Spring Break 2018: Ultimate Camping Experiment

This Spring Break was my third as an instructor at UWS, and every year at this time I harken back to my original spring break winter camping experience, at Tettegouche State Park in northern Minnesota, when I was a student at Macalester College. That set the tone for my life-long interest in winter camping/exploring. Naturally, I wanted to get another Spring Break camping experience under my belt this year (last year we bought a house and moved over break, and the two years before that we went to Thunder Bay, Canada). But then I got to thinking about taking a trip to Florida to visit relatives, and it occurred to me that with a whole week off, I could conduct a grand experiment: four days of summer camping in Florida, followed by three days of winter camping in the Boundary Waters, all during one Spring Break. And then gauge the benefits and weaknesses of both.

We drove to Minneapolis on the 17th of March, stayed overnight with friends, and took off the next morning for sunny Florida. The flights went fine and by 3:00 p.m. we were at Jonathan Dickinson State Park, setting up our tent!


These ladies know what they’re doing with a tent!

It’s very rare that we go on camping trips by plane. I think this was our first ever camping trip done as a family of four by plane. But we managed to get our tent, four sleeping pads, two blankets, one sleeping bag, and camp stove and fuel canister in the the one suitcase we brought (it’s a big suitcase!). This was anything but wilderness camping, but that was kind of the beauty of it – no need to cook, no need to build fires, no need to do anything at the campsite, really. We only came there to sleep. But we slept so well! Maybe it was because we got up at 3:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, but I slept for 10 hours straight the first night. My alarm didn’t go off Monday morning (I set it for 7:30 p.m. instead of a.m. the night before because I was so tired), and we slept in till 8:30! Waking up to a warm morning with birds singing all around was a transcendental experience. It was like being in a new world. It felt wonderful.

We spent the next three days going to Grandma’s house, visiting Uncle David and Auntie Anne and Aunt Diane, and hanging out on the beach. It was fabulous to be outdoors in bathing suits and shorts. We got perfect beach weather all three days.


Vanessa playing in the Atlantic Ocean. She loves going under!

The sandy beach felt soothing on our long-frozen feet, and Inna was thrilled to go on long walks. Adriana loved playing in the inflatable raft.


Scared of the approaching Vanessa monster!

It was a really happy vacation for us, maybe in part because we got to enjoy so many good meals, and just lounging around at Grandma’s house, which was definitely the perfect setting for some idyllic photos.


Flower girl.

We even took our time to relax a little. The girls loved using the outdoor shower as well as playing on the little patio in the yard.


Chilling out in the hot sun.

We got back to the beach on Tuesday morning, and the waves had picked up considerably. More great fun for the girls.


Somebody seems happy!

Finally, Wednesday morning, we took our final walk on the beach. Every morning we started out by heading south, going under the Lake Worth Pier, then coming back to our main beach location. It was hard to accept that this would be our last walk, but I had Minnesota winter camping in the back of my mind, and was excited for a new test.


Kind of sad to be heading home. Had an excellent beach vacation though.

We got home to Minnesota without any trouble, I took one day at home to catch up on things, then Friday morning picked up my friend Jim and headed north to the BWCA.

The turnaround from summer to winter camping proved to be a little too quick, and a bit stressful – it was hard packing all over again, but for different conditions. There is so much more packing involved for winter camping. This time we had to bring all our own food and do our own cooking too. Still, we got off by 8:30 a.m. from Jim’s house on Park Point. I offered to take my car, and would soon come to regret it.

