“Good luck seeing moose,” the clerk at Stone Harbor Wilderness Supply in Grand Marais, Minn., called out as my sister and I left the store. “Dusk is the perfect time.”
It was 5 p.m., and pink clouds hovered over silvery Lake Superior as we embarked on a classic wintertime drive, following the Gunflint Trail on the hunt for dinner and a moose.
The North Woods giants, even as their numbers have dwindled, occasionally appear on the roadside during winter. In fact, I hoped to replicate the kind of sighting I’d had a few years earlier, when a couple of moose stood astride the road, blocking the way of my friends’ minivan. As tall as the vehicle, they seemed unperturbed and unwilling to make way for the beast with headlights. We watched in awe, and eventually arced a path around them.
When night falls, the animals come out of the woods, drawn to road salt along the Gunflint, the iconic Minnesota roadway that veers from Hwy. 61 at Grand Marais to cut inland — and into the wild.
“They don’t salt the roads anymore, they just sand,” a local at Bearskin Lodge told me, defying the theory that the salt used to de-ice winter roads draws the moose. Still, she’d seen a duo a few miles down the road just the previous night, at 6 p.m. “It was a mother and her calf,” she said.
That confirmed my timing — until the woman next to her said, “I’ve seen them further down the trail, maybe six or more miles away, much later, like around 10.”
At the Trail Center, a general store and restaurant on the Gunflint, a clerk said, “Oh, they use salt, all right. They have to, especially on the curves.” In this remote land heaped with snow, she had a point. “That’s why you see moose on the curves in the road,” she added. “You know those curves right after the straightaway toward Grand Marais?”
No, I do not. But I nodded, hoping for more intel.
“I’ve seen them down there this winter — a lot.”
As we slurped a chocolate malt at the bar, a server told us that her boys see moose “all the time” when they’re riding their school bus.
At Gunflint Lodge, the owner regaled us with the tale of her teenage son’s first behind-the-wheel encounter with wildlife. “I was just happy it was a moose and not deer. Moose are so plodding and predictable. Deer are erratic and they always have a friend in the ditch who could jump any minute.”
It seems everyone on the Gunflint Trail has seen moose this winter — except my sister and me. For us, the animals proved elusive. Fortunately, unlike a sighting of those secretive creatures, good food in generous portions is a lock.
A handful of restaurants stay open through winter — and many of them display stuffed moose heads, so you can have a sighting one way or another.
On Saturday nights from late December until early March, the small dining room at this classic resort gets turned over to Derek Hofeldt. The chef cooks during the summer at his nearby Loon Lake Lodge. At Bearskin, he keeps turning out his most popular dishes in wintertime, including wild-caught salmon in a puff pastry and dry-aged steak served with locally harvested wild rice. Dinner is otherwise not an option, though soup, chili, cookies and pie are on offer during the day. Saturday will be the last dinner service this winter (1-800-338-4170; bearskin.com).
Bonus: A 1.5-kilometer lighted cross-country ski trail.
Hungry Jack Lodge
Wonderfully flaky fried cod was the centerpiece of the three fish tacos that filled my plate at this resort’s downstairs bar and restaurant. But the house-made fresh pico de gallo commanded its own attention. The shaved red cabbage and perfectly ripe avocado only added to the effect. This delicious dish was well worth the winding 2-mile drive down a well-maintained gravel road. The pizza at this snowmobilers’ hub is reportedly excellent, too, but I know what I’m getting when I return (1-218-388-2265; hungryjacklodge.com).
Bonus: A TV tuned to sports.
Trail Center Lodge
The kitchen at this long-standing favorite turns out 13 kinds of burgers (such as the Bull Moose, with BBQ sauce, bacon and Swiss cheese). But the robust menu also offers a taco salad, shrimp plate, Canadian walleye and other foods to please a crowd — or a family of picky eaters. The wood-filled room itself is a delight, dotted with antique beer cans, lanterns, snowshoes and license plates. There is also a full bar, where the old-fashioned malt machine stirs up all kinds of flavors, including pineapple and peanut butter (1-218-388-2214; trailcenterlodge.com).
Bonus: A general store that sells house-made jellies, wild rice and other goods.
Quinoa has arrived on the Gunflint Trail (in a cranberry and raisin salad) along with the first new restaurant in ages. Poplar Haus, which opened two weeks ago, is owned by four defectors from the Twin Cities restaurant scene who had done stints at Smack Shack and the Lexington, to name a couple. In the old Windigo Lodge, Poplar Haus radiates a Nordic vibe. Antlers adorn the sleek, black fireplace; floor-to-ceiling vaulted windows overlook Poplar Lake. The place fits the Gunflint, even as it strays from the log-and-stuffed- animal aesthetic of the old standbys. As for the food? I’d heard only raves from locals who happened into a soft opening. Owner Bryan Jerrard called the food “casual but adventurous.” The sample menu I picked up included kielbasa mac and cheese and Haus-style turkey poutine (1-218- 388-2222; poplarhaus.com).
Bonus: The only liquor store on the Gunflint Trail.
At this resort’s restaurant, Justine’s, I ate what could be the best walleye sandwich on the Gunflint. The generous piece of breaded fish was topped by crisp bacon and lettuce and served on a buttered bun long enough to hold the entire filet. Before the sandwich arrived, I started with an appetizer I could not ignore: potato skins heaped with wild rice, jalapeños, bacon, scallions and cheese, called Wooden Canoes. Tucked into a cozy both, I ate under the watchful eye of a stuffed moosehead. The restaurant offers frequent specials; I happened upon a Fat Tuesday menu that included excellent jambalaya (1-218-388-2294; gunflint.com).
Bonus: Fat tire and electric fat tire bikes (boosted with batteries and an electric motor).