“I’m Bruce,” says the man behind the counter, “and you’re late.”
He’s right. I blew it. I’ve arrived in late winter at the Gunflint Lodge, on the northernmost edge of Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, lugging $300 worth of newly acquired gear, including three pairs of gloves and mittens, a jacket warm enough to roast a turkey, and snowpants made of Kevlar, the material used in body armor. I am waterproof, cold-proof, and possibly bulletproof. But none of this helped get my butt out of bed on time. I should have bought a clock.
At 2:30 p.m., I was supposed to be ice-fishing. It’s now closer to 4, which is not a big difference on paper but in this game I have created for myself—to drive from Minneapolis to the Gunflint Lodge and pack as many classic Minnesota winter activities into 24 hours as I can—every minute counts, especially since I have no idea what I’m doing. I had always regarded icefishing, snow-shoeing, and other activities involving frozen forms of water as antique, vestigial ventures from the dark days before direct flights to Cancun. When I first discussed the challenge with Bruce Kerfoot, the owner of the Gunflint Lodge, he remarked, “You’re a city guy then?” Worse, I’m a suburban guy, with all the survival instincts of a davenport.
I pull on two of my three pairs of mittens and run down to the frozen shore of Gunflint Lake, where the wind quickly makes a mockery of the Kevlar, cutting through my pants as if through newspaper. I’m met at the shore by Adam Treeful, a fishing guide at the lodge who conveniently doubles as a cook, prepared to fry whatever I haul up from the 200-foot depths. He tosses a giant auger and two buckets—our chairs—into a sled that will pop up into a primitive shelter, then hooks the sled to an ancient snowmobile with a lawnmower-style starting cord and no windshield. It’s a relic from a noisier era, before motorized vehicles were banned from the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 1978 and local lodges began marketing quieter sports. My face is frozen before we even get out to the fishing hole.
Adam sets up the shelter in roughly the center of the lake, which is just a mile wide from north to south but about eight miles long, a clear path for westerly winds to swoop in. As the temperature plummets toward single digits, I huddle inside the shelter while Adam stands on the ice with no more protection from the arctic ass-whupping than his hoodie sweatshirt, holey jeans, and reddish beard. No hat, no gloves. This is a guy who calls bull moose out of the woods during the lodge’s Moose Madness outings, affording visitors a closer look. “I imitate a moose in heat,” he says matter-of-factly. Recently, Adam has begun skijoring, a “sport” in which a skier ties one end of a rope around his waist and the other around a large dog, which may or may not stop pulling when it should. Of his dog, Adam says, “The only command he doesn’t know is ‘whoa.’” That seems like an important one, I say. Adam shrugs. Out here, you take what you can get.
If we were fishing another 300 feet north, we’d need passports—the border with Canada runs through the middle of Gunflint Lake and I can practically smell the poutine and guilelessness. Yet it feels like I’ve gone much farther. Ridgelines, like those you’d expect in Montana or maybe Afghanistan, barricade Gunflint Lake from the moderating effect of nearby Lake Superior, giving the area a boreal microclimate that’s ideal for moose, yetis, and anyone else who doesn’t mind getting snowed in six months of the year. Bruce was home-schooled when he grew up here, until his parents feared that he was becoming too isolated and sent him to boarding school. Until recently, the sole road in or out—the Gunflint Trail that runs from here to Grand Marais, 43 miles southeast—was only plowed a couple of times a winter if you were lucky, or you’d have to do it yourself. “You hoped that someone else needed to go to Grand Marais worse than you did,” Bruce says.
For the next two hours, I do this: up, down, up, down, jigging a metal spoon 40 feet below a hole in the ice that keeps freezing shut. Adam, who admits to angler ADHD, runs between the three other holes he’s drilled, shifting our tip-ups, or un-manned lines. Ice anglers, as opposed to summer fishermen, are given a handicap just for showing up—each person can fish with two rigs instead of one and most use their spare rig as a tip-up. When something, hopefully a fish, tugs on the tip-up line, a blaze-orange flag leaps up and flaps giddily in the wind: You’ve got fish! We’re going for lake trout, big salmon-colored fish that like the icy depths of Gunflint Lake but don’t seem to like me. “You’ve got a fish!” Adam shouts as an orange flag shoots up. But like so many other things in this odd corner of the state, it’s a trick of nature, sprung by the wind.
EVERYTHING ABOUT THE LODGE dining room suddenly feels emasculating. It’s rustically inviting, all knotty pine and taxidermied lynx, and the beef stew is terrific. But I’m not eating the fish I didn’t catch. And the massive moose head on the wall seems to be snorting at me; once a state record, it was felled by a lodge employee not with an elephant gun, as I might have thought necessary, but with a single arrow—basically a stick. Nearby, the buckskin suit once worn by Bruce’s famous mother, Justine Kerfoot, hangs beside a photograph of her straddling a moose, which she killed, I assume from her defiant expression, with her bare hands.
