Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Blizzard Week

This past week shut the sunshine out behind gray clouds and let in consistent blizzard-like conditions.  Thursday seemed a bit ironic, as we listened to the blizzard warnings and looked out to blue skies... all day.  Before I get into blizzard details, I'll show you some of the pictures I took on Thursday -- the day before the blizzard struck.

That day I went out to Aaron and Allan's ice fishing shanty.  It sits at the mouth of Fanny Hooe Creek in the harbor.  If you've driven by there, you've probably seen it.  From there I snowshoed along the shore.  I caught a glimpse of this seldom seen sight.

A range light on the winter shore

Carrying on, I thought you might like to see the terrain I was walking on -- especially with Brockway in the background.

Uneven harbor snow terrain and Brockway Mountain

Along my travels, I saw a few glassy ice thingies that let the sun shine through.  I don't think it magnified the sun, though.  If it did, there would have been a hole where the snow melted.  Wouldn't that be something!

A window of ice

I guess I should tell you that my goal was to hike to Porter's Island and check out the lake to the north.  I heard rumors that there was open water in the distance, and I had to see for myself.  

I'm not going to lie.  The Big Lake just doesn't have the same effect when it's covered in snow and ice like the rest of the world.  I wanted to see some sparkling blue waves.

But before I got there, I saw a work of art that the snow uncovered.  Yes!  Put a little color in the day!

Lichen uncovered by the sun and wind

You know how it's really fun to take the South Beach Trail of Hunter's Point all the way to the point, then see your first glance of Lake Superior once you're out there?  That's what I tried to do that day.  I didn't want to look up too far, so that when I saw her open waters, I would be high atop Porter's Island.

That turned out not to be much of a challenge.  I was already on this shelf of Porter's, and I still couldn't see any water.

Another plate of glassy ice

 See what that shelf is made of in the picture above?  Bumpy ice.  That's what I got to climb to get to the top of the shelf of Porter's to take the picture below.

Open water waaaaaay on the horizon

I can't say that I was disappointed at how far away the water was.  And that I didn't see any waves.  Or that I couldn't even look at it for very long because the high winds seemed to blow right through me.  No.  It was marvelous to see a little bit of Her Majesty without all her winter layers on.   It gave me hope that spring will still come.

But not yet, as the blizzard reminded us.

So, this blizzard.  It was all over the news.  The Weather Channel people even came to Houghton to check it out.  "Over a foot of snow!"  "50 mph gusts and sustained winds!"  "All schools closed for Friday!"  "Stay in your houses!"  "Do not go anywhere!"  And so on.  

I remember the last time they predicted an actual system blizzard like this.  It was maybe 4 years ago.  It had all the same predictions.  And the next day, when we all looked out of our windows, it turned out to be a bust.  "I'll believe it when I see it," is always my motto.

This year was a little different.  I looked out the window Friday morning to see about 5 inches of snow.  But it wasn't the fluffy snow like we've been getting.  The warmer temperatures turned it into cement snow.  It would have easily been a foot of fluff.

Then, get this.  The winds have been blowing hard all the way until now.  They are still blowing nearly 20 mph.  This created drifts of monster proportions.  People's doors, vehicles and driveways were buried.  And here's the biggest doozy: M-26, near Great Sand Bay, was closed for four days due to 12 foot drifts.  FOUR DAYS!  Those poor people (and yes, people live there) were probably stranded.  At least they have a good story to tell!

According to Jeff at the Gas Lite, the Farmer's Almanac says that once March hits, this snow is all going to melt from 70 degrees and sunshine.  If that happens, we'll have floods and raging waterfalls.  I'll let you know how that goes... it's almost March!

Monday, February 17, 2014

From The Soo to Marquette and Home

It's kinda funny.  Now that I am an outdoor adventure writer, people want to send me places so I will write about their area.  What a neat way to discover new places and meet new people.

