Gliding in the pines
In the hills above Minnesota's North Shore, skiers flock to an old-time lodge.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers glide near the Little Isabella River.
When snow is sparse on Minnesota's North Shore — and even when it isn't — skiers head for the hills.
Over the Sawtooth Mountains and deep into Superior National Forest, the Flathorn-Gegoka trails gather up the snow, arrange it prettily atop boughs and wait for cross-country skiers to come ooh and aah.
The perpetually snow-flocked pines never fail to amaze people who come to stay and ski at the National Forest Lodge.
“Wow, I've been here three times, and it's always been like that,'' said my friend Debra on a January weekend. “This is my favorite place to ski – the pine trees practically touch you.''
The 30-kilometer system, halfway between Silver Bay and Ely on Minnesota 1, is groomed only for classic skiing. It attracts serious skiers, but also anyone who gets blissed out by snow, silence and wood-fired saunas – in other words, old-style skiing.
The lodge on Lake Gegoka was founded as a summer resort in the 1920s and became a youth camp in the 1960s. In the 1970s, when the U.S. Forest Service built the Flathorn-Gegoka trails, it became a cross-country skiing destination.
The skiing hasn't changed much over the years, and the privately owned National Forest Lodge hasn't, either. There's a small lodge where buffet-style meals are served, a modern log house and 10 rustic log cabins whose guests use a common bathhouse.
There's an ice-skating and broomball rink on the lake, next to a hole in the ice that sees a lot of action at night, when steaming bodies go back and forth between the freezing water and the Finnish sauna.
A canopy of stars brightens the sky over the lake, which is a good 30 miles from anything.
Groups love the resort, including the Minnesota Rovers, the North Stars Ski Touring Club, the Sierra Club and the staff of Midwest Mountaineering, whose manager, Rudi Hargesheimer, wrote about it for Minnesota Trails magazine.
“I felt we stepped back in time,'' he wrote.
The large outdoor hot tub, however, is thoroughly modern and thoroughly appreciated by skiers, especially those of us who, starved for snow, tend to overdo things.
© Beth Gauper
Guests play pick-up broomball in front of the lodge.
It was the first skiing of the season for me and my friends, and we were enchanted by the trails, which cross the Little Isabella River on little wood bridges and wind through bogs and around Flathorn and Gegoka lakes.
On the perimeter, wolf tracks wove in and around our tracks. Tiny dollops of snow lay on tree branches like strings of twinkle lights. Flakes wafted through the air.
When we got back the first day, we were practically intoxicated.
“Isn't this beautiful, with the big fat flakes coming down, and on the trails, where it gets so narrow and tunnel-like?'' said Luke Brock of St. Paul. “It just fills me up; I love it.''
The landscape is much like an overgrown Christmas-tree farm, so thick with pines that wind barely penetrates. Across the highway from the lodge, a network of snowshoe trails takes people into snow-draped, cocoon-like corridors.
My snow-starved friends loved our hike there. When I commented on a stand of bright-red dogwood shoots, Laura said, “Right now, I'm mainly enthralled by the white.''
At mealtimes, we reported to the lodge for flapjacks, sausage, soups, wraps and dinners of lasagna, sweet and sour pork and chicken in mushroom-wine sauce.
On Saturday night, owner Andy Fisher brought in acoustic bluesman Gordon Thorne to play, while the guests helped themselves to the beer and wine they'd brought and stashed in the lodge fridge.
Fisher also owns the Baptism River Inn B&B with his wife, Lura Wilson, but he couldn't resist buying the National Forest Lodge in 2008 after it was put up for sale.
“I always knew I wanted a ski resort,'' he said. “It's in my DNA.''
Often wearing a plaid ear-flap cap, Fisher is an affable host, making jokes, advising guests on birds to watch and issuing ski passes.
While we were staying at his resort, we did everything we could do — skiing, snowshoeing, skating, sledding, sauna, broomball, Bananagrams.
© Beth Gauper
The outdoor hot tub is a popular place after a day of skiing.
We even watched the Packers game at the Knotted Pine country bar down the road, where you can get a Summit and a Sprite for $5.
So it was hard to leave this remote and snowy bit of wilderness and descend to the real world.
"I don't want to go back to the brown; I want to stay here,'' Debra said.
Luckily, the snow around the National Forest Lodge hangs on through March. If you can get there, it'll just be you, the wolves, a few hardy birds and a canopy of stars.
Trip Tips: National Forest Lodge
Getting there: From Minnesota 61 on the North Shore, it's 30 miles up Minnesota 1 from the east edge of Tettegouche State Park, six miles past Silver Bay.
Cross-country skiing: The lodge grooms 30 kilometers of rolling trails for classic skiing through Superior National Forest. Nearly all are flat or rolling, suitable for beginners.
A Minnesota Ski Pass is required; the lodge sells them.
Snowshoeing: There's an extensive system of trails across the highway from the lodge, which has some snowshoes available for guests' use.
© Beth Gauper
Skiers cross the Little Isabella River.
Other activities: There's broomball and skating on the lake, sliding down the hill to the lake, a large outdoor hot tub and a wood-fired sauna with a hole nearby for polar plunges.
In the lodge, there's a foosball table, reading nook and entertainment on Saturday nights. It has WiFi, and a refrigerator is available for guest beverages.
Accommodations: All guests bring their own bedding and towels. Groups receive discounts, and there's also a discount for stays early and late in the season.
A modern log home has two bathrooms, four bedrooms and a loft and sleeps up to 10. It has a full kitchen and is also available in summer. Per-person cost is $296 for a two-night weekend and $381 for a three-night weekend.
Ten cabins sleep two to eight people, who share a bathhouse attached to the outdoor hot tub. Per-person cost is $218 for a two-night weekend and $279 for a three-night weekend.
Gratuities are requested for the cook, groomer and musician.
Dining: Rates include three buffet meals a day, for a total of six for a two-night stay and nine for a three-night stay. There are always vegetarian options.
Information: National Forest Lodge, 877-353-0707.
Last updated on December 11, 2014