Archive | January, 2017

Living the Cakeater Life

25 Jan

No, this isn’t a post about hockey; it’s about the future of one half of a city. The west side of Duluth has gotten a lot of deserved attention in politics and in the press in recent years. Rarely, however, do we hear much about the east side as a whole, except as a foil when comparing trends between the two ends of the city. This post will take some time to think about the area where I grew up, and plot out its future.

This isn’t some cry for attention or investment; some fairly substantial development (by Duluth standards) is happening naturally on the east side, and not much screams for immediate intervention. There’s no real cohesive east side identity like there is with the west, except perhaps a relationship to Duluth East High School, though it draws from areas beyond the city limits and its alumni scatter far more than Denfeld’s. Sure, there a few scions of old money families who carry on the tradition of that old east side cakeater stereotype, but while they may be large in influence, they’re relatively few in number. (Sidenote for the uninitiated: the term “cakeater” is indeed a Marie Antoinette allusion used to denigrate the spoiled rich kids, and achieved immortality thanks to the Mighty Ducks movies. Edina is home to the original cakeaters, but it’s long been thrown at the east side of Duluth, too.)

This post came to my mind when I observed to a friend, half surprising myself as I did so, that I might well spend the rest of my life within a mile or two of where I live now. I’m probably going to be an east side lifer, and while I’m a big believer in roots and tradition and so on, the ties go beyond a lingering loyalty to the streets I ran while growing up. I’m a sucker for historic homes. I like having the easy access to transportation and cultural amenities that come with living in a city, but I also like to have yards and green space. I like being on a hill, though not necessarily on a slope that renders the yard difficult to use. I want to be around people who share my  general ethos while at the same time not cutting myself off from those who are not like me. I’m loyal to the east side’s public schools, which I think provide as desirable a blend of high-achieving culture and exposure to reality as one is likely to find anywhere out there; I don’t know what they’ll look like in this balkanizing education world by the time I have kids to send to them, but I’d at least like to preserve that option. The St. Louis River has much to recommend it, but I’ve grown up looking at that lake, and I want to continue to have views of that lake.

My main aim in doing this, though, is to make sure we don’t sink solely into a binary east-west way of thinking for all political discussion and reporting about issues in Duluth. I’ve certainly picked on that divide before; it’s real, and I’ll likely do it again. But it isn’t the only way of looking at things, and it runs the risk of ignoring other views that might be just as valuable.

Part and parcel with this is the danger of thinking of Duluth alone, or as if the goal of balancing east and west must be the sole goal. Less than half of the people living within thirty miles of downtown Duluth live within its city limits, and any solution to its various issues needs to consider the whole ecosystem. That requires both regional thinking, with an acknowledgment that noble measures in the name of balance could create perverse incentives for spillover or even flight into neighboring communities, and local thinking, with plans for specific neighborhoods instead of lumping entire sides of the city under one umbrella.

The east side’s less defined identity may have something to do with the sheer variety that exists between 6th Avenue East and the Lester River. While the west side certainly has its variants as well, it doesn’t have quite as many dimensions as the east side. I’ve divided it into four areas, which I’ll summarize quickly with some essential information, then offer up my thoughts on where they should go in the coming years.

Congdon/Hunters Park

Population: 7,471 | Median Income: $96,860

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

We’ll start in the heart of the east side. Congdon is the source of the old stereotype, and it is indeed a neighborhood placid streets and beautiful old homes, albeit with some shifts in the largest of houses that no longer serve as plausible single-family abodes. The city has done a reasonably good job of allowing for creative uses (bed and breakfasts, granny flats, a few apartments), though I think it has been excessively regulatory when it comes to things like AirBnB. (Please, please don’t do the same thing to Uber, City Council friends.)

This is the wealthiest patch of northern Minnesota, and that won’t change anytime soon. In a different place I might argue for less concentration of wealth, but in Duluth and at this time, I will defend letting Congdon be Congdon. Its roots run deep, historical deference preserves part of the city’s character, and it’s not so large that it can be an isolated enclave. (Congdon Elementary actually has more kids in poverty than Lester Park, as it draws from some neighborhoods further west.) It’s worth having a showpiece neighborhood, and also an aspirational one.

