This is Tenth in a series of 50 posts we are putting out throughout the years in anticipation of the celebration of our 50th Anniversary in 2015. We welcome your feedback and suggestions for the top things YOU love about Minnesota as well!
Some people might find this crazy, but the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Minnesota’s outdoor jewel is most spectacular in winter. First off, there are not a lot of people up there after the lakes freeze and the mercury dips below zero degrees. As a result, you get the sense of peace and solitude rarely found in today’s world. I’m talking about deafening silence, stars that seem close enough to touch and amazing displays of mother earth’s fireworks, the Aurora Borealis. There is much more, these are only a few highlights.
It’s not for the faint of heart however. There are several options as to how you see the BWCA in winter. They range from renting a cozy cabin and enjoying a few days in front of the fire while gazing outside, to an excursion into the wilderness for a few nights of winter camping. One thing you can count on is that it will be cold. As a result, it is necessary to have the right gear and a thorough plan.
My most memorable experience was in March 2005 when my wife, Elizabeth, and I (bless her heart) did a 7-day winter camping adventure through Wintergreen Outfitters. I was born and raised in MN and consider myself an outdoors enthusiast, in my opinion this trip was extreme for several reasons. Our mode of transportation was skis and dogsled. As a result, the prequalifications are; you must be a proficient cross county skier, in decent physical shape and you must really enjoy dogs. In addition, it was not comfortable, sleeping was rough and it was a lot of work. Based on the above description, I bet you are wondering why anyone would sign up for this. In the end, all the challenges and discomfort was totally worth it and I felt a real sense of accomplishment when I was done.
I grew up on a steady diet of Jack London and Robert Service. These authors portrayed the Yukon as a romantic and mysterious place full of odd characters and adventure. As a child, their stories and poems fueled my imagination. Since then I have followed the career of Will Steger, a local guy who has lead dogsled expeditions to the North Pole, across Antarctica and many cold places in between. As a dog lover, I have always been fascinated with the concept of relying on dogs as the primary mode of work and transportation. When a friend told me about Wintergreen, I jumped at the chance.
The dogs that Wintergreen breeds and works with are very unique. As I stated before, I really like dog and have been intrigued by the “working” dog. This is an animal that is far more than man’s best friend, they are essential for survival. Wintergreen breeds Canadian Eskimo dogs:
“This breed, the original sled dog of the high Arctic (and now commonly referred to as the more politically correct name: Canadian Inuit Dog), is considered to be the “Sherman Tank” of the mushing world”.
These dogs look like body builders, live to pull and are constantly brawling with one another. That said, they are extremely gentle with humans and have wonderful personalities. Our party was comprised of 6 guests and 2 wonderful guides, Goose and Amy. It was a small group and much of the dog maintenance fell to us guests. In fact, the only duty we were not allowed to perform with the dogs was breaking up the fights, which we were fine with. In a typical day we fed them breakfast in the morning, harnessed them and drove them during the day. In the evening we unharnessed them, staked them out on a line and fed them. None of this was easy at first, but with practice we got our routine down. By the end of the trip we knew all the dogs by name, their temperaments and which dogs had to be separated from one another. Dogs, like humans, have an established pecking order and it was fascinating to observe this play out.
The camping conditions were extreme. My first clue came at the end of our first day as we all huddled in the ramshackle “food tent” for some food and warmth. We were each handed a stainless steel bowl and a large soup spoon (neither one particularly clean) and told to hold onto these, they were our eating utensils for the week. To clean these utensils we rubbed them in snow, which we got used to. We slept in the open, under the stars and on the ice! They did bring tents for us, but it is better to sleep out because the condensation created by ones breathing causes the tent to become crusted in ice that eventually melts and rains on the sleeper. We slept in a bivouac system that was surprisingly cozy once inside. However, going to the bathroom at night was an unpleasant experience because it was usually well below zero degrees! The food tent was extremely tight, so I avoided being inside unless I was eating. The food was great, but after working so hard during the day our bodies craved calories and we would have eaten just about anything.
The route was particularly fun for my wife and I because we had canoed a similar route the previous spring. It was amazing to see the contrast during a different season. In all we traveled over 60 miles in 5 days. The majority was over frozen lakes and rivers, which proved to be mundane, while cruising through the woods by dogsled was exhilarating. When going through steep portages we had to unharness the dogs and push/pull the sleds over the hills. This was exhausting, as we were breaking fresh trail. We saw other travelers our 1st day on the trail and the last day, but we were alone the majority of the trip.
It dawned on me several days in that this trip was not only about fun and adventure; it was survival. Thankfully Goose and Amy were experienced and capable guides. Camping in such a harsh and isolated region in below zero temps is no joke and mistakes can be deadly. As a result, alcohol was strictly prohibited. In addition, absolutely everything freezes that is not kept warm by ones own body heat, so during our trip my contact lens saline solution never left my body! Teamwork is essential in such conditions and we were required to pitch in. This is another reason this trip was so rewarding; none of us could have done it alone. Some were stronger than others, but in the end we all found our roles.
When we finally reached the end of the trail we couldn’t have been giddier. We immediately began talking about what we wanted to eat and drink. A warm shower and a cozy bed sounded like paradise. After a massive and cheerful feast with our group, which would have put a Roman Emperor to shame, I had one of the most restful sleeps of my life.
I’ve been asked if I would ever do it again, I immediately reply “absolutely”. However, if I did I will be more choosey about the composition of the group. Our group was not the strongest, one member had never seen snow before and another member was just plain lazy. As mentioned, by the end we all found our rolls and jelled as a group, but at times it was frustrating getting there. Elizabeth has declared she will never do it again, although she was a trooper throughout the trip.
If you are interested in winter camping and/or dog sledding, I highly recommend Wintergreen Outfitters. In addition to camping, they offer “cabin to cabin” trips with wonderful food and warm beds each night as well as dog sledding day trips. Interestingly, Wintergreen is owned and run by Paul Schurke, who has been on several of Will Steger’s expeditions. Paul is known to regale guests with his stories of adventure in the frozen north.
No matter the season, the BWCA is a spectacular place; beautiful and harsh, generous and unforgiving. In an increasingly technological world, it is a place to get back to the basics. If you appreciate solitude and self-reliance it is a place for you. It offers options for the beginner outdoorsman to the hard-core adventurer. It truly is a gem of our great state and there is a reason people travel from all over the world to visit this special place. I have a great love for the BWCA, which is why it’s one of the top 50 things I love about Minnesota.