Gliding Through Minnesota
Two hours after check-in at Bearskin Lodge, in the far northeastern tip of Minnesota, my husband and I are getting our "ski legs" in the dark. Fortunately, laughter cushions most falls. The maize-colored moon smiles thinly as we swoosh along an illuminated trail. When I make the last hill, I let out a whoop of triumph.
Bearskin is the first stop on our three-day, lodge-to-lodge ski trip along the Gunflint Trail, a 57-mile former logging route that wiggles north from Grand Marais to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Recently, warm temperatures have softened Minnesota’s famed winters, but snow usually blankets the Gunflint region’s 120-mile trail network by January.
Bob and I hadn’t skied cross-country for a few years, so we asked Ted and Barbara Young of Boundary Country Trekking to plan our itinerary. The Youngs own a bed and breakfast, Poplar Creek Guesthouse, and they partner with several other area lodgings. Booking with Barbara is like playing connect-the-dots, as she plots a skills-appropriate route. She and Ted even transfer gear. But the skiing is up to us.
The next morning, we tentatively make our way onto Poplar Creek Trail, a groomed path with enough slopes to keep the pace interesting. We shuffle up small hills and sail around curves, past wetlands and through pine and birch forests. In a former gravel pit where locals once practiced downhill, Bob bends at the knees, and scenery speeds past like film on fast forward.
Water burbles as we cross a tiny brook, the first sound we hear beyond our voices and the friction of skis on snow. We stop at a shelter after an hour and a half to eat sandwiches. Silence settles into our ears like cotton. Cold sets in, too, so we hustle back into action.
Eventually, we turn onto Lace Lake Trail, a narrower, single-tracked path the Youngs maintain near their guesthouse. We keep our eyes peeled for wolves or moose. Animal tracks crisscross the trail, and at one point, a furry pine marten scurries into the brush.
Three hours after leaving the lodge, we glimpse the clapboard inn through the pines. Barbara had said six miles would be plenty, and she was right. We gratefully pop off our skis and accept mugs of hot tea and coffee.
After a deep sleep, we wake up ravenous. Barbara serves poached pears and French toast. Beneath her chef’s hat and red lipstick, Barbara’s a wilderness woman. She tells us how she used to push canoes through spring ice so her son could reach the school bus.
Bob and I eagerly speak up with our own North Woods tale. The night before, coming back from dinner at Gunflint Lodge, our headlights swept across a lone wolf in the road. We braked and held our breath. The wolf paused and glanced back at us before loping out of sight, back into the wilderness.
Written by Lisa Meyers McClintick. Photographs by John Noltner