From yurt to B&B on the Gunflint Trail

In a snowy Minnesota wilderness, guests get the best of two worlds.

Tall Pines Yurt on the Gunflint Trail.
On a 30-below night in January, the Tall Pines Yurt was toasty warm.

When it's 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.

It's more like a cold day in Mongolia.

Temperatures were dangerously low over New Year's when we drove with friends to the Gunflint Trail, but we knew a wood fire would be waiting for us in a round, canvas-sided hut called a yurt, or ger in Mongolia.

The peaked-roof huts work for nomads on the Mongolian steppes, and they work for skiers in Minnesota's north woods, too. Our yurt, part of Ted and Barbara Young's Little Ollie Lake Lodging, had a futon sofa, bunks, a kitchen and an acrylic dome to let in the moonlight.

A propane-fueled chandelier provided light and a wood stove kicked out heat, keeping everyone toasty warm.

We'd planned to ski from yurt to yurt on the 28-kilometer Banadad Trail, a balsam-lined corridor that starts next to the Youngs' Poplar Creek Guesthouse B&B and soon enters the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

But a forecast of 40 to 50 below temperatures with wind chill changed our plans.

"In this kind of weather, people don't stop to eat or drink, and they get to the yurt chilled and dehydrated," Ted Young said with regret. "Why don't you stay in the yurt tonight to get the experience, and then stay in the B&B tomorrow?"

We didn't argue. First a yurt, then a luxury B&B: Anyone could see that was the best of two worlds.

Young hauled our stuff by snowmobile to the Tall Pines Yurt, half a mile from the B&B, where we heated up dinner in the propane oven. Then we headed outside: There was a full moon in a clear sky, and we didn't want to waste it.

Piling a parka over my snowsuit, I headed out first, walking across Hooker Lake and onto a narrow trail that seemed cool and mysterious, in a Hansel-and-Gretel kind of way-until I started wondering if wolves were out and about.

And why wouldn't they be? We were. So I went back and waited until a column of gray figures began to emerge from across the lake. Together, we walked to Swamp Lake, where we left a choir of snow angels flapping under the stars.

In the morning, we compared notes about who got up to feed the fire and who had awoken with moon rays in her eyes.

"I call that a high-noon moon," said my friend Debra. "It was almost like daytime."

A gray jay on the Gunflint Trail.
The whiskey jack, or gray jay, likes to get close to food-bearing tourists.

Heading for the outhouse after breakfast, I noticed a plumped-up whiskey jack next to our deck, looking like a Christmas ornament clipped to a spruce top.

I was glad for the wildlife sighting until I realized that these jays are the Oliver Twists of the bird world, always angling for their next morsel.

"I'd throw out a piece of bread, and he'd pick it up and wait, hoping I'd throw another," my friend John said.

Soon it was time to leave our wood stove and start producing our own heat. Even at 10 below, that was surprisingly easy to do. The wind never did kick up, and snowshoeing across Swamp Lake felt like a day at the beach, with brilliant sun bouncing off acres of snow.

Some of us skied down the flat Banadad Trail and into the BWCA. The rest of us skied the rolling loops of the Lace Lake Trail, then went snowshoeing.

Extreme cold had frozen clumps of snow to pine boughs, giving the landscape that winter-wonderland look that usually wears off a few days after a snowfall. Walking down a narrow portage trail, John suddenly stopped to savor the view.

"Hold on a minute," he said. "I've been looking down instead of up, and it's so beautiful here."

When we returned to the guesthouse, our faces were framed with curly tendrils of ice, like frozen sparks of electricity. Chin stubble had turned into full white beards and eyelashes into icy nubs.

Why did we drive six hours north when we could have been cold close to home? Because the Gunflint Trail has a silence and a serenity not found in other places. The snow is different, too-whiter, brighter and plentiful, usually lasting into April.

Once you arrive, you don't want to leave. Ted Young first saw the Gunflint on a family camping trip when he was 14, and he honeymooned there with Barbara in 1964. They moved to an island on Poplar Lake in 1974.

