Wednesday, April 22, 2009

End of the season

I can't stand to see the snow go.

Ron and I have been milking the season. Every chance we get we head to the back country to ski the Noquemanon off County Road 510 in Marquette County and the trails near our camp on the North side of the Dead River Basin.

So for the past month we've been out exploring.

Two weeks ago Donna Marlor along with Kirby and Debi Juntilla took us up the Noque trail west of 510. Snowcover was fabulous so on the return we ventured off on an untracked trail and came back near Rainey Lake. The adventure ranked our best back country ski of the season. Well, maybe second to skiing the Devil's Track river in Minnesota in March. But anyway, it was worth a repeat.

So last Saturday we went again. This time we met earlier because some warm temps had started the meltdown. Five of us set off at 11a.m.: Jo Samuelson, Nancy Bradbury and Marie Peasley joined us.

10 minutes into the ski, I sunk knee deep in water. It looked like stable trail, but was I fooled, and now with cold wet feet. Wait, this isn't supposed to happen. At least not so soon.

Ron dodged for a detour. Jo, on wood skis was trying to keep them from getting soaked. Snowshoers Nancy and Marie headed away from the water too. Of course everyone laughing as they scattered.

About an hour into the adventure we reached Granite Point. We stopped at the overlook for a snack break and water. Even in cloudy skies the view of the basin-still frozen--is something to behold.

As we headed back, Ron convinced us to extend the adventure and detour to Rainey Lake. Afterall, we had done it the weekend before. Surely we'd remember the way.

Soon we had our doubts. Ron took the lead and heading down a slope of thick wet snow he got stopped dead in his tracks, landing on his head. It's rare to catch Ron in a fall. And watching him squirm to get back on his feet, particularly with a broken ski pole, was good comic relief.

Not long after that we lost our ski tracks from the week before. They disappeared into fresh dirt. Consequently we turned right when we should have stayed left. Everything looks different without snowcover.

Soon the trail narrowed up in the balsams to nothing more than a game trail and Ron and I knew we were heading wrong. We ended up slogging through the runoff from Rainey Lake. What looked like snowpack had pools of water underneath, and even some nasty muck in spots. For the second time I had to ski my feet warm from an ice bath.

I pleaded to head for high ground so Ron changed course and we were back off the flats angling the slopes like mountain goats. I nicknamed Nancy and Marie the "Baraga Babes." Not because they hail from that town across the bay from L'Anse, but because they are such agile snowshoers they would have given Bishop Frederick Baraga, the legendary snowshoe priest, a run for his offering plate. Nancy replied, "That's the first time in my life I've been compared to a Priest!"

Then, as we rounded a knoll high under the hemlocks we heard a roar. All along we'd been keeping our eye on a stream down on our left, believed to be Rainey Creek, but now where was this new water coming from?

Worried we were trapped between two forks of open water, one flowing like gangbusters, Ron went scouting a route out. He found it quickly. A log. . .over a waterfall.

He took off his skis and poles, tossed them across the narrow stream and crossed on the log first.

Jo was next to pitch her gear. Her power was good, and her aim even better, if she was at the county fair trying for a bull's eye. In flight, her ski pole hit a tree and bounced back into the water wasting no time heading downstream. She scampered to get it, bounding in the deep snow to a tree at stream's edge where she used the trunk as a support and snagged her pole. Catastrophe averted with reflexes.

We all got across, safely, and it only took a few more minutes of wandering before we were guided by survey markers back to the main trail out.

On the way back we were so tired we didn't even bother to take our skis off when we crossed leaves and mud and more flowing water. As long as it was less than ankle deep, go for it. My toes were never so shriveled. . .and icy.

Tired, but smiling we got back to the truck before dinner. My beat up ole S-Bound Fischers are still making the rounds. Maybe one more this Saturday. Anyone up for an adventure?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Finding our way

My mother always said you can tell a lot about a person by the company they keep.

That must be why I lean toward the WILD side; girlfriends.

Around here there are no excuses. Just send out an email message to spend Sunday afternoon back country skiing--not really knowing where you will go, how long you'll be out, or even what the conditions will be--and I'll be darned if some crazy women don't show up.

