It froze last night and we hit the river early…
2/24/98 – It has been a truly quiet week here at Sawbill. Bizarre, warm weather has been the story here. The past few days it has stayed exclusively in the 30’s, both night and day. Earlier in the week, when it was freezing at night, we had some perfect skiing conditions on the lakes and rivers. The freeze and thaw cycle produced hard packed snow that was ideal for ski skating. If you are unfamiliar with cross country skiing, imagine a speed skater with ski poles.
On Friday and Saturday, expeditions were launched up to Lujenida and Ella Lakes. After one foray, we figured out that we had skied 12 mph on average. Speeds of 15 mph were attainable with what felt like zero effort.
Sunday, Obie organized a group of nine people from Tofte and Grand Marais for a ski down the Temperance River. We started from the bridge on the Sawbill Trail and ended at Lake Superior, a distance of approximately 15 miles. The river snow was just as fast as the lake snow, with the addition of a slight downslope. Open water was plentiful, but the snow was firm enough that there was no danger of falling through. The snow surface undulated around the open spots and in some places only a narrow snow bridge spanned the running water. We flew effortlessly down stream through canyons, oxbows, boulder fields, and even over two waterfalls. At that speed, the open spots would appear in front of the lead skier just in time for a split second decision about which route to choose. One skier would lead until they made a wrong decision and got caught in a cul de sac, then another skier would blaze the trail. Many times we would split up on alternate routes, weaving back and forth, in and out, only to converge at the next snow bridge. Since Sunday, we have not had cold enough temperatures to allow the snow crust to reform. Meanwhile, it has been raining and melting so the river keeps opening up. Sunday’s peak experience may be all the more precious for its uniqueness.
2/16/98 – President’s Day represents the peak of visitorship for the winter season. The Sawbill parking lot has ten cars belonging to "winter" campers. Seven former or current Sawbill crew members are visiting the Hansens. All of these folks are coping with very unusual weather. At this writing, it is 35 degrees with pouring down rain. For once, we are not envious of those who are on the trail. The snow cover near Lake Superior is showing major gaps and the snow at Sawbill is sinking fast. We are down to about 14 inches of wet, crystalline snow, and losing more by the hour. Bad news for skiing – good news for eliminating roof shoveling duty.
2/12/98 – This time of year we spend a lot of time in the workshop working on the canoes. New canoes arrive that must be detailed, and the previous season’s fleet must be checked over and kept in good working order. Fortunately, most of our customers have a high regard for these lightweight canoes. The majority of the canoes need very little attention: a little sanding, tightening hardware, water sealing wood gunwales, etc.. Yet, there are always a few problem canoes. A canoe that was dropped, or "beached" fully loaded at a portage, comes to the winter workshop with a broken gunwale, cracked hull, or worse. I wish this did not happen, but I’m resigned to it and have come to enjoy the problem solving. It’s a hands on process, and creative effort, to make the canoe look and work like it was new. With the right attitude, small, tangible victories prevail in the workshop. A nice change of pace from the daily management of the business. The canoes are stored outside or in our rental building. Inside, we stack them vertically to save space. This looks very dramatic and there is great potential for an intense domino effect (a fact the chandelier and I learned the hard way one year!) Unburying the canoes outside is fun, as we are treated to sights and smells leftover from Fall. Leaves and twigs on the forest floor are a novel sight this time of year, and bits of plant debris dried on the hulls remind me of warm sunny days. Yesterday, I removed some knee pads on a solo canoe and found lots of damp, trapped soil. Smelled like a spring mushroom hunt. I love the winter, but it’s nice to be momentarily transported. Sort of like those occasional August snow flurries!
2/6/98 – Four groups left for winter camping trips yesterday! For winter, this is the equivalent of a very busy August paddling day. The sunshine and very warm weather have been more indicative of the paddling season as well. We pleasantly baked ourselves on Alton and Sawbill during a snow shoe hike. Long shadows prevailed as we explored the lake. Tracks of skiers, otters, and moose crisscross the lake. In many places, however, the snow surface is untracked as far as the eye can see. Large, subtle patterns of wind become evident in these areas. Undulating lines, parallel to the wind direction, stretch down the lake and coalesce. On closer inspection, we find the lines are really tiny ridges highlighted by shadow and dust. Marked by a six foot trail of tumbling tracks, a tiny sprig of cedar interrupts the homogenous view. This sprig is no different from the millions of other cedar bits we have walked past, yet it is accorded the highest praise, oohs and ahhs like a fireworks display. We are a peculiar breed. Does the timber wolf attend to these details? Does it need to? Perhaps the ridges, dust, and sprig stir in us an ancient way of looking at the landscape, provoking a long lost understanding of natural processes – conceptions most of us are so distracted from, that we experience them in dumb awe, oohing and ahhing nostalgically.
2/3/98 – Cold temperatures at Sawbill over night, -10 degrees F. A novelty for this mild winter. Before the cold snap, a warm up on Thursday and Friday created a fast glaze on the snow. Skiing was incredible, such glide and ease. The dogs and I found ourselves exploring the middle of Alton in no time We closely inspected a recently abandoned winter camp. The dogs inquired as to whether winter campers buried food like summer campers, and I checked the quality of their camp. Some cut green branches, but otherwise a nice camp. It is difficult to be completely No-Trace in the winter, as the land must wait for April’s sun to erase shelters and tracks. A large quincee (a snow shelter) was well constructed, and Sunnie and I rested inside speculating as to when we would get out this winter. Gust poked his nose in the entrance, but some K-9 instinct forbid a further inspection. To Gust’s relief, we exited and enjoyed a lovely sunset returning for dinner.
The river canyons that pour into Lake Superior become fantastic ski adventures this time of year. Kate Surbaugh, former Sawbill employee, and I had a wonderful day skiing the Devil Track River canyon. In route to the canyon, a large beautiful wolf momentarily graced us with her presence . We smiled, knowing how fortunate we are to have such a living right outside our door. The Devil Track’s steep gradient and the fast skiing conditions kept us on our toes. Skiing around open holes and over frozen waterfalls is exhilarating. The waterfalls create bizarre ice structures. Jets of water gush from ice arches that project off the rock face like giant crystal faucets. Icy windows form as waterfalls erode snow cover from beneath. Torrents of water pass quietly by these windows, producing a confusing, wonderful image. In most places, the canyon is filled with the sound of water, it murmurs below our skis and two feet of snow and rises to crescendo as it breaks free of the ice and snow at the base of a steep pitch. The canyon walls are a myriad of hues and the snow and lichen patchwork complete a continuous rich canvas that tends to distract from the project of staying dry. Warm weather is problematic for river skiing as meltwater tends to wash out the ice and snow. Occasionally, questionable rock climbing techniques are required to circumvent the worst spots. A dose of patience while routing and a cool headed spirit are all that is required to navigate the river safely. It was a memorable day following the water to Superior, sliding over boulders, sometimes tumbling, each turn a new view, a new obstacle, getting to know the way of that wild canyon.