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Winter BWCA adventure qualifies as extreme camping

Ambient temperatures dipped into the -30F range during the early February winter camping excursion Rick Mercil of Grand Forks and three friends made to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeast Minnesota. (Photo courtey of Rick Mercil)1 / 3
Rick Mercil of Grand Forks takes a break on his Pulk sled during an early February winter camping adventure into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Rick Mercil)2 / 3
Cutting wood and keeping the campfire tended and the wood stove burning was a constant challenge for Rick Mercil of Grand Forks and three friends during their recent winter camping trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Photo courtesy of Rick Mercil)3 / 3

ELY, Minn.—Winter gets pretty darn long up here in God's Country, and most of us outdoors types only have a few ice fishing trips planned to pass the time. This winter, I was hoping to find an additional adventure. Wouldn't you know, I was invited to go winter camping in the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness. I couldn't pass up the challenge.

My first planning concern was to get a good checklist from one of my more experienced buddies who had suggested the trip. He sent me his list, and I immediately noticed something of concern. It consisted of a lot of clothes: wool, down, fleece, blankets, boots, booties, gloves, mittens and more wool.

As I read the list, I thought this was way too much to drag in on a Pulk sled, a 6-foot toboggan like apparatus that attaches to your waist with a harness.

Relying on previous trips to Alaska as my guide, I packed one outer shell layer for a windbreak and a couple of thermal layers of fleece and down.

I also brought two sets of gloves along with a pair of down booties and one down parka.

We rented a 10- by 15-foot canvas tent with a wood burning stove along with sleeping bags rated to -40F and pads from Piragis, an outfitter in Ely. Our tent had no floor.

We chose to snowshoe into Wood Lake, about 20 miles northeast of Ely. Our portage would be about 1½ miles. This would take us through Superior National Forest and then onto the lake.

Youthful enthusiasm

While unpacking our trucks and loading our Pulks at the "put-in," we were full of youthful enthusiasm. After all, it was only 13 below zero, and we all were a youthful 60 years of age. My brain was telling my body that "I can do this." I may not have been aware of what was to come, but luckily, I had prepared myself mentally. Years of previous outdoor adventures would test my judgment and decision-making skills.

When our Pulks finally were loaded, I got my first glimpse into our group's collective experience. I think it's fair to say you can tell a lot about someone's preparation based on how they load their Pulk. When snowshoeing into the wilderness pulling a 100-pound sled, it's best to have a low center of gravity to prevent the load from tipping during turns along the trail. Not everyone understood this law of gravity during the packing process.

As we headed into the forest, we would traverse along a small game trail, navigating to the lake below. Like most lakes, it was located in a bowl, of sorts, which meant we were going downhill most of the time. Each turn would challenge any Pulk that had its center of gravity loaded too high, increasing the risk of tipping along the trail. Hence, additional energy was expended just getting our loads down the trail.

It didn't take long for me to suggest we reload the Pulks in question to avoid this continuous scenario.

We finally arrived at the lake about an hour into our trek. The -13F ambient temperature, with a windchill of -25F, would dictate how far we walked before selecting a campsite.

My friend Joe and I had been making good time, and we went ahead to scout a good campsite. We both recognized that having a source for firewood would be critical. We settled on a site with several fallen pine, cedar and birch trees.

Once everyone arrived, we immediately set up the tent and wood stove. We split duties, and Bill and I went out with our now-empty Pulks and loaded them with wood. It didn't take long to realize that gathering and cutting wood would be a primary activity throughout this winter camping experience.

The trip into camp took its toll on some, so we made sure we all stayed warm and hydrated.

Evening came and we attempted to heat up the beef stew we had planned for supper. The wood stove took a lot of wood and produced very few BTUs but after a couple of hours provided us with a warm meal.

Early to bed

Bedtime came early, as everyone was eager to climb into their -40 rated sleeping bags. We made a rule that anyone who got up in the middle of the night would put a log into the stove. Having four 60-year-olds, I figured the stove would be replenished several times throughout the night and wasn't concerned.

