Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Monday, January 30, 2012


  "Old boys have their playthings, as well as young ones, the difference is only the price."  
~ Benjamin Franklin

Gentle Reader and Love Ones,

            As I’ve mentioned before, in Minnesota in winter, if you don’t get out you will go bat-hanging crazy. Droughts make this worse – there is no snow. Generally one thinks of drought as involving a lack of rain – not so here in the frozen north-land.  Now… most normal people who have a real life consider this a good thing.  Lack of snow means generally safer driving, less shoveling, lower road maintenance costs and other such benefits.
            I understand this mindset and in a small way agree with it.  But in a larger sense, I don’t agree at all.  Snow is what makes winter fun. (Yes, I know.  Those of you who know my old southron self are chuckling. One adapts to one’s situation….) No snow results in living in a bleak, wind-blown tundra. Snow can be slidden upon in multitudinous ways.
            I have been looking forward to firing up the sleds and going riding for months.  As the dreary December rolled over into an even bleaker January, something had to be done.  So, we decided to drive up to Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Yoopers always get good lake effect snow.
            Further, they’ve built a winter economy around the phenomena.  They have lots of active snowmobile clubs and they groom their numerous trails frequently.  Copious bars and restaurants that cater to sledders line the trails.
            So after a moderately detailed internet search Jaybo, Ann and I settled on the West Shore Resort on the western shore of Lake Gogebic, slapped plastic to hold a cabin and took off.
            First we had to drive up to the cabin in Wisconsin and load the sleds on the trailer.  We decided to take Velvet along.  She loved every second of being in the back seat of the truck with us – shedding dog hair continuously and barking happily.
            Lake Gogebic appears to be a natural lake.  It is the largest lake in the UP, running north south and is maybe 1-2 miles wide and almost 15 miles long.  Frozen completely over, the ice was roughly a foot thick.  We had no concerns about riding or walking out on the ice.  In fact, many people drive their trucks out to their ice house to fish.

            Once we arrived at the cabin, we unloaded, set up the room, made sure Ann was comfortable with a good book then Jaybo and I took off to ride around the lake.  There was well groomed trail system ringing the lake and we mostly rode on it.  We did cruise for more than few miles on the lake itself.  Because the UP was the only place in the Midwest with snow there were riders everywhere.
            When we got to the eastern shore Mother Nature familiarized us with yet another northern concept – Ice Fog.  The wind was generally blowing from the west.  Snowmobiles throw up a rooster tail of ice and snow particles.  Usually these dissipate but we discovered that these rooster tails seeded a low hanging fog that was blowing up against the eastern shore.  We lost track of each other in the fog and had some problem finding each other.  Once rendezvoused, we decided to slow down and get off the lake at the first opportunity.
           We found the trail on the eastern side.  Where the trail forked west, we encountered a sad tableau.  A group of four sledders – two married couples - were clustered around a stricken sled.  They had stopped to look at the map and during start broke the start rope.  Jaybo saved the day.


He grabbed the spare starter rope out of our sparse tool kit and wrapped it around the drive clutch of and started it up.  We felt all proud and civic minded and helpful as we drove the last 10 miles back to the cabin. 
            One of the things one simply has to do while sledding is to visit the bars servicing the trails.  After a little research we went down the road to the Gogebic Lodge.  There we discovered Keeweenaw Widow Maker Black Ale.  Good stuff.
            The next morning the plan was for Jaybo and I to ride up through Bergland and further north to Lake Superior and the Porcupine Mountain area.  When Ann was a kid she used to ski there and it looked like a trail went up to the Lake of the Clouds overlook.   Ann and Velvet would follow us up and I would trade with her after lunch so she could ride.
             So we layered up and started up.   

