I can see my breath form wisps of moisture in the air even though I’m bundled head to toe inside of my 15-degree sleeping bag. The wood stove fills the tent with the slight scent of wood smoke, but our fire has long since burned out. Outside, snow falls and patters the walls of the canvas tent. Inside, our floor is made of snow, too, but I can’t feel it through my insulated air pad, foam mat, and thin rubber-backed carpet. My down jacket is stuffed at the bottom of my sleeping bag so it will be pre-warmed in the morning. My tried and true Steger mukluks sit beside my sleeping bag, ready for me to don in the morning as soon as I emerge from my toasty synthetic cocoon. I didn’t know at the time they would be frozen solid.
We’re camped on the eastern shore of Alton Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one million acres of lakes and forests and traditional lands of the Anishinabewaki people. I grew up paddling these waters as young as four years old, but this time I wouldn’t need a canoe.
Finding “Off-Season” Adventure
The pandemic has stifled what little travel John and I were looking forward to after moving to Madison, Wisconsin. With graduate school and work keeping me busy seven days a week last summer, we weren’t able to explore local parks as much as we would have liked. Inspired by an inaugural trip my dad and brother took two years ago (and in 20 below zero temperatures, no less), at the end of last year, I decided winter did not mean our adventures had to wait.
Winter camping is more than your average weekend expedition, and it takes twice the preparation and perseverance. We were able to rent a canvas tent and woodstove from Sawtooth Outfitters in Tofte, Minnesota, on the north shore of Lake Superior. The rest was up to us. Luckily over the years we’ve collected gear that is as well suited to winter camping as it was driving the Alaska Highway in April and October: warm sleeping bags, white gas stoves, sleeping mats, and lots and lots of warm layers. In Colorado in 2017, we purchased cross country skis, which would help carry us across the frozen lakes with ease. All we needed was sleds to carry our gear.
Fortunately, Sawtooth Outfitters also rents sleds, toboggan-styled sled that can easily haul a lot of gear. Unfortunately, there weren’t any available for our trip.
We did the next best thing: we built our very own pulks for the trip. A pulk is a Nordic short, low-slung sled used for transport or sport. We used plastic expedition sleds from REI and used PVC pipe, cord, buckles, and webbing belts padded with 20-year-old foam sleeping mats to build the pulling mechanism. This allowed us to pull the sleds and our gear while we skied, easing our travel and taking the load of our our backs.
We left Duluth just before 9am on Friday and made it to Tofte an hour and a half later. The weather was a disappointing 38 degrees—something I would regret thinking later, yet I would rather the air be cold enough to snow than blanket our windshield in rain (it’s January in Minnesota, for goodness sake). I was also increasingly worried about our gear getting wet and freezing later in the night.
Our original plan was to head to Clearwater Lake on the Gunflint Trail—another hour-plus drive—but at the outfitters we learned it was a very popular trout fishing lake, and the next day was the trout opener. Wanting to avoid as many people as we could, we switched our plans last minute and headed to the Sawbill Lake entry point. It would mean one fairly flat 30-rod portage (1 rod=16 feet) to Alton Lake that we hoped would be easy enough to traverse in our skis and sleds.
We turned onto Sawbill Trail and before long the rain turned to fluffy snow as we ventured farther away from the great Lake Superior. It took us nearly an hour to get our sleds organized in the parking lot, but overall our system of ropes and straps seemed to be working. We buckled into our sleds and clicked our boots into our skis, grinning at each other as we took our first few strides.
Surprisingly, once in motion the sleds didn’t need as much force to move as I’d expected. The weight of the sled behind me helped push me down the first gentle hill out of the parking lots and the PVC pipes kept the sled from ramming into the back of my legs. We continued another 50 yards to the edge of Sawbill Lake, BWCA entry point #38.
One Stride at a Time
The sky across the lake was ominous and dark as we fell into the trail others made before us. Luckily, the surface of the lake was fairly slush free. The guide at Sawtooth had informed us that slush was the largest determining factor of trip planning; campers used “slush reports” to determine which lake had the best conditions for travel.
We continued across the lake and snow flurries began to fall around us. We came to a fork in the trail and followed the single sled track to the left where we knew the portage would be. We were able to get ourselves and our sleds onto land without too much trouble. Once through the woods, we could see the tree-covered hills across Alton Lake.
We were running out of daylight, which was my #1 concern. Once at camp we would need to set up our tent, which included shoveling snow out of a 11 x 10 foot area, prep our wood stove, and collect firewood.
We started north on the lake, for a campsite on a small peninsula. It didn’t take long to find, though by the end we were exhausted from skiing with our gear behind us. We took a snack break on a granite boulder near the shoreline, looking out at the snow-covered hills across the lake. It was stunning.
It was clear no one else had camped at this site in a long time. The snow was a foot deep and we needed to shovel out a space large enough for our tent (which doesn’t have a floor). We got to work and after some brief disagreements stemming from hunger and cold bodies, we got most of the tent assembled. Thirty minutes before dark we abandoned that task to collect wood so we could build a fire. We took an empty sled, our hatchet, and two saws down to the shoreline and set out looking for dead and downed wood. The darkness set in quickly and we headed back to finish our tent and stove and start dinner.
I was surprised how easily I was able to put down my own dehydrated meal plus a Clif bar and hot chocolate. It’s true that your metabolism speeds up in the cold to keep your body warm, and I was experiencing that and determined not to fall behind.
We got a fire going in the woodstove without too much trouble, though I learned to close and open the door quickly to keep smoke out of the tent. The air became so smoky early on we had to open the tent door, and cold fresh air replaced the warm air we’d just created. We decided to let the fire die a bit early to save some of our precious wood store to start a fire first thing in the morning. By then it was 10pm and we were more than ready to climb into our sleeping bags for the night.
