|Mark Patten with Duke and Captain at Okontoe's sleigh rides. Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick.|
By Lisa Meyers McClintick
Remember the magic of "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe" movie as Lucy steps into the hushed winter wonderland of Narnia?
We've found it here in Minnesota, where people from more than 50 countries and almost every state have found their way to Okontoe Sleigh Rides, a wonderful discovery on the Gunflint Trail.
Our son jokingly wanted to know if our driver, Mark Patten, was Santa. He did, after all, drive a sleigh, and have a rather commanding (yet nurturing) presence. He also lived somewhere that looks a lot like a heavily forested North Pole.
How north is north? If you had on enough warm clothes to plow four miles through the woods, you'd hit Canada.
Just to clarify, The Gunflint Trail isn't as rustic as it sounds. It's fully paved and deservedly considered one of Minnesota's Scenic Byways as it climbs up from the Lake Superior shore from the pretty harbor at Grand Marais and into the thickly flocked fir forest.
Bob and I, along with friends Kasey and Beth and our three kids, kept warily watching our mini-van's thermometer on the way. We groaned as it hit 8 below and cheered when it once (briefly) went to 5 below zero. Were we nuts for driving more than an hour from Lutsen Resort and flinging our overtired kids into subzero cold?
They immediately and delightedly ran up to Duke and Captain, the maple-furred Belgians who were pulling our sleigh that night. With the cold temps, though, we didn't dawdle long before squishing close together for warmth and welcoming the quilts the family piled upon us. Then it was off along the trails, gliding through the trees, past the amber lanterns and along the hushed expanse of Bow Lake with a steady jingle of bells.
Carols & history lessons
It was the most fitting setting we've ever had for breaking into a round of "Jingle Bells" and a few other songs that romanticize sleigh rides. For us, it was adventure and fun and novelty. Educational, too.
Mark had the kids imagine how wickedly cold and uncomfortable it would have been to be a turn-of-the-century teacher who had to spend two days making the trip from Duluth to Grand Marais in a sleigh. We knew how numb our fingers were getting, and we had only logged about 35 minutes and had the comfort of Thinsulate, down filling, and hand warmers.
That led to a great discussion of how lumberjacks survived with meager clothing and long days in the forest.
There's plenty of time to ponder life in a sleigh whether it's past and present, earthly or celestial. We admired the moon (not quite full but plenty bright) and constellations of Orion the Warrior and the Seven Sisters. We paused at an outdoor chapel and rustic camp and giggled at the designated Kissin' Tree. It encourages guests--especially couples--to pucker up. Small wonder the tree has witnessed its share of engagements. A sleigh ride for two ranks way up on the romance-o-meter.
Despite all the quilts and hand-warmers, we did get chilled and cut the ride short by five minutes. No matter. It made the post-sleigh ride welcome at the Pattens' historic 1907 Finnish homestead that much warmer. With lanterns and candles lit, Nancy ladeled out homemade hot chocolate as the kids spooned in mounds of marshmallows. A perfect way to wind down the evening.
Gunflint Trail, moose and wolves
The sleigh rides are especially ideal if you're staying on the Gunflint Trail. Gunflint Lodge and Bearskin Lodge are two that are convenient and open year-round. Bearskin is the closest and has lovely cabins on a spacious lake. Gunflint is larger and has lovely dining in the log lodge with deer roaming throughout the property.
If you don't want to base yourself that far north or in Grand Marais, it's do-able to make an evening outing of the sleigh ride from Lutsen.
On our drive back down the Gunflint Trail, we startled two moose. (Good to know: They like getting out of the deep snow and walking along the roads--especially with road salt to lick.)
If you get really lucky, you might even spot a wolf along the way. We saw a lone wolf along the Gunflint Trail a few years ago--a fleeting and thrilling experience on another unforgettable winter night.