Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An All Day Ski

On January 14th the "Friday Ski" group set out from Ely for our weekly cross-country ski outing. This week's group was one of our largest ever at eleven members (and three dogs), and meant that we would have plenty of folks to take turns leading the way as we did a lot of breaking trail throughout the day. We headed east on the Fernberg road and parked at the Wood Lake parking lot. With eleven skiers we were too large a group to enter the BWCA but luckily we had planned a route that remained outside the wilderness.

We crossed the Fernberg and started out in a southeasterly direction looking for a trail that we knew intersected the road to Madden Lake. We have had a lot of snow lately and the trees and shrubs are covered with a beautiful, thick, white frosting. The big trees can handle it fine but the smaller ones, as well as many shrubs, get bent every which way under their fluffy burden. This makes for a beautiful forest, but a challenge when trying to navigate a narrow forest trail. As a matter of fact, it can make it quite a challenge to even find a narrow forest trail. After a few false starts, we just started bushwhacking thru the brush in the general direction of the road. Bushwhacking is a good name for it because we basically whack the snow off of anything in our way trying to free up an easier route while following a path of least resistance. After about a half hour of slow going, some backtracking, and checking our compasses, we broke thru to the Madden Lake road. After that we had easy going all the way to the lake, mostly downhill. Occasionally we ducked down and skied thru a beautiful tunnel created by arched, snow covered branches.

Once on Madden we had frozen, snow covered, snow machine tracks to follow a short ways to the other side where we picked up the road to Greenstone Lake. We knew the lakes we planned on traveling this day had been snow machined and we planned on staying on their trails as much as possible. As many of you have probably heard, we have lots of slush on the Ely area lakes this year because of all the snow we received before the ice was thick enough to support it. For the most part the lakes are safe to travel on. The problem lies in the fact that that most of the larger lakes have a layer of water on top of the ice, covered with snow, which can make for an icy foot bath for cross-country skiers, ice fisherman, sled dogs, or anyone unfortunate enough to venture into these areas. If you happen upon an especially deep layer of slush, snow machines and dog sleds can even get bogged down and the icy water can reach over the top of ski boots! Usually what happens on skis and/or snowshoes is that the slush starts to build up on the bottoms and you have to get out of the immediate area as quickly as possible, remove your skis and scrape off the slush before it freezes solid and makes it even more difficult to remove. What we need is a cold, windy stretch of weather without any new snow buildup so that the ice thickens and the water on top can freeze or drain back into the lakes.

The road to Greenstone Lake was an easy ski and once we reached the lake we again followed snow machine trails, this time in a westerly direction, and had smooth sailing all the way to the outlet on the far end. We now picked up Greenstone creek and followed its drainage thru a beautiful, boggy lowland covered with stunted Black Spruce to Pickerel Lake.

When we reached Pickerel we continued following snow machine paths to the western end where we headed north out of the lake. Several times on Pickerel we passed what we called "sink holes". These are small holes (approx. 10" in circumference) in the ice surrounded with a somewhat larger area of open water. We have theorized over the years what causes these phenomenons and have come to the conclusion that they are places where slush water on top of the ice drains back into the lake. Even though the ice around these "sink holes" appears safe it sill can give one an eerie feeling to come across them in the middle of a lake and sometimes right next to our trail.

After leaving Pickerel we headed north to the Sundew cabin that Steve and Liz Lampman rent out to area visitors. After a quick visit and snack break we headed southeast thru a beautiful Northern White Cedar bog on our way to Kemptons Lake. Kemptons is a small lake that we planned to ski just a portion of, along the southern shore, before taking a portage back to Pickerel. We would then join our original trail and retrace our tracks back to the Fernberg Road.

We made it maybe half of the way across the lake when we started to hit slush. When you are in the back of the pack you know slush is ahead when you start to see wet spots appearing in the tracks of your fellow skiers. To make a long story longer, a few of us made it thru unscathed. Most had to stop and scrape some slush off their skis, and I not only had to stop and scrape but also had my new back country bindings freeze up on me making it difficult to secure my boots back into my bindings. I ended up needing the assistance of one of my fellow travelers who came back for me with some deicer to help me with my second ski after a frustrating fifteen minutes of wrestling with my skis, bindings, and boots! This is a good example of one of the advantages of traveling with a group of experienced skiers. There is always someone to lend a hand with assistance or extra gear when needed.

Back on the move we were glad to be on solid ground and started south on the portage to Pickerel Lake. Shortly we encountered a logged over area with many new temporary roads and we lost track of the portage. Once again we found ourselves making a few false starts and after checking and rechecking our compasses realized we were heading back west rather than south. After a few minutes we hooked up with our original trail out of Pickerel and took it back to the lake. Because we had circled back we added a mile or so to our trek, but were glad to be back on our original trail, ready to retrace it to our vehicles.

On the way back it snowed lightly creating a wonderful almost foggy like atmosphere. Now, after five hours or so, the group had became somewhat spread out, but someone always stopped to wait so that no one became too far behind. On our last leg we met a family heading into a cabin on Madden by snow machine and we told them of our trip as well as updated them on the ice conditions.

We chose to take the Madden Lake road all the way out to the Fernberg and walk the road back to the vehicles rather than retrace our route thru our bushwhacked trail from the morning. After seven plus hours and some fifteen miles it felt good to walk on even ground without having to use our arms for propulsion and/or bushwhacking. We started up the vehicles, loaded up our skis and poles, finished the snacks and agreed that after a few days we would contact each other to start planning our next trip.

Steve Schon

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