We had a long winter in Minnesota. The snow and cold pushed its way to late april, and once spring was here it was shortlived, wet and cold. Now, its been 90s and humid for much of July, and I find myself thinking fondly upon our May snow storms. In that spirit, here is a report from a "winter" trip to the BWCA in April:
My buddy Pete and I had been looking to fit in a spring backpacking trip, but our window of opportunity was shrinking before our eyes. Weekend obligations piled up and one snowstorm after another left us firmly buried in the white stuff in mid-April. We were both free April 19th to the 21st and rather than missing an opportunity to hike we basically just threw in the towel, admitted it was still the middle of winter and grabbed some cold weather gear.
I had literally just finished a few consecutive overnight shifts at work and Pete picked me up in the parking ramp in downtown Minneapolis. I was basically useless on the drive up to the Boundary Waters but at least managed a couple hours of sleep.
As we began our drive up the Gunflint trail toward the South Lake Trailhead (about 40 miles “inland” from Lake Superior), another snowstorm started to roll in, and if the feet of snow piled on cars stranded in cabin driveways was any indication, this had been the norm recently.
A year prior I had been paddling in a t-shirt and shorts just one week later in the same neck of the woods. This year the forecast lows were around 10F with highs just below freezing.
We actually had to drive around until we found a lodge that had plowed a small parking lot, asked them if we could drop the car there, then walk about a mile down the road to the trail head.
The snow was deep! We took turns breaking trail and working our way toward the Border Route Trail.
I had firmly developed a case of the stupids as I neglected to pay close enough attention to the map, compass, and as it turns out my BDMs (Big Dumb Mitts). I dropped one at some point, back-tracked about a mile, then returned to the place I first noticed I was missing it and found it about 6 feet down the trial. I blame the sleep deprivation ☺
Rather than going to the Border Route that night we called an audible and made our way to moss lake with the intention of hooking up with the Border Route the next day. We cruised (read: slogged slowly) across the lake and finally reached camp some time after 7 PM.
The beauty of winter camping in April is about four hours more day light than you’d have in December.
We stomped out a platform, set up our tent, and set to the business of making dinner and melting snow.
The next day we awoke to a gorgeous clear (but cold) morning. We grabbed some breakfast and were on our way through a short portage to Duncan Lake. As far as we can tell, night time lows were in the high-single-digits to low teens each night. Pretty strange for April in Minnesota!
Little did we know there was running water just a couple hundred meters from where we’d slept.
After marching across Duncan we met up with a spur that took us to the Border Route Trail and eventually above Rose Lake. The Border Route was slow going: lots of snow, steep trail, and plenty of trees to maneuver around. Still, it provided a bit of variety to contrast with the lake walking.
That afternoon we descended down to Rose Lake in what felt like a heat wave. The snow wasn’t melting, but the bright sun on the snow and ice of the lake made it feel tropical. We set up our decidedly 3-season tent in a protected spot in the woods and made ourselves a snowpack island where we spent the evening cooking, taking photos, and drinking a bit of whiskey. Decent times.
The next morning we set out to have a relatively ambitious day: we’d continue east through the end of Rose Lake, make our way through a very flooded portage trail then travel across Daniels lake, Bearskin lake, then back to Duncan Lake at which point we back-tracked our initial days’ journey.
After about 8 hours of travel and a few soggy steps into deep slush repositories in the middle of the lakes we made our way back to the trailhead. Looking back at our photos from this trip almost makes me miss winter already.
A couple post-trip thoughts:
First, this trip was awesome. Pete and I have hung out a couple times since and we both just kind of shake our heads at how much this trip exceeded our expectations as a two night wilderness experience. The BWCA is heavily traveled in the summer, but go there in winter conditions and its essentially a huge empty wilderness area full of wolves, moose and silence .
Second, we snowshoed this trip, but the BWCA just begs to be skied. We spent a lot of time on portage and hiking trails, but my next (winter) trip will be on backcountry XC Skis with a bit more time on the lakes. Snow shoes are fantastic, but I couldn't help but to think that the big wide open lakes and generally gently sloped portage trails are well suited to travel by skis. There seem to be a bunch of BPLers interested in getting out more on skis and in winter, and i'd love to see a concerted effort to get a crew of us out there in the next couple of seasons.
Third, I was somewhat surprised at how comfortable I was in mild winter-conditions with highs below 30 and lows in the single digits with feet of snow on the ground in spite of largely 3-season gear: I used a ULA Circuit, WM Ultralite bag, Big Sky Evolution 2P tent, Exped Synmat UL + cut down ridgerest and a coleman peak remote canister stove (though the canister stove was a bit finicky at night). My baseweight including a Sony Nex 5 camera was around 14 pounds. There were a couple of things I'd bring next time but for the most part I was happy with my gear.
We had pretty calm conditions, and I'm looking into shelters that are light but could handle a bit of blowing snow as I think the Big Sky tent is clearly not suited to legit winter conditions. I don't endorse heading out with inadequate gear, but I do endorse choosing to make the trip in spite of a cold/wet/windy forecast and challenging yourself. This was a prime example of pushing the limits of the gear we brought along but making adjustments and good decisions in order to stay warm/dry/comfortable.
Thanks for reading,