This trip began shortly after Christmas. My brother-in-law Tom said he was interested in a winter camping trip to the BWCA. He has a good tent that he hasn’t ever used in the winter and said it was time to use it and the 2 new 9 foot toboggans made of UHDP(high tech plastic) that he wanted to test out. On a more serious note he mentioned something about people our age retiring and not being able to physically do this type of activity. He wants to do it while he still can. Amen!
I mentioned a trip I was thinking about which is just a fairly short walk in where we could catch brook trout and lake trout. That was all he needed to hear. There were 4 of us: Tom, his eldest son Mike, myself, and my brother Tim. Tim and I had been to this area in 2019 and were eager to go back. We would leave after work and drive up in two trucks, spend the night in a private cabin on Lake Superior, then the next morning make our way up the Gunflint Trail to our jumping off spot. To say we were excited was an understatement.
We made it to the lake parking lot shortly after noon. We unloaded the trucks and set the toboggans out to let them straighten out, having been curled in half since we left the cabin. They straightened quite quickly despite the subzero temperatures. The challenge right off was distributing the weight properly on the toboggans. This meant putting the heaviest pieces just forward of center, with the rest being spread out evenly. If the heavy load is too far forward the toboggan will want to nosedive out of the trail and tip; too far back and will want to wander all over the place. Keeping it in the trail will mean less energy is spent to keep it moving. After a while we had things in place and strapped down, so it was time to fill out a permit, which took just a couple minutes. A double and triple check to make sure we had everything, then we locked the trucks, and stowed the keys. Then it was time to head into the wind for the 3/4 mile or so jaunt across the lake to the portage.
The forecast windchills were around -35F to -40F. With the air temperature at around -8 it was definitely chilly. Our plan was to get to Missing Link Lake and set up camp there. We planned to do some fishing on that lake and do a day trip over to Tuscarora Lake for some lake trout fishing. Getting across the first lake quickly would get us out of the numbing windchills and into the shelter of the trees and portage. We all had a wind layer over our insulating layers of wool and/or polar fleece. Balaclavas were the choice for the face, and heavy mittens kept our hands comfortable. The toboggans slid nicely on the hardpack. About halfway across our body’s furnaces had kicked in and were producing more than enough heat. Some of us removed our headgear and mittens to try to keep too much sweat from running down our backs. We were only somewhat successful. The mittens and headgear would come back on, then off again in an endless cycle of temperature control. I removed my wind layer, but for a short time only; the strong wind just cut through my three layers of wool way too easily for comfort.
Since the toboggans were moderately loaded, around 95 to 125 pounds each, we travelled single file with the first person, Tim, carrying only a small backpack with my camera and fishing tackle breaking trail. The snow was very hard packed from the wind on most of the lake but there were also softer deeper spots. Having someone break that trail allowed the rest of us to conserve energy. This was good because there were hills to climb on the approaching portage. Behind Tim the three of us pulling toboggans took turns leading the others.
Tim, with the pack, was the first to the portage. It was hard packed from previous travelers, so he removed his snowshoes. Then he continued on ahead to scout the trail conditions. Tom, Mike and I gathered at the foot of the portage briefly to remove layers and drink. I removed my snowshoes, but they left theirs on because theirs had cleats which would help get up the hill. My traditional style ‘shoes do not. Then Mike headed up the trail, with me next in line. Tom waited a bit to give space. When we got to the hills we pulled until we ran out of forward steam. Then it became a team effort: one pulled, one pushed. Pull and push to a desired spot on the trail, take a breather, then walk back down and repeat for the other toboggans until we had all 3 over the crest of the hills. The perspiration flowed freely.
During these breaks we would relax a bit and look around. The snow was soft, and deep: anywhere from 24 to 36 inches. If you stepped off the hard packed trail, you could sink almost the full length of your inseam. Downed trees that were lying horizontally above the snow often had 18 to 20 inches of snow piled on them. The bows of the conifers were heavy laden with the white stuff, some of them only a few inches from your shoulders as you moved along the trail. On either side the terrain shot up abruptly, rugged rock jutting up and away into the soft snowy unknown.