Six of us (including Ron) set off Sunday at 2:30 on a very icy snowmobile trail. As Gail describes, "The dead end of Dead River's North Basin Drive."

Snow, if you could get an edge, was crusty, but Amy wasn't taking any chances. She gooped up her bases with klister as thick as Karo Syrup.

Anyone who has ever skied behind this Baraga County Swede knows nothing can hold Amy back. . .until she globs on the Elmer's Glue. Her giggles got us all going. . .of course just when we were supposed to be serious. After all, we're only minutes into this hairbrained adventure and there went Marie's ski heading right for the black muck hole!

After the initial climb, poor Amy had collected every pine needle and spruce cone in the county. She could walk straight down the fall line, which for the first hill wasn't such a bad maneuver, but she knew over the next 5 miles it would make for a long afternoon.

But what to do?


Your best. . .and with whatever means possible.

Amy looked like some backwoods tap dancer standing on a log sawing her ski back and forth to rub off the klister. It worked, well sort of. Finally Ron took a knife to her bases and got more of the gunk off.

Thank goodness he thought ahead and packed matches, a knife and an energy bar. We all had water and the temperature was moderate, somewhere in the high twenties. Down low in the trees we didn't feel the wind but it was littering the trail with plenty of kindling. One of those April days when the weather can turn in a heartbeat.

The scraping helped, but unfortunately her skis, like Margaret and Marie's were too skinny for this type of snow, trail and terrain. They needed the wider fish scale versions like our Fischer S-Bounds or Gail's Karhu 10th Mountains. Ron tried to swap skis with Amy but the boots and bindings weren't a match.

His skis were the best, or was it his Mountain Goat balance? Whatever his skills, he could march right up almost anything, and I don't think in the whole trek he even took one tumble.

Still, like Winter War Soldiers in Finland, those women weren't about to call it quits and head back to the cozy wood stove at camp. "Not on your life," Amy said without words, just her "git 'er done" smile. Marie, a serious tri-athlete was supposed to use Sunday as her rest day, but not this chick. She's as tough as a $2 steak.

We pressed on.

Rewards to an adventurer come in strange ways. The next couple hundred yards were tough going. Trees in this corrugated terrain grow where ever the rock lets them, usually that means clumped close together and controlling long skis over icy snowmobile tracks takes a balance you don't hone on a groomed ski trail. But eventually you get comfortable enough that you can ease up on your nerves, let your shock absorbers do what their instincts tell them, and lift your eyes off the obstacles to take note of the landscape. Sailing up and over a bump, Margaret and I spied animal prints rambling right down the middle of the track.

"Check this out," I said to Margaret. "Gail," I called back to next in the line, "do you know your animal tracks?" Although I've done my share of winter camping, Gail is the queen. She does a week solo in the coldest, snowiest time of the year. Her spirit matches Marie on the toughness scale.

Considering how icy it was, we knew the animal had to be big to leave an imprint that deep. Whenever Margaret, Amy or Marie took off their skis, they hardly left boot prints on the iced surface. These prints were clearly etched. Ron examined them and concluded what the landowner Dave Ollila, had shared with us the day before. "There are some big cougar prints back there," said Dave O. adding with his trademark grin, "We're calling it Cougar Canyon." Ron and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. "And I saw big wolf prints as well," he told us as we thanked him for the tips and took off on a scouting mission. To us, it's exciting to be roaming a landscape that such majestic mammals call home.

Now, staring straight at the evidence, we were even more eager to follow the tracks. Of course we had 5 hours of daylight left and with five women you can't go ANYWHERE quietly. Making a racket is good; the chances of sneaking up on something so sly is rare. Still, looking on the ridgeline I was wondering who is watching?

We followed the tracks for quite a way, crossing ice bridges over waterfalls, along slopes of tall maples, and through canopies of cedars. At one point we thought we'd follow a different canyon back but it would have been bushwhacking without even the slightest hint of a trail and you don't take too many risks that close to sunset. Instead, we doubled back and took our trail home with only a minor detour through the maples. Happy to be horses heading back to the barn.

Margaret charged ahead. That lean mean aerobic machine was getting a bit chilly and she could smell Granny's "Hotter than Billy be Damned" chili waiting back at camp.

