It wasn’t long into our little push up a frozen North Shore stream that one of my snowshoes broke through to open water. Hmmm. Dark, wet, but not deep.
You’d be surprised how quickly you can extract a snowshoe-clad foot from a piece of moving water. The motivation factor is high.
The two of us were making our little exploration of this stream as a kind of last resort. This was a couple of weekends ago, near the tail end of an extended January thaw. All of the trails in town were mushy and slushy. Fat-bike riders were staying home to preserve the integrity of their trails. Snowmobile trails were in rough shape and short of snow. Cross-country ski trails were alternately soft or glazed. Lake surfaces had softened and puddled.
It was ugly.
But my buddy and I figured this stream, down in its shaded valley, would still be mostly intact, and that we could skirt around any open-water pockets we encountered. We were mostly right.
We forged up the stream in its winter canyon, our dogs leading the way. The snow was old and crusted. Bulbous extrusions of frozen groundwater clung to the canyon walls at intervals. Deer tracks pocked the old snow.
I poked through a couple more times on my snowshoes, one foot at a time. I was wearing my wife’s aluminum ’shoes, which didn’t disperse my weight as widely as they should have.
In one place, water overflowed the ice, running stream-wide the color of weak tea, soaking into the snow. The ice was solid beneath the overflow, but snowshoeing through moving water was something we hadn’t anticipated.
“Looks like March,” my friend said.
And sounded like it, too. The stream rushed through open spots. It gurgled unseen beneath the ice in other places. Even in the embrace of the coldest winters, most North Shore streams still show themselves where the current quickens through shallow riffles. And in those deep winters, you can almost always hear the stream’s baritone burblings beneath the ice in spots.
Those are good sounds. They remind us that, despite the white and frozen veneer, these mostly invisible waters are still bubbling along, still moving from one place to another. Even in the canoe country up north, dogsledders often avoid narrow passages between islands where currents tend to weaken ice. Moving water, headed for Hudson Bay.
In spite of the patch of overflow and our occasional snowshoe wettings, the river remained mostly sealed and white. Snowshoeing up a river and back down affords a visual experience unattainable almost any other time of year. Only in winter, on snowshoes or skis, can you venture right down the river, clambering down frozen drops, scooting over the intermittent flats. Steep bluffs or rock walls rise on either side, squeezing the river through mini-canyons. Persistent cedars seem to grow right out of the rock walls.
In spring, some North Shore streams are large enough to kayak in high flows, and kayakers regularly ply them. That would be the ultimate way to ride a river. But most of us are not that skilled or daring. We prefer our adventure in smaller doses.
Now, over these past few days, winter has regathered itself. Cold has returned. Fresh snow has fallen. We needed that. Winter looks better this way. And it feels right. We’re a long way from spring. We want to ride and glide and slide again. We want winter to be winter.
The trail groomers, winter’s unsung heroes, have been out reshaping our trails. We have options again.
Presumably, with a string of cold nights, North Shore streams have tightened up again. New ice has formed over our snowshoe punch-throughs. The fresh snow has become new canvas for the tracks of deer and fox and for raven wing-prints.
Might be time to go forge up another stream soon.
Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find his Facebook page at facebook.com/SamCookOutdors or his blog at samcook.areavoices.com.