Winter trip: Gold Team/Brown Team
There were twelve clients for this trip, and the plan was to divide us into two groups of six with two guides each. There would be two dogsleds per group, with two people riding/pushing each sled and two skiing, either ahead or behind. The outfitter and guides would ski as well; there were also snowshoes to help with packing a float for the sleds if the snow got too deep. The two groups would alternate trailbreaking days and camp near each other, but not together, so as to maintain that small-group feel. We would spend five days and four nights out on the trail. We all stayed at the outfitter's the first afternoon and night for a nice meal and a bit of get-to-know-you.
In addition to myself (an MD from Iowa, on my third such trip), my group (hereafter 'Gold Team') had Jason, 30's, from Chicago, Nat, 50, also from Chicago, and Nat's sons Phil (24) and Rick (19). Things started out interestingly when it turned out that Rick and Nat were going to drive from Ely back to Duluth later that night to pick up Nat's youngest son Mike (14), who had broken his right wrist two days earlier in a snowboarding accident and just had his cast put on that morning. They left right after dinner and were gone until 2AM. Jason, Nat, Rick, and Mike had been on dogsledding trips before with this outfitter, but it was going to be Phil's first time out. Our group was to be led by the outfitter and Sue; this was Sue's first time as a winter camping trip guide although she had guided shorter dogsledding jaunts before.
The second group (hereafter 'Brown Team'), who we never really got to know well, had Alan and his wife Teri (both British), their friend Lawrence and his friend Joyce, all in their fifties or sixties and none of whom had been dogsledding before (let's call them the Gang of Four). Rounding out their group were Tom and Sam, who had both been on dogsledding/camping trips before and had brought their own skis, etc. Alan and Lawrence and Joyce and Teri were surprised that there was going to be skiing involved. They also wanted to be sure to pack tents for sleeping. Brown Team's guides were Amy and Tina.
At dinner the first night, I sat next to Alan, who barely touched his plate before excusing himself midmeal. After dinner, he returned with Lawrence and asked if I could advise him about a problem he was having - ever since his plane ride from England three days previously he had had nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which he thought had resolved until the meal that night. Lawrence asked me if I thought Alan might have amebiasis or some other weird-ass tropical disease, but I suspected that he had caught a GI virus on the plane, and that if he was really feeling ill he should get checked out by the clinic in Ely before going out on a trip. Lawrence drove Alan in to the clinic that night. The next morning, Alan reported that the doc thought he had probably caught a virus but he shouldn't be contagious by this point; he was now eating and drinking fine, his spirits were high, etc., so he was going to give the trip a shot.
We loaded the sleds and the dogs, and I noticed that the Gang of Four were doing a lot of standing around. Fine, whatever, they're older.
There was a LOT of snow in Ely that winter, and the lakes had gotten hardly any traffic as the snow had been insulating the ice, resulting in lots of slush which made travel difficult. The outfitter had been grilling returning fishermen and Forest Service folks as to what routes were open, and decided on the day of our arrival to cancel the planned route (which would have been out-and-back along Crooked Lake) and to take a loop to the east through Knife and Kekekabic Lake because of slush and snow conditions. So we put in at Moose Lake and started heading northeast, with Gold Team leading and Brown Team trailing. We quickly lost sight of the second group, and followed snowmobile tracks along Moose to Newfound, Splash, and finally Ensign Lake, where we made our first camp. Oddly, the outfitter had been very quiet all day, and once camp was made he said he wasn't feeling well. Our guide Sue did the cooking, and by nightfall the outfitter was retching loudly in the woods. Brown Team ended up making camp over an hour after we did, around a point on the lake and therefore out of sight and mind. That night the temp hit -37 F, and I could hear Mike whimpering that his arm hurt and he wanted to go home. Our camp site was covered in an ice fog from our frozen breath; it was quite dramatic but unfortunately it didn't photograph well.
