Don’t Worry We Found Winter, It’s Still Here

This whole thing started on a Friday. We’ve had some teaser snow this season, a few decent little storms that allowed us to get out and ride our favorite trails, transformed into white ribbons darting in and out of the trees, but nothing that really stuck long enough to satiate our desire to get the fat tires out and really feel like we had a go at full winter of fat biking. Having a bit of anxiety about that, I looked at the forecast for the coming week and moved the dot on the map north. Cuyuna was the natural choice, I’d been watching and living out what looked like a pretty rad winter, in contrast, from up that way via social media all season. I thought about it, weighed the options, and kept moving the map further north. I’ve had an affinity for the North Shore ever since I made my first trip up there with my family years ago, and having a love of that rugged coastline in the back of my mind, hit Duluth, which would have been another grade A option for this idea, and still kept moving further north. I settled on Tettagouche State Park. I’d been planning gravel rides and overnight camping trips up around that area for a while, but I’d never thought about taking it on over the winter. My mind was already made up, but looking at the forecast for the following Tuesday made me just about lose it. 8-16 inches of snow forecast over a 24 hour period. This was going to be perfect. This also gave us a chance to try out something new, the 8 miles of groomed fat bike specific trails in Split Rock State Park. This only amplified our excitement, and was our plan for wednesday morning after we rode back out of camp.

I toyed with the idea of full-on winter camping, but abandoned that pretty quickly, given my own and everyone else I’d invited along’s lack of dedicated winter camping gear. Instead, we’d be overnighting in the Tettagouche Camp. A set of remote backwoods cabins which required a 2 mile hike-in from the nearest trailhead. Bonus: The access trail gets groomed in the winter, which meant we could ride all the way to camp. That sealed the deal. I planned a short 15 mile route from Finland, MN to the Tettagouche Camp that included fire roads, ATV trails, a creek crossing, 1000 feet of climbing over the range that circled the park, and the last 2 miles of groomed trail that led up and into the camp at Mic Mac Lake. Given the impending snow storm, I assumed that even a 15 mile ride would be a test, but I didn’t even come close to understanding just how tough it would be to break trail on the route I’d chosen.

Tuesday morning came around and my friend Dan and I were loaded up and ready to go. The weather in the Twin Cities was misty and cold as we rolled out, changing to sleet and finally snow as we hit Duluth. The storm was raging, and had been dumping snow along the entirety of the North Shore since the middle of Monday night. Just what I was hoping for. The wind was up, the lake was full of large breakers, and the road was rough, covered with snow and slush, and in the dropping temps, it was getting slick. We took our time, and eventually pulled into the state park office and chatted with Kurt, the friendly park ranger, about the conditions out there. He assured us that the trail to the camp had just been groomed, and that we would have no problem blasting our way up and into camp.

As we made our way toward Finland on highway 1, the conditions were white out. Snow was falling by the inches as we parked and unloaded the bikes and packed them up for the ride out of town. What we quickly realized, as soon as we left the parking lot where we were ditching the car, was that absolutely everything we planned was not going to work out. We had a short section of paved road until we hit the fire road that snaked its way along Hockamin Creek out of town. The paved roads were in poor shape, becoming worse with the additional snowfall, which, on any other day, or, maybe more accurately, any other place, wouldn’t be a problem for us. We were riding fat bikes, after all. However. Up here, in these conditions, people still have a tendency to drive…how should I put this. REALLY FUCKING FAST.

I wasn’t thrilled on riding the more heavily trafficked paved roads, and was looking forward to getting out onto the gravel fire roads, and, even more excited to hit the ATV trail that would take us off into the woods. A quarter mile and we hit the turnoff to Hefflinger Road, and noticed our first potential issue. It wasn’t plowed. Ok no big deal. We’re on fat bikes, remember? Wrong. There weren’t any tire tracks from trucks, or otherwise, to pack down the snow into a rideable route, save a few from snowmobiles which were still pretty deep. Let me reiterate, the snow was DEEP. I’m talking mid-calf to just below the knee in some places. It was a wonderful sight, having suffered through a dry, occasionally snowy, occasionally rainy winter down in the cities, but it made our pace a crawl, at its quickest. The problem with trying to stick to snowmobile tracks is that snowmobiles, unlike full blown vehicles, are able to dart on and off of just about any trail about as wide as your shoulders. This being one of those cases, they left the road about a mile on, and we had a choice to make. Ride and hike-a-bike another 14 or so miles, hoping that there were more, deeper tracks ahead, which would take us…maybe 8 hours, or ride back to the car, pack up the gear, and head to the trailhead, and ride into the camp, and rip the groomed trails in the park. We decided option A included a decent dose of suffering, which wasn’t super high on our priority list. Option B, on the other hand, included a lot of potential for getting rad, which was definitely something we were looking to do on fatbikes in a snowstorm in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, anywhere (yes, that includes even you, Austria…).

