No hints of spring in the BWCA, where winter rules

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2014 - 1:05 AM

Cold-weather camping presents its challenges (ice) and its advantages (you can bring a stove).

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– Lying in my toasty sleeping bag, I waited for the crackling fire in the small wood stove to warm the frigid canvas tent.

My three camping companions already had emerged from their bags on this bitter cold morning and fired the stove.

Though it was mid-March, the temperature outside in this frozen wilderness was an eyebrow-raising, finger-numbing 24 below zero.

“Ah, spring in the North Woods,’’ said Steve Piragis.

“If you’re going to winter camp, it might as well be winter,’’ said Sam Cook, thawing a pot of frozen water on the stove.

Last weekend, there was no hint of spring in the million-acre BWCA. Instead, winter’s grip held firm as four of us journeyed near Ely on a three-day camping-fishing adventure. We snowshoed 3 miles through woods and wetlands and across a small lake, each of us towing 6-foot-long sleds loaded with perhaps 75 pounds of gear to a boundary waters campsite cloaked beneath 3 feet of snow, framed by towering red pines.

Camp was near a rocky point where we believed crappies swam below 38 inches of ice.

But the real purpose of our trip was to return to the BWCA during its winter splendor and camp and fish with old friends. Tens of thousands of people paddle these border waters during spring, summer and fall, but few explore the area in winter. March, with its longer days and (usually) warmer temperatures, normally is ideal.

We found everything we wanted: Solitude (we never saw another soul), a moonlit walk on the lake under a canopy of stars, fresh wolf tracks and plump crappies later fried golden brown.

It also was a reunion of sorts.

Cook, Piragis and I met in Ely in 1976. Piragis stayed and built an outfitting and retail business; Cook moved to Duluth, where he is the longtime outdoor writer at the Duluth News Tribune, and I’ve been plying the newspaper trade in Minneapolis for 27 years. We’ve paddled and camped together many times over the years, but never together in winter.

Joining us was Gary Thornbloom, a friend of Piragis’ from Pennsylvania who has paddled the boundary waters and wanted to experience the wilderness in winter.

Taking the chill out

Until recent years, my winter camping lodging choice was a “quinzee” snow shelter. Shovel snow into a pile, let it set, then hollow out a cave. It’s like sleeping in a tomb — total silence. And the snow insulates, making it remarkably warm.

But there’s no drying wet clothes, and no getting out of the cold. Cooking is done outside, in the elements.

Heated tents have changed my thinking. Last weekend, we took a 10-by-15-foot canvas tent, with a 1-by-2-foot steel stove that produced sauna-like heat. We peeled off hats, jackets and gloves and hung wet gear to dry. Spending hours around the stove, we fed it split cedar and balsam while cooking meals and spinning tales.

What about the weight of that tent and stove? Not a major issue, if you don’t have to carry it.

In winter, there are two ways to haul gear: on your back, or on a sled. We’ve long used sleds called pulks, which are attached to poles and a harness. That meant the 33-pound tent, 24-pound stove, small cooler (to keep food from freezing solid), ice auger, two axes and two saws were no problem. Neither were the frozen pot of chili, box of vintage merlot, or tub of pickled herring. Or the cross-country skis, boots and snowshoes.

  • related content

  • Pulling sleds loaded with camping gear, Steve Piragis, Gary Thornbloom and Sam Cook snowshoed across a frozen Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness lake last weekend. Subzero temperatures at night froze slush and soft snow atop the lakes, making travel easier.

  • Cook, an outdoors writer from Duluth, landed an 11.5-inch crappie, one of a dozen the group caught.

  • Steve Piragis, an Ely outfitter, grabbed wood for the stove that heated the canvas tent. The 10-by-15-foot tent gave four campers room to sleep, eat and store gear.

  • Wolf tracks were numerous.

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