Nowadays, Gunflint Lodge is the most luxurious of a string of remote resorts on the Gunflint Trail, offering elk loin for dinner, sorbet between courses, and comfortable cabins with big stone fireplaces. In the winter, food is set out for the deer, which lounge outside the lodge like package tourists in matching outfits.
But it wasn’t like this when Justine’s family, rich folks from Chicago, bought the lodge as a lark nearly a century ago, then moved in when the 1929 stock crash compelled them to sell their home. Justine became the first white woman to grow up in the area. Indian guides worked for the lodge and Bruce was cared for by an Indian nanny. There was no electricity then, no running water, no phone service. With the creation of the BWCAW, in the mid-1960s, the wilderness here became a place to be visited, not harvested, and the motorized-vehicle ban cemented the locals’ reliance on tourism. “We licked our chops and got behind silent sports,” Bruce says. Snowshoeing, ice-fishing, snowmobiling—what were survival tools only a generation ago became the great winter pastimes of the north woods.
After dinner, I head back into the snow on a night hike to communicate with the area’s original residents—wolves. My guide is the youthful lodge naturalist, John Silliman, who grew up in suburban Roseville and is perhaps the most unassuming man ever to sport a Fu Manchu. Or, for that matter, to battle wildfires, as he does nearly every summer, including the devastating Ham Lake fire that spread from the Gunflint Trail in 2007 to become the region’s largest forest fire in at least a century. But these are only the beginning of John’s credits. After ascending by moonlight for nearly an hour, the snow crunching beneath our boots like dry timber, John lets loose a wail that multiplies the shivers running down my spine. He lifts his ear-flap hat to listen for a response. Nothing.
“You want to try?” he asks, but what comes out of my mouth sounds like Casper the Friendly Ghost—wooOOO!—being devoured by wolves.
Suddenly John yanks off his cap, cups his hand to his ear. I hear it, too—a lonely howl answering back. It could be the sled dogs housed nearby. But it also could be their progenitors, as near as the other side of the ridge.
IN THE MORNING, we confirm that the wolves are here. By 9:30 a.m., I had joined John on the ski trails that run around the ridges behind the lodge, expecting an easy morning, cross-country skiing being my one winter activity back home. But my ordinary life is a series of surfaces on which to sit, a scenario I have now perversely reversed. Despite my discovery of Gunflint Ale—brewed for the lodge by Leinenkugel’s—something in my poor motivation tells me I’m a few raw elk steaks short of becoming Grizzly Adams’s less hirsute twin.
Also, these aren’t urban trails. The descents are like shoelaces, long switchbacks with tight turns, and although John and I begin them together we don’t always end them together. He and I are roughly the same age, with the same suburban pedigree, but somehow he gravitated here, to the frozen edge of America, where he glides through the woods like just another well-adapted woodland creature. To me, all but the most familiar flora are so much shouting in a foreign language. But John knows that making a tea of boiled Tamarack needles provides a decent dose of Vitamin C. And when he spots a paw print on the ski trail, then some scat, then the inevitable yellow streak, he knows what that means, too: This is their territory. “Looks fresh,” he says, with the gravity of Indiana Jones reckoning the strength of a poison dart.
Nearby, he spots a first-aid solution in the exceedingly rare case of a wolf attack: old man’s beard, a kind of lichen. “You can use this as an astringent to stop some heavy bleeding,” he says. “Not that I’ve had to. Yet.”
I’m not about to linger. In fact, I’m running late: It’s 1:30 p.m. and I have only an hour left of my 24-hour window—with two activities still to go. By the time I reach the dog yard, a short walk from the lodge, Linda Newman is waiting with an easy smile and a pack of huskies already tethered to a sled, ready to pull. The yard, where a couple dozen dogs live in individual huts, is loud with howls—not from the chosen dogs but from those left behind, fruitlessly lobbying to join the pack. Newman ignores their pleas as she double-checks the dogs’ harnesses: “Rule No. 1,” she says, “is don’t lose your dogs.” Not that I’ll be driving the sled today. If we were going out on the lake, I’d get a crack at it, but we’re touring the ridges and I’m just going along for the ride, settling into the sled on a heap of 5-inch-thick cushions. When Linda hands me a waiver, I sign without reading it.
Only then does Linda tell me, “I don’t do rides, I do adventures. Rides sound like something at the circus.”
We’re off. Linda stands behind me on the rails of the sled, and as we head up the ridge, she offers a word of caution: “If I say ‘sweeper,’ duck.” Sweepers are branches hanging across the trail that tend to sweep mushers off their sleds. “I’ve been dragged with the sled sideways,” she says with something like fond remembrance. She’s the girl next door—to Jack London.
