From the Journal…


part 2 :  Are We Having Fun Yet? (Scroll down to part 1 to read in proper sequence!)

Sleep came quickly that first night. Tim was snoring in no time. I drifted in and out a few times, as I usually do. I rechecked the firewood supply once.  Re-stoked the stove. Then I was out. Sometime later I awoke briefly to change sleeping positions. The stove was still holding some of the cold out. Then I was out again. The coals in the stove dwindled, then the cold came, and I was having a hard time keeping my shoulders warm. It just wasn’t comfortable pulling my head into the bag, so my shoulders were not completely covered. Digging around I found my blanket shirt and draped it over my upper body. That was better.  Back to sleep. Then, sometime after the last coal in the stove succumbed the real cold moved in. And even on a 2 inch thick sleeping pad over a wool blanket over a tarp the cold was felt, and the ground was too hard. It seemed like I spent more time moving from one sleeping position to another than sleeping. Right shoulder, left shoulder, back, repeat. My shoulders were aching from the pressure and my lower back was tightening up. All this moving would pull the blanket shirt off me, so I would slouch down into the bag, which pressed my feet against the end of the bag. Then they began to get cold. All night long. My first night in a tent is usually an adjustment but this was ridiculous. Tim snored on. The cold was as intense as the complete and utter silence of the January night.

The dark cold dragged on, then, thankfully, a very faint glow to the east. Barely noticeable at first; but every time I stuck my head out of the bag there was more. Finally the sun cast a cold, pale yellow illumination in the corner at the very extreme peak of the tent ridge-line. Enough already. It was time to get moving. I unzipped my bag, and leaving my lower body in the bag “crawled” over to the stove and proceeded to get a fire going. My breath hung like fog in the air, taking several seconds to dissipate. As the wood in the stove began to crackle and pop I pulled back into the bag for a bit, then moved back out and added more wood. Tim began to stir. The outside of the stove began to steam as the frost on the metal began to melt. Then the stove began to creak and pop as the metal warmed and expanded from the heat of the fire. I added more wood over the next several minutes as the deep cold reluctantly began to leave the the tent.

Then I heard a zipper as Tim popped out of his bag. He asked how I slept. Not well, I said, couldn’t get comfortable and I couldn’t stay warm enough half the night. He said he slept well, and was comfortable.. Ha! Usually I sleep well and he doesn’t. He was warmer; his bag was rated to 40 below, mine only 30 below. That gave us an idea of how cold it got over night.

I threw on my wool shirt and sandals and headed out to take care of business as Tim began setting up his gas stove for hot water. My uncontrollable, violent shivering left a very abstract design in the snow as I looked at the sunrise landscape. The sun, just breaking loose of the craggy treeline at the eastern end of the lake was slowly reducing the length of the pointed blue-gray shadows that reached nearly halfway across the snowy cap of the sleeping lake. Yesterday’s wind, not having returned as yet left everything in dead silence. The only sounds were the popping of sap filled knots in the wood stove and Tim pressurizing the gas stove.

My body had reduced its shivering significantly now that it didn’t have to keep my bladder contents warm, and was able to direct heat to other parts of my body. So I took a short walk to the woodpile about 30 feet from the tent to replenish the indoor supply. The snow crystals underfoot screeched loudly in protest as they shattered from the weight of my body, the sound probably heard up to 400 yards in the absolute calm around us. As I grabbed an armload of split spruce I noticed something in the snow that hadn’t been there last night. Tracks. Hmm… They came from the lake side of the point we were on, over a small hump right to the woodpile and continued past, toward the tent. I walked over, and following them  saw that they came within 3 feet of the tent before veering off to the right, onto the path we had made going back into the woods behind the the campsite where they vanished. Judging by the size I would say a fox.

I turned toward the tent just as Tim came out to relieve himself and took the wood in. Inside I pulled on a pair of poly fleece sweatpants for in camp. Then we went about digging out breakfast: oatmeal, hot choc, coffee, dried apples, and venison breakfast links. The gas stove was staying alive enough to heat water for drinks, but then it sputtered again. Tim began pumping it up to pressurize the tank and then the pump handle broke. Made of plastic, an apparent victim of the temperatures. Great, now heating water will have to be done on the wood stove. Normally not a problem, but this cold was causing a lot more energy to be used. Everything was taking longer than usual. We would learn to plan for this. The water for the oatmeal would get hot enough about the time the sausage was done.

The wood stove was struggling to keep the tent temps comfortable. Typically inside the tent it can be anywhere from 60 to 75 degrees. Today it was hard to keep the right balance in the firebox: too wide open the fire burned well but we lost a lot of heat up the stack, and too shut down it just didn’t burn hot enough. We just couldn’t find that fine line. And another observation. The wood in the stove seemed damp; there was a lot of hissing coming from the stove, indicating a lot of water/water vapor was being driven out of the wood by the heat. Wet wood doesn’t burn as hot. We could see our breath a lot of the time which meant the temps were probably in the low to mid 40s. Much better than 25-30 below, but still cool.

While lounging in the “heat” we made plans for the day. We had decided we would stay at this site and travel light tomorrow to get to Tuscarora, just day tripping. Our fishing gear would go on a toboggan back and forth. As we were discussing things we heard a sound outside. We listened. There it was again. It changed pitch. Voices, someone was out there. We went out and saw two guys hauling pulks, and a third trailing back a bit, on their way to Tuscarora. I waved but they never looked up. They had risen a bit early to get to this point already. Maybe we would talk to them on the other side of the portage.

Back to our plans; we needed firewood, and a lot of it. And we had to make sure it was dry. I had been in the spruce swamp down just off the Tuscarora portage, and a few pieces between here and there were found. Tim thought we should also check the other side of the lake. We decided to do that first.We could tell the wind had picked up again and our thermometer showed the temperature had risen to minus 15. So we donned our wind layers for the dash across the lake. It was almost as bad as the day before. Upon crossing we headed into the woods. There the wind was much less and the snow quite deep. I had to lift my snowshoe toe almost to waist level to get over the surface of the snow. It was awesome! Tim, armed with a machete found a downed tree a few yards in and started working on branches. Every strike of his blade rang like a bell in the cold air. I took the saw and worked inland further, looking for dead standers. The snow, waist high, hid air pockets beneath some of the branches and I went down more than once as I stepped onto “snow”. As it was I was going uphill and the tails of my shoes sunk lower than the toes which made for some interesting balancing drills. I would start falling back, grab a branch for support and get a good snow shower. I found one small tree to bring out and had to make two trips, leaving the saw back in the woods because with the bulky tree I needed both hands free to maneuver and help maintain balance. Tim hauled out his wood and we lashed all of it to the toboggan we had brought with us.

We took a short break back at camp and then crossed over again, this time further down the shore. We spent a fair amount of time finding good wood this time. I had a considerable climb to get to good wood, almost out of sight of the lake, working up a bit of a sweat in the deep fluff. I found two trees both of which needed to be cut in half to get them out to the toboggan, so I made 5 trips up and down the hill. Tim had found quite a few nice big branches off of downed trees again and built quite a pile at the toboggan. I joined him in his area and we added to the pile again.

Somehow we brought all that wood back, a good quarter mile plus, in only two trips. What didn’t fit on the toboggan we carried on our shoulders, with one of us pulling the load on the toboggan. We had to haul the wood up to the campsite, and after we had it up we took a lunch break of summer sausage, cheese and crackers. And a bunch to drink.

Then we set about sawing, splitting, sorting and stacking the wood. We took turns with the saw and ax. That kept fatigue from setting in, allowing us to get through it faster. One thing we noticed; the wood had a good ring to it when pieces got tossed onto the pile. More of a ring than a chunk when it hit other wood. A good thing.

During this work we talked about things; the non-sliding toboggans, of which I had a theory, the gas stove breaking, the wood not burning well, the stove not heating the tent, not sleeping well, a lot was not going well. There seemed to be a few more hurdles on this trip. Then we talked about fishing the next day. We decided to get a very early start for the fishing; lakers usually seem to bite well earlier in the day. Lunch would be with us and we could fish till mid afternoon. It would take a while to get back, and having to possibly find and cut wood after a day on the ice didn’t sound real appealing. So… we need to get more wood this afternoon. This time we would go toward the portage and go into the spruce swamp; I knew there were more good trees in there.

At this point we had a good fire in the stove and I took advantage in preparation for supper. Pork chops were on the menu, so I hung them in the mesh bag above the stove. Then I got some water boiling and mixed up some wild black cherry Jello. I set this aside out of the way in the tent. Lastly I stoked the stove completely, so we would have some coals when we returned with wood.

Once again we took the toboggan, along with the saw and ax. It was about 200 yards to the swamp, and we covered the distance in no time. This foray for firewood would be a turning point on this trip. So far there had been some frustrations and inconveniences that caused things to be delayed: toboggans that wouldn’t slide, which prevented us from reaching our destination lake on day the 1st, a stove breaking, poor firewood, lack of heat, among others. Annoying, frustrating. But in this swamp things would turn south.

We left the toboggan out on the ice just off the portage. With the swamp being fairly dense it would be easier to carry wood out rather than to try to thread a loaded toboggan through the trees. We followed my tracks from the day before which made for easier walking. Here in the swamp, which was downwind of a long hill to the northwest the snow was very deep and very soft. As the wind blew the snow it would come over the hill,  swirl and slow down, and get deposited in the swamp. Much like an eddy in a stream makes a sandbar. The trees in the swamp blocked even more wind, allowing more snow to pile up in the low areas.

As we came to the stream I warned Tim to step across and not into the stream bed. Pointing out where I had crossed we could see frozen slush with a pattern resembling a snowshoe from my step-in yesterday. Eventually we came to the spot where I had taken a tree the day before. Looking around we saw a couple possible firewood candidates further along. Splitting up we each went to investigate and search for more. Each tree had to be evaluated; from a distance they might look great but a closer inspection can reveal soft, punky, rotten wood. Tapping on the trunk with an ax or knife handle can give an indication by the sound that makes. Also breaking  thumb or finger sized branches off works; you want the branch to snap with a bit of difficulty.  However even a barely alive tree’s branches will snap in very cold conditions so we sometimes use a knife to shave off the bark of a branch, looking for any bit of green, which would indicate the wood is too wet to be any good for a fire. I passed on one tree but then found two more which I took down with the saw. Tim called me over to get an opinion on two others. One was smaller but good so we took it down. The other was quite a bit larger. We were happy when we determined it to be good; its size would give us plenty of good wood. Now, along with the wood from earlier in the day we felt we had enough for tonight and tomorrow. Breaking off some of the branches makes it easier to carry the trunk, but we always manage to carry out a bundle of the branches to be used as fire starter and kindling. I got Tim loaded up with both of his trees and he headed back down our trail, which even though it meandered a lot from our searching, was a much easier path to take. I went back to my two trees and prepared them for the walk out. Loading two trees with stout sharp branches poking every which way, a kindling bundle and a saw and ax by yourself in very deep soft snow while on snowshoes sometimes takes a couple attempts. But, I finally got situated and started backtracking to the toboggan.

Tim was ahead of me and out of sight. I was feeling good about the wood we had harvested. I started looking around at the snow covered spruce here in the swamp, marveling at the stark, somewhat desolate beauty of the landscape. How different is this landscape in the summer? Warm, maybe hot. Humid at times. I could almost smell the rain, the dampness of the deep sphagnum moss that lies beneath the snow. Moss so deep and quiet you might sink over a foot if you ventured in here in June or July. The pitcher plants, the Labrador tea. Birds singing: winter wrens bubbling away, flycatchers sounding off on some high limb, loons somewhere out on some water, white-throated sparrows singing their iconic “Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody,” or “Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada.” The drone of deer flies, the whine of mosquitoes. The sounds of activity, of life.

But now, in the winter, often complete and absolute silence. Such complete lack of sound that it unnerves some folks. Especially if you live a crowded, fast paced lifestyle. This silence presses in on you. It’s everywhere. But you need to slow down to hear it. If you stand still for a bit you will hear something immediately; the silence roaring in your ears. How can it be that complete silence makes a sound in your ears? But then, you tune that out because you hear something new. You concentrate on it intensely. Finally, maybe with some relief you realize it’s not your imagination, you really are hearing something. But, what.. is.. that? You close your eyes to concentrate. Slowly you begin to make out a rhythmic pattern from somewhere. Where is that coming from…? Listen. Suddenly you realize you can hear and feel the sound. Of your own heartbeat.

