When it’s 30 below in the north woods, that's nothing like a cold day in Siberia.
It’s more like a cold day in Mongolia.
Temperatures were dangerously low over New Year's when we drove with friends to the Gunflint Trail, but we knew a wood fire would be waiting for us in a round, canvas-sided hut called a yurt, or ger in Mongolia.
Along Minnesota's northern border with Canada, more than 200,000 people a year find an increasingly rare commodity — absolute wilderness.
The million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is barely changed since voyageurs used its chain of lakes and rivers
to push deep into the continent's interior.
Today, the foot trails over which they carried canoes and 180-pound packs are used by vacationers, who wind their way from lake to lake in search of the perfect combination of woods, water and solitude.
In Ely, one picture is worth a thousand tourists.
Who could ignore the call of its photogenic expanses of sky-blue water and rocky islands amid spruce forest? Who isn't drawn
to a shimmering image of the northern lights, or of a moose and calf browsing in a patch of wild calla lilies?
To see Ely is to want to be there, enveloped by tranquility.
Everyone loves a teddy bear, especially one called Ted.
He's likely the world's largest black bear, at 850 pounds, but he doesn't throw his weight around.
When his fellow bear Honey doesn't want to play, which is often, he merely whines, "like a foghorn,'' says curator Donna Phelan. And when he wants to make friends, which is all the time, he makes a "wonderful amiable sound, an umph-umph-umph.''
In the 1920s, when the first resorts appeared along this remote, 57-mile highway that dead-ends near the Canadian border, guests had to have a certain sense of adventure.
The Gunflint Trail first was blazed by the Ojibwe, then used by fur traders, trappers and loggers. It was still a zigzagging roller-coaster through the woods when vacationers began to come.
The first visitors in spring often had to patch the single phone line, which moose tended to snag and drag. Gasoline lanterns in their cabins often became plugged, and bears sometimes made appearances near cabins.
Around Ely, beauty is stripped down to essentials.
There's little but water, stone, spruce and sky in the northern Minnesota wilderness, what conservationist Sigurd Olson called "the naked grandeur." Still, it enthralls visitors from all over the world.
In winter, snow, ice and silence settle over the forests and lakes, and stars plaster the inky night sky. For many, Ely's pull is even stronger then.
While people in cities to the south are looking for crocuses, folks on northeast Minnesota's Gunflint Trail are enjoying some of the best skiing of the year.
It's not that the Gunflint is so much colder. It's that there's so much snow it keeps itself refrigerated, like glaciers.
"We have a really good base,'' says Heather Telchow of Golden Eagle Lodge. "Even after these warm days, the snow is like brand new. I grew up in Faribault, and I'm used to it disappearing in a few days. But we don't lose snow like that up here. We keep it forever.''
In Bear Head Lake State Park near Ely, there are three places to spend the night: a tent, one of five rustic camper cabins and a modern split-level.
On a subzero day in winter, one is better than the others.
Minnesota's state parks are sprinkled with guesthouses and cabins that can be rented. Some are
marvelously atmospheric, such as the log cabins built in Itasca for the tourist trade.
In Minnesota canoe country, hikers get serious bragging rights by backpacking the Border Route Trail.
This 65-mile trail roughly parallels the Ontario border, mostly through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The volunteers who maintain it can't use mechanized tools there, and signs aren't allowed.
Navigation isn't easy, and hikers frequently have to dodge blown-down trees.
At the Gunflint Lodge, every new luxury burnishes the legend of the rough-hewn outdoorswoman who made them possible.
Justine Kerfoot was a 22-year-old college student when the stock market crashed in 1929. Her family lost their Illinois home and lake cottage, so she gave up medical school and moved to the family fish camp at the edge of the Boundary Waters.
"We were green people who came in from the outside and didn't know anything about anything,'' she said in a 1997 interview. "I just bulled it through.''
At the top of Minnesota, there's a spectacular national park — half water and all scenery.
Not only is it beautiful, but it's also the only national park we have, which you'd think would impress most people. But not, apparently, some of the locals.
My husband and I found that out two minutes after we'd arrived on Rainy Lake and were chatting with the friendly young woman checking us into our B&B.
Half a century ago, a Minnesota logger who lived in a forest full of hungry bears decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
By the time he died at age 86, Vince Shute had fed generations of black bears, become best friends with a bear named Brownie and inspired bear-lovers all over the world.
Shute wasn't a sophisticated man, but he had a heart.