The Cure for the Extended Winter Doldrums

It snowed again.  And again.  That was our weekend, and our start to the week.  I really shouldn’t complain, but misery loves company, and Northern Minnesota has a lot of miserable company as April continues its snowy reign.

Because my faithful four-legged friend was short-changed for exercise this week, between work and family activity schedules . . . (high school track season has begun — of course, the first outdoor meet was canceled due to snow on the track) . . . I promised him a nice hike Sunday afternoon at Gooseberry Falls State Park rather than our usual local routes.

Before heading up the North Shore, I decided to call the ski venue where I lost my prescription sunglasses at a nordic ski meet earlier this winter, and remarkably, they had found their way to lost and found — when they had not emerged in the days following the race, I had written them off as lost forever!  So, a change of plans, with an afternoon loop up to the Iron Range, then down the Superior National Forest Scenic Byway, and finally along the North Shore to Gooseberry Falls. With no other interested day trippers in the family, my favorite lab and I headed out the door and hit the road.

Northern Minnesota's highways

We took the more scenic route for our “lost and found” errand — mile after mile of evergreen-lined highways with some fresh snow still precariously clinging to the tree branches, blue sky finally breaking through the layers of gray that blanketed the landscape for days — was that a sense of optimism I could feel stirring?

A quick break at a roadside pullout, retrieve sunglasses, briefly check messages on the phone before looping on to our hiking destination, and . . . optimism gone — how could we possibly owe that much in taxes?  A first-world problem, I know, but one that soured my afternoon, nonetheless.  I sat in the car, debating whether I wanted to spend the next 90 minutes winding our way down to Gooseberry, with another 45 minutes or so home after that.  “Screw it,” I thought, “we can just head back home now, and walk one of our usual routes.”  But, have you ever looked into the face of a hopeful lab, sure that the next time the car door opens, paradise awaits?  How could I say no?  Sour mood and all, we continued on our way.

Minnesota's Sawtooth Range in the distance
Minnesota’s Sawtooth Range in the distance

I have rarely driven the Superior National Forest Scenic Byway.  On this Sunday afternoon, we passed perhaps two cars traveling in the opposite direction during our time on the byway.  It was peaceful.  We saw a beautiful bald eagle perched in a tree alongside the highway.  The road twisted and turned, with the Sawtooth Mountains (remember, we are in Minnesota, use the term “mountain” loosely) appearing on the horizon, letting us know Lake Superior was not far beyond.  I found myself smiling as I enjoyed the scenery, chatted with my furry friend, and listened to my favorite music through my iPod.

Then my trusty friend threw up.  No, really.  My smile gone, I finally dared to glance into the back seat.  He had seemed a little antsy, but I figured he just needed a few minutes to run off some steam and make himself comfortable again.  We found a spot near a nordic ski trailhead, just off the highway, and as soon as he jumped back into the car, and I sat down in the driver’s seat, he threw up.  He was so embarrassed and apologetic about it, poor guy.  Perhaps the ugly tentacles of the winter doldrums had reached his gastrointestinal system?  I cleaned it up best I could (OK, I admit to feeling some gratitude for the snow about then), and we once again hit the road for the remaining drive as the afternoon hours turned to evening.

Lake Superior in the distance
Lake Superior in the distance

The novelty of catching that first glimpse of Lake Superior as we come over a crest of the road never grows old — no matter where we travel from, that big body of water captivates a person like few things do.   Once again, glimmers of hope and optimism struggled to emerge, reminding me to be grateful for scenes like this so close to home.

Gooseberry Falls is a much-loved, heavily trafficked State Park.  Pulling into their large visitor center parking lot and seeing only three cars is a rare sight, one that we welcomed. Not so sure the pair grazing under the bird feeder welcomed the sight of my four-legged companion and me, but we only briefly disturbed them by pausing for a photo, before we continued on down the path to the Falls.

Gooseberry Falls State Park Visitor Center

Ahh, the joy of a black lab galloping in the snow!  He was right that we needed to continue on our way, and not let the doldrums of daily life and our extended winter interfere with finding joy.

Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gooseberry River ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park

After crossing the Gooseberry River, we headed up the often snow-packed, sometimes slippery steps to the river overlook trail.

