By: Pam Wright
Peering out from my tent, I check my thermometer. It’s –22º, frosty and still. “Who camps in these temps?” I think. The air on my face hits like cold metal. Everything is still outside; not a breath of air nor sound of beast. Light is beginning to flood our white canvas tent.
Rubbing my eyes, I look around. The floor is filled with a rainbow of lumpy sleeping bags. Somewhere deep inside is a body. Stirring quietly, I pull on my fleece, ready to brave the outdoors for a very quick bathroom break. The reward for the morning trek is that the sun is breaking through the trees, casting long rays of yellow and orange. I bask in solitude as I peer out over the beautiful expanse of lake from our campsite in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness in northern Minnesota.
Seasonally, I work up north as a wilderness guide, taking others winter camping into this million-acre landscape where travel is mainly by water. Many folks I talk to wonder why anyone would camp in the cold and follow up with questions about staying warm. But it’s Minnesota; sometimes winter lasts six months. Or it feels that way. We all find our ways to embrace it. This is mine.
Winter camping must be deep in my Scandinavian blood somewhere. In Norway, the indigenous Sámi people have populated the Arctic Circle for hundreds of years. This raises the question: how were they able to survive the harsh weather for so long? Visiting their settlements, one will immediately notice a tipi-like structure called a Lavvu. Light and strong, they fit well with their nomadic lifestyles. Inside the center of the structure is a fireplace.
Unlike the Sámi, we do not use a Lavvu on our winter camping adventures; however, we do have a cozy canvas tent, complete with a small woodstove. Trekking over the ice on our backcountry skis, we seek a quiet cove filled with tamarack.
The group I’m with busy themselves by packing down the snow with their skis. While it firms up, I set out a table with a charcuterie board. Is there anything better than good food outdoors? If you’re gonna haul it, why not bring some fancier eats?
For the next few hours, we set up camp, staking down the large canvas wall tent and gathering and splitting wood. Someone grabs the ice chisel and makes a hole where we’ll scoop up water for drinking and cooking. The sun sparkles and white pines cast long, blue shadows across the shoreline. Nearby, I spot a thread of fox prints wandering off into the distance. My world is silent, save for the occasional chickadee.
In the afternoon, a small group heads out to ski and explore the surrounding area. When they return, they report a wolf-kill not too far away. Wolves have caught a deer, and very little of it remains other than a circle of blood and a few guard hairs.
Our group gathers around the woodstove, which snaps and cracks with pine. A pot of water from the lake is hot, and mittens grasp mugs as I serve up hot cocoa and tea. It’s warm enough inside to sit in thin layers.
I mix up a batter of cornmeal biscuits while chili bubbles on the stove. Warm scents fill the air as people prepare their beds, trying to create order in the piles of sleeping bags, pillows and pads.
Everyone eats quietly, hungry from the travel and the chores. Once dishes are scrubbed and dried, we head outdoors and make a campfire under the stars. The deep inky bowl of the sky blankets us, making us feel small. If we’re lucky, we may catch the northern lights on one of these nights.
A barred owl calls and we reluctantly head into bed. Hot-water bottles are tucked into our bags, providing assurance of warmth. I fill and dampen the woodstove one last time. Over the next few hours, it will slowly go out, a tiny flicker of light escaping the cracks. We stay warm, tucked in our heavy down bags.
The following morning, I wake up early. I gather more water from the hole as an ice fog hangs in the trees. Soon a breakfast of veggie hash will be cooking and the day’s plans will be made. Everyone slips out of their warm bags, adding a few new layers.
We decide to take a day trip to a nearby creek drainage that isn’t accessible in the summer. It’s a landscape in flux. One side has barren trees, evidence of a previous wildfire, while the other side is thick with black spruce and white pines. Eventually we ski to a spot where we hear running water. Beavers have impacted this area, so it’s not uncommon to find pockets of open water in creeks. We pause, sitting on pads in a snowbank while I heat up a pot of homemade tomato soup and serve up grilled-cheese sandwiches.
It’s early March and, though we’ve had a very cold spell, today is warmer and you can feel the sun moving toward spring. We wander a little farther down the drainage and see more prints — fox, mice and deer. In one pocket is a small cascade of water and we listen to its bell-like sounds as it falls over rocks, headed south.
Eventually, we make our way back to camp as the sky changes from blue to purple and pink. The contrast of brilliant color against a white snowscape is dramatic. Islands darken into dark, sharp silhouettes of pine.
It’s time for me to gather more wood, light a curl of birch and watch it lick into a hot, bright flame again. Warmth comes again soon.
EXPERIENCE THE WONDER
Winter is a great time to experience this wild and remote place. There is total solitude, and often the only evidence of any other living thing is the tracks of the wood-folk that call it home.
The best time to see wildlife is late February and all of March. The days are longer, and often warmer, and the animals are beginning to ready themselves for spring. Keep an eye out in the morning and at dusk when they are most likely to be crossing the easy expanse of a lake. Black bears, gray wolves, moose and a host of other unique and interesting animals call the BWCA home.
The area has been explored for thousands of years. If you look closely, you may see evidence of these intrepid travelers; the Anishinaabe, fur traders and French voyageurs. Thanks to continued protection, we all have the opportunity to experience the beauty and solitude of this unique boreal wilderness.