Camping at -30F


A third annual BWCA winter camping trip was planned with some college buddies. Last year 2018 we were on Wood Lake and bottomed out at -27F. The forecast for our planned 2019 weekend suddenly turned to look to be as cold or colder. For that and other reasons, we had a last-minute change of plans to camp in the Chippewa National Forest instead.

Last year we squeezed five guys into my 3-man Snowtrekker, but this year it was down to just four, so we were much comfier.

1CAC4C0A-2127-465D-A935-E03F327F8C20We set up camp and gathered plenty of wood, expecting the evening temperatures to plummet. It started with a lot of smoke choking us in the setting sun, and finally blazed to a warm and welcoming fire. As we sat comfortably around our campfire in the dark, I scarcely believed the local temperature reading of twenty-something below zero… until I stepped away from the fire and wandered up the hill to the thunder box, or stepped out onto the lake to see the stars. Then the cold would bite, and I’d agree with the degrees claimed by my weather app.

With a stove taking off some of the chill, and a doubled sleeping bag set-up, I stayed cozy all night through. Without a doubt, pre-made breakfast burritos and a hot cup of coffee are the best way to get going in the morning after a cold night in the tent. All-beef sausages heated in the pan are also great fuel for the inner fire.

Winter camping can be cold… but there is no comparison the solitude of winter in the woods, the freshness of breathing the cold, crisp air, or the satisfying warmth brought by each sip of cocoa, tea, or coffee.

Three days and two nights were well-spent in the woods. I’m looking forward to the next sub-zero adventure.

Walking on Pillows

As walking on pillows-
on damp pillows-
on damp, carpeted pillows
of emerald and gold leaf,
and red velvet cake;

Each step I take unboldly.
I wince and apologize
for the compression,
impressions that materialize
with every step.

With each step my foot tries
to step gently,
step respectfully,
but the lightest step feigned
isn’t feather enough;

And it’s a tough terrain,
like lumbering through those
piles of drifted snow,
searching for new,
simpler ways to go.

Exhausted, slow, subdued,
and not half-way across it,
I stop and nestle down
upon an ottoman-unorthodox.
My tired body sinks.

I think a paradox:
This waterbed, so tiring to traverse,
but so relaxing to lounge.
I beg pardon to the pillow deflating;
weighted by my rest.

In duress I straighten
and rise from the sponge, continuing on
toward the far sedgy edge
where the green walls rise and billow
to intimidate.

Stumbling late through pillows
of emerald and gold leaf, and
moist red velvet cake;
I wince with every tired step,
for dents that I make.

Strenuous Relaxation

I’d had a somewhat grueling schedule and needed a retreat into the woods. I took a Wednesday off work and headed out that Tuesday evening to camp. Road construction detoured my drive and added some time, but after arriving at my remote parking spot I hiked about a mile into the woods. My plan was to spend the evening and most of the next day in and around my base camp- to read, to write, to fish, to relax. I should know myself better than that.

The site is in a non-motorized zone of the Chippewa National Forest, but unfortunately a corner of the lake is grazed by a rural but popular highway. Under construction for the summer, I expected there would be less traffic and more peace on that lake. I didn’t consider that dump trucks full of gravel driving on a temporarily unpaved road might be frequent and louder. I was disgusted to see how some previous tenants had trashed the site– the remains of a burned camp chair and beer cans (Busch Light) in the fire ring, a discard can Koozie along the edge of the size, and other bits of trash about. I cleaned up as well as I could, got a fire going, and set up my tent.

Ask dusk approached, the traffic ceased. My company was a group of young people fishing or swimming across the water– the span was too far to really see what they were up to. As it got darker, an angry beaver paced the water in front of my camp and made his occasional, alarming splooshes to startle me. The seasoned New York strip cooked over logs cut from the fallen maple I found nearby was mouth-watering.

I cast my fly into the water in hopes of a trout. I brought in a number of small bass, but only the first was large enough to consider releasing into the pan. I could see in the center of the lake the occasional fish breach and leap, which I assumed to be trout. The same in my usual fishing hole, as I’d fish from shore I could always see trout break the surface much farther than my cast could reach.

The night was good, though somewhat restless with roots and rocks beneath my back and temperatures that dropped lower than what I had prepared for. My thin, fleece liner as a sleeping bag did not so much suffice. Come morning, and that warm water send swirling fog into the brisk air. I heated water in my percolator and smelled the dark roast as the steam echoed the mist rising off the lake. The occasional trout again taunted me, leaping and breaking surface far in the middle of the lake. My littoral casts could once again only bring in the small bass. Nothing quite suitable for breakfast. Fortunately, I had my coffee and my chicken maple sausages.

