Closing Down the Northwoods: Wolves, the Sauna, and the Northern Lights

Ely, Minnesota: September, 2016

Unable to sleep during my last night north of the birch line, I walked down to the trees along Burntside Lake sometime just after eleven. I didn’t stray far because my mind kept going to the howling wolves we’d heard earlier so I stood there, squinting without my lenses in, looking out at the lake through heavy shrubbery, hearing nothing except that sound that conifers make when wind rubs them together. During the day, the pines interlocked branches with the amber tinted birch trees whose brilliant colors contrasted them from the verdant lollygagging of their early autumn counterparts back home. Now, blended together in a midnight monochrome, they seemed to turn their spindly fingers inward, holding me in like a second cabin with a single window open to the lake. Through this aperture, I could just make out a pale blue glow, the color the hottest flame on this frigid evening. The Minnesota north woods are exceptionally dark, even on a clear night, so this was unusual. I’ll never be sure but it could’ve been what we were waiting on the entire week – the aurora borealis. I gazed for a while until the chilly air, which typically invigorates, had an inverse effect on my now sagging eyes and forced me to reenter the cabin for the last time that year.

“He’s a liar!” I said of my friend Derek a few hours earlier, after he told me that the water in the lake was chilly, but tolerable. As soon as I caught my breath I swam the several feet back to the dock and bobbed there hoping to allow time for my body to adjust. Lauren and Carly followed, and soon we were all swimming out to a rocky ledge several hundred feet away. My muscles immediately cramped, but the cold felt pleasantly tense on my legs after a day of running and it was overall agreeable, for about five minutes.

The lakes in northern Minnesota are never warm – at their best in early August the temperature can reach the low 70s, right around the where “It’s fine once you get used to it” becomes “dip your toe in and think otherwise” – but in late September Burntside’s water had dropped below 50 degrees after several days of storms and a cold front. What really highlighted the discomfort was what we added before the next jump.

You don’t have to go searching to find a Finnish Sauna in these parts – nearly every campground or private cabin will have one or several on the grounds. They consist of small wooden structures with a gathering of warming stones in the corner, and can range from 140 to 212 degrees with the door shut. Finns use saunas for nearly any occasion: relatives in town, successful business meeting, hangovers. One simply takes a seat on a long bench, perhaps while gently whipping themselves with a birch twig to relax the muscles, and when they simply can’t take it anymore, the door swings open for a leap in a lake or a roll in the snow. Repeat if desired.

Normally the saunas are cramped with people and become a slightly fresher smelling version of the one at a local gym, but as this was as late as late season gets in the north woods, Carly was the only one there and had completed round one of steaming and jumping before I had even arrived. Why anyone would do this a second time, I had no idea – I generally don’t mind feeling cold, but I scorn heat and humidity, and transferring rapidly between the two sounds like one of the more foolhardy methods of initiating cardiac arrest.

I had experiencd the saunas on prior trips, but each time the post-soak plunge was a crisp 70 degrees, uncomfortable after sitting in humid soup twice that, but altogether painless. This one would be a different story – Burntside Lake was sitting in the 40s, doing battle with the outside temperature to see who could plummet the fastest. For some reason, Carly kept using a large ladle to scoop water onto the hot stones, a maneuver that would instantly raise the room another ten to fifteen degrees.

“You have to quit doing that.” I said, stepping away from the steam and staring at the thermometer, hoping I could psychokinetically will the arrow back down to a semi-comfortable 140. I could practically watch toxins drip from my body as the sweat forms in every gland, each drop the size of a needle point, appearing where I didn’t know I could sweat. Lauren and Derek had joined us by this point, and both were far braver than I, congregating on the far side near Carly and the steamy stones.

“Relax.” I told myself, and leaned back and closed my eyes. There were no birch twigs with which to gently whip myself, so light meditation had to be a sufficient substitute. Gradually, despite the rising temperature, the sauna began to feel more comfortable. The body is resilient, and I began to calm. The pleasant fragrance of the hemlock interior became stronger with time, and like during my other trips to the sauna, I began to feel something in the realm of tranquility. However, everyone has a breaking point, and mine was no more than ten minutes in, so our group exited and sprinted out to the dock. 

“Why are we sprinting?” I thought as we cut through the air, as if the water would somehow be the more tolerable of the two elements, but unlike earlier in the week there was no time to stand at the dock’s edge willing yourself into a cannonball – when we reached the end we just had to keep on going.

Derek stayed behind on the first jump to record a video, and his phone captured the remaining three of us, steam pluming off of our bodies as we ran, leaping into the inky lake. A splash followed, then some shrieks, obscenities, and some quick self-assessing to make sure all hearts remained metronomic. 

