By Ron Bergin
The boundary country of northern Minnesota is best known as the premier wilderness canoeing destination in the United States. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area is a region of over one million acres. It is comprised of hundreds of lakes, rivers, and streams and annually attracts thousands of wilderness-seeking outdoor enthusiasts. The region is literally at the end of the road – beyond which the only modes of transportation are self-propelled. One of the primary roads into the area is the Gunflint Trail (County Road 12) winding over 60 miles from the Lake Superior town of Grand Marais to its terminus near the Canadian border. Grand Marais is approximately 110 miles northeast of Duluth, Minnesota and about 80 miles southwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Despite its rustic name, the Gunflint Trail is, in fact, an all-weather paved road, but along the way you pass few signs of civilization, save for the occasional restaurant or bar and numerous side roads to resorts, lakes, and campgrounds. The majority of the area lies within the Superior National Forest. Tourism related activities comprise a major portion of the region’s economy.
While canoeing constitute a substantial portion of the area’s warm weather economy, come winter the Boundary Country doesn’t simply pack up and go to sleep. Winters are long in this neck of the woods, with skiable snow often on the ground by Thanksgiving and lasting well into April. Snow cover is dependable and conscientious attention is paid to the over 200 kilometers of groomed cross country ski trails on the three major trail networks that comprise the Gunflint Nordic Trails. Factor in a half dozen or so lodges and resorts that cater to the non-motorized winter sport enthusiast and you have everything necessary for one of the top Nordic skiing destinations in the Midwest.
The boundary country along the Gunflint Trail is somewhat of a trek to get to, but it is worth the effort, for you will be rewarded with spectacular scenery and outstanding skiing. Winter here is truly special – northern lights, remote lakes, deep snow, quiet and solitude – everything you need to create lasting memories.
In addition to the major networks of cross country ski trails along the Gunflint Trail, the Banadad (ski) Trail traverses much of the region. This 29-kilometer trail can be accessed from several trail heads or skied point to point. The skiing is not technically difficult or demanding. Although the trail passes through a Federally designated wilderness area where the use of mechanized devices is typically prohibited, it is groomed regularly by snowmobile setting one or two diagonal stride tracks. The use of mechanical grooming equipment was “grand fathered” as the trail had been in existence prior to the area’s wilderness designation.
You can visit the boundary country for a day or spend a week at one of the many lodges, but for the truly adventuresome, a yurt to yurt skiing holiday is just the ticket. Boundary Country Trekking operates the Banadad Yurts, as they are known, and offers a variety of yurt to yurt adventures including yurt, ski-in cabin, guest house and lodge combination trips. Lest you envision having to ski with a full pack of food and gear through deep snow from yurt to yurt in the wilderness, relax. The beauty of the yurt to yurt experience is that it can be as easy or difficult as you wish to make it. You could indeed carry all of your food and gear, but most people do not, as it is shuttled ahead of you by your hosts at Boundary Country Trekking. All one need carry is a small pack with the essentials for a day’s skiing away from the comforts of a touring center.
Distances between yurts are not formidable, with one as close as two kilometers from “civilization” and not much more that 15 kilometers between the others. The Banadad Yurt system is comprised of the Poplar Creek Yurt near the Banadad Trail’s eastern trail head and the Croft and Olga’s Yurts near the trail’s midpoint. In addition, there is the Little Ollie Ski-in Cabin and the Poplar Creek Guesthouse. Gear and food are transported for you to your nightly destination and your car is shuttled from one end of the trail to the other.
Just what is a yurt, you ask? Yurts are round, peaked roof canvas-covered huts. Each comes equipped with a wood stove, a fully equipped kitchen, dining area, and bunk beds. A privy style outhouse is nearby. Water must be brought from a nearby creek or is supplied for you. Given that they are not much more that 16 to 20 feet in diameter, yurts tend to be warm and cozy. Bunk configurations vary, with sleeping accommodations for four to six people. There is a wood floor and you don’t need to wear your boots inside, but a pair of wool slipper socks or mukluks is a good idea.