This last week I did a little tour of the Eastern U.P.  When I was asked if I wanted to go on this trip, my first thought was that I already live and experience the U.P. on a daily basis.  But the agenda showed some activities that I haven't done, so I signed up.

Here are the highlights from this Pure Michigan Press Trip.

I spent the first night in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.  Did you know it's the oldest city in the Midwest?  While there, I felt more curiosity toward the Soo Locks than I ever have before.  Too bad it was already dark by the time we went out to eat.  I'll have to go back.

We ate at a place called Antlers, on the shore facing Canada.  There I met Linda, a beaming lady who is also the Executive Director of their Convention and Visitor's Bureau.  She was a wealth of passion and knowledge for the area.  If you ever get to the Soo, stop in and say hi to her.  You just might get a hug before you leave.

The lion exhibit at Antlers

The anaconda and giant sea turtle skull

The next morning we drove through Paradise, Michigan to Tahquamenon Falls.  I have heard of both of these places, but it was my first time passing through.  Paradise was blink-and-you'll-miss-it in size, but sitting on Lake Superior's shore, I bet it gets lots of visitors in the summertime.

At Tahquamenon Falls I instantly fell in love with our tour guide, Theresa.  As the Park Interpreter/Education Services spokesperson, she was knowledgeable, excited about the area and full of that magnetic energy.  Plus she instantly knew what trees I was curious about: the beech trees, that hold onto their brown leaves throughout the winter.  

Theresa took me and a couple rookie snowshoers on an adventure through the woods, off the beaten path (cuz that's what real snowshoeing is).  She told us all about the old growth maple and beech forests as we hiked through, mentioned the wildlife habitats and even let us take turns breaking trail.

Theresa explains about the pileated woodpecker's holes in the trees

It really was a beautiful area.  I found myself stricken more than once.  Then we got to the Upper Falls.

Me across the river and above the falls

Afterward we went to Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub.  I'm not going to lie.  A pub in the middle of a state park?  I expected deep fried ski hill cafeteria food.  Instead it was closer to Harbor Haus cuisine.  "I don't like to open packages here," Chef David explained.  We could taste the difference in the food.  The love.  Especially in the secret recipe hot cocoa which we all ordered and probably secretly wet ourselves as we drank it.

Being that it was 2:oo pm and we had to drive to our next activity, we didn't try the beer.  But I hope it's as good as the hot cocoa.

Without a moment to waste, we whisked ourselves over to McMillan where we would learn how to drive a dogsled at Nature's Kennel.  Just a quick note, that if you ever go there (and you should for a bucket list experience) it seems like you're driving to the end of the earth.  The nearly one lane road was not paved and hardly plowed.  We thought we were going the wrong way until a Sysco Food truck bombed down the road behind us.  Whew, we thought.  There is life down here.

When we got to the Kennel itself, we were greeted by two of the most down-to-earth guys that we met on the trip.  It could be partially due to the fact that they live off the grid, cutting their own firewood to stay warm.  And the owners, Ed and Tasha know how to treat the dogs to get maximum love and performance out of them because they race themselves.  Ed has raced the Iditarod multiple times, and Tasha has even won the UP 200 Race out of Marquette.

But the guys, Dave and TJ, were there to teach us about the dogs.  When we approached the kennel, of over 100 Alaskan Huskies, we saw them slowly stretch out of their barrel houses.

The dogs emerge and psyche up for a run

We learned how the dogs from each litter were named according to themes.  We learned all about the parts of the sled itself, and how to control it.  We learned how to harness the dogs onto the lines.  But when TJ said, "Okay, pick up a harness, and there's a name on it.  Find the dog, and hook it up to the sled," I was a bit surprised.  We were actually going to handle these little guys!  They made it easy, by picking up their paw, so we could put it through the loops.  They wanted to cooperate because they wanted to run.  That is why they were born.

I was nervous to drive the sled myself.  In fact, I was going to try to pass my turn off.  But let me tell you, it easily became second nature, and I didn't want my turn to stop!  I got to control the speed of 5 of these beasts for about 5 miles.  It was a transforming 5 miles in my life.

