About 150,000 people venture yearly into Minnesota’s famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, one of the most visited wilderness areas in the nation.
But a small number (around 3,400, or just more than 2 percent) explore the pristine lakes, woods and trails in their winter splendor.
Warm weather visitors are missing something special. Sure, in winter there are no waves lapping rocky shorelines or haunting loon calls echoing across the lake, or warm days enticing an afternoon swim. But a frozen BWCA offers solitude, silence, spectacular raw beauty — and no bugs.
“Seeing nature in the resting season covered in a mantle of white but still alive with ravens and eagles overhead is exciting,” said Steve Piragis, a longtime Ely outfitter who regularly ventures into the Boundary Waters in winter. We’ve winter-camped together for decades.
“Stepping out of the tent, even briefly, at midnight and seeing the density of stars on a clean, cold night is pretty special,” he said.
Yes, it’s cold out there. But with the proper equipment and know-how, winter camping in the BWCA can be a pure joy.
Piragis, friend Dave Garron of St. Paul and I headed into the Boundary Waters in late February of last year for a three-day adventure. A winter trek requires an adventurous spirit but not necessarily muscle. Our group ranged in age from 63 to 67.
We snowshoed a rolling 2-mile portage north of Ely, each pulling sleds with about 70 pounds of gear, then crossed a frozen lake and set up camp on a small island. We later fished (they weren’t biting), explored the lakeshore on cross-country skis and hunkered in a heated tent.
“There’s a certain beauty to winter that you don’t get in summertime,’’ said Garron, a veteran winter camper. “Everything is white and quiet.”
“And you don’t have to go far,’’ he added. “Even on well-known routes, there’s no one there. You’ve got the place to yourself.’’
According to a U.S. Forest Service review of BWCA use from 2009 to 2015, an average of about 1,026 entry permits are issued each winter to skiers, snowshoers and dog sledders.
Based on surveys, the average offseason party size is 3.26 visitors, meaning about 3,300 people are visiting the BWCA in winter. A few others may walk in, snow conditions permitting.
And the tally doesn’t include people who journey into the 1 million-acre wilderness without picking up and filling out the required self-issued permits at entry point boxes. Still, the number of winter visitors clearly is tiny fraction of overall use. In 2015, the Forest Service estimated 146,000 people visited the BWCA.
“That actually is an advantage to those who don’t mind the snow and cold, or who enjoy it,” said Kris Reichenbach, Forest Service public information officer in Duluth. “It’s a much more quiet experience.”
Timing your trip
A key factor in a Boundary Waters winter camping trip is deciding when to go. December and January obviously are possibilities, but we prefer mid-February to late March or even early April for a couple of reasons.
“Traveling is a lot easier when the snow freezes up and you’re not wading through three feet of powder,” Piragis said. “And generally, you don’t have slush on the lakes like you might in December and January. Plus the days are longer.
“It’s just a more comfortable time to be out there.”
That’s all fine in theory, but winter weather always is unpredictable — and seemingly more so in recent years. When we unloaded our gear from our truck at the portage, the temperature was a remarkable 45 degrees — above zero.
Using the right gear
Under bright sun and an azure sky, we snowshoed without jackets, hats and even gloves. We strapped cross-country skis to our sleds to use once we got to camp.
Why not use the skis on the way in?
“It’s so hilly and brushy, towing those sleds up and down hills is always easier with snowshoes,” Piragis said.
We followed the trail past rock outcrops and stands of birch and aspen and then tall red pines, stopping occasionally to admire the beauty and catch our breath.
There’s a different feel to the wilderness in winter. There is a sense that you’re definitely alone in the wilderness. And there’s the noticeable silence. In the summer, it’s not uncommon to encounter other travelers and to camp within earshot of them. You’re likely to hear the thumping of a canoe hitting a tree or rock on a portage or the occasional banging of pots.
Not in winter. We never saw another soul in our three-day trek. That isolation is part of the allure.
Where to camp
We emerged from the woods onto the lake with snow glistening in the bright sun. We stopped to drink water and munch on a snack. Then we crossed to a small wooded island.
The Forest Service recommends winter campers avoid summer campsites to reduce the impact at those sites, advising the hardy souls to either camp on the ice or in a forest opening. We chose the island, hoping the balsam and pine trees would protect us from the wind.
The key to our comfort was a six-person nylon tipi-shaped tent with an ultralight titanium wood-burning stove. The tent also had a liner to reduce condensation. Without one, condensation freezes on the inside of tents and it can “snow” on its occupants.
Camping in a heated tent is a luxury we did without when we first started exploring the BWCA in winter in the 1970s and 1980s. In those years, we often shoveled snow into a big pile, then dug a two-person cave. The snow shelters are remarkably warm, and silent as a tomb.
But a heated tent allowed us to be inside without jackets, hats or gloves. We talked and cooked. And sipped boxed wine. And talked some more. We cooked steaks on the stove one night, a pot of oatmeal the next morning. At night, we let the fire go out and kept warm in thick winter sleeping bags.
And yes, late at night we stepped outside and gawked at the black sky brimming with stars.
On our last night, winter returned. The temperature dipped to single digits and 2 inches of powdery snow fell. A stiff northwest wind, gusting more than 30 miles per hour, signaled the change, sweeping up the light snow and blowing it in swirling clouds down the lake.
Hats, gloves and jackets now were mandatory, and frostbite was a concern.
The remarkable weather change wasn’t unusual, and winter Boundary Waters travelers must be prepared. One year, we winter-camped in mid-March and the mercury plunged to 24 below zero.
Whatever the temperature, another major decision for winter campers is this: Who will climb out of a warm sleeping bag into the frigid morning air and, usually with numb fingers, fire up the wood stove?
Fortunately, I’m not an early riser.
Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.