It would only get colder that night but inside a snow house carved out of dome recrystallized snow the temperatures rarely go below 20 degrees above zero. The snow house or quinzhee that day was critical for getting through the night in comfort. Using an aluminum baking pan and clad in rain jacket and pants to keep dry, I was almost ready to quit carving out the inside of the dome when the roof suddenly collapsed and I was left kneeling on the ice staring at the sunset down Darky Lake in Quetico Park. If you get just a little too aggressive thinning out the roof of your new home, this is what happens.
That was 40 years ago on my first winter expedition. All turned out fine but we spent the evening re-piling the snow, waiting for it to recondense and re-carving more carefully. I must have slept well that night inside our white capsule. Since then I've winter camped with sled dogs and pulled pulks laden with canvas tents and wood stoves and gone into the bush ultra-light with just a nylon tarp for shelter. I've taken off with friends at sunset to make camp in the dark on Friday after work and walked miles over rock hard crust to the Canadian border in March to fish for lake trout in the Quetico Park. It just doesn't feel like winter if I haven't been out camping in the snow.
We hear it all the time around our shop in summer; Do you live here all winter? Well, actually, we do, and we find it exhilarating, fun, and incomparable to the rest of the Northwoods seasons. But, of course, you must get outside or go crazy, cabin fever will set in. For me the short days that start in October are a little depressing. I find I need some solarization to stay happy. So, I force myself outside, sometimes as soon as the ice freezes to camp and live with nature 24 hours a day and that's the sure cure for short day length depression.
The early winter which begins up north just after Thanksgiving is the clear ice season. Some years we can even ice skate to a campsite or at least walk a frozen portage in hiking boots and set up camp on bare ground before big snow arrives. What could be better than to be in the tent and hear the first snow falling on the roof and then soon have the whole world go silent when the snow layer thickens. As the clouds break under the force of the cold northwest wind and the sun splits the gray fleeting clouds, you'll thrill at the first look out the tent door. Winter's first snow is billowing up in clouds across the lake, the ice swept clean by the stinging wind.
By January the snow is usually deep and trekking gets harder and slower. Big clouds of snow hang on the balsam and spruce boughs. This is quintessential winter in the Boundary Waters. This is the time for shorter ventures. You rarely see any other humans just one portage from the entry point. There can be a surprise waiting for unwary campers in deep snow season. Heavy snow pushes down on the ice and squeezes water up through cracks making the dreaded slush. Getting into slush can feel like you're going down tied to your sled and wearing your snowshoes. You don't, of course, but you do get mired down if the water is deep enough to be scary. After a tough extraction, you have frozen skis or snow shoes to scrape and thaw and wet feet. Tread carefully in slush season and take the long way around the pool before you end up wading. Deep snow season is quinzhee time. Two people with plastic shovels can pile up a huge mound of snow in no time. The snow metamorphoses in an hour to a more solid mass. Then let the digging begin again. A few 10 inch sticks probing through the roof will give you a guide when carving it out so don't thin it out too much. Two candles at night bathe your new home in crystalline light. As we all learn the hard way, don't sit up too fast and rub the roof with your head in a snow house. The icy crystals go right down your back. With sublimation taking its toll, in a couple of weeks your quinzhee will shrink to miniature form and get rock hard.
Nearing the equinox in March, the Boundary Waters with all the pines and spruce and balsam starts to warm up on sunny days. South slopes melt off and the snow on the ice has absorbed the slush and refrozen into crystalline concrete. It's the best time to make miles and do longer expeditions. There may be pockets of open water around shallow rocks and creeks, a few ducks appear, and a nap in the sun after lunch is perfect. It's the time to ski to the winter camp, double poling while pulling the pulk and sailing with the wind when you can.
One thing about winter camping in the Boundary Waters - the loons won't keep you awake at night, but, the wolves might. The dense cold air and the naked trees let sound travel far and fast through the winter night. A pack a mile or more away will send shivers up your spine even if you're toasty in your down bag. And in winter the wildlife leave spoor, as they say in Africa, everywhere they go. The tracks of all the mammals are out there to find, follow, and discover. A lone wolf followed a deer across the lake here and two otter skipped and slid down the sloping bedrock to the lake there disappearing into the yet unfrozen creek. You may not see the mice and voles and shrews that played all night around your camp but you'll see their tracks in the fresh morning powder. Even birds leave tracks. The ubiquitous raven with his 5' wings leave a telltale print from his primary feathers where it landed to recycle the frozen minnow you left on the ice yesterday. In the winter woods the partridge burrow down in deep soft snow at night. Step near one on a morning snowshoe trek and the explosion out of the snow below your feet will shock your hat off. It's a hoot to listen for owls when darkness falls again. Great horned owls start to nest in midwinter and stake out territories with booming hoots as early as late January. Hoot back and one may fly across the bay to confront you - the adversary. Bald eagles so ubiquitous in summer are rare in winter but begin to filter back north in February to fix up the nest and scout out prey. Camp in sight of the nest and you may see the pair bringing sticks to the massive nest. Try skiing a portage through an old burn where only black vestiges of the lost forest remain and suddenly see a bare rock rise up. A moose on spindly legs appears. The winter camp is a time to discover the animals so well hidden in summer in the jungle of vegetation and left exposed and trackable in the white of winter.
