At the edge of a northern lake ringed with spruce, I pause and then plunge in, advancing steadily toward its sparkling white center. My ski pants cut a thigh-deep track in the unblemished snow, forming a wake that won’t recede until springtime, when this frozen land thaws.
Erratic winds pick up, unburdening branches of their snowy stockpiles. Towering pines sway and creak. Gusts breach my neck gaiter. I retreat to the cocoon of the sheltering woods, like all the creatures in the forest at twilight. But first, I turn to take in the view: the curve of shoreline, the timbered landscape brightened by winter’s downpours, the deep powder that shines blue, reflecting the darkening sky above.
I am in the Arrowhead Region, up the legendary roadway known as the Gunflint Trail, and I am about to spend a night in a yurt that is heated by a wood stove and that I have reached on cross-country skis. In other words, I am deep in Minnesota’s wild woods in the heart of winter.
The beauty is staggering.
And so is the chill.
Mark Patten remembers when his thermometer registered 64 degrees below zero at night for a week straight. “Sixty-four below. That’s cold,” said Patten, who with his family runs a sleigh ride business and Christian camp from his log cabin home on the Gunflint Trail.
But there is warmth, too.
“In winter, there is a lot more work, more solitude, but also more family time,” Patten said. “There is a drawing together, a greater dependence on one another. Everyone is drawn back to the fire, to the home.”
Winter weather in the form of frigid temperatures and lavish snowfalls does not alone set apart the Arrowhead. This landmass stretching along Lake Superior contains the Sawtooth Mountains, Minnesota’s only mountain range; enough forestland to hold more than 40 Twin Cities; and three distinct watersheds — the Lake Superior, Mississippi River and Hudson Bay basins. At a spot north of Hibbing, a trickle has the potential to flow in any one of three directions.
Glaciers last retreated from the region 15,000 years ago, leaving rocky ground amid thousands of lakes and ponds. In places today, trees still push up from the crevices between stone, carrying on the prehistoric plodding venture of turning rock to soil.
To live in the region, as some 220,000 people do, requires optimism, fortitude, a sense of adventure and a wardrobe that leans toward wool and goose feathers.
Ted Young, owner of Boundary Country Trekking, wore bib overalls, bulbous boots and a heavy jacket when he zoomed our overnight gear to the yurt by snowmobile. His sartorial sensibility has developed over decades. He’s been so long in these wintry woods that he used to groom ski trails with bedsprings, before fancier machines took over, and run sled dogs down the middle of the Gunflint Trail with no fear of traffic. His hazel eyes danced, and his gray hair floated up from his head like smoke from a fire, as he introduced a friend and me to our overnight digs — including bunk beds, propane-powered lights and cookstove, a sauna and one forlorn outhouse — before leaving us alone in the wilderness.
After dinner, we fired up that rough-hewed sauna. The earthy scent of smoking firewood tinged the air. Darkness would have prevailed, but for the glow outlining the door of the tiny stove. When we could no longer bear the heat, we tumbled outside into a subzero world. There was no need to bravely fling ourselves into snow. Ebullient, flamboyant flakes tumbled down on us, melting on contact.
Blue-white snow, red-orange fire: These are essential elements of a Minnesota winter. I thought this as I fell asleep, the yurt’s wood stove flickering light around the room, snowflakes piling on its roof.
The next morning, as we skied over fresh powder to breakfast with Young and his wife, Barbara, stillness prevailed. We passed evergreens blanketed in white, clearings shimmering with crystals and a fallen tree’s trunk mounded with layers of snow, looking as though a giant mushroom sprouted in the forest. Then, we happened upon proof of activity even in the silent woods: Tiny tracks skittered along the ski trail, then veered off to end in the hollow of a tree.
Over coffee and French toast, I mentioned our diminutive find.
“Winter is a lot of work to shovel and get wood and stuff like that,” Barbara said, “but there is just something about seeing the tracks of the animals in the snow, the snow on the branches of trees, watching the birds come to the feeder.”
“Saw a wolf the other day,” Ted offered.
Winter is the best time to see the wilderness, in his estimation. That’s when otherwise inaccessible swamps become frozen passageways and snow makes a vivid backdrop for wildlife. “You get a different view of the Boundary Waters — what the interior looks like, really looks like,” Ted said.
Later that day, I witnessed another rare sight, far up the Arrowhead, past ice-glazed rock outcroppings dotting Lake Superior, and shoreline where waves had thrown up sheets of ice looking like glass prisms. I followed 22-year-old Vallen Cook and 12-year-old Kyler Dechampe, members of the Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, to the Little Spirit Cedar Tree, also known as the Witch Tree, a sacred site open only to band members and their guests.
Atop a rock that juts out of Superior, the gnarled tree twists up from its roots, its bark resembling a wrung-out towel, its growth stunted from lack of soil. Ojibwe and voyageurs left offerings to the tree for safe passage across Superior’s mercurial waters. Today, pouches of tobacco dangle from the branches of nearby trees, signs of visitors’ prayers and gratitude.
As I looked at this survivor, hundreds of years old, the setting sun cast a warm glow over the icy lake. I offered up my own thanks for the tree’s aged assurance that even the fiercest winters can lend beauty and surely can be endured.