Our minivan hummed along the heavily forested Gunflint Trail due north of Grand Marais. Our three kids piped up with, "When are we going to get there?" while my husband and two friends anxiously watched the thermometer tick downward.
Eight below zero.
Frostbite seemed imminent, everyone was tired from a day of skiing, and the road seemed headed to the end of the world. About 26 miles up the highway, we passed Bearskin Lodge and turned onto a drive marked "Okontoe," a Christian camp by summer and a spot for sleigh rides by winter. We tumbled reluctantly from the van's warmth, snow creaking beneath clunky boots. It took just minutes for our moods to morph from wary to eager, thanks to the Patten family's warm, no-worries welcome.
Maple-furred Belgian horses welcomed us with hay-scented snorts. Our sleigh awaited in the amber glow of a rustic barn. The Pattens piled our laps and legs with wool blankets and quilts, we passed around a few pocket warmers, and off we went with a creak of the runners, a trit-trot and a few jingles.
If there's a bucket-list sleigh ride, this is it. Perfectly flocked firs and pines spooled past looking like a wall of white and shadows, gently illuminated by 110 lanterns.
It was like a journey through Narnia.
As we glided through the trees, occasional gaps of darkness yawned to our right. Mark Patten pointed out Bow and Quiver Lakes, which are among more than 1,000 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
"It's 4 miles -- as the crow flies -- to Canada," he said. You can't get much farther north than this. Not without a passport.
The temperatures barely affected Patten, who's stout and jovial and doesn't mind a few beard-sicles. We joined him on a few rounds of "Jingle Bells," until he reached verses we didn't know.
The night felt like pure northern Minnesota, with unspoiled wilderness, an adventurous can-do spirit and laughter that warmed the air and froze droplets on our scarves and hats.
Patten spinned stories of early lumberjacks whom we pitied as we imagined winter work without Thinsulate, wind-breaking nylon and moisture-wicking base layers. It put the cold into perspective.
In a typical winter, the Pattens do about 140 sleigh rides from mid-December through March. Each usually includes a stop at "The Kissing Tree," a spot where nearly 30 marriage proposals have been made.
My husband and I smooched with cold lips and remembered our last trip to the Gunflint.
Skiing the Gunflint
A few years earlier, we had a rare getaway without kids, staying nearby in one of Bearskin Lodge's pretty lakeside cabins. It was a freakish winter much like this one: no snow across most of the state. Fortunately, an average of 100 inches falls on the Gunflint Trail. That means even an oddball winter delivers a few feet.
That's enough for lodges on the Gunflint Trail to groom more than 120 miles of cross-country trails through the wilderness and Superior National Forest. They range from easy double-tracked beginner routes to expert trails, over some of the state's most challenging terrain.
Bearskin's lighted trail let us get our "ski legs" in the dark after arrival and work up an appetite for the Trail Center Restaurant. Like most places in the middle of nowhere, it's quirky, homey and rich in character.
By morning, we were geared up with a box lunch and skis from Bearskin Lodge, which took care of transporting our luggage to Poplar Creek Guesthouse, the next night's destination. Poplar Creek's owners help travelers plan and coordinate lodge-to-lodge ski vacations along the Gunflint.
Local advice was both welcome and necessary. We had no cellphone signal. No glimpse of other skiers. Winter silence cloaked us so thickly that it stuffed our ears like cotton.
We glided down and shuffled up small hills. We swooshed around sweeping curves, past wetlands where a pine marten scurried across our path, and through thick red pine and birch trees. We occasionally spotted moose tracks.
Weary from skiing, we drove to dinner at Gunflint Lodge. A welcoming herd of deer edged toward warm pools of light spilling from the historic resort.
As we drove back to the guesthouse, we made a sudden stop as we turned off the highway. A wolf paused in the beam of our headlights, then loped off into the forest, leaving us with "Did-you-see-that?" grins.
Hot cocoa with moose
The Patten family does all its sleigh rides at night with the lanterns. Mark Patten says Gunflint scenery, even cloaked in blackness, never gets boring.
"Every night is different," he told us, "from moonlight to starlight to snowfall."
We cut the hourlong sleigh ride by 10 minutes due to numb fingers and toes. The young woman who helped unhitch the horses gamely dug snot-sicles from their nostrils. We laughed and thought of "Shrek" pulling out earwax cones.
Nancy Patten had homemade hot cocoa steaming on a wood-burning stove in their 1907 Finnish cabin. She ladled it into tin cups, and we gathered around a table lit with lantern and candlelight.
It's clear the Pattens love this land and a lifestyle that's rich in experiences and relationships. There's a sense of timelessness here, and the joy in swapping life stories makes it hard to leave.
"Watch out for moose," Mark reminded us before we pulled away.
Sure enough, a few miles down the road, our headlights swept across two gangly giants trotting down the highway and dodging into thick woods and drifts. We whooped with excitement and treasured this extra gift from the Gunflint Trail.
St. Cloud-based writer and photographer Lisa Meyers McClintick writes about Minnesota at www.10000Likes.com.