Fickle winter. It teases us with cold weather but fails to deliver on the snow. It wreaks havoc with my motivation and my love of the outdoors. My identity as a cross-country skier is in shambles.
For weeks I have been unable to get excited about skiing. I can’t drag myself across the street to ski on trails that are barely covered, and I convince myself that I’d rather go running anyway. Despite slipping and sliding on the icy or snow-clogged Lakewalk, I take refuge in the familiar. I just can’t get over the hurdle to embrace skiing instead.
But the recent snowfall engineered a shift. It actually looks and feels like winter. Distant memories return. Suddenly I feel the draw of the trails. The pull of a new blanket of snow. The sun filtering through the trees and glinting off the soft white powder. The crisp air brushing my cheeks. It is mine for the taking. This time I can’t help but answer the call.
On my first foray into the woods I discover that I beat the groomer to the trails. Instead of crisp firm corduroy, I find soft untouched snow with a packed base not far beneath. All sounds are muffled by this new fallen splendor. The hush quiets my mind as the powder slows my skis. I am moving in slow motion, but it makes no difference. For once it’s not about the pace, it is all about the experience.
Day two and I’m eager to return. The groomer has worked its magic in my absence. I am early enough to enjoy some virgin terrain, cutting my own diagonal slices through the sculpted surface. The tall pines still wear their mantle of white and the forest floor is a series of soft undulating mounds pocked with occasional animal tracks. Whether real or imagined, the air feels fresher than ever.
I knew there was a reason I loved winter, I’d just forgotten what it was. I’m glad to be out gliding again.
I was sure this Grand Canyon story was finished. We had covered the Rim Trail from end to end, had stunning sunrise and sunset views, and witnessed an awesome rainbow display. Surely we'd seen it all. Our plan was to exit early in the morning and move on to our next destination.
Mother Nature had other plans for us. Depositing an inch or two of wet snow overnight, she provided an entirely new view of the canyon. Could this really be the same place we were cycling in 70 degree temperatures just a couple days earlier?
We made slow progress out of the park, as we stopped at every pullout to check out the view. Although the snow lay in thick layers on the trees surrounding the canyon, there was none down below.
Eventually the sun came out and shadows played across the canyon.
We were in no hurry. As long as the canyon morphed and changed in front of us, we were happy to linger. It was a long, snowy farewell to the Grand Canyon.
It seems a strange scene. I stand in my bare feet and swim suit, peering out into the darkness at 6:15am. The outside floodlights are on, and they illuminate a world blanketed in white. I expected the snow. In fact, it’s the reason for my one-piece lycra apparel. Assuming it would be too deep for running, I had decided on an alternate workout this morning. But I hadn’t counted on the landscape now in my field of vision.
Every branch is outlined in white. The thin boughs are magnified by a fluffy coating of snow much thicker than their own sinewy skeletons. The woods surrounding our house are no longer a transparent winter veil but a lacy wall enclosing our abode. I can already picture the Lakewalk rimmed by more ghostly shapes. It is much too good to miss.
Despite the dim predawn light, many have preceded me down the trail. Footsteps are plentiful, crisscrossed by bicycle tracks and the wide treads of fat tire bikes. The snow is not as deep as I feared, but the wet fluff lies over a layer of slush. Messy but not slippery, it makes for slow and arduous progress but poses little danger of falling.
The world is silenced by the snowfall. Footfalls and tire rotations are muted, but faces are glowing. “Isn’t this beautiful?” seems to be on the lips of all I pass.
I don’t normally take the small bypass in front of the town homes at The Ledges. But the chance to get closer to the lake draws me down the indistinct path. My impulse is rewarded, seeing the dry stalks of fall flocked with snow silhouetted against the gray-blue of Lake Superior, and framing the iconic Aerial Bridge.
While just yesterday the Lakewalk was perfectly clear for easy running, I have no complaints about this resurgence of winter. It taught me to seize the moment, change my plans, stop and take pictures. And best of all, enjoy my surroundings.
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.
The 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.
We 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.
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. And snowshoeing takes me even further into the depths of the magical woods.
Yes, this skier is happy. With abundant snow on the Gunflint Trail.
I love the term “silent sports.” It embodies what I treasure most about outdoor activities. Human powered, surrounded by nature, testing one’s physical strength and endurance, going the distance. My day isn’t complete without an hour or more spent engaged in this pursuit.
When the snow fell yesterday, I couldn’t wait to get out in it. Six inches of fluffy new powder lay on the ground, and I knew the ski trails would not yet be groomed. But for once I actually preferred it that way. Admittedly, I had new waxless classic skis I wanted to try out, but I was also anxious to just get out in the deep new snow.