After our run, we were chilly and hungry.  Jasmine, another worker there, spent the day making the chocolatiest chocolate chip cookies we have ever tasted.  Still warm and gooey.  We were having such a nice time chatting by the fire that we reluctantly left to go to dinner.

By then daylight was fading, but we drove to Curtis to have an elegant dinner at Chamberlin's Old Forest Inn overlooking Big Manistique Lake.  Kelly, the owner, was very sweet and came out to talk to us and give us some history on the place.  My appetizer and dinner were really tasty.  I bet they are just slammin' in the summertime.

The classy bar and bartender at Chamberlin's Inn

Now if you think I'm going to die out in Lake Superior while traversing the ice, you should think about this.  I then had to follow the van in my own car for over two hours west on M-28 through a winter snow storm where they actually shut down that road while we were on it.  Thank goodness to my co-pilot from D.C. who encouraged me when I thought I'd be better off pulling off to the side and camping in the car.  When we got to Marquette, I gave our host and driver of the van, Michelle, a big thank-goodness-we-are-alive hug.

Thus begun our Marquette adventures!

That first morning we had a couple more hosts join us.  Man.  I felt like a celebrity with all the official people coming out to meet us.  But we had an agenda, and the next activity was snowmobiling.

We shuttled to Meyer's Yamaha where we sized up for helmets and each got to drive our own snowmobile.  I was less worried about driving one of these 4-stroke beasts than controlling the dogs, but the former proved to be more of a challenge.

Donny, past president of the Hiawatha Trails and continual lover of the sport, was our guide.  For the most part, all six of us were rookies, but we managed not to hurt anyone or break anything.  Greg, the owner at Meyer's would be much relieved.

We started on Trail 8 west out of Ishpeming, and took it to 417 where we climbed to Mount Marquette.  Seven inches of fresh snow and sunshine made the landscape dreamy.  The air was brisk, but the beauty took over any pain we may have felt.  Except for my burning buns from the super-heated seat-warmer.

Snowmobiling Amanda and most of our guide, Donny

We probably rode about 40 miles.  My max speed was 41 mph, and that scared me enough where I felt no need to try to go any faster.  Thank you Donny for being a great guide, and Dale for being our sweep.  We all came out safe.

Then on to the Ore Dock Brewing Company!  We met one of the owners, the general manager and brewmaster -- all enthusiastic about their part in the company. We even got a tour of the brewing vats and the upper level where they often have live music.  "We wanted to create a space where people want to hang out, relax, enjoy a beer and people's company," owner Andrea commented.  

I've heard good things about that place, and after talking with the head honchos, touring the site and tasting the beer, I am as impressed as I thought I would be.

The Ore Dock's current list of brews
Our sample platter

The atmosphere was so comfortable, that it would have been nice to stay, but we had plans.  Time for a nap in the hotel!

The view from my window at the Hampton Inn

The Hampton Inn is Marquette's newest hotel, and the only one situated to overlook Lake Superior.  Can you believe it?  I was on vacation and I still got to stare at the frozen Big Lake!

Rick, the Director of Sales at the Hampton told us about how they upgraded this hotel from the usual Hamptons: more sound-proofing in the walls, 11-foot ceiling on the main floor, salt water pool and more.  We all agreed that the rooms were nice and the staff was always friendly and helpful.  Three nights there were pretty posh.

It was almost time for the start of the UP 200 Dog Sled race beginning in Downtown Marquette.  Our crew shuttled again to the downtown area, and met in the Convention and Visitor's Bureau where we were offered beverages and a place to warm up if the nip got too deep.  There we met Pat, the CVB's Director.  There's a bundle of energy and ideas for you.  She kept things interesting and informative for much of the rest of the trip.

