The Ups and the Downs

On a sunny, blue-sky day, when the temperature is warm at 24 degrees, it’s really easy to play hooky from work to go skiing.  I don’t know about your neighborhood, but we haven’t seen the sun this winter as much as in other years.  Of course, when it was lower-than-thirty-below, we had plenty of sun, but it’s a little difficult for me to get excited to go out on the trails.  And it makes my skis squeak.  Today was my kind of day, so I finished my morning chores and mapped a route. 

 

Headed up Wipe Out Hill on the Highlands Trail

Headed up Wipe Out Hill on the Highlands Trail

It had been a while since I did Wipe Out Hill, so I decided to head that way.  I parked on the Gunflint Trail near the Cross River, grabbed the skis and headed across the road to the trailhead.  At this stage in my skiing adventures, it’s much better if I take a hill like this one from the bottom up, even though it means a lot of herringbone.  It also means I am more in control.  (I hate the thought of helter-skelter madcap descents!) 

 

Better than halfway, but still a stretch to go

Better than halfway, but still a stretch to go

The snow was lovely today, a bit of powder on top of the groomed trail. Enough tooth to slow me a bit, which is just the way I like it.   The sunshine cast all sorts of patterned shadows on the snow.

 

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About halfway through my route, I came to freshly groomed tracks.  I generally don’t take this trail in the direction I was going, so I was seeing it with a new perspective.

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I finished out my run on Highlands when I reached the intersection with Ham Lake.  From there, I headed towards Rabbit Run.  I had planned this trek while keeping in mind that the best way to do Rabbit is from Highlands to Aspen Alley.  That way it is a manageable down, down, down almost the whole way.  Such a nice reward after the likes of Wipe Out.   

 

Past every climb there is a coast.  Good thing I can do a decent snowplow!

Past every climb there is a coast.  Good thing I can do a decent snowplow!

Rabbit Run did not disappoint!  It was a lovely run down the hill, with a bit of a breeze blowing through the trees.  I got to the bottom, and headed for Aspen Alley.  Aspen Alley is about a mile long, and it travels through a large pit that is used for brush disposal in the summertime.  Today, piles of brush were buried under a thick blanket of snow, as was the road leading out to the Trail.  It was a peaceful ski through that section.  Soon enough, I was done and back at my car. 

Word is that there is wonderful snow throughout the state right now. If you can, grab a moment and your skis and get out there to play in it.  It’s invigorating, inspiring, and, believe it or not, fleeting.  Already that sun is higher in the sky, notifying me that these trails won’t be ski-able forever.   

Memories of the East End Trail

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When I first came up to the Gunflint Trail, it was a winter like this one, deep with snow on the trails and the trees.  I was here with my folks and my youngest sister, to enjoy a weekend of cross-country skiing in the big woods.  Prior to this, we mostly skied on trails near my home in Duluth, which were lovely, but not near as challenging. 

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We weren’t really beginners back then, but we also didn’t have a lot of kilometers on the skis.  Wanting to ski something that was relatively flat, we were directed to the East End trail.  This lovely trail followed the abandoned railroad grade on the Canadian side of Gunflint Lake.  It was single-tracked, and accessible by skiing across the lake, a trail that was recognized mostly by the tree boughs strategically placed to mark the way.  The wind on the lake is somewhat of a constant, so any tracks left by a snowmobile and groomer, or by humans, was inevitably being erased on a regular basis. There was never a worry that the ice wouldn’t be thick enough, but occasionally one might encounter a pocket of slush, creating big balls of frozen snow on the ski bottoms.  So we always watched carefully and skied as fast as we could when we went through those sections.

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Once on the trail, it was awesome.  To this day, I still love a tree-lined single track trail, as they seem to be the quietest of all.  It’s easy for me to feel totally surrounded by nature when I am skiing down it.  It always feels like I am all alone, and it also seems like the ideal time to spot wildlife.  I have to report that I didn’t have luck with the latter, but I do recall some pretty impressive otter slides at the beaver pond off of the trail.  And there were always Canadian jays waiting for us.  They were very friendly, and willing accepted whatever morsel we would hand off to them.  

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Not far in from the bay, a three-sided shelter stood ready to offer a spot of respite.  It was a great location to stop for a break, have a bite to eat, and stretch the muscles that were making noises about not being used as often as a better skier would use them.  We were just weekend warriors at that point, grateful for whatever opportunities we had to get out on the skis.  It was good that we had chosen such a flat trail to take.  I wonder, though, why did I always fall so often on the stretch that was the lake—-so very flat! 

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Sometime in the mid-90’s, we were forced to shut down the trail, as no one had a work visa allowing the grooming to be done.  Shortly after that, the Remote Border Crossing Permit came to our attention, and since very few people were likely to get them just to ski that one trail, we completely stopped using the trail.  And of course, by the winter of 1999-2000, the whole Canadian side had changed, due to the infamous blowdown storm on the Fourth of July.   

It was a real treat to come across these photos recently, and to take a trip down that memory lane.  To anyone else who remembers this wonderful ski trail, I would love to hear the stories of your adventures!