Sally and I went for a lovely ski this week up at Gooseberry Falls State Park. We skied nine kilometers of freshly-groomed ski trail through the park’s backcountry. And had quite a thrill along the way, reconnecting us with wild places and wild creatures.
Gooseberry has three main areas of ski trails. On the lake side of Highway 61 is a long loop through the campground and by the river. On the inland side of Highway 61, there’s a large and complex network of trails on the east side of the river. On the west side of the river, there is essentially one big loop. That last loop gave the two of us quite a wilderness thrill, despite being in the middle of one of the North Shore’s most popular parks.
We started at about 2:00 in the afternoon and worked our way up the eastern side of the trail system, to the high hill with its view off to the wild north. There’s a trail shelter up top, surrounded by open meadow now filling in with big, full white spruce trees. It feels like the glades of the Rocky Mountains.
By the time we crossed the Gooseberry River at the Fifth Falls bridge, it was after 3:00 and the sun was definitely headed for the horizon. As we headed slowly uphill around the big loop, the wolf signs began to show. Deer fur clung to the snow. Two leg bones stuck out of the groomed track.
It’s a long climb to the top, emerging into open country with a view of Lake Superior. We were headed into the wind. The only tracks on the groomed ski trail were wolf. We skied into a slight headwind.The brush around us could hide a deer or a wolf.
Sally was ahead, but she stopped. When I caught up with her, I found her visibly shaken. “I smell something,” she said. “Stay with me.”
The brain knows that wolves don’t attack people. The heart knows otherwise.
We came to the big downhill part of the loop; I led the way.
As I picked up speed on the downhill, I realized that a very clever wolf could stick right on this treacherous bit of hill and, were it to like humans, wait for a skier who might fall here. Again, the brain says that’s crazy. But as dusk approaches and signs of an active predator surround, the heart speaks louder. The wolf scat laid neatly into the ski track was no comfort.
We skied out to finish the loop, making noise as if we were in grizzly country out west. Wolf scat, tracks and pee were everywhere. A deer carcass lay half-buried in the snow just off the trail. We made it to the car as the sun dropped below the trees. Relieved.
To travel off into the wilderness of wolves, to feel just that little bit as if we might be a predator’s prey, reconnected us with nature and adventure like no simple ski outing could.
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