A Lake Superior Sailing Experience, Part One: Chocolate Milk and Biting Flies

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I recently meandered out onto Lake Superior on my first extended sailboat trip across it with some friends. We left Duluth, Minnesota, and headed to Wisconsin’s Apostle Island National Lakeshore, and then traversed the western arm of the lake to Grand Marais Harbor in Minnesota.

Since I am writing this, you know I survived the three-day trip. If fact, I would like to think I thrived, despite turning green with seasickness once (I avoided hurling, though!) and having to wear all my winter gear, plus hand warmers, on the 4th of July.

I learned a lot about sailing, but still have more to know. And I got a firsthand look at conditions on the lake, which is useful for my job, since we fund research projects on Lake Superior.

Two things struck me and my sailing companions. The first was the color of the water. Almost all the way to the Apostles it was the hue of chocolate milk. The large extent and persistence of the coloring was unusual. There were also floating logs to watch out for.

According to a news story I read upon returning home, the condition is due to a series of recent heavy rains that have sent thousands of tons of silt into the lake. Chequamegon Bay, on the other side of the Apostles, is also experiencing heavy sedimentation.

Usually, the chocolate milk dissipates within a few days, but this round of it is lasting longer than usual because we kept having downpours every few days. Most of the sediment comes from the Nemadji River and its red clay banks, along with the St. Louis River.

We also had more than double the amount of usual rainfall for the month of June. Anglers and charter captains are having to travel farther than usual out into the lake to find clear water for fishing.

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Stable flies covering jeans during a beach walk. Good thing they can’t bite through denim!

The second notable thing were the flies. Known locally by the name of “ankle-biters” or sand flies, stable flies look like a common housefly but they are meaner because they bite – usually a person’s ankles. I can attest that there are roughly a gazillion of them out on the lake and its shores this summer.

The only thing that saved us from certain insanity on a shore trip to Outer Island was the fact that we were wearing jeans, which they couldn’t bite through.

The flies congregated in seething clusters from our knees down, rarely venturing farther up our legs. Thank goodness they had no interest in our bare arms or we would have had to run screaming back to our dinghy!

According to a story on National Public Radio, researchers have figured out how and why the flies and other biting insects like mosquitos do this. They think these biting bugs target feet and ankles because we are less likely to notice (and therefore kill) them. They hone in on their target by smell, and apparently, the sweat and skin on our ankles smells different from that of the rest of our body.

Besides wearing jeans, we found it helpful to elevate our feet off the ground while we were on the boat. They didn’t seem to be able to find our ankles if they were level with the rest of our legs. Conditions on the boat never got bad enough that we needed to apply repellant, but we were glad we had some along, just in case.

Although the water wasn’t its typical crystal-clear blue, and we had many insect stowaways aboard our sailboat, Lake Superior was still magical. I greatly enjoyed spending time on it, and hope to do so again someday.

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A bear got to this beach before we did.

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Creativity, Motherhood and Rats: How They All Go Together

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Image by Howcast.com.

I was asked to give a short talk today on creativity and motherhood for a local organization. Here’s the result:

When I became pregnant with my first child 26 years ago, I started to panic. It wasn’t that I was afraid something would be wrong with my baby or that I was afraid of the labor process — although these are justified fears and I did think about those things.

The real issue was, I was afraid that the idea I had for a novel would be subsumed by the demands of a newborn. Having a child would strike a death-knell for my creative dreams. My story would never see the light of day. I had floundered around with writing it, and had come to the realization that I needed help. This fear was foremost in my mind when I signed up for a novel-writing correspondence course offered by Writer’s Digest Magazine soon after I found I was pregnant.

I had heard all the cultural messages that tell women that being creative and having children are incompatible, and I believed them.

The novel-writing course provided me with structure that saw me through the rest of my pregnancy and motivated me to keep working on the story once I had my baby boy. The instructor’s encouragement also helped.

Even so, it took me a long time to finally finish my novel and to get it published — as long as it takes to grow a child into adulthood.

The thing that held me back wasn’t motherhood, it was waiting for the right moment to feel creative – the moment when I wasn’t busy, stressed, or emotional. I was too much at the whim of my outside life. I hadn’t learned yet how to control my inner life and allow room for the creativity to flow no matter what was happening “outside.”

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine backs up the premise that having children does not harm creativity. In fact, it can change the biology of the mother in ways that can allow for even greater creativity.

Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, studies the maternal brains of rats. Yes, on Mother’s Day, I am going to talk to you about rats, and their brains, no less. Lambert found that when rats become mothers, their brains, which are closer in structure to a human’s than even those of mice or dogs, start reprogramming themselves.

