Skiing – and so much more

For twenty four years in a row we have maintained our tradition.  Without fail.  There have been years of sickness, but we overcame it.  We had small children at home – five between us – but still we escaped.  Snow failed to materialize, but we went anyway.  Jobs were stressful and demanding, but we left them behind.  A lot has changed over the years, but Susan and I still get away for our annual cross-country ski weekend every year.

This year’s venue was Golden Eagle Lodge, on the north side of Bearskin Lake on the wonderful Central Gunflint Trail Ski System.  We stayed in a lovely cabin aptly named “Trailside” and took full advantage of our proximity to the 70k of XC ski trails at our door.

It wasn’t long before the weekend’s unique qualities began to reveal themselves.  And as each new challenge presented itself, we coined a new term.  It seemed better than complaining, and far more fun.

IMG_2363Adaptability  It’s the characteristic needed when things don’t turn out as expected. Like the gas fireplace that ceases blazing after the office closes at night.  And your figure out it’s the only source of heat in the cabin.  Or when the enormous clumps of snow that once graced the tops of the pine trees melt enough to fall, creating tree avalanches that obliterate the ski trail with icy mounds.  Or topple weakened trees across the trail.  It’s the turn-on-a-dime trait that comes in handy for revising ski plans to take advantage of trails that have been groomed in favor of those still coated in refrozen snow.  It’s figuring out how to use a percolator when you’ve only ever made drip coffee.

IMG_2365Lurch  This is what happens when the snow gets warm and wet, and ices up the bottom of your skis.  It creates a huge snowball underneath your foot, which effectively stops all forward progress.  Your body lurches forward with the momentum of your former glide, while your ski remains firmly planted in the ski track.  And an inane sound escapes your lips as you try to regain some sense of balance (and lose all hope of retaining any dignity).

IMG_2360Perseverance  It keeps you going when you realize you have chosen an overly ambitious distance to ski given the sticky snow conditions.  It makes you move when you fear you will be finishing your ski in the dark, and your headlamp is still back at the cabin.  It becomes your strength when you are dead tired after dragging your snow-bound skis across the snow (and lurching).  Its mantra sounds something like “think of crisp, chilled Chardonnay waiting for you.”

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Yet for each challenge the rewards were many.  Skiing at sunrise, watching it paint the sky with orange stripes.  Baking in the heat of the sauna, letting our aches drip away.  Sunny days, warm temperatures.  Talking, sharing, laughing caring.  Sipping that Chardonnay.

 

It’s a rare friendship that endures this long.  Perhaps it’s even more rare to keep up a tradition this long.  But we’re unlikely to miss next year’s milestone – 25 years of skiing together.  And so much more.IMG_2381

Snow in Abundance

When snow declines to come to the cross-country skier, the only reasonable response is for the skier to go to the snow. It doesn’t take much research or experience to know where to find it. The Gunflint Trail consistently delivers on snow accumulation.

The drive up the North Shore is typical. Lake Superior’s warming influence reduces the snowfall near the shore. A leap of faith is required to believe one is indeed headed for significant snow. Turning inland from Grand Marais and slowly ascending the hillside the transformation is not yet apparent. But within a few miles, there it is. Snow. Lots of it.

An island along the Gunflint TrailThe road is snow covered, the only sound the scrunch of the tires as they turn over frigid squeaky snow. The sky couldn’t be bluer. And the star of the show is the forest. A heavy wet snowfall earlier in the winter has covered the trees with huge deposits of snow. This is not your standard Christmas tree flocking. It is deep snowballish accumulations on all available branches. And it is stunning. In case I’m still not convinced, one step outside the car to take a photo lands me in thigh-deep powder.

Unnavigable ski trailWe quickly learn from the locals that the snow is both a blessing and a curse. The blanket of wet snow brought destruction as well as beauty. Bending and breaking trees, miles of trail were blocked and closed. Despite massive efforts to clear the trails, the clean-up work exceeds the available resources in some areas. In particular, the Banadad Trail‘s 28k of ski trail are largely inaccessible, with clearing efforts able to open only seven kilometers on the western end.  Indeed, many fear for the state of portages in the BWCAW.

