I Stopped Saying I Wanted to Learn to Paddle Board—and Just Did It

After a Saturday fling with a paddle board on Superior Bay, I was smitten. Within an hour of finishing my lesson, I wanted one. I experienced this same love-at-first-try feeling forty years ago when I cross-country skied for the first time and rushed out to buy skis. I used those skis for years.

North Shore SUP on Barker’s Island

Before my lesson, a friend said, “Paddle boarding is Zen-like.” It’s true. After the instructor taught us some paddle strokes, I danced on the water, moving the board in lose turns and tight turns (which are rad). The rest of the world dropped away, until the instructor snapped my Zen-like focus, when he said, “If synchronized paddle boarding ever becomes an Olympic sport, I want to be on the team.” At first, I thought he was joking, but after I played around for an hour on a board, I believe he was serious. After all, I relished skimming across the water, making the board do what I wanted it to do.

The last stroke we learned helped us pull up to the dock sideways. The instructor called it parallel parking. I went to the dock early, so I could practice without other paddlers in the way. Success on my first try!

Me, wearing my quick-drying clothes, and Colorado, the North Shore SUP owners’ dog. He likes paddle boarding.

When I came home, my husband, who was golfing when I left for my lesson, looked at me and said, “Well, you certainly dressed for the part.”

“Yes, I did. It was wonderful!” Dress for the job you want, and I wanted to be a paddle boarder. I wore new quick-drying clothes and a new white baseball cap to protect my scalp from sunburn. I’d mastered paddle-board-causal couture. I told him I wanted a paddle board. He thought that was fine—I think my outfit convinced him. I returned to North Shore SUP, where I’d taken my lesson, and paid for a new board, which came with groovy accessories. (I’m allowed to say rad and groovy because I’m old enough.)

A couple of weeks after my lesson, I took my grandkids to an ice cream social paddle board event for kids at North Shore SUP. They took a lesson and ate ice cream. They had fun jumping off their boards and climbing back on. Photo credit: Garrett, co-owner of North Shore SUP.

The next day I picked up my board and another lesson. Because I bought an inflatable board, I learned how to inflate it, deflate it, and carry it. I learned how to attach the seat, the leash, and the fin. The seat lets me to use the board like a kayak. The leash keeps us together if the board dumps me. The fin, shaped like a dolphin’s, helps the board track in water. My board has a dolphin fin—how warm and fuzzy is that? I watched the TV show Flipper as child, and I can still sing some of the lyrics from the theme song.

I’m not athletic or graceful or fast. When it comes to persuading my brain and muscles to work together, my learning curve resembles Mt. Everest. I was six when my father removed the training wheels from my bike and attempted to teach me to ride. He gripped the seat and ran behind me, but as soon as he let go, I tipped over. After a half-hour he gave up, but I practiced for days, eventually learning to balance on two wheels.

But I could stand and balance on a paddle board the first time I tried.

I tried out for cheerleading, but lousy cartwheel skills doomed me. So, I thought I’d try out for pom poms. I was always two beats behind, and the dance steps confused my feet. I didn’t show up for tryouts.

But I’m graceful on a paddle board. And cartwheel skills don’t matter.

I was sixteen the first time I roller skated. I buffed the floors with my behind more than I skated. But I kept going to the rink, and eventually, I spent most of the time upright. I was seventeen the first and only time I downhill skied. I never made it down the hill without falling. I lacked the strength to coerce my legs to snowplough. I skied so fast that I’d lose my balance, fall over, and ride my butt down the slope. My mitten got caught in the tow rope, and if an alert operator hadn’t shut it down, I’d have broken my arm.

But I’m strong when I paddle board. And there are no snowy hills or tow ropes.

Other paddlers asked, “Have you fallen off the board yet?” Getting wet seemed to be a rite of passage. “No,” I’d say, until last Sunday when I lost my balance. I went under, but my life jacket thrust me to the surface like a cork popping from a champagne bottle. The leash kept me tethered to the board, the strap on my sunglasses held, and my friend rescued my white hat. I remounted my board, though not nimbly, and stood up. My quick-drying clothes dripped, but felt light—the right outfit for the job.

I stowed my gear and said goodbye to my friend. I couldn’t wait to text my paddle-boarding sister with the good news: “I fell off my board today!”

Initiation’s over—I’m a full-fledged paddle boarder. And my waterproof Timex is still ticking.

Paddle-the-Island Door. My name is now on this door with two hashmarks because I’ve paddled twice around Barker’s Island, a two-and-a-half-mile trip.

