Sunday, February 23, 2014

Tofte Ski Trip

The goal was a weekend of outdoor fun on skis and snowshoes. Kathy was heading to Big Sand Lake near Park Rapids, MN for a weekend with girlfriends. For me, the locale was the north shore of Lake Superior with 2 other guys. Rocky was staying home and warm.

A cabin on the shore (owned by Greg's family) would provide a cozy base of operations. Plans were made, equipment readied, food lists prepared, shopping done (done by Mark, who also cooked) and a departure time was set. We would meet at our house at 9 AM Friday and head north, hopefully missing the morning rush hour and reaching Tofte by mid-afternoon.

Click photos for a larger version.

Mother nature had other plans. Thursday afternoon and night brought freezing rain, thunder and lightning and 12 inches of heavy wet snow. Friday morning dawned on streets choked with snow and stuck cars. Mark and Greg eventually made it to our house, and trucks were safely stowed in the driveway, but not without some tow straps, shoveling, pushing and pulling. The Tacoma performed admirably as a tow truck in its first such endeavor, showing remarkable traction while pulling a smaller 2-wheel drive truck through the snowy mess in the alley and into the driveway. We finally got underway at about 11 AM.

The highways were in terrible condition, with a slick layer of ice as the driving surface. Speeds above 35 mph were not safe, although many drivers seemed oblivious of the danger. According to the Highway Patrol, there were over 1200 accidents,  2300 vehicles sliding off the road and 74 jack-knifed semi-trailer trucks from Thursday through Saturday afternoon. By all rights we should have stayed home. We discussed turning around while underway. We consulted driving condition reports on the smart phone. It looked like the roads would eventually improve. The lure of adventure overcame our caution and we pushed on. With the skillful safe driving of Mark, our chauffeur, we avoided mishaps and reached our destination safely at 5:30 PM. A four hour trip in normal conditions took six and a half hours! We had dinner, spent a nice evening in conversation and planned a ski excursion for the morning.

We woke to temps in the single digits, a mix of clouds and sun, and a stunning landscape of frozen and jumbled ice laying before the cold grey water of Lake Superior. Sun glinting off the shards was reminiscent of arctic scenes. The extent of ice on the big lake is greater this year than in many recent years as a result of the unceasing cold winter. Watching the changing lake landscape became an endless source of interest.

After breakfast, we drove to the trailhead for the day's skiing.  The Sugarbush Trail Association maintains 65 kilometers of cross country ski trails through beautiful and remote Forest Service land in the Lutsen-Tofte area. The trails wind through the woods above Lake Superior, a mix of maple, aspen and pine.The trails are groomed often and we found them in perfect shape for skiing- freshly groomed new snow. The tour though the woods was marked by exertion, exhilaration and the special quiet known only in the winter woods of the north.

In the afternoon after lunch, we took a snowshoe hike along the Temperance River, which flows into Lake Superior just south of Tofte. The combination of snow, ice, flowing water and bright sunshine was intoxicatingly beautiful. We explored the river gorge and a slot canyon carved over eons by the water. Ice formations on the rock were like renaissance cathedral gargoyles, looking down at us and overseeing their icy domain. The river thundered above and below us, hidden under the ice but present through vibrations and sounds. A truly special experience. We followed the river for a time and then bushwhacked through the woods back to a trail, testing our snowshoes and our balance in the waist-deep snow.

 A day of outdoor fun was winding down. Time for a beer, appetizers and dinner. Another evening of conversation by the fireplace followed, with scotch for sipping, before we drifted off to sleep.

Sunday morning brought another great breakfast, a ski for Mark and Greg and a short snowshoe excursion out into the ice of Lake Superior for me.

We packed up and headed for home with our dreams of winter adventure fulfilled and our desire stoked for more such adventures to come.

Many thanks to Mark for sharing some of his pictures with me.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Escape to Warmth

Winter finally got to us- colder and snowier than in recent memory. We had to escape. Kathy has a relative with a condo in Palm Springs, California. An invitation to visit was forthcoming and we jumped at the chance to see a part of the country we hadn't been to before. Flights were booked, dog sitter found and we headed out.

Palm Springs lies in the Coachella Valley, sheltered by the San Bernadino, Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. It is a desert environment with plentiful California Fan Palms and other interesting desert plants. We were fortunate to have relatives with a nice condo to stay in and to show us the sights.

Palm Springs is a small city of about 45,000 people- but the population soars to 90,000 during the winter. The average age is high (median 51.6 years), reflecting the winter appeal of the warm, dry climate to older, retired folks. The glitterati of Los Angeles discovered the locale in the 1930s, leading to the development of a pleasant downtown shopping district and many fine examples of mid-century modern houses and estates. Notables building houses included Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and many others. It was fun to wander around the neighborhoods and see the interesting houses, privacy walls and desert landscaping.

(Note: click on photos for a larger version).

We're not in Minnesota anymore.

The entrance to our hosts condo.

Nice landscaping.