This isn’t to say there isn’t room for improvement, and I think the city is particularly primed to cash in on the potential of some of the east side’s commercial corridors. There’s money to be spent in this area, and I expect many east siders from Congdon and beyond would welcome an excuse to do their shopping nearby instead of trekking up to the mall area. As I’ve written before, there’s so much room for improvement along London Road, and a chance to make it an actual destination instead of a bland suburban strip of medical offices and fast food. The new infusions of life with developments like Endi and BlueStone are great signs, as they offer convenient, accessible commercial options and housing for certain stages of life that don’t always get much attention. It’s no coincidence this is happening on the edges of Congdon, and it adds some healthy fresh life to the area.

Lakeside/Lester Park

Population: 9,374 | Median Income: $68,449

Elementary School: Lester Park | Youth Rink: Portman

Woodland/Kenwood

Population: 9,448 | Median Income: $61,120

Elementary Schools: Homecroft, Lowell | Youth Rink: Woodland

Next, there are the Woodland and Lakeside, old streetcar suburbs that I would argue are, by and large, exemplary neighborhoods. While they are wealthier than most of the rest of the area, they are hardly homes to lots of pretention. There’s variety, too: little downtowns with business districts, connections to both big parks and the rest of the city; some large lakefront or ridgetop homes for the wealthy and some naturally occurring affordable housing for the poor, comfortable homes for families and smaller ranches or ramblers for those in the starter-home market or the mobility-impaired. They both have neighborhood schools (though Lakeside’s is better integrated into the neighborhood), and even their own Catholic schools (though the diocese appears hell-bent on creating its very own little Red Plan and closing one of them). I grew up in Lakeside, and found it to be an excellent place to spend a childhood, with plenty of room to run free and a very healthy overall environment.

These neighborhoods have enough in common that I put them together here, but they’re not identical; there are no lakefront properties in Woodland, and the college students in the Kenwood area drag down the median income up there. Maintaining the health shouldn’t be overly difficult, and simply involves keeping the housing stock fresh and gradually phasing in new stuff so it doesn’t age at a uniform rate. It sounds like some renewed emphasis on neighborhood downtowns will worm its way into the city’s new comprehensive plan, which would be a nice boost for these areas that are doing alright, but do have a few noticeable vacancies.

Also, for the curious: Hermantown’s demographics are very similar to Lakeside’s.

Chester Park/UMD

Population: 7,073 | Median Income: $40,594

Elementary School: Congdon | Youth Rinks: Congdon, Glen Avon

Duluth is a college town, and while a bunch of students scatter across the Hillside, Kenwood, and Duluth Heights, this is the big concentration. For an area including a decent-sized university, that’s actually a reasonably high median income. (The area around the University of Minnesota campus, for example, looks nearly as poor on a median income map as neighboring, poverty-stricken Cedar-Riverside; this gives me another opportunity to grumble about how the Census counts college students.) This goes to show the curious mix within Chester Park, and how quickly areas east of 21st Avenue go from apartments to very large and expensive homes.

Good things have been happening in this area lately. Development of nice new apartment buildings and an actual businesses for college students to patronize (perhaps even—gasp—by foot!) has brought the area around campus out of the Stone Age. Continued efforts to make the universities more walkable self-contained will improve town-gown relations and improve the student experience. In all parts of the city, I’d support aggressive redevelopment of aged or declining housing stock; there’s a lot of crap out there, and I think this is the area where clearing some of that out and throwing up newer, better-planned stuff is least controversial for everyone. More apartments would get rid of some of these clown car homes-turned-apartments, could ease the parking problem with intelligent construction of lots or garages, and likely make upkeep easier.

East Hillside/East End

Population: 7,512 | Median Income: $25,499

Elementary Schools: Congdon, Myers-Wilkins | Youth Rink: Congdon

Then there’s the part of the east side that isn’t anyone’s idea of a den of cakeaters. Its borders aren’t rigid; I’ve written about the melting pot in my own Endion neighborhood, which wedges in between Congdon and Chester Creek, before. As with much of the west side, the elevation divide maps on to the income divide, and the housing stock gets progressively better as one goes up the hill. (In calculating the numbers, I chose not to include the awkward census tract that includes some stuff by upper Chester Creek, upper downtown, and that neighborhood above Skyline around Summit School; if I had, it would pull the median income up nearly $10,000.) Here, apartment buildings mix in with rowhouses and bigger homes that have seen better days, many now subdivided into apartments themselves. It includes the rather suburbanized Plaza shopping district, a little more scattered commercial activity than in the other neighborhoods, and one of the two large medical campuses in town.

