Category: Hiking

The Best Fall Color Hikes on the Gunflint Trail

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We think every season is hiking season on the Gunflint Trail. However, it’s seems like for many people, autumn holds the title of “favorite hiking season.”  Although the Gunflint Trail doesn’t boost a large population of maple trees like the Lutsen/Tofte area of Cook County closer to the shore, the fall color season is still pretty stunning, with crimson moose maples, golden aspens and birch, and blazing tamaracks.  

As we approach peak fall colors on the Gunflint Trail, here are some of our favorite “leaf peeping” hikes. 

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Since it’s basically our backyard, we recommend the Centennial Hiking Trail year-round, but the trail really is in its elements in the autumn. A 3.3 mile loop, you’ll want to budget about 2 hours of hiking time for this moderately difficult hike. Not only will you view abandoned mining test pits and walk on a 19th century railroad grade, the second half of the hike offers great vistas, especially looking across the Round Lake Rd beaver ponds towards Gunflint Lake. 

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Access the trail from either a small pull-off  on the Round Lake Rd (located just past the beaver pond – do not park by the snowmobile trail crossing) or the Kekekabic Hiking Trail parking lot about .5 miles up the Gunflint Trail from the Round Lake Rd.  

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You can certainly get some nice fall color views from the Magnetic Rock trail, especially from the open rock faces overlooking spruce and tamarack bogs, but for the best fall color vistas around Magnetic Rock, we recommend Magnetic Rock as approached from Warren’s Road. We did this 3.3 mile hike (one way – assuming you park a car at each end of the trail, or 5 miles if you want to hike back to Tuscarora) back in late fall 2015 and loved the panoramic view offered of Gunflint Lake and beyond. As you hike northwest towards Magnetic Rock, you’ll both view and hiking through a valley. You can read our full write-up here

If you don’t want to go all the way to the end of the Gunflint Trail, consider swinging into the Northern Light Overlook parking lot about 13 miles up the Trail from Grand Marais. From there, you’ll access a short, but very steep hiking trail and within 20 minutes time, you’ll be drinking in view of Northern Light Lake, the Brule River, and the Gunflint Trail. This trail is sometimes referred to as “Blueberry Hill” (not to be confused by a hike of the same name on the grounds of Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center), but all the signage refers to Northern Light.    

Fall Washington Pines

Oh, These Maple Sugar Days

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A couple years ago, somewhat inadvertently, I wrote a series of articles about Minnesota maple syrup producers. I’m no maple syrup expert, but I do always remember that when temperatures climb above freezing in the day and then fall back below freezing at night, that’s when maple sap starts flowing through the tree trunks and maple syrup producers start firing up their big evaporators. Now each spring when the sun shines high and bright in the sky and snow starts drip, drip, dripping off the pine branches and packed trails grow slick and smooth, I crave waffles. I’ve come to think of these days as “maple sugar” days, especially since this is when the hot sun melts the snow into a texture similar to granulated sugar.

February Sunshine on Tuscarora Portage BWCA

We’re not quite at the 2016 maple sap run just yet (it’s currently -3ºF), but like the rest of the state, we had quite the “maple sugar” day on Saturday. I took one look out the window on Saturday morning at the brilliant blue sky and decided two things: 1) I was done taking a Vitamin D supplement until November and 2) It was a good day for adventure.

McKenzie Tuscarora map BWCAW

We jumped on the bandwagon and headed into Tuscarora Lake. Starting on Wednesday, we watched group after group head across Round Lake for the Missing Link portage. By the time Saturday morning rolled around, there were about 10 groups camping or fishing on Tuscarora. I guess we’re all pretty good at reading weather forecasts.

Tuscarora Boundary Waters portage Gunflint Trail winter ice fishing

All the tree stumps were wearing “snow hats” on the hike in on the 426 rod Tuscarora portage. By the time we came back, most of this snow had slipped off.

Tuscarora Lake end of 426 rod portage

We were hoping to meet up with a couple friends camping on the west end of Tuscarora among the islands. We couldn’t spot them at first, so we started ice fishing on the edge of the north bay. I got a bite and lost my minnow, but that was it for action, so we packed up and set off to search for Mark and Dave again.

Ice fishing Marcum fish finder and NILS ice auger Tuscarora Lake Boundary Waters

We finally spotted them along the south shoreline east of the Owl Portage. They really blended into their surroundings with their white anoraks on!

Eastern BWCAW ice fishing and winter camping

Because it was so busy on Tuscarora Lake, U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers were out making contact with winter campers. They want to make sure that campers are filling out permits and also talk about responsible firewood gathering and fire making during the winter. We really appreciate all the work these folks do so the wilderness can be enjoyed by everyone.

U.S. Forest Service wilderness ranger winter camper check

Although Dave and Andy’s fish finders showed a pretty impressive underwater drop off, fishing was remarkably slow. Apparently the fish were as confused by what was going on with the barometer and thermometer as we were.

Ice fishing on Tuscarora Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Even if the fish were feeling shy, it sure was a pretty spot to hang out for an hour or so. The cliffs behind us was busy making snowballs by itself as the sunshine melted snow at the top of the cliff which then rolled down the side of the cliffs to the lake ice.
Snow cliffs on Tuscarora Lake BWCAW Tuscarora Lake cliff lichen Tuscarora Lake Boundary Waters winter Gunflint Trail

By the time we hiked out, the temperature was 42 degrees in the shade. Our sunburned faces attest that we got more than our fair share of Vitamin D. The perfect maple sugar day!

How We “Hygge”

If this winter had a buzzword, it would be “hygge.” I’d never heard of hygge until this fall, but since then, I keep bumping into the term: on my newsfeed, in news articles, and all over Pinterest. A Danish word, “hygge” is most often translated to English as “coziness,” but really, it means something closer to “existing in a state of coziness.” Hygge can exist in any season, but it’s particularly relevant during the dark winter days and nights. (You can learn more about hygge in this sweet video from Visit Denmark.)

You know that feeling of trying to express something for years and then discovering there was a word out there that summed what you were trying to say in two measly syllables? That’s how I felt when I discovered the term “hygge.” I think Minnesotans have been doing hygge for decades without even realizing it. When you consider that it’s perfectly normal for the Gunflint Trail to be snow-covered for 5+ months each year, you kind of have to revel in the winter season. Winter’s simply too long around these parts to spend your days muddling through it and pining for warmer days.

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So we do our best to embrace winter and live the season intentional. Instead of counting down the days until spring, we hygge.

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Two black dogs on a forced march across Missing Link Lake. Tuscarora portage, ho!

One of the best ways we’ve found to make winter fun and cozy is to get out in the elements and explore. When some family and friends called up last Sunday to ask if we wanted to go for a hike, we knew it was a great time to spend time together and simultaneously check out lake conditions. We set off across Round, headed into Missing Link, and over to the Tuscarora portage. There was a good packed trail for the most part, although the start of the Tuscarora portage was soft enough that snowshoes would have been a nice thing to have for a short stretch of the trail. All in all, it was a pleasant afternoon filled with good company, loads of fresh air, and nearly six miles of trekking. Nothing like pure exhaustion to make home seem especially cozy as you settle in for the evening.

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If you’ve been following our Facebook page this winter, you know another favorite way to get some fresh air is to head out with the ice fishing gear. We’ve been using this winter to explore a lot of area lakes we’ve never fished before and have been coming home with a lake trout or two to bake up for a tasty “just caught” supper.

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Speaking of suppers . . . when we’re at our busiest in the summer paddle season, it’s not unheard of for supper to be a camp food entree pulled from the food room shelf mixed with unmeasured amount of boiling water. So when things slow down in the winter, we take a cue from Dinner: A Love Story and do some “project cooking.” Whether it’s Julia Child’s 13-hour croissant recipe, Cubanos inspired by the movie Chef, or spending days (no, really) making sugar cookies for Valentine’s Day, there’s nothing more hygge than having a delicious smelling kitchen.

Tuscarora Lodge sugar cookies valentine's day sweets

One of my most favorite things to do each winter is to pick up a book series I haven’t read in years. It’s so cozy (or should I say, hygge?) to spend the evenings reacquainting myself with familiar characters and re-learning important plot points. This year’s pick? The Harry Potter books. Although I was a mere tween when the first book was published, the final book didn’t come out until after I’d graduated from college. It’s been especially fun to re-read this series because as a teenager, I reread the first four books countless times, but I’ve only read the final three books once, right when they were each published. It’s been a joy to read the books back to back instead of in the fits and starts of two year intervals.

How do you hygge?

Searching for Mavis

Lately, Andy and I have been searching for Mavis.

No, not that Mavis; Mavis Lake, located a half mile south of Round Lake and just east of Missing Link Lake. It’s a little puddle of a Boundary Waters lake that the DNR keeps stocked with brook trout. You can access Mavis from the easternmost point of Missing Link Lake via a 40 rod portage.

MavisLakeBWCAW map

But what if there was a way to get into Mavis directly from Round, allowing you to bypass Missing Link altogether?

According to local old timers, back in the Leeds’ family time at Tuscarora, there used to be a portage from Round to Mavis that took off not far from the Round to Missing Link portage and cut southeast along a flowage. In fact, this portage was the preferable route into Mavis since the Missing Link to Mavis portage features a pretty steep uphill climb.

The trail’s not just a figment of locals’ imaginations. If you go onto the DNR’s LakeFinder website and look at Mavis’s fish survey, the DNR indicates that as of Autumn 2003, there was indeed a portage trail from Round Lake to Mavis.

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Curiouser and curiouser.

There’s just one little problem. While 2003 isn’t exactly ancient history, it doesn’t take very long for BWCAW forest to reestablish itself and reclaim a portage path. Anyone who’s tried to bushwhack through Minnesota woods known it’s a very slow process mostly spent untangling yourself from balsam and aspen saplings. If the trail really hadn’t been used for over a decade, we also knew some of those saplings were going to be decent sized trees by now and portage’s path wasn’t going to be too obvious.

But even if the chances of success were low, we couldn’t not look for this neglected path. “Because it’s there,” as George Mallory would say.

We set out a couple weeks back, choosing to cut up the Round Lake shoreline just below the cliffs near the Missing Link portage. We waded through snow, clambered up cliffs (and occasionally slide down cliffs), had amble amounts of snow fall down our necks and while I was sure we just had to make it over the hillside to reach (or at least see) Mavis, Andy’s GPS told a different story. After a half hour crashing through brush, we’d only made it about 2/10ths of a mile away from Round Lake. We ceded defeat and turned around. At least we enjoyed some great views on a beautiful bluebird day.

January Round Lake Gunflint Trail Boundary Waters winter trip

Looking towards the Brant Lake entry point across Round Lake

But we weren’t going give up just yet. Thanks to some information that came in from a Leeds’ family member, we were able to pinpoint the starting point for the elusive Round to Mavis portage. Last Sunday afternoon, we set out again, slightly more hopeful that we’d clamp eyes on Mavis this go-round.

We found the starting point easily enough along the shoreline and we wound our way through the young forest, trying to determine if we were going through growth that wasn’t older than 12 years.

Boundary Waters winter adventure Gunflint Trail

Where’s Waldo?

But it didn’t take long before we ran into this particular winter’s obstacle of brush bent over by the weight of a very heavy snowfall back in mid-December. The bent over brush really changes the look of the forest and it was hard to tell how to navigated around the low areas most affected by the “bend over.”

IMG_7483Undeterred, we pressed on. . . through waist deep snow that pushed up our pant legs and through low hanging balsam branches that tried to steal our hats. It was pretty clear we weren’t on the right path, but by the time we acknowledged that, we were closer to Mavis than to Round and it made more sense to just keep moving forward, albeit at a snail’s pace through the thick forest.

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Then, at long last, in the words of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame: “Ocian in view! Oh! the joy!”

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Beautiful Mavis lake.

IMG_7499 IMG_7500We weren’t about to turn around and head back the way we’d just came, so we found the portage to Missing Link and looped back to Round Lake.

Oh the joy: flagging! Mavis to Missing Link portage.

Oh the joy: flagging! Mavis to Missing Link portage.

By the time we were back at our starting point, it was about two hours later and we’d gone a whole . . . wait for it . . . mile.

Moral of the story: It’s totally possible to make it to Mavis Lake from Round Lake. But for this winter at least, the Missing Link to Mavis portage is the best bet. We’ll leave rediscovery of the Round Lake to Mavis portage for a time when there isn’t 30 inches of snow and miles of downed brush in the woods. For the time being, Mavis remains both lost and found. Until next time . . .

Day Trip Ice Fishing on Bat Lake

“People always catch fish on Bat.”

When Nathan, a family friend who happens to take a lake trout fishing focused winter camping trip each Martin Luther King weekend, told us that last fall, we knew we had to check it out. After all, Bat Lake is practically just a hop, skip, and jump from Tuscarora. So just four days into the Boundary Waters winter lake trout season, Andy and I headed across Round Lake to see if we could prove Nathan wrong.

Thanks to a bunch of ambitious winter campers who headed into the Boundary Waters just after Christmas, there are miles of very well packed trail from Round Lake through the Brant Lake entry point route. Since we weren’t pulling sleds and we also snowmobiled across Round Lake, we were able to reach Bat Lake in less than two hours.

Portage from Brant into Gotter Lakes Winter Camping on Brant Lake in the Boundary Waters

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Down the stairs on the portage from Gotter Lake into Flying Lake

Gotter Portage Stairs

Along the hike, I kept stopping to take photographs of the icicles on the shoreline cliff faces. This cliff face on Flying Lake is just past the portage into Green Lake.

Icicles on a rock face on Flying Lake winter Boundary Waters

When we reached Bat Lake, we set up speedily. With just six inches of pure blue ice, it doesn’t take long to drill enough holes for tip-ups and jigging, even with a hand auger!

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Still, by the time we had lines in the water, it was after noon, so we weren’t exactly capitalizing on the “morning bite.” Although the action was a little slow for a lake the DNR says has abundant (but small) lake trout, we were able to prove correct Nathan’s theory that people always catch fish on Bat Lake. About an hour into our afternoon on Bat Lake, I reeled up this little guy. Andy unhooked him quickly and popped him back into the drink.

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While we waited for more action on the lines, we took a timeout to make some coffee and cocoa as we watched the tip-up lines. With the shadows growing long, we knew it was time to start the trek home.

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After a stop to chat up some winter campers, we walked home with a beautiful sunset at our backs. It’s amazing what a little snow and ice can do to transform a boggy lowland into a spectacular vista.

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We’ll be back, Bat Lake.