Spring Fishing and Camp

A buddy and I headed up to Grand Marais for a timber framers gathering– a work-related conference that we turned into adventure. When considering lodging for a weekend in early spring, only one option came to mind: camp.


Sure, there was still over 24″ of ice on the lake and the morning temperatures were hovering in the 20’s as well, but spring is spring. I’m usually not one for ‘campground camping’, but on a crispy April weekend we expected it to be a bit less congested than usual. With ice and snow on the ground and the lake, it was no wonder that we ended up having the entire campground to ourselves.

Circling the wild grounds in truck, we saw at least three grouse. The gravel drive was still covered in ice and snow. We found a nice site on Devil’s Track Lake, crowned by tall spruce and pines.

The next day we scouted out the area for creeks and tried a couple. Most were still lined with ice and snow. We fished wet flies and nymphs, looking for brookies and rainbows.

5D44052F-987B-444B-A23C-8F92C127450EWe ran into a few other fisherman. It seemed from our experience and theirs that the trout weren’t running biting yet. Early season with a late start to spring may have been keeping them sluggish.

Nonetheless, we had a great time seeing some great scenery, casting some flies, and enjoying the crisp air. Our canvas lodging, with a wood stove burning, was comfortable enough. Though a nearby grouse, who insisting on drumming all through the night all three nights, made sure we didn’t get too much rest.


Tap and Bog

0F227017-3A32-47F9-BCA3-AD63D40D16FCA beautiful mid-March Saturday was a weekend calling to get the first taste of spring. In northern Minnesota, spring tastes like maple.

I’ve seen pictures and videos of people tapping trees with cordless electric power drills. To me, that’s an atrocity. There’s only one way to correctly and artfully tap a tree, and that’s with a hand-powered bit brace.

With over a foot of snow still on the ground, I navigated the woods on snowshoes to drill and pound in 30 spiles. The sap was off to a slow start, but the drip had begun nonetheless. (The next few days clouded over and cooled off, so I don’t expect the sap to be off to a run for another week.)

The spiles are a combination of old and new. The dozen old ones were used for decades by my grandfather on the north shore of Mille Lacs. I’m not certain, but I’m fairly sure they were also used by his father in the same area before that.


After the spiles were driven, the chickadees called me further into the woods. So with snowshoes on, I headed down and up the ravine and deeper into my familiar wooded grounds. Out of the upland hardwoods and into the conifer bog I went, following my sunken trail from a couple of weeks before. I had expected the track I packed to be riddled with prints of deer, fox, and other passersby. I was surprised to still see very little activity in the woods. Some chickadees, woodpeckers, and ravens were above, and some aggressive penmanship of a pileated woodpecker, but there was scarcely a critter track on the forest floor.

Into the spruce bog I came across an exciting treat. In the shadows of the the spruce, the limp, red wrists of the leather leaf was showing more and more. Even more special, however, was revealed a cluster of pitcher plants among a sphagnum knoll. Red and erect, and even capturing its first bug of the season, I was impressed how well last summer’s pitchers had survived our brutal winter.

It’s amazing how something so tropical-looking can be that hardy for a Minnesota winter. The bog is much more difficult to navigate in the summer- given the soft ground, open water, and swarms of mosquitoes; but I hope to return in spring and summer to find more carnivorous plants, elusive orchids, and other treasures that can only be seen in their natural habitat. In the meantime, it’s back to the maples in hopes of a good sap run during the upcoming days.

Snow-Stomping in a Spruce Bog

A quick little hike about two hours long…

It’s late February, and after a long winter with mere moderate amounts of snow, we’ve had a good series of heavier accumulation.  With six or so more inches fallen on Saturday night, and a 40F forecast for Monday, I saw Sunday as the opportunity to get out in the woods before it all started melting…

Back into the woods, down a familiar ravine and back up the facing hill, I made very slow progress… with over two feet of very fluffy snow, my snowshoes seemed to do nothing. The path I was cutting sank a good foot below the surface. Yet, I’m sure without the snowshoes, I would have found it even considerably harder (but softer?) to trudge.

