I have driven to Canada through border stations across the northern Midwest. I walked to Canada once at Niagara Falls. I’ve even had the delight of canoeing along the boundary of Canada. However, without a doubt, the best way I’ve ever made it to our country’s northern border is by ski.
My first ski trip to the border was actually my second ever ski in the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. I had done a short out-and-back a couple weeks prior, just to see if I could confidently navigate my way around. So come February of my first winter in Ely, I was ready to really see something that groomed trails could not offer.
I wanted to see the "Welcome to Canada" sign at Prairie Portage.
For those who haven’t heard of this landmark, Prairie Portage is one of the most popular places for a remote area bordering crossing in the summers when this frozen lake is open water and full of canoes. It has a Quetico Ranger Station where canoers check in. On the American side, there’s still a rail portage for motor boats. Stretching across the edge of the lake is a dam, a human intervention that creates a beautiful cascade below.
Six miles south of Prairie Portage is the Moose Lake entry point. That’s where I strapped on my skis. I wore my thickest socks, my warmest pair of fleece-lined wind pants, a wind jacket over a few warm layers, and backpack full with snacks, water, extra socks, extra mittens, an extra hat, a couple extra layers, and of course, my day use permit. I was ready to tackle the toughest ski trip I had ever done.
I was, ultimately, over prepared. The extra layers were never needed, and, in fact, I shed a few. There have been ski trips since then that were much harder, but at the time, I didn’t know that as I slid myself down the hill and onto Moose Lake that February day.
All I knew then was the moment my skis hit the snow and ice of that frozen lake, my breath was taken away. The sun was gleaming overhead. The snow glimmered and sparkled all around me. On each shore, trees stood sentinel against the wind.
I had, prior to this, an exclusive affection for the way snow would sit on the needled boughs of evergreens. Now, however, as the sun glittered its way over the snow and up the rocky shoreline, I found myself utterly and completely enamored with the black stripes of the aspen bark curling their way around flaky white trunks. The aspen trees climbed out of the snow as if sprouts from fertile soil. The tips of their tallest branches danced on the breeze and cast blue shadows on the snow.
I skied in the shadows of the aspens for most of the length of Moose Lake, entranced by their wintry camouflage. It was cold there, away from the sun, but the only notion of the wind I had was the shifting woods beside me.
Eventually, my eyes allowed themselves to be drawn from the aspens, and I became utterly distracted by the snow.
It’s likely no one followed the trail of my ski tracks before wind and snow returned the frozen lake to its original blank canvas, but if someone had, I’m sure they would have wondered about my twisting, wandering route. I was chasing the loose powder skidding across the hard pack. I was attempting to follow the small, bounding, frozen waves of snow drifts. I was trying to capture on camera the way the shadows rippled and pooled like currents in water during the summer.
When at last I felt a renewed urge to see the Welcome to Canada sign, I began to look for a more efficient way to ski north. I was happy to find a firm path carved into the snow by dogsleds.
This thoroughfare was marked by pine boughs along the side of the trail, and, despite the light layer of snow gathered since its last use, it was easy to follow.
From Moose Lake, I entered Newfound Lake. From Newfound, I crossed into Sucker. Once I was in Sucker, I carefully watched the shore to turn east and made my way to Prairie Portage.
I couldn’t wait to see it. And there, in the distance, my eyes began to pick up something large and red. As I got closer, I could see the blue background and make out the black posts on either side until, finally, it came fully into view, a strange signpost in what felt like the middle of nowhere, declaring a border that humans ourselves created. So I, of course, took a picture of it.
(Note the pair of trusty skis, posing casually for the camera.)
Now, I’ll be honest- When I began my trip, the only thing I knew about Prairie Portage was that there was a Quetico Ranger Station and there was a sign. So imagine my delight when I found and followed, as I tend to do, a small trail that led into the woods.
I saw open water, smooth and black, seeping out from under the ice. It poured over the dam in a smooth waterfall, before tumbling wild, white frothed, and free, down over rocks and around turns. I chased it along the trail, laughing giddily: seeing the water rush and play and feeling my own delight go with it. The light breeze spun snowflakes from the white pines overhead, and my world sparkled.
When I had eased my amazement, I went back to the sign to eat my lunch. I changed my socks, drank my water, and packed up. I clicked my skis back on and found myself teased with temptation to ski to where the ice stopped and the black water spilled over the dam. I let myself go closer, but not too close and listened to the rushing water a while. It was the loudest sound the winter woods made that day.
Then, I turned and headed back south, away from the cascade, the dam, and the sign. I knew without a doubt, I would return to this place.
(This trek is roughly 12 miles round trip. For a seasoned skier feeling determined, it may take 3-5 hours. Although some skiers take closer to 7 hours if they’re moving at a leisurely pace enjoying the views.)
Virginia Wightman is originally from southeastern Wisconsin and graduated from UW-La Crosse. She now lives in places with bad cell reception and owns too many sweaters. Currently, she works as a guide at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge, where she puts her skiing skills and fond navigation of the Boundary Waters to very good use.