The next morning we broke camp and the outfitter skied out early, saying that he was going to poke along slowly so we would catch up soon. We followed his tracks and caught up to him on Knife Lake, where he was lying on a snowbank. My first thought was 'oh shit, he's passed out' but he was actually just resting and catching some sun in a sheltered spot. We continued on, with myself, Nat, and Sue on skis in the lead, and the outfitter lying down on top of one of the sleds. We ran out of broken trail on Knife Lake just east of Isle of the Pines, so after that it was trailbreaking through knee-deep snow, trying to 'pack a float' for the sleds to follow. We made it into Bonnie Lake that afternoon, and found a picked-clean moose skeleton frozen to the shoreline there before choosing a campsite near the portage on the south side of the lake. There was no sign of Team Brown all that day, but radio contact assured us that they were OK and making progress along our trail. Before we rested, the outfitter suggested that some of us break trail over the next lakes and portages as far as Kekekabic so as to make the going easier the next morning. So Jason, Nat, Phil, and I snowshoed and skied over the route, packing down the snow that was waist-deep in places amongst the trees, and cutting trenches through the higher snowdrifts (!) to let the sleds through the next day. We even built some snow ramps to help get the sleds over some of the boulders and downed trees on the portages. We were looking forward to a fire and hot food when we got back as darkness fell, only to find that Team Brown had caught up during our absence. Although Alan was feeling fine, now Lawrence and Joyce were sick, as well as Tina, one of their guides. Joyce was demanding to be returned to civilization, and the outfitter started to arrange (by radio) for a solo dogsledder to come out (in the dark) and run her back to Ely. Before the plan was finalized, the others convinced Joyce that the logistics just wouldn't work in the dark and that the situation could be re-evaluated in the morning. But because they had fewer functioning people, they poached Sue from our group and borrowed Rick to help cut wood for their fire. Tom and Sam were doing their best, but the Gang of Four weren't helping much with camp chores, so they needed help. So when we got back we still had to set up our own camp and cut more wood before we could start a fire and cook. Tina, although she was getting sick, heard over the radio that she had to meet with an attorney to settle an estate issue, so she skied out solo overnight (!). The good news was that the outfitter was feeling better; the bad news was that Nat and Mike were now both feeling nauseated. The second night was much warmer and it snowed a bit. We heard wolves in the distance, and in fact we passed fresh wolf tracks and spoor on the trail that we broke to Kekekabic.
The third morning, the outfitter was feeling normal again but Nat and Mike were pretty green around the gills. The portages between Bonnie and Kekekabic were brutal in the deep snow; we unhitched and rehitched dogs to make ten-and-twelve dog teams, and it still took three or four people to push the sleds up and over, with another person pulling the dogs. Mike was staggering and Nat was lagging behind on skis as we came to the end of the trail that we broke the day before. Once we get to unbroken snow the going got even harder. We didn't stop for lunch because the wind was kicking up and we weren't making good time - so a candy bar on the run had to suffice. We finally broke onto Fraser Lake after a steep descent in which the biggest sled tipped over twice, bouncing Jason off of a big rock. The outfitter originally wanted us to get to the far SW end of Fraser, but we were all pretty wiped out, so we stopped at a great spot on Fraser that had a clearing in the woods - there was probably a cabin or something there at some point. The plan was now to stay at this spot for two nights, get some rest and recuperate. There was plenty of good firewood, it was out of the wind, and there was a freshly chewed deer skeleton there for the dogs to gnaw on. By the time we get settled in, Rick was getting queasy, and I fell asleep to a chorus of retching sounds from Mike, Nat, and Rick. No sign of Team Brown that day; when we left their tents were still up. Although some folks were vomiting dinner, nobody was in extremis; liquids were staying down and lots of Gatorade was being consumed. The outfitter had bounced back after 36 hours or so. At this point we'd turned the corner and started to loop back to Ely anyway.
