Winter Transitions: Holidays in the Boundary Waters

Dispatch No. 7 from the Freemans' year in our nation's most popular wilderness area

By Amy Freeman
Photos by Dave Freeman

Winter in Minnesota finally arrived in late December. Although Dave and I thought we had a good idea of what to expect from freeze-up, we never thought we would still have our canoe with us until December 28, our 97th day in the wilderness.

We moved camp while hauling our canoe across frozen lakes on three separate occasions: from Knife Lake to Ensign Lake, then to the east end of Newfound Lake, and finally to the southwest end of Newfound.

The move from Ensign to Newfound involved a bit of an amphibious maneuver. The weather on the day we were traveling happened to be quite wintry: Big fluffy flakes fell as we loaded our canoe on the ice. Pulling the canoe was easy enough since the snow hadn’t accumulated yet. By the time we reached the narrows between Ensign and Splash Lakes, however, we couldn’t see the island campsite we had just left. The snow was falling fast and furious, reducing visibility to 150 feet.

In the BWCAW there are summer portages and winter portages. Summer portages help paddlers avoid dangerous rapids or they just connect paddle-able bodies of water. They tend to be pretty direct and might be quite rocky and hilly. Winter portages are typically longer, allowing winter travelers to avoid rapids in addition to spots where there is current, which prevents ice from forming. The winter portages tend to make use of the flatter option of frozen bogs when possible. We knew patches of the winter portage from Ensign into Splash remained unfrozen, so we decided to take the summer route. And even though it’s a very short portage, at this water level the mini-rapids between the lakes were perfectly navigable. As we neared open water at the top of the channel between Ensign and Splash, we walked on the rocks along shore and pulled our canoe over the thin ice until it splashed into the water. We hopped into the canoe and had a short (200-yard) paddle. Dave and I marveled at the novelty of paddling in a blizzard in December. After the swift-moving water of the riffle, the current died down and ice reappeared. A beaver swam in this short bit of open water.

To get back onto the ice, we rammed our canoe up onto thick ice near shore. The bow popped up and slid right on. I gingerly stepped out. The ice held my weight and I pulled the canoe up enough for Dave to clamber forward and then out of the boat. Several inches of snow had accumulated on Splash Lake. We briefly regretted our amphibious maneuver as the new snow promptly froze to the wet bottom of the canoe. We unloaded the canoe and used our paddles as scrapers to get the wet, slushy snow off. We took a running start to be sure the canoe didn’t stick and the rest of our travel that day went without a hitch.

We experienced the Winter Solstice in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, then Christmas. To celebrate both, we decorated our tent with solar powered lights and made ice luminaries. I managed to bake a batch of traditional Norwegian cookies — sandbakkelse — on the wood stove. The ice on the deep part of Newfound Lake was finally safe enough to travel across on the day after Christmas, so we traveled about a mile and a half to a new site on the same lake.

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From our last campsite on Newfound we began to see folks coming into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The outside world had finally deemed the ice safe enough to travel across. As we set up camp, three instructors from the nearby Boy Scout base walked past. They were checking the route from their base on Moose Lake to Prairie Portage on the Canadian border. The next day, we hiked out to Moose Lake, checking the ice conditions as we went. Four inches of ice seemed to be the norm.

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On December 28, we loaded our paddles, PFDs, drysuits and some other gear we would no longer need into our canoe. We hauled it to Moose Lake and the edge of the Wilderness. The canoe was quite light and barely made a depression in the snow. I pulled the canoe while Dave walked next to me, occasionally taking pictures. As we emerged on Moose Lake after a very short winter portage at the narrows, we were surprised to see a train of nine people, each with a toboggan, trekking across the lake. The Boy Scouts’ winter programming had begun. I bet they were as excited about the current winter travel conditions as we were.

As we rounded a point and the Boy Scouts’ base came into view, along with several other cabins, we could just make out the small party of our friends coming out to deliver our toboggans. How novel to see buildings, with smoke curling from their chimneys. What once might have seemed inviting to us held no appeal. We were comfortable out in the Wilderness. Dave and I observed that neither of us had any desire to enter a building. We had all we needed back at camp. The wood stove kept us warm in our tent. Besides, we liked listening to the wind in the trees, waking up with the sun shining through its thin fabric walls, and hearing things like the chirp of black-capped chickadees or the distant howl of wolves.

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Our friends walked up to us and after exchanging greetings and hugs, we traded our canoe for the two toboggans that they hauled. My dad was there too, hauling a small toboggan that contained his sleeping bag and clothes needed for a brief BWCAW overnight. He would spend two nights with us, camping and skiing on Newfound Lake. This day marked not only the day we would send our canoe out of the Wilderness, it marked the end of our isolation and the beginning of a long string of visitors and sightings of other winter travelers. There are plenty of people out traveling in the Wilderness now, having traded in their canoe paddles for toboggans, snowshoes, ice fishing gear, and even dog teams.

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And now we’re on the move with skis, toboggans and three sled dogs. Dave and I look forward to sharing more stories and tips with you in the spring, as the 2016 paddling season begins.

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—Dave and Amy Freeman will be sending in Dispatches from their #WildernessYear. (Read more about their adventure: 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.