Photos: Ackerman + Gruber
There’s a saying around these parts, on the coast of Lake Superior, 40 miles south of the Canadian border: “The longest winter you’ll ever spend is a summer in Grand Marais.”
To the dismay of the handful of students riding an IC bus along the Gunflint Trail, which scythes through the Superior National Forest west of Grand Marais, Minn., summer is but a faint hope on the calendar’s horizon.
It’s 6:45 a.m. on a bitter January day, and the mercury is hovering somewhere around –11°F. Cook County School District doesn’t cancel classes for a few measly inches of snow. Ambient temperatures here can plummet to –30°; yesterday wind chills reached –55°F.
The bus, however, is warm: perhaps the simplest but most essential requirement this far north. Its lights cast a deceptive incandescence on the snow, which has been plowed into low berms on either side of the road. Flurries stick like frosting to the needles of the spruce and Norway pines lining the trail. A handful of bleary-eyed students try to catch a little more shut-eye during the hour-plus ride to school.
They range in age from the earliest grades to the oldest. “I remember my first day on the bus,” recalls Jaret Baker, a junior in high school. “I sat in the fourth seat and looked out the window the whole time. My mom said I had a terrified face.”
That novice trepidation is long gone. “I’ve memorized just about everything along the trail,” he says. These days, Baker uses the ride to collect his thoughts before and after the school day, while piping country music through his headphones.
He looks around the bus at the spectrum of winter outfits. The smaller kids are tightly packed into their cold-weather gear. The high school students, however, hope to give the impression that they’re impervious to the frost: clad only in jeans, long-sleeve shirts, sneakers, and medium-weight jackets.
“They’re tough little guys,” says driver Patrick McDonnell, gesturing toward the back of the bus. “Up here, they put antifreeze in their Cheerios in the mornings!”
McDonnell is comfortably ensconced on his Air Ride seat as the bus glides easily over the trail’s many bumps. A public-safety radio sits within arm’s reach, occasionally squawking updates from around the county. The route is two hours away from the nearest major hospital, reliable cell phone reception can be hard to find, and McDonnell, who works part time as an emergency medical technician, relies on good communication in case of emergencies.
“Parents don’t want to have to worry about their children’s safety, and that’s where I come in,” he says. “The main thing is ice. Snow we can handle, but the ice conditions underneath the snow can get pretty nasty.” That means McDonnell takes care to navigate corners slowly and eases on the brakes long before he actually has to stop.
Then there are the moose. “If you’re a 1,200-pound moose, you don’t want to be in the deep snow,” he says, alertly scanning the Trail. “You want to be on the road— especially if there’s salt!”
To the moose population inhabiting the Superior National Forest, the rumbling county salt trucks might as well be a dinner bell. Almost without fail, McDonnell and his passengers encounter the antlered behemoths immediately after the road has been salted. “You come through one of the corners, and all of a sudden you’ve got big old Bullwinkle staring at you,” McDonnell says.
Although this is only his third day on the route, McDonnell knows it like the back of his eyelids. He cut his teeth on the Gunflint Trail, where his father owned the Hungry Jack Lodge, one of the many resorts that pepper the snowy road. Back in the 1960s, McDonnell’s father approached the school district to request bus service.
“They said, ‘Fine. You drive it,’” McDonnell says with a chuckle. “It was the only way to get his six kids to school.” Buses were a lot different back then, and throughout his childhood, McDonnell’s job was to sit on the steps and operate the door for riders, who brought an arctic blast with them as they boarded. “For a lot of students, this is social time,” he says. “Another kid in your age range might be 15 or 20 miles down the road.”
Best Bus for the Job
Beth Schwarz, Cook County superintendent and community education director, says the Gunflint Trail is the toughest route she’s seen across the five other Minnesota school districts where she’s worked. “Weather conditions are rough, once you get over the hill,” she explains, adding that animals can pose a major hazard as well. “We have moose, bear, wolves, deer—those are the main large animals. We try to avoid hitting them, of course, but the main thing is to keep the kids safe and our drivers are instructed not to swerve.”
Schwarz says it was IC Bus’ safety record—as well as the competitive bids from the dealer, Hoglund Bus and Truck—that convinced the district to add the buses to its fleet. “These buses are imperative,” she says. “Very few students walk or drive to school, so in order to get kids the education they need, transportation is hugely important.”
That’s putting it lightly for a school district that sprawls across 1,650 square miles, and it speaks to the quality and durability of these buses that the relationship between Hoglund and Cook County has lasted for 13 years. “These buses don’t get stuck; they go and go,” says Tom Nelson, the district’s transportation specialist. “We’ve always had great luck with IC Bus. There’s never a motor or transmission problem. We can run at 90°F, and we can run at -30°F.”
Randy Johnson, Hoglund’s salesman on the ground in Cook County, smiles at the high praise and points to the family-owned company’s top service as the reason for his happy customers. “The service department and our ability to take care of their needs is the most important thing,” he says. “My phone is on 24/7. Then I’m able to reach out to my team of mobile mechanics who respond quickly, in person.”
Home Sweet Home
The snow is falling thick and fast at 3 p.m. when it’s time for the students to begin their long trek home. Little tykes pile aboard the bus, bundled in hats, facemasks, gloves and boots. “Okay, sports fans, we’re out of here!” McDonnell says, as he waves at a passing plow truck. The students chatter among themselves about the latest games on their smartphones and finger-draw designs on the frosty windows. The sky is turning the color of champagne. One by one, they disembark to meet their parents waiting for them along the route.
One of those parents is Jaret’s mother, Shari Baker, whose two sons have been riding the bus for more than a decade. She and her husband own the Gunflint Pines Resort. “I like to describe the Gunflint Trail as a remote area with access,” she says. “People up here have to know how to survive in the wilderness.”
Baker remembers a time when the bus used to be equipped with a chainsaw to clear a path through the trail after severe windstorms. Though the road is much better maintained than it used to be, the bus service provides valuable peace of mind. “Having a bus system that picks the kids up and takes them to town and back home safely each day allows me to not go crazy,” she says with a laugh. “It’s 43 miles each way with a few stops, but I know they’re safe.”
The level of wildness in the Superior National Forest makes for quite a place for a kid to grow up. “There’s no cell phone service out here,” says Jaret Baker, who loves snowmobiling and hunting. “It’s real living. I feel like I’ve learned how to do things most people wouldn’t learn until they’re 40.”
Despite the many hazards of life along the trail, it’s easy to see why the Bakers and other hardy families like them have chosen to settle here. “My kids get to see the sunrise over Lake Superior and the odd moose on the way to school,” Shari Baker says. “How many kids get to say that?”