Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Winter camping - non bwca - northern wisconsin
by heavycanoe

Trip Type: Hiking
Entry Date: 01/24/2010
Entry Point: Other
Exit Point: Other  
Number of Days: 2
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
Our first winter camping adventure was planned for the weekend of Jan 24th our plan was to go to the Whisker lake wilderness area just out of Tippler Wisconsin. The plan was to follow the trail for 1.5 miles in to the wilderness area and camp on Riley lake spend the rest of the day ice fishing, sleep over one night and come out on Sunday. This area is nice in that my parents live about halfway up there so Friday night could be spent with them. Then we could leave early on Saturday morning. We put together our packing list and menu and away we went. The trip was planned for three Rob, Andy and I had all gone to high school together 25 years ago, so it has been fun getting back together since moving back to Wisconsin in 2008. We had taken a BW trip at the end of July so this would be our second adventure. Our original plan was that we would have all three of us on the trip but on the Friday before we were to leave Andy’s grandmother passed away and so it would only be Rob and I. This is something that we knew might be a possibility and so it was not a surprise, I don’t mean to flippant about it in any way this is just how the trip became a two person trip.
Our plan was to get by with the kid’s sleds that we already had that was 2 - 4 ft sleds and a 6 food sled. After all we are trying to do this on a shoestring budget. Rob and I had each come up with a harness system that we thought would work to attach the sleds to make this a hands free pull. Rob had an old back pack and I had a couple of canvas belts attached together

We had decided that since daylight time is short in the winter we did not want to spend our time cutting fire wood and finding water so decided to haul this as well. After all these items are heavy but with sleds in the snow how bad could it be right. Famous last words.

While packing up on Thursday and then on Friday night before leaving, I thought boy the car is getting full with all of this equipment, and I did not even have the tent rob was bringing this. I was borrowing some fishing equipment including a hand auger and some tip-ups from my cousin. When I got to my cousins house he looked at all of my gear and he told me I better take his otter sled as well. We would not have made it, at least with one trip into the woods without this.

I had picked this weekend as I thought this might be the best chance for us to get the coldest weekend of the year. I am not sure why I was hoping for this, I guess since people thought we were crazy anyhow we would get more bang for our buck if we could brag about surviving a negative degree night. Rob was hoping for warm but a snow storm, how neat would it have been to wake up to a fresh 6 inches of snow on the tent and ground. As the weekend was approaching the weather report was calling for freezing rain. This was the worst case scenario for both traveling and staying warm. In my opinion there is no colder feeling than when you are wet. Staying dry is the key to staying warm.

We met at my parents place around 11pm and spent some time visiting with the folks and decided that an extra hour of sleep would feel good in the morning. We got up to load up the sleds and combined gear into Rob’s truck. We were on the road by 9:00 am it took us longer than we thought to figure out loading the sleds with all of our gear. Plus now we had 4 sleds so both of us would have to pull a two sled train. We still had a two hour drive with a stop to pick up bait and wood. Fortunately, the snow was plowed on the national forest road. It still took us a little longer than we thought to find the parking area and the trail head. A little before noon we got the gear out of the truck, sleds tied together and we were ready to hit the trail head. Rob was able to rent for free or sign out or borrow a couple of pairs of snow shoes for us to try out. The snow was not real deep so we were not even sure if the snowshoes would be necessary, but thought it would be fun to try them out. We strapped on the snow shoes and started down the trail. Since, the snow was plowed on the forest road we had to get up over the snow bank with our 4 sleds no easy task the sled tipped over a couple of times but we finally made in onto the trail. The hardest part of this was maneuvering in the snowshoes. If you have ever tried to turn around or walk backwards on snow shoes you know what I mean. These are one direction modes of transportation. We were not the first people to have walked this trail. So there was already foot prints and an indent in the snow that our sleds kept falling into. Within a couple of feet the sleds tipped over again and this time the minnows spilled out all over the snow. Somehow we still had a little water in the bucket and we picked the minnows out of the snow as best as we could and got them back in the water in the bucket. Well I guess we will have to carry the minnow buck the original plan was to have a hands free operation. We had along a small amount of gas to light the lantern after all we would have a lot of time after dark in the winter in this tent. Every time the gas can tipped the can would leak a little as well. I guess we will have to carry that as well, so much for the hands free operation. After having to turn around and walk backwards to pick up the sleds a couple of times we ditched the snowshoes as turning or trying to walk backwards in snowshoes is too hard. We kept pulling a ways and tipping over readjusting the sleds reengineering our packing and trying to change our pulling points.

