Rattling down Highway 61 toward Lutsen just past dawn, I squinted to watch a shaggy gray animal lope across the road. “What’s that? A dog?” I was pretty sure it wasn’t, but I didn’t want to look foolish. Ever the optimist, I had been fooled before; I’m forever mistaking tree-ensnared plastic bags for owls, or ordinary crows for eagles.
This, though, was no dog. Doug slowed the Jeep and we watched the animal trot up a driveway, pass a sleeping house, and disappear into the woods. “Wow,” he said. “A wolf.”
Every fall, my husband and I head north for a week of hiking. In the old days, when I lived in Duluth, I could zip up the Shore any old time, even just for the afternoon, but since moving to the Cities it has become a major production, involving time off work, bags of gear and provisions, and five hours in the car. We almost always go in late autumn, when there are few people and even fewer bugs. The weather can be anything from sweltering to freezing, but as the leaves drift down, the views of Lake Superior from the ridge along the Sawtooth Mountains grow unobstructed and there is no better way to bid summer goodbye.
We were staying in a rented cabin five miles up the Caribou Trail from Lutsen along with our two dogs and our friend Erik, who joined us for a few days on his way to Europe. We had brought, but would not need, rain gear. Also: wool caps, Polarfleece jackets, and mittens, all of which seemed foolish in light of the glorious weather. The days were spectacular — warm and sunny, the brilliant golds and reds slightly past peak but still dazzling. Except for sleeping, we spent all of our time outside.
In the mornings, we took our coffee down to the dock to watch the mist rise off Caribou Lake and to see how close the grebe family would come to shore. In the long afternoons, we lounged on the deck eating smoked fish from Zup’s grocery store in Silver Bay and laughing at a chipmunk and a blue jay as they fought over a feeder full of seeds. (The chipmunk always won.) In the evenings, we strolled back down to the dock to watch the sun set over the colorless water. Even at dusk, the air was balmy, and winter felt very far away.
One morning Erik packed me, the cowardly non-swimmer, into his kayak and pushed me off toward a quiet bay, where I paddled about tippily. It was so shallow I could easily have beached myself on a rock, or waded back if I capsized, but it was also a lovely perspective, floating along at grebe-level, looking down at the swirling minnows, tormenting my dog Rosie, who stared after me from shore. When I paddled back to the dock, she leaped into the water and splashed out to greet me.
And then it was Erik’s turn. He turned the kayak toward the open lake and was gone the rest of the afternoon. Every now and then he texted us a picture of an eagle or a hawk. “Cell reception out here is great!” he messaged.
But by then Doug and I were getting happily lost in the woods. This was what we had needed, for months — one solid week of unstructured time, poking around, outside, in the wild.
Hoping for a moose
Over the next few days, we hiked miles — to Hellacious Overlook, to Alfred’s Pond, to our favorite spots along the Superior Hiking Trail. The dogs wore blaze-orange vests which we Velcroed around their sturdy bodies; even deep in the forest, we could hear the boom! boom! of the grouse hunters’ guns.
We trudged single-file along pine-needle paths, watching for wildlife. But the weather remained stubbornly summer-like, and the woods were sleepily quiet. In years past, we had scared up grouse, followed eagles through the trees, spotted a black bear and a snowy owl (not together), and spooked deer. One autumn we rounded a bend only to encounter a shaggy, huge-headed moose, and we instinctively grabbed the collars of the dogs, who were both too startled to bark a word. But this year, other than a bold young fox that hung around our cabin, we didn’t see so much as scat.
At night, we built a campfire and stretched out our legs, toasting our toes. Doug tossed another birch log onto the blaze and we watched the sparks fly up into the dark. High above us, the sky turned milky white and green, and pulsated: the Northern Lights.
We chatted about our day, our jobs, Erik’s upcoming trip to Italy, and then — “Shhh. What’s that?” Through the trees came a haunting, spooky chorus, three times: Arrrrrooooo. Arrrrooooo. Arrroooooo. I was glad the dogs were shut in the cabin. Wolves, and they sounded close.
One last campfire
After Erik left, the days grew chillier. One night there was strong wind and hard rain, and in the morning many of the trees were bare. We dug out the hats and Polarfleece, and we wrapped Rosie and Riley in blaze-orange, but there was no need; the grouse hunters had moved on. The wind felt sharp and Novembery, and the choppy gray water of desolate Alfred’s Pond had whitecaps.
That night, we built one last campfire, but this time the wolves stayed quiet and clouds blocked any Northern Lights. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen the friendly fox for days. Even the chipmunk had disappeared.
We spent that last evening packing the Jeep, stuffing it with our books and clothes and unused rain gear, and eating all the leftover smoked fish so as not to haul it home.
The next morning, we woke up to snow. We had gone up north to bid farewell to summer, but over one cold night it was summer that said goodbye to us.