Here, the housing issue is more complicated: Duluth needs affordable housing, and Duluth also gains nothing from people living like sardines in rotting or collapsing pieces of junk. Hopefully the city’s newly announced plans to step up code enforcement can lead to cooperative solutions for everyone. If not, call in the wrecking ball for anything vacant, and set up a pathway for residents into safe housing that is up to code. There is some prime real estate in this area, and the dynamics of the local economy are such that I don’t think there’s any serious threat of displacement if the city does move to clear out the worst of it. There just isn’t enough money out there to cause a spate of teardowns followed by McMansion construction. Some selective clean-up, on the other hand, could improve a tight housing market and re-invigorate a neighborhood that too often feels on the shabby side.

*     *    *

Those are just my thoughts, though, and perhaps the start of a conversation or two. Above all, my goal here is to acknowledge the complexity of the east side, and to get some thoughts moving on where its various parts go next, and how that fits into a regional plan. I’ve only got a lifetime ahead of me to see where it all goes, and offer my two cents along the way.

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Goodbye to All That?

19 Jan

Eight years ago, I spent inauguration day freezing to death in Washington D.C. I was a Georgetown freshman, and there was no other place to be, particularly in the aftermath of an election that, whatever one’s politics, was certainly historic. Living in what was then (but is no longer now) a majority black city also gave me an added window into what Barack Obama’s ascendance meant for some people, particularly on election night, when I saw tears and joy that, I understood, were for something I would never be able to feel.

Not that a Midwestern white boy couldn’t try. I made sure to drink it all in: a national day of service event at RFK Stadium, a star-studded inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial. My cousin and his friend drove in from Indiana for the spectacle–I didn’t sleep the night before, as I awaited his arrival–and my dorm became a boarding house, with bodies sprawled across the common room. A group of us started down to the Mall around 4:30 and stood, huddled and chilled, for hours amid a throng of millions. Barack Obama was just a speck in the distance from our spot on the lawn, somewhere near the Hirshhorn Museum. We had a better view of the snipers on the roof of the National Gallery than we did of the new President, and the hike back to the Hilltop involved dazed weaving through mazes of port-o-potties. Still, it was all worth it, and I’m reminded of it almost every day: a few of those American flags they gave us to wave about still decorate my apartment.

inaug

I knew I was living history. I knew that, somehow, I needed to capture what this moment felt like so that I’d remember it. And so I wrote a few paragraphs. I was nineteen, and had only started writing in any serious sense a couple of months before. I had potential, though I also had a rookie’s penchant for florid prose:

The ceremony is to be a re-affirmation of the American faith in democracy. Its venue, the world’s most austere cathedral; the vast morning sky reaching from horizon to horizon in its embrace. There is no ceiling, least of all one of glass; simply the sky reaching towards the heavens…”

Yikes. The glass ceiling line is kinda cute, but come on, Karl. Are you really shamelessly comparing your country to a church? And seriously, that verb construction in the first line?

Fortunately, despite being an idealistic kid consumed by Washington’s atmosphere at the time, I was not among those who expected some sort of grandiose change out of Obama. Not that it mattered. That sweeping rhetoric, both the root of his appeal and the eventual source of disappointment for a number of his allies and disgust for many of his opponents, created a mythology that distracted from the actual art of governance. Later in the essay, I nail it:

There are no messiahs in politics. There are only humans, resplendent in their glories and glaring in their flaws. Time is short; there is work to be done. Soon the aura shall fade into memory, and unforgiving reality shall continue its steadfast march. To see the mountaintop is not enough; to stay upon the mountaintop remains an impossibility.

But for one day, such realities can be cast aside, and the awe-inspiring might of symbolism can run rampant in the mind. Often the import of great events lies not in actuality but in the power they wield in the human perception. And in this sense, this day can trump them all.

I can only laugh wryly at my verb choice in that last line.

In retrospect, that last paragraph was truer than I imagined, and Donald Trump’s election is as good a sign of that as any. So much of politics is emotion and symbolic power—what is ‘Make America Great Again’ if not symbolic?—especially on a distant national level when we’ve never met the people involved. I can be, and often am, more pleased by some election results than by others. But I will never be able to say I understand the joy black people felt upon Obama’s election, just as I’ll never be able to understand how Donald Trump could cause great joy in others, either. This isn’t to claim these emotions are in some way equivalent, but merely to marvel at how much a person we’ve never met can elicit life-defining sensations.

