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Field Journal: Five Days in the Winter Woods of the Boundary Waters

Posted by David

Field Journal: Five Days in the Winter Woods of the Boundary Waters

We knew it'd be cold: Forecast highs were in the single digits just above zero fahrenheit each of the five days we were going to be out. The cold surprised and scared me most after a necessary quick trip outside at 3am on our first night. Getting back into the sleeping bags (yes, multiple), my hands seemed to scream as they managed the ice-cold nylon, insulation, and zippers. It was thirty below zero. As planned, the wood stove was out, and now it felt just as cold inside our shelter as out. Don’t jam that zipper! I warned myself as I realized how reliant I was on the lofty insulation I brought along. It was a sharp contrast to what I had found during the day—a surprise of how few layers I could wear while on the move along the trail. Several layers were required at times of less exertion, but when I was harnessed to a heavy toboggan and doing the job of a group of sled dogs, a well chosen few articles were all I could get away with wearing. Any more insulation caused heavy perspiration, and being wet in the deep cold is a dangerous way to learn about hypothermia.

Loading toboggans for a winter camping outing in the BWCAW

We’d chosen long narrow toboggans for our expedition into northeast Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It was the first full week of February, and we had hot tents with portable wood stoves, food, tools, and extra clothes lashed to the sleds. The toboggans were new to me. I’d never camped from one before and had been told to bring only what’s necessary and leave all the extra junk behind. Loading in the parking lot at the entry point, I looked at my load and worried I hadn't been judicious enough; my sled was taller and seemed heavier than those of my trekking mates. I believed in my clothes though. I’d brought a tried-and-tested mix of wool and fleece. But I'd soon learn that I didn’t need so much of a good thing. Hike “comfortably cool” was recommended. Soon, I’d be as wet as if I’d fallen in the lake before I even had an idea of what comfortably cool really meant.

Sunset on Basswood Lake in the BWCAW as the temperature drops below zero F.

Seven miles into the wilderness, traveling across the frozen surface of Basswood Lake just before sundown, we looked for a campsite with a supply of firewood nearby. And I was wet. I’d sweat through my base layer, insulating layer (a midweight wool shirt), and unlined parka shell. I had already shed and stowed the down vest and other wool shirt a couple miles back, before they soaked through as well.

“Maybe we’ll camp behind this island,” one of the guys said. It would block the wind and have good wood available. There, we found deeper snow and not much good firewood, and it was there that I learned why low-slung sled loads are preferred. While the other guys’ turned easily in the loose snow, mine toppled over. Every turn, and even when I wasn't turning, it happened again and again. It was a maddening. I got help getting the sled work-wise again and over to where we chose a camp site and began to get the gear off the toboggans. I put those stowed insulating layers back on, began setting camp, and gathering firewood. I felt on the cold-side of comfortable. I considered my hypothermia risk: I wasn’t, and hadn’t been shivering, so I decided to drink most of the rest of my water that wasn’t frozen, eat a quick snack, and keep moving.

Sawing firewood becomes a routine job in a winter camp. Big bow saws are the best tool for the job.

I knew what summertime firewood looked like, I’d been collecting that for years. Dead and down, preferably off the ground, not much moss, and the twigs snap when you break them. Winter is different. Wood stoves work best with seasoned dead wood. And the bigger the better, and split. That’s a bit harder to find, especially in the waining daylight and with the ground covered with snow. We targeted dead snags in an ash swamp. Pine was preferred, but the forest wasn’t mature enough yet. It had juvenile red pine, not many balsams, and very few were dead. Ash was what we had available. It’d have to work. Soon enough, the tents were up, stoves were lit with the fresh-split ash, dinner was cooking, clothes were drying, and bodies were warming.

We planned to let the fires in the stoves go out during the night for safety and fuel conservation. All of us were equipped with below zero sleep systems.

"Hot Tents" usually made of canvas equipped with portable woodstoves are an important part of a comfortable winter camp.

The next morning, and every morning after, I was surprised by how much frost accumulated overnight in the outer insulation of my sleeping bags. It was substantial, and most apparent at the foot of my bag and around the hood near where I was exhaling throughout the night. The bags dried quickly once we got the fires going in the stoves again and we hung the bags in the tent to dry them further. But if not for that wood fired heat, the frost would have severely degraded the insulation of the sleeping bags. I was thankful again for the wood stove.

Fish-on! Take out dinner in the BWCA.

There is much more work that needs doing on a winter trip than in a summer camp. We only had a bit of time to fish, but only enough to drill a couple holes (through about 30” of ice) and drop tip-ups down. One in our party caught a nice pike, cleaned it with an axe, added butter and spices, wrapped the whole works in foil, and placed it on an open fire… once it was cooked, most of the bones zipped right out, it was tasty, simple, and rugged.

Winter is a beautiful time of year in this neck of the woods. There's marvelous scenic beauty that's heightened by the severity of the cold. The landscape is drastically changed by the wash of white snow. The rare glimpses of evidence of the wild inhabitants infused a magic in the scene.

Canvas parkas with fur ruffed hoods, long toboggans, and mukluks are all in the dress code for winter trekking.

On our last full day in the backcountry, I laced up my boots and clicked into my skis. It was mid-afternoon and temps sat steady at zero under the blue-sky sun. I finally felt I was beginning to figure out my layering and was happy to move about unburdened by the toboggan—layered in two mid-weight shirts and a down vest. Pointing the tips of skis out into the mixed icy hard-pack of the lake, my compatriot and I happily skied on the crust of the snow of the frozen lake. The wind had calmed, and it was quiet but for the sounds of our poles, and skis, and breathing. I thought about how I’d gotten there, how exposed I felt in the cold despite the many layers, the tents, the gear and the group. I looked down to the endless white to find tracks arcing across the hard snow.

Wolf tracks.

Wolf tracks mark the hard packed snow down the center of a remote wilderness lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Are Wilderness.

They were shallow, but clearly visible. The lone set of wolf tracks filled me with wonder, reverence, and curiosity of what life would be like as a resident and not just a visitor. I felt a shiver, and a bit of a longing for a familiar canoe pack, good canoe, and warmer open water. Above that, I felt a newfound respect for the wolf, and its woodsy neighbors.

The next day, as we trekked our way out of the wilderness, I thought back to loading up at the parking lot, the frustration of the overpacked toboggan, the delicious fish pulled from the icy water, and the humbling cold that surrounded it all.

A toboggan caravan makes its way across the lake ice on a winter camping expedition in the BWCA. Photo: @RyanFox4

It takes more work to get yourself and your gear where you want to go in winter, it’s a struggle to stay warm and keep dry. But, if you’re traveling with a good group, learn from the lessons, and don’t bring too much crap, a traveller can catch a glimpse of what less adventurous folks will only read, and dream about—to catch a brief look of life in an uninhabited, wild area, in deep cold, a spot where wolves thrive and humans only visit.

Happy trails, thanks for following along.