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.

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