I have lived in the north woods of Minnesota for almost 15 years now exploring the woods and waters from Ely to the Gunflint Trail and everywhere in between. The secluded wilderness paddling and camping within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park is where I have spent most of my free time throughout the years, though the trails along the north shore of Lake Superior have been thoroughly enjoyed as well. The longer one spends in one spot the easier it becomes to believe you have seen all the area has to offer. Just about every time I start feeling that way I force myself to explore something new. This last feeling of having seen it all was no different and I struck off for something entirely fresh; a winter hike up the Devil Track River.
The river dumps out into Lake Superior about two miles north of Grand Marais up highway 61. In the summer you can hike along or in the river if the water is not too high, but in the winter it is more or less entirely frozen over with a few spots where moving water can be seen. It is somewhat unnerving to hear moving water under your feet or the hollow reverberation of empty space beneath the ice you are walking on. The footsteps of previous hikers helps determine the safest route to follow, but the river in late winter seemed to be running very low and even if you were to break through the ice would most likely not be swept away, still better to be safe than sorry. The river bed starts out wide and open and slowly narrows with the sides of the valley turning steeper and steeper until it feels like you are hiking in a desert canyon in Utah. There were many times on the river hike that I could hardly believe I was in Minnesota, I think it had to do with the rarely seen steep terrain and orange color of the rocks that were accented by snow.
The invigorating feeling of hiking some place so beautiful and so new may have been exacerbated by the fact it occurred on the first day about freezing in two months. The winds that swirled through the canyon actually had a faint smell of dirt and water. The sunlight that fell on my shoulders could actually be felt in a pleasing warmth. Even the feeling of intermittently gloveless fingers felt great. Along with this warmth came some unique occurrences that I have never seen in such numbers which I deemed snow pinwheels. The long afternoon light that carried some energy was warming the snow and rocks in the river valley and causing micro avalanches that would break off into wheels of snow that would stick and grow larger. It was not something I have ever seen in such numbers and only added to the experience.
The hike is more a less a choose your own adventure style river walk that ends about one mile up river at a large frozen waterfall. As the sun was warming the loose rocky cliffs the occasional mini-rockslide would occur with some of the rocks being on the dangerous side. This would be my biggest bit of advice when hiking up the Devil Track River in late winter when the rocks start warming up; lookout for falling rocks. Once again the woods of the northland have surprised me in the secrets it holds and have once again been refreshed, or maybe it’s just relief from cabin fever.