I woke at 4 a.m. to a chorus of snoring. The condensation in the tent was heavy enough that I had difficulty unzipping my sleeping bag because of the ice that had formed.

It was cold.

I checked my thermometer, and it was 23 below zero. I wanted to stay in my bag, but I knew I had to get up and get the wood stove going before the situation turned ugly. It was obvious nobody had gotten up throughout the night.

I spent the next 3 hours stoking the woodstove, which involved going outside the tent to cut and split wood. I was in survival mode. When outside the tent, I couldn't help but pause and notice the crystal clear sky, which was filled with stars that touched the shoreline of the lake. It was so quiet, so cold, and I was so alone in that moment.

I had not experienced a feeling like that before. It was a feeling of calm and fear all at the same time.

The crunch of the frigid snow beneath my boots snapped me out of my trance, and I continued with my chore of getting wood and warming water for morning coffee and oatmeal.

The guys woke at 7:30 and were surprised I had been up since 4 a.m. It didn't take long for them to get out of their bags and pitch in on the daily activity. Get more wood and keep a fire going was our mantra.

We spent the day preparing for the night. A forecast of -27F with clear skies created somewhat of a concern. We made a few adjustments to our cooking arrangements and were able to boil water for pasta and had a great meatball and pasta dinner. The calories would prove critical as night came upon us.

I chose to stay up and keep the fire going as long as possible. I serenaded the guys with some cowboy poetry until their chorus of snoring overtook my performance.

Throughout the night, I continued to add layers of clothing just to stay warm while in my sleeping bag. My mind was keenly aware of what the morning was going to bring—extreme cold. At 4:30 a.m., an air temperature of 27 below zero and windchill of -44F met me at the tent door. I needed to seriously get the woodstove fired up. I had spent the previous day preparing for this very moment. It was up to me, but this particular morning seemed more serious than just 24 hours earlier.

Intense cold

We broke camp at 8:30 a.m. and started our trek back to the landing. Going across the lake into a -44F windchill proved to be one of the most intense experiences I have had. Somehow, I kept focused, and my attention was on my buddies. I chose to set the pace. I had my close friend Joe in the back following up to make sure as a group, we spent as little time as possible on the open lake.

As we entered the forest, we would face one of our toughest challenges of the weekend—getting out safely on a route that primarily was uphill. The heavy Pulks, the cold temperatures and the constant uphill gradient tested all of us. I began to talk to myself out loud: "One step at a time." "Don't stop." "Set the pace and keep moving forward."

The trek got more intense when three of us stopped on the trail and realized our fourth person was farther behind us than we first realized. We couldn't hear him and decided it would be better to get to the trucks and walk back in to help if necessary.

After we ascended the steepest hill and the trucks came into view, I unbuckled my Pulk harness and snowshoes and went down the trail to find our buddy. He was just an eighth of a mile back.

I asked him how he was doing, and he said, "When I was walking, the sun shining on the snow was making a thousand points of light. I felt God was seeing it all through my eyes."

We both smiled, I took a few items off his Pulk to reduce the weight and we continued to the trucks together, silently.

Our winter camping weekend came to an end. It proved to be a test for all of us. We didn't laugh or talk much until we met back in Ely for breakfast. It was there we decided next year we would go bonefishing in Belize and hang up our mukluks and mittens.

Mercil is a Grand Forks outdoors enthusiast and occasional Herald contributor.

PULLOUT

What we learned

• You have to be crazy to do something like this!

• It was so cold on Saturday night that even a flask of whiskey left out by the fire froze; 80 proof freezes at -27F.

• There are no comforts of home in winter camping.

• The reason you stay active is to stay warm.

• The reason you stay aware is you know you are dealing head-on with all Mother Nature has to offer.

• Even with technology on your side, it still is almost impossible to stay warm.

-- Rick Mercil

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