Christmas in Minnesota

We crossed the state line into Minnesota around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday night and it immediately started snowing. This was our first legitimate trip to Minnesota (I don’t count flight layovers). The small towns we drove through all have nice welcome marquees that are lit up at night (Stewartville: The Future is Bright!). I ate walleye and wild rice and discovered that many Minnesotans do talk like the characters in “Fargo”.

We spent a night and half a day in downtown Saint Paul. After breakfast we walked up to the Minnesota State Capitol, another fine palace of democracy. Excepting the gilded horse  sculptures the outside is serious and gray like the December sky, but the inside is spacious and bright with many colorful varieties of polished stone. We also walked to the Cathedral of Saint Paul, a compact domed basilica perched upon a hill overlooking the city core.

On the long, dark drive from Saint Paul to International Falls, we stopped in Virginia at the heart of the Iron Range, for dinner. Northern Minnesota with its forests and mines certainly doesn’t look like Iowa. The most intriguing road sign of the trip was north of Virginia:


I thought it was a message to the former Secretary of the Interior but apparently Embarrass and Babbitt are two little towns off the same exit of U.S. Highway 53.

Because of the dark winter evening we didn’t see much of the North Country until the next morning when we woke up at the lodge just outside Voyageurs National Park to our view of a frozen section of Rainy Lake. A couple of inches fell overnight. It was not enough to ski or snowshoe on, or at least not enough for the park ranger at the visitor center to rent us skis. He did recommend some trails for hiking and told us a little about the bears, wolves, and moose in the park. The bears were asleep for the winter but the wolves and moose were out and I hoped to see some. Lore was glad the bears were asleep and not was as enthusiastic about the wolves and moose. The gray wolves in the park are pretty big (there was a huge stuffed one in the museum exhibit) but the ranger said they stay away from people.

International Falls was cute but didn’t smell so nice. I suppose the massive paper mills on the riverfront were the reason. The supermarket was busy on the Friday of Christmas weekend. The old lady behind us in the express checkout lane eyed our 14 items suspiciously. It’s fair to say we didn’t look like International Falls residents. People kept asking us why we were so bundled up in our hiking fleeces and snow pants as it was unseasonably warm in the high 20s and low 30s. International Falls looks like more of Carhartt town anyway.

The area around International Falls is quite the winter wonderland, though. There were snowmobiles and ice fishing huts and even a couple of ski planes parked on the lake. On some state trails we found plenty of snow to ski on, but since the national park was the only rental game in town we contented ourselves with trampling over the ski tracks with our boots until some old guy chased us off.

Our big day of hiking was along the Blind Ash Bay Trail near Ash River, a trek highly recommended by our ranger. The day started out cold but the sun came out around 10:00 a.m. and stayed out for a few hours. The trail was four miles round trip through conifer forest. Judging by all the tracks in the snow it looked like an animal highway. Right at the trailhead were some canine-looking tracks, the closed thing I saw to a wolf all weekend. The extent to which deer, cats, mice, squirrels, and rabbits shared the trail with humans surprised me. Then again, maybe trails are trails for a reason. One tiny animal’s tracks ended abruptly in a dent in the snow made perhaps by an owl’s underside. We saw some chickadees and red squirrels but otherwise all was very quiet except for some woodpeckers and snowmobiles in the distance on the lake. Our best sighting was a ruffed grouse which crossed our path. It let us get pretty close before we went our separate ways.

The trail ended at Blind Ash Bay, a little cove in Kabetogama Lake. It was completely frozen over and covered with snow but we didn’t venture out onto it. The sun was out in full winter force and the white lake dazzled us as we stood among dried cattails and looked across. We moved uphill to a clearing for a snack, where it was warm but not blinding. We made the two miles back in just over an hour and drove to the next trailhead for our leftovers sandwiches at Beaver Pond Overlook.

When we got back to International Falls, we stopped for some soup to warm up. The waitress, seeing us in our fleece and snow clothes, asked, “Are you on foot?”

“No, we drove here.”

“Oh,” she said, looking perplexed. We explained we were hiking. She pointed out what a nice day it was. She was wearing a tee-shirt.

On Christmas morning we woke up early, exchanged gifts, and then hit the trail again. We parked at the boat ramp near the visitor center and walked across Black Bay. For Lore’s sake I pretended to not be afraid but I’ve never walked across a frozen lake before either. The ranger said it was fine to walk across but there was still a mental barrier to cross. Instead of following the snowmobile tracks we walked the short way straight across to Kabetogama Peninsula and followed the shoreline north to the dock where the hiking trails started. Once on shore we picked up the hiking trail and walked about half a mile to a frozen beaver pond. We sat in the snow overlooking the pond and ate our trail mix and granola bar breakfast with ice-cold water (the food was not the high point of the weekend).