Their sensory and motor systems sharpen. Their circuitry becomes more efficient. Maternal rats are more direct and lethal hunters, catching their prey four times faster than non-mom rats.

Even after having their babies, the changes persist. Lambert found that the mother rats experience less memory decline in old age and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes.

Although neuroscientists do not yet understand what direct impact pregnancy and childbirth have on the human maternal brain and creativity, I am here to testify that, yes, it is possible to be a mother and be creative, too. And I’m sure plenty of other women can testify to this. It’s just that sometimes when you’re a parent, you have to find more creative ways to allow for that creativity.

If you have a partner, have them take care of the kids for a while so that you can go on a writing retreat. Don’t allow your creativity to take a back seat to the other demands of life. Try different things until you find something that works for you.

I learned how to make this inner creative space while I wrote my second novel. Even though I had a second child by this time, after reading a story about right-brain, left-brain thinking and how to make both sides of your brain work together to foster creativity, I learned how to put myself in that elusive creative mind zone, instead of waiting for the zone to come to me. Thanks to this, it only took me two years to write and publish the second one.

You don’t need to be superhuman to have children and to be creative. Mothers have been doing it forever. As the magazine article said, creativity takes time and periods of reflection, and a willingness to let go of ideas that don’t work and move on to better ones.

Learning to look at the world through the eyes of your children, be they yours biologically or children of your heart, is not a bad way to make your own thinking more flexible.

Communing with Vultures on Ely’s Peak

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One of the views from Ely’s Peak.

Last weekend, a friend and I meandered up 200-300 feet in elevation to the top of Ely’s Peak near Gary-New Duluth. I don’t have a more specific elevation to give you because the different trail guides that I consulted are inconsistent on that point. But I can say that for my 50-something-year-old legs, it felt more like 300 feet. Also, some of the guides say it’s a 1.5-mile round-trip hike. Others that it’s 1.8 miles. I vote for the latter.

20180428_181031We chose the trail to see a new place and because the crisp and sunny spring air seemed to demand it. We didn’t go seeking a vision quest like Native Americans are said to have done on the peak, nor to seek our spirit animals, but we just might have had a dose of both of those things along the way, too.

The trailhead is off of Becks Road. On this particular day, the trailhead parking area was easy to find from the many other cars gathered there.

I followed the directions given on this website, although I would argue that the “beginner” level trail classification is not accurate. I would rate it as “moderately hard” because near the peak, I found myself thinking it would have been helpful to be part mountain goat. And a young mountain goat at that.

(I would say that this trail is not for 80-year-old mountain goats, but for all others it should work as long as you are reasonably fit and coordinated.)

At the start, a boardwalk invites you into a spindly birch forest. The boardwalk gives way to a muddy climb up an incline to an old railroad bed for the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railway.

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Inside the railroad tunnel.

Follow the railroad bed to the right until you come to a rocky tunnel. The tunnel was built for the railway in 1911. There are trails on the other side of it, but we did not attempt to go through the tunnel because of the sheet of ice layering the way. You may run into some rock climbers, who practice on the craggy basalt in the tunnel.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, from the tunnel, you should follow the main trail, which goes down the hill to the right. Don’t take the spur that goes up along the side of the tunnel, unless you really are a mountain goat and want to test your mettle.

Don’t be impatient, you will come to an incline soon enough. You are now on the Superior Hiking Trail, which is marked by blue blazes on the trees and rocks. Keep to the left and follow the blazes up the blazing &!*()%$ hill.

Soon enough, wide vistas will offer views of the St. Louis River and the Gary-New Duluth neighborhood.

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Dogs like the Ely’s Peak Trail, too.

No leaves were out on the trees yet – everything looked stark and clean.

The peak offers breath-taking 360-degree views. It was named after Edmund Ely, a Presbyterian missionary from Massachusetts who began teaching the Fond Du Lac Native American community in 1834. Local lore says that this was one of his favorite spots.

As we sat, resting, we noticed several turkey vultures lazily circling the thermals below us. The more we watched, the more vultures seemed to appear from nowhere. Eerily quiet and patient, they circled and circled. We joked that they were probably looking for hapless hikers who fell down the trail.

There’s a school of thought that says if you sit out in nature long enough, an animal will appear that has a lesson to impart. Were the vultures trying to tell us something?

Once back home (and safely out of a vulture’s gullet), I looked up what vultures symbolize. Here’s what I found: the vulture is considered a symbol of cleansing, renewal, and transformation. Vultures are viewed as fearless of death – they stare it in the face and eat death for breakfast (literally)!

