In the snowiest area of Minnesota, on the slopes of the Sawtooth Hills that rise above Lake Superior, a small group of skiers make waves in otherwise untrammeled drifts.
They call themselves Superior Highland Backcountry and they are having a blast doing something most Minnesotans have never heard of.
The idea is to hike or ski uphill in wild areas — or up mountains if you have them — and then ski back down, on specialized equipment that can grip on the way uphill and glide on the way down. You ski between trees, around rocks, over humps and bumps usually through powdery, unpacked snow. The sport is huge in western mountain states, growing in Vermont and the east and in its infancy on the hills of Minnesota's Arrowhead region between Finland and Lutsen.
Backcountry skiing means places beyond ski resort groomers and chairlifts, and by nature requires sometimes-intense physical effort. Some regions also promote “sidecountry” skiing, combing resort chairlift access but well off groomed and cleared trails.
“You’re in pretty good company if you have never heard of backcountry skiing in Minnesota,’’ said Fred Sproat, a Duluth skier and a board member of the fledgling Superior Highland Backcountry group. “Most people have no idea you can do this in Minnesota.”
The group officially formed in 2017 but has been brewing for several years. There are a dozen core members, about 30 people on the group’s list of volunteers and 250 on the email list, said Elli King-Gallagher, co-chair and treasurer of the group. Beyond that, word has spread slowly.
“There are not currently many people skiing our target areas simply because they do not know they are there,’’ King-Gallagher said. But once they ski the hills “everyone who we have brought out in this area has been absolutely floored by the quality, vertical, variety and expansive (range) of terrain available.”
And there’s plenty of snow. Wolf Ridge Environmental Center, right in the group’s target zone, has had some of the snowiest winters on record in Minnesota, often over 100 inches. Not only does the area get hammered by lake-effect snows off Lake Superior, but the highest hills in the state seem to scour more snow out of most passing storms.
It's the "area of Minnesota that receives the most snowfall, deepest snowpack and longest ski season, sometimes up to six months of proficient snow coverage for backcountry skiing,’’ said Rory Scoles, co-chair and founder of Superior Highland Backcountry board member. All that snow “combined with the alpine-like terrain in the area in Finland toward Lutsen, really lends itself toward backcountry skiing."
Most backcountry skiers get their baptism in the mountain west. Sproat, a Duluth native, said he brought it back to Minnesota after a stint in the Rockies. But Scoles said he discovered backcountry powder skiing by accident, wandering off the groomed slopes at Lutsen.
“We’d wander farther and farther off (marked runs) to find places nobody had skied yet and it was wonderful,’’ he noted. Now, he can't get enough of it. He's traveled west to get more powder and more vertical but says the Superior Highlands area has enough of both to satisfy most powder-crazed skiers.
“Once I discovered powder skiing, it was transformational. It becomes more than a sport, it’s a lifestyle... You start looking at hills wherever you go and saying ‘I could ski that’,” Scoles said. “And to get the best powder you have to go backcountry.”
The skis are a sort of hybrid between downhill and cross country, wider than skinny skies, waxless, with a middle section of gripping crosshatch. If the terrain is steep, hardcores add fabric “skins’’ to the skis which allow for uphill movement but don’t slide back down. The boots resemble old-style telemark boots that offer ankle support but much more flexibility than larger, stiff plastic downhill boots.
Glades and huts
The group’s focus runs from roughly Finland on the west, through Crosby Manitou State Park, through public forest lands managed by Lake County and eastward into hilly woodlands managed by the Superior National Forest, right up to the back door of Lutsen Mountain ski resort.
But the area has some drawbacks, namely that the mature maple and spruce forest that covers many of the hills is often too thick to ski through in its current state. So the group is promoting "glading," selective thinning of underbrush and low branches to create just enough open areas to safely ski through. So far they’ve got some cooperation from the Lake County Forestry Department on county-managed lands.
The second drawback is that there’s no place to stay overnight. The remote, steep topography of the region doesn’t allow traditional winter camping in which you tow your sled load of gear along with you. So, copying a popular amenity in mountain states, Scoles and other backcountry skiers hope to see a series of overnight shelters, huts or cabins, created along a broad area of glade-to-glade, hill-to-hill backcountry skiing.
Scoles, who lives off the grid near Finland and owns a ski gear shop in Lutsen, said the group also is hoping state and federal land managers will support glading and hut-to-hut skiing on state park and national forest lands, too.
Loggerheads near Lutsen
The group had hoped to convince Lutsen Mountain’s developers to adjust their proposed expansion west of the current downhill ski resort to include backcountry skiing. So far those efforts haven’t advanced. Lutsen is still pursuing plans for traditional, resort-groomed, lift-serviced ski hills on the westerly slopes of Moose Mountain. That plan, in the works for years, is still under review by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the best 400 acres for skiing on the hill.
Scoles and the Superior Highland Backcountry group have submitted a separate plan to the Forest Service for the same 400 acres for a destination, undeveloped backcountry ski area. No action has been taken on that plan, either. He says Moose Mountain offers the best vertical drop in Minnesota and the perfect place to promote new tourism among backcountry skiers. A Forest Service official did not immediately return a request to comment on the situation.
“All of the growth in alpine skiing right now is in backcountry skiing,’’ he said. “We think this would become a destination area for a whole new market for skiers. ... The number of skiers looking for blue-run (intermediate) groomed trails is shrinking, not growing.”
But even if Moose Mountain isn’t in the mix, the backcountry skiers say the area still offers ample opportunity to have their fun and grow the sport in Minnesota.
“Moose Mountain would be a fantastic backcountry ski hill. But that’s not the direction they (Lutsen ski resort) want to go,’’ Sproat said. “But that’s not the only spot. There are still many other hills that work for backcountry skiing between there and Finland.”
“Just last Sunday we hiked in at Crosby Manitou and skied and had a great trip,’’ Sproat said. “We like what we have (for ski runs.) But with just a few changes and a little cooperation, we can’t make it so much better.”
Backcountry Film Festival comes to Duluth
The Superior Highlands Backcountry ski group is sponsoring the nationally touring Winter Wildlands Alliance Backcountry Film Festival Sunday, January 26 and Wednesday, January 29 at The Zeitgeist Teatro Zuccone.
It’s the festival’s 15th year and the third year it’s been shown in Duluth. The film line-up is full of snowy, cinematic adventure aiming to inspire both the local backcountry and general communities.
Doors open at 6 p.m. and the films begin at 7 p.m. Admission is $15 for adults and free for kids 15 and under. Tickets can be purchased online through Eventbrite.com or at the door. All proceeds benefit Superior Highlands Backcountry, a local offshoot of Winter Wildlands Alliance, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving winter wildlands and human-powered snowsports experience on public lands.
Try it: Backcountry ski gear at Duluth event
Before the film festival next Sunday Superior Highlands Backcountry will be hosting a learn to backcountry ski program at Chester Bowl in Duluth. Backcountry ski equipment will be available to try. It’s free and open to anyone. The event is set for 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26. Pre-registration is required by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.