Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

A Week In January - Annual Winter Trip
by TreeBear

Trip Type: Snowshoeing
Entry Date: 01/08/2023
Entry & Exit Point: Sawbill Lake (EP 38)
Number of Days: 6
Group Size: 4
Trip Introduction:
The week we had looked forward to had come around again: the Week of Winter annual BWCA trip. This tradition is relatively new, last year was our first, but it seems poised to be a trip that continues annually. January is a fascinating time to take a week long BWCA trip both because winter offers such a different perspective on the wilderness and because it takes so long to get anywhere. A slightly longer trip lets us set our eyes on destinations further into the BWCA which is quite nice. The history of this trip goes back to our first winter trips into the BWCA. I winter camped a ton in college, but most of those were drive up, hike a mile or two in, and set up for the weekend. Also, all those were cold camping which really isn't as bad as it sounds. Once the gear is right, cold camping is comfortable until well below zero. The worst in fact is that middle range of 20s-40s where everything has the potential to get super wet in the tent, on the gear, and throughout the wardrobe. Anyways, the first foray into the BWCA in the winter started with the obligatory transition trips. First it was figuring out canoeing and portaging in 7" of snow and then it was figuring out ice breaking with the canoe. Then we took it to a short trip cold camping from South Hegman to Angleworm. Eventually, we moved into the hot tent scene and set up camp at the spot I had always dreamed of spending a night on Watap. The natural progression from there put us on Caribou Lake south of Clearwater for a week-long trip last January. Unfortunately for me, illness hit hard by night two when a strong fever set in. Let me tell you, a hearty fever while outside air temps plunge down into the -20s is a personal experience to be avoided! This year though, I was healthy and ready to enjoy our five nights of January fun in the BWCA. We targeted Wine as our destination and agreed to meet at the Sawbill parking lot. I had the Banff Film Festival to attend as a vendor and would be driving up late after the festival wrapped up. I didn't finish up till almost 11 that night in Duluth so it was a late run up the shore and along the Sawbill trail meaning it was 1:30 before I pulled in to the parking lot. It wasn't long before I was fast asleep in my car, anxiously dreaming of morning.
Day 1 of 6
Sunday, January 08, 2023 I decided to begin work on my own gear before finding the two members of the trip who had arrived the night before. First, I pulled the sled out of my car and began loading it with the Portage North Outfitter 98 I had along. I tucked the few extras like the second set of snowshoes and the cot as well as my camera case into the bottom of the sled. Just as I finished, a low rumble started making its way down the road. Rounding the corner, I immediately recognized Dan-in-the-box's truck. He was not supposed to be joining us until afternoon, but woke up about 3:00 in the cities to make it to Sawbill for our start. I walked down to the landing and found our other two guys. I had brought a Voyageur 3 from work for them to borrow as we started stuffing packs and sorting out gear into various sleds. It was a good twenty minutes before sleds were loaded and granola was being passed around for breakfast. Before we knew it, our group suddenly had grown to five! Where did this dog come from?!? Despite our best attempts at encouraging our new friend Huckleberry to return to Sawbill Outfitters, she seemed dead set on coming along on our adventure. Soon enough though, another camper came around the corner. As chance would have it, he was the uncle of another one of our friends. What are the odds that he would be winter camping the same time and place as us?!? After a few failed attempts, we managed to ditch Huckleberry with him and start off towards Alton. Travel conditions were dreamy with light snow and no slush. We made quick pace all the way to the Kelso River before stopping for a break and a snack. The Kelso River had some deeper snow in spots but still was relatively straightforward. Occasionally, the sun peaked from behind the clouds and cast a dancing light on the treetops. It was easy for the mind to wander back to my fall solo trip along this same stretch of water a couple years ago. How different it looks with trees covered in snow rather than the golden leaves of autumn. I had a magical couple days with beautiful sunrises and an encounter with a mink on that trip. Today, the only wildlife around seemed to be a chickadee or two. There was a small patch of open water near the beaver dam, otherwise good travel conditions continued to the portage. It was at the portage that the adventure truly began. The portage had obviously not seen traffic in awhile, possibly since the fall. A large spruce had dropped on the portage making it even harder to find. Without snowshoes, the snow went up to mid-thigh. Even with snowshoes, the heavy sleds dragged like an anchor through the thick powder. This day would be hard-won. The start of the portage is a quick succession of small ups and downs; this is truly exhausting while trail breaking. Up and down, up and down, and the two of us in the lead were quickly tiring of the trail breaking. At the base of a steep hill, we saw a window of opportunity to our left: a wide-open beaver pond. That seems better than this mess any day! We head out to the beaver pond and are rewarded by 100 yards of clear open surface. On the far side though, the walls close in to dense brush. I scout ahead and decide that one side of the creek is marginally kinder than the other. It still takes quite a bit of bashing and crashing through the alder tangle before we clear through to another small beaver pond. Despite the hard work, there's still no sign of the other half of our group who we haven't seen since Lujenida. Where have they gone? We decide to keep pushing forward since our broken trail can only help them. The next section of brush is closed into a steep canyon with an exposed rock face to the left. There are scattered boulders in the valley and the snow concealed the occasional pitfall. We would have to be cautious. We bashed on ahead through an incredible tangle of alders with sleds catching on brush pretty much continually. Occasionally, one of us would plug into a hole and have to wrestle the snowshoe back out. After clearing our way through the canyon, the valley opened up into another large, brushy woodland. We stopped for a breather before I set off to scout ahead. The valley forked into a "y" and it seemed both ended up in open creek sections eventually. We were looking for the spot the portage crossed the creek, a landmark from the map to help our bearings and the place we planned to jump back on trail. I hiked to the spot where the forest gave way to marshland before backtracking to the sleds. By then, the sound of the voices of the other group members was coming from down the valley. They soon joined us for the final push to the creek. We were a little battered with sore knees and I had a binding-blister going on my achilles. Three out of four group members were walking a little gimpy. It was a grueling end of the first day of the trip. One by one, we trudged on to blast out onto the open beaver pond. We pulled over the beaver dam and out around the corner. This is where we would spend the night. We cleared a space for Little Grumpy's new hot tent (a real beauty he had been waiting nearly a year to receive from its maker.) I gathered firewood, others set up the tent, and before we knew it, we were enjoying a stellar moonrise behind the trees through the smoke rising from our warm tent. A fittingly relaxing evening was the reward for a challenging day.~Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake

Lakes Traveled:   Sawbill Lake, Alton Lake, Kelso Lake, Lujenida Lake,