Bucketlist and an unusual but special tree

This past fall I had the opportunity to check another item off of my bucket list. For years, I have wanted to visit the Witch Tree. The tree, which is also called Manidoo-giizhikens, or Little Cedar Tree, is located near the Canadian border.

The area where the tree sits was once open to visitors, allowing for what is potentially the most photographed tree along Minnesota’s North Shore. I first learned of the tree after seeing photos of it by Travis Novitsky.

There was something impressive and humbling about the twisted trunk embedded in an exposed rocky shoreline subjected to the gales of Lake Superior that intrigued me. After doing some homework, I learned that the tree was first written about back in 1731 by French explorer Sieur de la Verendryne. While not a history buff, this little snippet of the tree’s past made me want to photograph it even more.

Unfortunately, not everyone respects nature. Due to vandalism issues, the tree is now on tribal land and is off limits to visitors unless accompanied by a local Ojibwe band member. However, I discovered on a warm Friday morning this past fall, they are quite accommodating and willing to take you out there to photograph the tree and share the historical significance of this tree. For that I am thankful.

The trail is short and unmarked. Due to the rockiness of the area and the fact that it is sacred land, one cannot get up close to the tree from land. Thus, while I have checked one item off my bucket list, I’ve added another: seeing the Witch Tree from water.

The Hike

(I first wrote this a year ago while hiking near Bean and Bear Lake near Silver Bay, MN. But, on this blustery fall day, I cannot help but share again.)

The anticipation was killing me. For months, I had patiently watched the calendar waiting for that brief moment in northern Minnesota where fall comes to life in a vivid, rainbow of colors. As the calendar ticked down to my day off, the gobs of storm clouds grew larger than life. Soon, warnings were out, communities in southern Minnesota were flooding, and the sky was black. For most, this would not be the ideal hiking conditions. Add to this, my husband’s stern warning that should I destroy my new Canon 5D by hauling it through the rain I was not getting a new one. Together, this should have been enough to hold me back. But, the stubborn Fin in me refused to back down. Mother Nature doesn’t wait for the skies to clear. Plus, a gray, rainy day means solitude, right?

The morning goes smoothly. A gorgeous drive along Heartbreak Ridge, accompanied with a perfectly brewed latte and Blueberry Scone from the Coho Café. And then, a quick glance at the map in the trailhead parking lot.

My hike starts out simple enough. Up and down, round the colored bend. Within minutes my underused hiking boots are covered in mud. I look up only to be blinded by needlelike mist piercing my face. Soon, the up and down just become up. Having glanced at the topography map prior to jumping on the trail to Bean and Bear Lake near Silver Bay, Minnesota, I knew what I was in store for. But, the lines always seem a lot less intimidating from the comforts of my car.

One hour, two hours, mist evolving into a steady rainfall, muddy trails transitioning into trails underwater… I’m starting to have second thoughts. Seriously Mother Nature, logic says as you climb higher, the drier the trail should be, right? Soon, the only break in the squishing of my boots is me cursing under my breath as the wind whistles by my face. Having chosen to do this hike solo, I have nobody to blame but myself. What am I thinking?

And, just as the gas in my tank was running out I have one of those moments. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones where you are huffing and puffing, trying to catch your breath, and then you look up and for just a moment, the entire world stands still. Suddenly, everything is put in perspective. Suddenly, I realize how small I am in the grand scheme of things. And, looking out over the vast, untouched countryside, I can’t help but be in awe of how fortunate I am to experience this beauty—even if it is just for a moment. The moment isn’t perfect. The sky is far from blue and the fog removes the crisp color I had planned on seeing. But, in this haze everything in life seems clearer. One foot in front of the other, and eventually you reach your summit. Is it exactly what I had expected? Absolutely not. It is better. The hike down doesn’t seem nearly as bad.

I am 99.9999% sure I will not climb Mount Everest, hike the Poles, or save Polar Bears. It is unlikely my experience on this day will have any impact on anything other than my knees and my poor husband listening to my pathetic whining when the Ibuprofen wore off. But at this moment, nobody can take this beauty away from me.

