A winter fishing and camping trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is an altogether different experience than a summertime journey to the area. It's a slower, colder excursion, to be sure, but also quieter and more exhilarating and demanding. There's more gear to haul in. Wood must be cut and split with a greater sense of urgency and necessity. Holes need to be drilled in the frozen lakes to expose water for drinking, for cooking, and, if you're lucky, for catching fish.
During a time of year when everything is locked in snow and ice, only a hardy few venture deep into this revered, million-acre wilderness within Minnesota's Superior National Forest. Indeed, the BWCA receives fewer than 7,000 visitors each winter, compared to the tens of thousands who visit the wilderness during spring, summer, and fall.
My annual winter trip to the area has its roots in the early 1980s, when my friends Terry Boerboom and Dan England—both geologists doing graduate work at the University of Minnesota Duluth at the time—gathered a group for their maiden cold-weather Boundary Waters trek. Over the years, Terry and Dan introduced a cadre of others to their frozen adventures, sometimes making four outings per winter. I met Terry 40 years ago and joined his winter BWCA crew in the mid-2000s after the two of us had reconnected. I've been a part of this troop of 50- and 60-somethings ever since.
Our trips have evolved to just four short days and three long nights. We go in Thursday morning and head out Sunday after breakfast. This year's group included Terry, Dan, Dale Setterholm, Bruce Huset, Jeff Lynott, and me. We kicked things off the same way we do every year: by meeting on a day in late March at the Subway restaurant in Grand Marais at 10 a.m. sharp. While wolfing down subs, we had the usual chat about whether we'd be able to drive our trucks to the Boundary Waters entry point off the Gunflint Trail—or whether our six-mile drive on the forest service road would be halted by deep snow. If snow proved to be an issue, then our trek in would be three times as long and three times as grueling.
A Good Start
Despite the deep snow, luck was on our side this time, allowing us safe passage to within a half-mile of the entry point. Bruce, wisecracking, tall, and slim, led the way in his truck, breaking trail, slipping, and sliding, while Dan and I followed closely behind in our trucks.
"We made it!" yelled Terry, the ever-enthusiastic field geologist, as we parked. We all responded with a round of cheers and hoots, thankful and relieved to be arriving as close to the trailhead as we did. But we still had a long way to go. No more riding in comfortable cabs now. Ahead of us was a steep uphill climb over the first Boundary Waters hill and down the first rocky portage to our first lake crossing of the day. And following that, two sweaty hours of skiing and snowshoeing while pulling our Nordic-style transport toboggans (aka pulks) through three more portages and across three more lakes.
Before long, we started off, listening to the steady swishing of skis or clomping of snowshoes and our own labored breaths. We stopped at each portage to rest and offer each other encouraging words and help. The portages were exhausting—twice as hard to negotiate in the winter as they were in the summer. But all that labor was worth it for the chance to feel the sun's warmth on our faces while taking in the panoramic beauty around us. We saw breathtaking vistas on rocky outcrops overlooking the Sawtooth Mountains. We admired tranquil, snow-covered lakes ringed with weather-beaten white pines and twisted northern white cedars. Overhead, a brilliant blue, cloudless sky contrasted sharply with the sprawling and blinding blankets of snow.
As we made our way through the three-mile trek, brisk breezes whispered through overhead pine boughs and whipped up occasional lake-top snow devils. In the distance, we heard the songs and calls of bald eagles, pine siskins, and black-capped chickadees—proof that not all life in the Boundary Waters had vanished or was asleep. The cold, fresh air felt good in our lungs.
I was the last man to reach camp, a back-bay site with southern exposure, ideal for late-winter camping and fishing. Though it was late in the afternoon, we quickly set up and organized our site well before the sun reached the high ridge that towered above our encampment on the shore. Nobody gave orders. Everyone knew what needed to be done, from unpacking sleds to shoveling tent sites to gathering wood for the night's fire.
With few words spoken, it wasn't long before we had cut, split, and stacked a supply of firewood; set up each of our own nylon, one-person tents; and caught a lake trout. Terry landed the first fish of the trip. We celebrated his "laker" with a volley of whoops that echoed across the lake, thus assuaging the fish gods and ensuring that more fish would be caught and future trout dinners would follow.
After sundown, the temperature dipped into the teens and our cedar campfire warmed us well, its sweet-smelling smoke curling into the night. Wearing his white goatee and a genuine rabbit fur cap, Dale masterfully prepped the fresh-caught trout for the cast-iron skillet, rolling the fillets in his secret breading mix. Dan, meanwhile, unveiled his old canvas silverware and utensil holder for the annual "Granting of the Fork" ritual. Each man extracted his favorite fork with care, for each fork was unique.
After frying the fish in real butter over the open flame, Dale served the golden-brown masterpieces with sliced lemons and a generous sprinkle of lemon pepper (or "lemma peppah!" as we jokingly call our secret ingredient of choice). With the stars and a nearly full moon shining brightly overhead, we sat on our oversized lawn chairs and savored each bite, swapping stories and occasionally warming our hands over the fire.
The next couple of days passed in a blur, with nature fully cooperating. Though the snow was deep and the daytime temperatures never climbed above freezing, the sun shone, winds were calm, and the fish were biting.
Our mornings had a predictable cadence. After wriggling out of our goose-down sleeping bags, we would eagerly gather around a newly stoked fire for warmth and "cowboy coffee"—nothing but coffee grounds inside a soot-covered aluminum coffee pot filled with lake water and brought to a rolling boil over the open fire. Terry would then prepare breakfast: fried eggs, venison sausage, and bacon served with melted cheese between flame-toasted bagels.
Then it was time for a bit of unstructured adventure. On our trips, it's normal for each of us to strike off on short solo sojourns into the surrounding landscape. The peace of the wild is something we all crave and need as respites from the hustle and bustle of everyday life back home.
One late sunny afternoon on this year's excursion, I snowshoed two miles on a portage trail. Shadows cast from immense conifers kept temperatures cold and the snow crust hard enough to support my weight. It was like strolling on a sidewalk in the forest. Along the way I spotted moose and fisher tracks and stopped to watch a red squirrel, which ignored my presence while expertly manipulating a pine cone in much the same way we eat corn on the cob. Pine scales flew off the cone and onto the snowpack while the squirrel devoured the seeds within.
After my solo trek, I met the guys back at camp. As we do on all warm afternoons each trip, we lined up our lawn chairs along the shore for glorious views of our frozen Boundary Waters lake and to watch our tip-ups as we basked in the powerful late-winter sun. We were also treated to captivating performances by the resident pair of nesting bald eagles swooping down from tall pines and flying overhead to nearby perches.
Someone yelled, "Flag! Jeff! Your flag is up!" We then sat back and watched the spectacle of a man in oversized boots and bulky winter clothing lumbering across snow and ice to retrieve a runaway lake trout peeling off line from the spool of his tip-up.
"Nice fish!" we exclaimed as Jeff, dressed in his bright blue coat and blue baseball cap, held out the flopping lake trout for all of us to see. "Should I keep it? How many do we have?" he shouted.
"Yeah! Keep it!" said Terry, who had been keeping track of our fish count. "We can only catch three more! We gotta eat some fish tonight!"
One for the Books
On the last morning of the trip, we began the tedious task of packing our gear and pulks. Leaving was bittersweet—it always is—though the promise of a hot shower later in the day was motivation enough to get a move on.
After we trudged out and loaded our gear into the trucks, Dale handed all of us snack bars. As we ate them in the bright sunlight beneath tall pines, springtime in the air, we shook hands and bade each other farewell.
Then someone said it. Someone always says it. "Best trip ever." And we all agreed.