Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Another Trip to Denver

The impending Labor Day weekend gave us a good excuse to drive to Denver again. Our son and daughter-in-law would have 3 days off and we could help out with some more house projects. We mapped out a different route this time to check out some new camping spots and sights to see along the way.

We left on Tuesday afternoon. The drive to Denver is possible in 2 long days but we prefer to break it up into 3 shorter days. Our first target was Lake Shetek State Park in southwestern Minnesota. We enjoy taking the back roads rather than the freeways. The drive through southwestern Minnesota takes us through a rolling landscape of healthy farms and small towns. We arrived at the park in early evening.

From the park website:
The word "Shetek" is Ojibwe for "pelican," a bird which visits Lake Shetek during the summer and fall. The park contains the largest lake in southwestern Minnesota, which forms the headwaters of the Des Moines River.
Lake Shetek lies in the Coteau des Prairie ("highlands of the prairie") region of Minnesota, a geological area which separates the Minnesota River from the Missouri River watershed. 

Before modern agriculture was introduced, most of the Lake Shetek area was a treeless prairie with hundreds of species of wildflowers and grasses. Today, a large portion of the 1,108-acre park consists of old fields and forests of oak, hackberry, basswood, elm, and ash. Efforts to restore the prairie are underway.
We checked in at the park office, selected a campsite and settled in for the evening. There were a few other campers but the campground was quiet. A nice breeze kept the bugs at bay. After dinner we took a walk around the campground and enjoyed the sunset over the lake.

Note: please click on the photos to see a larger version.

Campsite at Lake Shetek.

Sunset over the lake.

The next day took us through South Dakota, across the Missouri River and into into Nebraska. At the town of Garretson, South Dakota, we stopped briefly to visit Devils Gulch at Palisades State Park.

View of Devil's Gulch near the parking area.
Another view of Devil's Gulch.

Split Rock Creek cuts through the Sioux quartzite at Palisades State Park to make a spectacular gorge. We did not take time to hike around but based on photos on the internet, Palisades State Park looks like a place we will return to in the future.

Image of Palisades State Park from the Argus Leader by Ray Reiffenberger


The Missouri River valley.

Crossing the Missouri River.

We passed through vast fields of sunflowers and endured several long road construction delays. We have usually camped in the Sandhills of the Nebraska National Forest. This trip we decided to check out other potential camping sites. We thought we might find a good spot in the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest or along the Niobrara National Scenic River. There was a nice rustic campground in the National Forest but we passed it by in the heat and humidity. Stifling heat and bugs chased us from several other sites. We eventually ended up at Merritt Reservoir near the town of Valentine.

The reservoir was created by an earthen dam on the Snake River. A well-developed recreation area with several campgrounds surrounds the reservoir and provided us with a very pleasant campsite right next to the lake.

We set up camp, made dinner and enjoyed the sunset.

Sunset in camp at Merritt Reservoir.

Morning in camp- ready to hit the road.

We arrived in Denver on Thursday afternoon, having survived a few more construction delays and detours. We also had an unanticipated water crossing, where 8 inches of floodwaters had covered the highway south of Valentine. Cars and trucks were allowed through one at a time in alternating directions and we eventually took our turn without incident.

We enjoyed three good days of projects and hanging out with our son and daughter-in-law. A highlight for me was delivering an old Craftsman reel lawn mower that had been bought new by my father in the 1950s and well used by me and my brothers mowing our lawns growing up. Although the mower had been recently sharpened, childhood memories flooded back as my son and I struggled to push the mower through the thick grass which hadn't been mowed for a month. Once the grass was chopped to a civilized length, the mower worked well. It will be perfect for the small Denver lawn. Of course I forgot to take a picture but found a match on the internet.

Craftsman mower (photo from eBay)

On Tuesday, the kids had to return to work. We packed up and hit the road again for home. We encountered heavy traffic in Boulder where we stopped at Costco to get a lost screw for my glasses replaced. We also stopped at REI to pick up a butane canister for a Jetboil stove that my son had given me for making morning coffee.