Short day length means long nights. As a winter camper, you could sit in your canvas tent with wood stove blazing and tell tall tales and sip whiskey or you could step outside. It's the long winter night when you're most likely to see the aurora, the northern lights that have spooked and fascinated man for thousands of years. Ever-changing, dancing across the sky in all hues of green, the aurora borealis by itself is worth the trek into the winter wilderness. Away from city lights the stars seem unreal, infinite, and beyond description. Thoreau said, "In wilderness is the salvation of man." In winter is the true nature of the Boundary Waters wilderness best realized. Quiet, white, frozen, and trodden by just a few of us and the wild inhabitants, the wilderness seems most pure and most infinite. Maybe walking alone on a frozen lake under the blanket of stars we can each find our purpose in life and redirect ourselves towards saving this lonely blue planet in such a big, mysterious universe.
Where to Camp
This is not bug season so a camp in the breeze is not an advantage in winter. Rules allow you to camp anywhere so pick a place out of the wind and hopefully in the sunshine. The edge of a spruce bog can be good for wind protection with lots of firewood nearby. Some summer campsites are fine and they have the advantage of a latrine in camp if you can find it under the snow. Setting up a heated tent on the ice can be a problem. The tent can freeze in when ice melts around it and refreezes. Choose a place on land and shovel it as snow-free as possible to stay dry when you fire up the stove. If you're making a quinzhee, choose a place where there is no slush anywhere around. Slush moves and overnight you could be in the water. Cold camping on ice in early winter has the added thrill of hearing the ice boom as it expands and freezes thick right under you.
What to bring on a winter camping trip
Shelter. You can craft a quinzhee and bring only a shovel and pan to dig with or you can camp cold in a tent like you used in summer or you can bring a tent with wood stove and camp warm and dry. As I get older I find I'm most likely to opt for the latter. Be careful to vent the tent well and put the stove pipe downwind to blow sparks away from the tent. A few fire starter sticks make the initial kindling a lot easier. Be aware that once the stove goes out at night the canvas tent will cool down fast to outside temperature and he or she sleeping closest to the stove is the likely candidate to be chosen to rekindle the stove in the early morning. The rest of us get up when the tent is warm.
Sleeping gear. A super warm winter bag rated to 40 below is ideal, but even then you can get chilled by morning. A bag liner of silk or wool will add 10 degrees to any sleeping bag. Two bags that nest together can be a more versatile option especially in early winter and spring when the big bag may be too warm. A good foam pad is essential as most heat is lost through the ground by conduction. Air mattresses don't work in winter as a convective cell in the mattress will steal your body heat. Wear your wool hat at night or sink down in your bag hood as you can get cold fast when your head is exposed.
Clothing. Dress in layers starting with merino wool long underwear and building out with wool sweaters or puff ball down jackets and a good wind- and water-resistant jacket and pants on the outside. One heavier down or synthetic parka is nice when coming to camp a little sweaty and chilled and easy to throw on for the midnight run outside for pressure relief.
Footwear. Maybe the most important part of the wardrobe. In early winter and spring I wear my canoeing boots and neoprene socks. I'm warm enough for active times and the boots drain if it's wet and the socks keep my feet dry and warm. In camp I change to mukluks or pac boots for extra warmth. In the coldest part of winter wear just the mukluks or pac boots, both with removable liners that can be dried. Bring many pairs of socks so you have dry socks available all the time.
Sleds. Don't backpack in winter. You'll get too sweaty and cold carrying all the heavy gear for winter camping. Pull a toboggan or a pulk. You'll need lots of room on the sled if you bring a canvas tent and stove. A 6' pulk is the best sled I've found for winter in the Boundary Waters on lakes and portages. Long plastic toboggans work too and float better on soft snow but are more difficult on the portages. Dog teams are a luxury but they need a trail to follow so if you do take sled dogs you're likely to be snow shoeing ahead to break trail. Well used dog sled trails lead to favorite fishing lakes like Knife Lake and Frazier Lake and make the going easier.
Skis or Snowshoes. I prefer snowshoes only because they make hilly portages so much easier. Skis may be a little bit faster on the lakes, but in the woods you need the grip of cleats on the snowshoes to get up hills and avoid becoming a runaway locomotive on the down slopes.
Food and Drink. Don't worry about calories on a winter trip. You'll need lots. Eat well especially at dinner to keep warm over the long winter nights. Extra fat is needed to replace the calories you used working hard all day and calories are a measure of heat energy and you'll need heat in the furnace at night. You'll also need lots of water. You're sweating all the time pulling that pulk to camp and shoveling out a space for the tent. You may not feel thirsty in the cold but you need to drink. Keep a pot of hot water on the fire all the time for tea or warm lemon water.
Fishing in Winter
If you're an angler chances are you'll want to try fishing at winter camp. Tip-ups with bait work well and you can sit in the lea of the wind and just watch for a flag to wave. Jigging is more active and you feel the bite but it may be the bite of the wind you feel most. You'll need a chisel or an ice drill to make holes and a slotted scoop to clean the hole and good finger circulation to take a fish off the hook. In winter, lake trout season is open in the BWCAW and it stays open in Quetico through the spring. Longer, sunnier, warmer days of March and even April are the most comfortable for trout fishing on the Canadian side. Spring fishing through the ice in the BWCAW is limited to crappies and pan fish. Get advice from a local bait shop on lures and bait for what is biting when you go.