Push, Pull, Ski, Mush and Eat! One wonderful weekend on the Gunflint.
Our weekend began with our little Honda with brand new (but woefully poor) tires getting hopelessly stuck on the perfectly plowed driveway to Cabin 3 at Bearskin Lodge. My wife, Judy, and I were thankful Bob McCloughan, Bearskin’s owner, came to the rescue and pulled our Honda up the two percent grade.
Bob had prepared a cabin, a mushing trip and Chez Jude dinner reservations for our vacation on the shores of East Bearskin Lake north of Grand Marais on the Gunflint Trail’s 80km Central Gunflint Ski Trail System.
Bearskin Lodge was a winter wonderland. Eight inches of fluff had just fallen on top of a two-foot base. The ski trails were groomed to perfection. Cabin 3 was luxuriously spacious with huge windows framed by giant logs overlooking the lake and the frosted trees. We could see a teepee out on the lake, a hazy grey triangle just visible through the falling snow.
A quick test of the ski trails proved the combination of my green kick wax with the snow conditions was ideal. I climbed the big hill past the huge old white pines to the top of the Bear Cub Loop where the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness spread out into the distance. Evidence of the “Big Blowdown of 1999” was everywhere, but for this ski trail, it meant beautiful park-like views as I cruised the hilltop loops. The hill leading back down had a sign at the top, “Death’s Door.” It was steep but doable, a fun, twisting descent back to the lodge.
The Beaver Dam and the Ridgeline Trails were easier and just as beautiful. The overlook of Flour Lake and its solitary island revealed the connecting trail cutting across the lake to nearby Golden Eagle Lodge. Trailside huts provided nice spots to stop for a snack.
Back at Bearskin, we had to make the difficult choice: sauna or hot tub? Nothing beats either one after a hard ski. We chose the sauna, freshened up, and then prepared for Chez Jude’s culinary feast!
Chez Jude is Judy Barsness of Grand Marais. She prepares her famously eclectic food far up in these north woods all summer long and in the winter she treks deeper into the woods to Bearskin Lodge on the weekends. Her cranberry glazed duck, wild rice and flourless chocolate cake were “to die for.”
The next morning we met Erik Simula out at the teepee on the lake. He and his team of eleven huskies treat lodge guests to dog mushing tours. Erik is the real thing. He lives off the grid up in the hills above Grand Portage. Two summers past he paddled his homemade birch bark canoe 1,600 miles around the perimeter of the Minnesota Arrowhead. But last winter his job was to entertain neophyte non-mushers with a lust for sled action. The snow was deep, the slush underneath disconcerting, but those dogs pulled hard and we made it to a postcard-perfect Boundary Waters island before turning around on our day tour.
Later that day across the Gunflint Trail highway and another four miles deeper into the woods, the snowy Little Ollie Road again challenged our little Honda and its slippery tires. Ted Young, who runs Boundary Country Trekking, assured us that despite his recent stroke and his aging hippie demeanor he would “just push us out” if we got stuck.
We spent the evening in Ted’s “Tall Pines Yurt.” This is a semi-permanent 20-foot diameter circular tent on a wooden platform right on the shore of a BWCAW lake on the Bandadad Ski Trail. Skiers can ski “Yurt to Yurt” along the trail for a magical winter vacation, but we only had time for one night.
The yurt, heated by a wood stove, was toasty warm when we arrived after skiing in from the Honda. The highlight of the Boundary Country Trekking experience is the “Mongolian Fire Pot Dinner,” a delicious soup of multiple veggies, shrimp and meats, cooked by Ted and his staff.
Bob McCloughan and his daughter Caitlin, our hosts from Bearskin Lodge, skied in to join us for dinner. The six of us talked long into the night about skiing, yurts, Mongolians, politics and getting stuck in the snow.
That night Ted and the others left Judy and me alone in the yurt. The sleeping bunks capable of holding six had only to serve the two of us, but we had to keep the heat on. I awoke about four times during the night to stoke the fire. It was 25 below and the wind howled all night but we were snug as could be.
The next day we headed back to our car. Sure enough, the Honda would not budge, but we were in good company because Bob and Caitlin’s truck had gotten stuck the night before, too. True to his word, Ted helped push us out and we made it back to the pavement safely and sadly left the land of skiing, mushing, and great eating behind.
We’ll be back, but next time our Honda will have snow tires.