Jan 23, 2012

Bed of Thunderstorms

Winter camping has a way of turning the natural world upside-down. This has been something on my to-do list for a long, long time, and I finally had the chance to give it a try last week, returning to the park I spent seven months of 2011 exploring. And this was a good excuse to visit my good friends Erik and Tori, who are lucky enough to have each other and an off-grid cabin in the northcountry complete with a wood-burning sauna.

And what better way to see the Boundary Waters in winter than by dog-sled?
The reason Erik gets to stay up north year-round is he works as a dog-sledding guide in the winter months, and so we followed up a perfect fall trip into The Quetico with a two-night winter trip up to Knife and Ottertrack Lakes on the border-route. Myself, Erik and Tori were joined by fellow adventurers Ed and Nick, out of Duluth, and so five sleds and twenty-five doggies set out into the Park on Tuesday morning over a crisp two-inches of snow. My team, pictured above, featured a crazed yearling named Proby (top), lead dog Possum, Xena, Brillo and Cash.

Everyone else in the group had already run dogs before and as we harnessed and hooked up the teams, the lake access became a scene of organized chaos. I wasn't sure what to expect. I was definitely a bit intimidated, but was told Possum would follow the track automatically, and that I should use the brake as needed through portages, and then suddenly all sleds were cut loose and we were off into the frozen wild. In the moments before we turned the dogs loose they were all going crazy and yipping and howling and barking, but once the sleds were set free it was business time and the quieted huskies happily began churning out miles and miles of pristine borderlands. The cold froze in my beard and stung my face but the dogs simply loved it. You could tell. They ran with purpose. This was a paradise.

A twenty-mile day by canoe is a strong effort, but we quickly gobbled up nearly that much distance in just a few hours, and I only crashed my sled once along the way (but I didn't let go). We quickly found a wind-protected bay on Knife Lake and got the dogs all settled in and fed (frozen mink - yum!). Then we got to setting up camp and collecting a huge pile of wood, and finally Ed and I peppered the bay with traps. Although we didn't spend much time fishing we did pretty well during the trip, each catching a nice Lake Trout.
There is really no way to prepare yourself for spending three days in sub-zero temperatures without the benefit of permanent shelter. It's one thing to travel through The Quetico when it's around the freezing mark at night... quite another to travel through the northcountry when it's well below freezing the entire time. No matter how big a bonfire you build, things simply freeze and never thaw. Putting your contact lenses in upon waking becomes a hazard, assuming your contacts are not frozen solid. And although we had a big tent with a wood-stove, I was determined to earn my 'sleeping on the frozen lake' badge. I had my 15F bag stuffed inside a -60F bag, and the first night was very comfortable sleeping beneath the stars. The second night the lows dipped to 30-below and it was colder than that with the wind-chill. Weather radio warned against exposure... keep your pets inside, it cautioned, as our dogs slept on the snow nearby. The clouds and flurries of the day broke around midnight and as the stars twinkled above the lake really started to sing, seismic molecules whistling like whales from the deep.

As I snuggled into my sleeping bags, the ice shuddered and boomed, and I could not sleep on this bed of thunderstorms. Like everything with winter camping, the world was askew... the storm on the horizon was beneath us, and the only calm in the Milky Way overhead, vivid and steady.
In the morning we pointed the dogs west and our faces were burned by the wind. Like every trip to the northcountry it was over too soon. And you would think there would be comfort in a heated cabin, in a huge cheeseburger and good beers, in a sauna so hot it made breathing difficult... but there is nothing in life like the power of a thunderstorm, real or imagined. Already, I miss this frozen bed, and how I got there.


For more information on dogsledding in the BWCA, visit White Wilderness.