I slipped off my snowshoes and hiked on a beaten track of hard-packed snow through the woods to the edge of a rock cliff 200 feet above a shimmering, azure Lake Superior.
A chilly December breeze blew off the lake, slapping waves against the ice-encrusted shoreline.
Minnesota's craggy North Shore is a mesmerizing place, revered by scores of visitors in summer and fall -- and fewer in winter. But cloaked in snow and ice, it's a winter playground for restless souls, offering cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, hiking and alpine skiing.
Last weekend, I sampled some of those offerings -- hiking the rocky Lake Superior shoreline, cross-country skiing through silent woods, snowshoeing on a frozen lake and rocketing down steep hills on alpine skis.
I also visited with snowmobilers enthralled with the web of North Shore trails, bunked in a rustic old state park cabin and basked at a fancy historic lakeshore lodge.
And rediscovered why the North Shore is one of the state's treasured jewels.
Here's what I found:
Dan and Sarah Klein of Minneapolis were all smiles when I encountered them on their way to a weekend getaway at a log cabin in Tettegouche State Park near Silver Bay.
Laden with backpacks and pulling sleds with their gear and two young children, 3-year-old Cecelia and 10-month-old Henry, they cross-country skied and hiked the 1.7-mile hilly trail into Tettegouche Camp.
It's the only way to get to the four rustic cabins that the Department of Natural Resources rents there. The old cabins have electric lights, propane heaters and wood stoves -- and no running water, TVs or phones. A modern heated shower-restroom building serves guests.
The remote cabins are nestled in the woods on Mic Mac Lake and surrounded by hiking and skiing trails.
"There's no better place around to ski," said Dan Klein, 33. "The rugged terrain is gorgeous.
"There's just something about being out here in the winter ... it's so beautiful. And there are no calls from work. It's just a great way to spend family time together."
The North Shore is a nirvana for cross-country skiers; there are many miles of groomed trails in a half-dozen state parks and elsewhere from Duluth to Grand Marais and beyond.
The biggest problem: deciding where to ski.
Among the many options: the Pincushion Mountain trails at Grand Marais, the Sugarbush Trail near Tofte and the Silver Bay Area Ski Trail. But you can't go wrong wherever you ski.
I skied a quiet trail at Tettegouche that snaked among birch, pines and rock outcrops. And never saw a soul. The trail bisects the Superior Hiking Trail, pockmarked with snowshoe tracks.
More visitors these days are strapping on showshoes to explore the North Shore.
"Snowshoeing is going crazy," said Gary Hoeft, assistant park manager at Tettegouche. "Most are going on the Superior Hiking Trail."
The attraction is simple: "If you can walk, you can snowshoe."
Hoeft said folks who only visit the North Shore in the summer are missing out: "The ice sculptures on the beaches ... we see wolves fairly regularly on the lakes ... the crisp sound of snow under your feet ... the silence.
"I love it here."
A snowmobile paradise
The North Shore also is one of the premier snowmobile destinations in the state. The area often gets plenty of snow, thanks to its proximity to Lake Superior.
The acclaimed North Shore Trail winds 150 miles through the rugged woods from Duluth to Grand Marais.
"It's kind of the backbone -- a corridor that leads to many other trails," said Tom Peterson, trails and waterways manager in Two Harbors for the Department of Natural Resources.
"You can leave Duluth and go up to the Gunflint Trail and Saganaga Lake, or to Ely, Grand Rapids, Silver Bay, Two Harbors ... all over the place. So there's a lot to do."
He estimates 15,000 to 20,000 snowmobilers travel the trail each winter. "We've had as many as 2,000 a day on some sections," he said.
The heavily wooded terrain varies from flat and smooth to very hilly, "and we have views of the lake. ... What more could you want? We who live up here think it's the best part of the state," Peterson said.
You'll get no argument from many snowmobilers.
Dave Hoag, 33, of Centerville, and Cory Schlechter of Blaine navigated the North Shore Trail last weekend just north of Finland.
Like many, they were up for the weekend, taking advantage of the early snow to pursue their passion.
"It's wilderness," Hoag said, explaining the North Shore's allure. "You can see wildlife; the scenery is wonderful. You can't beat it."
Just down the highway at the Our Place restaurant and bar in Finland, Ralph Vetter, 46, of Prior Lake; his wife, Elizabeth, 45; and their son, Nate, 17, were taking a lunch break after snowmobiling 70 miles from Two Harbors.
"We love coming up here," said Ralph. "It's gorgeous. There's more snow and less people. You can travel for hours and not see anyone. It's just deep woods."
Said Elizabeth, "You get lake-effect snow, and it's warmer."
Downhill skiing heaven
And then there's Lutsen Mountains. The ski resort is considered the premier skiing area in the Midwest, with the longest, steepest runs and some of the most impressive scenery this side of the Rocky Mountains.
I learned to downhill ski there more than 30 years ago when Lutsen was a modest ski area with a lone chalet at the base of Eagle Mountain. A T-bar hauled skiers up to the steepest runs, and a primitive poma lift -- a saucer and bar wedged between your legs -- pulled you up Mystery Mountain.
Oh, how it's changed.
Both of those lifts are long gone, replaced by chair lifts and the only gondola around.
These days Lutsen resembles a Colorado ski resort, with condos, townhouses and other on-hill lodging. There's a bigger chalet with live music. The ski area itself has more than doubled in size and now covers 1,000 acres, with 90 runs and a nearly 1,000-foot vertical drop.
For skiers and snowboarders, it's to die for.
Tara Bergen of Minneapolis and David Wagner of Northfield got off the chair lift at the top of Eagle Mountain last Sunday. A crisp wind buffeted the summit, blowing snow and turning cheeks rosy.
The view was stunning.
To their right, a silver Lake Superior shimmered in the morning sun. To their left, the snow-covered hills and woods unfolded as far as the eye could see.
And either way down the hill was steep -- and fast.
"It's definitely the best skiing you can get without flying out West," said Bergen, 27.
Said Wagner, also 27: "It's just spectacular."
I strapped on a pair of the new parabolic ("shaped'') skis, which allow even a rusty, middle-aged downhiller to carve ribbons of snow at high speed, even on Lutsen's steepest runs.
Talk about heart-pounding exhilaration. It was like driving a Ferrari. I blasted down the hills with youthful abandon -- and had to remind myself that I was 55, not 25.
Later, I rode Lutsen's red gondolas to Moose Mountain and joined the crowd of skiers and boarders basking in the afternoon sun. Far below, Lake Superior now sparkled a beautiful blue.
Stacy Menke, 27, of Prior Lake, and Shawn Meyer, 25, of Shakopee were admiring the panoramic view from the sundeck at the new Summit Chalet.
"It's beautiful," said Menke, a first-time visitor. "It's really good skiing. We've been having a blast."
Meyer perhaps summed up the North Shore's allure:
"You can't get a view like this anyplace else in Minnesota."