November–December 2021

Lure of the Wild Ice

My dad had long wanted to skate in the BWCA. Last year he got his chance.

Sophia Lauber

When my dad gets a vision of a wilderness adventure in his head, he can’t shake it. He has been obsessed with one particular idea ever since he began winter camping 17 years ago—skating the lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Skateable wild ice occurs only when freezing temperatures are unaccompanied by snowfall and high winds, making it a rare and short-lived occurrence. 

In December 2020, when we began to hear rumors of lakes with perfect black ice, my dad immediately sent emails to outfitters and lodges along the Gunflint Trail. He compulsively checked webcams of lakes and monitored news from up north, and when he came across a video of people playing hockey on pristine ice on Seagull Lake, he couldn’t wait any longer.

We contacted family friends who wanted to join us, packed for a three-night trip, and left before sunrise the next day.
When we arrived at Seagull Lake, snow was falling and a light layer already covered the lake. We had missed the perfect black ice by a day, but the dream wasn’t completely out of reach; the ice was smooth and still skateable.

Pulling sleds of gear, we set off down the lake to find a campsite. Narrow channels between islands had frozen earlier than deeper parts of the lake. They had become encrusted with a few inches of snow and slowed our progress. We encountered open water at a chokepoint in the lake where a strong current kept it from freezing over. My morale dropped when we were forced to turn around and follow a different route. Maybe only part of the lake was good for skating. Maybe we had driven all this way for nothing.

But then the lake opened up to a large bay alongside Three Mile Island, and any rough spots disappeared. My dad whooped with joy as we gained momentum, taking large strides toward red pines on a rocky point where we would set up camp.

This was my first winter camping trip in years; the skating had won me over. I had gone once when I was much younger, but the discomfort of the cold had convinced me to stick to summer adventures. My dad has been taking me and my siblings on BWCA trips for as long as I can remember, and I spent a summer guiding canoe trips through YMCA Camp Menogyn, so the north woods feel like home to me.

Often, as I led campers on their first trips to the BWCA, I thought about what it’s like to see this place for the first time. I am blessed to have spent so much time in the BWCA, but familiarity changes how one sees a place. I am still stunned by its beauty but not with the awe of a first-time visitor.

This trip gave me a taste of that experience. Winter showed me a different side of the BWCA and allowed me to explore a familiar place from a new perspective.

The Boundary Waters is certainly harsher in the winter, but it also presents beauties of its own. The first night offered one of the most impressive night skies I have ever seen. An impossible number of stars hung above us in the hazy white clouds of the Milky Way as we basked in the warmth of the fire.

The next morning, we woke up to tiny crystals of frost coating every branch and blade and needle on the trees and bushes around us. Big snowflakes fell that day as we explored, turning everything shades of white. The snow muted all sound, making the environment seem gentler. Wolves howled at night, and we found scat and tracks on the ice.

The world seemed too frozen for any creatures to survive, so I was amazed at every tiny red squirrel or chickadee I spotted, although they are creatures I would barely notice during the summer.

Each day, we laced up our skates with stiff fingers and took to the ice, exhilarated by the feeling of speeding down the lake. Excluding the occasional dogsled, skating was faster than any mode of transportation I had ever experienced in the BWCA—it put cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to shame. We glided across the ice, covering a mile in just minutes. It gave us a new freedom to explore, but it also required us to be cautious as areas of the lake remained unfrozen. We avoided any open water or thin ice by skating down shorelines and remaining in bays of the lake.

About five inches thick in most places we were skating, the lake ice was constantly cracking. The noise reverberated across the lake all day and night.

The first time I heard it, I told everyone to stop moving and listen. “Is that the ice?” I asked incredulously. “It sounds like a pod of whales.” Our family friends live on a lake and were less surprised by it. “It’s the ice talking,” one of them said.

It groaned and pinged and boomed the entire trip. Ice does this as it expands or contracts with temperature changes. While it is harmless, I got a rush of adrenaline every time a crack echoed right beneath my feet.

On our last full day, the wind picked up, pushing snow into drifts across the lake. A maze of clear ice wound through the drifts, leaving just a glimpse of what the entire lake had looked like days before. The large cracks we’d listened to the whole trip were now visible jagged lines. Near the shore, we could see through the dark ice filled with tiny air bubbles to the rocks below.

Bundled up without an inch of skin showing, I wanted to keep moving to stay warm. I picked up a hockey stick and passed a puck with my dad in a large area of relatively snowless ice next to the palisades. I reached out and touched a smooth rock face that I had visited just months ago in the summer. It felt strange to see it from such a high vantage point instead of looking up at it from a canoe.

As the sun set, the patches of clear ice reflected the orange glow of the sky. My dad spent every last moment of sunlight on the unblemished ice, his skates leaving crisp marks behind him.

“Hockey and winter camping—does it get better than this?” he asked gleefully as he skated up to me. His enthusiasm for his dream finally fulfilled had not dimmed, even if the ice wasn’t quite as he had envisioned. We were enjoying what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I had gotten to see my favorite place on earth in a new light. l might never enjoy the cold, but I finally understood why winter camping fills my dad with such complete joy.

“This is heaven,” he said as he passed by me, skating away across the lake and into the sunset.