Thursday, October 18, 2012

Whitewater State Park and the Root River Valley

Rocky and I took a short trip to southeastern Minnesota. Kathy had gone to Utah to play in a volleyball tournament so I decided to go camping. The area is known for its beautiful topography. It is part of the so-called Driftless Area, which stretches from Minnesota through Wisconsin into Illinois. Having somehow escaped the last ice age, the area boasts limestone outcroppings, steep valleys and bluffs. Unusual for Minnesota, there are no lakes. The porous limestone karst geology doesn't hold water. There are caves and numerous spring fed streams.While the weather forecast was good, the reality didn't measure up. Instead of 60's and sun, we got 50's and rain. But the sun did put in an appearance at dinner time both days, making the end of the day chores easier to accomplish.

Our first stop was Whitewater State Park. The park was sparsely populated at this time of year. Rocky and I had the non-electric portion of the campground all to ourselves. There were several RVs in the other campground served with electricity but that section is on top of the bank- not really visible from where we camped. Our campsite was right along side the Whitewater River after which the park is named. A huge old oak stood watch. The river is a cold water stream known for trout, and we could see the ripples of spooked fish as we walked along the bank. The trout season is closed in the park from fall until January so we were not a threat.

After setting up camp and cooking dinner, we went for a brief walk. Rocky was enthusiastic. I could tell we would have a good hike the next day.

We settled in for a good campfire and enjoyed the sound of the river accompanying the crackling flames. Rocky pushed in close to dry off from his enthusiastic fording of the river on our walk. I'm sure the chill air was making itself felt through the wet fur. Soon enough we retired to the camper for a good night's sleep.

The morning light was dim and the sky heavy overcast but it was not raining. I cooked a good breakfast of bacon and eggs with cold orange juice to drink. The fridge is sure nice to have. Rocky had his standard share of dog food, which as usual was gone the moment the bowl hit the ground. Since the day was looking dreary, I cooked up a thermos of Tazo chai tea with milk, steaming hot to take along on the hike. I loaded up the backpack with raingear, binoculars, water, the chai and off we went. I planned to hike to Coyote Point, maybe mile away, but climbing up from the river bed to the ridge top, and along the ridge to an overlook.


 It started to rain as soon as we took off, but it was a light rain and came intermittently. We were heading steeply up. Within a short time I was sweating in the rain gear. I decided to take off the jacket and walk in my t-shirt.

I was wearing an Icebreaker brand wool t-shirt, a gift from my son. I love that shirt. Pure merino wool- not scratchy. Soaking wet, it still kept me warm in the 50 degree air. It would dry quickly when the rain stopped. Can't beat wool. I also have an Icebreaker jacket, also a gift from my son, that is warm, comfortable and equally perfect for outdoor activity.


The weather was not great for pictures, and as it turned out, I forgot my camera in the truck. But I had the cell phone along so the pictures are taken with that. Not ideal but still captured the feeling of the day.

As usual, you can click on the pictures to see a larger version.

Rocky rarely stopped moving. I tried to get some pictures but usually had to ask him to chill out and strike a pose.

One of the joys of a walk in the woods for me is noticing the small details as well as the long views.


We got back to camp about 2 pm and it was still raining off and on so I decided to test out an idea for hanging a tarp off the camper to create a dry spot to hang out. I had installed mounting points into the Yakima rack to fasten the tarp on top of the camper and used old tent poles to hold up the other corners. It worked suitably well but the system needs some tweaks. The tarp I have is too big- 10x12. An 8x10 will work better. I had to lower the camper top to attach the tarp, which is a bit of a pain, and the tarp is a bit too high when the camper is up. But it did provide shelter from the rain. It is very cheap, light weight and simple- all pluses.

I also decided to try out the new shelf I had made for the interior of the camper. The idea is that we can have a work counter inside if we want to cook or do other work that requires a work surface when the weather is bad. With the shelf installed, the bench becomes another shelf underneath. When we don't need the counter, it stores under the bench cushion. It worked out pretty well. It adds a lot of functionality to the interior and still allows seating on the other bench. The original idea was to make one for each side. The two of them could be placed level and between the seats to make another bed to sleep on with the top down. I'm not sure I will pursue that. We both think that is an unlikely scenario.


The fridge is right at home front and center. This keeps the weight forward which is good. It also means jumping in and out of the camper to get cold items. Planning ahead for what we need before we start cooking will solve that problem.

The weather cleared late in the day, allowing another pleasant dinner and campfire. Pleasantly tired from the day's walk, I went to bed early. The next morning arrived cloudy and threatening rain again. I decided to eat a cold breakfast and break camp. There was more exploring of this part of the state to do. It was looking like a good day to spend in the truck.

