Tuesday, February 5, 2013

February in the Minnesota North woods

When a friend of mine invited me up to Minnesota to join him on a back country trip I jumped at the opportunity.  Within days my tickets were booked and I started packing weeks in advance.  It had been a while since I'd used much of my cold weather gear.  I preformed the usual safety checks making sure everything was in good condition.

Let me start by saying I grew up in the Cascades in Washington state.  I am no stranger to cold weather, rain and snow.  However, nothing could prepare me for the extreme cold I was in for.  I left Texas where the temps were in the 70's.  Landing in Minneapolis the temp was right around 0.  Snow on the ground...no big deal, not that cold.  The next morning we would wake and be on the road by 4am.  The temp gauge in my buddy Ryan's FJ Cruiser read -10 degrees Fahrenheit.  Ok, getting a bit colder. Our 5 hour road trip took us to the some of the furthest most Northern roads in the state.  Temperature: 22 degrees below zero.  Painfully cold for the ill prepared.  

After unpacking our gear at the trail head I learned my first lesson:  If you have a piece of gear that is less than 400 grams of Thinsulate you're in for some serious discomfort.  Luckily my more experienced friend had an extra set of liners to wear inside my gloves.

Our trip would take us North toward Canada following the frozen Sioux River.  Our goal was to scout a number of the Boundary Water lakes, hunt some small game and hopefully photograph some wolves.

My gear setup: Osprey pack and a small sled with additional gear (pack boots, extra sleeping bag, rifle, food, snow shoes, etc).  On the river we would cross country ski.  Over portages and hunting through the woods we switched to snow shoes.

The vastness of this country is tough to conceptualize.  Over a million acres of wilderness.  We started off with Ryan in the lead cutting the trail.  The snow was deep making our progress slow.  Lesson number two learned:  Pay attention to your body heat.  Shed layers to prevent sweating.  Put the layers back on when you stop.  When its negative 20 degrees out and you get cold to the bone it take a lot of calories and time to warm back up.

We continued several miles up river to our next portage.  Less then ten miles from the Canadian border.  The sun was dropping fast...so was the temperature.  (We wouldn't find out until later that night it was 35 degrees below zero...not including any wind chill factor).  We decided to stop and make camp.  It was nice being with another experienced woodsman.  Right away we picked a spot and without much discussion went to work preparing for the night.  We worked together getting a tarp set up to serve as a retreat from the wind.  Next Ryan put his Bahco saw and Wetterlings to work getting us a base for the fire and wood.  I put together tinder, kindling and cleared a fire pit.  With one strike from the fire steel we had fire.

Our shelter was fairly basic.  We draped a tarp over a fallen tree and filled in the backside with snow.  The floor would consist of my BCUSA tarp and we each used two Thermarest  pads under our bags.  With the fire setup at one time we were actually able to raise the temp up to 17 degrees under the tarp.

Next order of business was boiling snow for drinking water.  The cold sucks moisture from your body at an insane rate.  Lesson number three learned:  Dehydration in these temperatures renders a wicked headache.

The last couple hours before nightfall were spent warming by the fire, eating, discussing plans for the next morning and enjoying the pristine wilderness surrounding us.

Later in the evening Ryan spotted what he thought was a wolf about 100 yards from camp.  With our flashlights we could make out three shapes, eye shine and pointed ears.  But as we made our way toward their location they seemed to just vanish.  Clearly just the snow playing tricks on our tired eyes...or was it.  We would find out two days later.

The next morning I crawled out of my down Marmot bag, which I had slid into a larger synthetic bag which in turn was inside a USGI gore-tex bivi.  Immediately I realized the top of my down bag was frozen solid.  Lesson number four learned: At 35 below zero if you sleep with your head inside your bag the condensation created from breathing will freeze.  I would deal with this later.  I had more important chores to tend to.  Fire, coffee and the sunrise.

The night before I had put together fire preps and wrapped them in my coat so they would be ready for the morning.  A nest of grass, birch bark, jute twine and some kindling.

My MP Knives Bowie slicing
 through birch like butter.

Lesson number five learned:  Boil water, pour into Nalgene
bottle and wrap with two wool socks.  Place in your sleeping
bag overnight and in the morning you WON'T have a solid
block of ice.

Is there a better way to start the day?  I think not...

Day two:  We made the decision to stay in this spot.  We had a good camp and cutting a trail on skis through the deep snow all day to reach the lake wasn't as appealing.  We had hoped to do some ice fishing but instead we strapped on our snow shoes and headed into the woods in search of small game.  I had brought my stainless Ruger 10/22 takedown model.

Turned out due to the extreme temperatures small game was no where to be found.  The entire afternoon we got a few shots off at some Fox and Red Squirrels.  Also kicked up a nice grouse but came home empty handed.  Nonetheless our 4 mile round trip that day was spectacular.

We tracked a Lynx just off the river.  His tracks ended here where he left his mark...

Another set of tracks continued through the snow...we were not the only ones on the Lynx's trail.

A lone wolf with tracks not more then a few hours old.  Every five hundred yards he was marking his territory.  We followed him until late in the day when it was time to head back.  Again the sun dropping fast and this night temps would dip to -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Back at camp we had a couple hours before dark. Ryan had brought an ice auger so it was time to test it out.  In just seconds he drilled through 4 to 6 inches of ice.  Up bubbled the ice cold river water.

Day three:  Pack it up and head home!  We woke up to a fresh dusting of snow that had blown in covering our bivys.  After a morning feast of bacon, oatmeal, coffee and some random carbs we packed up and headed back.  I took the lead this time.  The wind was brutal and snow had covered much of our tracks.  It was still much easier then cutting a fresh trail.

As we approached the area where two nights before we thought we spotted wolves we discovered this...

There had been wolves stalking us.  They were using the track created by our sleds to travel up and down the river.  Their tracks only left ours to head up into the woods...to a trail that ran behind our camp.  They had been watching us all along.  They truly are intelligent and incredibly elusive predators.  We tracked these three along our trail the entire way back to Ryan's car!

And every once in a while they left us a present...

Even though I didn't get to photograph any wolves I am not disappointed one bit in my trip.  I learned a lot from Ryan about surviving in such an extreme climate.  I saw some of the most beautiful land our country has to offer. And I gained a new respect for you that live your daily lives in the North woods of Minnesota...your'e a hearty breed and I tip my rabbit fur lined bomber hat to you!

Some more random pictures...thanks for looking and God bless!

And best of all....