We were out of the wind here. It was quiet, no birds, just a gentle sowing of the wind through the treetops high above us could be heard now and then. Beautiful, full silence. Except for our pounding hearts and heavy breathing. And something else. I don’t remember who mentioned it first. But you had to hold your breath to hear it. Water. Running water. It’s early February, it’s been very cold of late, and there’s running water beneath our feet. A tiny, stubborn spring fed rivulet is making its way downhill along this portage, on its way to the sea. We heard that tiny trickle whispering to itself all along the upper reaches of the portage.
Onward we went climbing and pulling. At one spot there was a 10 to 12 foot cliff which leaned out toward the trail and had a southern exposure. Clinging to it along its length were many icicles, some of them 4-5 feet long. After this the trail leveled off for good. …Finally, the end of the portage, and our destination lake! We had a spot in mind for camp that would keep us out of most of the wind and away from any possible traffic from other travelers. We headed in that direction, which was to the SE. About 25 minutes later we picked a spot for the tent just offshore, right on the ice. A quick search into the deep snow of the woods inland revealed a fair amount of potential firewood for the wood stove that would both heat the tent and cook our meals.
Tom and Mike set about getting the tent up while Tim and I began searching for wood. Tim decided to check out a spot across the lake; I checked the woods behind camp. The snow was deep and soft; with my snowshoes I sank about 10 inches with each step. As I moved around, I came across several moose tracks. Then I came across a number of moose beds. I also located a few good-sized saplings that had been broken off above my head. Moose looking to get some tender buds I suppose. I wondered if we would get a sighting of a moose with this sign so close to camp.
I did manage to locate and cut 2 nice sized dead standing trees with the saw. Since the woods was so dense, I had to cut one into 3 pieces to get it out of the woods. It was good dry wood. Tim also came back with good wood from across the lake. We gathered a few more trees from both locations and then decided we had a good supply for the time being. By now the tent was up, and all 4 of us got to cutting and splitting the wood. With 2 or 3 saws and 2 axes working we got it done quite quickly. Good thing because the sun was touching the horizon.
Once the stove was in place we got a fire going. Everyone got their beds set up as we waited for the tent to warm. A pot of water was set on the stove for hot drinks and then another for boiling our brats for supper. We talked about the day while waiting for the brats. It had been a fun, but strenuous day. Sleep would come easy.
Everyone stayed warm overnight, despite the 29 below air temp. We were awake around sunup the next morning. A fire in the stove warmed things quickly, and we lounged for a while. Water was heated for coffee and tea, and bagels were sliced in half and toasted on the stove top. Breakfast was basically the bagels and handfuls of dried cranberries and apricots.
I started thinking about fishing, so as soon as I could I got dressed and went out to drill a couple holes through the ice. This being the BWCA no power augers of any kind are allowed, so before the trip I made sure I had sharp, new blades on the auger. I went along the shore a bit and made a guess as to where I should drill. I wanted a maximum of 10 or 12 feet. Brook trout come into shallow water at daybreak to feed on the aquatic insects and small minnows that are found in the shallows due to any aquatic vegetation that might still be active under the ice. The first hole took 2 or 3 minutes to complete; I stopped a couple times to scoop out the shaved ice and refresh my arms. There was less ice than I expected, only about 20-22 inches. Now that I was warmed up from the exercise, I went to get my down parka to stay warm as I sat and fished. The hard packed snow beneath my feet squeaked with a high pitch as I walked; the temperature was still chilly, around 15 below. After the slush was cleared out of the hole, I dropped a very small spoon tipped with larva down, all the way to bottom. It was about 11 feet deep. Perfect. I then reeled in till my bait hung 4-5 feet under the ice. I then quickly raised the bait about 10 inches, held it there for a count of 2, then dropped it back down. I did this 4 more times, then on the last drop jigged it a few times. The whole process took about 30 seconds. When I finished jigging, I let the bait rest a second or two. Before I could repeat the process I felt my rod thump in my hand. I reflexively set the hook and out came a nice brook trout! Brook trout typically don’t get very large, especially in small streams where an 8 incher might be considered a mature fish. But in lakes they can and do get larger, I have caught them in the summer close to 2 pounds. This one however was around 10-11 inches, a good eating size. And brook trout taste fabulous. I rebaited, and in less than 5 minutes had another slightly larger one on the ice. Already ice was forming in the hole, affecting my bait’s action, so I scooped it out and resumed jigging. Nothing happened for about ten minutes. I was curious about the depth closer to shore, so I drilled another hole about 20 feet closer. When I dropped my bait it only went about 4 feet and stopped. I raised it to 18 inches under the ice, where I could see it easily even with the early sun behind heavy clouds. Of course the water’s nearly 16 feet of clarity helped. Looking into the hole I thought I saw something move and then had to set the hook once again on number three. About 10 minutes later number 4 landed on the ice. These 2 were around 12 inches. I was 1 shy of a daily limit, and over the next 25 minutes I hooked and lost two fish. Then they quit biting and I had to go on to other things.