That was it for hiking. We went back (by now old pros at crossing ice) to the lodge for lunch and naps. We kept catching the “A Christmas Story” marathon on TBS at the same part of the movie where Ralphie beats up Scut Farkus and had to return to it a few times before we saw the whole thing. The staff had deserted the lodge and, as on the trails, we were by ourselves. It was a beautiful and quiet Christmas.

Saint Paul, International Falls, and Voyageurs National Park

Fine camping and exploring

Yellow-petaled flowers with large brown corollas backlit by the sun.
Ox-eyes on the fishing trail

We went camping at Yellow River State Forest in northeastern Iowa’s river bluff country. There was hardly anyone there when we arrived Friday afternoon, except for the camouflage-clad fishermen squatting in our reserved campsite. I don’t blame them; it was a nice shady spot under some big maple trees to set up camp on a hot afternoon. The nearby fishing trail led down to a sunny, florid opening on Big Paint Creek. We expected more weekend arrivals but they never came. We almost had the campground to ourselves.

Northeastern Iowa is hillier, rockier, and more heavily forested than the rest of the state. Lore loved the change in scenery. “This is so different from Iowa!” she exclaimed. “This is Iowa,” I said.

Carved wood scene from the Passion titled Jesus Meets Women.
Jesus Meets Women in Saint Boniface Church

We stopped in New Vienna on the way north. Lore noticed it as a “point of interest” on the map. There’s a big (for a little town in Iowa) basilica, Saint Boniface Catholic Church. More impressive than its limestone exterior was its interior with ornate woodwork and stained-glass windows. The carved-wood scenes of The Passion decorating the walls had amusingly succinct titles like “Jesus Meets Women” and “Jesus Gets Nailed”.

Shiny round saw blade in a sawmill.
Saw blade in the state forest sawmill

Near the campground was the park headquarters and sawmill. The state runs an active forestry program at Yellow River and apparently has its own sawmill. It was after hours and the sawyers were off-duty but there was a big round saw blade and some logs waiting to be sawed up into lumber on Monday.

A car and tent in a park campsite.
Our campsite

Lore and I were both annoyed that this was our first camping trip in two years (since our honeymoon in Hawaii). We’re out of practice so it took us a while to get ready, even though camping with the car means we can just throw stuff in the trunk and not worry about packing. We still forgot a couple of things, like instant oatmeal for a hot breakfast. Despite the early sun shining on our picnic table, Saturday started out a little brisk—the kind of chilly morning I associate with back-to-school time.

The sun shines through a spider web across a forest trail.
We found a spider web across the forest trail

We spent our day on a leisurely 6.5 mile hike in the hills and along Paint Creek. Forest trails can be lacking in nice views but they force you to look at the smaller stuff like spiderwebs, mushrooms, and frogs. Like the campground, the trails were pleasant and well-maintained. The state forest has a few backcountry campsites that we checked out for future reference. We broke for a snack near an old metal fire tower which we weren’t allowed to climb. Many of the trails are well-used equestrian trails that are not too messy except for right near the equestrian campgrounds, which were much busier than ours.

Two riders hitching their horses to a post in a forest campground.
Riders hitching their horses to a post in the equestrian campground

The day wasn’t all bluebirds and trail mix: I got caught in some stinging nettles. Not being a frequenter of forest trails, I am not very familiar with them (John showed them to me once in New Jersey). I had the good sense to back out when I realized what I was into so I didn’t get stung too bad but, man, they were painful.

A young green frog sticks its head out of muddy water.
One of the frogs we found in a puddle on the trail

The skies clouded up after we got back to the campsite and the biting gnats came out swinging. I wonder where they were on Friday night. One bugger gave me a welt about 50 times its own size. It was still quiet though; so quiet I hated to do anything like go to the toilet or cook a meal.

A courthouse and water tower on a hill overlook a small town main street.
Bridge Street in Elkader

We’re both out of hiking shape, so even Saturday’s moderate hike wore us out. Since we don’t have a yard at home, we took our time cleaning and drying the tent Sunday morning and, after a brief stops in the picturesque towns of McGregor and Elkader, we made it home for showers and naps.

I posted a full gallery of photos on August 28.

Around river bluff country