Below is a creative non-fiction I wrote pertaining to my experiences catching a criminal while working on the St. Croix River as a Graduate Research Assistant. Enjoy!
I first saw David on a Saturday afternoon in early August. At the time, I was working as a Graduate Research Assistant for the University of Minnesota. I was counting commercial and non-commercial boat users utilizing the Osceola Boat Landing and I had just finished my 12:30 p.m. count. I was swaying in my hammock, held up by the tension of my hammock straps and two ash trees when I saw a middle-aged man cruise into the boat landing area on a dark-purple mountain bike. Though I didn’t have any knowledge of him, I could tell by how he rode his bike that he was a man who lived life with deliberation. Even from far away, I could tell his eyes were piercing and intelligent, eyes that take on everything, and every movement and choice he made seemed calculated. His character intrigued me, but my gut told me to not talk to him. I followed my gut and put my book in front of my face and made myself look busy. From the outer edges of my book, I made it so I could keep an eye on him with my periphery vision.
David surveyed the boat landing, giving it a good 360-degree surveillance. The boat landing was bustling; mostly by commercial users, from the handful of boat rental companies that lay claim on the St. Croix River. After looking at all the people, he observed the two boat ramps. A family of four was launching a motorboat in the boat ramp furthest from me and there were children playing in the water at the other boat ramp. He continued his gaze and looked at all the people on the beach. Some people were on rocks, on the sand, or in their watercrafts. It was a hot day, so most people were sitting in the shade on the grass that paralleled the beach. He looked in my direction and I placed my book in his line of vision, making sure not to make eye contact.
He finished his surveillance, got off his bike, and leaned it against a nearby maple tree. He started conversations with random folks and it was evident that the people he talked to didn’t know him and didn’t want to converse with him, but David didn’t seem perturbed. He made his rounds, slowly finding his way closer to where I was stationed. As he got closer, I was able to get a better look at him. I noticed he had tattoos on both sides of his muscular arms. On his left arm was a ring of chains and on his right arm was a faded logo I didn’t recognize. He wore a gray tank top and cut-off jeans that fit snug beneath his belly and rested above the middle of his thighs. He had a shaved head, shaved face except for an untrimmed goatee, arms and legs with bulging muscles when flexed, and a rock-hard round belly.
He was only ten feet away when he started a conversation with two young men who were working over the summer as boat rental workers. Just like how he rode his bike, he spoke with deliberation. He told the young men that he grew up in the area and how he used to work on the river back when he was their age. He worked for Taylor’s Falls Canoe Rental, the same company they were employed by, doing the same job as they were doing, only 30 years earlier. As I listened, I continued to read or at least look like I was reading, and I wondered if all the things he was saying was true.
The next day, I arrived at Osceola Boat Landing at 10:00 a.m. and I saw David on the beach with his mountain bike. He was talking to a fisherman launching a motorboat into the water. Similar to the previous day, I could tell by the fisherman’s body language that they didn’t want to talk to David, but again, David didn’t seem perturbed by it. While they were talking, I set-up my hammock in the same spot, placed my cooler onto the remnants of a cut log, and started my day of counting. I finished my first count and settled into my hammock, a blanket cushioning the underside of my thighs. I do this because it dulls the sharpness of the hammock’s edge, though perhaps not enough because my thighs are still tender after a long day of counting.
I watched as David finished talking to the fisherman. David walked toward the bathrooms, while the fisherman, pushed his boat from shore, drifted for a short while, and then started his engine. His boat disappeared in my line of vision, but I could hear the putter of his engine echoing in the bluff-lined river valley. It was a picturesque moment. The dramatic view of the St. Croix River with its sandstone bluffs as its backdrop is pretty incredible.
It was while I was distracted looking at the river that David must’ve decided I would be his next person to talk to. I got shaken out of my daydream when I heard a voice yell “Looks like you’re working. Are yah?” I look over and see David staring right at me. I responded without enthusiasm, “Yep, I’m working.” I open my book and start reading, hoping he got the unspoken cue that I didn’t want to talk to him. He didn’t and walked my way with his shoulders hunched forward, hands on his handlebars, and purposeful long strides. He leaned his bike on the ash tree that my hammock was strapped to, leaned against the tree, and then introduced himself as David. He then asked, “Well, what are you working on?”
This was the first time I got a good look at David. He had blue eyes. Sober, yet I could tell that they had experienced the thralls of addiction. He was also wearing the same gray tank top and cut-off jeans as the day before. He seemed friendly, but my gut still told me to keep a distance. I responded to his question and told him I’m counting people for the National Park Service. He was impressed and mentioned it must be nice to get paid to sit in my hammock all day. I told him, “It’s pretty great.” I returned to reading my book, while he looked to the river and started to monologue about his life.
The first thing he told me was that he worked at the carnival for 28 years. When he first started at eighteen years old, someone asked him, “Why are you here? What are you doing as an 18-year old working as a carnie? You must either be running away from something, recently got out of jail, or into drugs.” David at the time said, “No, sir. Not doing any of that.” Then the guy said, “That wasn’t a yes or no question. It’s a multiple choice.” David didn’t answer the man, but David thought to himself, “Well, I guess I’m not running away from something except that maybe I’m running away from myself.”
Since that day, David told me he had been running ever since. He worked at the carnival, served in the military, went to war in Vietnam, and had been in-and-out of jail a handful of times. His first bit of advice for me was if I were ever to get a body warrant and go to prison, it is the perfect way to quit smoking. It helped him quit twice. He also told me he was a self-declared wandering poet. He shared two poems he wrote, one about the river and the other about battling addiction and PTSD. I told him they were very good and that they would be well received at an open-mic night. He disagreed and then gave me his second piece of advice, “No one should write a poem solely on paper. You could lose it. If you really care about your poetry, you have to memorize it. Then you will never lose it.”
Other than knowing he had been in jail a few times, I had enjoyed David’s company and hearing his life story. He was a good storyteller and he had compelling stories. Unfortunately, that enjoyment didn’t last too much longer because David started to ask the questions that would be categorized as creepy. He asked me how old I was; how often I work on the river; what is my schedule; and do I have a boyfriend. He also told me that he may be 51-years old, but he has the spirit of a 20-something-year old and then started telling me date ideas for what to do in the local area. I didn’t answer his questions directly and pulled out my book again and began reading. He asked me if he was annoying me and I told him, “Yeah, I would prefer to be left alone.” He nodded, mounted his dark-purple mountain bike, and said farewell. I watched him bike away, hoping not to see him again.
The following morning, I arrived at Osceola Boat Landing at 10:00 a.m. and I saw David in my hammock spot. He waved me down and said he had been waiting for me all morning. He said, “I wondered when you would start your shift today.” My instincts kicked in and I knew then and there that I would need to call the police. Fortunately, I didn’t work a till-dusk shift that day, but I knew I would be working till dusk the following evening and I didn’t want a strange man to be hanging around when it gets dark. David left soon after, saying he was going to get food, and when he left the boat landing, I immediately called the National Park Service Tip Line, 1 (800) 727-5847.
In less than 15-minutes, a National Park Law Enforcement Ranger arrived. The man introduced himself as Officer David White. After a bit of pleasantry, I gave him a description of David and shared with him my concerns about the situation. Officer White was respectful and completely understood my point of view. He said he and his ranger partner would do rounds throughout the day, hoping to get a look at David, and perhaps have a conversation with him. He encouraged me to call the Chisago Sheriff’s Office because he said they might already know the guy, especially if he had been in jail in the county. He gave me their number. I told him I would call and thanked him for the advice.
After he left, I called the Chisago Sheriff’s Office and their answering system told me an officer was on their way. I waited in my hammock, did one of my counts, and soon enough a Chisago police officer arrived. This officer didn’t give me the same friendly, respectful vibe as the other officer. This officer was named Scotty Finnegan and he had a shaved head and cocky attitude. I tried not to judge him too harshly. I told him the same thing I told Officer White, explaining my concerns about the situation. But Officer Scotty didn’t seem worried. He told me, “Oh, I’m sure it won’t be anything to worry about. He just sounds like a lonely old guy.” He continued explaining that since I’m a cute girl that it would make sense that I would get that kind of attention. He even said, “He’d talk to me too if he were the old guy.”
I was surprised and then enraged by his nonchalance and disrespect. I felt I had explained myself clearly and he completely disregarded my concerns. It almost seemed he wasn’t going to do anything about it until someone binged on his radio set. He told me it was his police partner and that his partner had just started their shift. He told me he would radio his partner to ask him if he knew of a David. While he walked to his car to use the radio, I stayed by my hammock. He returned shortly and it was evident that his attitude changed. He was more serious now and politely asked, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to disrupt your work shift, but I need you to come to the Sheriff’s Department. We need you to look at a line-up.” He gave me his card with the address and told me to leave as soon as possible. Officer Scotty got into his car and told me he would meet me there. I watched the officer drive away, his business card in my hand, and wondered what I had just gotten myself into.
The Chisago Sheriff’s Office is in the basement of the Government Building of Center City, MN. I walked in and was welcomed by two officers and a metal detection machine. I walked through without a beep and wound my way down to the basement. I found the Sheriff’s office and buzzed in. A young lady with big bags underneath her eyes appeared behind the window and asked what I needed. I told her I was meeting Officer Scotty Finnegan. She walked out of view and I waited for a few minutes until the door opened and I saw Officer Scotty with two other men, both white and both with shaved heads. Similar to Scotty, they both gave me cocky attitudes, one more so than the other. Either way, there is something about cocky, white dudes with shaved heads that rub me the wrong way.
They brought me into a room and I saw three photos on a table. The officers told me the photos are of David’s that match the description of the man I saw at the boat landing. I looked at them and one of the photos was a picture of David. I pointed to the photo and told the officers that this was the guy. One guy laughed and said, “Oh yeah, that David. He’s a weirdo.” I asked if he is dangerous and the other officer said, “Nah, probably not to you. He’s only been associated with drugs and theft. He has an assault charge, but not on any women.” I could tell the officer was trying to make me feel better, but knowing he had a history of assault did not make me feel any better. Officer Scotty thanked me for coming in and told me he would keep in touch if they find David. I thanked them, walked to my car, sat in the driver’s seat, and closed my eyes. I felt exhausted, angry, and thankful all at the same time. In the end, I drove home and called my supervisors at my graduate research job. I told them about what happened, that I wanted to be done observing on the river, and would prefer to spend the rest of my hours working on the analysis and final report. They both heartily agreed.