We decided more firewood was needed for the day so we all went about finding some. Tom, Mike, and Tim went back across the lake, while I decided to venture further behind camp with the saw. I ventured into the woods further than the day before, beyond the end of yesterday’s trails back into deep soft snow. The terrain leveled off a bit and the going became easier. I noticed more moose sign the further I went. From the meandering of the tracks, I could tell this one was feeding. It also spent a fair amount of time back here, as I found 4 more beds. The morning clouds had moved on, pushed by a good breeze, but back here it was quiet. All I could hear was the sound of my wool sweater brushing softly against the branches, and the whispering “frumpf frumpf” of the snow settling beneath my snowshoes. The sound of my saw biting through wood seemed insignificant, dampened, swallowed up by all that snow hanging on the conifer bows.
It’s interesting how sound travels up here, especially in the winter months. Up where I was, so quiet; I felt isolated, removed from everything else. And yet, as I started to haul part of a tree back down to camp I heard the other 3 talking. I could almost make out the words. It sounded as if they were near camp, but when I got down to the ice they were just coming off the far shore, about 200 yards away. I made a couple more trips out and back, and the others did as well. We now had more than enough wood for the rest of the day and set about processing it. Three of us worked with saws while the 4th did some splitting so we would have a variety of sizes on hand. I think it took less than an hour to reduce the wood to what we wanted. Teamwork is a great thing when everyone on the team knows what has to be done.
We took a break for a light lunch of summer sausage, crackers and cheese. With a fire in the stove Tim fixed up some of our traditional trail snacks: summer sausage and cheese on top of a Triscuit cracker, which then is placed on a hot stove(or next to the fire) till the cracker toasts a bit and the cheese begins to melt. Add a side dish of dried fruit and lemonade(hot or cold depending on the season) and you have a favorite.
While we relaxed we discussed the rest of the day. Snow was on the way later and over night so we wanted to remember to organize all the outdoor gear and things just in case we got dumped on. We also wanted to do some exploring along the portage heading out the south end of the lake. Mike had been taking photos and was interested in the landscape inland from the lake. So when lunch was done and everything organized we donned our wind layers, put on our snowshoes and headed down the lake to the portage.
The wind in winter can be brutal if you aren’t prepared for it, or even if you are for that matter. It can cut through layers of clothing that are not wind proof and pull the heat off your body in a hurry. If you are engaged in fairly strenuous activity you can stay warm; even if the windchill is approaching 50 below you can over heat, but you really need to pay attention to your body, especially your face. You may be sweating profusely, but your face can still freeze. Your face may begin to sting, then “burn” as it gets colder. Eventually the burn may subside, most likely because it is now numb. If that happens you want to get it covered and warmed ASAP. If you wait too long you may get frost nipped or even frostbite. Milder cases may cause the skin to flake/peel off in a couple weeks; more severe cases call for medical attention. Best to avoid the situation: monitor your face closely at all times.
We had no issues staying warm. You can almost always expect some discomfort from the cold while camping; it’s part of the charm. Our fingers got cold when we had our mittens off for too long while doing a task that required good dexterity, but they warmed in a couple minutes after getting back into mittens. Dressing properly keeps the whole body comfortable. We wore wool or synthetic base layers; my brother and I wore wool pants and wool shirts under our wind layers. We each had a down parka for extreme conditions or for fishing. Tom and Mike wore more modern, technical clothing: polar fleece, polyester, and nylon in different combinations. No one ever got cold, even at night; we had -30 and -40 sleeping bags and our coldest night was minus 29F. We also all had gloves and heavy mittens for our hands, and balaclavas(facemasks) for our heads. On our feet we all wore mukluks.