My car is old. Very old. It’s still working, but it’s been gradually developing little problems. This time a little problem (the rubber gasket under the hood had come loose, and was flopping around on the hood in the wind), became a big problem. Specifically, I stopped at the Tettegouche parking lot, 58 miles up Highway 61, to open the hood and rip off the flapping rubber. Problem though – when I shut the hood, and we both checked it twice to make sure it was closed – the rusty, corroded latch mechanism hadn’t actually caught. It felt tight to the touch. But when we drove up the highway, the hood all of a sudden came flying off, ripped right off the hinges, and smashed right into us. Terrifying moment. What saved us was the handmade roof rack. Instead of smashing the windshield to bits, the hood made first impact with the rack instead. The wooden cross bar took the brunt of the blow, and thanks to that, I still have a windshield. There was nothing we could do with the broken, bent hood, so we stashed it in the woods at mile 59, and continued on our trip. It was a Third World sort of experience driving the rest of the way without a hood, but that’s what you do when you really want to go camping.

The three days up north were fantastic. I got to take a sauna, sleep outside in my tent (two more excellent nights of sleep), and do a ton of skiing and ice-fishing. It was all about peace and exploration. There were three feet of snow in the woods, and 30 inches of ice on the lakes. Perfect conditions!


 I banked my tent below the snow line and used the snow to insulate and protect. 

Our ski trips with Jim were fabulous. We were staying on West Bearskin Lake, and we went to Daniels Lake and back the first day. We met a group winter camping on Daniels with four fathers and four daughters. They have an annual winter camping tradition, dating back 10 years already. They started winter camping when the girls were just 8 years old. Now the four girls are 18 and still going out to Daniels Lake each March. The fathers ice-fish and the girls hang out together. The fathers told us that going with friends is what makes it so fun for the girls. Inspiring!


Entry point #61 to the BWCA (portage from West Bearskin Lake to Daniels Lake).

Our one full day (Saturday, the 24th), we made an eight-hour long loop West Bearskin Lake-Duncan Lake-Rose Lake-Border Route Trail-Daniels Lake-West Bearskin Lake. This ski trip brought us right to Canada and back. It was an incredible grand finale to the winter ski season for me.

Bearskin-Duncan-Rose-Daniels-Bearskin Lake.jpg

Map of our ski expedition route, skiing west to Duncan, then along the Canadian border, and back through Daniels to West Bearskin. The yellow dot is where we stopped for our lunch, which I cooked on my camp stove. We skied 8 hours altogether.  

I had no luck on my ice-fishing in the Boundary Waters, same as last year. But hey, it’s not every day you get to ice-fish on the border with Canada.


Still cold and windy in late March. The cliffs behind me are in Canada.

Thankfully, the car still worked on Sunday morning, and as I drove us home, all I could think about was what an incredible, long winter I’ve had. (Six to eight inches of snow are forecast for tonight (March 30-31) in Duluth as I write this, so maybe I’m jumping the gun – there could still plenty of winter left to go.)


An unfortunate coincidence, but even so the car got us to the BWCA and back.

We stopped on the way home at the Onion River for yet another great (short) ski on groomed trails, and with that my amazing Spring Break of 2018 was complete.

Overall I confirmed that I like summer camping and winter camping equally well. They each have their particularities. We had cockroaches one evening in our tent in Florida, and ants another night. I had the usual frosted condensation from my breath inside the tent up north. But I slept great in both places. And I enjoyed my usual sense of freedom and feeling of being part of nature in both places. There’s no winner – camping is great any time of year for me.

Ice-Fishing Out the Season

It’s been a long winter, and anyone and everyone who lives in northern Minnesota would say the same. But that’s not a bad thing. As spring gradually seeps in, and the days get longer and warmer, there’s still good ice and snow out there. This combination of the old and the new means March has the perfect conditions for winter pursuits in comfort. It’s just the right time for me to take the whole family out exploring without feeling like I’m torturing anyone… Thus, recently we’ve had some of our best ice-fishing trips of the whole season. Here’s a short review.

I took my friends Jim and Andrew on a great trip out to my favorite little trout stream right in Duluth on Sunday, March 4th. It’s a big source of pride for me that we can catch native brook trout less than a mile from our house. It was also a great source of pride to be a fishing guide for my friends on this trip.


