Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

Warmth, Wolves, and Wet Feet
by TreeBear

Trip Type: Snowshoeing
Entry Date: 03/19/2022
Entry Point: Wood Lake (EP 26)
Exit Point: Moose Lake (EP 25)  
Number of Days: 2
Group Size: 3
Trip Introduction:
A stretch of warm weather in March was not going to be enough to interrupt our habitual weekend BWCA adventures, but we were asking some serious questions in the weeks leading up to our anticipated trip. How fast is this snow pack going to melt? Will the lakes just be one mass of slush? Are we better off heading to a trail route instead? And what on earth does one wear for a trip like this? When it came time to head north, we honed in on a lake route and hoped for the best.
A stretch of warm weather in March was not going to be enough to interrupt our habitual weekend BWCA adventures, but we were asking some serious questions in the weeks leading up to our anticipated trip. How fast is this snow pack going to melt? Will the lakes just be one mass of slush? Are we better off heading to a trail route instead? And what on earth does one wear for a trip like this? When it came time to head north, we honed in on a lake route and hoped for the best.

Our usual crew of three set to meet up at Wood Lake, an entry point none of us had gotten to guide trips out of and hadn’t made a priority to take personal trips to. For me, Wood was an entry point which had the unfortunate geography of being sandwiched between two very busy entry points in Moose and Fall without being able to lead trippers out of the traffic stream of either of them. The end of winter, perhaps, provided an opportunity to get a small sense of quiet and see a section that we hadn’t before.

We met in the parking lot of Wood late Friday evening with the hope of heading out the next morning. After a comfortable night’s sleep, we dropped a vehicle at the Moose parking lot for a post-trip shuttle, and headed back to Wood for the start. It was already warming into the 20s and the weekend was forecasted to be balmy. Considering most of our trips this winter saw nights dipping into the -20s and even into the -30s, the cumulative attitude going into this trip was laid back and casual. We left much of our normal warm gear at home along with the canvas tent and stove. As we set off along the well packed portage to Wood, it felt like this trip could be a complete breeze. It was interesting to think back on the trips we had shared.

Looking back, it was a great winter. In November, just after ice in, I struck out for a solo night in a hammock on Topper Lake followed the next weekend by a lovely walk around the adjoining border route loop. Over new years, while my two tripping partners were enjoying a very cold night on Duncan, I celebrated similarly as I had the previous year: sparkling grape juice in a nalgene on Daniels lake (though this year I celebrated with a guiding coworker.) January saw us set out with a larger group for a week from Clearwater, though I registered in a nice fever by night two which I got to endure through -20s temperatures. I left the trip early, though the rest finished out the week. And then, in February, we explored the true obscurity of the Blandin Trail, which we found to be as unmarked and unofficial feeling as anticipated. Now here we were, in March, back for a late winter, starting to feel like spring, adventure.

As we finished the portage into Wood, we noticed three shapes on the horizon. One was a fox which bolted as we stepped onto the lake. The other two seemed strange to us. “Are those swans?” Sure enough! There was a pair of trumpeter swans sitting on the ice mid-lake waiting for spring. They have a lot of waiting to do. Travel conditions were about perfect as the deep snow had melted off of the lake and the slush had frozen partially overnight. We encountered our first and only fellow campers staying on Wood near the far end of the lake. We made good time across Wood, portaged into Hula, and encountered another pair of Trumpeter Swans. The fact that the creek between Wood and Hula was wide open raised some serious questions about the route. We originally had thoughts of pushing mileage this trip by heading to Manomin and then taking the winter route back, but, with snow and ice conditions changing daily, would it be passable? And, if it wasn’t, where would we go? Would we be forced to go all the way through prairie portage or would we be best off back tracking to Wind? These questions circled, but first we had to cross Hula. We first un-optimistically checked out a winter route one of our maps had marked that followed Hula Creek out of the lake towards Wind Bay. If it was passable, it would save mileage and time. It was clearly not and the steepness of the banks provided no opportunities for going around. We begrudgingly backtracked to the portage to Good where our first true doses of “post-holing” began with the rapidly warming air temps. Good Lake was a slushy mess which is where the parade of wet feet started. We chose the portage to Indiana over the portage to Basswood as a distance-saving measure, but paid for it on the challenging portage into Indiana. The travel conditions were better on Indiana’s ice though, and we stopped for a lunch in the hot sun. It would be sunburns all around by tomorrow. We took the short portage out of Indiana, donning snowshoes for the deeper snow and the mess we ran into on the creek (lots of post-holing.) There was a happy (and very plump) beaver waiting out on the ice near the end of the creek which we watched for awhile. Upon finding the deep slush on Wind Bay, we finally scrapped any plans for Manomin this trip. Travel conditions were not going to hold into the afternoon and the big question mark hanging over the winter route prompted us to turn south.

