4.4.2021 Picking up where we left off in March 2020

We are about to kick off something new with the Bearskin Blog, but our last post –now over a year old — seems like it is just hanging there, without an ending. It was 2020, so of course there is a story.  We would soon find out what happens, or doesn’t happen, in a pandemic and that part of the narrative was never quite finished on the blog. 

Bearskin’s last blog post appeared on March 5, 2020, proclaiming our high level of excitement for the upcoming World Cup of Skiing, being held in Minneapolis. “The World Cup race is more than just a thrilling conclusion to a fun-filled few days—it’s a historic event,” we wrote. “This race marks the first time in almost two decades that the world’s best cross-country skiers have competed on American snow. ”  

The partially completed mini-lodge in the garage, before they took it all apart again to transport.

Our contribution to the race scene was going to be the “Bearskin Mini-Lodge,” a little ski cabin that would be situated in a highly visible location next to the race course finish line. Bob and Quinn spent months building the cabin in our garage, assembling it in such a way that they could take it apart, number the pieces, haul it down to Minneapolis, and reassemble the cabin on the race course at Theodore Wirth Golf Course. This was no small thing. It was probably kind of bonkers that we decided to do this in the first place, but for a ski-loving family it felt as if the building and transport of the Mini-Lodge for the World Cup would be an adventure.

On the night of March 11th, Bob and Quinn had the entire Mini-Lodge loaded up in the truck and on a huge trailer. The project turned out to be a bit more massive than expected, but they jammed it all in and planned to leave for the Twin Cities at 6 AM the morning of March 12th.

Little did we know that everything was about to change overnight. At 2:30 AM on the morning of March 12th, a press release was issued.

Official Statement as of March 12, 2020, at 2:30 AM

Due to ongoing and evolving concerns surrounding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the International Ski Federation, U.S. Ski & Snowboard, and the local organizing committee, working in concert with local health officials, have made the difficult decision to cancel the Fastenal Parallel 45 Festival, the Coop FIS Cross Country World Cup race, and all associated events scheduled for March 14-17, 2020 in Minneapolis. 

Wow, we didn’t see that coming. In retrospect, after a year when the pandemic has dominated our lives, it seems obvious that an event like the World Cup could not occur — not to mention the fact that all the great skiers from the “World” (i.e., Norway) were not permitted to fly here. But at the moment it felt like a devastating stroke of bad luck.  Months of time, money, and effort gone to waste, just because a pandemic happened to show up for a few weeks in March. There was a despondent, hollow feeling while we unloaded the Mini-Lodge piece by piece back into the garage, but we tried not to think about it too much. It was out of our control.

What DIDN’T happen at the Minneapolis World Cup. This was their vision for the event, but they called it right — not a good idea during an emerging pandemic.

And then the rest of 2020 occurred, a wildly busy year where survival as a business required a completely restructured business model for Bearskin. We had the busiest year in Bearskin’s history, we kept our staff and family healthy, we provided hundreds of grateful guests with a safe opportunity to get away into the Northwoods and honestly, we never had a moment to contemplate that pile of Mini-Lodge boards taking up half the space in our garage.

We’re happy to report that the Mini-Lodge found a new home this winter. It’s being reincarnated as a ski-in, rustic winter camper cabin on the Oxcart ski trail, and will be ready to book next winter. Looking back now at our year-old March 5th, 2020 blog, we clearly had no inkling of how much the world would change in the months ahead. Our sadness over the wasted time, money, and effort that went into the World Cup project seems extraordinarily minor compared to the significant losses that many families and businesses experienced over the past year. What seemed calamitous at the time was utterly inconsequential. We lost some money, we wasted some time, but here we are — healthy, happy, together. It’s OK. Perspective came out of 2020.

Since the first Bearskin blog in August of 2007, this blog has taken many forms. It began as a somewhat comedic rendition of the struggles facing a new resort family, but over time there were fewer and fewer stories. After 14 years, we’re surprisingly (mostly) on top of our game.

Instead, the blog has gradually evolved into providing fewer stories and more visitor information. Our most well-read blogs these days are how to successfully find the Northern Lights at Bearskin Lodge (always #1, by far) and how to find and photograph moose and other wildlife on the Gunflint Trail (always #2).

So we’ve decided to evolve towards what our guests want.We are constantly asked about our unique Gunflint Trail/BWCAW wildlife, so our next focus is going to be on animals of the Gunflint Trail. We’ll be talking about pine martens, bobcats, lynx, owls, and of course, moose in the near future but if you have specific Bearskin animals you’d like to read about, let us know.  Up first:  The elusive fisher of the Gunflint Trail.


The World Cup of Cross Country Skiing is coming to Minneapolis. So… what the heck is it?

world cup official photo

The 2020 Coop FIS Cross Country Ski World Cup Sprint Finals will be coming to Minnesota on March 17th, capping off the Fastenal Parallel 45 Winter Festival that runs March 14 -17. The whole festival is sure to be a good time with food and drink, live music, gear expos, and citizen races for athletes of all ages and abilities. As a sponsor of the event, Bearskin Lodge will be there and we hope you will be too.  

What is the World Cup?  Here’s a video introduction to the experience.

The World Cup race is more than just a thrilling conclusion to a fun-filled few days—it’s a historic event. This race marks the first time in almost two decades that the world’s best cross-country skiers have competed on American snow. To appreciate how great it is that we get to witness a World Cup event in our state, let’s take a look at the history of the competition.

The FIS is Formed

The organization that governs the Cross Country Ski World Cup is the FIS, which stands for Fédération Internationale de Ski. The FIS has been around since 1910 when delegates from 10 countries met in Norway to form what was originally called the International Skiing Commission. The organization now has a membership of 132 national ski associations and is the international governing body of most ski sports, including the more obscure ones like grass skiing.

The Cross Country Ski World Cup was held unofficially a few times starting in 1973, but it wasn’t until 1982 that the FIS hosted an official World Cup competition. The Cross Country Ski World Cup is now held each winter and consists of a series of races across 21 venues around the world.

Bill Koch Dominates in 1982

Many of you are probably enthusiastic skate skiers, or at the very least familiar with the sight of skaters gliding along beside those using the classic technique. When American Bill Koch skate skied his way to third place in the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in 1982 (part of the World Cup series of races), it was revolutionary. Skate skiing had been taking hold in marathons and in ski orienteering throughout the 70s, but Koch brought it to international attention and unleashed years of controversy about whether skating should be allowed. Of course, we know that skate skiing is now an integral part of cross-country skiing competitions, including the World Cup.

Bill Koch went on to win the overall gold medal in 1982. Can you guess how many overall World Cup first place finishes the U.S. has won since then? Zero. That must mean we’re overdue!

The Sprint Cup

Since 1997, in addition to the overall World Cup winner, prizes have been awarded for the winners of the Sprint World Cup and the Distance World Cup. The trophy for the overall winner is a 9 kg Crystal Globe, and the Sprint and Distance winners get smaller Crystal Globes. While Americans haven’t picked up any overall first place finishes since 1982, American Kikkan Randall won the women’s Sprint World Cup three times between 2012 and 2014.

The race we’re hosting in Minneapolis is the finals of the Sprint World Cup. The women will race on a 1.4 km course and the men on a 1.7 km loop. The winners of the three-day North American Sprints Mini Tour (combining the results of two days of racing in Quebec City with our Minneapolis race) will be crowned here. Plus, since the race in Minneapolis is the final sprint race of the season, it’s here that the Crystal Globe will be presented to the Sprint World Cup champions.

The Americans who are currently ranked the highest in the Sprint Cup standings are Sophie Caldwell, Jessie Diggins, and Sadie Maubet Bjornsen. Come and cheer them and the rest of the elite skiers on!

Hometown Hero

The last time the U.S. hosted a Cross Country Ski World Cup Event, it was in Utah in 2001. It’s an honor that Minnesota was chosen to host a race after all this time, and we can thank Minnesotan Jessie Diggins for helping make it happen.

Jessie Diggins, who comes from Afton, MN, and teammate Kikkan Randall won the United States’ first ever cross-country skiing gold medal at the Winter Olympics in women’s team sprint at Pyeongchang in 2018. It was Diggins who first contacted the Loppet Foundation with the idea of hosting a World Cup race in Minneapolis, and she was instrumental in building support for the event.

“Hosting a round of the World Cup is our chance to show skiers from around the world how Minnesota embraces winter—through sport and through our hospitality,” said Diggins.

Visit Us at the Bearskin Mini-Lodge!

The World Cup race and Parallel 45 festival are almost here. Make sure you visit the Bearskin Mini-Lodge on the course!

world cup official photo 2

Fall magic on the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore — planning the perfect autumn trip to Bearskin Lodge

Early October on East Bearskin Lake

Years ago, when we first became owners of beautiful Bearskin, fall was a very quiet season at the resort. A small group of savvy travelers, mostly couples, had discovered the secret that fall on the Gunflint Trail is the best season of the year, but being up north in autumn was not a “thing.”

