We have been up to the Ironwood area skiing three times already this year. This is by far the earliest we have skied in a number of years. The ABR Ski Trails are already a winter wonderland with over seven feet of snow so far this season.
When TV news reports show over four feet of snow on the ground in Northern Wisconsin it can only mean one thing. Ski Trip!!! This is the earliest we have been skiing since the Halloween Blizzard of 1991 that dumped over three feet of snow on the farm.
As things worked out we had tickets for the Dang-its performance of Sweet Dreams & Honky Tonks Revue at the Park Center in Hayward, Wisconsin on Saturday Night. A large crowd was treated to the songs of Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and a brief history of each.
The next morning we were up early for the drive to ABR in Ironwood, Michigan. ABR is the premier cross country ski area in the Midwest. They had been struggling to get the trails groomed because the ground was not frozen and they had been getting over a foot of snow every day. They did have open 40 km of trails. Some were still closed because of the ground and it was deer hunting season in Michigan.
There were quite a few folks out getting their ski legs on their first ski of the season. It was mainly overcast with the sun breaking through late in the morning. At twenty degrees it was just right for skiing. A rare selfie.
Apostle Islands Ice Caves:
Normally I’m complaining about the lack of a good winter but this year we have had a fantastic winter. Every winter I look forward to photographing the Apostle Island Ice Caves but this is the first year since 2009 that they have been accessible from the ice on Lake Superior. I was very surprised when I checked the middle of January and found that the ice caves were already open. Normally they don’t open until January but with the cold weather they were early this year.
We immediately drove up to Cornucopia to visit the caves. This was followed by two other visits to the caves. We weren’t the only ones visiting the caves. Thanks to social media more than 140 thousand people visited the caves before they closed in mid March.
In-spite of the large number of people visiting the caves I was able to get some great photos and, for the first time, my wife was able to visit the caves. As you can see by the number of blogs I wrote on the subject this was my favorite winter activity.
Bald Eagle Watching:
The cold weather has been a boon for Bald Eagle watching since it concentrated the eagles in areas where there was open water. This winter we spent time visiting three locations along the Mississippi River to watch Eagles. Our most productive location was Covill Park in Red Wing, Minnesota where we always saw eagles. There were also a large number of ducks that provided entertainment when the eagle watching slowed down. The water is always open below the heating plant above Covill Park so the eagles and ducks hang out in this area.
The second best location was Reads Landing in Minnesota. On three occasions we saw large numbers of Eagles at this location. We also saw Trumpeter Swans that were hanging out in this section of the river. Viewing at this location slowed down as the winter progressed.
Alma, Wisconsin was the least productive area we visited. We only saw a significant number of eagles on one visit. On several other visits we didn’t see any eagles or only saw a few. I found this a difficult area to photograph eagles because you are usually looking into the sun.
I wrote a number of blogs describing our visits to these locations.
Trumpeter Swans Watching:
We made a number of trips to Hudson, Wisconsin to watch the Trumpeter Swans. Several people had mentioned that Trumpeter Swans hung out on the St. Croix river but didn’t know the exact location. We eventually found them in downtown Hudson.
Because of the very cold weather they were hanging out it a very small area of open water close to shore during the coldest part of the winter. You could walk down along the shore and photograph them and they didn’t seem to be the least concerned with your presence.
Lake Superior Ship Watching:
The very cold weather resulted in a lot of ice on Lake Superior. The early ice made for some great opportunities to photograph ships in the cold weather. One of my favorite year around activities is ship watching in Duluth and Superior Harbors so being able to photograph them working in ice was a great adventure.
We were able to watch ships arrive in the harbor during the very cold winter.
The Coast Guard Cutters were very active this winter and I was able to see them in action as they were breaking the ice and anchored in the harbor.
Tug Boats were also required to help break the ice when the Coast Guard was not available.
A large number of ships are in the Duluth/Superior docks either being repaired or for winter layup.
The long winter will continue into spring as the ice breakers are working to free the harbor of ice and the ships in layup are waiting to head out for the 2014 shipping season. The season should start in the next couple of weeks.
Rush River Ice Formations:
I discovered the Rush River Ice Formations this winter. What a wonderful place to visit. A local land owner has run piping around his property tapping into underground springs. At about two dozen locations on the property he has run vertical pipes with holes drilled into them. The result are some spectacular ice formations.
Long Ski Season:
For the second year in a row we have been blessed with a lot of snow. The difference this year is that the ski season started at Thanksgiving and has continued into March. With a little luck we should be able squeeze in at least one more ski trip this year.
Our favorite location this year was the ABR Ski Trails because they usually receive early snow and they do the best job of grooming of any ski location. They are usually able to have good skiing even after warm weather because they have equipment to break up the trail in icy conditions and lay a new track.
We also skied at The After Hours Ski Trails in Brule a number of times this year. This is a great location because of the large number of trails and its close proximity to Duluth.
We discovered the Boulder Lake Ski Trails near Duluth and made sever visits to these trails. There are enough trails to provide a nice day of skiing without skiing the same trail twice.
We only made one visit, to what we consider, the most beautiful ski trails in the Midwest. These are the Swedetown Ski Trails in Calument, Michigan. They get more snow and beautiful light fluffy snow than anyplace else.
The day after Thanksgiving we took our first ski trip of the season. It was almost a month earlier than last season. Of course last season ended with a blizzard the first week of May.
Our first trip was to ABR in Ironwood, Michigan. It was about the only place with snow and it was crowded with anxious skiers. They had almost three feet of snow by the time we arrived. The skiing was good but the snow was still a little soft.
Last weekend we drove over to Brule, Wisconsin to ski on the After Hours Ski Trails. Surprisingly it wasn’t crowded. There was a lot of traffic on the roads but most of the people seemed to be heading to Duluth for a little Christmas shopping. The trails were good but it was very cold. The thermometer at the trailhead read 0 degrees.
