Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Annual BWCAW Mushing Camping Trip, 2009
by arctic

Trip Type: Dog Sledding
Entry Date: 02/28/2009
Entry & Exit Point: Moose Lake (EP 25)
Number of Days: 4
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
I headed out on my annual mushing/winter camping/trout fishing trip with my long-time buddy and former college roommate "Jethro". As on many of our other winter trips, we put in at Moose Lake, east of Ely, for its easy access to the Knife Lake country and beyond.
After an hour-and-a-half drive from my house near Two Harbors, Jethro and I arrived at Moose Lake landing, where we loaded the sled, harnessed up the eight dogs, and cruised up the Moose Chain under sunny skies and a temp in the teens. A light west wind was blowing. The dogs were as excited as we were, and we quickly passed a couple of fathers and their sons who were also heading into the bush, but on foot.

Using the winter trails instead of the usual portages, we traveled through Splash, Ensign, Vera, and Portage Lakes, before getting to Knife Lake. Near the east end of Ensign Lake we passed by the small island (just NE of the portage from Boot Lake) where Dennis and I camped on a winter trip back in February of 1983. It seemed a bit open, but a large pine tree still stood there.

At the start of the winter trail to Vera Lake we went over a typical bump and cracked the left runner about two feet in front of the tail end, so it was loose for the rest of the trip and held on with only the high density plastic underneath. Someone had recently camped on the winter trail on the ridge near the Vera Lake end.

We headed east down Knife Lake, surprised to see no other groups on this beautiful Saturday. Perhaps the sled dog race in Ely was where the mushers were. We followed a vague, snow-drifted track produced by a snowmobile, likely driven by a DNR conservation officer or forest service employee. The snow was a bit slow. Passing Thunder Point we headed down the South Arm, following the same track, and ended up setting up a camp on the east side of an island across (south) from Birch Point.

The site was protected from the wind, and I dug out a fire area against a low rock face and built an additional snow wall on the lakeside of camp. Gently sloping ledge rock extended from the rock face to the lake ice. The large grain shovel we carried was worth its weight in gold, as it could move a lot of snow fast, saving us energy. It will be on all of our trips from now on, replacing the small avalanche shovel I have used for years.

I drilled a water hole and collected firewood, while Jethro tried to get his stove going to heat up water for preparing dog food. The pump would not compress air, and we had no extra oil along, so he put some butter on the pump leather, and then heated up the stove by the fire. After the dogs were fed we fed ourselves macaroni and cheese with venison chunks.

Spent the rest of the evening talking around the fire, sipping brandy. The moon was sinking low in the west, but was still bright enough to wash out the zodiacal light, that post-twilight glow along the zodiac constellations that’s visible on late winter evenings.

1 March: The first day of March dawned clear after an overnight low of -15 F. The temp might have been a bit cooler, as I had the minimum thermometer sitting on top of the cooler, which held warm dog food. A light wind blew from the northwest.

I re-drilled the water hole and built a fire, before heating water for coffee and instant oatmeal and cooking little sizzlers. After dogs and men were fed, we hung out in the sun for a bit, drinking coffee, before harnessing up the dogs for a sixteen-mile, round trip to Little Knife Lake. We followed our track back to Thunder Point and then rounded the point to head up the North Arm, and thence over the short (50m) winter portage around thin ice in the arrows to Little Knife Lake. Enroute, we saw some fresh wolf tracks along the north side of Thunder Point.

We staked the dogs out on their gang line along a point with a campsite on the US side of the lake on the east side of the mouth of the bay leading to the Amoeber Lake portage. We fished for several hours without even a bite, despite the fact that we had done well there in the past. The water was quite deep, with 60-foot depths getting pretty close to shore.

We headed back to camp late in the afternoon, a quick trip, with the lowering sun casting an orange glow onto the landscape. After collecting a bunch of wood, we built a fire, fed the dogs, and then fed ourselves. By the time we ate it was dark, which was fine, as it made it easier to stay up late.

Our meal actually was not that good. I thawed out a chunk of venison in hot water, cut it into slices, and fried it, but the brown rice I cooked was a bit tough, and Jethro gagged on it for a long time, as it got caught in his throat. I also found it a bit tough to swallow. Jethro has had this happen in the past, so we will not be bringing brown rice again in the winter.

Later, we went for a walk on the lake to generate heat before crawling into the sleeping bags. The temperature was falling steadily, and by the time we hit the sack around 10:00p it was around -15 F. Far to the east-northeast, we could see the faint sky glow from Thunder Bay extending up to about a degree above the horizon.

2 March: Up to clear skies, I checked the minimum thermometer and was a bit surprised to find that the overnight low temp had fallen to -31 F. No wonder I woke up at one point with a very cold nose and cool feet. It stayed below zero until late morning, but the sun felt warm.

We didn’t travel on this day, but decided to fish off the south end of the island, across from Birch Point, a place where I had caught fish in early summer. We set out tip-ups and jigged in water between 30 and 47 feet in depth. It wasn’t long before I jigged up a 4-pound lake trout, which I released. I caught another smaller one, which I kept. After a while without any action, the tip-up in 30 feet of water popped its flag, so I set the hook, and had Jethro pull in the fish, while I reeled in the long length of line the fish had pulled out. Right after he landed the three-pound fish, the other tip-up went off, and we switched roles, with me pulling up the fish and Jethro winding up the line. It worked out well and avoided a massive tangle of line, as that fish had also pulled out a good 100 feet of line. It was another three-pounder, and we kept both fish.

The temperature had warmed up into the teens during the afternoon, and the wind was light from the west. We enjoyed soaking up the sun, and I was glad that I remembered to apply sunscreen to my face, as some of the worst sunburns I have ever had have been on winter trips. Late in the afternoon I pulled up the tip-ups and returned to camp to collect firewood and cook supper. Jethro had preceded me in order to get a start on feeding the dogs.

I cooked a great supper of macaroni and cheese, with venison burger. It was a great improvement on the previous evening’s meal. Afterwards, we spent the evening again around the fire (a mainstay of all winter camping trips), sipping brandy and telling jokes.

3 March: We awoke to partly cloudy skies after an overnight low of -17 F. The sky tended to become increasingly sunny as the morning progressed. After breakfast we started packing up, and pulled the snow hook sometime after 10:00a.

The trip back to the road-head at Moose Lake went smoothly. We saw the first people we had seen in three days west of Twin Islands in Knife Lake, when we passed three teams of dogs coming in. Our speed was faster on the way out as the snow was warmer, with the air temperature being in the 20s. After loading dogs and gear into Jethro’s truck, we headed south. Another fantastic trip.