In the cold north winter landscape, any sound beyond what I make gets my attention. The booming of stressed ice as it adds inches to its thickness. The hiss of windblown snow over a drift on a windy day. The cracking and “gunshots” of trees on a cold dark night.  The wing beats of a solitary chickadee flitting through a clearing nearly half a football field away. The “galump galump” of a raven, a sound that seems to be heard only when it’s cold, still, and lonely. Human voices always get your attention.

Tim was yelling something, I couldn’t make it out. I responded with a question mark. This time he was saying something about the creek. His voice was bouncing around in the low area we were in, making it hard to make out much more than “Stuck…  your help…” I picked up my pace, still not sure. I came around a bend in the trail looking for him and finally saw him by the creek. It looked like he had fallen over and couldn’t get up. I chuckled a bit at the thought. “What happened?” I asked just as I got to him and realized he had one leg up to his knee in slush and mud. His firewood was on the far side of the creek. He groaned and said “I forgot to step over the creek. My foot is stuck, I can’t get my snowshoe out!”

I dropped my load of wood and set the saw and ax on top of the pile. Looking into the creek I couldn’t see his snowshoe. He had been able to step across with his other shoe but when he tried to lift the one in the water it was stuck and it jerked him back abruptly and he fell back and went down on that knee into the water. His whole lower leg was under water, but was almost parallel to the surface just a couple inches below the surface. “How’s your foot?” I asked. He said the water was making its way into the lower part of his mukluk. Kinda cold he said. Yeah I’ll bet. He tried pulling up again to no avail. I couldn’t see anything in the slush and now stirred up sediment. I could smell the muck. It smelled like summer. Both the toe and heel of the snowshoe were somehow stuck. We tried to twist the shoe to left and right but it was locked in place somehow. I had an idea. I grabbed the ax and crawled to the edge of the bank and reached down with the head of the ax to use it as a hook. It was nearly 3 feet down to the surface. I felt around until I had the snowshoe tail hooked, then pulled up. Tim pulled up at the same time. Nothing happened. Again. Nothing. Shit. I stood up. Try twisting to the side again. The shoe moved in place but didn’t release. Like it was in a designated slot. What the hell!? We may have to take the shoe off to get the foot out. Of course the binding was invisible under the very murky water.  Well… another idea. I took my mitten off and got down on my stomach, took a breath and plunged my hand into the water well past my wrist. I found the tail of the shoe and pulled. It was stuck under a submerged root about an inch in diameter. I’m sure the toe was as well. Well no wonder. Thinking…  Maybe if Tim pulled the shoe forward as I slid it to the side…. nope. Holy crap. OK let’s go the other way, pull to the other side. We both grunted with effort, and then Tim gave a huge weight lifting grunt and jerk. Nothing at first, –but then he popped out so suddenly he almost did a face plant on the far side of the creek!

Free at last! Quickly I crossed and we threw dry snow onto his pant leg and mukluk to blot up as much moisture as we could before it turned to ice. Dry snow makes a pretty decent moisture blotter. We did this 2 or 3 times. Then it was time to go.  He had been stuck a good 5 minutes, maybe more. We had to get the blood flowing again in Tim’s foot. Both of us somehow got our wood on our shoulders in record time and took off for the toboggan. I took a look back to make sure we had everything. My wet hand was chilly but would warm up soon. Hopefully Tim’s foot would do the same.

At the toboggan Tim said his foot was cold but not real painful.  I took a stout stick and had him hold his wet snowshoe up as I tapped and tapped it, trying to knock off as much ice and slush as I could. We loaded and tied most of the wood to the toboggan and headed down the lake to camp. Tim ended up carrying a couple logs up top on his shoulders. I pulled.

Back at camp I rekindled the fire as Tim hauled wood off the ice up to camp level. His wool pant leg was like a fabric stovepipe already; a hard tube. He said it felt weird as he walked back and forth. His foot was still cold but was warming to some degree. But still very wet.

We set about cutting, splitting and stacking wood immediately. Again we took turns with the tasks. I checked the stove from time to time to make sure our fire would stay burning at its hottest. The pork chops were slightly thawed. That was good, so I kept them up above the stove. On the menu tonight were the pork-chops, some corn and green beans, snacks, and that black cherry Jello I made earlier.

The shadows were getting longer and we were getting hungry. Tim went inside to thaw out while I moved a bit more wood. After a few minutes he said he needed help getting his mukluk off; it was frozen and he didn’t want to wait for it to thaw because his foot was getting colder again. I was satisfied we had enough wood so I finished up and went inside. Thankfully my glasses fogged up, meaning it was fairly warm in the tent. I grabbed his mukluk and we began to pull and wiggle it off the foot. Since it was pretty frozen it took a bit of effort to get it off. Finally we managed to remove it. With ice still on the moccasin part we couldn’t yet pull out the wool liner so we hung it above us for awhile.

Meanwhile Tim removed his sock and gently wrung it out near the door. Then he removed the other mukluk and was able to remove his wool pants, which were set near the stove to melt the ice. He put on warm-up pants, dry socks and sandals for the night.

After supper we worked the liner out of the wet mukluk. It literally dripped. Ever so gently we wrung it out as best as possible without crushing the wool fibers. Wool is best gently wrung, so I’m told, not hard twisting like you would a wash cloth. Too hard and it may damage the fibers, causing a loss in loft and the ability to insulate well. An extra pair of liners, in hindsight would have been ideal, but Tim owns only the one pair. The moccasin, liner, socks and even pants were all hung near the peak of the ceiling to hopefully dry out from the stove heat.

We sat around that night, stoking the fire frequently to keep things drying.  Our wild black cherry Jello was exquisite, with a layer of ice on the top. Sweet and crunchy! Plans for the morning were discussed briefly. We knew what we would do: get up, fire the stove, have breakfast, gather up food for the trip, secure gear on the toboggan and head to the portage. Catch a couple fish, have lunch, fish some more and head back. Tomorrow was forecast to be warmer; just below zero so it shouldn’t be too bad.

Trying to ensure dry clothing in the morning we stayed up later to keep feeding the stove. Both the pants and moccasin were feeling drier, but the 9mm thick liner was slow to respond to the heat. That made me wonder a bit in the back of my mind. If the liner is too wet, Tim will be able to snowshoe, but he will have a hard time sitting on the ice for very long waiting for fish. And we will be in the open, exposed to the wind. That foot will cool quickly. I would hate to snowshoe over a mile to fish only to come back after just an hour or two. But what would we do here in camp all day besides burn wood?

Finally we were drowsy, drifting in and out, so we got ready for bed. I had my Cabela’s down parka with and had the idea to zip it shut and pull it over the outside of my bag down at my feet to keep them warm. Then I could scrunch down into the bag to protect my upper body. Sounded nice and cozy!

I loaded up the stove good and full and shut ‘er down for a slow but extended burn in order to keep the deep cold out as long as possible. I set up fire starter and kindling for the morning. We had also brought in some more big wood to use for stoking later if we woke up during the night.

Tim was in his bag before me, not unusual as I’m always double checking and rethinking things before I climb in the bag. When finally I was in my bag, it felt good to lie down. A person’s lower back gets tired from all the bending in the tent and going in and out the short door. You expect the discomfort but never really get used to it. You go about your business for hours and then suddenly realize your back is sore and tired. You can’t wait to lie down. Anyway I got comfortable and drifted off shortly, thinking about fishing. I had a spot on the lake in mind…

I woke up a couple times early on, and managed to stoke the stove one more time. Again, I could not get comfortable for long, repeating the previous night’s scenario. I was warm. For awhile. Then my upper body couldn’t stay warm, even tucked in better than the night before. It was frustrating. Tim stirred a few times. Then, the fire long gone, the real cold moved in. Again. My feet were staying warm, but my upper body just couldn’t escape the the cold. And my back and shoulders were complaining again. AARGGHH! This was getting old. Tim woke up and mumbled about being cold. What? The longest nights are always the ones where you don’t sleep, for whatever reason. This night was slowing down, going backwards maybe. I didn’t want to look at my watch, I knew better. I dozed.

Then one time when I opened my eyes it was lighter. Dozing, it got brighter each time I woke up. Finally there was a glowing sun spot on the tent roof. I could wait no longer; I got the stove going, waking Tim in the process. It was time to get up!

I positioned the pail of frozen water near the hottest part of the stove top to hurry things along. After stoking the stove I went outside to take care of business, shivering quite violently. Back in the bag again. Tim did the same.

We talked. Tim didn’t sleep as well either. He got cold. In his minus 40 bag. Well no wonder I was having trouble. Yikes! Our cheap thermometer only went to minus 20, and it had been bottomed out most of the time out here. So how cold was it…?

Finally it felt warm enough to get out of the bags. And yet our breath hung like thick fog inside the tent. Trees were popping outside. We noticed the snow squeaked with a very high pitch when we were outside. Unprotected fingers numbed very quickly when I went out to grab some more wood. Brutal. Jeez Louise! More wood in the stove!

When things began to thaw a bit more we checked Tim’s wool pants. They sounded and felt like cardboard. But then they did thaw and soften in a short time. The moccasin felt fairly dry. Good. The felt liner was next. Still damp, hardly any change from the night before. Too thick, too much moisture to remove. Not enough heat long enough. SOB. No fishing.

Unbeknownst to each other we had both come to the same conclusion, more or less, if this was the case. No trek to Tuscarora for lakers. Damn.  Then what? We have lots of firewood. We could spend the day drying, but can’t fish tomorrow because we are leaving tomorrow. Another sleepless night? Ugh.

We both had the same thought. Let’s leave today. There’s no real good reason to stick around. We can spend tonight back at the same cabin we started the trip in. We have spaghetti and french bread for supper. Well,…..  OK let’s pack up after breakfast and head home….


I remembered coming across Round Lake the first day trying to pull my toboggan in that wind, thinking we’re not going to make it to Tuscarora. Man, sometimes I hate when I’m right. Things don’t always go as planned. I’m sure the good Lord was chuckling and watching with curiosity for our reactions to the curve-balls he sent our way. Many things happened on this trip that were unexpected. Of course we always expect the unexpected, it’s what you do. You can only control so much, which isn’t necessarily a lot. First, the lack of glide on the toboggans was huge, if not the one thing that kept us from fishing. We were slowed so much… At first it was puzzling: I’ve used this same wax for years with no real issues. The one other time it may have been an issue it was below zero with wind chills around minus 40. And a heavy load. I thought it was the heavy load, but after this trip I think it was the wax. Too soft. The very cold, very hard snow crystals dug right into the softer wax causing much “friction” and reducing glide significantly.

We need a larger stove for the very cold temperatures we had if we want the interior of the tent to get over 50 degrees. Things dry out better when it’s warmer! Damp/punky firewood comes and goes, sometimes there’s more of it in a particular situation or location. I’ve seen lots of dead worthless punky trees standing next to excellent wood. You can’t always tell. Sometimes things break with terrible timing. Like when you want to boil water in a hurry. Sometimes when we are enjoying things so much we have a brain fart and step into a creek bed instead of over it. Not a problem if the stove is burning hot enough. Been there before, when it was burning hot. And sometimes your trip is smack dab in the middle of a “polar vortex”. It could be worse: you could be back at work instead.

We spent our last night in a cabin right on Lake Superior. Spaghetti and fresh baked French bread were enjoyed while we thawed by a nice hot fire in the stone fireplace. The beds were warm and soft. The scenery was grand as sea smoke met us while we prepared for the drive home.

A side note:

On our way back to the cabin we had stopped for a hot beverage at Trail Center along the Gunflint Trail. There we learned that on our first night, up at Seagull Station just a half dozen miles north of where we were it dropped to 33 below. The next night (our 2nd night) Seagull Station recorded 42 below. No kidding. Well, there you have it.