Our friend Jo was there too, another wilderness sister. She had to work and missed the ski but was eager to hear about our adventure. What a gal pal.

For over 3 hours we left our marks in the snow and coming up the last climb the gang was all smiles. Renewed by "Finding our way."

Back at camp we were as hungry as black bears. We cradled mugs of chili and pulled our chairs close to the stove to swap stories as we watched the sun leave it's last glow across the Basin.

I hate to see the snow go, but if Sunday was my last back country ski in Marquette County for the winter, I'm grateful to share it with Ron and such fabulous snow sisters.

This I believe

Today, just before 5 p.m. eastern, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" aired the last "This I Believe" essay. These short statements of belief, written by people from all walks of life, were a revival of a radio project started in the
1950s by broadcasting icon, Edward R. Murrow.

I've not written an essay for NPR, but listening to Muhammad Ali's essay, "I am still the greatest" written and voiced with help from his wife, I started to think with clarity about what I believe.

Even on a cold and colorless windy day in the Upper Peninsula, I sing out with no hesitation that in my core I believe, "Everything gets better when you get outside."

As a skier, kayaker and biker, it's easy to see how fun happens when you are off the couch and out of the house. But it's not just for recreation that I made this statement. It's also for the soul searching we all seem to hunger.

What would happen if all of us, at every stage of our life, felt more fresh air? Not just on our face but in our spirit too; we just opened the windows for a good wind swept cleaning?

Would life change if we took our troubles to the trees and with all the gum our emotions could muster we packed them into a tight ball--weighted with the crush of collected negative--and then threw that wad high up in the branches? High enough that it would catch in the leaves and stay there to be melt by the sun and rain, ripped by the wind and pecked by the birds, never to fall on our heads or hearts again.

Or better yet, we stuffed a backpack, overflowing with worries, heavy and lumpy with guilt and doubt and then climbed the highest peak, looked toward and sun and set the whole load sailing. At first it would float high, a good tossing weight, but then the burden would sink and thud hard on impact. We could watch it, momentum still racing, and it would tumble deep into a ravine, buried in snow and scree, never to be retrieved.

Lake Superior, my wide angle view on life, has even better promise for helping me understand the power of "outside."

So many times I've sat on this Big Blue's lake shore trying to make sense of people and places I've come to in life. What's a teaspoon of my struggle to a 10,000 year old lake, the largest, coldest and deepest of the planet's Great Lakes? Today it's roiling with forces that even a thousand foot freighter, crammed with iron ore, wouldn't take on in a match for survival.

So I'm confident when I say, "Everything gets better when you get outside." It's where we've been looking for answers since time began. And this I believe.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Day 1 of Ski Building

6 students began building skis tonight at 5 p.m. at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. My husband Ron Thorley and I are building Sami ski shoes. Our instructor, Mark Hansen guesstimates the design is 6,000 years old and used by the Laplanders in Northern Scandinavia. Alice Williamson and Carol DeVore are building traditional cross-country skis suitable for track skiing. Peter and Solveig are making tele-style back country skis.

We are using North Shore white birch Mark harvested from Cook County. The wood has been drying for two years. Mark selected our blanks based on our height, weight and style of skis. He also showed us how to figure the length of curve in the tips, tail and where to locate the ski's centerpoint for determining binding placement later.

Ron and I have the shortest but widest blanks. Carol and Alice also have short skis, but they are narrower than the tele-types that Peter and Solveig are shaping.

Mark says white birch is ideal for ski building because of its long grain cellulose. He admits the fastest skis are ash, but he doesn't know why. He did share that a particular cemetery in Norway won't allow you to be buried there if you used ash skis. "They would consider your death a suicide if you had ash skis," says Mark with his characteristic storytelling smile. I think he's going to be the real story in this experience.

First on the agenda was to take the blanks from the stainless steel tub where they had been soaking for days in 120-130 degree water--Lake Superior water, by the way. If you want Superior skis, you need Superior Wood and Water. The North House Folk School compound is right on the Superior shoreline.

It's no easy task to get the wood to bend over the tip form and it took many hands to align the tips and then press the wood strips down in the mold so that we could screw wood block clamps on the waists and tips. We're working to have a slight curve on the tails too.