Fall is an extremely busy time of year. The commitments are endless. But, we live in this place for a reason. Find time to take advantage of it. The past few years, I’ve stumbled across multiple reports about a decline in young people connecting with the outdoors. A Minnesota State Park survey shows the median age of users is on the rise faster than the median age of the state. The Department of Natural Resource conducted focus groups only to find that young people have their lives just too planned out to find time for visiting State Parks. Hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers are aging. And, some speculate that there is some correlation that this decline is loosely connected to the growing popularity and reliance on technology.

Today, I challenge you to prove “some” wrong and get outside. It doesn’t have to be a four-hour hike in the rain. It can be as simple as turning off your Blackberry, lacing up your tennis shoes and taking a stroll through the park. At the end of the day, life’s commitments will still be there, but perhaps you’ll be able to tackle the day-to-day with a clarity that can only be found in a hazy fall day where heaven and earth intersect in a grandiose view of what matters in life.

Fall’s Final Hurrah – UP of Michigan

High winds have taken a toll on fall in northern Wisconsin. So, I opted to head east to the Porkies this week to see what’s left of fall in the UP of Michigan. The Porcupine Mountains never cease to amaze me. Grandiose, humbling and frankly beautiful. Someday, I’d like to take a week to just throw on the backpack and log some serious miles within the Michigan wilderness. In the meantime, here’s a few shots of some popular hot spots at the park. (Please note: I did refrain from posting a pic from the Lake of the Clouds overlook. It wasn’t easy).

Fall Colors in Northern Wisconsin

The forecast says snow is on the way. I’m personally in denial, reveling in the kaleidoscope of color I had the opportunity to immerse myself in just a few days ago.

A lot of folks sometimes question why I live in the middle of nowhere. I could provide yet another diatribe about why live in the northwoods is amazing, but sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s just a few from last weekend’s adventure.

Enjoy!

Gunflint Trail and Honeymoon Bluff

North Shore versus South Shore. During fall, I struggle with where to split my time. Generally, the quieter crowds and brighter colors of northwest Wisconsin win… But this year, I decided to give the North Shore a bit of my time. Rather than hike the overpopulated Oberg Loop or worse yet, Gooseberry Falls, we headed up the Gunflint Trail. Well worth the trip. Priceless views and plenty of open space to hike. Come sunset, we headed to Honeymoon Bluff. Two thumbs up and a photo to boot.

Gunflint Trail

An online trail guide I occasionally reference urged folks to go during fall. The truth is, this spot would be pretty spectacular year-round. I’ll definitely be returning, in part because of the awesome spot for dinner just a few miles down the road.

Too many trails to talk about tonight but expect some more posts about a few other gems in upcoming weeks.

Homeward Bound

A room next to the highway makes for an unpleasant sleeping experience. On the flip side, it does mean we’re up and moving at an early hour. I’m feeling mixed about our final day. On the one hand, I’m anxious to see our pets and dive into my gardening that is getting a late start due to our vacation. On the other, the thought of returning to the daily grind and all that comes with it seems jarring compared the quiet days of reflection, contemplation and enjoyment we’re experiencing.

Our final day involves driving from Thunder Bay to Iron River. Along the way, three stops. The first is Kakabeka Falls. Steve rolls his eyes at the thought of another waterfall. This one does not disappoint, though. The falls drops about 130 feet, giving it the nickname “the Niagara of the North.”

 

We follow-up this stop with a very Wisconsinite thing—we visit Ontario’s only gouda farm. Thunder Oak Farm features more than a dozen types of gouda; many of which we taste test after watching a brief video and seeing some of the cheese making in action. The cheese curds are particularly delish. At less than 24 hours old, the expected squeak in our mouth is refreshing and fun. We do not leave Thunder Oak Farm empty handed. From here, we make our way to the border. Once again, we experience an unexpectedly and welcomingly easy crossing of the border.

Within minutes, we are parking at Grand Portage State Park. Steve and I have traveled the North Shore countless times. But, none of our journeys “up north” have made it to the high falls at Grand Portage State Park. The high falls, which are located on the Pigeon River and plummet about 120 feet, are the largest in Minnesota. We spend a few minutes watching the river cascade over the rocky canyon and make its way towards Lake Superior. As a kid, I spent a lot of time in school learning about the countless streams that have carved their way through layers of rock to find their way home to Gitchee Gummee. Today, watching the river in action, it helps me realize why I’m so strongly drawn to this region and why I’ll always consider the Lake Superior Basin my home. The clock is ticking. Steve is getting anxious. It is time. Stealing a kiss by the falls and snapping some final waterfall shots, I realize this is the perfect high note to end our trip around the big lake.

