An Adventurous Retreat in the North Woods
Words by Michelle McChristie
Photos by Darren McChristie
For most of my life, the Gunflint Trail has been a mystery. Driving through Grand Marais, I had assumed that the trail, which was marked with a large sign featuring a voyageur portaging a canoe, was exactly that—a trail to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. With plenty of wilderness around Thunder Bay, we don’t look often to Minnesota’s “North Woods” as a destination, but the Gunflint Trail, which is actually a paved road, is akin to Highway 60 through Algonquin Park with 20 plus lodges and outfitters, unlike anything in Northwestern Ontario.
Our weekend at Gunflint Lodge, located 70 kilometres up the Gunflint Trail, was to be a relaxing family getaway—the cabins have no cellular service, phones, or television and wifi is only available in the main lodge. We also wanted to check out the Towering Pines Canopy Tour, go horseback riding, and do some paddling and hiking. The lodge has a full range of programming, from guided nature hikes and fishing trips to the zip line and massages.
After a scrumptious breakfast enjoyed overlooking Gunflint Lake, we headed to the stables, where wranglers Betsy and Elyse gave us an introduction to the dos and don’ts of horseback riding. Having never been on a horse, each of us listened intently—even the smaller horses looked intimidating. My son Nathan was first to saddle up, on a female horse named Butterscotch. My daughter Sarah rode Houdini, a female described as a timid, well-behaved escape artist, and I rode Pongo, Houdini’s fiancé who is happy to go on rides without his love, but kicks up a fuss when she leaves him behind. My husband Darren rode Dakota, the lodge’s only 100% Arabian horse.
Our guide Betsy led the way, somehow managing to sit sideways and face backwards in her saddle to carry on a conversation with the rest of us. Any apprehension and nervousness quickly dissipated we settled into our saddles and headed for the trail. An occasional and gentle pull on either side of the reins kept the horses in the centre of the trail, and a pull upwards prevented grazing (and stomach aches from poisonous plants). The horses responded so quickly, it was like having power steering.
After the ride, we headed back to our cabin to enjoy the hot tub and sauna and eventually made our way to the lodge for lunch. Since perusing the menu the night before, I was curious to try the walleye quesadilla. Delicious—the marriage of walleye and wild rice with cheese and soft tortillas was meant for me. Darren raved about the salmon chowder and the kids—well, their chicken fingers, cheeseburgers and fries were “the best ever.” We watched a storm roll in as we enjoyed our lunch—the afternoon’s forecast called for thunderstorms, so we rescheduled the canopy tour for the following morning.
Opened in 2012, the tour has eight zip lines with the longest being 244 metres. After we donned harnesses, helmets, and leather gloves (the palm of one is covered with thick leather which serves as the brake), our sky guides, Dan and Jason, showed us the ropes in “ground school”—a low-hung, shorter zip line. To explain braking, they used a Mexican food analogy: to slow down or stop apply pressure to the cable, a quesadilla works best, taco is okay, but the burrito should be avoided as it makes for a very abrupt stop. Got it. I was first up to give it a try, so I clipped the carriage onto the cable and stepped off the platform. “Whoa!” I said, not expecting to travel that quickly. I immediately demonstrated a perfect “burrito” and came to a screeching halt. But with a little practice, I felt like a pro by the time I had completed the first zip on the “bunny hill.”
The zip lines are hung between platforms built into the canopy of old growth white pines. Each platform has a unique design and the highest is 18 metres. The highest zip starts from a cliff that is approximately 24 metres high. If you are afraid of heights, relax—participants are clipped onto a cable at all times. The panoramic views of Gunflint Lake and the surrounding forest are unmatched by any of the hiking trails, but the key is to remember to look around and soak it in (rather than being preoccupied with quesadillas and burritos!).
As a testament to his zeal for the canopy tour (and perhaps sympathy for our children who missed out on the experience), Darren began researching and procuring the hardware needed to build a small zip line in our backyard. Within a few weeks of our trip we had our own “bunny hill.”
Gunflint Lodge was established in 1927 and is operated by the third generation of the Kerfoot family. Nostalgia abounds in the cabins and main lodge, with photos and antiques and accommodations range from rustic canoer cabins to fully-equipped lake homes. Visit gunflint.com.