Ice-out in the Boundary Waters

Dispatch No. 9 from the Freemans' year in our nation's most popular wilderness area

BY AMY FREEMAN / PHOTOS COURTESY ELLIE BAYRD

Ice-out in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has been a drawn-out affair this year. For a while in early April we seemed to experience a weather pattern that alternated between gorgeous/sunny/warm and snowstorms that dumped several inches of wet snow at a time. Dave described it as winter and spring playing tug-of-war.

Through it all, we were out here, modifying our travel method daily and constantly checking the ice thickness. Several brave and ice-savvy friends ventured out to bring us our canoe and a month’s worth of food. That happened to be on one of the days when we got a dump of about four inches of snow. Dave and I laughed at the irony of hauling our canoe back to our campsite as the snow piled up.

We found that the loaded canoe didn’t slide very well on the fresh snow, so we created a contraption we call the canoe-boggan — the 19-foot Wenonah Itasca canoe strapped on top of an 11-foot Black River Sleds toboggan. It looked a little funny, but it slid easily on the powder.

We’ve downsized our dog team to one. Acorn and Tina went back home to Frank Moe, who was overjoyed to see them again. Life without any dogs seemed sad and boring to us, so we asked Frank if we could keep Tank for the summer and he obliged. Perhaps a little confused at first, Tank now seems to have settled into his role as the sole dog — sleeping in the tent, eating all the food he wants, and training to ride in the canoe.

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We spent about a week traveling with the canoe-boggan, making our way along the Border Route from Knife Lake to Saganaga Lake and back again. We witnessed the tide really turn as the sun increased in intensity and the daytime high temperatures soared. All the snow disappeared. The white surface of the lakes steadily darkened. The ice surface went from a slushy mess to dark, clear ice that began to candle in a matter of 48 hours.

We’ve found little bits of open water to horse around in while dressed for immersion (READ all of Amy’s tips for canoe-tripping through frozen terrain HERE) as we remind our muscles what it feels like to paddle. We put Tank in the canoe for the first time. Given the right amount of treats and encouragement, he shows promise of being a fine canoe dog.

Bonnie Lake, a small, shallow lake to the south of Knife was the first to open in our immediate vicinity. We figured that our days of being able to safely walk on Knife Lake were numbered, so we loaded up the canoe and took off on an amphibious venture. The canoe-boggan morphed into a new form as we pondered how to transport our assortment of winter gear (toboggan, skis, bulky winter clothes, etc.) in the canoe. I gave Dave a pat on the back when he figured out how to wedge the toboggan into the bottom of the canoe. Not only were we able to load our packs on top of it, but the toboggan could remain in place while portaging.

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We left our campsite on foot: Dave out front scouting, Tank easily pulling the loaded canoe across the nearly friction-less ice surface, and me attached to the back of the canoe to prevent Tank from catching up to Dave.

In the space of one portage, we went from walking on 6-8 inches of ice to paddling on open water, watching a loon placidly float past. This drastic transition was short-lived though as we did eventually hit the ice sheet on the southern half of Bonnie. We used our canoe as an ice-breaker, as candle ice instantly disintegrated in front of the bow. Eventually, we would slide up onto thicker ice, adapting our propulsion to using our feet in a tentative crab-like crawl. Needless to say, this manner of travel was labor-intensive. We spent the better part of the day traveling a grand total of three miles. We questioned our sanity and reevaluated our plan, ultimately setting up camp for the night on Spoon Lake. This seems like as good a place as any to spend a few more days watching the ice melt. We know that ice-out can’t be too far off as multiple loons and ducks fly overhead daily. A token number of mosquitoes have even appeared on warm evenings, reminding us that it won’t be long until the forest hums with the ominous drone of the bloodsuckers at dusk. We’re looking forward to warmer weather regardless.

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— Dave and Amy Freeman have been sending in Dispatches from their #WildernessYear. (Read more about their adventure: Reasons to Rejoice in the (Still) Frozen Boundary Waters; Holidays in the Boundary Waters Ice Canoeing in the Boundary Waters, The Freeze Begins in the Boundary Waters, The Slow Way in Boundary Waters and Canoeing with Teenagers.

— Learn more about the mining threat at SavetheBoundaryWaters.org, and check out the Freemans’ educational info at WildernessClassroom.com, or follow updates at #SavetheBWCA and #WildernessYear.