Over the next hill, around the next bend

I coast across the trail intersection to look at the map mounted on posts on the other side. When I stop, I hear nothing except the pounding of my heart. The distant whine of snowmobiles that had periodically reached my ears while skiing the last kilometer from the trailhead are absent now. So is the soft clatter and crunch of my skis against the snow.

The leafless woods are perfectly still and silent. Then a crow squawks from some distance off, calling three times, then pausing, then three more times, then pausing again, and then a final three times. Then all is quiet again and I am left with the feeling that the crow’s caws were of a rhythm very similar to that of my heartbeat.

Sugarbush Trail - Bridge Run

It was late on Saturday afternoon and I was squeezing in a couple hours of solo skiing before heading back to the lodge where Rosie and 12 of her family would be waiting. We had rendezvoused at Lutsen the previous night for a winter weekend on the North Shore. Some had spent the day downhill skiing, others at a cooking class at the Folk School in Grand Marais. Her uncle Dan opted to wood carve at the condo and her dad had taken cousin Lori and her little Julia for a brief snowshoe hike in the morning and was surely now enjoying the resort’s hot tub.

Rosie and I and her cousin Scrubs and her husband (and my good friend since the third grade) Wrench had come north on Thursday night. In Duluth, we got together with Sam and his girl Sarah and headed down to Fitger’s Brewhouse, hoping to catch Alan Sparhawk‘s Los Besos at their regular Thursday gig. The Besos didn’t show, but we still had a fine time socializing and sampling pitchers of the Brewhouse’s beers. Sam was gracious enough to give over his apartment to us for the night and the four of us slept in one room, reminiscent of slumber parties none of us had partaken in for many years.

We woke late and moved slowly, finally getting to Amazing Grace in Canal Park for breakfast late in the morning. Not long into breakfast, Wrench pointed out that the cafe must have been serving some potent coffee, as the pace and energy of our conversation had picked up noticeably.

It was at Amazing Grace that Katie’s brother Brian and his fiancee Ruthann joined us after driving up from the Twin Cities that morning. After breakfast, we headed up the shore in a caravan and got to Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte mid-afternoon. There, we rented snowshoes from the friendly proprietors and got a recommendation to check out the Onion River.

We checked in to the condo, quickly changed into suitable attire, and headed out for a little adventure. In case you’re curious, the snowshoe trail on the Onion River is not anywhere near the Onion River Road intersection with Highway 61. Being ignorant of that fact, and to the amusement of several snowmobilers who happened to pass by and park at said intersection as we strapped on our snowshoes and went in search of the river, we spent a bit of time on the wrong snow. But we had a fun little trip down to the lake, slipping down through pines and cedars, over rocks and embankments, ending up on the icy shores as the water lapped its eternal waves against the rocks.

Wrench and Rosie on the shores of Lake Superior

We turned around and went back up the hill and back to the cars, which we loaded into again and shortly found the wayside we were seeking just a couple more miles down the highway. There, we strapped the snowshoes back on and headed up the river. On the river.

It was a new experience to me, but something I had been wanting to try for a while. Just last month, Stephen Regenold had an article in the DNR‘s Conservation Volunteer magazine about “rivering” on the Onion, where he actually skied down the river. So here I found our motley crew.

Snowshoeing up the Onion River on Minnesota's North Shore

The ice on the river was generally a foot or two thick, with occasional spots where it was barely there at all and the water could be seen flowing underneath. But, by following the well-packed snowshoe trail, we were able to access the river gorge that must be nearly inaccessible at almost any other time of the year. We hiked beneath looming red cliffs up the twisting stream, finally arriving at the foot of a 30 or 40 foot waterfall, which was frozen solid.

The group standing at the foot of the first big falls on the Onion River.

We picked our way up a narrow trail alongside the falls, then were soon at the foot of another that we didn’t care to ascend. We stood at the bottom and admired it, noting a thin spot in the ice where the falling water could be seen behind it, eerily silent. In the failing light of the afternoon, we turned back and headed downriver again.

Wrench heading back down the river.

