This winter has been full of good things for those who like the outdoors in northern Minnesota. We got ample cold in November, making early ice. Then we got 19 inches of snow in a day in Duluth the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Thankfully, that snow is still on the ground, and we’ve gotten more since. This all means that we’re having another great season for ice-fishing, alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, and all the other winter outings that make life good.
Take winter camping, for example. I’m not sure how I’ve pulled if off, but I’ve been been winter camping four times so far this season. That’s once a month, since November. And three of those times were with my girls! Here’s the recount:
November: Winterer’s Gathering, Grand Marais, MN
This “urban” winter camping trip was so good, I even made it on the front page of the local newspaper. We drove up to this winter camping festival on Friday after work, and took Stella, Adriana, and Vanessa with. It was to be Stella’s first-ever winter camping experience, at 2 months, 28 days old. Hopefully we got the good things going early in her subconscious memory.
We had a great time meeting all the other crazy people like us at the Gathering. There’s always a good vibe at the North House Folk School, and I like spending time with people who live further north than we do. The camping conditions are nothing to brag about – in a municipal campground with paved roads… But we do get to boast that we slept on the shore of Lake Superior.
Besides enjoying the speakers and group dinner at the Folk School on Friday night, I also enjoyed cooking breakfast for the family on my wood stove lakeside the next morning. It was a surprise to be interviewed by local journalist John Stember at 7:00 in the morning in 30 mph winds for the Cook County News Herald… I guess that’s the way journalists roll up here.
Then the “urban” side of our trip really came through – we went for a celebratory dip in the Grand Marais YMCA sauna and hot tub to mark our first winter camping of the season, and our first trip as a family of five.
It was a great feeling to make my dreams of winter camping with the baby come true in Grand Marais.
December: With Vanessa and Adriana at Boulder Lake, Fredenberg MN
We are fast developing a tradition of going winter camping with the girls to Boulder Lake (30 minutes north of Duluth) on the first Saturday night of our Christmas break (if you can count two years in a row as a tradition…).
I was psyched for winter break this year, since I worked so hard all fall and winter to that point. A busy time in my life. The weather for our outing was perfect – about 25 degrees, and calm. We didn’t arrive until 4:00 p.m. to the boat launch parking lot. Unfortunately, this is about dusk this time of year in northern Minnesota (we were camping the night of the Winter Solstice).
We set out on our skis onto the snow-covered lake, and, I admit it – I got us lost. It shouldn’t have happened – I had been to the lake many times before. But the copious amounts of snow, the darkness, and the multiple islands disoriented me. It was also a factor of just wanting so badly to get to our “Wolf Den” campsite and set up for the night. I rushed, and turned us too early, taking us went into the wrong bay.
After an extra hour of skiing, we finally found our destination, and had a nice evening in the snow, and a great night’s sleep in the tent together. I learned my lesson for next time – get there while it’s still light out. Our simple one-nighter at Boulder Lake is an introductory winter camping experience to get the girls in the game, and I hope to keep doing it year after year.
January: Woolsock Winter Camp and Dance weekend, Finland, MN
Our next trip was a big step up in our repertoire – camping in a hot tent with a large group of like-minded people at the Woolsock winter camp and folk dance weekend. This is THE premiere event for people who like the northern MN winter lifestyle. My respect to the event organizers. It’s so cool to see people of all ages spending a weekend dancing and camping together at the Clair Nelson Community Center in Finland. This area has the quintessential northern Minnesota flair – a frozen river to ski on (the Baptism), higher “snowbelt” elevations, and more snowmobiles than cars on the roads. Once again I brought the whole family up after work on Friday evening. We rented a tent from the Woolsock organizers, which came with a wood stove, and I spent most of the evening setting up the tent for a night of “hot” camping. We also had the communal dinner with the other festival-goers. The group meals are a big part of the Woolsock experience, and it was nice not to have to do any cooking on this trip.
The canvas tents do a fairly got job of retaining heat once you get the wood stove cranking. Of course the fire burns out after a few hours, and it gets cold again. Sleeping on the frozen ground, you feel the cold. I got up at 4:00 a.m. to stoke the stove again.
On Saturday morning we had breakfast inside with all the other festival-goers, then we took off for a day of skiing at Lutsen. It was great to see Inna and the girls ski together while I walked with baby Stella. Vanessa took advantage of her 4th grade Minnesota ski passport for a day of free skiing.
We took the gondola over to Moose Mountain together in the afternoon, and Inna and Stella hung out in the chalet while Vanessa, Adriana and I skied the big stuff.
Then we headed back to Finland for another evening of dancing. I have to admit I didn’t take part in the folk dancing (bad memories of square dancing at gym class in elementary school), but the girls did. I took the opportunity to use the outdoor sauna.
Saturday night I woke up twice to stoke the fire, and we all slept in till 10:00 a.m. Overall, “hot camping” was great, but I don’t consider it to be any better than “cold camping” in my mountaineering tent. The main advantage of the hot tent is that it’s more spacious, and there is plenty of room to cook inside. The downside is you end up spending a lot of time inside the tent. For me, winter camping is about the challenge of being outdoors.
February: With Jeff and Ruurd, Kemo Lake, Grand Marais, MN
I got in a classic winter camping trip with my friends Jeff and Ruurd on the weekend of February 6-7-8. We drove up early in the morning on Friday, when I had the day off from work. We got to Ball Club Lake Rd. by 11:00, and by noon we were heading off on our skis, pulling our pulks. This is my favorite type of winter camping – pull a big load, set up base camp, and get out in the wilderness for multiple days. This was the fourth straight year Jeff and I have winter camped together, and my second year in a row with Ruurd.
The main purpose of this trip was to ice fish for lake trout, and the fish did not disappoint! We had absolutely superb fishing both Saturday and Sunday. I’ve never experienced anything like it for trout. The trout were hitting our jigs before they even reached bottom. The time from 11:00 a.m. to noon was when the bite was on fire. I cooked us fresh lake trout for lunch on Saturday. Then we headed out to Talus Lake, and had a great time exploring this remote lake, even if the fish weren’t biting there.
We had a beautiful red fox visit us at camp both nights (full moon, by the way). That was like the icing on the cake to a great wilderness experience.
I’m eyeing my spring break in March as an ideal opportunity to get in one more winter camping trip this season. Five times in one winter, five months in a row. Let’s see.