January 24, 2013 by wjadventure
A few weeks ago a good friend of mine (Ryan) proposed we go winter camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Northeastern Minnesota. Over the years I’ve taken many trips to the BWCA, early spring, midsummer, late fall, but never in winter, so this seemed like a pretty good next step. Ryan assured me we would be staying in a warm canvas tent and we wouldn’t even notice the cold. Now I’m no stranger to cold, I’m a born and raised Minnesotan. I’ll ice fish and play pickup hockey in sub zero temperatures all day long, but this was different, this was sleeping outside. There would be no retreat to the living room for a warm blanket and a cup of coffee. Regardless of the threat this trip posed to my fingers and toes, it intrigued me and I agreed to go.
Our plan was to leave the Twin Cities on Friday, January 18th. We’d spend the first night in a small cabin just south of Ely, MN before heading into the BWCA early Saturday morning. As our departure date quickly crept up on us our eyes turned to the weather forecast. -35° BELOW!! Are you freaking kidding me? When I first saw the forecast I thought about throwing my phone out the window so I didn’t have to listen to my friends convince me this was still a good idea (something I knew they would do). As the week went on there was little communication between myself and the others. Finally on Thursday, the day before we were scheduled to leave, I thought I would bring up some concerns. I knew my friends would call me out, likely through a series of vile insults, but I felt obligated to be the voice of reason here. What were we going to do? Sit in the tent and wait for our toes to fall off? I had to say something even though deep down I knew we would still end up going. The following conversation took place Thursday after work…
Me, 4:51 pm: Just going to throw this out there, the high is -15° below during the freaking day! Anyone else think we should consider postponing?
Erik, 5:13 pm: What are our options? I’m a little freaked out.
Ryan, 5:18 pm: No way!
Ryan, 5:19 pm: I’m going tomorrow either way. Whoever wants to go can come with me.
Paul, 5:21 pm: Stop being ridiculous. We’re going.
Me, 5:22 pm: Shit. Ok.
We arrived at the cabin Friday night around 10 pm, we would have gotten there sooner but we decided stopping along the way to drink beer was absolutely necessary. When we arrived Paul and Henry already had the cabin warmed up and had started drinking a few beers of their own. After the usual greetings and small talk we got down to business, discussing meals, organizing gear, talking about potential campsites, etc. It was at this moment I realized I was missing something. Frantically I searched the car, the cabin, the area outside the car, nothing. My backpack was gone. I had forgotten my backpack, me, the one that was so concerned about the weather. I now have no hat, no mittens, no sleeping pad, I’m screwed. The guys quickly started pulling together their extra gear so we could piece together all that I was missing. I appreciated their effort but I was pissed. I did my best to put it behind me and we went on planning and drinking, I maybe did more of the later.
The plan was to wake up at 7 am on Saturday, grab a quick breakfast, pick up the tent and hit the road. As usual, we overslept, the majority of the group was hungover and we felt it absolutely necessary to go get a greasy breakfast at a local diner. Push that start time back to 1 eh?…
By the time we hit the trailhead it actually wasn’t too cold out, probably hovering in the upper teens. After distributing group gear and packing up our pulks we hit the trail. On a good day, I would consider myself an average cross country skier at best. A good day being temperatures in the mid thirties, freshly groomed ski trails, and FLAT terrain – I’m talking no hills. Today I would be skiing in the backcountry, down steep hills, over rocks and through trees, all while wearing a backpack and pulling a 350 lb. pulk (at least it felt heavy). I was screwed the moment I stepped out of the car.
After crashing and crawling my way through the woods we had finally arrived on my kind of terrain. A wide open, flat, frozen lake. Thank God, I would finally be able to keep up with the group, I might even be able to get a little glide going. Sure Eric, you can get a little glide going, gliding backwards. As we stepped out onto the lake the wind howled, snow and ice crystals blew through the air slamming into my bare face. With no other options, I pulled up my gaiter, tightened my hood, and pressed on…slowly.
By the time I finally looked up and realized we were stopping, my eyelashes were frozen shut along with the river of snot running from my nose. As a group we decided on a nice spot to setup camp set on the southwestern part of Wood Lake. The site was relatively well protected from the elements and seemed like it would suit our needs. We spent the rest of the day setting up the tent, collecting firewood, drinking a bit of whiskey, and constantly adding and subtracting layers to keep our bodies from sweating or getting too cold.
At last the sun had dropped behind the trees bringing the air temperature down with it. By 6 o’clock the sky was nearly pitch black and the bright northern stars began to appear overhead. We stood outside for a while gazing up into the night, listening to the sound of a howling wind blow across the frozen landscape. Before too long we had all migrated inside our new home, a 10’ x 12’ canvas tent with small wood burning stove. The tent worked surprisingly well at keeping the cold wind out, while trapping the warm air from the stove in. We spent the rest of the night cooking dinner (spaghetti with German sausage), drinking cheap whiskey, telling vulgar jokes and listening to our favorite hockey team, the Minnesota Wild, destroy the Colorado Avalanche in the season opener. Life was alright.
The following day we awoke to frozen sleeping bags, leftover spaghetti and coffee, followed by a second course of eggs, sausage and more coffee. Once we were all feeling fueled up for the day we set out ice fishing – more like drilling holes in the ice and watching them freeze back up. Today was colder than the day before and I was sure tomorrow would be even colder, but we made the best of it. We had fun trying to fish though I was confident we would be coming home empty handed no matter how hard we tried. Not one of us deserved the title of fisherman or angler – we were idiots with hooks and bobbers. After we spent the day roaming the lake in search of the ever elusive Northwood’s Walleye, we headed back to camp.
Upon arriving at camp I decided that I wasn’t ready to call it a day, so I set back out on a solo hike. I followed the shoreline for a while until the sun began to set. I found myself in the middle of a small bay when I decided to sit for a while. At this time the temperature was still well below zero and the wind had begun to pick up, yet I was totally comfortable. I found myself in a trance-like state as I gazed off onto the distant shoreline, white pines and spruce trees along with the rugged rock outcroppings dotted the horizon below the setting sun. I watched as the high cirrus clouds blew across the sky, the same way the snow danced on top of the frozen lake in the breeze. I don’t think I have ever felt so peaceful and as relaxed as I was in that moment, I didn’t ever want to leave. Perhaps winter camping’s not that bad, even if it is -20° below.