The Minnesota Riviera . . .

Minnesota Riviera? Yes, you could call it that. With its beaches, bays and secluded coves, its headlands and cliffs, along Lake Superior’s North Shore, not to mention its summer temperatures in the 80s and 90s at times (let’s forget about those sub-zero winter extremes), it’s as attractive and warm as the south of France.

Minnesota has about 150 miles of coast along Lake Superior, a body of water vast enough to appear like the ocean itself. Indeed the lake statistics are impressive. It is the largest freshwater lake in the world – by surface area, at 31,700 sq. miles, and the third largest in terms of volume. The maximum depth is 1,332 feet, and its surface is about 600 feet above sea level. At over 160 miles across, it experiences some severe storms in winter, with waves regularly reaching 20 feet, and 30 foot waves not uncommon. But more of that later.

We just returned from a two week vacation in Minnesota – the principal purpose was to visit our daughter Hannah, husband Michael, and two grandchildren: Callum (22 months) and Zoë Isobel (just 4 weeks when we arrived!)

And we took advantage of our visit to travel north and visit Duluth, the most westerly port on the Great Lakes, as well as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) along the Gunflint Trail just south of the international border with Canada (Ontario). This is the route of our trip.

Duluth is the fourth city of Minnesota in terms of population. At one time there were passenger services connecting Minnesota with the Atlantic Ocean. Now the port is a major conduit for coal and iron ore. Part of the old port area – Canal Park – has been transformed into a tourist attraction, with the conversion of some of the old warehouses into hotels and shopping venues. There’s also a large aquarium featuring the biology of Lake Superior. One of the Great Lakes steamers, the William A. Irvin, is permanently moored (just behind our hotel in fact) and converted to a museum. Here are some more photos of the Canal Park area.

One of the the main landmarks is the entrance canal to the harbor under the Aerial Bridge. The main span is at road level, and is lifted to varying heights depending on the size of the ship wishing to pass through. During our walk-about, we saw the bridge lifted twice: the first time for a pleasure cruiser offering a tour of the harbor and Duluth Bay, and secondly for an ore freighter, the Hon. James L. Oberstar (of the Interlake Steamship Co.) – very impressive. Here’s the freighter approaching the bridge and signalling its intention to pass through, and given the all-clear from the bridge operator.

And this photo just shows how high the bridge can be raised to let the biggest ships through.

The evening of our stay we decided to eat in the steakhouse attached to our hotel. It was offering a free appetizer per table and free drinks (it was happy hour). For the appetizer we chose local Minnesota (and Wisconsin) speciality – you’d hardly call it a delicacy: cheese curds. Actually these are pieces of cheese (usually Cheddar or Monterrey Jack), coated in batter, and deep fried! One plate for the two of us was plenty. I wonder how much that contributed to my cholesterol levels?

[In September 2010, we enjoyed the Minnesota State Fair (reported to be the biggest in the country) and attended a broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion. Raconteur Garrison Keillor and Californian singer-songwriter Sara Watkins sang a duet about State Fair food – especially deep fried cheese, during the broadcast on 4 September 2010. Deep fried cheese was very much in evidence as we wandered around the Fair.]

We hit the road early the next day, heading north. Highway I-35 ends just north of Duluth, and is replaced by scenic highway US 61. Between Duluth and Two Harbors there is an expressway, but the old road (still an excellent surface) meanders alongside the lake, with some stunning views.

We didn’t stop in Two Harbors but headed for our first destination: Gooseberry Falls State Park.

Just beside the road, the falls drop in five cataracts to a meandering river that empties into Lake Superior at Agate Beach. We took the 20 minute walk down the falls to Agate Beach, but didn’t find any agate. In any case removal of any stones is prohibited.

Just a little further north from Gooseberry Falls, and southwest of Silver Bay stands Split Rock Lighthouse, which opened in 1910. Its construction was prompted by a major storm a few years earlier after a ship came to grief on the rocky shore. In fact there’s a whole network of lighthouses around Lake Superior. Split Rock Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1969 once radar (and now GPS) was used for navigation. It remains an iconic site standing 100 feet above the lake, and attracts thousands and thousands of visitors each year – but thankfully not on the day we visited.

