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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.