I had intended to take it easy- to fish, to read, to relax… but in part adventure and trails called my name, and in part the invasive noise from the highway irritated me to go deeper into the woods. I packed up camp and headed into the woods. While the mosquitoes were much milder than a month ago, as I headed into the deep, I came across patches of the pests that kept me plowing forward. A pack weighing 40 pounds or so and numerous hilly climbs kept me huffing.

I vaguely knew the trails, the lakes, and the general area, and I pictured a few destinations I might stop to find my relaxation overall. One campsite I had in mind to be a nice destination on a lake, I found to be occupied as judged by the sound of voices and hatchet chopping. I thought I had the woods to myself, but as luck would have it, the one place I planned to stop is where the people were. Beyond that site, an ancient white pine had fallen right on top of the trail. It was a momentary obstacle course to find a way through and around the branches. Onward I hiked, taking short breathers and brief stops to capture pictures of the wide variety of asters blooming on trail. On one trail intersection, I made the decision to take the extra loop that swung widely north around three lakes. Onward and upward I hiked, finding few scenic or seat-worthy spots.

BB25D04C-50B3-4004-8251-00F82C857B70A highlight far into the trek when I was growing weary and nearly out of water… with weight on my back and eyes cast downward, I saw some large wet rubies on the forest floor. ‘What are these?’ I asked myself, but immediately I knew. I looked up and there was a small tree filled with ripe, wild plums. Or more specifically, Canada Plums, I imagine. So ripe, that with the slightest bump of a branch, it would rain fruit on me. I ate some, and was refreshed by the tart skin followed by sweet and juicy flesh. I slugged the last swallow in my Nalgene and filled the vessel with fruit for the hike. As I finished packing the last orb and loaded my gear onto my back, a chipmunk came onto the scene. It seemed that he looked at the pillaged plum tree, than looked up at me with eyes of betrayal. I had raided his spot and he was heart-broken. I had left at least a few on the ground for him to retrieve.

DA22ED1F-112B-41DA-A8FB-63BB79B21352Onward I trekked, hoping for a quality resting spot to finally spend the rest of a day camp. A long while later, I came to another dispersed campsite, and fortunately this one was vacant, as I expected for a deeply dispersed site on a Wednesday afternoon. I rested and cast a line again, bringing in yet another piddly small bass or two. I turned over a log and found a blue-spotted salamander. The shiny little fellow brought me back to childhood when I’d find these little pets under logs and adopt them for the day. I freed this guy after a 10-sec photo shoot.

A brief reprieve, and I was off again. My feet were getting tender and my body getting weary, but the hilly trail and occasional mosquito swarm were merely inconveniences. Alright, to be honest, there was a good stretch that I was downright miserable and desperate for the end to come. I would circle back from where I had started, passing the campsite I had spend the night. So in actuality, I really didn’t have to be toting my 40-pound pack the entire trek, but so I did. My feet ached, by back was strained, my water was gone, and I was soaked in sweat. Miserable. I swatted at the mosquitoes tormenting an already tortured hiker and yearned to see the train sloping down to the campsite. If ever there was a time to jump in a lake, I thought, this was it. Finally a smiled a weak smile of relief as I saw the long-awaited side path to the site. I stumbled down the descending path into the site, unloaded my pack, and immediately stripped down. I didn’t pack swim trunks, but I was in the middle of the woods alone. Starkers was the only way to swim. The water felt refreshing and amazing and I was no longer miserable.

Then… out of the silence on the lake, I heard the voice of someone clearing their voice. There along the shore was a kayak. They were some distance away, and I’m not sure if they had seen or what they had seen of the scene, but if they had looked hard enough, they certainly saw a jaybird. I casually got out of the water, and on shore I was immediately out of line of sight. I dried, dressed, and trekked back to the trail. I intended to get refreshed, and didn’t intend to give a show, but things don’t always go as planned. I had another mile to hike back to the car, but at least I had cooled off. I looked at the map and calculated my adventure– I estimated about 8.5 miles of hiking hills in my heavy pack that day. It’s certainly not the longest hike I’d ever had, but somehow I was left more weary than a 12 mile hike in the Rocky Mountain National Park I had a year earlier. Tired and weary, I didn’t have the day of relaxation I had intended… but I left relaxed and refreshed nonetheless. Sometimes strenuous adventure can be ultimately more relaxing than lethargic lounging in camp. It is certainly more memorable.