Next stop on our journey was the Temperance River Gorge and State Park, just south of Tofte. While the falls themselves were attractive, what we liked best was the small cove where the river meets the lake – very beautiful.

Our travels ended in Grand Marais, a small town (and harbor, mainly for pleasure craft) about 50 miles south of the border with Canada, where we spent two nights. This was an excellent base to explore the Gunflint Trail and Superior National Forest in the BWCAW.

The Gunflint Trail is paved, and extends some 57 miles inland. At the top end of the Trail lies Gunflint Lake, with the international border bisecting the lake. This was the closest, at about half a mile, that we came to Canada on this trip. The BWCAW is a myriad of forest roads, and there are many resorts and eating places along its length, where camping and all manner of field activities and sports are permitted. Off the beaten track the only access is on foot or by canoe. Beware of bears! Unfortunately we didn’t see any large animals apart from a few deer.

We hoped to see moose at a well-known site with an observation platform, and black bears as well (that had been featured on a major BBC TV broadcast from this area over several weeks in the month prior to our visit) – but none showed. We did see millions of trees. At the top of the trail it seems there had been a major fire in past years, and the vegetation is still recovering.

One of the disappointments was the limited access to lakeside views along the trail. We did leave the paved road on the return journey, heading off down the Arrowhead Trail, and joining US 61 at Hovland, about 20 miles north of Grand Marais.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to the Minnesota Riviera and, as with our trip to Arizona and New Mexico in 2011, we saw relatively few tourists. Indeed, along the Gunflint Trail it often seemed as though we had the whole BWCAW to ourselves. This is definitely a region of the USA that I would recommend anyone to visit. Until you have seen it for yourself, it’s hard to imagine the vast extent of Lake Superior. Of course, we saw the area at its best – blue skies, nice warm temperatures. There was a great diversity of wild flowers – especially the bluebonnets, a wild lupin species along the roadside (although not all were blue as we saw some white and pink specimens). On the trip south back to the Twin Cities, we decided to cross over into Wisconsin since we’d experienced some delays on I-35 due to road works and a contraflow. Around Two Harbors we ran into heavy downpours and thunderstorms which stayed with us all the way back to St Paul. A week later (in fact on the night of our homeward flight from MSP) there was a major storm that hit the Duluth area, dumping 5-7 inches of rain in just a few hours. Needless to say there was considerable disruption and damage to roads. We were very lucky to have avoided that.

If you get the chance, do make a visit to the Minnesota Riviera – you won’t regret it.

Eating out for breakfast – a great American tradition

Over the past 35 years I’ve visited the United States on many occasions, and traveled through 21 of the 50 states.

It never ceases to amaze me what a wonderfully diverse country the US is – geographically, ethnically, socially, and politically. I can’t deny that there are regions of the US where I feel more comfortable than others. But everywhere (well, almost everywhere) folks have been courteous and welcoming – I think it must be the British accent.

On a recent trip to northern Minnesota, which took us (temporarily) into Wisconsin on the way back to St Paul, the waitress in the diner where we stopped for lunch (an excellent grilled ham and cheese sandwich and fries, plus soda) in Frederic asked where I was from. When I told her ‘England’, she replied ‘I thought so. I could listen to your accent all day long.’

And one of the aspects of American life I have come to enjoy very much is the ‘tradition’ of going out to eat breakfast – and a whole host of diners has developed nationwide. Getting out of bed on a Sunday morning, and first of all deciding which diner to visit. Then there’s the anticipation of a full breakfast: eggs, bacon or sausage, hash browns, and a myriad of choices of bread for toast. Or will it be a stack of pancakes, with exquisite maple syrup (the real deal – not some concoction that we buy over here in the UK, which has a hint of maple added as flavoring), or maybe the french toast, inch-thick slices of course, dusted with powdered sugar. As one sits down to make a choice, the server immediately pours a cup of steaming, freshly-brewed coffee. Heaven!

In the Twin Cities (that’s Minneapolis-St Paul, Minnesota to non-residents), I’ve dined at three breakfast venues, all excellent, and different in their own ways.

I’m most familiar with the Grandview Grill, on the corner of Grand and Fairview Avenues, just down the street from Macalester College from where Hannah and Michael graduated (also alma mater to Kofi Annan). We had breakfast there just a couple of weeks ago. The pancakes were delicious. It was a Saturday – we decided to go then since the following day was Father’s Day and we knew the place would be heaving. Accommodating a toddler and a small baby on a quieter morning was better for us and other clients.