Part of me has grown downright scornful of this impulse to put faith in someone’s election, no matter the reason. This is the most insidious of vicarious lives, to cast one’s hopes on to some inevitably flawed human; Caesarism at its worst, a hopeless projection of hopes and dreams on to some distant figure of power when the most important work one can do to secure those aspirations is right here at home. But another part of me suspects I’d be fighting a losing war against human nature if I were to rail against this impulse full throttle.

It’s something of a paradox. I have little trouble being coldly rational in how I weigh most things, including the effectiveness of politicians I agree with or my own reactions to momentous events. And yet there are few things that have as much of a pull on me as passionate youth, and (joking a few paragraphs ago aside), I pass no harsh judgment on my earlier words. We tend to experience the world more vividly in our formative years, to live more fully in emotional surges. And while it requires the proper mindset, I do actually enjoy revisiting some of my old writing, understanding it as an essential part of growth and not just some fixed moment of an incomplete self. Those glimmers we get in those formative years are among the most important moments we encounter. Joan Didion: “one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.”

Inauguration Day 2009 was the peak of an arc that eventually swung through a park in Mexico City two years later, an outburst of troubled words in the days after I left Washington, and has landed me right back where I came from, delighted to be where I am. Joan Didion eventually said Goodbye to All That, and she was right to do so. It’s all happened before, will probably all happen again. There’s nothing so unique about this moment that past experience can’t speak to.

But that doesn’t mean the insight from this moment isn’t real, doesn’t mean the emotion that comes out of it can’t continue to course through what we do, in some way or another. So if I shrug impassively at this next inauguration, it’s not because I’ve abandoned what I felt eight years earlier. It’s merely its natural culmination. A deeper fire still burns. I have work to do.

A Whirlwind Week of Hockey

17 Jan

Between the past two Saturdays I attended seven hockey games in eight days, an exhausting string even for someone who watches as religiously as me. It was blistering tour featuring all of northeast Minnesota’s State Tournament contenders, plus a pair of Lake Conference powers who came north to visit. I enjoyed long nights and raucous arenas, not to mention connections with friends old and new at all of them, except for the one in Hermantown, where I instead had the misfortune of being surrounded by Hermantown parents displaying typical Hermantown parent behavior.

It all got off to an inauspicious start, as Minnetonka came to play Duluth East on Saturday the 7th. After a start to the season defined largely by consistent efforts, the Hounds were MIA from puck drop at the Heritage Center, and the Skippers pummeled them to the tune of 6-0. It was one of the ugliest losses of the Mike Randolph era—an inordinate number of said losses do seem to come against Minnetonka—but it shows how far things can all go to pieces when a normally disciplined team lapses. The Skippers, meanwhile, looked like world-beaters, and while they have potential, they’ve failed to back that up with any consistency. They are a perplexing program, one with perpetual talent but just one trip to state in the past ten years. Maybe this new rising generation will be the one that changes things, but I’ll wait until March to draw conclusions.

The Hounds were again on my calendar for Monday for their crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld, and in the early stages, they again looked nothing like they should. Slowly, however, the offense took over, and while it took a few power plays that sent Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley into cahoots, the final shots (54-15) showed the completeness of the Greyhound domination from the middle of the first period on. Denfeld goalie Benjamin LaFont gets credit for keeping it somewhat close, a feat he repeated during Thursday night’s 5-1 loss to Hermantown. This has been a dark year for the Hunters, with just two wins to their name and no junior varsity. After stringing things along for a few seasons thanks to a handful of strong bloodlines and transfers, the bottom seemed to have fallen out. But this week’s rivalry games showed a group of Hunters that still have their pride intact, and look stout enough to at least make things interesting in the 7A playoffs.