I wanted to find an old farm that Kathy and I had looked at buying many years ago, probably in the 1980's. It was 120 acres bounded on the south by the Root River, and on the east by another trout stream called Torkelson Creek. The land sloped up from the river to the north. It was bordered by state land on the north and west, part of the Richard J Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest. It had an old farm house and a few sheds. In other words, it was perfect. We couldn't afford it then but I have always wondered what became of it. I marked the spot as a waypoint on the USGS in my computer and off we went to find it.

Lo and behold, it is still there, largely unchanged. It appears the southern 20 acres bordering the Root River had been sold off. There was a small, newer house there, but the old farmstead across the road was still standing. Torkelson Creek is still flowing and I'm sure is still full of trout.

We continued on into Lanesboro, a picturesque small river town known for its community theatre, its bed and breakfast houses, and the Root River bike trail which passes through town.

 I spotted a new addition to the downtown and had to stop.

Spud Boy Diner- what a great name. The owner/cook had bought the diner in Towanda, Pennsylvania. He fell in love with a woman from Decorah Iowa. They restored the diner and moved it to Lanesboro and there it sits. 12 seats at the counter and 2 booths. He is retired and runs the diner for breakfast and lunch in the summer. He closes at the end of October, so I just made it. I had a good hot breakfast for lunch and some good conversation, closed out with a great piece of diner-made apple pie.

Rocky got a good run in Sylvan Park in Lanesboro, and we hit the road again. I decided to take the back roads, more or less following the Root River valley to the Mississippi. I enjoyed the drive. My destination was the Great River Bluffs State Park overlooking the Mississippi River valley.

I arrived at the park only to face setting up camp and cooking in the rain. The forecast was for falling temperatures and more rain throughout the next day. Normally, I would say you can't let the weather spoil a good day and any day spent outdoors is a good day. But with a wet dog and no prospect for an evening campfire to pass the time, I decided to head for home. I did a little sightseeing around the park before getting back on the road.

There were still a couple of hours of light to enjoy the drive home along the Mississippi.

Once I left the river valley, the drive home went quickly. I know this is an area I will head back to in the future with Kathy.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fall Colors

Since we were gone traveling in Europe most of the summer our truck and camper didn't get much of a workout. So we decided to make a spur of the moment trip to the north shore of Minnesota to see the fall colors. It was a good chance to try out our new camper fridge and the furnace that we hadn't had occasion to turn on yet. We were rewarded with beautiful weather, great scenery and some good camping spots. It did get cold at night- froze the water in Rocky's bowl. But the sun was bright and the sky blue during the day. The furnace worked flawlessly. We didn't really need the fridge with the weather, but it worked flawlessly too. We can tell that will be a luxury we enjoy in the summer. Even now, an afternoon ice cold beer without the hassle of ice and a cooler was a treat. The aspen and maples were near their peak color and the landscape was spectacular.

For those readers not from Minnesota, the term "north shore" refers to the shore of Lake Superior that stretches from Duluth to the Canadian border. The big lake, small towns, state parks and the Superior National Forest make this area an outdoor lover's dream. It is home to some of the oldest rocks on earth, abundant trout streams and is the gateway to the renowned Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Of course, we had to stop on the way for some good food at the Scenic Cafe on old highway 61. The "new" highway is four lanes for a stretch after Two Harbors, but the old highway along the lake shore remains. Two lanes beat 4 lanes any day. The proximity of Lake Superior shore makes this stretch of road pretty special and the food at the Scenic Cafe is pretty special too. We each had a pistacio-crusted baked walleye sandwich with vinaigrette greens and a house green aioli on cranberry nut toast. Pretty good!

We camped the first night at the Temperance River Forest Service campground north of Tofte.

 We enjoyed the sound of the river next to our camp. Rocky was most interested in what was happening on the table.

(note: click on the images to view full-size)

The next day we took a hike on Oberg Mountain.

The trail passes through maple/basswood and aspen forest...


... and eventually emerges from the forest to reveal stunning views of the surrounding forest landscape.

The camera didn't do the colors justice. I think the long views require a sky filter which my little Kodak point and shoot can't accommodate. 
 The contrast between the distant scenes and forest details made for a very enjoyable walk.

The warm sun contrasted with an extraordinary fog bank over Lake Superior.


A view of Oberg Lake

Panorama from the Oberg Lake overlook

Our second night of camping was at the Poplar River forest service campground which we had all to ourselves, except for a fox that wandered through. Another night of being lulled to sleep by the sound of rapids.

We had some great campfires under an almost full waning moon that made the time in darkness easier to pass until the effects of the fresh air and exercise made sleep irresistible.

Thursday's weather report called for the first winter storm of the season- high winds with snow and rain mixed in. This year's color show was soon to be over. We packed up and headed for home by the back roads, refreshed with a good dose of nature's beauty and savoring every moment until the last.