Yurt-to-yurt on the Banadad
CROSS COUNTRY SKIING
BY POLLY SCOTLAND
Get on your mark: Click into your cross-country skies and grab your poles.
Get set: Take a deep breath of cold, pine-scented, backcountry wilderness air.
Go: Explore 27 pristine kilometers of the Banadad Ski Trail in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) during the wintertime.
Our friend Craig Benson made arrangements with Boundary Country Trekking for my husband Lee and I to join him for a three-day, two-night, yurt-to-yurt trek along the longest groomed ski course within the BWCA.
A yurt is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and used as a dwelling by nomads mostly in Central Asia. The structure comprises an angled assembly or latticework of pieces of wood or bamboo for walls and a door frame.
We drove to Grand Marais, Minnesota – a quaint city of 1,339 residents – located on the north shore of Lake Superior. The city’s population swells with tourists in the summer and fall; however, in the winter, most businesses hibernate and close for the season. After eating at one of the few year-round restaurants, we walked to Grand Marais’s small harbor where waves from the world’s largest freshwater lake rolled in, creating artistic patterns of ice and snow on the boulders and driftwood along the frozen shoreline.
From there, we motored 28 miles up the Gunflint Trail to the Poplar Creek B&B and office of Boundary Country Trekking. The stocky, bushy eye-browed, gray-haired, jovial Ted Young met us at the Poplar Creek Trailhead, loaded our gear and food onto his snowmobile sled for transport to the first yurt, and gave ski directions to the Banadad Trail.
It was a short ski into the Tall Pines Yurt, a five-paneled, circular tent-like structure made of canvas. The smell of smoke let us know we were approaching. A crackling fire inside the yurt’s wood stove warmed us as we picked out a bed and unpacked our bags. Lee got the wood-fired sauna stoked before we explored the 6k Tall Pines Trail under a dusting of newly fallen snow.
After the ski, we settled into the yurt that was furnished with three bunk beds, a hutch cabinet filled with items in plastic containers for eating and cooking, plus water jugs for doing dishes and drinking. Lee lit the gas lamp suspended from the skylight before preparing a spicy cajun dinner of jambalaya on the propane stovetop, as Craig and I sat around the central table and savored a cup of box wine.
Following dinner, the boys enjoyed the benefits of a hot sauna. I placed my boots near the door (keeping them handy for a midnight visit to the outhouse) then cozied up with a book, reading it with the aid of my headlamp.
Toward morning, Lee revived the dying fire enough that I willingly crawled out of my sleeping bag. He served up a huge breakfast of a melted ham, cheese and egg bagel sandwich. At 9:00 a.m., Ted arrived by snowmobile, gathered our items and transferred them to the next yurt.
We had the entire day to ski 19 kilometers over the most remarkable, unblemished snow. Since we were all nursing recent injuries from previous adventures, (Craig’s back, Lee’s head injury from a stump on the Pincushion Trail and my ungraceful Chinese-split-dismount from an earlier alpine chairlift) we took our time along the narrow single-tracked Banadad Trail.
In the silence of the wilderness, I could hear my “ears ring” until I began to move; then the swish of my skies and the crunch of my poles were the only sounds. The first half of the journey was flat and easy under a gray sky with temperatures in the mid-20s. I shuffled past the frozen portages of Lizz and Meads Lakes. I double-poled under the branched archway of spruce and balsam trees, inhaling the intoxicating evergreen scent. I got lost in a blissful sense of meditation for an indeterminate amount of time.
I skied into an area where the 2007 Ham Lake fire left a swath of black scars and scorched trees standing like burnt sticks. I gazed at the harsh beauty of nature trying to recover from this devastating disaster that cost $11 million dollars to put out.
Further along the trail, I almost fell over in a section where the once-smooth track was obliterated by huge holes. At least three moose had trampled the trail; they left tufts of fur on the ground after rubbing ticks off their bodies and antler scrape marks on trees, leaving the tree’s trunk exposed.
A veil of wispy fog drifted in and frosted the treetops. At the halfway point, I crossed the Laurentian Divide – the point where water runs either toward Hudson Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. The flat terrain became more challenging. A ruffled grouse ran across the trail as if playing a game of hide-and-seek. After hours of skiing alone, Lee returned to say I was an hour away from the yurt.
I was jarred from my lackadaisical attitude when I came to the drop of Whoopee One at kilometer 14. The rollercoaster descent was so steep and too narrow to snowplow, so I took my skis off and walked down. I put the skis back on, only to take them off for the Banadad Bridge and Whoopee Two, a section even more difficult.
As I reached Bedew Yurt, our host Ted came by on his snowmobile to return Craig’s blue duffle bag that was accidentally mixed up with someone else’s bag. Ted took the opportunity to chat about his 35 years in the business. In 1964, the Wilderness Act prohibited logging and road construction. After the 1978 BWCA Act, the US Forest Service began to transform logging roads into Nordic ski trails in the 1980s. It takes many volunteer hours to keep the trails cleared of storm damage and debris by hand – without the aid of chainsaws. The Banadad Ski Trail is within the BWCA and must be maintained without power tools. Ted’s yurts are situated near the BWCA on USFS land, so he can deliver his clients’ gear by snowmobile.
After we devoured Craig’s hearty chili accompanied by more fine-boxed wine, we shared great conversations and retired to bed contented and tired.
A powerful rush of swirling wind woke me at dawn. The wind howled as it encircled the circular canvas yurt’s diamond-shaped lattice walls. I stayed in the cocoon of my sleeping bag and imagined being inside a spinning top that was being primed for takeoff.
After another delicious bagel breakfast, we skied 12 kilometers out to the trail’s endpoint. The sky was mostly cloudy, but an occasional sunbeam would momentarily spotlight the snowflakes glinting like diamonds. It was a leisurely three hours to our waiting vehicle, which Ted had shuttled earlier that morning.
If time had permitted, we could have skied further, as the Banadad system connects to the larger 200-kilometer Gunflint Nordic Trail network; but for this trip, three days and two nights in a yurt was a perfect getaway.
The next time you take your mark and get set, be sure to go explore some of the area’s best cross country skiing on the Banadad Trail.
For more information visit www.boundarycountry.com.