As if on cue, snow began to fall just after I turned onto the Gunflint Trail. Big, delicate, intricate flakes spiraled from the sky, swirling in the car’s wake.
My sister and I were heading up Minnesota’s legendary road into the North Woods with skis, skates and snowshoes in the trunk. Each winter, an average of 100 inches of snow blankets the area around the Gunflint, which cuts inland from Grand Marais, in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. More than 130 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails weave through forests there. As we zipped past towering evergreens laden with snow, we felt like we were heading straight into the heart of the season.
Near mile 26, I turned down a narrow road to Bearskin Lodge. The family-run resort lines East Bearskin Lake with a lodge and its adjoining townhouses, historic cabins and some more recently constructed versions. Dusk was falling as we unpacked groceries and gear, but we soon clicked into our skis and set off for a pre-dinner loop. A lit trail lay just beyond our cabin door.
Lights beamed from waist-high poles along the 1.5-kilometer route. Tree limbs cast long shadows, and my own body stretched out before me, a tall, hazy figure against the glittering snow. Woods swallowed the glow, and thick darkness made them an eerie mystery. My sister zoomed out of sight around a corner, propelling me after her in the cold night. Soon I fell into a rhythm and, when I descended a small hill, simply fell.
Morning brought the woods to life. Spruce and fir held big heaps of snow, a cheerful sight. Red-breasted nuthatches, common redpolls, gray jays and downy woodpeckers whooshed up to the feeders outside the cabin windows or flitted among the trees. Somewhere beyond our view, moose, wolves, lynx and other creatures foraged for breakfast. Like a seasonal yin and yang, a fire warming the hearth kept us inside, while outside the beauty of the season drew us, too.
No wonder this region has long lured winter adventurers.
Cross-country skiing remains the most popular quiet sport, though snowshoeing, ice skating and dog sledding are in the mix. In a new trend, fat-tire biking has taken hold. Near Bearskin, Okontoe Campground offers sleigh rides through a rolling winter wonderland behind enormous Belgian horses. Snowmobilers and ice fishermen and women come, too.
There is only one way in to this winter fun: the Gunflint Trail, 57 miles of curves and dips that cuts through wilderness and is known officially as Cook County Road 12.
The trail, with swaths of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on both sides, was first forged by American Indians making their way to Lake Superior from this land of lakes, hills and cliffs. The footpath widened to a dirt road in the 1890s; the change was an optimistic response to the Paulson Mine, a short-lived iron ore operation that was shuttered when it proved less productive than mines farther west on the Iron Range. Resort owners, most of whom operated in summertime, and the hardy Minnesotans who called this area home fueled bursts of improvements in the 1900s. Still, the area is so rugged and remote that the road — from Lake Superior to Saganaga Lake, on the border with Canada — was not fully paved until 1979.
Staying warm in winter
Like all the cabins at Bearskin, ours overlooked the lake, a vast white unblemished expanse in February. One morning, I walked the shoreline with ice skates dangling by their laces around my neck. Soon, I came upon the lodge’s makeshift skating rink, a rectangle on the lake with hockey nets like orange parentheses at either end. On a wooden bench, I changed into my skates. First, I grabbed the nearby shovel to clear drifts that had formed on the ice overnight. Then I circled and zigzagged before heading into the lodge. Inside, I saw starkly what had nudged me off the ice: A thermometer read minus-4 degrees.
When the temperature inched toward 10 shortly after lunch, I glided over Bearskin Lake once again, this time on skis.
My sister and I took Ox Cart Trail, which crosses the lake, climbs a short hill, crosses a frozen pond with brown wisps of grasses rising from the snow and loops through the woods.
My face slowly turned rosy with warmth.
Moving is only one antidote to the chill. Later, we enjoyed another. After hours on the trail, my sister and I sat in a sauna at the lodge. Water hissed when we doused the hot rocks and waves of heat radiated around us until our muscles melted and sweat dripped. When we’d arrived, with a change of clothes in hand, we’d seen imprints of bodies in the snow, like tangled snow angels. It was a sign that others before us had flung themselves from the sauna into the snow. We took the less daring route, showering in the adjoining bathroom before heading to our cabin for a good night’s sleep.
Hitting the trails
The next day, cross-country skiing again, we heard the trail groomer before we saw it. We’d already made our way through an aspen forest and uphill to a flat stretch along Ruby Lake. Sitting snugly in the tractor-like cab, a couple smiled, waved and sipped from mugs; they were the owners of Golden Eagle Lodge, which shares ski trails with Bearskin, we later learned. We continued down the trail on excellent tracks until we reached a small wooden shelter, placed to receive the sun’s warmth. There we looked over the map marking our location and pulled out our own drinks. The scent of chocolate steamed from our thermos.
The next morning, I strapped on my snowshoes and climbed a trail to a ridge.
I began to move more quickly, confident in my stride, until the wide shoes tripped me up. I tumbled once again.
This time, unlike my fall the first night, I could clearly see my surroundings. I sat on a cushion of snow looking at the blue sky, striated birch bark, the sparkle of the frozen lake in the distance.
The best way to experience the beauty of the woods in winter is to dive in.