With those errands accomplished, we headed to Rocky Mountain National Park. Last time we had gone straight to the west side of the park for camping. This time we had decided to try our luck with getting a campsite on the more popular east side of the park. We knew chances were slim based on checking the campsite reservation system before we left Denver. Sure enough, all the campgrounds were full with cars waiting in line at each one. So we headed over the Trail Ridge Road to the west side where reservations are not allowed at the Timber Creek campground. We arrived around  5 PM and found plentiful camping available. We picked a site with room for our truck and trailer and set up camp.

Campsite at Timber Creek campground.

In the morning we woke to a herd of elk wandering through camp, grazing on the grass and poking their noses into tents. We enjoyed watching them. Eventually they meandered off on their way to the nearby meadow.

Elk checking out a tent.

We decided on a hike over to the Holzwarth Historic Site about a mile from camp. Rain was forecast for the afternoon and we thought we could do the hike and return to camp before the storm hit. The hike took us through a beautiful mountain meadow and eventually across the Colorado River to the site. Seeing the mighty Colorado as a small stream recalled a similar place at the source of the Mississippi River in Minnesota. On our way back, a cow moose wandered through the meadow ahead of us.

Beautiful mountain meadow.

The meadow is closed in the evenings during the rutting season.

Signpost at the Colorado River.

Detail from the signpost.

The Colorado River.

Old horse corral and scenic meadow.

The Holzwarth Ranch was originally homesteaded in 1917 and over time became a tourist destination for people wanting to spend time in the scenic area. We imagined people driving their Model T cars up the rough road in the 1920s to spend some time at the ranch. The property was acquired by the Nature Conservancy in 1974 and eventually transferred to the park. We enjoyed the hike and visit quite a lot. More information on the history can be found here:

Sign post at the Holzwarth site- lots of buildings.

The "Mama Cabin" where meals were prepared and served.

Door to the taxidermy shop.

Scene back at camp.
We returned to camp just before the storm hit. Lightning and thunder with lots of rain made us thankful for our camper. We stayed inside and read our books until the storm passed. The weather cleared up in time for dinner and a show by another herd of elk that descended from the hills into camp after dinner. We heard the bull bugling before we saw him- a distinctive, wild sound. Cows, calves, and young males grazed their way through the campground while people watched. Finally the large bull elk emerged from the trees. He stayed on the hill overseeing the action while the rest of the herd came into camp. We watched the big bull chase off a young male who expressed too much interest in one of the cows hanging out near the big bull. We watched the cows still nursing calves and bulls too young to have antlers but still exhibiting rutting behaviors. The herd wandered on and the bull took a route around the campground. All in all, a great show.

Elk in camp in the evening.

The big bull is visible on the hill, just right of center in the photo.

Elk cow wandering through camp.

Rocky mountain sunset.
The next morning we departed early on the next leg of our trip home. Our intended target was the Black Hills area of South Dakota. We drove the Trail Ridge Road again, in early morning this time, with nice views of the valleys below.

View of the valley from Trail Ridge Road.

Our route took us through Estes Park and along the Big Thompson River. We stopped for lunch at a nice county park along the river before leaving the mountain scenery behind. As we passed through the flat prairie and sand hills of Eastern Wyoming we saw antelope mingling with the cows. We eventually made it to Wind Cave National Park. We camped in a nondescript campsite in the national park campground alongside lots of RV-style campers. The campers were quiet though and we had a good night's sleep.

Big Thompson River.

We woke to cloudy skies and distant thunder. We packed up and were on the road just as the rain hit. It rained off and on the rest of the day. Our drive took us through the Black Hills and Custer State Park in South Dakota. Bison were seemingly everywhere and often on the road. We stopped several times and had to negotiate with some big bull bison to give us a share of the road. The road was very scenic with deep pine woods and occasional high overlooks. We enjoyed that portion of the drive a lot.

Solitary bison in the rain.