I checked my owl house. Still no residents, judging from the snow accumulated at the entrance and on the perch. Yet there seemed to be no residents in the woods as a whole. Where normally I might see a network of animal trails on the fresh snow- deer, squirrel, rabbit, fox, and the like- I saw no tracks at all. With all the deep fluffy snow, I imagine it was too much effort for the animals to travel, and so they were all hunkered down. No doubt that evening they would take advantage of my freshly carved trail making for easier passage.

31A1A4CA-C18B-47BA-AD71-3042F4F6FB9FI went deeper into my familiar woods into one of the black spruce bogs. There’s no tranquility like a sleeping spruce bog in the winter.

At one point, I heard the Phoebe-like call of the Chickadee. Later a raven flew over. Finally I crossed some deer tracks on high ground that looked to be from that morning. There was life awake in the forest after all.

I circled back out of the bog and found my way back to crossing my trail in. The hike out was a breeze comparatively, as I could enjoyed the freshly cut trail I had earlier stomped out. I’d like to return in a day or two and see what tracks took advantage of the new thoroughfare.

Five Guys Follow-up

Here’s a small world follow-up to our Five Guys in a Three-Man. …

Today picture popped up in my newsfeed- a picture of a canvas tent that looked very much like the tent of the campers we passed hiking in on our 2018 BWCA winter camping trip. Of course, a lot of views of white canvas tents on the edge of a boreal shore are going to look vaguely familiar; but this caught my eye as one that looked very much like the guys we saw hiking in. I gave them a passing reference as ‘We passed another crew of chionophiles on the way in‘ during the recanting of our adventure.

Well, as I read through the article, it listed Wood Lake as their location, the same lake we camped; and it listed temperature conditions that were very similar temperatures to what we encountered… I have no doubt, these were the fellow campers we passed on Wood Lake, but he wrote his story better than I wrote ours:


Re-Joycing for a Return

I was ashamed to admit I had never been to the Joyce Estates. I grew up about 10 minutes away from the site (not including the three mile trek in), I love spending hours in the woods, and I work in the log home industry. How I had not yet visited this historic wilderness site of log buildings sitting in my own back yard is a mystery.

4C701A7D-B119-4E21-B4EE-4BF9B656D9CFA day arose with good weather to ski, and so off I went. I hit the trail late afternoon, so had limited daylight left and a hurry ahead of me. I wanted to get pictures taken before the sun set, and I had a meeting to get out of the woods and into town for at 5:30… so I tried to make good time on the hilly terrain.

The shadows were already lengthening and cast zebra stripes across the double-tracked trail through the woods. I met one couple on their hike back out, but otherwise it was solitude.

It was windy, yet warm enough that I soon shed my gloves and stuck them into the right pocket of my jacket. I may later regret this.

Finally, three miles in, after crossing a creek of open water and a couple of nice campsites for future reference, I reached the Joyce Estates. Numbered marker posts signal the sites of features once comprising of the century-old retreat. I passed some concrete foundations of buildings long-decayed or demolished. At the point and pinnacle of the resort, however, some nice buildings are still intact. Unfortunately, broken windows and other damage from some vandals with no sense of respect, but other areas freshly restored on the buildings.


The main lodge: open, empty, but still standing nicely. I could imagine roaring parties livening up the place on summer nights a hundred years ago. Next door, the master’s private cabin.


The bath house, in great shape, restored, but looking a little too cold for swimming on that February day of my visit.

And more sites that beckoned a revisit on another day when I could capture better lighting, and again in another season when it could be enjoyed differently.

I imagined… what if a wilderness gala were held within the sleeping Main Lodge. A 20’s speakeasy-themed gala in a rustic setting, that would recall the Joyce gatherings a century ago and raise funds for the restoration and maintenance of this special site. Would people attend? Would the Forest Service allow it? Could it be profitable?

