Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — April 2014

Chasing Winter

by Gary Thornbloom

Chasing winter is the last thing that most people would have as a goal. However, if you enjoy cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, ice fishing and winter camping — give me a chance to convince you — then seeking out expanded opportunities to enjoy winter is worth considering.

chasing winter

Chasing Winter · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

In mid-March as winter ebbed in Central Pennsylvania I traveled to Ely, in northern Minnesota, to join my friend Steve Piragis (owner of Piragis Northwoods Company — advice, as well as all the necessary winter gear can be purchased, or rented at www.piragis.com), and two of his friends, Sam Cook (outdoor writer at the Duluth News Tribune) and Doug Smith (outdoor writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune) for a winter trek into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). The three of them have been friends since the 70’s, and with their past winter treks into the BWCAW, I was in good hands!

The BWCAW was one of the first wilderness areas protected by the Wilderness Act of 1964 (2014 is its 50th Anniversary). Native Pennsylvanian Howard Zahniser pursued passage of this act for almost a decade. Much of the language in the act, including this definition of wilderness, was his:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

We would be visitors, winter camping in this wilderness area. Winter backpacking can be an ordeal, an exercise in survival. On this winter camping trip, I was anticipating something different, something that would be an enjoyable challenge.

Thompson Woods Preserve

Pulling pulks · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

As we snowshoed north into the BWCAW each of us pulled a pulk — a 6 foot long toboggan with long fiberglass poles connected to a harness that enabled us to snowshoe or ski while pulling our circa 75 lb. loads. Backpacking with that weight would have been tortuous. Pulling the pulk was a challenge at times, like when we had five-foot snowdrifts to go through, but in general the effort was not difficult.

Shelter was the next part of making winter camping an enjoyable adventure. The 10’ by 15’ Snowtrekker canvas tent, along with a wood stove, ensured that we would enjoy the wilderness in comfort and warmth. We could dry our clothes, and sit in shirt sleeves even as the temperature dropped to –24 F, as it did the second night we were out. After we turned in for the night, the fire would burn out, but we slept snug in sleeping bags that were rated to –40 F.

On a prior trip to the BWCAW, a paddling partner’s elderly aunt asked, “So, what do you do out there?” On a winter trip, prior to setting up the tent, snow is shoveled from the space the tent will occupy, the tent is erected, stove and stove pipe are assembled, and paths for essential purposes like access to the wilderness latrine, are packed by snowshoeing paths throughout the campsite area. Each person unpacks their personal gear.

Out on the lake we use an ice auger to drill through 38” of ice to access water. Next, there is a short trek to locate, cut, and fill the pulk with, firewood — bone dry balsam and cedar. Back at camp the wood is split and piled.

Cooking supper on the hot surface of the wood stove is a leisurely task, carried out while swapping stories and sipping wine. Dishes are cleaned, some more stories, and then it is time for some well earned sleep.

The first person up gets a fire burning in the stove and heats water to make coffee from a french press. Piragis is usually the early riser, and he is also a wiz at campfire and wood stove cooking. Breakfast was tortillas topped with cheese, eggs done to each persons preference, salsa, and bacon.

Catching crappies

Catching dinner · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

The three Minnesotans were eager to fish. Once holes were drilled through the ice, the fish were soon biting, and before long we had enough crappies for dinner. We returned to camp, ate lunch, and after a short nap, cross-country skied on two arms of the lake. Supper was fish fillet’s — golden to perfection — pasta, corn, wine and chocolate. That night we went out and walked on the lake beneath a full moon. We saw fresh wolf tracks and tried howling. Deeper silence was the response.

Each morning, new wolf tracks were near our camp. Twice we saw eagles. There were also coyote and fox tracks on the lake. Otter tracks in that frozen landscape were a surprise. Snowshoe hare and grouse tracks threaded the trail we followed to and from the lake.

Following wolf tracks

Following wolf tracks back to the truck · Photo by Gary Thornbloom

As we snowshoed out, we observed that we were following wolf tracks the entire way back to our truck.

What we do out there is get back to living life at a basic level. We are out there with wildlife — and like them must tend to shelter, water, and food. We explore and enjoy the wilderness that we crave. We are immersed in a landscape that deserves the word awesome: white expanse of lake, pines and fir, some white birch, rock, and the promise or presence of wildlife. We share stories around the warmth of fire. We get back in touch with what most human beings have always done.

John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, wrote:

Wilderness is a necessity...There must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls.

So, the best answer to “What do you do out there?” may be that we go into the wilderness to satisfy our souls, to challenge ourselves, and to return refreshed.

...and chasing winter? We go in winter because wilderness is a bit wilder then. We go in winter because we enjoy winter!


Gary Thornbloom is the Co-Chair of the Public Lands Committee, PA Chapter Sierra Club; he can be reached at bearknob@verizon.net