Winter memories, from northern Minnesota

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2013 - 5:39 PM

Back in the day, snow and solitude blanketed the woods Up North, offering untrod trails and room for adventure.

Tracks from a winter adventure in the BWCA.

Photo: Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com,

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Gliding through the woods on cross-country skis, alone in the dark on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, I thought I heard the whisper of a noise behind me.

I stopped and peered into the darkness, hoping not to see a pair of eyes glowing back at me.

I knew there were wolves in these woods, and though I was just 24, a Twin Cities kid fresh out of college living on the outskirts of Ely, I also knew wolves were nothing to fear.

At least that’s what I kept telling myself.

I skied another mile or so — listening, watching, wondering — before retracing my tracks back to my small lakeside rental cabin. I was thrilled to be living in a place where I could venture out my door into wilderness, and maybe see or hear wolves or moose — or nothing. Every day was a new adventure.

Last week’s first winter storm of the season got me reminiscing about the years I lived in northern Minnesota, enjoying, and sometimes suffering through, long, cold, snowy winters. Now snow often means a white-knuckle traffic-choked freeway commute or a wrestle with a snowblower. The fresh snow reminded me that winters in Minnesota are to be enjoyed, not endured.

Back in Ely, it meant breaking trail on a portage or across a glistening, frozen BWCA lake.

On weekends, six or eight of us would make a daylong ski into the wilderness, stopping at midday to build a fire to warm ourselves and roast sausages or brats. We encountered tracks from moose, deer and wolf, and the remains of an occasional deer killed by wolves. Back then, few people seemed to visit the BWCA in the winter, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Campsites, crowded in the summer, were empty, of course, their cast-iron fire grates and tent sites buried under a blanket of white.

This was the 1970s, before polyester fleece revolutionized winter clothing, so most of us wore wool pants, wool shirts, wool-blend underwear and perhaps a down vest. Our skis were antiquated by today’s standards, heavy and wide, with three-pin bindings. Several of us traversed the wilderness on wooden skis.

Our young legs and enthusiasm gave us access to the 1 million-acre wilderness. We would drag plastic sleds into remote lakes, and use hand-augers to drill holes, then fish in the open, sans the modern portable houses so popular today. To block a bitter north wind, we’d pile up chunks of snow near our ice holes, and huddle with our backs to the breeze.

Crappies and lake trout were favorite targets. And those outings led to winter camping. Instead of tents, we’d shovel snow into a 6-foot pile on a lake, let it harden, then hollow out the inside, creating a snow cave that insulated us from the bitter cold.

With a tarp on the ice to protect our sleeping bags, we slept toasty even in subzero temperatures. It was eerily silent inside, like sleeping in a tomb. All sound was muffled, except the occasional cracking and groaning of freezing ice.

The biggest problem with winter camping was climbing out of a warm bag and into bitter cold the next morning. The dilemma: Which of us would climb out of our cocoon first to start a fire and hot coffee? Usually not me.

Those were winters when cars frequently wouldn’t start, and jumper cables were as essential as a full tank of gas. We’d take the glowing red coals from a wood stove and place them in a steel container beneath the oil pan of our trucks to thaw the congealed oil and encourage the frozen engine to cough to life. It took skill, and luck, to nurse a vehicle through the long, cold northern Minnesota winters.

I have nothing but fond memories from my days in Ely. Well, that’s not exactly true. I still have my wool pants purchased from the Ely Surplus Store, now full of holes and too tight around the waist and ready for the trash. And a checkered wool shirt. And I still have the first pair of Sorel boots I bought on my first days in Ely from the local Gibson’s store, long since closed. Those boots, now 37 years old, have been patched numerous times, and their rubber bottoms are worn thin.

They’ve been replaced — by mukluks made in Ely. But I hate to discard them — too many memories. And they still keep my feet warm.

Today, when I sit in my suburban home, looking out at my small wooded back yard, my days in Ely seem a distant memory. But I made lifelong friends there. And on this day, the snow is falling. Winter has arrived. And in a few weeks I’ll drive north.

To Ely.

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