The Freeze begins in the Boundary Waters

Dispatch No. 5 from the Freemans' year in our nation's most popular wilderness area

Boundary Waters Wilderness Year, Freeman

Photo by Dave Freeman

We started the Paulson Lake portage around 2:30 p.m. It would take us about two hours to shuttle our packs and the canoe over the 515-rod portage (320 rods to a mile). We worked out a shuttling system to avoid trekking across the entire portage multiple times. Walking for about 20 minutes with a load before dropping it off to walk back for another allows for regular breaks on a long portage. It also means we never end up miles away from our food pack or important equipment. Beginning at Sea Gull Lake, we tackled a steep uphill right off the bat. We ended up on top of a ridge with a commanding view of Sea Gull. The sun was getting lower and golden. This, combined with the fact that the ridge-top had burned not to long ago, made for a panoramic view off the lake. Recently dusted in snow, the rocky landscape emanated rugged beauty.

The portage was filled with ups and downs. We crossed the same creek multiple times. We lost the trail on several occasions. As Dave put it, “this is rugged country.” Indeed. We were both reminded of our time in the Northwest Territories. The toil was tiring. Rewarding and fulfilling too, though. Each ridge we crested allowed for a look around the rocky, scorched landscape.

Boundary Waters Wilderness Year, Freeman

Photo by Dave Freeman

We would arrive at Paulson Lake by 4:30 p.m., just in time for the sunset. The chill came on as the clear sky darkened and our activity level decreased. As we ended the portage, passing the canoe under massive downed cedars, a sense of relief mixed with urgency settled in: The temperature was dropping and we still had to find a campsite, set up our tent and woodstove, procure and process firewood before we could dry out the sweat from our clothes, but at least that monstrous portage was behind us.

The next morning we packed a frosty tent. Dave checked the weather as he sent a daily update with the satellite terminal. The forecast left us feeling anxious — calling for temperatures below freezing for the foreseeable future. We departed Paulson with a sense of urgency to get back to Knife Lake, where we planned to wait out the freeze-up.

The portages were steep but short — and snow-covered. An abundance of tracks reminded us that animals used these trails much more than humans this time of year. The tracks of snowshoe hare, wolves, and even a fisher served as reminders of just how truly wild this place is. We felt as if we were the only people in this million-acre wilderness — visitors at a time of year when the animals ordinarily have it to themselves.

Boundary Waters Wilderness Year, Freeman

Photo by Dave Freeman

After the portage from Elusion Lake to Glee Lake, we encountered ice on the water. We plunked our canoe down into the ice-covered channel. The weight of the packs being loaded into the canoe cracked the ice. As we began to paddle, we laughed about the novelty of the ice-breaking experience. This same canoe had once served as our ice-breaker on Great Slave Lake. Now it plowed through the half-inch-thick ice on Glee. On the main body of the lake, we expected open water, but there was more ice. Some of it was thin — invisible until we crunched through it and saw bubbles of water burbling up through holes in the skim ice, reverberating outward from our canoe.

Farther out on the lake, there was actually a thicker bit of ice. In some instances, our paddles crunched through the ice and we managed somewhat normal strokes in the water. In the thicker ice, I was occasionally taken by surprise and my paddle bounced off the surface, sliding ineffectively on the ice — a wasted stroke. In this thicker stuff, we found that it worked to forcefully punch the paddle downward — poking one hole in the ice like a handhold and, with the paddle blade locked in this hole, propelling the canoe forward. Keeping up momentum was key — the bow effectively riding up on top of the ice a little before crashing down through it. Crunching and crackling. I briefly thought of how this was the perfect form of resistance training for paddlers. When we finally did reach open water, we marveled at the silence of the canoe gliding through the water.

We encountered a few more bits of ice cover that day, adding to our sense of urgency to get back to Knife Lake. Once we finally emerged onto this big, deep lake, we set up camp and stockpiled firewood. No longer eager to make miles, we are content to sit and wait. Knife will take longer to freeze than the smaller, shallow lakes. That is okay; we have plenty of food and a woodstove to keep us warm. We’ll catch up on our reading, split more wood, and make daily observations of the world that is gradually freezing around us.

Boundary Waters Wilderness Year, Freeman

Photo by Dave Freeman

— Dave and Amy Freeman will be sending in regular Dispatches from their #WildernessYear. (Read Dispatch No. 4: The Slow Way in Boundary Waters and Dispatch No. 3: Canoeing with Teenagers)

— Learn more about the mining threat at SavetheBoundaryWaters.org, and check out the Freeman's educational info at WildernessClassroom.com, or follow them #SavetheBWCA and #WildernessYear.