The fourth day, we had a quiet morning; Mike and Nat were feeling human again, but Rick was still sick and now Jason was queasy. The outfitter and I left them all hunched around the fire and broke trail for about three more miles toward the SW corner of Thomas Lake, where we met up with a nicely packed trail left by a sled-pulling snowshoer. We turned around and headed back, and just as we were about to get back to camp, three Forest Service guys on snowmobiles roared up. They were out on patrol, checking fishing licenses. They had followed our trail all the way from Moose Lake and hadn't seen any other people since the western end of Knife. They thanked us for packing a trail for their snow machines, then they zipped off to the SW along the trail that the outfitter and I had just spent a couple hours making - now wasted effort. At least we would be riding on a freeway of a trail in the morning. When we got back to camp, we found that Team Brown had showed up to have lunch around our fire. They had spent two days on Bonnie and had just now caught up to us. The Gang of Four seemed uneasy in our camp - a number of our dogs were running around loose - and they left soon after. They had been following the snowmobile trail left by the rangers, and they continued on in that direction while we stayed put. In the afternoon we took little side trips, taking pictures and exploring a bit. By that night, Jason was really miserable, but still keeping liquids down, and Rick was feeling better.
The last travel day, we broke camp early and traveled about five miles along the now well-packed trail until we ran into Team Brown's camp at the SW end of Thomas. They hadn't finished hitching up their dogs yet, so we blew past them and hit the 'winter trail' that runs from Thomas Lake, along some creekbeds to Kobe Lake, Muzzle Lake, through some marshes and out at Disappointment. Although things were pretty level, and the scenery was gorgeous with snow-covered pines, we were off the snowmobile track now and back in the deep snow, with slush and even standing water over ice in places. We had to stop several times to tip the sleds and scrape the bottoms, and the dogs would no longer pull unless someone was pushing the sled - so no riding through the mush. Jason fell off his sled a few times and was struggling with fatigue. Rick was pulling double duty because he was riding with Mike, who couldn't push because of his broken arm but couldn't ski either. At one brief point, Team Brown caught up to us, but we left them behind yet again as we broke trail for the fifth day. Once on Disappointment, the slush was finally left behind and we made good time across Parent and into Snowbank, which was our takeout point. At the entrance to Snowbank, we came across a bunch of folks cutting ice for an icehouse, so we stopped for a half-hour for photos and chitchat. We finally hit the Snowbank takeout point, loaded up our sleds and dogs and the Gold Team clients hitched a ride back to Ely rather than waiting for Brown Team to arrive (it turned out that they were an hour behind us).
We headed over to the lodge for our last night; everyone had now recovered from the GI bug, but Nat and his kids missed the turn for the lodge in the dark and ended up getting stuck in a snowbank while trying to turn their truck around. Some locals on snowmobiles helped to pull them out, and we enjoyed a fantastic celebratory meal with the outfitter. Amy and Sue ate dinner with Team Brown in another lodge and then came over to hang out with us, because we were sooo much cooler than those other dudes.
The next morning, a Sunday, we all ate breakfast in the dark and left early to get to our respective homes.
I didn't get the GI illness or get frostbite (Jason got a tiny bit on his left hand and toes), but I did end up with a few black toenails and my hands and feet got oddly swollen. The big toenail on my left foot took an entire year to grow back out. Phil was the only other member of our group to not get ill. I don't know if I was more anal about using hand sanitizer (provided by the outfitter), more careful about not sharing finger food at meals (also advised by the outfitter), already immune to the bug, or just plain lucky. Despite all that, I really enjoyed almost every minute of the trip, God knows why. I was mainly so giddy that I hadn't caught the vomiting-diarrhea virus that all the other hardships were just like water off a duck's back. Our group bonded in the face of adversity, so that really helped. Plus, we had Team Brown to feel morally superior to the whole time.
Looking over this report I seem to have emphasized the hardship aspect, but there was also great natural beauty and ADVENTURE! to enjoy.
There were any number of times at which things could really have gone off the rails, but they never did.