Saturday, January 30, 2010

Winter Camping: Cummings Lake

Sun setting through trees of the BWCA

After what seemed an eternity of unreasonably frigid temperatures, the North wind eased it's blowings and winter eased its ferocity. With the weekends filling up with plans, I decided this would be my last chance to try my hand at Winter camping. In desperate need of sleep, I slept late and spent what was left of the morning plotting my adventure. Due to the constricts of time, I chose Cummings Lake as I had heard word of it's beauty and it had easy overland access via the North Arm trails.

Exiting my car at the trail head, I starred into the snow covered forest and the wonderland that lay ahead of me. I was not the first to set tracks in the new found powder that had been laid upon the ground by a blizzard the week earlier, and it made the travel easier. I had made strides to have the lightest of gear and as little as necessary, however I found that it was difficult to keep my pack under 45 lbs. The amount of insulation and clothing layers needed to safely be warm is not to be under estimated and had burdened my pack. Fortunately skiing does have the impact factor that backpacking does.

Skiing towards Cummings Lake

The landscape was covered in heavenly white as the snow clung to every outcropping branch and I sped onward in awestruck silence. I looked to the sky noting the position of the sun and then to my watch. It was 3:30 pm and I knew I would have to "huff" it to get to Cummings Lake before darkness would fall. The trail ahead gradually became narrower and the number of down falls more frequent. The trail emerged into a bog whose beauty is was accentuated by the winter and the horizon opened to reveal Cummings Lake.

Bog Beauty near Cummings Lake

The rippling sounds of a stream lay apparent nearby and warned me of the possibility of thin ice. I trudge cautiously prodding the ice looking for signs of slush or thinness. After a 100 yards or so, I became slightly complacent and upon looking ahead of me. In seeing that the snow had slumped oddly ahead of me, I stabbed my poles below me confirming a foot of slush underneath. I frantically about faced and sped to safer ice. I threw my poles to the snow and ran my skis over them, effectively removing the slush that threatened to freeze and render my skis glide-less. After prodding the ice for quite some time, I realized the effort was futile. The load of snow over the last weeks had forced slush over much of the lake and a clear path across was unlikely.

I found a comfy parcel of shoreline and set up camp. However, I found that my bindings had frozen solid to my boots. Throwing my down jacket on I set about making a fire to thaw them. After getting a small blazing fire going, after an hour my boots where still firmly affixed to me skis. I could think of no other option than to take them off. I grabbed my sleeping bag stuff sack and placed them over my socked feet and trudged closer to the fire, laughing at my own ridiculousness.

My feet adored in stuff sack while my skis/boots thaw

I used my breath to finally melt the remaining ice and get my boots to release from my skis. Having accomplished this and getting a quick meal I settled in for the night in my bivy. I was surprised at the comfort I had, and was only minimally chilled through out the night inside my 15 deg down bag, lining my -30 deg synthetic bag.

Squeezing into the bivy for the night

I awoke to the morning dawn and prepared for my rude awakening. I opened my bivy flap to -23 degree air and scurried forth applying every piece of clothing possible to my shivering frame. I threw together a quick fire, scarfed a quick breakfast, and set myself to packing. I went between the fire and my tent often as it took 5-10 minutes before my feet and hands would again be painfully cold. Finally after all was packed I stood by the fire for the last time and nervously covered it over with snow. Worried my feet wouldn't stay warm I took off skiing at a furious pace in effort to create some heat. An hour later then feeling started to comeback to my feet. The time and landscape passed quickly, as the trail ended and I found myself driving myself back to comforts of my cabin.

Winter camping on it's own is not a joyful experience, nor does experience it alone add to the experience. But it is an exercise in vulnerability and survival that reminds me of the fragility of life and the comforts of modern life. For days I found myself sweatily overheating as my body slowly adjusted it's thermostat as it realized I was longer struggling for warmth.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Awestuck on the North Arm

When was the last time the world opened up and poured into all your senses until they were overflowing? Do you recall the feeling and can you replay the remembrance in your mind? Some find it on mountain top, in the resonance of music, amidst a river, fast in prayer, amongst dear friends, clinging to a rock, or in the love between souls. The list has no end.

On this day one of those such moments graced my life.

The sun rose upon a transformed landscape giving light to a foot of snow that clung heavily to the scene. Whole trees weary from the weight of the gripping snow leaned to touch the ground. As I drove away from my cabin I was greeted by the first of many inspiring sights. I passed through perfect tunnel of bent trees with the clinging snow blanketing their limbs. I smiled broadly at the exhilaration of bursting through snowy columns hanging limbs finally emerging to open skies.