The wind can be brutal, but it also can be a great artist on snow out in the open. The contours of the drifts out on the ice, some large, but many very very fine were phenomenal at times. Many times we would see several fine lines in close proximity to each other. And the next drift might a larger one. And they all ran for 200 yards or more, perpendicular to the wind like countless, sinuous waves in freeze frame across the lake. Sometimes our snowshoes would leave finely detailed imprints of themselves on the surface of these frozen waves. Sometimes the drift would collapse under our weight. And once in a while our ‘shoes would leave no imprint whatsoever. The thought that the wind, combined with physics could make something so soft and so simple so hard is amazing. Later in the day as it was, the sun was really getting involved in the art process. White glistening drifts, various tones of golden sunlight creating blue and gray intricate shadows, all with a conifer green backdrop. As Tom kept saying ” This is so awesome!” Finally, we got off the ice and into the woods on the portage. Here the lighting changed dramatically. From bright golden yellow to more subdued blues and grays, dark trunks, and every now and then splashes of sunlight would spill in, some of it all the way to the ground. The trees were darker in here out of the sun, and the terrain soon began to undulate as the trail meandered here and there, looking for the easiest route. The trail was also narrow, with our shoulders often brushing branches along the way. I was in the lead for now, breaking trail in the unbroken soft snow. As we moved away from the lake it got quiet, the only sounds being our snowshoes shushing and our breathing. Mike had his camera out, and every now and then Tom would quietly say something, pointing out things of interest to Mike. Then I would hear one or two rapid fire bursts as he took shots. Then it would be quiet again as we each observed and absorbed in our own way the beauty that surrounded us.
The terrain became even more abrupt as we went along. The trail passed through a ravine that was quite steep. I slid down like I was on skis and ended up crawling on all fours to get up the other side as I couldn’t gain any traction. Everyone had their own technique and we all made it. Then a little further on a ruffed grouse exploded from behind a tree just to my right. It shot up and swung a bit before landing on a limb in a jack pine. Tim pointed it out for Mike and he took a few shots, but he said “I should’ve brought the 500mm lens, a bit too far out for this one.” Continuing we came to a big hill that was steep and challenging to get up. Once over it Tim took the lead and hadn’t gone far when another grouse, this time on the left side flew a short distance and landed in the snow. We never got a real good look at it but are thinking it may have been a spruce grouse; it was much darker. Eventually we lost it in the thick brush. We traveled on, but came to a hill so long and steep none of us wanted to attempt it on snowshoes. So we turned and headed back to camp.
Back on the ice we made our way to camp. The stove was still warm and it didn’t take long to get good heat in the tent. As we were moving about camp, organizing and moving more wood into the tent, Tim got my attention and indicated he had spotted a Canada jay in a spruce near the tent. Canada jays resemble big, overgrown chickadees and are even friendlier. They, like blue jays are members of the Corvidae family of birds, the ravens and crows. I pointed it out to Mike and he grabbed his camera for some shots. I went in the tent and grabbed some dried cranberries, a fruit the bird would be familiar with. A couple times it flew over and hovered over our gear in front of the tent, then flew back to his perch. I realized the fish were in the snow next to the snowshoes just below his hovering spot. He had good eyes! I took a few of the cranberries and set them on the ice in a location where Mike might get a good shot. The jay would fly down, grab a cranberry and be airborne a split second later. The motor drive on Mike’s camera, firing about 11 shots per second sounded like a machine gun several times as the jay made his way back and forth. Mike said he got some good shots.
We had hung pork chops high in the ridge of the tent to thaw for supper. They were not quite thawed yet so we decided to cook our rehydrated dried apples in some butter in the cast iron skillet. It didn’t take long for the aroma of cooking apples to initiate excess salivation in everyone! When they were close to done I poured in some pure maple syrup to complete the dish. A few minutes more to let some of the syrup caramelize and we scooped them out of the pan into a small kettle and set that on a side shelf of the stove to keep warm. The remaining butter and apple sediment would now season the pork chops. Tom took care of the pork chops, and also prepared a black bean and wild rice side dish while we boiled some water and made some stove top stuffing to accompany the pork and apples. Supper was shaping up pretty good!