As our summer staff gradually left, we mostly had the resort to ourselves. September and October were glorious times for our family to hike the trails, paddle our lakes, and watch for the re-emergence of moose and other wildlife. There weren’t many tourists in town, and we never had to wait for a seat at Trail Center or jockey for a parking place at a local shop. A handful of our cabins were booked by quiet couples who were enjoying the solitude of Bearskin just as much as we were, but we weren’t overly busy.

We often marvel at the idea that over Labor Day weekend in 2007, Quinn came up from college and helped Bob rebuild the dock for Cabin 3. There was so little going on at the resort that a noisy, pounding project was not an issue.

Those days are over. Fall has been discovered, in a big way, especially fall weekends. Cabins are booked non-stop; travelers flock to the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore. Restaurants are busy, often at a level matching peak summer season. Sunday “going home” traffic heading south can rival a Twin Cities rush-hour scene. Our secret best season has become ultra-popular.

None of that diminishes how perfect fall on the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore can be for getaway trips. When you’re here in a cabin during the fall, it’s stunningly beautiful and amazingly quiet. You’ll see wildlife that rarely appears in the summer and stars that reignite your sense of wonder about the universe. You’ll listen to the haunting calls of loons and wolves; follow moose, fox, and lynx tracks on the hiking trails; and, with a little luck, possibly see all of these remarkable creatures.

Lodge swing on a September day

So when is the best time to come to Bearskin in the fall?  Most people would answer that they want to be here “whenever the colors peak.” “Peak color” is an artificial concept, one that entirely drives the fall tourist season. It shouldn’t; that day doesn’t actually exist. We have a long extended color season in NE Minnesota, due to a range of elevations and climate zones. The best color date will vary by many weeks from location to location. The truth is that the forest changes on a daily basis in the fall, and anytime from mid-September to mid-October will be colorful somewhere along your route to the north country.

On the Minnesota map below, Bearskin is located near the top of Zone 2. No matter where you’re starting from, the drive all the way to Bearskin will offer a variety of vibrant foliage for most of the fall season.

The climate is warmer near Lake Superior, so the leaves along the North Shore change later. As you gain altitude driving up the Gunflint Trail to Bearskin, cooler temps create earlier fall color changes. Color usually peaks during the last week of September on East Bearskin Lake, but the color begins to change in spots along the Gunflint Trail almost as soon as September. (Certain Gunflint Trail maples are famous locally for being the first to turn – if you come up near Labor Day, watch for these trees!)

There is a commonly held belief that the weekend closest to October 1 will always be the peak color dates. As a result, that weekend can be obscenely busy all along the North Shore. It’s true that the color is usually nice, but the trade-off is a quantity of people everywhere that might take some of the fun out of your trip. For perfect fall weather, we prefer the weekend before or the weekend after the popular October 1st busy date.

You are always going to have a better fall trip if you can travel mid-week and indeed, in our experience the real “peak” has never occurred exactly on the weekend.  You will also have a nicer fall trip if you can avoid traveling home on Sunday afternoon on any fall weekend. Come Thursday, leave Monday, and you’ll never even notice there were busy days in between. If you have a flexible schedule, stay mid-week instead of the weekend. Mid-week in the fall is much like the autumns of our olden days – quiet, no restaurant waits, low traffic on the drive up and back. Of course, it never feels busy at Bearskin, but the quality of your trip up north is nicer if there is less traffic and fewer people.

Colorful leaves usually remain on the trees well into October up here, until the day we get a major windstorm. After the leafy trees lose their color, our tamaracks still display vivid shades of orange and yellow for much of the fall. All of fall is beautiful in its own way.

Tamaracks over Oxcart bog in mid-October

Once the leaves are gone from the trees, some of the finest days of fall begin. This is when the wildlife viewing is at its best, because you can see into the woods so much more. Moose are very active and often are much more visible. Grouse are everywhere. It’s easier to hear a wolf howl. And as the leaves fall from the trees, the improved visibility of the night sky to the north means that if the Aurora Borealis is active, there are more opportunities to snap a northern lights photo.

Fall moose photo from the Gunflint Trail by Nace Hagemann. See more of Nace’s fall moose photos here.

Fall usually becomes winter sometime in November, but we never really know for sure when that will happen. We have experienced November with 20 inches of snow and November when the temperatures felt more like early October. Anything is possible. We consider November to be a great undiscovered secret on the Gunflint Trail, along with May in the spring. This is when you get the great moose and wildlife pictures; this is when you truly feel the seclusion and serenity of our beautiful area.

Dreaming of a fall trip? Choose your date based on what’s most important for your ideal trip. If taking photos with peak color is your primary motivation to be here, the end of September may be the right time. It is also, by far, the busiest time on the entire North Shore, especially during whichever weekend is closest to October 1. If your goal is to experience more summer-like temps, but with cool nights and no bugs, then choose the end of August or the first half of September. We always think the nicest summer days occur when everyone imagines summer is “over.”  If you are coming for pleasantly cool fall temperatures, vibrant landscapes, excellent hiking, and a chance of seeing a moose or other wildlife, all of October is great.

To help you plan, we regularly post availability updates here. Updates are posted somewhat erratically, but it is an easy way to get a fast, bigger picture of possible availability options. You can also use the “Check Availability” box in the upper right hand corner of the web page. This is usually accurate within a few days, but doesn’t have the flexibility that arranging dates with an actual human being often has. For the most current info and the best help, call us at (800) 338-4170 or email: stay@bearskin.com   We’ll help you plan a fall trip to remember.


Boats at the Bearskin Lodge main dock on a quiet fall day

Bearskin Lodge Photography Series: Tips from the pros for fall photography on the Gunflint Trail and the North Shore

We all carry with us a mental image of what a gorgeous fall photograph should feature: vivid orange and red trees, clear blue skies, hiking paths blanketed in colorful leaves. Fall is the photographer’s dream-come-true season, because of the brilliant changing of the colors. But there’s much more to autumn photography on the North Shore and the Gunflint Trail than just leaves.

Often the most remarkable pictures of fall are taken in the weeks after the leaf color has peaked, when the leaves start to fall, making every plant, animal, and natural feature within the woods much more visible. Mushrooms in a variety of wild shapes and colors pop up everywhere in the woods. The tamaracks, a tree relatively few people seem to even recognize, begin turning vivid colors in October. And of course, wildlife starts to wander in the later days of fall.

Moose become more visible. October can be almost as good for moose viewing as the spring days are, although because the moose are in rut, a bit more caution is required. Moose pictures from the fall are usually more dramatic, because their coats have turned dark and glossy, their antlers have matured, and the moose are generally in peak condition. Wolves and foxes are also often spotted in the woods during fall, usually with thick glossy coats from a summer of successful hunting.

We asked some of the North Shore’s favorite photographers to share their ideas for what to photograph in the fall. Of course, they all photograph the changing leaves, but anyone with a phone camera and few days off can go home from a trip up north with a few nice leaf pictures. Follow these photographers’ suggestions to return from your Bearskin trip with fall pictures that really “pop.”

“Autumn Paradise” by Travis Novitsky

Travis Novitsky

Travis is a lifelong resident of the North Shore who is best known for his night sky photography. He was one of the presenters at the BWCA Expo in June, 2018, and you may have seen him featured on KARE 11 in August, 2018.

Travis told us, “Fall is one of my favorite times of the year for photography. The changing leaf colors are obviously a main highlight, and for that my favorite thing to do is get to an elevated viewpoint such as a hilltop overlook or a fire tower. Getting above the trees lets you take in a lot more of the broad expanse of color. Also, on cool mornings there is often fog in the valleys. As the fog burns off you can get photos of the trees and leaf colors combined with the fog. This makes for some pretty surreal images.”

Our guests are always hoping for a clear day with blue skies for their fall photography journeys, but in a fall when we’ve had an unusually high number of overcast days, Travis doesn’t mind. “If you’re going to be on the ground beneath the forest canopy, I much prefer cloudy days for photographing fall color. The light is flatter and the colors appear much more vibrant, especially if you switch your camera’s white balance setting to cloudy or shade. On sunny days there is generally too much contrast between bright light and dark shadows to make good photographs when you are beneath the forest canopy. If you’re out in the open, however, and photographing a single tree or group of trees with good color, nothing complements that color like a nice touch of blue sky. “

“Fall is also a great time for macro-photography,” he says, “especially after about half of the leaves have fallen to the ground. I love walking along a trail or forest road and looking at the ground for interesting leaf arrangements. If it’s a rainy day or if it rained overnight, the collections of water droplets on the leaves can make for a mesmerizing macro-photo.”