“Interesting” is not normally a word associated with the 7A playoffs these days, and the Hermantown Hawks reminded us why on Tuesday, when they outlasted AA power Grand Rapids for a third straight win over the Thunderhawks. This was the most entertaining game I’ve seen all year, a back-and-forth, open affair brimming with emotion. A coaching chess match came to the fore in the second period, when Rapids’ Trent Klatt started looking for ways to get his elite threesome at forward—Blake McLaughlin, Micah Miller, and Gavin Hain—away from Hermantown’s Ryan Sandelin-led top line. Sandelin and company contained the Big Three whenever they were on the ice together, and Bruce Plante was wily enough to keep up in the line-matching game. Hermantown, meanwhile, exploited the mismatch of the second lines, and Logan Judnick’s goal held up as the game-winner. The Hawks were clinging to life in the late stages as the Big Three surged forward, but did enough for a 4-3 win, and some frustrated Grand Rapids defenesemen started a scrum in the corner after the buzzer sounded. It was a painful error: two of them were given game misconducts, and had to miss Thursday’s contest with Duluth East.

Few regular season games were as anticipated as this one, as the Greyhounds welcomed in the team that ended their 7AA dynasty in exhilarating fashion the year before. The atmosphere at the Heritage Center was the best I’ve ever seen, and both teams had something to prove: East needed to win to show it belonged in the 7AA conversation, while a loss could consign Rapids to the 3-seed, despite their strong start to the year. With so many thrillers in recent memory between these two, it had the makings of another classic.

The game, however, didn’t offer much in the way of drama. Thursday was one of those defining Duluth East games, a dominant performance that offered Greyhound hockey at its finest. East went on the attack early and never let up, controlling the puck for long stretches yet still showing enough discipline to make the Rapids stars seem fairly pedestrian when they did go on the rush the other way. They unleashed a barrage on Rapids goalie Gabe Holum, and while he held the game to 1-0 for a period and a half, the floodgates burst loose late in the second. The 5-0 final was East’s finest statement to date, and after Elk River stumbled against Centennial on Saturday, they suddenly look like they’re right there in the heart of the 7AA race.

The Thunderhawks, meanwhile, face a conundrum. Their amazing top line carried them through a dominant December, but with just one win in five games before a recovery effort in their win over Cloquet on Tuesday the 17th, there are some cracks in the walls. It’s not hard to look good when a team returns a group of stars with incredible chemistry, but as the competition builds its own combinations and settles into its systems, it grows more difficult for a good AA team to thrive off sheer skill alone. If ever a team could, it’s this Thunderhawk group, but a concurrent decline in team discipline has been their bête noir. Trent Klatt has played with splitting up his now-somewhat-stoppable trio, a move I’ve judged as wise give the realities of AA hockey: one-line teams seldom win tough sections. But the Big Three have a chemistry together that’s hard to shrug aside, and Trent Klatt faces far more critical choices than he did a year ago, when he had the depth to run with the likes of East and Elk River. Few teams will be as interesting to watch down the stretch.

For East, the win was as much a display of talent as it was a win for the program’s famed systems. Mike Randolph teams are renowned for their offensive zone cycling and ability to shut down the opposition, but they’re at their very best when there are added wrinkles of creativity that display some of the natural skill on the team. We saw some flashes of that against Grand Rapids. Garrett Worth, the most technically skilled East forward since Jake Randolph, dangled all over the place. Ian Mageau was a physical force, disrupting the opposition and creating plays of his own, with three assists on the night. And while Luke LaMaster didn’t have a huge night on the scoresheet, his poise in his own zone started many a fluid Hound breakout. The machine work is all lovely and important, but it’s going to be these individual moments of brilliance that make or break this team’s playoff run.

Those top line Hounds had precious few chances to show their greatness against Eden Prairie on Saturday. Matched against Casey Mittelstadt and the Eagle top line, they were left in a mostly defensive role, which they filled with aplomb, though at the expense of some scoring chances. For its part, the East system held up well against the state’s most talented team. In a display of depth, the third line scored both goals, and the defensemen were equal to the task against Mittelstadt. The ending, however, was something no system can account for, as goaltender Kirk Meierhoff mishandled a lob in from the blue line by Nick Leivermann just ten seconds into overtime. It was an unfortunate twist for Meierhoff, who’s shown genuine improvement and been a bright spot for East this year, and recalled memories of some previous overtime affair between these two that ended on a crazy goal. But, no matter: the Hounds showed this week that they have the formula to run with the best when they’re on their game.

