Monday, September 30, 2013

Biking Minnesota's Root River Trail: A Road Scholar Program

This Road Scholar (Elderhostel) program is an active, outdoor program based out of Lanesboro, Minnesota, a quaint town of 754 people with a charming downtown, a thriving professional theatre company, a number of very fine restaurants, and easy access to the Root River State Trail which passes right through the downtown.  Renowned for its numerous comfortable B&Bs, Lanesboro also has several campgrounds, including one at the top of the town's 130 year old dam.

Our accommodations were in the lovely and modern Cottage Inn on the main street seen below, and the providers of the program are Terry and Joyce Grier, former owners of a sporting goods store who led and supported the four bike rides that used their Specialized brand hybrid bikes, support van, and trailer.

Breakfasts were in the Inn each morning, lunches were provided by Terry and Joyce, either outdoors along the trail or in the Inn's conference room, and wonderful suppers were held at four different restaurants in town.  We biked about 115 miles in total, including all of the 42 mile Root River State Trail between Fountain and Houston, as well as the connecting 18 mile Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail which runs between the Root River Trail and Harmony.

The lovely Root River State Trail is paved and predominantly flat, passes through the small towns of Whalen, Peterson, and Rushford before ending in Houston as you head east.  Heading west from Lanesboro, you pass the trail junction that takes you to Preston and Harmony before ending in Fountain.  The trail often provides views of the river as seen below...

...and often crosses old railroad trestles, both short and long in length...

We also hiked one morning at the nearby Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center...

...and had sessions on the history of the local Commonweal Theatre professional theatre company and a tour of its 3.5 million dollar facility across the street from Inn led by Scott, as well as a presentation by Doug, the artistic director of The Great River Shakespeare Festival.  Finally, Hal, the artistic director of the Commonweal Theatre, talked to us about drama, preparing us for seeing the current Commonweal production, "The Memory of Water" on Thursday evening, followed by a "talk-back" with the cast and director afterwards.

We also got to meet "Alice the Owl" at the Houston Nature Center, as its founder, Karla Bloem, spoke to us about the center and also The International Owl Center which is housed in this small Minnesota town of 1000 people which even hosts an international owl conference.


Here is a video showing highlights of our week's activities...

Photos for download are available here


Friday, September 27, 2013

The Kovac Planetarium in Monico, Wisconsin

Atop a hill in Wisconsin's esteemed North Woods, a young man with a passion for astronomy and a talent for invention and construction, explains how and why he built his 22 foot diameter globe which houses the world's largest revolving mechanical planetarium, replete with 5000+ hand painted stars, constellations, and planets -- every star seen in the Northern Hemisphere.

I was attending a Road Scholar (Elderhostel) biking program in nearby Eagle River, Wisconsin, called Biking Wisconsin's Backroads, and we visited this planetarium and loved Frank's presentation. Here are some video highlights of our visit...


Kovac Planetarium website


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Boundary Waters Trail Project: An AHS Volunteer Vacation

This American Hiking Society Volunteer Vacation was run in conjunction with the Boy Scouts of America's Northern Tier High Adventure Base out of Ely, Minnesota.  Fourteen volunteers and two guides from the base camp spent 5 days paddling and portaging to reach portage trails that badly needed maintenance.  Ideally, trail corridors for portaging should be cleared to 6 foot width and 10 foot heights to allow safe and easy passage for those portaging canoes, but many trails are overgrown like the one below, and trees had fallen in several places, complicating portaging even more.  These trails are also used in the winter as snowmobile routes connecting the frozen lakes, so clearing fallen trees and limbs and trimming back branches will make the trails safer for them, too.

Check out the video at the end of this post to see the crew in action clearing the trails, and also to see the finished product after fallen trees were removed and encroaching trees and brush had been lopped back creating a safe, wide corridor for portaging. Other trail damage was also repaired and hazards removed.

Our exceptionally well-trained guides, Colin and Sean, first taught us how to portage a 65 pound canoe.  All my canoe experiences involved two or three people picking us a canoe and carrying it from a trailer to the put-in, but Voyageur-style portaging involves one person picking up and carrying a canoe alone while others carry the gear, and portages from one lake to another could range from a mere 50 feet up to several miles in length!  Below is our initial instruction on how to safely and successfully get a canoe from the ground to your shoulders all by yourself so it can be transported for whatever distance is required, and then return it to the water without damaging it.

We then split into groups of 2 or 3 to share canoes and began our adventure. The process was to portage the canoes from trailer to water, then paddle ourselves and our gear and tools to the end of the lake, take the canoes from the water, clear the portage trail for safe, expeditious travel, then portage our canoes and all our tools across that stretch of trail we had just cleared to the next lake, paddle across it to the next portage trail, and so forth.  Each day, of course, we had to reverse the process to return to our camp, and then the next day paddle and portage to return to where we had left off working so we could resume trail clearing work.

Yes, it was a lot of arduous work, but we also got to savor lots of magnificent scenery such as the next two photos, and also got to enjoy the cavorting of loons and glimpses of eagles flying above us.

And on the last day, for a special treat for a job well done all week, the guides led us on another adventure, and after two portages and two paddles, we arrived at some rock art called "pictographs" -- paintings created by Native American artists four hundred or more years ago and still looking good as seen below...

