Category: Life at Tuscarora Lodge

We’ll take you behind the scenes at Tuscarora Lodge and Canoe Outfitters for a glimpse of everyday life along the Gunflint Trail in northeastern MN. Here are our thoughts, reflections, and rambles about life on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

When The Sun Doesn’t Shine on My Ol’ Kentucky Home

So I went to the Kentucky Derby back in May. 

During my childhood I’d always go over to my grandma’s to watch the Derby on the first Saturday of May and in adulthood, I’ll use it as an excuse to mix up a mint julep, but to say Derby Day is integral to my springtime traditions is a stretch. Although, I suppose maybe that’ll change now that I’ve been part of the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”

The decision to attend this year’s Derby was based around my goal of visiting all 50 states (only 11 to go) and while deciding to attend the Derby in order to check off Kentucky was an easy decision, it turns out figuring out how to attend the Kentucky Derby is more complicated.

We started planning the trip in late September last year and while one would think nearly nine months out from the actual event would be plenty of time to figure out logistics, apparently by Kentucky Derby standards we were basically cutting it to the wire. In the end, we opted for a package deal through Derby Experiences. It seemed like the most straightforward way to accomplish our primary objectives of sitting in a chair at Churchill Downs (aka, not standing in the allegedly unruly infield crowd), securing a hotel room (prices are crazy inflated for Derby weekend), and oh yeah, actually getting tickets to the Derby.

The steep price to pay for attending the event that synonymous with a state doesn’t stop at hotel rooms. Flight costs to Louisville over Derby weekend are insanely inflated (aka: you could fly round trip to Australia for less) and while it’s a little cheaper to fly into the closest cities of Indianapolis or Cincinnati, in the end, the most economical option was to fly into Dayton, OH and road trip from there. The packed interstate on the drive back to Dayton on Sunday afternoon told us, we weren’t the only ones with this “budget travel” idea. 

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Other things I learned about the Derby as I prepared for the trip is that the Derby is a lot more than just the one televised race on Saturday evening. I sort of assumed that there were other races on the track leading up to the Derby race, but didn’t realize that it was a multi-day horse racing festival. While we missed Thurby festivities (races, a parade, and parties on Thursday somewhat tailored towards the local crowd), we were at Churchill Downs all day for both Oaks Day (Friday) and the actual Derby on Saturday.

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The Friday before the Derby – Oaks Day – is devoted racing three-year-old thoroughbred fillies . . . aka, lady horses. Although fillies can opt to run in the Derby and three have actually won the race, the vast majority of horses in the Derby are three-year-old colts and geldings. It’s traditional to wear pink on Friday as a nod to the fillies.
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 (In this picture, it’s about 80 degrees with 110% humidity, but stay tuned . . . .) 

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The weather forecast never looked great for Derby Day and the morning dawned rainy and cold. 

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It’s hard to tell in this photo, but the condensation is frozen on that mint julep glass. 

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What do you do when it’s pouring rain on Derby Day at Churchill Downs? You accept a  clear plastic poncho as part of your ensemble and carry on. 

We didn’t bet much on Oaks Day, mostly because we weren’t sure what we were doing, but we did both bet on the actual Oaks race and when my pick for “show” came in third and I was rewarded with actual cash money ($4.85 to be exact), we realized that betting was a pretty simple and cheap way to increase your interest in any given race. (The minimum bet you can place is $2 and we stuck to the $3-5 range for all our bets.)  With the steady rainfall, we spent the day packed under roofs near the betting booths and concession stands with all the other people from our open air seating section and adopted a highly personal algorithm of horse names we liked, odds, and expert picks to place our bets. It should be noted, that while we both came out ahead with our bets, attending the Kentucky Derby is in no way a money making venture. 

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By the time our shuttle bus rolled out of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, we knew we’d been part of a historic event: it had rained 3 inches, making it the rainiest Kentucky Derby ever.

It wasn’t until June 9 (Belmont Stakes) that the significance of the race we’d watched really sunk in. That’s when Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner.  I’m happy to report that he was pick to win “across the board” on Derby Day and it was fun to watch him continue to dominate at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. 

I doubt I’ll return to Churchill Downs for another Derby, not even to see if we might get better weather. Unless you’re a horse racing fanatic, the Derby falls pretty squarely in the “bucket list” category of travel experience. But I’ll always be glad I went for a fun, albeit soggy, experience. 

What You Need to Know About Blueberry Season on the Gunflint Trail

The Second Annual Biggest Blueberry Contest on the Gunflint Trail is just around the corner. Blueberry season, aka “the most wonderful time of the year,” is celebrated by Gunflint Trail residents and visitors alike. This plentiful wild edible is a staple of a Northwoods diet and picking berries is a favorite Gunflint Trail pastime.  