This was my second look at Eden Prairie on the weekend, as I’d seen them turn in a fairly pedestrian performance in a 3-1 win over Cloquet the night before. Under Lee Smith this season, the Eagles are the anti-Grand Rapids, deliberately avoiding heavy reliance on their stars in the service of a deep lineup and grinding performances. Perhaps it’s an attempt to atone for last season, when the Eagles lost the title game to a deep defensive team, and it’s not without risks, as games can stay tighter than they might be if they turned into a track meet. But winning it all in AA takes discipline, and with their new approach—and, one might add, with a certain hotheaded forward unavailable due to a misconduct the night before—Eden Prairie kept its poise and rolled its lines when East ramped up the pressure in the third period. Sure, East effectively shut down Mittelstadt, but the Eagles never panicked, and when a questionable call gave them a late penalty, they pressed in, creating a deluge of chances late in regulation before Leivermann’s fateful flip.

Perhaps these are all important turning points; perhaps these moments in January are just little skips that won’t be at all relevant when we look back in two months at the moments that defined these teams’ seasons. Either way, these teams delivered some of the cheapest, most entertaining theater available out there. We’re headed into the stretch run now, and it only gets better from here.

Yes, Defense Does Win Championships

11 Jan

“Defense wins championships” is among the older sports clichés out there, but it’s out there because it’s true, and Minnesota high school hockey fits the bill as well as any sport. Whether it’s a team built around tough defensive hockey like last year’s Wayzata Trojans or an overwhelming Edina team that just happens to have three or four D-I defensemen in back, the eventual state champion never has a weakness on the back end. A firm defense is the common denominator for basically every state champion over the past 25 years.

If you want to know if a team has what it takes to win, one of the easiest metrics is its number of Division One defensemen. There have only been four AA state champions with less than two D-I defensemen in the two-class era, and one of those comes with a huge asterisk, as Patrick Finnegan of Duluth East was one of the best defensemen in the state in 1998, but went the Canadian major junior route instead, as did another Hound defenseman on that team, Jon Hedberg. The remaining three are 1997 Edina, 2005 Holy Angels, and 2007 Roseau. The 97 Hornets, who stunned undefeated Duluth East in the title game, were masters of the trap. The 07 Rams’ single D-I d-man was one of the best in the past 15 years, and with Scott Oliver at the helm, they were a tough team that wasn’t going to take anything lying down. That leaves the 05 Stars as the only thing at all resembling an outlier.

Defense is the common denominator to so many state champions, especially when we get outside of the dynastic Bloomington Jefferson, East, Holy Angels, or Edina teams that had boatloads of talent everywhere. The Poehling brothers got all the hype, but I contended all along that the most important piece of the perfect 2015 Lakeville North team was its incredible defensive corps. When we’ve had lower seed state champions (2008 Hill-Murray, 2016 Wayzata), it comes on the strength of defense. 2003 Anoka may have only had three D-I players, but two of them were, you guessed it, defensemen. A solid group in back can cover for weak forward talent by just depressing scores and venturing into the attack at times; a solid group of forwards can’t possibly make up for fundamental defensive lapses.

We also can’t understate the power of a single elite defenseman in the high school game. 2006 Cretin-Derham Hall only had 4 D-I players, the second-lowest total for a champion of the two-class era, but one of them was Ryan McDonagh. 2009 Eden Prairie was very young outside of Nick Leddy, but Nick Leddy was Nick Leddy. Hank Sorensen drove some people nuts in his time with Wayzata, but there’s little doubt his hits were a key difference-maker for last year’s Trojans. Even a truly elite forward with something of a supporting cast, like Grand Rapids’ Avery Peterson, never had nearly the influence of a top-tier defenseman like Duluth East’s Phil Beaulieu when those two collided. Peterson deserved his Mr. Hockey award, but Beaulieu ran the show when East played Rapids in 2014, and a fairly thin Hounds team (by East standards) had little trouble beating the Thunderhawks. Once at State, they lost to a similar tough Eagan squad carried by one Nick Wolff.

At the same time, a lack of defensive discipline can doom a team that has the talent to win. I’ve leveled the same criticism at St. Thomas Academy in each of their three years in AA, and I’m going to do so again this year. Their aggressive play and deadliness in transition was a good style for making thin Class A teams look silly, but it’s often too fast and loose for AA. There’s a reason they’ve suffered three upset playoff losses (of varying degrees) in three years in AA. If Hermantown were to ever make the jump without any adjustments in style of play, I’d expect a similar result. (It’s exactly what happened when they twice collided with the rare Class A team that could play that tough defensive style, those East Grand Forks 2014 and 2015 teams.) There’s a reason that perennial powers like Duluth East and Hill-Murray always try take care of things on their own end of the ice first, no matter what sort of talent they have up front: their coaches have been around the block, and know what it takes to win.

