Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Snowbank to Round Lake by John McCarthy

Day 1. – Feb 10th
After a good nights sleep at the Paddle Inn in Ely and a quick breakfast I’m racing down the Fernberg Road on my way to the boat landing on Snowbank Lake as the sun rises. The temperature was around -13 with a strong wind out of the west. Before a trip I usually have a few extra things that I call my “game time decision bag”. This bag usually consists of a few items which I could not decide whether to bring along or not, which I usually end up leaving for a last minute decision. In this bag I had tent, a pair of boots and my warmest pair of mittens. I skied out into Snowbank for about two minutes and realized that my hands were freezing . I stopped for a few seconds to think about whether or not I should go back to the car and get those extra mittens and abruptly dropped my sled and headed straight back to the car. At the car I also decided to take those extra pair of boots but chose to leave the tent. I ended up wearing the mittens almost the entire trip and the boots where warm and comfy around camp and I even wore them to bed my final night out.

I was able to follow a dog sled trail across Snowbank, almost the entire first day with the exception of Fraser Lake. The winter use trail on the east side of Disappointment lake was so well packed and flat that I was able to take off my ski boots and put on my regular winter boots with no snowshoes and stroll down the trail all the way to the junction with Alworth Lake with little effort. It was quite the difference from the previous year.

I got a SPOT device before the trip and planned on sending three SPOT’S a day to let loved ones know that I was OK and to notify them about my progress. The plan was to send one when I was leaving camp in the morning, another midday and finally one at the end of the day when I had made it to camp for the night. I was making great time, reaching Alworth by 1pm, so I stopped briefly to send a SPOT message and let everyone know how well I was progressing My entire route consisted of three McKenzie Maps and I was pleased to realize that I was already on my second map (8. Knife, Kekekabic).

As, it was getting close to sundown I decided to make camp on the north end of Fraser. I was now out of water and pulled out my stove to melt some snow when much to my dismay as I turned the knob to on gas came spurting out the top of the stove. Somewhere in transit I had lost the nut for the top of my stove (I did try the stove before the trip). After unsuccessfully searching through my duffle bag for the missing piece I realized that I better collect some firewood before the sun went down. I found some good standing wood down the shoreline, dragged it back to the fire grate and quickly got a fire started. This meant the rest of my trip I would have to make fires for my water supply and to cook my food. I would also need to make camp a little earlier in order to collect wood before dark. I wanted to conserve as much of my energy as possible and collecting and maintaining a fire in the winter makes for extra work. After getting the fire started I dug out my bed and started preparing for a cold night of – 13. Before bed, I looked over my map with pleasure, realizing that I had traveled close to 14 miles today.

Day 2 – Feb 11th
I slept well despite the cold temperatures. For me the worst part of winter camping is breaking camp in the morning and putting on my frozen boots. I like to fill two Nalgene bottles with boiling water and place those inside my boots for about 30 minutes to warm them up right before I break camp. Also, before I go to bed I like to fill my water bottles with boiling water and put them at the bottom of my sleeping bag. (making sure they are tightly sealed) which gives you a few hours of additional warmth.

In the morning I got a fire started to melt more snow, ate a couple of granola bars, had some coffee and was on my way to Kekekabic by 8am. The wind was worse than the day before but luckily it would be at my back the majority of the day. Now, there were no more tracks to follow and the snow was getting deeper, slowing my progress. I was a bit nervous knowing that I would be traveling through some of the most remote parts of the Boundary Waters, in the middle of winter, by myself. I made my way through Gerund, Amakose, Wisini and Strup before reaching Kekekakbic Lake. I took a break on the south side of the Strup portage and put on my big parka knowing that when I reached Kek the wind would be brutal. Starting the portage I could feel the cold air coming off of the lake and braced for a long cold ski. Once I reached the main part of the lake the immense size and distance to the eastern shore was a bit daunting. It was a surreal feeling to be in the middle of this huge lake knowing that I would be the only human within miles. I was tempted to yell at the top of my lungs but never did, I just continued onward. In the middle of Kek I found some mystery ski tracks. My theory is that someone from the park service came in on plane or dog sled on their way to the forest service cabin located on the south shore of Kek. I did not follow them to investigate. These would be the only tracks I saw from Thomas Lake all the way to Crooked Lake near Tuscarora.

Nearing the eastern end of the lake I noticed two objects not far from shore. As I approached I could discern that it was a cow and a calf moose. I snapped a couple of photos and continued to ski forward before they walked to shore and disappeared into the woods. I was glad to see a moose knowing that their population is on the decline and fearing that one day there won’t be any left in Minnesota.
I had a sense of accomplishment finishing Kek but knew I was ‘not out of the woods yet’. Studying my map I thought that the campsite on a little bay on the east side of Eddy Lake looked nice and protected. I quickly set up camp, melted snow and had a warm meal. I took a few pictures of the bright orange sunset over the frozen landscape before getting in my Bivy sack for the night.

Day 3
I had another nice night of sleep with temperatures slightly below zero but I knew that the temperature was forecasted to go into the mid twenties and I was looking forward to ‘thawing out’. In the winter if the temperature is below freezing I prefer to sleep in a bivy sack versus a tent because it’s smaller, lighter, and gives you the ability to see the stars. Even when I use my summer tent I don’t like to put the rain fly on and I only put it on when I feel a sprinkle during the night. I was skiing by 8am making my way through Ogishkemuncie towards Gabimichigami and was planning to take a break and sending a SPOT message from the Agamok Bridge but missed the junction to the Kekekabic Trail and didn’t walk back up the portage. On Gabimichigami. Gabimichigami was sunny, big and beautiful. The Kekekabic Trail Guide states that Gabi is the deepest lake fully within Minnesota but other sources say differently. I prefer to believe it is the deepest. I was excited now because not only was on my third and final McKenzie Map but now I was on familiar territory because my sister and me had done a canoe trip the previous summer into Gabi. Peter Lake is only a couple miles long but for some reason it seemed like an eternity to reach the other side. The portage from Peter over to French was very hard with numerous ups and downs but it also had more snow than previous portages on the western part of my trip. I found a very nice, protected campsite on the west side of Gillis and proceeded to set up camp.

This was supposed to be the warmest night of the three, with temperatures in the single digits but as night fell so did the temperature. It turns out that it got down to -11, well below the forecasted temp. By now my down sleeping bag was damp from my perspiration and I was wishing I had brought two. I was physically tired and this made me even more susceptible to the cold. I awoke at midnight, cold and proceeded to put on practically every ounce of clothing I had. I got in to my sleeping bag and passed the time until sunup listening to a radio station out of Grand Marais while watching the constellations move across the sky.

Day 4 – Feb-13th
After waiting for hours in my sleeping bag I couldn’t wait for sunrise. I was up at 6 making a fire and breaking camp ready for the final push to the Gunflint Trail. I was curious to see how far someone had come in from the Gunflint Trail side and soon found ski and pulk sled tracks on Crooked Lake. I was pretty confident that at least people had been in to Tuscarora and was pleased that I would not be breaking any more trail the rest of the trip. The long portage (363 rod) from Tuscarora to Missing Link was well traveled and fairly level except for the first part, which is very steep. I finally reached my destination at Tuscarora Lodge on Round Lake and skied up to the pay phone and called the Gunflint Lodge for my pickup. I still had not seen another person since my start on Snowbank Lake.

Waiting for my ride I was over come with sense of accomplishment but also one of sadness. I was proud that I had just traveled over 40 miles across the BWCA in the winter by myself but on the other hand I was sad that my adventure was over. I quickly starting dreaming of the next one and all was well.

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