It’s the perfect playground for kids to push their limits. The trails are wide and well-groomed; hard enough for adults but easy enough for children. The uphills are nice rollers, just big enough to get you to downshift. The kids are upright and smiling at the bottom of the gentle downhills, not crying after taking a snow sample with their faces. These mild grades were my favorite spot for pulling my kids in a pulk and they’re just as good now that the kids cruise on their own.
“It’s almost like summer!” Sam said as he stripped off his hat, jacket and gloves. I pointed out the tracks of mice, deer and rabbits. Soon the kids were pointing them out to me in the bright afternoon sun. I asked Grace what this tree is that has paper for bark. “Birch!” she shouts. Son of a gun, they’re paying attention.
The Boulder Lake Management Area was created in 1991 as a partnership between Minnesota Power, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the St. Louis County Land Department. I can’t think of a much better example of beneficial cooperation between a corporation and government agencies. Boulder Lake is part of a series of Minnesota Power reservoirs that generate hydroelectric power. I get all tingly when I think about Minnesota Power, since they groom their 21K of trails and invite us to come ski for free. I officially declare this a good deal.
The westernmost of three trailheads gives access to the Otter Run Trail, which is a classic-only track that’s very flat and perfect for beginners. The easternmost access leads to a series of trails called Blue Ox, Nine Pine and Lonesome Grouse. They are groomed for both classic and skating. With kids I recommend parking in the middle lot. Rolling Pin, Ridge Runner and Timber Cruiser are classic-only trails that begin here and have the biggest hills of the system for grown-ups or your more advanced kids. Ridge Runner is a fantastic example of a glacial esker. It’s a unique stretch of trail on a high meandering spine left behind by the last Ice Age.
With younger kids, leave the middle parking lot for Wolfski’s Ski Den, the perfect base camp for little ones. Wolfski, the cartoon wolf, welcomes you into a warm cabin, open from dawn to dusk, where there is hot chocolate and hot apple cider. Ski across the frozen bay of Boulder Lake right in front of the cabin and connect with the Bear Paw loop. This 3K loop starting at the ski den is just right. I’d tell Grace there was another downhill ahead, she’d smile, say. “Oh, yeah!” and keep on tucking down the slopes. Sam took his first skating strides and gave me glimpses of how he’s going to kick my butt someday.
I ended the day talking to a skiing family of six. They just moved to Duluth from New Zealand and were ecstatic about all the wintertime fun to be had.
Basking in the sun with a cup of hot cider in my hand, we watched our kids frolicking in the sun outside the ski den. Grace had skied the farthest I’d ever seen and now she was sliding headfirst down a snowbank claiming to be a penguin. Sam was turning his skis into a sled by sitting on the tails while keeping his feet in the bindings. They’re bolder at Boulder Lake.
Drive north from Duluth on County Highway 4 (aka Rice Lake Road) for 18 miles. Immediately after Island Lake Inn, take a left on Boulder Lake Dam Road. Drive two miles to Blue Ox-Bear Paw Trailhead, 2.3 miles to Rolling Pin Trailhead (closest to Wolfski’s Ski Den), and three miles to Otter Run Trailhead.
Boulder Lake Cross Country Ski Trails: http://www.blma.org/skimap.htm
Eric Chandler is a husband, father of two and F-16 pilot who lives in Duluth, Minnesota. He’s a 3-time veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and a six-time finisher of both the American Birkebeiner and Grandma’s Marathon. Email firstname.lastname@example.org if you can help him break out of Wave 2.