Ely’s sister city to the north, Atikokan, promotes Circle Tour
by Nancy McReady
Looking for an exciting snowmobile adventure, eh?
Most snowmobilers may look to Yellowstone, Wisconsin or Michigan for their next trip, when right here in northern Minnesota we have some of the best snowmobile trails that connect to even more trails to our north in Canada. The Circle Tour is a promotional idea to entice winter tourism to Ely, Grand Marais and Atikokan areas.
Recently two separate groups from Ely, we’ll call them Group Eh and Group B, embarked on the Cross Border Circle Tour of the Boundary Waters and Quetico Provincial Park. Group Eh consisted of Ronnie and Laurie Dubbin, Dave Binion and Kim Brooks, all from Ely. Group B had Nancy and Doug McReady and Dave Johnson from Ely, and Rich Jensen from Grand Rapids.
The Cross Border Circle is a self-guided tour that encompasses close to 500 miles of some of the most rugged and beautiful trails of northern Minnesota and lower Ontario. The Circle Tour is doable in three days, but adding a couple extra days to enjoy the scenic trails in and around each community is an absolute must.
A little pre-planning is necessary to make this trip. You need the proper paperwork. You must obtain a Remote Area Border Crossing Permit (RABC) from Canadian Customs (about $30 USD per family); have your birth certificate or a passport to get back into the United States ($100 for a passport, or there are the options of the Passport Card for $50 or the Nexus Card for $50 that replaces the RABC and passport. These fees are per person); and purchase an Ontario Snowmobile Trail permit per sled (a 3-day permit is about $80 USD). The expense is worth it.
The Canadians, on the other hand, can come down and snowmobile the trails of Minnesota for the entire season with the purchase of a $15 trail permit. Minnesota snowmobile trail permits can be purchased at Handberg’s on Crane Lake.
For many years, all through the 1970s and 1980s, the Ely Igloo Snowmobile Club and the Winter Driftbusters used to have an annual Ely to Atikokan snowmobile ride. And, the Atikokan snowmobile club would have a ride to Ely. There were even Ely to Lake Saganaga club rides. There weren’t all the great trails we have now. The routes back then went through the Boundary Waters.
In many ways Ely and Atikokan mirror each other. They have about the same population and their landscape is similar. Economies for both towns were based on logging and mining, and both are suffering from the poor economy now. Tourism plays a big part in each community with great canoeing and fishing lakes. Ely and Atikokan were considered “Sister Cities.”
Travelling counter clockwise on the route, Groups Eh and B left Ely and snowmobiled the Tomahawk Trail to the North Shore Trail to Grand Marais. This first day of the tour is a 130-mile ride. Last weekend trail conditions were fantastic with the trails of the Arrowhead area having recently received four inches of snow after the previous week’s meltdown.
If you choose to stay your first night in Grand Marais as Group B did, your second day of riding to Atikokan will be close to 200 miles. It is suggested that you stay at one of the many resorts further up the Gunflint Trail to reduce the second day of riding. The Nor’Wester, Windigo, Trail Center, Gunflint Lodge, and Gunflint Pines Resort are a few options.
After riding the “G Trail” of the Gunflint Trail System and gassing up at Gunflint Pines Resort, you head across Gunflint Lake to a narrow, winding trail that connects with the well groomed L902M Trail heading north to Northern Lights Lodge. Ontario Snowmobile Permits may be purchased here. Then it’s on to Kashabowie for a pit stop and more gas.
As Group B warmed up in the Kashabowie Store, they commented on how they had not seen one single snowmobile on the 120 miles of trail from Grand Marais to their resting spot. No sooner said and four snowmobiles were seen on the trail across the highway. They turned out to be members of Group Eh from Ely. They also stopped for gas and were soon on their way again.
Leaving Kashabowie, you head west on the A Trail to Atikokan. This trail is in a very remote area of southern Ontario and you are lucky to get cell phone reception in the event of a sled breakdown. Such was the case for one snowmobiler in Group Eh. The breakdown took place near Kawene, which in Ojibway means ‘nowhere’. Luckily a member in Group B was able to get a cell phone signal to call Atikokan Sno Ho Snowmobile Club president Kim Cross in the middle of nowhere. Kim was forty minutes away from the trail crossing and volunteered to come with her vehicle and trailer to transport the downed sled and rider to Atikokan. Kim even arranged for the Sno Ho groomer operator to trailer the downed sled and rider to an intersection of Flanders Road and the L901M Snowmobile Trail. This would be closer to Namakan Lake so members of Group Eh wouldn’t have to tow the sled 85 miles to Crane Lake on the return trip to Ely. Their towing was lessened by 50 miles.
Group B stayed on in Atikokan for another night, and nine members of the Sno Ho Snowmobile Club guided them on a maze of the most beautiful trails. Group B had never seen so many groomed trails with no tracks on them. The economy in Atikokan and the surrounding area is such that snowmobiling is a luxury that few can afford. Trail after trail were ridden on for the first time in weeks.
Stops were made at the open pit mine area that was now filled with water forming a beautiful lake like Ely’s Miners Lake, at the Sno Ho Club house and at a trail side shelter. The next stop was at the bridge crossing of the Seine River. This river was rerouted in the 1940s for several miles due to mining many years ago. The reroute was cut through solid rock. It was a beautiful area. A stop was also made at Browns' Clearwater West Lodge for gas, which is adjacent to the Turtle River White Otter Wilderness Park, and then it was on to the White Otter Castle.
White Otter Castle is four storeys high, and was entirely built by hand by Jimmy McOuat beginning in 1903. He had hopes that one day he would bring a wife to his home, but Jimmy never married. He completed the building in 1915 and drowned in 1918 netting fish. In 1994, White Otter Castle was completely restored. It is accessible by boat/canoe, plane or snowmobile.
Members of the Sno Ho Snowmobile Club treated Group B to a surprise lunch of moose and venison polish, and then everyone hit the trails again. The final stop for the day was at Perch Lake Resort for a fine dinner and great conversation.
The Circle Tour is most definitely a trip that will be made again by many of these snowmobilers. They thank the friendship and generosity of the Atikokan Sno Ho Snowmobile Club for making this a memorable adventure.
Group Eh included Ronnie & Laurie Dubbin, Dave Binion and Kim Brooks all from Ely, MN.
Group B included Doug & Nancy McReady and Dave Johnson from Ely, MN. Rich Jensen from Grand Rapids, MN.
Day 1: Ely to Grand Marias‚
Day 2: Grand Marais to Atikokan‚
Day 3: Atikokan Trails‚
Day 4: Atikokan to Ely