Heading north in the winter can be counterintuitive for many Minnesotans. But there are lots of options for pandemic-proof plans farther from, not closer to, the equator. Finland, Minnesota, has established itself as a destination for all-season camping and backcountry skiing, with the beauty and pristine nature of the Superior National Forest as its key draw.
Accessing out-of-bounds terrain is one of human-powered winter travel’s many advantages. It breaks us out of compact home offices, turns off our screens, and steers us away from plowed roads to a better place for both mind and body. Traversing a sparkling white blanket over the Superior National Forest’s frozen lakes, while crisp air fills your lungs, you slow down, letting the sounds of the boreal forest envelop you. Pine grosbeaks chirp away as they seek out frozen mountain ash berries, and the oft-silent sports of winter can leave marks on your soul.
“Backcountry skiing takes you outside of your day-to-day mindset, to a flow state,” explains Finland resident Rory Scoles, founder of the Superior Highland Backcountry nonprofit skiing organization. “Flow state is when your ego dissolves. You’re in perfect harmony with gravity.” Plus, backcountry skiing gets you outside, and gets your cardio and muscle mass up. “Our culture is more and more sedentary, and seasonal affective disorder is very real. These health issues get really exacerbated in winter.”
Scoles has spearheaded the popularization of backcountry skiing on the North Shore’s steep topography. Prior to a boom in sport skiing in the late 1800s, all skiing was utilitarian, specifically as a means of hunting in winter, and we carry that DNA to this day. “That mode of moving through a winter landscape on skis is part of our human psychology,” says Scoles. The North Shore provides a uniquely attractive combination of vertical drops, snowfall, and snow type. “The snow stays deeper [in Finland], and we don’t have the fluctuation of freeze-thaw cycles that other places do,” explains Scoles, who started Superior Highland Backcountry in order to get curious people out on skis and experience the region.
Finland’s varied terrain provides all different types of skiing opportunities. Hikers can see the Superior Hiking Trail anew this winter with a pair of short backcountry skis designed for travel in deep snow. Shorter and wider than classical cross-country skis, backcountry skis give you the stability to walk up hills, while having the maneuverability to enjoy the free ride on the way down. The best part: you don’t need those hard-plastic heavy ski boots that the downhill skiers wear. Instead, wear your favorite pair of comfortable winter boots—the universal bindings on these skis strap right over your mukluks. (Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte rents out Hoks, made by Altai Skis, with a permanent climbing skin built into the ski base for traction, and Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis carries Black Diamond backcountry touring skis.)
For an even greater adventure, add camping to the mix. By overnighting in the woods, you immerse yourself completely in winter’s magic. You’ll need a sled, called a pulk, that you can attach to a hip belt on your waist to pull your camping equipment over the snow. The workout’s reward is unspoiled winter wilderness. You can stay warm at night using a canvas wall tent, such as those made by Snowtrekker, that take a small portable woodstove. The canvas walls provide wind and snow protection, and these tents are a cinch to pitch in the field. Woodsmoke and high spirits fill the air as you saw downed branches to keep the stove cranking. Waking up in the middle of the night to stoke the fire inside your tent is a small price to pay for a warm night’s sleep in a 3-foot-deep snow drift. The canvas tents don’t have floors, so bring a tarp or other ground mat to put your sleeping bags on. (Snowtrekker tents can be rented from Sawtooth Outfitters.)
During the pandemic, Superior National Forest campgrounds are closed, but there are backcountry camping sites available at no cost throughout the 4-million-acre forest. North of Finland, you can park at the Hogback Lake Campground and ski less than a mile to the phenomenal Scarp Lake. There, you’ll find two dispersed campsites with fire pits equipped with grills, tables, and latrines. Divide Lake and Dumbbell Lake also have dispersed camping sites and parking. These campsites are just a sampling of the 2,200 campsites available free in the BWCA in winter—if you can ski or snowshoe that far.
If camping overnight in 10-below-zero weather sounds too intense, you can still explore the ungroomed Benson Lake Trail or Middle Trail at George Crosby Manitou State Park for an afternoon. Snowshoes can be rented for the day from nearby Tettegouche State Park. Or, ski one of the dozens of frozen rivers that wind their way from the highlands toward Lake Superior. Locals wait until there is solid ice, then ski through the enchanting narrow canyons leading to the lake. When it’s frozen solid, the Baptism River in Finland is a popular, easy ski for getting a taste of the wild backcountry.
Eat, Play, Stay in Finland
A gem in the woods, the inimitable Trestle Inn Restaurant and Saloon is built out of 300-year-old Douglas fir timbers from an abandoned railroad trestle. Biting into a juicy, hot burger after a long day of skiing, ice fishing, or camping in the surrounding wilderness is bliss. You’ll find North Shore heritage (and everything you need for a picnic lunch) at the 100-year-old Finland Co-Op right on MN-1. This is Minnesota’s oldest continuously operating co-op and the only grocery store for miles around.
Usually, Finland hosts the quirky Finnish-American St. Urho’s Celebration on the last Saturday before March 16 (the Finns wanted to one-up St. Patrick’s Day), featuring a parade, music, face painting, food, snow sculptures, and more. The 146-mile long C.J. Ramstad/North Shore State Trail from Duluth to Grand Marais goes right through Finland and connects to hundreds of miles of snowmobile club trails. Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center is a staple of outdoor education and adventure courses that focus on many different aspects of our environment for Minnesota schoolchildren. In a typical January, the Woolsock Winter Camp & Dance weekend would hit the multi-use Finland Community Center. The in-person event will not be happening in 2021, according to festival organizer Kyle Ollah, but virtual programming is in the works.
Baptism River Inn is located just outside Finland on 32 acres of rugged woodlands alongside the Baptism River (think river skiing). This bed-and-breakfast offers four rooms to rent. Deeper in the Superior National Forest, National Forest Lodge offers log cabin rentals adjacent to the Flathorn-Gegoka cross-country ski trails.