Two big bundles of firewood seemed like overkill for just one night in the woods, but by the time I'd settled into a warm spot by the fire, the flames had begun to die, and I was regretting that I hadn't bought more. I had decided to take a last-minute trip to the woods in search of snow and solitude. I didn't have to go far. I drove an hour north of the Twin Cities to Wild River State Park, where a friend and I checked into a camper cabin, one of six perched along a wooded bluff overlooking the St. Croix River. Minnesota's state parks have a total of 70 such camper cabins, so named because, without bathrooms or kitchens, they are only one step more civilized than tent camping. The bare-bones units -- designed for people who want the experience of being close to nature, but don't want to pitch a tent or sleep on the ground -- come cheap, too. We paid $50 for the night. We arrived at Wild River after the park office had closed, but our one-room cabin, about the size of a single-car garage, was awaiting us with the heat on and a porch light glowing. I hurried to unpack the car and then scraped snow from the fire pit, where the wood I'd bought from Rod's Country Corner in nearby Almelund was soon burning bright.

The fresh snow that sparkled in the moonlight was too dazzling to ignore, so we stayed outside and huddled around the fire as long as we could. The bright sky and outlines of bare trees showed through puffs of vaporized breath and rising sparks.

After the flames burned down to a smoldering pile of tangerine embers, we headed for a walk down the snow-covered main road through the park. It was already minus-7 degrees as the road led us into the dark woods. We emerged a few minutes later into a snow-covered clearing, and although we could see a halo of light in the sky -- a reminder of just how close we were to city life -- the sky was full of stars.

Back at the cabin we warmed up with a cup of tea made with the help of a portable camp stove we'd set up on the porch. Inside, we turned up the thermostat on the electric baseboard heat and slipped into our sleeping bags, which we laid out on firm foam mattresses provided with each bunk.

Next morning, the violent screech of a barred owl just outside our window shook us out of bed. The temperature had dropped into double-digits below zero, so we bundled up before hiking down to the frozen riverbank. We walked along the bank until we saw clouds of vapor rising from a narrow break in the ice, then turned back and strapped into our skis.

Alone with wildlife

Wild River has several miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails. We skied the River Terrace loop, which follows the river to the Old Nevers Dam site. There we watched trumpeter swans fly from one opening in the ice to the next, scanning the frozen river for breakfast. Once landed, the big white birds floated in the dark water like marshmallows in hot chocolate.

Farther along the trail, we stopped again to watch the swans, but spotted a flash of brown that disappeared into an opening in the ice. A river otter. A couple of minutes later it reemerged from the river, whiskers flash-frozen in the cold air, then sprinted so quickly across the ice that all four feet came off the ground at the same time. Then it stopped, staring at me as if I were the crazy one for venturing out on such a cold day. it turned away and slipped silently back into the river.

Though amused by the otter's antics, I didn't wait for it to resurface. With thousands of acres and miles of trails to explore, it didn't seem right to linger.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

IF YOU GO
• The state has 70 camper cabins in its inventory, and most are open year-round. Five more will be added by the end of the year. The program is administered through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The camper cabins are 12- by 16-foot one-room cabins with screened porch, table, benches and wooden bunk beds with mattresses. They sleep up to six people, five people in wheelchair-accessible cabins.
• Camper cabins cost $45 per night without electricity, $50 with electricity. Check-in time is 3 p.m.; checkout time is 1 p.m.
• Vault toilets are available at the campground, but showers and drinking water are only available seasonally.
• Cooking is prohibited inside the cabins, but you can bring and use a crockpot and coffee pot. Cabins have outdoor picnic tables and grills.
The rules: Don't bring firewood from home; you can buy it at the park office or from approved vendors in the area. Pets and smoking are not allowed in camper cabins.
What to bring: Sleeping bags or other bedding, cookware, plates, cups and eating utensils, a flashlight and matches.
Need more space? Several of the parks have more fully outfitted guest houses and cabins with plumbing, full kitchens and other conveniences. Prices on these units vary, but most are under $100 per night.
To make a reservation: Make reservations up to a year in advance at http://www.stayatmnparks.com
JIM BUCHTA