About two hours later, I got a call from Officer White from the National Park Service. He told me they had found and arrested David for charges on camping illegally on National Park land and for drug possession. He said they had found him camping close to the boat ramp area and that his campsite was full of drugs, mostly methamphetamines. Officer White told me I wouldn’t need to worry about David anymore because he was admitted into jail and would be in jail for a long while. He thanked me for calling the National Park Service Tip Line and wished me a good day. About twenty minutes later, I got a call from Officer Scotty Finnegan and he told me the same story. He also mentioned that my name was never discussed or brought up when David was admitted, so I should not have anything to worry about in that regard. Officer Scotty also thanked me for calling their office and for helping catch a criminal. I thanked Scotty for his time and he wished me a good day.
When all was said and done, the rest of that day and the following day were a blur. I had told my supervisors I would take the day off and I was glad I did because the reality of the situation didn’t really hit me until the day after. My mind spiraled into the thoughts of, “What if I hadn’t called the police? What could’ve happened? Perhaps nothing? Or maybe something very serious?” I was glad I had the day to reflect and to recognize how thankful I was for my instincts and for following them because, in the end, once something has happened, there is no use mulling over the “what ifs.” It is best to focus on the present and to learn from previous events and what I learned this time is that if your gut tells you to call for help, then don’t hesitate. Even if the situation ends up being nothing at all, it is always better to be safe than sorry.
It has been awhile, sorry for the delayed post. There has been a big change in my life recently, which is why I’ve been distracted from my blog writing. If you didn’t know, I was accepted into the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resource and Science Management Graduate Program. My classes don’t start until the Fall, but I’ve been working over the summer as a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) for my advisor (the professor who will be guiding me through grad school) and another professor. I’m helping with an observational study on the St. Croix River which is funded by the National Park Service (NPS). We’re observing how many folks are using the boat landings and what exactly they are doing at the landings (launching, taking-in, relaxing, picnicking, etc). Half of my job is counting folks every 15-minutes while sitting in my hammock, and my other half of the job is analyzing the data. Eventually, I—including my advisor and professor—will write and publish a public report for the NPS about the data we collected. Overall, transitioning from doing human resources work to graduate school has gone smoothly—except for the couple weeks where I worked over 50 hours; yuck! And It has been 5 years since I graduated from the University of Oregon, so I’ve been having to relearn a few things—especially statistics. Starting this week, I’ll have a 10-day stint observing on the river. Working 8-hour days on the river is tiring (not joking!), but it’s hard to complain when you get a fantastic view of the river valley and I sometimes have visitors, such as friends or the occasional boat outfitter staff to keep me company.
My observation site on the St. Croix River.
Well, enough about my graduate school life, let’s talk about my mini-vacation in Washington D.C.
The columns of the Jefferson Memorial.
Washington D.C.: Memorials, Drum Circles, and Shenandoah NP
Way back in mid-May, I took a long weekend to visit my sister, Colleen, in Washington D.C. I hadn’t been to D.C. since I was in high school for a marching band performance, so I was looking forward to seeing the city again. I arrived on a Friday evening and the first thing Colleen and I did was go out to a local bar. We met a mutual friend at the bar named Heath (the same Heath who visited me recently in MN and who I visited in Mongolia! Here’s another link to one of my favorite Mongolia posts with Heath.)
Colleen and Heath told me that I had to go out to the bars at least once while in D.C. because it’s an important part of the D.C. scene. I’m not much of a drinker/partier, but I decided to go along with it. The bar was fun and the beer was good, but the best part was catching up with Heath and seeing Colleen in her new city. Colleen had only been in D.C. for a few months and she had recently gotten a full-time job at CET Academic Programs (she had been applying for jobs for almost a year!). So, our first evening together was one for celebration. After having a drink, Colleen, Heath, and I went on a walk in the nearby Adams-Morgan neighborhood. I got to see beautiful colonial style homes, even passing by the Obama house. Colleen and Heath told me the homes we were walking by could cost millions of dollars, even over 10 million dollars. I was astounded. The homes were pretty, but goodness is that A LOT of money.
Colleen enjoying her latte at Rock Creek Park
The following morning, Colleen and I made a small breakfast and then got coffee from a nearby cafe. Colleen had a full day quasi-planned out for me. First off, she wanted to show me her favorite park in the city: Rock Creek Park. It’s only walking distance from her apartment, so we walked with coffee in hand down into the Rock Creek River Gorge. I was surprised that such a dense river trail could be in the heart of D.C. There were lots of rhododendrons that lent us shade and wildflowers dotted throughout the ravines. I thoroughly enjoyed my jaunt in Rock Creek, especially in the Dumbarton Oak Park Conservancy.
This is the Islamic Center
Colleen placing her shoes in the shoe cubbies outside the mosque
Colleen had mentioned to me that the weekend I was visiting was a special weekend because all the European (EU affiliated) embassies were open to the public. She also wanted to check out the Islamic Center, which also happened to be hosting a bazaar and public viewing—though the mosque is always public, this was an incentive for non-Muslims to feel comfortable seeing the space. So, Colleen and I walked from Rock Creek Park to the Islamic Center, we checked out the bazaar, ate treats, and then watched a prayer within the mosque. I picked up a Quran as well.
Men in prayer in the Islamic Center. The ladies prayer room was downstairs.
I learned while at the Islamic Center that before prayer, all worshipers clean themselves. They clean their arms, hands, legs, feet, and face before going to prayer. In the basement, there were many facets and women sat in front of these faucets and cleaned themselves before entering the prayer room. I also learned a bit of history from a gentleman leading a tour of the facility. I’m really glad Colleen and I stopped by and I would recommend anyone to check it out if you’re ever in the area.
The National Cathedral
After visiting the mosque, Colleen and I walked up embassy row. We walked by many different embassies, which all had long lines to enter, and decided to visit the Italian embassy—mostly because they were serving pizza. While walking up the hill, Colleen pointed to the distance and said she’d always wanted to check out the cathedral at the top of the hill. I thought, well, why not check it out. After a brief discussion, Colleen and I decided to walk to the cathedral. When we arrived, we learned that it’s called the Washington National Cathedral and that it took 83 years for the structure to be fully built—the foundation was set by Theodore Roosevelt and the final construction was attended by George W. Bush senior; now that’s perspective!
The view at the top of the cathedral.
Colleen and I on the viewing floor.
The admission is $12 for adults ($8 if you’re a student), but you definitely pay for what you get. The inside was beautiful, especially the stained glass windows, and the tour was very well done. Colleen and I cut the tour short so that we could go to the viewing floor since the cathedral was closing early for Saturday evening worship. And I’m glad we did because Colleen and I got a fantastic view of the city.
Colleen bicycling below the Washington Memorial.
The following day was a day of classic tourism. By bicycle, Colleen gave me a tour of the city, specifically the National Mall area. What made this special was that Colleen at this time (but not currently anymore) was a Washington D.C. tour guide. So, she knew all the fun facts and stories to tell me as we biked by the White House, the Washington Monument, the War Memorials, and the presidential memorials.
The Lincoln Memorial from afar
My favorite facts that Colleen told me I did not photograph, but it pertains to the WW2 Memorial and the Korean War Memorial. At the WW2 Memorial, Colleen put me on a scavenger hunt to find Kilroy. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but Colleen told me that during the War, Kilroy would be spray painted all over the place. I searched and searched, but in the end, Colleen had to show me where Kilroy was.
Here he is! When you’re at the WW2 memorial. Try to find him yourself! Wiki
The other cool fact was that at the Korean War Memorial, each of the statues was facing a slightly different direction so that from any angle, you look into the eyes of one of the Korean War statues. It’s was the eeriest Memorial, in my opinion.
After a day of memorials, Colleen and I met one of Colleen’s friends in the historic neighborhood called Georgetown for dinner. Colleen told me it was a restaurant that she always wanted to try, because not only does it get great reviews for its food, but it is situated just off the Potomac River. The wait was 1.5 hours, so we took that time to explore the old colonial homes that border the cobblestone streets. Some of Washington D.C.’s oldest buildings reside in Georgetown; including The Old Stone House (built in 1765).
Colleen and her friend, Marisol
After dinner, we returned to Colleen’s apartment and Colleen brought me to one of her favorite things to do in D.C. It’s called the Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park Drum Circle and it’s held every Sunday starting at 3 pm. It’s been happening for over 40 years and was inspired during the times of the Civil Rights Movement and perhaps originally sparked by Malcolm X’s assassination.
Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park.
People dancing in front of the drum circle
I sat on the steps and watched the spectacle while Colleen got up and danced to the beat. Feeling the drum beat within me and watching as people expressed themselves through dance, martial arts, hula hoops, and instruments was the perfect way to end the day.
A view from within Shenandoah National Park.
The next morning, Colleen and I woke up bright and early to beat the traffic out of D.C. Something I had told Colleen before coming was that I really wanted to either see the ocean or go hike a mountain while in D.C. Colleen did some research and told me about Shenandoah National Park and how she hadn’t been yet. It was decided then that we had to go, especially since it is only a 45-minute drive from the city!
Once we reached the Shenandoah National Park boundary, the landscape changed drastically. The road became very steep and we were shaded above by a canopy of a deciduous forest. Our GPS told us we were on Skyline Drive, which we learned later is a scenic highway that cuts across all of Shenandoah NP.
Colleen hiking the Rose River Loop Trail
We stopped by the visitor center and the ranger advised us to hike the Rose River trail because in one trail you get waterfalls, quiet creek beds, and a not-too-awful incline. And, well, he was right.
Dark Hallow Falls from the Dark Hallows Falls trail
We parked at the Dark Hallow Falls parking lot and then started our hike on the Dark Hallow Falls trail. It only took about 10 minutes to hike to the Falls. We took pictures and then continued on until we hit the Rose River Loop trail. We made a right at the fork and followed the Rose river creek bed for the next 2.5 miles.
Colleen drinking water beside the Rose River Falls.