One of two pool areas- nirvana for warmth-starved Minnesotans.

A roadrunner makes his morning appearance on the condo patio wall with a view to the mountains beyond.
A surprising neighborhood sculpture garden.

Nice house.

Nice privacy hedge.

Parking in the shade.

Frank Sinatra's house

The patio at the Sinatra house used to be a piano-shaped swimming pool.

The Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra.

Our hosts enjoy geo-caching so we tagged along for some of that activity. Good practice using the GPS.

We discovered some geo-caches.
We visited Indian Canyons near Palm Springs for a couple of hikes. The Andreas Canyon hike follows along side Andreas Creek. The Murray Canyon hike leads through the desert to an oasis and a series of small waterfalls.

Ancient mortar bowls carved in the rock by Cahuilla people, the early residents.

Pleasant oasis.

Where did that red rock come from?

Panorama showing the creek bed marked by palm trees.

Interesting rocks.

A desert waterfall.

Big rocks.

End of the hike hug.

Thursday offered free admission to the Palm Springs Art Museum. We enjoyed a couple of hours of modern art and ancient crafts, an extensive and fine collection for a small city.

Every Thursday night is a street fair in Palm Springs. We had some good tacos, tamales and even some paella. Fun to walk around and watch the people and talk to the vendors. We bought some dates- tasty!

Marilyn is big in Palm Springs.

Another hike was in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. Located in the Big Morongo Canyon is a rare desert marsh formed by the unique geography of the area which keeps the water near the surface, creating one of the largest willow and cottonwood wetland areas in California in an unlikely spot.

Beautiful views.

More interesting rocks.

A California Fan Palm.

Marsh- home to many birds and other critters.

Another view of the marsh and cottonwoods.

On the weekend, there was a charity bike ride- the Tour de Palm Springs. We decided to borrow our hosts bikes and do 10 miles since our behinds were out of shape after a few months of winter inactivity. It was a beautiful day for bikes and we enjoyed a nice tour around Palm Springs. Some more dedicated riders did 100 miles!

A Bag Pipe sendoff!

Lots of bike riders!

We were first to start.

The route passed through several neighborhoods.

Our hosts showed up at a couple of spots to cheer us on and take some photos.
After the ride we enjoyed a nice lunch downtown on a shady outdoor patio, a joy we won't experience at home for a few more months.

Monday brought another day for exploring. We had planned a one-day visit to Joshua Tree National Park but after a day there, we decided we had to go back for another day. Deserts are totally foreign to us northern lake people and we found them endlessly fascinating. Our first hike was to the 49 Palms Oasis- 4 miles round trip.

Plants were just beginning to bloom. Unfortunately, I have no idea what plants they are. It is strange to walk in a landscape and know nothing about the plants or animals.

The oasis appeared in the distance. Is it real or a mirage?

A real oasis.
Looking back.

Red rocks as far as you can see.

We visited the Cholla Garden on a drive through the park. Cholla are beautiful cacti with spines you do not want to touch- according to the signs. We took their word for it.
Cholla Garden panorama.

Cholla up close and personal. Don't touch!

Another Cholla panorama.

We finished our day with a drive to the Keys View overlook. The view was spectacular, looking over the Coachella Valley with the San Andreas Fault clearly deliniated in the valley floor. The wind was very strong, almost blowing people over while they enjoyed the view. A sign said the haze was increasingly a problem, compared to years ago.

We returned the next day to see parts of the park we didn't have time for the previous day. Hidden Valley is a site formerly used by cattle rustlers to hide their ill-gotten livestock from view of those looking for it. Very interesting rock formations and more unusual plants.

Natural picture frame.

The hidden valley.

Interesting rocks.

After the hike in Hidden Valley, we had a picnic lunch in the shade, watched over by an attentive jay. I wondered if he would be so bold as to try to steal a sandwich. It was clear he was thinking about it.

After lunch, another hike to see the Barker Dam. Built by the original settlers to provide a source of water for livestock, the dam now creates a haven for wildlife, including many birds and even big horned sheep. The extent of the current drought was clear as there was hardly any water in the reservoir, and little in the way of wildlife. On the way out, we passed some petroglyphs, unfortunately some defaced with garish paint at some point in the past.

The park namesake- Joshua Tree.

Another desert panorama.

On our last day in Palm Springs we rode the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. The Tram is a major gateway to the San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness. It is remarkable how the environment changes from the valley floor to the mountains at the top. Desert becomes alpine forest. The tram provides an escape from the heat of the Palm Springs summer and an opportunity for mountain hiking and wilderness camping. Completed in 1963, the Tram was built using helicopters to ferry the workers and building materials for the towers into the canyon. New tram cars were recently added. The floor of the tram car rotates during the trip so everyone gets a good view.

We took a short hike to some scenic overlooks. We found traces of snow in shady spots- confirming we were in a different world from the valley below.

An original tram car.

We left Palm Springs reluctantly, heading back to deep winter in Minnesota. But the warmth of the visit will carry us through to spring.