BWCA Entry Point, Route, and Trip Report Blog
December 15 2017
Number of Permits per Day: 3
Elevation: 1561 feet
South Lake - 58
The winter trail to Sock Lake
February 18, 2017
Number of Days:
Our hotel room in Grand Marais afforded us a great view of Artists Point and Lake Superior the night before our trip, as well as being within walking distance to Sven & Ole's for pizza. Since we had already picked up our hot tent from Stone Harbor Outfitters we were able to get to our starting point at Mayhew Lake road reasonably early. Still, there's the matter of getting all of our gear loaded and lashed onto the toboggans before officially starting our adventure.
Per usual, the road is a well packed snowmobile trail up to the point where it turns off towards the cabins on the north side of the lake. Along the way, a nice panoramic view west down Mayhew Lake helps to get the juices flowing. A few large boulders guard the entrance to a now much narrower trail north into the woods.
A well used toboggan trail leads up to the kiosk area where we veer off and will need to start breaking trail on our own as we begin to head east along the Mucker Lake Trail. There is about 18-20 inches of snow on the ground, and while in one sense we appreciate the moderate temperature (I think it reached mid 40's today) the snow is a bit stickier than anticipated. Still, once we shed the appropriate layers, and get the toboggans lashed properly we seem to be making steady progress as we officially pass into the wilderness.
This section of the trail is wide, clear and doesn't serve up too many obstacles. As we turn north up the Topper Lake Cutoff I figure that will change. Immediately the trail noticeably drops until it crosses a tiny little creek that appears to run into Hoat Lake. The twists and turns here hinder progress for our long cumbersome toboggans. Even though it is covered with snow, it is easy to discern a boardwalk section here and a beautiful long pond with precipitous cliffs on the far east end is easily appreciated through the scant, leafless underbrush. While this is a beautiful scene to contemplate, the harsh reality is that we need to get to the top of that rise. Fortunately, our trail isn't as steep as the South-Topper trail but will still require a team effort to overcome.
I walk ahead to both scout out the terrain and to break trail. The greater portion of this uphill section is more gradual than steep and there are just enough semi-flat areas to offer a few well deserved pit stops. There is, however, a short (10 rods???) very steep section just before cresting the hill. We are able to hook both our harnesses to each toboggan in such a way that we are both able to pull without interfering with the other person. I don't think we could've made it otherwise? There's a little more incline after this but, quite minor when contrasted with what we've just been through. Fortunately, Aurora is having a blast playing & sliding in the snow while Vickie & I labor with our loads.
Shortly after we hit the B-R-T intersection. As we pass by yet another weathered brown & yellow directional sign, the trail is noticeably more twisty after turning eastward. If hiking, these turns would barely be noticeable; but with our toboggans each turn is cause for a calculated extra effort. It's still reasonably early but, a short while after the B-R-T intersection we decide to pull up short and call it a day. Travel is a bit tougher than anticipated & we don't want to completely burn ourselves out so we set up camp along the trail under a large rise which protects us from any potential north winds.
The overnight low is only forecast to be in the low 30's so, instead of setting the tent up, I fashion a trio of snow berm beds for us to sleep on tonight. While Aurora hasn't complained all day, she must've been near her limit as she falls asleep right in her chair as Vickie & I prepare supper and finish getting camp setup. Firewood is tough to come by and having to melt snow for our water is not an ideal situation. Still, once we get an area tamped down this spot soon grows on us and begins exuding a 'homey' feel. For supper we just warm up the hearty wild rice stew we'd prepared at home. An awesome, gloriously star filled tapestry blankets the heavens as we turn in for the evening. Sleep comes easy.
The piercing howl of nearby wolves wakes us shortly after sunrise. I'm sure they are further away they they sound. At least that's what I tell Vickie. Somehow Vickie's snow bed has caved in a little, so she doesn't get the best night of sleep. Also, it came to my mind last night that I don't recall unpacking the tent poles. Sure enough, they are nowhere to be found in camp; so I hike back to look for them while Aurora sleeps in. This early excursion affords me the opportunity to contemplate a gorgeous sunrise from across the scenic pond. Thankfully, I find our tent poles a short distance from there as well.
Back in camp, Aurora has awoken and we all enjoy a quick oatmeal breakfast washed down with hot chocolate before getting things packed up. Once again the daytime temperature soars into to 40's but, it is overcast today. An unfortunate consequence of the moderate temperature is that the snow has really become heavy and sticky. This coupled with the winding nature of this section of the BRT necessitates that I snowshoe ahead and break trail before we can bring the toboggans ahead. Still, it's such an awesome experience to be in a pristine wilderness setting. And, thankfully, Aurora is still enjoying herself immensely.
After a number of rest stops along the way, we eventually work our way to a significant check point - the Sock Lake cutoff! Several downed large trees just off the trail serve as an ominous foreboding of what's to come. Sure enough, within eyeshot of the Sock Lake sign, a large fallen cedar tree stretches across the trail. There's a fairly obvious detour around it, so I optimistically press on. A short ways further is a jumble of several trees that have fallen on the path, the blue ribbon in the middle leaves no doubt this IS the path. I bushwhack ahead, then pickup the trail as it starts dropping down hill. It's clear for awhile before I encounter another large popple tree across the trail. While this is just one solitary tree but, it is here that reality sets in and the hope of camping on Sock Lake is finally & completely dashed. I dejectedly snowshoe back up the trail to give Vickie & Aurora the news.