This was a really nice trail. It was shady, which was perfect because it had gotten hot by the early afternoon. It also housed many different types of birds. We heard a Veery and we even saw a warbler with the help of my binoculars! The best part was listening to the sound of water trickling down the Creek all along our hike.
By the time we reached the fire road, which would loop us back to our car, Colleen and I decided it would be best to hitch hike. It would save time (and we were feeling a bit tired). So, we got on the side of the road, stuck our thumbs out, and hoped for the best. While waiting, I reminisced about how the last time I had hitchhiked I was in South Carolina in 2012. I caught a ride from Charleston, SC to Greenville, SC. I guess I tend to catch rides in the South? After about 7-10 minutes, a car stopped for us and it ended up being a husband and wife from South Korea. We thanked them profusely all the way back to our car.
Near the start of Mary’s Rock Trail
Colleen and I were pretty pooped after our morning hike, but Colleen was adamant about getting a mountain top view. I was hesitant at first because I had a plane to catch that evening, but once I was on the trail, my doubts disappeared and I hiked as quickly as I could to the top. While hiking, we passed by backpackers. I didn’t realize until then that we were on a section of the Appalachian Trail. A part of me felt giddy; now I’d touched both the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Appalachian Trail (AT). Sometime in the future, I hope to hike them both one day.
Me posing on Mary’s Rock
The view from Mary’s Rock was spectacular. It was definitely worth the hike. For our last moments on the ridgeline, Colleen and I sat atop the peak, soaking in the views surrounding us.
Colleen hiking on the Appalation Trail.
I really enjoyed our time at Shenandoah NP. The trails we hiked were beautiful and the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains made me fully appreciate the lyrics to Take me Home, Country Roads.
I have to say that my trip to Washington, D.C. was a great getaway for a long weekend. Thanks again Colleen for showing me around and being my tour guide!
Till next time,
Here is Minnesota, the signs of an early Spring are spotted on every street corner. I see the green of emerging crocuses peeking from under the soil and the robins and cardinals are singing their Spring tunes. It is a nice feeling to wake up in the morning to the whistling of Northern Cardinals fighting for their territory; it means Spring is fast approaching. Though it is April, I must mention one thing from March. March is my birthday month and now I am 27 years old. I am thankful to my friends and family who made my birthday very special this year, specifically mentioning the surprise birthday party my partner and a friend planned for me. It was a welcome surprise and it reaffirmed to me that I am happy here in the Twin Cities because not only do I love this city, but I also have a love and appreciation for the people in my life.
Well, this post will be my last installment in my 2016 Euro Trip series. Please enjoy.
My sister, named Colleen, posing on Charles Bridge with Prague Castle in the distance.
Prague: Beer, CouchSurfing.com, and an Impromptu Kayaking Trip
In my last post about my Euro Trip, I wrote about my experiences in Munich, specifically about my short visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site just outside of Munich. After spending a day in Dachau, Colleen and I returned to Munich and stayed in a hostel near the train station. It was the Wombat’s City Hostel. Colleen and I were not in a social mood that evening, but I would recommend this hostel to any traveler, especially those who want to meet other travelers.
The following morning, Colleen and I awoke early to catch a train to Prague in the Czech Republic. In total, the trip would take about five hours. While in-transit, I read some, but mostly I looked out the window and daydreamed. I also spent time reminiscing about my first time in Prague, which was three-and-a-half years prior. Prague was my first European stop (aside from Russia) during my 7-month around-the-world trip. I had met my father and brother then, so it was only fitting to be traveling there with my sister now.
Colleen and I walking through Prague’s Old Town during sunset.
Here is a short video of Colleen walking across the bridge.
We arrived in the evening—due to train delays—and walked from the main train station all the way to our hostel called Hostel Santini Prague. It was a glorious 40-minute walk that led us through a sliver of the Jewish Quarter and then through Prague’s Old Town. Colleen was in awe of the architecture and kept her head mostly looking up throughout the walk—except for looking down to avoid the occasional uprooted cobblestone. We walked across Charles Bridge and the from there watched as the evening’s sun turned from sunset into twilight. The rest of the evening included meeting a stranger off the street, who happened to be an Argentinian named Martin (his Instagram name is @martinignaccio), and having dinner not far from the hostel. It is one of the benefits of traveling, you get the chance to meet people from all over the world, people you would never have the opportunity to meet otherwise. We shared beers (fun fact: beer is cheaper than buying a bottle of water in Prague), ate goulash, and talked till the late evening.
Our second day in Prague. We walked through Old Town and went inside St. James’ Basilica.
The following morning, Colleen and I walked back to Old Town Square to find a free walking tour. We were fortunate to find an amazing tour guide, through Prague City Tours (the people in the bright blue shirts). On the tour, he educated us on important events that occurred throughout the city and pointed out fun architectural facts. One that comes to mind is what sets Prague apart from other cities is the architecture of Prague is not consistent, meaning one building may be from the medieval century, while the building adjacent may be from the renaissance, while the building adjacent from that may be from the baroque period. When he pointed that out, I noticed all throughout my time in Prague that most of the city is a mishmash of different types of architecture.
Couchsurfing: meet and adventure with new friends from around the world. From the blog Backpacking Diplomacy
After the tour, Colleen and I split up for the rest of the day. Colleen went to a Prague Castle tour (I didn’t go because I had been before), while I went the opposite direction to attend a meet-up through CouchSurfing.com. I had checked out the Prague Couchsurfing web page and realized that Colleen and I were in for a treat. I learned that the Annual Prague Couch Crash was that week/weekend and that there were events planned every day that Colleen and I would be in town. That day was an afternoon beer and chat with locals and other couch-surfers. (For reference, almost every major city has an annual Couch Crash, which is an all-weekend event that is run by locals to pick the best places to go, the best things to do, and the best restaurants to eat at for people in town visiting for the Couch Crash).
It was refreshing to get outside of the town center (Prague 1) and to go to another neighborhood in the Prague 10 district. What I like about couchsurfing.com is that not only do you get to see places that tourists don’t know about, but also the website generally brings together open-minded and open-hearted folks from all over the world. So, it usually feels like meeting close friends who I have never met before. While at the event, I had a fantastic time eating and drinking with my fellow couchsurfers and I looked forward to the other events throughout the weekend. Colleen and I decided to go on a kayaking/canoe trip the following day with a gaggle of couchsurfers.
The next morning, Colleen and I awoke early in the morning to catch a train with eight other couchsurfers to go on a canoe/kayaking trip. To be honest, since I didn’t plan the event, I am unsure of which waterway we boated on and I am unsure where our entry point was. But, I can say, the trip was a success and that Colleen and I—and eight other surfers—had a blast! Our couchsurfing leader originally planned to boat on a different part of the river, but due to a low water flow, we ended up on a more rugged, less manicured section of the river. So, instead of an easy-going boat trip, it turned into a quasi-whitewater experience, which made the trip even better! The trip leader and I had the most boating experience (one of my part-time jobs is being a kayak instructor), so with four canoes and one kayak, all of us wound our way through one of Czech Republic’s beautiful scenic river valleys.
Some highlights from the boat trip include going through several rapids (I would consider them level III, but I don’t have enough whitewater experience to know for sure). In between the higher level rapids were the occasional eddies and level I rapids. I had learned from friends on how to whitewater paddle (Thank you Anne and Scott!) and they had even taught me the basics of how to read a river. While on the river, all their advice seemed to come back, which I was thankful for because there were parts of the river that were unpredictable and I’m sure we would have flipped or would have had troubles if we hadn’t avoided those sections.
A photo of me on the scenic train back to Prague
The second highlight was taking a scenic train back to Prague. It was an old train car that stops in every town and then follows the cliffs of the river valley, resulting in epic views of the river below. All of us couchsurfers were glued to the windows, watching as the scenery changed all around us.
Inside the Pinkas Synagogue, the names of the 78,000 Czech Jewish victims killed during the Holocaust is written on the walls.
On our last day in Prague, Colleen and I went to the Jewish Quarter. We visited the Old-New Synagogue and the Pinkas Synagogue to see the Holocaust Exhibit and the Old Jewish Cemetary. I learned a lot that day, pertaining to the persecution of Jewish people. On our museum tour, I learned the Jewish Quarter used to be a ghetto, mostly because this area would flood. So, a lot of refugees and immigrants would settle there because it was the only place in the city that was cheap enough to live in. Also, I learned that the reason why the Jewish Quarter was left—mostly—unscathed during World War II was that Adolf Hitler decided the Jewish Quarter should be left standing as a relic, so when all the Jewish people were eradicated that there could be a museum for their extinct faith and culture. Fortunately, the Jewish faith was never eradicated, but to know that the reason behind why the synagogues of the Jewish Quarter are still standing is gut-wrenching.
Prague Castle at night
Colleen and I ended our time in Prague by walking in the Old Town with some friends we made at the hostel. We ate dinner at a classic beer hall and then indulged in some Czech treats. It was a beautiful evening spent with beautiful people. It was a great way to end our time in Prague.
The following morning, Colleen and I split ways. Colleen caught a plane to Scotland to hike the Scottish Highlands and I caught a train to Berlin, so to catch a flight the following day to the USA. Fortunately, my final night in Berlin was spent in good company. When Colleen and I had first arrived in Berlin, Irina introduced us to a handful of her friends. Freddy was one of them and he hosted me in his flat. He also took me out for one final German night-out! We ate falafel at one of his favorite restaurants and then we sat outside with a pint of beer and talked till the late evening. Freddy, thank you so much for your kindness. You really made my final night in Europe very special.
And that is the end of my 2016 Eurotrip series. I hope you enjoyed reading them.
All the best,
A video from our final night in Prague. Enjoy!
It’s an unseasonably warm February day here in St. Paul, MN. This morning, I sat on my back stoop in a light jacket and shorts and drank my morning cup of coffee. The slightest breeze from the south chilled my bare legs, but the warmth from the sun balanced my internal temperature. The weather reports say there is a winter storm coming by the end of the week, so soon this warm weather will be a fading memory. Let’s hope that this short warm spell didn’t prompt any unreversible budding of trees and shrubs. The last thing I want is for the local flora to not bloom as full when Spring truly arrives—not only for me but for the pollinators and farmers, as well.
Well, enough about the weather, I’m here to chat about St. Paul’s 2017 Women’s March. I know I’m a month late, but better late than never.