“Lastly, for those that are already familiar with my work, you know that I am really into night sky photography. Late fall is a great time for this. As the leaves drop from the trees the wonderful shapes and silhouettes of the trees are once again revealed to us. They make a great foreground for a night sky photo, looking up at the trees with the stars, moonlight or northern lights shining above. I am always on the lookout for trees with really unique shapes. When I find one I make a note to go back and photograph it with the night sky when the leaves have fallen.”

See Travis Novitsky’s latest pictures here or   purchase his prints here.


Mark Morgen

Photo by Mark Morgen
Hidden Falls near the Seagull Guard Station on the Gunflint Trail, by Mark Morgen

Mark is living the dream. Not too long ago, he was a regular Bearskin guest. When he and his wife moved to Grand Marais, Mark began to take his photography skills much more seriously. If you’ve ever imagined you could move to the northwoods and become a photographer, Mark is proof that it can be done.

Mark points out, “I’m lucky to live in a place that has spectacular scenery anytime, but fall has some especially great opportunities. Everyone likes to find those high sweeping vistas, but they can be tricky to pull off. Using a wide angle lens can make things seem awfully small, and doesn’t match the image you envision. Sometimes a single tree, or even a couple brilliantly colored leaves can really create a fall feel. Using a telephoto to zoom into a particular composition can tell a great fall story.”

Like Travis, Mark is a fan of overcast days. “While everyone loves a bright blue sky to contrast those reds and yellows, sunny days can be troublesome when taking photos. The bright sun casts lots of shadows that can obscure some of the scenery we are trying to capture. Our eyes can make the adjustment, but the camera doesn’t have the dynamic range to see into the shadows and also keep the bright areas from blowing out. Cloudy days soften the light and allow you to capture the scene more accurately. And don’t shy away from photographing in rain. The wet landscape can really saturate the colors and make them more vivid.” Good advice for this fall.

Mark has taken some especially spectacular water photographs recently. “I’m always looking for compositions to incorporate a pond, lake, or waterfall into my fall shots. You can get reflections off the water to create some great looking photos! I use a polarizing filter when I want to dial in that perfect level of reflection off the water.”

Like many of our favorite photographers, Mark gets out early with his camera and takes some especially beautiful sunrise pictures. “One other bonus of fall photography is that the sunrise is coming up over Lake Superior again, and that is one of my favorite subjects to photograph.”

You can follow Mark’s daily adventures with his camera at Mark Morgen Photography on Facebook.

Thomas J Spence

Fall in canoe country, photo by Thomas J. Spence

We often share Tom Spence’s photographs to the Bearskin web page. He was also one of the contributors to our spring moose-viewing blog, offering great advice on how to find and photograph animals in the spring.

Tom believes the best photographs of moose are taken in autumn. “In late summer, the bull moose lose their velvet on their racks and the antlers become a bright, shiny color. The moose can be pretty active in fall, giving me more opportunities.”

He recommends heading into the woods with a camera after peak color season is over. “With the leaves falling and gone, October and November can reveal parts of the woods that are harder to see through and into than the spring and summer months, increasing the area I can search.”

Like Mark, Tom gets some fabulous water pictures and recommends our North Shore state parks as a great resource in the fall. “The rivers are my favorite. I like to use a circular polarizing filter and a neutral density filter for fall waterfall photography allowing for the long exposure, dreamy effect on the water.”

Tom is a camper, and his lit-up tent often appears as a centerpiece in pictures. “I tend to do more camping in the fall, so BWCA photography is also a favorite. I love the solitude and quiet of October in the Boundary Waters. The nights tend to get longer, so the aurora borealis may be seen a bit more often as well. A few of my favorite aurora displays have been in the fall months.”

You can check out more of Tom’s pictures on his Facebook page , at his photography blog and photo site Thomas J. Spence Images, or browse and buy photos you like on Tom’s SmugMug website.

Nace Hagemann

Fall moose, photo by Nace Hagemann.

Nace is well known for his Gunflint Trail moose photos, but because he is often out early in the morning, and because he travels around Cook County so much for his work, he has success photographing many other animals, also. Nace was also a contributor to our spring moose-viewing blog.

Nace looks at photography in the fall just about the same as in any other season. “For the wildlife that I am primarily looking for,” he says, “I try to get to places with no one else around.” He tries to hit the likely spots at a time when other people are less likely to be there. “Or it can mean hiking in a little farther, or paddling to a lake that isn’t visited often. ” This is one reason fall photography in our area can be more successful — there are far fewer people here in the fall. Nace adds, “I also try to be quiet to not spook animals if I do happen to see something.”

If you love the look of mist over the water, fall is the time to be here. Nace says, “One of my favorite things about fall is fog. As the air starts to cool faster than the lakes, you can often find fog over water on a crisp morning. If I could, I would spend most fall mornings in a canoe photographing anything in fog. There is something magical about fog.”

Nace also has success capturing the northern lights. If you’ve seen the card with the northern lights behind the Bearskin Lodge sign, that is Nace’s work. “In the fall there are more hours of darkness so northern lights can be easier to see if they happen to be out that night.” It’s generally pleasant on fall nights, unlike trying to photograph the lights in January.

Nace’s pictures can be seen on his Facebook site and can also be purchased here.

Where to get a great fall photo at Bearskin Lodge.

Kayaking on a fall day, East Bearskin Lake from the Main Lodge

Our front desk staff members are all avid outdoors people who know the area well. They are happy to help you find your perfect photo spot.

Talk to Katie, our moose photographer, about the latest moose sightings. We keep a map at the front desk where we can mark the places where moose have been recently observed. If your primary goal is to photograph moose, we encourage you to come up in a vehicle that does well on rough roads. One of the best roads for fall moose sightings is in dire condition this year (and yes, every year). You might spot a moose right off the Gunflint Trail, but a robust vehicle will get you deeper into moose country up here.

The Gunflint Trail has primarily moose maples instead of sugar maple trees, so your fall photos from this area will feature more yellow and orange leaves, rather than red hues. One of the most popular overlooks for photos any season is, of course, Honeymoon Bluff, just a few miles away from Bearskin. Caribou Rock has several great overlooks that photograph nicely in the fall. We can direct you to a high spot on Bear Cub where you can get the long view northward over the trees. The area of around the esker trail in the campground gets you long, color views of East Bearskin Lake in the autumn. If colorful tamarack bogs are you photographic goal, once the tamarcs have turned we can direct you to several nice locations that always offer stunning color contrast for photos.

Early morning is still the best time to photograph the trees, lakes, and wildlife along the North Shore and the Gunflint. But here’s a tip if you head out in the late afternoon or evening: always bring headlamps and flashlights with you. It gets dark earlier and faster in the fall, and your time between that last “sun setting on the fall colors” moment and total darkness is very short. Because our family and many Bearskin staff members are on Search & Rescue we hear rescue calls constantly in Sepetmeber – November for parties who didn’t get off Eagle Mountain, Oberg Mountain, the Cascade River walk, and Caribou Rock before dark. The Caribou Rock Trail has some great vistas that photograph well in fall, but you truly want to get off that trail before any hint of darkness arrives. Wherever you hike along the North Shore or the Gunflint this fall, plan for an earlier sunset than you are accustomed to having farther south. Immersed in the beauty of this area, it easy to forget that we are in one of America’s last “dark skies” area, so when the sun sets it gets seriously pitch black out in the woods.

Everyone at Bearskin will be happy to help you come back from your fall getaway to our area with some outstanding photographs to keep as memories. Give us a call at (800) 338-4170 or visit www.bearskin.com and let’s make a plan together.

Fall leaves, photo by Travis Novitsky.

“The Blowdown,” 20 Years Later

blowdown trees on brown suburban

“The Blowdown.”  July 4, 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of this famous BWCA weather event; at Bearskin, we still get asked about it constantly.  While the signs of the blowdown are no longer as obvious as they once were, our landscape in the Mid-Gunflint Trail area was indelibly marked by this storm. For anyone who was in the area at the time, or for anyone who came up later to help with the massive clean-up, the blowdown will never be forgotten.

The blowdown was actually a derecho, a type of straight-line wind storm. It knocked down about 20 million trees in the BWCA, cutting a swath about 10 miles wide and 30 miles long. Most of Bearskin’s immense white pines survived the storm. They are 200 – 300 years old and perhaps withstood even worse weather events through the centuries. But aspens, birches, jack pines, cedars, and balsams broke off as if a giant had come through swinging a scythe 15 feet above the ground.