I’m not saying offense-first teams can’t ever win. If there was an exception in recent memory, it was 2013 Benilde-St. Margaret’s; sure, they had four D-I defensemen, but three of them were very young, and that team was built purely around speed and a prolific offense. They only had one of the two or three best pure snipers of the two-class era in Grant Besse, and an overload of weapons around him. And even then, a very young Edina team had them on the ropes in the first round at State, and the two teams that were well-built stylistically to take them down, Eagan and Duluth East, decided to go and lose in the quarterfinals. Benilde’s inability to make State the following year, when Besse was a senior, and in 2016, when they went undefeated in the regular season, had a lot to do with playing a style that had no Plan B when it ran up against teams that didn’t roll over and make mortal mistakes.

Being defensive-minded alone isn’t going to win a state championship. One does, after all, need goals, and some measure of creativity for that inevitable playoff game when a team doesn’t quite play up to its potential, or gets knocked off its game. Teams of all varieties fall short, and there are plenty of scripts for upsets to follow. But if I need to choose among possible state champions, give me the team that rules the blue line. History doesn’t lie.

Escape to Palisade Valley

9 Jan

There’s a nice coherence in having one’s birthday right up against the new year, even if it did mean enduring a childhood of “Merry Christmas…and Happy Birthday All at Once!” presents. Year-end reflections and any thoughts that come with turning a year older happen all together, and each calendar year lines up nicely with a year in my life. I’ve never been one for resolutions or remaking myself in any fundamental way, but an added year is always a welcome chance to step back to recalibrate some. I’m skeptical of  any overarching sense of human progress as destiny, but I do think the power of introspection and stopping to learn from the past is one of the things that makes human life worth living.

Twenty-seven feels like a heavy one. Maybe because it’s certifiably “late twenties” now, but more likely because it’s my first birthday as a full-time adult with a career and no diversion from that career in sight. This is life now, and I’m just going to pile up the years as I go on with my working life. Each turn of the calendar page just brings me closer to middle age, puts on a little more pressure to check off the next set of boxes on the list of goals, especially after a year in which there was an awful lot of box-checking. Not everything needs to happen at once, and measuring life only by checked boxes is a poor way to think about things. But I won’t pretend that checking those boxes doesn’t set a strong foundation that allows everything else to flourish, and it’s hard to understate the benefits of finally having things all lined up. Wandering through a portion of one’s twenties is only worthwhile if one learns some necessary lessons. Mission accomplished, I suppose.

Before I get to work on those remaining boxes, though, I need to stop for a moment, and to think about what I’m really aiming for next. This holiday season, rich and rewarding in so many respects, left little time for introversion: this was my first weekend at home without houseguests in over a month, following journeys to Minneapolis and Chicago and Wisconsin, and playing host for New Year’s. I need these moments.

So, this Sunday, I set out to find some solitude on a skiing adventure. It was nothing that would trouble a seasoned skier, but it was still a healthy 15-plus kilometer trek over sometimes shaky trails, from the Northwoods ski area north of Silver Bay to a small camp in the heart of Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior’s North Shore. It’s a trip I’ve long wanted to make, and now was as good a time as any. And so I set out with my skis, a lunch, and a bottle of whiskey with a few sips left in it from New Year’s festivities.

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Northwoods is already the prettiest ski area in the region, thanks to its thick stands of balsams along the Beaver River and its beautiful outlet on to the floor of cliff-lined Bean Lake. (Alas: a sign at the parking lot alerts us to an impending, and probably necessary, thinning of the balsams by loggers.) Just as the trail turns away from the Beaver toward the daunting Herringbone Hill, an alluring spur offers a five-ish kilometer connection to Tettegouche. (Signs and maps offer differing distances, but it’s somewhere between 4.8 and 5.5). The trail is ungroomed, but sees enough traffic that there’s a healthy track at the start. Ungroomed trails offer constant undulations, and occasional needs to skirt frozen pools, or to climb or descend hills covered by small plants that resemble barren sticks in winter. It’s slow going. There are no brutal hills on the Tettegouche connector, and it’s little enough used that it’s never fast, but there are a few slopes that require careful negotiation.