Boundary Country Trekking offers a variety of yurt to yurt packages, ranging from no-frills to fully prepared meals and a full time attendant to take care of meal preparation, camp chores, and gear transportation. The basic package includes only gear transportation and you are otherwise on your own to prepare meals and clean up after yourselves. The Banadad Deluxe Ski Adventure comes complete with a hut host who takes care of the cooking and camp chores and even tends the fire during the night. Speaking of meals, the yurt specialty is a Mongolian fire pot dinner – a delicious fondue of vegetables and meats cooked in a savory charcoal heated broth served with oriental condiments over rice. Other featured delicacies include a New England boiled dinner and grilled rainbow trout.
My own yurt to yurt to experience began at the Poplar Creek Yurt. Having visited this yurt some years prior and now approaching it from a different direction, I was surprised at how relatively close to the trailhead it was. I met my fellow travelers, Steve and Mary Jo, at the parking lot on the Gunflint Trail and skied a short two kilometers or so to the yurt located on its namesake, Poplar Creek. The yurt is nestled is a valley within earshot of the gurgling creek. The Banadad Trail and other trails pass nearby. The approach to the yurt from the south has a particularly distinctive run known as “Three Fall Hill,” dubbed so for the results of its steep, narrow descent to the yurt. The trail has been modified over the years to mitigate its steep incline and perhaps reduce the number of falls and there is an easier, alternate approach to the yurt as well.
Skiing from the Poplar Creek Yurt to the Croft Yurt on the second day of my trek I was struck by the remote feel of the trail. We did not see another skier all day. Most prevalent, however, were numerous tracks of timber wolves that marked the trail. The tracks created dizzying patterns following the wolves as they wound from side to side on the trail marking their territory. It was a thoroughly entertaining diversion as we strided through deep woods and alder swamps and skirted numerous beaver ponds. Northern Minnesota has the largest population of timber wolves in the lower 48 states and although we did not see any, I felt privileged to have been able to share the trail with them. The skiing was not terribly difficult and the 19 kilometers passed routinely. The ski tracks were frequently drifted over by blowing snow, but following the trail was never a problem. A few longer moderately steep descents added to the challenge of the latter part of the journey. Otherwise the trail was flat to rolling and some sections used what must have been an old logging railroad bed.
Both the Croft and Olga’s Yurts are located at the same site. The Croft Yurt has bunks for four and Olga’s sleeps six, but has no kitchen facility. The highlight of our Croft Yurt stay was a delightful evening snowshoe hike where we bushwhacked a loop through swamps, beaver ponds and old obscure trails working up an appetite for dinner.
Even in winter, wildlife is plentiful in boundary country. Canadian jays, chickadees and other winter birds are common. Particularly special is the pine martin, a member of the weasel family about the size of a house cat and found only in a few northern regions in the United States. Martin tracks were plentiful and Steve was fortunate to see one on our final morning on the Banadad. Other wildlife one can encounter in the winter includes moose, deer, fox and otter. Speaking of wildlife, a couple of years ago Olga’s Yurt had to be been replaced with a rectangular canvas building after a less than agile black bear fell from a tree through the yurt’s skylight. It is now known as Olga’s Hut.
Skiing out from the Croft Yurt was equally easy. We made our way to a point further down the Gunflint Trail where our vehicle had been delivered. My yurt to yurt adventure took place in March, so the weather was not too terribly foreboding. None-the-less, night time temperatures still dipped below zero. In a region where winter temperatures of minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit are not uncommon, it is a good idea to prepare accordingly.
Boundary Country Trekking first introduced yurts to the upper Midwest skiing scene in 1984. Today the Boundary Country yurt to yurt skiing adventure remains a one-of-a-kind experience in the Midwest. A yurt to yurt experience is yet another way to become more intimate with the sport of cross country skiing and the wilderness of the Boundary Country. For more information about yurt to yurt skiing, contact Boundary Country Trekking at (800)322-8327 or visit www.boundarycountry.com.