Confident that I'd gotten all my gear cleaned, working properly and packed away in my van, I set off for the Echo trail at o'dark thirty this morning. As I near Babbitt, I come to the dreadful realization that I've forgotten to grab the hobo dinner that I painstakingly prepared for this adventure. The best laid plans of mice & men - or something like that. So, at my gas fill-up stop in Ely I also grab a pack of polish for supper tonight.
The weather was nasty yesterday, with winds up to 50 mph. There wasn't a ton of fresh new snow but, with winds like that I'm sure the existing trail across the lake is blown in. There is about 3-4 inches of fresh powder in the empty parking lot as I pull in and, my van tells me, it is currently -14 below. While it's not supposed to be anything like yesterday; the wind is forecasted to start up again this afternoon so, after strapping on my snowshoes and grabbing my CCS pack, I am merrily on my way hopeful to get to camp before that happens.
I had done a reconnaissance hike in a couple weeks ago; and, at that time, the trail was well established all the way to the mid-point of the lake. Fortunately, as I set off the trail is still clearly visible here in the woods and I'm making good progress. While the crazy winds yesterday wreaked havoc in the local area, there are still some vestiges where occasional branches are heavily 'frosted' with a precariously clinging wintery burden.
I'm amazed at how quickly I'm acclimating to the cooler temperatures as I unzip my parka a short distance down the trail. Of course, the sun is out, and it is supposed to get up into the 20's later today so, that is probably factoring into the equation as well. As the adrenaline of actually starting the trip wanes and my mind begins to slow down, I ponder and appreciate the spiritual aspect of 'getting over the hump' of actually starting this adventure. Spiritually, as well as practically, often times the biggest struggle is just getting started. Procrastination and various (mostly lame) excuses fill the breach. Time and again I am reminded that, more often than not, if I just 'get going' most of my doubts will be for naught or work themselves out. This is a lesson where it seems I need repeated instruction. The very things that made me hesitant - cold air, unknown elements and being alone are now the very things that are invigorating me to push forward and accept the challenge. "A comfort zone is a beautiful place but, nothing ever grows there!" Another way I've heard this put is, God loves me exactly as I am but, he refuses to let me stay there.
As mentioned, the trail is still clearly visible as I slowly snake my way through the protected, narrow confines of this frosted forest. However, the beaver pond, where Spring Creek is dammed up, is the first spot where the trail breaks out from its shielding sanctuary. The change of scenery is stunning, as a pristine smooth snowy blanket majestically unfolds across the pond. The splendor of this scene quickly fades, as I realize the old trail has also been completely covered over. With measured trepidation I gingerly proceed onward trying to visualize where the old trail was but, no joke, any misstep instantly incurs a penalty of a leg sinking into knee deep snow. Even with my snowshoes on!
Once past the pond, the trail resumes as previous. I'm actually on the verge of sweating so, I plop down on a fluffy boulder along the trail to take a break. As an added bonus, the snow actually helps take the weight off the pack off my shoulders without having to remove it.
Soon, I reach the junction of the hiking trail and the portage to Trease Lake. It doesn't appear that anyone has recently trekked to Trease, and at this point (with knee deep + snow) breaking that trail isn't gonna make my to do list for this trip. Instead, I turn down the established path towards Angleworm Lake.
As I approach the lake the trail leading out through the hummocks is barely visible but, I manage to follow it until it peters out at the lake near the 1st campsite. With the bright blue skies overhead the panorama stretching out across the lake sure is pretty but, as predicted, there is no sign of the old trail. I am hoping to make it to the first site on the eastern side of the lake to set up camp.
I know I am going to encounter some slush once I get out on the lake so, I set my pack down and proceed to break trail. Indeed, I do encounter a few spots but, with my snowshoes, am able to 'float' over the top and make it all the way to camp without serious incident. After briefly assessing the site, I head back to grab my pack. Unfortunately, the extra weight of my pack is just enough to push me through the worst pocket of slush, and I stumble and fall. My left knee and both hands are soaked. On cue, the wind is starting to kick up too. I regain my bearings; fortunately, I already have some chemical hand warmers in my gloves so, I just hastily push on to camp.
Thankfully I make it to camp without further incident. My pant leg is already dry/frozen and no longer a concern but, I do change out of my mostly soaked gloves once in camp. Prior to the trip I had tossed around the idea of loading up my toboggan but, since this was just going to be an overnight trip, I felt I could easily get everything in my pack and that method would be more convenient. Certainly, the toboggan would have prevented this mishap but, aside from the gloves needing drying out, there really isn't anything too negative that happened. And my thought process coming in was if I really got in trouble, my vehicle would be close enough to serve as an emergency bail out. Fortunately, I don't need to play that card.
