Taking a winter camping trip is about constant physical exertion. No matter what you do, it’s work. Every step you take, every movement, takes effort. You have to haul. You have to drill. You have to climb. You have to dig. There’s nothing you can do without coming into contact with snow and ice. They carry you. But they demand your constant effort.
Snow and ice have two qualities that make you work – snow is heavy, ice is hard. Multiply this by 4 feet of snow and 21 inches of ice, and you have the peak winter camping conditions my friends and I faced in northern Minnesota on back-to-back winter camping trips the second and third weekends of February, 2019.
I took my first of the deep winter trips with my friend Ruurd. We left Duluth on a sunny Friday afternoon thanks to my day off at the school district. It felt good to get an early start on the weekend, which doesn’t happen very often for me, since I typically work Chester Bowl on Friday evenings.
What we found on our route north was nothing short of magical: huge snowbanks straddled the Cramer Rd. heading north from Finland, MN. Then, when we turned west onto the practically one-lane Wanless Rd, the whole roadbed became a snowy tunnel into the deep woods. We left Ruurd’s car behind and set out for Scarp Lake through the deep, viscous powder on skis and snowshoes. We were smart to plan a short entry route, because it was already 4:15 when we left the car, and we had heavy loads to pull and a large tent to set up before dark.
There was certainly no competition for a campsite… In fact, we didn’t see a soul the whole weekend. Who else would want to be out there? There was no point trying to set up camp in the woods: the snow there was even deeper than on the windswept lake. Did I mention the wind was howling the first night? Thankfully, you can camp anywhere you want on the frozen lake, and that’s what we did.
We used Ruurd’s deluxe Snowtrekker tent as our palace. This canvas-walled tent holds heat, and we had two wood stoves along on the trip. I also brought a whole bag full of dry wood from home to get us through our first night. We had a good meal, and went to sleep about 11:00. Ruurd woke up three times in the night to stoke the fire. The heat from the stove disappears within an hour…
We woke up Saturday to temps of -32 C (-25 F). Good thing we had the Snowtrekker.
Saturday was just the ultimate peak winter backcountry ski day. We headed out skiing right after breakfast, and our route along the narrow hogback ridge offered incredible vistas of the surrounding jewels. The “hogbacks” are glacially-formed, winding ridges of stratified sand and gravel. We skied all the way to Steer Lake in the morning. It doesn’t look far on the map, but breaking trail on skis through four feet of powder to get there is a totally different proposition. We made it.
I really enjoyed the challenge of skiing to Steer, and wanted to go back again so much with my ice-fishing gear that I did the whole trip all over again in the afternoon, alone.
First we came home for lunch, which was excellent. You just can’t stop eating when you’re winter camping. I drilled us two holes for an attempt at ice-fishing after lunch, but after 30 minutes of fruitless, frozen fishing, we gave up. That’s when I put my skis back on to go to Steer.
The ice-fishing on Steer didn’t produce any fish either, but I was proud I did it. I am quite confident I am the only person who is going to ice fish Steer Lake this whole winter. It felt good to tap such a pristine resource.
When I finally got home in the dark at 6:30, I was beat. Time for six bowls of soup! Ruurd and I ate the whole big pot in one evening. The wood stove was the key to our pleasure and our success. It was heaven on earth to eat a good meal in a warm tent.
Sunday morning we tried a little bit more jigging, but it was just too cold to catch anything. No matter, we will be back again in summer in the pursuit of trout.
We packed up our gear and headed back to the Hogback Lake parking lot. The usual end-of-trip exhaustion was setting in when we got to the car. Thankfully, the car started, and I treated us to coffee and donuts on the way home. Another fabulous winter trip in the books.