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  • Writer's pictureJustin Eberhardt

Minnesota's Backcountry

Minnesota is home to a number of world-class cross-country venues, and I enjoy skiing on their impeccably groomed trails whenever I have the opportunity. There’s nothing better than flying across the fresh corduroy at a modern facility like Theodore Wirth or Elm Creek, and I'm glad that our state has invested in the pumps, snow making equipment, PistenBullys, and people that make these places run. Some years, the only trails open in early December are the artificial snow farms, but not this year. Abundant early-season snow has made many trail systems accessible that are not usually open until well after Christmas.

To take advantage of this once-in-a-decade snow, I decided to visit a couple of the less-traveled trails in out-state Minnesota. Large grooming equipment would look out of place here, and it certainly wouldn’t fit through the narrow passages between the trees. Rather, the tracks at these parks are placed by the skiers themselves, with each person tracing and deepening the path of the skier who passed an hour, a day, or a year before them. These trails are not built for speed. They curve around trees, and the grade was determined ages ago by a glacier and the passage of time instead of a bulldozer. But, that isn't a problem because the users of these trails do not care how fast you can cover a kilometer. In fact, you may very well find the parking lot empty and have the entire trail to yourself.

These parks are different in the summer when the Lakes Area is teeming with people who have come from the Cities to spend a couple weeks at the cabin, swim in the lake, take a ride on the pontoon, and a stroll or two through nature. On Labor Day, they close up their cabins, and by mid-November, many of them begin their annual migration back to Florida or Arizona. By December, it’s mostly just the permanent residents of the parks who remain, leaving their hoof prints and paw impressions alongside my ski tracks. In the winter, the lakes and prairies so well-tread in the warmer months become a virtual backcountry ripe for exploration.

Glendalough State Park, Battle Lake, MN

My first stop was Glendalough State Park in Battle Lake, only 20 miles from my house. I always enjoy my time in the park, but winter is special. During the two hours I was there, I spotted four deer, two squirrels, an otter, an eagle, a pheasant, a bevy of trumpeter swans, and zero people!

I first met the swans of Glendalough about 5 years ago on a Christmas Day trek. I was following a trail that was new to me when I came to a creek and a picnic table. I decided to rest, and at that moment, several swans glided down stream. I can still picture the swans silently swimming through filtered yellow sunlight and steamy mist rising from the creek. I didn't have my camera that day, and looking back it almost seems like a dream. Since then, I've always meant to return and see if I could capture the photo.

This time, I went straight to the picnic table, arriving a few minutes before sunrise. I planned to set up my camera to settle in to wait, but not more than a few seconds after I arrived, the swans swam through, once again evading that perfect photo. They seemed unconcerned by me, an unexpected guest at their doorstep, but they did not have time to stop and say hello. I quick grabbed my camera and took a few seconds of video, but they were swimming fast and there wasn’t quite enough light to capture detail. They were out of the viewfinder before I even had a chance to count them. I waited a bit longer, but they weren’t coming back, and by the sound of the trumpeting they were headed toward something important downstream.

I put on my skis and continued down the trail to check it out. The stream emptied into a pond where over 30 swans were washing, preening, and conversing as they gathered for their morning meeting.

Now, I always thought trumpeters were endangered. Sometimes I even see an old sign on a remote lake that says "Trumpeter Swan Nesting Site: Restricted Access". A quick Google search leading to the Trumpeter Swan Society, and I now know that they were endangered, but no longer. Back the 1930s, there were only 69 individuals known to be alive, all living in the remote and protected Yellowstone basin, surviving the cold due to the warm waters from the geysers. Now, the population is growing and they are off the list. What a great conservation story! After watching them for a while from a distance, I left them to their business and headed down the trail.

Turn on the volume to listen to the swans in the clip below.

As I skied further into Glendalough, a light snow was falling--just enough to add a new layer of snow to the tracks. I left home early to be in the park before dawn, but as the sky lightened, I realized the snowfall was heavier than had been forecast, and I gave up on my hope for a brilliant orange sunrise. This was just one of those days where it is difficult to distinguish where the the prairie ends and the sky begins. It may not be what most people think of as picturesque, but this palette of blue, brown, and shades of grey has its own stark appeal.

I followed the trail along the river and to a lake, then turned to parallel its undeveloped shoreline. I thought I saw something on the ice and stopped for a moment to take a look. Nothing. Only the snow covered surface. Then, a few minutes later but further out, there was a spot on the ice that definitely hadn't been there a minute before. Zooming in with the camera, I saw that it was a river otter. He was maintaining a network of breathing holes though the ice, and every few minutes I would catch him coming up through one of these openings to clean up the light coating of ice that formed during the night.

Eventually, I made it back to the parking lot and drove on to my next stop, but not before stopping at Sunroom Coffee in Battle Lake to check my messages, have a cup of coffee, and fuel up with an excellent almond bar. Lucky for us, Minnesota's "backcountry" is easily accessible by car and not far from the creature comforts of civilization.

Blacks Grove, Wadena, MN

My second trail of the day was at a park I’ve passed by a hundred times when driving across the state, always with some other destination in mind and no time to stop. Since there aren't many ski trails within an hour of my house, I decided to give it a try. I quickly realized that I should have come to Blacks Grove sooner. It's a great trail system, and I'll definitely be back! The trails are groomed regularly here for classic skiing, but I visited as the snow was still falling and the groomer had understandably not yet been through. Classic tracks wind over hills, across a creek, and through forest of birch and pine, all heavily laden with snow. One stretch of trail made an ’S’ curve though the trees in that picture-perfect sort of way, making me feel as though I was skiing through a Charlie Beck print.

Although I was the only person on the trail when I started, I knew another skier was in the territory when I came to a trail junction and saw a set of recent ski tracks. A few kilometers later, I spotted a pair of skiers on the other side of the grove. They were on a parallel track and headed in the opposite direction, enjoying their own trek through woods with their vintage 3-hole bindings, wooden Normark skis, and bamboo poles (gear that serves as a reminder of long history of cross country skiing in Minnesota). A quick exchange of greetings, and we continued on our ways in the stark, quiet beauty that is Minnesota Winter.

Video on YouTube:

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