CROSBY, MINN. – When it comes to winter recreation, Minnesotans are a weathered bunch. The frozen eyelashes, iced-up beards and wind-burned cheeks that come with getting out and staying active even in the coldest months are badges of honor. Snow-packed trails and the other winter obstacles only enhance the experience.
So when a new way to get out and enjoy winter presents itself, enthusiasm follows. Take fat biking. Minnesotans have embraced the beefy bikes more readily than anywhere in the country. Now, combine that fervor with our proclivity for cabin culture, and the result is a sort of northland harmony to experience.
Enter the new True North Basecamp, positioned as a home base and gateway to the wonder of the Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area. The newly built, 275-square-foot cabins that sit on the park’s edge in central Minnesota are marked by sturdy corrugated steel siding and a mono-pitched roof with exposed wood beams. True North co-founder Dan Jurek described the style as “North Woods Industrial.” Modeled after the mining shacks that once dotted the landscape, and situated along the 27-acre Armour Mine Lake #2, they are a nod to the area’s past.
Since mining companies abandoned Cuyuna Country in the 1980s, nature has reclaimed the nearly 5,000 acres. Trees have sprouted, mining pits now are crystalline lakes, and wildlife has returned. Twenty-five miles of shoreline, 20 miles of groomed winter fat biking trails, and 25 miles of single-track mountain biking trails in the summer are quickly making this area a hot spot for active outdoor enthusiasts.
“I love when people go to Cuyuna for the first time. They are always surprised by how diverse the landscape is and the endless things to do there,” said Jurek. “Everyone has the same reaction to this amazing place — kids don’t even think about handheld electronics or video games — everyone is enamored by it.”
Jurek and his business partner Jeff Bajek, both Twin Cities residents, came up with the idea to buy land in Crosby after a camping and mountain biking trip with their young sons in the fall of 2013. A soggy, rain-soaked tent made for a dreary retreat after a day spent riding the trails of Cuyuna. A lack of lodging options around the burgeoning trail system was obvious. The two dads decided to take on the task.
Open since December, the outdoors-centric facility (Jurek declined to discuss the cost) sits on 40 acres and to date includes six cabins available year-round and 33 campsites beginning in April. Also, there is a “shower house” with a heated floor, high-pressure showers, toilets and changing areas.
My husband, Jason, and I departed Minneapolis early on a Saturday morning in late January to spend a weekend at True North and explore the region by multiple means. We packed the car with equipment for cross-country skiing, fat biking, and snowshoeing, and schlepped camp kitchen essentials, sleeping bags, and an extra pair of boots each.
We decided to hit up the Larson Lake trails for an hour of skiing on our way into town. Located near Deerwood, Minn., these undulating trails are groomed for skate- and classic-style skiing. While there are trails that weave through the center of the park in every which direction across frozen wetlands and conifer bogs, we opted to take the long outer loop toward Dogfish Lake.
The rolling ups and downs, moderate temperatures in the 20s, a powdery base that glittered in the late-morning sun, and towering birch trees lining either side of the trails underscored everything we love about winter in Minnesota.
After packing up our skis, we drove a few minutes north toward True North Basecamp. We could hardly wait to explore the trail system by fat bike. Rented from Cycle Path Paddle, a small outdoors shop in Crosby, our beefy bikes featured extra wide tires and flashy alloy rims. They, too, were Minnesotan, made by Framed Bikes, a Little Canada-based bike brand.
Fat biking is truly the best way to experience winter in Cuyuna Country. We hopped on our bikes at the cabin and headed across a short boardwalk over Serpent Creek and straight onto the series of connected trails. Traveling over many of the same international-class tracks that mountain bikers populate during the summer months, we rolled over winding, snowy single-track occasionally sullied by the red dirt that makes this former mining operation famous. The fat tires effortlessly absorbed every rut and root of the trail as we floated along the path.
Looking to explore the further edges of the area, we first rode for a number of miles on the Cuyuna Lake Trail, a 10-foot wide flat and groomed multiuse path that requires minimal skill when it comes to bike handling. That led us to a number of scenic spots that looked over the old mining pits-turned-lakes, including the Portsmouth, Pennington and Huntington mines.
One of my favorite sections came on the opposite side of the lake from True North. I’m no fat bike expert, so the entry-level single-track on the lakeshore was a perfect place to build confidence on the snow-packed trails. The narrow path was lined with beaver-felled trees. Footprints from critters of every kind zigzagged across the trail, which wound back, forth and around.
By the time we decided to head back to the cabins in the late afternoon, we had barely scratched the surface.
That night we drove into nearby Ironton to get dinner at a local barbecue joint, Louie’s Bucket of Bones. There we refueled on several helpings of classic barbecue-style offerings, along with coleslaw and fries. The sweet sounds of Patsy Cline filled the tiny restaurant (our waitress even referred to me as “sweetheart.”) Our faces rosy and wind-burned, we found the relaxed experience perfectly satisfying after a long day out in the elements.
Back to camp
When we returned to base camp, our neighbors for the weekend already had fires burning. We chit-chatted with the others — all there to fat bike — and then threw a few logs in our own fire pit. Bundled up, we roasted s’mores and warmed ourselves for several hours before retreating to our warm cabin.
The next morning Jason got coffee brewing outside on our camp stove and filled a travel mug. We strapped on our snowshoes for a hike before anyone else at the camp began to stir. The snow that began overnight continued to fall well into the morning. We headed back over the boardwalk and along the lakeshore into the woods.
From across the lake we could see the wind picking up, gusting flakes across the roof of our cabin and sending them skyward. As the snow crunched beneath our snowshoes, we sipped on the hot coffee. How peaceful this plot of land was at dawn.
On our hike back to the car, our conversation was dominated by plans to return. The summer is sure to offer a fresh way to experience Cuyuna Country, but one thing we knew won’t change are the idyllic little cabins on Armour Mine Lake #2.
Mackenzie Lobby Havey is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.