Cross-country skiing undoubtedly qualifies as a silent sport. But skiing the untamed fresh snow brings it to the pinnacle of silent. Normally my skis would swish over the groomed trail with a satisfying sound that testified to a long glide. My poles would make squeaky complaints as they pierced the snow and angled against the crust until they were released for the next plant. Natural sounds, yes, but noisy in their own way.
The fresh layers of snow muffled all those sounds. Those that had skied before me were long gone, leaving only a vague trace. My skis slid quietly through the downy snow and although I made slow progress over the hidden tracks it was deeply satisfying. There was no need to hurry, no urge to push to the max, no impulse to get in a good workout. Just plowing through the snow was enough. My poles too were muted as they stabbed the soft snow, gaining just enough purchase to help propel me forward.
The woods lining the trails were equally muffled. The pine boughs were layered with snow and the ground under the trees was blanketed by the snowfall. Any noise I managed to make was immediately absorbed by my surroundings, as if it had never existed. It was a world shrouded in stillness.
All it took was six inches. Half a foot of fresh white snow to transform a silent sport into a super silent one. I relished every bit of it.
My faith in winter has been restored. After weeks – no months – of brown trails I found it hard to maintain my enthusiasm for cross-country skiing. Sure, we could drive to find enough snow for skiable trails, but that wasn’t the point. I was used to walking out the door with my skis, sauntering up and over the bridge and skiing off into the woods. The lights for night skiing seemed to mock me each time I saw them shining through the trees in the evenings or early mornings.
All it took was a 5″ snowfall to set things right again. It was enough for the city groomers to ply the trails for the first time all winter. February 10 has to be a record. Since then we’ve been graced with light snowfalls that have continued to renew the trails.
The first time I ventured out on the trail, I could feel it. That sense of well being. Of gliding over the snow in our own woods. Every turn was familiar and I took pleasure in passing my favorite spots along the way. The steep hills were still a challenge, and the long downhill on the way back brought on its requisite chill.
Now I remember why I like cross-country skiing. Getting outside on the snow. Relishing the silence of the woods. Pushing hard to go up and riding back down. Feeling the skis glide across the snow. Being the first one out on fresh corduroy. The brisk air on my face. The toe warmers glowing in my boots to ward off the cold. And if I’m lucky, feeling the warmth of the sun shining down.
Granted, conditions aren’t always perfect. There are those days so cold that my skis forget how to glide. And my fingers freeze soon after I begin skiing. At times the trail gets worn down from all the skiers, turning hard and crusty, begging to be regroomed.
Yet despite any drawbacks, it’s still “our” ski trail. And I’ll keep going back to ski. After all, it’s right in our backyard.
The afternoon was gray and gloomy. What little snow we had in the yard looked crusty and tired. I’d been out all morning. So the idea of going out to watch and photograph the John Beargrease Sled Dog Race was beginning to lose its appeal. Fortunately, I didn’t let the excuses keep me away.
With the race starting north of Two Harbors due to lack of snow this year, we had to scout a new viewing spot. Yet once we arrived, it reminded me of last year’s outpost. We were at a point where the race course crossed a road and were able to peer down the tree lined trail. Our timing was good, as the half-marathon mushers were just starting to pass by as we arrived. There was a steady stream of sleds with reasonable gaps in between – the beauty of being a short distance from the beginning of the race.
One of the race officials must have been in contact with someone just up the course as he’d yell “dogs on the trail,” and sure enough a team would soon turn the corner and enter our field of view. Sometimes we’d get a double – one team just behind another bearing down the trail. It always seemed to take them a while to come into my viewfinder, and then suddenly they were past and we were hooting and hollering for the mushers. What I managed to catch in my photos each time was a matter of pure luck.
With all the teams still fresh, the temperatures mild and the trail conditions good, there was an aura of positive excitement among the teams. The dogs in particular seemed to be having a good time. In fact, they were decidedly a happy bunch. Especially after viewing all my photos, I couldn’t help but have a bit of fun with that idea. I nominated this group for happiest dog team.
There was no question about which was the happiest dog. This had to be the most delighted canine out there on the trail. Have you ever seen a bigger dog smile?
When it came to mushers, this woman’s smile was infectious.
We stayed until the last full marathon team sailed through. By then the day was darkening, my fingers and toes were chilling, and it was easy to head home. But I was glad I’d gone out to watch the race. I was a happy spectator.