Around here, our measurement unit of choice for blueberries is gallons. You can have your cups, your pints, your handfuls of blueberries to toss on oatmeal. We’re in it to win it. And by win it, we mean, enough blueberries in the freezer to have a pie every month of the year. 

While we’re not about to tell you where our favorite berry patches are, here’s some berry season insight to help you play with the blueberry picking big dogs. 
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I personally use July 20th as the Gunflint Trail blueberry season’s official start date because more often than not, there’s a pick-able amount of ripe blueberries then. However, I usually wait until the first week of August before heading out picking myself because I prefer not to have to pick around unripe berries. Most years, ripe berries remain on the plants through the end of August, although they will start to shrivel and become overripe, making picking a little trickier if you wait until the late season. 

Of course, in years with very early springs (i.e. 2010 and 2012) the berry season can be bumped up by as much as a full month. Although that’s certainly not a risk this year, keep in mind that if area lakes were mostly ice-free by mid-April,  you could very well be picking blueberries over Fourth of July weekend. 
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Blueberries aren’t a particularly finicky plant (after all, they’re Northwoods natives:  they’re tough by nature) but a bumper crop is dependent on the plants get just the right amounts of sunshine, heat, and rain. The worst weather event that can befall blueberry plants is a late frost that kills the berry blossoms. A low rain summer yields small berries, but too much rain results in less flavorful berries.

You can find blueberry plants throughout Cook County and northern Minnesota, but the bushes are particularly plentiful along the upper Gunflint Trail where the bushes prefer the jack pine forest and sandy soil ecosystem on this part of the Trail. Basically, if you take a left off the Round Lake Road and head towards the end of the Trail, you’ll be in prime blueberry territory. 

When you’re scoping out a berry picking spot, watch for south facing slopes with a little shade so the berries can retain moisture and plump up. For the most plentiful berries, take a few steps off the hiking trail or preferably get in a canoe and paddle down a Boundary Waters lake. Favorite berry picking spots include the Magnetic Rock hiking trail, Seagull Lake, and the Granite River. 

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Gunflint Trail blueberry season first-timers might be a little confused about what blueberry season is all about. Blueberry season is an informal event around here. You don’t need any permits or to pay any picking fees. You’re also completely on your own for finding berry patches: this is no “u-pick berry farm” situation. Once you know that all the cars parked along the side of the Gunflint Trail belong to berry pickers who are deep in the forest, you’ll realize just how many places there are to pick blueberries. 

Really, the only rule for picking blueberries on the Gunflint Trail is to make sure you’re on public land. The Superior National Forest map that can be purchased for about $10 at the Gunflint Ranger District office is a great resource for helping you know when you’re on National Forest land.

IMG_2367You’ll need to provide your own berry picking containers. Gallon sized ice cream buckets with lids (to prevent spillage when you walk over the rocky terrain back to your car) are the berry picking vessel of choice around here. 

One very legitimate worry among first-time berry pickers is whether or not they’ll be able to identify the berries. The question I tell people to ask before they eat a berry that is a blue color is: Is it wearing a crown? All edible blueberries have a puckered blossom mark on their bottoms (non-stem side). Whether you find actual blueberries or if you happen upon some huckleberries or juneberries, if the berry’s wearing a crown, it’s edible . . . and delicious. 

But if you find a large, completely smooth, navy blue berry on a long stalk, don’t pick it. That’s a blue bead lily (or clintonia) and while it won’t kill you, you might end the day with an upset tummy if you eat it. Luckily, clintonia are a completely different color and have completely different foliage from blueberry plants so once you know how to identify them, you will never confuse the two plants. 

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Tuscarora Lodge is an “official weigh station” for the Biggest Blueberry Contest, so swing by after your day in the berry patch to enter the contest. We promise we won’t ask you where you picked the berry and we’ll even let you eat it after it’s weighed. Happy picking!

Watch the video below to come along on one of our berry picking adventures!

On Returning To A Favorite Place

This April, I finally made it back to one of my favorite places in the world: Louisburgh, Ireland.  A town of 600 on the southern shore of Clew Bay, Louisburgh was my home for fourteen weeks during my sophomore year of college. 

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Betsy and I at Turlin Strand on a very windy day

A little back story: Betsy and I were freshman roommates at the College of St. Scholastica and both participated in Scholastica’s “Spring in Ireland” study abroad program, but did so two years apart. We’d been talking about going back together basically since the minute Betsy got home in 2007. About five years ago, we had fairly concrete travel plans, but life happened and it wasn’t until this winter that we finally decided there was no better time for our Irish adventure then now.

