this rabbit so much, it just seemed natural to start becoming a little attached. I began leaving her offerings of dried orchard grass, remnants of our deceased guinea pig. I also initiated a naming contest for the bunny on Facebook. My friend June won with the moniker of “Tater Tot.” It fit – the shape and coloring were approximately right.

Tator Tot survived the winter and this spring we noticed several Tiny Tots scampering around the backyard – her children, no doubt. They didn’t seem to be doing any damage to my hostas, just hiding under them instead of eating them, so we welcomed these new additions to the yard.

I suspect that Tator Tot eventually left our yard for the forest at the end of our road. We sometimes saw a rabbit fitting her description during our woods walks. Her Tiny Tots hung around for several weeks and then seemed to disappear. I hope they, too, found their way to the forest. But they could have easily been eaten by a neighborhood cat or a fox.

I rather miss these foster pets. They were easy to take care of. No fuss, no muss.

I recently read Linda LeGarde Grover’s book “Gichigami Hearts.” LeGarde is a former neighbor of mine – we grew up in on the same street on the other side of Duluth. Her book offers a Native American perspective of our old neighborhood. In one chapter, “Rabbits Watching Over Onigamiising,” she describes how seeing rabbits reminds her of the Native spiritual being, Nanaboozhoo. Now, if you’ve read my book, “Eye of the Wolf,” you know that Nanaboozhoo is a trickster– part rabbit, part human. He embodies the best and the worst of humans and the supernatural.

Tator Tot

LeGarde’s backyard bunnies savored her tulips, necessitating a change the next spring to planting marigolds, which she says the “rabbits nibbled on, but not much.” LeGarde writes that planting different flowers rather than trying to eradicate the bunnies was a good compromise. “We are all here to live our lives . . . We know from traditional teachings that all animals are important to the earth, that no animal is ranked higher or lower than any other in the eyes of the Creator, and that all have a contribution to make.”

She recounted a conversation she had with a friend about seeing rabbits on clear nights in the moonlight in winter, sitting with their legs folded under them like a cat – like they were waiting for something. LeGarde’s friend told her, “When we see them like that at night it is because the rabbits are watching over us, over a sleeping world and our dreams.”

Here in the north, we have two kinds of rabbits: cottontails like Tator Tot and snowshoe hares, which are larger and turn white in winter. Rabbits in the moonlight reminded me of one of my favorite chapters in northland author Sigurd Olson’s book, “The Singing Wilderness,” about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s the chapter called “Moon Madness,” where he recounts seeing hares on his moonlight walks.

“If, when the moon is bright, you station yourself near a good rabbit swamp and stay quiet, you may see it, but you will need patience and endurance, for the night must be cold and still. Soon they begin to emerge, ghostly shadows with no spot of color except the black of their eyes. Down the converging trails they come, running and chasing one another up and down the runways, cavorting crazily in the light.”

Olson concluded that moonlight “made animals and men forget for a little while they seriousness of living; that there were moments when life could be good and play the natural outlet for energy.”

It’s comforting to think of rabbits or hares cavorting crazily in the darkness or quietly keeping watch. I never saw Tator Tot or the Tiny Tots at night because I was, well, sleeping. Perhaps I never saw them because the magic they worked was so effective.

When I emerged from my office building in Superior yesterday evening, I was thinking about all this. As I walked, who scampered across the parking lot pavement not ten feet from me? A big fluffy cottontail. She looked suspiciously like Tator Tot.

Two Sides of the Same Lake

A few blocks down a gravel road near our cabin in northern Minnesota sits a tiny lake, easily seen from the road. It’s so small that a football player with a good arm could throw the ball from one end to the other.

On a bright fall day a few weeks ago, I stopped to admire this lake. While the lake our cabin sits on was rocked with waves, this lake was calm in the shelter of trees. Only one cabin hunkers along its shores. Those folks own the land all around it, so it’s likely no other dwellings will appear in the future. Although small, the lake is deep – up to thirty feet – making it a favorite of local anglers. I almost always see wildlife when I visit: mink, muskrats, turtles, osprey.

I had my camera along and snapped several images in sequence, pointing to opposite sides of the lake. I was amazed by how such a small lake could look so different on either side. Below are two of my favorite images from that outing. They got me thinking about how people can be multi-faceted, too.

Ghost Birches
Tranquil Tamaracks

Mini-Minnesota Vacation #5: Grand Marais and Oberg Mountain

The Path to Enlightenment, Grand Marais, MN

Sometimes you can visit a town many times for decades but still discover new places in it. That’s the way Grand Marais, Minnesota, was when Russ and I meandered north for a weekend in our Scamp.

We were too slow on the uptake to get a reservation at the municipal campground, which is right on the shores of the harbor. But half of the sites (the ones closest to Lake Superior) are first-come, first-served, and there are a lot of them. We figured if we arrived early in the afternoon, we might have a good chance of finding an open site. We didn’t have the option of travelling during a different weekend because we had reservations for a concert that wasn’t happening any other time. We made backup plans to camp in a friend’s driveway and headed out.

I’m sure the suspense is killing you. Did they find a campsite? Yes, we did. In fact, we had five to choose from, thanks to the shortness of our Scamp (13 feet). After we got situated, we had several hours before supper and the concert. We meandered around the campground, getting the lay of the land. We walked into town and along the way, checked out the fishing museum that’s on the shore of the harbor. It features an old fish house complete with fisherman mannequins, a fishing boat, and a smoke house.