[North Shore SUP is located on Barker’s Island in Superior, Wisconsin, on Superior Bay, a natural harbor on Lake Superior. Friendly and encouraging, the owners work to make everyone’s paddle boarding experience a joy. They give lessons, rent paddle boards, and host other paddle boarding events and outings. For more information visit them on Facebook and their website.]

Refracted

Split Rock Lighthouse stands along the western shore of Lake Superior, atop a soaring cliff. Dressed in cream-colored brick and elegant trim more fitting for a grand house in a genteel neighborhood, it once worked as a watchman holding a luminous light, warning ships about rocky shores at its feet.

My grandchildren at Split Rock Lighthouse, late October 2017

It’s a crisp late-October morning. The last day of the season before the lighthouse shutters for the year. From an expansive autumn-blue sky, sunshine washes the landscape in gold. The temperature wanders just north of forty-five degrees. The air breathes softly.

My granddaughter, six, and grandson, four, are with me. It’s their first visit to the lighthouse. Because it’s a weekday and almost the last day the lighthouse will entertain visitors for the year, we are nearly alone on the grounds.

We climb the twisting steps of the lighthouse, just the three of us. We are quiet, and with nothing to arrest my attention, other than the shuffle of feet on the stairs, I travel decades back in time.

My father, my sisters, and I climb the stairs. My father has come to see the Fresnel lens, and we are his pupils. Some of his words wend down the tower: France, prisms, refraction, illumination, fog, storms. But his lesser words are swallowed by the voices of other tourists. His face points up toward the lens; my sisters and I are in tow behind him.

My granddaughter leads the way, followed by my grandson, then me. I’m the caboose, better, I think, to catch them if they slip. I’m not interested in touting the wonders of the Fresnel lens. I leave them to their thoughts as they ascend the stairs, and I return to mine.

At twelve, I’m content to let my father’s explanations about the lens waft past my ears. I imagine the lightkeeper climbing the stairs during a howling storm to ensure the beacon shines across roiling waves of the frigid lake. I fancy the lightkeeper manning the signal house to ensure the horn bellows over icy waters while dense fog unfurls across an eerily still lake. I remember my father’s words about Lake Superior, mostly spoken to my frightened mother as he would fly us over a corner of the lake, “You’ll die of hypothermia before you’ll drown.” I ponder the number of sailors the lighthouse spared from freezing to death before they could drown.

I’ve no idea if my fancies about a lightkeeper’s duties are accurate, but I measure life as a lightkeeper’s daughter against life with my father.

Sometimes my father is a martinet. My siblings and I endeavor to read his barometric pressure and side-step his thunderclouds. We learned early to listen carefully.

He’s an extraordinary mechanic. His hands tinker, build, tune, modify, rig, experiment, adapt. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, planes, appliances. All engineering feats, great and small, captivate him. He wants us to be enthralled. But my fascination is for the people who lived and worked at the lighthouse on the prodigious cliff. I crave the stories of people. Lake Superior, which, if it had the chance, would freeze me to death before swallowing me, enchants me. My father doesn’t notice my attention has wandered because he’s hammering the tour guide with his knowledge of the brilliant lens.

“Oh, wow,” my grandson says, exhaling the words as a brief, but reverent Gregorian chant. He’s caught his first glimpse of the Fresnel lens gleaming in sunlight spilling through the windows. He stops and stares. The echo of his chant swirls around the tower.

Years ago, my father expressed his amazement of the lens with descriptions of its design and function. My grandson captures his admiration in two words. But at this moment, although they’ll never meet, they’re tethered together across four generations, both of them mesmerized by a triumph of engineering designed to mitigate the angry moods of the lake. I see my father through the eyes of my grandson’s wonderment, and he becomes a curious four-year-old boy, instead of an ill-tempered adult. And I ponder what he might have said about the enormous, glistening lens had he seen it as a four-year-old boy. Their shared veneration softens prickly memories of my father. I can’t picture him as a little boy and be angry with him at the same time.

With the massive lens above me, I stand at the top of the lighthouse, peering out at Lake Superior and hear my father’s voice, She’ll freeze you before she’ll drown you.

I know, I answer, but, still, I love her.

Spur of the Moment

[Two Harbors, Minnesota, is 27 miles from Duluth, Minnesota. A drive along Scenic Highway 61 on the way to Two Harbors is filled with spectacular views of Lake Superior and its shoreline. Two Harbors snuggles up to the lake and offers a day’s worth or more of outside adventures, museums, and good food.]

