I think sometimes we in the North Country forget there is more to do up here than just ski/snowboard/repeat. I know I did.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the season, especially around a ski resort. The constant clack of bindings on staircases, the telltale trail of snow behind everyone’s boots, the red cheeks and frozen eyelashes–all signs that the slopes are prime.
But there is more. Much more. And it took the winter-version of an old favorite to remind me.
Monday morning, blurry-eyed and head aching from Super Bowl festivities, I made my way to the mouth of Devil Track River just a hair norheasterly of Grand Marais.
There I met my good buddy Carl (of Grand Marais Fusion fame) for a little hiking action. It was an ‘everybody’s welcome’ activity to get locals out and about for exercise, but apparently I was the only one in town that was feeling guilty about my Big Game Day consumption. The small turnout was just fine by me, as it lent itself to the quiet calm of the morning.
If it’s not clear by now: I was about to hike a frozen river.
Was I a little nervous? Yes. Of course. First of all, it’s me. Second of all, how many movies have you seen where a character walking on frozen water actually stays above said water?
But as I got a few strides into the trek, I got used to the hollow sounds of my footfalls, the gurgling of a flowing river beneath a sheet of ice–a sound both soothing and unsettling.
As I followed Carl up the river, he pointed out otter and beaver tracks, the prints of what might’ve been a big cat. We sidestepped gaping maws of open water. Places where dark currents flowed past daggers of ice like jagged fangs.
Over mounds of frozen rapids and around fallen logs, we trekked deeper and deeper into the canyons, feeling smaller and smaller as the walls of the chasm grew higher and higher. We came upon a waterfall whose cascades had seemingly been flash-frozen into a slope of yellow, translucent curdles of ice.
I didn’t even realize its true height until I saw Carl’s picture of me taking a picture of it.
Insignificant, was all that I could think of myself when I saw that picture. And I didn’t mean it in the usual self-deprecating, writer-y way I usually do. On the contrary, it made me feel better. Suddenly all my worries, problems, and fears seemed so tiny. For the first time in a long time I wasn’t the egotistical star of a reality show with a captive audience of one…I was just a speck of a guy staring up at a massive, raging rush of water that had been frozen into silence by nature.
What really struck me, as the hike continued, was the confluence of events that had brought me there. I realized we were following tracks–lots of’em–from snowshoes to cross-country skis. Carl and I weren’t the first ones to brave this river, not by a long shot. I found myself asking him about others who had done this, or if he’d done it before. He said he hadn’t for a couple years; that the conditions hadn’t been right. Seems the river needed a just the right amount of pre-season rain so as not to be raging, but also not shallow. It needed a couple cold snaps and then some fresh powder and–most of all, in my opinion–a warm day to bring out adventurous trekkers to pack down a trail.
Confluence of events.
Round-trip, the hike ended up being about 4 miles, an hour in and an hour out. Too short, if you ask me. So I hiked a different river the next day. A familiar river that I hike many times a summer, but which now I could see from a different vantage because of those ultra-cold Minnesota elements that I often thought of as a hassle.
So, yeah, I think you should hike up a frozen river. Definitely. I mean, bring a friend, of course, and watch where you step. But also remember not to take your “setting” for granted. Lutsen and the surrounding towns are more than just a place to catch some primo powder, slam a PBR, and call it a day in the hot tub.
There are hidden gems around every bend.