The portage into Wind proved a mess. As the temperatures soared into the upper 30s, the crust on top of the snow failed completely with post-holing and stuck sleds all around. The walk across Wind was more of the same with some really good travel and a bunch of slush pockets. With no dry footwear left in the group, we made for camp. Usually on the winter trips we camp on the ice, but the conditions pushed us to one of the established campsites. We were quite disappointed in our fellow winter campers when we arrived. As we walked up onto the island campsite, it became clear that another group had utterly trashed the place this winter. I was fuming as I started to pick up the nearly gallon bag of trash, and that only got worse the further back we walked. The occupants had felled nearly 10 small trees for firewood and tent poles, they had stripped branches from most of the balsam fir, they had left a couple pounds of asparagus spread around the site, they had left unopened beer cans (which froze over the winter and exploded, don’t get the idea that it was a reward), and had forgotten plenty of gear besides. The mugs, silverware, paracord, and bungee cable were a small reward for cleaning up after these slobs who had utterly trashed an overused campsite in what is supposed to be its “rest season.” Our communal disgust was palpable, but at least our light spring gear left us plenty of room for carrying out the garbage heap.

After setting up camp and enjoying an afternoon nap, we set out to explore Washte and Witness. It was very slushy now and it was kind of a slog down the lake. Happily, we found nice portages and enjoyed the stop at the out of the way lakes. We made it back to our campsite close to sundown for a warm dinner before bed. Sleep came fast and hard to me, but we all awoke around 2:00 for one of the most magical evenings any of us had ever experienced in canoe country. The lake was popping like it does early in the season which is what woke me. Dan came walking back to say that the northern lights were out. “No, really!?! But it’s a full moon.” Sure enough, the northern lights were popping brightly for nearly 30 minutes even with the full moon. As we sat and watched, a wild and primeval sound echoed from the east end of the lake as a small pack of 3-4 wolves began to howl in unison. For the amount of times we had each seen tracks or caught a brief glimpse of one on the road, these moments of hearing them are always special. But then things intensified when a larger pack of 6-7 individuals began to answer the call...from much closer. These wolves were less than 300 yards away, close enough that we could also hear their inter-pack communicating: the yips, the wines, all of it. Then it all ceased. We sat on our rocky campsite looking out over the lake and noticed a lone figure step out on the point in the moonlight. One of the wolves from the larger pack sat down on the point of land not 200 yards across the channel from us. We watched in awe as it wined for a moment and a second wolf joined it before they took off across the lake. As they reached the other side, they howled back towards their pack. One wolf responded from directly across the channel from us. Even with all of our combined appreciation for the wild spaces, wolves, and our understanding of their importance and beauty, it’s still a sound that sends goosebumps down our spines. We watched the wolves out on the ice for a few more moments before all of them disappeared back into the forest. The smaller pack across the lake continued calling for most of the next hour, and we simply sat on the rock and listened. It’s moments like these that I can’t adequately explain nor hope to replicate that keep bringing me back time and time again for renewal, challenge, and awe.

We eventually talked ourselves back to bed. It was a fairly warm night, but a dense frost covered everything by morning. I awoke around sunrise to the sound of more howling and barking, but these weren’t wolves. It was a pair of dogsleds returning down Moose Lake from a trip (we confirmed this with their tracks later.) We ate a lazy breakfast and took our time to get moving (we really didn’t have far to go.) Putting on the now frozen shoes was a emotional hurdle and made us temporarily miss the hot tent and the dry footwear. Our feet warmed soon enough in the morning sun, and we made good time to the portage. One more celebratory sledding run for the other two members down the hill to Moose, and our work was all but over. We sat at the Moose Landing for awhile and embraced the silence of the season that yet rested on the place. Soon, the busy summer and all its sites and sounds will return, but, in this last gasp of winter, we were treated to an amazing glimpse into this month of change as the wilderness seems to come back to life.