Sailboat Layercake. The Hjordis sailing out of the Grand Marais Harbor.

In town, we visited the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery, one of the places I’ve never been inside, despite coming to Grand Marais periodically for fifty years. Unbeknownst to us, the town was hosting a plein air (outdoors) painting festival and competition that week. The artists’ works were displayed in the gallery – a most impressive and inspiring collection!

No visit to the town is complete for us unless we stop in at the Ben Franklin Department Store. The owners are friends who we don’t get to see nearly enough. We also had time to visit the Sivertson Art Gallery, which I think I’ve only been inside once – another notable collection of local artists and photographers.

After supper at the Angry Trout Cafe, which features local foods (note, the Trout is open all year now but is closed sometimes in November), we headed north just outside of town for the concert. The artist is Michael Monroe, an acoustic guitar, ukulele and glass flute musician who’s popular in Minnesota (and other parts of the country, I’m sure!) He offers log cabin concerts. I signed up for our concert months in advance and was dismayed to learn along the way that Michael and his partner Deb sold their log cabin. But they found a friend who was willing to host the concert in their cabin right on the shore of Lake Superior, literally eight feet away from the water.

Musician Michael Monroe

With the sound of waves as a backdrop, we enjoyed an intimate concert in a home environment. Michael’s music makes a person feel all warm and fuzzy inside. If you like Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell, you’ll love Michael’s music.

After a peaceful rainy night’s sleep (we were impressed by how quiet the campground was), the following day, we pursued more natural activities. Right next door to the campground is the Sweetheart’s Bluff Nature Area. An easy, wheelchair-friendly trail begins on the end of one of the campground loops, offering lake and woodland views. If you’re up for a challenge, take the definitely not wheelchair-friendly black diamond-level trail up the bluff. Be prepared to clamber! But the views of the lake and harbor are worth the effort.

The view of Grand Marais from Sweetheart’s Bluff.

Soon, it was time to vacate our weekend home. One place I wish we would have stopped in Grand Maris is the Gunflint Mercantile. They make THE BEST maple chocolate truffles on Earth. Maybe next time!

On our way home, we stopped just outside of Tofte to hike the Oberg Mountain Trail.  This fairly easy three-mile loop is known for stellar views of the Superior National Forest and Oberg Lake. The Forest Service says the trail gets “medium” usage, but when we were there on a colorful fall day, I would classify the usage as extreme. There were tons of people there and parking was at a premium. It felt more like a major national park attraction than a national forest.

As we hiked through the cedars and maples, fog began to roll in off Lake Superior. The first few overlooks we reached were totally shrouded. So much for stellar views. But we persisted and were rewarded by fog-free views on the other side of the mountain.

Easter Egg Fall. Oberg Lake as seen from Oberg Mountain.

The wildlife seemed used to people. I was able to get a close look at a hairy woodpecker working on a birch. The red squirrels seemed to delight in racing across the trail just steps away. A ruffed grouse took noisy flight nearby.

All the good art we saw must have rubbed off, because I took some pretty darn good photos. Here’s a show of the ones I haven’t already shared.

I hope everyone’s having a good fall. Stay safe, my friends.

Lawn Mower Races: Cutting-Edge Excitement

The grand marshal of the Thunder Valley Lawn Mower Races, Maine. Image credit: Mark Haskell, Courier-Gazette

Apologies for the bad pun in the title, but I wanted to let you know that you truly haven’t lived until you’ve witnessed this phenomenon. Lawn mower races happen all across America, from Idaho to Maine. I received my first taste in late summer when I meandered into Cotton, a small town in northern Minnesota.

Grown men (and in other places, women) clamber aboard riding lawn mowers that they have modified for racing. In Cotton, the circular racing track was an actual lawn situated behind what used to be the town’s high school but is now a community center.

The races are a cultural highlight of the season. Families gather to sit on the grass or on haybales to watch the festivities. Kids eat cotton candy. Some folks even back their jacked-up pickup trucks along the track. Sitting in folding lawn chairs in the cargo bed, they have a prime, elevated view.

Engines rev. The starting gun cracks, and they’re off! The machines tilt as they round the corners, wheels lifting off the ground. The drivers likewise tilt, leaning into the movement. Around and around they buzz, neck and neck. After a few turns around the track, one man’s mower putters out and he pulls into the center, defeated.

Cotton, MN, lawn mower racers lean into the turn.

According to the U.S. Lawn Mower Racing Association, this quirky form of racing began in the early 1970s – touted as a perfect way to use a machine that many people already have, and to let off steam. It became official when the makers of a fuel stabilizer came up with the idea of using a lawn mower race to promote their product on April Fools’ Day in 1992.

I had no idea this pastime had been around for so long! There’s even such a thing as lawn mower ice racing in winter.

With a wave of a checkered flag, the race ends. The crowd applauds. The winners strut over to claim their prizes and pose for the local newspaper photographer.

In Cotton, racers competed in two events, “modified” and “stock.” I felt culturally enriched for having watched these events. But it all seemed like such a waste. You see, the racing mowers don’t have their blades engaged. All that noise and hype, and in the end, the grass on the track is just as long as before. 🙂

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:


…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!