Gooseberry Falls State Park - trail to the Falls overlook

Other than a photographer capturing a close shot of the semi-frozen falls, we had the park to ourselves it seemed. The rushing water had only begun to emerge from beneath its frozen winter crust.  Another warm day or two, and the bulk of its winter coating would melt and wash down the river.

Gooseberry Falls ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gooseberry Falls

I remember hiking this path when my boys were young.  The trail is quite narrow and precarious in spots, high above the river valley.  Rambunctious, danger-oblivious boys and girls were the motivation behind the prominent warning sign on the overlook trail.

Gooseberry Falls State Park ~ Falls overlook trail

The views are why it is a trail that one can hike again and again, never growing tired of the changing scenery as it moves from one season to the next, as the water runs high or low, as the lake in the distance shines blue or blends into the gray horizon.  What a gift.

Gooseberry Falls overlook trail

Best of all was our departing scene.  A pinkish glow separated the lake from the sky above it, off in the distance at the end of the winding, frozen river bed.  We walked past the visitor center and its interesting “River, Lake, Falls and Forest” nature art column crafted from a 100+ year-old fir timber, with plant and animal images hand cut out of recycled copper, aluminum, and brass.

"River, Lake, Falls and Forest" nature art column ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park

And then, silently standing just beyond the column, was one of the friends who greeted us as we arrived.  He (or she) stood as if he were part of a winter postcard scene, so beautifully framed by the birch as the river valley opened up behind him.  I felt a sense of peace and contentment as we said goodbye, and was reminded of what was important in life.

Deer at Gooseberry Falls State Park,  Minnesota

Ciao! ~ Kat

Fifth Falls Trail: Gooseberry Falls State Park

Gooseberry Falls is one of Minnesota’s iconic State Parks.  We have hiked the well-worn trail along the edges of the Falls and Gooseberry River countless times; it never gets old.  This classic view (below), however, is one we left behind for one of our two geocaching hikes last weekend.  Instead, we followed the Fifth Falls Trail inland, in pursuit of one of the Avian Adventure geocaches (so that we could end the weekend with only 80 left to check off the list before June of 2014 — as you may recall, the other geocaching hike of the weekend was the lovely Tettegouche Lake Overlook Trail).

Gooseberry Falls ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota
Gooseberry Falls ~ circa 2008

The grasses and wildflowers were close to peak color along the forest floor.  I am always fascinated by the twisted, craggy trunks of the old cedar trees, their graying bark standing in stark contrast to the colors of the forest surrounding them.

Gooseberry Falls State Park ~ Fifth Falls Trail

Moving inland away from Lake Superior’s cool breeze, we broke a sweat as we hiked along, and as soon as our lab sensed water was nearby, he started tugging at the leash.  For some reason, I thought it would be more convenient to put my trusty friend on the jogging leash (hands-free, attaching around my waist with a bungee-type extension leading to the dog), and free my hands for the camera and water bottle.  It was convenient, until we reached the river’s edge, and I stupidly did not unhook him to jump off a small rocky ledge into a slow-moving pool of water upstream from the falls.  I instinctively held my camera safely above my head, so only my elbow nailed the rock as he jumped  . . . there may have been a few profanities unleashed as well as the dog at that point.  My son wisely did not say a word.

Gooseberry River, upriver from Fifth Falls ~ Minnesota

The water level is incredibly low with the lack of rain we have had in recent weeks, leaving much of the rocky river bed exposed to view.  Moving downstream from the falls provided great views of the interesting small caves and openings along the steep river banks.

Fifth Falls ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota

Fifth Falls ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota

Fifth Falls ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota

After locating the geocache, and tucking away the biome bird card as proof of the “find”, we headed back along the Gooseberry River.

Fifth Falls Trail ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota

Gooseberry River ~ Fifth Falls Trail (Minnesota)

Although we have just dipped our toes into this Minnesota State Park geocaching challenge, it already is proving to be an enjoyable way to see different parts of the parks we have visited for years.  The challenge also will take us to numerous parks we have never explored despite living in the state for over twenty years — the Garden Island State Recreation Area cache on an island nineteen miles from shore in the middle of the Lake of the Woods will take a little planning!

Fifth Falls Trail ~ Gooseberry Falls State Park, Minnesota

Two down, eighty geocaching challenges to go . . . but what a delightful way to explore Minnesota’s diverse outdoor offerings!

Ciao! ~ Kat