Along Selby Avenue, at the junction with Dale, is the New Louisiana Cafe. Also a great venue for a filling breakfast. Seems it’s owned by the same people who run the Grandview Grill – if logos are anything to go by.

In downtown Minneapolis is Hell’s Kitchen, a rather eclectic venue that seems (from the photos posted on its site) also to have undergone some transformations from what I remember.

At one time the walls were covered with paintings by British cartoonist Ralph Steadman. On the two or three occasions I’ve had breakfast there, we had to wait quite some time for a table – it’s a popular venue. In December 2007, when we visited Hannah and Michael, we had a long and rather cold wait in the lobby. The outside temperature was well below zero – we’d just flown in from the Philippines. The breakfast more than made up for the wait.

Why do I like this breakfast-out approach? Well, it’s just not done here in the UK, and for us visitors to the US, it is just one big treat.

Grandparenting duties . . .

A few months back I posted a short piece about what it felt like to be a Grandad. Well, the past few weeks have been quite Grandad busy, as we visited Philippa and Andi and Dexter in Newcastle upon Tyne in mid-May for four days, followed by a two week visit to Hannah and Michael in St Paul, Minnesota, and to see Callum (now 22 months) and meet Zoë Isobel who was born on 8 May. We’d last been in the US in May 2011. Seeing our grandchildren grow and develop is such a joy.

Phil and Dexter came to visit just before Christmas. And how Dexter has grown in the intervening months – such a happy chappy. He’s full of smiles and chatter, all unintelligible.

Now almost nine months, it looks like he’ll by-pass the crawling stage as all he wants to do is be upright, and loves being held in the standing position. Time will tell.

On the Sunday of our visit we took a trip up the Northumbrian coast to Dunstanburgh Castle. Safely strapped to Andi’s back, Dexter seemed to enjoy himself.

But when we arrived back in Craster to enjoy a pub lunch in the garden overlooking the North Sea, that’s when the fun started. Dexter was on my knee, and to keep him amused I began to softly pat the table top. Very soon he was joining in, and really chuckling away – as this video shows.

And as this photo shows, young Dexter gets on well with his Grandad.

We hadn’t seen Callum since May 2011, when he was about nine months, and barely crawling. What a difference a year makes.

Now he’s a real little boy, full of giggles and exploring the world. It’s amazing to see him absorbing so much information – like a sponge his dad Michael says. His vocabulary grows each day – although there’s also a lot of chatter that I guess only he understands. And I inducted Callum into the Ministry of Silly Walks (of Monty Python fame) – it was great to watch him copy what I was doing.

And I had the delight of introducing him – via YouTube – to Sesame Street and Elmo. We had a great time enjoying the various clips together. This was one of his favorite videos.

Callum loves books, and enjoyed both Steph and I reading to him, and for him to tell us all the names, or make the sounds of the animals and other things he saw.

Zoë was just four weeks old when we arrived in St Paul at the beginning of June. What a cutie, with a lovely dimple when she smiles. In the first few days we thought how much she looked like Callum at the same age, but over the two weeks of our stay, we began to see other differences. She’s also doing well, and beginning to take an interest in everything around her. Hopefully her sleep pattern will stabilize soon, and Hannah and Michael will enjoy unbroken sleep – for a few hours at least.

We look forward to watching Callum, Dexter, and Zoë growing up – it will a fascinating time.

Supervising graduate students . . .

Completing a PhD thesis is one thing. Supervising the research of someone else is another.

And when I joined the University of Birmingham in April 1981 as lecturer in plant sciences, one of the duties expected of me was to supervise graduate students. Since I had already spent over eight years overseas, I was quite keen to take on graduate students from different countries. So over the decade I remained at Birmingham, half of my PhD students were from overseas, as were many of the students on the genetic resources MSc course.

