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In our own backyard... It's all downhill from here

My husband is fond of reminding me that "what goes up must come down," especially whenever we go biking or cross country skiing. In retrospect, after a particularly grueling workout, I always claim our route would have been better if we'd approac...

My husband is fond of reminding me that "what goes up must come down," especially whenever we go biking or cross country skiing. In retrospect, after a particularly grueling workout, I always claim our route would have been better if we'd approached it from the opposite direction.

"If only we'd started from the other end," I'd moan, "we would have had more downhill than up...."

That was certainly the case when we attacked a ski trail in Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior's North Shore a couple of weeks ago. We had decided to ski Tettegouche because we were staying nearby and we had never skied it before. Beyond that, we knew very little about it.

When we got to the park, we stopped by the ranger's station to ask about the cross country ski trails. The ranger directed us further down the road to the trail head, and that was about all he said. We drove in, parked our truck and prepared to head up the trail, checking with the map to make certain we knew just what we were in for. It sounded as though the designated loop was about the length we'd had in mind for the morning's ski, so we strapped on our skis and set out.

I have to admit I was more than a little daunted by the fact that for the first mile or so, the trail climbed straight upward.

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"What goes up must come down.... What goes up must come down...." I reminded myself frequently as I puffed and panted, my heart pounding at an alarming rate.

And so it went. It seemed just as we came to what appeared to be a leveling off point, we'd round a corner and begin to climb once again. At last, we came to a sign that indicated it was only a mile or so to the Lake Superior Overlook.

"Oh, sure," I thought. "Any time a sign says you're headed to an overlook, that means you're going to have to do a whole lot of climbing to get there!"

Gamely, I forged on. It was only slight comfort that my well seasoned, in-shape husband had begun to exclaim over the rigors of the climb as well. But since it was a circle route, I knew there was no going back....

As I wondered at just what point we'd reach the summit and at long last begin our downward descent, a nagging thought began to circulate around in my consciousness. I remembered an article I'd read in the Duluth News Tribune by outdoor columnist Sam Cook a couple of weeks before, telling about how he and a group of friends had decided to ski from Silver Bay's Northwoods cross country ski trail all the way along a connector trail into Tettegouche State Park.

I recalled how he'd talked about traversing a "legendary" downhill run in Tettegouche that was a half mile long and dropped at least 360 vertical feet along the flanks of the Sawtooth Mountains.

"Oh nooooooo...." I moaned inwardly. "I'll just bet this is it!"

At that point, I debated the relative merits of the stresses and strains of climbing - as opposed to the perils of a precipitous descent. Though I have skied cross country for many years, I like to think I have a fairly "mature" handle on just what I am, and am not, capable of doing - and frightening descents, with lots of danger, trees and speed, most definitely fall into the latter category.

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So preoccupied was I with my thoughts, I wasn't certain just when the terrain changed. All I know is that the figure of my husband, who was on the trail ahead of me, suddenly dropped out of sight and disappeared around a tree-studded, 45-degree turn in the trail.

With some misgivings, I followed him, stepping out into the broad part of the trail groomed for skate skiing in case I had to resort to snowplowing to damper my speed, wondering if this could possibly be "the big one" that Sam Cook wrote about.

As I cautiously rounded the turn, however, Ken was there waiting for me, with about 200 feet of level trail ahead of him. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, plastered a brave grin across my face and kept going.

After a couple of other cautious descents, I had convinced myself that going down was actually going to be a piece of cake, despite what Sam Cook had referred to as having "a gravitational pull all its own [with] no stopping...."

But when we came to a yellow and red "caution" sign, my heart rate began to ramp up to warp speed once again. As if what we had been tackling over the past mile or so wasn't anything worth sneezing at, the sign seemed to warn of bigger - and scarier - things ahead.

"All right!" I declared. "That does it! I'm going to take off my skis and walk down this first part - just in case it's really dangerous."

Ken gave me one of those knowing "After all - what goes up must come down" looks and poled off down the steep decline. I stepped out of my skis, hoisted them up on one shoulder and began to walk down the side of the hill. After a quarter of a mile or so, I decided I could probably manage the descent after all, and I flopped my skis down onto the track to strap them on once again. But as I did, one of them landed facing downhill in the groove of the ski track - and took off!

Stunned, I simply stood there and watched it descend the hill. It began to pick up speed and eventually rounded a sharp corner and disappeared out of sight. I hefted the remaining ski and my poles under one arm and began to trek down the hill.

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Some minutes later, I approached a steep turn in the trail and I could hear my husband yelling from somewhere out of sight, "Wendy? Wendy? WENDY???"

It seems Ken had managed to come to a stop along the side of the precipitous trail, deciding to wait long enough to see how I was doing, when my lone ski came screaming down the trail - without me!

Pine Journal columnist Wendy Johnson can be contacted at: wjohnson@pinejournal.com .

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