In low-snow winter, Gunflint Trail area has had plenty to play in
ON THE GUNFLINT TRAIL NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS — Gliding along the Old Logging Camp Trail on his skate skis, Jonathan Baumann coasted to a stop. He used a ski pole to point at a line of large paw prints in the snow.
“Wolf tracks,” said Baumann, 22.
His sister, Brianna Baumann, 24, pulled up alongside to check them out, too.
There was no mistaking the tracks, not that they were a big deal to the Baumanns, whose family owns Golden Eagle Lodge on nearby Flour Lake. They see plenty of wildlife and tracks on these Central Gunflint Ski Trails where we were skiing on Monday north of Grand Marais. The trails lie in the heart of the Superior National Forest and Minnesota’s wolf country.
“No more than a day old,” Jonathan said of the wolf tracks.
The 70 kilometers (43 miles) of trail had been groomed just a day before, he said. The trails are groomed jointly by Golden Eagle Lodge and Bearskin Lodge on nearby East Bearskin Lake. All of the trails are groomed for classic skiing, and more than 50 kilometers (31 miles) are groomed for skate skiing.
“Moose use the trails, too,” Brianna Baumann said. “They like to walk right down the classic track.”
We took off to complete our nearly 12-kilometer
(7-mile) loop, heading for the gentle hills of the Deer Mouse Trail.
Plenty of snow
In a winter that has been skimpy with snow across much of Minnesota, the northern tier of the state has enough for good snowmobiling and skiing. Up here along the Gunflint Trail, winter is still white. Step off the ski trail without your skis on, and you’ll plunge to your knees.
That can be hard to believe for people who call inquiring about snow conditions, Jonathan Baumann said.
“A lot of times, they ask if we have snow,” he said. “We’re either equal to or have more than last year.”
E.J. Kelley and Dawn Hofstrand of Minneapolis also were skiing the Central Gunflint trails on Monday. They’ve been coming up in the winter every year since 1999.
“The ski trails are just fantastic,” Hofstrand said. “We almost prefer it up here in the winter more than summer — the powerfulness and solitude and the animals. There are so many different moods in the winter.”
“I can’t imagine anyplace in North America with better cross-country skiing,” Kelley said.
Down the road a few miles at Hungry Jack Lodge, owner Forrest Parson caters mostly to snowmobilers. He gets the same calls from people farther south wondering about the trails this winter.
“I’ve received more calls this year than ever before,” he said.
Once Parson assures them he has snow and that trails are in good shape, many come to ride.
“Conditions are not 100 percent perfect,” Parson said, “but they’re very manageable. Overall, reports have been very good.”
And he said that before the midweek dollop of another 6 inches of snow that should help groomers further smooth the trails.
“Three hundred bodies walked through the door last weekend,” Parson said, “and it’ll be more this weekend (which includes Presidents’ Day on Monday).”
At the popular Trail Center Lodge midway up the 60-mile Gunflint Trail from Grand Marais, Sarah Hamilton took a break at midafternoon Monday. This winter has been slower than some, she said, in part because people farther south don’t realize how good conditions are in the North.
“I think they actually don’t believe it,” Hamilton said. “But it’s beautiful. We have plenty of snow. And we don’t have the bitter cold. The (snowmobile) trails are in good shape.”
Convincing potential guests about this year’s snow also has been tough for Bearskin Lodge owner Sue McCloughan, she said.
“We’ve had a terrible time telling people,” she said. “Nobody believes there’s snow. When you say there’s snow, they feel like we’re in some way trying to tell them to come up and they think they’ll be disappointed.”
Those who come are happy, she said.
“It’s some of the best skiing we’ve had in years,” McCloughan said. “Last year we had this quantity of snow, but every day it was 30 below.”
The temperature rose from 10 to 20 degrees on Monday while Brianna and Jonathan Baumann skied the Central Gunflint Ski Trails. They had skied right from Golden Eagle Lodge, across groomed trails on Flour Lake to the rolling hills of the Ridge Run Trail.
Both Brianna and Jonathan competed on Cook County High School’s cross-country ski teams, which is to say they know how to ski. They moved over the snow with powerful and efficient strides on their skate skis. The trail delivered them to overlooks high above Flour Lake and through nearly 100-year-old Norway and white pines.
The three of us skied for a couple of hours, pausing for wolf tracks and photos and just to take in the silence of the north woods. Granted, it was a Monday and the trails weren’t as busy as on the weekends, but we didn’t see another skier the entire time. With more than 40 miles to ski in the system, the trails allow skiers to spread out and sense the immensity of the country.
The system includes trails for all ability levels — easy runs at lake level for beginners, more challenging trails in steeper terrain and everything in between. It offers the the combination of excellent grooming in a landscape that feels remote and wild. A small portion of the system, in fact, loops just into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
With all of that snow, all of the hard edges had disappeared in the woods. Snow had piled itself high atop exposed stumps. The snow-flocked boughs of balsam firs took on the appearance of backwoods doilies. Along one part of the Old Logging Camp loop, a pine marten had left its two-by-two sets of paw prints atop the mantle of white.
Back at Golden Eagle Lodge that afternoon, guests Kelley and Hofstrand said they, too, had seen the wolf tracks while they were skiing. Hofstrand said she had one more bit of skiing on her agenda sometime during the stay.
“I’ll tell you about the most magical thing,” she said. “I have to do it every year.”
Twice a week, the lodge lights a 1½-kilometer loop with kerosene lanterns and other nights with twinkling electric lights for night skiing.
“I do it two or three times,” Hofstrand said. “It’s the most fantastic thing.”
If you go
For more information on winter activities and lodging on the Gunflint Trail and elsewhere in Cook County, go to www.visitcookcounty.com.
The Gunflint Trail has several cross-country skiing options, including the Central Gunflint Ski Trail system, the Upper Gunflint Ski Trail system and the Banadad Trail system. The Lutsen-Tofte-Schroeder area also offers 87 miles of cross-country ski trails. For information on these trail systems, plus information on snowmobiling, lodging and other winter activities, go to www.visitcookcounty.com.
Fees for skiing on the Central Gunflint Ski Trails without a lodge stay are:
Adults: $18 per day; late day (after 1 p.m.) $12
Children (ages 7 to 13): $8 per day; late day, $6
Three-day pass: $36 for adults, $18 for children
Season pass: $100 for adults; $40 for children; $215 for families (two adults plus children)