Andrew with a sweet brook trout.

We caught five fish altogether following a slow start. Thankfully, when you’re in good company, it’s easier to stay out longer, and eventually, the bite got hot. Andrew lost one fish that he actually got out onto the ice, only for the fish to jump off the hook and slither back down the hole. I had another fish break my line… Must have been a big trout! The ones that get away are always the biggest fish.


Some happy anglers with their native Duluth trophies.

We brought the trout home and fried them in a little flour, salt, and pepper for a fabulous lunch. I enjoyed cleaning them on the homemade cutting board that Andrew gave me for Christmas.


Great gift from Andrew, put to its proper use.

The three of us went out again the following weekend, but this time we took the girls along too. We went out on Saturday afternoon, following the girls’ ballet lesson, and conditions were sunny and beautiful. We did a little sledding and skiing on our way down to the water.


Heading out for some fishing.  Daddy towing the precious cargo.

I can’t say we had a lot of action this time around with the fishing, catching only one nice trout. But we more than made up for it with great camaraderie. Jim and Andrew brought all kinds of goodies, and we made a little spring party on the ice.


Hot drinks and good snacks keep everyone happy on the ice.

And even when the fish aren’t biting, there are other ways to have fun on the water. Like just lounging on the ice.



Or piggy back-fishing.



Finally came the grand finale for our family ice-fishing exploits, this time on March 11th right on Lake Superior in downtown Duluth. Wind and temperature conditions worked together to provide six inches of stable ice right off of 17th Av. East. It was the perfect time and place for us: we all had a day off, it’s only a 5 minute drive from our house, and we used the Lakewalk to access this spot, which meant Inna could go for a long walk, as she likes to do, while the kids and I got to play on the ice, as we like to do.


Urban fishing.

We joined out friends, who also have two kids, and the play was on (the fishing was not productive on this day). The ice screws I brought definitely made for some fun on the ice.


Playing with ice screws on the beautiful clear Superior ice.

Inna got in her long walk in good company while we ice-fished, and then I made hot drinks on my little samovar to get the ladies warm. Adriana even found a Minnesota-shaped piece of ice for Inna.



Minnesota-esque piece of ice!

It’s a cool feeling to go out and enjoy your city from the ice. It gives you a unique and different perspective of where you live and why you live there. This trip made me proud of us and our home.









Good Things (Snowstorms) Come in Threes

This past week in Duluth was a kind of peak, a culmination of our first four winters living in Duluth. That’s because the snow came once, it came twice, and it came three times! And by the time it was all done, there were 22 inches of fresh powder lying on top of what we already had. This is what I’ve been waiting for. This is what I was dreaming about when we decided to move to Duluth, MN. This is the stuff that winter fantasies are made of.

It all started on Sunday afternoon, the 18th of March. We went skiing as a family at Mont Du Lac that morning, where we met up with two other families we know with kids. It was a good time, and the skies were ominously grey… Sure enough, on our way home, it started snowing. The wind picked up, and we got several inches during the evening.

The real storm came on Monday – President’s Day. I did my first shovel of the day in the morning right after I woke up. I like taking my coffee outside and shoveling the driveway at sunup. Little did I know what was in store for the shoveling muscles this week…

I had already arranged to take the girls with me to work for the day, since their school was on vacation for the week. The girls always love coming to my workplace, but this time was extra special – it snowed all day.  Since I have a beautiful classroom full of tall windows, I got to observe the snow falling the whole day as I taught. It’s one my favorite things about my classroom. The girls were also extremely fortunate to be given two Korean national dresses as a gift from my South Korean student!


Perfect timing on my student’s part – she gave the girls these Korean dresses right during the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

The wind was whipping out of the north all day, creating lake effect snow over Superior. When we got home from work, I shoveled our driveway again – we had a good four inches. Then I went skiing at Spirit Mountain. The girls stayed home that evening, but it was the right choice – the snow was still coming down hard, and the wind was still pumping. I had a great ski in the powder at Spirit. Then I shoveled again late that night – good things come in threes.