Enjoy the outdoors,


From The Journal…


Are We Having Fun Yet? part 1

The wind was cutting across Round Lake out of the northwest producing significant wind chills. The forecast called for wind chill values to be around -45 to -55 Fahrenheit. I’m not sure what they actually were but I knew we had to get moving so our body furnaces would kick in and get the blood flowing to our extremities, namely our bare fingertips, as they were numbing quickly even after donning mittens and windmilling  our arms to get hot blood to the tips. We were tying our gear to our toboggans in the parking lot right off the lake, the wind blasting us unabated. Using thin 1/8″ para-cord rope required good dexterity, so bare fingers worked the best. I tried thin wool liner gloves, but wore a hole in one fingertip within the first thirty seconds. I put them away to preserve them for the rest of the trip. Anyone crazy enough to be out there watching us would have heard a lot of muttering and not just a few colorful metaphors as we dealt with the not so intermittent stinging and burning of our digits. But we put up with this temporary discomfort because we were excited. Not to test our pain threshold in the cold. We knew how to deal with the cold. No, it had been ten years since our last winter  trip, and 12 years since we entered the BWCA to do it. We were excited for that. That the trip just happened to take place at the start of the 2019 “polar vortex” was… interesting. We would come to nickname this trip “the trip where a lot went wrong.”

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness(BWCAW) in northeast Minnesota is unique in this country. It sits within the southern fringe of the boreal forest ecosystem, which extends through much of eastern and central Canada, then shoots to the northwest toward Alaska as you enter northern Saskatchewan. Millions of acres of lakes, rivers, and wildlife (Ontario alone is said to have some 250,000 lakes). Very few people. And a lot of history. Minnesota’s BWCAW portion of the boreal forest is roughly one million acres. That sounds like quite a chunk of land, but when you look at the millions of acres in this country, one million acres seems pretty small. The BWCAW contains over 1000 lakes, many of them interconnected sometimes by streams you can barely see, or by rivers you can paddle. Throw in hundreds of portages-(foot trails connecting lakes), allow no roads, and keep motor use to a bare minimum and you have a paddler’s paradise. Add great fishing, drinkable water, and enough access control to give one solitude and you get America’s most popular wilderness. And as mentioned it is also unique within this country. There is no other place like it in the United States. Sure there are other designated Wilderness areas within the US, but none like this. Not only is it 1 million acres, it is the only 1 million acres of its kind. Unique. One of a Kind.

Most people visit the area in the summer months when it’s warm, the fishing good. Some go for the solitude, which can be had if you choose the right route at the right time of the summer. Some will go for a physical challenge, others will go to connect with family or friends. Of course many go for the fishing. And yet others go to just unwind, to get some downtime. It’s interesting how strenuous activity can get you to relax.

If you like to fish, a little pre-trip research can put you on some of the best fishing you’ll ever have. Walleye, smallmouth bass, northerns, largemouth bass, lake trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, crappies and even sunfish can be found.


good fishing…

Wildlife watchers may be treated to eagles, loons, deer, moose, wolves, ravens, beaver, and more. If you time it right you may hit the raspberries, blueberries or juneberries, any of which are a great addition to a meal. If you’re lucky your trip may include a show or two of northern lights.


wildlife abounds

Most people who experience the BWCA go back, despite the heat, the mosquitoes, the fatigue, the wind, the physicality of the trip. It calls to you. Look at a few maps and you start to see the next adventure, the possibilities. …Gliding down the placid lake listening to a loon or white-throated sparrows calling, the aroma of the campfire, maybe some wild blueberries, fresh fish for supper, a beautiful sunset. So, …why would anyone head to the BWCA in January, the coldest time of the year, the dead of winter?


Afternoon shadows. Kelso Lake circa 1998

Maybe, just maybe, a better question might be why not go to the BWCA for some winter camping? In the summer most travel is done by canoe or kayak, although there are a handful of hiking trails for backpacking. In the summer months we need to stay in designated campsites; too many people hacking out campsites by ax and saw can lead to small-scale but widespread “clear-cutting” and other issues. Depending upon your choice of route and time you may see just a few people, or, canoe after canoe passing by your campsite. Sometimes you have to wait in line on the water to use a portage; some routes are quite popular. Or you may hit a portage that looks as though it hasn’t been used since last season. Heat, rain, humidity, and strong winds are all part of the summer experience. And finally we have the black flies and mosquitoes.

However, in the winter things are a bit different. Travel can be done by snowshoe, cross-country skis, or dogsled. You can camp in designated campsites, but you don’t have to. Camping right on the ice works great, or you can camp back in the woods out of the wind. As for people, unless you’re on a popular winter fishing lake, you more than likely will see no one, not even old tracks. The cold, the wind, deep snow and blowing snow can be issues to deal with, but, there are no bugs!

One of the bigger challenges for winter is finding a route to do that you can actually get to. Most roads in winter are unplowed so access can become tricky. This year we decided to try some lake trout fishing and our first route choice was to a lake about 6 miles in. Reports were heard of 2 feet of snow on the ice which would slow the five of us down, but was still quite doable. Then we found out our access road was not plowed. That added another 5 miles to the walk, and potentially another day of travel either way. On to Plan B, which was to approach the same lake from the northeast. A little measuring on the map snuffed out that idea; too many miles and not enough days to do it. Then two of our members had to drop out because of work. Plan C was a shorter route to a lake full of lake trout, albeit a longer drive. Then a 3rd member had to bow out, leaving just two of us to get to lake trout heaven.

So it was up to my brother Tim and I to “endure” some potentially good lake trout fishing without my brother-in-law and his oldest son, and without Tim’s son. I felt bad they had to stay back and miss out. It would have been a great group and the extra bodies would help spread out the load weight, allowing us to make better time. However, our chosen lake, Tuscarora, which is near the end of the Gunflint Trail was only about 3.5 miles in. Even though we  had to cross two smaller lakes and traverse one longer and one medium portage with hills 3.5 miles didn’t seem bad at all. The plan was to get to Tuscarora the first day in, enjoy some fishing for two days, and then come out.

It’s been said that if you ever want to hear the good Lord chuckle, tell him your plans. I’m sure he was laughing as soon as we hit the ice, but with the wind I couldn’t hear it. We had two toboggans, both homemade specifically for camping. The longer, the Lujenida, just under 11 feet is made of white oak. The other, the Kelso, made of white ash used to be about 8 feet but due to a poor decision is now around six. I had cleaned and put new wax on both just before the trip with Gulfwax paraffin which we have always used for the toboggans. Melting the wax onto the wood with a waxing iron and then smoothing it evenly, letting it cool and then scraping the excess off to leave just a thin glossy sheen of wax gives good glide even with heavier loads. A heavily loaded toboggan(up to 150 pounds of gear) will often need little help sliding on hard-pack wind-blown snow that is of the type usually found out in the open on lakes and rivers.


The Lujenida

Having an 11 foot toboggan has its pros and cons. First, you can put quite a heavy load on it, but then you have to pull that load. And unless you have a sled dog or two to do the pulling, it’s up to you. Since all we have are a chocolate lab and a beagle we have to do the pulling. Secondly however, even though that 11 feet gives you a lot of room for a lot of gear, it also spreads the weight of that gear out over 11 feet making it quite a bit easier to pull than you would think. Simple physics: maintaining the same force while increasing the surface area of that force reduces the pressure. Much like a snowshoe helps keep you from sinking so much in deeper snow. This trip the 11 footer was loaded pretty good, but not as much as some other trips. The shorter 6 footer was also loaded pretty good, but still had less than half that of the longer one. Tim would lead with the 6 footer to help break trail for the heavier load.


Fully loaded Lujenida ready to go. Sawbill Lake circa 2005

Tim took off into the numbing blast with me a few yards back. Uffda(or something less family friendly) that wind dug hard into our layers immediately, prompting us to get going so we could get our hearts pumping hot blood to all points and to get across a mile of lake and out of the wind! The first few minutes were brutal as our bodies, not having had any pre-exertion warm-up coughed and sputtered while trying to find the right rhythm before finally finding harmony with our activity level. Much like starting any similar workout back home without a warm-up.

Good lord my toboggan was heavy; I struggled to keep it moving, even though the snow on the ice was not deep with all that wind packing it hard. I made several adjustments to my haul line position on my upper body: at the waist, over one shoulder, behind neck and under arms. I just couldn’t seem to find the right position to get enough even leverage to keep up any sliding momentum. My thighs began to burn like I was climbing hills on a bike or climbing lots of stairs. It was slow going. I kept my head down trying to concentrate on finding a pace and the right feel. It wasn’t coming to me. I kept dogging onward, thinking about how old I was. Six decades of life on this planet, older, yes but not that old. …I looked up ahead. Tim was also dogging with his head down. Still just a few yards ahead.  The wind blew my hood off; I pulled it back up. I began to feel my body warming rapidly and getting into harmony as my breathing became controlled and rhythmic. My body was adjusting to the load on its own.

Then my right snowshoe came off. Damn! It took me only a few seconds to get it back on. About 20 yards later it came off again. What the hell? Again I quickly put it on. Then I had to do the same to the left foot. This kept up, so I stopped to tighten the bindings. That helped for awhile, then I would need to adjust again. Eventually I could tighten them no more.

Then I got into slightly deeper and softer snow. And my snowshoes began to slip backwards with each step. I was losing traction because the the deeper snow was adding more resistance to the toboggan. I had to stop for a breather. I made a binding adjustment while I caught my breath. My face was burning from the wind. I looked back toward our starting point in dismay: is that all the further we’ve come? Holy crap. At this point I said to myself “we’re not going to make it to Tuscarora. Pessimism. Prophetic?…

I jerked the toboggan into moving and continued. My snowshoes slipped again and again and my feet were threatening to pop out of the bindings. I then realized I needed to curl my toes around the crossbar of the shoe with each step. Because I was wearing soft-soled mukluks this was possible.This did two things: it helped to lock my feet into the bindings and also, because my toe poked downward past the frame of the shoe just a little it gave me a bit more traction. Just a bit more traction. The slipping took a lot of energy to control and it killed momentum. Not good.

A pair of modern snowshoes, like the type most people use, which are designed for mountaineering  would have helped with traction with their climbing cleats. Their modern bindings also lock your foot to the shoe more securely. However we prefer to use “old-fashioned” wood and rawhide snowshoes. They are aesthetically more pleasing and, with a few minor exceptions work better for most people especially in deeper snow,  and especially for larger people. They come in different styles; ours are the Michigan style, 14 inches wide by 48 inches long. Made in Canada they have the tightest weave available commercially. Tighter weaves may still be found, perhaps, and would be custom made for a price that would make most non ‘shoers choke on their coffee. Serious snowshoers however, would understand the price as a bargain for a piece of art meant to be used and that is so hard to find. I think I payed about $160 for mine 20 years ago.  A few years ago I think the price was up to $230. To the best of my knowledge now the tighter weave is no longer available. So as I said we use the traditional snowshoe. I go a step further and use a native style binding as well. I gave it try 20 years ago and fell in love with it. A simple leather or lampwick strand is all it is. On and off take less than 10 seconds for both ‘shoes. They don’t give you the control of the modern bindings, but most of the time you don’t need that kind of control.

I tried to settle into a sustainable pace; one that was just slightly faster than an aging tortoise but wouldn’t red-line my body’s tachometer. With the binding issue and the varying resistance of the toboggan that was challenging. Finding the right rhythm was just not happening. That made it even more taxing. Then, I began to overheat, even with the wind chills. Apparently wool long underwear under wool pants, two layers of under wear on top covered by a wool shirt and a wool blanket shirt, all under a nylon anorak, with a baseball cap under a wool balaclava and leather/wool mittens was too much for minus 45 degrees. So I removed the balaclava and leather mittens. I cooled slightly but was still working hard enough to produce sweat. So I removed my mittens and carried them in my hands. My ears, now not covered by the balaclava began to sting in just a minute or two. Shortly the backs of my hands began to burn as well. I kept going, trying to get out of this wind. Odd, to be hauling a load across a lake in minus 45 wind chill temperatures, with my face and ears burning, my eyes watering from the wind and my hands numbing up; all this while sweat runs down my back. This was not the first time either of us has enjoyed this sensation.

I had to take another breather. They were getting more frequent the further across the ice we walked. I noticed Tim was pulling away from me. He did have the lighter load. The wind was decreasing a bit as I made it into the wind shadow of the hills between the lakes. Here the snow was a bit softer. Momentum suffered because of this so I eventually turned my crossing into an interval workout: pull for maybe 75 yards then stop for a minute or two to catch my breath and let the lactic acid burn subside. Then go again. An effective concept I’m very familiar with from running track workouts way back in the previous century.