During this time we had been in and out of the tent for firewood, taking pictures, and other things and had witnessed the sliver moon succumb to gravity and sink behind the horizon. The wind had gone away and it was absolutely dead quiet, except for our chatter and the popping and crackling of the fire in the stove. Later on we would notice the stars fade away as clouds moved in. Then, late at night, just before shut-eye, light snow began to fall. We made sure everything outside was accounted for before zipping up for the night.
I was up once during the night to take care of business. I stoked the stove one more time before I went out. Snow was coming down fairly good at this point. Standing there with my headlamp barely penetrating the falling snow was like watching a silent movie: utter silence. Well, except for the snoring coming from the tent! The fire had revived itself when I made it back to my sleeping bag. Another couple hours of relative warmth would be had…
It was snowing in the morning, about 2 inches on the ground. The temp was around 12 below. We brought more wood in for heat. For breakfast we had oatmeal with blueberries and wild cranberries thrown in and sweetened with maple syrup, and pork sausage. Our goal for the day was a bit of fishing right away, more firewood, and then a hike over the portage to Tuscarora Lake. While the oatmeal was cooking Tim and I opened a couple new holes for fishing. After the oatmeal Tim, Tom and I each picked a hole and began fishing. Within 5 minutes Tim had one on the ice. He was fishing in 4 feet of water. Then it was my turn a short time later, one close to 13 inches. I also lost an even bigger one, of course. A good fifteen minutes went by before Tim pulled out his second. Both of his were around 12 inches. Then the bite was over. No luck for Tom. We took some pictures, and Mike had also been out with his camera doing the same.
A bit later we hit the woods for firewood, spreading out along the shore and into the woods behind camp. Another 4 trees were brought back, enough to get us through the day and night and tomorrow morning’s breakfast before heading out. Once again our teamwork got us through the processing rather quickly. All this time the snow continued to fall, which really added a remote, raw ruggedness to camp. A feeling that we were in tune with our surroundings, relaxed in where we were and what we were doing. Confident. Very happy to be here, with controlled excitement and wonder at it all. Content. These emotions would be elevated by our walk to Tuscarora.
A plan was finalized for our trek to Tuscarora. Just one pack with food, firestarter, first aid kit, fluids, compass and map, and a couple extra pieces of clothing. Mike would carry his camera pack with two cameras at the ready in harnesses around his chest. And our snowshoes. After stoking the fire one more time we headed out into the blowing snow, as a wind had picked up. It was close to half a mile to the portage, which began with a climb. Once again in the woods, the wind was reduced. The scenery was great as we made our way west along the portage. There were more hills to climb, and some to descend. Big rocks lay along the portage here and there, made even larger by the 20-24 inches of snow that covered them. We dropped down a steep hill and crossed a swamp, flushed a grouse, then went right back up. The trail meandered around steep terrain several times. At one point it dropped again and skirted the edge of a small lake that had spectacular snow-covered bluffs on the far shoreline. Then a big long hill that challenged our traction. Halfway up we flushed yet another grouse, and Mike spent some time trying get some good shots. Further along there was a long level run on top of a big hill that let us relax a bit. The west end of this hill dropped quickly, with twisting and turning steepness. I think we all spent at least some of our descent of this hill sliding. I don’t think anyone fell. With the snow coming down a bit harder visibility had been reduced. Coming off this last hill we noticed it was very light out ahead of us. Turns out it was opening up to Tuscarora Lake. It was a grand sight. Tom took one look and shouted “What a gorgeous lake!” And it was. And quite the scene. We were in a bay. Both shorelines pulled away with a point or two along the way; maybe 1/3 mile out was the mouth of the bay. And the far shoreline, the main part of the lake, almost a mile out there in the falling snow, was fading in and out like a ghostly apparition. We just stood there for awhile taking it in. Someone would point to something out there and say “look at how the…” and not even finish the sentence. Words were kinda useless right now. There was a lot to absorb and file into our memory banks. This lake… we have to come back. After a few minutes of personal thoughts we became tourists. Each of us went out onto the lake and had our picture taken with that scene behind us. Funny how a simple wilderness lake can do that to you.