More grazing bison.

View of the Black Hills.

After leaving the Black Hills, the road stretched straight and flat ahead of us as we crossed South Dakota. We finally made camp at Camden State Park in Minnesota in a nice site on the edge of the prairie. Our campsite was close to the shower building and we took advantage of nice hot showers.

The next day broke rainy again. We completed our drive home, stopping along the way for a good breakfast at Mike's Cafe in Marshall, Minnesota.

Camp at Camden State Park.

Prairie view next to our camp.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Exploring the Superior National Forest

Whitefish Lake- a nice place to spend a summer day.
Note: you can click on photos to see a larger version.

Summer in Minnesota is meant to be spent alongside a lake, with nothing to do but hang out, feel the warm sun and cooling breeze, maybe paddle a canoe a bit. This was our plan.

We set out on Monday afternoon with our sights set on a small, rustic US Forest Service campground on Whitefish Lake in the Superior National Forest. The trailer was loaded with our gear and two skin-on-frame boats. The boats were borrowed from Urban Boatbuilders where I have been a volunteer since I retired.

The goal was to camp for a few days, explore the lakes and surrounding forest, and just relax.

Location of Whitefish Lake

We arrived at the small, rustic Whitefish campground around 6 PM. There were 3 campsites nicely spaced, each with a picnic table and a fire ring. One of the 3 sites was occupied. We chose another, leaving the 3rd site empty between us. We set up camp under a darkening sky with rain threatening. The Clam screen house was deployed over the picnic table and provided a pleasant bug-free shelter for a light dinner.

A view of Whitefish Lake

Our camp at Whitefish Lake
After dinner, we walked around the campground and over to the shore of Whitefish Lake. A small boat landing was located at the end of a short trail from the gravel parking lot. The parking lot held a few trucks left by folks out on the lake. Our neighbor had returned from fishing, leaving his boat tied up at the landing. The sun was setting on the distant shore.

The Whitefish Lake boat landing

It was getting dark and would soon be raining. We retired to the camper for a good game of cribbage before heading to bed. We drifted off to the sound of light rain on the camper roof.

We woke to a grey, rainy morning.  I made coffee and a pot of oatmeal while Kathy straightened up the camper for the day.

A lazy morning waiting for the clouds to clear was on order. We discovered raspberry bushes around our campsite with ripe berries waiting to be picked. Tomorrow's breakfast would include fresh berries!

Enjoying the view from our screen house

Morning coffee and a contented man


More raspberries

I forgot to take a picture before they were mostly gone. Tasty!

The sun started to break through the clouds around noon. We decided to explore Whitefish Lake. We had two boats- a Wee Lassie and a Rob Roy. These boats are skin-on-frame style and very light weight- perfect for two old paddlers to carry and paddle.

Boats ready to launch

Minnesota is known for its many lakes. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), located on the Canadian border, is unique due to its unspoiled character and many lakes. Portage trails connect many of the lakes, making it possible to travel from one lake to the next, carrying a boat between them. It is a very popular destination, each trip requiring a permit from the US Forest Service. Much of our camping while the kids were growing up were canoe trips in the BWCA.

One of the attractions of Whitefish Lake for us was that it is connected to several other lakes by portage trails. Although outside the BWCA, it provides a very similar experience of visiting several wild lakes with the added attraction of no need for a permit.

Sign post map at Whitefish Lake

We launched and set off to test our boats and see the sights. Kathy took the Rob Roy and I the Wee Lassie. The weather was mixed sun and clouds and a light wind blowing toward our camp. We set a course across the lake and planned to follow the shore back to camp. I hoped to discover the portage to Elbow Lake along the way. We had a nice paddle and did find the portage.

Kathy paddling the Rob Roy

Mid-lake meetup

A stately old pine on the shore

Another shot of Kathy paddling the Rob Roy

I just don't have the selfie thing down. I thought I was smiling

We returned to camp with tired muscles but refreshed from the activity. I busied myself preparing wood for the evening camp fire while Kathy enjoyed some camp hangout time. The afternoon promised a nice evening ahead.