Apart from advice to give a prospective student regarding a suitable thesis topic (and the opportunity to secure adequate funding), it’s very important for a supervisor to be ‘there’ for a graduate student, to be a sounding board, to be available for discussion on a regular basis, to help make contacts with others working in the same or similar field, and to dedicate a good deal of attention when students begins to write their thesis in earnest. I remember very clearly how my PhD supervisor helped me during the writing phase. And the most important aspect was that he gave me thorough, detailed and prompt feedback – usually no more than 24 hours or so after I had handed a draft to him. Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of supervisors not being available at this critical stage, of taking weeks, months even, to read drafts and provide feedback. I decided from the outset that I would always provide feedback promptly.

Professor Jack Hawkes was still head of department when I joined Plant Biology (in the School of Biological Sciences); we overlapped for just over a year, since he retired in September 1992. I took on a couple of Jack’s PhD students who were, in April 1991, about half way through their PhD programs. Most of the theses I supervised were about potatoes, and a couple on legume species. Some were carried out entirely at Birmingham, but most were collaborative studies with research institutes in the UK or overseas (in Peru and Italy). Unfortunately I have lost touch with some of these students and have been unable to find out what they are now up to.

In any case, here’s a brief description of them all.

Lynne Woodwards 1982The non-blackening character of Solanum hjertingii Hawkes – studies on its nature and transference into European potato cultivars
Lynne had completed her MSc degree and began this study with Jack Hawkes, who asked me to take on responsibility for her supervision as soon as I arrived at Birmingham. Solanum hjertingii is a tetraploid species from Mexico. In most potatoes the tuber flesh begins to blacken since cells when sliced because cells are ruptured and phenols are oxidised. We looked at the variation in various accessions of this wild potato and others in the same taxonomic group, and investigated how easily the character might be bred into commercial varieties. Lynne published just one paper from her thesis:

  • Woodwards, L. & M.T. Jackson, 1985. The lack of enzymic browning in wild potato species, Series Longipedicellata, and their crossability with Solanum tuberosum. Zeitschrift für Pflanzenzüchtung 94, 278-287.

Ardeshir B Damania 1983: Variation in wheat and barley landraces from Nepal and the Yemen Arab Republic
Adi carried out much of his field work at the Italian genebank at Bari in southern Italy, and was co-supervised by Prof. Enrico Porceddu. Adi is now working in the genetic resources program at the University of California-Davis, and has been a collaborator of emeritus professor and cereal breeder Cal Qualset for many years. We published two papers:

rene002Rene Chavez 1984The use of wide crosses in potato breeding
Rene had come to Birmingham as an MSc student from the University of Tacna in the south of Peru. He then started a PhD with me in 1981 based at CIP, working on the problems of inter-ploidy crosses to transfer pest resistance from wild to cultivated potatoes. At CIP, his principal supervisor was Peter Schmiediche (also a Birmingham graduate), but was supported by other CIP staff whose names appear on the three  papers we published:

After returning to South America, Rene spent a couple of years at CIAT, in Cali, Colombia, helping to curate a large field collection of wild species of Manihot – cassava. He then returned to the University of Tacna, and as far as I’m aware, developed some collaborative research on potatoes with CIP. Sadly Rene died of cancer a couple of years ago.

denise002Denise B Clugston 1988Embryo culture and protoplast fusion for the introduction of Mexican wild species germplasm into the cultivated potato

Denise came to Birmingham as an MSc student in the early 80s and stayed on to complete her PhD on different biotechnology options to transfer genes from the valuable Mexican wild potato species into commercial forms. She had studied originally at the Royal College of Music in London, and had played the oboe professionally. She then took an Open University degree in biology, and came to Birmingham to study genetic resources. Regretfully I have lost touch with her completely.

Elizabeth L Newton 1989: Studies towards the control of viruses transmitted through true potato seed
Beth was a Birmingham graduate in biological sciences. I was able to offer her a studentship in collaboration with the then Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) Harpenden Laboratory to study the mechanisms of sexual transmission of potato viruses. Her co-supervisor at Harpenden was Dr Roger Jones, an ex-colleague of mine from CIP in the 70s. As a government laboratory the Harpenden lab had permission to study several dangerous viruses under quarantine, so Beth had to carry out her practical work there. Before she completed her PhD, Roger moved to Australia in 1986 where he is now a Research Professor at the University of Western Australia. Supervision of the work at Harpenden was then taken over by Dr Lesley Torrance, who subsequently moved to Dundee to what is now the James Hutton Institute. I’ve lost touch with Beth.