Every Bearskin guest from that era has their own unique story, depending on where they were and what they were doing at the moment.  The common thread seems to be the muggy, unpleasantly hot day and a very dark, green sky. Almost everyone recalls their sense of wariness resulting from the unusual sky color, and how frightening it was when the weather changed suddenly and how rapidly the trees began snapping off  all around them. Some guests were stranded on the Gunflint Trail, their vehicles surrounded by trees that fell on the trail like matchsticks in a line. Other guests were in cabins, listening to trees crashing around them and wondering how they would ever get out again. Cars did not fare well, but a few bicycles survived. Luckily, Bearskin suffered primarily injuries to things, not to people.

It was over quickly, and then the truly hard moments began. Guests stranded on the Gunflint Trail left their cars and began painstakingly making their way over an endless line of downed trees. Guests in cabins struggled to get out.  Their vacations were ruined, their cars were flattened, they no longer had water or electricity, and because of the chaos on the trail, leaving was not an option. Most guests stayed to help with the clean-up, because after all, what else could they do? Everyone who was here loves to recount their own story. Once people realized that they had somehow survived it, their natural instinct was to pitch in and help. When the roads were cleared, other guests drove up to assist with the tough job of putting Bearskin back together.

Realistically, clean-up from this storm went on for years and twenty years later, our woods is still full of fallen trees from the blowdown. For a long time we had a higher risk of fire danger from all the downed wood in the forest, “fuel” for future fires. At this point most blowdown debris has rotted enough that fire danger is not as significant as it once was. The forest has regenerated, although with a different mix of trees than it had before the storm. Foresters say there are fewer conifers now and more aspen and birch. Jack Pines, in particular, did not regenerate because they require fire, not wind, to reseed themselves.

We’re sharing some of the many pictures from the days after the blowdown at Bearskin.  In a few photos, it’s tough to even see that under all those branches there is a cabin hiding.  Dave and Barb Tuttle, who owned Bearskin from when they were in their young 20’s in the 1970s until 2001, faced an almost insurmountable clean-up job after the storm. They’ve often said that the blowdown was the toughest challenge they faced in all those years.

Would you like to learn more about this weather event? Here is one of the best articles about it we’ve read. 

Another great blog was written by Ted Young, from Boundary Country Trekking, back in 2016. He recounted some legendary stories and then also assessed the long-term community impact of the blowdown.

So what’s  your blowdown story? Share in the comments below, or add to the blowdown post on Facebook.  We’d love to hear your experience.


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4.13.2019 Guess the ice-out date for the endless winter of 2019

It’s “ice-out” time already, so once again we’ll be taking guesses on the date that you think the ice will be gone from East Bearskin Lake.  The 12th annual East Bearskin Lake ice-out guessing game begins now.

We always like to help you make an educated guess because that’s much more fun than just randomly picking a date; so here’s all the data you need to win a Bearskin T-shirt or a complimentary canoe rental from Bearskin Wilderness Outfitters.

If you’ve done your research and you’re ready to guess, add a comment on this blog or go to the Bearskin Facebook page and add your answer there. (It’s easier to scope out what others have guessed on Facebook!)  You’ll need the date, and as a tie-breaker, your estimated time.

First important piece of information: forget those balmy temps you probably have been experiencing at home. It is 100% still winter on the Gunflint Trail, and it has been since the first week of November. Are we tired of snow and ice yet? Yes, indeed, very much so.  Here’s the Lodge today.  This is not just the new snow of the recent snowstorm, it’s snow that has been on the ground since November 7th:

lodge 4.13.2019

Your next clue, the webcam today. There’s not even a hint of clear ice yet:

4.13.2019 webcam

Clue #3 is the ice depth at this point in the season.  Landen went out to drill some holes and reported that there is about 8 inches of crumbling ice on top of at least 8 more inches of rock solid ice.  All of it is covered by a great deal of snow.  There is a theory on the Gunflint Trail that because snow fell early on the newly forming ice that perhaps the ice was insulated and as a result, not as much ice formed. Maybe, but that might be more true on the bigger lakes that freeze later.  You can toss the idea into your calculations.

Your last clue to consider is the upcoming forecast.  Don’t expect many balmy days to speed this process along.  Rain and wind, though, can sometimes have an impact.

forecast april 2019

So when does the ice usually go out?  Once it went out in March. That ship has sailed for 2019. April ice-out has happened, but only an extreme optimist would have high hopes for that this year. May 6th – 8th are common dates, but we have also had several years recently when the ice was not out for the fishing opener. The latest ice-out date in our experience was May 16, although we’ve heard stories about Memorial Weekend dates. We invariably have a few people who guess July or August ice-out dates, and we’re happy to report that they’ve never been right. So far.

Here is a video of the ice going out last year on May 7th:


If you’re serious about your research, check out past ice-out blog posts.  Here is the post from last year, including a good summary and picture from past blogs:

And here are many others ice-out blogs from the past decade. Lots of info here:

HOW TO ENTER:  If you’ve done your research and you’re ready to guess, add a comment on this blog or go to the Bearskin Facebook page and add your answer there. (It’s easier to scope out what others have guessed on Facebook!)  You’ll need the date, and as a tie-breaker, your estimated time.  Winner receives a Bearskin T-shirt or a complimentary canoe rental for a day (this canoe be used as one of several days if you’re renting canoes for a BWCA trip.) Good luck! Watch the ice go out on the webcam here.

Welcome to the 11th annual ice-out contest: win a canoe rental or a T-shirt if your guess is the best

Today is April 19. The front of the lodge looks like this:

Here is the view from the webcam this afternoon. You can see the faintest hint of the dock reappearing. Boats definitely will not be parked at this dock in the near future. We still have 24 inches of ice on our bay, plus ample snow cover. We’ve heard reports of 40 inches on Gunflint Lake, and 25 – 35 inches on Ely lakes.

Bearskin has been buried in deep snow since a snowstorm on October 26, 2017.  We are exceedingly ready to launch spring. So in hopes of kick-starting a fresh, new season, it’s time to start the 11th Annual East Bearskin Lake Ice-out Guessing Game for 2018. 

The winner gets a T-shirt, mug, or (new this year!) if you’re outfitting or staying with us you can win one free day of a canoe rental. Post your answer in the blog comments below, on the Facebook page, or e-mail your answer to stay@bearskin.com.  Give us a both a predicted date and a time. The time helps us choose a winner if there are multiple answers for the same date.

Of course, your answer will be very well-researched. Here’s all the info you need to make a fact-based, educated guess. What’s a normal ice-out date? May 6th – 8th would be a typical date. Late March, late April and yes, late May have all occurred.  East Bearskin tends to be one of the earlier lakes to go out on this side of the BWCAW; the long, somewhat narrow configuration of this lake speeds up the melting process.

Our upcoming weather forecast finally looks like spring:

Rain helps. Wind helps. A day of snow does not help. So far, there’s no new snow in this forecast, but there have been years when 2 feet of new snow appeared in late April. Behold late April, 2013.

This year the Minnesota fishing opener will be May 12.  Some years ice fishing seems far more appropriate on our fishing opener, such as on the first day of fishing in 2014. The technique pictured is not a “best practice.”

If you want to do more thorough research, follow these links to learn about the history of the ice-out on East Bearskin Lake over the past 11 years.

Bearskin Lodge Photography Series: May is moose-viewing season — how to find and photograph wildlife in the spring

moose kissing slice katie mumm

Here is a conversation we have in our lodge many times a week, winter and summer.

The discouraged visitor says, “I’ve been coming to the Gunflint Trail for 10/20/30 years, and I’ve never seen a moose.” Or bear. Or wolf. Or whatever animal it is that they most wish to see. Often they have a beautiful camera hanging from their neck and the dream is to capture that perfect memorable Gunflint Trail wildlife picture.

We say, “So, when are you usually here looking for wildlife?” The answer is generally some version of July or August. We encourage them to keep looking and offer suggestions for likely viewing spots. But what we’re really thinking is that they are probably destined for continuing failure. The truth is, you might have great luck searching for your perfect moose photograph in late summer, but there are much better times to be here if your goal is to see animals. Come to Bearskin in May and very early June and you’ll get your picture.

moose in parking lot cropSpring is moose-viewing season. It is not uncommon for Bearskin to have moose right on the Main Lodge grounds during May and early June, often cows and newborn babies. Our hypothesis is that since we are a dog-free lodge with very few canine smells, and because wolves don’t often venture into the resort, perhaps this area feels like a safe zone for pregnant cows and mothers with calves. Our nearby Summer Home Road and other quiet gravel roads are also excellent places to find moose in the spring – just look for their big footprints in the mud.

Bears are also easy to find and photograph in spring. The secret? Dandelions. Those pesky yellow flowers may be an invasive species that nobody wants growing on our waysides, but don’t tell that to the bears. They love munching on dandelion heads found along wide mowed shoulders of some parts of the Gunflint in the spring.

