Chasing Minnesota Snow

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If you’re sitting in Minneapolis as I write this, the ground is bare. Grass is brown and covered in ice. The past few storms missed us to the south, dropping over a foot of snow on St. Louis and another foot on Des Moines. It was also -2F when I woke up this morning. Pair this with the icy grass, and you’ve got a good picture of Minneapolis winters for the past several years: a storm mixing rain and snow, followed by March-like melting, followed by a deep freeze, resulting in frozen deadness for two weeks until the cycle repeats. If you want snow, you need to drive north. Well north. And that’s exactly what we did.

We were in the planning stages of a trip. I’ve been off work since October and a friend had the holidays off. On a Thursday night, we decided to drive north the next week. The next Tuesday, it started snowing in northern Minnesota. Duluth received eight-ish inches of powder, while Finland picked up two feet of freshness. So that’s where we decided to go.

On Friday morning, we packed up Sean’s Jeep. He bought the vehicle a couple weeks prior and this was to be his first trip–a maiden voyage, if you will. I was concerned about the amount of snow and the shit roads up north, but we figured the Jeep would have no issue on the highways to get there, and the forest roads once we got to our boreal destination. Then the Jeep broke a belt on the interstate before we got out of town. Not more than five minutes after Sean picked me up, we were stranded on an interchange island in the suburbs.

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We had every right to call the trip at that point. It felt like instant defeat. Semis would pass so close to our dead vehicle that his Jeep (and our bodies) would shake from the wooshing displaced air. Before the tow truck could arrive, Sean looked at me. “We’re still going.” And that decided it. We got a tow to an auto shop, unloaded our gear, called a Lyft, loaded up the gear, got dropped off at my house, unloaded the gear, then we loaded back up in my Subaru and headed north. Finally, we were en route to snow.

By the time we set off from Minneapolis, it was the middle of the afternoon. We still didn’t exactly have a place to sleep for the night. Thanks to the snow, I was banking on cancelations from other Minneapolis travelers to give us availability on lodging for the holiday weekend. I was right. A resort on Lake Superior had a couple rooms available and we were able to get in. It was a room with a queen bed the first night, and bunk beds the second night–add in some empty beer cans and could’ve been just like college all over again.

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The northern lights were supposedly out that first night and skies were clear. I follow @aurora_alerts on Twitter to tell me when solar storms are incoming, and that night had an active forecast. After a beer at Castle Danger Brewing in Two Harbors, Sean and I drove north on a county highway to flee the lights of the town in hopes of seeing dancing greens and purples amongst the stars. While the lights were likely out that night, we weren’t able to see anything, even in the camera. Even some photographers (that are far, far more skilled than I with a lens) in the area that night posted shots on Instagram that showed nothing more than a faint green glow on the horizon. It was a wise decision for Sean and I to retreat to our Florida time share-esque resort with a pizza and beers and call it a night after some shots of the stars over Superior.

Finland was the destination for Saturday. My dad let me borrow his snowshoes and Sean rented a set from REI. A park ranger at Tettegouche State Park showed us the best trails on the map that got the heaviest of snow. When I visit the Tettegouche and Finland area, it’s always to fish the Baptism River, which runs through the park. All of my park hiking is thus confined to a few river trails near Lake Superior and various trail spurs off the Superior Hiking Trail. The rangers recommendation took us inland by a few miles to a part of the map that was still locked for me. I was excited.

In two feet of powder, even snowshoes are a challenge when you’re cutting trail. With every step, you’d sink eight inches and snow would pile back onto your snowshoes to add extra weight for your next stride. Fortunately for us, a couple hikers had done the work for us and already snowshoed the main trails. That didn’t mean the hiking was easy, but it was *easier*. A gentle breeze picked up snow crystals and hung them in the air. As the sun found gaps in cloud cover, the entire forest would shimmer.

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I’ve never seen snow like this in Minnesota. Pines held pillows of snow on each branch and small firs were doubled over with the added weight, if they were even tall enough to poke through the new, elevated forest floor. It felt like hiking in Montana, where the mountain air is so dry that a storm with even the smallest amount of moisture would lead to feet of powder. Most big snows in Minneapolis are from storms that originate near Oklahoma–panhandle hookers is what they are scientifically called–which draw moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and dance along the border of dry air by riding the jet stream. Our other type of snowstorm forms in Canada and drops southeast; this is the Alberta clipper. Because clippers have no gulf of moisture to pull from, the snow in these storms is dry, much like a Montana snow. So fluffy storms aren’t strange to us, but fluffy storms that drop feet of snow are absolute rarities in my part of the state.

Sean and I followed the trail network to Mount Baldy for an overlook of the frozen park. Baldy isn’t technically a mountain–well, not anymore–but that didn’t mean it was an easy hike. The trail sloped upward immediately upon leaving the trailhead. Gentle rollers became punchy hills that made for borderline-climbing for ascents and controlled slides while descending. The view at the top, however, was 1,000% worth it. Conifer-topped ridges speckled with lakes and wetlands dominated the landscape, with that shimmering snow still hanging in the air. How did it take me 32 years to visit this place?

A group of cabins near Micmac Lake was our destination for lunch. Though these cabins can be rented, they were rightfully booked all weekend (otherwise we would’ve stayed there). We were hoping for a picnic bench on which to use our small stove, but when we got to the camp, there wasn’t a bench in sight. Maybe they were all buried, who knows. But we did find an old dining hall with an unlocked door. We took off our snowshoes and walked inside. It was cold, but the lights worked. A stack of firewood next to a wood stove was there for warmth, had we intended on staying for a few hours. Photos lined the walls, telling the story of the camp dating back over 100 years. Sepia-toned images from the early 20th century were mixed in with shots from the 1950s. Think of those old photos of your grandfather in his red-and-black wool shirt with one of his buddies on a lake somewhere. These were images taken in a time when humans viewed wilderness as limitless–catch all the fish and hunt all the animals you want because nature will replenish itself. Based on this old gallery, this camp was *the* place to visit to truly get away. And during a time before interstate highways and low speed limits and automobiles that probably couldn’t handle high speeds anyway, it took a half day to get here from Minneapolis. I was reminded by family photo albums of my dad, his brothers, and their dad, and I could only wish to have spent time with them outdoors like this. We were simply enamored by the history in and one these walls.

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The hike back to the car came fast. By the time we left the dining hall, any perspiration in our jackets was starting to cool and we were both chilled. My mittens froze because of the sweat. I’m still a bit sore from that hike/snowshoe run, to be perfectly honest. On the other side of the hike, of course, was a warm car and beers at the brewery in town–the ultimate proverbial carrot on the stick for two cold, weary hikers. And even cold beer is refreshing after a day romping through the snow in frigid weather.

While we made some risks by traveling hours on icy highways to get there, it was absolutely worth the trip. Winter is a fleeting thing in southern Minnesota, if your expectation of winter involves cold and snow, that is. The day after we left, that part of the state got another six inches of powder. So we returned to a snowless Minneapolis and watched storm after storm pass us by, hoping that soon we wouldn’t need to chase snow to enjoy it, hoping that snow would soon find us and turn our home sidewalks into snowshoe trails.

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