We had heard that a certain breed of humans ski up the Devil Track River in Northeast MN to ice climb the frozen Barrier Falls in the winter. On an early March foray up to the North Shore of Lake Superior for some cross-country skiing, we thought we’d take a look to see if there were, indeed, any human tracks upon the frozen river.
Peering down on the river from Highway 61, we saw lots of animal tracks, but it took a while to discern what-looked-to-be a packed-down path. Skis on, we found the going easy along the well-traveled alleyway of the frozen river. We were puzzled by the lack of ski tracks, but the distinctive circular marks of what we took to be ski poles, on either side of the path, made us conclude that this was a popular route. We agreed that this beat any cross-country ski trail we could have chosen—the unique experience of gliding between beautiful red canyon walls rising higher and higher, the wall-to-wall silent stretch of white snow laying upon the stifled Devil Track, the small patches of open water providing an exciting and melodic contrast.
The way became more difficult, as the river began its tighter turns and areas of open water made the alleys traversing the river narrower. Small, but nevertheless precarious-looking crevices suggested spring thaw and the cold water of the Devil Track might be closer than we thought. Yet the packed down areas seemed solid, though wandering even inches off the path yielded soft snow in which our ski poles sank to half their length.
While negotiating a tree that had fallen thigh-high over the path—a comic scene worthy of a Lucille Ball episode—we heard human voices and saw a party of three coming up behind, sporting snowshoes and poles. Aha! That explained the tramped down sidewalk-like track and the circular prints—we never realized some snowshoers use poles.
While we had perceived ourselves to be moving swiftly upriver, they easily passed us, as the going became trickier on skis. Soon a final, especially acute twist of the river, with an inadequate shoulder to ski upon, made going farther on skis impossible. So we stashed them at the side of the trail, and trekked on foot for what proved to be only five more minutes to Barrier Falls.
Barrier Falls, in winter, is an awesome 25-foot tall confection of ice and snow, stalactites and mites. A large, gleaming protuberance bulges from the center, indicating, perhaps, a boulder that projects when the cascade is fluid. Winter hides the waterfall’s power from us—but an opening at the base of the falls offers a window into the hidden torrent. The rush is not constant, as one might expect, but rather reminded us of the surf of Superior—forces alive and violent battled beneath the ice; the frozen, solid exterior notwithstanding.
The chill air shortened our lingering time at Barrier Falls. Once we had negotiated the trickier stretches, the gentle descent of land and river made skiing back downstream virtually effortless. On the return trip, we passed a gentleman on foot—not even snowshoes—and another party like us, on skis. On an otherwise quiet winter Sunday afternoon on The Shore, it was obvious that the Devil Track provides a well-known and popular winter path to an alluring frozen waterfall.