Eventually Tim made it into the trees’ shadows of the far shoreline, then to shore and the portage to the next lake. Then I saw him go up the portage and disappear into the woods. I eventually made it to the shadows myself, which took me out of the wind and finally to the landing. Out of the wind I was able to remove my wind anorak to cool. My ears were numb, no longer burning. As I stood there catching my breath I noticed the portage looked hard packed from frequent traffic. I wasn’t surprised as it is the route to Tuscarora Lake which is known for its winter lake trout fishing.

As I pulled out my water bottle Tim showed up, without his snowshoes. He said the trail begins to climb shortly and with the frequent use of the portage it is quite hard. He said the trail was set into the snow several inches and that it was too narrow to use our wider snowshoes properly but it was also hard enough to walk on without the ‘shoes. He also said he had better traction without the snowshoes.

He grabbed my haul line and headed back down the trail while I removed my snowshoes and then followed while my legs recovered. He commented on the heavy load and lack of glide and then said when he stopped for a break with his load while going uphill the toboggan didn’t try to slide backwards down the hill. Interesting. The portage continued on with a gradual undulating climb, and then leveled off for a bit. The forest was quite dense and compact through this stretch, and we noticed several sets of snowshoe hare prints making their way down the trail for a bit before deciding to venture back into the thicket. With little wind reaching this far into the protected draw of the shallow valley between the lakes the snow had really piled up on some of the downed trees and larger branches. A downed birch or aspen trunk 18 inches in diameter might have 18-20 inches or more of snow stacked up on the horizontal sections. Tim said he accidentally stepped off the hard-pack trail while pulling and went in almost the full length of his inseam. Tim stands 6 foot 4 inches.

The trail meandered a bit and sometimes we had the full force of the sun on the trail. Here the toboggans slid a bit easier. We removed and replaced layers as needed to help regulate our body temps. I could tell the moisture on my back was slowly being passed to my outer layers as the wool layers did their job. Eventually a thin layer of frost built up on my outer layer, the blanket shirt. The moisture had passed through three layers of wool to get to the outer layer where it froze and turned to frost upon reaching the frigid air at the surface. Natural low tech temperature regulation.


Frosty shoulders. Natural low tech temperature regulation.

The trail climbed again, this time more steeply before once again “leveling off”. In this stretch we double teamed the toboggans: Tim would pull and I would plant one end of our ice chisel behind the last crossbar and push. That worked quite well. During this climb the trail became more intimate with 20-25 foot walls of jumbled rock on each side that seemingly tried in some spots to touch each other. We were in a small narrow evergreen lined canyon with snow loaded drooping branches just inches from our shoulders. We joked about trying to climb out on snowshoes to explore what was beyond the walls. If we were in an old western cowboy movie this would be where the ambush would take place.


Ambush canyon

Once we reached the top of the climb we stopped for a drink, some venison jerky, and a breather. Very little wind could be heard. Mostly the only sound was our heavy breathing. As that subsided we thought we could hear something else. Unable to to really determine if we were hearing something we turned our heads this way and that trying to  triangulate the position. I walked one way while Tim took a different vector. Stopping, we both pivoted and began to converge on the same location. Once there we listened, unable to pinpoint the sound. Then one of us tilted our head and it became clear the sound was beneath us, under the snow. Almost at the same time we said running water! There was a flowing creek beneath our feet! Ever so small, but still flowing in the dead of winter. Spring fed I’m sure. We both thought it would be cool to see this portage in the summer.

We resumed our trek. A slight distance later the woods began to open up on the left side, which often indicates a pond or lake. The end was near! However it turned out to be a small pond  that didn’t open up to the lake for another 200 yards or so. That was on the left side of the trail. On the right side was a 10-12 foot over hanging ledge that the trail almost passed under. From it hung big 5-7 foot long thick icicles. The face of the sloping wall faced to the south, allowing the warmth of the sun to work its magic.20190126_130243

The portage ended in a small bay on Missing Link Lake. We pulled out the map for a look.We needed to head south and around two points to reach the portage to Tuscarora. I think there were two campsites on the lake, one right off the portage on the left and the second down around the first point on the right. As we made our way down the lake we realized the sun was beginning to fall, and, the portage to Tuscarora was about 400 rods with a good steep hill right at the start. We made the decision to camp on the south end of Missing Link, on the ice if possible. When we got to the narrow south end of the lake we felt there wasn’t a decent spot on the ice, so we looked at the campsite. It had been used by winter campers who had left some firewood, which would help us get through the first night. There was a spot  where a tent had sat, packed down, hardened and about the same size as our tent. There was even a spot in the proper location for the stove. The whole spot looked fairly level. A scouting session into the woods found some decent firewood, although we would have to travel down the shore or across the lake to find a better supply. We began unloading.

The sun was behind the trees as the tent went up. Once it was up and the stove in place we made some quick trips for wood. I headed down the lake toward the portage and found a couple dead standing spruce back in the woods which I brought down with the saw. I brought those back and then headed back down again toward the portage, where on the right side at the base of the hill there was a small black spruce swamp, usually a great place to find good firewood. I entered the swamp and came across a small 3 or 4 foot wide creek which I stepped down into to cross it. I wandered a bit before finding a good tree to take down and brought it back out to the lake. To make it easier I came back out in my own tracks. I noticed when I got to the creek that there was now slush and water in my snowshoe print down in the creek bed. Not wanting to ice up my ‘shoe I picked a different location to cross, this time stepping all the way across to the far bank instead of into the creek channel. The snow was plenty soft and deep in the swamp; I sank almost to my knees even with snowshoes. Oddly, even though that made travel more strenuous, it felt great to be back into real snow. We hadn’t had a good snowy snowshoe worthy winter back home for five years. Back at camp we set about cutting and splitting wood, separating it into different piles; fine, dry branch tips for tinder, pencil to finger size kindling, thicker for feeding the fire, and finally the larger stuff to be split for long burning.

When we finally had enough wood for the night and morning we set about making our selves at home in the tent. The stove was set up in the corner and with the shovel I piled snow outside where the stovepipe was to be set up. As soon as I had a large enough pile we stuck a 7 foot straight dead sapling into the pile. In about 30 minutes the pile would harden up and the pole would be anchored and could then be used to support the stovepipe with wire.

After the stove pipe was set up I started a fire in the stove to gain some heat while we fine tuned the interior of “home”. The smaller tinder and kindling caught the flame from the birchbark and were soon crackling away, producing that wonderful BWCA campfire aroma that can only come from burning spruce and balsam. After decades of campfires all over, the BWCA is still the only place I get that exact aroma. An aroma that elicits some pretty solid emotions and memories; that produces a wistful longing in the heart to be somewhere wild, somewhere lonely, somewhere quiet and pristine.


Settled in, toboggans resting…

The tent was slow to warm and as I stepped out for more wood Tim, who was cutting more for the night commented that the temperature was dropping. I thought so too and on my way back to the tent checked the thermometer hanging from my day-pack which was a few feet from the tent. It read minus 12. More wood went into the stove.

Thoughts of supper entered my mind so I pulled out a package of venison back-strap and hung it in a mesh bag above the stove to thaw. More wood went into the stove. We could still see our breath but it was noticeably warmer. We continued to arrange things inside the tent and out. Sleeping bags were pulled out to allow them to fluff up. Packs were arranged for easy access and efficiency. Outside wood was arranged next to the door for quick access.

We then sat for awhile just relaxing in the warmth, resting our backs from all the bending over in the tent. Tim pulled out his gas backpack stove and, after a few attempts got it going. A pot of water went on for hot drinks. We talked about the nasty wind, the portage, and tried to figure out why the toboggans pulled so hard. As we sat there it appeared the gas stove was struggling to keep a good flame. Tim pumped up the pressure on the fuel tank and that seemed to help. More wood went into the stove. I checked the hanging venison and it was still pretty frozen, so I put a pot of water on the wood stove to heat. When it finally began to steam really good I put the venison, which was inside a ziplock bag into the water to speed things up.

The gas stove was not really performing as it should; it appeared the pump was not pressurizing properly. Those hot drinks would take longer to make. And the wood stove, popping and crackling away was doing nicely; the bottom 10 inches of stovepipe and a bit of the stovetop were glowing red. But we could still see our breath in the back of the tent.

Eventually we got our hot drinks. The meat was thawed enough, so I pulled out a few potatoes and an onion, still unfrozen, and diced them up. A fry pan containing some butter went onto the stove top. When that was sizzling and producing a good aroma the potatoes and onion were tossed in and fried up. Some salt and pepper… in the meantime the venison was sliced thinner to fry up faster. More wood into the stove. When the spuds were done they went into a covered pot and set next to the stove to stay warm, and the venison was added to some more butter.  A new aroma joined the tent as the venison sizzled and spat in the butter. Salt, pepper, and some garlic powder were added. A third pot had been added earlier with water and some frozen green beans. They came to a boil about the time the venison was turned. More wood in the stove. It was all a bit tricky cooking all this at once on a 10 inch by 18 inch stove top, but we are professionals! Ha!

It was all pretty good: green beans, semi crisp potatoes and onions, tender venison back-strap, hot chocolate. Crackling fire. A couple burps were heard. Life was good, if not a bit cool. Then a big pot of water was put on to heat water for the dishes.

It always takes awhile to get situated in your sleeping bag the first night, especially, it seems, when it’s cold. Tonight was no exception. And we knew that as the tent cooled down after the fire went out and the real cold penetrated the canvas walls we would discover cold spots that had to be closed up in order to sleep comfortably. The fully loaded stove would provide a barrier against the deep cold for maybe two hours. Then, as the radiating heat from the stove waned, the vibrating air molecules would slow down and release their heat energy rather quickly, allowing the silent cold to slowly but steadily reduce the temperature to that of the winter night. Despite knowing this, sleep came rather quickly.

To be continued…

Get outside,






Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

It’s been awhile since our last post here, 2014 to be exact. Seasons have come and gone a few times with nothing on this page. My good friend Mark reminded me of this a year ago last fall at our annual rendezvous. The two of us were setting up tents and canopies for the event and were taking a sit down break. I was trying to figure out how many trips I still had to make to get everything to the site so we could get it set up. I knew my brother would be out the next day to set up so I wasn’t worried, just aware of the task to come. And hoping I wouldn’t forget anything. Out of the blue Mark said “You haven’t written anything on the Blackpowder Beagle(BPB) site for awhile.” An observation. More of a question. A bit startled,  I looked at him, looked away to the ground and said “Yeeahhh I know. I just haven’t been able to put anything together”.

They say creative people aren’t the same as other people. They can’t necessarily put out a product on a regular basis. Yes I’m calling myself creative. They/we often appear to be slacking off(and sometimes they/we are), seemingly not working on the task or project, being too relaxed about the whole thing. I’ve read that at Microsoft the people in charge of developing new products have one of those Nerf basketball setups in their work-space, and that they spend a lot of time shooting hoops, appearing to get paid good money to play Nerf B-ball. Actually they are coming up with ideas and working things out in their minds while “goofing around”. Their brains work better with a slight distraction. I think we all do that from time to time. It’s interesting how much you can get done while on a run, a bike ride, or while paddling or fishing. The Microsoft guys are the masters of this. It reminds me of a scene from the original Star Trek series. Now I mean the original cast with Kirk, McCoy, Spock, etc. Fictional I know but it gave us a look into the power of the Vulcan mind. If you don’t remember, Spock and McCoy were often at odds over logic and human emotions and the pros and cons of each. More than once you heard McCoy utter something about that ‘damn Vulcan logic,’ and Spock would respond  “Really Dr. McCoy, you must learn to control your emotions.” Over the course of the series and the movies some of the Spock/McCoy interactions were quite amusing, although at times a somewhat amused Kirk would have to step in with one of his “Gentlemen, gentlemen I think we’ve heard enough, we’ve got work to do!”

