At sunrise we emerged from our down-filled sleeping bags into the fog of our icy breath. We hustled from our lean-to into a 9-by-9-foot canvas tent. I laid a handful of birch bark and spruce twigs inside the stove. The snap of the match flame leaping to life always seems like a miracle while winter camping.
In the dim light, we leaned over the stove to warm our numbed fingers. Once the fire burned with more vigor, we crunched our way down to the frozen river.
With an ax, I began chipping a hole in the ice to fetch water for a pot of strong coffee. I paused and noticed something on the toboggan trail we made the previous afternoon.
A perfect wolf print was etched on our trail. Ben pulled off his mitt and held outstretched fingers over the crystalline track. It was a perfect fit.
“Whoooa,” Ben whispered. “This was made last night.”
I pointed to more tracks and explained there are 2,000-plus wolves living in Minnesota.
The eyes of Ben and Daniel widened at the realization that wolves had trotted past our sleeping quarters where we lay all night.
Neither Ben nor Daniel had ever seen a wolf track. Then again, neither had been winter camping before. The two brothers were experienced outdoorsmen, but they were used to the tamer wilds of the southern Adirondacks in New York state.
Benjamin was on leave from Tulane Medical School, in New Orleans, and Daniel from Clemson, in South Carolina. These Southern campuses have little in common with a wilderness in the grip of winter.
This was Daniel’s first trip to Minnesota. Ben is my son-in-law. He called two months earlier and asked if I would take them winter camping. I was thrilled by the prospect of hanging out with some young bloods.
Lessons in winter camping
After their flight to Minneapolis, I gathered the brothers and their backpacks and we headed north on Interstate 35 toward Duluth and beyond.
The steaming waters of Lake Superior held their gazes as we drove up the shore. Finally we turned away from the lake and drove straight north, meandering uphill into the spruce, fir and birch forest. We would be exploring a tiny fraction of the 3 million acres in the Superior National Forest.
After miles of turning onto progressively less traveled roads, we finally came to a stop. We unloaded our gear next to the truck, and soon the scene resembled a street market. I told them how lucky they were to experience a mild January day in Minnesota. The mercury hovered at 18 degrees.
“Tying knots is not easy with numbed fingers,” I lectured. “So use these hooked bungee cords for fastening gear to the sled. That way you can fasten the hooks without taking off your mitts.”
I reminded the brothers to keep hydrating in the cold, dry air and to be sure the small survival packs I gifted them were strapped around their waists.
After a half-hour of snowshoeing, Benjamin stopped. Looking down, he asked, “Do you have any idea what these tracks are?”
Leaning in for a look, I answered, “Snowshoe hare.”
I pointed out the meandering string of chicken-like tracks left by a ruffed grouse. After carefully examining the tracks left by a red squirrel, the brothers could visualize the creature bounding across the snow and disappearing up a spruce tree. We discovered the snow-trough pattern of an otter and the loping prints of a weasel. Daniel was taken by the lacework of trails left by white-footed deer mice that ventured to the snowy surface from a more secure and warmer below. Both brothers were amazed to know that the frigid forest was not as empty as it looked.
We guided our sleds to the frozen Poplar River and headed upstream for nearly a mile. We found a wind-protected site to make camp in a dense forest of black spruce and white cedar.
The sun marched low across the sky. I appreciated the brothers’ previous camping experience. They took directions well and eagerly helped make camp and cut firewood.
Standing outside the tent, I lowered the telescoping stovepipe through the chimney hole to the stove. Candles were lit, and I began cooking bannock, a simple camp bread, to complement the venison and beans in bourbon sauce. I explained how over the next three days the brothers would be on their way toward earning their winter camping stripes.
Teaching the next generation
After fortifying ourselves with the hot supper, we scooted our folding chairs close to the stove. Satiated and warm, it was time to spin yarns and ask questions. Ben started.
“What’s the coldest night you’ve experienced winter camping?”
“Thirty-eight below,” I answered before filling in the rest of the story.
“What’s in the small survival pack you always carry?”
“Matches in a waterproof container, a lighter, a whistle, a knife and a compass.”
The question I appreciated most came from Daniel. “What was your father like?”
I explained that my dad had accompanied me on my first winter camping experience. “Besides being a scoutmaster, he took me hunting and fishing. He introduced me to the outdoors.”
Each night we strolled away from the heated sanctuary to assess the night sky. We deciphered bright constellations and hoped for shimmering northern lights.
One of the greatest tests in winter camping happens when you transition from a warm fire to a sleeping bag. The heated tent was too cramped for three adults. We opted instead for the lean-to.
With headlamps shining through clouds of breath, the brothers giggled like schoolboys at a sleepover. I think the laughter helped shed a nervousness that we were deliberately sleeping outside in the frigid embrace of January.
The chortling was short-lived. Soon each of us curled into solitude. Simply waking up is a victory when the cold is fended off.
Tom Anderson splits his time between North Branch and northern Canada’s Yukon Territory. He is a freelance writer and the author of “Things that Bite: The Truth about Critters that Scare People” and other books. Find him at www.aligningwithnature.com.