We asked a group of our favorite photographers to share their suggestions for finding animals to photograph in May and June. We encourage you to look at their photography websites, or follow their Facebook pages to see the photos of all the animals they are sure to find this spring.

Katie Mumm

3 bears slice katie mumm watermark

Katie Mumm was our Bearskin staff photographer for several years, and she continues be an increasingly well-regarded moose photographer. Katie drives along the Gunflint between Swamper Lake and Loon Lake regularly in the spring, camera ready in her car. “Every evening I jump in my car, armed with my camera and take off in search of moose!” she says. “My travels take me in different directions on the Trail but I always visit my ‘usual’ places where I commonly see moose. Sometimes I drive to the end of the Trail and other times I take a gravel road here and there in search of new spots and sightings. You never know who/what might appear. When I’m lucky enough to find moose, I always keep a safe distance from the animal, for my safety as well as theirs. I don’t want to frighten them, so I prefer to shoot from a distance.”

She adds, “Persistence is the key in photographing wildlife. There are many nights when I come down the Bearskin Road with nothing to show for my time. But other nights, it’s a gold mine! You just have to keep trying, keep travelling, and keep shooting.”

See Katie’s latest pictures on her Facebook photography site here.

Thomas J. Spence

fox picture thomas spence for blog

Tom Spence’s superb lynx pictures made the news all around Minnesota during the winter of 2018, but regular followers of the Bearskin Facebook page have been seeing shared wildlife, northern lights, and Lake Superior photos from Tom for several years.  According to Tom, it helps to be an early riser if you want to get great wildlife pictures. “I like to get out early to find the critters,” he says. “The earlier the better. I’ll often head into the woods before sunrise to put myself in a location at first light. I’m usually focusing on water areas such as swamps, rivers and inland lakes in and around the BWCA.”

“Spring,” he continues, “is a very active time in the woods so you are bound to see some kind of activity just about every trip out. Of course, any time is good to be out, but the morning light and activity are the best in spring, in my opinion.”  You can check out more of Tom’s pictures on his Facebook page or browse and buy photos you like on Tom’s SmugMug website.

David R. Johnson

david JOhnson Lynx

Grand Marais photographer David Johnson is a fan favorite on the Bearskin Facebook page, where we often feature his wildlife, northern lights, and Grand Marais pictures. “I put on many thousands of miles and hundreds of hours looking for wildlife,” David says. “My cameras are dialed in for conditions for the day I am out, so I can shoot at a moment’s notice. You have to be fast to get some shots most of the time.”  

“As far as finding wildlife, you go to where the food is. Lynx’s main diet is the snowshoe hare, so I look where there are large populations of them. I look for tracks.”  David also watches for road-kill, especially along Highway 61, and occasionally spots wolves, foxes, and eagles nearby.  Finding moose, he says, can be “hit or miss.” In spring and early summer moose are looking for fresh greens, aquatic plants, and new tree leaves.  “Willow are hot,” he says. “All waterways are good to check: beaver ponds, swamps, and lakes.”

David’s photos can be viewed and purchased on his Zenfolio site.

Nace Hagemann

nace hagemann two moose for blog

We frequently share wildlife and northern lights photos from Nace Hagemann, and for several years carried his cards in our gift shop. Nace has a reputation for getting great moose pictures, although he feels he has seen fewer moose on the Gunflint Trail during the last few years, perhaps resulting from the tribal hunting season that has been held during the past few autumns. Nace has learned that “Moose are looking for the fresh growth of aquatic plants in the spring and are often in and around water. I often see other animals by driving.”  Nace owns a construction company and works all over Cook County, so he also spots animals near the road while driving to his jobs very early in the morning. Nace’s pictures can be seen on his Facebook site and can also be purchased here.

Crystal and Chris Clemons

young moose original eyes fixed crystal name

For several years the number-one ranked moose photo on Google was this photo of a gangly, long-legged young moose, taken by Crystal Clemons on nearby Clearwater Road. Crystal is not a professional photographer, but she is a very successful amateur photographer whose tenaciousness in searching for animals each spring results in many cool wildlife sightings. Crystal and her husband Chris regularly drive hundreds of miles down quiet Cook County side roads, searching for wildlife. Persistence is their strong point, plus a willingness to return even when they didn’t have good luck the last time.

Crystal says, “In the early morning when the sun is coming up or in the evening when the sun is going down, we drive down the Lima Grade, South Bruhl Road, Lima Mountain Road, and Greenwood Road. And of course the famous area, Swamper.”  They watch the road for fresh tracks as they drive, the possible sign of an animal being nearby.

Chris and Crystal especially recommend looking for fox dens at the end of April and early May, when fox kits are born. Crystal and Chris also have a great deal of luck getting pileated woodpecker pictures, often on Clearwater Road. They have a favorite spot where they’ve taken many pictures of pileated woodpeckers poking their big red heads out of nest holes.

Crystal also suggests, “Here is a good spring idea for anyone, moose antler hunting in late April and early May (depending on the snow depth). We have good luck every year. The trick to that is go to one or two year-old logging cuts, walk around in them, look for little trees that have been rubbed on (trying to shed antlers), then just walk around and look. Finding antlers is like a treasure hunt and it’s an awesome feeling when you find them. We have yet to find a set. It gets the family outdoors.”

So when is the perfect time to find and photograph our Gunflint Trail wildlife?

May and early June have undeservedly become very quiet seasons on the Gunflint Trail, for three reasons: our erratic, sometimes long-lasting winter season; spring’s frequent rainy May days; and springtime bugs. For those of us who live up here, spring is high on the list of favorite seasons, but making the most of spring as a visitor requires planning and realistic expectations. There will be amazingly perfect spring days and yes, there may be some rainy days.

First, it helps to pay attention to when the snow and the ice melts. Even if it’s warm in the Twin Cities, like it has been in recent years, weather on the Gunflint won’t be on the same schedule. Snow and ice can occasionally disappear here in April, but it’s more likely to be gone in early May. Watch our web cam to keep track of how the weather is changing on the Gunflint. Our usual ice-out day is around May 6th, but it’s happened 5 weeks earlier or 2 weeks later. If anything, ice-out has been edging towards earlier dates in the past few years.

Secondly, come prepared for some rainy or misty days. Bring rain gear and mud shoes. We love May for taking long, springy 50-degree walks on the trails and gravel roads, but if you don’t happen to get that weather, be ready to head out in spring showers. The animals don’t mind a little rain, so your hunt for the perfect moose moment can still succeed even if we’re experiencing May precipitation.

Lastly, what about those bugs?  The trade-off for being here when the wildlife abounds is that there are more bugs than in late July and August. Come prepared to deal with them and with luck, they may not even be an issue. The days between snow-melt, whenever that occurs, and the last week of May tend to be almost bug-free. Eventually the notorious black flies, those little annoying ear-biting gnats, appear around Memorial Day. That’s when a head net and the screen porch on your Bearskin cabin are appreciated. Mosquitoes also start to appear at about that time, depending on how much standing water there is in the woods. Some years are better than others. May is also the month for ticks. Our area has very few occurrences of Lyme disease (we just don’t have many deer on the Gunflint), but regular old ticks are out in force right away during the spring.  Dress appropriately and take the standard tick precautions, and you should be fine. We sell a tick spray you can use as extra protection.

What if May/early June doesn’t work for me? Will I ever see a moose?

Honestly, you’ll only see a moose if you’re super lucky or incredibly persistent in July or August. It happens, especially on canoe trips into the BWCAW, but late summer moose sightings aren’t a daily occurrence like they are in the spring.

Your next best bet for wildlife pictures is to visit in the fall. As the temperatures cool off and the Gunflint Trail gets less busy, we start to see more moose action in September and especially October and November. Moose mate in the fall, so they move around in search of true love during that time. David Johnson noted that, “In fall moose are getting into rut. The bulls are on the move and can be found where you see the cows; they won’t be far away.”  There is, of course, a downside to chasing moose while they are in rut. (Remember the infamous Andy story?) But let good sense prevail, and you can successfully see wildlife, including moose, in autumn.

Wildlife sightings are much better in the fall than in late summer, but no season compares to spring for finding and photographing a wide variety of animals and birds around Bearskin Lodge and the Gunflint Trail. Visit us!

Moose-viewing season spring rates at Bearskin

We’ve lowered the prices for most of May. “Value season,” the least expensive time of year to stay at Bearskin Lodge, now extends until just before Memorial Day. Pack your camera and a “just in case” rain coat and head up to the Gunflint Trail to capture that perfect picture or memory at a great price.

crystal picture collage for blog

Moose Rescue!

Rescues are a big part of our life. Bob and Quinn are members of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department and Search & Rescue, so no matter what type of incident happens up here, we get the call. They’ve rescued lots of lost hikers, and more than a few BWCA trippers. If you read about any incident in the Eastern BWCA, good or bad, Bob and Quinn usually were out there.

