Late in February our group put our cross country skis on at the bridge over the Manitou River. We had driven up Lake County Rd 7, beyond George H Crosby Manitou State Park. At first the river was pancake flat, meandering thru willow thickets.
Then it plunged. Maureen led the way skiing boldly down the Manitou Cascades without tripping up and spilling into the open pool of water at the bottom of the falls. Then, timidly, the rest of us followed. By day’s end we had skied about 10 miles, all downhill, over many cascades and waterfalls.
The deep and narrow canyon just above where the river tunnels under Highway 61 was the ultimate challenge. There we rappelled off the crest of Manitou Falls into the deep recesses. The swirling waterfall mist clung to the cliff walls in horizontal rime ice. Giant icicles hung over our heads. We watched ice climbers scale them to the canyon rim. This was a unique and enthralling winter paradise.
The North Shore of Lake Superior is blessed with good snow and perfectly groomed ski trails at the many state parks and resorts. But when the conditions are right, getting off the trails and down into the stream canyons is a blast! There lies the fascinating beauty of distorted ice sculptures, adrenaline punching open water, and an ethereal experience of wonderland skiing.
Late winter is the correct time. Snow may come early, but safe ice takes time to build up, layer upon layer. By February most streams will have ice several feet thick and another two feet of snow on top, that is, if there is any ice at all.
There is risk here. Currents and fluctuating water levels will keep spots open all winte, and if these are just below a steep pitch, the skiing is dicey. You’ll probably find yourself jumping, sitting on your butt and sliding, or even lowering your team mates down a falls with a rope. Reading the river becomes part of the intrigue. Is that ice bridge safe to cross? Are we ready if one of us gets wet?
Safe river skiing definitely requires prudent precautions. Always have a pack with assorted dry clothes. Bring extra ski boots if you can, extra socks for sure. Mukluks maybe.
Any person in your party could break through the ice and get a wet. Luckily, most of the potential hidden wet spots are also shallow water in late winter. Several rivers have unskiable waterfalls.
Bushwack skiing around them, or using a rope to rappel or lower skiers becomes necessary. Know your rivers before skiing them. Choosing a river that you have walked in during the summer is very wise.