I skied back in a hurry as the sun disappeared and my meeting time drew closer. I was about 2.5 miles out, when I was prompted to check my pocket. Somewhere behind me, possibly as far back as the site of the Estates, a glove had fallen out. I turned back and skied maybe a quarter mile, but I was running out of time. I skied out, and got to my meeting, deliberating… return for a nighttime ski or hike under the stars to retrieve my glove? Return the next day when warm temperatures were expected and daylight would be back? Or cut the loss and leave the glove behind.

In the end, I made a decision to go for a late night adventure. It was around 10:30 and I was hiking between the ski tracks and under the bright stars in mukluks. The sky was gorgeous and it was a fun second adventure, but in the end I turned around and abandoned the glove.

Another day, I will return and revisit this treasure that’s been in my back yard beckoning me for too long. To ski, to hike, to camp, to explore, I will forget the Joyce Estates and Trout Lake trails nevermore.





Five Guys in a Three-Man

Three strikes and I’m out. Uffda. Maybe I’m just wet (and frozen) behind the ears, but my third winter camping trip for the season and we called it early. Again. For the third time this season. Three for three. Lessons learned, experience earned. – once as a solo, once as a trio, once with five.

We got a late start for the short days of winter, but into the BWCA we hiked, pulling our overloaded pulks behind us. We trekked about two miles in- half was a hilly, wooded descent, and half was flat across frozen lake. We passed another crew of chionophiles on the way in. After reaching and choosing our site, we set up camp and set off to gather wood in the few hours of daylight we had left. With many dead-standing birch visible amongst the spruces, it didn’t seem like it would be difficult to find dead wood down.

We had erected two tents for the five guys on the adventure, but we quickly decided to try squeezing us all into the 3-man Snowtrekker canvas tent and leave the dome tent for gear storage. The hike in had been through flurries under a hazy sky, but as daylight disappeared, the sky was cleared and it left a sunset that was well worth standing out in sub-zero temperatures.


Darkness fell and the stars shined brightly. We huddled around a campfire that we were painstakingly babysitting to try and get roaring. It was the same scenario I had already encountered winter camping this season. Wood would smolder and eventually burn down, but never get to a self-sustained roar. We packed in a propane burner to cook supper, which was fortunate with the trickling fire we had going otherwise. Air temperature was -10F and dropping. We kept moving to keep warm.

Finally we gave up on our outdoor fire and started one in the tent stove. The propane Buddy Heater intended for the dome tent was brought in to take some chill out of the Snowtrekker. We stayed mostly comfortable until around 6am when the temperature bottomed out at -27F, not including wind chill. We all felt a little frosty in the feet. The breath of five guys had condensed on the interior of the tent, leaving an eighth-inch of frozen flocking to the canvas. The propane was too cold to get the stove going initially. One of the guys brought a bottle of brandy, which was now frozen solid. When the brandy is frozen solid, you know it’s starting to get cold out. Eventually we got the propane stove going and heated water for hot chocolate and warmed up some pre-made breakfast burritos. A breakfast burrito never tasted so delicious.

Forecast for the day was expected to slowly get warmer, but stay below zero until 4pm. It would peak at one above at 4pm, and then start dropping again with the sun. Our sleeping gear was wet with breath, and we voted to call it a trip after one night. We packed up and hiked two miles back out across the frozen lake, and then up the rolling, climbing hills that exhausted us the second half of the trek out. An adventure indeed, but a little defeating to call yet another trip short this season. Maybe next time we’ll get it right.

A Fortress of Solitude

the frozen throne
and find some peace
that’s all your own!

into the ravenous mouth
of this frosted Sarlacc
who’s hungry to devour
all of your frozen assets.

Sit, if you dare,
on this Pit of despair,
but you may find
that when you stand
a piece of your derriere
is left behind.