Without a doubt, building skis is truly a "hands on" job. I was first to put my skis in the mold and pressing down I said, "This must be what they mean by transferring energy in skiing."

The process took over an hour for 6 pairs of skis.

Now in the forms, the blanks will dry for 18 hours in Mark's basement. He has a special set up where he blows warm air over the skis to force the bends to stay. We'll meet at 9 tomorrow morning to learn more about ski design and then after lunch the blanks should be ready to begin sculpting into shape.

I'm thrilled to be in this amazing school, working with Ron, and most of all to be making skis--my absolute favorite snow toy.

By phone we told our son Ian we were building twin-tips, but I don't think he imagined them to be out of wood and from a design older than modern civilization.My aim is to have a pair of skis my great grandchildren will use. It must be in my blood. Before my father, Fred Waara, died in 1994 he built over 70 bamboo flyrods for trout fishing. To my knowledge he never built a pair of skis, but I know he's watching me with pride.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The night of the pink moon

Some years ago I was skiing the Superior loop at Blueberry with my good chum Ann Wilson. It was March and we were lured by that butterscotch sun that at 5:30 makes the woods so much more luring after work than heading home to cook dinner.
We got started late and the sun set while we were still out on the backside, but it didn't matter. Our eyes and balance adjusted to the fading light and we continued to soak the silence and spring smells of the forest.
We were as giddy as otters, our skis in the tracks roller coastering over the ribbon of trail. We didn't have to talk; we knew what we were sharing.
Skiing ahead of me, Ann stopped at a break in the trees to catch her breath. The spot overlooks the deep bowl glaciers have carved from this unusual section on the Sand Plains. Breathing heavy I stopped too, but rather than looking out, I was looking down.
Her skis were pink. And so was the snow.
Of all the times I've skied, and all the colors of snow I've witnessed, pink is not one I can remember.
"Ann, look at that." She saw it too. And that's when we searched the source and found the moon was pink too. It's a ski night we still remember, and now it has happened again.
Last night I met Mindy Nannestad on Wolverine. She was skiing with her brother Josh and his girlfriend Alicia. When we reached the Superior loop, they broke off to head back to the parking lot. Mindy had more time to fill and since as a new cross-country skier she'd never ventured to Superior we decided to give it a go.
Anyone who has skied this trail knows soon after you gulp your nervousness and head out on the more difficult loop your decision is questioned by two steep hills. I've nicknamed them the "Twisted Twins" in reverence to the "Twisted Sisters" we bike up on County Road 480.
When Mindy saw the sign for the alternate route she asked, "Should we do the cut-across?" But watching her ski I knew she was ready--even if she didn't.
Skiing at every level is a test of your skill AND will. The best way to progress is to ski with someone who has a wee bit more confidence and can help nudge you out of your comfort zone. Mindy is strong, very well balanced, and eager to improve. This was going to be a break through night.
Trusting me she climbed to the peak of the first slope. I know she was seriously second guessing when she saw the roll over because her deep brown eyes went wide. She didn't have to speak, I knew the words behind that expression. I gave her a few tips but didn't stall too long before I pointed them down and went for it. . .all the while hoping I wouldn't take a digger and spoil the confidence building.
In seconds she followed, pressuring a snowplow for the start and then letting the skis ride the gully and back up like a pro. "That wasn't bad at all," she smiled climbing to the next peak.
I didn't want to tell her the next one was worse. She'd find out soon enough.
The best way to set a new standard for accomplishment is to immediately build on success.
Last October I watched my son Ian at San Francisco's Icer Air. After testing the sketchy catapult run-in and the cratered landing with a number of other maneuvers, his gumption was up to try a new trick, a double back flip. It was nearing the end of the competition and he knew it was time. In the air, his flipping seemed flawless. He landed and the crowd went bizerk. The announcer was raving. Ian was the hero. But for him, that wasn't enough. He knew he could do better. So rather than stop for the applause he ran from the landing back to the start to try again, this time spinning and landing perfectly.
When Mindy saw the second set of hills I know the gnaw of doubt was back, but she also had success fueling her adrenalin and I wasn't going to turn off that tap.
The rollover on this hill is serious, one of the steepest I've ever schussed on skinny skis. I stopped to caution her that she may feel that tummy tickle in the belly of the hill but her speed--now the fastest she had probably ever gone--would run itself out because the climb on the other side is just as angled as the drop.
I went first and when I got to the climb I yelled back, "I believe in you, I believe in you," hoping she would believe in herself too.
She held on to the snowplow a little longer to check her speed, but then squeezed the momentum to ride up the climb, smiling like a Chessie Cat.
From that hill, Mindy's skiing is forever changed.
Around the bend at the crest of another hill, a puppy in comparison, we toasted water bottles, but we couldn't linger too long because darkness was falling fast.
Fueled by Mindy's accomplishments we flew around the curls and swoops knowing nothing would be as daunting as the "Twisted Twins." I was skating and she was striding.
And then we hit that same spot I remembered from years back with Ann, and again, the snow was pink, my bright yellow Fischers looked pink and when we turned to check out the moon now high overhead. . .it looked pink too.
I shared the story with Mindy.
I ski for so many reasons, but aside from the physical rush, I get out on the trail for the moments when nature reveals secrets.
We took another water break, a deep breath and then were back moving.
Mindy had kids to pick up by 8 and I still needed to get home to cook dinner for Ron.
We hit the rest of the trail hard, horses to the barn, but then at that point we didn't have to talk much, we had already shared more meaning than words.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Be ready for anything