Anyway, in this scene things were bad, lives were on the line, time was short and the impossible had to be done. Time travel(I think) was to be attempted, and Mr. Spock started doing the math calculations. Things were looking good. Then Mr. Scott rushes in with a problem that could throw a wrench into the whole thing, declaring “Captain, I canna change the laws of physics; I’ve got to have moor(more) time!” So Kirk, McCoy, Spock, and Scotty are trying fix Mr. Scott’s problem. McCoy, realizing time is of the essence gets annoyed with Spock who appears to be spending too much time on Scotty’s problem, and, trying to catch him shirking his mathematical duties glares at him declaring “SPOCK aren’t you supposed to be working on the time travel calculations?!  Mr. Spock, who is helping Scotty AND doing the ridiculously convoluted time travel math in his head calmly looks at McCoy and says with typical Vulcan non-emotion “I am” and looks away again. At this, McCoy all but implodes, mutters something unintelligible and storms away. It’s one of my favorite scenes.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in the present time period, it’s early March and a lot of folks would like to use some time travel to jump ahead a month or two. Weather-wise the last month has been a bit unusual for February, being much colder than normal  early on with actual temperatures being in the minus 20’s and minus 30’s at night while staying well below zero during the day. Winds would cause jaws to drop nationwide as they produced windchills in the minus 40’s to near minus 70. Officially called a Polar Vortex by meteorologists, old-timers called it an old-fashioned “cold snap”.

Then the snow came. My snowblower saw more action this past February than the last two, maybe three total winters combined. Every few days the phrase “another chance for measurable or plow-able snow” could be heard and would elicit an audible groan and definite agitation in the populace. Snowshoers, skiers, snowmobilers and dogs alike were giddy with glee. However, down in the Twin Cities it snowed more days than it didn’t. In the end they received two feet more than a typical February, totaling 39 inches in 28 days. Cries of “where’s Spring?” could be heard all over. Reminding some people that this is February in MN, it supposed to be like this and that Spring is still a month away brought stares that burned holes in you, but at the same time dropped the temperatures even more. Pointing this out also got you banished from certain circles and establishments and unfriended on Facebook. And here we are in early March, month of the infamous “tournament storms”. Oh boy…

winter pan 2013

it’s been a snowy month…

So although some parts of the state have received more snow than is typical, especially in such a short time-period, it’s been a fairly “old-fashioned” winter. But people aren’t used to it, they’ve forgotten what winter is really like. That’s because we haven’t had anything remotely like this in the southern two thirds of the state since 2014. Up until early February of this year(2019) we haven’t been able to snowshoe(requiring at least 12 inches of snow) here in central MN more than three times since 2014. We almost had it late this past December, with ten inches down, but then it again melted down to 3-4 inches. We got out once last year in mid April(!), yes mid April, twice the year before. In each instance the snow was gone or reduced to a couple inches of crust within a few days of falling. When ever a snowy weather system was on the horizon it went around central MN or fizzled. If it did hit us it often melted partially or completely within two weeks or less. All winter long, since 2014. A local cross-country ski race was organized for the third week of January starting in 2015. January of this year-2019 it was finally able to be held for the first time-with barely enough snow. Too dry otherwise.



Enough commentary. The BPB have been busy the last 4 years, flowing with the seasons, transitioning from one to the next, along the way experiencing and learning new things. And continuing to introduce young and old to the outdoors. Some of us are in different chapters of our lives taking on new and unfamiliar challenges, with successes and failures. Two of our young guns are not so young anymore, both having graduated high school. Both are big hits with the youngest crowd at our rendezvous, having developed into great teachers of their events. And both bring pride to their families and the BPB, serving our country in the Army National Guard and United States Marine Corp. So for the time being the BPB are a bit spread out. But in the end we almost always have time for each other, especially at the annual BPB Avon Hills Rendezvous. That is always a good time.

Even though it has, for now become a challenge to gather throughout the year we still find time to celebrate the seasons. Foraging for wild foods is a challenge, whether it’s wild rice, blueberries, cranberries, maple syrup, sumac berries, leeks, fiddle heads or morels. Most years we don’t get to all of them but when we can it’s a great year.




We continue to hold our Rendezvous every October just as the leaves are approaching their fantastic best. New people and families have joined us every year convincing us to keep going. Curiously the archery segment is gaining popularity and is slowly morphing into mostly longbow and recurve shooters. And the BPB seems to send a contingent to the Perham Rendezvous every year where we share fun times with our friends up there while representing the BPB well in the shooting, archery, and ax throws.


BPB at Perham Rondy


archers at the BPB Rondy


fun at the BPB Rondy

This time of year is maple syrup season. When winter has run it’s lap for the year the days are longer, temps are warmer, and the snow is melting. The baton exchange with Spring is just ahead. There is a period of time, two to maybe four weeks in length when nighttime temps are below freezing and daytime temps hover in the mid to upper thirties to maybe forty degrees. When this happens, through the gift of physics the sap begins to flow in the maple trees.  Small holes are drilled into selected trees, a spile(a specifically designed short length of “pipe”) is tapped into the holes and a container is then hung below the spile to capture the sap. Many trees may be drilled and tapped. When enough sap has been collected it is boiled down to produce that wonderful thing we call maple syrup. About 40 gallons of sap are needed to produce one gallon of syrup. The length of the season is dependent upon the temperatures. When the nighttime temps start to stay above the freezing mark the time has come to shut things down until next year. This year we are behind because it’s been a cooler than normal start to March. The season may go into April as it did last year. We’ll wait and see.


After the maple syrup season we can look forward to the greening of the landscape as the sun really takes over. This means foraging for fiddleheads and leeks, and later on the chance to hunt morels. It also means the first wildflowers will poke their heads up; often hepatica, and then bloodroot are the first to be seen. Hepatica can sometimes be seen in thick “mats” that can cover several square yards in colors that range from white to pink to lavender to violet. And all the time never reaching much over three inches tall.


And finally spring brings the opportunity to hunt gobblers, or longbeards; the wild turkey. Their thundering response to your calling can cause any hunter’s heart to pound. It’s an addicting challenge: turkeys possess color vision with acuity superior to ours, hearing that rivals that of a whitetail, the ability to figure out what they are seeing ten times faster than a human can, and absolutely no curiosity. If something seems out of place they usually don’t wait to confirm their suspicions, they turn and leave, sometimes in a hurry. Even from as far as 100 yards away. But when you get one to come to your calling it’s electric. Imagine sitting against a big ole oak and seeing as I have, not one, not two, but three gobblers coming over a rise three abreast 55 yards away, all in full strut, gobbling, looking for that nonexistent hen that sounded so sexy. I was doing the calling that morning for my nephew sitting next to me. It was his first turkey hunt. His gun was already up and in position; you don’t want the birds to see you move. The toms, back-lit by the encroaching sun came over the rise three across in glorious, puffed-chest, wing dragging-big-fanned-tail full strut gobbling like madmen, sometimes one at a time, sometimes all in unison. You could feel it in your core, resonating. It was utterly deafening. I then heard my nephew mutter to no one in particular “Oh my gawd!”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the end of his gun barrel begin to waver, then to shake. He tried to stay under control but the adrenaline shot was just too big. He was toast.

The toms continued in but then stopped short just out of range. They had seen something they didn’t like and turned around to leave. I pleaded with them to come back, and they did, eyeing our decoy, gobbling but unsure. I began to shake. Their gobbling intensified as I pleaded for them to come on in. Again they turned to leave, still gobbling, and again I brought them back. This back and forth continued for awhile, quite awhile. Eventually they tired of the suspicious sassy hen and moved away for good,  back to the east, over the rise, still gobbling. After our heart-rates and breathing returned to normal I checked my watch. The whole episode-start to finish had lasted just over an hour. Turkey hunting. It’s addicting.

SO, as Spring takes the baton for its lap be sure to get outdoors. And introduce a person or two to the outdoors. Especially a young one. Who knows you may end up with a lifelong  fishing, hunting, or camping buddy. What could be better than that!

Enjoy the Outdoors,



Summer into Fall in the Avon Hills

IMG_2249It’s mid September already and many people I’ve talked to say summer went by way too fast, especially those of younger school age. I remember when I was that young, thinking the same thing, because it seemed, living in the country, that summer always seemed to be filled with fun and adventure, between jobs, mowing, painting, pulling weeds, and all the other unspeakable tasks inflicted upon us by the adults in our lives.  So, we were never bored, and sometimes we actually looked forward to school starting so we could get away from these summer atrocities. However, parents always had the last laugh when in mid October the leaves fell by the billions from the “millions” of oak trees in the area, which actually led to another fun activity: burning leaves. These days we do the responsible thing and chop them up to turn into compost for the garden. How boring!

For me this summer was a busy one, with a new beagle puppy picked up in early June and the continuing work that goes along with puppies, a fun(yes fun) family reunion at the end of July, a canoe trip just days after the reunion, a fun weekend at a rendezvous up north, another good, busy vegetable garden, and ongoing remodeling of my small but full den/workshop downstairs. And then back to school. The leaves will soon follow.

Filson Tiberius at 8 weeks.

Filson Tiberius at 8 weeks.

Yes it’s been busy with a new puppy to look after and train. There have been and still are many sleep deprived days as we work with Filson, the little guy’s name. He’s the 4th beagle we have raised and also the most challenging, elevating all previous ones, especially Buddy to sainthood. Good things sometimes take time.

We had a “dreaded” family reunion in July that was actually fun, with relatives from California, Texas, New York and elsewhere making the trek to central Minnesota; some I’ve never heard of and others I hadn’t seen in four decades. My mom and her sisters did most of the work and despite some minor glitches in a rather overwhelming task things went well. It was a good event to pull off since people aren’t getting any younger.

A canoe trip was taken in early August by myself, brother Tim, and his son Adam. We journeyed north from Kawishiwi Lake in the BWCA eventually staying on Polly and Malberg Lakes. The southern part of our route took us through parts of the Pagami Creek burn, a fire which took place in 2011. The resulting open landscape is interesting, allowing one to see for miles instead of feet into the “woods”. We stopped more than once to load up on ripe raspberries that sometimes were found in patches covering acres, one of the resulting after-effects of a forest fire. We also took a day trip to the east up the Louse River where we saw lots of neat scenery and had a blast catching walleye, smallmouth, and northerns.IMG_4959 The end of our trip was unique; planning to stay on a lake about 2 1/2 hours from the vehicle, we instead offered our campsite to a group from California who had arrived late in the day and were without a campsite due to the fire three years ago(the remaining sites on the lake were wiped out by the fire). They

Good fishin' in the BWCA

Good fishin’ in the BWCA

were rookies in the BWCA, with a long tough portage to the next lake that had campsites, and we were veterans of many trips who had already had their fun trip. Plus we knew, with our paddling strength we could cover the distance needed before sundown. We had to travel upstream, cross some short portages but employing racing style paddling made the difference. And Adam was the hero of the day: he gave it all he had despite the still sometimes intense nagging pain in his shoulder  from an ATV accident last fall. He cranked that paddle all the way to our destination and when we got there he got out of the canoe and just stood there bent over, holding his shoulder. But he said it was fun.

Mid August took the same three guys plus friend Dave to Perham, MN for their 30th? annual black powder shoot. We shot well, we shot poorly, shopped, ate well, laughed and we had fun. It was fun to see some of the acquaintances we have met over the years, some who are planning to come to our Rendezvous the first weekend in October.IMG_2086

Which brings me to our next event: the 8th Annual Avon Hills Rendezvous and Black Powder Shoot. This is held south of Avon in the hills, where fall colors are always great. It’s an event where friends, family, and anyone who wants to can come “rendezvous”  or gather together to shoot black powder, archery, throw tomahawk, eat, sing, and generally have good clean family fun. Historically a “rendezvous” was held once a year, sometimes at the same site. It was a time when trappers and traders, natives and fur company officials alike would get together to trade furs, goods, supplies, stories, and lies. There would be contests of shooting and throwing, drinking of spirits, plus tall tales, eating, fighting, singing and anything else that might take place far from early 1800’s civilization. These events might last for weeks as it was the only time many of the people attending ever saw other humans.IMG_2088

Nowadays things are a bit different, less raucous.People still have a blast, but it’s good clean fun. Our rendezvous still employs some of the original events: shooting contests, throwing tomahawk, eating, laughing, making new friends. We also allow people to come and learn a new skill, try something new. In fact, it’s theIMG_2161 main reason we are out here in the woods on a beautiful October weekend in MN. If you have always wanted to try shooting a bow and arrow, or learn what a muzzleloader is and how to load and shoot it we can show you how it’s done. And you will have the opportunity to shoot. Want to try throwing a tomahawk, or maybe start a fire using flint and steel? How about a guided nature walk in the October woods? We have all of that and moreIMG_2099.

