Minnesota Boundary Waters...
In January!

-- by V. Star Mitchell

Sycamore Islander, March 2003

The advantages of going to the Boundary Waters in January are you can "walk on water" and there are no mosquitoes or black flies.  I was in northern Minnesota January 25th—31st on an Elderhostel "Active Outdoor/Snow Activity" program.   The program was held at the YMCA Camp du Nord (Camp of the North), which is 5 miles (as-the-crow-flies) from the Canadian border and 15 miles north of Ely, MN.

This was a program of dog sledding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and nature study.  At the gate in Minneapolis, I teamed up with a fellow Elderhostel traveler, Mary Marshall, coming in from Skaneateles, NY. We had a lovely dinner at the airport in Minneapolis and then caught our connecting flight to Duluth, Minnesota.

The Elderhostel staff had previously arranged the coordinating of participants.  Chris Hegenbarth was the Director of Elderhostel Programs.  Chris' husband Peter McClelland operates White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures and was the owner of the sled dogs (Alaskan Huskies).  Our charming instructor and wilderness guide was Lynn Ann Vesper.  This program was affiliated with Vermilion Community College who provided our excellent equipment.

After awaking Sunday morning, I realized I had forgotten my leg gaiters and the two prescriptions that I take daily.  It was -14 degrees with a wind chill of about -20 degrees.  My new friend Mary and I left the motel to walk the highway and to go to a sporting goods store to look for gaiters. Luck was with me and the store had them for $20.  In order to get my two prescriptions, we trekked a long way in a howling wind across an eight-lane highway to a drugstore.

Gale (so named because he was born in a gale storm) drove from the northern tip of Michigan in a driving snow storm.  He was driving 20 mph in Michigan and thought he would not be seeing Duluth until sundown. When he got into Wisconsin there was no more snow.  Due to the snowstorm, Gale was an hour late arriving at the motel.  We then drove north 125 miles to the YMCA Camp du Nord.

We had a nice cabin with two bedrooms and a half bath on the ground floor, one bedroom, full bath, kitchen, large dining/living room, and stone fireplace on the second level.  The loft contained two bedrooms.  The first night the heat downstairs was not working and my room was 50 degrees.  After that the management got me an electric heater and my cold room problems were solved.

For all of our meals, we had to walk ¼ mile to the mess hall (right on frozen Lake Burntside).  Every morning it was extremely cold, usually below zero, but one morning it was -29 degrees.  By the time I got there, my eyelashes and nose hairs were frozen.  A wonderful meal and a roaring fire in the big stone fireplace always greeted us.

Dogsledding is an exhilarating experience.  The temperature was 4 degrees and my feet and hands froze (not literally), but the dogs were just so happy to go to work.  The musher of my sled, Mike Neal (trains dogs for the Iditarod), is a big 6'3" man with a deep voice, but the noble dogs were happy to obey my commands of "Gee!"  "Haw!" "Let's go!" "On by!" And "Whoa!"   Mike and I were the "sweep" sled and Ryan Savolainen led us through the trails and across the lake.

The sled hits a lot of bumps and there is a concern that your feet might bounce off of the runners (they are usually under snow), or that you might not step on the drag soon enough or hard enough and ultimately run over your dogs going down a hill. Also, there is apprehension that your foot might slip off of the claw break, and with my weight, I pretty much needed to stand up on the claw break with both feet.  There are no reins or whips, but these loyal, well-train beasts (man/woman's best friend) are so utterly eager to please.

The second day out on the lake, one of the sleds hit a thin ice pocket, the ice broke, and some of the dogs went in the water.  With the help of the instructor and the lead dogs of that sled (who did not go in the water), the wet dogs were quickly pulled out.  They shook off, rolled in the snow and said with big dog smiles, "Let's go!"

We skied a mile out on Hegman Lake to observe some Indian pictographs.  They were worth seeing.  Need I say, we had the entire lake to ourselves.  The second day out on snow shoes, a deer killed by a wolf was found.  We visited the Wolf Center and through the window I got some wonderful pictures of a captured wild wolf.

At night we had lectures and viewed slides about wolves, sled dogs, nature, and Minnesota folklore about animals.  If you happened to have any down time, there were videos to watch about all of the above.

One night, we went out into the middle of frozen Lake Burntside and howled to the wolves.  We thought we heard faint and distant answers to our calls.  In that clear and crisp environment, I had not seen so many stars in the sky since I was a kid lying in the grass on a summer's night in Tennessee.

One afternoon after a morning of skiing, Gale, Suzanne, and I drove into Ely.  Ely is known as the "Canoe Capital of the World."  The area offers the best access to the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park.  Ely is encompassed by the Superior National Forest, which has 2,02l lakes over 10 acres in size with a total of 314,545 acres of water, plus 1,975 miles of streams.  Within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, 1,000 lakes of 10 acres or more in size are accessible by water.  In winter, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, and dog sleds are in their glory as they traverse the hundreds of miles of well-groomed trails in the area.  The area has an average annual snowfall of about 80 inches.

In Ely, we checked out the Super Surplus, gift shops, and the outfitter stores, all of which are my kind of stores.  I loved the winter wear that they had for sale—fur hats, mukluks, wool pants, thick, thick mittens, mitten inserts, wool shoe liners, anoraks, balaclavas, and everything else one needs for the nippy weather.  Of course, there were also canoes, PFD's, paddles, and other boating equipment.  The Ely people were also beginning the carving of ice sculptures for the Ice Sculpture Festival, so we checked out the local ice artwork of the town.

The last night, there was an activity in which I did not participate.  In the 20-year-old Finish sauna, you were supposed to get as hot as a firecracker, run down an ice covered wooden plank, and jump into a hole in Lake Burntside.  Although I did not check the outside temperature, I'm sure it was around zero.

The manager of the camp had carefully sawed through three feet of ice in the lake, put a ladder in the water, and set an oil lantern on top of all of the ice that he had sawed out of the hole Mary and I found our way in the dark to the sauna and checked out what was going on. Some people just did the sauna and left, but four brave souls did jump into the hole in the lake.  By the fire that night, no one could shut up their bragging.

One must be 55 years old to join Elderhostel.  However, they made an exception for me and let me in at 39.  Not every program is "Active Outdoor," they have "normal" trips all over the US and the world.  I had previously done two trips-one of 3 days in Gettysburg studying the Civil War and 19 days across the US retracing the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.  Elderhostel's trips are always excellent and I highly recommend them.

-- photos by Star Mitchell and Dan Eaton

Star Mitchell is (obviously) an active outdoorswoman. She enjoys whitewater trips in warmer climes, and is Sycamore’s Liaison to the Canoe Cruisers Association.