Heading back to camp started out tough; we had to go back up that long, winding, steep hill we had finished on. For me, I found that if I bounded or half sprinted up the hill I somehow had better traction. Tim, being the largest of us all had the most difficult time; gravity tried pulling him back down the hill harder than the rest of us. Then after the initial climb would be another, then one more. Having done this route just a few minutes earlier turned the second time into a workout in a hurry. When we got to the upper level area we took time for a drink and a snack, breathing quite hard. Our pace slowed for awhile while our bodies settled down. But then the pace returned, and suddenly, we were back to our lake. Just half a mile to camp and a rest. Supper plans were creeping into my head…
Everyone was in good relaxed spirits when we made it to camp. We all needed a drink and a snack. Supper was talked about and I set about getting it ready. Before we left for Tuscarora I had made some raspberry Jello, wanting to give it time to gel. I checked, it was doing well. Tonight we were having fried chicken thighs, wild rice with black beans, the Jello, and brownies a bit later. That’s right, brownies.
The stove was stoked on a regular basis while I fried the chicken. It was a rather slow cook as the thighs were still a bit frozen. As they neared doneness Tom put the rice/bean pilaf on to warm. Finally the meat was done and we all dug in. Savory rice and beans, hearty chicken and a touch of sweet from the Jello. Such good stuff!. A pot of water was set on the stove to heat for dishes. While that was heating I mixed the brownie batter and poured it into its round pan. Once the dishwater was off the stove the collapsible oven was set up and placed on the stove to heat. More wood was added to the fire. After enough time had elapsed I set the brownie pan in the oven and closed the door. Things typically take longer to bake in this stove; it’s a single wall design and is not airtight. In other words it’s not very efficient. But in the end the brownies get down, are pulled out to cool a bit and then are cut into 4 pieces, or as we called them: brownie quarters. Imagine getting a brownie one fourth the size of the pan all to yourself! There was a bit of giggling at this point…
There was a lot of very small wood such as branch tips and such that came into camp with the trees we had harvested. A lot that didn’t get burned in the stove. So we decided to have a bonfire this last night, after supper. Outside it was clearing and dark, and calm, with a thin moon sliding toward the trees on the horizon, it’s work done for the day. We were relaxed, and a bit fatigued, but in a good way. It had been a fun, strenuous day. Again. The snowshoe over to Tuscarora and back, over that hilly terrain, we figure was a little over 3 miles. It was a good jaunt! Tomorrow, another mile and a half as we head out to the trucks and back to reality (insert sad face here). A fun fire would be a great way to end our stay.
The fire pile was about 3 feet by 3 feet, mostly tiny twigs. It started slow, with little heat. But then it caught and gained momentum in a hurry. We had to back up. At its peak the flames reached 10 or 12 feet, with the sparks probably approaching 20 or 30 feet. It really lit up the area. Some good pictures were taken. Then it fizzled quickly, depleted of its food. In 20 minutes just embers remained.
We realized this morning that it finally got above zero yesterday while we trekked over to Tuscarora. It’s just below zero this morning. That snowfall brought us about 4 inches of snow. We got the fire going for heat and hot water while we began packing our sleeping gear. Breakfast was bagels, leftover hotdog buns, dried fruit and hot drinks. Things moved fairly smoothly as we emptied the tent. Duffle bags were being refilled and placed near toboggans. Containers were closed up tight. The stove, still warm, was removed from the tent to cool, its ashes eventually dumped back on shore. Then the tent was struck and folded and rolled and put into its sack. Soon there was nothing left but a few twigs and some trampled snow. The toboggans were loaded and loads secured. We took a look around for anything missed. Everything looked good so we donned our snowshoes, picked up our tumplines and pulled.
The new snow became evident right away. The toboggans were resisting our pulls more than the day in. It was much more strenuous, plus we had had a fairly strenuous day yesterday… However, once on the portage, which from this end was mostly downhill things moved a little easier. But it was still more challenging. When we reached the hills it took two of us to control the descent of the toboggan. Runaway toboggans careening off into trees are not a good thing. Some areas of the trail were narrow, dropping off on either side. This is where two people on a toboggan were a good thing. So used to dressing for the last few days colder temperatures, again, we began to overheat. Taking turns with each toboggan we negotiated the portage, and actually had to run ahead of the toboggan at the end to keep from getting run over. We regrouped at the bottom and set out one last time for the trucks. As we began to spread out I heard Mike ask the question “So we’re all coming back up next Friday, right?” I wish…
All photography and(future) videos provided by Mike, Tim, Tom, and Mike!
Watch here for links to upcoming slideshow and video clips of the trip!