I know conventional wisdom suggests that one should avoid designated campsites in the winter. However, being solo, without a shelter and factoring in the increasing winds; I surmise setting up out on the lake is not a prudent decision. Couple that with the fact that the better percentage of the surrounding shoreline is very rugged and doesn't lend itself well to human habitation. And the natural dynamics of this site make it a most favorable location for a winter camp.
The main fire grate area has a southern orientation but is exposed so, I completely avoid that area. However, just behind that there is a gentle drop down into a beautiful flat expanse that is protectively shielded by a towering sheer rock wall to the north and high climbing hillside to the east. The trees in this area severely limit the wind blowing in off the lake from the west but, still provide a few open site lines to contemplate the scenic cliffs just across the lake. There is even an old tree stump, near where I setup, that has been clean cut that serves as an ideal chair. I think it would also be an excellent site during open water but, it is absolutely exquisite for a winter sanctuary.
Still, the deep snow just outside of camp severely hinders exploration and firewood gathering. Besides the immediate shoreline area there's really only one logical path out of camp between the two high rises. As I am laboriously busting trail, I notice a curious hole in the snow. Upon closer inspection, and removing a mountain of snow, I find the latrine. I make a mental note to bring a cup of hot water with if I need to use it later. :) A little further up the trail, I manage to find a few snapped off branches and an old half rotted spruce tree. I'm normally a firewood freak but, the amount of extra labor it takes just to move around anywhere dampens my usual enthusiasm for this endeavor.
After processing the firewood, I begin to carve out my bed from the mound of snow I had piled up earlier. This way I am elevated a bit, and the coldest air will sink down below me as I slumber. I linger here a bit confirming that I am indeed protected from the gusty winds howling out on the lake. Speaking of which, I now venture back out to the lakeshore and find little evidence of my trail in as it has been almost completely covered. Not looking forward to re-breaking trail tomorrow but, I will let the today's troubles be sufficient for today.
The soaked leather mittens I was wearing on the trek in are now like 2 turtle shells. Also, the main weight in my pack was a jug of water that is now beginning to crystalize. So, my next order of business is getting a fire started. I'm mostly protected back here in the little cove but, just enough wind sneaks in to make getting the fire started more of a chore. Eventually, I pull out the 'heavy hitter' (dryer lint & Vaseline mixture) and it flames right up. I put a pot of water on and hang my mittens over the fire on a couple of the branches I found earlier.
After the water has sufficiently warmed, I mix myself a cup of apple cider. As I take my first sip, I take stock of my situation and a disposition of reassuring satisfaction settles over me. The quiet and solitude aid in quickly becoming contemplative and it's put on my heart that enjoying this cup of cider is why I needed to come out here. AS with all trips it helps me 'reboot' and refocus, Certainly I easily could have had a cup of cider back home. But, contemplating all the steps that it took for me to have it out here instantly brought to mind how truly blessed I am; and bestowed me with a true attitude of gratitude. But for the grace of God, the circumstances of my life could be drastically different. EVERYTHING is gift! Too often I take that for granted.
One of the reasons I think I enjoy wilderness tripping so much is that it forces me to condense things down and only take and focus on what's really important. Of course, that is true for summer but, so much more so in the winter. And I certainly need to apply the same principals to my spiritual journey and, I think this is a great way of implementing that sort of thinking into my life.
Once again, I'm doing a spiritual exercise called Exodus 90. This is my 3rd go around and, admittedly, I'm not as focused on the disciplines. Still, this trip itself is serving as something of an asceticism and 'suffering' that I hadn't attempted on those previous spiritual journeys and am now offering up. One of the recommended disciplines is cold showers. That fact wasn't lost on me earlier today when I stumbled and fell into the literally ice-cold water, nor with just performing the simple, necessary tasks of the day in the frigid air. With intentionality I pray for my anchors and, all the men of the parish who are also striving to grow closer to our Lord.
I let my firewood supply dictate how late I'm going to stay up this evening. I hadn't given it much thought but now, being out of practice, I begin to have a little concern that I will indeed stay warm throughout the night. I put hot water in my water bottles and also open a chemical hand warmer just before crawling in. Fitful isn't the right term but, I must admit I wake up a few times throughout the night expecting to be cold only to instantly learn that I am warmer now than when I had first gone to sleep. I think there is a spiritual message to be gleaned here. Just as I know (and have proven) my sleep system and preparations are adequate; I still fail to trust. Just as I know (and have proven) that Jesus is ALWAYS closer to me than I am to myself and will never leave my side, I still too often fail to completely trust in Him. Yet another example of how I can use wilderness tripping for spiritual growth.