A video compilation of the footage I took at the 2017 St. Paul Women’s March
A woman posing with a statue of a man wearing the Women’s March trademark pussy hat and holding an “I’m with her.” poster.
The 2017 Women’s March – St. Paul, MN
On January 21st, 2017 90,000 men and women came together in downtown St. Paul to march for women’s rights and in defiance of Trump’s recent election. I—as well as my partner, Jaime, my roommate, Karen, and her aunt—planned to take the bus to the march’s meeting place at St. Paul College. We learned soon enough that everyone had the same idea as us, so while we waited for the bus, buses chalk-full of people heading to the march passed by, each busload screaming “yahoo” from the window. When the third full bus passed by, Jaime, Karen, her aunt, and I decided to order an Uber. Within 10 minutes, an Uber arrived and we all crammed into the car—including a woman who also happened to be waiting at the bus stop with us. The traffic was uncharacteristically bad for a Saturday morning, which only meant there would be a fantastic turnout for the Women’s March.
A chocolate shop store front with a message on the door saying, “Gone to Protest!”
Marchers with the St. Paul’s Cathedral in the background. This was just before the march.Marchers with the Minnesota State Capitol Building in the background.
There was a lot of energy and excitement in the air as we marched down John Ireland Boulevard. People were chanting and holding their signs with pride as we marched toward the Capitol Building. The turnout was out of this world and it filled my heart with joy to look ahead and behind me to see thousands of men and women, all marching for women’s rights. I had marched previous to this—for Black Lives Matter—but this was the first time I wasn’t only an ally, I was marching for a cause that directly affects me. I was marching to tell Congress, the Senate, and our President-elect, that I want women’s rights to be respected and acknowledged in current and future legislation. I marched because I want equal pay for all women. I marched because I want women’s reproductive health to be funded and accessible to all women. I marched because I want the men—and women—who govern our country to understand that women need to be represented better so that male-dominated senates and houses don’t push legislation that negatively affects women’s rights. I marched for a lot of things and it was empowering to march with these thoughts in mind and to know that everyone marching with me all want the same thing.
Women’s March protesters congregated to the Minnesota State Capitol Building for a rally. Music was played and speeches were made by female political leaders—including a speech by Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American legislator in the USA.
While marching, it was hard not to think of my experiences marching for Black Lives Matter (BLM). I spent time looking around at all the protesters, seeing the diversity of people who showed up for the march. To be honest, though, it was a very white march—”white” meaning the color of people’s skin. I considered this and thought back on the protests I attended for Black Lives Matter. While marching for BLM, I didn’t witness any police brutality or unfriendliness, but there was an obvious tension in the air. At the Women’s March, I saw police officers being very friendly, some even posing for pictures wearing the Women’s March trademark pussy hat. I didn’t feel any tension at all in the air. It made me think back on the protests/marches for Jamar Clark and Philando Castille. There were smaller numbers of people at each of those marches, but if 90,000 folks showed up for a BLM march, would of the police of acted the same way? Honestly, I don’t think they would have. I think there would have been more police, more guns, and a visceral tension in the air. It’s important to recognize these things and to understand that though marching for women’s rights is very important, we must consider and acknowledge our privilege as white folks.
January 21, 2017 – Women’s March – St. Paul, MNNovember 15, 2015 – Justice for Jamar March – Minneapolis, MN
A bit of a contrast, no?
Until the 2018 elections (and of course, the 2020 presidential election), we must continue fighting for the things we believe in. Everyone has different ideas and beliefs in what to fund or fight for, which is a beautiful thing. I have friends who are fighting for women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, latino/a rights, liberal arts funding, environment and climate reform, renewable energy reform, immigration reform, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Find what you care about and get involved. Join a group, fund an organization—Amerian Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Lives Matter, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are just a few—or get involved in your local government to make a direct impact in your district.
Let’s keep fighting. And thanks for reading.
The one selfie that was taken at the Women’s March.
A new year had come and gone again and with a new year brings a fresh start. Like most of us, the holidays swept me away and kept me busy for the last couple months. Now that it’s well into January, it feels good to have my daily routines back, as well as a few additional new years resolutions. One of my resolutions is to write more, which includes being much more consistent with my blog!
In my last post, I wrote about my experiences hiking in the Black Forest in Freudenstadt, Germany with my sister, Colleen. In this post, I will tell you about our twenty-four-hour stay in Munich, which a majority of our time was spent at the Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial site.
The gates into Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site. The gate reads “Arbeit Macht Frei.” In English, this translates into, “work sets you free.”
Munich: A Short Visit to Dachau Concentration Camp and Memorial Site
We woke up early in the morning to catch the first train out of Freudenstadt Hauptbahnhof (Central Station). We were sad to leave the picturesque foothills of the Black Forest, but I was thankful to have had the opportunity to stay there for 3 nights. After two train transfers and four hours traversing across the Bavarian countryside, Colleen and I arrived in Munich’s Central Station. From there, we had a choice to make. Either we could go to the hostel to drop off our bags or we could go directly to Dachau to visit the concentration camp and memorial site—Dachau city is about an hour away from Munich. In the end, we decided to go directly there. So, we strapped on our backpacking backpacks, picked up a croissant from a nearby sweets booth, and got onto the next train to Dachau.
From the Dachau train station, there is a bus that takes you directly to the concentration camp memorial site. We had just missed the bus, so we decided to take a taxi since the memorial site closes at 5:00 pm and it was already past 2:00 pm. As I sat in the taxi, I remember looking out the window and watching as homes and business fronts passed by. I thought back on my time in Amsterdam and Berlin and thought of the name plates, or in German, “Stolperstein,” meaning stumbling stones, that I came across while walking along the city sidewalks. These metallic bricks were placed in front of homes, which had the names and life outcomes of the Jewish families that resided in those homes. I remember reading one in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and it had said the gentlemen had been sent to Dachau Concentration Camp. While watching the buildings pass by, it made me wonder if there were any stumbling stones on the sidewalks of Dachau.
The building entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp.
When we arrived, we were dropped off on the outer limits of the original camp site. Surrounding the camp were buildings that were once used for offices and housing for the nazi soldiers that worked and supervised at the camp. Now, these buildings are warehouses or being utilized by the museum and memorial staff. We stopped in the main building to get a map, as well as information about the memorial site. We were expecting to have to pay for tickets, but we learned that the memorial site is free to visit. They do take donations, though.
We stepped out of the building and followed a pebbled road towards the entrance to the concentration camp. Colleen and I stopped at the informational signs along the way, trying our best to soak in as much information as we could. With each step closer to the entrance, I noticed I was feeling more and more anxious about entering the campgrounds. The realization of how much horror happened on these grounds hadn’t really set in yet. I knew by reading more informational signs and spending more time in the camp that I would most likely feel a deep and overwhelming mixture of sadness and irrational guilt. A part of me didn’t want to experience that, but there was the part of me that knew it’s important to see the ugly side of history. So, with that, Colleen and I walked in.
An informational sign near the camp entrance
The Dachau Concentration Campgrounds is big and Colleen and I realized very quickly that 3 hours would not be enough time to really get an in-depth tour. So, we decided to visit as many buildings as possible, but that we would make intentional time in the museum building (permanent exhibition rooms) and in the Crematorium Area. We started in the permanent exhibition rooms. The exhibits were very well done. They gave information about pre-war Germany, as well as a broad summary of World War Two. Once we reached the public shower rooms and cafeteria, the exhibitions explained what daily life was like for the people who were imprisoned there. Being in the physical rooms of where the prisoners showered and ate was a powerful experience.
If I were to write about everything I learned while at the Dachau exhibit, this blog post would be thousands of words long. So, I’ll stick with the information that impacted me the most, but I would encourage you (if you haven’t yet) to read up on the history of the incarceration of disenfranchised people—Jews, gay men, political prisoners, gypsies, Roma, etc—during WW2.
The cafeteria building
The exhibition rooms, specifically the prisoner’s public spaces had horrifying and grotesque displays for its visitors. It was hard for me to see the pictures of unnaturally slim people showering in the public area and to read the information regarding the daily physical abuse the prisoners suffered from the nazi guards. The hardest for me, though, was the obvious murders that happened, specifically regarding the mock suicides. There were news clippings from the local nazi war-time newspaper with multiple images of dead prisoners in positions that are physically impossible to do by oneself. The clippings would say the camp was a good place to live, but the people would decide to end their lives anyway. It was unsettling to know that not only were people murdered by gunshot, starvation, and sickness, but they were also forced into mock suicides.
After the permanent exhibit, Colleen and I visited the “Bunker” building, which housed the political prisoners, as well as the “special” prisoners (famous individuals). We could go into the rooms that housed prisoners and there were signs regarding who stayed in some of the specific rooms.
I stepped out of the Bunker building, sat down to rest my feet, leaned my back against the wall, and looked around from where I was sitting. It was a pretty nice day and I would even say it felt peaceful. There was a slight wind that made the tree branches sway from side to side. I could also hear the sound of moving water, which happened to be a creek that ran parallel to the campground’s west boundary. Finding peace in a historically horrific space was quite the dichotomy.
My view while sitting outside the bunker. These guard towers were along the campground boundary.
The path leading to the north side of the campground. This was where prisoners could interact with one another without close supervision. The prisoner and nazi barracks used to border the path, but the original barracks have been destroyed over time.
Walking from the south side of the camp to the north side of the camp took us about 15 minutes. We walked on a wide pebbled path. We learned soon enough that the barracks used to surround this path and that the path used to be used as a community space for its prisoners. It was one of the few places where the prisoners could have unsupervised conversations and interact with their friends or family.
The newer Crematorium – this is where dead prisoners were gassed and/or burned and then their ashes were thrown into the ground, creating mass ash graves. – Wikipedia
We veered left and crossed a creek to reach the Crematorium Area. It is one of the few areas with original buildings that has survived over the years. There were two buildings, one was smaller and the signs told us this was the original crematorium. When the camp was first built, it was designed to hold 6000 prisoners—Dachau was actually the first official camp built under the Hitler regime and was the blueprint for all other concentration camps built throughout the war. The original Crematorium had one or two ovens to dispose of the dead prisoners, but it was soon discovered that the camp would be well over capacity, so they built a newer crematorium with more ovens, as well as the addition of a gas chamber.