Contrary to notions of mushers whipping their dogs to action, almost everything about the sled is designed not to spur the dogs but to slow them down, from a grate the musher stands on, dragging in the snow, to a hook on a rope that’s used as a parking brake. The trouble isn’t getting sled dogs to go, it’s getting them to stop. When one of the dogs begins to flag, Linda quickly assesses the situation: “We’ve got a pooper,” she says, and the determined dog does a little dance to relieve itself without ever really pausing.
The trail is curved on the sides, like a luge track—a good thing, since the sled fishtails on the turns, the dogs unconcerned with their cargo. Linda throws her weight around to compensate, dangling a leg off the rail. As it is, the sled flies along with all the grace of a speedboat pounding across waves, and the cushions I’d thought were simply a nice touch turn out to have a practical purpose: Preventing my spine from compressing like a Slinky.
It’s adventurous enough that I wonder how many miles I’ve traveled—to Peru, India, Guatemala—for a similarly exotic experience. I’ve suffered from a kind of reverse provincialism, never imagining that all the culture clash one could hope for was right in my own backyard, amid animals whose minds and motives I could never hope to understand.
When at last we return to the dog yard, I help unharness the huskies and Linda asks, a bit belatedly, “Are you a dog person?” I’m not sure what to say: These aren’t the kind of dogs I know. They’re harmless but not exactly gentle. When one leaps high enough to puts its paws on my shoulders, I’m unsure what to do and end up kissing it on the snout like a Chihuahua, surprising even Linda.
IT’S 2:15 p.m. and I’m going to make it—sort of. John and I are standing behind the lodge looking up toward the High Cliffs, from which you can see a fair ways into Canada—assuming you have the cojones to get up there. “It’s pretty much straight up,” he says of the trail, more like a question than an observation. Do I really, on my final activity of snowshoeing, want to try it? Depending on how fast we move, I’ll start within my 24-hour window but end well outside it. Moreover, as I’m a snowshoe novice, the climb may literally put me over the edge. It occurs to me to ask, “How do you get down?” He smiles and says, “It’s a controlled fall.”
But I’m feeling cocky. I’ve avoided hypothermia, wolves, sweepers, and the urge to just order in pizza and watch reruns of Seinfeld. Although John asks me several more times if I’m sure, I’m in for the High Cliffs.
“You got water?” John asks as we hit the trail. “I’ve seen what dehydration can do to a man, heat cramps so bad they’re screaming from pain.” I’ve got water. What I don’t have is breath. The first stretch is a long march of digging in our toes and grabbing any sturdy-looking tree to pull ourselves nearly 400 feet up the cliff. The climb is only possible with modern, metal snowshoes, which are lighter and narrower than the old wooden variety favored by Alaskan prospectors and silent-movie comedians. Better yet, they’re armed with a couple rows of crampons, metal teeth that dig into the snow and ice and allow you to climb, well, pretty much straight up. This is the paradox of winter, which would seem to dampen outdoor activity but actually allows more accessibility. Anglers without boats can fish wherever they want, and these trails, limited in the summer to hiking, can now be used for any number of sports—assuming you know what you’re doing.
After the initial ascent, we break for my benefit, and I can’t believe we made it up. “Not a lot of humans have made it up here,” John says. As if in explanation, he adds, “We call that ascent the Slide.”
One more push and we’re pulling ourselves onto the High Cliffs, the kind of sheer shelf that Wile E. Coyote would use for dropping anvils onto Road Runner. Though the sun is setting over the pines, we can still see about 15 miles into Canada and the BWCAW, with not a person in sight. The deer scat at our feet, however, suggest we aren’t the only ones who appreciate the perspective. “It’s a good view for any species,” John says. Of course, many more people used to live here. John points to an island on the opposite side of the lake, occupied by a large home, and tells of the 1930s playboy whose family built the place and installed him there to keep him out of trouble. But the wilderness couldn’t curtail his extravagances: He had a piano portaged over for a girlfriend. When she eventually left, he gave the piano to Justine—she of the buckskin suit—who balanced it between two boats on the way over to the lodge.
Or so the story goes. The playboy is long gone and Justine passed away in 2001, and now very few people know these stories, precisely because very few people make it out here—or back, it occurs to me. But when we’ve had our fill of the view, John simply sits at the edge of the cliff and begins to slide—what he meant by “controlled fall.” “Don’t worry,” he says, cruising along the snow. “The trees won’t let you get too far.” Against all instincts, we aim for the biggest trees along the way, pinballing our way down.
At last, as though emerging from a portal, we shoot out onto the flat trail behind the lodge. It’s 5:45 p.m., just under 26 hours from when I began this contest. Not that it was ever really about the time; it was about forcing myself to do this, and next time I may not have to make such a game of it. Like John, I’ll just do what it takes—on foot or ski or snowshoe—to get where I want to go. We stand up, dust ourselves off, and walk back into civilization or something like it.
Tim Gihring is the senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.