Points North: Come on up, the winter is fine

Forest (Travis Novitsky)
Forest (Travis Novitsky)

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On a recent morning I stepped out with the dogs at daybreak. Beneath a clear dawn sky, the air was crisp and calm. When we came inside 20 minutes later, I thought it was pretty nice outside. Glancing at the thermometer, I saw it was 16 below.

While the rest of Minnesota has experienced a warm, snowless winter, up here at the Tip of the Arrowhead, we've had snow and cold temperatures. True, even our weather has been unusually mild, but proximity to Lake Superior and the Canadian border means we get always get a real winter with snow and ice and below zero temperatures. That's why moose live here.

Some may roll their eyes and think, 'Big deal, who wants snow and cold? I’d rather go golfing.’ Those folks aren’t real Minnesotans. Unlike these posers, many Minnesotans who like to be outside are frustrated with the lack of snow, cold and ice. Whether they enjoy ice fishing, snowmobiling, skiing, skating or some combination thereof, winter is an active outdoor season for many Minnesotans.

Snow is in especially short supply. Aside from manmade snow at downhill ski areas, there isn't more than a ground covering of the white stuff. Even the venerable John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon was recently cancelled because there was no snow at its Duluth starting point. In southern Minnesota, lakes and waterways are barely frozen, creating iffy conditions for ice anglers.

In contrast, the mid-January opener for trout lakes in the Arrowhead was as busy as ever. One angler told me this ice-fishing opening day may have been busier than the traditional May fishing opener up here. He counted 59 vehicles parked at one small trout lake in Lake County. Buck’s Hardware in Grand Marais also reported doing brisk business on the opener. My friend said the small lake where he fished on the trout opener had 20 inches of clear ice. Another friend, who tried a lake in the Boundary Waters, said the same. He also found backcountry travel conditions were excellent.

So far, winter tourism has been slow on the North Shore, perhaps due to the lack of snow elsewhere, such as in the Twin Cities. People are less likely to get into the mood to go north and enjoy winter when they have bare ground in the backyard. Still, it isn’t unusual to get a slow start at winter tourism. In some years, cold temperatures keep travelers at home. A friend who works at a Grand Marais motel says their 2012 bookings actually are ahead of last January, when cold temperatures deterred visitors.

Winter tourism generally picks up around this time of year. Now, a month beyond the solstice and the Christmas holiday, days are growing noticeably longer and folks have more free time. Moving forward, winter gets even better with more sunshine and increasing snow depths. Up here, Ground Hog Day always comes with a solid guarantee of at least six more weeks of winter. Now, in the last week of January, here’s what you can expect along the North Shore from Silver Bay north.

The most snow-intensive winter activity is snowmobiling, so I spoke with a couple knowledgeable North Shore proprietors. Both agreed the trails were one good snowfall away from outstanding conditions. Until that snow arrives—and it may by the time you read this—expect tough sledding.

“The clubs have panned most of the trails in the Silver Bay area, but they haven’t groomed,” said Mike Wartman at Beaver Bay Sports. “The base is there, but we need another four to six inches of snow before the trails can be groomed.”

Wartman says he gets 15 to 20 calls daily from sledders in the Twin Cities. He’s advising them to hold off on coming to the Silver Bay area until there is more snow. He’d rather tell people to stay home than to have them travel to Silver Bay and be disappointed. Again, the trail conditions may quickly improve with a few inches of new snow.

Seventy miles away at Hungry Jack Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, Forrest Parsons said the trails were rough, but rideable. He, too, says one snowfall will vastly improve conditions. At this writing, there were 12 to 14 inches of snow cover in his area.

“The fishing’s been great,” he said. “I’ve seen some good catches of lake trout.”

Further up the Trail, at Gunflint Pines Resort on Gunflint Lake, Bob Baker says there are 16-18 inches of snow in the woods and both cross-country ski and snowmobile trails are groomed. He, too, had good things to say about the fishing. He’d just returned from a productive morning of fishing for splake when I called. He reported fishing was good for lakers and brook trout, too.

Although they are among the state’s northernmost bodies of water, Gunflint and Saganaga lakes are among the last to freeze. While it isn’t unusual for safe ice to form around New Year’s, this winter it took even longer. A prolonged cold snap during the third week of January greatly improved ice conditions on Gunflint and Sag. Baker’s heard good lake trout fishing reports from both lakes. Looking forward, he expects the conditions for ice fishing and other winter activities will keep getting better. January bookings were slow at his resort, but many outdoor enthusiasts are making February reservations. However, potential guests calling from downstate destinations take some convincing.

“It’s hard for them to believe we have snow,” Baker said with a laugh.

While it may not be as much snow as we’d like to have, it’s more than anywhere else in the state. And the snow is likely to continue accumulating, making a February an excellent month to shake the dust off your winter gear and have fun. If you love real Minnesota winters, the North Shore and Gunflint Trail is the place to be.

Airdate: January 27, 2012

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