I would not have called this a hilly area, but there were some noticeable hills especially since we were probably each pulling 80-100 lbs on kids sleds with the wood and tent and water the food and all of the other gear. We stopped to rest when we could pull no more and then started again. We stopped to investigate a couple of forks in the trail dropping the sleds and walking a ways. We both had trail maps but sometimes it still is hard to determine exactly where you are at. There were some points where we had to stop and get our sleds over logs that block the trail. There was one point that I took out the bow saw to clear the trail so that we would not have to lift sleds over the log. Just about the time Rob and I looked at each other and said lets just pick a spot in the woods and this is where we were camping, I took one last walk around the corner to discover we were at the spot we had planned to go. We arrived at our chosen camp site at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It was not getting dark yet, but we know it soon would be. We had to shovel a spot out to put the tent up and erected the tent for the first time. Considering what we had already been through for the last four hours this was the easy part. We finally had the tent up and our chairs set up in the tent no time for fishing but we were too exhausted anyhow. The fire was burning in the stove and the beef stew was warming as well as the King’s Hawaiian dinner rolls and hot water in the tea pot for chicken soup. We realized we did not have lunch only some gorp along the trail a couple of times. We had to change our clothes as we had been sweating for the last four hours. It had not rained on us much just a little mist here and there but it had been quite warm that day probably up to 35 degrees. I think this did not help with pulling the sleds as the snow was melting making the pull harder. I never would have thought this would be so hard or that it would take us so long to go 1 and ½ miles into the woods. I still cannot believe it took us 4 hours. I am a runner so usually 1.5 miles might take 15 minutes in bad conditions really 4 hours, the answer is yes. I was not as sore as after running the grandma’s marathon with Rob and Andy in 2007 for our 40th birthdays, but I was pretty tuckered out.

As I said the nights in the winter are long so there is a lot of time in the tent we could have started a fire outside but no one had the energy. We also could hear the water dripping off the trees onto our tent I think it was just misting and collecting on branches and then dripping off. We did have a deck of cards and decided on cribbage. We did not have a cribbage board but a pen and some newspaper to start our fire with. Rob kept score and low and behold he won both games I demanded a recount, but to no avail.

We had originally planned that we would get up and go right away the next morning as both of us had long drives back home on Sunday. However with not getting any fishing in on Saturday and working so hard to get back to this lake we had to at least try it out for a couple of hours in the morning. After all we carried those minnows all the way back here, we could not just dump them out could we?

I had brought a digital thermometer with me so we would know how warm the tent was. I placed it on the end opposite the stove. We got the tent up to 50 degrees of course warmer as you got closer to the stove. The one problem that we did have was that the website that I got the plans for the stove off of had it just sitting on wood. So that is what we did as well. After about 2 hours of burning the wood underneath the stove heated up the wood to the point of smoking and it did fill the tent with smoke. We turned the logs around so the stove was not sitting on the bark side of the logs and we had no more problems with this. 

Rob and I were both exhausted from our trip in and I think it was lights out a 9PM or maybe a little after. Rob and I both have children and we commented on when the last time was that we went to bed so early.

Our sleeping system included polly tarps for the bottom layer an egg crate foam pad second layer with therma rests on top of this for insulation from the ground. All of this we already had in our arsenal of camping gear. As I mentioned before I combined the Army bag with a summer bag. I put the summer bag on the outside of the winter bag thinking the winter bag would keep me warm and the summer bag was just added insulation. As I mentioned Rob bought a nice winter bag. The night was only supposed to get to 20 degrees so a very nice night in the middle of January. As we got into the night and the fire died out the tent did get colder I had my stocking cap on and a neck warmer, but had to pull the neck warmer up over my nose to keep it warm. Before morning I was a little cold around the shoulders because the summer bag is not made to cinched up around your shoulders, it is pretty open. I think Rob’s system seemed to work well and was much more convenient than my 2 bag system, maybe a future upgrade. Then again Rob did position himself closer to the stove than I was.

