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Walking on Water near Lutsen, Minnesota

Story and photos by Lee Juillerat   February 1, 2010


Frozen Onion River


The Onion River, legend says, was named by Paul Bunyan, the legendary logger. As the story goes, Bunyan and his Seven Ox-men were logging through the northern wilds of Minnesota near present-day Lutsen when they came along a swamp filled with pungent onions. The Ox-men took several bites and the taste was so strong their eyes filled with tears, enough tears to create a flood so strong that it cut its way through the basalt and rhyolite to Lake Superior. In recognition of the plant that created the river, Bunyan named it the Onion.

We weren’t shedding any tears or even thinking about onions. Instead, we played follow the leader, carefully tiptoeing — if you can tiptoe in snowshoes — behind our trip leader over the ice-covered Onion River.

Wandering the mostly frozen Onion

Make that mostly ice-covered. At sections the sound under the snow was like the distant roar of high-flying jets. Other times the grumbling heightened to an ominous rumble. In some places the river was exposed, often through cracks and more startlingly at wide exposed gaps, including one that a member of our party created.  

But that’s later in the story. That comes after we were dropped off at a trailhead about three miles upriver from the western shore of Lake Superior. From there we walked a mile or so along the well-marked Superior trail through the woods, enjoying the fresh powder snow that had fallen overnight.

  Snowshoeing in the woods   Snowshoe march to Onion River  
Woods wandering
Marching to the Onion

We wove through the dense forest rather carefree, then triggered alert as we left the trail and dropped to the frozen river.   “Let me lead, and go where I go,” instructed our guide.  

No one argued. He led, frequently tapping the ice with his snowshoes. His erratic, wandering lead meandered constantly, sidestepping sometimes obvious chinks and cracks. But only minutes on the river one person stepped through, and just as quickly hopped out. If we hadn’t been alert earlier, we were now.

  Wobbling snowshoer on the Onion River  

Our group of seven followed in a winding conga line, especially over places where sounds of the underground river sounded like a heated, boiling witches cauldron. At times, standing over the unseen gushing waterway, we could feel the ice vibrating or hear an increasingly menacing, foreboding roar.

Wobbling along the Onion
    Snowshoeing the Onion River    
Follow the leader through narrowing passages

At places where the ice cracked open the formations were like the innards of a limestone cave, with icy stalactites and stalagmites. But the most weird-looking were straw-like formation with bubble-shaped lopes that looked like all-day suckers. Freaky describes a small section where the snow had blown away, revealing a semi-transparent layer of ice with water pulsating underneath in staccato patterns.

As the hidden river dove toward the lake, we did the same, weaving around summertime drops and riffles and falls, some with pockets of exposed water. Our route seemed to quixotically change direction, especially as it dropped and quickly steepened then squeezed into a canyon that, at places, rose 30 feet above the river. At river bends, walls of chalky rhyolite, colored like chocolate and studded with rocks the color of macadamia nuts, were exposed and gouged. Large globs of rocks crushed to our touch. Amazingly, kayakers don't often paddle the Onion during the few times it's passable, only about three days a year. What a ride it must be.

  Ice formations on the Onion River  
Ice formations

Walking on snowshoes was dicey enough. At one exposed area the only option was stepping onto a river-wet rock and quick-stepping to the opposite side. At an unusually narrow squeeze the first four of us crossed tentatively but without drama. But the fifth in line landed with a thud, causing a collapse about five-feet wide and two-feet long. After seeing him get soaked, the two trailing behind hugged the wall.  

  Avoiding the hole in Onion River   Clinging to the wall of the Onion River  
Avoiding the hole
Hugging the wall
  Ice bridge on the Onion River  

The further down river we traveled, the more frequent and louder the underfoot grumbles and river openings became, some boiling like overheated pots.   

None of us grumbled, but at the steepest falls we climbed the canyon rim and skirted a cliff until descending again. The canyon walls flattened as the river widened. Still, there was one final surprise — a frozen channel under the Highway 61 Bridge. It was so slick we didn’t step but gently slid one foot, and snowshoe, ahead of the other to the place the river merges with the lake.  

We had walked on water, on the ice-covered, appealing Onion, and never shed a tear.

Ice bridge walking

When you go  

  Lutsen Lodge   Lutsen Lodge  
Lutsen Lodge
Lutsen Lodge, along Lake Superior

Friends and I stayed at the Lutsen Resort along the north shore of Lake Superior in the economical Poplar River condominiums. The rooms are just a short walk from the historic Lutsen Lodge, a long-time destination for year around recreation and relaxation. Lutsen is located about 90 miles north of Duluth and about 250 miles north of Minneapolis. Other winter activities include downhill skiing at Lutsen Mountains, a ski area that’s only a five-minute shuttle from the resort. Other winter activities include cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, sled dog rides and horse-drawn sleigh rides. For information visit or call toll-free 1-800-258-8376.  


  Lee Juillerat writes for a newspaper in Southern Oregon and is a frequent contributor to various magazines and journals, including Northwest Travel, Horizon and Alaska Airlines in-flight magazines, and Range. He can be contacted at  


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