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Finally we hear a hoot of victory and Steve re-enters. “I’ve won, I beat it,” he says. He beams a grin. He and Jo are nearly out the door when suddenly it reopens, and Steve’s face appears. “If you want to sauna across street, it’s on me.” We accept.
We head to Randy’s, the sauna at the Harbor Hideaway motel and appreciate its Finnish authenticity. All of the cedar planks were milled from trees cut on the property. “Every board is that thick,” Randy says, holding his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. The wood seats are worn smooth and turned coppery from decades of heat and steam and rear ends. We settle into the 200-degree heat and reach for the ladle in the pail next to the stove. A quick pour and steam erupts from the red-hot metal. Sweat soon beads us from forehead to feet. After, we walk outside with wet hair, coats unzipped and emanating warmth, feeling invincible in the 5 degrees, wind and whiteout. When we hand our towels back to Randy, he explains that he’s lived here for a couple of years and, while he likes it, he wouldn’t mind living in “a place not so at the end of something.”
By next morning the rest of our team has arrived—Dean, Tim and Jon, each a physician of one sort or another. Todd and I feel taken care of, but if something bad happens to them, well, all we can offer is to take some final photos and sell the story to Outdoor Life. About noon all five of us are clicking into x-c ski bindings at the day’s trailhead near the north end of Lac LaBelle. Our route is a 12-mile roundtrip to the mouth of the Montreal River. The Nature Conservancy had recently purchased much of the terrain we’ll ski to save 6,000 acres of globally rare and glorious shore and forest.
I’m about to close the hatch on the SUV when my snowshoes catch my eye. A few what-if ski scenarios run though my mind—a twisted knee, a broken ski. I recall what a retired Great Lakes ship captain told Todd at the Mariner North bar last night: “You won’t be able to ski to the Montreal, the woods are too tangled the last half mile.” We laughed it off—what’s a guy who lived on the water know about terrain you have to ski 6 miles to reach? Still. So I take a moment to sling the snowshoes flat against my back.
Our ski abilities range widely. One guy, Tim, finishes about 100th in Wisconsin’s American Birkebeiner each year, which may not sound impressive, but the race has an average of 11,000 skiers. Todd, on the other hand, bought his skis the night before we left and had never skied anything but his backyard.
On our trail, snowmobilers have packed a firm base of snow, and a foot of new powder lies on top. Perfect. In summer, the trail is a two-track logging road, but this morning it cuts a flawless white swath through the forest, the surface interrupted only by an occasional set of animal tracks—whitetail deer, tiny feet we can’t identify, a set of fisher tracks. Fishers, which do not fish, are relatively rare in the United States, and for habitat each one needs about 4 square miles of the kind of dense forest The Nature Conservancy preserved here.
Conifers, hemlock and white pine droop with snow that sits a foot thick on their branches. Even the leafless hardwoods are loaded with snow, in the crooks of branches, clumps plastered to the trunks. When views of Lake Superior open to our right, we stop at each one to see the Western Hemisphere’s biggest lake sparkle from our perch about 50 stories high.
When we veer from the path to cut through a valley—a shortcut—we lose our firm base and plow through 3 feet of powder and a tangle of downed trees. Todd, inexperienced skier that he is, figures it’s easier to walk and takes off his skis. When we hook up with the trail again, though, he finds his binding jammed with snow, and it won’t lock his boot. We knock the binding, pick at it, blow warm breath on it, but ice remains lodged in the mechanism. We bury the skis in a snow bank and Todd puts on the snowshoes.