May 21, 2021

If I don’t have plans for the weekend, Friday evening looms like a desert with me standing at the edge sans camel or water or compass. And since the pandemic started, my “plans” consist of shopping for people food or dog food, so I wander the shifting sands of the weekend looking for an oasis.

This Friday when my daughter-in-law arrives to pick up my grandkids, I ask if Clara, nine, may spend the night. Her mom agrees, and Clara agrees, performing a double-fist pump while jumping up and down.

Our official sleepover starts the moment her mother pulls out of the driveway with Clara’s three younger brothers. We walk the dogs. We pick up take-and-bake pizza. After supper I answer some emails, and Clara makes a necklace. After her beads are strung, I take out my jewelry-making supplies and attach a clasp to her necklace. Clara says, “Nana, it’s so quiet.” And it is. My husband’s gone to the driving range, so the TV is off, and her brothers are at home. “Does that bother you?” I ask. She answers, “No, it’s wonderful.” We laugh. I wonder if her double-fist pump had something to do with ditching her brothers for twenty-four hours.

We walk the dogs, again. We talk about our road trip to Two Harbors in the morning. We treat it like an adventure: rough out a few details but declare to take it as it comes.

After our walk, it’s bedtime. I read Clara a story; she reads me a story. Listening to her read is like stirring a teaspoon of farmer’s-market honey into a cup of hot, fragrant tea. I tuck her in, and she turns out the light. I join my husband in the family room. He’s seated closer to the bedroom door and hears Clara reading. She’s turned the light back on and is reading out loud, perhaps to the teddy bear she took with her to bed. As a child I used a flashlight to read when I was supposed to be sleeping. I let her be.

May 22, 2021

In the morning I’m up at six o’clock. Clara sleeps in. Afterall, she did some clandestine reading last night. She emerges from her room at nine o’clock.

After breakfast, we walk the dogs. They’ll have to stay home, so I tell Clara we owe them some fun before we hit the road. She’s all for this because we’ve been using my pedometer app to count steps.

We talk about the anticipated weather. The temperature will climb just above 50˚, the sun will hide behind clouds, and there’s a chance rain will drip from the sky. But we aren’t discouraged because Lake Superior isn’t slapping us with a wind off her icy waters. We embrace the weather as an opportunity for style choices in outerwear. She wears a blue animal-print, zip-up, hooded sweatshirt and carries an umbrella festooned with characters from Frozen. “Just in case it rains,” she says. To anchor the outfit, she slips on rain boots covered with retro-styled flowers, á la 1960s.

I wear a Pendleton rain jacket. Candy red with a green plaid lining, it whispers when I move. I pull a gray wool beanie on my head. I stash an umbrella in my backpack because rain or shine, we’re hiking. To anchor my outfit, I tie on comfortable old sneakers, so comfortable that bits of the soles have broken away.

After a cloud-covered drive along Lake Superior’s steel-blue waters, we arrive in Two Harbors and park by Agate Bay. We walk the trail near the shore. Clara’s intrigued by the curved cement seats facing the lake. Each seat has a small sign commemorating someone’s loved one. She stops at every seat, reads every sign, speaks every name out loud. Names of people lifted into the air and out over the rocks and rippling water.

She leads; I follow. We’re up and down narrow paths that lead to basalt covered shores then back to the trail in the forest. Eventually, we spill out onto a beach covered with water-worn rocks. Oliver, a golden retriever the color of copper, is swimming in the lake. His owner tosses a frisbee. He retrieves it, gives it back, sits, and smiles. He asks, “More, please?” His owner answers, “Just a couple more times.” Clara looks for agates and beach glass. I watch Oliver chase his frisbee. He gets more than a couple extra tosses. I knew he would. His smile serves him well. Clara slips a few rocks and some beach glass into her pocket. We decide to go to Burlington Beach. As we hike back to the parking lot, Oliver is still retrieving his frisbee from the lake.

Back at Agate Bay, I ask Clara if she wants to walk on the breakwall before we leave. She does. To our right an ore boat crouches at a dock in the bay. To our left another ore boat approaches then stops outside the bay. Its anchors groan as they drop into the lake to hold the boat in place while it waits its turn for a load of ore. Water shivers along the sides of the breakwall, and Clara says, “It’s colder out here.” I tell her that’s because Lake Superior is very cold. I tell her to walk on the side with the cable-wire fence.