We will have limited concessions on hand, as well as a silent auction and trading post to help finance the event. The big draw for many, young and old alike is our Wes Leedahl Memorial drawings(see a list of prizes on our black powder shoot link above).

Dad Tim and Adam at the 1st ever rondy in 2007

Dad Tim and Adam at the 1st ever rondy in 2007

This is held in memory of my dad Wes, who, throughout much of his life introduced many of us to the outdoors, whether it was camping, canoe trips to the BWCA, hunting, fishing, or just being outside. He influenced our family and many others who still remember those early experiences  and are passing the torch to others.

Getting outside was and still is important to our well-being and that is one of our missions at the Black Powder Beagles; to get people back outside.

How many of us know what a small spring-fed trout creek looks like, or what a good grouse hunting woods contains and what it smells like in the fall. Have you ever noticed how a breeze so soft you can’t feel it will make the leaves on a quaking aspen whisper? How does a campfire burning oak smell compare to one burning birch? Have you ever just sat down outside, away from the city on a clear, calm, moonlit midwinter night when it’s well below zero and just looked at the stars and listened? How about listening to the high-pitched squeak of snow underfoot as you take a walk when it’s 10 below, and how that sounds different to when it’s 20 above zero. Have you ever been on a deer stand before sun-up and listened and watched as the world wakes up for the day? Or been on stand after a hard frost, listening to what sounds like rainfall, but it’s actually hundreds of leaves all falling at the same time. Have you ever taken a walk in the early spring woods as the early wildflowers are blooming, or been anywhere where it’s so quiet you not only can hear a pin drop, but you can hear the roar of silence in your ears; and you hear a rhythmic drumming that seems to come from nowhere, but actually it comes from within, your own heart beat.IMG_2085

Come to our Rendezvous and have fun, learn something new, and share your outdoor experiences with us, we’ll listen. If you are on Facebook  visit our 8th annual Avon Hills Rendezvous and Black Powder Shoot  Event page, or go to the Black Powder  Beagles group and say hi!


Get outside,




The Liquid Gold of the Avon Hills

Well, it’s April 3rd already, but Winter, like a stubborn Minnesota Norwegian is refusing to give in to the mosquito season. You know, that warmer time of year when most Minnesotans head north instead of south for vacation: “up to the lake”. Ahh, the relaxation, the fishing, the swimming. But wait a minute, the thermostat is still stuck in “cooler than normal” mode, ever since Old Man Winter started laughing at us when he threw a strong two-fister of snow and cold at us back in mid-December. Yes the temperatures are still giving people fits. There’s still plenty of snow in the woods, the ice still thick on the lakes. The trout season opens in nine days, and the phrase “ice-covered opener” is beginning to creep back into our vocabulary. To top it off the forecast is calling for a winter storm warning and another possible six to twelve or more inches, which has many people spitting tacks. Well traction should be good with all those tacks! So yeah things are a bit out of whack. Normally by this time of the year we are in the midst of our time in the sugarbush, trying to stay ahead of the sap flow. Usually at this time the trees are giving up copious amounts of sap, that stuff we turn into what I sometimes call “Liquid Gold”. At times it can be hard to cook it down fast enough since raw sap has a relatively short lifespan. It’s often a fast and furious time to make the most of what the trees are offering up.

But as I mentioned earlier winter is toying with us, trying to see how long we will tolerate this foolishness.This usually is a time of weather “mood swings” but this year the only moods involved belong to the citizens of this fine state. And with the below average temperatures, conditions are not good for sap flow-typically temps around 40 degrees during the day and below freezing at night are pretty ideal. This year not so much. ..This extra free time has allowed us to take care of other things like cutting and splitting extra firewood and getting things done at home before it gets all crazy. And then I remembered this little essay I wrote a few years back to a friend who, familiar with making maple syrup had moved away, out of maple syrup country. I sent the essay to him along with a few bottles of “liquid gold”. It’s very basic and simple, elemental, and non scientific. Here it is:

Each year the world, within the depths of the cold dark winter, reaches a point in its path where the days begin to lengthen, to get warmer. The cold silent starkness that sends Nimrod the Hunter out on full moons to look for Canis the Songdog is gradually replaced by the building of sound and sunlight as we turn the corner on our yearly trip around the Sun. Soon the Chickadee is singing his spring song, and there is a drip, drip, drip, from the roofs of our dwellings telling us to get ready, get ready, get ready, as the mercury rises steadily day by day. The snow begins to settle, and becomes firm after sundown as it undergoes  metamorphosis into something more solid. We stir with excitement for we know what’s coming. Preparations are made: the last of the wood is split, buckets cleaned of a year’s worth of dust, the drill bit sharpened. We walk the woods on our Bear paws visiting our old friends in the sugarbush, planning, anticipating.

Then the time is right; the days warm, the nights cool; the snow soft in the Sun, frozen at night. We abandon everything else and plunge into a different time and place, take several steps back in time to partake of this centuries old tradition which we will think back upon all year. We have high hopes, more taps, and even more energy. Drilling, tapping, hanging over and over until we have them all out. Then the wait for that thump, thump, thump of the first drops into empty buckets, and the knowing smiles that follow.

The heaviness of full buckets that time after time need to be emptied, the sore arms and shoulders that are ignored for another trip back into the bush. Twenty, forty, sixty gallons and more… Crackling oak, ironwood, and ash producing the first aromatic steam of the year that you can’t get enough of, that you can smell deep in the woods, that keeps you going. The ever darkening shades of amber magically appearing in the big pan. That wonderful aroma getting stronger as the amber ever deepens before your tired, smoke weary eyes.The laughter in the woods. A quick bite to eat and then back at it. There is really no time for sleep or work. The satisfaction of our efforts. We are addicted to this slushy, sweet dance in the timber; no activities outside the sugarbush universe are pursued. We have to make the most of this time, as we do every year.

And then, the time comes when the nights are too warm, the buckets tired. It seems like it went on forever, but also that we just got started. Finally, a chance to sample our prize; AAHHH yes, this is what we have been waiting for. Here it is, our elixir, our amber work of love. And now a sudden flurry of pancakes and maple sundaes will dominate our diets.

We will do this again next time around; we will produce our liquid gold, to be shared so that people may understand. And so they may know that this liquid amber is a product of sun and frost, of sweat and fatigue; it is born of wood smoke and wet feet, of heat and steam, it is offered up by the maple and the melting snow, supervised by the squirrel and the red-shoulders. It comes from deep within the Avon Hills, the beautiful Avon Hills of Minnesota. It comes from the heart of the Black Powder Beagles to you so that you may not forget.

It is, …a gift from GOD.


Get Outside,



To Snowshoe

Our main form of transportation in the woods when the white stuff is deep.

Our main form of transportation in the woods when the white stuff is deep.

So when does winter begin? Technically, astronomically it arrives on December 21st. But, if you ask several different people I’m sure you would get several different answers. Some might say when we get our first snowfall, or our first significant snowfall. Well then we have to define what a significant snowfall is; 2 inches, 4 inches, shovellable, plowable snow, or maybe 8-10 inches. I would guess that those who dislike any temperature below 32 degrees would lean toward the 2-4 inch amount while those who like winter would vote for the 8-10 inch candidate.

Others might say winter doesn’t arrive till the temps dip into single digits for a length of time, or maybe drop below zero for the first time. A few might insist it’s not winter until you can drive a truck on the ice. Some may even say that it’s not winter till after the first of the year. And yet others might say winter arrives when there is enough snow for skiing, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling, regardless of the date.

Where ever you may fall into the above categories I think most would agree that this year winter arrived for good in early December with decent snow and temperatures that have been well below average; the final weekend of the MN muzzleloader deer season the temps kept dropping, finally bottoming out at 8 below on the last morning which was the 15th. The rest of the month it seemed like the mercury was too weak to get into double digits. If you like to be outside, conditions like this can challenge your ability to stay comfortable, but doing so can be rewarding. That final morning of the muzzleloader season when it was minus 8 three of us had worked our way half a mile through 11 inches of snow to our chosen spot up in the hills and were witness to a beautiful sunrise that was not visible from the warm cozy cabin. Our youngest in the group at age 15 got a little chilly up in the tree stand, but otherwise we remained comfortable enough to keep hunting.

So what else can you do when it’s chilly out there? Of course the couch is always there beckoning. It’s warm and soft. But what if you are getting bored and stir crazy, the first symptoms of cabin fever? I’m sure the mall will be open but the holidays seem to leave many of us weary of sales and hordes of humanity. We want quiet.

Well there’s ice fishing which can be a lot of fun, often involves much quiet sitting and without a warm house can be challenging. Downhill skiing? Lots of people. Expensive. Snowmobiling? Fast fun, solitude, but there’s that engine noise and exhaust. Cross country skiing is great, one of my favorites. Solitude, quiet gliding, and great exercise. But for many it’s a bit challenging to master and too strenuous for some. Plus groomed trails are nice but not necessary. So aside from just walking there’s one of the oldest ways to get about the countryside in the winter: snowshoes. These allow you to go just about anywhere you can walk. And if you can walk you should be able to snowshoe. You can make it what you want: a hard workout, a leisurely hike or anything in between. It’s quiet, which makes it relaxing, and at the pace most of us traipse about there’s good opportunity to observe wildlife and the landscape more intimately. Following animal tracks is fun, trying to determine what they are up to. Sometimes you come across tracks that end rather abruptly at a set of widespread wing marks, marking the end of one life and the continuation of another. In winter food is survival.

Snow does beautiful things when it’s deep. Deep powder is fun to navigate on snowshoes, and at times can be challenging. Snow covered tree branches and conifers are great therapy. And I’m always on the lookout for snow constrictors, which like to hang out on larger horizontal branches. Shadows late in the day can be beautiful in the winter landscape, and the sunset can mark the end of a good day.

If this sounds like something you would like to know more about you’re in luck. On January 18th at the Tree House Studio in Avon there will be an Intro to Snowshoeing class. If you’re new to snowshoeing or just want to learn a bit more this is a good place to be. We will discuss snowshoe history, development, snowshoe styles, and materials. A good way to learn about anything is to try it out and so we will go outside and try different ‘shoes. Finally, since it is winter we will look at several examples of winter clothing and discuss how to dress for snowshoeing and cold weather in general. If you have a hard time staying warm in the winter you don’t want to miss this.

Author Elliot Merrick wrote this in True North in 1933 about his life in Labrador:                 A snowshoe trail on a sunny day after a light fall of snow is a lovelier thing than I can describe. I often look back at it streaming from our heels, flowing back astern like the wake of a ship, a long winding track that scars the lonely limitless snow as a ship’s track might scar the Pacific. Over glistening white hills and marshes and lakes it winds, a darker serpentine ribbon, scallop-edged, filled with tumbled blue shadow markings. And every individual print is a beautiful thing. It is like sculptor and like a painting, endless impressions of an Indian craftsman’s masterpiece. Here is the broader webbed babische of the close knit middles, here the finer-knit tibische of the heads and tails, molded into the snow, perfect in every finest line; there the round-curved frame of strong white birch and the lip of a tail, the head bar and the tail bar, the toe hole and a little cup, scooped out of the snow where the toes pushed through the hole at the end of the step; the blurred mark of the dragging tail, then another perfect, grace-lined pattern printed in blue-white marble. The concave curve of a right tail nestles round the convex bulge of a left head, and the purple ribbon is only a little wider than one snowshoe.late in the day BWCA

For details about the Intro to Snowshoeing class click on the Classes by BPB page above.

Get outside,


Rondy Just Around the Corner!


Welcome to the end of summer and the beginning of the best time of year: Autumn! A season of change. This is the time of year so many people look forward to, for many reasons. For some it’s the start of another school year, which means it’s also the start of another football season. How much fun is it to sit in the bleachers on a crisp fall night and cheer on your favorite high school team. Or spend a Saturday afternoon at a local college game. Or even better(not really) waste a good Sunday watching your NFL team lose again! Yes there are good ways and not so good ways to spend the best time of the year. For myself and many others this is THE time of year to be outside, whether it’s working in the garden or yard, getting in some of the best fishing of the year, getting some great photos, or spending some quality time out in the woods with your best buddy, nephew, brother or spouse and the huntin’ dog in search of wild game. Or to sit motionless in your treestand waiting for the right deer to come by, all the while watching the woods go about it’s business that only a quiet observer will get to see.