But they’ve never quite been out on a rescue like the one this morning. Today the GTVFD rescued a moose who went through the ice.  Bob was there.

Barb and John Bottger were enjoying their morning tea, looking out their large picture windows at Hungry Jack Lake, when they saw the moose.  Who you gonna call?  GTVFD, of course.

Bob, Fire Chief Jim Morrison, and Hungry Jack outfitter Dave Seaton ventured carefully out on the ice, dragging canoes in case they went through the ice. The moose was clearly exhausted.  There wasn’t much time left. The moose was calm enough that they could wrap straps around her neck. With a great deal of dragging, they got the moose’s feet up on the ice. Bob and Jim anchored themselves on the ice with an ice ax (Dave was smart enough to wear Yak Trax), so the three of them could start the long process of pulling and sliding the moose out of the hole.  With a lot of trouble, muscle, and finagling, eventually the moose was dragged out on her side. She laid there for awhile, and eventually struggled back to a standing position.   If only that were the end of it.

There is no protocol for this in the search and rescue manual. Dave Seaton and Jim Morrison, making it up as they go.

Moose must get hypothermia, just like people do.  The moose stood there in a daze, and wouldn’t move. Occasionally she would shake water out of her fur, but she didn’t seem to be planning to take off.  Ever. The rescuers stayed by her, encouraging her to move forward. The last thing in the world they wanted was for the moose to go backwards and fall back in the hole. One moose rescue was enough.

Dave Seaton attempts to be the moose whisperer, to lure it on shore. You can see the group of people in the distance that may have been worrisome for the moose.

A cold, icy moose shakes water off its head.

This went on for a very long time. The moose started moving a little more, appearing to be less dazed and fatigued, and began eyeing the shore as if she wanted to make a break for it. Perhaps she was frightened of the crowd of onlookers on shore. The group moved back and hid themselves out of sight, but still the moose wouldn’t leave.

At last, a moose on the move!

Finally, Bob and Jim thought they’d start walking back towards shore and see what would happen.  The moose followed them! Slowly, slowly they made their way towards the north shore until (wait for it) … the moose fell through again. A low point in the morning.

Almost made it! But look at that dark ice ahead.

And then this happened. So close, so very, very close.

After much discussion, the group decided that the situation was different in this location. The moose could touch bottom, the ice was thinner and more crumbly, and if left alone perhaps she would make her way to shore. They decided to watch and wait. Indeed, she eventually did get  out and headed off into the woods where a moose belongs. This moose has a story to tell if any moose friends will listen.

This doesn’t always turn out so well for animals who fall through the ice. The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department is not usually there to save the day.  When Kaitlin and Quinn were little, we were canoeing on Fall Lake when we spotted the bones of an animal underwater, a deer or a moose, I can’t recall.  It must have been the same situation, the animal had fallen through the ice not far from shore but nobody was there to perform a rescue.  The animal drowned and the bones laid on the bottom exactly in an animal shape. The kids gathered up the bones, and brought them home.  Every so often they would reconstruct the beast on the garage floor.  It always made us sad.

But this is the moose who got away!  We hope it lives a long moosey life, and stays off thin ice.

Bearskin Lodge Photography Series: Chasing the Northern Lights on the Gunflint Trail

Northern lights over Bearskin Lodge 8.2.2016v2
Northern lights over Bearskin Lodge, morning of August 3, 2016

When you’re visiting Bearskin Lodge, you are almost as far north as you can go and still be in the US.  You are also in one of the few remaining “dark skies” areas of the country, which means we have the lowest possible level of light pollution.  Your chance of seeing astronomical events at Bearskin can be very good if you devote some time to looking up at the night skies.

Seeing the aurora borealis up here is a dream for many people, so it’s always a heart-breaker when guests discover that a magnificent display of lights occurred right over their cabin — but they never saw it.  Here are a few hints for chasing the lights during your Bearskin visit.

What does the aurora look like?

Think back to all those stunning photos you’ve seen of spectacular green, purple or even aqua northern lights, swirling overhead.  Then erase that imagery, because that’s probably not what you’re going to see with the naked eye. Although the northern lights can contain a full spectrum of colors, our night vision color receptors do not pick up very many of the colors.  The colors are there, just not so you can see all of them.  It’s a lot like green grass – at night it’s still green, but it doesn’t look green to your eyes. (Thank you, Debbie Center, for that analogy.)


how the lights looked to meS
This is how a good aurora might look to you with the naked eye.

Unless you are seeing the aurora through a camera, which has many more sensitive color sensors at night than your eyes have, in far northeast Minnesota you are mostly going to see a white shimmering glow. If you’re one of the lucky ones with more sensitive color receptors in your eyes (or if it’s an exceptionally bright display), there may be rays and swirls of green, aqua, and purple, depending on the degree of darkness.  If you have typical eyes, the aurora will look more like oddly moving white clouds in the sky – except that it’s dark, and you won’t normally see moving clouds then.

how the lights looked to me
This is how the lights looked in the back of the camera

When should we look?

Once you realize that you’re not looking for a colorful neon light show, seeing the lights is simply a matter of knowing when and where to look.  The aurora can show up at any time of year. There is no such thing as “northern lights season,” because lights are geomagnetic disturbances caused by storms on the sun. They have nothing to do with seasonal occurrences here on earth. Winter is sometimes advertised as “northern lights season,” but only because it’s darker for a longer time. You might not need to stay up quite so late to chase the lights in February.

It’s also easier to see the aurora when there isn’t a bright moon.  A very dark night with clear skies and  minimal moonlight is ideal for seeing northern lights.

There are many phone apps and computer web sites that can help you predict the best nights for great aurora viewing  but they can’t forecast very far ahead, nor are they completely accurate. Predictions are a guess based on current sun activity.  A common question we get  is, “When should we come to Bearskin next (month/year/week) to see the aurora?” We truly have NO idea. Visit us when you are going to have a fabulous time anyway and then if the northern lights appear, it will just be one more unforgettable memory.

Where should we look?
This may seem obvious, but to see the northern lights you need to look north.  That can be tough at Bearskin because our cabins are along the lake’s north shore.  You need to get out on your dock, or out in a boat, or out on the lake ski trail in the winter, to be able to see a northern view.  If the lights get going nicely, then there will be an arc of lights across the resort from the NW (staff housing direction) to the NE (the BWCA end of the lake). Occasionally the lights form an umbrella of light over the entire lake, but don’t expect that.  It’s a rarity.

the first sign of lights LR CL
Here is the white glow on the horizon through the trees before the light show started on August 3.

If you see an odd glow on the north horizon an hour or more after sunset, start hoping for lights.  People often assume they are seeing the lights from a city (nope), or  the dim last light from the sunset (nope, the sun never sets in the north). Then give yourself at least 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust; it takes time in the dark for your eyes to start to see the aurora.  Bearskin sells headlamps that include a red light; these allow you to see outside without disturbing your night vision.  Once you spot the lights, we promise you will be mesmerized. You might see pillars, arcs, curtains, pulsation, shooting rays, soft clouds, or even hear auroral noises.

Photographing the northern lights

If you wish to “see” the aurora through the lens of a camera, it will require a little pre-planning and a slightly better camera than a typical “point and shoot.”  Your cell phone camera might work, especially if you can download one of the many apps that allow you to have more manual control over the phone camera settings.  The best results are achieved with a DSLR camera, or a high quality “point and shoot” with advanced manual settings.

Camera settings:

  1. You need to be able set the ISO on your camera to a high number, probably 800 or considerably higher. The bigger the number, the more “noise” your pictures might have – but sometimes that’s a trade-off you make to get aurora photos with your camera.
  2. You will need to set the shutter speed on the camera, probably somewhere between 10 – 30 seconds, so it stays open quite a while. That’s how the camera gathers the colors. Experiment with increasing the shutter speed, until you see a picture that works. If you are shooting the lights with a simple camera or phone, maybe a setting for night photos will give you a longer exposure.
  3. Because the lens needs to stay open a long time, a tripod or support is essential. If you didn’t bring a tripod, find a way to set the camera on a firm surface. You can’t hold the camera still long enough to let in adequate light  without assistance.
  4. The focus on your camera should be set to infinity, or whatever setting focuses very far away. If you can turn off automatic focusing, get rid of it.
  5. You will also need to look for the f-stop setting on your camera; it needs to be at the smallest number that your camera will permit. If you have lens choices, a wide angle lens captures more of the aurora, but it isn’t essential.
  6. Pressing the shutter sometimes wiggles the camera too much. A remote shutter control is ideal. (Amazon sells them for many cameras for around $7, not a big investment).  A work-around is to take pictures with your camera’s timer. Many cameras have a 2-3 second delay option; most have a 10 second option, which seems interminable when you’re waiting for your camera to go off under the aurora.  You have to work with what your own camera will do.