I left work early, I couldn't any longer stand the thought what I might miss outside the monotonous hospital walls. There was never a doubt as to where I would go. Since the age 4 every summer I had walked the trails along the North Arm of Burnside Lake in wonder. And now I felt strongly pulled to them again. I drove faster hoping to have the woods to myself.

I pulled into the trail head and found that I was alone with the surroundings. I threw my small pack on my back, mounted my skis, and left the civilized world behind. A mere 50 yards in I was already enamored with what I was beholding. Every step floated upon clouds of untouched powder of shin to knee deep in depth. The trees bent so as to greet me.

I stopped in stood in reverence to the sheer silence around me. Not even a breath of wind nor a rustling branch dared interrupted it. Kingly boulders rested capped in a crowns of snow upon the buried and barren bedrock.

Going unnoticed, a grouse leapt from the trail beside me and landed on a limb eye level with me sounding it's alarm a yard from my gaze. We stood without motion eying one another for a long while, before she took flight to a distant limb. Any other time my hunter instinct would have elicited more drastic action towards a grouse, but it was clear that the bird had become clumsy amongst the snow. It would have hard enough time with the season ahead without my attempting to skewer it with a ski pole.

The daylight was waining and the tree's limbs shown golden in the rays of the falling sun. Despite the dying daylight, I couldn't stop; around every corner was painted a unique beauty and I was entranced.

I looked to the pink sky and noticed the white moon still ascending. I welcomed the darkness. In the dim light I set my pack down pulling out some warmer gloves, a down vest, and a headlamp, and headed into the darkness. The trail ahead was lit as if a lantern was hung in the sky. In the moonlight I sailed down powdery slopes heading back.

I drove home in a awestruck and content, brimming with bliss. My heart felt bloated as if over fed with beauty. The greatest tragedy couldn't wipe the smile from my face. Back in the warmth of my cabin, I sat wishing I could have shared the experience with someone else, wondering how would I ever find the eloquence to describe the sheer awe. Even now the preceding words feel inadequate.

Through it all, this day will be preserved amongst the fondest of memories, a day I will hold on to....

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ely Winter: The Kawishiwi Triangle

The air had grown cold; it would leave you breathless in the morning rays. The land outside my cabin had been draped in white, the snow clung to tree limbs ornamenting them in beauty. The icy grip of winter had transformed the lake outside my window to a frozen playground.

As a lover of winter, I had taken to the snow with frequency. The usual was cross country skiing on the local groomed trails. But here on the door step of the wilderness I found that there was more to be explored and skis would bring me where my wanderlust would take me.

However the winter air had grown frigid as temperatures reached no higher than -5 in the peak of daylight and regularly crept to -25 below in the darkness. I made a call on New Years Day and shortly thereafter found myself in a parking lot with two other companions staring across the windswept lakes. Out beyond the horizon we would trek the Kawishiwi Triangle. The daytime high was -6 and as we crossed the first lake my face was numb as the wind had a nasty bite. I am a warm bodied soul, however on several occasions the small bit of flesh exposed outside of my balaclava was ghostly white with frost. Over the course of the trip, we battled slush forced up by the river's current, which would freeze and kill ever bit of glide your skis may have had. I managed to narrowly avoid going through the ice on one occasion. And the trek wouldn't have be complete without an instance of hearty bush wacking through a thicket of alder (the northwoods most frustrating shrubbery). We skied into the darkness anticipating the rising of the moon.

It was a heavenly moment watching the darkness pierced by the moonlight rising out of the white pine studded horizon. I looked back to see our black silhouettes against a canvas of luminous white snow and our tracks a silvery line tracing into the distance. The winds grew colder and maintaining warmth became more challenging. I began to realize how vulnerable I was. Hours from civilization and warmth, needing keep the fire of exertion tended and stoked we could not stop skiing. When we arrived back to the car, I found that my boots were frozen to my skis and bindings hopelessly clogged with ice (sans the slush) as the temperature gauge read -13. Through the beauty and ruggedness of the boundary waters, we had traveled 22 miles in all. As I hopped in the car in my socks and put on borrowed shoes, I couldn't help but crave the unusual: a gas station rice cripsy bar.

For days my cheeks and nose remained as a rosey reminder of the trek. And a week later the skin from my cheeks peeled away, evidently having been been frost bit. It was day to remembered and possibilities opened to me.