Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Cold Clear Silence
by pdesigninc

Trip Type: Snowshoeing
Entry Date: 02/23/2013
Entry & Exit Point: Little Gabbro Lake (EP 33)
Number of Days: 3
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
This was a trip we had never seriously considering until we heard how differently beautiful the BWCA can be in the winter — the night sky, the crisp clear feeling, the sounds of wolves or being able to hear the wings of a bird flapping and the idea you are snowshoeing and tenting on a lake.
Our planning for a BWCA winter trek covered just about every possible thing we thought we would encounter, however, there were a good number of little things we would change that would make a big difference in our next trip. The weather forecast was ideal and leaving early on Saturday from Minneapolis the sky was cloudy and temperatures in the 20s. By the time we reached Ely the sky had opened to sunshine, temperatures in the high 20s and little or no wind. No gear was forgotten and we had everything for a 3 day / 2 night trip. We were a bit surprised only one outfitter was open and our favorite haunt for lunch had a sign posted they were not going to be open until spring.

Our goal was to reach the far end of Gabbro Lake, set basecamp on the ice close to one of the campsites. The drive to the road up to the entry road to Little Gabbro was well-plowed and a side area was open for parking. From there we had to trek 1 mile to the entry point road. The most dangerous part of the trip was snowshoeing this road shared by snowmobiles, but everyone accommodated our presence, but it would be very easy to get hit since speeds are not regulated and there were several blind turns.

The entry road and 200-rod portage was an interesting trek with our home-made pulks. We learned many maneuvering tricks quickly when going downhill or around sharp corners. I highly recommend having rigid poles and a rudder. We did pass one team that was bailing because of open water danger and looking ill-equipped. They had a huge sled (possibly a collapsible ice fishing shed) and were wearing a good deal of cotton. We tried to convince them they would be fine staying overnight since the forecast was good, but made passage and entered Little Gabbro. It now felt like we really had arrived. With at least 2 hours of good daylight we figured there was plenty of time to reach our destination.

We quickly noticed a path across the lake and determined it the best route since we were warned of open water. Our original plan was to trek between the connection from Little Gabbro to Gabbro Lake, but that was exactly the open water area. This forced us to take a longer route following the path taken by others. Noting that the snow was almost 2 feet thick in some spots we decided to make one of the finger inlets our basecamp destination since we did not know how long it would take to shovel an area and get equipment set up. It was also, at this point, we started using snowshoes. On our way over we did greet another group who was ice fishing for the day and had no plans to camp overnight. One other lone trekker passed us and indicated he had not seen any other campers.

Set up went smoothly and we now looked forward to some Imperial Stout and a roaring fire. The Stout delivered, but the fire did not. We used a Duraflame log to get things started, but over the course of 3 days we never were able to maintain a good fire for cooking needs. Not sure if the oxygen levels are lower in the cold or setting a on ice were factors, but would love any input and suggestions.

Even though temperatures reached close to 30 during the day the nights still got pretty cold. Our weather radio said to expect lows of 8, but we woke to 0 according to our thermometer — my feet can attest to that. I never felt as cold as I did when winter camping in Michigan once when it got down to 20 below and woke every half hour shivering in my 20 rated sleeping bag, but was a bit uncomfortable from the early morning onward. The most challenging part of the morning was greeting your boots. I had removed the liners, but the boots were frozen solid. An idea next time is to either sleep with your boots or toss some hand warmers in before committing oneself to getting out of the tent.

One of our day treks consisted of exploring Gabbro Lake and the huge open water area, how beautiful, almost as cool as seeing Curtain Falls or the fall color in the BWCA. We encountered many wolf tracks, but the area mainly had a cold clear silence. The sky was cloudless and we traversed with little more than a single layer, no hat or gloves, quite a contrast from the night and morning time. We were actually wishing for more extreme conditions and this trek seemed easier than many of our regular fall trips.

Many of the things we heard at the winter camping seminars were true: everything takes longer in the winter; you need to constantly keep your temperature in check; don’t get too hot or too cold; don’t rely on water from the lake; stay well-hydrated; eat more calories; snowshoeing 1 mile equates to about 3 miles regular hiking; keep your batteries insulated and many other small details. However, there are also many things you need to experience yourself and customize to your approach to make it a great outing. To hear wolves howling in the distance at night, being able to hear birds’ wings flapping, viewing the winter night sky or viewing the rainbow-glinted snow effect or ice fog are amazingly subtle experiences that make winter camping well worth it.

Next time we plan on further venturing, harsher conditions and keeping the fire going. Also might invest in a better sleeping bag, but always good to be reminded of how much nature is in control.

Lakes Traveled:   Gabbro Lake,