We’re hungry but go to Burlington Beach. After we arrive, a van pulls up and a family fortified with metal detectors heads for the beach. Clara digs in the rocks with her hands and sifts through her quarry. Ten yards away, metal detectors hover over the beach. Clara shouts, “Look, Nana, a green piece of beach glass.” A detector bloops, chirps, and warbles like R2-D2. Clara digs another pit in the rocks. A man stoops, digs, and pulls something from the sand, holds it in his hand, shows it to another detectorist. Clara digs. Metal detectors hover. After pocketing a couple more pieces of beach glass, some granule-sized agates, and a few pretty rocks, Clara says, “I’m really hungry.” Me too. Treasure hunting is hungry work.

McDonald’s. It’s not adventurous, but we can socially distance. We order two small cheeseburgers and two McFlurries to eat in the car. I park and ask Clara to sit in the front passenger seat, so we can visit while eating. She’s not tall enough to ride in the front, so she’s delighted. I’m struck by how pleased she is to sit in the front seat of a vehicle parked at a fast-food restaurant and eat. We watch traffic cruise by, and we talk. Too sweet for me, I eat half my McFlurry and toss the rest. Clara savors hers long after we leave the parking lot, remarking from the back of the van, “This is really good, even all melted.”

Before leaving Two Harbors, we stop at the rooster—think Foghorn Leghorn of Looney Tunes, but taller, eight feet tall. The big red-and-white rooster stands on a wooden platform. Clara poses with him for a picture and notices cracks in his legs. Like a retired football player in his 50s, the rooster’s old injuries are flaring up. I tell Clara the rooster’s story. In 2003, he was kidnapped from his perch and thrown off a bridge, dropping twenty-some feet before splashing into a creek, broken in pieces. But in the end, like a Looney Tunes character, he was put back together. Airline mechanics from Duluth performed cartoon magic and mended his fiberglass body. But time will un-heal old wounds and cracks appear where he was fused together. Neither of us understand the act of hate.

We take the Scenic Highway home because we need to stop at a candy shop and a smokehouse. Sweets and smoked fish are the desserts of our road trip. We wear our masks and wait our turn to enter the shops, which allow only four people at a time. Clara selects the candy to be shared with her brothers. At the smokehouse, I select the fish to be shared with her family and my husband. We’ve enjoyed our road trip and want to share a piece of it with our people: On our trip, we thought of you and brought something for you.

We’re near the outskirts of Duluth, near the end of our road trip, when Clara says, “Nana, this has been the best sleepover ever.” I agree with her. It has been the oasis of my weekend.

Lake Superior Gives Us the Cold Shoulder but Warms Our Hearts

[Author’s note: In 2019, my grandkids and I celebrated the first day of summer with a day trip to Two Harbors. Originally published on Perfect Duluth Day Blog on May 11, 2020.]

At 7:30 a.m., my daughter-in-law launches three-over-the-moon-excited explorers into my house. My grandkids and I eat a hardy voyagers’ breakfast of eggs, sausage, and fruit. After cleaning the kitchen, I prepare to leave home with them for a day-long jaunt. I stow hats, jackets, and spare clothes in a canvas bag and drape Evan’s blanket across the top. Almost three years old, it’s his first adventure with us, but he’s not going without his fluffy fleece blankie.

Two Harbors Lighthouse

It’s the first day of summer. Warm spring days near the shores of Lake Superior were scarce this year, and even though the first day of summer delivers sunshine, it’s miserly with warmth. I live four city blocks from Lake Superior, and while I can imagine living closer to it, I can’t imagine living farther from it. Most adventure days with my grandkids involve the lake, even if it only provides scenic backdrop.

“Can we bring our adventure bags?” Michael asks. He’s six, a seasoned explorer like his sister Clara, almost eight.

“Can I have a ’venture bag?” Evan asks.

“Sure,” I say. He beams. If his siblings have it, he wants it.

Clara’s and Michael’s bags are too big for Evan, so I fetch a small cloth bag. I sift through postcards and choose some Minnesota ones. I add a toy and a book and present the bag to Evan. He slips one handle over his left shoulder and the other handle over his right shoulder. The bag rests against his chest, like a breastplate of medieval armor worn by a knight.

“I have a ’venture bag,” he crows. He belongs.

“Yes, you do.” I validate his initiation into our group of explorers. He doesn’t know his bag lacks plastic binoculars, a cheap compass-whistle gadget, auto bingo, and maps.

We arrive just before the Two Harbors Lighthouse Museum opens. It’s easier to shepherd three excited children through thin crowds.

To reach the lighthouse grounds, we pass through the gift shop. My grandkids scout toys and trinkets while I buy our tickets.

