In summer and fall, hikers by the thousands take to the hiking trails on Minnesota's North Shore.
In winter? Not so many. But those who strap on snowshoes to climb river gorges and follow the blue blazes of the Superior Hiking Trail are rewarded by stark beauty.
The brittle winter sun throws everything into high relief: Black lenticel pores seem to pop out on trunks of birch that are a brilliant white against the blue sky.
On the western tip of the Upper Peninsula, snow comes as regularly as mail.
Gusts of wind make the deliveries, picking up moisture and warmth over Lake Superior and then dumping it as snow when they hit the cold inland air around Ironwood and Bessemer.
The two ski towns are just 4½ hours from the Twin Cities, the closest metropolitan area, but they look more like the North Pole in comparison. Snow comes early, piles high and stays late, into April.
On the far end of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park always rewards those who make the effort to get there.
When 12 of us did, steering through a blizzard in cars heaped with snowshoes and skis, our prize was even more snow falling every day from the sky, swirling in stiff winds and piled high on the earth.
Luckily, we retain a child-like love of the white stuff. So we had ourselves a snowpalooza, gliding through snow-draped forests, making snow angels and taking countless photos of snow mushrooms, snow arches and snow slabs on Lake Superior.
If you do only one thing outdoors in winter, do it by candlelight.
is more magical than a forest full of flickering lights. I got hooked
when I skied in Minnesota's Mille Lacs Kathio State
A fat blue moon hung in the sky, sparkling hoarfrost made twigs as nubby as reindeer antlers and more than 400 glowing bags gave the forest a fairy-tale aura.
Everyone likes to snowshoe. It's cheap, easy and you can do it anywhere.
In winter, snowshoes are the bridge into the wild white yonder. They allow you get off the beaten path and to places that otherwise would be hard to explore islands, overgrown woods, bogs and marshes.
In deep snow, the first person to break trail has to expend some serious effort. If you're the fourth or fifth person on the trail, though, that's just about right.
On Minnesota's North Shore, winter opens new avenues for explorers.
Miles of hiking trails already follow the gorges of rivers that flow into Lake Superior. But why hike the trails when you can hike on the river itself?
A frozen river takes you straight into the scenery the slot canyons of the Onion, the steep red cliffs of the Devil Track, the waterfalls of the Baptism.
On the week before Christmas, I figured Id found the prettiest place in the world.
Fresh snow had fallen around Hayward, and the forest was sparkling. We made our way down the intimate lanes of the Makwa Trail on snowshoes, brushing past heavily laden balsam boughs as we scaled gentle ridges and descended into snowy glades.
Each new tableau was more beautiful than the last, and I congratulated myself on the discovery that single-track mountain-biking trails are great for snowshoeing.
There are many good reasons to go off trail, and the chance to see moose definitely is one of them.
When we were at Bear Head Lake near Ely one January, we hiked first along a
lakeside ski trail that was so packed we didn't need snowshoes.
But then the ranger mentioned she'd seen moose tracks in fresh snow near the park entrance, and we decided to go moose-tracking. Strapping on our snowshoes, we plunged from the road into deep woods.
If youre a paddler, youre done for the winter. But when one door closes, another opens.
Ive been meaning to paddle Minnehaha Creek through the heart of Minneapolis for years, but the water won't stand still sometimes it's too high, sometimes too low.
This 22-mile creek, named for a romantic character in an 1855 hit poem, connects everything that makes Minneapolis famous: the Mississippi River, Minnehaha Falls, the Chain of Lakes, Lake Minnetonka.
For people who love nature, winter is a time of opportunity.
When it's cold enough, you can walk onto the Mississippi River. You can see bald eagles up close. You can explore sloughs and backwaters without being eaten alive by insects.
"Most of these places, you'd almost die in a few minutes in summer," says Scott Mehus, education specialist at the National Eagle Center in Wabasha. "So now is a good time to get out there and see things."
Its easy to see why snowshoeing is so popular. Its slower than skiing, but you can go wherever you want, on footwear that doesn't need to be waxed and on trails that dont need to be groomed.
A lot of people will be getting or giving snowshoes as holiday presents. Many people automatically head for the high-tech metal shoes that are ubiquitous in sporting goods stores, but its worth considering other kinds.
Aluminum snowshoes are light and have crampons for scaling hills, but they dont give wearers much loft in deep snow, and theyre kind of noisy.