Campfire tools and the result

A mourning cloak butterfly made a visit and landed on a life vest drying in the sun.

Mourning Cloak butterfly

Chilly temps kept the bugs at bay and we enjoyed a nice evening campfire.

Nice campfire

Wednesday dawned to another cloudy morning. We had hoped for a sunny day based on the forecast the evening before from our weather radio. We were planning a longer paddling day this day. We made burritos for a leisurely breakfast and decided to wait for the weather to improve. I split some more wood for an evening fire.

Going into a storage compartment under the rear seat platform in the truck, I discovered a nice fluffy mouse nest! An old t-shirt rag in the storage compartment had provided the raw material. How did a mouse get into the cab of the truck? How long had it been there? I puzzled about it for awhile and then remembered we had opened the sliding window a crack for fresh air during the drive up. Kathy had remembered it and closed it the next morning. That must be how it got inside. I tossed the nest and looked for the mouse- no sign it was still in the cab. It could have hopped out when the door was left open. I thought that was the end of it but there is more to come on this story.

I wandered around the campground and found an impressive wasp nest. I watched the wasps come and go for a bit and pondered the mystery of nature. Why do these insects build such impressive nests, only to die off during the winter and abandon their art?

What is that in the tree?
On returning home, I identified the architects as likely being bald-faced hornets, based on their distinctive black and white coloring. The queens are the only ones to survive the winter. Queens are produced late in the summer. Their eggs are fertilized in the fall by males produced by the colony only for this purpose. As temperatures fall, the colony dies off. The queens survive by hibernating in a deep crevice. In the spring, the queen builds a small nest, lays her eggs and hatches workers which take over the nest building task. The queen then focuses on laying eggs. At first, the nest grows slowly. But as more workers are produced, the pace picks up resulting in an impressive nest such as the one I saw. The cycle of life.

Closer view of bald-faced hornet nest

Midday brought increasing periods of sun. We ate a light lunch and decided to spend the afternoon paddling. We dressed for water, gathered up our equipment and boats and headed over to the boat landing. This day I would paddle the Rob Roy and Kathy the Wee Lassie. Blue sky and light winds greeted us. We launched and paddled to the Elbow Lake portage which we had found the day before.

Kathy paddling the Wee Lassie

Signpost at portage to Elbow Lake- 65 rods

Portages are measured in rods. One rod equals 16.5 feet. The portage to Elbow Lake was 65 rods or about 1000 feet- a short walk through the woods. The path was well traveled with boardwalks over the wet areas. That's a nice feature that is not allowed in the BWCA wilderness.

Portage to Elbow Lake

View from under the canoe

A nice walk from lake to lake.

View of Elbow Lake from the portage

Boat landing at Elbow Lake

Portaging the Wee Lassie- so light I could carry it with one hand -
or balanced on my head

We reached the other side and launched into Elbow Lake. I always enjoy entering a new lake- each has their own personality. Elbow is a narrow lake with a bend in the middle- true to its name. We explored the lake, finding water lilies, and an attractive wild shoreline. A loon flew overhead. As we paddled, a dark line of storm clouds was growing on the horizon. The weather turned from sunny to cloudy as a cold front rippled over us. We abandoned our plan of visiting another lake and decided to head back to camp before we got caught in a storm.

Wee Lassie at Elbow Lake

Paddling Elbow Lake

Enjoying the view

Looking this way- sunny day

Looking this way- not so much

That speck in the middle is a loon flying over us

Water Lily- look close you will see a moth hanging out

Water Lily

Another water lily

Wild shore
Another shoreline view

Elbow Lake portage to Whitefish Lake

Carrying the Wee Lassie on my shoulder

As I got out of my boat at the portage, I noticed a fair amount of blood on the life jacket I had been resting my legs on. Where did that come from? A quick inspection showed a freely bleeding wound on my ankle. I washed it off in the lake and marveled that I hadn't even noticed it before. Then I realized it was probably a leech bite. They don't hurt and they bleed profusely due to the anesthetic and anticoagulant released by the leech. Sure enough, the leech was swimming around in the bit of water in the bottom of my boat- must have just dropped off. Kathy caught it as I tipped the boat back and forth. Back in the lake it went, no real harm done. We arrived back at camp just as the rain began.