In 1983, they started a trekking business, and they became yurt pioneers a year later, when Ted wanted to offer lodge-to-lodge skiing on the Banadad Trail.

The U.S. Forest Service wouldn't allow a permanent dwelling on federal land. So  when Barbara read about the tent-like yurts in Cross Country Skier magazine, she suggested they get one.

But Ted said, "That's silly; who's going to stay in that?"

"Those were Ted's exact words," Barbara Young says with a laugh. "Six months later, another resorter said, 'I just read something fascinating about yurts,' and Ted looked into it and said, 'This is something we should look into.' "

Skiing on the Lace Lake Trail.
A skier traverses the Lace Lake Trail.

They ordered a kit, and Barbara sewed the canvas, grommet holes and all, on a portable machine in a one-room cabin without electricity. The first year, they had to take the yurt down in spring, but then they got permission to leave it up.

"When we started, we called it a hut, because we didn't think anyone would know what a yurt was," Ted Young said. "But now everyone in the skiing community knows what they are, so after three or four years, we changed it to yurt."

On the first day, their guests stay at the Tall Pines Yurt near the guesthouse, where they can choose to eat a Mongolian firepot dinner, served in traditional copper pots. It's as authentic as the Youngs can make it, except guests get beef, chicken and shrimp instead of yak and mutton.

The next day, they ski 18 kilometers to the Croft Yurt on Bedew Lake, and by the time they arrive, staffers have delivered their gear by snowmobile and made the fire.

The next day, guests ski 12 kilometers to the western trailhead on the Gunflint Trail, where they find their car.

We didn't get to do that. Instead, we sipped wine and played dominoes in front of the gas fire in the guest common area, outfitted with Mission-style furniture and cool north-woods mementos-an Ojibwe cradleboard, a stag head, historic photos.

We joined Ted and Barbara downstairs for stories about their early days on the Gunflint Trail, when they groomed ski trails by dragging bed springs behind a snowmobile. And we slept soundly under luxurious down duvets and brocade throws.

We didn't get to brag about skiing yurt to yurt. But at 30 below, we had zero regrets.

Ted and Barbara Young at Poplar Lake.
Ted and Barbara Young have lived on Poplar Lake for more than 35 years.

Trip Tips: Yurt to yurt on the Gunflint Trail

Yurt trips : The deluxe two-night yurt trip includes the Mongolian firepot dinner, breakfast in the B&B and car and gear shuttle. Sleeping bags and towels are provided, and there's a sauna at the Tall Pines Yurt.

All guests must buy a $10 Banadad Trail Association membership. Family memberships are $15.

Accommodations : Ted and Barbara Young's Poplar Creek Guesthouse and B&B and Wilderness Yurts rents B&B rooms and cabins. In the handsome guesthouse, two rooms upstairs share a kitchen and living area with gas fireplace. 800-322-8327.

Events : The turn-around point of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon from Duluth is at the Trail Center, just across Poplar Lake from the Youngs' place. For more, see Chasing the Beargrease.

[Skiing and snowshoeing : The 28-kilometer Banadad Trail connects the Central and Upper Gunflint trails and is used by the Youngs' Boundary Country Trekking and Old Northwoods Lodge. It's mostly flat and suitable for beginners.

The 5-kilometer Lace Lake also is groomed and can be reached from the Youngs' guesthouse. A Minnesota state ski pass is required. The 3-kilometer Tim Knopp and Seppala trails are available for skiing and snowshoeing.

The Youngs provide free day-use permits for snowshoeing and skiing into the Boundary Waters.

For more about skiing on the Gunflint, see Winter on Minnesota's Gunflint Trail.

Dining : Across Poplar Lake, the Trail Center's Black Bear Bar & Restaurant is very convivial. The outside, built for a 1930s logging camp, isn't much to look at, but the inside is adorned with a hodgepodge of old tin signs, moose racks, loggers' saws, wooden wheels and snowshoes.

What's more, the food is very good-try the Jack Daniels porterhouse -and it's served in a hearty atmosphere that transcends the usual skier-snowmobiler divisions. 218-388-2214.

Information : Cook County/ Gunflint Trail tourism.

Last updated on January 24, 2021

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