Waking up in Winter
At 5am I woke up with urgency boiling in my bladder and groaned. I nudged John awake to keep me company through the tent walls while I ventured out into the pitch black landscape alone. Thankfully, he also had to go to the bathroom, so we bundled up as best we could and set outside. A few minutes in the chilly night air was enough to quicken my breath even after I returned to my sleeping bag. In the cold weather, it’s important to relieve your bladder as soon as you feel the urge. Precious energy is wasted on maintaining a full bladder, which steals warmth away from the rest of your body.
Around 9am I got out of my sleeping bag to start a fire in our woodstove. Twenty minutes later it was noticeably warmer in our tent by the time John woke up. We fueled our metabolism with my mom’s chocolate chip cookies (the BEST) while we readied for the day and boiled water for breakfast. Bailey’s and coffee topped off a morning that was much more enjoyable and warm than I’d been expecting.
Our first task of the day was to get water. We had enough to drink until dinner, so we started by taking my dad’s hand-powered augur to the lake to drill a hole in the ice for freshwater. Many people boil snow, but it takes 10 liters of snow to create 1 liter of water. The augur only weighs four pounds and fit neatly on top of our sled, so we were thankful for the easy access. I was also stunned and relieved to see that the ice was 18″ thick!
We abandoned our hole in the lake to start our next and most important task for the day: collecting firewood.
We pulled our empty sleds up the trail from our campsite and began looking for wood in the forest. Two and a half hours later and both sleds were neatly stacked with kindling and firewood. It was cooler today, and we wanted to be sure we had as much wood as possible to burn through in the evening and following morning. It was the kind of temperature that made me sweat in baselayers and fleece as I cut wood, but as soon as I sat still, even my down jacket wasn’t enough to keep the chill away. I was thankful for the purpose to be active.
With two hours of daylight left, we gathered a few items to go for a joy ski, without the sleds behind us. I’ve never been so excited to exercise in my life. This trip taught me that when winter camping, my best chance at feeling warm during the day was to never stop moving. At night, it was up to the fire and our best cozy layers.
North of Alton Lake is a much narrower lake called Kelso. The portage was only 16 rods so we started skiing north to accomplish our third lake of the trip. Otter tracks crisscrossed along the entire northern section of Alton Lake, and we passed many other tracks that I wasn’t able to identify. I made a mental note to bring a tracks and scat guide on our next winter camping adventure (which is happening sooner than you’d think).
The sky was overcast but as predicted, when we were moving I felt more comfortable in the cold than ever. Once on Kelso Lake there was only a single sled track from a previous camper, which we would later learn was left by a Sawtooth Outfitters guide two weeks before. We explored, skiing up onto the small islands and gliding by the boulder-filled shorelines to look at lichens.
With only an hour left of daylight, we had to turn back to camp. It was bittersweet, as I both wanted to be cozied up by our woodstove and simultaneously stay out on the frozen lake until the stars came out. We mistakenly left our headlamps at home and the decision was made for us. Later, as soon as darkness settled around us, we lit our first of many fires throughout the evening, fussing over the kindling and embers as we tried not to let smoke into our tent instead of going up the flue.
We enjoyed a dehydrated meal of pad thai and some Jiffy Pop popcorn, plus a glass of wine and cookies for dessert. My dad bought me a lichen field guide for my birthday, and in between stoking the fire I did my best to identify lichens in photos on my phone: plated rock tripe, rough-speckled shield lichen, and caribou lichen. I bounced between my lichen guide and a copy of my friend Patrice LaVigne’s new book, Between Each Step: A Married Couple’s Thru Hike on New Zealand’s Te Araroa, which transported me back to familiar warm beaches and muddy forest trails across the Pacific.
Packing Up Camp
On our final morning, I woke up early and crawled over to the woodstove in my sleeping bag to start a fire. Noticeable warmth brought the inside temperature up to 45 degrees. More Bailey’s and coffee helped rejuvenate us for the daunting task ahead: taking down camp. Though packing our gear, disassembling the woodstove, and taking down the tent was no small chore, I was pleasantly surprised that the activity kept me warm until our sleds were once again bundled and strapped to our waists.
Frost covered the trees from moisture that had been hanging low all morning. For the first time all weekend, the skies opened up and we felt the sun on our faces. The ski home was also bittersweet. I couldn’t wait for a hot shower at home in Duluth, but our first winter camping adventure was almost over. My muscles ached from skiing, hauling wood, and pulling gear to and from camp. I was tired of having cold fingers. The woodstove was surprisingly challenging to generate constant heat.
Yet, in a year of so much frustration, anxiety, and uncertainty, this trip was a testament to our will, our spirits, and our perseverance. Camping in the winter is even more extreme than the summer in that it takes more energy and will to survive. To stay warm, there is always something to do and little time to relax. It felt powerful for us to conquer this small mountain together, working through the frustration we both felt at separate times and rejoicing in the accomplishments.
It’s challenging to overcome the overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety that is so frequently on my mind these days. Planning this trip helped me realize that there are things I can take into my own control, like fostering my love of exploration while still keeping safe during the pandemic. On our drive home, we were even treated to three full-grown lynx staring at us through the snow from the edge of Sawbill Trail.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “why would you EVER camp in winter?”, wait until you hear that we’re already planning on going again with some friends next month. John and I will be living in Wisconsin through the end of the year, and with the end of my graduate program in sight, we plan on exploring the Midwest as much as we can. Our official goal is to camp in every month of 2021. With January and February—two of the coldest months of the year—already planned, we are excited to explore new parks and lakeshores with our dream. Stay tuned for more exciting backcountry adventures to come.