The ovens in the newer Crematorium. – Wikipedia
(I didn’t take any photos while in the Crematorium. It didn’t feel right to me, which is why I’m using Wikipedia images.)
The gas chamber, which the Germans made look like a shower upon entering. – Wikipedia
Colleen and I walked through the Crematorium and spent a lot of our time in each room. One room was said to have housed hundreds of dead bodies, stacked on top of each other, waiting to be burned. The main oven room had high ceilings and towering beams that framed the brick ovens that paralleled the floor. We read the signs in there as well. One said that there was a backlog of dead bodies to be burned because, by the end of the war, most of the concentration camps ran out of wood and coal to keep the ovens hot. The final room was the gas chamber room. Colleen and I entered the same way the prisoners would have entered. The signs told us that the guards would tell the prisoners to take off their clothes because they were entering a shower. Inside the chamber, there were holes in the ceiling that looked like water could come out of them, but on the east side walls were two holes with gates over them. I would learn later that from the outside, there were chutes—they look like laundry chutes—and guards would put gas pellets into them, which would then release the poisonous gas to the prisoners in the chamber, killing everyone inside. This room was directly connected to the main oven room.
Colleen reading the informational sign about the shooting range and the mass ash graves which are found in the Crematorium Area. Walking in the Crematorium area was a sobering experience for both Colleen and me.
From there, in silence, Colleen and I slowly walked back to the main entrance. In three hours, I had learned so much about what happened in Dachau, and in a way, I still didn’t know much at all. Upon leaving the campgrounds, I told myself that I need to educate myself more about not only the Nazi occupation but also what is happening currently in our world today. For years and even now, there is mass genocide happening in Syria and in many parts of the Middle East. There are extremist groups all over the world, even in the USA, who target folks based on their religion, race, or citizenship. I already knew that I have to be more aware for the years to come, especially since Trump is now in office, but Dachau inspired me to be even more aware of what is happening globally and to help in whatever way I can. At the moment, all I can really do is send money to relief organizations and to talk to folks who are unaware. Maybe down the road, I’ll be able to do more.
So, for now, let’s stay woke everyone.
Thanks for reading.
Till next time,
Munich’s Town hall – Rathaus-Glockenspiel. There is a clock that re-enacts two stories from the 16th Century starting at 11:00 am every day.
It’s been awhile since my last post. It’s been a busy time for me with working, enjoying the beautiful fall weather, and also spending a majority of my free time applying for grad school. Yes, I am planning on going back to school. I’ll delve more into that subject in a later post. For now, I must catch up with my Euro-Trip!
The last thing I wrote about was my time spent in Berlin, as well as my adventures in Amsterdam. Well, we traveled from Amsterdam to Freudenstadt via night rail. We reserved two beds in a 6-bed room and shared the room with a couple. I can’t recall where they were from, I believe it was Iran though. We left Amsterdam at 8:30pm and arrived in Karlsruhe at 4:00am, which was our transfer station. Our transfer window was only 20 minutes and we had a train malfunction on the way to Karlsruhe, so I was really worried about missing our tram from Karlsruhe to Freudenstadt. When we arrived in Karlsruhe, the transfer window was now 3 minutes. Colleen and I jumped off the train and ran as fast as we could with our backpacking bags on to the tram station. When we exited the train station, we saw a tram pass by and booked it to the platform. When we got to the platform, we realized it was the wrong tram, so we stood in anxious silence, hoping that we hadn’t missed our transfer. Within a few minutes, around the corner came our tram and with sighed breath, we walked on and took our seats.
Here’s a video of the morning dawn from the tram. The ride from Karlsruhe to Freudenstadt serpentined through The Black Forest foothills, resulting in an awe-inspiring tram ride.
Freudenstadt: The Black Forest and Hiking in the Foothills
When we arrived in Freudenstadt, we walked through the quaint little town. Unexpectedly, Germany’s largest public square resides in the center of town. The info boards told us that there were plans to build a giant castle in the center of Freudenstadt, but the plans were never implemented. So, the space was never built upon and eventually turned into a public space for all the inhabitants.
We stayed in a youth hostel called the DJH Jugendherberge Freudenstadt and I must say it’s the best youth hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Buffet-style German breakfast is served in the morning, the rooms are well maintained and clean, there are lots of activity rooms available for leisure, and the best part was all the happy children and teens running around. If I were to lead a camp or a group of young folks, I would totally use this hostel. Also, the hostel was walking distance from a few hiking trails, which is the main reason why Colleen and I decided to come here in the first place!
On our first full day, we woke up early, ate breakfast, and walked from the hostel to a nearby hiking trail. I can’t remember the name of the trailhead, but it was just north of the hostel, reachable by the main road. In the end, we hiked on old logging roads that looped around a nearby foothill. The views weren’t stellar, but the woods were old and there is nothing better than the smell of a conifer forest. Halfway up the foothill, there was a resting station, mostly likely for skiers in the middle of winter, but it offered a nice respite from our long hike.After our hike, we returned to the town center for dinner. Colleen had never had wienerschnitzel, so we were on a mission to get the best wienerschnitzel in town! In the end, we succeeded. We ate delicious fried veal, drank German beer, listened to the church bells ring, and then watched the sun slowly fall under the horizon.Colleen in a hunting shelter with the Black Forest as the backdrop.
The next day, we planned for a longer hike into the actual boundary of the Black Forest. While Colleen was researching about local trails, she found historical boundary markers that we could hike to from the city center. So, we put on our hiking boots, packed a couple lunches, and set off to the SW en route for the Black Forest. This is me on the boundary trail, which is a historical boundary separating two royal family properties. There were stones along the trail which had the family crests on opposing sides, referencing that the side with one crest is the one families side and vice versa.As I mentioned before, Colleen and I hiked the the previous day on an old logging road. Well, the hike in the Black Forest was much more isolated and rugged. There were some roads, but most of the time we were on earthy trails covered in pine needles. We climbed up a ways in the beginning, but the trail evened out once we reached the top of the foothill. The trail wove through old growth conifer forest, overgrown farmland, and even bisected a nature preserve. We hiked over 10 miles that day.Here is a photo of Colleen exiting the forest. We hiked all the way to Kniebis, a small town to the West, to catch a bus back to Freudenstadt. We were fortunate that we made it to the bus stop just in time for the final bus for the day!
I’m happy that Colleen and I dedicated 3 days staying in Freudenstadt. In the future, I will probably spend time in a different part of SW Germany, probably somewhere more south, since the Alps would only be a day trip away!
The next day, Colleen and I bid farewell to SW Germany and caught a morning train to Munich. Our plan was to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site just outside of Munich. I’ll write about my experience in my next post.
-MollyColleen and I found juggling balls at the youth hostel. I had to show-off my juggling skills!
It has been a two-month hiatus since my last post, but now I’ve got a lot of fun things to write about. As I type, I’m in Germany, Freudenstadt to be exact. Before now, I was in Amsterdam and before then, Berlin. In this post, I’ll focus on my time in Berlin
So, you may be wondering why am I in Europe? Well, two months ago, I heard from my sister that my good friend Irina (the very same Irina I met in Mongolia over three years ago) was moving back to Mongolia in early September. Her plan is to stay and work as a park ranger for the Gobi Desert for two years. During this time, Irina will also work closely with local biologists to study the Gobi Bear (the last known desert dwelling bear in the world. There are only a few dozen left, I believe).
I had meant to visit her for the last three years and I realized that my only chance for the next while would be now. This is when I decided I needed a two-week vacation to see my friend before she leaves for her trip, as well as to explore parts of Europe I hadn’t been before. So, I bought tickets to Berlin (which is where Irina would be), and due to incredible timing, my twin sister did as well. She didn’t want to miss out on the European adventure!
So, now to Berlin.
Colleen and I arrived early in the morning in Berlin, meaning we would have our first whole day to combat the time change. Luckily, Irina picked us up from the airport and spent the whole day with us as our tour guide. After dropping off our bags at my friend Anka’s apartment (another friend who I had been meaning to visit as well), we went to city central to see the museum district, the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, and the Berlin Wall.
While walking through the museum district, what struck me first were the visible bullet and shrapnel scars strewn across the museum buildings and pillars in the area. Irina told Colleen and I that after the war, Berlin did not have the funds to fix the scars, so they have been left since. It was easy to imagine that there must’ve been heavy gunfire between the allies and nazis in this area during WW2, especially since it wasn’t far from the parliament building (Hitler’s headquarters).
During this time, Irina, Colleen, and I were reminiscing about memories shared, though what made that moment special was that it was Colleen and I’s first time together with Irina. We had formed our own friendships with Irina in the last 3 years, so it was fun to finally experience that.
Not too far from the museum district is the Jewish Holocaust Memorial (and other persons persecuted during the war). Colleen had wanted to visit the memorial because she learned about it in one of her college classes. The memorial itself looks simple from the outside, just a bunch of pillars of concrete populating the square. But, the inside creates a different atmosphere. The paths between the pillars go deep into the ground and are paved unevenly. Once in the center, it’s natural to feel an eery coolness and an insecurity in your footing. The architect wanted to create a physical space where persons who did not experience the holocaust could feel uncomfortable, lost, and sad for those lost during the war. Feeling only a very small percentage of what the persecuted felt while during the war.
After the memorial, we walked all over the central part of the city and ended our afternoon visiting the Berlin Wall (at least the part the city kept up). This portion of the wall contains well-crafted graffiti on one side and a rotating art project on the other side. The art project at the moment are photos and quotes from Syrian refugees. While walking along the wall, I was reminded of the repercussions of war and the reality of what happens when other countries occupy already occupied areas. The Berlin Wall split the Russian occupied side of Germany and the Western-occupied part of Germany. The Russian side had automatic machine guns stationed, facing toward the city, ready to shoot down any East Berliner who desired to jump the wall. This and many other things resulted in tensions, eventually causing an uprising and eventual decree to bring down the wall.
This happened in Berlin and is happening in Israel and Palestine. In a way, it is also happening in the USA. Will this happen in Syria and in other countries caught in the crossfire of war? These were the thoughts going through my mind while walking beside the wall.