On Sunday, March 1, I was helping Mary Connor teach a skate skiing class at our annual Winter BOW in Big Bay, Michigan.

Lucy, an accomplished classic skier from the Detroit area was practicing her freestyle V 1 glide when she fell face first. I turned just in time to see she was okay and smiling but her ski was still rocketing down the lane.

That's not something you normally see on a cross-country trail. Unlike alpine gear, nordic skis usually don't come off. As I poled toward the runaway ski, I figured she probably had snow build up in the binding bar on her boot and didn't get a secure lock when she stepped into the binding.

Boy was I wrong.

When I caught up to the ski I saw instead that this crazy woman had skied so fast and so hard that she had separated the outer plastic sole right off from her boot.

I've never seen that happen before but it's reason to add duct tape to your waist pack.
I laughed so hard the squirrels had to come out and check on all the commotion.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

I love where I live

Last night I wrote how much I love where I live.

Today I got a list of reasons from Dick Wagner. It made me chuckle and I thought I should share some of them.

I've revised my list to be "You know you're a Yooper when."

1. You consider it a sport to gather your food by drilling through 18 inches of ice and sitting there all day hoping that the food will swim by.

2. You're proud that your region makes the national news 100 nights a year because Ironwood is the coldest spot in the nation.

3. The Dairy Queen is closed from October through May.

4. You don't think it's strange to be invited to a friends house to take a bath when they call to say, "The Sauna's hot."

5. You have worn shorts and a coat at the same time.

6. Your town has an equal number of bars and churches.

7. You have had a lengthy telephone conversation with someone who dialed a wrong number.

8. When vacation means going to "Camp" less than 1/2 hour away.

9. You know several people who have hit a deer--more than once--and gutted it on the spot.

10. You often switch from 'heat' to 'A/C' in the same day.

11.You can drive 65 mph through 2 feet of snow during a raging blizzard, and eat your lunch.

12. People wear camouflage at social events, including weddings.

13. You carry jumper cables in your car and your kids know how to use them, even if they aren't old enough to drive.

14. You design your kid's Halloween costume to fit over a snowsuit.

15. Driving is better in the winter because the potholes are filled with snow.

16. You name all 4 seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and road construction.

17. Your idea of creative landscaping is a statue of a deer next to your Mountain Ash.

18. Down south means Green Bay.

19. A brat is something you eat.

20. Pasty rhymes with nasty and the best are with rutabaga.

21.You take your Mom out to fish fry every Friday.

22. Your 4th of July picnic was moved indoors due to frost.

23.You have more miles on your snow blower than your car.

24. You drink pop and bake with soda.

25. You can actually drink Vernors without coughing.

26. You know that UP is a place, not a direction.

27. You know enough friends to rock a pickup out of the snowbank.

28. You nay not be able to spell it, but you know how to play euchre.

29. A significant amount of your cold weather wardrobe is orange.

30. And finally, you wouldn't want to live anywhere else.