Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

February Meander to Ramshead Lake
by BigZig

Trip Type: Snowshoeing
Entry Date: 02/06/2009
Entry & Exit Point: Other
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 3
Trip Introduction:
Hard water season is upon Minnesota and the yearning to get back to the BWCA is as strong as ever. For me, winter tripping holds the mystery of wilderness camping like no other journey. The unknown and extreme environment plus the physical excursion of the trip make for one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. Surrounded by the beauty of the BWCA held fast in the grip of winter snow offers a unique and interesting perspective on the BWCA. Perhaps this trip report will inspire you as much as it has me.

There was no trip in 2008 due to schedules and other non-essential things I can’t remember. What a pity. The previous year we stayed at a friend’s cabin in Canada as a last minute compromise and really missed the wilderness aspect of winter BWCA. This year there will only be three of us heading to the BWCA for a 3-day weekend trip. We realize on the last day that this is not long enough for the effort it takes and plan to extend the trip by at least one day next year.

I had been researching this year’s trip since the 2006 trip when we traveled down the South Brule River Road. We wanted to make sure we could reach our planned destination in one day. We also wanted to go when the moon would be full or very near to being full. However, if there is one thing to remember about winter wilderness camping, it is that plans are made to be changed.

The weekend forecast was for highs in the 25-30 degree range and low’s in the 9-12 degree range with partly cloudy weather during the day. As it turns out we couldn’t have picked a better weekend for winter camping in the BWCA weather wise. The warm front that pushes in makes fishing horrible but travel wonderful.

Day 1 – Duluth, Ely, Echo Trail, Meander Lake Road, Blandin Trail (#11), Meander Creek, Ramshead Lake

The 3 of us, Dave, Andrew, and Big Zig, leave Duluth at 7:57 am Friday morning. We make a few quick stops along the way for gas at Holiday, Wal-mart in Hermantown, The Lucky Seven in Virginia, and a bathroom break in Ely. Soon we are heading up the Echo Trail and enter a different world as the road narrows and the buildings seem to disappear behind us. We marvel at how different the road is in the winter and I need to put the truck in 4WD full-time to keep traction. This is not the time or place to park it in the swamp! After what seems like forever we arrive to the turn-off for the Meander Lake Road.

Approximately 3/8 mile down the MLR we find the road is plowed wide and a sign that reads “BLANDIN TRAIL WINTER PARKING AREA” There is a car parked here at the snowed in entrance to the Shilo Trail. I park the truck and unload our gear. We made it! The adrenaline-fueled feeling you get at the beginning of a BWCA trip is working its magic and we quickly strap on our 100# pulks and head down the road to the Blandin Trail head.

It is only another 3/8 mile from where we parked. The pulks glide effortlessly over the well-plowed road. Along this trail we spy several small places snowed in for the winter. Some of them have realty signs. Grandiose ideas of owning property here enter my head only to return when I pass them on the way out. It would be nice but how much would I use it? How much work would it be? How much would it cost? What would life be liked as a divorcee? “Forget it.” I convince myself and keep moving on.

We need to hike down the Blandin Trail about 7/8 of a mile before we are officially inside the BWCA. We can tell others have been before us here as the trail is packed and well defined. We encounter a few dead falls across this trail that require us to stop, unbuckle, and pull our pulks over. These breaks give us a chance to cool down and stay hydrated. It is a rule in winter camping to “Always drink before you are thirsty and eat before you are hungry.” This goes along with the layering principle of “Put on layers before you are cold and take off layers before you are warm.” Keeping the water on the inside of your body is the main idea to staying warm in the winter.

Soon we are at the point where the Blandin trail crosses Meander Creek. It looks like someone has followed the creek earlier in the season. It is hard to say how long ago as it is pretty well covered by snow. The dog sled trail shown on my McKenzie Map #12 looks untouched. I decide it will be easier to follow the creek then to break trail through the forest. This will take us to the east side of Ramshead Lake instead of the south end. Having never been to this area before, it makes no difference in my decision. The snow shoes go on. We have XC skis but think that will be harder to pull the pulks then using snow shoes.

The Meander Creek route is beautiful. I’m sure the forest trail would also have held other wondrous images, but the creek provides a literal footprint of the active winter wilderness. Along the creek I spy the tracks of animals that I can only imagine are on an ever search for food or shelter.

I prefer not to travel rivers in the summer because I like the big, beautiful lakes full of deep, clean water; however, this frozen winter route provides stunning landscapes of forest and field-like images.

I am quickly left behind with my thoughts and camera by the young Andrew and my buddy Dave who stays in top physical shape by commuting to work on bicycle. I estimate that our travel time is approximately 1 mph pulling the heavy pulks and semi-breaking trail. The snow is soft and deep if you step off the trail. We try to shorten the trip by crossing over grassy areas where the creek makes switch backs. It takes nearly 4 hours to reach an area of huge boulders covered by snow.

At this point we are not sure how much farther Ramshead Lake is ahead of us but we decide to push on for another half hour and then make camp. Andrew leads the way around the boulders and determines that we will make camp very near this spot as he breaks through the thin ice – twice. His feet are soaked and it is nearly 4:00 pm. We begin our search for a base camp.

We find that we are at Ramshead Lake! I am pleasantly surprised and give myself a pat on the back that I made it this far. Right around the corner from where we see the boulders is the lake. We find a nice location up in a stand of Aspen trees that provides ample space for what comes to be known as “The Party Tent.” This is not your typical BWCA tent.