Our second day in Berlin started with an authentic German breakfast and an amazing cup of coffee. After, Irina took us to a flea market and I was impressed by it. Almost all of the stalls were full of antiques and used clothing. The others had refurbished furniture, dating back to the mid century. With the dated clothing and furniture, it was like stepping back in time by a few decades
From there, we walked to another market, but this market had an alternative art/punk scene. There were more art stalls, food carts, and an indoor food stall plaza with graffiti as its wallpaper. I believe the plaza was called Neuehemat.
I’d say the best times spent with Irina was on our third day in the city. Irina, Anka, Irina’s boyfriend Robert, Colleen, and I met in the morning to picnic beside the canal. We bought coffee, fresh bread, meat, and cheese, and enjoyed a sunny morning chatting and eating together. I have learned that it’s very European to picnic beside the canals. After, we walked to the parliament building and then meandered our way to the south of Berlin to an air field, which is now a community park. Irina invited her friends to enjoy one last evening together before leaving to Mongolia. People brought wine, beer, and blankets, so to fully enjoy sunset and revelry. Once it got too cold, we went to a nearby bar to continue the festivities. I fully enjoyed my last evening with Irina and her friends and am grateful to have had the opportunity to see her before she had left for her big trip. Who knows, maybe I’ll go see her in Mongolia?
For Colleen and I’s final day in Berlin, we decided to go to the Jewish Museum, so to learn more about the holocaust, as well as the history of Jewish people. Colleen and I learned a lot. I didn’t realize how little I knew about Jewish history. After, Colleen and I met Anka at a falafel shop to eat dinner. Anka told us about a park nearby that has a great view of the sunset, so we walked over (picking up ice cream on the way). I noticed that the hill in the park seemed out of place. When I asked Anka about it, she said that beneath the hill is the remains of bombed houses from the war. She said that the city didn’t know what to do with all the debris, so at the time, the best thing to do was to place it in the nearby park. Over the last half century, the debris has evolved from crumbed homes to grassy hills with a view of the city skyline.
And for our final Berlin moment, Anka and her friends brought us on a tour of the canal in the dark of night. I rowed for the first time and got to see the city from a different angle. As we paddled along the canal passageways, I enjoyed seeing other young folks on the edge, feet dangling above the canal, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine. It felt so Europe. It felt so Berlin. It was the best way to finish Colleen and I’s experience in Berlin.
I’m sure there are a bunch of errors, but for now I must rest! Hope you enjoyed my post. In my next post, I’ll write about my time in Amsterdam.
All the best,
As I type, I am on a train to Prague, Czech Republic. Colleen and I were in Munich for less than 24 hours, so to have time to visit the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial. There was so much more to see, but for now we’re on our way to Prague.
Now, let’s chat about Amsterdam.
After Berlin, Colleen and I took the train straight to Amsterdam. We arrived in the late afternoon and dropped off our bags at our hostel, which happened to be in the heart of the infamous Red Light District. This small part of the city was chalk-full of tourists. Many were window shopping, drinking beers on the canal, or sharing a blunt on the street corner. The streets themselves are quite narrow, thus exaggerating the fullness of space, as well as the ripe smell of weed. I’m not much of a partier, so I’m sure I didn’t appreciate the scene as much as someone who likes to smoke and drink, but walking the windy-narrow streets and maneuvering through the canals was very enjoyable. Also, seeing half nude women (and men) through the windows is something I won’t soon forget. Okay, enough about the Red Light District. There is so much more to Amsterdam than that 4-block section of the city.
Colleen and I had plans to meet our old high school friend, Lindsay, for dinner our first evening. We made plans to meet at a restaurant/brewery called Trost. Colleen and I decided to walk there, so to see a bit of the city. We took the long way there, having the canals as our trail guides (before coming to Amsterdam, I didn’t realize how many canals there would be). It was a treat to find narrows alleyways and house-lined streets overlooking the canals. Colleen and I noticed big window blockades and hooks on the top of the houses. Lindsay told us later that day that the hooks were used as a pulley system to bring goods from the canals. The hooks are still used today for goods, as well as pulling up heavy objects while people are moving in and out of their apartments!
When Colleen and I arrived at Trost, we were 15-minutes late due to getting a little lost and being very distracted by the beautiful buildings while walking around. Lindsay totally understood and then we enjoyed a tasty meal (and had the best beer I’d ever had: Belgium honey beer). After, we walked around the park with Lindsay, we meandered our way back home to the Red Light District. It was after dark when we arrived at our hostel, and it was evident that the that part of the city was only waking up by the time we got to bed.
The next day, Colleen and I woke up early to eat breakfast. I ordered coffee and yoghurt with muesli (with dates). I have to say that this small restaurant had the best coffee I’ve ever had and the yoghurt was also the best yoghurt I’ve ever had. The Dutch know how to make a tasty yoghurt and a good cup of coffee! After, Colleen and I explored more of the city, particularly looking for “secret churches.” Lindsay told us that in a previous century Amsterdam became mostly Protestant and its rulers decreed that persons affiliated with other religions must congregate in secret, as well as not publicly show their religious affiliations. This resulted in the creation of “secret churches and home churches.” Colleen and I found two Catholic secret churches while exploring the southwestern corridor and Colleen (on a different day) went on a tour of a home church in the northeastern corridor. I enjoyed learning a part of Amsterdam’s history that I’d never heard of before.
After, Colleen and I met Lindsay for lunch at Lindsay’s university. She’s working in the archaeological department, as well as working on her PHD, researching and studying the history of these mysterious stones that have been found all over the world. Very little in known about them and it’s her job to try and figure out a bit more about them. (I wish I could remember the name of the stones, but can’t at this moment). After lunch, Lindsay took us on a tour of the Jewish District. We walked through a flea market, she pointed out a few historic buildings, as well as her favorite museum: the Resistance Museum. While walking, I noticed gold plates on the ground in front of some of the houses. We read them and Lindsay translated that it was the names of the Jewish people who were expelled from these homes. The plates gave a year of when they lived in the home, when they were forcibly taken away, and some of the plates said where they were murdered (ex: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, etc). It was fitting to learn about these that afternoon because Colleen and I had already planned to visit the Anne Frank House later that afternoon.
We said goodbye to Lindsay and followed the canals northwest to The Anne Frank House Museum. We learned online that after 3:30pm, the house opens up for walk-ins only (since morning tours book up months in advance). We waited in a line starting at 2:30pm and found ourselves in the door by 3:45pm.
(On a side note, I went to get coffee before entering the house and had a hard time finding any because the one coffee shop near the museum only sold weed. I learned then that you can’t publicly sell weed in Amsterdam, but the country tolerates it if it is sold within a shop that sells other things, such as coffee).
First, a brief introduction of who Anne Frank was and why there is a museum named after her. Anne Frank, a 11 year old girl, and her family were Jewish and during the rein of the Third Reich, persons who were more than 1/2 Jewish by blood, Roma, homosexual, or a political radical were persecuted and sent to concentration camps (or “work camps” as they were called). The Franks went into hiding when it was stated that persons of Jewish decent would be taken to work camps. So, the Frank’s and a second family hid in a “secret annex” of Anne Frank’s father’s workshop for over two years, hoping to evade the hands of the Nazis. They were helped by their colleagues and friends and during this time, Anne Frank wrote in her diary about the daily routines of life during her time hiding, as well as her thoughts on humanity. The museum we visited is the very same place Anne and her family hid for two years.
As for the museum, it is split into three floors: the ground floor (the workshop), the second floor (the offices), and the third floor (the secret annex). There were quotes, photos, historical documents, and visual reproductions of what the house looked like while the Frank’s worked there, as well as when they hid there. There is no furniture in the building because Otto Frank (Anne’s father), decided it would be best to leave the house as it is, without any reproductions. The second floor has the original entryway for the secret annex (hidden behind a bookcase, specifically designed to hide the entryway). Walking up into the secret annex and entering the rooms of where Anne and her family hid for two years was unbelievably difficult. It was difficult not to think of the ghosts of the past, walking silently through the corridors, trying not to make a sound, so to not be found by the Nazis. Also, seeing where Anne must’ve written most of her diary entries and only peering up for a moment to the attic space, which is where Anne (and Peter) spent their long days of solitude, listening to the nearby church bells was eery, sad, and oddly insightful.
The last portion of the museum brings you through rooms with video/audio accounts of Anne’s friends and her father (the only Frank who survived the Holocaust). It takes you through how they were taken, where they were taken (Buchenwald, Dachau, etc), and how they died (if known). Anne’s original diaries are showcased and the final room is a room for remembrance and a room to share about your feeling about the museum in the computerized guestbook. There wasn’t enough time in the museum to really soak in everything, since there was a consistent push of viewers behind you, but I would still recommend the museum to anyone who is interested in learning more about Anne Frank and the Secret Annex.
On our third and final day, Colleen and I went to the Van Gogh museum. To be honest, I would say this is the best curated museum I’d ever been to. It not only showcases some of Van Gogh’s most celebrated paintings, but it also shares Van Gogh’s story through informational signs, personal letters he wrote, and audio reenactments of letters written to him from his family and friends. I learned so much about his life that I never knew. Did you know that Van Gogh only started painting earnestly when he was in his late twenties? He started by painting farmers, but eventually became famous for his sunflower paintings, as well as his Stary Night. He was also a talented writer, which was only found out after his death. Did you know that his closest friends also became famous painters? And, lastly, did you know he had a mental illness, most likely Borderline Disorder, which instigated his famous cutting off his own ear and his eventual death by shooting himself in the stomach at the age of 37? All of this I learned while walking through the museum galleries, thanks to the amazing curator and Van Gogh Association that kept all of his writing, sketches, and paintings in good condition. I would encourage everyone to visit this museum if you find yourself in Amsterdam.
To end our time in Amsterdam, Lindsay joined us for dinner and then gave us a hug goodbye at the train station. We waved goodbye from the window and then Colleen and I prepared our train beds for the overnight ride to Carlruhe, which is where we would transfer to our next destination of Freudenstadt, Germany.
All the best,
*Will edit my posts later. Hope there aren’t too many mistypes!
Today’s post will be a little bit different from my other posts. Instead of sharing about an outdoor adventure, I will share with you a piece of writing I wrote for a writer’s night.
