With lake ice quickly becoming travelable, many of us are dreaming about where in the BWCA we’ll head this winter. Winter is a peculiar contrast to summer in this neck of the woods. A whole different gear set is required to travel and stay safe (more on that in future articles.) Accessibility becomes much harder as roads close for the season and conditions are ever unpredictable. Very few entry points are actually plowed unless they are connected to a lodge, near to someone’s house, or adjacent to seasonal logging operations. It’s imperative that a person come prepared and be able to be self-dependent in this season. Flexibility is also key. Vehicles can easily become snowed into parking lots, routes can be full of deep snow, treacherous ice, or irritating slush, and the weather can change quickly. Understanding the risks and being prepared to deal with them is key to winter trips being successful. In the BWCA’s case, off-season, write-your-own-permits and the ability to camp on the lake ice allows an incredible amount of flexibility to go just about anywhere. Similarly to summer, different entry points cater to different styles of trip. Are you looking to set up a bulky hot tent and base camp or are you looking to move faster and lighter? Are you striking out on snowshoes or skis or do you have a dog or a team of dogs to travel behind? Whatever winter activity you’re dreaming of, there’s some opportunity for it either in the BWCA or in the surrounding Superior National Forest. Check out some suggestions for possible entry points for some popular activities below. And sorry fishermen, you’ll just have to find out on your own where the Lake Trout are hiding.
Snowshoeing is the activity I spend the most amount of time doing each winter. It can be an amazing way to see the wilderness in all of its snow-cladded majesty. There are so many different ways to snowshoe depending on the gear, terrain, and the length of stay, but here are a few good options. The best snowshoe hikes in my minds eye have some variety of scenery with smaller lakes to stay out of the weather.
Day Trip: Day tripping into the BWCA is an awesome way to experience the magic of BWCA winters without really needing all of the overnight gear to extend the stay. The single most popular option is of course South Hegman near Ely. It’s a quick and easy hike to the pictographs, but there can at times be open water near the portages. As always, never blindly trust ice. Test everything first. Eagle Mountain is another popular day trip destination. It receives enough traffic that a person may not even need snowshoes depending how many people have visited since the last snowfall. This can also be an overnight trip with possible stays on Whale Lake or further in using the river network. And finally, Slim Lake northwest of Burntside can be a lovely trek in the winter. This can provide an easy enough overnight jaunt as well. The lake gets less traffic than the flashy destination entries, but is connected to the North Arm Ski Trail network so there will be the occasional person around. The North Arm Rd is plowed and the side access and lot into Slim is usually cleared as well for reasonable access.
Overnight: There are lots of great options for overnight snowshoeing into the BWCA, but what your trip will look like varies substantially based on the conditions. A great winter entry allows for the trip to be shortened or lengthened based on those variables. Sawbill is a great location for folks looking to get a wilderness snowshoe trip in. There are plenty of route options in any direction and the outfitter’s presence pretty well assures a plowed route in and out. Because of the lodge, a few groups head in but in nowhere near the numbers of summer, and some use by other groups may mean broken trail which really assists travel conditions. Lake One also provides a great option for a mild winter trip. A person could set up shop on Lake One or push on into the rest of the numbers chain and beyond. Be super careful of narrows and places with swift water such as the portages between Lake One and Two. If you are in search for something a little different, Angleworm is a nice winter destination. The Echo Trail is usually in good drivable shape during the winter and the entry lots are almost always plowed open. The long portage into Angleworm can be tough coming back out with a heavy sled, but the route can be turned into a loop with Hegman or Mudro (an EP which isn’t usually plowed to the lot, be forewarned.) And finally, for those looking for more expansive options with some challenges, Round Lake off of the Gunflint may fit the bill. The entry itself isn’t plowed, but Tuscarora Lodge keeps the main road open. From Round, there are plenty of options to head deeper into the wilderness. Some of the popular destinations like Tuscarora see the occasional visitor which might bode well for broken trail.
Trail: The BWCA has a good variety of options when it comes to trail skiing. For groomed options, the Banadad is the premier, all-wilderness destination. Coordinate with the local lodges for shuttling between the two ends. The Gunflint Trail has loads of other ski options adjacent to the Banadad including the Upper and Central Gunflint Ski Trails which are maintained by a group of local lodges. Only small portions of these trails enter the BWCA, but provide a large network for whatever experience you’re looking for. For slightly more rugged trails, the Farm Lake, Stuart River/Baldpate, and North Arm ski trails may fit the bill. Farm Lake is a short trail for a decent day trip while the North Arm trails are an extensive network which heads a good ways into the wilderness. The Baldpate/Stuart River trails are a small network of loops but have opportunities to head further into the wilderness through Big Lake to the south, though these trails see less traffic and less maintenance.
Lake: For a more wilderness travel type experience, take your skis out onto the ice! The best ski routes include long, open stretches of water where there are few portages in the way to impede travel. Some great entry points to try out are the McFarland EPs (specifically Pine.) Thanks to year-round residents, the entry is mostly plowed out. Be careful of the narrow stretches which can stay open. Fall Lake provides access up into Basswood which is a wide open expanse of possibilities for a person on skis as long as you don’t mind encountering another group every now and again. And up at the end of the Gunflint Trail, Seagull Lake is incredibly scenic in the winter. It can be popular with the ice fishing crowd and the snowmobiles usually travel right up to the line, but beyond the snowmobiles is an incredible expanse of space to explore and plenty of possibilities for striking deeper into the wilderness beyond.
For trips with a dog, check out some of the expansive entry point lakes for an awesome opportunity to skijor. Lakes such as Snowbank, Seagull, Saganaga, or Big Lake offer great, extensive options. For longer overnights, places like Basswood, Gabbro/Bald Eagle via the winter trails, or the numbers chain may offer great options. As mentioned above, be wary of the narrow stretches such as small gaps between islands and inlets and outlets. Dog sports add another level of required skills to make winter trips work so don’t strike off into the wilderness for your first attempt at the activity. In dog sports, anticipation of potential problem spots is essential. Bad ice, slush pockets, cold snaps, and deep snow can all prove hazardous to your dog if you’re not careful. And beyond that, though a dog may pass over a bad spot, a person may not. Staying aware of the surroundings is key. That said, skijoring can be an amazing take on seeing the wilderness from a pair of skis.
The main mushing hotspots in the BWCA are through Fall/Moose/Snowbank with winter routes heading into Basswood/Knife/Thomas and the surrounding area. Winter routes such as the Four Mile Portage, the Thomas Trail, or the Manomin winter trail can provide shortcuts or bypasses around hazardous stretches. They are not always well marked on maps and not maintained except by the folks that use them so trail conditions can vary substantially. Some years the trails can become really brushy during the summer “off-season”. Obviously plenty of mushers will strike out into different entries or more distant destinations, but the Fernberg is definitely the mecca of the activity. Heading into the BWCA by dogsled affords the opportunity to strike further with slightly more gear than a human-pulled pulk sled. For those that don’t have teams of their own, there are a number of awesome outfits around Ely where you can head out for the day or overnight. Check them out for an amazing experience seeing the BWCA in a totally unique way.