An expensive day-long tragi-farce ensued.  Snowmobiles do not have a key.  They have a lanyard with a encoded plug that the sled recognizes.  Wrong code, the sled will not start.  You clip the lanyard to your person so that if you fall off, the lanyard pulls the plug and the engine shuts down.  Unnoticed, the plug had somehow gotten crushed out of shape – probably stepped on - since the previous ride and was not making a good contact with the sled.  It would start but all the electronic indications were bad and the sled ran very badly and backfired. 
            This resulted in a scene I’m sure was hilarious were I not personally involved in it.  Strong language and a haphazard trouble-shooting ‘process’ resulted finally in discovering the out of round bent plug.  Luckily, we had a spare.  Spare in place, the sled ran like a top.
            We hadn’t gone 3 miles when disaster truly struck.  Cruising north on Lake Gogebic Jaybo’s sled just stopped.  This is not good.  We took off the engine panel and discovered that the engine was jammed and would not turn over by hand.  This is really not good.  So we towed the stricken sled back to cabin and loaded it by hand onto the trailer to haul it up to Timberline Sports. 
            That’s when we broke off the plug that connects the trailer’s brake lights and turn signals to the truck.
            We forlornly hoped the dealer would tell us the lanyard was the problem.  It wasn’t and the fix would take days and cost a lot.  Crushed and angry, we bought a replacement trailer plug and turned to leave the shop.
            Then I noticed that the dealer’s wall advertised rental sleds.  I asked some questions and the nice dealer said he would pro-rate the rental to an hourly rate as long as we had the sled back by 8pm.  So we drove back down to the cabin, disconnected the trailer and collected our riding gear.  Jaybo drove the remaining sled back up to the dealer while Ann and I returned in the truck.  
            We rented a nice little 4 stroke Ski Doo sled that was a lot of fun.     


Setting a rendezvous point at the Superior Pub on the shores of Lake Superior, Ann took off with Velvet in the truck while Jaybo and I took off up Snowmobile Route 1 to meet her.  It was roughly a 35 mile ride up.  The first half was just gorgeous – the trails well groomed and thick with snow.  When we came over the rise and looked down the 15 miles to Lake Superior it was a wonderful vista.

            Then we hit the moguls.  I have since researched what causes snowmobile moguls.  Evidently when lots of sleds repeatedly hit a low spot the track digs in and throws snow back.  Repeat this over time and you get a non-periodic sinusoid that can be feet deep. The only way to fix this is with expensive groomers and the club that was responsible for the route had fallen on hard times.  The last 10-15 miles up to Lake Superior was bone jarring and miserable.
            Lake Superior is fascinating in winter.  Only in the most extremely cold winters does it ever freeze over.  Which is not the same thing as saying it doesn’t have ice.  The shores are lined with drift ice, piled ice and ice balls.  These make the shore line an interesting and dangerous place to walk.  Ann got up to the lake before we did and took Velvet out to explore the edges and collect driftwood.   We met her out next to the lake and took some nice photos.

            Then we went into the Superior Pub and had a nice lunch. 

            After lunch, Ann put on her snowmobile outfit and Velvet and I followed along the shore in the truck headed up towards Lake of the Clouds overlook.  The last 7 miles of the run are closed to autos - snowmobile only.  So while Jaybo and Ann ran up to the overlook Velvet and I had a nice walk in the snow around the closed Porcupine Mountain Ski Area.
            Ann and Jaybo came back down with a glowing review and that I had to go up.  So I swapped with Ann and she walked the dog.  Lake of the Clouds is a natural lake between two very high, steep cliffs.  It is beautiful in the summer and quite lovely in the winter.  The trail up is really the two lane asphalt road that cars drive in the summer.  It is a very nice snowmobile run.

            At this point, it was about an hour to sunset and I really didn’t want to pay rental fees for riding after dark.  So we set off back to Bergland to return the rental.  I was not really looking forward to the moguls.  I was very pleasantly surprised - Jaybo and I had the best 25 mile ride of our lives because we took a different trail.  The trail was like the ride up to the overlook - a closed two lane road.  We never got slower than 50 miles / hour and just skimmed along the wooded route.  It was pretty and smooth and really quite wonderful.  The early disasters seemed insignificant and I’m glad we did it.
            After we turned the rental in, we decided to see what the Hoop N Holler Bar was all about.  I took the sled back down to the lake and over to the bar.  It was easy to find as it was well it up on the lake side with a big fluorescent “Hoop N Holler” sign.  We had more Widow Maker and corn critters and a pleasant time discussing the day. 
            Then I got to navigate the inky black lake back to the cabin.  It was a really interesting feeling.  Gentle Reader, I have crossed both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean many times, at night, in the weather.  But the MD11 has modern GPS and INS systems.  Being out on Lake Gogebic at night, by myself, with no navigational equipment was a totally different story – it was totally Ded Reckoning.  I felt my way along looking at the lights of the cabins on the shore line and trying to remember what the lights of the West Shore Resort looked like.  In the back of my mind, I realized that if this sled quit, I’d be out on the snow covered ice, a long way from the shore in the dark.  I didn’t like it.
            About the time I thought that I might be seeing the resort lights, Jaybo drove down the ramp and flashed his high beams at me.  It was a comforting feeling.   
Ann cooked a nice meal and we went to bed.  The next morning I got up first and took Velvet out into the morning for her walk.

