Unexpected Olympic moments up a frozen river


DULUTH—I put my snowshoes on quickly and dropped into the river valley. Down here, the wind couldn't find me. Snow swirled into the river bottom on this 15-degree morning in February.

The dog led the way past narrow slits of open water that gurgled and whispered on its way to Lake Superior. Already, a couple of inches of new snow had fallen.

I needed this river walk. I was starting to overdose on pairs skating and giant slalom in my living room. It's easy to get sucked into the Olympics. Watching the world's greatest athletes is inspiring, but sooner or later you have to get out there and do something — anything — with your own body.

I slipped into an easy rhythm punctuated by the creak and woompf of each snowshoe stride. Traveling a North Shore stream in winter offers a glimpse into a world that's largely inaccessible the rest of the year. I moved upstream, climbing falls buried in snow, shuffling past bulbous oozes and frozen fangs of shore ice. Rock cliffs and twisted cedars bordered the river's ribbon of white.

I followed the snowed-in tracks and pole-plant dimples of fellow humans. Many others know this Lake Superior tributary in winter. They travel by ski or snowshoe or on foot, clambering up the frozen falls and moving into the backcountry. But because of the so-many-tributaries, so-little-time principle, these rivers are never teeming with humanity.

I passed occasional homes, always tucked beneath the pines and well off the river. The most obvious signs of these residences were the sitting benches placed on elevated points at river's edge. I imagined these river dwellers sitting there on endless summer evenings, listening to the current and the calling of mourning doves.

I ascended past the last of the falls and onto the upper river flats. This stream takes a run of Lake Superior's steelhead — mature rainbow trout that leap and power their way upstream to spawn. Now my footsteps were landing atop snow and ice that was mere inches from the wintering pools of those progeny below.

Rivers tend to concentrate wildlife. I thought about the way so many creatures utilize these arteries — nurseries for trout, low-hanging cedars for whitetails to nibble, hunting grounds for mink, ambush opportunities for vole-seeking owls.

After almost two hours of upstream progress, I turned and headed downstream. I shared part of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the dog. An hour into the descent, I came around a shoulder of rock to see my first fellow humans — a young couple downstream from me. They were both standing on snowshoes, embracing at midriver in the falling snow. Dig it: Love on a frozen river in a snowstorm. We greeted each other in passing and went our opposite ways.

Farther along, I came upon several sets of cross-country ski tracks. Just downstream, I discovered the Hendrickson family from Duluth — Jon and Sara, along with kids Sam, 14, and Greta, 11. And Alpine, a happy black Lab.

I thought I had left the Olympics at home, but Jon had backtracked upstream to take one more run down a frozen falls and off a snowy lip. He caught some air and nailed the landing. The crowd went wild.

Son Sam decided to take the challenge and herringboned back up the falls to let it rip. Here he came now, gathering speed. Somehow, the snow on the lip of rock collapsed when Sam hit it. He sailed off the mini-precipice, went momentarily airborne and piled up in a tangle of skis and poles, still grinning. I gave him high marks for attitude.

And off the Hendrickson family went downstream in a colorful column, gliding almost effortlessly. Against a shoreline of deep green balsam fir, dense snow drifting down, they looked like an image on a Norwegian calendar.

The yellow dog was eager to move on, but I told her we needed to watch the Hendrickson procession until it rounded a bend and disappeared.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or scook@duluthnews.com. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdoors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.