Lisa Meyers McClintick, travel writer & photographer

Friday, January 28, 2011

"Narnia" wonderland on Minnesota sleigh ride

Mark Patten with Duke and Captain at Okontoe's sleigh rides. Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick.
Take a winter ride through lantern-lit forest

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?

Thankfully not.

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.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Follow the dogsleds on Minnesota's North Shore

Mother-daughter mushing

Rita and her Stoney Creek dogsled te
By Lisa Meyers McClintick

For most Minnesota vacationers, dogsledding is one of the most exciting and authentic ways to enjoy the North Shore's winter scenery. If you have dog lovers in the family, even better.

I couldn't wait to take my 6-year-old twin girls on a mother-daughter mush earlier this month. Katie, declared the dogsled outing "the best day of my life!" as she tumbled out of our van and rushed to meet Stony Creek Kennels' sled team.

My friend, Beth, and I and the girls met owner Rita Wehseler about five miles up the Sawbill Trail near Tofte.

Her Alaskan huskies joyfully greeted the girls, jumping up, trying to lick cheeks and wagging tails. As Rita hooked them up to the sled, Grayling, a pretty female, repeatedly jumped straight up and down with excitement--all four feet in the air. It was like Call of the Wild meets Pepe Le Pew.

Rita's Alaskan huskies didn't seem much bigger than our own border collie mix, but 10 of them eagerly pulled all five of us. We were stacked into the sled toboggan style. With a blanket on top, we stayed warm for the 40-minute ride in 5-below-zero temperatures.

Heading into the forest

Like all dogsled teams, each husky has its own personality. Some are focused and natural-born leaders. Others not so much. Rita and her husband, Bill, have more than 40 dogs total. (Can you imagine keeping them all straight?) But it's obvious they are "the kids."

After a brief scolding--especially of a willful dog named French Fry--owner Rita Wehseler proudly yelled, "That's my boys!" and encouraged them onto Superior National Forest trails.

She'd give series of whistles to guide them up hills and around curves through pine glades and over rivers. These are trails few people see other than her and Bill, who grooms them. We did occasionally glide onto snowmobile trails, which were popular on a blue-sky winter day.

Rita helped run a dogsledding business in Alaska before returning to her home state about a decade ago. She was the first woman to finish the 250-mile Can-Am Crown  in Maine and has set speed records in the past few years.

For us, on a recreational ride, there was no effort. We simply leaned back, watched the trees and blue sky spool past while the dogs happily sped ahead.

Duluth's John Beargrease Marathon
John Beargrease Marathon

Dogsledding has historically been one of the easiest ways to navigate rugged, forested landscape along Lake Superior and the Upper Great Lakes. At this weekend's 28th John Beargrease Marathon you'll find international dogsledders who compete in this heritage sport and work to qualify for Alaska's Iditarod.

You can watch the teams at several way stations Sunday and Monday or join in the pre-race  events in Duluth starting this Friday.

More dogsledding opportunities

In addition to Stoney Creek, you can also dogsled with Arleigh Jorgenson, who is based in Grand Marais. He has been a leading musher with more than 30 years of experience. He guided trips for the last 13 years and has a 100-dog kennel that he runs with his son, Odin.

Read more about dogsledding in Minnesota from a previous 10,000 Likes post and see a video from a Brainerd ride at Cragun's Resort.

Take a virtual ride with Stoney Creek

Friday, January 21, 2011

MN Minute: The lull of winter waves on Lake Superior


I shot this morning moment in front of Lutsen Resort on Minnesota's North Shore Jan. 16, 2011.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Minnesota's North Shore: A winter wonderland

Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick
Lake Superior's daily ice show 

Winter visitors to Minnesota's North Shore come for endless cross-country skiing, the state's most challenging and extensive downhill runs at Lutsen Mountains, snowshoeing at state parks, snowmobiling through Superior National Forest, and the many laid-back evening concerts.

It's all fun and easily fills a long weekend or more. But in my humble opinion, few activities beat seeing what Mother Nature tossed onto shore during the night.