We got to the trailhead, we unloaded the bikes, we saw the groomer laid out in front of us, climbing straight up to the ridge for what we knew was about a mile, only to drop back down again on the other side into the camp, and we hopped on and started to ride. We had pressured down the tires, to probably around 4 psi, as low as we could go without rolling the tires off, and found out we could make it about 100 feet to the base of the climb without having to dismount and walk. We got this far…and we turned around. Dan was chipper but defeated, I was pissed off, we were both severely lacking in stoke. At this point, having spent most of our daylight starting and stopping, packing and repacking the bikes, I made a call. Let’s strip the bikes, go ride whatever we can ride for an hour or so, then head back to Finland, get some food, drink some beer, and then drive back down to the trailhead, leave the bikes and most of our gear behind, and hike to the camp for the night. We knew the conditions would improve by morning, and that our time on the groomed trails at Split Rock were sure to deliver stoke in spades.

We unpacked the bikes, took off down the nearest fire road we saw with snowmobile tracks, and started to explore. We rolled up the winding road as far as we could, stopped, and rolled back. We had put the fun back into the day, we pulled wheelies, got drifty in the deep snow, and tried (and failed) to ride over a 20 foot tall snow pile in the parking lot. From there we went to the 4 Seasons Supper Club which is absolutely, unequivocally, THE finest dining establishment in Finland.

Here are some things that happened there:

  1. Viewed Jeopardy with the locals, they were STOKED on Jeopardy.

  2. Witnessed a Red Cup Rum n’ Coke Roadie® (yea, we coined that one) handoff.

  3. Ate some burgers.

  4. Watched a pretty decent date between a local married couple (the twinkle lights really set the mood in there).

  5. Debated the origins of an oil painting portrait of a very rugged looking individual.

  6. Had some Coors.

  7. Grabbed an off-sale 6-er of Castle Danger to bring on our hike to camp.

We took our beer and said our goodbye’s and headed back to the trailhead. We packed up our bags and got straight to hiking (in our 45NRTH boots, I might add) up and over to camp. This may have been the best, and most surprising, decision we made on the whole damn trip. The snow had, at this point, moved on over the lake, and the clouds cleared out and left the sky open and the nearly full moon shining down on the pure white landscape. The woods were dead silent and the light reflecting off the snowfall was so bright we didn’t even need our headlamps. The experience was a first for both of us, walking straight into the thick of the woods in the middle of winter, completely alone. It was unbelievable. We trekked in silence, occasionally stopping to take photos or chat about how incredible the scenery was around us. We made it to camp at 7pm and it felt like the middle of the night. It took some searching in the dark, but we found our cabin (GET CABIN B) right at the edge of the water, the light of the moon illuminating the frozen lake, the rocky landscape of the park rising up on the horizon. We went inside and stoked a fire, drank our beer…and our whiskey, and called it a night.

Dan kept the fire going throughout the night, until he fell asleep, and we woke to about 35 degrees. Shivering, we made coffee and tea, rushed to get the fire re-stoked, and set to making breakfast. We had grabbed some potatoes, some bacon, an onion, and some eggs in town the previous night and we made a totally ridiculous scramble. I split it in two, and we ate the whole thing. Re-fueled, we packed up camp and hiked out, walking through the landscape in the daylight was a completely new yet equally amazing experience, and we made it back to the car and headed south to Split Rock State Park. We arrived to beautifully groomed corduroy, and 8+ miles of trails beckoning. We spent the remaining morning and early afternoon shredding, and by the time we were heading back south to the cities, our legs were cooked, and we’d accomplished what we’d set out to do, despite all of the roadblocks to our carefully laid plans.  The good thing about an adventure is that no matter what happens, it always shows you a good time.