The crowds for the UP 200 were dense.  It was hard for me to even get any good pictures.  Each musher took off 50 seconds after the previous one, and the spectators counted down the last 10 to cheer the dogs and racers on.  Lots of spirit bouncing off between those buildings, I tell ya.  It was neat, but the chill got the best of us just before the last of the 240-mile racers took off.  

Oh, I got to see Tasha, from Nature's Kennel launch.  That was fun because she was the only musher I knew!

Then off to dinner a couple blocks up at the Historic Landmark Inn.  Again, we were V.I.P. on the top room looking over the crowd in the pub.  It was pretty cool.  My Mediterranean Wrap and sweet potato fries were divine.

The Landmark's fried pickles and ranch appetizer
Our group's staple throughout the week

Time for bed.  Allelujia.

Cuz the next morning we went to breakfast at the Sweetwater Cafe.   The fresh-squeezed pink grapefruit juice that morning was one of the highlights of my whole trip.  I could have had 12.  And the omelette with local eggs was killer as well.  When the waitress brought out the real maple syrup, a couple people at the table fainted.  Okay, not really, but it was a unique treat.

All that food was meant to fuel us up for snow biking.  The boys at Sports Rack in downtown Marquette hooked us up with some fat tire bikes, and my friend Peter took us for a cruise around the town.

My rental from Sports Rack for the afternoon

I was chomping to hop on a bike, and often rode ahead of our guide.  He was helping the others and I was off.  The funniest part of our journey was when we came to the finish line of the Dog Sled's Midnight Run.  There we were, just pedaling down the path lined with people waiting for the sleds to come in.  The announcer mentioned us and the crowd cheered and rang their bells.  It was quite a hoot.

We rode to the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse where we got a tour of the building.  Then we walked out down the little suspended boardwalk for a photo op.

My new blogger friend, World Wide Nate,
basking in the lighthouse scene

Our next big adventure for the day was to attend the Downtown Showdown.  It's a rail jam where kids from the area show off their skiing and snowboarding skills.  The city workers actually move the snow that was used to send the sled dogs off, and pack it on Washington Street between Front and Lakeshore.  

Since Marquette is situated on a hill, it worked out nicely for some descent elevation for the spunky ones to hit the rails, jumps and sometimes their bums.

A skier so fast, he's a blur on the rail

They had a decent crowd there as well.  My favorite part was the Double Trouble DJ's who kept the place bumpin' and me dancing by the speaker.  

Before the trip was over, we had one more big to do: a cake tasting with Joe's Cakes.  The cake chef himself was there to describe five of his best-selling cakes for our group to try.  Here's a little teaser for your sweet tooth!

A sampler platter of Joe's Cakes

My personal favorite was the ginger buttercream frosting.  Mmm.  But four members of the group ended up taking a piece of Joe's Mom's recipe apple walnut sour cream pie.  And another lady ate all the remaining cheesecake on the table.  Thank goodness for divers taste buds!

If you don't mind, I've got to teleport back to Copper Harbor.  Oh, here I am.  That's so nice.

Right now, the wind is whipping and the snow is falling heavily.  We're getting system snow from the south since the lake is frozen.  Kinda funny, hey?

Now I look forward to spending some time here.  Yesterday a few friends and I went ice fishing and snowshoeing to the lighthouse.  If I wasn't already writing this blog for 4 hours, I would be more detailed.  Instead, I'll leave you with a picture of the shanty with the CH Lighthouse in the distance.

Aaron's shanty on the harbor

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Actively Waiting for the Big One

I spent the entire month of January begging Lake Superior not to freeze over.  As you know, it did (or as I was corrected, it is over 90% completely frozen).  My worry was this: a frozen Big Lake would have no moisture for snow-making capabilities, and keep us in arctic temperatures.  I was right.  But there is one thing I didn't realize until I lived through it.

The sun shines every day.

Perhaps we have had a couple partial snowy/cloudy days in February.  Otherwise we get sun-to-the-shizine daily.  I had to find my sunglasses and actually wear them so I can see!  That lake.  She never ceases to amaze me.