There are so many other camera settings that the experts use to photograph the lights, but these will get you started. If your camera has good “live view,” you may be able to watch the lights right in the back of the camera.  Otherwise, just take dozens of photos, look at them, adjust as you go, and sooner or later you may see colors.

How can you bring out all the colors of the aurora in your pictures?

Almost all of the photos of the northern lights that you see online and in books have been put through an editing program to bring out more of the colors.  Search “aurora post processing” for hundreds of articles on how to do this.  Adobe Lightroom is the most popular, but any photo editing program will be fun for you to try.  Even simple phone apps like Aviary will let you play with your pictures.

Many of the aurora photos that you see are art, not reality.  I think the goal should be to make it look somewhat similar to what you saw that night, or at least reflect the real experience.  Other photographers, though, enjoy bringing out as many stunning colors in photos as possible, often cranking up the colors so the lights look turquoise, yellow, magenta, and orange.  If you look at northern lights photos often, you’ll eventually decide on a color range you like. The point is to experience the lights and then, if you get some photos, to extend your enjoyment of the experience by recreating your vision of the aurora, however simple or wild that may be!



  • Facebook group: Become a member of Great Lakes Aurora Hunters.  All your questions will be answered there sooner or later.  Wondering if the aurora is out? Just look at GLAH; if the lights are dancing, somebody on GLAH will say so. Every foolish or insightful question about photographing the lights has been asked on this Facebook site, often repeatedly.  You can learn a great deal from this group. Check the section called “notes” on the page.  It leads to countless useful articles.
  • Do a web search of “photographing northern lights:” You will get dozens of informative articles about viewing the lights and photographing them.
  • Space Weather Prediction Center: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/  So much info here, but for the northern lights you want to click on the box at the lower right that shows the Ovation aurora model, which predicts auroral activity. If there’s any sign of that bright green or better yet, mutli-colored oval being close to the tip of Minnesota, there’s hope for lights.  This section of the website shows a 3 day prediction:  http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-3-day-forecast
  • softservenews.com: Yes, it sounds like a website about ice cream, but for some reason it’s about the northern lights. This might not be the most reliable aurora predictor, but it certainly is the one of the easiest.
  • Aurora Forecast/Geophysical institute: From Alaska, but fairly useful for us

Useful Apps:

  • Using an iPhone? “Northern Lights Photo Taker,” (they didn’t expend any energy coming up with a flashy name) is an app for iPhone that automatically adjusts your phone correctly for aurora pictures.  It’s easily downloaded and works pretty well. You still need a tripod or stabilization.
  • Forecasting the northern lights:  There are many apps that will let you know when the lights are likely to appear.  We use “My Aurora Forecast.”  We really like this one, but there are others that are equally well-reviewed.

Remembering a burning forest, 9 years later

ham lake fire
Picture from MN Firewise

Nine years ago today the eastern section of the Boundary Waters canoe area was raging with fire. 75,000 acres of pristine land was burning wildly out of control. Houses were lost. Lives were risked. Smoke filled the air all the way down to the Twin Cities.

And that is when Sue and Bob McCloughan signed the purchase agreement to buy Bearskin Lodge, in the midst of a fire that threatened to burn down the business.

We spent our days at school with one eye on our students and the other glued to the internet news about the fire. Eventually I just gave up and said “Kids, let’s go off topic and learn something really interesting about fire, that will also explain why your eyes are watering now.” We all watched the changing fire maps and ravaged pictures.

firet trucks ham lake fire
Photo courtesy Gunflint Trail Fire Department

As the fire came closer to Bearskin, Bob & I tried to ascertain what precautions were being taken by Bearskin. The owner wanted the lodge sale to remain a secret from his employees, yet from afar we were wildly concerned that “our” property would burn down and wished we could dare ask the employees what was happening. We called the owner, who said everything is fine, the sprinklers are going, and it’s so little to worry about that we’re flying to the tulip show in Iowa.

We already had enough history with him to think perhaps a second call was in order.  I called Bearskin and got Dee, who would later turn out to be a dear friend. I said I was concerned about the Lodge and wondering what they were doing.  Dee assumed she was speaking to another one of the many worried members of the Bearskin fan club, and explained the preparations to leave. “Are the sprinklers on?” I asked.  It was evident that homes and businesses with the fire suppression sprinklers were surviving.  “Um, no, we, um, won’t be using the sprinklers,” she said. “We don’t think we need them.” She was respectful enough of her current boss that she didn’t say, “No, we won’t be using the sprinklers because the FEMA sprinkler system was never maintained and is now in a thousand broken pieces, and actually we all think our boss believes it is in the best interest of the resort to burn down if there is a fire nearby.”  (She saved those truths for later, in the many re-tellings of the story.)

We weren’t there, so we don’t know precisely what happened next. Over the years we’ve heard many variations of this story and each individual has their own take on what happened; the stories differ greatly, as is always the case during a traumatic event involving many people. In Dee’s version of the story the owners were flying to Pella, Iowa. (Although we later heard they did show up at the lodge at some point, so good.) Most Bearskin employees were evacuated to shelters in Grand Marais under very stressful conditions. They left everything they owned behind, ostensibly to burn down.

airplane minnesota incident command
Picture courtesy Mn IncidentCommand

It was quite disturbing for some of the staff. One of them had a seizure outside the shelter, changing his life for a long time to come. Another just cried and cried. The youngest employee, Adde, rose to the occasion and figured out how to be the adult in the group, a skill she can still muster up regularly in her real life today.

We only heard the stories after the fact. All we knew was that we just put a lot of money down and signed a pile of papers to buy a resort where no preparations were being made to keep the resort from burning down momentarily.

And luckily, it didn’t. A tongue of the fire made its way towards our area, but was kept under control. The physical beauty of our area remained untouched by fire and the cabins and resorts around us continued to be safe. This time. There’s a long history of fires in these big woods and we understand that our turn could come. We hope it’s not soon.

The Ham Lake fires probably started because of one camper. Conditions were right to spread a fire very quickly – as they are while I write this.  The individual who accidentally started the fire was identified, demonized, persecuted, prosecuted, and basically dragged through hell until he eventually took his own life.  There’s a fascinating recounting of his unfortunate story here.

ham_lake_fire_wcredit lee johnson
Photo by Sue Prom

The lesson is please, please, please be careful with fires up here. It’s dry and windy today. There are thousands of branches down on the ground from this winter’s bend-down. Keep fires small.  Some of you folks who like your  pile of wood to be in a 5-foot tall tipi shape when it gets lit are just asking for trouble with those giant fires in this environment. Small, under control, and always watched is the way the pros make a fire. Above all, don’t walk away from the fire. We see this all the time in the campground: raging fire in the pit, nobody around for miles—or even worse, obviously tents full of sleeping people. You can do better than that.

We will have fire on the Gunflint Trail again. We are all a little more prepared for it now, after lessons learned from Ham Lake. Bearskin has invested in an outstanding all – encompassing FEMA  fire suppression sprinkler system. We test it  regularly, keeping it in excellent shape each year. Bob and Quinn are fire department members, who have been well-trained to assist in a fire or a rescue and best of all, they have ARMER fire department radios to be in quick contact in an emergency. And needless to say, if something bad happens Bob & Sue, Quinn & Kate will be here to make sure, first of all, that our sweet staff is safe and un-traumatized and secondly, to do what we must to preserve all your Bearskin memories here.

But let’s avoid another Gunflint Trail fire if we can.  Do your part!

HamLakeFire lee johnson
Photo by Lee Johnson




The Bearskin version of Fox News

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Fox photo by Katie Mumm

Almost everyone who visits Bearskin has high hopes of observing three specific northwoods animals.  The number one goal is always to spot a moose, then glimpse a bear (but only the rear end, as it runs away), and maybe, with luck, see or hear a wolf.

So you might be surprised to know that none of those creatures are the animal that Bearskin guests talk about the most during their stay.  Foxes are actually the critters that make our guests extra happy.  Hundreds of photos of posing and preening foxes are snapped every summer around the Main Lodge.  We sell dozens of fox stuffed animals, foxy kids’ purses, fox books, and fox cards.

