In Minnesota, a Cold Lang Syne

By Pamela Gerhardt
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 30, 2001

I was dubious the first time my husband, a native Northern Minnesotan, persuaded me to cross-country ski across a frozen lake in Ely, Minn., on New Year's Eve. The thermometer read 30 below. Never mind wind chill.

You won't forget a winter trip to Ely (pronounced Ee-lee), about 110 miles north of Duluth. It's the last civilized outpost before you enter the central region of the vast and wild Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. National Geographic Traveler included the area in its 2000 list of "50 greatest places of a lifetime." And bestselling novelist Tim O'Brien has sent at least one character beyond Ely, where "the wilderness was all one thing."

Canoeists and back-country campers associate the area with summer. The land, dotted with 1,000-plus glacial lakes larger than 10 acres as well as thousands of smaller ones, provides peaceful fishing and canoeing as you portage from one lake to the next, carrying your canoe and supplies on your back and pitching your tent on tiny, pebbled shores. Motors of any kind, for thousands of acres, are strictly forbidden.

But in recent years, this former mining town, trapping outpost and voyageur pit stop has increased its services to attract more winter activity, especially cross-country skiing. About 13 of the area's 35 resorts are now open year-round, and at least four of the adventure outfitters rent skis and poles. "We're not tied to the [crashed] Iron Range economy anymore," says Scott Anderson, a local dentist and president of the town's ski club, the Nordic Club. "Tourism, including winter, has become one of our biggest boosts."

Miles of groomed trails surround the town, but many locals ignore them altogether, preferring the wide, flat lakes, moving along trails left by dog sleds or skate skis, or skiing on the untouched bodies of water when the conditions are right.

"I know people who ski in 15 miles, fish [through a hole in the ice], then skate 15 miles back in one afternoon," says Anderson. "The best part about skiing up here is that you can go across frozen swamps and other strange places you would never get to in the summer."

The thermometer reading bothered me a lot. While large white-tailed deer walked past my cabin window, I pulled on two pairs of long underwear under my blue jeans (I didn't own a high-tech ski suit). I watched my husband yank on layers. Cotton. Then wool. I thought about the drive up from his parents' house, the utter whiteness of the landscape, the drone of the defroster blasting on high and just barely keeping a circle of windshield frost-free, the crunchy thump of wheels rolling over frozen snow.

My Hecht's wool coat, it turned out, didn't cut it at all, so I borrowed my mother-in-law's bright pink Thinsulated parka, which zipped and snapped and overlapped against every possible air passage. I wrapped my head in a wool cap and twisted a wool scarf around my face and neck, covering as much skin as possible, and stepped out the door of our efficiency cabin at the Timber Trail Lodge. The sharp, dry cold sent a blast to my nostrils.

We skied right into the wilderness along the South Farm Trail, a beginner route that makes a five-mile figure eight through Boundary Waters woods and is recommended by locals as a good place to start. We'd been briefed on the full range of trail choices: Several trails, including Hidden Valley, stay closer to town and pass such places of interest as the Wolf Center, but we really should experience the quiet beauty of South Farm or the more difficult 26-mile North Arm Trail. Both are free, run through the wilderness and are user-tracked rather than groomed, which means the snow is more pristine and less trodden upon. Most important: No snowmobiles, which you'll find on the Taconite Trail and some others near town.

As we entered the loop, I was stunned by the winter scene: acres of 30-foot blue spruces, part of the Superior National Forest, their snow-covered tips heavy and sparkling in the brilliant sun. We did not see or hear one other person the entire day.

In these parts, in very recent years, cross-country skiing has been pretty much relegated to the "tourists." Many locals now swear by skate skiing, a sport that involves skating on skis and uses a push-side motion (not to be confused with the trendier, Colorado snow skating, where you wear big boots with flat, ski-like soles and don't use poles). Skate skis are shorter and a bit wider, the poles longer.

Skate skiing requires just-so conditions: a brief thaw or even rain to create crusty, icy snow, then another temperature plunge. So you just about have to live locally. "People up here arrange their vacations at the last minute to coincide with these conditions," says Anderson.

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