The Magic of a Winter Wilderness

The Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota are special. There’s no denying that. Every year, hundreds of thousands flock to this northern wilderness area to experience a landscape where canoes outnumber the cars and a wild landscape is, in some ways, locked in time. But every winter as the canoes are tucked away, the summer tents and water boots are packed up, and the paddles and pfds go back on the wall, a different season descends. This is winter. For some, this is the season for chasing Lake Trout who are seasonally exposed from their normal seclusion in the depths. For others, it’s the season where the landscape is an unending playground for snowmobiling, skiing, dog sledding, or snowshoeing. For me though, this season means something else. It’s the season of quiet and of solitude. A wilderness trip this time of the year is challenging. The nights are long and cold, the miles are hard won, and the skills and mindset required are not universally had or easy to acquire. This article reflects on what trips this time of year mean to me. Though I think towards my trips and experiences, these could be the words to describe any trip heading into the BWCA in a season when so comparatively few people get the opportunity to.

The trip starts in a familiar place. This is one of my favorite entry points out of the 80 or so different options spread across the wilderness. Today, the entry point is quieter than any August morning could ever be. Piles of snow stand-in for the canoe-laden cars and the sound of wind rattling the tree tops replaces the anxious sound of groups making final preparations for the canoe trips ahead. I pull the sled out of the car first and get it tipped over. And as I go to either side of the car grabbing items to fill the cavernous snow-carriage, I can’t help but smirk at the contrast. A summer trip would have been as easy as flipping a canoe off the roof rack and pulling a pack from the car. The winter has a way of demanding more gear. Once the sled is full, I pull on the snowpants, tighten the mukluks, and strap on the antiquated Faber rawhide snowshoes.  I quickly scribble my name onto the self-issued permit and toss it in the box before the bare fingers get too cold. Then I clip into the belt and start pulling down to the ice surface. Rounding the corner, I see the trail of groups who have journeyed here in weeks past. It’s one of the peculiarities of the season. Despite fewer visitors than in summer, it’s easier to know where everyone went. The snow preserves the tracks of the passerby whereas open water of summer keeps no memory of canoes passing through. I walk west towards the nearly invisible line in the snow, marked this time of year by orange and white reflector stakes. The stakes indicate the wilderness boundary and all law-abiding snowmobile tracks stop short of the line. From there, the snow rests unmarred by footprint, sled, or track. Westward to the wilderness and endless potential. In some ways, planning for the route is similar to summer. The five miles down the lake may be a constant, but the effort required to cover that distance is ever unpredictable. In summer, the weather, the canoe, and the weight therein have a way of adding to or subtracting from the perception of mileage. Likewise, in winter, the conditions of the snow and slush, and the drag of the sled can make 5 miles feel like a walk down pavement or a march through mush. It’s hard to know ahead of time. Today, conditions are pretty good. The snow is about shin deep as I fix my sites on the rocky crag ahead. As the great bastion of stone impedes the wind’s advance, snow tumbles and turns off the stunted trees perched atop the face. The sound of wind shaking a billion needles is the only sound I hear, albeit muffled through my hat. A mile of progress is quickly won before the dreadful change in snow texture is felt underfoot. Changes in the texture of the snow are rarely good and today it means that the slush has begun. A few miles further and I find myself quite warm and a glimmer of sunshine peaks behind the cloudy curtain. A few sparkling jewels of snowfall drop from an unseen place above, landing silently on the packed sled behind me. I take a gulp from my semi-frozen water bottle and contemplate changing into the modern, spiked snowshoes before the upcoming portage. I do love my classics. There is something truly beautiful in a wooden, rawhide pair of shoes and they stay on top of the snow better than the smaller moderns ever could. They also are far less cumbersome through the slush pockets. I keep the classics on. The rising temperatures mean the hazard of post-holing is waiting for me on the portage. Portaging in the wintertime is often the greatest challenge for the winter traveler. If the trail is unbroken, and three or four feet of snow stand between me and my goal, I know that I’m really in for it. An hour of breath-stealing exertion lay ahead. With deep snow catching the sled walls, steep hills attempting to pull me back, and a tree or two alongside the trail seemingly grasping for whatever part of my gear it can catch hold of, I’m well-worn by the time I see the lake surface ahead. I pull the sled up behind me and sit down for lunch. Looking out on the lake is a reminder of what the steep physical price I just paid bought me. This lake may see a few groups passing through every single day during the summer. If the portage were any indicator, it hasn’t had a single visitor since ice-in and there’s magic in that. But besides the awareness of solitude is the feeling of place. I close my eyes and acknowledge the cold wind on my face as I listen to the breeze working down the lake. The only sound apart from the wind is a Chickadee in the tree behind me. The Chickadee reminds me that not everyone has departed the wilderness for winter. Though the canoe groups are long gone, the loons and ducks flew south, the beavers and squirrels are tucked away in their homes, and the bear is asleep in its den, I’m not totally alone. For the few and the hardy, there’s life to be found in the snowdrifts and the icicle-serrated rocks. And later that evening as I tie off the old canvas tent and go about chores, I have an opportunity to reflect on the experience. Hauling a heavy sled, setting up all sorts of gear, cutting wood for the stove, and cooking a frozen meal on it is a good deal more work than “normal life.” Many people may struggle to see the value in subjecting oneself to temperatures well below zero and enduring a plethora of hardship simply for the sake of a weekend’s worth of experiences. But to me the purpose is as clear and wondrous as the flame-light shining through the stove door and dancing on the walls of the tent. This experience is unique, unlike anything I do in my job or day-to-day. The challenge has a purpose. The difficulty allows me to discover solitude through endurance. Going tough places and pushing through difficulty helps set a person apart that way. But even more than that, the wilderness has a way through the struggle and also through the immense and boundless beauty to teach me if I have the humility to listen. Difficult things teach me about myself. They show me what I am capable of and show me what it means to dig deep within my soul and find the resolution to continue pressing on. They also show me what my body can do, what it can accomplish. In the beauty and immensity of wilderness is found a spiritual balm of the soul. From a place of reverence, the serenity of winter wilderness shows me a world bigger than me, more lasting than me, and in that is found an awe-inspired renewal. In the quiet of winter is the chance to listen and reflect. The nights are long and I don’t have a phone to look at, music to listen to, or a schedule to keep. Within the day on trail and the night in the tent is the nearly eradicated opportunity to be a part of the simple rhythms of this earth again apart from obligations or distractions. And as the northern lights dance above my tent that night, and the smoke from the stove settles in the cold, dry air, I know that moments like this are special. Winter is a magical season in canoe country with the potential for both unmatched tranquility and raw challenge. Hand-in-hand they make trips this time of year unique and all their own, and that’s what makes winter in the wilderness special to me.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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