A Goose, A Moose and Pooh, Oh my!

Today was a mixed bag of touristy gimmicks and authentic beauty. Our morning starts in Wawa, Ontario with a snapshot of the world’s largest fiberglass goose. Steve refuses to act like a goose so I have no choice but to step up to the challenge. Up close, it is obvious Mr. Goose has had better days. A sign on our way out of town confirms our suspicion—a mere $50 gets you a commemorative goose feather towards the new goose. We do not linger long.

From here, the road takes us away from Lake Superior around Pukaskwa Provincial Park. The drive is quite desolate. However, it is in this stretch of bog and swamp we experience our first moose sighting. I slam on the brakes. Luckily, this stretch of Trans Canada 17 has no traffic in sight. I jump out of the car and snap away, while Joey stares (and barks) in awe of the largest dog she’s ever seen. The moose lazily looks at me, almost seeming to accept its role of posing for yet another tourist photo. After posing for 30 seconds or so, it lazily makes its way back into the woods.

Next up is tourist stop number 2—White River, Ontario. I was particularly psyched for this stop, given it is home to the real Winnie the Pooh. Needless to say, I was less than enthralled. The Pooh on display in downtown White River makes the fiberglass goose seem new. The bright yellow fur is faded. The downtown is destitute. The one open “souvenir” shop has overpriced Pooh items you can get at Wal-Mart. A tourism brochure boasts about a saw mill you can tour. Steve asks the store clerk where the mill is and she looks at him like he’s crazy—“that’s been closed for about 5-years. I don’t know why you’d think you could tour that” she says. “It was in a tourism brochure,” Steve says. She laughs, commenting on how we must have had an old brochure. We had picked the brochure up in the tourism information place in White River just moments before. I think I’ve said enough about White River…

Back in the car we continue on our lackluster scenic drive of the Canadian woods. The road eventually makes its way back towards the lake. Here, we can see swaths of Lake Superior and in the distance the Slate Islands. Initially we had hoped to charter a boat to the islands and camp, hoping to catch a glimpse of the caribou. It ended up not fitting in our itinerary, which is good given there is a 40-50 mile per hour wind blowing off the lake. The rain comes and goes, coming more so when we are out of the car.

We stop by Pebble Beach in Schreiber. Similar to Whitefish, the beach is littered with driftwood. Large lake stones dot the shore with a pinkish tint that is different from the slate blue we are used to seeing on the southern end of the lake.  Still hoping to find the perfect souvenir in this stretch of the trip, we seek out downtown. We leave empty handed.

A few miles down the road, we arrive in Terrace Bay. Again, we leave empty handed. We do stop and stretch our legs at Aguasaban Falls, though, which is an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

Still searching for the perfect souvenir, we make our way towards the campground. Our plan is to camp near Lake Superior at the campground in Rainbow Provincial Falls. By now the skies have cleared and we’re anxious to get our site set-up. But first, we make our way into Rossport for some ice and firewood. It turns out Rossport is not equipped to cater to tourists/poor planners.

The fishing village is quite quaint. And, more importantly than ice and firewood, it has the cutest pottery shop overlooking Lake Superior called Island Pottery. Better yet, it is open! We drive out to the pottery studio, which is located at the Tim Alexander’s (the artists) home. The pottery is well crafted and functional. I find the perfect, oversized coffee mug in a sandstone brown with a kayaker engraved in the clay. I can already see my morning joy poured in the cup as I pay for the purchase. Tim asks us if we’re making our way around the lake. Steve nods while saying, “it is a big lake.” Tim smiles and says, “yeah, massive.” No matter what the adjective, nothing really seems to describe this endless blue vat of water we’re driving around.

With the souvenir hunt out of our way, it is time to buckle down to business. We spend the next 45 minutes or so tracking down beer and ice. We appear to keep striking out on firewood. The problem is finally resolved when we discover you can buy firewood at the campground… for $6 a bundle.

We pull up to our campsite—number 23. The park attendant had told us it was the best spot in the campground. As an avid camper around Lake Superior (in a previous life), I’d go as far as saying it is the best campsite on the entire lake. This is good given my husband is not into camping and a series of mishaps over the next 24 hours, could have spelled disaster had it not been for the calming effect of the big lake….

