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(BWCA) in northeast Minnesota is unique to 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 BWCA 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 BWCA 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. The BWCA is unique to this country. 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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…