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Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Morning

It is minus-15 degrees. Fahrenheit. The snow is many feet deep. It would be a fine day for sipping tea and reading by the fire. Instead I am four miles out on a trail through the woods. I am skiing, finally, to Norm’s.

My presence here is an accident of marriage. My husband, up the trail ahead of me with my son, is an outdoor type who loves to camp, hike, kayak, raft and, a remnant of his Midwestern upbringing, cross-country ski. As a third-generation Southern Californian clueless about winter, I am an unlikely participant in that last activity, but not an unwilling one. Now, pausing at the top of a hill for water and a quick bite of chocolate, I am tired and cold, but I have a goal: to ski the 12-mile roundtrip from the lodge to the back-country hunting cabin of an old French Canadian trapper named Norm Bourgeois. I am armed with information from my niece Tanya that keeps me skiing on even though I‘m exhausted: The way back from Norm’s, she assured me at breakfast this morning, is all downhill.

For 14 years, we have been coming here, to Stokely Creek Lodge in Ontario, Canada, near the north shore of Lake Superior. I love everything about it, including the parking lot, which is far away. Cars are parked a quarter-mile from the lodge, and guests must ski in, an immediate reminder that life here is different. Getting from place to place requires exertion. But exertion is rewarded. You return from skiing to an elegantly simple, Scandinavian-style lodge with fireplaces and comfortable chairs and hearty meals.

My first few times here, I was more a trudger than a skier. Although the lodge grooms over 60 miles of trails, my destination options were limited by my abilities. As I‘ve improved, the world has opened up. The real pleasure of cross-country skiing is gliding through beautiful but otherwise inaccessible country. Now I can ski the Evans Lake trail, which winds in and out of a hardwood forest and around two frozen back-country lakes. I can ski the Lower Stokely trail, along a stunningly lovely, half-frozen stream. I can ski the Peterson system, which features a welcome but frigid outhouse at mile two. I have discovered the sounds of northern woods in winter, the creaking of frozen beech trees in the wind, the soft thuds of snow dropping from overloaded fir branches, the chirruping of a few hardy grouse. As my horizons have broadened, I’ve begun to think about skiing to Norm‘s.

In his 80s, Norm lives in town now, and he can’t make it out to his cabin and back on skis anymore. But when the lodge is full, he still goes there by snowmobile to play host to skiers, offering them use of his outhouse and a cup of hot chocolate by the fire before they ski back. He‘s a character, people say, a storyteller who loves the idea that people ski 12 miles just to see him. The cabin, decorated in a style my niece Gayle describes as “early jackalope,” is said not to smell too good. But I am sick of listening to people at dinner talk about Norm’s cabin. I want to go myself.

We set off after breakfast on our second morning. The temperature has plunged overnight, but I am undaunted. The miracle of modern synthetics has made it possible to stay warm, relatively speaking, even while skiing in subzero temperatures.

The landscape is inspiring. We ski along streams, across bridges, among towering fir trees outlined in snow. We ski up and down the rolling hills, at times, at least in the first couple of hours, kicking and gliding almost like the skiers in the technique videos they have back at the lodge. Still, there are annoyances, primary among them that each time I blink, my frozen eyelashes stick together briefly. And there is the griping of my 12-year-old son, Sam, who, when we pause at mile four, advocates scrapping the mission. I am tired, too, but determined. I remind him of his cousin‘s inspirational message. “It’s hard now, but the way back is all downhill.” Sam doesn‘t respond; he does, however, pick up his poles and continue.

By five miles, even the scenery has worn thin. It is now an endurance contest. I realize they still haven’t discovered the right miracle fabric for feet. Cold from the snow is coming up through my skis, through my boots and high-tech socks. I wonder idly if it will be better or worse when my toes lose their feeling. Sam has lost hope. He is now skiing with his eyes closed, saying he no longer has the energy to pull his eyelashes apart. Pathos works where whining didn‘t. We reach the shore of Bone Lake. And we turn back, a mile short of our destination.

It was a hard ski. It was a good ski. But I still haven’t been to Norm‘s. I’m sure there are life lessons to be drawn from the experience. The journey is more important than the destination. Nature is to be enjoyed, not conquered. Things like that. But the most important practical lesson is one I learned skiing home to the lodge: The trail back from Norm‘s is not all downhill.


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