Winter on the Edge of Keweenaw

It’s 4:00 by the time we reach the tangled forest the freighter captain had mentioned to Todd. The going is slow as we ski over, around and under one fallen log after another. Dean breaks a pole climbing up an embankment. “I’m turning around,” he says. Jon goes with him.

Eventually Todd, Tim and I find ourselves standing at an opening on the forested shore, looking across a half-frozen bay surging with the dark force of winter. We see the Montreal River mouth a half-mile distant and realize we will need an hour to get there and back here. We sadly acknowledge that we consumed four hours reaching this point and darkness is two hours away. We’re here for the journey, not the destination, we tell ourselves, and turn back. By the time we reach the car, we’ve traveled in dark for two hours, and the moon shines through a wispy layer of clouds.

In the morning, over banana pancakes, we agree on Horseshoe Harbor for the day’s destination. Opening to the north on Lake Superior, the small bay takes the brunt of the lake’s winter brutality. We also like that it’s only a few miles from town, almost no driving and an easy snowshoe hike on clear trails.

We take explorations off the trail, meander around trees, shouldering past pines that drop snow on our heads, enjoying the cushiony joy of snowshoeing through deep snow.

Horseshoe Harbor delivers the raw landscape we’d hoped for. We climb a wall of blue ice piled 25 feet high that reaches across the mouth of the natural harbor. Wind pushes 6-foot swells through a field of floating ice and whips snow into a hazy whiteness down the beach. The wind also sweeps heat from our bodies, and soon we seek shelter back in the forest. On the hike back, the sky clears, and the rounded rise of Brockway Mountain dominates the horizon as dusk comes on.

As a crew of silent sports guys, we’re not the norm here. Snowmobilers fill every other room in town and surround every table at the Mariner North bar on Saturday night. We shoot pool with a spidery young man who shared a snowmobile triumph with us. He won a race up a super steep, new ski hill nearby—not an official race, just a midnight trespass challenge. “It was so steep, the front skis never touched the snow!” he boasts, his eyes open wide with the telling. “Thing is, I was on a Ski Doo MXZ440, stock. And the only other one to get up there was a Polaris 900 with a 4-inch paddle track!” Then he leans close and speaks into my ear, “Thing is, I won on a freaking rental!” He slaps my shoulder. He laughs loud. He can hardly believe it himself. It’s all meaningless snowmobile-speak to me, but I get the gist—he was outgunned, but prevailed on pure skill. I have no doubt that 50 years from now, he will tell his tale of Keweenaw conquest four times a day in a nursing home somewhere. The bar closes, and we head back to the cabin, snow swirling in our faces. Later we hear the throaty roar of snowmobiles drag racing up and down the main street.

Sunday we have the morning to ski before leaving, so we head to Estivant Pines, a 377.5-acre preserve of virgin white pines, some nearly 500 years old. The weather cooperates again, with rare sunshine and 6 inches of night snowfall spread over the trail. We ski the trail to the lip of a bowl and survey the forest below, expressing a quiet gratitude to locals who rushed to save the trees back in the early 1970’s as loggers were moving in. As we stand there, wind races in off the big lake. Snow blows from the branches and drapes the scene in a translucent curtain, and millions of crystals become dust-size prisms of light, glistening rose, blue and white as they drift. It’s a fine moment to end a trip on, we agree, then turn back, our minds now on the travel home from this most worthy peninsula.

Jeff Smith is editor of TRAVERSE.

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