Some buddies of mine (Scott and Mike) were planning a winter ski trip to the Boundary Waters. I heard about it, and promptly (and rashly) invited myself. They graciously allowed me to join. ;-)
The planning started in mid-January, for a trip that was planned for President's Day weekend (Feb 15-17). Now that the trip is passed, I'll give you the main part of context for the conditions of the trip:
Yes, it was chilly. This had been a record cold winter, meaning the lakes were frozen to nearly 3' (1m) thick, and there was nearly 2' (60cm) of snow on top of the ice.
This was a "hot tenting" trip - so we rented pulks, a winter tent, and a "light weight" wood-burning stove for the tent from Piragis. After loading our regular camping gear, and the rented kit on the pulks, each one was probably 70-80 lbs (30kg). The sleds had a harness that attached like a backpack with waist belt. Not too bad. Especially if you're following a trail. But, when breaking trail (as we did a lot), that load was a lot to haul. The tent was probably 30lbs (13kg) and the stove was about the same.
We started out from Mpls at around 5:30am after packing Mike's SUV. After a stop for breakfast in Cloquet, we got to Ely around 10:30. Stopped in at the outfitter and picked up our rental gear, swapped on the long-undies, and tied-on the ski boots. Then we spent 40 min crammed in the car with the pulks and the tent and stove to the EP. Snow was falling. The road was dicey, so it was slow-going out from Ely.
At the EP, we were the only people there (except for a single person coming out from having done some photography). We loaded the sleds, and zipped-up our jackets, and headed out. Right out from the EP, there was a trail for about a mile or so into Lake One. After that, we lost a trail and broke our own trail for the rest of the trip. Mike and Scott both had skis and snowshoes. I brought just the Hoks, hoping that they would cover all my bases. Generally, they did a great job of staying on a trail, and were OK on my turns at the front breaking trail. It was snowing moderately as we struck out. There was no cell phone signal. We were truly on our own.
It was beautiful, at first. As we made our way in to the lake, and started to look for camping sites, we made an important realization. It's a lot harder to find the campsites in winter. Despite what the map says, a meter of snow makes the world look a lot different. We passed what the map indicated as campsites twice, each time stopping to poke around the site, looking for tent sites and fire-rings. Twice we struck out. The afternoon was getting on. The sun was starting to drop. Still no campsite. Finally, at the third (supposed) site, we found a tent site. Still no fire ring, but it would have to make do. The flat spot was on a little ridge that had a stupendous view all around. We pitched the tent, set-up the stove, and collected a bunch of wood. The snowfall had subsided a little, but the clouds were still hanging around. That night, we set up a small cooking fire outside the tent, and prepped wood for the stove. We also started melting snow on the stove for water. We collected a lot of firewood. We knew it needed to last the night. If you're wondering why, please review the temperature graphic above. Dinner was a bunch of flank steak, as well as green beans and potatoes that Mike had prepped. Delicious, but (weirdly) despite having worked hard to get here, we weren't that hungry and there were left-overs.
That first night, we crashed around 9pm. I had a spot closest to the stove. I soon learned that I had a natural system to know when to feed the stove - my feet were cold. This went a few cycles - fall asleep, wake up with cold feet, feed stove. Repeat. After the third cycle, I started to check my watch, and realized I was getting around 45-50 min of sleep each cycle. Great. Somewhere around 3am, I wised-up. I don't know why I'd forgotten this trick before 3am! I got up and boiled some water. I put the boiling water in my Nalgene, and stuffed it in the foot of my sleeping bag. This trick was awesome! No more cold feet. The result was that the next time I woke up to stoke the fire, it was basically out in the stove and I had to totally re-make it. Basically, I'd had no more than an hour of sleep at a time all night. And by 6 or 7, the wood in the tent was basically all gone. We just made it to morning.
The second day dawned bright and clear. It was cold, but, wow, that was a BLUE sky!
