A Solo Snowshoe Trip From Sawbill
I left my home in Prairie Farm, WI with a full thermos of coffee at 4:00 AM headed North. The trip up US 53 to Duluth was uneventful. As I approached Duluth, the sky was beginning to lighten, giving promise to a bright sunny day. I was fortunate to get just north of Duluth just before sunrise. I snapped some great pictures just before sunrise and right at sunrise. Once the sun appeared over the icy horizon, it seemed to leap into the sky. I opted to take the scenic route to Two Harbors rather than the expressway. I was rewarded with a great view of the lake. I made a brief stop at Gooseberry Falls State Park to photograph the falls, locked in icy silence. I made good time to Sawbill Lake (entry Point 38), arriving just after 10:00 AM. Keeping my promise to my wife, I checked in with the Hansens at Sawbill Outfitters and informed them of my itinerary. After quickly completing a self registration, I was on my way. My plan was to walk until 4:00 Pm and set up camp for the night, wherever I ended up. Ideally, I would make it to South Temperance Lake, but I would not push it.
On Sawbill, there was a 10 MPH wind coming out of the Northwest. I donned my Army-issue large ALICE pack and followed some old snowshoe tracks along the east shore. Along the shore the snow was deep but well-packed by the wind and sun. Walking was fairly easy. As I reached my first checkpoint, a slim L-shaped island that marks the beginning of the BWCA, I realized that reaching S. Temperance Lake would be a real push. I made the decision to be content wherever I ended up. Shortly thereafter I met a man on shoes, towing a sled. He had spent the night on Burnt Lake. He had cut his trip short because one of the bindings on his XC skis had broken, relegating him to travel on snowshoes and making slower time. After wishing each other well, we parted company as I closed in on the portage trail to Smoke Lake.
The portage trail was very smooth, almost like walking on a sidewalk. I owed my ease of travel to some snowmobilers who had illegally made a dash through Sawbill, Smoke, Burnt and Kelly lakes. On the 100 rod trail from Sawbill to Smoke, I had an unexpected meeting with a couple on skis on their way out from camping on Smoke. I continued on to Smoke. The portage trail meets Smoke Lake in a shallow swampy bay on the southwest corner of the lake. There is a nice long wooden dock which makes for dry feet when loading and unloading canoes. Today, the dock is nowhere to be seen, buried under a foot or more of snow. I followed the tracks of the man I met on Sawbill along the south shore of Smoke lake. The wind was chilly but my hood kept my head warm and I am generating more than enough heat walking through the snow. I noticed very little signs of wildlife except for crossing the occasional wolf track. The portage to Burnt Lake is tucked away in a cozy little bay in the Southeast corner of Smoke Lake. Again, I found the portage trail flat and smooth, thanks to the outlaw snowmobilers. After two hours of almost continuous walking, I cleared the 18” of snow off a fallen tree, shed my pack, donned my parka and enjoyed a meal of foil packed tuna, some homemade trail mix, a granola bar and water. I drank from a nalgene bottle strapped to the outside of my pack before it froze. Recharged, I continued east on the 90 rod trail to Burnt Lake.
It was at Burnt lake where I started to cut my own trail, which made for slightly harder walking than it had been following the tracks of another. I found the spot where the man I had met on Sawbill had camped. He had dug down nearly 2 feet of snow to reach the ice. Consistent with leave no trace camping, the only sign of his presence was the hole in the snow. Burnt lake is a beautiful lake. I wish I had taken more time to explore the southern arm of the lake. I continued across to its southeast bay and the portage trail to Kelly Lake. After 3 ½ hours of walking, I had made the decision to camp on Kelly Lake for the night.
The 230-rod portage to Kelly is listed in many guides as one of the hardest in the BWCA. I did not find it especially challenging. I recall it being harder in Summer ’07 traveling west with a canoe on my back. However, once I reached Kelly Lake, I had to admit to being sufficiently tired that I was ready to stop for the night. I decided to camp at a designated campsite (Campsite 824) on a narrow peninsula about ½ mile northeast of the portage trail. The snow as softer and seemingly deeper as I crossed Kelly Lake. As I approached the campsite, I sunk deep in the snow and lost my balance. After considerable effort I was able to right myself and went on to investigate my home for the night. An open area in the trees was the only indication that I had arrived at a designated campsite. The fire grate was somewhere under a foot or more of snow. I decided to get my camp set up and gather firewood. I would find the grate later. I found a fairly level spot of ground and used my snowshoes to dig out a hole through more than 2 feet of fine crystalline snow. I found a large rock in the bottom of the hole. I guess that’s the chance you take. I was able to dig around enough so that I could sleep on smooth ground. I placed my rubber poncho on the ground and placed my North Face Spectrum 23 backpacking tent on top. I laid out my sleeping pads. I had to help my self-inflating pad because it was too stiff from the cold. Hving completed tent set-up, I set off down the shoreline (away from camp) to find some firewood. Despite the deep snow, I found plenty of dead and downed trees. Including on very large birch tree, which provided plenty of bark. I also found a nice downed cedar tree to peel bark from. I have found cedar bark to be a great smoke free fuel. I made several forays into the woods, dragging wood out on the ice to pick up later. As I returned to camp, I surprised to hear a dog barking at me. I found the sound belonged to a friendly black lab who was accompanied by a conservation warden. He had hiked in to check out the snowmobile tracks and my snowshoe tracks that he had seen from the air. After a very pleasant conversation, I showed him my permit and he was on his way.