Since last August, I have been attending Poken Sword, a monthly literary salon hosted by 2001: A Space in Northeast Minneapolis. At these events, there is a theme for each month and each month local writer’s read aloud their writing based on the month’s theme. Some of the themes have included: labor, action, gratitude, creativity, connection, justice, hope, and spring. For the month of May, I was asked by the organizer to read something. I agreed and ended up reading aloud my writing to an audience for the first time. I was nervous, of course, but I received a lot of compliments on my piece. People shared with me that they connected with it and that they very much enjoyed how I read the piece.
The theme for May was Spring. Below is what I wrote. Enjoy.
Spring reminds me of many things.
Minnesota Spring is a time where the frozen buds of the previous year turn Minnesota’s barren, yet beautiful landscape into a colorful and diverse world. Maple, Oak, Hackberry, Basswood, and towering Cottonwood trees expel their flowering bodies and develop tiny, green or red leaves, as the Red Oak does. While standing beneath a Basswood in the early spring, looking up towards its adolescent and translucent leaves is a stunning light-green color that marvels no other tree.
Before the forest is carpeted in False Lily-in-the-Valley and Wild Ginger, violets, from the Viola Family, burst from the ground in the not yet shaded woodland forest floor. They clasp their petals tight and then release their lower petal to allow the perfect landing pad for wandering pollinators. Dutchmen’s Breeches dot hillsides and lowland river valleys with minuscule flowers shaped as upside-down trousers. Even as the flowers dispel, the plant continues to standout due to its intricately lacy and oblong leaves. While walking down ravines and entering the lowland, Virginia Waterleaf delicately brush your boots, almost as if gesturing you along, inviting you to go deeper into the floodplain forest. Nestled in sunny patches, the bright purple Phlox flowers bring bursts of color to the expansive green ground cover. And as leaves begin to form and the forest canopy starts to close, the sunny forest floor disperses. In these shaded bits hide populations of Jack-in-the-Pulpit and if you’re lucky, you’ll be graced with the presence of a Queen Bumblebee collecting nectar from within the tubular base, safeguarded by the flower’s spathe.
After the frosts are long gone and there has been a heavy amount of rain comes the forest’s most elusive and mysterious inhabitant: the morel mushroom. Often found beside or near the base of dead elm trees, these mushrooms are like gold in a goldmine. People hike high and low, for hours on end, to find even just one morel. And when you find a patch, these spots stay a secret, not even told to your most trustworthy confidant. There is nothing that smells more like spring than the smell of cooking morels in salted butter.
With all of these things, they all remind us that spring, as well as life, is fleeting. So, it is important during those moments of observation, reflection, and ingestion to not take them for granted. We only get one spring per year, so it’s essential to appreciate the adolescent light-green Basswood leaves; to feel the lower petal of a violet between your fingertips; to listen to the echoing vibrations of a Queen Bumblebee within a Jack-in-the-Pulpit; and, most importantly, to eat your hand-picked morel mushrooms with deliberation and intension.
It seems Minneapolis/St. Paul has really come to life in the last three weeks. While walking around my neighborhood, I could smell the difference. The lilac bushes began to bloom a few weeks ago, releasing it’s wonderfully fragrant flowers. The spruce trees, which are generally sharp to the touch, have grown their new soft needles. The new growth releases a sweet, conifer kind of smell. And let’s not forget the smell of freshly cut grass.
As for what I have been up to, these last two weeks have been filled with outdoor activities. When I get off work or have a free weekend, I’m outside either gardening, walking, playing frisbee, or searching for mushrooms. Well, not any kind of mushroom, the morel mushroom!
Morel Mushroom Hunting in the Twin Cities
Before talking about my experiences morel hunting and how to find morels, I want to preface that I’m an amateur mushroom seeker. This is my first season in Minnesota and my third season overall because I went mushrooming twice while living in Oregon.
My friend, Jim, and I have gone out three times to seek for morel mushrooms. The first two times, we were in the Minnesota River Valley area, and the third time, we were in the Dakota County area. The images in this post are from our adventures in Dakota County.
While hiking through woodland forest, steep ravines, and colorful, wildflower-filled lowland floodplain, I’ve learned a bit about where to look and what to look for while morel mushroom hunting. This is not to say that this will work every time. Jim prefaced to me that you may find the most perfect place for a morel and for some reason, there will be no morel to be found. Morels can be fickle and may not be there. They are still a mystery.
Here are a few tips for the amateur morel hunter.
- Morels like to grow near dead elm trees, especially recently dead ones. In the photos above are two different elm trees. The photo to the right shows an old dead tree that wouldn’t have morels, but the photo shows the tree’s structure. The left photo is a close-up of the bark of a recently dead tree. You can tell it’s an elm in this photo because of the bark texture, as well as the way the bark peels off in patches. This is where you would have a high chance of finding a morel mushroom.
- I’ve noticed that all the morel mushrooms we have found seem to be on south-facing slopes (except for a couple that we found in a dry, lowland floodplain). I assume the light and heat from the sun help the morel mushrooms, but again morels are a mystery because you may find morels in a north-facing slope. Here is an image of Jim walking up a south-facing slope, keeping an eye out for dead elm trees.
- And lastly, this is what a morel mushroom looks like. Some are more gray, while others are more brownish-yellow. With a knife, cut a quarter-inch above where the morel mushroom base reaches the soil (to avoid getting dirt, as well as to leave a part of the fruiting body in the soil). Then place in a mesh bag or whatever handheld bag you brought along (do not place in a backpack where the mushrooms could get squished). The true morels are hollow on the inside. If you find a mushroom that looks kinda like a morel, but you worry that you’ve picked the false morel mushroom (Gyromitra esculenta), then simply make a longitudinal cut from head to base. If the mushroom is hollow, then it’s a morel; if the mushroom is meaty and not hollow, then it’s the false morel!
Here is an image of two ferns: Lady Fern (I believe) and Maidenhair Fern. If you’re hiking and you start seeing a bunch of ferns, then you’re most likely on a north-facing slope. Morels may be around, but not as likely as on a south-facing slope. Me wearing my hiking outfit
If you find yourself bushwhacking, make sure to wear the appropriate clothing (long pants tucked into socks, sturdy hiking boots, and a long sleeve shirt). Jim and I saw poison ivy while hiking—and you never know where there might be wild parsnip. Also, I wear clothes that I sprayed with anti-tick chemicals. It isn’t necessary, but I would highly encourage it if you are hiking on deer trails or in grasslands. There is also anti-insect treated clothing that you can buy at any outdoor store.
Morel hunting is a fun hobby and the best part is that they can be found almost anywhere, even in your backyard. With the knowledge you’ve learned in this post, I’d encourage you to explore your backyard or local park to see if you can find any morel mushrooms. They may be past season in southern Minnesota, so anywhere near the Twin Cities and north of that is probably fair game!
Spring is here and Summer is only around the corner in St. Paul, MN. The May Day Festival has come and gone; my pea, kale, and lettuce plants that I planted from seed have sprouted and are growing bigger and bigger each day; and my friend Jim and I have gone morel mushroom hunting—and have had success! Also, my front and back porches have finally been utilized for their purpose: to host friends during those alluringly warm summer evenings. One evening, four of us sat on the step of the back porch, looking up into the night sky. It was fortuitous because lo-and-behold, Jupiter and the moon were in alignment. Another evening, a few friends and I sat on the front porch eating pizza, chatting about a recent friend’s trip to Ghana, and laughing loud till we realized it was well past bedtime for my next door neighbors’ children.
The morels. Some are more gray, while others are more brown. Jim and I fried them up with butter and salt; yum!
Well, enough about that, let me tell you about my short trip up to the North Shore.
Hiking the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and Camping in Gooseberry Falls State Park
A few weekends ago, I decided to go up north for a couple nights. I had planned to mimic what I did the previous year (Hammock Camping on Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail), but on a different portion of the SHT. Similar to what I said in last years post, the best part about the SHT is that you don’t need to plan too far ahead. No permits are required and there are several entry points; most of which are easily accessible. All the information you may need can be found on the SHT Association’s website. Maps, trail conditions, and transportation services are just a few of the resources that the SHTA provides.
I had decided to hike the trail near Gooseberry Falls State Park for two reasons:
1. I had never been to Gooseberry Falls State Park and wanted to explore a new area.
2. It’s the nearest park north of the SHTA building, which is where I wanted to stop by before my camping trip to pick up a map and ask the staff what the trail conditions were like in the area.
I’m glad I stopped by because the staff told me that the trails up on the ridge line north and south of Gooseberry Falls SP still had ice and snow. They encouraged me to use crampons if I was planning on climbing up those steep, rocky cliffs. I hadn’t packed crampons and hadn’t prepped for icy/snowy conditions, so I decided to implement my plan B: camp overnight in Gooseberry Falls SP!
The Middle and Lower Falls in Gooseberry Falls State Park. Adjacent to the Visitor Center.Above the Upper Falls, looking East to Lake Superior. That bridge is the highway and also has the Gitchi-Gami Bike Trail on the lower part.
I arrived at Gooseberry Falls in the late afternoon—after a 3.5 hour car ride listening to the 4th installment of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series: The Girl in the Spider’s Web. It’s a thriller! Before prepping my campsite, I decided to swing by the visitor center to pick up a map and to go hiking. I wanted to hike the state park trails, as well as on some of the SHT portions that bisect the state park. I first visited the famous falls that are only a quarter mile from the visitor center (as seen in the photos above) and then I wove my way northwest following the Gooseberry River until I reached a bridge with signs pointing me toward the SHT. I crossed the bridge and found my first SHT sign post (the photo above) and followed the trail northwest toward Fifth Falls.
The SHT in Gooseberry Falls SP.
The hike wasn’t long, but it sure was scenic. The farther you walked away from Lake Superior, the deeper the river gorge became. I hiked off trail for a short time to sit within the Gooseberry Gorge. I listened to the water and to the distant fisherman casting out their lines to snag a trout. I climbed back out and soon enough arrived at the bridge which crosses over Fifth Falls. I had a fantastic view of the gorge and ate a small snack while listening to the roaring falls below.