Yes indeed a season of change. We all notice the days are getting shorter. The weather at this time of year is a bit like those mood swings we experience back in Spring, also a season of change. The temperatures fluctuate from warmer than average to cooler than average as the atmospheric battle goes on between a stubborn summer and relentless autumn. Eventually the shorter days of fall will determine the winner and summer will head to Florida or Texas for a few months to regroup.

The days get shorter which in turn cuts off the chlorophyll(that green stuff) production in leaves, which means all those other pigments can come out and play: reds, oranges, yellows, scarlet, even pinks. We spend lots of drive time and money looking for these colors; for many businesses up north it’s the last big money maker of the year.

Those of us living in central Minnesota, especially in the Avon Hills are blessed to have lots of the right species of trees, shrubs, and even wild grasses residing here. The good Lord puts on a pretty decent art show right here out our back door. And word has it this year’s show should be pretty good. So take some time to get out and see what’s on display, and while you’re at it visit a local apple orchard, we’ve got several in the area.

Another way to spend some time outside on a weekend is to stop by the 7th Annual Avon Hills Rendezvous and Black Powder Shoot held on October 4, 5, and 6 just four miles south of Avon, right smack in the middle of the showy fall colors. This a family learn-by-doing event. Here people have a chance to shoot a black powder gun, shoot a bow, maybe try their hand at throwing a tomahawk, or learn how to start a fire with flint and steel.

For a small fee those with some experience and their own equipment can try for prizes and bragging rights. If you think you’re an expert marksman try out the Primitive Shoot; here small targets like plastic spoons, feathers, pickles, carrots and olives are the target at 12-15 yards. Even though you may not use a shooting rest, this is a very popular event. And be sure to check out the trading post, with handmade items and more.

The big reason for this event was originally to get together with family and friends for a weekend of outdoor fun. It’s grown a bit and now we host it to get people back outside. Studies have shown a disturbing trend: fewer and fewer people are spending time outside, and for this reason many are losing knowledge of the natural world, what it looks like, how it works, and even what’s out there. We also see that spending time outside is better for your emotional as well as your physical health. It’s a great way to get away from the pressures we face every day, to relieve stress, to slow down, and to get some quietness back into your life, maybe rethink some things, or spend some uninterrupted time talking to God. Getting outside can do wonders!

If this sounds like fun you can go to the Black Powder Shoot Link on the website for more information. Feel free to contact us with any questions you might have.

Hope to see you out there,


North to the BWCA

IMG_0729Well summer has been here for a while now in central MN, with lots of moisture early on, high temps and lots of mosquitoes. The grass and garden have been doing quite well. The raspberries are the best ever with over a gallon frozen so far; the peas, zucchini and beans are feeding us, and our 6 foot high heirloom tomatoes are just a few days away from first ripening. The long cold spring we had that delayed the maple syrup season(plus 12 inches of snow in the middle of April) was just a delay and now the weather has definitely pushed things along.

So with everything running well it seemed like a good time for a trip, a canoe trip. Three of us would go: myself, my brother Tim, and his boy Adam. This was Adam’s second trip. The forecast sounded interesting: heat and humidity, rain, and also cooler temps. Yes the weather would be pivotal in the mood of the trip, going from oppressive, to downright nasty, to utterly delightful.

We started on a calm, drizzly, quite warm(80’s), humid Wednesday on Snowbank Lake in the BWCA. It would be the last time anything would be reasonably dry until Friday. We were warned about the mosquitoes on the portages but didn’t have it real bad until the last portage of the day, a 220 rod(320 to the mile) hike. Here the heat, humidity, and bugs joined forces. Since we were double tripping(making two trips to get everything over) we really had a chance to get miserably acquainted with the bugs.


Ensign Lake.

The North country had had a lot of rain and the water levels and mud puddles proved it. Any rocks on the portages were damp and very slippery, which made good footing rare at times. Between the rocks and ankle-deep muddy puddles we all slipped at least once; my worst when I was carrying my day pack and canoe. I tried to go around a puddle and as I planted my left foot it slipped out to my right. As I staggered to my left, my right foot kept me up and then my left brought me back upright. Just barely. And with high water levels come stagnant pools which are ideal for mosquito breeding, which means it’s been one continuous mosquito love fest. The DEET ran right off in our sweat and had to be reapplied frequently, with little effect. At this point our spirits were still good, and we were amazed at the aggressiveness of the bugs. Over the next few days this attitude would change.

We made camp at midday on Ensign Lake on a point that exposed us to any wind that might arise. Baked beans and wild rice brats for supper. The bugs invited themselves to the meal, dining on us. The wind, although invited as well, apparently had a prior commitment, leaving the situation tense. The supply of bug spray was dropping faster than normal, causing one to think of rationing. After supper we clambered into the tent for relief, only to find we had about two dozen tag-alongs that took the better part of a half hour to eliminate. Needless to say the tent was quite stuffy.


Ripe juicy serviceberries.

That first night we had no less than 3 heavy downpours, which soaked anything we had hung out in an attempt to dry. Between the showers could be heard the steady whine of thousands of tiny wings looking for blood.


We saw a good number of eagles in the area.


I was awakened by voices; a party of canoers passing by on their way to the next lake. It was only about 6:30 am. It would be the first of many parties to pass by our campsite over the next two days. Throughout the morning a party would go by about every half hour. I had no idea this was such a popular route. We spent most of the day trying to dry out and relax. Fishing produced only a few hammer-handles. We gathered more firewood down the shore and found that the serviceberries were ripe. They became Adam’s favorite food for the trip. The area we were in was a fairly “young” forest with lots of aspen and younger conifers. It looked like a fire had gone through awhile ago, leaving just scattered white pine. In the fire’s wake sprang up blueberries, raspberries, fireweed, serviceberries and the aspen. Much of it looked like good grouse habitat.

We got out fishing in the afternoon when the weather looked more promising. I went one way in my solo canoe while Adam and Tim moved down a different shore. The wind picked up a bit and then the sky turned dark to the northwest. I was trolling and had a snag just as the weather worsened. I made it to the leeward side of an island just as the gust front ripped across the lake toward me. I pulled up the canoe and turned to see a wall of rain bearing down on me. I got my rain suit on just as it hit. I sat on the island about half an hour before being able to go back out, and then headed west down the lake trolling again. I got a hard bite by a small island, and right away could tell it was a good fish.  At that point I was drifting with the wind and the fish brought the canoe to a stop. It just sat out there like a rock. When it did move I could really feel its power. My rod doubled over several times as it made runs, my drag squealing. It stayed down for quite a while, not giving me a look at all. It felt like a good northern. Finally after several runs it surfaced. A bass? Really? It was a big smallmouth that measured over 21 inches and had a huge potbelly. Somewhere around 5-6 pounds. The largest I’ve ever caught. (my 2nd largest came from Lac la Croix, also in BWCA). That was fun. I’ve heard these big bass this far north can be 20 years old. May it live a few more years I thought as I watched it swim away.

A bit later Tim and Adam caught up with me, having survived the storm at camp and still looking for some fish to eat. We headed further west down the lake to explore and fish. At this point we were all hungry and had no food in the boats. It was then that we saw a neat looking campsite and paddled over to check it out. What we found was a nice site with a perimeter of serviceberry shrubs. We picked and picked till we each probably ate well over a pint of berries.IMG_0565


Ominous looking storm clouds.

We went back to fishing and split up again. They headed back toward camp and I explored some of the empty campsites and found some really nice ones to keep in mind in the future. I eventually headed back to camp without any fish.

Later in the day the weather began to turn wet again with numerous showers, which meant we would eventually have to wait till quite late to make supper since we needed a fire to cook pork chops. It was then that the nasty weather showed up. The menacing clouds brought premature twilight and quite a light show. The rumbling of thunder increased in volume and was obviously headed our way. The next thing we know we have marble sized hail and then the gust front which brought horizontal rain. The ensuing downpour left us with a torrent running through camp you could kayak down. By the time it was over the sun and the wind had gone down. This allowed the bugs to move in. They really gathered around the fire’s heat, right where we were cooking, and no body parts were off-limits to them. Once again they ignored the bug spray, which became quite annoying. The best we could do was walk around the campsite with our plate, eating on the run. Again this was marginally successful. Things were said. At the end of the trip Adam would comment about this meal; how the food was good and everyone was walking around trying to eat, cussing the bugs!


End of the storms, at sunset.

The next day the high pressure that trailed the storms moved in with good NW winds and drier air, so we took a day trip to look for trout, which took us over a neat 180 rod portage and two shorter ones that had tough landing sites. Missionary Lake runs east and west with water clarity over 20 feet. We drifted with the wind dragging heavy spoons down deep, hoping for a hit. Halfway down off a point I hooked a laker that stayed deep quite awhile before I first got a glimpse of it about 15 feet down. Tim’s digital scale put it at 2.75 pounds.IMG_0638 Enough for a meal. We fished a bit longer then portaged over to another lake with brook trout but had no luck there. We made decent time heading back to camp into the stiff headwind, stopping on a neat high open point for firewood. The wind kept most of the bugs at bay and the temps dropped as we enjoyed grilled trout and wild rice before nodding off.IMG_0649

The next morning we had wild blueberry pancakes and maple syrup and then headed back toward Snowbank for one more day. The day was sunny and calm and as we crossed Ensign we saw a party of four canoes about half a mile down the lake to the west and because of the mirage effect they appeared to be floating above the water, with an occasional glint of sunlight off a paddle catching your eye.IMG_0676


Adam with his supper.


One last fire.

About two hours later we set up camp on the NE shore of Snowbank just off the outlet that leads to Ensign. We had great weather and spent the day fishing, gathering a couple nice smallmouth. We wanted one more for supper so Adam went out in the solo canoe in the early evening and came back with a keeper. The bugs left us alone long enough to eat and enjoy the evening fire one more time before heading home in the morning.

The last night was chilly, and we were up with the sun. We savored the last hours at the campsite before departing. It was a sunny morning as we crossed Snowbank one more time, and we had the lake to ourselves for most of the 3 mile paddle. A cool breeze kicked up and it felt good to want a long-sleeved shirt to brace against it. As a final gesture we were treated to a gathering of 6 eagles on a small island just a few hundred yards off our landing. We talked about that as we headed down the road. And talked about the next trip…


Get outside,


Spring Just Around the Corner?

Well here we are, it’s the middle of March, the month when Spring arrives. A lot of people have been looking forward to these upcoming warmer days since December, looking forward to planting their garden, mowing the grass, swatting mosquitoes, and wearing sandals again. Spring, being a time of renewal, comes with longer days and gradually warmer daytime temperatures. Of course these conditions help melt our snow cover and warm the soil so life can “start over”. Start over. Think about what that means. Warmer days, the snow going away; getting out in the yard, the songbirds returning. What will you plant this year? Digging in the garden and experiencing the aroma of freshly turned soil wafting through the air; the buzz of insects reaching your ears. The sound of your neighbor’s lawn mower at 9:00 am Sunday morning. Those wonderful seasonal scents that are released as the April showers thaw the last glacial remnants on the north side of the garage. Ahh, the chance to be outside working in the yard and actually sweating! The sting of your first mosquito bite! And finally let’s not forget that wonderful aroma that arrives as people get their grills out of hibernation!

But hang on a minute! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Being a Black Powder Beagle (as I am) requires that you do things differently, that you think differently, that you act differently- check the BPB Membership guidelines!  So even though I lament the end of another winter, I do look forward to March because I like pancakes. Huh? And I like to put real maple syrup on my pancakes. OK. So what do pancakes and maple syrup have to do with March?

Well quite a bit actually. You see, I (and many other like-minded people) like to spend at this time of year lots of time in the company of trees, more precisely sugar maples. Because we like maple syrup. Really. By spending time in the company of sugar maples I don’t mean we hang out in the woods and talk them into giving up maple syrup. No, although they are good listeners we don’t talk to them. Well, maybe a little.

If you didn’t know, you may have figured out by now that real maple syrup comes from sugar maple trees. Nowhere else. And Spring(March) is the time of year when maple syrup is produced. Why March? Well it’s a combination of many factors, most being related to the weather. This time of year as the Earth is warming in the northern hemisphere(where we live) the atmosphere becomes unstable causing those weather “mood swings” we experience. Warm up, cool down, warm up, cool down. Wind, snow, rain, sleet, you name we probably get it in March.