Our destination is Bearskin Lodge, home of the central Gunflint cross-country ski system with over 70 kilometers of trails and excellent grooming. Fortunately, Bearskin’s trails are nearly all open. Four days of unlimited skiing await us. And so does the cold. Arriving in the midst of a cold snap, we encounter overnight lows down to -19 and daytime highs in the single digits below zero. But the brilliant sunshine and blue skies are more than fair compensation. Donning layers of suitable apparel, we are easily able to enjoy the amazing beauty of the Northland as well as the skiing.

Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 1 Snowy trail at Bearskin Lodge 2 Stride after stride delivers more dazzling scenery.  I can’t help but think the tall narrow pines cloaked in snow are the spitting image of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical trees. Seuss-like trees on the Bearskin trailsAnd snowshoeing takes me even further into the depths of the magical woods.

Snowshoeing at Bearskin Lodge Yes, this skier is happy.  With abundant snow on the Gunflint Trail.

Skiing with Nature

Driving up the Gunflint Trail was like entering a new world. Moving further inland with each passing mile and leaving behind the warming effect of Lake Superior transformed the landscape into a snowy winter scene.  I could forgive the trickiness of driving on a slick icy road for the benefit of the snow accumulations blanketing the woods.

Susan and I were extremely grateful for having chosen to spend our annual XC Ski Weekend together staying at Poplar Creek Guesthouse on the central Gunflint ski trails.  It was the perfect destination for a winter marred by lack of snow.  For three full days we could leave behind the frustrations of barren brown ski trails and revel in the deep soft whiteness of beautifully groomed trails through the woods.

Susan on the Bearskin trailsI might have expected that the lure of good snow would draw crowds from the Cities to ski these trails over the weekend, but it certainly didn’t seem to be the case.  Perhaps because the trail system is so extensive, we rarely saw another skier.  In fact, evidence of wildlife was in far greater abundance.

My favorite time out on the trails was early in the morning.  Getting in at least 10k of fresh air and exercise makes the sumptuous and generous B&B breakfast all the more delicious.  So I ventured out before light to ski through the pre-dawn stillness.  Each morning I was greeted by nearly an inch of new powder on Skis and animal tracksthe well groomed trails.  It was the perfect carpet to record the previous night’s animal activity.  I spotted plenty of bunny prints, watched a fox’s paws follow the ski tracks and wondered about the origins of other divots in the snow.  But the best part was the musical accompaniment.  Hearing something in the distance, I stopped skiing to silence the swish-swish of my skis.  And there it was again.  Howling.  Bark-bark-bark-Oooooooh-bark-bark.  Sometimes multiple Ooooooooohs in the middle.  Over and over again.  The song of the wolf was haunting and beautiful.  And far enough away not to be a threat.

We chose the Banadad Trail for one afternoThe Banadad Trailon’s ski outing.  Having done it before, we knew just what to expect – endless kilometers of narrow, single classic tracks through densely wooded forest with pine branches bending low under their burdens of snowy cover.  Since it is largely flat with few turns and no intersections, it is the perfect opportunity to ski on autopilot and let one’s brain loose while drinking in the peaceful surroundings.  We dubbed it a “contemplative ski.”  It might have been completely serene had it not been for the moose tracks.  Most were made prior to the overnight snowfall, so although they trampled the ski tail, we felt reassured by the fact that the moose were long gone.  Then we found the fresh tracks.  Multiple moose chose to cross and follow the ski trail for a bit before wandering back into the woods.  For all we knew, there were still there staring at us.  But we never saw them.  Susan was greatly relieved, by my camera-toting self was a wee bit disappointed.

Molly on the Banadad TrailLest all this sound too serious, we did have our moments of levity as well.  Remembering our last ski on the Banadad when Susan missed the final turn to reach the Guesthouse, I stood sentinel to make sure it didn’t happen again.  No point in delaying our evening wine and cheese, after all.

 

It was three glorious days of cross-country skiing at its best – soft snow, endless views of an undisturbed natural environment and evidence of furry friends playing on the trails.  There’s nothing better than skiing with Mother Nature.