While at the bridge, I had to make a decision. Either, I could continue West up the ridge or I could loop back toward the visitor center. I had about 3 hours of sunlight and had to consider how much time it would take to set up camp, make a fire, and cook dinner. I decided to return to the visitor center, but I wanted to see a different part of the park, so I took the long way back. I also noticed that I could hike a different portion of the SHT if I hiked an extra 2.5 miles, which is exactly what I did.
Most Minnesota SP’s offer ski trails during the winter months. This is one of them in Gooseberry Falls SP.
Sadly, the portion of the SHT between Gooseberry Falls SP and Split Rock Lighthouse SP is closed (due to a private landowner closing off his land from hikers). There is a detour set in place on the Gitchi-Gami Bike Trail. I could see Lake Superior at the highest elevation I reached while on my hike.
Once I reached the highest point, which was also pretty close to the SHT trail entrance, I descended back down into the Gooseberry River valley. I made sure to hike a bit slower, so to fully appreciate the evening sunlight’s long shadows and the quiet surroundings.
Soon enough, I got to my car, registered for my campsite, and prepped for the chilly evening (it was below freezing, can’t remember the specific temp). I first set up my tent, blew up my sleeping pad, set out my sleeping bag, and stuffed a stuff sack with my extra pair of clothes to make a pillow. Once my bed was prepared, I then got to work finding small twigs for my campfire. It had rained the previous couple days, so many of the twigs were wet, but I lucked out and found a handful that were pretty dry. I also walked to Lake Superior’s rocky shore—I forgot to mention I was camping just beside it—and found remarkably dry driftwood! (As a heads up, driftwood makes exceptional firewood. It’s so lightweight and dry that it’ll catch fire easy. It makes making a fire so much easier.) While I was searching for driftwood, the sun had set giving the rocky shore and Lake Superior a purple hue (as seen in the featured image).
Lake Superior at sunset
I returned to my campsite with everything I needed: kindling (tiny twigs and newspaper), small twigs, driftwood, and firewood bought from the visitor center. I carefully stacked my twigs in a teepee shape. Smaller twigs were on the bottom, larger ones on the top, and then I lit the kindling with a match until the fire caught. Once the driftwood caught flame, I knew it would take no time at all for the logs to catch. Soon enough I had a roaring fire to keep me company as the evening quickly became cooler and cooler.
As I prepped my meal (dehydrated red beans and rice), I was surprised by a bright light illuminating the small grove of trees to the east. It almost seemed like a boat light was shining the shoreline. I walked over to see where the light source was coming from and was in awe when I saw that is was the full moon rising over the horizon. The moon was remarkably bright, the brightest I had ever seen. I sat down for a while—keeping an eye on my fire—and watched the moon rise over the horizon.
The following morning, I heard reports that it was going to rain or even snow later in the day. I was planning on camping one more night in Gooseberry Falls SP, but decided not to, since I didn’t want to camp in snowy conditions. I noticed the storm wasn’t going to hit until after 4pm, so I made the decision to visit Split Rock Lighthouse State Park before heading back toward the Twin Cities. With this in mind, I packed up my camping equipment, cleaned my campsite, and said farewell to Gooseberry Falls SP.
Split Rock Lighthouse
It only took 30 minutes to drive north on Highway 61 to reach Split Rock Lighthouse SP. I parked by the Trail Center and hiked north toward the lighthouse. I walked beside the lakeshore and then was engulfed in an aspen forest. There were young white pine trees scattered in the undergrowth that were either planted by park staff or were in natural succession. As I continued on the trail, I could see the lighthouse getting closer through the trees. There were also informational signs talking about the park’s history, which was very interesting to read. Soon enough, I reached the lighthouse and visitor center. I walked up the steps of the lighthouse and watched as distant barges crossed the horizon heading south toward Duluth. As I watched, I let the cold wind hit my face and listened as Lake Superior buffeted the cliffs below.
From the south side.
I hiked for most of the morning and had a small lunch on a boulder south of the lighthouse. After, I returned to my car to begin my drive back to the Twin Cities. I decided to take a pit stop in Duluth to explore the town. I won’t go into detail about my time in Duluth, but I believe I walked at least 4 miles around the city, including on the bike trail that borders Lake Superior. I couldn’t of asked for better weather while in Duluth. It surprised me how much warmer and sunnier it was, though I only drove 1.5 hours south!
The rest of my drive went smoothly. I listened to my audiobook and reflected about my trip. Though I only camped one night, hiking on the SHT, sitting beside a campfire, watching the moonrise over Lake Superior, and exploring two new state parks (as well as Duluth) was well worth the drive.
Thanks for reading. In my next post, I may go into more detail about morel mushroom hunting in the Twin Cities!
On the bike trail just north of downtown Duluth.
As I write, I am sitting in the sunroom of my apartment. I can hear the sparrows chirping outside, all huddled together due to the cool, crisp morning. I see a handful of brave birds leaving their shelter to scavenge for plant matter, which’ll be used for their nests. I even see a bunny that found the carrot greens I left out the previous night. This scene reassures me that Spring has come— 春が来た (haru ga kita). For most of us Twin Citizens, we all know that winter lingers longer than expected at times, but I think that this winter will be behind us before we even know it.
Well, before I get too carried away talking about Spring, let me tell you about a fun wintery activity I did with my sister and a few friends in February.
Jim looking out towards the Minnesota River Valley’s Louisville Swamp.
Louisville Swamp: Backcountry Snowshoeing to Historic Jab’s Farm
In my previous post, I mentioned that there were two highlights while my twin sister was visiting. The first was a cabin getaway with friends in Hayward, WI; the second was returning to one of my favorite parks in Minnesota—Louisville Swamp—during the winter and snowshoeing across the swampy valley to the historic Jab’s Farm.
We arrived at the entrance of Louisville Swamp—adjacent to the Renaissance Festival parking lot—in the early morning. The group consisted of my sister, her two friends Ted and Weige, and my friend Jim. Before setting off, I did a short snowshoe demonstration for everyone (similar to the demonstration I would give while on one of my L.L. Bean guided tours). After everyone was acquainted with their snowshoes, we began our snowshoe journey through the snow-clad prairie and oak savanna.
My sister with oak savanna as her backdrop.
Colleen’s friends Weige and Ted (and Colleen in the back). Ted visited from Pittsburgh and Weigi visited from Boston.
Though I had been to Louisville many times,—generally to look for wildflowers or birdwatch—I had never explored the park during the winter. It was a whole new experience seeing the frozen landscape, especially the frozen swamp itself. It was delightful. Oddly enough, while following the upper terrace trail (Mazomani Trail), we found ourselves in the middle of a flock of Eastern bluebirds. I wasn’t expecting to birdwatch while on our winter adventure, but the unexpected warm winter must’ve encouraged these migratory birds to fly north a bit earlier than usual. It was a treat to see vibrant blue brighten the stark, white scenery.
As we enjoyed the view from the upper terrace, Jim gave Weige, Ted, and Colleen a brief natural history of the Minnesota River Valley. I’ve read a lot about this river, but it’s always nice to relearn the geological and ecological history of this beautiful area. In summary, during the most recent glacial period, the Minnesota River used to be much wider. During this time, the river carved out a wide, sweeping valley from South Dakota all the way to Minneapolis/St.Paul; thus, the Minnesota River Valley. Now, the river is much smaller and a fertile valley surrounds the river, allowing diverse ecosystems and biomes to thrive. Louisville Swamp is a prime example because this corridor of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most diverse. It includes: marsh, lakes, streams, oak savanna, restored prairie, rock formations, bottomland forest, and an upland forest. And that’s only the different types of ecosystems. If I were to list off the number or fauna and flora that live within each of those ecosystems, this blog post would go on for a very long time. So, that’s why I love Louisville Swamp. I love the diverse landscapes and the unpredictability of bird sightings, since there are so many birds that seek refuge in the area.
Beginning our hike across Louisville Swamp
After our history lesson, we descended into the valley and followed a trail till there was a clearing to the swamp through the lowland forest. When we reached the shore, Jim pointed to the island in the distance and said we should walk out to it and eat our lunch there. We all agreed and happily snowshoed across the frozen shore.
Jim at the edge of the island pointing to the best place to climb up
While walking towards the island, I looked straight ahead and was so surprised by how clear everything looked. The sky was a crystal blue, the clouds and snow were a pure white, and the island seemed almost like a painting, framed by the surrounding scenery. I stopped walking and I placed my hands in front of me and made a rectangle out of my fingers. I internally framed the island within my hands and imagined it as an actual painting. It was fun when Colleen and my friends eventually walked into the frame. It made the natural painting all the better.
Colleen and Jim prepping lunch
We made it to the island, climbed to the top of a boulder, and ate our lunch. There was a wind that cut through our coats and gloves, but it didn’t really bother me too much since I was eating delicious food with such great company.
Walking toward the southwest side of Louisville Swamp
I haven’t mentioned about the backcountry aspect of this trip. Well, once we were off trail, we had to make our own. As seen above, when we hiked to the island and then to the SW side of the swamp, we only had the sun and the untouched snow to guide us. Luckily, Louisville Swamp isn’t a complicated place, so we knew if we walked SW that we would find our final destination: Historic Jab’s Farm. Climbing up the terrace on the southwest side was not as easy as the north side. We eventually found an entry point and carefully walked up the terrace, using the snowshoeing knowledge I had taught earlier in the day.
Ted leading the way to Jab’s Farm
Once we reached the upper terrace, we found a trail surrounded in bluff-upland forest that lead us directly to Jab’s Farm. I had visited Louisville almost a dozen times, but I had never seen Jab’s Farm—mostly due to Flood’s Road Trail being flooded each time I had visited previously. So, I felt exhilarated when I finally saw the rooftops of the old farmsteads in the distance and even more so when we were able to snowshoe in-between the ruins. From within, you could see a barrel stove and the remnants of windows and floor boards (I believe some of the ruins were refurbished by the park system). I wonder what it must’ve been like to live in such an isolated place back in the late 19th century.
(I won’t go into detail, but this area hosted parts of the 1862 US-Dakota War. I wrote about it in my previous post about Louisville Swamp).
After exploring the ruin, we turned ourselves around and retraced our steps back to the island and then back to the north side of the park. Similar as before, the views were so clear and as I snowshoed across Louisville swamp, I continued to imagine myself walking into a beautiful painting.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!
Till next time,
Colleen and I