I did feel cleansed after that hike. It was like the sunshine and clear air burned off all the old gunk. Perhaps it’s only to make way for more new gunk (ha ha), but I’d like to think I’ll have some time before I get clogged up again.

 

A Visit to the Tallest Waterfall in Minnesota

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The High Falls in Grand Portage State Park, Minnesota.

My traveling companion and I meandered north along Lake Superior with migrating bald eagles toward the Canadian Border last weekend. Although temps are still freezing, the long spans of daylight and slackening snows have a feel of spring about them.

We decided to cover some new territory by visiting the High Falls at Grand Portage State Park along the border. The 120-foot falls are the highest in Minnesota, so, in order to be proper Minnesota residents, we figured it was about time we saw them.

A short and slippery hike (wear your Yak Trax!) brought us to a giant white-frosted wedding cake of a waterfall. Most of the falls were encased in ice, but underneath, the Pigeon River flowed with unstoppable abandon. A large crack across the middle foretold of the eventual cutting of the cake once temperatures rise.

Once done with this quest, we drove back south to our resort (the Naniboujou Lodge, which I will write about separately). We vowed to stop at the intriguing and picturesque harbors we had seen on our way up, but were too goal-oriented to explore.

20180324_160746VignetteWe stopped several times along the highway, but the best place was one without a ready-made scenic parking lot. We glimpsed a bay that whispered of Norway and ice and stillness. We drove back and forth, looking for the best access road. There were no roads, only private driveways.

Finally, we chose one that looked the closest to the bay. As we pulled in, we could see from the untrammeled whiteness of the driveway that no one had driven on it for most of the winter. However, there was a foot trail through the snow that we could follow. So, after some hemming and hawing, and getting out of the car, we did.

A short crash through the underbrush brought us out to the view, which now SHOUTED of Norway and ice and stillness. Oh, it was gorgeous and well-worth a little harmless trespassing! Please enjoy these images of our “Secret Cove.”

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Taking an Old-School Snowshoe

20180120_121621It’s been about twenty years since I used my own snowshoes. I had the chance this week to dig them out and tromp around the grounds of a local mansion that’s open to the public for nighttime outdoor tours.

It was an expansive experience. What do I mean by that? Well, please, read on.

My snowshoes are old-school — made in Canada of wood with rawhide lacings. Tapering from a rounded nose to an elongated straight tail, they are four feet long. Their only nod to modernity are the plastic buckles and synthetic foot straps.

Not familiar with the various types of snowshoes, I looked mine up so I could describe them to you. I discovered they are an Alaskan snowshoe, which is supposed to work well on flat and rolling country with a deep snow pack. However, their length makes turning difficult.

My snowshoes were a Christmas present. I used them several times, but then my circumstances changed and I just didn’t have the motivation or opportunity to get out on them. But this nighttime snowshoe excursion sounded like fun, so off I went. It was held on the grounds of Glensheen Mansion, which is in Duluth, on the shores of Lake Superior. A group of about thirty people met and were divided among two tour guides who led us onto the grounds.

The quiet night air was about 20 degrees with little wind. Stars twinkled overhead as we shuffled over land that, in bygone days, held greenhouses where banana trees grew.

What I had forgotten about snowshoes is that they are like the land rovers of winter gear. You can walk up or down any kind of snowy slope with those things without worrying about slipping. That is, except for stairs. I don’t recommend their use on stairs!

At one point, we arrived on the shore of Lake Superior. We stood, rooted, listening to ice slush tinkling and crunching with the motion of low waves. The constellation Orion shown overhead, his slanted belt seeming to point down directly at us.

The sky was dark and huge over the lake. Even though we were within the city, we might as well have been miles away in a wintery wilderness. Almost immediately, a calmness descended on the group and we stopped talking, except for some exclamations of beauty.

I’ve been reading lately about how people’s brain wave patterns and emotions change when they view vistas like a great lake or an ocean, or even an empty desert landscape. We have a primal need for these wide-open natural places as much as we need the comforts of civilization.

A Northern Minnesota writer, Sigurd Olson, described these effects so well in his books about wilderness that I won’t even try to match him. But, as we stood on the shore, our hearts and our minds expanded — just for a moment — until it was time to catch up to the tour guide again.

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The snowshoe hike ended at a cozy bonfire.

Grand Canyon Joy

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“Wherever you have friends, that’s your country, and wherever you receive love, that’s your home.” A Tibetan saying.

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The Observation Tower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” Dali Lama.

“Whoever gives you love, that’s your parent.” Dali Lama

“The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela

These quotes, which are worthy of pairing with Grand Canyon scenery, came from “The Book of Joy.”