Here's our entire stalwart trail/paddling/portaging crew:

(Left to right)
Kneeling: Chuck, Andy, Libby (the AHS Volunteer Vacation coordinator), John, and Mike
Back row: Chris, Paul, Hank, "G", Patty, Karl, Gail, Don, Keith, and Sean (guide)
(Photo by lead guide, Colin)

And here are our two exceptional guides, Colin and Sean...


Here's a video of our week's adventures...

Additional photos for download can be found here.

Our host for this project, The Northern Tier Canoe Base

American Hiking Society


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Backroads Biking Adventure in Wisconsin: A Road Scholar Program

This program is one of the finest of my 37 Road Scholar/Elderhostel active outdoor adventures, and also one of the best values at just $599.  It is based in Eagle River, Wisconsin, at the Trees for Tomorrow campus, an accredited, non-profit environmental educational institution that combines outdoor recreation with natural resources education.  Troy, our host, is an  efficient organizer, accomplished biker and cross country skier, knowledgeable naturalist, excellent teacher, and a great guy, and his cohort, Joe, is also an avid biker and an exceptional naturalist and teacher.

The program began with a very useful bike maintenance workshop by expert mechanic Shane, and afterwards, Shane checked each rider's personal bike to look for possible problems, and when he noticed any, he fixed them...

You could choose which distance you wanted to ride each day, with shorter rides around 25 miles and longer rides about 33 miles.  Many of us did the entire 130+  miles over the four biking days.  All the rides offered outstanding Wisconsin North Woods scenery like the two photos seen below, mostly on paved roads that saw very little vehicular traffic, though we also biked several paved trail segments, too.

The Eagle River area has 28 interconnected lakes, some of which are seen from the roads or trails we pedalled...

"Field trips" included a naturalist hike in the Sylvania Wilderness just over the border into Michigan, followed by a picnic lunch, as well as an evening bog hike where we bounced as if we were on trampolines (see the bouncing action on the video below.)  Our guides also took eyedroppers and showed us what was inside the carnivorous pitcher plant and explained the science involved in the creation  of a bog.

A presentation on wolves, coyotes, and foxes was given by Sheri, and then an evening "wolf calling trip" led by Ron, a DNR wildlife specialist who traps, radio-collars, and then tracks wolves was another field trip.

Another evening found us at the Kovac Planetarium in nearby Monico.  This revolving, mechanical globe planetarium is the largest of its kind in the world and is the handiwork on one young man with a passion for both astronomy and inventing. Check out his website linked above to see photos of the 15 year construction process, and check out the CBS news videos of his creation.  And then, after the laborious inventing/building phase was completed, he hand painted over 5000 stars in the proper position and correct brightness using luminous glow-in the-dark paint on the inside of the huge dome...


 Here's our entire intrepid group of bikers...

Left to right:
Kneeling - our leaders, Joe and Troy.
Front row: Marlene, Pat, Cynthia, Deborah, Mary P., Mary B., and Chuck
Back row: Gordon, John R., TJ, Kathy, Will, Joe P., Ken, and John H.


YouTube video of our program's activities:

Additional photos from the week for download can be found here.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Biking Wisconsin's Hiawatha/Bearskin Trail

The Hiawatha Trail runs about 6 miles from Tomahawk, Wisconsin, to the Oneida County line.  The trail then continues as the Bearskin Trail for another 18 miles to Minocqua.  At the 8+ mile mark the trail ends and you are routed 5 miles on roads via green signs to the continuation of the Bearskin Trail.  I was satisfied with a 17 mile sround-trip ride, so I did not venture onto the highway portion.

I started in Tomahawk at Sara Lake Park, which can be reached from Highway 51 using exit 229 (State Route 86.)  The road becomes East Somo Avenue.  Follow it to its end and you’ll find Sara Lake Park on your right.  Pass the ball field and follow the sign for the public boat launch. Pass the launch, the public beach, a small riverfront campground, and then you reach the bike trail starting point.  Washrooms facilities are available.

You'll briefly ride along a fence line and then turn left and cross the first of many trestles as seen here where you cross the Wisconsin River on a 400+ foot long trestle...

The scenery immediately turns stunning.  Along much of the trail you are seemingly secluded, with shrouds of trees and foliage between you and the road. The only sounds I heard for many stretches were the sound of my tires on the gravel and the wind in my face.  In the winter, this is a snowmobile trail, but the remainder of the year it is clearly marked for hiking and biking only. The trail is mostly double track and in decent condition.  There had been rain overnight and puddles remained in low spots, but most of the trail was dry already.

Since it is a snowmobile route, you benefit from all the work the snowmobile club puts into the trail, including directional signs to local businesses near the trail as seen here...

At Mile 4 you reach Clear Lake and can enjoy viewing a few of the homes that surround the lovely lake.

Just before you reach Lake Nokomis, you enter  Oneida County where they call the trail is the Bearskin Trail.  It was newly graveled and graded and is a bit wider here and also more crowded since it runs through the town.  Stop for food or treats here because this is about that is available along the trail!

Parking is available in Nokomis and also at Beach Road and County N at a small park with pavilion.

Here's a view of Lake Nokomis from the trail.  This section of Wisconsin is reputed to have one of the densest concentrations of lakes in the world.