With being a little cold I was up a little before 7am - day break and into the insulated bib overalls and winter coat and out to set up tip-ups. We decided not to start the stove back up and deal with a hot stove in packing up and going out. That meant no coffee, bummer. I just wanted to get a couple of hours of fishing in before our journey back out. The minnows were still very lively even though they did not have much water. Hey Rob do you have the wax worms? No do you have them? &(*&&%% they are back in the truck. Well we do have crappie minnows and medium shiners for northern. So I head across a marshy area by our tent with a sled and the fishing gear only get out about 30 ft from shore and drill a hole. Would you look at that it is 20 ft of water here. I did not realize this lake was so deep. There is good ice 2+ feet so I start working my way toward the little creek where I see open water. I keep getting closer and closer to shore and am still finding 12 – 15 ft of water. Even though we can see open water and are only 30 ft away we still have 2+ feet of ice. We start jigging with the crappie minnows and come up with nothing, no action yet on the tip-ups either. Rob grabs the auger and heads off towards the island in the middle of the lake. It starts snowing while we are fishing. It is very pretty and of course a mile and a half back into the wood we have the place to ourselves. This is what we dreamed about. After a bit nothing is still happening by the creek so I take off to the island as well where Rob has gone. Rob catches a little tiny perch he asks me if I can see it, even though I was only 30 ft away I cannot. I try to get the camera out but Rob quickly throws the perch back down the hole no pictures for evidence. Don’t worry Rob my camera get’s wet later in the day and no pictures turn out from this trip. A little while later, I hook into what I thought was another perch, but whoo this fish is pulling back. Rob I think this is a nicer fish! I play him up to the hole and back down for another run a couple of times. I finally get his head in the hole and see the green and gold, and at first glance think nice walleye, but as I reach down to grab him and pull him out of the hole it turned into a 16 inch largemouth bass - bummer. Well nice fish and a lot of fun to catch on the jig pole. I have him barely hooked in the skin around the mouth. Of course I have to show Rob as I am explaining how this is a testament to my skill as a fishermen. Rob just rolls his eyes and nods along politely. We fish a little while longer and nothing is happening. It is getting past 9 so we decide maybe it is time to start picking up the tip ups and heading out. After all I explain to Rob we have each caught a fish according to our skill level. We did end up with one flag, but I think I had rigged it wrong and the line got tangled around the spool when the fish hit. There was another tip up with the minnow missing I am not sure if I rigged that one correctly as well. It has been 12 years since I have fished with tip-ups coming back from SC. That probably really explains my skill level. I am glad we got to fish and I am glad we caught a little something; it just makes you dream about the next time you might go to that lake. I sure wish we had more time though next trip we will have to do a 2 nighter.

The packing up goes well we decide to cut the center beam in half as we are picking up. It can be reconnected with supports and will travel better as 2 - 6 footers as opposed to one 12 footer. We are lighter on the way out as we have dumped the water the minnows and used up the wood. We decide it is important to have a lower center of gravity on the sleds and I have a full green army duffle bag on my back instead of on the sleds. However on the plus side since it rained and snowed the canvas tent is now at least 50 lbs instead of 35 lbs. We start out at 11 am and I guarantee Rob that it will not take us as long to get out of the woods as it did to get in. We easily will be back at the truck by 1 pm. We get about half way and I finally decide I cannot take picking up another tipped over sled. The snow is even wetter and the sleds are pulling even harder, surely I can make two trips from here faster than I can make one with these two sleds. I untie and leave my second sled. Rob warns me that there is still ¾ of a mile left, at this point I don’t care. Rob vows to himself that if his sleds tip over one more time he is going to do the same. It is raining now and the heavy and wet snow from earlier is hanging off the pine trees. The trail is so narrow that there is not room in between the trees to fit with out brushing past them. This is a beautiful sight to see the snow on the evergreens and such a narrow trail in a remote area. However every time you brush up against the pine trees you get more and more and more wet. This is no problem as we are working so hard pulling sled we are plenty warm. The snow is so heavy that my sled is snowplowing and I am pushing snow in front of the sled every once in a while it breaks loose and the sled gets much lighter. I look back and can still see Rob at points so I am not making much better time than he is. I finally see the trail head and what a welcome site it is. I know I have to go back and get the other sled so I am not done yet. I peal off my sweatshirt as it is wet and I am pretty hot, I have a long sleeve t shirt on underneath. I unhook my sled and start back into trail, to get the other one. Just around the first corner there is Rob both sleds in tow. He is done, I still have work to do. I am still comfortable with my decision to unhook the way I was plowing snow with the other sled. I just have to get to the spot and start pulling it seems longer back in than I would have thought, but it only takes me 13 minute do get back to the sled with only the long sleeve t-shirt on, it is colder brushing up against the pine trees this time, but I still am working hard and am quite warm. This sled pulls nicely, I am out in 20 minutes. It is 2 pm, still 3 hours to get 1.5 miles how can this be? I could not be more soaked if I had jumped in the creek this morning. I change my jeans and shirt but am still a little wet. Sitting in the truck with the heater blasting is the coldest that I was on the entire weekend. We stop in Langlade for a big juicy burger, and I try to find some warm clothes and drink about 5 cups of coffee, keep it coming.

Anyhow, it was a good adventure. We have to solve our sled problem, but we are both up for another trip next time it has to be a two nighter if we are going to work that hard, but we also decide that Andy needs a turn with the kid’s sleds or else he would not appreciate the new sleds!