We had passed an interesting looking establishment called the Trestle Inn and Saloon on the way to Whitefish Lake. It is not normal for us to eat at restaurants when we are camping, but age softens the rules. The rain gave us a good excuse to check out the Trestle Inn for dinner. It was about 8 miles down the road. We changed out of our paddling clothes, dropped the camper roof and took off.

Trestle Inn and Saloon

The Trestle Inn is one of those unique places you find off the beaten path. The place has an appropriate woodsy/homey feel. There were the requisite locals hanging out at the bar. A great jukebox playing the Traveling Wilburys among others. Funny signs hanging on the walls and posts. And friendly servers. We took a seat at a big table (there weren't any small tables).

We arrived in early evening before the "All You Can Eat Chicken Wings" special took effect. Also, before the bingo games started. This was all fine with us. Kathy had her usual cheeseburger and fries. I had a small sirloin steak with baked potato and a nice green salad with blue cheese dressing. The food was good. Kathy had a nice chat with a pleasant young woman sweeping the porch as we left. All in all, a very enjoyable evening.

The weather had cleared while we ate dinner. On the way back to camp, I decided to explore the road past our campground- basically a dead end two track which offered the prospect of discovery. Kathy acquiesced to my desire to explore. We stopped often to check wet spots and rocky sections before proceeding. Signs of wildlife were abundant on the road but we didn't see any critters. We followed the track until it became too wet and rocky to explore further- a fun diversion.

Exploring a back road

Back in camp, we had another nice fire after which I gave Kathy an opportunity to redeem her loss at cribbage the first night. She was well on her way to doing just that. But with a spectacular hand at the last chance, I pulled out another victory by one point. She was good-natured about it and I suspect my luck at cards will run out soon enough.

Moon rise over Whitefish Lake
Thursday was a day to relocate to another part of the National Forest.

Packed up and leaving Whitefish Lake camp

Back in 2008, we had participated in a project to replant trees after a the 2007 Ham Lake Fire, a major fire along the Gunflint Trail. The Gunflint Trail is a road which runs from the town of Grand Marais to the BWCA some 60 miles northwest. The fire was caused by an unattended camp fire and burned 75,000 acres. Many cabins, homes and businesses were lost or damaged.

Gunflint GreenUp in 2008

In ten years of the Gunflint Greenup project, over 500,000 trees have been planted by volunteers with assistance from the US Forest Service. Our small group planted 1200 seedlings in 2008. Now, 11 years after our planting work, we wanted to see how the trees we planted were doing.

Kathy and I planting trees in May 2008

We took the back roads, which in a National Forest can sometimes hardly be called roads. That is the fun of our style of travel. The truck can handle pretty poor roads. In this case, as is usual, a shortcut turned into the long way.

A back roads shortcut

We arrived at Iron Lake, along the Gunflint Trail near where we had planted trees, around 3 PM. There is a small forest service campground on the lake. The campsites were nicely spaced with dense aspen regrowth separating them. There were several open sites.

We selected a site. Kathy jumped out of the truck to help guide the trailer as I backed it into place. Something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. Sitting on the hood next to the windshield was a mouse! It had popped up out of the engine compartment. It turned and ran down the hood and jumped off. Kathy saw it as it jumped and watched it run into the woods. Was that the same mouse from Whitefish Lake? Seemed impossible. In any event it was gone into the woods, good riddance!

We quickly discovered that the bugs, especially mosquitoes, liked the site also. They were swarming around us- not appealing.