Relax, if you can,
on this quiet hut,
but don’t retard
to think about
the crystal shards
that long to cut
their teeth into
your tender butt.

Stop, excrete
on ice and snow!
Forget the seats
you’d rather go!
Take the crate
that’s sure to freeze
and lacerate
your hind with ease.

As last resort,
I’m sure that you’d
employ, enjoy
this port, this Fort
of Solitude.


Wet Wood Don’t Burn Good

As the old saying goes “wet wood don’t burn good.”

You expect wet wood after a rainy day in the summer, but one would think dead wood found in the forest in the middle of January would be dry. Well, one would think wrongly. I think a period of heavy, wet, snow, followed by a January thaw, made for conditions of moisture slowly soaking into the wood and then freezing as temperatures dropped again.

After a relatively easy trek into a dispersed site in the Chippewa National Forest, we stomped down a tent pad and set up my new Snowtrekker tent & stove. The tent was looking a little frumpy; not tight and sleek like it should. I surmised the ridge pole was too short, and after a quick correspondence with Snowtrekker, we determined indeed I received the wrong pole. It was my bad for not setting it up to test before the adventure, but they were awesome to get the correct one shipped right away. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be there for the weekend, so I fashioned and finagled an extra two feet onto the pole out of some wood from the forest. A minor setback, but I enjoyed the challenge of bushcraft troubleshooting.


Incidentally, this dispersed site had a pit toilet, that upon opening the lid, looked quite foreboding. The only question was whether the ice formations would freeze your bottom or lacerate it first. It was a genuine Fortress of Solitude, from which, I feared, there may be no return. I may just have to write a poem about it.


We gathered dead wood, cut and split it, and tried to get a fire going. We got it going easy enough with a magnesium fire starter, but after the tinder and twigs burned up, it settled into more of a smolder. No matter how we blew it or how we fed it, we couldn’t get it roaring. Fire, yes. Coals, yes. But a good cooking fire? Nope. The steaks would have to wait. Either we were incompetent in firecraft, or the wood was wet. I’m hoping and trusting the wood was just wet. We searched for dead and dry, but it seems it was all mostly dead and frozen.

After a long time babying our campfire, earning a little flame and a lot of smolder, we saw daylight was slipping away too quickly. We thought, why be incompetent with just one pathetic fire going when we can fail at two of them? So we fired up the wood tent stove, and with a few of the dryer pieces we got that one going. The rest of the evening was spend relaxing in the tent with food, drink, and poetry- a seemingly good way for a few writers to spend winter camping. We even had the stove hot enough to steam some broccoli with butter. Fancy living.

Through the night one of us got a little sick, and that compounded with the difficulty we were having with wet wood, compounded by the dull ice auger I brought that couldn’t bore worth a darn, led us to call the trip short the next morning. A good time, but lessons learned for next adventure.

InsomniActs 3



A Scene from InsomniActs 3. photo by Jennifer Mariano


It’s been too long since we did our first InsomniActs five years ago. A few attempts to do it a third time fizzled out. I got busy and distracted. But finally Aaron Peterson picked up the torch and produced the event, allowing me for the first time to just enjoy the 24-hour theatre ride as an actor.

It was the largest InsomniActs so far, with six shows and something like 25 actors. For those who don’t know the 24-hour theatre genre– it goes like this: Though the format can vary by event, ours is like many, which begins Friday night with a drawing of prompts for the writers. A character, an object, and a location to include, along with the first line and the last line, all drawn from a hat. The cast size is also given, based on the number of actors signed up. Then the writers take their prompts and have 12 hours two write a 10-minute play. Saturday morning the directors draw the names of a freshly written script, draw their actors out of a hat, and the next 12 hours are filled with memorization and rehearsal. Saturday night is show time.

24 hour theatre is a theatrical creativity binge. It’s a lot of fun, and all the stress is over in a day. It also opened the doors to new talent and new opportunity; probably 25% or so of the cast was relatively new to the stage.

Looking forward to the next one!