If you’re familiar with Ireland, but have never heard of Louisburgh, you’re not alone! Louisburgh lies 12 miles west of Westport in County Mayo and originated as a “planned town” dating back only to the late 18th century. Coincidentally, my great-grandfather was born about 20 miles away in Castlebar and Betsy’s family farm (yep, still in the family) is located just on the other side of Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain that dominates the landscape. It’s a corner of Ireland still not particularly developed for tourists, although Croagh Patrick attracts plenty of religious (and nonreligious) pilgrims, there’s world class salmon fishing inland, and surfers flock to the Atlantic beaches whenever “surf’s up.” 

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It’s always slightly tricky business returning to a place that was very important to you and is filled with so many memories. As the years have passed, Louisburgh has taken on a kind of dreamlike quality and sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction in my memories. Often when we return to a place after a long time away, I think we can be somewhat underwhelmed with our return experience not because the place has drastically changed but because our tricky, twisty memories have morphed it into something it never was.

But Betsy and I both found that reality matched up with our memories pretty closely. The people were as kind (and reserved) as I remembered, the walk from the cottages to town was the distance I expected, the beaches and river looked the same. I swear the Airlink bus route from the Dublin Airport to Heuston train station has changed though . . . .

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Betsy and I learned a lot about returning to a favorite place on this trip and one of our biggest takeaways was that even the shortest trip is better than no trip. In fact, a quick trip might even be preferable, at least for the first return trip.

Of course, we sing the praises of the short but sweet trip now, but the truth of it is that Betsy and I were both at the mercy of the weather gods and the airlines when it came to the length of our trip. We were scheduled to fly out on Saturday April 14 – a day now known as the day Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport was closed for the longest time in its history due to a snow storm that stretched from the upper Midwest to the Atlantic. While I was able to make it to my departure airport (Thunder Bay), by the time I got there, no planes were flying into Toronto and my flight was delayed . . .  by 50 hours. Long story short: Betsy managed to fly out of MSP on Sunday afternoon, while I didn’t make it out of Thunder Bay until Monday night and then almost missed my connecting flight in Toronto.  The fact that we both made it to Louisburgh was cause of much celebration in and of itself. 

Suffice it to say, we had zero time for faffing about. This very short trip (six days, five nights) forced us to really think about what we absolutely wanted to do and see.

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Perhaps the thing that worked best for us was having simple, easily attainable goals that could be achieved rain or shine. 

Goals like:

  • Walk back from the pub in the dark
  • Eat a chicken sandwich from Durkan’s deli
  • Find sea glass on the beach
  • Go to the beach every day
  • Go for a very long walk 

By focusing on things that didn’t depend on weather or others, we actually accidentally unlocked “The Perfect Irish Day” one day. Our activities that day included a hike out to a 900 year old abbey and graveyard on the edge of town, afternoon tea at a new coffee shop, sitting outside our cottage in the sun near the blooming gorse bush, watching the sunset over Clew Bay, giving directions to fellow Americans, and going back to the cottage for a chat in front of the peat fire.  

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I think it’s also important to expect and accept change when you return to a favorite place. 

I turned 20 during my semester in Ireland so I’ve maybe changed a teensy bit since I lived in Ireland. It’s only fair to expect Louisburgh to change a little bit in that amount of time as well. Quite honestly, I’d be worried if we’d both stayed exactly the same.

In fact, many of the things that had changed were among our favorite things from this trip. There were more dining options (praise be!) and more small businesses, including a bookshop and a gift shop focusing on local sourced crafts. A decade ago, you had to get yourself to Westport to do any shopping of note, so it was wonderful to be able to keep our Euros right in Louisburgh. We noticed an increased focus on adventure travel and saw far more tourists than a decade ago. The town had also made some infrastructure changes to make the town more pedestrian friendly. Despite calling the new bridge across the Bunowen River an “abomination,” it really was nice to be able to cross the river on a sidewalk rather than sprinting across a one-lane bridge and hoping for the best.  

But the really important things are just as they always were . . .  the beaches, the views of Croagh Patrick, the sheep dotting the field, and walking into town for a pint at Joe Mac’s and a chat with (the ageless) Joe Mac himself in the evening.

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Perhaps the happiest takeaway from the trip was the reminder of just how much we each enjoy this corner of the world. It refreshed our memories on how relatively simple it is to travel in Ireland and it certainly got our minds churning with ideas for future trips. 

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Of course, it might be another ten years until I return again, but Louisburgh, I’ll be back. 

Round Lake is Ice-Free!

If you’re here looking for current ice conditions on Gunflint Trail lakes, we finally have good news to share. As of this morning – May 8, 2018 – Round Lake is ice-free. With a soft steady rain currently falling, the remaining little icebergs should dissolve quickly.

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The lake was mostly open yesterday, but wind pushed the remaining ice into the eastern shore of Round Lake, effectively icing us in. However, last night, we took one of the new motorboats for its inaugural spin. After “ice-breaking” through about 200 yards of rotten “candled” ice, we made it to the open part of the lake, where we joined a pair of loons and a beaver. 