Carlos Arbizu 1990The use of Solanum acaule as a source of resistance to potato spindle tuber viroid (PSTV) and potato leaf roll virus (PLRV)
Another Birmingham MSc genetic resources graduate, Carlos hails from Ayacucho in central Peru, and can relate many stories about the emergence of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso and how it affected him and his family, and some of the adventures he found himself in while collecting germplasm in the Andes. He is also a widely-acclaimed expert on minor Andean tuber crops. At CIP, he worked with eminent virologist Luis Salazar (now retired, but who obtained his PhD in Scotland). Carlos stayed with CIP for several years, but has now retired.

Abdul Ghani Yunus 1990Biosystematics of Lathyrus Section Lathyrus with special reference to the grass pea, L. sativus L.
Ghani is from Malaysia. He first came to Birmingham in the early 80s, and completed his MSc dissertation on Lathyrus. Later on in the decade he successfully applied for a government scholarship and returned to Birmingham, and made an excellent study of breeding relationships among Lathyrus species, several aspects of which were published:

Ian R Gubb 1991The biochemical and genetic basis for the lack of enzymic browning in the wild potato species Solanum hjertingii Hawkes
We continued our work on non-blackening potatoes and, with a joint studentship with Dr JG Hughes at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich, we recruited Ian to carry out this much more detailed study on Solanum hjertingii. After completing his PhD, Ian moved to Wye College for a while, but I’ve lost contact with him. Just one paper was published:

F Javier Franisco Ortega 1992An ecogeographical study within the Chamaecytisus proliferus (L.fil.) Link complex (Fabaceae: Genisteae) in the Canary Islands
Javier came to Birmingham as a self-funded MSc student from Spain. He completed a dissertation with me on Lathyrus pratensis, which led to one publication:

  • Francisco-Ortega, J. & M.T. Jackson, 1992. The use of discriminant function analysis to study diploid and tetraploid cytotypes of Lathyrus pratensis L. (Fabaceae: Faboideae). Acta Botanica Neerlandica 41, 63-73.

Having obtained a Spanish government scholarship, Javier undertook an extraordinary ecogeographical study of a perennial forage legume species, known locally as tagasaste, from his native Canary Islands, and our field studies in 1989 were supported by the International Board for Plant Genetic resources (now Bioversity International). Javier published prolifically afterwards:

Javier is now an Associate Professor at Florida International University in Miami, USA and holds a joint appointment at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Susan A Juned 1994: Somaclonal variation in the potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) cultivar Record with particular reference to the reducing sugar variation after cold storage
Sue came to Birmingham to study genetic resources, and when my colleague Brian Ford-Lloyd and I were awarded a commercial grant to study low temperature sweetening and somaclonal variation in potatoes (see an earlier post), we offered her the research position attached to the grant. Sue had completed her MSc dissertation with me on variation in a wild potato species from southern South America:

The somaclonal project, funded by United Biscuits, was quite successful, and although we did identify several somaclones that responded better to low storage temperatures, none were taken into commercial production, as the variety Record was increasingly dropped in favor of better crisping varieties. But we did demonstrate some of the disadvantages of producing seed potatoes from tissue culture and its implications for different ‘clones’ to emerge:

After leaving Birmingham, Sue became involved with Liberal Democrat politics, serving in local government in Warwickshire, and standing as a candidate twice in parliamentary elections. Sue now works as an environmental consultant.

When I resigned from Birmingham in 1991 to join IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center, two students had already begun their PhD studies with me in October 1990. Since I already knew by the beginning of February 1991 that I would be leaving the university later that year, I arranged for other colleagues to take over their supervision.

Gisella Orjeda (Peru) transferred to geneticist Dr Mike Lawrence and completed her study in 1995 on ploidy manipulations for sweet potato breeding and genetic studies, in collaboration with the International Potato Center (CIP). Gisella is now the President (CEO) of CONCYTEC (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Tecnológica) in Lima, Peru.

Sarah Jane Bennett completed her study on the ecogeographcal variation in ryegrass (Lolium) in Europe with Dr Mike Hayward from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Aberystwyth (now retired) and Dr Dave Marshall at Birmingham (now at the James Hutton Institute near Dundee) in 1994. She is now a senior lecturer in farming systems agronomy at Curtin University in Western Australia.