After some debate, we decided to drive to the end of the Gunflint Trail about 15 miles distant to check out another campground. If it was full, which I suspected it would be, we would still have time to return to Iron Lake.

A benefit of driving to the end of the trail would be a visit to the Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center. We had visited the museum back in 2013 in conjunction with the North House Folk School wooden boat show. A trip report is here:

Since then a timber-framed building to house an historic boat collection had been built by volunteers and recently opened. My friend Jane from Urban Boatbuilders had assisted in the construction and I wanted to see it.

Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center
Photo by Chik-Wauk Museum

As expected, the Trail's End Campground was full. No surprise- the BWCA is a popular place and Trail's End is a good jumping off place. We enjoyed a quick visit to Chik-Wauk. The boat museum is a beautiful building and I enjoyed seeing it. I was so enamored, I forgot to take pictures.

Here is a link to some photos and more information about it:

We returned to Iron Lake and set up camp, choosing a different site this time. We were again so very thankful to have the Clam screen house. The mosquitoes would have carried us away. It was warm and muggy and I decided to risk a swim in Iron Lake. I wrapped up in my towel and found a trail down the embankment to the lake shore. I was contemplating the lake when a loon popped up not 20 feet in front of me. We looked at each other for a bit and then the loon dove under the water again. A closer look revealed a steep drop-off just off shore. I could dive into the water from just a few feet from shore which is what I did. The bugs did not bother me as I toweled off and I felt much refreshed.

Camp at Iron Lake

Along the trail to the lake from camp

We ate dinner in peace in our screen house. It was getting dark. It was our last night camping for this trip and I decided to have another camp fire to burn the last of our firewood. We packed up the Clam and loaded our gear into the trailer for a quick getaway in the morning. We would have breakfast in Grand Marais.

Sunset at Iron Lake

Kathy retired to the camper to watch the fire from there. I put on my hoodie and camp hat, treated them with Deet and went to work. The resulting fire was one of the nicest of the trip. The bugs did not bother me while I tended the fire and Kathy enjoyed it from the camper.

Nice campfire

Moon rise at Iron Lake

Friday morning we packed up the camper and got ready for the day's drive to the other side of the forest. Before we left, I decided to pop the hood and have look-see. This is not my normal routine but the mouse event from the day before had me curious. Sure enough, there was a mouse looking at me from under the air cleaner cover! Was it the same one? Couldn't be, could it? Kathy and I chased it around the engine compartment before losing sight of it. Did it leave? I hope so. It would get hot in there before the day was over. I checked around and discovered a bit of damage to the firewall insulation from the mouse- nothing serious but frustrating nonetheless and a new nuisance to contend with while camping.

We left camp and drove a section of the Old Gunflint Trail to check out our trees. They were doing well. The extent of vegetation regrowth since the fire was impressive.

Trees from Gunflint GreenUp- planted as seedlings

Trees are doing well

An old survivor with a new generation

The Old Gunflint Trail

We headed into Grand Marais for breakfast. We had a good meal at the Blue Water Cafe. After breakfast we decided to walk over to the North House Folk School. A timber framing class was underway. We poked around a bit, checking out projects from previous classes. Of interest was a small building with a sod roof, based on a Norwegian skjelter design. More info here:

North House Folk School from Lake Superior
Photo from

Norwegian Skjelter

Another view
Photo by North House Folk School

View from skjelter
Photo by North House Folk School

Timber framing class underway

Class projects at North House Folk School

Grand Marais is known for its long history as a center for art and artists. After our North House visit, we popped in for a quick tour of the Johnson Heritage Post Art Gallery. An interesting collection of paintings was on display. We enjoyed learning about Anna Johnson and the interesting history of the gallery.

After the gallery, we left Grand Marais for home, about 5 hours distant. On the way we stopped at a favorite overlook just south of Duluth. The Evergreen Memorial Overlook honors veterans of the Armed Forces. Jay Cooke State Park and the St Louis River Valley stretch out below. A nice way to say goodbye to the north country.

View from Evergreen Memorial Drive overlook