Round Lake May 7 2018

In the name of ice out reconnaissance, we hiked over the Missing Link portage, which was alternately mucky or covered in slippery hard snow pack. We found Missing Link wide open, but the low water levels on both Round and Missing Link Lakes and the brook running between those two lakes likely indicate that Tuscarora Lake has not opened up yet. However if you have a Missing Link BWCAW permit for fishing opener weekend, you will definitely be able to do some paddling, but right now what you’ll find on Tuscarora Lake is a “choose your own adventure” sort of situation for the new couple days. 

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In case you need further confirmation that it’s been a very long winter, keep in mind that Round Lake iced over on November 8, 2017, which sets today’s ice out date just one day short of six full months of ice coverage on Round Lake.

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Happy paddling!

Visiting the Boundary Waters’ Birthplace

Last month, Andy and I had a chance to visit the birthplace of the Boundary Waters. It’s the birthplace of a lot of other things too. 

If you’re imagining something like the Mississippi headwaters in Itasca State Park with its official sign when you think of the birthplace of the Boundary Waters, think again. Chances are, even if you’ve never visited this birthplace in person, you’ve seen it countless times in the media. It might seem a little strange that the Boundary Waters – America’s most popular wilderness area – traces its beginnings to a completely manmade structure of stone, columns, and steps in a very urban setting. 
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Nevertheless, the place that birthed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the United States Capitol in Washington D.C.

Sure, the lakes and rocks of northeastern Minnesota have existed for millennia, but the fact that today we go on canoe or hiking trips in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the direct result of U.S. legislators’ work in the 20th century. Without the federal legislative action taken in the 1960s and 70s, today when you checked in for a cabin at Tuscarora, you might be checking in for a cabin actually located on Tuscarora Lake and we’d work with you to motor and portage your party and your gear over the two portages between our parking lodge on Round Lake and your cabin on Tuscarora Lake. When you parked here for your winter camping trip, you might be planning to snowmobile all the way into Gillis Lake. 

Of course, the cabins that Tuscarora Lodge used to own on Tuscarora Lake are long gone, but at the end of the day, the only thing preventing you from using motors within the designated wilderness area is a federal law. (And we should all strive to be law-abiding citizens at every level of government.) At the risk of sounding too esoteric, the Boundary Waters is just an idea. A very good idea, but an abstract concept nonetheless. 

So while the trees, waters, and rocks on either side of the Boundary Waters border might look basically identical when you’re in northeastern Minnesota, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as we know it today is the result of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act that President Carter signed into law in 1978. In order to achieve the protections that U.S. citizens wanted for the Minnesota/Canada boundary lake country, the BWCAW act officially defined 1.1 million acres contained within the Superior National Forest as “Boundary Waters.” The 1978 act came after decades of state and federal legislative action that slowly worked to define the Boundary Waters as one of the United States’ most special and beloved natural areas. 

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Northeastern Minnesota was certainly a contentious place in the late 1970s when the Boundary Waters were being debated at the federal level. But it’s nice to think that the resulting wilderness area came about from concerned citizens and area business owners working together with their legislators and compromising. Today we’re still afforded the opportunity to voice any concerns we might have about the Boundary Waters with our elected officials. (If you’re curious to learn more about the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, you can check out this podcast from WTIP which specifically discusses how Gunflint Trail residents were involved with the bill’s passage.)  

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We were only in Washington D.C. for three nights and we weren’t organized enough to  make arrangements to watch Congress or the Senate in session. But we did tour the Capitol building and I donned my brightest plaid shirt for the occasion – a subtle nod to the 1970s Gunflint Trail business owners who wore buffalo plaid shirts whenever they visited to the Capitol to lobby about the BWCAW bill. 

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We were on a purely sightseeing visit to Washington D.C., but despite this, I was surprised at how effective the city was – with its grand buildings and innumerable monuments – at creating “that America feeling”  and making me really think (maybe overthink?!) about the impact certain acts of U.S. legislation have had on my own personal life. 

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We never got much beyond the National Mall during our visit (our lodging was just two blocks from the White House), but we managed to squeeze a lot of monuments, museums, and miles into our short visit. 

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Highlights included: 

  • Observing a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery 
  • Watching the helicopters fly back and forth over the Tidal Basin as we toured monuments 
  • Taking a break from wordy Smithsonian exhibits in the flower-filled lobby of the National Gallery 
  • Enjoying a plethora of dining options 

 

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Although we were a little early for cherry blossoms, the green grass covering the National Mall, as well as the beautiful green oasis of the United States Botanic Garden, were truly sights for sore, winter-worn eyes. During our brief trip, it snowed another foot back home on the Gunflint . . . . 

We certainly left a lot unseen in Washington D.C., but we hope to return sometime soon; plaid shirts optional.   

Have you been to Washington D.C.? What was your favorite sight?