(BPT) - The quiet that comes with skiing through the woods on an Ely winter's night will restore your soul. Imagine it: an inky black sky filled with stars, the moon illuminating your trail, the utter serenity that comes from completely unplugging from the modern world (if only for a while), and no sound except the shhhh-shhh of your skis gliding through the snow and, if you're lucky, the occasional howl of a wolf. That's cross-country skiing in Ely when the sun goes down.
Ski trails crisscross the landscape here, with long, gentle routes for beginners, challenging slopes for experts and everything in between. No matter your level of skiing expertise, you'll find breathtaking views, towering pines and vistas seemingly unchanged by the passage of time.
One great place to get your night ski on is Bear Head State Park, seven miles outside of Ely on Highway 128. Its groomed Norberg Lake Trail (5k) winds through the woods to overlooks on Bear Head and Norberg lakes. On your loop, as you pass by pines and birches heavy with snow, look for signs of gray wolves, foxes, pine martens, deer and snowshoe hare, and listen for the howling that will turn your night ski into something out of an enchanted fairy tale.
But, as everyone who has ever read Grimm knows, fairy tales can turn dark quickly. Safety is important at all times in the wilderness, but even more so at night and in the winter. Here are some tips for making your night skiing adventure magical.
Stay on groomed trails. It's tempting to set off from your lodge, cabin or tent onto a lake covered with new-fallen snow, but unless you are a seasoned BWCAW veteran who has spent a lifetime in these woods, it's easy to get turned around and lose your way. It's best to stay on a groomed trail that is, ideally, a loop that will take you back to where you started.
Bring a headlamp. Yes, the moon and stars are going to illuminate the snow, making it seem brighter than Times Square on New Year's Eve. But, the weather can be unpredictable here, and clouds can roll in before you know it. You'll want to be certain you can read your trail map or follow the signs and get back safely.
Dress in layers. This is standard protocol, but it's especially important in the winter, when temps can dip perilously low, even in the late winter and early spring. You'll be working up a sweat skiing, so make sure you have a wicking layer underneath a wind-break layer. And bring some extra lightweight, warm clothes just in case.
Take a backpack. Along with your headlamp, trail map and extra clothes, stock it with water, some emergency supplies like a firestarter and a knife, and an energy bar.
Another tip: If you're skiing in a state park, you'll need the Great Minnesota Ski Pass. It's $6 per day or just $20 for a year, and will get you into all of the state parks in Minnesota. You can buy it online before you go, or get it at the park. If you're night skiing and arrive after hours, there's usually a self-serve kiosk (at Bear Head, there is). Tip: if you're going after hours, bring cash. Keep a copy with you, and you're good to go.