By Stephen Regenold
Maxwell Frost was not a skier. Yet there he was sidestepping down a frozen waterfall, ski edges slipping on ice under thin snow. Below him was an open pool of black water.
"I told you, I'm a snowboarder, man," Frost said, smiling, poking a ski pole for balance on a shelf of exposed stone.
Wind raked the snow at Frost's feet. Gear jangled on the climbing harness around his waist.
"Point the skis and go!" I yelled from above.
We were halfway down the Onion River, a twisting gorge of red rhyolite stone and falling water that snakes from the Sawtooth Mountains to Lake Superior. It was mid-February, late afternoon on a Friday, and a few degrees below zero. Frost, five other skiers, and I had set out early that morning to explore the icefalls and deep ravines of the North Shore on a guided trip led by the Recreational Sports Outdoor Program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth. I'd been invited by outdoor program directors Tim Bates and Pat Kohlin to ski with Frost, a 25-year-old art-education student, and three of his classmates.
Like many rivers in the region, the Onion is all but inaccessible for much of the year, a canyon of torrential whitewater funneling through cliffs toward Lake Superior. But under winter's grip, the Onion morphs to a navigable track of snow and ice, rushing water clamped under thick ice sheets that crack and buckle like dry earth.
Rivering, as locals call it -- also known as rivereering or simply river skiing -- is a hybrid sport involving skis or snowshoes, ropes, climbing equipment, and some canyoneering savvy. Rivering on the Onion is a bipolar experience, starting with a quiet ski through winter woods in the flat and forested upper reaches of the river and ending with a dramatic plunge toward Lake Superior.
Our trip on the Onion began at the Oberg Mountain trailhead, where a cornice-topped outhouse sat watch over a deserted parking lot. There were two cars but no people in sight as we geared up.
"We'll head to the river on this trail," said Bates, pointing with a pole into the woods.
We skied among tight trees, kicking and poling, trying to maintain direction on an untracked trail. Birds scattered from branches as we came through. Skis scraped along. Otherwise, there was no sound.
I was bundled four layers deep -- polypropylene long underwear, wool sweater and pants, fleece jacket, all wrapped in a Gore-Tex shell. Air was sharp on the inhale, my nose tight, frozen inside to out.
I was breaking trail in the lead, kick-stride-glide, kick-stride-glide, coasting some even in deep fluff. "That should go downhill to the river," Bates yelled ahead to me, referring to a turn in the path. Then, the woods opened up. There was a final drop to a rocky bank. I pushed off and slid, tracks cutting clean through a V of birch, deep snow knocking shins until I slowed at the far bank on the creek.
"Which way is downriver?" one of the students asked from behind.
The Onion cut left and right, a winding boulevard of white bordered with soil banks and shaggy roots. The pinprick footprints of little birds dashed clean snow at my ski tips. Then we approached our first significant drop in elevation.
"Time for the descent!" Bates said.
"Here it goes," Frost yelled, hopping to turn his skis downhill. He crouched like a monkey, poles limp, gloves nearly dragging in the snow. But he cut a line in the snow nice and easy, then stopped -- standing upright beside the base of a cliff.
"Nailed it!" he yelled. We were two-thirds of the way into our three-mile journey down the Onion. The final mile dropped fast -- cutting south to lose 500 feet of elevation in a plunge. Rocks lining the river's edge were the first sign of the steep section. The compass needle spun to aim at my chest, and as I headed downhill and to the south, the sky ahead opened strangely where before it had been choked with trees.
"Watch this section," Bates yelled back to the group. "The ice is getting thin." We had reached the mouth of a small ravine, rock walls towering and frail.
Upriver the Onion had been frozen thick and safe. But with the steeper pitch, water pinched between cliffs and moved quickly, so ice had trouble firming up. I skied second in line, hugging the rock wall on the right bank. Water bubbled and swirled through a dark window of thin ice midstream.
Most North Shore rivers run low in the winter, with knee-deep water flowing under ice. Some are dry or frozen clear through. But fast water and deep pools on rivers like the Onion pose serious risk of hypothermia and drowning for those unlucky enough to fall through. Bates carried a full extra set of clothes in a pack, plus fresh socks and boots for wet feet. "Just in case," he said. Frost had climbing gear in his pack. We used ice screw anchors and ropes on steep river sections where skis couldn't cut it.
"Come through one at a time," Bates shouted upriver after I emerged out of the rock ravine.
A quarter-mile from the end at Lake Superior, where the waterway drops 80 feet in two rolling falls, our group paused to talk strategy. The face below -- hard snow over rocks and ice -- was as steep as a black diamond downhill ski run.
"Will my edges hold on this grade?" Frost asked, looking down at the backcountry cross-country skis with metal edges that the guides had provided him.
I dropped in first, skiing perpendicular to the flow, metal edges biting clean in hard-pack snow. A bent knee, a little hop, and I spun back to carve another turn across the face.
"It's perfect!" I yelled up.
Fifty feet below, there was a pool of open water. Rocks and deadfall trees on the right blocked another route to the bottom. But the Onion's white path opened to the left, a ramp skirting the waterfall, providing passage downriver and out of sight, around a bend to the deep canyon ahead.
Highway 61 came into sight ten minutes later. Then, the group was on Superior's shore, skis in hands after crossing the road, the mouth of the Onion gushing in a slot coming out of a culvert. I dipped a ski pole in the lake, sending little waves rippling, to signify the end of the journey.