This weekend I got to spend some time on Wisconsin's largest lake: Lake Winnebago near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.  I was invited by the fine folks from the area's Convention and Visitor's Bureau to attend the festivities for opening day of their big Sturgeon Spearing event with other Women of Wilderness (WOW).  Wow, is right.  That was a new experience for this girl.

Lake Winnebago was, in essence, the "fairgrounds" for all the events that were happening.  This lake is 131,939 acres with a maximum depth of 21 feet.  That's 190 Lake Medoras in surface area!  Lake Winnebago was covered in miles and miles of plowed roads for vehicles to access different parts of the lake to get to their shanty.  It was a slow-moving highway on 32 inches of ice.

On Friday I got to watch the ice kiters.  I put a little video together for you.

The next morning, dark and early, we drove out with the convoy of other hopeful fish-spearers across the ice.  Getting out before dawn meant we got to watch the sunrise.

A shanty sunrise on Lake Winnebago

The next 6 hours were spent, by anyone with a spearing license, looking into the glowing rectangle in a dark shanty.  Something like this.

Kristine watches for the big one

When I say "big one," I mean big.  The largest recorded Sturgeon caught last year was 176 pounds.  I got to witness one of our shanty neighbors flop out one of these monsters.  He was beaming.  Here's a link to more news on this year's event.

The shanty neighbor and his prize

I hear they are good eating, but I didn't get to try.  From the females, the caviar is often exported and sold at ridiculously high prices.  

I've heard people call these fish "dinosaurs" because they are an ancient species without teeth or a spine.  I was shocked when I heard that, but watching it flop around in shanty neighbor's grasp, I believed it.

Back to the glowing hole.  Let me tell you what's going on there.  I dubbed it "active waiting" because every person in our group (and probably every other person in the 4,000-something shanties) actively waited for a fish to swim under their hole.  They couldn't read a book.  They couldn't play games on their iphone.  Some people wouldn't even step out to pee.  No.  Instead, like Kristine, they sat there, staring into the abyss and uttered, "Come to Mama."

In Kristine's picture, she was lucky to have an arm and chin rest.  More than just a relaxation bar, it made us both feel a bit safer while sitting in front of a 3-foot wide by 6-foot long hole.

That long pole you see extending from the bottom center of the shot into the water is the spear: 6 feet long and at least 10 pounds of a sharp, 5-pronged, barb-ended death device.  When the sea monster meanders through, the spear is quickly lifted off its hook and thrusted into the fish.  Not shown here, is the gaff, a stick with a large hook to jab into the gills after the Sturgeon has been speared.

In the top right of this picture, you'll see what looks like a fish on a string.  That's the decoy, used to cause curiosity in the larger species.  The Sturgeon sways over to see what is going on, then WHAM! they are hit with a spear.

The white X in the bottom of the picture provides a reference point, marking the depth, which was about 15 feet here.  It also proves for contrast when a dark object swims over it.  Hopefully the Sturgeon.

To my surprise, I actively waited for the big one to saunter through Kristine's hole for hours.  But we saw nothing with life of its own.  

While visiting a couple shanties, I was delighted to see how long people can sit in silence and wait.  It was inspiring.  And I actually learned to like it myself.  Maybe I'll become an ice fisherwoman after all....

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Big Lake Taught Me about Geology and Death

Don't let the word "Geology" make you think this post is going to be anything short of a near-death experience.

It only took a week for the rest of Lake Superior to freeze over.  This NOAA link shows you lots of graphics about ice thickness and even more things that I really don't understand.  But after venturing out to Porter's Island a couple days ago, I now understand a bit more about how land formations form and shift.

I don't know why I didn't think of snowshoeing out to Porter's Island before.  I mean, I even skated to it this winter.  As I beelined from the Harbor Haus ramp past a couple shanties, over the uneven snow, a couple patches of clear black ice caught my eye.  Because I didn't have an auger myself, the only way to see how thick the ice was was to look at the cracks in the clear ice.  This is what I saw.

