Walking on waterfalls

Flying over a frozen waterfall on the Lester River in Duluth, Minnesota
Walking over a frozen waterfall on the Lester River in Duluth, Minnesota. (Photo by Jennifer Moore)

We weren’t lost in Lester Park, we just didn’t know how far it was to the end of the trail.

And it was getting dark.

Jen and I had hiked maybe three miles up the banks of the Lester River trail in Duluth on a cold, bright Sunday afternoon last week. Aided by IceTrekker cleats and a path well-worn by fat bikes, we made good time and tried for a loop: Up the Lester River and down the Amity East Creek.

But we started too late and dawdled too long admiring the views. Spectacular snow-covered forest. Dramatic grey cliffs. Black and white birch. Evergreen pine.

Then we spotted someone all alone on the frozen river below. A young man in sneakers wandered down a path broken by cross-country skiers. He wore an unzipped, bright-colored jacket and no hat. It looked like he was walking across campus after a big lunch.

The guy stopped occasionally to take pictures with a camera phone.

“We gotta go down there,” I told Jen. “It looks amazing.”

But there was no stairs down the cliff. No well-worn path along a tributary. So we kept hiking up the river bank looking for an access. Until we couldn’t find one.

The trail eventually turned west into the woods and the sun started to set. I was admonished for not knowing distances and crossroads locations. Orders were given to turn back.

It’s a good thing we did.

On the hike back down, we discovered a secret trial. Secret because we didn’t see it on the way up. The little-used trail looked like a shortcut, but it led down to the water’s edge.

And that’s where I wanted to go.

Walking on the frozen Lester is like walking down a freshly mopped hallway in the Museum of Ancient River Ravines. It’s a little bit slippery, a little bit dangerous but, wow, Mother Nature sure knows how to make art.

Rocky, grey walls plastered with white, abstract snow forms. Leafless trees soar overhead like construction crane sculptures. The setting sun dries eroded banks and sand slides into startling kinetic art displays. Thick ice opens in strange white ovals to frame a rush below your feet: cold, black water making its way to Lake Superior.

But the masterpiece is the waterfall.

Somehow moving water is frozen on top of itself (Or is underneath itself?) as it tumbles through a crack between boulders. This ice isn’t smooth and clear like lake ice; it’s soft and brittle and comes in different shades of white. It looks and feels like a 2,000-pound piece of fresh picked cauliflower. Very dangerous cauliflower.

Maybe 10-feet below this cauliflower crown sits open water.

Just snap a picture and gingerly move on.

The end of the Lester River can’t be too far away.

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