It’s these mood swings in the temperatures that give us maple syrup. The sap begins to run in the trunks of the trees under the right conditions. Typically when the daytime temperatures reach the forty degree mark and the night-time temps dip below freezing we have the right conditions to produce maple syrup.

Real maple syrup has only one ingredient: sap.

Real maple syrup has only one ingredient: sap.

Maple syrup doesn’t come out of the tree as syrup; it begins as tree sap that is mostly water. Getting sap from the trees is fairly simple: drill a small hole into the tree, tap a spile(spout) into the hole, and hang a bag or bucket beneath to collect the sap. When you have a sufficient quantity of sap you put it into a large container and boil it down till it’s done. Maple syrup.

While that’s a generalized description of the process- I’ve left out several important guidelines to follow; the process that was handed down to us by the Native Americans centuries ago remains unchanged. A fairly simple process.

Boiling off the extra water.

Boiling off the extra water.

Lots of wood to cook the sap

Lots of wood to cook the sap

A fairly simple but time-consuming process. Raw sap right out of the tree on the average contains only about 2% sugar, the remaining 98% contains water and a few minerals and vitamins. To get to maple syrup we need to raise the sugar content to about 66%, give or take. That means we need to remove a lot of water, by boiling it off. And it will take somewhere around 40 gallons of that raw sap to give us one gallon of syrup. That’s a lot of cooking, but it’s time and energy well spent. Outdoors. It’s another of the traditions that we enjoy. A process and tradition that’s not well-known to most, but is very satisfying when the weather cooperates.

When the weather cooperates. This year our winter started a bit slow but has gained momentum the last month or so. Usually by this time our snow pack is declining. This year, it’s still growing. Yes, March brings us snow, but usually that snow is short-lived. Not this year: temperatures for the month are running 10-15 degrees cooler than average; two days ago the snow here at home measured 14 inches deep in the woods. And as I’m writing this we are about 9 hours into a blizzard warning. Go figure. Minnesota weather. The 51 taps(spiles) we have out will have to wait a bit longer.

Time well spent.

Time well spent.

If you are in the area and are interested in seeing the maple syrup process firsthand go to for times and days that are available. However, until it warms up enough for the sap to run, tours will not be available. Watch the weather and check back.


Farewell to a Friend

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe winter woods, the woods that we frequent in search of rabbits, has been a bit quieter the last two hunting seasons due to a retirement. And just recently they’ve become even quieter as we mourn the passing of that retiree. Our Buddy, the Rabbinator, the Bunny Bouncer, the original Black Powder Beagle is gone. He had been on a slow decline for almost two years, due mainly to arthritis in his hips and knees, but other issues arose that would finely tell us it was time to say goodbye. Looking back, Buddy had a good life, a good run. And let me tell you there was a lot of running at times.

Buddy was the only survivor of his litter, so he got a lot of attention from his mom. It wasn’t until later we realized that because he was an “only child”  he never had to develop any sort of competitiveness; there was always plenty of food with no siblings to compete with. So Buddy was not aggressive at all toward anybody. He was always very gentle, even with young kids. Our neighbor kids loved him; often they would knock on the door to see if Buddy could come out and play. I could pull his full food dish out from under him with no repercussions. However he would certainly defend himself when needed, especially when it came to his food dish and other dogs. Beagles love to eat. It’s one of their hobbies.

Buddy was often quick to learn; about a week after we got him as a pup he did something we didn’t want him doing and so I said  “Bad dog.” in a stern voice. He immediately dropped his ears and hung his head looking absolutely like the proverbial pathetic little puppie. It was all I could not to pick him up and tell him it was OK. Puppies are like that. As I said he tended to learn quick and house training was fairly easy; once trained the only time he made a mess in the house was when he was ill and would vomit, but even then he would try to make it to the door, even up to his last hours.

Early on I knew I had a good future hunter. Living out in the country like we do made training him easy; just let him loose in the yard. Rabbits were plentiful. I remember the first time I introduced him to the gun. I used a .22 rimfire because it’s not as loud as a shotgun; loud noises early on could make him gun-shy. I was out in the yard with him and I waited until he was about 30 yards away, aimed at the ground and pulled the trigger. At the report he came running to see what was going on, with his tail wagging like crazy. I just smiled. By the end of his first hunting season he knew the sight and sound of the gun meant fun and adventure.

Being a beagle his nose led him everywhere and he quickly learned to backtrack back to me by following his own scent. As he got older and gained experience he would venture out for longer periods of time. I don’t remember his first rabbit but he put two and two together and that was all it took. From then on just the sight of a gun would get him howling by the front door, with excitement that could only mean “Come on let’s go, let’s go!” He wore a bell in the woods so I could keep track of him, although that was laughable at times. Before we would leave for a hunt I would put the bell on his collar. First I would take the bell out of the cabinet and ring it a few times, and he would come running. Then he would sit down in front of me and wait “patiently” while I removed his collar, put the bell on and put the collar back on his quivering neck. At that point the excitement was almost too much for him. Yes, running rabbits was his favorite hobbie, above all else.

He went by many names out in the field: Buddy the Bunny Bouncer, the Rabbinator, Relentless Buddy-Boy. He was all business once into good rabbit territory, and I could count on him to give 150%. Like my buddy Sam would say, “Buddy could be right next to you and if you were trying to get his attention  while he was on a rabbit scent you had no chance of being heard. He was hardcore.” Hard core indeed. If we got a rabbit he would often give it a quick cursory sniff then be off to find another. No ceremony; all business. And I remember one time trying to track him down after he got on a deer scent, which was bad news. Over the years I found if I ever lost track of him the best way to locate him was by sound; that wonderful beagle braying. Anyway this time it was almost an hour before I heard from him and he was so far away I had to go back to the truck and drive in his direction to catch up. When I finally caught up, there he was working a trail and no amount of shouting would get his attention from only 20 feet away, and he was moving too fast for me to physically stop him. So I shot into the air. That worked, but he followed me to the truck reluctantly.

Another time when he was nine years old we were on snowshoes because of the deep snow. Buddy was sinking up to the top of his back when he wasn’t following in our tracks. At times all I could see was the tip of his tail whipping back and forth as he followed the scent on the rabbit runs, and sometimes I couldn’t see him at all but I could hear him breathing like a steam engine, the Little Engine that could, and did. After two hours of tough hunting we made our way to a field that had hard drifts on it. Buddy made his way to a drift and proceeded to roll on his back most luxuriously while making happy snorting sounds. Then he jumped up, shook himself off, looked at me with wagging tail and took off in search of rabbits. Still having fun after two hours of snow up to his neck. I just laughed and shook my head in awe. It always amazed me how a dog weighing less than 30 pounds could have so much toughness and stamina. There were many times when I would find flecks of blood in his tracks because he had worn his pads raw. It never slowed him down. He loved to run rabbits.

After 2 hours of deep snow, Buddy's still feeling good.

After 2 hours of deep snow, Buddy’s still feeling good.

One woods we’ve hunted many times has a field between the woods and where we park. Typically when it was time to head home I would call him over and he would follow me back to the truck, his little bell jingling behind me. If the jingling stopped I would stop and see what was going on. At this woods it usually meant Buddy had spotted the truck, which meant he would stop and sit down, refusing to go any further(home). When I called him to come he would look at me and not budge. Upon further urging with a stern voice he would look at me, then look over his shoulder back at the woods, then back at me as if trying to decide what to do. Eventually he would give in and with a look of resignation follow me back to the truck where he would immediately fall asleep. Every once in a while he would run out of gas like a lithium-ion battery: go-go-go and then just like that no more. He would turn around a few times in place and then lie down, done for the day, which meant I had to carry him to the truck, sometimes up to a quarter-mile, with him asleep in my arms.

Buddy always gave 150 percent.

Buddy always gave 150 percent.

And I learned to trust that nose of his. His eyes and ears were as good as any, especially the ears. But like our eyes and ears they could be tricked into thinking we saw or heard something we didn’t. But not that nose. If Buddy indicated he smelled something you could bet it was there, had just been there, or had been there in the last 18? hours. And he could obviously figure out which scent was the freshest, which one to follow. It might take him awhile to figure it out, which is how he came to get the name Relentless Buddy Boy. His nose never failed him in his later years. The eyes and ears began to fail him like they do, but his nose worked just fine.

Another nick name for Buddy was Houdini as he was very good at finding his way into or out of our fenced in backyard. We put in the fence because of his nose; there were way too many cross-country workouts for my legs, seemingly at the most inopportune times. He fit through openings in that fence that a rabbit would have a hard time getting through. Drove me nuts.

Scientists tell us there are only a few species of animals that use tools to get things done. I would like to add beagles to that list. A little background here. At one time we had two beagles: Buddy, and Boomer who came to us when Buddy was four. Boomer was with us only 4 years but that’s another story. Then five years ago we added a chocolate lab by the name of Mocha. He’s a real sweetheart. Anyway by the time Boomer had arrived Buddy had claimed the house as his territory, and the couch for napping(another hobbie), especially when one of us was sitting on it. If Buddy was on the couch next to us it meant that all of the couch and anything within 4 feet of it were off-limits to all other four-legged critters. Entering this airspace caused a reaction in Buddy that reminded you of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Whoa! Well, sometimes, when the planets became misaligned, Boomer, or in later years Mocha would get to the coveted warm spot next to us on the couch before Buddy got there. Now remember Buddy was not aggressive, so he didn’t charge in with teeth blazing. He would sit down, grumble, grouse, and throw in a woof! while rocking back and forth on his haunches. He would look at us for help, but not get any because we were snickering by this time. He would go silent for a moment, then get up and search the house till he found one of the dog toys. With this he would lie down in front of the couch and proceed to thoroughly enjoy himself as he shook it and tossed it into the air. Boomer would see the fun going on without him and jump down to play. There would be a playful tug of war which Buddy always “lost.” Happy, victorious Boomer would start chewing on the toy while Buddy slowly but deliberately took his place on the couch next to us! The first time we saw this we looked at each other and said “What just happened? Did I really see that?” Buddy would dupe Boomer and Mocha several times over the years. True story.

Finally, Buddy was a bit of a hero to some of us, not because he was so hardcore in the field, although he did introduce a number of people to fun,  successful rabbit hunting. He did it by being a friendly dog. His tail was always wagging, even around strangers. His motto was “Win ’em over with friendliness”. With a face like that and a happy-go-lucky-attitude it hardly ever failed. Small people adored him and were drawn to him, and the feeling was mutual. And if the small unknowing child got too rough, Buddy didn’t snarl, he just walked away. Our neighbors have children that grew up with Buddy, and they would come over to play with him, letting us know if Buddy got bored with them and had headed off into the woods. Even as late as two months ago, when I had let him out to putt around the yard and he had wandered down the shared driveway they brought him to the house, thinking he had somehow gotten out when we were at work. I literally heard the disappointment in their voices when they saw that I was home and they couldn’t play with him, even from the older siblings who are in highschool.

And many years ago we went camping with my sister and her young daughter who was about 6 or 7 at the time. Young Kenzie was scared to death of dogs, but we brought Buddy anyway. When the weekend was over Kenz and Buddy were best buds. Kenzie, now in college would eventually live in a household of many dogs, big and small, both inside and out, and has her own Yorkie that she adores. And she has a photo of her and Buddy from that camping trip that she keeps on a shelf in her room.  Buddy’s beagle charm won her over.

Kenzie and Buddy- best buds.

Kenzie and Buddy- best buds.

To be sure there are memories of Buddy that aren’t as fun or pleasant. Anyone who as ever owned a dog knows this. But what’s the point, it’s not the bad memories we remember so much anyway. It’s the good ones that made an impact on us, that we miss now. The tail, the greeting at the door, the happy howling, the “helpfulness”, the games of tag, the snuggling on the couch, the comical antics, the winter woodland music, the exciting hunts, always glad to see you. We get so much more out of the good, even if it’s a dog.

In the end, on that day I knew it was over, the vet just confirmed it for me. I had to go it without my wife, who couldn’t get away from work. Some people say that smells can bring back memories better than sights or sounds. For a dog that’s probably true. In his final moments Buddy’s nose, that wonderful nose was still working, still sniffing, so I made sure I was the last thing he smelled before he crossed the field into the woods.

Somewhere I was reading about the beagle breed; the author suggested that beagles are big dogs in small bodies. Yep. Thanks Mr. Bud.