In the morning, Rosie and I and our soon-to-be sister-in-law Ruthie started out our day with Lutsen Mountain‘s “norpine” skiing, wherein the skier takes a chairlift to some summit and then gradually descends a four kilometer trail. It had been my idea, but I was disappointed in its realization. Only one trail was open and it was poorly groomed and not terribly exciting. Perhaps my opinion was based on knowledge of just how fantastic the Sugarbush trail system was — just eight miles away near Tofte. I hadn’t been able to find anyone who had skied Lutsen’s trails before we headed north, so to anyone who might consider it, I’ll say it seemed like they only offered the cross-country trails as a last resort for those who got dragged along to the ski resort but refused to downhill. Just my opinion and experience, anyway.

So, after meeting up with much of the group for lunch slopeside, Rosie had heard the siren call of the hot tub and Ruthie decided to ski up the trail we had just come down to actually get a workout. Leaving me to my devices. Which brought me to that lonely intersection in the Sawtooth Mountains.

After soaking in the silence a minute more, I found myself on the map and determined which path was mine. It took me to the crest of a long hill that cut straight down through the woods. I pulled my hat down over my ears, pushed off with my poles, got into a tuck and reveled in the wind on my face and the crescendo of the whine and buzz of my skis in the tracks. It was only the wind, but tears came to my eyes anyway.

17 thoughts on “Over the next hill, around the next bend

  1. Bryan

    Sounds like a fun weekend trip. You’ve hit a few of our local fav. hikes and skis. A couple of suggestions for next time. To hit some real Norpine skiing head to Deeryard and ski down to Cascade Lodge or for a slightly longer route with a backcountry feel head to Bally Creek and ski down to Cascade State Park. Both of these skis are much better than the x-ski at the Mnt.

    The next river you should ski/snowshoe is the Kudunce, which is just north of Grand Marais. It’s just as fun as the Onion, but more of a slot canyon.

    Thanks for the fun read.

  2. Terry

    Great post and wonderful photos. I have missed snowshoeing… My little guy will be big enough to join me on some short outings next year.

    In the mean time thanks for the mind candy.

  3. dharma bum Post author

    Thanks Bryan and Terry.

    Terry – That would be so cool to be able to bring your boy snowshoeing. Something to look forward to for sure.

    Bryan – Wow, thanks a bunch for tips on what sounds like some great trails and the such. You definitely piqued my curiosity and now I really want to get back up there ASAP. Have you ever skied the Picnic Loop from the Moose Fence trailhead to Sugarbush? That seems like it would be a great day-long trip… Anyway, thanks again, I hadn’t heard of really any of those options and I’ll definitely check it out next time I get the chance.

  4. Bryan

    The Picnic Loop is the classic ski of the Sugarbush system. Many people make the trek up the shore just to ski that loop. I usually ski it from the ORR.

    Andrew Slade just republished a cross country ski book devoted to skiing the North Shore of MN. It’s worth picking up, because it lists everything that is maintained up here. It’s a great resource to have.

    Also, Devil’s Track Canyon from 61 is a great ski up and back. Plus it has huge ice climbs in it.

    Bryan’s last blog post:Off to a Cra%^& Start to the Month

  5. Andrew Slade

    Thanks, Bryan, for the nice mention of our book, “Skiing the North Shore.” I’m really glad to hear that people like the book and are using it to find new trails.

    Too bad about those Lutsen Mountain trails. I have them in the book but haven’t skied them myself for maybe eight years. I wonder if they’ve stopped grooming them? Can’t be, because they still sell tickets.

    Bryan, do you know of anyone on the shore who would do the all-important car shuttle for those ski-throughs? If you’re staying at a resort/lodge, an employee or owner would probably do that.

  6. samh

    I can always find solace from a stressful work day in the latest post on The Dharma Blog. Thanks, Greg.

    Another fun area to explore is the Knife River. I’ve not done it, but my good friend Judy lives adjacent to it. Although not as amazing as the Kadunce or Devil Track it is quite accessible for someone based in Duluth or Two Harbors.