I did some stomping around and eventually found the fire pit and a nice large log bench to sit on. I took some time to dig down and around the fire pit. I was disappointed to find an aluminum can (prohibited in the BWCA) in the fire pit. I packed it out with my own garbage. I stacked the firewood within arm’s reach of the bench as the snow was way too deep to walk on without snowshoes. I also packed the trail between the fire pit and my tent so that if I was careful, I could walk between then without breaking though the snow.
It seemed that the timing was perfect as it was time to eat and darkness was approaching just as I was ready to start the fire. I used my “secret” technique of using birch bark cylinders loosely filled with kindling and a cotton ball soaked in lighter fluid. The fire caught slower than I had expected but soon was just fine. I cooked a tasty meal of chicken breast and ramen noodles over the fire. I cleaned the pots and used them to melt snow to replenish my water supply. I found the snow under the top crust to be an extremely clean source of water. Having refilled my bottles, I packed things away and brought my water into my 0°F bag. I kept my long johns, polypropylene top and wool sweater on as well as two pairs of wool socks. I expected the temperature (consistent with the forecast) to be in the single digits either side of zero. I felt that I was well-prepared for those temperature ranges. However, when I awoke at 2:00 AM, I found myself to be a little chilled. I put on my parka and snow pants and returned to bed after gazing at a spectacular star-filled sky. I guessed the temperature to be -15°F.
I awoke after 9:00 AM well rested. The area around my sleeping bag was white with frost from my frozen breath. Above me was a delicate 7’ string of frost that hung down from the top of my tent. My first task was to bring my boots into the bag to warm them up enough to slip them on. This proved to be less effective than I had hoped as it took considerable effort to pull them on. I packed away my clothes and tent and made my way to the fire pit to cook breakfast. Having only cut enough wood for one fire and not wanting to take the time to build another, I opted to cook on my MSR whisper-lite stove. I noticed a burning sensation as I handled the fuel bottle for my stove. I found it difficult to make a disposable lighter work with numb fingers but eventually had a nice meal of instant oatmeal and coffee. After packing away the breakfast dishes and giving the site a one last leave-no trace look over, I was on my way back to Sawbill.
When I reached the portage trail from Burnt to Smoke, I decided to relive a nagging irritation in my left foot caused by a toe warmer that had bunched up. As I removed my gloves to untie my boot, I was surprised to find a blood blister on my right thumb the size of a jelly bean. At first I had no idea what had caused it. Later, I decided that I must have got some frostbite in the morning when I was preparing breakfast with numb fingers. I suspect the “burn” came from handling the extremely cold fuel bottle with bare hands. This is an important lesson: Always wear gloves, even if only light ones when handling any metal in cold weather. Had my thumb been afflicted earlier, I would have had a very hard time dressing and performing many other essential tasks which could have become a potentially life-threatening situation. I was able to remove the boot, and rearrange my socks and travel comfortably for the remainder of the trip back to Sawbill. The temperature on the return trip seemed to be warmer and less windy than it was on the way out. I guessed the temperature to be in the teens above zero. Traveling was easier walking on my own tracks.
As I trudged through the snow, I thought about how I could improve my trip. Several things came to mind. The first thing, as mentioned earlier, was to always where some sort of glove and avoid bare-handed contact with any metal in cold weather. I wore some very warm ski gloves for most of the trip, switching to leather shells for cooking and handling potentially hot items. I should have kept them on when handling my stove and fuel bottle. I think a good choice for a light glove would be knit wool gloves with rubber grips. Always be prepared to deal with frostbite injuries when camping in cold weather. My next trip will be with a sled to carry my gear. While my 60-lb pack was comfortable for most of the trip, I began to feel the discomfort in my shoulder and neck on the last 2-3 miles of my hike back to Sawbill. It is also easier to maintain your balance and stay on top of the snow without a pack. I will never under-pack warm clothes. I was very thankful for every item of clothing I had to keep me warm overnight. Everything takes more time in winter. Snow depth and working with layers of clothing make routine tasks in summer more cumbersome in winter. Attach loops of cord to zipper pulls to make handling zippers possible while wearing gloves. Always leave an itinerary with someone whenever you venture into the wilderness regardless of the season. As we SCUBA divers say, “Plan your dive and dive your plan”. Always have a way to make a fire readily available to you. I carried a lighter and cotton balls in my pants pocket in my jacket pocket, in my fanny pack and in the top flap of my pack. I also pack an extra compass and light source just in case I lose one or it should become damaged. Have easy access a supply of high-energy food while traveling. Keep your water from freezing by carrying inside your outer clothing. If you can’t store water inside your clothes, carry bottles upside down so that the opening will be the last to freeze.
It seems that I always have just enough energy to make it back to the car and not much more. It felt so good to unload my gear and sit in a warm and comfortable car seat for the return trip home. As my Explorer came to life, I glanced at the instrument panel. To my surprise the outside temperature was -1°F at 2:15 PM. The blood blister on my thumb had now enlarged to cover the thumb pad all the way to the first joint. I also noticed a much smaller blister on my left thumb. After 24 miles on the Sawbill trail stopped at the Holiday Station in Tofte, Mn to change clothes and buy some Gatorade. After a 4 ½ hour drive I arrived home weary but as always grateful for the fun and the challenge of the trip. Out of curiosity, I check the Sawbill weather and found the overnight temperature for march 1-2 to be -22°F, much colder than expected. Two weeks later, the blister is gone and both thumbs are thankfully back to normal.