Tuesday we woke up to two big surprises: 1. I felt very sick, and 2. I found out about 8 a.m. that school had been cancelled for the day. It was my first ever snow day while teaching at UWS.  The timing was excellent – all I could do was lay in bed all day with the flu. I slept from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and again from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. I was really sick, and felt like I would throw up. I definitely needed to rest.

Wednesday, I went back to work, somehow, and by Thursday I was ready to get back on skis. This time I skied 1 hr and 48 minutes on my cross-country skis at the Superior Municipal Forest. It was 20 km at least. I felt great. And then the snow came again! The second big storm of the week came overnight into Friday. This time school wasn’t cancelled, but we got even more snow than the first storm. I started the day with more shoveling, and I quickly decided not to try driving the girls to Key Zone for the day. Our road wasn’t plowed, and I wasn’t interested in taking the risk. Instead I took them with me to work again – for the second time of the week! We took the bus in the storm. I have to say, taking the public transportation during a snowstorm is one of the best feelings I know. A feeling of calm and peace – let the driver do the work he or she is paid to do. We met one of my students in the bus on our way to class, and it was fun sharing my ski goggles with him. Coming from Cameroon, he had never worn a ski mask before.

Au boulot

Walking from the bus stop to the university with my Cameroonian student. 

Friday was a great day at the university – huge snowball fight with the students during lunch break, and the girls took part as well.

Friday evening would have been my shift to work the chairlift at Chester Bowl, but because the public schools had the week off, Chester was open during daytime hours, and closed in the evening. I took advantage of this night off by taking the girls to ski at Spirit Mountain in the fresh powder. The girls loved skiing through the woods. The snow was deep enough to make all the woods runs possible. Lots of fun jumps and obstacles in the woods. We skied right up until they closed at 8:30, and it was one of our best family ski trips of the year, even if Inna chose to stay home and relax without us.

Saturday was another busy day, volunteering at the Chester Bowl winter carnival. The kids had a great time, including driving the snowmobile!


Adriana whipping around the snowmobile course.

Saturday night was another night off for me – incredibly, my shift at the DECC was cancelled because the Minnesota state hockey tournament I was supposed to work at was postponed due to snow. A big storm – our third of the week – was forecast for the evening.

We took advantage of my night off to drive north to Giants Ridge. It’s an annual trip for us. The drive is an hour due north to Biwabik. Giants Ridge is a cool place, and Inna joined us for this trip. The girls had a great time skiing through the woods again.


The traditional family portrait at Giants Ridge – 2018 version.

The adventure was only beginning though – just as we finished skiing at 7:30 p.m., the third snowstorm of the week came racing at us. It was coming from the south, and we drove right into it – for 80 miles straight. It was blizzard conditions the whole way back to Duluth. The wind was blowing snow sideways across the road, and visibility was no more than a hundred feet. We only saw one plow the whole way home – in the ditch. Thankfully, we made it, thanks to Inna’s RAV4. That car has been gold this winter.

We woke up Sunday morning to another 8 inches of snow. I happened to have another day off, and of course it started with shoveling… It took over an hour to shovel my car out and shovel 18th Av. all the way up to 3rd St. so I could get out and drive to another day of skiing – this time backcountry skiing in Lutsen. I finally drove off at noon, and when I got to Lutsen, I found an absolute powder paradise.


Making tracks through two feet of fresh powder is hard work.

To finish it all off, my boss and I drove eight of our students to Spirit Mountain on Tuesday evening for a night on the slopes. None of the eight students had ever skied before, all coming from China and Vietnam. It was a lot of physical work to get eight students up and running on skis, but I could see they had the time of their lives.


I got great help from my two little ski instructor assistants.

One of my students told me he can’t event study at night now – he just thinks about skiing all the time. Don’t I know the feeling.