Keeping one’s eyes on the tracks, however, can be difficult on this trail. The reason is simple: this is, by several degrees of magnitude, the most beautiful stretch of trail I’ve ever skied. The trail enters the Palisade Valley and snakes between walls of talus, these rugged ridges that score the earth north of Silver Bay. Pictures can’t quite capture the completeness of the beauty as I slide along between snow-covered boulder fields, frozen ponds dotting the route below. I start to climb gently, the leafless trees allowing views far across the valley. I cross a few snowmobile trails, and come to a spot where some furry animal met its demise from the skies. I climb the steepest hill on the trail to a view between looming twin erratics; a sign welcomes me to Tettegouche. Before long, I come to a long, somewhat narrow clearing, and the trail dies completely. But it seems clear enough that I should cross this opening, and I edge forward with some caution, as I suspect Palisade Creek is somewhere beneath me. I stick to the top of drifted snowy ridges, figuring something must hold it all up beneath. At times I sink deep into the drifts, at times I glide along the top without leaving a track. My geography skills haven’t failed me: a faint trail appears on the opposite end of the long clearing, and I immediately encounter an intersection with a map.

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Perhaps the biggest adjustment to working life has been the structure. Suddenly, there is always a map, and little time to explore its less worn trails. While I’m not busier than I was in school, being in an office from 8 to 5 is just a very different lifestyle from a haphazard student schedule. I hardly expect much sympathy if this is one of my greater worries, and it’s driven by my own ridiculous need to be doing something (and maybe multiple things) every single waking moment. But as valuable as structure can be, it can come at the expense of serendipity, and leaves moments of wonder too few and far between. It seems paradoxical to schedule in time to for beauty and wonder, but in these parts, one doesn’t have to travel far to find it.

Beyond the intersection the trail is packed down by snowshoes, and moves quickly up and down through a silent pine grove. Faster than expected, I sail down an easy slope to the Tettegouche camp, a collection of four cabins and a communal lodge in the heart of the state park on Mic Mac Lake, accessible only by trail. It’s empty when I arrive, but an older couple skis into camp from the north just after I break into my lunch in the lodge. We chat as I eat, colder when stationary in this unheated building than we were when skiing along. (For the non-northern Minnesotans who wonder how we do it, cross-country skiing is enough work that it doesn’t require a heavy jacket, even on a single-digit day like this one.) The woman admires the route I’ve taken, wishes that her body could still handle that many kilometers. I only hope that I, like her, can find someone who will still go with me on spontaneous adventures like this when I’m her age. After they leave me, I wander down to the frozen lake, sublime in repose, and then begin my trip back.

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As always, return journeys are faster, with familiar landmarks dotting the route. A number of stretches are a cross-country skier’s greatest delight, those easy, steady, incredibly long downhills. I can lull into thought here, develop a new plan of attack for adult life. I take my last slug of warming beverage in a spot where I can see hills rising up in all directions: a rock-strewn cliff to the right, the walls of Bear Lake up to the left, lonely Round Mountain and hulking Mount Trudee, subject of many a vulgarity on my post-graduation hike this past summer, visible behind. I don’t need the whiskey to feel a warm burn. The sun, stuck behind a grey wintry haze after some moments of morning clarity, sinks toward the top of the ridge that separates me from Bear and Bean Lakes, even at this early afternoon hour. Back on the Northwoods trails, my muscles start to protest; this stretch seems longer than I’d remembered. The trail system is empty, just me and the balsams, though a large crew with young children is just setting out when I finally coast back into the parking lot. I expect I’ll be doing that in the not so distant future, too.

It’s an hour drive back to Duluth. The morning sea smoke has lifted, and Lake Superior is a steely grey; for once, the clouds are welcome, as they blot out the sun that always seems to hang in one’s eyes during winter drives back down the Shore. I may be a little older now, and my knees are a bit cranky, but as I tune in the Packers’ playoff game and accelerate past Split Rock Lighthouse, I feel the youngest I have in months. As long as I can still blend that ambition with that sense of wonder, I can still channel the best of that kid who left Duluth for Georgetown, the best of those instincts that pulled me home, the best of those thrusts outward and journeys back through this endless cycle I live.

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I already knew all of this, of course. It’s no secret. But it’s so incredibly easy to let that slip away. At the very least, a few sore muscles will remind me for the next few days, and with any luck, this latest jolt will pierce through the dragging everydayness that too often grinds down that ambition and wonder. There’s no stopping now. There’s no telling how many kilometers of unbroken snow separate me from home.