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:

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.

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.

Whacked by the Bush


Oh, how differently things look from above.  In the plotting of an adventure for an early winter bushwhacking trek, I chose an expanse of undeveloped, public forest in the northern stretches of Itasca County. Aerial imagery showed remnants of logging patches and overgrown paths of various sorts, but certainly little qualified as a trail or a road, save the county road that bisected the sections I had chosen.


From aerial imagery, it seemed like it could be rugged, but a number of faded trails were evident that could be followed for portions of the six-mile trek. Being imagery from a late fall or early spring, the hardwoods were leafless and green made it apparent where the conifers were standing. An entry point chosen off a county road that capped the northern boundary of the terrain would lead down a logging road and fade into the forest where eventually I could emerge again, follow a creek westward on the southern edge of my chosen area, cross the northbound bisecting road, meander through the western half, cross the road back east and find my way back to the starting point. That was the plan. Six miles. Simple enough.

It may have been that we didn’t start the journey in the precise place I had planned, but whatever the case, early into the journey I had only a vague and general sense of where we were. Either way, my friend an I had an adventure.

safe_imageIn the cool morning the frozen snow crunched under our feet. Though we were loud crunching through the silence of daybreak, the start of the trek was easy going as we followed the frozen ruts of a black powder hunter’s truck along a rough but established trail. Wolf tracks and scat crossed our path periodically. We got into some thick balsam and spruce and jumped some grouse, and all was going according to plan. Eventually, however, the trail faded away, and not where I anticipated it to. I squinted at my grainy black and white print-out of the aerial imagery, but it was an imperfect map. We backtracked a bit, and were then unclear if we had started in the right place. A change of plans.

I knew the creek traced the southern boundary of the land I planned to trek, so provided we headed south, we could eventually get some better bearings again. Perhaps, even intersect up the planned route. We bushwhacked southish through hardwoods, and for a while followed a fresh trail of wolf tracks as it lead in the general direction we were heading. Hardwoods turned to balsams. There was simultaneous too much snow and not enough. If there were more snow, we could have been in snowshoes and easy floated over the terrain. As it was, there was just enough to hide hidden snags and pits, which made each step a gamble.


We were already huffing. We came to a stand of leaning cedars and moss-covered knobs. It was the perfect place for a break. And a break wisely taken, for little did we know, the trek was about to get miserably worse. Trudging through a beautiful, but challenging cedar and spruce swamp, the scene eventually brightened up. It brightened up into an endless expanse of alder. Alder. ALDER!

Alder, the scourge of the bushwhacker. What a pain to navigate, especially with only moderate snow cover. These are the things you do not see from a grainy aerial image. From above it looks flat and easy. From the ground it’s a completely different picture. To shorten the story, it was a long and painstaking journey through the alder, until we finally came to the creek. We stopped at a beaver lodge for a break, and then continued along the creek, trying to navigate where the ice was thick enough but the alders were thin enough. Eventually we got to high ground along the creek where monumental spruces towered. We stumbled on some old rusty barrel hoops, a dented and rusted bucket, and other rusted iron from an era past. The should of water rushing over rocks near the remnants of a dam recently removed was needed therapy.

We strayed Northwest on our trek to the road, and passed through an area that had been logged a few years ago. That means a thick stand of sapling poplars, which was like walking through a tight forest of fishing rods. It wasn’t easy. Also from aerial footage, it looked like just a flat gray area, and an easy feat. Once again, experience was much different with boots on the ground versus eyes in the air. We got to the county road, hiked north again and crossed to the other side. We hiked through more young poplar growth shooting up on freshly logged land, and had a pretty easy go of it on a trail. We trudged until the woods thickened and we were in the towering pines. We jumped a number of grouse, but every time I was a little too slow with the sidearm. Eventually we were back into dense, sapling poplars, which was again difficult to pass. That lead to an intimidatingly thick and tall stand of balsam firs, which we bushwhacked until we hit a spruce bog, which opened up to a glasslike frozen beaver pond. We took a break by a lodge, crossed the glass to high ground, and to wrap it up, and a laborsome trek back east across the road and through the woods to where we had begun.

Uffda. We finished the trek and we were exhausted. We couldn’t necessarily say we had fun. We had an adventure… but was it fun? I say adventure is a balance of fun+misery, but this one was leaning a bit heavy on the misery side. In the end one thing was clear: your goals look very different on the ground than they do when planning them from the air.