part 2 : Are We Having Fun Yet?
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 would. 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,