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The Grand Canyon in Arizona.

The Vortex Made Me Do It: Adventures in Northern Arizona, Part 4

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Linda (left) and I on Airport Mesa, before we knew it was a vortex area.

You know how, when you go on trips, you sometimes end up with a running joke in your conversations? The joke can be related to an event, a person you met, or a hapless comment made along the way. Well, for Linda’s and my Sedona trip, our running joke was The Vortex.

Because Linda and I are from Minnesota, we were mainly familiar with Polar Vortexes. You know, that’s when all the cold air comes down from the arctic and tries to freeze everything in its path. Although we had heard of Sedona’s reputation as a vortex center before we began our trip, we didn’t know any specifics.

Personally, I just thought the whole place was the site of mysterious energies. Little did I know that there are specific locations and different types of energies to be had.

Let me back up and define the word vortex (plural = vortices or vortexes). Merriam Webster says that a vortex is something that resembles a whirlpool. I assume all of you, dear readers, have watched water swirl down a drain. That’s a whirlpool — except that in Sedona, the swirling involves invisible energy more than it does water or freezing arctic air.

Our Vortextual Education

Our resort offered various programs for its patrons. Among the classes, which had titles like “Crafting a Festive Wine Glass for Christmas,” was one about vortexes. We decided we had to attend to learn more about this phenomenon. The presentation was given by a local Reiki healer.

She described the concept of vortexes and said the energies involved come from the rocks because of their mineral composition. She passed out a sheet that listed eight locations that are thought to be vortices and it described their different kinds of energies.

Some of the energies come out of the rocks (upflow), some flow into the rock (inflow), some are combinations of upflow and inflow, and some are horizontal (lateral). The lateral flow places involve the energy from nearby rivers and streams.

The sheet she gave us was an excerpt from a book entitled, “Scientific Vortex Information,” which was written by an author who claims to have been educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I don’t know. The title seemed like an oxymoron. “Science” and “Vortex” don’t really go together in my world, where I move among scientists every day. I suspected there wasn’t that much science behind the information — more like wishful, imaginative thinking.

Once I got back home, I looked inside the first few pages of the book on Amazon, hoping to see proof that scientific instruments were used to actually measure electromagnetic fields at these locations, but all I saw were explanations of inflow and outflow, with nary any hard proof in sight.

But that’s okay. We weren’t in Sedona for the science. We were there for the experience. We were there for . . . The Vortex!

Our Vortextual Experiences

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Oak Creek Canyon.

While looking at the list of locations, Linda and I discovered we had already visited a vortex the previous day. The site was Airport Mesa, which is easy to access because it’s right in town.

While we were enjoying the view there, we had noticed a couple of people sitting on the rocks in a lotus position. We didn’t think much of it – maybe they were just doing it because the scenic view inspired meditation. But after reading the list, we knew better. Those lotus people were trying to feel The Vortex.

We decided we needed to try that. Our journey the next day involved a trip north to Flagstaff, so we made plans to stop at the Oak Creek Canyon Overlook, which is on the way. The overlook scenic vista is located at the top of the switchbacked road at the end of the canyon about 15 miles from Sedona. A short walk on a paved path leads to an impressive overlook.

I sat on a bench near the overlook and Linda stood near the wall. Neither of us were hard core enough at this point to get into a lotus position (which is sort of hard on a bench, after all). So we just closed our eyes and tried to feel the feels.

I felt my own internal vortex more than any external one. My heartbeat rocked my body and made it sway a little. The Arizona sun felt good on my face and the breeze whispered its secrets.

After having our moments, we conferred. Linda said she didn’t really feel anything. We walked back to our car, but along the way, we stopped to look at some Navaho jewelry being sold at stand along the walkway. I was drawn like a magnet to one ring that featured a bright blue opal. I picked it up and it fit perfectly. I had to buy it.

We joked later that The Vortex made me do it. Who knows, maybe it did? It was like the ring was calling to me.

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Cathedral Rock

A few days later, after a day of hiking, we visited Cathedral Rock, which is thought to be home to an upflow/inflow combination vortex. We hiked up to the flat rock plateau below the formation.

Someone had scratched two spirals into the rock about ten feet away from each other. Linda and I thought they looked like logical places to sit for people like us who were trying to find a vortex, so we sat with legs crossed and eyes closed.

The day had been breezy, but not particularly so. A few moments after we got into position, big gusts of wind started buffeting us. They were so powerful that Linda’s hat flew off.

We opened our eyes and quickly stood, spooked. The wind stopped.

We headed down the rock toward our car. We didn’t joke as much about vortexes after that.