Many have said that the adventure and excitement of a backcountry trip starts well before the team hits the trailhead. Given that our first outing of the 2014 season to Eagle Mountain, MN was scheduled in late December 2013, a full 3 weeks after sufficient snowfall, I would agree! I slept in the back yard and used the Tubbs Mountaineer snowshoes to trample down a path to the fire pit multiple times. Finally the time had come. Friends arrived in MN the day prior to our departure. We had ample table time to sit and chat about our trip, tells stories from previous adventures and share our future wish list. Inevitably though we knew the adventure talk would have to end as come early morning we’d be off to northern Minnesota, in search of the state’s low and high points.
So after coffee, tea and a few hearty breakfast muffins we headed north. Our first stop; My Sister’s restaurant in Grand Marais, MN for lunch and our last taste of kitchen cooking for the weekend. It was my first visit and one I would recommend to anyone repeating the trip, I mean, come on, they serve beer in a frosted Kerr jar!
Our second stop; Minnesota’s low point, easy to find, no GPS or compass required, just adequate vision for picking out the biggest body of water in a land of 10,000 lakes. Simply put, we drove down to the Lake Superior shoreline and snapped a few photos at 601 ft.
Knowing soon we would be in the backcountry we jumped in the trucks and sped off to find the trailhead! Rolling through the backcountry roads was magnificent, high snow banks on each side lined our route, every tree, bush and road sign was frosty white and piled high with snow. Our excitement and anticipation rose! Suddenly however the truck’s break lights flashed an immediate red and we came to an unanticipated halt. After hours of planning and miles of travel fear struck the team, the road wasn’t fully plowed! And the GPS showed 9 more miles to the trailhead! I was sure I had covered this detail in the planning but there was no cell signal to call the Ranger Station for plan B. We had no choice but to start back tracking to town. Eventually we reached the Ranger Station to confirm one road was in fact plowed through to the trailhead. Whew, our first trip adjustment-successful!
This adjustment came at a price however because by the time we had geared up and filled out the permit it was 3:30pm and nightfall was fast approaching. So we set off not really knowing if we could make Whale Lake, our planned destination, but feeling confident in our ability to use backcountry principles and make camp just about anywhere. The trail was incredible, rolling up and down through pine forests, across bogs and low lying swamp land, soft with snow, silent, everything I live for in winter! I just wanted to stop and sit to absorb it all. We made good time and just as night was falling we reached the edge of Whale Lake. Realizing now we’d be setting up camp in the dark we elected to push on for the designated camp site. Within another 15 minutes we were faced with our second trip adjustment. Did I mention there was one lonely snow covered car at the trailhead? Yep, there was one cold, lonely solo hiker in “our” camp site! I say cold because there was no actual sign of said hiker, no smell of campfire and so we assumed he/she was already hunkered down in the tent. Bummer! We had no choice but to back track. We found a location overlooking the lake with relative ease, a sure benefit of night travel on snow; it’s easy to find open spaces. We set up our tents by flashlight. We laid out our sleeping bags and situated our gear for a cold winter’s night, by flashlight. We opted not to cook dinner and ate nuts, dried berries, buffalo jerky and chocolate, yep, by flashlight. After a few hearty laughs and customary ribbing we decided we were tired and starting to get cold. We turned in for a long winter’s nap.
At dawn I was up making amends for missing a hot meal the night before getting ready the coffee, tea and some Mighty Tasty Hot Cereal (Bob’s Redmill). By 10am we had filled our packs with essentials and were on our way up hill to find the high point geo marker atop Eagle Mountain. It was a beautiful day without doubt, roughly 20°, cloudy with a light drizzle, a drizzle that had frozen on and frosted the entire landscape. It was a truly enchanted winter wonderland! Passing a few scenic overlooks we reached the summit, if you can call it such, at 2301 ft. without incident. As I have seen in other Midwest locations the high points offer no vistas like mountainous states and are simply the highest point nestled in among the forest. So we snapped our photos, joked, laughed and touted the Tubbs Mountaineer snowshoe victorious then headed back down to the scenic overlook for a sit down moment to enjoy nature.
While “overlooking” we were faced with a frank discussion about the weather. A steady drizzle in the forest, ok. A drizzle with a predicted high of -18° the following day and what that meant for the drive home, not so good. In reality the trip isn’t over once the summit is reached, you still have to get back down safely. Back to Minneapolis was about 4.5 hours, getting back to Green Bay and Milwaukee another 5-6 hours. So collectively, considering all factors, our last and final trip adjustment was to cut the trip short and head back to Minneapolis early. On the bright side: we spent time with friends, in winter, in the backcountry and lived to tell the tale, and yes, more table time that night talking about adventuring!