Beyond the gift shop, we enter a pilothouse that once perched atop the Frontenac. Built in 1923, the iron ore boat was wrecked in 1979 during a blinding snowstorm when she hit a reef near Pellet Island. The pilothouse overlooks Lake Superior, but she’s anchored to land and keeps watch over the same expanse of lake day after day, year after year. She witnesses Lake Superior’s moods, from calm ripples lit by clear skies to crashing waves darkened by angry churning clouds.

My grandkids take turns at the wooden wheel and steer a nonexistent boat to nowhere, but they covet the wheel more than anything else in the pilothouse. When it’s not their turn at the wheel, they each stare at the radar screen, which no longer sends or receives signals. Artifact by artifact they circle inside the pilothouse, and wait for another turn at the helm. I don’t come from a family of sailors, so I’ve never waited for a ship to return safely to harbor. But as my grandkids explore the pilothouse, my thoughts are with sailors who work dangerous jobs. State-of-the-art communications, radar, and forecasting make their jobs safer, but Lake Superior is a daunting adversary when storms crisscross her waters.

Frontenac’s Pilothouse

While my little seafaring urchins quibble about whose turn it is to steer, I envision the crew who used the equipment in this pilothouse for the last time. I see them alternating between reading instruments and watching a swirling snowstorm. Today the wheel is chained to a brass rail, so young sailors, like mine, can’t go wild at the helm. In 1979, the wheel turned freely, but that didn’t help the crew keep the Frontenac from slamming onto a rocky reef, making her hull howl and shudder as it buckled.

Lake Superior is a boneyard of vessels and sailors. Clear across the lake to the east lies the Edmund Fitzgerald. She was seized by waves, which broke her. She sank with her crew. Up the shore is Pellet Island near Silver Bay where the Frontenac struck a reef. She met her demise, but her crew survived. She’d landed on rocks, which held her up.

“Who wants to see the lighthouse?” I ask. I’m answered by a chorus of “me, me, me.”

We trek up the slope and climb the gray wooden steps to the lighthouse. Clara and Michael scale the tower stairs, more interested in looking out the slit windows than at the displays. When they reach the ladder gallery, the porthole windows give them a bird’s-eye view of the green, gently sloping grounds. “Can we play outside?” they ask. The inside of the lighthouse doesn’t capture their fancy like the inside of the pilothouse did.

The small wooden steps curving along the tower wall are perfectly sized for children, and Evan confidently ascends placing one foot above the other. After reaching the top, he triumphantly descends by sitting on his butt, scooching to the edge of each step, and lowering himself to the next step. At the bottom of the stairs, he raises his hands above his head, then slaps them on his thighs and says, “Again!” He’s enamored with the pint-sized stairs, but it doesn’t take much to coax him outside.

My grandkids scamper up and down the grassy slope, and I’m grateful for the combination of wrought iron and chain-link fencing surrounding the grounds. The sun sits higher in the sky, and we’re no longer alone. I suggest we toss rocks into the lake.

We amble down the trail to smooth rock formations hugging the shore. Like nimble-footed mountain goats, Clara and Michael climb the formations and pitch rocks into Lake Superior. They gather rocks for Evan, who stands close to me. He throws them, but most fall short of the lake. For a quarter-hour, my grandkids toss rocks into a lake that will spit them back up during her next temper tantrum. I worry one of them will slip and fall off the rocky mounds.

“Who wants to go to Burlington Beach?

“I do,” says Clara.

“Me too,” says Michael.

“Me too,” echoes Evan. If his siblings are going, he’s going.

Burlington Beach has a gentle slope to the water’s edge.

In the time it takes to drive to Burlington Beach, which is under a quarter-hour, Lake Superior changes her mind. She pulls a shade of gray over the morning’s blue sky and dials up the wind machine. The four of us stand on layers of pebbles and stones. The wind infiltrates my clothing, and I wonder how long I’ll have to stand on this beach and freeze while my grandkids toss stones. Michael’s teeth are chattering. And Evan, tilting forward, braces himself against the wind, which has carried off his voice. Clara burrows her hands into her jacket pockets and speaks for them, “Nana, it’s really cold.

Back in the van, they ask about our picnic lunch. The gray skies and gnawing wind don’t speak of picnics.

“We’ll have a picnic in the van,” I say.

“Yay, yay, yay,” they cheer.

I drive to the big white rooster that welcomed us to Two Harbors several hours ago and park the van. We eat and talk about the day’s adventure. The cold temperatures and gusty winds have clipped our plans, but our memories of today are already warm.