Divide and Conquer

We awake to sunny blue skies and plenty of heat. By mid-morning temperatures approach 80 degrees. Our jaunt through customs proves to be brief and unadventurous. I cannot complain. We stop at the tourist information center to pick up a map. After Steve struggled to find Lake Superior on the Ontario map, I question whether we’ll ever make it back to the states. A helpful volunteer points him in the right direction (or in this case, the correct side of the map).

After a brief drive thru the urban sprawl of Sault Ste.Marie, Ontario we enter the woods. It quickly becomes apparent that today will be one of the most isolated, undeveloped and in many respects, scenic stretches of the trip to date.

As we approach Lake Superior Provincial Park we make several stops along the coastline. The lake looms large here, dotted by a rocky coastline and endless horizons of towering pines. Our first major stop of the day is Chippewa Falls. This falls divides the Trans Canada Highway at its halfway point. The highway, which is the world’s largest national highway, extends lengthwise across Canada and is the only road we’ll travel today. During our stop we meet a couple from Germany that is making the Trans Canada trek over a course of 3-months. Our 8-day journey suddenly seems short.

After several more stops along the scenic coastline, we enter Lake Superior Provincial Park. It is here that my heart begins to race. We pull off at Agawa Rock. Here, we descend down a steep, unstable, and undeveloped quarter-mile drop through jagged rock. The trail alone is a heart stopper.

We finally reach the lake, where a steep drop-off with a tiny ledge awaits. After removing our shoes and socks, Steve slowly tiptoes out on the ledge. A rusty old chain is his only support. Beneath him, slippery rocks fade into the icy cold waters ofLake Superior, daring him to make one misstep. My heart is pounding through my chest.

He soon returns and questions whether I have the courage to walk out. This is something I must do. Why, you might ask?

The answer is simple. I am a photographer. And, along the rock ledge are multi-century old paintings created by native people. As I make my way down the slippery rock, my husband provides these words of encouragement, “if you fall into the lake, I can’t come get you. Just don’t panic and if possible, don’t smack your head. Once in the water, just make your way over to that point and pull yourself out.” As he’s shouting these words of advice I see the life vest attached to a 10-foot pull along the ridge, just in case.

Snap, snap, snap. I focus on balancing and trying to take a good snapshot of the faded caribou etched in the crimson stone. My adrenaline is pumping. On the way back, my legs seem weak but I somehow muster the courage to grab the rusty chain and make my way back to Steve. He grabs my camera and snaps a quick shot before I pull myself to safety. Another couple watches, patiently waiting their turn. Within moments, they strut their way to the rocky edge. They make it look so easy… Despite this, Steve says he’s proud of me. The coward in me is conquered. In this moment, I feel fearless.

Our next stop isn’t quite as adventurous. We decide to enjoy an afternoon beer on the beach at Katherine’s Cove. Under the sunny afternoon sun, I sip away at one of the last Keweenah brews we have left, enjoying an entirely deserted beach. Joey frolics by the water, barking uncontrollably at a rock. Suddenly I hear my husband chuckle. It appears the sun has taken a toll on our lounge chair, leaving him anchored in the sand.

From here, we head to Wawa. We check into a questionable motel at best. But somehow, the turquoise toilet seems appropriate here. We look forward to our free muffins in the morning, which marks the start to another day on our adventure.

Moose Capital of the World…

The sun is in full force today. With it, the bugs. More specifically, lots of hungry mosquitoes. Despite this, we forge ahead. Our first stop is the Seney National Wildlife Refuge where we encounter a variety of animals floating about the marsh. Eagle nests, baby geese, swans, and plenty of unidentified birds flutter around us as we wind along the unpaved road. At one point we let our puppy out to run full speed ahead. She loves the warm weather and open trail. All is well as long as we are moving. We pause to soak in the view and the infamous buzzing instantly becomes like a bad surround sound system. It is time to move on.

Our second stop for the day takes us to Newberry, Michigan where we enjoy a self-guided tour of an old CCC Logging Camp. In addition, the camp now features a variety of artifacts from that time period, including a museum of chainsaws. Suddenly, Steve thinks the $5 entry fee is the steal of the decade!

It is here we learn two things—first off,  Newberry is the Moose Capital of the World. Second, the main route to our next stop is under road construction. It turns out the road construction isn’t an issue. And, even though we never actually see a moose in the Moose Capital of the World, it makes for some fun souvenirs… including a sledding moose for our Christmas tree.