I had to take a few conscious seconds to regain my ability to inhale, but with that handled, I was able to glance upward. The clouds had retreated while we were in the sauna and we had clear sky for the first time in over a week. The number of stars was staggering, with the amount of breath taken away by the view second only to that of the frigid lake. The tapestry of lights looked like space shuttle photos of the Milky Way galaxy, wisps of light instead of a pockmarked suburban sky, unlike any view even in the most isolated corners of my home state. We swam towards the shore instead of the dock, watched the stars for a moment before the shivering commenced, then headed back into the sauna for another go.

After a few more cycles of sauna and lake, we grabbed some drinks from the cabin and settled in on the dock, patiently waiting for the northern lights, forecasted as likely on what would be our only clear night of the trip. Derek shared the video he took of the first jump, and a high pitched howl erupted from across the lake as if in response. The pitch was nearly the same and it didn’t take too much imagining that from a wolf’s perspective that our self-inflicted shrieking could be that of an injured animal. Still, we were fascinated that we could actually hear it. Derek and Carly had spent weeks in northern Minnesota every summer and have never yet to hear wolves in the wild. It took an out of season sauna jump for something other than a loon to break the silence of the lapping water against the dock.

The wolf sounded once more from the opposite side of the lake, this time met by a cacophony of howls from much closer and on our shore. There had to be at least ten in the pack, yelling across to each other. 

“This is surreal. So cool.” Derek said as we sipped our beers, a perfect backdrop if the northern lights presented themselves. We sat on the dock mesmerized by the sound until realizing maybe the dock wasn’t the best place to be. 

“Do wolves swim?” Lauren wondered aloud, to which we unsuccessfully tried to remember what we learned at the wolf center in Ely a few days before. We were too busy looking at the adorable animals who now seemed considerably less adorable with a few thousand feet of forest separating them from us instead of reinforced glass. If they did come to the dock, our best idea was to jump in the kayaks and shove off but with the paddles locked away in the main lodge we would pretty much float aimlessly and hope that the wolves would lose interest. 

The yips continued in a crescendo as the pack headed in our direction from the area of our cabin, but whether they were between us and the cabin or just beyond it we had no idea. Our group finally decided the best course of action would be to stay in a pack ourselves and walk briskly back to shelter. Once again retaining nothing from the wolf center, we deduced that speaking loudly and in deep voices would be better than slinking about or playing that video again, but we had no idea what action was less likely to bother our new campmates. The wolves were quiet again when we left the dock, the relatively short walk seeming endless due to high alert, knowing the only things we had to protect ourselves were some birch branches and half a growler of stout.

Listening closely to every rustle in the pines or cracking twig on the ground, we walked the single track path back through the woods to the cabin hoping not to see any pairs of eyes snooping from the brush. When we arrived, we instinctively bolted the door to the cabin as it seems like a good idea when something is after you, despite that something having the inability to turn a doorknob.  We cracked the window to listen to some more wayward howls, finished the beer and returned earthbound from the high that manifests itself when fight or flight triggers. We wondered together if the wolves were actually hunting us, or merely passing through. There’s no way to know for sure of course, but after not hearing them for almost an hour, we went back outside to wash up for the night and Lauren and Carly began laughing loudly about something in roughly the same pitch as they were in the video.  Immediately there was a chorus of howls, a shorter, more distant encore to their earlier performance, but enough to make us remain cabin-bound for the duration of the night.

It was a few hours later that I may have seen the northern lights, and after a deep sleep awoke the next morning with limbs accounted for, ready for the drive home. This was the last day the campground was open for the year and, like everything else near Ely, it was being boarded up for the winter. Remaining was just the four of us, two fisherman, and the woman who ran the place. In the summer, Derek says, the camp is completely inundated with vacationers, and we wondered if the wolves know this and stay away until this time of year, reclaiming as their territory the same woods we had been walking at dusk for over a week. I was thankful they waited to announce themselves until our final night however, as that certainly would have changed our habits about roaming the campground after dark in a contented ignorance.

Though the calendar had flipped to October that night, several hours after our departure we had driven back southward into late summer: green trees, chirping crickets, lower midwestern humidity. Autumn would eventually catch up, creeping southward over the lakes and plains until arriving without fanfare, as fall décor and harvest festivals had already been in full swing for weeks.  By then, Ely will be in hibernation, only hearty locals and coal miners remaining. The trinket shops and taverns will have cut their hours, subsisting on the few snowmobilers fearless enough to brave the incoming deep freeze.  But reliably, each May they will open up their doors once more as summertime adventurers intrude, searching for glassy lakes to paddle and glasses of porter to raise, an expansive wilderness populated by pines and loons, campfires and comradery. But until then, Minnesota is for the wolves.

Some other ways to enjoy the North Woods here that might involve wolves but probably won’t.

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