Thick ice on the Harbor

Well, it was so deep, that I couldn't really see how far it went.  I suddenly felt sorry for those ice fishermen because I knew they had a looooooong way to drill.  As I took this picture, I heard Her Majesty stirring.

Blub blub.  Blub.  Blub.

(Take an old gallon milk jug, fill it with water and turn it perfectly upside down.  The sound the jug makes as it retracts back to it's normal shape is similar to the Blub sounds the lake made.)   

What the heck? I laid there bewildered.  How can I hear the water move when the ice is so thick and the lake is frozen over?  How can it still move?

I had a couple answers at the moment.  

1) The ice fishing holes create an area for pressure to be released.  If the fishermen were throwing bait and catching fish, the volume of the lake would fluctuate -- only slightly -- but if enough people were doing this all over Lake Superior, this transferring of matter could create a shift enough to make those blubbing air bubble sounds.

2) We may not always realize it, but the earth we live on is constantly shifting.  Someone digs a mine, the earth rebalances to accommodate this loss of density.    A company blows up mountains on one part of the world to build Dubai in another part of the world, the earth recalculates so it can still spin on its access without us noticing the giant offset.

Lake Superior covers a significant area where volcanoes erupted, fault lines shifted and glaciers passed.  Any trepidations in the surrounding land will lead to continuing vibrations through the water -- even if it's covered in ice.  And, I did see recent cracks in the ice along the shoreline, so these reverberations are big enough to crack the ice of a solidly frozen lake around the edges.  Especially the edges because that is where different elements meet: ice meets rock.

I could ramble on, but back to the adventure!

I wasn't quite ready for the splendor I saw on the north side of Porter's Island.  The ice cliffs were so big that I had to search for a spot where I could get down without dropping from a foolish height, unable to climb back up.

Ice cliffs on Porter's Island

I found a spot to drop down because I absolutely had to check out this terrain I saw in the distance, perhaps 200 yards north of the island.  It looked like a pristine ice rink.  Aha!  More proof that the ice is pulling and shifting.

The hiking was not easy.  Broken and refrozen ice chunks composed the ground.  Here are some examples.

Blue ice chunks looking toward East Bluff

Modified sheet ice looking toward Brockway Mountain

Now here's where it gets sketchy.

I really wanted to check out that ice rink spot.  Really, really bad.  And you know me, my curiosity usually gets the best of me.  But I have been studying the ice for eight winters here.  I learn from my mistakes, and I know what to look for.

I was out by myself, so I couldn't screw up.

I found a patch of clear ice, and realized it was only two inches thick.  When I heard the fissure next to me crackle, I pounced like a cat on prey to a thicker section.  Whew.  

By this time I began having visions of all the people who would be let down if I never came back.  Aaron wouldn't even know who to call to cancel all my meetings and assignments.  Who would publish my next book waiting on the computer???  

And since this is the terrain I would have had to cross, I decided not to go.

The death trap before the rink... see that rink?

Defeated, but still alive, I walked back across the harbor.  This reminded me of another story of how the Lake moves without us knowing.

"Aaron, isn't your shanty going to be stuck in the ice out there?  It's been there for weeks!"

"No.  It'll be fine."  Such a man.

So he went out there with our friend Cody.  They hopped in the shanty and drilled a hole through the trap door in the floor.  

"Holy $#!*" I'm sure they exclaimed as the water began flooding out of the lake and toward the shanty floor.  Their outside wind flaps were stuck in the ice, so all the water that was pouring out was actually penned in and on its way up the door and into their posh little shanty.

They worked to move that thing as fast as they could, as the drink engulfed them up to their shins.  They finally removed the shanty from its sunken location, but the wind flaps are still in the ice.  I really wish I could have recorded that, but if I was there, I know I would have been forced to help instead of document.

Aaron moves his shanty more often now.