We brought this one along because we will use a propane heater inside of it and wanted the room. The old Wenzel tent has huge screen windows that provide adequate ventilation so we won’t kill ourselves with leaking propane. Plus, if it burns down, no one will care. We used the heater to dry items before bed, melt snow, and provide a little warmth in the morning; otherwise we did not need to have it burning.

During the first night we are awakened by howling wolves. They sounded like they were very close to us. Dave counted between 5 and 7 wolves howling. One would start out low and then the other would join in at different tones. If you have ever heard wolves howling in the BWCA then you know the eerie feeling it provides. The next day we find the spot where this pack howled. It is about 200 yards from our tent.

Meals for Day 1(for Andrew and Big Zig only – Dave brought his own): Lunch was jerky, cliff bars, gorp, and water as we traveled. Supper was whole wheat spaghetti, venison burger (pre-cooked and frozen at home), frozen peas and carrots, warm Gatorade. We also kept chocolate in the tent.

Day 2 – Ramshead Lake

Andrew and I spent most of today drowning minnows in Ramshead Lake. Andrew was anxious to get to fishing so he loaded up the gear and strove off towards the lake. Dave planned to hang out at camp and build a snow cave or quin-chee. Once I left and caught up to Andrew, I suddenly realized that I did not have my Gerber axe or Sven saw. I probably should have brought more food along too. We did have water bottles, an auger, and means to make a fire so I decided to keep going. The lake was absolutely beautiful. We felt like we were the first people ever there as the snow on the lake appeared to be untouched.

I help Andrew get set-up and then finished placing my tip-ups and making a live-well for the bait. We began hunting the island shore line for fire wood that we could break by hand. We found a nice spot along the shore that offered seating and built a small fire out of the wind and in the day’s sunshine. At one point in the afternoon, my small REI thermometer on my backpack read 60 degrees about 3 feet from the fire.

As Andrew continues to fish, I go about exploring. I go to the island campsite (#1954) and uncover the fire pit. The site looks like it has lots of space but the blanket of snow is misleading. The site provides a nice elevated view of Ramshead Lake.

I went up the hill to find the latrine and at first I could not find it. When I turned to go back, my walking stick (i.e. fire wood), went through the hole. I had nearly walked right over the ranger “ice” box. Look to the lower left in the picture and you can see my snowshoe tracks. Good thing the hole isn't very big!

The camp site also held several very large white pine trees. I wrapped by 6’-3” arms around one of these and must have had another 3 feet to go between my finger tips. They were huge and very grand trees.

The day turned out to be bust for fish but how can you complain about spending a day in the BWCA wilderness with your son. Andrew actually had a nap on the ice while fishing and we created an important memory for both of us.

When we get back to camp we find that Dave is busy shelling out his cave so I help him finish it up. It gets extremely quiet inside a snow cave and I vote that I will sleep in the tent again because I want to hear the wolves howl. Both Dave and Andrew also agree that the wolves would be a better option even though the snow cave is inviting. I suggest that we can always use it next year and get a courteous laugh. As it turns out the wolves are silent the second night but we find out they have been on the prowl.

The moon is out in full force tonight. Moon shadows are everywhere and Venus is shining brightly in the southern sky. Andrew reads in the tent and Dave and I solve all of the world’s problems until the fire dies out. We decide next year to extend by at least one more day.

During the second night I am awake at 4 am with nature calling. I find out that the vinyl floor of the party tent is very slippery when walking on it in socks. I don’t fall over but have trouble keeping my balance as I walk out the door. It must be 10-15 degrees out and everything is absolutely silent. The clouds have come in and the moon is gone but it is still light enough to see. I get back in my bag and cinch it down mummy style. To take the shakes away I pop in a piece of chocolate and let it melt away. By the time it is gone I am warm and fall asleep. Sleeping when winter camping comes naturally. I think the body wants to follow the natural rhythms that God provides in the sun and moon. We went to bed at 8 pm and woke at 8 am. Quality sleep is one of the benefits of wilderness camping.

Meals Day 2 – Breakfast is burritos with wheat tortillas, venison sausage, cheese, warm Gatorade, coffee. Lunch is gorp, jerky, cliff bars, and water. Supper is Bear Creek Minestrone with venison burger, frozen peas and carrots, warm Gatorade. We had chocolate in the tent too.

Day 3 – Ramshead Lake, Meander Creek, Blandin Trail (#11), Meander Lake Road, Echo Trial, Ely, Champlin

The last day we rose at 7:30 am and broke camp after a quick breakfast of oatmeal, cocoa, and whatever else we had left. A Whiskey Jack stopped by to help us clean-up scraps. We left camp at 10:40 am and headed back along the trail we had cut on the way in.

I noticed right away that the wolves had followed our trail sometime after we had made it. Huge paw prints were present in our tracks and they had marked their territory seemingly non-stop along our creek trail.

Along the trail home I recounted the number of animal tracks I could identify: Grouse, mouse, squirrel, snowshoe hare, deer, wolf, and moose. The one I was uncertain of I am guessing was from an otter.

We found that the cold nights had made our trail very nice for travel. We did not use snow shoes or XC skis on the way out and covered the return trip in a little over 2 hours. I stopped occasionally to take pictures and enjoy the waning minutes of our winter trip. Next year’s winter trip seems too far away.