GRAND MARAIS, Minn. – Viewing the dramatic gorges and crashing waterways from the pavement of Hwy. 61 along Lake Superior’s North Shore is only the front of the scene. Sometimes I’ve mused, “You can’t get there from here.” But, actually, you can.
I had a backstage pass into those gorges Feb. 23 thanks to a winter river exploration outing through North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn. The group of seven I was with snowshoed as far as the terrain would let us, rounding countless bends deep inside intricate frozen rivers. It was a landscape impossible to see up close at any other time of year — it’s simply not accessible without ice.
Make that safe ice. This wasn’t a junket the inexperienced should try alone. Seasoned trip leaders were required. Their names were Mark and Katya Gordon, a husband-wife team who, at 59 and 50, respectively, have extensive backgrounds in wilderness travel.
The Gordons have developed two outdoor businesses for their summer livelihood, Amicus Adventure Sailing and Sea Change Expeditions. They offer outings ranging from day-sail trips to monthlong voyages on Lake Superior. The May component is for selected university students with a focus on climate change science and public engagement. As an offseason venture, they incorporated winter river exploration.
Climate change plays a role in the narrow timespan they’re afforded for winter trips. Katya Gordon said that depending on conditions, their season can run from December through March. But in recent years, river ice sometimes starts to become unsafe in February.
She said that when she and her husband first got together, she thought the North Shore rivers could only be viewed from gorge-top trails in summer. He showed her otherwise.
“[Mark] would take me up these rivers and I was just agog. I couldn’t believe that you could go up these things safely,” she said.
Our off-campus classroom featured two rivers of different sizes: Devil Track in the morning, and Kadunce that afternoon. Mark Gordon laid some safety groundwork before our departure. He emphasized that river conditions can change daily and sometimes even within hours, especially as temperatures warm somewhat closer to March. “What’s safe one day could be totally not safe the next,” he said.
He categorized the Devil Track as moderately technical. That means if someone fell through the ice, they could be swept under. Generally, the class would be trekking near the side of the river. However, we’d cross it dozens of times.
Once on-trail, Gordon used a basket-less ski pole to probe the ice and determine its thickness. He pointed out cross-sections of ice bridges across water as examples of safety in varying degrees for supporting human weight. He also demonstrated how sound is important to safety by jabbing the ice with the ski pole. “Thuds” indicate thicker ice. Hollow sounds are best avoided.
The Devil Track exuded grandeur. Its ancient lava walls are estimated to top out at 300 feet, the distance of a football field standing on end. We ducked cedar branches along the edge of a path a foot from moving water 3 feet below. We gawked skyward at the renowned 180-foot ice-climb called Night Fall. Its name stems from the days before advancements in ice-climbing technology when climbers couldn’t manage to reach it, climb it and return before darkness. We reached our dead end at Barrier Falls, which had transformed into a colossal ice mushroom. Its torrent of roaring water was visible both behind the ice and through a jagged ice hole that brought to mind a broken window. As we gazed at the pounding falls, the window edges subtly flecked away, expanding the hole.
Nature at work
The smaller Kadunce River offered intimacy. Bubbles continually shifted beneath pristine river ice, conning us at first into believing its moving shadows were fish. Its walls extended upward about 100 feet, but were so narrow in one section that a hiker with outstretched arms could almost touch both sides. At its farthest reaches, those walls appeared to have been scooped out like a giant orchestra shell or cathedral. It was a reminder that Renaissance architects didn’t design these walls, natural forces sculpted them over eons.
Critters stay well-hidden during these trips, said Katya Gordon. But evidence of where they’d been was abundant. “We’ve seen otter slides, but never the otter,” she said.
Skidding otter bellies plowed tubular impressions through the snow. Wolf, fox and coyote tracks crisscrossed the ice. Raven wings left their brush marks in drifts.
But deer tracks didn’t exist. Mark Gordon explained that gorges are inaccessible for deer. Yet, we saw something else.
Midway up the Kadunce, we came across a deer carcass laying on the ice. Its body was still warm and pliable. After briefly piecing together the evidence, we concluded that the deer had fallen 60 feet from the sheer cliff above and dropped to the ice. Wolves, ravens and other carnivores need to eat.
As Mark Gordon said, “Nothing goes to waste.” So, we left. I’m glad we didn’t see it fall.
Our group members were strangers to each other when we went around the class introducing ourselves. But in a few short hours, we joked like friends and shared our common wonderment from the experience. At day’s end, the Gordons distributed a list detailing 10 North Shore rivers complete with levels of difficulty, driving instructions and parking tips. Katya Gordon hoped we felt empowered to get out on our own.
“Being surrounded with the rhythms of the outside in winter makes it worth it,” she said.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely, Minn. He can be reached at writingoutfitter.com.