Ralph Waldo Emerson supposedly once said, “The hard soil and four months of snow make the inhabitants of the northern temperate zone wiser and abler than his fellow who enjoys the fixed smile of the tropics.”
I’m not convinced everyone would agree with this sentiment, but as I woke up on Saturday morning to -22 degrees outside, I was inclined to agree with the “abler” part of this. Though if wiser was the right word to describe it, I’m not so sure.
A few years ago, Andy and I had discovered that winter in Minnesota was something to embrace rather than loathe. And we started embracing it fully by going so far as to vacation in Northern Minnesota, where the winters were even harsher — the winds colder, the snow deeper, the season even longer.
In the middle of July, after two weeks of extreme heat and humidity (extreme for my Finnish blood), I panicked, broke down, had a brief mental collapse, and booked an extended weekend trip to Grand Marais, Minnesota for the weekend before Valentine’s Day. You see, in that extreme heat, I needed something cold to look forward to, and there was no place and nothing colder that I could think of than a vacation to the North Shore of Minnesota in the middle of winter. Even the thought of it chilled me to the bone and calmed my feverish outrage at the summer heatwave.
The weekend finally rolled around for us to head up north, and I was thrilled. I’d been watching the weather, which went from reasonable to not-so-ideal. But I wasn’t going to be deterred. With the Subaru packed full of winter gear and the dogs, we set off for our cabin rental.
We made most of the drive before the winter snowstorm set in. Fortunately, we made it to the cabin safely and hunkered down for the night, watching from the windows with a glass of wine in front of a cozy fire as 5-6″ of fresh, powdery snow dumped on our little slice of heaven in the woods.
The next day, we broke a fresh trail around the cabin property with the dogs and our snowshoes. It was a cold 9 degrees, but the sun was shining, and the birds were singing. It was perfect hiking weather (albeit, a little windy).
Because of the wind, we determined our best hike for the day was one recommended by a friend that would lead us into a deep canyon/gorge of a river. We were a little nervous at the thought of hiking up a river. The sentiment “the ice is never safe” is true enough on a lake, but even moreso when the water is flowing.
With apprehension and images of breaking through the ice and being swept away beneath the surface, never to be seen again, we decided to check out this new trail recommendation.
It turns out, the river is fairly shallow, one that people can hike up in their sandals during times of lower water. With our fears allayed, we set off for what would be one of the coolest hikes we have ever done on the North Shore.
Hiking over the frozen river, listening to the water flow beneath our feet as we climbed waterfalls and through deep, rocky gorges covered in green moss was like nothing we had experienced before. It was almost magical. And as I laid my head against the soft moss and breathed in the earthy scent, the stress of my headaches, grad school, job changes, and life in general fell away until I felt an overwhelming urge to cry just a little. I was grateful to be in this place and moment with Andy and the dogs, feeling the snow beneath my boots and the moss beneath my gloves.
On our way back out, we noticed deer tracks on top of the tracks we had just been on and thought it was so neat that a deer or two might be nearby following our same path. We wondered where it could be. Then, I heard a branch snap in the woods. I looked up and locked eyes with a doe in the trees not far from me. She looked at me; I looked at her; and we both quietly went our separate ways. Nature.
Saturday rolled around, and that -22 degrees was no joke, though I must admit that in the sun, it didn’t feel so bad. But we took the cold seriously and kept the dogs indoors. Though we went looking for wildlife up the Gunflint Trail, it seemed that even the wildlife felt that was just a bit too cold.
Sunday brought about a heatwave, and we basked in low wind, sunshine, and 6 degrees. Our hike up Pincushion Mountain, another first for us, was beautiful but difficult. Without the snow, our struggle would not have been as great, but battling the slips and dips into deeper snow, even with traction, was exhausting for the nearly 4-mile hike. We used muscles we haven’t used in quite some time, but we made pretty decent time in spite of it all.
Oh, and the views were absolutely killer.
But it was a good reminder of how much work I have left to get back into shape before our backpacking trip next fall. Having this headache with me and falling out of shape has really made physically activity much harder, but I am determined not to let it keep me down. (Did I mention that hiking in the winter feels kind of like I have a constant ice pack on my head? It’s nice for the headaches!)
Recovering from this hike would take some time, but it didn’t keep us from checking out a couple of frozen waterfalls on our drive home the next day.
There’s nothing quite like the frozen winter wonderland of the North Shore of Minnesota. There’s nothing quite like the quiet, wintery nights spent in a cabin in the woods. Nothing quite like seeing fresh animal tracks in the snow. Nothing quite like watching birds flit from branch to branch and woodpeckers dart around and squirrels gather food. Nothing quite like watching the seemingly endless Lake Superior stretch out before you, unsalted and shark-free.