            We packed up and started to repair the trailer brake light plug.  That’s when we discovered that we had bought the wrong plug.  So, we drove back west with the brake lights out, broken plug in my pocket next to the receipt from the dealer, hoping that if we got stopped the Highway Patrol would believe our story.  Finally we found a NAPA parts store in Ironwood and fixed the plug. 
            We had a very nice meal in the very nice South Shore Brewery in Ashland, WI, just south of the Apostle Islands.  I only mention this because there was a painting of the Edmund Fitzgerald breaking in half on the wall behind our table.  It fit the mood.

            We went back to the cabin and cleaned up.  On the way out of Wisconsin we got these nice photos.

We called our snowmobile dealer back home on the way back and he stayed open for us to drop off the broken sled. 
            Gentle Reader, replacing a two cylinder two stroke snowmobile engine is not cheap. 

            On that happy note, I remain,

            Dad / Geoff

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Winter Sports

Gentle Readers,

This month, Jan 2012, I'm completely off work.  Because of my juniority in the Anchorage domicile I wound up 'getting' two vacations in the deep dark Alaskan winter.  So, I need to find something to do here in the frozen Minnesotan tundra to fill the time.  There hasn't been much snow so riding the snowmachines has been sparse.

Which brings me to this prediction by way of multiple choice question by John Leo sometime back....

The biathlon is a Winter Olympic event combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting.  Because of its popularity, the next winter games will add this event:
    a.  Sitz bath-and-shoot match.  (Jacuzzis and Uzis)
    b.  Bobsledding and grenade throwing
    c.  Speed skating and bazookas
    d.  Ice dancing and fragmentation bombing.

None of those came to be, but we did get Red Bull's Crashed Ice, which is almost as suicidal.  This year, Red Bull chose St Paul, MN to expand their racing and built a new track on the big hilly bluff that the city commands.  It's been all over the news for the last weeks.

Click here, here, and here please to read some of these stories.  That third link has some interesting videos.

This link has some great overhead pictures of the race course and the cathedral.

Last night was the final event.  Ann, Jaybo and I decided to go down and see what it was all about.  It was a clear, crisp cold night, 19°F or -7°C if you insist on measuring temperature in communist units. So we layered up in warm clothing, loaded up the urban assault vehicle and drove off to St Paul.

Once we were there, they announced that there were 80,000 attendees.  Please imagine that for a minute gentle reader.  It's dark, it's cold and 80K humans to include some children and a few dogs bundled up and went outside to watch a group of 100 or so unemployed hockey players skate down an icy chute at break neck speeds.  The hillside around the St Paul Cathedral was a sea of humanity.

Red Bull puts on a good show - and sells a non-trivial amount of product.  The layer of thin snow was ground into a dusty powder under the masses.  You could smell the cigar smoke, alcohol and other by-products of a lot of people having a good time.

The race itself seemed to be a secondary interest for the vast majority of the attendees.  Unless you position yourself so that you can see the several Jumbotrons showing the entirety of the race you only see small segments of the race course itself.  Most people were there to watch the human race, methinks.

I forgot to take a good camera, but I did pull out my 'droid and gamely tried to record some of the scene.  Here I am standing downhill from the cathedral looking back toward the course.

Here are Ann and Jaybo in roughly the same spot.

After that we moved up onto the cathedral steps to get a closer look.  Note the state capital across the valley and the sea of humanity.

This put us in position to see this snippet of the final heats of the race.

After the race, we had intended to walk back up to St Paul's bar district and warm up in at The Happy Gnome, one of my favorite institutions offering adult beverages.  It was everyone else's favorite too.  They were doing a booming business so we left and and went to Eagan's Granite City Brewery where we arrived just in time to see the Tebow story die.  But that's another tale.....

I'm glad we went to see this.  If you are silly enough to live in Minnesota, you either sit indoors all winter and go quietly crazy or you find ways to enjoy the great outdoors.  Good clothing is the key.

On that happy note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff