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.
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.
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.
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’sRoad.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.
The recent news story about three Isle Royale hikers being airlifted off the island after they became severely dehydrated reminded us that while campers are often hyperaware of the risks associated with getting lost, getting injured, or running into a bear, they often forget about the risks associated with not drinking enough water. But perhaps the most dangerous thing you can do while camping in the wilderness is letting yourself get dehydrated.
As our society becomes increasingly urbanized, we’ve become more fearful of a lot of things in the woods and waterborne illnesses rank pretty high on many people’s lists of Boundary Waters anxieties. However, waterborne illnesses are extremely rare in northern Minnesota and while no one wants to get giardia, it takes many days before giardia becomes symptomatic, so you probably won’t even know you have it until you get home. Obviously, you should avoid contracting giardia at all costs, but the point is that it’s not going to cause an emergency while you’re in the middle of the woods.
On the other hand, dehydration has a lot of unfortunate side effects that can put a powerful and immediate damper on your trip. The irritability and splitting headache that come with dehydration are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes dehydration’s unpleasantness. Let’s say you get dehydrated and you start losing some cognitive function. As a result, you might find yourself lost or having trouble making basic decisions. Or your motor skills start to suffer in your dehydrated state and you slip on a portage and end up with a twisted ankle . . . or worse. If left untreated, dehydration can lead to dizziness, cramps, fever, and loss of consciousness.
It might seem like an oxymoron to become dehydrated in a wilderness area that literally has “water” in its name, but we see it all the time. People come back from their canoe trips and they just seem a little . . . off. They’re confused and have trouble focusing and articulating. Sometimes they can barely make it up the outfitting building steps to collect their car keys. Get a bottle or two of cold water in them and they snap right back to life.
It’s kind of crazy that people spend their time in the Boundary Waters with “water, water everywhere and every drop you can drink” not drinking water. The chances of accidentally drinking water that will make you sick in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness are very low. The basic rule of thumb is if it looks water you wouldn’t want to drink, don’t drink it. If you can see tadpoles swimming around in scuzzy green-tinged water, that is not what you should be drinking. But water taken from the middle of the lake where it’s getting sterilized by the sun’s ultraviolet rays all day, every day, is pure, delicious, and perfectly safe. Just dip your water bottle in and have a drink whenever you’re thirsty.
Still, we hear a lot of reasons why people don’t drink enough water on their canoe trips.
Reason #1: The filter took too long.
If the pump-style water filters are driving you crazy (it can take about 2+ minutes to fill a single Nalgene bottle) consider switching to a gravity filter, which is a great hands-free way to filter a large amount of water.
Or use the “poor man’s” water method. At the end of each day, fill your largest cooking pot with water. Bring the water to a rolling boil and sustain the boil for 1 minute. Cover the pot and let it cool overnight. The next morning you’ll wake up to cool, sterile water to fill your water bottles with.
Perhaps the most convenient option if you’re uncomfortable with drinking the water straight from the lake is to use a water bottle with a built-in water filter such as a LifeStraw, Katadyn, or Sawyer.
Reason #2: I don’t like the way it tastes.
It’s true, lake water just doesn’t taste like tap water. There’s a fair amount of tannins in Boundary Waters lakes that give the water a taste some people find off-putting. If you find lake water unpalatable, your best bet is to mask it with some sort of powdered beverage mix like Kool-Aid, Crystal Light, Gatorade, Tang, or lemonade. Just remember that any caffeinated beverages you consume don’t count as hydration, so don’t count your morning coffee or tea towards your daily water intake.
Reason #3: I can’t drink it because it’s not cold.
Room-temperature beverages are kind of what a Boundary Waters trip is all about and there’s not much any of us can do about it, short of hauling in ice packs or dry ice. If the lake temperatures are still pretty cold, you can use the lake as a fridge – just float your filled water bottles in the lake until cool. However, in high summer, when the surface water is around 70 degrees, this method is not super effective. If you really can’t stomach warm-ish drinking water, you may need to limit your Boundary Waters travels to spring and autumn.
Your best bet is to make drinking water something so automatic that you don’t even think about it on your canoe trip. Figure out some sort of hydration accountability system, such as making sure everyone drinks water at the end of every portage and don’t be afraid to be a “hydration bully” to your canoe trip buddies. One good rule of thumb is to have everyone pay attention to their lips. If your lips are dry, you’re on your way to dehydration and it’s time to have a sip of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty yet. In fact, the best bet is to drink enough water that you never feel truly thirsty.
Each year, a handful of people get really lost in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In this 1.1 million acre wilderness area lacking both navigational signs and cell phone service, the odds of getting horribly lost are extremely low. Of the 250,000 annual BWCAW visitors, only a dozen or so require Search and Rescue assistance each year. Still, you can make your odds of “staying found” even lower by following these tips.
In the Boundary Waters (and in life) practicing good situational awareness is the best way to avoid emergencies such as bodily harm or getting lost. Simply keeping your map in front of you at all time and actively identifying landmarks on the map as you pass by them is usually all that is needed to successfully navigate in the Boundary Waters. We often tell our guests to imagine themselves in a little canoe icon that’s moving across the map, just like you can follow that blue location dot on your phone’s map app. Another things that really seems to help people navigate in the Boundary Waters is to turn the map so it’s always pointed the way you’re going.
It seems like a high percentage of BWCAW visitors are “map people,” who really enjoy studying maps and are pretty geographically savvy. But whether or not you feel you have an innately good sense of direction, we believe everyone has the ability to be a good wilderness navigator. In this day and age where we have GPS units built into our phones and vehicles, we can become pretty passive navigators, so it’s not a bad idea to “practice being found” when you’re traveling on unknown route or navigating through a new city by being a more active navigator. Look at the full route so you picture it in your mind as you drive before you hit the “get directions” button. When you feel turned around in a city, find a landmark that will help you figure which direction you’re pointed. When you hone these skills in your everyday life, you’ll make it that much easier to navigate with a paper map in the Boundary Waters.
Even if you’re not the primary navigator on your trip, always have a general idea of where you are on the map. On the off chance that your primary navigator becomes incapacitated, you need to be a position where you can pick up the navigation “slack” for your group.
You might consider yourself pretty good with directions, but if you’ve been on a particular canoe route countless times, you still shouldn’t solely rely on your memory. Trees fall down, beavers build dams, hillsides erode. Take a gander at the map every 10 minutes or so to avoid any nasty surprises.
Although there are a lot of great GPS devices that can make navigating in the Boundary Waters infinitely easier, we still strongly recommend that every group has at least one complete set of paper maps that covers your entire route. You can still plan to exclusively use your GPS device during your trip, but a good back-up map is a must in case you run out of battery or drop your device in the lake or on a rock. You can’t go wrong investing in a set of Fisher, McKenzie, or Voyageur maps and they make a great trip souvenir.
No one sets out on their trip planning to get lost in the woods, but it’s good to remember that it’s a fate that could befall any Boundary Waters visitor, regardless of age or experience. When you getting that niggling feeling that something’s not right and you’re not exactly sure where you are, stop at that very moment, study your maps, and figure it out. If you can’t, backtrack to a point where you’re sure you know where you are. If possible, flag down another group and ask for directions. Most people are more than happy to help.
Remember, getting lost on a lake is not a big deal. Sure, it’s not a pleasant experience and you might lose some time, but when you’re lost on a lake, you’re in a self contained area and the likelihood of bumping into other people who can point you in the right direction is pretty high. Eventually, you will figure out where you are and can get on with your trip. However, getting lost in the woods is a big deal, so practice extra careful situational awareness if you ever find yourself off the beaten path in the Boundary Waters forest. Stick to establish portages and trails to make it easy to back track.
Have you ever gotten lost in the woods? How to you get “found”? What advice do you have for navigating in the Boundary Waters?
During my childhood I’d always go over to my grandma’s to watch the Derby on the first Saturday of May and in adulthood, I’ll use it as an excuse to mix up a mint julep, but to say Derby Day is integral to my springtime traditions is a stretch. Although, I suppose maybe that’ll change now that I’ve been part of the “Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.”
The decision to attend this year’s Derby was based around my goal of visiting all 50 states (only 11 to go) and while deciding to attend the Derby in order to check off Kentucky was an easy decision, it turns out figuring out how to attend the Kentucky Derby is more complicated.
We started planning the trip in late September last year and while one would think nearly nine months out from the actual event would be plenty of time to figure out logistics, apparently by Kentucky Derby standards we were basically cutting it to the wire. In the end, we opted for a package deal through Derby Experiences. It seemed like the most straightforward way to accomplish our primary objectives of sitting in a chair at Churchill Downs (aka, not standing in the allegedly unruly infield crowd), securing a hotel room (prices are crazy inflated for Derby weekend), and oh yeah, actually getting tickets to the Derby.
The steep price to pay for attending the event that synonymous with a state doesn’t stop at hotel rooms. Flight costs to Louisville over Derby weekend are insanely inflated (aka: you could fly round trip to Australia for less) and while it’s a little cheaper to fly into the closest cities of Indianapolis or Cincinnati, in the end, the most economical option was to fly into Dayton, OH and road trip from there. The packed interstate on the drive back to Dayton on Sunday afternoon told us, we weren’t the only ones with this “budget travel” idea.
Other things I learned about the Derby as I prepared for the trip is that the Derby is a lot more than just the one televised race on Saturday evening. I sort of assumed that there were other races on the track leading up to the Derby race, but didn’t realize that it was a multi-day horse racing festival. While we missed Thurby festivities (races, a parade, and parties on Thursday somewhat tailored towards the local crowd), we were at Churchill Downs all day for both Oaks Day (Friday) and the actual Derby on Saturday.
The Friday before the Derby – Oaks Day – is devoted racing three-year-old thoroughbred fillies . . . aka, lady horses. Although fillies can opt to run in the Derby and three have actually won the race, the vast majority of horses in the Derby are three-year-old colts and geldings. It’s traditional to wear pink on Friday as a nod to the fillies.
(In this picture, it’s about 80 degrees with 110% humidity, but stay tuned . . . .)
The weather forecast never looked great for Derby Day and the morning dawned rainy and cold.
It’s hard to tell in this photo, but the condensation is frozen on that mint julep glass.
What do you do when it’s pouring rain on Derby Day at Churchill Downs? You accept a clear plastic poncho as part of your ensemble and carry on.
We didn’t bet much on Oaks Day, mostly because we weren’t sure what we were doing, but we did both bet on the actual Oaks race and when my pick for “show” came in third and I was rewarded with actual cash money ($4.85 to be exact), we realized that betting was a pretty simple and cheap way to increase your interest in any given race. (The minimum bet you can place is $2 and we stuck to the $3-5 range for all our bets.) With the steady rainfall, we spent the day packed under roofs near the betting booths and concession stands with all the other people from our open air seating section and adopted a highly personal algorithm of horse names we liked, odds, and expert picks to place our bets. It should be noted, that while we both came out ahead with our bets, attending the Kentucky Derby is in no way a money making venture.
By the time our shuttle bus rolled out of Churchill Downs on Derby Day, we knew we’d been part of a historic event: it had rained 3 inches, making it the rainiest Kentucky Derby ever.
It wasn’t until June 9 (Belmont Stakes) that the significance of the race we’d watched really sunk in. That’s when Justify became the 13th Triple Crown winner. I’m happy to report that he was pick to win “across the board” on Derby Day and it was fun to watch him continue to dominate at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
I doubt I’ll return to Churchill Downs for another Derby, not even to see if we might get better weather. Unless you’re a horse racing fanatic, the Derby falls pretty squarely in the “bucket list” category of travel experience. But I’ll always be glad I went for a fun, albeit soggy, experience.
The Second Annual Biggest Blueberry Contest on the Gunflint Trail is just around the corner. Blueberry season, aka “the most wonderful time of the year,” is celebrated by Gunflint Trail residents and visitors alike. This plentiful wild edible is a staple of a Northwoods diet and picking berries is a favorite Gunflint Trail pastime.
Around here, our measurement unit of choice for blueberries is gallons. You can have your cups, your pints, your handfuls of blueberries to toss on oatmeal. We’re in it to win it. And by win it, we mean, enough blueberries in the freezer to have a pie every month of the year.
While we’re not about to tell you where our favorite berry patches are, here’s some berry season insight to help you play with the blueberry picking big dogs.
I personally use July 20th as the Gunflint Trail blueberry season’s official start date because more often than not, there’s a pick-able amount of ripe blueberries then. However, I usually wait until the first week of August before heading out picking myself because I prefer not to have to pick around unripe berries. Most years, ripe berries remain on the plants through the end of August, although they will start to shrivel and become overripe, making picking a little trickier if you wait until the late season.
Of course, in years with very early springs (i.e. 2010 and 2012) the berry season can be bumped up by as much as a full month. Although that’s certainly not a risk this year, keep in mind that if area lakes were mostly ice-free by mid-April, you could very well be picking blueberries over Fourth of July weekend.
Blueberries aren’t a particularly finicky plant (after all, they’re Northwoods natives: they’re tough by nature) but a bumper crop is dependent on the plants get just the right amounts of sunshine, heat, and rain. The worst weather event that can befall blueberry plants is a late frost that kills the berry blossoms. A low rain summer yields small berries, but too much rain results in less flavorful berries.
You can find blueberry plants throughout Cook County and northern Minnesota, but the bushes are particularly plentiful along the upper Gunflint Trail where the bushes prefer the jack pine forest and sandy soil ecosystem on this part of the Trail. Basically, if you take a left off the Round Lake Road and head towards the end of the Trail, you’ll be in prime blueberry territory.
When you’re scoping out a berry picking spot, watch for south facing slopes with a little shade so the berries can retain moisture and plump up. For the most plentiful berries, take a few steps off the hiking trail or preferably get in a canoe and paddle down a Boundary Waters lake. Favorite berry picking spots include the Magnetic Rock hiking trail, Seagull Lake, and the Granite River.
Gunflint Trail blueberry season first-timers might be a little confused about what blueberry season is all about. Blueberry season is an informal event around here. You don’t need any permits or to pay any picking fees. You’re also completely on your own for finding berry patches: this is no “u-pick berry farm” situation. Once you know that all the cars parked along the side of the Gunflint Trail belong to berry pickers who are deep in the forest, you’ll realize just how many places there are to pick blueberries.
Really, the only rule for picking blueberries on the Gunflint Trail is to make sure you’re on public land. The Superior National Forest map that can be purchased for about $10 at the Gunflint Ranger District office is a great resource for helping you know when you’re on National Forest land.
You’ll need to provide your own berry picking containers. Gallon sized ice cream buckets with lids (to prevent spillage when you walk over the rocky terrain back to your car) are the berry picking vessel of choice around here.
One very legitimate worry among first-time berry pickers is whether or not they’ll be able to identify the berries. The question I tell people to ask before they eat a berry that is a blue color is: Is it wearing a crown? All edible blueberries have a puckered blossom mark on their bottoms (non-stem side). Whether you find actual blueberries or if you happen upon some huckleberries or juneberries, if the berry’s wearing a crown, it’s edible . . . and delicious.
But if you find a large, completely smooth, navy blue berry on a long stalk, don’t pick it. That’s a blue bead lily (or clintonia) and while it won’t kill you, you might end the day with an upset tummy if you eat it. Luckily, clintonia are a completely different color and have completely different foliage from blueberry plants so once you know how to identify them, you will never confuse the two plants.
Tuscarora Lodge is an “official weigh station” for the Biggest Blueberry Contest, so swing by after your day in the berry patch to enter the contest. We promise we won’t ask you where you picked the berry and we’ll even let you eat it after it’s weighed. Happy picking!
Watch the video below to come along on one of our berry picking adventures!