Bearskin has a long history of having fairly tame red foxes living on the grounds of the resort.  When we first arrived at Bearskin almost a decade ago, our employee Adde regularly made meals for a ridiculously tame fox, and even allowed the fox into her apartment occasionally.  Foxes have been known to get in canoes, and supposedly a fox can untie a boat from the dock.  They peek in windows, pose on deck railings, and occasionally run off with meat intended for the grill.  The Shoe Stealing Fox (aka Imelda), was perhaps the most famous Bearskin fox, covertly sneaking flip flops, hiking boots, and tennis shoes off the deck and steps of cabin 7. Many a family combed the woods behind cabin 7, desperately trying to find a missing sneaker so a kid wouldn’t spend the remainder of their vacation limping around with only one shoe.

facebook post about fox shoes august 2013

So here is a story to add to the fox legends:  About a week ago, when the ice was still solid, Kate and Quinn observed a fox crossing the bay with something in her mouth.  At first they assumed the fox was carrying a rabbit or squirrel, killed for dinner.  But as they looked more closely, they realized she was carrying a baby fox kit all the way across the lake.  Then she came back for another. And another, and another. By the time she was done ferrying her whole litter across the lake, the fox looked exhausted. It was no small task to move her family. This was peculiar behavior.  Quinn and Kate wondered why she would go to that much trouble to abandon a home and move so far away.

Previously, Quinn and Bob had been rebuilding the steps to cabin 7.  When they pulled the old steps off, they found chewed boards, broken styrofoam, and multiple signs that animals had been tunneling under cabin 7 for years.  So, of course, Quinn and Bob did a top-notch job of resealing every crack and hole, nailing up new boards and filling every possible animal entry point with spray foam. No creature would be getting back under that cabin!

Quinn thought about the fox mother for a few days and then started to wonder if her grueling move might be connected in some way to the rebuilding of the cabin 7 steps.  Yesterday Quinn and Bob went back to cabin 7 and pulled off a few of the new boards, attempting to see under the steps.

It was a surprise to discover a sizable fresh tunnel under the steps, circumventing their repairs.  At that point it became apparent what must have happened:  Bob and Quinn had accidentally entombed the litter of baby foxes. For two days they had worked on the steps, sawing and pounding and probably terrorizing a little fox family.  When the job was over and the foxes’ fear subsided, that mother dug an incredibly difficult new tunnel, removed all her babies, and stoically carried all of them as far away from that dreadful Cabin 7 as she possibly could.

We were left with two thoughts:

First, that is an extraordinarily heroic fox mother.

And secondly, deep under cabin 7 there are probably several years’ worth of missing shoes.


3.2.13 Jane Kolarich Fox C9
Fox photo by Jane Kolarich



The “Bend-down,” part II

By now most people have heard something about the thousands of trees that bent over into snow-covered rainbow shapes after the heavy, wet snow of December 16-18.  All winter activities in Cook County have been affected by the massive number of trees bending over every roadway or trail, and a huge amount of effort has gone into clearing trails over the past few weeks.

Bearskin and Golden Eagle staff members were out clearing almost nonstop for days, and we did get most of our trails back in good shape pretty fast.  Dan at Golden Eagle says he lost about 6 pounds on the Bend-down diet — apparently the grueling task of cutting down trees every day is actually a healthy thing to do!  Bob would not agree since clearing trees has left him with tendinitis in both elbows, an issue that has not successfully excused him from the daily clearing activities.

Many guests have ventured into the bent-down areas, describing crawling through the snow-laden trees as a surreal experience, or like trying to enter Narnia.

Here’s a picture taken when Jim Pohle and Joe Zuaro tried to ski into Old Logging Camp the morning of December 30.  They came across workers from Golden Eagle making headway on the trail, but it was far from passable.  This trail is in good shape now, but it took some time.

12.30.2016 bend down on Old Logging Camp Jim Pohle
Photo by Jim Pohle

Here’s Roger Kolarich wending his way down a trail before it was cleared.  In the good spots it looked like this:

12.2015 bend down kolarich

But in most places, this was the trail — entertaining to snake through for awhile but it was an adventure, not a ski trip:

12.2016 bend down Beaver Dam Kolarich
Photos by Jane Kolarich

At this point there are a few short, non-essential connecting trails that are still covered with trees and, of course, Poplar Creek, a 6.3 mile trail into the middle of the deep wilderness that is covered in trees and even still has swampy, unfrozen wet segments. (That’s another peculiar thing about this winter!)  In many places it’s been hard to even find the Poplar Creek Trail.  On Friday a big crew of volunteers and employees of Bearskin and Golden Eagle went out on Poplar Creek trail with a vengeance, determined to speedily get the job done.

Bob and local fire chief Jim Morrison encountered an interesting phenomena: 40 foot tall trees, just bent over at the very top. Bob said it was incredibly beautiful, except they kept breaking and crashing down onto the trail in a wall of falling snow and branches.  They theorized that vibration from the chain saws might have been just enough to set the fragile trees off — so, wisely,  they quit standing anywhere near one of those trees.

By the end of Friday afternoon Poplar Creek wasn’t done, but the workers made significant progress. At least they can see the trail now.  Kate and Quinn are out clearing again this afternoon, and those two can energetically make progress fast.  Achy Bob is out there too with our employee Matthew, and for an old, sore guy Bob is surprisingly vigorous at ripping out trees.  It won’t be long before we can officially add Poplar Creek back on the Central Gunflint Trail Ski map.

Meanwhile, it keeps snowing up here, and new trees keep bending over from the increasing weight. The snow that causes this is thickly frozen onto the trees, so windy days don’t seem to clear the snow piles off the branches. It makes the pine trees almost fakey beautiful, like the snow-blobbed pines on plaster Christmas houses. Photographers have  come from all over the country to take photos of the pine trees on our trails right now.   We’re always going to remember the hard work it took to get these trails clear again, but for most people who came up here, the beauty of this winter will be what they recollect.

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Photo by Asbjorn Munk



Cupcake trees and the return of the bend-down

12.18.2015 the pines snow
Gunflint Trail today.

We just returned from the Twin Cities, where we were celebrating the 100th birthday for Bob’s dad.  We left Bearskin at the beginning of the snowstorm, so we weren’t there to watch how much snow accumulated during the two days we were gone.

Quinn and Kate didn’t leave until the next morning; they forewarned us that Bearskin received at least a foot of fresh flakes, and that the trees were heavy with snow.  Then I saw a Facebook post from someone who reported there were at least 20 downed trees on the Gunflint Trail that night due to the snow.

On our trip back to Bearskin today we were somewhat unimpressed with the snow quantities, considering how treacherous driving through the blizzard had been on the way south.  The North Shore mostly has snow with stubble, a pretty coating of white that makes even the trashiest dives along the Highway 61 suddenly look fresh and redeemed.  A sparkling white that is pleasant to view out the car window, but nothing out of the ordinary for December in Minnesota.

And then we drove up the Gunflint Trail. Oh my.

There is something a little magical about the Gunflint Trail when it comes to snow.  Bearskin is the Bearskin because of this winter magic. We’ve been here long enough now to know this happens, but sometimes it’s still awe-inspiring when we see it again.  We drove up the hill and suddenly it was almost as if we had been transported to another planet. This new world was coated in a thick, drooping frosting of white.  Snow depth increased with each mile we drove up the Trail and the pine boughs sagged with heavier and heavier masses of snow the farther we drove. For as often as we’ve seen this, today both of us were exclaiming “wow, look at that” over and over all the way up the Trail.

If you’ve ever wanted to see miles and miles of pine trees that look exactly like frosted Christmas cookies, now is the time to drive up the Gunflint Trail. The downside of this heavy coating is that is looks like we have another “bend-down,” the winter version of the infamous blow-down.  Thousands of the small trees are arched into rainbow shapes and even many of the large ones have a peculiar curve.

best frosted trees
These cupcake trees by the Lodge have a curious curve today.

Dozens of big trees are hanging off the phone lines and some of the line appears to be stretched all the way to the ground. (CenturyLink, where are you? Clearly no sign of any repair activity along the Trail yet.) If you try to call Bearskin and you can’t get through, it may mean that the branch that broke the phone line’s back finally fell.  The whole arrangement looks pretty tenuous.  It’s also kind of entertaining to think that phone communication continues just fine with all manner of crazy contorted limbs and tree trunks dangling precariously from the phone lines.  Now there’s a minor miracle.

While this snow is exactly what we needed to get the ski season off to a great start, grooming after this snowstorm is going to take MUCH longer than expected.  Quinn went out in the groomer Thursday morning before he had to leave for the party, and reported it was very slow-going.  He said it was “groom 100 feet, then stop and cut down trees, groom another 100 feet, stop and cut down trees again.” Poplar Creek in particular appears to completely encased in arched trees.  It will take awhile to get through the tree mess on all our trails. This is the case on both sides of the Central Gunflint system.

We have Summer Home, Campground, and the Lit Loop cleared, and we will be out regrooming those trails first thing tomorrow morning.  The rest, however, could take some time.

But consider driving up to see the Gunflint Trail anyway as soon as you can to view this stunning landscape, before the wind knocks the frosting out of all the trees.  (Drive slowly and carefully, because this snow in the woods has really brought the moose out into the roads!)  And bring your camera, because you’re not going to see anything quite like it anywhere else in Minnesota right now.