In this neck of the woods (close to the Canadian border), a break in mid-winter doesn't happen very often. So, when a warm front blew in, we decided to make our 24-hour winter trekking escape.
We took off on a Saturday afternoon amid solid south winds and blustery snow squalls. The south wind brought in milder temperatures as it usually does. Still, the gusting winds and snow squalls made for white-out conditions at times. We ventured into the swamp on the lakeshore sooner than planned as we didn't want to be roaming the wide-open lakeshore that day.
Henry, my 12-year-old son, and I spent the winter months at the toboggan shop fashioning our own snowshoes, backcountry skis, and a trekking toboggan. We were all set to put them to the test on an expedition through the northern part of Minnesota's wilderness. We had been collecting and handcrafting winter camping gear for a couple of years and had done a few short stints in the snow to get the hang of the sport we had started to gain interest in. But this year, we wanted to venture farther from home, so we planned a jaunt along the south shore of Lake of the Woods from our house on the Warroad River.
Gear that lasts is the only gear worth buying.
CLOTHING - Wintergreen Northern Wear:
• Shell Anorak (wind layer)
• Fleece Anorak (warmth and wind)
• Quest Top (warmth)
• Lava Top (base layer and warmth)
• Blended wool (base layer)
• Wintergreen Beanie
TREKKING GEAR - Northern Toboggan Gear:
• Hand Toboggan with canvas tank
• Huron and Ojibwa Snowshoes
• Back country skis (prototypes)
As owners of Wintergreen Northern Wear, a premier cold-weather clothing business based in Ely, MN, we were donned in gear proven to keep Arctic explorers and extreme dog mushers warm for the past 30 years.
After snowshoeing across Kakaygeesick Bay, we entered a snowmobile trailhead that ran along the lakeshore through the swamps and alders. As luck would have it, there had been a recent group of snowmobilers traveling the trail that left us a nicely groomed ski path. We switched over to our wooden skis, and off we went. Packed in our trekking toboggans were the bare essentials for camping in winter. A tent, stove, short pieces of hardwood from our woodshop, our winter sleeping bags, cooking gear, tarp, small food cooler, and a dry set of clothing. And there was also a deck of cards. Oh, and a shovel because there were already 3 to 4 feet of accumulated snow.
Our destination was unknown, but given the challenging conditions and the waning daylight (it was getting dark), we started looking for a campsite by 3pm or so. After a quarter mile of headwind, we turned east again to cross a tag-alder swamp while traveling along a ditch grade. I saw an opening in the swamp nestled up against a hardwood forest stand. It looked like just the place to spend the night, given strong winds and forecast of a snowstorm and north winds during the night.
I could tell it was time to find a campsite when my son took a 'break' by lying prostrate on the trail eating snow and complaining about being tired.
The 50 yards or so from the trail to the campsite proved to be the most strenuous mile of all. Our snowshoes were useless in the 3+ feet of powder. We resorted to pulling our toboggans by gripping the curl and moving a few inches at a time. We were exhausted by the time we got to the opening. With a simple 'home sweet home' exclamation, we began digging out a circular space that would suit our tent. It took about an hour, and we were set up, soup to nuts. Our cots, stove, foldout oval table took up most of the floor space.
We spent the evening cozy in the tent, feeding the fire, cooking up some country sausage that we had just stuffed and smoked a couple weeks prior. After dinner, we gathered firewood to conserve our limited stash of oak pieces that we had brought.
We had a tie-breaker round of Texas Hold'em, then we were ready to crawl into bed for about the next 11 hours or so. In the morning, we awoke to another foot of snow. The sun was peeking over the willow trees as we fired up the stove and prepared a hearty breakfast fit for royalty. We then packed up camp.
After surviving a winter storm in the swamp, the adventure of returning home was glorious. We hiked home, our sturdy wooden toboggan behind us once again, relishing the idea of a warm welcome home from mom, sister, and little brother.
I'm not sure if it's the challenge of walking and skiing while pulling a 100 lb. hand toboggan, the thought of sleeping in a snowbank, or the satisfaction of spending the time in the wilderness with my son. There's still nothing like a day in the field in northern Minnesota, no matter the time of year.