The drive to Tahquemenon Falls takes us down a windy, deserted paved road filled with garage sales that clearly are a weekly affair. Finally, we reach the entrance of the park. What a contrast. It is like the Disneyworld of northern Michigan. The packed parking lot reminds me of  Gooseberry Falls on on a fall weekend. Better yet, (or worse if you are going for an authentic hiking experience) a brewery sits within the park along with multiple cheesy gift shops. I cannot help but smile. A cold brew sounds good about now and I love a good, funny t-shirt.

It turns out staff isn’t expecting such a large crowd this Memorial Day weekend. The waitress apologizes at least a half dozen times for the obnoxiously long wait. It is after 2 pm and the lunch crowd is massive. The Lumberjack Lager settles our stomach until the fresh whitefish arrives. It is worth the wait. Then, a short ¾ of a mile hike to the largest waterfalls east of the Mississippi (minus Niagara Falls of course). It is a spectacular view.

For those wondering how a brewery ends up in a state park, it turns out long ago a man used to canoe upstream to see the falls. A time came when he was finally able to buy all of the land around the falls. Eventually, he sold the land to the state with the condition that there always be at least a short hike to the falls so that its beauty is maintained. I’m guessing he somehow worked the brewery into the deal as well… I’m not minding this arrangement today at all.

After hiking the lower falls, we continue heading north for our last major stop of the day—the Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point. It doesn’t disappoint. The artifacts are authentic, including the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Growing up in Duluth, I always heard about the great ship and the “lake that never gives up her dead.” After touring the museum and outbuildings, we go by the lighthouse and over to the lake so Joey can get a drink from the big lake and stretch her legs.

As we climb over the observation deck, we are met with a graveyard of driftwood, endless calm blue water, abandoned pilings, a great lakes vessel, and an infinite number of skipping rocks. This is the Lake  Superior I love.

The tour book hinted at multiple moose sightings in the Moose Capital of the World. What it overlooked was the great sighting of all—A little slice of Heaven, right here on Earth.

Day Two – Picture Perfect

The weather is not cooperating. We awoke just after 7 am to gray skies and a solid drizzle with no end in site. Such is life. We load up our car and begin the drive out of Copper Harbor.

The road hugs the lake and is lined with ancient cedar trees that stand ready to enclose the road should civilization ever cease to exist. Then again, it really does feel as though we are in the middle of nowhere. We stop at one of several lakeshore stops and look out on the big lake. Her glasslike features fade into the gray sky, creating a neutral backdrop against the deep green cedars. After wandering around the shore for a while and stumbling across the impressive Jacob’s Falls, it is time to make our way south towards Marquette.

On the way, we make a stop in Alberta, Michigan. Here, Henry Ford remains a legend. You see, back in the day Henry Ford was spending some time in the UP when he fell in love. He loved the area so much that he created a “Utopia” of sorts along with a saw mill. Today, the town is abandoned and owned by Michigan Tech. While visiting the abandoned town, we ran into a local who creates spectacular Birds Eye Maple woodworking pieces. After much discussion, I purchased my first Lake Superior Circle Tour souvenir—a Walnut and Birds Eye Maple candle.

The afternoon was spent exploring beaches and taking a hiking in the woods to give our puppy some off-leash time. By the time our hike was over, the skies had cleared making way for a picture perfect backdrop in Christmas, Michigan.

After one more cheesy photograph, we made our way into Munising where we ordered in some fabulous pizza from Main Street with some Keweenaw Brewing Company Pick Axe Blonde Ale. Then, it was time for a sunset cruise along the Picture Rocks. Standing in line with people from all over the Midwest, and well the world, it became clear some “colored rocks along the lake” were more than an afternoon adventure. As our boat pulls out of the harbor, I gaze into the horizon. It is hard to imagine in just a few days, I’ll be staring back from the other side. The tour is quite good. The photography options are endless.

 

Perhaps the most inspirational shot was this majestic white pine that despite all odds, it still alive. It is literally hanging on by a thread—on in its case roots. Despite its struggles, it still stands strong.

As the sun sets over the lake, I can’t help but smile. A day that started out a little lackluster, is literally ending picture perfect. I cannot wait to see what Day 3 brings.