We replenished the wood situation and made breakfast. Mike made pancakes, and I made bacon over the fire. I was going to try to make eggs as well, but it was just too much hassle. This kind of camp cooking is fine for summer, but when everything is freezing at the edge of the pan, and burning in the middle, it's just not going to work like you want it to. We kind of loafed around in the morning. Then around mid-day, we went for a ski over to Lake Two. The snow was deep, and we did a bunch of breaking trail, but without the sleds, the going wasn't too bad. The sun was high, and you could feel the sun's warmth, even though the air was still very cold. I actually got my chair at one point and sat on the slope in the sun. I actually nodded off for a bit, due to not having slept so well the night before ... Our ski trip during the day was quite nice. We saw some interesting tracks. We think it was an otter, because it was basically four feet and then a belly slide track. Pretty cute to imagine it. We also saw some (probably) owl pounce prints, and the imprint of the pinion feathers on the snow as it landed and then took off with it's prey. Finally headed back to camp, and spent the rest of the afternoon prepping wood. Scott hauled and sawed a lot of it. Mike split it with his fancy Gransfors splitting maul. We were not going to risk running out of wood. As the day closed, we debated the merits of building another small cooking fire outside, and decided we would just cook on the wood stove and the propane stoves in the tent. It was getting cold and windy. Scott took a turn at the fire stoker job. Dinner was italian sausage, boil-in-the-bag Indian curry, and couscous. Delicious! And I tried to drink one of the beers I'd brought, but it was frozen and it erupted. So, we took the overflow beer and cooked the sausages in it. Yum.
We stocked the tent with wood, and turned in around 9pm. I started the night with the water bottle trick, so I was much happier for most of the night. Scott, heroically, took a turn with the 50 minute sleep intervals, and did us all a solid in the process. That night, a front came in. Stiff winds and snow pelted the tent for much of the night and morning. When it was time to get up, it was still blowing and snowing. We basically skipped breakfast, broke camp, and cruised out of there. Starting at about 7am, we made it back to the car around 11am. The camp was covered in a few inches of new snow. The still falling snow and blowing winds made the packing-up process less about having fun, and more about getting the job done. With the sleds loaded, we pushed them down the hill and then followed after. At the bottom, it was click into the skis, and start hauling out. The snow and wind over the night had completely obscured our trail. There was no hints to follow. And the still-overcast skies made all the snow flat and hard to see variations. So, we just broke more trail. There's a theme here. We each took turns at the front, but I think Mike overall did the most trail breaking - eventually switching to snow shoes to deal with the deep powder. Eventually, we made it back to the EP. We were totally spent. It took a bit to pack everything up, and head back to Ely. We got back to Piragis a little before the gear was due back. We hung out at the Front Porch for a while, and warmed up. Then, back in the car for the long drive back to Mpls. The roads were treacherous, and it was slow going all the way to I35, but we made it.
All in, it was solid Type 2 fun (meaning fun in retrospect ;-). It will take me a while to forget it and entertain another one of these. I am glad I went. I'm glad I spent 3 days with Scott and Mike. Conditions like that inspire you to work hard, be a good partner, and do your part. It's also nice to scrub away a lot of the cruft/varnish of civilized life and focus on things that are a lot lower on Maslow's hierarchy than you're used to. Food, shelter, water, warmth. Life is pretty focused when those basics are your concern.
Gear-wise, I used stuff I already had. I assumed (foolishly) that we'd have a heated tent, so my 20* TNF sleeping bag would be enough. We've already covered that ... I had down coats, and mittens, and good base layers. My ski boots were generally OK. I put thermal insoles in them and used Grabber chemical toe warmers. I think those things didn't do squat. My toes were sometimes terribly cold, even during the times the warmers were supposed to be working. Maybe I got a bum set, but they didn't work.
Here's a little satellite view of our route. Yellow is our route in on day 1. Pink is our day trip on day 2. Blue is our route out on day 3, until it just met up with the original yellow route in from day 1. Probably the hardest 7 or 8 miles I've traveled in recent recollection. ;-)