  7. dharma bum Post author

    Wow, thanks for all the great comments. Glad to see the discussion and the great information.

    Bryan – how funny re: Andrew’s book. After skiing at Sugarbush for the second time that Sunday, we stopped at the Holiday station in Tofte before heading back to the Twin Cities. I picked up the book and unintentionally flipped it open to the section about Moose Fence (which we skied two years ago) and about taking the Picnic Loop from there down to Sugarbush. I didn’t buy the book, but I think I will.

    Rosie – thanks! I still feel like a jackass for leading you and Kristin down that one hill… can’t wait to get back out with you soon. pray for snow!

    Andrew – thanks for stopping by the blog. The only trail open at Lutsen Mt. was the Ullr Mountain trail, the Mystery Mountain trails were closed. Which basically gave you the option to either take the lift up and ski down, or ski up and ski down. The trail had been groomed, but it seemed like it had been a while. I was mostly just disappointed in the variety of the trails. One time down was fun enough, but it sure isn’t enough to spend a whole day skiing, IMHO. And for what it’s worth, they only charged us $5 for the pass, rather than the advertised $9, I’m guessing because they didn’t have Mystery open.

    Sam – thanks for the kind words, glad to provide some respite. The Knife sounds like a hoot as well and a bit closer to the Twin Cities even. I definitely want to check out more of those North Shore rivers when they’re frozen over and more accessible. Such a cool way to see a new environment.

  8. dharma bum Post author

    ehay – just because you can neither appreciate nor tolerate the dumpings your Great Lake coastal city has received this winter doesn’t mean the other fine readers of this blog agree, nor do I imagine any of us care for your whimperings and demands. :) Now get back to your tying bench and get me a dozen caddis!

  9. BB-Idaho

    Still have my Madshus: back in the early 60s the only available xc stuff was from the nordic countries. Wood, wax, klister and no such thing as a groomed trail. My favorite place was the upper Eau Claire river country NW of the city by than name. Best seen by canoe in summer or skis in winter. Bushwacking at it’s best..no snowmobiles, no spandex and the only way to work up a sweat at 5 below.

  10. Bryan

    Andrew wrote, “Bryan, do you know of anyone on the shore who would do the all-important car shuttle for those ski-throughs?”

    As far as I know, there isn’t a winter shuttle service except those run by resorts. I know Lutsen Resort does do shuttle by arrangement to the entire Sugarbush system. Other than that, when I done the ski downs, I’ve used the old two car system. Although, if I’m alone I don’t mind the ski up from Cascade Lodge to Deeryard and back down.

    Skied the Cascade River last week for the first time. It was an absolute blast! Never though skiing down waterfalls could be so much fun. Just another fun activity to do on skis in the Northland.

    Bryan’s last blog post:North Superior Coast Guard

  11. dharma bum Post author

    Night Editor – I’ve said it but not lived it for too long: the only way to really survive winter is to find something you enjoy doing that can only be done in the winter. Something to look forward to all year, to celebrate when you can finally indulge, and to make you hope winter (and snow) would last just a bit longer.

    BB-Idaho – that skiing sounds like a heck of a lot of fun. Though I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, some of my favorite skiing memories from my youth were with my grandpa in northern Wisconsin. He and my grandma lived in Eau Claire and he had a hunting cabin in the Blue Hills. I’d give just about anything to wander the winter woods with him again.

    Bryan (and Andrew) – for what it’s worth, I also saw a shuttle van from Bluefin in the lot at the Oberg Mtn. trailhead when I was there. Thanks for the tip on the Cascade… gotta try going down the rivers sometime! Did you read Regenold’s piece from Conservation Volunteer?

  12. Bryan

    Ya, I read Regenold’s piece in the CV. It was pretty good and captures the feeling of skiing down a river nicely. I’ve snowshoed up and down the Onion, but never skied. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine took his snowboard up and down the last couple of falls and took a core shot through his board via a pointy rock.

    BTW, I just posted my story of skiing down the Cascade if you’re interested.

    Bryan’s last blog post:Skiing the Cascade River

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