Lake Superior is, after all, the world's largest freshwater lake. It stays open all winter, vast and immense, shimmering in every shade of moody blues. There may be quiet days, but the cold surf   gently laps and lulls you to sleep or angrily splashes against rocks and sculpts new layers of ice.

Cobblestones look encased in glass. Rocky outcrops drip with icicles like stalactites in caves. Snow swirls into intricate drifts.

The best time to troll the shore? Early morning when sunrise gilds the ice and snow and casts a warm yellow glow.

Views from Lutsen Resort's cove

These photos are from just one small stretch of America's North Coast--the one where the Poplar River burbles into Lake Superior by 125-year-old Lutsen Resort, the oldest continuously run resort in Minnesota.

The beauty changes each day--even each hour. Morning mist curls and wafts across the lake like steam in a kettle. Midday blues melt to the horizon, making it difficult to see where the lake ends and the sky begins. On the clearest days, we saw outlines of the Apostle Islands. On some afternoons, clouds gathered thick and steely gray and fat flakes fell in thick winter curtains.

Needless to say, 2011 has delivered a winter wonderland for anyone hearty enough to get out and explore it. It's worth the extra layers. Just have the hot cocoa ready to go.

North Shore slideshow
(Slideshow music excerpt from Rachel Portman's "The Ocean," from the "Cider House Rules" soundtrack.)  

More Great Lakes vacations on 10,000 Likes: Lake Michigan's winter beauty in Door County, Wisconsin.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Door County with frost: Cozy and quiet

Cave County Park, Door County, Wis. Photos by Lisa Meyers McClintick.

Take in the Lake Michigan scenery and enjoy sleigh rides, skiing, wine tasting and more in the blissful quiet of winter.

Even more alluring was the brilliant blue-green of Lake Michigan. It hugged limestone cliffs undercut with caves and a snow-white shoreline. Caribbean-colored water lapped against icicles strung as delicately as chandeliers.

Ice shove near Peninsula State Park
"She's singing," Dwight Zeller said of the lake after we ran into each other looking for good photo opportunities.

Zeller manages Door County's historic site at Cana Island Lighthouse station in the warm months, but says winter is his favorite season on the 75-mile-long peninsula.

"If you're looking for a single-word answer," he said, "it's 'quiet.'"

Grab the Sunday Star Tribune

To read my full feature on a Door County's winter vacation, check out the Star Tribune. It ranks as one of the best travel sections in the country.

This week's lead story is by Catherine Watson, the section's former editor. If I can pick one writer and photographer to guide my armchair travel to places such as Petra or Mexico's Day of the Dead celebrations, she's it.

A few more Door County picks 

Best eats

It's a tie between baked goods and cherries.

Sweet treats: The Inn at Cedar Crossing's "morning rolls," an addictive and wonderfully chewy version of cinnamon buns using croissant dough. Also dangerously delicious is Skorpa, the Village Cafe's buttered, chewy twice-baked cinnamon twists.

Cherries a-plenty: From hot mulled wine and cider to cherry barbecue, pies, juice, jams, dressings and even brats, Orchard Country has it. Sleigh rides, too!

Creative haven
In all my travels, Hands-On Art Studio, ranks as one of my top 10 happy places. Admittedly, I was the camp counselor who was happy being at the craft hall all day, but this place is superb.

The converted rural barn and outbuildings hum with kids and grown-ups playing with stained glass, mosaics, metal jewelry, pottery wheels, spin-painted T-shirts and even fire as staffers teach how to handle blowtorches and plasma cutters for metal sculpture.

As tempting as it was to play with fire (it sounds cool just to claim that), I'm thrilled with vibrant mosaic mirror I chose. If you take a good friend along (that's my friend, Amy, on the right), it's even better.

My Hands-On Art Studio mirror makes me smile every time I pass it. That's what the best trip souvenirs should do.

For more info on travel to Door County, click here.

Return to Door County in the spring to enjoy its festival of blooms