Friday, May 30, 2008

Exploring the Gunflint Trail

I spent the last two days up the Gunflint Trail, that slice of civilization reaching deep into the Bounday Waters. Accustomed to the North Shore, I get excited about the wildness and ruggedness of the Gunflint. Just off Highway 61 on the North Shore you find wide pleasant trails and lots of housing developments; just off the Gunflint Trail, you find wolf scat and a few campgrounds.

The Gunflint does not have a huge reputation for hiking; it's more of a canoeing and resort destination in the summer. The hiking trails off the Gunflint are either super long (the Kekekabic Trail or the Border Route Trail) or super short (Northern Lights Lake, Honeymoon Bluff). Where are the sweet 5-8 mile day hikes?

On the way up, I checked out a couple of the well-known shorter walks. Honeymoon Bluff is gorgeous but so short (0.4 miles) it's not a hike at all. I camped at site #18 at Trails End campground, one that's featured and pictured in our book Camping the North Shore.

Following hunches, I did two day hikes in one day. First I hiked the Kekekabic Trail from its eastern trailhead 3.5 miles into Bingschick Lake. This was fascinating, especially with the combination of the 1999 blowdown and last spring's Ham Lake fire. The trail was rough, just a wilderness trail with far less maintenance than a state park trail. Over half the route was in open areas of burned down trees.

Bingshick Lake, apparently known for its brook trout, had been burned all the way around and seemed pretty desolate. But the campsite had a few standing trees and made for a nice break.

I finished the first hike early in the day and headed for a delicious lunch of a walleye quesadilla at Gunflint Lodge in their new Red Paddle Bistro. After lunch I was totally stuffed but was able to roll over to the Loon Lake boat landing. Some maps had shown a trail running along Loon Lake and up to the Gunflint ski trail system. This was the Bryce-Breon trail.

As devastated as the forest along the Kek was, this forest was old, vibrant and luxurious. Ancient cedar trees along the shore of the lake, scampering over roots, an osprey swooping in to its nest high in a standing dead tree made it feel like the Land of the Lost, the land that time forgot.

So, two nice mid-length day hikes on the Gunflint Trail. Plus an ungodly number of ticks and black flies.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tough questions in Maple Grove

Camping equipment cash magnet REI has a terrific new store in the "Fountains" shopping center in Maple Grove, MN. Before yesterday, I didn't really even know that Maple Grove existed. What once was cornfields is now a shopping complex. One big difference though from the classic cookie-cutter Mall Land was the wind turbine spinning lazily away in the background. Plus, instead of more mall-lets just beyond the Fountains, there is a massive gravel operation, with tall piles of multi-hued rock that looked for all the world like a North Dakota badlands scene.

I did a program at the REI store last night, on camping and exploring the North Shore. What fun to get a group of North Shore fans in a room and talk about cool things to do on the shore! But there were some tough questions, mostly about how to get a campsite when you don't have a reservation. Two of the parties were headed to the shore for Memorial Day weekend and did not have a campsite reserved. One party could leave late Thursday, one was stuck in the Cities until Friday evening. What to do?

There are almost always open campsites to find, I opined. Maybe not at your first choice campground. And maybe not on the shore proper. Go inland, I suggested. Try Ninemile Lake, or Two Island Lake, or maybe Indian Lake outside of Brimson. They have a bunch of site that are only seldom taken.

But also, I preached a bit, don't worry. You're on vacation. You'll find a campsite. After the tent is up and you've got a fire going, it will feel a lot like home. If your campsite isn't right on a lake, or The Lake (Superior), walk around and explore.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Say no more, say no more

This sign caught my attention today on the way up the shore to plant some trees at Sugarloaf Cove. It says it all. I was in a hurry to get to the tree-planting program, so I made a mental note to take the picture on the way back down. Much to my surprise, that mental note stuck to my forehead like glue and I actually remembered to stop.

The sign is right on Highway 61 (Minnesota's North Shore Drive). just east of Tettegouche State Park. It must have just gone up this week. I totally understand the schema here, because I've done the same myself...people speeding by because they are anxious about a campsite. I hate that anxiety...will there be a site? Will there be a nice site? I remember a long anxious drive into the Squaw Flat campground in the Needles area of Canyonlands; that's a two-hour drive into a dead-end part of the national park, and if there was no site we were out of luck.

Campground reservations have taken a lot of the stress of camping away. Or shall I say the adventure of it? No, it was never a good stress. This sign captures that stress from a sardonic local perspective. Very funny.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wildflowers on the web

I spend half my time online in winter checking ski conditions. Every last bit of snow is analyzed, every track set described in flowing prose.

Why can't I find online what flowers are blooming? Or how mucky the trails are at the state parks nearby?