M Into the Gray

by Ari “Ike” Jutkowitz

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Article Summary:

Jane raised an eyebrow inquisitively. She must have noticed the look of longing that had flitted across my face. "You're not planning something crazy, are you?" she asked, a little too knowingly. I looked down guiltily at the text message I had just received. Who knew that five words could so easily reawaken that dangerous obsession?

"Winter weather advisory in effect…"

I snuck clandestinely out of the room at 3 am as I had done so many times before, taking care not to wake my wife. The trick was in convincing the dogs that I was just making a quick trip to the bathroom. If they even suspected I was heading out, they'd be awake in a flash and the gig would be up. Once safely down in the basement, I slipped into more appropriate attire, fully prepared for a frigid reception. It had been several months since my last visit.

I was heading out once more into the Gray, that otherworldly shade Superior preferred to cloak herself in this time of year. It was the color of storms and snow, of ice and cold, of wind and fury. To some, it would appear monochromatic or depressing, but I found it beautiful. Under the gray skies, Superior was transformed into a stark world of rock and ice and I found the austerity of the landscape irresistible.

Since discovering the winter shoreline three years earlier, exploring new sections had become my default answer to the question, "what should I do now?" and one that I took advantage of every chance I got. For this dalliance, I was exploring an as yet unseen portion of the shoreline adjacent to Whitefish Bay, linking portions of the North Country Trail, unplowed Forest Service roads, and coastline to create a loop.

The north woods welcomed me like a warm embrace. Sheltered from the brutal offshore winds, I slipped quietly between tangled limbs over a thick blanket of snow. To my embarrassment, I found myself humming the theme song from Disney's "Frozen". My kids had made me take them three times already, but to be honest, I hadn't fought much. It's hard not to like a story about a woman who runs off to an enchanted land of snow and ice to escape the expectations of society.

I spent some time trying to arrange my lunch so that it would look like something out of "Bon Appetit", but ultimately gave up. There were only so many ways you could lay out a sausage and cheese plate in the snow, and none of them looked quite right. In the extreme weather, the egg had developed frost crystals and the tomato was unpleasantly cold to the teeth by the time I was done. I spent the next few hours skiing hard to stay warm. Finally by midafternoon, I intersected an old forest service road and took this toward the bay.

Looking toward the unusual ice constructs, I remembered the exact moment when my obsession with the Lake Superior's shoreline took hold. I had just stepped foot on Superior's icy shelf off the shore of Miner's Beach and caught sight of the ice formations, like crystalline sculptures glimmering in the sun. Continuing onward along the cliffs, I saw pancake ice bobbing in the waves for the first time. From then on, I would return again and again, hoping to see the lake similarly adorned. It was always a disappointment when I would arrive too early in the season and catch Superior in a state of dishabille, her shores devoid of glittering jewels.

Pancake ice is one of Superior's great mysteries, formed as random collisions and compression by the waves pile slush and ice onto the rims of these floating plates of ice.

Enamored by the shoreline icescapes, I continued onward until the sun began to set behind a rocky outcropping. I hastily threw up my tarp, hoping to catch a photo of my campsite in the setting sun.

With the waves stretching out to the northwest as far as the eye could see, sunsets over the Superior shoreline were usually a memorable affair.

As night fell, the temperature continued to plummet. I warmed frozen hands (and belly) around a hot bag of spicy chicken fettucini with green peas. While I ate, I heated a second mug of water to make my favorite beverage for these expeditions. I had not-so-cleverly nicknamed it the "Superior Jack", equal parts Lake Superior and Jack Daniels, served hot.

Beneath the iridescent moon, Superior's coastal gown was bathed in soft white light, highlighting her icy veil and casting shadows over peaks and valleys. Though I was enjoying the view, it was too cold to stay out for long and I retired to my quilt for the night. I would wake periodically to the sound of snow sliding off the sides of my tarp.

I woke to a cold light filtering through the walls of my tarp. It was hard to know how low the temperature had dropped overnight but I'd had to sleep with my buff over my face, so it would have been well below zero. Reluctantly, I crawled from the warmth of my quilt to begin the task of breaking camp. I was unable to wear my thick mitts for these chores, and fingers and toes were nearly numb by the time I was done. Strategically, the last thing I packed was my woodstove. I had been heating water as I tucked away my gear for just this reason.

I set out eagerly beneath the cold gray skies of dawn. Small ice volcanoes in the shallows had transformed the shoreline into a lunar landscape and I was anxious to explore. I've always been fascinated by ice volcanoes, formed when Superior's waves undercut the ice shelf, forcing water up through the crust. I couldn't dally for long though for fear of losing some toes. It was definitely colder than yesterday. Picking up the pace, circulation improved and I was soon comfortably warm again.

I always approach Superior's shoreline with a sense of anticipation in winter, never knowing what I will find. In just a day or two, Superior's unpredictable waves can bring in enough ice to cover the bays with massive ice shelves, and just as quickly can take them away.

This stretch of coastline was relatively flat and the bays were shallow. In the level snow overlying beach ice, I found my stride and was able to maintain a modest glide despite the need to break trail. I was enjoying the sensation of being alone in my element, though in truth the scenery was not as spectacular as other parts of Superior I had experienced. From the rocky coves of the Canadian Shield to the towering cliffs and grottos of Pictured Rocks, Superior had some dramatic landscape.

Lost in reverie, I was surprised to find myself all too soon nearing the intersection with the NCT, and the trail back toward my car. Locking my skis into yesterday's tracks, I took the final half-mile in long strides, already thinking about coffee and a hot meal.

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