Two a.m. Saturday morning I woke up from the hard ground, but I was still warm, and happy about it. There were only six hours until sunrise, I could feel nine toes, and I was confident that Scott wasn’t going to have to pull me out on his sled, though I’d had my doubts earlier in the day.
This was my first winter camp experience, brief as it was in the BWCA, and we’d left the west end of Snowbank Lake mid-morning, the temp slightly above zero. We skied across to the southeast end and trudged the portage to Disappointment before noon, and were about half way across Disappointment when I nearly became a pathetic caricature straight out of Jack London.
We’d hit slush for the umpteenth time, which iced up my sled and made it impossible to pull. On Scott’s advice (unfailing wise sage of the Norr), I’d taken to unharnessing, and flipping the sled to pound the ice off of it. I thought I’d stopped beyond the slush patch, but when I stepped off of my skis, I suddenly plunged through the snow crust and was ankle deep in 33 degree slush.
I scrambled on top of my sled, and by some miracle, my ankle high ski boots were just high enough. Scott, at this point, was three or four hundred yards ahead of me, a dot in the expanse of white. I managed to put on my snowshoes and pull the sled to a safer place to pound the ice off it, by which time Scott had backtracked to see whether his prized rookie was going to be come dead weight.
“Everything alright, rookie?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Damned slush.”
By the time we reached the east end of Disappointment, Scott (did I mention his wisdom) abandoned the original itinerary – snowshoeing another three hours through the beaver country to Muzzle Lake – and he suggested we set up camp right there. Still counting the blessings and my dry toes, I concurred.
There, in the shadow of Disappointment Mountain, we stripped of our sweat soaked ski clothes and put on some layers of dry. I put on about 5 layers, I think. We spent the afternoon setting up camp, gathering firewood, and then dropping some lines into Disappointment with the expected result. Dark by 4:30, we swapped stories around the fire, ate spaghetti and bratwurst (Scott’s menu that deserves some serious respect), howled at the moon, fondly remembered Governor Blagojevich and other notables, and took a brisk walk out onto the lake to get the blood flowing before we slipped into our sleeping bags, the real test. It was here that I would either die, or live to tell the story.
The good news is that sometime in the night, clouds crept in and the temperature started to rise so that by morning, it was a balmy twelve degrees. If it had crept below zero or if a wind had come up, I wouldn’t have felt any toes come morning. I thank my father-in-law back in Grygla for praying for me all night long.
Not to Disappoint, the next morning Scott actually caught a fat Walleye (I hooked him first and lost him…yes, really!). We broke camp about noon as the east wind kicked up and snow started to fall. Compared to the brilliance of Friday’s sunshine, the near snow-blindness of skiing through the half light of a snowstorm was breathtaking. Scott, a black speck in a vast, soft edged swirling whiteness, slowly lead me back westward.
The clincher was when Scott stopped and pointed to a dark spot off to the left.
“I think that’s a wolf kill. How curious are you?”
It looked pretty far, and like a speck, but I said, “Pretty curious.”
We skied over, and sure enough, the deer carcass was bright red with gnawed flesh – nearly all of it gone – but Scott figured they’d be back again to clean it up. Since we hadn’t seen it on the way out the day before, it must have happened that night under the waxing quarter moon, about two miles from where we’d slumbered.
I didn’t take any samples for the crime lab. Nature’s justice was served, and my toes were intact for the next trip.
Of course winter camping is dangerous, but then again, so it taking a shower. I arrived home that night to learn that my sister-in-law had fainted in her shower and broken her jaw when she hit the vanity. She’s got her jaw wired shut for three weeks now. Poor kid. She’s got some tough sledding ahead of her.
I’d rather have a cold toe any day of the week.
Note: I took no pictures because there’s enough futzing with gloves off as it is on a trip like this. But maybe next time.