In the winter we frequently travel to the U.P. of Michigan to cross country ski. The reason we like to ski the U.P. is the large amount of snow they get each winter. This year things were off to a slow start but recently it has really started coming down. What amazes me is how it poles up on stumps along the ski trails. Photographing stumps covered with large amounts of snow is one of my favorite activities when skiing the U.P.
It’s been a tough winter for cross country skiing. Things looked promising in December when we received 18 inches of snow. The trails were groomed and it looked like it was going to be a great season. Then the weather turned warm and it rained. If we can’t ski around here we normally go up to the U.P. of Michigan. Things were off to a slow start up there as well. They had some nice snow early in the season but was also followed by warm weather and rain. It wasn’t until mid January that the snow really started falling. We decided that this might be a good time to head to the U.P. for some skiing before it rained again or the winter was over.
Our first stop was ABR Ski Trails in Ironwood Michigan. ABR has the most extensive trail system in the western U.P. While we were purchasing our tickets I notice all of the grooming equipment parked by the chalet. ABR is known for its grooming and sells and tests equipment as well as offering training for other groomers. They seem to have a little of everything.
We had skied ABR a few weeks earlier but really noticed the difference in the amount of snow on the ground. I was a mostly overcast day but the snow was probably the best we have seen it since we skied the area after a three foot snowfall.
The next morning was a beautiful day but looked like it was going to be warm. We headed over to the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State park to check on conditions. We have skied the Porkies trails several times and usually found them challenging. We typically ski the outer loop and several times have found the trails to be very icy at the lower elevations. Another time there had been strong winds the night before and the trails were littered with debris. As we started out there was a beautiful deep blue ski and not a cloud to be seen.
A couple of days before the Porkies had received some nice fresh snow and the ranger indicated the groomer was out finishing up grooming the trails. It was starting to get warm and it turned out it reached the mid 30’s by the end of the day.
The warm weather made for some challenging skiing. Our wax was grabbing even at the start of the day. As we skied the trail we encountered an increasing amount of debris falling from the trees. Large clumps of heavy wed snow were falling from the trees onto the trail making it difficult to stay in the ski tracks. In addition, large branches were also coming down with the snow. It was a challenge to avoid being hit by falling debris and avoid the large snow clumps on the trail.
The next day we skied the Swedetown Ski Trails in Calumet, Michigan. Again it was a little warm and the glide was not a good as we would have liked. It was snowing out a bit so there was several inches of fresh snow on the trail. Swedetown always has some of the best snowfall in the U.P.
Because the winds were supposed to pick up later in the day we decided to ski the trails that were the most open during the morning. After skiing for several hours we took a hot chocolate break at mid day.
In the afternoon we skied the Back Country Trail. This is our favorite trail to ski. It is packed occasionally and our preference it to ski it with 4-5 inches of fresh snow on it to get more of a back country feel. On this particular day it only had a few inches of fresh snow and another skier had skied part of it. We also encountered an unusual amount of brush at the start of the trail and more debris on the trail than we had on earlier trips.
While we had some challenging skiing on this trip it was finally great to get out and get some skiing in.
I returned home, from the North Shore, for one day before heading out again. This time my wife and I took a long weekend ski trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We don’t have any snow for cross country skiing in our areas and the closest good snow is in Ironwood so that was our first stop. We arrived around noon and after a quick lunch headed out to ABR for an afternoon of skiing.
It was cold with the air temperatures in the teens, strong winds and a wind chill -20. It was overcast with flat light. One of the things I like about skiing in the U.P. is that the trees are usually covered with a lot of snow. Not much of that with the wind blowing 20 mph. The shot on the right was taken on an earlier trip to ABR. The trails were in good shape considering there was about 4 inches of fresh snow and the wind was really blowing. In spite of the conditions there were a fair number of skiers out. It was cold but we had a great time.
On Saturday we planned to ski the entire day at ABR. We knew it was going to be really cold again. It was 5 degrees when we reached the ski trails with strong winds again. ABR does and excelled job of grooming and all of the trails had been freshly groomed and tracked and with the cold weather they were hard. Fortunately the sun was out so it made it a little bit warmer. In fact we both were a little warm by midday and had to adjust out layers. There were quite a few skiers out training for the American Birkebeiner ski race with comes up in a few weeks. We skied a number of trails that we hadn’t been on before and had a great day of skiing.
On Sunday we drove up to Houghton, Michigan. I was the Winter Carnival weekend at Michigan Tech. When our son was attending Michigan Tech we never made it up to see the ice sculptures so we took this opportunity to stop and seen them. There was some great sculptures. This photo was part of a larger sculpture depicting the logging industry. The temperature was in the 20’s but a strong wind made it a little cool. Wind gusts were as high as 40 mph.
After walking around campus we headed off to Swedetown for some more cross country skiing. We arrived around noon. The sun was out which is a rare thing to happen when we visit Swedetown. The wind was also blowing very hard. In the open areas the tracks were filled in with snow but overall conditions were good. We skied some of the trails that we skied during our last visit but with the clear blue skies were didn’t recognize the trails. Usually when we are skiing it is overcast and snowing. Unfortunately the strong winds had blown the snow off of the trees which, for us, is a prime reason for skiing Swedetown.
On Monday we headed for home with only one stop on the schedule. That was Bond Falls. Bond Falls is one of the best known and most frequently photographed waterfalls in the U.P. During fall color season it is overloaded with photographers. In the winter there are still visitors but not nearly as many. In my opinion winter is the best time to visit the falls because there are so many ice patterns and ice sculptures to photograph. I’ll have more about winter photography at Bond Falls in my next blog.