While this new revelation is certainly discouraging, we opt to make the best of the situation. The spot just before the first downed cedar tree becomes our tent pad, and we start setting up camp. A neat aspect of this spot is that it affords a pretty decent overlook of South Lake (even North Lake & Canada can be seen) through the leafless trees on the hillside. Also, while the downed trees play the starring role in preventing us from reaching Sock Lake, they also now take center stage as providing an ample source of firewood for the next couple of nights. Busy as we were in getting camp setup, Aurora was kind of neglected for awhile and was kind of acting up a bit. Dim witted as I can occasionally be, it took me awhile to figure out that she just wanted to help. So, as I cut up one of the nearby large popple trees I told her she could load up her little sled with the wood and haul it the short distance to our makeshift fire pit. The proverbial 2 birds (problems solved) with one stone.
Camp goes together reasonably well as we fashion some snow into a table complete with form fitted holders for our water bottles and cookware. We finish off the remainder of the wild rice stew for supper, although we also simultaneously bake some fresh biscuits as well. Aurora enjoys throwing a couple of 'color' packets into the fire as we all enjoy the quiet solitude before turning in.
I had thoughts of snowshoeing down to the lake this morning just to, at the very least, see the lake. Alas, the updated forecast from our weather radio informs us that rain is now likely for most of the day. So, stockpiling firewood & getting the tarp setup now becomes a more urgent necessity. But first, we get to enjoy a few glazed cinnamon rolls Vickie has baked in the dutch oven that delectably complements the scrambled eggs.
After finishing hacking up a nearby popple tree, Aurora & I start on the large downed cedar tree just behind our tent. Feeling that we have stockpiled enough wood, and considering that the rain has not yet started, I agree to go exploring with Aurora. At first she wants to see the lake and we start down that trail but, she soon tires of having to bushwhack around the fallen trees so we end up retracing our trail in from yesterday. As mentioned earlier, there is a decent overlook that our cameras never do justice to. Still, it's a scenic backdrop for our explorations today. We pass by a sprouting of young birch trees; I think the colors are really cool when they are at this stage of just beginning to sport the white paper bark. There's even an old scraggly tree that Aurora says, "looks spooky" just a little further down the trail. Just as things are getting interesting, the rain lets loose and we hastily scramble back to camp where Vickie has hot water for cider & hot chocolate waiting for us.
Huddled under the tarp while a slow steady rain persists, I ask Vickie what she thinks of winter camping so far? The rain notwithstanding, she says it's mostly been a very enjoyable experience, adding that the biggest thing is how much more a person has to plan ahead to have a cup of coffee, prepare a meal or just getting camp setup the way we want it. Her future hope would be that we do trips that minimize (if not eliminate) having to move camp.
As forecast, the rain continues on & off for the rest of the day into the evening. However, we do manage to keep our fire going through it all, even cooking our pork roast and potatoes for supper. Needless to say, rain it even more of a downer when winter camping. We don our raingear but, for the most part, we stay under the tarp for the bulk of the day. Once again Aurora never ceases to amaze us with how she can keep herself entertained in almost any circumstance. Using our little cups, she creates a city of little snow castles around the fringes of the tarp. Thankfully, through it all we are able to go to bed dry & warm.
Fortunately the forecast today calls for the clouds to start breaking up and NO rain. Fortunately it's still unseasonably warm, so we have no trouble with anything freezing. After a quick breakfast we get things packed & loaded up on the toboggans. As I'm fastening my second snowshoe, disaster strikes yet again - the rubber lashing snaps off! I usually keep a few shorter pieces of CCS cordage handy and we are able to 'chicken wire' it back together. (Although it would require a little fine tuning down the trail.)
Thanks to all the rain yesterday, what would normally be a hard packed trail is instead almost like breaking trail again. Still once we work out the bugs, we are making good steady progress and take a short break in our old campsite before pressing on. Next the steep downhill provides some entertainment for Aurora sliding down the hill & watching me try to navigate our toboggans down the slope.
After that excitement, at the base of the hill where the little creek flows through, we can hear running water and Aurora even breaks through. Fortunately she just postholes a bit and doesn't get wet. I carry her the short distance across the boardwalk section to where the trail starts to climb out of this low section. After this short climb we are back on the mucker Lake Trail where, for the most part, travel is much easier. Aurora even leaves behind a snowman as a trail marker during one of our rest stops.
my boots are wet but at this point we're on a mission to get back to the van. Besides, as warm as it is today, I never really get cold anyways. Before long we are at the kiosk and then hit the still hard pack of the snowmobile trail leading to the van. As we pass by mayhew lake, slush and even standing water are readily discernible. I'm beyond thankful we didn't have to cross a lake in this condition to get back, as I imagine most of the lakes in the immediate area must look the same. Once back at the van, I tell Aurora to bring Vickie one of her mocha's she'd left in the van for just this occasion; while I begin loading things up. After getting packed we head into town, drop off our rented gear at Stone Harbor then head over to my Sisters Place for a well deserved burger & fries.
From a certain perspective, I could easily rate this trip as an almost complete disaster. Not reaching or even seeing our destination, the rain, equipment failures etc. But, considering it was Vickie & Aurora's first trip and their positive feedback about the adventure, I too can't help but look at it from a 'the glass is half full' perspective. While it certainly was/is a disappointment not to have gotten to Sock Lake. It sure was cool to experience a winter night out under the stars as a family. And looking at our great teamwork getting our toboggans up & around some of the difficult sections can only serve to strengthen our relationship and build confidence for future winter adventures. And considering we were able not only able to survive but, thrive in the rain shows we're able to adapt to challenging conditions on the fly. In the final analysis, this trip had it's share of disappointments and struggles, but I feel it lays a solid foundation for successful future adventures.